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Classification Episode Reaction, Romance (H/M)
Length Approximately 28,000 words; 65 pages (8 ˝” x 11”)
Spoilers Through “A Merry Little Christmas” in Season 9
Rating GS

 

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

It was the music that steered Mac from her usual walking trail and led her down the narrower path that curved along the frozen pond. A brass band and Billie Holiday singing ‘That Ole Devil Called Love.’ Overhead, an ancient pair of loudspeakers were crackling like an old gramophone, sending the 1940’s tune and its sultry jazz-club atmosphere through the park and into the night sky.

The music lured her, but the scene that emerged from behind a cover of thick trees had Mac instantly frozen in awe. It was like something out of a fairytale. There were Christmas lights woven in the tree tops; there were sparkling banks of snow. There were green and red floodlights casting circles of color on the ice surface, like giant, etched ornaments. There were dozens of skaters gliding and twirling.

What was normally a duck pond during the summer months was now a skating pond, and to Mac—or at least to the little girl inside of her that could still imagine such a thing—the pond and all its adornments looked like an elaborate, life-sized music box. For a moment she forgot about the chilly breath of winter and the gloves that were doing very little to keep her fingers warm. For a moment she even forgot about what had sent her outdoors in the first place—that need to contemplate the pitiful state of her life, something she’d been putting off lately in favor of working longer hours and pretending everything was okay with her world.

It was as though she’d been transported to an entirely different park, one she wasn’t familiar with, one she hadn’t jogged through three times a week for the past eight years. A dream park. One that could rival any childhood Christmas dream, even Clara’s in the Nutcracker.

Though the activity could sometimes amaze her, she knew very little about figure skating—or skating, period. She enjoyed watching it on TV in the same way she enjoyed any performance by the Washington Ballet. The music, the costumes, the entertainment value. But this was far better than any performance she’d ever seen on ice or on stage—because this wasn’t a performance at all. These skaters’ movements weren’t choreographed. This was real. Magical, but real.

Only a chest-high chain-link fence separated her from the activity below, but it kept her in the shadows, and in the shadows was where she wanted to stay. In solitude, she could watch the magic play out a little while longer, pretend that she was part of it. Part of the joy. Part of the togetherness she saw.

Part of a family.

The pond was filled with them. Moms and dads, brothers and sisters, grandparents. She watched a chubby toddler who glided stiffly, stretched between two siblings gripping his mitten-covered hands. She watched a couple with a baby no more than a year old who took to the ice in very professional-looking skates, the baby held high and secure in his father’s arms. She watched a young girl who managed a one-foot spin while her mother clapped and hooted in encouragement. Youngsters were everywhere. On wooden benches, kids in snowsuits waited not so patiently as their parents bent in front of them to tighten their laces. Others sat exhausted and rosy-cheeked, their tired feet dangling as their parents pressed Styrofoam cups of hot chocolate into their cold hands. Still others complained loudly, having had enough fun for one night, demanding that their mom or dad or grandparent remove their skates which had suddenly become objects of unbearable torture.

It all brought a wistful smile to Mac’s face. Leaning against the fence, she let out a sigh that almost sounded like contentment, even to her own ears. In the current state of her life, this would have to do—this little glimpse of happiness shared by others. In a season of miracles, she was sure that this little vista was hers.

This vista, and seeing Harm with Mattie on Christmas Eve, she thought with a tiny pang of self-pity. The most special gifts she’d received this year seemed to have a common theme: they were all gifts of observation. She could look, but she couldn’t touch. She could help, but she couldn’t take part.

Wondering if things would ever feel normal between her and Harm again, trying to recall a time when their friendship hadn’t been awkward on so many different levels, she rubbed her gloved hands together to keep them warm. Her nose was already numb and running; her foggy breath had already turned her dark red scarf into a stiff muffler of ice crystals. Maybe it was time to move on, she thought, then let out a little cheerless laugh. Emotionally, moving on was impossible. Six months of heartache had proven that. It was too bad, really—had there been any hope at all of getting over him, it would have made a great new year’s resolution.

Nevertheless, in the literal sense, in the here and now, physically moving on was a must. The cold demanded it. She had to leave this little magical world behind and head home to that empty apartment—the one she’d decorated fervently like Martha Stewart on Prozac. Like someone who was preparing herself for a window dressing job at Saks. Like some crazy Christmas junkie.

Like a foolishly wishful robin, pointlessly readying her nest for offspring that would never come.

God, how pathetic was she, she wondered, that she could be motivated and inspired to turn her little apartment into a Good Housekeeping photo-shoot-ready display purely on this ever-growing longing for motherhood? She’d gone all out this year—the tree trimmed to perfection, the wreaths on the doors, the holly, the ivy, the mistletoe—without ever expecting a visitor. She did it for absolutely no one.

She did it for the family she didn’t have, she realized grimly.

When was she ever going to stop feeling this way, she wondered, watching her breath disappear as she sighed heavily into the night. Was there a way to fix this strange condition with any kind of permanence? Was it only a seasonal imbalance of hormones, or the sound of that famous clock ticking? Was it simply human nature?

Or was it just Harm?

Ironically, he was the only other person, besides herself, who had seen the result of her decorating efforts. But that was only a fluke; it didn’t really count. He would have never knocked on her door had he not needed her help in some way… And while he was there, his objectives and the undercurrent of distrust that ran between them hadn’t exactly allowed for that sipping-hot-cocoa-by-the-fire kind of merriment and reflection that friends were supposed to share this time of year.

Though his visit may have had something to do with friendship, it had nothing to do with Christmas. Well, certainly not in the celebratory sense, anyway. It warmed her a little knowing she’d at least been able to make his Christmas a bit more special, a bit more bright. If she could fix nothing else, at least she’d fixed that—that one thing that was too important for her to screw up.

God, could he hurt her! She still felt the bruising from the words he threw before storming out that door. And what’s worse, he knew he was doing it. He knew exactly where to drive the blade in, and lately he’d been doing it rather frequently. The only explanation she had for this behavior was that she’d hurt him just as badly, and he was evening the score in small, painful doses.

Sometimes they were partners and, as partners, they were okay. Yet sometimes as partners they weren’t so okay. Sometimes they were adversaries and, as adversaries, they were far from okay. Yet sometimes as adversaries they were completely okay. It could be challenging and frustrating at times, but that’s what working relationships were all about.

But for the past eight years, they’d been more than just sometimes partners, sometimes adversaries. They’d been friends. They were still friends, and they were friends more than just sometimes. But as friends they were never okay.

They could smile and be hurting at the same time. They could tease and cut sharply with the same remark. They could apologize and insult in the same breath. They could understand each other’s needs and yet be jealous that they weren’t the ones fulfilling them. They could stow their personal baggage while airing each other’s dirty laundry for all the world to see. They could love and hate in equal measure.

There was a cure for the hate. Somewhere in her subconscious mind Mac realized that. What she didn’t quite understand was that both she and Harm held the remedy, only it was locked up tight inside the hearts they guarded and protected so fiercely.

As for the love… Well, there was no cure for loving Harmon Rabb, Jr. She was absolutely sure of that.

