Burn (Chapter Twenty-five)
"I'll go with you," Tiffany said brightly.
Cael gave her a long look. Jenner had never had anyone pay such close attention to her as he did. It was as if he knew every breath she took, as if he caught every flicker of expression. She just hoped she didn't look as panicked as she felt. She sensed he didn't like her going off with Tiffany, but what was he going to do? There were too many people close by, still listening in, and he couldn't forbid her to go to the bathroom, for God's sake. He released her, his fingertips trailing over her arm in a way that said Hurry back.
She and Tiffany fell into step, and behind them she heard Faith say, "I need to powder my nose; I think I'll join them."
Ryan made some offhand comment about women going to the restroom in a pack. Cael remained silent. Jenner didn't look back, because she knew what she'd see: a very suspicious man.
She had more important things than his happiness on her mind. Why the hell had Tiffany passed her a condom? Did she think it was going to be necessary, or was it a sick joke?
When they entered the nearest ladies' room, there was one other occupant, a white-haired lady who was reapplying her lipstick at the mirror. The woman smiled, nodded, and left. As soon as she was gone, Tiffany checked the five stalls to make sure they were alone, and when that was done, Jenner held out her hand, condom sitting on her palm. "What the hell?"
Faith saw what Jenner was holding and said, "Tiffany!" Disapproval was plain in her voice.
Thank goodness someone realized the "gift" was inappropriate under these circumstances, Jenner thought.
And then Faith continued. "One? What good is one condom?"
Jenner stared at her in disbelief, then shook the small, square, crinkling package in Tiffany's direction. "What are you not telling me? What makes you think I'm going to need this?"
Tiffany sighed. "Shit. You're scared, aren't you? Sorry. It's just … I saw the way you looked at Cael today, and I figured if you decide to jump his bones you should be prepared." She looked at Faith. "And honestly, if she needs more than one, she can buy more in the gift shop. This one is for a dire emergency."
Jenner gaped at her. "And you decided the best way to pass it to me was with a handshake, in public?"
Her grin was diabolical. "That was just for fun."
"You should've seen the expression on your face."
"Yeah, funny. Ha ha. What makes you think I want to jump Cael's bones?" Maybe the fact that she did. She was resisting for all she was worth, but it was a real effort, especially when she woke up in his arms and he was mostly naked, and – Don't go there! As long as the circumstances were what they were, jumping his bones wasn't going to happen … she hoped. The temptation was so strong it was almost painful.
Tiffany said, "Please. The way you two look at each other?"
"As if there's going to be a murder at any second?" Jenner said drily.
"Is it really possible to die from sex? Because it's looking more and more like it's going to happen, and one of you has to make the first move. You're going to have to do it, because it won't be Cael."
That made Jenner freeze, her mind momentarily thrown off track. Indignantly she thought: Why the hell not?
The silent question must've shown on her face, because Faith gently explained, "He kidnapped you. You're entirely in his control, so he won't make any move on you, no matter how much he might want to. It wouldn't be fair. Cael has some faults …"
"Don't let him hear you say that," Tiffany muttered. She was ignored.
"But he won't take that kind of advantage. He just won't," Faith finished. "Tiffany's right. If you want him, you'll have to make the first move."
"What makes you think I want – " Both women looked at her as if she'd lost her mind, so she didn't even finish the question. Okay, they were observant. It was part of their jobs, she supposed. She threw out her arms, so frustrated she wanted to hit something. "Would you even consider getting involved with a man in this kind of situation?" she asked, incredulous.
Calmly Faith asked, "What makes you think I didn't?"
There was something about the expression in her eyes that told her this was no joke. Something had happened with Ryan, something Jenner never would have suspected, given Ryan's suaveness. Not the same situation – was any situation ever exactly the same? – but they hadn't met in the produce section of the supermarket or been introduced by a friend.
She blew out a breath and looked back at Tiffany. "While we're apparently laying it all on the line, what about you and Cael?"
