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Authors: Nina Bangs

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BOOK: An Original Sin
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Leith groaned inwardly. Who would believe such a tale?

The driver slapped his cap back on his head and nodded sagely. “Yeah, those loan sharks don’t cut anyone no slack. Lucky they didn’t break your legs. Next time stick to finance companies. Lots of interest, but no broken legs.” He peered at Fortune’s chest, and Leith felt an urge to break some legs himself. “Nice cross and chain you got there. Worth some money. Why don’t I take you guys to a pawnshop, see what we can do?”

Leith nodded. He didn’t know what a pawnshop was, but if it would get them some of this badly needed “dough,” he favored it.

Fortune shook her head. “Whoa. This cross has been in my family for generations.” She clasped it protectively.

The driver rubbed his hand across his forehead, then heaved a sigh. “Look, guys. I’m tryin’ to help you. No money, no ride, no nothin’. Understand? Besides, your cross isn’t
gone forever. Get some cash; then you can get it out of hock.”

Leith watched Fortune consider the proposition while she held the cross in her clenched fist. He was glad she wouldn’t part with it easily. It comforted him to know that in her perfect world, possessiveness still flourished. He’d begun to think no human traits had survived the passage of time.

Her decision made, she nodded. “OK. But as soon as we get some money, I’m coming back for it.”

The driver adjusted his cap, then peered more closely at Leith. “Funny. You look just like a guy I used to drive to the library. Hugh Campbell. Real smart. Always looking up stuff about Scotland. Wanted to write a book about his ancestors. Old guy, but you sure look like him. You related?”

Leith felt the cold fingertips of fate dancing along his spine. Coincidence? He didn’t think so. “ ’Tis possible. Ye must tell me where this Campbell lives.”

The driver shrugged. “He doesn’t. Killed in a car crash a year ago. Too bad. Nice guy. I can tell you where his wife lives, though. She’s real interested in Scotland, too.”

Fortune still clasped her cross as she stared at a group of men walking past. She turned an uncertain gaze toward Leith. “Maybe we’re moving too fast. Maybe we should go back into the rest-over. Maybe—”

Leith remembered the raid, his parents’ dying cries. He’d cowered in his hiding place, frozen with fear and horror. Later, he’d lain awake agonizing, wondering if he could’ve helped, done something to save his mother, his father.

He’d saved his own life, but at the price of his conscience. He’d never hide again. “Ye canna let fate push ye around. Ye must take it by the throat and throttle it.” He’d probably horrified her anew with his violent image, but it was how he felt.

The driver opened the vehicle’s door, and Leith bent down to peer inside. Stale smoke and strangeness assailed him. His palms began to sweat, and he wiped them against his legs. The roughness of the fabric reminded him that his one piece of clothing belonged to someone else. He owned nothing. He was Adam in a strange Garden of Eden. His Eve? He glanced at Fortune. Unlikely. She’d probably explain to the serpent that she already knew everything and had no need of his apple.

“Are you getting in?” Fortune sounded impatient.

He didn’t want to. He’d rather face a hundred Mac-Donalds than climb into this strange machine. But he was a warrior, and warriors faced death in battle without showing fear. Could this be worse?
Yes.

Straightening, he stepped aside while Fortune climbed in and slid to the far window. He took a deep, steadying breath, then eased in beside her. The cat leaped in after him and settled comfortably onto Fortune’s lap. The driver closed their door, then climbed into the front seat.

When the machine roared, he wanted to fling open the door and leap to safety. Sweat trickled down his chest, and his breath came fast and shallow. Pressing his back against the seat, he clenched his fists. The machine slowly began to move, and he feared he might vomit.

Suddenly he felt Fortune’s hand covering his clenched fist. Gently she pried open his fingers, then held his hand in hers.

He didn’t want to look at her. Didn’t want her to see the hated fear in his eyes. But he needed something to cling to, so he clasped her hand tightly, thankfully.

“This whole thing is crazy, but it’s crazier for you than it is for me.” Her voice was low, calm. She squeezed his hand.

He had to be strong. It was not right that she should comfort him. He felt less than a man. And because he
could not accept this sudden weakness, he denied it. “ ’Tis nothing.”

“I know.” Leith glanced at her, expecting mockery, but she gazed back at him with belief. He turned away to stare out the window and drew in a deep, calming breath, unable to speak any words of gratitude. She’d given him a gift beyond value—his pride.

He thought about this while Fortune and the driver were in the pawnshop getting money in exchange for the cross. When they returned to the taxi, Leith studied her forlorn expression as she dragged the ends of her gown inside, then closed the door. He controlled his urge to touch the spot where the cross had rested, and swore he’d find a way to rescue it.

