Playing With Fire (CHAPTER THIRTEEN)
Because Lexis was right. Damn it. That plant fire the previous night was only the beginning. In the end, I did, indeed, torch her place.
"How long do we have?" Rome demanded.
"Not long," was Lexis's whispered response. "A few minutes."
A blank screen descended over Rome 's features as he faced me. "Catch," he said. He tossed the bag Lexis had packed for me. I slung the strap over my head, anchoring it across my middle, the pouch at my back. Adrenaline rushed through me, hot and stinging, and my palms began to sweat.
Tanner paled, and his cheeks hollowed. "What should I do? What should I do?"
Rome stalked toward us. His motions swift, deliberate, he went to the drawer by the sink, opened it and withdrew two knives.
"I'm not using those." Tanner shook his head for emphasis.
"They're not for you." Rome didn't spare him a glance. "Lexis," he said, then he tossed her the blades.
I sucked in a hiss of air, only exhaling when Lexis caught them, hilts clasped tightly in her hands. In one fluid motion, she sheathed them at her waist.
"You know what to do," he told her.
"Take the kid, and we'll meet up later."
Lexis's piercing green gaze swept over Rome, a little sad, a little wistful. I'm no empath, but I could feel the love she felt for him, and I couldn't help but wonder, again, why she'd ever let him go. "Be careful," she whispered.
He nodded. "You, too."
Lexis grabbed Tanner's hand and tried to usher him out of the kitchen. The kid ground his heels into the floor. "Viper. You gonna be okay?"
"I'll be fine." God, I prayed I spoke true.
His gaze slid to Rome, to the lethal picture he presented, then back to me. "Maybe you should come with us. Let Rambo handle the-"
"She stays," Rome said curtly. "We have questions, they have answers."
"I stay," I said, my voice shaking. I didn't know what we were up against, only that it would be bad. And that I wasn't close to being prepared.
Still Tanner didn't move.
"We must go," Lexis said, tugging on his arm. "It's almost too late. Rome won't let anyone hurt her."
That was all the assurance Tanner needed. He allowed Lexis to lead him down the hall. His tortured gaze remained on me until the last second.
Oh God, oh God, oh God. "Do you have a gun or something for me?" I asked Rome.
He palmed another knife, but kept this one for himself. It was larger than the other two, with a sharp gleaming tip. "You know how to use a gun?"
"Then, no." Like his ex, he slid the blade into his belt buckle.
I crisscrossed my arms over my stomach in an attempt to bolster my courage and draw some strength. "What can I do to help?"
"You have powers, remember?" he said, his tone grim. "Use them."
I liked that he trusted me. I did. But I didn't trust myself. If he was hurt because of me, because of my lack of skill… "My powers are dangerous, Rome. I can't control them."
He wasn't given the chance to respond.
The sound of breaking glass erupted. I nearly jumped out of my skin. A millisecond later, wood from the front door splintered. Black-clad men rushed inside the apartment. More glass broke; more men burst inside.
"Get down," Rome whispered fiercely, pushing my shoulders until we were both crouched behind the counter, hidden from immediate view. A look of savagery passed over his features, as if he relished what he was about to do. "Just be careful not to hurt me, okay?"
His mouth slammed against mine for the barest of seconds, lighting a small fire in the pit of my stomach. My passion was melded with fear, though, so the fire lacked any true heat. Footsteps pounded in the living room, followed by still more breaking glass.
Rome rushed forward, staying low.
Gunfire erupted. Whiz. Pop. I cringed, and my breath froze in my throat. Dear God. This was real. Terrible, real and in your face. I'd known that during yesterday's car chase, but it once again hit me, with a force I couldn't dispute. The man I desired had just thrown himself headlong into danger. A part of me wanted to stay crouched in the shadows as I was-the part of me that recognized fight-or-flight syndrome and eagerly embraced flight.
I forced myself past the debilitating fear, however, while trying to allow it to help me. I had to work with what emotions I could, and right now, all I had was fear. But fear brought ice, as I'd learned running from Rome and touching Vincent's car, and ice could be a powerful weapon.
"Come on," I muttered. "You could die, Belle. Rome could die."
More gunfire. A man screamed.
Terror rushed over me, cool, cold, then frigid. Welcome the fear. Welcome the fear, but don't let it keep you immobile. Welcome… A numbing cold pricked at my fingertips, barely noticeable at first. Welcome the fear, welcome the fear. Frost formed on the end of my nose, and the air around me misted. Good girl.
