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Chapter Two

Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel-sounds
The blessed angels sing.

                 -- Edward Hamilton Sears

 

“Meredith?”

A.J. Chegwidden was just about to leave the house when the doorbell rang. Upon answering it, he found his date on the front porch staring blankly back at him. “Meredith, I thought we’d agreed to meet at the Roberts’ home and…” Looking closer he could see that she’d been crying. “Wow. You look terrible,” he remarked, taken aback. “Uh, I mean come in. Let’s get you out of the cold.”

He put an arm around her and steered her into the living room. She sat next to him on the couch and drew a shaky breath.

“This is ridiculous,” she began, fluttering a hand, “I don’t know why I’m so surprised. I should’ve known not to get my hopes up. I mean, these things happen, right?”

A.J. emitted a nervous laugh, wondering what the problem could be and fearful that he might be part of it. “Meredith, just take a deep breath and start from the beginning.”

“I thought I was good enough!” she wailed and buried her face against his shoulder.

Shocked, A.J. cautiously placed an arm around her and smoothed back her hair. His mind raced, trying to recall their most recent conversations in the hopes of finding an explanation for her despair. Finally, he zeroed in on one likely possibility. “Is this about something that happened at work?”

She pulled herself upright with every bit of dignity she could muster and tried to take a few calming breaths. “Remember last week when I told you I was being considered for full professorship at the college? I’d get tenure and a raise in pay, not to mention the other perks like a six month sabbatical every two years, and a better parking space?”

A.J. nodded.

“I didn’t get the promotion!” she cried out again, sinking against his chest.

A.J. kept a firm grip on her shoulders and held her at arm’s length. “Meredith, honey, it’s not the end of the world.”

“That’s easy for you to say. You’re a man.”

“Well, I can’t argue that last part.”

“You haven’t given up everything in life just to make a name for yourself!”

“Well, actually, I—.”

She waved her hand. “It doesn’t matter. It’s all over now. My career’s been ruined, just like that.” She snapped her fingers for emphasis. “Poof!”

A.J. opted to remain silent, handing her a clean handkerchief. She accepted it and gave her nose a loud blow.

“To think…to think,” she stressed, “that all this time I believed I was an exceptional teacher. A mentor, even! My students have always evaluated me fairly. I’ve been the lead administrator for countless extra-curricular programs for teenagers. I’ve stayed current—as current as you can stay with Shakespeare. The field can be dry at times.—I’ve done my share of schmoozing, I’ve listened to other lecturers go on and on about the growing disinterest in Classics and the drop in enrolment in our department, and all the while I was a fighter, a promoter, a campaigner…” Her arms spread and then dropped wearily in her lap. “Where did I go wrong?”

The silence came up suddenly and without warning. A.J. was stumped to find anything encouraging to say. This wasn’t his area of expertise. He couldn’t think of the last time he had to comfort a woman so rattled.

“Oh, A.J., I didn’t mean to put you through all this.” She touched his thigh lightly and dabbed at her eyes with a less-rumpled corner of the handkerchief. “I should have just done the female thing and cried my eyes out in a ladies room on my way over.”

“No, no. You go right ahead.” He laughed nervously. “Just let it all out. We’ve got time. Hell, we can even be fashionably late. It’s not a crime last I checked.”

“Oh! The party!” she exclaimed. “I forgot all about it! And now I’ve gone and ruined your dress shirt.” She smoothed the damp area on his shoulder with her hand.

He offered a smile. “Don’t worry about it. There’s plenty where this one came from.”

She reached into her purse and pulled out her lipstick and a mirror. And as she reapplied her makeup she began to hum a Christmas tune. It was a little off-key, but a merry one just the same. A.J. watched in amazement as the woman beside him transformed from bedraggled and teary-eyed, to rosy-complexioned and chipper in a matter of seconds.

She glanced at him as she blotted her lipstick with a tissue. “Oh, look. You’re dry. Should we maybe get going then?”

“You’re…okay?”

“Just fine, dear.”

“Are you sure? You have a perfectly good reason to be upset. If you need a bit longer to—”

“Honestly, A.J., I’m not a school-girl. I just needed a sounding board.” She leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. “You were wonderful.”

A.J. raised his eyebrows, deciding that this woman was full of surprises—and some of them were even half-pleasant. “Well, uh…glad to hear it.”

“So why aren’t you the one hosting this engagement party yourself, A.J.?” she asked as he helped her into her coat.

He shrugged, remembering the last engagement party he was talking into hosting. “Let’s just say it wasn’t my turn.”

“That’s too bad. You know, I could’ve helped with the catering.”

A.J. wisely chose to bite his tongue as he ushered her out the front door.

“Oooh, I could have made one of those cakes,” Meredith held up her hands, framing an invisible rectangular object, “with the layers and the coconut. You know the kind I’m talking about? Or a fruit cake! Do people still give those away as party favors? In my day, we used to get them wrapped in cellophane with a ribbon and a…”

A.J. nodded his passive agreement and closed the passenger door. Walking around to the driver’s side, he shook his head and said a silent prayer, thankful that Lieutenant Sims owed him one.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

“Here, take this to Daddy, sweetie, and get him to help you add it to the punch. Then come back and I’ll give you a few trays of ice-cubes.”

A.J. wrapped both arms around the heavy 2-liter bottle of ginger-ale, and nodded his understanding before skiing on socked feet across the freshly polished floor toward the den.

“Be careful not to drop it, sweetheart.”

Harriet took a quick inventory of the platters fighting for space on the kitchen island before selecting a few to add to the already-crammed buffet table in the living room.

“Harriet, what are you doing carrying all that? Here, let me help. That’s what I’m here for.” Mac intercepted the lieutenant and grabbed the heavier tray from her as she glided into the room.

“With all due respect, Colonel, being seven months pregnant doesn’t make me a weakling.”

“I know, but if you don’t let me do something soon I’m going to get dizzy watching you flit back and worth. Now where do you want this?” Mac glanced at the jam-packed buffet table and decided a miracle would have to happen before they’d be able to add more dishes to it.

Harriet shuffled the smaller tiered trays and dip bowls a few times before giving up, transferring a purely decorative poinsettia to a nearby end-table to make more room. The lieutenant took a step back to assess her last minute modification, and smiled. Christmas music was playing in the background, candles were lit, the tree lights were plugged in. The entire room looked festive and inviting. That’s all that mattered.

“The place looks great, Harriet.”

The colonel was right, Harriet decided, giving herself a mental pat on the back for pulling it all together in such a short amount of time. The only thing left to do was to check on Bud and the makeshift bar he’d set up in the den.

“The punch might need more cranberry juice,” Harriet pondered out loud. “Oh, and ice-cubes! I almost forgot! I’d better get them out of the freezer before A.J. tries climbing up on the counters and—.” Her train of thought was interrupted by the sound of the doorbell. She glanced at Mac. “Someone’s early.”

The note of panic did not go unnoticed. “Relax, Harriet. You answer the door. I’ll check on the punch.” Mac headed off to the kitchen for the ice-cubes.

By the time Harm arrived, the Roberts-Sims’ home was packed with guests and buzzing with conversation.

“Sorry I’m late, Harriet. The bakery decided Sturgis looked better without the ‘T’.”

Harriet reached forward to grab the box he was holding. “As long as there’s a cake in here, sir.”

“I can guarantee that there is.” He scanned the living room on his right and caught a glimpse of Mac chatting with one of Bobbi Latham’s aunts in the far corner. “I suppose I’m the last to arrive?”

“Third last, sir. We’re still waiting on the admiral and Ms. Cavanaugh.” She snagged her son as he zoomed past. “A.J., why don’t you take your godfather’s coat and lay it carefully on the guestroom bed with the others. Help yourself to the food, Commander. And if you want something to drink, Tiner’s manning the bar in the den. Just make yourself at home.”

“Thanks, Harriet.”

“Just get A.J. to tell you where everything is, sir,” she said, and disappeared in the crowd of guests.

Little A.J. stood at Harm’s feet, gazing up with delight. He was red in the face from a game of tag with a trio of preschool girls—Bobbi’s cousins’ kids who’d been designated as flower girls for the wedding.

Harm had a good chuckle. “Hey, big guy. Wow, do you ever look sharp.” The boy was wearing a green plaid vest and bowtie, but his shirttails were already hanging loose.

“I’m gonna be a ring bear,” A.J. said proudly, holding both arms up to take Harm’s coat.

“Well, I hear that’s a very important job.” Harm gave the boy’s messy hair a quick tousle.

