Burn (Chapter Twelve)

JENNER WAS ALMOST HYPERVENTILATING WITH TERROR by the time they reached her suite. The more frightened she was, the angrier she became. No matter how often or how deeply she had to kiss him in public, she'd be damned if that meant she'd let him do whatever he wanted in private. Her willingness to touch him, and be touched by him, stopped at the door.

He was a damn good actor, and that scared her even more, because it put her at an even greater disadvantage. How would she know what to believe, and what not to believe? He was so convincing in his role that, if she hadn't known better, her heart would be pounding at being the focus of so much male intensity. He wasn't playful, he wasn't giving her time to get to know him better; every move he'd made, every look he'd given her, had been those of a man who had his sights on a woman he wanted.

In real life, Jenner would have been running for the hills if any man had tried to be so dominant with her. She didn't like bossy men and didn't tolerate them. Cael was more than just bossy; he was downright ruthless, and the knowledge had her so scared her teeth were almost chattering.

He took her tiny red leather shoulder bag from her and opened it, taking out the key card for the door. She stood mutely, gritting her teeth to keep from grabbing the bag back. No one who knew her would ever believe for one minute that she'd let a man get away with such high-handed behavior, but who, besides Syd, really knew her? She and Syd were such close friends precisely because neither of them fit in with the rest of the crowd.

Someone was coming down the passageway toward them. Jenner carefully didn't look to see who it was, instead keeping her head down and her gaze focused on his hands as he inserted the card in the lock and the little light flashed green. They were big hands, but well-shaped and hard, with a look and feel to them that she recognized. He worked out, long and often, and he had quite a bit of training in the martial arts. Her little bit of judo would be useless against him.

Removing the card, he opened the door and ushered her inside, his callused palm warm on the small of her back.

As soon as they were inside and the door was closed behind them, though, Jenner whirled away. Her cheeks red with temper, she spat, "I will not let you rape me, is that understood?"

"Keep your voice down." Clamping one hand on her arm just above her elbow, he forced her farther into the room, away from the door. He paused then, his cool gaze raking her, her red bag still in his hand. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think the definition of rape means there isn't any 'letting' involved. You can rest easy, though; I'm not interested."

"Yes, I felt how uninterested you are," she snapped, then wished she hadn't, because she really didn't want to be discussing the state of his penis. His reassurance had failed in its purpose because she didn't feel reassured at all. She was still practically jumping out of her skin from nervousness, and her instinctive reaction was to fight.

He looked amused. "You don't know much about men, do you?"

"More than enough, thank you! Hey!" The last word was yelped as he dragged her through the bedroom door to the left. The bottom dropped out of her stomach and, just like that, panic washed over her in a tidal wave, obliterating thought. She exploded into a flurry of movement, fighting him for all she was worth. She punched him with her free hand, pulling back as hard as she could in an effort to break his grip on her arm, twisting, trying to stomp his feet, elbow him in the gut, head butt him – anything and everything she could do, without any strategy in mind except the blind need to fight. He grunted when her first blow hit his jaw, then he thwarted most of her efforts by simply turning his body so she was left with no target except his shoulder and back. His hard grip never once loosened. Infuriated, terrified, she used the only weapon she had left and bit him, sinking her teeth into the back of his upper arm.

"Shit!" he said between clenched teeth, and with a twist of his body she went airborne, sailing across to land with a teeth-rattling bounce on the bed. Desperately she twisted, trying to regain her balance and roll off the bed on the other side but he pounced with the quickness of a snake striking, snagging her wrist and dragging her bodily off the bed to sling her into the bedside chair.

The violent speed of the move left her sprawled in the chair, disoriented and stunned, unable to make her body move for several valuable seconds. He pulled a plastic restraint from his pocket and slipped it over her hand, then with two hard jerks secured her to the chair. Straightening, he glared down at her, his blue eyes cold and glittering.

"Bridget said you were a pain in the ass," he growled, "but she forgot to mention you're also rabid."

Breathing hard, trying to make her head stop spinning so she could make sense of the situation, Jenner mutely stared up at him. What was – ? He wasn't – ?

"I thought you were – " she began, then stumbled to a halt.

"Don't think," he advised in a tone that was close to a snarl. "You aren't good at it." He took out a cell phone and thumbed in a two-digit number. "Bring a bucket of ice," he said, still in a clipped tone that said his temper hadn't faded. "The little bitch bit me." Even from where she was sitting, Jenner could hear the laughter from whoever was on the other end of the call.

Oddly, being laughed at didn't seem to bother him. His mouth quirked in a half smile as he listened. "You were right about that," he said, and flipped the phone shut to end the call.

"I'm not a bitch," she said, feeling compelled to defend herself. Her voice was embarrassingly shaky. "I was scared."

