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Classification JAG Story, Romance (H/M)
Length Approximately 39,000 words, 87 pages (8.5 x 11)
Spoilers Anything up to season 5 or 6
Rating IM-15
Summary A week in the lives of our favorite superheroes

 

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

 

 

MONDAY:

 

I hate Mondays. With no more virulence than the next guy, I suppose, but my hatred burns pure and bright just the same. It’s not that all Mondays are bad, that nothing good has ever happened to me on that specific day, but generally speaking, when I rank days of the week, Monday comes in a pathetic and distant seventh of seven.

Today, unfortunately, is Monday, so I was accordingly prejudiced against it before it began. And when the phone had the audacity to wake me up a full half hour before the alarm was set to go off, I knew it was going to be all downhill from there.

After a few fumbling grabs for the receiver, I sort of toss it at my head and mumble a very intelligent, “Mmm, uhh?”

“Harm, it’s me, are you awake?”

I don’t know if she’s asking because she’s really curious, or just to piss me off. On the outside chance that this will be a short conversation and I can still catch a few winks, I leave the lights off but rub the sleep from my face with the heel of my hand.

“Uhnn,” I respond. Apparently, my vocal cords haven’t awoken yet.

“Harm, I need to get Jingo to the vet’s, and both my front tires got slashed. Could you come pick us up?”

Even dazed as I am at the moment, it sets me on edge that there’s just enough uncertainty in her voice to tell me she really thinks I might say no. Jesus Christ, she’s my best friend – who the hell else would be her emergency chauffer if not me? Now I’m groggy, disoriented, annoyed; she’s getting a hard time about this one for sure.

I glance over at the glowing alarm clock that never seems to get off my back. 6:56 . . . damn. “You have an appointment at seven o’clock in the morning?”

She sighs, and I can almost hear the anxious tapping of her foot. “Seven-thirty. This vet opens early for his gainfully employed clients.”

Okay, that makes sense. Still, couldn’t she have called a cab to run her over there? I keep that thought to myself, knowing she’d just order one to spite me if I asked.

Apparently, though, my partner is developing psychic capabilities, if her next words are any indication. “I would’ve called a taxi, but I still have to get to work, and there’s no way I can swing the fee for a ride to Falls Church. Besides, this way I get to buy you breakfast on the way in.”

She doesn’t sound so impatient anymore, so I sit up against the headboard and cross my right arm over my chest, settling in for a nice talk with a beautiful Marine. Maybe this morning isn’t shaping up so badly after all.

“Well, what makes you think I come so cheap?” I ask, vaguely surprised to feel a teasing smile spread over my face before the sun’s even come up.

Another sigh, and the impatience is back, but this time tinged with a bit of humor. “Okay, what’s your price?” I imagine the slow smile I can hear on her lips.

Pausing a moment as though deep in thought, I grin smugly to myself; I’ve got her right where I want her. “Friday night,” I say, clenching my abs to inject some spontaneity into my tone. It won’t do to have her thinking I’d set this whole thing up, after all.

“Excuse me?”

“I want your Friday night,” I repeat with patience that’s a touch exaggerated.

There’s a beat of silence on the other end of the line. Her wheels are turning now. “What do you mean? You want me to work for you?”

And this woman was in the top one percent of her graduating class. “No, I don’t want you to work for me.” My eyes roll toward the ceiling, catch there for a minute in mock aggravation. “I want you to play with me.”

An even longer pause this time. Then, in a voice so faint I barely make out her words, she breathes, “Excuse me?”

Okay, so that didn’t exactly come out right. But she can’t think I mean what I think she thinks I mean . . . can she? Perversely, I wonder what would happen if she did – if she thought I was using the verb ‘play’ in a more . . . personal context than its literal definition implies. What then, Rabb? What would you expect her to say? Could you go through with it?

And just so neatly, I have become ensnared in my own little trap. Hoisted by mine own petard. Just my goddamn luck on a Monday morning. Deciding a careful façade of
density is the best way to handle this situation, I blithely continue as though unaware of the potential implications of my last statement.

“Just come over. We’ll get something to eat, maybe go to a movie. It’ll be fun. Whatdaya say?”

“Well,” she muses after the barest hesitation. “I suppose that sounds like a pretty fair price.”

Thank God, things are back to normal. I don’t have a clue what I would have done had she pressed me on it. Lucky for me, Mac rarely chooses to call my bluff or to muddle through an awkward moment rather than skirt around it. In fact, in the past year or so, I think my propensity to avoid emotional confrontations at all costs may have rubbed off on her a bit too much. Right now, though, I’m not going to question my good fortune.

“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” I say, and just for a second, I envision myself as Mighty Mouse on wheels.

“Get here in fifteen minutes, and I’ll give you a Scooby Snack,” she promises enticingly.

My brows lift in anticipation, and I shoot another glare at the offending clock. “Make it twenty, and I’ll share.”

Mac laughs and something warm and sweet runs down my throat into my chest. “T minus nineteen fifty-nine and counting, flyboy.”

Switching off the phone, I chuck it somewhere in the direction of the cradle and shoot up to stand on my mattress. With a little more time on my side, I can actually take a shower before scurrying on my way. I give myself ten-to-one odds that I can make it from the bed into the bathroom in a single bound.

After a largely painless ricochet off the doorframe, I shuck my boxers and hop into the shower, calculating I have time for two verses of “Born to be Wild” before I have to throw on some clothes and head out. As an added precaution against tardiness, I keep the water a shade on the cool side and leave the curtain partway open.

Twelve minutes later, I’m hobbling out the front door, pulling a shoe on with one hand and trying to lock up with the other, my briefcase and cover crammed under my arm. Eight minutes to Georgetown is cutting it close, even for me, but hey, a guy’s got to brush his teeth, right? And if I possibly, by some slim chance, stretched my shower to include a third verse and the chorus of “Wild,” I can always make it up on the road; I’ve certainly got the route down well enough by now.

The engine of my Lexus spurs to life almost before I turn the key, reminding me again why I love this car. Together, we burst into traffic with a satisfying screech of tires and set a course to the borough by way of the back roads, where police cars are few and far between and the yellow lights I breeze through in the nick of time seem strangely to get redder and redder.

I haven’t shaved yet, but I keep an electric razor in the glove compartment for just such an occasion. I finish with my upper lip and sideburns just as I pull up in front of her building. Only about a minute late. Maybe she won’t notice.

I always fetch Mac at her door. I haven’t honked for a girl since I was seventeen, and it’s not safe for her to wait outside for me, a fact I drilled into her head at least five dozen times in the first year of our partnership. She waits for me in her apartment now, which makes me happy even though I know she only does it to keep me from getting on her case. Today, however, the front door to the complex swings open before I can turn off the ignition.

A woman hobbles out onto the walk. My view of her face is obstructed by a wall of fur, but I know it’s Mac because of her great legs and the eighty-pound red mutt in her arms. She’s got her purse slung over one shoulder, her briefcase clutched precariously between two fingers and a thumb, and Jingo held against her as if he were a small child rather than a large animal. Slowly, my eyes slide down her body to confirm my suspicion.

Yup, she’s wearing heels. High ones. God almighty, my work is never done.

“Mac, why are you carrying your dog?” I ask as I hustle out to open the rear driver’s door for her. I hope I’ve layered the scolding tone on thick enough – I sure wouldn’t want her to miss it.

