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Classification Romance (H/M)
Length Approximately 9,000 words; 22 pages (8 ½” x 11”)
Spoilers Lifeline
Rating GS
Author's Notes Lifeline, sigh… It had such possibilities! Well, this is my take on what should have happened when this monumental episode ended. I wrote this at least two years ago and have since spruced up the ending a little. Enjoy!
 

 

 

“We tried to talk it over
but the words got in the way.
We’re lost inside
this lonely game we play…”

             This Masquerade



Friday 2030 Local
Admiral Chegwidden’s House
McLean, VA

 

Was there a name for people like her? Did a word exist to describe what she had done? She searched the dictionary of her mind, of her experiences, and still came up with nothing. No word, no phrase could accurately portray the fact that, at her own party, at this celebration thrown in honor of her engagement to one man, Sarah Mackenzie had kissed another.

Now, as the Admiral presented the cake to the group of well-wishers, she barely managed to stand between these two men. Mic, at her left, planted a soft kiss on her bare shoulder. But she was unable to give more than the slightest notice to this display. How could she? How could she think, how could she even function when Harmon Rabb Jr. was there at her right; the back of his hand positioned next to hers, brushing it ever so slightly?

Breathe, Dammit! She had to breathe.

The strange heat pouring forth from his hand only added to her state of emotional frenzy. Yes, they had left the porch in peaceful, calm resignation. But now, the delayed reaction of it all fell upon her. Without warning, the aftermath of the moment they’d just shared had blown through every inch of her body, threatening to utterly consume her. She felt the bile rising in her throat, the tears pressing mercilessly against the rims of her eyes.

God, how she wanted to run. She just wanted to flee from this blur of music and voices into her own solitary corner and scream, falling to the ground, pooled in her own emotions.

But she had to do this. This was her duty.

Mac summoned all of her strength, every ounce of her marine resolve to just get herself through this night, through the raw awkwardness of this moment. She begged her knees to stop shaking.

Breathe, just breathe

She broke through the blurry haze that swallowed her vision and saw the people standing around her. They were gathered in a circle; their faces beaming with pride and joy. These were her only friends. She loved these people. How could they not know what she’d done?

And you have somebody that loves you…”

She now knew what Hester Prynne must have felt like; forever branded with the shame of her indiscretion. Though Sarah Mackenzie would wear no red letter on her chest, she did possess her own enduring symbol. Her lips would forever be imprinted with the simple, glorious feel of him. With the sweet taste of him. She would display these things upon her heart. And wear another man’s ring on her hand.

What did you say?

That Brumby was right.

About what?

About some people being in love with you.

What people?

God help her, she had to stop this. She had to put it out of her mind before she did something foolish, something that would embarrass her, or Mic, or…hell, what had that kiss been? Hadn’t that been the most foolish thing she’d ever done? Damn her, damn that Commander. Since the day she’d met him, he’d invaded her thoughts, her dreams…and now, couldn’t she just be happy? Couldn’t she even attempt to get married without him…without him just THERE, complicating everything; forcing her to question things that should not be questioned.

Or should they?

Mac shuddered involuntarily as the contact of hands was broken. Tiner held out plates of cake to the two of them. She accepted hers cautiously, not even sure of her ability to hold herself upright.

Before turning to follow Renee to the punch bowl, Harm stole a brief look at her, nodding once; the depth of his expression tightly wrapped into a small, toothless smile. His eyes were black, tinged with a hint of sadness that was impossible for him to hide.

“Ma’am…ma’am…”

She whipped around to face the man in front of her, unable to control the paper plate trembling slightly in her hand. “Yes, Tiner. I’m…I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay, ma’am. I was just saying that I chose the cake flavor especially for you. I once overheard that chocolate mousse with raspberry filling is your favorite.” He paused, looking down at her uneaten slice. “I hope it’s all right.”

Mac took a deep breath, stifling the tears somehow roused again by this simple, thoughtful gesture. “Yes, Tiner, thank you. It’s just lovely,” she whispered, her voice cracking with emotion. She took a small bite, forcing a smile that satisfied the worried petty officer.

From his position in the kitchen doorway, Admiral Chegwidden observed his chief of staff. Something just wasn’t right. Sarah Mackenzie was here, beautifully dressed, her fiancé at her side as the guests of honor at his home. Yet, she looked weary, drained. Hell, she looked like she belonged at a funeral. It was not his place to meddle. He did it anyway. “Colonel, are you feeling all right? Can I get you something?”

Before Mac could attempt to utter a word, Mic chimed in, rubbing her shoulders.
“No worries, Admiral. This is just a big step for the two of us. It’s normal to feel a little emotional at your engagement party. Isn’t that right, luv?”

This was not the first time Mic had taken it upon himself to answer for her. But this time, it had been a welcome blessing. Inadvertently, Mic had handed her a lifeline of her own.

Mac nodded, leaning into him slightly. “Yes. I’m completely fine. Really, sir. I guess this is all a little overwhelming…in a good way, I mean.” A nervous giggle escaped her mouth.

“Well, Colonel, that’s certainly understandable. Please excuse me one moment,” A.J. muttered, disappearing into the kitchen. If he’d suspected it before, now he was surely convinced of two things. Sarah Mackenzie was hiding something and Mic Brumby was totally clueless. Something had happened while Mac and Rabb were on his porch. And for some reason, perhaps one that would likely lead to his peril, he wanted to know what.

