Playing With Fire (CHAPTER NINE)
I came awake instantly. A ball of fear slammed into me and quickly sprouted cold, treacherous wings as I became aware of several startling facts. One, Rome 's heavy weight pinned my body to the bed. Two, my hands were tied above my head. No, not tied, I realized. Manacled by him. Three, a steely palm covered my mouth, preventing me from screaming. And four, the most startling fact of all, Rome had an erection that pressed against my belly-and I liked it.
Did I forget to mention I was naked beneath the sheet?
"Don't be afraid," he said. "You know I won't hurt you."
That should not have eased my worry, but it did. His voice was soothing, gentle. Warming.
Moonlight slithered through the crack in the curtains and bathed his face. His crystalline eyes seemed to glow, all the more vivid in contrast to the shadow beard that dusted his jaw. My tormentor. My rescuer. My… puzzle.
"Are you going to give me to him?" I asked the moment he freed my mouth. I didn't have to specify who "him" was. Rome knew. "He told you it was the only way to get rid of him."
He drew in a sharp breath. "No. That's something you don't have to worry about. I'll never give you to that disgusting scrim. I gave you my word, remember?"
He said it with such force, I believed him. As my fear abated, though, I encountered sparks of anger and dug my nails into my palms. My blood began to heat. How dare he sneak into my room. How dare he lie on top of me. How dare he look so freaking good. How dare he-
Wait. Calm down. Calm down, Belle Jamison. I couldn't let myself become upset or I'd start a fire. I just-damn it! He'd found me so quickly. I hadn't had time to decide if I trusted him or not.
Slowly I drew in a breath through my nose; slowly I released it. In the dim light of the room, I stared up at Rome 's harshly sexy face. He looked stern, grim, nothing like his tender voice.
He looked wonderful. I must have looked ready to scream, though, because he covered my mouth again.
While I was upset he'd found me, a small part of me was suddenly glad to see him, all else be damned. It meant I wasn't in this alone, that I had someone to lean on, if only for a little while.
"You left me with a hell of a mess to clean up, Belle. As you well know, the general public doesn't know people with superpowers exist. I had to tell everyone a movie was being shot. Thanks."
"Mmm, mmm mmm mmm-" I narrowed my eyes at him. With his hand over my mouth, my words emerged garbled. I wanted to tell him to stop poking me in the belly with his penis! They should have been the first words out of my mouth, but I couldn't think straight with it close to me.
"Yeah," he said, as if he'd understood me. "I'm turned on. Barbecue me if you don't like it." Now his tone held an irresistible challenge.
If I didn't like it-puh-lease. Inability to think because of it did not equal dislike. What, he assumed I had no hormones? I might despise this entire situation, but I was (stupidly) attracted to this man. The part of me that was glad to see him urged me to spread my legs and allow him to fall into the cleft presented. He could rub me where I suddenly ached.
Come on, Jamison. Show some restraint. The admonishment from my common sense helped me remain unmoving. Deep inside I knew if I moved the tiniest bit, he'd be on me, kissing me, and I'd be on him, devouring him.
"I'm going to remove my hand again, Periodic Table Chick, and don't you dare think about screaming. I'm pissed at you right now, and you don't want to push me further." Gradually, he did as he'd promised. All the while, he frowned down at me.
"I'll push you further if I want," I said, mouth free a second time. No reason to let him wallow in the delusion that he could intimidate me. "And don't call me Periodic Table Chick."
"I dare you to try something," he said. "You won't like what happens."
"You won't like what happens if you don't get off me. You're crushing me." Deliciously. "I can't breathe, damn it."
"If you can talk, Four Elements Girl, you can breathe."
Logic sucked. "I'm dying here, I tell you. And don't call me Four Elements Girl. That's stupid. Besides, I've only used three. Fire, air and ice."
Rome rolled his eyes. "A technicality. I think you like me where I am just fine, and that scares you." His frown deepened. At least he didn't call me by another one of those ridiculous names. "I won't press you, though. Not now. I'm going to move. But if you point your hands at me, I swear to God I'll tie them behind your back and leave them there this time."
"Go ahead," I said smugly. "I can shoot fire out of my eyes."