She actually looks both ways before crossing the street to my car. “His arthritis is acting up, and his cataracts are back,” she informs me primly, ducking down and gently placing Jingo across the backseat. Adjusting her remaining baggage, she straightens and brushes her hands together while I close the door. “That’s why he’s going to the vet.”

I raise one eyebrow at her. She looks so good today. I wonder what her lipstick tastes like. “Why didn’t you wait for me to help?”

“…were fifty-two seconds late,” she replies as she saunters to the passenger side. Damn, she noticed.

I climb back into the car and fasten my seatbelt. “Cool your jets, we’ll make it in time.” I am well aware that Mac finds my aero-metaphors both irritating and irresistible. “Where’m I going?”

I recognize the street she mentions and am amenable to her suggestion for a short cut, so we are off. She twists to glance back at Jingo, then looks up at me.

“Thanks for coming to get us, Harm. I’m sorry I woke you up.”

She can wake me up whenever she wants to if she smiles at me like that afterwards. Of course, I can’t very well tell her that, so I ask instead, “Where’s my treat?”

Her gaze turns considering and just the slightest bit indulgent. “You were late,” she points out again, slipping a hand nonchalantly into her purse.

“So? I still get half.” She’s not backing out of our deal that easily.

A rustling sound comes from her pocketbook, and she pulls out a sandwich bag filled with chocolate chip cookies. My mouth starts to water. Sarah MacKenzie is one hell of a fine baker – I tease her that she has to be to satisfy a giant sweet tooth like hers. She makes these brownie things that may honestly be worth dying for. She’s also obscenely good at pies, and her cookies are nothing to sneeze at.

I can all but taste them now. Chewy, sugary drops of heaven. Mac puts in extra chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, ground Hershey bars, and even nuts if I ask her to. As a rule, I get half of whatever she bakes, if for no other reason than by default as her best friend and most vocal fan. Sometimes, when she’s angry with me or simply feeling particularly sadistic, she bakes something she knows I love, then gives my half to Bud and Harriet at the office where I’m bound to see. These are not good days. But it is a very effective method of getting me to apologize for anything and everything I’ve done wrong. I’m not proud of my weakness – I admit this even as I reach out a hand for the baggie she’s holding now.

At the last minute, she jerks them back. I want to whimper but settle for a more manly growl. She shakes the bag tauntingly, and my eyes roll back into my head when the aroma wafts to my nose. It’s Monday morning, I’m up too early, I haven’t had breakfast yet, and she wants to tease. Perfect.

“Jingo likes country music,” she tells me solemnly, holding the cookies just out of reach.

My answering glare must be something fierce because she giggles in my face. For a moment, I contemplate stonewalling her for the sake of my eardrums and sanity. Then I get another glimpse of the cookies and resignedly flip the radio to a station in the high hundreds. Sadly, I am helpless against their power.

Mac flashes me a blinding, gratified grin and tosses the bag in my lap. I only have time to pop one cookie in my mouth when she leans over me to point out a small brick building, painted white and looking very clinical.

“There it is.”

Due to the early hour and relative obscurity of the street, I’m able to find a decent parking space less than a block away. Mac leaves her briefcase but grabs her purse and hustles out of the car. By the time I unfasten my seatbelt and step out, she’s already opening the back door.

“Why don’t you let me do the heavy lifting this time, Mac?” I ask, putting up a token effort to keep the superior male tone from my voice.

She looks at me a bit dubiously. “Are you sure?”

Am I sure? Please. I refuse to dignify that with a response, simply shifting her out of the way with my hands on her shoulders and reaching in for the quiet old dog.

“Pat your left shoulder and say ‘Jingo, up,’” she instructs worriedly, hovering so close behind me I can feel her warmth through the chill of the late October morning. “Then lift him under his butt – quick, because it hurts his hips to stand too long.”

I shoot her a withering glance over my shoulder. I think I can work out the mechanics of this operation; I’m not a complete idiot after all. The whole thing goes off without a hitch, and Mac locks the car while I carry Jingo across the street to the office. She ushers me inside, where we encounter a small waiting room featuring animal artwork on the walls, animal magazines on the tables, and various Chia Pets as foliage. The middle-aged woman behind the counter looks at me quizzically before spotting Mac and gracing us with a polite smile.

“Good morning, Ms. MacKenzie,” she says in that low monotone every doctor’s secretary seems to possess.

“Hi, Patrice,” Mac answers, stepping in front of me to set her purse on the ledge. “Sorry we’re a little late.”

Abruptly, the door to the back of the office swings open and a man in his forties wearing a white lab coat stumbles out, grinning much too widely for someone who’s working before eight a.m.

“Sarah!” he exclaims happily, rushing forward and leaning as close to Mac as possible given that there’s a counter blocking his path. He gazes up at her, overly intent on her face. “Hi! How’ve you been?”

God damn it. He’s hitting on her. I, a strange man who stands five inches taller than he and outweighs him by at least thirty pounds, am less than two feet away, juggling the large mutt that is his patient, and all he’s thinking about is how to get the dog’s owner out on a date. Christ, now he’s mooning at her through his coke-bottle glasses – this is pathetic. Asshole. And the worst of it is, despite the specs he’s not that bad looking a guy . . . probably makes a good living . . . obviously likes animals. God damn it.

I move a little closer to Mac, subtly marking my territory. She helps me out for once by shifting closer to me and away from the overzealous veterinarian. Good. At least I know she’s on to this weasel. Still, she’s smiling at him. Not a real smile – not a Mac smile – but judging by the way he’s blushing now, it looks like this guy could take encouragement from anything.

“I’m fine, thanks, Stephen,” she answers, ignoring the glare aimed at her by the straight-laced secretary. “How are you?”

“Oh good, good.” He hasn’t even glanced my way yet. I’m one short step from thrusting my hand in his face, introducing myself as her partner, and leaving him to draw his own conclusions from that when Mac pulls out her checkbook and slides into idle conversation.

“How’s your little boy doing? He was getting ready for a school play last I heard, wasn’t he?”

Stephen looks surprised by this, and maybe a tad . . . disconcerted? I lift an eyebrow and adjust Jingo on my hip. The plot thickens.

“Ah, yeah,” he answered hesitantly. “He was the frog in ‘Wind in the Willows’ . . . uh, did I mention that last time?”

Blithely ignoring the man’s discomfiture, Mac begins making out the check. “Oh no, I was talking to your wife in the waiting room while I was here. She’s a great lady,” she continued absently, filling out the check for $550, making a show of meticulously crossing her t’s. A new light of respect shines in the secretary’s eyes, and I must admit, I am similarly impressed at Mac’s smooth redirection. “So good with people. I’m not very good at that kind of thing myself.”

That’s actually true. You wouldn’t guess it to watch her in court or bossing a bunch of junior officers around, but Mac is basically shy around strangers, especially those not in the military. She’s great at directing conversation away from herself, then making the most of the fact that she’s an excellent listener, but mingling was a hard-won skill for her, and one she tells me she’s still working on. We make a good team at parties; I help her make conversation, she reminds me to let others do the talking once in awhile.

“What time should I come pick him up, Stephen?” she asks with a friendly smile as she hands her check to the iron-haired lady.

“Ah, he should be ready around four or so,” the doctor answers, snapping himself back to reality. “But you’ll have to keep an eye on him the rest of the night.”

She’s nodding gamely when I make my presence known. “Sweetheart – ” damned if I’m leaving any doubt in the creepy vet’s mind as to his chances with my Mac – “I’m in court today until five. Can we wait until then?”