"What about – ?" Understanding flooded her face. "Oh, no. Never. No way. He's so not my type."
How could Cael not be any and every woman's type?
With a smile, Faith clarified. "Tiff prefers a … different type of man."
"I like nerds," Tiffany said defiantly. "So sue me."
Faith gave a ladylike snort, if a snort was ever ladylike. "What Tiffany's saying is, she prefers men who let her be the boss in all areas – and that so isn't Cael Traylor."
"I got it," Jenner said. She held the condom out, getting back to the subject at hand. "What am I supposed to do with this? I don't even have an evening bag with me." There hadn't seemed to be any point in bringing one, as she didn't have her cell phone or even a key card for the suite. Her lipstick was in Cael's pocket.
Tiffany shrugged her shoulders. "Your call. Do what you want with it. Stick it down in your bra, or throw it away."
Another group of three well-dressed women entered, so the conversation ended. "I'm starving," Faith said, leading the way from the bathroom. Jenner glanced briefly at the trash can near the door, hesitated, then tucked the plastic wrapped condom into her strapless bra.
THE SHIP SAILED during the night from Hilo to Honolulu. Ryan, Faith, and Tiffany went ashore that morning, while Cael stayed onboard with Jenner. He'd expected her to rant and rave, to give him grief about staying onboard when they were in freak-in' Hawaii, but she'd been oddly quiet since going to the ladies' room with Faith and Tiffany the previous night, which made him wonder what they'd said. Jenner hadn't even complained about the handcuffs last night. When they'd gone to bed she had simply stuck out her hand, a solemn and begrudging offering. A thoughtful Jenner Redwine scared the shit out of him. What the hell was she up to? He didn't for a minute think she'd suddenly and meekly accepted the situation, because that wasn't in her DNA.
She didn't do anything, which made him even more wary. It was like waiting for a volcano to blow.
They were in Honolulu only that one day, and sailed that night back to the Big Island, to Kona, which was on the opposite side of the island from Hilo. Kona was their turn to go ashore. Their movements couldn't mirror Larkin's, or even each other's. Someone on the team would be aboard at all times, someone would be on Larkin at all times, but it couldn't always be the same person, or group of people.
His original plan had been to take Jenner to a restaurant or coffee shop with a great view, and kill a few hours there. They could've gone along with the Kona group tour, which would've been great cover, but also a special kind of torture. Linda Vale and Nyna Phillips had met two other women who were traveling together, and the four of them had hit it off. Penny and Buttons – Buttons, what kind of name was that for a woman? – were staying in one of the smaller staterooms on another deck, but in the past couple of days they'd been spending a lot of time in Linda and Nyna's suite across from Jenner's. He knew, because a couple of times he and Jenner had run into the foursome in the hallway, and they'd also heard them out on the balcony, laughing and evidently having a blast.
Yesterday they'd met the four ladies twice: once in the hallway, once on deck. Today's tour had been mentioned both times, as had meals. How about lunch? Join us for dinner? All the offers were friendly, casual, and genuine. They liked Jenner, and why shouldn't they? Instead of quickly accepting, though, as he'd expected her to do, Jenner had offered polite, reasonable refusals. Still, the four older ladies were persistent.
All four were on the group tour; hence the torture that he wanted to avoid.
Instead of the tour or the coffee shop, Cael took Jenner to a small cove that a local had recommended for snorkeling. Jenner had mentioned that she liked snorkeling, and, hell, she deserved a little fun.
They separated from the group soon after leaving the ship, and he found the dive shop Sanchez had recommended, where he rented the necessary equipment and got directions to this cove, which, according to the man who rented him the equipment, shouldn't be as crowded as Kealakekua Bay.
The shallow water was an unexpected shade of blue; the half-circle of trees around the water were lush and thick, cutting them off from the rest of the world even though Kona bustled just beyond those trees.
