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Playing With Fire (CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE)

INSTEAD OF RUSHING Rome to the hospital, Cody drove us to a chrome-and-brick building on the edge of the city. Of course, this was after he'd gathered up the floorboards. I'd almost burned him to a crisp in my rage over that. Time was our enemy.

During the drive, Rome 's pulse became threadier, his breathing more shallow. He stopped moaning at every bump and bounce in the road. He kept morphing between human and cat. Unfortunately, my dad, Tanner and Lexis followed us in another car; I could have used their support just then.

"Think of Sunny," I whispered to Rome as we drove. "She needs you."

He was sprawled out in the backseat, his head resting in my lap. I sifted my fingers through his dark hair. My fallen angel. That's what he was. My savior, my love. Yes, I loved him. With all of my heart. He was my everything.

"Where are we, Cody?" Worry twisted my stomach as the building came into view. "This isn't a hospital. If you don't drive to a fucking hospital, I'll kill you myself."

"The doctors here can help Rome better than the ones at a hospital. Look at him. Regular people will not want to touch him if he's in cat form. This is the lab where Rome was created."

"Okay, okay. You're right." Please, Lord, let Rome live. He was strong, a fighter. The car eased to a stop, and a group of men rushed forward. They wheeled a stretcher to the curb.

"I called ahead," Cody explained.

Rome was gently lifted onto the stretcher and carted inside the building. I tried to hurry after him, to follow, but Cody latched on to my hand. Without looking back, I attempted to jerk myself free. "Let me go!"

John strolled out of the sliding doors, perusing the scene. "Bring Belle to me, then take the kid and the old man to a secure area," he snapped. Cody pulled me forward as the others piled out of their car and rushed to my side.

"We stay with Belle," my dad and Tanner said simultaneously. They grabbed on to me and tried to jerk me away from Cody.

"Cody, you better let me go," I snarled. "I'm furious right now, and my fingers are starting to burn."

"I know," he muttered, but retained his grip. Tanner and my dad kept holding on, too.

"Lexis, you may go see Rome," John said, "but you, Belle, will stay with me. We have much to discuss."

"I'll keep you apprised of his progress." Lexis rushed out, already running for the door.

I scowled at John. I wanted to go with Lexis, but was too afraid my dad or Tanner would be punished in retaliation. So I stayed where I was. For the moment. "I'm not talking to you or allowing you to test me until I know Rome is okay."

John's eyes narrowed. "Allowing me?" He snorted and reached out to clamp my arm in an iron grip. Only then did Cody release me.

Fuck it, I thought darkly. And after all, Rome had once told me John wasn't an evil man, that he didn't hurt innocent people. I'd take him at his word. "That's right, allowing you," I said. "Daddy, you and Tanner stay here, okay?" They nodded. "You have to let go of me now," I added.

The moment they did, I froze John's hand without much effort-I was getting damn good!-and when his grip on me slipped, I took off without another word in the direction Lexis had gone. Rome, my heart shouted. I'm coming. I managed to catch up with Lexis in the elevator. She held the door open for me, and I flew inside before it closed, catching a glimpse of John's shocked face as he chased after me.

She knew exactly where to go, and ushered me into a sterile-smelling hallway. John soon arrived, scowling, but he didn't protest. He must have sensed that I'd fry him if he tried to come between me and Rome right then.

Rome was being wheeled into-an operating room? A lab? I didn't know which. Thick silver doors flapped shut, blocking the sight of his gurney. He'd been deadly silent, though, and I gripped Lexis's hand.

"He's going to be all right," she said.

"You're sure?"

"I'm… hopeful."

My chest constricted. Hours passed. We paced. More hours passed. John watched, observed us. He even relented and allowed my dad and Tanner to wait with us. They sat on the only couch, their expressions equally troubled.

Lexis eventually sat next to Tanner and rested her head on his shoulder. He put his arm around her and she cried. He cooed and comforted her, and she finally stopped. She raised her head, and they stared at each other for a long moment, then she leaned forward and kissed him.

I stopped pacing long enough to watch Tanner eagerly respond. I was shocked, but happy for them.

John pinched the bridge of his nose, much as I'd seen Rome do whenever he was truly exasperated. "What next?"

"Come sit by me, doll," my dad said. "You're not doing Rome any good by worrying."

"No. I'm too upset." I leapt back into motion. I felt so helpless. I could control the elements, but not save the life of one lone man. I couldn't help him, and I would have given my own life to do so.

"You love him?" John asked me.

"Yes." God, yes. I'd given the man my whole heart.

"Belle, sweetie," my dad said. "Please sit down. Rome will-"

"He's going to make it," a man said, stepping past the doors. He had dark red hair and so many freckles he appeared to be one big brown spot, but at that moment he was the most beautiful, welcome sight in the world. " Rome is going to make it. Whoever froze the wound saved his life. We almost lost him a time or two, and would have if the bleeding hadn't stopped."

