||JAG Story, adventure, romance (H/M)
||Approximately 93,000; 156 pages (8 ½” x 11”)
||Through Adrift II
Harmon Rabb found a small package on his doorstep when he got home, courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service. It was about the size and shape to be a videotape, wrapped in brown paper. He picked it up, noting the return address with a small pang of alarm. Colonel Stryker had gotten less sentimental over the years. He didn't contact Harm any more unless he wanted something.
With a resigned sigh, Harm went inside. He dropped his cover, keys, briefcase, and the package on the table, then went to change. Whatever Stryker needed could wait until after dinner.
A couple of hours later, Harm picked up the deceptively ordinary package and opened it. It did, indeed, contain a videotape. The label was a plain peel-and-stick affair with "Thought you might find this interesting," written on it in Stryker's familiar scrawl.
Frowning, Harm slipped the tape into his VCR, then settled on the couch, beer in hand. He pushed a button on the remote, then balanced the slim piece of electronics on his knee. The tape began to play a recording of a local-looking news cast. The call letters behind the anchor desk said "KYRO News", and the perky young blond manning the desk quickly informed him that he was watching Kansas City's best station for news, weather, and sports.
He'd just about decided that Stryker was playing some kind of bizarre joke on him when the newscast shifted to a local interest piece-- a native of the city who was currently top of her class at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Harm straightened unconsciously. This was probably what the colonel wanted him to see.
The scene shifted to a different studio, one with the Naval Academy's logo splayed across the wall. Two women sat across from each other in the quintessential casual interview arrangement. One was very obviously the newswoman. She was in her mid-thirties, with stylishly long hair and an impeccable business suit. The second woman was much younger and wore a Navy uniform. She introduced herself as Audrey Le.
Audrey was strikingly beautiful in the same intelligent, no-nonsense way as Mac. Her features were Asian, but with large, dark eyes that were a bit wider than the norm.
She wore her hair close-cropped in a playful cap that seemed well suited to her personality.
Harm watched with only mild interest as the middie told her interviewer about life at the Academy, but his attention sharpened when the newswoman asked Audrey what she wanted to do in the Navy.
"I'm going to fly fighters," the young woman answered with a cocksure grin. "F-18s, to be exact."
Harm chuckled. "Good for you," he told the television image. Not many women had the drive or desire to fly combat aircraft, but this one, he thought, looked like she could do anything she wanted. She had that arrogant confidence.
"Now, you're originally from Vietnam, correct?" the interviewer asked a bit later, with a glance at her cards.
Audrey nodded. "The village of Son My. My uncle brought my mother and I to the United States when I was four."
Harm remembered Son My, in the Quang Ngai province. They'd staged out of that village for about four weeks during the summer of 1980.
He was so involved in his memories that he almost missed the next question.
"What about your father?"
Audrey's expression closed in on itself. She squared her shoulders. "He was an American who lived in our village for a little while. I don't know anything about him."
Harm's gaze snapped to the television. An American? Now that she said so, it was obvious. Her face was a little too wide, her eyes too round, her skin too pale, to be pure Vietnamese. His mind immediately started doing the math as a dreadful chill scrabbled up his spine. She was third year at the Academy, which made her age twenty-one, probably.
Which meant she would have been born in 1981.
Which meant she was conceived in 1980.
Harm closed his eyes, overwhelmed by a rush of memories. There had been a girl in Son My-- Le Lin, daughter of the man who'd let the two Americans sleep in his barn. Harm didn't remember much about her except that she'd had a beautiful laugh, and that she'd helped him forget another girl, one he thought had died for following him. Harm opened his eyes. He stared at the television screen, unseeing, as the realization crashed down on him.
He had a daughter.
A.J. looked up at the sharp knock on his door. “Enter,” he called.
The door swung open. Commander Rabb leaned into the office, still holding the door handle. He held a manila folder in his other hand and had a peculiar expression on his face. A.J. eyed him curiously. He didn’t often see Rabb looking hesitant.
“Come in, Commander,” A.J. told him. “Take a seat.”
When Harm had done so, he continued, “What can I do for you?”
Harm raised the folder. “You wanted status on the Carter case.”
A.J. folded his hands on his desk. “So I did.” He listened as the commander described the salient details of the case, and though the younger man neither hesitated nor stumbled as he laid out the threads of the investigation and their possible conclusions and impact, A.J. had the distinct feeling his lead litigator did not have his head in the game today.
When Harm had finished, A.J. nodded. “Thank you, Commander.” In an unusual fit of curiosity, he decided to press a bit. “Is there anything else?”
Harm hesitated. A.J. watched with interest as the long-fingered hands flexed on the chair arms, the only visible sign of struggle within him.
A pause. Harm was obviously uncomfortable, and gave the impression of squirming in his seat though he never moved.
“Can I ask you a personal question, Admiral?”
A.J. raised both eyebrows in surprise and a little dismay. He didn’t like personal questions. But if Harm were asking one, it had to be something serious. “Personal” was someplace the commander rarely went.
A.J. settled back in his chair. “You can ask, Commander.” He wouldn’t guarantee an answer until he heard the question.
Harm flashed a smile that faded quickly. He drew a preparatory breath. “What was it like when you met Francesca?”
A.J. stared at him, thoroughly startled by the direction of the question. Why in the world would Rabb ask him about meeting Francesca unless… A deep suspicion began to form, one that would certainly explain the deer-in-headlights expression in the other man’s eyes.
Clamping down on his surprise, A.J. studied the ceiling thoughtfully. A smile crept across his face at the memory. “Well, it was probably one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done,” he admitted after a moment. “Here was this girl—this beautiful girl—who was my responsibility, and not only had I never done anything to fulfill that responsibility, I hadn’t even known about it. I think I was convinced she would hate me.” He risked a glance at Harm and found him staring at his superior in dismay. A.J. quickly tried to soften the comment. “Of course, Francesca was a grown woman by the time I met her… Children are much more unconditional in their acceptance.” He watched Harm carefully, searching the other’s face for confirmation of his guess.
Harm’s gaze was hooded. “She’s twenty-one, Admiral.”
A.J. choked a bit, staring wide-eyed at his officer.
“You haven’t been lying to the Navy about your age, have you?” he asked when he’d regained his composure.
He received another lightning smile that didn’t go anywhere near the other’s eyes. “No, sir.” He paused. “Her mother is Vietnamese.”
It took A.J. a moment to make the connection, but then he understood. They’d sat and swapped stories one day over beers—himself, Harm, and a Marine sniper that had once saved A.J.’s life. For all that Harm had been there a decade later than the other two, his tale hadn’t differed too significantly from theirs. The jungles of Vietnam had been a vicious place for all of them.
A.J. made his decision abruptly and sat forward. “Go see her, Commander. You’ll regret every moment you don’t.”
Looking surprised, Harm nodded. “Thank you, sir.”
A.J. waved the thanks away. Rabb would be useless until he met this girl, so it was hardly a matter of generosity.
“How long should I expect you to be gone?” If he were going to be out of the country, reassigning his cases would cause some serious upheaval in the office.
