An Original Sin
A standalone novel
Fortune MacDonald listened to women’s fantasies on a daily basis as she took their orders for customized men.
In a time when the male species was extinct, she was a valued man-maker. She had created some of the best prototypes around – from Stud-Muffin-Stuart to the ever popular
So when she found herself sharing a bed with the most lifelike, virile man she had ever laid eyes or hands on, she let her gaze inventory his assets. From his long dark hair, to his knife-edged cheekbones, to his broad shoulders, to his jutting – well, all in the name of research, right? It didn’t take an expert any time at all to realize that he was the genuine article, a bona fide man. And when Leith Campbell took her in his arms, she knew real passion for the first time…but had she found true love?
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Original 1999 Cover
An Original Sin
War. Been there.
Famine. Done that.
Pestilence. Ho hum.
Drought. Boring, boring.
Life’s the pits when you’re the best damn cosmic troublemaker in the universe. You scratch and claw your way up the ladder, think you’re top dog, and then what? You have to maintain quality, never relax because someone’s always lookin’ to bring you down.
The best, that’s me. But after a couple of thousand years it starts getting’ old. Know what I mean? One more flood and I’ll puke.
I can’t quit, though. Lifetime contract. I quit, zap, I’m gone. Let’s be honest, I’ve sorta gotten used to existing.
But I’ve gotta think of something. Ten thousand more years of the same old, same old and I’ll slit my throat. Figuratively speaking, of course.
Problem is, I’m too good. We’re talking talent here. The universe’s numero uno pain in the butt. Can’t get better htan that.
So what’s the bit deal, you say? The big deal is…there’s nothing left. Would you believe? Not one new sin.
OK, so I’ve done them all. But I’m not ready for the big Crockpot Down Under yet. There’s gotta be one more. One more sin.
Look, I’m a creative kinda guy. There was that time in… Guess you don’t wanna hear about that. But take my word, if anyone can think of a dirty deed, it’s me.
So why not go small, you say? Why always mass chaos, devastating destruction? Good question. This is tough to admit, but…I’ve got a weak stomach.
Big is easy. I go in, whip up a hurricane, then get out and watch from far away. No blood. No gore. No Maalox.
Small is harder. I can’t see things from far away. Hey, I’m a professional. I gotta stick around to make sure every detail’s perfect. Close up is, well…not a pretty sight. Major Maalox moment.
So what in heaven’s name—Did I say that? Sorry. What the hell can I do that hasn’t been done?
Got it! Am I inspired or what? I’ll whip up a disaster of the heart. All emotional catastrophe, no upset tummy. Something small, intimate, with room for growth. First, I’ll choose two of the lease compatible people on earth, guaranteed to hate each other’s guts. Now it really gets good. I’ll cleverly encourage them to fall in love; then when they’re panting for each other, I’ll rip them apart forever. Brilliant.
Since I’m a sporting kinda guy, I’ll give myself a time limit. There’s a cosmic sorta number. Let’s say three weeks. That’ll give me until midnight on October 31 to wreck their lives. Halloween. I like it. Great symbolism.
One’s gotta be a real babe, though. What can I say, I love women. Hey, a guy’s gonna be a guy.
Final detail. I need a form. Something they’ll trust. Something that’ll get me close so I can watch, manipulate.
Then I can relax, do my thing, and see what shakes out.
Ah, young love. Just call me the great cosmic Cupid.
Man-maker conventions were hell.
First, Four-Tow-N woke to find that her sleeping pad had drifted to the floor during the night. Scientists could build a floating city on Mars, but they couldn’t make a sleeping pad that would stay suspended three feet in the air. Of course, scientists had screwed things up for centuries, so she shouldn’t be surprised.
Next, there was the far wall she’d stared at for the last five minutes. Strange. Had she gone to sleep in a museum? An antiquated picture of the galaxy hung above a bureau. A wooden bureau. With the scarcity of trees, no one had used wood for at least a hundred years. A fake? Maybe. People had become masters of imitation. She could attest to that.
Finally, there was the small matter of something sharing her sleeping pad. Something large. She could feel it move against her back, hear it breathe. Which was hwy she’d stayed frozen for five minutes, staring at the stupid wall.
