O ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
O rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing.
-- Edward Hamilton Sears
When A.J. Chegwidden arrived at Le Jardin—Meredith’s favorite French
restaurant—his date was already seated at their favorite table by the
window, her face glowing in the candlelight. Wrapped in a shawl the
color of cinnamon, her silky hair pinned up in an elegant twist, she was
by far the best sight A.J. had seen all day.
“Oh, my.” She scanned him in a sidelong glance as he pulled out the
chair to her right and sat down. “You look like you’ve had a rough day.”
Rough hardly described it, he thought, the gray clouds only beginning to
clear from his mind.
“You look stunning,” he countered bluntly, feeling as though a smile
would be an unnecessary effort. It didn’t matter anyway. He knew she
understood him completely and wouldn’t be offended by his mood. That’s
one of the many things he loved about her—he could just be himself.
She reached out, smiled, and gave his hand a quick squeeze. “It’s only
the lighting, dear.”
“Well it has me fooled.” And on closer inspection, he decided she
couldn’t be more wrong. She looked beautiful and the soft lighting of
the restaurant had nothing to do with it. “I hope you’ve taken the
liberty to order without me.”
“Just the wine.” He raised an eyebrow but she gave his hand a light pat
of reassurance. “Not to worry, A.J.. It’s far too expensive to get
liquored-up on. And besides, I have absolutely no reason to be singing
the blues tonight.”
“Well, then, aren’t you the lucky one.”
“I think lucky about describes it,” she laughed. “I’m getting an award.
If you can feature this, the college is giving yours truly the Professor
of the Year award!” She shook her head, her disbelief evident. “I’m on
He chuckled. “Well, congratulations. God knows you deserve it. But,
honestly, what kind of institution is this? They can’t grant you tenure
but they can give you an award?”
“I know. It’s absurd. But that’s academia for you, A.J.” She inched her
chair closer to his and smoothed her skirt. “That was the highlight of
my afternoon…now you have to tell me what put that grouchy expression on
your face.” She paused a beat, her gaze penetrating his. “You had a
rough day,” she deduced.
Her frown of concern eased A.J.’s tension a little and he let out a
breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. “I’m sorry, Meredith. It’s
not like there was anything all that atypical about my day. Same
annoyances as always,” he admitted with a weak chuckle. “There are just
certain things…and certain people…that make my blood boil more than they
used to. That’s all.”
“Well, boiling blood heats the brain but chills the heart.”
“Meredith Cavanaugh,” she replied, and this time his laugh was genuine.
She reached out to stroke the top of his hand. “Oh, you poor thing! Why
don’t you tell me about it? Does it have anything to do with Rabb and
Mackenzie?” The look he shot off immediately confirmed it. “Is it my
fault?” she asked, suddenly worried. “Did my remark the other night
cause another conflict between them? Because if it did, oh A.J., I’m so
sorry.” She touched her collar nervously. “I mean, I had no idea what I
was saying and that performance of mine was completely out of character.
I’m usually so much more—”
He grabbed her hand back to stop her. “Relax, Meredith. It’s not that.”
“Then what is it?”
Shoulders slumped, the admiral gazed at a table across the room where a
young starry-eyed couple seemed oblivious to the world around them.
“It’s their situation,” he complained. “Their problem has no feasible
solution!” He was tired and about ready to give up on his two top-notch
The waiter arrived with their wine and poured them each a glass,
promising to return shortly to take their order. A.J. sampled the wine,
restrained himself from knocking it back like a shot of something
Unwilling to let her date accept defeat, Meredith set her glass aside
and looked at him squarely. “Honey, when two people are in love, there’s
always a workable solution. Surely there’s something you can do to help
them find their way.”
“Yeah, like take sides.” It came out as a derisive snort.
“So what if you had to?” she pressed. “Who’s to say it wouldn’t all work
out in the end?”
He almost smiled. “Aren’t you optimistic this evening.”
“Well.” Meredith cocked her head and focused absently on the glimmering
votive cup as she put the facts in order. “How about Harm? He’s a pilot.
Couldn’t that get him some fantastic job somewhere within commuting
distance from D.C.?”
“Sure, but to stay in the Navy… He’s past his prime in that department.”
“A commercial airline?”
A.J. snickered. “Not in a million years.”
Meredith opened her mouth to chastise him for rejecting the idea so
quickly but then decided he was right. It just wasn’t Harm’s style.
“It’d sure be a damn shame to see him throw away his career as an
attorney.” His gaze settled on a painting that hung on a distant wall
and he wandered the narrow street of Paris’ Left Bank, lost in thought.
“Private practice then? Or maybe he could get on with a reputable firm
here in Washington?” That seemed reasonable, didn’t it? If he and Mac
ever planned to have children surely the bigger salary would come in
handy. It was certainly nothing to scoff at. Kids could get expensive
these days. They might as well be considered a luxury item, Meredith
“Not his style.” His response was just as quick but A.J. found himself
giving the idea a little more consideration. “Well, maybe…” Could Harmon
Rabb, Jr. trade in his three stripes for an Armani? It wasn’t
unthinkable, was it? Becoming the next JAG didn’t exactly fit Harm’s
persona, nor did it seem like much of a career goal for a man with his
track record. The novelty of being in charge would wear off fast, and
then the mundane administrative duties would likely drive him nuts. Harm
wasn’t the kind of guy who’d appreciate being stuck behind a desk all
day. He needed challenges, some hidden truths to dig up, some impossible
puzzle to solve. Any career that might be able to meet those needs was a
viable option, was it not? But then again…
A.J. shook his head, dismissing the idea. “Nah, I doubt he’d go for it.
At least not right now.”
Now there was an easy one, he thought. “Been there, done that.” A.J.
chuckled remembering the moment she’d practically pleaded for him to
take her back. “Spread her wings once and came flying right back home.”
Meredith wasn’t about to give up. “Well, she’s a woman, maybe her goals
have changed. Believe me, A.J.; I know what it’s like to want career and
family all at the same time. The former doesn’t always rank first-place.
