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Chapter 14

 

Harm and Mac emerged from the limo to a sea of faces. At their feet, an actual, honest-to-goodness red carpet ran up the steps to the doors of the wharf complex. Gilded ropes held back the crowd of well-wishers and fans, some of whom seemed inexplicably delirious at the Rabbs' arrival. Paparazzi lined the space inside the ropes, their flashes half-blinding the two. Harm and Mac had endured media storms before, during cases that had drawn significant public attention, but luckily these were entertainment reporters rather than their more politically aware brethren.

"This is insane!" Mac hissed as they shouldered their way through the crowd, ignoring the typically stupid questions. "Don't these people have lives of their own?"

"Almost makes you pity actors, doesn't it." Harm kept one arm protectively around her as they made their way inside, despite the fact that Mac could have cut an admirable swath through the mass of people with a judicious application of her Marine training. He often wondered why he felt so tremendously protective toward a woman who could generally take care of herself.

Inside, they breathed a collective sigh of relief. They found Selena there ahead of them, waiting to lead them to the Radiant Heart. The interior of the building looked much like an airport concourse, with cheap carpeting and rows of thinly padded chairs grouped around the various terminals. Today the building was empty save for a few security guards who wandered about, looking bored.

Hand in hand, Harm and Mac climbed the gentle slope of the boarding ramp. At the top, a group of stewards and the captain of the ship waited for them in time honored tradition. Harm knew he was supposed to stroll onto the ship like any other ignorant civilian, but his feet refused to obey. He hit the top of the ramp and stopped, one step from boarding the Radiant Heart. Mac paused, too, and looked questioningly at him.

Harm squeezed her hand by way of silent apology. He nodded to the captain. "Permission to come aboard, sir?"

The captain, a tall, distinguished looking man in his mid-sixties, flashed them a warm grin. "Permission granted." He held out his hand. "I'm Frederick Baxter, Captain of the Radiant Heart."

Harm stepped aboard, feeling the subtle change as he moved from land to ship. He took the proffered handshake.

"A pleasure to meet you, Captain. I'm Harmon Rabb and this is my wife, Sarah." Just saying the words made something in him soar.

Mac shook the captain's hand as well, her expression schooled.

"The pleasure's all mine," Captain Baxter assured them. "It's not often I meet a young person who knows proper etiquette for boarding a ship. Usually it's the old sea dogs like me."

Harm did his best to cover his tracks. He shrugged. "I defended an 'old sea dog', as you call them, once. I guess he made an impression on me."

The captain simply nodded and Harm and Mac followed one of the stewards on into the interior of the ship.

"That wasn't very bright," Mac murmured after they'd gained some distance from the greeting party.

"Sorry, I just couldn't be that rude," Harm whispered back.

Mac rolled her eyes, but then smiled. "Well, if there's one thing I love about you, it's your sense of chivalry."

Harm felt her words sink in. "Say that first part again."

"What?"

"The part about you loving me."

Mac flushed, but her expression could have put a small sun to shame. Together they paused, caught up in the moment.

Selena stopped a few paces away and folded her arms across her stomach, doing her best to become part of the furnishings. Her job was to be unobtrusive while still getting her wards to their appointments on time. It was her judgement that determined if this moment should be allowed to continue uninterrupted, captured by the cameras in the hall. And this interlude, she decided, would make great t.v.

Mac looked up into Harm's eyes, her expression appraising. After a few moments of that, Harm cocked an eyebrow, knowing Mac would understand the question.

She smiled a bit wistfully. "I was just trying to figure out when it was that I really fell in love with you."

"Oh, really? When did you?" Harm asked with a sense of delight.

She gave him a half smile. "I'm not sure. It was sometime before Sydney, though." She shook her head. "I was so hurt you turned me down that night."

Harm felt the familiar pang. "I thought we weren't going to go counting should've's anymore."

Mac didn't react to the reproach in his voice. She shook her head lightly. "I'm not sure that one counts. It probably would have wrecked our careers."

"On the other hand, it would have kept you from getting so involved with Brumby." Something he would have done anything to prevent had he known how serious the relationship would become.

Mac heaved a sigh at the mention of Brumby's name. "Well, I suppose I'm going to have to admit this sometime, so it might as well be now." Her body language shifted, took on a slightly defensive edge.

Harm watched her warily. "Admit what?"

"That, subconsciously, at least, I got involved with Mic in the hopes of making you jealous."

Harm didn't have an immediate answer. His thoughts went back to the day Mac had shown up with a diamond ring on her right hand. It had felt like a slap in the face. Like a taunt. Which is exactly what it was, he realized. 'Come and get me if you want me'. Pride had made him back away. He'd seen the attempt at coercion as a power play rather than a desperate act, but even so, he wasn't certain he would have responded differently.

Harm couldn't help the sharp edge to his voice as old anger resurfaced. "It worked."

"Not well enough, obviously." She crossed her arms.

Harm kept a tight rein on his temper. "You were trying to manipulate me, Mac. What did you want me to do? Crawl on my hand and knees to your doorstep and beg you to choose me instead of him?"

Mac gave him a look filled with bitterness. "No, the mighty Harmon Rabb, Jr. would never stoop so low, would he?"

Harm nearly lost it. The flash of fury sent adrenaline pouring into his system, demanding action.

"You're still a mean drunk, Mac." The words came out clipped, harsh.

Mac's head snapped back as if he'd slapped her. "What is that supposed to
mean?"

"It means the only time you ever accuse me of being self-righteous is when you're dead wrong and don't want to admit it."

They glared at each other for a long moment. Mac faltered first and looked away. She swallowed hard, nodded.

"You're right. I'm sorry."

Harm's anger began to drain away. "Me, too."

Mac glanced at him, her dark eyes wounded. "For what?"

He shrugged. "For not kissing you senseless on that ferry, for starters."