Harm stood. “Only a couple of days I would think, sir.” For a moment the guards in the other man’s eyes fell away and A.J. got a glimpse of just how thoroughly he was reeling inside. “She’s at Annapolis…” He blinked. “Wants to fly fighters.”
A.J. chuckled in spite of himself. “Another naval aviator?” He glanced heavenward. “Spare us.”
The joke drew a real smile. “Thank you, sir. I’ll let you know my schedule when I have some idea what it’ll be.”
A.J. nodded. “Very well. Dismissed.”
He watched as Harm came to attention and departed, staring at the door after it had closed. Good luck, he thought after the retreating commander.
Harm left the Admiral's office and hurried across the bullpen, fully intending to wrap up what he needed to and be on the road to Annapolis before lunch. He was so intent on his thoughts, however, that he nearly ran down his partner who was crossing the bullpen going the other way with a stack of books and folders piled high in her arms.
The sharp warning jerked Harm out of his reverie. He managed to grab Mac to keep her from falling as he plowed into her. They spun in a little circle, coming to rest with Harm's hands firmly grasping her waist, the pile of paperwork between them.
Mac's startled expression gave way to a smile. "Nice save, sailor."
He managed a strained smile in return. He released her, feeling self-conscious. "Sorry—wasn't paying attention to where I was going."
She cocked an eyebrow, her expression playful. "I noticed."
Harm didn't take her up on the unspoken invitation to flirt a little. Though it was one of his favorite pastimes, he was too consumed with the daughter he hadn't known about until yesterday to give Mac her proper due. So he didn't try.
"Can I help you with those?" he indicated her pile.
A brief, disappointed look crossed Mac's face, but she gladly handed him the top half of the load and continued toward her office. Harm followed her. He set his burden down on the whirlwind that passed for her desk, on top of a haphazard pile of things that needed to be reshuffled to other piles. That way it wouldn't interfere with her unique filing system. He turned to go.
"Harm? Are you o.k.?"
He turned back, meeting Mac's concerned gaze over the desk. "Yeah—" She gave him a doubtful look and he hesitated. Lying to Mac was a bad idea. "Well, no—" He broke off, uncertain how much he wanted to tell her. "It's… personal."
Mac's eyebrows hiked upward, forming two perfect crescents over her dark eyes. "Too personal to tell your best friend?" She bit her lip, then cocked her head to study him narrowly. Harm could tell she was hurt.
He forced his hands to stay relaxed at his sides. The truth between them was always a difficult thing and the office was hardly the place to talk, but he hated seeing that expression on Mac's face. He'd let it go too often in the past, and paid the price for it.
"You're a little more than just my best friend, Mac," he said softly.
He watched her absorb that, uncertain how to label the new expression that took up residence in her eyes.
"Is this about a woman?" The question was sharp.
Well, she'd understood what he was saying at least, but how did he answer that one? He finally nodded. "But not in the way you're thinking."
When she didn't respond, he continued. "I'm taking a couple of days' leave. When I get back…" He ran a hand through his hair. "I don't know. When I get back I'm probably going to need to talk to you about all this." He made an aimless gesture, struggling for words. "Just not until I know for sure."
Mac gave him a baffled look. "Until you know what for sure?"
Harm shook his head. He wasn't ready to say it out loud. The Admiral had guessed, sparing him that, and he was grateful.
He backed toward the door. "I need to get going. Call you when I get back?"
Mac pressed her lips together in a thin, frustrated line, but after a moment, she nodded.
Relieved, Harm left. It took about forty minutes to put his affairs in order, and then he was gone, headed toward the parking lot and a future he was sure he was totally unprepared for.
When Harm arrived at the Academy, he went straight to the Aerospace Engineering Department. A pretty young lieutenant smiled up at him from the reception desk. Her smile dimmed as she took note of his JAG insignias.
"Can I help you, sir?" she asked, coming to her feet.
"Commander Rabb." Harm gripped his cover tightly. "I'm looking for a third year midshipman… Audrey Le. I believe she's probably in Aeronautics, though I don't know for sure."
The smile dimmed another notch. "Yes, sir. Midshipman Le is in the program." Her expression was one of curious concern. "Commander Seward is the department chair. I'll let him know you're here."
"Thank you." Uneasy, Harm wandered the confines of the small outer office while the Lieutenant picked up the phone at her desk. Photos covered the walls—mainly pictures of aircraft. Harm smiled at a truly gorgeous shot of the Blue Angels.
Harm turned at the sound of his name. The door behind the lieutenant stood open, the empty frame filled by the broad form of Commander Seward. The commander reminded Harm of a bear. He couldn't have been more than 5'10" or so, but his build suggested he probably weighed as much as the tall aviator, if not more. His dark hair was shot through with silver, and his face had the weathered look of a man who'd spent plenty of time in the field. He didn't look like an engineer at all.
"Commander." Harm nodded in greeting.
Seward gestured toward the office behind him. "Please, come in."
Harm followed him back into the office and stood before the wide desk while the commander settled himself in his chair.
Seward leaned back, bracing his elbows on the arms of the chair and lacing his fingers across his stomach. "Now, what has Midshipman Le done this time?" he asked. "Especially to warrant a visit from JAG HQ?"
This time? Harm couldn't entirely hide his surprise. "Nothing, as far as I know. I just want to talk to her."
Harm balked. He couldn't lie, but this was a subject he didn't want to broach. "It's personal, Commander."
Seward gave him a piercing look. Then his gaze dipped, taking in Harm's wings, his ribbons, and finally his Academy ring. "You're an Academy graduate?"
Harm nodded. "Yes."
"What was your major?"
The commander shook his head, a glint of humor in his gaze. "We waste more engineering degrees on pilots…"
Harm chuckled at that.
"What do you fly, Commander?"
The busy eyebrows rose a fraction. "JAG gets its own air wing these days?"
Harm echoed the expression. "No, just the services of one aging jet jock who also happens to be a lawyer."
Commander Seward's face broke into a broad grin. "All right. I don't think you'll have too much trouble with the midshipman. You'll find her in Lieutenant Commander Robnick's Stability and Control class—Room 104."
Harm chewed on the enigmatic statement as he thanked the commander and took his leave.
Harm stood just inside the door to the small lecture hall, listening unobtrusively. The room hadn't changed much in the seventeen years since he'd been one of the midshipmen seated in graduated rows in front of the lectern. A large projection screen took up the front of the room. The lieutenant commander stood in front of it, using a laser pointer to highlight portions of the six-degree-of-freedom equations of motion that were the bane of every third year aeronautics student. His voice filled the small hall. Harm scanned the darkened room, hoping to make out the face he'd come to find, but without success. His stomach suddenly felt like the butterflies were doing catapult launches.
The instructor paused and looked toward the doorway. "Can I help you?"
Gathering himself, Harm stepped forward. "I'm sorry for the intrusion, Commander," he began.
"Not at all." The instructor smiled. "Was there a guest lecturer I wasn't told about?"
Harm stared at him blankly for a moment before he caught on. "Oh… no." He grinned a bit self-consciously. "I'm afraid all I remember from this class is how much I hated partial derivatives."
