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Chapter 6

 

The kettle kept screaming, but only when it reached a new pitch did they both become aware of it. Never letting go of Mac’s hand, Harm led them back into the kitchen, quickly taking care of the noise by moving the sputtering vessel to a cold element. When he turned back toward Mac, his gaze locking on hers, she could be sure coffee was the last thing on his mind. There was a familiar storm raging in those eyes, but there was also a new resolve to do something about it.  

“Mac, where are your keys?”  

“My what?” Her mind was still swirling from his touch and his bizarre question only sent it spinning on another topsy-turvy course.  

“Your key-ring with all your keys—where is it?” he asked again, his demeanor as single-minded as it could get during JAG investigations when the clock was ticking and someone’s life was on the line.  

“Uh…on the coffee table, I think. Why?”  

Suddenly, she was being pulled toward the living room. “Harm, what are you doing?”  

“Teaching us both a lesson in communication.”  

A skeptical laugh escaped her. “Uh, so far it isn’t working.”  

“It will.”  

When they reached the coffee table, he leaned over and snatched up the keys. Still holding Mac by the wrist, he shook them out on the palm of his free hand, working his thumb to flip through them.  

Finding his apartment key in the mix, he held it in front of her. “Do you know what this is?”  

She gave him an exasperated look. “Of course I know what it is. It’s the key to your apartment. You gave it to me when I got back from Indonesia, after I’d found Lilianna.”  

“Do you know why I gave it to you?”  

“Frankly? No.”  

“Why’d you keep the note attached all this time?” he asked, maintaining the even tone of an investigator.  

“Because I…” She hesitated a moment, aggravated by the feeling of foolishness that was rapidly setting in. “I guess I never understood what it meant, so I held onto it.”  

“Are you sure about that?” he challenged, his gaze roaming her face. “Because maybe you always knew what it meant. If you really had a problem understanding it, you could’ve just asked me.”

Irritation began to heat up her insides. “And you could’ve just told me whatever it was you wanted to say without being so damn cryptic about it.” She tugged her hand free from his grasp and wrapped her arms protectively around her waist, regarding him distrustfully.  

“Mac, I’m not trying to accuse you of anything here. I’m actually trying to demonstrate a point.”  

“Ah. And what point would that be? That we’re lousy communicators?”  

“No,” he said, the single word drawn out into two syllables, a kind of sing-song mix of amusement, annoyance, and condescension. She watched him jiggle the keys in his palm, absently smoothing out the yellowing piece of paper with his thumb. “That we’re lousy believers.”  

“Come again?”  

“We’re terrible at believing,” he insisted. “You believed I’d lost interest in you; I believed we were okay. I believed you were dating Webb; you believed it no longer mattered to me. I believed you knew exactly why I resigned my commission and traveled five thousand miles to almost get myself killed; you believed…well frankly I don’t know what you believed, but my point is we’re always believing the wrong thing.”  

When she gave him a confused look, he continued, his voice low and earnest. “Mac, we’ve known each other too long not to have some inkling of what the other person is thinking. It’s not a lack of understanding that’s our problem. It’s this inability to get past the doubt.” He lifted the key. “I think you always knew what this meant…That my door would always be open if you needed me; that it would never be an imposition if you chose to really embed yourself in my life…and that I wanted you to. But you just never let yourself believe it.”  

Mac’s gaze traveled the room, avoiding his stare. The fingers of her right hand tapped out a tense rhythm against her left elbow. After a moment, she let out a shaky laugh. “So here I am, telling you that I needed more from you, and all the while I held an open invitation just in case such a need arose?”  

He moved forward. “You knew that already, Mac. Key or no key.”  

She bit her lip, glancing at the worn but preserved note curling around Harm’s thumb. “Yeah, maybe I did,” she murmured softly. “How pathetic is that?”  

A tight laugh came from his throat as he turned to toss the keys back onto the coffee table. “About as pathetic as listening to seventeen phone messages a hundred times over, yet refusing to believe that what you wanted to tell me was news that I’d actually want to hear.”  

The strain in his voice startled Mac as much as the comment itself and she lifted her head in time to see his lips press into a humorless smile. A shiver ran through her and she tightened the fold of her arms to keep from trembling. “You did that?”  

