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Chapter Five

For lo, the days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

                 -- Edward Hamilton Sears

 

In reality, and contrary to Meredith Cavanaugh’s assumption, when it came to the decisions of judicial appointments, A.J. Chegwidden didn’t need friends in high places. He fit that bill himself.

The screening process for military judges was performed by the Judicial Selection Board, a group of six Chief Judges and Assistant JAG’s. Typically during an annual slating process, potential candidates would be nominated, the six members would review their qualifications and then make a recommendation. As Judge Advocate General, A.J. had the final say. It was that simple. In fact, certifying officers for the military bench was among A.J.’s most important duties. It was a process A.J. was more than familiar with, and he had all the pull he needed.

Normally officers were nominated by their active duty detailer and, in the case of Marine Corps judge advocates, by the Deputy Director, Judge Advocate Division, Headquarters Marine Corps. In Mac’s case, it was a little different. He’d be her nominator. Which could, in effect, make her a ‘shoo-in’. Under normal circumstances this wouldn’t be seen as a problem.

But Mac’s case was different; it did come with a problem…a big problem. Namely, the rule-bending required to not only land her a specific billet—one within the Atlantic Judicial Circuit—but to also ensure that her new designation would never bring her face to face across a courtroom with one of that circuit’s best Navy attorneys and her soon-to-be husband (here’s hoping, A.J. thought), Commander Harmon Rabb, Junior.

No one could argue that A.J. wasn’t in a position of great power, but it didn’t change the fact that he wanted, for Mac’s sake as much as his own, that she be accepted on the basis of her merit and get no special fast-tracking treatment from any of the board members. She deserved such a position regardless of his involvement or recommendation. And the last thing he needed were rumors of nepotism reaching the SecNav’s ears.

On Monday morning, A.J. went through the usual procedures and drafted a Master Brief Sheet with Colonel Mackenzie’s name on it. So as not to divulge too much too soon, he didn’t bother nominating her for a specific judicial billet; he would play that card later.

By the end of the week, after he was certain that each board member had received the documents, he contacted each of them individually to ensure they understood that he didn’t want this nomination treated any differently than the others. Yes, he was bypassing the annual slating process, and yes, a rush job without special treatment was a bit of an oxymoron, but they weren’t to read anything into it. He wanted them to look through Colonel Mackenzie’s service records with the utmost consideration. She was a damn fine lawyer with all the right qualifications, but there were some obvious black marks on her record. A.J. told each of the six members to screen her thoroughly and then weigh whatever damaging marks they’d found against what he’d written in his brief. And that’s all he was going to say on the matter at this time.

Should she happen to make the cut, the next step—the rule bending—would require the full cooperation of the Chief and Circuit judges alike.

If it came down to a failed attempt then he’d have to live with it and find some other brilliant plan to solve the Rabb-Mackenzie imbroglio. Maybe even throw in the towel and convince Harm to buy that pin-striped Armani. Whatever the results, ass-kissing the board members after the fact was definitely out of the question. It wasn’t A.J.’s strong suit no matter what the situation and there was a limit to how far he’d go to set his officers’ personal lives in order. This was the military for Christ’s sake, not some tear-jerking episode of Oprah.

Still, it would be nice if they’d hurry up and make their damn decision before the holidays.

He decided that, for now, it would be wiser not to tell Mac or Harm about the nomination. He would wait and see. He kept the matter to himself, not daring to involve Harriet where correspondence with board members was concerned, and not nearly stupid enough to involve Tiner.

There was a knock on his office door and the yeoman of his annoyed musings poked his head in.

“Sir, you have a call on line four. It’s Captain Ingles aboard the Patrick Henry. He’s in need of a replacement JAG, sir.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

The only problem with Mac’s promise that they’d sort out all their indecisions after the holidays was that Harm didn’t want to wait that long. An extra four weeks should not have felt like an eternity, but it did. And it was a feeling he just couldn’t shake.

Under the admiral’s orders, Mac had been forced to stay home the entire week. He’d given her a light workload each day just to keep her from climbing the walls, but with the firmness of authority that accepted no debate, he’d passed most of her cases into the capable hands of Commander Turner.

From what Harm could tell, Sturgis didn’t seem to mind. Bobbi was apparently busy negotiating with caterers and florists, having amicably booted her husband-to-be from any and all pre-wedding responsibilities. That didn’t seem to bother Sturgis either. It wasn’t as though she was leaving him out of the decision making process, he’d told Harm one afternoon after his best-man had teased him relentlessly on the matter.

“Just wait until it’s your turn, buddy,” Sturgis had said with that insightful Turner grin. “You’ll be grateful to find your opinion doesn’t count worth beans when faced with an onslaught of color coordinating decisions. We’re talking beige or light-beige, red or less-red, blue or more-blue…”

Frankly, Harm didn’t think Mac would be quite as fussy as Bobbi Latham when it came to wedding planning, never mind color coordination. Surely any woman who dreamed of a simple hillside affair with goats as witnesses couldn’t be that particular on color palettes. When the time came, Mac would likely involve him as much as she dared and, though he might not broadcast the fact, he wouldn’t mind in the least. He might be a guy, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t choose a nice flower arrangement or select a suitably romantic venue if he had to.

He’d done okay on the ring, hadn’t he?

Standing alone on the windy weather deck, he twirled it between his thumb and forefinger, the large diamond shining as it deflected the red glow from the light above the hatch a few feet behind him and whatever other sources of light the huge ship wanted to offer.

Zulu time was approaching midnight, Sunday. Almost forty-eight hours had passed since he’d last seen Mac, early Friday evening EST. He’d stopped at their home in Falls Church before making his way back to his loft to pack. She’d been asleep and Bobbi had been on her way out, so he hadn’t stayed long. Just long enough to drop a kiss on Mac’s cheek, hear her mumble a sleepy ‘I love you’, and leave the note saying he’d be gone for a two-week stint aboard the Patrick Henry and that he’d be back the day before the wedding, hopefully in time for the rehearsal. No missile chasing, no heroics. He promised. He loved her and he’d call her from the carrier as soon as he landed to give her all the boring details.

It was an unusual reaction, but Harm hadn’t welcomed the temporary relegation to shipboard JAG despite the usual sense of comfort he felt aboard a carrier. Nor had he jumped at the opportunity when the admiral suggested his piloting abilities might be called into service.

