Click to Enlarge

Dark Bargain
Click one of the above links to purchase an eBook.

ISBN-10: 1-55404-486-3
ISBN-13: 
Genre: Science Fiction/Suspense/Thriller
eBook Length: 542 Pages
Published: September 2007



GreatGoodFairPoor
Total Readers: 1

From inside the flap

Aubrey, brother of Islara, a female broker, unwittingly causes Regan, a former Second Corps Captain turned broker, a huge financial loss. To prevent Reganís pressing charges, Islara offers to work for Regan for a mere pittance. The irate broker offers a counter-proposal: if sheíll marry him, and accept his unorthodox means of gaining sensual satisfaction, heíll hire her, and prove a generous, considerate employer/husband. Appalled, Islara yet agrees, to protect Aubrey. Finding that Regan does treat her as his intellectual equal, and does prove a pleasant companion, Islara comes to enjoy a new life spiced with exciting professional challenges.

Regan and Islara hear Tanner, owner/captain of a ship Regan purchases, describe veiled threats made by Orwell, a shady investor. Regan acquires Davison Engineering, a firm Orwell tried to buy. Islara discovers a connection between an old crime and a new one that provides a crucial piece of evidence. Astounded, Regan and his friends lay out startling new information unearthed by Islara, Aubrey, and Davison, to Basil, Minister of Internal Security.

Both Tanner and Samson, Reganís former lieutenant, suffer wounds during an attack by thugs. Suspecting that Orwell instigated the attack, Regan stays on guard. A duelist-for-hire provokes Regan, who prevails, but Security learns little. Regan, Islara and Samson meet Orwell and his associate Babcock aboard Tannerís ship. Having refused Orwellís offer to buy Davison Engineering, Regan enters his purchase of Tannerís ship in the bank. Babcock incapacitates Regan. Orwell employs dire threats against both husband and wife, with intent to force Regan to sell the ship. Islara foils Orwell, and Regan overcomes Babcock.

Regan flies the ship to Crawford Unit, and serves as bait. During a battle with three ruffians, Regan and Samson suffer wounds, which Islara keeps from being fatal. Despite Orwellís demise, attacks continue. No clue arises as to who the shadowy ďNumber OneĒ might be.

Dustin, an advocate, recognizes a face that Regan and Islara tie to the known criminals. On discovering that Tiffany, their neighborís daughter, works for a firm owned by the criminals, Regan hires her, and Basil learns a great deal. Regan, Samson and Islara attend the auction of Gibson Engineering. Regan offers the winning bid, precipitating an attack on those attending the auction. Islara unmasks the main criminal, who abducts Tiffany. Regan and Samson mount a daring rescue.

This stirring narrative, the seventh novel of the series, continues an ongoing saga of futuristic action, adventure and romance.



Dark Bargain (Excerpt)


Chapter One

Eight Earthyears of employment at Larrimerís Brokerage Firm forced the lone woman on the owner/managerís staff to fortify her embattled psyche with bastions impervious to the casual slights, polished slurs, and studied acts of discrimination routinely inflicted on her by men culturally conditioned to resent a female competitor in the cutthroat realm of Columbian business. Initially hired as a market-researcher, Islara managed to gain a promotion to a position which Larrimer termed that of brokerís assistant.

The woman fully qualified as a broker determinedly maintained the formidable defenses erected to guard her citadel of the self, as the subtle attacks increased in intensity after she bettered her status in the firm. The highly competent professional well knew that anger at blatant injustice, combined with self-pity arising from circumstances that no act of hers could change, would merely serve to render her life even more unfulfilling than it otherwise was. Refusing to succumb to the emotions threatening to erode her inner harmony, the object of her associatesí spite merely perfected her guard, deflecting the constant shower of arrows, so that they fell harmlessly into the moat.

On a Saturday that began no differently from any other, the businesswoman caught herself at midmorning offering silent thanks to the Powers that Larrimerís place of business stayed open only until noon on the sixth workday of the week. That fervent sentiment testified to the degree of aggravation testing her superb control of her face, as she listened to the effusive comments passed by her immediate superior, one Scully, upon his arriving back from a tour of plants that manufactured metal goods.

Wearily recognizing that the enthusiast-a gullible type well programmed by a flock of suave salesmen far quicker of wit than was he-verged on launching into several unwise ventures, Islara reflected on the irony inherent in her situation. Larrimer, she knew, kept this inept fool on the payroll only because of the manís being his nephew. Her own present tenure as assistant broker hinged on that ineptness. The shrewd owner-manager bolstered Scullyís efficiency by providing him with an assistant not only more adept than he at closing a deal, but also willing to let the least efficient player on the team assume the credit.

Normally, the woman bore more or less philosophically with the injustice. On being offered the promotion, she had neatly managed the difficult feat of prying a substantial raise in pay out of Larrimer. Without seeming to threaten, she led her employer to understand that her acquiescence in his scheme to throw a safety net around his unproductive relative carried a price. Smoothly, she extorted the price she demanded. Grudging admiration of his female employeeís exquisitely polite if wholly unyielding stance in the matter, added to what he saw as pressing need, won Larrimerís assent to the raise.

Islaraís cognizance that the additional compensation nowise equaled what a man doing her job would have earned served to dilute her satisfaction at her triumph, but not severely. Fierce pride attended her realization that having met her goal of supporting herself adequately earlier, she could now accumulate savings. Eventually, she predicted gamely, she would meet an even more tenuous goal: supporting herself chiefly by the profits of investments.

Displaying delicate tact, the assistant defused Scullyís enthusiasm for an utterly suspect offer, soothed his pride by praising a less dangerous proposal, informed him that a solid deal with a reputable agent for Lansing Metals lay complete except for his signature, watched while he signed with a flourish the document she presented on a datapad, offered a concise summary of several other pending deals, and left the man blithely unaware of the degree to which she had manipulated him engrossed in the results of several public auctions held in his absence. Breathing an inaudible sigh of relief, she cleaned up a few pressing details with dispatch, so that she could leave promptly at closing time.

The seemingly endless morning finally drew to a close. Welcoming the thought of a day and a half free of the irritations inherent in her job, Islara walked briskly into the corridor, awash in relief so intense that she indulged in the luxury of paying the cost of an autocab, rather than walking to the quarters she shared with her brother.

Ten minutes later the businesswoman breezed into the combination bedcabin/sitting/dining area of the modest rental suite, to find Aubrey standing in the center of the cramped space, literally wringing his hands. Haunted dark eyes fixed themselves bleakly on those staring in dismay.

"IslaraÖ" The husky, pained whisper with which the distraught occupant of the cabin greeted the entrant, died away.

"Aubrey, whateverís the matter? Sit down here, and tell me," the newcomer urged as dire fear assaulted her. Genius that he was, this sibling considerably older than herself at times displayed a most alarming inability to deal with the mundane necessities of life in the Columbian capital.

