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Chapter Six

It came upon the midnight clear
That glorious song of old…

                 -- Edward Hamilton Sears

 

“To unite in marriage with the one you have set your heart upon brings a phenomenal joy...”

Chaplain Turner’s smooth baritone rumbled through the high-ceilinged chapel. With a smile, Mac noticed how it had captured the children’s attention. Clad in their white taffeta dresses with gold sashes, the three girls in front of her stood like little wax dolls, their postures impressively straight.

“The wedding ring is a tangible symbol of a spiritual bond…”

Across the way, young A.J. looked like a small soldier in his dark blue suit. Harm stood directly behind him and, lowering his head ever-so-slightly, he put a hand on the boy’s shoulder as though to whisper something to him. A.J. immediately stepped forward knowing this was his cue to hand over the rings.

“Bless O God these rings…”

With the rings delivered safely to their owners, A.J. returned to his position. His godfather slipped an arm around him and, in a perfectly paternal gesture, gave him a pat of approval on the chest.

“…living together in unity, love and happiness for the rest of their lives…”

Harm caught Mac staring and sent her one of his quick smiles. She looked amazing, he thought. Her gown was a rich shimmering color that he could only describe as gold. She’d given the color some mouthwatering name last night, he recalled. Like mocha or chocolate or cinnamon. It was a word he might’ve been able to commit to memory had his mind not been entirely distracted by other activities. Like shoe removal, blouse removal, skirt removal…

Between her sickness and his TAD, sixteen days apart had felt like a lifetime of physical separation. They’d made love accordingly.

Bobbi had even dismissed them from the rehearsal dinner. “Your entire focus will be reduced to the game of footsie going on under the table,” she’d said. “So go and make up for lost time. And that doesn’t preclude conversation, you know.”

But there hadn’t been a whole lot of conversing between them last night.

“I, Roberta Latham, give you this ring as a symbol of our vows, and with all that I am and all that I have, I honor you…”

In one of the pews at the front of the chapel, Meredith Cavanaugh discreetly elbowed her escort in the ribs. “A.J., you’re fidgeting,” she hissed.

His anxious behavior hadn’t changed since that morning, she thought. He’d been expecting a fax from a fellow named Bradley—Admiral Everett Bradley—and he’d even forced them to stop by headquarters on their way to the church to see if it had come in yet. Since it hadn’t, she’d been forced to sit and wait in his office while he made a series of phone calls attempting to track down this Bradley character. He’d almost made them late for the ceremony.

As Meredith understood it, Admiral Bradley would soon be Mac’s commanding officer. According to A.J., it wasn’t a sure thing that she’d get the billet, but Meredith had far too much faith to be dissuaded from calling it a slam-dunk success. Sarah Mackenzie would make an excellent judge, she kept telling him.

She tried ignoring her partner and turned her attention back to the ceremony. Weddings could be so moving, and this one was no exception. It was perfect. The bride couldn’t have been more beautiful, she decided. The gown—a sheath silhouette—suited Bobbi’s delicate frame and accentuated her subtle curves. The three-quarter-length sleeves seemed appropriate for the season, as did the flocked flower motif and touches of cracked ice on the bodice. Her hairpiece was a simple comb bearing a tiny row of white roses.

She looked so happy and radiant, Meredith thought. A.J. reached across her lap and folded her hand in his, drawing it toward his knee. She looked up at him and he gave her an apologetic smile.

A few rows behind them, Bud handed his sniffling wife the small package of tissues he’d tucked into the inner pocket of his mess dress uniform earlier that afternoon. She threw him a grateful look as she pulled at the cellophane wrapper.

“I, Sturgis Turner, give you this ring…”

Harriet felt a little guilty. She’d been watching her son during the first part of the ceremony and with his job completed to her satisfaction she’d breathed a sigh of relief and turned her attention not to the bride and groom, but to their two stunning attendants. She’d caught the look that passed between them, that sparkle in Harm’s eye that suggested they shared a secret. Now she watched the wordless exchange, the body language, looking for clues that they might be thinking what she was thinking. She was ever hopeful that it would soon be their turn to say these vows.

She took in every detail. Including how gorgeous Mac looked in that gold two-piece. Harm would have to be a fool not to notice, she thought, and based on that sparkle in his eye, he was obviously no fool. Her skirt was softly fluted at the hem, a detail that echoed the bride’s gown along with the style of sleeves. But where Bobbi’s neckline was cut box-like, high but elegant at the collarbone, Mac’s scooped lower. The waistlines were different, too. Bobbi’s was an empire, but the top of Mac’s two-piece was boned and flared slightly where it ended with a row of beadwork at the hip.

Chaplain Turner’s face lit up in a smile as his son slipped the wedding band onto Bobbi’s finger. “In as much as you have each pledged to the other your lifelong commitment, love and devotion, I now pronounce you husband and wife, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder. Sturgis, you may kiss your bride!”

With a prudence that surprised her supervisor, Melissa took a sidestep to get a better look. Mac reached a hand to draw her slowly back and the girl complied without so much as a pout.

It was dark outside as Sturgis and Bobbi walked arm-in-arm through the arch of swords. Three white limos awaited the party and, dodging the tossed birdseed, Sturgis quickly ushered his new wife into the first one to escape the cold. The parents of the bride and groom were to ride in the second gleaming vehicle and Lieutenant Roberts opened the door and helped them in.

Among the huddling crowd of spectators, directions were shared on the most direct route to the downtown hotel where the reception was to be held. Some introductions were made along with comments about the weather’s cooperation in the event. The forecast had been wrong, it seemed. The breeze was crisp however, and most of the men were already guiding their lightly dressed families toward their vehicles in the parking lot.

In all the haste of preparation Mac hadn’t thought to bring anything warmer than her wrap. She held onto it tightly with one hand as Harm helped her round up the four youngest members of the wedding party.

The kids had been bundled up by their parents in the foyer of the chapel, thick jackets over their thin outfits. Then they’d been gladly handed over to the best man and matron of honor.

“Why doesn’t Colonel Mac have to wear a jacket?” one of the kids asked.

“Because I was a silly girl and forgot to bring one,” Mac told the youngster.

“Because she’s a bad girl setting a very bad example,” Harm teased, slipping his own long coat over her shoulders. “You were also a very sick girl not that long ago,” he said for her ears only, “and snow or no snow, it’s still winter out here.”

He cut off her riposte with a finger on her lips. “Ah-ah-ah. No arguing in front of the children.”

Her ensuing look told him she wasn’t impressed with his tactics, but he stole a quick kiss from her just the same.

By Bobbi’s design, all six of them were to ride in the third limousine for the twenty minute drive from the church to the hotel. Contrary to what Harm had expected, getting the quartet into the vehicle wasn’t a difficult task. Excitedly, they piled in one on top of the other, as if fighting for the over-abundance of elbowroom inside.

“Well, that was easy,” he said to Mac as he took her hand and helped her in after them. “I was sure a few of them would start crying for their mothers.”

“Hmm. You’ll wish they had,” she murmured as she ducked her head in.

He didn’t have a clue what she meant until he climbed in after her and made his first mistake by taking the seat next to her.

“I wanna sit next to Colonel Mac,” one of the flower girls told Harm. It was a statement that left no room for refusal.

“Uh,…okay.” It seemed like a simple enough request. One of the other girls was already glued tightly to Mac’s left side so he moved to the opposite bench to sit next to his godson.

“But I wanted to sit next to her!”

This girl could’ve easily been the first complainer’s twin, Harm thought, or more specifically, her miniature.

“Me too!” shouted A.J., bolder without his mother around. He’d been fussed over enough for one day. And Melissa had told him that as long as Santa got his letter, he’d get whatever he wanted. He didn’t have to be a good boy to get that Rescue Heroes Aqua Command Center he’d been dreaming of.

“I said it first!”

“So? She’s my godmother. I can sit next to her if I want to.” A.J. jumped from his seat and bullied his way toward his target, almost knocking the younger girl down in the process. He didn’t want to be outmatched by a group of icky girls.

