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Playing With Fire (CHAPTER SEVENTEEN)

THAT NIGHT, after I'd changed into clean clothes-with panties and a bra!-we made the hour-long drive to Dr. Roberts's house in silence. I was too nervous to speak. The men, well… I think maybe Rome was getting into his zone. His kill-or-be-killed zone, that is, weighing possibilities and probabilities, mentally preparing to do whatever was necessary to obtain the desired results. Tanner's features were pale, and he looked ready to pass out at any moment. Oddly enough, he also exuded a palpable air of excitement, like he could high-five some of his buddies while bragging to the ladies.

"Duck," Rome said conversationally.

Tanner and I didn't hesitate; we ducked. Since we were both in the back seat, Tanner smashed his face against the seat and I covered his body with my own. My heart rate burst into hyperspeed.

"What's going on?" I whispered, then mentally chastised myself for whispering. I didn't have to be quiet yet.

Our car slowed, turned gently, straightened out and eased over a speed bump. "I'm going to park several blocks away from the doctor's neighborhood. We'll enter on foot."

Great. Walking. Exercise. Making a target of myself. My favorite things. Perhaps I should just hang a neon sign around my neck that read Shoot Here.

"Why are we ducking?" Tanner said, whispering as well.

"Vincent's agents are patrolling the area," Rome said.

"What the hell?" Tanner, I noticed, was too nervous to say "heezie." I did my best to comfort him by giving his arm an I'm-here-for-you squeeze. I only prayed he didn't notice the nervous, swamplike nature of my hands.

"You didn't mention that in the plan," he continued. "You said they'd be watching the house, not the whole goddamn state of Georgia."

"I did mention the fact that you could be shot at or knifed, and this is what you complain about?" Rome blew out a heavy breath, and through the crack between the seats I watched as his hand inched from the steering wheel and curled around the handle of the gun resting in the passenger seat.

That gun was the reason I'd been relegated to the back seat. He'd wanted it at the ready, and he hadn't wanted me near it. You might accidentally nail me, he'd said. And I'd replied, I thought you wanted me to nail you. He'd shut up after that.

A few seconds passed-or were they minutes?-before he parked the car in a shadowed corner. "I saw four agents in four different cars, and they're diligently watching this lot." He tucked the gun in his ankle holster and covered it with his pants. I knew he had knives (and other guns) strapped to several parts of his body, too.

"Park somewhere else," I said. Please.

"Every shop, house and building is going to be watched. Dr. Roberts got away. We got away. And they're determined to find us. This is as safe a place as any." Rome paused, turned off the car and palmed the keys. "This is what we're going to do. I'm going to head toward the store and create a distraction, as well as draw the agents to me and, well, you can guess. When I've done that, you guys get out, stay in the shadows, and meet me behind the Dumpster on the west side."

I gulped. "I could try to start a fire somewhere in the distance."

Before I spoke the last word, he was shaking his head. "Too risky. One, we don't know if there are innocent people in the area, and two, you might accidentally start the fire in the car, and we need a getaway vehicle. I'll create the distraction."

"With what?"

He patted his slacks pocket. "You'll see."

Frustration clawed at me. "How am I supposed to develop my powers to the point that I can help you with Sunny if you're always making me hide and duck?"

"I told you I was no longer sure how I'll want you to help with her, so that question is moot right now."

I hated that Rome was taking so many risks, but didn't see how I could truly aid him at the moment. "Be careful," I said softly.

"No worries, baby." He didn't turn to look at me. "I'll be fine. You just make sure you don't get hurt." With that, he exited as casually as a man intent on shopping for eggs, milk and biscuits. But I could see the muscles bunched under his shirt, the tension that he tried so hard to hide. Had I once thought him impossible to read?

The door shut, leaving Tanner and me in complete silence. Wait, no, not complete silence. I could hear the raggedness of our breathing, the rush of blood in my ears. "I'm so sorry I got you into this, Tanner."

"It's okay." He uttered a nervous laugh. "It'll be one hell of a story for my bitches."

