Playing With Fire (CHAPTER ELEVEN)
I consoled myself with a bottle of red wine (don't ask the brand, I don't know how to pronounce it) and more of the food. It was the perfect midnight snack to top off this long-too long-day. Thirty minutes later, after I'd eaten my fill and given myself a tour of the apartment, Rome still hadn't emerged, so I decided to shower, as well. Alone. In a bathroom that was as expensive and well-maintained as the rest of the apartment, with gold-veined facets and pink-veined marble. Sheesh. I could live in this bathroom.
Afterward, in the guest room Lexis had told me was mine for the evening, I changed into an ice-green silk pajama set she'd loaned me. I'd expected a coarse brown sack or extra-large flannel, so the silk came as a welcome surprise. The material felt ultrasoft against my skin.
I was walking out of the room when I spied a phone on the nightstand. I paused, pressed my lips together. Maybe I should call Sherridan. If she went looking for me at work, found out I'd been fired and I hadn't called her, she'd freak. Would her cell be tapped? I didn't see how it could be. I mean, the woman kept it on her at all times in case a client wanted to see a house in the middle of the night. But…
Should I? Shouldn't I? In the end, I hunted down Lexis and asked her-hating that I had to rely on her for anything. "Would I cause a disaster if I called my friend Sherridan?"
Lexis looked at me for a moment, her pretty features pensive. "No. I do not sense one."
"Thank you." Relieved, I marched back into my room, picked up the phone and dialed Sherridan's number.
"Hello," she said sleepily, and I sat on the edge of the bed.
"Hey," I said. I toyed with the damp ends of my hair. "It's me. You alone?"
I heard a crackling static, then, "Why are you calling me at… two in the morning?"
"I wanted to talk. You too tired?"
"No, no. Just give me a moment."
Eager, I mentally counted to five. "You good now?"
"Yeah." She yawned. "So, do you want to talk about riding crops? Or Rome? Let's talk Rome." She sounded more alert with every word. "His voice was sexy enough to give me an orgasm. Does he do phone sex? You should have told me about him when I asked you about the twins."
"You're babbling, Sher."
"I'll stop if you tell me about Rome."
" Rome was sort of a… surprise." Truth. I fell onto the mattress with a sigh. "Oh, Sherridan, I don't know what I'm going to do about that man."
"Have you slept with him yet?"
She tsked. "But you want to, you naughty girl. I can tell. Do you remember how to do it or do you need Auntie Sher to remind you?"
"I remember, thank you." I hoped. "Listen, I'm… going away with him for a while." Again, truth. And the real reason I had called her. "I'm going to be unreachable."
Silence. Then, "Wait a second. You're taking time off from work. Okay, this is serious. Are you an alien? Did you invade my friend's body?"
"I'm not kidding," she said, deadpan.
"I'd better go," I stated, before she could start asking questions I wasn't prepared to answer. " Rome is probably naked and looking for me." Well, the naked part wasn't a lie.
"Fine. Go. But you owe me major details when you get back. Just do me one favor. Give Rome a kiss for me. With tongue." Click.
Little devil. I laughed and replaced the receiver in its cradle. That was done. Next up: Tanner. I tiptoed out of the room and into Tanner's. He was sleeping peacefully, his hair mussed, features relaxed, and a soft snore gliding from his lips. I never should have gotten him involved in my mess. He was just a kid, lost, unsure about his life, and perhaps desperate to find some peace.
I'd shattered that, and I decided then and there to make it up to him. Somehow. Some way.
I left the room and once more braved the labyrinth that was the apartment. Where was Rome? Surely he'd finished his shower. If not, well, I wasn't above storming into the bathroom and questioning him there-while secretly checking out his goods, of course.
I sneaked into the living room and stopped in a shadowed cubby that separated hall from room. My eyes narrowed. Rome sat on the couch, Lexis right next to him. Their backs were to me. The sound of their whispers drifted in the air, too light to distinguish actual words.
Lexis purred a soft chuckle.
Okay, so even her laugh was feminine and pretty. What kind of mutant was she? No one should be that perfect. My hands tightened into fists. Rome could very well be denying, even to himself, that he loved her. I mean, the woman was the mother of his only child. That kind of bond couldn't be broken. Proof: there was an ease to their relationship, an intimacy that hadn't been shattered by divorce. Proof: he went to her when he was in trouble.