He got as far as the meaner, tougher, Melissa who was two years his senior. But she squeezed-in next to Mac and, arms folded, refused to budge. On the other side, Miranda was the weaker target so, like playing Red Rover, he lunged toward the line of space between her and the colonel.

Mac reached out and stopped him at arm’s length. “A.J.,” she said firmly.

Both pouting, A.J. and Marnie looked back and forth between Harm and Mac, daring the adults to not take their side in the matter.

“Well, you can’t all sit next to Colonel Mackenzie,” Harm reasoned. It was obviously a matter that had needed sorting out beforehand.

He wondered what made Mac the main attraction. Kids always seemed to like her without her even trying. They just naturally gravitated towards her. Maybe the two girls were scared of him, he guessed. His height in combination with the uniform had a fear-eliciting affect sometimes. Not normally with kids, but…

The vehicle started out with a jerk and he had to reach a hand to steady the littlest one who was standing on the floor between the two seats. She grabbed his hand and didn’t shy away. That blew his theory to pieces.

“Commander Rabb is right,” Mac said, giving the sulking faces a look of apology. “I only have a right side and a left side.”

“And a front side and a backside,” Harm pointed out.

It made A.J. laugh, but the little girl who continued to grip his hand began to cry. Mac shot him a look that accused him of not helping matters any.

She pulled the teary-eyed girl onto her lap. “I know you’re tired, sweetie, but you’ve got to be good for Santa and try not to cry, okay?”

The girl nodded and gulped down a sob as she ground her little knuckles into her eye sockets. Two soft mittens dangled on strings from the wristbands of her winter coat. Without a tissue handy, Mac used one to help dry the girl’s face.

“A.J., why don’t you sit next to your godfather?” Mac suggested.

“But why does she get to—”

“A.J. That’s enough.” A simple admonishment and a warning look. From what Harm could tell, that’s all it took to get the kid to listen. He watched her in awe. She was incredibly good at this maternal take-charge thing. He’d seen a glimpse of it yesterday during the rehearsal and now again.

“It’s your job to keep your godfather company,” she added, catching Harm’s look. She gave him that coy smile. “He looks kind of lonely over there.”

Marnie’s head sprang up from where it rested against Mac’s chest. She stared across at Harm, her little nose wrinkling. “Are you really lonely?” she asked in disbelief.

“Sure,” he said with a little shrug. With the way things were going with Mac and him lately, he decided it wasn’t really all that far from the truth.

Having already crawled up onto the seat beside him, the young Roberts looped his chubby arm around Harm’s elbow. A male gesture of camaraderie. Harm had to try hard not to laugh.

“I’ll sit with you,” Marnie offered. Before Mac could restrain her, she slid down from Mac’s knee and scampered over to the other side. Without another word, she climbed up next to Harm and then straight onto his lap where she proceeded to give him a neck-strangling hug.

“Thanks,” he said, surprised by the reaction. “I think I needed that.”

Instead of moving back to the seat, the girl tucked herself against the crook of his arm and closed her eyes.

“I think she took one look at you and saw a Simmons Beautyrest,” Mac teased.

“I think my arm is also going to have a nice snooze.”

“I can take her back if you—”

“No, no.” He sent her a smile that was filled with suggestion. “It can’t hurt to get used to this.”

It made for a heartwarming picture, Mac thought. Seeing him this way, like a glimpse into what the future might hold. As a father she was sure he’d be a natural. And they’d make a great team at parenting too…if they could ever be so blessed. If the right moment ever came. If they could work things out between them.

“Is she asleep?” Mac whispered a little while later.

Harm looked down at the little warm body in his arms. “If she’s not, she’s sure doing a good imitation.”

The two girls beside Mac had already drifted off and he could see that A.J. was struggling against heavy eyelids. “We’re good at this, aren’t we?” he said.

“This part’s easy. They’re angels when they’re sleeping. Just wait ‘til we have to wake them up.”

“You have to admit though…even when they’re squabbling with each other, they’re kind of cute.”

“You’re a softy,” she laughed.

“Judging by the way you took charge of the situation, I don’t think that’s going to be much of a problem.”

He had that sparkle in his eyes again. If he insisted on looking at her that way all night, it was going to be a very long wedding reception.

“You’re really amazing,” he told her. “Considering I’m having a hard enough time just keeping all their names straight.”

He watched the flutter of her long eyelashes. In the darkness of the vehicle, her dress looked more mocha than gold, but the row of beads at the hip and neckline glittered with the streetlights as they passed overhead. The clear sunroof gave a slow strobe-light effect, and it was like watching images from a slide-projector. He tried committing every one to memory.

“You’re good with them, too,” she said, absently stroking the softness of Melissa’s hair.

She looked so content. And so incredibly beautiful, he thought.

He’d seen just about every side to Sarah Mackenzie, but this one was new and he wanted to drink it in. Whether she was fighting for justice in a courtroom, wielding a gun in full-out Marine mode, looking dreamily sexy in his arms, or comforting a child in this new and appealing maternal role, he felt he could watch her for the rest of his life and never get tired of it.

‘I, Harm, take you, Sarah…’ How easily those words would roll off his tongue.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

The banquet room was dazzling. As her own wedding planner, Bobbi Latham hadn’t cut any corners. Every last detail was perfect. It wasn’t over-the-top extravagance, but it was only a hairsbreadth away from earning that description. A tasteful combination of Christmas and wedding décor bejeweled the large space. The atmosphere that greeted the guests was simply magical.

In the corner nearest the heavy entrance doors a huge Christmas tree had been erected as part of a cozy conversation setting. It was encircled by three lounging chaises, slip-covered in plush gold velvet.

The tree twinkled with white lights, attracting the stunned gazes of the youngest guests. It was adorned with hand-crafted ornaments. Glass icicles, lacy snowflakes dusted with glitter, and shiny globes trimmed with gold ribbon. A pearly white garland had been strung from bough to bough.

After the receiving line had been allowed to disassemble, Harm found Mac by the tree, gazing up at it. A group of ever-present children clung to her and spied the wrapped gift boxes that lay under it, having been told repeatedly by their parents not to touch.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” He handed Mac the virgin Crantini he’d taken from the open bar across the room.

“It’s breathtaking.”

“Nice time of year to get hitched. Festive, magical…”

“Romantic.”

“Hmm. That too.” He took a sip from his own beverage. “Listen, can we, uh…talk? I mean later?”

Her gaze had drifted toward another part of the room where the beaming bride was talking politics with Tiner’s escort. Startled by Harm’s cautious tone, she turned back to him. “Sure. What is it?”

He glanced down at the children that surrounded her. “Not here,” he said. He gave her shoulder a quick pat as he began to retreat. “Okay, I’ll see you when we’re seated for dinner. I need to talk to the admiral about something.”

“Oh…alright.”

She didn’t have long to consider his odd behavior before she felt a tug on her skirt. “Colonel Mac, where’s the bathroom? I have to pee.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Bobbi Latham was pleased with the results of her own efforts. Not only did the room look wonderful, but her guests seemed to be having a great time. And the meal had been superb.

She had insisted that there be no formal head table. It was her wedding and as the bride she wanted to join in the conversation, not sit at a long table on some platform like a public display.

Every dining table that scattered the room was round. Aside from the central location of the one at which she and Sturgis sat, there was nothing different about it. Like the rest, it was draped in a clever juxtaposition of gold organza and spicy red brocade making it look both elegant and festive. A pine wreath served as a centerpiece, and a sprig of the same green was embossed into the corner of each crisp white place card. There were eight place-settings evenly spaced with eight shiny white plates on eight pewter chargers, and eight napkins in that same spicy shade of red.

“My son tells me you’re hoping for snow,” Chaplain Turner said to his new daughter-in-law.

“She wants to make snowmen,” Sturgis put in before his wife had a chance to explain herself.

“Oh, Bobbi’s always loved real winters.”

“Mother. Don’t you start.”

The fifty-five-year-old woman patted her daughter’s hand. “Well, it’s true. During her college days she and her friends used to fly up north for the holidays. Where was it, dear? Somewhere in Ontario?”

“Quebec,” Bobbi said.

“Right. Quebec. Some kind of winter survival thing, wasn’t it, dear?”

Bobbi rolled her eyes. “We went skiing.”