As if his eminently practical-minded sisterís appearance sapped the last iota of nervous energy keeping him on his feet, the man collapsed into a hunched heap on the bunk that doubled as a couch.

Dropping to her knees on the deck, Islara took both of his hands in hers. "Spill all of what happened," she commanded. "Weíll deal with the problem."

"IÖ You canít. Not this, Islara. I donít know how IÖ I didnít thinkÖ"

Fear looked starkly, nakedly, out of a guileless, utterly unworldly tan face. "Iíve laid myself open to a charge of criminal negligence," the speaker confided hoarsely. "IíveÖno defense. IímÖguilty of the offense. Reganís filing the charge on Monday. I was reprogramming his business recordsÖcreating him an entirely new system. He inherited considerable wealth from his uncle, recently deceased. Engrossed in combining the uncleís financial records with those of Reganís three-year-old brokerage business, I somehow forgot to shield the record of one substantial account electronically, during the transfer. That unfortunate error allowed a rival-Rothman-access to privileged information. My error resulted in Rothmanís pulling off a coup that Regan figures cost him four hundred thirty thousand credits."

OhhhÖnoÖ Aubrey, how could youÖ Shock melted into fear bordering on terror, in the normally unflappable broker.

"Naturally, Reganís livid with rage. HeÖjust leftÖafter accusing me of deliberate collusion with Rothman. He said a conviction on charges of criminal negligence alone would be sufficient to land me in a penal work force for ten Earthyears, and that he intended to press that charge on Monday. He added that he just hired an agent to follow me, and warned that if I try to vanish before Monday, Iíll be seized as a fugitive from due legal process, and held for Security. I donít know whether thatís legal, but itís done-not that I have any intention of attempting to flee. Iíve nowhere to flee to. Iíll just have to face the consequences of myÖcriminal absent-mindedness."

Aghast, Islara threw her arms around the brother who formed her entire family, even as she fought an onslaught of all but uncontrollable panic. "Aubrey, no! Weíll think of something! Weíll hire an independent advocate!"

Holding the woman away, Aubrey shook his head with more decisiveness than he had as yet shown.

"No, girl. No. Heíd have no case, and I wonít leave you saddled with a huge, fruitless debt. No. Youíll find it hard enough to pay the rent without any contribution from me, irregular as those have been, lately. I hoped that this jobÖ" Aubreyís voice trembled, before he mastered himself. "Islara, Iím simply not fitted for the world of business. Perhaps a stretch of hard labor at rough construction of habitats will force me to concentrate better on practical things."

Islara took two soft, slender, magically sensitive hands in hers-hands superbly able to wield delicate tools to alter the hardware of unimaginably complex computer systems-hands allied to a mind endowed with an awesome intelligence. "Aubrey, no. Weíll deal with this threat. You meant no harm. Let me think. ReganÖ"

Mentally, Islara catalogued what she knew of the man.

Formerly, he was a spacer-captain: a Second Corpsman. Marlennís senior captain, until Regan refused to re-enlist. According to rumor, he gave up that career because Arlenís treaty with Gaea deprived Second Corps of its traditional role of apprehending renegades, thereby drastically reducing the chance for advancement within the revised military structure. Having retired from military service, Regan set himself up as an independent broker. His entry into the field cut into Larrimerís business a trifle, and into Rothmanís, more than a trifle. That legacy from a wealthy uncle made it unnecessary for Regan to earn a living, but he evidently disdained to play the part of an idle, well heeled man-about-town.

What do I know of him, besides that? Not much. Quiet sort, but deadly. Duelist, when pushed. No swaggering braggart, but coldly unforgiving of insults or injuries. Tough as steel rivets, this ex-spacer-captain who earned his living for Earthyears by apprehending the most vicious criminals Columbia spawned. Regan killed as many offenders as he hauled to justice. Heís obviously not a man to waste either pity or understanding on an otherworldly dreamer like Aubrey. But the unforgiving bastardís relatively new to the business heís engaged in, now.

Would that circumstance form an angle I could exploit? It just might. At this juncture, the most improbable chance seems worth a try.

"Aubrey. Listen to me. Iím leaving, for a time. Youíre not to give way to despair prematurely. Itís too soon for that. Keep your chin up, wonít you please?"

Staring bleakly at the friend and ally he habitually entrusted with control of every practical aspect of his life, from his finances to his living arrangements, Aubrey nodded. "Iíll try, Islara. Iíve about resigned myself to facing the worst that can happen. If only my conviction on criminal charges wouldnít hurt you!"

Another fierce hug all but squeezed the breath from the tall, thin, round-shouldered expertís lungs. "You just lose yourself for an hour or so in programming, Aubrey. Please, vanish into your sanctuary. Iíll see how an idea striking me works out."

Reluctantly, the man thus adjured withdrew into the combination bedcabin/workshop/office forming the world he felt most comfortable inhabiting.

Ignoring the chill generated by the strategy rapidly taking form in her agile mind, Islara nerved herself to implement it. Seating herself at the terminal, she made an appointment for an hour hence, with Regan. She passed the man no hint of the nature of her business. Intuitively, she divined that the ex-Second Corpsman recognized her name as that of one of Larrimerís employees. Curiosity veiled by an impeccable courtesy, she judged, prompted the ex-Second Corpsmanís agreeing to see her.

Standing fifteen minutes later before the door of the combination office and quarters that Regan owned in an exclusive neighborhood not far from Ministry Main Habitat, Islara desperately sought to bolster her faltering courage. Bracing herself, she squared her shoulders, lifted her chin, and touched the switch to activate the buzzer signaling a visitor.

Regan himself opened the door.

Conditioned by eight Earthyears of dealing with men engaged in all aspects of business in the capital, the woman bore herself with admirable poise, wearing her accustomed self-possession like armor. Unsmiling, she yet projected an unshakable serenity of face and demeanor. Without seeming to study the opponent greeting her guardedly, she took in the slim, slight build, the supple grace of that deceptively un-martial-appearing body clad in an exquisitely tailored black suit, the naturally pale face framed in closely clipped black hair, the piercing dark eyes that rested appraisingly on the caller whom Regan motioned into a chair.

"To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?" he inquired, his manner courteous. His voice, clear, deep, compelling, carried autocratic overtones instilled by the habitual exercise of potent authority. As unsmiling as was she, the former Second Corpsman studied the entrant minutely as he awaited her explanation of her business.

What he saw intrigued Regan, although no hint of his reaction showed. As tall as his own self, Islara moved with an easy grace reminiscent of an athletic boyís. Her black suit, conservatively, almost severely cut from fabric only moderately expensive, exhibited no costly tailoring, but it fit her adequately enough, and detracted no whit from the grace of her carriage. Dark, straight hair, thick, short, and cut in a bang, most definitely had not been coiffed in a fashionable salon, and yet the simplicity of the style somehow suited the woman the observer judged to be in her mid-thirties. Dark eyes, wide-set in a face the color of coffee served half-and-half with cream, met Reganís squarely, but revealed no inkling of their ownerís thoughts. Striking rather than pretty, her femininity muted by a decided lack of flare to breast and hips, the caller evinced a total inability to display the subtle kinesic cues so frequently exhibited by women conditioned to appeal to the masculinity of the men of their acquaintance.

