Back | Next


Honor smiled a sleepy little smile into the darkness, listening to the slow, even breathing behind her, and her hand crept up to caress the wrist and forearm draped over her ribs. It was a shy caress, almost an incredulous one, and amusement at her own sense of wonder deepened her smile.

A soft noise came out of the dark, and her eyes turned unerringly to its source. The sleeping cabin's hatch had been closed when she dozed off. Now it stood ajar, and a thin edge of light leaked through it. It was dim, barely lightening the blackness, but it was enough. Two green eyes sparkled at her from the bedside desk, and she felt the deep, gentle approval behind them.

She touched the wrist again, smile trembling with mingled echoes of present joy and remembered pain as old memories stabbed, and, for the first time in years, she let herself face the things she'd chosen to suppress for so long.

Being Allison Harrington's daughter had been hard for a girl who knew she was ugly. Honor loved her mother and knew her mother loved her. Despite a career at least as demanding as a naval officer's, Allison had never been "too busy" to give her daughter warmth and love and support . . .  but she'd also been petite and beautiful. And there Honor had been, knowing she would never match her beauty, that she would always be the out-sized freak, and secretly loathing the part of herself that couldn't quite forgive her mother for making her feel her plain-faced gawkiness.

And then there'd been Pavel Young.

Her smile disappeared as she bared her teeth in automatic reflex. Pavel Young, who'd done his hateful best to destroy what little illusion of attractiveness she'd somehow nourished and turn her wistful dreams of what might have been into something ugly and disgusting. But at least she'd known he was the enemy, known his attack had been born of hate and outraged ego, not something she'd somehow deserved. He'd left her feeling dirtied and defiled, but he hadn't quite finished her off. No, that had been left to a "friend."

The remembered sorrow and crushing shame of a long-ago afternoon poured through her. It had been an agonizing thing, the most deeply hidden secret of an often desperately unhappy adolescence, for she hadn't realized until it was too late why Nimitz had taken such a dislike to Cal Panokulous. Not until she'd come smilingly, without knocking, into the dorm room of someone she thought loved her . . . and overheard the man who'd washed away the foulness of Young's touch chuckling over the com with an Academy classmate who knew them both over how "clumsy" she was.

She closed her eyes against the flood of long-denied anguish. Even after all these years, she'd never been able to admit how savagely that had wounded her. Not just the betrayal, but the terrible, cutting blow to a teenaged girl who'd already been shamed by a would-be rapist. A girl whose mother was beautiful and who knew she was ugly. Who'd been so desperate for someone to prove she wasn't that she'd ignored Nimitz's warning only to discover how horribly one human being could wound another.

Never again. She'd sworn to herself that it would never happen again, just as she would never let him know she'd overheard. She'd simply fled, for if she'd confronted him, he would either have lied and denied it or laughed and admitted it . . . and in either case, she would have killed him with her bare hands. Yet, in a way, she'd been almost grateful. He'd warned her what could happen, shown her that no man would ever have more than a crude and casual interest in bedding someone as clumsy and ugly as she, and so she'd put any thought of its ever happening out of her mind.

She touched that warm, gentle hand again, pressing it to her ribs, absorbing its warmth like some pagan charm against devils, and her eyes closed tighter. She'd always known most men were decent. No one could be adopted by a 'cat and not know that, but she'd built her walls anyway. She'd hidden not just a part of herself but the reason she hid that part, even from the best of them, for she'd had to. Friends, yes; friends she would die with or for, but never lovers. Never. She'd cut herself off from that risk—cut herself off so completely she'd actually been content, never consciously realizing what she'd done—because she couldn't let anyone, especially herself, know how deeply the shamed girl still hiding within the determined naval officer had been wounded. Because she couldn't let anyone guess that one thing, at least, in the universe hurt so much, frightened her so completely, that she dared not confront it.