Mac took one more long look at the postcard-worthy picture in front of her, just to commit it to memory…

But just as she was about to push away from the fence and head back to her car, she suddenly felt a presence beside her. Her body stiffened instinctively at having her personal space, her solitude, invaded. She held her breath. To her right, the snow crunched softly and her gaze slanted downward in that direction, automatically following the sound to the intruder’s feet. She saw a man’s boots, jean-clad shins, and the dark hem of a wool trench coat.

The boots shuffled to a standstill next to hers—too close for comfort were it a stranger. But this was no stranger. If she had any doubts at all concerning the man’s identity, they were dispelled immediately when a familiar scent of aftershave made its way to her nose. Inside, she relaxed instantly. Outwardly, she kept her shoulders rigid as a soldier’s.

She wondered for a moment if her thoughts alone had conjured him up in this setting that was already half dream-world in her mind. Before she had time to lift her head and acknowledge him, the rest of her sometimes-partner-sometimes-adversary-always-friend came into her field of vision as he casually leaned over, bracing his forearms against the fence beside her. 

“Fancy meeting you here,” he said after clearing his throat. Smoothly nonchalant, his gaze held steady on the ice surface in front of them.

“Just out for a walk.” She sniffed because her nose was running but regretted how indignant it sounded in combination with her guardedly flat tone of voice.

“Alone?”

“I’m a big girl,” she assured him.

“I wasn’t implying that you weren’t.”

She allowed herself a quick glance at him. His nose was red and he looked as cold as she felt. He’d obviously been outside for a while.

“Mac, it’s New Year’s Eve.” Before she could look away, his clever, teasing eyes were sparkling back at her. Luckily she had years of experience not letting that look affect her.  

“And your point is…?”

His gaze hardened and lifted, scanning the area behind her, unabashedly looking for her likely companion. His careful search circled along the tree line and stretched as far as the benches on the opposite side of the pond, yet came up empty.

“You had a hot date for Christmas Eve, Colonel; I have a hard time believing you’re out here on your own on the most romantic night of the year.” He pulled back his sleeve to check his watch. “And there’s only four hours left until midnight.”

She gave him only a mild look of warning and said nothing, returning her attention to the skaters. Like a turtle retreating into its shell, she shoved her gloved hands deep into the pockets of her long coat and tucked her chin behind the frosty scarf at her throat.

She was stubbornly avoiding his gaze and could have gone on doing that indefinitely except that a more important thought came to her mind. Suddenly, her chin popped out from behind the scarf and, as though all his sarcastic remarks had been forgiven or at least forgotten temporarily, she asked openly, “Harm, where’s Mattie?”

It couldn’t be mistaken as anything less than genuine concern. It was now her turn to perform a scanning search of the surrounding landscape. But when her search narrowed and she began to seek clues upon his face, Harm was surprised to see such worried eyes looking back at him.

To ease her mind, he immediately waved a hand in the direction of the small skate rental shack on the other side of the pond. “She’s with Coates. They’re picking out skates.”

He watched as the lines on her face slowly redrew themselves. Where concern had been etched deeply on her brow, a lighter crease of curiosity appeared. “Jen didn’t have plans for New Year’s Eve?”

“Guess not.” He straightened, gripping the pipe-railing of the fence with gloved hands. “I stopped by the office after hours to pick up some paperwork, and guess who I found reorganizing the admiral’s filing system?”

A knowing smile came to Mac’s face and she chuckled. “So, being the kindhearted man you are, you decided to give a second lonely soul a family for the holidays?”

That little spark returned to his eyes and he swung around to gaze at her more directly, crossing his arms in that coolly casual manner of his. “I still have room for a third,” he offered playfully, an eyebrow hitching upward.

But his proposal didn’t come close to getting the desired effect. Mac’s smile abruptly disappeared, her eyes dropping to the pond’s beach of snow that sloped gently beneath her feet.

Curiosity pinching the corners of Harm’s eyes, he continued to watch her. So she was here alone, he decided, no longer needing a verbal answer to confirm it. He immediately threw away every belief he’d been holding onto that the spook was at least better for her than Brumby. Where the hell was Webb anyway? he wondered. Did the guy not know how to treat a girlfriend? Was he a completely clueless jerk, or was he just on another one of his spook missions, ringing in the new year on foreign soil with a semi-automatic weapon strapped beneath his three-piece Italian suit?

Harm reminded himself it was none of his business one way or the other. “Listen, I didn’t mean to—” he began apologetically.

But at the same moment, Mac lifted her head. “—Are you planning to…?”

Their words fell on top of each other.

“Sorry,” she said uncomfortably. “Go ahead.”

He made a little awkward gesture. “No, you first.”

She managed a thin smile. “I was just going to ask if you were planning on joining them. On the ice, I mean.”

He tried not to look too relieved, but he was grateful that she was directing them back to safer territory. He gave his collar a tug, flipping it up so that it grazed his earlobes. “Naw, I figured I’d offer words of encouragement from the sidelines,” he told her, looking back in the direction of the pond. “I don’t think my back could handle a crash landing.”

As if on cue, a small boy who was skating near where they stood got his left blade caught in a deep rut and lost his balance. His arms flailed without success before his feet shot out from under him and, with a little yelp, he landed hard on his already-snowy backside.

Mac cringed in sympathy as she watched him go down. “Ouch,” she chuckled.

“Especially a crash landing like that one,” Harm added, laughing with her.

She gave him a sidelong glance. “You’d think falling on ice wouldn’t concern a man so much after he’s fallen out of the sky a few times.”

“Hey, there’s a big difference,” he said in playful opposition. “Out there, I’m guaranteed to fall. While flying, the chance is a little slimmer.”

“Yeah, just a little,” she grinned.

And just like that, the tension retreated like a fog.  They were smiling at each other.  Mac marveled at how good it felt.  If only they could ignore everything that had gone wrong in the past year.  If only they could start over again…

 

Chapter 2

 

“Hey, there they are.” Harm pointed out Mattie and Jen across the pond, his smile brightening as he gave them a quick wave.

Mac followed his gaze and lifted a hand in greeting. Even from this distance, she could see the look of utter shock that crossed Mattie’s face upon seeing her. It brought an uneasiness to the pit of her stomach and a cold sense of being unwelcome, but the young teenager didn’t give those feelings a chance to develop. Mattie was suddenly grinning from ear to ear, giving Mac the most energetic of waves. Mac felt her own smile slowly stretch to its maximum size, her heart swelling in her chest. It had been a long time since anyone had looked that overjoyed to see her.

“She seems awfully happy to see you,” Harm commented, his laughing eyes suggesting he knew the reason why. Too delighted for words, Mac merely lifted her shoulders in a shrug. “I guess you have a special touch with teenagers,” he added.

“Guess so,” she said softly.

Mac was Mattie’s new hero, Harm concluded easily. Mattie’s reaction to seeing Mac didn’t surprise him at all. She’d been asking questions about Mac nonstop since Christmas Eve, and when she wasn’t satisfied with his vague answers, she’d resorted to the annoying tactic of making offhand, highly glorifying remarks about Mac and her Herculean qualities. Colonel Mackenzie this, Colonel Mackenzie that. She knew what she was doing too, the little brat, Harm thought with a smile. She was trying to get a rise out of him, trying to get him to fess up to something by rubbing all of Mac’s greatness in his face. But she hadn’t managed to get anything out of him yet, thank God. Some things were far too personal to let slip, even when prodded by a relentless fifteen-year-old. And some hurts he had packed away in his mind’s equivalent of dark storage boxes that weren’t easily pried open.

