Playing With Fire (CHAPTER NINETEEN)

THE ENTIRE DRIVE BACK to the cabin, Tanner expounded on and on about how wonderful he'd been, how cool he was, how the girls would be all over him now. I loved that he was so proud of himself. He had done a good job (except for shooting blind, the dumb-ass). But I couldn't stop thinking about the note we'd found-and that I might not want to find the formula.

I sighed. What was wrong with me?

"-so, like, awesome," Tanner said, again cutting into my thoughts. "The only thing that would have been cooler was if it had been recorded. Think about it. I could break out the DVD on every date, and I guarantee any lady would become desperate to ride the Tanner Express."

Rome reached out and jacked up the volume on the radio. While Gwen Stefani rocked from the speakers, he linked our hands. His warmth and strength and calluses soothed me.

I glanced over at him. He kept his eyes on the road, so I was able to study his profile. He was as savage from the side as he was from the front, with a sharp nose, harsh cheekbones and a hard chin. Cut from glass, chiseled from steel, that was Rome.

He looked as likely to kill people as to speak to them, yet right now he was gently tracing his thumb over the peaks and valleys of my palm. So contradictory, so mysterious. I wanted to crawl inside his brain and learn everything about him. I wanted to know his thoughts, his feelings.

I sounded like a freaking girl, didn't I? But I couldn't help it. He fascinated me.

He was destined to love someone with his whole heart, Lexis had said. More than ever, I wanted that someone to be me. Imagine all that fierce maleness directed totally at you. Oh, just the thought made me shiver. He would be a demanding lover, exacting. He would expect utter faithfulness and wouldn't tolerate anything less.

And he would give the same in return.

Heady knowledge indeed. And yet, if I gave him my heart, gave him everything I had to give, and I wasn't the woman for him, I would be destroyed. Like Lexis, would I have the strength to give him up rather than keep him bound to me, knowing he lusted for another?

My fingers tightened around his hand as I tried to hold him closer, lest he float away from me. I had probably caused Rome more physical pain, not to mention worldly disasters, than anyone he'd ever met. Why be with a girl like me when he could have someone like Lexis? Someone gorgeous, intelligent, wealthy. Someone who could hold a job for more than a few months. Okay, days.

I felt my already raw emotions attempting to create some type of physical reaction-rain, snow, a little of everything. Yet I'd been pushed to the brink today, and nothing happened. I breathed a sigh of relief. I didn't want Rome to know how I was feeling. Not when I didn't know how I was feeling.

Rome used his free hand to turn down the music. Blessed silence; Tanner had stopped talking. I peeked over my shoulder, only to see the kid asleep in the backseat. His head lolled to the side. Rays of moonlight streamed over him, and those long eyelashes cast shadows on his cheeks.

"You okay?" Rome asked me.

To ask or not to ask the dreaded where-are-we? question men hated so much… I mean, we hadn't even slept together yet. "I-we-I'm just nervous about my dad," I finished lamely. I didn't want Rome running away from me in terror. I didn't want him afraid to take our relationship to the next level because I expected more from him than he could give.

He squeezed my hand. "Give Lexis a call, then. She has a cell, and it's a secure line." He released me, picked up his cell phone, dialed, then handed it to me.

Lexis answered the moment I placed the phone to my ear. My dad was doing well and was sleeping, she assured me. No one had tried to hurt him. Nothing serious had happened, and she didn't foresee anything bad happening, either. Also, my dad wouldn't stop flirting with her, the rogue. I released a pent-up breath, relief washing through me.

"How's Rome?" she asked me, her voice quiet, hesitant.

I forced my gaze to remain straight ahead. "Good."

She paused. "Take good care of him."

"I will."

We hung up, and I placed the phone on the dash.

"Your dad is doing well, I take it," Rome said.

I nodded, my lips pressed together. "Flirting, as always."

He flicked me a proud glance. "You did good today."

"Aside from knocking you on your ass?" I said drily.

He gave a tiny but genuine grin. "Yeah. Aside from that. You got us over the gate twice. You created the storm that got us inside the house undetected. And you didn't burn anything down."

"Sweet progress," I replied with an answering grin. "So we're going to break into the laboratory tomorrow?"

He nodded. "It will be more difficult than tonight. Way more difficult, actually. There will be security everywhere. Lexis once told me the building has heat sensors, weight-sensitive flooring, motion detectors and eye scanners."

