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Chapter 4

 

By now it could be considered a ritual, she thought. One she repeated every birthday, Valentine’s Day, July 4th, and of course New Year’s Eve—all those days during the year that seemed to require romance whether any was available for her or not. Ever since Mic had walked out on her two and a half years ago, she’d managed to make it through eleven such days being both single and alone but without wallowing in self-pity. She’d survived them simply by reacquainting herself with romance’s best substitute. Ice cream.  

On Mac’s kitchen counter, lined up as evenly as soldiers during inspection, were five small tubs, one quart each of five widely assorted flavors. There was Neapolitan, the tried and true; Café Mocha Frappé, the new and experimental; Bobsled Brownie, the seasonally appropriate; Cherries Jubilee, for its punch of Christmassy red; and last but not least, Peanut Butter Fudge Chunk, which Mac had chosen in lieu of the highly favored raspberry and white chocolate combination of Love Potion #31—for obvious reasons. ‘Love potion, my ass,’ had been her exact thoughts on the matter while standing in front of the grocer’s freezer two days ago.  

But despite her cynicism about what the name ‘Love Potion’ tried to tout, Mac held firmly to her belief that ice cream, in any tempting flavor, had the power to heal the broken female spirit. It was that belief that always led her down the frozen dairy aisle whenever her heart and soul felt a little tattered and in need of repair.  

One by one, she carefully peeled off the round cardboard lids and scraped the undersides clean with a sampling spoon. This wasn’t about overindulgence, she reminded herself as she dropped a carefully-measured scoop of each flavor into the waiting bowl. This wasn’t even about feeling sorry for herself. This was about coping with life and its challenges and knowing that she deserved a reward of some kind for getting through all the tough times of late—even if it had to be in the form of a frozen dessert.  

And who really knew anyway, she thought with fresh optimism as she jammed all five tubs back into the freezer. Maybe a little taste of heaven could melt upon her tongue, love potion or not. And maybe true romance could be found in the swirls of color that filled her bowl. Surely on New Year’s Eve anything was possible. The warm bath she’d just stepped out of had certainly worked miracles on her chilled and tired body, hadn’t it?  

Mac licked a smear of chocolate from the heel of her palm and dropped the ice cream scoop into the sink. Behind her, the kettle on the stove was hissing and sputtering its way into a full-blown whistle, so she turned and lifted it off the red-hot element before it got too carried away. She prepared a mug of Swiss Mocha instant coffee and then, pausing to give the loosening tie on her robe a little tug, she grabbed the bowl of ice cream in one hand, the steaming mug in the other, and headed into the living room to get comfortable with her old pal Dick Clark.  

She set her mug down on the coffee table and sank into the couch, reaching for the remote to flip through the channels. But the minute she was settled with her feet tucked under her and the soft throw pulled over her lap, the phone rang. Sighing, she hit the mute button and extracted herself from her nest. “Sorry, Dick,” she muttered dryly, “but that just might be romance calling.”  

She found the cordless on the dining table and snatched it up. “Colonel Mackenzie.”  

“Hey, sweetheart. How’ve you been?”  

“Clay!?”  

She didn’t expect the sound of his voice to trigger such a powerful rush of emotion, but before she knew what was happening, relief came crashing over her like a tidal wave. He was alive!  

“Oh, thank God,” she choked out past the lump in her throat.  

Had she really been that worried about him all this time? she wondered. She closed her eyes tightly

and let herself drop limply into one of the chairs at the table. Of course she’d been worried about him. The jerk. His charm—or was it his lack thereof?—had disarmed her little by little. Regardless, he’d managed to wiggle his way into her heart somehow. He’d also opened up to her, shown her his very human side. And at that hacienda in the Chaco Boreal, he’d made her care about him more than she’d ever intended to.  

“You okay?” Clay asked, emitting a short, unsure laugh. “You sounded more upset in those three words than you did the entire time in Paraguay.”  

She drew a breath and let it out slowly, steadying her nerves. “I guess I’m just more used to being where the action is, Clay—not waiting around to hear about it after the fact. Are we—Is the line secure?” she asked quickly, remembering all the rules she now had to play by.  

“As secure as it gets. So you can relax.”  

A bit doubtful, she smiled tentatively. “Then why are you still calling me sweetheart?”  

“Habit, mostly.” Mac could almost hear his dismissive shrug, that wry smile of his pulling at his lips. “Does it bother you?”  

She gave a low chuckle. “Not terribly. But I’m not so sure your wife would approve.” “My wife has too much to thank you for to complain,” he replied bluntly. “Besides, I’m not quite over you yet.”  

Grinning now, Mac eased back against the chair and shook her head. “You’re such a comedian, you know that?”  

“You think I’m kidding.”  

“I think that’s what I’d better think,” she said, half playful but all warning.  

“Suit yourself. Hey, where the heck have you been anyway?” he asked a little irritably. “I’ve been trying to reach you all night.”  

“Where have I been?” she tossed back. Now that she knew he was alive and, by the sounds of things, in good health, relief wasn’t the only emotion coming to the surface. This man could be downright infuriating at times. “You disappear for fifteen days and now you want to know where I’ve been? How about we start with you telling me where you are, partner. Something tells me you’re not anywhere near Washington at the moment.”  

“That’s classified, Colonel—but since I run the risk having you jump all over me for that response,” he went on quickly, “let’s just say where I am, the new year has already begun.”  

Annoyed, she pulled her knees up, pushing them against the tabletop. “Gee, Clay, after eleven o’clock eastern standard time, that narrows it down considerably.”  

