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Classification Humor, Romance (H/M)
Length Approximately 15,000 words, 31 pages (8 ½ x 11”)
Spoilers Everything through mid Season 8 episode, “Standards of Conduct”
Rating CF
Author's Notes After the "you're funny" comment, Mac decides it's time to start dating again. Can Harm help her find the right man?

 

 


Part One

 

There was an extra bounce in Harm's step as he left Mac's office and walked into his own.

"You're funny," she'd told him with that luminous smile.

Grinning, he sat down at his desk and congratulated himself on the way he'd handled this latest situation. He had taken the bull by the horns, marched right up to her and confronted her about their baby deal. Okay, he had hemhawed around, circled the topic, and stumbled over his words, but at least he should get some credit for broaching the subject in the first place.

He hadn't been able to think about anything else since the day she'd mentioned AJ's fifth birthday. The idea that she might be ready to go ahead with their agreement scared him to death. Not because he hated the idea of having a baby with Mac. Lately, he couldn't imagine anyone else as the mother of his children. No, it scared him because he really believed that their relationship was carefully and steadily moving along in the right direction. They were closer now than they had ever been, and he didn't want anything to upset the delicate balance they had worked so hard to achieve. If they ever decided to go halves on a baby he had started to hope that little AJ's fifth birthday would have nothing to do with it.

But her reaction had been a pleasant surprise. Instead of getting annoyed or upset, she had taken his bumbling questions in stride, reassured him that she wasn't ready to have a baby, and shooed him out of her office so she could finish her work for the day.

It was another sign that they were finally on the right track. He cherished this new ease they had when they were together, the simple comfort they found in each other's company. He loved her, and he knew she cared about him, but he wasn't going to force the issue. It had taken them seven years to get to this point, and he was willing to wait seven more if necessary. She was worth it, and after today he really didn't think he would have to wait much longer to tell her how he felt. As long as it takes, he thought contentedly before he got back to work

The afternoon flew by even though he was immersed in dull reports and mountains of paperwork. He was about to call it a day when Mac poked her head in his door and asked, "Hey, are you still picking me up for the poker game tonight?"

"Yeah, I'll come by around 1800, and we can grab something to eat first."

"Sounds good." She remained in his doorway looking uncertain. "Harm, can I talk to you about something else?"

"Sure. Come on in." He stood up to grab a file that was on the edge of his desk and smiled. "What's up?"

She looked a little flushed as she sat down in one of his chairs. "I've been doing some serious thinking this afternoon, and I have come to an important decision."

"About what, Mac?" he asked apprehensively. Maybe she had changed her mind about the baby deal.

She hesitated slightly before announcing decisively, "I think it's time for me to start dating again."

He didn’t understand. "What do you mean?"

"I think I need to start going out with men-you know, have a social life." Mac smiled as if this was a perfectly reasonable thing to say.

"You want to date men?" Completely stunned, he sat down abruptly. His voice had risen slightly, and he still couldn't quite process her words.

She had the nerve to laugh. "That would be my first choice." All he could do was stare at her. In less than three seconds she had managed to turn his world completely upside down. She was still talking, so he tried to concentrate-"And of course, I have to thank you for helping me realize that I have to get on with my life." She was smiling at him now as if she had bestowed a great honor on him.

"Mac," he managed to get out. "I'm confused. Why do you need to date? You have me."

Mac laughed again, and for the life of him he couldn't figure out what was so funny.

"I know I have you, Harm, and I love you for it. You treat me just like one of the guys. I've got the bruises from last week's basketball game to prove it."

"You are one of the guys, Mac-" She looked at him pointedly. "-I mean. You're not one of the guys, but we have fun hanging out, don't we?"

"Of course we have fun, and that may be one of the sweetest things you have ever said to me. Don't worry. I'm not giving up Friday night poker, but I think it's time I made some changes. Talking about our baby deal just made me realize it."

"What has that got to do with anything? I said I didn't want out of the deal, and I meant it," he said sincerely.

"I know, Harm. You're a good man who takes his promises seriously. And even if you did want out of it you're too much of a gentleman to say so. Once you take on a responsibility you fulfill it come hell or high water."

"Is that such a bad thing?" he asked.

"Of course not. It's one of your more admirable traits, but that's why I realized how unfair I'm being to you. You're my best friend in the whole world, and we could go along as we have been-happily spending all of our spare time together-but if neither of us is involved in any other relationship, then I'm afraid the specter of little AJ's fifth birthday will start to loom over us like a big dark cloud -getting ever closer as the months tick by."

"Mac, I don't feel that way at all."

"I expected you to say that. But I saw the look on your face. You were scared to death when you thought I wanted to move the deal up, and that's exactly why I owe it to you to start dating other men. Don't you see? This will take the pressure off because there's always a chance that one of us could meet someone else-someone serious. And if we don’t then we can both consider our options on AJ's birthday."

Oh great! She could meet someone serious! That was something to look forward to. He suddenly felt nauseous. He had lived through this with Lowne and Brumby, and he wasn't sure he could survive it again.

"I wasn't scared-" he started saying, but she cut him off.

"Harm, you don't have to explain. Really. I understand."

The only thing he understood was that this was a no win situation. If he got down on his knees at this very moment and declared his eternal love, she would dismiss it as misguided chivalry. And if she really wanted to date other men, then eternal love wasn’t what she wanted from him anyway.

"So, Mac," he struggled for a pleasant tone but his stomach was still tied up in knots. "Where do you plan to find these men, anyway?"

"I don't know. I haven't given it much thought."

"Well, that's part of your problem. When it comes to dating you've never given it much thought."

"Is that so?" Her voice was deceptively calm.

He didn't notice the fire in her eyes as he warmed to his subject. "No, you just jump in head first. Never mind if the guy is trustworthy or not. All a man has to do is flatter you, and the next thing you know, you're acting all silly over him."

"I guess that's why I never acted silly over you."

Oblivious to her growing temper, he continued, "What are you going to do? Start hanging out at single's bars?"

"Well, I don't think it will come to that. Men ask me out all the time."

"They do?" he asked incredulously. Where had he been when all of these men were asking her out?

Taken aback by his tone, she responded defensively, "Well, you don't have to sound so surprised. Some men do find me attractive, you know."

"Oh, Mac, that's not what I meant."

"I know what you meant, Harm. You've always had a problem with the men I pick."

"That's not true-" He stopped when she pinned him with a 'get real' look. "I just always felt you could do better-" Better, as in me, he thought miserably.

“Well then, since you seem to be such an expert on who I should date, maybe you should help me find this Mr. Perfect."

"Why would I do that?" He sounded appalled. Somebody should just shoot him.

"Because you seem to think you know what's best for me," she said indignantly.

"Maybe I do," he claimed heatedly.

"Oh really?"

"Really!"

They stared at each other defiantly, but then the fight seemed to go out of them both at the same time.

"Mac-" he started to say before she interrupted him.

"You'll help me because you’re my friend, Harm, and because you want me to be happy. Life would be better for both of us if you liked the guy this time."

"I don't want our life to be better," he said petulantly.

She just laughed again, her irritation with him seemingly now gone.

"You know, what I mean, Mac." He looked pitiful. "I just like things the way they are."

She got up and walked toward the door. As she left she turned and said reassuringly, "We'll be okay, Harm. You'll see."

Somehow, he doubted that.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Mac let herself into her apartment, dropped her briefcase onto the floor, kicked off her shoes and threw herself face down onto her sofa.

With her face buried in the couch cushions she thought about the mess she had just made of her life. How could she have been so dumb? How could she have been so stupid? She let out a muffled scream and pummeled the pillows with her fists. Then she flopped onto her back and stared at the ceiling.

She was a level headed woman, sensible and logical to a fault, but let Harmon Rabb, Jr. get within two feet of her emotional boundaries, and she reverted into someone that would make an eighth grader seem mature. She had seen the fear on his face when he asked her about the baby deal, and though she had managed to cover her feelings at the time, it had pierced her like a knife.

They had been so close lately, spending as much time together as they did apart. And it had been wonderful. She had been certain that it was leading somewhere this time, until today when he had looked at her with something close to desperation in his eyes. He looked trapped, and she loved him too much to ever be the one to trap him.

