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DC GENERAL
WASHINGTON, DC
0050HRS (EST)



"Rabb, sit down will you. You're making my head spin with your incessant pacing." Webb eyed Harm warily, realizing that he was a time bomb about ready to explode.

"How long do x-rays take? They've been in there for hours!"

"Give it a rest, it's only been a little over an hour. Here drink this."

"What the hell is it?"

"Coffee, I think though my bet would be that it's some sort of toxic waste the way the spoon disappeared in it."

With a raised eyebrow, Harm sat in the hard plastic chair next to Webb, resting his head against the cold green tiles and wanting to know it all. Wanting to know why he was now sitting in the sterile antiseptic surroundings of DC General worried sick about his Marine. Why she had risked her life, why she had gotten hurt and why nobody had told him. "Talk to me, Webb. No half-truths and no spook babble. Tell me how we got to this point."

"Palmer was the model prisoner, which afforded him certain, shall we say 'privileges'. Those privileges provided him the access needed, and he managed to disappear along with the dirty laundry a few days ago. Langley, was notified and because of Palmer's past obsessions with you I called the Admiral, who apparently found it necessary to tell the Colonel."

"But nobody found it necessary to tell me?"

"It wasn't my call, Rabb. We were closing in on him and then . . ."

"You lost him. You lost the bastard!"

"Yeah, we lost him . . . we never thought he would try for you so soon . . . not without a thorough plan where he could work his artistry, his magic. We never imagined that his obsession for revenge would turn to blind vengeful violence. It wasn't his profile . . . but he knew he didn't have much time, that he had to move quickly if he was going to complete his objective."

"And Mac?"

"He made friends with your mother's limo driver, maneuvered himself among the hotel housekeeping staff, got access to her suite and took some of her personal belongings . . . which he sent to Mac."

"I can't believe . . ."

"Harm, he was a master. We trained him well . . . He nicked the fuel line in the limo, to get them far enough away so they would be out of the picture, stranded in some remote area of Pennsylvania. . . and then he could finish his game. He never intended to go after your mother, he never intended to hurt her to get to you. His only target always was one Sarah Mackenzie."

"Mac?"

"He called her and offered a trade. Her life for your mother's. . . and she went . . . she went alone . . . she did what she thought was her only option to save . . . "

"How could she be so careless! How could she be so stupid as to think she had a chance against Palmer alone! How could she think she could trust him!"

"She thought she had no other option, and her only thought was for your mother's safety. Palmer's plan was to take your future from you. His plan was to make her death as painful and violent as he could. His plan was to let her die a slow and horrible death at his hands . . . and then his plan was for you to find her."

"I can't believe she went in there alone . . . I can't believe she was going to give her . . . "

"If it hadn't been for Bud following her he would have succeeded. But Palmer was so immersed in his prey, he got careless, never heard Mr. Roberts approaching . . . and that's how we got to where we are today."

Harm rested his arms on his knees, his head in his hands, trying to comprehend what his partner, his friend and the woman he loved had almost sacrificed for him . . . for the man who couldn't commit to her, for the man who couldn't give her what she most needed. For the man who couldn't give her his love. The man who had turned away from her on that ferry ride across Sydney Harbor that one warm summer night. He moaned inwardly at what he ultimately almost lost tonight in that dreary and darkened warehouse, what was almost taken from him forever without her ever knowing how much he did love her. How much he had always loved her.

"What the hell would I have done. . . " Before he could finish his sentence of despair he saw the cocky Australian barrel through the Emergency Room doors, pure venom dripping from his voice.

"What the hell are you doing here, Rabb? Haven't you done enough to her! You have no business being here! You almost got her killed AGAIN!"

"Brumby, I came in with her and I'm staying till I know she's okay!"

Both men now stood inches from each other, the hatred for one another pouring from their souls as they glared at each other, their raised voices causing all in the corridor to stop and listen to the heated exchange.

"Not if I have anything to say about it, you bastard! I'll take care of her, she's not your concern nor will she ever be again!"

"Brumby, I don't really give a rat's ass what you have to say!"

Clayton Webb tried to slip between them, a fleeting memory of the wired jaw of another who had stood between these two crossing his mind for a moment, just as Mic Brumby lashed out, catching Webb off balance and sending him backwards into the row of plastic chairs.

"She'll always be my woman and I want you nowhere near her. Do I make myself clear!"

"I think we'll leave that for Mac to decide!"

"She already made that decision when she accepted my ring! She walked away from you, Rabb, and chose me. She's in MY arms when she wakes up satisfied each morning. She's in MY arms when she goes to sleep satisfied each night, and I'm the one who makes love to her, not you! She wants me not you, so get that through your thick skull and leave us the hell alone!"

It took all his control to stand down as Brumby's seething words tore into his heart and their truth shattered his soul . . . Mac had made her choice and she had chosen the Australian. All the life seemed to drain from him as he heard in the distance the caustic reproach of the head nurse who was heading in their heated direction. He tried to focus on his surroundings, but his mind only replayed the truth in Brumby's words.