“Uh-huh.”  

“And…you knew?”  

He nodded slowly, lowering himself to perch on the arm of her couch. Rubbing the back of his neck, he scanned the carpet at his feet. “Deep down? Yeah. Not about the play-acting, but that Webb wasn’t the real reason things fell apart in Paraguay. What happened down there, Mac…” With downcast eyes, he shook his head, sighed, and gave only the inadequate answer, “I don’t know. I can’t explain it.”  

Can’t or won’t? Mac wondered, knowing instinctively that there was something he was holding back. She didn’t expect him to fess up to being jealous of Clay, but she hoped for some kind of insight into what had been going through his head while they were in Paraguay. She desperately wanted to be able to see the ordeal through his eyes. Sadly, as much as Harm was right about their doubts being their biggest obstacle, there was no deep-rooted belief that Mac could cling to to explain Harm’s behavior during that nightmarish experience.  

Jealousy simply couldn’t explain it all away. He’d rescued her, but he hadn’t seemed happy to see her. And that was before she’d kissed Clay! He hadn’t seemed in any way overjoyed to find her alive and unhurt; in fact, his emotions had been completely unreadable. And that had crushed her. The only thing that had seemed clear was his determination to get the job done. The job that she and Clay had failed to accomplish. Harm hadn’t said anything more than a passing remark about her condition before rushing them off to find the stingers. Not that finding the stingers hadn’t been her own number one priority at the time, but she hadn’t expected Harm to act so detached, so cold about it. In those first moments he’d slipped into the role of superhero, expecting her to slide into the role of loyal sidekick—which she had done willingly despite the terror she’d just been through. Her nerves were already shot when their borrowed plane began its nosedive. Then, not an hour after crashing that damn plane and he was already scaring the hell out of her again—by shooting at her!  

He’d been rude and indifferent towards her from that moment on, but only now was she starting to wonder if maybe that had been part of a tough façade, or the aftereffects of that bump on the head. Or jealousy. Or a reaction to her own thoughtless remarks. Maybe she’d been oversensitive to his behavior from the start. Maybe he’d been just as scared as she’d been.  

Mac had to admit it hadn’t made the situation any easier when he’d been flip about getting married during her absence. That news had hit her harder than it was supposed to—harder than it would have under normal circumstances. As stressed as she’d been, it hadn’t taken much for her own jealousy to creep in. The news had struck a tender spot. Even in hindsight, she still wasn’t sure whether it would’ve been any easier had Harm given her more details right from the start. Even now, the thought of Harm kissing Catherine Gale bothered her in ways she didn’t want to consider. That another woman had been his lucky bride—even a make-believe one—formed a hot ball of envy in her gut. She didn’t like that feeling one bit.  

She’d made sarcastic comments about his sham wedding, she recalled. To Hardy. To Maria Elena. That had been her way of handling it—the same way she’d handled other hurts Harm had inflicted upon her in the past. With cutting words, and by making a show of her indifference.  

Her feelings toward him had worked their way into the operation, even while she’d been wrapped thick in the dangerous fog of corruption that filled that nightclub in Ciudad del Este. Ironically, her jealousy had served her well—her attitude about Harm showed her cynicism about men in general and earned her Maria Elena’s trust. But she’d been playing too close to the heart. It had done the trick for Hardy’s secretary, and the real bitterness in her words might’ve been the reason the young woman had opened up, but it left Mac’s head out of the game. Had she been thinking clearly, she might’ve seen some telltale signs that Maria Elena’s life was also in danger. Despite her involvement with Sadik, she wasn’t the real enemy. And to some degree, Mac blamed herself for the young woman’s death.  

Her carefully-masked jealousy had affected her behavior as much as Harm’s less-carefully masked jealousy, she realized. And as nasty as Harm had been to her, she’d dished out the insults just as generously. They’d flung stinging words at each other without ever pausing to consider the damage being done.  

What did happen in Paraguay? Maybe she couldn’t explain it any better than Harm could, even if she wanted to. But maybe, since the whole thing had been enough for her to give up and tell him it was never going to work between them, she had a responsibility to explain the things she did understand.  

Like how it made her feel afterwards.  