Why had they split, then?
I hated-hated!-that the thought of them together bothered me so much. Rome had seen this perfect woman's perfect breasts and perfect thighs. How could other women compete? What's more, Lexis probably kissed and fucked with the exotic flair her appearance promised. No telling how I compared-and would compare. Not favorably, was my first guess.
"She's going to be more trouble than Daniel," Lexis said, loudly enough that I could hear.
"I remember him," Rome replied with a husky chuckle.
"The little boy who could soul-jump, invading people's bodies and taking over their minds. He thought it was a game until Vincent caught him and forced him to soul-jump to rob and murder."
"Getting Daniel out of that lab earned you three bullets in the back." She expelled a sad breath at the memory. "How did Belle survive the formula? No one else did."
"I don't know," he answered. "Maybe the doctor finally got it right. I'm sure blood tests will reveal the true answer to that, but I'm not curious enough to take her in to find out."
Then, "Do you ever regret joining PSI?" Lexis asked.
"We've saved thousands of lives and averted hundreds of paranormal disasters."
They weren't called "parasters"? Lord, would I ever learn the lingo?
"But," Lexis said.
"But," Rome repeated. They looked at each other and in unison said, "Sunny."
"That will be corrected soon enough," he stated. He stiffened, then added, "You going to stand there all night or come sit with us?" He didn't face me, but I knew the question was meant for me.
I frowned. "How did you know I was here?"
"I smelled you," he said, keeping his back to me.
Color heated my cheeks, quickly spreading to my neck and collar. I bet he'd never said that to Lexis. "I just took a shower. I do not stink!"
"I didn't say you stank, now did I?"
"You said I smelled, and that's the same thing." If he'd been within arm's reach, I would have slapped him.
"Well, you do smell. You smell good. Really good." Finally he twisted to face me, and our eyes locked together. Sizzled. Oxygen burned in my lungs, and a jolt of desire speared me. "C'mere."
My embarrassment dissolved into absolute pleasure as an invisible cord tugged me forward. I shouldn't want him this much. I shouldn't need him this much. I forced my gaze from him and studied the couch. The totally safe, didn't-take-my-breath-away couch. I didn't know where to sit. Between Rome and Lexis? Beside Lexis? Beside Rome?
In the end, Rome took the decision away from me. The moment I was close enough, his arm whipped out, snaking around my waist and dragging me into his lap. I landed with a delighted "Hoomph."
Instantly his strength surrounded me, inexorable and comforting and more arousing than an intimate caress. The strong heat of his thighs pressed into the silk of my pants. My mind beckoned me to rise, to fight against his seductive allure, but I allowed myself to sink into his chest, deepening the contact.
"I will leave you two alone," Lexis said, rising.
I didn't think to utter a token and patently untrue please stay.
"You have much to discuss," she added, and there was a tinge of regret in her voice. Hurt. Without another word, she padded from the room.
Rome and I were suddenly alone.
Now that the couch was free, the polite thing to do was get off him. But I don't want to get off him, my body whined. Stay, stay, stay.
He didn't ask me to get up, I noticed, and with a small smile, I burrowed the back of my head into the hollow of his neck. How I yearned to wrap my arms around him, to slide my lips over his jaw and work my way down his chest. To turn and wrap my legs around his waist, then rub myself against his erection.
"You're going to open up to me now," I told him.
"I am, am I?" He didn't sound upset with that fact. He sounded amused, relaxed. Happy, even. And aroused. Deliciously aroused.
Biting my lip, I plucked at his pants, twisting the material at his knee. It was softer than it looked and actually tore under my ministrations. Oops. Did I somehow have superhuman strength now, too? I let go. "Do you really need me to list ways to torture you?"
"Depends on what kind of torturing we're talking about."
"The bad kind."
His naughty fingers dipped to the hem of my shirt and rubbed the stripe of skin visible at my belly. "Painful bad or-" his voice dropped huskily "-kinky bad?"
Instantly my nerve endings jolted to life. "Painful?" I said, though it emerged as a question rather than the statement of fact I'd meant.
