It was already sunset by the time we had returned the SRV at the Novy Kostroma spaceport and boarded the shuttle that would take us back to Gold Dock. Not wanting to fly tired, Karina and I had dinner in the galley of my Imperial Clipper, finishing the remaining supply of tarte flambées I had acquired at Harawi Vision. Karina and I shared the ruby contents of two bottles of Lodi Zinfandel, trying to cheer ourselves up after what had proved to be a thoroughly depressing day. I out-drank Karina by three glasses to one, as she was unused to drinking any alcohol at all, let alone such a strong and full-bodied red wine as this one. We had hardly said a word to each other since leaving the Volkov estate. Karina's body language alone was eloquent enough and I couldn't think of anything that I could say that would console her in the slightest. So we simply ate and drank quietly, until the only thing left to do was get some sleep before the start of a new day, walking to our staterooms slightly dazed by the effects of the day's events and the wine.
I wasn't surprised when Karina sought refuge and comfort in my quarters later that night. In the weeks since her rescue, she had made remarkable progress in terms of her resilience and independence, and she was now used to sleeping alone in her room, but the point-blank refusal of her maternal grandparents to accept her into their family had hit her hard. I had been lying awake, staring at the ceiling wondering what we would do next, when the door opened. Without a word, Karina joined me in my bunk, wrapping herself in my arms and holding them tight to mould me around her, as if I were a defensive shield that could protect her from the uncaring whims of the universe. Karina had kept her dignity and refused to cry, but I shared her confusion and frustration. I found it baffling that Karina's family would not be willing to accept her, despite the conclusive proof we could offer beyond mere family resemblance that she was a blood relation.
We laid together in silence for over an hour before Karina was finally able to find the words to express her torment. "Why doesn't anyone care about me, master?"
The brutality of the question shocked me. "Karina... That's not true. I care about you. I wanted to help you find your family and people who love you. I never expected they'd react like this. But I'm not going to abandon you."
"Not even when you can live again with your wife?" Karina's question was barbed, cutting through any pretence of sentiment. Laure would never be able to tolerate her in the long-term, not even as a co-pilot and employee. Laure saw her only as a threat to our marriage and Karina knew it.
"I rescued you from Theriault. I feel responsible for you. After everything you've been through, you deserve a chance to be happy. And I'm going to help you, no matter what Laure thinks."
"But if you had to choose, you'd choose her." It wasn't a question. Karina's voice was sad, defeated.
"Karina, I love her. I've always loved her." Even when I hated her, I thought.
"What does it feel like?"
"I'm not sure I understand. What does what feel like?"
"To be loved. I can't remember ever being loved." The sorrow in her voice was gut-wrenching.
I turned Karina over to face me and I caressed her cheeks in my hands, wiping away the tears of despair that glistened at the corners of her green eyes. "It's the most joyous thing. To feel like you're two halves of the same person, sharing the same body and soul. Knowing that making the one you love happy is more important than making yourself happy."
"I've never felt that." Karina closed her eyes. "I don't think I'll ever love. I don't know how."
"Karina, don't say that." I drew her closer, feeling her body heat, my fingertips gently stroking the pale network of paper-thin, almost invisible scars on her back through the satin of her nightshirt.
"Can you show me, master? Show me how to love." Karina whispered, pleading, but not hopeful. Her eyes were still tightly shut, bracing herself for yet another rejection.
I heard Laure's disembodied voice at the back of my mind, disgusted, from two hundred light years away. You never could resist a damsel in distress...
I wasn't sure whether it was because I had drunk too much wine, because I was feeling lonely myself, or because I pitied Karina's plight, or because I thought we could comfort each other, but I banished the image Laure's disapproval from my mind's eye and took Karina's face tenderly in both hands, giving her a long, feather-light kiss on the lips. Karina responded hesitantly, her breath escaping in short gasps as I slipped her nightshirt off over her outstretched arms. She lay back on the bunk, letting me explore every square centimetre of her skin with gentle fingertips and hungry lips. Karina cried out involuntarily as I tasted her ecstasy, her long fingers gripping the back of my skull, her soft urgent moans of pleasure arousing my need to bring her a joy she had never experienced before. She arched her back, raising her body to meet mine when I lay over her. We made love, tenderly, languidly, her hands grasping my shoulders as we kissed again. Her slender figure trembled as she reached orgasm, her breath escaping in a single long, guttural groan as she wrapped her legs around mine, trapping me inside her as I joined her in a guiltless rapture.
Part of me knew that I had just committed an infidelity against my wife, but another part of me had enjoyed it, if only for the opportunity to share a moment of uncontrolled pleasure with Karina. I would have to face the consequences for my disloyalty to Laure later, but at that moment, it was worth it to give a glimpse of the purity of love to an alluring, gentle, but vulnerable and damaged young woman. I reasoned that it was a necessary part of her healing process. Surely Laure would understand. I swallowed hard when Karina opened her eyes and looked up at me. She could sometimes be difficult to read, but there was only one word to describe the emotion in the way she gazed at me now.
