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Playing With Fire (CHAPTER FOUR)

NEUTRALIZE ME? I blinked, the words registering like a flashing red light. Neutralize me!

The sexy man stalked toward me as he withdrew a syringe from his shirt pocket. His expression was detached as he uncapped the needle. My eyes widened in horror. I held out my hands, palms facing him in an effort to ward him off. A rush of adrenaline whipped through me.

"Stop!" I shouted. "Don't come any closer." What had I done to make this man want to hurt me?

To my shock, he stopped dead in his tracks. He frowned. Slowly, so slowly, he pushed his hands against the air, as if he were a mime trapped in an imaginary box. His features crinkled in confusion, and he pushed again, only to be blocked again. He scowled, anger chasing away his confusion.

Short locks of his hair billowed around his temples-more wind? In my room?-and he slammed a fist into the air. Bang. Bang. The sound reverberated in my ears. My mouth fell open. He had hit a solid object-a solid object I couldn't see. An invisible wall? No, not invisible, I realized in the next instant, my shock increasing. The air had somehow solidified, become dappled; opalescent waves rolled through it, rippling, sparkling with dust.

That wasn't possible. That simply wasn't possible. As I watched, the man threw his shoulder against… whatever it was, rattling its very foundation. What. The. Hell? I'd never seen anything like it, never heard of anything like it. Was I hallucinating, after all? No, no. That couldn't be right. This felt real. That meant the air was stopping him, really stopping him.

"Drop the shield, Belle." His tone was flat, as flat as his eyes.

Shield? "Drop" it? " That meant he thought I was controlling it. Was I? Impossible. No freaking way. Except, there was a strange sensation in my hands. An unnatural warmth. A bone-deep tingling. I'd never experienced either one before today. "If I do," I said, trying to sound confident, "you'll neutralize me."

"We'll talk," he said.

"Hell, no. You're not with the CDC, are you, you liar?" Escape, I thought then. This was my chance to escape.

If I changed my body position, would I accidentally disrupt the… shield? I didn't know, but I kept my hands lifted and out as I scanned the bedroom. Though I hadn't noticed before, there was a black, ashy film over the carpet and the walls. They must have burned with my nightstand. "What did you do to my room?" I demanded.

"I didn't do anything."

The room doesn't matter. I looked around again, this time doing what I should have been doing the first time: finding a means of escape. The double windows led to a fire escape, but there was a broken ladder and a fifty-foot drop. No thanks. The air vents weren't big enough to fit a poodle through, much less a woman. No again.

My only other option was the door. The door he'd shut, I realized. The door his big, menacing body now blocked. I'd have to get around him, as well as the shield.

Somehow I scrambled out of bed without the use of my hands and with a body weakened from sickness. The action was almost too difficult for me, but I managed, slowly scooting to the edge of the mattress. The man watched through slitted eyes as I stood. Wobbled. Righted myself.

"I'm not letting you leave," he said.

"You might not have a choice." I tried to scream for one of my neighbors, but the action caused my stomach to cramp, and I doubled over. Fighting past the pain, I quickly straightened and inched a step to the right. Instinct demanded I run, but I didn't have the strength. Already my legs shook and my unsteady knees threatened to collapse.

"Plan to walk outside in that?" His frighteningly electric-blue gaze swept over me, lingering on my breasts, between my legs, but his expression remained detached.

He did it on purpose, I knew, to rouse a sense of self-consciousness in me and keep me planted here. But I could have been naked, and I wouldn't have cared. People could look at me all they wanted, as long as I was safe.

He wasn't done, though. He looked me over again, abandoning the detachment in favor of heat. White-hot, exquisite heat. He licked his lips. "Nice outfit," he said, "but I liked you naked better."

As a shiver coasted along my spine, I paused and flicked a glance down at myself. Cool air kissed mile after mile of bare skin. Okay, I wasn't in the bra and panties I remembered. I now wore a skintight white tank that stopped at my belly button and heart-covered bikini panties. I liked you better naked. I almost-almost-leapt across the room and slapped him. He had undressed and redressed me while I was asleep and vulnerable. The bastard.

