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Burn (Chapter Twenty-six)

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THE TRICK TO SUCCESSFUL, LONG-TERM SURVEILLANCE is blending in, becoming invisible. In a way, the cruise ship situation created the perfect cover. If you were living your everyday life and kept seeing the same handful of people near work, on the streets, close to your home, in various restaurants, you'd naturally get suspicious. When you were basically living together in a floating luxury hotel, you expected to see the same people day in and day out.

That didn't mean they didn't need to be careful, work in shifts, and maintain their cover.

Cael knew what he needed. He needed to concentrate on work and get the woman who was in the shower out of his head, and out from under his skin.

Like it or not, he and Jenner would be on deck tonight. A Roaring Twenties costume party was scheduled. He hated fucking costumes, even if they did come with a fedora. At some point during the evening there would be a bachelor auction, which he intended to steer clear of. The auction was one of the charity events, so Larkin would likely be there. Life of the party, that one was.

The knock on the door surprised Cael, but when he heard Matt's voice – "Room service, Ms. Redwine" – he relaxed and crossed the room to open the door. Something must be up; he hadn't called room service. If Larkin was in his suite he now had a guard outside the door all the time, so he'd told Faith and Tiffany to stay away.

The increased security puzzled him. Why have it now, after the meet in Hilo, after Larkin had passed off the memory stick? Something else was definitely up, though as of now they still had no clue. On the other hand, it wasn't impossible to imagine that Larkin had more than one buyer lined up.

Matt came into the room with a domed silver tray balanced on one hand. "Sanchez says there's definitely something going on," he said in a lowered voice, after the door had closed behind him.

"Dean Mills is in the middle of it, but there are several other security guards who've put their heads together a few times in what Sanchez says is a suspicious manner."

"Larkin?"

"Not involved, that Sanchez has seen."

That was surprising. If Dean Mills was involved, how could Larkin not be? He needed more eyes on the inside, but that wasn't going to happen. If he'd had time he would have placed more of his people in security, but the background checks for those employees were even more stringent than they were for a deckhand and a steward. Given enough time he could have done it, but the security team had been set when this job had come along. He'd been lucky to find Sanchez. So far the man had been steady as a rock, and everything he said a hundred percent reliable.

Matt placed the tray on the dining table. "Compliments of your steward, sir."

He removed the lid with a flourish.

The bed of the silver tray was covered in an assortment of individually wrapped condoms.

Cael stared down at the tray. "What the hell is this?"

Deadpan, Matt responded, "They're called condoms, sir, a commonly used prophylactic for the prevention of …" He stopped talking when Cael caught his eye, fidgeted, and finally said, "Bridget thought they might come in handy."

"Bridget, huh."

"Actually, she said if these weren't necessary before the end of the cruise, she'd eat her steward uniform, which she really hates."

Cael lifted a hand, which Matt correctly read to mean silence. Now.

He couldn't have sex with Jenner, no matter how much he wanted to – and he did, damn it, he wanted it so much he could barely think of anything else. He'd kidnapped, threatened, and frequently handcuffed her, and basically used her to do what had to be done. Logically, he knew it would be all kinds of sick to screw her under these circumstances. His brain was in line; his dick had a mind of its own. The last thing he needed was members of his own group undermining his self-control. They weren't the ones who had to deliberately say things that would drive a wedge between him and what he wanted most. They weren't the ones who had to see the hurt and fury in her eyes.

The shower stopped, which meant Jenner could walk into the parlor in a matter of minutes. It wouldn't do for her to find him standing over a shiny pile of assorted condoms. He glared at Matt. "What the hell am I supposed to do with these?"

"I understand they go on your …"

This time his look would have cut steel.

Matt shrugged his shoulders. "Hide them or tell me to take them away. Your call, boss."

Cael's brain knew getting the condoms out of the suite was the right thing to do. He fought another battle with himself, but this time his dick won.

JENNER HAD NEVER BEEN A HUGE FAN of costumes – she avoided Halloween parties like the plague, because Halloween was creepy, and not in a good way – but this party was oddly fun. She'd never dressed up like this before. Her fringed red flapper dress and close-fitting cloche hat were actually cute, and Cael dressed as a gangster was hot, so hot she couldn't stop looking at him even though she wanted to completely ignore him. Some things were just not going to happen. The black suit, black shirt, and white tie looked good on him; she even liked the hat.

Judging the different costumes of those around them, as they milled about on deck, she decided she and Cael had lucked out. There were outrageous zoot suits in all colors, Gatsby Girl outfits that had a softer appeal than the flapper dresses, and a couple of World War I uniforms. A few of the flapper girl dresses were a virulent shade of yellow that really stood out in the crowd, and Jenner was glad to have a hat, instead of a headband and attached feather that danced in the breeze. There were even a couple of cigarette girls, complete with candy cigarettes in their trays; better them than her.

The music that had been playing all night wasn't strictly from the twenties, but how many times could you listen to the "Charleston" and "Singin' in the Rain"? It was all old, though, from the twenties, thirties, and forties. Now that the Charleston lessons were over, a handful of couples were on the dance floor, but she and Cael stood by the rail, where Larkin, dressed in a gangster suit much like Cael's, though on him the look was more sleazy than dashing, was in Cael's line of sight.

