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Playing With Fire (CHAPTER FIFTEEN)

A SMALL PART OF ME (on some level) expected what Rome did next, and the rest of me, well, was an idiot. I should have figured it out. How had I not guessed? Selective common sense?

The fact that I should have known didn't lessen the impact, though. My eyes widened in shock, and I inched cautiously away. My stomach bottomed out. "You're-you're-"

Changing. He was changing.

His face elongated. His bones rearranged themselves, until he was stooping over the ground. The clothes he wore ripped from his body, and shiny black fur sprouted from his skin, covering him in mere seconds. His teeth sharpened even further, and his pupils thinned, pointing at both ends.

Dear God, he was a jaguar. A jaguar! No, the jaguar. The one I'd seen in my apartment. The one who'd invaded Lexis's home. The one who'd protected me against assassins.

The one I'd almost iced.

Had Rome simply told me of his ability, I might have tried to deny it. I might have called him a liar, might have told him to stop joking around. Seeing it, watching his transformation, offered irrefutable proof.

And it brought home the fact that there was an entire world out there I hadn't known existed until a few days ago.

Rome growled up at me, the sound fierce and pure animal. Total danger. I backed another step away, my hand fluttering over my throat. Not once had he hurt me while in this form. But… a girl couldn't be too cautious.

"Holy shit!" Tanner shouted from the cabin. " Rome, the badass, is a pussy. Woohoo!"

The jaguar's fierce attention never deviated from me. Its-his-gaze continued to pierce me, daring me to say something. Daring me to do something. He expected me to run, I realized, to rebuke him. He probably expected me to faint, as well.

No wonder he had been so adamant about keeping this part of himself secret. Did he fear rejection, too? Did he think I would find him disgusting? Silly man. This was weird, yes, but hardly a relationship killer.

I'd dated worse.

Besides, I started fires-with my freaking eyes. Like I really had room to judge. I crouched, lowering myself to his eye level. "Here, kitty, kitty. Come to sweet, sweet Belle."

His long, black lashes swept down, back up. Then, slowly, he prowled toward me, closing the distance between us inch by animal inch. I reached out and stroked the softness of his fur. He purred.

"I guess this means I get to call you Cat Man. "

He bared his teeth, his lips quivering over them as he uttered a feral snarl.

"No? What about Agent Fur Ball?"

Another snarl.

My own lips twitched. "You should have told me about this," I admonished. "It would have saved me a near heart attack and you a near icing."

His snarling ceased, and he blinked at me again. I scratched behind his ears. Hesitantly, he licked my arm. The warmth and smoothness of his tongue surprised me.

"Are you letting him lick you?" Tanner called. "Gross."

"Shut up!"

"Belle and the pussycat sitting in a tree," came the singsong reply.

With a roar, Rome prowled menacingly toward the cabin. Realizing he'd just been placed on the dessert menu, Tanner finally shut his big fat mouth.

"This actually explains some things," I said, cupping the cat's jaw and forcing him to stop and face me. "Your never wear jeans, probably because they won't rip when you change. You don't wear underwear, either. For the same reason, I'm guessing." I recalled how easily his pants had torn that day I'd twisted them. So much for my theory that my superhuman strength had been responsible. "Sometimes you act like a total animal. You get this savage gleam in your eyes, like you could eat everyone in sight. And not in a good way. Then there's the way you kiss-"

Another growl erupted from him, this one different from the others. Hope and desire deepened the timbre. He stretched his front legs, then his back. My hands dropped to my sides. His bones elongated instead of hunching. Fur shed, falling from him as if it had been nothing more than a temporary suit. His teeth retracted; his face reformed into hard planes and angles.

The muscles of his chest roped, corded. His penis-oh my holy Lord, his big, hard, erect penis… I forced myself to turn away from him. My cheeks overheated, and I had to fan myself. The sun seemed brighter somehow. I'd seen him naked before, but I'd been too weak to feel the effects. Surely I'd start a fire if I looked at him now.

