Playing with Fire
by Tamara Morgan
Fiona Nelson has always been one hot ticket—even before she took the conversion serum that gave her superhuman abilities. Fiona’s powers come at a price: lack of human contact, or she won’t be the only thing burning. When she loses control of her emotions, her fire powers run rampant…and she’s hurt enough people already.
But when the man behind her conversion returns to blackmail her into helping him gain power, the only person she can turn to is Ian Jones, the man who broke her teenage heart. The man determined to expose the criminal known as Fireball, whose explosive escapades are just a little too close to Fiona’s M.O.
Ian is convinced Fiona’s dangerous, convinced she’s Fireball, and convinced he’ll damn himself if he doesn’t resist a heat that’s always drawn him to Fiona like a moth to a flame—but Ian has his own secrets.
And he’ll learn far too soon what happens when you play with fire.
© 2012 Tamara Morgan
I should have opted for the boob job.
It was a thought Fiona Nelson had at least daily. In the shower. At the Laundromat. Right now, while she tried—unsuccessfully—to hide behind a wispy birch tree in the middle of the woods.
The bark of said tree scratched at her fingertips as she peered around it to where two fire officials and an onlooker had gathered around a charred mess of a stump, still smoldering in the distance. The way she figured it, she had about one more minute before they looked over and saw her, which limited her already meager options. She wasn’t about to head deeper into the forest, since navigation had never been her strong suit.
Re-direction, on the other hand, was.
With a quick snap of an elastic hair band, she secured a ponytail high on her head. A few slaps to her cheeks got her blood moving again, and she bounded from behind the birch, giving all the appearance of a long-distance runner who just happened to enjoy backwoods adventures in flip flop sandals and cutoff shorts. With any luck, no one would notice her lack of athletic gear.
Again, the boob job would have offered an advantage here.
But no. Fiona, genius of the century, had chosen the conversion serum. Faced with the prospect of a magnificent pair of mammary glands or the chance to put an unstable and experimental chemical in her body, she’d chosen unwisely. Typical.
She wasn’t the only person who’d made such a decision. But she was, as far as she could tell, the only one whose results blasted out of her hands whenever her emotions ran too high.
“Oh, dear. What’s going on here?” she asked. She came to a stop a few feet away from the three men and checked her watch, taking her pulse for good effect.
“Running from something?” the younger of two uniformed firefighters asked. Alec, the pocket of his shirt announced in cheerful gold embroidery.
Alec was cute, as wide as he was tall in that typical fireman way, but Fiona hung back. She didn’t like firefighters, or men who worked in refrigeration. They had a tendency to sense something off about her. She shoved her hands behind her back, an action so ingrained it was almost involuntary.
The two other men took a survey of the area, squinting into the late afternoon sun. Only one of them sported the familiar blue firefighter’s uniform. A bit older and grayer than Alec, this one was apparently known as Marbles. She didn’t dare ask.
The third official was a youngish guy in jeans who looked vaguely familiar, but Fiona wasn’t sure why. She didn’t dwell on it, focusing instead on watching her adversaries as they searched the forest. There wasn’t much for them to see. This part of town, a few miles north of the Ashland city center, offered nothing but trees and dirt. It wasn’t quite on state parkland, and she’d chosen this specific location because it was one of the few places almost always secluded and empty.
So much for that plan.
“Nope. I’m just running.” Fiona kept her voice cheerful and light. “I like to keep in shape, you know?” She preened a little, sticking out her boob-job-less chest and stretching a hamstring.
Alec nodded, his eyes riveted on her chest. Marbles was a harder sell; he kept his narrowed eyes on her face. “You see or hear anything? Anyone go running past?”
“Oh, no. It’s been real quiet out here today. Why? What happened?”
Marbles thumbed over his shoulder. “It looks like someone’s been trying to burn down the woods.”
Fiona bit her lip and feigned surprise. Really, that was a bit of an exaggeration. If the men looked closer, they would see a very controlled pattern to the charred hunks of wood. She always fired from a distance of at least a hundred feet, and into areas free of brush. There was no real danger. She made sure of that.