And so she'd gone her own way, cool and disengaged, faintly amused by the romantic entanglements she saw about her but totally untouched by them. She'd known it worried her mother, but her mother was the last person she could ever have discussed it with, and Allison Harrington didn't know what had happened to her daughter at Saganami Island. Without that knowledge and with a set of cultural baggage so different from that of a typical Sphinxian, there was no way she could have guessed what Honor chose not to admit even to herself, and Honor had been glad it was so. She'd actually been content, in a wistful sort of way, for she'd had Nimitz, and she'd accepted that she would never have—or need, or even truly want—anyone else.

Until now.

Paul Tankersley's slow breathing didn't change, but his hand responded even in his sleep. It slipped up her ribs and cupped her breast like a warm, friendly little animal. Not passionately, only tenderly. His warmth pressed against her spine, his breath gusted on the back of her neck, and her fingers clasped his hand against her as her nerves recalled the smooth, incredible heat of his skin, the silken fineness of his hair.

She'd wanted to come here tonight, yet she'd been terrified, as well. It seemed silly now, but the decorated war hero, the captain whose tunic sparkled with ribbons for valor, had been afraid, and she'd agonized over bringing Nimitz. She'd needed the 'cat. Much as she'd trusted Paul, as much as she'd wanted him, she'd needed Nimitz's ability to protect her, less against Paul than against her own fear of still more betrayal. Her insecurity had shamed her, but she couldn't simply reject it, even though she'd known how few humans realized how utterly disinterested 'cats were in human sexuality and feared Paul might feel as if she'd brought a voyeur.

Yet Paul hadn't objected to Nimitz any more than he'd commented on her cosmetics, though his eyes had lit at the sight of Mike's efforts. She'd felt his emotions through Nimitz while they ate, and this time she'd clung to that awareness rather than discourage the 'cat from linking them. She'd tasted the pleasant, somehow tingling edge of his desire, like the smoky lightning of old whiskey, but there'd been so much more behind it. Things she had known with absolute certainty no man would ever feel for her.

Her pulse had calmed—or perhaps simply raced for another reason—and, for the first time she could recall, she'd been glad to let someone else take charge. Someone who understood the mysteries which had always confused and frightened her. And when the meal was over, she'd actually grinned when Paul informed the 'cat that bedroom doors were intended to assure privacy.

That was the moment, she thought now, luxuriating in the comfortable darkness, when she knew, absolutely and beyond doubt, that she'd been right about Paul Tankersley, for Nimitz had simply risen high on his true-feet with a flirt of his tail to reach the door button. He'd opened the hatch and walked unconcernedly out into the main cabin, leaving her alone with Paul in the clearest possible proof that he trusted this man.

Yet for all that, she'd been stiff and wooden at first. The old inadequacies had cut too deep, made her too aware of her ignorance. She was forty-five T-years old, and she didn't know what to do. Didn't even know where to begin! The courage it took to reveal that to a man had dwarfed what it had taken to sail Fearless into Saladin's broadsides at Yeltsin, but she'd known, somehow, that if she didn't risk herself now, she never would.

Even without Nimitz, she'd felt his surprise at her inexperienced responses, but there'd been none of Cal Panokulous' shallow adolescent scorn, none of Pavel Young's contempt and need to punish. There'd been only wonder and gentleness, slowness and laughter, and after that—

She smiled again, eyes prickling with tears, and lifted his hand in the darkness. Not very far. Just far enough to brush a soft kiss across its back before she returned it to her breast and closed her eyes.

* * *

The sharp, musical chime cut through the stillness, and Honor tried to roll out of bed even as she reached for her bedside terminal in a captain's sheer spinal reflex. But something was wrong. She was tangled up in someone else's limbs, and she wiggled against them for a second before her eyes popped back open and her mind snapped into focus with the realization that it wasn't her com after all.

She blinked, then giggled. Lord! She could just imagine the reaction of Paul's caller if she'd answered—especially since pajamas would definitely have been in the way tonight!

The chime sounded again, and Paul muttered something irritable in his sleep. He snorted and tried to snuggle closer to her back, and the com chimed a third time.

Well, one thing was certain. He was a much sounder sleeper than she was. Which was no doubt worth knowing, but wouldn't get the ship out of the docking slip.

She jabbed him gently in the ribs as the chime turned into a higher, continuous buzz. He snorted again, louder, then rose on one elbow in a rush.

