A.J. forgot about the Temptation Cruise paperwork until it was almost
too late. Early Friday afternoon, he uncovered the thick packets from
the pile in his inbox. He stared at them in dismay before jumping to his
feet and striding from the office.
Harriet looked up at him in surprise as he approached her desk. She
hopped to her feet. "Yes, sir."
"Drop what you're doing and take care of these. They need to be
couriered to Daniel Steiner's office before close of business today."
Harriet accepted the envelopes. "Yes, sir."
A.J. went back to his office. After Commander Rabb's stunt the day
before, he was more reluctant than ever to let this undercover
investigation continue. Not that he would mind seeing the two of them
together, especially if it turned out to be permanent, but he was very
afraid the episode would accomplish nothing more than to wreck a very
capable partnership and hurt two people he cared for.
Organized soul that she was, Harriet set out to collect all the
information she'd need from Commander Rabb and Colonel McKenzie before
she sat down to fill out the paperwork.
The Commander answered her questions with his usual tolerance, eyes
glinting with humor. To Harriet he seemed like a loving older brother,
the kind that snuck you out of the house to go see a late movie and took
you to your first dance to make sure the boys knew how you were supposed
to be treated.
That image didn't entirely mesh with the fact that the Commander was
also a fierce warrior who could strap on a Tomcat to do battle in an
arena that had little margin for either error or mercy. That he could--
and, in fact, had-- killed in defense of his life, his friends, and his
country made Harriet uncomfortable. But only a little, she amended.
Harriet thanked the Commander and left, crossing the bullpen to Colonel
MacKenzie's office. The Colonel answered her questions with brusque
efficiency, as if that would keep Harriet from seeing how unnerved she
was. It didn't, of course, and Harriet could see the knowledge reflected
in the Colonel's eloquent brown eyes though neither of them acknowledged
She was a strange mix of strength and weakness, Harriet thought. On one
hand, the Colonel was one of the toughest women she'd ever met. Hard, to
some degree, but also courageous, strong, and passionate. On the other
hand, she was also one of the most insecure women Harriet knew. Harriet
often wondered if there was anyone the Colonel trusted completely. She
didn't think so, and it was sad to watch her build up walls to keep out
the people who cared most for her.
Well listen to me, the closet psychologist, Harriet scolded herself as
she left. The relationship between the two wasn't really any of her
business, despite the fact that they were both dear friends… and the
godparents to her only child… and totally hopeless when it came to
matters of the heart.
On the heels of that thought, Harriet headed back to her desk and the
mound of papers she had approximately forty minutes to complete. Her
fingers flew across the typewriter keyboard, a machine that only she and
the Admiral knew how to use with anything approaching competence. She
blazed through the forms, occasionally checking her notes as she went.
In the back of her mind, some small portion of her continued to muse on
the plight of her friends.
Harriet finished with not a moment to spare. She bundled up the
paperwork, slipped it all into an envelope with Mr. Steiner's name and
address on it, then placed that envelope inside the special courier
envelope which she gave to the waiting petty officer who would deliver
Satisfied that her task was complete, she brushed her hands together and
turned back to her desk, unaware she had made one fundamental mistake.
Early Saturday morning, Daniel Steiner was in his office, going over the
vast array of preparations that had been made for the contestants'
dinner that night. That would be his first real chance to observe the
couples and to make his initial evaluation of how to target each one.
The bios only told him so much. Steiner was a genius at identifying
weaknesses, a talent he exploited ruthlessly for his own benefit and
that of his show.
Most of the soon-to-be newlyweds were mundane, shallow. Already, he was
certain he knew where his star power would come from: The Andersons-- a
couple of college kids too young and idealistic to be swayed by most
temptations, but, luckily, also young enough to still be naïve. They
would be the cute couple, the ones everyone wanted to see win. The
Crossby/Esperanza pair would be the Andersons' antithesis. Viciously
independent and aggressive, the two could succeed out of pure
determination. They would not be motivated by love, but they would be
hard to take down without careful groundwork. And then there were his
military investigators-- the wildcards. Not only did they up the
gorgeous quotient substantially, but there were some truly delicious
undercurrents there that Steiner intended to exploit to the full. Not to
mention that they, of all the contestants, would have an agenda other
than winning the prize, something the audience would quickly pick up on
if given sufficient exposure. Even if it turned out that Ariel was
guilty, that, too, he could spin into the show.
He grinned. TC II might top the original ratings if he worked things
Steiner's assistant came in and laid a sheet of paper on the desk in
front of him. "You wanted to see the press release before it went out."
Steiner picked up the paper and scanned it. Two names jumped out at him,
eliciting a smile that quickly widened as he realized the possibilities.
No, they couldn't have made such a basic mistake, could they? It had to
have been his own people…
"Lisa, get the paperwork the Navy sent us," he told the assistant,
unable to hide his excitement.
She hurried off only to return a few minutes later with the appropriate
folder. Steiner grabbed it and flipped it open. He began to chuckle.
"Oh, this is rich. We are going to make a fortune." He stopped and
thought for a moment. There was the chance they'd use the excuse to back
out. But no, the Navy needed its good press too badly. The specter of
Tailhook still haunted them.
Smirking, he double-checked the press release, then handed it to Lisa.
"Looks good. Send it out."
Harm and Mac pulled into the parking lot outside JAG headquarters at
roughly the same time.
"Did you get called in, too?" Harm asked as Mac joined him on the curb.
She nodded, her brow creased with concerned. "If we're both being called
in at 1430 on a Saturday, it has to be something serious."
Harm grinned at her. "Look at the bright side. Maybe we won't have to go
to this dinner thing tonight."
Mac chuckled. "We can only hope."
They went inside. The Admiral was waiting for them in his office.
"Sit down, both of you," he said, waving them to their customary seats.
His expression was grim.
They sat. Chegwidden steepled his hands in front of his face and stared
at his officers in silence.
