Twice as Hot Chapter One

Okay. Here's the lowdown. My name is Belle Jamison. I'm twenty-five, happy, engaged and smart depending on who - whom? - you're asking. (Sadly, my teddy bear of a dad is the only one who would pipe up with an affirmative She's brilliant! ) I'm a former coffee wench (plus former bus driver, used-car salesman, factory worker, maid and a thousand other menial jobs), now employed by the mysterious and shadowy government agency known as PSI: Paranormal Studies and Investigations.

Oh, and I happen to control the four elements with my emotions. (If you ask my ultra-hot fiance, Rome, he'll tell you that control is relative.) Anyway.

Before, I was an everyday, average, normal girl. Normal and wishing for more. I should have known better. Sometimes you actually get what you wish for, and the results are not what you expected. I'd wanted excitement. And yeah, I'd gotten it. But that excitement came with a death warrant.

See, a few months ago a crazy scientist secretly dropped a chemical into my grande mocha latte and that chemical...changed me. Belle Jamison, average no longer. Suddenly I could shoot fireballs from my eyes, freeze an entire room with a brush of my fingertips against a wall, cause a tempestuous rainstorm with my tears and start a level-five tornado with only a thought.

At first, I was upset. I mean, really. The ability to destroy the entire world and everyone in it is a huge burden to carry. But that burden also brought the sexy and insatiable Rome Masters into my life, so I don't begrudge it too much. Anymore. Plus, now that I have a little influence over my gift - yeah, that's a better word for it. Gift - people who piss me off "accidentally" get their eyebrows singed and that's pretty damn fun.

Sure, Rome once tried to kill me. Or, as he'd say, "neutralize" the threat I'd become, as I'd had yet to perfect my new powers. Sure, I later accidentally-on-purpose Tasered the hell out of him. But now we can't live without each other.

That might seem weird, but hey. Some people held hands to show their love; we drew blood. Or we would, if Rome was anywhere to be found.

"I swear, he has five seconds to call me or I'm going to torch his entire gun collection and use the melted metal to make a few necklaces. Maybe some earrings."

My best friend Sherridan looked up from the romance novel propped against her upraised legs. She lounged on the couch, a vision of curly blond hair, big blue eyes more often than not filled with sadness nowadays and curves that went on for miles. I wasn't jealous. Really. "He's called you, like, four times in the past week. And seriously, you should be embarrassed. I've never met anyone who has as much phone sex as you two."

My eyes narrowed on her. "How do you know about the phone sex?"

"Duh. I pick up the phone and listen."

I gaped at her.

Sherridan laughed. "Kidding, I was only kidding. But you should see your face. Hi-lar-ious! The problem is, you're, like, freakishly loud. Seriously, earplugs don't help. Cranking up my iPod to full blast doesn't work. Despite myself, I've been really impressed with your skills." Color flooded my cheeks. This was the problem with roommates. But better Sherridan and Tanner, my other BFF, lived here where Rome and I could protect them from scrims - supernatural criminals - wanting to hurt us by hurting our loved ones. "Never mind my incredible phone sex. Rome was supposed to call me again last night. He didn't. He hasn't. That's not like him. Do you think something's wrong?"

"Stop worrying," she said with a wave of dismissal. "That he-man can morph into a jaguar, for God's sake. He's fine. He's probably planning a surprise homecoming or something." Yes, Rome could morph into a jaguar - a sleek and sexy jaguar I loved to pet - all because of experiments he'd volunteered for, hoping to make himself stronger to better guard his loved ones. He could defend himself and he did like to please me, so a surprise arrival wasn't a stretch, but...My hand fluttered over the pulse hammering in my throat. "Really? You think that's what's going on?" Was that neediness really mine?

"Of course."

She sounded confident. But then, she hadn't battled people more monster than human. People who could walk through walls, shift into creatures of the night and leap at you with fangs and claws bared - or simply materialize in front of you with a knife in hand.

I had. Rome had. And I had no idea what he was up against this time.

Heart thundering in my chest, I stood in the middle of the living room and studied the home I now shared with him. I'd decorated it, so of course it was made of awesome. From the bright red velvet chairs to the beaded blue pillows tossed haphazardly about to the purple lace hanging from the windows, the place was a veritable rainbow. Rome hadn't complained. First time he'd seen it, he had walked in, looked around and shaken his head with a wry smile.