With mild curiosity, Harm watched Mac toy idly with the ends of her robe’s satin tie-belt. There was a deeper sadness evident in her eyes as she sat down across from him. He knew she was mulling something over, scared to let whatever it was go unsaid and equally scared to open up for fear he might shut her down. Like he had in Paraguay.  

She leaned forward, elbows balanced on her knees. She studied her fingernails, the sadness transforming to depression as her eyes clouded over. She was blaming herself for something again. He recognized that look. She was sliding into that Mackenzie pit of self-punishment.  

“Mac, whatever it is, you can tell me,” he told her, trying to convey his concern in the softness of his words.  

Her head tilted and she threaded her fingers together nervously, staring at her palms. “It’s just that…” She heaved a sigh and kept going. “Those few months without you were…well, hell to put it mildly.”  

The effort to get the words past her throat didn’t go unnoticed by Harm. “I know,” he answered, barely recognizing the rough quality of his own voice.  

She lifted her gaze long enough to send a weak smile in his direction. “At JAG I kept trying to deny that I missed you—for my own sake as much as Webb’s—but I’m not sure anyone actually bought that particular part of the act. I just felt so guilty.”  

He opened his mouth to say something but froze, seeing her face twist with torment. What struck him was that she reminded him of Mattie at the skating pond the night before, when she’d broken down in tears because he’d inadvertently triggered a memory involving her mother.  

“Harm, that night when I came to you before leaving for Paraguay,” she went on, “I had no intention of involving you. And I never should’ve left the way I did. You’d already been through so much—a murder charge for crying out loud! I hadn’t meant to make you worry about me on top of everything else.”  

“Whoa, stop right there.” Her comment felt like a physical blow to his gut. He sat back, a sudden fierceness overriding his astonishment. “Don’t you dare start apologizing for that. I had every right to be worried! You were almost killed!”  

She gave him a pleading look. “I know. I’m just saying you also had every right to be angry with me…before, after, during. I’ve been trying to figure out what happened to us in Paraguay, and maybe I’m starting to see the light. Rescuing me turned your life upside down!” In an impatient move, she rose from her seat, pushing a hand through her hair. “I almost got you killed and then to thank you for taking that risk, I helped you ruin your career!”  

“You didn’t ruin anything.”  

She frowned with fierce disbelief. “Oh, really?”  

“Yes, really.”  

Harm let out a frustrated breath and shoved to his feet, taking a step toward the fireplace before pivoting back. “Mac, you should know that as screwed up as things got, I’d have much rather lived the rest of my life dusting crops and wracking my brain over your supposed happiness with Clayton Webb than to have had to deal with the consequences of not following you to Paraguay. You’re here, living and breathing. And there’s nothing I wouldn’t do to keep you that way, whether it means having you in my life or not.”  

Mac stared at him, but there was more than surprise on her face. There was dismay, and that surprised him. Did she think he didn’t mean it?  

The slow appearance of a teary-eyed smile only confused him further. But his bewilderment quickly vanished when she finally spoke her mind.  

“This is going to sound incredibly crazy and unappreciative,” she said, “but the next time you decide to move mountains, Harm, I’d prefer you did it to keep me in your life.”  

Immediately, Mac noticed the twitch of muscles in Harm’s jaw, the glint of dangerous determination in his eyes replacing his frown.  

“Okay, you need to listen to me,” he said, his low voice controlled and almost lethally calm.  

Before she knew what was happening, he’d crossed the room, taken her gently by both wrists and turned her fully towards him. His eyes piercing hers, he slid his hands up to her biceps as if to ensure she wouldn’t get away. “Mac, going after you wasn’t just about saving your life. It was about a lot more than that. You weren’t exactly talking to a wall that night you left for Paraguay, and the things you said had a bigger effect on me than you probably realize.”  

Lines of confusion etched her brow. “What do you mean?”  

He gave her arms a squeeze. “I mean I had my mind made up to do something about this…about us,” he told her honestly. “But in a foreign country with spies and terrorists in the way…” He drew a breath and let it out slowly. “I just didn’t think that was the right time or place to get into it. Especially considering everything you’d been through.”  

“And you were probably right,” she conceded.  

