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Playing With Fire (CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE)

IT WAS A CAR CHASE to end all car chases. Several times we almost crashed-into parked cars, moving vehicles, trees and buildings. The object didn't matter; nothing was safe from our rampage. I was surprised the police weren't involved yet. Maybe Vincent had convinced them to look the other way, as he had at the caf��. I just didn't know. All I knew was that my stomach churned and was very close to heaving.

As we soared down the highway, a black SUV pulled alongside us. I gasped. "Uh, guys. Look to your left."

"Can't," Cody said, chuckling. He hadn't stopped laughing since the chase had begun. Either he was a danger junkie or completely insane. Maybe both. He leaned out the window, aimed the gun he'd taken from his ankle holster, and fired off a few shots. "We've got a tail on the right, too."

"What?" I whipped around and gasped. Sure enough, another black SUV had closed in on our other side.

The sound of bullets-with which I was now intimately acquainted-erupted, followed by a loud thump, thump. I whimpered, okay. Like a little girl. I'm not ashamed, but I had to keep my fear to a minimum. I didn't want ice in our car's engine.

Logically, I knew I should cause a thunderstorm, shielding us from their view. I just didn't have it in me. I couldn't forget my fear, couldn't force sadness to come. If I'd been offered a million dollars and a one-way ticket to heaven, I still wouldn't have been able to make it rain.

"Everything's going to be fine," Rome said, suddenly hitting the brakes.

The momentum threw me forward, but my seat belt shoved me back again, saving my life. The SUVs sailed ahead of us. Cody fired as Rome jerked the wheel, steering us into oncoming traffic.

"Someone could have hit us from behind," I squeaked out. Tremors raked me. "We could have died."

"I checked before I stopped, baby, and there was no one behind us. Have a little faith."

"Yeah, have a little faith," Tanner said. Brave words, marred by his pale face and trembling hands.

One civilian car after another whizzed past us, honking and swerving to avoid hitting us as we traveled the wrong freaking way. I squeezed my eyelids tightly shut, desperate to drown out the sights. "How did Vincent find me?" There. Conversation. Now maybe I could pretend I was at home, with my dad, sipping hot chocolate and watching cartoons.

"I'm sure he had men all over town, and one of them spotted us and called in the others," Rome said.

"I don't want you to talk, Rome," I said. "I want you to concentrate. Cody can answer me."

"I'm sure he's had men all over town," Cody repeated with a chuckle. His damn chuckling! "Someone spotted our car, figured you were with us, and hello, B movie scene."

"They're gaining on us again," Rome said, ruining the mirage I had going. "Use your goddamn powers, Cody, and let's finish this."

"If I do, I'll cause a power outage in this area."

"So?"

A pause, then, "Fine." Cody leaned out the window again, stretching out his hands. Electricity sparked from nearby poles and lanced toward him in orange-gold streams. He gathered the crackling, flickering energy in his palms and hurled it at the SUVs. The surrounding streetlights, which were already muted upon the arrival of the dawn, darkened completely.

Crash!

The cars lit up like a Fourth of July fireworks display. One flipped, careening down the highway. At that point, I shut my eyes again and anchored my head between my knees. Deep breath in, deep breath out.

Finally, blessedly, we lost them and traveled back to the park where we'd originally arranged to meet John. When I called Rome and Cody stupid for going there, they laughed at me.

"Vincent won't think we're 'stupid' enough to return, so he won't show up himself," was the answer Rome gave me.

"Tanner, you okay?" I asked. "You're so quiet."

"Just wishing for babes," he answered with a nervous smile.

Cody jerked a phone from his pocket and speed-dialed John. He informed him of our whereabouts and what had happened. When Cody hung up, he turned to Rome and said, "He's on his way. And he's bringing protection."

Half an hour later, a car parked beside ours. Same make, same model. Four men exited. We did the same. Rome came up beside me and took my hand. There were kids on the swing set a short distance away, parents watching over them.

"You trust me?" Rome whispered.

"Yeah. Thanks for asking," Tanner said drily. And not quietly.

"Yes," I whispered back. I studied the man obviously in charge. He was the only one who didn't look as if he'd just come off a beefcake calendar. He was about five-eight, with thinning gray hair, glasses and a slightly rotund belly. Yet he radiated power.

"Belle Jamison. Finally we meet," he said to me.

"Yes." Here he was in the flesh, one of the men who wanted to control me. He was somehow more menacing than the males around him, who were tall and muscled. One had red hair, one black and the other highlighted brown. They oozed strength and mysterious power as they surrounded the old man. The redhead was smoking, and that smoke wafted to me. I coughed, the ashes tickling my throat.