“Tiner!” he yelled to his yeoman who was half-way out the kitchen door with a trash bag.

Mac bit the corner of her lip, wondering if the Admiral had seen right through the sham of her words. Even so, she began to feel a semblance of control return to her mind and body. This would work. She would get through this night, through these emotions. And then everything would be normal again. Things would go on as planned.

She glanced furtively at Harm, seated on the piano bench with Renee. No matter how hard she tried, there was one truth she could not escape; one terrible fact that could not be erased.

For on this night, her only sensation of pleasure had come from one beautiful, forbidden act of deceit. And her only morsel of comfort had come from words she’d hidden behind, as a mask made of lies.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

“Harm, you know the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced I should’ve worn a red dress tonight,” Renee Peterson said to the man sitting beside her; the man who’d virtually ignored her all evening.

“Hmm? Yeah.”

She let out a sigh of frustration, tapping her heel on the floor in staccato fashion. “I mean, maybe if I’d been wearing a red dress, it might’ve been easier for you to spot me in this enormous crowd.”

“Uh huh.”

Renee was not amused. This was worse than she’d originally thought. “Well, Harm, as it turns out, on the way over here, I saw a flying saucer. Aliens tried to abduct me, right there on the beltway.”

“Mmm hmm.”

She elbowed him in the ribs, whispering fiercely, “What the hell is wrong with you? You haven’t heard a word I’ve said! Am I invisible or something?”

Startled by the pain in his side, Harm clicked his brain into ready-mode. He looked at Renee, at the mixture of hurt and anger forming her expression. He felt guilty, as well he should’ve.

“Renee, I’m sorry. It’s been a long day. I’m just preoccupied with a case right now.” He took her hand, squeezing it affectionately, hoping she wouldn’t press him for more details. Knowing full well that she would.

She raised her eyebrows in suspicion. “Hmm, a case. You were out there with Mac, practically the whole party, talking about work?” She punctuated her question with a swift flick of her hand.

Harm nodded, still unsure how much Renee really needed to know. “Look, we were trying to reach an amicable agreement,” he replied calmly, then chuckled lightly, the fated conversation re-playing for the millionth time in his mind. “The settlement was sort of a wedding gift.”

Renee could think of a few “gifts” she’d like to give Mac right about now – a trip to a Vegas wedding chapel for two, a transfer to JAG Australia, effective immediately… Would these things be enough to retrieve her boyfriend from his perpetual vacation in Mackenzie-Ville?

Would anything?

Renee looked at Harm squarely, trying not to be sucked in again by his penitent gaze, by his amazing features. Damn him. “Look,” she said with renewed dignity, “maybe I’ll let you make it up to me. I have tomorrow free and you’d better as well. It’s gonna be a day of shopping, museum-hopping and dinner at a nice restaurant. I’m talking La Tours here.”

Harm considered this an easy penance, in view of the circumstances. “Deal.” He grabbed her coffee mug. “I’ll just get us a refill.”

Out of guilt, he turned back briefly to look at Renee, who smiled at him from across the room. It was terrible, but he felt sorry for her. He’d been an ass all evening and she’d done nothing wrong. None of this was her fault.

It wasn’t her fault that his mind was and had been elsewhere, not to mention his lips, his hands, his heart…no, they belonged to the woman whose skin felt like fine silk, the one who’d worn his suit jacket strewn about her shoulders. They belonged to the woman whom he’d pressed hard against his body, the one who made the softest murmur in the back of her throat when he’d kissed her. It wasn’t Renee’s fault she wasn’t Sarah Mackenzie.

As he filled his mug, he saw this woman, dancing to the strains of Tony Bennett with her fiancé. He’d lost her. Could he accept this? Could he follow the advice of that blasted song?

If you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with.”

Love. Yes, he loved Mac. Why, then, had he held back while they were on the porch? What would Mac have done if he would’ve just said, “Don’t marry Mic.” Three simple words. Or, “I love you.” Three not so simple, but just as heart-felt, words. Was that what she’d been fishing for the whole time?

What do you want?

I want a lot of things.”

What do you want most?

Damn, this was a mess if he ever saw one. What had she expected him to do? This was her engagement party, for God’s sake. She was getting married in two weeks. She’d made her decision and him saying anything would have just been wrong. It would have been rash. It would have been inappropriate.

Yeah, inappropriate…like grabbing a woman who was engaged to another man, at her own party; feeling her, caressing her, kissing the living hell out of her.

And God help him, wanting to do it again.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

‘Tiner!” Admiral Chegwidden called once again to his yeoman. He found him at the side of the house, near the trash barrels.

“Sorry, sir,” Tiner said, fighting the chill that penetrated his hands by rubbing them together, “the kitchen trash was getting a little full, I’d just thought I’d…”

“It’s okay. Thank you…look, I need to ask you something and I’m afraid it’s going to seem a bit strange. You’re just going to have to go along with me here.”

This was nothing new. “What’s the question, Admiral?”

A.J let out a long sigh, stuffing his hands in his pockets. “Earlier this evening, when I asked you retrieve Colonel Mackenzie and Commander Rabb from my porch, did you happen to notice anything out of the ordinary?”

Tiner tilted his head in contemplation. In matters relating to his two superior officers, ‘out of the ordinary’ was ordinary.