His gaze drifted with a look of regret. “Yeah, well, I’m not so sure anymore. I gave you the wrong impression from the start. As happy and relieved as I was to see you, I didn’t exactly show it, even though I knew you needed that from me. I guess I needed it, too,” he added solemnly, “to know that you were really okay. I wanted all the proof that comes with a warm welcome—I wanted that with you. But nothing was over yet. We were still caught in the middle of a dangerous game with a madman, and the only rational thoughts firing in my brain said to get it over with…and get us home.” His voice was suddenly tight. “I was crazy enough to believe there was safety in us scrapping like cats and dogs. We’ve always done that when tension’s running high, and I guess I figured we could get through it, scars and all.”  

Mac’s top teeth grazed over her bottom lip. “Like we always did,” she murmured, gazing blankly at his chest.  

The sigh that came from deep within his chest told her just how he felt about that particular truth. He stroked his hands down the length of her arms, once, twice, then let go.  

Turning away, Harm rubbed a hand over his mouth, his gaze falling upon her Christmas tree, its lights twinkling back at him. “I know it’s a lot like playing with fire, just assuming that you can take whatever callous words I dish out and vice versa. But as long as we were in a foreign hotel room, pumped up with adrenaline and sharing the same damn bed, I…” He swallowed hard. “Mac, it was either fight you or…”  

He trailed off but when he turned his head and their eyes met, Mac knew exactly which option he’d left unspoken. And it shocked the hell out of her. She felt a force squeeze her heart so tightly she could barely draw a new breath. “You were…afraid we’d lose control?”  

All the armor seemed to fade away from Harm’s eyes, the rigid frustration draining from his shoulders. He gave a weak laugh. “God, Mac, what did you expect? I feel like I’ve been wanting you my entire life. Put yourself in my shoes and add to that the fact that I thought I’d lost you for good. Add the fact that Webb was the guy you reached out for, not me. On top of that, add the fact that I’m in love with you and then tell me this: how was I supposed to offer you some kind of comfort in between?”  

Without awkwardness, without embarrassment, without signs of regret, Harm simply stared back at her, as though he was either prepared for anything or expected nothing. This was his soul, she realized, left open and unguarded. This was his heart. And hers began to beat like a jackhammer in her chest.  

“How about the way you just did?” she choked out finally.  

Harm’s gaze darkened instantly in acknowledgement, the storm of desire so clearly taking hold, but he shook his head. “No, there’s nothing in control about this,” he told her, his voice tight with emotion. He reached across the few feet of distance that separated them to seize her hand, then lifted it into her line of sight, giving their joined hands a shake. “This all by itself rips me apart.”  

Because it could never be enough.  

Mac gazed at the tangle of fingers, squeezed his hand reflexively against the shiver that rippled through her. “Yeah, well, same here,” she whispered, fighting the lump in her throat. The tension between them. That indefinable pull. As intangible as it was, Mac knew that tension intimately. And, God, what one simple touch could do.  

In Paraguay, that tension had been as present as ever. She was sure she could have taken a hacksaw to it at times. It was unexplainable, and sometimes if left unchecked it would send them on a collision course, because they tended to handle it poorly—with defensiveness, and stubborn disputes, and all-out verbal battles. Unfortunately, handling it any differently meant letting it morph into something far more powerful, far more dangerous.  

She’d seen the way Harm had gazed upon her soaking in that bathtub. ‘I’d forgotten how beautiful you are.’ She could remember everything about that statement. The tone of his voice, the smoldering look in his eyes, the waves of sensation that washed through her entire body in response. Then there’d been that ever-narrowing space between them on that bed as their conversation had turned playful for just a moment. Playful, and then abruptly charged and intense as the air went thick around them. She’d felt his hot breath on her cheek, she’d felt the heat rolling off him. She wasn’t sure what would’ve happened if Gunny and Webb hadn’t stumbled through the door with the worst kind of timing imaginable, but she was sure about what she would’ve wanted to happen. Until now, she hadn’t dared to consider that Harm’s thoughts and urges might’ve been as reckless as hers. She hadn’t realized how much of his aggression towards her had been the result of his struggle to maintain his control where she was concerned. Now she was starting to get a clue. And she knew that subconsciously it was that same internal struggle that had affected her own behavior. Harm was right. Engaging in verbal war games was something they’d always done—and survived. But in the past few years the reason for engaging in those battles had become tangled so deeply in doubts, she’d stopped trying to explain it.  