At first, she doesn’t even seem to notice what I’ve called her. “That’s all right, Harm. I’ll just – ” That’s when the ‘sweetheart’ hits her. She opens her mouth, closes it, and frowns at me suspiciously. “I’ll just, ah, take a JAG car home tonight.”

I’m about to protest. I’d rather she wait for me than have to deal with this dude alone, regardless of the fact that she’s doubtless done it dozens of times before.

“The office closes at 4:30, isn’t that right, Patrice?” she asks before I can open my mouth.

“Mm-hmm,” Patrice replies, focused primarily on filing Mac’s check.

“Okay then.” She takes Jingo from me and sets him gently on the floor, stooping to plant a kiss on his graying head. “I’ll see you later, buddy.”

Stephen opens the divider and Jingo ambles bravely into the inner sanctum. When he’s out of sight, I take Mac’s arm and steer her towards the front door.

“See you at four,” she calls over her shoulder. I don’t bother with a farewell since I never got a hello.

“All the vets in this city, and you have to choose him,” I mutter in disgust as we walk down the stairs.

“Give me a break, Harm.” She rolls her eyes and tugs her arm from my grasp, so I settle my hand on the small of her back instead. It’s more comfortable there anyway. “He’s close to my apartment, his prices are reasonable, and he’s got great hours.”

I’m about to burst across the street, confident that traffic will halt in my wake. Mac restrains me with a hand on my arm as a Volvo tears past, then practically drags me to the car by my tie.

“He’s also a philandering scum bucket,” I add. “That guy was coming on to you. I bet he never even told you he was married.”

I know I’m right when she tosses a glare at me over the hood of the Lexus. “For God’s sake, Harm, he was hardly even flirting. He’s just . . . friendly, that’s all.”

“Give me a break, Mac. I’m a guy too, you know. I know how it’s done.”

I get the arched eyebrow at that. “How what’s done, Harmon?”

Damn it, it’s 0745. I’m not ready for this yet. Any sane woman would take warning at the frustrated growl that rumbles in my throat. Mac just stares at me, sassy and expectant. “Door’s open,” I tell her, thoroughly exasperated, as I slide behind the wheel.

Her eyes are laughing at me. I don’t even have to look at her to feel it. With a jerk, I pull the car into gear and shove another cookie into my mouth. I’m still chewing when I ask, “So where are you taking me for breakfast?”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Mac let me pick the breakfast spot, and I decided to cut her some slack by choosing Denny’s instead of Farley’s Froot Smoothie Bar. We got to work at Mac’s usual time – still half an hour before I would have considered showing my face on a Monday – and the day has passed without incident, unless you count Bud choking on his water at the staff meeting an incident. Singer slapped him on the back so hard I think he’ll be bruised, but eventually he coughed it out.

Mac was gone over lunch, so I settled for a tuna fish sandwich a la carte. I’m presently on my way to the courtroom but decide to make a quick detour to my partner’s office now that she’s back.

She glances up from her paperwork and smiles when I pound on her doorframe with the side of my fist. “Hey,” I say, stepping inside without an invite.

“I thought you had court.”

“I’m on my way now. Did you fill out the car requisition forms yet?” I like to take care of her, even when I have to pretend she really needs it.

She waves the sheet in front of her. “Got it right here. Just don’t tell Gunny it’s going to be used for canine transport.”

With mocking solemnity, I cross my fingers over my heart. “How is this going to work out anyway?”

“Well,” she muses, drumming her fingers thoughtfully on her desk, “I take the JAG-mobile home tonight and drive in with it tomorrow. Then I’ll just get Gunny to give me a ride home tomorrow night or something.”

I put on my most beguiling I-have-a-better-idea expression. “What for? You’re still going with me to Admiral Burke’s ceremony tomorrow afternoon, right? I’ll just give you a lift home after that.”

Her face falls, but I don’t take offense when she sighs, “Oh, that’s right, that’s tomorrow. Why would they have something like that on a Tuesday?”

I shrug and turn back to the door. “He’s getting an award from the President. Gotta work around the Big Cheese’s schedule.”

“Oh yeah. Can’t cut the Cheese, can we?”

That was literally painful. I let out a loud groan that I’m sure gains the attention of a few clerks in the bullpen and wince dramatically. “I’m leaving now. Wish me luck in court.”

“Good luck,” she calls as I stride out of her office. I give her a backward wave without looking around.

 

TUESDAY:

 

I love Tuesdays. I’m not sure exactly why, but they always put me in a good mood. Just the name itself – ‘Tuesday’ – seems like such a happy, hopeful word. On a Tuesday, you’ve got a one-day weekend buffer. But you still have three days left in the week to deal with anything difficult that might come up.

For my partner, Tuesdays are too close to Mondays to be enjoyable. But I don’t really hate Mondays, at least not enough to color my perception of their cheerful neighbor day. Harm thinks I’m the antichrist when I admit that. I also know he understands just a little why I don’t share in his dislike of the first day of the workweek.

When I was young, I was the polar opposite of every kid in my class, loving Mondays and dreading Fridays, for the simple fact that life at school was vastly preferable to my life at home. Of course, the more my homework load increased, the easier it was for me to overcome my weekend bias, and now I look forward to Fridays just as eagerly as the next person. However, I still can’t bring myself to truly hate the one day of the week that was once my salvation. But for as long as I can remember, I’ve been particularly fond of
Tuesdays.

Today dawns bright and chilly, the first hint of a cold winter to come whispering through the crisp October air. Jingo and I spend a couple extra minutes on our morning walk, which is slower today than usual; his joints are still a little sore from the injections Dr. Stephen gave him yesterday. His eyes aren’t a hundred percent yet either, but he’ll be all right by himself for the day. He loves being outside in this weather, and so do I. Maybe the ceremony today won’t be so bad after all.

I ramble to work in the clunker of a government sedan I hauled home last night. God, will I be glad to get back in my corvette tomorrow. It’s all fixed and waiting for me in the lot behind my apartment complex, a fact which makes it even harder for me to drive the old Ford into the office.

I’m the first one in, as usual, although Gunny is hot on my heels, making it into the building in time to hold the elevator door for me. What a man. I have absolutely no idea how he’s managed to stay single this long except through sheer force of will. If I were female enlisted and hadn’t met Rabb, Victor Galindez would very likely have to beat me off with a stick.

My morning is pretty quiet – just an appellate hearing and a petition to write – and most of the officers on staff have the afternoon off to attend Admiral Burke’s retirement fete. He’s to be presented a medal of commendation on the lawn of the White House, with an outdoor reception to follow. Burke served in Vietnam and the Gulf War and has been a vital player at the Pentagon for almost a decade. He’s also a personal friend of General Colin Powell, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and our own Admiral Chegwidden. Needless to say, all the stops will be pulled out and pulled hard for this service. There will be a lot of stuffy officials there, with no pomp or circumstance spared, but it should really be something to see.

The hearing goes off without a hitch. Some of the evidence against my client was wrongfully admitted at trial, as the judge readily agreed once I clearly outline my argument. My paperwork is monotonous and trying, but I finish before lunch despite two interruptions from Harm and Singer’s constant pestering about a minor case on which I am her lucky co-counsel.

No sooner do I send my petition to the printer than Harm pops his head in my open door.

“Hey,” he says brightly, his eyes flitting around in an aimless fashion before finally landing on me. “Want to go get some lunch before the big shindig?”