“Tiner, I know I’m not saying this very clearly. It’s just that, now that I think about it, I hope I wasn’t too hasty in practically ordering them back in, if there was, you know, something they were in the middle of discussing.” He raised his eyebrows, hoping his yeoman would somehow hitch a ride on his particular train of thought.

“Well, sir, now that I think about it, when I came out there, the Colonel was wearing the Commander’s jacket and she looked as if something was bothering her. Actually, it did feel a bit like I was intruding. They didn’t exactly come in right away.”

He pursed his lips together. “They didn’t.” It was more statement than question.

Tiner shook his head, “No, sir. In fact, they couldn’t get rid of me fast enough.”

“They couldn’t.” Again, not really a question. “All right, thank you, Tiner. Despite what you may think, you’ve been a great help.”

“Oh, sir, speaking of help, before I came out here, the caterer wanted to know when you were going to give the toast. He has the champagne glasses ready to fill.”

“Wait, a toast? Tiner, didn’t I already do that when we brought out the cake?”

“Well, actually sir, you presented the new bars to Lieutenant Simms, then said a few words to the Colonel and Commander Brumby, but technically, it wasn’t a toast. So, would you like to go ahead and do it now, sir?”

An idea popped into A.J.’s head that wavered precariously between brilliant and downright cruel. It was a chance he was willing to take. “No, I’m not going to give the toast.”

“Well, all right sir. I’ll just go tell the caterer…”

A.J. stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “Wait, Tiner, I didn’t say there wasn’t going to be a toast. I’m just not the one who’s going to be giving it.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

“Sir, you want me to do what?” Harm offered, his tone sorely lacking the respect due the commanding officer standing in front of him. When Tiner had told him that the Admiral had requested his immediate company on the back porch, he’d figured it was work-related. Never in his wildest dreams had he expected to be asked to toast Mac and Mic. How could he? How could he toast a marriage and a wedding that, upon its conclusion, would surely bring about the death of a part of him?

A.J. observed the conflicting emotions, the ill-suppressed agony of this man. Perhaps, kid gloves were needed here. “Harm, I’m sorry about the short notice, but who better to do it? Out of all of us here, you’re the closest to the Colonel, as her partner and her friend. Don’t you think she’d appreciate it?”

Harm rolled his eyes, scoffing inwardly. Appreciate. As it turned out, both he and Mac were still dealing with the after-effects of the last act of appreciation they’d paid one another on the porch. “Admiral, it’s not that I don’t want to do it. I just don’t know if I can find the words right now.” He shifted his stance nervously, face falling to the ground.

A.J. nodded slightly, his suspicions duly confirmed. “Rabb, I’m afraid I need to confess something I’ve been regretting for a little over a year now.”

Surprised, Harm met his gaze. “Sir?”

“Back in Australia, at the airport, I told you not to look back.”

Harm let out a quick breath of air. “As it turns out, I didn’t exactly follow that piece of advice.”

“I know you didn’t. I said those words to you as your commanding officer. They made perfect sense, rationally speaking.” He paused briefly. “I realize now that what you needed, instead, were the words of a friend.”

“And what would those have been, sir?”

A.J. crossed his arms at his chest, speaking softly. “If you have the desire to look back, you’d better have the will to move forward.”

“So, you’re saying I could’ve prevented all of this, sir? That I should have? It wasn’t that simple then and it sure isn’t now.”

A.J.’s voice increased a few decibels. “Commander, when the hell did you hear me say anything about this being the slightest bit simple? You’re right, though, it is her engagement party. It’s far too late for should haves.”

Harm nodded, closing the jacket tight around his body. It still smelled of her… vanilla and orange blossom.

“But Harm, remember, she’s only wearing one ring right now. The other’s not due to make an appearance for a few more weeks. What I’m trying to say is that life is both too precious and entirely too short to marry the wrong person – and to let the right one slip away.”

The words rushed into Harm’s body, settling in the pit of his stomach. “You don’t think it’s too late then?”

A.J. shook his head. “It’s not too late for the right person, for the right situation. I get the feeling you’re not quite sure yet. You’re scared, as well you should be. Actually, so am I. Mac asked me earlier to give her away. Of course, I was honored and I agreed immediately. But, I’m taking that responsibility very seriously. Mac’s like a daughter to me. The last thing I want to do is hand her off to the wrong man for the wrong reasons. And, right now, there’s a little part of me that’s not quite sure that’s what I won’t be doing. Harm…”

“Yes, sir.”

“There’s a big part of her that’s not quite sure either. I’m not going to ask what went on between the two of you on that porch, but, have you taken a good look at Mac in the last hour or so?”

It was a question that needed no answer, only the reply of deep contemplation. “Sir, how does me making the toast fit into all of this? I have no idea where to start.”

A.J. reached for the door handle, pausing briefly. “I know, but you will. I promise you will.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Without warning, the music was shut off and both the Admiral and Tiner were clanging forks against newly filled champagne glasses. “On behalf of Colonel Mackenzie and Commander Brumby, I’d like to thank all of you for coming tonight,” the Admiral began as all eyes fell upon him. “Now, before I kick all of you out of here to your own homes,” he paused as a wave of laughter washed over the crowd, “I must tend to a bit of business that I seemed to have overlooked this evening. It has come to my attention that at these types of functions, it’s customary to offer a toast to the future bride and groom. However, if there’s one thing I do know it’s that you people are damn tired of hearing from me. Therefore, I’m extremely pleased that Commander Rabb has agreed to make the toast. Commander,” he called, making room for Harm to stand beside him.