“It’s always been like this between us,” she said softly.  

Harm let their hands drop but, instead of letting go, he tugged her hand to his side, acutely aware of how close to him this forced her to stand. Her forearm brushed against his and the contact sent a little thrill up his spine.  

“Yeah. So maybe it’s time we did something about it.”  

Her gaze flickered up to meet his and she searched his face. “You really mean that?”  

In her eyes he could see both the expectation and the struggle to fight it; the hope and the reluctance to believe that anything good could still happen between them. He saw an eagerness to have the matter resolved once and for all, and an equal guardedness as she prepared herself for disappointment.  

How many times had he shut her down when she’d tried to raise the topic of their relationship? How many times had he let life get in the way? How many times had he tried to broach the subject without giving her any indication that he was ready to go where the truth in their hearts would lead them? There were so many moments when he could have made his intentions clear. But instead he’d left her doubting. He had her searching for reasons why she wasn’t good enough when all the while he couldn’t imagine himself with any other woman. For the rest of his life.  

He looked down at their joined hands, slipping his fingers between hers experimentally, knowing the fit. “Mac, it’s the reason why I’m here.”  

He felt ensnared by her brown eyes, the way she was looking at him. For a moment, anticipation expanded like a balloon inside his chest. He wondered absently if it would burst, and if it did, what kind of damage would it do.  

Then suddenly her eyes were bright with unshed tears and he felt that pull inside him that was as powerful and predictable as the ocean tides.  

“What’s wrong?” he asked, overwhelmed by the urge to fix everything for her.  

Her shoulders sagged. “Harm, I’m so sorry.”  

“For what?” He felt his heart rear back and give a defensive kick, an unexpected terror tightening in his belly.  

“For everything I said in Paraguay. I said it would never work. I gave up, I lost faith, I stopped believing…”  

It took a moment for him to realize she wasn’t trying to deny or challenge his belief that it could and would work out between them; what she was doing was something very different.  

With a flood of wonder and amazement swamping him, Harm couldn’t stop himself from sweeping his free hand up to cup her cheek. “Mac, we’ve both said a ton of things we didn’t mean. In Paraguay as much as in the courtroom. There’s more than a few things I’ve said recently that I’d like to take back. Heck, there’s a couple of times I can think of where even my apologies were ridiculously inadequate. But I’ll tell you one thing: you can’t say things like you did at Mattie’s hearing last week and then expect me to move on without you.”  

He watched it sink in past her stubborn shield, a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth as he realized the guilt encasing her heart was finally getting chipped away.  

“Mac, I think we still have a deal to fulfill,” he whispered, driving his message home. “Heck, if we hurry up, he can even play with Clay Junior.”  

Slowly, a smile blossomed through her tears, and then she gave a little spurt of laughter. “Or she,” she said.  

It made an incredible warmth spread through him, a rush of blood. “Or she,” he echoed.  

“I didn’t know how to stop loving you,” she said on a wobbly breath.  

He couldn’t have fought back his grin even if he’d tried. “I don’t want you to stop,” he soothed, brushing his thumb across her bottom lip.  

She closed her eyes and leaned into his hand. “Well, I don’t want you to stop either.”  

“I can guarantee you, that won’t be a problem.”  

Feeling her warm breath flutter against his wrist almost shredded whatever control Harm had left, but then she did something that obliterated that control in one amazing instant. She lifted her arms to reach out for him, seeking his embrace in one simple gesture. And all he could do was respond. He didn’t have the self-discipline to stop and do anything gentlemanly about her tears. He simply crushed her to him. And when her arms tightened around him, relief sprang up like a fountain inside him. Relief and something much, much stronger.  

“Aw, honey,” he said, exhaling a long pent up breath.  

And then he was kissing her, planting feather-light kisses on every part of her he had access to. The top of her head, her temple, her cheekbone, the tip of her nose. He framed her face with trembling hands and when her chin lifted in response, his mouth descended upon hers with the desperation of someone thirsting for water.  