If she hadn't been so blinded by love, she would have seen this coming. It seemed obvious looking back on things. Their friendship was wonderful, but that's all it was for Harm. While she often longed to grab him and kiss him when he was being expectedly annoying or unusually adorable, he apparently didn't feel the same way about her. He seemed to have no trouble keeping his hands to himself. How many lonely nights had she spent all alone in her bed trying not to think about that?

She knew that Harm felt guilty about whatever part he might have played in Mic's abrupt departure. Whether he should or not, he felt responsible for her now. She had hoped that his new need to watch out for her was being motivated by love and not just duty. After today she couldn't fool herself anymore. But she also knew how seriously he took his responsibilities, and he wouldn't walk away from this one unless she helped him.

So, she had tried to let him off the hook, backpedaled for his sake as well as hers, and the result had been this harebrained scheme.

It had seemed like a simple solution. She would go on some innocent dates, pretend that she was having the time of her life, and he would be relieved and happy.

But of course these things never went according to plan. He had opened his big mouth about her lack of taste in men, and she had reacted the way she always did when she thought he was pushing her. She pushed back. So now, not only was she going to have to start dating, she was going to have to start dating men that Harm picked out for her. And she had no one to blame but herself.

She dragged herself off the couch and walked into her bedroom. Resisting the urge to crawl into bed and pull the covers over her head, she started for the shower. It was time to get ready for the big poker game. She would laugh and bluff her way through it somehow. Good ole Mac. No one would suspect that everything was different now.

She stood under the warm water, replaying her conversation with Harm in her head. At first he had seemed surprised and almost hurt by her decision. But he'd certainly gotten over it soon enough. Before she knew it he had launched into his now familiar lecture about her dating habits. She rubbed shampoo into her hair, working it and herself into a lather.

Of course she had overreacted, and now she was kicking herself for letting him push her buttons that way. She rinsed her hair and poured more shampoo into her hand. Furiously scrubbing her scalp, she mentally chastised herself for falling into the same old trap.

It was an old game for the two of them, she realized, as she once more rinsed and without thinking added more shampoo to her hair. He would feign disapproval of the man she was with, act jealous and territorial, but in the end it didn't mean anything. She knew that for certain now, and the pain of facing it had caused her to challenge him. It had been a stupid thing to do.

She slumped against the shower wall as soap suds slid down her face. And of course, it was a challenge he couldn't win-because no matter how many men he might parade past her door-he was the only man she wanted.

She stared at the new puddle of shampoo in her hand, wondering how it had gotten there. After rinsing her hand and her squeaky clean hair one final time she turned off the water and stepped out onto the bathmat.

She dried herself off, used the blow dryer on her hair, and then took a little more care than normal picking out her clothes. She needed to feel pretty tonight-if only for herself. She put on jeans and a soft clingy red sweater, and for good measure, added a dab of cologne. Being one of the boys tonight was going to require a little extra armor.

She started applying her make-up, but she was distracted by visions of Harm showing up at her door with a long line of men in tow. What kind of man would he consider suitable for her anyway?

She absentmindedly sponged layers of foundation onto her face as she pictured some namby-pamby fellow that still lived with his parents and played video games for hours on end.

She distractedly brushed blush onto her checks as she imagined some roly-poly guy that watched sports all night and never got off the coach long enough to exercise.

She inattentively applied a smoky gray eye shadow to her lids while envisioning some elderly gentleman with a handlebar mustache and a walker.

She stroked mascara onto her lashes with a vengeance while she conjured up a jovial used car salesman in a plaid suit.

She was just putting on her lipstick when a loud, insistent knocking brought her out of her reverie.

Figuring it was Harm she hurried to the door. "You're early," she said as she jerked it open.

"I know, Mac--," he trailed off and just stood in the doorway staring, wide-eyed.

"Well, come on in. I'm almost ready." She felt uncomfortable with the way he was looking at her.

He didn't move, but continued to stare. "Wow," he finally managed to get out.

"What's the matter with you?" Mac grabbed his arm and pulled him inside the apartment.

"Nothing-," he blinked and closed the door behind him. "It's just-Wow-your face-"

"What's wrong with my face?" she asked suspiciously as she hurried over to the mirror that hung by the front door. He didn't sound like a man overcome by her beauty.

Horrified by the clown face that stared back at her from the mirror, and unable to stifle a gasp, Mac tried to act nonchalant as she turned back to Harm. "I'm afraid you arrived before I finished my make-up."

She headed for her bedroom with Harm at her heels. "You mean you're going to put on some more?" He seemed amused and a little fascinated.

"I might," she said while glaring at him. It was his fault that she'd lost all ability to concentrate. She looked like a floozy, a painted tart. And he seemed to think it was hilarious.

He followed her all the way into the bathroom and leaned against the doorframe, watching as she grabbed a washcloth and started scrubbing her face.

"Interesting technique, Mac."

"Shut up, Harm," she said as she pushed past him and walked over to her vanity.

She took a moment to fix her eye make up, swiped a little lipstick across her mouth then turned toward him gamely. "I'm ready. Let's go."

Harm walked over to her, placed his finger under her chin and lifted her face, pretending to examine it closely. "There's the Mac I know and love."

Her bruised heart jumped at his choice of words, but she hid behind a teasing comeback. "Let's see if you still love me after I win all of your money tonight." She pulled away from him and headed toward the front door.

"Oh, so you learned how to play poker since last week?" He was laughing as he followed her out of the apartment.

 

Chapter Two

 

Harm and Mac sat in a worn leather booth in the back of Ginger's Tea Room the same way they did almost every Friday night before their poker game. Despite its name, it was old and dark and dreary, and there wasn’t a lace tablecloth in the place. But the food was incredible, and they had adopted it as one of their favorites.

Harm watched Mac as she studied the menu. "Don't you know what you want yet?"

"I'm not sure. It’s so hard to decide," she said as she flipped through the pages.

"You'd better hurry," he warned her. "Here comes Ginger."

A big burly man with a shock of red, curly hair approached their table. He was the owner, the chef and most nights he served as a waiter too. An ex-boxer who loved to cook, he enjoyed surprising new customers with his unexpected gourmet dishes.

"What can I get you folks tonight?" he asked gruffly.

"You ready, Mac?" Harm asked.

"Go ahead. I'll order last." Mac's eyes never left the menu as she scanned her choices.

Harm ordered the sweet potato tamales, and then he and Ginger both turned to Mac expectantly.

"I'll have the-the-no wait a minute-the-I'll try the-maybe I should have the-"

The two men exchanged knowing looks.

"Chili cheeseburger?" Ginger growled helpfully.

Defeated, Mac looked up at him. "Yes, please. You're not mad, are you? I know I promised to try something different this time."

He just laughed. "That's okay, Mac. My chili cheeseburgers are hard to resist."

"Thanks, Ginger." She smiled at him, and the big guy grinned like he'd won the lottery.

Harm waited until they were alone then said teasingly. "We go through this every week. Next time, I'm not going to let you anywhere near a menu."

"Well, I always intend to try something new. Old habits are hard to break." She met his gaze, and he thought he saw some secret undecipherable message in her eyes.

Neither of them had mentioned their conversation from this afternoon. He didn't know how he managed to keep acting as if nothing had happened. Everything he'd believed about his relationship with Mac had blown up in his face, and yet here he was, sitting across from her like he did almost every Friday night.

After she had walked out of his office he'd sat in his chair not moving, trying to remember the exact moment when it had all gone wrong. After twenty minutes of staring into space he hadn't come up with a single answer and had finally dragged himself home. He was going to have to rethink everything now and pray that he still had a chance to win her heart. The only thing that remained unchanged, the only constant he could cling too, was that he loved her.

One thing she'd said kept echoing over and over in his head. When she'd said he was her friend, and he wanted her to be happy, that had been the truth. But it occurred to him that it was also the source of most of the problems they'd had throughout the years. How often in the past had he deferred to the happiness she might find somewhere else because it was safer than risking his heart?

The idea that his choices might have been more cowardly than noble startled him. That was a hard truth to swallow, but one he needed to face.