“Ring bearer, kiddo,” his father corrected stepping into the hallway from the den. “Hey, sir,” Bud greeted cheerfully. “Can I get you something to drink?”

They watched A.J. carry Harm’s coat away dutifully. “What have you got, Lieutenant?”

“Just name it, sir.”

“A beer would be great.” He followed Bud back into the den to accept the drink offer.

In the doorway, Mac brushed passed him on her way back to the living room, a glass of punch in each hand. Their eyes locked and she gave him her ‘So, you finally decided to show up’ look.

“Sweetheart,” he greeted with exaggerated casualness and just a hint of a smile.

“Honey,” she replied in kind and disappeared down the hall. As if to tease him, her perfume lingered an instant longer.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

“You’re looking a little worn out, Mac.” Sturgis scanned her with concern as she handed him a beverage. “Tough day in court?”

“It could’ve been better.”

“I thought the McGrath court-martial was a done deal?”

“It was until my star witness committed perjury.” Mac stared into her glass and gave its contents a brief swirl.

“I’ll bet Singer jumped on that one.”

Not withholding her smile, Mac searched the room for the unconscionable lieutenant before sharing a knowing look with Sturgis. “Unfortunately, it’s going to take some divine intervention to turn the members around, now.”

Sturgis raised his glass in a toasting gesture, “Well, it’s the season for miracles.”

Mac let out a long breath and watched the lights blink a quick pattern on the nearby Christmas tree. “Yeah, maybe my client will acquire a halo before he takes the stand on Monday. That might be enough to prove his innocence.”

“Are you two talking shop again?” Bobbi scolded playfully as she slipped an arm around her future husband. Her smile quickly faded. “Mac, you don’t look so good. Are you feeling okay?”

“Yeah, I feel fine.” But she was beginning to wonder why everyone seemed to think otherwise. It’s true she’d had a bit of a dizzy spell in court that afternoon, but she’d chalked it up to stress and an insufficient lunch break.

“I thought she looked a little peaked,” Sturgis remarked to his fiancé as though making a laboratory observation.

Since her arrival to help Harriet, Mac had to admit her appetite wasn’t what it should be, but it wasn’t as though she was nauseous or anything. “Honestly, I’m fine.”

The soon-to-be-wed duo were distracted by the sound of the doorbell and Mac was saved from further scrutiny.

“Oh, that must be Meredith and the admiral,” she said, taking the opportunity to escape. “I’d better go help Harriet with their coats.”

Mac dodged her way through the crowd and tried to ignore the tight room careening on all sides of her.

“Welcome to the party, Admiral.”

“Colonel, you look like hell. Are you feeling alright?”

Mac gritted her teeth. “Just fine, sir. Here, let me take your coats…”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Losing interest in the girly games, little A.J. ditched his female companions in favor of his godfather’s strong arm from which he was now swinging gleefully. The boy leaned his entire weight into the swing but could never budge the outstretched arm more than a few inches in any direction.

Despite the fact that his shoulder would undoubtedly feel the effects the next morning, Harm accepted the torment with a genuine enjoyment.

While the admiral engaged in conversation with Colonel Mackenzie by the front door, Meredith separated from the crowd of greeters and embarked on a slow exploration down the hallway, pausing to look at family photos on the walls. She smiled when she reached the picture of a baby boy wearing the cutest little Navy outfit.

“That’s me!” a child’s voice announced.

She whirled around and found herself looking up at a very full grown naval officer. He grinned back at her with that incredible smile of his and it brought back memories of flying in his yellow bi-plane. The man was still an enigma and she’d been meaning to ask A.J. for more details about his history. She wondered how a man could have two completely separate passions and yet have exceptional talent in both.

Harm’s upper body jerked slightly as the small boy attached to his arm gave it a hard yank. “Welcome to the party, Meredith. You look stunning this evening.”

“Thank you, Harm. You’re a true gentleman. And you,” she assessed the child, “must be little A.J.”

“In the flesh,” Harm supplied, when his godson turned suddenly shy.

“I know the whole story about how you got your name,” Meredith said in a voice that reminded Harm of the narrators in children’s audio-books.

A.J. remained tight-lipped, wrapping an arm around Harm’s thigh. His godfather could only chuckle. “Don’t worry, Meredith, he’ll be crawling up on your lap in no time.”

In an exaggerated stage gesture, Meredith folded her arms across her chest and gave the boy a sidelong examination. “Well, I certainly hope so. I happen to know an exciting Christmas tale and I’ve been dying to tell it to someone. It has reindeer, and elves, and a little boy exactly your age, and,” she raised her eyebrows, “…magic.”

She’d snagged the little boy’s attention. Meredith and Harm shared a look familiar to adults in the company of impressionable preschoolers. It wouldn’t be long before A.J. would make a new friend.

Then Meredith placed a hand on Harm’s shoulder and sighed, a sudden edge of dramatic self-pity that caught him off-guard. “So where’s this small-scale pub I’ve been told about? I think it’s time to drown my sorrows.”

“Uh. Well.” He gave an unsure laugh and slowly raised his thumb to point behind him. “It’s in the den.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Harm directed her through a doorway and handed her off to Tiner who was enjoying his post as bartender.

“What can I get you, Ms. Cavanaugh?”

She took a seat on a barstool beside one of Sturgis’ submariner buddies. “What have you got, Jason? And please, it’s Meredith. Let’s pretend I’m not old enough to be your mother.”

“I can recommend the cranberry punch, ma’am. If you’d like I could add a splash of vodka to liven it up a little. We also have wine, or wine coolers.”

“I’m envisioning something a little stiffer, Jason. How about a double shot of tequila?”

Tiner looked stunned but quickly hid his surprise behind the bar as he retrieved a bottle of Cuervo.

Standing by the non-alcoholic beverage table at the other end of the room, Harm handed a plastic cup of punch down to his clingy godson as the admiral approached with a small plate of hors d'oeuvres. Without exchanging a word, both men watched Meredith from their vantage point as she knocked back her tequila and motioned for Tiner to serve her up another.

Harm gave his commanding officer a questioning glance.

“She was passed over for full professorship at the college.” Looking slightly unsettled, the admiral grabbed an item off his plate and stuffed it into his mouth.

Harm frowned with sympathy. “I’m sorry to hear that, sir.”

A.J. swallowed and then sighed, his gaze fixed on his date. “Well, she seems to be handling it with dignity so far.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Hours later, Mac and Harriet were taking a break in the kitchen waiting for the coffee to brew, when Sturgis walked in.

From her seat at the little round breakfast table, Mac feigned disapproval of the newcomer’s presence. “This is behind-the-scenes action, Sturgis. You’re not supposed to see this.”

Sturgis gazed at the mounds of yet-to-be-served food that lined the kitchen counter and the island and chuckled. “No wonder you two need a break.”

Harriet started to rise from her chair. “Can I get you something, sir?”

He held up a hand. “No, don’t get up, Lieutenant. I was just looking for Harm. I thought he might’ve snuck in here.”

“You thought right. But you just missed him. Bud dragged him away a few minutes ago rambling on about Meredith putting on a performance in the den.” Mac raised a questioning eyebrow. “Do you know anything about this? Bud claimed she’s a real hoot.”

“Yeah,” Sturgis chuckled. “And she’s attracting a sizeable crowd. The den is standing room only.”

“Is she really quoting one of Shakespeare’s tragedies?” Harriet inquired.

“Uh-huh. Julius Caesar.”

“Word for word?”

Sturgis leaned a hip against the island. “You’d better believe it. Last I checked she was launching into the third act. She’s doing all the voices too, which is remarkable considering it’s just a bunch of men with swords.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

“Et tu, Brute! Then fall, Caesar.”

In one corner of the den the very inebriated Meredith Cavanaugh clutched at her chest and leaned back against a bookshelf, signifying Caesar’s death. The crowd of spectators uttered a collective gasp, adding to the theatrics.

“Get the woman another drink!” a heckler cried out from somewhere in the tight crowd and was quickly shushed by the guests surrounding him.

Without losing momentum, Meredith righted herself and took on the next persona. “Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead! Run hence, proclaim, cry it about the streets.”

“This is incredible,” Harm remarked to Bud, not believing his eyes. “She’s sloshed to the gills and still not missing a beat.”

Beside him, Bobbi Latham stared in complete awe. “Is she going to keep this up all night?”

“O mighty Caesar, dost thou lie so low? Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils, shrunk to this little measure? Fare thee well.”

