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Playing With Fire (CHAPTER SEVEN)

IMMEDIATELY AFTER dropping that little bomb on me- Rome has a daughter. A daughter!-he shoved to his feet, skidding his stool backward. He prowled to the far counter and withdrew something from one of the drawers. He kept his back to me. "You're going to help me, right?" he asked.

"Whatever you say, boss," I said uncertainly. What was he doing?

"Good." He pivoted on his heel and came toward me carrying a-ohmygod! He was holding a knife!

Gasping, I jolted backward and tumbled off the stool. I landed with a thump, the cold linoleum floor doing nothing to cushion my fall. A sharp pain shot up my arms. Air shield, air shield. I needed a freaking air shield. But my hands were tied, literally! I tried to scramble back, pushing with my feet, but I wasn't fast enough. Rome reached me and tsked under his breath.

"So suspicious," he said.

"How can you do this?" I cried. What I wouldn't give to hold out my arms and blast him with an air shield. If only I could will that power to work without the use of my hands. "I'll-I'll fry you. I'll rip you apart with a tornado. You said I'd be able to command a tornado, and I'll do it."

Unconcerned, he tossed the knife in the air and caught the hilt.

"You need my help to hide your daughter," I reminded him. "How can you-ummph!"

Without a word, he flipped me onto my stomach. Through my shock and fear, I registered the sound of metal slicing through cord. Once. Twice. My mouth fell open as I realized he was cutting me loose, both wrists and ankles.

"You're free," he said. "Trust me now?"

I swung my arms in front of me; I parted my legs and drew my knees toward my chest, then jumped to my feet. With freedom came a surge of bravery. I whipped around, pointing a finger at his chest and growling, "Don't you ever come at me with a knife again."

One of his brows arched in an insolent salute. "Or a needle?" he asked drily.

"That's right."

"No sharp objects, eh? You're taking all the fun out of our relationship." He tossed the knife in the sink with expert precision. The tip embedded right beside the drain, and the hilt swayed back and forth. "There are a few things I have to do," he said, capturing my gaze with his own. His stare was intense, gauging. "Can I trust you to stay here?"

I batted my lashes innocently. "Of course. You can trust me as much as I can trust you."

"I'll take that to mean you can trust me," he snapped. A frown pulled his lips tight. "Don't bother trying to call anyone. There are no phones here. Do not leave this apartment, either. You will be hunted. I covered our tracks, but that doesn't mean you're completely safe."

My chin rose, and I regarded him with all the bravado I could manage. "That's assuming they'll be able to capture me, even knowing my location."

He rolled his eyes and stepped toward me, closing precious personal space. I stood my ground, not backing away as I wanted-or rather, should have wanted. Heat radiated from him, and it made me shiver deliciously.

"You're vulnerable, Belle. Until you learn how to control your abilities, you aren't the amazing Periodic Table Chick, and you'll be defeated. Every time."

"Don't call me that!" I said, stomping my foot. The title seemed to drive home the fact that I wasn't me anymore. I was someone else, someone different and dangerous and hunted.

"Vulnerable?" he asked, lips curling. "Or Periodic Table Chick?"

"Both. I'm not some superhero. I will find a way to get rid of these powers, and then everyone will have to leave me the hell alone." Nothing was worth this kind of trouble. Nothing was worth being experimented on and/or killed.

"For your sake, I hope we do find the doctor." His tone had lost all traces of amusement, emerging grave and sad.

Wait. Something wasn't right here. Something… My eyes slitted and my hands fisted on my hips. "You're contradicting yourself, Rome. If we find him and he helps me get rid of my powers, I won't be able to help you hide your daughter, now will I? Not that I understand just how I'm going to help, anyway. And you can't just tell me your daughter needs to be hidden and then tell me nothing else. I need details. Why are you going to hide her? Is someone after her?"

He closed his eyes and rubbed a hand down his face. "You like the sound of your own voice, don't you? That's why you ask so many questions."

"Answer me. I'll just keep asking until you do."