Mac smiled weakly. "I would have liked that." She let out her breath in a gusty sigh. "Of all the days to be arguing…" She shook her head sadly.

Harm's mouth twisted in a sour smile. "We've been fighting like cats and dogs for six years, Mac. You didn't think it was going to stop just because we got married, did you?"

She snorted softly. "I suppose two miracles in one day is a bit much to expect."

Harm caught her waist to pull her to him. "At least we got the most important one," he said.

Mac molded her slender frame against him, tucking her head beneath his chin. Harm hugged her and laid his cheek against her hair. The tight bands around his chest began to loosen.

"I suppose there's one benefit to fighting so much," Mac said against his chest, her tone thoughtful.

Harm looked down at her. "What's that?" he asked cautiously.

She tilted her head back to look into his face. "Making up." She grinned.

Harm felt a rush of pure relief. "Why, Mac, is that an invitation?"

"Better believe it, flyboy."

Harm smiled at the challenge in her eyes. With a flourish, he dipped her there in the empty passageway. He was delighted by the easy way she committed her weight to him, trusting him to keep them both balanced as they kissed.

Mac laughed as he pulled her upright once again. Her deep brown eyes threatened to drown him, a fate he wasn't entirely certain he wanted to avoid.

"Can we officially declare this a fresh start?" Mac asked after a moment. "Forget the past, wipe the slate clean, that sort of thing?"

Harm dragged himself out of her eyes. "I'm not sure ignoring the past is such a wise idea," he countered. Denial hadn't done either of them any good that he could see.

Her face fell by degrees. "There's just so much to deal with." He could see the fear of more pain in her eyes.

Harm was a little surprised by the strength of his determination. But he never had backed down from a promise once he made it. "We have the rest of our lives to sort it all out, Mac."

"You think that'll be long enough?" she asked with a ghost of a smile.

Harm grinned at her. "I guess we'll find out."

He was rewarded by a quiet laugh.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

To Mac's dismay, the first contestants they ran into onboard were Boothe Crossby and Carmen Esperanza. Boothe greeted them both with a charming civility that could have hidden anything beneath it. Carmen kept her gaze almost exclusively on Harm, eyeing him as if she wondered how he would taste roasted over a slow flame with white wine sauce. Mac had to resist the urge to shout "Mine!" and step protectively in front of her husband.

Mac supposed she shouldn't be too surprised by Carmen's behavior. Harm obviously fit her "type". He and Boothe had been stamped from similar molds… tall, dark-haired, blue-eyed, and dangerously handsome, but Boothe was ruthless in a way Harm was not. She found that observation interesting since Harm could play hardball with the best of them, whether in court or on the battlefield. But, she had the feeling Boothe would willingly cross any moral line to gain his objectives, which Harm would never do.

Carmen she wasn't as certain about. The other woman wore her sultry Latin beauty the way a whore wore her clothes. Tawdry was the word that most often came to mind. But she was paired up with a man like Boothe in what was basically a fidelity competition, so there had to be more to her than met the eye.

Mac took the initiative. "So, how is married life treating you so far, Carmen?" she asked in as friendly a manner as she could manage.

Carmen smiled, showing a flash of white teeth between succulent red lips. "No complaints yet. You?"

Mac grinned, figuring she could score more points with the truth. "I think I'm in for a pretty wild ride," she confided. That got a flicker of reaction from Carmen, though Mac couldn't identify the emotion that fueled it. Jealousy, perhaps? If men were trophies, then Boothe was the silver and Harm the gold, most definitely. Mac doubted Carmen was used to having her man outclassed.

Mac chuckled to herself. And we accuse men of being territorial!

Together, the two couples made their way to the deck to wait for the requisite waving and throwing of streamers as the harbor tugs pulled them away from the quay. Carmen and Mac traded bits of gossip as they went. Unfortunately, collecting gossip was an occupational hazard for Mac, but the skill served her well now.

On deck, they met Jeb and Stacy as well as a thirty-ish black couple named John and Delia Washington. John was a professor at a community college outside Memphis. Mac couldn't immediately remember what Delia did. Interior design? Something like that.

"Hey Cornpone!" Carmen greeted Jeb with the warmth of an older sister to her favorite little brother. She was a strange one, Mac thought. So far, her motives remained obscure, and her reactions to people seemed to vary by individual with no discernable pattern.

"Hi, Carmen." Jeb's greeting was more restrained. He seemed to take a prudently suspicious view of the older woman's friendly overtures. Stacy watched with a narrow-eyed stare.

Well, Mac thought, if Carmen's goal is to antagonize all the other married women on this cruise, she's off to a good start. That wasn't a bad analysis of her behavior, Mac decided after another moment's contemplation.

The four couples chatted for a while as they watched the remaining limos make the trip from beach to the wharf, speculating on various strengths and weaknesses of the not-yet-arrived, and hashing out possibilities for the first competition, which was only two days away. The winners would be able to pick their spouses' companion at their first port of call.

The thought of Harm going out with another woman, even on a supposedly innocent day trip, made Mac's stomach clench in sudden nausea. She grabbed the deck rail and turned her face toward the ocean as she struggled to regain her composure. There had been a lot of women for Harm. Despite all her protests that it wasn't any of her business and that she didn't really care, Mac had kept a catalogue in her heart of each and every one. There might have been a few she never knew about, she conceded, but not very many. The most frightening part was that Harm didn't chase women. He just didn't often say 'no' to an invitation.

Except for me.

"Hey, you o.k.?" Harm came to stand beside her. He rested his elbows on the rail, throwing her a worried glance.

Mac nodded quickly, trying to push her dark thoughts away. "Yeah." She met his gaze briefly, summoned a smile. "I'm starting to realize just what we've gotten ourselves into."

He gave her a lopsided grin. "Me, too."

Mac watched him intently. "You scared?"

The blue eyes lit with mirth. He leaned toward her, his shoulder brushing hers. "Nah."