Bud turned with an eager grin to his companions and whispered, “Ooh, she’s doing Antony! This is my favorite part!”

Meredith couldn’t have feigned grief any better. She was the loyal Antony, her face pulled long and her eyes troubled. “I know not, gentlemen, what you intend, who else must be let blood, who else is rank. If I myself, there is no hour so fit as Caesar’s death hour, nor no instrument of half that worth as those your swords, made rich with the most noble blood of all this world.”

The admiral maneuvered his way through the crowd to join the congresswoman and his officers.

“Ms. Cavanaugh is amazing, sir,” Bud told him excitedly upon his approach.

Harm took an extra moment to assess the look on his commanding officer’s face before making a comment. He was surprised to find the admiral suppressing a smile as he watched Meredith across the room. Harm’s eyes narrowed in disbelief. “Sir, are you really going to let her continue? I mean, don’t you think she should…?”

A.J. crossed his arms over his chest. “Commander, I’d take her straight home this minute if I didn’t find it so downright entertaining.”

“I do beseech ye, if you bear me hard, now, whilst your purpled hands do reek and smoke, fulfill your pleasure. Live a thousand years, I shall not find myself so apt to die: no place will please me so, no mean of death, as here by Caesar, and by you cut off, the choice and master spirits of this age.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

There was only so much Shakespeare Harm could stand in one night, so between the fourth and fifth act, he got Tiner to pour him a bourbon and wandered back through the nearly empty living room and into the kitchen. There, he found Mac and Harriet prying all the honeymoon plans from the groom-to-be.

“It sounds so romantic,” Harriet was saying.

“It sounds expensive,” Mac teased, her gaze drifting to the new arrival who strutted into the room to stand alongside Turner at the island. “The cost alone might take your bride’s breath away.”

“That’s probably his intent, Mac.”

The twinkle in Sturgis’ eyes never diminished as he shifted his posture to address his longtime friend. “So, did you get your fill of tragedy?”

Harm let out a long breath and gripped the counter behind him with his drink-free hand. “That woman is a mystery, there’s no doubt about that. I just hope she doesn’t die of embarrassment when she wakes up tomorrow morning.”

“Maybe she won’t remember any of it.”

“Yeah, she’ll be too busy nursing a hangover.”

Harriet turned to Mac. “What do you think, ma’am—should we wait for her to finish the play before serving the cake and coffee?”

Before Mac could reply, a loud chorus of disappointed ‘Aw’s traveled in from the direction of the den. Moments later, Bud stumbled into the kitchen on an unsteady course guiding a very drunk Ms. Cavanaugh. He had one of her arms draped around his neck and was trying unsuccessfully to keep most of the additional weight over his good leg.

“…but till all graces be in one woman,” Meredith slurred, “one woman shall not come in my grace…”

Harm frowned. “What happened?”

Meredith looked to Harm and then to Sturgis. She pointed a finger aimed roughly in their direction. “Ha! the prince and Monsieur Love!”

Bud stopped to rebalance his weight and panted a little. “She jumped from Julius Caesar to Much Ado in the middle of the last act, so the admiral decided to pull the plug. He’s outside getting the car warmed up.”

Sturgis held out a hand to steady the scholar as she staggered forward to the island. “Meredith, can I get you some coffee?”

She focused on Sturgis, her eyes filled with adoration. “They say the lady is fair; ‘tis a truth, I can bear them witness; and virtuous; ‘tis so, I cannot reprove it.”

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

“And wise,” Meredith continued, hand over her heart, “but for loving me; by my troth, it is no addition to her wit, nor no great argument of her folly, for I will be horribly in love with her.”

Her new and collectively more sober audience just gaped at her.

“I may chance have some odd quirks and remnants of wit broken on me, because I have railed so long against marriage: but doth not the appetite alter? A man love the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age.”

“She’s hung up on Benedick,” Bud whispered to his wife.

“Shall quips and sentences and these paper bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of his humour? No, the world must be people. When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married.”

After sharing an amused look with Harm, Mac cleared her throat and pushed her chair back from the table. “Uh, Meredith, why don’t you take my seat. Sturgis will bring your coffee over.”

But upon standing, Mac’s blood refused to keep up with the sudden action and she saw nothing but black. She grasped for the support of the table as she felt herself rock backward. Through a clanging tunnel of noise, she heard Harm shout her name and then firm arms caught her before her knees gave out entirely.

For a few seconds everyone stared as she blinked to stabilize her vision. Bud carefully withdrew his arm from her waist, allowing her to stand unsupported. He bent and righted the chair that had toppled over behind her. Then, just as Harriet was about to offer her a glass of water, Mac clamped a hand over her mouth and rushed out of the room.

“What’s wrong with the colonel?”

“I hope it’s not the food, sir.”

Harm gazed after Mac, frowning with worry. “Naw, Harriet, I’m sure the food is fine. Mac has a cast-iron gut.” He swept a hand to dismiss it though his eyes remained filled with concern.

He wanted to go after her but he held himself back, deciding there was no cause for alarm.

Sturgis spoke up. “According to Lieutenant Singer, Mac had a dizzy spell in court this afternoon.”

Harm pinned him with a look that combined disapproval with surprise. Why did Sturgis always seem to know things about Mac that he didn’t?

“Maybe it’s something she had for lunch,” Harriet suggested, still thinking food must be the culprit.

“Could be one of those weird food allergies,” Bud reasoned.

“She’ll be fine,” Harm said firmly, mostly to reassure himself. He leaned back against the island and took a calming sip of bourbon, hoping someone would change the subject so he could worry about Mac in the privacy of his own head.

Meredith lifted her mug to put in her own two cents worth. “I’d say she’s pregnant!”

Harm choked, the burn of alcohol seizing his windpipe. The contents of his glass splashed over his hand as he fought the breathless agony, coughing violently.

Sturgis thumped him on the back. “Easy, there.”

“Jesus!” Harm croaked.

Pregnant? How was this even possible? It just couldn’t be.

But what if it was?

But it couldn’t be.

Regaining the function of his trachea, Harm quickly looked to Harriet for female support. Of all people, the pregnant lady should know, right? Surely one pregnant woman could spot another?

Harriet only cowered under his intense stare. “The symptoms do fit, sir.”

Meredith attempted a grand gesture, sweeping one hand in the air. “O, what men dare do, what men may do, what men daily do,…not knowing what they do!”

Harm told himself not to panic, not to make hasty assumptions guided by drunken Shakespearean scholars. Mac would know, he consoled himself. She must know.

But if she knew, why hadn’t she told him? What the hell did she think she was doing holding back this kind of information?

Maybe she didn’t know, he reasoned—an only marginally calming thought. Maybe she’d been disregarding the signs, blaming them on stress. Or maybe it was too soon for her body to tell her—

Oh God. Last week.

If there was ever a sexual encounter worthy of creating a perfect little human being, that was it. Okay, Rabb, breathe. She’s on the pill for crying out loud. Isn’t she?

“Buddy, you look a little pale. Maybe you should sit down.”

Harm regained focus only to find that all eyes were on him. Well, all eyes minus one pair to be precise. Meredith had plunked herself in Mac’s vacated seat and was now undertaking a close-up examination of the wood grain in the breakfast table.

Harm looked back at the doorway through which Mac had disappeared seconds earlier. “Excuse me,” he uttered with quick resolve as he set down his glass on the closest flat surface and dashed out of the room.

He paused and listened at the bathroom door but could only hear running water. He knocked softly. “Mac? You okay?”

After a brief moment of silence, the door opened. She looked faint, Harm noted, and she was shivering. “Just a little nausea. No big deal.” Mac held onto the wall for support and let Harm grab her free arm. “Just let me sit down,” she said, and slid to the floor.

“Harm, I’m sorry, I…” Her voice cracked.

He dropped down beside her. “Shh. It’s okay,” he soothed, brushing back her hair. “We’ll talk about this later. In private.”

She just nodded and closed her eyes, leaning her cheek against the cool wood paneling beside her.

“Is everything alright, sir?” Harriet appeared with a glass of water. Seeing Mac curled into a tight ball on the floor, alarm flashed in her eyes. She quickly handed the glass to Harm.

“Harriet, can you bring us our coats?” He didn’t take his eyes off his partner as he helped her take a drink. “I’m taking Mac home.”

“Right away, sir.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

“You feeling any better?”

“Yeah, the fresh air helps.” Harm watched Mac try to get comfortable in the passenger seat of the Lexus. She fought the seatbelt and then curled sideways against the seat, facing him.