He chuckled softly. However, his amusement didn't last long. He pushed out a breath, and his fingers stopped their movement. "I figured out what's been bothering you. You're jealous of Lexis. Why?"
I jolted upright, sputtering, unable to form a proper response.
"Careful, baby, or you'll torch the place like Lexis predicted."
He was right and I knew it, but that didn't make it any less frustrating. Truly, if I didn't stay in a constant "happy place" I would unleash a holy terror-or two. How unfair was that? "Everyone deserves a chance to express their emotions, Rome," I said softly.
"I know." Gently he kissed the base of my neck. "I know."
Exhaling, tingling, I returned to my reclining position. I would address the jealousy thing when I had a response that sounded believable.
"Maybe we should get you a stress ball," he said pensively.
I snorted. "What kind of ball are we talking? Asbestos? Or did you have something else in mind?"
Warm breath brushed my skin, and I felt his lips stretch into a grin. "You're a pervert at heart. I don't think I want your hands near my balls right now."
The tingling inside me intensified, spreading, growing, stretching from one corner of my body to the other. My mouth watered for a taste of him. My nipples beaded, begging for attention. I closed my eyes, only to see a picture of us in my mind. Me, head thrown back, legs open. Him, gliding his fingers down my stomach, through the fine hair at my pubis and into the wet heat of me.
Don't forget why you're here. Questions first. Sex later. Lots of sex. Dirty sex. "Like I said, I, um, have some questions for you, and I want answers." I traced a fingertip over the bumps and planes of his wrist, wanting so badly to guide him to a more intimate caress. "Let's start with your last name. What is it?"
"Are you kidding me?"
I laughed. What a perfect name for him. "Do you expect everyone to obey your every command, Mr. Masters?"
Slowly he grinned. "Always."
Okay, now for the harder questions. "Why did you and Lexis separate?" He gripped my hips and jerked me against his erection. He moaned. I gasped. Good. So good. "And how long have things been over?"
His fingers spread over my belly again, and my muscles quivered. I bit my lip to keep from crying out in utter bliss. "Why does it matter?" he asked.
"Why are you so secretive?" I countered. Unable to stop myself, I arched my back, grinding my butt into his erection once more.
He sucked in a breath. "The less people know about me, the safer it is. For them. For me."
"In case you've forgotten, I'm a superhero." Up, down, a slow glide. I clutched his knees and continued my bold dance against him. God, he felt good. Big, hard and thick. "I can protect us both." Or kill us both, but that didn't bear mentioning.
"Superhero, hmm?" Reaching around me, he palmed me exactly where I needed him. I nearly shouted at the intense surge of pleasure. "Should I call you the Amazing Matchstick? Sparkie? The Blazing Saddle?"
"Do it, and I'll go four elements on your ass."
His thumb stroked me once, twice. Ohmygod. If I didn't pull away I would come. I would come right then, right there. Just erupt into a thousand satisfied pieces, and that would be the end of our conversation. I'd be too sated to talk, too replete to care what he did afterward.
"I can't do this. Not yet." Stupid girl that I am, I leapt off him and threw myself on the other side of the couch. I was panting. Weak. Empty. Questions first. Dirty playtime second, remember? I didn't look at him. A long while passed before I caught my breath, and only then did I twist toward him, careful to keep a safe distance between us.
His expression was harsh and dark and utterly captivating. Taut lines pulled at his eyes and mouth. I squashed the urge to throw myself back into his arms and offer comfort. "How long have you and Lexis been broken up?"
He watched me for a long while, then he said, "This information is important to you?"
"A year." As he spoke, he crossed his arms over his chest. "We've been apart a year."
"Why did you break up with her?"
"I didn't." His brow furrowed. "What makes you ask that?"
All my muscles stiffened, and not in a good way. I gripped the red velvet couch arm until my knuckles turned white. "So she broke up with you?"
Okay, I so did not like that fact. Did he have secret feelings for her, as I'd suspected a little while ago-feelings he might not have admitted to himself? She obviously had feelings for him. Why had she dumped him? Did he want her back? They'd shared their lives, had planned to share their futures. At one time he'd loved her enough to contemplate eternity with her.
"Is that all you wanted to know?" he asked.
