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Playing With Fire (CHAPTER SIX)

FASTER THAN I COULD OFFER up a prayer of "strike this bastard dead" I was trussed up like a Thanksgiving Day turkey and tossed over Rome 's shoulder. While he had me in such an undignified position, he tied my ankles with the rest of the cord.

"Put me down this instant!" I shouted, attempting to knee him in his midsection.

"Stop wiggling." He purposefully bounced me on his shoulder, cutting off my air when my stomach hit the sharp edge of his collarbone.

When I could breathe again, I muttered, "You're squashing my kidneys and my pancreas! Do you know how dangerous that is? Put me down before I sink into a coma."

"If you can point to exactly where your pancreas is located, I'll do as you so sweetly asked."

"It's-oh! Damn you. Put me down right now. I do not want my face in your ass."

He chuckled, that deep, seductive sound all the more potent because this time it held rusty layers of disuse, as if he didn't allow true humor in his life very often.

Keeping his stride smooth and easy so I didn't bounce on his shoulder again, he sailed down the short hallway and into the kitchen. He plopped me onto a bar stool. Without the use of my hands, I teetered precariously and almost tumbled to the floral linoleum.

"Now we eat and talk." He moved to the other side of the counter, heaping a plate with scrambled eggs and bacon.

I glared over at him, ignoring my grumbling stomach. "We were talking. There was no reason to tie me up like this."

"There was every reason." His gaze veered pointedly to my bound hands. "Call me silly, but I'd rather not be roasted alive."

I took some comfort in that and grinned smugly. "Afraid of me, Rome?"

He snorted. "Afraid of your inability to control yourself, more like."

Score one (or twelve million, but who's counting?) for Rome. I lost all sense of superiority, and my shoulders slumped. He was right. If I could catch my own fingers on fire without any provocation-that I knew of-what else could I do? I hated having powers.

The moment the thought filled my head, I blinked. Powers. Me. Would I ever get used to those two words used in conjunction?

"You're as likely to harm yourself as me," Rome said. He set the plate between us, scooped a portion of eggs onto a spoon and offered me the bite. "Open."

"Like hell-oomph!"

The moment I opened my mouth, he shoveled in the spoon. The jerk. The bast-Oh, this tasted good. So good. The taste exploded on my tongue, the flavor more defined than anything I'd ever experienced. I closed my eyes, enjoying the buttery delight. He'd seasoned them just right. Killer, neutralizer and master chef. Odd combination.

He cleared his throat, gaining my attention. His eyes were on the food, not me, so I couldn't read the emotion there. Like I could have, anyway.

"I have a proposition for you." His voice was a little scratchy.

I swallowed and opened my mouth for more. If the eggs were poisoned, I'd willingly die. His brows arched. "Bite," I said. "What kind of proposition?"

The heaping spoon trekked back to my mouth. I kind of liked being fed-and I didn't like that I liked it. Especially by this man. I frowned at him, just to make a point.

"The kind where I help you, then you help me."

Another bite. "Help me how? By putting me out of my supposed misery? By helping me save the world from my evil self?"

A flicker of anger sparked in his too-blue eyes, lighting them up. They quickly darkened again. "Will you stop that already? I didn't kill you, and I'm not going to."

"You came at me with a needle."

"I didn't use it on you."

"Yes, you did. I remember a sting in my arm."

He rolled his eyes. "I gave you a sedative to help you sleep. You were tossing and turning."

"That doesn't negate the fact that you did, in fact, try to neutralize me."

"Are you this unforgiving with everyone?" He stuffed a piece of bacon into my mouth. "A man makes one little mistake and you hold it over his head for eternity."

I nearly choked and had to force the chunk of salty meat down my throat. Once I regained my breath, I gasped, "One little mistake? Did you just say one little mistake? Is that what you said?"

"Yeah." His expression was deadpan, with no flicker of emotion-which I absolutely hated and which he was so damn good at. I scowled while he put a bite of egg into his mouth and chewed.

How could he remain so unreadable? He was like a light switch. If he wanted me to know his thoughts, he showed them to me. If he didn't, well, I got nothing.

