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Classification AU, Romance (H/M)
Length Approximately 55,000 words; 142 pages (8 ½” x 11”)
Spoilers Anything up to and including “Enemy Below” and LRM’s story “As Luck Would Have It”
Rating GS

 

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5

 

 

Chapter One

It came upon the midnight clear
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold.
“Peace on the Earth, good will to men,
From heavens all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.

                  -- Edward Hamilton Sears

 

The day had been perfect, though the weather had turned cold for early October. The fire in the fireplace—lit since the rough winds brought them indoors hours ago—held their gazes, luring them into the heat of its glowing embers. A thick rug lay beneath them. A heavy woolen blanket enveloped them. And like tiny jesters, the dancing blue flame entertained them.

His arms encircled her protectively. A snug, possessive embrace. She leaned back against him, her head falling against his shoulder, and without hesitation he tasted her silky throat.

Soon, she would ask him to leave, and just the thought of it hung heavy on his heart. The sense of loss, the anticipation of rejection, it already left him weak.

The afternoon had been stirred by familiar conflict, eased by effortless ceasefire. No longer did they enter these verbal battles as opponents. Instead, they were determined to play the game as peacekeepers. Together, they were dedicated to preserving their friendship, nurturing the newer blossoms of love, and eradicating the mangled roots of pain that thrived on six years of uncertainty and miscommunication.

The evening, ventured with caution, had been illuminated by trust and her brilliant smile. And the night—an unforgettable night—had them wrapped tight in each other’s world, tangled together in a warm sea of blankets, surrendering to forces of attraction so powerful no measurable distance could ever truly separate both worlds again.

Soon, she would ask him to leave, and he couldn’t think of a single thing he wanted to do any less.

She sighed, sensing his pattern of thought. “Why couldn’t time just stand still?”

“It doesn’t have to.” He nuzzled her neck, his voice muffled against her skin. “We have all night.”

“Harm, we have—.”

He silenced her objection with an invasive kiss, but it was she who held the lion's share of control. A kind of desperation overpowered him and as their tongues vied for dominance he clung to her with more urgency than he had hours earlier.

She pushed him away slowly as he paused only to replenish his lungs. “Okay. Enough. You have to go home now.”

In all her life, she’d never seen a pair of eyes so disappointed. It was almost enough to make her change her mind. Almost.

Watching her, he tentatively slipped his fingers into her silken hair. With eyes as wounded as his, she leaned into the touch, lightly kissing his forearm.

“This really bites, you know that?”

She nodded her agreement. “But if you don’t leave soon I’ll worry about you on the roads when they start to get icy.”

A hint of mischief replaced the let-down in his eyes. “All the more reason for me to stay.”

He was pushing it. He knew he was pushing it. She pried his hand from hers. “C’mon, get a move on before I’m crazy enough to reconsider.”

“I can’t believe you’re cruel enough to throw me out into the cold.”

“Wimp.”

“Tyrant.”

“I just don’t want the neighbor asking twenty rounds of questions tomorrow.”

His eyes sparkled with amusement. “Oh-ho, and here I thought you wanted me home before the roads got icy.”

She shrugged and gave him a demurely flirtatious smile. “Well, that too.”

He pulled her towards him and rested his lips against her forehead. Mac accepted the gesture as a prelude to his departure and remained perfectly still in an attempt to stretch the moment as long as possible. She blinked quickly to clear her eyes when he eventually drew back.

“This is crazy,” he stated evenly, not looking at her. “What do you care what Mrs. Nosybroadski thinks, anyway?”

“Mrs. Noscibrodski,” she corrected with a welcome laugh that restored her resolve, “isn’t a neighbor. That’s just her cover. She’s a spy working for the SecNav.”

Harm chuckled and unwrapped himself from the blanket to lay on his side. Wearing only a worn pair of jeans, the glow from the fire gave his bare torso an alluring sheen.

Propped on one elbow, he gazed up at her. “Mac, you’re much too paranoid. She’s probably gone to bed by now. I know the type. Early to bed, early to rise.”

“And early to spot your vehicle in my driveway tomorrow morning.”

He reached up and pressed a finger to her lips. “Our driveway.”

She gripped his wrist, and pierced him with a look of warning. “As far as Noscibrodski is concerned, it had better just be my driveway.”

He shrugged as if to easily accept the hard reality. “For now.”

“Harm, we’re already pushing our luck with the admiral. And believe me, I wouldn’t be so worried if I didn’t think the gossip resulting from your car camping out on my driveway might pose a serious threat to our careers.”

“You see, Mac, this is exactly the reason we need a three-car garage.”

She wasn’t amused, so he tried his best to be more understanding. “Listen, I know we had a close call last week but do you have any real proof this woman is connected to the SecNav? I mean, really, Mac…the Secretary of the Navy?” He spelled it out, his voice rising in pitch as though to further emphasize the absurdity of her theory.