A twitter of laughter ran through the room.
"I'm Commander Rabb, JAG Corps." Harm came forward as he introduced himself.
The instructor nodded in greeting, but his demeanor became distinctly more formal. "Commander. What can I do for you?"
Harm forced himself to hold his ground, though the larger part of him wanted to bolt from the room. "I'm looking for one of your students—a Midshipman Le."
There was a small stir in the second row.
"Midshipman Le, front and center!" At Commander Robnick's command, a young woman seated in the second row jumped to her feet and quickly went to stand at attention before the instructor. She was tall, Harm realized with a start. She stood nearly eye-to-eye with Commander Robnick, and was slender in a distinctly feminine way. Her face was the one he'd seen on the tape.
"Get your things, Midshipman," Robnick told the young woman.
"Yes, sir." Audrey Le gave Harm one curious, slightly alarmed look before returning to her seat to pack her bag. Then she returned to the instructor, standing at attention before him until she was dismissed.
Harm waited quietly while the scenario played out, watching Audrey. He didn't see anything that definitively marked her as his daughter. She certainly didn't look like him, except for being unusually tall. Could he have been mistaken?
"Come with me, midshipman," Harm said once Commander Robnick had released her. Then he turned on his heel and left the hall. Driven by the many doubts and fears that plagued him, Harm paid no attention to his pace. He strode through the familiar halls, slapping his cover on by force of habit as he dashed out the door and down the steps. He exploded into the bright sunlight outside the building, took about four more steps, and then came to an abrupt halt because he didn't have the faintest idea where he was going.
To his surprise, Audrey was right at his heels. She sounded more than a little concerned about the state of his sanity.
Harm took a firm grip on himself. "My apologies, midshipman." He risked a glance at her and was met by an unabashed stare. Her eyes were almost impossibly dark—several shades deeper than Mac's, even—and watched him appraisingly. "Let's walk the quad. We can talk as we go."
Harm resumed at a more sedate pace. Audrey fell in beside him.
"Sir, am I in some kind of trouble?" she asked after a minute.
"Not with me," Harm answered, his sense of humor reasserting itself. "Do you get in trouble often, Midshipman Le?"
"I find my share, sir." The corners of her eyes crinkled as she grinned. It was a fearless smile she showed him, one that transformed her face as if the full tidal force of her personality shone through that single expression. Sexy, confident, charming… had Harm not already had it in his mind that she was a blood relation, that smile would have floored him, age gap notwithstanding. He stared at her in shock.
Is that what my smile is like? He'd always taken for granted the power he seemed to have over the opposite sex with that one expression. Having it turned on him was quite an experience. It also erased the last of his doubts.
With doubt gone, fear settled in. Harm looked away from Audrey, wishing he had some idea how to proceed. For a man known for his impassioned eloquence, words seemed to fail him at the most inopportune times.
Harm absently returned the salute of a passing petty officer, his gaze focused in the distance. "I saw the interview you did with the local television station in Kansas City."
Audrey turned to look at him, not needing to tip her head upward much at all to meet his eyes. She was very nearly six feet tall, Harm estimated. She didn't say anything in response, though her expression was clearly curious.
Harm bit the inside of his lip, debating with himself, then sighed. There was no gentle or roundabout way to approach the subject. "This is about… your father."
Audrey stopped dead in her tracks, and in her eyes Harm watched an entire world shatter.
Audrey Le was an orphan. It wasn’t a pleasant fact, but one she had accepted long ago. She had no one… and she belonged to no one. From that realization she had built her life. She’d set out to make her own way in the world without help from anyone, because there was no one for her to turn to. Her uncle had provided for her needs out of a sense of family obligation, but never showed anything but distaste for his half-breed niece. So, too, her aunt, and all of the neighbors in the deeply traditional community where she was raised.
Your father. With two words, the JAG officer upended Audrey’s entire world.
For a moment, she simply couldn’t breathe. Her knees felt weak. Instinctively, she staggered over to one of the stone benches lining the quad, dropping onto it before she could fall. The rough stone edges bit into her palms where she gripped the seat.
“You know who he is, sir?” She heard Commander Rabb’s shoes on the cement as he came to stand in front of her. She didn’t dare look up.
“Yes.” To her surprise, the commander turned and sat down next to her on the bench. The personal gesture made her more frightened, not less. One of the reasons she liked the military was because there was always a protocol to follow—a proper way to act in every situation. The formality of military regulations gave her a sense of security that the commander had just violated. She had to fight down the urge to scoot away from him.
Audrey bit her lip, steeling herself to ask the most important question. “Is he alive?”
Commander Rabb gave her an unreadable glance. “Yes.”
Audrey stared at the ground. She didn’t know what to say—how to react. Was she supposed to be happy that the missing piece of her life had suddenly appeared? What if she didn’t like him? What if he was a terrible person—a criminal or a spy or something? What if he didn’t want anything to do with her? Surely he had his own family somewhere. And why was a JAG coming to tell her this—a full commander no less?
A number of pieces came together in her mind. Audrey raised her head to look at Commander Rabb. “He’s in the Navy, isn’t he. That’s why you’re here.” It wasn’t a question.
The JAG snorted in amusement. “I can see why you’re top of your class.” He nodded. “Yes, he’s in the Navy.” Abruptly, he stood and took two long strides away from the bench. He stopped and stared across the quad, hands clasped behind him in an unconscious parade rest. “But that’s not why I’m here.”
Audrey watched him for a few moments, waiting for him to continue. Dread filled her, weighting her down. What could be so bad that it disturbed the high-level JAG they’d sent to talk to her?
She took a deep breath, straightening her shoulders. Well, whatever it was, she would accept it. She had no choice. Slowly, she rose to her feet, noting with abstract interest that she had to look up at the commander. She didn’t meet too many people taller than herself.
Audrey walked over to stand beside him, turning to look up into his face. “Just tell me, sir. I can handle it.”
Commander Rabb gave her an odd look—part amusement, part concern and part something else she couldn’t quite identify. “I’m glad one of us can.”
He looked away then, as if unable to hold her gaze. But before Audrey could ask for clarification of the enigmatic statement, he continued. “Your mother’s name is Le Thi Lin, correct?” Audrey noted that he’d said it the proper Vietnamese way, with the family name first.
She frowned. “Was.”
That earned her a sharp look. “Was?”
Audrey nodded. “Yes, sir. My mother died in a car crash when I was eight.”
She would have sworn she saw regret flash across the commander’s face. “I’m sorry.”
It was Audrey’s turn to look away. “It was a long time ago.”
“That doesn’t necessarily make it hurt less.”
She looked back up at him, surprised. There was a wealth of pain behind the shadowed eyes, as if he understood what it meant to lose a loved one. Perhaps he did.
As if in response to her thoughts, he explained, “I lost my father when I was six.”
Audrey cocked her head, glad to be able to switch the conversation away from herself. “What happened to him?”
A strange, deeply intense look came into the commander’s eyes, frightening her all over again. “He was shot down over Vietnam in 1969.”