In fact sometimes you pine for the one in the moments when you’re the
most dedicated to the other.”
“Well, isn’t that an insight into the female psyche.”
“Trust me, A.J. Give that colonel of yours an opportunity to have both
and you won’t have to take sides.”
He remained quiet, the logic sinking in. “She would make a damn fine
judge,” he said, finally addressing what he’d continually pushed to the
back of his mind for the past months. He knew it wasn’t a guaranteed
solution. There would be hoops to jump, rules to bend. But that wasn’t
the only reason why he’d been ignoring it as a possibility. It had more
to do with the fact that he didn’t want to lose her. Sarah Mackenzie
wasn’t just his chief of staff…she wasn’t just one of his best
attorneys. She held a special place in his heart, much like a daughter.
“Wouldn’t that take her out of your chain of command?”
“Yeah. To the judiciary.”
Meredith’s smile was triumphant. “Well, there you go! Problem’s solved!”
“There’d still be the issue of keeping her from presiding over Rabb’s
cases,” he replied, cautious and still not quite ready to accept it.
Minor detail, Meredith thought. “Couldn’t something be worked out?” In
no way was she going to let A.J. twist this marvelous idea into yet
another conundrum. “Surely you have a few friends in high places who owe
you a favor or two? Just keep Harm off any cases that Mac’s slated to
adjudicate. It seems simple enough to me.”
Maybe she was right. But… “It could turn into one hell of a nightmare.”
She let out a dramatic sigh and then, still smiling, clinked her wine
glass against his. “It could turn into one hell of a solution.”
“Before you say anything, I’d better tell you I’m under strict orders
not to let you in.”
He didn’t have patience for this. If this was Mac’s best attempt at
pushing him away, it wasn’t going to work. She said she wanted some time
alone—fine. He’d given her all afternoon and a good chunk of the
evening. For the sake of both their health, he hoped she hadn’t spent
the entire seven hours compiling reasons to hate his sorry ass. That
list was long enough before the events that transpired that morning, and
it was starting to look like stupidity might be his best defense if she
tried nailing him to the yardarm. But if she thought she could just set
up a mere watchdog to keep him at bay, then she had another think
“This won’t work with me, Bobbi, and Mac should know that by now.”
Bobbi Latham stood firm. As firm as anyone could stand while facing a
powerful, six-foot-four Navy commander whose determination alone likely
had enough force to knock them flat on their bony derriere.
Before he could try pushing passed her, Bobbi tightened her grip around
the doorknob and curled her free hand around the doorframe, digging her
nails into the white paint. “Harm, she just asked for a little time.”
“And I gave it to her!” he threw back, defensive mode kicking in
prematurely. His intense glare weakened, replaced with a look that
almost resembled desperation.
“Yeah, lover-boy, you gave her plenty.” And a little suffering wouldn’t
hurt him, Bobbi decided. Based on the story she’d pried out of a
seething Mac a few hours earlier, this man deserved any insult she had
the guts to fling. “You gave her loads of time,” she continued, her
voice cool. “A waiting number, in fact, when she didn’t even ask for
one. So I suggest you let her do the same to you for a change.”
Regretfully, she’d hit a little too close to the wound and judging by
the look Harm gave her in return she could guess that her feeble
blockade wasn’t going to keep him out much longer. The beast had been
She reached a hand toward his chest, deciding to try calm reasoning as a
last resort. “Listen, I know the fact that you own half this house while
I’m just a guest here makes what I’m asking you to do a little awkward
and quite possibly a little out of line, but—”
He cut her off, temper flashing dark in his eyes. “Bobbi, it wouldn’t
make a goddamned difference to me if I owned the entire block or just
the dilapidated birdfeeder in the backyard. My best friend—the woman who
I happen to be in love with—is sicker than she’s ever been before in her
life right now and I’m going to be here for her whether she likes it or
not. An entire army of gatekeepers couldn’t stop me, so I suggest you
“Well, since you asked so nicely,” she huffed as he pressed himself into
her territory and she didn’t dare stay in his path.
He managed to get his temper under control after storming the complete
length of the entrance hall. When he reached the front room, he turned
back and Bobbi read the question in his eyes before he could even
formulate the right thoughts to ask it. She folded her arms across her
chest defiantly, but told him what he wanted to know. “She’s in your
Your room. The words hit him with an impact he wasn’t prepared for. It
wasn’t a slip on Bobbi’s part. ‘Your’ meant his as much as Mac’s. In
spite of everything, the room was theirs—shared whether or not he slept
there with her every night, her warm body curled next to his.
When he stood as motionless as a statue, exuding pure male frustration
despite the show of restraint, Bobbi felt the painful sting of sympathy
pierce her chest. What was it going to take to get these two soul-mates
married off and living happily ever after? When were they going to stop
hurting each other? And what kind of wicked game of fate kept them apart
for so long? They were both horribly wrong and perfectly right for each
other all at the same time.
“Are you going to be okay?” she asked the invader, her gaze softening.
The sound of her voice startled Harm from his thoughts. His head jerked
a little as he realized he’d been looking straight through her.
“Uh…Yeah,” he replied, his eyes darting to an insignificant spot on the
“Okay then.” She cleared her throat and brushed invisible lint from her
slacks before reaching for her coat. “I think you two could use some
privacy,” she observed, not expecting a response. “I’m already late for
a rendezvous with my aunts, so… Tell Mac she can reach me on my cell if
she needs anything. I likely won’t get back until late. Don’t be too
hard on her,” she added with a knowing smile as she swung her purse
strap over a shoulder. “I hear she’s had a rough day.”
She had her shoes slipped on before Harm spoke up. “Bobbi?”
“Yeah?” She glanced back, one foot on the entrance mat.
She gave him a quick smile, a nod, then the door closed behind her.
For a long while, Harm stood frozen at the base of the stairs, staring
blankly up toward the second floor. The house was quiet except for the
hum of the fridge in the kitchen behind him. Somewhere outside, a
neighbor’s dog started barking. Comet, Harm thought, remembering the
dog’s name. Jeremy, the kid two doors down, had named his Golden
Retriever after one of Santa’s eight reindeer. Harm had listened to the
whole tale about how Comet got his name after inviting the
eight-year-old boy (and his dog) to shoot hoops in the front driveway.