Intense blue eyes narrowed on me. "Thanks for the reminder. Believe me, blindfolding you won't be a hardship, you little pyromaniac." More exasperated than angry (I seem to have that effect on a lot of people) he shook his head. "I saw the damage you did to the apartment. That's one hidey-hole I can mark off my list."
My cheeks colored in embarrassment. "That was an accident. I didn't mean to cause so much damage."
"So a little damage would have been okay?" He lifted off me inch by inch, removing his weight just as I'd asked. Except without him, I suddenly felt cold and empty. He released my wrists, severing all contact, and crouched on his knees at the foot of the bed.
I jolted upright, very aware a thin sheet was all that separated us. Our gazes clashed as I tugged the material up and held it to my chest in a kung fu death grip. My naughty nipples were giving him a happy, so-glad-to-see-you salute, further increasing my humiliation.
"How did you get in here?" I said through clenched teeth.
"I picked the lock." One corner of his mouth curled, but quickly fell back into place, giving his face a dark, menacing cast. "Now you answer a question for me. Who was the boy who gave you a ride?"
Oh, no. No, no, no. Not Tanner. "He's just a kid, and if you hurt him, I'll fry you to a crisp. You'll taste ashes for a year."
He arched an insolent brow. "Embracing our powers already, I see."
"Just trying to survive." Asshole. He made it sound like it was a crime to utilize my new abilities. And can you say hypocrite? He wanted me to use them to help hide his daughter, didn't he?
"I'm not going to hurt the kid," he said grudgingly. I heard the word yet linger in the air silently, and my fists tightened. "Did you tell him anything about your situation?"
"Of course not."
Rome studied my face for a long while. "I got his tag number, which means Vincent, the man spitting tranqs at you, did, too."
I paled, literally feeling all the color drain from my face. "Do you think Vincent will find him? He's a nice kid and he doesn't deserve to be hurt."
"You should have thought about that before you got in his car."
"I was desperate," I snapped, slamming my fist against the mattress.
Rome sighed. "Don't get mad. Bad things happen, remember?"
I closed my eyes and forced myself to draw in a calming breath.
"The kid lost his tail on the highway with that stuntman driving of his," Rome added. "Happy now?"
I relaxed, but only slightly. "So how did you find me?"
"I'm a better tracker than most." There was no smugness in his tone, only cold, hard truth. "I told you to stay at the apartment, Belle."
My chin tilted, and I know I radiated pure stubbornness. "Hello, did you see the place? It was kind of smoky in there. Not to mention that cops and firemen were on their way."
"If you hadn't tried to escape," he growled, "that wouldn't have happened."
"I needed time to think. Alone. Not that I got any," I grumbled. "Listen. We can talk about how stupid you were in locking me up later. We've got to do something to protect Tanner-the boy who drove me here."
"We?" His brows did that arch thing again, an action I was coming to hate.
My jaw clenched, and I glared at him. "Fine. Be that way. Act like a child. I'll do it on my own. I'll find him and I'll protect him." I covered my eyes with my right hand, losing my bravado. "I should have made him stay here."
"You should have done a lot of things." Rome plucked at the sheet, his fingers brushing my calf, my knee, then my inner thigh. It was a casual touch, and all the more sensual because of that.
I shivered, licked my lips, but didn't move or voice a protest.
"Don't worry about the kid." His voice emerged hoarse, strained. "I've stashed his car, and he's now sleeping in mine."
My muscles released their viselike grip on my bones as relief coiled through me. "How-"
"Some of us actually know what we're doing," he interjected drily.
"That's totally unfair!"
"Temper, temper." He tsked again.
"You better watch how you talk to me." Glaring, I leaned forward and pointed my finger at his chest. "You asked me for help, remember? I can assure you this is not the way to go about getting it."
Without warning, his hand snaked out and gripped my wrist. The touch was electric, erotic. "I'll let you do a lot of things to me with your finger." His voice dipped low. "But poking isn't one of them."
Warm tingles invaded my bloodstream, slipping between my legs and rubbing in all the right places; I gulped and jerked from his clasp. Happy place, happy place. "I, uh, need to know some things about you so I can make an informed decision about what I should do." There. A perfectly safe, nonsexual, nonthreatening subject. "Where are you from?"
All hints of emotion drained from his features, leaving him with a blank stare. He remained silent.
I tried again. "How old are you?"
"How old is your daughter?" Again, nothing. Grr. "I can't trust you until I know exactly how you think I can help her."