Harm's sense of trepidation grew stronger with each passing moment.
Something had definitely gone wrong in the world if the Admiral needed
time to compose what he wanted to say.
"Sir?" Mac finally asked. She hated pregnant silences, Harm knew from
The Admiral sighed. "There's been a problem with the undercover
Harm stifled a groan. Could it possibly get worse? He regretted asking
himself the question when the Admiral began to speak again.
"There was a… mistake made on your paperwork. If it was anyone's fault,
it's mine. I was the one who forgot about until the last moment." He
shook his head. "I can only hope Harriet won't take this too hard."
Harm and Mac traded nervous glances.
"Take what too hard, sir?" Harm asked.
Chegwidden took a deep breath. "All the paperwork was filled out with
your real names, not your cover identities. I talked with Mr. Steiner
earlier and, unfortunately, the list of contestants has already been
released to the media. We can't make a substitution without drawing a
lot of suspicion."
Harm wondered what he was missing. "Sir, we've gone undercover using our
real names in a number of instan--" Harm broke off as understanding hit
him. His mind, as usual, had continued along the thought path, well
ahead of his mouth. He suddenly understood why the Admiral looked so
grim. Each of the contestant couples would be married as part of the
show's first episode, just prior to boarding the cruise ship. Harm
hadn't been looking forward to that part for a lot of reasons, but now
it had taken on even more frightening implications.
Mac paled. "If we use our real names, then the wedding on the show would
"Legal," the Admiral finished for her.
Harm's stomach tightened. He couldn't keep his eyes from sliding to
Mac's face. What am I supposed to say to that? he wondered. For once he
couldn't read the expression in his partner's eyes.
"For that reason, unless one of you has an objection, I'm going to call
the SecNav and tell him I'm pulling the plug on this investigation." The
Admiral split his gaze between them.
"Uh, sir--" Harm was surprised to hear his own voice.
The Admiral's gaze snapped to him and only long years of exposure kept
Harm from flinching at the intensity of his stare. "Do you have an
Harm very carefully did not look at Mac. "A question, sir." He took a
deep breath. "What happens if we pull out?"
The Admiral leaned back in his chair. "I suppose they'll find two other
poor, unsuspecting schmucks to take your place on the show and you two
will return to your normal lives--" He flashed Mac a tight smile.
"Sir, what happens to the Navy?" Harm wondered why he was asking. There
I go again, refusing to leave things be. I don’t really want to do this…
The Admiral's expression darkened, but he said nothing. His silence
answered the question more forcefully than any words could have. The
military had gotten a boost from the recent, rampant patriotism in the
wake of the September 11th attacks, but no one had forgotten Tailhook or
the other incidents. With the United States examining itself as the
model for fair and equal treatment for all people, there would be little
tolerance of any kind of misconduct, particularly from the military.
When he did speak, the Admiral's voice was tightly controlled. "The Navy
does not have the power or the right to force either of you to continue
under these circumstances."
"Sir?" Mac spoke for the first time. "Are you angry with us?"
The Admiral turned to her. "Not yet, Colonel, but I will be if you and
Commander Rabb insist on continuing with this lunacy."
A brief, wry smile lit the Admiral's features. "Do you really want me to
answer that, Colonel MacKenzie?"
She blinked at his implication, then sat back, thoroughly chastened.
Harm couldn't blame her. He also didn't dare look at her.
For a little while there was silence in the Admiral's office.
"Very well," the Admiral finally said. "I'll call SecNav."
Harm thought through what he wanted to say. The idea of backing out
rankled, especially when they were in a position to do so much good for
the Navy, which was more of a family to Harm than his real one. No, it
was more than that. The Navy was his foundation-- the basis for his
ethics, his life, his ambitions. The credos of a Naval officer, aviator,
even litigator defined who Harmon Rabb was. He couldn't stand by while
the Navy's reputation was besmirched, not if he had the power to
Harm took a deep breath. "I'm willing to continue, sir."
"Rabb, you must either be out of your mind, or secretly in love with
Harm kept his reaction in check with an effort. He was not going to
touch that one. He held the Admiral's gaze. "I want to protect the Navy,
sir. The U.S. military is our example to the world of who and what
Americans are. We need to know what happened on that cruise, sir, so the
Navy can take appropriate action-- whatever that may be."
Harm was aware of Mac staring at him, perhaps straight through him, with
those deep, dark eyes of hers. She turned to the Admiral.
"Sir, the marriage could be… annulled, couldn't it? After we get back?"
Startled, Harm turned toward her. She met his gaze, her expression
filled with understanding. Harm's heart swelled with gratitude. Mac was
backing him because she understood his reasons, and because she
supported him any time it was important. Harm knew he would do the same
for her. That was what made them partners.
The Admiral looked between them, then shook his head. "All right, but
don't say I didn't warn you."
"We wouldn't do that, sir."
"Is that all, sir?" Harm asked.
The Admiral gave him a look of disgust. "Isn't that enough, Commander?"
Harm sucked in his breath. "Yes, sir." Out of the corner of his eye, he
saw Mac fighting a smile.
Harm and Mac walked out together. Harm opened the door and held it for
his partner. It felt completely natural to place one hand lightly on the
small of her back as she passed. Mac glanced up at him as he did, and he
wondered once again just how big a risk they were taking.
Harm knocked on Mac's door promptly at five. He could hear Mac's voice,
strident but muffled, from within. She opened the door with barely a
glance in his direction before turning away. She held the phone
sandwiched in her shoulder.
"Chloe, I have to go." Mac walked toward the kitchen where her purse and
coat lay in a pile on the counter. Harm couldn't help but admire as she
went. The dress the fashion people had given her was short and made of a
satiny material the color of milk chocolate. It clung suggestively to
her curves as she walked, the fabric running with liquid color where the
light struck it just right.