“You did more than just skiing as I recall,” her mother said knowingly. “She loves winter, this one. As if we didn’t already get enough snow in Detroit, she had to go traipsing up to Canada.”

“This is interesting,” Sturgis said, shooting a playful smile at his wife.

“It’s the Christmas season that I love,” Bobbi said, defending herself. “And I prefer a Christmas that’s guaranteed to have snow on the ground.”

“How about you, Mac?” one of Bobbi’s aunts asked.

“Me? Oh, winter and me don’t get along that well. I usually catch whatever cold is going around,” she said ruefully. It felt a little like an inside joke and everyone at the table who knew what she was referring to chuckled.

“Then you wouldn’t be crazy enough to get married on Christmas Eve, now would you?”

Under the table, Harm gave Mac’s hand a quick squeeze and her eyes flew to his. “I, um. I guess not,” she told the older lady distractedly. She didn’t know how to read Harm’s expression.

“What is it?” Mac whispered to him when the conversation drifted once again to teasing the bride about her quirks.

“Just…”—He glanced across the table and saw Sturgis’ look of curiosity—“Let’s get through dessert and the first set of waltzes, okay? Then we’ll find some place we can talk.”

Her eyes were filled with concern. “I saw you with the admiral. What was in that envelope you gave him?”

“We’ll talk about it later,” he said, his look warning her to give it up.

“I saw him try to give the letter back, Harm. He looked uncomfortable and the admiral never looks that uncomfortable. What was it? If something’s wrong—”

“Everything’s fine,” he insisted. He should’ve known she’d be watching his every move after that cryptic request to speak with her. He was feeling a little nervous tonight and the best order of operations still wasn’t clear in his mind. Winging it was never a good idea with Sarah Mackenzie.

“Is there a problem?” Sturgis asked and immediately five more pairs of eyes fell on them.

Harm gave his table companions an awkward grin. “No, no. Of course not. Everything’s fine.” He let out a little snicker. “The colonel just needed to confer with me…over the dessert selection. I understand there’s going to be quite the array of choices?”

Under the table, Mac gave him a swift kick in the shin. He turned his plastered-on smile toward her but she looked less than happy.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Seated at their table, Meredith and A.J. watched the newly married couple dance their first waltz and relaxed to the slow beat as the Righteous Brothers sang ‘Unchained Melody’. Well, Meredith watched and relaxed. A.J.’s gaze kept darting toward the door.

“Beware the fury of a patient man,” she said dryly, quoting John Dryden. “A.J., you gave that poor man at the front desk a very clear set of instructions. In fact, you nearly threatened him with bodily injury should he choose to overlook or disregard your orders, so I don’t think you have anything to worry about. If that fax comes in, you’ll know about it.” She pushed a little against his firm shoulder. “Sit back and enjoy the evening. Honestly, you’re going to give yourself an ulcer.”

“Rabb gave me his resignation.”

The blunt statement almost made Meredith fall off her chair. She reached for the high collar of her gown, gaping. “He did what?!”

Never averting his gaze from the heavy set of doors, A.J. pulled the envelope from his breast pocket and handed it to her. “This makes the timing a little more critical.”

“But this is ludicrous! Why didn’t you refuse to accept it?” She spread her hands and looked to the ceiling. “Oh, what am I saying? For heaven’s fake, why didn’t you just tell him what your plans are!”

“Because without that fax from Bradley,” he told her calmly, “there’s no guarantee.”

She rolled her eyes. “Oh, brother. You could really use a lesson in faith, my dear.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

“Okay, spill it.”

Mac’s demand came with the last refrain of Otis Redding’s ‘These Arms of Mine’.

Annoyed, Harm looked over the top of her head. “Can’t we just enjoy the dance? I thought you were all keen about being able to dance with me in an almost-public setting?”

“That was before I suspected something bad was about to happen.”

“It’s nothing bad, Mac. I swear.”

He was grateful that the music man had already invited the rest of the guests to join the wedding party on the dance floor. At least he didn’t feel as though they were under a microscope any longer.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

A man who wore a bow tie and cummerbund like the rest of the catering staff approached the seated duo. A.J. immediately shoved to his feet.

“Tell me it got here.”

“Uh, are you Admiral Chegwidden?” the young man asked. A.J. nodded. “Then I have a message for you from the front desk. It seems they’ve received a fax with your—”

A.J. was heading for the exit doors before the man could finish.

“Don’t mind him,” Meredith told the startled server, waving her wine glass toward A.J.’s retreating form. She winked. “Saint Nick had to enlist his help on this one.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

There was a smooth transition from one song to the next though the beat speeded up considerably. Couples loosened their holds on each other and the dance floor grew more packed as men and women without partners joined in, forming tight circles.

Mac abruptly let go of her partner and folded her arms across her chest.

“What’s the matter, Mac—not a Diana Ross fan?”

“Just tell me what’s going on, Harm.”

His almost-gray eyes bore into her for a moment. “I resigned my commission.”

There was an immediate crinkle between her brows as though she thought she’d heard him wrong. “You what?!”

“I’m quitting the Navy, Mac.”

Around them, people continued to dance and only threw an occasional questioning glance in their direction.

“You can’t do that,” she told him. She was adamant despite her confusion.

“I just did.”

Her hard stare pinned him. “What do you mean you just did?”

“I already spoke to the admiral. I gave him my resignation. That’s what you saw me do before dinner. He tried to object, but I told him I was tired of waiting for some miracle that could solve everything and…Mac?”

She looked pissed off. Extremely pissed off. Not only was it written on her face but he got that distinct feeling in his belly. Like a volcano was about to blow.

“Just what the hell have you done? And more importantly, why?”

“Why?” How could the reasons not be crystal clear, he wondered. “Come on, Mac, do I really need to explain my intent?”

The frown lines on her brow multiplied. “You…asshole.” Oddly, it lacked power and sounded more like a breath-catching exercise than a biting retort.

Her dark eyes were disconcertingly vacant. She turned to walk away.

“Mac!” He reached out to stop her but a dancing couple unintentionally stepped between them and the attempt failed. “Mac!” he yelled again, turning several heads, but Mac kept walking.

Caught in the crowd, he watched her storm off to the swinging Motown beat. The song like a bad joke, ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’; the opening verse tormenting him further as the Supremes sang, “Baby, Don’t Leave Me.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Having noticed that she was sitting alone, Harriet Sims had joined Meredith at her table. Her very pregnant belly made dancing a near impossibility and she was already tired out from keeping that whirlwind son of hers in line. Now little A.J. was with Bud and she could take a much needed breather.

The two women had been laughing about Bud’s fascination with Star Trek when they both noticed Colonel Mackenzie plowing her way through the crowd of dancers heading toward the open doors of the terrace.

It was Mac’s dress that first caught Harriet’s attention. With each stride, it shimmered like sunshine on a pool of gold. “What just happened to the colonel?”

“I don’t know but she looks upset. Where’s that man of hers?”

Both women scanned Mac’s line of travel in reverse and craned their necks looking for the likely culprit.

Harriet was the first to spot Harm. “There he is,” she said, pointing. “He’s going after her.”

“Well, that’s a relief.”

Harriet winced as Harm nearly collided with a train of flower girls doing the locomotion directly across his path.

“Oh, dear,” Meredith said as she realized what had likely happened. “He probably told the admiral of his plans before discussing them with her. Only a male…”

“What plans, ma’am?”

“That he decided to give up the Navy for her.”

Harriet Sims’ eyes had never gone so wide in all her life. She let out a little spurt of disbelief. “You’re kidding, right?”

Meredith slowly shook her head. With her gaze locked on the commander, she tracked his progress through the maze of obstacles on the dance floor.

Harriet became fretful. “But how…? Could he really…?”

“Not to worry, Harriet. A.J. has it all worked out.” She looked back toward the door. “Now, where is that man when we need him?”

Decisively, she rose from her chair. “You keep an eye on them, Harriet. Make sure he doesn’t lose sight of her. I have to go track down another man who’s also in need of a lesson in communication.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

At the far end of the banquet room, a series of French doors opened onto a private atrium that ran parallel to the dance floor. Because it was December, tall panes of glass enclosed the space, separating it from the adjacent outdoor terrace. But the room was kept dark so the spectacular view of downtown Washington could still be seen through the slightly mirrored effect of the glass.