Jenner stood a few feet away, her cover-up discarded to reveal a black bikini that looked as if it had been painted on her body. Seeing her in a bathing suit had made him realize she wasn't skinny, at least not as he thought of skinny. She was thin, but her bones were covered by some sleek muscles. Her breasts might be on the small side, but they were firm and high. They were perky. She'd probably take his head off if he ever referred to her, or any of her body parts, as perky.
Those little breasts made his mouth water, and his hands twitched with the need to touch them. Her nipples would be – He jerked his thoughts away from the path they were racing down. His willpower was already stretched thin from sleeping with her. He'd woken the past couple of mornings to find her wound around him like a vine; his morning erections made the situation particularly dicey. If he were smart, he'd ditch the handcuffs, except then he wouldn't wake with her almost on top of him. Tradeoffs were a bitch.
Her flip-flops and hat were sitting on the sand with her cover-up neatly folded and laid on top of the hat to keep it from blowing away; her snorkeling equipment dangled from her hand. She stared at the water before her, lost in its beauty – or maybe wondering if he was going to drown her once they got into the deeper water. It wasn't as if she hadn't given him cause.
"Don't worry," he said as he walked toward her. "If you disappear while we're together, it'll raise too many suspicions. You're safe here."
She rolled her eyes. "Thanks so much. You're such a gentleman."
There was more than a hint of sarcasm in her voice. By now she knew that he wasn't going to hurt her, and he knew that she wasn't going to cause him the trouble she continued to promise. Not in public – and not until this job was over, at least. Afterward … afterward, he and Jenner Redwine would settle the accounts between them.
That promised to be one hell of a battle. He looked forward to it more than anything else he could remember in his life, even his sixteenth birthday when he'd gotten his first car. He pulled on his mask and walked into the water, looking back to make sure that Jenner was following. She was, and like him she pulled on her mask as she moved into deeper water.
His eyes followed the lines of her body, because he couldn't not look. It wasn't as if he hadn't seen her in form-fitting clothes before. Some of her gowns hugged her curves, and there had been the other bathing suit for sitting by the pool. But a bikini was the same as underwear, at least to a man, and the amount of skin visible was nothing short of torment.
Soon. This would be over soon. Then he and Jenner would have themselves a long talk.
JENNER TRIED TO DISMISS all her worries and enjoy the snorkeling, but it was difficult when Cael was always so close. What did he think she was going to do, swim to safety? She gave herself a stern talking to. No, he wasn't hovering over her, not today, he was staying nearby for safety. She should be accustomed to him being constantly close at hand, so his closeness shouldn't affect her at all. But it did, and there was nothing she could do about it.
Like it or not, the condom she'd hidden in her underwear drawer was on her mind. How could it not be? It made the possibility of what might happen, what could happen, very, very real.
She floated on the water as colorful fish darted past, under her body, right before her eyes. She loved the feel of the ocean against her skin as she pushed through the water, propelled forward by her arms and the gentle kick of her feet. It was like swimming in a huge tank of tropical fish, like being a part of the ocean instead of an observer. Eventually she almost forgot that Cael was with her. She couldn't entirely dismiss him, but she almost forgot that she'd been sleeping handcuffed, held prisoner, made to play a role as Syd's life was threatened, too. The water flowing over her skin, the abundant fish all around, was too soothing. If only she could stay here …
She lifted her head, and glanced behind her to see that she'd drifted farther from shore than she'd imagined. Still, when she straightened, her feet touched the sandy bay floor. Cael was close by – naturally – and when she stood, so did he. She pulled off her mask, deeply inhaling the fresh air.
They were far away from everything, truly alone in the world, and she was tired of guessing, tired of playing games. Her life was not a game; neither was Syd's. They needed some truth between them.
"I'm not stupid," she said.
Cael removed his mask and shook his head, sending droplets of water flying. He was a head taller than she, wet, and in better physical shape than any man she'd ever seen in the flesh. She loved the way he looked right now, more bare than not and soaking wet. He wiped away the water that dripped down his face. "I've pretty much figured that out for myself."
