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Chapter 10

 

Harm and Mac sat side by side in one of the interrogation rooms at JAG. Across from them, the two Naval reservists accused of rape watched them nervously. The two men's lawyers sat to either side of their clients. Harm and Mac were the only ones in uniform, which suited Harm fine. The reservists seemed properly intimidated at the prospect of being interviewed by both a Commander and a Lieutenant Colonel. The lawyers were, too, but did a better job of hiding it.

"Let's go through the events of 12 July one more time." Mac split her gaze evenly between the two defendants. She often took the lead when they interrogated men accused of sexual misconduct. The accused didn't seem to be able to lie as effectively to a woman in that situation. Besides, Mac was just plain good at her job, whatever the circumstances.

"Yes, ma'am," the two answered meekly.

"You said Tony Ariel set up the… rendezvous with Mrs. Antony. Exactly how did that happen?"

The more outspoken of the reservists-- a Charles Brown (not Charlie, he was quick to say)-- glanced at his lawyer for permission, then answered, "Well, ma'am, Jessica-- Mrs. Antony had been sending both of us notes and stuff though Mr. Ariel already--"

"What kind of notes?"

Charles shrugged, his gaze fixed on the table. "That she wasn't going to stay with her husband and maybe, when the show was over we could get together. Not before then, of course, 'cause they wanted to win the prize."

"You and she could get together?" Mac asked.

The man glanced up at her. "And Paul." He indicated his friend.

Harm and Mac shared a look. "She was specific about a threesome?" Harm asked.

"Yes, sir."

"What did you think of that?" Mac asked them.

Charles flushed. "We didn't really know what to think, ma'am."

"But when she set it up for you to meet her in one of the empty cabins, you both went." Mac watched the two men intently.

"Yes, ma'am. Mr. Ariel's instructions were to go along with anything the contestants wanted. That was part of the job." He shrugged again. "We figured she'd given up on the million dollars for some reason."

"What did you find when you got there?"

"Just Jessica. She was layin' in bed, waiting."

"Was she restrained in any way?"

"No!" Charles was emphatic.

Mac made a note and went on, her face expressionless. "What made you think she was waiting for you?"

"She'd put candles all over the place and there was music playing and stuff."

"Did she say anything?"

"No, ma'am."

"Nothing at all?"

"No, ma'am."

"Didn't you find that odd?"

Charles made a vague gesture. "Maybe a little, ma'am, but… well, she only seemed to have one thing on her mind, if you know what I mean."

"Mrs. Antony claims she was drugged. Did you see any indication of that?"

"No, ma'am. She seemed to know what she wanted."

"So you're convinced the incident was consensual."

"Yes, ma'am. Absolutely."

Mac switched directions. "What about the notes you say she sent to you? Did either of you keep them?"

"No, ma'am. We always threw them overboard. Jessica said to. She didn't want her husband to find out."

"She said to throw them overboard-- in her notes?"

"No, ma'am. Mr. Ariel said that's what she wanted."

"Did you ever talk to Mrs. Antony about this subject in person?"

"No, ma'am."

"Did you try to talk to her about it?"

"No, ma'am. We figured that would be too risky for her, what with all the cameras around."

"Did you talk to Mr. Ariel about it?"

Charles nodded. "Once. I was feelin' a little weird about… everything… so I asked Mr. Ariel what we should do. Like, if she started somethin' and then decided to back out-- that kind of thing."

"What did he say?"

Charles kept his gaze fixed on the table in front of him. "He said to try really hard to convince her to go through with it, and to take it… you know… all the way… if she was willing, but to make sure not to do anything unless she made the first move."

Mac tapped her pen lightly on her papers. "Did you follow that advice?"

"Didn't need to. Ma'am." Charles looked up for a moment. "Like I said, she seemed to know what she wanted."

"All right. Thank you for your time, gentlemen." Mac rose to leave. Harm copied her.

Outside the door, Mac turned. "Do you believe them?" she asked. Together they set off for their offices.

"I think they're telling the truth as they perceived it." Harm shortened his stride to match hers. Mac didn't like having to trot to keep up with him.

"But she might have been drugged."

He shrugged. "Maybe. There's circumstantial evidence to support her claim. The tape from the ship seems to support the reservists' story, but it's incomplete and the sound quality is poor. There's no telling if she said anything or not."

Mac frowned up at him. "All it would take is a single 'no'."

"There's also the question of why the quality is so bad when this was a professional recording done for a television broadcast."

Mac snorted. "'Professional' might be too strong a word. But, you do have a point."

Harm looked at his partner, feeling a familiar protective tug. He knew better than to say anything, though. Mac could take care of herself as well as anyone, and disliked it when people tried to protect her. He was just glad he would be on the cruise with her, to watch her six.

Mac seemed oblivious to his thoughts. "Are you going to be ready to go by five?" she asked. Today was their last day in uniform until the got back from the Caribbean. They were becoming too easily recognized to keep working at JAG. It was an odd feeling.

"Yeah. I have a couple of files to go over with Sturgis and then I'm done." After that, they'd be on a flight to L.A. for some talk show appearance. He couldn't remember which one.

They reached the familiar confines of the bullpen. Mac flashed him a quick grin. "Great. I'll see you then."

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Mac browsed through one of the many little boutiques that lined the concourse at Dulles while she waited for Harm to come back with the coffee. This store was a newsstand, filled with books, magazines and newspapers, as well as the obligatory racks of T-shirts and other gewgaws. Mac wanted something to read on the plane.

She picked out a novel that didn't look too sordid-- and which didn't have a steamy cover for Harm to tease her mercilessly about-- and headed for the checkout line.

While she was standing there, a familiar face caught her eye. She paused, realizing with a start that it was her own that stared back at her from the cover of People Magazine along with the rest of the cast of Temptation Cruise II. Smiling to herself, she grabbed the top copy. It would be interesting to see what the article had to say.

After she'd paid for the magazine, she slipped it into a pocket of her carry-on bag. Mac was hoping to get a look at the article before Harm saw it. She wanted first crack at the teasing rights for once.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

It was nearly midnight on the West Coast when they checked into their room at the airport Hilton. That put it at 3:00AM in Washington. Harm noted without reaction that there was only one bed. Well, it wasn't the first time and certainly wouldn't be the last. They had an agreement worked out, at least for the duration of this assignment. At the moment, he was too tired to care, anyway.