Still, he couldn’t deny that Mattie had a very good reason to hold Mac in high regard. He owed her a lot for her intervention in the matter with Mattie’s father. That was something he couldn’t have done on his own. And he was extremely grateful that she’d stepped in when she had. Mattie was still spending her nights at the foster family, but that was only because of Harm’s current living arrangements which lacked an extra bedroom. Everything was rolling along fine thanks to Mac, and he’d be getting full custody on the first Monday of the new year. That was only five days away.

Mac bounced a little on the balls of her feet, partly to stay warm, partly because she suddenly had a stomach full of nervous energy. “Will they need any help?” she asked, looking to Harm, ready to follow his lead.

Watching the young duo, Harm’s smile changed subtly but he didn’t budge. “Oh, I doubt it,” he said in a low, confident voice.

Mac didn’t quite recognize his expression. It wasn’t unlike the smiles he sometimes gave her before they faced off in court, when he knew something that she didn’t, but there was something different mixed in this time. Some new emotion, some new form of…harmless arrogance, she thought. Her gaze narrowed as she watched him discreetly from the corner of her eye, trying to read what was going through his mind.

Then it hit her. She’d seen that look before. On Bud, as he watched little AJ; on Chaplain Turner, as he spoke of Sturgis. Harm was wearing the smile of a proud parent. A father’s pride—that’s what glimmered in his eyes.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

At the other end of the pond, Mattie and Jen found a free bench and were already pulling back the tongues of their skates to slip their feet inside.

Mattie’s heart was beating rapidly and she had a hard time holding back a grin. “She’s here,” she whispered to her companion, unable to contain her excitement. She was bent over her skates but couldn’t stop herself from peering up toward where Harm and Colonel Mackenzie stood on the pond’s opposite shore. “Isn’t this totally awesome?! She’s here,” she repeated, her whisper rising in volume to an excited hiss.

“Now, don’t you go reading anything into that, Miss Grace,” Jen said in warning, tackling the knots in her laces as she stole a few glimpses at the senior officers. The colonel looked amazing, she noted. But she always looked amazing. She looked amazing in desert fatigues and blue flannel cowboy pajamas, not that Commander Rabb would ever appear to notice such a thing.

Mattie could only remain quiet for a few seconds. “So, tell me,” she demanded bluntly, her eyes gleaming wickedly at her new friend, “how long has Harm had the hots for the colonel?” Rapidly, without hardly looking down, she snagged her right skate’s laces in the four sets of boot hooks with the skill of someone who’d done it time and time again. “Come on, Jen. Spill.”

Jen was still struggling with the stiff, unfamiliar footwear, but she paused long enough to flash Mattie a playful look. “Now what could you possibly be referring to?”

“I promise not to breathe a word of it to Harm if you give me details.”

Jen wasn’t about to get herself into trouble, nor was she willing to commit a disloyal act, like partaking in the spreading of rumors about the man who’d helped her the most in life. It would have been a great show of restraint on her part, to hold her tongue on this matter—that is, had she any information worth sharing.

“It’s an unsolved mystery to everyone I’ve dared to ask about it,” she said truthfully, emitting a small sigh. “Commander Rabb is the epitome of cagey when his personal feelings are at stake.”

Mattie was beginning to learn that exact trait about her new guardian, but she wasn’t ready to give up just yet. “Come on, Jen, you must know something. Like who’s this Webb guy that Mac mentioned?” Eyes gleaming, she chewed her bottom lip with eager anticipation, waiting for any scrap Jen might be willing to divulge.

Jen stared down at her skate in frustration. “Maybe I’ll tell you if you show me how to lace these damn things properly.”

“Deal.” Quickly sliding over, Mattie gestured for Jen to swing her half-laced skate up onto the bench. Mattie didn’t seem any less familiar with taking on the boot from this direction. In an instant she was tying a secure bow and tucking the excess lace out of the way behind the tongue.

“How did you do that so fast?”

Mattie shrugged. “Years of practice, I guess.”

“Years?”

“I’ve been skating since I was three. I used to take lessons all year round. Before my mom died,” she added quietly, turning away from Jen to gather up her mittens from the bench beside her.

Jen watched her for a moment, understanding her pain. She’d lost her mother, too, when she was about Mattie’s age. But she also understood that Mattie didn’t want her sympathy, or need it. Hooking an arm around the younger girl’s shoulders, Jen gave her a rough squeeze, playing the part of big sister rather than counselor. “I suppose you can skate backwards, then?” she asked in a tone of playful challenge and envy.

Mattie grinned. “Oh yeah.” Breezing to her feet, she extended a hand to help Jen.

“So, what else can you do?” Jen asked as they made their way across the rubber mats toward the pond.

“Oh, a few spins, a few jumps, a bit of footwork,” she said modestly. “Double jumps, mostly. A few combinations. I’m no Sarah Hughes or Michelle Kwan.” Mattie kept a watchful eye for bits of stone and gravel on the path that could damage her blades. That she was wearing cheap rentals and not her Riedells with specialized free-skate blades didn’t occur to her. It was a force of habit learned early from a mother who had always lectured her about taking proper care of her belongings, especially the sports equipment that she had to scrimp and save to afford.

“Double jumps?”

“Two rotations in the air,” Mattie explained, readjusting her fleece headband.

Jen’s jaw dropped. “Wow, that’s incredible. I suppose you never fall.” To Jen, keeping one’s butt off the ice was the mark of a great skater.

Mattie chuckled, “Naw, I fall all the time. Especially when I’m trying new stuff. But you’ve got to fall in order to get better. And when you know how to fall, it’s not so bad.”

“There’s a proper way to fall?”

“You betcha. Of course sometimes you don’t have a choice and all of a sudden the ice lunges up and smacks you on the back of the head. That can knock the wind out of you—literally.”

Jen cringed and sucked air through her teeth. “That’s what I’ll be trying to avoid tonight.” Trying not to trip on her toe-picks, she held onto Mattie’s shoulder as they stepped onto the smooth ice surface.

“Head concussion, here we come,” she muttered.

“Hey, this is way safer than rollerblading,” Mattie argued in defense of her favorite sport. “As least the ice lets you slide in a fall, without giving you road-rash. You’ll be fine,” she insisted. “Trust me, it’s fun once you get the hang of it.” In a movement as natural to her as walking, Mattie performed a perfect inside three-turn, then reached out to take Jen’s two hands in hers to help her balance.

“Think you can teach me any of it?” Jen asked after the initial wave of terror diminished somewhat. “Like maybe how to move in these things without looking like a pigeon-toed robot.”

“Sure.” Mattie’s blue eyes shone with mischief again. “But it’ll cost you.”

Jen smirked. “I figured you might say that.” Cautiously she moved one foot and then the other, never daring to lift her blades from the ice surface.