Her only thought to find a dark corner in which to hide, Mac headed toward the empty atrium. She strode past the cake table as fast as her narrow skirt allowed her, taking a quick left at the row of elaborate flower arrangements made up of pine bows and white roses. They burst like peacocks’ feathers on top of brass pedestals and brushed against her arm as she flew by.

Whether or not Harm followed made no difference to her. If he dared to confront her fury, if he wanted to have it out with her, then that was his choice.

Sure enough, his voice at her back preceded her into the darkness. “Come on, Mac. Just try to understand where I’m coming from on this.”

She took a few more hurried steps before whirling on him. “I won’t let you throw away your career.”

“I’m not throwing anything away. I’m just…”—He threw up a hand from his side as though presenting all of Washington to her.—“embarking on a different path.”

Carefully he watched her reaction. Her arms were wrapped tight around her and she dodged his stare. “I can handle civil litigation,” he told her.

“It’s not that I don’t think you could handle it. But how can that be what you want?”

“What I want, Mac, is standing right in front of me.”

“I don’t want to be the reason for your doing this. You love the Navy. I don’t want to make you give up what you love.”

“You’re not making me do anything!”

It was just like her, he thought, to misinterpret his meaning. They’d saved each other’s lives countless times; she knew he would risk his life for her in a heartbeat, so what made her so sure she wasn’t worth this kind of risk?

“Do you realize you’ll never fly a Tomcat again? Do you realize you’ll probably never step onboard another carrier? Do you realize you’ll never make Captain?”

He looked her straight in the eye, hoping to convey his honesty. He knew she could read him that way. If she chose to. “Yes. I do.”

She turned her back to him and stepped slowly toward the long panes of glass and the lights of Washington beyond them. “Being stuck in that bed for a week gave me a lot of time to think. I had ideas, you know,” she said with a cheerless little laugh. “I thought maybe one of us would transfer, maybe give up JAG. But not this. Talk about going plumb loco.”

“Love’ll do that to a person.” He walked up beside her and spun to lean back against the glass, facing her. The chorus of an old Beatles song drifted in through the open doors. It made it hard to keep the somber mood. ‘She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.’

“You’ll get used to seeing me out of uniform, hon. I know how much it turns you on and everything, but trust me, it won’t be so bad.”

She didn’t smile but turned her gaze back to his and spoke with resolution on her tongue. “I’d rather it be me.”

His cocky grin faded. “What do you mean?”

“Just what I said. That you shouldn’t have to give up being a fighter pilot and JAG lawyer and everything you grew up to become. The Navy’s your life, Harm. Let me talk to the admiral. I’ll transfer out… There must be something somewhere that I can do. If not, then I’ll resign and find meaningful employment elsewhere.” A smile crept through. “I can handle civil litigation too, you know.”

“No need, Colonel. It’s already taken care of.”

“Sir!” The acknowledgement rang out from both of them in unison, their startled gazes directed at their commanding officer. He took a few steps towards them and held a piece of paper out for the colonel to take.

“What is it, sir?”

“Read it and find out.” He nodded to Harm. “You, too.”

Mac scanned the fax, Harm reading it over her shoulder. The first thing she noticed was the JAG insignia—it was JAG letterhead. Next, she recognized the name beneath the date. It was one of the Circuit Judges.

Harm was already at the second paragraph, well ahead of her when he blurted, “A reassignment to the judiciary, Admiral?”

Mac frowned and read further, her mind jumbled as she tried to read the fax and listen to Harm at the same time.

“What about when my cases go to trial?” he was asking, his tone full of doubt. “There’s no guarantee that I won’t draw Mac’s name…”

“With a lot of negotiation, Commander, you no longer have that to worry about.”

Harm looked perplexed, but Mac was still staring at the piece of paper in silence. “You’re being awfully quiet, Colonel.”

“Sir, I…” She looked up at her C.O., tongue tied.

“I trust your new orders meet a certain…requirement?”

She glanced at Harm, could already see the awe mixed with pride in his eyes. “More than I ever thought possible, sir. But how…?”

“You earned it, Colonel. No one can say otherwise.” His mouth curved upward a little at the corners. “If I’d really wanted to exercise my string-pulling abilities, I’d have given them Rabb’s name.”

Harm only gave a low chuckle, looking just a little shamefaced. Being told he wasn’t judge material wasn’t much of a surprise. But Mac… She fit the role, he realized. It made perfect sense. And he was damn proud of her.

“Can I assume you’re both in favor?” A.J. asked, glancing back and forth between his two officers.

Mac looked to Harm again, to be sure. “Honey, it’s your decision to make,” he said softly, “but I’m behind you all the way.”

“I guess that’s a yes, sir,” she said, beaming. “I just don’t know what to say…other than thank you, sir.”

He let out a quick sigh. “I’ll admit I’m going to miss having you as my chief of staff. But maybe Rabb, here, can now accept the responsibility of that position.”

Catching on to his C.O.’s sarcasm, Harm raised an amused eyebrow. “I’d be honored, sir.”

“Good. Position’s yours,” A.J. said gruffly. He turned his attention back to the colonel. “Mac, I have every confidence that you’ll make a fine judge. And I’m more than pleased we’ll be keeping you within our midst. You can bet I’ll look in on your courtroom from time to time.”

Not knowing how else to express her gratitude, she threw her arms around his neck, then proceeded to kiss him on the cheek. “Merry Christmas, sir!” she said before repeating the kiss.

His face turned a Christmassy shade a red and he said somewhat warily, “You might want to save some of that for your fiancé.”

She drew back, startled. “My fiancé?”

Suddenly the admiral’s expression was a severe combination of shock and mortification. This gaze flew to Harm. “Oh good lord, Commander. Did I blow it?”

“Uh, not really, sir. I was just…working up to it.” Without bothering to wait for the admiral to leave, Harm loosened his collar and tugged his dog tags from under his dress shirt. “This thing has been trying to scratch a hole in my chest for long enough now.”

He glanced at Mac and saw the look of utter confusion on her face. It made him smile.

Catching sight of the sparkling diamond that hung from the chain, Mac touched a hand to her throat. “Oh my god.” She glanced up to meet his eyes. “Harm…”

Relieved and not just a little proud of his accomplishments, A.J. retreated discreetly through the French doors, leaving the couple to their own memorable moment…six and a half years in the making.

Harm’s fingers shook nervously as he opened the clasp on the chain, letting the ring spill into his palm. “It’s not every day a guy gets to do this,” he said, sounding uncharacteristically self-conscious.

Mac’s eyes remained as big as saucers, her mouth left slightly ajar. The fax was still hanging from her loose grip.

Not bothering to refasten the clasp, Harm shoved the remaining chain and tags into his pant pocket. “You told me once you’d say yes, so I don’t know why I’m so terrified.”

“Fear of commitment, flyboy,” she laughed, tears spilling as he dropped to one knee in front of her.

“Not with you,” he said soberly. He took her left hand in his and looked up at her. “Damn it, Marine, are you going to cry all over me while I’m doing this?”

“Don’t let that stop you.”

“Okay. I don’t know how eloquent or memorable I can make this for you…for us…”

“Just say it, you big goof, before I start giggling hysterically.”

“Yes, your honor.” She swatted his shoulder but he just grinned and kept going. “Sarah Mackenzie, will you marry me?”

“Yes!” she said, sounding exasperated. She didn’t wait for him to stand. She didn’t even wait for the ring. She simply threw her arms around him and, clinging with all her might she kissed him with a fervor to match.

“The ring. The ring, Mac,” he said, gasping when she finally broke contact.

“Oh, right.” His mind still swirling from her assault, he groped for her hand, pulled off her OCS ring and slid the engagement band into place.

She stared down at it for a moment, delighted as she watched the diamond sparkle. “It’s beautiful, Harm.”

Nothing could dare to ground him now. His heart was charting a course toward the moon. He tucked her class ring into his pocket and rose from the hard stone floor, pulling her into his arms. “Now what do you say we go find a hillside and a couple of goats?”