“I swear to God, Harm, she has the man on speed-dial.”

He shook his head in wonder and absentmindedly stroked each crimson-painted nail in a row of attractive, peeking toes. “She probably just wants to set the whole world straight and has no one else to pick on except her reckless young neighbor.” He glanced up. “Maybe you should just tell her you’re thirty-four and perfectly capable of ruining your own reputation without the help of a dangerously handsome Navy Commander?”

Mac brought a knee under her chin and the appealing line of toes disappeared under the overhang of blanket. “When she opens fire with her advice, I’ll be sure to point her in your dangerously handsome direction.”

He grabbed her hand and kissed the inside of her wrist. “Bring’er on.”

Ready to add foreplay to her list of favorite pastimes, Mac traced the seam of his lips until he opened up and, with drowsy suction, tasted her fingertips.

Mac had been doing some thinking lately. Thinking about ways to solve their problem, or at least reduce the suspicion of prying neighbors. She hadn’t got around to sharing her ideas with Harm yet, but now was as good a time as any, she thought. She took a preparatory breath. “I’m seriously considering a roommate.”

The statement only hung in the air for a moment before he yanked her hand away abruptly and sat up straight. The movement brought them face to face across the wide expanse of rug.

His face quickly scrunched up in disgust and then he gave her the whiny complaint she’d anticipated. “Aw, Mac, c’mon! Now you’re wounding me.”

“You don’t think I’m serious?”

“If it bothers you that much, I can go park my car a street or two over.”

She took a moment to consider it. She didn’t want a debate. Not tonight. Nor did she want to fret over something that could very well be nothing. “No,” she said, “you’re probably right. We have a nosy neighbor. The risks are minimal. End of story.”

It sounded more like submission, than a strongly held belief. Knowing the seriousness of her concerns, Harm felt a mild stab of guilt, but it wasn’t enough for him to change his mind. Tonight they were meant to be alone, and prying eyes be damned.

He tried a bit of wit in the hope that it might turn her mood around. “Is this my cue to get up, turn the deadbolt, and drag you upstairs?”

“You’re terrible.”

“You’re magnetic,” he countered with a grin that danced in his eyes.

“So what are you doing way over there?”

In truth, he was admiring the view, watching her face, her fire-lit eyes, and the bronzy glow of her skin. “Uh,…worrying about your reputation.”

She sighed, offering him a smile of contentment. “Someday I’ll give you the honor of ruining it.”

“And in the meantime?”

She held up a corner of the blanket in invitation.

Without another wisecrack, he moved closer. And with his arms firmly around her, his thoughts became serious once more, treasuring her warmth and vowing to never let her go.

“We have fifteen minutes, tops,” she said.

His mouth brushed her ear, his breath light and soothing. “We have all night.”

Dark and still, the house surrounded them, only muttering quietly about the wind’s abuse. The crackle of burning wood replied with its own snapping tale. Listening to this voiceless exchange, Mac wondered if fifteen minutes could turn into an hour without them having to endure considerable guilt or consequence at the break of day. And, if it wasn’t too much to ask, could one hour turn into eight so this crimped moment hovering between hello and goodbye might be smoothed over, leaving the night unspoiled until morning?

As if to convince her, her accomplice continued his lazy harassment. His hands roamed and entwined with hers beneath the covers as his mouth meandered where the blanket failed to conceal. Like the movement of a caterpillar, his upper lip anchored on her smooth skin as the tip of his tongue dragged, bottom lip in tow. Inch by inch, the exploration moved upward along the curve of her neck until the bridge of his nose nudged the line of her jaw.

She turned and kissed him full on the mouth, quickly deciding that resistance was wholly unnecessary. He could leave before dawn and no one would be the wiser. The hours of daylight this time of year worked in their favor. She slipped her arms around his neck and leaned into his chest. Following her lead, he eased back, pulling her down with him for the second time that night.

She closed her eyes and let her mind drift away as the expected rains began to drum against the window panes. For now, they had all night.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Harm plunked down on the park bench, the frigid air burning his lungs. He pulled on another sweater and wished he’d thought to bring a hat. It was damn cold for mid-October and if this was any indication to the speed at which winter would arrive, this might be the last basketball skirmish played outdoors for a while.

“You that cold, buddy?” Sturgis inquired, panting from a series of lay-ups.

“You aren’t?” Harm held clasped hands up to his mouth and blew warm air on them.

Sturgis shook his head and wiped sweat from his brow. “You know, men get to that certain stage in life when their circulation isn’t what it used to be.”

“If you’re suggesting that I’m old, let me remind you that you’re not far behind. I can assure you my circulation is fine. It’s just this air that’s a killer to the pulmonary equipment.”

“You’re not quitting on me, are you?”

