Burn (Chapter Twenty-one)
She still didn't know who was who in the good guy/bad guy field, but Cael's "slimy" comment had given her a solid hint. Could bad guys feel morally superior to good guys? They might feel smarter, tougher, etc., but would the moral aspect even occur to a bad guy?
Then again, she'd heard that the murderers, thieves, and con men in prison really hated the child molesters, so did that mean anything other than that child molesters were the lowest of the low? Could she say that gave a murderer a sense of moral superiority? Again – maybe, maybe not.
What she was certain of was that she didn't care for Frank Larkin, and that was a purely personal instinct. Something about him set her Jerry-radar pinging like crazy. She couldn't put her finger on what it was about him, exactly but one of the first life lessons she'd learned was to listen when her radar sounded the alarm. Maybe she'd caught some tiny flicker of expression that reminded her of dear old dad when he was about to fleece someone out of something, maybe it was that association and nothing else, but as far as she was concerned she'd been officially warned about Larkin.
They sat at the table for a while, watching the sunbathers, the sardines in the pool, and the others who, like them, had opted to sit at one of the umbrellaed tables. A handsome young deckhand with curly blond hair brought them iced tea and towels. His name tag said his name was Matt. As he leaned over to set the glasses of tea on the table, there was something about the way he and Cael looked at each other – a brief glance that nevertheless seemed loaded with meaning – that made Jenner wonder if Matt might be another one of them.
Then again, maybe Matt was gay, and like a lot of other people at the pool he was admiring the available views. A swim-trunk-clad Cael was definitely worth looking at. His olive-toned skin was smoothly tanned, and, hell, was a six-pack ever not worth gazing at? The view was the same one she saw at night when they went to bed, and it still made her heart gallop.
After Matt left, Jenner took a sip of her iced tea and said, "Does he work for you?"
"Who?" Cael asked, reaching to the top of his head and sliding his sunglasses down into place as he squinted at the pool.
"Matt," she said, without explaining who "Matt" was. If a detail like that had slipped by Cael Traylor, then she was a monkey's uncle.
A slow grin spread across his face. "You're paranoid, aren't you?" They were keeping their voices low, but the noise around the pool area was such that they could have used normal speaking voices without worrying about being overheard. A live band was blasting Jimmy Buffett music at the sunbathers, people were shrieking, laughing, chattering. Cael had selected a table as far from the music as he could get, but the noise level was still high.
"I'll take that as a yes," she said, and looked away because his grin was making her stomach do flip-flops. How many days left until they got back to San Diego? They hadn't even made it to Hawaii yet. She didn't know if she could bear up under the pressure of being so close to him, because already she felt as if she were about to jump out of her skin.
She rubbed the back of her neck, felt the sweat. The weather was very warm – or she was very warm – so Jenner kicked off her beach thongs and stood. Cael lazily reached out and snagged her wrist. "Where are you going?"
"Swimming." She indicated her swimsuit, a hot pink tank with cut-outs on the sides, then the pool. "Swimsuit, pool – hello!" She wished he'd stop touching her. Damn it, evidently even her wrist was an erogenous zone. She just hoped he didn't feel how her pulse was galloping.
"It's too crowded to swim."
That was true, but swimming wasn't her goal; cooling off was. She said as much, though she didn't expect him to relent. To her surprise, he sighed and got to his feet, kicking off his own deck shoes. Taking her hand, he walked with her to the pool's edge. "Are you going to get your hair wet?" he asked.
"Do I look like a woman who won't get her hair wet?" she countered, flipping the choppy ends of her hair, which was barely long enough to cover her ears. "I go snorkeling and parasailing whenever I can."
"Then hold your breath," he said, and stepped off the side of the pool still holding her hand. The pool wasn't a diving pool so it wasn't deep, maybe six feet at the deepest part, but it was still over her head where they were. He tugged on her hand and brought her back to the surface, then wrapped one arm around her to keep her there.
The cool water felt wonderful; his hard, muscled body felt even more so. Jenner took her time wiping the water out of her face, to hide her reaction to the sensation of his wet skin against hers. Muscles and water had to be one of the most potent combinations known to womankind. Had she lost her mind? What in hell had she been thinking? Actually, she hadn't been thinking about being in the pool with him, she'd been thinking about getting in the cool water away from him. That plan hadn't worked.
"Put your arms on my shoulders," he said, his face so close to hers she could see the individual black eyelashes, clumped together in wet spikes that made the blue of his eyes even more vivid. Automatically, her mind having turned sluggish by his damn pheromones, she did as told, which brought her against him from breast to thigh. Getting in the pool had to be one of the worst ideas she'd ever had, and definitely the one she'd enjoyed the most. She was a fool and a nitwit, to fall in lust with her captor – though, in her view, any woman worthy of the name would be fanning herself at just the sight of him, more rough than pretty, and tough in ways most men would never even consider.