She laughed, “Tonight?”

“Why wait? We could kidnap Chaplain Turner and get a head start on all that wedded bliss we’re owed.”

She bit her bottom lip, eyes now dry but gleaming with joy. “Hmm. Tempting. But no.”

He shrugged. “Don’t say I didn’t try.”

“All I want to do right now,” she said dreamily, “is be alone with you.”

“That can be arranged,” he murmured into her ear, nibbling her earlobe until she cowered from the tickling effects. He ducked his head to go for her throat.

“Mmm. But to be polite, we should probably stick around until the happy couple makes their big exit.”

He groaned. “How much longer?”

“They still have to cut the cake and throw the bouquet. Think you can handle it?”

“How much longer?” he repeated as though her vague answer was only making him suffer more.

“If they’re working to schedule—which they should be given the fact that Bobbi’s very particular about these kinds of things—then we’ll have to wait another forty-six minutes…and twenty-seven seconds.”

“Twenty-seven seconds, huh?”

“Well, twenty-three now…”

He chuckled. “As your husband, will I finally get to find out how you do that?”

She shrugged. “Maybe.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

The night was peaceful as they glided down the hotel’s stone steps. Harm slipped his coat over her shoulders and accepted the keys back from the young valet.

“If it’s okay with you,” he said as they pulled out onto the quiet street, “there’s one stop I’d like to make before the night’s over…”

“Oh, Harm…your father! I completely forgot!”

“It’s okay. I stopped by before the ceremony, but…” He pursed his lips, looking to her for understanding. “He and I had a little one-on-one on the Patrick Henry two weeks ago. I think I’d better thank him.”

He was being cryptic as usual but she knew him too well not to catch what was being implied. “Do you think your father somehow played a part in how things worked out tonight?”

The question didn’t sound doubtful or prejudging in any way but Harm didn’t want to get too wrapped up in spiritual beliefs tonight. “I don’t know,” he said, dismissing it. “I think talking to him just helps me out personally. The rest is probably just the delusions of a six-year-old boy who lost his father on Christmas Eve.”

“I’m not so sure, Harm. I think I’ve actually started believing in angels.” She let out a little laugh. “If someone told me they walk this earth from time to time, I’d have to believe them.”

His eyes left the road to look at her. “What turned you around?”

“Our neighbor,” she said, nodding at his puzzled look. “She may have been one of them.”

She told him of the bizarre encounter and he listened without interrupting. She told him about fainting in the kitchen and Angela Noscibrodski’s appearance. She told him about the soup, and then the mysterious disappearance of all symptoms the following morning.

“You think she cured the meningitis?” he asked, hating himself for the way it came out sounding so unconvinced.

“I don’t know how else to explain it. I went over there after work the next day,” she continued, “to thank her for helping me. But this is where it gets weirder, Harm. I went over there but I only met a real-estate agent putting out a sandwich board.”

“She’s moving?”

“No, according to the agent, the house has been vacant since June.”

He blew out his breath and stared at the street ahead. “Whoa.”

“Yeah, that’s what I said. I suppose there could be some explanation…but I have yet to come up with one that makes any sense whatsoever.”

“The night you fainted…was that the same night I phoned to tell you about the test flights?”

“Yeah, you asked me if I believed in angels. It was the strangest thing. What made you ask that anyway?”

He slipped the SUV into a parking space along the street. Across the way, the Washington monument glowed, pointing skyward. “Let’s just say I had a similar experience. With a young Lieutenant…who happened to have my eyes and your smile.”

She frowned but he’d already stepped out of the vehicle.

She joined him and he slowed so she could keep up with his stride. “My smile?” she echoed bewilderedly.

Instead of answering her questioning gaze, he simply took her hand in his. With her free hand she clutched the lapels of his jacket that enveloped her.

“As much as I’d like to believe that things just fall into place if you wait long enough, I’m starting to think we’ve had some serious help on this one. I certainly feel indebted to someone,” she said. “Maybe the admiral, maybe our vanishing neighbor, maybe your father.”

“It’s all my father’s doing, Mac,” he said finally, not caring how illogical it sounded. “I’m sure of it.” If this was craziness, he thought, at least they were sharing it.

“But if that were true…” She made a small sound that seemed bordering on despair. “Not to complain, Harm, but…what took him so long?!”

They’d reached their destination and stopped, the Wall stretching seemingly endless on either side of them. Taking her shoulders, Harm turned her towards him. He laughed at the way she looked up at him, her eyes so helpless as she struggled to understand.

“Don’t you get it? I had to ask first, Mac. That night on the Patrick Henry, I made a decision and I asked for my father’s help.” He grinned. “I told him I was head-over-heels in love with a hardheaded Marine colonel and I needed all the help I could get.

“I realize I should’ve consulted you first about the resignation. But I was so sure you would balk it. I didn’t want to fight about it anymore.”

“You ticked me off regardless.”

“Yeah. For a while there, I thought I’d blown it completely. Until you turned the tables on me.”

“I was prepared to give up JAG for you a long time ago, you know.”

He looked baffled. “So why didn’t you say something?”

“I don’t know. I guess part of me wanted to hear you say you’d do the same for me.”

“Mac, I did say it and you gave me hell for it!” Something inside him was compelling him to laugh. He ducked his head and looked away. “As I recall, you even used the ‘A’ word on me.”

She threw up her hands and paced a little on the spot. “Because you didn’t discuss it with me first!”

He looked to her again. “Are we going to fight about this?”

“Well certainly not in front of your father!”

It was an impulsive statement but the amusement it sparked in his eyes told her she wasn’t out of line. “I’m glad you asked for his help, Harm. I really am. I think after six and a half years, it would’ve taken a miracle anyway.”

Harm looked to the name etched in the granite beside them, then absently ran his thumb over the letters. “Merry Christmas, Dad,” he said, then turned to Mac. “I think that’s the first time I’ve said that with a smile on my face.”

Her own smile was watery, her eyes brimming with unshed tears. She reached out, in turn, and traced the little etched cross—the symbol for all those missing in action.

“I am grateful,” she stated softly. “And really, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect… Thank you.”

Harm drew his fiancée against his side, kissing her temple. “I second that.”

There was a little gust of wind that rippled against their clothing and in unison their heads tilted back to look up at the stars. “You figure he sees us?” Mac asked.

“I won’t stop believing it.”

Their gazes still directed toward the heavens, snow began to fall.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Instead of driving back to their home in Falls Church, they went to Harm’s apartment. The thick snow accumulating on the roads made for the perfect excuse to shorten their journey.

They tumbled through the front door in each other’s arms after Harm fumbled with the lock. Laughing, they managed to get the door shut behind them with the kick of someone’s foot, but the keys fell with a clamor on the hardwood, Harm’s hands already occupied elsewhere.

Mac’s tiny gold purse went the way of the keys as she kicked off her shoes, her sense of direction lost. She felt as though she was walking on a cloud and she couldn’t even be entirely sure in which direction she’d find the ceiling.

He peeled the velvety wrap from her shoulders as he steered her towards the bedroom, his mouth never leaving hers. “Uh, did you want something?” he asked against her lips, throwing a brief gesture toward the kitchen as it went by. “Food? Beverage?”

She shook her head as though surfacing from a pool of water. “Nuh-uh.”

He held her tighter as they stumbled up the step toward the bed. He wanted to let them both tumble onto the mattress but had a foggy recollection that the soft, slippery fabric beneath his fingers was in fact an expensive gown. Until he got that off of her, he figured he should probably handle her with care.

He ran his thumb along the beadwork before drawing back to gaze at the complete picture. Their hands remained linked at their fingertips. “That dress is amazing.”

“It is, isn’t it?”

“Now allow me to get you out of it.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Afterwards, they couldn’t sleep. They felt like two kids all keyed up waiting for Santa to arrive. Harm kept pulling her left hand in front of his face, double and triple checking that the night’s events hadn’t just been some wonderful dream.

Thirst and restlessness finally brought them into the kitchen. Mac had slipped on one of Harm’s old dress shirts and a pair of pajama bottoms she’d left there from a previous occasion.