He ignored her. Moving to the bed, he opened her bag and upended it, dumping out the contents. There wasn't much; the bag was too small. A lipstick, her ship card, breath mints, driver's license and passport, a credit card, and some loose cash, all scattered across the bedspread. No cell phone, because Bridget had taken it.

He examined the bag's small zipper compartment, but it was empty. She didn't have so much as a nail file or fingernail clippers; Faith had gone through the tote bag she'd carried onboard and removed everything that could remotely be considered a weapon or a tool. Jenner longed for those fingernail clippers now, because they'd snip right through the plastic restraint that bound her to the chair. She couldn't go anywhere or do anything about the situation, because of Syd, but she'd love to show him what she thought of his dinky little plastic ties.

She would also love to stab him with a nail file, but even if she had the file in her hand it wouldn't do any good, because of the airline restrictions that prohibited metal files. Hers was the kind made of soft foam stuff, meaning it was absolutely useless for anything except smoothing a rough spot on a fingernail. She wondered if she could sue Homeland Security for depriving her of a weapon, even so much as a metal fingernail file, when she needed one.

He moved on to the closet, which was located on the other side of the bedroom, on the passageway wall. Through the open door she could see that her luggage had been unpacked, which meant Bridget had been back in the suite. Cael examined every garment, looked in every pocket, every shoe, every handbag, even though Bridget would have done the same thing while she was unpacking. The fact that he was searching everything again could mean either that he didn't trust Bridget, or that double-checking the details was a matter of course for them. She hoped it was the former, but suspected the latter. So far, these people were frighteningly efficient.

Bridget knocked on the door, delivering the bucket of ice. Cael left Jenner restrained in the chair and went to let Bridget in. She heard Bridget say, "I have the ice you requested, sir."

"Thank you. Put it on the table, please."

"Yes, sir."

Their formality was obviously in case anyone in the passageway overheard them. The door closed, then Bridget appeared in the bedroom door, grinning like a jackass when she saw Jenner cuffed to the chair. Cael moved past her and retrieved a hand towel from the bathroom, then returned to the parlor. Bridget withdrew without saying anything, though her eyes were bright with enjoyment. Which she enjoyed the most, Jenner biting Cael or Cael tying Jenner to the chair, was up in the air.

"Ouch," Bridget said a moment later. "That left a bruise. Here, lean forward."

From where the chair was positioned in the bedroom, Jenner couldn't see even a sliver of the living area, but she could hear them very easily and knew they would be just as attuned to any noise she made. She stared at the plastic cuff holding her to the chair. She could probably work it free, given that only one hand was restrained, but what would she gain other than the satisfaction of having thwarted him? She couldn't go anywhere, she couldn't call for help. She couldn't do anything that would endanger Syd. She might as well sit right where she was.

At least she could use the time to recover both mentally and physically from her fright. She felt as if she'd been through a super-stringent workout, then been forced to run five miles. Her breathing was still too fast, her heart still beating too hard. The adrenaline burn had left her feeling weak and woozy, but her mental wheels were beginning to turn again.

First and foremost, she had to accept that, for good or ill, she was in this with them. They had Syd. She, therefore, had to do whatever she could to make sure they succeeded at whatever plan they had, because that was the only way she could do Syd any good. Doing what they wanted in public didn't mean she wouldn't raise hell by whatever means she could when they were in private, but if they wanted her to act as if she was madly in love with the bastard, then she'd give them an Oscar-worthy performance.

An ache in her arm finally got her attention and she looked down, to find the outline of his fingers plain in her flesh where he'd gripped her while she was trying to fight. He wasn't the only one who sported a bruise, she thought, then realized something else.

"Hey," she called. "I need some ice, too."

"Tough," Cael replied, evidently not inclined to share his ice with her.

"A shirt will cover your bruise," she snapped. "I don't have anything long-sleeved to cover my arm, and not one person on this ship who knows me would think I'd put up with abuse for one minute. So you'd better bring me some ice, to help these bruises go away."

Both Cael and Bridget reappeared. He was shirtless, holding the makeshift ice pack in his hand. She didn't want to see all those muscles, so Jenner quickly looked away from the hair-dusted expanse of his chest, shifting her gaze to Bridget as she lifted her arm to show the reddened stripes.

"I'll get the ice," Bridget said, turning back into the living area and returning in a few seconds with the ice bucket. She carried it with her into the bathroom, where she raised her voice a little to ask, "What did you two do, have a bare-knuckle street fight as soon as you were through the door?"

"She had one," Cael muttered. "All I did was toss her ass in the chair and tie her there."

That was literally true, Jenner realized. He hadn't retaliated, hadn't struck her, and had in fact tied her to the chair only after she bit him. But if he thought he got brownie points for that, he was sorely mistaken. "I don't owe you an apology," she said fiercely. "Kidnappers don't get apologized to, because they deserve what they get." Still, he hadn't really hurt her. Scared her out of ten years of her life, yeah, but in retrospect she had to admit that had probably been inadvertent.