"Go to hell," I told him, moving another inch. Surprisingly, the shield moved with me, forcing the man to shift to the side, slightly away from the door. Maybe I was controlling it. But how?

I moved another inch. Another. Then… nothing. Though I wanted to keep moving, my body was suddenly petrified, bringing me to a halt. I drew in a shallow, panting breath. Move. You can do it.

"You leave this apartment," he said, "and you're dead." His tone was no longer cold, but as hot as his expression had become.

"Judging by that needle clutched in your hand, I'm dead if I stay."

"I'm the least of your worries, Belle."

"Excuse me if I disagree. Dead is dead." Move! One shaky leg managed to slide forward. Long pause, deep breath. Step. Pause. Another step, another pause. Good. You're doing good. But I knew, deep down, that I'd never make it out of the room at this rate.

Very deliberately, making sure I watched him, he capped the needle and placed it in his shirt pocket. All innocence, he held out his hands, palms out. "Listen to me, Belle. I'm all you've got right now."

"Save it. I don't know why you'd want to hurt an innocent, sick woman, but-"

"You haven't been sick. You've been changing."

I managed yet another inch, but my arms shook more with every second that passed; my knees knocked with such force my entire body vibrated. Stay strong.

"I'm not going to hurt you," he soothed.

"Yeah, right. I watch TV, you know. Every homicidal killer says that, especially when they're holding a syringe."

"I happen to mean it."

Yeah. Sure. He didn't deny being a killer, I noticed. "I bet the CIA and FBI are looking for you. You're probably known as the Phantom Needle and you've done this to hundreds of women."

"Think about what you're saying. Please. You would have heard about something like that on the news. I'm a government agent."

I shook my head and fought a wave of dizziness. "You targeted me because I was sick and too weak to fight you."

"Then why didn't I hurt you while you were sleeping?"

Good question, and one that gave me pause. "Why do you want to inject me? What were you going to inject me with? And don't say medicine. I won't believe you."

A muscle ticked beside his left eye. Instead of answering, he asked me a question of his own. "How do you think you're able to erect that air shield? I know you've never done anything like that before."

I managed one more step before my body once again froze in place. This time, however, I couldn't force myself back into motion. My muscles were like stone, heavy and hard. I ground my teeth together in an attempt to draw on a reservoir of strength I simply didn't have.

I wasn't going to escape, I realized with despair, and there was nothing I could do about it. A sense of helplessness bombarded me. Infuriated me. Scared me.

"You drank the formula," he said. "Whether you know it or not, you drank it. You have powers now. Powers a lot of people want to exploit."

"What formula? I didn't drink anything. I swear."

"Denying it doesn't change the facts."

"I didn't!" As I shouted, my knees gave out. I collapsed onto the floor, yet somehow managed to keep my arms up. But the shield began to shimmer, no longer quite so solid. My heart tripped against my ribs, speeding up, then skipping a beat altogether. "I didn't," I cried weakly.

"You work at Utopia Caf��, do you not? A caf�� that sits across from an unmarked building. A brownstone."

I paled, I know I did. My mouth went dry. I didn't nod, but then, I didn't have to. He knew about me. Had he followed me? Watched me?

Never taking his gaze from mine, he backed away from the shield, from me, and eased into the green velvet recliner in the corner of the room, unharmed by the fire that had evidently decimated my nightstand. I usually read books in that chair (when I had a rare, spare moment), sprawled out in my nightgown, bundled in thick covers.

I'd never again view that chair as a relaxant, though. He made it appear decadent. A place for carnality. His big body lounged against the curves, his legs stretched out in front of him. You can sit on my lap, his expression seemed to say. I'll take care of you. I'll protect you. I'll pleasure you.

Liar!

