Playing With Fire (CHAPTER TEN)

WHAT ROME FAILED TO TELL me in the car was that his "friend," Lexis Bradley, was a psychic, as well as one of the most beautiful women in the known universe. She was also hot for his body, and the mother of his child.

I discovered all of that on my own, and then was pissed as hell. Allow me to relive the unfolding of my enlightenment for you.

We rode a plush, mirrored elevator (that was bigger than my entire apartment) to the top of a towering chrome-and-glass building. Below, the doormen and subsequent security guards hadn't given us a second glance when we'd entered-despite the fact that Rome, the caveman, carried a snoozing Tanner over his shoulder. They'd waved at him as if they'd been expecting him.

I guess Rome came here a lot. With strange people in tow.

I wasn't sure what to make of that.

When we reached Lexis's door, she opened it before we could knock. I stood stunned for a moment, gawking at her loveliness. She had sleek, straight black hair that hung down her back like a midnight cloud. Her eyes were a vibrant emerald-green and up-tilted at the corners. Her olive skin glowed to perfection. I swear to God, she looked like a work of art come to life.

I'd like to say she did not threaten my self-esteem. Yeah, I'd like to say that. Too bad it'd be a hideous lie. I looked like steaming dog poo in comparison, and I knew it.

Apparently she knew a lot of stuff, too.

"I knew you were coming," she said, her voice soft and lilting, with the hint of an accent I couldn't place. Definitely not Georgian, though. Her green gaze ate Rome up, devouring him. Mentally stripping him. "Come in. Please."

"Sorry to crash on you so late." Rome swept past her with Tanner bouncing on his shoulder. "How's Sunny?"

"Sleeping." Lexis nearly shut the door in my face.

I caught it with my foot and shoved my way inside. Sunny… I'd heard the name before, I think. It hovered on the edge of my memory. "I'd like to come in, too," I said.

"Oops. Sorry," Lexis said, not sparing me a glance. "I didn't see you."

I mentally flipped her off.

"Put the boy in the yellow room," she told Rome. "I've already made the bed for him."

As I dogged Rome into the hallway, my shoulder brushed Lexis's. She whipped around, her face a kaleidoscope of horror. I stopped. My lips thinned into a scowl. What, did I smell? Did I offend her delicate sensibilities? Did my hideous ugliness ruin the ambiance of her home? Maybe I should warn her that I'm a dangerous weapon and pissing me off isn't a good idea.

She tore her gaze from me, reached back with a shaky hand and closed the front door. Her cheeks were colorless by the time she faced me again. "Your name is Belle," she said, a statement, not a question.

"Yeah. Did Rome mention me?" Had that sweet man told people about me already? He must like me, then.

"No. He didn't." She strode to a nearby table, lifted a cell phone and dialed a number. "You need to come over here right now," she said into the mouthpiece, and hung up.

O-kay. Had she just told someone to come and get me? Had she blown my cover? My heart skipped a beat.

Rome emerged from the hall minus his burden. He approached my side, causing Lexis to frown. "I've called your brother," she told him.

At the same time I said, "She called someone-" Wait. Rome had a brother? "Is he an agent, too?" I asked.

Confusion flittered over Rome 's face. He ignored me, saying to Lexis, "Why did you call Brit?"

"I want him to take Sunny for a few days." Lexis anchored one hand on her waist. "Why have you not taken Belle to John?"

John. As in John Smith, Rome 's boss? Huh. I'd thought he'd been lying about his boss's name.

Rome stiffened and became utterly still, not even breathing. "Is Sunny in danger?" He didn't bother responding to the question about me, I noticed.

"She'll be fine," Lexis soothed, reaching out and stroking his arm. "I promise. Your friend, who should be locked in a laboratory right now, is going to cause trouble. I want Sunny out of the building."

I popped my jaw. Lexis, who should be punched in the face right now, was working her way up my People to Punish When I Could Control My Powers list. But much as I wished I could discount the "cause trouble" comment, I couldn't. Not after the fires, the ice and the car chase. "Who's Sunny?"

