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“And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land,

ye shall not vex him

unto you as one born among you . . .”

—Leviticus 19:33-34

Her height was the first thing Robert McKay noticed; followed by the fact that she was an offworlder. Her skin was too pale, she was sweating profusely, and she lugged frustratedly at a travelbag that couldn’t mass as much as her effort suggested. He quickened his pace, passed her and asked, “Can I give you a hand with that?”

The suspicious look in her eyes suggested a home planet with high crime. She scanned him, obviously looking for signs of danger. She saw something that dropped her caution just a tiny bit and replied, “Sure, thanks,” gratefully. Her accent was North American, he thought.

He scooped up the bag, which was as light as he suspected, slung it over his shoulder and asked, “Where are you heading?”

“Seven Rushton Avenue, number sixteen. But I have no idea where that is, other than this way,” she replied, indicating the direction with a forward nod.

A stunning woman, tall and with a sexy drawl, moving in right next door! Definitely a situation to deal cautiously with. “Across this park is faster,” he advised her, “I’m in number fifteen. Robert McKay.” He offered a hand.

She held hers out and looked confused when he took it in both of his. “Uh . . . Kendra Pacelli.”

“Sorry,” he said, “Just a normal polite greeting here. I know it’s not common on Earth.”

“Is it that obvious?” she asked, smiling wryly.

He heard a slight strain to her breathing and slowed his pace a little. It was glaring to his trained eye, but he didn’t want to alarm her. Instead, he told her honestly, “I’ve been there. Military duty.” He took a quick, unobtrusive look up and down, trying to memorize every line of her. As far as physical beauty, this was a jackpot of a neighbor—incredibly tall, slim, creamy skin and eyes like the East Sea. He guided her through the small corner lot, lush with flowers and grasses and across Crow Lane to Rushton. “And here we are,” he indicated the stairs, then led the way up.

He paused at his door and opened it, reached under his tunic and tossed a holstered gun and a pouch in the direction of the bed, closed the door and turned to hers.

“What do you do?” she asked.

“Operations analyst, currently on contract to the city. And vertol pilot for the reserves.”

“Can I ask why everyone is armed to the teeth?” She was obviously bothered by the profusion of hardware she’d seen so far. Well, that fit with Earth’s cultural attitude, he thought—ban anything that wasn’t mandatory.

“Vicious native animals,” he told her. “If you are anywhere out of the downtown area, it’s very advisable to carry. We also carry to assert our rights, but don’t worry about the philosophy now. It’ll take some getting used to. Let me show you around,” he suggested, placing her travelbag on the bed and guiding her through the one-room flat.

The kitchen was small, neat and efficient. The bathroom was nicely equipped and more spacious than she expected. A comm was provided, with excellent link capabilities, and he cautioned her that she would be charged for almost all access. The whole was about the size of a nice hotel suite on Earth. Considering her rent as a percentage of her income, it was more than adequate lodging in what seemed to be a fairly nice neighborhood. She was glad not to have taken the cheapest available.

“So, who will you be working for?” he asked.

“City Parks,” she replied. “At least until my indent is paid.”

“You don’t have much other luggage then,” he stated.

“None,” she agreed.

“Ah,” he nodded and moved to her bag. “May I?” he inquired.

She nodded a curious assent and he opened it, neatly laying things out on the bed. He nodded when it was empty and said, “As I thought. We need to take you shopping before you wind up hospitalized.”

“Isn’t my clothing appropriate?” she asked.

“Not at all. If you don’t get shoes quick you’ll be crippled by Rowanday. Let me take a quick shower and I’ll take you out . . . unless you have other plans?”

“Uh, I really appreciate it, but could we do it tomorrow? I just want to drop from exhaustion.”

“You can do that,” he agreed with a concerned nod, “but once the food, gravity and air hit you, you’ll spend two or three days wishing you were dead. I recommend buying now before you collapse.”

“Well, I guess. You are a native guide. And thanks.”