While Cael watched Larkin, she watched Cael. She was still mad at him, but watching him was still a visceral pleasure. She hadn't told either Faith or Tiffany what had happened while they were snorkeling, but they weren't dummies; they knew something had. Tiffany had caught her eye and shrugged. Now that her temper had cooled somewhat – not much, but some – and her humiliation level had dropped a few degrees, Jenner was able to maybe see the morning from a slightly different angle.

She was going to have to make the first move if she wanted this fake relationship to go anywhere real, right? Well, she had, and gotten a breathtaking orgasm as a result, but then Cael had pulled back when any normal man would have been all over her like slick on butter. She didn't know if she could take another rejection like that, no matter what his reason. If he was being honorable, then that sucked. She needed him to be honorable only if she needed someone else to take care of her, which she didn't. She was an adult. She could make her own decisions, good or bad, and accept the consequences. On the other hand, while she was willing to step out on a limb, that didn't mean she was going to set herself up for more rejection. If he didn't want her …

His body said he did. More accurately, his body said he wanted sex. Maybe he disliked her so much – God, why should he? – that even though he was horny he didn't want to have anything to do with her. Or maybe he was married, or seriously involved. Tiffany wouldn't have given her that condom if he was, would she? Maybe. Tiffany had her own rules. But Faith would have had a different outlook, and she hadn't been at all disapproving.

So, no marriage, no significant other. Either he was brushing her off to protect her from herself, in which case she might kill him because that was the last thing she wanted, or he seriously didn't want her.

Damn it, how was she supposed to tell the difference?

She gave up trying to make sense of the situation and looked at the rest of the group. Tiffany was as flamboyant as ever, dressed in a black-and-white flapper dress, and didn't seem to mind the dancing feather on her head. She wore a multitude of long necklaces, and often swung them about as she flirted outrageously with every man in her path. Faith's Gatsby-style dress was a soft champagne color, as was the matching hat. Ryan, leaning on his cane, was dressed in a military uniform; the sight of him in that costume gave Jenner a moment's pause. He had the look of a soldier; he might've just stepped out of World War I. He was so urbane she hadn't noticed it before, but there was definitely something military in his posture, despite the cane.

The five of them weren't hanging out together tonight, as they had the night before. She supposed that would've been a pattern, and Cael didn't like patterns. Apparently there were a lot of things Cael didn't like.

Larkin was coming in their direction, and as he drew closer Jenner noticed that he was smiling. It wasn't the tight, false smile she'd seen on him before; this looked like a real smile. Either he'd gotten better at putting on a show, or something had truly amused him. He stopped to greet a couple – the man was in a green zoot suit, the woman wore a classy dress much like Faith's, only in a soft pearl – and while they were talking, Larkin smiled as if he were very pleased with himself.

The idea of him being pleased with anything sent a shiver up Jenner's spine.

Linda Vale, wearing a black flapper outfit that was two sizes too big for her thin frame, walked between Larkin and Jenner. It was all Jenner could do not to jump out of her skin.

"There you are," Linda said brightly. She was holding a clipboard, which was not in keeping with her costume. "I've been looking for you two." She smiled at Cael. "Very handsome," and then at Jenner, "and you look like a doll!"

"Where's Nyna?" Jenner asked. She always saw the roommates together.

"She's with Buttons and Penny, getting drinks." Linda lifted her clipboard. "I've volunteered to help out with the bachelor auction." She looked significantly at Cael. "I'm afraid we don't have many bachelors onboard."

He smoothly placed his arm around Jenner. "I'm taken," he said.

Linda sighed. "Every man onboard is taken, that's not the point. It's for charity. Maybe Jenner will bid on you."

"And maybe she won't. Then what'll I do?" Cael teased, though he had to know Jenner not bidding on him was a distinct possibility, as things stood between them.

"Then Nyna will." Linda laughed, but it was probably true enough.

"What does the winning bidder get?" Jenner asked. Cael's arm tightened very slightly.

"The remainder of the evening with her bachelor. What you do with the evening is up to you."

"There's no obedience clause in there? If he had to do whatever I wanted, for an entire night … that might be worth bidding on." She gave Cael a shark smile. "I might bid on you after all, honey," she said. "Wouldn't you like to know what you're worth?"

Linda said, "So, I can put you down …"

"No," he said flatly.

Linda was disappointed, but she didn't give up. "Be a sport," she said. "It's for a good cause."

Cael looked around, a flash of frustration in his expression. They were drawing attention, and that was never good. Even Larkin was looking their way, curious, listening to their exchange with Linda. Jenner wasn't a spy, but even she knew it wasn't a good idea for Larkin to realize that Cael had her in an iron grip and had no intention of getting more than a few feet away from her.

"Go ahead, sweetheart," she said, and then she went up on her toes to give him a quick, soft kiss that sent her head reeling. "I'll be fine here by myself. I promise not to get jealous if someone else buys you."