"What—?" He began, then cut himself off as the buzz registered. "Oh, hell!" he muttered. "I told the switchboard—"

He shook his head, the ends of his long hair sweeping her bare shoulder like tickling silk, and shook himself into full awareness.

"Sorry." He pressed a kiss to her shoulder blade, and she wanted to purr like Nimitz. But then he sat up quickly. "They wouldn't have put it through unless they thought it was important," he went on. "And they'd damned well better be right! When I think of all the time and effort I put into getting tonight just right. . . ."

His deep voice trailed off suggestively, and she smiled.

"You'd better answer before someone starts on the hatch with a laser cutter," she said, and he laughed and reached across her, accepting the call voice-only without bringing the video up.

"Tankersley," he said.

"Captain, this is Commander Henke," a furry contralto said, and Honor sat up even more quickly than he had as the formality of Mike's words and tone registered and she heard Admiral Sarnow issuing crisp, rapid orders to his staff behind her exec's voice.

"Yes, Commander?" Paul sounded as surprised as Honor, but he'd picked up on the formal cue. "What can I do for you?"

"I'm trying to track down Captain Harrington, Sir. I understand she intended to dine with you tonight. Would she still be there by any chance?" Mike asked in that same cool, professionally impersonal voice—bless her!

Honor rolled out of bed and began collecting her scattered uniform from the cabin carpet, blushing in strangely delighted embarrassment as Paul brought up the cabin lights and watched her with an appreciative eye.

"Why, yes," he told his cousin innocently. "In fact, I believe she's getting ready to leave right now." Honor paused in just her briefs, one foot inserted into a trouser leg, to make a rude gesture, and his face crinkled in delight. "Would you like to speak to her?"

"Yes, please."

It was remarkable how repressive Mike could sound without changing her tone in any identifiable way, Honor thought. She pulled her trousers the rest of the way on and sat before the com, swatting Paul out of her way with her hip, and a smile quivered on her mouth as he stretched himself in shameless, luxurious nakedness and his eyes laughed at her.

"Yes, Mike?" She couldn't quite keep an edge of laughter out of her own voice, but it vanished with Henke's next sentence.

"Captain, Admiral Sarnow requested me, with his compliments, to ask you to return aboard immediately."

"Of course." Honor's eyes narrowed. "Is there a problem?"

"We've just received a general signal from the fleet flagship, Ma'am. All flag officers and flag captains are to repair aboard immediately."

* * *

Henke was waiting when Honor swam hurriedly out of the repair base docking tube into Nike's entry port. MacGuiness stood at the exec's shoulder, a garment bag draped over his arm, and both of them wore harried expressions. The rating manning the tube's inboard end started to come to attention, but Honor waved for him to stand easy and started for the lift with her quick, long-legged stride while her henchpeople scurried after her.

"Admiral Sarnow is holding his pinnace in the forward boat bay," Henke said as the three of them stepped aboard the lift. The doors closed, and Honor keyed their destination, then blinked in surprise as Henke reached out right behind her and locked the lift between decks.

"I thought you said the Admiral was waiting, Mike!"

"I did, but before you go aboard Gryphon—" The exec's hand darted into the small belt purse under her tunic for a cleaning tissue, and Honor's face turned crimson as Henke reached out to whisk away the remnants of eye shadow and lip gloss. The commander didn't even smile, but her eyes twinkled, and Honor's own eyes cut sideways to MacGuiness.

The steward wore no expression at all. Or, no, that wasn't quite right. He looked like a man who was both insufferably pleased and afraid of what might happen if he admitted it. Honor captured his gaze and held it for a single, fulminating moment while Henke worked on her face, and he cleared his throat and looked away quickly, busying himself with the garment bag.

It opened to reveal Honor's best dress tunic and trousers, and she cocked an imperious eyebrow at him.

"Commander Henke said you might require a change, Ma'am. And, of course, I knew—" MacGuiness hit the verb just a bit too hard "—you'd want to look your best tonight."

