I was chopping yellow squash, lost in thought—lost in thoughts about Mac and Mattie and the state of my life when a sudden knock at the door startled me. The knife sliced neatly into my finger, and I yelped, instinctively putting it into my mouth as I jumped up to answer the door. Mattie was staying with her father—again, and I wasn’t expecting anyone else. These days not many people showed up unannounced.
Even Jennifer wasn’t around much. She’d taken Mattie’s progress with her father as a signal to start doing what any young, attractive, single woman should be doing. She was going out with friends her own age, and I even suspected a special guy might be involved these days. I was happy for her. I’d always felt a little guilty about the way I’d ended up imposing on her when I needed help, and even though I knew she loved Mattie, I also felt strongly that Jen needed to be thinking about her own life rather than trying to pay off some imagined debt to me.
I swung my front door open and was surprised to find Mac with her arm poised, ready to knock again. I was relieved to see her. We’d had a disagreement that afternoon, and I had been worried that she was still upset with me, but she smiled tentatively and asked, “Are you busy?”
“No. I’m just cooking—come on in.” I waved her inside and resumed sucking on my cut finger as I walked back to the kitchen area.
She put her purse on my bookshelf and followed me. “What did you do to your finger?”
“Cut it instead of the squash,” I mumbled. I walked over to the sink and turned on the water.
She was right behind me and grabbed my hand before I could stick it under the faucet. “Do you need stitches?” She examined the cut, looking all fussy and concerned, and then forced my hand under the water and held it there. She seemed satisfied that a trip to the emergency room wasn’t necessary, but she scolded me just the same. “You need to be more careful, Harm.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I wouldn’t have cut myself if she hadn’t knocked on my door when she did. These days she could latch onto the slightest thing and feel overburdened with guilt about it. I wasn’t going to add my boo-boo to her list. I did, however, let her make a big deal out of making sure it was clean and bandaged—complete with a Spiderman band-aid. She’d raised her eyebrows when she found them in my medicine cabinet, but she refrained from commenting since it was a known fact that she favored the ones decorated with dinosaurs.
Her hands soothed me the way that I wanted to sooth her. She was still hurting about Clay’s death, and at the same time she was trying to come to terms with her health problems. So she still needed to keep some walls up to get through the days. Too much kindness from anyone made her teary eyed. That was probably why she was spending more time with me. She knew I wouldn’t go all sentimental on her. I would give her a hard time—same as always—even when all I wanted to do was pick her up and hold her in my lap and rock her until she felt safe and protected. I wanted her to find peace in my arms, but I didn’t know if that was ever going to be possible. I didn’t know what she needed, but I wanted to be around on the off chance that she decided it was me.
“Have you eaten?” I asked, hoping she would join me. I knew my days with Mattie were numbered, and every night that I cooked for myself and ate alone only served to remind me of that painful fact.
Mac eyed the pile of half chopped vegetables doubtfully, and asked, “What else are we having?”
She looked interested. “I thought I smelled something good.”
I brought out the heavy guns to clinch the deal. “And we have cheesecake for dessert.”
“Now you’re talking.” She hopped onto the barstool, grabbed the knife and started chopping with a vengeance.
I opened the oven door and took a peek at the chicken. It still needed a few minutes, so I shut the door and asked, “So, what brings you by?”
As close as we’d been over the years, Mac had never been one to just drop in without a reason. I could tell by the way she was wielding the knife with fierce determination that tonight was no different.
She whacked the last of the poor defenseless squash into submission, and then laid the knife down and looked at me. “I couldn’t stop thinking about that argument we had this afternoon. I don’t want you to be mad at me, Harm.”
“I’m not mad, Mac. In fact, I owe you another apology. I was way out of line.”
been talking to me about her trip to
own feelings about Clayton Webb were all over the map, but until this
afternoon, I’d tried to stay calm and unemotional for Mac’s sake.
Of course, I was sorry he was dead.