He also needed to face the fact that he obviously didn't understand Mac as well as he thought he did. Some clue, some crucial key to her happiness seemed to be eluding him, floating just beyond his reach. The whole time she had been talking this afternoon he'd had the feeling that there was something he wasn't hearing. All he had heard was that she was going to start seeing other men. He had been deaf, dumb and blind to everything after that.

Maybe he should just quit making assumptions and pay closer attention. If he really listened to Mac, he was beginning to suspect he might learn something important.

"So, Mac, what kind of man are you looking for anyway?" He figured he might as well dive right into the deep end.

She seemed uncomfortable with the question. "I don't have a check list, Harm. I thought you already knew what I needed anyway."

"We can compare and contrast later. Besides I'm always trying to improve my understanding of the female mind." He paused as a young woman brought their food to the table. After she left, he continued, "Humor me, okay?"

"Well, my mother used to say that I should look for three things in a man."

He paused with his fork halfway to his mouth. "Your mother gave you advice about men?"

"Oh, she had a lot to say about men! She told me to find a man that was smart because a dumb man would bore me to tears, funny because laughter can get you through the tough times, and kind because there is no substitute for a genuinely caring man."

"What about tall, dark and handsome?" he asked curiously.

"Tall, dark and handsome will get you through a few lonely nights," she agreed with a grin.

He raised an eyebrow at her implication.

"But long term, looks and charm aren't that important. I want a man that can hold my interest fifty years from now." She took a bite of her cheeseburger and nearly moaned with pleasure.

"Maybe I should just set you up with Ginger," he said with a grin. "I'm sure he'd be willing to feed you chili cheeseburgers for the next fifty years."

"Very funny. But it's you're turn now. What kind of man do you think I need?" She seemed more than casually interested in what he would say.

"Well, let’s see, Mac-" He pretended to be mulling it over, but in truth, he didn't have to think about his answer. He'd spent a lot of time lately trying to figure out how to be what he thought she needed. "You need a man that can be strong when you need him to be, but one that isn't threatened when you need to stand on your own. You need a man that can embrace the smart lawyer and the tough marine as easily as he embraces the beautiful woman. And you need a man who's not looking for a trophy but a partner--someone to share his life with."

Mac didn't say anything. She just studied his face and then said quietly, "That's a tall order for a poor guy who just wants to take me out for dinner and a movie."

"Believe me, Mac, when a guy looks at you he's not just interested in dinner and a movie."

"Well, if you can find one of the tall, dark and handsome ones I might be interested in more, too." She waggled her eyebrows and then giggled at his shocked expression.

"Finish your food," he said, suddenly feeling grumpy. "You know how much Sturgis hates it when we're late for the game."

As she dove back into her food, he tried to come up with a list of dumb, humorless, indifferent, short, pale, ugly men that he could introduce to Mac.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Harm walked into the kitchen where Sturgis was pouring potato chips into a bowl. He wandered over to the refrigerator and pulled out a diet drink. On the ride from the restaurant to Sturgis' apartment he had reassessed the situation and had decided he needed to find someone that he trusted to help him out with this nightmare.

Sturgis was the perfect candidate. He was still hung up on Bobbie, who was working on her reelection back in Detroit, so he didn't have to worry about Sturgis taking any romantic interest in Mac, and if he could enlist his help, then it would give him time to come up with some kind of plan. Right now he was just floundering around trying to keep his head above water.

"Hey, Sturgis, do you want to go on a date with Mac?"

Sturgis gave him an odd look. "Is this a trick question?"

"No. Why would you think that?"

"Because if I say no, you'll take it as an insult to Mac, and if I say yes, you might take a swing at me. I think it is in my best interest not to answer that question." He tore open a bag of pretzels and dumped them into a dish.

"I'm serious, Sturgis. I think you should ask her out." He was almost pleading.

Sturgis stopped what he was doing and turned to face Harm. "Okay. What's going on?"

"Nothing's going on. Mac has just decided to start dating again, and I agreed to help her find someone to go out with."

"Why in the world would you do that?" Sturgis looked at him as if he had grown a second head. "I thought the two of you were really starting to get close."

"I thought so too, but then she told me that she wants to start going out with other men. Obviously, to her I'm just a friend. Nothing more."

"She said that?" Sturgis looked through the kitchen door to where Mac was standing in the living room.

"Well, no. Not in those exact words. But it was pretty clear that that's how she feels."

Sturgis just shook his head. "This doesn't make any sense. And why would she need your help getting a date anyway? Have you looked at that woman lately?"

"It's a long story. Are you going to help me out or not?"

"No way! I don't know what's going on with you two, but it sounds like trouble, and I'm staying out of it." He picked up the bowls of snacks and paused at the kitchen door. "Just don't do anything dumb, okay buddy?"

Harm followed him, feeling even more out of sorts now that his latest plan had been shot down. To add to his bad mood the annoying sight of Mac laughing with Charlie and Joe greeted him as he came into the room. Charlie Morgan was Sturgis' next-door neighbor, a commercial artist who was always trying to get Mac to pose for his newest ad. Joe Soviak was an accountant and one of Sturgis' running buddies. He was married and had four daughters. Both were nice guys, and Mac was charming the socks off of them as usual. Normally, he found it amusing the way they competed for her attention.

But that was before. Before his place in the world had shifted so uncertainly. Before every man in the world had become a potential threat. He was starting to get worked up and was relieved when Sturgis called everyone to the table.

"Let's play cards!"

"Alright, gentlemen. Ante up and prepare to lose. Mama needs a new pair of shoes!" Mac said enthusiastically as she sat down.

"Would those be comfortable shoes?" Harm asked grimly, while Sturgis shuffled then dealt the first hand.

"No, I think I'm tired of comfortable shoes. I 'm going for dancing shoes this time," she said with a laugh.

"Great," muttered Harm under his breath.

"What'd you say, Harm?" Charlie asked.

"Oh, Harm just doesn’t want me to have any fun," Mac said trying to tease him.

Harm rolled his eyes and studied the cards in his hand.

Charlie and Joe both listened to the exchange then looked at Sturgis questioningly. He just shrugged and said, "How many cards, Joe?"

"Two for me," he answered.

"Mac?"

"I'll take two," she said with a quizzical look at Harm.

Charlie asked for three cards.

"Two cards," Harm said, and then asked Mac, "So now I'm supposed to find someone you can dance with?"

"The dealer takes one." Sturgis said while risking a glance at Mac.

"I'll bet five dollars." Joe said as his eyes shifted from Harm to Mac then back to Harm.

"You don't have to find anyone for me, Harm." Mac gave him a hard stare, and then said sweetly to Joe, "I’ll see your five and raise you ten."

Charlie threw his money into the pot and asked, "You don’t like to dance, Harm?"

Harm ignored him and said, "I'll see that and raise you ten." Turning to Mac, he insisted, "I said I would help and I will. I just didn't know I'd be looking for Fred Astaire."

"I fold," Sturgis said while pinning Harm with a warning look.

"I'm out too," Joe said throwing his cards down on the table. Then he offered helpfully, "My wife made me take dance lessons – the tango and the foxtrot.

"That's so sweet, Joe." Mac threw her money into the middle of the table. "I suppose you don't think anyone would want to take me dancing?" she accused Harm irritably.

"Uh oh. Sounds like a lover's quarrel," Charlie said with a smirk as he called the bet. "If he doesn't want to take you dancing, I will, Mac."

"Stay out of this, Charlie. And Mac," he said huffily, "I think you should do whatever you want to do. You will anyway." Harm laid down three Queens, which beat Mac's pair of Aces and Charlie's three eights. He raked his winnings into a pile in front of him, studiously ignoring Mac's glare, and arranging the chips into neat stacks as if his life depended on it.

The next few hours were tense as Mac ignored Harm, and he avoided looking at her. He also kept winning, which didn't seem to do anything to improve her mood. He knew he needed to apologize, and he felt bad about putting a damper on the poker game, but mainly he felt bad for upsetting Mac.