"Should have expected it," he'd said, before pouncing on me for a few hours of undercover fun.

"He's never not called me when he said he was going to call me, Sherridan." I didn't dare refer to her as Sherri. I was the one with superpowers, but she would have found a way to peel the skin from my bones and wear it as a victory coat. "He has one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. He could be a pile of ash for all I know." Oh, God. Another thought like that, and I was likely to flood my beautiful rainbow living room.

Sighing, she shut the book with a snap. "All right. You need to vent, so I'll listen to you vent. But do it quickly, because Rydstorm was about to plunder Sabine with his thick, hard - "

"Sherridan Smith! Tanner's in the next room and from what I've been able to get out of him, he's still mourning Lexis." Lexis was Rome's still-infatuated ex-wife. When she'd realized Rome loved me - and would always love me, I added for my own benefit - she had turned to Tanner for comfort. The now twenty-year-old kid-boy- man had been all too willing to console her. Virgin that he was - is? - I think he'd even fallen in love with her. But then, about a week ago, she'd kicked him out of her house, claiming she didn't want to see him again.

Tanner had been a mess ever since.

Lexis was the most powerful psychic I'd ever encountered, so I was willing to bet she'd had a negative vision about Tanner and had cut him loose because of it. While I (sometimes) liked her, though, we weren't on friendly enough terms for me to phone her and ask.

Sherridan's lips lifted in a slow, wicked smile. Her first in days, and that warmed me up inside. Between her and Tanner, I'd gotten my fill of doom and gloom. "If I know that pervert, he's watching porn." I couldn't refute that. Tanner did like his porn.

"Besides," Sherridan said, "it's not like his superpower is supersonic hearing." She was grumbling now.

No, Tanner was an empath. A human lie detector. He could sense emotions, which was why he was the perfect partner for me. He let me know when my feelings - and thereby the world - were about to explode so that I could calm myself down.

"Call your boss, whatshisname," Sherridan suggested. "Bob...or Jim. John!" She clapped, clearly proud of herself. "Yes. Call John. He'll know where Rome is."

"I've already spoken to John. I had my mandatory testing twice this week, and he was there to watch the poking and the prodding." Because of the chemical I'd ingested and its lingering effects, John liked to monitor me. To our mutual consternation, his tests were totally screwing with my restraint. Every time he had his vampire - you think I'm kidding? - withdraw a vial of my blood, I lost a little more control and my powers went a little wonky. Yesterday I'd turned a potted plant into a treecicle simply by glancing at it.

Or maybe the problem was this distance from Rome. I needed my man. He kept me grounded, centered. He was also able to filter out the worst of my emotions. Yeah, it was probably this temporary separation that was screwing with me. It was screwing with everything else. My peace of mind, my hormones, my appetite.

Was such dependence dangerous? And did I care?

Where the hell was he? My shoulders slumped. "John wouldn't tell me a damn thing about Rome. Even when I threatened to quit."

Sherridan rolled her eyes. "You threaten to quit every day, so that's no big deal. I told you that if you didn't save the big gun for a big battle, you'd have no ammunition when the big battle finally arrived.

Didn't I? Didn't I tell you that? You're like the boy who cried wolf - or jaguar in this case - and I told you not to do it. I told you."

I kicked into motion, pacing over to frown down at her. "Do you want to be deep-fried?"

"Please. I'm the only person brave enough to be the maid of honor at a wedding guaranteed to be a Who's Who of Superheroes and Supervillains, so you need me. We both know I'm not in any danger from your fury-fire."

No, she wasn't. She was more likely to drown in my tears or freeze from my touch. I was depressed and scared, and my fear always summoned ice, my sadness rain. My anger summoned fire, of course, and my jealousy summoned earth. Yes, I could make dirt pies. Calling the wind required an emotional cocktail of both negative and positive, so it was the hardest to manipulate. It was hard to be happy and sad, loving and hateful at the same time.

Once, for a short window of time, I'd been able to use my powers without relying on my emotions. No longer. For whatever reason - cough John's tests and Rome's absence cough - that was now nothing more than a pipe dream.