“You’re going to miss this place,” she said from her perch on a barstool. She waved a hand to encompass the room. “It screams bachelorhood.”

“For a while there I thought I might renovate it. Turn it into office space.” He handed her a glass of water and leaned back against the counter. “Rabb and Associates. It has a nice ring to it.”

“I guess your plans will have to change now.”

He looked thoughtfully toward the Christmas tree in the corner of the living room. Mac had insisted that they plug in the lights. To the wild blinking setting, no less. He didn’t have the heart to object, especially since the gleeful enthusiasm of those flashing lights seemed to befit his mood.

“Maybe you could rent it out for a while,” Mac was saying.

“That probably wouldn’t be a bad idea. I think Tiner might be looking for a new place now that he’s almost finished Law school.”

Mac pressed her fingers to her temples and gave her head a little shake.

“What is it? Headache?” Whatever it was, she seemed only a little annoyed by it; but that didn’t stop his instant concern from growing. He set his glass down on the counter between them and touched her arm lightly. “Mac?”

“It’s so strange,” she said, staring through his chest. She tilted her head at an odd angle. “My ears. They’re ringing.”

He paused a moment, listening to the sounds that invaded his own sense of hearing. There was a light buzz to the silence, but nothing more. “I didn’t think the music was that loud at the reception but you were out on the dance floor more than I was. Maybe you were too close to the speakers.”

“Now they’re ringing in full arpeggios,” she said. Fascinated, he watched her close her eyes. “It’s like a boy’s choir.”

“A good one?” he joked.

She frowned and let out a little laugh. “I might consider buying the CD.”

She slid down from the stool and padded in sock feet to the windows behind the couch. To Harm, the action seemed filled with purpose. Like she was being guided by a sound only she could hear.

“Sweetheart, what is it?”

“This is unbelievable,” she said in barely a whisper.

“The music?”

“No, this!” She pointed at something outside. Without breaking her gaze from the window, she made a motion for him to join her. “Come here. You have to see this.”

She sounded wonderstruck enough for him to peel his eyes away from her silhouette and take note of what could be seen through the window.

“Snow,” he stated unnecessarily as he approached her. He was pleased but not surprised. The ground was covered, the streets were white. “So Bobbi gets her wish after all.”

“But look!”

“I see it, Mac. It’s beautiful.”

“Not the snow, Harm. Can’t you see that?” She jabbed a finger at the glass.

“What?” His arms snaked around her middle and he rested his chin on her shoulder. “What am I looking for exactly? I just see a white street, Mac.”

“Shh…Look closer,” she whispered, pointing again to the object that held her attention.

It was her shushing that had his forehead creasing, mystified.

Then, what Harm first interpreted as a tree’s shadow suddenly moved, its trunk becoming a thick fury neck, its branches taking on the more distinct shape of antlers.

“What the…” Harm straightened abruptly, rocking them both forward. Blinking away the cobwebs of an already dreamlike night, the practical side of his brain slowly began to reboot. There had to be some reasonable explanation for having a large antlered creature in front of his building at ten minutes past midnight on Christmas morning.

Mac’s mind had already given up on reasonable explanations and was now shifting toward more fantastical impossibilities. “You don’t suppose it could be…”

“Nah…There’s no way. It’s just an ordinary deer, Mac.”

“With a harness and sleigh bells in the middle of Washington, DC?”

He shrugged. “Okay, so it’s a deer with good fashion sense…who plans on visiting the Lincoln Memorial.”

“That’s a reindeer, Harm.”

He rubbed a hand over his face and looked again. The beast was still there, pushing his muzzle through the snow. “He might’ve escaped from a petting zoo.”

“But look at the tracks.”

He leaned his forehead against the glass to get a better view of the ground below. “What tracks?”

“Exactly. How do you explain the fact that he’s standing in the middle of your street if there aren’t any tracks?” She looked to him for support, sure that her cocky flyboy could provide some plausible account of events leading up to the appearance of a lone reindeer in this entirely urban neck of the woods.

“You aren’t suggesting he fell off my rooftop, are you?”

That wasn’t quite the well-thought-out answer she was hoping for. She waved a hand toward the street below. “Don’t you think there ought to be a few hoof prints indicating his direction of travel?”

“Well, it’s snowing pretty hard,” he reasoned, “…Maybe the tracks got covered--”

“It’s not falling an inch per minute, Harm.”

“So?” He nodded toward the furry brown mammal. “How do you know he hasn’t just been standing there for the past half hour?”

Her expression dubious, she didn’t respond.

“Okay. So maybe this does seem a little out of the ordinary,” he admitted. “I guess I can entertain your Santa Claus theories for a little while longer. It is Christmas Day, after all.”

She rolled her eyes. “I don’t have any Santa Claus theories. This is one-hundred percent mystery at the moment.”

When they both glanced back, the beast was gone.

“Where’d he go?”

“He vanished, Mac.”

She checked her fiancé for signs of mockery but found none, making her suddenly uneasy. She allowed herself to laugh though the sound came up hollow. “Now who’s hallucinating?”

“Apparently we both are.” He used the meaty part of his palm to wipe away the slight fog their breaths had created on the windowpane.

“Harm, a three-hundred pound animal can’t just vanish into thin air.”

His shoulders drew back, irked by her opposition. “But it can survive a fall off a two story building?”

She huffed out her breath. Even in shared dementia their theories couldn’t seem to coincide. “Hey, you’re the one who said—”

She stopped short as a pounding noise began to resonate through the ceiling above them. It took on the pattern of footsteps, loud and deliberate. More specifically, it developed the rhythm of hoof-steps. The sound moved along with an accompanying vibration as it meandered from one corner of Harm’s ceiling to the other, rattling picture frames and glassware as it passed.

Sharing a look of disbelief, the two officers silently reconfirmed to each other what their ears had registered. At least at this point, if they were going crazy, they had the reassurance that neither of them would be riding solo.

The sound intensified and multiplied as additional footsteps began to distort the syncopation of the four-legged gait. Some were heavier than others, some were lighter.

One set stood out amongst the others because it lacked the sharpness of two-toed feet on tin. The sound was more akin to a stout man wearing boots.

Harm grabbed Mac’s hand and dragged her towards the door. He snagged two jackets off the coat hooks as he passed.

“What are you planning to do?” she asked.

“Investigate. I own this building. And something or someone is obviously on my rooftop.”

They climbed a short flight of stairs at the end of the hall and emerged onto a snow-covered surface. The flat roof.

Standing immediately before them was a sleigh. Not an ordinary sleigh, not the sleigh of Christmas folklore, but a very modern looking vessel. It had running boards and fog-lights and something that looked a little like a spoiler on the back. That it was highly aerodynamic could be determined by anyone at first glance. Its color was cherry red. And lined up in front of it were eight heavy looking reindeer, harnessed, and each of them bearing sleigh bells. The beasts swung their heads from side to side as horses might and snorted frosty breath into the cold winter air.

Beside one of these reindeer was a short man who appeared to be tightening a leather strap at its buckle. He wasn’t wearing a red suit, nor a red hat upon his head. His great big cherry nose could’ve easily been the result of falling temperatures, and, so far, he hadn’t laughed ‘ho, ho, ho’.

Mac thought the man looked like he’d just stepped out of a GAP commercial, fashionably clad in khakis and a candy-cane striped scarf. But when he turned to his new spectators, he did have a twinkle in his eye, hair white as snow, and a jolly round midsection.

When he spoke up, he sounded wearily apologetic. “Some are more dashers than dancers, I’m afraid. Lucky you’re our last stop.” He patted the beast’s flank. “These boys and girls are getting restless to go home. Especially Blitzen, here. That’s the second time she’s got away on me.”

Harm blinked a few times, but the scene didn’t change. “Who are you?” he asked finally. “And what are you doing on top of my building?”

Mac elbowed him in the ribs. “Isn’t it obvious, Harm? It’s Santa Claus.”

“You can call me Nick, ma’am.” The round man offered her his hand to shake. “It’s a pleasure to meet an adult who’s still a believer.”

She smiled back at him pleasantly. “Actually, I’m a new believer,” she said, glancing up at Harm. He had his hands on his hips, looking as though he was prepared to call the authorities.