"Whoa," Harm commented under his breath as he let himself into the
apartment. Mac was beautiful under any circumstances, but she could be
stunning when she chose.
Mac was still involved in her phone conversation, which, by its tone
didn't sound very pleasant. But then, Harm knew Chloe and Mac had been
having some troubles since Mic left.
Mac heaved a tired sigh. "Yes, Harm is here. We need to leave in a few
minutes." A pause. Mac looked toward the ceiling, her voice pained. "I
told you, it's an investigation and I can't give you any details.
Besides, you'll see for yourself soon enough."
That apparently made Chloe pause, and Mac took advantage of the
opportunity. "Goodbye, Chloe. I love you." She hung up quickly.
When she turned to look at Harm, he shrugged. "She hates me." He always
felt like he needed to apologize for that, though it wasn't his fault.
Mac sighed, frustrated. "Well, you're not Mic."
"No, I'm not."
Mac's gaze jumped to his. "I'm sorry, Harm. She's young and idealistic.
She's convinced Mic and I belong together--"
"And that I got in the way. I know." Harm walked over to the couch and
seated himself on one arm.
Mac came to him as if drawn. He could see the hurt and frustration in
her eyes. "She won't listen. She doesn't want to believe that I couldn't
love him the way he deserved, that it never would have worked." She
wrapped her arms around Harm's neck, her entire body tense from the
roiling emotions that underlay her words. Harm reciprocated, slipping
his arms around her waist but not trying to pull her closer. He had
always wondered why she wanted a hug from him whenever she talked about
Mic, but hadn't yet summoned the nerve to ask.
Mac heaved a sigh. "In some ways, I am so glad you went down that
Harm turned to look at her face. "Even though I almost died?"
Mac looked away. "You didn't, so yes. It was like I was in this fog…"
Her gaze grew distant. "Everyone else figured it out before me. I really
didn't understand why Mic was leaving, not at first." She paused, rigid
in his grasp. "You want to know when I figured it out?" Her voice had
taken on a bitter edge.
Wary, Harm nodded. "Tell me."
"When I walked away from your door. Because that hurt more than watching
Mic step on an airplane to Australia."
Harm could hardly force himself to breathe. Had they really gotten to
the point they could re-open this wound and set it to healing? He had
long since locked away the things he'd realized that night because they
were too painful to live with, but now…
His breath caught in his throat. "Mac--"
It was too much, too fast. The moment shattered. Mac backed up as if
she'd been burned. "We need to get going." She went to retrieve her
things from the kitchen.
Harm wanted to grab her and shake her, but knew better. That would only
harden her defenses. Instead he watched her silently.
When she had her things, he followed her to the door.
They drove in uncomfortable silence. Mac alternated between berating
herself for opening her mouth and trying to work up the nerve to
apologize. She watched Harm from the corner of her eye. He kept his
attention focused on his driving, which wasn't unusual. For a man who
had the reflexes and the nerve to fly fighters, he drove like a
"The speed limit is fifty here," she commented as they passed another
"We have plenty of time," was the cool response. He didn't look at her.
Mac leaned her head back against the headrest, angry with herself.
Stupid, Sarah. This was a bad time to open a can of worms. She knew
she'd hurt Harm's feelings, perhaps more deeply than she wanted to
admit. You really need to learn to keep your mouth shut around him when
it comes to Mic. Except that he was the only person in the world who
could comfort her when her heart was on the line.
What a mess. I wonder if any of the other couples are fighting on the
way to this thing, or if it's just us? She grimaced. Listen to me,
'other couples'. Is that what we are now?
Gathering her courage, she turned her head. "I'm sorry, Harm."
His fingers flexed on the steering wheel. "For what Mac? What you said…
or what you didn't say?" He shot her a single, piercing glance.
Ouch. Mac bit her lip. "Both, I guess." She forced herself to go on.
"Mic told me that the only reason I agreed to marry him was because I
didn't want to be alone, and he was right." She made a helpless gesture.
"I don't want to make that mistake again." She looked away, out the
window. "This-- this thing between us, Harm… I don't know what it is.
All I know is that it's deep and powerful, and--" She shook her head.
"And this assignment is just making it more confusing."
He sighed, no longer sounding angry. "No objection here." His gaze
shifted between the windshield and his side mirror as he changed lanes.
"You didn't have to do it, you know. The Admiral was all set to kill
"You're the one who filed the motion for a continuance," she pointed
He shrugged. "Defense counsel for the Navy needed more time to prepare
arguments and gather evidence."
Mac eyed him. "Which action defense co-counsel fully supports."
She watched as some of Harm's tension drained away. She could see it in
the set of his shoulders and the quirk of his every-so-expressive
eyebrows. A slightly more comfortable silence descended.
A bit later, Harm flashed her a grin as if none of the past twenty
minutes had happened. "Mac, how many lawyers does it take to screw in a
Mac stared at him in surprise. The sudden change in his demeanor was a
bit unnerving. Was he really dropping the issue?
"I don't know. How many?"
He smiled. "No one knows. When the light goes on, they all scurry back
under the rug."
Mac's laughter was pained. "Oh, ouch." Was the cockroach comparison
aimed at me? Harm wasn't usually that subtle. No, most likely he was
just making a joke to lighten the atmosphere, and for that she was
She thought for a moment. "All right. How many psychologists does it
take to screw in a light bulb?"
Harm accelerated as he pulled onto a new street. "How many?"
"I don't know. How many do you think?"
He chuckled. "How many zoomies does it take to screw in a light bulb?"
Mac smiled in anticipation. The mutual disregard between the Air Force
and the Naval services went back decades. "How many?"
"Five. One to hold the light bulb and four to spin the ladder."
Mac chuckled. "I'll have to remember that one. Let's see, how many CIA
operatives does it take to screw in a light bulb?"
"Hopefully Webb doesn't have my car bugged. How many?"