"What if he's..." I couldn't say it. I just couldn't finish that sentence. Suddenly my chin was trembling too badly. God, I was a wreck lately! And no, I wasn't pregnant. (I'd already taken a test.)

"He's not. Who was Rome battling, anyway? And why didn't you go with him?"

"Run-of-the-mill armed guards, most likely, and I'm an idiot. Besides, Cody went with him." Cody could manipulate electricity, so he was a good partner to have. Better than me, for sure. "I've been planning a wedding, babysitting yo - uh, Tanner, researching Desert Gall and - "

"Desert Gal, huh." Sherridan sat up straighter. "You mean the psycho-bitch who drains the water out of everything she touches?"

"Yes. That's her." Unfortunately - or fortunately? - I hadn't had a face-to-face with the sadistic woman yet. One, she'd managed to elude me and two, I'd been too busy getting nailed by other scrims who'd started coming after me the moment I joined PSI. Their mission: recruit me to OASS - Observation and Application of Supernatural Studies, a nongovernment agency whose methods sometimes bordered on criminal and sometimes straight up were criminal. Or, if they couldn't recruit me, plan B was to kill me.

Eight had tried so far, and I'd managed to beat them all. Okay, okay, Rome had ensured victory most of the time. I was still new at the whole shadow-game thing.

"What's she look like?" Sherridan asked.

That was the kicker. No one had a picture of her. Well, not that they'd shown me. Secret agents were so...secretive. But still. I'd already proven I was trustworthy, and why not share something that would help me? "I don't know, but I'm envisioning a dried-up prune with teeth."

"Okay. I've got a visual on her now. Continue."

"One of Rome's contacts intercepted a communication between her and some as yet unknown man and learned some stuff we didn't know. Like how Pretty Boy, her former boss - you know, the evil guy Rome and I had to kill during our courtship - had several warehouses filled with people he'd locked up and experimented on. Desert Gall moved them to a central location to test them and weed out the weaklings, and Rome went to save them. But knowing Pretty Boy, and having studied Desert Gal, there were a few booby traps along the way." Just saying those two words - Pretty Boy - caused me to shudder. And I'd said them twice. Double shudder.

He'd been the most beautiful man I'd ever seen, lushly sensual, darkly erotic, yet he'd possessed a black, monstrous heart. He'd tried to experiment on me, too, as well as attempting to kill Rome. He had experimented on others - the ones we'd known about before his death - replacing their skin with impenetrable metal, adding animal glands to their brains so they'd have beastlike instincts. He'd done other stuff, too. Stuff I couldn't even consider without gagging. All to build an army. An army that would bring him money and (more) power.

Tres cliche if you asked me.

Sherridan leaned forward, clearly intrigued. The book fell to her feet, a warrior's bright eyes staring up at me. "There were survivors?" she asked. "I thought all the people Pretty Boy tampered with ended up dying. Even the ones you guys rescued from those cages."

"They did. Well, those did. Like I said, he had other warehouses, more people. Apparently these groups not only survived, they've begun to thrive. Rome was to bring them to PSI for questioning and testing.

John wants to do a little recruiting of his own, I'm sure."

"Wow, experiments that actually worked," she said reverently, her blue eyes glazing over. Then her features softened, and her mouth parted on a dreamy sigh.

Her mind was wandering.

What, she wanted to be experimented on? I shook my head and had to hook several strands of my honey-colored hair behind my ears to keep them from slapping my cheeks. "Sherridan." No response.

I rubbed my temples and closed my eyes for a moment. If I knew my friend, and I think I did, since we'd been friends for years, she'd just entered her Happy Place. She would be there for half an hour, at least. Trying to engage her now would be pointless.

Ever since Sherridan had learned about my abilities, she'd been acting strangely, retreating more and more into her mind. Oh, she still loved me. That wasn't in question. And I knew she didn't fear me. If she asked me to blow-dry her hair from fifty paces one more time, I was going to strangle her. But there was something almost...depressed about her, as though her life now lacked excitement and adventure.

I knew that feeling.