The thought crossed the manís mind that this woman evidently disdained to engage in a constant nonverbal game of sending sexual signals to members of the opposite gender. Islara projected mystery-androgynous ambiguity-to a man unaware of being jaded by the constant barrage of the usual signals.

"I came to make you an offer relevant to your business," the visitor announced firmly. "Itís my understanding that you intend to file a charge of criminal negligence on Monday, against the expert you employed to integrate two computer systems. Is that not so?"

Two furrows creased the pale, singularly unlined forehead of the man on whom forty-six Earthyears sat but lightly. "What business is that matter, of yours?" he inquired frostily.

"Aubreyís my brother: my entire family, actually. Naturally, Iím concerned. Iím not here either to plead with you, or to attempt to justify his error. Iím here to bargain. Youíre aware, Iím sure, that Larrimer employs me in the capacity of brokerís assistant. Iím a qualified broker: experienced, and knowledgeable in a wide variety of markets. Youíre relatively new to the business, and as far as I know, you hire no assistant. If youíll refrain from pressing the charge, Iíll agree to work for you for a mere pittance, as diligently and as efficiently as I now serve Larrimer, for as long a period as you demand of me. The mere fact that a woman can hold down my present position attests to my capability, but you can ask Larrimer for a recommendation."

Whatever shock that proposal produced, the recipient effectively concealed. Eyes narrowed, he raked the slim form of the caller as he digested her astonishing offer. When he spoke, his voice held an edge: sharp, and cutting. "How old are you?" he asked.

"Thirty-two."

"What salary does Larrimer pay you?"

"Eight hundred fifty credits a fourweek."

"I take it youíre able to calculate in your head just how long youíd have to work for me, assuming you drew no salary at all, to repay what your brotherís gross negligence cost me?"

"Thirty-eight point nine Earthyears," Islara countered instantly, gratified to see an ephemeral hint of shock flicker in the eyes boring into hers. "But certain mitigating factors obtain. Iím worth far more than what Larrimer pays me, to an employer honest enough not to let prejudice against female brokers blind him. If you accept my offer, youíll gain an asset thatíll steadily grow in value. If you refuse to acquire that asset, youíll be out the full amount Aubreyís error cost you."

Eyes gone hard as flint impaled the woman returning that spirited rebuttal. "Perhaps Iíd prefer the satisfaction of seeing the perpetrator punished, to accepting a chancy method of restitution."

Undaunted, Islara met the manís glacial glance squarely as she observed, "You may think so now, in the heat of newly generated anger, but as time goes on, you might well come to regret spurning this chance to accept an offer made in good faith by an experienced brokerís assistant willing to bind herself in an ironclad written contract for services to be rendered. Weíd have to negotiate the details. I canít work entirely gratis. I need to pay a minimal rent, and my food ration, but I live most frugally."

"Contract," the man breathed all but inaudibly, as that word conjured up a mental picture entirely foreign to the sense in which the woman employed the term. That vision he knew to be sparked by a vexing problem that had nagged at his mind constantly of late. Intrigued, Regan studied the face maintaining a serene calm even as its owner offered to enter his service under conditions harsh enough that they equated with the ancient practice of selling oneself into slavery.

"Your inept relation means that much to you?" That drawling question emerged in a tone conveying contemptuous disbelief.

"Aubrey raised me, cared for me, educated me, paid for my support and tuition while I attended the University, encouraged me throughout that rough initiation into the discriminatory practices of male scholars and professors, and provided a refuge when the strain grew all but unbearable," Islara retorted more than a little tartly.

Softening her tone, she added, "Aubreyís a genius: a childlike, unworldly intellectual giant capable of the most appalling lapses from practical common sense even as he displays incredible creativity. Forcing him into a penal work detail would form a disservice to society as a whole, regardless of how satisfying to your punitive impulses such a decision might prove. Yes, he means that much to me. Actually, much more, but Iíve offered all Iíve got to give. And if it takes me the rest of my productive life to pay back the debt we owe, so be it."

That final, impassioned avowal bore the unmistakable ring of truth. Admiration stole across the pale face impassive until now. Silently, the recipient of the astounding offer weighed his options. A most tempting thought impinged. Almost instantly, it anchored itself firmly into his consciousness. "Contract," he murmured, more to himself than to the woman sitting erect, still, displaying no outward sign of the desperation, the stark fear, churning within her mind.

At length, Regan broke the pulsating silence. "Iíll make you a counter-proposal," he declared levelly, cocking his head as his eyes impaled the suppliant. "Iíll spell it out in detail: hide no aspect of it. Youíll reject it, but you wonít be able to say I proved entirely obdurate. Iíll ask you to pass me your word in advance, that youíll keep the details strictly to yourself, in the likely event that you refuse my offer. You keep your word, I trust?"

"Exactly as would any man of your acquaintance-as would you yourself," Islara replied scathingly, angered both by the question, and the unwarranted assumption that prompted it. "You have my word."

"Well. Iíll agree-in writing-not to press any charge against your brother, if you accept my offer. My terms are these. Youíll marry me, Islara-in a life contract. Youíll also work for me, doing what you now do for Larrimer, for a fair wage determined with no regard for gender-bias. Youíll work the hours I keep-approximately eight a day, depending on the press of business-five to six days a week.

"Iíll give you certain steel-clad assurances, as well. Iíll support you in the comfortable style to which Iím accustomed. Iíll prove a generous and considerate employer, and a courteous, pleasant companion. Youíll agree to respond in kind: form a courteous, pleasant companion for me, and refrain from complaining about any aspect of the bargain we make.

"However, youíll also sleep with me, Islara. And Iíll be utterly frank with you, ahead of time. I possess singular tastes, sexually. I derive pleasure from inflicting pain on a partner. Not excessive pain, and not of a nature to cause injury. Iíll employ an electronic device: one that sends pain down your nerves, but causes no damage, or lingering aftereffects.

"Iíll levy that demand only once in any twenty-four hour period, for fifteen or perhaps twenty minutes-assuredly no longer than thirty. For twenty-three and a half hours a day, youíll find me a model husband. During that other time, youíll accept what I do. It may be that youíll even grow to enjoy what I do, but whether or not that occurs, youíll accede to my demand without making excuses. So. Thatís my offer. Take it or leave it. Itís non-negotiable."

Giddy with shock, Islara stared into a face as calm as hers-a face displaying no hint of lust. She detected no mockery, no savagery, no cruel enjoyment of having placed her in an impossible position. Neither Reganís expression nor his body language reflected more than a measured willingness to allow his listener time to formulate a response. His proposal, couched in the same coolly reasoned tone with which he would have offered terms in a business deal, generated stupefaction, followed by horror that swiftly transmuted into hot wrath.

