Burn (Chapter Thirty)

IT WAS EVERYTHING HE'D FEARED. FOR A SPLIT SECOND he'd been looking at Jenner, not the armed security guard, and that distraction could've cost them both their lives.

"I killed that man." Jenner looked over the side, then turned and buried her face against his chest.

"You didn't kill him, I did," Cael said, holding her close. Her body trembled and she felt too cool, but she was far from in a panic. "I tossed him over the rail, not you."

"But I … I finished him off." Her voice was soft. Logically, Jenner had to realize that she'd saved their lives, but she'd just played a part in killing a man and that shouldn't go down easy, no matter the circumstances.

Damn, he wished he'd been able to get his hands on that gun before Johnson had gone over the side. He had a really bad feeling that said he was going to need it.

"Come on, let's go back to the room."

She let him lead her, his arm tight around her shoulders. They took the elevator; if anyone got on at the Lido deck, they'd just think the lovers had been out for a late-night walk. The cut on his head wasn't too bad; if anyone noted the blood and asked, he'd tell them he'd fallen and hit his head on the rail. It was a plausible explanation. He didn't want Jenner to have to deal with putting on a false face even for the short time it took to get from one floor to the next, but he wasn't going to make her walk down the stairs, either, not as shaky as she was.

Fortunately, they didn't run into anyone in the elevator, so he just held her, silent until they walked into the stateroom.

"I told you to …" he began.

"Don't," she said, turning in to him, pressing her face against his chest. "Not now."

He needed to tell the others what had happened, but that could wait until morning. No need to wake them up; it wasn't like there was anything they could do.

Jenner's tremble gradually eased. He tried to release her, but she grabbed his shirt with both hands and held on tight.

"I'd do it again," she whispered into his chest.

"Don't think about it."

"He was going to shoot you."

Maybe. Maybe not. "I know."

"So I'd do it again." She tilted her head back and looked up at him. "Your head's bleeding."

"It's not too bad." If he wasn't unconscious and his vision wasn't affected by a river of blood, he was okay. A tap on the head wasn't going to stop him now.

"I have a first-aid kit …"

He kissed her. Without thought, without command, without any reason other than he wanted to. For a long, heart-stopping minute he thought he'd lost her, and the only thing he'd been able to think was that he wasn't ready to let her go. Not now, and probably not for a long, long time.

THE NEXT DAY, Tiffany smiled at the bartender and accepted the virgin Bloody Mary she'd ordered. The tomato juice and celery stick fit with her new "on the wagon" persona, as did the outrageous flirting, which wasn't tough. The bartender was cute. Neither he nor anyone else could tell from her actions that anything was out of place.

Surveillance only Cael had told her when he'd recruited her for this job. Yeah, right. Now a security guard – admittedly a bad security guard, since good ones didn't pull guns on passengers and pop them upside the head with the butt – was food for the fishes, and when word got out there would be hell to pay.

But it was well into the afternoon and she hadn't noticed even a stir among the crew or the passengers. Frank Larkin was picking at his lunch in the outdoor cafe near the bar, where he was dining with one of the movers and shakers on the cruise, a man whose bank account put Larkin's to shame. She turned that way, fiddled with her necklace and took a picture of the two with the tiny camera concealed there. And then, before he had a chance to notice that she was paying too much attention, she walked away, because last night's escapade put them all at risk. They'd have to be extra careful from here on out.

She made a half turn, and immediately spotted the security guard who was watching Larkin from a distance. Her eyes scanned right past him; she saw Buttons standing by the rail, enjoying the view, and she headed that way.

Surveillance only, my ass. Every instinct she possessed told her there was more to this job than any of them knew. In the way of the biz, they'd probably know more than they cared to before it was all said and done.

GETTING INVOLVED WITH JENNER had been a bad idea. Cael knew better, but he didn't regret a minute. Not a single minute, even though he'd let his dick complicate things beyond hope. He'd never before cared about anyone he'd been on a job with, and now he knew how dangerous it was. Faith and Ryan managed, but damn if he knew how.

He sat in a deck chair, legs stretched out, his mind on the days ahead. If Larkin's bodyguards were not only armed but willing to use those weapons at the drop of a hat, what was going to happen when one of them came up missing?

Jenner walked onto the balcony wearing another of those sexy sundresses with almost no top, and he felt as if the air was sucked from his lungs. Damn, this was so incredibly bad.