"Your abilities," was all he said, but a flash of guilt filled his eyes for a split second.
There had to be more to it than that, but I didn't press him. Stop stalling, Jamison. You're going to trust him. Unfortunately, he was my only option at this point, and I was finally ready to admit it. Though I'd fought against it, denied it, hated it, he'd been my only option all along. I didn't know how to hide myself (obviously). I didn't know anything about tracking people. My talent was getting pissed and accidentally burning stuff down. Can I get a woohoo?
"Once you learn how to use them," he added, and there was that flash of guilt again, "you'll be exactly what I need to ensure my little girl's safety."
"Fine," I sighed. "I'll work with you."
He ran his tongue over his bottom lip, an action more sensual than he'd probably meant it to be. "Maybe I need to rethink working with you. You're trouble, baby. A lot of it. And trouble I don't need, especially from someone who's this reluctant. It'd be real easy to knock you out, take you in and wash my hands of you."
Eyes slitting, I squared my shoulders and straightened my back. "It'd be real easy to smoke you right now." That was, if I could still summon fire. I was mad at him, but no flames were appearing. "You're really starting to piss me off."
"You need my skills, Rome. Once I figure out how to use them, that is."
"I'm not so sure you're trainable anymore," he said flatly.
"So you've changed your mind in the last three seconds?" How's that for a twist of the ironic? I now needed to convince my captor to allow me to accompany him. My fists tightened over the sheet, bunching the material. "You can't do it on your own or you wouldn't have asked me for help."
"A moment of weakness, I assure you." He shrugged, but the nonchalant movement couldn't mask the hard, determined glint in his eyes.
"Liar. You were willing to help me escape rather than take me to your boss, and that goes against your orders. You need me. Desperately."
Silence stretched between us. Sizzled. I didn't allow myself the luxury of looking away and easing the tension. His intense eyes studied my features, gauging, measuring. Too bad my new powers didn't include reading minds.
"I said it before, but I'll say it again. You're no good to either of us until you learn to use and control your powers."
Duh! I tossed up one of my hands. The other remained locked on the sheet. "Just how am I supposed to learn? It's not like I can peruse the classifieds for a superhero coach. It's not like I have a lot of time, either. We're kind of on the clock here."
He covered his eyes with the crook of his arm. "I'll practice with you, and we'll just have to pray we don't destroy the entire world in the process."
Would he be a hands-on coach?
The stray thought drifted through my mind, and I frowned. Hello, my name is Belle Jamison and I have a potty brain. Geez. Wait. Rome 's delectable mouth was moving. He hadn't stopped talking. I hated when I lost track of a conversation.
"-we track down Dr. Roberts, we'll have a better understanding of your abilities."
Since finding the bastard doctor had been on my To Do list, I eagerly agreed to Rome 's plan. "Do you have any idea where he is?"
"Not yet." Pause. He shook his head, dislodging several dark locks of hair over his forehead. "God, I can't believe I'm doing this. I should just set myself on fire right now and save you the trouble." Another pause. "I once allowed myself to be taken captive so I could get inside a para-prison and help another agent break free. I was tortured unmercifully, but I have a feeling that will seem like a vacation compared to this."
I didn't like the thought of him imprisoned, beaten up, bleeding. Weird. "I'm not that bad," I grumbled.
"Baby, you're worse. Get dressed. I'll be waiting in the car."
I didn't move. "Where are we going?"
His gaze raked over me, lingering on my breasts, the juncture of my thighs. Heat flared in his eyes, so scorching my skin nearly caught on fire. Breath seared in my throat. "We'll be going to bed if you don't get dressed," he said, his voice laden with wicked intent.
Unbidden, my gaze traveled the path his had taken. I was completely covered, but the sheet was see-through. Even in the moonlight, my nipples were clearly outlined, as was the dark triangle of hair between my legs. I gasped. "You should have told me I was giving you a peep show!"
"What, and let you end it? Do I look stupid?" He turned away from me. "Hurry up. The sooner we're out of here, the better." His legs kicked over the side of the bed, and he stood.
Before I could blink, he strode to the door and opened and closed it without a single noise. Not a whoosh of air, not a squeak of a hinge. He was gone, as if he'd never been inside the room. I knew better, though. I still tingled. Still fought for breath.
