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Burn (Prologue)

To the lovely people who work at the Christmas Place in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, which is one of the magic places in the world. Thank you all for the use of your first names for some of the characters in this book.

And to our beloved girls, our golden retrievers, Honey and Sugar, who are now romping together in Heaven. It has to be true that all dogs go to Heaven, because where else would such pure love go?

Prologue

Present Day, onboard the Silver Mist

THIS WAS THE VACATION FROM HELL.

Jenner Redwine sat frozen on the barstool, trying to remember what Bridget had told her and reconcile it with the nightmare that was actually happening. She'd been told that a man and a woman would argue at some point during the evening. The woman, Tiffany would leave, and the man, Cael, would then approach Jenner. She'd been instructed to appear interested, and accommodating. She was to do exactly what he said, otherwise they would kill Syd, the only real friend she had in this world.

The scene wasn't unfolding as she'd been expecting. Tiffany wasn't leaving the bar. She was screaming and stomping and throwing a drunken temper tantrum, though of course she wasn't really drunk. She was accusing Cael of sleeping with Jenner even though this was the first night on the ship and no one had slept with anyone yet – probably – because of the early hour. Cael had approached Jenner before the argument started, though of course she hadn't yet realized who he was. He'd stood next to her at the crowded bar to order drinks, and he hadn't said anything suggestive. No, nothing about this night was playing out the way Bridget had briefed her, other than that a very public argument was taking place.

Cael would finesse the details, Bridget had said. He certainly had. Jenner had no idea what would happen next, which was probably a good thing. She wasn't an actress, couldn't play along like a practiced con who rolled with the punches. They obviously could.

The man who had jostled Cael earlier had joined in the argument, as loud and drunken as Tiffany, telling her she didn't know what she was talking about and she was drunk and should go to her cabin and sleep it off. He was determined to take the blame for starting the unpleasantness, which was nice of him even if he was drunk. Or maybe he was one of them, Jenner thought, because she didn't know him and, really, he could be anyone.

The only people she couldn't be suspicious of, she realized, were the people she already knew. She might not know who she couldn't trust, but she definitely knew who she could, for all the good it would do her. Whatever was going on, she was in on it, sink or swim, because of Syd. Her friend was being threatened, and Jenner wanted to be pissed. If she could get pissed, then she wouldn't be so afraid.

She wanted to be able to do something to get these people out of her life – and Syd's. Instead she was terrified that no matter what she did, things wouldn't work out well for either of them. Being so afraid of what might come next, and not knowing what would happen next, made her feel helpless, and that wasn't a trait she admired in anyone, least of all herself.

Maybe it was time she took control of some of the details, the way she had by going out on the balcony when Faith had been standing guard. She slipped off the stool and tried to edge her way around Cael, as if she were trying to escape the scene, but Tiffany saw her and shrieked, "Don't try to run off like you're Little Miss Innocent! I saw you flirting – "

"I don't know you," said Jenner, interrupting her even as Cael turned and subtly shifted his position to block her avenue of escape. "And I don't know him, so leave me out of your nasty little tantrum." She caught the eye of someone she knew from Palm Beach, Leanne Ivey, and gave a helpless, I-don't-know-what's-going-on shrug. Leanne gave her a sympathetic look in return.

Faith suddenly detached herself from the crowd and approached Tiffany, putting her arm around the black-haired woman's shoulders and softly saying something to her. Tiffany responded by bursting into tears, and Faith gently led her away, putting an end to the dramatics. Almost simultaneously, Faith's husband, Ryan, limped up to Cael. "That was nice of you to give her your stateroom," he said in a perfectly pitched tone that was just loud enough for those around them to hear.

Cael shrugged. "I could hardly toss her out, could I?" He was still keeping Jenner blocked from leaving, and now he and Ryan had her sandwiched between them. She was trapped, as surely as if they'd each grabbed her by an arm and held on tight. Not that it mattered. She had nowhere to go, though surely her expression plainly said she wanted to get away.