He looks at me that way, and I can’t help but smile. He’s so adorable today, all dashing and dapper. The ceremony this afternoon is, in his mind, a pleasant little diversion from the daily grind. And I suppose he’s right – even if the speeches and presentation are bound to run long and there is forced socialization with total strangers afterwards, at least we get to be out in the fresh air rather than cooped up indoors. And a few hours in an uncomfortable folding chair just might beat spending the day behind my desk, buried in documents and carbon paper.

“Actually,” I answer, sorting various forms into piles on my desk, “I brought something from home – figured I’d just grab a bite at the party.”

“Oh.” His face falls before my eyes, and I have to bite back a grin when he looks down and shuffles his feet. Some days, I could just eat him up.

“There’s plenty for you if you take me someplace nice.”

He glances up at my offer and shrugs a little. “You sure?”

I hold back a snort of exasperation, certain it will only hurt his feelings. Right now, he’s wondering if I really want to share my food and my company or if I’m just asking to be nice. Numbskull.

“Yes, I’m sure,” I reply with patience that’s a touch exaggerated. He knows he’s my best friend, after all; of course I want to spend time with him. Besides, I packed extra this morning for just such an occasion. I know him even better than he thinks.

As previously agreed, Harm drives us into the city. After a limited debate on the merits of street versus garage parking, we abandon the Lexus and take to the streets. A bench on one of the promenades near the Capitol gets the lucky privilege of hosting our impromptu lunch date. It’s a great place to people watch, which is one of our favorite games. Our fare includes two sandwiches – peanut butter and jelly, as those are the only sandwich fixings in my house – an apple, some grapes, and a handful of cookies. I tear the crusts off my bread and toss them to the birds. Harm lectures me on why this is an unhealthy practice – for bird and man – before digging into his sandwich with gusto.

“Is this soy peanut butter?” He looks at me almost reproachfully; he’s always telling me how beneficial soy is for the female body.

“Yes,” I reply without hesitation.

This is a bald-faced lie, and we both know it. I have never, will never willingly purchase or consume any soy-based product, although I suspect Harm sometimes slips Silk into my coffee when I’m not looking. Harm accepts the lie to set his mind at ease and because he secretly likes the real stuff better than that sissy, natural crap.

After taking two bites of the apple, Harm turns and hands it to me. “Let’s play ‘Guess Who’s a Fed,’” he suggests with boyish enthusiasm. He loves that game.

I nibble on the apple and glance around in consideration before giving it back. “Okay. Those two over there.” I point discretely at two suits that walk from their shoulders on down, as though a steel pole has unfortunately drilled each one up the ass.

He eyes them critically for a moment, then nods, chewing loudly. “Definitely. Four-zip. The lady with the huge purse over there.”

I don’t have to look twice; she’s still wearing her ID tag on the lapel of her bright red coat. That’s like shooting fish in a barrel – very unsportsmanlike, in my opinion.

“Easy prey, squid. I’ll give her to you, but only because you need a handicap. Four-two.”

He grabs his chest in mock agony and tosses what’s left of the apple at me. “Please. Didn’t I kick your six the last three times we played this game?”

I roll my eyes so hard they hurt. “Actually, I won two out of three, Mr. I-can-smell-‘em-a-mile-away. And correct me if I’m wrong, but . . . wasn’t your one win the result of a lucky sighting of a federal lunch meeting, which you caught first only because of a gross advantage in height?”

The glower he shoots at me makes me want to nip at his chin and tickle his sides until he laughs. To distract myself, I pop a few grapes in my mouth.

“Are you going to take your turn or not?”

I better go before the glare turns into a pout. “Okay . . . that couple. The man and woman smoking at ten o’clock.”

He checks the coordinates, narrows his eyes, and waits. As we watch, the pair makes their way toward the Capitol. Harm opens his mouth to deny my claim but closes it when we catch sight of the shoulder holsters distorting the fabric of their jackets.

“All right,” he mutters reluctantly. “Six-two. Ooo!”

Forgetting his previous burst of petulance, he nudges me urgently with his elbow. “I’ve got a quartet!”

“A quartet?”

“There.” He leans closer and points out four middle-aged guys striding down Constitution Avenue with all the arrogance in the world and, judging by their sober, superior expressions, the weight of national security on their shoulders. They walk past
FBI Headquarters, and I frown. This is a tough call.

“I don’t know, Harm,” I say in my most uncertain drawl. “They could be Secret Service.”

“No way!” He’s grabbed my arm and is all but bouncing up and down with his excitement. For just a minute, I am sidetracked by the idea of what it would be like to have a family, raise children with this man, and a soft smile steals over my face before I can stop it. “They’d be wearing sunglasses. Besides, the SS is still a federal agency.”

I make a bigger show than necessary about conceding this one to him. He needs the encouragement. “Okay,” I say, heaving a giant sigh of defeat. “You’ve got me there. Ten-six. I need a minute now, to come up with something great in return.” I wiggle my eyebrows at him mischievously. “I think I need to go for the double-point score.”

This means finding the agent who looks so un-agent-like, picking him as a fed out of the crowd is a true feat of skill. Harm snorts, and I decide it’s a very unattractive sound coming from him. “Good luck.”

My partner has polished off the rest of the grapes and twenty percent of the cookie supply when I spot him. There, on the bench directly across from us, finishing up a castle burger is the man who will win me back my dignity. Under my watchful eye, he rises, throws his trash in the nearby receptacle, and brushes off his hands with far more fastidiousness than would be expected of a scruffy-looking, guitar-toting man whose hair is too long and whose clothes are dusty and patched. His eyes, I notice, are not glassy and dull, like those of so many people dusty from spending their days and sometimes nights on the streets. Instead, they dance around intently, pausing just long enough to take in every facet of his surrounding environment. When he leans over to snag his backpack from the bench, I see the cell phone and pager clipped to his expensive leather belt. And his running shoes are new.

“That guy,” I murmur to Harm.

He looks surprised – must have decided I’d given up and accepted the loss. Fat chance.

“The one right across from us getting up from the bench,” I elaborate without taking my eyes from my winning play.

It takes Harm a moment to assure himself he’s looking at the right person. “That guy?” he asks incredulously, eyebrows rising past his hairline. “Get real, Mac. He probably spends his days with a bottle and a joint in his hands, not a gun and a badge.”

I am unperturbed. “Just wait.”

Together, we watch him. My confidence increases with every step he takes. I know that walk too well. After countless hours spent playing this game on the Hill, we both do. Harm slumps further and further down in his seat. He lets out a groan when the man he passed over as a washed-out hippie marches up to the J. Edgar Hoover building and breezes through the employees’ entrance.

Simultaneously, we turn to look at each other. I don’t gloat, but it is a near thing.

“Unbelievable.” That’s all he says.

“Ten-ten,” I announce with a grin. “Let’s call it a draw. Truce?”

He grasps the hand I extended, shakes it companionably. “Truce. Don’t you want any of these cookies?”

I shrug. “I’ll take one.”

“Where’s the rest of my half, anyway? You didn’t eat them already, did you?”
His tone is joking; Harm knows even I couldn’t pound down four dozen cookies in three days. Nonetheless, he could use a mild scolding, just to keep him from getting too smug.

“No,” I smirk, slapping him lightly on the arm. By tacit agreement, I hold the paper bag open while he shovels in the refuse of our meal. “They’re waiting for you on my counter. You can come up tonight and get them when you bring me home.”

“’Kay.” He stands and hauls me up by the hand. I wish he didn’t have to let go so soon. “Come on, Mac. Don’t want to be late.”