I scrambled up, and my knees almost buckled. Would Rome always have that effect on me? Would my body always ache for him? Would every feminine part of me always weep for him?
I hurriedly dressed, my clothes damp and wrinkled from their washing. My shoes were still covered in ash. I would have loved a brush for my hair, but didn't have one. Instead, I quickly finger-combed the dark tangles. So far Rome had only seen me at my worst, and I didn't like that fact. If he found me attractive like this, how would he react if I wore full makeup, a slinky dress and stilettos?
Not that you want to attract him, right? one half of me said.
Shut up, dummy, the other half replied. If I wanted to take a train out of Denial and visit the harsh land of Reality, so be it. The man rocked my world, and I would dearly love to rock his. So there.
Not knowing what I'd find outside, I slowly opened the door and peeked. Six cars, several sedans, a truck and two SUVs occupied this section of the parking lot, barely visible in the darkness of the night. There were no towering streetlights here, only muted beams of moonlight. Where was Rome? Telling me which car belonged to him would have benefited us both.
I guess he'd been too distracted to think of it, I mused with a satisfied smile.
Several rooms down, a pair of car lights switched quickly on and off. Surprised, I squinted, narrowing my field of vision. Without the flash of lights, I would never have known the car was there. It was so dark it settled comfortably into the night, perfectly camouflaged. As I studied it and my eyes adjusted, I was able to make out two silhouettes through the tinted windows, one in the driver's seat, one in the passenger seat. I couldn't see actual faces, but was confident I was looking at Rome and Tanner.
I shut and locked the door behind me and moved toward the car, only then hearing the purr of its engine. The night air was cool and clean, and I breathed deeply-but the air froze in my throat as the passenger door opened and light flooded the inside of the car.
My feet froze, too. So did my hands-actually icing over.
Three men were inside the car, I realized, and none of them was Rome. For the second time that day, my gaze locked with Pretty Boy's, who was climbing out of the open door and reaching for me. My hand flattened on the hood, and I pushed myself backward. In a mere heartbeat of time, the entire car glazed with ice.
I shook my head. I'd just frozen a car. An entire car. By touching it. Somehow it seemed more surreal than the other things I'd frozen.
Pretty Boy scowled. "This doesn't have to be violent, Belle." His voice was as unemotional as I remembered. His eyes were flat, not kind in the least as he stepped toward me. "Cooperate and I'll make sure you're kept unharmed."
"You're not CIA," I blurted, stepping backward. Where was Rome? The cold was leaving me for some reason. I didn't think I'd be able to turn Pretty Boy to ice if he jumped me.
"I am your only friend at the moment. Rome wants to kill you. I want to help you."
"You're lying." Rome had had plenty of opportunities to hurt me, but he hadn't. Not once. "You're-" A solid wall of muscle slammed into my side, shoving oxygen from my lungs, and strong arms banded around me. I was jolted off my feet and carted away at an insanely swift pace. Rome 's male scent enveloped me as surely as his arms. "You should have warned me," I gasped.
"Wait," Pretty Boy called. "Let's talk about this, Agent!" When Rome didn't respond, I heard Pretty Boy curse. "Get the other car," he ordered. "And for Christ's sake, someone catch them. Alive."
"There was no time for a warning." Rome 's boots pounded on the pavement and he turned sharply, rounding a corner.
Behind us, I heard a man's curse, then frantic footsteps. My heart hammered against my ribs. "Put me down. I can run."
He ignored me, carrying me all the way to the back of the motel, where a four-door Crown Victoria waited. "Duck your head," he said, barely giving me time to react before he swung open the door and chucked me into the passenger seat.
I caught a glimpse of Tanner sleeping in the back seat a split second before Rome dived into the driver's seat. The car was already running, its front end facing the road, so all he had to do was slip it into gear and stomp on the gas. We peeled out, gravel flying from the back wheels.
Pop. Whiz. Crack.
Pop. Whiz. Crack.
I screamed as the window beside Rome shattered, spraying glass everywhere.
"Stay down," he shouted.
Our car jolted left, then right, then crashed into something. A body, I realized with the ensuing thump. Someone howled in agonizing pain, but we didn't slow. Didn't stop. We made another swift turn, hopped a curb and went flying across grass. Tires squealed when we finally hit the main street. Wind blasted through the shattered window, whipping inside the car and slapping my hair around my face.