“No prob. See you in fifteen segs—I think that’s a little less than twenty-five minutes?” He waited for her assent, then politely left.

Kendra had trouble using the shower and scalded herself repeatedly while adjusting it. The controls seemed fine, but the temperature scale was different from the kind she was used to. The tub and shower were one unit to save space, but large enough. They had the latest frictionless sides and seamless bends to prevent bacterial growth. Everything was padded and heated for safety and comfort. It hardly fit her perception of a frontier world, but this was the capital and it had been settled for almost three hundred years, she recalled.

Finishing, she yanked her hair into a quick mane and hoped the style wasn’t too far out for Grainne. She slipped into casual jeans and tunic, pulled on her loafers and stepped out.

She knocked on McKay’s door and heard a “Come in!” She opened the—unlocked—door, stepped in and froze. McKay was standing naked, halfway into briefs.

He looked up and looked embarrassed. “I am sorry,” he apologized, quickly grabbing for pants. “We are pretty casual here and I forgot.” Kendra realized his distress was on her behalf, not his own. Before she could respond, he was dressed and came over, dragging a different gun—this one polished and decorated—and belted it low on his right hip. He scooped up his pouch and another small bundle on his way.

The gun bothered her, but she realized it was not her place to criticize. Anyway, he was a military officer. Responding, finally, to her earlier surprise, she said, “I think I’m going to be shocked a lot in the next few days.”

“Probably. I’ll try to ease you into the difficult parts, but it won’t be easy to remember most of what I take for granted. If something comes up, just ask.”

“I will,” she agreed, letting him take her arm and guide her out into Jefferson’s late-afternoon madness. People were far more comfortable with physical contact here than on Earth. That of itself would take getting used to.

The stairs, she noticed now, were broad and shallow, likely because of the gravity. The ironwork was real iron, but her eye could tell it had been done en masse, not as individual pieces as she’d originally thought. It still lent a nice, airy touch to the square of buildings and the inner courtyard. She noted with a frown that the complex didn’t have a gate to restrict access. Anyone could walk up to the doors. This obviously wasn’t one of the better neighborhoods. The central courtyard was pretty, though, with more ironworked grilles and railings. Kids’ toys were scattered around unlocked and she puzzled over that. Did the security cameras work that well? Was there a guard she didn’t see? Or were the possessions coded for tracing?

They walked several blocks, winding up in an area full of shops. There were a few of the large megastores she was used to, but most of this neighborhood was little specialty shops, apparently family owned and operated.

Kendra spent much of the walk looking up, not at skyscrapers, although they were impressive, but at the heavens. The sky was turning a most amazing orange with magenta streaks to the west, with Iota brilliant yellow below it. Slightly higher, the sky maintained a blinding ultrablue, fading to violet in the east. The air was becoming breezy as the long dusk descended and an eager tension was moving through the crowds. There was a slight tang from the ocean, which was only a few kilometers away.

The first stop they made was for proper shoes. Her feet were already starting to hurt and she eagerly took his advice for a pair plain enough for work without looking too industrial, so she could wear them out as well. They had generous support and additional cushioning for tender feet, such as those of lower-gravity newcomers. When she asked about her old pair, he advised her to “Rag ’em. Unless they have some personal value.” After a few moments consideration, she decided to bag them for the time being.

He led her to the lingerie section and promised to return shortly. She began looking through the bra racks. Little was available for a woman 1.8 meters tall. She sought the clerk.

The proprietor was a small woman, partly African in ancestry, her skin really dark in this environment, who hurried over to give advice.

“I’ve narrowed it down to this or this,” Kendra said, holding up two styles from the sample rack for her to view. “What do you think?”

“Do you want these for a date, lady?” the old woman asked, twirling a lock of frizzy hair. “They’ll look great. But if you want something for work, you’ll be much more comfortable in something like this,” she continued, indicating a different style. “Our gravity is higher, remember.”

“Do you have it in a 100/110?” she asked, slightly unsure.