Mac smiled, though her heart remained heavy. "You mean you're not particularly intimidated by the prospect of battling off a ship full of dozens of beautiful women who will be throwing themselves at you for the next six weeks?" She kept her tone light.

He arched one eyebrow and gave her his famous smile. "And how would that be different from regular life?"

Mac punched him lightly in the shoulder. "In your dreams, flyboy."

Harm chuckled. "You're the one who's in my dreams, Mac."

It was much-needed reassurance. Mac tilted her head back, giving him one of her best come-hither looks. "Ooh. Sweet talk will get you everywhere." It felt strange to play this same old game, knowing that this time there were no uncrossable lines to keep Harm from taking her up on her offer.

He didn't disappoint her. Straightening, he closed the distance between them. Their lips met, the touch incendiary. Mac reached up to encircle his neck, tangling her fingers in his hair as she pulled him closer.

Distantly, Mac heard laughter, particularly Delia's. "Hoo, you go girl!"

Laughing in embarrassment, Mac broke the kiss and hid her face against Harm's chest for a moment, her cheeks hot. She could hear his heart pounding beneath her ear and felt the tension in his body that spoke to her own of barely restrained passion. Mac's body answered in kind, and only the presence of the other couples and the two cameramen lurking in the near distance kept her from further action. Her internal clock immediately told her how many hours they had left to wait until the cameras in their stateroom could be turned off. After that, though…

Boothe's chuckle interrupted her lascivious thoughts. "I do believe the Rabbs are going to present some rather stiff competition for the rest of us," he said in a dapper British accent, stroking an imaginary mustache.

Mac laughed with the rest, particularly when Harm added his own comments in her ear.

The rest of the day passed in agonizing slowness, but pass it did. They stayed at the rail while the crew cast off, then went inside to explore the main portions of the ship, occasionally stealing kisses in shadowed corners and out-of-the-way places. Dinner was served in the Grand Ballroom, followed by dancing. Mac had always enjoyed dancing with her partner, perhaps because it had been the only acceptable outlet for their attraction for so many years. But tonight it was foreplay, and they both knew it.

During the course of the evening Mac's emotions swung from heated anticipation to nervous terror and back again more times than she could count. Harm did an admirable job of keeping her distracted with a running commentary of lighthearted stories and jokes, though she had the feeling they were meant to distract him as much as her. Mac had to smile at the babble. Harm tended to chatter like a demented bluejay when he was nervous.

They didn't leave the ballroom the moment the clock struck the appropriate hour. That moment came and went, with neither of them making a significant overture. Mac's stomach slowly tied itself in a knot.

Now what? she wondered.

The music had slowed as the evening progressed. Their dancing had followed suit, becoming more and more intimate. Even Harm's constant chatter had fallen away. Mac was acutely aware of every contact between them, from the light pressure of his fingertips on the small of her back to their clasped hands and the occasional brush of his hip against hers. Eventually, Mac couldn't stand it any longer.

"Harm?" She pulled away slightly to look up at him.

He met her gaze after a moment. "Yeah, Mac?" She had the feeling he'd been a million miles away in his thoughts.

Mac discarded what she'd been about to say. "What were you thinking about?" she asked instead.

He smiled, seeming abashed. "Teaching my son to fly."

That wasn't what Mac had been expecting. She wasn't sure what she'd been expecting, but that definitely wasn't it. The simple comment filled her with an intense rush of longing, joy and fear. Her breath caught in her throat.

Harm's smile faded, replaced by an penetrating expression that turned Mac's knees to water. She wasn't sure who initiated the kiss. It ran from her lips to the tips of her fingers and toes like a bolt of lightning and left her breathless.

"Let's get out of here," Harm suggested when they parted.

Mac could only nod. She'd waited so many years for this moment. One by one the barriers separating them had fallen until there were none left.

Together they sought their room, finally free to express their feelings for each other on a level that had no parallel, and to confirm the promises they had made in a language that had no words.

 

Chapter 15

 

Mac woke to the glow of early morning sunlight falling across her face. She stirred, instinctively turning to look for Harm. She found him where she expected to, sleeping soundly beside her. Mac resisted the impulse to reach over and tousle his dark hair. Instead, she insinuated herself into his arms and wrapped her own around his chest.

His eyelids flickered, his grip tightening on her.

"Good morning," Mac said.

"Hey," was the groggy response. Mac kept her chuckle to herself. Their years of odd nights spent together on various missions had given her a misimpression of her husband. He always slept like a cat when there was a possible threat. Take away the tension, however, and the man turned into a bear. A hibernating bear.

Not that two mornings really qualified as a scientific survey, she amended. And not that she'd been terribly interested in getting out of bed herself yesterday morning, either. The memory elicited a smile.

This morning, however, was a different story. She poked Harm gently in the ribs. He grunted.

"Wake up, sleepyhead. We're supposed to go running today."

Her answer was another grunt. He rolled toward her, throwing an arm and a leg across her body and effectively pinning her to the bed. "Whose crazy idea was that?" he mumbled into her hair.

Mac laughed. "Yours." They'd agreed early on that they were going to keep up a regular exercise regimen during the six-week cruise. The ship had a jogging track that ran the perimeter of the lower deck as well as a lap pool and a weight room.

"I was obviously out of my mind." He snuggled more closely against her.

Mac struggled to escape his grasp, without much success. Harm had something like eighty pounds on her, which put her at a huge disadvantage if she wasn't willing to give him a set of bruises. So she switched tactics and kissed him instead.

His response was immediate, ardent, and almost convinced Mac to forget about running. Laughing, she struggled away from him and climbed off the edge of the bed. "Exercise first, sex after," she promised.

Harm threw off the covers with a grin. "Best motivational speech I've ever heard." He followed her out of bed.