He was a cute kid who could talk your ear off on any subject from
politics to videogames. He was pretty skilled with a basketball too.
“Is she your girlfriend?” Jeremy had asked that day. A quick tilt of his
head indicated Mac who was out of earshot on the front porch, bringing
groceries into the house. Looking both curious and indifferent in that
innocent way that only young boys can pull off, Jeremy gave the
basketball a few bounces as he waited for Harm’s answer.
It wasn’t the easiest answer to provide. Not with any kind of honesty
anyway. “We’re uh…we’re friends,” he said, hoping the kid would let it
drop. Hands on his hips, he nodded toward the basketball hoop. “You
gonna take that shot sometime within the next millennium?”
“But you like her, right?” the boy prodded again. “As more than a
friend, I mean.”
For a fleeting moment, Harm felt as though he was the accused on the
witness stand, under oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and
nothing but the truth. The charges ran through his mind: fraternization,
conduct unbecoming an officer... And then he thought about Mac’s crazy
assumption regarding Mrs. Noscibrodski, the next door neighbor. The
notion of that little old lady being a SecNav spy still made him laugh.
It was ridiculous, he knew, but that didn’t mean that one little slip
wouldn’t get them into a lot of trouble. And it wouldn’t just be the
admiral sticking their heads in a guillotine.
He reacted the only way he knew how. He gave the kid a conspiratorial
wink and snatched the ball from his loose grip. “That’s for me to know
and you to find out.”
“You’re not allowed to like each other, are you?” the kid pressed on,
undeterred. “My mom told me it’s cause you both have the same job, and
you could be sent to prison if you don’t listen to what your boss tells
you. But I still don’t get it. Couldn’t you just get a different job? My
mom changes jobs, like, every other month.”
At the time, Jeremy’s simple logic had little to no effect. Harm brushed
it off as the typical misconceptions of an eight-year-old. Reality was a
lot more complicated than that.
But when Comet’s barking subsided and Harm found himself standing in
front of the bedroom door—a door which had been left open a hopeful
crack—the feeling that took over couldn’t be called complicated at all.
He felt like a ship reaching its harbor after a long day on a
storm-tossed sea. And he could be certain at that moment that no job
would ever give him such a perfect feeling of comfort and belonging.
Only one woman could. Only Mac.
Jeremy’s simple solution echoed through his thoughts. Couldn’t you just
get a different job? Maybe he could. But one question remained. Was it
worth the sacrifice?
As he stood outside her door, almost aching with anticipation, wanting
so badly just to see her beautiful eyes light up for him and be able to
hold her close, a second thought occurred to him: Would it really be
much of a sacrifice at all?
He reached out and gave the creaky barrier a soft nudge, finding the
room not dark but blue-gray with moonlight. The curtains had been pulled
back, casting a brighter quadrangle of light toward the bed so it only
took Harm a split second to realize Mac wasn’t there. A quick glance
toward the darkened bathroom told him she wasn’t in the room at all.
The queen-size mattress was cluttered with miscellaneous paraphernalia.
In the dim light Harm could make out case files, binders, scribbled
notes, her laptop, the cell phone…even her fax machine had been carted
in from the other room and set up within reach of the bed. At the center
of the mattress, a narrow Mac-sized strip of bedspread was left
uncluttered with a mountain of pillows at one end.
The cold wave of panic was immediate. Where the hell was she? But after
a few numbing seconds a reassuring thought broke through the tumult.
Bobbi had been there; Bobbi had talked to Mac at some point that
evening. Bobbi told him Mac was upstairs in bed and nothing about that
comment gave him any cause to disbelieve it. She wouldn’t lie to him, he
knew that. No matter how much she would’ve liked to have him keelhauled,
Latham wouldn’t have lied.
He glanced at the bed again and spotted a bottle of Tylenol discarded
near the iron footboard. He picked it up absently as though it had been
misplaced but another wave of alarm crashed into him as he made his next
discovery. Though he was sure the bottle had been at least half-full the
day before, it was now very much empty.
“Christ, Mac,” he muttered to the empty space.
Abruptly, he turned and stormed the upstairs hallway, hardly bothering
to peek in the second bedroom—the real office, nor the main bathroom—the
one adorned with the congresswoman’s toiletries. He knew where he’d find
Mac, and it pissed him off…royally. He was seeing red by the time he
made contact with the cold knob on the solid exterior door that led to
the room above the garage.
It had become her favorite spot in the house and ever since she first
moved in, the room had served as her own private sanctuary. Whenever a
case-related problem plagued her, she’d go there to concentrate.
Whenever she needed a moment of solitude, she’d go there to get away
from her busy schedule, to relax and dream for a while. Whenever life’s
troubles weighed her down, that’s where she’d hide.
Back in September, the room was ideal for all these purposes. She’d
dragged an old wicker loveseat up there and positioned it on one side of
the five-hundred or so square feet of empty floor space so she could
look out the long vertical windows into the backyard. It offered a
perfect view of the tire-swing hanging from the old oak tree. The swing
had been left behind by the previous owners and Harm had lowered it a
few feet so that little A.J. could play on it without the risk of
breaking his neck.
Just the idea of having a backyard still thrilled Mac and having such an
all-encompassing, bird’s eye view of it even more so. But she wasn’t the
only one. There had been moments when Harm had also slipped away to the
studio for that very reason. In a sense, to dream. And to be alone with
But by the beginning of November, the non-insulated room was getting to
be a little on the cool side. Had Mac not insisted that Bobbi move in as
her roommate, Harm would have undoubtedly taken the time to at least put
up insulation and drywall. Neither of them could decide what they wanted
to do with the room in the short term, but that would have been a good
The space would eventually be remodeled into bedrooms. Between them,
that was the unspoken understanding. The house already had three
bedrooms but one was too small to serve as anything more than an office,
and the other one—the one on the main floor that Bobbi was
occupying—opened off the living room, making it more of a den or formal
dining room. If there were going to be children in their future—little
Rabb-Mackenzies running around—they’d need more bedrooms.
