Burn (Chapter Twenty-four)
When he realized that she was struggling to keep up, he shortened his stride – only a little, but enough to give her a break. "I have things to do this afternoon. You're going to stay with Faith for a while."
"You mean she's going to sit with me." As in, babysit. She didn't like it at all.
While she was more than ready for a break from Cael Traylor, she didn't know Faith. She knew the facade, but likely Faith was, like Cael, two people: one public persona, one private. The public woman was classy, serene, quiet, and seemingly thoughtful. What was the private Faith like? She was about to find out.
Cael knocked, the door opened, and they were ushered in. The first thing Jenner noticed was that Faith was not alone. Tiffany was also there, sitting on a blue sofa, long legs crossed, eyes all but shooting daggers. Both women were dressed casually, as Jenner was. Their outfits were expensive and classically cut, even Tiffany's colorful sundress.
Remembering what Syd had said about the suite she'd chosen for them – lots of blues and two bedrooms – Jenner wondered if this was the one she and Syd would have been staying in if everything hadn't gone bat-shit crazy. For all she knew, there were a hundred staterooms just like this one, but she doubted it, because she was pretty sure she remembered Syd saying the suites were individually decorated.
"Two hours," Cael said simply, and then he left Jenner alone with the women, who stared at her as if she were a bug under a microscope.
She didn't like being in this position, and her back went up. "What, you've never seen a blackmailed, threatened, extremely cooperative prisoner up close before?"
Tiffany laughed; it was an honest laugh, a little throaty, not at all like the shrill laugh she affected in public.
Faith kept her composure. "We're just doing our jobs. Would you like something to drink?"
"No, thank you."
"Sit down, then, and make yourself comfortable."
So far, the private Faith was very much like the public one. Jenner was anxious to see how long that would last. She chose a chair in the seating area that put her back to the wall. "Are you always so polite to the people you kidnap?"
The two women looked at each other with meaningful and silent communication, and Jenner felt like an interloper. An unwilling interloper, but still … these women, this team, were close. She was the outsider, but damn it, she hadn't asked to be here.
It was Tiffany who said, "This is a first, for us. Kidnapping isn't exactly SOP."
"But you're all willing to do whatever has to be done to get what you want."
"Yes," Faith responded, calmly but with certainty. "You'd do well to remember that until this is all over and done with. Are you sure you wouldn't like some tea?"
Jenner looked from one woman to the other, and made herself remember that, like Cael, they were professionals. And dedicated, to whatever it was they were doing. She suspected either one of them could put a very quick stop to any resistance she might offer, which she wasn't going to do. She didn't want to lose her phone privileges.
She leaned back a little, relaxed. "Actually, I'd love a cup of hot tea."
Faith smiled, like any other pleasant hostess. "Of course. Tiffany?"
"Why not? Maybe we could get some little cucumber sandwiches, too?" she added with a slightly evil grin.
Tiffany was one of those women who oozed sexuality. She was gorgeous, built, exotic, and the way she moved was unconsciously sensuous. Sitting there, watching her, Jenner couldn't help but wonder if Cael and Tiffany had ever been … no, she didn't want to go there. She felt the heat of a blush in her cheeks. As if she cared who Cael slept with! Well, he slept with her these days, in the very literal sense, but it wasn't exactly sleeping she had on her mind when she wondered about him and Tiffany.
Faith ordered room service: hot tea, along with fruit and an assortment of pastries. Then she added that her guest would love some cucumber sandwiches, and while they weren't on the menu, she'd be grateful if that was possible.
When Faith hung up, Tiffany said, "You should've requested the cute blond delivery boy."
Faith wasn't smiling when she responded, "If Matt is working delivery this afternoon, he'll keep an ear out for our suite numbers. For all we know, he's on deck."
"Poor guy, he and Bridget drew the short straws on this one." Tiffany studied her long nails. "Crew quarters aren't nearly as nice as the suites, and they have roommates to deal with. Of course, the seventy-five-cent beer at the crew bar makes up for a few of the inconveniences, but Matt has to store any gear he doesn't want nosy roommates going through in your suite or mine, and I think he and Bridget both have to shower with their cell phones."
"Tiffany," Faith said in a censuring tone, glancing pointedly at Jenner.
"It's not like she's totally in the dark," Tiffany said, and turned to look directly at Jenner. "You've been a real trooper, Redwine."
As if she'd had any choice! Jenner calmly met her gaze. "Kiss my ass."
There was a burst of laughter from both women, and as it died away Tiffany added, "Shit. I like her."
CAEL LISTENED AGAIN to the recordings from the afternoon's short meeting between Kwan and Larkin, his skin crawling as he heard EMP from the North Korean's lips. He'd talked to his government contacts several times, by secure cell. It hadn't taken the agents on the island any time at all to take over following Kwan, relieving Faith and Ryan so they could return to the ship and take up their duties here. The agents on-island would be moving in on Kwan that very night; he remained under surveillance, and as soon as the right people were in place he'd be in custody.