He’d been a friend of sorts, and though Mac and I had managed
to survive our missions with him, it was rarely because of his
superior planning. On the
other hand, he’d gone above and beyond to get Sergei out of that
prisoner of war camp and bring him to
then he’d taken Mac to
might have forgiven him all that once we were all safely back in the
That afternoon I’d sat in my office and watched her pale, fragile face fight for composure as she told me about meeting Webb’s mother, and I’d momentarily lost the battle to be a reasonable and compassionate friend. I’d barked at her and told her in no uncertain terms that she had to start thinking about herself. I reminded her that her doctor had warned her about stress, and she’d done nothing but open herself up to more pain and heartache by going on that damned trip. I was on a roll by the time I informed her that it had been completely unnecessary and pointless. The startled expression in her sad, brown eyes finally penetrated my self-indulgent rant, and I’d backed down enough to let her know I was sorry although the anger I felt was still seething beneath the surface, and we both knew it. She’d scurried out of my office as soon as she could, and I’d felt like a jerk for adding to her problems.
The fact that she’d shown up on my doorstep meant she wasn’t mad at me. For now that was good enough. I could feed her—she hadn’t been taking care of herself, in my opinion—and I could refrain from lecturing her, and I could try to be the supportive friend that she needed right now. It wasn’t much, but it was all I could think of to make up for my outburst. So I steamed the squash and warmed some rolls while Mac carved the chicken. She seemed leery of letting me handle anything with sharp edges.
We sat down to eat, and I pushed my food around, more interested in watching her then in what was on my plate. Her infamous appetite seemed to have returned, and she tackled her chicken with something close to her old enthusiasm. Watching her, I smiled and suddenly felt hungry, too, for the first time in ages.
She asked about Mattie, and seemed honestly concerned. I told her that Tom was doing really well, and I hoped it would work out for both of them. She saw through my brave front and got all feisty on my behalf, saying that they both better realize how lucky they were to have me in their corner. And the tight feeling I’d carried in my chest since Mattie had told me she’d reconciled with her father loosened just a little bit.
She put her fork down with a sigh and said, “That was great, Harm.” She had barbeque sauce smeared on her cheek.
“I’m glad you liked it, but you have it all over your face.”
thinking I reached over and used my napkin to wipe it off.
It was a mindless gesture—an automatic response—something
I’d done a million times over the years when I would watch her dive
face first into some messy culinary concoction.
She would eat, and laugh, and make a mess.
I would tease, and feign disgust, and make a half-assed attempt
to clean her up. Of course
that was before
It was too simplistic to say that Webb’s death had brought her back to me. That somehow implied that she’d been mine to lose in the first place. But she’d come to me when he died, and she’d confided in me about her health problems, and ever since then I’d fought the overwhelming urge to wrap my arms around her and find a way to make her world alright again. I didn’t think she would appreciate that, so I settled for wiping barbeque sauce off her face.
She laughed and grabbed my wrist while she tried to dodge my napkin. “I know I made a mess, but it was just so good.” She suddenly got serious. “Thanks for asking me to stay, Harm.”
Her eyes were deep and dark and sincere, and I knew she was thanking me for more than the meal, but I’d never wanted her gratitude, so I played it off as unimportant. “No need to thank me. I’m gonna let you do the dishes.”
“Okay,” she agreed readily, “but you’re drying.”
We decided to save the cheesecake for later and stood side by side at the sink washing dishes. She liked lots of suds and scalding hot water. Her arm jostled against mine as I dried. I reached around her for a glass she’d forgotten and my hip bumped against hers. I found a spot she’d missed on a plate, and she pretended to scowl when I made her rewash it. She used her damp wrist to push her bangs from her forehead, and I helped by tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear. Her wet hands slid against mine as I slipped another plate beneath the soapy water, and my body hummed with an acute awareness of her. I was content in a way that I hadn’t been for years—or maybe ever.
The woman I loved was beside me, and it was enough—for now.
I put the foil-covered piece of cheesecake on her desk.