"Belle… "

"You're naked." Ah, stating the obvious. My specialty.

"That's what you have to say to me?" Shock and laughter, anger and relief dripped from his voice. "You don't blink at my… animal form, but my nakedness intimidates you?"

"Not your nakedness, exactly," I hedged, glancing down at my feet. I kicked a pebble with the toe of my boot.

"Then what?"

"Well, your penis." Duh. "It's big. And hard."

He barked out a laugh. "You need to get used to it, baby, since you're going to be seeing a lot of it in the future."

My cheeks heated another degree. "Just put a leash on that thing for now, okay?"

A pause. The crackle of grass. "I just showed you I can shape-shift, and all you care about is my dick. I don't think I've ever experienced this much shock."

"Well, I think I mentioned how big it is." Thankfully, my newfound superpowers didn't, like, cause the world to explode with the force of my awe. And lust. There was definite lust here, making me all tingly and breathless. "I don't want to start a fire."

I'd never seen a man so well formed. So rippled with muscles and tanned skin. Rome was the epitome of total masculinity. He reeked of power. Oozed it. "Can you put some clothes on?"

I didn't have to see him to know he rolled his eyes. "No. I've finally managed to intimidate you. I'll probably remain naked for the rest of my life."

Lalalala. The trees were lush and green. The sky, what little I could see of it through the leaves, was a bright, vivid blue. Hardly any clouds. The scent of pine filled the air.

"We gonna stand here like this all day or are you going to turn around and talk to me?" Rome asked comfortably.

"Stand like this all day. Duh."

"Belle."

" Rome." I crossed my arms over my chest. If the man hadn't yet figured out I possessed a stubborn core, it was past time he did so.

"You've seen a naked man before, haven't you?"

I liked the way he'd snarled that, as if he couldn't stand the thought of me with another man. "Yes, I have." I shifted from one foot to the other. "I just hadn't seen you naked before-at least, not when I was strong enough to do something about it."

Another pause. "And that's different how?"

"Well, it's you."

"Me?"

A slight breeze danced past, cooling my skin somewhat. "That's right. You. You make me feel things."

"I'm glad," he said. His hands settled atop my shoulders and gently squeezed. I hadn't heard him approach, but suddenly he was there. The scent of virile man enveloped me.

"Me, too," I said softly, "but that doesn't mean I'm looking again. Not now, at least. I mean, if I turned around we wouldn't be talking, now would we?"

A third pause, then, "No, I guess not."

"Like I told you, I'm in serious danger of starting a fire. Not a good idea when we're standing in a forest." I needed to change the subject before I forgot exactly why not talking would be a bad idea. "How did you end up a… cat? Ohmygod, you didn't really have that eye surgery, did you? You have night vision because cats do."

His chest pressed against my back (earning a slight gasp from me) and he deepened his massage of my shoulders. "No, no eye surgery. Remember those experiments I told you about? My DNA was spliced. They-the scientists who work at PSI-did other stuff, as well, but I've never fully understood it."

My mouth fell open, and I floundered for the right words. When they came, they choked out of me on infuriated breaths. "How could they do that? Mix human and animal, which could have kill-"

"While I like that you're outraged on my behalf, you shouldn't be. I volunteered, remember? I wanted the kind of skills that would make me invincible. I can do things, see things, hear things others can't."

I toyed with the ends of my hair and shifted my feet again. My heartbeat had yet to slow down, and his touch was only making it worse.

"And you're right," he added. "I don't wear jeans because they don't rip easily. The underwear, well, the first time I changed, all of my clothes stayed on my… cat body. They stifled my movements, but I was able to tear them off with my teeth-all except for the underwear. As you can imagine, I made quite a spectacle. A hard-core predator wearing nothing but Hanes."

A laugh bubbled from me. "Why did you expect me to be disgusted by the change?"