Shivers ran up and down Mac’s bare arms, tension pooled, wet and cold, at her feet. She thought this night couldn’t have possibly become any more difficult, any more heart wrenching. She’d been wrong. For at that moment, Harmon Rabb Jr. stepped forward, glass of champagne in his hand.

She was plagued with a palate of emotions that ranged from anguish, to fear, and even to plain, old curiosity. What could this man possibly have to say in praise of this union? And, more importantly, how could he manage to get through it?

How could she?

Mac risked a look directly into his eyes; she owed him this much, for what he’d agreed to do. And he looked right back. Although Mic was standing right next to her, Harm’s eyes had zeroed in on every inch of her face, the rest of the crowd non-existent.

Even years later, when she’d reflect on this evening, she’d remember how strange, how surreal this moment had been. For one, brief instant, even before he’d offered a single syllable of his toast; his eyes had spoken a multitude of words; in a manner he’d carved out of sheer desperation. In a language only she could understand.

This is not about the past mistakes or the future possibilities. It’s not about me or even about us. What I have to say is just for you. So take it, Sarah Mackenzie, as a gift that requires none in return.”

Harm knew he had captured her attention, as well as the curiosity of the rest of the guests. He cleared his throat and began.

“At first I thought it strange that the Admiral chose me to toast the marriage of Mac and Mic. I’m certainly no expert on marriage, not having taken that step myself.” He paused to allow a few laughs from his friends, noticing that even Mac couldn’t resist a small, nervous smile.

“But, then I realized that I’m actually a bit of an expert on one thing, one person. That’s Sarah Mackenzie. Although we’ve been known to fight like rabid dogs and there are some things I’ll never understand about her, speaking as her honored friend and partner, you’re getting one hell of a woman, Mic. So now it’s your job to figure out where she puts all of that junk food she eats and how she does that incredibly annoying, but nonetheless remarkable thing with telling time. And though she’ll swear to you up and down that she’s a marine and she doesn’t need anyone to take care of her, do it anyway.”

Mic acknowledged the words with a grin, holding up his glass to Harm.

“And Mac,” he paused, his voice growing soft, his eyes glossy, “you’re just as lucky. You have someone who truly treasures you, who respects your worth, and who thinks you’re the most amazing thing on this planet. You’ve found what some of us have found as well, and what others here are still looking for. You have someone who will always love you.” He raised his glass. “To love.”

The crowd echoed his words, raising their glasses.

Sarah Mackenzie was lost in her emotions, taken to a place, a state of mind, she just did not understand. Early in the toast, she’d given up fighting the tears that still fell down her cheeks, but she wasn’t the only one. She’d been given another lifeline in the fact that every female in the room, including Loren Singer, though she’d surely deny it later, had eyes, red and blurry. Tissues had been taken out of purses, eyes had been dabbed, noses blown, and before she could flee to a place to absorb what had just been said, she and Mic were surrounded.

Each guest wanted a little piece of her; a hug, a kiss on the cheek, a few parting words of wisdom before donning coats and handbags. She gave and took all she could, with a heart bleeding again with new wounds and a soul, bare and raw. All the while, she looked for Harm through the chaos surrounding her. He seemed to have disappeared, and though she’d wanted to thank him politely, again owing him that much, she was secretly grateful that she might be allowed to save her thank-you for Monday morning, in the sterile comfort of the bullpen.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

He found solitude on the back porch. His hands kneaded the ache at his temples then settled against the wooden railing as he peered out over the landscape. Darkness had set in for the night; a silvery glow wove through the sycamore trees and made lacey patterns on the lawn. It was all stars and frosty air and moon, full and gold. Strong and proud and magnificent, taunting him, daring him.

The cold-tipped wind soothed the burning in his eyes and lapped up the beds of sweat on his forehead. It was as if he’d just run a marathon or scaled a mountain or completed a hundred other feats of endurance. And now, he was just empty.

“Well done, Commander. That was nothing less than brilliant,” Admiral Chegwidden said softly, patting him on the back. “I say that partly due to the fact that I’ve completely run out of facial tissues.”

Harm kept his body forward but turned his cheek. He knew now that only one thing, one person could cut through this numbness. But could he do what it would surely take to have it? Could he risk it all? “Thank you, sir. I guess I had it in me after all,” he muttered, with a great deal more hope than he felt.

“Yes you did,” he paused, a knowing smile on his face. “Look, I’m not one to belabor a point and I think you and I said all that needs to be said regarding this matter earlier. I did come out here, however, to tell you that Miss Peterson is looking for you.”

God, he’d totally forgotten about Renee. It was becoming an all-too prevalent occurrence. “Thank you, sir. I’ll be right in.”

The Admiral moved towards the door, stopping briefly before donning again his ill-worn hat of party host. The events of this evening had clearly tied together many peculiar loose ends which had been floating around JAG for quite some time now. He knew what Rabb was going through and he didn’t envy him. Not one bit. He wondered for a moment what he would’ve done had he been in the shoes of this man. Rabb had been right; there was nothing simple about it, the answers bathed in many shades of gray. But he knew one thing, the relationships of two couples had been drastically changed tonight; some players fully aware of this, and others only cruelly left to wonder.