Out of old habit, Islara succeeded in keeping those emotions from showing. She sensed that any attempt to negotiate would prove fruitless. Fighting an onset of faintness, she dominated the sensation. Grimly, she forced herself to weigh what she in desperation regarded as a valid, if blatantly cruel offer.

Regan watched his caller master a surge of emotion the intensity of which he could imagine with exactitude. Admiration mounted, as the woman neither exploded into angry recriminations, nor fled in disarray.

Islara sat for a span of seconds as if carven of pale tan stone. At length she inquired in an even voice, "Youíd agree in writing not to file the charge, before I signed a life contract?"

"Yes-contingent on your signing the life contract. The two agreements would go into effect in the bank simultaneously."

"So Iíd have to enter such a contract today, or tomorrow, at the latest."

"Today, Islara."

Why is she asking? Surely she canít be contemplating accepting my offer! Could she be planning to break her word, and try to expose me to some charge of attempted sexual assault? No. She wouldnít dare!

"Would you elaborate on just what youíd do during those thirty minutes when youíd indulge yourÖsingular tastes?"

No hesitation, no deviation from the hitherto reasoned tone employed by the author of the outrageous proposal greeted that sardonic inquiry. "Youíll shed your suit, and Iíll tie you to the bed. Iíll caress you-seek to arouse you. Once I achieve that effect, Iíll affix to a spot in close proximity to your small organ of pleasure, an electronic device capable of sending pain down your nerves. Youíll experience both pleasure and pain, simultaneously.

"When that activity fully arouses me, Iíll remove the device, and satisfy myself-and hopefully, you as well-by impregnating you. The only difference between what Iíll do, and what any husband would do, lies in my inflicting a moderate amount of pain in addition to the usual foreplay. I assure you that I wonít increase my demand as time goes on, either in intensity or duration. Youíll suffer no injury, nor will you experience the least brutality. Iíll take all the care in penetrating you-in satisfying myself-which the most considerate partner would employ. Very likely, more."

"HowÖcould I be sureÖ?" The shaken listener whispered that tremulous query.

Could she actually be considering accepting? Hardly!

For the first time, Reganís voice took on an ironic overtone. "Youíd scarcely wish me to put that part of our agreement in writing, surely? I give you my word, Islara, that Iíll not only adhere to the terms I just offered, but that Iíve hidden nothing. You wonít enter a contract only to find that Iíve either misrepresented any aspect of the business, or concealed any equally disturbing propensity. Iíll do exactly what I described, no more, no less."

A burgeoning suspicion that the womanís persistence in eliciting details pointed to a determination on her part to expose his offer to her acquaintances, despite having passed her word, rendered him at this juncture acutely uneasy.

The faintness surged back with daunting force. Islara sat rigidly erect, striving not to betray the extent of her fright, or succumb to the loss of self-command she feared to be imminent. Her mind of a sudden went chaotic. Mustering the shattered remnants of her courage, she fought the worst terror she had ever experienced.

At length, she got a grip on herself. Resolutely, she reviewed every word the man now observing her with manifest distrust had said. Her thoughts turned inward, preventing her noticing the change in expression mirrored on the pale face of the man regretting having initiated this exercise in cruelty.

Regan said heíd employ meÖthat heíd pay a fair salary, as well as support me, the distraught visitor reminded her quivering alter ego. And Aubrey would go free. Iíll need to repay that immense debt, but perhaps I could still contribute enough to Aubreyís support that he could avoid taking chancy jobs for unforgiving bastards demanding an eye for an eye, like this one. Pleasant companion! Cold as the deeps of space, icily polite, the brute will no doubt be. And at nightÖ

A shudder coursed through the woman striving to imagine what life would be like for the wife and employee of a professed sadist. I simply canít. I canít! No!

ButÖoh, my soul. How can I watch Aubrey enter a worse enforced servitude? Bondage lasting twenty-four hours a day, with no letup, for ten interminable EarthyearsÖor longer? Of the two of us, Iím better able to cope with adversity. How could I live with the memory of refusing to seize this chance to win a reprieve for the brother to whom I owe so much? No! I need to muster courage enough to pay the price, ghastly as that price seems. Aubrey, how could you do such a thing! Oh, my soul. Donít think that way, Islara. Donít!

Thrusting all thought of self from her conscious mind, the sorely tried woman looked straight at the antagonist exacting so heavy a penalty, and declared resolutely, "I accept your terms, harsh as I find them. Iíll ask only one additional assurance: that you give your word never to pass the least hint to Aubrey, of the sort of agreement you forged with me."

Shock now coursed with savage force through the man sardonically laying wagers with his alter ego regarding the form Islaraís refusal would take. Shame scalded him, arising from his readiness to believe her false to her word, and from his unwillingness to mitigate the terms. Even as he struggled to collect his own scattered wits, his admiration for her control over the emotions that he knew racked her, soared. No hint of the severity of that shock registered on a countenance habitually schooled to betray no hint of its ownerís thoughts.

The realization belatedly dawned on Regan that a flagrantly outrageous proposal thought up on the spur of the moment by a duelist nursing cold rage at an offender to whom he could not issue a challenge, now bound the man tendering the offer as rigorously as it did his innocent victim.

This development serves you right! he berated his alter self. You maliciously needled a softhearted woman who turned out to exhibit more sheer guts than you gave her credit for possessing!

Brutal self-mockery rose uppermost within the manís churning mind. By exerting the rigorous self-control habitual to him, Regan managed to prevent his inner turmoil from coloring his voice. His shame deepened even as his resolve to hold the visitor to the agreement grew unshakable.

"No need to ask that of me," he countered evenly. "I keep my private business private, but I give you that word."

Mastering the horde of chaotic thoughts engendered by the unexpected outcome of his negotiation, the victor in what he now began to regard as a verbal duel savored burgeoning elation. The heady realization that he had actually gained what he never expected this beguilingly intriguing woman to concede prompted him to smile with unfeigned warmth.

"Well! I frankly admit that I didnít expect to acquire a new employee, much less a wife, but Iím gratified by both developments," he observed blandly, voicing the bare truth. "First things first. Let me draw up an agreement stating that Iíll forgive your brother the debt, and refrain from pressing any charge, either on Monday or at any time in the future, given my delight at having won his sisterís consent to enter a life contract. Sit tight and relax, while I fetch you a cup of coffee. You look as if you could use a jolt."

I feel as if Iíve sold myself into slavery! Islara shrieked in her mind. A courtesan sells her body for only an hour at a time! She retains her independence! Iíve sold both my body and my skill in the workplace to this sadistic bastard, for a lifetime! No way can a life contract be dissolved without both partnersí signatures. Regan will gain the right never to let me go free. Never! Nor can I plead physical or psychological abuse, under oath, in an appeal to the Ministry of Justice. An interrogation under truth compeller would force me to reveal that I agreed to his demands ahead of time. The male judges would refuse to dissolve our marriage, given that heíll have caused no physical injury, and I agreed!