She sat on his lap and gave him a too-quick kiss. His arm went around her waist. She smelled good, tasted good. He could almost forget why he was here, and that wouldn't do.

"You should've stayed in Hawaii," he said, a tickle of warning crawling up his spine.

"No way. The return trip has got to be better than the first leg. I don't want to miss all the fun." Her smile dimmed. They'd made their own fun, that was the truth, but she wasn't going to forget last night's adventure anytime soon.

"This isn't exactly a pleasure cruise."

"From here on out, it could be," she promised, and everything in him tightened.

He narrowed his eyes and glared at her. "What are you up to?"

"About five-four, barefoot. Why?"

"God, you're a smart-ass."

She smiled. "I know. Lucky for you, because otherwise you'd be bored stiff. Oh, speaking of stiff. Would you be interested if I told you I wasn't wearing any underwear, and I brought this, just in case I got lucky?" She reached into a pocket of the sundress and withdrew a condom between two slender fingers.

Cael drew in a harsh breath, pulling her close and pushing up her skirt. He slid his hand slowly up her thigh, and verified her lack of underwear for himself. Bad idea or not, he was in so deep he might never see daylight, and he didn't want out.

IT WAS AS IF Cael had literally flipped a switch, bringing to life needs she'd buried for so long they'd been almost entirely forgotten. There was no trust to compare with putting her body in his hands, to opening herself up, letting herself go.

It would be very easy to confuse the intensity of her feelings for love, as she straddled Cael and leaned down to kiss his throat while he caressed her. She didn't want to let him go, but that was strictly a physical response. She could so easily imagine how they'd spend their days when they got off the ship, when in reality she suspected there would be no real first date, no ordinary days. She'd take what she could get while the getting was good. Reality be damned.

"You're so easy," she said, as she laid her hand on his erection, beneath khaki pants.

"I'm easy?" he slipped a hand between her legs, caressed the wetness there. One look from Cael, and she was half ready. One touch, and the other half joined in. "Guys are supposed to be easy. It's in our DNA."

She unfastened and zipped down his pants.

"Easy and impatient," he said.

"You talk entirely too much." She kissed him on the mouth, to shut him up and because, damn, she loved kissing him. As the kiss deepened she stroked his penis, driven by the need to feel him in her hand before she unwrapped the damn condom. She was beginning to hate them. If there was a date on dry land, if they stayed together after the cruise and the job was done, she was going to get a prescription for birth control pills. She didn't want anything between them. The thought of him slipping inside her, hard and hot and bare, made her moan deep in her throat.

When he was inside her she forgot everything but the way they felt coming together. She didn't think about anything but pleasure and warmth. Everything else went away, for a while. What they'd found was sex – really good sex – but it was also more than that. It was Cael, the way he made her feel with a look, with a word. He was maddening, bossy, unrelenting … and hers, for now.

With the sea breeze wrapping around them and the afternoon sun slanting onto the balcony, she rode him. She swayed, rose, and fell, while he held her hips and guided her.

If they never had to leave this room for the rest of the trip, she'd be content.

*  *  *

TIFFANY GLADLY PASSED Larkin over to Faith and Ryan. The man they were surveilling was always looking around as if he expected someone to be watching. He was very aware of where he was and who was close by which made their job much more difficult than it should've been. Instead of returning to her room when her shift was over, she continued to sit by the pool with Penny and Buttons. It was true that it never hurt to take care that it didn't look as if they were literally passing the baton, but it was also true that she had no reason to rush to her suite.

Even though they had nothing in common except for the fact that they were on the Silver Mist, she liked Penny and Buttons, and the other ladies, too. Linda and Nyna were taking a Pilates class this afternoon, leaving their new friends to sun by the pool.

Buttons looked to be maybe ten years younger than the women she'd been spending time with on the cruise, but she fit right in. Rich widows, out for a good time. Penny was always on the prowl for a man, but Buttons seemed content with her life.

It hadn't taken Tiffany long to realize that Buttons was a natural-born peacemaker. She wanted everyone to get along. If she could get all the passengers to hold hands and sing camp tunes – "Kumbaya" – she would've been happy as a clam. Tiffany hadn't thought she'd actually like a woman with Buttons's unrealistic traits, but she did. She hadn't made fun of the woman's name once, and was quite proud of herself.

Sitting on the other side of Buttons, Penny was asleep in her deck chair. It struck Tiffany that shortly she'd have to wake the fair-skinned woman to get her out of the sun. Sunscreen or no sunscreen, a nasty burn on that superpale skin would be painful in the morning. And why was another woman's sunburn her concern? She was turning into a freakin' caretaker!