The car's lights were turned off, leaving blackness in front of us. How could Rome see anything? How could another car see us? If we'd escaped Pretty Boy only to die in a fiery crash, I was going to be pissed.
I was having trouble catching my breath-and not in a good way. Fear pounded through me, ice-cold, intense. They had shot at us. Shot at us, for God's sake! We could have died. My heart tripped erratically, and a rush of blood roared in my ears.
Would Pretty Boy ever give up?
Was this how I would spend the rest of my life?
Another icy river rushed over me, lancing at my skin and sinking deep into my bones. I was so cold, mist was forming with every exhalation.
"Calm down, Belle, before you turn the car to ice and ruin the engine," Rome said. Tiny ice crystals were beginning to stream from the car's air vents. "Good thoughts, baby, good thoughts." He grasped the steering wheel and maneuvered us down another road. "Anger causes fire, fear causes cold. So good thoughts should neutralize both."
Neutralize. My favorite word.
A tremor cascaded through me. I had no happy place right now. I mean, emotions couldn't be forced. I could no more stop being frightened than I could stop loving my dad. And that meant Rome and I would fail before we'd gotten started. We would be captured.
"Remember when I kissed you?" he asked. "How good it was?"
How good it was… as if I could ever forget. An image of his face lowering toward mine, his lips seeking mine, instantly claimed center stage in my head, chasing away all other thoughts. Bye-bye, fear. Hello, desire. He'd looked at me as if I was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. As if he'd die if he didn't taste me.
Let's face it. I'm not a grade A specimen of femininity and delicacy. Sure, I'm cute. Some people might call me spunky. (I won't mention the people who call me a bitch.) Cute and spunky do not fill sensual, strong, larger-than-life men like Rome with unquenchable passion.
He'd wanted me, though. That kind of… absorption couldn't be faked.
"You erupted for me," he said huskily. "You were so turned on I could smell your desire, and I liked it. I wanted more. And I'll be honest with you, baby. You've got the hottest little tongue I've ever tasted, and I want it all over me."
My blood heated, and the ice inside me melted. I darted a glance to the back seat; thankfully, Tanner hadn't woken up and I could-
The car swerved again, causing me to careen from side to side. Rome 's words faded from my ears, his face vanished from my mind. My hope to engage in an erotic conversation dissolved. The ice erected high walls inside me once again.
"I saw your face afterward," Rome continued, as if he hadn't a care in the world. "You would have come if I'd pushed you much further. You would have spread your legs and welcomed me inside."
I felt myself relaxing for the second time. "Yes," I said, not trying to deny it.
"You were wet for me."
"I was hard for you. I'm hard for you now."
Desire beat through me, and I squirmed in my seat. That he spoke to me like this, erotic and aroused, while danger enveloped us, only added to the thrill. I wanted him. I did. Wanted him naked and inside me, gliding in and out. Hard, so hard.
"If the situation had been different, Belle, I would have stripped you down and loved every inch of you."
"Soon," I breathed, and in that moment I didn't care how easy or foolish that made me.
"Soon," he promised.
After that, I didn't know what to say. I was ready for him. Eager. With only a few words, he'd set me aflame. When he next touched me…
Rome cleared his throat and shifted in his seat. His gaze flicked to me, then hastily moved away. The tips of my fingers were heating, wafts of smoke curling from them. I sank into my seat, hooked my whipping hair behind my ears and blanked my mind, the hardest thing I'd done in a long, long time. Breath shuddered from my lungs. I walked a fine line, I realized. Passion of any sort could cause a fire.
"You calm now?" he asked me.
"Yes." My head flopped against the seat, and I gazed at the moonlight streaming over the trees. Don't think about Rome. Don't think about that kiss. "I'd feel better if you'd turn on the car lights."
"No need. I can see in the dark."
No way. "How?"
"A long time ago, I signed up for an experimental… eye surgery where… something akin to night vision lenses were inserted into my ocular lobes."
What was with all the pauses in his speech? Still, the thought of undergoing such a procedure caused me to make a face. "Ouch."
He shrugged. "The outcome was worth the pain-mostly, anyway. Seeing in the dark has saved my life countless times."
