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Chapter Four

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 cloud nine.”

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.”

“Oscar Wilde?”

“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 attorneys.

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 stiffer.

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 thought dryly.

“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.”

“Then Mac?”

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.”

“Bobbi.”

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 coming.

“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 riled.

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 step aside!”

“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 room. Sleeping.”

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 wall.

“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.

“Thanks.”

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.

The studio.

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 his thoughts.

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 start.

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 transformation.

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 breathing.

“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 recoiled.

“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 day.”

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.”

“I am!”

“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 inadmissible evidence.”

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 deal!”

“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.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

“The future?”

“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 months ago.”

“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, remember?”

“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 wants?”

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 process.

“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.

“Harm, I--”

“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 wondered.

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 place!”

He stabbed a finger at her. “You see, that’s where I fail to understand you.”

“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 rejected you.”

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 me?”

“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 her throat.

“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 reply.

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 the time.”

“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 start?”

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 wound.

“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 serious?”

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 heartbeat.

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 away.

‘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 slipped out.

“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 her guard.

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 good-natured ribbing.”

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 absolutely miserable.”

“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.”

 

 

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