Playing With Fire (CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO)

THE ARMED MEN I'd expected when we'd first entered the building suddenly flooded the room, weapons cocked and ready. Vincent was, of course, shockingly beautiful to gaze upon, as always. Young, too, for such an asshole.

He was tall and lean, and his angelic features rivaled Cody's. Only his eyes gave away his despicable nature. They lacked any kind of emotion, making his physical beauty haunting and eerie.

"It certainly took you long enough to come here," he said with a humorless grin. Without another word, he stretched out his arm and shot Rome. I covered my mouth with shaky hands, gazing wide-eyed at the only man I'd ever loved. He was still standing. I didn't see any blood, only a red dart in his neck. Motions jerky, he plucked it out and tossed it onto the ground. He wavered on his feet.

I summoned fire, letting flames spark from my hands. I didn't point my fingertips at the bad guys, however, not yet. I pointed them at the floorboards. I wanted the formula, but even more, I wanted to prevent Vincent from having it. He would not win. He would not gift himself with these powers.

The flames hit the wood and sprang to instant life, melting the layer of ice, spreading, raging. Someone screeched. Cody used the distraction to race to an outlet, sparking and disappearing inside it within seconds. No one seemed to notice his vanishing act. Rome stumbled forward, trying to morph. Small patches of fur sprouted from his skin.

"Put out the fire, Belle," Vincent said, monotone. "Or I'll kill your father." Just then, my dad was shoved inside the room, Lexis right behind him. My dad's features were pale and his cheeks were hollow. His clothes were wrinkled and dirty, but there were no signs of injury.

"Belle, sweetie," he said, apologetic. Scared.

I paused. Rome paused, all hints of his cat self receding. "Dad, don't move," I said, trying to tamp down my panic. I couldn't let him worry. "Everything's going to be fine."

Rome 's knees buckled and he slammed onto the floor. I gasped and bent down.

"Don't even think about helping him," Vincent told me. "Just stop the fire."

Despite the intense heat, breath froze in my throat. I straightened. Rain, I mentally called. Rain, come to me now. My fingers cooled, but nothing else happened. Fear and fury were overriding everything else, making it impossible to draw from my reservoir of emotions. They were trying to consume me, to bring ice and more fire, a combination that produced no results. I needed rain, damn it.

Rain! Tears filled my eyes and spilled onto my cheeks. I stared at my dad. He looked confused, withered. "Rain," I screamed, desperation riding my shoulders. I reached so deeply inside myself it caused true, physical pain. My stomach cramped. "I command you to fall." Slowly, tiny drops descended. I squeezed my eyes shut, ordering the droplets to thicken and multiply. They obeyed, liquid splashing over my face.

The fire sizzled, crackled and finally surrendered. Thick black smoke curled in the air, tickling my throat. I coughed.

"There. The formula is still intact." Satisfied, Vincent nodded.

I coughed again, unable to stop. "Belle," my dad said. I was unable to respond.

"I'm so sorry," Lexis cried. "I should have known they were coming, but they had some sort of mind shield. I'm sorry. So sorry."

"Lock everyone up." Vincent motioned to our group with a wave of his fingers. "I'll need them later. And keep a gun on the old man's temple, just in case Belle decides to start another fire." His chin canted to the side and he glanced down at Rome. "If Agent Masters sprouts a single patch of fur, kill him. Since I'm now the proud owner of the psychic and the formula's carrier, I don't really need him anymore. Understand?"

"Yes, sir," several of the guards said in unison.

"The rest of you gather up the floorboards and take them to the lab."

Men grabbed Tanner, Lexis and my dad. I started to reach for him, but dropped my arm to my side. I didn't want him playing the hero and trying to come to me. Just do what they say, I told him with my eyes. The rest of the guards hauled Rome to his feet and held him up. I continued to cough, more afraid in that moment than I'd ever been in my life.

"Please," I managed to gasp. "Take the… gun off… my… dad. I'll be good."

One of the men latched on to my upper arm, but Vincent shook his head and I was released. "I'll take care of her myself," he said.

I watched, helpless, as my unconscious lover, my dad and my friends were escorted away from me. Anger and fear continued their wild course inside me, and I barely managed to control them. I wanted to scream, to rant, to rail, to cry. To kill.

"This way, Belle." Vincent hauled me out of the room and ushered me down the hall, away from the smoke. The farther we traveled, the more my coughs subsided.

"Where are we going?" I asked, my throat raw.

"The lab is underground." He answered without hesitation, because he believed, I'm sure, I would never be able to escape and use the information against him. A chilling thought. "I want to get the preliminary data on you-which I should have had days ago."

