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Chapter Twenty-Four

"Welcome home, Honor." Emily Alexander smiled broadly from her life-support chair as Honor stepped through the White Haven door. "I seem to be saying that a lot. I'm only sorry I don't get to say it more often."


"I'm afraid White Haven isn't as convenient to Admiralty House as Jason Bay, Emily. Besides, I have to keep reminding myself a certain degree of discretion is indicated. Otherwise," Honor bent to kiss Emily's cheek, "I'd be out here every minute I was on the planet."


"Hmmm. I suppose that could be called indiscreet."


"Tell me about it. Miranda and Mac have certainly done their best—in, of course, their own exquisitely tactful fashions—to make the point."


"Do they disapprove?"


Emily frowned slightly, and Honor tasted the older woman's ambiguous emotions. For all her natural graciousness and kindness, and for all the deep and mutual devotion between her and her servants, she was a product of the Manticoran aristocracy. For her, servants could become friends, literally members of her family, but they were always servants. It might be important to her that her servants think well of her, but whether they did or not would never be allowed to affect her decisions, and that little, naturally aristocratic corner of her couldn't help feeling it would be presumptuous for any servant to actually judge her actions.


"No, they don't."


Honor straightened with a smile. Emily might be a natural born aristocratic, but Honor Harrington certainly wasn't. She wasn't about to let other people's opinions dictate her decisions, either, but for quite different reasons. And for her, people like Miranda LaFollet and James MacGuiness would never be "servants," even if they were her employees. Retainers, perhaps, but never servants. Even leaving aside the fact that both of them were millionaires in their own rights, she thought with a mental chuckle.


"They don't disapprove at all of my doing what my heart requires, to borrow a phrase from the bad novelists. They just worry about what could happen if the newsies get hold of this . . . relationship." She grimaced. "They had an entirely too up close and personal look at what the 'faxes put us through last time, and they worry about me. Can't imagine why."


"Of course you can't." Emily's incipient frown turned into a smile once more.


"Actually, what I mind the most about this whole clandestine thing, in a lot of ways," Honor said with a grimace, "is that I see so little of Miranda these days. She's still officially my 'maid' as far as Grayson is concerned, but she's effectively my chief of staff, especially here on Manticore. So I end up leaving her home to tend to business, and it would look a bit odd if I started dragging her out here to visit 'friends.' Of course, on Grayson, under similar circumstances—although I admit that the mind boggles at the concept of 'similar circumstances' there—I'd be leaving Mac home to tend to business and dragging Miranda around with me." She shook her head. "It's a lot less complicated being a commoner, you know."


"Cling to your illusions if you must," Emily replied. "Given your rank, little things like your military reputation, and the fact that you're probably one of the dozen wealthiest people in the entire Star Kingdom, I doubt very much that your life could ever be uncomplicated again."


"Oh, thank you for that douche of reality!"


"You're welcome."


* * *

"This is your wakeup call, Admiral Harrington."


Honor twitched as the deep, soft voice spoke into her ear, and her sleeping mind snuggled closer to the bright, caressing mind-glow behind the words. Perhaps that was why she didn't awaken the way she normally did—quickly, completely, senses coming immediately alert.


"This is your wakeup call," the voice repeated with a chuckle, and Honor's eyes snapped open—very quickly indeed, this time—as she tasted Hamish's intent. Quick as she was, she wasn't quite quick enough, and ruthless fingers danced up her ribs to her armpits, despicably exploiting the secret she had guarded for so many decades.


"Hamish!" she half-shrieked as he tickled her mercilessly. Her upper arms clamped tight to her rib cage, trapping his hands, but his fingers went right on moving, and she writhed. Both of them were perfectly well aware she could have broken both his arms anytime she chose to, but he continued his attack with the fearlessness of someone prepared to take unscrupulous advantage of the knowledge that she loved him.


She flung herself out of bed, whipping around to face him, and he propped himself on one elbow, stretched sensually, and grinned wickedly at her. Nor was his the only amusement in the bedroom; Nimitz and Samantha sat side-by-side on the headboard, bleeking with laughter.


"I see you're awake," Hamish said cheerfully.


"And you, Earl White Haven, are a dead man," she told him with a glower.


"I'm not afraid of you." He elevated his nose with a sniff. "Emily will protect me."


"Not when I tell her why you have to die. When I explain, she'll help me hide the body."


"You know, she might, at that."


"Darn right she might."


"Well, it was probably worth it anyway to wake up to a sight like this," he said, blue eyes gleaming, and Honor actually felt herself blushing as she glanced down at her nude state. The taste of the treecats' amusement at her reaction only made her blush more rosily, and she shook her fist.