"Fine. No, she's not being hunted. Not yet. But she's a little girl and she deserves a normal life. She'll never get that here. She'll never have any kind of life if I don't hide her, because she'll be drafted by one of the paras. With or without my approval." His voice was stark, pain-filled. "And I never said anything about when I'd let you try and get rid of your abilities."

I scowled. "Let me? Did you really freaking just say let me?"

"Have you noticed that you often repeat what I say? Yeah, I said let you. Unless you want to make something of it, which I don't recommend, I need to go."

Okay, he was seriously testing my (practically nonexistent) restraint, but it was a test I aced. I didn't blast him with rapid-fire curse words (bastard, son of a bitch, Nazi commando) and I didn't slap him until he dropped to the ground and blubbered like a baby. I did change the subject, not disclosing the fact that I would do whatever the hell I wanted the moment he was gone.

Still, I couldn't act too eager for him to leave.

"Where are you going?" I frowned. "Someone really could try to sneak in here while you're gone."

"I'm picking up a few things we'll need, and to be honest, I'd rather risk someone sneaking in here than risk taking you out into the world. You might burn it down."

I threw up my hands in exasperation. "How many times do I have to say it? People are not in danger from me." The more disastrous the deeds he thought me capable of, the easier it might be for him to do his job and take me to his boss. I hadn't been able to call a wind, for God's sake. And so what that I'd set my fingers on fire? I hadn't hurt anyone or anything. "This is-"

"That's enough from you," he said, cutting me off. "One more word and I'm going to tie you up again."

I gasped. He'd do it, too, I thought, my fury increasing. He claimed I was no longer his prisoner, that we were going to help each other, but he was already threatening to bind me. If he dared pick up that cord, I'd… I'd-

A short blast of fire spewed from my eyes and slammed into the far kitchen wall.

I screamed the moment I realized what had happened. Rome dived to the floor. He was able to avoid direct impact, but several sparks danced on his cheek, singing the flesh. My eyes widened in horror as I stared at the growing inferno.

"You were saying?" he asked, arching those insolent brows again. He rubbed at his burned cheek.

My horror growing with the speed of the fire, I rushed to the sink and filled a cup with water. I tossed the contents over the flames, then repeated the actions over and over. It didn't help.

Rome managed to contain the damage with a fire extinguisher-but not my mortification. My God. I was a menace. I was dangerous. Maybe Rome and the others were on the right track, wanting me rubbed out. The scent of burning paint and wood filled the air. Black plumes of smoke curled upward, making me cough.

After setting the extinguisher aside, Rome jumped up and jerked the smoke detector from the ceiling before it could erupt. He tossed it in the sink and gave me a pointed stare. "Still think the world is safe from you?" he asked, showing no mercy.

"No," I said softly, dejectedly. "I'm a freak."

"But you're a cute freak. I won't be gone more than an hour, okay? Try and control yourself."

"I will." My shoulders slumped. I could have killed Rome, could have set him ablaze. I wanted to escape him-didn't I?-but I didn't want to destroy him. Not when he'd never really hurt me.

Rome released a soft sigh. In the next instant, he was cupping my jaw in his hands and forcing me to face him. His fingers felt wonderful. Rough and abrasive, but utterly provocative. Sensual. Hot and strong. But most surprising of all, they felt comforting. I tingled. The warm, prickling lances seeped past skin, sinking right into bone.

"Belle," he said, his voice as gentle as his touch.

Slowly I gazed up at him.

He lowered his head. Breath caught in my throat, burning. Blistering.

I had time to protest as he slanted his lips over mine, but I didn't. I couldn't, not when I suddenly craved his kiss with everything inside me. He was dangerous and exciting, and with everything going on, I might not have a tomorrow. Actually, an hour from now looked pretty iffy. I would allow myself this pleasure without guilt. Without hesitation. Without pause. I'd take it, savor it, enjoy it, no matter how bad it was for me. It could very well be the last good thing to happen in my life.