Having thrust a steaming mug of fragrant coffee into the hand Islara mindlessly extended, Regan seated himself opposite. His own drink he set on a low table, where it slowly cooled as he drew up a concise agreement on a datapad. Without a word, he offered the device to the woman struggling to control her face while she fought to suppress an all but irresistible urge to shout an impassioned reversal of her decision, and flee. Forcing her brain to assess the wording of the document, she discerned no clever loopholes employed by an author plotting to get round the declaration.

"Thatís legally airtight, Iíd judge," she admitted tonelessly. "Weíll need two witnesses to the contract, and to this agreement."

"Not to the agreement. That would be binding on my signature alone," Regan demurred. "But to soothe the suspicions I read in your eyes, Islara, weíll have the same two people witness my signing that document, as well. Youíll learn by experience that I abide by the terms of agreements as rigorously as I keep my word, but I understand your wariness, given the circumstances."

No sharpness accompanied that assertion. On the contrary, a hint of wry amusement crept into the speakerís eyes.

Islara passed no comment. Mechanically, she sipped the coffee, nerving herself to sign the contract.

"Youíll know of two people whoíd be willing to serve as witnesses?" she asked, dreading the answer.

"My neighbor and his wife will oblige," Regan assured her, reading her mind.

In a deliberate motion conveying finality, Islara set the cup on the table, and spoke in a voice she managed to keep expressionless. "Iíd appreciate your arranging the business with no further delay. Iíll need to take an hour right afterward, to go home, and inform my brother of my decision, and its consequence. Iíll also need to collect my spare suit."

Rising, Regan took her hands in his, and pulled her to her feet. Smiling into eyes unable to hide all the emotion churning beneath an admirable appearance of calm, he spoke with a degree of gentleness that shocked the mentally strained hearer almost as much as had his candid admission regarding the nature of the demands he intended to lay on her.

"Iíll go with you, girl, and break the news to your brother myself. Iíll assure Aubrey that owing to my delight at your acceptance of my hand in marriage, Iím perfectly willing to forgive and forget. Iíll set his mind at ease on both counts."

Reganís afraid I might bolt after securing what I set out to gain, Islara conjectured bleakly. WellÖIíd be tempted, if I found myself unescorted in a busy corridor. But Iíve nowhere to flee to, any more than Aubrey has. So keep your end of the bargain, woman. Donít annihilate the pride you routinely take in abiding by the terms of contracts as rigorously as this bastard says he does!

Ten minutes later, Islara and Regan repeated the short formula, and signed a life contract in the presence of a genial elderly gentleman and his frail, aged wife, both of whom also witnessed the agreement. Gathering his bride into his arms, the groom kissed her on the mouth, gently, but most possessively.

Islara grew instantly aware of the iron strength of the arms under the exquisitely tailored black suit. She also noted the suppleness of the manís wiry slim body. Fear surged through her, setting her heart pounding, but she neither stiffened, nor outwardly shrank at his touch. Pliant, yielding, she accepted the gesture passively. The expression that fleetingly animated Reganís face as he withdrew his lips from hers uncannily convinced her that her new husband gauged her reactions with unfailing accuracy.

He knows Iím terrified of him! she surmised as her gut knotted. Will that knowledge afford him pleasure, even before heÖ

Exerting all her power of mind, she smiled at the fragile innocent eagerly offering warm good wishes, and responded to the old ladyís impulsive hug.

Regan studied the smile his bride succeeded in preventing from seeming wooden. Genuine admiration for her bearing mingled with shame he sought, but failed, to banish. With polished courtesy, he served a generous portion of costly brandy to the jovial gentleman, and handed a cup of fragrant tea to his beaming wife. Suavely, he engaged both the witnesses and his bride in an exchange of polite remarks.

During that short interval, Islara managed to hide the turbulent emotion flaying her stressed psyche-emotion that prevented her from savoring vast relief at the thought of her brotherís reprieve.

Iíll have to make sure Aubrey doesnít take on any job likely to land him in a similar bind, she fretted. But if Iím not thereÖ Iíll have to talk to him in Reganís hearing today. Could I draw Aubrey asideÖinto the privacy of his sanctuary? No. Youíd better not risk arousing this bastardís suspicion. But Iíve got to forestall any new disaster!

The guests at length departed. Emerging from the mental fog that would forever cloud her memory of her wedding, Islara marshaled her normally abundant store of courage. Facing the husband she regarded as a dangerous adversary, she asked in a carefully neutral voice, "Can we go now?"

"Iím at your service, Islara." Taking her arm with courtly grace, Regan escorted his wife into the busy corridor, and summoned an autocab.

Wishing that her escort had chosen to walk, the still-distraught woman entered the vehicle. Her escortís arm curved protectively around her, preparatory to shielding her from the jolts afflicting the occupants of one of the cramped automated conveyances. As Regan programmed the cab, his distressed fellow passenger tried to relax, but failed in that endeavor as abysmally as she did in attempting to order her chaotic mind.

As if he sensed her need to order her thoughts, her spouse refrained from indulging in idle chatter, contenting himself with cushioning the effect of the lurching motions. When the vehicle drew up at the door to the womanís former quarters, Regan emerged with fluid grace, turned, and assisted his wife to step down.

Head high, shoulders straight, Islara strode in to face her brother. Aubrey emerged from his sanctuary, to stare in dismay at his sisterís companion. Before Islara could formulate a greeting, Regan spoke with commanding force.

"Aubrey, what we have to say will likely shock you, but I hope our news also relieves your mind. Iíve gained so formidable a respect both for your sisterís ability and her devotedness to those dear to her, that Iíve proposed marriage, and gained Islaraís acceptance. She and I earlier today entered a life contract. Given the recent altercation between you and myself, I assumed that youíd not care to witness our signing the contract, but I feel badly about the whole business. Islara assures me that you never acted in collusion with Rothman. I now believe that yourÖerrorÖresulted from preoccupation with the mechanics of the job at hand. Iíve agreed not to press the charge. Let me assure you that the happiness Islaraís consent produced acted to dissipate my anger at my substantial financial loss."

That crisp announcement served to render Aubrey wholly incapable of speech.

Slipping both arms around her brother, Islara hugged him with fierce ardor. The face she raised to his wore the old, familiar smile. Her expression betrayed no trace of any of the emotions seething below the surface.

"Aubrey, you donít have to worry any longer about consequences," she stated emphatically. "Since youíll no longer need to share these quarters with me, you wonít be so crowded. Iíll visit weekly, so you wonít be lonely. You can do what you so love: immerse yourself in experimentation, and avoid taking jobs likely to end the way this one did. Promise me you wonít take on any new obligations in the next eight days, and you and I will talk things over a week from tomorrow. All right?"