But as things stood at present, raising a family was still a long ways
off—a hope for the very distant future, so it seemed—and it looked as
though the room above the garage would be many things before its final
Sure enough, that’s where Harm found her. She was curled up sideways on
the wicker seat with her knees tucked to her chest and her head resting
against the hard seat cushion. She had a heavy wool blanket wrapped
around her but that did little to ease the instant dread that gripped
him. The feeling seemed to gang up with the cold blast of air that hit
him upon entry.
In a few long strides, he crossed to her, terror giving way to
aggravation when he saw the wispy vapor as evidence that she was indeed
“Mac.” He touched her shoulder before calling out her name again. “Mac,
wake up. You shouldn’t be out here.”
“Mmmwhat?” was her sleepy response.
Too annoyed to wait any longer, he tucked one arm under her knees, the
other at her back and lifted. He hoisted her up with a groan and she
came awake with a start. “Harm? Harm, put me down!”
“You trying to freeze to death, Marine, or just give me a heart attack?”
It only infuriated him more when she struggled in his arms. Finally, he
loosened his grip and let her slide down so she stood in front of him on
the cold plywood floor. “I made it past your sentry,” he told her. “But
she had me believing I’d find you in a more appropriate locale.”
Her eyes seemed tired but she had her excuses ready. “It’s more
comfortable out here,” she argued.
“At twenty degrees Fahrenheit? Somehow I doubt that. Unless your fever’s
come back.” Automatically, his hand went to her forehead and she
“Stop coddling me! I’m a grown woman for Pete’s sake! And no, the fever
hasn’t come back.” She shrugged out of his grasp.
He tore his gaze from her pale face and assessed the exposed wall studs
with as much casualness as he could feint. “Mac, shouldn’t you be in
bed?” he asked on a tired sigh, trying to sound indifferent. Instead he
sounded every bit as bitter as he was feeling. It seemed he couldn’t
hide anything from her anymore. Still avoiding eye contact he bit his
bottom lip and waited for her response, ready to be lambasted for
showing up when she asked him to stay away.
“I’m feeling much better, thank you.” The floor felt as cold as a
skating rink under her bare feet, but she planted herself firmly and let
them go numb.
“Oh, really?” He scanned her quickly from head to toe, hoping to find a
smidgen of truth in her statement. He found none. “You still look like
hell to me.”
Frowning, she wrapped the blanket more tightly around her shoulders.
“And here I thought you’d already thrown your quota of insults for the
He shrugged. “Hey, when my description’s accurate I don’t think it
counts as an insult, hon.” He had the urge to scoop her up and carry her
back to bed where she belonged, but decided that given her likely
counterattack that might not be a wise maneuver.
“I thought you were going to make an effort to get better, Mac.”
“Then how do you explain the state of your bed at the moment? I’d say
it’s doing a worthy imitation of your desk back at headquarters.”
She gave him an unlit smirk. “Funny.”
“Come on, Mac.” He held up the empty bottle of Tylenol as Exhibit A.
“How many of these babies did you have to pop to keep your little
research party going?”
“I know my client’s innocent,” she said, snatching the plastic bottle
from his grip. “I needed to make use of the extra time now that the
court date’s been rescheduled.”
“To accomplish what exactly?”
Her eyes went wide with incredulity. “Uh, to prove his innocence maybe?”
“Like hell. If you’re lucky you’ll dig up a few more scraps of
She couldn’t believe what he was saying. “Oh, like you’ve never taken
advantage of a continuance before!”
He let out a hollow laugh and shook his head. “Not even one day of rest
for the wicked, huh? Mac, the court date was rescheduled because your
client came down with meningitis.” He wondered why she needed to be
reminded of this fact. “Meningitis, Mac,” he repeated emphatically,
hoping it would sink in. “Seeing as how you’ve caught it too, I think
you should just hand this one off to Turner for the time being and
concentrate on getting better.”
“You’re acting as though my life were in danger. It’s not that big a
“Well it is to me.”
Physically defeated, she turned toward the door just to put distance
between them. He let her go, glad that he didn’t have to drag her from
the frigid room. He followed her to the bedroom, a pace or two behind,
then watched her push a stack of folders aside and sit down on the
cleared corner of mattress.
“Here. Allow me,” he said, gathering a larger stack, which also included
her laptop and phone, to set it aside.
She huffed out her breath. “This is exactly the reason why I don’t need
you here. You hover.”
“I’m not hovering.”
“You’re hovering like a nursemaid! I’m not a six-year-old, Harm. I can
take care of myself.”
“Oh, I beg to differ.”
She threw a weak hand gesture in his direction. “You shouldn’t even be
here. You could get sick, too.”
“It’s a little late for that excuse, Mac. I was with you all weekend and
I’m fine,” he stressed. “And I’m starting to think the only reason why
you got sick in the first place is because of your bizarre fascination
with Fort Icebox. You know, sweetheart, just because the studio has four
walls and a roof, it doesn’t make it a four-seasons retreat.” She rolled
her eyes as he transferred another handful of her paperwork to a nearby
bureau and sat down next to her.
There was a momentary silence and when Harm spoke up again his tone was
dead serious. “I think we need to talk.”
The look she gave him was far from enthusiastic “Harm, I don’t think I
have anything to say to you. What happened today—”
“That’s not what I meant. I’ve already tried apologizing for that and,
believe me,” he let out a dry chuckle, “I don’t want to go down that
road with you again. Not today at least. I’ll just have to assume that
somewhere inside that thick scull of yours you understand.”
She did understand. Sometimes she even felt as though she understood him
better than he understood himself, and maybe even better than she
understood herself. But there was still a huge part of him—the part
linked to how he felt about her—that remained indecipherable and
well-masked even now. Yes, he loved her. Of that she was certain. But
there were still so many issues—issues about their past
relationships…baggage—that needed to be discussed. They’d tried sorting
through it on a few disastrous occasions but the rate of progress seemed
to parallel that of their relationship in general. Said simply, it might
take an eternity or two.