"Gentlemen, please! This is neither the place nor the time for this childish display of temper! Ms. Mackenzie has requested to be released, against the doctor's advice, and I suggest you both get a grip of your emotions for her sake. Now, which one of you is family?"

"I . . . "

"I am her fiance."

"And you, sir?"

"I'm just a . . .a . . . friend."

"If you give me a moment, Mr. . . "

"Brumby. Mic Brumby."

". . . Mr. Brumby, I'll be back and take you to Sarah.

"Thank you, nurse."

"I think that's clear, Rabb. You're neither needed . . . nor wanted here."

Harm fought the desire to wipe the smug smile of victory off Mic Brumby's face, but as he turned and started to walk towards the emergency exit, he knew there was nothing left to say . . . there was nothing left to do . . . there was only the immeasurable ache that coursed through his body as he walked away from Sarah Mackenzie. As he walked away from his only chance at love. Sarah Mackenzie had made her choice and it wasn't him . . . it would never be him.

As Brumby watched Harmon Rabb leave, his body language soaked in self-satisfaction, he noticed Clayton Webb still tangled in the plastic chairs that now lay scattered across the small corridor.

"Sorry, mate. Are you all right?" Mic extended his hand and Clayton took it helping himself to his feet.

"To tell you the truth Brumby, I'm not at all all right." Without warning, Clayton Webb reared back and connected a vicious right hook to Mic Brumby's jaw, sending the shocked Australian reeling into his own bank of plastic cushions. "Now I'm all right. Now I'm more than all right, mate."

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

"I thought you forgot about me, sailor . . ."

"Never, luv. I'm right here for you always, Sarah."

Mac tensed at his touch and when she felt his lips on her cheek, she died a little more inside knowing her flyboy had walked away from her again . . . her flyboy had left her again, alone with Mic Brumby.


HARM'S APARTMENT
WASHNGTON, DC
0230HRS (EST)



Silence and the stinging truth were Harmon Rabb's only company on his drive through the desolate streets of Washington to his apartment. The events of the day kept rewinding through his mind as he tried to focus his attention on the road ahead of him through the blur of the sudden wash of tears that threatened to fall.

All he saw was the vision in red waking up satisfied in Mic Brumby's arms. All he saw was the vision in red going to sleep satisfied in Mic Brumby's arms. All he saw, as he tried to dismiss the picture, was the cocky Australian making passionate love to the vision in red. Parking and exiting his vehicle, he shuddered as his tired mind taunted him with the vision of the woman he loved naked and sexually satisfied in the suffocating embrace of Mic Brumby.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Expecting to find his mother asleep from her exhausting day's adventures, and wanting to deal with his bout of self-pity alone, he tried to enter the apartment undetected. But as he opened the apartment door, he heard the quiet muffled voices and was greeted by his mother and the Admiral in quiet conversation on the sofa.

"Sir? Mom?"

"I came to fill your mother in, not wanting her to worry and knowing you were otherwise occupied."

"Thank you, Sir. Mom, I'm sorry I should have called . . . I . . ."

"Nonsense, darling . . . nonsense. How is Mac?" Trish Burnett embraced her son, only to find him stiff and clammy to the touch, a slight gasp leaving her lips as he pulled away abruptly.

"She'll be OK, Mom . . . I guess."

"You guess? What kind of an answer is that?"

"Well, I think I'll be going Trish, now that the Commander is back."

"Thank you so much for everything, AJ. It was very kind of you to think of me."

"Get some rest, Rabb. You'll resume with the Jenkin's Court Marshall first thing in the morning."

"And Denver, Sir?"

"I'm sure Imes will welcome the brief break from the courtroom."

"Yes, Sir. Goodnight."

Harm grabbed a bottle of water from the refrigerator as his mother walked the Admiral to the door, oblivious to the silent thank you his mother passed to the AJ before she closed the door. But he knew that, even tonight, especially tonight, Trish Burnett would show him no mercy. He knew his mother and that she would press him until he was drained of every truth.

"So tell me, why do you have to 'guess' how Mac is?"

"Mom, don't start. Not tonight."

"Harmon Rabb! This nonsense has gone on long enough! Were you not at the hospital all this time?"

"I was."

"And?"

"So was Brumby. She refused to stay the night, signed herself out, and only family could see her and that would be her fiance . . . that would be Mic Brumby."

"So you just turned tail and left?"

"YES! I just turned tail and left!"

"You may be 36 years old, but don't you ever use that tone of voice with me mister!"

"Look, Sarah Mackenzie made her choice. She chose Mic Brumby, and I would prefer we no longer belabor the point. I'm going to bed."

"Fine! Go hide in your dreams, Harmon Rabb, if you can."

As Harm made his way to the bathroom to change, he saw his mother grab her overnight bag and start to pack her belonging, shaking with an anger he hadn't seen since he had returned from Laos . . . to her anger and her understanding.

"Mom, I'm sorry . . . don't go back to the hotel. You're welcome to stay here as long as you like. Mom, please."