“Hell no. I’m fully prepared to whip your ass.” He held up a hand. “Here, give me the ball.”

“Loser buys dinner?” Sturgis verified mid-toss.

“Restaurant of choice,” Harm returned cockily. He pulled himself off the bench to re-engage in battle.

“So, how’s Bobbi treating you?” Harm dodged Sturgis and squared up to the basket. He took the shot. The ball rolled on the rim before deciding to obey gravity and not the centrifugal pull.

Sturgis just shrugged, a smile gracing his features as he grabbed the ball on its first bounce and dribbled back to the foul line.

Harm bent, hands on knees in a ready stance. “We’ve been so busy I keep forgetting to ask how it’s going between you two.”

“Couldn’t be better.” Turner kept his back to Harm as he inched closer to his destination, then turned and stepped clear. He misjudged his opponent’s height. Harm tipped the ball past the baseline and into the grass. Sturgis feigned irritation. “When did you get such gangly arms?”

Harm just laughed and the game continued with the familiar grunts, oaths, and taunts of battling men.

“So, how ‘bout you and Mac?” Sturgis asked after Harm called a timeout to take a swig from his water bottle.

Harm twisted the cap back on and ignored the knowing look his friend threw him. “Couldn’t be better,” he echoed assertively, then his head tilted as though rethinking the statement. “Except that she’s got this harebrained idea that she wants a roommate.”

Turner stopped mid-court and held the ball loosely between his forearm and hip. “Don’t you already fit that description?”

“Yeah, that’s part of the problem. She’s a little worried about this whole arrangement.”

“And rightfully so. The admiral’s already given the two of you enough rope to hang yourselves with.”

“Enough rope to strangle each other with is more like it.”

“So who does she want as a roommate?”

“I don’t know, but it’s not me. You know anyone willing to be roomies with a hardheaded Marine?”

Sturgis gave it more thought than the unenthused recruiter demanded. “Yeah, come to think of it, I do.”

“You aren’t serious.”

Sturgis threw Harm the ball and bent to retie a dragging lace. “I’ve a feeling Bobbi might be interested,” he said as he straightened again.

“Latham? You’ve gotta be joking.”

“Her apartment lease comes up in two weeks and she’s been itching for a change of scenery.”

Harm frowned. “So why doesn’t she just move in with you?”

“Because we’re both the traditional type.”

Hands on his hips, his friend grunted with disapproval. “Here I am, dying to find some legal loophole which might allow me to work and fraternize with the love of my life, while you—free as a bird and wide open with opportunity—are turning down the chance because of, what, some kind of Old World values?!”

“Hey, buddy, a belief is a belief.”

Harm collapsed on the bench and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Sturg. You caught me off-guard. I just assumed the two of you were already living together.” He took another mouthful of water, then held the bottle against his temple to cool down. His lungs were still burning from the frigid air but the rest of his body was sweating like a steam engine. “You know, it wouldn’t work anyway—Bobbi and Mac. They can’t stand each other.”

Sturgis laughed. “You can’t tell me you’re that clued out. No wonder it took you and Mac forever and a day to get together…there really is something wrong when it comes to communication between you two.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Bobbi and Mac have overcome their differences.”

“Since when?”

“Since a long time ago.”

Harm shook his head, staring absently at a group of school kids playing on the next court. “Why am I always the last to know about these things?”

“Because you assume too much, buddy. And don’t ask enough questions.”

“Right.” Where had he heard that before?

“You know, despite your obvious reluctance, this might work out in your favor. If Mac wants to give it a whirl, this option comes with a backdoor.” Harm looked up inquiringly. “I know for a fact that, should Bobbi move in with Mac, the arrangement would terminate within two months, tops.”

Harm scoffed, “Why, because they’ll kill each other?”

“No.” Sturgis grinned. “Because I have proposed,…the woman has said yes,…and now she’s pushing for a Christmas wedding.”

For a moment Harm just look stunned, and then his eyes slowly lit up. “Sturgis, you lucky bugger!” He rose and gave his friend a rough embrace and a hard slap on the back. “Congratulations, pal. May you live long and suffer.”

Sturgis eyed his friend, his smile turning cautious. “Your time will come, buddy. Keep the faith.”

“Oh for Pete’s sake, you sound like my mother. This is your moment, Sturgis,” Harm insisted, pushing aside the complications of his own love life for the time being. “And I’m real happy for you.”

“Okay, enough sentimental chit-chat. We have a game to finish.” Turner grabbed the ball off the bench and dribbled toward the free-throw line. “I’m up by two. You’d better be prepared to lose, buddy.”

“You’re forgetting who you’re talking to. My trademark has always been victory in the eleventh hour.”

“Hah. Last I checked, this was a court and not a courtroom.” He took a shot off the dribble, leaving his opponent on the wrong side. “Did I mention my appetite for steak and lobster?”

