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Playing With Fire (CHAPTER FOURTEEN)

AS PREDICTED, the door burst open. Rome stalked inside, dragging a protesting Tanner behind him. When the door closed in their wake, he pushed Tanner into a chair and dropped a heavy bag at the boy's feet.

"I'm not afraid to use my lethal kung fu moves on you," Tanner growled.

"Stay," Rome growled back. "And don't speak for the rest of the day." He pivoted toward me, and when our eyes met his expression softened. "You're awake."

I sat up slowly and finger-combed my hair, wishing I had a mirror. I probably looked like crap, while he looked edible. He wore one of the black T-shirts he favored, and black slacks. I would have liked to see him in stone-washed jeans, but he only ever wore pants. And no underwear, I suddenly recalled, my cheeks heating.

He approached me and settled at the edge of the bed, a whisper away. My heartbeat accelerated, nearly exploding from my chest when his arm brushed mine. Always there was this electric tingle between us.

"How are you?" I asked, drinking him in. His face glowed with healthy color. He didn't appear strained or hurt. In fact, he looked perfectly normal. Well, as normal as a dark angel could look.

"I'm good. Just a twinge in my side. How are you?"

"Better."

He reached out and smoothed a hand over my cheek, his gaze becoming fierce. Lethal. "You scared me. Don't ever do that again."

I shivered at the savage intensity he projected. "I won't."

His blue, blue eyes bored into mine as he laced our fingers together. "When you passed out… "

I squeezed his hand.

"Ah, look at the little lovebirds," Tanner cooed. "Want Lexis and me to leave?"

"Yes," Rome said, not switching his focus from me. They didn't leave, unfortunately, but stayed where they were. With absolute tenderness, Rome 's thumb played across my palm. "Belle, do you feel well enough to go outside and practice using your powers?"

At the moment, with his strength seeping into me, I felt capable of anything. "Sure."

"Good. After yesterday, I need to know how you'll hold up. Besides, I don't want to head into the city until dark, so we've got time to kill." He turned to Lexis. "Did you tell her about her dad?"

I stiffened with renewed fear and felt a cool draft gust through my veins.

"No," Lexis said. "I knew you would want to explain."

"Someone better tell me what's going on with my dad before I freeze this entire place."

With his free hand, Rome hooked a strand of hair behind my ear. "He's fine, but I'm afraid Vincent might try to use him to draw you out."

A lump formed in my throat, and my hand flew to my mouth. If my dad were in danger, I'd-I'd… I'd simply die, and take everyone responsible with me. "We can't move him from the center. His medication is there. His nurses are there."

"I know. That's why I'd like to send Lexis to guard him."

"I don't know." Automatically, my attention moved to the woman in question. Yes, I'd seen her catch the knives Rome had thrown to her, but could she fight off armed men? Would she kill to protect my father, a man she'd never met before?

Her lips twitched in genuine amusement. Before I could blink, she unsheathed a knife and tossed it straight at me. I heard a whoosh, immediately followed by a thud as the blade embedded in the wall behind me. I gasped out, "Holy shit!"

"I can take care of him," she said, her confidence a palpable force.

"Way to test my bladder control," I said drily. My pulse hammered hard and fast. God knows I didn't have enough excitement in my life. Having a knife thrown at me was like contaminated icing on an already poisoned cake. "She's perfect," I told Rome. "I'll have to call the center and ask if they'll allow her, but-"

"No need," he said, cutting me off. "The kid here apparently does have some uses. He's very good with a computer and already hacked into their system. They are now under the assumption that a specialized cardiac nurse has been ordered to give him twenty-four-hour care."

"Okay. Good. I'll just call my dad and-"

"No phone calls. No telling who's been tapped." There was an apology in his tone, but the command was clear, unrelenting.

Besides, I'd told my dad I wouldn't call him. I'd told him I would be away on a fabulous vacation, relaxing. I wish.