The buoyancy of the water sent her legs sliding against his. Bracing her hands on his tanned shoulders, she tried to find purchase by pressing her feet against the side of the pool, but so many people were jumping in and out that the water was in constant turbulence and kept pushing her against him. The back and forth reminded her almost unbearably of another back and forth, one that had nothing to do with water and everything to do with getting naked.
"This was a bad idea," she said, caving in before things got any worse and she found herself with her legs locked around his waist.
His expression said I told you so, though he hadn't, not in so many words. "Ready to get out?" he asked.
He hoisted himself out of the pool, water sluicing off his body, then he bent down and bodily lifted her out of the water to stand her on the edge of the pool. That careless strength made her stupid stomach tie itself in knots again. She was skinny, yeah, but she wasn't bony skinny, and she actually weighed more than it looked like she did because all of her activities gave her muscle. For him to so easily lift her like that … She couldn't look at him; she couldn't bear to. If she did, she might never look away.
They returned to the table and toweled dry, and Jenner used her fingers to arrange her hair. It would dry quickly in the breeze, and the cut deliberately made it look choppy and messy, unless she went to some pains to smooth it down. She gulped down some of the tea, then turned her chair slightly so she was looking more at the ocean than she was at Cael. Sun didn't normally bother her eyes, even living in south Florida, so she often had to remind herself to wear sunglasses. Now was one of those times, and she gratefully seized hers from where she'd tossed them on top of the table. Hiding her eyes was a damn good idea.
They sat there a little while longer, not speaking much. Her swimsuit stopped dripping, and her hair dried enough that it began to lift in the breeze. The gentle motion of the ship began to make her sleepy, and she thought how nice it would be to stretch out on one of those padded deck chairs and take a nap.
"Let's go," Cael said, pushing back his chair and standing.
"Hello, neighbors!" came a cheerful voice, and they looked around to find the two women in the suite across from theirs, Linda and Nyna, smiling at them as they approached. Jenner had spotted them at a distance at the various functions, but they hadn't spoken since the lifeboat drill.
"Hello," she said, smiling back because both of them seemed genuinely nice. They made no pings at all on her Jerry-radar. "Are you enjoying the cruise?"
"Yes, we are," said Linda. "Join us for lunch, and we'll tell you all about it."
"I'd love to," Jenner said quickly, before Cael had a chance to come up with an excuse. The last thing she wanted was to be alone in the suite with him right now. She wanted to give her hormones a stern talking to, as well as a chance to settle down.
He could've begged off and had lunch with his buddy Ryan, but of course he didn't. Cael wasn't going to leave her on her own even with two perfectly harmless older women; Jenner thought she had trust issues, but Cael was in a league of his own.
She pulled on the almost-knee-length coverup that made her bathing suit perfectly acceptable for lunch, and stepped into her sequined beach thongs. Cael put on his shirt and buttoned it up. Thank God. She could breathe easier now, even though a part of her wished he never put on a shirt. The important thing was to not let him see how he affected her.
Linda and Nyna were having lunch in The Club, one of the casual indoor restaurants. They were shown to a table for four near the center of the room. The two older women seemed to have made acquaintance with almost everyone in the restaurant, because their passage was slowed by people greeting them.
When they were seated, Nyna unfolded her napkin and said, "It's so nice to see you two again. Of course, there's so much to do, and the ship is so large, you might have been roaming the ship from stem to stern and we wouldn't know it." Her smile made it clear that she thought exactly what Cael wanted everyone to think – that they were spending the cruise in her suite, and mostly in bed. That explained away all the hours he spent spying on their other neighbor.
"Have you been to the spa?" Linda asked, her question directed at Jenner.
"No, I'm afraid not. I'd planned to, but …" She shrugged, letting the sentence trail off. Let them draw their own conclusions. "Have you?"
"Twice." Linda grinned. "The masseur is very good. You should make an appointment."
"I don't think so," Cael drawled, and both women laughed.
Nyna said, "I prefer the yoga classes. You should join me in the morning. It's a wonderful way to start the day."
"I'd love that," said Jenner, who sincerely could use something, anything, to help ward off cabin fever. Before Cael could come up with a plausible reason why she couldn't, she turned to him and put on her most innocent face. "You should come with me," she invited. "Yoga would be so good for your bad back."
He started to shake his head. "I don't think – "
"You have a bad back?" asked Nyna. "Jenner's right, you know. Yoga does wonders for that. What sort of problems do you have?"
"It's a pain in my lower back," he said, looking at Jenner instead of her. "Very low. And dead center."
Jenner's chin wobbled with the effort it took her not to laugh. She reached out and laid her hand on his arm. "C'mon, give it a try. If it hurts too much, you can always stop. No one will hold a gun on you and force you to do anything you don't want to do." Take that, sport, she thought. He could scarcely forbid her to attend the yoga class, not without making it appear that they were in a weird, sick kind of relationship, which wasn't what he wanted. She was giving him what he wanted: the illusion of a relationship. It was fake, but he needed to realize that any relationship, fake or not, came with concessions.