Mac had been in court all morning, and I’d been out on an interview for part of the day, but I’d stuck it in the refrigerator in the break room after I’d arrived at work that morning and found her office still dark and empty. Our paths never crossed so I could present it to her in person, so I was finally reduced to leaving it on her desk as a greeting—a sugar substitute for hello, how are you, I’m glad you spent the evening with me, I missed you once you left, and can we do it again sometime soon. Okay—maybe that was more meaning than a simple piece of cheesecake could convey, but it was hard to go wrong with food where Mac was concerned and my tendency to say too much or not enough had to be considered.
I was about to make my escape from her office when she came breezing in the door. She was beaming—a sure sign that things had gone her way.
“Hey Mac, you look happy.”
“Innocent on all charges,” she announced proudly. “Sturgis never knew what hit him.”
“Poor Sturgis.” I shook my head in sympathy.
“Poor Sturgis, my eye—I was simply brilliant, and my client wasn’t guilty.”
“That’s what I meant to say,” I conceded with a grin.
“What’s this?” she asked spying my offering as she sat her briefcase down and walked around to sit at her desk.
“You left last night without dessert.” I suddenly felt unsure—as awkward as a schoolboy holding out a bunch of wild flowers to the cute freckle-faced girl at recess.
Her face lit up. “I know. I was halfway home when I remembered. I nearly turned around and drove back to your apartment.”
“You should have,” I said. Turning on the charm, I added, “I wouldn’t have minded.” I winced as soon as the words left my mouth. Now was probably not the best time to be flirting. I studied my shoes; afraid my need for her would be plainly written all over my face. But I shouldn’t have worried. When I glanced up it was clear that all of her attention was focused on digging through the foil to get at what was underneath.
“I didn’t have lunch, and I’m starving.” She ignored the plastic fork I’d provided and stuck a finger right into the middle of the cherry topping and then licked it off. She closed her eyes and sighed blissfully, “Thanks, Harm, I might make it until dinnertime now.”
“You’re welcome. I live to get you from one meal to the next.” I grinned and stood there rocking on my heels, not really having a reason to stay any longer, but not really wanting to go, either. “You know, I made it myself,” I boasted.
She nodded and raised her eyebrows to acknowledge that she’d heard me, but she was too busy eating to be bothered with conversation.
Feeling extraneous, I wandered around her office and stopped short when I caught sight of the wooden carousel sitting on her bookshelf. I remembered the look of delight on her face when she’d found it on her desk—the look of wonder as she turned it on and watched it spin. All at once I could see Webb’s face mocking me from the grave, and I was flooded with the mortifying realization that I was trying to compete with a dead man for her attention.
Plying her with leftover desserts might seem innocent enough on the surface, but if I wasn’t careful, I’d soon find myself donning lederhosen and standing on my head to get her to notice me. I had the sudden urge to snatch the pathetic token of my affection masquerading as cheesecake on a paper plate out from under her nose and yell, “Wait, that doesn’t count. I can do better.”
The image of her stabbing me with her plastic fork stopped me. So did the contented look on her face, and I realized that I was getting way off track. This wasn’t about me or Webb, and as I watched her happily inhaling the dessert I exhaled a deep sigh and reminded myself that my only motive should be to make her feel better. As usual I’d tried to make it more complicated than it needed to be.
But then second guessing myself where Mac was concerned had always been part of my problem. Whenever I tried to define what she meant to me I always stumbled. Sure, I’d told Mattie that I loved her. That had been a huge step for me—to actually say the words out loud to another human being. But when it came to my feelings for Mac the word ‘love’ had always seemed too small, too overused, too limiting, and so I always ended up saying next to nothing, and as a result she’d come to believe that my feelings for her were small and limited, too.
But now—still so soon after Clay’s death—was not the time to try and fix all the mistakes of the past. I felt off balance—trying to help her walk across this tight wire of grief. How much did she need from me? How much did she want? I reached out and tapped one of the tiny gondolas hanging on the carousel and watched it swing back and forth.
I hadn’t noticed her get up from her desk, but suddenly she was there, standing beside me. She touched the carousel tentatively, and then said, “Did I tell you that he had his assistant pick this out of a catalogue and send it to me?” She sounded sad and abandoned.
“No,” I answered simply, but my heart broke for her.