“I was supposed to be the designated driver,” she said weakly, pulling on a brief smile.

Harm reached across and gave her hand a quick squeeze. “It’s only ten blocks and I’m way under my usual limit. We’ll be fine.”

She kept her eyes closed. “I’m sorry, Harm. The timing could have been better.”

He hesitated while he digested her words. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked finally, trying not to sound too hurt.

“It kind of just took me by surprise.”

“Yeah, I know the feeling.”

His sarcasm seemed to come with sharp edges. Mac opened her eyes, wondering if she’d perhaps read it wrong.

“I think all our friends think I’m the most uninformed bastard this side of the equator,” he continued heatedly.

Was he blaming her for not telling him, or blaming himself for not making the observation? If she wasn’t so damn woozy, maybe she could figure it out. She decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the kinder of the two possibilities. “Harm, there’s no way you could have known. I’ve been trying to ignore the symptoms myself.”

“I’m sorry, Mac.” His tone turned abruptly soft and his eyes left the road momentarily to look at her. “I should’ve been paying closer attention.”

“It’s my fault. I should have said something. I’m so used to taking care of myself, I guess. But you have every right to be angry.”

Her body jerked forward against the seatbelt as Harm slammed on the brakes. He turned to face her, eyes wide. “Jesus, Mac. I’m a lot of things but angry sure as hell isn’t one of them.”

He glanced at the rearview mirror to make sure no traffic was behind them, and then gave her his full attention. “Listen, I might be a little surprised, maybe a little scared even. But I’m not angry. I love you, and I want you to know I’m really committed to this. We’ll work through it.”

She nodded tentatively. “I know.”

“We’ve created something special here, Mac.” He glanced to where her left hand rested on a queasy abdomen. “It’s an amazing thing.”

It wasn’t like Harm to get so poetic in his descriptions of their relationship, but Mac knew from hearing his closing arguments time and time again, that the man was certainly capable of stringing powerful words together. If he wanted to use that skill in the romance department, that was perfectly fine by her. She just wished she felt better so she could enjoy it.

“I’m glad you think so, Harm. Can we go home now?” She wanted flannel pajamas, a down comforter, and a soft bed. She closed her eyes.

Traffic was light for a Friday night. Mac remained motionless as Harm turned from one quiet residential street to another. He stared at the road ahead, and thought about what it might feel like to become a father. Mac was right: the timing could have been better. But hadn’t they been stalling for long enough? Maybe this was just the push they needed. A push in the right direction. Something to force the issue.

What could be more perfect than a baby with Mac?

Wow. A baby…with Mac. Just the thought of it made his heart swell with pride and adoration. Her looks and his brains; his looks and her brains. He grinned like a fool at the empty street. Then he felt a smidgen of guilt as he realized it wasn’t fair for him to be so overjoyed by this life-changing experience while the mother of all his future children felt so lousy.

She stirred in the seat beside him and he wished he could do something to make her feel better. Maybe she wasn’t warm enough.

“I’m such a lousy matron of honor,” Mac stated dejectedly before Harm had a chance to inquire about her level of comfort.

She was trying to ignore the nausea that began overwhelming her again. If she could just keep talking, maybe she could keep it down. “I ditched the bride-to-be at her engagement party for Pete’s sake!”

“Don’t beat yourself up over it. They’re probably all pigging out on cake by now and don’t even notice we’re gone.”

Mac flinched and sucked air through her teeth. “Oooh…God. Don’t say cake.”

“Sorry.” He glanced across at her. “Don’t worry about Latham.”

Mac kept her eyes tightly shut, hoping the world would stop spinning sometime soon. “I suppose I should’ve taken more preventative measures, but it serves her right,” Mac muttered, holding her breath for fear of what might happen if she tried to talk and exhale at the same time. “That’s what you get for trying to organize your wedding right smack in the middle of flu season.”

The vehicle screeched to a halt again. The seatbelt grabbed Mac’s shoulder, pinning her back. She moaned as her stomach rolled. Could he not stop doing that?

“Flu season?”

“Yeah, I’ve been burning the candle at both ends, I should’ve known this might happen.”

“You’re not…pregnant?”

Her eyes flew open. Did he just ask…?

He was staring back at her looking more than a little terrified. If it weren’t for his straight-out-of-nowhere question and the way she had to out-wit with her nausea, she would have found his expression rather comical.

“No…” she replied slowly as though questioning his sanity, and then emitted a weak chuckle. “What the hell gave you that idea?”

Harm lowered his forehead to the steering wheel. “A certain scholarly friend of yours,” he mumbled at the vinyl-covered airbag.

What? “Meredith?! The woman was drunk out of her mind, Harm!”

“Well, Harriet certainly didn’t argue her theory,” he countered defensively, making a quick recovery from his stint in gullible-ville.

Mac huffed. “Can a sober woman not get sick at a party without everyone making the assumption that she’s gone and knocked herself up?”

His eyes glinted with amusement, his look turning smug. “Well, to be accurate, Mac, they were assuming we,” he waved a finger back and forth to encompass the two of them, “got you knocked-up.” This wasn’t the time to dispute the technicalities but he didn’t want to be left out of the equation entirely.

“Oh, brother.” Why did he have to be so irritating? And why was her head beginning to pound?

“Well, even though we didn’t do what they think we did, we definitely did the not doing of it together. Right?”

“You just go ahead and joke about this.” She pointed an unsteady finger towards his chest. “But you—not we…you— are handling the damage control on this one, counselor. And if you don’t straighten this whole misunderstanding out before Monday morning, then we will definitely be doing the not doing of what they think we did but didn’t do not together.” She paused a second trying to figure out if she got all the negatives in the right place, then struggled out of the seatbelt and pulled on the door handle to let herself out of the vehicle.

“Mac? What are you doing?”

“I think I’m going to be sick,” she replied and it took Harm a few seconds to realize she meant it literally.

He found her doubled-over near the sidewalk, trying to catch her breath. He handed her a tissue he pulled from his pocket and she accepted it, aiming only a mild glare in his direction. It was obvious she didn’t want him witnessing her less-than-glorious moment, but he wasn’t about to let her off that easy.

“Well, Mackenzie, you almost made it home,” Harm teased as he held her hair away from her face and rubbed her lower back. Glancing up, Mac discovered she was clutching the cotoneaster hedge that bordered her neighbor’s front lawn. All her energy expended, she sank back against him, too sick to feel humiliated.

“It’s okay, Mac,” Harm consoled her, unable to suppress his laughter. He cradled her on the wet grass and kissed her burning temple. “You go ahead and puke in Spaghetti’s hedge. Give the nosy broad something to talk about.”

 

Chapter Three

 

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the heavenly strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
A man, at war with man, hears not
The tidings which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing!

                 -- Edward Hamilton Sears

 

Mac had never been so eager to get out of an itchy wool skirt in all her life. Her skin had become hypersensitive. Even the lightest rub of fabric against her bare legs felt rough, as though abraded by an emery board. She slipped into her flannel pajamas expecting a soothing wave of comfort, but the sensation hardly changed from one fabric to the next. The burning continued, hot and prickling beneath the skin’s surface.

Returning from the kitchen with a glass of ice-water, Harm set the drink within reach on the bedside table and then peeled back the bedspread for her. His tie had already been discarded, neck and wristband buttons undone, shirttails loose, his white dress shirt turning a soft shade of blue in the moonlight that filtered in through the window. For a moment, Mac couldn’t help but think that the scene playing out before her was completely natural. A husband and wife getting ready for bed in a familiar routine. No your-place-my-place advance scheduling. No duffel bags and extra toothbrushes. No carefully concealed feelings of dread over the next set of goodbyes. No waking up cold and alone before sunrise. Just two people living a life…together. So normal. So real.

In an effort to look less death-warmed-over, Mac pulled herself slightly more upright against the mound of pillows Harm had placed behind her.

“I never knew you had such a good bedside manner.”

“I do come with a few surprises. Do you want another pillow?”

“No, I think three is more than enough, thank you.”

He sat on the edge of the bed, facing her, and then fussed with the comforter long enough to ruin the illusion of matrimonial rituals. This was special treatment for the sick girl and nothing more, she reminded herself. Annoyed, she swatted his hands away. “Stop it. I’m not defenseless you know.”

He felt her forehead and she could see the lines of frustration form on his brow.

“What?”