"Getting in sounds impossible. Not to mention dangerous."

"Nah," he said. "It sounds fun."

I rolled my eyes, but I was chuckling inside. What a macho-guy thing to say. What a Rome thing to say. "I bet there will be guards. Armed to kill."

"You'd win that bet."

My heart stopped at the ease with which he spoke of facing trigger-happy killers. "How are we going to get in? Tanner and I are-and I shouldn't have to remind you of this-amateurs. We're more likely to get you caught than give any real aid."

"You know that's not true. Did I or did I not just thank you for how wonderful you were tonight? You kicked major ass."

"You could have done it without me," I grumbled.

"Truth," he said, mimicking Tanner.

I snorted. "You're funny. Not." Would it have killed him to say, No, my sweet beauty. I would have failed had you not been there to save me? Was that really asking too much?

"This next job, though… " His voice trailed off and he sighed. "I need you, Belle. I really won't be able to do it alone."

That admission startled me. Could he have said it to pacify me? Yes. Had he? I don't think so. That wasn't Rome 's style. He always said what he meant, and never diluted the truth. No matter how much it would hurt. He needed me and he wasn't afraid to admit it. Lord, I really liked this man. More than liked him. I admired him, trusted him, desired him.

"You don't have to break into the lab, you know," I said. "You don't have to put yourself in danger when you'll get nothing in return."

"I will get something in return. I help you, you help me. Right?"

"Right," I said softly, "but you haven't figured out how I can help yet."

"I will."

"Whatever you need me to do, I'll do." Now. Tomorrow. It didn't matter. When he needed me, I would be there.

"Thank you." He linked our fingers again. "Don't worry. We'll find a way to succeed. At everything."

A few cars whizzed past us. Rome was making sure to only go a few miles above the speed limit, not wanting to get pulled over or draw any attention to us. Trees flashed past the windows. The moon was high and wouldn't begin its descent for hours yet.

"Where are you going to hide Sunny, do you know?" I asked.

"A safe house in the heartland." He leaned against the headrest with a slight smile. "We'll really live like a family for the first time in years. I'll take her grocery shopping. To the park. Swimming. All the things families do."

Family. His words were a harsh reminder that I wasn't part of his. He didn't ask me to come with him after I'd helped him, and I didn't invite myself. Lexis and Sunny were his top priority-Lexis because she was Sunny's mom-and that was as it should be. Still, it hurt. It hurt badly, and everything inside me sort of crumbled. In that moment, I realized I couldn't possibly be the woman he was destined to spend his life with.

Sharp lances of pain speared me, cutting deep. So deep.

Would I let that stop me from enjoying him? No. Hell, no. I'd take him for as long as I could have him. No regrets. I didn't want to look back over my life and wonder what could have been. What pleasure I could have shared.

"Will your boss search for you?" I managed to ask. Inside I prayed I didn't sound as broken and hollow to him as I did to myself.

Rome didn't seem to notice. "He can look, but that doesn't mean he'll find." He paused for a moment. "He's not an evil man. Like I said, he does love Sunny. I think in time he'll come to realize that this is the best thing for her."

"You'll have to excuse me if I disagree with you about him. I think he's evil. He wanted to neutralize me. Wants to neutralize me, that is." Good job, Belle. Keep it light. Keep it impersonal.

"He wants that for safety reasons."

"Not mine."

"No. The world's. A few days ago I agreed with him, remember? But you don't think I'm evil."

I ignored the last part of his words. "If a woman has to die to protect the world, no big whoop, is that what you're saying? He could have come to me and we could have talked about it like two civilized adults."

"No, he couldn't. Vincent is after you, too." Rome paused.

"Maybe now a meeting is something that would be good for both of you, though. Once John hears what you can do, neutralizing you will be the last thing on his mind. He'll want you on his team."

I snorted. "What if he sees me, pops a cap in my temple first and asks questions later?"

"'Pops a cap'?" A short bark of a laugh escaped him. "Now you sound like Tanner."

My gaze dropped to my feet. Wet mud caked my boots and streaked the floor mat. "If your boss gets to know me and wants to lock me up in Château Villain, what will you do? Betray him-or me?"

He paused. A long, horrible pause. Why did he have to think about this? Did I mean less to him than I'd thought?

"You don't have to worry about it," Rome finally answered. "I won't let anyone hurt you or experiment on you or lock you away."