Added to everything else, she couldn’t feel her cross at her neck. Peering over the edge of the sleeping pad as far as she could without moving, she spotted the silver chain, with her Celtic cross still safely attached, lying on the floor.
Four-Two-N heaved a sigh of relief. Grandma Two-Z had given her the antique piece, and she treasured it.
Now what? She could turn over, face what lay at her back and order it off her sleeping pad. Problem. She had a vivid imagination. She needed imagination in her line of work, but not for facing unidentified sleeping partners.
Maybe she’d wandered into the wrong rest-over room last night after the party. Maybe a large carnitak had followed her in and curled up beside her. Maybe she was a galaxy-size wimp and should just turn over.
Unfortunately, her imagination reminded her the rest-over was close to NASA, and NASA frequently entertained unusual visitors. With her luck, a Saralian poison pig had escaped and chosen her out of all humankind to cozy up to.
Her thoughts scuttled in every direction. What to do? She didn’t know where she was, or what horror happily slept at her back. If she screamed, she’d wake it. Scrap that idea.
That left… Holding her breath, she slowly turned over.
She would’ve preferred the pig. At least then she’d know she wasn’t hallucinating.
A human male. A man. Just like her Dark and Dangerous Dick model, only better. She let her breath out on a puff of disbelief. A fake? She’d never seen one this perfect. Even she couldn’t create something so lifelike.
Of course, he had to be a fake. Men had gone the way of the Dexovil rock burrower, extinct for fifty years or more. Another scientific screwup.
Studying the man, she couldn’t squelch a small stab of professional jealousy. A master creation.
What kind of a party had she gone to last night, if she didn’t remember him? One of her friends, probably Three-Six-H, must’ve put the man next o her as a joke.
What a joke! Long, dari hair lay in a tangled mass across incredibly broad shoulders that had a perfectly tanned skin tone. Hmm, the hair looked like the real thing. Reaching out, she stroked it. Raw sillk. She allowed herself a sensual shiver.
His face was molded perfection—knife-edge cheekbones, straight nose, full lips, long lashes. His eyes? She longed to know their color.
She had to speak with his creator. Never had she been able to make a face look so real, as though warm blood pulsed beneath the skin—soft, touchable. Wonderful! She almost hated the woman responsible for him.
But was he anatomically correct? A lot of cheap models weren’t very detailed. She’d check.
Scooting down, she ducked under the cover. Warmth and essence of male surrounded her. She frowned. How did his maker get that scent of desire and dark erotic nights? It left her heart pounding, her mouth dry. She’d never experimented much with aromas. Maybe she should.
Running her fingertips across his chest, she marveled at the textures—smooth flesh over muscle, hair-roughened areas, and nipples that actually pebbled beneath her touch. Amazing.
A shudder ran through the body. Must be a short somewhere.
When her fingeres touched his stomach, his muscles contracted and rippled. Unbelievable technology.
She finally reached her destination. This was what separated true artistry from assembly-line cheapies.
Utter brilliance. She couldn’t suppress a small coo of admiration. Large, round, firm. Long, thick, hard… Hard? She didn’t remember anything hard down here when she’d first ducked under the cover. Hmm. Must be a clever use of sensors.
Unable to resist, she ran her fingers lightly along his length, then clasped him. Liquid heat flooded her, then settled heavily into a bubbling pool of want in an area that had never experienced any kind of bubbling.
She choked back a surprised gasp and closed her eyes in shocked horror. Impossible! She’d created customized men for years and never once had a sexual reaction to any of them. They were fakes—a mass of Toglor fibers and electrical impulses. She prided herself on never forgetting that.
She teased her friends when they panted after her great-looking Hot and Horny Hal or Stud Muffin Stuart models. Now who’d have the last laugh?
Three-Six-H would never let her forget this if she ever found out. Nervously, Four-Two-N searched her memory. Had she seen any sign of a scan-glow? No. She relaxed slightly. Even if her friend had set this up, she wouldn’t defy privacy rules by watching. No one would ever know.
She’d know. She had to admit it. Her sex drive was on automatic pilot and begging for permission to land.
