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Playing With Fire (CHAPTER THREE)

BY MORNING I WANTED to kill myself.

How many hours I drifted in and out of consciousness, I didn't know. One minute I saw sunshine streaming in through my windows, the next moonlight. One minute I shivered from cold, the next I sweated profusely. Awake I hurt. Asleep I hurt. Hurt, hurt, hurt. Everywhere. I was dying. I knew I was. I, who had never fallen in love, never owned a cat-or anything but an obnoxious betta-and never really lived.

This was it. The end. And it wasn't pretty.

You know how dying people claim to see a light at the end of the tunnel, or that their life flashes before their eyes? Lucky bastards! Why couldn't I be one of them? Instead I heard Ron's pervy voice tell me over and over that I was fired as I fell through a seemingly never-ending tunnel, the fires of hell licking at me on one side, snowballs slamming into me on the other.

In this strange la-la land, I'd watched my nightstand catch fire, orange-gold flames flickering toward the ceiling. Then I'd watched a rain cloud form above it and douse the flames completely. The hallucination had been so real I'd heard the crackle of burning wood, the patter of the water and the ensuing sizzle of dying embers. I'd even smelled the ashes.

Afterward, I'd spotted a dark angel/demon standing at the edge of my bed, watching me, waiting for me to die. His gaze had seemed to burn into me. Intense. Scorching. I had felt a strange sort of comfort in his presence, though, knowing I wasn't alone.

Now that I was awake, I wanted him with me again.

"Angel," I croaked, my wild eyes feverishly searching for him in the darkness. I needed a glass of water, el pronto. I think something had died inside my mouth and rigor mortis had already set in. When I earned no response, I tried again. "Demon."

Still nothing.

Had he left? Oh, he had. Bastard. He'd abandoned me.

I closed my eyes and a picture of him formed in my mind. He was severely hot-but he wasn't handsome, if that made any sense. He looked savage and feral, like something you should fear, yet couldn't because you wanted so badly to tame it. Hair as black as midnight framed his face, and his eyes were so blue they sparkled. I would have said they sparkled like sapphires, but there was a predatory glint in those eyes of his, dangerous and wild, nixing any thought of precious gems.

He was tall. Six-four was my guess. He'd been wearing black from head to toe, blending into the room's shadows. The scent of blueberry muffins, ashes and untamed jungle had wafted from him. I rolled to my side, burrowing deeper under the covers as another black web formed in my mind. He had to…

I must have fallen asleep again because the next thing I knew, my eyelids were fluttering open and taking in the sunlight. A long while passed before I was able to orient myself. The room appeared hazy at first, everything slowly slipping into place as if someone had wiped my line of vision with glass cleaner. I saw my peeling ceiling… my yellowing walls… my brown shag carpet… my men's loafers… my-Men's loafers?

My eyes blinked open and closed, then traveled up a pair of black pants, a firm butt, a belted waist and a well filled out black shirt. Ah, the Angel of Death, I realized, relaxing a little. He hadn't left me, after all. Once again he was standing at the side of my bed. He had his back to me as he spoke to someone on a walkie-talkie.

"Subject is roughly five-six, slim, straight brown hair, hazel eyes-mostly green. Full lips." He paused. "Uh, really full lips. Small scar on left shoulder. No tattoos… unfortunately."

Who the hell was "subject"? I wondered groggily. Me? It sounded like me. Maybe creatures of the otherworld preferred to keep things all-business.

"Subject has stopped writhing, and her skin is no longer tinted green. The bruises under her eyes have faded. Subject seems to be on the mend."

His voice was low and sexy. I might be weak, but I wasn't dead-or was I? I shivered. My gaze swept over him once more. He was as deliciously tall as I remembered, and so wonderfully muscled I would have liked to wrap my hands (legs-whatever!) around his biceps. Obviously, he worked out. A lot. His shoulders were wide, his back broad and his ass total, quarter-bouncing perfection. I bet even Sherridan's twins couldn't compare.