I smile, ditch the garbage, and trot along after him.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

We arrive squarely in the middle of the count of expected guests, which as any conservative partygoer will tell you is the best place to be. The friendly PA officer stationed at the entrance to the gardens informs us we can take any seats we like outside the first five rows, then points out a table full of beverages – non-alcoholic, of course – off to the left. Harm guides me there with a light touch on my back, taking advantage of his long arms to reach over the average-sized officers in his way and grab two bottles of water before resuming his station at my back. I lead us to a row nearer the back; it’s less conspicuous and also a great vantage point from which to watch those who come in.

When I would’ve lowered myself to the white metal folding chair, Harm holds me up with a hand at my elbow. Before I can do more than frown in confusion, he’s bending over, tugging the handkerchief from his pocket. He does no more than nod at our seats in explanation, gives each a quick swipe with the cloth, and urges me to sit. Thank goodness for quick-thinking flyboys – wouldn’t want to attend an official function with a wet six, after all. Whoever decided to hose these chairs off five minutes before the guests were due to arrive must not have been the brightest in the batch. However, they did give me a chance to see Harm whip out his pristine white handkerchief. There is something so inexplicably, practically sexy about a man who carries a handkerchief.

My mind is wandering blissfully along a path paved with images of Harm and his myriad of sexy features when he pokes at me with his index finger.

“Hey, there’s that nerdy commander who works for the SecNav.”

I glance in the direction he’s pointing and see a short, slim man with shoulders stooped from too many hours toiling over a computer and glasses that keep sliding down his dull nose. “Oh, yeah.”

Harm continues, whispering deliciously close to my ear to avoid being overheard. “I hear he came to your office to apologize for trying to pin a murder on you when the Admiral was in charge of his promotional review.”

The sycophantic officer in question turns to fawn over the Secretary, and my eyes narrow in remembered anger. “It was the Admiral’s office, and he didn’t apologize.”

I feel Harm look over at me, gauging my temper through my expression. Wisely, he chooses to sympathize rather than try to draw me out. “Yikes. What do you think he’ll do next time he’s up for review?”

Glancing back at poor, innocent Harm, my bad mood evaporates. It’s useless to hold a grudge against someone like the SecNav’s golden boy – unhealthy both mentally and professionally. Instead, I flash my partner a wink and a saucy smile. “Probably bend over and grab his ankles.”

Completely taken by surprise, Harm busts out laughing, remembering just in time that this is a sober occasion, and he must therefore refrain from all outbursts of emotion. He chokes it in so that it sounds like something strangled between a cough and a sneeze. The military matron in front of us half-turns, frowns in disgruntlement, and re-crosses her legs.

“Mac!” The whisper is harsh, but his grin belies the chastising tone. “I can’t believe you just said that.” This is imparted matter-of-factly, as though he really cannot conceive of those words having passed my lips. Please. My mind and mouth are seven or eight times dirtier than any sailor’s, and well this one knows it. Nevertheless, I fall back on a feminine display of primness and pride, delicately uncapping my water bottle.

“Well, it’s true.” My shrug and the accompanying doe-eyed expression are completely lacking in guile. I wait for him to pursue the subject further, but something cheap and red catches my attention. It’s Singer’s manicure. Wonderful.

“Look who showed up,” I say softly, nodding in her direction. She’s currently doing some fawning of her own, over a captain who’s running to fat and old enough to be her father. I can’t tell exactly who it is until he shifts closer to her to share a chuckle and his face comes into full view. Sick shit.

“Well, she was technically invited.” The amusement in his voice says he’s only defending her to get to me. “I didn’t really think she’d show though. Most of the other junior officers begged off on this one. Even Bud bailed on us.”

“Harriet and AJ are both sick,” I remind him, watching with a sort of disinterested disgust as Lauren drops her hand onto the captain’s arm and dazzles him with a simpering smile.

“Who’s that guy she’s with?”

“That,” I inform him, pausing to take a quick drink, “is her former CO from the base in upstate New York. Captain Art Shields.” Who happens to be married and the father of three girls, two of whom are themselves in the service. But who cares about a technicality like that when you’ve got a subordinate eager to jump your bones at any opportunity?

Harm hesitates a moment, frowns in that way he does when he forms an unproven conclusion based on highly convincing circumstantial evidence. “They seem . . . friendly.”

“Yeah,” I agree amiably, taking another dainty sip and casually crossing my legs. “If you look close enough, you can see the imprint of his dick on her lower lip.”

The water Harm had just then poured into his mouth makes its reappearance as a geyser shooting between his pursed lips, complemented by an elephantine, and painful sounding, snort. While he sputters his airway clear, the woman in front of him shudders dramatically, glares at him with enough ice to freeze boiling water, and huffs off to another seat further front. I simply roll my eyes at her back. Harm ducked his head after all; I don’t think he got her. Too bad.

All calm composure, I pat my partner on the back until his coughing fit runs its course. From his hunched position, he stares up at me with a mixture of shock, hilarity, and awe, his mouth hanging open in a half-grin.

“I think – ” The handkerchief has an encore performance, jerked out of his breast pocket to mop his face and misty slacks, and it takes all my willpower not to swoon. “I think water came out of my nose, Mac!”

That was probably too loud, and I’m sure any neighbors that weren’t looking at us after his spontaneous explosion are now, but all I can do is grin. God, is this fun. “Oh, did it go down the wrong pipe?” I ask ingenuously, rubbing my palm in circles on his back.

He merely arches an eyebrow, leans back and crosses his arms.

“Well, Harm, how else did you think she got transferred to JAG Headquarters two years out of law school, without even doing a tour first? She’s not good, after all.”

I glance up to find his head shaking back and forth. He still looks a little dazed and impossibly cute. “You are, Marine.”

“Why thank you, Sailor.”

Between the two of us, the ceremony passes in a blur of odd observations, well-timed wisecracks, and suppressed giggles.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

The whole affair is – surprisingly – done around three. We hang around for fifteen minutes, hobnobbing with governmental officials and the Navy’s upper crust like good little officers. The Admiral is catching up with Admiral Burke and some old war buddies, and Carolyn is introducing Alan Mattoni to some of her old Academy friends, so Harm and I are on our own.

We circulate near the buffet table, occasionally agreeing to divide and conquer when one or the other of us gets caught up with an acquaintance. Then some lieutenant commander from NCIS starts hitting on me, and Harm gets pissed and hauls me out of the garden. I would have been mad if guy wasn’t such a sleaze ball, and if Harm didn’t look so amazing when he’s jealous. I settle for mild annoyance and give him a hard time about dragging me away from the man who could have been my dream date.

By the time we get to my apartment, he’s angry enough at my teasing not to want to come up. Fortunately, I’ve still got the promise of his cookies to lure him in when my laughing apologies don’t do the trick.

“Bring your briefcase,” I call as I climb out of the Lexus. “We can do our paperwork here while we play hooky.”

He grumbles for a second, but follows me up with his briefcase in hand.

My apartment is a little cool, just the way I like it. Blanket and sweats weather – what could be better? We kick off our shoes, and I flop down on the couch while Harm hustles into the kitchen to grab his snack. Jingo bounds out of the bedroom, happy to see me before four o’clock in the afternoon and, as always, excited to see Harm, who comes shuffling into the living room, shoveling cookies into his mouth with one hand, holding a Coke and a dog biscuit in the other.

He tries to make Jingo sit before giving him the treat, but the poor old guy is bouncing around so much he can’t stay down for more than a few seconds. Harm hands me the soda and holds the dog’s haunches down for a count of five.