Alec, bless his stocky heart, corrected his partner. “No—not burn down. If the perpetrator had wanted to start a forest fire, he would have.”
“Oh?” Fiona mustered up her best pair of big doe eyes.
“My guess is that he stood there,” he continued, pointing to where Fiona had, in fact, been standing. “And fired at the tree. A roman candle, maybe. Or bottle rockets.”
“Then where is the evidence of fireworks?” The man in the jeans ignored the charred tree. He zeroed in on Fiona’s face, as though memorizing each angle, each flaw. “Unless she made a clean sweep of the area afterward, there’d be blown paper and cardboard in the undergrowth.”
His unreadable expression didn’t change, and she squirmed under the pressure of it. Why couldn’t he go stare at the burn scar or the smoking remnants of the last sapling she’d flambéed? Her internal alarm bells, which had been ringing before, were downright deafening now.
“Well, I’m sorry I can’t be of any help to you.” She tilted her head and offered the group a wide, mindless smile, praying it would be enough. “And good luck catching the person who did this. Fire safety is so important these days, you know?” There. She couldn’t get any more inane than that.
Alec leaned over and held out a card. “We’re part of the Fire Investigation Unit. If you see or hear anything, you give us a call, okay?”
Fiona grabbed the card—careful not to let any part of her body touch his—and tucked it in her pocket, prepared to resume her fake run. Hightailing it out of there seemed like a good idea right now.
She only got about a foot before a hand clasped around her forearm.
Don’t touch me.
Sucking in a sharp breath, she wrenched herself out of the man’s grasp. She didn’t like people getting anywhere near her arms. They were too close to the fire’s expulsion—the palms of her hands—and it took several hours before they cooled to normal body temperatures. In fact, she was surprised he hadn’t been burned by the residual heat; all those new breathing exercises to cool her down must have worked.
“Excuse me?” She folded her arms and tucked her hands into her sides.
“I know you.”
Alarmed at his confident tone, Fiona scanned the man for clues. In addition to the jeans, he wore a tastefully faded blue shirt with a red S across the front. Maybe it was the t-shirt talking, but he reminded her of Clark Kent. His brown hair, curled at the ends and slightly disheveled, was in need of a trim. His eyes, also a warm brown, were hidden behind a pair of thick-rimmed glasses angled on a slightly crooked nose. He was thin, too—not skinny, but built so that his muscles were long and lean rather than heaped on top of one another.
He was cute. Nerdy, but cute. And now that she was thinking about it, he looked an awful lot like a boy she’d once adored.
“Ian?” she asked, her brows coming together. It was the boy she’d once adored. “Ian Jones, is that you?”
“Fiona Nelson. I thought so.” His expression remained unchanged.
That wasn’t the only thing unchanged about him. Her past stared her right in the face, fixing her with sharp stabs of memories that replayed themselves before her eyes.
Theirs was a classic tale—if classic played by Freudian rules. Boy spurns girl, girl sucks a lot of teenage cock, and thus begins a lifetime of bad decisions related to men.
The Ian Jones she’d loved had always been something of a loner, fond of comic books and Duke Nukem, irresistible because he was the one boy who’d been able to resist her. He’d been smart, quiet, aloof. Impossibly good, too, the sort of person who would help her pick up her books not because he wanted to sneak a peek down the front of her shirt, but because it was the same basic human courtesy he’d extend to anyone.
Back then, when her sense of self-worth had been completely tied up in the length—or not—of her skirt, he’d seemed some sort of chaste white knight, the ultimate challenge.
Oh, what a crush she’d had on him.
Oh, what a mistake that had been. No white knight this one—he was an asshole, just like the rest.
And damn if the mere sight of him didn’t cause her temperature to soar. Stupid emotions. Stupid Ian Jones, looking as adorable as ever.
“Um…it’s good to see you,” she said, hoping to change the subject and the direction her mind—and body—were headed. “Do you work for the fire department now?”
