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Sneak Preview -- Born to Sin

Sneak Preview -- Born to Sin

Book 4: Sinful, Montana

Chapter 1 – Boris and Natasha

Beckett Hughes wasn’t expecting the crows.

“Nah, it’ll be good,” he was saying to his five-year-old son, Troy, as they walked across the courthouse square in Sinful, Montana. “Same as in Oz, and you liked school there. You’re here in time to start kindergarten, like all the other kids. Playing,” he continued, somewhat lamely. “Learning things. All that.”

Troy, whose hand Beckett was holding, didn’t answer, just took another lick of his ice cream, which was melting all over his hand. Beckett had finally realized that you had to grab an extra serviette every time, though, so he was marginally prepared.

As for Janey, she’d finished eating her own ice cream—tidily, especially considering that it didn’t come in a neat block here and was instead mashed messily into a dripping cone—and was walking a step ahead, possibly because Beckett and Troy weren’t cool. There were other kids hanging about on this hot August day, and some of them might presumably be going to her school in a few weeks. God forbid they’d think Janey had a parent instead of being hatched from an egg.

Beckett had never assumed he was cool, but he’d never assumed he wasn’t, either. Dads didn’t get to be cool, apparently.

“How do you know it’ll be the same?” Janey asked, forgetting to ignore him. “It’s not the same. It’s a whole different country. Troy and I don’t exactly have friends here, either.”

“You have me,” Beckett said.

“It’s not the same thing,” she said.

“Go with what you’ve got,” Beckett said. “Which is me.” They were strolling back to the car after that stop for ice cream, but he was clearly going to have to think of something else fun to do, now that he’d taken a half-day off that he couldn’t afford in order to enroll the kids in school. In the heat of summer with a body of water nearby, any self-respecting Aussie knew what that would be. You went to the beach. Unfortunately, with Troy, that was out. What else did you do in a small town? He was coming up blank.

There was so much about this decision that he hadn’t thought through well enough.

“If we got a dog,” Troy said, “I wouldn’t be lonely even if I never have any friends again in my whole life. Dogs are friends already.”

“You mean ‘automatically,’” Janey said. “And Dad told you. We don’t even have our own house, and there’s nobody at home to take care of a dog during the day anyway. It’s not like before Mum died, when she was there when we got home. It’s going to be like last year, except we have to go to Mrs. Hobarts’ house instead of Tillie’s. Mrs. Hobarts isn’t going to want to take care of a dog. Simply not possible.”

She pulled out the “simply not possible” as if she’d read it in a book, which she probably had, and Beckett thought somewhat guiltily about Mrs. Hobarts. He wouldn’t have been rapt to spend many hours in that fussy little house, and she was older than God. She was also just down the road from the place that Brett Hunter, his boss, had loaned him until the new house was ready, and it wasn’t easy to find childcare in the States. Mrs. Hobarts was going to have to be it.

Troy said, “I know. I just wanted a dog,” in a sad little voice, and Beckett gripped his hand tighter and thought, I’m not doing enough here. He didn’t think, Was this a mistake? because there was no point in thinking that. It was done, and this was their new start. All their worldly possessions were loaded into a container on a ship that was currently in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Hunter had offered the post as construction manager on his upscale new ski resort, and had said he’d put him to work on the next job when that came up. Beckett had accepted, because he’d had to do something, and here he was.

He stopped thinking about it, because Janey said, “Those birds are attacking that lady, Dad!”

Troy said, “They’re swooping at her! They’re going to peck her!” He was off, then, wrenching his hand from Beckett’s and running as fast as his legs would carry him toward the woman. His ice cream fell from the cone onto the footpath, and he didn’t even notice.

The woman was striding along toward the building’s entrance, long-limbed and purposeful, in a sleeveless black dress that reached her knees. As Beckett picked up the pace, he realized she was … talking? to the big black birds, who were definitely swooping around her, cawing in their harsh croaks. Those were crows, and she certainly looked like she was having a conversation with them.


The crows cawed some more and flew patterns over her head, and Troy jumped up and down at them, waving his arms and screaming. The crows began swooping at him, then, and the woman called out and ran toward him.

Beckett was a second behind, with Janey bringing up the rear. He’d have collided with the woman, in fact, if he hadn’t skidded to a stop just in time. Troy was sobbing in fear, his arms over his head, and a half-second after the woman reached to pull him in, Beckett scooped him up in his arms and held him close. The crows, meanwhile, cawed and swooped some more.

Somebody had made a film about this once, hadn’t they? It hadn’t ended well.

Janey said, “Dad!” and Beckett took one hand off Troy and put it on her, feeling as if he’d stepped into some surreal alternate universe, or possibly that film. And they said Australia had aggressive wildlife.

The woman was telling Troy, “They’re harmless. They’re my friends. Boris and Natasha. They thought you were attacking me, that’s all.”

Beckett said, “You’ve got ice cream on you now, sorry.” Because she did. Either she’d grabbed at Troy or he’d grabbed at her, because there was a glob of chunky brown on her dress. To be precise, on her breast. He stopped looking, pulled that extra serviette out of his pocket, handed it to her, and made a vague gesture in the general vicinity.

She wasn’t as fussed as he’d have expected. She looked down at her breast, said, “Ugh,” and began wiping the stuff off. And Beckett did not watch.

It was a simple dress. It was also what you’d call a slim dress, and she filled it out nicely, from his point of view. Australian style, he’d call that body, long and lean and athletic, like a surfer. But he wasn’t watching.