Having seen Harm’s uncharacteristic reluctance, Chegwidden even expressed a half-apology for the inconvenience, but he had no choice. The JAG aboard the Henry had become a first-time father to a premature baby and his new family needed him back in Wisconsin. It was understandable. He’d taken leave and Captain Ingles had called the admiral for a temporary replacement. Since A.J. no longer permitted him to have any involvement in Mac’s cases, Harm’s workload was the lightest of the bunch. By default, Harm was the prime candidate for the TAD assignment.

And so, almost forty-eight hours later, here he was. Aboard an all too familiar aircraft carrier, surrounded by the stink of jet fuel and hubbub of activity, tight corridors and cramped quarters – what used to feel like a second home. But not so much anymore.

By the end of the first day, he’d escaped to the one place where he still found comfort—the weather deck—where he always went to watch the launches and traps in solitude. And to be with his father.

He gripped the metal guardrail as he leaned against it. The crisp breeze tousled his short hair and sent an added chill through his thick leather jacket.

‘Yep, Dad. I’m here again.’

It was a resigned thought as he looked out to the whitecaps and blue-black waters that stretched beyond the regimented activity on the deck below. ‘Got stuck with a TAD that only reconfirms my bad luck with timing... Won’t be here long, though. There’s Sturgis Turner’s wedding to make it back for. I promised Mac no crazy Tomcat versus Nature competitions this time. I think she trusts me more than she used to…’

On impulse, he unzipped his jacket halfway and reached under the collar of his khaki uniform blouse, pulling out the chain on which his dog-tags swung. The clinking sound of metal on metal was quickly absorbed by the frigid night wind that howled around him. His nearly-numb fingers closed around the ring that hung among the tags of identification.

‘She’s the reason why I’d rather be somewhere else right now.’

For a few minutes he gazed absently at the gem. Despite the dim light, the small piece of jewelry sparkled proudly. As though it could never be burdened with doubts. As though it could live up to the promise it would later come to signify.

Even so, it did little to reinforce the crumbling mortar of Harm’s faith.

It was faith that, months ago, compelled him to buy it. A brief moment of clarity amid a tumult of uncertainty. Before their lives were bound up in the tribunal aboard the Seahawk, before their first mission in Afghanistan, before Bud’s terrible accident. Ever since they’d been sent to Afghanistan the first time, Harm had started wearing the ring alongside his dog-tags. The damn thing pulled, snagged in his chest hair, and bit into him on occasion, but at least if the moment ever felt right, it wouldn’t pass him by.

But Mac couldn’t have been more right when she said bad timing had always plagued them. Over six months had gone by and the right moment never presented itself. As soon as the stars seemed aligned, fate had other ideas.

Like Sturgis beating him to the punch.

The thought of Sturgis’ upcoming wedding came with greater acceptance now. It was silly to blame his friend for his own inaction. But Harm’s pride could not be shaken from its stubborn foothold — if he was going to ask Mac to marry him, he didn’t want it to seem like a copycat maneuver. He didn’t want Mac to make the assumption that he was only following Turner’s lead. That’s why he’d tried telling her how he felt about it—honestly. The Latham-Turner wedding was just another roadblock.

‘I think it’s going to take a miracle to do this right,’ he told his father. ‘ I’ve blown it enough times not to trust myself. I guess that’s why I’m… asking for your help.’ He let his breath out slowly, the cold wind snatching the white vapor before it vanished altogether.

‘Maybe you could pull a few strings up there…if it wouldn’t be too much trouble. She means the world to me, Dad.’ He looked down again at the ring in his hand. ‘I’m prepared to make a life-altering decision just to make this work. I guess I’m hoping for some sign that it might be the right one.’

“With a diamond that size, I don’t think there’s any danger of her saying no.”

With a start, Harm grasped the entire grouping of metal and hid it within a clenched hand before spinning toward the female voice behind him.

“I didn’t realize I had company,” he said coolly, catching sight of the lieutenant’s bars on the woman’s uniform.

The young, short-haired brunette only shrugged. “I would’ve left you alone, sir, but you had one of those ‘depths of despair’ looks on your face, so I figured I’d better stick around and make sure you didn’t pull a Hart Crane. It being the Christmas season and all.”

He frowned. “A heart what?”

“Harold Hart Crane.” She took a step closer to grab the cold railing beside him. Harm couldn’t help but notice her eyes. They twinkled almost as much as the diamond, but in a clear greenish blue.

“He’s a poet,” she explained, “who happened to commit suicide by jumping from the deck of a steamship in 1932. Famous last words: ‘Goodbye everybody.’” She glanced over at Harm, her face lighting up in a smile. Shy, yet filled with mischief.

Harm felt his heart stutter with an odd sense of recognition. Her smile was familiar. For a moment he couldn’t place it and then all of a sudden it was so obvious it nearly knocked the breath out of him. It was the smile that he usually witnessed gracing a very different face. A beautiful face whose owner he’d been missing unbearably since his journey to the Arabian Sea began almost forty-eight hours ago.

Mac.

Despite the distance, or perhaps because of it, his entire body began to ache for her. She was as much his lover as she was his best friend. As both she had always stirred this incredible need inside him. He hadn’t always understood its meaning and it hadn’t always been this powerful, but right now the feeling threatened to overwhelm him with its strength.

It wasn’t sexual. It went well above and beyond that. He needed her in the same way he needed air to fill his lungs.

He fought it. He tried his best not to stare, and made a feeble attempt at light conversation. “So,” he laughed weakly, partly to test those lungs, “How does a Navy lieutenant like yourself know so much about some obscure literary gent who offed himself a good fifty years before she was even born?”

The young woman only lifted her shoulders, a gesture that was half shrug and half attempt at keeping out the chill. “I was headed for a Masters in English before my dad convinced me to follow in his footsteps and join the Navy.”

He raised an eyebrow but was only mildly interested in the story behind the woman’s career. He stared out to sea. “No regrets?”

She gave her head a quick, resolute shake. “None, sir.”

“Well, I can assure you, Lieutenant…Engel,” he said, glimpsing the name from her uniform, “I’m not suicidal. A little beleaguered maybe, but not suicidal.”