They dressed quickly and went up to the main deck. The sun shone low in the cloudless sky, leaving a streak of orange across the green ocean waters. The air remained cool and fresh. Mac took a deep breath, savoring it.

A cameraman showed up while they were still stretching and began his own limbering exercises. Mac and Harm traded glances. Poor guy. Well, if he wanted to film them while they ran, he was welcome to try.

"What do you think, Harm? Five miles?"

The cameraman gave her a look of horror. Harm noted the reaction, grinned. "Sounds good to me."

They started off at their normal pace. It might be a bit of an exaggeration to say they ran together regularly, Mac thought, though once upon a time they had. The last few years had strained their friendship to the breaking point, so naturally many of the things they'd once done together had fallen by the wayside as well. She was looking forward to developing a new habit of running with Harm, and not just because she loved him. Those long legs made him a challenge.

They chatted amiably as they ran, mostly about work. Legalese worked as well as any secret code, with certain military-specific words excluded. Mac already missed JAG and her job. What she wanted most, really, was to take her husband and go home.

That thought conjured a few new ones.

"You know, we never resolved the issue of where we're going to live once we get back," she said. In fact, they'd never discussed anything of the sort, but she couldn't admit that in front of a camera.

Harm glanced at her, traces of surprise on his face. Then he grinned. "I think we should buy a house."

Mac nearly missed a step. "A house?" She started to laugh despite herself. "You don't change your mind by half-measures, do you?"

"Nope."

Mac glanced behind them.

"How's our camera guy doing?" Harm asked.

"He's hanging in there." He didn't look happy about it, though.

"You think if we cut him some slack he'd tell us what the competition is today?"

Mac checked the man behind them. The sweating cameraman gave her a reproachful look. "Doesn't look good," she decided.

Harm shrugged. "Oh well." He took a quick swig from his water bottle. "Hey, Mac?"

"Yeah?"

"If by chance we win this thing today, who do you want?"

Mac turned her head to stare at him, trusting her peripheral vision to keep her from running into the ship's curved rail. "What?"

He flashed her a guileless grin. "Who do you want to spend the day with?"

Flabbergasted, Mac slowed. "You want me to pick?"

He shrugged. "There's no reason your day has to be a total waste. If there's somebody you think would be decent company… sure." He eyed her oddly, as if puzzled by her reaction.

He can't really be that naïve, can he? Or did he simply trust her that much? A little overwhelmed by the possibilities, Mac forced herself to pick up her pace. She opted to answer the question as asked, rather than digging for a deeper subtext. This was Harm, after all.

They'd been briefly introduced to all the designated singles on the ship. Most of the men struck Mac as little more than hardbodies, and somewhat juvenile ones at that. The few who were more her age seemed… mundane. Of course, her basis for comparison was a fighter pilot turned lawyer who moonlighted as a paramilitary operative, and who had a nasty habit of nearly getting himself killed in his country's defense. So she supposed her evaluation might be a little skewed.

"How about Joe Vassilis?" She didn't quite pick a name at random, but close enough. Vassilis was an architect, something Mac had a mild interest in.

"O.k."

They ran in silence for a little while. Mac knew she ought to reflect the question back at him, but wasn't sure she could. Just the thought made everything inside her churn.

Eventually, Harm gave her a concerned look. "Is that silence because you don't want to talk, or do we need to slow down?" Not being able to talk while running was a good indicator that a person was pushing too hard. Mac had to make a deliberate effort not to be insulted.

"I'm fine, Harm."

He shrugged. "Then I suppose I'll have to shelve my lecture about cholesterol intake and cardiovascular health for the moment."

Mac rolled her eyes.

Harm went on. "But, since you're not having trouble breathing, you must be mad at me."

"I'm not mad at you!"

Harm just looked at her.

"O.k. I'm a little mad," she admitted. She increased speed, wishing she could run away from him.

"Why?"

"Why?"

"That's what I said, Mac." She could hear the tired patience in his voice.

Mac came to an abrupt halt and stared at him. He returned the look, his gaze filled with curiosity, concern, and a hint of reproach.

"You really have no idea, do you?"

"Not unless you care to explain it to me." His voice held an edge that had been missing a few moments earlier. Now he was getting angry.

Mac couldn't help her incredulity. It bubbled out of her in groaning laughter. She tipped her head back, fighting with herself. Be constructive, Sarah. She wanted to lash out at him, just because that was her defense mechanism. But she'd committed her heart to him-- she could no longer maintain a perimeter fence around it to keep herself safe.

She sighed. "All right. I… don't know how this is going to sound, though."

Hands on hips, Harm looked at the deck. "Fair enough. We don't exactly have a great track record for these kinds of conversations."

Too true, Mac thought. She wondered how much difference it would make that they were married now.

She took a deep breath. "Have you ever noticed that you get a lot of attention from women?"

Harm looked up at her from under his eyebrows, his expression a mixture of surprise and innocence. "Moi?"

Mac found she could laugh. She wagged a finger at him, playing along. "Don't try to deny it. I don't think there's a woman in the world who doesn't go a little weak in the knees around you."

He chuckled. "You're exaggerating."

"No, I'm not. Name me one woman who hasn't ever shown the least interest in you."

"Harriet."

It was Mac's turn to laugh. "Even she goes a little starry-eyed when you turn on the charm full blast."

Harm's smile disappeared abruptly. "C'mon, Mac! That's ridiculous. Harriet is one of my dearest friends. She's head-over-heels in love with Bud, and certainly has never made any kind of pass or overture or--" He ran out of words. "I can't believe we're talking about this!"

Mac held up her hands in a placating gesture. "Easy. I know that. I'm not making accusations. Harriet's one of my best friends, too, and a woman of outstanding character. But that's my point. If she isn't immune, then no woman is."

Harm stared at her. Mac could see him trying to work his way through what she'd said.

"Where, exactly, are you going with this?" he asked after a bit.