“Good boy,” he praises, relinquishing the little bone-shaped snack and scratching Jingo vigorously behind the ears.

I watch the scene with a melting heart – my two boys get along so well together. Jingo adores Harm, even though he’s not a big sucker like me, who doesn’t ask for a performance before giving him a doggie treat. And I know Harm would’ve given Jingo the biscuit even if he hadn’t been able to remain sitting. Just goes to show whom the disciplinarian would be in a Rabb-MacKenzie family, I suppose.

Jingo finishes his bone, licks Harm on the face, and stretches out contentedly at our feet. I crack open the Coke and drink a little before Harm snags it and finishes it off in three long gulps.

“I’m going to go change,” I say, pushing myself up with a sigh. Harm merely shrugs out of his jacket, unbuttons the sleeves and collar of his shirt, and loosens his tie. I’m almost to the bedroom when the phone rings. Great. I’m never home this early; it’s got to be either work or a telemarketer, neither of which I’m very anxious to hear from at the moment.

“Hello?” I begin unbuttoning the jacket and blouse of my dress uniform, glance up to find Harm watching me intently.

“Mac? This – this is Sydney Walden.”

Her frantic voice pulls my attention from the blush climbing up my neck, for which I am distractedly grateful.

“Dr. Walden?” Harm looks surprised, then adopts my worry when he sees me frown. “How are you? Is everything all right?”

“No,” she says, and even over the phone line I can hear the shake in her breath. “It’s Danny . . . my son? I don’t know if you ever met . . .”

“Danny joined the Navy, didn’t he?” I ask in my calmest voice, hoping to draw out whatever it is that’s got her so upset. “Has something happened to him?”

“Oh, Mac . . . He’s – he’s in jail . . . the brick . .. whatever it is you call it.”

“Okay, Dr. Walden, just take a deep breath and tell me what you can. Have you called the Admiral yet?”

“No!” she cries on a half-gasp, half-sob. “No, I couldn’t. I can’t go to AJ with this, I just can’t. I was hoping you could help me – ”

She sounds like she’s getting hysterical enough to hang up if I don’t comply immediately, so I interrupt her as soothingly as possible. “Of course I can. Why don’t you just tell me what happened.” Harm is still watching me, and I motion for him to hand me the pen and pad of paper on top of his briefcase.

“Danny called me just a little while ago,” Sydney begins with tenuous control. “His ship docked at Norfolk this weekend . . . I was going to go visit him. . .”

I break in again, trying to keep her on track. “Okay, Sydney, did something happen?”

‘What’s going on?’ Harm mouths, eyebrows raised to beneath his hairline as he clamors closer to the phone. I wave dismissively at him, motion him to wait ‘til I’m done.

“He was so upset when he called,” Sydney explains, sounding weary and weepy. “I couldn’t understand much of what he was saying, then we got cut off . . . It was something about – I think he was drunk and bragging . . . ? And then suddenly he was involved in a drug deal, and they were arrested. His trial is tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow in Norfolk?”

“Yes. Mac, this is his second offense. Last time, AJ got him out of any punishment, but I don’t think he’ll be so lucky this time. I know it’s asking a lot, but . . . could you go down there and help him? I know AJ and I – ”

I don’t want to give her a chance to get into the details of her break-up with the Admiral or to start feeling bad about calling me for help. I liked Sydney – still do actually, despite how much she hurt one of my closest friends – and I hate to see her so upset. “I’d be glad to go down to Norfolk, Sydney,” I assure her calmly. “I’ll find out the facts and do the best I can.”

“Oh, thank you. Thank you so much, Mac.” She sounds like she’s back on the verge of tears, so I figure now is as good a time as any to bring up the bad news.

“Sydney, I’m going to have to call the Admiral, to get the day off tomorrow. I’ll try to keep the explanation as brief as possible, but . . .” Even as I make that promise, I’m regretting it; I hate lying to the Admiral.

There’s a pause on the other end as she considers this statement and its implications. “I understand.”

“Maybe you should give him a call,” I urge, not above a last-ditch effort. “I know he’d be glad to hear from you – ”

“No, I couldn’t,” she insists again, sounding as desperate to convince herself as she is to convince me. “I can’t face him with this.”

“Sydney, the Admiral would never say ‘I told you so.’ He would want to help you through this.”

An even longer pause follows. “I-I’ll think about it,” she answers at last, and I can tell I’ve pushed far enough.

“I’ll call you as soon as I know anything.”

“Thanks again, Mac.” Her voice is faint and watery, and my heart goes out to her.

“Anytime, Sydney.” Softly, I hang up the phone and turn to my partner, who by this point is eager out of his mind.

“Mac, what’s going on? That was Dr. Walden? What did she want?”

I heave a giant sigh and drop back onto the couch at his side. “Her son is in the brig.”

“What’s the charge?” he asks with a suspicious frown, and I know he’s already got some idea based on his knowledge of Danny’s history.

Looking down at my notebook for a minute before deciding the limited notes I took aren’t going to give any answers, I run a hand through my hair and toss it onto the coffee table. “Well, as far as I can tell, it’s at least possession, and possibly trafficking.
Trial’s tomorrow. I told Sydney I’d go down there to represent him.”

Harm nods, considering. “You sure are good at that,” he remarks after awhile.

A compliment from Harmon Rabb? There has to be a catch. “Oh?” I arch an eyebrow at him, mentally reviewing what I need to do before leaving for Norfolk. “And what, exactly, is ‘that’?”

The corner of his mouth kicks up in a tiny smile. “Calming people down. Specifically, the Admiral’s girlfriends. This isn’t the first time you’ve had to do it, you know.”

And I do. I remember other instances with Sydney, who usually handled things incredibly well. I remember Laura, who loved those parts of AJ Chegwidden she knew but was invariably frustrated by the parts she didn’t. But more, I remember Renee and Jordan, who never understood the importance or the time commitment Harm gave to his work. I remember Annie, who was so high strung as to be almost unreachable when she fretted on the dangers of a Naval career. And I wonder for at least the millionth time what draws Harm to women like that and what makes me their exact opposite.

“Earth to Mac,” he calls, waving a hand in front of my face. “Come back to me, Colonel.”

I give myself a shake and relax into a smile. This is no time for angst-filled musings, Sarah. “Sorry,” I say, pushing myself as unobtrusively as possible toward the edge of the sofa. “I was just thinking . ..”

“Yeah?”

I shrug to disguise the poised tension of my body. I am ready to run. “Well, at least the Admiral’s women are low-maintenance, which is more than I can say for someone else I know.”

“Ohhh-hoho.” His laugh is half-chuckle, half-warning. “You’re going to…!” The last word comes out in a shout as he lunges for me, fingers wriggling at my sides.

I let out a very un-Marine-like squeal and dash for the bedroom, Harm hot on my heels. He gets the door slammed and locked in his face and beats futilely on it, yelling at me to open up or suffer the consequences. Safe in the confines of my room, I laugh loud enough for him to hear.

“Harm, why don’t you call the Admiral for me while I get changed?”

The pounding stops, and there’s a split second of silence before he calls invitingly, “Sure you don’t need any help?”

Ooo, and what would you do if I took you up on that one, flyboy? I am so tempted to find out, but on the off chance that he might react with a coronary, I give him a break. “Maybe next time.”

“Just say the word,” he says, though his voice already sounds further away. That’s my Harm – all bark and no bite.

