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Playing With Fire (CHAPTER FIVE)

I SNAKED IN AND OUT of turbulent dreams-dreams that were hauntingly vivid. A knife flashed through my mind, its sharp tip glistening silver, then crimson. A huge black cat growled from the corner of my bedroom before leaping and attacking-me? Did it attack me?

Panic was beyond my grasp. At least I felt no pain.

The images were disjointed, seeming to happen all at once, yet an eternity apart.

I struggled against the violence, determined to tamp it out, but I had no control over the situation. I was completely vulnerable. Utterly helpless.

Rome 's rugged face suddenly loomed over me, hazy, blurred. He appeared resolute and a little sad. "I'm sorry," he said, his voice penetrating and chasing away some of the darkness.

"Don't hurt me," I pleaded.

"If I don't, someone else will and they won't be merciful."

"Please."

"I must."

"No."

Pause.

He lifted tendrils of my hair and sifted it through his fingers. "You're as innocent as Sunny," he said gently. He sighed.

"Who's-" I felt a sharp sting in my arm and jerked. A burning river entered my bloodstream, racing through me. A drugging peace followed the burn, settling over me, infusing every part of my body.

Down, down I sank into another realm of darkness, a spiraling void. There were no solid anchors. No sense of time or place. Thankfully, the dreams were held at bay, evaporating as if they'd never existed. I floated over a blanket of clouds.

Then… nothing. Yet… everything.

How much time passed, I didn't know. I only knew pricks of light soon began to invade my mind. With the light came strength, and my eyelids fought to open. I needed to wake up; I knew I did. Something called to me. Beckoned. I stretched my arms over my head. My back arched, popping each vertebra of my spine. It felt good to move.

The scents of frying bacon and scrambled eggs blended with the sugary sweet fragrance of syrup, wafting to me like a summoning finger that promised to lead me straight into paradise. My mouth watered.

As I forced myself to full wakefulness, I gazed around the bedroom. Confusion seeped slowly into my consciousness. I don't know what I expected to see, but what I saw wasn't it.

A faux marble armoire rested against the far white wall. But… I didn't own an armoire. Sheer dark blue curtains draped the only window, curtains that should have been green. The old, ratty quilt I'd bought at a garage sale swathed the bed in a multihued sea of colors, but this mattress was different, softer than mine. Overhead, a ceiling fan whirled slowly, providing a light but welcome breeze.

I didn't have a ceiling fan in my room.

Where was I? In the last glimpse I'd had of my bedroom, black, ashy smudges had layered the carpet and walls. These walls were bare, peeling but clean. I shook my head, and my gaze landed on a junglelike corner of thriving plants, brilliant green and dewy. My plants were dry, nearing death.

Obviously I'd been moved. The man, the one who'd wanted to neutralize me, had brought me here. Yes. Rome was his name, and that's what he'd done. Too bad he hadn't been a dream. His harsh, savagely sensual face was too vivid in my mind; his threats still rang in my ears. My fingers still trembled from having held him off.

Shouldn't I be dead? I glanced down at my hands, turning them in the light. At the very least, shouldn't I have awakened in a laboratory, strapped to a table, with evil scientists doing things to my body they wouldn't do to farm animals? Instead, I felt well-rested and clean. I even tasted mint, as if someone had recently brushed my teeth. My hair and skin smelled fragrant, like jasmine body wash. I did not want to contemplate what that meant.

Get up, Jamison. Get out of here before Rome returns. Yes, yes. That's exactly what I needed to do. I threw a leg over the side of the bed.

"Good. You're awake," a cold, hard voice said from the doorway. "Not trying to escape, are you?"

Gasping, I whipped my head toward the speaker, my leg dangling guiltily in front of me. Rome filled the doorway, his arms crossed over his chest. He wore another black shirt, the sleeves rolled up, the button at his collar undone. Black slacks hugged lean legs.

He could have been a businessman if it hadn't been for his I've-seen-the-worst-the-world-has-to-offer eyes, with those taut, determined lines around them. The gun holster hooked to his shoulder didn't help the image, either.

"Me?" I gulped. "Try and escape? Never."

"Liar," he said, yet there was no heat in his tone. "Now that you're up, we're going to eat breakfast and talk."

Eat? Talk? But… "Why aren't I dead?" My blood chilled. "Ohmygod, you're one of those crazy people who enjoys fear. You'll probably tell me all the ways you want to hurt me, making me scream and squirm for mercy, before you render the final blow."

He frowned, the action so menacing it propelled a shiver down my spine. "Don't scream. Don't even think about screaming. I'll have to knock you out, then knock out the neighbors."

I gulped at his fierceness. There was a silver lining, though. He'd said "neighbors"-that meant other people were around.

"You have five minutes to get your sexy ass in the kitchen," he said, turning.

Sexy? I nearly gasped. My mouth did fall open. He thought I was sexy when he'd only seen me at my worst? I quickly quashed the surge of pleasure that knowledge brought, and cursed myself for being a sex-starved idiot. "Did you take advantage of me while I was sleeping?"