Dismay radiated from the recipient of that breathless appeal. "IslaraÖwhatever prompted you toÖmarry? Surely notÖ" The beginnings of devastating suspicion surfaced on a face wholly unable to hide what its owner felt.

Fear enabled the woman delicately attuned to this manís mental processes to respond with compelling conviction. "I changed my mind about marriage, Aubrey! Iíll still work, but for Regan, instead of Larrimer, now. A step up, thatíll be: assistant to the boss, not to the lowest-ranking broker in the string. Youíll see-Iíll be far better off professionally! Now, kiss me, and congratulate us. Please?"

Desperation lent Islara a transient, unwonted, but most effective ability as an actress. The smile she flashed on Aubrey lacked brittleness, and held all the accustomed magic for the man whose utter unworldliness had never prevented his placing his beloved younger sisterís interests above his own. That unselfish concern still served better than any other circumstance to force him out of his absorption in the abstruse work that so fascinated him. Folding his only living close relative into his arms, he kissed her cheek, and clasped her tightly against his thin chest. "I wish you the happiness you deserve," he murmured. "I just hope you didnítÖ"

Islara interrupted before Aubrey could voice his now somewhat diminished suspicion that she had impulsively taken this irrevocable step solely for his benefit. Hugging him hard, she entreated, "Will you promise what I asked? Wait a week, and take no job? Work on your experiments?"

Sensing the magnitude of her desperate desire to avoid discussing her action in the hearing of her new husband, Aubrey reflected that Regan must have agreed to hire her, given that he failed to bark a denial when she said he did. Judging that circumstance to form part of the reason for her impulsive act, the man awash in relief at his escape from penal servitude felt troubling doubt recede.

Nodding vigorously, he replied, "I promise, girl. Iíd have shied away from taking that sort of job againÖeven if Iíd thought Iíd be ableÖ"

Breaking off in confusion, Aubrey cast a furtive glance at Regan before refocusing his full attention on the woman he sought to reassure. "Youíll be back a week from tomorrow-for sure?" he inquired, his anxiety manifest to both keen observers.

"Islara will return for a visit every Sunday, Aubrey."

That unexpected assertion reassured the timid expert, and relieved some of the worry plaguing his sister. With unconscious dignity, Aubrey turned to face his erstwhile nemesis. Firmly, he declared, "I donít know all that led to Islaraís making so hasty a decision, Regan, but I trust her judgment. Youíve a wife to be proud of. I wish you both all possible happiness."

The man experiencing a renewed onslaught of guilt held out his hand while meeting the eyes of his new relation squarely. "I agree, and I thank you," he responded, his tone conveying sincerity to the brother, and acute puzzlement to the sister.

Having packed into a small bag her spare suit, a few personal items, a holographic print of the deceased parents whom she only vaguely remembered, and a portrait of Aubrey, Islara smiled a last time on the brother who had been father, mother, teacher, and friend for almost thirty Earthyears. Bracing herself, she departed with her husband to commence a new life that filled her with dread.

Regan again curved a protective arm around his wife in the cab. Once more, he left her to sort out her thoughts as the automated vehicle bore them back to his quarters.

Having preceding him through the door he opened, she turned to face him, and stated a circumstance causing her acute concern. "I should give Larrimer two weeksí notice at least, but I realize that you wonít wish me to work for him any longer. My leaving so abruptly will cast a blot on my hitherto unsullied record, and damage my professional reputation as a broker. That consequence I find most upsetting. Have you any suggestion as to how I might handle the problem?"

"Iíll handle it, Islara. Iíll raise Larrimer first thing Monday morning, and assure him of my regretful concern that our marriage, and my understandable reluctance to have my wife work elsewhere than at home, will cause him inconvenience. Iíll make him a generous financial settlement thatíll soothe his wounded sensibilities, and prevent his holding your sudden departure against you."

Relief at that promise contended with the fear grossly intensified now that she faced a self-professed sadist in the privacy of his quarters. Half expecting the man to levy at 1540 in the afternoon the demand she so dreaded, she tensed, visibly.

Regan noticed that all but imperceptible stiffening of her slim frame. The wry smile he bestowed on his bride conveyed absolutely no nuance of lust. Indeed, it projected no hint whatsoever of menace.

"I expect you never got any lunch," he observed accurately. "Nor did I. Iíll pop two steak dinners in the oven, and then show you where to stow your duffel."

The relief flooding the hearerís direly stressed mind showed in her eyes. Mutely, she followed her spouse as he carried her bag into the dining area wholly separate from the sitting area spacious by Columbian standards. She waited nervously as he set two premium meals cooking.

"In here," he announced briskly, gesturing his companion through the door to the bedcabin. "This sectionís geared for double occupancy. I never changed that aspect," he explained, setting the bag on the double bed. "You can use this dresser and closet. The dresserís empty. Just let me clear my stash of old uniforms out of the closet. There."

Having tossed a bulging duffel bag into the bottom of a second closet holding four or five elegantly tailored suits, and several pairs of spare boots, Regan watched as Islara hung in the closet a spare suit identical to the one currently doing duty, arranged a few personal items in a drawer, and set the two holographic prints on the top of the dresser.

"Well! It didnít take you long to move in," he remarked serenely. "Iíll brew a pot of coffee, while we wait for the steaks to cook. Or do you prefer tea?"

"Coffeeís fine."

"Sit down, and relax, Islara."

Casting about for some congenial topic of conversation, he determined to probe the background of his new business associate. "Tell me, what sort of degree did you earn, at the University?" he asked, certain that so self-assured, well spoken a businesswoman must have earned a degree. His tone, casual and companionable, bore absolutely no nuance of icy politeness.

"I majored in economics, and minored in mathematics," the broker replied, detecting genuine, if unexplainable, interest.

Well! "No wonder you found your residence there rough! Who served as your major professor?"

"Talbot."

Having responded with a low whistle, Regan laughed, his astonishment plain to the viewer. "Shades of the ancients! You must have excelled, to satisfy that martinet."

"I did." That unhesitating reply bore an overtone of asperity that the man sensed to be directed not at him, but rather at the circumstance she proceeded to mention. "I exceeded standards unfairly set higher for a woman than for a man. Of course, I possessed an advantage few men could boast. Through every level of Ministry School-first to third-Aubrey tutored me. My brother taught me far more than my regular teachers did."

"Wasnít it hard for a genius to descend to that level?" No perceptible irony tinged the voice expressing only mild curiosity.

"It wasÖat first," Islara acknowledged with a bleak smile. "But if I didnít understand a concept, I kept at him, insisting that he explain in words I could understand. Aubrey gradually developed the knack of slowing down and presenting one simple idea at a time. As he gained skill at explaining, I grew better at grasping what he taught."

"Mm. Iíll wager Talbot got a rude shock."