Mattie glanced behind her to make sure there was nothing but a clear path of open ice for them to travel, then started pumping backwards at a gentle pace, letting Jen simply glide for the moment until she was more stable on her blades. Satisfied that her friend wasn’t going to topple over, she cleared her throat with authority. “Now, about this Webb dude…”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

“Wow, she’s a natural, Harm.” Astonishment took hold of Mac as she watched Mattie sail out across the ice with long, confident backward strokes, playing tugboat to a less surefooted Jen. “Looks like she’ll have Coates tearing across the ice in no time,” she added with a smile.

Harm only gave her a slight nod of agreement, his gaze far more distant than Jen and Mattie’s location across the ice. He remained strangely quiet, drawing Mac’s attention away from the happenings on the ice below. “Harm?” she called softly, but he seemed miles away.

She sighed but let him be. He likely had a lot on his mind now that he was officially becoming the guardian of a teenage girl. He’d been given a whole new set of responsibilities, and the change from bachelorhood to parenthood had happened almost overnight. He now had plenty to figure out, like where Mattie would be going to school, and who would look after her while he was away, and how early of a curfew he could impose without causing a revolt. Mac smiled to herself, imagining Harm in his new role. There was sure to be challenge and conflict in his future, but she was confident there was nothing about raising a teenager that he couldn’t handle.

“I don’t suppose you’d—” Harm turned toward her, a question tumbling from his lips, but as his gaze settled on her, he hesitated, letting the incomplete question hang suspended between them.

“You don’t suppose I’d what?” she asked a little nervously.

As though it took great effort, he released a determined breath and started again. “I was just going to ask if you could stay and watch a while.”

Surprised by the sudden carefulness in his voice, her smile became tentative, her gaze measuring. “Do I look like I’m in a rush to get somewhere?” Truthfully, escape hadn’t crossed her mind since the moment Mattie had waved back at her so enthusiastically. She hadn’t even been feeling the cold since his arrival. But as her comment slipped out, she saw only tolerance in his tight smile. He was all serious beneath, and she began to regret her sarcastic tongue.

He waved an unconcerned hand. “I don’t want to keep you if there’s something you need to do, or somewhere you need to go, or…”

“Someone I need to meet?” she finished for him with a raised eyebrow.

His expression blank, he held her gaze for only a short instant longer before his focus darted back to Mattie and Jen. But there was something unsettling in that brief stare. Mac knew him too well for it not to trouble her a little.

She took a step closer to him, drawn by the need to understand what he was reluctant to share.

“Harm, what is it?”

He gestured at the ice with a solemn expression. “I thought you might like to see this, that’s all.” His voice was low but that didn’t hide the self-protective frost that coated each word.

“I do. I’m enjoying it,” she assured him, but he shook his head, confusing her further.

“No…not this. Not this exactly.” He angled his head toward Mattie again, then shot Mac a weakened look, as if he wished he could just project his thoughts directly into her head. “You haven’t seen everything. There’s more.”

She frowned. “More what?”

Letting out a frustrated breath, he blurted, “I brought her here last night not knowing how good of a skater she was.”  

“Mattie?”  

He nodded, grudgingly accepting the fact that he couldn’t expect Mac to understand unless he told her the whole story. “It just seemed like something fun to do. On Christmas Day we went cross-country skiing,” he elaborated, “and I learned she has a strong tolerance for cold weather. Any outdoor activity seemed like a good idea, to get us out of that tiny apartment where we’re practically tripping over each other, so last night I brought her here.”  

He paused, and looked down at his boots. Still unsure of where he was going with all this, Mac waited patiently for him to continue.  

“Turns out Mattie’s been figure skating for practically her entire life. Her mom used to drive her all over the countryside for competitions.” His eyes lifted, drawn to Mac’s face for an instant before moving on to the empty path behind her. His voice a little quieter than before, he added, “Last night was Mattie’s first time on skates since her mom died.”  

In the silence that followed, a much too familiar sensation crowded Mac’s chest. “Harm, I—”  

“I had no idea,” he went on, charging over her words, not impolitely, but as though he needed to get more off his chest and had to do it now while he still had the nerve. Or maybe because he needed to tell her, so she’d understand. “I surprised her with it, thinking the atmosphere of this place would really amaze her. But Mattie took one look at that pond and started to cry.” He shook his head, an unlit smile on his face. “There she was crying her eyes out and I had no idea why, or what I’d done wrong, or what the heck to do about it.”  

Mac found it hard to swallow. Too many emotions clogged her throat. Her eyes sought and then remained glued to the graceful skater who was now playing coach to a wobbly Jen off in a far corner. “It must have meant a lot to her,” she said softly. Hands deep in her pockets, she hitched her shoulders to stop the shiver that seemed to leap from her stomach to her spine. “And you must have handled it just fine, seeing as how she’s out there right now with a smile on her face.”  

His gaze cast downward, Harm lightly kicked the base of a fence post, letting the rubber toe bounce back repeatedly, the steel pipe ringing out dully like a bell at each strike. It was a movement that revealed restlessness and unease, two emotions he rarely displayed. But this person standing next to him was the one person in the world he trusted with all his heart. She’d seen every side of him there was to see. Well, almost, he amended, feeling that same regret he’d been keeping company for the past six months. There were a few sides she hadn’t seen. A tender side; a passionate side. Ironically, those were also sides of himself that he reserved for her and only her.  

When he glanced up, he found her staring back at him, her gaze full of concern, wonderment, and everything else he was trying so hard to hide inside himself but couldn’t because she was there. “I can’t be everything to her, Mac,” he murmured. And for a stunned moment he wondered for which ‘her’ was the statement more accurate—Mattie Grace, or Sarah Mackenzie.  

Mac’s heart constricted. To her, he was admitting his inadequacies in the parenting department. He was being too hard on himself. She felt like reprimanding him, like giving him counsel. She felt like saying, Of course not; you’re not Superman, Harm. But he already knew that. And she knew that what he wanted from her right now wasn’t the blatantly obvious answer. He was seeking some kind of comfort. And she would try her damnedest to provide it.  

She drew a deep breath, took a step forward, and folded her arms on the fence rail. “I think Mattie knows that,” she said reassuringly. “But you’re giving her ten times more than what she had, and that’s what’s important right now. You can’t be everything, Harm, but you can be who you are, and that’s enough. Kids can get by without their mother. It’s not easy, but they do it. As long as they have someone who’s willing to stick by them, and care for them, and learn and grow with them.” He was frowning at her with such piercing intensity she wondered if any of it had gotten through to him. She could only hope that she’d given him something to ponder, something to take the self-doubt away. There was no way to really know for sure what was going on deep in that skull of his.  

The hard lines on his brow eventually relaxed, but his gaze continued to hold her captive. She took a breath, hoping her heart would soon stop pounding so furiously. Everything she said and did now mattered so much. With every little gesture, she was extending an olive branch.  

Seeking a means of escape, she let her eyes drift to Mattie again. “I take it she’s a talented little skater.”  

Harm let out a short chuckle of release, following her gaze. “God, Mac, she can skate like the wind. I’m no expert, but just watching her last night…I’d be lying if I said it didn’t take my breath away. Just seeing her so happy…so in her element. It was...” He shook his head.  