So close, so warm, so convenient. She closed her gingers more tightly around him. Sex. She’d seen the disks, knew the basics of the ancient ritual. All she’d have to do was…
Appropriate muscles spasmed at the thought of him filling her, touching every dark, wet, yearning space. Reflexively, she kneaded him like a cat with eyes half-closed in feline bliss, while she imagined a joining she’d never know. Warm flesh sheathed in satin-smooth skin that slid slickly into—
With a discipline forged from her society’s expectations, she ruthlessly clamped down on her useless fantasy. She might as well accept it. Men were gone, so she’d never experience that particular pleasure. And she’d never get so desperate that she’d lose herself in a fake. A make-believe man.
She opened her eyes. Liar. She could with this fake.
Suddenly the body jerked. Oops. Had she broken him?
“God’s teeth, woman, I dinna know how much more I can stand. Cease cooing like a mating dove and show yourself.”
She froze. Dinna? Cease? What a strange dialect. And his voice—harsh, arrogant. This didn’t sound like any programmed response tone she’d ever heard.
Possiblity sprouted and grew with the speed of a Pelmar choke-weed. It curled inside her stomach, making her feel the way she did each time she started a new creation. Putting out feelers, it touched her heart. Not satisfied with the mad pounding it left behind, the possibility wound around her lungs and squeezed. She gasped for breath. Her brain tried to fend off the invader, but to no avail.
Real? Could this be a real man?
No way. Nah… Maybe? She shot from beneath the cover, flinging it aside as she emerged.
“Easy, lass. Dinna look so daft. Have ye ne’er seen a man before?” His deep chuckle made light of the suggestion.
“No.” Green. He had eyes the color of jade, spectacular with their frame of thick, sooty lashes. “Not a real one.”
His slashing white smile disappeared, but she’d already noticed one slightly crooked tooth. Customers never asked for flawed men. OK, they did want men with oversize—
“Nay, I’ll not believe ye were raised in a nunnery.” He smiled again. “Not when I wake to find ye rooting beneath the cover like a wee pig.”
“Wee pig!” She never programmed anything but polite chichat and a few orgasmic groans into her creations. But fine, she could fling a few insults of her own. “I don’t know who you are, but I’ve made men better than you.” A lie, of course.
“Made men better?” He narrowed his gaze, and she noticed a small scar above one dark brow. “Aye, I can well believe yer touch would cure a man of what ails him. Ye’ve talented hands, ones I’d life feel again.” His gaze turned hot, aggressive.
Fakes were never aggressive. She felt a trickle of sweat slide between her breasts, a reminder that she wore no clothes. Pulling the cover and her anger around her, she tried to ignore her body’s embarrassing demands. Amazing he didn’t notice them.
“I was not under the cover rooting around like a ‘wee pig.’ I was…checking out the competition. I’ll tell you something, too. I’ve made a lot bigger men.” OK, she’d admit they were a tad too big—big enough to double as rocked nose cones. But that was what her customers paid for.
“Ye make men?” The corner of his expressive mouth turned up. “With yer hands? Like a man would fashion a sword?”
A sword? She frowned, trying to ignore the sexual implication of his words. Forget it. Everything about him shouted sex. “Customized models. Very expensive.”
“Aye.” One dark brow rose to match his mouth. “And I’m King William.”
As he nodded, a strand of hair fell forward, and he raised his hand to push it aside. Fascinated, she followed the motion. Male bodies were her business, but this one interested her more than usual. He had broad hands with long, lean fingers. Strong hands used to hard work, yet hands that would be gentle on a woman’s body. Where had that thought come from? Only one thing should interest her—real or ultimate imitation?
Mentally, she shook herself. He couldn’t be real. Men were extinct, victims of a gene-directed virus gone amok.
He glanced away from her, then suddenly stiffened and drew in a harsh breath. Sitting up, he stared at the room.
“What manner of demon’s lair is this?”
“Demon’s lair? Sure, the room’s a little old-fashioned. I bet the rest-over keeps it as a novelty for travelers who want ot get the true feel of living in the past. Cute idea. But ‘demon’s lair’ is over-dramatizing a bit.”
“’Tis like naught I’ve seen before. How came I here?” He fumbled beneath his pillow. “’Tis gone! I canna find my dirk. Who…?”