"I'm leaving, but I have no intentions of going back to the hotel. I'm going to Mac's . . . I'm going to take care of her, of the woman who was going to trade her life for mine!"

"Mom, you can't be serious . . . she has Brumby . . . she'll be fine."

"That is precisely why I am going. To keep Mic Brumby away from her . . . and to keep you away from her. Until she can heal her body, settle her mind and admit to the feelings you've forced her to bury so deep in her heart!"

"What?"

"Look. She thought she was giving her life for mine. She was willing to sacrifice everything for me . . . for you! She may be a Marine, she may be tough, but she's also a woman who has been traumatized by love and the lack of love. Right now she needs to get her strength back, her will back and her own mind back. She needs a woman's love . . . a mother's love."

"Mom . . ."

"I have no intention of allowing that Australian to help her heal her body while he plays with her mind and manipulates her heart . . . and I have no intentions of allowing my son to help her heal her body and play with her heart until he's ready to admit openly what's in his heart for her."

"Please . . . don't get in the middle of something you don't understand."

"Oh, I understand more than you think. Let me ask you something, son. Do you love her?"

"Mom . . ."

"DO YOU LOVE HER, HARMON RABB!"

"YES, damn it! I don't remember when I haven't loved her! Is that what you want to hear! I love her . . . I love her!"

"Then what is the problem?"

"Brumby is the problem. Her choice is the problem. My inability to love is the problem."

"What?"

"I'm afraid to love her . . ."

Trish Burnett dropped her bags by the door at the sight of the anguish in her son's eyes and at the defeatist tone in his voice. This wasn't who her son had been, who he was, or who she would let him become. He needed to find himself again, and she knew that would be with the love of one brave tough Marine.

"You listen to me Harmon Rabb. You are your father's son. You have his strength, his courage, his tenacity, his integrity, his abilities and you have the greatest part of him, though you may not know it, . . . you have his ability to love and be loved unconditionally. I was the catalyst that released that ability in your father, and I know that Sarah Mackenzie is your catalyst. The catalyst that will release all that you are alone and all that you can be together. Don't be twice the fool my son . . . Don't be afraid to love and be loved, and don't be afraid to share the depth of your love."


SARAH MACKENZIE'S APARTMENT
GEORGETOWN
0345HRS (EST)



She was on the verge of screaming and checking herself back into the hospital so that anyone but Mic Brumby could be her care taker. She was suffocating in her own home because of his incessant attention . . . as if she hadn't made her choice . . . as if she still wore his ring . . . as if she was everything he wanted her to be . . . as if he could make her everything he wanted, everything she wasn't.

Sarah Mackenzie was a pragmatist, however, and lying exhausted on the sofa, her pain throbbing without mercy through her body, the pain medication trying to lull her into a drug induced sleep, she knew she needed someone. Someone to get her through the next few days of physical and emotional pain . . . and her only option appeared to be Mic Brumby.

"Come on, luv. I've got our bed ready. We'll have plenty of time to get you well and settle all this nonsense between us." Before Mic could lift her in his arms, he heard the faint knocking at the door. Eyeing Jingo circling around Mac protectively he shoved him discretely from his path.

"Mic, who . . . could that be at this hour?"

"Can't imagine, luv. But I'll go check." Mic Brumby thought of only one person who would have the gall to visit at this time of night, and for that reason he opened the door a bit more forcefully than was necessary.

"Mrs. Burnett."

"Hello, Mic. May I come in."

"Actually, it's not a good time. I appreciate you stopping by, but it's late, and Sarah has been through quite a time today. Perhaps this isn't the best time. Sarah needs . . ."

"Trish?"

"I'm fully aware of what Sarah has been through today Mic, and that is precisely why I am here. I know exactly what Sarah needs." Trish ignored Mic Brumby's protests and managed to gracefully navigate around his lurking form that openly tried to block her entrance to the apartment. "Trish? Oh, Trish. I'm so glad you're here, and I thank God you're safe."

"Oh darling, what did he do to you? Oh, dear God." Trish had difficulty suppressing the gasp that escaped as Clark Palmer's visible handiwork attacked her heart and when she noticed the utter despair in the strong Marine's eyes. She sat on the sofa and carefully took her in her arms, just as Mac's tears of exhaustion, confusion and relief started to fall. Trish Burnett just held her silently and securely . . . she just held her as a friend, as a woman and as a mother.

Mic Brumby watched the scene uncomfortably, a growing anger starting to chip at his external facade of self-effacing concern. He tensed as he watched Mac accept the comfort Harmon Rabb's mother offered. Driven by his own ulterior motives, to use her recuperative time to win her back, he ignored Mac's comfort in the arms of the older woman as he once again attempted to rid themselves of Trish Burnett.

"Trish, we thank you for taking the time to stop by, however, Mac needs her rest, so I suggest that you leave us tonight and perhaps return tomorrow when Sarah is feeling a bit stronger."

"Mic!"

"Trust me, luv. I know what's best, and I'm sure Trish understands."