“It does,” he insisted. “It eliminates most of the US and Canada.”  

“Yeah, but only half of South America. And that worries me,” she admitted, a deep concern raising the pitch of her voice.  

“Maybe I’m in Paris giving Catherine the honeymoon she deserves.”  

“Unlikely,” Mac muttered.  

She knew he was aggravating her on purpose. But that didn’t stop her heart from weighing heavy with compassion for him. She was one of the few people who realized the price he was paying, how much he was risking and sacrificing to ensure that Sadik Fahd remained an unknown name in history, not a notorious villain of the future. Clay had a lot to lose. It wasn’t just his own life on the line. That’s why Mac had been so willing to help him. No one was safe as long as Sadik Fahd was still out there plotting another attack. But intel seemed to indicate he was also plotting revenge, and that meant there were a few lives in far worse danger than others. Hers was one of them. But so was Clay’s unborn child.  

Mac sighed wearily. “Come on, Webb, I know Catherine wants this all to be over as much as you do. Preferably before that baby comes. So give me the scoop. I know you didn’t just ring me up to flirt with me, or even to wish me a happy New Year, for that matter.”  

“Actually, I called to say it’s over.”  

“Hmm, don’t you wish. Appropriate choice of words, though, considering you already gave every one of Sadik’s Washington informants that exact impression when you stood me up very publicly seven days ago.”  

He chuckled softly. “I’m serious, Mac.”  

Frowning, she sat forward, easing her feet back to the floor. “You’re serious?”  

“Yes.”  

She recognized his even tone. Now he had her full attention. “Go on. I’m listening.”  

“The plan worked,” he said simply, his tone mildly surprised but definite. “I can’t tell you everything, but we did uncover a mole within the CIA. After days of interrogation he finally gave us names. Names of people in the US who Sadik has been in contact with.”  

“And Sadik?” Mac asked, eager to know the complete details of this assignment’s denouement. Whether parts of it were classified or not, he owed her that much. She wouldn’t be able to exhale completely until she knew.  

Clay let out a quick breath. “He’d made arrangements to enter the US using a fake passport, as we predicted. But we got to him. He’s been captured. Now it’s just a matter of time before we find out what his exact plans were.”  

“Did he ever figure out…? Does he know about Catherine?” She was afraid to ask.  

“I don’t think so. I have you to thank for that. Harm seems to have avoided the microscope, too,” he said, anticipating her next question. “But when we raided Fahd’s hideout in Suriname last week, we found plenty of information on you.”  

“So the plan really did work,” she said, emitting a shaky laugh.  

“The bastard found you intriguing. What can I say? I happen to agree with him.” Strange as it was, she’d come to appreciate these kinds of remarks—dry humor of the Clayton Webb variety, delivered so matter-of-factly he almost sounded ill-tempered. It was familiar and that gave her strength—which she was sure it was meant to.  

“Boy, what a compliment,” she muttered sarcastically. But it wasn’t enough to stop the icy chill that skittered up her backbone.  

This very minute, Sadik Fahd was sitting in some tiny windowless room, likely getting introduced to some of the CIA’s best information extraction procedures. Sodium pentathol, bright lights, mind games. She could be sure he was suffering nothing nearly as horrific as the pain he’d inflicted on Webb in Paraguay. He wasn’t getting anything close to the treatment he deserved.  

Could this really be the end of it? she wondered. The end of something that had started over half a year ago when she’d walked into the admiral’s office one morning to find none other than Clayton Webb in need of a pregnant wife. Little did she know then how ironic the whole thing would turn out to be. But could all the build-up of anticipation and fear really just ease away? Could an operation as dangerous as this really come to such an anticlimactic conclusion? Would she ever feel a sense of closure?  

She could hear Clay swallow. “Listen, Mac, there’s something else…” He hesitated and she found herself holding her breath. “I needed to take care of a few precautionary measures…where the bundle of joy is concerned. Sadik might be wearing cuffs and leg irons in his new steel cell, but I wasn’t going to take any chances.”  

“Well I don’t blame you,” she said easily. But it took another few seconds for what he’d told her to finally sink in.  

Stunned by what should have been so obvious from the beginning, she let out a startled laugh. “God, you’re nowhere near South America, are you?”  

“About as far away as I could get them,” he admitted.  

“The baby?”  

“Six pounds, five ounces.” His smile was audible now, stretching with pride. “With his mother’s nose and all my better features,” he added. “He came a little earlier than expected, but he’s strong and healthy.”  

“Oh, Clay,” she managed breathlessly through the onslaught of tears. “And Catherine?”  

“She’s fine—just being difficult about picking out a name. I’m pushing for ‘Clayton Mackenzie’, but she’s not crazy about the first part.”  

This news alone would have made Mac a blubbering mess, but what she already knew the baby’s birth meant—what was coming next—had her fighting harder than ever to keep a flood of tears at bay. She gripped the tabletop with her free hand to keep it from shaking, dug her nails into the plastic of the phone. She gulped air, finally finding a frail threadbare voice to speak with.  

“So, this is it.”  

He cleared his throat. “Listen, Mac—”  

“I know. You promised her.”  

“But I’ve talked to her about it and she understands the timing could have been better, so if you need me to be in Washington for—”  

“No,” she said firmly, “don’t do that to her.” She sniffed loudly but no longer cared if he knew she was crying because it was more important that she got her point across. “Clay, it took you sixteen years, an unplanned child, and a near-death experience for you both to figure each other out. Don’t screw it up now. Whatever’s left is in Kershaw’s hands. You made that deal two months ago, and I’m perfectly okay with it. And unless you want me to personally kick your butt off the continent, you’d better stay where you are, mister.”  