Uh-oh. He sounded upset. She never programmed her models for extreme emotional responses. Well, maybe once. Six-Nine-R wanted her man to sing the commercial for Healthy Hot and Spicy sausages—no fat or caloric content—while she climaxed.
His gaze returned to her—accusing, threatening. “Ye shouldna have done this deed. D’ye think to keep me here, witch?”
“Witch? Like in bad hair and a broomstick? You have to be kidding, right?”
“It doesna matter if ye’ve ne’er seen a real man before. Ye have no right to conjure one for yerself. Ye and a score of virgin witches canna force me to yer will.”
“Virgin witch?” She slid her gaze across his muscled arms and shoulders. So wonderful. So flawed. Maybe if she bashed him over the head with her broomstick it would correct his obviously faulty circuits.
“Yer familiar awaits, but ‘twill do ye no good.” He pointed toward the bureau.
Shifting her gaze, she met the fixed amber stare of a large black cat, a cat that hadn’t been there a few minutes ago. Her thoughts fragmented. She pressed her suddenly clammy palms flat against the base of her throat, feeling the warmth, the steady throw of her pulse, the realness. No, she hadn’t been tossed into some sort of virtual world gone mad.
“Dinna try yer devil’s spells on me, witch.” He made some strange signs as he slid to the edge of the pad. His eyes blazed with fierce anger and behind the anger…fear.
He wasn’t kidding. This could get scary fast. “It’s your lucky day. I’m all out of devil’s spells.” She’d kill Three-Six-H if her friend had put this maniac beside her. Kill? She never had violent thoughts. Breathe deeply. Stay calm.
He nodded. “Since ye canna use me, tell me where ye hid my weapons, then free me.”
Fascinated, she watched him swallow hard, lingered on the strong column of his neck. She blinked. Weapons? Plural?
Crossing his arms, he leaned back, obviously waiting for her to fulfill his demand.
He’d have a long wait.
Returning her attention to the cat, she fought to hold on to reality. A dream? Could be. Like a dream, unrelated oddities seemed to float by with no particular pattern.
She had to ground herself in things she recognized or else listen to the whispers of her faceless fears. Four-Two-N gazed up at the galaxy painting. The planets were comforting old friends. Hmm. She peered more closely. The cat was seated right beneath one of Jupiter’s moons. “Ganymede. That cat is—“
“’Tis a strange name for a cat.” The man’s brows drew together in a puzzled frown. “And what be yer name, witch?”
Her heart missed a beat. A fake would never be puzzled. The men she created existed for only one purpose: sexual release. They didn’t need extraneous emotions. “Four-Two-N.”
His brows almost met. “Fortune?”
She sighed. “No, Four-Two-N.”
“’Tis settled. I’ll call ye Fortune.”
Stubborn. Why would anyone want a stubborn fake? Every word he uttered drove her toward a conclusion she feared, didn’t believe—wanted to believe.
Pushing himself erect again, he gazed around the room, then stared at her with an intensity that made her pull the cover higher. Yanking it up to her chin, she did a quick survey of the room. No clothes.
Panic whispered in her ear. Where was she? Who was he? What was he?
“If ye think to keep me here by spiriting awa’ my plaid, ye’ve made a mistake.” Climbing from the sleeping pad, he towered above her in all his naked glory.
A jagged scar ran from the top of his thigh to within several inches of humanity’s salvation. Staring up at him, she admitted the unthinkable, the truth her instincts had immediately recognized.
No fake could have so many imperfections and yet feel so…perfect.
He was real.
For the moment, it didn’t matter ho he was or where he’d come from. His untainted sperm could bring males back to a dying human race. She blinked away sudden tears.
Me first. Me first. She shoved aside the selfish thought. “Who are you?” Her whispered question carried all the hushed awe due the most important human on earth.
His dark scowl dismissed her question. “Leigh Campbell, as ye must well know.” He turned and strode toward the door.
“Wait! Your clothes. Don’t’ go off half-cocked…” Poor phrasing.
His pointed gaze swept the room, then returned to her. “Do ye see my plaid? I grow tired of this playacting, witch.”
Cautiously opening the door, he peered left and right, then slipped quietly from the room.