It takes me three minutes and fifty-four seconds to freshen up, change into my khakis, and dump all my toiletries into my purse. Grabbing the fully packed suitcase that stands perpetually ready in my closet, I head out to the living room to find Harm holding the phone and looking flustered.

He waits a minute, listening, then sputters, “Well, sir, I think – it’s because . . . No, sir . . . yes, sir.” Jaw clenched, he closes his eyes for a moment in defeat and hands the phone off to me.

“He wants to talk to you.”

I stare at him, puzzled, and mouth, ‘What did you do?’ before raising the phone to my ear. “Admiral?”

“Mac, what’s going on?” He sounds frustrated, and I can only imagine the kind of grief Harm’s given him so far.

“Sir, I need to go down to Norfolk tonight and stay ‘til tomorrow at least. I need to request a day’s leave. I don’t have a court appearance tomorrow, just an appointment that I can get Gunny to reschedule.”

“That’s fine, Colonel, but why do you need Rabb to go with you?”

I look at Harm like he’s a creature from Mars. He studiously avoids my gaze. So he told the Admiral he’s coming with me, did he? What was that all about?

Nevertheless, he is my partner, and it’s practically my sworn duty to cover for him. “Ah, yes sir, I think I could use his help. If you can spare him, that is.”

“Colonel, is everything all right?”

A tide of guilt sweeps up from my stomach so fast it’s hard to swallow against it. Here he is, concerned about my well being, and I’m plotting the best way to mislead him. I am such a heel.

“Actually, sir,” I begin reluctantly, “I just got off the phone with Dr. Walden.”

He is quiet for a long breath, and I bite my lip, wishing I hadn’t told him. Harm’s green eyes focus steadily on my face, and I draw all the support I can from that.

“Sydney called you?” Chegwidden asks at last, suddenly subdued and cautious. “What’s going on, Colonel?”

“Sir, it’s her son. Apparently, he’s in the brig at Norfolk. His ship docked this weekend, and he’s gotten into some trouble. I’ll know more after I get there and talk to him. I’ll – we’ll – leave as soon as possible, sir.”

I don’t hear anything for several seconds. These long silences are killing me. Finally, he speaks, almost angrily. “Why the hell didn’t Sydney call me?” he asks, more to himself than to me. “She knows I’d want to help.”

“Sir,” I say hesitantly. Admiral Chegwidden’s private life is always a touchy subject. At times, he’s receptive to advice; at others, he resents any implied intrusions. “She does know that, I could tell. I think the reason she didn’t come to you right away is because…well, sir, she feels embarrassed. About Danny’s previous problems and probably about her own reactions.”

“You mean you think she thinks I’d rub her nose in it?”

To my dismay, he sounds about ready to crawl through the phone line and chew my ass in person. “No, sir, I don’t think that at all,” I assure him, quickly but calm. “But lawyers know better than anyone that it’s sometimes hard to admit you were wrong. She’ll sort it out eventually, sir, and she knows when she does you’ll be there to help her.”

I swear his sigh lasts thirty full seconds. Desperately, I hope that was the right thing to say. I gather it is when he decides not to press the issue any further.

“Call me with what you find,” he says, back in grim commanding officer mode.

“Yes, sir.” I’m just about to hang up when I hear him again.

“And, Colonel?”

“Sir?”

“Thank you.”

I smile and the line goes dead. Just then, I hear my noble partner trying to scurry away into the kitchen.

“Freeze.”

I turn to face him, and he stops dead in his tracks, pivoting around to look sheepishly at the floor beneath my feet.

“You’re coming with me, Commander?” I ask in my best USMC drill sergeant tone.

He chances a glance at my face and quickly returns his gaze to the floor. “Well, I just thought – ”

“And why did I hear this first from the Admiral, who, I might add, was already wavering on consenting to my trip in the first place?”

He bites his lip nervously, and I give myself a mental pat on the back. Damn, I’m good. Maybe our kids will have more than one loving disciplinarian after all.

“I just thought I could help,” he protests cajolingly. “I’m Dr. Walden’s friend too, you know. Besides, I don’t want you driving to Norfolk alone late at night.”

My expression must be pretty incredulous because he looks down again and shuffles his feet.

“It’s 1613!” I cry, fighting the urge to laugh. “I’ll be there by 1930. And, in case you need a reminder, I am a United States Marine and more than capable of taking care of myself.” He gets this speech every time; it still hasn’t worked its way through that thick skull.

“Come on, Mac,” he coaxes, and I know I’m going to relent without much more persuasion. “You know I can help, and just think how grateful the Admiral’s going to be when we work our magic with that kid.”

I decide I could use a little more warming up. Just a little. “Our magic, huh?” I muse encouragingly.

“You know, Mac.” He moves closer, and his low drawl draws me in. “You, me, the courtroom, a few witnesses . . . subpoenas.” The last word is nothing but a breath against my skin, and the room is suddenly twenty degrees warmer. That same tone, that rhythm of speech, could easily be used to lure a woman, this woman, into bed. God, he’s laying it on thick. I must be just this side of Heaven.

“Ooo, Harm, stop,” I say, doing my best version of ‘coy,’ fanning myself with my hand and batting my eyelashes. “I can barely contain the excitement.”

“Well, why don’t I help you?”

His voice is still so low and seductive, it takes me a minute to realize his hands are headed playfully for my throat, and I remember my earlier comment about his high-maintenance ladies. Dodging out of his grasp, I stand up and say with officious authority, “Come on, stickboy, time to get moving. I’m ready to go, but it’ll probably take you half an hour to pack.”

“Well, I don’t keep a suitcase at the ready like some paranoid Marine, if that’s what you mean,” he pouts grumpily.

I only smile over my shoulder at him as I head toward the door. “We have to take Jingo out one last time before we go, and get things ready for him while we’re gone. Which one do you want?”

He doesn’t hesitate in reaching for the leash. He’s chosen wisely – I don’t think he has any idea what needs to be done to further dog-proof my apartment. While my boys are on a walk, I lay a plastic garbage bag on the floor of my kitchen, in the corner opposite
Jingo’s food and water dishes, then spread newspaper over it. He’s pretty well house trained and is used to going on the paper when I’m not home overnight. I don’t mind cleaning up after his occasional messes, either; being away so much, it’s the least I can do. I fill up his food and water bowls, add another large dish of water, and set out half a dozen dog treats nearby. Finally, I check to make sure his dog bed is dry and in satisfactory condition, shut the doors to my bed- and bathrooms, and give the thermostat and stove burners one last check.

Harm and Jingo reenter three minutes later. I give my dog a brief but affectionate good-bye and promise to be back in a day or two, although I don’t think he understands much of that. Harm grabs my suitcase, I lock up, and we head to his place. It takes him twice as long as me to get ready, and he didn’t even have to change. But then, what can you expect from a squid? When I pose that question to him – rhetorically, of course – he chases me out to the car.

It occurs to me as we merge onto the beltway going south out of the city that we are having an inordinate amount of fun on this case. Maybe that’s because it’s not yet official – it wasn’t even assigned to us by the Admiral, but by his ex-girlfriend. Maybe it’s because we know that, until we get to Norfolk, there’s nothing we can do to help Seaman Danny Walden. And maybe it’s because this is my best friend, and it’s been too long since we’ve had such a good time together.

Even though I know it drives Harm nuts, I flip the radio to a light favorites station and listen in for a song I can sing along with. The music isn’t exactly to my tastes, but the fun of the game makes up for that. “You’re So Vain,” comes on, and I accompany the chorus, causing Harm to wince jokingly. It’s obvious I don’t have the kind of voice he does, but I’m no slouch. Certainly not tone-deaf, in any case.