Everyone in the area was watching, waiting. Cael leaned down and kissed Jenner on the cheek. He pressed his rough cheek to hers and whispered in her ear, "Come on, tell me the truth. You were hatched, weren't you? That's the only explanation."

Damn him. She couldn't stop herself from laughing, a genuine laugh that went a long way toward easing her tension and worry. So much for sweet nothings! She said, "Trust me."

"Like I have a choice," he murmured, before he surrendered and followed Linda's lead, weaving through the crowd toward the dais.

It would've looked suspicious if Tiffany had rushed to join Jenner, after Cael was all but dragged to the front of the room, but as soon as possible she joined Jenner by the rail. "I thought I'd keep you company while he's occupied."

"Not to mention it'll keep him from freaking out because I'd be standing here by myself," Jenner said.

Tiffany shrugged. "Men."

That said it all.

"You look great," Jenner said. Tiffany twirled around to show off her outfit. Fringe danced, and so did the ridiculous feather.

"So do you." Tiffany leaned against the rail and looked out on the water. "I'm surprised Cael didn't trip over his tongue."

They both turned to face away from the crowd, facing the ocean. Jenner said, "I don't think he's all that interested."

"Trust me, he's interested."

"He's not, like, married or engaged, is he?" Even though she'd already decided he wasn't, she had to check. No matter how attracted she was, she wasn't going to be a home-wrecker.

"Nope," Tiffany said without hesitation. It certainly sounded like the truth. "So, what happened today? Did you make your move?"

"He made a crack about Stockholm syndrome." That was the tiniest portion of what had happened, but Tiffany didn't need to know everything.

"Bummer."

"Yeah."

She realized that, behind them, the auction had already started. They turned to watch the handful of men who were gathered at the front of the crowd. There were a few crew members, two gray-haired guys, a blond she didn't know, and Cael; not exactly a stellar showing, even though Cael looked mouthwateringly good. Matt must be working; if he was up there she imagined he'd fetch a pretty penny with his beach-boy good looks.

Tiffany nodded toward the bachelors. "Are you going to let Cael twist in the wind up there or are you going to save his ass?"

"I'm not worried. Some fool will bid on him."

Tiffany laughed, and so did Jenner. The possibilities were rather funny, she had to admit. What would Nyna do if she had Cael to herself for the evening?

Once her duty had been done, Linda Vale made her way back to the two girls. Jenner made introductions, watched Linda's eyes as the older woman studied Tiffany carefully and then apparently decided that while she looked like a high-class gold digger, she was all right.

Some people were simply a good judge of character.

"I can't believe you got Cael up there," Tiffany said to Linda. "That's so not his kind of thing."

"It's for a good cause," Linda responded. "I'm sure he won't regret participating."

A man wearing one of the old-style military uniforms passed by, and Linda's gaze followed him. She shuddered, her smile dying, and she went a little pale.

Concerned, Jenner focused on the older woman, placing a hand on her arm. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine." Linda placed her hand over Jenner's, squeezed. "I just wish they hadn't included soldiers in tonight's costumes."

"I like a man in uniform," Tiffany said, and Jenner glanced her way. From what she understood, Tiffany preferred a man in a lab coat. Still, she was playing a part, and maybe this was part of it.

"So do I," Linda said wistfully. "My husband was a soldier. Vietnam. Wayne was killed when I was eighteen, just a couple of months after we got married. He was only nineteen."

Chills crawled up Jenner's arm; Tiffany's easy smile faded.

Linda had a look on her face that was both dreamy and painful. "Wayne was it for me, he was the one. I never remarried, never got over his death. We had just a few months together, not years, and there are times when I feel like I'm drowning because it was so incredibly unfair …"

Tiffany laid a comforting hand on Linda's shoulder. "I'm sorry. That really sucks."

"I never talk about this." Linda wiped away a tear. "What's the point?"

"Because it helps, sometimes," said Jenner. "You can talk to us about it, any time you like."

"I suppose I can." Linda tried a smile, which didn't work well. "Once we're off this ship we might never see each other again. Who better to confess to than a stranger?"

"We're hardly strangers, not anymore."

"That's true." Linda sighed. "There really isn't much to tell. I loved Wayne with all my heart, he died, and ever since then I've been in a kind of limbo, just waiting for the day when I'll join him."

"No!" Tiffany said explosively, then she cranked it down a bit. "Don't talk like that. You have a lot of life left in you. You should enjoy every day."

"I do. I have a good life."

"The uniforms upset you. It's understandable," said Jenner.

"Things are a little close to the surface today. I dreamed about Wayne last night," she added. "God, it's been years since I've dreamed of him that way. You know how some people will say that they've forgotten exactly how a lost loved one looked, or how his voice sounded. I never forgot. Never." She shook off her melancholy. "You girls don't want to hear an old lady go on and on."

Their conversation was interrupted by a sudden eruption of noise from the crowd around them, and they looked about to see that one of the gray-haired gentlemen had been bought by a woman who was boogying up to the dais to fetch him.

"Maybe you should buy yourself a man for the night," Tiffany suggested.

Linda gave a slight smile, and in a very soft voice said, "That never worked."

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