Where did he think he was going? He couldn’t just… “Come back! Millions of women need—“
“Shush, witch.” He appeared in the doorway again. “Yer blather will lead our enemies to us.” With that cryptic whisper, he silently closed the door on any further arguments she might muster.
Frantic, she leaped from the sleeping pad, then rushed to the bureau. She couldn’t let him get away. The future of the human race depended on her.
Pulling open the drawers, she searched for something, anything she could wear. Empty.
Glancing up, she met the cat’s stare. He winked. No, she hadn’t seen that. It must’ve been a trick of the lighting.
She slammed the drawer shut, then closed her eyes, breathing deeply. Don’t panic. Her eyes opened wide, and she stopped breathing altogether as the telltale squeak of the door announced Leith’s return.
She didn’t need to turn to verify his identity because she could feel him; his gaze was as potent as a trail of fingertips down her spine. Sudden heat and the urge to clench her thighs tightly made her swallow hard. How could his mere entrance into the room do this to her, make her feel as though her body belonged to someone else, someone filled with fierce, primitive hunger?
“Why…why did you come back?”
In the sudden stillness, she could hear his breathing—harsh, rapid with an unnamed emotion.
“Where would I go? ‘Tis all like this room.”
She could almost feel his frustrated gesture.
“Ye’ve entranced me, witch, and only ye can release me.”
She breathed deeply, and wondered who had entranced whom.
“I brought ye clothes. Ye must cover yer body so ye dinna tempt…a weaker man.” His voice was sandpaper rough, deeply thick with something that spun her around to face him. For a moment, his stare burned with the green flame of a Norian cantu pit, then was banked as he looked down at the clothes he held.
“’Twas all I could find. The woman cleaning the hall foolishly left the door open while she went elsewhere.”
“A thief. Wonderful. I’m stuck heaven-knows-where with a thief.” Where was the operative word.
“I do what I must to survive, witch.” His words held a warning.
Some footwear he’d wrapped in a towel and slung across one shoulder fell from his grasp. He turned, closed the door, then bent to retrieve them.
Even as she rushed to the sleeping pad, yanked off the cover, then wrapped it around herself, snatches of thought fought for attention. Before he’d shut the door, she’d glimpsed the inside of the room across the hall, exactly like theirs—archaic yet new-looking. That meant something, if she could only focus. And the cat, where had it come from? Where had Leith come from?
Automatically, she scooped her chain from the floor and secured it around her neck. Beloved and familiar, it felt like a talisman, protecting her from the craziness surrounding her.
Her logical, reasonable self screamed for her to think. Something strange and potentially dangerous lurked, waiting to pounce. But the part of her that pulsed with need, that cried tears of deprivation, wouldn’t let her concentrate. Not with an unobstructed view of Leith Campbell’s strong buttocks—smooth, hard, silently begging for her to run her hands over them. Following the path of least resistance, she slid her gaze down the backs of his muscled thighs, lingered hopefully as he spread his legs a little more to reach the fallen objects.
“yer gaze could draw blood, witch.” He straightened and turned to face her.
“What?” Regretfully, she steered her attention away from his lower body.
His heavy-lidded glance raked her, leaving a trail of unexpected goose bumps. “Ye could drain a man dry wi’ only yer stare. Verra strong, verra tempting.” He scowled. “But ‘tis dangerous to lie wi’ a witch. If I dinna please ye, I might leave yer bed with my manhood a wee shriveled berry. Release me from this enchantment so I may go.”
She huffed and puffed, ready to blow him away with her denial, even though it would be a false one. What did he know about desire? Wherever he’d been, she’d bet he hadn’t been without sex for twenty-eight years. “A wee shriveled berry’s too good for you. How about an organ transplant? We could take your berry and put it… Oh, never mind.”
He smiled coldly and she lost her train of thought.
“Cat and mistress have much in common. Ganymede enjoys a wee peek now and then, too.” He nodded toward her feet.
Glancing down, she gasped. A black tail stuck out from beneath her trailing cover. Mesmerized, she watched it twitch back and forth, back and forth.
With a horrified squeak, she yanked the cover up to expose the black cat. He peered at her, then yawned.
Pulling the cover more tightly around her, she stepped away from the animal. When she looked up, she saw that Leith had dumped everything on the sleeping pad. He stared at the pile for a moment, then picked up one piece of clothing. “Men wear these?”