Something was going on here, something beyond the obvious. But what?

Bridget came out of the bathroom with ice wrapped in another towel, which she folded around Jenner's arm. The cold immediately began to ease the stinging ache.

"Do you have everything you need?" she asked Cael. "I have to get back, in case anyone else wants something."

"If everything on my list is here, I'm good to go," he replied.

"It's here. I checked it all twice."

"I'll get started. Call me if he heads back to the suite."

Bridget nodded and let herself out.

Who was "he"? Jenner wondered. Because she wasn't likely to find out anything unless she asked, she said, "Who are you talking about? Who's 'he'?"

"None of your business," he replied, removing a duffle bag from the closet. She'd never seen the duffle bag before, so Bridget had to have placed it there.

"Excuse me, but all indications are it's very much my business who he is," she said, indicating the plastic tie with a wave of her hand. She wished he would put on a shirt, because she was getting tired of having to avoid looking directly at him.

"Shut up or I'll gag you."

He just might do it, too, she thought, forgetting that she didn't want to look at him and glare, which was wasted because he wasn't looking at her. He was removing the contents of the duffle bag and laying everything out on the bed. There was an array of electronic equipment, the use of which she couldn't begin to guess at, wires and gadgets and tools that looked like –

"Is that a drill? Why do you need a drill? What are you drilling?"

"Holes to screw your coffin shut," he growled. "Shut up."

Oh, the satisfaction of getting under his skin. Served him right. She waited a minute, waited until he looked as if he was getting deep into concentration, then said sulkily, "I need to pee."

His head fell forward and he closed his eyes.

"I can't help it. Everyone needs to pee. Even Darth Vader needed to pee, though I don't know how he managed it without taking off his life-suit. If you hadn't made me drink that teeter-totter I wouldn't need to pee now, so it's your fault." If she could have thought of anything else outrageous to say she'd have said it, because she wanted – needed – to see what he would do when pushed, how far he'd go.

Grimly, not saying anything, he picked up a pair of wire cutters from the tools on the bed and snipped open the plastic that bound her to the chair. Only then did she realize that he could have pulled the cuffs much tighter than he had, because he'd easily been able to slip the wire cutters between her skin and the plastic.

With her newly freed hand she held the towel of ice to her arm as he escorted her to the bathroom. She didn't know why he thought she needed an escort, because there was no way out of the bathroom other than back through the bedroom. From a previous visit, when Faith had been guarding her, she also knew there was nothing in the bathroom that could be used as a weapon, unless she could convince him to step on a bar of soap, slip, and bash his head when he fell.

"Don't lock the door," he ordered.

Jenner considered how far she wanted to push him, and decided she'd gone far enough for right now. Baby steps. After all, she had no real idea how he'd react if she really tested his patience. She didn't know him, didn't know what he was capable of. She didn't want to inadvertently push the wrong button and get Syd harmed, just because she was laying groundwork and exploring her limits. So she didn't lock the door, and she did pee, just in case he was listening.

As she was washing her hands she looked at herself in the mirror.

A pale, exhausted face stared back at her. God, what time was it? Glancing at her wristwatch, she realized there was a very good reason why she looked exhausted. She'd been up since before dawn, Eastern time, and it was now two a.m. Eastern, eleven p.m. Pacific – almost twenty-four hours.

He opened the door. "That's long enough. Come on out."

She finished drying her hands, examined the reddened skin on her arm where she'd been holding the ice, and decided she didn't need any further application. She unfolded the hand towel and shook the ice into the basin, then neatly hung the towel over the rack to dry. As she left the bathroom he turned to precede her, keeping himself between her and the door, and she saw the swelling, purplish spot where she'd bitten him on the triceps. He needed the ice far more than she did. Unless he went swimming, though, he wouldn't be taking off his shirt.

She stared at his back, at the deep furrow of his spine bisecting all those muscles, and wished to hell he'd put a shirt on now.

"I'm exhausted," she said, to take her mind off the manscape in front of her. The only time she'd ever let good looks get in the way of her common sense had been with Dylan, all those years ago, when she was just twenty-three, and even then the insanity hadn't lasted long. She was made of tougher stuff now. "Whatever you're doing, it can wait until tomorrow. Lock me in here, sleep sitting up against the door, I don't care. Just let me get some sleep."

"What I'm doing can't wait until tomorrow," he replied shortly. "And the more you interrupt me, the longer it'll take. So sit down and shut up. Got it?"

She got it. If she hadn't, the fact that he pushed her down into the same chair and slapped a real pair of handcuffs on her, fastening her to the chair, would have gotten her attention.

She stared down at the metal shackling her wrist. Somehow this seemed far more alarming than the plastic cuffs. These were real handcuffs, and whatever these people were doing, they were serious as a heart attack about it.