Burn (Chapter Twenty-seven)

CAEL HOPED HIS HEAD WOULD BE PUT ON THE CHOPPING block first so he could get this ordeal over with, but no, they decided to save him for last. A bartender and then a popular steward went first, then a couple of widowers, then a shy man who was there with his fiancee, who dutifully bid on him until he was hers – for the evening's record sum of seven thousand.

There were a couple of catcalls as Cael was introduced. From what he could see, they all came from rich, primarily white-haired, giggling widows. Playing along, he tipped his hat to the crowd. He even winked at one blushing matron. He looked for Jenner, but she and Tiffany were no longer standing where he'd last seen them. Great. They were probably in Tiffany's suite or in one of the bars, yucking it up at his expense.

Somebody was going to pay for this.

The bidding started, and quickly escalated. He passed the five-thousand mark within a few minutes. Still no Jenner. Cael caught Ryan's eye; he and Faith were amused, and a little worried, but there wasn't much either of them could do. If Jenner or Tiffany didn't step up to save his bacon, he was going to end up the property of either the plump, lascivious granny in the lime-green fringed dress and matching fishnets or the scary-looking broad with too much makeup and unnaturally blue-black hair. They were the only two left in play, as the bid passed eight thousand.

A flash of red in the crowd caught his eye. Jenner was making her way toward the front of the crowd, with Tiffany close behind her. Jenner raised her hand and got the auctioneer's attention.

"Fifty thousand," she called in a clear, steady voice.

The crowd murmured, a few people applauded. The scary broad looked pissed as she and the lime-green granny conceded the bid – not that either of them couldn't have offered more, but there was only so much money they were willing to part with just for a little bit of fun.

"Poor baby," Jenner said confidently as she reached the dais. "Did you really think I would share?" The crowd burst into laughter and applause as she claimed him. He was the only one in a position to see how cool her gaze was, and he knew she was still pissed off.

LARKIN HAD LEFT the costume party and escaped to the quiet of his suite. If he'd had to listen to more of that fucking music, he'd have thrown the musicians overboard. He sat at the desk in the parlor, writing a letter on his e-mail program. He wouldn't send the e-mail until the last possible moment, but he wanted to be prepared. He still wasn't sure who to send it to. The New York Times, the Washington Post… but newspapers were going the way of the dodo. How many people bothered to read them anymore? He should also send the e-mail to a couple of television networks.

I take full responsibility for the destruction of the Silver Mist and its passengers. If I could take more of you assholes with me …

No, if he wanted the letter published in its entirety, he'd have to watch his language. Fucking pussies.

If I could take more of the worthless parasites of the world with me, I would. Gladly.

He could die with a bang or he could fade away; he really wasn't a fading kind of guy. Serial killers, bringers of mass destruction, they were remembered long after they left this earth. He would be remembered, too.

When the Silver Mist blew out of the water on the tenth day of her maiden voyage, I made my mark on the world. At the end of the day, money means nothing. Power is reduced to the simple control over life and death.

Yeah, that sounded about right. Powerful. People would remember what he'd written until their own deaths. When the time came, he'd turn on his computer, set the e-mails to be sent at a certain time – perhaps 9:55, five minutes before the bombs would explode – and then he'd put everything in motion. Some bombs were on a timer, simply for logistical reasons, and he had the triggers for others. While Dean and his idiot team of would-be robbers got ready to move in on the art auction, Frank would be setting the real show into motion.

His head throbbed; eyestrain caused by the computer screen was a bitch these days. Suddenly unsure, he checked to make certain he hadn't accidentally logged onto the Internet, because sometimes he did things that he didn't quite remember. He didn't want to send the message yet, so he hadn't even gone online. There was no e-mail of any consequence headed his way – very little was of true consequence now. There was no reason for him to surf the 'net. He didn't care how the stock market was faring, or what news of the day might be interesting, because the simple fact was that nothing was interesting now. Funny how certain things that had seemed so important faded to nothing when a life was reduced to a matter of days. He saved what he'd written so far into a draft file, and shut down the computer.