Neither one of them ever brought up the subject of Mic or Renee’s
departure. Too many painful memories surrounded those events in their
lives…his Tomcat mishap on the night of her rehearsal dinner, the
runaway tactic of her TAD on the Guadalcanal just to name a few. It
didn’t help matters any that they both had lingering regrets about how
both relationships ended. For Mac, the truth in Mic’s break-up line tore
open an old wound. “Let me tell you why you’re pleading with me to
stay…” He told her it was because she didn’t want to be alone. And there
he was, not only breaking up with her, but walking out of her life for
good. Maybe she hadn’t loved him with all her heart, but she did love
him on a level well beyond friendship. And because of her mistakes, her
uncertainties about herself, he abandoned her.
Harm’s regrets about Renee had more to do with who broke up with whom.
He knew in advance that it wasn’t going to work. He knew since the night
of Mac’s engagement party…or maybe even before that on some subconscious
level. After surviving the punch-out and the icy waters of the Atlantic,
it seemed the only thing he could do was wait for the inevitable to
happen, wait for Renee to call the shots and end it because he didn’t
want to be the bad guy. More specifically, because he had little to no
knowledge on how to go about telling someone he no longer or perhaps
never did love them. That old song rang true: Breaking up is hard to do.
But when Renee finally did drop him for a long-lost love…for a kind of
happiness Harm could only hope to find with the real woman of his
dreams…he felt ashamed that he hadn’t had the guts to end it sooner.
Especially since in the interim he’d followed Mac halfway across the
world only to come back home with the words, “What are you willing to
give up to have me?” echoing through his brain. Mac deserved more from
him. Breaking up with Renee would have at least been a sign. He couldn’t
help but feel that he’d failed her somehow.
Mac yanked her blanket up from where it dragged on the floor and scooted
backwards towards the headboard and the mound of pillows. Harm’s gaze
followed the movement as if he was half afraid she might ignore his
comments and make a hasty escape.
She decided to put his mind at ease and even managed a weak smile. “If
we’re not talking about today’s events,” she said, trying to bury what
transpired earlier that day in her long-established garden of
acceptance, “then what other topic of conversation do you want to drag
us into right now?”
Harm leaned forward, elbows on knees, shifting his focus to a patch of
rug at his feet. “The future,” he replied flatly.
“Our future,” Harm amended. “I think we’ve rehashed the past enough
times with infinite variation. I’d say it’s time we consider the future
instead. Really consider it.”
“Are we talking near, distant, or light-years away?”
“All of the above.” Hesitating, he pulled himself back to look at her,
wanting a foolproof read on her emotions. “Starting with the wedding.”
Her heart skipped a beat and she lost her grip on the blanket she’d been
tugging towards her.
Luckily it didn’t take long for her brain to kick in. It chastised her
for being so easily fooled. He was talking about Bobbi and Sturgis’ big
day, not theirs. On the heels of this clarity came the assumption that
Harm was about to beat another dead horse on the subject of her health.
Catching on to his strategy, she busied herself with the uncooperative
blanket to conceal her disappointment and then, dignity regained, she
launched into the argument. “It’s three weeks away, Harm. I’ll be fine
by then. I just need to—”
“That’s not my point. I know you’ll be fine well before then because if
you’re not, I’ll personally haul your sorry butt to the nearest hospital
and chain you to the bedrail.” She raised an eyebrow but he went on.
“What I’m trying to say is that by 1800 this Christmas Eve, two of our
closest friends will be happily married and starting a brand new life
together while you and I continue to dance around the whole decision
making process, avoiding every issue we should have had figured out
“You can’t just snap your fingers and change that. It’s our life. It’s
who we are. You said it yourself once upon a time. Complications,
“We’ve come this far, Mac. Don’t you think it’s about time we quash that
point of view?” His expression couldn’t have been more humorless. “One
of my best friends is tying the knot in three weeks and as much as I’m
happy for the guy and plan to wish him all the best, I can’t help but
wish I was lucky enough to be in his position. He’s got everything he
wants and could ever need right there waiting for him. He’s got it all
figured out. And, quite frankly, I envy him.”
Her brow creased at the easy admission. “Because Sturgis knows what he
He flashed her a look, mildly exasperated. “Because we should be the
ones taking that step.”
“If this is your idea of a marriage proposal—”
“It’s not. It’s a discussion. One that demands a resolution and
resulting action.” Absently, he took the Tylenol bottle from where she
gripped it loosely in her lap. He turned it between his fingers, his
thumbnail toying with its red childproof cap. “You know as well as I do
we need to make some decisions about our careers. And the sooner we do
that — No, just let me finish,” he urged, raising a hand as she began to
sputter an objection. “The sooner we do that, the sooner we can start
living like a normal couple. The sooner we can get on with our lives.”
Looking frustrated, he rubbed a hand across the back of his neck. “This
is getting ridiculous, Mac. I know it’s going to be tough not working
together anymore—God knows I’m already missing those high-tension
adversarial moments in the courtroom,” he added, throwing her a quick
smirk. “And wherever I end up, you know I’ll miss having you around. But
at least I’ll be able to walk through that front door every night
knowing that I’m home. Really home.”
“Wherever you end up?” she echoed, bewilderment marring her features. He
wouldn’t really consider giving up JAG for her, would he? No, this had
to be the overdose of Tylenol talking. Or maybe her bitter sarcasm that
morning had cut him a little too close to the bone. Her sense of guilt
was immediate and she reached for his hand. “Harm, you don’t have to
prove anything to me. This morning…you brought Mic back into the
equation and what offended me the most was that you were doing it behind
my back. What I said… At the time I thought I was giving you the
punishment you deserved.”
He let out his breath, perturbed that she was dragging up a topic he
wanted to shelve indefinitely. “Mac, I don’t think we need to go through
all that right now.”
“Too bad,” she fired back. “Cause I do!”