I might have believed him, if not for the needle sticking out of his pocket. Not to mention the unnerving intensity in his eyes. They were predator eyes. Eyes that watched and waited for the perfect time to strike.

"Release the shield, Belle. It's draining you. Release it and talk to me." Pause. "Please."

The "please" didn't sway me. But I was too weak and my arms hurt too much and death was beginning to look like a holiday. Really, he could kill me now and he'd only be putting me out of my misery.

I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment, drew in a deep breath and felt my arms fall to my sides. A part of me kind of expected the air shield to remain in place, to prove I wasn't the one controlling it. It did remain for a few seconds. Then it wavered again, like waves in an ocean dancing over a beach, only to disappear altogether.

For several minutes, I tried to pull myself up and out of this defeatist position. For several minutes, I failed. I ended up staying on the floor, leaning my forehead against the side of the bed. The coolness of the sheets helped alleviate the feverish burn of my brow.

My shoulders slumped as I gazed at the man. He didn't pounce. He remained where he was, utterly relaxed. "Want some help?" he asked.

"Don't come near me." I panted with exhaustion. God, why couldn't I sound strong? Menacing?

His dark eyebrows arched, but he didn't comment. Didn't point out that he could now do whatever he wanted to me. A long while passed, each minute more painful than the last.

"You wanted to talk to me," I said, just to fill the deathlike silence that had enveloped us, "so talk. You mentioned a formula. Does this formula have a name? What was in it?"

"I can't answer those questions," he replied.

"Can't? Or won't?"

"Won't."

"Why?"

"It's classified."

"Let's see," I said, not bothering to raise my head. "I almost died from a formula you said I drank. You tried to 'neutralize' me because of it. And now you're telling me I don't need to know exactly what it is I allegedly consumed?"

"I'm not going to tell you specifics about the formula itself, but you can ask me something else."

Fine. I would. "When did I supposedly drink this formula?" Let's just see if he could formulate a believable answer.

His lips pulled downward in a tight frown, and he regarded me silently. I found his stare unnerving and strangely arousing. I knew I shouldn't be able to experience any type of arousal in my condition, especially toward this man. And this was the second time he'd made me feel this way! Had he shot me full of some kind of aphrodisiac while I slept? I wouldn't put such a lecherous act past the needle-wielding, clothes-changing bastard.

"Do you recall a man in a lab coat who stormed into the caf�� a week ago?" he asked.

A week had passed? A whole week? The news hit me hard, dizzying, upsetting. So much time had passed, completely unnoticed by me. But despite the time lapse, I recalled that day very well. Lab Coat had swept into Utopia, created havoc, then left me and everyone else to clean up after him.

"Yes." I gulped. "I remember."

"That man is a scientist who ran off with a top-secret experiment, and he poured it in something you drank."

"That's impossible. That's stupid. That's-a mocha latte," I whispered, dazed. Dear Lord. After the chaos at Utopia had died down and Pretty Boy had begun questioning everyone, I'd chugged my too-sweet latte. I hadn't thought anything of it at the time. Now… I just didn't know.

"We weren't sure he'd given it to you. We hoped he hadn't, of course. Then you didn't show up for work, which led us to check on you here, where we discovered you were sick."

"We?" I asked, the word barely audible. There were more men out there like this one? More men who thought I needed neutralizing?

"My employer and I."

My blood ran cold. Was Pretty Boy his boss? If the CIA wanted me dead, I sure as hell was going to end up dead. "Do you work for the CIA?" I croaked.

"Hell, no. I actually don't work for the CDC, either. I work for an agency that you've never heard of. Paranormal Studies and Investigations. PSI. We're like ghosts. To the rest of the world, we don't exist."

So why tell me? I feared the answer: I'd soon be dead and couldn't tattle.

Okay. Did Pretty Boy work for this same agency, then? That guy had been Freaky with a capital F. I could totally believe him capable of ordering my death. Wait. Did I even believe this man's story? He'd already proved to be a liar, saying he was with the CDC when he wasn't.