“A pretty special moment, I’d imagine.”  

“Yeah,” he agreed, his voice almost a whisper. “Yeah, I guess it was.”  

Mac could tell that part of what he was feeling was pure awe and admiration for this undoubtedly gifted fifteen-year-old. It would have amazed anyone, what Mattie was capable of doing—keeping a business afloat without any help or guidance; living on her own at the age of fourteen; standing up to her dad and his alcoholism.  

But the other part of what Harm was feeling immediately reminded Mac that no matter how hard she tried, she’d never be able to stop loving this man. It seemed that Harmon Rabb felt compassion in ways that not many other people could. She imagined it was because he’d experienced a terrible loss at a time in his life when his young mind could only put up barriers of defense, trying so hard to ensure it would never happen to him again. He knew what it felt like to lose a parent, and he knew that feeling well.  

“Hey, Harm! Colonel Mackenzie! Check this out—no hands!”  

It was Mattie who cried out to them as she and Jen skated closer. For just a few seconds, she let go of Jen. Coates let out a strangled shriek as she glided off in a straight line aiming for a distant snow bank, but she seemed proud of her accomplishment once Mattie returned to guide and steady her.  

“Nice job, Coates,” Harm yelled back, grinning. “I’d be on my six by now.”  

“Thank you, sir!” she called back. “But I feel like my feet are trapped in cement blocks that move!” Harm glanced at Mac and found he wasn’t the only one chuckling. “Last night, I wiped out the first time she tried that trick with me,” he admitted in whispered tones for Mac’s ears only.   

“Ah, so that’s why you’re not risking a back injury tonight.”  

“Yeah, that’s part of it.”  

“Hey Commander, Colonel!” Jen called to them from the ice. “Mattie’s going to show us one of her tricks this time.”  

“I am not!” Mattie protested immediately, looking as though she’d been cornered.  

“Why not?” Harm called back, leaning leisurely against a fence post. “I’ve already sung your praises to the Colonel. I’m sure she’d love to see a move or two.”  

“I would,” Mac agreed, taking her cue with a knowing smile.  

“So would I,” Jen added, giving the teenager a little push.  

Mattie’s pout turned into a desperate look. “Sorry, but no way. There’s too many people on the ice.”  

Harm whispered to Mac, “Yeah, but just wait until the crowd thins out a little.”  

“What happens when the crowd thins out a little?”  

He threw her a sideways glance, eyes glimmering with amusement. “Her modesty wanes,” he replied, sounding just like the nothing-gets-past-me father she always knew he could one day become. “She’ll get the itch,” he added confidently. “Just wait and see.”  

Mattie stood next to Jen, frowning quizzically up at her guardian and the woman who was so obviously his perfect match. She knew they were talking about her, but she couldn’t hear a word they were saying. She looked to Jen for help, but Jen just pressed her lips together to hide her smile and then shrugged.  

“Okay, fine,” Mattie said in loud resignation, drawing everyone’s attention. She heaved a dramatic sigh. “I’ll do one jump.”  

Arms folded, Harm nudged Mac with his elbow. “See, what did I tell you?”  

It didn’t take much longer for Mac to find out what had blown Harm’s socks off the night before. Suddenly, Mattie was on the move. Her backwards crosscuts seemed to eat up the ice, her territory on the ice surface expanding as groups of smaller and less-skilled skaters drew to the sides to watch with wide eyes. Fresh confidence gained, her arms gradually raised to shoulder level for added balance and poise. Her ponytail of long blond curls whipped in the wind she created, her strokes lengthening to increase her speed.  

Deep in Mac’s gut, anticipation built as her gaze remained riveted on Mattie. And then suddenly, at the pond’s dead center, the girl turned, drove a toe-pick into the ice, and with an explosion of power, sprung into the air and turned two complete rotations.  

It all happened in a matter of milliseconds, but Mac was convinced for a long time afterwards that Mattie’s hang-time before landing solidly on one foot was at least as good as Michael Jordan’s. Mac turned eagerly to Harm to make sure he’d seen the whole jump. If the way his eyes were shining was any indication, he obviously had. “Is that what you wanted me to see?” she asked, breathless.  

He grinned. “Impressed?”  

“Are you kidding? I’m beyond impressed. I’m speechless. That…whatever that was, it defied gravity.”  

When Mattie glanced over at them with a ‘how about that?’ pose, Mac gave her a big two thumbs up and let out a whooping cheer.  

“I think that one was called a flip,” Harm told her, trying to remember the vocabulary that Mattie had taught him last night. “Or it might’ve been a lutz. I still haven’t figured out the difference between those two.”  

She looked back to where Mattie was now talking to Jen again, near the pond’s perimeter. “Can I go request an encore, or would that violate the rules of exhibiting too much pride?”  

“There are rules?”  

She gave his arm a playful swat with the back of her hand. “This is just what your ego needs,” she teased, “—an Olympic athlete in the family.”  

He grinned. “I don’t think she’s quite Olympic caliber, Mac.”  

“Well, she looks damn good to me.”  

“Yeah, she does, doesn’t she?”  

Mac nodded, then shivered involuntarily. Despite Harm’s bursting pride, the little movement didn’t get past him. His gaze shot to her. “Hey, are you cold?”  

She didn’t want to wreck the moment, but… “Yeah,” she admitted a little reluctantly, “kinda.” He pointed a thumb over his shoulder toward the skate rental shack. “They’ve got hot chocolate. You want some? My treat for forcing you to freeze your butt off.”  

“You didn’t force me,” she reminded him.  

“I know.” He gave her that penetrating look again, that mischievous smile that was part flirtation, part dare. He tilted his head in the direction of the walkway that led to the small brown building. “Come on, let’s go,” he said, holding out his hand, not for her to take, but as though he would usher her along the path, his hand hovering as it so often did at the small of her back, just barely touching her.  

But looking at that hand, she suddenly wasn’t so sure she could accept his offer. Was she not barging in on his plans for the evening? She reminded herself that, if anything, in this little foursome, she was the outsider, the imposter, the uninvited. Her ears began to burn and it wasn’t from the cold.  

“They’ve got outdoor heaters on the other side where the benches are,” Harm was saying. “We can go sit over there and warm up, and still have a view of the ice.”  

But she barely heard a word he said. She felt her face flush with embarrassment, feeling guilty. She had no right to be here. She had no right to play along, pretending she was part of this family. God, it was just too much like every dream she’d ever had. And if she surrendered to the tempting game now, it would torture her long afterwards.  

Awkwardly, she started to withdraw. “You know, on second thought, maybe I really should get going. It’s getting late,” she threw out as an excuse, busying her hands by adjusting her stiff scarf for the journey back to the car.  

“What?” He gave her a wounded look. “Mac, it’s New Year’s Eve,” he reminded her for the second time that night.  

Feigning annoyance, she rolled her eyes to the stars above. “It’s just another night, Harm.” She pressed her lips into a smile to convince him she really was okay ringing in the new year with whatever celebrities had their very own holiday TV special. And how bad could that be? She was sure there were millions out there just like her, with no place to go and no one to kiss as the clock struck twelve. It wouldn’t be the first year she’d sat alone on her couch, watching the countdown with nothing but a carton of Neapolitan and a cup of flavored coffee to keep her company.  