He should have known that kissing her would do nothing to calm the raging fires inside him. Even as the tension bled away, new needs, new aches swelled. The words ‘crazy in love’ rushed through his mind because each stroke of her fingertips across his neck and through his hair drove him mad. He realized it was simply not possible to get enough of Sarah Mackenzie, this amazing creature who’d been one of his obsessions from the first moment he’d laid eyes on her.  

He was sure that she would always remain in part a mystery, even now as thrilling new discoveries were being made. Like the sensation of her racing pulse, pounding softly beneath his mouth as his tasted her silky throat for the very first time. Why, in God’s name, had he waited eight years to do this?  

A hunger took over, and a passion that had all Harm’s restraint on the verge of collapse. His hands skimmed down her back, over the satiny fabric of her robe, his body thrumming with the sensation of having her pressed against him.  

It was Mac who finally escaped his assault, dragging her mouth from his and pushing at his chest. Way to go, Rabb. What a great way to ruin a perfect night—by letting your hormones take over and pushing too hard.  

He felt like a groping idiot and was starting to give an apology through his ragged breath when he saw Mac’s eyes flutter slowly open—as though she’d just been granted the world’s most delectable luxury. Her locked elbows kept him at arm’s length while she beamed back at him like the happiest woman on the planet. And there was an incredible beauty that came with that. It made Harm’s heart give a wild kick.  

Her smile only getting wider, she said, “See, we didn’t break, explode, or spontaneously combust.”  

Arching an eyebrow, Harm clamped his hands around hers and drew her slowly back into the circle of his arms. “You just wait. We haven’t gotten to the good stuff yet.”  

She sank against him, vibrating with laughter. “How’s the control doing?”  

He let out a quick breath, his chest still heaving. “Uh, not so good,” he admitted. “In fact, it’s pretty much shot to hell.”  

“Yeah, I think so, too.”  

“I think we need to address this soon. Maybe not tonight…I mean, it’s late and everything…but soon.”  

She nuzzled him, nodding halfheartedly—not completely a ‘yes’ and not completely ‘no’. “Yeah, maybe,” she said at length, sliding her hands back up his chest to tug at the collar of his shirt, pulling him down towards her.  

“So it’s agreed, then,” he said, even as he ducked his head to kiss her again.  

He’d meant to keep the kiss a chaste one, but God help him, this was Mac, and they were alone, and they weren’t arguing, and her hands were already working at the buttons of his shirt. And, and, glorious and.  

Soon sounded good, Mac thought. Soon she could live with. Even if the scent of his aftershave made her knees go weak. Even if the warmth of his arms around her made her want to crawl inside him. Even if she had the urge to undo the remaining buttons on his shirt and slip her hands inside.  

“Harm?” she murmured against his lips.  

He stilled and then slowly drew back in response, keeping her close enough that she felt his breath flutter her hair. “Yeah?”  

Gazing at his chest, she contemplated those buttons for a minute longer and then tipped her head back to look up at him. What she saw took her breath away. In his eyes was an intense desire but the most amazing thing was that it didn’t hide the tenderness and love that stirred beneath. The way he held her gaze was a loving caress all on its own. And she knew his heart was hers.  

“Mac?” The flicker of worry pulled her from her daze.  

“Exactly how soon is too soon?” she asked.  

A smile spread on both their faces.  

“Probably not soon enough,” he said, meeting very little resistance as his mouth covered hers.

 

Epilogue Mac’s Apartment Georgetown

 

“Did you pop them with a pin?” Mattie asked Jen, passing Harm the salad bowl then reaching for the bowl of mashed potatoes that Mac was handing her.  

All four of them were filling up on seconds despite the protesting top buttons of their jeans. Turkey dinner with all the fixings wasn’t exactly a common meal for any of them. The ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ struggle they’d endured all afternoon had been well worth it, though it had proven to be teamwork at its messiest.  

“Pop them?” Jen’s nose wrinkled. “No. Are you supposed to?”  

Mattie shrugged. “I always do. First, you gotta light a match under the pin to sterilize it.”  

Harm subtly cleared his throat and Mac paused in the act of spearing a slice of turkey breast to glance across the table at him. He was staring without enthusiasm into the salad bowl, his face puckered in disgust as he poked at a slice of cucumber   

“I popped mine last night,” Mattie continued, oblivious to Harm’s discomfort. “All this water oozed out, it was totally gross.”  