Though they'd located one contact, the job wasn't over. Until they discovered who the traitor on the other end of the deal was there was a possibility of another sale, another transfer of information. One of Faith's photos had identified the object being passed from Larkin to Kwan as a flash drive; it was possible that the FBI would be able to track its origins, but if not, their only lead was Frank Larkin.
Knowing exactly what Larkin was doing, Cael felt a new and bone-deep contempt for the man he was surveilling. An advanced EMP weapon in the wrong hands would be a nightmare for the entire world. He didn't know a lot about electromagnetic pulse, just that it played havoc with electronics. The modern world operated by computers. Develop an effective way of stopping those computers, and all hell would break loose. An EMP wasn't a people killer – unless those people happened to be in airplanes that were suddenly uncontrollable because all their circuits had been fried – but that kind of technology sure as hell wasn't something he wanted in the hands of a rogue nation.
Cael also mentioned to his contact in D.C. that he suspected Larkin had something else, possibly crooked, in the works. There wasn't any proof, just an odd line of overheard dialogue and a niggling feeling that something wasn't quite right.
"Keep him under surveillance," said his contact. "You need to in any case, until we know who's selling the technology. If you come up with anything concrete, pass it on and I'll get the information to the right people."
A little less than two hours after he'd dropped Jenner off, Cael knocked on Faith and Ryan's suite door, ready to collect his albatross. Before the door opened, he heard a burst of laughter that made his skin crawl. That wasn't right. What had the little witch done now?
Faith opened the door and he quickly stepped inside, his gaze zeroing in on Jenner. He just felt safer when he knew exactly where she was and what she was doing. At the moment, she and Tiffany were sitting side by side on the sofa, laughing together. They turned their heads his way; Jenner's smile faded quickly. There was something in her eyes …
He ignored it, though every instinct in him went on alert. "Ryan's not back yet?"
"No," answered Faith. "After golf, he and Captain Lamberti were having drinks. He should be here soon."
He nodded toward the sofa. "What's going on with those two?"
Faith's smile was both wry and amused. "Apparently, they have a lot in common."
God in Heaven. Cael couldn't keep the horror out of his expression. Every man on the ship should feel his testicles drawing up in fear. He knew his had.
Jenner stood and came to him, without being prompted. Despite what his testicles were doing, he liked that. He liked watching her approach, he liked the sense of all his systems going on alert.
"It's time to call Syd," she said.
He checked his wristwatch. Actually, the time was already a little later than she'd been calling.
"I don't want to be late calling, she might worry."
"Heaven forbid the hostage should be inconvenienced."
She sniffed. He hadn't gotten to her at all with that comment. "And after that, what's the plan for the evening? Dinner? A show? Karaoke?"
"No karaoke," he said decisively.
"I second that," Tiffany said. "Trust me, Cael's singing isn't a good thing."
He slanted a cool, warning look at her over Jenner's shoulder, for all the good it did. Tiff just waggled a hand in his direction. "Really, boss, you should show her a good time. I hear she did good today."
"She didn't have any choice." But she had. There was cooperation, and then there was doing exactly what he'd needed her to do. Jenner had hit the bull's-eye today.
"A local guitarist is performing tonight," said Faith. "He's supposed to be marvelous. Ryan and I will be there."
"I will be, too," Tiffany said.
"Then there's no reason for us to go, if everyone else will be there to keep an eye on Larkin."
Jenner made a derisive sound. "I'm really looking forward to another evening of being handcuffed to the chair while he putzes around on his laptop. Isn't that what every woman dreams of when she books a cruise?"
A smile wreathed Tiffany's face. Uh oh, Cael thought. She got to her feet. "I have an idea. Cael, you can stay in the suite and work, while Jenner and I make the rounds above decks."
"No way in hell," he responded without hesitation.
"I can keep her in line," Tiffany said, and he had to admit, it was true. A linebacker would have a tough time getting past her. Jenner wouldn't have a chance.
Still … "Considering your reputation and the scenario we set up, you don't think it would look a bit odd if you two suddenly become friends?"
Tiffany flipped her hair back. "I've been drinking a lot less in the past couple of days. A sober apology, a little girl-to-girl commiseration about a certain low-down man, and bingo, we're instant BFFs."
That sounded like a description of hell.
He looked down at Jenner, who wore a smug half smile. She knew damn well he wasn't going to let her and Tiffany loose on an innocent population. He could keep her locked in the suite, but he wasn't going to do that, either. He sighed and gave in, except –
DEAN MILLS WATCHED LARKIN from a distance as his employer made his way through a crowded bar. It was a little early in the day for one of those damn Ghostwaters, but Larkin was already sipping on one as he made his rounds. Larkin had always been twisted and unpredictable, but in public he'd put on a smooth, sophisticated act that had fooled a lot of very smart people. He wasn't doing that now, but he should have been. Instead, he seemed to be falling apart, day by day, hour by hour.