The Silver Mist was a big ship, filled with people … surrounded by water. Even if these people weren't threatening her friend, where would she go if she managed to escape? Cael would find her, no matter where she tried to hide. Much as she hated to play along, she didn't want to find out what he might do if he didn't get his way.

"There was a mix-up on our suite," continued Ryan, "and we have a two-bedroom instead of one. You're welcome to take the other room, if you like."

"Much obliged. But first I'll check to see if another stateroom is available. Have you heard if the cruise is sold out?"

Jenner wanted to scream. The two men sounded so normal, as if this were a perfectly natural conversation. She knew it was anything but, though no one else would realize what was going on. She supposed that was the plan, but this chatting was like sandpaper on her nerves.

Ryan lifted one shoulder. "I haven't heard. But if there isn't, you can definitely stay with us. I've already cleared it with Faith, so don't think she'll mind." He looked at Jenner then, giving her a friendly, almost gentle smile. "What a way to start the cruise, huh?"

"With a bang," she agreed, once more trying to slide sideways around them. She could barely take in a breath with the two men towering over her, closing her in. They stole her air, and she needed to breathe. She felt as if she were being crushed, though neither of them was actually touching her. And then …

Ryan reached out and took hold of her elbow, a gentlemanly gesture that nevertheless anchored her in place. "Have you two actually met, or were you just caught in the explosion?"

"No, we haven't met," Cael said, even though Ryan had asked the question of her.

"That makes the whole scene even more ridiculous, doesn't it?" Ryan said with a rueful laugh, man to man. "Jenner Redwine, this is Cael Traylor."

"Pleased to meet you," said Cael, extending his hand, and Jenner had no choice but to extend her own. His hard warm fingers enfolded hers, and she felt calluses on his palm. She looked up and met cold blue eyes that were watching every move she made, reading every flicker of expression that crossed her face.

They had set up a situation that showed both Cael and herself in a more positive light, she realized, than if he'd dumped Tiffany and immediately made a move on her. Bridget must have passed along the comment that Jenner had made, that hooking up with sleazoids was out of character for her. They didn't want anyone suspicious of their sudden "romance." By making Tiffany look obnoxious and drunk, they had tilted public sympathy toward the new couple. And now here they were, being properly introduced by a man who was, to all appearances, perfectly harmless and acceptable.

Slick, she thought warily. These people were slick. It wouldn't pay to underestimate any of them, not that she could do anything except play along with whatever scenario they set up. That didn't mean she'd roll over and play dead; that wasn't in character for her, either.

Her chance would come when Syd was safe. She had to believe that Syd would be released unharmed, and she had to believe that somehow she would be able to make these people pay for what they were doing to her, and to her friend. To dwell on any other possible outcome would have the power to incapacitate her – and she couldn't let that happen. Until her chance arrived, she had no choice but to do whatever this Cael told her to do.

It was the thought of survival – and payback – that kept her from screaming as she stood and made small talk with Ryan and Cael, keeping it casual and inconsequential for the people who were still avidly listening. Cael thanked Ryan again for the offer to use their extra bedroom, then he turned and retrieved Jenner's drink from the bar, as well as the Ghostwater he'd ordered.

He looked at the Ghostwater, grimaced, then set it aside. "That was for Tiffany," he said to Jenner. "She'd had one already, and insisted on having another. That's how I knew they hit hard and fast."

She nodded, but didn't reply. Let him work a little harder at this instant romance.

He looked around the crowded bar. For the most part, everyone had returned to their own conversations. The music had started up again. He nodded to a couple of people – acquaintances or more of his own group? – then said, "Let's get out of this crowd and walk. I could use some exercise."

"You two go on," said Ryan, not giving Jenner a chance to accept or decline. "I'll see how Faith is doing getting Tiffany settled."

In short order Jenner found herself strolling beside Cael on the sports deck, because the Lido deck was too crowded with both chairs and people. Even though they were just one deck above the Lido, the noise level was considerably diminished, and they had very little company. They didn't talk; she stared straight ahead as she marched along, at least until he caught her arm and pulled her to a slower pace. "You look like you're trying to run away from me."