"I think," she said ominously, "that all of you need to be seen to. Especially you, My Lord Earl. To think, I trusted you enough to actually admit I'm ticklish. The sheer treachery of your actions takes my breath away."


"Of course it does." He sat up and swung his own legs over the side of the bed. "Which is undoubtedly the reason you shared your deep, dark secret in the first place. You must have known any decent tactician would take advantage of it when the critical nature of his mission required it."


"Definitely seen to." She smiled sweetly. "You know, I was talking it over with Andrew just the other day, and he mentioned to me that it's never too late to take up a new form of exercise. Take you, for example, Hamish. I realize that at your advanced and decrepit age you may think you're too old to learn new tricks, but you are a prolong recipient, and I saw you on the handball court just a couple of months ago. I think you'd be a fine prospect."


"Prospect for what?" he asked warily.


"Why, for taking up coup de vitesse, of course." She widened her eyes innocently. "Think how much it would increase your self-confidence, not to mention how good it is as a systemic exercise."


"You, young lady, are out of your mind if you think I'm going to let you get me onto the mat as your punching bag." He snorted. "I might—might, I say—be prepared to take up Grayson-style fencing. I was always pretty good with foil and epee. At least I was, many, many years ago, when I was at the Island. But that brutal, sweaty hand-to-hand business of yours isn't my style at all." He shook his head. "Oh, no—self-defense is your forte, not mine. If we should ever happen to encounter a mugger who somehow penetrates the protection of those three Rottweilers of yours, I'll be perfectly happy to hold your coat while you mop up the pavement with him. Heck, I'll even buy you a bonbon and a cup of hot chocolate afterward."


Honor chuckled, trying to picture a Grayson male, however enlightened, suggesting anything of the sort to any woman, be she ever so well-trained in self-defense.


"Well," she said, after a moment, checking the date/time display in her artificial eye, "we're both going to need to brush up on our self-defense skills if we don't get ourselves down to breakfast pretty quickly."


"Hey, don't blame me! I've been trying to get you up! And, I warn you, I fully intend to tell Emily that when we're late to breakfast."


"God, there're no limits to your treachery," Honor said, snatching up her kimono and sliding into it. "If only I'd known ahead of time!"


"Sure, sure." He stood and stretched luxuriously. "And speaking of treachery . . ."


Honor frowned. He was up to something, she could taste it. But—


Hamish smiled sweetly at her, and then, with absolutely no warning, dashed for the bathroom.


"Hamish, don't you dare—!"


She was too late. The master bath's palatial shower's door clicked shut, and she slid to a halt as he smiled at her through it.


"Looks like I get the first shower," he said complacently. "Unless, of course, you'd care to . . . ?"


He flipped the shower door open, just a crack, and Honor laughed and let the kimono slip back off her shoulders to the floor.


They were, indeed, late to breakfast.


* * *

Given the fact that Andrew LaFollet and her other armsmen knew exactly why Honor had been to Briarwood, the colonel had clearly decided there was no longer any point in pretending he didn't also know exactly what was going on. Hamish's reaction the first time he'd opened the door of his suite and found LaFollet standing guard outside it had not been one of unalloyed amusement. He'd had the good sense not to make an issue of it, however, and it was certainly much more convenient for Honor to no longer have to go scurrying through the back hallways every morning.


There were, however, some things not even an armsman could protect a steadholder from, and she and Hamish peeked through the dining room door cautiously when they finally got there.


Emily sat in her life-support chair, parked in her normal place, with a steaming cup of coffee in front of her. But she looked up quickly at their arrival, and Honor's smile disappeared instantly.


Nimitz jerked upright on her shoulder, and Samantha did the same on Hamish's, as both treecats tasted what Honor already had. Hamish couldn't, but the quickness and unanimity of the other three's reaction wasn't lost upon him.


"Emily?" Honor stepped quickly through the door, her voice concerned, all humor in abeyance. "What is it?"


"It's—" Emily started to speak quickly, then stopped herself. "It's not good," she said after a moment, the words coming less rapidly, sounding much more like her. "I'm afraid," she showed her teeth in a humorless smile, "we're not quite as finished with the newsies as we'd hoped."


Honor moved across to Emily's chair, her appetite disappearing, despite her enhanced metabolism. She pulled back one of the dining room chairs, turning it to face Emily, and sank into it. Nimitz slid down into her lap, gazing at Emily as intensely—and anxiously—as Honor herself, and she felt Hamish stepping up close behind her even before his hand came down on her shoulder.


"It leaked," she said flatly.


"I think you could say that," Emily agreed with poison-dry humor. Her right hand flipped a 'fax viewer onto the table. "You remember our good friend Solomon Hayes, I'm sure."