He grabbed the case containing his toiletries and headed for the bathroom while Mac started unpacking. He didn't bother trying to tell her it could wait until morning. She wouldn't go to bed until everything had been either hung up or placed in the dresser drawers beneath the television, no matter what time it was.

When he emerged, Mac was still at work so he pitched in to help her get everything put away. Then she took her turn in the bathroom. Harm changed into the shorts that were his normal nighttime wardrobe and gratefully climbed beneath the covers. The alarm clock was on his side of the bed, he noted, and forced himself to roll over to examine it.

"Hey, Mac," he called over his shoulder. "What time is this thing tomorrow?"

"Not until two," she answered from the bathroom, her voice muffled by the closed door.

"I'm setting the alarm for nine, then. That seem reasonable to you?"

"Sounds good." Her voice cleared as she stepped out of the bathroom and walked to the bed. She was wearing a short, though not particularly revealing satin negligee. Harm liked that one. He spent about half a second admiring her, then decided the need for sleep outweighed the chance to ogle her legs. He would get another opportunity in the morning.

He turned out the light as she slipped into bed beside him. He was aware of her presence, but didn't try to move closer to her. They had agreed that they were both adults enough to sleep in the same bed without making a big deal over it. They couldn't risk having a maid see evidence of them not sharing the bed and blabbing the story to the nearest rag magazine. And if, on occasion, he woke to find Mac nestled against him, that, too, was something they didn't fuss over.

With a soft sigh, Harm closed his eyes and let sleep take him.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Harm woke to the sound of Mac's laughter. He opened his eyes to find her sitting up in bed beside him, reading a magazine. Sunlight streamed through the windows, painfully bright. He groaned.

"What time is it?"

Mac glanced over at him, still chuckling. "0843 local. I didn't mean to wake you."

Harm pulled himself to a seated position. In the process he peered curiously at the magazine Mac was so obviously enjoying. She flicked it away, hiding the article she was reading. She grinned mischievously.

"Ah ah. You can read it when I'm done."

"What is it?" He made a play at reaching for the magazine. Mac snatched it out of his reach, holding it at arm's length.

"It's the People article about the show." She fended him off with one hand. "And my oh my, do they have some interesting things to say about you, flyboy." Her grin widened as she dangled the magazine well off the edge of the bed, beyond his reach.

Laughing at her challenge, Harm lunged for it. His hand closed on her wrist at about the same time he realized he'd committed too much of his weight to the endeavor. Mac instinctively grabbed him as they overbalanced, but only succeeded in sending herself with him over the edge of the bed. She shrieked as they tumbled to the floor in a cascade of bedding and laughter. There they grappled for the magazine, Mac's superior hand-to-hand skills negating Harm's height advantage.

With a triumphant cry, Mac slithered out of his grasp and leapt back onto the bed. She knelt at the center of the expanse, magazine held up to keep it out of easy reach. Trying to catch his breath, Harm climbed to his feet and considered his next move.

Breathless herself and still laughing, Mac started to read. "In this reporter's opinion, the hottest hunk on the cruise is coincidentally its oldest." She grinned wickedly at Harm. "Hear that, you're old."

"But hot," he answered with a grin of his own.

She ignored him. "Meet Harmon Rabb, a lawyer at a small D.C. firm. He is also a pilot, a musician, and quite possibly one of the year's sexiest men."

And didn't that sound good coming out of Mac's mouth. Harm decided to take the direct approach. He tackled her.

Her exclamation of surprise turned into another gale of giggles as they hit the bed. This time, with Mac pinned beneath him, Harm had little trouble using his additional reach to snatch the now mangled magazine from her hand.

"Hey!"

Grinning exultantly, he looked down at her. Mac's brown eyes had turned cinnamon-colored in the morning sunshine, and sparkled with laughter. Her dark hair fell about her face in tousled disarray, making her all the more beautiful. Harm wanted to kiss her and never, ever stop.

Instead, he rolled over onto his back, holding the copy of People up where he could read it. To his surprise, Mac followed him. She lay on her stomach and folded her hands on his chest, laying her chin on them. It was as if they had both returned to reality-- but were choosing to ignore it for a little while.

"Sarah MacKenzie," Harm read. "Age 34. This is a woman who knows what she wants, and how to get it. She has beauty to match her brains-- Heh. They're not kidding," he added. Mac poked him in the ribs and he chuckled. "And a fiery temper to complete the set. An expert kickboxer, she is both strong enough and aggressive enough to take on any man, which leads to the question of who will end up ruling the roost in the Rabb household. Hmmm." He raised his head to look at Mac, curious to see her reaction.

To his relief, she was still smiling, though the expression was thoughtful. "Do you think we would?" she asked after a moment. "Turn a marriage into a turf war, I mean."

Harm lay his head back down on the bed and studied the ceiling as he thought. One of Mac's least endearing traits was the way she tried to bully him whenever she started feeling insecure. "I think it would be an issue we'd have to deal with," he answered at last. "We're both pretty strong willed."

"And stubborn," she added. A minute later, she sighed. "You know, I think I just figured out why I couldn't really love Mic."

Harm tried not to tense at the sound of Brumby's name. "Why's that?"

"Because he let me push him around. He wouldn't stand up to me. You and I, we spit and snarl and fight over just about everything… but at least I know what you really think."

Harm digested that, uncertain what direction to take. He decided to lighten the mood a bit. "Just so you remember that I'm Batman."

She chuckled, then raised herself onto her elbows to look into his face. "I know I don't act like it sometimes, but I wouldn't want it any other way, Harm."

Without thinking, Harm set the magazine down, then reached up to brush a stray hair from her face. His fingers lingered on her cheek. Mac tipped her head a fraction, turning toward the caress.

They recognized what was happening at the same time. Mac's gaze flicked to the clock. "We should get going."

"Yeah."

Slowly, regretfully, they disentangled themselves. The moment wasn't exactly awkward, but they had lost the perfect, happy ease of the earlier time. He watched Mac walk off toward the bathroom, the hem of her nightgown swishing about her thighs.

Reality sucks, he thought sourly.