“So you guys need clothes? You’re newlyweds. What the heck do you need clothes for?”

Leith wanted to strangle the driver for his bold comment, but he couldn’t anger anyone who’d offered to help them.

“You don’t wanna go to a store dressed like that.” The driver paused in his conversation long enough to glare at another driver and to give him some sort of finger signal. Leith understood that language perfectly. “Tell you what I’ll do. I’ll take you to a place you can stay cheap, then loan you something you can wear to go shopping. How’s that sound?” He grinned into the mirror at them. One front tooth was missing.

Fortune’s smile was relieved. “That’s wonderful. We’re so lucky we met you—”

“Blade. Just call me Blade.” His glance shifted to Fortune’s chest.

Leith’s anger surprised him. “Mayhap ye should watch where ye’re going.” He cast Fortune a glance, but she seemed unaware of the sexual currents surrounding her. And she hadn’t questioned Blade’s willingness to help
them. She might be at ease with machines, but she didn’t know much about men.

“Why are ye doing this?” Leith shot a hard stare at the mirror.

Blade’s joviality died. “Sorta owe Hugh Campbell. Lent me a few bucks when I needed it. Can’t pay him back, and his wife sure don’t need it, so I’ll use the money to help you guys and call everything even.”

Leith nodded. “Aye. Honor. Now I understand ye.”

No one spoke for the rest of the trip. Leith tried to relax as he stared at the wondrous sights they passed. He couldn’t quite decide how he felt. His overwhelming fear now warred with awe and…excitement. Glancing at Fortune, he also admitted a sense of anticipation.

His penance. Assailed by so many emotions, he hadn’t had time to think about it. He thought of it now. Narrowing his gaze, he watched the gentle rise and fall of Fortune’s chest. He pictured himself peeling the cloth away from her breasts, exposing the creamy flesh, touching one pink nipple with his tongue, then watching it pucker, become a hard nub.

Something else was growing hard at a wondrous rate. Yes, he would look forward to paying for his sins. With penance such as this, he would be sorely tempted to raid a score of clergymen.

They finally pulled to a stop in front of a small white house surrounded by trees. It looked like heaven to Leith.

He climbed out, but before he could offer Fortune his hand, she’d clambered out the opposite door and walked around to stand beside him. The cat returned to his seat on her trailing gown.

Arching her back, Fortune stretched. Leith followed the motion and hungrily thought of the delights that swelled beneath the layers of white material.

“How can people stand riding in things like that? I felt
every bump in the road.” She glanced at Leith and grimaced.

He couldn’t help smiling. When she frowned, she had a way of thrusting out her bottom lip that was…enticing.

“ ’Tis better than wrapping yer legs around a horse and plodding through a driving rain wi’ no protection.”

His smile widened, and she glanced away. Primitive men were easy to read. He wasn’t thinking about wrapping his legs around a horse. It disturbed her that she wasn’t either. Unbidden, she saw an image of him as he’d looked standing beside her sleeping pad, all smooth flesh and tight muscle. At a time like this she’d have thought she’d have better things to think about.

Like how was she supposed to get Leith to her time? And why had cosmic forces shackled her with a man from 1700? Why couldn’t she just grab a man from this time? She glanced at Blade.
Maybe not.

She wished cosmic forces had chosen someone else to do the dirty work. Of course, she was probably the most qualified. She knew women’s fantasies, listened to them on a daily basis as she took their orders for customized men. She certainly knew men’s bodies. No one could do a quality check like she could.

She let her gaze inventory Leith from his shining mane to his spectacular buns and muscular legs.
What a total package.
She sighed.
Fine.
She understood. Leith probably had superior genes, but—

“Let’s get you folks inside so we can find you something to go shopping in. Me and my old lady own this place. Just moved out yesterday. Got ourselves a double-wide on a few acres down in San Leon. She’s inside practicing her—Hey, here she is now.”

Fortune looked up…and up…and up. No human stood on the rickety old porch, but a Valkyrie, come to escort a fallen hero to Valhalla. Tall and broad, with
bright yellow hair whipping in the breeze, she looked as though she could heft an army of fallen heroes across her wide shoulders. Obviously she’d come for Leith, so Fortune would quietly sneak away before—

“Welcome home, dumpling.” With that greeting, the Valkyrie grasped one of the many knives secured to her person and let fly.

Once again Fortune ended up flat on her back staring into riveting green eyes. This position threatened to become habit-forming.

“ ’Tis a dangerous time we’ve come to, but dinna fear; I’ll protect ye.” He glanced up to where the knife still quivered in the tree trunk above them.