Audrey digested that. She felt like she was standing on the thinnest crust of ice with this man, waiting for her footing to crumble. Why, she wasn’t certain.
“Did he die?” she finally asked.
“Eventually.” He stared at her with that same penetrating expression for a moment, and then something seemed to snap inside him. He shook his head sharply, raising his hands in an apologetic motion. “Look, I’m sorry. I’m doing a really poor job of this…”
Audrey barely heard him. She was still stuck on “Eventually”. Her thoughts spun as the possibilities reared around her.
“Wait! Sir—" She held up a hand, too, trying to forestall him. She didn’t want him to say anything more until she was sure she was ready to hear it. She felt like she couldn’t catch her breath. “Are you telling me that your father is—?”
Commander Rabb started to laugh—a ragged, humorless sound. “...your father, too?” He met her eyes for the barest moment then looked away. “No.”
Audrey let out the breath she’d been holding in a soft sigh.
“He’s your grandfather.”
She whipped around to stare at the commander. He met her gaze, a helpless expression in his blue eyes. “I’m your father.”
Audrey gaped at him, stunned, then closed her mouth with a snap when she realized what she was doing. A dozen questions collided in her brain, brawling amongst themselves for dominance. She clamped her lips shut against them all.
A wry smile lit his features as he watched her. “That was pretty much my reaction, too.”
Audrey studied him as she recovered her poise. She hadn’t really looked at the man behind the uniform, assuming he had come in an official capacity. Now, though, she stared at him with unabashed curiosity. She didn’t see anything of herself in his features. Blue eyes watched her from a handsome, but distinctly Caucasian, face. His hair was dark—probably black, though she couldn’t tell for sure because of his cover—without sign of gray. His face, too, showed little sign of aging, save for a few lines at the corners of his eyes. Audrey would have put him in his mid-thirties, except…
“Are you sure, sir?”
He cracked a real smile at the blunt question. Audrey sucked in her breath. That smile…
He chuckled, sounding terribly amused. “It’s a shock to see, isn’t it?”
She nodded, not trusting herself to say more. All her life she’d taken flak for her “supermodel” smile, a tool she had learned to use with deadly precision when needed. Seeing its origin was disconcerting.
The commander seemed to sense her discomfort, and her need for some kind of explanation. He looked back out over the quad, watching the middies bustling every which way toward their last class of the day.
“I spent about a month in Son My during the summer of 1980,” he told her. His gaze was focused in the distance—both in time and space, Audrey suspected. “I knew your mother then.”
Knew her? That was quite the euphemism. Audrey stared at him as a deeply buried anger began to surface. Two sentences… It had taken him all of two sentences to encompass her entire existence, and the destruction of her mother’s life.
“She was only fifteen!” It came out as an angry hiss.
Commander Rabb turned to look at her. He shrugged, jaw tight. “I was sixteen.” For a moment his shoulders sagged and he sighed. “I’m not going to make excused to you, Audrey. I learned about you yesterday, and I wanted to meet you.” He spread his hands. “So here I am. I’d like to get the chance to know you. But if you don’t want to have anything to do with me, I’ll respect that.”
Audrey forced her hands to unclench at her sides. His sincerity surprised her, but didn’t alleviate the nauseating whirlwind of her emotions. She didn’t know what she wanted. How could she? Right now all she really wanted was to run away until she could find a safe place to sort out her feelings.
Feeling small and brittle, Audrey drew herself to attention. “May I be dismissed, sir?” She met her father’s gaze with as much fortitude as she could muster. “I’m going to miss my Aerodynamics class.”
His brow crinkled in an expression of pain which disappeared almost immediately. He nodded once, his face a flat mask. “Dismissed.”
Audrey saluted and turned away, trembling. She went to the bench to retrieve her bag then headed for her class as fast as her long legs would carry her. She didn’t—couldn’t—look back.
Mac looked up in surprise at the knock on her apartment door. Who would be coming over at 2230? Other than Harm, that is, and he was gone for a few days on something so personal he couldn’t tell her about it. She sighed as she got up to answer the door. He probably thought he was protecting her by shutting her out, when in all honesty he was just driving stakes into her soul.
All such thoughts evaporated when she opened her door. Harm stood on the other side, looking utterly lost. His hair was mussed as if he’d run his hands through it a dozen times and his shirt, she realized, was only half tucked in. But it was the expression in his eyes that stopped her in her tracks.
“Harm, what are you doing here?” The words popped out of her mouth before she could consider them.
Luckily, he didn’t misconstrue. In fact, she wasn’t entirely sure he’d even heard her, but eventually the blue eyes tracked on her face. He blinked.
“I… don’t know.” His gaze expanded to take in the doorway as if seeing it for the first time. “I’m not even sure how I got here.” After a moment, he looked down at the keys dangling from his hand. “My car, I guess.”
Mac stepped back without another word, opening the door to let him in. She was scared. In her experience, Harmon Rabb never came unglued. All she could think was that something really, really bad had happened.
Harm came inside, dropping his keys absently on the nearest bookshelf, and flopped down on the couch. He stared straight ahead, eyes unfocused. Mac sat down next to him, curling one foot up beneath her. She threaded her fingers together in her lap, then hesitantly reached over to lay a hand on his thigh.
“Harm? What’s wrong?” Her mind filled with dreadful possibilities. “Did something happen to your mother? Frank? Sergei?”
He shook his head after a moment. “No, they’re fine.” His voice was faint.
Mac chewed on her lip. “Harm, you’re scaring me. What’s wrong?”
He jerked as if stung and swung around to look at her. His gaze focused on her face, lost and helpless. “I wouldn’t know where to start, Mac.”
“How about at the beginning?”
The dazed expression never changed. He stared right through her, toward something only he could see. His jaw worked silently.
“I ran away from home when I was sixteen. Did I ever tell you about that? I stole four thousand dollars from my mom and Frank’s bank account—used it to go to Vietnam.” He squeezed his eyes shut.
Then, without warning, he reared off the couch. “Never mind. I shouldn’t have come.”
Mac jumped up, too, and grabbed his arm. “Wait. Yes, you’ve told me—that you went, at least.” She had the feeling he’d admitted more to her with the bit about stealing money from his parents than he intended. What that had to do with anything, though, was a mystery.
Harm tried to pull out of her grasp. “I should go.”
Mac had to resist the temptation to stamp her foot in pure annoyance. “Forget it, sailor.” She tightened her grip. “You’re in no condition to drive.”
“I said no, Harm, and I meant it. I’ll drive you home, if that’s what you want.”
“Then what’ll you do?”
Mac rolled her eyes. “Well, I’ll either catch a cab back here or I’ll crash on your couch. I’m not leaving you alone right now.”
He surrendered without further protest, which told her more about his mental state than anything else had. They left her place together and made the drive in silence. But by the time they reached Harm’s apartment, he seemed much more himself. A subdued version of himself, maybe, but at least recognizable as the man she knew.
He took his keys back from her to open the door, and led her inside.
“Can I get you something to drink?” he asked as he walked over to the kitchen.