The game finally broke up, and they stood around talking, before they got ready to leave. Joe and Sturgis were discussing a race they were training for. Charlie was telling Mac about an ad he was working on for a florist's national campaign. The concept was woman in a filmy, flowing gown lying in a field of flowers, and he was trying to sell her on the idea of being his model.

Harm walked over to them, and Charlie turned to him as he approached. "Hey, I'm trying to convince Mac to pose for me."

"Charlie, you're always trying to convince Mac to pose for you."

She stood stiffly, obviously still upset with him.

"Well, what can I say? She's beautiful."

Harm looked at Mac and agreed. "You're right about that, Charlie. She is beautiful."

Mac dropped her gaze, and said to Charlie, "Stop it right now. I am not posing, and that's final."

"Well, all right, but you can't blame a guy for trying." He grinned, and then said before he walked off, "You know, Harm, you really should just give in and take her dancing."

Harm waited until Charlie was gone, and then said quietly, "I'm sorry for acting like such a jerk."

"What happened, Harm?" She sounded genuinely hurt. "At the restaurant everything was fine, and then we get here, and you start acting like you're mad at me."

"I don't know, Mac. All of the sudden everything just hit me. It felt like you were moving on with your life and leaving me behind. That's no excuse though."

"Harm-" she started, but he interrupted her.

"Let me make it up to you, Mac. Let me take you out tomorrow night. We'll even go dancing if you want."

"You don't have to take me out. And you especially don't have to take me dancing."

"But I want to. Consider it a practice date – so you'll be ready when the real ones come along."

"A practice date, huh?" She laughed at the idea. "I don't know. That sounds kind of silly, but I don’t have any other plans for tomorrow night."

He broke into a big grin. "All right, then. It's a date. Tomorrow night."

"Tomorrow night," she repeated suddenly lighthearted.

They stood in the middle of the room, grinning and staring at each other until Sturgis walked over. "Are you two okay?"

"Yeah, thanks." Harm looked embarrassed. "Sorry for all of the fuss earlier."

"I'm just sorry you won all my money." Sturgis said as he walked them to the front door.

"Well, don’t worry. He can spend it all on me tomorrow night when he takes me dancing."

Sturgis looked surprised, then pleased. "Well watch your step, Mac. He's no Fred Astaire."

Mac took Harm's arm as they walked out the door. "That's okay. I'll just wear some of my comfortable shoes."

 

Chapter Three

 

Mac woke up smiling. She couldn't remember exactly why, but she felt happy, happier than she'd felt in a long time. She stretched and rolled over onto her side, and that's when it hit her. She had a date with Harm tonight – okay, a practice date – and even though she didn't know exactly what that meant, she really didn't care. All she knew was that Harm was taking her dancing.

Oh my! She sat straight up in bed, suddenly filled with panic. Harm was taking her dancing! What had she been thinking? It had been her idea to put some space between the two of them, to give him some breathing room, but the way she'd jumped at his invitation had been disgraceful. She had no will power where he was concerned. Last night, the prospect of spending a few hours dancing in his arms had been too tempting to resist. Now, in the cold light of day, it was still too tempting to resist and that was the reason it scared her.

What if she couldn't hide how she really felt about him when he was holding her close? She could manage well enough when they were working together, or when they were hanging out like buddies, but on a date, even a pretend one, she would feel exposed and vulnerable.

She flopped back down onto her pillows and blew out an exasperated breath. Maybe she should call him and cancel. That would be the smartest thing to do.

She grabbed the phone from her nightstand before she could change her mind and quickly dialed his number.

He picked up on the fourth ring. "Hello-" He sounded groggy from sleep.

"Harm, it's Mac. I'm sorry – did I wake you up?" She hadn't thought about the time.

"Hey, Mac – ‘s okay. I was just dreaming." His soft, gravelly voice sent shivers tumbling down her spine. "What's goin' on?"

"I was just calling about tonight-" she said tentatively.

"Tonight-" He still sounded half asleep. "Oh yeah, our date. I can't wait."

"Harm, maybe we should-"

"I'll pick you up at seven, okay?"

She bit her lip and didn't answer.

"Mac?" He sounded more awake now and a bit concerned.

"I'm here," she said quietly.

Hesitantly, he asked, "You still want to go, don't you?"

She closed her eyes, knowing that this was her chance to back out. She struggled with herself but finally admitted that there was only one honest answer. "Yes, Harm, I still want to go."

"Great." He sounded relieved.

"But it's not a date," she reminded him adamantly. "It's a practice date."

He laughed and said, "Well, in that case, I can practice some of my ultra-smooth moves on you."

"Thanks for the warning, but I'm immune to the Rabb charm."

"We'll see," he whispered silkily.

She gripped the phone tightly, knowing she wasn't immune at all. "Well, I'll see you tonight, then."

"Tonight, Mac-" His voice was a promise of things to come.

"Goodbye, then." She tried to sound unaffected.

"Bye. Hey, Mac, wear something red, okay? You look sexy in red." And then he hung up without waiting for her reply.

She set down the phone and laughed. Realizing that she had just experienced smooth move number one, she went to her closet and started rifling through the clothes. Finding what she was looking for, she pulled out a red dress and hung it on the hook on the back of the door. She fingered the soft material and grinned with satisfaction.

Harm was about to find out that she had a few moves of her own. This just might turn out to be fun.

Harm scrubbed his hands across his face, and sighed. That had been close. Mac had wanted to back out of their date. He'd heard it in her voice. Thank God she hadn't.

He wasn't sure what tonight would accomplish, but maybe, just maybe, it would be a chance to approach their relationship from a whole new angle.

They'd always had trouble defining exactly what they were to each other. They were colleagues, who in the line of duty often had to trust each other with their lives. They were friends, who had supported each other through the most heartbreaking of times.

And yet, there was more to it. Underneath the surface, there had always been more. Except for a few botched attempts over the years, they had both gone out of their way to resist the attraction they felt for each other. It seemed to Harm, looking back on it, that the result of not dealing with those feelings had been disastrous for both of them.

When he told her that she needed a man who would embrace her as a lawyer and as a marine, it was because it seemed that most of the guys she'd been involved with cared mostly about the beautiful woman on their arm. They acknowledged her competence, but they didn't really celebrate it as part of her essential make-up. If there was one thing Harm knew, it was that those other roles helped define her, and if a man dismissed them as unimportant, then he didn't understand Mac at all.

But it was beginning to dawn on him that he might need a few lessons in understanding Mac, too.

He was madly in love with her, but he didn't really act like it. He had never taken her on a real date – although they had been out together a million times. He'd never kissed her goodnight – although he had kissed her more than once for all the wrong reasons. He had never spent all night making love to her – although they had spent more nights together than he could count.

She knew that he respected her in the courtroom. She knew that he trusted her in a war zone. But she probably didn't know just how much he wanted her. She didn't know that he stayed awake nights aching to touch her.

Everything about their relationship was upside down, but tonight, hopefully, that would all change.

Mac was ready when he knocked. She opened the door and they stood there, smiling at each other, both feeling a little shy.

"Hey," she said and moved to let him come into the apartment.

"Hey, Mac," He walked past her, but his eyes never left hers. "Are you ready to go?"

"I am," she said. "Just let me grab my coat."

They rode down to the lobby in the elevator, stealing glances at each other during the short ride. The doors opened, and Harm grabbed her hand as they walked out to his car. She looked at him in surprise, but left her hand securely in his.

Soon they were cocooned in the darkness of his car. As he started the engine, he turned toward her and said, "If I'd known you were going to look this good, I would have asked you on a real date."

She laughed and said, "Oh, I'd look better than this on real date."

"I don't think that's possible." He glanced away from the traffic and let his eyes travel over her.

She looked at him warily. "Is that one of your ultra-smooth moves, Harm?"

He flashed his biggest smile. "No, I'm just trying to pay you a compliment. If you're going to start dating you need to be able to accept it when a man tells you you're beautiful."

"I can accept it when a man tells me I'm beautiful. It's when you say it that I have a problem." She laughed as he pretended to be wounded.

They stopped at a red light, and he said seriously, "Well then, we need to work on that, don't we?"