"We'll see," he finally growled.
"Tomorrow, then," Jenner said, turning to smile at Nyna. "What time are the classes?"
"I prefer the six a.m. class, with the sun just coming up. It's wonderful."
When Jenner attended her yoga classes she always took the early ones, too, for just that reason. Cael, however, looked horrified, and all three women laughed at him.
A uniformed waiter took their orders. The two older women ordered the ubiquitous grilled chicken salad with dressing on the side. Jenner chose a BLT and fries. Cael ordered a cheeseburger and fries, but Jenner uttered a quick, horrified, "What?" and once again placed a caring hand on his arm, which she gently patted. "No, he won't have that," she said to the waiter. "He'll have the salad, as well. No dressing, cheese, or croutons. Please bring lemon wedges." The waiter didn't question her order, and Cael was evidently too stunned to countermand her. She smiled. "Lemon juice makes a wonderful substitute for fatty dressing. Really, Cael, with your cholesterol, you shouldn't eat red meat or fries at all. I don't know what you were thinking."
"Neither do I," he said, his meaning clear to her, if not to the others.
They passed the rest of the meal in relative peace, even if Cael did glance longingly at her BLT and fries – but only once. Linda and Nyna both thought it was hilarious, that love influenced a bruiser like Cael to let himself be bossed around. He ate his salad, and Jenner figured it wasn't the worst sacrifice he'd ever made in the name of getting what he wanted. If she could be a prisoner, he could eat a salad. That didn't even come close to evening the scale. But for the first time since stepping aboard the Silver Mist, she truly enjoyed a meal. She ate well, and didn't once feel as if she was going to choke. She actually tasted the food on her plate, especially the fries, which she made a subtle production of enjoying.
The meal came to a close and conversation began to morph into comments about what they were about to do, which were meant as a gentle way of parting company. Cael's beautiful manners were still holding up but Jenner could almost feel the tension rolling off him – he was so ready to escape before she did something else to him. Served him right.
As she was placing her napkin on the table, Frank Larkin walked in. She didn't spot him immediately, but she was so attuned to Cael that she felt the abrupt focus of his attention shift and she automatically looked around to see what had gotten his attention.
Most people in the restaurant looked at Larkin, so she wasn't doing anything unusual. If was the same as if they'd been in Hollywood and Spielberg had walked in. Larkin wasn't a celebrity, but he was a mover and shaker, with access to incredible power over and above what his own monumental fortune gave him. He didn't take a table, but strolled through the restaurant speaking to particular passengers. From what Jenner could tell, he gave his attention to the richest, most powerful men in the place. No women seemed to be worthy. Her radar pinged again as she picked up an almost indiscernible air of contempt about him.
"There's our host," she said, unnecessarily. She turned to Linda and Nyna. "Have you found out anything about him? What does he do? Other than host charity cruises, that is."
Cael got to his feet and reached for Jenner's hand, under the guise of assisting her from her chair. He squeezed her fingers in warning.
"What doesn't he do?" Linda answered. "Politics, finance, all sorts of business. I've been asking questions, and evidently he's one of those behind-the-scenes people in Washington, the ones who can make the president jump."
Well, wasn't that interesting, Jenner mused.
"I forgot to bring my pills with me," Cael said, all but hauling her away from the table. "We have to go back to the stateroom."
"We'll see you in the morning," Jenner called over her shoulder. "Five forty-five!"
When they were well away from the restaurant, Cael grabbed her arm, turned, and backed her against the railing. There was no one close by, no one listening in, which was why he'd chosen this spot to stop. The stiff breeze blew Jenner's hair away from her face, and she lifted her head to catch more of the sensation.
He caged her with his arms, gripping the railing as he leaned down until his blue eyes were on a level with hers. She met his gaze with a look of total innocence.
"You're a demon, you know that?" he said with feeling. "When your feet hit the floor every morning, I'll bet the devil shudders and says 'Oh shit, she's awake!'"
She smiled. She didn't doubt that Cael would do whatever needed to be done to meet his objectives, but she no longer believed that he'd hurt her or Syd out of spite, or for revenge. He was still in control, but for a little while, a few precious minutes, she'd taken that control away from him. She'd led the way. Maybe she'd pay for it later, but she'd gotten what she wanted: She had him flustered.
She also knew more about Frank Larkin than she had. Politics and finance, huh? That left the field of possibilities for spying wide open, so she wasn't exactly in the loop yet, but she was catching up.
"Let's go get those pills, honey," she said as she patted Cael's chest and pushed him slightly away from her.
"There aren't enough pills in the world – " he began, but then he stopped and closed his eyes as he shook his head.
She'd done it. She'd shut him up. This was turning out to be a good day, all things considered.