"Other people have been." His fingers tightened for a moment, and I knew it was because he wanted to take the conversation down a different path.

I persisted anyway. "Like who?"

"Like Lexis." Inch by inch, his fingers descended the length of my spine. "She vomited the first time she saw it happen."

"She probably had a virus."

"Wrong."

"Morning sickness, then."

"She'd had Sunny by that point."

Fine. Besides, did I really want him to reevaluate his ex's reaction? "I'm not Lexis."

"No." His soft lips brushed my neck, eliciting all kinds of erotic sensations. "You're not."

Heat sizzled between us, and I became hyperaware of his every action. I heard every intake of his breath like a battle drum; I felt every naughty glide of his fingers like a live wire.

He was naked, and I wanted to touch.

No. No, no, no. With Tanner watching from the cabin window, me needing to practice controlling my powers, and my inability to stop the fires that lust caused, we simply could not allow ourselves to indulge in each other. Much as I might want to.

"Well. Hmm." I coughed. What should I do now? Walk away?

"Why didn't the change bother you?" Rome asked. The question was hesitant, as if he feared the answer.

Okay, I could handle this topic without succumbing to his sensual assault. "I don't know. It just didn't."

"Why?" he insisted.

"I've done a little changing myself recently. I don't want to be judged, either. Besides, I'm the amazing Wonder Girl and-"

"I'm not calling you that," he interjected with a laugh.

"Why not? You're the one who thought of it."

"I've since decided that name is all wrong for you. You're the Naughty Siren, and that's that."

I failed to suppress my grin. "Well, you're Cat Man, no doubt about it."

"Don't call me that." He gave another laugh and gently pressed me forward. "Go get me some clothes and we'll finish your practice."

"Without Tanner?"

"Without Tanner."

"He's not going to like that."

Rome shrugged. "He deserves a break. Go on." He swatted my butt.

Laughing, I forced myself to walk away from him, from his sweet touch and sweeter scent. I didn't allow myself to look back as I entered the cabin. The moment the door closed behind me, cool air surrounded me. I breathed deeply.

Tanner was waiting for me, standing at the door and jumping up and down with excitement. "Did you freaking see that? He's a cat. A cat! With fur and everything."

"I saw." I slipped past him.

"Did he purr? Tell me he purred."

"No." Where was Rome 's bag? My gaze scoped the small cabin.

"Think of the fun we can have with this." Tanner tangled his hand through his hair. "My God, the jokes are already rolling through my mind. What's the difference between a cat and a frog?" He didn't wait for my reply. "A cat has nine lives but a frog croaks every day."

"That's not funny." Finally I spied the edge of black vinyl peeking from the side of the bed, and strode to it.

"What do cats eat for breakfast? Mice krispies."

My lips twitched. "Better." Hunched over, I dug through the bag. Not a single piece of clothing offered any type of color. They were all black. "You better not crack these jokes in front of Rome. He's kind of sensitive."

"I felt his hesitation, remember? He needs to get over it, and joking about it is the best way to help him do that."

"You want to be eaten?" I withdrew a T-shirt and pants. I didn't bother with shoes. Those had fallen off during the change, but they hadn't been damaged. "You weren't close enough to see how sharp his teeth are."

" Rome wouldn't hurt me. He's all bark and no bite. Wait. He's all purr and no bite. Damn." Tanner laughed. "They just keep coming. I'm unstoppable. I'm the Joker. Hey!" His eyes widened, and he clapped his hand on his thigh. "That can be my superhero name. The Sensitive Joker."

I snorted. "Except you're so not sensitive."

"I am, too. I'm sensitive to other people's feelings."

"I think your new name needs to be the Amazing Ass."

He grinned in agreement. "I do have a cute ass, don't I?"

God, I loved this kid. I straightened and tucked Rome 's clothes under my arm. "Why don't you fix lunch or something? It's time, right? Breakfast was, like, hours ago. I'm starved."