"Our daughter," Lexis told me haughtily.

I stopped breathing for a moment. Our daughter. As in Rome 's and Lexis's. So. Rome had been intimate with this beautiful, perfect woman. Was he still? My hands twitched at my sides. Other than the fact that we'd admitted we wanted to sleep together, I had no claim on Rome. Still, I was feeling very possessive at the moment.

"You want to take me to your friend's house, huh?" I said quietly, darkly. "Are you two married?"

"Not anymore," Rome said. That was a relief, at least. I hadn't kissed and fondled a married man. To Lexis he said, "I'll go wake Sunny up and get her things packed." He strode away in the same direction he'd taken Tanner, leaving Lexis and me alone again.

We didn't speak. Not a single word. We didn't even look at each other, just stood there. Uncomfortable. She was the mother of Rome 's child, for God's sake.

I used the time to inspect the apartment. I don't think I'd ever been in the presence of so much wealth. A panoramic wall of windows consumed the far edge of the apartment, looking out onto the heart of the city. Vibrant paintings of oriental flowers pulsed with life. Mint-green-and-pearl marble flooring swirled in rivers of iridescence. Scattered throughout were chests and tables composed of bright blue and green lacquer. A crimson velvet couch with silk pillows adorned the center of the living room.

Running out of things to look at, I peeked at Lexis. She was as sophisticated and elegant as her home. She wore a bold green dress that hugged her slender curves, each seam threaded with gold. Gilded leaves adorned the hem. Such loveliness was irritating. And Rome had seen her naked, which was even worse.

He returned none too soon, holding an angel and a bag. The angel's hair was as black as his and-gag-her mother's, with just a hint of curl. Her eyes were up-tilted and green, also (gag) like her mother's. She wore a nightgown with brown bears scattered all over the fabric. One of her delicate arms was wrapped around Rome 's neck and the other clutched a teddy bear. She yawned.

Seeing father and daughter together made my chest ache. Love radiated between them, a shining force of trust, comfort and serenity. A quiet bond that no one would ever be able to break. I had that with my dad, I thought, homesick.

"I missed you so much, sunshine," Rome told her.

"Missed you, too, Daddy," she said sleepily.

She was four years old, was my guess, and the cutest thing I'd ever seen. Until her gaze latched on to me. She frowned. "Who," she said imperiously, "are you?"

"This is Belle. She's a friend of Daddy's," Rome answered for me. Tenderly he smoothed a hand down the girl's hair. "Let's be nice to her, okay?"

"I don't like her," was the reply, stated as conversationally as if she'd said, "My bear needs a hug."

Lexis smirked.

I crossed my arms over my chest. "Mind telling me what I did wrong?" I asked the girl.

"She doesn't like anyone," Rome told me. He kissed Sunny's plump little cheek. "Except me."

"It's true," Sunny said, sounding like a college professor. "Oh, I like Mommy, too." She shook her head and her hair swished over her shoulders. "But strangers are bad, bad people who do bad, bad things."

Rome beamed with pride. Sunny had probably quoted him verbatim.

"They sure are," I agreed. "So I guess this means I can't like you, either, since you're a stranger to me."

She giggled, and the sound lit up the room. "I'm not a stranger."

"Are you sure?" I asked, tapping a finger to my chin. "You look like a stranger to me."

"Very sure," she said with a laugh, and Rome smiled. He gave me a soft look that nearly melted me into a puddle.

"Brittan is here," Lexis said, and moved to the front door. She opened it, revealing a tall man whose fist was poised, ready to knock. He wore black lounge pants and a gray T-shirt. His dark hair was rumpled, and if not for the bump in his nose and the fact that his eyes were brown, he would have been an exact replica of Rome.

Brittan's lips twitched. "I thought for sure I'd beat you this time."

"Like that will ever happen." Lexis stepped back and waved him inside. "Come in."

"Hey, bro," Brittan said, walking forward. He clapped Rome on the shoulder with genuine affection. Up close, I could see that Rome was taller than his brother and the younger of the two. Silver was woven through Brittan's hair, and there were fine lines around his eyes.