Sturgis caught the rebound and tried again. This time, the ball deflected off the backboard, fell clean through the hoop, and the game was over.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Without so much as a skiff of snow, November gave back the Indian Summer that October had thieved and substituted with rain and windstorms. The dreary cold subsided the moment calendars were flipped, so it seemed, and on the first Saturday of the month, Bobbi Latham moved into Sarah Mackenzie’s main floor guestroom, happy to bid apartment living a final farewell.

Bobbi took an immediate liking to the neighborhood, and—though it was less extravagant than her former residence—to the cozy two-story home. She settled in easily and with few possessions other than her sizeable wardrobe. The majority of her belongings—her furniture, her books, her kitchenware—were crammed into Sturgis’ bungalow across town, where the couple planned to live as newly weds.

Much to Mac’s delight, Bobbi knew her way around a kitchen, and insisted on doing most of the cooking whenever the women’s busy schedules coincided. And since their tastes were well-matched, on a food-related level and beyond, the two women got along rather famously from the start.

It was an odd arrangement, Bobbi had to admit. It catered to her own needs more than to those of the party who proposed the idea. She had no desire to renew her lease, yet she needed temporary accommodations. She’d been floored when Sturgis informed her of Mac’s search for a roommate. It seemed like a step backwards for the pair of stubborn attorneys. But Harm and Mac had their reasons, she supposed, and who was she to turn down a perfectly-timed offer?

When the admiral first agreed to turn a blind eye to the Rabb-Mackenzie joint-venture—allowing them to buy a house together provided they keep their personal lives personal, their professional lives professional, and their public lives as non-existent as possible—Bobbi never thought the bizarre state of limbo would last any longer than a few weeks. She was sure that some miracle compromise would soon be reached, and one of them would give up JAG for his or her next best career option, permitting the two to live essentially happily ever after. Even Sturgis, doubtful after witnessing endless Rabb-Mackenzie battles, remained optimistic with the couple’s new arrangement, expressing his relief to Bobbi that the sexual tension between the two was finally easing off.

Now, it was nearly two months later, and instead of getting a wedding invitation in the mail—one with a gilded ‘H’ and gilded ‘S’ linked inside a gilded heart—Bobbi was sending off wedding invitations of her own.

She almost had the urge to give the two star-crossed lovers a little push in the right direction. But no, as a temporary guest in their jointly-owned home, that type of behavior might get her into too much trouble. And besides, playing mediator was Sturgis’ flair, not hers.

Frankly, she was surprised Sturgis hadn’t yet stepped in. Maybe he, too, was worried about damaging long-run friendships. Maybe he’d already tried encouraging them to no avail. Maybe he understood the reasons for giving it time. Or maybe he had no more of a clue how to solve the problem than the two hardheads involved.

It was these thoughts that slipped through Bobbi’s mind as she curled comfortably on Mac’s couch. The week surrounding Election Day had been hectic, and now, with nothing but the welcome relief of Friday evening ahead of her, she let herself unwind. She would call Sturgis and they’d make plans. Hopefully he’d be willing to accept a quiet night at his place, maybe a moonlit walk to clear their heads, maybe a classic romantic-comedy starring Tom Hanks, or Richard Gere.

She took a sip of hot herbal tea, watched the cinnamon-scented candles flicker in the dark room, and let her mind fill with dreams of her upcoming wedding day.

Minutes later, her reverie was cut short by the sound of a key turning back the deadbolt.

Mac shut the heavy door with a sigh and kicked off her pumps with careless aim at the other pairs of shoes on the entrance mat. She lugged her briefcase one step further into the entrance hall and deposited it on the antique deacon’s bench, peeling off her coat to drape it over one curved wooden arm.

“What a week.” Mac let out a long breath as she stepped into the living room.

“You look exhausted,” Bobbi sympathized. She gestured to a space on the sofa. “Sit down, relax, and we can trade horror stories.”

Mac offered a tired smile, then laughed out loud as she scanned her roommate’s attire. Bobbi looked like she was ready for some sort of spa treatment, all wrapped up in a white bathrobe. Her hair was bundled in a thick towel, and she had terrycloth slippers on her feet. Red candles surrounded her and in her hand she gripped a steaming mug. “I see you know how to pamper yourself.”

“It’s called de-stressing.” Bobbi’s arms spread across two plush cushions.

“Let me make you some tea, Mac,” she offered, rising to her feet. “It’s Chai-spice. Trust me, you’ll feel better in no time.”

The wiped-out Marine colonel leaned against the frame of an archway and stooped to rub an aching foot. “I think that’s the best offer I’ve had all day.”

“Well, good,” Bobbi asserted, heading toward the adjacent kitchen, “that means the evening’s taking a turn for the better.” She glanced back over her shoulder. “Of course you might want to get out of that straightjacket first.”