He arched a brow, the one that was pierced, and the silver rings winked in the light. "Or we could make out before you take Rome those clothes."

I slapped his shoulder, but I was having a hard time maintaining a stern expression. "How have I not fried you up like battered shrimp?"

"You'd be lost without me, and you know it. I can feel the love. Don't try to deny it."

I flipped him off and strode outside. His laughter followed me. Instantly, heat wrapped me in its sticky claws. Rome was standing in the exact place I'd left him. His arms were at his sides, and he made absolutely no effort to cover himself.

He was smiling, daring me to look. Responding to the challenge, I did. I looked. Finally. I'd wanted to all along, anyway. I stopped a few feet away from him and allowed my gaze to linger. My mouth watered, and as I'd feared, my blood heated. He was, without a doubt, a prime specimen.

"One day you'll have to return the favor," he said huskily.

Stand naked in front of Rome, in front of such perfection when I was far from perfect? "I don't think so."

"You will."

"Maybe," I hedged.

"Definitely." The long, hard length of his penis twitched.

"Almost definitely." I tossed him the clothes.

As he deftly caught the garments, there was a tenderness to his expression that hadn't been there before. I mentally applauded myself for noticing. It was quite a feat, considering that his manly assets held me in thrall.

I gave him absolutely no privacy as he dressed, starting with the pants he worked over his strong thighs and hips. I'd already looked, so there was no going back now. I didn't really want to go back. I just wanted this man. Oh, how my skin tingled, heated.

"When this is over-" I said, then caught myself and pressed my lips together. Don't go there, Jamison. All the heat died.

He was in the process of jerking the shirt over his head, but he stilled. His fingers poised over his chest, at the hem of the shirt. His tanned, rock-hard abs remained visible. "What?" he demanded. "What were you going to say?"

"Nothing. Hurry up, and we'll start practicing."

With a final flick, he had the shirt in place, had his delicious body covered. I felt a twinge of loss. What kind of idiot was I to insist such a delectable morsel cover himself? He closed the distance between us, grabbed my hand and escorted me out of the view of the cabin. When we stopped, he faced me and tipped my chin with a hot fingertip.

Our gazes locked. "What were you going to say, Belle?"

I gulped. What if he didn't want to see me when this was over? Yes, he was attracted to me now. And yes, he seemed to like me. A lot. But he could be one of those guys who abhorred all mention of a future. After Lexis… He could be one of those guys who freaked out at the first mention of the dreaded R word. Relationship. As if the word were synonymous with hell and evil.

"Nothing," I insisted. My jaw clenched stubbornly.

"Then I'll take a few guesses. When this is over do I want to sleep with you? Yes. When this is over do I want to see you again? Yes. When this is over do I want you to spend some time with my daughter? Yes. When this is over do I want to smear you in chocolate syrup and lick it off? Yes." He paused. "Did one of those cover your question?"

I nodded, unable to speak past the sudden lump in my throat. He really did want to see me again. Tendrils of happiness slithered through me, making me grin like a loon.

Expression fierce, he tangled his hands into my hair. "You fascinate me, but I've told you that, right? I've wanted you since the first moment I laid eyes on you, and the want has only grown."

My jaw fell open in wonder.

He took that as an invitation.

His lips swooped to mine. His tongue immediately thrust inside, and that addicting flavor of feral man consumed me. He released my hair, cupped my chin and tilted my head, angling me for deeper contact. I moaned in ecstasy. My hands rained down his roped chest, wishing like hell the shirt would suddenly disappear. I wanted skin on skin. Man on woman.

I wanted the animal in him unleashed.

But damn it all to hell, I was already heating again, and the consequences could be deadly. I jerked my lips away, panting, "We shouldn't. I could cause a fire."

"Give your emotions to me." Dark arousal pulled his features taut. His voice was a honeyed purr. "Give your passion and fire to me."

My teeth sank into my bottom lip. "What if you're hurt? Tanner's not here to tell me when it's too much."