There were people in the world with beauty, riches, power. Their every step seemed blessed; failure and rejection were not things they'd ever experienced. Excitement greeted them everywhere they went, danger was something to be laughed at and anything they desired, they could have. In their hands, they held the power to change the world. At one time, I would have killed for such a life. Now, I have killed for it, but it wasn't the charmed existence I'd once thought it would be.

Perhaps I should have known such gifts would come with a price. But all I'd seen was the glitz, the glamour. The exhilaration. I hadn't known that there would always be a thousand others willing to rip me apart to possess what I have.

I prayed Sherridan didn't desire what I had desired - what I had gotten. This power beyond imagining. I prayed she was smarter.

Behind me, I heard a door creak open. Close. Footsteps.

I twisted. A slump-shouldered Tanner was strolling down the hall. I worried over the change in his appearance. He wore black as usual, but in the past his clothes had always been clean. Now his dark attire was dirty and wrinkled, his azure hair unwashed and in spikes around his head. He looked terrible.

There were bruises under his eyes and lines of tension around his mouth. He'd even taken out his signature eyebrow ring and Eight Ball contacts.

I'd known and loved him for several months, and I hated seeing him like this. He was tall and when I'd first met him he'd been extremely lean, more boy than man. But he'd begun to fill out and muscle up, coming into his own in both command and confidence. This past week, though, he'd started to slim down again, as if he didn't have the will to eat.

"Hey, Crazy Bones," I said. It was my pet name for him.

Usually he grinned. Now he stopped a few feet away from me and peered down at Sherridan as if I hadn't spoken. "Happy Place?" he asked.

I nodded, my heart lurching at the sadness in his tone.

"She's weird."

"Tanner," I said, then stopped when he faced me. My heart gave another lurch. God, his eyes. Once a bright blue (when he didn't disguise them with those crazily patterned contact lenses), they were now dull and listless and swimming with misery. They were dark and dismal. Hopeless.

In that moment, I hated Lexis. Tanner was the brother I'd never had, hadn't known I'd wanted and needed, and couldn't live without. I couldn't stand seeing him like this.

"Don't," he said. His jaw tightened. "Just don't."

"Don't what?" I asked, even though I knew what he meant. I just wanted to draw him out of his miserable shell.

"Don't feel sorry for me." He moved forward, brushing me aside with his shoulder.

I remained in place, a little stunned. He hadn't made a single derogatory comment about my breasts or tried to cop a feel. Even when death had been breathing down our necks, he'd been unable to go five minutes without talking about my nipples.

Okay, so maybe "brother" wasn't the best word to describe him. He was the boyfriend I adored but wouldn't sleep with. Wait. No, that didn't work, either. Whatever he was, I loved him. Plain and simple.

"Tanner, I don't feel sorry for you," I called, bypassing our air purifier and following him into the kitchen.

Because my abilities were so attuned to nature, toxins were my greatest enemy now, so there was another air purifier in the kitchen. Another in my bedroom. Another in the hallway.

Tanner was digging inside the fridge. Bottles clinked together; something thumped from the top shelf.

"Doesn't matter. I don't want to talk about her."

"You need to, because it's festering inside you. You're falling apart and - "

"Hey, which of us is the master of emotions here? Besides, I know what you're going to say. You've been here, done that. Yeah, I know. Only difference is, you got a happily ever after. I won't."

"She was your first love, but there will be others. You'll see. Just give it time. You'll get over her and someone else will catch your eye."

Every muscle in his body stiffened, but he didn't face me. "So what you're telling me is that if Rome didn't want you, you'd be okay with finding someone else?"

No. Never. Rome was it for me. The one and only. My man. I couldn't even imagine myself with someone else. Poor Tanner, I thought again. Had he really loved Lexis like that?

"Why did she end things?" I asked softly.

Silent, he straightened. He was holding a beer, staring down at it.

"Uh, you're not twenty-one," I pointed out, just to break the quiet tension.

Finally he flicked me a glance. "Feel free to turn me in." He popped the cap and leaned back, the rim suddenly at his lips. In record time, he drained the contents of the bottle, tossed it into the trash and reached for another.

"No, I meant, you're not twenty-one so you shouldn't be drinking without a responsible adult drinking with you. Toss me one."

