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Playing With Fire (CHAPTER SIXTEEN)

WHILE I BATTLED A plethora of desires (namely, to kill Tanner, strip Rome, scream, cry, beg for more of his loving) Rome pulled his fingers from me, then moved away from me entirely. His expression was taut-no longer in a good way-and pained as he readjusted his pants.

Trembling, I righted my clothing, unable to draw in a steady breath. "I finished, but what about you?" I whispered. My gaze flicked to his swollen fly. "You're-"

"Fine. I'm fine. Nothing we can't take care of later." But his gaze lingered on my hardened nipples, dipped to the apex of my thighs, caressing. A hot, wistful gleam appeared in his eyes. Then he did something unexpected and wholly erotic. He licked his fingers-the fingers that had been buried inside of me.

His eyelids closed in surrender. I almost came again, the action was so arousing. Almost wicked. Definitely naughty.

Tanner raced around a tree and spotted us. "Belle?"

"I'm good," I said, my cheeks reddening. "Nothing's wrong."

He ground to a halt and studied me, studied Rome 's back. "Oh. Oh. You guys were having sex. Gross. Just gross. Cat sex. I'm going back inside. Try to keep your mind on the objective, you two. Jeez, am I the only one here with a work ethic?" He turned on his heel and marched back to the cabin.

Rome looked at me, and we both burst into laughter. "That kid," he said.

"I know."

"Now that I know what you taste like, we can get back to work." He spun away from me, his shoulders stiff. It was only then, with distance between us, that I realized the extent of what had just happened. I studied him, searching for signs of damage. There were no red marks, no blisters. It had worked. Ohmygod, it had really worked! Rome had actually taken my fire into himself and completely tamed it. He'd kept it from raging, kept it from hurting anything-or anyone.

We could be together.

We could make slow, languid love. We could enjoy hard, fast, raunchy sex. All without the fear of consequences. Just the thought was enough to reawaken my desire. Soon I'd have him inside me. Completely.

A shiver of delight coasted up my spine as I prepared for our next practice session. I'd get to start a fire, just not the kind I wanted. Not yet.

Without stopping for a lunch break, we spent the next two hours creating flames, rain, snow and wind whirls. I actually did a good job. Rome stood at a distance, filtering my emotions. Without Tanner, he didn't know how much to filter, but that wasn't what he needed to work on. He had to practice filtering without becoming aroused.

With every distraction, I had to start over-but overall, I made progress. Hopefully, in a few more weeks (probably months, sigh) I'd be able to create the desired results instantly, even with distractions all around. Even when Rome was aroused.

What frightened me, though, was that as I improved I began to enjoy my abilities. Wielding and controlling such power was heady. Intoxicating, like an addictive drug. A wild adrenaline rush. I started to picture the things I could do once I truly mastered these powers. If someone pissed me off, I could burn off his hair. If someone threatened me, I could ice her home. Who wouldn't enjoy dishing out that kind of revenge?

I mean, a few weeks ago, I'd borrowed Sherridan's car for a job interview. Ten minutes into my drive, I'd been pulled over by the most egotistical, I'm-above-the-law cop ever allowed on the force. Officer Ken Parton was his name. As if I'd ever forget.

I hadn't driven in a long (long) time, so of course my license had expired. Guess what? He arrested me. Yep, the stupid prick cuffed me and hauled me down to the station as if I were a hardened criminal. He booked me and everything. (Maybe my comment about his Dolly man-boobs pushed him over the edge. Who knew?)

So yeah, I now have a record. All because one jerk-off got his jollies from intimidating women. Am I bitter? Hell, yes. If I'd had these powers then I could have drowned that miserable bastard in a hailstorm, could have frozen his balls to his thigh, could have twirled him in a violent tornado.

Note to self: look up Officer Parton when I return to the city.

"What the hell are you thinking about?" Rome said.

I blinked and shook my head, scattering the dark thoughts to the back corner of my mind. However, that failed to extinguish the small fire kindling at my feet. I stomped on the embers. Black plumes curled upward and slithered around me. I coughed, only then realizing what I'd been doing. Planning to hurt someone. The officer deserved it, sure, but that didn't make it right.

Damn. This was what Rome had feared would happen to me. That I'd grow to love my powers and be unable to give them up. Wasn't that what he had said? People killed for power. People craved it, became monsters for it.