Trish bristled at the Australian's obvious lack of concern for what Mac needed. She settled her back against the pillows of the sofa. but not before she noticed the pleading in Mac's eyes. Patting her hand in silent acknowledgment, she stood and faced Mic Brumby.

"I understand more than you know, Mr. Brumby, and for that reason, I have come prepared to stay and help Sarah regain her strength . . . for as long as it takes."

"That will not be necessary. I am the one who can give Sarah all that she needs. I am more than capable of nursing her back to health. After all, I'm all the family she has . . . after all, I'm her fiance."

"I'm sure you believe you know what you think is best, but I know Sarah needs more than just a masculine hand, and she needs to heal more than just her body. I believe I am much more capable as a woman, as a friend and as a mother to help her heal all that ails her."

"And your son, where does he fit into her 'healing' process?"

"Mic, please!"

"That's all right, dear. Mr. Brumby, my son is an officer and a gentlemen and would never presume his intentions on someone whose condition is as fragile as Sarah's is at this time, no more than I'm sure you would. Am I correct?

"Of course."

"Mic, perhaps it would be best if Trish did stay with me. At least for awhile. You're in the midst of job interviews, and I don't want you to be distracted by any of . . . of . . . what's happened."

"Then it's settled. I assure you she will be just fine. May I show you to the door? I'd like to get Sarah settled." Trish Burnett walked Mic Brumby to the door, his seething glare never leaving her person and her own personal demeanor never wavering under his heated stare. "Oh and Mic, since I intend that Sarah get all the rest she can, please give us the courtesy of a call before you come over, if you plan on visiting her."


ROBERTS RESIDENCE
ROSSLYN, VA
2330HRS (EST)



Bud Roberts stood by his son's crib and watched the small boy peacefully and contentedly sleep without a care in the world . . . a scene in direct contrast to the horror he had participated in earlier that day. As he adjusted the coverlet that covered his son, he sighed as he heard the quiet sobs of his wife that had continued since his return home...after she had found out what had happened . . . what he had done.

In the bedroom he found Harriet curled in a tight ball on the bed, trying to control the sobs that seemed never ending.

"Harriet?"

"What?"

"We need to talk about this . . . honey, please."

"What is there to talk about, Bud!"

"About what happened . . . "

"About you going after Palmer! About you forgetting about baby AJ, about me, about the new baby . . . about you forgetting about a family that needs you!"

"Harriet, I never forgot about you . . . you're all that went through my mind when I was following the Colonel. But . . ."

"But what Bud! You jeopardized what we have with . . . you . . . forgot the welfare of your family!"

"Harriet, I'm sorry if I scared you, and to tell you the truth, I scared the hell out of myself, too. I thought about you, about baby AJ, about the new baby . . . but I also thought about the Colonel and the Commander. I thought about all they have done for us in the past and what a great part they play in our lives. I couldn't imagine what it would be like not to have the Colonel or the Commander in our future. As an officer and as a friend, I couldn't have turned my back on her when she needed me, and if I had I would have never been able to live with myself. I did think about family . . . and our family has always included the Commander and the Colonel."

"Oh Bud, I'm so sorry! I was just so scared!"

"I know Harriet, so was I. So was I."


JAG HEADQUARTERS
FALLS CHURCH, VA
0930HRS (EST)



He finally found shelter in his office, closing the door and the blinds. What he had done still left him shaking, and the night had been filled with nightmares. But he knew if he had to do it all over again, he would not hesitate. It was about duty, it was about honor, it was about courage and it was about friendship. All the notoriety he was receiving from the JAG Staff was overwhelming and had him feeling a bit self-conscious. He shook his head in disbelief as he realized that he was more comfortable with criticism than he was with praise. Trying to engross himself in the case files that lay strewn in front of him, he barely heard the knock on his office door. He grimaced at the thought of another "Atta Boy".

"Enter." Bud distractedly continued to stare at the papers littered on his desk, unable to concentrate, and it wasn't until Harm's shadow fell over the clutter that he realized his breach of protocol and jumped to his feet. "Sorry, Sir!"

"Relax, Bud. I just wanted to . . . Are you okay, Lieutenant?"

"Yes, Sir . . . no, Sir. Actually, Sir . . . it's just I . . . "

" . . . have never killed a man before."

"No, Sir. . . I mean yes, Sir."

"Easy, Bud. Look, it's not something that gets easier, nor do you ever forget the first time, but as members of the military it's something that we are trained to do . . . and something we, in a way, hope we never have to do."

"I know, Sir. But I'm a lawyer. I just guess I was naive to think I was immune to, well . . . having to do something like . . . what I did yesterday."

"Bud, you did what you had to do. Palmer gave you no choice. If you hadn't used your instincts, if you hadn't pulled that trigger . . . Mac would be dead and probably you would be too. Palmer was not the type to yield to a persuasive closing argument."

"I know Sir, and I would have never let him hurt the Colonel. Never. I just feel . . ."

"You'll find it in yourself with time to deal with it, Bud . . . and . . . I . . . well, won't ever be able to repay you for being there for her, for keeping her safe . . . for giving her back to . . ."