Brittan saw me and frowned. "Who's she?" he asked, giving me a chin nod.

"Belle Jamison," I answered before someone else (namely Lexis) could introduce me as Troublemaker. " Rome 's friend."

"Co-worker?" he asked, but I wasn't given the chance to answer.

"Uncle Brit, Uncle Brit! Stop ignoring me!" Sunny squirmed in her daddy's arms and threw herself at Brittan. Amid her giggling, he hugged her tightly. "You saw me a few hours ago, squirt, but I like this kind of greeting."

"I need you to watch her for a few days, Brittan. Don't take her back to your apartment, take her out of the building," Lexis instructed. "To our safe house on Peach Street."

Brittan lost all hint of joviality. "Is something going to happen?"

No one doubted a single word out of perfect Lexis's perfect mouth, apparently, even when those words predicted a future no one could know for sure.

Lexis gave Sunny a pointed glance, and Brittan nodded in understanding. Obviously, they didn't want her to know what was going on. I wasn't exactly sure what was going on, either. Either Lexis wanted the girl away from me because she simply didn't like me, or Rome really had told her about me and she wanted her daughter out of the line of fire. Literally. That would explain her hostility toward me.

Rome came up to my side, his heat wrapping around me. I don't know why, but just having him near made me feel better. Calmer about everything. Even though the bastard had married Lexis. And slept with her. And given her a child.

Lexis placed little kisses all over Sunny's face. "I'm going to miss you so much, but I know you'll have fun with Uncle Brit as always."

"Daddy said you're going away again," Sunny said. "How long this time?"

"Two weeks," Lexis said.

"Two days," Sunny countered.

"One week," Rome said.

Sunny thought about it for a moment. "Deal."

"Give me a kiss before you go, sunshine." There was a tremor in Rome 's voice now.

He was upset that she was leaving, which was heartbreaking. I reached out and laced our fingers. He didn't pull away, but squeezed in thanks. Sunny leaned away from Brittan, who kept a tight hold on her, and stretched past Lexis to plant her lips on Rome 's with a loud smack.

"I love you," he said.

"Love you, too."

Tears filled Lexis's eyes, and I admit they filled mine, as well. I felt kind of guilty for intruding on this very personal, very private family goodbye. I felt even more guilty for causing it.

"Get out of here now," Lexis said. "Go on."

"Bye, stranger," Sunny said to me. I smiled and waved.

Brittan anchored Sunny at his side with one hand and gathered her bag with the other. They were out the door a few seconds later, chatting about bears.

Silence filled the foyer until Rome gave me a half smile and said, "What do you know. You not only charmed me, you charmed my daughter."

I'd charmed him? I suddenly felt like dancing (naked).

Before I could, though, Rome turned back to Lexis, his expression sobering. "He'll take care of her," he said, and I think he said it to comfort himself as well. "He might not have powers, but he's trained military."

"Come," Lexis said, wiping away her tears. She held out her hand. "We'll talk in my bedroom."

"Behave," Rome said to me. As if it was totally natural and he'd done it millions of times before, he released my hand and took Lexis's, and they headed down the hall.

I scowled at their backs, suddenly furious and feeling the rims of my eyes burn. "You expect me to wait here? Seriously?"

Rome groaned under his breath and stopped abruptly.

"Yes," Lexis said. "We do."

He released Lexis's hand (a lifesaving action, for sure) and gave her back a gentle push. She tossed me a glare over her shoulder, then flounced away. Rome remained in place, not turning to face me.

"If you think I'll let you go off and have a beddie-bye chat without me," I said, "you're in serious need of an IQ exam." Rome and Lexis, former husband and wife. Alone. Together. Hell, no. Not on my watch.

And this had nothing to do with jealousy. Really. Seriously. My safety hung in the balance, and I had a right to hear any and all conversations about me, my powers, the people chasing me, Rome, his present/past/future (he is my partner), Tanner, and a possible relationship between Rome and Lexis. After all, Rome had kissed me and admitted he wanted to sleep with me.