Did he have a heart? A smidge of compassion? I guessed I'd soon found out. "Let my dad go, and I'll do whatever you want. I swear."

"You'll do whatever I want, anyway."

"He's sick. His heart is weak and he needs his medication."

"You be good and cooperate, and I'll make sure he gets his meds. Misbehave and I let him die. How do you like that for a bargain?"

About as much as I liked him, the bastard. The man was as cold and unfeeling as his eyes proclaimed. If I ever had the opportunity, I was pretty sure I would kill him and not experience an ounce of guilt. I might even dance on his grave. "What are you going to do with me?"

We had reached the end of the hall, and he pressed a series of buttons. Elevator doors slid open. He pushed me inside, following close on my heels. "I can't wait to see everything you can do." He opened a panel on the wall and held out his hand for a scan. A blue light glowed between his fingers, and the elevator began a smooth downward glide. "We gave the formula to some others, but they died. Hopefully, once we've studied you, we'll be able to discover why you didn't."

I tried not to grimace. He painted a gruesome, painful picture. Maybe-maybe I should try to kill him now. Freeze him, smoke him, anything to stop him.

Will you be able to save the others in time? If you can't…

Fear held me immobile. Then the opportunity passed and the elevator doors opened, revealing a room bursting with equipment, people in lab coats and cages filled with animals. And humans. I gasped. Humans were locked in cages, and they were in bad shape. Some had missing limbs, with wires hanging from sockets. Others had metal plates in place of skin. All of them were bloody and ragged. They all watched me with pity, as if they knew what was about to happen to me.

"What did you do to them?" I said, unable to keep the horror from my voice.

He shrugged, unconcerned. "I'm in a competitive business. If I don't have the strongest, most powerful agents, customers will go to someone else. Customers will pay someone else to protect them or find a missing item. Customers will pay someone else to kill their enemies. One day the people in those cages will have supernaturally strong robotic limbs and indestructible skin. They'll thank me."

"And you don't care that you're hurting them?"


I scanned the rest of the lab, trying not to look at the cages. Toward the back, I saw my friends and family locked inside a glass cell. I gulped hard and stumbled. Vincent righted me. Even from this distance, I could see that my dad shook with fear. Lexis had her arm around him, offering what comfort she could. Tanner radiated hatred and fear, and glared at everyone who approached him. Rome was propped against the wall, slumped and weakened by the tranquilizer. His expression held no emotion.

How long would they be allowed to live? Damn it! I had to save them.

Vincent thrust me at an older woman who looked as prim and proper as a librarian. "Strap her down," he said, eyes alight with eagerness-the first real emotion he'd displayed. "And take some blood."

"How much?" Her fingers curled around my arm in a viselike grip.

"Whatever you need. I want to know what's in her blood that isn't in anyone else's."

"You don't need my blood. You have the formula now," I protested.

"You survived. I want to know how."

"I survived because the formula was perfected!" I pressed my lips together. I hadn't meant to admit that out loud. I didn't want to help Vincent in any way, but the words had spilled from me of their own accord, unstoppable.

You can't lie to Vincent, Rome had once told me. Holy hell, I was in trouble.

"We'll see for ourselves," Vincent said. "I'm going to conduct my own tests. And believe me, they'll be like nothing you've ever experienced. Let me know if she gives you any trouble," he added to the evil-looking lab tech. Having pronounced my sentence, he sauntered away.

Ding, Ding. Let the torture of Belle begin.

WHAT FOLLOWED WERE endless hours of poking and prodding, and it hurt like hell. I felt drained, but at last Martha, my prim and proper tormentor, finally decided to let me rest. She wanted me fresh for tomorrow's torment, I suppose, when the initial test results would come in. These scientists were, in my expert opinion, concerned only with their experiments. Mercy, compassion and morality played no part in their actions.

Wanna bet tomorrow's adventure would make today's seem like a five-star vacation?

I lay on a cot, inside my own glass cell, and stared at the monitor on the far wall. To keep me docile, Vincent wanted me to see my dad and my friends and know that at any moment their lives could end. Though sleep beckoned me sweetly, I remained awake. And though my bruises begged me to sink into oblivion, I watched the screen, unable to glance away.

How could I save everyone? What could I do? Helplessness bombarded me, taunted me. Where was my hope now? Lost, my tired mind supplied, with all the blood that had been taken.

Rome suddenly stepped into the center of the screen, staring into the camera expectantly. In that moment, it was as if our gazes locked on to each other. He blinked. Surprised, I sat up and studied him. Was he trying to tell me something? He blinked again.