" . . . you. Permission to speak freely, Sir? Bud continued when he saw Harm's nod of acknowledgment. "I've given you another chance, please don't waste this one . . . . Sir."

"I won't Bud . . . this time I won't."


2 DAYS LATER
THE PLAZA
WASHINGTON, DC
1245HRS (EST)



"Harriet, are you sure? You have to be absolutely sure."

"I'm sure. They are perfect . . . just perfect."

" . . . because if there is any doubt . . ."

"Trust me, they are perfect!"


SARAH MACKENZIE'S APARTMENT
GEORGETOWN
1430HRS (EST)



Trish Burnett stood in the doorway of Mac's bedroom and watched her sleep, still trying to quell the anger that continued to resurface every time she looked at all the bruises, scrapes and cuts that screamed at her through the thin material of the young woman's nightgown. What kind of a sick, perverted animal could have done something so vile to her . . . what kind of person could hate her son so much that he would want to torture another person to devastate him . . . what kind of a person?

Seeing the small fountain and the gardenias floating serenely in the calming water on the night stand, a small smile managed to push the distressing thoughts from her mind for the moment, as she remembered Mac's insistence that the arrangement be placed by her bed. She had received dozens of bouquets over the last two days, but it was Harm's that she had wanted close to her. Wanted close to her when she went to sleep . . . close to her when she woke from her nightmares . . . close to her when she woke to a new day.

As Trish made her way to the kitchen, she noticed the flowers from Mic Brumby that, in no uncertain terms, could have been used as a funeral arrangement or graced the neck of the winner of the Kentucky Derby. It was large, crass, and over-bearing and because of its size darkened rather than brought life to the apartment. Checking the flowers for water, she was content that if she continued not to water them, they would be dead by morning. She tried to remind herself that in his own way Mic Brumby loved Sarah Mackenzie, but there was no longer a question in Trish Burnett's mind that his love was not what the Marine wanted.

Against her better judgment, Trish had acquiesced to Mic Brumby's visit the night before and it had exhausted Mac, left her on edge, depressed her and caused her for the first time since her release from the hospital to take the sleeping pills the doctor had prescribed. She sighed and shook her head . . . maybe it was Brumby's visit that had left Mac so on edge, or maybe it was the fact that Harm hadn't made an effort to visit that had Mac so on edge? What the hell had gotten into her son?


SARAH MACKENZIE'S APARTMENT
GEORGETOWN
1630HRS (EST)



"Mackenzie residence. Trish Burnett speaking."

"How's my favorite girl?"

"That depends . . . are you talking about me or Mac."

"Mom . . ."

"Well?"

"Both . . . both of you."

"I'm fine and your Marine is healing nicely."

"She's not . . . Is she awake?"

"No, darling she's napping. She had, well, an exhausting night."

"I'll bet she did with Brumby there."

"Harm . . . How did you know Mr. Brumby was here?"

"You must have mentioned it when I called yesterday . . . "

"I did no such thing. When you called, I didn't even know he was planning to visit. Harm?"

"All right, all right. I drove by on my way home and saw Brumby's car."

"You just happened to drive cross town to get back across town?"

"Mom . . . you're making this really painful."

"Why shouldn't I? Didn't I tell you once that it is more painful to do nothing than to do something? And besides, pains are the seeds of pleasure."

"And you're doing a little gardening, right? He was exasperated with his mother, but for once he loved her interference, even at his expense, so he forged on. "Um, is Brumby coming by tonight?"

"No."

"Are you sure?"

"He's gone out of town for a few days. Why? Plan on taking the long way home again?"

"Yes, only this time I thought I would stop by and bring my favorite girl . . . girls . . . dinner. If it's okay . . . if she's up to it after last night . . . I don't want to intrude . . ." "Harm . . ."

"I know that she should probably rest . . . so if it isn't . . ."

"Harm . . . "

" . . . convenient. We could do . . ."

"Harm! That would be very nice, dear. I know Mac will be very glad to see you. Say seven?"

"Seven is fine . . . and Mom."

"Yes, darling?"

"Thanks, I love you."

"I love you too, dear. Till later."

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Trish Burnett stood in the kitchen with the phone in hand even after the line went dead. It was a start, and she was going to make damn sure that tonight was the beginning of a beginning for both of them. She knew that love didn't just consist of them gazing at each other, it consisted in looking outward together in the same direction for now and forever . . . that is what she wanted for her handsome son the aviator and her friend the beautiful Marine.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

. . . They were sitting in the middle of the rose garden, and all she felt was the beauty and serenity of the familiar surroundings, the racing of her heart, and his husky voice, filled with admiration, relief, and love engulfing her.

"Yeah, it was incredibly stupid . . . and one of the most incredibly brave things you've ever done." His words floated around her, caressing and soothing the hurt, her burning need for his touch driving her towards him and into the safety of his arms. The only arms that could ever make her whole, the only arms that could heal the pain of her body, clear the confusion in her mind and still the ache in her heart.