"Put that out," Rome snapped. He wasn't content to wait for the man to obey. He strode to him, plucked the butt from his mouth and tossed it on the ground, stomping it out.

Slowly my coughing subsided. John watched all of this with interest.

"Strong aversion to pollutants," he said with interest. "Were you always like that?"

How could this grandpalike figure have ordered painful experimentation on me? "No," I said hesitantly. "Just recently."

"Interesting." A faraway look glazed his eyes, as if he were mentally calculating an equation.

"Let's get this over with," Rome barked.

"All right, then." The old man's features creased with anger, and yes, power more intense than the young men around him, giving me a glimpse of the tyrant who could hurt me without blinking. "Why don't you tell me why you failed to bring Belle in when you found her? Why don't you tell me why you stopped all communication between us?"

Expression unreadable, Rome stepped in front of me. "You've always wanted Vincent out of the picture, but the government wouldn't let you take him out. Well, I'm willing to do it, and I'll make sure it's never linked back to you. But I'll need to use Belle as bait."

John's eyes narrowed. In unison, his shadows crossed their arms over their chests and flanked him. "I can't risk it. Besides, I want her tested."

"There's no time for that. You either want him gone or you don't."

"What makes you think you can get him and not have the blame fall on me?" John asked staunchly.

"There will be no evidence. Not while Belle's at my side," he answered. "I'll give her over to him, and she'll burn his lab to the ground."

The conversation finally clicked into place for me, the part of Rome 's speech that affected me most. "You want to dangle me in front of that madman?" I gasped, then pressed my lips closed. Trust him. At least he hadn't mentioned Dr. Roberts's letter.

Rome reached behind him and gripped my hand, squeezing. "We plan to break into his lab tonight," he said. "Believe me, Vincent will come to us."

A long pause ensued, blanketing the sound of insects, the rustle of wind. Then, in the distance, I heard a helicopter. Dear God. Would it never end? The bad guys knew we must be in the area, I guess, and were desperate to find us.

"Yes or no, sir?" Rome splayed out his arm. "We can't stay here, they'll spot us. Either take her or send us on our way."

I trusted Rome, I did. But jeez, thanks a whole hell of a lot. Just gamble with my life, why don't you. No biggie.

A muscle ticked in the old man's jaw. "I don't have any men to spare right now. Everyone is out on assignment, and I can't give up my guards with Vincent so close."

"We'll be fine on our own," Rome said.

John paused. Sighed. Then mumbled, "Use her. But Cody is going with you. Get in the lab, kill Vincent and bring Belle to me. Understand?" His eyes glinted in warning, telling Rome the consequences if he failed to obey.

I gulped.

Rome nodded.

Without another word, we pounded back to the car, and Cody claimed the driver's seat this time. He gunned it, shooting into a nearby thicket of trees. I looked back, but John's car had already disappeared.

"VINCENT'S LAB HAS an internal security system that is not reliant on outside electrical units," Rome said to Cody.

I knew that Vincent's lab was the place Dr. Roberts had worked, the building across from Utopia Caf��. And night had, unfortunately, fallen, which meant we were about to head straight into that lab. Into danger. Right now, we were several blocks away, standing near a deserted intersection. Already I wanted to vomit. Danger sucked.

"That won't be a problem." Cody patted the lamppost beside him. "The lights do use outside currents. I'll be in before you know it."

I kid you not-Cody climbed the pole, reached out and grabbed two of the wires. Sparks flew around him a split second before he became the sparks. He seemed to melt right into the wires. I watched from the ground, wide-eyed, as those sparks traveled along, disappearing from sight.

"My God," I breathed.

"He's a good man to have on our side."

"Are we really going to draw Vincent out and try to kill him?"

"Yes. First we need the formula Roberts left in the building, though, so it's the bait rather than you. Can you make it rain?" Rome added with barely a breath, wasting no time.

"Yes." Maybe. How many emotions could one girl endure before spontaneously combusting? Or better yet, killing herself?

At the moment, I wanted nothing more than to soothe my stomach and embrace numbness. Maybe experience total anesthetization. Maybe sedation. Even the thought of happiness bothered me right now. I wanted nothingness, damn it.

Tanner gripped my hand and gave a comforting pat. "You can do it. I know you can."

I guessed we'd find out. I forced sad thoughts into my mind, but the emotion didn't touch me. It was kind of like standing on the edge of a dream, watching, unable to do anything. Rome linked his fingers with mine, forming a three-person circle.

Tendrils of strength suddenly curled through me; thunder boomed. I straightened. Wait. I hadn't been sad. I'd simply-ohmygod! Did I actually not need to feel sad to create a storm? Maybe… maybe I just needed the power of the emotion. Like seeing a rainbow in the distance, but not having to touch it to experience its beauty.