"You could leave. You don't have to stay with us."

He paused. Groaned, sighed. "I'll stay." The edge of firmness in his voice left no room for argument. "What kind of man would I be if I abandoned you? You're, like, my family now."

"I feel the same way." And I did. I loved this kid. He was smart and brave, a dear friend I hadn't known how desperately I'd needed until now. "Wait till you meet my dad. He buys Viagra on the black market, so I know he'll love you."

"I like him already. Hey, can I tell you something?" Tanner asked, his voice going soft, sweet.

"Of course. You can tell me anything."

"I can feel your boobs pressing against my back."

I choked back a laugh. "If we're family now, that comment is completely incestuous."

He didn't reply. Our nerves were frayed, our minds heavy with the coming events. It was odd, really. I'd lived my entire life craving adventure, wishing for it, depressed that I didn't have it. Now that it was here, a part of me wanted the return of my staid existence. Normalcy, the ordinary, were the gates to paradise. Weren't they?

"How will we know when Rome 's created the distraction?" I asked.

Boom!

I gasped and jolted upright. Tanner did the same. We stared wide-eyed out the front window as flames consumed a small patch of trees. "My God," I breathed. Moonlight bathed the area, then was chased away by the glow of the fire.

"I think we know," Tanner said, his tone awed.

Tires squealed. People raced in every direction, their expressions panicked.

"Let's go." I bounded out of the car, Tanner close behind me. "He said to meet him behind the Dumpster on the west side." But, uh, which way was west? I'd always had a hard time with directions. Did the sun rise or set in the west?

"This way." Tanner pointed.

My gaze followed his finger and lit on a dark blue bin at the far side of the grocery store. "Come on." I grabbed his hand and we were off, heading in the same direction as the frantic crowd.

There were more cars in the lot than I'd anticipated, and I didn't know who to avoid. At least my hair was hidden under a baseball cap. I tried to stay in the shadows as much as possible, but no matter what I did, I felt exposed. Vulnerable. Finally we reached our destination, and I pressed my back against the cool metal.

Smoke was beginning to thicken the air, burning my lungs and throat. I coughed. My eyes watered.

"Shit! Not again." Tanner pushed on my shoulders, forcing me to the dirty, trash-laden ground. "Lie down. Stay as low as you can and cover your nose with your shirt."

I did as he commanded and was thankful to discover the air was thinner, cleaner when filtered through the cotton. My coughing subsided. Only a few minutes passed before Rome sprinted around the corner, stopping abruptly. His gaze narrowed when he spied me lying prone.

"What's wrong with her?" he asked Tanner.

"Smoke got to her."

Rome reached down and hefted me up over his shoulder, fireman-style. Without protest, I let him carry me. A coughing fit from me would slow us down considerably.

"This way," Rome said. "We're good to go, but I want you to stay behind me."

Tanner moved to the rear. In the distance I heard the wail of fire truck sirens. We entered a field behind the store, careful to avoid security lights. We raced across it. Well, the boys did. I was just along for the (bumpy) ride.

When we reached the beginning of a gated community, Rome gently lowered me. His hands cupped my jaw, and our gazes locked. "You okay?"

I allowed the shirt to fall from my nose, and inhaled deeply. The air was sweet and clean. The cords in my throat relaxed, and the irritating tickling sensation subsided. "I'm good."

"Okay. We've got a public street on one side of us and a fence that peeks into rich people's backyards on the other. Try to look casual, at ease. Belle, you're going to hold my hand. Tanner, stay beside Belle. We're a family out for a nighttime stroll. Nothing more."

He didn't wait for our reply, but gripped my hand in his and leapt into motion, leading us closer to Dr. Roberts's house. Tanner quickened his step until he paced at my side. "If we're staying in the shadows," he asked under his breath, "why do we need to look casual?"

"There are people who can see in the shadows, not to mention a little thing called night vision goggles. If we're spotted, I want people to think we have nothing to hide."

"Won't they shoot first and ask questions later?" I asked.