 

Chapter 11

 

Harm and Mac's lives became a whirlwind as the cruise date neared. They never referred to it as the wedding day-- not aloud, at least. Between the interviews and television appearances with the rest of the cast, the hours with Steiner's staff learning just exactly what would be going on during the six weeks at sea, and a multitude of appointments with costuming to get an entire wardrobe put together (not to mention a wedding dress, in Mac's case), the two had little time to contemplate the future.

It didn't really hit Mac until they were standing in the lobby of their hotel in Tampa, waiting for Sturgis, Bud and Harriet to arrive from the airport. The show provided transportation and lodging for a best man and maid of honor for each couple, which Sturgis and Harriet had both happily agreed to. Bud had opted to come with his wife. Mac accepted it all as gracefully as she could. She wasn't sure how many witnesses she wanted to this thing. One part of her wanted to shout, I'm getting married tomorrow! and do a little jig right there in the lobby. The rest wanted to curl up in a little ball and cry because she wasn't getting married tomorrow-- not in the way that counted most.

Harm squeezed her hand, bringing her back to the present. "There they are."

Mac looked toward the hotel's gilded front doors. She spotted Sturgis's tall figure immediately, and right behind him Bud and Harriet. To her surprise and dismay, Admiral Chegwidden, Sergei, and Victor Galindez entered with them.

Please don't tell me I have to do this in front of the entire office, Mac thought as they went to greet their friends. She embraced Harriet as Harm shook hands with the men and hugged his brother.

"So… A.J…" Harm drawled with a sly smile. They would not be using ranks tonight. "What are you doing here?"

The Admiral grinned impartially at the two of them. "Are you kidding? We--" He indicated Victor and Sergei. "--wouldn't miss this for the world." His expression sobered for an instant. "Besides, I brought something for you two… for the honeymoon."

Mac studied Chegwidden. He obviously wasn't talking about edible underwear or any other such traditional newlywed fair. Harm caught the suggestion as well, acknowledging the Admiral with a nod. They would talk about it later in one of the rooms where there were fewer ears to overhear.

"Have you all had dinner yet?" Mac asked.

"No. Our flight left too early to serve dinner. I don't know about anybody else, but I'm starving!" Harriet said.

"Maybe after everyone is checked in, we can meet for dinner, then. The restaurant in the hotel here is pretty good…" Harm trailed off as his gaze fixed on the glass doors fronting the hotel.

"Harm?" She looked toward the hotel entrance, but didn't immediately see cause for concern.

"What is my mother doing here?" Harm shot the Admiral an accusing glance, but Chegwidden only shrugged.

A moment later, Mac spotted Trish and her husband. They came through the front doors and walked toward the group, hand-in-hand. Trish waved cheerfully when she spotted them.

Harm flashed his parents a guarded smile. "Hi, Mom, Frank." He bent down to let his mother wrap her arms around his neck in a huge hug. "What are you guys doing here?"

"Don't be silly, Harm. Of course we came." She waved the unspoken protest away and turned to Mac, taking both her hands in greeting. "It's good to see you, too, Mac. You look lovely."

Mac smiled despite herself. "Thank you." She could see the glimmer of tears in the older woman's eyes and wondered if she, too, were having trouble remembering this wasn't real.

Trish went on to hug Sergei with the same deep affection she'd shown her son. Harm introduced his stepfather, Frank, to the rest of the JAG crew. Frank and the Admiral immediately fastened on the topic of fly fishing while Trish pumped Sergei for information about how he was settling in D.C.

Harm and Mac exchanged helpless looks. Well, Mac thought, your family was supposed to be there for your wedding, right?

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

It had gotten late by the time everyone gathered for dinner. Sturgis arrived with his carryon still slung over his shoulder. He tucked it carefully beneath his chair as he sat.

"What's in the bag?" Harm asked.

Sturgis grinned. "You'll find out."

Harm and Mac exchanged looks. "I'm not sure I like the sound of that," Harm told her in an undertone. She smiled wanly.

Harm looked at her with concern. "Is everything all right, Mac?"

Mac forced herself to nod. Everything was not all right, but there wasn't anything to be done about it. She felt his hand on her waist, guiding her to her chair. The touch sent shivers up her back that had nothing to do with the heavy air-conditioning inside the hotel. She wanted him with a depth of passion that was, in itself, a little scary, but she was far more afraid of having him without the security of a commitment she knew he was unwilling to make. Losing him would leave too many wounds in her heart. Whoever had said it was better to have loved and lost, she thought, was clearly out of his mind.

There was quite a bit of banter at the table, which Mac did her best to join in on. Harm tolerated the teasing good-naturedly, and in return razzed Bud and Harriet mercilessly every time they had to address one of the higher ranking officers at the table by name. Midway through the meal, a young woman approached the group, introducing herself as a reporter for Entertainment Weekly. Another woman trailed her, bulky camera in hand.

"Do you mind if we take some pictures?" the first woman asked, displaying a perfect smile.

"Help yourself." The Admiral waved expansively.

Mac quickly stuffed her darker thoughts away. It was time to act her part. She leaned into Harm, smiling for the camera, and felt his lips brush her hair.

A few moments later, Sturgis leaned forward, tapping his fork against his wineglass. The table quieted, and even the photographer paused as everyone turned to look.

Sturgis rose. "I think I'm going to take this opportunity to fulfill my duty as best man and make a toast to the happy couple." There were several pleased exclamations, though whether those were genuine or for the reporter's benefit, Mac couldn't guess. While the smattering of talk died down, Sturgis snagged a passing waiter and spoke to the man in a low voice for a moment. The waiter then nodded and left.

"Harm, what is he doing?" Mac murmured into her partner's ear, a smile plastered to her face. They hadn't planned to do any of the traditional pre-wedding things, for obvious reasons.

"I have no idea," Harm answered in the same low tone. "But I'm sure it'll end up embarrassing at least one of us, if not both."

"He does realize I've been trained to kill people with my bare hands, doesn't he?"

Harm chuckled. "If you'd like, I can hold him down while you remind him."

That started Mac laughing. She muffled it with one hand.

"Well, as you all know, Harm and I are friends from way back." Sturgis swept his gaze around the table, ending up with Harm and Mac. "We went to college
together--"

"Where, I've heard, you two got into quite a bit of trouble," the Admiral interjected.