About Lexis-yes. The woman had once possessed everything I suddenly wanted. Rome 's adoration. Exclusivity. A future with him. The torrent of jealousy coursing through me proved too strong to deny this time. "Will you tell me about Sunny?" I asked softly. I was treading in dangerous waters, but I refused to stop myself now.
He pushed a hand through his hair and several strands tumbled onto his forehead. "I don't want to talk about her, Belle."
"I know, but do it anyway. Please."
Several minutes ticked by in absolute silence.
"Let's start with something small," I said. "How old is she?"
"Four," was the reluctant reply. "She's four."
I'd guessed correctly. "She looks like an angel."
"She is. Looks like an angel, acts like a devil, though." A warm chuckle rumbled from his chest as a memory clicked into place.
"Hide and go seek is her favorite game. She'll torment me for hours, misting from one shadow to another, laughing at me all the while."
"Misting?" I blinked. "What does that mean?"
He stiffened, shattering the illusion of relaxation. "Never mind. Forget I said anything." His voice returned to its earlier gruffness.
I shook my head. "You are so secretive."
"The world I live in is a dangerous place. I told you that. The less you know, the better."
"I disagree. I'm part of your world now. The more I know, the safer I'll be. I have a right to understand what I'm up against, just like I have a right to know who you are, who my enemies are, and how I can get your boss off my case."
Rome pinned me with a stare, a stare I couldn't escape. "John's not a bad guy. Not really. Just cautious."
"If he's such a good person, why don't you tell him our plan to find Dr. Roberts? Why don't you let him help you hide Sunny?"
"I said he wasn't bad. I didn't say he was an altruist. He loves Sunny like an uncle and would never hurt her, but if he ever found out about her abilities… He still wouldn't hurt her, but I don't want him to draft her. Most of all, I can't take a chance of Vincent finding out about her and developing an interest in her. That's where the true danger lies."
I began to understand what he was really telling me, and it shocked me how easily I accepted it. "When you said she misted into the shadows, you meant it literally, didn't you? She can actually become mist and travel to another location."
"Yes." He nodded stiffly. "Sunny can mist through solid objects, and that's a dangerous ability to have. If she were to accidentally materialize inside a wall, she would be killed."
"Was she born with the ability?"
He nodded again. "We didn't know Lexis was pregnant when we both volunteered for some… experiments to enhance our DNA. Unfortunately, those experiments affected Sunny more than me and Lexis."
Poor kid. I sympathized. "Neither of us asked for our abilities, but we got them anyway," I said with a sigh, and Rome looked away from me. My nose crinkled as I said, "What drove the two of you to volunteer for testing?"
"Lexis and I met on the job. We both signed up at PSI at the same time, about eleven years ago. We hit it off from the beginning, dated, got married, and neither of us liked the danger the other was in. When John mentioned that he'd found a way to make us invincible, we decided to go for it so we could stop worrying about each other. It was screwing with our heads, and we were getting sloppy. But in the end, they didn't make us invincible. Just stronger."
Wow. He'd loved Lexis that much. He'd loved her the way women dreamed of being loved. "You'll have to leave PSI when you hide Sunny," I pointed out.
He waved his hand through the air. "I love what I do, love protecting the innocent, but Sunny comes first. I'll leave and never look back. I want to take my extraordinary little girl and give her the chance at the normal life she deserves."
"I hope, when the time comes, I'll be able to help rather than hinder."
"You'll help," he said, his voice going flat the way I hated. "You'll help."
I liked that he thought I could help protect his girl, just as I'd protected myself from him and his needle that first night. Actually, I was honored that he would place his greatest treasure in my hands. "So what powers do you have?" I asked. "Lexis has them. Sunny has them. What about you?"
"I'm just really good at my job." A slow (forced?) grin played at the corner of his lips. "You will be, too. Together, we're going to find Dr. Roberts, stop Vincent and hide Sunny."
I hoped so.
"If-when-we find Dr. Roberts, I'll put the word out that you've taken the antidote-even if he doesn't have one. Hopefully, Vincent will lose interest in you at that point."
What if he doesn't lose interest? I wanted to ask, but didn't. "What about your boss? John?"
"I'll take care of him," Rome said, once again looking away from me.
What did that mean, his looking away? He'd done it twice now. "What am I going to do if there's not an antidote?" I wondered aloud.
"Most people would embrace their powers."