"He did. Actually, as legendary as was his reputed severity, he respects ability, even in a woman. I found him far easier to deal with than I did Doncaster and Ordway."

"Those two bastards need thirty centimeters of steel run through their guts, Iíll agree," Regan responded with vehemence sufficient to startle his listener. "As an undergraduate, I once gave Doncaster to understand that Iíd oblige, if he didnít watch his mouth. He backed down right promptly, or I might never have earned any degree, even though he ranked only as a teaching fellow then."

"He seemed to needle only those who werenít duelists. How good a swordsman is he?" Islara inquired, intrigued by this professed sadistís willingness to talk to her exactly as he would a male caller.

"Not good enough to warrant his arrogance," Regan declared disdainfully. "I suspect his current power to pass or fail undergraduates taking courses necessary for any degree adds to the aura of fear he generates."

Islara smiled, remembering, her expression unforced. "A woman held a definite advantage, in one sense, while dealing with Doncaster. He couldnít issue me a challenge, nor taunt me into issuing one. He habitually needled female students, counting visible upset as evidence that heíd scored. I traded barb for barb with the utmost politeness, and I never lost my aplomb. I scored myself, a time or two-risked some nasty reprisal in the grades he handed down-but I couldnít resist. We finally achieved an icily polite stand-off."

Reganís hearty laugh served further to mute Islaraís underlying uneasiness. "Iíd have enjoyed witnessing that sort of duel," he assured her with perfect truth. "No women showed up in any of my classes. But then no woman has ever tried to major in ship-systems technology, and few tackle higher math." Responding to the dinging of the timer, he set a hot steak dinner in front of the bride only now grown conscious of hunger, and sat down opposite her.

"Dig in," he urged.

Throughout the leisured meal, the ex-Second Corpsman kept up a pleasant conversation, seemingly genuinely interested in the viewpoint of so unconventional a woman.

Mindful of the agreement, Islara concealed her inner agitation, and traded comments readily, finding the man she so feared as easy to talk to as was Aubrey. Relief succeeded astonishment, dulling the bite of the anxiety gnawing at her innermost self.

If Regan really does behave in this manner twenty-three and a half hours a day, Iíll find life with him bearable, she mused, even as a chill at the thought of the last half-hour crept down her spine. And he wonít be home a great deal, other than during working hours, the new wife consoled herself. Surely a man so well off financially habitually enjoys the lively nightlife!

Comments dropped in her hearing by her former co-workers rose to mind. Islara could form only a vague idea, based on such stray remarks, of what those men did for entertainment in the company of their fellows, during the evenings.

They visit in coffeehouses, and patronize courtesans, she reminded herself. Is that how ReganÖ? Surely no woman wouldÖinviteÖwhat gives him pleasure. But would one endure such treatmentÖfor a price? I suppose some would. But surely if he forced hurtful techniques on a womanÖeven one he hiredÖsheíd lodge a charge of assault against him. Courtesansí rights under the law equal those of the most prominent citizen. Or would shameÖfear of unpleasant notorietyÖof nasty repercussionsÖprevent a professional artist from pressing such a charge? I wonder. Well, he can indulge at his leisure, now. Once a dayÖ

A shiver coursed through the bride dutifully upholding her end of a pleasant, casual conversation.

After dawdling over a final cup of coffee, Regan rose, and tossed both containers in the rough-processor. As he dropped the flatware into the sterilizing unit of the galley, he announced noncommittally, "Before I gotÖsidetrackedÖI planned on inspecting a cargo vessel Iím angling to buy in the near future, this afternoon. Would you care to accompany me? Enlarge your commercial experience?"

"Iíd welcome the chance!" Dumbfounded by that offer, the recipient wondered distractedly whether the instigator of a cruel bargain might still suspect that if he left her home alone, she would flee.

Thirty minutes later, Islara stood gazing up the daunting height of the wide, curved ladder giving access to the elevator integral to the docking module of a cargo vessel. His eyes brimful of challenge, Regan shot her a grin. "Scared of heights?" he inquired provocatively.

"I guess weíll find out," his companion declared gamely. Without waiting for the ex-spacer to ascend the wide curving grillwork, she began the climb.

"Donít look down, Islara," her escort cautioned. "Look only at the rung youíre grabbing."

Climbing with the ease of long practice, Regan passed the slim woman taking exceeding care not to look down. When she reached the circular opening in the elevator platform, her companion lent her a hand as she gingerly climbed through. He then tucked her arm into his as the platform, its central aperture enclosed by no railing, rose swiftly. Emerging through the hatch onto the bridge ahead of her companion, Islara confronted a hard-bitten, elderly spacer of forbidding mien, whose seamed face registered outrage at beholding a woman.

"What in hell!" he barked ungallantly.

"Sheís with me, Tanner," Regan informed the man smoothly. "Iíd like you to meet my wife: Islara."

"Pleased to meet you." The owner-captain spoke in a grudging tone conspicuously at variance with the expressed sentiment. "Youíre late, Regan."

"Wholly unavoidable, the delay. Better late than never, hm? Especially as I can offer more satisfactory terms now than I could even four hours ago."

"Well, step into my cabin, and weíll see about that."

Regan again took Islaraís arm. With courtly ease, he steered her through the door the man opened. That seasoned spacer stared in disbelief as his prospective buyer prepared to discuss business in the presence of his wife, but he offered no objection. His guest handed the woman into a seat on a bunk, before sitting down with fluid grace next to her.

Dropping into the lone chair fronting a terminal, Tanner grated, "What terms?"

"If youíll lower your price to two million credits even, Iíll offer you a full half of the selling price now, and ask you to pack a ten-Earthyear note at four percent annual interest, for the balance. Youíll sign the title over to me. Iíll own the vessel outright. But Iíll offer collateral for the note weíll draw up-property exceeding in value the amount Iíll owe you-property that youíll acquire should I die, or otherwise default on the note. Prime commercial sections, the property: sections that produce a substantial rental income.

"If youíll agree to captain the ship for me for five more Earthyears, Iíll pay you a generous salary, and guarantee you a free hand to hire crew. Iíll secure the loads you haul, but Iíll consult with you regularly. You know Iíll deal fairly, Tanner. You also know that my competitor will gouge you, if you give him the least chance."

"Not likely Iíll give him the least chance. Six percent annual interest."

"Not reasonable, given the short term of the note. Iíll go four and a quarter."

"Five."

"Four and a half. Absolutely the limit."

"Fair enough. Iíll agree to your terms, but Iím in a bind, Regan. My titleís clear, but I canít sell until I make enough in the next few runs to pay off a pressing debt. Orwell bought up my note behind my back. The filthy cur hopes to use it to force me to sell to him. Gouge isnít the word! Orwellís capable of hiring thugs to wipe me. Iíve strung him along, hoping youíd make an offer I could accept. I canít pay him off yet, and get out from under the club he holds over me. If I sell to you now-enter the record of the transaction in the bank-I could be signing my death warrant."