He studied her intently, his eyes dark, his mouth firm. It was a look she remembered well, that Fiona-is-a-brainless-loser look, that palpable sense she wasn’t worthy of sharing the air he breathed. Of course her body found it instantly appealing. There was something about an attractive, unattainable, too-good-for-her male—especially this one—that set every nerve in her body tingling.
Not good. Not good at all.
She tried breathing through her nose. Of all her emotions that led to incinerated houses and forest fires, lust was the worst. Lust, and everything that came with it. Kissing. Sex. The reassuring weight of a man. Eight long years, and she still hadn’t found a way to cope with the loss of intimacy.
“Not a fireman,” he finally said.
“Um…okay. Sorry I asked?”
“He’s a private consultant,” Alec offered.
“Is that little burnt tree really so bad it needs a consultant?” It did seem like an awful lot to get worked up over. If a woman shot balls of fire at a tree in the middle of the forest and no one was there to witness it, did it really happen? “I mean, are you testing smoke spatter or something?”
“There’s no such thing as smoke spatter,” Ian muttered, looking grouchy, which of course made Fiona want to offer him the solace of her bosom. Or something else soft and pliable.
She breathed deep as visions of days-old roadkill and large carbuncled asses marched through her mind. They were her go-to horrors when things got too heated, when she forgot that human connections—of any kind—were forbidden to her.
She took a few steps back and winced when a twig got caught between the flimsy sole of her flip flop and the underside of her foot.
Ian’s gaze went right to her shoes. Damn.
“I asked Alec to alert me of cases like this, and he was nice enough to oblige. This is the fifth case of these unique burn patterns they’ve found in the county in the past month alone.”
Fiona smirked. “A serial tree killer?”
Male laughter rose behind her. Fiona had a feeling that however much “consulting” Mr. Ian Jones, Superman-teenage-crush-asshole, did for them, he wasn’t considered a part of their team. Poor baby.
“No. I think we might have one of the Corrupted in town,” Ian said slowly “One who is testing his—or her—abilities out before hitting hard. These patterns are too controlled to be anything else.” Ian’s whole bearing shifted, going from relaxed to menacing in less time than it took to blink.
“You don’t seem surprised,” he added, watching her.
“About the Corrupted?” She feigned innocence. “There’s no such thing. You might as well blame a yeti. Or chupacabra. Ooh—a fire-breathing chupacabra. Wouldn’t that be scary?”
She expected a few laughs from Alec and Marbles, but the squawk of a radio filled the air.
“I’m sorry Mr. Jones, but we’ve got another call,” Alec said. “Why don’t you go ahead and finish up here—I assume you don’t need anything else from us?”
“No,” Ian said. “I’m just going to gather more evidence.”
The firemen nodded and left it at that. They turned and followed the dirt path that provided the only way in and out of this part of the woods.
As soon as they were out of sight, Ian whipped out a trowel and scooped some of the ashes into an envelope. It was all very official and CSI; the only thing he lacked was a pair of latex gloves.
Common sense told Fiona to join the men, to get out of there as fast as her legs would carry her, but Ian looked up from his surprisingly elegant squat and said, “It’s been a while. You look good.”
Three-headed kittens spewing out of his mouth couldn’t have been more surprising. Antagonism and condescension she could handle. They were practically her best friends. Compliments only disarmed her.
A polite thank you hovered on her lips when Ian stood and brushed off his pants. “But nobody runs in shoes like that. What are you really doing out here?”
“Hunting for chupacabra,” she replied. At least this was safe, familiar ground. “What exactly do you expect to find in that envelope, anyway? Alien DNA? Tiger’s blood? Everyone knows the Corrupted are a myth.”
She’d always been a good liar, especially when it came to telling men what they wanted to hear. But Ian was making her too hot, too unfocused. She flushed and balled her hands into fists.
“They aren’t a myth.”
She stared at him. For the past eight years, her life had been built on the premise that people didn’t really believe the Corrupted existed. Sure, there were rumors and whispers and fear, but no one did anything about them. The world was content to bury its collective head in the sand—and that was okay with her.