“Christ, you’re stubborn.”  

“I don’t need you, Clay,” she went on, unfazed. “I’m just going to miss you, that’s all.”  

“I know you don’t need me. You’ve proven that enough times. I should confess, though. Going back for your sake would’ve just been an excuse anyway. For obvious reasons, I’d like to be the one interrogating this bastard—instead of waiting around to hear about it after the fact, as you so aptly put it.”  

“It would’ve gotten too personal, Clay. Even I would’ve made him suffer more than rules allow. Kershaw knows that, which is probably why he was all in favor of giving you this time away from everything. But you’ll be back at it soon enough,” she said optimistically. “Don’t let your own need for revenge cloud your judgment. You’re a lucky man and Catherine’s not holding you hostage from your career. She only asked for a year with you in safer territory, so give it to her. I’m not so sure that in a similar situation I’d be as understanding.”  

“Then it’ll be interesting to see what you and Rabb work out when the time comes.”  

She chose to ignore the remark. “Is there anything more you need me to do, Clay?”  

He let out his breath. “I’d say you’ve done enough, wouldn’t you?”  

“Yeah, but it’s been an interesting experience,” she chuckled. “I think I might have to go join some theatrical group now that I’ve got these roles of ‘pregnant diamonds expert’ and ‘spook girlfriend’ down pat.”  

“I don’t know how you managed to pull that last one off when I was hardly ever there,” he said with wonder, “but whatever you said and did, they obviously bought it. Hell, even Rabb bought it, and he knows you better than anyone.”  

She pressed her lips together in a cheerless smile. “Well, he wasn’t a hard sell. To him this is just a repetitive pattern of behavior.”  

Only silence followed. Mac sighed heavily and rubbed her eyes in frustration. “I didn’t mean for that to sound like a complaint, Clay.”  

“I know, and I didn’t take it as one,” he said softly. When he spoke again his voice was strained. “God, I don’t know how I’m supposed to thank you, Sarah. No one’s ever done…no one’s ever volunteered to put their life on the line for my sake. I’m just glad I got a hold of Harm on his cell before calling you, to explain everything.”  

Her breath froze in her lungs. “You did what?”  

“Believe me, Mac, I wasn’t going to. But since I’m going to be disappearing for a while, I figured it was time I let him in on what’s been going on…just in case.”  

She almost knocked her chair over as she surged to her feet.  

Just in case. Just in case. The words set off a thousand alarm bells in her head. Unconsciously, she reached for her keys that she’d left lying on the table and clutched them to her pounding chest. “Just in case what, Clay?” she demanded. A sudden panic came over her, followed by a flash of anger. Before he could respond, she snapped, “Damn it, I don’t want him to be my bodyguard or, or, my sounding board, or some safe haven! I don’t want him to be my savior, whether I—”  

She stopped herself. She made a gesture of defeat, her hand falling with a slap against her thigh, shaking her head with disgust as hot tears welled again. Her energy depleted as quickly as it had built, she sank into the couch and, on a whisper, finished her sentence. “Whether I need saving or not.”  

“I think he already knows that,” Webb answered calmly. “You’ve made that abundantly clear from the beginning. But I didn’t tell him so that he could protect you. I told him just in case you’re still in love with him.”  

She emitted a quick laugh filled with disbelief. “I beg your pardon?”  

“Despite your claims to the contrary. I don’t think you ever stopped.”  

She just sat there, leaning forward with her elbows on her knees, listening to the steady rhythm of Clay’s patient breath. Her hands shaking again, she rubbed her brow back and forth, her fingers digging in hard enough to leave a mark and start the onset of a headache.  

Finally, she found her voice. “How did he…"  

“Take the news? I guess that’s for you to find out. I didn’t wait for the shock to wear off.”  

“I should have been the one to tell him,” she said numbly.  

“Would you have?” She said nothing in return, so he continued. “He’s in love with you, too, you know.”  

“Don’t play me, Clay. I know he didn’t tell you that.”  

“He didn’t have to. Look, I feel responsible for what happened between you two in Paraguay. I didn’t know about Catherine and the baby then, and what had been going on between her and me had been going on for a long time. She and I had had an argument before I’d gone out there and I thought it was over. So, what you and I were doing…the things I said at the hacienda—”  

“Webb, I don’t blame you for—”  

“Just shut up a minute and let me finish, will you?”  

“Fine.”  

“For the record, Mac, it wasn’t all pretending.”  

Sighing, Mac pushed a hand through her damp hair. “It never is when you’re playing that kind of game.”  

“Still, I think Rabb sensed that. His senses are heightened when it comes to you, in case you haven’t noticed. Maybe I couldn’t help myself from toying with his jealous streak, because I was already pissed off at him for getting me reassigned to Paramaribo and Tierra del Fuego which inevitably led to the whole mess in Paraguay.  

“After what happened to me by the hands of Sadik Fahd, I was looking for a fight,” he continued. “It just so happens that, from the beginning, I’ve always seen you as a woman worth fighting for. I won’t lie to you on this: I’ve always been attracted to you. Heck, I had to call you ‘Sarah’ the entire time just to remind myself it was an assignment,” he added testily. “You’ve always been Mac in my dreams.”  

