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Playing With Fire (CHAPTER TWELVE)

STUPID. IDIOT. DUMMY.

I wasn't cursing myself. I was cursing Dr. Roberts over last night's wee disaster. If not for that formula, I could have spent the night in Rome 's arms, naked and blissful, rather than tossing and turning. Alone. Miserable. I hadn't set anything on fire the first time Rome kissed me (okay, so my fingers had gotten a little overheated, but that didn't count) and didn't understand why I had this time. Unless… were my abilities getting stronger or were my feelings for Rome simply deepening?

Grrr. "I hate that formula!"

If not for that formula, you wouldn't even have met Rome, remember?

"That's not the point," I mumbled.

Men, especially Rome, were off-limits until I learned to control my abilities-or I found Dr. Roberts and he fixed me. Then, and only then, could I kiss Rome like a naughty nymphomaniac. If he still wanted me, that is. After last night, he might never want to touch me again.

"Stupid, idiot, dummy!"

That's what bothered me most and made me angriest with the doctor. Rome probably wanted nothing to do with me now.

Depressed and disheartened, I dressed in the black T-shirt and form-fitting slacks Lexis had laid out for me-which I'd discovered at the edge of my bed when I'd awoken. She'd left me a pair of black leather boots. In my size.

Why'd she have to go and be nice to me, now of all times? I thought, brushing my hair and anchoring it in a ponytail. Hating her would have given me a small bit of pleasure on this crap-infested day. I stepped into the hall. If I'd ever needed pleasure-I froze. Rome had just strode out of Lexis's bedroom. Her bedroom!

As he shut the door behind him, our gazes locked. He moved toward me. I backed away.

"Belle," he said, clearly surprised.

That bastard! I'd cursed and cried all night. I'd agonized over him all morning. And he… he… damn him! I had turned him on, and he'd let Lexis finish the job. Disappointment and fury rocked me, but I quickly extinguished the fury. I would not react. I couldn't react.

This doesn't matter, Jamison. Don't let it matter. I swung away from him and slowly, precisely, as if I hadn't a care in the world, walked into Tanner's room. After everything that had happened to him, the kid was probably scared and would need me to explain the situation.

Except Tanner's room was empty.

I turned, determined to find him and get the hell out of this apartment. Tanner and I would be just fine on our own.

Rome blocked my path.

"Excuse me," I said stiffly, trying to move around him. I kept my eyes on his collar.

His arms shot out, gripping the door frame and barring my exit.

Remain calm. "Get out of my way, please."

"Not until you listen to me."

"There's nothing for you to say. Nothing I need to hear. Therefore, there is nothing we need to discuss. Move. Or get a permanent tan from my death ray." Deep breath in, deep breath out.

He leaned forward, closing precious space between us. "Why are you acting like this? I did nothing wrong."

My eyes narrowed to tiny slits. "No, you didn't do anything wrong. You kissed me last night, but we don't have a relationship, so we aren't exclusive. You had every right to visit your ex-wife."

"That's not what happened."

When he offered nothing else, I said, "Obviously, it is. It's morning, and you're coming out of her room. I bet you would have liked to hide that from me like everything else so you could screw me at a later date. Or," I added, facing him at last, "maybe you'd already decided I wasn't worth the effort."

"I can't believe you think I'm capable of that."

"I want nothing more to do with you," I snapped. "Now, get out of my way."

He stiffened; his pale blue irises became even paler. His pupils thinned and pointed at both ends, like a cat's. "One, I didn't sleep with her. Two, I didn't spend the night in her room. I went in there to get something, and had you bothered to check you would have learned that she wasn't even in there. She's in the kitchen with Tanner. And three, I think I've already proved you're worth a lot of effort. I didn't want to want you, but the fact is I did. I do."

Without another word, he stalked away from me, leaving me openmouthed. My hand fluttered over my chest. You're worth a lot of effort, he'd said. I want you, he'd said. Every feminine instinct I possessed reacted, cheering happily.