“You had blisters?” Jen asked in disbelief. “I thought your feet would be immune to that kind of thing by now.”  

“Are you kidding? Those rental skates are the worst. There’s, like, zero padding inside. Those jumps I did last night are the real killer cause your feet rub against the sides of the boot. I got this massive red mark on my left anklebone, and you should see the water blister I got on my heel.”  

When Mattie lifted her foot to the chair’s seat and started to peel her sock back, Mac stepped in. “Okay, that’s enough blister talk for one meal. No need for show and tell.”  

Mattie grinned. “Are we grossing you out, Mac?”  

“Not me.” She gestured with her fork. “But your guardian looks a little green around the gills.”  

All eyes turned to Harm who tried to shrug it off. “It’s just, you know…not what I expected for New Year’s Day conversation, that’s all.”  

“What would you rather talk about, sir?” Jen asked, looking thoroughly relieved at the notion of a topic change.  

“Oh, I don’t know. Something less…graphic, I guess.”  

“How about New Year’s resolutions,” Mattie suggested excitedly.  

“That sounds safe,” Mac agreed, flashing Harm a smile.  

“My New Year’s resolution is to stay in the admiral’s good books,” Jen said casually, grabbing the water pitcher to refill everyone’s glass.  

“That shouldn’t be too hard,” Harm remarked.  

Jen let out a shaky laugh. “I’m not so sure, sir. I think I’ve been trying his patience lately.”  

Mac waved off the younger woman’s concern. “He’d be lost without you, Jen. And he knows it.” “What about you, Miss Grace?” Harm asked, nudging his ward with his elbow. “What’s your New Year’s resolution?”  

Mattie’s gaze went around the table. She seemed almost nervous for a moment, but then she straightened her shoulders and let out a quick, decisive breath. “I want to start taking skating lessons again,” she announced. “If I can,” she added, her eyes darting to Harm, seeking his approval. “I’ll get a job so I can pay for lessons and new skates and everything.”  

“Oh no you won’t,” Harm answered with a laugh as he speared a piece of lettuce with his fork.  

Mac could almost feel Mattie’s heart sink, knowing the girl would immediately misinterpret his reaction. Her clear blue eyes showed nothing less than devastation, even as Jen’s face broke into a knowing smile across the table.  

Mattie’s gaze dropped to her plate for a moment, then, lifting her chin, she opened her mouth in a desperate attempt to convince him, “Harm, I promise I won’t –.”  

But her new guardian cut her off. “I’m paying for the lessons,” he asserted, pointing his fork at his chest. “I’ve already looked into it. There’s a rink within walking distance to a really great school and they have ice time available all year round. Even summer skating school, if you feel so inclined.” He glanced up and, sharing a look with the gorgeous woman seated across from him, a self-satisfied grin finally broke through his stern-parent façade. “With Mac’s help, I’ve even found you a top-notch coach,” he added proudly.  

Mattie’s wide eyes flew to Mac, who immediately explained, “My neighbor’s nephew just won first place in an ice-dancing competition, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask about his coach. Turns out she’s highly qualified and looking for new students. Harm already talked to her this morning. Her name’s Tamara Hunt.”  

Still in shock, Mattie remained tongue-tied for a moment. “But I…” Her eyes darted back to Harm. “You did that? For me?”  

Harm tried to shrug nonchalantly but couldn’t disguise the pleased look in his eyes. “Hey, if it keeps you out of trouble,” he joked.  

A giggle of delight escaped Mattie’s throat and then, beaming, she lunged at Harm, nearly attacking him with a bear hug. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”  

“You can start tomorrow, if you want,” he told her, returning the embrace just awkwardly enough for Mac to find it endearing. “Tamara, the coach, has a few fifteen-minute lesson slots that aren’t filled. You could meet her…get to know her…see what you think. I know we’ll need to get you some better skates, but maybe for the time being…”  

Mattie’s jaw dropped. “Tomorrow?”  

“Unless you need a day or two for those blisters to heal,” Jen chimed in with a smile.  

Harm snorted. “Oh, I’m sure a few blisters never stopped Mary Lou Retton.”  

“Uh, Harm,” Mac said, peering over the rim of her glass, “Mary Lou Retton was a gymnast, not a figure skater. Even I know that.”  