We were both in uniform, standing in the middle of her office and the bullpen was bustling with activity right outside her open door, but she leaned her head against my shoulder, and I let her.
“I was mad at first, but he was trying in his own way to make me happy. I know that now.” She seemed wistful and far away.
I turned my head and her hair tickled my chin. My hand barely skimmed her waist, and I dropped an almost kiss on the top of her head and murmured, “I’m sorry, Mac—”
She cut me off before I could finish, and in an abrupt change of mood said, “Hey, I’m the one that should be sorry, Harm—crying on your shoulder all the time. It’s not fair to you.” She quickly moved away from me and tried to return to her desk.
I caught her arm before she could get very far and said fiercely, “Don’t do that, Mac.”
“Don’t do what?” Her eyes were trained on the middle of my chest, and I tilted her chin up so that she had to look at me.
“Act brave for my sake. If you want to be fair to me, then let me be your friend.”
Her sad, searching eyes locked onto mine and I couldn’t have hidden what I felt for her if I’d tried. She reached a hand toward my face and with a light touch traced the worry lines on my forehead. Her palm settled on my cheek and she said softly, “I think you may be the only true friend I’ve ever had.”
Before I could respond, Sturgis stuck his head in the door. He cleared his throat and we jumped away from each other as if we’d been shot. “Excuse me, Mac. I just wanted to re-extend my invitation to come hear Varise sing tonight. Besides I owe you a meal since you beat me in court today, so we might as well make an evening of it.”
“Sounds like fun, Sturgis. I think I will.” Mac smiled at him gratefully. He’d been solicitous and gentle with her since Webb’s death. Though it made no sense, he seemed to feel some responsibility for discovering that Clayton was one of the CIA agents drowned at sea. I was just glad that he seemed more like his old self since he’d been dating Varise. The love of a good woman could work wonders, or so I’d been told.
Sturgis turned to me expectantly. “What about you, Harm? I was just about to come find you. Would you like to join us? My treat. Varise is singing at the Blue Note tonight.”
There really wasn’t any question that I would say yes. If Mac was going to be there, then I wanted to be there, too. “Sure, Sturgis, I’d like that.”
“Outstanding. I’ll see you two tonight, then.” He left with a bounce in his step.
When he was gone I turned to Mac and said cheerfully, “A little dining, a little dancing—with Sturgis picking up the tab. It sounds like just what the doctor ordered.”
“I have to admit I wasn’t looking forward to another night sitting home alone.”
“I know what you mean.” My empty apartment was the last place I wanted to be.
Mac frowned and asked, “Is Mattie still with her father?”
“Yes. We have a court date for a new custody hearing in a few days. It’s really just a formality though. I’m sure she will be moving back with him permanently before school starts in the fall.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Mac seemed upset that I hadn’t kept her informed of the situation.
“You’ve had enough to worry about, Mac. And I’m fine. I knew this would happen eventually.”
“Don’t do that, Harm.” She touched my arm and repeated the words I’d said to her moments before.
“Don’t do what?” I knew what she meant, but I let her say it anyway.
“Act brave for my sake. This friendship thing works both ways, you know.”
hadn’t realized how much I needed to hear those words from her until
she said them. A hot unidentifiable emotion flooded my chest, and the
trapped feelings of loneliness that had been a part of me since
“Sure—Bring the corvette, and we can put the top down. I want to feel the wind on my face and let the whole world rush by.” She closed her eyes as if she was flying down the freeway already.
“I can handle that.”
She opened her eyes and said with a challenge, “Maybe I’ll wear something immodest and make you dance slow dances with me all night long. Could you handle that, Harm?” There was something restless and bold in her voice that I'd never heard before.
Humans can only grieve for so long before they turn away from death and reach out for anything that makes them feel alive. It’s a temporary balm—a momentary relief from the unrelenting pain of loss, and certainly nothing solid or true ever came out of it to build a future on. I knew with my eyes wide open that I was setting myself up for a fall, but I couldn’t stop myself when I answered with a challenge of my own.
“Why don’t you try me, Mac?”