"If I told you that I'd have to kill you."
It was Harm's turn to laugh, but the laughter died as they turned into
the Marriott's parking lot.
"We're here." He pulled into a parking space and killed the engine.
When he reached for the door handle, Mac touched his arm, halting him.
He looked at her questioningly.
Mac moistened her lips, her stomach trembling. She had to take the step,
though. She owed him that much.
"When this is over--" She indicated the hotel visible through the
windshield. "All of it… maybe then we can try to figure out…" The words
lodged in her throat.
"…what this thing is?" Harm cocked an eyebrow at her.
She nodded. "Yeah." On impulse, she leaned over to kiss him on the
cheek, but at the last moment he turned and caught her lips with his
instead. Mac's heart leapt into her throat, powered upward by a lance of
heat that speared through the center of her body, searing everything it
touched. Her fingers tightened spasmodically on his arm and the lapel of
his jacket, knotting in them as if her life depended on it. She felt his
hand behind her neck, pulling her closer, holding her tight. Distantly,
she heard the sound of cloth sliding across the upholstery, but it had
no meaning for her. All that mattered in that moment was the feel of
Harm's mouth on hers, the heat of his skin, and the frantic pounding of
her own heart.
The kiss ended long before Mac wanted it to. Harm's touch trailed away,
leaving an ache where it had been. She opened her eyes to find him
watching her. The blue, blue eyes stared into her own, unguarded and
deeply surprised. He blinked.
"That got out of hand in a hurry," he observed, sounding more than a
Mac discovered she was leaning across the center console, well into the
driver's side of the car. She straightened self-consciously and fanned
herself with the lapels of her coat. She shot Harm a sidelong look.
"Is it hot in here?"
He chuckled, breaking the tension, and flashed her an impish grin. "Oh,
Together they got out of the car. The cool air struck Mac's face and
swirled around her body. She drew a deep, bracing breath before walking
forward to meet Harm. Strangely enough, she didn't feel awkward slipping
her hand into his for the walk across the parking lot. At least, not
until the light pressure of his grip made her aware of the engagement
ring decorating her finger, and reminded her of just how high the stakes
were in this game they were playing.
They were met just inside the front door by Selena. She greeted them,
panning her dazzling smile across both lawyers impartially.
"So, it is now Mr. Rabb and Ms. MacKenzie, correct?" she asked.
Harm and Mac exchanged glances. "That's correct," Harm answered warily.
Selena's smile deepened. "Don't worry, I am being well paid not to ask
questions. We'll simply go on from here as if it has always been this
way." She gestured toward the bank of elevators behind her. "Mr. Steiner
has reserved the penthouse for the evening. If you'll follow me…"
Harm and Mac did so. They emerged from the elevator to a fairyland of
twinkling lights and soft music. Having been to a few functions where
the President himself was in attendance, neither officer was awestruck,
but Steiner sure had pulled out all the stops, Harm thought. The suite
took up a full quarter of the Marriott's top floor. The two external
walls were made entirely of floor-to-ceiling panes of glass, giving a
spectacular view of the capitol. The last rays of sunset turned the sky
a burnished orange, brushed with red, and covered the monuments in
shadow. Inside the room, the lights had been dimmed. A buffet lined one
wall, complete with liveried attendants. White leather furniture dotted
the open floor. A jazz trio played in one corner, next to the baby grand
piano. People stood or sat in uncomfortable pairs, trying to make light
conversation while also sizing each other up. A few struck Harm as
looking more like tourists than anything else. And in the middle of it
all stood Daniel Steiner, talking animatedly to the knot of people who
surrounded him, their attention rapt.
"I feel like I'm walking into the wolf's den." Mac said out of the
corner of her mouth.
In response, Harm pulled her closer and started humming, "Who's Afraid
of the Big Bad Wolf?" in her ear. Mac giggled, as he'd hoped she would.
Selena led them through the group toward Steiner. He interrupted the
story he was telling when he spied her.
"Ah! Selena, dear, you look as lovely as ever." They greeted each other
with airy kisses, then Steiner turned to Harm and Mac. "And you two must
be Mr. Rabb and Ms. MacKenzie. It's a please to meet you at last, and to
officially welcome you to Temptation Cruise II."
As they made the requisite pleasantries, Harm felt the other couples
taking their measure. The stares were surprisingly hostile. Or perhaps
not so surprisingly. Unlike Harm and his partner, all the others were
there in pursuit of a million-dollar prize, and were either greedy
enough, stupid enough, or both, to risk their marriages on it.
"Please, help yourselves to some food and whatever you'd like from the
bar. We'll be getting underway in a few minutes." Steiner waved toward
the buffet, then went back to whatever speech he'd interrupted to greet
them. Harm and Mac gratefully moved away.
"Hungry?" Harm asked as they approached the buffet.
Mac picked up a plate and looked over the choices. "Starving, though I
doubt there's much here worth eating." She made a show of looking over
the caviar, crab puffs and aged cheeses with distaste.
Harm chuckled. "I think burgers are a little too plebian for this crowd.
There's sushi, though." He moved to take some of the California rolls
Mac grimaced. "You and your health food."
At the end of the buffet, they ran into another couple. They can't
possibly be old enough to get married, can they? Harm wondered as he
looked them over. To him, the girl looked like she might be sixteen,
which probably meant she was somewhere around twenty-- that age range
was beginning to blur for him. She was cute, though. Her blond hair was
piled on top of her head with little ringlets framing her face. Freckles
dusted her nose and her cornflower-blue eyes were both sweet and a
little shy. Her fiancée was more of the same. Probably All-American on
his high school football team. He had those kind of clean-cut good
The young man held out his hand to Harm. "Hi, I'm Jeb Anderson." His
voice held a mild southern twang. Kentucky, maybe, or Tennessee. Harm
took the proffered handshake, which was surprisingly strong.
"Harmon Rabb," he returned. "Call me Harm."