She said, “I wasn’t expecting an adventure today. You never know, I guess.”

Janey asked, “Are you trying to be a witch?”

“What?” the woman asked, and finally stopped massaging her breast, which was a relief.

“A witch,” Janey said. “You’re wearing a black dress and you have black hair like witches generally do. You also have weird animal friends, and all the stories about witches are from the States. It would be a logical assumption. Witches aren’t real, of course, but you could think you were one anyway. People think all sorts of illogical things, probably because they want to make their life more exciting, and they think science and things in the real world are dull. Wicca is a religion, for one thing, and that’s about witches.”

“I may agree with you about people and their logic skills,” the woman said, “and also that science is more exciting than fantasy, but there are stories about witches in most cultures.”

“No, there aren’t,” Janey insisted. “In all the movies about witches, they talk like Americans. I’ve never seen any movies about witches where people have a regular accent.”

“Why do you think witches would have American accents in the movies?” the woman asked.

“Because they do,” Janey said. “Because they’re American.”

“Where are movies made?” the woman asked.

“Oh.” Janey considered. “Most of them are made in the States, I guess.”

“There you go,” the woman said. “The idea of witches has come from everywhere, though. Europe. The Americas. Africa. They’re not about where you live, they’re more about men’s fear of powerful women, and of the Other. And, of course, everybody’s fear of random harm. We’d all like to make sense of that.” She pulled a plastic bag from her purse as she spoke and tossed a handful of something on the ground a couple of meters away. Peanuts in the shell, that was. The crows, who’d backed off but were still circling, gave some final caws, settled on the ground, cocked their heads, examined Beckett and the kids suspiciously as if expecting trouble, then picked up their peanuts and flew away.

The woman was still looking at the kids, especially Troy, who’d stopped crying but was still sniffing hard and leaning into Beckett. Beckett tensed, ready to hear something about his kid’s timidity, or possibly ready to fight about it.

What she said, though, she said to Troy. “Have you seen birds do something that seemed scary before?”

Troy nodded vigorously, and she asked, “What did they do?” Sounding truly interested.

This was a bizarre conversation. The woman was … well, hot, even in that plain black dress. Her arms were fiercely toned and golden brown, her cheekbones high, her nose long and straight, her eyes a deep brown, her short, wavy hair shining as black as a … well, as a crow’s wing. It was a strong face, an uncompromising face, and she wasn’t quite pretty. Her beauty ran too deep for that, down to the bone structure. Down to the personality, maybe, because she moved like a woman who knew exactly where she was going and how to get there.

Confidence. Purpose. Passion. He didn’t get many lustful shots straight to the groin anymore, but he was getting one now.

Troy said, “They swoop at you, and they can scratch you and knock you off your bike so you fall in front of a car and you die. You have to wear a special helmet with plastic things sticking out so you’re scary and they won’t swoop at you as much, but you don’t even have a helmet.”

Beckett said, “Magpies. In nesting season.”

“Oh.” The woman considered that. “I wouldn’t like a crow dive-bombing me, but Boris and Natasha don’t. They just come for peanuts. Sometimes they bring me presents, too. I have a whole collection of crow-provided small change. Also a few buttons and a screw.” She looked at her watch. “I have to go.” With that, she headed into the building, her calf muscles flexing as she took the steps two at a time. She left with not so much as a flick of her hair, because it settled into place perfectly around her head as if it knew what was good for it.

Beckett set Troy down, and the boy grabbed his leg and said, “Carry me.”

“I’ll hold your hand,” Beckett said. “No worries, though. If the birds come back, I’m taller. They’ll swoop on me first.”

“But I don’t want them to swoop on you,” Troy said.

“They’re not swooping on anybody,” Janey said. “They’re up in the tree. Though you were brave, I think,” she added fairly, “running at them, if you were scared.”

“Too right,” Beckett said.

“I’m not brave,” Troy said. “I asked you to pick me up.”

“Everybody’s scared afterward, once they think,” Beckett said. “The brave part is what you do before you think.”

“Oh.” Troy considered. “Then maybe I was brave.”

“Dad,” Janey said. “Your shirt.”

Beckett glanced down. Well, bugger. His once-white T-shirt was smeared with brown goo and bits of sugary cone. Even as he watched, a messy glob fell off onto the footpath with a plop.

Janey said, “It’s on your face, too.” He put a hand up. Yes, it was, right there on his chin, and he didn’t even have a clean serviette anymore. Also, he couldn’t help but notice that he was almost the only youngish bloke in this town wearing shorts, even on a hot summer day. Apparently the only acceptable uniform in Montana was jeans. Seemed daft to him, and uncomfortable, too, but there you were. He wouldn’t even mention the thongs. Didn’t everybody wear thongs in summer? Socks were hot.

Back in the day, he’d been a fit, sporty Aussie with a surfboard, an endless tan, a cocky grin, and a bulletproof belief in himself. If he’d run up to rescue some girl being attacked by birds, she’d have been grateful, and she’d probably have given him her number, too. Now? He was weirdly dressed and covered with mashed ice-cream cone, his kid had a fear problem, his other kid had a criticism problem, there was some gray amongst the whiskers when he shaved, and the Bird Whisperer had run away from him like she’d seen enough.

He still knew how to surf. He knew how to manage a project, too. He could drive any vehicle and fix most things that broke. He wasn’t a completely rubbish cook, and he wasn’t half bad at sex, at least he hadn’t been back when he was actually having it.

But he did not know how to be single.

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