She trembled as his lips brushed with an overwhelming tenderness her visible injuries, their soothing warmth numbing and drawing the pain from her body. He lightly brushed his lips against hers, lingering longer than he should have, the desire of so many lost moments spurring them to revel in what they so needed. As their kiss deepened, their raw passion and need for each other coursing through their bodies, they laid back on the softness of the grass carpet. With an overwhelming love, she exposed all her pain to his hunger as he continued to soothe all her injuries and the incessant ache she held for him in her heart . . .

Sarah Mackenzie felt him slip away from her as the sound of the distant doorbell transported her back from the soft grass carpet, from his gentle and loving touches and the healing warmth of his lips on her over-sensitized and aching body. She was brought back to the present of her empty bed the soft sounds of the gardenia waterfall the only soothing sound surrounding her.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

"Sarah? You're up sleepy head. How are you feeling, dear?"

"Much better, thank you. At least I don't feel like I was put in a blender and spun on high anymore. What's that?"

"Oh, this was just delivered for you." Trish Burnett handed Mac the huge box and sat on the edge of the bed. "Well, at least we know it's not another funeral arrangement."

Mac shook the huge box, but it didn't give her any clue as to the contents. There was no return address, no recognizable handwriting and it was delivered, according to Trish, by an independent delivery service.

Trish noticed Mac's hesitation. "It's OK; I don't think it is ticking."

With a slight smile, Mac tore the beautifully-wrapped package like a child on Christmas morning, and removed the lid, only to find eight individual velvet pouches on the inside. She removed one of the pouches, and when its contents slipped onto the bed, her smile grew in intensity, and for the first time in three days, her smile reached her eyes.

"Shoes?" Trish looked at Mac in confusion, as she continued to open the pouches. "Actually, eight pairs of shoes . . . how unique . . . how thoughtful . . . how unusual . . . how . . ."

" . . . perfect. Lots and lots of comfortable shoes."

Trish Burnett watched as Sarah Mackenzie slipped the first pair on her slender feet, she watched as the gardenia Mac had laid on her pillow dropped to the floor and she had difficulty containing her enthusiasm as she remembered. The words needing to be said, she placed the gardenia back into the calming fountain. " A great career, a good man and lots and lots of comfortable shoes."

" . . . yes, exactly." Mac felt the softness of the leather, like the softness of his . . .

"Well, you have your career, you certainly have lots and lots of comfortable shoes and . . . a good man, a very good man is bringing us dinner. . . so you better get a move on it Marine."

 

HARM'S CAR
GEORGETOWN
1845HRS (EST)

 

It was like he was sixteen again as he sat in his car in front of Mac's apartment trying to still the prehistoric butterflies in his stomach . . . not wanting to be late . . . not wanting to be early . . . just wanting. Wanting to see her . . . wanting to hold her . . . wanting to be more than her partner . . . more than her friend . . . wanting to be her everything.

Trying to quell his uneasiness, he wondered where the arrogant, self-serving, independent, cocky aviator had gone . . . where had he gone and when had this burning need in him started? They had been to hell and back together . . . when had that trip turned from friendship to love? Memories flooded his mind and he knew . . . it had always been there . . . it had been there from the very beginning.

He had his father's strength, his courage, his tenacity, his integrity and his ability to love and be loved unconditionally. And Sarah Mackenzie was the catalyst that would unlock the depth of his love, the depth of his passion and the depth of his desires. He would love the strong Marine and no longer use mindless surrogates to satisfy what only she could give him and what he wanted from her alone . . . he would love her strength, her tenderness, her courage, her stubbornness, her intelligence . . . if she would only let him . . . if she would only let him love.

 

MAC'S APARTMENT
GEORGETOWN
1845HRS (EST)

 

Trish had chuckled when she had seen Mac's reaction to the news that Harm was coming with dinner, especially when she decided to "dress" for the occasion. It had been a chore, but they had managed to waterproof the dressings on Mac's wounds enough so she was able to take a bath . . . a gardenia-scented bath. Watching as Mac now struggled into the tight-fitting jeans that were bound to be uncomfortable against her leg wound, Trish marveled at the care she took this night dressing . . . remembering that the night before Mac had slipped into sweat pants and an old Marine sweatshirt for Mic Brumby.

"You know, I always missed not having a daughter," Trish sat on the bed pensively watching Mac finish dressing. "Not that I would trade my son for the world . . . I just sometimes wish I had a little girl, to pamper, to love, to . . ."

Mac saw the faraway look in Trish Burnett's eyes and heard her voice waver with emotion. Walking to the bed, she sat by the older woman taking her, hand in hers. "And I always wished I had a mother who truly cared," she smiled. "A mother's love, a mother's concern, a mother's touch."

"They say that something evil can sometimes spur something good, if one believes . . . maybe we will both get our wish." Trish hugged Sarah, quickly recovering her composure the moment tears threatened to fall. "Well, I just hope those jeans don't rub you the wrong way and aggravate that leg wound." Before she could say anything further, the doorbell interrupted the moment. "Dinner has arrived!"