His eyes glittered with excitement. He
enjoyed
this. She supposed she ought to expect that in a primitive mentality. But she didn’t have a primitive mentality, and she was scared.

“You guys lie around on the ground a lot, don’t you? Must really have the hots for each other.”

She stared up at Blade. He grinned and winked at her.

“Get up and meet my wife, Lily. World-class knife thrower. Rated number eight in the whole country.”

Leith climbed to his feet, then helped Fortune up. Ganymede clung to her gown like a Shundi sucker. None too gently, she scraped him off and plopped him on the ground. He registered his displeasure with a low growl.

Doing a little low growling herself, she followed the males up the path to where the Valkyrie lovingly fondled another of her lethal weapons.

“Welcome to the year 2000,” Fortune offered to no one in par ticular.

Chapter Three

I gotta tell you, plagues are easier. I could whip up one of those suckers in five seconds flat. Black Death. Sorta has a nice ring to it. Too bad it went outa style.

Physical
things are a snap. You want a hot-as-hell forest fire? Kid’s play. How about a great tidal wave? No strain.

But I sweat the emotional stuff. See, I can’t mess with people’s minds. Some stupid rule.

So far things are goin’ OK. Not great, but OK. I didn’t want that cross comin’ along for the ride, but I can’t touch religious symbols. Another stupid rule. I hate rules.

And where’d this Hugh Campbell come from? Coincidences make me nervous. Somethin’ about that damned ice-cream man bothers me, too. Big guy, fuzzy hair and beard. Reminds me of someone.

No one better be messin’ with my show. Hey, I’m an artist, and I don’t like anyone tryin’ to paint my picture for me. Get the idea? Last jerk who tried that trick is lookin’ outa someone’s fish tank right now.

I’m not gonna think about it anymore. It’ll just upset me, and when I get upset my tummy starts hurtin’; then I have to drink a gallon of that pink stuff. I’ll think of somethin’ else.

Is Fortune Cookie hot or what? Great babe. I can sure pick ’em. Hope she doesn’t let me down and fall for some bozo she meets on the street. Shouldn’t be a problem, though. Hey, Leith’s a great-lookin’ guy. Just like me. That’s why I chose him. But he’s a little old-fashioned. Know what I mean? Now me, I believe in women’s lib. I
love
free and easy women. OK, so I love any kind of woman. What can I say; it’s a weakness.

Right now, I’m starved. Hope they don’t buy cheap cat food, the stuff that tastes like cardboard. But great artists gotta be willin’ to suffer.

That’s me. The Michelangelo of cosmic catastrophes. I’m just workin’ on a different ceiling.

“Ye’re beautiful, and I willna let anyone take ye from me. Ye make me a man again.”

Fortune felt like covering her ears. She’d gotten what she deserved for listening at the door. She’d spent a few minutes exploring the small sleeping-room—wondering at lights you had to switch on, a sleeping pad with legs—then gone looking for Leith. When she’d heard his voice, she couldn’t resist eavesdropping.

How had it happened so fast? She’d been gone for less than ten minutes, and he was declaring his love for the overabundant Lily. She should’ve known. When he’d first seen Lily out in the yard, his eyes had glazed and turned predatory.

Fine.
She’d put a positive spin on this. If cosmic forces had decided to repopulate the earth with males, then they’d obviously need a man with a tomcat mentality. They’d probably scoured the time continuum for the most overactive libido they could find.

She blinked back unexpected tears. What did she care? She didn’t even like him.

Of course the tears were for Blade. How would he take the news? After all, he couldn’t possibly compete with Leith. Leith was…a rotten piece of space sewage! How dare he seduce their host’s wife and put them in jeopardy!

Armed with righteous anger, Fortune flung the door open and charged into the room. She skidded to a stop when she found only Leith. He held one of Lily’s knives in his hand.

“OK, where is she? Lily, if you’re hiding, come out. I
know everything.” Fortune swung her gaze to take in the faded floral couch, the ripped leather recliner, and the coffee table cluttered with what seemed like hundreds of knives.
Hmm
. Maybe she’d been a bit precipitous. Lily with a fresh supply of knives would be a formidable opponent.

“Are ye daft? Lily and Blade are outside.”

She narrowed her gaze. “Then who were you talking to?”

Humor flared in his eyes. “Ye listened at the door.”

She glanced at the floor, noting a burned spot in the carpet. “I didn’t.” She inspected the ceiling, wondering about the hole right above the couch. “I absolutely wouldn’t.” She stared at the wall, pondering the slash mark right in the middle of the photo of a younger Blade. Either a bad practice session for Lily, or a momentary problem in paradise. “I was walking down the hall, and I staggered into the door. Weak from hunger, I think. Anyway, I couldn’t help hearing.”