And sleep would come to none of them tonight.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Mac feigned sleep during the car ride home. It was easier that way, in a night in which nothing had been easy. She and Mic had started out with trite conversation and it soon became obvious to her that it was as if she and her fiancé had attended two different parties. She said a silent thank-you for this tiny bit of mercy and closed her eyes, listening to the steady hum of the engine. She begged her tears to hold out a little longer. She was almost home.

You have someone who will always love you.”

Her suspicions about Harm’s toast were confirmed when he’d uttered these particular words. It had all been for her. He’d used a code that only she would even know to decipher, and had hidden what had turned out to be a touching elegy for their relationship, beneath the mask of a marriage toast. She marveled at his ingenuity, and at the same time, cursed his ability to turn her world upside down yet again.

“Sarah…Sarah…” Mic gently shook her.

“Hmm,” she murmured, locking her thoughts away yet again.

“We’re home, luv. No, stay right there. I’ll come around and open the door.”

Mic escorted her to her apartment door. Before she knew it, he captured her mouth in a searing kiss that surely doubled as a proposition. She knew what he was after and there was no possible way she could give it.

Before Mac even had the chance to make up an excuse, she realized that for once, lies weren’t necessary. She broke the kiss gently, pulling her keys out from her purse. “Mic, sorry but you…you can’t come in…”

“Why, Sarah? Just because the party’s over doesn’t mean we can’t still celebrate.”

She unlocked the door, opening it a crack. “No, you don’t understand. It’s my…my wedding gown.” Lord, she was thankful she didn’t have court on Monday. It was work to even put together a single coherent sentence.

He wrinkled his nose. “What on earth does your wedding gown have to do with us…”

“It’s in my apartment and you’re not supposed to see it. I picked it up from the bridal salon this afternoon and since it’s just been ironed, they said not to stuff it the bag again. The thing’s way too big for my closet. I had to hang it from the light fixture in the bedroom, so the train could fan out. Harriet’s coming over tomorrow morning to pick it up so she can keep it at her house. I’m sorry, Mic, but it’s, you know, supposed to be a surprise.”

“All right. I can’t exactly say that I’ve ever played second fiddle to a dress before, but I see where you’re coming from.” He pulled her close again. “I guess this is good night then. I love you, Sarah.”

She only nodded, twisting her lips into a small smile. “I’ll call you tomorrow.” Again, his mouth fell upon hers and seconds later she slipped into her apartment. The door closed behind her, thick and heavy.

Barely two steps in, it all hit her. She’d neglected to leave a light on earlier and was glad for it. Her breathing grew heavy and even in this darkened space, she saw the shadows of her emotions as she cast them around the room. At once, there was no formidable marine, no impenetrable façade. She was all woman here. With an angry shudder, her limbs, so tired of carrying the terrible weight she’d born, simply gave out. She fell to the floor, the dam holding back her tears finally bursting open.

She didn’t know where to start, sobbing openly now, her body convulsing as she gripped the carpet fibers between her fingers. God help her, she knew her duty. She knew the path she’d chosen. Even in this emotional stupor she was fully aware that she’d have to let it go. She’d have to let him go.

But right now, she just wanted to indulge herself in feeling it, in reliving it. It was like a guilty, midnight binge, others choosing sweets or alcohol. Instead, she found her poison in the memory of his lips, in the way he’d taken her simple goodbye kiss as a hostage, possessing her, robbing her of all sense and control.

She would remember the amazing flavor of him. The way his body had forced her into an erotic, forbidden dance as she’d worn his jacket around her shoulders. Like a schoolgirl. And she hadn’t resisted. She hated herself for this. Dammit, as Mic’s fiancé, she should’ve pulled away.

She should have wanted to.

Mac let out a scream, desperate and cold. Mic’s recent kisses were unable to wash Harm’s taste from her mouth, unable to wipe his handprints from her skin. She sank into this black oblivion, praying for mercy, begging for relief. It was all she could do.

She didn’t know how long she laid there, her internal clock rendered useless as the waves within her body eventually fell to a calm. Though her tears had dried up, her mind was fixed on the words of his toast. She rested her cheek against the carpet, closing her eyes. And she listened – numb, weightless, motionless.

You have someone who truly treasures you, who respects your worth, and who thinks you’re the most amazing thing on this planet. You have someone who will always love you.

The words had been beautiful. And the way he’d said them, with stoic elegance and humility, made her feel like losing herself in his arms. It made her feel like killing him.

This man, who had proven countless times that he just could not let go.

Had he realized how cruel he’d been, with his kisses and his looks and his words, dripping with emotion? It wasn’t as though she felt he’d been dishonest. It was more like he’d been teasing her with his particular brand of passion, unable to follow through, unable to do what Mic, at least, had done readily. She simply couldn’t take it anymore.

With newfound strength, she rose to her feet, kicking off her strappy sandals. It was easier this way, hating Harmon Rabb Jr. the little bit that she did right now.

She knew what was facing her in her bedroom, and somehow, she found the will to face it. Before entering, she raised a hand to her face, sticky and swollen. She would be strong. She would cry no more tears for this man.

Mac flicked on her bedroom light, her gaze immediately falling to the gown hanging in the center of the room. She approached the long column of lace, rubbing the delicate fabric between her fingers. She likened this moment to a time when she’d been forced to give up another one of her obsessions. It had been close to fifteen years ago, but she’d done it, on a mountain in Red Rock Mesa.