He brushed my mouth once, twice. Perhaps he'd had every intention of leaving it like that, a brief, innocent touch, but I didn't let him. I opened my mouth and gave him my tongue.

Instantly it was all systems go. For both of us. No more lassitude. No more gentleness. Only undeniable need. Moaning low in his throat, he claimed me. His tongue swept past my teeth, sinking deep, demanding total surrender.

He angled his head to the side for deeper contact. His fingers tangled in my hair, clamping tight. He tasted like hot, virile man. And something raw. Something utterly carnal. I couldn't name it, not exactly, I only knew it was like nothing I'd ever encountered before. I wanted more, so much more.

Our tongues thrust together, eager and needy. I found myself gripping his shirt, holding him to me as if I feared he would slip away. Heat was building inside me, so much blissful heat. It began as a tiny flame, licking over my every cell, then spreading and branching through the rest of me.

My nipples hardened and strained against my shirt, abrading with my every movement. My legs weakened. I ached, yes, I ached. The fire grew. Rome seized my hair in a painful clench, as if he needed an anchor. As if he couldn't stand the thought of releasing me for any reason. Yet in the next instant he growled and sprang away from me.

" Rome?" I said breathlessly.

He stood an arm's length away, his breath shallow. "You were about to burn me up," he panted.

I was aching, burning, as he'd said. I wanted him back in my arms. Wanted his tongue in my mouth again. Wanted his erection pressed between my legs this time, sliding up and down, slowly at first, then quickly pushing me over the sweet edge of satisfaction. Except he'd meant "burn" literally. I'd almost flame-broiled him, I realized, seeing smoke curl from my hands. And still I wanted him.

How could I desire him this fiercely? Him?

I inhaled sharply, but that didn't help. Hints of his male fragrance seeped into my nostrils. Another tide of desire slammed into me, making my stomach quiver. Making another flame roar to life there. Damn it, I shouldn't crave him like this. Maybe-maybe we shouldn't have done that. I was vulnerable to him now, more so than before.

My hands fisted at my sides, and I concentrated on my anger. Right now, any emotion was better than desire. He shouldn't have kissed me! " Rome," I said.

"I shouldn't have done that," he said between breaths, parroting my thoughts.

"No. You shouldn't have." I curbed the urge to trace my swollen, pulsing mouth with my fingers.

"I'm not going to say I'm sorry." The words were a throaty growl, cutting through the ensuing silence. "And I'm not going to tell you I won't do it again."

I pursed my lips, fighting a rush of pleasure. You're angry, remember? "I didn't ask you to, did I?"

He paused, shook his head. Surprisingly, satisfaction gleamed in his eyes. "Didn't ask if I meant to do it again or didn't ask me to not do it again?"

"Oh, just shut up." I'd basically thrown myself at him, and refused to make it worse by voicing my desires. He had to know that parts of me-the most feminine parts-hoped he would do it again. Soon. My nipples were still beaded. The ache between my legs had yet to dissipate.

He reached out and traced his fingertips over my mouth, just the way I'd wanted to do myself, beckoning the fire all over again. "You can trust me," he said. Was that a trace of guilt in his voice? "Despite everything that's happened, or maybe because of it, you can trust me. I'm not going to hurt you. I'm not going to betray you."

Oddly, I wanted to believe him. I wanted to place my life in his obviously capable (wonderfully wicked) hands. And yet, I couldn't trust my own instincts right then; I mean, look where they'd gotten me so far.

He took my silence for capitulation and said, "I'll check the building and surrounding area. If you stay here, you should be safe." With a final caress of my cheek, he walked away. Or rather, disappeared, leaving behind a deflated, empty room.

My face scrunched, and my gaze jerked from one corner to another. One second he'd stood in front of me, the next he hadn't. In fact, the only sign that he'd been here was the exquisite tingling in my face and the churning heat in my stomach.

" Rome," I called. I should have heard the front door close or at least a window slide. Since I'd heard neither, I padded through the dingy apartment. There was no trace of him.