He'd meant it, hadn't just been stroking my ego. He'd looked too brutal, too unbending. The ferocity he'd radiated had nearly slayed me. I gulped. And the ache from last night suddenly returned, or maybe it had never left. Beneath my T-shirt, my nipples were hard, my stomach was clenched, eager for a touch, a taste.

Oh yes, he'd meant it. He'd spoken the truth. He and Lexis hadn't had sex. A well-satisfied man did not sport lines of tension around his eyes, did not practically hum with raging need. With savagery. As if he could toss me onto the floor, tear away my clothing and fuck me then and there, the rest of the world be damned.

A delicious tremor rolled down my spine.

Straightening my shoulders, I followed the path Rome had taken. I was smiling, the stupid grin stretched over my entire face, but I couldn't help myself. At least I wasn't skipping. Okay, maybe I was. The boots I wore click-clicked against the marble floor.

The hall opened into the living room, then branched to the dining room I'd been too tired to pay attention to last night. Now, my gaze drank in each little detail. Beyond the low, sprawling glass table were giant, multihued silk pillows that acted as chairs. A towering archway led into a thoroughly modern kitchen of chrome and silver steel. Silver refrigerator, chrome island counter, silver faucet and sink.

Lexis and Tanner stood at the counter. Lexis, of course, looked exquisitely lovely. She wore a bright red and black pantsuit with Chinese symbols scattered on the hem. Tanner wore the same long T-shirt and baggy jeans he'd sported yesterday. Praise the Lord, he'd taken out the eight ball contacts. His eyes were electric blue, almost the exact shade of Rome 's. I would have melted under his spell in that instant if I'd been a few years younger.

His features were animated, sinfully intent, as he told Lexis how pretty her skin was, how wonderful her hair smelled, how gorgeously her eyes glowed.

I rolled my eyes. The kid wasn't scared, as I'd feared. He was totally at ease and hitting on the hostess-my would-be nemesis-with moves I'd taught him. My gaze strayed farther back, catching sight of Rome. He padded about, gathering glasses and plates. Just looking at him, I felt my chest constrict. You're worth a lot of effort, too.

"Did you find the picture of Sunny you were hunting for?" Lexis asked Rome.

"Yeah," he answered curtly.

A twinge of guilt beaded in my chest. He'd wanted a photo from his ex, not wild monkey sex. I'd have to apologize. "I'm sorry," I said. He didn't answer. I'd tell him again when we were alone. Perhaps I'd give him a swift kiss that wouldn't start a fire.

I looked to Tanner. "You seem to be taking this in stride," I told him. I walked to the island. "I'm surprised you like your prison so well." And the warden, I added silently.

Blue hair tumbled over his forehead as he quickly faced me. "Viper!" A huge grin broke over his face. He threw his arms around me and squeezed tight. "Dude, this place rocks. What's not to like?"

"Did Commando over there hurt you when he knocked you out?"

"Nah," Tanner said, cheeks reddening. "I'm, like, impervious to pain."

One of my brows arched. "Impervious?"

"Yeah. You know, pain can't-"

"I know what it means, Crazy B, I just didn't expect you to use a word like that."

"Toilet paper word of the day," he said, his eyes narrowing on Rome. I needed to get me some of that toilet paper. "He didn't hurt me, but he did steal my car and I want it back."

"You drive that car now, you die. Bad men will be all over it." Rome stepped up to my side. No part of us touched, but I felt the heat of him. The strength. The patent stillness of his predator soul. He pushed a glass of apple juice in front of me and leveled me with a curious frown, finally giving me his full attention. "Viper?"

I lifted my shoulders in a shrug. "It was the only name I could think to give him." To Tanner, I said, "My real name is Belle."