The light changed, and he shifted gears. She watched as the lights of the city reflected off of his face. She never got tired of looking at him and seeing him out of uniform and dressed in everyday clothes was always a pleasure. He wore a dark gray overcoat over black slacks and a black long sleeved shirt. Even after all these years, the mere sight of him could cause her heart to flutter.

Sometimes it felt essential just to know he was near – across the bullpen, down the hallway, in the courtroom, sitting next to her in a car. She wondered how she had managed to settle for so little, for so long. For this one night she was going to take whatever was offered and indulge her need for this man. She would flirt with him, and dance with him, and tease him, and it would be worth any heartache that might come with the morning.

If things got too awkward, she could always hide behind the 'practice' date to let him off the hook.

"Where are we going, anyway?" she asked as she looked around the unfamiliar neighborhood.

"It's a blues club Sturgis took me to once. It's a great setting for a seduction." The look he gave her held a bit of a challenge.

"Seduction?" She laughed. "When did our practice date become a seduction?"

He laughed too and pulled into a parking place on the street. "I'm just trying to recreate the atmosphere you'll encounter when you go out with other men, Mac."

"So," she asked teasingly, "Am I supposed to practice resisting or giving in?"

"Maybe a little of each," he said as he opened his door and got out of the car.

She watched as he came around to help her out. He took her hand once more and kept it in his as they walked into the club.

The Loose Goose was a small hole in the wall tucked between a Thai restaurant and a tattoo parlor. Harm opened the door, and the music washed over her, enticing her with its sensual rhythm. They walked in, took off their coats, and were seated in a small circular booth. She looked around the club as she scooted around the bench seat, taking in the dim lighting, the throngs of dancing people, and the stage where the band was playing.

Harm followed her, crowding her until she ran out of room to scoot. She looked at him questioningly, and he leaned close and said in her ear. "I can't see the stage if I don’t sit over here."

She nodded and sat back to listen to the music. A woman with a sweet, smoky voice was singing about a man who'd done her wrong. A man on slide guitar imitated her sad tale, while a woman on harmonica wailed her pain. The drummer and the bass guitar kept the trance-like beat.

The dance floor was filled with couples swaying to the slow, hypnotic rhythm. Some were evocative, moving against each other in a frankly sexual manner, while others were languid, almost motionless as they leaned into their partner.

The song ended, and the band announced that they would take a short break. Taped music began playing, but not so loud that they couldn't have a conversation.

"I love this place, Harm." Mac had allowed the music to invade her body and had surrendered to its spell.

"So, do you want to dance?" Harm nodded toward the dance floor that was still filled even though the music was recorded.

"Let's wait until the band comes back. I'm having fun watching for now." She ordered tonic water with lime from the waitress who approached their table.

Harm ordered a soft drink and when the waitress left asked Mac, "So, you like to watch?"

She ignored his implication and said, "Sometimes you can learn a lot by watching."

"Like what?" he asked.

"See that couple over there?" She nodded toward a pretty woman in a skimpy orange dress who was writhing against a tall, bored looking man.

"She's hard to miss." Harm said before Mac elbowed him in the ribs. "Ow – what about them?"

"She's trying too hard, and he is scouting the area looking for his next victim."

"What about those two?" Harm gestured toward a pair that was laughing and talking to each other in an animated way.

"Hmm-well, I am going to guess they're married."

"Why do you think that?" Harm studied the couple looking for some clue to Mac's deduction.

"I think you have to be married to be that casual about having a man's hands on your rear end."

Harm smirked as he checked out the guy's hands, and then asked, "Do you think people still laugh and talk like that after they're married?"

"Sure, if they love each other. Besides they probably have six kids at home, and this is the first time they've been out without them in years." Mac looked at Harm and smiled.

"Okay. It's your turn. What do you think of the two over by that palm tree?"

He turned his head toward the back of the room where a man and a woman were dancing. The man's arms were wrapped around the woman, but she seemed to hold herself stiffly, trying to keep space between them.

Harm said, "He's obviously in love with her, but she doesn't feel the same way about him."

Mac considered this and then said, "Maybe. Or maybe she's just afraid to give in to what she feels."

Harm turned back toward Mac and said quietly, "She shouldn't be afraid. Anyone can see the guy’s crazy about her." He put his arm across the back of the booth, and moved closer, so that her body was tucked in next to his.

Mac's breath caught in her throat, but she forced herself not to react to his closeness. Gathering herself she said, "We're probably both wrong. They're probably on a blind date. He's just hoping to get lucky, and she's trying to figure out how she can dump him."

"You may be right, but I like my version better," Harm said with a laugh.

The waitress brought their drinks and asked if they wanted any food. They ordered sandwiches, and noticed that the band was returning to the stage.

"Remember the last time we danced?" Harm drew circles on the back of her hand where it rested on the table.

"The Surface Warfare Ball. You were with Rene, and Mic showed up unexpectedly."

"But you saved one dance for me." His voice was husky.

"A very proper dance, if I recall."

He turned her hand over and began tracing the lines on her palm. "That kind of dancing can be very erotic. The man and woman barely touch as they move across the floor – his hand on her waist – her hand in his. He leads. She follows. It's just another version of foreplay."

Their eyes caught and held as the haunting strains of the next song accosted them. Harm leaned close and asked, "Shall we?"

She smiled her acceptance, and he led her out onto the dance floor. He struck a formal dance pose, and she laughed as she placed her hand in his. His other hand went to her waist, and he led her in a few steps, careful to keep his distance.

Mac felt his touch on her waist like a brand. Her eyes were locked with his as he slowly, without missing a step, drew her closer until there was nothing separating them. He arranged her arms until they were around his neck. Then he wrapped her in both of his arms, burying his face in her hair. They found their rhythm, a gentle swaying motion that rocked her hips against him. Her thighs brushed his. Her breasts pressed against the hard wall of his chest. His breath tickled her ear, and she turned instinctively seeking the bare skin of his neck with her mouth.

Mac decided that she'd done something right in her life to deserve this moment. It might only be pretend, but it felt like he was holding her with something close to desperation. His hands roved up and down her back as if they needed to memorize the shape of her. Beneath the sinewy beat of the music, she could hear him murmur her name. Her fingers played with the hair at the back of his neck, drawing him close. She closed her eyes and breathed in his smell. It was masculine, and intoxicating, and dangerous.

She didn't want to protect herself from this pleasure. She didn't want to fashion a proper response. She had no defense against this overpowering desire, and any thought of resistance melted with each new touch.

They drifted through the evening lost in each other's arms. One song would end, and they would stand, not moving, until another began. He finally pulled back to look at her, and he smiled a sweet, tender smile that loosened her last bit of resolve. She smiled back, willing to do anything he asked, but he just walked her back to the table, paid for their uneaten food, grabbed their coats and led her out into the cold night.

She leaned on him as they walked to the car. He opened her door, and then brushed the back of his knuckles across her cheek before he helped her into the seat. He got in and started the car. She put her hand on his leg, needing the contact, and he picked it up and kissed it before returning it to his thigh. They drove through the night, not speaking.

They made it back to her apartment building and into the elevator before he pulled her back into his arms. It was silly to feel lonely without his touch, but she did. The elevator opened, and they walked arm in arm to her door.

She'd barely managed to get her keys in the door before he had her up against the hallway wall, kissing her. She kissed him back, knowing that this was what she had been waiting for. This was what she longed for. He pulled back so he could watch her as he opened the buttons of her coat. His fingers traced the line of her collarbone, and then dipped down inside the low cut neckline of her dress, brushing the top of her breast.

"Nice dress, Mac," he managed while smoothing his hands over her hips. "Did anyone ever tell you that you look sexy in red?"

"No one's ever mentioned it." She brushed a soft kiss across his mouth, but it quickly deepened, leaving them breathless. Somehow, she managed to pull away from him and finished unlocking her door. She pushed it open, and then turned around when he stopped without following her inside.

"Come on in," she invited with a smile.

"I better not," he said raggedly. He seemed to be fighting a battle with himself.

"Okay," she said a little too quickly, but her smile faltered.

He reached for her, but she moved away until he followed and pulled her to him. "If I come in, Mac, I won't leave. And if I don't leave I'm afraid you'll have regrets in the morning."