Mac turned and started walking along the track. Harm matched her. "I guess what I'm trying to get at is that we're on this crazy ship full of women who are going to fall all over themselves to be with you. The only problem is, to you it's not crazy-- it's normal. That's how your life has always been, because all women react that way around you, to some degree or other. Does it really surprise you then that, yes, I feel threatened when any woman gets within about five feet of you, no matter how innocent the situation?"

Mac had been walking with her head down, talking with her hands as she tried to put her observations into words. It took her several steps to realize Harm was no longer beside her. She stopped and turned. He was standing a few feet behind her, staring in her direction.

Mac walked back to him. "Harm?" She hated it when he got quiet like that. She never had any idea what was going on behind his eyes. "I'm not trying to pick a fight, or blame you-- at all-- for anything." She didn't quite have the courage to reach for him. "I just wanted to explain why I get so… so prickly." She looked down at her hand and the rings that encircled her finger. "If I had my druthers, these rings would declare you 'off limits', and no woman would ever look twice at you again."

His gaze narrowed. "These rings do declare me 'off limits', Mac. You, too." She could hear the carefully controlled anger that simmered beneath his words. "You're assuming facts not in evidence, counselor."

"Your evidence, maybe." Mac was too caught up in her own personal pain to get angry in return. "My evidence is a mother who abandoned me, a father who got drunk and beat me, a failed marriage and a whole string of relationships that ended badly. I've never known anyone who held up their end of the bargain, Harm. No one! Not once." She felt the burn of tears and bit her lip to hold them at bay.

"And me?" If anything, the edge on his voice had grown even sharper.

Mac closed her eyes, fighting to keep her voice even. "I've seen you go literally to the ends of the earth to fulfill a promise." She'd gone with him to Russia, after all. "I know you. I know what kind of man you are." She opened her eyes and looked at him. "And so I believe-- in you, in us… but that doesn't mean I'm not scared. This is it for me, Harm. I can't-- If this doesn't work, for whatever reason, I don't think I could ever open myself up enough to love someone again."

Harm stared at her in silence, his gaze distant. The moment stretched, painful and frightening. Mac wanted to scream, but didn't dare move.

Eventually, Harm came back from whatever internal place he'd been. He closed the distance between them and raised a hand to brush away the strands of hair the wind blew across her cheek. His gaze filled with compassion. "You won't have to, Sarah. That I promise you."

Relief washed through her, leaving her feeling weak. Mac let out the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. Harm opened his arms to her and she gratefully slipped into them. For a moment, she did nothing but listen to the strong, steady beat of his heart.

"You going to be o.k., Mac?" he asked after a while.

Gathering herself, she stepped out of his grasp. She nodded. "Yeah. Thanks for not blowing up at me."

A hint of a smile crossed his face. "The warning helped."

And with that, Mac realized, the conversation was complete. Not that they wouldn't need to revisit it from time to time-- Harm was such an incorrigible flirt they might end up camping there for a while, even-- but she'd been able to express how she felt and he had listened. It was a remarkable experience.

Mac met her husband's gaze. "Do you want to finish this last mile or just call it quits?" she asked.

"Oh, let's finish it." The mischievous glint she loved came into his eyes. "I wouldn't want to give you any excuse to wiggle out of the promise you made me this morning."

Mac grinned at him. "Now why would I want to do that?"

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

They met John and Delia poolside for lunch. Harm found he enjoyed the Washington's company more than he might have imagined. John was a tremendously well-educated man, and they had a good time discussing a wide range of topics. He turned out to be a bit liberal for Harm's tastes, but in areas the Naval commander found easy to compromise, for the most part. They had fun debating gun control, education, and even campaign financing.

Eventually, the heat of the day got to them and they opted to join their wives in the pool. Mac was wearing a jade-colored bikini that did truly amazing things in combination with her dark skin and the sparkling pool water. Slick her hair back and put her in a bikini…baby. Harm grinned. Steiner had certainly known what he was talking about. Harm stripped off his shirt as he headed for the water.

"Is that from a bullet wound?"

The question stopped Harm in his tracks. The slightly puckered, star-shaped scar was all that remained of that particular escapade. He turned to look at John, who was watching him with a kind of fascinated curiosity.

"Yeah." He shrugged. It was a good thing Mac had gotten her own scars fixed. "I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don't really like to talk about it." The story was that he'd been caught in a robbery and was hit by a stray bullet, should he ever have to explain. Had Mac still had the scars from that poacher's gun, the explanation would have seemed that much more unlikely.

Harm turned and dove off the edge of the pool, cutting cleanly into the water. He swam most of the length of the pool underwater, coming up beside Mac. John joined them more sedately a few moments later, as did a couple of other people. There turned out to be a surprising number of people on the ship. Besides the nine couples and two dozen designated singles, there were the coordinators for each couple, all of the sound and camera crews, the panel of judges, the show's various host personalities, as well as the cooks, maids, stewards and the captain and his crew.

Someone brought a volleyball with them, and a game of men-against-women water polo was quickly struck up. A rather viciously competitive one, Harm decided after being bodily dragged under by three women intent on stripping the ball away from him. They got it, too, much to his chagrin. Had he been single, he might have considered the loss well worth the fun of losing it, but his conversation with Mac that morning made it all too clear to him that there were some lines that needed to be drawn. And respected.

Harm resigned from the game. He made his way to the edge of the pool and hauled himself onto it, turning to sit with his feet dangling in the water. The predatory swiftness with which two young, bikini-clad women came to sit next to him, one on either side, was downright astounding. At least Mac was headed in his direction, working her way around the ongoing game.

"Ladies." Ignoring them would only give the impression that he was intimidated. Of course, in a sense he was. Not of them, but rather of the storm clouds brewing in Mac's eyes.

"Worn out already?" one of the girls asked with a teasing grin. Harm fished through his memory for a name-- ah, Nikki. She was one of the designated singles-- he'd read her bio as part of their prep work for the case. Computer science major at UCLA, into hiking and kayaking, vegetarian. She looked like a California girl, with her tan, muscular limbs and saucy smile.