“Probably, but gravity will compress your spine a bit, so your chest is going to be expanded. Let me measure you. Arms up,” she directed, whipping out a measure and walking around Kendra. The ball tickled as it rolled around her and flashed numbers.

Glancing at the readout, the clothier reached up and grabbed a different style from another rack. “Here,” she said, handing it over. It was a 102/110. “Try that one and keep in mind that underwire, shelves and lace are for show-only here. You want elastic and lots of shoulder, especially until you build up your muscles. Otherwise, you’ll droop, probably painfully.”

Kendra nodded and made mental notes. “Okay. Where’s the changing room?” she asked.

The woman looked confused. “Chang . . . oh, no such thing. Go ahead, honey, no one minds,” she reassured Kendra.

Kendra bit her lip, then shrugged. It was obviously normal here and a fuss wouldn’t produce a fitting room. She peeled off her tunic and tried the sample garment, trying not to be self-conscious or look ridiculous. She succeeded at the latter, not the former. The garment fit so she bought five.

Rob came back with a wrapped package and led her across the street to another specialty shop. They were far more common here than on Earth and she asked him about them.

He shrugged. “Just our way. The prices are about the same, but the smaller shops are friendlier. We use the big ones when doing seasonal stock-up and for bulk purchases.” He pointed to her left. “Here’s our next stop.”

He had her buy a cloak, and not a cheap one. “The weather changes in segs,” he told her, “and the temperature drops drastically at night. A cheap cloak is just a waste of credit.” She had to admit it was a nice piece. It was a dark blue that set off her skin, thick and warm without being bulky or heavy. There were slits for her arms, buttons down the front and the hood had a drawstring. It looked to be a multipurpose and multiclimate item, and she could tell the workmanship was excellent. The same store furnished her with three tunics and an equal number of loose shorts in local style. From there, they walked across a corner into a huge green area. She counted her remaining funds and was depressed. She might have enough left for food, if she stuck to basics.

“Liberty Park,” he announced. “Jefferson’s largest, and where you’ll probably be working. I thought you might want to look around.”

“Great!” She acknowledged while taking his offered hand.

The color of the people was changing, from the soft grays, whites and light colors of daytime, to blacks, metallics and screaming hues in stiffer, tighter clothing, mostly revealing, designed to show off heavy-gravity physiques and high-UV tans. A few people were in various stages of nudity, while some were covered to the neck. Slash-and-puff was popular, along with iridescent pattern shifts. Whatever they had on, the evening clothes were worn to impress. Many were armed with pistols or knives or both, and those items too were embellished and prominent. Jewelry was unlike anything Kendra had seen before, and crime obviously was not a problem, considering the mass of precious stones and metals she could see with every blink. The crowd was boisterously loud and cheerful and an utterly disorganized mob bent on confusion. They moved with a purpose, and the purpose was revelry.

They approached a portable teppanyaki stand, where the chef whirled his knives like implements of combat, interrupted by a gout of flaming alcohol that elicited a shriek of delight from one onlooker and bellows of approval from two soldiers in uniform. Kendra stopped to stare.

They were in dress uniform. Off post and in public. Had she done that on Earth, she would have been attacked, beaten and mugged inside of six blocks by some gang or other.

A few steps past the chef, Robert guided her to a food vendor who had the plumpest, healthiest fruits and vegetables she had ever seen. The display looked as perfect as an advertisement. Rob grabbed a small, elongated item and began to haggle.

“So how much for these sickly looking Satan peppers?” he asked in mock disgust.

“Such a deal at five for a cred. But for you, my friend,” the bearded vendor returned, grinning, “twenty for five creds.”

Rob snorted. “After I saved your life on Mtali? Fine gratitude you show me. Five for fifty cents and I’m being generous.” While he said this, several onlookers started giggling at the exchange.

The reply was, “Indeed you are, but I must feed my three wives and seventeen children. I hope you will understand. Seventy-five cents.” This elicited more chuckles.

“Okay, fine.”

“But only if you take ten.”