"Give me."

Rome crushed his mouth to mine. I was helpless to resist. As I licked him, sucked him, bit him, he hauled me against him, lifting me high, and I wrapped my legs around his waist. The hard length of his erection pressed against me, somehow bigger, somehow hotter. Pleasure speared me right where I needed it most. I trembled; I burned. I tried to hold the fire inside me. My blood boiled; my skin pricked with red-hot heat.

If I wasn't careful, the raging inferno inside me would burst free, consuming the forest. Consuming Rome. I didn't want to hurt Rome. I didn't want to scare him away, make him determined never to kiss or touch me again.

"I've never been so desperate for a woman in my life. Give me your fire, Belle. I'll control it."

"How can you be sure?"

Through our clothing, he rubbed his penis against my clitoris. Friction. Desire. Absolute pleasure. I gasped at the heady sensations. He sucked my tongue, hard. "Give it to me."

"No." I couldn't stop moving. I arched against him, the action utterly necessary for my peace of mind, but dangerous. So dangerous. The fire inside me speared all the hotter, threatening to devour. I grasped at it, trying, trying, trying so hard to hold it inside me.

"Give." Bite.

"No." Nibble. "What if you're wrong? What if you can't control it?"

"Let me try. Give it to me, and I'll make you come," he promised. He carried me until the cool bark of a tree pressed against my back. His erection slid up and down, the fabric of my jeans adding to the delicious friction.

" Rome… " His name was ripped from my throat, hoarse and needy. A plea.

"I was watching you earlier, when you made it rain, and you looked so sad my chest actually clenched. I wanted so desperately to take your sadness away, and suddenly I was. Trust me on this. Let me try." He shoved against me, hitting directly, and I was lost. "I think I can do it again."

It had worked once, and he was right: it could work again. Gradually, I allowed myself to relax my guard. The heat and flames I'd tried so diligently to control rushed from me as if floodgates had been opened. They swept over Rome, who groaned. Instead of burning him, however, the flames were absorbed into him.

Had I not been so distracted by his seduction, I would have jerked in shock. As it was, I could only tighten my hold on him. His tongue moved against mine more frantically. His hips arched more deliberately. My head fell back. I simply didn't have the strength to hold it up. He bit at my neck, nipping the flesh, then licking the sting.

"See?" he said, his voice as hoarse as mine had been. Tension bracketed his eyes, but it was aroused tension. Aroused pleasure-pain. "We did it. I'd hoped I could filter the flames, take the most violent of the heat, and it worked."

"I don't understand how you're able to do that," I managed to moan as I squeezed and kneaded his back. Time slipped out of reality. Here, now, I had Rome and I had pleasure and I hadn't started a fire. Nothing else mattered.

"If I hadn't learned to cage the animal inside me, it would have overtaken me. I would be only animal. I thought, hoped, I could cage your fire, and so I have. One day you'll do it on your own, but until then… "

I kissed him again. Our teeth scraped together as our bodies strained and arched. He palmed my breast, pinched the nipple.

"Speaking of one day, we're going to do this naked," he breathed.

"Yes."

"In a bed."

"Yes."

"One day you'll be mine."

His hand dived inside my pants, past-nope, no panties, because this naughty, pleasure-giving thief had hidden them-and into the wet heart of me. Instant contact, exactly where I needed him most. His fingers buried deep, pounding, pounding. "Yes."

I jumped over the sweet edge and screamed. Stars winked behind my eyes. My whole body tensed, relaxed, tensed, spasming as intense pleasure rocked me.

I held on to Rome, afraid to let go lest I fly away to the heavens. Images raced through my mind. Images of Rome naked and inside me, his cock replacing his fingers as he claimed me from behind, then took me from every position possible. Images of-

"Viper?" a familiar voice called. "What's wrong? Are you okay? Hold on a minute, I'm on my way out. You better not have hurt her, Rome, or there will be serious hell to pay."

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