"You owe him more than the down payment?"

"No. I owe him four hundred fifty thousand credits, but by the terms of the note, I canít pay off the loan early, even if I include the full amount the interest would be on the due date. Orwellís determined to acquire this ship. He made threats, Regan. Veiled, but unmistakable.

"The only way Iíd feel reasonably safe, would be to write him a draft for the amount of the note, plus interest, on the day itís due, and at the same time, enter the agreement with you into the bank. Thatíd leave me legally clear, even if threatened by hired thugs, or some damned duelist-for-hire bent on provoking me into a fight Iíd lose. Well, I know the approaches, and Iíll take my chances, but not before I put the ship beyond the damned rotterís reach."

"Nasty bastard, Orwell. He hasnít made any slips, so far. If youíre willing, we could draw up the agreement, and each retain a signed, witnessed copy on a datapad. Weíll both enter the agreement in the bank, on the day your noteís due. Iíll contact you before I enter mine.

"If you canít meet the note, Iíll help you out with a loan, which youíll repay after the dealís completed, out of the down payment. If you wish, Iíll board your ship early in the day on the date your note falls due, and you can pay off the devious sod in my presence, if he shows up in person to collect. Iíll witness any threat he makes. He might back off. Iíve still got contacts-and influence-in Second Corps. Iíll back any play you make, Tanner."

A smile slowly creased the hard-bitten face, rendering it far less forbidding to the silent witness. "I appreciate that offer, but Iíd hate to drag you into a fracas thatís purely my business."

"You think my gaining outright title to a ship Orwell covets wonít bring his wrath down squarely on my head, as well as yours? Donít fool yourself. We might as well join forces-confront the foul brute together."

"WellÖyouíre likely right. Iíd intended to confront him alone, not involve my crew-even Samson. I candidly admit that Iíd welcome a backer of your prowess-one personally involved."

"Itís a deal, then?"

"Itís a deal. Weíll draw up the agreement now. I trust Samson not to blab my business, but the others of my crew might conceivably succumb to pressure-or outright threats-from Orwell. We ought to have two witnesses."

"I trust my wife not to blab to Orwell, Tanner. She can sign, if youíll take my word on Islaraís professional reticence. Sheís my employee in my brokerage business, as well as my wife."

Islara watched Tannerís eyes widen in shock that he quickly hid. "Iíll trust you not to make a move thatíll jeopardize your chance of pulling off this deal, Regan," he growled. "Iíll fetch Samson. Draw up the document, while Iím gone." Having hurled that final order over his shoulder, the crusty spacer strode out.

His face serene, Regan seated himself at the terminal, and accessed a file of forms. Selecting one, he filled it out, and transferred the completed note onto a datapad. Islara sat as if turned to stone, stunned by her husbandís words to the elderly spacer.

Regan just entrusted his safetyÖand perhaps this old manís lifeÖto his certainty that I wonít spill the details of his deal ahead of time, to this Orwell! she ruminated, shocked to her core. Why should this bastard who took such unfair advantage of me trust me so implicitly? He doesnít know me! If I did spill what I just learned, that might result in Reganís dying at the hands of thugs!

Cold fear coursed through the woman still battling deep disquiet arising from her hasty and perhaps dangerous marriage. Not that Iíd do that to Tanner, she conceded bleakly, or even to the man who forced me into this unsavory bargain. Iíve heard ugly stories about Orwell. Iíve no wish to deal with a brute reputed to hire assassins, even if I could contemplate callously betraying any man who trusted me.

Tanner returned, followed by a brawny spacer: a man black of skin, scarred of face, and ferocious of aspect.

Regan shot the newcomer a grin as he thrust out a hand. "Iíve missed you, Samson," he remarked, his sincerity patent to all present. "And not just while struggling to succeed in a new career. Itís been a time since we two fought back to back, hasnít it?"

A chuckle slid past the wide mouth of the former spacer-fighter gripping the proffered hand in a crushing grip. "Too long, damn the luck! I miss the old days, myself." Black eyes raked the woman regarding the newcomer warily, as she weathered the shock occasioned by hearing his sentiments emerge couched in cultured accents totally at variance with his fearsome appearance.

"Iíd like you to meet my wife. Islara, this is Samson."

Bracing herself, the woman thrust out her hand, which promptly vanished into a bear-like paw.

"Well, now! You landed yourself a man whoíll stand by you, little lady. Iím pleased to meet you."

"Iím glad to meet you, Samson."

Reflecting that if she encountered her newest acquaintance late at night in a little-traveled corridor, she would experience a distinct urge to flee at all possible speed, Islara gamely smiled up at the muscular giant regarding her with appraising eyes.

Seemingly, she passed inspection. A broad grin flashed across Samsonís scarred black face, warming the beholder despite her misgivings.

"Pert little woman, you are," he opined. "One with depth to her. Full of surprises, Iíll wager. I envy you, Regan."

Regan laughed, genuinely impressed by what he perceived as a wholly accurate description. "Apt assessment, Iíd say. Tanner, I see a problem with our arrangement. Iíll need to secure shipping contracts ahead of time. I canít afford to let the vessel sit idle on the lock for weeks after I gain title to it. But my doing so will tip our hand."

"I realize what youíre up against, and I havenít been able to secure any contracts that far in advance. I hesitated to deal, anyway, given my uncertainty whether Iíd still own the ship by then.

"Tell you what. Iíll sign an agreement hiring you to secure contracts for me during the next fourweek, for ten percent of my net profit on each run you arrange. Thatís an unusual enough step that it might generate a bit of talk, but Orwell will figure Iím desperate for credit, and that Iím attempting at all costs to avoid the sort of idle spell that put me in this bind to start with. My doing so might serve to persuade him that Iíll not be able to meet the note, and thus forestall any prior move on his part."

"It might, at that. Did my document meet your approval?"

"Fully. Iíll sign it, and draw up the other."

Two datapads passed from Tanner to Regan to Samson to Islara. Tucking the device holding his copies under an arm, the new owner rose. "Well, Iíll keep a certain date firmly in mind, Tanner. Iím elated at the deal. Weíll be seeing you."

Seated in the curve of Reganís arm in an autocab, Islara debated whether or not to ask him bluntly why he so readily trusted her, but she judged that he might then regret so doing. Donít risk irritating him, she warned herself. Not so close toÖ

Reminded of what faced her, she reviewed that aspect of the bargain. The thought crossed her mind that the afternoon turned out to be nothing like what she had expected. PerhapsÖneither will tonight, she conjectured. Unable to believe that fatuous assurance, she dwelled on the unknown, and shivered uncontrollably.

Her nerve faltered. How can IÖ I rushed into this mess without thinking things through! she castigated herself fiercely. And nowÖitís too lateÖ

The cab bore her inexorably onwards, towards a culmination that filled her with dread. No sign of the womanís ballooning fear showed on her set, unsmiling coffee-and-cream face.