Unfazed, Harm grabbed a whole-wheat bun from the basket in front of him. “Okay, then how about Dorothy Hamill?” he said, tearing the bun in half and handing the top half to Mac.  

She laughed and rolled her eyes. “Now you’re just showing your age.”  

“I am not! Everyone knows Dorothy Hamill. She’s a legend. A household name.”  

“In our generation, maybe.”  

“Who’s Dorothy Hamill?” Mattie asked with curiosity, flopping back down in her chair.  

Mac’s brow lifted. “I rest my case.”  

“She won a gold medal in figure skating and she was known for her haircut,” Jen supplied, “but I only know that because when I was a little girl I had a haircut like hers and everyone kept telling me I looked like her.” She gave Mattie a smile. “You’ll have to bring Commander Rabb up to speed on the current Olympic contenders.”  

Mattie’s face was still frozen in awe. She couldn’t quite believe the unexpected gift Harm had given her. “I feel like the luckiest girl in the entire world,” she said, her grin stretching from ear to ear. “Hey, I’m lucky, too,” Harm said, patting her on the knee. “Thanks to you, I can add crop dusting to my resume.”  

“That isn’t much,” she objected.  

Mac spoke up. “I think that’s Harm’s subtle way of saying you’re important in his life, Mattie.”  

Harm’s gaze leapt to Mac and their eyes locked. She read his silent ‘thank you’ and gave him a warm smile.  

“So, what about you, Commander?” Jen asked. “Did you make a New Year’s resolution?”  

“Uh, several,” he said thoughtfully, his gaze still glued to Mac. He let the two younger women’s curiosity swell a little, enjoying the blush that came to Mac’s cheeks. “One of them is to take the time to have more dinners like this,” he said finally, an innocent yet honest answer.  

“I second that, sir,” Jen smiled, moving to help him gather empty plates.  

“I third it,” said Mattie.  

“Then I guess I’ll have to fourth it,” Mac smiled.  

“There’s just one minor imperfection this go-around,” Harm admitted.  

“What’s that?”  

His expression turned apologetic. “I forgot about dessert. It’s sitting at home in my fridge.”  

“Not a problem,” Mac said, pushing her chair back. “I’ve got five kinds of ice-cream in the freezer. Everyone can take their pick, or mix and match, or whatever.”  

Harm raised an eyebrow. “Five kinds?”  

“I’ll get them!” Mattie offered excitedly, jumping to her feet. “You don’t need to lift a finger, Mac. I’ll dish it out and everything.”  

Mac rose to her feet to fetch the bowls, but Jen motioned her to sit back down. “Mattie and I can manage it, ma’am. I think we know where all your dishes are by now. I’ll take these, too,” she told Harm, grabbing the stack of plates from his grasp and following Mattie into the kitchen.  

“Wow, I can get used to this,” Mac commented, turning toward Harm. “You knew what you were doing when you bypassed the terrible-twos and went straight for a teenager.”  

Instead of letting Mac return to her chair, Harm took the opportunity to draw her close to his side. “Five kinds?” he whispered in her ear, snaking an arm around her waist.  

“Hey, it’s a girl’s best substitute for romance, you know,” she said defensively.  

“Really?”

Mac tried to wriggle her way out of his hold but he was having none of it. He merely grinned at her and started making a game of locking her arm behind her back. “I think I can help you cut back on your ice-cream expenses from now on.”  

She gave him a provocative smile. “And how do you propose to do that?”  

“Oh, I can think of a few different ways,” he said, leaning in to capture her mouth.  

“So, what about you, Mac?” Mattie asked about ten seconds later. With five containers of ice-cream balanced precariously in her arms, the only thing she caught a glimpse of was her guardian’s hand slipping reluctantly from Mac’s grasp. She tried her best to suppress her smile.  

Mac cleared her throat. “What’s that, Mattie?”  

“Your New Year’s resolution, ma’am,” Jen said, trailing the teenager with bowls and spoons. “Everyone’s revealed theirs except you.”  

“Oh. Well, that’s easy,” Mac said as they all slid back into their chairs. She shot a meaningful glance at Harm. “My New Year’s resolution is to eat less ice-cream.”  

And she did.  

 

The End  

 

 

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