Rome gave my hand a squeeze. "Hopefully, they won't expect us to come out in the open. Anyway, there's really no place for us to hide."

"Thanks for that," Tanner said drily. "You could have lied, at least. How the hell am I supposed to act casual now?"

Yes, it was hard to act as if we had nothing to hide when we were each loaded with weapons. Did I forget to mention that part? Rome hadn't wanted us to rely solely on our superpowers-and let's face it, an empath like Tanner couldn't slay a bad guy by understanding he was angry. Rome hadn't wanted us to rely solely on his weapons, either, in case we became separated. So he'd given me and Tanner each a Taser, a flashlight and several knives, which were now strapped to our thighs, waists and wrists.

I wasn't sure I'd have the balls to actually stab anyone. Fry them or ice them, maybe, even though I still wasn't one hundred percent comfortable with the fact that I'd already deep-fried a few people (bad guys though they were). But there was something so personal about stabbing someone.

I guess we'd see if I could do it (on purpose) when the time came.

A car honked in the distance, startling me. I gasped and jumped about a foot in the air.

"Easy," Rome said.

I drew in a steadying breath, trying to relax. I kept my attention straight ahead, absorbing Rome 's strength and assurance.

"At the next street, we're going to turn left," he said.

Tanner ran a hand through his hair, looking anything but casual. "How do you know the way?"

Rome shrugged, and I think he answered just to keep us distracted. "A while ago, Lexis had to pretend to be Dr. Roberts's friend. She told you that, right? Our boss wanted the formula for himself. I followed her each time she came here, making sure she was safe."

Oh, that he would always look after me like that. What a tantalizing thought. Oh, that he still looked after Lexis like that. What a… not so tantalizing thought.

We had to stop and hide behind bushes for a bit as a black SUV slowly prowled the street, followed by a car filled with shouting teenagers. Thankfully, no one spotted us.

"Well," Tanner said, "I think we should have slammed the car through the security fence and into the house, run in, grabbed what we needed and hauled ass."

Rome 's brows arched into his hairline, and he shook his head. "And risk destroying our getaway vehicle, not to mention wiping out any possible paper trail?"

"We could have driven two cars," I suggested. "One to smash and one to drive away."

"Now that's a plan, Viper."

"What about the destruction of files or information about the formula?" Rome didn't give us a chance to answer, grumbling, "You two are ruining my concentration." He released my hand and wound his arm around my waist, drawing me closer. "I'm supposed to be on the lookout for the people who want to kill us. I swear, this is why I never work with amateurs."

The reminder sobered us, and silence reigned until we came to a section of the fence Rome approved. I glanced uneasily at the tall iron bars that stretched skyward, pointing sharp tips toward the heavens.

"This it?" Tanner asked, his voice shaking.

Rome nodded. "This is it. More shadows. No dogs around. And we're not too far from the doctor's house."

The shadows were darker here. Thicker. Consuming the small enclosure. I swallowed. Yes, this was it and there would be no turning back now. Several pines stretched toward the gate, but they weren't close enough for us to climb.

"You ready, Belle?" Rome faced me. I couldn't make out his features very well, only the occasional flash of white teeth. But I drew comfort from his presence.

I nodded, realized he might not be able to see me, and said, "Ready." God, I was nervous. I did not want to be the weak link that let this team down.

"Then get us past it."

Breathing in and out slowly, precisely, I squared my shoulders and turned to the gate. I held out one of my hands, palm out. The wind, I was learning, was the hardest element for me to call. It required a combination of feelings. An emotional cocktail, if you will, of fear (check), desperation (check), and, as I'd figured out during the day's training session, some type of affection. Love worked, though I didn't know why.

All I knew was that it was hard to maintain such a sweet, positive emotion while drawing from the other two, the negatives.

As before, in the clearing, I allowed images of my dad to spill across my mind. My heart swelled with love for him. To strengthen the emotion, I allowed Rome to enter the picture, envisioning the two men slapping each other on the back. I didn't want to-God, I didn't-but I forced the images to twist. To darken. To become a nightmare I never wanted to come true.