“You’re a pilot,” she said after a moment, as though making an easy observation. All she had to do was notice his jacket or catch a glimpse of his designator to know that, but to Harm it almost seemed as though she’d gotten a clue from somewhere else.

Her observation was the type that usually came with the sudden sobering of facial expressions, followed by a look of awe. But this one didn’t.

“Some of the time,” he answered bluntly.

After his catch-me-if-you-can escapade with an SS-25 cruise missile, he was getting used to being seen as somewhat of a hero, a legend even aboard carriers other than the Seahawk, but while this woman could’ve easily read his name from his jacket and put two and two together, she said nothing and gave no indication at having recognized him. If anything, she seemed thoroughly indifferent.

“But maybe not anymore, huh, Commander?”

He shot her a look of surprise but quickly pulled a smirk to laugh-off her perceptive qualities. “What are you, Lieutenant? Some kind of mind reader?”

Lieutenant Engel’s eyes darted from his, feigning distracted interest in the goings-on of the deck below. The efficient trap of an F-14 made conversation temporarily impossible and then, when the noise died down again, she voiced a bold assumption with an air of flippancy. “You think the girl back home can’t bear the thought of losing you, is that it?”

“Actually, it’s the other way around,” he replied with an ease that surprised them both. It left him wondering why the direct nature of her question hadn’t rattled him in the least.

He quickly decided that whoever this woman was, it probably didn’t matter whether or not she knew his life history, or his plans for a future outside the Navy.

“I just received orders from the captain,” he went on. “I’m taking a Tomcat up for a test flight first thing tomorrow morning. That’s not what I’m supposed to be doing here, but his shortage of pilots concerns him more than his shortage of lawyers right now.” He shifted his weight, leaning a hip against the railing to face his companion.

“Oxygen system malfunction on the bird that Lieutenant Murray delivered last Tuesday,” she filled in.

He eyed her suspiciously. “Yeah. How’d you know about that?”

A slight look of embarrassment crossed her features. “I’m…uh, I’m his RIO,” she said quickly, waving a dismissive hand. Her lips pressed together in a brief, self-effacing smile.

“Ah. Well this explains your behavior. I’m sorry, Lieutenant, I should’ve guessed. So, does this mean you’ll be in my backseat tomorrow?”

“Unfortunately not, sir.” That shy smile again. “Maybe next time.”

He only gazed blankly at her for a moment, then looked away and said with a little laugh, “That’s a big maybe.”

“Thinking about that final trap, sir?”

His eyes flew back to hers but he said nothing.

“The woman who’s getting that ring…she’s not forcing you to quit, is she?” Once again, it was more statement than question.

“No, it’s more complicated than that,” he said, then winced because he’d used that damn word again. Feeling a little tired and defeated, Harm leaned his forearms against the guardrail, letting the dog-tags dangle freely in front of his chest.

“It’s not just the flying, Lieutenant. I’m resigning my commission.” Even telling this to a complete stranger, it felt defiant somehow. He didn’t care. He scooped up the chain in his hand and tucked it away. “I need her to know… So that’s what I’m going to do.”

“She’ll know,” the woman said as though it was an absolute certainty. “And you will give it up…eventually. The Navy first…and flying many years later. But not for her.” She looked out to sea. “Tomorrow won’t be your last trap…sir.”

He scoffed at her overconfidence, but her smile never wavered. “What’s your name?” he asked, suddenly wanting to know her as more than Lieutenant Engel.

She paused a beat as though unsure on how exactly to answer him. Then she pulled her shoulders back decisively and simply said, “Jaclyn, sir.”

He straightened to his full six-foot-four just to peer critically down his nose at her. “How can you be so sure, Jaclyn, that tomorrow won’t bring with it my last flight-hour in the cockpit of an F-14?”

The cocksure glimmer that danced in his eyes mirrored back at him. “Personal experience.”

“Your father was a pilot?” he guessed after a moment’s thought.

She gave him that shy smile again and it nearly robbed him of breath. “Still is.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Aside from the ever-present fatigue and the real doozy of a headache that throbbed at her temples, Mac was feeling much better. At least that’s what she told Harm when he called her from the Patrick Henry.

She was determined to make it back to work the next day and the fact that Harm was with a battle group eight time zones away wasn’t doing a whole lot to steer her down the road to recovery. Being practically quarantined to the confines of a bedroom with only a meager workload to distract her meant that Mac’s free time could only be spent two ways: alternately sleeping off her ailments and worrying herself sick about him.

She couldn’t help it. Harm’s track record alone gave her cause to worry and so that’s exactly what she did. Of course, she’d never admit that to him.

On the phone she delivered enough lies to allay his chronic concerns about her health. She might’ve been sick, but she wasn’t dying, and he didn’t have to treat her like some helpless invalid. His overprotective parent routine had been bad enough the week before his departure.

“Harm, for the one-hundred and forty-eight time, I’m feeling much better.”

“You don’t sound better.”

“Well then it must just be a poor connection because I can assure you, I’m feeling on top of the world. Ready to get back to the grind. How’s your TAD?”

As expected, he fed her his own near-truths about the safety of the secondary assignments that Captain Ingles had seen fit to add to his plate. She was no fool. She knew what to expect and she could decipher what was going on. Investigations involving faulty aircraft control systems weren’t the type of investigations that happened solely on the ‘solid ground’ of the carrier deck. If they involved an F-14, given the shortage of pilots in these times of greater need, chances were pretty high that Harm would be the one sitting in the cockpit during the test flight.

“If you’re that busy, are you sure you’ll be able to make it back in time for the rehearsal?” She asked this instead of dwelling on a subject that only gave her mixed feelings of pride and foreboding, one never quite winning out above the other.

“I’ll be there.”

“Well, if you can’t make it, it won’t be the end of the world. There’s no need to rush back even for the sake of being Turner’s best-man.”

“What’s the matter, Marine, don’t you miss me?”

She could hear his smile. “Terribly. Come on, Harm, that’s not the point. I’m just saying if there’s any threat of bad weather, you’d be better off staying where you are. It’s just a wedding and Turner and Latham will understand. It’s more important to be safe.”

“I’ll be catching a cod and a commercial jet, Mac, not flying a Tomcat. So you can rest easy knowing my life will be in someone else’s hands.”