“Mac.” It was a moan of displeasure and it made her smile at him sympathetically. She knew in her heart that whether he wanted her there or not, she was doing the right thing by leaving. She was protecting herself, knowing this type of pain could be displaced but not erased.  

“Tell Mattie she looks like an angel out there,” she said softly, ever-careful to keep the sadness out of her voice. “Happy New Year, Harm.” Then she turned around and climbed the gentle slope toward the higher path.  

The music blaring from the loudspeakers was moving through the next decade and had reached the mid 1950s. As Mac left her miracle vista behind, The Platters crooned, ‘The Great Pretender.’ Shoulders slumped and feeling as though the wind had been knocked out of him, Harm watched her go. And a painful longing tore at his heart.

 

Chapter 3

 

She walked briskly down the winding trail, the music from the pond slowly fading behind her. Reaching a fork in the path, she followed the left tine and emerged from the cover of trees, finding the snow-covered parking lot tranquil and deserted except for her car. It was a secluded lot, a square clearing in the woods used primarily by trail users. Evidently she was the only trail user at this particular hour on this particular night—surprise, surprise. Too bad that didn’t just make her a fitness fanatic.  

There was only one lamppost at the far end illuminating the entry and exit gates, but the night was clear and the blanket of snow on the ground reflected a bluish light. Approaching her car, she dug into her coat pocket for her keys, her fingers working slower than usual because of the numbing cold. Mittens. She should have thought to bring mittens. Mittens were warmer than gloves. And some species of hat might’ve proved beneficial, too.  

She juggled the keys from hand to hand while, with the aid of her teeth, she yanked her gloves off partway so that her fingers could wiggle freely inside the body of the gloves. It gave her the dexterity of a porpoise, but at least it brought sensation back to her digits.  

Angling herself toward the solitary light, she peered at the fan of keys in her exposed palm. About to jab a thumb at the unlock button on the tiny key-chain remote, she froze. There, glinting at her, like the very top stair on a tiny staircase of jagged metal, was Harm’s apartment key.  

She didn’t know why she still carried it around. It wasn’t as though she didn’t already have enough keys weighing on her key chain. She didn’t know why she hadn’t given it back, but it was probably for the same reason she hadn’t bothered to remove his number from speed-dial on all her phones even when he’d made himself scarce and unreachable working for the CIA. It might’ve also had something to do with the way she’d acquired the key in the first place.  

He’d given it to her two years ago after she’d returned from Aceh the second time, after she’d found Lilianna. Actually, he hadn’t given it to her. Not exactly. It had simply materialized in her inbox one morning with a little note attached, the note no bigger than the fortune inside a fortune cookie and just about as cryptic.  

‘Just in case,’ it read in Harm’s careful block letters.  

Some foolish sentimentality at the time had prevented her from discarding the note. She’d kept the little strip of white paper attached to the key, taping it together when it inevitably ripped. Two years later and it was still wrapped around the key’s square head like a tiny scroll, laminated in several layers of clear tape, yellowing with time.  

Just in case what? she wondered in frustration every time she unfurled the note. It had never been made clear. Yes, she knew it had been a symbolic gesture on his part. Yes, she knew that the tough time she’d been going through with Mic’s leaving coupled with the events she’d had to endure in Indonesia had somehow prompted him to give her the key. And yes, it was what had given her the courage to suggest to him that they find a time to sit down and talk about whatever was going on between them. But competition had reemerged in their lives over the Jagathon, once again closing the narrow window of opportunity they’d been given to sort out their relationship.  

Words had been tossed carelessly, raising new doubts, and so she’d never dared to ask him about the key or its intended purpose, nor had she given her heart the authority to interpret Harm’s behavior. She’d simply added his key to her key ring—just in case ‘just in case’ ever happened. And in all this time Harm had never once mentioned it, though she used to sometimes catch him looking at it when they carpooled in her vehicle and it dangled and clinked like a chime against her own apartment keys, lockbox keys, and office keys all hanging from the ignition.  

‘Just in case’ never did arise, and now she knew it didn’t matter even if it did. She would never use the key. It might serve as a memento, she thought grimly. But his offer—whether it had been for comfort or sanctuary or something else—had expired somewhere along the way.  

Into her open palm, beside the key and its curling note, a hot tear plunged. Then another.  

“Damn it, Mackenzie,” she hissed, feeling the energy drain from her entire body. Get a grip! It was only post-Christmas depression, and pre-New Year blues, and a mid-life crisis—no, make that mid-life psychosis—all ganging up on her at exactly the same moment. She felt a wave of self-loathing course through her, its hot froth almost reaching her cold extremities. With a jerky shrug of determination, she snatched up the key-chain remote.  

“You could’ve at least let me walk you back to your car.”  

She jumped, her gloves slipping off her fingers and dropping to the ground.  

She hadn’t expected him to follow her, though based on recent trends, she probably should have. He’d followed her all the way to the Chaco Boreal, hadn’t he? After throwing his career away. And then he’d risked his life to save hers. Her brave hero.  

Recovering quickly, she let out a long sigh in irritation, keeping her back to him. “Harm, you should really wear a bell or something.”  

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said, but sounded more peeved than apologetic.  

She retrieved her gloves from the snow, hearing the crunch of unhurried footsteps as he came nearer. Hastily she wiped tears from her cheeks using the scratchy cuff of her wool coat.  

“Shouldn’t you be looking after your skaters?” she asked, attempting a light tone. She turned to face him, hoping her expression read as that of a composed woman, not one who’d been about ready to break down ten seconds ago.  

“I told them I’d be back in a few minutes. I wanted to make sure you were okay.”  

She tried to smile, gesturing toward her corvette. “Well, as you can see, I’ve made it to my car without getting wrapped up in any more anti-terrorism operations or injuring myself in any way, so—”  

“Cut it out, Mac,” he said sharply, making her spine jerk straighter. “I want to know what this is all about—why you’re running away."  

“I wasn’t running away.”  

“Sure seemed like it to me.” When his hard stare didn’t waver, she gave him an exasperated look. His jaw was set. His granite eyes didn’t blink. “Where is he?” He lifted his arms at his sides in an impatient gesture of inquiry before letting them drop. “Where is he, Mac?”  

She pressed her lips together stubbornly and looked down at her car to avoid his stare. Wearing a thin smile, she shook her head, reaching a hand to absently brush the small crystals of snow and ice from the corners of the side mirror.  

“Mac?”  

“I don’t know!” she snapped, making Harm’s eyes go wide. But her irritation was short-lived. As soon as the words were out, her entire body seemed to sag with defeat, her head rolling back. She stared up at the dark skeleton of an oak tree, wishing her life wasn’t so screwed up. Wishing she didn’t care half as much as she did. “I don’t know,” she repeated, sounding beaten.  

His eyes glued to her, Harm approached slowly and made a half-turn to lean a hip against the car door beside her, his arm resting on the soft top. “How long has he been gone?” Compared to hers, his voice was quiet, controlled.  