"You said the formula was changing me. What kind of changes?"

"Do you really need to ask? You called forth the wind. You commanded the air to solidify."

"I didn't call it," I protested. "It just came."

"Did it?" His lip curled on one side, giving him a sardonic edge.

"Yes." The word held a layer of uncertainty.

"If everything goes as we think, you'll soon have power over the four elements. Air, fire, earth and water."

My eyes rounded. "You're saying I'll have powers? Superpowers?" No way. Now I knew he was lying to me.

"No." He gave one jerky shake of his head. "I'm saying you do have superpowers."

I rubbed my temple, trying to subdue a sudden ache. "I hope you realize how insane you sound. Superpowers are for movies. Superpowers are for comic books. They are not for real life or average girls who can't hold on to a job."

"Tell that to your superpowers," he said drily. "And FYI, you're not average anymore." As he spoke, he shifted in the chair.

I scrambled backward. Not that I got far.

"Whoa. Easy." Slowly he lifted his hands, showing me he held nothing. "I was just getting more comfortable."

I relaxed against the mattress again, saying weakly, "I don't want you to get comfortable. I want you to leave. You've overstayed your welcome."

"Sorry." Amusement dripped from his tone. "You're stuck with me."

"Because you have to neutralize me?"

"Yes."

I'd expected him to deny it, and that he hadn't, that he'd flat-out admitted he still planned to neutralize (kill?) me, should have panicked me. It didn't. He hadn't hurt me yet, and I wasn't going to allow myself to worry until he came at me again.

Besides, I did not want to believe him; I couldn't believe him. That would mean I had superpowers. That would mean I had erected that air shield. That would mean something terrible truly had been done to me.

"I wish I could give you an antidote," he said, "but we don't have one. Yet." At least he sounded genuinely apologetic this time.

"There's no need to hurt me. Honest, I'm not a threat to anyone."

He snorted. "Very soon there's every possibility you'll be able to control the weather. You'll be able to start fires without any provocation. Cause floods, tornadoes. How is that not a threat?"

"I'm not going to do any of those things," I ground out.

"You will. You won't be able to help yourself."

"How do you know that for sure?" I had to make him realize exactly how foolish he sounded. "You said it was an experimental formula. That means you can't be one hundred percent sure of anything."

"Let's just say I've spent a lot of time with human lab rats and I know when trouble is coming." He paused, his eyes growing dark. "The man who has done everything in his power to control the formula will want to experiment on you when he discovers you actually drank it."

"Is he your boss?" Was he talking about Pretty Boy, as I'd suspected? "Because if he is, you can tell him I didn't drink a formula, I don't have powers and I need to be left alone."

"Hell, no, he's not my boss. And I can't 'tell' him anything. He runs OASS, Observation and Application of Supernatural Sciences, a nongovernment agency that's PSI's biggest rival. Just so you know, PSI is the home of the good guys." His brows quirked, and he grinned slowly. "Well, the better guys, at least."

If I'd had the energy to throw my hands in the air, I would have. I had to be the last sane person in the universe. "This is crazy!" I said. "You're an ass, he's an O-ASS. You're all asses!"

"Time will prove the truth of my words," he said with utter confidence.

A tremor slithered along my spine. His unshakable assurance did more to convince me than anything else had. Time would reveal the truth, and whether I totally believed his claim or not, I needed to be prepared for whatever was revealed. I might not believe this one hundred percent, but he certainly did.

"What-what kind of experiments are we talking about here?" I asked.

"Let's see. He's skinned people so he could later coat their bodies with metal, making them impenetrable. He's cut off their arms and replaced them with weapons. He's injected people with poison, hoping their bodily fluids would contain those poisons and kill anyone they kiss, anyone they screw. Oh, here's one you might enjoy-he's even fed people an experimental formula to give them powers over the four elements. Everyone-but one-who's taken it has either frozen to death or burst into flames."

