Burn (Chapter Eleven)

THE SCENE GOT UGLIER AND UGLIER. TIFFANY'S FACE turned an unbecoming red as she began shrieking and sputtering incoherent insults. Cael didn't respond. He didn't have to. He let his expression say it all for him; he might as well have been looking at an insect. Beside him, Jenner Redwine was frozen on the barstool, her expression both stunned and horrified.

Before he'd called Tiffany by name, she'd been merely uncomfortable, and a little embarrassed at inadvertently being sucked into a scene. He'd been paying close attention to her, though, and he knew the exact instant she'd made the connection and realized who he was. She really hadn't suspected. He'd made the call not to coach her on the changes they'd made to the scenario, because he'd thought her reaction would be more believable if she was caught by surprise. He'd been right.

Redwine hadn't been the only one caught by surprise, though.

Funny how seeing her in person could give him a completely different reaction from what he'd expected looking at her photograph. Seeing her picture, he'd thought she might be trouble, but then he'd dismissed her. Seeing her in person, he knew she was trouble, but there was no dismissing her.

She wasn't a tall person, a little under average height, and she was thin, but on her it looked normal and not like she had starved herself. For one thing, even though she had small breasts, she had a nice, round ass. It wasn't big, just … round. He liked round. In this case, he liked it too much.

She hadn't dressed up. Faith had reported that she hadn't changed clothes at all. But even in simple oatmeal-colored pants and a sleeveless emerald-green blouse, she stood out from the crowd around her. Yeah, that could be because he'd been watching for her, but even looked at objectively she was different: the erect way she carried herself, the reserve, the way she had of looking at people that made them start surreptitiously checking to see if they'd spilled something on themselves. There was a subtle, underlying aggression in everything she did, in her very posture, that said Jenner Redwine would fight for what she wanted and God help anyone who got in her way.

He'd have to watch her every minute, because she wouldn't be intimidated into quietly going along with what she was told to do. No sooner had that realization flashed through his brain than she was slipping off the stool and edging away, looking for all the world as if she was just trying to escape an unpleasant scene.

Tiffany, bless her, also saw what was happening and shrieked, "Don't try to run off like you're Little Miss Innocent! I saw you flirting – "

"I don't know you," Jenner interrupted. Cael took the opportunity to shift his position, subtly blocking her avenue of escape. She shot him a bladed look from narrowed green eyes. She looked as if she would gladly have brained both of them. "And I don't know him, so leave me out of your nasty little scene." Then she evidently caught the eye of someone she knew because she gave a sort of what-can-you-do shrug. Good girl; that looked completely genuine. Maybe she was a better actress than she'd let on to Bridget.

On cue, Faith approached Tiffany, putting her arm around Tiff's shoulders and softly talking to her. Tiffany started crying, real tears dripping down her cheeks – how in hell did she do that? –  and Faith finally led her out of the bar. Silence spread around them. Then Ryan limped up to Cael, concern in his eyes. Ryan was a hell of an actor, too. He did have a limp, but a very slight one. When he was in public, though, he always exaggerated it because that was part of his persona, and Cael had never, not once, seen him forget. "That was nice of you to give her your stateroom," Ryan said, just loud enough that everyone around them could hear what he was saying.

Cael shrugged. "I could hardly toss her out, could I?" He and Ryan automatically positioned themselves so Jenner was blocked, with no way to slide past them. She looked so frustrated he had to fight to control a grin.

"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?"

Ryan shrugged. "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 wouldn't like it." He switched his gaze to Jenner, smiling. "What a way to start the cruise, huh?"

"With a bang," she said a bit sharply, once more trying to slide sideways around them.

Ryan reached out and took hold of her elbow, holding her in place. "Have you two actually met, or were you just caught in the explosion?"

"No, we haven't met," Cael said before Jenner could respond. The less she had to improvise, the better.

"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. The brief flash in her eyes said she'd rather touch a cobra, but she held out her hand and he took it, keeping his touch gentle but holding on longer than he should have. Her fingers were slim and cool, her skin soft, and despite everything she firmly gripped his hand in return. She looked up at him, and for a brief moment their gazes locked. He kept his expression blank, but that one glance was enough to see the rebellion brewing in her. He needed to get her out of here, and fast.

He and Ryan talked awhile longer, making things look normal for the people who were still standing with their heads half-cocked to hear what was being said. He thanked Ryan again for the offer of their extra bedroom. Finally he turned and retrieved Jenner's drink from the bar, as well as the Ghostwater he'd ordered. It was a potent combination of Grey Goose vodka, absinthe – the real stuff – and a couple of other things. He wouldn't have touched one on a bet, but hundreds of people were sipping the foggy drink as if it were water.

He looked at the Ghostwater, grimaced, and 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. That was good. The less she talked right now, the better. All he needed was for her to follow his lead.

He glanced around the bar. The music was playing again, and most people had returned to their own conversations. He nodded to a couple of people he recognized, then said, "Let's get out of this crowd and walk. I could use some exercise."

"You two go on," said Ryan. "I'll see how Faith is doing getting Tiffany settled."

The Lido deck was too crowded for any kind of real walking, plus he wanted to get Jenner mostly alone, so they took the stairs. In short order Jenner found herself strolling beside Cael on the sports deck, which was mostly empty. They didn't talk; she stared straight ahead as she marched along, as if she were in the military and had to walk a fifteen-minute mile. 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. Oh, yeah, she had a mouth on her. The bad thing was, every time he looked at her he liked that mouth more and more.