Once a few years ago, Harm actually told me I had a “good” voice, which, coming from him at the time it did, I took as the next thing to Shakespeare. Of course, I couldn’t tell him that; instead I immediately replied that he should grab his guitar and we could take it to the streets. He retrieved the case from his bedroom in a lame attempt to call my bluff. Please, give me a little more credit than that. I responded by dragging him down to the corner of G and 46th, shoving the instrument into his hands and breaking into a verse of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” I made a dollar thirty-five before he managed to pack away his six-string and haul it, and me, back up to his apartment. He blushed for forty-six minutes afterwards; I laughed for fifty-two.

The memory alone makes me happy enough to rest my head on his shoulder for a moment, where I giggle and linger for the scent of soap and deodorant. Harm looks down at me, startled and, I think, a little pleased.

“What was that for?”

I can’t tell him; he still scolds me when I bring up the ‘hobo incident,’ as he’s entitled it. So I just shrug and answer, “Nothing,” before jumping into the first verse of “Closer to Fine.”

I get the shock of my life when Harm joins me at the chorus, hitting the harmonies without hesitation. Trying not to let him see how surprised I am, afraid he’ll stop singing, I grin so widely my cheeks hurt. The emotion bubbling up in my lungs and bursting through my voice is very near elation. This is why I love this game.

When the song is over and the radio starts blasting commercials, I turn to Harm, tease thrusters on full-blast. “I didn’t know you were such an Indigo Girls fan, partner.”

In profile, I see him roll his eyes. “I’m not. One of my girlfriends in law school liked them quite a bit. She used to drag me to concerts, make me play their songs on my guitar – it was an obsession. A disease really.”

I stare at him until he turns to glance at me, then promptly flash him the raised eyebrow. “One of your old law school girlfriends?” I clarify, my tone dripping with sarcastic awe. “Just how many were there, Superstud?”

He positively glowers at me, and in the corner of my mind, I wonder if he shouldn’t be giving more of his interest to the interstate. I expect him to come back with something along the lines of “Wouldn’t you like to know?” or some other reply calculated to request that I mind my own business. So I’m accordingly amazed when the scowl turns thoughtful.

“Five,” he answers after a moment, his attention once again on the road.

My mouth is hanging open, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I gape at him for forty-three seconds while he ignores my presence. At last, I sputter out, “Five?” more impressed by the fact that he opened up to me about something than by the number itself.

“Five,” he affirms quietly. “Nothing serious. At first, I had just gotten over my crash, and I wasn’t exactly in the frame of mind for a relationship. Then, as I got more involved in my studies, there wasn’t a lot of time. The thing with Indigo Girl Number Three was the longest. Eight months.”

It takes me longer than it should to process this information and formulate a coherent reply. “What happened?” I ask with careful curiosity.

He shrugs in a very male fashion. “I got sick of hearing their album every minute of the day. And that’s not a joke,” he adds when his eyes dart over and catch my grin. “So, what about you, Ninja Girl?”

Oh, there is so much more I want to hear about his half of this subject. I want names, dates, pros, and cons. I want to hear that they didn’t mean anything to him. I want to ask about Diane, but part of me already knows; they talked on the phone, wrote letters, kept in touch because they had to, because they loved each other. It was carefully noncommittal, of course. Just like the line of communication Harm and I maintained when he left to fly. Because it hurts too much to draw comparisons between Diane and myself, I focus on the subject at hand. He’s just asked me about my boyfriends in law school, and turnabout is fair play.

I clear my throat, ask with light naivety that sounds fake even to my ears, “What about me?”

“How many men courted the great Sarah MacKenzie during her three years at Duke?” he expounds with exaggerated patience.

I make a show of frowning in consideration, tilting my head from side to side and using the fingers of both hands to count silently. Harm notices my expression and laughs. The sound masks my reply.

“What was that?”

“Only one,” I repeat, softer now and introspective as I remember.

“Only one guy hit on you the whole time you were there?” He sounds gratifyingly incredulous. “That’s impossible, Mac!”

“I didn’t say that,” I counter, secretly pleased by the backhanded compliment. “Only one guy dated me while I was there.”

Harm is quiet for several moments, opens his mouth twice to speak before shutting it with a frown. He doesn’t like this new development, I can tell. On the third try, his vocal powers appear to be restored.

“So what happened?”

I sigh a little, kick my feet up onto the dashboard. My shoes have long since disappeared. Harm turns down the radio and switches on cruise control.

“First year, I pretty much kept to myself,” I begin, deciding to give him a little background. “Everything was so new, and I was trying so hard, getting the rhythm down. Weekends were for homework and reserve duty – you know the drill.”

He smiles and nods encouragingly, his eyes expectant.

“Second year I was in a tax law class. A guy in his third year always sat near me, and one day he told me he needed a tutor. I took the job. A few months later, we started seeing each other socially. He was a really great guy, very sweet, very considerate. We just got together a few times a week, went out for dinner, played tennis, hiked around the city. I didn’t think it was anything serious. I never told him about my parents, my alcoholism, Chris. I didn’t think he needed to know.”

All the memories of my second year of law school come flooding back, and after avoiding them for so long, I’m surprised to realize just how little James Bales, charming 3L, features in them. Suddenly it is so easy to talk about this, easy to realize how little it means now. It can’t hurt me anymore, and it doesn’t.

Harm is looking at me again, watching and waiting, wondering if he should back off. I smile at him warmly in reassurance. “The night before he graduated, he invited me over. His apartment was spotless, the light was low. He had champagne and candles, the whole nine yards. After dinner, he said he’d accepted a position in Philadelphia, which I’d known for weeks. Then he told me he’d looked into it, and it would be no problem for me to transfer to Penn for my last year of law school. I would quit the Corps and we’d live together in Philly. ‘Simple as that, Sarah.’”

I swear Harm’s eyes are about to pop out of his skull. “Are you kidding me? What did you do?”

“First, I wanted to laugh,” I recall with a measure of grim amusement. “I was sure he had to be joking, even though it was obvious he wasn’t. Then I told him I wasn’t leaving, wished him luck, and headed for the door. He pulled me back, accused me of leading him on. I denied it, he called me an ‘emotionless robot,’ I popped him in the nose, and left. My temper was a lot worse back then,” I conclude with a little smile for Harm’s benefit.

“Yeah,” he muses, rubbing a hand along his chin. “The Sarah MacKenzie I know would never haul off on a pompous, arrogant asshole, no matter how presumptuous and disrespectful he was being. That doesn’t sound like my Marine at all.”

That’s one of the nicest things Harm has ever said to me. His next words only make it better, and remind me again how lucky I am to have him for a friend.

“Seriously, Mac, that guy was a jerk. Definitely not worth wasting your time on. If I wasn’t sure you’d broken his nose with your right jab all those years ago, I’d track him down and finish the job myself.”

Inside, I am glowing, so it’s somewhat difficult to paste a warning grimace on my face. “Hey, it wasn’t many years ago!” He only chuckles. “Besides, how did you know it was a right jab?”

“You always lead with your right,” he answers simply, and inexplicably my enchantment increases another notch. How can a statement like that sound so absolutely perfect?

“Harm . . .”

He glances over at me, and I just smile at him, my heart in my eyes. His own are quizzical for a split second before he returns the smile full-force.

“Let’s find some music we can agree on.”

Obediently, he flips the dial to a classic rock station and we settle in for the long drive ahead.

 

 

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