Welcome the fear. Wave after wave of it slammed into me, each one colder than the last. Trembling, I stared down at my hands. As I watched, a ball of ice began to form. I could hardly believe it, but there it was all the same. I shoved to my feet and drew back my hand, searching for a target. I spotted several. Multiple men raced through the room, kicking over furniture.
Rome suddenly flashed into my vision. He spun, striking a man in the chest with a razored boot heel. His victim screamed and clutched at his now-blood-soaked chest before slouching to the ground. Someone spotted Rome and dived for him.
" Rome!" I shouted. "Look out." I released the ice with all the power my arm would allow. The gleaming white ball flew through the air and slammed into my target. The moment it touched him, the ice spread over him, enveloping his entire body.
I'd expected it, but the sight still gave me a jolt.
"Get down, Belle."
I did as Rome had commanded. Gunfire peppered the counter I hid behind, and I curled into myself. A cry rent my lips. Weren't these people supposed to keep me alive for experimentation? My terror deepened, and several more balls of ice formed in my hands.
Two disharmonized screams blasted my eardrums, and then the bullets stopped flying. Rome, I suspected, had killed the men shooting at me. I leapt up, found targets and tossed the ice. I missed one, but a ball slammed dead center into the second, a black-clad assailant who froze in place.
Wide-eyed, I studied the bodies littering the living room floor. Some were moaning, some were writhing. Some were lifeless. The ones I'd frozen were still blocks of ice. Rome danced around those who remained standing. He was kicking, slashing. Killing. How long could he hold them off? Not long, I realized with horror as I watched someone bolt from the shadows and stab him.
Horror pounded through me, and I shouted, "No!" Blood dripped from Rome 's side, soaking his shirt. Without reacting to the pain he must have felt, he bent and lashed out with his left arm, sinking his own blade into the man's stomach.
"Come on, come on," I whispered frantically to my hands. Nothing. No more ice. My fear was gone, dissolved in the wake of an intense surge of determination to save the man who had saved me over and over again. These goons were here to take me, perhaps kill me, and obviously meant to kill Rome in the process.
That, I couldn't allow.
Fury invaded me then, more powerful than ever before, completely melting away every ounce of chill. I burned. No. No, I couldn't let myself experience anger. I didn't want a fire. Rome might be hurt by me. But the fury wouldn't leave me-how dare they hurt Rome!-and flames began to lick the ends of my fingers and burn the rims of my eyes.
From the corner of my gaze, I saw someone sprinting around the counter and straight toward me. His determination to immobilize me was evident with his every hurried step. Underneath his black mask, I suspected he wore an expression of cold, unfeeling intent.
Instinctively, I stretched out my hands to ward him off. No air shield this time, but flames shot from me and engulfed him. His screams were agonizing, howls and pleas for help. He dropped to the floor and rolled. My stomach churned with sickness, and I gulped. Ohmygod. I'd done that. I'd done that. I covered my mouth with a shaky hand, fire dying.
In the distance, I heard Rome grunt, and my thoughts immediately focused on him. I stepped around the counter, moving straight into the center of the action. I didn't see him. Where was he? Had he fallen? White-gold sparks flicked from my eyes. Even my hands began burning again.
As the remaining assailants aimed their guns at me, I raised my hands and twisted my body in every direction, desperate to find and save Rome. Fire sprayed everywhere I turned, trailing paths of deadly flame. Metal liquefied. Wood crackled. Smoke thickened the air, and I began to cough. My fire never ceased, though. Around me, men howled and dived for cover.
From the back rooms, I heard the infuriated growl of a wild animal. A… jungle cat? " Rome," I shouted. I wanted to see him, to assure myself that he lived and breathed.
An alarm suddenly screeched to full, startling life. A heartbeat later, the sprinkler system kicked on, and showers of cold water burst from the ceiling. Droplets rained on my face, caught in my eyelashes and trickled down my nose. But the flames on my fingertips refused to be doused; they sizzled hot and blistering. If they'd hurt him further…
I blinked the water from my eyes and noticed the room's blaze was not as resilient as my own; already the fire lessened. Using this to his advantage, one of the men hurdled over the couch and dashed toward me. He didn't have a gun, so he made use of another weapon-his legs. He jumped up and slammed his feet into my stomach. Air burst from my lungs as I was propelled backward; pain exploded inside me. I hit the floor, a wall, I didn't know. My head thudded into something hard, and my gaze went black for several seconds.