Charming, she thought, shaking her head. Just charming. “Jerk,” she muttered, but couldn’t prevent the laugh that bubbled out of her. Would he always lead her back to this? Would this always be the standing joke between them? Two lovers who weren’t—but certainly could have been.  

“Clay,” she scolded, just as he’d hoped she would, “you’re a happily married man and a new father. You love your wife and son very much.”  

“I do.” She could hear his smile spread as he said the words. “Does this mean I’m forgiven?” “For being a jerk? Yes. For telling Harm…I’ll have to get back to you on that one.”  

“So…I guess this means I’ll leave you to Rabb and, whatever’s between us, we’ll have to save it for another lifetime.”  

“That we will. And for my sake maybe you can pick a less dangerous career that time around.”  

He snorted. “Says the Marine to the spook.”  

She smiled. “Go take care of that son of yours.”  

She could hear him shift the phone, and then there was a repetitive creaking noise that sounded very much like a rocking chair. “Not a hard request when he’s right here in my arms,” he said, confirming her suspicions.  

“And don’t you dare forget that.”  

 

~~~~~~~~~~  

 

The knock on her door came at ten minutes to midnight, not long after she’d gotten off the phone with Clay, but long enough that her stomach felt less jittery. She’d had a moment to recover from all the shockingly good news that had come with the conversation, but at the sound of the knock she still nearly hit the ceiling. Because she knew it was Harm.  

It wasn’t until her hand reached out bravely for the doorknob that she realized she looked like a complete wreck. Her hair was damp and uncombed, her eyes felt puffy from tears, and she had mismatched wool socks on her feet that were two sizes too big and sagging around her ankles. But what could she do about any of that now?  

She set her shoulders and opened the door.  

And there he was—that tall, broad-shouldered, dangerously handsome man that stole the breath from her lungs just by standing there, looking back at her.  

His stance exuded all the usual self-assuredness of a fighter pilot. The corners of his lips were curling upward in mild amusement even before he’d taken in her entire bedraggled appearance. And it only seemed to complete the cocky look when, instead of scanning her attire, he simply held her gaze, folded his arms across his chest, and leaned casually against the doorjamb.  

“Colonel, you have an awful lot of explaining to do.”

 

Chapter 5

 

She gave him an unenthused look. “And here I thought Clay had done all my explaining for me.”  

She wasn’t in any big hurry to invite him past the threshold, Harm noticed, but his self-satisfied smirk remained intact. “I figured I’d come to you for the highlights.”  

The news Webb had delivered not fifty minutes ago had left Harm dizzy to say the least. It had changed his entire perspective on the past six months of his life and completely transformed his interpretations of Mac’s behavior during that same time span. He felt as though he’d been watching a less than fascinating movie in a language he didn’t understand only to discover that, given a different set of subtitles, the story was full of intrigue, suspense, and mystery. Not to mention lies, deceit, and games of high risk.  

Mac and Webb had left him out of the loop the entire time. For that he wanted to wring both their necks. But there was something about knowing the truth—this particular truth—that left a brand new hope buoyant in his chest. He couldn’t quite explain why he felt so upbeat about it. Then again, maybe he could.  

She didn’t have a thing for Clayton Webb. Apparently she never did.  

Though he tried to convince himself otherwise, Harm knew this was the reason for the insistent upward curve at the corners of his mouth that he just couldn’t seem to tame. The thought alone empowered him, gave him some strange sense of advantage, even while it had every nerve in his body zinging wildly, his heartbeat galloping and erratic. He didn’t know quite what to make of this news…what to make of her.  

‘You are just full of surprises.’  

‘Well, right back at you, Mackenzie.’  

Yeah, right back at you, he thought, mystified but thoroughly enjoying the annoyed look she was now giving him.  

God, she was beautiful.  

He knew well the desire she stirred inside him. It was familiar; it was natural. It was to be expected considering the way her damp hair framed her face in messy wisps that made his fingers itch…considering the way his infallible peripheral vision detected both the satiny robe in deep shimmering blue and the barely-there sleepwear underneath. But tonight, what he felt was something more powerful than physical attraction. While the big hand raced to meet the little hand on every clock around them, the magnetic pull of desire became increasingly impatient—ripping where it once only tugged. Tonight, his attraction to her felt like a living, sizzling thing.  

Yes, part of him wanted to wring her neck. But a bigger part of him wanted to drag her up against him and plunder her mouth in a kiss so blazingly passionate it would melt those mismatched socks right off her feet.  

But that wouldn’t exactly be like starting up where they’d left off six months ago, now would it? It was with this bleak and sobering thought that he noticed the redness in her eyes. And then a crushing guilt came charging in as the cocky grin slid from his face.  

“You’ve been crying,” he said, as sure as he was devastated. His gaze roamed her face in consternation, studying the lift of her brow, the set of her mouth, looking for clues.  

She gave him a faint smile, resting her cheek against the edge of the door as she leaned into it. “Friends moving away, babies being born, terrorist scumbags being captured…” She gave a slight shrug. “These kinds of things can make a girl shed a tear or two.”  

He tightened the fold of his arms and regarded her sternly for a moment. Finally, he let out a frustrated breath, his eyes darting past her into the apartment. “Can we sit down and talk about this?” “Sure. Why not,” she said a little too flippantly for his liking. She turned and moved away from the door, leaving Harm to swing it shut behind him.  