Jeb indicated his fiancée. "This is Stacy." The look he gave her was
gently possessive and bordered on adoration. Harm tried not to laugh as
he shook her hand. I was that young once, wasn't I? It seemed like it
must have been a lifetime ago. He turned to Mac.
"Jeb, Stacy, this is… my fiancée, Sarah MacKenzie." He managed not to
stumble too badly on the words.
"Call me Mac." At their surprised looks, she added, "It's short for
"Oh." Trying to look nonchalant-- and failing miserably-- Stacy nodded,
making her ringlets bounce. Harm stifled a chuckle, contenting himself
with a grin instead. He wasn't quite old enough to be this girl's
father, but close enough, and for a moment he caught a glimpse of what
he was missing out on by not having kids.
Harm turned to Jeb. "So what do you do?" he asked conversationally.
"I'm in the Engineering program at Kansas State University." Jeb took a
sip from the beer he held, and Harm mentally revised his age estimate up
to twenty-one. "I was supposed to graduate this coming May, but I'm
taking a semester off to be on the show."
Harm nodded. "What field?" The more questions he asked, he figured, the
fewer he'd have to answer.
"Aerospace. K-State has a great program."
Harm's interest sharpened. "Do you fly?"
Jeb grinned hugely. "Just got my license this summer. I'm working on my
instrument rating now. You?"
Harm nodded, unable to contain a smile. "Yep. I've got a Stearman I take
up whenever I get the chance."
Behind him, Mac groaned. "Oh no, there he goes talking about airplanes
Harm glanced over his shoulder to see Stacy laughing and Mac frowning
"I'm glad I'm not the only one who has to live with it," Stacy said.
Mac's gaze jumped to Harm's. He caught a hint of defensiveness, quickly
buried. She didn't understand his passion with flying. In fact, she
sometimes seemed to resent it. In the Navy it was a common joke that a
pilot never got lonely during the longs months at sea, for he always had
his mistress to go to and the solitude of Angels Twenty and beyond in
which to enjoy her. Harm couldn't legitimately argue the point. Flying
Tomcats burned in his blood more than any woman ever had.
It made him wonder, then, why he'd returned to JAG when he could have
flown. Sure, it was a young man's game, something he no longer was, but
he was good enough to have stayed and taught the kids a thing or two. It
was a career path that might have led him to command of an air wing and
possibly, at its pinnacle, command of an entire carrier group.
And at JAG? Harm knew the Admiral was grooming him to take his place,
that in ten years or so he would be JAG, provided he didn't do anything
stupid-- well, stupider, anyway-- between now and then. Most likely,
being a lawyer would earn him Admiral's bars long before being a pilot
Rank had never been Harm's driving ambition, though.
Take a deep breath and just admit it, he admonished himself. It's Mac.
Everything comes down to Mac. It always had.
Steiner called for the room's attention then, saving Harm from his
thoughts. They and the soon-to-be Andersons moved toward the producer,
mingling with the rear of the crowd now gathered around him.
Mac gave Harm a curious look. "You o.k.?" Concern tinged her voice.
Harm turned on his trademark grin. "Just feeling my age."
Mac glanced ruefully over at Jeb and Stacy, then back to him. "I know
how you feel."
Dan Steiner raised his voice once again, ending the conversation. "Once
again, let me officially welcome you all to Temptation Cruise II, the
hottest show on television!" There was a smattering of applause. Harm
and Mac rolled their eyes at each other.
"Each of you has been chosen from the thousands of applications because
we--" He gestured to the men standing to either side of him, one of
which, Harm noted in surprise, was Tony Ariel. "--believe each of you
has the faith, the strength, and the determination necessary to win the
million-dollar grand prize."
"Not to mention the greed and arrogance," Mac added in an undertone.
Harm was too distracted to respond to her comment. "Did you see Ariel
come in?" he asked in a voice pitched for her ears only. "He's over
there next to Steiner."
Mac craned her head a fraction to see, then shook it lightly. "No. I
must have been looking the wrong way. He sure doesn't fit in, does he?"
Unlike anyone else in the room, Ariel was badly overweight, and was
dressed in a shabby T-shirt and jeans. Amidst the tailored outfits and
assumed glamour, he stood out like a warning buoy on a dark ocean.
Steiner beamed at the crowd. "Let me first go over the rules of the
competition. There are a few minor changes from the first Cruise, which
I will explain. After that I'll answer any questions you may have, and
the rest of the evening you'll have to mingle and get to know each
Mac crossed her arms. "Oh, joy."
Harm grinned at her sarcasm.
"On June 19th-- a day you will each remember with great fondness, I
hope-- you will board our cruise ship, the Radiant Heart, after
exchanging vows with your betrothed on the shore. Each of our nine
newlywed couples will be assigned a luxurious cabin and will be treated
like kings and queens for the duration of the six-week cruise. Scattered
among the other cabins on the ship will be those housing our delectable
singles-- a total of twenty-four for this cruise: twelve men and twelve
women. The first night of the cruise-- the wedding night-- all of the
singles will be confined to their quarters until sunrise. After that,
however, you will all be free to mingle as you choose.
"Twice each week, at our various ports of call, each of the newlyweds
will be required to go on an outing alone with one of the singles of the
opposite sex. The activities will be things like snorkeling, boating,
hiking, and horseback riding. Spouses will be able to win the
opportunity to block their mates from going on an outing with a specific
single during the various competitions that will be held. In some
instances, spouses will also be able to pick the single their mate will
go outing with.
"Everything will be recorded on video, and spouses will have the option
to view the other's outing once everyone has returned to the ship. They
can turn down the opportunity, but if one spouse chooses to watch, the
other then must watch as well.
"Every inch of the ship is covered by video cameras. The cameras in the
newlyweds' staterooms operate differently than the rest. Between dawn
and dusk, the cameras in your rooms will always be on. After dark, you
can shut them down by turning off the cabin lights." Steiner grinned
wickedly. "We're not in the business of shooting revealing film of our
happily married couples.
