Burn (Chapter Sixteen)

CAEL CONSIDERED HIMSELF A CALM SORT OF GUY, SOMEONE who always kept his cool, who stayed on top of a situation. That said, Jenner Redwine would be lucky if he didn't strangle her in her sleep before this cruise was over. He should put in for combat pay; after all, he had the wound to prove he'd been in a battle.

She was the most annoying, prickly, difficult … funny … woman he'd ever met. He didn't want to think she was funny, though half the stuff she said had him biting the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. He wanted to toss her overboard and be done with it. She was so skinny, she wouldn't even make much of a splash. He took a minute to enjoy the vision he had of the little plop! she'd make when she hit the water, though she'd probably spoil the moment by giving him the finger as she went under. Women like her should have "Troublemaker" branded on their foreheads, so people would be warned ahead of time. If he'd known before what he knew now, he'd be dealing with Sydney Hazlett, tears and all, and counting his blessings while Redwine would be in California driving other people crazy.

But he hadn't known, and now he was stuck with her. He had the upper hand and he intended to keep it, but she fought for every ounce of power she could possibly get even though the cards were stacked against her. He had the advantage of knowing what was going on, knowing that with the people and power he had behind him he couldn't lose, no matter what happened.

Even if worst came to worst, she couldn't cause legal trouble for him. She and Sydney Hazlett would both be released unharmed, no ransom had been requested, and even though legally he and his crew could be nailed for unlawful detainment, she was too smart to file charges. She herself would have gone to a lot of trouble to convince everyone around them that they were lovers, so any complaint she had afterward would look as if she was merely pissed off because they'd broken up. She couldn't win, but she didn't know the rules of the game and so she kept playing as hard as she could. He would have felt sorry for her … if it were possible to feel sorry for a cross between a badger and a pit bull.

After escorting her back to the suite, he left her under Bridget's watchful gaze while he went down to the stateroom he'd been supposed to share with Tiffany, before this whole thing unraveled around them.

Any room Tiffany occupied for longer than an hour always looked as if a bomb had gone off in it, and the stateroom was no exception. The massive amount of jewelry and insanely high-heeled shoes she'd insisted were needed for the job were scattered everywhere; clothes had been dropped on the floor; lug gage was opened, drawers were pulled out and half-filled. She was sharp and sexy and lethal as hell, and she was also a world-class slob.

She sat on the bed, long legs crossed and a high-heeled sandal dangling from her toe, her full attention on her task as she disassembled a chunky, noisy bracelet and removed a tiny but suspicious-looking – to any security guard worth his salt – device. She glanced up at him, a preoccupied expression in her sloe eyes. "How's Redwine holding up?"

"Fine," he replied, not about to tell her, or any of them, all of the ways Redwine had found to be a royal pain in the ass. They were getting way too much enjoyment out of the situation as it was. Besides, in all honesty, he couldn't blame Redwine for doing all she could to bust his chops. He sure as hell wouldn't be taking this shit lying down, if he was in her position.

Tiffany didn't have his patience, which wasn't saying much. He wasn't patient at all, but he had iron control, which was something else entirely. Tiffany said, "If she starts to break, we can drug her and keep her that way for the rest of the trip. Might be easier on you."

Easier on him, definitely, but Redwine was right; her complete disappearance from the social events of the cruise would raise questions he didn't need raised. "So far it hasn't come to that, but I'll keep it in mind."

Tiffany handed him the button camera. In a different place, on a different job, she'd have been assembling firearms. However, getting weapons, even Glocks, aboard a cruise ship was such a bitch he'd made the decision not to even try. It wasn't as if they actually needed weapons on this job, because it was surveillance only. Still, he felt half-naked without the familiar weight of his 9mm Sig Sauer resting against his right kidney.

As Tiffany put the jewelry back together, sans button camera, she looked up at Cael. "Anything on Larkin yet?"