That earned me a grin. Swift, but there for that brief moment all the same. I felt as if I'd conquered the world. And I hadn't even had to use my powers! "Like you're responsible," he said.

"Well, I am an adult."

"That's debatable, too." He tossed me a beer.

My reflexes were not as defined as my paranormal abilities, and I almost dropped it, the condensation making it slick. I had to clasp it with two hands to maintain a firm enough grip.

"Already had one?" he asked.

I looked drunk? This early in the morning? "I'm not belting out show tunes, so no." With a flick of his wrist, Tanner closed the fridge and faced me fully. I settled atop one of the bar stools, sipping at the beer. Ick. Not my alcoholic beverage of choice, especially for breakfast, but it would do.

Anything for Tanner. "Talk to me. Please. I'm worried about you." He shrugged, his eyes once again swirling with more misery than any one person should have to deal with. "Nothing to tell, really. We got together because she needed someone to comfort her and I needed a willing body to lose my virginity to."

"And did you?"

One of his black brows arched. "None of your business."

Did that mean no? The Tanner I knew liked to kiss and tell and besides that, they'd seemed so hot and heavy. PDA was not something they'd eschewed.

He drained the second beer as quickly as the first, then closed his eyes and pressed the dripping bottle against his chest. Once, twice, he banged his head against the refrigerator, saying, "She told me she knew we weren't meant to be together. That something was going to happen, and one day I'd realize it." He laughed bitterly. "She said I'd even thank her."

Oh, crap. Lexis's predictions were never wrong. That didn't lessen the sting of the here and now, though. I knew that well. Long ago, Lexis had dumped Rome because she'd known deep down she wasn't the woman of his heart, wasn't his one and only. She'd known he would stay with her anyway because he was the father of their child. She'd known, and it had broken her. So she'd cut him loose.

Just like she'd cut Tanner loose.

Was Tanner destined to love someone else?

Suddenly I didn't hate Lexis quite so much.

She'd told me once that she didn't know if I was Rome's one and only, either, that she'd had a vision of that girl but had never seen her face. A lot of days I could pretend that didn't bother me. Most days, in fact. Sometimes in the early morning, though, when I was alone in bed, too sleepy to block my fears, I would wonder if some girl was out there, soon to meet Rome - soon to enthrall him, steal his affections.

But then I would wake up and remind myself that Rome was not a man easily swayed. He loved me. He wanted forever with me or he wouldn't have asked me to marry him.

Tanner's eyelids cracked open, his features now covered with an expressionless mask, his gaze empty and his jaw relaxed. "She also said her true love would be coming back into her life." His voice was devoid of emotion, as well.

Okay. I hated her again. Her true love? Her true love would be coming back to her? Last time I'd spoken with her, she had (mistakenly) thought her true love was Rome. So what the hell had she meant by true love? There had better be someone else she considered her true love, someone else from her past, or I would extract her intestines and use them to choke her.

A knock sounded at the door.

I didn't move, too keyed up from my rush of anger. Rome and Tanner were more important to me than breathing, and that bitch had better -

Another knock, this one harder, more insistent.

"You should get that, 'cause damn," Tanner said, "you're about to light the house on fire and I don't need to add homelessness to my plate-o-shit. Besides, your visitor might be John with the lowdown on Rome."

The one thing sure to push me into action. My fury drained. "Don't move. I'll get the 411, get rid of whoever it is - " hopefully without too much of an emotional outburst, whatever the news, which had better be good " - and we'll finish our discussion. You matter to me, and we're going to figure this thing with Lexis out." And then I'm going to hunt her down and demand some answers Belle-style.

Uh-oh. There was my anger again.

Tanner shrugged, but I could see the spark of hope suddenly lighting his eyes. He trusted me to help make things better, and that made me doubly determined to do so.

As yet another knock echoed, I rushed to him and hugged him tight. Then I raced out of the kitchen and past the still-entranced Sherridan, not stopping until I reached the door.

I glanced through the peephole. The moment I saw who waited on the porch, my hands curled into fists, plumes of dark smoke suddenly wafting from my nose. Red dotted my vision like fireworks on the Fourth of July. Well, well, well.

Speak of the devil and she would appear.
Next page