Mac wasn’t quite the lounge-around-in-bathrobe-and-slippers type, but she was more than ready to get out of her uniform. A warm bath would have been nice but she decided that could wait, settling for a quick splash of cold water on her face in the upstairs bathroom before changing into a soft pair of corduroy slacks, wooly socks, and comfortable sweater. Feeling rejuvenated, she descended the stairs to join Bobbi amid her entourage of candlelight in the living room.

On the coffee table was a new bridal magazine. With mild interest Mac pulled it to her lap and began absently turning pages. “It amazes me how fast you and Sturgis are planning all this.”

Mac thought about her near-wedding experience with Mic, remembering the long checklists of things to do, dates to set, venues to book, gifts to buy, songs to select, props to rent…

“Well he’s a sweetheart to let me make most of the decisions on my own.”

Glancing up from the magazine, Mac’s eyes narrowed critically but with genuine amusement, “Sweetheart, or draft dodger?”

Bobbi took no offence, knowing her own reputation for being a little on the pushy side. “I like to take command,” she admitted. “But he’s given me the reigns and I prefer it that way, so I have to love him for it.”

“That’s perfectly understandable.”

“Anyway, when it comes to weddings, I’ve known what I wanted since I was a little girl. Call me a dreamer, but when you grow up in a family of strong women who try to outdo each other in the romance department, envisioning the perfect wedding isn’t so terribly hard. I’ve had millions of images and ideas bouncing around in my head since I was knee-high to a grasshopper.”

Mac smiled and turned another glossy page of the magazine to find a jeweler’s ad gleaming back at her. Ten times its actual size, an engagement ring hovered, almost like a hologram on the solid black background. The showcased ring was undeniably beautiful. It looked similar to the one Mic had given her, she thought with a tiny pang of regret. Didn’t they all?

She glanced over at Bobbi’s left hand, glad to discover that her ring looked nothing like the one in the ad. Bobbi’s ring was unique, and delicate, and suited her slender hand so perfectly that Mac had to guess she’d played a role in its selection. Either that or Sturgis truly understood his bride-to-be.

Mac glanced back at the ring in the ad and, too tired to fight it, let herself give in to a brief moment of self-pity. Why couldn’t every relationship be as perfect as the symbols that proclaimed it? It might have made things easier.

But then again, no. It wasn’t fair to think that way, she reasoned. With Harm, the privilege to make that proclamation, symbolically or otherwise, might yet be unattainable, but that didn’t change the fact that their love was the most perfect thing she could lay claim to. And deep in her heart she knew she would have gladly accepted an entire lifetime of being denied that privilege as long as Harm could stay by her side.

A ring is a ring is a ring, Mac thought, casting its importance aside for the time being. She was in love Harm, and he was in love with her. The formalities could wait. She flipped the page.

Bridal gowns. Now there was yet another material item to contend with. With exceptionally clear hindsight, Mac was beginning to realize that her dream of being wed in a setting taken straight from ‘Heidi’ was by far the most sensible wedding visualization she’d ever had in her life. It also fit well with elopement. She wondered how open Harm would be to the idea.

“Have you picked out a dress yet?” Mac scanned the two-page spread of elegant possibilities.

Bobbi set her mug down and linked her fingers across her knee. “Actually, Mac,” she began slowly, “I was going to ask if you wouldn’t mind helping me out in that department.”

Surprised, yet flattered by the invitation, Mac could think of no reason to say no. “Okay.” It came out sounding hesitant so she added a more cheerful, “Sure.”

“Great! Which leads me to my next question…” Mac felt her stomach knot a little, sensing what was about to come. “How would you feel about being my matron of honor?”

Oh boy. Mac pulled on a smile—though a feeble one—just in the knick of time, and took a steadying breath. “Bobbi, I know Sturgis has already asked Harm to be his best man, but, really, you don’t have to worry about--.”

“Sturgis warned me you’d take it that way.” She tucked her legs under her to face Mac directly. “Honestly, Mac, I’m not asking you just to keep all the couples perfectly paired. I’m asking you because I consider you a good friend. And I think we work well together. I mean, despite our differences, you have to admit we’ve always had a lot in common. We’re both career-minded, we’re both passionate about what we do… We’re both helplessly attracted to men in uniform.”

Her companion burst into laughter and, with no small sense of relief, Bobbi joined in. “Well we are, aren’t we?”

“I suppose I can’t argue that,” Mac agreed, swiping a tear.

The bride-to-be sighed to regain her composure and then continued her argument, “We’re both earning our way up the ladder in a male dominated work environment. We’re both first generation college graduates…”

“We’re both far too independent for our own good,” Mac supplied sarcastically, reaching forward to grab her tea that Bobbi had left on the coffee table in front of her.