"I'll be out in a minute." Mac took one more look in the mirror, she too concerned that the tight jeans would aggravate her leg wound, but thoughts of comfort didn't appear to be her primary concern tonight. A little discomfort would be well worth it, if that discomfort also aggravated one handsome Naval Aviator to the point of distraction.

Stop it, Marine! God, what was she thinking . . . he had turned her advances down once already . . . they were who they were . . . location didn't change who they were . . . not yet . . . only you . . .God, what was she thinking! Sarah Mackenzie knew exactly what she was thinking and when it came right down to it . . . it really didn't matter what she thought, if he still felt the same as he had on that warm summer night when they rode the ferry across Sydney Harbor.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

He stood outside the door, suddenly unsure again. Fear of what he felt. Fear of what she felt . . . fear that he couldn't love unconditionally a woman as strong-willed as Sarah Mackenzie. What if she really loved Mic Brumby? What if that cocky Australian really loved her? She had taken his ring so willingly just days after they had had that talk. What if he had misread her? What if he couldn't give her want she needed? What if love was just not enough?

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

"Right on time, dear. Can I take those?"

"No, I got them. Thanks." Harm followed his mother into the kitchen and deposited the bags on the counter. "Is Mac going to join us?"

"Of course, darling." Trish eyed Harm's selection of dinner with a quizzical expression. "She's in the bedroom primping."

"Marines don't primp, Mom."

"That may very well be, but women primp and the last time I noticed, Sarah Mackenzie is quite a woman." Noticing the sudden uncomfortable expression on her son's face, she had to smile, realizing that Mac's feminine qualities had never really escaped her son . . . not in the least and his realization was making him damned uncomfortable.

"Yeah, she . . . So how was your day?"

"Fine. Yours must have been harried . . . considering your choice of dinner entrees . . . Belting Burgers?"

"Beltway Burgers, Mom . . . Beltway. They're Mac's . . . "

" . . . favorite. But I'm sure he's brought some wilted garden items for himself. Am I right, flyboy?"

"Right, Ninja-girl."

Trish Burnett felt the electricity . . . as if someone had thrown water over a highly charged fence that they stood on. If she didn't know better she would have sworn she saw sparks fly between the two of them, as they just stared at each other like two strangers meeting for the first time. Thinking they know each other, but neither waiting to be the fool to make the first move . . . if they actually . . . were just strangers.

"Well, I'll set the table . . . I think plastic and paper befits this feast." Looking from Harm to Mac, she realized she didn't exist in their world anymore. "Yes, I'll just do that, don't mind me."

And Trish Burnett had disappeared in their world. It was as if they were caught in a universe, solely occupied by them alone. A universe existing among universes. A universe of two, for only two. Mac held her breath as Harm approached her, not knowing what to expect but knowing what she wanted from this incredible man. Or did she know? She felt his gentle touch trace the bruises on her face and saw the anguish in his brilliant eyes.

"I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry." Uncharacteristically, he pulled her into his arms without hesitation, and he trembled, still unrecognized emotions assaulting his body and relief flooding his mind with the realization that she was safe in his arms. He buried his face in her scented hair. There was so much to say, there was so much to feel, there was so much to be thankful for. The longer he held her, the more he wanted her and the more he acknowledged the sensations the more he was scared to death of losing her . . . to anyone including Mic Brumby.

"It's okay, it's not your fault." She leaned into his strength and warmth, winding her arms around his neck, her action making her wince and grimace slightly. She cursed herself for not being able to hide her pain when she felt him pull away with concern.

"You okay?"

"Fine, though my ribs are screaming at me right now."

"Ribs?"

"Three . . . cracked."

"Ouch . . ."

"I'm okay, Flyboy. I just need to sit for a minute."

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Once settled at the table, Harm sensed Mac relax, but he never took his eyes off his Marine noticing her shift every now and then in obvious discomfort. And Trish Burnett watched and she noticed a sudden undercurrent of awkwardness driven by indecision that seemed to again extinguish the electricity she had felt earlier. Instincts told her to try and lighten the mood and steer the conversation to a more neutral topic.

"Frank called today."

"How is he?"

"Actually, he'll be here Friday night."

"Really? That's great Mom. Another business trip?"

"No actually, it's a pleasure trip. Besides, he wanted to visit with Mac . . . after all she's been through."

"It will be great to see him, Trish. I didn't get to visit with him much the last time."

"Harm, darling. I was wondering if perhaps you wouldn't mind leaving the SUV here tonight and perhaps take Mac's car?"

"Why, Mom?"

"Well, I thought it would be nice to get Mac out of the house tomorrow and well, her 'vette might prove a bit uncomfortable for her. Besides, it's a bit too much car for me."

"Mom, you don't drive. Why don't you just hire a limo?"

"Of course I drive, and besides I think I've had enough of limo drivers for awhile. Mac you don't mind if Harm takes the 'vette do you?"

"Of course not, as long he keeps his long-legged blondes out of it."

"Cute, Marine."

"Harm?"

"No problem. It's fine with me."

"Good then it's settled. Is it parked out front?"

"Yeah, right in front."

"Perfect, thank you darling."