How would she know? “Men wear nothing. They’re—“
His coldness vanished as his eyes lit with laughter, and he grinned. “And do women wear nothing also?”
Wow! Talk about a meteor-shower smile. OK, forget the smile. Focus. “Extinct. Men no longer exist. They haven’t existed for more than fifty years. Scientists thought they were so successful with their cloning until…”
She blinked. Of course they weren’t extinct. She was talking to one. “So where did you come from? I—“
He heaved an exasperated sigh. “Cease yer babbling, witch. My head aches with yer false tales.” Before she realized his intent, he strode to the window and drew back the covering to peer outside.
“Ohmigod! Get back You’re naked. Everyone will see you.” She prayed the window was high enough to cover the obvious.
Instead of returning to her, he stood staring out the window. Dozens of emotions whirled in her head as she watched his sun-bathed silhouette. He reminded her of a warrior from some distant past. Some distant past. Taking a deep breath, she glanced around the room, thought of the room across the hall. Antiquated.
For an eternity of time, he continued staring at the outside world while she waited behind him—afraid to as, afraid to know. Terror settled at the back of her neck and squeezed. This felt like her first visit to Hanus when she was seven years old. She’d hidden her face the entire trip, then screamed like a warren cat when she’d seen the planet’s natives.
“Come here.” His command vibrated with an emotion she couldn’t identify, feared to identify. He didn’t turn from the window.
No! She didn’t want ot face the reality that waited for her beyond the window. If she ignored it, it might dissolve into the bright light of morning then she could have a laugh with her friends over her dream.
“Fear is a shadow lie. Drag it into the light, and it isna so fearsome,” he murmured, then turned to face her.
She swallowed hard. Easy for him to say.
His expression didn’t encourage her. In the dim light of the room, his face appeared harsh, dangerous. She could imagine him a warrior, viewing the carnage of battle, with the same expression—a mixture of horror, fear, and fierce determination.
Slowly, she forced herself toward the window, step by torturous step. She sensed, in the dark, hidden places of her mind where frightening truths huddled, that each step took her toward… What? The unknown. Please, please let me look out the window and see something familiar!
She reached the window and stared at the view below. She spoke no words; none were needed. The street was alien, a scene from centuries ago, one she’d seen only on history disks. But one detail riveted her attention. Men. Dozens of men waking on both sides of the street. Men driving four-wheeled vehicles that had disappeared form earth hundreds of years before.
And in the distance, a lake. She knew the lake—its shape, its color. Clear Lake. But God help her, that was all she knew.
The heart of fear was a cold place—no one around to soothe her with promises that this was all a misunderstanding, that everything would be fine in a little while. She grasped the windowsill in an attempt to still her shaking hands.
The sudden warmth of Leith Campbell’s body against her back was such a relief she wanted to cry. Not alone. She wasn’t alone in her empty terror.
She allowed him to turn her into his embrace, and it seemed natural for her to lay her head against his chest. The solid pounding of his heart calmed her.
“Release me, witch,” he murmured, then gently raised her head to meet his kiss. She never considered rejecting him.
She closed her eyes. Amazing how weird thoughts hit you at the strangest times. She was the first woman in fifty years to kiss a real man.
Then all thoughts fled, and she allowed her senses to drift free on a current of discovery. His lips, soft yet firm against hers, moved in a way that demanded a response. He traced her lips with his tongue, until she softly moaned and opened her mouth to him. He explored her, and she tentatively returned the touch.
A world of sensation blossomed, the rhythmic caress of his hand on her back, the male scent she’d never known—had always known—and the exciting hardness pressed against her thigh.
She stood tottering on the edge of a new and startling universe when he released her and stepped away. She fought against a feeling of abandonment.
“I dinna need to do this.” He stared at the ceiling and raked his fingers through his hair. “Ye are no witch, so I dinna need to pleasure ye to gain my freedom.”
She breathed deeply, trying to control her anger, her need, her…disappointment. She’d kissed him only to take her mind off what she’d seen outside the window. He’d more than succeeded as a diversion.