And she could do it again, this strange sort of detox. She’d wear this gown, accepting all that came with it, denying all that it wearing it required. She’d take the security and the home. She’d take the sure promise of a family and future and she’d build her life around it. It had to work; it was the only way she could survive. It made perfect sense in her mind.

Mac disappeared into the bathroom, emerging a few minutes later in blue silk pajamas, her face cleaned and scrubbed. Yes, her plan made perfect sense in her mind, but nowhere else. She wasn’t kidding herself. The futile bandages she’d hastily applied, of strength and reason, only served to hide the scars that ran deep through her heart. They could not heal them. Not yet.

She laid her head against the cool surface of her pillow, doubting that she’d find rest anytime soon. But, as if through another gift of mercy, she felt the welcoming embrace of sleep descending gently upon her weary body. And the last thing her eyes beheld, the final scene in this masquerade, was the barest hint of moonlight, sneaking in through the crack between her curtains, illuminating the gown hanging in front of her. Like a ghost.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

The steady, persistent ringing finally broke through the thick haze of sleep. She woke in stages, her internal clock telling her it was 0235. She’d been asleep for a little more than two hours. Mac fumbled for the receiver, rubbing her eyes. “Hello,” she muttered, her voice barely above a whisper.

“Mac, it’s me.”

She thought she was hearing things. It couldn’t be.

“Mac, are you there? Look, I’m sorry for calling this late.”

She jolted upright in her bed. Good Lord, it was him. “Harm, what are you doing? Can’t this wait until tomorrow?”

“It is tomorrow, Mac, and no, it can’t. Not this time.”

She rolled her eyes. “All right, then, what is the…wait a minute!” she cried as the obvious crossed her mind. “You wouldn’t have called if you knew Mic was here. What, were you so confident that he wouldn’t be here?” The sheer nerve of this man.

He waited a bit before speaking. “Mac, go to your front door.”

“My front door? Why on earth would I want to…”

“Mac,” he interrupted, “just do it.”

And then she knew. She hung up the phone, swinging her legs over the side of the bed. This couldn’t be happening. This shouldn’t be happening.

Harm dropped his cell phone into the pocket of his jacket, leaning up against the wall adjacent to her door. It wasn’t as if he’d planned on coming here tonight. It was more fitting to say that nothing could’ve kept him away. Not even Renee.

As they’d left the party, she’d accepted his desire to go home alone, spouting some flippant remark about him needing to get some rest to prepare for their shopping marathon. And now, as he stood here at Mac’s door, he was dead sure he couldn’t even give her that. Regardless of what happened after he set foot in this apartment, he was going to end it with Renee. It just wasn’t fair to her anymore. It just wasn’t enough for him. Though he’d enjoyed her companionship, there was no way it could ever go any further. For during those times when the vision came upon him – the one with the grand house, the woman, wearing his rings, holding his babies in her arms; Renee had never been in it.

Somewhere along the beltway the doubts had turned into resolve. He didn’t care so much anymore about honor or propriety, or the unwritten code between men and officers. Frankly, he was damn sick of the looming reality of living out the rest of his life without Mac in it. And if in finally doing something about it he was about to step on some toes, even branding him a robber of sorts, he was prepared to do the name justice tonight.

The door opened just a crack, barely allowing her face to peek through the opening. Mac looked at him from head to toe. He was dressed in faded jeans and a black jacket, worn open over a gray tee shirt. Of course, he was devastatingly handsome and she loathed him for it. “Harm,” she said with resignation, “please, I can’t do this. We have to move on, put it behind us. I can’t have another conversation about this.”

Without warning, he pushed open the door, taking a firm stance directly in front of her, his face inches from her own. “Then you should’ve kissed another man on that porch tonight.”

Before she’d made what was supposed to be her parting statement through the crack of her open door, she had also prepared a smart and efficient comeback for whatever he’d offer in response. It had proven to be a waste of time. Nothing could’ve prepared her for the words he’d just uttered, for the feel of his warm breath against her cheeks. There was danger on his face and a wicked determination she’d only seen before in the cockpit or the heat of battle. Against it, she had nothing.

“Mac, I’m not ready to put this night behind me and neither are you.” He slammed the door closed.

With that, she found her voice and it erupted. “How dare you, Harm! How dare you come here in the middle of the night and tell me what I am or am not ready to do. You’ve lost that privilege.”

He took a step back, crossing his arms at his chest. “Fine, then. We’ll play it your way. If you can look me in the eyes, right here, right now, and tell me that the kiss we shared meant absolutely nothing to you, that you didn’t feel it from the tiniest hair on your head to the bottom of your toes then I’ll leave. Done. Finito. Never to say anything about it again. Can you do that, Mac?”

Stunned once again, she stood motionless.

Harm looked at her face, war-torn and beautiful. And into her eyes that could not lie. In one swift motion, he filled the space between them, grabbing her shoulders roughly. “I didn’t think so. And while you’re thinking of more ways to deny what’s between us, here’s something to occupy the rest of yourself with.”

He crushed his mouth upon hers, devouring the whole of her. He took her hungrily, plastering himself against every inch of her, his hands exploring every fold of the silky fabric of her pajamas. He provided her with no means for escape.

And as it turned out, she’d sought no reason to, her body responding immediately, matching his relentless assault move for move, touch for touch. But then her mind remembered.

“No,” she cried with the last of her breath, pulling away, her hands still resting on his chest. “You can’t do this!” With new tears flowing, she began to pound on his chest. “Damn you! I hate you! I hate you, Harm! I hate…” she sobbed against him, grabbing the lapels of his jacket.