There were reservoirs of emotion in everyone. Perhaps if I could tap into specific feelings and experience their effects at a distance… Hopeful, I searched for and found the sadness buried deep inside myself without letting it flood me. I drew on its strength, milked it.

Another clap of thunder boomed. I grinned. Yes! Lightning lit the sky with jagged gold bolts. The already dark sky turned a swirling, churning black. Droplets of rain began to fall, already hard, already fast.

"You're doing good," Tanner praised.

Rome said, "We need to get to the lab, baby. Try to keep the rain up as best you can."

I nodded. I was excited by what I'd discovered, but also very ready to get this over with.

We hiked on foot, rain pelting us the entire way. We remained in the shadows as best we could, avoiding streetlights and businesses. Very few cars were on the road. My wet clothes were soon plastered to my skin, and water trickled into my eyes as I passed Utopia. I barely spared my former workplace a glance. It felt like a lifetime had come and gone since I'd last been there-the day I drank that fateful latte. What would good old Ron the Pervert think if he could see me now?

By the time we reached the laboratory, I think I carried more water weight than at prime PMS season. At the doorway, Rome jerked wires from a metal box with one hand and withdrew a card from his pocket with the other. He twisted a blue and a red wire together and flashed the card in front of a scanner. Obviously he'd done this type of thing before.

The doors slid open.

He entered. I followed close behind him, Tanner on my heels. The entryway was plain and unremarkable. I'd kind of expected computers, maybe a robot. Definitely armed guards.

"Dr. Roberts's office is this way." Rome grabbed my hand, I grabbed Tanner's, and like a train, we started moving through a winding corridor. Rome stopped along the way and jerked cameras out of the walls. At the last camera we could see, he froze, sniffed. "Someone's coming."

"Yep, and he's got a gun!" Tanner shouted. "Duck."

In unison, Rome and I dived for the floor. During our fall, he jerked me underneath him. The guy fired at us and missed. Tanner had already aimed his gun and squeezed the trigger. A muffled whiz and crack rang out, barely audible over the roar of blood in my ears. The bullet slammed into the uniformed guard, and his big body crumbled to the ground, just to the right of the Rome-Belle huddle.

"Come on." Rome stood, grabbed my arm and helped me to my feet. Maybe I was about to pass out, because I saw sparks shoot from an outlet, lights flashing, crackling… and then Cody was there, standing just in front of me. I blinked, shook my head. My heart had yet to calm from everything that had already happened, and seeing him suddenly appear didn't help.

"Well?" Rome said to him.

"I did damn good," Tanner exclaimed.

Rome replied, "Not you, little boy. How many guards, Cody?"

"I counted only three. I disposed of two… " Cody's silver gaze flicked to the blood-soaked tile and to the gun in Tanner's hand. "Looks like the kid took care of the third, so we're good to go. The building has been emptied out. Maybe Vincent feared discovery and ran. The whole place is under surveillance, though."

"I took care of the cameras," Rome said, "but this seems easy. Too easy."

"We'll look at the office and get out fast." Before Cody finished his sentence, he was moving down the hall.

The rest of us followed, flying along abandoned hallways. We soon entered a large room, where the sound of our breathing echoed. The walls were covered in chalk marks. Some were symbols I didn't recognize, other were clearly depictions of the four elements. There was a periodic table, as well. Several floorboards had been ripped up. Vincent and his men had been searching for something here. Had they found what they were looking for? I turned full circle, wondering what to do, where to look when there was nothing to look through.

"There's nothing here," I said, disappointed.

Rome 's face scrunched as he studied the walls. He appeared curious, disbelieving and shocked at the same time. "No, there's something. I thought it'd be easy to find him since he's only one man, and old at that, but he's a wily thing. The present is hidden. Belle. Use your powers."

"What? Why?"

"Use your powers, baby. Please."

"Uh, sure. Okay." I didn't understand, but there wasn't time to argue. Tanner reached out and linked our fingers, offering comfort. "Which one? Rain? Fire? Ice?"

"Someone please explain what's going on," Cody said, tossing up his arms. " Rome knows something I don't, and I don't like it."

Holding out his arms toward the walls, Rome spun around. "The formula is here, in this room, waiting for Belle." He stopped, facing us dead-on. "If ordinary people can't see it, it must need some sort of catalyst to become visible."

"And you think changing the weather is going to be that catalyst?" Skepticism tinged Cody's voice. "That would mean Roberts wanted Belle to find the formula."

"That's right." Rome nodded. "He does."