"I'm finding it hard to believe you consider trying to kill me a little mistake. Little is forgetting to put the toilet seat down. Little is leaving your socks on the floor. Little is putting a dent in my car and pretending you didn't do it." I was growling by the time I finished my diatribe.

"Are you thirsty?"

I blinked over at him, momentarily rendered speechless. "That's your response to me? You ask if I'm thirsty?"

"I'll take that as a yes." He pushed to his feet and strode to the olive-green cabinets that perfectly matched the outdated green striped counter. At least this room didn't boast the same peeling yellow paint as the bedroom. Instead it had green polka-dotted wallpaper.

With the familiarity of a man who knew his way around, he reached inside and withdrew a glass. "Is this your place?" I asked.

"Hardly."

"Then whose is it? Does the owner know you're a criminal and holding me against my will?"

"For the moment, this is our place." He paused, his expression mocking. "I feel warm and fuzzy all of a sudden. I just realized it's like we're on a secret honeymoon."

Honeymoon of horror. "Did you kill someone to get this dump?"

A grin tugged at his lips. "Do you think this poorly of everyone or am I just lucky?" He procured a carton of orange juice from the fridge and poured some into the glass, the pleasant gurgle of cascading liquid the only sound for a moment.

I could have said the obvious: I only think poorly of those who want to neutralize me. Instead I asked, "How long was I out after you stuck me with that needle?" effectively changing the subject. I didn't really want to know what he'd done with the apartment's owner.

"A little over twelve hours." Instead of bringing me the drink, he gazed down at it, his hands circling the sides. I saw only his profile, so I couldn't read his expression. Not that he'd have one. I'd never met anyone who could mask emotions as quickly as he could. "Would it help if I apologized?" he asked.

I blinked. "For trying to kill me?"

"Trying to neutralize you."

"Same thing."

"No, it's not, but would it help?" he pressed. His gaze remained on the glass.

I didn't have to think about my answer. "No."

"Then I won't bother."

My jaw tightened, almost snapping. "Why did you spare me? You still haven't answered that."

Ignoring the question yet again, he finally turned toward me and closed the distance between us, eyeing me determinedly. "I'll tell you this. If I'd been totally serious about hurting you, you'd be dead. I could have broken that shield if I'd put any effort into it. I could have sliced your throat while you slept. I could have pumped you full of drugs and done anything I wanted to you."

I shuddered. Yes, he could have done all of those things. He hadn't. "Why didn't you?" How many times would he force me to ask?

He shrugged, but the action lacked animosity. "Open."

Obediently, I parted my lips. The cool glass touched the edge of my mouth a second before a rush of tangy juice slid down my throat. The vibrant flavor awakened more taste buds. God, I'd never had such a delicious meal.

Rome set the cup aside and spooned up a dripping, syrupy bite of pancake. "That other agency I mentioned before-OASS, the non-government-sanctioned one-won't hesitate to take you down. They'll strike first and ask questions later."

I swallowed, the food suddenly tasting like lead. "While I think it's great that the man assigned to kill me-"

"Neutralize you," he interjected through clenched teeth.

"Whatever. It's the same thing. And while I-"

"It's not the same thing. I only meant to knock you out."

"Yeah, but you wanted to knock me out for, like, ever."

He uttered a frustrated sigh. "I never planned to kill you."

Another bite. "Okay, then. Once you knocked me out for most of eternity, what did you plan to do with me?"

His cheeks darkened, and the fine lines around his eyes tightened. "I planned to put you into a coma-uh, deep sleep, and take you to my boss so he could experiment on you, then put you to work for him or lock you up. There. Is that what you wanted to hear?"

I didn't know whether he meant the words in truth or in jest. Either way, they sucked. "What made you change your mind? And don't sidestep the question this time."

"I checked. You weren't lying about your dad." For some reason, he sounded accusatory. "You pay for his stay at the assisted living center, and he can't leave it because of his regimented medications." Rome shrugged. "There's more to it than that, but I'm not going to discuss it with you right now."

Did I believe him? Did I believe that he now meant me no harm? "If you're so big on keeping me alive now, prove it. Untie me."

"I don't think so."

"But-"

He cut off my words by stuffing more pancake into my mouth. "You have no idea of the damage you can do. Your inexperience is dangerous."