I'd wanted so badly to give up my powers when they were uncontrollable, but now that I was beginning to see exactly what I could do-and would be able to do-I wasn't sure I really wanted to return to my normal self. Officer Parton had clearly been enamored of his own power. Would I be just like him?

I sighed and my shoulders slumped.

"You okay?" Rome asked. He strode to my side and wrapped his arms around my waist. He rested his chin on top of my head. "That was a pretty heavy sigh."

"Hey, are you guys going to start kissing again?" Tanner called from the cabin window. He pretended to gag. He'd been watching us the entire time, throwing out bits of unneeded advice and unwanted orders like "try to make a naked ice sculpture."

"Did you ever make lunch?" I retorted. Or was it dinnertime now? Either way, I was starved!

"I do not cook."

Exasperated, I threw up my arms. "Then how do you eat?"

"Takeout." Tanner shrugged. "Maids."

"Maids?" I expected him to laugh, but he didn't. He was totally serious. Great. I'd invited a Richie Richerson to join the Squad of Doom. Wait. Never mind. So not a cool name for us. "Just make sandwiches or something. We'll join you in a minute." I hoped. My stomach rumbled.

"Fine." Scowling, Tanner stomped away from the window. I heard him mutter, "I'm just the empath, so I get the grunt work."

Rome maneuvered behind me to block me from view, wrapped his arms around my waist and said, "You never answered me. What brought that sigh on?"

"I was just thinking." A slight breeze wafted past us, cooling my sweat-beaded skin. His body sizzled against mine, eclipsing the coolness, but no way in hell I'd ask him to move. I liked him where he was.

"About?"

"Powers." I paused, considering my next words carefully. "If you could give up being a cat-"

"Jaguar."

"Jaguar. Whatever." Jeez. Like there was a difference? "If you could give up that ability, would you?"

He offered no hesitation. "In a heartbeat."

"Even though you can get into places normal humans can't? Even though you volunteered for the DNA splicing? Even though you can-"

"Even though," he interjected firmly. "Whatever the advantages, there are far more disadvantages. Like the fact that Vincent would love to recruit me for OASS by any means necessary, which puts my family in danger."

Somehow I'd known he would say that.

"I'm not saying I hate everything I can do." His hands rasped down my arms, up my chest, and cupped my breasts. The man obviously liked to touch me. "I'm not saying that at all."

"Then what are you saying?" I asked breathlessly. His hands were big and callused, and I felt the abrasion through my cotton shirt, felt the phantom imprint that branded my very soul.

I'd had other boyfriends; I'd always enjoyed sex. But something was different with Rome. His slightest touch excited me like nothing else ever had.

"I'm saying the good doesn't outweigh the bad. Yes, I'm able to see more clearly in the dark. Yes, I can smell things I couldn't smell before." He paused, the silence laden with sinful intent. "Yes, I know when a woman is aroused before she does."

"How?" I squeaked, suddenly embarrassed. Heat spread and branched from my cheeks. I'd been aroused by him so many times I'd lost count.

"I can smell her desire."

"Is that… part of the good or the bad?"

"Good." His voice dipped to a wine-rich whisper, a whisper that caressed my still-hot cheeks. "Very, very good."

Holy hell, this man knew how to seduce. My knees were weakening at a rapid pace. It didn't matter that the cabin was behind us and Tanner could be watching from the window. It didn't matter that we were outside. Nothing mattered but Rome.

"I love all of those abilities." He pinched my nipples, and I arched backward. "I can find the unfindable. Stalk the unstalkable."

"But…?"

"But these abilities have not helped me do what matters most. They haven't given my daughter a normal life. No, they've brought the evil of the world to her door. Because of that, I can never drop my guard. I can never fully trust. People want to examine me, bad people, just like they want to examine you. They want to test me, experiment on me, and they don't care how painful it is. They want to make more like me. More like you. More like Sunny. I can't keep her off Vincent's radar forever. If the bastard ever tried to experiment on her… " The last was said in a growl.

I quivered when he glided his wicked hands down my stomach again, this time gripping the hem of my shirt and allowing his fingertips to dabble with the exposed skin.

"Do you trust me?" I asked breathlessly.

"Surprisingly, yes." He bit the shell of my ear, then licked away the sting.