“Ye dinna lie well, lass.”

He smiled, and she fought to maintain her affronted,
who, me
? expression. “If you weren’t talking to Lily, then you must’ve been talking to”—she peered at his hand—“the knife?”

He glanced away, but couldn’t hide his embarrassed flush.

“Ye dinna understand the relationship between a man and his weapon.” He lovingly caressed the smooth wooden handle.

She imagined his fingers sliding across the swell of her breasts. She shivered at the vivid image.

“A sharp blade protects a man from enemies.” He touched the gleaming point with his fingertip.

She imagined his fingertip touching her nipples, her nipples puckering to exclamation points of yearning.

“A wise man keeps his knife close.”

He glanced down at his jeans, and she understood his sudden look of frustration. Not even a blade would fit between skin and fabric.
Good thing.
She was jealous, and jealousy of an inanimate object did not indicate great mental health.

“Yes, but you
talked
to the thing.”

“Have ye ne’er talked to something that couldna talk back?”

“Never. I mean, I said a few words to the cat, but it couldn’t be termed a conversation.”

“Never?”

He stared at her, and she resisted the urge to squirm.

“OK. When I was a kid, Mom wasn’t around much, so I used to talk to Skirky.” God, she’d forgotten all about Skirky.

“Skirky?” That slow,
I’m sexy as hell
smile spread across his face.

“I got him on a trip to Polius. He was a fuzzy yellow tube-toy with big purple eyes. He looked kind of like a giant caterpillar. Researchers had found that tubularshaped stuffed toys comforted children more than any of our advanced play designs. The discovery sparked a craze for retro-toys. Every child wanted an old-fashioned stuffed toy exactly like her ancestors played with.” Fortune laughed and shook her head. “I had educational toys that could probably build a space port in a pinch, but I only loved Skirky. I slept with him until I was seven.”

“What happened to him?”

Her smile faded, and she stared beyond Leith into the past. “Mom came home unexpectedly and found me talking to him. She threw him away. Said I was too old to be talking to a mangy-looking toy.” Fortune shrugged.

“She shouldna have done that.” His voice turned soft, understanding. “ ’Twas a friend, someone to ease yer loneliness.”

Lonely? Yes, she could admit it now. An only child, she’d wished with a child’s intensity for her mother—someone to talk to, to touch.
Forget it. Think about now.
Mom had probably been right. Life was real, and she shouldn’t waste it on nonsense. “Skirky doesn’t matter. He’s been gone a long time. Let’s get back to you and your conversation with that knife.”

He held it up. “ ’Tis a beauty. When I showed Lily how I could throw a knife, she said I shouldna be wi’out one. I canna believe she gave this to me.”

His smile would melt ice on Pluto, and she understood exactly why Lily had given him the knife. Lily had better watch it. Her sudden stab of fierce possessiveness surprised Fortune.

Before she could investigate that disturbing emotion, Blade entered the room. “Go take a look in the hall closet. Friends left a few clothes behind. You might find some stuff to wear.”

Leith was confused. They both wore the garments called jeans with shirts and “sneakers.” What a strange society where men and women dressed alike. But he had to admit the jeans showed Fortune’s form even better than the gown. He allowed his gaze to follow her slender legs up to her nicely rounded bottom, then gave himself permission to continue his journey to the swell of her breasts. Their spectacular peaks reminded him of home. Thank heavens women’s forms hadn’t changed in six hundred years.

He could not allow lustful thoughts to distract him, though. There would be time enough later to consider his penance.

Survival. He turned to Blade. “Before we leave to find food and clothing, ye must tell me how much this dwelling will cost.”

Blade ran his hand along the side of his face. “Well, it
ain’t fancy, but it’s got a good location. Since this is paying my debt to Hugh Campbell, I’ll let it go for two hundred a month.”

Leith glanced at Fortune, and she nodded. He watched as she pulled the pieces of paper she’d gotten in exchange for her cross from her pocket and offered them to Blade. “Take what you need.”

Leith closed his eyes. He couldn’t watch. Her complete trust in everyone’s honesty would be the death of them. But the pieces of paper were hers to lose, so he’d not say anything.

“Not smart carrying around a bundle like that. You might want to put some of it in a checking account.” Blade waved away the offered money. “Pay me when you get on your feet. I can wait.”