“Just to satisfy my curiosity about how the savage mind works, would you tell me why you decided I wasn’t a witch?” Uh-oh. She stepped back. She’d better watch her insults. A true savage could crack her head like a Coro egg.
With something suspiciously like a smile touching his lips, he nodded and his hair settled like a cloud across his gleaming shoulders. “I saw this when I kissed ye.” He reached between her breasts and lifted the Celtic cross from where it lay partially hidden by the cover. “A witch wouldna wear this.”
“Oh, so you thought you could kiss me, and I’d melt away like the Wicked Witch of the West?” Even furious with him, she couldn’t control the hopeful pebbling of her nipples. It seemed she didn’t control any part of her world right now.
“Wicked Witch of the West?” Frowning, he clasped the cross in his palm and rubbed his thumb across the intricate silver design, then gently laid it back between her breasts. She absorbed the heat from his palm, a brand seared into her memory.
“Forget it.” He’d treated her like a booster rocket—use it; then lose it.
Amusement flickered in his glance. “’Twas only a wee kiss.”
“A wee kiss? It felt like all systems were go to me.”
He studied her with narrow-eyed intensity. “Is it that I kissed ye or stopped kissing ye that has ye bleating like a sheep?”
He held her gaze, too intimate, too disturbing. “I wanted to believe ye a witch rather than…” He gestured toward the window. And for an unguarded moment she glimpsed fear in his green eyes, a fear that touched the woman in her more than a hundred fierce denials ever could. She forced down the urge to lay a comforting hand against his cheek, pushed away the picture of him turning his head until his lips touched her palm and—
She didn’t want to soften toward him. Tearing her gaze from his, she walked to the door and opened it. A woman pushing some strange machine hurried past in the hall. Four-Two-N cleared her throat of the rock that seemed lodged there and called to the woman. “Excuse me, can you tell me the date?”
The woman stared at her blankly. “What the heck you doin’ in there, sugar? Room three thirty-three’s supposed to be empty.” Then as the woman’s gaze swept over the cover she wore and continued on to where Leith stood behind Fortune, her expression cleared. “Never mind; I get the picture. He must be one hell of a man if you’d take a chance on being caught makin’ love when you oughta be working. Better be out in fifteen minutes, though. Big convention comin’ in at noon, and this room’s gonna be occupied.”
“The date?” Fortune reminded her weakly.
The woman laughed. “He must be damn good if he made you forget the date.” She winked at Leith over Fortune’s shoulder. “Gorgeous, you ever get tired of your lady, look me up. When I’m finished with you, you won’t even remember your name.”
She glanced back at Fortune. “Today’s October tenth, and I’ve got this whole floor to do, so I better get movin’. Remember, out in fifteen minutes.” She started to turn away.
“The year?” Fortune prodded.
The woman looked at her strangely before answering. “Two thousand.”
Fortune slammed the door shut and leaned against it. Stay calm. Don’t hyperventilate. “It can’t e 2000! When I went to sleep last night it was 2300. There’s no such thing as time travel. Oh, scientists have played with the idea, but…” She must be the victim of some gigantic hoax. But what about Leith Campbell? What about the world outside their window?
She glanced at Leith to see his reaction.
His curse was low, graphic, and—she suspected—physically impossible. He closed his eyes for a long moment, and she watched his expression change. When he finally opened his eyes and stared at her, she wanted to turn and run from him, from his battle face. She had no doubt this was his battle face—all shadowed planes and hard, gleaming eyes.
“Dinna waste yer time denying what’s plain go see.” He walked back to the sleeping pad, then glanced at the black cat, who returned his stare with unblinking amber eyes. “Where is this place?”
“I saw Clear Lake in the distance. So if this were really the year 2000, which it isn’t, then we’d be near the city of Houston in the state of Texas.”
“He looked at her. Confusion clouded his gaze, and that frightened her as much as what she’d seen from the window.
“Texas was part of the United States of America,” she clarified in an uncertain whisper. Please let him recognize the name. She didn’t want to be trapped in this room with a madman, and she’d have to believe him a madman or else accept at truth that logically could be no truth at all.
He didn’t answer, but merely shook his head, then picked up a garment from the sleeping pad. “Men do wear these in the year 2000?”