After the way he'd taken her hand… Anger brewed and churned inside me, and I swear tiny curls of smoke wafted from my nostrils. "Well," I prompted.

Finally he gave me his full attention. His lips were pressed together. To keep from scowling? Or grinning? He crossed his arms over his chest, and his gaze cataloged my expression. His brow puckered in confusion, but there was a sparkle in his eyes. Grinning, I realized.

"What are you mad about now?" he asked.

"Nothing," I said in typical girl fashion, while inside I shouted, Everything! A part of me wanted him to read my mind and figure it out. Was that too much to ask?

"He can't," Lexis suddenly said.

I hadn't heard her return; my attention had been consumed by Rome. Unfortunately, she now stood beside him. "Can't what?" I asked, frowning.

"Read your mind. Rome can't do it."

How had she known-My mouth opened and closed, and I'm sure I looked like a rabid fish. "Can you?"

"Yes," she answered evenly, as if it were a perfectly normal thing to do.

That wasn't possible, I thought, eyes slitting. I stared over at her. What am I thinking now, you rotten-

"What am I thinking now, you rotten… what?" She fisted her hands on her hips and pursed her lips. "Please finish that riveting thought."

"Get out of my head," I gasped, horror consuming me. "Right now!" If the woman could read minds, she probably could predict the future, too. Great. She'd said I'd be nothing but trouble, and Rome had heard her say it. I didn't want him to think of me as trouble; I wanted him to think of me as sexy. And I'd rather be strangled with my own intestines than allow Lexis access to those most private thoughts.

"One," she said. "That's disgusting." In a perfect imitation of the exasperated look Rome sometimes gave me, she arched her brows. "Two, if you want me out of your head, you'll have to erect some walls."

"How?" My muscles bunched, gearing for a fight. This supernatural world I'd entered really sucked the big one. Hard core. Who else had read my mind?

Lexis glanced to Rome. "You want to explain it?"

His attention, I noticed, had never veered from me. "Have you ever hung a Keep Out sign on something, Belle?"

"Yes." Keep your mind blank. Keep your mind blank. Show Madam Bitch a blank screen.

"It was a blank screen, anyway," she muttered.

My nails dugs into my palms, and I took a menacing step toward her.

"Hang a sign in your mind," Rome said, closing the distance between us and gripping my shoulder to keep me in place. "Visualize it."

At this point, I'd try anything. I closed my eyes and began to construct an elaborate block of wood, painting "Keep Out, Bitch," in bold red letters. Then, of their own accord, the words began to smear, dripping up and down, branching left and right, weaving together to form a tightly crafted shield.

I gasped. It had worked. It had actually worked. I blinked open my eyes and watched Lexis shrug as if she didn't care.

"All done?" Rome asked. The hand on my shoulder caressed a fiery trail down my arm. His fingertips brushed my sensitive palm.

I nodded in satisfaction, trying to ignore the intense surge of pleasure such a simple touch elicited.

"There," Lexis said. "She's protected. Shall we adjourn, Rome?"

"I'll be there in a second."

With a frustrated grr, Lexis sailed down the hall. Rome cupped my chin and captured my attention. His decadent smell enveloped me, as heady as his touch.

"A little warning next time would be nice," I grumbled, drawing on anger rather than wallowing in desire. "If you had told me she was psychic, I could have worked on that wall sooner."

To my utter delight, he dragged his thumb over the seam of my lips. A delicious shiver racked me. "What was that all about?" he asked softly. "You're usually snippy, but I've never heard such animosity from you. And don't tell me it was the mind-reading thing, because you were upset before that."

I'm usually snippy? Oh, that grated. "I'm happy, damn it, a joy to be with. I bring sunshine to everyone around me."

He chuckled. "I believe you, but that doesn't answer my question."

I tilted my chin, quite aware I looked inexorably stubborn. "You have your secrets and I have mine." Telling him I craved having him all to myself, telling him I didn't like the thought of him with another woman, no matter the reason, held a high price. My pride. And I wasn't ready to pay such a large sum.