Harm summoned a grin. "No, but it was getting a little too cutthroat out there for my tastes." He nodded toward the pool.

"Really?" She stirred the water with one foot, flashing her long legs. "I thought you were more the type to enjoy a bit of healthy competition."

Harm chuckled, as much at himself as the girl's comment. Like a shark smelling blood, she'd gone straight for his ego. Nothing like going for the big targets.

Mac saved him from having to reply.

"Hi, Mac," he said cheerfully as his wife swam up.

She grinned back at him, a thoroughly dangerous expression. "Hi, yourself. Are they playing nice?" Mac's gaze swept across the two co-eds, both of whom deflated under the baleful stare.

Harm jerked his head in Nikki's direction. "Ms. Upton here was just insulting my competitive spirit." He slipped into the water with Mac. He didn't mind running away from Nikki and her friend as long as it didn't look like running.

Mac raised an eyebrow as she hooked her arms around his neck. Harm immediately felt better. "Ms. Upton has obviously never gone against you in court."

Harm decided not to rise to the bait, and kissed her instead. He'd discovered that was much more fun than arguing with her. As often happened, the kiss got out of hand in a hurry, as he'd once put it. He forgot all about the two young women who watched from not far away.

With twin "hmphs" of injured pride, the girls departed. Mac laughed at their retreat.

Harm wisely didn't watch them go. It's going to be a long six weeks, he thought.

 

Chapter 16

 

"Is that Bob Eubanks?"

The question snapped Mac out of her bored reverie. She glanced at Harm, then followed his gaze to the man who stood talking with Tony Ariel and a small crowd of production people.

She grinned at his startled expression. "Of course it is. They're doing a Newlywed Game tie-in. Weren't you paying attention when Steiner went over that in the contestant briefing?"

Harm cocked his eyebrows in the equivalent of a shrug. "Must've missed that one. I was probably too busy looking at your legs."

Mac smiled, inordinately pleased by the comment. It was the first real admission Harm had made of wanting her before the wedding. She tried not to let on too much, however.

"Well, we knew one of the couples' competitions would be a Newlywed Game thing. I guess it makes sense for it to be the first one," she said.

"They're going to run a special one-hour episode in the time slot after the Temptation Cruise premier," Carmen added as she and Boothe walked up. Carmen, Mac noted, was dressed to kill. Her red dress left little to the imagination, and everything that showed, she flaunted with culpable intent. Boothe matched her, his stylish black suit lending him an air of danger. The two took the pair of seats next to Mac and Harm. The third couple for their first round of the game was already seated on the far end of the row-- the Na's. Nguyen and Stephanie Na were a quiet pair. They kept mostly to themselves, and Mac knew little of them beyond the background information they'd gathered before the cruise.

"You know, there's something vaguely terrifying about the idea of being on The Newlywed Game, though I'm not quite sure why," Harm commented.

Boothe chuckled. "Probably has to do with having to answer questions like 'Where is the most unusual place you ever made whoopie?', wouldn't you say?" He didn't seem the least bit uncomfortable.

Harm laughed with him, but the look he flashed Mac was anything but humored. He leaned close to her.

"How are we going to answer that?" he murmured into her hair.

Mac considered the question. In our stateroom, was hardly a response calculated to divert suspicion. After a moment, though, she smiled.

"How about 'Where's the most unusual place we didn't make love?'," she suggested in the same low tone.

Harm gave her a very surprised look, but then grinned. "I guess that keeps with the spirit of the game, anyway." He reached over to take her hand and brought it to his lips. "This is going to be interesting, to say the least."

Mac had to laugh at that.

The Newlywed Game was traditionally played with four couples, a format they were modifying to fit the needs of the show. The nine couples would compete in groups of three, and the winners of the first round would compete against each other for the final prize-- a pair of his and hers SUVs, and the right to choose their spouses' companion for the next day's outing. Mac and Harm were in the third group.

They spent the rest of the long, boring wait for their round to begin chatting with Boothe and Carmen. It was more like fencing than conversation, Mac thought. Perhaps Harm would have compared it to dogfighting, or more likely, to the dangerous game of target-lock chicken fighter pilots most often played.

But eventually, things got underway. She and Harm endured a last once-over from makeup, and then they were in the harsh spotlights, with Bob Eubanks standing at his podium, smiling radiantly at the cameras.

"Welcome to the Newlywed Game! As you know, the purpose of our game is to find out how much these three newlywed couples really know about each other by asking a set of questions to each spouse and asking them to pick the answer they think their husband or wife would answer. In the first round, the women will exit the stage and go into our specially soundproofed studio while the men tell us what they think their wives will say. Each question is worth five points. In the second round, the men will go into the studio while the women tell what they think their husbands will say. The questions in the second round are worth ten points. At the end, there will be a twenty-five point bonus question. Now, let's meet our contestants!" Bob gestured toward the waiting couples to the enthusiastic applause of the audience, which was comprised of everyone from the ship that didn't have to be doing something else.

Bob walked over to the Na's to exchange introductions. "Now, we all know you've only been married for a couple of days, but how long did you date before this?"

"Four years," was the soft-spoken response.

"Four years?" Eubanks had a gift for making anything sound ridiculous, no matter how ordinary. "What was the slowdown?"

Nguyen hooked a thumb at his wife. "Her mother." The comment earned him an embarrassed, slightly venomous look.

Grinning, Bob moved on. "You must be Boothe and Carmen."

They nodded. Carmen looked like she was having trouble keeping her attention on the host. Her eyes kept sliding toward the hulking forms of the television cameras.

Eubanks undoubtedly noticed, Mac thought. He centered on Carmen. "So tell me, Ms. Esperanza, why did you choose not to change your name?"