He paused and flashed an are-you-kidding-me look over his shoulder. Then he strode away, disappearing down the hall and leaving me alone in the room. "Five minutes," he called.

Or what? I wanted to shout, but I was having trouble catching my breath. "Damn sickness," I muttered, because I refused-refused!-to blame my breathlessness on Rome.

I would not be attracted to the man who wanted to kill me.

Even I had standards.

Escape, dummy. Escape! He'd left me alone, the idiot. Well, not alone, but close enough. If I could get out of the apartment/house/wherever I was, I could get help from one of the neighbors. I scrambled from the bed, a little shaky, but stronger than I'd been since getting sick. I wore a tank top and panties (different ones than before, damn it!), which meant the neutralizing bastard had changed my clothes yet again.

First stop: bathroom. I found it easily, since it branched directly from the bedroom, and I took care of urgent business. After that, I raced to the closet. The opportunity to escape ticked like a time bomb in my brain as I grabbed the first pair of jeans I found and tugged them on. They were mine, obviously brought from my home. Actually, several items from my closet hung on the hangers.

As I hastily jerked a T-shirt over my head, my stomach growled. How long had it been since I'd eaten? The bacon-scented air smelled so good. I hated to admit it, but that smell nearly tempted me to forget about something as minor as my own impending murder, and stroll into the kitchen, sit down, and gobble up breakfast.

Why did Rome want me to eat, anyway? To poison me? "Most likely, the diabolical fiend." Or maybe he didn't plan to let me eat at all. Maybe the food was for him, and I was supposed to watch him eat it.

The man was an enigma, that was for sure, and I didn't know what to think of him or his actions. Past, present or future. He hadn't killed me when he'd had the chance. He hadn't done anything damaging-that I knew of.

"Three minutes," Rome called from the kitchen.

"Go fuck yourself," I whispered. I grabbed the tennis shoes that rested on the shoe rack and tugged them on. They were mine, so they fit perfectly. I sprinted to the window, pushed away the curtain and took stock.

Okay, so. I was inside a tall, red brick building. Another red brick structure was right across from it. I glanced down, saw that the fire escape had a workable ladder, and grinned with relief. When I noticed people strolling on the street below, I almost clapped. Excitement rushed through me. Once I got outside, I could scream for help.

My fingers curled over the bottom of the window frame and shoved upward. Except… the window refused to open. "Amph." I put all my muscle into lifting the glass. Nothing happened. "What the hell?" I growled softly.

"I secured the lock," I heard. "Same with the rest of the windows. Same with the front door."

I bit the inside of my cheek, tamping down a scream of fury. His tone was laced with humor and held a splash of smug superiority. How had he known what I was doing, anyway? He couldn't see me. Did he consider me so lame that he didn't even have to check on me? Well, I'd show him.

Maybe I could throw something at the glass, shattering it, then leap outside. I only needed a few seconds, just long enough to get someone's attention so they could call the police.

"If you're thinking about breaking the glass," he called, "you should know it's thicker than normal and requires major force to render the slightest crack. If you're thinking about waving to someone below or across from us, you should know the glass has a film on the outside that prevents anyone from seeing in."

I didn't doubt the truth of his words. At closer inspection, I could see the density of the glass and the glint of a shade. "Thanks for the news flash," I said between clenched teeth.

"You're welcome."

Bastard. Come on, Jamison. Think! There had to be something I could do.

You have power over the four elements, he'd said. I didn't feel any different, didn't feel like a powerful being. But I'd already seen the proof. I'd caused ice to form on my fingers. I'd held the man at bay with some sort of air shield. Did I still possess those abilities?

Not knowing what else to do, I backtracked several feet from the window and held out my arms. I'd show that bastard what happened when he messed with a pissed-off woman. (I hoped.) I'd blow the whole freaking wall off, then climb down. (I hoped.)

"Wind," I said softly, not wanting to snag Rome 's attention. "I summon you."

A few seconds passed. Nothing happened. Not even a slight breeze.

"Wind," I repeated with a little more volume. "I summon thee to thy master." A little dramatic, but… shit. Again, nothing. "I command wind to blow through that fucking wall!"

Once more, my efforts were not rewarded. Why wasn't this working? It had worked before. When I realized what I was doing, thinking, I shook my head. God, here I was, accepting the fact that I had powers. Who'd have thought I would ever end up in this situation? Ordinary Belle Jamison?

"You won't be able to do it." Rome 's voice flowed like warm honey from directly behind me.

I drew in a sharp breath and stiffened. He'd moved so silently, I hadn't heard him approach. Now his warm exhalations caressed the back of my neck. He was so close I could feel the heat of his body seeping through my clothes.

I gulped but didn't turn to look at him. Probably lack of courage on my part, but I chose to think of it as prudence. "If you strike me from behind," I told him, "you're nothing more than a coward."

"For the last time, if I had wanted to hurt you, I would have done so already. Now, put your arms down and we'll go into the kitchen to have our chat."

"Hell, no." Maybe I should have tried to run away just then. Maybe I should have turned around and kneed his balls into his throat. Oh, wait. That wasn't a bad idea. I spun, raising my knee.