“Jeans. I remember now. One of my history disks. They were called jeans. Men and women wore them in…” No! She struggled against her rising panic. “I don’t believe it. The whole world has gone crazy. It’s not—“
“’Tis! Use reason, woman. I dinna want to believe it either, but I canna deny what I’ve seen wi’ my own eyes.”
He moved close to her and she stepped back away from his heat, his power.
Feeling as though her throat had permanently closed, she could only nod.
While she watched him struggle into the jeans, her pounding heart slowed, and she grew calmer. This was ridiculous. There had to be a reasonable explanation. She lived in an advanced civilization. She should laugh at the idea of being whisked back in time. More likely she’d eaten some bad tagan dip last night that had caused this strange dream.
Leith continued to struggle with the jeans. Aside from the fact that they were too tight, he didn’t seem to understand how to fasten them.
Now calm and convinced that this whole thing was a nightmare, she could afford to be charitable. “Need some help?” Her offer was out before she thought of the consequences.
“I need no woman’s help.” He continued to fumble.
Patience. He’s only a barlo seed in some bad tagan dip. Gritting her teeth, she reached for him. “This is a zipper, an old-fashioned fastener.” She expected him to push her hand away, but surprisingly, he stood still.
The moment her hand touched his flesh, she knew she’d made a mistake. Her fingers shook as she pulled the metal teeth together. Each time her knuckles grazed his stomach, her lower regions clenched in gleeful anticipation. He didn’t make it any easier when he sucked in his breath without warning.
“Enough, lass. Between yer shaking hands and these cursed metal teeth, I’m danger of losing my future bairns.” He put his fingers over hers.
Yanking the zipper up, he then chose a piece of clothing from the bed and handed it to her. “Put this on.”
“No.” This was a dream, a dream, a—
“After ye dress yerself, we can leave this room.”
“No.” What if it wasn’t a dream? “I want to stay here.”
She could almost see bits and pieces of his patience breaking away from him like the heat plates during a primitive rocket’s reentry into earth’s atmosphere.
“I willna hide in this room. Hiding solves nothing, and it leaves the foul taste of the coward in my mouth. ‘Twas a lesson hard learned, but I learned it well.”
“Fine. Leave. I’ll stay here.” What was she saying? She couldn’t let him walk away. He was womankind’s salvation, a living sperm bank. She wouldn’t lose him.
His last bit of patience shot into hyperspace. “Ye will come wi’ me!”
She flinched away from his thunderous pronouncement. “Why?” She hoped he didn’t hear the quaver in her voice.
Roiling emotion darkened his gaze, pushed her backward with its power. “Ye dinna need to know why. Ye need only know that I willna abandon a helpless woman. I willna leave ye.”
She opened her mouth to tell him what he could do with his “helpless woman” label, then closed it. What did it matter what he said? “I’m sure this is a dream.”
He turned beseeching eyes to the ceiling. “Deliver me from a stubborn woman.” Lowering his gaze, he reached out and cupped her chin with his large hand. “What were ye doing last night?”
She blinked at his unexpected question. “I…I was discussing marketing trends with Three-Six-H. Muscular men are out. Potbellies are in. The comfort factor,” she explained in response to his blank expression.
“God’s teeth, woman. Ye would confuse Saint Peter himself.”
She steeled herself to resist the rasp of his callused thumb rubbing back and forth against the side of her jaw.
“Before waking her, I fell asleep wi’ Mary McDougal warm beside me and…” He shook his head. “’Tis no matter. ‘Twas a long time ago.”
“No! I don’t believe you. This is a dream, nothing but a dream. I swear, tagan dip will never touch my lips again.” She jerked her head from his hand, then stumbled back—from the truth in his eyes, from the reality of his touch. A touch that seared her as no dream touch should.
She didn’t want ot know, had purposely not asked him, because knowing might make it true. Look at the ostrich, she thought. It stuck its head in the sand to avoid unpleasantness, and it had survived just fine when all those perky birds who poked their inquisitive beaks into everyone’s business were extinct. No, nothing could force her to ask.
She asked. “How long ago?” The quaver in her voice embarrassed her.
“Three hundred years.” He raked his fingers through his hair. His hand shook.
The black cat watched with slit-eyed interest, then began to purr.