Carmen stiffened ever so slightly and licked her lips. Mac recognized the defensive reaction for what it was. "I guess because I don't feel like I need a man to define who I am," Carmen said. "My family name is important to me."

Bob raised his eyebrows at that, though Boothe gave no perceptible reaction.

"What do you think about that, Boothe?" Eubanks asked.

He shrugged. "I wouldn't be willing to change my name to Esperanza, so I don't see why anyone should have a problem with it."

With an equivocal shrug that drew laughter from the audience, Bob moved on. Mac met his gaze briefly as he came to stand near them.

"And here we have Harmon and Sarah Rabb, correct?"

"Harm is fine," Harm told him.

"Call me Mac," Mac said at nearly the same time.

Bob paused, his comedic timing impeccable. "Mack?" He looked at Harm. "You call your wife 'Mack'?"

Harm shrugged, but his smile was full of mischief. "Everybody calls her Mac."

"It's short for MacKenzie, my maiden name," Mac explained. She glanced at Harm. "That's going to get harder to explain, isn't it?"

Harm chuckled. "Why bother? If anybody gives you trouble about it, just give them that deadly stare of yours and say, 'You got a problem with that?'" He dropped his voice in a fair drill sergeant imitation. Then he grinned, ruining the impression. "And if that doesn't work, you can always break their arm."

Bob winked at Mac. "I'm beginning to see the real reason… Tell me, Harm, can she beat you up?"

"Yes," Mac answered promptly, shooting her husband a sly grin.

Harm laughed and gave her a playfully wounded look in return. "Well, two times out of three, maybe."

"Sounds like your house must be an interesting place."

Then it was time for Mac, Carmen and Stephanie to leave the stage and go into the soundproofed cubby to wait while the men answered the first round of questions. The interior of the little room was barren except for three metal and plastic chairs. Stephanie sat down while Mac leaned her shoulder against the wall. Carmen paced, her stiletto heels occasionally snagging on the cheap carpet.

"So what's your story?" Carmen asked Mac after a few moments.

Mac raised an eyebrow.

"You're some hot shot lawyer, can beat people up… you really gonna be happy just being Mrs. Rabb for the rest of your life?"

It's Lieutenant Colonel Rabb, and I sure hope so! Mac couldn't say that, though. She stared at Carmen in silence as her thoughts turned. Eubanks had definitely touched a nerve in the other woman, however unwittingly.

Mac chose her answer carefully. "I've spent most of my life trying to live down the legacy my parents left me," she said. "The only reason I kept the name MacKenzie was because no better one belonged to me. That's not true any more."

Carmen snorted. "Well, don't think that man out there is gonna make you a better person, honey."

Mac tensed, torn between pity for the other woman and the instinctive desire to defend Harm. "Actually, he does make me a better person," she answered, keeping her voice mild with an effort. "I've never met anyone with more courage or integrity." She stepped away from the wall. "For all that the man has his faults-- and everyone does-- he's one of the best people I've ever known."

Carmen stared at her, her open disdain slowly fading to puzzlement. But before she could say anything else, the door to the room opened. A production person waved them out, his headset cord trailing behind him like a tail.

Mac followed Carmen out into the painfully bright lighting of the stage, trying not to wince. She couldn't help the smile that lit her face on seeing Harm, not with the thoughts that were floating around in her head. He really was the very best thing that had ever happened to her.

Harm grinned back at her, though a bit sheepishly. Mac settled in her chair and cocked her head at him. "They been putting you on the spot?"

His smile deepened. "I told you this was going to be interesting."

"That sounds bad."

"We'll see."

"All right, ladies, here's the first question we asked your husbands: Of the two of you, who do you say is the better catch?" Bob Eubanks swept his gaze across them, gauging reactions no doubt, before walking over to the Na's. "Now remember, Stephanie, your husband has tried to give the answer he thought you would say."

Mac tried to wait patiently while Bob went through the other two couples. Stephanie said herself, while Nguyen had said him, which resulted in a pair of dark looks. Not too surprisingly, Carmen also answered herself, which Boothe matched. But that made sense, Mac thought. Carmen would say she was the better catch, and Boothe was shrewd enough to go for the answer she would say rather than what he thought was true. That much was obvious from his expression.

So, how had Harm answered? She debated with herself as Bob walked over to her.

"And what do you say, Mac?"

Mac took a deep breath, wondering if she understood how her husband worked at all. Well, she supposed she would find out.

"Knowing the size of his ego, I guess I'm going to have to go with 'him'." She gave Harm a teasing smile. She-- not to mention the Admiral-- had been riding him about the size of his aviator's ego for years.

She knew immediately from the audience's reaction that she'd guessed wrong. Harm had picked her. But was that because he believed it, or because he thought she would think so? Her stomach knotted.

Harm grinned at her, though not entirely happily. "Ow. Are you trying to tell me I'm arrogant?"

Mac decided the truth was the only thing that could save her. "Well, you are… though usually with good reason." She let a hint of suggestiveness creep into her voice.

Even Bob Eubanks raised his eyebrows at that. Harm was chuckling. "I'm not going to let you forget you said that."

Mac rolled her eyes, but figured it was a small price to pay.

Eubanks went on with the show. He stayed beside Mac and Harm as he pulled out the second question. "Mac, which of the following songs best describes your first date with Harm? A) Sea of Love, B) Let's Get Physical, or C) Crash."

Mac burst out laughing. What could their first "date" have been, but that day Harm had taken her flying in Sarah?

"Oh, 'Crash', definitely," she said through her laughter.

Bob grinned at her. "That bad, huh?"

"No, literally," Mac explained. He took me flying in his plane and there were some mechanical difficulties and--"

"It wasn't a crash. It was an emergency landing," Harm injected indignantly.

Mac turned to him. "True, but still, you have to admit things kind of went downhill from there."

Harm's snort spoke volumes and drew laughter from the crowd.