"It looks like you're already having regrets, Harm." She moved away from him again, needing the distance.

"Mac, you have to realize that we were playing at a game tonight. It wasn't real, and I am not about to make love to you just because we got caught up in the throes of some seductive fantasy."

"I'm sure you're right. I'm glad one of us was able to keep a level head." She was amazed at how calm she sounded.

He started toward the door, and then stopped and walked back over to her. "I'm going to be out of town on the Porter case for the next few days, but I'll call you, okay?"

"Sure, Harm." She let him pull her into a final hug and even smiled when he brushed a kiss across her forehead.

"Do you know how amazing you are, Mac?" He sounded wistful, and he didn't wait for an answer as he went out the door pulling it closed behind him.

Harm was shaking by the time he got down to his car. He had never experienced such raw desire for a woman in his life. He wasn't sure how he'd found the strength to leave her, but that loud, ever-present, noble voice that lived inside his head kept insisting that he had to.

He sat in his car, not moving, gazing at her window like a lovesick adolescent. He wasn't happy with the way he'd left her, but if he had followed the evening to its logical conclusion, he couldn't have lived with the possible consequences.

How could a night be so perfect and such a catastrophe at the same time?

He wanted to remember every moment he'd spent holding her in his arms, but if there had been a way to go back and start the evening all over again he would have done it. He would start over with no pretense, no chance for mixed signals, and a very clear declaration of his intentions. And then, if her response had still been the same, wild horses couldn't have dragged him out of that apartment.

He'd been in trouble from the moment she'd opened her door. She had deliberately taunted him with that dress, daring him to be unaffected. The blood red material hugged her perfect body. The cut of the neckline had exposed enough of her breasts that keeping his eyes on her face had been a challenge.

And so the game had begun.

If he'd teased, she'd flirted.

When he'd pursued, she'd met him halfway.

Where he had expected resistance, he'd met none, and after a while he'd lost the will to pull back.

The woman he loved had been wrapped in his arms, yielding to his touch, and he'd had no defense against that.

That was the crux of the problem. Who could tell what game they were playing by the time his hands started exploring the flare of her hips? What were the rules once her mouth found the bare skin of his neck? Was he out of bounds when his thumbs skimmed the sides of her breasts?

The evening had spiraled out of control, and by the time he had her up against the wall in the hallway he had no intention of stopping. He closed his eyes remembering the feel of her mouth under his. But something about seeing that red dress when he unbuttoned her coat had set off alarm bells in his head. It seemed to symbolize every make-believe, unreal thing about the evening, and not even her kiss could keep him from crashing back down to earth. When she'd pulled away to unlock her door, he'd let her go. When she'd walked into her apartment, he hadn't followed. The look on her face had been unreadable as she had listened to him try to explain the unexplainable. There was no good way out of the situation, but he couldn't risk doing something she would later regret. He owed it to her to stop. By the time he had stumbled outside to his car, he knew that he had made a mess of things. He just wasn't sure how he was going to fix it.

Maybe it was good that he would be out of town for the next few days. A little time and distance might help him sort things out. He finally started his car and drove home.

Mac stood completely still, staring at the closed door after Harm walked out. She probably should cry or throw something, but that would be childish so she kicked the coffee table instead. Grabbing her throbbing foot, she flopped down on her sofa and tried not to curse.

She'd known that this could happen, but she had convinced herself that it would be worth it. She had played a dumb, dangerous game, and she'd lost. It would be unsporting to start acting hurt or rejected now.

Harm might not love her, but she couldn't be mad at him for getting caught up in the moment. It was perfectly understandable. The music, the flirting, the dancing had all conspired to weave a sexually charged spell around both of them. He had just come to his senses before it had gone too far. He'd remembered that they were nothing more than friends and had tried to do the gentlemanly thing. It was sweet in a way. She idly picked up a throw pillow off the couch. But if he could pretend that they had been on a date, then she could pretend that this pillow was Harm's face. She punched it as hard as she could.

He would have hated himself if he thought he had taken advantage of her. She knew that. Harm was just being Harm. That thought made her punch the pillow even harder.

On the other hand, this would all be easier to accept if she hadn't seen the desire in his eyes. And that's what it had been – pure, unadulterated desire. How could she go on as if nothing had happened while her body still trembled from his touch and her mouth still remembered his taste? She sighed and hugged the pillow against her chest. He'd wanted her, and that would haunt her even after she was old and gray.

She was so mad at herself, and maybe it was irrational, but she was mad at him too. It seemed like a lifetime ago when she had calmly gone to his office and casually mentioned that she wanted to start dating. He was supposed to be happy for her, start dating blonde bimbos and leave her and her pathetic social life alone. Instead he had adopted her as his latest cause. And Harm with a cause was a formidable thing.

Going along with this ridiculous idea of a practice date had been such a mistake, but she was just a weak little ninny where he was concerned, and all she had to show for it was the frustrating knowledge that a night in his arms was more wonderful than anything she had ever imagined. She knew she'd made a mess of things. She just wasn't sure how she was going to fix it.

She was glad that he was going to be out of town for the next few days. A little time and distance might help her sort things out.

She drop kicked the make-believe Harm pillow across the room, limped over to the door, secured all of the locks and went to bed.

 

Part four

 

Harm walked into an almost abandoned looking bullpen late on Friday afternoon. His three-day investigation had turned into five and a half, but the case had finally been settled without any charges being filed.

He'd only talked to Mac once while he'd been gone, and they had talked mainly about his case. She'd been quiet but helpful, and he had been unable to gauge her mood by their short phone conversation.

He needed to see her, but when he glanced into her office on the way to his own, he saw that it was dark and empty.

He put his briefcase and cover on his desk and then went to report to the Admiral. He delivered his report, and then on his way back to his office, he spotted Mac coming into the bullpen laughing and talking to a man he didn't immediately recognize.

Mac looked surprised to see him. "Harm, you're back."

"Yeah, I just got in a few minutes ago."

"You remember Detective Mario Bigi, don't you?" Mac indicated the man at her side.

"Oh, of course, Detective. You helped me find my stolen corvette a few years ago." Harm shook the man's hand.

"What was left of it. It's good to see you again, Commander."

"You, too. What brings you to JAG?" Harm remembered that Detective Bigi hadn't tried to hide his interest in Mac the last time they'd met.

"Mario has been helping me with that car theft ring involving Petty Officer Gray." Mac informed him.

"Really?" Harm asked feigning interest.

"Yes, he's been very helpful," added Mac as she smiled at the other man.

"I better get out of here," Mario said as he looked at his watch. He then asked Mac hopefully, "You'll think about tomorrow night?"

"I'll think about it," she answered noncommittally.

Mario turned to Harm and said conspiratorially, "I'm trying to get her to go out with me. Put in a good word for me, okay?"

Harm forced a smile, and the detective promised to call her as he left.

"So, he asked you out." Harm tried to sound indifferent.

"He always asks me out," she said as she walked into her office and turned on the light.

"Are you going?" Harm followed her, stopping in the doorway.

"I hadn't planned on it. Why? Do you think I should?" She seemed a little perturbed.

"I have no opinion," he said helplessly.

Her eyes widened in disbelief. "You have no opinion? Ha! That's a good one, Harm. You've been full of nothing but opinions and helpful dating tips for days now." She really seemed agitated.

"Mac, I was just trying-"

She cut him off before he could finish. "You were just trying to help poor pathetic Mac find a date. I know."

"That's not what I was going to say-"

"I've been your Eliza Doolittle, while you've generously schooled me in the proper do's and don'ts of getting a man. Hell, Harm, you even took me out for a test drive."

"Mac-"

"Does Mario fulfill all of your lofty requirements? Maybe you should run after him and interview him. And then when you're finished, you can tell him whether or not I'm going to go out with him." Her voice had risen until she was almost shouting.

He stopped trying to talk and just let her vent. She was obviously very angry.

"You don't like that idea?" She asked him mockingly. "Well, I guess I just have to make this decision on my own."