Mac slid onto one of the barstools lining his counter. “Hot tea?” Giving him something to do might make it easier to get him to talk in the meantime. She leaned over the counter as he produced the teapot. “Got any leftover chinese or anything?”
Harm flashed her an empty smile. “You hungry?”
Mac returned the smile with a good deal more warmth. “Always.” She paused, deliberately casual. “How about you? Did you have any dinner?”
He stopped to think, teapot in hand. “Uh… I don’t think so.” He went to the sink, flipped on the water and held the pot beneath it. “I could probably whip up some pasta.”
Mac grinned brightly. “Great.” He was awfully easy to manipulate in this state, but at least it would get him fed without the inevitable argument that would have ensued had she actually told him he should eat. It would also keep him occupied in the kitchen for a while, making him an easy target for her gentle and tactful interrogation.
Harm was keeping watch over the pan of bubbling sauce when she made her first foray. “What was Vietnam like?”
He glanced at her, his expression hooded. “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing, Mac.”
She returned his gaze innocently. “Are you going to answer my question?”
He went back to his sauce, stirring it with a wooden spoon. For a minute, Mac was convinced he wasn’t going to answer.
“Hot,” he finally said. He glanced up. “I think that was the first thing that hit me. It was like standing in a sauna. The air was so thick you always felt like you ought to be able to see it. And it stank—like rot. The vegetation was amazing. You couldn’t see more than a couple of feet in any direction, it was so thick. It was as bad as being in fog.” He paused. “Except fog doesn’t shoot back.”
Mac tried to imagine being sixteen in a place like that. Her own life hadn’t been much of a picnic at that age, but no one had been trying to kill her, either.
Oblivious to her thoughts, Harm continued. “When I met up with Colonel Stryker, the first thing he taught me was how to field strip an AK—they were more reliable than M-16s, and easier to get. The second was how to spot mines and trip wires.” He added pepper to the sauce with consummate precision. “My job was to scout the trails. About got myself killed a couple of times stumbling onto North Vietnamese lookouts, until I figured out how to spot them before they saw me.”
Mac took a sip of her tea. “Then what?”
He shrugged. “We tried to go around them. We were there to look for MIA’s, not take on the Vietcong.”
“Did it work?”
He turned away, going to the cabinet for plates. “Most of the time.”
Harm served up the pasta and set a plate in front of her. He came around the counter to sit beside her with his own.
Mac dug into her food, wondering where to go next. Everything Harm had told her had been delivered in a flat, emotionless voice—the one he used to recount any painful memory. It was also the same voice, she realized, that he used to explain to people why he was a JAG with wings. Knowing him as well as she did, she had the feeling they were fast approaching the limit of what he would be willing to say.
“Can we drop this subject?” Harm asked just as she opened her mouth for another question. Yep, she knew him pretty well.
Mac sighed. “Temporarily, at least.” She leveled her fork at him. “You still haven’t told me what happened that’s got you so upset, though.”
He looked away for a long moment. “The real answer to that is someplace I don’t think I’m ready to go,” he said softly. He turned and slid off his stool. “But here’s the start of it.”
Mac turned, curious, as he went over to the little TV he kept for reviewing tapes and occasionally watching the news. He picked up the remote, flicked the television on to some political show. Mac walked over to join him. The show disappeared in a flash of static, replaced by a newscast. A timestamp in the corner told her this was from a tape.
She glanced at Harm. He was staring intently at the TV, his expression unreadable. Mac held her tongue for the moment and watched as the news gave way to an interview with a beautiful middie from the Academy. The volume was too low for her to make out any of the questions or answers, but from the deep crease that had appeared between Harm’s brows, she guessed this what he wanted her to see.
“Who is she?”
Harm flexed white-knuckled fingers on the remote, so hard she was afraid he might break it. That, however, was just an echo of the titanic struggle taking place behind his eyes.
For a moment, Mac forgot to breathe. She stared at her partner, shocked, as her mind began to race. She put the girl’s age and their strange conversation about Vietnam together in a matter of seconds.
“How long have you known…?” She trailed off, uncertain she wanted to know the answer.
Harm turned the television off and dropped the remote onto the couch. “About twenty-four hours.” He reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Jeez, was it really only yesterday…?” The question wasn’t directed at her. He sat, staring emptily into the distance.
Mac forced herself to sit down beside him. “Was that where you were today?”
He nodded. “She doesn’t want to have anything to do with me. Not that I really blame her.”
Mac winced. She hated that self-deprecating tone. She nudged him with her shoulder. “Hey, stop it. She’s probably in shock, just like you.” And me, she added silently. But for now she would just have to suck it up because Harm needed her—a lot more than she needed to indulge her feelings over something that didn’t directly involve her.
Harm looked up, a dim light of hope in his eyes, and Mac congratulated herself for finding the right thing to say. “You think?”
She nodded with a lot more confidence than she felt. “Sure. Give her some time to get used to the idea. I’m sure she’ll want to get to know you.”
Mac suddenly found herself engulfed in a hug. “Thanks, Mac.”
Trapped against his chest, she closed her eyes, savoring the play of muscle beneath her cheek. The unique masculine smell of him assailed her senses, and she drew a deep breath to help dispel the cold knot in her stomach. No matter what, nothing would ever be the same again.
“What’s her name?” Mac asked, hoping the question wouldn’t shatter the rare intimate moment.
Harm’s arms tightened around her. “Audrey.”
“Yeah.” The crushing grip loosened, but didn’t disappear. “Mac?”
“Yeah?” She didn’t want to pull away to look at him.
“Will you… will you stay here tonight?”
Mac couldn’t help the rush of warmth that spilled through her. It was as close as he’d ever come to admitting outright that he needed her. She smiled into his shirt. “Of course.”
She felt his cheek settle on the top of her head. “Thanks.”
Mac walked out of her office just in time to see Petty Officer Tiner come to a stunned stop in the middle of JAG Ops, his jaw sagging as he stared toward the entrance to the bullpen. A few feet away, Gunny noticed his reaction and turned curiously, only to freeze as well.
With a snort of amusement, Mac turned to look at what had attracted such obvious attention from the two men. Her stomach clenched into a small, hard knot. The young woman who stood uncertainly in the doorway couldn't have been anyone but Audrey Le. She was dressed in civilian attire—fashionably tight jeans and a soft sweater that only accentuated her exotic beauty.
Before Mac could react, Gunny stepped forward. "Can I help you, miss?" he asked with all appearance of helpful concern. But then, Victor Galindez was a gentleman in every sense of the word, and a credit to the Marine uniform he wore.
Audrey nodded, her gaze sweeping the bullpen. "I'm looking for Commander Rabb."
A swift expression of disapproval crossed Gunny's face before disappearing. "Of course."
Mac didn't have much trouble guessing what he was thinking. She jumped forward to intercept the two before Gunny's misimpression could gain momentum. "Hi. You must be Audrey. I'm Lieutenant Colonel Sarah Mackenzie." She held out her hand. "I work with Commander Rabb."
Audrey shook her hand. "It's nice to meet you, ma'am."