Sturgis grinned. "That we did. Harm kept coming up with these harebrained schemes--"

"Me?" Harm gave his friend a mock glare. "Who was it that thought an unannounced fireworks display in the quad would be a good idea for Veteran's Day?"

Mac laughed as the Admiral winced. They all knew the two had gone to the Naval Academy together, and what the reaction to unexpected explosions would have been there, Mac could easily imagine.

"Anyway," Sturgis went on with a grin. "We were always getting into some kind of trouble, but the amazing thing was how often Harm managed to talk us out of it with that golden tongue of his." He winked at his friend. "The legal profession is definitely the place for you, buddy."

"Gee, thanks."

"Is this story going anywhere, Sturgis?" the Admiral asked, putting a little extra emphasis on Commander Turner's given name.

"Why, yes it is, A.J." Sturgis returned without batting an eye. The JAG personnel snickered at the expression that flickered across the Admiral's face. Sturgis turned back to his audience.

"Harm and I were Sophomores, I believe. We'd just finished our semester finals, which, for various reasons, neither of us was certain we'd be present for, let alone pass. But we did, so we decided to celebrate-- in style." Sturgis grinned at the memory. "We plunked down fifty bucks a piece on a very nice bottle of scotch which neither of us was old enough, at that point, to drink." A few people shook their heads and made tsking sounds. Sergei looked a bit baffled, but the concept of being too young to drink was an unfamiliar one to the Russian.

Sturgis' grin widened. "It gets better. Not only did we buy this bottle of scotch, but, in all our infinite wisdom, we decided to take it back to the dorm to drink it."

"You got caught, I hope." Trish eyed her son and Sturgis as if debating which one to take to task first.

"Yes, ma'am, we did," Sturgis assured her. "By possibly the biggest, meanest instructor in the school. He was at least three inches taller than Harm, and probably weighed as much as the two of us combined." Sturgis mimed a hulking muscleman. "So he stands there, glowering, and demands to see what we have in the bag." Mac had no trouble envisioning the scene and chuckled. She'd met some pretty scary drill instructors in her time.

Sturgis shrugged. "So of course, I show him. I figured we were dead. The instructor, he takes this deep breath, like he's getting ready to blast us… and then Harm jumps in."

"Uh oh…" Mac grinned at her partner, who was staring at Sturgis in a kind of mystified horror.

"Mr. Innocent, there, starts into this big spiel about how we two underage fellows surely wouldn't spend a hundred bucks on a bottle of scotch to drink it. Oh, no. That, instead, we'd been talking about the future-- particularly about women-- and debating whether there was such a thing as fate. He tells the guy this with a straight face, do you believe, and then goes on to talk about soulmates and predestination and grand designs and a whole bunch of other romantic gobbledygook. He tells the instructor that the scotch is for the day one of us finds the perfect woman, proving once and for all that there is such a thing as destiny.

"Now me," Sturgis went on, "I'm over there biting my tongue to keep from laughing. But the instructor-- this huge gorilla of a man-- is all misty-eyed. He’s nodding at everything Harm says, like he agrees with every word."

"He let you go?" Bud asked Harm incredulously.

Laughing, Harm nodded. "He let us go." He switched his attention to Sturgis. "I can't believe you remember that!"

"Even better," Sturgis assured him with a sly grin. "I still have the bottle of scotch." With that he bent down to retrieve a dark brown bottle from the bag he'd brought with him and set it on the table. The Admiral picked it up, examining the faded label with an expression of approval.

As if on cue, the waiter came back with a tray of empty glasses, which he distributed around the table. At Sturgis' request, he opened the bottle for them before disappearing once again.

Mac and Harm both waited quietly while glasses were passed and poured. Mac didn't take any, of course, which didn't bother anyone. She was grateful her friends understood her problem with alcohol and didn't ever make her feel uncomfortable about it. So, when Sturgis and the others raised their scotch glasses, she lifted the plain tonic she'd been drinking and waited to hear what he would say. The reporter remained in the background, listening unobtrusively. Mac was distantly aware of the flash and whir of the camera as the photographer captured the event.

Sturgis regained their attention, his expression growing solemn. "Today seemed like the appropriate time to open this bottle." He focused on Harm and Mac. "I had pretty much given up on the idea that there might be such a thing as a perfect match… until I saw you two together."

Mac bit her lip, her heart pounding. Beneath the table, Harm's fingers tightened painfully around hers. Sturgis wasn't playing to the camera, they both knew. The look in his eyes was far too penetrating.

Sturgis's voice became contemplative. "And so, here is my toast: Harm, Mac… you two have something that only a few people will ever be so fortunate as to find. Don't take it for granted. I wish you both a lifetime of love and joy… and I can only hope that I will someday be as lucky." He raised his glass. "To you both."

"Hear, hear." The agreement echoed around the table, accompanied by the clinking of glasses.

Mac risked a look at Harm. She wanted to see in his eyes that Sturgis was right, that it was worth the risk. Instead, when he met her gaze, his blue eyes were shadowed and filled with a quiet apology. Bitter disappointment filled her.

"Are you even going to be able to make yourself say the words tomorrow?" she asked in a fierce, angry whisper. Without waiting to see his reaction, she tossed her napkin on the table and stood, her throat burning.

"Excuse me. I'm just going to go the ladies room for a minute," she assured the group with a false smile. She didn't really care where she went, so long as she could have a few minutes of solitude in which to compose herself. Otherwise, she'd never be able to keep up the pretense.

Mac was nearly running by the time she reached the restroom. As in many hotels, there was a small ante room that boasted a settee and a counter lined with gilt-framed mirrors. Mac sank onto the couch and laid her head in her hands. She began to cry, unable to contain the hurt any longer.

The door to the restroom opened. Mac heard footsteps on the tiled floor, but didn't look up until she felt the weight of another person settle on the couch beside her. Embarrassed, she tried to dry her eyes as Trish handed her a tissue. Harm's mother smiled kindly.

"It's all right, dear. I don't think I've ever heard of a bride who didn't cry at least a little on the day before her wedding."

Mac stared at her, taken aback. For a moment, she couldn't bring herself to continue the lie, no matter who might be listening. "I'm not his bride and you know it!"