She started pacing back and forth behind her desk. "Well, let's see, he's nice, good looking, and he seems to like me. That's good enough for me." She grabbed the phone, looked up a number, dialed it, and waited for an answer. "Mario, hi, it's Mac. About tomorrow night – I’d love to go. Seven thirty? I'll be ready."

She hung up and sat down abruptly, staring at some spot on her desk.

She seemed to have forgotten about him, so Harm tried to sneak away quietly. She'd probably seen enough of him for one day anyway.

Suddenly her voice barked out, "Where do you think you're going?"

He peeked back around her doorway, his eyebrows raised questioningly.

Mac picked up her briefcase, walked over to him and turned out the light. "Grab your stuff, Professor Higgins. We're going shopping."
 
Harm tried to balance on the tiny pink stool that was nestled just outside the dressing room of a small boutique inside the mall. He waited impatiently for Mac to reappear in another dress. He was tired, uncomfortable and confused, and the more miserable he got, the happier it seemed to make Mac.

She had dragged him to lingerie stores, seeking his suggestions about the skimpy lace underwear, pulled him to the make-up counters and smeared different colors of lipstick and eye shadow on the back of his hand, spritzed him with perfume, and now they were in their third dress store, and she was trying on at least the twentieth dress. But who was counting? She would try on a dress, wait for his opinion and then glare at him and disappear back into the dressing room.

He'd learned quickly that there was no right answer to the question, 'What do you think of this one?' If he said it looked good, she argued with him and explained to him in detail why it looked terrible. If he said he didn't like it, she took it personally and stomped back into the dressing room in a huff.

This was a side of Mac he'd never seen before, and he couldn’t begin to imagine what was going on in her head. He just knew that somehow he was to blame for everything that was wrong, so he was willing to sit here and watch her try on dresses so she could look good for another man.

When they'd left the office she'd told him in no uncertain terms that she would pick him up in an hour. He'd barely had time to shower and pull on his jeans when he heard her knock. He threw on a light blue shirt and was still buttoning it when he opened the door.

"Are you ready?" Her eyes flashed as she marched into his apartment. She had changed into a simple rust colored wrap around dress, and she looked magnificent and very angry.

"Almost," he promised as he returned to the bedroom to put on his shoes. He walked back into the living room and watched her pace around the room. She was definitely still mad.

He wanted to touch her, to calm her down, but he knew instinctively that touching her was not a good idea.

"I'm ready," he announced as he grabbed his leather jacket.

She barely looked at him before she flounced out the door and headed for her car.

"Can I at least ask where we're going?" he asked as he climbed into the passenger seat.

"This is your lucky day, Harm. Since Sturgis is still out of town, there's no poker game, so you get to go shopping with me for my date tomorrow night." She changed lanes and sped around a car that was going too slow to suit her.

"Why would I want to do that?" he asked uneasily.

"Because this is your big moment, the culmination of all your hard work. I would hate for you to miss out on the big finish. I think you need to be in on all the last minute decisions – dress, hair, make-up. In fact, you really ought to come on the date with us, but I don’t think Mario would understand. You have to admit that our 'friendship' is hard for other people to understand."

"Mac, I can see that you're upset with me."

"I'm not upset. I'm grateful. I mean you didn't specifically pick this guy out, but you have patiently explained to me what I need and don't need in a man, and you have to admit that he's a pretty good choice. Wouldn't you agree that he's a good choice, Harm?" She seemed to be getting agitated again.

"He seems like a nice enough person." He tried agreeing with her as a survival tactic.

"I'm so glad you approve." Now she was just being sarcastic.

He sat quietly, peeking occasionally in her direction. He knew they needed to talk about the other night. He wanted to clear the air and apologize for overstepping the bounds of their friendship, but she seemed too angry to want to listen, and he was baffled that her reaction was so strong.

She pulled into the mall and found a parking space near the main entrance. Turning in her seat to face him she sat quietly for a moment than asked earnestly, "Can you give me one good reason why I shouldn't go out with Mario tomorrow night?"

He could give her a million reasons, but not the kind she was looking for. He smiled sadly and answered simply, "No, Mac, I can't."

"Well, then. I guess I better find something to wear." She got out of the car and hurried toward the entrance, not waiting for him to catch up with her.

So two hours later he was still sitting on a little pink bench, trying to figure out exactly what Mac wanted from him, and trying to figure out why, no matter what he did, everything important in his life seemed to be coming unraveled. He hadn't found answers to either question.

She had tortured him with everything from granny looking dresses that covered her from head to toe to revealing heart stopping creations that made him want to insist she cover up with his jacket. She looked gorgeous in everything, but maybe he was biased.

Just then, Mac walked out in a dark green dress that had a slit up the side and no back to speak of. He swallowed hard and tried to keep his eyes from popping out of his head.

"You look beautiful." He'd been practicing responses that she couldn't possibly get mad about, but obviously this wasn’t one of them.

She looked at him like he'd lost his mind.

"Harm, I look like a street walker," she said it as if he were somehow responsible.

"You look like a beautiful streetwalker?" he ventured. He tried combining her opinion with his in hopes of appeasing her.

"You're not helping."

He got off the bench and walked behind her to where she stood looking in the three-way mirror. He touched her shoulder, and their eyes met in the glass. He said, "You know, this guy's going to be so happy that you finally agreed to go out with him that he's not going to care what you're wearing."

"Don't be nice to me, Harmon." She caught his hand where it rested on her shoulder and squeezed it. "I'm not through being mad at you."

She smiled at him, and a critical part of his life shifted back to its proper place.

"Oh, let's go home," she said with a sigh. "I don't need a new dress to impress him."

He was relieved, but then he spotted a dress hanging on the end of a rack and grabbed it. On impulse he said, "Try this on."

It was black and simple and had nothing to recommend it, but when she walked out wearing it his breath caught in his throat.

She was everything elegant and feminine and his heart broke at the sight of her. He helped her with a couple of hooks at the back of the neck, and his fingers lingered at her soft nape. He gazed at her reflection and said simply, "Buy this one."

 

Part Five

 

Mac woke up sighing. She couldn't remember exactly why, but she felt sad, sadder than she'd felt in a long time. She stretched and rolled over onto her side, and that's when it hit her. She had a date with Mario tonight – a real date, and even though he was a perfectly nice man, she really didn't care about going. He wasn't Harm.

She had been terrible to Harm last night, and damn him, he had reacted with kindness, and caring, and restraint. Why couldn't he have been more of a jerk so she could have stayed mad at him? While he'd been gone, she thought she had finally come to terms with their situation. She'd regained some perspective about their relationship, and she'd thought she had all of her emotions under control. But when he got back, practically the first words out of his mouth had been to ask her about Mario, and something in her snapped.

He didn't ask how she was doing. He didn't say that he'd missed her. He just wanted to know what her intentions were toward Detective Bigi.

She'd let him have it with both barrels, and he'd just taken it without flinching. She had acted like every crazy, mixed up thing that had ever happened between them had been his fault when she was just as much to blame. She hadn't been expecting to see him when she walked into the office, and the sight of him reopened her wounded heart before she had time to get her defenses in place. But that was no excuse.

She had dragged him to the mall and torn through the stores like a tornado. He had followed her without complaint, offered advice when she twisted his arm, and watched her with hooded eyes that didn't conceal the fact that he found her desirable. And that was just it. She couldn’t reconcile the desire she saw in his eyes with the fact that he wanted her to go out with another man. She had tried on dress after dress and paraded before him in some strange irrational ritual, as if the next dress would be the one that would make him realize that he loved her after all.

But no light bulb had suddenly gone on over his head. He hadn't fallen to his knees and proclaimed his undying devotion. He'd just perched gamely on that ridiculous pink stool and shown impossible patience. In the end, his patience had diffused her anger as nothing else could.

The black dress hanging on the back of her closet door caught her eye. All of the sadness she'd felt when she first woke up washed back over her like a tidal wave. That dress represented the end of any hope she'd ever had that Harm might love her. He had handpicked the garment, pushed her to try it on, and then looked her over approvingly. It had fit perfectly, but she wasn't sure if it was the dress or his hot gaze that made her feel so womanly. His hands had gone to the back of her neck as he'd fastened the small hooks, adjusting the last finishing detail. She'd forgotten to breathe as she watched him in the mirror, and then she remembered that he was preparing her for the pleasure of another man. Her heart broke completely in that moment.