He wanted to pry every last detail out of her. He wanted to hear it all confirmed by her mouth, in her words. Not just because he trusted her a hundred times more than Webb, but because he knew there was more to it than what could be conveyed in one ten-minute phone call. There was also a strong likelihood that Mac had dealt with the events in ways that Mr. Devious hadn’t cared to learn about. Harm was absolutely sure there were pieces of this story that fit the puzzle his own life had become. And it was Mac who held the missing pieces that fit between that moment on that moonlit curb in Ciudad del Este where she’d told him ‘never’ and the moment when the ruse with Clay had truly begun. Unfortunately, according to the timeline Webb had given, both moments weren’t one and the same. She’d only found out about Catherine and the baby after returning home from Paraguay. That meant this second assignment couldn’t completely explain away her apparent closeness to Webb, and neither could it be used as an excuse for her ‘it’s never going to work between us’ comment. But if ‘never’ really meant ‘never’ then what the hell had she been trying to say at Mattie’s custody hearing last week?  

It was time for understanding, Harm thought decisively. It was time they worked this thing out once and for all.  

Mac got halfway to the kitchen before looking back. “Uh, did you want a drink or something?” she asked, her tone suspiciously quick and light.  

“Only if you’re having.”  

“Flavored coffee okay?” Hands fidgeting, one thumb pushing at the cuticle of the other, her eyes never lifted above the top button of his coat as he unbuttoned it. “I’ve got French vanilla and Swiss mocha.”  

“Either one sounds great.”  

“Okay. Just…give me a minute to put some of this mess away,” she said, gesturing toward the dining table.  

“No rush.”  

Apparently he wasn’t the only one feeling off-balanced, Harm decided. He tracked her movements discreetly as he tossed his coat over the back of a chair. Without her usual grace, she gathered a scattering of folders with JAG insignia from the far end of the table—evidence that she’d been working overtime on cases over the holidays.  

He moved toward her Christmas tree, giving her some space and a moment to gather her thoughts. She probably hadn’t planned for him to find out this way, he surmised. It wasn’t like her to let someone else do her dirty work for her. She often accused him of being a control freak, but so was she. She was also stubborn, and guarded, and quick to attack, and much too self-criticizing. And apparently a bit of a perfectionist when it came to decorating Christmas trees, he noted. Or maybe talented was a better word.  

“Did you take Mattie back to the foster family?” Mac asked as if to make casual conversation. She closed another folder full of personnel records and set it on top of a pile of related material.  

“Uh…yeah,” he answered distractedly, reaching a finger to delicately lift a glass harp from where it lay nestled in the V of a branch.  

“She wasn’t disappointed?”  

“No, she…well, she already had plans for midnight. Her foster parents had some kind of count-down party organized for her and the other little girl staying with them. I did have to drag her off the ice to get her back by ten, though. She was having too much fun showing off.”  

Mac smiled. “After all that skating and fresh air, I imagine she’ll be struggling to stay awake.” She grabbed a stack of folders and turned them vertical, aligning them all with a quick knock against the table. “What about Jen? You didn’t ditch her to come here, I hope.”  

“No, I…well, not exactly.” His smile tilted sheepishly. “I took her to Benzinger’s after a little coaxing…but that was before Webb’s phone call.” Carefully, he placed the ornament exactly the way he’d found it. “She’d already joined the younger crowd by that time. Tiner happened to be there with some friends, horsing around in the games room. They invited her to join them so I left her to their shenanigans.” He slid a finger over a garland of gold ribbon. “Hey, did you do this all yourself?” he asked, genuinely interested.  

“All what?” She glanced up, realized he meant the tree and smiled. “Yeah, that’s my handiwork. I went a little overboard this year.”  

He took in the rest of the room in a quick glance and chuckled lightly. “Yeah, I noticed. Chloe must have loved it.”  

The quickly bowed head and silence that followed told him everything she wasn’t saying. So Chloe hadn’t been with her this Christmas, he concluded easily. Frowning, he walked over to the table and gripped the back of a chair across from where she was standing. “Because of your work with Webb?” he asked softly.  

She kept sorting without lifting her head. “Actually, no,” she said with a little self-directed laugh. “She had a skiing trip planned with some of her friends from school. But I would’ve kept her away regardless. The trip just saved me from what would’ve undoubtedly been a lengthy explanation, knowing Chloe.”  

“Webb had me believing you were never in any real danger.”  

She froze in the act of fastening a paperclip, flustered for a moment before backpedaling, “Well I wasn’t.”   

“Yeah, nice try.” He made a noise of aggravation in the back of his throat and pressed down on the back of the chair.  

She glanced up. “Look, he needed my help. I gave it. End of story.”  

“For Christ’s sake, Mac, he used you to lure a terrorist.”  

“I volunteered to help protect his unborn child.” Irritated, she plucked an empty portable file case from the floor and set it on the table.  

“Why wasn’t I told?”  

“Because there was no need to involve you.”  

“I was already involved,” he argued.  

He hadn’t raised his voice more than a fraction but Mac could tell just how perturbed he was. She knew he’d react this way, but she wasn’t prepared for this tonight. The whole thing was so convoluted she didn’t know where to start. One part of her felt like defending her decisions to the last breath; another part of her felt she owed him a major apology. Damn it, Webb.  

“I was there in Paraguay,” Harm continued, “in case your mind needs refreshing. I even saved both of your lives.”  

“Which meant you were already aware of the possibility that Sadik would retaliate, and you didn’t need to be warned of the dangers.”  

“That’s not a reason not to tell me what was going on.”  