"Unlike what you see in the movies," Rome said, "phone calls can be traced instantly. If your dad is under any type of monitoring, I don't want you in contact with him."

"I understand." Sighing, I glanced at Lexis. "Can you keep me updated on him? Secretly? He thinks I'm on vacation, and it would be best to let him keep thinking that."

"Of course."

I eased back against my pillow. "I'll shower and eat, then we can go outside for our practice session. Okay?" I asked Rome.

He leaned down, pressing his cheek against mine, but not before I caught a glimpse of his wickedly sexy smile. "Belle Jamison naked and in the shower. I like that image."

I gulped, and peered once again at Lexis, who had already turned away from us to busy herself in the kitchen. I didn't want to hurt her more than necessary. Look at what the woman had done-and what she was going to do for me. I don't think Rome realized his ex still loved him. In his realm of male understanding (aka limited), he likely figured Lexis didn't care who he was with.

"One day I'll be able to join you in there-and not just in my mind." His breath fanned my cheek, then my ear, and he added softly, "I've been thinking about this, and I think the shower is the perfect place for us. If things get too hot, the water will cool us off."

Or turn us to steam, as hot as I was for him. "One day," I replied just as softly. God, I hoped that day came soon. "I want you so much."

His nostrils flared, and his eyes gleamed with heat. He looked, in short, like a man who was battling a savage need to claim me. "Get in there. Hurry. I've been worried about you, and if you don't get in there I'm going to take you here and now."

Oh, I loved it when he went all alpha on me. I lumbered from the bed. My knees were wobbly as I hobbled into the bathroom. For my own sake, I locked the door.

I showered, lingering in the hot, steamy water and letting it clean me inside and out. I felt stronger with every second that passed. The damp, misty air soothed my throat and swept the soot from my lungs. A part of me worried about Pretty Boy Vincent finding us and bursting in on me, catching me with my pants down. I'd been surprise-attacked too many times in the last couple of days. Still, the other part of me simply luxuriated in this totally normal act. The cabin was a safe haven, and one I desperately needed at the moment.

When the water became too cold to bear, I exited and dressed in the black shirt and jeans Lexis had packed for me-which someone had laid across the toilet. Someone who had picked the door lock and entered the bathroom without my knowledge. Whoever the lock picker was (cough, cough- Rome!) hadn't brought me panties or a bra.

I was unwilling to wear the dirty ones-if I had them, that is, which I didn't. The aforementioned someone had taken them with him. So, as this someone had obviously planned, I dressed without them. No panties. No bra. My lips inched into a smile. Lecherous man.

Rome was a true male, even in the face of danger.

When I emerged, a cloud of steam followed me. Rome, Tanner and Lexis were at the table, eating breakfast. Seemed weird, since the last meal I recalled was the breakfast in Lexis's apartment. I guess that's what happens when you sleep an entire day away. I strode to them, meaning to claim the empty chair next to Rome, but he tugged me onto his lap and plopped a buttered biscuit in front of me, all without pausing in his speech.

"-forces are divided while they search for both Belle and Dr. Roberts. Now is the perfect time to strike."

Sitting in his lap aroused me. My nipples instantly pearled; my stomach quivered in anticipation of a touch. Maybe I was a slut and a harlot (a slot?). Or maybe, just maybe, Rome emitted lethal pheromones no woman could resist.

"I'm not saying I disagree with you," Lexis said, slathering her own biscuit with strawberry jelly, "but you have to consider the fact that we're divided, too. I'll be with Belle's father, while the three of you evade capture from Vincent. And John, if he's looking for you."

"John might be looking for us?" I asked. I smeared honey on my biscuit and then proceeded to inhale it. "I thought Rome took care of him."

"He has to know you're helping Belle now," Lexis said to Rome.

He plucked the last nibble from my fingers and popped it into his mouth. "For all he knows, she escaped me and I'm still hunting her down."

Lexis snorted. "No one intelligent will believe she escaped you."