Mac turned to Victor. "Audrey is third year at the Academy, Gunny. She plans to become a naval aviator."
Victor raised his eyebrows, but seemed relieved that there was some other reason for such a young and beautiful woman to be looking for Harm. Mac gave herself a mental pat on the back for squashing that bit of scuttlebutt before it could get started.
"Did my—did Commander Rabb tell you that?" Audrey seemed a bit unnerved by the idea.
Mac met her gaze and nodded. "Yes. The Commander is in court right now, but they should be getting out any minute. You can wait for him in his office if you'd like," she went on before the young woman could say something too revealing. Harm hadn't said a single thing about his daughter after the night he'd appeared on Mac's doorstep—not to her or anyone else, as far as she knew. She doubted he wanted that information spread indiscriminately around the office.
"There he is now, ma'am." Gunny looked past Audrey toward the doors fronting the bullpen.
Mac and Audrey both turned. Harm had just come through the doors, briefcase in hand. He and Sturgis were talking animatedly as they walked, but then Harm looked up and spied Audrey. He stopped dead in his tracks, an unadulterated expression of surprise filling his face. Sturgis paused as well and looked curiously between the two parties. Like Mac, he knew Harm and understood instinctively when something important was happening.
Harm shook himself into motion after a long, frozen moment. "Audrey—" He sounded utterly and completely shocked, but in the three strides it took to cross the distance to her, he somehow managed to replace the shocked expression with a smile of greeting. "It's good to see you. What are you doing here? Aren't you supposed to be in class?" The questions tumbled out.
Audrey met his gaze, her expression perhaps a little more challenging than friendly. "Thanks, I'm looking for you, of course, and I requested a couple of days of liberty, in that order." She flashed him an absolutely dazzling smile. "Sir."
Looking nonplussed, Harm gestured with his briefcase. "We can talk in my office. This way."
Audrey nodded and followed him. Harm closed the door behind her. Through the open blinds, Mac saw Audrey reach out to touch the F-14 model that sat on Harm's desk, her stance questioning. A moment later, the blinds closed.
"Why do I get the feeling there's quite a story there?" Sturgis asked of no one in particular. He glanced at Mac.
Just then Lieutenant Singer breezed past. "Does anyone else think she's just a little too young for the commander?" she asked in a snide undertone.
Mac felt a flash of fury that she quickly buried. Anger didn't work on Singer. "Actually, it's the other way around," she told the lieutenant's retreating back. Singer paused and turned, one eyebrow rising in disdainful curiosity.
Mac met her gaze. "He's a bit too young for her." Giving the other woman a superior smile, Mac headed back into her office. Let Singer chew on that for a while. She settled into her chair and bent her head over her work, ears tuned for the sound of her partner's door opening.
Audrey walked into her father's office, projecting as much confidence as she could. She didn't want him to see how much it had cost her just to come here. But she had too many questions she needed answers to—she couldn't stay away.
She looked around. It wasn't a big or fancy office at all. Just a standard, nondescript room lined with filing cabinets and bookshelves. A few pictures hung on the walls, the most prominent a print of a carrier at sea, her deck filled with aircraft and two Tomcats powering into the air just after catapult launch. A broad desk took up most of the available floor space, covered with manila folders and piles of paper. A nice F-14 model stood on a stand on the desk's near corner. Audrey's gaze jumped to the low filing cabinet that lined the space behind the desk, beneath the window. Its top was taken up by a cluster of framed photos at one end, a fighter pilot's helmet at the other. The helmet had the call sign "Hammer" stenciled on it. It looked almost new.
A number of thoughts collided in Audrey's mind. She'd seen the wings on his uniform, but hadn't really expected this. He was a JAG, after all. She'd assumed something… tamer. She walked over to the model F-14, reaching out to run a finger along the aircraft's leading edge. "You fly Tomcats?"
He walked around behind his desk, but didn't sit. "Occasionally." His voice held a harsh note that softened at his next words. "You didn't realize it was in your blood, did you?"
Audrey looked up sharply at that. His smile was bittersweet. "You are… or will be a fourth-generation naval aviator," he told her. "Not too many people can say that."
In a strange way, the comment touched Audrey the way nothing else had. Family… ancestry… were very important concepts to the Vietnamese people, something Americans usually had no clue about. And yet, not five minutes into the second conversation of their lives, her father was telling her about her family's past. Honoring them, and her.
"I would… like to hear about them sometime." She gave the little Tomcat a final, almost reverent caress. In it she had found a link connecting her to this man, and that was important to her.
Her father uttered a wry snort. "It's a pretty strange story." But he didn't elaborate. After a moment, he gestured for her to sit. "Please."
Audrey did so, deciding not to ask any more questions about family for the moment. She was curious, but there were more important matters to talk about first. The commander sank into his chair as well, leaning his elbows on the desk, hands clasped in front of him. The sea-blue eyes settled on her face, not demanding, but interested. A neutral, accepting stare that expected nothing, but requested everything. Audrey literally felt like he was composing himself to listen to her for however long she chose to talk and no matter what she chose to say.
Audrey stared back at him, unnerved. No one had ever made her their sole focus the way he was doing now. It was a bit overwhelming.
Audrey struggled for something to say, as the silence grew thick around them. She'd come to JAG with questions and demands burning a hole in the back of her throat, but now she couldn't manage to conjure forth a single one.
Her father was turning out to be a difficult man to hate.
He broke the silence finally. "I'm glad you came, Audrey. I had just about convinced myself you didn't want to see me again." His gaze held a level of honesty that both surprised and frightened her.
She bit her lip, but decided that since she had come all this way to have this exact conversation, it would be foolish to back out of it now. "I don't know what I want," she told him. "But I thought the first step ought to be to make completely sure… with proof…" She trailed off uncomfortably.
His smile said he understood her discomfort. "You mean a blood test?"
He leaned back in his chair. "Well, that's completely reasonable, and probably a good place to start."
He glanced at his watch. "I can probably break free now, if you want. I just have to clear it with my CO."
"O.k." Audrey nervously rubbed her palms on her jeans as she rose to her feet. The commander stood with her and reached for his phone. A short conversation with "the Admiral"—was that the Admiral, the Judge Advocate General of the Navy?—later, and they were ready to go.
As Audrey turned toward the door, a new thought struck her. "Do they know about me?" She cocked her head toward the bullpen, invisible beyond the drawn blinds.
Her father frowned. "Mac and my CO do, but they're the only ones so far."
Audrey wasn't sure whether to be pleased or hurt by that, and didn't like the fact that she cared one way or the other.
"Who's Mac?" she asked instead.
Her father smiled fondly. "Lieutenant Colonel Sarah Mackenzie—the woman you were talking to when I walked in."
Audrey immediately sensed an undercurrent there. Maybe they were involved? He wasn't wearing a wedding ring, so it might not be too far-fetched a supposition. The idea sparked a host of ambivalent feelings.
"Is she your girlfriend?"
Her father's head snapped around. "What in the world makes you say that?"
Audrey backpedaled mentally at his outburst. He didn't sound angry, exactly. Exasperated? All she knew for sure was that she'd stepped into something she probably didn't want to get involved in. After all, he had his own life. She kept telling herself that.