"Whatever you're doing, it's working," Tanner said proudly. "I can feel a tornado forming inside you."

In my mind, I saw the two men I held so dear being hurt. Gunned down. Bullets whizzed and popped with startling realism. I saw both men flinch in pain. Saw blood escape from their many wounds.

"Yes, yes," Tanner praised. "It's getting stronger."

Rome cupped the back of my neck and massaged. "Good girl. You're doing great."

Around me, a fierce wind began to blow. My hair whipped from the ball cap and slapped at my cheeks. The trees danced, leaves swaying. Twigs and dirt swirled up from the ground, whirling round and round. I closed my eyes, saw myself running toward the fallen men, screaming their names.

"The wind is too strong, Viper." Concern laced Tanner's voice. He was suddenly shoved into the bars. "It's going to blow us away."

"Give some to me," Rome said.

I visualized the fierceness of my emotions traveling out of me and into Rome, giving him pieces of the positive, pieces of the negative. He tensed the moment they hit him, and hissed in a breath.

Instantly, the churning sea inside me calmed. The emotions were still there, but they were manageable. The violence of the wind eased slightly.

"That's it," he said. "I've got it."

With my free hand, I motioned for the wind to churn at our feet. After only a moment's hesitation, it obeyed. We were lifted an inch or so in the air, the force of the moving current creating a solid foundation beneath us.

"Higher," I whispered. We rose sharply, and I almost dropped my hand to my side. Almost commanded the wind to leave.

"Steady," Rome said.

"Are you concentrating?" Tanner said. "I don't think you're concentrating."

"I'm concentrating!"

"You're doing good, baby." Rome slapped Tanner upside the head. "Can you get us over the wall, Belle?"

To do that, I needed to make the wind swirl. What should I do, what should I do? I twirled my finger in a circle, mimicking a whirlwind, but that didn't help. I closed my eyes and visualized it, but-no, wait! The wind began to rotate. Up, up we went.

My stomach twisted in progression with the wind, but I kept my mind on the chaos. Besides, if I opened my eyes and looked down, I might vomit or scream or any number of other things. I wasn't afraid of heights, far from it, but my God, we had nothing but air holding us up. Wind, which was invisible. I only hoped there were no onlookers.

The top spike of the fence suddenly scraped the bottom of my boot. I gasped, but managed to keep my mind on the task at hand. My finger never stopped twirling.

"We cleared it," Rome said.

Happiness flooded me. I'd done it. I'd done it!

"Uh, celebrating a little too early," Tanner said, a split second before the wind ceased and we tumbled to the ground.

I hit with a hard smack. My feet absorbed most of the shock, but my body vibrated painfully. My teeth rattled, almost slicing into my tongue. Tanner humphed and rolled to his side. Rome landed perfectly, without sound, without bouncing. Just thump, he was crouched on his feet.

Damn cat reflexes.

For several prolonged seconds, I sucked air back into my lungs. "Oopsie," I said between pants. "My bad."

"We'll practice the landing next time." Rome tugged me to my feet, then did the same for Tanner. "Let's move out."

Once again we were in motion, remaining close to the fence, striding along its shadowed edge. We didn't try to pretend nonchalance this time. We simply stayed out of sight as much as possible. I was so ready for this night to be over, and would have sold my soul for a little of Lexis's psychic ability. If I knew what was going to happen before it actually happened, well, I could make sure Rome and Tanner emerged unscathed.

Row after row of sprawling homes came into view. Lights gleamed from the streets, from garages, from gardens. " Rome," I said uncertainly.

"Just keep your back to the fence."

When we rounded a corner, he stopped. Crouched. I glanced at Tanner, Tanner glanced at me and we both crouched beside Rome.

"That's Dr. Roberts's home." He motioned to a pretty Victorian with an unkempt yard and overgrown bushes. Wraparound porch. Hanging wind chimes. Blue shutters.