At Trish's pained expression, Mac's anger crumbled. She shook her head. "I'm so sorry to be putting you through this, Trish. I know how much you want to see Harm find someone…" She couldn't hold the other woman's gaze and looked away.

Trish pursed her lips. "You don't think he has?"

Mac's throat closed painfully tight. She swallowed hard against a fresh round of tears and shook her head, unable to speak.

Trish's expression didn't change. "He loves you, you know."

Mac nodded. "I know," she managed. She twisted the tissue in her hands until it began to tear. "That doesn't mean he's willing to commit to me."

Trish snorted sourly. "Well, if there's anything my son is afraid of, that would be it," she agreed.

Mac looked up at her, surprised to find such a sympathetic spirit in Harm's mother.

Trish smiled at her. "To be honest, I wouldn't have believed it, either, particularly with the rest of what's going on." Mac understood she meant the investigation. "Except for one thing."

Mac's heart stuttered a beat. "What?"

"This." Trish reached over to take Mac's left hand in her own and turned it to display the engagement ring she'd grown so accustomed to wearing. Mac looked at her hand, then glanced questioningly at Trish.

"Ah. He didn't tell you, did he." It wasn't a question.

"Tell me what?" Hope and suspicion warred in her heart, fighting for dominance.

Trish smiled wistfully. She touched the ring. "Harm's father gave this to me when he asked me to marry him." She met Mac's gaze with an expression that was both beautiful and sad. "When I decided to remarry, I gave it to Harm… to give to his wife."

For a moment, Mac couldn't breathe. Her fingers curled involuntarily around the ring that had suddenly taken on so much meaning.

"I wasn't even certain he still had it," Trish continued, her tone reflective. "I hadn't seen it since then."

Mac was struck by the inconsistency of the statement. "What about Diane?" she blurted, then wondered if she sounded like a jealous fool.

Trish chuckled. "No, he didn't give this ring to her. Hmmm. That is interesting, isn't it? It never occurred to me." She sighed, studying Mac intently. "You do look like her. I remember Harm telling me how uncanny the resemblance was, but I didn't believe him until I saw you myself."

Mac chewed on her lip. "What was she like?" Am I really a ghost of his past? She had convinced herself otherwise long ago, but now the doubts resurfaced.

Trish patted her hand. "Diane was a lovely girl." Her smile deepened. "But you, Mac… you're something truly special. Harm is very luck to have you."

Mac felt a surge of gratitude toward the woman beside her. On impulse, she hugged her. "Thank you."

Trish returned the embrace. "You're welcome, dear. Now, shall we go finish dinner?"

Mac wiped her nose, sniffling. "I think I need a few minutes."

"Of course." Trish gave her a gentle smile. "I'll head back to make sure they don't send out a search party."

Mac nodded. When Trish was gone, she sat and stared at the floor, her eyes idly tracing the carpet's fleur de lis pattern. For some reason, Mic's voice kept repeating in her head, telling her she only agreed to marry him because she was afraid to be alone.

Is that what I'm doing now? she wondered. Is that why I want this with Harm so much? The tissue in her hands was quickly becoming a pile of lint. She went to throw it away in a nearby trashcan.

No, she decided finally. I love him. It felt good to admit that to herself, and she smiled. With everything in me, I love him. I'm just angry because he's not ready to love me the same way, yet. She stared at her reflection in one of the oval mirrors. All her life, Mac had dealt with the hurt and disappointment of those she loved not returning that love they way they were supposed to. Nothing she had ever done-- not becoming a highly-decorated Marine officer, nor a superb lawyer-- had ever made her parents love her the way she wanted to be loved. Completely. Unconditionally.

In Harmon Rabb, she'd found one person who just might love her that way, if he could overcome his own demons. It was hard to hope, though, when she’d bee hurt so often.

Mac sighed. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that I can’t make Harm do anything. Maybe I need to be willing to be alone, and be patient, until that time comes.

Resolved, she spent a moment touching up her makeup, then headed back to the party.

 

Chapter 12

 

After everyone else had gone to bed, Harm, Mac, Sturgis and Chegwidden gathered in the Admiral's room to talk business. Harm was struck by how strange it felt to be back in the real world. He hardly remembered the last time it had seemed… inappropriate to hold Mac's hand, or trail his fingers across the back of her neck, or any of a dozen other small demonstrations of affection that had recently filled their everyday lives.

At the moment, Mac was seated in one of the room's plush chairs while Harm leaned against the edge of the nearby desk. Sturgis occupied the end of the bed.

The Admiral rummaged through his luggage, eventually emerging with two black, hard plastic cases which he laid out on the bed next to Sturgis.

"Wedding presents," he told Harm and Mac. With a glance at his partner, Harm went to investigate. He flipped open the first case to reveal a Beretta nine-millimeter pistol with two clips and ammunition, all packed in gray foam. The second case held a military issue satellite phone with battery pack.

"Since you two will be totally incommunicado for the next six weeks, I thought these might come in handy." The Admiral hooked a chair with his foot and seated himself. Harm closed the cases.

"Should we make regular contact?" Mac asked.

Chegwidden shook his head. "No. Too risky. I wasn't certain you'd have a means of using the satphone without being observed, anyway."

Harm returned to his place by the desk. "The heads are unmonitored, but that's about it. I don't totally buy Steiner's promises about the cabin cameras."

"'Bathrooms', Harm." Mac glanced up at him. "'Head' is a naval term. You're not supposed to know a lot about boats."

"They're ships." The correction was automatic.

"See?" She grinned at him.

Harm accepted the demonstration with a rueful nod. He was going to have to be careful. He'd lived at sea on carriers for years while he was still a fighter pilot, and had his own fair share of Navy pride.

The Admiral leaned forward. "The good thing about the way they do this show is that we'll be able to keep tabs on you just by watching the broadcasts." He knit his fingers together in front of him. "The lag is going to be about four days, though, which is why I want you to have a way of making immediate contact if you get into trouble." Temptation Cruise II would be aired approximately "live" every Monday and Thursday night. Tony Ariel and his staff would be on board the ship with the contestants. They were responsible for all the filming and also for sorting through the reams of tape for interesting segments to forward to Steiner's crew to assemble into the actual broadcast.