She raised her hands, palms out. "Sorry."
The word lacked sincerity, but he didn't seem to notice. He sighed, dismissing the need for apology with a wave. "No, it's all right. I'm sorry for snapping at you." He gave her an aggrieved look from under his eyebrows. "It's just that sometimes I feel like I must have 'I love Sarah Mackenzie' stamped on my forehead—" He stopped short, paling, and squeezed his eyes shut.
Audrey stared at him, mystified by the odd behavior.
After a moment, he reopened his eyes, fastening an intense gaze on her. "Don't ever repeat that," he told her, his voice toneless. "That's an order."
Audrey still had no idea exactly what she'd stumbled into, but decided she would be wise to let the subject go. "Yes, sir."
They went to Bethesda. Laboratory services didn't require an appointment, so they found themselves at a small reception desk outside the lab, waiting for the young petty officer there to notice them.
She eventually looked up with an apologetic smile. "Can I help you?"
Harm opened his mouth to answer, but the words lodged in his throat. This was going to be awkward at best and extremely uncomfortable at worst.
The silence stretched. Audrey shook her head, giving him a sidelong look that could have held contempt or simply amusement. She turned to the waiting petty officer.
"We need to have a paternity test done."
The petty officer nodded, calling up a menu on her computer. "And the child's name?" She looked between them expectantly. Harm resisted the temptation to roll his eyes.
Audrey straightened her shoulders, unconsciously raising her chin. "I'm the child.”
The petty officer gave her a mildly surprised look, quickly buried beneath her professional veneer.
Audrey’s demeanor didn’t change. “My name is Audrey Le, spelled L-E."
The petty officer typed the name into her computer then looked back up at Audrey. “And the probable father?”
Harm forced himself to speak up. “That would be me. Commander Harmon Rabb, Jr.”
This time the petty officer couldn’t hide her surprise. Still, she said nothing as she entered more data into her computer.
Finally, she looked up again. “In this kind of DNA matching it’s very helpful to also have a blood sample from the mother, if possible.”
Audrey’s expression closed in on itself. “She died years ago.”
The petty officer nodded, giving Audrey a brief, sympathetic smile. “All right, then. Since you're both in my records here, that’s everything I need. Please have a seat and they’ll call you when they’re ready.”
Harm and Audrey walked over to the row of chairs that passed for a waiting room. Harm collapsed into one, feeling far older than he, apparently, looked. His knee was acting up again, sending a twinge up his leg with each step. He stretched that leg out in front of him, massaging the offending area.
“What did you do to your knee?” Audrey asked. She remained standing, arms crossed and head down. Harm couldn’t tell if she were staring at his leg or her own toes.
Harm leaned back in his chair with a rueful sigh. “Oh, I dumped a Tomcat in the drink about a year ago. Ejected around two-hundred feet.” Memories overwhelmed him, bringing back the feel of the frigid water and the desperation of trying to keep his head above water. “Tore my knee up pretty good.” With a small headshake, he banished the memories to their usual corner.
Audrey looked up, her interest clear. “What’s it like?”
He met her gaze. “Ejecting? Or treading water for three hours in the middle of the Atlantic?”
She blinked, nonplussed. “Ejecting. They say it compresses you spine so much it’ll take an inch off your height.”
He barked a sour laugh. “If that were the case, I’d be 6’1” now.” He shook his head, sobering. “It’s not fun.”
Audrey stared at him for what seemed like a very long time. Harm could see the conflict in her face and guessed that she wanted to hear the story but wasn't too sure how personal she wanted to get with him. The realization hurt. Harm didn't entirely understand how the opinion of someone he barely knew could matter that much.
Eventually, Audrey came and sat next to him, leaning both elbows on the chair arm between them. “How many times have you punched out?” Curiosity had obviously overcome her reticence.
His answer got the expected response. Both eyebrows hiked upward in disbelief. “No.”
Harm fought down a smile. “Yes.”
Harm’s good humor evaporated. He was tempted to gloss over this part. He hated telling this story, but he couldn’t hide the truth from her. He owed her that much.
He sighed. “The first was a ramp strike in ’91. I developed night vision problems because of a virus I’d had the year before, but it didn’t show up until I was trying to land on the carrier on a stormy night.” He stared at a point on the floor in front of him. “My RIO panicked and ejected us over the deck. He was killed. I cracked two vertebrae and shattered my hip. Spent a month in traction and another three learning how to walk again." Harm resisted the rush of memories. "The accident review board determined no fault, but I lost my flight status because of my vision.”
Audrey studied him, unguessable thoughts turning behind her dark eyes. “But you fly now…?”
He nodded. “Yeah, though I think I’ll save that story for another day, unless you’d rather hear about that instead of my other punch outs.”
She cocked her head, obviously debating. Finally her expression cleared. “What was the second time?”
Now Harm smiled. “Ah, now that… that was when Mac and I stole a Russian MiG.”
She stared at him incredulously. “You’re kidding.”
He chuckled. “Nope. We got caught in a power struggle going on inside the Russian intelligence service. I stole the MiG to get us across Russia quickly, but it was a set up. There were a couple of fighters waiting for us.”
She was hanging on every word. “What happened?”
“We’d barely gotten off the ground when they shot us down.” He shook his head. “It’s the only time I’ve ejected without getting seriously hurt.”
“Why were you in Russia?”
Harm opened his mouth to answer, then closed it with a snap when he realized where the conversation would lead. He braced himself. “I was there looking for my dad—your grandfather.” He shot a glance at Audrey, but her expression contained only curiosity. She didn’t seem to have any more real doubts than he did about her parentage. “There was evidence to suggest he’d been taken to the Soviet Union after his capture in North Vietnam.” Harm pinched the bridge of his nose. “It turned out to be true. He escaped his captors while being transferred to a gulag in Siberia in 1980. He took refuge with a Russian woman and her brother, and was later killed by soldiers in 1981.”
Audrey was silent for a bit, but then she shook her head in wonder. “You’ve lived an interesting life… sir.”
Harm snorted. “You’re out of uniform. Please, call me Harm, or… Dad, I guess… if you want.” Dad? Did I just say that? He dropped his gaze, suddenly unable to meet her eyes.
There was a short pause.
“O.k. Dad it is.”
Harm looked up in surprise.
“Otherwise people will probably think you’re my boyfriend, and that would be hard to explain,” she added.
They stared at each other. Harm was completely at a loss for how to respond, but he was reassured by the fact that Audrey looked just about as startled as he felt.
The lab technician saved them. He stepped out into the waiting room, breaking the deadlock. "Commander Rabb, Cadet Le."
Harm swung around, surprised to realize that he knew the lieutenant. He stood, forcing a smile onto his face. "Lieutenant Elfman." He held out his hand. "Good to see you again." Elfman had been an expert witness for Harm on several occasions.
Audrey rose as well, greeting the lieutenant when it was her turn.
Lieutenant Elfman gestured toward the door behind him, his demeanor completely professional. If he was curious, he didn't show it. "If you'll both follow me, we can get started."