"No." So far, the man was as innocent as he'd been in the last three weeks, while the other team had been on him. Keeping such a close eye on Larkin while he was at sea was probably unnecessary, but then again, what better place to put together a deal with the North Koreans than in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? "We're hoping to get Matt or Bridget into Larkin's stateroom today, tomorrow at the latest, to get the parlor eyes planted." It would've been so much easier if Larkin had accepted Bridget as his steward, but he'd brought his own along. Paranoid bastard.

Cael didn't have all the details, but Larkin was suspected of being the middle man between a traitorous defense contractor employee and the North Koreans. They didn't know what sort of information was being sold, but the government evidently thought it was important enough to go to a lot of trouble to shut down the deal. They didn't want just Larkin, they wanted his contacts on both ends of the deal, as well as details on whatever information had already been passed on. That meant they would be taking photos of everyone Larkin spoke to, which was why he had so many people onboard: having the same people hovering around all the time would make anyone suspicious, much less Larkin. They had to swap out times and positions, and they had to use in-place surveillance on his suite. He had to be followed, even aboard the ship. So far he was making things easier than they'd expected, by spending a lot of his time in the suite.

There was a soft knock and Tiffany got to her feet, instantly alert. Going to the door, she looked through the peephole, then pulled the door open.

Faith stepped into the room, with Ryan close behind. Neither of them said anything until Tiffany had closed the door. The room was secure – all of their rooms, including Redwine's suite, had been swept for bugs – but they couldn't be sure about the passageway.

Ryan could have delivered the button camera to Cael with a handshake, but Cael liked to pull his people together for a face-to-face every so often. They could communicate by their secure cell phones, though using that method with Bridget and Matt was problematic because of their jobs, but everyone meeting in person triggered an extra sharpness that wasn't there in phone calls. Maybe it was being able to read each other's expressions, maybe it was simple group chemistry, that being together heightened the sense of being a team, but he'd often seen problems solved within minutes of simply getting together as a group, after they'd been working for days on something by e-mail or cell phone.

They had a pretty good setup for spending time together, except for Bridget and Matt. With their jobs they could have any number of reasons for talking with any passenger, but it wasn't like they could all get together for tea. On the other hand, either of them had perfect excuses for coming to Redwine's suite at any time, Bridget because she was the steward, while Matt could be delivering room service, plus they could speak to him on deck as he was rearranging deck chairs or whatever.

They couldn't afford to have everyone gathering in Redwine's suite, where Larkin or his security detail could possibly see them coming or going and, depending on who had witnessed the scene with Tiffany the night before, wonder why in hell she was so friendly with them. Plus Ryan and Faith had originally been booked into the suite on the other side of Larkin, so Cael didn't want them anywhere near it. Tiffany's stateroom, on the other hand, was on a lower deck, and they could come and go without anyone being the wiser. Except for the public areas, ships were more private than most people realized. Part of it was the way they were designed, with different sections of staterooms served by different elevators, so there wasn't a great deal of cross traffic. He had passed exactly one person in this section on his way to Tiffany's room, and that was soon after getting off the elevator. Basically, no one paid any attention to anyone else.

The suite Ryan and Faith had been reassigned was on the opposite side of the ship from Larkin's suite, but still on the same deck, so while they could probably get together there without any problem, Tiffany's stateroom was much safer.

"Is the key-logger program set?" Cael asked Faith, who was their computer expert. Expert, hell, she was a hacker, and she was scary good.

"It's done," Faith said crisply. "Anything Larkin types on his laptop, we'll collect. I have the computer set to transmit the data whenever he logs onto the Internet, and in fifteen-minute intervals thereafter."

"You know," Cael mused, "I used to enjoy using a computer, before I found out what hackers like you can do from the comfort of their own living rooms." He was just glad Faith was on his team, instead of working against him.