"What's the word on keeping Tony Ariel isolated?" Harm asked. Steiner had assured them that he would have total control over any media information or personal contact the director had. The ports of call were fairly remote locations, but each required a crew of people to do preparatory set up, as well as catering and other such behind-the-scenes support functions. None of the JAG officers believed Harm and Mac's covers would withstand media scrutiny for the entire six weeks, so the threat of Ariel discovering who they were was a credible one. It had already taken a few favors in high places to keep the media from sniffing down the right paths.

"Webb said he'd take care of it," the Admiral told them.

Mac frowned. "The CIA doesn't usually get involved in criminal investigations. It's a bit outside their venue."

The Admiral smiled. "True. He's planning to run it as a training op for some of his young agents. He said to tell you both to consider it his wedding gift."

Harm gave a strained laugh. "You people are all having way too much fun with this."

At that, Sturgis grinned. "I met Clayton Webb not too long ago. Interesting guy. Did you know the CIA has a pet name for this little outfit?" He made a circular motion with one finger to indicate the four of them.

"Really?" The Admiral didn't sound thrilled. "What is it?"

"They call you the Combat Lawyers. Apparently, the three of you have seen a pretty significant amount of action."

Harm, Mac and Chegwidden traded looks. Yes, you could probably say that, Harm thought.

"Back to business," the Admiral said briskly, dismissing the topic. "I called in a favor with the Coast Guard. They're going to keep the Radiant Heart under fairly close observation, so they'll be nearby if you need them. I've programmed the phone with the number for the watch office at MSO Tampa. They'll know who you are."

Harm looked at Chegwidden in surprise.

"Isn't that a bit extreme?" Mac asked, beating him to the punch. "Despite the fact that this is a rape investigation, there's no evidence to suggest we'll encounter any kind of violent behavior. According to Mrs. Antony, she was drugged, not subdued."

"Call it a safety net." The Admiral leaned back in his chair, stretching. "Between them, Steiner and Ariel control everything that happens on that ship. I don't want to take any chances."

"Understood, sir." Mac stifled a yawn.

Harm suddenly realized how tired he was. "Is there anything else we need to know?" he asked the Admiral.

Chegwidden paused, then nodded. "One more thing." He seemed suddenly uncomfortable, and Harm's stomach knotted in trepidation.

Uh oh, here it comes, he thought.

The Admiral pinned the partners with a frank stare. "I know this assignment has dipped into some pretty gray areas for the both of you. Speaking personally, I have no problem with anything you choose to do in this situation. I have spoken briefly with my superiors concerning some of the legal and ethical ramifications, and have received assurances that nothing that happens during the course of this investigation will affect either your careers or your positions at JAG."

Harm kept his attention focused on the Admiral to avoid looking at Mac. Their working relationship had always been an issue when it came to their feelings for each other. In some ways it was the core of their friendship, something they were afraid to sacrifice even for love. Was the Admiral really saying they could have both?

Chegwidden studied the two silent officers for a moment, then shrugged. "Well, I suppose that's the reaction I was expecting, but I thought it needed to be said. Make of it what you will."

Harm and Mac both nodded.

Sturgis broke the awkward silence. "Hey, Mac. Do you mind if I drag this guy out for a beer before calling it an evening?" He pointed at Harm.

She raised her eyebrows in surprise, but gave Sturgis a neutral smile. "Just don't keep him out too late." She looked up at Harm. "Tomorrow's going to be a busy day."

To Harm's surprise, there was no significant look attached to the comment. Whatever pain she carried-- and Harm knew it was there. He wouldn't feel that sharp stab of guilt if she didn't-- she wasn't lashing out at him.

Instinctively, he reached out to stroke her hair. She looked tired. "You going to bed?"

"Yeah." She stood and went to retrieve the two cases of equipment. "I'll go ahead and pack these with our stuff. Goodnight, all." She nodded to the Admiral and Sturgis, kissed Harm lightly, and left.

After the door clicked shut, Chegwidden turned to Harm. "It's really none of my business, but you are a fool if you let her get away, Commander."

Harm couldn't help a bitter laugh. "Yes, sir."

Sturgis stood. "Why don't we go get that beer."

Harm looked doubtfully at his friend. "You're not going to lecture me, are you?"

Sturgis smiled. "Only if I have to, my friend. Only if I have to."

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

"All right, spit it out." Harm stared at the bottle in his hands rather than at his friend. They were seated at the end of the hotel bar, well away from any other patrons.

Sturgis gave him an innocent look. "Spit what out?"

Harm chuckled. "Nice try, Sturg."

The handsome black man laughed with him, but then his humor died. "Do you love her?" he asked plainly.

Harm sighed. He was tired of trying to avoid that one. "Yes."

"So what's the problem?"

Harm stared into the mirror behind the bar. "Who says there's a problem?"

Sturgis laughed, the sound vaguely mocking. "If there wasn't a problem, you'd both be glowing tonight. Especially Mac. But the last time I checked, it looked like the only reason she's still holding it together is because she's too stubborn to quit."

Harm closed his eyes for a moment against the pain that statement generated. "That's Mac," he agreed.

Sturgis turned to look at him, anger highlighting his features. "I'm not going to have to hit you to get through that thick skull, am I?"

Harm met his gaze. "No, Sturgis," he answered patiently. "I hear you loud and clear." But how did he explain the absolute, numbing terror he felt any time he got close to this issue?

Sturgis gave him an evaluating look. "She's not going to die," he said quietly.

Oddly, Harm wasn't surprised his friend had figured it all out so quickly. He knew Harm's obsession with his father's disappearance. He'd been there when Diane was killed. He understood.

"She almost bled to death in my arms," Harm pointed out.

Sturgis wisely didn't try to argue the fact. "She's not going to die," he repeated.

"You can't promise that. Diane did. Jordyn did." Harm had to resist the urge to clench his hands into fists. The fury he felt at the injustice of those deaths hadn't dimmed with the passage of time. Neither had the feeling that some part of himself had been torn away.

Sturgis sighed. "Here's a different question for you, then-- Do you think you will ever, in your lifetime, find a better woman than Mac?"

Harm snorted. "No."

"Can you even imagine being with another woman after her?"

"We're not lovers, Sturgis." The admission tasted bitter on Harm's tongue. He glanced at his friend.

Sturgis shrugged. "Doesn't matter. And you haven't answered my question."