" Rome." I groaned in need. My head fell onto his shoulder. I wanted him to lick my neck. Bite it. Something. Anything. Except…

He released me with a low, guttural growl. "Come on." He pushed out a shuddering breath. "I can't fuck you the way I want right now, and holding you is torture. Let's go inside and eat."

He strode away from me without another word.

Happy place, happy place. "I'll be there in a minute," I called. "I need some alone time to decompress."

He nodded but didn't look back.

Even though I was famished, I needed time to calm my racing blood. I was panting (a little) and aching (a lot). I didn't think I'd find complete satisfaction until that man had me penetrated. Right now I didn't fear I'd start a fire or anything like that. It was just, well, I feared I was giving Rome more of myself than was wise. Frissons of love had already sprouted, but giving him any more of my heart was completely idiotic.

I plopped onto the grass, which was damp from the rainstorms I'd produced. The wetness seeped through my jeans, but I didn't care. Every minute I spent in Rome 's presence, I fell a little deeper under his erotic spell. He was animalistic (obviously), addictive, charming when he wanted to be, sexy without meaning to be, and protective.

Who could resist that?

Not me, I thought with a small twinge of dejection.

I kind of understood now why Lexis had walked away from him. To love him, but have him love another… was there any greater torture? No, probably not. When a woman looked at him, she wanted all of his focus to be on her, all of his strength under her hands, all of his passion directed at her. She simply wanted him to be hers.

He pulled you into his essence, and you were helpless to resist.

I was in serious danger of falling completely, I'm-in-deep-shit in love with him, of losing myself to him, and I knew it. I was too excited by him, too aware of his every touch. I plucked at several strands of grass. I wasn't going to walk away from him-it was too late for that, and I was honest enough with myself to admit it. But I needed to erect better guards against him.

How did a girl do that, though?

If it involved rejecting Rome 's touch and not getting naked, then no, I couldn't do it. I had to know what it felt like to make love with this man. I'd always had a strong fantasy life. This time, however, I needed the real thing. After the way I'd exploded for him, I knew that everything else I'd ever experienced would pale in comparison to Rome.

He'd given me an orgasm while we were dressed, for God's sake, not a single stitch of clothing removed. A first for me.

"Belle," he suddenly called, breaking into my thoughts. His deep, rough tone made me shiver with remembrance. "You okay out there?"

"Yeah." I pushed to my feet. "I'm coming in."

"Lexis phoned. She's with your dad and he's doing great. He even tried to hit on her."

That was my dad, I thought as relief flooded me. I hadn't realized how deep my worry was until just that moment. I wished I could have talked to him, but it was enough for now that my dad was alive and well, with no bad guys lurking around him.

"The, uh… sandwiches are ready," Rome added.

From the hesitation in his voice, I suspected Tanner had done something to the food. It had better be something good, by God. The noises my stomach made were deafening. I trudged up the porch steps and past the front door. Cool air caressed my bare skin and cooled the damp flesh under my clothes.

The cozy scene that greeted me had me blinking in surprise. Both Rome and Tanner sat at the table, their elbows propped on the surface. A plate of sandwiches rested in front of them. Neither was eating. Like gentlemen, they were waiting for me.

Rome didn't look at me. He radiated a supreme arousal he couldn't quite manage to hide.

Tanner grinned wickedly when he spotted me. "I prepared a meal, just like you told me."

Mouth watering, I plopped into the chair beside Rome and gazed at the food. My jaw dropped. Sure enough, Tanner had prepared dinner. Sandwiches, just like Rome had said. Except these sandwiches were cut into round globes and each was topped with an olive.

"They look damn good," Rome said.

"Yes," I said, "but they also look like-"

"I know." Tanner's grin widened. "I was inspired, what can I say? You asked for food, and I delivered."

"You are such a punk," I replied, but I, too, was grinning.

His black brows wiggled up and down, momentarily hiding under his hair. The silver piercings winked. "Now you can tell everyone you've sampled grade A boobies."

Rome snorted, but he leaned toward me and whispered, "I already have."

Grade A? Ha. More like A-cup. Still, I shivered at the intensity of his words. Instead of allowing myself to jump him as I always seemed to want, I reached for a sandwich. Rome and Tanner reached for one at the same time. The boys were lucky they didn't pull back bloody stumps, I was that hungry. Apparently, the more I used my powers, the hungrier I became. With my first bite, I almost died and went to the pearly gates. Turkey and Swiss. Mmm. I ate three pairs of breasts.