Damn it, what did he want me to do? What could I do? Think, Belle, think. I couldn't start a fire. There were sprinklers above me that would douse the flames instantly. I'd be stopped and my loved ones would then be punished for my escape attempt.

If Cody were here, I could-My eyes widened. Cody! I'd forgotten about him. I pressed my lips together to prevent a victory shout. Streams of hope hit me. Cody might still be in the electrical system.

Vincent had turned on a secondary power source that didn't rely on electricity, yet Cody didn't need to physically touch the power. He could create his own from the wires, as I'd seen during the car chase. And maybe, just maybe, he'd gone for help.

If I could get back into the lab and draw Cody to me, he and I could incapacitate the guards. I looked out. Night must have fallen because fewer people were around. Now is the time. I pushed myself to my feet. Cameras followed my every move.

I paced, allowing my gaze to circle the room, searching. My cot was anchored to the floor. The walls were thick glass. The floor was concrete. The only door (that I knew of) was the kind that slid open when it had the proper sensor. I'd never be able to pry it open.

How was I going to get out? I kept pacing. If I attempted to melt the door sensor, I might jam the door in place, closed permanently. If I froze the glass-Wait. Wait!

A memory flashed through my mind. Weeks ago, I had decided to go on a vegetable diet. Not that it lasted. Anyway, I cooked said vegetables in the microwave. In a glass bowl. When I'd taken it out and seen the mushy results, I had lost my appetite, but placed the bowl in the refrigerator just in case I changed my mind later. The hot-cold change of temperature had caused the bowl to crack in half.

I could do that now, to the wall. Heat it, cool it, crack it, then kick my way free. I would have to move and act quickly lest someone realize what I was doing, and stop me. Plus, I'd have to be careful not to use too much heat and activate the sprinklers.

I stared into the laboratory and met the gaze of several scientists. I flipped them off. They frowned and scribbled in their notebooks. What were they writing? "Subject displaying unhealthy sassiness?"

Could I heat the air without causing any actual flames? Without Tanner here to tell me when I was becoming too violent, and without Rome here to filter, that seemed like an impossible task.

I didn't care. I had to try.

Still pacing, I dug deep into my emotions. I summoned desire, desire for Rome that was buried in my every cell. Drew on it. I let thoughts and images of Rome consume me. Rome -naked. Me-naked. Rome kissing his way down my body. Stopping to lave between my legs.

My body heated, my eyes heated. The air heated.

After Rome tasted me, I'd kiss my way down his body. I'd take him in my mouth. I'd suck him. He'd moan, shout my name.

Both the air and I sizzled, rising another degree.

Tiny flames nipped at my fingertips. I hid my hands behind my back and faced the wall, gaze focused on the glass. My nipples were hard, my knees shaking.

Rome -telling me he loved me.

A tremor stole over me. The warmth from my eyes intensified, hitting the wall. It began to heat, a fine steam covering the corners. Freeze it, my mind shouted. Freeze it now. I switched the direction of my emotions, still remaining deep within myself. The heat from my eyes chilled, getting colder, colder still. The steam hardened into frost.

A loud crack echoed through the cell.

Like a spiderweb, the crack spread over the glass. On a wave of victory, I raced to the wall and kicked. My foot made contact, and the glass shattered around me, sharp, tiny diamonds. Panicked voices greeted my ears as I rushed into the lab.

Someone shouted, "She's escaped," over the intercom.

"Cody!" I yelled. "Cody, we're in here." Hopefully, my voice would lead him to me.

A silent alarm must have been tripped because armed guards rushed into the lab, shoving the doctors and scientists out of the way. The people in the cages cheered loudly and reached through their bars, grabbing at those responsible for their pain.


Guards were sprinting toward me. Not knowing what else to do, I held out my hands and iced them all, just as I'd done to the glass. Then, in a cloud of sparks, Cody materialized from an outlet. Without pause, he shot a blast of electricity at the men I hadn't seen behind me. Their bodies convulsed and they collapsed to the floor.

"Get the others," Cody shouted. "I couldn't leave the building to get backup. I'm sorry, sweetie, but it's just you and me."

I rushed toward the other cell. Rome was standing, his strength returned. He had wakened everyone and they, too, were on their feet. But just before I reached their door, Martha grabbed me, whirling me to a stop. Her weathered face was determined.

"You're not going anywhere, Miss Jamison."

I punched her in the nose. Blood squirted from her nostrils, and she slumped to the floor. "Wanna bet?" Bending down, I removed her badge and with a shaky, aching hand, held it to the sensor. I expected it to open, but it didn't. Shit! It probably needed a finger ID, as well.