“Fifteen days.”  

He frowned. “So Christmas Eve was…?”  

“A lie,” she said flatly, giving a little sniff.  

A chuckle of uncertainty rippled out of him. “From you to me, or from him to you?”  

“I wouldn’t lie to you about something like that.”  

He sighed, his breath a fading cloud of white. “No…no, you wouldn’t.” He didn’t say anything for a long moment. Then, carefully, “He scares you, doesn’t he?”  

Her head tilted to look at him, her eyebrows colliding in angry bewilderment. “What could possibly make you think that? I’ve never been afraid of Webb, nor have I ever had any reason to be.”  

“Not the man. His work,” he replied calmly. He monitored her reaction but she only frowned at him with distrust. It infuriated him and tested his patience. But if she needed examples, then he had no problem listing a few. “He leaves but can’t tell you where he’s going; he brings home war wounds he can’t explain; he says he’ll call but doesn’t; he keeps a gun under his pillow and a pair of shoes handy by the bed. Shall I go on? I’ve worked for the CIA, Mac; I have more than a little insight.”  

Even with wide empty spaces surrounding her, she felt trapped. Between reality and illusion, between truth and secrecy, between good and bad, between Harm and Webb…between Harm and the damn side mirror.  

Annoyed that he’d managed to wedge himself between her and her only tangible means of escape, she yanked her wet gloves back on, keys jangling as though to announce her departure. “Look, you really should just go back and watch Mattie.” She gave him a weary look that was half apology. “She needs you.”  

“What about you?” he asked pointedly. “What do you need?”  

She let out a quick laugh that was both evasive and self-cautioning in nature, as though Harm was treading in waters she didn’t care to tread. “Right now, a warm bath and a solid eight hours of sleep will serve me just fine, thanks. I’m going home.”  

His lower jaw jutted out a little, telling her he wasn’t happy, but he lifted his hands in surrender and stepped aside. “Fine,” he said, a biting sound of indifference.  

He was giving her much less trouble than she hoped for, but that was nothing new. He never had the guts to really fight her in these matters. But then what did she expect him to do? Beg and plead? Detain her by force?  

She stepped into the space he vacated beside the car door, but paused, realizing she couldn’t leave him this way, with hard feelings tearing them further apart. Not anymore. The ground they stood on was rocky enough. And by no decision of her own, Harm had been left seeing only half of the truth of her situation. He wasn’t privy to the whole picture. Neither was she, she realized, but she was the one entangled in a mess of secrets. She was the one protecting two men for two different reasons. How was she supposed to communicate with him? By walking a tightrope seemed to be the only answer. Supporting his decisions was now the only way to show she cared, and the only way to keep their friendship from crumbling into permanent ruin.  

She looked back at him over her shoulder. “I heard you were taking Friday off,” she ventured, waiting for him to drag his gaze away from the landscape. His eyes returned to her but they were heavy-lidded now, as though he carried a burden somewhere deep inside. She didn’t know what it meant exactly, except that it caused a corresponding pain in her chest, like it always did. He hurt; she hurt. It was as simple as that. She tried not to let it show.  

Harm pursed his lips, then nodded his response halfheartedly. He folded his arms in an almost protective stance, his shoulders high. “Yeah, I need to get a few things sorted out with Mattie and her foster family.”  

Nervously, Mac pushed at her gloves in the spaces between her fingers, forcing her fingertips as far as they’d go against the stretching leather. “You know, Harm, I…” She faltered, her throat tight and dry, but she managed a smile and kept going. “What you’re doing for that girl…I truly admire that. I didn’t understand it at first, but I do now.”  

When she dared to look at him she found his gaze narrowing with curiosity, and maybe a little uncertainty. “I really do appreciate what you did for me, Mac,” he said as though she needed convincing.  

“I know. I know, and I’m glad I could help, but I just want you to know that I…” She drew a steadying breath. “Well, that I’m proud of you and…happy for you. And happy for her. I’m glad you got her back out there on the ice, doing what makes her happy.” She turned her gaze to the trailhead, a darkened hollow in the brush, remembering the magic that Mattie Grace had been a part of. “It must have been scary,” she said thoughtfully, “getting by without her mother.”  

“Well, you ought to know.”  

Startled, her head turned with a jerk, her eyes locking with his. She could tell immediately that he hadn’t meant to insult her with the comment. His eyes held hers, dark and solemn. There wasn’t even an arch of challenge lifting on his brow.  

“The parallels aren’t lost on me, Mac.”  

The raw tenderness in his voice seemed to permeate her entire body, touching her soul in one soft caress that implied understanding and attempted to give comfort—but did just the opposite. She flinched inwardly, feeling exposed and vulnerable. Around him this wasn’t how she wanted to feel. Certainly not tonight.  

She suddenly understood what had been his motivator in helping Mattie Grace, and it scared the hell out of her. But he was wrong, she tried to convince herself. He was so completely wrong.  

“I didn’t lose my mother,” she objected. “My mother left me. There’s a difference.”  

“Your dad was an alcoholic,” Harm pointed out in way of argument, drawing the comparison with cautious steps. He knew she’d strengthen her barricades. Her toughness would always be his hurdle. A hurdle that was about ten miles high by his estimations.  

“And I handled it with far less self-respect than Mattie. Look, I see where this is going, so just drop it, okay?”  

“I’m nowhere near ready to drop it,” he told her firmly.  

“That’s too bad, because I’m leaving now.” She flicked the remote entry button on her key chain, turned her back on him and reached for the door handle. But in one long stride, he was on the other side of the open door, grabbing the frame to keep the door ajar.  

“What’s gotten into you, Mac? Really. You nearly broke down in court the other day, tonight you keep alternating between looking like you’re about to fall apart and looking like you want to behead me, and as soon as things start getting a little personal you hightail it towards the nearest escape route.” She gave him a look of tired annoyance over the glass. “Harm,” she said, a syllable of warning. Filled with determination, he pressed further. “Your old man wasn’t much different than Tom Johnson, was he?” It wasn’t a question; it was an interrogation tactic.  

She recognized what he was doing, but there wasn’t much she could do about it except shoot him a bland look and reply, “No, not much different at all.” Her head tilted defiantly. “But your comparison doesn’t work. So you don’t have to worry.”  

“Worry about what?”  

“Mattie. You might think that taking that kid in and giving her a stable home will prevent her from making the same mistakes I made, but the truth is, Mathilda Grace is a hell of a lot smarter than I was at fifteen. She won’t turn into her father like I did,” she told him bluntly. “I can almost guarantee it.”  

“Whoa.” Had he ever heard her say anything more absurd? He blew out his breath. “You’re not your father.”  

“Harm, the only thing that saved me from reliving his pathetic life, was that I got lucky enough to get my friend killed. I managed to hit rock-bottom real early.” She clenched her fists and tucked them under her arms, holding herself tightly. “See, as much you might like to believe it, I’m not Mattie in this scenario. I’m not the victim. I’m the drunk who killed someone they cared about.” For a moment he just stared at her, mouth agape. A frown of dismay slowly settled. “Is that really what you believe?”  