Rome gripped my shoulders, twisting me back to the window before I could do any damage. He pinned me in place. "I don't think so. I didn't hurt you, so you're not going to hurt me. Understand?"

My gaze narrowed on the glass. "Why didn't you hurt me?"

He ignored my question. "You ready to eat?"

"No, I'm ready to leave you." At my sides, I shook my hands, increasing their blood flow. Wind, come on!

"Fine." He sighed. "Keep trying. Failure will be good for you." He released the pressure on my shoulders, and I was able to hold my palms out in front of me. "You'll realize that you can't get away from me, no matter how hard you try, and we can get down to business."

My eyelids squeezed tightly, and I visualized what I wanted: a gusting, torrential wind. Hard, pounding. Several seconds passed as I waited for something, anything. Was a slight breeze too much to ask for? Obviously. I got zilch. Nada.

"I told you." He tsked with his tongue.

"I hate when people say that." Irritation swam through me. Irritation and powerlessness, frustration and humming thrums of awareness of him-which only increased my irritation. "I wouldn't be standing here trying to blow this window to smithereens with my bare hands if it weren't for you."

He chuckled, a tender purr at odds with everything I'd come to think about him. "Stubborn," he said.

"Determined." How dare he laugh at me? Tendrils of fury began to replace my other emotions, burning them away.

"Look, I've been threatened, taken against my will to an unfamiliar apartment and infected with some sort of formula. And there's no end in sight! I'll try to escape if I damn well-" My fingers caught fire and I screamed.

"Wonderful," he said drily.

"I'm on fire. I'm on fire!" Panicked, I waved my hands through the air. The flames only intensified. If I hadn't already been convinced I had powers, I would have believed it then.

Rome sighed. "Stop wiggling and take stock. Does it burn you?"

His words penetrated my mind, and I stilled. The panic receded (slightly), as did the flames. The dying fire produced heat on my skin, I realized, but somehow not enough to burn me. "No," I said, shocked.

He reached around me, running his fingers down my arms to my now-extinguished hands, then tracing a fingertip over each nail bed. A delicious shiver stole over me, warm and erotic, enough to lick tiny embers of sensation over my skin. Hot, like the flames. Maybe hotter.

"You're a menace to yourself, not to mention the rest of the world. No wonder the paras want you."

"Excuse me. The what-a's?"

"The paras. Para-agencies." When I made no reply, he added, "Agencies that deal with the paranormal, like PSI."

"Whatever. Those agencies can go to hell," I said, returning my attention to my hands. There were no burn marks, not a hint of redness. What struck me most, though, was how delicate they appeared next to Rome 's. While mine were slender and olive-toned, his were thick and strong. A lovely tawny color. My nails were a little scraggly-I hadn't had the time (or inclination) to file them lately. His were perfectly buffed, obviously well maintained. Scars laced his palms.

"How did I start that fire?" I asked. "That was-that was… "

"Dangerous." He let out another sigh. "You're going to be more trouble than I anticipated."

"You don't know how I did it either, do you?" I felt like crying. "I set my fingers on fire, damn it. I don't want to do that ever again. Not ever!"

"But you will. You'll do worse before the day is out, I'm sure. These new abilities have already found their place in your chemical makeup. They've already changed you. While you slept, they were erratic and uncontrollable." His words were whisper-soft, a caress that traveled along my spine. "Now… "

"Now?" I prompted, my stomach twisting painfully.

"Now you must wield them, not they you. You must dominate them or they will consume you."

I tried to turn and look at him, but he stopped me by resting his chin on top of my head. Fine. He didn't want me to move, I wouldn't move. "How do you know they'll consume me?" I asked, remaining in place.

"Maybe I've been where you are."

My mouth fell open, and I instinctively tried to glance at him again. He applied more pressure to my head, keeping me immobile. "You can control the four elements, too?"

"No." He didn't elaborate.

I bit the inside of my cheek at such a cryptic nonanswer. He'd been where I was, yet he hadn't experienced the same thing. How? Why? I despised this puzzle; I needed answers. Rome was the only person I knew who understood what was happening to me. And so, unfortunately, this government agent who'd threatened to neutralize me was also my only link to sanity. And I didn't even know his last name.

"Help me understand, Rome. Please."

No response.

Tears gathered in my eyes as wave after wave of helplessness bombarded me. "I won't let you kill me, and I won't let you take me to a lab. I didn't ask for this to happen to me."

"But it did happen." His fingers became steel shackles on my wrists. "And just so you know, I didn't keep you alive-" He cut himself off. "I didn't keep you alive to watch you escape." A note of warning dripped from his voice.

Before I had time to act, before I had time to protest, he had my arms anchored behind my back, wrists tied together. The cord he bound me with was cool and firm, unyielding-and foreshadowed malevolence.

My heart slammed against my ribs. "Let me go! What are you doing?"

He gripped my shoulders and whipped me around, finally letting me see his face. His gaze pierced me with a fierceness that somehow managed to shock, frighten and rock me all at once. It darted over me, hungry, reading me, perhaps, before it went flat again, the light in it suppressed as quickly as it had flared.

"Your five minutes are up."

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