The sarcasm wasn’t lost on her. She made a little sound of annoyance. “It’s not that I don’t trust you. You know that. Harm, I’m not being paranoid, here. I’m being realistic.”

He laughed a little. “You’re not worried?”

“Of course not.”

It even sounded convincing, Mac thought. She felt she could give herself a pat on the back.

“Okay,” he said more soberly. “I won’t take any unnecessary risks just to get back to you sooner. Is that what you wanted to hear?”

She closed her eyes and let out a soft breath. “Yes. Thanks for understanding.”

“And thank you for trusting me,” he said, his low voice filled with sincerity.

Her show of command and bravado lost its strength then, weakening into a gentler form of tolerance. It was charged with the sweet sadness that always accompanied the sense of longing. “I do really miss you, you know. I wish I could be there — jet fuel stench and all.”

He laughed and then there was a short pause. “It’s late there, Harm. I should probably let you go.”

“Mac, can I ask you a crazy question?”

She sat up a little straighter and moved the phone to her other ear. “Yeah, what’s on your mind?”

“Um…this is going to sound really strange…”

“Just spill it, Harm.”

She could hear him draw a breath. “Do you believe in angels?”

“Angels? You mean like wings and a halo?”

“I don’t know; it wouldn’t have to be Raphael’s depiction necessarily. A guardian angel is what I’m trying to say, I guess.” She could imagine him leaning over the desk in the tight gray room, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Do you believe they exist?”

With a puckered brow, she smiled. “About as much as I believe in the existence of Santa Clause. Why?”

There was another pause, followed by the gust-like sound as Harm let out his breath. “Oh, no reason.”

“Harm, what’s this about?”

“Nothing. Nothing. I, uh, I should let you get some sleep so you can pretend to be ready to get back to work tomorrow.”

“I am ready.”

“Sure you are. Just take it easy, okay, Marine? Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want me to do.”

She rolled her eyes to the ceiling. “Goodnight, squid.”

“Still love me?”

“More than you deserve.”

He laughed. “Good. That makes two of us.”

“Good luck tomorrow,” she said with only a hint of her concern audible.

“You too. And Mac?”

“Mmm?”

“Just so you know…I’d rather be there with you, too.”


It wasn’t until Mac reached over to place the phone on the nightstand that she noticed her roommate leaning in the doorway. “Hey,” she said cheerfully, only a little embarrassed at having had an audience. “Did you need to use the phone?”

“No, no. Sorry, Mac, I’m not normally an eavesdropper but…the two of you…”

When Bobbi chuckled Mac smiled tentatively. “The two of us what?”

“I swear you and Harm are a complete wonder when it comes to communication. I think hearing only one side of the conversation makes the whole thing even more entertaining.”

“Entertaining?”

“I’ve known a lot of strange couples in my time but…every time you talk to each other it seems you cover quite the range of emotions. One minute it’s a full blown debate, the next it’s something close to phone-sex.”

Laughter came through Mac’s nose in a snort. “That wasn’t even close to phone-sex, Bobbi. You really have to stop letting Turner’s high morality rub off on you.” She swung her legs over the side of the bed to start gathering clothes for a load of laundry. If she wanted to return to work tomorrow, she had to prove she could perform simple tasks. Even with a splitting headache.

“Have you and Harm always been so…?”

“Confrontational? Yes.”

“I was going to say melodramatic.”

“Oh, God, I hope not.”

She pressed her fingers to her temples, fought the dizziness and regrouped her thoughts before the other woman could notice. “No, I think Harm and I bicker more than we dramatize. That last part you overheard was just a result of us being seventy-five hundred miles apart. It’ll bring out the Butler and O’Hara in any relationship.”

Bobbi stepped into the room to perch herself on the window seat. “So…you counting the days?”

Mac looked up from her task of stripping the bed of its sheets. “Shouldn’t I be asking you that question?”

Bobbi’s look turned dreamy. “Fifteen more sleeps,” she sighed. “It’s like I’m a little girl again, waiting for Santa’s sleigh.”

“I just keep praying you won’t catch this bug of mine before your big day.”

“You keep downplaying it like it’s some twenty-four hour inconvenience. No wonder I have no fears of catching it.”

“You know, Bobbi, I really should be kicking your butt out of here. I don’t know why you don’t just go live with your hubby-to-be. Fifteen days ahead of schedule couldn’t be considered sinful, could it? I think God will forgive the both of you given the circumstances. Or if you’re really that determined to do this the traditional way, couldn’t you just go stay with one of your aunts? Or your cousin Ruby. She lives in D.C., doesn’t she? Why don’t you go bunk in with her and her family?”

“And trade in all this Rabb-Mackenzie drama for the daily monotony of a computer nerd and his secretary wife? Not a chance. Besides, I promised Harriet I’d keep tabs on the two of you. It’s my duty to make sure progress continues at a reasonable rate.”

Mac shot her a suspicious look as she yanked the last pillow from its pillowcase and tossed it onto the pile at the foot of the bed. “Oh, so that’s what this is all about, huh?”

“Plus the fact that I promised Harm I’d keep an eye on you. You know, Mac, don’t you think you should be taking it easy?” She gestured towards the domestic tasks in progress. “Not even a healthy person would be crazy enough to get all that laundry done in one afternoon.”

“Bobbi, there’s a thing called a washing machine, and just in case you didn’t know this, it does most of the work for you.”

“If you had an elevator to bring you to and from the basement I might be more inclined to agree with you.”

Mac tossed a sock toward the pile of whites. “Was that the doorbell I heard when I was on the phone?”

“Yeah. Your neighbor made another appearance.”

She bent to retrieve a laundry basket from the floor of the closet and blew out her breath as she slowly straightened. “Hmm. Someone’s got to teach that kid how to read a calendar. I thought I explained to him yesterday that his basketball hero wouldn’t be back for another two weeks. Sounds like he needs further clarification.”

“Uh, it wasn’t Jeremy. It was your quasi-detective friend from next door.”

This caught Mac’s full attention. A quick lariat of dread looped around her stomach. “Noscibrodski?”

Bobbi nodded. “She heard you were sick and—don’t give me that look; I certainly didn’t tell her. She brought over a pot of soup. Should I stick around to make sure she’s not trying to poison you?”