"So, Rome," Tanner said, after swallowing a gulp of milk. "How'd you get Belle into bed so soon?"

I choked on the olive currently in my mouth.

Rome fought a grin and slapped me on the back.

"I mean, you guys have only known each other, what? A few days? And you're already going at it like rabbits. I wish you could have seen yourselves. She was moaning, you were groaning. Live porn for sure."

The moment I could breathe, I shouted, "Are you calling me easy?"

"Close your pie hole, Viper. I'm not meaning no disrespect, okay? Rome obviously has some skills I need to know about, and since you haven't exactly given me any tips that work… "

I scowled at him. "They work when executed properly."

"Oh, really?" He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms over his middle, the picture of disbelief. "I told Lexis she had pretty hair and you didn't see her stripping and falling into bed with me, did you?"

"You've got to try it on someone your own age, moron."

Rome slammed his palm against the table surface. The plates jostled and clanked. "You're teaching him to con women into bed?"

What was this, dump on Belle hour? "Not con. Exactly." I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. "Seduce."

"There's a difference?" He studied Tanner, letting me off the hook for a minute. "You shouldn't sleep with a woman unless you care about her."

"That's easy for you to say," Tanner grumbled. "You're getting some."

"Not really." This time, Rome was the one grumbling. His eyes darkened with savage need.

My nerve endings reacted to that need, springing to instant attention. Again. Why couldn't I have civilized men in my life? Instead I was stuck with a horny teen determined to nail some booty and a horny adult determined to nail my booty.

Never mind that I liked the latter.

And never mind that I planned to offer said booty freely and eagerly.

Just remember to guard your heart, my mind piped up.

"Well?" Tanner banged his empty glass on the table. "Are you going to share your expertise or not?"

"Not," Rome said succinctly. "We have more important things to do than talk about your lack of a sex life."

"Hey, now. There's nothing more important than my sex life." The kid straightened, adamant and offended. "All we're doing is eating. Nothing wrong with a little erotic conversation during a meal. Especially when we're eating booby sandwiches."

No way to refute that.

Flustered, Rome pushed his plate away. "Fine. I'll talk to you about sex and how I-how I got Belle to like me, but I'll do it later. Right now I need to talk to you guys about tonight. Have either of you ever broken into someone's home?"

"No." Me.

"No." Tanner. Although his admission came more reluctantly, as if he didn't like revealing he wasn't a criminal.

"I thought not." Rome glanced to the heavens. For guidance? "Usually the best time to go in is during the day. People are at work and less likely to be home, and if you're dressed right, the people who are home won't notice you. But Belle was sick and I needed to see how much she could handle, so I postponed for-"

"Dressed right, how?" I interrupted. Had people broken into my house that way?

He popped a nipple (aka an olive) into his mouth and shrugged. "Repairman. Deliveryman. Doesn't matter, though, because we're going in at night. This night, to be exact, and it's a whole different story. Dr. Roberts's house is, I'm sure, being watched by Vincent's men. And Belle is a wanted woman," he continued, "so we don't have the luxury of hiding in plain sight."

A wanted woman. I liked that. Well, when it pertained to Rome. Not Vincent. "What exactly are we looking for?" The antidote, please say the antidote. "We know the good doctor isn't home, and we're risking a lot by going there."

"Papers, books, anything that will give us information about where Dr. Roberts is hiding and whether he has an antidote."

Excellent! "Wouldn't Vincent have already found those things, though?"

"Not necessarily."

Okay, what did Rome mean by that? I was about to ask him when Tanner said, "If the house is being watched, how the heezie are we going to get in? You mentioned breaking and entering, but we can't do that if our every move is monitored."

Confused, I shook my head. "Heezie?"

"You know. Hell. Don't you ever listen to the Snoop Dogg?"

The Snoop Dogg? Dear Lord, another superhero? "If heezie means hell, then why the heezie don't you just say hell? Jeez."

"Doesn't sound as cool," he said with a pout.

Rome covered his mouth with his hand to keep from laughing. Or possibly to keep from strangling us. "You want to hear my plan or not?"

"Yes, please." Me.

"Totally." Tanner.

"All right. Here's what we're going to do." Rome launched into a speech worthy of any army commander.

I listened, growing pale. God help us. The more he talked, the more it sounded like he wanted us to die.

Actually, I think that was Plan B.

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