Laughing, she tumbled into his arms, giggling helplessly as his lips found hers. “Lester, shhh! They’’ll hear!”
“Do you care?”
“Yes! I’d rather not - oh, God, come here -” and she kissed him lavishly, “I’d rather not make a public display of myself, thank you!” Suddenly, her eyes softened, and she kissed him again, much more sweetly this time. “You’re the only one who’s allowed to see me like this.”
Then his eyes softened too, and he gently brushed her hair from her face. “Oh, mignonne.” He hugged her close, relished the feel of her sturdy body against his. She was so solid, so wonderfully there, and though he was far from the mushy sort, Lester Tourville was more than willing to admit that, at least where Michelle Henke was concerned, he was far more than halfway gone. “I do love you.”
“I love you, too.” Bright and impish, she grinned at him. “Now take me to bed.”
“By my lady’s command,” said Tourville, with an exaggerated bow that had her shoving him onto the bed in retaliation, and then her mouth claimed his and there was no time for anything else.
Quite a lot of time later, she nestled her head on his shoulder, his lips gently caressing her fingers as she sighed in peace.
“Oh, mignonne.” The old French endearment sighed through her like a song. “What am I going to do with you?”
Abruptly serious, she propped herself on her elbow to look into his face, one hand gently tracing his cheek. “You could marry me,” she offered, with an uncharacteristic, shy diffidence. As wonder, shock - a whole forest of emotions - broke out over his face, she gently covered his mouth. “No, don’t say anything yet. Just listen. Politically, it’s an outstanding match. It would be a symbol of the Grand Alliance, something that would show everyone this is something that will last. You’re Haven’s most senior active commander. I’m the Queen’s first cousin. We’re a dream for Beth and Eloise. Honor and Tom would think it’s the greatest idea since the treaty itself.
“But never mind all that,” she said softly, never looking away from his wide, astonished eyes. “Forget all that, because it doesn’t matter. I love you, Les. I never thought I’d feel this way about someone. I saw Honor fall in love, have her heart broken, then fall in love again. I’ve seen what Aivars and Sinead share, what Michael and Abigail share, what Augustus and Dame Estelle share, what Beth and Justin share. And as much as a part of me wished for it, a part of me was glad I didn’t have that, too - because I was afraid. I was terrified to love someone so much that losing them could break me.” Gently, she kissed the tears from his cheeks. “And it turns out I never had a choice at all. I’m there, Les. It just happened, and now I know why marriage matters. Why the knowing matters. Because I do love you. And I do want you. Always.”
“Mignonne,” he said, with a voice like gravel, “is this a real proposal? Or is this a ‘someday’?”
“I don’t do somedays,” said Michelle, her contralto even huskier than usual. “This is a real proposal, love. This is as real as it gets.”
“Yes,” he said instantly, his hands clutching at her shoulders. “Yes, yes, yes. How many ways can I say it, Michelle? Yes.”
“One more would be nice,” she managed through her tears, and Lester’s answer this time was entirely non-verbal.
“You want to marry who?” blurted Elizabeth Winton.
“That would be me, Your Majesty.” Lester Tourville stepped up to take Michelle’s hand, and Elizabeth merely stared at him in stunned shock.
Finally, she jabbed an accusing finger at her cousin. “You never said a word!” she said indignantly. “How long has this been going on? And why in heaven’s name didn’t you tell me about it before you decided to get married?”
“I wasn’t the only one who decided to get married, as that would have been rather rude,” said Michelle, but Elizabeth just shook her head.
“You don’t get to deflect me this time, cousin mine,” she said. “Mind you, I can think of far worse people for you to fall in love with - and my dear compatriot is probably already planning how to spin this for maximum advantage -” she jerked a thumb in the direction of Eloise Pritchart, who did indeed look as if someone had just told her that her next ten Christmases had come all at once - “but you couldn’t bother to give me a heads up!”
The last came out rather plaintive, and Michelle offered her cousin a distinctly apologetic smile. “I really am sorry, Beth,” she said, her hand in Tourville’s. “But I didn’t…”
She looked helplessly at Tourville, who smoothly took over. “We didn’t know,” he said simply. “I can tell you that the last thing I ever expected to do was fall in love with the Queen of Manticore’s first cousin - and even if I had, I never would have thought she’d feel the same. I don’t think either of us knew when we started this that…”
“....that it would ever get this serious,” finished Michelle softly. “And when I started to suspect that this might be it - that I wanted to be with Les, and only Les, for the rest of my life - it felt too… precious, I guess, to talk about. I wanted to be sure, really sure. And I am, Beth. I’m in love with him. Can’t you see what that means?”
Elizabeth studied her cousin for a long moment, a little bit stunned by what she saw. Michelle Henke - proud, fiercely independent Michelle Henke - was in love. Really in love. And the look on Tourville’s face…
He looks like he’d take on the Solarian League all by himself for her, she thought, and had her answer.
“Mike,” she said with tears in her eyes. “I just want you happy. He makes you happy?”
“Yeah, Beth,” said Michelle around the lump in her throat. “He does.”
Without another word the queen opened her arms, and Michelle held her tight, burying her face into her cousin’s shoulder as Elizabeth murmured words for her ears alone into the tiny space between them.
Fortunately for Honor Harrington’s continued health, she was able to stop giggling before her best friend took notice of her unseemly antics.
Not quite so fortunately for the President of Haven, Lester Tourville quietly asked her to please stop licking her lips like a treecat presented with an entire field of Sphinxian celery.