A heavy pause, a heavy sigh. "Fair enough. But you need to understand that's the exact reason I want you to wait out here. My secrets."

"No." My chin rose yet another notch.

"You can keep an eye on Tanner."

"He's fine."

"Belle." He uttered another sigh.

" Rome. I'm not staying out here while you have a quickie with your girlfriend, then discuss me to your little hearts' content. Sorry, but my answer is and will remain no."

"Girlfriend?" He snorted. "As if I could handle two of you." Hands slinking to the base of my neck and tightening in my hair, he lowered his lips to mine for a soft, exquisite kiss, a simple but blissful brush of his mouth against mine. "Your thought process fascinates me."

I gulped. "I usually offend people."

"Not me," he whispered, his warm breath fanning my lips, my chin.

My body instantly quickened with arousal, eager, so wonderfully eager, for more of him. It was as if he'd never stopped kissing me the first time, as if stopping had been foreplay for this moment. My nipples were hard, my stomach achy and my legs shaky.

"If I promise not to have a quickie, will you stay here?" His voice was coated with desire, hoarse and rumbling.

A long while passed before I could form a coherent response. "N-no." I finally managed to work the sound past the hard lump in my throat. The man was turned on. Unleashing him into the wild now would be foolish, especially with the piranha waiting for him in the bedroom. Rome might not have romantic feelings for her, but I suspected she still had plenty for him-another reason for her hatred of me.

Can you say jealous? And no, I was not a pot and she was not a kettle. I hated her because she was a bitch, not because she was a rival for Rome 's affections.

Puh-lease. You're seething with jealousy, Jamison.

"No," I repeated, more for my benefit than his.

Rome rolled his eyes. "Fine. Come on." As he spoke, he intertwined our fingers. "If you learn something shocking, don't say I didn't warn you."

A decadent shiver stole through me at first contact. The feel of his palm against mine… divine. He was strong, so warm and capable, with rough calluses that were a testament to his dangerous lifestyle. How had I ever doubted him?

He pivoted on his heel and led me down the wide hallway. The fragrance of jasmine incense drifted in the air. Instead of the fine art I expected, the coffee-colored walls were decorated with pictures of Sunny.

"Slow down," I told Rome, craning my neck to see a photo of him and Sunny on a swing set.

He ignored me and tugged me into the bedroom.

I stopped, gasped, gawked, drinking in every detail. I'd stepped into a harem. Minus the sexually starved women, of course. Lexis's bedroom was more decadent than her living room. A ginormous bed decorated the middle, wisps of black netting dancing gently around the posts. Red pillows were scattered across the floor, ruby-colored beads sewn into the seams. From the ceiling hung at least a hundred single-bulb chandeliers, illuminating everything in a crown of brilliance. Gold-etched mirrors. A fireplace.

What the hell did Lexis do to afford this stuff? Or did Rome buy it for her? I didn't know government agents were so well paid.

Hair floating behind her like a black cloud, she emerged from a walk-in closet carrying a large black duffel bag and several items of clothing. She carefully placed the bag on the bed.

"Going somewhere?" Rome asked her. He let go of my hand, traced his fingers up my arm, lingering, then withdrew all contact.

Without his touch, I experienced a wave of emptiness.

"Your woman is going to burn this place down," she replied bitterly. She stuffed a green silk dress in the bag. "I figured it was in my best interests to leave before that happened."

There was no time to bask in the acute sense of joy the words your woman elicited. Not with her accusation ringing in my ears. "I'm not going to torch this place. Jeez."

Rome 's chin dropped to his chest, and he shook his head. "This is great. I'm sorry, Lex. I wouldn't have come if I'd known."

"I know," she said. "Brit will take care of Sunny, so that's one less worry."

"I'm not going to start a fire," I insisted.

"You won't mean to," was the airy reply as Lexis returned to her closet to gather more clothing. "But you will."