When my vision cleared, I caught sight of a large black object-a jaguar?-flying through the air and landing on top of my assailant. The cat went for the flailing man's throat. When it finished, blood dripped from its mouth. A scream tore from my own throat, and I found myself throwing a stream of fire at the cat. No, not flame. Ice. The ball barely missed its left shoulder.
It faced me dead-on, stalking forward, blue eyes slitted. Water rained upon us, splashing like tears. Panicked, I scrambled backward. Instead of attacking me as I feared, it jumped over me, a streak of black lightning, and knocked down a man I hadn't known stood behind me.
Limbs shaky, I pushed to my feet and batted the wet hair out of my eyes. I had seen this same animal in my apartment. Hadn't I? It hadn't hurt me then, either. Had Rome �C Rome! Dear God, had it already gotten Rome?
I stumbled through the rooms, searching each and every one, leaping over body after prone, unmoving body. In Lexis's room, I found Rome 's clothes-without his body. They were ripped down the center, mere rags. And they were splattered with blood.
My fire had died, and now the ice left me, too. I was suddenly empty inside. " Rome!"
A violent fit of coughing doubled me over. Despite the cascade of water, the smoke became so thick and black I had trouble navigating, and had to lean on the wall for support and guidance.
" Rome!" Weakness drifted through me, a phantom at first, easily ignored. But as the coughing fit refused to lessen and the smoke burned my throat, the weakness became a tangible entity.
My knees suddenly lost all strength, and I dropped to the floor. Had to… find… Rome. I didn't know what I'd do if he'd… if he'd… I couldn't finish the thought. In the distance, I heard the wail of sirens. Thought I heard the scramble of footsteps, the panicked shouts of men.
" Rome." His name was nothing more than a hollow, ragged whisper between coughs.
"Here, baby. I'm here." His arm snaked around me, and he dropped to my side.
Sobbing in relief, I buried my face in the hollow of his neck and wrapped myself around him. "Where the-" cough "-hell have you-" cough "-been?"
"I'll explain later. Right now, we have to get out of here. Can you crawl?" He didn't wait for my answer. The palm of his hand settled on my shoulder and pushed me down. That same hand then slid to the small of my back and urged me forward.
"Can't… see," I said. Pools splashed around my knees, causing me to slip and slide.
"Hold on to me. I'll lead the way."
A whoosh of air, the brush of his arm, the sprinkle of water. I tried to clasp his shirt, only then realizing his chest was bare. I opened my mouth to ask why he'd ripped off his clothes, but he hissed in pain and the question evaporated. "Sorry."
"Here." Not breaking stride, he guided my fingers to his naked hip bone.
With one hand I held on to him, and with the other I crawled. God, the smoke was so thick. Even down here. Tears from my eyes blended with the drops falling from the sprinkler. Nausea welled in my stomach.
"Look out… for the… cat," I managed to wheeze. There was something odd about that jaguar, something I knew I should guess but couldn't seem to place at the moment. The fog in my mind proved too great. I only knew it hadn't been a dream; it wasn't a hallucination.
"Don't talk, baby. Save your breath. Try not to inhale the smoke."
The bag strapped to my back bounced against me with every movement, bruising, and I winced at the soreness. Finally we reached a small doorway. No, not a door, I realized as I stretched out my arm and patted it, but a hatch.
"Get ready to slide," Rome told me. Without any more warning, he clutched my waist, lifted me and chucked me inside.
I didn't have time to prepare. One second I was on the ground, the next I wasn't. Down, down I toppled. My arms flailed, my legs stretched behind me. I would have yelled or shouted, but my throat was too raw. Black walls surrounded me, hemmed me in. Stifled me.
I smacked onto a solid foundation, and my bag smacked into me.
The force of both blows vibrated through my bones. Dizzy, I remained immobile, prone, trying to breathe, trying to see, trying to will strength into my trembling limbs. At least the air proved clean and fresh, a welcome contrast to the smoke-filled rooms above.
Rome plowed on top of me, his bag slapping me in the face. The only oxygen I'd been able to draw in rushed out of me unbidden.
"Sorry, baby." He scrambled off me, blood dripping down his side. Grimacing, he rifled through his bag.
He was naked. I had known it before, but hadn't grasped the actuality. Rome was naked, as in not a stitch of clothing covered his magnificent body. Why? Wait. Did it matter? He was tanned and toned, and even in my weakened condition I could appreciate his hard (large) strength. I almost cried when he whipped out a pair of pants and tugged them on.
"No underwear?" I managed to sputter. A girl had to embrace a good distraction when it came along.