"Thank God." I slumped to the floor in relief. Lexis pulled away from Tanner and threw her arms around me with a laugh. Tears trickled from my eyes, then the dam burst and I gripped her and sobbed. My dad and Tanner were suddenly at our sides, trying to offer comfort. Though I was experiencing intense sadness and worry, it didn't rain or freeze. Yes, I really was getting good at controlling my powers. I would have loved the knowledge yesterday. Right now, I couldn't make myself care.

When I finally quieted, John said, "Will you speak with me now?" Exasperation filled his voice.

I gazed at him through the watery shield of my lashes. "I need to see Rome first."

Silence descended like a thick, oppressive blanket. John nodded to the redheaded doctor. "Let her see him, then take her to the spare room."

Whatever he had planned for me in that spare room, I didn't give a shit. I was too eager to glimpse my man. Lexis bid Tanner a tentative goodbye, then she and I were led down another hallway. Around us, scientists-nurses?-meandered in and out of rooms. There were computers and some type of beeping machine along the walls. Definitely a lab. A short, round man in a white coat stopped me when I tried to enter Rome 's room, and pointed to an observation panel.

"You can't go in yet. We're sterilizing the air."

Beside Lexis, I pressed my nose to the glass, my hands at my temples, and looked inside. Rome lay on a bed, completely still, but I could hear the steady beep of his heart monitor, could see the bandages on his chest and the color dusting his skin. A bright blue light was shining on him from the ceiling.

"He's okay," I breathed. "He's really okay."

"Yes," Lexis said, her voice trembling.

"Lexis, you may stay here," the redheaded man said. "Belle, I need you to follow me now."

I wanted to refuse, but didn't. The time had come. I'd promised. I blew Rome a soft kiss and followed the doctor. John waited in an empty room, leaning against the far wall. When I stepped inside, he crossed his arms over his chest. "Shut the door," he said.

My hands trembled as I obeyed. "What exactly is it you want from me?"

His thick, silver brows arched. "I've worked at PSI for a long time," he began. "I've seen more evil than most people know exists. There are vile scrims out there, like Vincent, intent on claiming a piece of the world pie for their own. They don't care who they hurt or what they destroy."

"I thought you didn't, either," I said, laying it all out. "You were-are-willing to experiment on me. To hurt me."

"For the good of the world," he said. "By now you know there's a paranormal realm out there, people who have powers as deadly as yours. That's why agencies like mine exist, to keep them under control. People like you could destroy us all."

"I don't want to cause harm," I insisted.

He studied me for a long moment in silence. "Good. Cody told me how you defeated Vincent, a man who has been a thorn in my side for many, many years."

"I helped," I admitted.

"Would you like to do it again?"

I blinked in confusion. "Do what again?"

"Destroy another thorn in my side. There's a woman-Desert Gal, we call her. She dries everything in her path, destroying life."

I blinked again, shook my head. "You want me to fight her?" Even as I said the words, excitement worked through me. Actual excitement. I'd had fun with Rome these past couple of days. Yes, we'd been chased and shot at and almost killed, and at times I'd hated the danger. But for the first time in a long time I'd felt content, all hints of restlessness gone.

Maybe I'd found my true calling. Maybe I'd found the one job I could stick with.

Maybe I was as bad as Cody, finding joy amid the danger.

"What about neutralizing me?" I asked. "What about testing me?"

"Oh, I still want to test you. You survived a formula that killed everyone else who ingested it, and I want to know why. So yes, I will test you. But there's no reason to neutralize or imprison you if you work for me. You'd be a real asset to PSI."

"But there's nothing special about me! Dr. Roberts finally perfected the formula, that's all. He told me so in a note."

John hesitated for a moment, then said, "I'll need to verify that."

"By talking to the doctor or by testing me?"

"Both."

Grr! Was there no getting out of the testing? "We have no idea where Dr. Roberts is," I said.

"Don't worry. We won't give up the search."

I threw up my hands. "I don't know why I'm even discussing this with you. My answer has to be no." I had other, more important things to take care of: my dad, my promise to Rome. I couldn't forget those. I wouldn't forget those. No matter what excitement presented itself.

John's eyes narrowed. "You're a superhero, Belle, and there's no better job for you."

"There's a chance an antidote can be made from the formula," I gritted out.

"Maybe," was his reply. "I already have my men working on it. Until then… I'm offering you the chance to make the world a safer place."

I ran my tongue over my lips. So Cody had already given him the floorboards. Fine. That didn't mean I was completely powerless in this situation. "I can find Dr. Roberts on my own and get my nice, normal life back."

John laughed with genuine amusement. "Even if you weren't working for me, you'd never have your life back. When other paras hear about you, and they will, they'll come after you. Maybe your family. My agents can protect you."