I experienced a tiny flutter of shock. This beautiful mansion housed the man who'd made me what I am. No lights were on inside it. I guess I should have asked if Dr. Roberts had a family here we needed to worry about awakening.

"Is anyone there?" Tanner asked.

Rome didn't answer. Instead, his gaze slowly scanned left and right, searching, intense. Minutes passed. Insects chirped.

Finally Rome whispered, "See that black SUV?" He pointed to the right, to a car parked in a driveway several homes away from Dr. Roberts's.

"Yes."

"Definitely belongs to Vincent's men. Be careful. No telling what kind of scrim agents he has inside."

"How can you tell?" I studied it, but it looked like every other expensive car in the neighborhood.

"One, I know Vincent well enough to be sure he'd keep men here to watch for Dr. Roberts. Two, his agents are still inside the car. If you look closely, you can see the exhaust fumes. I'm betting they've been turning it on and off for the air conditioner. Plus, I can smell the amount of coffee they've consumed."

Ugh. Coffee. After what had been done to my grande mocha latte, I'd probably never want to drink the stuff again.

Tanner pressed deeper into the darkness, his gaze darting nervously. "What should we do?"

"Belle, do you think you can make it rain? A hard-ass storm just like we talked about at the cabin?"

"It will hail," I warned. "We won't be able to run through it without getting hit."

His lips lifted in a slow smile. "That's exactly what I want. Lots and lots of hail. Trust me. It'll be okay. Just make the storm as fierce as you can without blowing the houses away."

"The weather channel is going to have a field day with this," Tanner said drily. "I hope you both realize that. Everyone who knows about the formula will suspect Belle was here."

"It's a chance we have to take." Rome turned back to the house.

"What about the people in the SUV?" I asked.

"I'm going to leave them to you," Rome stated.

"What?" I said, surprised.

"What?" Tanner seemed equally taken aback.

"I'll disable their car and knock them out." I knew what that meant. Kill. "If one of them wakes up," Rome continued, "you two are to take care of him."

Tanner and I shared a wry look. Yeah, he was really letting us take care of the bad guys in the car. We got his leftovers, if there happened to be any. Knowing Rome, there wouldn't.

"This is going to work out, baby, you'll see."

I admit it. I love it when he calls me "baby," and he seemed to do it more when we were in dangerous situations. "Be careful, okay?" I wrung my hands nervously. "There could be armed men in the house, too."

His lips twitched. "Could be? No, there are."

My mouth fell open. He said it so casually, as if it was perfectly normal. "Maybe we shouldn't-"

"Create the storm, baby, and I'll signal when it's safe to enter the house."

"You going to distract everyone with another explosion?" Tanner asked drily.

"Hopefully not" was the only answer Rome gave.

I wanted to protest, but didn't. He was the expert here. He knew what he was doing. He knew how to survive. After all, he'd been doing it for a long time. Forcing my attention from him, I blinked up at the night sky. Stars twinkled from the black velvet. I didn't ask Rome to filter for two reasons. One, once the storm erupted he needed to leave. And two, I didn't want him to diminish my sadness in any way. The more intense it was, the more intense the storm would be.

My emotions were already frayed from their use and abuse today, but I dragged them front and center once more. Concentrating on all the things that saddened me, I drew forth a large wave of sorrow, plumped it with more depressing images, encouraged it to grow. It sprouted wings inside me, spreading. Spreading.

"That's it, Viper. Let it flow."

Overhead a crash of thunder boomed. Lightning bolts lit the sky, one after another. Fat droplets of rain began to descend, slowly at first, then gaining in speed and density. My chin trembled and tears flowed down my cheeks. I'd never been this sad in my life. I verged on total depression. Feelings of aloneness swamped me. Feelings of helplessness consumed me.

"Stay safe," Rome breathed into my ear. He kissed my lips and was gone, disappearing into the darkness like a nocturnal phantom.

Rain pounded the ground, soon joined by the hail I'd predicted. The golf-ball-size ice smacked everything in its destructive path.