"Are you God's minion or the devil's?" I asked, my voice weak and raw. I'd put my money on the devil. (If I had any money, that is.) God had probably banned me from heaven months ago, when I filled my ex the Prince of Darkness's apartment with rotten fish while he vacationed with the girl he'd dumped me for. (One rotten fish for another, you could say. Not that anything could compete with Martin.)

The angel/demon spun around, and those crystalline blue eyes pierced me. Hot, so unbelievably hot. I sucked in a breath, my hormones sizzling to life despite my condition. Seduction and danger poured from him. He had golden skin, a chiseled face with the shadow of a beard, and shaggy, windblown hair. The black locks fell over his forehead, almost shielding the arch of his brows. His nose was slightly crooked-from being broken one too many times?

"Hello, Belle. Glad to see you're awake."

The sound of my name on his soft, kiss-me lips was intoxicating. I fought the urge to reach out and trace my fingertips over that dark stubble dusting his jaw. I fought the urge to grab him by the neck and kiss the breath out of him. I fought the urge… oh, hell. Come to Momma. I tried to reach out, but my arms were too weak and remained at my sides.

Maybe that was a good thing. He was the first man to enter my apartment in, well, too many months to think about (without crying), so I probably would have done a poor job of pouncing/licking/consuming him.

"Don't be afraid. If you'll answer some questions for me, I'll leave you alone," he said. "Sound good?"

Okay, so he wanted to get away from me as soon as possible. I had to look like total crap. Before he escorted me through the gates of eternity, maybe he'd let me shower, brush my teeth, apply ten pounds of makeup, slip on a red teddy and mist myself with pheromone perfume. Not that I wanted to impress him or anything. Really. A girl just needed to make a good impression her first day in the afterlife.

"You falling asleep on me again?" he asked.

"No questions," I said. I'd answered enough of those when Pretty Boy had interrogated me. As I struggled to sit up, the ache in my head roared to full life. I groaned and flopped against the pillow. "I hate to break it to you, but you totally suck at your job. Don't just stand there looking sexy, take my soul already."

"Subject awake but not lucid," he said to the walkie-talkie. For a second, only a second, I thought I heard the beat of his heart. Steady at first, then gaining in speed. Or maybe that was my heart.

"If I'm asked to give an evaluation on the other side," I said, "you're going to score real low."

"You must be thirsty."

The moment he spoke, I realized just how dry my mouth was. "Yes," I rasped.

"Subject is thirsty," he said, then hooked the walkie-talkie, or whatever the hell it was, to his waist. He disappeared. That was the only way to describe it. He moved so silently, so quickly out of my room, he was like a puff of smoke. There one moment, gone the next.

He returned as quickly as he'd left and offered me a glass of water. I tried to sit up, but the feat proved impossible. Reaching out, he anchored his free hand under my neck and gently lifted my head to the glass. I drank deeply, the cool liquid soothing my throat, my stomach, moving through my overheated blood.

Calluses covered his hand. My skin began to tingle. Umm, nice. So nice. My increasingly heavy eyelids fluttered open and closed as he eased me back onto the pillow and set the water aside. "Your evaluation scores just increased," I said hoarsely. Sleep. I'd sleep a little longer.

"We really do need to talk." He gave my shoulder a soft shake.

My brain wasn't functioning at optimal levels, but common sense finally slipped past the thick labyrinth of stupidity blanketing my mind. I jolted into total wakefulness. Could a hallucination help me drink a glass of water? Would an apparition have calluses? Would a messenger of death be able to physically touch me? No, no and no.

The stranger standing in front of me was very real.

Panic washed through me. "Get out," I demanded, my alarm making my voice scratchy. "Right now." I wore nothing more than the flimsy bra-and-panty set I'd worn under the Utopia uniform I'd stripped out of, and though my comforter shielded me from view, it could be ripped away at any moment. In my weakened condition, I wouldn't be able to fend him off if he decided to attack me.

"Relax." His voice was so soft and soothing, I barely heard him. "I'm not going to hurt you."

Liar! Why else would he be here? My panic doubled, and I groped the bedsheets for a weapon. Of course I found nothing more menacing than a few feathers from my pillow. Like those would stop a freaking dust mite.