"And my dad?"

"Of course. Perhaps Rome can even be your partner," he added, the sly bastard.

Oh, the thrill of that suggestion. But Rome didn't want to be an agent anymore-John just didn't know that. Rome wanted to disappear with his family. A long pause stretched between us as John studied my face and I studied his.

He wanted me to work for him. Badly. It was there in his eyes, gleaming, glowing, a desperation he couldn't hide. I guess my powers really were desirable, even with their destructive tendencies. An idea struck me, scary but welcome. "If I decide to work for you," I said, "you have to understand that I'll only take assignments I want. I pick and chose what I do. Not you."

"Done," he said eagerly.

"I want my dad protected twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week."

"We already agreed to that."

"I want Tanner left alone."

John hesitated. "From what Cody tells me, the boy makes a good sidekick. You might reconsider that one."

Truth, as Tanner would say. Wait until he learned what I'd gotten him into. Hell, he'd probably be thrilled. "Fine, I'll reconsider, but I want you to let Rome go."

"What?" John straightened, his arms falling to his sides.

"You heard me." I tilted my chin and straightened my shoulders. "Cut him loose. Fire him."

"I thought you loved him," John snapped.

"I do." And this was what he'd wanted more than anything. To escape this dark world and show Sunny how ordinary people lived. I'd lose him, yes. But he'd been willing to give his life for mine. I could do no less. "I'm sure you've been able to make other cat men, but you and I both know there's only one Wonder Girl." For the moment.

A long while passed in silence. "Fine," John finally said, reluctantly. "He's gone. Anything else?" His voice held an edge of sarcasm.

"Actually, yes. I won't start my new… duties for another month. There are a few things I need to do." Like keep my promise to Rome. Get my shit together at home. Cut out my heart so it would stop hurting.

"Fine, whatever." John sighed. "But you have to come in at least twice a week for testing, whether we decide to test your powers and abilities or your chemical makeup."

I gulped. "Will it hurt?"

"Not too badly," he said vaguely. "Are those all of your demands?"

"Yes." I half expected my fingers to freeze from my nerves, but they remained warm. Yep, I was damn good.

His mouth slowly inched into a smile. "Good. Welcome aboard, Wonder Girl."

WHEN ROME WOKE UP a week later, I was right by his side. The world was back to normal-in a weird sort of way. My dad had returned to the assisted living center, but now he had several guards. Including Cody, who was a new favorite with the "silver foxes" and now the bane of my flirtatious dad's existence, since his harem of women were all interested in the gorgeous younger man.

Bizarrely enough, Lexis and Tanner were hanging out all the time now, and were constantly seen kissing. Once they'd started, they had a hard time stopping, I guess. Lexis told me she was tutoring him in the art of loving, helping the "man" mature. Tanner had put it another way: they were getting their freak on. Either way, they both seemed happy with their Demi/Ashton romance. And I was happy for them.

I'd told Sherridan about my superpowers-had to prove it to her, actually, by blow-drying her hair at fifty paces-and she'd been ecstatic. "Think of the men you can freeze in place and we can fondle!" she'd said. "I'll need to stock up on riding crops."

That woman and her riding crops… I swear.

Brittan and Sunny had returned from their temporary safe house, and Sunny no longer called me "Stranger." I was now "Daddy's friend." Warmed my heart every time the little angel said it. Maybe one day she'd call me Belle. Or… I didn't dare think the other word I wanted her to call me. The M word.

Lexis had taken a leave of absence from PSI to spend more time with her daughter, and, I was sure, to get ready to go into hiding with Rome. I wanted to cry just thinking about it.

From his hospital bed, Rome moaned.

"Stupid man," I chastised him. He had saved my life by almost giving up his own. Since I'd frozen his wounds, though, we were even, so I could call him names if I wanted.

He blinked at me, those crystalline eyes filled with tenderness. Bandages were wrapped around his chest. IV tubes and electrodes protruded from him. Monitors beeped.

"Belle," he said groggily. "My sweet Homicidal Tendencies Wench."

"Hey, Cat Man," I said with a slow grin, suddenly so happy I could barely breathe. He was alive and on the mend. "How are you feeling?"

"Like shit."

I chuckled. "You're alive. That's all that matters."

"Thanks to you." Gingerly, he reached out and our fingers intertwined. "Did you get him?" he asked.

I didn't have to ask to know he spoke of Vincent. "We got him, sweetie. We got him." I'd helped kill the bastard, and was glad of it. Anyone who threatened Rome 's life deserved a painful death.

"Thank you for taking those bullets for me, you big stupid-head," I said. Tears suddenly burned my eyes. "You saved my life, but you also pissed me off. I would rather have taken them myself."

"I'd never let anyone hurt you. Ever."