Leith opened his eyes.
Count Checkin
? He reached out, snatched the paper from Fortune’s hand, then glared at Blade. Fortune stood with a dazed expression, staring at her empty hand. “I dinna know this Count Checkin, and I dinna trust my dough to anyone but myself. I willna answer for the fate of anyone who tries to take it from me.”

Blade shook his head. “Hey, don’t look at me. I wouldn’t touch your money. I heard the Scottish were careful with dough, and now I’m a believer.” He turned away. “I’ll wait outside.”

Leith felt his head would explode from all the new words.
Dough
and
bundle
meant money. He’d have to learn quickly.

“I want my money back.”

Leith stared at Fortune’s open palm poised at the end of his nose. “ ’Tis better that I keep it, lass, so I can protect it.”

“And who’s going to protect it from you? It’s mine. Give it back. Now.”
Uh-oh. Open mouth and insert foot.

“Ye’d trust Blade wi’ yer money, but ye wouldna trust me.” He slapped the money into her open palm. “Take it, but ye’d better guard it well so I dinna steal it when ye’re not looking.”

She studied his angry expression, glanced at his rigid stance.
Yep, big mistake. Time for honesty.
This wasn’t about the money; it was about control. When he took the money, he also took command. She resented it.

He turned stiffly and strode out the door. She’d hurt his pride by depriving him of the one thing he had to offer, his protection. Again she remembered the feeling when her mother had thrown Skirky away—
powerless
. Leith must feel the same way now.

Sighing, she followed him. If she said she’d changed her mind about the money, he wouldn’t believe her. She somehow knew he wouldn’t accept her pity. History disks had shown her what men looked like and told her how they’d acted, but not one disk had said a thing about the emotional storms men created.

Leith climbed into the taxi, and she settled beside him. Leaping onto her lap, Ganymede curled into a comfortable ball. Blade started the taxi, then turned on some booming music with men chanting words in time to the rhythm. She winced.

Leith showed no sign of speaking, and Fortune realized she’d have to begin the conversation. “So you’re from Scotland?”

“Ye didna know?” His expression gave nothing away.

“There was something familiar about your accent.” She cocked her head to the side and studied him. “I’d read about Scotland on history disks, but it was so long ago that—”

“ ’Tis gone?” He looked like he’d lost an old friend.

She’d said the wrong thing again. “Sort of. We don’t have separate countries, only member states in a world
nation, and everyone speaks the same language. No dialects.”

He turned his face to the window. “Aye, I understand. A peaceful world where all are the same. Ye must be verra bored.” He glanced back at her. “I’m not a quarrelsome man, lass, but I’d be lying to ye if I said I didna enjoy a good fight. The pitting of my strength against an opponent makes me feel alive.”

Puzzled, she shrugged. “I guess you’d be unhappy then. We don’t have wars. Everyone settles disputes in a civilized way.”

He furrowed his brow. “If ye dinna fight, then ye have only sex for excitement.”

She felt a need to defend her life, which was calm and satisfying in every way. Wasn’t it? “Exactly the comment I’d expect from a primitive mentality.” She leaned over until she was almost nose-to-nose with him. “We haven’t had men for fifty years, and we’ve done just fine without sex with real males, thank you very much.”

She started to move away, but he gently grasped her chin, holding her in place. So close, she could see forever in the depths of his jade eyes, and it bothered her that she even noticed.

“Ye canna turn awa’ without explaining yerself. No fighting? No men to fulfill yer womanly needs? Are ye certain ye dinna live in hell?”

She nodded toward Blade, who’d turned the volume down on his music. Leaning close, Leith pushed her hair aside and whispered in her ear. “Ye’ll explain yerself when we get home.”

Fortune swallowed hard. His scent excited her even after the day they’d been through. A tantalizing mixture of cool air and warm male. She almost forgot to breathe when he softly kissed the side of her neck.

Fortune shuddered all the way to her toes. Primitive men
must’ve had some potent pheromones. Surely that was the only explanation for the way Leith made her feel. After all, she didn’t
want
to feel this tingly excitement every time he touched her. Maybe as with one of those ancient diseases, she could build up an immunity with constant exposure. She could hope.

“What do you guys want to do first?” Blade glanced in his mirror and winked. “Besides touch each other.”

She felt heat rise to her face as Leith leaned back in his seat. She rushed into speech. “I think we’d—”

“Food. ’Tis long past time we ate.”

There he went again, making decisions for both of them. “I’m not going anywhere to eat until I have some clothes of my own.” His lordship would huff, puff, and bluster. She’d counter with cool reasonableness. He’d slink away, defeated by her superior logic. Then and only then would she relent, allowing them to eat first. Her stomach growled in anticipation.

BOOK: An Original Sin
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