Mac had to admit—at least to herself—that she was feeling much worse than before. Her dizziness at the party was a dream compared to the way she was feeling now. Thankfully, this was an abnormality as far as her usual state of health was concerned. She rarely got sick, and when she did it was usually just a cold. She couldn’t even remember the last time she’d caught something as annoying (and immobilizing) as the stomach flu. But something had been going around at the office—Tiner had been sick the week before, and Coates the week before that. Now, it was her turn, she thought resignedly. Time to give in to feeling horrible.

Now, if only she could get rid of her hovering nursemaid, she’d be able to groan and grumble openly, mutter her complaints to the walls of an empty room as she usually did when she was sick, and maybe, just maybe, sleep this bug off by morning. At least by Monday morning.

“Here. Drink.” Her caretaker shoved the glass of water in her hand and marched into the ensuite bathroom, no doubt to look for the thermometer.

Even from several feet away, the sudden brightness of the bathroom seemed to attack Mac’s eyes. She moaned and drew a pillow over her face. “Harm, turn the damn light off!”

“Geez, Mac. What are you, a gremlin?” It was the same complaint she’d made earlier when he’d switched on the kitchen light and now he worried that the odd symptom might have some significance. He rummaged around in the drawers of the vanity a second longer before finding what he was looking for, then switched off the light and joined her again on the bed.

“Being sensitive to light doesn’t sound like stomach flu to me, Mac.” He pulled her chin down and slipped the thermometer under her tongue before she could voice a protest. “Leave it in,” he warned, holding her wrists at her sides. “Hey, you’re shivering. I’ll go get another blanket. Leave that thing in your mouth.”

She rolled her eyes and slowly leaned back against the pillows. Only when he left the room did she pull the blankets up to her chin and huddle under their warmth.

Returning with the throw from the living room sofa, Harm angled his watch in the moonlight to read the elapsed time. “Okay, open up.” He reached forward and grabbed the thermometer, squinting at it in the dim light. Unsatisfied, he handed her a pillow to shield her eyes and turned on the bedside lamp.

“A hundred-and…four?!”

“Just bring me a few Tylenol and I’ll be fine,” she mumbled through the pillow. “You’ve proven your skills as a nurse, now go back to the party. It’s not even midnight yet.”

He turned off the light and pried the pillow away. “I’m not going anywhere, Marine, so get used to it.” He headed back to the bathroom and returned with a bottle of acetaminophen. She accepted two and swallowed them with the help of the water he proffered.

“Do you want me to turn up the heat?”

“No.”

“Want another blanket?”

“No.”

“How about a cold compress?”

“No.” She pulled the blanket over her head. “What I want is to be left alone.”

“Are you always this irritable when you’re sick?”

“Yes.”

Ignoring her request, he stepped around to the other side of the bed and pulled the covers back, settling-in beside her.

“You’ll wrinkle your clothes.”

“Well, I could strip down but I didn’t think you’d be in the mood for that kind of attention.”

She had no strength left to throw a comeback. “You should just go.”

“Not gonna happen,” he answered in a way that accepted no further argument.

She surrendered without another word and even gave up the layers of fluffy pillows to lean her head against his chest. He wrapped both arms around her and kissed her temple, firming his hold when she began to shiver again.

“This sucks,” she complained, her teeth starting to chatter.

“Just try to sleep, okay?” Lightly, he rubbed her back. “Oh, and if you feel like throwing-up…”

She laughed, “Don’t worry, I’ll try to give you fair warning.”

“Good girl.”

She did try to sleep but it was impossible. The strangest tasks started to overpower and overtax her brain, like trying to find the fourth side of a triangle, or trying to spin a never-ending pattern of rotations on a trampoline, or trying to reach an unachievable destination by traveling along a Mobius strip.

For a while her mind was filled with war games, Mortal Kombat in the deserts of Afghanistan with vicious medieval opponents and 21st century weaponry. She fought battle after horrible battle and survived, but it was relentless and she was getting tired of it.

The scene eventually changed to a courtroom and the battles became verbal. Head to head against the adversary who owned her heart. But when it came time for closing arguments she lost the ability to speak. She saw haloed officers and officers quoting Shakespeare, and officers gorging themselves on Bobbi and Sturgis’ engagement cake. And all the while she knew these weren’t dreams because she could still feel her body shaking and her skin still felt hotly chafed and she could still hear Harm’s voice trying to calm her.

The hallucinations continued, and the next time Harm pulled the thermometer out of his partner’s mouth, it read 105. They weren’t making any progress but he placed a cold compress on her forehead and that seemed to soothe her somewhat.

She sat propped up against him, half delirious but no longer trembling, and rambled on about the strangest things. Personal fantasies, dinosaur did-you-know’s, case strategies, and descriptions of textbook Marine maneuvers all rolled into one bizarre story. Like a child, it took her so much time to unleash every detail. And like a child, her voice was sweetened and playful as she struggled with words. Harm listened attentively, watched her closely, and tried to make her comfortable whenever a moan of complaint escaped her. When she smiled at him, he smiled back but with her eyes so distant he wondered who or what she was really seeing.

“Did you know that the Maiasaura was the first dinosaur found alongside its eggs and offspring?”

“Unlike the T-Rex, I suspect.”

“Nothing like the T-Rex. The name means ‘good mother lizard’.”

“Hmm. A dinosaur with maternal instincts. That must have been a pleasant discovery.” When he felt her forehead, it was damp from sweat. He breathed a sigh of relief. Her fever was finally breaking. He handed her the glass of water, coaxing her to drink.

“Harm, do you think I’d make a good mother?”

The question caught him by surprise, but the day’s events hadn’t completely left his thoughts. She sat up and took a sip of water to appease him, but her deep curiosity seemed to linger, hanging-on to the surrounding darkness.

“You want to know what I think?” he began, feeling oddly pleased by the direct nature of her question. He returned the glass to the bedside table, and shifted so he could get a better read of her face. “I happen to think you’d make an excellent mother. In fact, I’m absolutely positive.” He wasn’t exactly sure who he was talking to—the fever-fighting Mac or the healthy one, but he answered truthfully for the latter, whether she heard him or not.

She laughed and sounded a little bit more like Sarah Mackenzie again. “I still can’t believe you thought I was pregnant.”

He managed a tone of dispassion. “Are you going to rub that in now?”

Mac tried to keep her gaze locked with her partner’s but her head felt heavy so she let it fall against his chest again and let the steady beat of his heart resonate through her ear. “So are you relieved or disappointed?” she asked, squirming to fight off some of the blankets.

“About what?”

She made a sound of annoyance as the tangle of sheet and heavy comforter refused to let her legs go free. “About the fact that I’m not presently carrying your child.”

“Oh, that,” he said with an audible smile. “I feel like I’ve been sucked up and spit out by a tornado. Twice.”

She stilled, unsure of how to interpret the response. “That doesn’t answer my question.”

“A little of both, I guess,” he admitted finally.

She seemed to accept that and draped a weak arm across his chest. “I’m sure the look on your face must’ve been priceless…but you should know I’d never do that to you. You’d be the first to know.”

“Mac, I meant what I said about not being angry.”

She thought about the conversation they’d had on the drive home and with her tired mind managed to put everything back in proper context. He said he was committed. He said they’d created something special. Realizing what he was actually talking about…a baby—their baby—, she felt the strangest sensation creep into her chest, like an aching expectation, both thrilling and painful at the same time. It was a good feeling but on instinct she became distrustful of it.

“Harm, about everything else you said—”

It was the real Mac he was talking to now. No doubt about it. He met her uncertainty with a tone exactly opposite. “I meant every word.”

She fell quiet for a long while and Harm wondered if she’d finally fallen asleep. But when he bent his head to see her face, he found her staring blankly toward the window.

“What’s wrong, Marine?”

She hesitated for a moment. “Harm, what would happen?”

“Hmm?”

“If I really were pregnant, what would happen?”

Slightly baffled, he leaned back against the headboard. “What do you mean ‘what would happen’? You know what would happen, Mac. You’d probably have morning sickness for a while and we’d have to keep a box of saltines by the bed.”

She laughed, but he continued. “Then you’d get that glow that people are always talking about.” He paused, enjoying the image that brought to mind. “Then, sometime before the half-way point you’d start to show, and despite my warnings you’d experiment with every cocoa-butter concoction known to mankind in an attempt to prevent stretch marks.”

“Hey! I most certainly would not.”

He laughed at her disbelief. “You would too. Then your clothes would get too tight and you’d end up wearing my shirts around the house because every woman knows there’s nothing quite like a man’s shirt when she wants to feel comfortable.”