"Elsewhere on the ship, however, there is no mercy. The cameras are
always on, including in the empty cabins-- each of which is done in a
different theme, and with a few very pleasant surprises for those who
find them." The grin reappeared.
"There will be a number of independent cameramen roaming the ship as
well. They are to be ignored. They are under strict instruction never to
speak to you or interact with you in any way.
"Grounds for elimination from the competition are the same as last time,
and are quite simple. Any voluntary sexual act with someone other than
your spouse will result in elimination from the competition and removal
from the ship at the next port of call. This does not necessarily mean
intercourse, though that is, of course, included." Steiner then went on
to describe in great detail the distinction between activities that
would and would not constitute grounds for disqualification.
Harm had never considered himself particularly shy when it came to
discussing sex, but found himself staring at his shoes while Steiner
talked. In truth, it was no more explicit than some of the testimony
he'd taken witnesses through in various cases involving sexual
harassment, rape, or fraternization, but it somehow seemed much more
"Are we sure we want to do this?" Mac whispered to him when Steiner
Harm bent down to whisper back, "Heck no. At the moment, I'm all for
making a break for it. How about you?"
A smile crept into her voice. "Are you blushing, Harm?"
"Now, I think that covers all the basics," Steiner said before he could
respond. "Are there any questions?"
There were a few. Harm and Mac learned that the heads aboard ship would
not have surveillance since that was against Federal law.
"Thank goodness for small favors," was Mac's sour comment.
They also learned that couples could voluntarily opt out of the
competition if they decided the risk to their relationship was no longer
worth the million dollars. That, strangely enough, made Harm feel much
better. Punching out was never fun, but it beat going down with the
airplane any day.
"Nice to know there's an escape," Mac said as the music picked up and
the crowd began to disperse.
Beside her, Stacy was looking a little pale. "Yeah."
"What made you two decide to do something like this?" Mac asked the
Jeb shrugged, but smiled. "It was kind of a dare. I was braggin' to
Stacy once while we were watching the original Cruise that I loved her
so much we could go on the show and win, easy."
Stacy flushed at that. "So when I heard about the sequel, I went online
and applied," she said. "And here we are."
"What about you two?" Jeb asked.
Harm looked at Mac, who shrugged, leaving it in his lap. "Believe it or
not, our boss got us into it," Harm said, thinking quickly. In a twisted
sense, it was true.
"His idea of a practical joke," Mac added. "But, hey, who could turn
down a six-week cruise?"
Stacy gave her a skeptical look. "Do you really think you can win?"
Harm was a little surprised by the challenging grin that lit his
partner's face. "We certainly intend to." She leaned into Harm, her body
language as suggestive as anything she'd ever done in his presence.
"Do you want something to drink?" he asked quickly, wondering why he
wanted an excuse to get out of the conversation. Having Mac hanging on
him was hardly something to be avoided.
She merely nodded and let him lead her away. When they'd gained some
distance, her demeanor returned to normal. She shook her head. "These
people are completely out of their minds-- and so are we for going
through with this. You know what I'm dreading most?"
"Going back to work after this. I'm going to walk into court and the
judge will say, 'Hey, aren't you one of those bimbos from Temptation
Harm chuckled. "Mac, I pity any man who calls you a bimbo."
The comment won him a laugh. "And with good reason, Harm. With good
A.J. came out of his office a few minutes before the formal start of the
day. He liked to walk through the bullpen, say good morning, and catch
up on the various goings-on in his surrogate family's lives. Lately, the
Temptation Cruise saga had become preeminent. Harm and Mac had regaled
them with stories of the horrors of power lunches, professional photo
shoots, and worst of all, the contestant interviews.
This morning, the entire JAG team seemed to have gathered, with the
notable exception of Colonel MacKenzie. A.J. drifted over.
"Is everyone ready for the Labor Day picnic?" he asked after the round
of "Good morning, Admiral!" had died away.
"Yes, sir," Harriet assured him. "I've made sure everyone knows what
they're supposed to bring for the barbeque, and Tiner has agreed to
bring his volleyball net and lawn darts."
"You have lawn darts, Lieutenant?" Sturgis asked with a grin.
"I do, sir." Tiner answered, but didn't seem to know whether to be
pleased or offended by the question.
"Hey, Harm." Sturgis turned his attention to the commander. "Are you and
Mac going to make this a 'hands on' or a 'hands off' event?"
Harm flushed, embarrassed, as attention centered on him. "I don't know,
Sturgis. I'll have to ask her." The look he gave his friend promised
retribution for mentioning something that obviously hadn't been meant
for general consumption.
A.J. glanced between the two men, fighting to keep his expression stern.
"I'm not entirely sure I like the sound of this, Commander. Would you
care to explain?"
Harm spread his hands, his grin as guileless as a five-year-old's.
"Well, sir, it's a term the Colonel and I have been using to
differentiate between times when we're acting… in character for the
investigation, and times when we're not."
"It's pretty amazing, sir," Harriet piped up. "They're very convincing."
The comment earned her a glare from Commander Rabb and a scandalized
stare from her husband. She subsided with an "what-did-I-do" pout.
"Ah." A.J. studied his lead litigator. He had never found many
opportunities to advise Harm about his relationship with Mac, to his
regret. He so wanted to help the two find each other. Unfortunately, he
was bound by the rules of his position not to foster behavior that
violated Navy regulations, and so far he had never stepped over that
line. He paused as a thought struck him. This undercover investigation
had done a rather good job of redrawing the lines, though, hadn't it?
A.J. kept his smirk firmly to himself. "I think I'd like to judge that
for myself, thank you, Harriet." He nodded to the Lieutenant, then
turned to Harm. "Consider it a 'hands on' event, Commander. I believe
that's the correct term?"