This wasn’t a date—so why had I spent so much time getting ready? This was just a get together with co-workers. Something I’d done a million times before. That’s what I told myself while I was shaving—and again when I changed my shirt three times. This wasn’t a date—just a chance to have my hands on Sarah McKenzie all night long. Slow dancing all night long—that’s what she’d said. The blood in my body seemed to slow down at the thought. Lazy, drowsy, decadent thrumming impulses swamped me with the deep-down desire I’d hidden away for a long time. And suddenly I was tired of hiding it. I was tired of pretending not to feel anything—I was tired of respecting limits—self-imposed or otherwise.
Brave talk when I wasn’t facing those haunted eyes of hers—brave talk when I was still at home halfway across town, but now walking down the hallway to her apartment I found my newfound resolve fading fast.
But this wasn’t a date—so I why did I need to screw up my courage before I could knock on her door? Why did I hold my breath anticipating the moment it would open and she would be standing there smiling at me? This was Mac, after all, and I’d done this a thousand times before.
All at once she was there, inviting me inside with a little wave before she disappeared back into her bedroom. I stood awkwardly in the living room waiting for her to reappear, waiting for that moment when just being with her would replace this jittery, edgy feeling with something normal and mundane and everyday. She came back into the room carrying her purse and a shawl, and with a whirl of uncharacteristic enthusiasm, dragged me back out the door before I could catch my breath. She hopped into the Corvette—I’d already put the top down—and embraced the cool night air with outstretched arms.
“Oh, I needed this.” She sighed and settled into her seat. “Let’s make a deal, Harm—just for tonight—let’s not talk about any of our problems—no Mattie, no Clay, no health issues, no past, no future. What do you say?”
“I don’t know,” I teased her. “What if we can’t find anything else to talk about? We might just end up staring at each other all night long.” I glanced over to find her already staring at me.
“That would be fine, too,” she said solemnly. “You’re a very attractive man, you know.”
I felt flustered by her bluntness. With another woman I would have a cocky comeback—some not so subtle invitation to explore her remark further, but with Mac I felt tongue-tied and duty bound to stay within those long established parameters. And maybe that’s what she was talking about. Would it be so wrong if for one night we didn’t have to measure and weigh every response against our past? If for one night we were free to say and do whatever we wanted—consequences be damned?
It was a dangerous idea— dangerous and tempting, and I felt myself considering it even as I offered one more candid warning. “I’m trying to be careful with you, Mac—especially now.”
The wind whipped her hair around in a crazy dance and her eyes were wide and determined when she said, “We’ve been careful for nine years, Harm. I think it’s time we tried something different.”
It was easy to let myself be convinced that she knew what she was asking. Being cautious with Mac had become a habit, and it had never gotten me what I wanted. I needed something different, too. So when she took me by the hand and led me into the club, I followed willingly, recklessly, eagerly, and with a small prayer that we would somehow get through the night undamaged.
Sturgis spotted us right away and waved us over to his table. He spotted our clasped hands, too, but he didn’t say anything beyond shooting me an inquiring look that Mac didn’t see. I ignored him and held out her chair. As she sat down he said, “Wow, Mac, you look amazing.”
“Thanks for noticing, Sturgis.” She smiled at him then pinned me with a mock glare.
“I admit—she cleans up good,” I said with a shrug and a wink. The truth was I’d avoided looking at her too closely when I picked her up. Visions of that immodest outfit she’d threatened to wear had wrecked my concentration for the rest of the afternoon—visions of some strapless, backless, neckline plunging, too short, too tight imitation of a dress swam in my head, and I’d imagined her dragging me to the dance floor while I struggled to find somewhere decent to put my hands.
The dress she was actually wearing was simple, unremarkable—plain even, until you stuck Sarah McKenzie inside it. What her body did to clothes was a source of constant torture for me. An unguarded look of lust must have crossed my face as I studied her, because Sturgis suddenly sprang into full protective mode. He was my friend, but he was above all things a gentleman, and if he felt I was about to take advantage of Mac during a vulnerable time, then he wouldn’t hesitate to bounce me on my head a few times.