“I might buy that one.”

“’Course you’d get a little cranky and anxious in the last few weeks, but I’d find you so impossibly attractive I wouldn’t be able to keep my hands off you. And then, nine months from the start—assuming your impeccable timing doesn’t skip a generation—”

“—You can only hope.--”

“—we’d become the proud parents of the most beautiful, most intelligent little life form ever born this side of Jupiter.”

For a moment she was left speechless. “Wow. You say it like that and…”

“And what?”

She kicked the remaining blankets free and clear and scooted backwards to the headboard to sit next to him, hugging her knees to her chest. “Why do I get the feeling you’ve given this some amount of thought?”

“Hey, we made the deal a long time ago, remember?”

“Yeah, it’s kind of hard to forget.” And suddenly it seemed that time was going by far too slow for her liking. Still, they had a lot to work through before any of that could ever happen smoothly, she reminded herself.

“Harm, as much as I enjoyed your little preview, when I asked ‘what would happen’, what I really wanted to know was what would happen to us. What would happen to our lives, practically speaking?”

He didn’t have a quick response for that one, she noted. But he did finally provide her with an answer. “We’d hit a little turbulence, maybe,” he said as though fully prepared to accept that possibility, “but we’d get through it because we’d have to. –-No, scratch that.— Because we’d want to.”

She smiled and leaned her head against his shoulder. “So, you really think I’d be attractive as an expectant mother, huh?”

He chuckled and gave her knee a quick squeeze. “Mac, you’d be sexy impersonating Elvis in the later years, but if you want me to spell it out for you, then yes…” He tucked her head under his chin. “…Knowing that our child is growing inside you would be an incredible turn-on. That’s a given.”

It flooded her heart, filling her with a combination of emotions she’d never felt before. How did he do that?, she wondered. Just when she thought she couldn’t possibly be any more in love with this man... Now he’d given her a glimpse of what their future might hold, and she wanted it to start immediately.

“Does that surprise you?” he asked when she didn’t say anything in return.

She brushed away the seem of tears that wet her eyelashes. “Yeah…a little,” she admitted, sniffling through a laugh. “God, you really know how to stir up a woman’s desire to procreate. Not to mention send her ego through the roof.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

“Was it your intention to plant this image in my head?”

He shrugged. “It’s the high fever, Mac. For once I’m working with an unfair advantage.”

“Yeah, well, look what you’ve done…you’ve got me crying again. Marines aren’t supposed to cry, you know.” She reached for a sheet corner to wipe her eyes but he was already framing her face with his warm hands, brushing the tears away gently. “Harm, promise me you won’t read anything into this. My brain is a little scrambled and the emotional side is doing a rough number on the logical side. It’s not that I want to bury this particular topic of conversation or anything—I don’t. It’s just that when it comes to talking about our future and everything it might hold, I - I just don’t think now’s the time to—”

“Hey. It’s okay.” He grabbed her hand and linked his fingers with hers. “This picture is new to me, too. One look at what parenthood might be like and…well, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to jump in feet first, throwing all forms of reason and logic aside. And there’d be nothing wrong with that—especially if we were caught by surprise and had no choice in the matter. But right now we do have choices…and time, despite what the biological clocks might tell us.”

“I really want to do this right, Harm. And first, I want our lives sorted out.”

He let out his breath. “Yeah. Me too.”

“God, we’re complicated.” He laughed as she continued to shake her head in wonder. “Just promise me you won’t try to pass this all off as a fever-induced hallucination come tomorrow.”

“Right back at you.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

On Monday morning, Sturgis jogged to work. He decided that as long as he didn’t have to splash through grimy slush, he could handle what the cold air did to his lungs. The ground glistened with frost but the sidewalks were clear—a runner’s paradise.

He quickened his pace for the last half of the trek, smiling to himself as he remembered Bobbi’s complaint about the lack of snow. She hated the dull browns of fallen leaves and dead grass. She was hoping for a white Christmas…a white Christmas Eve to be exact, because on December twenty-fourth, at 1700 hours, their wedding ceremony would begin…and according to Bobbi, only a deep layer of sparkling snow blanketing the earth would make their wedding night magical and perfect. She wanted a honeymoon filled with sleigh rides and tobogganing. Sturgis pointed out that if his wishes came true they’d be engaging in indoor activities where the requirement for snow was entirely nonexistent. Still, he was happy to know the surprise trip to Vermont he had planned would suit her fancy.

He reached the front steps of JAG headquarters just as his best-man pulled into his parking space. Sturgis wiped sweat from his brow and did a few cool-down stretches as he waited for his friend to join him.

“You’re still a sucker for punishment,” Harm commented, smirking beneath the shade of his cover as Sturgis wheezed a little in the crisp air.

“Hey, as long as the weather permits…”

“Oh, so the weather actually factors-in now, does it? Must be old age creeping up on you.” They ascended the steps together and Harm tucked his briefcase under his arm to open the heavy door.

“Mac called me this morning,” Sturgis remarked casually as he pressed the elevator button. “Asked if I’d handle her cases for the day.” The elevator dinged, its doors sprang open, and the two men stepped inside.

Harm pretended to be surprised. “Did she now?” He knew Sturgis was fishing for a reaction but it wasn’t going to work. Harm already knew the details of the phone conversation. He was in the room when Mac had made the call. In fact, he was with her most of the weekend, keeping an eye on her despite her assurances that she was only feeling better with time. God, she could be stubborn. Death warmed over and fried—that’s what she looked like on Sunday morning. But she refused to see a doctor, and it almost took a full-blown argument this morning to get her to take a sick day. She had to recover before Bobbi’s wedding, he’d told her in a manner that accepted no rebuttal. There was no point in letting this thing drag out. She wouldn’t want to ruin the bride’s day by being sicker than a dog, now would she? If she didn’t make a quick recovery, that’s exactly what would happen. The wedding was only a few weeks away, after all.

He didn’t like laying on the guilt but it did work. She was pretty malleable from that point onward. Even agreed to offload some of her cases on Turner.

“So, I hear it’s just the stomach flu,” Sturgis commented, casting out his line again.

His friend snorted. “Yeah. Says Mac. The word just certainly doesn’t add any truth to that statement.”

“She sounded pretty rough on the phone.”

“It’s dragging out…she’s been sluggish all weekend. I’m telling you it’s the weirdest case of stomach flu I’ve ever seen. Name a symptom, she has it.”

“But no weird cravings for pickles and ice-cream?” Harm pierced him with a look of warning. Unaffected, Sturgis just cracked a grin. “You really believed she was pregnant, didn’t you?”

“Sturgis, she would’ve told me if she had the slightest suspicion.”

“Uh-huh. Effective communication has always been the strong point with you two.”

The glare Harm shot off was lost on Sturgis’ back as he turned to step off the elevator. Harm opened his mouth to throw a rebuke but was interrupted by another voice.

“Commander Turner, Commander Rabb, the admiral wants to see you in his office ASAP.”

“What’s this about, Tiner?” Harm gave Sturgis a curious glance. Having his yeoman track them down in the hallway wasn’t something the admiral did very often. Harm checked his watch. “We’re only a few minutes late.”

“I don’t know, sir. But it sounded important.”

Sturgis was out of uniform, but he decided it was best not to keep the admiral waiting.

“You wanted to see us, sir?” Harm asked after knocking lightly on the open door and hearing the admiral’s gruff, “Enter.”

“Have a seat.” A.J. shuffled some papers out of the way and then folded his arms on his desk. “Turner, am I to understand you’re taking over the colonel’s workload for the day?”

“That’s right, sir.”

“Including the McGrath court martial scheduled to resume at 1100?”

“Yes, sir… The colonel e-mailed me her notes and I planned on reviewing the material before court this morning. There doesn’t seem to be a problem, sir. Lieutenant Roberts is second chair and he seems to know the colonel’s plan of action.”

“Well, there’s been a change of plans, Commander.” A.J. pulled off his reading glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I just got off the phone with Sergeant McGrath’s CO at Quantico. It seems Mac’s client has come down with meningitis. He’s bed-ridden and although he could be tried in absentia, it looks like the judge is willing to reschedule.”

Harm’s brow creased, his gaze darting back and forth to meaningless points on the floor as the information sank in.

“There’s been a few cases at the base over the weekend,” A.J. added. “Mild outbreak, I suspect. I thought children were usually more susceptible to getting this but apparently–”

“Meningitis, sir?” Harm interrupted, looking stunned. He pronounced every syllable as though he’d heard wrong.