“I usually have all my deliveries made by midnight, but this year I’m running behind. You have J.I.T to thank for that.”

“Who the hell’s J.I.T.?” Harm asked, still not warming to the idea of a sleigh and eight reindeer on his rooftop.

“Yeah, that’s what I said, too. But it’s not who, it’s what. It stands for ‘just in time’. It’s a manufacturing philosophy. Continuous improvement. Engineering mumbo-jumbo.” He waved a hand to dismiss it as he stepped around his sleigh. “The elves like to call it ‘just in trouble’. It’s all about removing non-value-adding activities. Unfortunately, this year my management staff decided gift-wrapping was a non-value-adding activity and didn’t tell me about it. Things at the N.P. were a little nerve-wracking for a while there. Uh, N.P.—that’s North Pole in case you didn’t catch that one. Damn engineers have me talking their language. Everything’s a bloody acronym.”

Harm and Mac exchanged glances.

“I didn’t wake your little one, I hope?”

“Uh, no. We don’t have any kids.”

“Is that right? Well, I’ve got a delivery here for a J. Rabb. That anybody you know?”

“My name’s Harmon Rabb but I don’t know anyone with that initial.”

“Well, I’ve got her letter here somewhere. Hmm…let’s see…where did I put that damn thing?” Nick rummaged through a bag on the front seat of his sleigh and pulled out a creased envelope. “Hmm. No postdate, no return address. Ha, no postage even! Musta got this one through some kind of divine intervention.” He shook his head. “Kids these days. Everything is sent through space and magic cables. They never learn how to write a proper letter. Of course I mean no offense to your little one.”

A small crease formed between Harm’s brows. “We don’t have any children,” Mac affirmed again.

“Right, right, right. You mentioned that.”

“How about that letter, Nick?” Harm asked impatiently.

“What? Oh, right, right. The letter. Let’s see…” He pulled a piece of thin paper from the envelope and unfolded it. Then, startling his captive audience, he blew sparkling dust from its creases. He cleared his throat. “Dear Saint Nicholas…” He squinted and pulled out a pair of bifocals from his GAP windbreaker. “She says—”

“Wait a minute,” Mac interrupted. “How do you know it’s a girl?”

He looked thoughtful over his spectacles. “Oh, that’s easy. There’re hearts over the I’s.” He studied the letter again and seemed to be reading it in his head, only mumbling the occasional ‘mm-hmm’, and ‘uh-huh’. He looked up at them after a moment. “Your daughter sure has an amazing gift of language. She’s quite the wordsmith.”

“We don’t have a daughter.”

“Right, right. Well, this little girl has a talent beyond her years. I can tell you that.”

“That’s great, Nick, but what does the letter say?” Mac shoved her elbow into Harm’s side again as if to say, ‘Don’t rush Mr. Claus.’

“Well, uh. The long and short of it is—here.” The man pulled a small wrapped package from his bag and handed it to Mac. “Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas.”

Harm and Mac stared down at the five-inch cube. There was a tag hanging from a string and Mac read it aloud. “To J. Rabb, care of Sarah Mackenzie and Harmon Rabb, Junior. Love Santa.” She continued to stare down at the gift wrapped in gold foil. “I don’t get it.”

“Me neither.”

But when they looked up again, Nick, his sleigh, and all eight reindeer were gone. A gentle breeze, and there was nothing left of their tracks.

“Whoa. Where did…how did he…?” Mac tilted her head back to stare up at the night sky. Snowflakes landed on her nose and cheekbones, caught on her eyelashes and melted instantly. “Did that really just happen?”

Harm took the parcel from her grip and gave it a little shake, partly just to confirm that it was a tangible object and not a figment of his imagination. Then he took a closer look at the tag. “Those are our names alright. Do you think J.I.T might’ve made Santa’s system just a tad too efficient?”

“What do you mean?”

His laugh sounded uneasy. “I’m not exactly sure. But I guess there’s no harm in opening it.”

“Okay. Here, let me do it.”

Their hearts pounding, their bodies charged with anticipation, Mac peeled away the layer of gold paper and then opened the lid of the box. They looked inside.

“Looks like a tree ornament.”

The glass ball was dusted with a sparkling of silver and white, rivaling the effects of the snow that surrounded them. It glimmered even in the shadow of its box, as though lit from its interior.

Mac hooked a delicate finger through the silver loop and lifted the ornament from its nest of tissue paper to reveal a cherub etching. Its wings were three-dimensional, raised from the globe-like surface and painted a shiny gold.

“That’s some ornament.”

“It’s so beautiful. But wait a minute, Harm, there’s an inscription at the bottom. What does it say?”

He steadied her wrist to get a closer look. “Baby’s first Christmas?”

“Baby? Well, it obviously belongs to someone else. Maybe dear Santa has poor eyesight…Did he happen to leave that letter?” She handed him the ornament and bent to search for the letter in the snow.

“…Mac?”

There was something urgent in his tone that had her rushing back to his side. “What?”

“See for yourself.” The ornament spun on its thread from his outstretched finger.

“Baby’s First Christmas,” she read off. “So?”

“Read the next line.”

“It’s just a date, Harm. December, and then the year. These types of decorations always have the year on them. It can’t be a baby’s first Christmas year after year after…Wait a minute. This says two-thousand-and-three.”

Harm’s eyes were locked on hers. “Yeah.” Dangling from his finger, the ornament was so light it felt weightless.

“I don’t get it. Why would anybody want to… It just doesn’t make any sense.”

“You don’t suppose what we did tonight…may have resulted in…” He glanced at her midriff. “You know. Next year’s Christmas present.”

It took her a moment to realize what he was implying. But when it finally hit her, resistance to his theory came instantly, and with all the familiar stubbornness of her character. “Oh, there’s no way! Harm, we just saw Santa Claus and his eight not-so-tiny reindeer on your roof!”

“Saint Nicholas,” he corrected her.

“Whatever.” Annoyed at where his eyes kept drifting, she pulled her jacket more tightly around her as though it would block his view. “Would you quit looking at my stomach?”

“What’s the matter, Mac, don’t you believe in magic?”

“What I believe is Bobbi’s wedding punch was spiked with magic of the mushroom variety.” She lifted her hands, let them fall. “Either that or we really didn’t have a problem falling asleep, and we’re just dreaming.”

His eyes tracked her jerky movements. “Do you want me to try pinching you?”

She took his hand suddenly and pulled him toward the direction of the stairs. “Let’s just go back to bed. I have a feeling we’ll wake up with terrible headaches.”

As they entered the apartment again, Harm held up the mysterious gift. “Where do you want me to put this?” he asked cautiously.

“On the tree, I guess. If it’s there when the sun comes up, I might give it some amount of consideration.”

As Harm lifted his hand to slip the silver thread over a branch, he was surprised to find that an empty space near the top of the tree already seemed to be waiting for it.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

When they awoke several hours later, Harm was the first to stumble out of the bedroom. His head remained foggy with sleep until he glanced across the apartment to the tree.

There, on its high branch, the ornament whirled on its string, twinkling with the new light of dawn.

“Maaaac?”

He stormed across the room, plucked the gem from its branch and strode back to the bedroom, invading Mac in the shower.

“Harm, I know you said you wanted to join me in here but I didn’t think you’d mind if I started without—” She saw the intensity in his gaze. He didn’t move as the warm steam enveloped him. “What? Are you coming in or not?”

He held up the decoration in front of her and it continued to spin merrily on its axis. It rotated in one direction before slowing down against the twisting of the silver thread. Then, as the thread unwound, it spun rapidly the other way. Accelerating, decelerating, accelerating.

“I don’t care what you believe,” he said.

Naked, dripping, and speechless, she stared at the ornament.

He pulled a towel from the rack and handed it to her. Still stunned, she wrapped herself in it and followed him into the bedroom. She watched him pull on a pair of jeans.

“I’ll be right back. I promise.” He pulled on a shirt and crossed the room to kiss her unresponsive lips. “You wait here.”

“What…where are you going?”

“Shopping.”

“Shopping? It’s Christmas Day, Harm. The stores aren’t even open.”