"Hey! For your information," I told her indignantly, "I did escape him."

"And I helped," Tanner added. His chest puffed up like a peacock.

"I know you did, honey, and I'm proud of you." Lexis patted his back. "Truth is stranger than fiction, I suppose, but no one will believe Belle defeated Rome."

"I called John and told him she was a wily little thing and had gotten away," Rome said, "but that I'd find her soon and bring her ass in."

Both Lexis and I gasped. "You did?" we asked simultaneously. Our tones were different, though. She sounded surprised. I sounded pissed.

Rome 's hand squeezed my waist. "Yes, I did."

Okay, I was totally feeling betrayed here. Did Rome truly plan to bring me in after I helped him with Sunny? I couldn't stand it; I had to know. I deserved to know. "Are you going to be an asshole and give me to John when you no longer need me?"

"John didn't say much," Rome said, ignoring me. "Just told me to find her before Vincent did."

Lexis sighed. "Knowing John, he's probably got other agents looking for her."

"Stop ignoring me. I'm getting mad, and we all know that's not a good thing." I pinched Rome 's leg. "You better answer me."

"We'll talk about this later, Wonder Girl," he said.

Wonder Girl. Hmm, I liked it. I just wished he had answered me. Frowning, I sipped at my water. "Why later?" I finally asked, unable to help myself.

He sighed. "You'll get mad. I'd rather talk to you about it in the shower."

My stomach twisted. "Why will I get mad?" There was only one answer that would make me mad, and that was that Rome did indeed plan to betray me.

He ran a hand through his hair. "I did plan to turn you in, okay? After we got Vincent off your back, I planned to dangle you in front of John so he'd be distracted, and I could take Sunny safely into hiding."

Tanner and Lexis became quiet, and all hint of moisture left my mouth. "But… but I thought you said you needed my powers to help hide her."

"I did, just not the way you assumed. John will want you even more when you're able to control your abilities."

"You bastard!" I tried to jump out of his lap, but he wouldn't let me. He held on tight. "You told me to trust you, and you even said specifically that you wouldn't betray me," I yelped.

"If it makes you feel any better, I've felt horribly guilty for double-crossing you. I was only able to comfort myself with the thought that you'd be able to take care of yourself."

"You-you-" Words failed me, I didn't know what to call him. I'd never felt so betrayed in my life-not even when I'd discovered that the Prince of Darkness had cheated on me.

"I'm not going to do it," Rome said, squeezing my waist again. "I can't. I realized that last night. I'll think of something else."

I started to relax, but forced myself to stay on guard. "What changed your mind?" I demanded.

"Yes, what changed you mind?" Lexis echoed.

I whipped my gaze to her. "You knew?"

She nodded.

Bitch!

"I didn't like seeing you hurt," Rome admitted. He watched me. "I'm sorry, baby. I am. I can't stand the thought that I could be the cause of anyone hurting you. Including myself. Do you forgive me?"

Yes, I realized. I did. I was hurt, but I did forgive him. He had wanted to protect his daughter and had been willing to do anything necessary. I would have done the same for my dad. "Yes," I said.

He let out a relieved breath. "Good. You're as innocent as Sunny, and I'd like to keep you that way, Wonder Girl."

"That name is totally lame," Tanner interjected, clearly trying to bring back our earlier jovial mood. "She's Viper, plain and simple-unless we decide to go with Homicidal Tendencies Wench like I suggested earlier, that is."

I threw a glob of egg at him. The small white-yellow missile nailed him in the nose and tumbled onto his black shirt. I looked down at myself, looked at Rome, then looked at Tanner again. "Hey, we're all wearing black."

"That's because we're going to break and enter tonight," Rome said, his voice as calm as if he'd told us we were signing up for a massage and pedicure.

"Dr. Roberts?" The fact that I didn't protest the actual breaking and entering spoke volumes. I was becoming a hard-core criminal. An outlaw who obeyed no rules but my own. A little dramatic, don't you think, Jamison? I'd never broken into a place before, and was a bit scared about the prospect now. Scared and, I admit, excited.