"Not me. You were right when you said these abilities of mine are dangerous. What if I did fall into evil hands?" Into Vincent's hands? A shudder raked me as images of mass destruction flashed through my mind. "I would give these powers up in a heartbeat."
Without any warning, Rome reached out and hooked one of his arms under my knees. The other snaked around my bicep. He tugged me back onto his lap, so we were face-to-face. A startled gasp burst from me, but I didn't protest. He cupped my ass and kneaded, then glided his naughty fingers forward and upward, over my hip bones, over the curve of my breasts, and caressed the line of my jaw.
"I think you would give up your powers," he said with a husky catch of breath.
Goose bumps beaded my skin. My heartbeat fluttered erratically. Pieces of me that had been asleep for years-perhaps forever-began to stretch and awaken: hope, the first bloom of love. I'd allowed a few men to get close to me, but never close enough for a future, never close enough for love.
I traced a fingertip along Rome 's nose, over the seam of his mouth. With him, in that flash of stolen time, I felt completely safe, which was strange because I'd never had more reason to feel unsafe.
"You continue to surprise me," he said. "I'd read your history before I entered your apartment that first time, and I didn't expect to like you."
My hands dropped to my sides. I caught my bottom lip between my teeth and released it bit by bit, trying to mask my sudden hurt. "Why not?" I asked. Okay, pouted.
"On paper you come across as-and don't shoot me with fireballs for this. On paper you come across as flaky."
"Flaky!" My jaw dropped, and my back went ramrod straight. I punched him in the shoulder. "On paper I bet you look like a murdering assassin, you rotten piece of shit."
"Ow." He frowned, but didn't release me to rub the tender-really tender, I hoped-area that had collided with my fist. "All I meant was that you've jumped from job to job over the last year. Some of them you were fired from on the same day you started."
"So, you asked me questions and I answered them. Now I'm going to ask you some, and you know what? You're going to answer like the good little girl I know you can be. Why were you fired from all those jobs? Your temper?"
Silently I contemplated his expression. He looked curious and interested, rather than insulting. Color bloomed in my cheeks, and I dipped my gaze to his chest, to where his shirt opened in a V. My fingers followed the direction of my eyes, tracing. "I wasn't happy," I said. "On some level I think I sensed that the jobs weren't what I was meant to do, so I didn't give them my all."
"What were you meant to do?" He hooked his thumb on the waist of my pants and gave a little pull, revealing several inches of skin.
"I wish I knew," I said dejectedly.
"Surely there's something." Bare skin to bare skin, he spread his fingers over my lower back. "Did you not want to be a doctor or a lawyer or a candy-maker when you were a kid?"
My blood heated. "Honestly? No." I leaned toward him, closing the small distance between us. Kiss me, I silently beseeched. Kiss me hard and rough, as if you can't get enough of me.
His breath stroked my cheek, and his grip on my back tightened. "Have you ever wanted to be a love slave?" he asked huskily.
Kiss me, damn it. I traced my tongue over my lips, leaving a glistening sheen of moisture. "No, but I've wanted to own one."
He chuckled, the sound low and rich. "Maybe I can help you out with that. I have connections." He brushed his lips over mine once, twice.
"Yeah?" More. I needed more of him. Any other questions I had for him faded from my mind. I squirmed against him, rubbing myself on the long, thick length of his erection. Total rapture. Exquisite bliss. Our chests strained together, hardened nipples abrading hardened nipples. "What kind of connections?"
"Maybe connections is the wrong word." Eyes gleaming with white-hot fire, he cupped my butt again and jerked me against him. Hard. "Maybe I should have said I have the right equipment."
Only a puff of air separated us now, a hated whisper. Had I once told myself that giving in to my lust for Rome would be wrong? Probably. But I'd since told him I wanted to sleep with him, and I'd meant it. Then and now.
I wanted this man.
I wanted him desperately. Hungrily. Wanted to know what it would be like to feel him all around me, inside me, skin to skin. Sweating and aching. Filled. By him. By Rome. At the moment, I couldn't even make myself care about his ex.
Rome must have sensed my total capitulation because his fingers slid up swiftly and tangled in my hair. He tugged my face to his. "I'm going to kiss you," he growled. "Not soft like before, but hard."
"And you're going to like it."