"You can trust me," she said. "Stop treating me like I'm a prisoner."
"But that's what you are, like it or not."
"Don't be a bonehead," she muttered, exasperated. She was trying to make a gesture, call a truce. "You're the good guys, all right? I can see that. I can put a puzzle together. Larkin's slime, and he's involved in something dirty. You're trying to get the goods on him. I get it."
His expression was so controlled she couldn't read a thing from it. "I appreciate that, but it doesn't change anything."
She thought she might explode from frustration. He had to make everything so damn difficult. "Why don't you go swim over there?" she said between gritted teeth, flinging her arm out and waving.
"I like it here."
"I can make things easier for you, or I can make things difficult."
He was maddening. She shouted "Numb-nuts," then put her mask back on, turned her back on Cael, and gently reentered the water. Even with the water around her ears, she heard him laugh right before the muted splash that told her he was joining her.
She floated on top of the water, not working, not paddling, just there. She wanted to trust Cael; she wanted to be trusted. Was that too much to ask? Floating in the water, reaching toward a brightly colored fish that darted away from her, she let herself let go and just drifted. She did her best to stop worrying, to stop thinking. The problem was, when she let her guard down, old memories always shot to the surface and she got lost in another time, another breach of trust.
It surprised her, that her mind went back so quickly and easily. She hadn't realized how she'd carried the betrayals of the past so strongly within her, all these years. She was always waiting to be hurt, to be used, and that had kept her from forming close bonds with any but the most trusted, who were Syd and Al. She didn't allow anyone else to get close, didn't allow herself to let down her guard long enough for anyone to break her heart. Not a man, not a friend.
She didn't mourn the loss of Dylan, or even her own father, but Michelle was a different story. Jenner doubted the woman she'd become and the woman Michelle was now would have anything in common, but suddenly she missed her old friend as much as if they had had their falling out just yesterday.
With all the stress of the past week, suddenly it seemed unimportant to carry a grudge for long ago indiscretions. Michelle had been an important part of her life for a very long time, and even if those days were long gone, even if she couldn't get back what she'd once had, her life had been richer for having Michelle in it. She wouldn't take back a single day even if she had the chance.
Years ago she'd walked away from Michelle and she'd never looked back. When this was over – and with every day that passed she was more certain that it would end with her and Syd unharmed and together again – would she walk away from Cael as easily as she had walked away from her old life? Would she cut him out of her mind and, yes damn it, her heart?
Would she even have the chance? The choice? She'd probably wake up one morning and he'd just be gone, leaving her life as abruptly as he'd entered it.
She thought of Michelle again, their celebrations and conversations and arguments, and she smiled. There had been more good times than bad, and though she'd denied them, she hadn't forgotten. They were a part of who she was, even though she'd changed so much since those days. Even Dylan and Jerry had served their purposes in making her who she was today. She didn't have any desire to see either of them ever again, but in her own way, she forgave them as she swam in this place that was like another world.
When she came up out of the water, Cael was, as always, close by. There was no one else in the cove, though that might not last.
She walked toward him, her movements slow and easy as she worked against the water, which lapped around her breasts. She pulled off her mask, shook the water out of her hair.
"The first night we were onboard, you made me kiss you."
He pulled off his mask, too, watching her with hooded eyes. "People were watching," he said flatly. "It was necessary."
"No one's watching now," she said as she came to a stop, so close she was almost touching him. She tilted her head back and looked up at him. She pushed away her anger, her frustration, her hurt, and tried to let herself look at Cael as nothing more than a man. From the beginning she'd been attracted to him, drawn to him in an instinctive way, but she'd fought her response to him – as would any right-minded woman who found herself in the same situation.
But everything wasn't as it had initially seemed, she knew that now. And she didn't want to lose him. What a kick in the ass that was!
"Kiss me again," she said. "Not because anyone's watching and you have to, not because it's necessary but just … because."