I leaned over and kissed him softly on the lips. My chest ached then, and my stomach knotted. "You need to hurry up and get better. It's time to get you and Sunny to safety."

With a trembling arm, he reached out and caressed my cheek. "What's wrong?"

"I guess now is as good a time as any to tell you that John fired you."

His brow puckered and disbelief flashed over his face. "What? Why would he do that?"

"I'm, uh, sort of taking your place." I looked away.

"What!"

"You, Sunny and Lexis can leave now. You can be a family. An average, normal family. But you'll probably have to take Tanner with you, since he and Lexis are seeing each other now." I forced a happy tone.

"Tanner and Lexis are… dating?" He flicked a glance to the ceiling. Praying for divine intervention? "And you, without consulting me, signed up to work with John. You did this so that I would leave the agency."

O-kay. He'd sounded incredulous about the dating thing, but he'd sounded pissed as hell about the other. He should be slobbering all over me in thanks.

"Yes. On both counts."

Silence.

"I'm not going to address my ex-wife's romance with a teenager right now. The shock might kill me. What I want to know is why you want me gone so badly," he finally said, his voice quiet.

"I don't want you gone." I faced him. "I just, well, this is what you wanted. This is what your daughter needs. And by taking your place at PSI, I'm fulfilling my end of our bargain. You helped me, I helped you."

He reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose, but grimaced when he moved his arm, and quickly stilled. "I can't believe you. You're completely unpredictable and you're a huge pain in my ass."

"Gee. Thanks. That's just the reaction I hoped for." Tears once again filled my eyes. "Don't you know this is hard for me? I don't want to lose you."

"Then don't," he said, his tone now raw. "Come with us."

My eyes widened. With those words, he'd just offered me everything I'd wanted. Him. A life together. As a family. "I can't." It was the most difficult thing I'd ever had to say. "If I go back on my word, John will expect you to work for him. He'll probably send Cody to hunt us both down."

"Damn it, Belle. I never planned to fall in love with you." Rome reached up and wiped away my tears. "But you snuck past my defenses."

"What?" I demanded. That was the first I'd heard of love.

"I love you, okay? I suspected I was falling for you when you passed out after the fire. I mean, I'd never been so worried about a woman in my entire life, not even Lexis. But I knew it for sure when you saw me transform into a cat-"

"Jaguar," I corrected.

"Whatever," he said. "The point is, you didn't give a shit."

"That's the sweetest thing I've ever heard," I said, covering my eyes with my hand. But I didn't want to hear those words. Not now. Not when I couldn't take what he was offering. Still. I owed him the truth. "I love you, too." The admission was hoarse, broken and unstoppable. "I love you so much."

"I don't know why you're upset. It's not like I'm going to leave you here to fend for yourself."

My mouth fell open. "What?"

"You've got yourself a partner, baby. Get used to it. No way in hell I'm leaving you to your own devices. You need a keeper."

"But… but… "

"Vincent's dead, and he was the biggest threat to Sunny. Besides, you'll help me keep her safe from the rest of the world," he said. "And if anyone can ground her in normalcy, it's you." His tone was dry, but overflowing with affection.

Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod. He wanted to stay with me, was going to stay with me. All of my dreams were coming true. What if you're not the woman for him? Lexis wasn't. The thought drifted through my mind, but I quickly squashed it. I couldn't predict what the future would bring, but I knew that I loved him. I now knew that he loved me, too.

"What if I told you Tanner will be working with us, too?" I asked.

Rome said, "I'd still want to stay with you. One big happy family."

Tears of joy cascaded down my cheeks and I climbed onto the bed and lay beside him. Careful of his injuries, I buried my face in the hollow of his neck. "I love you so much," I said again.

"I love you, too. God help me." He sighed. "Did you already agree to a specific mission?"

I traced a figure eight over his chest. "John did mention that there's a scrim named Desert Gal who needs neutralizing."

"You've learned to talk the talk, I see."

"Yep. I've even learned to neutralize parasters."

He regarded me as if I were crazy. "Parasters?"

"Haven't you heard? It's the new, hip word for paranormal disasters."

Rome shook his head, but wrapped his arm around my waist and held me tight. "What have I gotten myself into?"

"Heaven," I said, and he laughed. "We need a name for our partnership," I added. "Maybe we could call ourselves the Wonder Cats."

He snorted, a sound that was followed by a grimace of pain. "Don't make me laugh anymore."

"Don't let me go," I whispered, suddenly serious.

"Never." He kissed my temple. "One thing's for sure. Life is going to be interesting. But we'll have each other."

Yes, we'd have each other. A girl-even Wonder Girl-couldn't ask for more than that. I could hardly wait to see what life brought us next.

R¨¦sum¨¦ of Belle Jamison, aka "Wonder Girl"

(Final Draft)

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