The sinking sensation in Honor's midsection intensified abruptly. She glanced up over her shoulder at Hamish, then drew the viewer in front of her and keyed it.


She wasn't at all surprised when it lit with the current day's Landing Tattler. Nor was she surprised that the display was centered on Solomon Hayes' gossip column. It wasn't the first time she'd found herself the object of Hayes' interest, and white-hot anger glowed as she remembered the smear campaign High Ridge and his cronies had used Hayes to open.


Her eyes ran down the text, and her lips tightened. Normally, Hayes touched on several victims in each of his maliciously barbed columns. And he was also normally careful to couch his accusations and veiled insinuations sufficiently obliquely to avoid anything which might be actionable under the Star Kingdom's stringent libel laws.


This time, the entire column was devoted to only a single topic, and there was nothing oblique about it at all. Especially not about its three concluding paragraphs.


" . . . to sources at Briarwood," she read, "Duchess Harrington was attended by Dr. Illescue, Briarwood's senior physician, who personally oversaw the tubing of her son seven weeks ago. Despite all inquiries, it was impossible to determine who the father might be. Indeed, sources indicate the Duchess has specifically declined to declare paternity.


"That, of course, is her unquestioned legal and moral right. Nonetheless, those of us in the press must inevitably find ourselves speculating on her reasons for availing herself of that right. Certainly it's only natural for a military woman, facing all the risks of naval combat, to be concerned about the future. To assure herself and her loved ones of a child. Still, one must wonder just why she felt it necessary to proceed in that perfectly reasonable project with such secrecy. One might almost say clandestinely.


"And yet another, clearly coincidental yet interesting, tidbit has come to our attention. We feel confident that all of Lady Emily Alexander's myriad fans and well-wishers will be delighted to learn that Countess White Haven has also availed herself of Briarwood's services. According to the same sources, her child will be born within less than two months of Duchess Harrington's."


"That son-of-a-bitch," Hamish hissed behind her as he read it over her shoulder. "That goddamned, worthless, cowardly, mealy-mouthed piece of—"


He chopped himself off with a physical effort Honor could literally feel, and walked across to sit on Emily's other side.


"I wonder who his 'sources' might be?" Honor mused in a tone whose lightness fooled no one.


"Actually," Emily said, "you might not want to leap to any conclusions in that regard." Honor look at her, and Emily snorted. "It doesn't take an empath to guess which road you're headed down, Honor, given what your parents had to say about their history with Illescue. And you might even be right. But I've had a little longer to think about this than you two have, and there are several rather odd things about this particular column."


"Beside the fact that this time he laid his sights on just one target—well, two targets?" Hamish put in.


"As a matter of fact, yes. The biggest difference between this one and his usual style is that he's very specific. He gives the exact day you were actually at the Center, Honor. And he also gives the correct date for our second child's birth. He wouldn't do that unless he was entirely confident of his facts, knowing what the three of us would do to him in court if he didn't have them right. But he specifically mentions Dr. Illescue by name, and if Illescue were his source, he wouldn't have provided that particular snippet of information. There's no reason he has to, and the one thing he's never done is give up his sources."


"That's because half the time he doesn't have any sources," Honor half-snarled.


"That's not really fair," Emily observed. "Solomon Hayes is a loathsome, disgusting, toadlike gigolo who homes in on vicious gossip and rumors like a near-buzzard homing in on carrion. Three-quarters of his 'news' comes from bored, wealthy women with the moral fiber of Old Earth alley cats in heat, at least half of whom have scores of their own to settle. But he usually does have a source. The thing that lets him survive is that most of the time there's at least a core of truth to the rumors he spreads. Distorted, exaggerated, or deliberately twisted, perhaps, but still there. That's what made him so damnably effective when High Ridge and North Hollow used him against you before. Salaciousness has always sold 'faxes, and a lot of people take Hayes lightly because of that. But the truth is, he's actually a very dangerous enemy, with much more power than many people assume, precisely because he does have that reputation for knowing what secrets he's spilling so gleefully."


Her tone was almost dispassionate, but it wouldn't have fooled anyone who could see the fire in her green eyes.


"You may be right," Hamish said after a moment. "No, scratch that. You're almost certainly right—you usually are about things like this, love. Unfortunately, that doesn't give me any ideas about what to do about this. Aside from hiring an assassin, at least."


"If we want to go that route, we don't need any assassins," Honor said grimly.


"Somehow, I suspect challenging him to a duel and then shooting him smartly between the eyes, however satisfying, might not be precisely the best way to handle the situation," Emily said dryly. "Not that we couldn't make a tidy fortune selling tickets to the event."


"Ha! The instant you challenge him, he'll emigrate to Beowulf!" Hamish growled. "They don't allow duels there."