“I know. I know, I understand, Mac,” he whispered, his voice still ragged. He held her tightly, stroking her hair gently, until she finally went limp in his arms. “Please give me the chance to change that. Please, just talk to me. Please, Mac…”

At length, she looked up, nodding slowly. She took a deep, cleansing breath, wiping her face with her sleeve. “Okay. But you’re going to have to keep your hands off of me. That little tactic you just pulled a minute ago is hereby in violation of all rules of engagement.”

It was not exactly the best time to smile. He did it anyway, a devilish grin tugging at the corners of his mouth as he held up his hands. “Whatever you say. I’ll even move over here to the couch.” As he crossed to the other side of her living room, he caught a glimpse of something strange in her bedroom.

“Harm, wait, don’t go…” but it was too late. He’d seen it.

Harm moved into her bedroom doorway, not knowing quite what to think as he saw her wedding dress hanging there. Blackness filled his eyes as he leaned his head against the doorframe. “So this is it, huh?” he asked wearily.

She drew closer. “Yeah. This is it.” To her surprise, he left her side, walking up to the dress.

“It’s…it’s nice.” He took one of the long sleeves in his hands.

She entered the bedroom. “Just nice? This happens to be 100% Belgian lace, all $1800 worth of ‘nice.’”

He looked directly in her eyes. “It’s a pretty dress, Mac. I guess it’s just not quite what I expected. I just thought you would’ve picked another style.”

She was nearly reduced to laughter. “And what makes you the expert on bridal gowns? Have you been stashing copies of Modern Bride in your desk at work or something?”

Then her laughter faded. She threw up her arms in frustration. “My God, I can’t believe this. First you don’t approve of my fiancé or my marriage and now you don’t even approve of the dress I’ve chosen?”

There was a time he would have backed away from a question like this. But now, he no longer had that luxury. And he no longer required it. “All right, you wanna know the truth, Mac? Despite what you think, I can do plain and simple.”

She clenched her teeth, rubbing her temples. “Harm, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to know.”

He nodded, moving in front of her. “Okay, here’s the truth. No, I don’t approve of any of those things you mentioned. If I did, I wouldn’t be here at 0250 in the morning. I’ll start with the dress. Mac, in my dreams, the dress is a simple, white satin ball gown, with little straps that let your beautiful shoulders and arms show.”

Mac couldn’t believe her ears. She braced herself against the dresser as he continued.

“And the marriage? Hell no I don’t approve of it. Did you happen to hear my toast tonight? I didn’t toast your marriage at all. I couldn’t because I don’t believe in it. Don’t you see? You don’t deserve to marry someone just for the promise of security, or a home, or a family. That’s called settling. Mac, you deserve a marriage to a man that when you kiss him, when you touch him, when you tell him with all your heart that you love him, that there’s no one else in the world you’d rather be doing those things with.”

He took her hands into his, bringing one to his cheek. At last he fell into softness and offered her the tenderness that seemed to reach right through to the heart of her. “Lastly, I don’t approve of Mic. I can’t and won’t ever approve of any man you choose to marry that’s not me.”

She let out a cry, again blissfully lost in the words she so desperately longed to believe. “Why now, Harm? You say these things but on the porch, you couldn’t even answer my questions.” She paused, finally able to voice the source of her pain. “You said yourself that you can’t let go. You just…you just let me…” plagued again with the tears she’d swore she’d never cry, she could not go on.

Right then and there, a miracle happened. Harmon Rabb Jr. finally got it. After all this time, he finally understood the root of this problem, of her agony. He lifted her chin with one finger, ignoring the rising sense of shame that burned into his soul. “God Mac, I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “It’s no secret that I’ve spent a great deal of time and energy battling it out for more than a few people over the years. But when it came to the one person who matters most of all, I just couldn’t find my fight.”

“And now?” she questioned, the words, the presence of him only inches away, daring her to risk it all again.

He squared his stance and lifted one brow. “Game on, Colonel.”

A shiver rippled through her but before she could even think of speaking, he took her hands again.

“I understand why you went to Mic. I understand all of the things that you want, – all of the things you thought I couldn’t give you. But now, I’m here and I’m fighting for you with all that I have. Please say it’s enough.”

Suddenly the air felt like liquid. She bowed her head and studied the floor before meeting his gaze again. “Well,” she said at length, “that’s quite possibly the most amazing thing anyone has ever said to me.”

He smiled, releasing the breath he’d long been holding. But a shadow clouded her features that had him worrying again. “Is there a ‘but?’” he questioned hesitantly.

“There are other players in this little situation. Renee…”

His eyes reassured her one step before his words. “History. As soon as I can tell her. It’s always been you, Mac. Tell me it’s not too late,” he pleaded, drawing his lips to her ear. “Don’t do it. Don’t marry Mic.”

She thought her legs might fail her again. She was so dangerously close to him now. The scent of him alone was like sin; the way he grazed his lips across the edge of her cheekbone was likely to become her undoing. If only to regain her sanity, she drew him back just enough to stare in the pools of his eyes, fierce and vulnerable all at once. For the first time, she witnessed the depth of her power over him and it humbled her. It’s enough, she thought. God yes, it’s enough. “I’ve just spent the last three hours convincing myself that you’d never do this, that you weren’t capable. That I didn’t need you,” she whispered.