“That’s what happens to women like us.” Bobbi smoothed a hand over a fold in her robe. “I admire you, Mac, and I respect you. And I think women of our kind need to stick together.” She chuckled and raised her mug to her lips. “If for no other reason than to help each other keep the men in line.”

“Men in general, or our men?”

“Whoever happens to stand in our way, Colonel,” Bobbi replied, mocking an air of overconfidence. “So can I count you in?”

“Fine,” Mac chuckled lightly. “But you do realize that pairing Harm and me in a public setting is a recipe for disaster?”

“Pairing you and Harm in any setting spells disaster, but I know what you’re asking, Mac,” she added with a note of compassion, and touched Mac’s wrist reassuringly. “Consider it a private function. I promise not to invite any dirt-digging dignitaries.”

Mac decided to take her at her word and leave it at that. “So what’s left in the planning department?” Now that she’d been made matron of honor, surely she had to ask. There’d be jobs to match her role and with only a few weeks until the big day, Mac couldn’t imagine the tasks she’d now be responsible for.

Bobbi’s gaze shifted to the ceiling. “Uh, let’s see, I mailed out the invitations today on my way back from work, so that leaves…absolutely nothing!”

“Nothing? You mean to tell me you’ve covered everything on those damn bride-to-be checklists from ‘establish color scheme’ to ‘buy sexy underwear’?”

Bobbi fluttered an unconcerned hand. “I’ve helped so many of my cousins plan their weddings, I’m a pro at this. I still need a dress, of course, as do you,—don’t worry, Mac, I won’t make you wear anything hideous—but other than that, I’m ready.”

“That’s incredible. To think it took me an eternity just to say ‘yes’ the last time.”

There was more observation than emotion in the statement and, hearing the tone and not the words, Bobbi continued her train of thought. “Of course it helps when you’ve found the right guy.” Then, with a sudden clarity, Bobbi realized her careless mistake. “Oh, Mac, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to--.”

The woman beside her didn’t appear rattled in the least. “It’s okay, Bobbi. Really. That was a long time ago.” She paused a moment, gazing into the darkness. “Or at least it feels like a long time ago.”

As if her curiosity couldn’t be satisfied now that the door had been opened, Bobbi found herself stepping further into the sensitive subject matter. “Does what happened between you and Mic have anything to do with the fact that you and Harm aren’t…?”

“Racing down the aisle?” Mac supplied with an easy laugh.

“Well, I have to admit, Mac, Sturgis and I thought this whole house arrangement would speed up the process, not slow it down.”

Mac heard herself sigh, then in a quick gesture of resolve she closed the magazine and laid it back where she’d found it. “Harm and I still have a lot to work through.”

Bobbi noticed a trace of disappointment in her eyes. Watching Mac toy with the fringe on a throw cushion, she took a careful sip of her beverage and let it warm her mouth before swallowing. “Career options?”

“That’s certainly part of it. About six months ago, when we came back from Afghanistan—before we went through this whole house-buying fiasco—I told Harm I wasn’t ready to leave JAG. We haven’t really talked about it since.” It was laughable the way it sounded. Why did their relationship always seem so impossibly complicated compared to everyone else’s?

“Why do you have to be the one to leave?” Bobbi inquired with more than a hint of feminist grit.

Mac knew where Bobbi was coming from, but, unfortunately, she was way off. The validity of her argument only went so far. If only it were as simple as a male/female role battle. But Harm wasn’t sexist. Harm was just Harm.

Mac looked squarely at her friend. “If Harm wasn’t a JAG attorney,” she challenged, “what would he be?”

“Well, he…” Bobbi had to pause to give it some thought.

Mac watched, refraining from commentary as Bobbi opened her mouth again preparing to speak. No words surfaced and she closed it with a frown.

“If he were ten years younger, he might’ve had a few more options. Options he would’ve considered wholeheartedly, no doubt. But now, I think pigs would have to fly over Washington the day Harm gives up his career at JAG.”

“But you would?”

Mac shrugged. “We’ve both tried it once. For me, it felt like a ‘never again’ kind of experience, but who knows? Never say never, right?”

Bobbi didn’t miss the waver of insecurity in her roommate’s voice.

Mac stared straight ahead, focusing on a flickering candle across the room, watching a stream of wax drip down the pillar and slowly solidify. “My goals have jumped around so much in the past few years. With Mic…when I almost married him, I honestly had no clue what I wanted. Not really. Part of me wanted to settle down and raise a family. Another part of me knew I could never leave the family I already had at JAG.”

Bobbi finally caught a glimpse of the quandary that Mac faced. Most people had a family to fall back on when times got a little tough—a group of people bonded together by blood or strong commitment—and it would be there for them regardless of the tightness of working relationships. But for Mac, without her family at JAG she was essentially alone in the world. More specifically, she was alone without…

“Harm,” Bobbi said softly.