"You stay, Lex. We'll leave," Rome offered, his voice taut.

"Too late." She folded a pair of jeans and placed them inside the case. "I can't throw you out, Rome. It's too dangerous. Plus, I'm involved now."

Oh, joy. Just the words I wanted to hear. "You're both acting like me starting a fire is a done deal. But now that I've been warned-" bitch! "-I'll be careful." I would have placed money on the fact that she was only trying to make me look bad in front of Rome.

She pinned me with a piercing stare, her emerald eyes taking on an unholy glow, otherworldly and ethereal. "You're still going to cause trouble."

God, I hated this woman. Do not get mad. Do not get mad. Trying to control my breathing, I stretched my fingers behind my back-just in case they emitted plumes of smoke. Already I felt the burning, the intense heat.

"Uh, Belle, sweetie," Rome said.

"Not now, Rome. Lexis and I are in the middle of a… conversation."

"Put the conversation on hold. Your fingers are on fire."

Damn it all to hell and back. I whirled on him, pointing a blazing finger at his chest. I growled, "Watch the temper. Think happy thoughts. Well, guess what? I'm on the run, I can't go home, I miss my dad, people want to kill me and/or capture me for reasons I still don't fully understand, your best buddy is a bitch, and I'm starving." My stomach was in danger of eating itself, I only then realized. I hadn't had a decent meal all day. Well, there was that amazing breakfast Rome had cooked me that morning, but already that felt like eons ago. "I have every right to feel emotional."

"I know," he said softly. Features lighting with compassion, he blew on my fingertip, dousing the fire, and snaked his arm around my waist. He tugged me in front of him, then slid his fingers up my back and onto my shoulders, where he began a bone-meltingly delicious massage. "I'm sorry."

Just like that, my anger completely defused. A man who understood-unusual. A man who said he was sorry, and meant it-priceless.

"I'll watch her tonight, Lex," Rome said. "I'll make sure Belle doesn't start a fire."

Lexis hesitated, then nodded. "It's against my better judgment to ignore my instincts, but I'm going to trust you, Rome. We'll leave in the morning."

"Good. Now let's get down to business so Belle and I can eat and get some sleep," he said. His fingers never stopped kneading my sore muscles.

Lexis, who continued packing her bag, avoided glancing in our direction.

I watched her without reservation. Though her motions were stiff, she carried herself with the grace and fluidity of a dancer.

With a flick of her wrist, she tossed another case on the bed. "I'm filling this one for you," she told me. "You'll need some different clothes in the coming days, and we are about the same size."

How… sweet. And completely unexpected. "Thank you," I said, a tendril of guilt drifting through me.

"You're welcome."

"Here's what's going on," Rome said, cutting through the sudden, pregnant silence. "Belle was given an experimental formula."

"Against my will," I added. "A little lower," I told him, moving my shoulders to show him where I needed him. Oh, yeah. Right there. My head lolled forward as ecstasy consumed me. "Mmm… "

He inhaled a sharp breath before finishing his explanation. "This formula has changed the alignment of her DNA." His voice began to deepen, a husky edge sneaking into the rich timbre. "It's given her power over the four elements. As you might have figured out when her finger caught fire."

Lexis paused in her movements, a pair of green silk pants dangling from her fingers. Finally she faced us. "So that's the hum of electrical output I feel from her?"

"Yes." Rome dabbled at the top of my butt for a moment, and I bit my lower lip to cut off a moan. "Both Vincent and our boss want her."

Wait. Our boss? That meant Rome and Lexis worked together, too. Just great.

"Stop tensing," he whispered to me. "You're the Periodic Table Chick, remember? Keep it calm."

"Don't call me that."

"This is Dr. Roberts's formula we're discussing, yes?" Lexis asked, ignoring me.

Rome nodded. "You've worked with Roberts in the past. You know him better than I do."

"You worked with Dr. Roberts?" I asked. Well, more like growled. I didn't like the man, for obvious reasons.