Harm looked down at his beer. Could he imagine other lips? A different smile? Another laugh? Some other body molded against his, smelling of coffee and cinnamon?

"No." He took a drink of his beer, deciding then that self-pity really wasn't going to help. He cracked a smile, trying to lighten his mood.

"Being in love isn't supposed to be this hard, is it?"

Sturgis chuckled. "Having never been there myself, I'm hardly qualified to say."

"So what would you do, if you were me?" He met Sturgis' gaze.

Sturgis frowned as if the answer were obvious. "I'd marry her and live happily ever after."

"Well, I don't suppose I've got a choice on that first part." Harm bit his lip after he said it. There I go with the self-pity again. He saw an answering flash of anger in Sturgis' eyes.

"Oh, I think you have a choice," the other man told him. "I don't think you're going to back out of the investigation, so I guess you don't have much choice whether or not to say the words… but you do have to choose whether or not you're going to mean them."

Harm stared at his friend. The rebuke stung, though he suspected he deserved it. All the years with Mac-- dancing precariously along the cliff edge between friendship and love-- flashed through his mind. It really had come down to this, hadn't it? One choice. Jump or don't. In the past, not jumping had always resulted in an acceptable status quo-- friendship with the thought that, maybe, someday, they'd find their way to that other place, the one at the bottom of the long, scary drop. But now the cliff edge was crumbling. They weren't going to be able to stay balanced there much longer.

One choice. Harm stared at his reflection. It really is pretty simple, after all.

 

Chapter 13

 

Mac adjusted the fall of her long white skirt with nervous fingers. The silk hem whispered across the sand, barely heard above the gentle rush of waves clambering up the shore. A breeze off the water kissed her bare shoulders, tugging at the gossamer veil that tumbled to the ground behind her. She breathed in the salt-smell of the ocean and listened for a moment to the piercing cries of gulls. The sun warmed her skin, promising to become hot as the morning progressed.

Beside her, Harm stood quietly. He'd been quiet all morning-- subdued, even. Mac hadn't asked. She was having trouble keeping her emotions in check already. Fighting with him would only make the difficult impossible.

Harm was dressed in a classic tuxedo. Mac detested it. Not because he didn't look good in it, but simply because it wasn't dress whites. Dress whites and gold wings… In the wedding photos her mind conjured for her, he was always clad in the dignified splendor of his dress uniform.

She pushed the thought away with determination. Dwelling on should-be's was a dangerous pastime.

The minister, a grandfatherly man with a thick mane of white hair, stood before them, Bible poised in his hands. Mac was distantly aware of Harriet standing a pace behind and to her right, and Sturgis off to Harm's side. Harm's family, the Admiral, Bud and Gunny watched from behind. Cameras ringed them.

For Mac, the moment seemed frozen in time. She wanted to scream at them all to stop! That this was wrong, all wrong. But it was far too late for that. She had a part to play. She had her lines memorized-- vows Bud and Harriet had, mercifully, written for the two of them. And so she would repeat the words, with ashes on her tongue and bitterness in her soul, and wonder if they could ever recover from this day.

The minister opened his mouth to speak the first words of the ceremony. As he did, Harm suddenly came to life.

"Wait!" He held up one hand, forestalling the minister. "Could you… just… hold that thought for a minute?"

The interruption jarred Mac. Heart pounding, she turned to him, hardly daring to hope.

He grinned, showing his trademark little boy smile. "I'll be right back." He released her arm, then turned and walked away, cutting between Sturgis and the surprised minister. His long strides took him quickly down the beach, his head turning from side to side as if he were looking for something.

Mystified, Mac looked at Sturgis. "Where is he going?"

Sturgis shook his head as he watched Harm's retreating figure. "I hate to say it, Mac, but I think the stress may have driven your man there around the bend."

For a moment, she was convinced Harm was just going to walk away. But then he stopped, scooped something up out of the sand and headed back. When he got close, she discovered he'd fetched a long, slender piece of driftwood.

Mac blinked. "A stick?"

"Yep."

"…"

"Patience, Mac." Using the tip of the stick, he drew a long slash in the sand beyond the place where Sturgis stood watching him with a bemused expression. Walking backwards, he turned ninety degrees to continue the line behind the minister, then up the side next to Harriet, and across the back, completing a passable square around the wedding party. Then, apparently satisfied, he tossed the driftwood down on the sand and returned to Mac's side.

She stared at him.

He winked, his blue eyes laughing. "Work with me here, Mac. It's a porch." He spread his hands. "Best I could do on the spur of the moment."

A porch. Their one and only place of honesty.

He looked directly into her eyes, his voice soft. "I told you I never make a promise I can't keep."

Mac couldn't breathe. In an instant, her world turned inside out and upside down. Her heart soared.

"I'm not dreaming, am I?" she asked him.

"No, you're not." Harm drew her close, his expression growing serious. "I'm sorry it took me so long to figure this out." He touched her cheek. "I love you."

Pure, joyous laughter bubbled up out of her. "I love you, too, Harm."

She hooked her arms around his neck as he bent toward her.

"Ahem."

Startled, they turned to look at the minister.

He smiled kindly at them, his eyes dancing with amusement. "If you don't mind, I need to say a few words first before we move on to the kissing part."

Mac ducked her head, laughing in embarrassment.

Trying rather unsuccessfully to look decorous, Harm hooked her arm through his and turned them to face the minister. Mac gripped his arm with one hand and her bouquet of roses with the other as if they were the only things that kept her from floating away.

The minister straightened his shoulders, glanced at the Bible in his hands, then looked out over the small crowd. "Dearly beloved," he began in a solemn voice, "we are gathered her today… on this porch, apparently… to unite this man and this woman in holy matrimony."

"I'll be very interested to hear the story behind that one," Mac heard Sturgis comment in an undertone.

The minister continued with the ceremony, explaining the sanctity of marriage, admonishing both of them to live up to the vows they were making, and promising them God's blessing on the family they were becoming. Mac clung tightly to Harm to keep herself upright. Family. She hadn't thought beyond the turmoil of her relationship with him to see the full implications of marriage. She would have parents again… Frank and Trish already treated her like a daughter, more so than her own parents ever had. She would have a brother-- sweet, loyal Sergei-- and she would have Harm. Her husband. Her partner. Someday, the father of her children. That was more family than Mac had ever dreamed of having.