Mac understood the conclusion she’d drawn and nodded. “This probably sounds crazy, but that’s a lot easier to see now than it was back then.” She took another sip of the warm tea and reflected upon the events that led up to that horrible night—the one where she thought she’d lost him forever.

“I think he was more scared than I was. Scared of losing me.” She could say that now, out loud, and know that it was true. At least they’d come that far. “My head was so occupied with planning a wedding, I managed to push all my doubts about Harm aside. Then he damn near died…” She blinked, realizing that sounded just as crazy, but it was the horrifying truth. “And instead of waking up to deal with those doubts, I went completely numb.”

Bobbi listened with keen interest, amazed by all the turmoil life had put these two people through.

“Then, by some miracle he was okay,” Mac continued. “And I blamed him. Not openly, but somewhere deep down inside I held him responsible for screwing up my life.” She laughed, “And for being a royal pain in the ass.”

Mac sighed as though to wrap up the conversation. “I told Harm I wouldn’t give up JAG. But there’s a chance I might exercise my right to change my mind.”

Unwilling to stop there without knowing the whole story, Bobbi found herself asking more. “Have you talked to him about it?”

The woman across from her just grinned. “Have you ever tried to force a potentially hazardous conversation with Harmon Rabb, Jr.?”

A knowing look passed between the two women.

Mac eased back against the sofa, gripping her warm mug in front of her chest. “With us, conversations either happen or they don’t. And sometimes even when they do, they turn into total misunderstandings.” She gave her friend a smile and then made a playful face that suggested self-criticism. “I’m thinking my best bet is career counseling.”

“It’s called compromise, Mac,” Bobbi stated bluntly, ignoring Mac’s show of indifference. “I know it’s not the same thing but Sturgis and I will probably face our share of public scrutiny now that we’re getting married. And I can’t say that sleeping with my one-time military advisor won’t influence my stance on certain issues. It’ll be weird for Sturgis, too. But we’ll try our best to handle it. It can’t be that much different for you and Harm. When it comes down to whose career is more important, you have to meet each other halfway. Or somewhere close to halfway,” she amended with a knowing smile, “I mean, this is Harm we’re talking about.”

Mac joined in the humor, shaking her head as she thought about her impossible aviator. “Okay, enough of this depressing subject.” Resolute in her decision, she tucked a leg under her to face the bride-to-be and set down her empty mug on the coffee table. “Let’s talk about your big day. I want all the details. Plus all the dirt on Sturgis you’re willing to dish out.”

Several minutes later, a set of headlights lit the room from the front driveway, making shadows stretch and then retract.

“That’ll be Harm. He’ll think we’re performing a séance, sitting in here with all the lights off.”

They heard a car door slam, and then heavy footsteps on the wood stairs.

With a firm hand, Harm pushed the door closed behind him. “Honey, I’m home,” he shouted, sounding like an opening scene in a poorly-scripted sitcom.

“We’re in here,” Mac called unnecessarily as Harm appeared in the archway between the entrance hall and living room.

“Ladies,” he greeted with a polite nod to the congresswoman as he unbuttoned his coat. He glanced at the candles that lined the room. “I see you’re feeling particularly environmentally conscious this evening. Mac, are you on one of your energy conservation kicks again?”

“We’re solving the world’s problems by candlelight.”

“Oh. Well, it’s always nice to see two peremptory minds come together for the greater good,” he said, throwing his coat on a nearby armchair.

“Careful, Harm,” Bobbi chided, “With all the girl power in this room, we might gang up on you.”

Harm raised an eyebrow but Mac could see the smart remark coming a mile away. “Watch it, counselor,” she said as he opened his mouth. “Or we might follow the very literal meaning of the phrase ‘gang up on’.”

In response, he swaggered toward the couch and leaned over to kiss his partner, his lips descending upon hers in a completely unrestrained display of affection. He pulled back as quickly as he’d engaged, leaving a slightly disoriented Marine colonel riled but effectively silenced.

Bobbi found it more entertaining than embarrassing, but cleared her throat to add further dramatics. She rose from her seat. “If you two lovebirds will excuse me,” she said with a laugh, “I’m going to go make dinner arrangements with my future husband.”

As she passed by, Harm took delayed notice of her apparel. His eyes glinted with amusement. “Bobbi, has Sturgis seen you in this particular outfit? Cause I think a man ought to know what he’s getting into before he takes that big step into wedded bliss. And, I don’t know…” He scanned her with mock disapproval. “If bunny slippers are part of the package, then…”

Mac and Bobbi shared a look. “You pin him down and I’ll sew his mouth shut.”

“Deal.”

“Hey!”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

“So, how come I never get to see you lounge around the house in nothing but a bathrobe and slippers?”

Harm’s question came after the bride-to-be ventured off to the movies with her fiancé.

Mac glanced up from the celery she was dicing. “You sound disappointed.”