"I'm glad you and Jenner are getting along so well," Buttons said, "in spite of the unfortunate circumstances that brought you together."

She stole my man was hardly an ordinary starting point for a solid friendship.

"Yeah, me too. What can I say? When I'm sober I like her." And that was the truth. One tough woman recognized another, and it had not escaped Tiffany's attention that she knew a lot of women who, in the same circumstances, would've thrown the Hazlett broad under the bus without a second thought. Jenner hadn't.

She just hoped Jenner was tough enough to get past killing her first man – and tough enough to handle Cael.

"Where are the lovebirds today?" Buttons asked.

Hiding until Jenner can show her face without also showing too much of the truth. "Oh, you know those two," she said suggestively. She lifted her hands to demonstrate, but realizing what she was about to do, Buttons gently slapped her hands down, laughing.

"It's like one of those old movies," Buttons said with a gentle smile. "You know, the shipboard romance, the two beautiful people who find each other in a crowd and …"

"Doesn't someone always end up dead in those movies?" Tiffany interrupted.

Buttons laughed. "I guess you're right." Penny stirred, then slipped back into her afternoon nap.

Tiffany sighed. How had she gotten into this mess? "Hey," she said, sitting up. "We need to get Penny out of the sun before she's extra crispy."

DEAN WAS RARELY at a loss when it came to handling a situation, but even as he knocked on the door of Mr. Larkin's suite, he wasn't sure he'd made the right decision.

"Come in," Larkin called, and Dean used his key card; Larkin was expecting him. He wouldn't dare let himself in otherwise, pass key or no pass key.

It had been more than twenty-four hours since anyone had seen Johnson, who should've been keeping an eye on their paranoid employer last night. So, had the bonehead jumped ship before they'd left Maui? Or had Larkin caught the security guard tailing him and tossed him off the boat? You wouldn't think, at first glance, that Larkin could take Johnson in a fight, but Johnson wouldn't expect resistance, caught following Larkin or not, and truth be told, crazy people could surprise a man.

Larkin was hunched over his laptop computer; he seemed more annoyed than usual.

"Sir, I have some bad news," Dean said after he'd closed the door behind him.

Larkin slapped his computer closed. "Just what I need. What now?"

If Larkin had killed Johnson, and Dean told him that the man had stayed behind, then he'd know it was a lie. If he found out one of his employees, one of his partners in the planned crime, was simply gone, he might panic. This had to be handled just so.

"Johnson's missing," Dean said simply.

Larkin rose up out of his chair. His face turned an odd shade of red. "What do you mean, he's missing?"

"He hasn't been seen since we pulled out of Maui. I'm afraid he might've had second thoughts and found a way to stay behind."

"How the hell could that happen?" Larkin was so upset, it seemed unlikely that he knew more than he was letting on.

"He's in security, he could have pulled it off, found a way to bypass being accounted for. The main thing is: Can we handle the job one man short?"

Larkin's face returned to a normal shade, and he sat. "Of course we can." He looked up at Dean, his eyes steadier than they had been a moment ago. "It'll be more difficult, of course, but we can't let Johnson's absence stop us. Too much planning has gone into this."

"He knows too much," Dean said, thinking that Johnson might have truly jumped ship, after all.

"When this is all over, you might want to track him down down and slit his throat."

"Yes, sir. Good idea."

"Now get out. I have things to do."

Dean nodded and slipped into the hallway, sighing once the task was done. All in all, it could've been worse.

THE LETTER STILL WASN'T QUITE RIGHT, and he had the five bombs that were above deck to program. It wouldn't take long, and the tasks could be done at any time in the next twenty-four hours, but there would be some risk involved. He couldn't be seen, couldn't get caught. Not that he could trust anyone else to do the job.

Maybe he'd take his time getting the timers set. The one in the theater tonight; the one under the bar on the Lido deck very early in the morning. The others as the day went on. If he did the job gradually, casually, piecemeal, no one would be the wiser. It wasn't as if he could run from deck to deck setting them all at once without raising someone's suspicions.

Fucking Johnson. He knew about the bombs; he was supposed to be here when they went off. Larkin hadn't even gotten started, and already there was a survivor.

He opened his draft file and read what he'd written, then deleted it all and began again.

You fuckers, I wish I could blow you all to hell.

Maybe that simple truth would do.