“Now, before you get too concerned I should point out that it’s the viral kind.” He glanced down at a note on his desk. “Uh, aseptic meningitis they call it. I’ve been told it usually clears up in a week or two, unlike the bacterial form which can be deadly without immediate treatment. The corpsman thinks it may have been picked up last week through some mix up involving contaminated drinking water.”

“Sir, Colonel Mackenzie was at Quantico last Thursday…” It was Sturgis who made the observation.

“I realize that, Commander. Seeing as how she’s called in sick this morning, I’ve already ordered her to see her physician for proper diagnosis. Turner, if you could relay the news to Lieutenant Roberts…I’ll let you know when the court date for McGrath is rescheduled. In the meantime, you and Rabb can share the rest of Mac’s workload until she feels well enough to come back. Could be a week or so, I imagine.”

“Understood, sir.”

“Turner, you’re free to go. Rabb, if I could have a further word with you...”

Immediately after the door closed behind Sturgis, the admiral’s frustration became more apparent. The lines on his face crowded together forming a look of disgust. Harm straightened in his seat and prepared for what was coming.

“Has she been sick all weekend without seeking medical attention?”

The senior attorney drew an uneasy breath. “Sir, she –”

“Why the hell didn’t she go see a doctor?!” Harm barely opened his mouth to form a response when A.J. cut him off again. “Never mind. I already know the answer to that.” He looked away and scrubbed a hand over his face. “Can I at least assume you don’t have any of the symptoms?”

“You can, sir,” Harm replied earnestly.

“Let’s hope to keep it that way. The last thing I need right now is my entire staff rendered useless this close to the holidays. It’s hard enough to spare just one senior attorney for any length of time.”

With an elbow propped on the arm of his chair, Harm pressed his fingers to his brow. How could he be such an idiot, he wondered. Such a major idiot. “Sir, believe me, if I had any idea how serious—”

“Well, there’s no use beating yourself up over it. What’s done is done.” A.J.’s tone remained gruff, but tolerant. After a moment of silence, he pushed his chair back and rose to his feet. Standing in front of the window, he folded his arms across his chest. “In light of this recent discovery, can I also assume this rumor…about Mac being pregnant is—”

“False, sir,” Harm blurted, emitting a weak laugh.

The admiral pulled in his upper lip in sober contemplation. “Then I guess congratulations aren’t in order.”

Instantly, Harm felt he owed his CO an explanation. “Sir, I…we…” he stammered then blew out his breath to start again. “Mac and I are trying to be careful, Admiral.” It sounded ridiculous and Harm wondered why he suddenly felt like a teenager defending his right to engage in adult activity.

A.J. let out a brief snort and then stepped around the desk. He propped a hip against it, and tucked his chin against his collar to contemplate a patch of floor at his feet. “You know, Commander, when I agreed to let you and the colonel live under this new arrangement, I seem to recall using the word temporary. I fully expected you to work something out in short order.”

“And we’re well aware of that, Admiral. It’s just—”

“Now it’s been, what, over two months?” He glanced up with a scowl firmly in place. “You know I can’t have you both working under my command if this relationship is out in the open, but surely to God you can at least come up with some kind of impassionate plea. This is what you do best for Pete’s sake. At least give me something to mull over…something I can say no to.” His tone grew harsher and the lines of irritation seemed to multiply on his forehead. “It’d be nice to know there’s some amount of progress being made here.”

“Believe me, sir, I agree wholeheartedly, but—”

“But what? Anymore of this – this…absurdity, and I might have to give-up both of you. You can’t tell me you haven’t taken that into consideration.” The fold of his arms tightened across his chest. “Good Lord, I’m not your babysitter. Find a solution!”

“We will, sir.”

The admiral sighed and rubbed an uneasy brow. He was getting too old for this. So were they. “That’ll be all.”

“Aye, sir.”

Harm got as far as the door before the admiral spoke up again, his tone more relaxed. “Oh, by the way… Meredith told me to tell you that she’s deeply sorry for the trouble she caused you and Colonel Mackenzie on Friday night and that she feels absolutely terrible about it.” He said it slowly as though trying to remember her exact words. “Don’t be surprised if you find a 40-pound fruitcake on your front porch. Consider it a peace offering, but whatever you do, don’t eat the damn thing. It’s a doorstop at best.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Head lowered, Harm rubbed the back of his neck as he paced the tight space behind his desk. He desperately wanted to talk to Mac but when he called the house he only got the answering machine. Her cell only gave him the not-in-use response. He checked his watch for the thirteenth time in the same amount of minutes and, for the hundredth time, decided that she must still be at the clinic.

After his knock went unanswered, Sturgis stepped just inside the open doorway and watched his friend intently. “Buddy, are you planning to wear a hole straight through to Probate?”

Harm’s gaze never left the square tiles. “Am I an ass, or am I an ass?”

“You’re an ass,” Sturgis replied easily with a grin before his expression sobered. “Did you get through to Mac yet?”

Harm shook his head. “She probably had to wait for test results.” He glanced up, his guilt obvious. “I should’ve taken her to the hospital on Friday night. What the hell was I thinking?”

“Who are you kidding? Knowing Mac, the only way you would’ve been able to accomplish that is if you’d knocked her unconscious first.”

“Still, I knew there was something abnormal about her so-called flu and I didn’t do a damn thing about it.” He gestured to his computer. “I looked it up, Sturgis. The only thing she was missing was a skin rash. If it happened to be the bacterial form…without catching it right away… We’re talking brain damage, coma…” Or worse, he thought to himself as a sharper pang of regret shot through him. “Damn it, even survivors can have complications like hearing loss, paralysis…”

“And if you read all that, then you also know that that type is rare in the U.S. and the cases are usually isolated. It’s also more of a threat to kids and young adults than to healthy thirty-something Marines.”

“It wouldn’t have made a difference if she was twenty-one and an epidemic was sweeping the entire Mid-Atlantic. That’s the point, Sturgis. I knew something was wrong with her, and I didn’t do a damn thing about it!”

“She’s okay, buddy. You’re not going to lose her.” Sturgis’ reassurance was genuine, but he let out a little chuckle.

“You think this is funny?”

“No, but I do think your guilt is a tad unfounded. That’s not to say I don’t understand where it’s coming from. I mean, if the same thing happened to Bobbi… But…”

“You think I’m overreacting?”

“Uh, I’d say un-Rabb-like would be a more accurate description of your behavior.” Met with Harm’s frown, Sturgis continued. “I’m just a little surprised that you’re expressing some regret for your own inaction.”

“Hey, I can guarantee you this is nothing new. When I make a mistake, I admit it.” Sturgis raised his eyebrows. “Okay, when it matters, I do.”

“Just not very often where Mac’s involved.”

Harm looked puzzled. “Are we still talking about the same thing here?”

“I’m just making the observation that this is the first time I’ve heard you admit that doing nothing could’ve caused just as much damage as making a wrong move.”

With tired eyes, Harm leaned against the filing cabinet and rubbed a hand down his face. “Don’t start this psychoanalyst crap on me, Sturgis. You’re trying to compare two entirely different circumstances.”

“Am I?”

Harm sighed, in too much of a bad mood to fight his friend’s dissection. “She’s sick, Sturgis,- not rushing into marriage with the wrong guy.”

Turner’s expression held a trace of victory.

“She’s my responsibility,” Harm argued further, sounding defensive. At Sturgis’ doubtful look, he pointed in the direction of their CO’s office. “If anything ever happened to her, the admiral would have my six wrapped around the flagpole.”

“That’s just it, Harm.” He kept his voice low so the entire bullpen wouldn’t hear what he was about to say. “She isn’t your responsibility. You just hide behind that front as if you know what’s best for her—voicing your approval and disapproval like you’re her legal guardian—but you never tell her the real reasons why you want her to go your way. The truth is you need her as much as she needs you. Maybe if you told her that she’d understand and you wouldn’t have such a problem hauling her off to see a doctor or convincing her not to marry the wrong guy. And you’d finally get through that wall she tends to erect as her best defense.”

“Hey, lay off, pal.” The bitterness resurfaced in a flash, blood like magma. “You don’t know the whole story.”

“And I suspect neither does she.” Harm let out a huff of frustration and pulled a stack of folders from his desk, putting on a show of ignoring the other man in the room. Sturgis took a step forward. “Buddy, I’m just saying that to make a relationship work you have to be willing to sacrifice your pride.”