“Harm, there wasn’t anything you could’ve done anyway,” she said, moving toward the kitchen. He followed and leaned in the doorway, watching her as she brusquely lifted the kettle to the sink to fill it. “You were working for the CIA already,” she went on, trying to show him the logic in the few facts she had. “Webb was convinced there was still a mole working within the Agency, feeding intel to Sadik. I don’t know the whole story, but I agreed with him when he said you had enough on your plate without having to be wary of everyone you came into contact with. He assured me that Blaisdale could only be one of the good guys and that you’d be kept away from Washington as much as possible.”

“So it was Webb’s idea not to tell me.”  

It was a conclusion, not a question. She said nothing.  

“I guess I’ll take that as a yes,” he muttered, casting tired eyes toward the opposite corner of the room.  

Still feeling as though his mind was only going in circles without getting anywhere, Harm rubbed a hand down his face. “Just let me get this straight,” he said wearily. “You come home from Paraguay having no idea that Webb and Catherine Gale were in a relationship, then Webb finds out she’s pregnant, it’s his kid, and he realizes because of Sadik’s passion for revenge both Catherine and the baby might be in danger.” He went on, recalling the things Clay had told him as he went. “So Webb comes to you, deciding there was enough of a spark between you and him in Paraguay to maybe pull off a little girlfriend-boyfriend ruse here in the US, drawing all watching eyes away from the people he cares about. Then somehow he finds out Sadik is more than a little bit interested in your Persian heritage, so he sees it as an opportunity to set you and all your fascinating qualities up as bait.”  

She chewed her lip as she mulled it over, then nodded. “Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.” “I can understand your readiness to help, but…” He folded his arms across his chest, leaning his shoulder more heavily against the narrow wall. “Mac, I don’t think you were in any shape to take on that assignment,” he stated frankly.  

“Why the hell not?” she shot back, instantly miffed.  

He looked at her as if she had to be a complete idiot not to understand. “Because after all that happened to you in Paraguay there’s no way you were ready to dive into another CIA mission, however trivial your role. What if Sadik had managed to slip into the US? What if he’d tracked you down without Webb ever knowing? What if he’d told one of his informants to scare you, or abduct you, or worse?”  

When had he become so paranoid? Mac wondered. For a few years now he’d been a little on the protective side whenever she was about to put her life at risk—like that time when she’d jumped at the opportunity to interview the detainees in Kandahar to help their case against Mustafa Atef. But this after-the-fact emotional appeal was a brand new extreme.  

She argued, “That all could’ve happened even if I hadn’t been involved with Webb. At least this way I had some idea what was going on and I…” She stopped herself mid-breath before her defensive streak got the best of her. Lifting a hand to work out a stress-related kink in her neck, she huffed out a sigh. “Look, I’ll admit it would’ve been courteous to have told you.”  

Eyes widening at the understatement, Harm gave a bitter snort. “It would’ve been nice not thinking you were sharing a bed with Clayton Webb these past six months.”  

When she only scowled at him before slamming the kettle down on the stove and cranking the element’s knob to max, his exasperation mounted. “Did you see this as a chance to prove yourself? Was that it?”  

“Prove what?”  

“That you could handle this one on your own, without me stealing your show like I did the last time around.”  

“Stealing my show?” She turned to face him, severe lines of incredulity marking her brow. “If it hadn’t been for you, I would’ve been tortured to death. I’m far from being ungrateful about it.”  

“But you resent that I’m the one who got to play hero; you hate that you’re the one who needed rescuing.”  

“That’s absurd!”  

“Is it?” His voice developed a pleading edge. “Come on, Mac, I know that none of us came home from Paraguay with any great sense of achievement. I know what it felt like to watch Sadik get away, and you had more reasons than I did to want to see him drawn and quartered. I can see why you might feel that my being there cheated you out of something. You didn’t win and you didn’t lose either, and there was no major battle from which you could’ve measured your victory or your defeat. Maybe you would’ve preferred to suffer a little more at the hands of those pitiless bastards for the sake of your pride, I don’t know. Maybe what bugs you the most is not that you couldn’t do it alone, but that you needed me.”  

He saw the flash of hurt in her eyes before she ducked her head and opened a drawer in search of a spoon. “Think what you want,” she muttered, her tone cold and almost convincingly uncaring. An intense guilt shot through him instantly. Damn it, where was his head? “I’m sorry,” he said roughly, “that was unnecessarily harsh.”  

“No problem,” she shrugged dismissively without quite managing to disguise the wound. “You’re just looking for answers. It’s what you do best.”  

Seeing her head for the pantry door, his reflexes kicked in. The least he could do now was help her. He hadn’t had much success in the ‘actions speak louder than words’ method lately—actually, he hadn’t had much success with anything of late—, but it was better than just standing there, not knowing what to say. He pushed away from the wall, moving unconsciously toward the cupboard in which she kept her cups.  

It wasn’t until he set two mugs down on the counter in front of her that something she’d said minutes ago finally registered in his brain.  

God, how big of a fool was he? She’d been protecting him! Well, protecting him as much as she could, anyway. With Webb’s help, she’d made sure that the chances of Sadik finding him were kept slim. He’d been all over the globe while working for the CIA…never in one place for very long and hardly ever home. That’s not to say those missions had been entirely safe—they were far from it—but she’d tried to make sure his life wouldn’t be put in jeopardy on account of something dangerous that she’d brought him into.  

Frowning, he turned towards her. “You were watching out for me the entire time, weren’t you? You felt responsible.” When she didn’t respond, he kept going. “As long as I was kept busy outside of Washington, you didn’t think you needed to let me in on what was going on…because with respect to Sadik Fahd, I was safe. Until I landed that C-130 on the carrier and my face was flashed on ZNN…”  