"I never knew..." Karina said with a gasp, her lips flushed and crimson. "I never knew it could be so beautiful."
"That's how it should be." I replied, suddenly feeling uncomfortable in her arms.
"Thank you, master. I could feel it. I felt as if I were a part of you."
"And how do you feel now?"
"Happy." Karina smiled, hugging me tightly. "I've never felt happier."
"That's good." I smiled back as I came to the realisation that it was inexplicably important for me to make her happy. I wanted nothing more than to make her feel content and safe. Was what I felt nothing more than infatuation, the excitement of the touch of flesh of a new lover, or was it something more?
"Is it always like that, when you love your wife?" Karina asked, breaking the spell.
I hesitated, unsure whether to tell her the truth.
"Please, master. Tell me."
"Not always, no. Laure can be very..." I searched for the right euphemism. "Passionate."
"Show me, master."
"I don't think so, Karina. You might not like it." I warned.
"Please, master. Show me." she said, her hands gripping my shoulders and neck insistently.
We made love again, this time abandoning all restraint and tenderness and taking the most direct route to the giving and receiving of pleasure with our bodies, surrendering to the sensation of it. Surprised by how much I wanted her, I was not gentle. My climax triggered hers, simultaneously yelling in release as I held her beneath me. I lay at her side as we both gulped for air, Karina shrinking back to my chest, pulling my arms around her to cup my hands protectively around her breasts.
"It was good, but I preferred it the first time." Karina sighed, her voice barely louder than a whisper. "I liked it when you used your mouth on me."
"I liked it better first time, too." I rested my cheek on the back of her neck, smelling her hair and kissing her gently under the ear. "You'll find someone who loves you Karina, I'm sure. Your past doesn't have to be your future."
"What is my future, master?"
"Whatever you want it to be. What do you want, Karina?"
"I don't want to be scared anymore." She squeezed my hands with her fingers, tightening my hold on her. "I want to stay with you. I'm not scared when I'm with you, master."
"Staying with me might be difficult, and dangerous." I warned, caressing her reassuringly, my lust still enflamed by the feel of her against me. "You've seen the kind of work I do. I can't keep you on board just as a passenger forever. You could get killed. It would be safer for you if we found somewhere for you to live on a planet or station. I have an estate on Summerland. You could stay there as long as you wanted - until you can figure out what you want to do with your life."
"You just want to get rid of me." Karina replied, matter-of-factly, lying passively in my arms. "Now that you've used me, you just want to pass me on somewhere else."
"No! Karina, that's not right. I'm not like one of your old masters, I'm your friend. And friends try to do what's best for each other." I told her, appalled that she had reached such a terrible, fatalistic conclusion. "I know that's what it might seem like to you, but it's not true. You could have a long, happy life on Summerland. But if you stay here on the ship, we might both be killed tomorrow."
"But at least I'd be with you." Karina turned her head to face mine. "I love you, master."
"Karina..." I hesitated. I wanted to contradict her, but who was I to tell her what she felt? "You know that I'm married."
"And that your wife hates me."
"She doesn't hate you, Karina. She doesn't even know you. Though she wouldn't be pleased if she ever found out about this."
"I won't tell, master." Karina promised, taking one of my hands and trapping it between her soft thighs. I knew that she was trying to manipulate me, but it was impossible to resist the temptation as she offered herself to me again, lying on her belly. "Love me, master..."
Annoyed with myself for not being able to control my arousal and succumbing so easily to temptation she offered, I gripped her buttocks hard as I mounted her from behind. Karina stifled her moans by pressing her mouth against the mattress, biting down on the covers, and I kissed the scars on her back as we made love again. I waited until I heard and felt Karina's orgasm before lifting her up to me by the hard cones of her breasts, kneading them firmly until I came, our cries of pleasure echoing around the stateroom. I let go of Karina, completely drained, and lay down again, on my back. Neither of us spoke, leaving the questions about her future unresolved. Karina put an arm across my chest and huddled up next to me as I closed my eyes, needing sleep. The thoughts in my head churned with a maelstrom of confused feelings and emotions. My senses were overloaded with the tingling afterglow of our lovemaking and the silky heat of her body against mine. I was still aroused by the touch of her skin, her scent and the residual taste of her on my lips. My hand strayed down her back, caressing the network of long, thin scars, as if my touch could magically make them disappear along with the trauma that had caused them. I couldn't decide whether my attraction to Karina went beyond simple physical chemistry. Had something deeper than that provoked me into making love to a women who wasn't my wife? Why had I done it? I loved Laure - that much I did know - but was my desire to make Karina happy driven by something beyond sympathy? Too exhausted to think any longer, I slept, with Karina pressed against my side. Any answers would have to wait until later.