McKay laid three quarter cred coins down and said, “Not fast enough.”

“Thank you.” The merchant smiled, clutching the coins greedily, “Now little Johnny can get that operation he needs.”

“They’re putting in a soul?”

“Taking out his conscience.”

The audience responded to the finale with howls of appreciation and moved back in to buy huge quantities of produce. McKay grabbed several other items, slipped them into a paper bag and money swapped palms again.

As they resumed their walk, McKay munching on a “Satan pepper,” which did not sound at all like a snack food to Kendra, she commented, “If that shtick happens all the time, I’m surprised he doesn’t need an entertainer’s license.”

McKay blew air and licked his lips. “Whoo, that was a potent one!” he remarked, eyes glazing slightly. He turned and said, “You don’t need licenses here. I’ll show you the bazaar if we get a chance.” He shook out the bundle attached to his pouch, which turned out to be his cloak, and laid it on the ground, gesturing for Kendra to sit. As she did so he sat next to her and pulled three fresh strawberries the size of plums out of the bag. “I don’t know how hot you like your food,” he resumed, “But Satan’s are hotter than anything you’ll find on Earth, habaneros included. So I got you these instead.”

“Thanks.” She smiled, then wrinkled her brow. “No licenses? But how do you keep out bad entertainers and merchandise?”

“Hey, bad ones have to learn somewhere. And shoddy merch gets noticed pretty quickly.”

“I can’t believe that works as a quality control measure,” she said doubtfully.

“Try your strawberries.”

She did so and was amazed. Juice dribbled down her chin. Sugar would have been wasted and cream would have masked the flavor. “Okay, they’re great,” she mumbled around her second bite. “Thank you.”

After snacking, he guided her to the restroom so they could wash the juice off their hands. Kendra winced, knowing the condition of public restrooms back home, but walked in anyway, hoping to find an automatic faucet that worked . . . and was stunned.

First, the restroom was for both men and women. And there were private stalls. There was no guard visible. She thought of the possible crimes behind those doors and made a note never to enter a public restroom alone after dark.

Second, the facility was clean. As clean as the one in her new flat. After washing her hands, she wandered around outside admiring the architecture, amazed that a restroom could have architecture, and bumped into McKay again. “I don’t get it,” she said. “No rules on anything, and this is the cleanest park I’ve ever seen. How?”

“People care enough to maintain it,” he explained as they went outside again, “and any vandalism is gone in less than a day, at the vandal’s expense if he’s found, so there is a real motivation against damaging things.” He was leading her back the way they came as he said this and stopped briefly to retrieve his cloak, which was still on the ground, untouched. She was silent again.

Liberty Park was too huge to be seen all at once in purple duskiness, but they toured the main north-south walkway. All lawn edges were neat, the grass appearing to have been laid like carpet. Occasional flower islands erupted in wild bursts of native and Terran flora. The trees were beautifully pruned and some of the bushes were shaped interestingly. They passed a broad fountain with people wading and playing in it, wandering entertainers and vendors of food, liquor and intoxicants, thousands of cheerful people and several playgrounds occupied by happily screaming mobs of children.

As they neared a darkened area of tall, manicured bushes in a closed design, Kendra pointed and asked, “What’s that?”

McKay glanced over and said, “That’s the maze.”

“Oh, I love mazes. Let’s go look,” she suggested.

“I don’t know that we should,” he said, some doubt in his voice.

“Why not?” she inquired back.

His unconscious leer of a grin grew back. “Besides being a maze, it has many little cul-de-sacs. Usually occupied, especially at this time of night,” he explained.

“Occupied . . .” she began, then continued, “I think I’m misunderstanding you. You seem to be implying ‘occupied’ by lovers.”

“No implication. Flat statement.”

“Ohh!” she exclaimed, then looked doubtful. “You’re pranking me, right?” she asked with a sideways grin of her own.

“We could go and see, if you doubt me,” he told her.

“Now I know you’re bluffing,” she said. “Let’s go, then.”