How the hell had he gotten out so silently? As he'd promised, the door and windows possessed some kind of para-agent, futuristic bolt that spread silver, spiderlike legs through the wood and frame, linking them together. I highly doubted Rome could walk right through them. Or could he? After all, what did I know about the world nowadays?

"He's gone," I told myself. "How he left doesn't matter." Instead of wasting any more of my time on him, I trekked through the apartment again, this time searching for a phone. I wanted so badly to hear my dad's voice.

Rome hadn't lied, though. There were no phones.

"Shit." I paced the cramped living room. If I went back to my apartment, would my phones be tapped? The call traced? If I left this building and found a pay phone, would I be followed? Killed?

Taken?

I'll only be gone an hour, Rome had said. I had to make a decision now. Stay and wait for Rome, trusting him to keep his word and protect me. Or go, doing my best to keep myself safe-and the world safe from me.

Either way, I might make the wrong decision.

Either way, I'd be welcoming trouble with open arms.

Knowing that, I felt frustration and urgency rush through me. I massaged my temples. What I really needed was time alone, time to think this through without worrying when Rome would return. Time to make a decision on my terms, not his. Everything he'd said could very well have been a lie meant to lull me into submission. Or not. Arghh.

Something about the bargain he wanted to make bothered me, but at the moment I couldn't pinpoint exactly what. Still, the unsettling sensation was there and I didn't like it. Made me twitchy.

I expelled a shaky breath. Until I knew for sure and had this thing figured out, I was going to have to run. Run, just as I'd wanted to in the beginning. I'd be careful. I wouldn't let myself feel a single volatile emotion, which would protect the world. I wouldn't trust anyone, which would protect me.

Of course, I couldn't go back to my apartment. I'd have to go somewhere I'd never been. Somewhere no one would think to look for me.

Determined, I fiddled with the front door for several minutes, unable to loosen it. I didn't have long to escape, I thought, suspecting Rome would hurry back. I stared down at the doorknob. I'd never be able to pry it open.

I'd have to burn it off.

As quickly as possible, I searched the apartment and located a vinyl bag. Everything of mine, I tossed inside. Thankfully, Rome had brought several pieces of my clothing and many of my toiletries. Of course he hadn't grabbed my ATM card, but the wad of money I found under the mattress made up for that. I stuffed the bills into my pocket.

Ready to face the door again, I stalked to it, glaring. How was I going to summon fire without creating an inferno? Maybe if I allowed myself a little anger. Only a little. Hopefully, the lock would burn and nothing else.

Please let nothing else burn.

Drawing in a deep, steadying breath, I dropped the bag at my feet. I popped the bones in my neck, preparing to work up a good (but tiny!) steam. To do that, I needed to think about things that angered me, but didn't infuriate me.

Okay. So. I hated when people cut in line. I also hated rude customers and menial jobs. Oh, that's good, I thought, giving myself a mental pat on the back as a kernel of anger sparked. However, the mental pat quickly doused the anger, flooding me with satisfaction.

Concentrate! What else did I loathe? I know! I know! I hated being chased by bad guys. I hated the fact that people wanted to kill me. I hated that I'd been given an experimental secret formula without my consent. Hated, hated, hated that I was now unemployed, broke, and that my dad's rent would soon be due.

My breathing became choppy as my anger intensified. My fists clenched tightly at my sides. I hated that Rome was so mouthwateringly sexy. Hated that he tasted so good. Hated that I already craved another sampling of him. And what the hell had he meant, blurting out that he had a daughter? A daughter, for Christ's sake. He hadn't been lying about that. His eyes had been filled with stark, raw emotion. Desperate need and fear. Did that mean Rome also had a wife?

Oh, the bastard! He did. He had a wifey-poo at home. And he'd kissed me as if he couldn't live another moment without cleaning my tonsils. He'd touched my face and made me-

A stream of fire shot from my eyes and slammed into the front door. The force of it knocked me backward. As I fell, fire continued to spew from me and flames erupted everywhere I looked, licking a deadly, orange-gold path from one corner to another. Gasping, I squeezed my eyes tightly closed, cutting off the fire, blanking my mind.