“That’s okay. We only need a drug store. There must be one somewhere that’s open three-hundred-and-sixty-five days a year.”

She followed him to the door where he tugged on his boots and grabbed his jacket off the hook. He stooped to retrieve the keys from the floor and pulled her in for another quick kiss as he straightened. “God, you’re sexy when you’re wet.”

“Yeah, you too. Now, you mind explaining yourself a little further, squid?”

“You, my dear, are taking a pregnancy test.”

“Harm, I really don’t think… I mean last night was obviously memorable, but…” She huffed out her breath. “Harm, do I have to give you a health lesson? I’m on the pill. We’re talking ninety-eight percent effectiveness. And even with that two percent possibility, you realize it can take days for your…swimmers to…you know…fight traffic.” She wished she knew how to wipe that smirk off his face.

“And?” He loved seeing her flustered.

“Oh, never mind,” she said, defeated. “Get a double pack. And drive safely. It’s winter out there.”

As she shut the door behind him, she looked down at her hand, not having the slightest clue how the twinkling ornament ended up there.

 

Epilogue

Christmas Eve 2003
(One Year Later)

 

It was snowing. Real snow, with snowflakes as big as quarters and twice as thick. It already blanketed the earth in one uniform layer, the night too tranquil for it to drift.

Snug in her car seat, strapped securely in the backseat of a gold Lexus 4x4, a three-month-old baby girl slept peacefully, without a care in the world. She didn’t stir even as the vehicle slowed to a stop, nor when the tremor of the engine stilled.

From the front seat, her parent’s voices roused her and she stretched out a tiny bootie-encased foot, pushing against the soft blanket that draped over her. She didn’t bother to open her eyes, feeling safe with Mom and Dad so near.

“Did you remember the anniversary card for Bobbi and Sturgis?”

“Yeah, it’s in the glove compartment. Don’t let me forget to drop it off on our way back.”

Car doors squeaked open and the sound of snow crunching under rubber soles filled the night.

The baby felt a light breeze across her face, and then the darkness behind closed eyelids grew even darker as tall shapes blocked the glow of the streetlight above. There was no need to panic—she could smell Mom’s perfume and Dad’s aftershave.

“She looks so peaceful. Maybe I shouldn’t bother waking her.”

“I think you should do what you came here to do.”

“I don’t know, Mac… There’s not much wind but it’s cold. I’ll feel guilty if she starts to cry.”

“No you won’t. You’ll laugh and appreciate the irony. Come on, Harm. This means a lot to you and it’ll mean a lot to her someday, too.”

Sensing that something meaningful was about to happen, the infant opened her eyes. Her mom’s face smiled down at her.

“Hey, sweetheart! I’m so glad you’re awake.” The little girl watched her mom’s graceful fingers work the magic of unbuckling all those complicated straps that held her in her car seat. “Now Mommy will have a much easier time convincing Daddy that he’s doing the right thing.”

She offered her mom a bubble-filled smile and then caught sight of her dad standing close by. He was making funny faces at her so she kicked her legs up and babbled her delight.

“Wow, is our little munchkin ever in a good mood. I think she knows there’s something special about tonight.”

Her dad pulled his coat sleeve back to check his watch, a clever grin spreading across his face. “Wasn’t it at about this time last year when we…you know.”

“11:36 PM.”

A quick laugh escaped him. “I was afraid you’d be able to do that.” He turned his attention back to his daughter. “You see, Jaclyn, your birthday is in September but you actually came into being last Christmas Eve when your mother and I—”

A leather glove was promptly swatted across his shoulder. “What?!”

“Harm.” He received a look of pure motherly discipline. “I think we can wait another ten years before she needs to hear that story.”

His grin only broadened. “And what a story it is.”

“Do you just want to carry her?” his wife asked, smiling at the memory but deciding to ignore his comment. “She might stay warmer that way.”

“Yeah. Hand her over.”

With all her fingers tucked into the sleeves of her polar-fleece bunting bag and the hood tied securely at her chin, the baby was finally lifted into the air. Her mom placed a quick kiss on her chubby pink cheek, and then passed her to her dad.

“Hey, sugarplum.” He held her so that she faced outward, her back warm against his chest, his arms securing her.

“Do you want a minute or two alone with him? Just the three of you, I mean? Because I can wait in the car if you—”

“Mac, don’t be crazy. I want you there. We want you there; don’t we, Jac?” The baby felt the subtle change in her father’s grip as he shifted her to one arm and steered his wife with the other. “You’re not getting out of a walk in the snow that easy, Marine.”

“As long as you’re sure.”

There was a familiar sound. Unmistakably a kiss. And when her father spoke again his voice was much lower, almost just a vibration against her back. “I’m positive.”

The snow looked deep but Jaclyn sensed there was another reason for her parents’ unhurried gait. Her father whispered to her as they crossed the open terrain, his soft breath keeping her cheeks warm. “There’s someone who wants to meet you,” he told her.

Soon, they reached the massive, black granite structure. A wall with over fifty-eight thousand names engraved upon it. In silence, her parents walked side by side along this wall, wide columns of names racing past, filling Jaclyn’s field of vision. Then they stopped at a name that stood out amongst the others.

Her father brushed his thumb across the name that matched his own. Then he took a step closer, raised his daughter’s chubby arm, and guided her tiny fleece-clad hand over the etched letters.

“One day when you’re older we’ll bring a crayon and get a tracing,” he promised her.

Eyes wide, the baby looked across to her mother. She was looking back at her lovingly, smiling as she hastily wiped a tear.

Her dad gave her a quick bounce in his arms and she tried to grab one of the shiny brass buttons on his coat-sleeve. Then he spoke again, but not to her, and not to her mother. “I suspect you already know all about this little treasure. But just to make the introduction official, Dad this is Jaclyn Mackenzie Rabb… Your granddaughter.”

The baby gurgled with delight, her legs and arms flapping as though boogieing to an unheard beat. That’s all it took for the weight of the moment to lift. She had her mom and dad’s full attention. Both pairs of eyes were focused on her, and amusement quickly replaced the traces of sorrow in their depths. They both laughed at her, blinking back mist in their eyes.

Her father’s gaze darted back to the Wall, then up to the sky from which big, fluffy snowflakes continued to fall. “Thanks, Dad. And Merry Christmas,” he said as he wrapped an arm around his wife, “from my new family.”

Jaclyn’s mother gave her still-wiggling leg a gentle squeeze and kissed the tip of her nose. Then, slowly, the trio turned and made their way back to the vehicle parked on the street.

“I’m glad you talked me into taking her, Mac.”

“I didn’t,” she said, eyes shining with a smile. “But I’m glad you’re glad.”

There was a pause during which only the crunch of snow beneath their footsteps could be heard. Then, in a tentative voice, “Would you think I was crazy if I said I think that meant something back there? The way Jaclyn reacted, I mean.”

“No. Not at all. I was just thinking the same thing. She doesn’t usually get that excited this time of night.”

Another pause. “What do you make of it?”

“It might’ve been a sign from your father…or maybe she was just trying to say something. Like ‘Merry Christmas, Grandpa’.”

Jaclyn felt the tickle of vibration as a deep sound of joy rumbled from the man carrying her. She looked up to find his eyes shining back into hers. “Maybe in a year or two, right Jac? We’ve got a few other skills to master, first. Like sitting up, and crawling, and teething…and gift wrapping…”

“Getting her to do your dirty work already, huh?”

“Kid’s gotta learn some time, Mac.”

“Sure. Just try to keep the scotch tape out of her mouth this time, okay?”

“Hey, I can’t help it if she has her mother’s insatiable appetite.”

“My appetite? Low fat, low calorie, flavorless, yet sticks to the roof of her mouth? Sounds more like your taste buds to me.”

It didn’t take long for Jaclyn to be lulled by the musical sounds of her parents’ banter. Snug in her car seat again, she closed her eyes and fell asleep long before the last miles of the journey home.

And later that same night, from the graceful bough of a garlanded spruce that stretched as high as the living room ceiling, amid soft green needles and tiny red lights…

A silver ornament sparkled with an unobserved brilliance, to the sound of angels singing.

 

The End

 

 

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