He pulled on her hand as she neared the entrance and said, “Shall we bet on it?”

“What odds?” she asked doubtfully.

“If I’m wrong, I buy you a drink. If I’m right, it costs you a kiss.”

And she knew she’d been had. He led her in and as her eyes adjusted to the darker environs, she could see in the smaller side passages that couples and small groups were making love. Creatively, in some cases. Kendra felt like an intruder and kept her eyes averted most of the time. They strolled the passages for a minute or two and McKay said, “Only thing is, I can’t find my way out in the dark.”

“You better be pranking on that one,” she told him, unafraid.

“Maybe if you jog my memory,” he said, pulling her closer.

She grabbed his head and locked lips with him, doing her best to shock him. He returned in kind and several seconds later they parted breathlessly.

“Oh, yeah. The exit,” he said distantly. “And dinner, I think. I’ll treat. If you insist on equity you can treat at some future point.”

“Okay,” she agreed. “Thank you.”

They walked out by a circuitous route, then angled across gentle rolling slopes through an area with several small stages full of performers. They found themselves suddenly out of the park on a sidewalk, no fence or other barricade to indicate the boundary. A sign across the crowded thoroughfare proclaimed, Stanley’s Surf n’ Turf. The restaurant had a number of tables scattered across the broad sidewalk and looked to be doing excellent business.

Crossing the street was a game, played by dodging manually controlled traffic one lane at a time, then pausing for another opening. It was exciting and terrifying and Kendra was breathless by the time they arrived at an empty sidewalk table.

McKay dropped his cloak and pouch to his side and peeled off his top to reveal his corded muscles. Kendra looked around, realized that most people were topless, some women wearing halters similar to hers, and took off her tunic. It was more comfortable.

A waiter approached and placed a bowl of brightly colored salsa between them, with a basket of freshly baked chips, still steaming and fragrant. “Hi, Rob,” the man greeted cheerfully. “Drinks for you and your lady friend?”

“Just a friend, Rupe. Drinks, yes. Amber ale for me. And we should probably have mild salsa this time.”

“Certainly,” Rupe replied. McKay always ordered hot, but perhaps the lady . . .

“Wine cooler for me, please,” Kendra supplied.

“Oh, you’re from offworld,” Rupe said, taking her hand briefly. “Rupert Stanley, owner and manager. Your drink is free, then, lady.”

“Kendra. Thank you. And I think I can manage medium salsa.”

“I would recommend the mild also,” Stanley suggested. “Rob will not lead you astray knowingly. Not while you’re sober, anyway.” His grin implied the comment was a joke. He wandered off to greet other patrons, speaking into a comm as he did so. Shortly, another server brought drinks and a less garish bowl of salsa. They ordered prime rib, medium rare, with salad and potatoes and Kendra was amazed at how cheap food was.

“No ID check,” she commented, almost used, in her mind, to the virtually nonexistent government on Freehold. “Drinking age on most of Earth is . . .”

“Twenty-five,” McKay provided. “And you look about fourteen Freehold, or twenty-one Earth.”

“I am twenty-five, actually,” she corrected. “But thank you. I don’t drink much,” she admitted.

“A problem easily cured in a town where ninety-six percent of chowdowns brew their own house beverages,” he advised. “So be careful. Servers will politely tell you when they think you’ve had too much, but won’t stop you short of bankruptcy or public disaster.”

“Uh-huh,” she nodded, taking the data in while scooping salsa with a chip. She took a bite, felt the chip melt away and swallowed. It was very fresh and tasty.

Then the bite hit her throat. She grabbed for her drink and downed two gulps. Finishing, she yelped, “That’s ‘MILD?’”

“Too much?” McKay asked.

“Dealable with,” she admitted, “but I’d call that at least medium-hot.”

“The original and second settlers had a large minority of Southwestern Americans, Thais and Indonesians. Peppers do very well here and became a hobby, eventually a lifestyle.”

“You’re telling me,” she agreed, recovering at last. She resumed nibbling, but in much more delicate bites than her first. It was delicious, once her tastebuds were seared off.