LARKIN HAD ALREADY LEFT THE PARTY by the time Jenner took possession of her winnings. Cael smiled for the crowd, but she could see past the easy grin. He was annoyed that his plans had gone awry, for a short while, and he was anxious to get back to the stateroom, since Larkin was in his.

Tonight she was the one who said, for the benefit of those listening, "I'm tired. Are you ready to turn in?"

"Sure, any time you are." Hah! As if he was ever that accommodating! Smiles in place, he took her arm and they walked at a leisurely pace toward the elevators.

They were silent in the elevator, each of them too pissed at the other to engage in their customary verbal joust. They stepped off the elevator, headed toward the suite – and the guard posted next door. The man ignored them, didn't even glance their way or nod when Cael slipped the key card in the door to unlock it, as any other member of the crew would've done.

Cael went to the bedroom, stripping off his jacket as he went, tossing his fedora aside. He didn't guide Jenner to a chair and handcuff her, didn't look back to make sure she wasn't making a run for it. She followed him into the bedroom, kicking off her shoes and removing her own hat, twirling the cloche on one finger as she headed for the bed. Cael was already setting up his laptop to review anything he might've missed.

Finally she broke first, mainly because she couldn't leave well enough alone. "Are you really mad because I didn't save you from the horrors of the auction block?"

"No," he said curtly She'd prefer that he make a joke or insult her in that funny way he had, but he was deadly serious. She sat on the side of the bed, as close to him as she could get. After a few seconds he glanced up, frowning, and tensed at what he saw in her face. "Don't look at me that way."

"What way is that?" Like she wanted to eat him up, which she did. She was tired of trying to hide the way she felt.

"You know this is a bad idea," he said, trying to turn his head away and ignore her.

"I know no such thing."

Sighing, because she obviously wasn't about to let him work, Cael set aside his equipment and stood to look down at her. Maybe he was trying to intimidate her. "The situation is … difficult."

She had to snicker. "Couldn't say hard, could you?"

He ground his teeth, which he seemed to be doing a lot lately. "Jenner …"

"I know, I know. You kidnapped me. You're afraid I'm having some sort of nervous breakdown, or that I might feel obligated to sleep with you so you won't kill me when this is all over, or – "

"I'm not going to kill you," he snapped.

"I know that," she said softly. "But the situation isn't exactly normal."

"No, it isn't."

"I know how to fix that."

He crossed his arms over his chest and narrowed his eyes. "Yeah? How's that?"

"Let me go."

He remained silent, but his eyes narrowed.

She continued, "As long as we're still cruising around the Hawaiian Islands I can get off the boat, go to a hotel, lay low until the cruise is over. If I give you my word that I won't betray you, if I swear that you can trust me … you can let me go."

"So that's what this is about," he said curtly, temper flaring in his blue eyes. "You think if you flirt with me, I'll suddenly lose my common sense."

She sighed. "No. I'm thinking if you let me go and I stay of my own free will, everything changes."

She stood, because being seated made her feel as if she were in a subservient position. Cael was still taller than her, bigger than her, stronger than her, but in every way except physically she was his equal, and it was time he acknowledged that.

He stared down at her, evaluating, calculating, and she couldn't help but think about Linda Vale and her Wayne, the only man in her life, the only man she'd ever wanted. Jenner wanted to know what it was like to love that deeply. Cael got to her. He made her angry, he made her laugh, and when he kissed her – yowza! He got to her in ways no other man ever had. Was that love, or just the heightened emotions of the moment? Only one way to find out.

"Fine," he said. "You're free to go."

Jenner threw her hands up. "Was that so hard?" Then she went up on her toes and kissed him, quickly and softly, as she had earlier, when they'd been on deck.

She stepped around him, collected her pajamas, and headed for the bathroom.

"I thought you were leaving," he said, sounding almost disappointed.

"Nope. This is my stateroom, after all," she said. "They'd probably kick you out of this room if I left the cruise, and wouldn't that be a pain in the ass. The difference now is, I'm not a prisoner, I'm a partner."

"Like hell you are."

She gave him a very satisfied smile. "And honey, I'm not nearly as easy as you seem to think I am. Once we get off this damn boat, where are you going to take me on our first date?"