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Chapter 6

 

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.

"Lieutenant!"

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 the fact.

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 it.

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 right.

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 experience.

The Admiral sighed. "There's been a problem with the undercover investigation."

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 be…"

"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 objection, Commander?"

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. "Reputations intact."

"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… do I?

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."

"Why, sir?"

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."

"Sir--"

"What, Commander?"

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 intervene.

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 Colonel MacKenzie."

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."

"No, sir."

"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.

 

Chapter 7

 

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 night."

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 grandmother.

"The speed limit is fifty here," she commented as they passed another sign.

"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 this thing."

"You're the one who filed the motion for a continuance," she pointed out.

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 light bulb?"

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 grateful.

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 little abashed.

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, yeah."

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.

 

Chapter 8

 

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 for himself.

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 looks.

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 MacKenzie."

"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 again."

Harm glanced over his shoulder to see Stacy laughing and Mac frowning playfully.

"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 would.

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 other."

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 embarrassing.

"Are we sure we want to do this?" Mac whispered to him when Steiner finished.

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 young couple.

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?"

"What?"

"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 Cruise?'".

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 reason."

 

Chapter 9

 

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 friendly outrage.

Sturgis laughed, completely unimpressed. "Only if Mac doesn't kill you first."

"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 dancing.

"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. "What's
that?"

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 this morning."

"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 her.

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 guiltily.

"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 talk."

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 that.

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 understood.

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 expression.

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."

 

 

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