"I knew it. El stoppo, indeed." He slapped his hand on his thigh. "You'll always be Viper to me, though, my sex-starved babe on the run. Hey," he added with barely a breath. "Lexis told me what's going on. Is it true? Can you really start fires with your mind?"

I hesitated to answer. Would he fear me? Turn away from me? Want nothing more to do with me? Only one way to find out… I bit my lip and nodded.

"Do it!" he said enthusiastically, surprising me. "Start one right now."

Relief weakened my limbs. "No."

"Ah, come on. I'll give you a dollar."

"No! I'm not a circus freak who performs for a little cash." I anchored my hands on my hips. "You have to pay at least a hundred if you want to see actual flames."

His eyes brightened and the irises appeared to deepen, to swirl, like a crystalline pool of magnetic power. "Do you take checks?"

"That's enough. No fires," Rome said. There was a hint of amusement in his tone, as well as exasperation.

He plopped an array of fruits onto the counter, and I plucked a grape. The sweetness filled my mouth, but it wasn't altogether satisfying. I liked fruit and all, but please. Just please. What was up with this healthy meal crap? Ham and crackers last night. Fruit this morning. Where were the doughnuts? The burgers and fries? Hello, I'd almost died-several times in the last day alone. I had a new appreciation for the finer things in life. Like sugar. And fat grams.

"So what's the game plan today?" I asked Rome, then grudgingly stuffed a strawberry in my mouth. It was tarter than the grape and actually contrasted nicely.

"We're going to take the kid-"

"Crazy Bones," Tanner interjected. "Call me Crazy Bones. Or CB. I'll answer to CB."

"We're going to take Dumbo to a safe house."

"That shit is whack, yo." Tanner swallowed a bite of melon and bared his teeth in a scowl. "My name ain't Dumbo, and I ain't going to no safe house. Lexis says I'm, like, an empath. And this empath wants to kick some bad guy ass."

"You're an empath?" I said with a disbelieving shake of my head. "You know what people are feeling? Like on TV?"

"Empaths, like psychics, are born," Lexis said, "not created. Tanner was indeed born with such an ability."

Was I some sort of magnet for the paranormal now? What was next, a vampire? A demon? "I agree with Rome," I said. The thought of Tanner hurt-or worse-was enough to give me hives. He had yet to really live, and I wanted no part in helping him die. "I think you need to be somewhere safe."

"I'm not a fucking kid," he snapped.

I frowned over at him. "You don't know what we're dealing with."

"Do you?" he countered, reminding me I hadn't been able to give him answers the day he asked. Which was yesterday, I realized then. I'd only met him yesterday. Wow. Already it seemed as if an eternity had passed.

My shoulders squared, my chin rose and I pierced him with a stern stare. "I know that you're an innocent in all of this, and I never should have gotten you involved. I know-"

"You don't know shit."

"Children." Rome clapped his hands twice. "You may be an empath, Tanner, but you don't have the necessary skills to survive. You'll just get in our way."

"Actually," Lexis said. She flicked her black hair over her dainty shoulder. "He'll aid you more than he hinders you. One day, with practice, he's going to be a human lie detector. But more than that, he's going to be able to sense when Belle needs him. They're bonded in some way. I'm unable to see how, I just know they are."

Rome 's focus whipped to Lexis. "Shit," he said.

"Why do you think he was driving down that particular street at that particular time yesterday?"

"I wanted to buy condoms," Tanner said.

Expression soft, Lexis patted him on the shoulder. "No. On an unconscious level, you'd already sensed Belle's desperation and the heroic part of you forced you to be there so that you could help her."

"Hear that?" Tanner grinned slowly. "The heroic part of me. I'm a hero. A hero, goddamn it, and I want to kick bad guy ass." He punctuated his words by pointing at his chest. "You need me."

He was so excited by his newfound abilities. I wished I could feel that enthusiastic about mine.

Rome glared at Tanner. "Kicking ass could mean getting hurt. Or worse, dying. Are you really prepared to do that?"