At the proper time Harm turned to Sturgis, accepting from him a slender gold band. He turned back to Mac, taking her hand. His gaze delved into hers, endlessly blue.

"Sarah, I give you this ring as a symbol of my undying devotion…"

He called me Sarah. The sound of her name had never been sweeter, nor held so much meaning.

"I promise to be your faithful husband, to love you-- and only you-- for all the days of my life…"

Tears misted Mac's vision as Harm slid the ring onto her finger. His thumb brushed her palm, sending an electric thrill up her arm. Then it was her turn.

"Harm, I give you this ring as a symbol of my undying devotion…"

No matter how many times we've hurt each other, I never doubted that you would be there for me when I needed you, or that I would be there for you.

"I promise to be your faithful wife, to love you-- and only you-- for all the days of my life…"

I've never loved anyone else. I never will.

She slipped the ring onto his finger with a smile that nothing could dim. Hands clasped, they stared into each other's eyes.

Nearly forgotten, the minister closed his Bible. His voice rang out over them. "Therefore, by the authority invested in me by the state of Florida, I now pronounce you husband and wife." He leaned forward, nodding conspiratorially. "Now it's the kissing part."

Laughing, they did exactly that. Mac threw her arms around her husband's neck and felt his arms close around her waist, nearly lifting her off the ground in an expression of pure joy. His mouth fastened on hers, sweet and intense. Mac responded hungrily, secure in the knowledge that Harmon Rabb, Jr. was hers to love-- now and forever.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Harm was getting dizzy. He was alternately hugged and pounded on the back by what seemed like an entire horde of people, though he knew in reality there were less than a dozen.

"Buddy, you really had me worried for a minute, there," Sturgis said after embracing Harm rather forcefully.

Harm's smile dimmed for a moment. "Me, too." He lowered his voice. "I almost made the biggest mistake of my life today."

Sturgis' smile didn't change. "Considering some of the stupid things you've done, that's saying a lot. But I must say I agree." They both turned to look at Mac. She stood a few feet away, talking animatedly with Harriet, Harm's mother and Frank.

"What changed your mind?"

Harm stared at Mac for a moment. The white gown set off the coppery tone of her skin and made her dark hair and eyes glow. But it was her radiant smile that captured him. He had never seen a pure smile from her, one untouched by secret pain. Not until today.

He turned to look out over the water. "Have you ever come to a point where you realized that what you were about to do violated absolutely every principle of honor or decency you thought you lived your life by?"

Sturgis nodded, his expression somber. "Yes, though I was contemplating killing someone, not marrying them." After a moment, his smile reappeared. "You're a lucky man, Harm." He clapped him on the shoulder.

Harm grinned. "I'm not going to disagree with you there."

The Admiral joined them on the heels of his statement. Smiling with evident satisfaction, he laid a hand on either man's shoulder.

"Congratulations, Harm."

"Thank you." It took an effort not to add the "sir" that belonged on the end of the sentence.

The Admiral turned to Sturgis. "And congratulations to you, too, Sturgis, for whatever you said in that 'lecture' of yours. It obviously worked."

Sturgis waved his words away. "I don't think I had much to do with it."

While they talked, Selena began gently shooing them all away from the ring of cameras so another couple could take their turn. Harm shook his head at the insanity of it. Only a couple of miles down the beach, he could see the huge wharf complex and the white silhouette of the Radiant Heart in her berth.

"What have I gotten us into?" he muttered to himself.

A short distance away, Mac caught the direction of his gaze and lifted an eyebrow.

Harm went to stand beside her. "We don't have to do this, Mac," he said quietly. "I'll take you anywhere on the planet you want to go for a honeymoon-- just name it."

She looked up at him, the warmth of her gaze tempered by solemn consideration of his words. Finally she shook her head. "I'd like nothing more, Harm. I really would. But we have a million dollars to win," she said in the same tone of voice she would have said, "We have a job to do," had they been alone.

Harm hugged her gratefully. He would have abandoned the investigation rather than risk his relationship with Mac, but his conscience would have nagged him incessantly had he done so. Mac understood him well.

After he and Mac had said their goodbyes and been showered by the obligatory rain of birdseed (rice being inappropriate because it tended to choke wild birds), they climbed in their limousine for the short ride to the cruise ship. Once inside, it took Harm about twenty seconds to string together three very important realizations: One, that Mac was now his wife. Two, that they were alone in the back of the limousine. And Three, that he had absolutely no reason in the world left for not kissing her. So he did. Mac responded ardently, as six years of repressed longing found their first taste of freedom.

They were both breathless by the time the limousine pulled to a stop. Harm took one look at the people and cameras crowding around them and groaned.

"Just a few more minutes?" He traced Mac's collarbone with the fingers of one hand, then kissed the point of her shoulder. "We're not going to get another chance to be alone until tonight." Having wasted so many years already, the additional delay seemed excruciating.

Mac laughed deep in her throat, her gaze promising a great deal once that time arrived. "Oh, but we mustn't leave our public waiting," she joked, affecting a starlet's breathy voice.

Harm gave her his best leer. "I'll make it worth your while to have the driver go around the block a couple of times."

"Mmmm. Tempting." Mac kissed him soundly. "But how 'bout we have him drive around the city a couple of times and I'll make it worth your while instead?"

"You know," Harm said when next his mouth was free, "this brings an entirely new dimension to the idea of negotiating plea bargains with you."

Mac laughed. "C'mon." She sat up, drawing him with her. "I'm sure everyone out there is wondering just what we're up to." She grinned as she fixed his tie.

For a moment, her smiled dimmed. When he gave her a questioning look, she slid her hands down the front of his jacket and she shook her head. "Should've been white," was all she said, though her eyes expressed much more. They had finally found each other, but the circumstances were far from perfect.

He cupped her cheek. "If we started counting should've's, we'd be here all week," he told her softly. "Which is more my fault than yours. I wish I could go back and change those things, but all I can do is tell you I love you, Sarah MacKenzie, and I don't plan to ever let another 'should've' come between us."

Mac stared at him for a moment. Then her face lit with a smile. "It's Sarah Rabb, now." She wagged a playful finger at him. "And don't you forget it."

"Never," he promised, grinning.

 

 

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