"I don't wear them." He fastened the button. "Ever. Come on. Firemen are here, and we can't afford to be detained or spotted."
"We didn't-" shallow breath "-question any-" another breath "-of the bad guys."
"There were more than I anticipated. Taking one would have slowed us down or gotten us killed."
He helped me to a shaky stand and pulled me into motion. I wanted so badly to fall to my face, to close my eyes and sleep forever. It took a conscious effort to place one foot in front of the other. Water dripped from my hair onto my already soaked clothing. I scanned the surrounding area. Plain gray walls. Some type of machinery. The scents of soap and oil. Were we in the basement of the apartment building?
"Faster, Belle. You can do it."
I tried to keep up with Rome, I really did, but I'd inhaled too much smoke. Racking coughs plagued me. Utter weakness had taken root in my every cell. When I tripped over a cord, I didn't have the strength to right myself. Darkness blanketed my mind before I hit. No. Not hit, I mused groggily. Floated. Rome had caught me, his strong arms banded around me. His voice drifted through my subconscious. "I've got you, baby. I've got you."
If he kept calling me baby, I thought, just before darkness consumed me, I really would fall in love with him.
"COME ON. Take a drink."
Cool liquid touched my lips before descending my raw, aching throat. I coughed and sputtered and dragged my eyelids open. Hazy light stung my eyes, and I blinked.
"Drink," Lexis commanded, her expression stern. She loomed over me, the plastic cup in her hand poised at the edge of my mouth.
Had I died and gone to hell? I raised myself as best I could and drank. The liquid's tart flavor filled my mouth before scraping at my throat. I winced.
"There," she said. "Don't you feel better?"
"No." The word was hoarse, barely audible.
She chuckled, easing down beside me and setting the cup aside. "You scared us pretty badly."
Images of the fire, of the men I'd hurt-probably killed-flashed through my mind, and I pressed my lips together. They were bad guys. I shouldn't feel guilty. They'd tried to hurt me, tried to hurt Rome. Rome! His image filled my mind next, his chest bloody. Panic slithered through me. How was he? Where was he?
I tried to sit up. "Where's Rome?" Gaze wild, I searched my surroundings. Lexis and I were the only ones present, and we seemed to be inside a cabin. Wooden walls, wooden floors. Only the barest amount of furniture: a bed, a lamp, a table and a few chairs.
"Settle down," she said. " Rome is fine."
"He had a deep cut."
"No, it was a paltry wound that has already begun to heal."
"There was a cat, a jaguar-"
"I'm sure there was, but Rome wasn't hurt by it. I promise. Just lie back and relax."
"Is fine," she said, cutting me off. "Everyone survived. All is well. It was you we worried about. You've been asleep almost an entire day."
"A day?" I allowed her to ease me back onto the mattress. God, I hated being this weak, this vulnerable. I stared up at the domed timber ceiling. "Where are we?"
"My cabin. It's on the outskirts of Madison. But don't worry," she added. "No one knows about it, not even John. Rome built it for occasions such as this. I made sure Tanner and I weren't followed, and knowing Rome as I do, he did the same."
"Where is he?"
"I sent him and the boy to gather supplies. They were driving me crazy with their concern for you, and the cave is only a short walk away." She busied herself tucking the plain brown covers around me. " Rome found the cave years ago and has stocked it with every item a person in hiding might need."
Lethargy beat through me, beckoning me to sleep a little longer. My eyelashes fluttered shut, heavy with exhaustion, but I forced them open. Forced myself to concentrate on her words. "Why were they concerned for me?"
"Well… " She paused, cleared her throat. "You stopped breathing several times."
Stopped breathing? My hand fluttered to my aching throat. Dear Lord. I'd come close to dying, and I hadn't known it. I wouldn't have had the chance to tell my dad or Sherridan goodbye. Wouldn't have gotten to see them one final time. "I want to call my dad," I said, suddenly filled with the need to hear his voice.
"Before you do," Lexis said, an odd inflection in her voice, " Rome would like to talk to you about him."
"Why?" I jolted upright, and the hasty action cost me dearly. Dizziness and nausea blasted me; bright lights winked in front of my eyes. I rubbed my temple with one hand and clutched my stomach with the other. He's fine, he's fine, he's fine. "Why?" I repeated, the word no more than a tortured moan.
"There's no reason to worry. Your dad is alive and well. I promise."
My heart drummed in my chest, and cool prickles rolled in my veins as I stared into the green depths of her eyes, trying to glean the truth. She appeared sincere, and I decided to believe her. Slowly relaxing, I flopped back against the pillow. "What's wrong with me? Why am I so weak?"
