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All's Fair - a futuristic romance by Anne Avery
ALL'S FAIR

 

Calista York dropped out of hyperdrive into a perfect orbit about the planet Karta, inordinately pleased with herself and life in general. That pleasure was considerably diminished three minutes later when she spotted a second ship already in orbit, and eliminated entirely when the computer identified the ship as the Fair Trade.

      For an instant, she considered forgetting the whole affair, but the temptation of being named trade representative to the Dorinor of Karta was too great. A few years as rep and her fortune would be made. After so many years of struggle she would be able to put the past behind her forever.

      She wasn’t about to let the owner of the Fair Trade be named rep in place of her. Not without a fair fight.

      Well, a fight, anyway.

      If Rhys Fairdane really was after the position, she wouldn’t put it past that sleazy slime bucket to use every dirty trick known to get it, and then invent a few more just for the hell of it. And to irritate her.

      The communications panel chimed, indicating an incoming message in normal space. The Fair Trade, no doubt, since the  

Kartanese were notorious for disliking anything technical, including space communications systems.

      Briefly, Calista considered refusing to answer. But Fairdane knew she was here—he would have spotted the spatial distortions caused by her incoming ship long before she entered orbit—and he was perfectly capable of interpreting her refusal to answer as a sign his presence had upset her. The three moons of Tolkat would fall before she’d give him that satisfaction.

      With a curse she’d learned on Darneb II and found particularly satisfying at times like this, Calista slapped the respond button, then cued the view screen. Might as well confront him right off. The man could smell fear a parsec away and there was no sense in—

      The view screen was a mistake.

      It was also a mistake to catch her breath in a distressingly audible gasp, or to let her eyes widen until they couldn’t grow any wider. But she couldn’t control either of those automatic reactions to the sight of him, naked from the waist up—which was, thankfully, all the screen revealed—with droplets of water glistening on his bare chest and a broad, lopsided grin on his face.

      He hadn’t changed. His hair was still long, black as the depths of space, and pulled back in a queue at the nape of his neck. Thick, straight brows shadowed dark eyes that gleamed like Risian soul stones. The flat planes of his cheeks were cut by the same strong lines running from beside his hooked nose to the edge of a mouth that was far too full and sensual for such a masculine face. His jaw hadn’t softened. It was as darkly shadowed as ever, even though he was clean shaven.

      His body was, well, perfect. Broad-shouldered, slim-waisted, with smoothly rounded muscles that slid easily beneath his skin. Even now, five years later, she could remember how distractingly tempting it had been to run her fingers across his chest, through the dark, silky hair that followed the curve of his breast then came together in a tapering vee…

      Thank the stars the image shown on the view screen ended at his waist.

      “Well-bred people don’t come to the view screen unless they’re properly dressed, Fairdane!” Calista snapped, irritated by her involuntary reaction to him.

      “I have a towel,” he protested. “See?”

      With an air of injured innocence he held up a large towel for her inspection. As though an unexpected thought had just occurred to him, he glanced down at the half of his body hidden from view, then smiled apologetically.

      “Does it count if I was wearing it?”

      “No, it doesn’t! And most people use dry booths rather than a damp, disgusting rag—”

      “It’s not damp when I start, and it’s not a rag. I pay good money to have these specially made on Ardole,” he protested, clearly hurt. “You ought to try it, Red. I don’t know how many times I’ve offered to dry you off—”

      “And stop calling me Red! I’m not a redhead and never have been.”

      “I know.” He grinned. “That golden hair is stunning no matter whether it’s on your head or…elsewhere.”

      “Why, you—”

      “But you’ve the temper of a true redhead, Red. It’s not your fault,” he added with the air of a man determined to be fair. “I realize you can’t help it if your genes got mixed up and—”

      Goaded, Calista reached for the weapons panel.

      “Now, Red, you know better than that.” He frowned and shook his head with the gloomy expression of a parent who is sadly disappointed in his offspring. “My shields are up. Knowing your temper, I put them up the minute I realized who was dropping in. Besides, I have as much firepower as you. There’s no sense in wasting a good energy charge.”

      He was right. And knowing he was right made her even madder. She’d never won any of their verbal sparring matches and, much as she’d like to, she probably never would.

      “Given that rusty junk heap you call a space ship, I’m surprised you found your way to this part of the galaxy,” Calista said instead in a syrupy sweet tone. “Did you get a new computer to help figure out the coordinates? I wouldn’t have thought you could have managed, otherwise.”

      “Haven’t changed much, have you? You know, I was reading just the other day that the ancients used to preserve their food with salt and vinegar. Since those two ingredients seem to flow in your veins instead of blood, I’ll bet you’ll live to be two hundred and still look as gorgeous as you do today.”

      “Jealous, Fairdane? Maybe you should try changing that weak blood of yours.” Calista did her best to assume an expression of motherly concern. “You’re really not looking up to par, you know. Sort of wasting away, not quite the man you used to be.”

      He sighed. “You’re right, of course. It’s the women. They take a lot out of a man but what can I do? I can’t just turn the darlings away. That would be far too cruel.”