God. Was he trying to warn me that I, too, would either freeze or burn? "I don't want to die," I told him. "And I don't want to be a human lab rat. I'm a person."

There was a brief flash of guilt in his eyes, then nothing. No emotion. "That's not for me to decide."

My chin trembled, and my eyes burned with moisture. "Why are you telling me all of this? If you had stuck with the CDC story, I might have cooperated with you."

"You deserve the truth," he said gently. "Or at least as much of it as I can tell you." His features softened, completely at odds with the underlying meaning of his words. I deserved the truth, but he was still going to hurt me.

So much for not worrying until he came at me. I tried to stand, tried to push myself up and run, but every ounce of my being protested and I ended up slumped over again. Fear beat through me. There had to be-ohmygod. My gaze was focused on my hands, which were folded in my lap. My eyes widened, becoming impossibly round. No. No, no, no. I blinked, but there was no change.

Ice crystals had just formed on the tips of my fingers. I'd watched them, watched the crystals form out of nothing, simply crystallizing from my skin. The cold didn't bother me, didn't affect me at all.

In that moment, I believed him. I believed everything he'd said, without any hint of doubt. I would control the weather, he'd said. Rain, snow… sleet. I would cause floods, fires and tornadoes, he'd said. People wanted to experiment on me, he'd said. Ohmygod!

"What's your name?" I gasped, hoping to drown out thoughts of ice and experiments. I rubbed my hands together for warmth and managed to melt the ice. I didn't tell him what had just happened.

"That's not important."

"I disagree. I like to know the names of the men who want to kill me. It's one of my little quirks."

His lips twitched. " Rome. My name is Rome."

An exotic name for an exotic-looking man. I frowned. Considering the reason he was here, I had no business thinking of him as "exotic."

"I don't want superpowers, Rome. I don't want to be in this situation," I added desperately. "Help me get my normal life back. Please."

"I can't. I told you that. The scientist who created the formula, maybe… " He shook his head. "Even then it's doubtful."

"I'm willing to try."

"Too bad. Dr. Roberts is missing and no one has been able to find the crafty bastard."

Dr. Roberts-I committed the name to memory. That harmless-looking man in the lab coat was the one ultimately responsible for my predicament. He deserved a horde of killers chasing him. "Tell me something. If you and your boss are the good guys, how can either of you consider hurting me? Destroying me?"

His lips lifted in a smile completely devoid of humor. "We do what we must to keep the world safe. That's our job. Sometimes good people do bad things, even unintentionally, and they must be stopped. If you're left on your own, you could cause one disaster after another. Hurt millions of people. Destroy-"

"I told you," I interrupted, determined to make him believe me. "I would never do those things."

"You wouldn't mean to, but… " He left the rest unsaid.

"What's more, you could end up in the wrong hands. Enemy hands, and you could be used against us."

My eyes closed briefly, opened, then closed again, opened, and I stared at the carpet. My remaining strength (not that there had been much) abandoned me with lightning speed. Black stars winked over my vision, interlocking and slowly weaving together to form a solid wall I couldn't penetrate.

He'd won. Rome had won. Any moment now I would sink into total oblivion. He'd be able to do whatever he wanted to me then. Kill me. Neutralize me. I tried to fight the seductive call of sleep, but it proved increasingly potent. How could I do this? How could I fall asleep amid such danger?

If he possessed any type of remorse, any guilt, any hesitation in doing his job, I had to bring that into focus now. Before it was too late.

" Rome," I said, the word nearly undetectable. "Please don't hurt me. You won't only kill me, you'll kill my father. I'm all he's got. I pay his bills. He's too weak to work. Without me, he'll lose everything, will be destitute. Homeless… dead. Have you ever had anyone depend on you for their survival?"

Something almost tender flashed over his face, as if he was thinking of someone.

Maybe I imagined it, maybe I didn't. Either way, I didn't have time to think about it. Darkness consumed me in the next instant.

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