Tanner and I huddled under a tree. Its thick branches shielded us from most of the ice, but the rain managed to slip past the leaves and soak us. I shivered with cold as I searched the streets and houses for any sign of Rome, but I couldn't see him. The SUV stopped humming with life, I noticed, the black plumes of smoke disappearing. The rear wiper stopped in the middle of its glide.

I didn't see any movement in the car, though. Several more minutes passed. I didn't see any movement outside the house, either, but suddenly I heard the growl of a jungle cat echoing off the walls and into the night.

I gripped my stomach, hoping the puny action could prevent it from twisting painfully. Obviously, Rome had discovered his prey. He'll be okay, he'll be okay, he'll be okay.

Another growl.

A tortured scream.

Tiny flickers of light flashed from Dr. Roberts's windows, as if someone-or multiple someones-were firing several rounds. The rain stopped as fear held me in its tight clasp, but I forced my sadness to return. Rain fell again.

"He'll be okay," Tanner whispered, voicing my thoughts. "He has to. I mean, he's Agent Kick-ass, isn't he, with an impenetrable force field or some kind of shit. Right?"

"Yes." The word sounded broken, hollow. A tremor raked me. Two men stumbled out of the SUV, blood dripping from their necks. Both had weapons drawn.

Without thought, I stretched out my hands. I don't know what I expected to happen, and wasn't given a chance to ponder. A bolt of lightning instantly slammed into the first man, throwing him backward and into the other man. The two sailed several feet before hitting the SUV. Both slumped to the ground.

"Holy shit, Viper. How did you do that?"

"I don't know!" I said, pointing my hands toward the ground before they could do any more damage. "Come on. Rome needs us."

"He didn't give the signal."

"I know."

"Oh, hell."

I sprinted into action, racing into the thick of the rain. No, not rain. With my fear, the rain had turned to snow. The cold infiltrated my bones.

When I reached the porch, I withdrew the Taser Rome had given me. If I'd had a gun, I would have pulled it out, too. I would have shot someone, with no hesitation. And yes, now I knew for sure I'd stab someone, if necessary. Anything to protect Rome.

Tanner stepped up beside me, panting. Water dripped from his hair onto his face, and ran like a river from the clothes now plastered to his body. "We opening a can of whoop-ass now?"

"Fo sheezie," I said.

He paled, but slid a gun from the waist sheath hooked to his side. He rolled the… whatever the hell that was called. Cylinder? I don't know.

"Locked and loaded," he muttered.

I hadn't realized Rome had given him a gun, and blinked at it, stunned for a moment.

He kissed the barrel. "I'm a wild man, Viper, and I'm ready for action. Let's get this showdown started."

I positioned myself beside the front door. It was opened slightly, so getting in wouldn't be a problem. "Guard my back, you hardened outlaw. Okay?" I could hear the scramble of feet, the scrape of furniture. At least there was no more gunfire.

Tanner closed in behind me. "I used to hunt with my dad. I'll hit anyone who aims at you, promise."

I couldn't believe I was doing this, but I didn't want to leave Rome in there alone. No telling how many men he was up against. "On three. One. Two. Three." I kicked my way inside, Taser raised and ready for action. The lights were out, but my eyes had already adjusted to the darkness so I could make out the total chaos. Overturned tables and chairs, pillows strewn in every direction.

It was oddly silent now. The sound of footsteps had faded.

Suddenly a huge, black blur sprang at me. A part of me realized it was Rome in his jaguar form, but the rest of me acted on pure, terrified instinct. Those lethal claws were coming at me, and Rome might not realize exactly who it was he was attacking.

When he hit me, his massive body knocking me down, I allowed my instinct free rein and nailed the beast with the Taser, shooting volt after volt of electricity into his heart. We fell to the ground, the cat roaring and convulsing.

Behind me, a shot suddenly rang out, the sound so loud it nearly busted my eardrums. In the next instant, a human man (who, I would discover, had been about to shoot me) collapsed on top of me and the now-immobile cat.

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