      Unreasonable jealousy stabbed at Calista. It wasn’t hard to imagine him with a beautiful woman adoringly draped on each arm and a few more trailing lustfully in his wake.

      “You have all my sympathies.” Calista forced aside a vivid mental image of him lying with one of the beauties her imagination had conjured up. “So tell me, Fairdane. What brought you here? Knowing your fondness for the comforts of life, I find it hard to believe you came this far from galaxy center just to escape your more demanding admirers.”

      “Right again,” he said, clearly struck by admiration for her insight. “It cost me a pang or two, I’ll admit. Though if I’d known you were going to be here, I wouldn’t have hesitated for a moment, Red. I want you to know that.”

      “No doubt.” Calista angrily repressed a sudden—and totally absurd

            desire to believe him. “So why are you here?”

      “As direct as ever, aren’t you? I might ask the same of you. What’s enticed you away from that lucrative run between Sogral III and Magruder Station? I’d heard you were making credits so fast even you couldn’t count them.”

      How, by all the devils of Dormat, had he found out about that deal? Had he been tracking her? Calista wasn’t sure if she was more flattered—or disturbed.

      It was tempting to believe he still thought as much about her as she did about him. Tempting, and irrational. There was no profit in clinging to the past and never had been. And profit was what life was all about, wasn’t it?

      That and independence. She wasn’t about to give up either. Not for him, not for any man.

      “Calista?”

      He sounded wistful, but that had to be her overactive imagination.

      “I’m here on business, Fairdane. What did you think? Surely even you wouldn’t be so arrogant to think I’d come halfway across the galaxy just to see you.”

      “You’re right. I wouldn’t be that arrogant. Not after the way you walked out on me five years ago. And certainly not after your masterly trashing of my negotiations with the Celignians a year ago.” The friendly, bantering note was gone from Fairdane’s voice, replaced by a sharply bitter tone.

      “You were treading on my turf and you know it. Did you think I’d let you take that deal away from me?” Calista was grateful for her rising anger. It provided far better protection from him than just exchanging insults.

      “You—” Fairdane broke off abruptly, clearly struggling to regain control of his rising temper.

      He took a deep breath, which swelled his chest to disconcertingly impressive proportions, then exhaled loudly. “I’m warning you, Calista. Don’t think you can pull something like that with the Kartanese. You’re not getting that trade rep position, no matter what dirty tricks you dream up to use against me.”

      “Oho! So you think the Dorinor’s dumb enough to name you as rep, instead? Well let me tell you—”

      Fairdane didn’t give her a chance to tell him anything. The view screen went blank and although Calista pounded furiously on the send button, insistently demanding he reopen the channel, he refused to answer her signal.

      With one last, frustrated thump on the comm panel, Calista sank back in the pilot’s chair. She’d always known it: The fates didn’t play fair. Certainly not with her. If they had, they would never have brought Fairdane into her life. Or they would at least have ensured that once free of him, she’d never again have had to deal with that obnoxious male.

      Instead, with a perversity worthy of a Magorian hog, he kept thrusting himself into her life. He’d crossed her path three times since she’d left him, and he’d won in two of those three encounters.

      Well, not this time. Not if it took the last ounce of guile she possessed. She’d fight dirty if she had to. He certainly did, whether he had to or not.

      Calista shut her eyes and leaned her head wearily against the chair. They’d spent five minutes talking—all right, fighting—and she felt as exhausted as if she’d just spent the day battling space pirates trying to steal her cargo.

      Worse, her body still ached with the intense and disturbing physical need the sight of him always roused in her.

      It wasn’t fair, damn it. It just wasn’t fair. You’d think after five years she could forget how good it had been to make love to him, and to have him make love to her.

      Surely she ought to be grateful for the return of her privacy and her independence, things she’d treasured ever since her escape from the slave quarters on Andrus at the age of fourteen and sworn never to give up for anyone, ever. Yet Calista still found herself—far too often for her peace of mind—wishing he were there on the ship with her. She didn’t even want him by her side, necessarily. It would have been enough just to know he was there.

      Without him, the ship sometimes seemed so… so empty. And that was crazy.

      From the time she’d won her first small scout ship off a drunken miner in a game of bakal when she was nineteen until she’d had the misfortune to get involved with Fairdane six years later, Calista had treasured the privacy that was hers and hers alone. But then she’d made the mistake of taking him on for that deal with the Andorians, who refused to deal with the female of any species. Four weeks later they’d each had more money than they knew what to do with and, in a riotous celebration, had somehow ended up in bed together.

      She still couldn’t face a glass of draknir without an unpleasant queasiness twisting her stomach.

      Even after they’d both recovered from their massive hangovers, when her brain should have been working a little better than it obviously had, it had seemed like a good idea for Fairdane to remain on the ship.

      With a grimace, Calista recalled her solemn, carefully-reasoned, and totally insane efforts to justify him staying. There might be other chances for a deal with someone like the Andorians, she’d assured him. Two heads were certainly better than one, he’d agreed with equal solemnity. Combining their trading talents just made sense, they’d both said. After all, hadn’t they each made more money on that last negotiation than either of them could have made working alone?