Harm nodded, gesturing for Audrey to precede him.
I must be out of my mind! Audrey's thoughts ran in confused circles as she followed the lieutenant back into the laboratory area. What in the world possessed me to agree to calling him Dad? I don't even know for sure if it's true! She resisted the impulse to sneak a look at the man behind her. She didn't need to. She could already envision him in her mind's eye: the handsome naval officer—tall, distinguished, and proud. A Tomcat pilot with some amazing stories to tell—She cut her thoughts short. He was everything she'd always hoped her father would be.
It scared her to realize that a part of her wanted it to be true.
Lieutenant Elfman led them to a small room. The room was divided in half by a long table, with a single chair on one side and three along the other. Cabinets filled with medical paraphernalia lined the far wall. The lieutenant went around the table to sit in the single chair. Audrey and her father sat across from him.
The lieutenant opened the file folder in his hands, laying it out on the table. "Now, have either of you ever had this kind of testing done before?" He split his gaze equally between them. Audrey stifled a snort at the combination of terror and wounded pride that flitted across her father's face.
"No," they both answered.
The lieutenant smiled for a moment, and Audrey was struck by how attractive he was. She instinctively glanced at his left hand. Nope, no ring. It was too bad she was still in the Academy and couldn't even think of asking him out. She pushed the errant thought aside. Her life was complicated enough right now, anyway.
Elfman's attention shifted to Audrey and for a terrified moment she wondered if he could read her thoughts.
"I know Commander Rabb already knows how this process works, but do you want me to go through it for you?" he asked.
Audrey glanced over at her father. "I thought you said you'd never done this before?"
He shook his head. "Paternity issues come up in court from time to time. The lieutenant has testified for me on a couple of occasions. He's very good on the stand."
"Oh." Feeling foolish, she turned back to the lieutenant. "That's all right… I've done a lot of research."
Elfman accepted that. "O.k. Then the only question that remains is if it would be possible to get a sample of your mother's blood to use for matching."
Audrey felt a familiar, bitter pang. "I told the petty officer outside… she died when I was eight."
The lieutenant nodded. "I'm sorry." He seemed truly sympathetic. "However, that doesn't mean blood samples don't exist somewhere. Did she have a family doctor?"
Audrey forced herself to think. Her memories of her mother were often indistinct, which disturbed her. "No, no family doctor." The only doctor Audrey remembered from her childhood was the old man who sold herbal medicines from a little shop two blocks from her uncle's home.
"I'm sorry to ask this, but what were the circumstances of her death? Was she hospitalized at any time?"
Audrey glanced at her father. Did he care what had happened to her mother? His expression was guarded, giving her little insight.
She nodded. "She was in an auto accident, in Kansas City. She was in the hospital for a couple of days before she died, but I don't know which one." The smell of hospitals still turned Audrey's stomach to this day. She remembered all too clearly sitting in the waiting room with her aunt, terrified and not knowing what was happening.
Lieutenant Elfman nodded as he made some notes. "I can look into it for you."
"As I understand it, lieutenant, you don't have to have DNA from both parents to do the test, correct?" To Audrey's surprise, her father spoke up before she could formulate a response.
The lieutenant nodded. "True, sir, but it makes things much easier."
"Would it be reasonable to ask you to go ahead and do the test just using my blood? If it's not enough, we could always look into getting blood samples from Kansas City later."
Audrey turned to look at him, not sure what to think of the proposal.
Lieutenant Elfman frowned, but acquiesced. "Of course, sir. Are you in a particular hurry?"
Audrey studied her father as he shook his head. "No. I just don't want to ask Audrey to dig up painful memories if she doesn't have to." He glanced briefly at her, his gaze shadowed.
Audrey was surprised by the gesture, but not sure how much it was worth.
Lieutenant Elfman was nodding. "Is that all right with you, midshipman?" he asked Audrey. She managed a nod, and he went on. "O.k. I'll get right on it, then."
"When should we expect to hear from you?"
The lieutenant blinked absently, thinking. "At least forty-eight hours, sir. It depends on what I find."
After the lieutenant had drawn a blood sample from each of them, they left.
Back in the car, the silence grew uncomfortable quickly.
"You never told me about your third punch out." Audrey grabbed the first neutral topic that presented itself. Flying and the Navy seemed to be the only common ground they had.
Her father flashed her a false grin. "Yes, I did. I told you I dumped a Tomcat in the Atlantic last year—tore my knee up in the process." His tone was light, but Audrey got the sense of deeper things hidden beneath. Things he didn't want to talk about.
So she pressed for a little more information. She wanted to see the bad side of this man, too. No one who had done the things he had could be as good as he seemed.
"Why did you go down?"
The question earned her a hard look, but one without any anger behind it. He turned his attention back to the road and the D.C. traffic. "It was a combination of factors—an oxygen warning that kept us under ten thousand feet, bad weather prediction, and the mother of all storms…" He sighed resignedly. "But the real reason is because I was trying to keep a promise, stupid as that may sound."
That wasn't exactly what Audrey was expecting. "What promise?"
"That I would be back in time for Mac's wedding."
"Mac?" Audrey felt her cheeks flush. "Colonel Mackenzie 'Mac'?" After what he'd told her not to repeat… the colonel was married?
He must have guessed the direction of her thoughts. "She didn't end up marrying the guy," he told her.
He bit his lip, expression pained. "For a lot of reasons."
Audrey stared at him, wondering if she was seeing what she thought she was. "Was one of them because you—"
"Discussion closed, Audrey." He cut her off, his tone curt. His eyes remained fixed on the road.
She sat back in hurt silence.
They remained that way until the SUV pulled into the parking lot at JAG. The sky had begun to darken and most of the cars were gone. He pulled into the space next to her MR2 and killed the engine, then leaned his head back against the headrest and just sat there.
"I'm sorry," he said after a minute. He turned to look at her. "Everyone else knows the history between Mac and I—" His expression turned sour. "They know which questions not to ask. I… shouldn't have snapped."
Audrey cocked her head to study him. There were definitely some faults there, but she found it hard to be too angry with him for that. But still, he owed her, and owed her a lot for the past twenty-one years.
"I don't like unspoken rules," she said, finally. "I tend to ignore them." She would not have the same kind of relationship with her father that she'd had with her aunt and uncle. She couldn't stand to.
He gave her a sidelong glance. "I get the feeling you ignore some of the spoken ones, too, when it suits you."
Unexpectedly, Audrey flushed. She didn't get into that much trouble.
He looked back out the windshield, chuckling. "Don't worry. It runs in the family."
She gave him a curious look and he shook his head. "Oh, no. Next time we get to talk about you."
Audrey chewed on the implicit statement that they would see each other again. "All right," she finally agreed. "I'll call you when I hear from the lab." She needed some time to digest the day's events.
He nodded in acceptance, though was that a bit of disappointment in his gaze? She wasn't sure and didn't dare ask.
"Goodnight, Audrey," he said as she turned to open her door.
She paused to look back at him. "Goodnight… Dad." Turning away, she quickly opened the door and got out without waiting for his