"Yep. We're touring the doc's place," Tanner said. "Uninvited."

My lips dipped into a frown. "It's probably being watched."

"I'm counting on that," Rome replied. "This time we'll make sure we leave someone alive to question. Which reminds me. If everyone is done with their breakfast, we need to help Belle learn to control her powers."

GOOD THING THE SUPPLIES Rome and Tanner had fetched earlier were a fire extinguisher, raincoats, gloves and an industrial-size bottle of Tylenol. Not to mention the supplies Rome had acquired when he'd left me in that "safe house" I burned down. Guns, guns and more guns. Large guns, small guns, guns that didn't look like guns.

I'd never fired one before, but vowed to learn. If people were going to shoot at me, I was damn well going to shoot back. Dirty Harriet, that's me.

Rather than practice with us, Lexis left for the city. The sooner she arrived to guard my dad, the better. Tanner, Rome and I trudged into the forest, not stopping until we reached a small clearing. We spent an hour practicing. I say "we" loosely. I practiced, Rome yelled and Tanner cracked jokes.

None of us had made any progress at that point, but at least they were the only witnesses to my… mishaps.

Sunlight glared overhead, heating the air, making it thick and sticky. The trees provided some shade, but it wasn't enough. The heat, combined with Rome 's snarls, put me on edge. The birds had stopped chirping and flown away. The insects had stopped singing and buzzing, opting for escape. Smart bugs.

"Concentrate this time," Rome said. "Both of you," he added, shooting Tanner a glower.

Tanner had his arm around my waist on the excuse that personal contact would help him read me, and I felt his muscles tense. "I was concentrating before, Agent Ass. We both were."

"If you're concentrating," Rome said, "why the hell have I doused three fires, been hit with a dirt ball, endured a hailstorm and nearly had my balls frozen off? You're supposed to tell her when her emotions are becoming too wild, Tanner, so she can learn when she needs to take the goddamn edge off them."

Scowling, Tanner dropped his arm to his side and kicked a rock with the toe of his boot. "I've been trying, but I'm new at this, too. I don't know when they're wild enough to cause damage, and I don't know when they're too weak to do nothing."

"Then learn together, damn it!"

" Rome," I said, hands on hips. No way would I allow him to talk to Tanner like that. "I'd like to speak with you privately."

He stopped giving Tanner the evil eye long enough to stalk toward me. "What?"

We stood nose to nose. I glared up at him, strangely excited. Soot darkened his face, trailing black streaks down his cheeks. "What's your problem? You're making everyone miserable when you should be happy for me. For the first time, I formed a mound of dirt-the fourth element-with my mind." Or rather, with my jealousy, the emotion that summoned the earth to me. But I didn't mention that fact because I'd had to think of Lexis and Rome -gag-together. Eek. If I didn't stop thinking this way, I'd form another dirt ball. Back to the conversation. "That should have put you in a stellar mood."

His jaw muscles twitched, and he glanced away from me, scowling off into the distance. "I don't like that Tanner has to put his hands on you."

"What?" Of all the things I'd expected to hear, that wasn't close by any means. Could shock kill a person? I think I'd just experienced a minideath. "He's a kid. A horny kid, but a kid nonetheless."

"So. He's old enough to like it."

I rolled my eyes, though I couldn't stop the thrill that tingled along my skin. This strong, sexy man was jealous. About me. Me! "It's not like he had his hand up my shirt. You're being silly." You wonderful thing, you. "You better treat him nicer or the moment I'm able, I'll make sure you're followed by a rain cloud for days."

Quicker than the blink of an eye, his arms snaked around me, dragging me into his embrace. "I'll feel better after I've made you mine."

Despite the oppressive heat, I shivered. I licked my lips, unable to stop myself from imagining this fierce man stripping me down, laving his way over my entire body, then branding me with his scent, his taste, his touch.