"Why would he want to help her?" Cody asked.

"To make amends." Rome 's blue gaze pierced me. "Try. For me."

Anything for him. I closed my own eyes. Concentrate, Belle. Okay. What element would Dr. Roberts have been most likely to utilize? Not fire, surely. That would torch the place. Rain? Maybe. It was worth a try. I'd start with that.

Once again, I did not summon sadness. I summoned the power behind the emotion, remaining distant from it, simply drawing from my deepest reservoir and projecting out of my body. A clap of thunder echoed in the room, blending with the sound of the continuing storm outside. My lips curled in a proud grin. Having succeeded for a second time, I knew without a doubt that I'd been right.

"Ease up a little," Tanner said. "It's becoming very strong."

Rome mentally reached out and captured some of its edge. Physically, he clasped my free hand in his. I immediately relaxed.

"Good, good," Tanner said.

A trickle of rain began to fall inside the room. Fat droplets splashed my face and my already wet clothes.

"Shit," Cody said, scrambling to the doorway, away from the rain. "Who would have thought?" he breathed, awed by his first viewing of my abilities. He shook his head in surprise. "With this power, she'd be able to kick my ass in a heartbeat. Water fries the hell out of me."

Holding on to my optimism, I looked around the room. The rain continued to fall, but nothing became visible, no clue, no object.

"Rain isn't the answer. Fine. But what next? He wouldn't have wanted me to use fire," I said, voicing my earlier thought. "Nothing could survive that." I paused, frowning. "Or maybe that's exactly what he wanted people to think."

"We'll save that for last." Rome kissed the back of my hand. "What about wind? An increase in dust circulation or simple air pressure might work."

Wind, I mentally called, not changing the focus of my emotions. As before, I pulled from my reservoir. The wind answered immediately, chasing away the rain. Strong gusts swirled and churned, whipping my wet clothes around me. I shivered from the chill. The precarious floorboards shook and danced. Paint peeled from the walls.

Still nothing.

"Try snow," Tanner shouted over the roar.

I shut off the wind and pictured a snowstorm. "Don't filter," I told Rome, pushing his presence from my mind. "Not yet. Let it rage for a bit." The air chilled, and I shivered again, this one reverberating through my entire body. Huge white flakes fell from the ceiling. The wet floor froze into a sheet of ice. I'm pretty sure icicles dripped from my nose.

Several seconds ticked by. Wet as I was, the cold seemed unbearable. Shivers continued to rack me. My blood crystallized. The air began to solidify.

Rome cursed under his breath. "You're going to have to set the place on fire, Belle. Don't be afraid. We'll get you out before the smoke hurts you."

I was just about to summon the flames when the walls changed color, going from white to blue. As if by magic, words began to appear on them. Giddiness thrummed through me. " Rome, look. Look!"

"My God," he breathed, his hot breath creating a mist. "He must have used some sort of chemical that reacts to cold."

At least I wouldn't have to burn the building down. "What does it say?" I asked, doing my best to maintain the level of chill.

"It says, 'You're being watched, and I'm sorry for that. Maybe the wood will make up for it.'" Tanner's brow puckered. "We know we're being watched, but what does he mean, the wood will make up for it?"

"Could there be a secret ingredient in the wood that will make me normal again?" I asked.

With the water frozen and no longer able to harm him, Cody stepped back into the room. He laughed and bent down. "Smart bastard. Look at this." The chill had changed the wood panels, as well. Words covered them.

We all crowded around him. "It's the formula," Rome said, something unreadable in his tone. Happiness? Resignation? A combination of both? "Maybe we can make our own batch and find an antidote for Belle."

Though I'd been unsure earlier today, yesterday, about giving up my powers now that I was coming to wield them properly, I realized then that I needed to give them up. I needed an antidote. Rome would be off the hook with John, my dad would be safe and I wouldn't be chased anymore.

It was funny, in a horrible way. If we were able to make an antidote, I would most likely lose my powers and Rome within the same week. Hide Sunny. Kiss Rome goodbye. Take antidote. Yin and yang: a bad for a good. Wasn't that how things usually balanced out?

"Let's pull up every floorboard." I bent down and lifted two, the wood heavy in my hands. "We'll take them with us."

"Shit," I heard Rome mutter. I paused and looked up. He'd stood and was now studying the wall and rubbing a small black dot. "Another camera."

"We're getting good at this clandestine crap," Tanner said as he blithely gathered more boards.

"No, we're not." Rome faced us, his features pained, tortured. "We just walked into a trap."

"Yes, you did." The amused voice floated from the doorway. "You can drop the boards. We'll take care of them now."

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