Harm gaped at him.
A.J. turned his hard-line routine up a notch. "Do you have a problem
with that, Commander?" he demanded. A.J. so loved being an Admiral. He
could torment his friends without risk of payback.
"Uh… no, sir."
"Good." A.J. widened his attention to take in the whole group. "I look
forward to seeing you all on Monday." And with that he headed back to
his office, silently whistling a merry tune as he went.
"Sturgis, I am going to kill you!" Harm glared at the commander in
Sturgis laughed, completely unimpressed. "Only if Mac doesn't kill you
"She just might, you realize."
"Oh, sir, it'll be all right." Harriet gave Harm a compassionate smile.
"You!" With a laugh of his own, Harm rounded on her. "After I've
finished with him--" He pointed to Sturgis. "I'm going to come after
you, Lieutenant." At Bud's alarmed look, he added in an undertone, "Or
at the very least, order your husband to take you home and spank you."
Bud and Harriet stared at him wide-eyed while everyone else dissolved
into discrete giggles. Satisfied that he'd made his point, Harm turned
to leave. He took a step and nearly collided with Mac, who stood two
paces behind him. She wore a look of amusement that set her dark eyes to
"Do I dare ask?"
The spate of giggles turned into full-scale guffaws. Harm couldn't help
but join in the laughter. "I'll tell you later," he promised.
He noticed she was holding a very large manila envelope in one hand.
Mac handed the envelope over, grinning at him with a kind of cheerful
menace. "Apparently, Rolling Stone has decided they want you for their
cover-- don't ask me why."
Harm studied the envelope in his hands with interest. This whole cover
photo escapade certainly wasn't harming his ego. "That's not very
charitable of you, Mac." He flashed his partner a smile. "Have I given
you any trouble at all about being on Cosmo?"
Mac groaned. "At least you get the shot to yourself. I had to spend
sixteen hours with that Esperanza witch."
Harm chuckled. "Carmen, Mac. Her name is Carmen."
"You would know."
Harm looked at her askance. "You're in a mood this morning." At her
sharp look, he continued, "For your information, that woman has
'Maneater' stamped on her forehead." He grinned disarmingly. "Besides,
she's engaged." He bent down to add in a conspiratorial whisper, "And so
am I, you know."
"Harm." Mac backed up a step, her expression carrying a half-serious
warning. "Anyway, those are the prints for the cover photo." She waved
toward the envelope. "Sandy Claussen wants to know which one you like."
Harm raised both eyebrows as she continued, "She came by my apartment
"Why'd she go to your place?"
"Because you weren't at yours." Their gazes locked for a moment as the
implication sank in.
"What did you tell her?"
Mac shrugged, her gaze even. "That you'd already left for work, of
course. But, that's why I'm so late. I had to throw a robe on over my
uniform to answer the door, and then I had to change because there was
lint all over the jacket. Oh, and on a slightly different subject-- you
left your sweater at my place last night. Here." She handed him the dark
blue sweater that had quickly become too warm to wear while they were
going over some statements related to their most recent case.
"Thanks." Harm decided to ignore the curious expressions on the faces of
the people surrounding them. Let them wonder. It was the only revenge he
would ever get.
"I feel very weird about this," Mac told Harm as they approached the
Admiral's front door Monday afternoon.
Harm shrugged, unperturbed. "Orders are orders."
Mac sighed and let it go. It just didn't bother him as much as it did
The wooden steps creaked under their feet as they made their way to the
door. Harm knocked.
A small, shadowed corner of the porch caught Mac's eye. She turned
involuntarily as the memories came back, rushing through her in a
torrent of emotions. She felt Harm tense.
"Do you ever wonder…?" She wasn't certain she'd voiced the question
aloud until he answered.
"Every day, Mac." His voice was rough.
The door opened, startling them both. Their gazes snapped forward
"Good afternoon, Commander, Colonel." The Admiral watched them with an
odd expression that disappeared when they returned his greeting. He
ushered them inside. They followed him through the house, emerging on
the back porch.
The party was well underway. Burgers sizzled on the grill, filling the
air with the heavenly smell of charred beef. A picnic table was filled
to overflowing with food, to which Harm and Mac added their own
contributions. Gunny and a pretty brunette sat on one side of the table,
talking with Bud and Harriet and a couple of people Mac didn't
recognize. Sturgis and Bobbi Latham stood off to one side with Sergei,
Lauren, and Jason, among others.
Harm left Mac's side to greet his brother with a hug. Sergei had been
scarce lately. He had gotten his U.S. pilot's license and was now flying
a Lifeflight helicopter for one of the big D.C. hospitals. Mac smiled to
see Harm with his little brother. Sergei was so good for him.
Mac drifted through the group, greeting friends and introducing herself
to those she didn't know. An observant woman, Bobbi Latham took note of
the engagement ring at once.
She raised an aristocratic eyebrow in silent question. "I didn't realize
congratulations were in order."
Mac looked between the Congresswoman and Sturgis, debating her response.
From the smirk on Sturgis' face, she concluded he had deliberately left
Bobbi in the dark and was waiting to see how Mac broke the news to her.
"Yes, Harm and I are getting married," Mac answered, and had the
satisfaction of seeing the other woman's jaw drop.
Bobbi coughed lightly, regaining her composure. "Ahem. Really? That's
wonderful. When is the wedding?"
Beside her, Sturgis was fighting not to laugh. Mac met his gaze, daring
him to give the game away. "June 19th," she answered.
Bobbi smiled at Mac. "Well, all I can say is, it's about time!"
At that, Sturgis burst out laughing. Mac dropped her gaze, suddenly
cold. Bobbi couldn't know how deeply her comment cut. In fact, she was
looking between Sturgis and Mac with apprehension, obviously realizing
she'd said something unwelcome.