“I think the poison I could stand,” Mac mumbled. “It’s the forty-minute lecture on the sanctity of marriage that I don’t think I could handle right about now. If you’ve sent her on her merry way, then I guess I’ve successfully avoided that annoyance. Thank you.”

Arms folded, Bobbi leaned in toward her roommate. “You know, honestly, Mac, I truly believe that woman only has the best of intentions where you’re concerned. You should try taking her commentary with a grain of salt.”

“I don’t have to take anything from that woman. It’s in my best interests not to trust her.”

“Come on, Mac. We both know the spy theory is total bullshit.”

Mac glanced up, startled by the fieriness of Bobbi’s argument. “So?”

“So, that woman is genuinely concerned about you! She likes you! Don’t you get it? She probably has a daughter out there somewhere who she thinks she’s failed somehow, or vice versa. Or maybe she’s made mistakes in her own life and now she’s living vicariously through you. Who knows? It wouldn’t hurt to take the time to find out, now would it?”

Mac let her head roll back to stare at the ceiling. “Bobbi, you know I’m not good at female chit-chat. I’m not good with most women, period. I’m so used to being one of the guys, it’s like I never really fit in to a woman’s world.”

“If that were true, Mac, you wouldn’t have acquired a hundred-and-ten pairs of shoes nor the unwavering attention of a very sexy hunk of a Navy commander. So don’t argue with me. Give that lady a chance. Come on, Sarah, it’s Christmas,” she urged, her dark eyes piercing under a frown. “I know she seems a bit prying but her harassment is very…well, for lack of a better word, motherly.”

Mac looked her directly in the eyes. “Bobbi, the last thing I need is another mother.”

The congresswoman didn’t know quite what to say. Mac rarely talked about her childhood, but there was that one pivotal moment in Mac’s upbringing that Bobbi had heard about. It was a detail that was hard to forget. Mac’s mother, Deanne Mackenzie, had up and left her abusive husband, abandoning her only daughter in the process. It was hard to imagine what that might’ve felt like to a fifteen-year-old—to be left alone with a drunk for a father.

It’s true Bobbi’s own father had abandoned her mother before she was born but that seemed so incomparable. She never knew her father, and he never knew about her. She’d learned to accept it. Men did that, she reasoned. Men left. She’d decided long ago that it was in their nature not to stick around. It took her a while to realize it wasn’t true for all men. And she’d managed to find one of the good guys when she found Sturgis.

Bobbi was raised by women. Strong women. Her mother and her two aunts were always there to support her. They nagged her to get her homework done; they made sure there was plenty of food on the table and a roof over her head. They offered her more than one shoulder to cry on when the other girls teased her at school just because she was smart. And when Troy Carlyle dumped her the day before her junior prom they’d told her a thing or two about depending on a man. They’d encouraged her and made sure she knew her own worth and when the time came, they’d pushed her into college so she could make a name for herself. They were proud of her.

Having essentially three mothers constantly on her back—that was Bobbi’s world. She didn’t understand how any woman could raise a daughter to the age of fifteen and then walk away. Women didn’t abandon their babies.

“Good mothers can be a pain,” Bobbi said cautiously, in half agreement. “But sometimes their pestering pays off in the end.”

For what felt like an eternity to Bobbi, Mac didn’t move. She just stood there gazing at an overflowing basket of dirty laundry, both hands hooked over the plastic handles.

“Okay, fine,” she said finally. “I’ll be sure to thank her for the soup.”

“Good.” Bobbi stood to assess the multiple piles Mac was now sorting and then checked her watch. “I have a dinner meeting with Congressman Bell in twenty minutes.”

“So go.”

“Promise me you won’t pass out on the stairs?”

Her only response was an annoyed scowl.

“Okay, I’d better get a move on. How do I look?” She turned one rotation. “Too business-casual, you think?”

“You’re asking someone who wears a uniform ninety-nine percent of the time. You look great. Now go.”

Mac was dogged in her belief that the simple practice of mind-over-matter could – and would -- eventually make her headache disappear. Two hours after Bobbi left, she felt she was definitely making progress. Two loads of laundry had been washed, dried, ironed, and folded.

She climbed the basement steps, loaded down with two stacked baskets of clean clothes, and then turned to climb the second flight to the bedroom. Her face felt hot and a fast-breaking sweat gave her armpits a sudden itch but she kept going. She would just put the clothes away, she decided, then she’d check her closet to make sure she had a uniform pressed and ready for the next day. After that, she’d give herself a much-deserved break and do something about the pangs in her gut that could only signify hunger.

She felt a bead of perspiration trickle between her breasts as she set the baskets down on the bed. It still needed to be made, she noted. Every bone in her body told her to lie down on it for a while, made or not. But if she fell asleep now, she’d never get the rest of her work done.

She returned T-shirts and socks to their proper drawers, then pulled a clean uniform from the closet for a cursory examination before hanging it on the hook at the back of the door.

Weighing the option to admit defeat and pop another Tylenol, she made her way down to the kitchen.

Glass in one hand, she yanked open the fridge door, pulled out the heavy pitcher of water and began to pour. Food was a must, she thought, feeling the dizziness return. Her appetite hadn’t completely returned yet but maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to order a pizza or venture out for some Chinese take-out. The fresh air might do her some good. Or maybe she could drive to a grocery store—now there was a novel idea—and get something healthy. Make Harm proud, she thought with a laugh. That vegetarian chili he made last week wasn’t even half…

Blackness began as a thick foggy ring in Mac’s peripheral vision and rapidly engulfed her, robbing light like a solar eclipse in fast-forward.

A numbing sensation followed and the glass slipped from her hand. It hit the linoleum and exploded. The plastic pitcher followed it—a loud smack and splash combination of sound.

She let out a frightful scream—a last instinctive cry for help. Then she fainted, her body crumpling where she stood. And the last sound that filled the room was the horrifying thud as floor lunged up to meet skull.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

When she came to she was lying on the living room sofa with an ice-pack on her head. She’d lost all sense of time but it didn’t take her long to realize she wasn’t alone. Blinking hard, she attempted to sit up but a firm hand on her shoulder restrained her.

“There, there,” said a soothing voice. “No need to go repeating such foolishness.”