“If you want to call it a disease like you did with Petty Officer Yates and his nicotine addiction—fine. But I can’t. I can’t hide behind that label, and I can’t deny responsibility for my actions.” “Jesus, Mac.” He felt as though he’d been traveling at top speed but suddenly slammed into a brick wall. He let out an empty laugh, not believing his ears. “Responsibility for what? You weren’t the one behind the wheel!” Frustrated, he paced a little ways from the car, rubbing a gloved hand over his face before sharply turning back. “At the very least, you have to start forgiving yourself.”  

He gazed at her, waiting, but she didn’t reply. “You just can’t get over it, can you?”  

Despair filled her eyes. “I don’t think I’m allowed,” she said with far more conviction than he wanted to hear.  

All momentum gone, Harm let his hands drop limply to his sides. He slumped back against the hood of her corvette, watching her through the space between the windshield and open door that separated them.  

“Listen, what I said before, I…I didn’t mean to uproot old demons,” he said apologetically, his expression grave. “And if I hurt you by dragging up your past, I’m sorry. That certainly wasn’t my intent. But just hear me out on this, okay? You might not see it the same way I do, but from my perspective Mattie and you have a lot in common. Every time I see her trying to act all grown up and independent, I immediately think of you…and what it must have been like for you dealing with that kind of situation when you were only fifteen. I see you in her, and I can’t help that, and I don’t think I’m wrong.”  

He cast his gaze out into the empty blueness of the parking lot and angled his legs out in front of him. “I guess I see a little of myself in her, too,” he admitted quietly. “All three of us were robbed of something important when we were far too young.” His brow lifted with a new thought and he chuckled softly. “Hell, you might as well add the larcenist to the mix; we’re a pitiful bunch.”  

“Thanks to you, she’s not much of a larcenist anymore.”  

He glanced at her long enough to know she was fighting off both tears and a smile. “Thanks to you, too, Mac,” he said, feeling relieved knowing he’d gotten through to her at least on some level. “If memory serves me correctly, you were there nurturing that transformation. You’re just as responsible as I am for turning Jen’s life around.”  

She shrugged. “I guess we’re good at sorting out other people’s lives.”  

“Yeah.” He blew out his breath. “It’s our own we have so much trouble with.”  

She leaned against the open car door, folding her arms across the top of the frame, propping her chin in one hand. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said thoughtfully. “You seem to be on the right track.” She nodded in the direction of the pond. “You make a good father figure…for both of them.”  

He shrugged, a little embarrassed by the compliment. “I guess it’s a start,” he said jokingly, a smile curling at the corners of his mouth.  

His left hand toyed idly with the car’s windshield wiper and he removed a glove to pick at a thin build-up of ice on the plastic. He peered up at her. “I’m glad to have your support on this,” he said sincerely. “After all the low blows I’ve dealt you recently, I…well, you should realize that—”  

“No, it’s okay. The things you said…I think there’s a good chunk of it that I needed to hear from you.” She squared her shoulders with resolve. “I knew that I had screwed up plenty in my life, I just never wanted to consider that things could’ve been better between us if that hadn’t been the case. I wanted to believe my past didn’t matter; but now I know that it does. So I don’t think it’s such a bad thing to vent your true feelings. It clears up a lot of the things I’ve misinterpreted over the years.”  

The wiper fell back against the windshield with a snap. Her assessment made Harm instantly uneasy to the point where a sick feeling curled in his gut. If she thought he’d actually meant any of the cruel things he said… God, did she really think he could hold her past against her?  

“What it does, Mac, is the exact opposite,” he asserted, eyes wide and held steadily upon her. “When people lash out in anger, they say things they don’t mean. They aim right where they know it’s going to hurt the most, and they fire without thinking of the damage they’ll cause. Then it’s too late, and misinterpretations abound,” –He made a little gesture towards her—“just like the one you’re banking on to explain this whole train wreck. But it’s not that easy, Marine. Everyone has problems. And I certainly don’t hate you for yours. Or for anything else.” God, it was quite the opposite, he thought hopelessly.  

“And if I may be so bold,” he went on, “you’re the one who holds herself to much too high a standard, as evidenced by your inability to forgive yourself for something you didn’t even do.” A cheerless laugh escaped him. “It probably wouldn’t hurt to start being a little easier on yourself, Mac.”  

“Hey, I know nobody’s perfect,” she argued, clearly perturbed and not terribly amused by his theories, no matter how close they came to the truth.  

“But you’d like to come close. Right all your wrongs.”  

Her lips drew together in a pout and she rocked against the car door, making the hinges squeak. But she was nodding her head, acknowledging the accuracy in what he’d said. Harm had to stifle a grin. Only Sarah Mackenzie could look both sexy and hostile in agreement.  

As expected, when she spoke, she spoke defensively, her nod continuing. “I’d like to do something right for a change, yeah. I’d like to think I could help someone I care about instead of making their life miserable, or hurting them. I’d like to have that chance.”  

He let the silence hang a moment, peering up at the sky, unseeing. “Is that what being with Webb is all about? Helping someone?” When she didn’t answer, his head tilted back to look at her, pinning her with his level gaze. “Is that what passes for love in your world these days?” Her gaze drifted. “It sure beats being alone.”  

He gave a low grunt. “Kind of ironic, then, wouldn’t you say?—That you’re with him and yet you’re still going home to an empty apartment on New Year’s Eve?”  

It only stung a little. Being involved with Webb, even if it wasn’t about love, had certainly taken away some of the loneliness, and she owed him for that. She’d gained a new friendship, forged a new bond. One that wasn’t complicated by unrequited feelings.  

“Someone once had me believing that I couldn’t handle being alone—that that was yet another problem of mine,” she heard herself say out loud.  

Harm could easily guess who’d told her that; he could even narrow down the likely time period during which the comment had been made. Folding his arms tightly across his chest, he watched her push away from the car and stroll slowly through the snow, her back to him.  

She didn’t walk very far, just to the perimeter fence her corvette was backed-up against. Turning around, she sat gingerly on the wooden fence, hands planted on each side of her.  

Just beyond the fence, the forest began, dark and mystical. Swallowing against the growing lump in his throat, Harm watched her intently as she bit her lip and reached a hand up to touch the bare branch of a tree that hung over the fence, absently breaking off a small twig. The action caused the entire branch to tremble, spilling a sparkling dust of snow from high above her. She tilted her head back, holding her face up to the falling snow, the moonlight playing across her delicate profile as white glitter fell on quivering eyelids.  

He’d never seen anything so beautiful in his entire life.  

“Brumby was wrong,” he said softly. “You’re the most independent person I know. Sometimes you’re too independent.”  

She smiled dimly, her head still tilted back, her eyes fluttering open. “Yeah, well, now I realize that not wanting to be alone is what makes us human,” she replied, sounding matter-of-fact. “It’s what keeps us struggling…despite everything that happens in our lives that should have us giving up altogether.”  

The real irony was that, despite his being unaccounted for tonight, Clay had taught her this—a very basic part of human nature.  

Burdened with regret, Harm looked to the ground and scuffed his boots in the snow. “You weren’t alone before, Mac. I wish you could’ve seen that.”  

“Yeah…me too,” she replied sadly, driving the point home.

 

 

 

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