"Like I'd die." Tanner snorted.

Kids and their immortality complex, I thought, rolling my eyes. Kids with supernatural abilities were, obviously, even worse. I remained silent while I sucked the juice out of a plump strawberry. The tangy sweetness ran down my throat. If Tanner was connected to me, maybe he could help me regulate my emotions or something. That would be cool, except I would rather Rome had that ability. That way, I wouldn't need Tanner in the room, there to control my reactions, when I next kissed the man.

Whoa. Wait. What are you doing, Jamison? I'd decided not to make out with Rome again until after I was back to my normal self, and I needed to stick with that (horrible) plan so I didn't accidentally kill him.

One of Rome 's hands suddenly snaked around my wrist. With his free hand, he plucked the strawberry from my fingers and tossed it onto the table. "No more strawberries for you," he said hoarsely, staring at my undoubtedly red, moist lips.

Oh, oh, oh. What was this? Desire from him? Because of a piece of fruit? Forgetting my plan already, I very deliberately lifted another strawberry, placed it between my lips and bit. Rome 's nostrils flared. My knees weakened. Holy hell. His eyes locked on the half-eaten strawberry. I welcomed it the rest of the way into my mouth and chewed slowly.

Tanner whistled. "No wonder you wouldn't sleep with me, Viper. You're hot for Superagent. Girls go wild for that commando shit, don't they? Well, guess what? I want to be Agent Crazy Bones. Lexis said her boss, John, will want to hire me, and I'll get to go on missions and protect important people and uncover evil schemes."

Rome swiped his glass and drained the contents, then turned his attention to Lexis, giving her a look that clearly said, Why did you tell him all of that? Her lips twitched.

I bit my tongue at their ease with each other. Was it childish of me to want to jump in between them and return Rome 's attention to me? I didn't like that they were so in sync they understood each other without words.

When Rome 's grip on my hip tightened possessively and he pulled me closer to him, I lost my jealousy of Lexis. A blissful thrill tingled through me. I forced my gaze to Tanner before I melted into a puddle on the floor. "How come you aren't upset about any of this? We could very well have ruined your life."

He lost his smile and looked away, past the kitchen, past the living room. "My life was already ruined." His voice held no humor. Only despair.

"That doesn't mean more danger will make it better," Rome said.

"I want to have some fun and get some girls, okay? There's nothing wrong with that."

No, there was nothing wrong with that. I just prayed his desires didn't get him killed. "What's our game plan?" I asked again.

"I vote for kicking ass and not dying," Tanner said.

"You're such a comedian." My gaze flicked to Rome. "Well?"

He picked up the strawberry he'd taken from me, and popped it into his mouth. Chewed slowly, purposefully. Savored, then swallowed. "I'm still in shock. I've gotten used to working alone. I'd just resigned myself to using you, baby, and now I've got the kid to contend with."

"Hey," Tanner said, frowning. "I'm not a kid, and I, like, totally resent you calling me that. Men tremble in my presence. I can be dangerous. I have mad skills with a bo staff."

"Sure you do, Napoleon," I said drily. "Did you hunt wolverines this summer, too?"

"You do not know how to use a bo staff," Rome said.

"Yes, I do! I've killed people, man. Killed them dead."

Rome scrubbed a hand over his face. "Did you kill them with laughter?"

Tanner scowled, his eyebrow piercings glinting in the overhead light. "You want a piece of me, Double-O Ass-wipe? Go ahead. Go for it. I said I wanted some action, and I don't mind getting it from you."

Rome flashed a snarl, showing teeth that were surprisingly sharp. The pointed tips gleamed in the light. I double-blinked at them and gulped. Holy hell. They were monster teeth. Had they always been so long, and I simply hadn't noticed? Reaching up, I fingered my lips. When we kissed, those teeth of his should have sliced through my mouth.