      Calista sighed and forced her eyes open. Even now, when she could happily contemplate the possibility of blowing his ship out of the sky if given half a chance, she had to admit that their partnership had worked, at least for the first year or so.

      But being good together in bed wasn’t enough. Neither was making money, though she would have put up with a Toregan toad, warts and all, if the relationship could have been as profitable as hers and Fairdane’s had been.

      The problem was, the man had come to think he owned her. He’d tried to tell her what to do, how to do it, and when. He’d decided she needed protection, and had irritated her to her soul by his constant hovering when they were on a dangerous planet. He’d even had the gall to trick her so that she missed the chance to obtain a trade agreement with the people of the Utali star system. All because the Utalis collected women for their harems—or so he’d said.

      The final straw had come when he’d humiliated her in front of other traders by telling her he wouldn’t allow her to deal with the Zogret. Too dangerous, he’d said. They couldn’t be trusted if you were nose to snout with them.

      She’d dumped an entire pitcher of ale over his head, tipped his plate of fried gosaak in his lap, and left. She never had found out if he’d picked up all his possessions, which she’d summarily shoved out the airlock into orbit the minute she’d returned to the Independence.

      No one had the right to tell her what to do. Not any more.

      Calista pushed herself up out of the chair. A shower—a nice, long, cold shower—would feel good right now. She glanced at the blank comm screen and the instruments that told her the Fair Trade was still there. Almost within transport range… if she’d been interested.

      Which, of course, she wasn’t.

      Fairdane had been wrong in any case, Calista thought. She’d made a considerable profit with the Zogret, and the phaser burn she’d received as she left had been worth it. Most traders never made it off planet at all.

 

<><><><>

 

      So he still wanted her.

      Rhys glared at the hard, aching evidence of his desire and silently cursed the unreasonable fate that had tied him, against his will and better judgment, to a woman who seemed determined to drive him mad.

      It had been five years. That should have been more than long enough to have forgotten her, forgotten the feel and taste and smell of her.

      It wasn’t.

      Often, in the long, lonely hours of the night onboard ship, he’d lie awake thinking of her, wanting her, remembering all the times she’d shared the night with him, all the dark hours that had flared to brilliant light with the passion of their joining.

      He could remember the sweat-slicked texture of her skin as they’d lain together afterwards. He could see the blue of her eyes glinting through the thick, dark lashes, taste her swollen lips, caress the tangled, golden mane spread across the pillows.

       Rhys sighed, then shifted uncomfortably on the pilot’s chair. Even the damp towel flung across his lap was insufficient to quench the heat of his skin or hide the physical evidence of his need.

      Would he ever stop wanting her? Stop thinking of her?

      It wasn’t just the nights that returned to mock him. He still found himself glancing up from his work, expecting to hear her footsteps in the passages or her muttering to herself as she worked. In the months they’d been together, she had become a part of his life, a part of his being as no other woman he’d ever known had been.

      Yet she was so damned serious, so intense. There was a vast capacity for laughter and joy hidden beneath the hard shell she’d built around her emotions, but she’d rarely ever allowed that side of her to show, even with him.

      He’d never understood why she kept that part of her so well hidden. For himself, he’d learned long ago that laughter and a flippant, easygoing manner were the best disguises for one’s true feelings. If you never revealed that something mattered, then no one ever bothered trying to take that something away.

      It was a lesson Calista should have learned.

      Rhys’ fingers tightened around the padded arms of the pilot’s chair, digging deep into the pliant fabric.

      His glance slid to one of the view screens. A brilliant blue and green and white orb seemed to float there, slowly spinning against the infinite dark of space. It was a planet of the Kartanese system—not the second planet he was orbiting now, but the third. A precious jewel shaped of teeming oceans and rich, fertile lands that had never known the hand of man. Or that of any other intelligent creature, for that matter.

      But just because it was uninhabited didn’t mean it was unclaimed. By Imperial law, the third planet belonged to the Kartanese, the huge, dragon-like creatures who occupied the desert world below him.

      With other species, he might have negotiated for the right to colonize the third planet. The Kartanese, however, were famous for their distaste for contact with other races. And as the Empire’s only producers of the costly and coveted saitha silk, they were far too wealthy to be tempted by the relatively paltry sums he could offer.

      But if he could use the position of trade rep to his advantage, then maybe, just maybe…

      A muscle in Rhys’ cheek jumped as he set his jaw.

      He wouldn’t let Calista have the position. He couldn’t let her have it. All she wanted was the profits from the silk trade, but his goal was far more important than mere money.

      He’d sought this world, or one like it, for so long that he’d come close to believing it would never be anything but a dream, a tempting, eternally elusive dream he would chase forever—alone.

      Only once had he dared hope that he might, at last, have found someone to share that dream.

      Once had been more than enough. Never again would he allow himself to care that much, to need someone that badly. Never.

      Rhys angrily flung the towel aside and stood.

      No matter that the golden-haired witch had  reappeared in his life, and at such an inopportune moment. No matter that just the sight of Calista was enough to heat his blood and make him ache with the wanting of her.

      She wouldn’t disrupt his life as she had five years before.

      He would never give her the chance.   

     

 

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