Sweet words. Words that touched me deeply. But what about when he wasn't around? What about when he left me? You'll take care of yourself, that's what! Yes, I would. I'd be okay without Rome, I assured myself. So what that my heart felt like it was breaking into a thousand pieces.

The car eased onto a dirt road hidden between two thick groves. The farther we drove, the thicker the trees became, and the less obvious the track. Branches and leaves slapped against the car. Finally there was no road that I could distinguish, and Rome had to twist and turn the wheel to keep from hitting anything. Up and down I bounced.

After a while, the small cabin came into view, illuminated by rays of golden moonlight. Had I not known it was there, I would have thought it was a thick wall of bush and forgotten timber.

Rome parked the car in back. "Wait here while I get rid of the tire tracks."

I nodded. "Be careful."

"Always," he said, flashing me a grin. He exited the car and disappeared into the night.

Turning toward the back seat, I clapped Tanner on the shoulder and shook him. "Wake up, sunshine."

"I am," he said without hesitation. His voice held no trace of slumber. His eyes opened-and not gradually. One minute he appeared asleep, the next he didn't.

"How long have you been awake?" I demanded.

He eased up and brushed the hair off his forehead. "The whole ride. How else was I going to eavesdrop on you and Rome? You really gonna let him leave you behind when he goes into hiding?"

I turned away and stared out the window. "It's not like I'll have a choice, Tanner."

"There's always a choice."

"Not when it comes to someone else's feelings," I said.

"You could fight for him."

I closed my eyes for a moment and leaned my head against the seat. "I want a man who wants to be with me. I don't want to force him to stay, force him to keep me with him."

" Rome cares about you. I can feel it coming off him in waves every time he looks at you."

"Sometimes that isn't enough," I said softly.

He pfted. "That's pride talking."

"You don't know anything about relationships, okay?" I twisted the hem of my shirt between my fingers, tightening the material around my knuckles and cutting off my circulation. "So don't try to hand out advice."

"I may not have ever had sex," he said darkly, "but I have loved. I may be young, but I've suffered my share of loss. Don't you try to act like I don't know what I'm talking about simply because you don't have the courage to keep your man."

Anger and shame tried to spark inside me, but I didn't let them. I didn't need the complication of another fire. Besides, Tanner was right. So right. He'd loved his parents and lost them. He knew pain intimately. And I was acting like a coward. "I'm sorry." I turned toward him.

He looked away from me and shrugged. "Don't worry about it."

He was trying to act blas��, but I knew I'd hurt him. I wanted to make it right. He didn't deserve my snippiness. Not after everything he'd done. He was fighting a war for me. Risking his life for me. And young as he was, he was a man. As Lexis had said, he just had a little maturing to do. "Tanner-"

The driver-side door suddenly opened, and Rome stuck his head in. "All clear."

My motions were slow and tired as I exited. Tanner was right behind me, and we trudged toward the cabin. He still wouldn't look at me. I would apologize again, but I'd wait until he was more receptive to do it.

Before we reached the porch, Rome strode to my side and clasped my hand, bringing me to a stop. "Tanner, go inside. Get some rest. Belle and I will join you in a little while."

I opened my mouth to ask what was going on, but Tanner muttered, "Take your time," and entered without us.

Rome tugged me into a thicket of trees. "There's a pond out here," he said.


"And we're going to swim in it. Alone. Then do whatever else we feel like doing."

Oh. Oh. Suddenly I wasn't so tired. Warmth tingled through me. Warmth and lust and a seemingly unquenchable hunger. The rational, keep-me-out-of-trouble part of my brain tried desperately to remind me of what the future had in store. Rome is going to leave. When this is all over, he's going to leave you.

Maybe it was foolish of me, but I still refused to let that ruin the here and now. I'd guard my heart, keep my emotions on a tight leash, but I would enjoy this alpha male while I could. No regrets, I reminded myself.

Soon the trees opened up, revealing a large oasis. Dappled water formed a beckoning oval. Boulders lined the edge in a half-moon, and pink flowers bloomed around them, a perfect frame. Bright ribbons of moonlight and curls of mist ghosted over the silvery liquid, making it shimmer like polished glass. Lightning bugs flickered like romantic candles.

The sheer beauty of the area snagged my breath, and I trembled.

"Do you know why I brought you here?" Rome asked me.

"Yes," I answered. And I was more than ready to begin.