"I think perhaps we can leave that pleasant fantasy out of our considerations?" Emily suggested just a bit tartly, and her husband muttered something she chose to take as agreement.


"The thing that bothers me the most," Honor said, her eyes troubled, "is how explicitly he's linked you and me, Emily. Well," she smiled almost naturally, "that and the fact that I didn't really want to know whether it was a boy or girl just yet."


"The question in my mind," Emily said thoughtfully, "is whether he genuinely believes Hamish is also the father of your child, Honor, or if he included the linkage only as a way to remind his readership about his earlier allegations about the two of you. Does he know something, or is he simply using innuendo to take a swipe at the three of us because of what we did to him last time around?"


"I think he either knows, or strongly suspects," Honor said. Then she shook her head. "No, I think it has to be 'strongly suspects.' The only way he could know would be if he'd somehow managed to obtain a genetic comparison of the child and Hamish, and if Illescue isn't his source, then I don't see any way he could have done that."


"That's a good point," Hamish agreed. "And I'm inclined to agree with you. Which leads to another point." He grimaced unhappily. "You've been spending an awful lot of time at White Haven whenever you're on-planet, Honor. It's not going to take a hyper-physicist to figure that out. And the fact that we were accused of being lovers when we weren't isn't going to help us very much now that we are. So whether he openly suggests I'm the father or not, the suggestion's going to be out there very soon, if it isn't already."


"I suppose I could try staying away," Honor said slowly, her expression much unhappier than his had been.


"No, you certainly can't," Emily said tartly, and shook her head. "You two should never be allowed out in a social situation without a keeper!" Both of them looked at her, and she snorted derisively. "If you suddenly stop visiting your friend Emily after Hayes' little bombshell, the only conclusion anyone is going to be able to draw is the correct one—which is the last thing you want at this particular moment, don't you agree, Honor?"


"Well, yes, but—"


"But me no buts," Emily interrupted. "Besides, in the final analysis, since we've always intended to eventually admit Hamish's paternity, we can't stand up and call Hayes a liar. He's a cretin, a sneak, and a treacherous little worm, but this time, at least, the one thing he isn't is a liar. If we call him one now, it's going to create all sorts of problems when we finally come forward. And unless we're prepared to do that, suddenly changing your habits would be the same thing as admitting he's hit the nail on the head . . . and that you're trying to pretend he hasn't."


"So what do we do?" Honor demanded.


"Nothing," Emily said flatly. The other two looked at her incredulously, and she flipped her working hand in her shrug equivalent. "I didn't say I liked the idea. It's just that the best of the several bad options available to us is simply to ignore it. Honor's going to be going back off-world tomorrow, and the sort of newsy who'd be interested in following up on a story like this is going to find it pretty hard to get to her when she's back with Eighth Fleet. And much as I hate playing on the 'poor invalid' stereotype, it does offer me a certain amount of protection from the same sort of intrusiveness. Which means the only one who's likely to be stalked over this is you, Hamish."


"Gee, thanks for the warning," he said glumly.


"You're a politician now, not a mere admiral," his wife told him. "That makes you fair game, and by now you ought to have at least some notion of how the rules work."


"No comment?"


"That will probably work for anything from your official press secretaries. After all, even if Hayes is right, it's a personal matter, not something government spokespeople should waste time and effort on. It won't work for you, though. If someone manages to corner you in a personal interview, you're going to have to come up with something better, or you might just as well go ahead and tell them you're the father."


"And your suggestion is?"


"I think your response ought to be that if, in fact, Duchess Harrington is having a child tubed, and if she's declined—at this time—to disclose that child's paternity, that's certainly her right, and you have no intention of speculating about it."


"And if they ask me point-blank if I'm the father?" Hamish waved one hand in a gesture of intense frustration. "Damn it, I am the father, and accident or not, I'm proud to be!"


"I know you are, sweetheart," Emily said softly, eyes luminous as she laid her working hand on his forearm. "And if they do ask you point-blank, the one thing you can't do is lie. So my suggestion would be that you laugh."


"Laugh?"


"As naturally as you possibly can," she agreed. "I know your thespian skills leave a bit to be desired, dear, but I'll help you practice in front of a mirror."


There was actually a twinkle in her eye, and he made a face at her.


"But," she continued more seriously, "that really is your best response. Laugh. And if they continue to press, simply repeat that you have no intention of speculating, and that you believe Honor's obvious wishes in this matter ought to be respected by everyone. You, at any rate, intend to respect them just as thoroughly as you would if you were the father."


"And you really think this is going to work?" he asked skeptically.


"I never said that," Emily replied. "I just said it was our best option."


 


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