He scooped a limp string of pasta from the pot of boiling water, and met her smile. “A little.” He placed the cover on the pot, and lifted it to the sink. “What a feeling to have the place to ourselves again though, huh?”

“If you’re trying to convince me that I made the wrong decision, it’s not working.”

“It’s just an innocent observation, Mac. You should know by now I prefer having you all to myself.” The way he said it, so easily and directed at the colander of draining spaghetti, Mac wondered how it could still have such a warming effect on her. “Besides, I’m actually happy to see you and Latham getting along so well.” He pulled a pasta bowl from the cupboard and then tended to the sauce which was supposed to be her job.

“I kind of like having her here.”

“Well, don’t get too attached,” he cautioned, wagging his finger. “We’re not allowed to keep her, remember?”

She swatted his hand away from her piles of diced vegetables, and pried the sauce spoon from his grip.

He backed away with a laugh and popped a piece of green pepper into his mouth. “Oh, I talked to Harriet today,” he said, leaning against the counter behind her. “At the admiral’s request, she and Bud are throwing an engagement party for the happy couple at the end of the month.”

“Shouldn’t that be our responsibility?”

“Well, you know Harriet. Now that she’s got the idea in her head there’s no way to talk her out of it. And their house is a helluva lot bigger than ours anyway,” he pointed out. “I told her we’d help.”

Mac added her vegetables to the sauce and gave it a stir before adjusting the heat. “Sounds like the roles of wedding attendants aren’t what they used to be. So far, the only job I’ve been given is to help Bobbi shop for a wedding gown.”

“So she’s made you her right-hand man, has she? I suspected that might happen.”

She turned around and leaned against the island to face him. “’Matron of honor’ is the correct title, but yes.”

“Hmm. We’ll be forced to dance together.” Mac watched him press his lips together to keep the grin off his face but his eyes gave it away.

She laughed. “Does that bother you?”

“No, not at all. I was just thinking we’re a little out of practice.”

She turned back to the sauce. “I’m sure we’ll manage just fine.”

She felt his warm breath on the back of her neck and then his arms snaked around her middle. Before she had time to shrink away, his teeth were tugging gently at her earlobe. She shivered and her vision wavered a little.

“I really missed you this week,” he whispered.

“You don’t say.”

He felt her slowly relax in his embrace, the tension easing in her shoulders. Pinning her wrists with one hand, he reached forward with the other to turn off the burner.

“Harm, that wasn’t ready yet.”

“It’ll keep.” He took her hand and pulled her across the kitchen and into the darkened living room. Before they even reached the open area of floor, he had her pressed against him, finding her mouth with his own as their bodies swayed together.

She wrapped her arms around his neck and let him lead, just this once. The bedroom might’ve been the more appropriate place for this kind of dancing, but she wasn’t about to complain.

“Uh…Harm?” she managed when he finally released her mouth and tilted his head to nuzzle her neck.

“Hmm?”

“If we’re dancing, shouldn’t there be music?”

His lazy rhythm continued. “What, you don’t hear it?”

The way he was tormenting her senses, she almost believed him. She let her head roll back as he trailed his tongue along her collarbone. “There’s no music, Harm. I’m pretty…mm…pretty sure…of that.”

“There’s music,” he murmured against her throat before inching his way back up to her lips. “It’s sad…but hopeful…and there’s a piano…maybe a trumpet...” His voice was a husky whisper, his breathing frayed.

She watched the desire darken his eyes as he pulled back just enough to scan her face, and she found herself lacking the skill to argue any further. He let go of her hand and grabbed her hips, hitching her up so she wrapped her legs tight around him.

“Maybe we should move this little practice session upstairs,” she suggested, her voice sultry.

“Uh-huh.”

He loved it when she clung to him, her hands fisting in his short hair. His body ached for this perfect kind of contact, his heart pounding so close to hers. She warmed him through and through, and her love was something he could no longer live without. Of that, he was certain. The separation, even just days at a time, was driving him crazy. Something had to be done. Decisions had to be reached. Somehow.

“Just let me have you for a little while,” he found himself pleading aloud. She stilled to gaze at him for a moment. Expressionless, she read him…read his eyes, read his face. He could feel her staring right into his soul, expertly deciphering his weaknesses.

“You’ve got me, Harm,” she said softly, as though trying to convince him. Slowly, cautiously, she tasted his bottom lip as though all prior acts had been performed in a dream-world and now it was time to test reality.

“It’s not easy being in love with you,” he murmured against her mouth.

She pulled back again, her eyes penetrating his in pure, solemn understanding. “But you are just the same.”

He feigned a sigh of dissatisfaction as he tightened his grip around her. “Too late to fight it now, I suppose.”

Like a sunrise, a smile illuminated her face, and quickly turned playful. “Let’s take this upstairs, you goof. And you can bring that so-called music of yours with you.”

 

 

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