Behind me, I could hear footsteps shuffling. Women screaming. Men groaning. Cody laughing. He enjoyed his job. I caught a glimpse of him freeing the human lab rats, and they sprang from their cages, attacking the scientists who had yet to escape.

A few muffled gunshots erupted, and I ducked. My gaze snagged on the unconscious Martha. Ah, hell. I slid my hands under her shoulders and hefted her up as best I could. Trying not to drop her, I forced her hand to the ID pad. Blue lights winked over her skin, and the door to the cell slid open.

I dropped her with a thump.

Rome rushed to me, and our eyes locked. His fingers tangled in my hair. "You okay?"

"Never better. You?"

"Good to go. Your dad needs you. I'll take care of Vincent." Off he went, jumping into the fray, using anything and everything in the lab as a weapon.

Relieved, ecstatic, I ran to my dad and threw my arms around him. His heart drummed erratically against my ear, but the beat was strong. What a sweet sound. When his arms wrapped around me, the world felt like a better place. "Daddy, tell me you're okay. Tell me your heart's all right."

"I'm fine, doll. Just fine." He weakly cupped my face with one hand and lifted the necklace he wore with the other. "I always carry nitro. What about you? Lexis told me what's going on. Are you okay?"

"I'm good. I'll tell you more about it later." I looked up into his hazel eyes, into his sun-wrinkled face, and tears streamed down my cheeks. "Right now, we need to get out of here."

I spun around-and came face-to-face with a scowling Vincent. He pointed a gun at my dad's head. I reacted instantly. Fury, potent and intense, sprang to life inside me, and I shot out my hand, blasting him with fire. I didn't have to summon it. I didn't have to rely on any reservoir inside me. My rage was too strong. Vincent managed to squeeze out several rounds as he erupted in flames, screaming.

Time seemed to slow as the bullets hurtled toward me. I shoved my dad out of the way just as Rome jumped in front of me. The bullets slammed into him.

After that, everything happened quickly. Rome hit the ground with a thud. I whimpered. Lexis screamed. Both of us dropped to the floor beside him. Blood poured from his chest. He tried to speak, but no words emerged. Our gazes locked for a split second before he closed his eyes.

"Ohmygod," Lexis cried.

" Rome," I shouted. " Rome, open your eyes. Talk to me!"

He didn't respond.

"Open your eyes, goddamn it!" I screamed.

No response.

The others rushed to my side, but not before Cody shot Vincent in the head, ending the man's pain-filled moans, ending his reign of terror.

"We have to get Rome to a hospital," I managed to say, my voice trembling. Stay strong, Belle. Don't crumble. Not yet.

Desperate, I placed my hand over his wound, letting my fear consume me. The edges of the injury began to freeze. The blood loss stopped. I just hoped I hadn't given him hypothermia.

"I've taken care of the guards," Cody said, "and the scientists all scattered and ran." He gathered Rome in his arms.

Frantic, I whipped to Lexis. "Is he going to live? Tell me he's going to live."

"I don't know." Her chin trembled. Tears ran down her cheeks like crystalline rivers. "I only see darkness."

"Wasn't… just a few… bullets," a weak voice suddenly said.

" Rome!" Thank God. Oh, thank God. Relief pounded through me, relief and hope and dread. "We're taking you to a hospital, Cat Man. You're going to be okay. Just relax. I managed to freeze the wound and stop the bleeding."

"Good… girl. Not… bullets, though. What did… he use?"

"Probably a chemical reagent," Cody said gravely. "Poison."

I covered my mouth with a hand to keep from whimpering again. No. No! Bullets could be removed. Could poison? I could live without this man if I had to-but only if I knew he was alive, healthy, happy and whole. He couldn't die. He couldn't. He was too… vital. I needed him. He was my man, and I was his woman.

Cody must have seen my stricken look, because he added, "But the ice should stop the poison from spreading, as well."

Finally, I had used my powers to help someone. To help Rome, no less-the man who'd saved my life over and over again.

"Belle," Rome panted. "Get the… formula, then burn… the place down."

"I'm not leaving your side."

"Do it," he said weakly. "You… owe me."

I knew what he was telling me to do. Take the formula and run. If I stayed with him, Cody would give the formula to John, and I'd probably never see it again. Probably never be able to use it to find an antidote. Definitely never be able to use it as a bargaining tool or take the heat off of me and keep my dad safe. So I had a choice, it seemed. I could (possibly) have the return of my ordinary life or I could try and save Rome 's life. Maybe he would live, maybe he wouldn't.

I didn't even have to think about it. "Cody," I croaked. "Let's get him to the hospital."