"Yes," she said. "He's not a bad man. He wouldn't have hurt you on purpose. He's sweet and he means well. But he does have a wild, sexual side, and I think Vincent used it-most likely by blackmailing him-to keep the doctor working on the formula, even after he learned Vincent wasn't the altruist he'd thought."

"Why did you work with him, though?" I asked.

She shrugged. "We heard what the doctor was trying to create, a liquid that could make the weakest of people strong, and we wanted him for PSI. When he chose OASS instead, I was sent in to befriend, monitor, and make sure he failed. But Vincent figured out what I was doing and took the doctor underground."

"Do you think you can get a lock on him?" Rome said. "I need to find him. I promised Belle I would help her search for an antidote and get Vincent off her back."

"What about John?" Lexis asked.

He can't have me, I mentally answered.

Rome didn't speak for a moment. "I'll deal with him later," he said, and there was an odd inflection in his voice. An inflection I couldn't decipher. "Tell me about Roberts."

Lexis closed her eyes, a blanket of extreme relaxation falling over her features. For a moment I wasn't sure she was breathing. "Roberts is in the city," she said, completely monotone. "He has not left and will not leave. There's still something he wants to do here."

"What?" Rome asked.

"I don't know," she answered with disappointment. "That is hidden from me."

So Pretty Boy Vincent hadn't captured him yet, I realized. There was still a chance I could find him, talk to him, slap the shit out of him, then force him to reverse what he'd done to me. If that were even possible.

"He's concealed himself very well, and I can't pinpoint his location."

"At least we know he's still in Atlanta," Rome said. His fingers ceased all movement on my back, but remained in place. He rested his chin atop my head. "You're sure Sunny is going to be okay?" he asked, his tone stark. Filled with raw emotion. The words burst from him as if they'd been poised on his tongue all along and he couldn't hold them back a moment more.

Genuine affection and sadness played over Lexis's face, changing her exotic beauty to one of haunting delicacy. "She'll be fine."

Rome 's chest was pressed into my back, so I felt the frantic dance of his heartbeat, then the gradual slowing as he accepted her words. My stomach clenched painfully. I reached up with both hands and threaded our fingers together, offering him what little comfort I could.

"We talked about taking her into hiding," Rome said, his voice different than before. Flatter. Like when I'd first met him.

"Yes," Lexis replied. She stilled, gazing over at him.

"Soon," he said. "I have a plan. Belle is going to… help."

Was that hesitation I heard from him? "I'll learn to control the powers," I assured them both. "I won't be a hindrance."

Lexis's eyes widened for a moment and she looked from Rome to me, from me to Rome. "That's why you didn't take her to John?"

He nodded.

Lexis hesitated for a moment-come on, I wasn't that bad-then gave a clipped nod. "I appreciate your willingness to help my daughter," she told me stiffly.

You're sooo welcome, I wanted to reply snottily. That stilted tone of hers made it clear she didn't expect me to be much help.

"Thank you, Lex," Rome said. "I owe you. For everything."

"No more than I owe you."

They shared a smile, and I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying something dumb. Or mean. Or both. Restraint was my new best friend, it seemed.

"Go," Lexis said, resuming her packing. Her movements were lighter, her expression happier than they'd been since I'd entered the apartment. "Eat. It's getting late, and I need to finish up here so we'll be ready to go in the morning."

Class dismissed, I thought, which meant I could drill Rome for answers about himself, his daughter and his relationship with Lexis. No excuses this time. No evasions. He would tell me everything I wanted to know, or he would suffer the wrath of the Fabulous Flame.

I cringed. Eew. No. I didn't like that name any better than I liked the ones Rome had given me. I'd think of a better one soon. If I didn't, I'd be stuck with Four Elements Girl or Periodic Table Chick.

A sigh seeped from me. I did not want to go down in history with a lame-ass superhero name. Not that I thought of myself as a superhero, but I could now see that there was the potential for it. I mean, I was helping Rome track down the doctor who had done this to me, and then I was going to help him hide his daughter.

Yep. Belle Jamison, superhero. I was starting to like the sound of that.