Dean understood why he and the others had agreed to participate in the robbery, which would take place in just a few days while they were at sea, but what did Larkin have to gain? He said he was having financial problems – wasn't everyone? – but to a man in Larkin's position that was dealt with by taking out loans, adjusting investments and financial deals, and selling a big-ass house or two. True, he might get some satisfaction in taking from these people he despised, but it seemed that he would lose more than he'd gain, with the plan as it stood. Larkin said he had mounting debts and wanted to get away from it all, that people would think he was dead if the ship went down, but with so many cell phones, laptops, and a large crew with the latest in communications equipment, it seemed logical to assume that someone might get the names of those involved out before the bombs exploded.
Maybe there was a detail or two Larkin wasn't sharing, a separate plan of some sort. That would be just like the bastard.
The episode with Tucker and the bread earlier in the day had set Dean's teeth on edge, and he hadn't been able to dismiss the image of Larkin shaking a piece of bread in Tucker's face and demanding that he take a bite. Obviously Larkin had suspected the food was poisoned, which didn't make any sense at all.
One's partners in crime should be rational. A raving lunatic on the team wouldn't increase their chances of pulling off the job and getting away clean – if you could call burning and sinking a ship, and killing a shitload of rich people, "clean."
What Dean wanted was simple: He wanted the money. He was tired of taking orders from bastards like Larkin. The money he would get from this haul would set him up in a South American country for life.
Larkin's recent behavior made him uneasy, but it was too late to alter the plan. The bombs were in place; the trigger mechanisms were in good hands. But damn, he'd be relieved when it was over and he was sailing away from this fucking death trap.
WHEN THEY RETURNED to the suite, Jenner was surprised to see a man still posted at Frank Larkin's door. Great. Usually there was no one in the hallways, but now it looked as if someone would always be aware of their comings and goings. She didn't like it, and she imagined Cael liked it even less.
Entering, they found Bridget there, neatly laying evening clothes on the bed: his tux, her strapless black dress, which meant either Faith or Tiffany had already been on the phone to alert her to the plans for the evening.
Hours later, they were on deck, the evening breeze refreshingly cool, Cael's grip light on her arm as if he no longer felt the need to physically hold her in place. Jenner found herself relaxing as she listened to the guitarist perform a haunting version of a classical tune she couldn't name. Song followed song, some upbeat, some breathtaking in the intricate work required on the strings, another more melodic. Despite years in Palm Beach, she didn't know much about classical music, because she avoided symphonies. Give her a Bon Jovi test and she'd ace it every time. Ask her if the tune currently being played had been written by Bach or Beethoven or some other long-dead dude, and she'd fail miserably.
But she liked it. The entire moment was magical. The music, the breeze, the man on her arm. Though she could never admit it to Cael, or anyone else, he was an important part of the package that made this moment special.
The guitarist sat on a chair that had been placed on a small, raised dais, and listeners sat in neatly arranged chairs near the stage, or milled about. She and Cael stood near the back of the crowd, letting the notes drift to them. It was a formal evening for most: tuxes and evening gowns, jewels and fabulous shoes. Cael looked great, though there was no way she'd tell him that she noticed. There was something special about a hard man in a tuxedo. She tried to ignore that something, but it wasn't easy.
The musician ended his set with a fast-paced song that should be impossible to pull off on an acoustic guitar. Jenner found herself holding her breath as he finished, and then, like the others, she applauded enthusiastically. She looked over at Cael, who like her, appreciated the music. Maybe he was actually glad he'd given in and escorted her to the event.
Abruptly she felt his body stiffen slightly, and his gaze shifted to someone just behind her, otherwise she would've been surprised to feel the gentle tap on her shoulder. Keeping her smile in place, she turned to face a familiar-looking woman.
"Chessie!" she said, doing her best to sound delighted, which was helped by the fact that she truly did like the woman. "How nice to see you here."
Chessie Fox and her husband, Mike, were not what Jenner would call close friends. They were ten or so years older than she and more involved in their children's activities than in the charities Jenner and Syd embraced, but they did run in the same circles, on occasion.
Chessie was dressed in a pink gown that screamed "money doesn't necessarily equal good taste," but the diamonds in her ears and resting on her massive chest were real enough. Her blond hair was arranged simply and had been sprayed into submission; the breeze coming off the water didn't ruffle a single strand. Mike's suit was expensive and cut for his trim build. They were nice people who lived their lives as they wanted, and didn't worry about anything else.