"Imagine that," she said sarcastically. She hated that he had such a smooth, deep voice, that he was tall and good-looking and well-dressed. She'd been expecting a common thug, someone she could dislike on sight. After all, he was a kidnapper, a low-life scum. A kidnapper was far worse than a mooch, no matter how good-looking he might be. Her heart was thumping hard and fast, from fear, from dread, from the effort she was making to appear, at least from a distance, that she was in the beginning stages of a shipboard romance.

"Think of your friend," he replied without inflection, but lowering his voice even more. Sound carried on the wind, and up here the breeze caused by the ship's movement was even more brisk, lifting her hair away from her face. She shivered, rubbing her hands over her bare arms.

"I am thinking of her. That's the only reason I haven't pushed you overboard."

"Then you'd better think harder, because you're doing a piss-poor job of selling the idea that we've got a thing going."

"Who am I selling it to? There's no one up here," she retorted, and that was mostly true. There were a few couples strolling around, like them, and a lone man who had come up for a cigarette and was standing well away from everyone else. She wasn't as good an actress as they'd like her to be, and no amount of threat could change that. She definitely wasn't like them, able to pretend to be someone she was not on command.

"I decide when you need to sell it, not you. And I'm telling you to sell, now." Effortlessly he swung her around to face him, so close that once again his body heat wrapped around her. The ship was well lit, but the black night that enclosed them threw harsh shadows across his face, making his bone structure look harder and more severe. He looked down at her for a long moment, then moved his hands to her waist and pulled her full against him. "You're not taking your friend's health as seriously as you should."

"I've done everything you've told me to do!" She'd hated it, but she'd played along. What choice did she have? Panic laced her tone, because did that mean they'd already hurt Syd?

"Kiss me like you mean it," he ordered, and bent his head to hers.

She didn't. She couldn't. Even though his mouth was warm and his lips firm, his taste pleasantly clean, she couldn't make herself forget who and what he was or that Syd's life was at stake. She stood stiffly, holding her breath, her arms at her sides as he kissed her. If he had an ounce of compassion he'd realize that she was terrified and he'd back off, but she suspected that was an ounce more than Cael possessed.

"Sell it," he growled against her mouth, and deepened the kiss, slanting his mouth over hers, using his tongue to explore deeper. Jenner shuddered under the rebellion that shook her but she thought of Syd and obediently lifted her arms to twine them around his neck.

Still, she tried to hold her body away from his, tried not to let her breasts or hips touch him. She didn't want to touch him any more than she had to. From a distance she should look willing enough to anyone watching, and that should satisfy him. He overcame her stiffness by pulling her solidly against him, fitting their bodies together like lovers and holding her there. She felt the hardness of his muscled shoulders under the silk of his shirt, felt the thick ridge of his penis begin to get even thicker, firmer.

Oh, God. Blind panic swept over her. He had an erection. He wasn't like other men, she couldn't trust that he'd rein in any unwelcome sexual interest, that he'd take her "no" seriously. She tried to back away just enough to ease the pressure of his body against hers, but he held her so tight it was impossible. She was completely at his mercy, assuming he had any … and how could she assume anything except the worst about him, considering? What did he intend to do to her? She was afraid she knew, and there was nothing she could do to stop him.

Was the same thing happening to Syd? She had been so focused on not getting Syd killed, and now she had to accept that other things could happen, that neither of them would get out of this unscathed. Her earlier thoughts of payback seemed trivial now. She wanted to survive; she didn't want to be hurt. She wanted the same for Syd. There were no more thoughts of what would come after, just the terror that came with moment-to-moment survival.

"Don't," she whimpered, unable to stop the plea. She hated herself for begging, when what she wanted to do was spit in his face, hated herself for letting him see how frightened she was.

"Then act as if you mean it," he said for the second time, kissing her again.

Enraged, helpless, she did.

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