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Burn
Author: Linda Howard

Prologue

Present Day, onboard the Silver Mist

THIS WAS THE VACATION FROM HELL.

Jenner Redwine sat frozen on the barstool, trying to remember what Bridget had told her and reconcile it with the nightmare that was actually happening. She'd been told that a man and a woman would argue at some point during the evening. The woman, Tiffany would leave, and the man, Cael, would then approach Jenner. She'd been instructed to appear interested, and accommodating. She was to do exactly what he said, otherwise they would kill Syd, the only real friend she had in this world.

The scene wasn't unfolding as she'd been expecting. Tiffany wasn't leaving the bar. She was screaming and stomping and throwing a drunken temper tantrum, though of course she wasn't really drunk. She was accusing Cael of sleeping with Jenner even though this was the first night on the ship and no one had slept with anyone yet - probably - because of the early hour. Cael had approached Jenner before the argument started, though of course she hadn't yet realized who he was. He'd stood next to her at the crowded bar to order drinks, and he hadn't said anything suggestive. No, nothing about this night was playing out the way Bridget had briefed her, other than that a very public argument was taking place.

Cael would finesse the details, Bridget had said. He certainly had. Jenner had no idea what would happen next, which was probably a good thing. She wasn't an actress, couldn't play along like a practiced con who rolled with the punches. They obviously could.

The man who had jostled Cael earlier had joined in the argument, as loud and drunken as Tiffany, telling her she didn't know what she was talking about and she was drunk and should go to her cabin and sleep it off. He was determined to take the blame for starting the unpleasantness, which was nice of him even if he was drunk. Or maybe he was one of them, Jenner thought, because she didn't know him and, really, he could be anyone.

The only people she couldn't be suspicious of, she realized, were the people she already knew. She might not know who she couldn't trust, but she definitely knew who she could, for all the good it would do her. Whatever was going on, she was in on it, sink or swim, because of Syd. Her friend was being threatened, and Jenner wanted to be pissed. If she could get pissed, then she wouldn't be so afraid.

She wanted to be able to do something to get these people out of her life - and Syd's. Instead she was terrified that no matter what she did, things wouldn't work out well for either of them. Being so afraid of what might come next, and not knowing what would happen next, made her feel helpless, and that wasn't a trait she admired in anyone, least of all herself.

Maybe it was time she took control of some of the details, the way she had by going out on the balcony when Faith had been standing guard. She slipped off the stool and tried to edge her way around Cael, as if she were trying to escape the scene, but Tiffany saw her and shrieked, "Don't try to run off like you're Little Miss Innocent! I saw you flirting - "

"I don't know you," said Jenner, interrupting her even as Cael turned and subtly shifted his position to block her avenue of escape. "And I don't know him, so leave me out of your nasty little tantrum." She caught the eye of someone she knew from Palm Beach, Leanne Ivey, and gave a helpless, I-don't-know-what's-going-on shrug. Leanne gave her a sympathetic look in return.

Faith suddenly detached herself from the crowd and approached Tiffany, putting her arm around the black-haired woman's shoulders and softly saying something to her. Tiffany responded by bursting into tears, and Faith gently led her away, putting an end to the dramatics. Almost simultaneously, Faith's husband, Ryan, limped up to Cael. "That was nice of you to give her your stateroom," he said in a perfectly pitched tone that was just loud enough for those around them to hear.

Cael shrugged. "I could hardly toss her out, could I?" He was still keeping Jenner blocked from leaving, and now he and Ryan had her sandwiched between them. She was trapped, as surely as if they'd each grabbed her by an arm and held on tight. Not that it mattered. She had nowhere to go, though surely her expression plainly said she wanted to get away.

The Silver Mist was a big ship, filled with people ... surrounded by water. Even if these people weren't threatening her friend, where would she go if she managed to escape? Cael would find her, no matter where she tried to hide. Much as she hated to play along, she didn't want to find out what he might do if he didn't get his way.

"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?"

Jenner wanted to scream. The two men sounded so normal, as if this were a perfectly natural conversation. She knew it was anything but, though no one else would realize what was going on. She supposed that was the plan, but this chatting was like sandpaper on her nerves.

Ryan lifted one shoulder. "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'll mind." He looked at Jenner then, giving her a friendly, almost gentle smile. "What a way to start the cruise, huh?"

"With a bang," she agreed, once more trying to slide sideways around them. She could barely take in a breath with the two men towering over her, closing her in. They stole her air, and she needed to breathe. She felt as if she were being crushed, though neither of them was actually touching her. And then ...

Ryan reached out and took hold of her elbow, a gentlemanly gesture that nevertheless anchored her in place. "Have you two actually met, or were you just caught in the explosion?"

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