But no sooner did I close my eyes than I felt my fingers heat. Flames began to fly from them. Dear Lord. I'd opened a fiery floodgate that didn't want to close. I felt its singe, its sizzle. The scents of ash and burning carpet, wood and plaster filled my nose.

My heart drummed erratically. Calm down, Belle Jamison. Right now! Please calm down. If I didn't, I would burn the entire building to the ground. People might die. Because of me. Me. Deep breath in, deep breath out. The heat continued to wrap around me, and my body responded in kind, enjoying it and producing more.

"I can control the fire," I said, holding out my hands and trying to draw the inferno back into myself. Let this work, let this work, let this work. "I can control the fire. I have power over the elements. They must obey me."

I opened my eyes, catching a glimpse of utter chaos before another round of flames burst free. I squeezed my eyelids shut again as panic washed through me. Dear God, what should I do? How did I stop this? Think good, happy thoughts. Nothing that miffed me even slightly.

Okay. What made me happy? Sherridan had a date with the twins. My dad was alive. Fifty-percent-off sales. Chocolate chip cookies-they increased my waistline, but I didn't want to go there. The thought of never having to serve coffee to snobs made me ecstatic.

With each new thought, my anger and panic receded and I felt my hands cool. Slowly I cracked open my eyes. A deep exhale became a heavy sigh of relief. An inferno might rage around me, but at least no more flames leapt from my eyes or hands.

I couldn't let the neighbors be hurt by this, though. I raced to the kitchen and was relieved to see the extinguisher Rome had used was next to the stove. Why hadn't I kept it near me? Stupid. As I sprinted back to the door, I sprayed everything in my path. White mist soon thickened the air, and the flames died to a gentle sizzle.

I dropped the now-empty canister, my arms falling shakily to my sides as I looked around, assessing the damage. The couch, TV, coffee table and my bag were ruined. The shag carpet was ruined, too, but that was a cause for celebration.

The front door had burned completely away-except for the freaking lock, which clung to the only beam left standing-leaving a gaping hole that led straight into the hallway. Thick smoke billowed and wafted out. An alarm erupted in the hall, screeching with enough volume to make me cringe.

Within seconds, the neighbors were pouring from their apartments. If one of these people knew Rome, they might call him and tell him what I'd done. He could be on his way back right now. And let's not even discuss the fact that I'd just announced my presence to the bad guys who might not have known where I was.

"What did you do?" an elderly woman demanded, crossing her arms over her ample chest. She wore a cherry-red robe and had blue rollers in her hair. "Does Raymond know you're in his apartment?"

Raymond? Who the hell was Raymond? Maybe the man Rome had stolen the apartment from-if so, sorry, Raymond!-or maybe it was a fake name Rome liked to use. Either way, I wasn't sticking around to find out.

"Turn off that goddamn alarm," someone else shouted.

"Did someone call the super? He's going to be POed."

"No way you'll get your deposit back now."

At least the apartment was so old it didn't have a built-in sprinkler system. Every one of us would have been drenched. "Tell the super I'm sorry," I said, and shoved past the crowd of onlookers.

"Hey, you can't leave," the woman in rollers screeched, momentarily drowning the sound of the alarm. "You almost burned us all. Get back here."

I found the door to the stairwell and slipped inside. Adrenaline poured through me, filling me as if I were drinking it. Urging me onward. The sound of voices and the wail of the alarm faded as I pounded down the steps to the ground floor. Strands of hair slapped at my face, momentarily blinding me. I kept moving and finally made it outside. Morning sunlight streamed from the bright Georgia sky, hot and oppressive. Humidity instantly beaded on my skin; gnats buzzed past me.

People roamed the sidewalks, unaware and uncaring of my turmoil. Cars meandered along the streets. Exhaust wafted to my nose, tickling my throat, and I coughed. The cough continued as I stood in place, trying to figure out which way to go.