He jerked back a little at the strength of her opposition, but she
didn’t care. She’d had enough of them dodging the subject. It wasn’t
just what happened that morning that weighed them down. This topic had
gnarled its roots in their relationship a long time ago, and ignoring it
wasn’t going to decrease the threat of it choking out everything pure
and good they’d come to find.
“I want to drag us through it, Harm, before it becomes so engrained in
the way we are…the way we treat each other, that we never get past it.”
She waited until he met her gaze, and then pure grit carried her onward.
“I fell in love,” she said, her eyes penetrating with the painfulness of
truth. “I fell in love with a decent man…and it wasn’t you. What’s it
going to take for you to get over it?”
“I am over it!” He surged to his feet, his hand ripped from hers in the
“Are you really? Then why does it become a topic of conversation between
you and Turner as soon as I’m not around?”
He whirled to face her and held her stare just as fiercely as she
returned it. “How much did you overhear?”
“What does it matter how much I—.”
“Damn it, Mac! What the hell did you hear?!” He saw her startled jump
before he fully realized he’d yelled at her.
For a moment they stared at each other in shocked silence. Then Mac
watched his eyes cloud over, masking his emotions before he lowered his
gaze to the mattress between them.
“Sturgis was trying to convince me I was overreacting,” he forced out
evenly over her voice. “He drew a parallel… No, he made a bang-on
observation about what I’m like when it comes to you.”
“So he backed you into a corner, you got defensive, argued his point,
and inadvertently sullied me in the process.” What else was new, she
When he looked up at her, there was evidence of a war raging in his
eyes. Then he said slowly, “No, Mac, I think everything that came out of
my mouth before I knew you were standing there was a pretty honest
presentation of my deepest sentiments.” He paused a moment as though
having to digest what he’d just admitted to her and then added calmly,
“Except for the idiotic way it all came out, I guess I really don’t have
anything to apologize for.”
Seeing right through the comment, she ignored the cutting words and
attacked the emotion behind them. “How can you resent me for choosing
him over you? You never made yourself part of that choice in the first
He stabbed a finger at her. “You see, that’s where I fail to understand
“Yeah, I kind of figured that out today,” she replied blandly. “After
all this time, imagine my surprise at finding out that I was the one who
He had an inkling then of how much she’d overheard. “I don’t know what I
expected,” he told her honestly. “Your engagement party was hardly the
place to be having that conversation. When I kissed you and you didn’t
stop me…for a hopeful second I thought…” He trailed off looking beaten.
“By that point it was too little too late.”
She let out a brief, disdainful laugh. “Damn straight it was.”
“So what was I supposed to do, Mac?” he challenged. “Fall at your feet?
Beg you to wait? Promise you the world? What? What did you want from
“A hell of a lot more than what you were offering, that’s for sure!”
He swallowed hard, clenching his teeth to block the cruel, unforgivable
words he wanted to throw at her. “So he gave you everything I couldn’t,
huh?” he ground out, the comment cold and flat. “Was that it?”
“Mic was good to me. Good for me.”
“About as good as you felt you deserved, am I right?”
It hit her like a stinging slap. “Pardon me?” With all the strength she
could summon, she kicked herself free of the blankets and pushed herself
to her feet. She grabbed his forearm none too gently, forcing him to
face her. “Mind telling me what that’s supposed to mean?”
“Isn’t it obvious? It means you don’t know your own worth.” Had it not
been for his acidic tone, it might have sounded like a compliment.
“Tell me, just what was so wrong about the guy? Other than the fact that
he brought out the jealous boyfriend in you.”
“You know, I could think of a lot of things. But let’s start with the
obvious. He walked out on you when times got a little tough.”
“We both know that was more my doing than his.”
He heaved a sigh and turned impatiently toward the window. “And there
she goes again.”
“He knew I ran to you that night, remember? What message did that send
him? He thought I was in love with you,” she said, her voice catching in
“Was he wrong?”
“You had Renee.”
“I asked you a question, Mac. Was he wrong?” Arms folded, he leaned back
against the wall, his cold stare fixed on her as he waited for her
As if the steam of willpower had gone out of her, Mac turned and sank to
the bed. She sat there in her blue flannel pajamas, shoulders slumped.
Looking defeated. “How was I supposed to know you felt the same way?”
she asked finally, not because she wanted to avoid his question, but
because she felt hers was more to the point.
Harm looked to the ceiling, shaking his head with disbelief. Bitterness
was rapidly surfacing and the chuckle that escaped him did nothing to
mask it. “Uh-uh. No way.” He pushed away from the wall. “I refuse to buy
it. You understand me better than I understand myself. I’ll probably rue
the day I ever step foot into a courtroom and find you on the bench
because you read me like a goddamned book—as a lawyer and on a level
deeper than anyone else I know. That’s one of the biggest reasons why I
love you! So I fail to understand how anyone who knows me that well can
continue to misconstrue my words and actions.”
“Then look in the mirror, flyboy, cause I could say exactly the same
thing about you!”
“Oh, you’ll find no argument from me there. I’ve always had one hell of
a job trying to figure you out. You’re like a black box nine tenths of
“So what are you saying? That this is all my fault? You’ve just stated
the obvious, Harm — we can’t read each other’s minds.”
Head lowered, he paused a moment and then simply asked, “When did it
Mac frowned, puzzled. “When did what start?”
His gaze flickered up to hers. “This game. When did we start fooling
each other? I’m beginning to think I misread even the most blatant signs
I got from you.”
“Harm, just stop.”
“No, seriously, Mac. I’d just love to know. Cause even though you’d
already seen one marriage end in disaster, I have a hard time believing
you’d make the same mistake twice. So let’s consider the reasons, shall
we? Was Mic good to you? Sure, for the sake of argument we’ll say that
he was. Did he love you?” He swept a quick hand gesture. “I think that
one’s a given. I’m sure it killed him to walk away without the prize.
Did you love him? It pains me to believe it, but it would appear that
you did. So, here’s the million-dollar question, Mac. Did you love him
enough to give up on me?”
“Why are you doing this?”
He shrugged, his cold look never faltering. “It was your idea, Mac. You
wanted to drag us through this, so here we are.”