“How’d that work out for you?” he dared to ask, his eyes dancing.

She shook her head, her voice dissolving into a quiet sob. “Not so well.”

He smiled again, then let his features fall into all seriousness as he replayed the words given earlier. “Mac, you are my one great treasure, the most amazing thing on this planet. I love you. I always will.”

She’d thought she’d surely burst from the turmoil, from the vast range of emotions her body had experienced this evening. But instead, the most wonderful sensation of warmth washed over her. This man had finally told her that he loved her. And even better, she was free to reply in a way she’d only done before in dreams.

Harm was slightly taken aback when she didn’t answer right away, when she moved back a few steps. But he soon understood why. In grand pomp and circumstance, Mac held up her hand, almost to his eye level, and slowly slid Mic’s ring from her finger, setting it on the dresser beside her.

She found her breath and took her time forming her words, realizing that although simple and unadorned, these words would be the most important she’d ever say. “I love you too, Harm. And I’ve always wanted you.”

Finally free to exhale, he beamed with relief, with pure joy. “Listen, about those rules of engagement you set earlier, brace yourself, ‘cause I’m about to toss them all to hell.”

She felt a flutter in the pit of her stomach as she raised her brows in mock challenge.

But he surprised them both by moving to her slowly, methodically, in a sweetly agonizing way that made the moment feel like something close to forever. He relished the sight of her eyes growing wide with anticipation. He cupped the smoothness of her face, gently nipping her bottom lip. “Baby.” He moved with patience, the touch, the feel of this woman so new and wondrous. He taught himself the shape of her mouth, the salty taste of her tear stained skin, the weight of her in the tight circle of his arms.

Mac leaned into him with a delicious sense of abandon, savoring this touch once forbidden, now indispensable. As the kiss deepened, she pulled his arms free of his jacket, rubbing her hands against the solid wall of his chest.

He moaned softly, his lips forging a winding path down her neck. “You’re mine now.” He ran his hands underneath her pajama top, caressing the bare skin on her back, staking his claim. “Say it, Mac.”

“Yours,” she cried, arching her back. It was all she could do. She felt herself begin to unravel as he found her mouth once again.

As he kissed her, he began to undo the wrong that had been done. This was their time now. It wasn’t about ferry rides or relentless confusion or another man’s ring or gown that still hung within view. It wasn’t about other people, other places, other moments. It was all about the dim, ethereal light of her bedroom, the way he fisted his hands into the soft folds of her hair. It was the way she wove herself into his frame and ached to be deeper, closer, lost in the blazing need for him that had always been. And always would be.

This was it for him. He knew it so clearly now and he broke away only enough to repeat the words that had once been so daunting. “I love you.”

Hands hooked into the waist band of his jeans, Mac pressed her forehead against his, her only request a soft murmur against his lips. “Show me.”

And he did.

At her simple nod, he took her hand and led her into a new dance, sweet and wonderful. But in this masquerade, the only costumes required were fashioned from a fine array of bare skin, warm and trembling. Old mysteries had been revealed while new obsessions had been discovered.

And the masks these dancers had worn in times past had finally been discarded.

 

Epilogue: 4 Days Later

1315 Local
Mon Cheri Bridal Salon
Georgetown

 

Elbows perched on the front counter; Diana Parks wiped her eyes with a tissue as she read, for the tenth time, the letter printed on JAG letterhead. She looked up as the bell on the front door “dinged” lightly. “Michelle, I’d thought you’d never get back,” she said to the store manager as she approached the counter.

“What on earth is wrong? Has something happened?”

“Remember that Marine Colonel, Sarah Mackenzie, you know the one who picked up the lace Demetrios gown on Friday? Well, she just dropped off this letter.”

Michelle, let out a sigh, shaking her head. “Yeah, she called yesterday too. I already told her that we don’t accept returns on gowns, even for cancellations.”

Diana pursed her lips together. “Well, it’s not exactly a cancellation…and, um, she’s not exactly asking for a return. It’s more of an exchange. Here, you’ve got to read this for yourself. This is just…well it’s just amazing,” she sniffled.

Rolling her eyes, Michelle roughly grabbed the letter. She’d barely made it through the second paragraph when she suddenly felt the need to sit down. “Oh my Lord…at her engagement party?”

“I know! Did you get to the part where he came to her house in the middle of the night?” Diana squealed.

“I’ll admit, this rates pretty darn high on the romance meter,” Michelle continued, skimming through a few more paragraphs. “Goodness, two days later, after having his mother’s ring Fed-Exed to D.C., he proposed?”

“Not only that, he did it right on the front porch of the man who’d thrown the party! Can you imagine? They’re even going to keep the same wedding date.”

Michelle sighed audibly. “And, of course, she wants a different gown.”

Diana nodded. “Not just any gown, that gown.” She pointed to the pure white duchess satin Vera Wang original, currently being displayed by a faceless mannequin. It was stunning in its simplicity, with a full flowing skirt and thin spaghetti straps rising from the bodice.

“Well, shucks. I guess if she wants to exchange an $1800 gown for one costing over $3000, paying the difference of course, I’ll allow the exception just this once,” she said gruffly. “Phone her up.”

After Diana had completed her search for the phone number, she looked up. Michelle must’ve disappeared to the storage room. A smile spread upon her face as she saw that the letter and the box of Kleenex were nowhere to be found.

 

The End

 

 
 
   

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