I guess I should have thought this through a little more. I didn't know where I was, where I should go, and had no real plan. I didn't recognize the area, only knew it seemed so open. Glancing left and right, I willed myself to calm. I'd be okay. I'd be okay. I'd be okay. No one looked suspicious.

Coughing, I turned right and walked. Just walked, acting as breezy as I could. Hopefully I could lose myself in the crowds until I oriented myself and-Shit! Rome raced around the far corner of a building, his eyes narrowed on me as if he'd expected to see me. His features blazed with fury.

Despite the heat, my blood chilled. And chilled. And chilled as fear bombarded me. I spun and leapt into a desperate run. Buildings whizzed by me, glazing with ice as I passed. People sidled out of my way, and those that didn't froze in place. Literally. I wished I could stop it, but couldn't make the panic go away.

I hadn't come this far to be captured by Rome. Again. If, in the near future, I decided to work with him and trust him, it would be on my terms. On my time. I would not be forced. I would not be coerced or manipulated.

Brave thoughts for a girl about to be caught.

The ground beneath my feet developed an icy film, and I began to slip and slide, throwing wild glances behind me. Rome, too, was precarious on the ice, yet he appeared to be closer every time I looked. I blamed my uncontrollable coughing, which slowed me down considerably. What was wrong with me? I'd never reacted this way to car fumes before.

Get yourself under control. Don't think. Don't feel. Not knowing what else to do as he barreled at me full speed, I stepped into the street. I got my heart rate under control just as a car honked and swerved into the center lane of traffic. Another car, a bright red Viper, screeched to a halt right in front of me.

"Don't do it," Rome shouted.

I raced to the passenger side of the vehicle. Thankfully, it didn't freeze. My emotions were leveling out. Music blared from the speakers, but the driver turned it off when I ripped open the door. He wore an expression of utter surprise and white-hot anger. Uncaring, I bent to throw myself inside. In the next flash, a small dart flew past me and embedded itself in the car. Shocked, puzzled, I whipped my head to the side. A man-none other than the very beautiful man who'd questioned me at the caf��-stood several feet away, holding a gun. And that gun was aimed directly at me.

Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod. I dived the rest of the way inside the car, then quickly shut and locked the door. Don't think. Don't feel. Several more darts hit the window, cracking the glass. I nearly jumped out of my skin. At least my coughing stopped.

The car's driver shouted several curses and placed the vehicle in Park. I think he meant to physically kick me out. He was a young man (probably a teenager), with blue hair and an eyebrow full of rings.

"Gas it!" I commanded shakily.

He snarled over at me. "What the hell do you think you're doing? Get the fuck out of my car." Another dart hit the window, cracking the glass a little more. "And who the hell is shooting at my window?"

"Drive. Please drive."

"Get. The fuck. Out! You're covered in ashes and it's ruining my leather. I'm calling the cops." He grabbed a cell phone from the dashboard. "My window looks like a goddamn spiderweb."

I dared a peek out of said window and could see (from multiple reflections) that Pretty Boy-Vincent, I recalled-was almost upon us. Rome, too, his expression dark with rage. Then Pretty Boy began shooting darts at Rome, but Rome easily ducked them. All the while, both continued toward me.

"She belongs to me," I heard Pretty Boy say. "The formula inside her belongs to me."

"Fuck you," Rome snarled in response.

Pretty Boy laughed. "If you want me gone, you'll have to give me the girl or kill me. But we both know you won't do the latter. You can't. Pussy. Or maybe you'd like to, at last, join me at OASS. Wouldn't it be nice to finally be on the winning team?"

The driver had been nudging my arm during the entire conversation, trying to get me out of his car, but I maintained a death grip on his dash. All too soon, Pretty Boy tired of Rome and returned his focus to me. He raised his dart gun.

"Drive now," I said to the Viper's driver, more desperate than before, "and I'll make sure you have sex tonight."

The car jerked into gear and we peeled out.

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