As hard as she tried, she couldn’t believe just how far he was letting
them trudge through the mess. It was like a bad nightmare—one she’d
dreaded and hoped for all at the same time.
“How can you act like you were the only one hurt by all this?”
“I’m not. But you’re the one who pulled a fast one back in Australia.”
A fast one? She let out an empty laugh. “I got up the nerve to confront
you and you pushed me away!”
“What part of ‘wait’ did you not understand?!” he fired back.
His violent tone didn’t deter her. “Wait for what? For you to decide
whether or not you wanted me?” Her bitter tone revealed the depth of the
“I don’t think the wanting part was ever in question.”
“So what was I just supposed to do? Wait around while you dated Renee?
Hope that that relationship would just peter out before it got too
His eyes went wide, but they were lit with a certain clarity. “I was
never serious about Renee. I doubt I would have even seen her again if
you hadn’t gotten involved with Brumby.” He was staggered by her
assumption that he’d chosen Renee over her.
Her disbelieving look stung. “I wanted you, Mac. I just needed time to
figure everything out.”
“Well, there’s your answer, then,” she said brusquely. “We’ve been
fooling each other at least since that night in Sydney Harbor.”
He refused to believe it. If that were true, then the whole damn mess
was his fault, and his alone. “It must have started before that. For you
to have gone to him like steel to a magnet… Or was that just your
defense mechanism kicking in? It must have been one hell of a rebound,”
he scoffed. “You had the guy’s heart, the proposal, the ring …
everything. It didn’t really matter what was behind door number two
anymore, did it?”
Her heart twisted sharply. “You were behind door number one, Harm. But
it was locked and I was never allowed the key.”
For a moment he could only stare. He knew he had hurt her that night, on
that ferry ride. But he didn’t have a clue how big of a mistake he’d
made until she’d questioned him on the night of her engagement party.
“Why did you back away?” He’d given her the easy answer.
“Complications.” It was a copout. A really good excuse. One she would
believe, and one she would, ironically, use against him many times
afterwards. Even yet.
He thought about that day they boarded the plane in Sydney. She seemed
so satisfied, so happy with Mic. It had crushed him badly, seeing her
kiss another man like that. Like he could make her every dream come
true. It was easy to focus on his own sense of defeat, his own sense of
hurt, and forget the possibility that he’d hurt her just as much. Now,
if he had the power to take that conversation back, he would. In a
When he answered her, his voice was rough. A barely controlled whisper.
“Maybe you should’ve knocked it down.”
His gaze seemed weak under a shadow of helplessness, but she was too
angry to stop now. “Me and whose army?”
“We would have eventually figured it out.”
“On whose timeline?” she asked, pointblank.
For what felt like the space of several heartbeats, he only stared at
her. Then he drew a breath as if to launch into a longwinded response
complete with a five-step proof and a list of supporting citations, but
only a simple word slipped past his lips. “Ours.”
It was incredible the way one word, uttered so softly, could hold so
much pain and deep incredulity. Mac couldn’t help it—she had to look
‘Tell you what, five years from this moment…’ The statement still
tormented her. Was she really supposed to believe he’d meant five years
of waiting? Five years of acting like nothing was between them? ‘…If
neither one of us is in a relationship…’ Was that nullifying factor just
included for its cryptic value?
“Five years,” she whispered, the comment directed toward the far corner
of the bed.
“My twenty years would’ve been up. I could’ve retired from the Navy…”
It could only be described as bittersweet to hear that from him now. If
only it had been obvious all those years ago. “Harm, making a deal to go
‘halves on a kid’ with someone doesn’t exactly infer a marriage proposal
or even romantic involvement for that matter. Not in this day and age.”
“Did you honestly think I would have settled for anything less?” He
could tell he’d hit his mark, though years too late, when she looked up
at him, dumbfounded. Her mouth opened, then froze.
“Come on, Mac. Whatever you believed or didn’t believe, it didn’t mean
you had to go to Brumby.”
“I didn’t go to Brumby,” she said, recovering. “He pursued me. And you
pursued Renee,” she stated as though it summed up the problem nicely.
Did he really have to point out the obvious, he wondered. “You were
wearing the guy’s ring.”
She drew her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them
tightly, careful not to look at her ring finger, and clamping down on
the urge to give her OCS ring a few nervous turns. “So is that what it
all comes down to?” She shook her head. “I should’ve known those rules
of male solidarity would’ve factored in. Why didn’t you just brand the
word ‘taken’ on my forehead?”
He had to laugh at that. There wasn’t much else he could do. He fiddled
with the red pill-bottle cap again, not daring to meet her eyes for fear
that they might burn him on the spot.
“Maybe it was too much like a Iron-Man competition.” Judging by his
stance, she could tell it took some effort to admit. “I did get my chops
pounded because of you,” he added, shooting her a quick, rueful smile as
he rubbed his jaw. “Like Bud said, Brumby’s fists are lethal weapons.”
“You both showed a high level of maturity, that’s for darn sure.”
He had to glance up and catch her smiling before he could believe the
comment was as good-humored as it sounded. As the smile lingered, he
felt a boatload of tension dissipate.
“Who won?” she asked, suddenly wanting to know. When he just gawked at
her, she asked again. “The blood match, Harm. Who won?”
He rolled his eyes and looked away. “Who do you think, Mac? Did I not
just allude to the fact that the guy had –.”
“Fists of iron. Yeah, I know.” She laughed because she couldn’t stop
herself. “I can just picture the two of you. Fighting over me.”
Harm could have sworn he heard a hint of tickled amazement there.
“Enjoying the irony, Marine?”
Her grin turned smug. “Actually…yeah.”
“Guess I blew that one too, huh?”
“Oh, I don’t know. It’s pretty darn funny now. Almost makes up for the
fact that it was stupid and juvenile.”
“And futile,” he added, wanting to retract the comment the instant it
“You didn’t want me yet, but you sure didn’t want him to have me
either.” The comment sounded so laissez-faire, so dismissive. It only
irked Harm more.