A hand touched Mac's hip, bringing an instant flush of warmth. The hard
knot in her stomach relaxed a notch as Harm stepped up behind her,
giving her a gentle hug. Mac glanced up at his face, needing his smile
to chase away the cold fear in her heart.
What am I doing? she snarled at herself. This is all a game. A fairy
tale. I can't take this as reassurance that he really loves me! But she
was, and she knew it.
"Will you excuse us?" she asked Bobbi. She turned to Harm. "We need to
Leaving a disturbed Bobbi Latham behind, Mac led her partner into the
house and through it-- to the porch.
Harm watched her with a concern that deepened as he took note of the
location. "What's up, Mac?" His voice was wary.
Mac crossed her arms and walked to the banister to stare out at the
lawn. "I'm not sure I can do this."
"This, today? Or this, the entire investigation?"
"Either. Both." She bit her lip. "I don't know."
"What did Bobbi Latham say to you?" Other than his voice, Harm didn't
make a sound. He tended to go very still whenever they had these kinds
of conversations. He did an impressive boulder impersonation. Mac hadn't
yet managed to bully him into anything. She was learning not to try.
Mac shook her head tiredly. "It doesn't matter."
She gathered her courage and turned to face him. There was one question
she had to have the answer to.
"Harm, the last time we were here… Why did you let me walk away?" She
remembered clearly the passion and longing with which he'd kissed her
that night. All he would have had to do was say the word and she would
have gone to him, gone with him, and never looked back. Surely he knew
As the guards sprang into place in his eyes, she had her answer. He
knew. Bitter anger rose in her throat. "How can you do this?" Her hands
clenched at her sides, echoing her feelings.
"Do what?" He stood there, his posture deceptively casual.
"This!" Mac spread her arms. "This-- this-- Jekyll and Hyde act. This
game. This farce. How can you hold me and kiss me-- and don't you dare
tell me it isn't real, because I know better--" She pointed a finger at
his chest. "--and then, like it's on some kind of switch, just go back
to where all of that is off limits."
Harm stared at her, and for a minute she was afraid he wouldn't answer.
Then he sighed. "There aren't any consequences in a game, Mac." His eyes
were serious, shadowed. "That's why we play them."
Mac stared at him in dawning fury. Was he using her? "Consequences? Are
you really that afraid of responsibility, Rabb? Or are you just so
selfish you run away from anything that might possibly be meaningful so
you won't have to risk losing that precious self-control of yours?"
Pure, bald anger flared in his eyes. "You're out of line, Mac." The
words were cold.
Mac wanted to hit him. Anything to break through that rigid wall and get
a true, honest, uncontrolled reaction from him. Anything that would
prove she'd gotten all the way to his heart.
A muscle in his jaw knotted as he clenched his teeth. "You have no idea
what you're talking about. You act like all we have to do is say the
magic words and we can ride off into the sunset and live happily ever
after. It doesn't work that way!" His voice rose on that last, and he
paused. She watched him fight for control. When he had it, he continued
in a deceptively mild voice, "It isn't that simple."
"Yes, it is!" Mac leaned back against the banister, wrapping her arms
around her waist for comfort. "Commitment is a pretty simple concept.
That doesn't mean it's easy, but it is simple." The obvious example
leapt to mind. "You're a career officer, Harm. How can you make
lifelong, do-or-die commitments to the Navy but not to me? Or any woman,
for that matter?"
Harm looked up, out over Mac's head. His gaze grew distant. "The Navy is
an institution, Mac," he said patiently, as if explaining something to a
child. "It's not as… fragile as people are."
Mac stared at him as the pieces cascaded into place. Suddenly she
When Harmon Rabb, Sr. had gone down in Vietnam, it had taught his young,
adoring son that people couldn't be trusted, even if they loved you.
Sometimes they left and didn't come back. Maybe, she thought, Harm might
have gotten over that once he grew up, but the woman he'd given his
heart to as a young man-- Diane-- also died, cementing the conviction.
And here I am, the spitting image of the only woman he ever allowed
himself to love. Mac wasn't foolish enough to believe Harm only saw her
as a reflection of Diane. But she could imagine a little voice inside
him whispering that this one, too, would only leave. He might even hold
the secret fear that she would die because he loved her.
Mac stared up at her partner's empty-eyed gaze. She finally held the key
that unlocked the mystery of Harmon Rabb, Jr. She just wished she knew
what to do with it.
Her anger drained away as quickly as it had come. Quiet tears followed.
For him. For them. She reached out to wrap her arms around his waist and
laid her cheek against his chest. After a moment, his arms folded around
her, holding her tight.
"I'm sorry, Mac." She felt his breath against her neck. "I don't think I
can be what you want me to."
Mac wiped her tears. She was nothing if not tenacious, and proud of it.
"Don't wimp out on me now, Commander," she told him.
His answer was a strained chuckle. He continued to hold her close.
"Are you ready to go back to the party?" he asked after a while. "People
are going to start to wonder what happened to us."
"Yeah." Mac straightened and summoned a bright smile. "The Admiral did
want a demonstration, didn't he?"
He touched her cheek. "Are you o.k. with that?" His gaze was frank.
She shrugged. "We have a job to do."
"That wasn't what I meant."
Mac looked into his face. "I know." She sighed, resigning herself to the
moment. "You answered my question, which is what I really needed. I can
'be o.k.' with the rest of it."
They stared at each other for several long moments. Then Harm bent down
to kiss her with a gentle intensity that made her chest ache.
"Just getting back in character?" she asked when they parted.
He shook his head. "Not here." He cocked an eyebrow at the weathered
boards of the Admiral's porch, a hint of wry humor creeping into his
Mac nodded, accepting that. A five-foot by five-foot square of wooden
planks where they could be completely honest wasn't much, but it was
better than nothing.
She summoned a grin. "Well, shall we go scandalize our co-workers?"
Harm chuckled. "I'm game if you are."