"Yes." His eyes were light and fierce, practically glowing. He reminded me of a predatory animal, target in sight, and the idea thrilled me. He was the hunter, I was the prey. "Yes," I said again. Yes, yes, yes.
"One day soon I'm going to fuck you."
A shiver of anticipation danced through me. "Yes."
"You'll like that, too. You'll beg for it." As he spoke, his hips arched slightly, creating a dizzying friction. Had I been standing, I would have collapsed.
"No more talk," I said, as ferociously as he had. "Kiss. Now."
Instantly his lips meshed with mine. His tongue thrust inside my mouth, utterly hot, darkly erotic. The heady flavor of him invaded my senses, deepening my pleasure. One of his hands lowered and squeezed my breast, rubbing the nipple through the soft fabric of my silk tank. Rolling. Plucking. Lancing an aching need straight to my core.
He kissed me as if he couldn't get enough-just as I'd wanted. I kissed him as if I'd die without him-as I knew I would. My hands were everywhere, all over him, unable to get enough. Over and over our tongues clashed together. Over and over our hips thrust against each other. My movements quickened, became frantic. Heat, so much heat. I felt it, reveled in it. It flowed through me, as frantic as I was. So close.
I clutched at his hair. I moaned. I purred.
"Belle," he said, the name shuddered and broken. "Belle. Stop."
Stop? No, my mind shouted. Almost there. One more thrust and I would-
"We have to stop."
I jerked back from him, panting for breath. My eyelids felt heavy, my thighs ached. "More," I gasped.
"You've started a fire, baby."
Lost in my need for completion, for him, I leaned into him, craving another taste of his mouth. "Yes. Burn. I burn."
"Fire," he said again.
This time I heard the urgency in his voice, and I forced my eyes open completely. What I saw made me gasp. Just behind me, a plant flickered with orange-gold flames. The scent of burning leaves filled the air.
"Not again!" I lamented. But at least this wasn't the inferno Lexis had predicted. The woman's psychic abilities clearly weren't as sharp as everyone thought. I'd only torched a measly plant, not the whole apartment!
"Make it rain, baby. Try to make it rain like you did in the car. Remember, you were sad and droplets fell." His movements clipped, he tossed me to the other side of the couch and rushed into the kitchen.
Humming with sexual frustration, I stared at the flames. My cheeks heated with humiliation and regret. What made me sad? Thoughts of my dad being sick and ultimately dying. Thoughts of never seeing Sherridan again. Thoughts of never kissing Rome again.
Oh, God. The realization hit me like a sledgehammer. If I didn't learn to control my powers, I couldn't kiss Rome. Ever. Right now, it was too dangerous. I was too dangerous. I might start another fire, a bigger one. An inextinguishable blaze-like the one that had begun churning inside me the day he'd stepped into my apartment.
Sorrow squeezed me, washing over me, dousing my passion. What if I was never able to experience Rome 's touch? What if I never learned what it was like to be taken-fucked-by him? To be consumed by him?
What if the kiss we'd just shared was it? All I would ever know of him?
Raindrops fell around me, soft at first, then quickly increasing. Big fat pearls dripped from the ceiling. Shaking, I pointed my hands at the plant and the drops concentrated on that spot. The fire sizzled, spurted, dying just as Rome sprinted back with a fire extinguisher.
He skidded to a stop, looking from me to the fire, the fire to me. "You did it. You put it out." His lips inched into a slow, proud smile, but I saw the lines of tension pulling at his eyes. "You're learning, baby. You're controlling."
I nodded, letting my gaze remain on the floor. My emotions were so raw, I wasn't sure I could speak. A lump coagulated in my throat. "I'm-I'm sorry." There. I'd managed to voice something. I visualized a cold shield around my heart, with a Keep Out sign all of its own, so I would stop wanting Rome. Would stop hurting. It didn't make the pain stop, but it did cause the rain to cease.
Still not facing Rome, I eased to my feet. The carpet squished. With as much dignity as I could manage, I walked away from him. Neither of us said a word. He didn't try to stop me, and I never looked back. I padded to the room Lexis had given me, closed the door with a soft click and climbed into bed.
Only then, alone in the darkness, did I allow myself to cry. After a while, my tears blended with a new fall of rain.