Except this man, of all people, who was suddenly telling her, to her face, that he believed.
She gulped and clenched her fists tighter.
“Of course they don’t exist,” she lied. It always came down to this. And she always fell back on the popular national propaganda. “The government has done tests and examined all the Converted they have on file. No one is dangerous enough to be classified as Corrupted. Not even that guy in town with the prehensile tongue.”
It was a half-truth, at best. Fiona knew for a fact that there were twelve registered Converted in the town of Ashland. Most of them lived on the fringes of society, and the woman who smelled like an entire pack of wet dogs had almost committed suicide the year before, but that was the price they paid. They’d willingly taken the conversion serum. They’d gotten their little superquirks in return.
Except for Fiona. Freak of the century. A walking time bomb. One of a handful of Converted in whom things had gone terribly, irreversibly wrong.
Corrupted. She hated that word.
She shrugged. “Besides…wouldn’t there be some kind of proof if all those conspiracy theories were true? Criminals who can read minds? People who can blow up buildings with the flick of a finger? Puh-lease.”
Ian stood, all six feet of him looming close. “There is proof, and I have it. There’s a telltale residue the Converted—and the Corrupted—leave behind every time they use their powers. In cases like this,” he nodded at the tree, “we can see the damages for ourselves. All I have to do is test for the residue.”
“You mean, like Converted droppings?”
He grinned, and Fiona’s whole body flushed again when a dimple appeared in one cheek. Making this man smile was enough to set her off like they were fifteen again.
The years had been good to him—improved him. How was that even fair?
“Think of it as more of a chemical signature,” he said, his hands moving as he spoke, his little ash collection tools waving. He was a hand talker—funny she didn’t remember that. Long, wide fingers moved gracefully, animatedly. They looked strong, capable, dexterous… Fiona licked her lips and forced her gaze back to his face.
If Ian noticed her inattention, he didn’t show it. He was too involved in his topic, his mouth full of sexy, multisyllabic words.
“We’ve discovered that the conversion serum changes the isotopic makeup of the body. When the powers are used, trace amounts of radiation evidence can be detected in the residue. I can take this ash to my lab and test it. If, as I suspect, this has human origins, I should be able isolate the energy signature to find out.”
Fiona leaned heavily on one foot and let her eyes glaze over, like a person too stupid to understand any term remotely scientific. Ian stopped, something like disappointment twisting in the corner of his mouth.
Ian smart, Fiona dumb. Ian pure, Fiona the village bicycle. How easy it was to fall into their teenage roles once again. How easy it was for him to accept it.
She should have been grateful that acting dumb worked—and happy to see him so quickly derailed. So why did the forest suddenly look so blurry?
“You’re like some super smart mad scientist now?” she asked. She sounded ridiculous but was determined to play to her audience. What was it they always said? The show must go on?
“Not mad.” He shook his head. “Just one of the few people studying this stuff with the goal of full, public disclosure. You’d be surprised what I know about the Corrupted and their capabilities.”
“What you know,” she repeated.
That didn’t sound good. The less people knew about her, the better. Fiona took a few steps back, her arms still carefully clamped across her body, her hands tucked safely away. She needed an exit strategy. And fast.
“I should probably go. Got to get my adrenaline going again, right?”
Ian’s gaze was sharp, and he snapped his little envelope shut with something approaching triumph. Before she could do more than blink, he reached forward, as if he might brush his hand over her head—caress her, even. Every instinct made her want to turn into it like a cat.
She jumped back before he could make contact, before she made a fool of herself and started purring right on the forest floor. “I mean it. I can feel the lactic acid building up in my muscles.”
“Athletics? Those shoes don’t even count for barefoot running. You really want to stick with that excuse?”
“It was good seeing you again, Ian,” she said. “We’ll have to catch up one of these days.”
Without looking back, Fiona darted into the forest, following the same trail as the firemen. A huge rock lodged under her right toe, but she kept going.
Almost as if she was running from fire.