I forced the food down my throat. "Inexperience? Uh, hello. In case you were wondering, this isn't a new job I applied for. No one has experience with this."

His gaze narrowed on me. "You're likely to get more experience than you're prepared for if you don't learn to slow down on the emotional trigger. Have you noticed that bad things happen when you get mad?"

"Are you saying the fire is caused by anger?" I ran my tongue over my teeth. "Well, anyone would be quick to respond with fury if they woke up half-naked with a hired goon at the foot of their bed."

"Hired goon." He laughed. "I like that."

"Excellent," I said drily. "Then you'll probably like Rat Bastard, as well."

He didn't lose his amusement. "All I'm saying is that your emotions go unrestrained. You don't try to tamp them down in the least."

"I do, too! If I didn't, I'd have fed you your balls at our first meeting."

"Ah, that kind of sweet talk really turns me on." Another grin, this one slower, more leisurely, spread over his features, softening his expression, making him look all the sexier, and giving him a charm I found irresistible.

I stiffened, not liking how attractive I found him. How stupid could I be? Apparently the more time I spent with him, the lower my IQ dropped. My eyes narrowed, and I worked at the cord binding my wrists, doing my best not to let him see my arms wiggle.

"Just so you know," he said, feeding me another spoonful of eggs. His countenance lost all traces of humor; his eyes went flat. "I'm not the only hired goon to show up at the foot of your bed. Someone broke into your apartment last night."

"What?" My back straightened.

"He tried to steal you from me." Rome 's voice deepened, became utterly menacing. "I knew more like him would come, so I got you out of there as quickly and quietly as possible and brought you here."

I paused, my blood chilling at the thought of the danger I'd encountered and hadn't known about. I didn't doubt for a second that Rome was telling the truth about this. My dreams, I realized, hadn't really been dreams. They'd been real. Too real. I'd seen a man come at me with a knife.

But he hadn't killed me because… because… The answer clicked into place. Rome had killed him first. Rome had protected me. Up to this point, I'd been able to use sarcasm and humor to mask my fear; I couldn't now. This was real, in-your-face death. It couldn't be undone. Wasn't pretend.

"He tried to stab me," I whispered, going pale. "I remember seeing his weapon."

Rome blinked in surprise. "No. He tried to kidnap you. He tried to stab me. You know an awful lot for someone who was supposedly asleep."

"I only saw bits and pieces, but I thought… I thought it was a dream."

"No, no dream." He pinched a bite of eggs. "What else did you see?"

"There was a jaguar there. I saw-" My brow furrowed. "Surely I'm wrong. Surely there wasn't a wild animal in my apartment."

"No, of course there wasn't," he said, his tone leaving no room for argument. "You're blending your dreams with reality."

But the sights, the sounds had been so real. So vivid. Uh, hello. If a jungle cat had been there, there would be signs. Like a gnawed-off arm. "Who was the man?" I asked, my voice trembling.

"I didn't care to stop and ask his name. All I know is that his boss, Vincent, won't be pleased with the failure. Vincent will send more agents, and honey, trust me when I say you do not want them to capture you. I've seen what Vincent does to his victims. He'll test you, painfully, cruelly, in ways even my boss has outlawed. And then, if you're still alive, he'll force you by whatever means necessary to work for him."

Terrifying words, but Rome wasn't finished. "And don't think you can lie to him, tell him you'll work for him and escape. His power is making people tell the truth. No one can lie to the man. No one. And it's not because some women find him attractive," he added drily.

Attractive. Pretty Boy… Vincent. It made sense. I'd wanted to tell Pretty Boy all my secrets, I recalled. The pulse in my neck hammered wildly. "Isn't that what your boss wants to do to me? Test me, then make me work for him?"

"Not painfully, and not by force. You'll either do what he wants or be imprisoned like the other naughty supernatural beings."

"What kind of supernatural beings are we talking about?"

"Shape-shifters of every kind. People who can walk through walls or suck the soul right out of you. I believe I mentioned the people whose bodily fluids are so toxic they'll kill you if they even breathe on you. Shall I go on?"

I shook my head. All of those things, creatures, living weapons… yet… "Why haven't I ever heard of these people before, Rome? Why does no one know of them?"

"PSI is damn good at its job, that's why. We make sure the world remains ignorant about the paras. About scrims. About all of it."