"I do not need a pair of mother hens! And I'll thank—"

"Hold still!" A ruthless hand gripped her chin, tilting her head to the side, and the tissue muffled her voice as it made a final swipe across her lips. Henke cocked her own head to consider her work, then nodded. "There! Uniform, Mac?"

"Of course, Ma'am."

Honor gave up and shoved Nimitz into the crook of MacGuiness' elbow, then shed her undress tunic even as she toed off her boots. For the first time, she felt an edge of body consciousness in MacGuiness' presence, but he seemed unaware of any reason she should be remotely uncomfortable, and she grinned wryly to herself. All those years in gyms and dressing rooms, working out with men, throwing them around the salle—and being thrown by them—and tonight she was suddenly aware that she wasn't just "one of the guys" after all!

She stepped out of her trousers, suppressing an urge to turn her back on MacGuiness, and accepted the fresh pair with the gold stripes up their outer seams.

"Oh, damn!" Henke sighed as she sealed the trousers. "There's makeup on your collar, Honor. Hold still!"

Honor froze, and Henke's fingers worked busily with the soft roll of her white blouse's turtleneck.

"There!" the exec said again. "Just be careful not to fuss with it and disarrange anything."

"Yes, Ma'am," Honor murmured meekly, and Henke's lips quivered as she took the tunic from MacGuiness' unencumbered hand and helped her into it.

"Get us moving again," Honor went on, pulling her boots back on. She bloused her trouser legs properly and sealed the tunic, and the lift began to move once more. She accepted a comb from MacGuiness and dragged it through her hair with ruthless dispatch while she watched the steward stuff her discarded clothing into the garment bag, and laughter glinted in her eyes.

A soft tone warned of their impending arrival, and she jammed the comb into a pocket and tugged the hem of her tunic down. Nimitz leapt up onto her shoulder and purred in her ear while she adjusted her beret, and there was just time for a quick, approving inspection of her reflection in the polished lift wall before the words "BOAT BAY ONE" flashed on the location display.

"Thank you—both of you," she said from the side of her mouth, and stepped through the door as it opened.

* * *

"Ah, there you are, Dame Honor!" The shadow of tension on Sarnow's dark face betrayed his own surprise at their abrupt summons to the flagship, and Honor wondered for a moment if he was being sarcastic. But he smiled, and his next words took any possible rebuke out of his comment. "I'm surprised you managed to get back aboard so quickly with so little warning."

He nodded towards the open pinnace hatch, and Captain Corell ducked through it. Honor followed the chief of staff, and Sarnow was hard on her heels. They settled into their seats while the flight engineer closed the hatch, made a quick but thorough visual inspection of the seal, and spoke into the boom mike of her com headset.

"Hatch secure," she told the flight deck, and Honor settled Nimitz in her lap as the departure light flashed on the cabin's forward bulkhead. The mechanical latches retracted, a puff of thrusters drifted them clear of the buffers, and then a harder surge of power—imperceptible through the pinnace's onboard grav generator—sent them streaking out of the bay like a scalded cat.

Auxiliary thrusters carried the pinnace's impeller safety perimeter clear of the ship, the pilot lit off his main drive, and Sarnow gave a tiny sigh of relief as the small craft went instantly to over two hundred gravities of acceleration.

Honor glanced across at him, and he smiled and tapped his chrono.

"I always hate being the last to arrive for a conference," he admitted, "but unless Admiral Konstanzakis' pilot's figured out how to take a pinnace into hyper, we should beat her by at least five minutes. Good work, Captain. I never thought you'd make it back aboard in time."

"I tried not to let any snow melt under my feet, Sir," she said with a small, answering smile, and he chuckled.

"So I noticed." He cocked an eye at his chief of staff, but Captain Corell was busy consulting a memo pad in her lap, and he leaned a bit closer to his flag captain and lowered his voice.

"And may I also say, Lady Harrington," he went on in an admirably grave tone, "that I've never seen you look more becoming."

Honor's eyebrows flew up at the totally unexpected—and unprecedented—compliment, and his smile turned into a mustache-quivering grin.

"I see supper agreed with you," he said even more softly . . . and winked at her.


Back | Next