"Oh, hell. Not this again." Tanner moaned. "I thought we were on a time crunch here. Nowhere in the Kill the Bad Guys schedule did I see a make-out break. You're soiling my innocence with all this romance crap."

I brushed a gentle kiss against Rome 's lips-lips that instantly softened and beckoned me to linger. "Settle down and behave," I told him, ignoring Tanner. "We're all hot, tired and cranky. If we finish practicing early and you're a good boy, I might let you kiss me again." Wait. No hard-core kissing. Stop forgetting.

His mouth curled in a small but genuine smile. "You're going to be the death of me, you know that?"

God, I hoped not. My smile dissolved, the thought sobering me. In the coming days, he could be hurt or killed. By me. By someone else. I totally understood now why he and Lexis had offered themselves as guinea pigs when the prize was potential invincibility. Anything to protect your partner. "I'll do better, too. I promise."

Unaware of the complete change in my mood, he slapped my butt and turned to Tanner. Rome 's eyes were lighter, his face more relaxed. "Sorry," he said grudgingly. "Are you ready to try again?"

"Whatever, dude." Tanner rolled his shoulders, sweat painting his shirt onto his skin. "Let's get this over with so I can fill my undies with ice. Your balls might be freezing, but mine are melting off."

"Places, everyone," Rome said.

"We need to do something different," I said. But what? Determined to succeed, I shut my eyes and forced myself to concentrate. In, out, I breathed, and I could hear Tanner doing the same. In. Out. He reached over and closed his hand around mine. His palm was smooth and possessed a quiet strength.

Because the mental thing had worked when I'd needed a Keep Out sign, I pictured our hands fused together. Connecting. Locking. Soon I felt my mind reaching out for his, probing for contact. I almost opened my eyes in surprise. I could feel myself trying to break down the mental door separating us.

"We're melding," Tanner said under his breath. "We're melding. We're actually meld-" As he spoke, I mentally pushed the rest of the way inside his mind. Suddenly he jerked, and I felt a jolt travel the length of my arm. "Shit," he said. "Something just… broke inside me. I can really feel you. I can really feel your emotions."

"Make it rain," Rome commanded.

Rain. I let images of sad things float through my mind. Lost puppies. The homeless. Orphaned children. Soon I hoped to be able to do this instantly, to automatically draw on my emotions without thought or force. As for now, this was the best I could do. World hunger. The amount of fat grams in a Krispy Kreme.

"My God, Viper, your sadness level just spiked to thunderstorm proportions. I can actually feel the storm inside you." Pride and shock laced Tanner's voice.

Even as he spoke, thunder boomed. The clouds opened up and poured a deluge of rain over the forest, soaking the three of us. Cotton and denim became glued to my body. Wet hair streaked my temples and cheeks. Water droplets caught in my eyelashes.

"Bring it down," Tanner said.

Bring it down, bring it down. I couldn't do it, though. The sadness was there. Strong and indomitable. Then I felt something-someone-reach inside me and take most of the sadness away. It wasn't Tanner, I knew that. The… essence was different, hotter. My eyelids popped open, and I met Rome 's surprised stare.

"How did you do that?" I asked, at the same time Tanner said, "The storm is dying."

The rain slowed to a gentle drizzle.

"Now," Rome said with determination. "Make it stop."

I tried to blank my mind completely, to allow myself to feel no emotion, but random thoughts stubbornly intruded. How had Rome swept through me, taking the heart of my sadness? What was my dad doing at this moment? When would I next eat one of those delicious but fattening Krispy Kremes? Did Rome think I looked like a drowned cat right now?

"Okay, why is your embarrassment level spiking?" Tanner asked me.

"No reason. Now zip it."

Several minutes passed before I successfully emptied my head. The rain, at long last, trickled to a halt.

"Good." Satisfaction gleaming in his eyes, Rome nodded in approval. "Now make it rain again. Faster this time."