He blew out a breath. "That's not a good idea." His smooth voice had a rough edge to it, one that made everything in her tighten in response.
"Agreed," she said. "Do it anyway."
He didn't move. She laid her hand on his chest, feeling the crispness of hair, the warmth of his skin, the pound of his heart.
"Kiss me," she said again, and her own heart was thudding so hard and fast she could barely breathe. "With no one to sell it to but the fishes."
She took the half-step forward that brought her against him, he put his arm around her and pulled her close, and he closed his mouth over hers.
There was no fear this time, no panic. She leaned into him, got lost in the sensations of his mouth on hers, his wet body against hers. His heat was a sharp contrast to the coolness of the water, of her wet skin, and she drank it in.
The isolation, the water, the feel of Cael's skin against hers and the pleasure his mouth gave made her dizzy with sheer pleasure. For this short moment, she wasn't worried about tomorrow, revenge, or once again being the outsider when she wanted desperately to be on the inside. It was just a kiss, a kiss for them and no one else.
He cupped her bottom and lifted her, fitting her to him, wrapping her legs around him. He was rock hard, his erection pressing into her. Slowly he moved her against him, undulating her back and forth. A soft cry clogged her throat as she clung to his shoulders, and "just a kiss" changed so rapidly into something else that she felt as if she were spinning out of reality. The throbbing between her legs went from pleasurable to frantic in just a few seconds. Her second cry was taut, aching.
He shoved his hand down the back of her bikini bottoms, his long fingers reaching down and in. She jerked as two of them penetrated her, hard and rough, and just like that everything in her tightened and peaked and she began coming, her raspy cries floating over the sound of the waves. Frantically she tried to stop the cries, tried to stop her body from moving against him so obviously, tried to control the rhythmic tightening around his fingers. This wasn't happening. This couldn't be happening. All she'd wanted was a kiss, something to tell her she wasn't in this alone. She hadn't expected things to blast out of control that way.
He let her down gently – physically, at least. When she could breathe again, think again, when her legs would hold her weight he uncoiled her legs and let her slide down his body. She leaned against him for a moment, her eyes closed, caught between acute satisfaction and embarrassment.
He solved that dilemma, though. He said, "I thought you said you weren't going Stockholm syndromy on me." Shock and humiliation roared through her. His breath came as hard-fought as hers did, but that was a tiny detail when compared to what he'd just said.
"Do you really think that's what happening here?" She managed to be calm. She managed to keep her voice even. What she couldn't manage to do was look at him. She didn't know if she'd ever be able to look him in the eye again. She had never felt so sick as she did right then, and the plunge from exquisite pleasure to humiliation was so breathtaking it was like a punch in the gut.
"What the hell else am I supposed to think?"
"A kiss and an erection really shouldn't annoy you so much," she said, determined to keep her voice cool even if it killed her. "I think you have issues."
"I wasn't the one having the orgasm."
She could look at him, she found. Enough anger worked wonders. "That," she said, "is entirely your problem. I got what I wanted. Too bad you didn't."
He took her hand in his and headed for shore, practically dragging her along. "We're going back to the ship, and you're moving in with Faith and Ryan. Today."
"No," she countered, "I'm not."
He ignored her. "I'm not sure how we'll explain it, but we'll think of a way."
"I'm not going anywhere. That's my suite. If you don't want to stay there, then move your ass out. You go stay with Faith and Ryan."
They walked out of the water, the last of the cove washing against their feet. She jerked her hand out of his, and they faced off like two gunslingers.
Surprisingly, a sudden grin flashed across his face. "Why am I not surprised that a climax makes you cranky?"
She opened her mouth to blast him, but a family – mother, father, two teenage boys – arrived at the beach, their snorkeling equipment and bags of assorted beach stuff in hand. Her conversation with Cael was over … for now.
Except for the last word. The last word was hers. She said, "There are other people present. Maybe you should wrap your towel around your waist, big boy."