She kept her gaze on the coffee canister. “Those heroics were a good thing that turned into a bad thing that turned into a good thing.”  

He gave her a half-amused look. “Mind decrypting that for me?”  

She exited the kitchen and moved back to the table where half of her incomplete paperwork remained scattered. “At first I thought it might force the admiral to have a change of heart and take you back.”  

“—Where you’d be able to keep an eye on me,” he inserted, resuming his post across from her. He still wasn't sure whether he should feel angry with her or thrilled that she’d cared that much about him. “But it didn’t quite work out that way, did it?”  

“Not fast enough for my liking. But it did get Sadik’s party line buzzing, and revealed that he wasn’t interested in going after you. Good, bad, good.”  

He propped a hip on the table and continued to ponder this information out loud. “So that night after I got fired from the CIA…when Catherine showed up at my apartment after you’d come with the Imes cases…”  

Mac drew a breath and filled in the details for him. “Kershaw hadn’t been told yet that Catherine’s baby was Webb’s. He’d asked her to check up on you and she’d gone along with it. Webb figured if you were off Sadik’s radar, then you weren’t such a bad daddy-candidate for the regular rumor-mill in the office, which was already getting a little hard to control.”  

She glanced up in time to catch his look of surprise. Stapler in one hand, two sheets of interview notes in the other, she continued. “See, Catherine and Webb had kept their relationship private because of Agency policy but the people who worked closely with Catherine, like her secretary, couldn’t be fooled so easily.” A teasing glimmer came to her eyes. “They’d heard about you, too, though. I guess you caused enough of a stir when you were trying so hard to check my status in Paraguay. With what little pieces of information they had, the grapevine made you another bet-worthy name in the paternity pool. With you as good as in the clear, Clay felt there was no harm in playing that advantage, which is why Catherine showed up at your apartment that night. Plus, if Sadik’s men were having me followed and saw a pregnant woman show up, then they likely wouldn’t suspect you and I were…”  

He gave her a measuring look. “Lovers?”  

She turned her attention back to filling the portable file on the table. “Well, you’d think the fact that I was carrying one of these full of Imes cases would’ve made that obvious, but it was Webb’s way of being cautious for the sake of others, I guess.”  

“He hasn’t had much practice in that department,” Harm scoffed.  

“Hey, don’t criticize Webb,” she shot back with a suddenly heated glare. “Especially when you have no idea what he went through in Paraguay, or how much he risked losing in these past six months. He cares about his family. He’d sacrifice everything just to keep Catherine and that baby safe.”  

“Yeah, and if you’d been forced to pay that price, too, he wouldn’t have seen anything wrong with that. Still, you jump to his defense.” He shook his head. “Damn it, I don’t know what it is that’s developed between you two.”  

“We’re friends.”  

“It’s more than that.”  

She let out a humorless laugh. “What, you think we had a sexual relationship?”  

“No, that’s not what I think at all,” he answered calmly. At least not anymore, he added silently.  

“Then I’m not going to argue. Like I said, you can think what you want.”  

He released a long breath and absently pushed a stray document toward her end of the table. “Okay,” he said with restored determination. “You know what I really think?” He jabbed his index finger against the table as though the answer was written right there in front of him. “I think this all boils down to Webb believing you’re stronger than you really are. That flatters you, so you go right along with it, hoping to never prove him wrong.”  

“Oh, so now I’m weak, is that it?” There was a whacking sound as she aligned a stack of folders against the table like a giant deck of cards.  

“I didn’t say that. I’m just making an observation that I should have made months ago…years ago, in fact. He looks at you and he sees only the gutsy marine. And you’ve never done anything to show him any different, so he’s always taken you at face value and treated you accordingly. He’s not the type of guy to get hung up on gender stereotypes.”  

Her upper lip did that funny little twist it always did when she didn’t know whether or not she should feel insulted. “So you’re saying there’s a weak female in me somewhere that Clay doesn’t see, but you do.”  

“Mac, this has nothing to do with male or female. You’re only human. What I’m trying to say is that I’ve seen that human side—the real you, mostly tough, but sometimes vulnerable. I’ve seen you struggle with personal battles and crash in rough times; I’ve witnessed your tears—in the same way you’ve witnessed mine. But it’s not very often that Sarah Mackenzie lets someone in that far.” Her gaze flickered up and met his.  

He went on, his voice firm but gentle in its sincerity. “I value that trust, Mac, when you do let me in…but it gives me a different perspective than everyone else and I forget that sometimes. If Webb still thinks you’re one-hundred percent tough marine then it leads me to believe that you put on one hell of a brave face in Paraguay. All this time I thought he did a real lousy job protecting you, but the truth is, he had you with him for his own protection. He needed you…your strength, your courage, your determination, just to get through that operation. Because in every one of those qualities, you surpass him tenfold.”  

Her gaze narrowed but the traces of hostility in it didn’t fully disappear. “Is that supposed to be a compliment?”  

Her sarcasm cut through him, deflated him. Shoulders hunched, he heaved a sigh and looked down at his hands. “Naw, it’s just the truth,” he whispered hoarsely.  

There was another loud thwack and Harm lifted his head in time to see the topmost folder miss the table edge by a few fractions of an inch.  

“Damn it,” Mac hissed through her teeth. She fumbled and regained her grip but not in time to keep the contents of the top folder from sliding out. Dozens of loose pages spilled at her feet, some gliding in wayward directions underneath the table.  