Dear God. "Scrims?"

"Scrims are supernatural criminals. Vincent is a scrim because he inflicts unnecessary pain, he kills when he could lock away, and he enjoys doing it. But he also captures and controls other scrims-in fact, he's captured more than anyone else and any other agency, so the government caters to him. They allow him to live, turning a blind eye to his experiments."

It was too much to take in, almost unbelievable. "Are… are scrims born or made?"

"Some are born, some are made. The more experiments are done, the more scrims are born. It's a vicious cycle." His expression softened. "What I told you about the prison is true, too. Château Villain, as we've affectionately dubbed it, is very real, and you won't like it. A sassy little thing like you would end up as Venom's bitch."

"Venom?"

"She used to work for Vincent. Her saliva has deadly toxins, and if she kisses you… "

I swallowed.

"Vincent is one of the reasons PSI exists. Fixing the catastrophes he and his brotherhood of assholes cause is a full-time job." Rome canted his head, considering me. "Do you remember that big warehouse fire in Chicago last year? The one that killed forty-two people and was blamed on faulty wiring? Lie. Vincent was testing the four-elements formula. Like I told you, several people burst into flames."

I shuddered, and felt the vibration to the bone. "Why does he want people to control the four elements? Why kill them for it?"

"Think about it. He can cause a drought, then, if the price is right, he can save everyone with a rainstorm. He'll make money from it, exploit it, kill people with it. Control people with it."

My God. My mouth dried a little more with every word Rome spoke. If my hands hadn't been bound, I would have covered my ears so I wouldn't have to hear anymore. There was a villainous world out there I'd once thought could never touch or affect me. How wrong I'd been. I mourned the loss of such innocence.

"I'd already placed special locks and bolts on the doors and windows of your apartment," Rome said, "so the assailant shouldn't have been able to bypass them as silently as he did. He was good, and he was determined to get to you. Whoever else Vincent sends will be even more so."

"What did you do with the man's, uh, body?" I asked.

"I took care of everything and even cleaned your place. No reason to concern yourself with the details."

I was kind of glad he didn't elaborate. That was all I could handle at this point. Clandestine activities so were not for me.

Why had I ever despised my safe, normal, average life? More fool me.

Rome offered me another bite of eggs, but I shook my head. My stomach was now knotted and clenched, threatening to rebel. "I'm not feeling so hot," I said softly.

There was a long silence, then, "I think you're ready to hear the proposition I have for you." He settled on the stool beside me and turned mine so that I faced him.

At first I kept my gaze on the open gape of his collar. I liked looking at him a whole lot more than I liked thinking about bad guys and evil plans. Against the stark black of Rome 's shirt, his skin looked deeply tanned, worshipped by the sun. A thin smattering of black chest hair peeked through. Not enough to notice without staring, but enough to tantalize. What would it feel like if I traced my hands over his chest? Allowed my fingers to roam, explore… indulge?

What are you doing, you idiot? I could not let myself be attracted to him. Him, a man who had just admitted to killing someone. A man who'd been okay with knocking me out. No matter how sexy he was, I. Could. Not. Desire. Him. Right? Right. Even though he'd saved me from a murderer, I didn't know if I could trust him fully.

"Belle?"

I blinked, snapping out of my internal conversation. "What?"

"I don't think you're listening."

My gaze jerked up to Rome 's face. He was watching me, a curious glint in his bright blue eyes. Several strands of inky hair had fallen onto his forehead. He should have looked boyish. He didn't. Danger radiated from him too fiercely. Danger… and seduction. He looked like every woman's most private fantasy, a god just roused from bed and eager to return.

We decided not to think that way, remember? "What were you saying?" I asked.

He rolled his eyes. "I was telling you that you were fired from the caf��, so you no longer have an income. You should have heard some of your phone messages from Ron."

I sucked in an angry breath, not liking that Rome had listened to messages meant for my ears only. "Did my dad call?" I asked through gritted teeth.

"Yeah," he answered, without hesitation and unapologetically. "We had a nice chat. He's a little miffed at you for not mentioning me, but he's glad you've finally found a man who will put up with your smart mouth. And he wanted me to know that you do have a sweet side, which I'll apparently find if I stick around and search hard enough."