Jenner introduced Cael to the Foxes, and he was his usual charming self. He could be devastatingly charming to everyone but her, it seemed. He smiled, shook Mike's hand, then placed an easy arm around Jenner's waist. Just a couple of days ago her heart would have been pounding at being put in this situation, to be forced to play this role, but tonight it seemed natural enough.
"I would say I'm surprised I haven't seen you sooner," Chessie said, laughing, "but I spent the first three days in bed, upchucking, then the last couple of days trying to find my way around. This ship is supposed to be extremely well-built and stable, but you can't prove it by me."
"I hope you're not still seasick," Jenner said. She'd been worried about that herself, but she hadn't had a moment's trouble. Beside her, Cael and Mike were having one of those men conversations, about sports or investments or politics. She tuned them out, much as Mike had probably tuned out her and Chessie. Cael, though, would be aware of every word she said.
"No, I'm fine now. I hit the gift shop and stocked up on Dramamine and ginger, and this magnetic bracelet seems to help." She showed off a small, plain bracelet that hugged her wrist. "So far, so good."
"I'm glad. Being sick on your vacation is the pits."
Chessie beamed. "It's so nice to see someone I know here. I've seen some familiar faces, but I honestly haven't known nearly as many people as I thought we would."
"I know what you mean." She'd been surprised herself at how few people she'd seen that she actually knew.
"Is Sydney here?" Chessie's gaze scanned the immediate area.
"No, Syd got sick with a stomach flu right before we sailed. I talked to her just a little while ago. She's feeling better, but she said she still wasn't completely over it."
"I'm sure she's upset to have missed the cruise." Chessie continued with a friendly, "Would you two like to join us for dinner?"
Jenner smiled. "Thank you, but we already have plans with a couple of friends." She turned to Cael, whose expression had not changed one bit. "Is it almost time to go?"
He glanced at his watch. "We're already a few minutes late."
The Foxes said good-bye, and Jenner promised them that they'd have dinner together another time. As they walked toward the restaurant, Cael said softly, "You handled that very well."
"I can be reasonable," she said.
His answer was a strange, brief, strangling sound deep in his throat.
She saw Faith and Ryan on the other side of the room, Ryan in a tux, leaning on his cane, Faith in a stunning bronze gown that gently hugged her curves. They were a beautiful couple, with a sort of easy, comfortable sophistication. If she didn't know better, she'd never dream they were not exactly who they appeared to be.
The evening wasn't all fun and games. Frank Larkin was also there, with his bulldog bodyguard close by … but not too close. She didn't like the way Larkin looked at the other passengers. Even when he was talking to them, smiling, to all appearances one of them, something was off. He made it easy to choose sides.
Something was wrong with him, she thought, and wondered why none of the people he talked to seemed to see it. He seemed to be deteriorating before her eyes, getting more and more antsy as the days passed. His clothes, while expensively cut and made of the finest materials, didn't fit him exactly right. He seemed to have lost weight, and hadn't bothered to buy new clothes or have the old ones tailored, which didn't make sense for someone who went to the trouble of having those clothes made in the first place.
Everyone else on the cruise had someone with them; a friend, a spouse, a lover … a Cael. But Larkin was alone. He not only had a large stateroom to himself, and was making the two-week trip without a traveling companion, but he kept all others at a distance.
Even as he made small talk, walking through the crowd playing the gracious host, he was separate and alone. It was sad, in a scuzzy kind of way.
She and Cael had been talking to Faith and Ryan for just a short while when Tiffany joined the group. She wore a very short and snug black dress that left little to the imagination, and five-inch heels that lifted her to a height equaling Cael's; how she could walk in those heels was a mystery to Jenner. While not everyone had witnessed Tiffany's scene on their first night at sea, most had at least heard about it. All eyes were on their little group as Tiffany turned to Jenner.
"I owe you an apology," she said, her voice calm and at normal level, so some people could overhear but it wouldn't look as if she were putting on a show. The smile she flashed was brilliant. "You'll be glad to know I've given up alcohol for the duration of the cruise, and if I never see a Ghostwater again, it'll be too soon." The smile softened. "I don't like being a mean drunk."
She even nodded to Cael, though her attitude was outwardly more dismissive. "I'm sorry. I'm glad the cruise is working out well for you, even though I did my best to make a mess of things."
He nodded politely, said nothing, and drew Jenner a bit closer. The look he gave Tiffany was one of relief and, more strongly, suspicion. Was that a part of the act, or was he truly surprised by this new development?
Tiffany returned her attentions to Jenner. "Again, I'm so sorry I dragged you into my drama. Am I forgiven?"
Tiffany offered her hand for a handshake. Jenner took that hand, and felt something being pressed into her palm. It was small, square … a note? When the handshake was over, Jenner waited a few seconds before she surreptitiously glanced at what she was holding. Her heart leapt into her throat; her mouth went dry.
It wasn't a note. It was a plastic-wrapped condom.