Mac blinked again, the fuzziness in her head beginning to clear. “Mrs. Noscibrodski?”

“Please, dear, why don’t you just call me Angela. We’re neighbors—we don’t need such formality.”

Mac reached up to touch the ice-pack. “What happened? How did you…?”

“You nearly woke the dead, that’s what happened. And it’s a darn good thing you did. You were out cold in a puddle of glass. I got most of the shards out of your arms and back, but you’ll have to check your own backside, dearie.”

Mac looked down at the blanket that covered her. “How did I make it onto the sofa?”

The stocky woman ignored the question and fussed with the pillow behind her head. “You know, dear, you really should take better care of yourself. I had a look in that fridge of yours and it’s no wonder you’re having fainting spells. And that roommate of yours is obviously not setting a very good example. She’s as thin as a toothpick.”

Noscibrodski turned and, as though needing to keep her hands occupied, started organizing the disarray of items on the coffee table. In short order she grouped the candles in the center of the table and made a neat pile of the magazines.

It only took her a quick moment to notice that the magazine on top of the pile was an issue of Today’s Bride. She raised an eyebrow at her patient. “Did that man of yours finally decide to make an honest woman out of you?”

“Uh…”

Before Mac could utter a response, Angela grabbed her left hand and noted her OCS ring. She huffed out a breath before dropping the hand. “Wishful thinking, apparently. I don’t know what it is with young people these days. Commitment has become a dirty word, it seems.”

Had Mac not had prior experience with this woman’s frankness, she would have hardly believed her ears, but this wasn’t the first time. She’d come to expect these kinds of statements from the meddling neighbor who’s tongue tended to wag liberally.

“So where is that man of yours these days?”

“Does it really concern you?” Lashing out was uncalled-for, Mac realized, especially since the woman had obviously come to her aid, but she’d been feeling like crap for long enough not to care about being nice.

Undeterred, Angela perched her plump frame on the arm of the sofa and flipped through the bridal magazine, looking thoroughly disinterested as the pages whipped by. “I haven’t seen hide nor hair of him in quite some time. Neither one of his vehicles has been parked in your driveway for, oh, about three days now.”

In her agitation the ice-pack began to slip and Mac raised a hand to rebalance it. “He’s at sea,” she said through gritted teeth.

“At sea?” Angela looked up, genuine sympathy settling in her gaze. “Oh, you poor dear! I had no idea. I heard you were sick but I had no idea Harm was away. Not a six-month deployment, I hope?”

Mac looked at the ceiling and briefly closed her eyes. “TAD,” she sighed. “He should be back before Christmas. Bobbi’s getting married,” Mac added, feeling herself being slowly pulled into a conversation she’d have rather not been having. It was better though to explain everything right off the bat. The nagging questions would come regardless. “He’s her fiancé’s best-man.”

“Oh? Is that so? Well, that’s nice. Who’s the lucky fellow?”

“You remember Commander Turner? The one who inadvertently scratched Harm’s corvette with the bicycle.”

“Oh, yes, yes. Charming fellow. Now there’s the kind of man you deserve, my dear. The kind that’s not so dense in matters of the heart. A man that knows when to take his head out of the sand. Maybe your man can follow his lead on this wedding business.”

Mac wasn’t in the mood for another lecture. “Listen, Mrs. Nosci—Angela—I’m grateful that you heard my scream and came over to help, but I can manage on my own from here. You don’t need to stick around. I’m sure Bobbi will be back soon.”

“Oh, don’t you worry, dear,” she said, patting Mac’s raised knee. “I’m in no rush to be anywhere. I brought over some of my chicken soup. It’s warming on the stove and I’m not leaving until you’ve had a bowl. It cures what ails thee, as they say. Trust me, you’ll feel real chipper once you have yourself a wee taste of it.”

“Angela, I’d really prefer to be alone right now.”

“Nonsense, child.”

Angela rose from the sofa and hustled off to the kitchen, returning a moment later with a bowl of steaming broth.

“Okay, dear, can you try to sit up?” She placed the bowl on the coffee table in front of Mac and pulled a spoon from the front pocket of her apron. “Come on, now. Up, up, up.”

Mac groaned but set the ice-pack aside and obeyed the pushy woman’s demands. She accepted the spoon that Noscibrodski proffered and dipped it into the golden liquid.

She took a sip and had to fight the reflex to spit it back. It tasted awful. Graciousness didn’t even have a chance. Mac’s face puckered instantly. And when she looked up to the soup’s cook, she found her nodding with approval. “What the hell is in this?”

“Oh, that’s a chef’s secret. I’m sure it’s working.” Her smile was confident.

“It tastes like shoe polish!”

“Eat up,” Angela urged. Bending, she pried the spoon from Mac’s grip and scooped up another mouthful, directing it toward her mouth.

Mac grabbed the woman’s wrist. Liquid spilled on the carpet. “I’m a grown woman and a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps. I don’t need to be babied, Mrs. Noscibrodski.”

Angela’s smile only gained a trace of curiosity. “You don’t take kindly to motherly affection, do you?”

Exhausted, Mac gave a hollow chuckle and sank back into the cushions of the sofa. “Is that what this is?”

“Sarah, did your mama not coddle you once in a while?”

“My mother left when I was fifteen.”

Angela’s face fell but Mac could read the disbelief in her eyes. “What kind of woman could do that to her child?”

“The kind I hope to never emulate,” she replied smoothly.

Mac looked away but could still feel Angela’s eyes searching her face. No doubt looking for the starting signs of tears, Mac thought dryly. But she was over it, she told herself. That part of her life didn’t matter anymore. It was a stoic thought even as the burning sting arose behind tired eyes.

“Oh…Honey.” Her neighbor returned the spoon to the bowl and sat next to her. Without a moment’s hesitation she put an arm around her and drew her in against the florally fabric at her bosom.

The pressure that threatened to reach its peak did just that. A little damn burst and there was nothing Mac could do to stop it. She cried against the woman’s shoulder and when the familiar image of her mother flashed in her mind, she let out a weak moan of agony, disgusted with herself. Why did she have to feel like this, she wondered. Why couldn’t those childhood feelings just go away? Why couldn’t they stay buried?