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

They finished their meal and decided to take their coffee in the living room, where Mac would be more comfortable. As they settled on the sofa, while Trish insisted on getting the coffee, Harm noticed the absence of Mic Brumby's ring for the first time.

"Mac, where's your ring?"

"I returned it to Mic on Sunday."

"I'm sorry. I'm surprised you didn't mention it before."

"We haven't had much time alone . . . and I just haven't told anyone except your mother really."

"Mom, you knew?"

Trish returning with the coffee, caught only her son's question, but noticed immediately the sudden tension in the air. "Knew what, dear?"

"That Mac returned Brumby's ring."

"Actually, I did. She mentioned it to me at lunch on Monday."

"I'm surprised you didn't mention it to me either."

"Well, it wasn't my place. I'm sure Sarah wanted you to know, but she needed to tell you in her own good time, and things have been a little unsettled, wouldn't you say?"

Mac noticed the relief in Harm's eyes, as he continued to stare at her hand. "We've just decided to take a breather from each other, nothing more. His sudden arrival, some of our discussions . . . well we, just decided it best that we take some time and re-adjust." It wasn't relief she had seen. It was something much more as she noticed his eyes darken.

"Harm . . . Mac, I . . ."

She wanted a breather? What the hell did that mean? How much time did she need to recognize that she either loved him or she didn't? Could she really love him? "Hell, you had four months apart . . . you would think that would be enough to know if you . . . love the guy or not. What did Mr. Wonderful do now? Mac, honestly your choice . . ."

" . . . in men. Mic didn't do anything. He's a wonderful, caring man. It was me and besides . . . we are just giving ourselves some time apart. Nothing is settled yet. And while we are on the subject of MY men, what about your choice in women?"

"Harm . . . Mac, I think . . ."

"Well, I don't pass rings around like they were candy . . . and if I did, even MY women wouldn't accept them on a whim." The minute the words were out, he wished that his mouth had a rewind button when he saw the hurt and confusion on her face.

"A whim . . . a whim . . . is that why you thought I accepted Mic's ring?"

"Mac . . . Harm, I think that . . ."

"Yeah, I guess I did think it was a whim . . . after the ferry ride . . . after my . . . comments, I just thought you . . . " He whispered the words, seeing that he had pushed her too far, and remembering he had taken her pride away once . . . and she wasn't going to let him have it easily again.

" . . . don't flatter yourself, Harmon Rabb! I didn't go to Mic because of that ferry ride . . . I went to him before that . . ."

"Mac . . . Harm, I think that perhaps . . ."

" . . . then what was the point of our conversation that night? What was the point?"

"I don't . . . I don't know what the point of this conversation is and that's why I prefer we drop the subject now."

"If that's what you want Marine, I think I get the message. Loud and clear."

"ENOUGH both of you! He said, she said, you said, I said, we said! Honestly, I don't think either of you say much of anything to each other! You talk around each other in riddles and half truths! I've had enough of your little games! I'm getting ready for bed!" Trish Burnett stomped from the living room into the bathroom and slammed the door, leaving both children in an awkward silence that spoke volumes of confusion.

"Mac . . . I didn't want this night to turn out like this. I wanted to . . . Hell, maybe we do need to talk about that night and what has happened since you . . . "

"What did you want, Harm? What have you ever wanted from me?"

"Mac . . ."

"I don't know what I wanted that night . . . or maybe I did, but it doesn't matter now. I'm not up to this tonight, I'm . . . It's late, maybe we should just call it a night."

Mac rose, refusing Harm's assistance. Walking rigidly, she opened the apartment door. "Harm, maybe we're just not who we both think we are . . . somewhere along the line we've lost it all . . . our friendship . . . our closeness . . . our trust in one another. Maybe we can never be . . . "

"Look, I'm sorry for Sydney . . . I'm sorry for losing my temper about Brumby . . . I'm sorry for the things I said . . . I'm sorry for not being able yet to . . . to . . . but I'm not a damn bit sorry for this."

Without warning, Harmon Rabb pulled Sarah Mackenzie into his arms, heard her moan, clearly not because of her injuries, but because of her own raw surfacing desires. Before he lost his nerve, the feel of her too intoxicating against him, he quickly found her lips with his . . . and when she pulled away slightly, the fire in their eyes said it all. This time it was her who sought the passion, her who sought the fire, her who sought the exhilaration of his searing kiss, as she wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him back to her.

A wisp of a feather couldn't have found it's way between them as they clung to each other, clung to the passion, their kiss burning their very soul and neither wanting to extinguish the feelings they were eliciting in each other. Her warmth was his warmth. Her need was his need. Her scent was his scent. Her desires were his desires . . . for one devastating raw moment in time defining what words couldn't between them.

The sheer natural need to breath was the only thing that separated them, and the truth in Harm's words would echo through their now destined sleepless night.

"You've never kissed Brumby like that, and I've never kissed Renee like that. Hell, I've never kissed anyone like that and that's what we need to talk about Marine."

With those simple whispered words said . . . Harm let Mac go, turned and walked away.

 

 

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