“That’s it, then.” Lester Tourville got to his feet, his eyes soft as he looked at Honor Harrington. “Well, milady? Are you ready for this?”
“Are you?” She came around the end of the table toward him, taking his hand in both of hers. “It’s a tough job, Les, but…”
“Ready, willing, and eager,” he said quietly, gazing at her more seriously now. “I’ve no illusions, Honor, but I’ll do what has to be done. And given what we’ve come up with, I ought to come out of it in one piece. Well,” he said, an almost piratical grin flashing on his face, “mostly one piece, anyway. And it’s not like I’m hurting for help.” Tourville nodded in the direction of his task force commanders, Jennifer Bellefeuille’s flowing hair standing out sharply next to the short crops of Sampson Hermier and Oliver Diamato as the three conferred with Molly DeLaney.
“You’re not, at that,” Honor admitted softly. “Godspeed, mon ami.”
“And to you - mon amie,” he replied with a squeeze of her hand, a much softer grin on his face now. “Take care, Honor. See you soon.”
Their hands parted, and Tourville gathered his officers with a jerk of his head. He had turned to go when a sharp contralto voice shocked the room to stillness.
Michelle Henke broke from her conference with Admirals Theisman and Higgins, and only Honor noticed the trembling in her hands.
“Thought you were going to leave without saying goodbye, did you?”
“Not a bit of it,” said Lester softly, his eyes fixed only on Michelle now. “I thought you were going to make me.”
“Idiot.” But there was no heat to the word, and Michelle closed her eyes against a rush of memories - laughing together on the beach of Harrington House, overlooking Jason Bay; teaming up against Tom Theisman and Honor in a sim, and winning; relaxing at White Haven with a bottle of Old Tillman for a rousing strategy talk; months of memories, months of growing friendship and increasing camaraderie and… and what else, she wasn’t quite sure.
But while her mind might have been unsure, her heart was no such thing, and with a choked gasp she closed the distance between them and kissed Lester Tourville full on the mouth.
Tourville froze for a moment, plainly stunned, his hands flailing slightly in the air at Michelle’s sides. But then… then he let out a sobbing laugh against her mouth, took her face in his hands, and kissed her back.
Barely keeping her jaw from dropping, Honor Harrington watched, astounded, as her best friend curled her hands into Tourville’s hair and simply melted into his arms.
He broke from her at last, his eyes a little wild. “God Almighty,” he rasped, stroking her cheeks with trembling thumbs. “What you do to me, mignonne!”
Michelle stared at him, blinked twice, then buried her face in the crook of his neck and clung.
And for the first time in her life, Gloria Michelle Samantha Evelyn Henke found herself shaking with desire in a man’s arms.
Oh, she was far from a virgin - in fact, as Honor fondly teased her, she had a rather lively sex life. But this… this was different. He was different, and Michelle was amazed to find all her usual breezy confidence swept aside as though it had never existed.
“Les,” she whispered at last.
“You think it’s just you?” he murmured fiercely, and guided her hand between them to the pounding of his heart. “It’s not just you, mignonne. It’s not just you.”
She simply looked at him, her heart in her eyes.
“I love you,” he said at last, and heard half the room gasp. “And I am an idiot.”
“Why?” She could barely get the word out.
“I should have told you weeks ago.” He regarded her steadily, unflinching, not appearing to notice the tears on her cheeks. “I should have told you the instant I knew. Chelle - ma Chelle, can you -”
“Yes,” she whispered, and went weak as his lips found her damp lashes.
“Come back to me,” she whispered at last, her voice inaudible to anyone but him, breaking on the last word. “Come back to me because I love you.” She studied him for a long moment, gently touching his face. Her eyes were clear; though she was still afraid for him, she was standing tall with shoulders square, and Lester’s heart thumped once, very hard, in his chest.
“God Almighty, Chelle - yes. Darling, yes.”
She was still trembling when she stepped out of his arms. He took her hand and kissed the palm, holding it to his cheek for a long moment. And then he let go, backing slowly out of the room, their eyes fixed to each other as though nothing else existed.
When the door closed between them, his eyes were still locked on hers.