I wanted that superhero ability instead of the one I had: creating disaster. "That's great and all, but other drivers can't see you."
Softly he chuckled. "That's the point."
"If you cause a crash-"
"Have some faith in me. I just performed a successful rescue. Like I'd really let you get hurt in a collision."
Trees whizzed past, mere slashes of green. "Did we lose Pretty Boy, then?"
"Pretty Boy?" Rome flicked me an irritated glance. "After everything he's done, you think he's pretty?"
I rolled my eyes. "Did we lose him or not?"
"Yeah, about a mile back." He snorted out a laugh. "Pretty Boy."
"So where are we going?"
There was an uncomfortable silence for several seconds. Then, "I have a friend," Rome said hesitantly. "She might be able to help us."
She? Okay, I seriously didn't like Rome having a female friend. A twinge of jealousy ribboned through me, and my hands clenched in my lap. I'm petty, foolish and absolutely ridiculous. I admit it. I'm not proud of it. But really, she? She? Somehow, in the last few minutes-yes, minutes-I'd come to consider Rome my property. I didn't like him having a female friend. After all, men and women couldn't be friends without sleeping together. Just a fact of life.
"We'll stay the night with her," Rome continued, "then figure out what to do with our third wheel."
"The kid, remember?" Rome motioned to the back of the car with a tilt of his chin.
I peeked at Tanner again. He had yet to awaken. His lean body was strewn across the cushions, his features soft with dreams. Clumps of blue hair hung over his eyebrow rings.
Why hadn't he woken up during all the commotion? I wondered. My mouth dried as the answer sprang to mind; I whipped around to face Rome. "You didn't hurt him, did you?"
He frowned at me, offended. "I gave him something to knock him out for a while. That's all."
"You and your drugs," I muttered, but I was relieved. "So you neutralized him?"
His frown curled into a wicked half smile he tried to hide. "Something like that."
"What'd you use?" My gaze roved over Tanner once again. "I'm concerned with how deeply he's sleeping."
"I used a perfectly safe combination I like to call the Beddie-Bye Cocktail. He'll wake up in the morning with a slight headache, that's all."
Now I frowned. "He's just a kid, Rome. If he's expected home, his parents might call the police when they realize he's missing."
Rome made a fast left turn and accelerated. "I did a quick background check on him. His mom left on his eighth birthday, and his dad, who raised him alone since, died a few months ago. The kid inherited some money, and he takes off a lot to spend it. No one will miss him or suspect foul play."
Dear Lord. No wonder Tanner had seemed needy. No wonder he'd wanted to stay with me. He truly had no one else. He'd lost everyone he loved. I'd lost my mom all those years ago, but I'd been too young to know her. More than that, I'd had my dad to lean on. My heart ached for Tanner, and I found myself reaching out and tracing my fingertip over his cheek. Poor thing. What would I do if-when-my dad died and I was left on my own?
A sharp pang radiated in my chest, leaving me feeling hollow.
In the next instant, a droplet of water splashed onto my cheek, followed quickly by a drop that landed on the side of my nose. Brow furrowing, I wiped them away. "Is it-" I eyed the solid roof of the car "-raining in here?"
"Jesus, Belle. Good thoughts. Good thoughts!"
Another droplet. Confused, I turned to Rome. Liquid drops were sprinkling over him, as well, as if a small rain cloud had invaded the car. "I'm doing this, too?"
"Are you experiencing a strong surge of emotion?"
"Then you're doing this." His tone was grave.
I covered my mouth with my hand; my eyes widened. "I don't want to do this. I don't want my every emotion to create a change in the weather. I just want to be me. I want to feel and not worry that I'm going to burn, freeze or drown someone."
The fine lines around his eyes tightened, and the shadows on his cheeks deepened. In that moment he looked scary, but so comforting I could have thrown myself in his arms. "I know, baby," he said. "The formula sucks ass, but there's nothing we can do about it right now."
"Why did Dr. Roberts create the formula in the first place?" I asked with a gulp.
"From what I've heard, he meant to do America a great service. He wanted to make our military stronger. He just fell in with the wrong people, people who hoped to exploit his ambition." Rome reached over and massaged my neck. "It won't always be this hard for you."
"How can you be sure?" I asked hopefully.
"You'll learn to control the abilities."
"When?" God, when?
"Soon. Let's pray it's soon."