My teeth gnashed together. How easy it was for him to issue the order. Following it, however, proved difficult. Emotions did not like being forced. A depressed person would have trouble laughing and smiling. An excited bride-to-be would have trouble shooting her fianc�� in a killing rage. Well, unless he really deserved it.

"Come on, baby. You can do it. I know you can."

"I'm trying, damn it," I snapped.

"Uh, I think you're about to start a fire," Tanner said drily.

Bubble baths and chocolate. Champagne and roses. I inhaled slowly, exhaled loudly and long. Calm, I was calm, damn it. Wait. I needed to be sad. Being without Rome -although at the moment, that thought didn't sadden me too much. He was so freaking bossy! Be sad, be happy. Blah, blah, blah. Why didn't he get over here and try to command himself-

"Ow!" Tanner jerked away from me, breaking our connection. "You're burning the shit out of me. If I scar, I'm suing your ass."

I blinked down at my hands. Sure enough, the ends of my fingers blazed. Anger-crap. It would have been nice if Rome had once again swept through me and helped rid me of that. Though I still wasn't sure how he'd done so before. I shook my hands and managed to extinguish the fire. "If you scar," I told Tanner, "the ladies will love you."

His face brightened. "Really?"

My eyes clashed with Rome 's, hazel against blue. "This isn't working. I'm an emotional person, but I can't just force myself to feel a certain way. Damn it, I don't want these powers."

He crossed his arms over his chest. "Well, you've got them, so you need to learn how to use them."

"It's too hard."

"The more you practice, the easier it will get."

"That doesn't help me now!"

"We've got plenty of time before we need to leave. We'll keep at it. You'll get it. I have confidence in you."

His praise almost softened me. Almost. "A few more hours isn't going to make a difference. I've connected with Tanner, and he's doing wonderfully, gauging my emotions. But I can't control them."

"I am good, aren't I?" Tanner interjected with a grin.

"Stop whining, Belle." Rome showed me no mercy. "Just close your eyes and try again."

Had he always been this much of a task master? This determined to get his way? "No."

"Tanner isn't giving up," Rome said.

My eyes narrowed. Oh, how low. I didn't appreciate being compared to someone else. Especially a smart-mouthed kid. I crossed my own arms over my chest. Let's see if he liked payback. "You want me to keep at this, then you'll damn well tell me about your own powers and how you mastered them."

"Belle," he said warningly.

I'd issued the ultimatum and I wasn't backing down, wasn't taking it back. I wanted to know. Hell, I deserved to know. And if I had to force his hand like this, I would. "Fine. Don't tell me. We'll see you inside the cabin." After blowing him a saccharine-sweet kiss, I turned on my heel. I grabbed Tanner's hand and moved toward the cabin.

Surprisingly, the kid followed me with dragging feet. "I want you to burn my hands again," he whined. "I need a scar."

"Keep it up and I'll burn your entire body."

Rome growled low in his throat. "You want to know, I'll show you."

I froze. Inch by inch, I turned and faced him. My heart slammed against my ribs.

"Go inside, Tanner," he said, eyes leveled on me.

"I want to see, too."

"Go in the house. You've mastered your job already. Now I'm going to master mine. I'm going to filter for her. Go in the house," Rome repeated.

"Without me, you won't know when or how much to filter."

"Tanner. Go."

"But I want to see your superpower. I'll just look out the window, so you might as well-"

"I tried to be nice, Tanner." Rome 's face was dark with fury. His nostrils were flared, his irises were glowing crystalline blue and his pupils were a mere slash of black. "This isn't a joke. This isn't a game. Go in the house, or I'll kick you in."

Tanner raced inside without another word.

I had to force myself not to follow the kid. A lump formed in my throat as Rome stalked toward me. True frissons of fear unfurled, chilling the air around me.

"I'm going to show you my ability," he said through suddenly sharp teeth, his tone deceptively quiet, "and you're going to wish to God I hadn't."

true

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