A haze of red flashed over my eyes. "You talked to my dad?"

"Yes. Your friend Sherridan, too. She wanted to know why you haven't called her in the last few days, and asked if you were mad at her about the twins. I told her you've been expending your energy trying to win me over, and she told me to tell you to wear black leather and carry a riding crop. Interesting girl. Is she single?"

Oh, this was too much! Did my childhood friend and the man responsible for my creation not think it was weird to chat with a strange man I'd never talked about or introduced them to? So what that Rome had been in my apartment and answered my phone. For all they knew, he could have sneaked inside with every intention of killing me. Wait…

"Anyway," Rome said with a wave of his hand, "you might love them, and they might love you, but I'm all you've got right now. I'm the only one who can help you."

The grim warning washed away my anger and brought fear. Cold, very real fear that froze the tips of my fingers. Since anger caused flames, it made sense that fear caused ice. Too quick on the emotional trigger, Rome had said. He was right. About everything. "What should I do? Hide?"

"No. You have no experience in that arena. You'd be caught before you reached the end of the block. No, what you need to do," he said, tapping his finger against the counter, "is get OASS off your back. The best way to do that is to find the scientist who created the formula. Dr. Enrich Roberts."

I stared at Rome, incredulous. "That sounds great, but how am I supposed to do that? I have trouble finding my keys."

"I'll help you. Maybe he can reverse what's been done to you. If not, well, we can trade him-or pretend to trade him. His life for yours. I can't actually let Vincent have him again. He convinced the good doctor once that working for him would benefit the world. I can't take the chance of Vincent convincing him a second time."

What I got out of Rome 's speech: There was a chance I could be me again. Normal, average me. The thought was intoxicating. Wonderful. Heady. Except… a stray thought intruded upon my happiness, and I frowned. "What do you get out of all this, Rome? You had orders to take me in. If you're telling the truth, you've disobeyed direct orders. You'll be working against your boss. Why would you do that for me? A stranger."

His jaw clenched and he shrugged, the action stiff. "Maybe my boss changed his mind. Maybe he now thinks you're of better use in the field."

"And maybe you're full of shit," I said. He probably expected me to accept his explanation without comment. Well, he could stuff his stupid maybes. "Maybe you aren't really working against anyone but me. Maybe you plan to find and kill Dr. Roberts and blame it on me."

Rome remained silent.

"Before your boss let me loose, he would want to see what I could do."

More silence.

"Wouldn't he?" I demanded. "Tell me the truth, Rome. Do you really want to help me? Or are you trying to trick me so that I'll take the fall for something?"

Again, he kept his mouth closed and uttered not a sound.

Anger sparked inside me, but thankfully, I didn't start a fire. I continued to work the rope at my wrists and ankles, my hands and feet becoming as hot as my rage. My life was at stake here, and I couldn't risk my survival on the hope that Rome meant me no harm.

"You'll get no help from me," I declared.

"I don't want to frame you for a crime," Rome finally said. "And my employer doesn't know that I have no intention of bringing you in. Satisfied?"

"No." And I wasn't. "Does this employer of yours have a name?"

Another heavy curtain of silence fell, then he said, "John Smith."

Puh-lease. "Yeah, like a thousand other men. Fine. Don't tell me. I wouldn't know him, anyway. But why won't you take me to him? Give me a good reason to believe you. Tell me why you'd suddenly want my help in saving my own life when you were so determined to hurt me before?"

His dark brows arched, and our gazes locked. "You won't simply trust me?"

"No. Nein. Nay. Shall I say it in another language?"

He ran a hand over his face, pausing to pinch the bridge of his nose. "I'm not going to give you to my boss, and I'm not going to let you fall into Vincent's hands," he said. "Not now and not later. I give you my word. If we can't find the doctor, I'll find another way to get Vincent off your back."

"Why would you do that?"

"Because… " He paused, as if confessing was a painful chore. "Because-damn it. This isn't information you need right now."

I stopped working at the rope, poised at the edge of my seat. "Tell me anyway," I insisted.

"Because," he repeated, glaring at me. The heat of that glare nearly singed my skin. "Because I need to take my daughter into hiding, and you're the only one who can help me do that."

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