"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 brisk. It blew her hair back and plastered her clothes against her body. Good wind, he thought, admiring the shape of her small breasts. She shivered, rubbing her hands over her bare arms and coincidentally shielding those breasts from his view.

"I am thinking of her," she snapped. "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. That was mostly true. There were a few people walking around, couples, and one man standing by himself and breathing through a cigarette. Cael recognized him as Dean Mills, the head of Larkin's personal security detail. Had he just come up here for a smoke, or had Larkin sent him? Regardless, this had to look real.

"I decide when you need to sell it, not you. And I'm telling you to sell, now." He swung her around to face him, not quite touching, but close. Startled, she looked up at him, and something in him seized, frozen, as for a split second he imagined her looking up at him just this way when he pulled her beneath him. Ruthlessly he shoved the idea away. There was no place for shit like that in this job. Nevertheless, they had to make this appear real. He looked down at her for a long moment, then moved his hands to her waist and pulled her full against him. "Kiss me like you mean it," he ordered, and bent his head to hers.

She didn't. She stood as stiff as a mannequin, her arms at her sides, her lips stubbornly closed.

"Sell it," he growled against her mouth, and deepened the kiss, slanting his mouth over hers, pushing his tongue inside to taste her. She shuddered, then slid her arms up and wrapped them around his neck.

Still, she tried to hold her body away from his, and that wouldn't do, not with Larkin's man watching. Cael tightened his grip, pulling her tightly against him, breasts and hips and thighs. The contact hit him low in the gut, and he felt an erection begin to stir. He held her there, knowing she felt it, using his automatic reaction as a weapon to bring her into line. She didn't know whether he had any intention of hurting either her or Sydney Hazlett in any way, and by God he meant to keep it that way, because that fear was his only means of keeping her in line.

"Don't," she whimpered, and the fact that she begged told him how frightened she was. He could feel her heart, hammering away in her chest, and he pushed away the instinct to comfort her.

"Then act as if you mean it," he said again, and kissed her a second time.

She hesitated for a split second, then did as he ordered. Maybe fear wasn't a natural reaction for her, because now all he felt was anger, humming through her like an electric current. She plastered that skinny body against him and kissed him as if she were trying to set him on fire with her mouth. His erection shot to full attention, and he backed her against the rail, holding her there with all his weight as he met her ferocity with his own.

Shit. This was more real than he'd bargained for.

LIKE EVERYONE ELSE at the Fog Bank, Frank Larkin watched the nasty little squabble taking place at the bar. He recognized Jenner Redwine, because he'd studied her photograph when he had her and the Hazlett woman reassigned to the suite beside his, but he didn't know the squabbling couple.

"Who is that?" he asked Keith Gazlay, an industrialist from Seattle. Gazlay was a sharp-eyed man who was there with his third trophy wife; they kept getting younger, and this latest one was younger than his children – at least the three by his first wife. He'd had a second family, a girl and a boy, with his second wife – the first trophy wife – who had been a mere fifteen years younger than him. Number one had taken him to the cleaners, and their relationship was bitter; after that, he'd been smart enough to get prenuptial agreements.

"I don't know," replied Gazlay, eyeing the screaming woman's breasts, which were about to pop out of her tight red dress. "But I'd like to."

Evidently marriage number four was already in trouble. Frank hid his contempt for Gazlay and turned to signal Dean Mills. He had a brief word with his chief of security, then turned back to watch the rest of the show while Dean followed his instructions.

The black-haired woman was drunk and unreasonable, not listening to anything anyone said. The man she was screaming at was watching her with a distant, dismissive look on his face that said he was finished, regardless of any apologies she might offer the next day. Another man was trying to explain that the whole incident was his fault, while Jenner Redwine looked acutely uncomfortable and kept trying to edge away, only to be prevented by the crowd, which had thickened around the scene.

Dean Mills returned, his voice low as he imparted the information Frank had requested. The man was Cael Traylor, from northern California; he owned a series of restaurants, car washes, and Laundromats. The woman was Tiffany Marsters, who evidently did nothing except fuck for her bread and board.

Dean didn't elaborate on his recital; he didn't have to. They both knew that businesses such as Traylor's were an excellent cover for money-laundering, so he was probably dirty. Frank found that reassuring. A man who had something to hide wasn't likely to go poking his nose into anyone else's secrets.

Frank's head was aching, the pain more intense than usual. The music was making the throbbing worse, and even his vision seemed to be throbbing. He'd had to put in an appearance tonight, the first night, so he pushed the pain away. No one could know there was anything wrong with him, or the vultures would be picking his bones before he was dead. All of them were vultures, rich vultures who thought their money made them better than everyone else. He'd show them. Once and for all, he'd show the world how stupid they all were, how he'd always been smarter and laughed at them as he took their money.

Someone else whose face he recognized moved into the scene by the bar: Faith Naterra. She and her husband, Ryan, had originally been booked into one of the suites adjoining Frank's. He watched as she approached the Marsters woman, putting an arm around her shoulders and leading her away.

This was better than a soap opera, and just as idiotic. Now Ryan Naterra had gone up to Traylor and was talking to him, evidently introducing him to Jenner Redwine because the two shook hands. He turned back to Dean. "See what's going on," he murmured, and Dean melted into the crowd. Shortly afterward, Traylor and the Redwine woman left the bar, with Dean discreetly following.

Frank suspected he'd just seen Traylor seize the opportunity to dump a woman who was more trouble than she was worth, and latch on to one who was worth a few hundred million. That was fine with him; it wasn't as if either of them was going to live much longer, anyway.