"Are you a vampire?" I blurted out. It made sense in a paranormal sort of way. He'd denied having any type of power last night. In light of those fangs, I didn't believe him anymore.

He hastily closed his mouth and turned away. He drew in a deep, shuddering breath. A long while passed before he spoke. "No, I'm not a vampire."

"He's a-"

"Lexis," Rome warned.

She, too, pressed her lips together.

Aha! So he did have a power. "Aw, come on." Exasperated, angry, I threw my arms in the air. "You can tell me." Lexis knew and I didn't, and that needed to change. Right now. "I have no room to judge."

"Get your bag," Rome said, not offering any kind of answer or explanation. "Lexis left it on the couch for you. We're going. I want to visit Dr. Roberts's house and look for clues. He's an old man. Surely I can find him."

"He's old, but he's smart," Lexis warned. "No one has been able to find him yet."

"Wait just a damn minute." I gripped Rome 's shoulder and spun him around-and he let me. He could have resisted, but he didn't. I poked him in the chest and glared up at him. "You know what I am, so I have every right to know about you."

"Yeah." Tanner crossed his arms over his chest. "Me, too."

"Shut up," Rome and I told him simultaneously.

"I'm trying to help you, Viper. Rome 's afraid to tell you." Suddenly Tanner ceased all movement. A grin spread over his face. Jumping up and down, he clapped his hands together and whooped. "Lexis. Lexis, did you hear what I just said? I can feel his fear. I can feel his fear!"

"Shut the hell up," Rome growled before Lexis could respond. "I'm not afraid."

"Is that true?" Craving contact, even slight, I traced my fingertips up his torso and cupped his cheeks. "Are you afraid to tell me?"

"Didn't you just hear me?" His jaw clenched, and those taut lines I hated branched from his eyes. "I'm not afraid. This simply isn't something I talk about. Ever. With anyone."

"Lexis knows," I pointed out.

"She was part of my… change. It happened during the experiments we volunteered for."

"Tell me." Inside, my stomach was churning and I felt sick. So sick. I hated that he was blocking me out like this. Did he think I would reject him? Did he think it would disgust me? Or did he simply not trust me with the truth?

"I'm not going to discuss it, so drop it. What I am, what I can do, is not something people like you can tolerate."

My teeth ground together. "People like me? By that you better mean smart, wonderfully compassionate women."

His lips curled at the edges, and he lost some of his dark aura. "Yeah, that's what I meant. Now, end of discussion. We've got some breaking and entering to do today."

Hurt by his continued refusal, I let my arms fall to my sides. "I'm not going to let this subject drop, you know."

Now he cupped my jaw, and his eyes bored into mine. Slowly, languidly, he brought his lips to mine, only a heartbeat away. "Yes, you will, Pyro Chica." He kissed me then. Hard and rough. Delicious, wonderful. A quick thrust of his tongue before he strode out of reach, acting as if it had never happened.

Lexis turned away sharply.

"Pyro Chica?" Tanner grabbed my arm to prevent me from chasing after Rome. "Is that your superhero name? No fair. I need a name, too."

I whirled on him, needing an outlet for my frustration. "That is not my name, and if you dare call me Pyro Chica or Periodic Table Chick or Four Elements Girl I'll singe the hairs right off your balls." Once I learned how to do that without destroying the world, that is. "Got it?"

"Fine." Backing away from me, he held up his hands, palms out. "I'll just call you Homicidal Tendencies Wench."

Rome, who had his back to us and was a good distance away in the living room, barked out a laugh. "That's the first intelligent thing you've said, kid. It's the perfect name for her, no doubt about it."

I flipped both of them off.

Tanner blew me a kiss, the rebellious teenage jackass.

" Rome," Lexis suddenly exclaimed.

The sound of her voice, nearing panic, caused Tanner and me to shut up. Rome spun around, his expression dark, dangerous. "What's wrong?"

"They're here," Lexis said softly. "Vincent's men are here."

true

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