Changing the subject, she asked, “Were you really on Mtali?”

“Oh, yes,” he said, looking quite serious, “Spent three days dodging triple-A, had most of a Hatchet shot out from around me, lost several close friends and spent the rest of the month flying nonstop CAP missions and expending an impressive amount of munitions.”

“You arrived just as I left, then,” she told him.

He looked surprised. “What were you doing on Mtali?”

She smiled wanly, “Pacelli, Kendra A. Sergeant Second Class, United Nations Peace Force. Service number 6399-270-5978. Logistics and Fuels.”

“Okay,” he nodded, “now you are indentured to Jefferson City, with almost no personal belongings. I think there’s a story here.”

“I can’t go into it,” she told him, shaking her head and looking distressed. “No one should know my background either, but I had to tell someone. You having been on Mtali . . .” she faded off.

“I understand that at least, without explanation.”

“Please promise you won’t mention it.”

“Mention what?” he asked, a mock puzzled look on his face.

“Thank you.” She smiled.

The steak and salad arrived and they dug in. The food was fantastic, with subtle flavors that made it unlike anything she’d had before. Garlic was omnipresent here, and pepper, with traces of ginger, horseradish and lemon. Despite the wonderful taste, Kendra was beginning to realize that she would never enjoy the foods she grew up with again. Then she felt the gravity tugging at her breasts, the growing ache in her feet, the thinness of the atmosphere that made breathing a chore for her. She was lost in a strange city full of armed people, unaware of most of the mores and dependent on a chance-met guide for her survival. She didn’t notice her glass being refilled and drank more as her spirits sank lower. This society had a system that just didn’t care about people.

Then she remembered that the system she had barely escaped didn’t care about people either, despite its talk.

“You look very unhappy,” McKay remarked.

“I know,” she said, “and I shouldn’t. It’s just that every time I think I understand, everything around me changes again. The food is different, the people, all the rules, including the ones I don’t realize exist. The only thing that seems similar is the language.”

“That is the problem exactly,” he told her.

“What?” she asked, confused.

“If we spoke a different language, you would realize that this is an alien culture and that you were an outsider trying to fit in,” he explained. “But the similarity of language confuses you, especially since we use some of the same words for entirely different concepts.”

“Such as?”

“Ever seen Central Park in New York?”


“Does Liberty Park fit your definition of ‘park’? Does Jefferson fit the word ‘city’? We use the same words, but with completely different images in mind.”

“So what can I do?” she asked, understanding but not reassured.

“Pretend we’re aliens. And I would suggest putting a hand over your glass, so it doesn’t get refilled.” She did as he suggested, startled, just as a server came by with a pitcher. She listened as he continued. “‘Drink’ here implies refills until done and we sip them, while swallowing lots of water for the heat and dryness. I suggest you drink that full glass.”

She did so, forcing herself to swallow. She had never liked drinking water. “Even the water tastes funny,” she complained.

“It’s low on chemical purifiers, compared to what you’re used to,” he explained while donning his tunic and cloak. She realized that the air was quickly becoming brisk and followed suit. The cloak did ward off the night air.

McKay paid the check with cash, she saw, rather than a credcard, sliding out bankslips from a folder she wouldn’t dare carry openly on Earth. As they left, she said, “I’m sorry to be so depressing a guest. That was a memorable meal, thank you.”

“You’re welcome. For future reference, if someone offers you dinner, discuss intentions first. On a social basis, it frequently implies sex,” he warned.

“Ohh!” she exclaimed. “I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”

“I knew that, which is why I phrased the offer the way I did. That way, if you were aware of that particular cultural thing, you could graciously decline. If you didn’t, you weren’t trapped. Although,” he tossed his head and looked at her, “I’d be delighted if you accepted.”

She smiled back, feeling slightly threatened. How to politely decline? What were the rules here? She decided he knew she was a stranger and to be direct. “I’m flattered, but no, thank you. I’m not ready for sex my first day here.”