Harm had spent the day trying not to look at the clock, but whether he looked or not, seven thirty still grew closer and closer.

Everything about last night bothered him. Mac had been so angry with him, and he didn't really understand why. He knew that he had handled everything completely wrong in the past week. But they had gotten past worse things before.

By the time she had dropped him off at his apartment, she had gone from mad, to quiet, to downright distant. She'd refused his invitation to come in, and as he watched her drive away, he felt as if she was driving out of his life forever.

It seemed clear that her anger stemmed from something he had neglected to say or do, but every time he opened his mouth it seemed to make things worse.

And then it dawned on him that maybe all she needed was his blessing. Some sign that he trusted her to make her own choices. It must have seemed to her that he continually questioned her ability to decide what she wanted for herself.

He had questioned why she needed to date, he had questioned who she needed to date, and then a week ago, on their ill-fated practice date, he had questioned her ability to slap his face and send him home if he went too far.

She must think he'd been treating her like a child. She had no way of knowing that he was simply a man in love, who'd acted foolishly because he didn't want to lose her.
So when he had handed her that black dress and told her to put it on, he was in effect telling her that from now on he would accept her decisions, whatever they might be.
And then she hadn't been mad anymore. She'd met his gaze in the mirror as he stood behind her, and she'd withdrawn from him instead.

The feeling that he needed to go see her wouldn't go away. He had rejected the idea at first because he knew she probably didn't want to see him, but the idea wouldn't leave him alone.

By six thirty he was in his car, heading for her apartment. He just couldn't get rid of the feeling that he needed to settle things with her before she went out that night.

He pounded on her door not knowing what he was going to say. The door opened, and she stood there in a purple silk robe, obviously surprised to find him there. For a moment he thought she looked glad to see him, but then her expression hardened, and she looked properly annoyed.

"What are you doing here, Harm?"

"I just wanted to make sure you were okay – that we were okay."

"I'm a little busy. This really isn't a good time for this discussion."

"I know, but let me in anyway." He pushed his way passed her and into the apartment.

"Harm, I'm not even dressed yet. And despite what I said the other night, I don't need your help with my hair or my make-up."

"I just want you to understand how I feel."

"Is this where you tell me that you value me as a friend, or whatever? Because I've heard it before."

"Mac-"

"And let's see-it's complicated, but you don't ever want to lose me?"

"I just want you to be happy," he said quietly.

"Oh, I knew there was a part I was forgetting. Thanks, Harm. You can go now. I've got to finish getting ready."

She walked toward her bedroom, but stopped when he said, "It feels like I've already lost you, Mac. Tell me what I do about that."

She looked back at him and said, "I haven't gone anywhere. Maybe you just aren't trying hard enough to find me."

They stared at each other without speaking until a knock on the door startled them.

"Damn it. He's early, and I'm not even dressed yet," Mac said with frustration.

"Go get ready," Harm offered tiredly. "I'll let myself out and tell him you're almost done. It's the least I can do."

Mac closed her bedroom door, and stifled the urge to scream. Why did Harm decide to show up now of all times? When she had answered the door and found him standing there, her battered heart had started racing just at the sight of him. She couldn't keep doing this to herself. She couldn't break out in hope every time she saw his face. But, of course, he'd only come by to spout the same old platitudes.

And now she had to pull herself together enough to go face Mario. Poor Mario. He certainly didn't deserve to suffer because of her mixed up life. She would go out and have a good time if she could still remember how.

She quickly fixed her make-up, combed her hair and walked over to her closet to grab her dress. She didn't want to make him wait too long.

She slipped on her shoes and walked out into the living room. "I'm so sorry, Mario-"

She stopped when she saw Harm sitting on her couch. A big bunch of flowers was laying on the coffee table in front of him.

"Why are you still here?" she asked accusingly. "And where's Mario? Wasn't he at the door?"

"I sent him home," he stated simply.

"You did what?" She couldn't believe it.

He got off the couch, picked up the bouquet from the coffee table and brought them over to her. "These are for you."

She took the flowers and asked, "Where did you get these?"

He fingered one of the blossoms, and then said, "They're from Mario. I think they're some kind of lily."

"So, what did you do? Answer the door, wrestle the flowers away from him, and slam the door in his face?" She was confused and alarmed by Harm's behavior.

"No, I just told him that I was in love with you, so he left."

Her eyes flew to his face. "Is that your idea of a joke? Because it's not funny."

"It's no joke, Mac. And now that I think about it those flowers may be for me. He shoved them at me, said 'Good Luck, buddy', and stomped off."

He was standing too close now, and she could barely breathe. He reached for her, but she stopped him. "Harm, don't." She wasn't ready to believe him.

He put his hands up in mock surrender. "Okay, just listen to what I have to say, and when I'm finished if you still want me to, I'll go track Mario down and drag him back here for you."

"I'm listening," she said warily.

"I came over here tonight because I had to talk to you, and I needed to do it before you went out. I told you I wanted you to be happy, and I told you I didn't want to lose you, but as usual I left out all of the important parts."

"Parts like you love me?" She asked with wonder.

"Yeah, those parts." He smiled before he went on. "I've been so self righteous about us. I convinced myself that I knew what was best for us without even asking you what you wanted. As a result, I've spent the last two years quietly hoping that you would grow to love me while I cowered behind our friendship in case you didn’t feel the same. I'm through hiding, Mac. I love you – plain and simple. And I don't want you to go out with anybody else but me, not tonight, or any other night."

He'd moved closer before she realized it, and the flowers were getting squashed between them. "This might be the end of a beautiful friendship, Mac, but I'm willing to risk it if you are."

She said simply, "I've been willing to risk it for years, Harm, but I'd just about given up on you."

"Don't give up on me, Mac. Please give me a chance to show you how much I love you."

She didn't have the will to resist him any longer. "I love you too, Harm."

The words were barely out of her mouth before his arms were around her and he was kissing her savagely. Flowers fell at their feet, or got caught between them as they struggled to erase the space between their bodies.

They pulled apart, looked at one another with years of pent up longing, than fell upon each other again as if they were starving. They stumbled backwards to the couch and toppled down on it, grappling to touch and be touched. She'd managed to get his t-shirt halfway up and off one arm, but he wouldn't stop kissing her long enough for her to pull it off over his head. Undeterred by the minor setback, she explored the hard muscles of his stomach and chest with one hand while the other sought the smooth skin of his back. She felt his hands struggling to undo her dress, and she was just about to begin her attack on the button of his jeans when he suddenly wrenched himself away from her.

He picked up the material of her skirt and said in an accusatory voice, "This isn't your new dress."

She tried to pull him back down but he wouldn't budge. "I decided not to wear it."

He looked indignant. "You mean after all the time and trouble I spent picking out that dress you decided not to wear it?"

"That's the reason I didn't wear it, Harm. I wouldn't have been able to think about anything but you the whole night."

That seemed to mollify him. "Oh, well, then, I guess that's okay."

She reached up and pulled his shirt over his head and threw it on the floor.

He allowed himself to be pulled back down, but then asked while she was kissing his neck. "I suppose that means you're not wearing the Burnt Melon Parfait lipstick we picked out, either?"

"Of course not, silly. That shade doesn't go with this dress."

"I guess you're right." He traced her lips with his finger. "Mac, would you do something for me?"

"Anything," she gasped as she felt him slide down the zipper on her dress.

"Go put on the other dress." His teeth worried her ear lobe.

She laughed and said, "I've never had a man ask me to put clothes on at a time like this."

"Humor me," he coaxed in a low whisper.

She freed herself from his arms and stood up. Her already loosened dress puddled at her feet, and she stood in front of him wearing only the tiny scraps of lacy underwear they had shopped for the night before.

She felt his eyes on her as she walked slowly toward the bedroom. When she got to the doorway she smiled and said, "I could use your help."

In an instant he was off the couch, scooping her into his arms and disappearing with her into the bedroom.

At long last, she had picked the right man.
 


The End

 
 
   

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