“Come on, Mac. Whatever confused feelings I had for you then, I can tell
you respect was among the ones I actually knew about. I sure as hell
wasn’t going to risk turning what we had into something short-lived that
we’d only regret when the sun came up. But the last thing I wanted to do
was push you into the arms of a man I didn’t trust.”
Her gaze darted from his. “I guess I forced your hand in the end anyway,
huh? On the Guadalcanal. I tried knocking down that door prematurely
when I asked if you’d give up your girlfriend. I had no right to throw
an ultimatum at you.”
“Don’t ever think that. Right about then I think I deserved an
ultimatum, but that’s not what it was.” He moved to sit next to her,
carefully taking one of her hands in his. “You deserved more from me.
And if I had the chance to do it all over again I certainly wouldn’t be
trying to slow us down.”
Harm watched her fight against the emotion. She was good at that—at
keeping the pain locked up inside. When she didn’t acknowledge him, he
reached out and gently touched her chin, urging her to look at him.
“Hey. You did nothing wrong.”
She exhaled on a pathetic sounding laugh, her lips twisting into a sad
smile. “So where do we stand now?” she asked, making a feeble attempt at
bravery as she dabbed at her watery eyes. “We’ve obviously been a major
cause of disappointment in each other’s lives.”
“Yeah. I can’t argue that.”
Tired and consumed by despair, her eyes squeezed shut. One tear escaped
and rolled down her flushed cheek. Harm watched the droplet dive off her
chin to the lapel of her pajama top. Then, without stopping to question
the impulse, he leaned in and kissed the hot saltiness it left behind.
“I’m not going anywhere. I promise you that.” He trailed his thumb
across her lower lip, surprised to find it trembling.
Her illness was draining every last ounce of energy from her. When her
weight sank against Harm unexpectedly, he wrapped an arm around her and
with his free hand, peeled back the layers of blankets with the hope
that she might lie down willingly. These wounds would heel, he told
himself, but right now she needed rest more than they needed solutions.
“Our entire relationship has been…plagued by bad timing,” she said
weakly, the pessimistic comment muffled against his sweater. Harm
started to form a reassuring response when he heard the sob slip past
Then her body surrendered to the emotion.
As she broke down in his arms, Harm thought the responding tightness in
his chest would surely kill him. He rocked her and brushed the hair from
her already-wet face. “Please, don’t cry. It’s bad enough that you’re
likely running a fever. I don’t need this on my conscience too.”
She laughed a little at that. And when his thumb traced a soothing
pattern on the back of her hand, it sent a flutter of warmth up her arm
and through her entire being. She swallowed against the thick lump in
her throat and drew back. “Harm, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do
anymore. Apologize? Defend myself? Return fire? I love you more than
anything…I just wish that were enough.”
He was pretty sure their friendship could survive anything. Even
conversations like this that threatened to tear any ordinary
relationship apart forever. No matter what, it always seemed to come
down to Mac and him. But ironically, being best friends had been their
biggest stumbling block.
“It is enough,” he said with conviction. “It’s what kept us trying, I
think, ever since that night when Mic said his last goodbyes. I wish
things could’ve been different that night. God knows I wish I would’ve
tried harder and said all the things I couldn’t say. But time had this
weird way of carrying us forward. You dealt with his departure in your
own way and I did the same when Renee left. I don’t know, maybe there
are some things in life we have to go through alone.” He rubbed a hand
along her shoulder, pulling her against him. “When we finally resurfaced
we still found each other. We were still there for each other. And we
still meant something to each other. That doesn’t seem to stop no matter
how hard we’ve tried to deny it.”
“Do you think we’ll ever be able to bury the hatchet once and for all?”
He shrugged and a wry smile formed on his lips. “Depends how many times
you want to drag us through this mess.”
“Today, when I came by the office…” Harm’s gut tightened but he knew he
had to let her speak her mind. If they were ever going to get past this,
he had to start listening. “Sturgis had that shrewd look in his eyes,”
she continued, “and my first thought was that I was missing out on some
He emitted a quick laugh, stroking her hair. “Horrible assumption.”
“Well, all it took was one look at you to figure that out. You looked
“Sturgis thought he was helping…the jerk. I’d been trying to get a hold
of you and I wasn’t having any luck.”
“Yeah, I know. I listened to the messages on the machine when I got
back.” She turned in his arms to smile up at him. “All fifteen of them.”
For a moment, he remained silent. When he finally spoke up, his voice
was tight. “I was worried sick about you.”
His clouded eyes held traces of guilt and worry, concealable to any
stranger and probably to most of his close acquaintances—but not to Mac.
He knew she’d read him when her eyes softened with pure sympathy. “Harm,
you know I can look after myself. You were in no way responsible.”
“I know that. I do. It’s just this weird place we’re in right now that’s
getting to me. Having you keep me at arm’s length-- and I don’t just
mean today because you’ve been doing it since we bought this house—it
isn’t doing anything to change the fact that I want to be with you…
Every minute of every day,” he added in a voice so low she almost
thought he was coming clean with himself rather than simply admitting
the fact to her.
“I don’t want to sneak around anymore, Mac.”
She drew in a breath to steady herself. “I guess distance really doesn’t
make the heart grow fonder after all.”
“Fonder to the point of insanity, maybe.” He chuckled and squeezed her a
little tighter, tucking her head beneath his chin. “Whoever came up with
that crap should’ve spent a day in my life. We’re in the same damn room,
in each other’s arms, and it’s still tearing me apart.”
“After this wedding…after the holidays are over, we’ll find some time to
sit down and talk it through. I promise.”
“I’m holding you to it, Marine.” He pressed his lips to her forehead,
let them linger there a moment against the softness of her skin, then
drew back. “Now get in bed, O-sickly-one. And if I have to strap you to
it to keep you there, don’t think I won’t.”
“Just try it, squid,” she warned, but she was already sliding beneath
the sheets and letting him draw the blankets over her.
Her eyes were already closed as he gathered the last case-related
documents from the foot of the bed and placed them out of reach, out of
sight, and hopefully out of mind. Then he leaned down to plant a soft
kiss on her warm cheek. “I love you, Sarah Mackenzie.”