Nodding, he said, “I didn’t think so, but it never hurts to ask. Don’t feel obligated to anyone, even if there’s a misinterpretation of signals.” The advice seemed genuine.

“Is casual sex really as common as it appears to be?” she asked.

“It’s not casual,” he denied, with a shake of the head. “It’s as serious as anything else, but very common. If you recall, the only health concern at Freehold System Entry is venereal and bloodborne pathogens. Everyone, every time, including diplomatic personnel, gets tested. There is no risk of infection here.”

“That’s . . . amazing,” she replied, stunned. Then a thought occurred to her. “What about smugglers?” she asked.

“Who would smuggle when there is no restriction on merchandise and no duties?” he asked rhetorically. “Everyone goes through Orbital because it’s cheap and easy.”

No one ever tries to skip in unreported?” she asked incredulously.

“Occasionally,” he said. “And they wind up as ashes before touchdown. Since there’s no reason to blow System, anyone who does is assumed to be an enemy invader and gapped by Defense. I got called to nail one they missed when I was on active duty, just as they hit the swamps in the Hinterlands, but Orbital dropped the bar on them and all I had to do was recon the crater.”

That was a startling discovery. Bring in anything you want openly and freely that’s fine; try to do it clandestinely and wind up a wisp of vapor. And a planet where all sex was safe.

On Earth, even rapists wore barriers against infection.

They reached their building again, Kendra wobbly from gravity and fatigue and alcohol. She found herself leaning against McKay as they climbed the stairs. She was beyond exhausted; she was drained.

At the top, they were greeted by a large black cat. “Hi, George,” McKay replied, reaching down to scratch the creature’s ears as it buzzed and bumped his ankles.

“No pet licenses either, I assume,” she said, reaching to scratch George’s shoulders.

Pet licenses?” McKay exclaimed, shocked at last.

They continued to his door, which was closed but not locked. He walked in, dropped his extraneous gear and escorted her next door.

She unlocked her door and the cat headed inside. “Oh, damn!” she exclaimed.

“Don’t worry about it,” McKay advised “Unless you’re allergic?”


“I recommend fresh air, despite the chill. You take care and I’ll see how you’re doing in the morning.”

“Okay,” she agreed.

He put his arms around her again and stared levelly at her eyes. She stared back. His were a curious sea green with flecks of gold foam. She wondered what his heritage was besides Scottish. He really was attractive. Still, the attention was unnerving. “Look . . . why are you being so nice?” she asked, and was embarrassed by asking.

He withdrew from her space a few centimeters and moved his embrace to a simple light grip on her forearms. “I’m interested in you,” he said, honestly. “But you’re not obligated for anything. If all you want is advice from a neighbor, that’s fine.” He looked faintly disappointed at that prospect. “But we do try to help guests, and strangers here, and it never hurts to have friends. I’m sorry if I’m encroaching too much.” He cocked his head and looked at her, waiting.

Nodding, she leaned forward and kissed him briefly and lightly. He broke it before she got too uncomfortable and she felt less intruded upon. She’d have to consider this, among hundreds of other cultural issues.

“Later,” he said, stepping back.

“Uh-huh,” she agreed, distractedly, and went inside. The whole exchange had felt odd and a bit forced.

She closed and locked the door, felt the heat of the day swat her like that of an oven, and looked for a thermostat. She didn’t find one. Verbal commands didn’t work. She forced herself to open a window on the wall next to the door slightly. Crime was supposed to be rare.

Her new possessions she hung in the closet then looked around at the comfortable but sterile room. She thought a shower would help her muscles relax, but was too exhausted. Undressing to underwear, she crawled into bed and was asleep in seconds.

Starting, she became aware of an intruder in the room. Then she realized it was that damned cat. Her adrenaline rush gradually lowered and she noted the time: 1:30. Then she tried to convert Freehold’s twenty-eight-plus hour day with its decimal clock into a time she could understand, and was unconscious again before she determined the hour.

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