“Would you like to dance, Mac? It’s going to be a few minutes before Varise starts her set,” Sturgis asked while giving me his ‘I’m going to warn her that you’re up to no good’ stare.
She looked like she might say yes; so I stood up before she could answer and said, “Wait for your own girl, Sturgis.” I held out my hand and said, “Dance with me, Mac. I think they’re playing our song.”
She placed her hand in mine and stood up. “Sorry, Sturgis, but I’m all his tonight.”
I pulled her out onto the dance floor and into my arms. The club was dark and small and in another day and age, it would have been smoky, too. A small combo played jazz that set the mood for seduction. I fought with the idea that the whole evening was starting to feel like foreplay—leading to something more—something that mattered—something I had no right to want right now.
She made no attempt to keep a safe distance between us. She wrapped her arms around my neck and leaned her cheek against my chest. My body reacted to the feel of her, and I tried to keep my hands still where they rested on her back. She snuggled into me, and I decided to relax and enjoy the moment until I suddenly realized my hand now rested on the bare skin of her back.
“Mac,” I whispered urgently. “You’re dress—I think it’s come undone.” She looked confused, so I moved my hand up and down from her neckline to her waist to let her know what I was talking about. “Your dress is wide open in the back.”
She laughed and said, “It’s made that way, Harm.”
“Oh,” I said stupidly. My fingers trailed across her skin before I forced myself to remove my hand from her bare back and place it safely at her waist. “Well, it’s—uh—nice.”
“Thank you,” she said with a smile and settled back into my arms.
That dress suddenly seemed anything but plain and simple. The opening in back had been unnoticeable until she moved and now like a Siren’s song it called to me, luring my hand to dive back into forbidden territory. Like a teenaged boy I couldn’t think of anything but the smooth skin that was inches from my fingertips. Her breasts, which I suddenly realized were unbound, were nestled snugly against me, and she smelled good, too. Something different then the stuff she usually wore in the office—something exotic that made me want to bury my face against her throat and stay there. I was in big trouble.
I moved her stiffly around the dance floor and glanced over at our table. “Sturgis is still watching us,” I said in an attempt at sparkling conversation.
She glanced over at him and shrugged. “Someone’s always watching us whether we’re doing anything or not.” She looked pointedly at the puritanical placement of my hand and asked, “And anyway, we’re not doing anything, are we? Still being careful, Harm?”
Something sad and earnest in her eyes tugged at me, and I knew with absolute certainty that this time, we wouldn’t survive if she felt I’d rejected her again. The timing of this night was all wrong, and a part of me screamed that it was unfair of her to put me in this position—unfair of her to try replacing what she’d lost with something we’d never been able to find. And despite my earlier devil-may-care agreement to go along for this ride I knew she could ruin both of us with one rash misstep.
I could protect myself, protect both of us—or just let go and trust her to know what she needed. In the end, my choice was simple. I grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her into a dark corner of the club. I pushed her against the wall and held her still. “I’m going to kiss you, Mac, and then we’re going to sit down and listen to Varise sing. What happens after that is up to you.”
Her eyes were wide, and she was breathing hard, and my lips were just inches from hers. I was giving her one last chance to change her mind—one last chance to save us from what might be a terrible mistake, but instead she closed the distance and nothing about it felt like a mistake. I took her mouth with a savagery that surprised me, and she kissed me back with staggering raw need. I tried to tell her with that kiss that I wanted her, and that I’d always wanted her. I tried to tell her that I’d missed her—and the possibility of this for the entire last god-awful year. I kept her pinned between the hard unyielding wall and my body, and I lost all sense of what was appropriate or safe or fair.
The sound of scattered applause and a man’s voice introducing Varise penetrated my hazy brain, and I somehow found the strength to end the kiss. I pushed away from the wall and managed to ask in a voice that sounded almost normal, “Are you ready to go hear Varise sing?”
Mac watched me for a moment and said, “If you’re ready for what happens after that.”
She smiled and without waiting for my answer walked back to our table. My answer, of course, was to follow her—consequences be damned.
Copyright © 2005 Legacies Archive - Site owner Pixie