Like a weight had been lifted, her headache subsided. Tears were therapeutic. She realized she should have figured that out by now, but Marines didn’t cry. It wasn’t long before she regained control of her emotions and she was surprised to find that even that clenched sensation in her chest had eased.

How could it be, she wondered, that she was so easily comforted in this near-stranger’s arms? What magic of a mother’s touch had she so often been deprived of?

“I don’t get it,” Mac said, drawing back. “What makes you so interested in my life and so concerned about my welfare?”

Her neighbor ignored the question again and handed over the bowl of soup. “Just another few more mouthfuls, dear. Then I’ll be out of your hair.”

Mac suppressed the urge to groan loudly and forced herself to swallow a few more spoonfuls of the vile liquid. It tasted worse than Buckley’s cough syrup.

As fatigue rapidly set in, Angela pried the bowl and spoon from her loose grip and guided her back down on the sofa where she curled up and slept.

When she finally awoke it was Monday morning and she was in her own bed. Her keen sense of time was restored and she felt well enough to go to work. In fact, she couldn’t think of the last time she’d felt so well-rested, rejuvenated, and ready to take on the world.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

The next two weeks flew by as they normally do during the rushed holiday season. Though Bobbi Latham and every child under twelve would have disagreed, the weather was cooperating nicely. It was December 23rd, wedding rehearsal night, and not a single snowflake had fallen to the ground.

That was about to change. Or so the meteorologists claimed. They were forecasting a weather system moving into the Midwest within the next twenty-four hours. It included a heavy snowfall warning for Washington and surrounding areas.

Despite the visions of sleigh rides and snowmen that danced in Bobbi’s head, she opted to hold back her glee. Her good friend and matron of honor had been a little on edge ever since hearing the weather forecast that morning. And reasonably so. Harm hadn’t made it back from the Patrick Henry yet.

Mac was doing a good job of hiding her worry. Stoic as ever, Bobbi thought as she looked across the anteroom to where Mac was helping her cousin Ruby get little A.J. and Ruby’s daughter Miranda organized.

“But Auntie Bobbi, I don’t wanna walk beside my sister!”

“Well, I don’t wanna walk beside her either! I wanna walk beside Miranda!”

The bride-to-be turned her attention back to the other two flower girls, Marnie and Melissa. The rambunctious ones. “She’ll be two steps behind you, Melissa, with A.J. Your job is to spread rose petals as you go up the aisle. Here, see.” She handed a little white basket down to her cousin’s whiny six-year old and then to her three-and-a-half-year-old sister.

“We’re only using pretend rose petals tonight,” Bobbi said, scooping a hand through the coin-sized shreds of pink paper to show them. “But tomorrow we’ll use the real thing. You get to sprinkle them all along the aisle and I won’t even make you clean them up afterwards. Doesn’t that sound like fun?”

Marnie made a lunge for her basket, but Melissa folded her arms tight across her chest, her bottom lip protruding. “No! I’m not walking beside her.” She flashed a look of disgust at her sister.

In response Marnie tested her mess-making abilities, throwing a handful of paper petals in her sister’s direction with about as much elegance as a chimp tossing peanut shells.

“Alright, I’m willing to forego the cuteness factor. You don’t have to hold hands. You can walk one behind the other. Melissa, you’ll go first.”

Marnie’s face went red, signaling the start of another tantrum. “I wanna go first!”

Bobbi bit her tongue and counted to ten, thankful this was only the rehearsal. “Honey, there’s going to be lots of people in the chapel and they’ll all be watching you as you come in. Don’t you think it would be better to let Melissa go in ahead of you?”

The child stomped her tiny foot. “No! I wanna walk with A.J.!”

“Mar-nie!” Bobbi cried, sounding as though she was about ready to pull her hair out.

“Problem?” Mac inquired, looking up from her task of trying to get A.J. and Miranda to link arms in a manner that might enable them to manage both her small bouquet and his ring bearer’s pillow.

Bobbi gave her friend a long-suffering look. “Mac, weren’t you the one who tried talking me out of having three flower girls?”

“Mm-hmm,” Mac replied, safety pin in mouth. She cinched the elastic band on the back of the small satin pillow and held it up to A.J.’s wrist to make sure the size was about right.

“Why didn’t I listen to you?”

Mac only flashed her a smile as she fastened the pin in place and slid the band over A.J.’s wrist. “There. Is that too tight?”

Little A.J. shook his head, trying his best not to fidget as his godmother tested the strength of the elastic band. His mother had warned him of the consequences if he didn’t behave himself. Santa might decide not to find him this year. The fact that they’d moved into a new house in a new neighborhood since last Christmas had been troubling him enough already.

“Good. That should hold.”

“Colonel, you’re a genius,” Ruby said, trying to come up with a similar solution for Miranda’s grouping of artificial flowers. “I’m guessing they teach a hundred and one different ways to use a safety pin in the Marine Corps?”

“You wouldn’t be far off.”

From across the room came the repeated sound of a sneaker stomping. “Auntie Bobbi, her basket is bigger than mine!”

“Hers has more petals than mine!”

“I’d discipline them if I didn’t already know it’d be a wasted effort,” Ruby told Mac in a hushed tone.

Mac looked to the two pouting sisters and then to the well-mannered Miranda who didn’t breathe a word the entire time her mother fussed over her. “Hard to believe they’re first cousins.”

“It’s their father’s genes,” Ruby whispered back. “My sister Rhonda always had a thing for loud-mouthed men. She eventually made the mistake of marrying one.”

“Ah. I see.”

“I settled for a quiet computer geek,” she said, fixing her daughter’s braids. “He came with his own set of shortcomings but at least my kid’s controllable.”

“When’s their mother getting here?” Bobbi mouthed to her cousin over the head of an uncooperative Melissa as she moved her forcibly into position.

“Not soon enough apparently.”

The thick door to the chapel opened and Bud popped his head in. “Chaplain Turner says whenever you’re ready, ma’am.”

“Alright,” Bobbi sighed. “Cue the organist. It may take a few tries for the kids to get it right.”

“And possibly the threat of no gifts under a certain Christmas tree,” Ruby added under her breath.

At the front of the chapel, Sturgis helped his father up the single step and handed him his cane. “Dad, are you sure you don’t want me to bring you a chair? This could take a while.”