A lot of passengers brought their laptops with them, so there was nothing at all suspicious about Faith having hers – a ridiculously pink Dell, to which she'd stuck a few whimsical, sequined appliques. The Silver Mist came equipped with a cell tower, so wireless Internet was available shipwide, and no one had to be out of touch if they didn't want to be. Except for the sequins, Faith's computer looked deceptively ordinary. It was not, and neither was she.

They made quick plans for the evening, making sure that wherever Larkin was, when not in his suite, one or more of them would be nearby. Each member of the team was equipped with miniature cameras to document who Larkin met with, in case one or more of his contacts was aboard the ship. Odds were that any business done would take place in Larkin's suite, but they had to be prepared for anything. Bridget or Matt would gain access to the suite's parlor as soon as possible, and then they'd be set.

Tiffany made a sour face. "Tonight I'll get gussied up and try to work my womanly charms on Larkin. God, I hope he doesn't bite." She used the term to mean she hoped he didn't take the bait, but Cael could see the slight movement of her lips as she fought to contain a smile. Faith looked up at the ceiling, pretending she hadn't heard anything. Ryan grinned outright.

"Ha, ha," said Cael. He'd never live it down, that Redwine had managed to sink her teeth into him. If he hadn't been trying so hard not to hurt her he could have put her down and out in one second flat; this grief was what he got for being a gentleman.

"He's creepy," Tiffany continued. She wasn't crazy about the idea of spending any time with Larkin, but it was another possible avenue of gathering information. Was he a talker? Did he try to impress women by telling them how important he was, and let tidbits slip? Not likely, but not impossible, either. Cael wouldn't ask anyone on his team to have sex with anyone they didn't want to have sex with, but if she could get into Larkin's suite and plant some backup surveillance, all the better.

"After watching that fit you threw last night, he'll probably run far and fast if you come on to him," Ryan said soothingly, then ruined the effect by grinning again. "I know I would."

She merely gave him a "you wanna bet?" smirk. A lot of men would be willing to put up with more than that to spend time with a woman like Tiffany.

"Bluetooth sniffer?" he prompted, to get the discussion back on track.

"Working," replied Faith. "We have him covered as much as possible, short of one of us actually being in the suite with him."

They went over the various aspects of their surveillance methods. If Larkin got suspicious and wanted his suite swept for bugs, Cael could use a remote to disconnect the batteries. If the bug wasn't working, a sweep wouldn't pick it up. For the hardwired bugs he'd threaded into Larkin's bedroom, he could simply pull them out. The hardwired stuff was more reliable and harder to detect, but sometimes they had no choice but to go wireless. Most jobs, like this one, he went with a combination of the two.

He checked his watch; Bridget had been on guard duty for an hour, which was a long time for her not to be taking care of her duties as steward. "I have to relieve Bridget," he said, wondering what mischief Redwine had gotten up to in that hour. Anything was possible. He might get there to find Bridget had both cuffed and gagged her, something he'd considered doing himself. He wasn't worried that Redwine had escaped, because Bridget could take her with one hand tied behind her back, but that didn't mean she hadn't gotten up to some mischief-making. She was way, way too curious about what they were doing and what was going on, which was understandable, but the less she knew the better, because she couldn't let slip what she didn't know.

When he keyed the door and opened it, he held his breath until he saw Bridget calmly sitting on the couch, laptop on the coffee table in front of her, earbud in place, making use of the time by going through as much of their recorded audio/video as possible, to save him the trouble.

Redwine was nowhere in sight. Cael felt his testicles draw up, as if she might attack him from behind at any second. "Where is she?" he asked, dread in his tone.

Bridget looked up. "She's taking a nap," she said, as if that were the most normal thing in the world.

Unbelievable. Cael rolled his eyes upward, ruefully shaking his head. "Why can't she ever do that when I'm here?" he asked, of no one in particular.

Right on cue, she appeared in the bedroom doorway, her eyes sleepy-looking and her hair tousled. Her gaze focused on him like a laser. "Oh, it's you" she said in tones of loathing, before giving him a huge, completely fake smile that looked more like a tiger snarling. "Welcome back, lover."