She gathered her robe at the thighs and dropped to her knees as Harm instinctively moved to help her gather the mess. He stooped beside her but it wasn’t until he noticed her hands shaking that he realized how flustered she was. She was more than just angry. In fact, maybe she wasn’t angry at all. She was nervous. And it had nothing to do with spilling the files.  

“Hey,” he said with concern, but she didn’t stop snatching up sheets, drawing them into a haphazard pile.  

“You okay?” he tried again, watching her more intently.  

“I’m fine,” she said curtly.  

“Mac, you’re wound up tighter than a two dollar watch.”  

“Well it’s been a rough six months,” she blurted. “There. How’s that for a confession that I’m not nearly as tough as Clay would like to believe?” She lunged toward another escapee sheet hiding beneath the sideboard.  

He let out a snort of disbelief. “Did you not hear a word I just said?” he asked, amazed at how easy it was to create a misunderstanding. Didn’t she know him better than that?  

“I heard you, Harm. The problem is that you’re both bang on and way off. The truth is Webb didn’t need me—we both needed you.” On all fours, she continued to gather the papers while Harm just sat on his heels and stared. “The truth is that my overabundance of determination combined with my total lack of a decent game plan is what got Webb and me into that mess to begin with.”  

“Mac.” He gave her a warning look but she wasn’t paying any attention to him. Her hair had fallen forward, shielding her eyes.  

She charged on, “The truth is I could’ve thought of half a dozen better ways to rescue Gunny, had I not been so damn scared. The truth is I might’ve been able to figure out a way to escape from that hacienda if I hadn’t been so bloody terrified.”  

She stopped what she was doing and rocked back to sit with her legs curled under her. She lifted a hand to pinch the bridge of her nose as if to ward off a headache, or maybe tears. With her hair still hiding her face, Harm wasn’t sure which.  

She kept going in a whisper so strained he barely heard her. “The truth, Harm, is that what I needed from you was more than just rescuing…and more than what you gave…” She looked down at her lap, then glanced up at him. “…and I guess I needed more than you were willing to give long before that.”  

He gazed back at her, his chest tightening under an agonizing grip. But before he could formulate a response, she pulled the pile of loose documents onto her lap and rose to her feet in one fluid movement.  

“Mac…” It was a sound that combined warning with displeasure, helplessness with desperation. He stood, watching her stuff the mishmash of material into the file without sorting it first, her actions abrupt and jerky.  

Cautiously, he approached her and asked, “Those seventeen messages you left on my machine while I was working for the CIA…” Had she been reaching out even then? he wondered.  

“Which ones would those be? The ones you never responded to?”  

“Yeah,” he answered quietly, a brand new shame settling in, “those ones.”  

“You want to know if I was making an attempt to tell you what was going on,” she surmised.  

“Were you?”  

Her hands stilled on top of the dark case. “I guess in some stupid way I thought if you returned any of those calls then I could take it as a sign…that what you believed still mattered.”  

The comment knocked him hard in the chest. “So after seventeen tries you decided that it must’ve not made a difference to me at all?”  

She gave him a suffering look. “Would the results have been any different had I left an even twenty?”  

Touché.  

He realized she’d hurt him so badly he hadn’t been willing to give her a second chance. Now he was here looking for one. They seemed to take turns with one failed attempt after another.  

“I guess not,” he answered.  

Mac went on. “This all started after Paraguay. Everything you and I said to each other down there…” She had to stop and swallow the lump in her throat. “The fact that I did this for Webb doesn’t erase what happened in Paraguay—the things I said.”  

“Mac, even if it did, where would that leave us? I think we’d have to go back much further than that if we wanted to magically wipe the slate clean.”  

“Yeah,” she said softly, resignedly. “Yeah, you’re absolutely right.” Done with the portable file, she slid it off the table sluggishly and deposited it by the sideboard. “And we’re already ten minutes too late to make a New Year’s resolution over it,” she added. The words were cheerless and heart-wrenching in their tone of defeat. “I guess we’ll be carrying this conversation forward in perpetuity.”  

Harm glanced down at his watch. Sure enough, it was ten minutes past midnight. Another year had just slipped by. He wondered for a moment how many opportunities he’d let slip away during those 365 days. Probably as many as he had the year before. Maybe she’d been right. Things would never work out between them. But something deep inside him refused to let him believe that.  

What would happen now, he wondered, if he just reached out for her? What would happen if he pressed his lips ever-so-gently to that sad line of her mouth? Would she let him in? Behind him, the kettle started to whistle.  

“You still want that coffee?” Mac asked, heading for the kitchen.  

Maybe it was the insuppressible continuation of his interrupted thought, or maybe it was something about the urgency in that shrill sound of hot steam pushing through stainless steel, but as Mac moved past him, Harm’s hand shot out reflexively, capturing hers.  

“I still want to reach the end of this conversation,” he said, his low and steady voice offering no room for debate.  

He stood close enough to feel her entire body tense but she didn’t flinch or pull away. It was the spark she was reacting to, not a jolt of surprise. He’d felt it, too. Yeah, they still had it, he mused. He strongly doubted they’d ever lose that crackle of electricity that coursed between them. But God, how long had it been since he’d last touched her hand?  

A little flame lit in his belly when her gaze flew to his and she searched his face. “Whether it takes us an eternity or not?” she asked. It was intended as a challenging retort but her voice wavered slightly. He nodded. “I think we’re ready for this, don’t you?”  

 

 

 

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