Chaplain Turner brushed the suggestion off with a slow wave of the hand. “I want a good view,” he told his son and chuckled. “With all those tykes, there’s bound to be a little trouble on the way.” He glanced past his son and his rumbling baritone deepened further as he said, “And speaking of trouble…”

Sturgis followed his father’s gaze to the chapel’s side door as it closed behind the unexpected latecomer.

“Harm, buddy, you made it!”

“Said I would,” his best-man replied as he took his place beside the groom. “Nice to see you again, Chaplain. I hope I’m not too late.”

The older Turner returned a smile, sticking out his cane to tap it lightly across Harm’s shins. “As a matter of fact, you’re right on time.”

“Nice to have you back, sir!” Harriet hollered to him from the back of the chapel. He smiled and waved at her and the rest of the gang who had gathered trying to figure out the elaborate white-ribboned bows and sashes Bobbi had had custom-made for the ends of each pew.

“Does Mac know you’re here?” Sturgis asked.

“No, I just got in. I take it she’s in the back with your bride?”

“Yeah. I can’t wait to see the look on Mac’s face. She was really convinced you wouldn’t make it back before the ceremony.”

“I didn’t feel like waiting out the storm. I think the weathermen are lying but knowing my luck with storms and weddings… I didn’t want history to repeat itself.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard the stories,” Sturgis laughed. “Speaking of which…your mess dress isn’t at the dry-cleaners, I hope?”

Harm shot him a look. “Don’t worry. I wasn’t about to risk having Latham ring my neck.”

“Just checking. It’d be my neck too, you know.”

The first chords sounded on the organ and Harm and Sturgis both adjusted their ties reflexively.

In the anteroom, the same sound made Bobbi jump, a sudden nervousness catching up to her. “You know, for the sake of making this a little less disastrous I think I’m going to scrap the traditional order for the Processional.”

Mac read her mind. “Want me to follow the two girls out to buffer any potential foul-ups? I might be of greater service to you if I’m between the two pairs.”

“Good idea, Colonel,” Ruby said with a decisive nod. “Marnie and Melissa can follow me out the first time so they get the hang of it, then Miranda and A.J. can follow you.” Abruptly, she pulled the two sisters from their imminent disaster-causing position in front of the bride and, ignoring their whines, moved them up in front of the colonel. “There. With any luck we won’t get camera footage fit for America’s Funniest Home Videos.”

Bobbi sighed. “It’s not what I envisioned…but you’re right. Okay, tell Bud we’re ready.”

A moment later, the double doors swung open. “Okay, girls, this is just like ballet class,” Ruby told her nieces. “You see that little white ‘X’ on the floor? That’s where you have to turn so you can walk a nice straight line down the middle of the aisle. Got it? Just follow my lead—tomorrow you’ll have to do it on your own. And don’t start sprinkling the petals until you get through the big doors, okay?”

Surprisingly, the two sisters marched in perfect time to the music as they followed their aunt. Melissa even managed a perfect pivot at the white tape marking, her little nose high in the air.

Mac kept an eye on the duo, hoping to God they’d get it right the first time so the night wouldn’t drag out. She wanted to be back home in time for Harm’s call and there was still the rehearsal dinner to get through.

A few ooh’s and ah’s escaped the female bystanders at the back of the chapel as the girls came into view. It wasn’t until the task of rose-petal scattering was upon them that the march took a turn for the worst.

Mac saw disaster coming the moment Melissa turned around with a scheming look in her eyes. She had a tight little handful of paper and was poised to throw it at her sister’s head.

Marnie let out a piercing shriek as she dodged to one side but her patent leather shoes slipped on the carpet and she landed unceremoniously on her backside. Instantly, the child began to wail for her absentee mother.

All the decorum of the moment broken, laughter erupted from nearly every observer in the room.

As funny as it was, Mac shot the offender a look that suggested irrefutable disciplinary action. That was all it took to wipe the smirk off Melissa’s face. The girl turned and with as much dignity as she could muster, marched as fast as her little legs could carry her toward the front of the chapel, dutifully scattering paper petals as she went.

Annoyed but not without heart, Mac quickly stooped to pick up the tormented child. She set her on her feet again and skillfully tugged down the upturned hem of her jumper. “Shh, it’s okay,” she said soothingly, giving the little hand a quick squeeze, expertly mollifying the child.

Sturgis’ amusement broke through the laughter of the crowd. “Nice save, Colonel.”

Mac had to bend over again to pick up Marnie’s dropped basket. “Thanks, Sturgis, but this won’t be easy to pull off as gracefully with heels and a scooping neckline.”

“You won’t find me complaining.”

Mac’s gaze shot to the front and locked on the speaker. Harm grinned back at her.

Had the youngster not reached for her basket at that exact instant, it would have surely fallen to the floor a second time. Mac didn’t even notice when the room suddenly fell quiet, the laughter replaced by a charged silence and looks of expectation that darted back and forth from the matron of honor to the best man.

If there was anyone in the room who didn’t already know they were a couple it was more than obvious now. The way the two looked at each other it was clear they’d been separated for far too long. They held each other’s gaze as though they were the only ones in the room and the rest of the world didn’t exist.

“Hey.” Mac breathed finally, a smile breaking free to match the inextinguishable one already lit upon Harm’s face.

He rocked forward on his feet but quickly clasped his hands behind his back as if to stop himself from bounding towards her. “Surprised?”

“Yeah.”

To Sturgis, the wild energy that rolled off the man standing next to him was almost palpable. He shared a knowing look with his wife-to-be who stood just inside the entrance doors, sure that something incredibly moving but perhaps a little too mature for the youngsters’ innocent eyes would happen soon if he didn’t put a stop to it.

He cleared his throat. “Okay you two, keep it together. I’m hungry and I have a feeling we’ll be doing this a few more times just so the kids perform to my bride’s satisfaction.”

Blushing, Mac found her feet. Absently, she reached down to clutch Marnie’s hand and made her way down the remainder of the aisle, her gaze never breaking from Harm’s.

At the back of the chapel, Meredith turned to A.J., white ribbons dangling forgotten from her hands. “Boy, can the electricity between those two ever charge up a room!”

A.J. gave a low grunt. “You should try working with them sometime.”

 

 

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