The folders landed back on the desk with a loud thwack.

“Listen, Turner, for your information my pride has nothing to do with it.”

Hardly rattled, Sturgis bit back. “You sure about that?”

“I was willing to sacrifice anything for her. My pride, my career, my life -.”

“Flying?”

“Take your pick,” he replied, stone-cold. “But when a woman’s wearing another man’s ring, there’s only so far you can go before you’re stepping way out of bounds. I had to be willing to let her make her own decisions…and learn from her own mistakes.” He took a steadying breath to cool his fury.

“Willing enough to let her marry another guy,” Sturgis added. He shook his head in disbelief, wondering how an intelligent man could be stubborn enough not to fight tooth and nail to hang-on to the one person in his life who mattered most to him.

“The bastard left her and she came to her senses,” Harm muttered in a low, controlled voice, and went back to the task he had started, clearing his desk of unnecessary material.

“Because you nearly got yourself killed trying to be there for her.”

Harm refused to get riled again. “What are you implying, Sturgis,-that she made some kind of last minute self-sacrifice for my sake?”

“What makes you so sure she wouldn’t have married the guy and lived happily-ever-after?” Sturgis knew he was walking a very thin line, but crossed his arms over his chest and remained firm.

Harm emitted a snort of cynicism. “She might’ve married the guy, alright, but you can think again about the happily-ever-after scenario.”

“So you honestly wouldn’t have tried to stop her?” This was really none of Sturgis’ business, but now that he’d made it this far, his curiosity got the best of him.

“What are you expecting me to say, - that I planned to wait until the officiator asked if anyone objected to the merger and then I’d raise my hand?…Excuse me, Chaplain, but I can’t forever hold my peace because I happen to be in love with the bride.”

“Was that the plan?” Something flickered in Harm’s eyes but he quickly looked away and remained silent. “Was that the reason you flew back in dicey weather? You thought you might have one last chance. You were going to try to make her reconsider, weren’t you?”

Harm turned his back on Sturgis to return some files to the filing cabinet. “I think I’d done enough, Sturgis. If she wanted to marry the guy, I couldn’t stop her.”

“You’d already tried,” Sturgis deduced, sounding as though he’d figured out another piece of a complex puzzle. “Before you left for quals…something happened between the two of you.” He read the affirmation in Harm’s stance and the picture suddenly became clearer. He emitted a brief chuckle as the complete story became more and more obvious. “She rejected you, didn’t she?”

“Maybe that’s how I read it at the time.” He gave a set of heavy hanging folders a stronger than necessary push toward the back of the cabinet. “What choice did I have? I had to let her go…let her be happy, no matter what I believed. Honestly I thought she’d eventually leave the lucky Mic Brumby, and I was willing to wait for that. I was willing to let her change her mind.” He let out a hollow laugh as he shoved another file into its proper home. “Hell, I was even willing to raise a few Aussie-blooded step-brats carrying the Bugme name if I had to.”

Only a brief sound of awkwardness escaped Turner’s throat.

“What’s the matter, Sturgis?” Harm turned back toward his friend with a harsh edge of arrogance in his tone. “Does that sound too un-Rabb-like for--”

But his eyes locked on Mac, who stood frozen in his doorway.

“…you.”

Just inside the door, Sturgis’ gaze was also glued on the colonel. She looked weak from illness, dark circles shadowing her eyes, the color drained from her face. She had no energy to retaliate, nor to be upset, he realized. He guessed if she didn’t collapse from the impact of the blow, she might have enough strength to run to the nearest washroom and burst into tears.

But she did neither. Instead, she continued to stare back at her partner, her expression disturbingly vacant.

Surprise and mortification strangling his throat, Harm managed to sputter out, “Mac, I…” When her bottom lip quivered, he stopped. It was the first real sign that she wasn’t just a wax replica of herself.

When she spoke, her voice was devoid of emotion. “The physician advised me to go straight home. ‘Guess I should’ve followed that advice.”

Though delayed, a look of intense hurt settled on her face, and then she spun on her heel and stormed toward the exit, turning heads in the bullpen as she strode past.

“Mac!” The top drawer of the filing cabinet slammed shut with a deafening bang as Harm rushed out after her. He was only a few strides behind when she pushed through the glass doors. “Mac, come on,” he begged, not caring how pathetic he sounded to any passers-by. “Let me explain.”

In the relative privacy of the hallway, she whirled to face him. “You really know how to kick a girl when she’s down, don’t you? Oh, I’m sorry, pardon my stupidity—you didn’t know I was standing there, did you? So, technically, all you were doing was insulting me behind my back! Funny, isn’t it? That seems to be a skill you’ve mastered.” She glared at him a second longer before heading toward the elevators. “Who’d have thought so many talents could be wasted on one man?”

Determined not to let her walk away angry, he followed quick at her heels. “Mac.”

“Don’t Mac me. And don’t you dare tell me I’m blowing this out of proportion. I heard you, Harm. I heard you loud and clear.”

“Mac, give me a chance to apologize…”

She turned to find lines of distress marking his brow. “You’re sorry?” she spat out, doubtful.

“Yes,” he insisted, his pleading eyes wide with honesty. “Very.” What kind of proof did she need from him? Was he supposed to throw himself at her feet and beg for mercy? “Do you want me to say it? Is that it? Mac, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry right now I’m prepared to do anything it takes just to show you how terribly sorry I actually am.”

“You’re sorry,” she repeated, confusing him. “You’re sorry?!”

“Hon, I think that’s been established, don’t you?”

“If you’re so sorry, Harm, then why the hell do I feel like I’m the one who should be apologizing?” The look she gave him was filled with pain despite her feigned incredulity. She let out a bitter laugh. “I’m so amazed by your goodness, Harm. Your nobleness, your loyalty. I mean it’s plainly clear who’s the more virtuous between us, isn’t it?”

“Mac, don’t.”

“No, no. I think I have to say it. I mean, your commitment to me has been as constant as the North Star from the very beginning, hasn’t it? I should be praising you for your undying patience, your devotion. Your willingness to wait for me…truly humbling. I’m so ashamed that I couldn’t be more like you in that regard.”

“Hey, that’s not fair.”

“And you should know all about fairness, now, shouldn’t you? Just look at how unfair I was—making you surrender your own happiness so that I might find mine. You should’ve been sainted for enduring that. Seems like the selfless qualities of an absolute angel to me.” She shivered a little, her eyes losing focus though she tried her damnedest to pierce him with her stare. “Maybe even a demigod!”

Desperately wanting her to give up the fight, he reached out for her. “Sweetheart--” She drew back before he could touch her, her hand searching blindly for the support of the wall.

“Oh, no, you’ve got that wrong, Harm. I’m not sweet at all. But tell me, Mr. Sacrifice, how did you survive all that suffering? All that love you gave with none offered in return. It baffles me. How did you get through all those cold, lonely nights? Must’ve been real tough keeping out the chill.”

She seemed to be running out of steam and Harm took the opportunity to finally get a word in edgewise. “Mac, I know I probably deserve this, but can you save the rest for the drive home? Let’s not cause a scene. Just let me go back and get my keys, and we’ll get out of here. Okay?”

As the room started to spin, Mac reached out a hand to call the elevator. She almost made contact with the right button when the wooziness reached its peak. Vaguely conscious of her legs’ refusal to support her any longer, her vision turned to black. Then, her sense of awareness was reduced to a falling sensation.

“Whoa!” Just before her body collapsed, Harm’s strong arm slipped around her waist to catch her. “Haven’t quite shaken off this bug yet, huh, Marine?”

Grappling for some amount of control, she jerked away from him. “I’m fine… I’m fine!” she shouted, stumbling forward to lean against the wall.

He tried to touch her again but an upraised hand kept him at a distance. “I said I’m fine!”

This time he heard traces of a sob behind her outburst but he wasn’t about to make the mistake a third time. There was a good chance she’d break down in his arms but she was just as likely to break one of his body parts first. “Mac, you need to sit down.”

“What I need is someone to club me over the head to put me out of my misery.”

“You know, I’m starting to think if you clubbed me over the head, it might give you the same results.” He gave her a sheepish smile, silently begging for forgiveness.

Without offering him the comeback he expected, she closed her eyes. “I can’t handle this right now.”

Not liking the way it sounded, his stomach muscles clenched. “What are you saying?”

She met his stare but only briefly. “That I’ll find my own ride home. I think I need to be alone for a while.”

 

 

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