"Smoke inhalation is our guess."
I frowned. "Shouldn't I be immune to that? I mean, I started the fire."
Her delicate shoulders lifted in a shrug. " Rome said you're probably ultrasensitive to pollutants now. While you can withstand the fire itself, the ensuing smoke devastates you more than other people because you are now one with Mother Earth. Pollutants now hurt you as much as they hurt the world."
That made sense. I didn't like it, but it made sense.
Lexis turned away from me and walked to the room's only window. She separated the brown curtains, peeking out. Whoever picked the brown color scheme needed a serious spanking. Talk about bland. Must have been Rome, since Lexis's taste-as proved by her apartment-was colorful and expensive. So, Rome needed the spanking, did he? My pleasure.
"Is someone coming?" I asked.
A thick blanket of silence descended over us. I shifted uncomfortably on the bed. What was she-
"I love him," she blurted out.
O-kay. Going there, were we? Better to get it out in the open, I guess, than to let it fester between us. "I realized that within an hour of meeting you. So why did you cut him loose?"
She laughed bitterly. "I'm psychic, which is both a blessing and a curse. I-I knew before I married Rome that I wasn't meant to be with him, but I did it anyway. I hoped I could make him love me the way I loved him."
My brow wrinkled in confusion. "I don't understand."
She tossed me a sad half smile, and my chest actually constricted in sorrow for her. The pain in her eyes was staggering. "We were together for several years, married several more, and then I got pregnant. Yet all along I knew, deep down, that if I didn't walk away from him, he would be tied to my side when he didn't really want to be there."
"I'm not usually this dense. I hope. But I don't get what you're trying to tell me."
I didn't need an empath to help me read her emotions at that moment. Her shoulders slumped as her sadness deepened. " Rome likes me. He might even love me, but it's not the kind of love a man should have for a wife. I knew, I always knew, that there was someone else for him. He didn't. He thought I was the one, but he would have learned the truth soon enough. And he would have stayed with me despite wanting-no, craving-this other woman." She wiped a tear from her eye with a trembling hand. "I couldn't have endured that."
Her words were both wonderful and terrible. She wasn't the right woman for him, but was I? I couldn't kiss him without starting a fire. Trouble followed me everywhere. I was currently jobless. Not exactly great girlfriend material. Still. I wanted to be the right woman. Badly. If I wasn't… My stomach twisted.
"Who is right for him?" I found myself asking. My fingers clutched the sheets as I waited for her answer. I hoped; I dreaded.
"Maybe you. Maybe someone else. I don't know who."
So there was still hope, but there was also doubt. A sharp ache tore through my temples. Cringing, I covered my eyes with the crook of my arm. Best to change the subject before I induced a brain aneurism from overanalyzing. "I'm sorry about your home. You were right. I torched it."
She waved her hand through the air. "It was only a building. Rome and Sunny are safe. That's all that matters."
I didn't want to like her, I really didn't. After everything she'd revealed, however, I found that I did. Despite my (alleged) jealousy. She could have railed at me for holding the (temporary) affection of the man she loved. She could have thrown me out. Instead, she gave me that sad smile.
"I think you have two admirers," she said, wistful. "Tanner was so worried about you."
"Well, I like Tanner, too. He's a good kid."
"He's not a child. He's a man who just has a bit more maturing to do."
Her affection for him was clear.
"His abilities are raw," she added, "hardly developed, but I think with the proper training he could do great things." A warm chuckle escaped her. " Rome almost knocked him out." Her smile spread all the wider as she returned to the bed. "Tanner kept saying you would have been perfectly healthy if Rome had let you leave with him, and I think it hit Rome hard. He has always been a protector, yet he had enough faith in you to utilize your… skills."
There was just enough hesitation in her voice to suggest I didn't really have any skill, but I still experienced a tendril of pleasure because Rome had trusted me. The pleasure was quickly followed by prickles of disappointment. "I hate that I did so little to actually help, and so much more to hinder. The only reason he and I stayed around was to question one of the men, but I ended up freezing or barbecuing everyone there. And then-"
Lexis suddenly straightened, and she lost her good humor. My words ceased abruptly. "What? What's wrong?" I demanded. I guess I was coming to rely on Lexis as Rome and Brittan did.
"The door is… " Frowning, she closed her eyes and an aura of stillness came over her. Several seconds passed, and her smile returned. "The men are about to return. As Tanner would say, Rome is pi-issed."