The man crouched beside me, putting us at eye level. I studied his eyes so I could give a description to the cops, not because they momentarily hypnotized me. His irises were a work of art. Dark blue branched from his pupils and blended with the lighter blue.

"I need to ask you some questions, Belle."

"And I need you to leave," I said, weak but determined. "Now."

Ignoring my demand, he asked anyway. "Do you know how you got sick?"

"I don't have any money, and my husband will be home at any minute."

"You don't have a husband. Baby, stop and think for a minute. If I wanted to hurt you, I would have done so by now. I'm with the CDC, and I just need to know about your illness."

I shook my head to clear it, trying to understand. "Centers for Disease Control?" Okay, that made a little sense. And he had had plenty of time to hurt/molest me, but he hadn't. Still. How had he gotten inside my apartment? How had he found out I was sick? How did he know I wasn't married? "Do you have any ID?"

He flashed a badge, and the action reminded me of Pretty Boy. "Believe me now?" he asked.

"Maybe," I whispered. "What's wrong with me? Am I going to die?"

"There's a chance."

There was a chance? Seriously? My stomach bottomed out, and my jaw fell open. Why couldn't he have lied to me and let me have a few minutes of blissful ignorance? "You're really with the Chronically Diabolic Cockwad association, aren't you?" I muttered.

His lips twitched. "Yes, maybe I am, at that." He held up the walkie-talkie again. "Subject is alert and talking, lucid at last. Do you know how you got sick?"

Silence.

"Belle, do you know how you got sick?"

"What, you're talking to Subject now?"

"Yes."

I shrugged, the action only a slight lifting of my shoulders. "The normal way, I guess. A naughty little virus entered my body and started playing Russian roulette with my immune system."

His brows cocked. "Subject is exhibiting a strong sense of humor."

"Subject is getting pissed." I used the last of my strength to knock the walkie-talkie out of his hand. My arm collapsed at my side as the stupid black box landed on the floor with a thump. "What kind of virus do I have? How long do I have before I… you know, kick it?"

"Kick it?" His lush, kissable lips dipped into a frown as he bent to pick up the box. "Do you know anyone else who has this type of sickness?" he asked, ignoring my questions. "Someone you've been in contact with in the last few days?"

Someone I've been in contact with… Ohmygod! I sucked in a breath. Sherridan. And my dad. Had my dad contracted this horrible, probably-going-to-kill-me disease? I'd visited him just two-or was it three?-days ago. He'd seemed fine, but with his weak heart he wouldn't be able to fight off an infection this strong. I bit back a sob, my throat burning.

"I need to call my dad," I cried, "and find out if he's okay." I dragged myself to a sitting position, wincing as a tide of pain rolled through me. I stretched out my arm, the phone so near, yet so impossibly far. Couldn't… quite… reach… Desperation flooded me, so intense I shook with it. "If he's hurt-" I couldn't finish the sentence. Get over here, you stupid thing.

The phone flew at me on a mighty gust of wind.

As the force of the wind hit me, I was thrown backward. My body clanged against the headboard and the phone soared past me, past the bed, and thumped onto the carpet. Even the CDC man was knocked on his ass. Shocked, I looked at the phone, looked at the charred nightstand, looked at the phone, looked at the man. Wait. Charred nightstand? It had really burned? And where had that wind come from? Where the hell had that wind come from?

Confusion, shock and disbelief rocked me, feeding off each other, almost rendering me speechless. Almost. "Did you see that? Did you feel that wind?"

"Subject just asserted prototype four," he said into the walkie-talkie. A scowl darkened his features as he pushed to his feet. "I really wish you hadn't done that, Belle." He sounded resolute. A little angry. Completely menacing.

"Done what? I didn't do anything. Am I going crazy?" I covered my mouth with a shaky hand. "That's it, isn't it? The illness is making me insane." I paused. "Do you know if my dad's okay? Have you heard if David Jamison is sick?"

"Damn it." The man tangled a hand through his hair and shook his head. "Why the hell did you have to do that?" he said. "Why couldn't you just have been sick, like I hoped?"

"I don't understand. What are you talking about? What just happened?"

"Let me break it down for you, baby. You drank the formula, and now I have to neutralize you."

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