Eloise just waved him to a seat. “This one’s serious, Les?”
“She’s it, Eloise,” he said simply. “She is it for me.”
Briefly Eloise closed her eyes, blowing a silent kiss to the man who had been, and always would be, 'it' for her.
And then, to Lester Tourville’s eternal surprise, she reached out and hugged him tight.
His eyes drifting shut, Lester hugged her back.
“I’m so happy for you,” she said, when they had pulled apart a little. “Never mind that this is the diplomatic coup of the decade - which, mind you, it is, and I intend to take advantage of it. But political considerations aside, I’m so happy for you, Les. I’m happy for both of you.”
“Thank you,” he said, and meant it. “She’s… I never saw this coming. And now I can’t imagine not loving her.”
“I think the two of you are going to be just fine,” said Eloise, a suspicious brightness in her eyes. Then her eyes really did brighten - and not from tears, this time - and she turned to the queen.
“Beth,” she said, “don’t you have some sort of important wedding coming up? Before this one, I mean?”
“Admiral Khumalo and Baroness Medusa?”
“Yes, that one. How about we send our lovebirds? I mean, officially? They’d be going anyway - or at least, she would be - and it would mean we could keep Denis here.”
“Oh, my,” said Elizabeth, the dawning light of unholy glee in her eyes. “That would make a statement, wouldn’t it?”
Silently Tourville reached out a hand to Michelle, who took it and sat beside him without a word. “What wedding?”
“Admiral Augustus Khumalo and Dame Estelle Matsuko,” she murmured in his ear. “Talbott Station Commander and Talbott Imperial Governor-General. They’re getting married in a couple of months, and the Admiral’s my current CO.”
Lester frowned. “Have I met him?”
“I doubt it,” said Michelle with a shake of her head. “He’s barely been back to the home system since he was stationed there, and I think only once since the treaty. I think you’ve met Dame Estelle, though.”
“Tiny, dark hair, almond eyes, makes crowds part for her without effort?” he asked, and Michelle burst into quiet laughter.
“That would be her,” she said through helpless giggles. “And you seem to have got the measure of her quite nicely.”
“It wasn’t hard,” Tourville said wryly. “I suspect I’d give her anything she wanted without hesitation. She has that sort of personality.”
“She does,” said Michelle with a nod. “And she dissolves into a blushing schoolgirl when the Admiral turns on the charm. I have to tell you, that was one I never saw coming. And yet, looking back, I have to wonder why I didn’t. They were… inevitable, I guess.”
“Rather like us?” said Tourville, with a squeeze of her hand, and Michelle grinned shyly.
“Exactly like us,” she agreed, and settled into his arms with a sigh of relief.
“Lester’s getting married to who?” blurted Thomas Theisman almost exactly an hour later.
Michelle sighed. “Me,” she said calmly. “Your president is already plotting any number of interviews, articles, and general political noisemaking about what she calls ‘the political coup of the decade’, my cousin is aiding and abetting her, and my best friend breaks out laughing every time she looks at me, so if you could avoid those three reactions that would be lovely.” And without further ado she dropped her head back to its place on Lester’s shoulder and closed her eyes once more.
“Lester’s getting married?” he repeated, though he sounded slightly less confused this time.
The man in question raised an eyebrow. “Yes, as it turns out, I am. Problem?” he said mildly.
“Good Lord, no,” said the Secretary of War, dropping onto the sofa next to the queen. “No problem at all. Just pure shock. Heavens above, Les, when the hell did you fall in love with her?”
“I haven’t the foggiest idea,” said Lester cheerfully, “and frankly I don’t care. She fell in love with me, too. I don’t give a damn about anything else.”
Tom studied him for a moment. “Well, that’s all right, then,” he said. “Now that I think about it, the two of you make perfect sense together. You do realize that our lovely heads of state are going to turn this into the biggest wedding since the crown prince himself, right?”
“He’s worth it,” volunteered Michelle, whereupon she promptly fell back asleep.
“And I don’t particularly care how we get married, so long as we do,” said Lester. “I think we’ll manage.”
“I think you’ll manage, too.” The President’s voice was very soft, and she settled beside him with all the grace of a treecat memory singer.
“Thank you, Eloise,” he said, just as softly. And then: “Are you all right?” He glanced at the floor, a bit abashed. “What I mean is, seeing us like this, and remembering…”
He trailed off, but Eloise only smiled - a soft, purely happy smile, one he had not seen from her in a very, very long time. “I am,” she said quietly. “He was my husband, you know.”
Lester’s jaw dropped, and the President gave him an unmistakable wink. “Oh, not in any legal sense. But that didn’t matter. He was the husband of my heart, Les, and I was the wife of his. ‘Those whom God hath joined together, let no man tear asunder.’ Remember that. He and I could never be parted. We’re still not apart - not really. Not ever. If she’s the one you want it with, those vows will still be with you, no matter what happens.” Her eyes blinked with sudden tears, but far more joy than grief lit her smile. “I know what I had - what I’ll always have - and I still cherish it. To see it bloom again….”
Softly, Eloise Pritchart kissed his cheek, then brushed a hand over the still-sleeping Michelle’s hair. “May God give you both the same joy he gave me,” she whispered, and then Elizabeth had her arm around one of the President’s shoulders, Theisman an arm around the other, and Lester forgot the rest of the room as he looked down at the woman in his arms and his president’s words echoed in his mind with a power so fierce and so bright he nearly shied away.
“Mignonne,” he whispered, and the word was prayer and promise in one.