Bob looked at Harm. "So how long was it before she agreed to go out with you again?"

"Years."

Eubanks laughed at that. "All right. Well, why don't you show her what you said."

Harm flipped the large blue card, which had 'Crash' written on it in his distinctive handwriting. Mac smiled at that, but Harm's expression had turned serious.

"That was one of the worst days of my life," he told her softly as Bob moved off to talk to Boothe and Carmen.

Mac sobered at the shadows that turned his normally blue eyes a turbulent gray. It had been a pretty bad day for her, too, even though they laughed about it in retrospect. She wondered if Harm still felt guilty for leaving her. She sighed. Probably. But there was nothing she could say about it right now.

She turned to watch the other couples take their turns. Boothe and Carmen matched again with "Let's Get Physical", which didn't surprise Mac in the least. Nguyen and Stephanie once again did not match. How did they manage to stay together for four years? she wondered.

The third question was enough to make Mac clamp one hand over her mouth and the Oh no! that threatened to leap off her tongue.

Eubanks stood by Carmen. "Here's the question we asked your husband: How would she describe you? A) All action, no talk, B) All talk, no action, or C) Entertaining at both. What do you say, Carmen?"

Mac stared at Harm. She was reassured to see the laughter that sparkled in his eyes, as if he knew just how dangerous a question it was and was honest enough not to be offended by her assessment.

Once again, Carmen guessed correctly. Well, Mac thought, 'All action, no talk' is probably a good description of Boothe. He certainly didn't strike her as the sensitive type. Nguyen and Stephanie finally got one as well, with 'all talk, no action', though Nguyen sounded bitter as he said it.

When it was her turn, Mac decided to hedge her bets. In the past, their personal relationship had been 'no talk, no action', but now she had plenty of both. And in other respects, Harm had always done more than enough of both the talking and the action. Mac had heard a rumor that some CO's looked for an opportunity to get Harm assigned to them, however briefly, just to give them an excuse to read his service record. It was supposed to be one of the most… colorful… in the Navy.

Mac chuckled at her thoughts. "I'm going to have to go with 'Entertaining at both'," she told Bob.

To her surprise, Harm had chosen the same thing.

He flashed her a cheeky grin. "Well I am, aren't I?" he asked when she voiced her surprise.

"I'm beginning to see what you meant about the size of his ego," Bob commented in an aside, to which Mac laughed. Harm looked on, unfazed. He knew he was arrogant, Mac realized, and considered it an asset. For him, she had to concede, it generally was. Fighter pilots lived in a world where being good wasn't enough even to get them into the field. Being great meant they could handle the job, and only the firm belief that they were absolutely the best gave them the nerve to hazard death every single time they catapulted off the carrier deck. Loss of confidence killed a lot more fighter pilots than enemy missiles did.

Oddly enough, Mac thought, the same thing held for lawyers though on a vastly different scale.

The game continued, this time with the men leaving the stage. To Mac's relief, the questions got better, not worse. For herself and Harm, anyway. The Na's nearly came to blows over the question of what he would change about her if he could. Of course, he'd had the unbelievable idiocy to tell the world he thought his wife's breasts were too small.

For Mac, that question was easy. "My diet," she'd told Bob Eubanks without hesitation. Harm agreed.

"You wouldn't believe the amount of junk she eats," he added with a sly smile in Mac's direction.

It was an old argument and a fun one, so Mac jumped in. "I do not eat junk."

"Three Beltway burgers, fries and a coke for lunch? That's a hundred grams of fat in one meal." He cocked an eyebrow in her direction. "I'm not even going to comment on cholesterol."

For once, Mac could do what she'd always wanted to when he teased her about her food. She struck a sultry pose. "Do I look fat?" The audience, invisible beyond the glare of the lights, roared.

Harm made a show of looking her over, his expression a cross between a serious evaluation and an outright leer. "You," he finally concluded, "are gorgeous. But your metabolism must run at an insane rate considering what you eat. It won't protect you from heart disease or clogged arteries." Harm leaned close, taking her hand. His smile was that certain one he reserved just for her. "Having finally found you, Mac, I'd really like to keep you for a while."

Mac felt her cheeks growing warm beneath the power of his smile. "Don't worry," she managed to say. "You won't be getting rid of me any time soon."

For a moment, the rest of the world went away. Mac lost track of everything but her husband's intense expression and the answering fire it kindled in her own body.

The crowd's laughter brought her back, as Bob fanned himself with his cards and walked away.

The rest of the game passed in a blur. Unfortunately, they never managed to quite catch up with Boothe and Carmen, and ended up losing the round to them by a mere five points. Mac found she didn't care as much as she expected to. Not that she liked the idea of Tony Ariel and his staff picking a date for Harm, but since they'd talked she felt much more confident. At least this way they were free to enjoy their evening instead of spending it playing the Newlywed Game again.

They found a little bistro, tucked between two larger restaurants on the main concourse, and spent the evening talking over pasta and espresso. All in all, Mac thought as they made their way to their room, it had turned out to be a pretty good day despite the opportunities there'd been for disaster.

And tomorrow? she wondered for a brief, pessimistic moment.

"What about tomorrow?" Harm asked as he unlocked the door to their stateroom. He gave her a curious, slightly concerned look.

Mac shook her head, surprised that she'd spoken her thought aloud. "Nothing. I was just…"

"…thinking of all the things that could go wrong?"

Caught, Mac sighed. "Yeah."

Harm grinned as he held the door open for her. "Tomorrow won't get here for a while yet. Do you think we can find something better to do with our time than worry about it?"

Mac pushed her dark thoughts away with determination. Straightening her shoulders, she sauntered past Harm, throwing him a coquettish look over her shoulder. "Was that an invitation?"

His smile deepened. "More of a challenge, really."

She turned, waiting for him to cross the distance to her. "Well, you know how much I love a challenge."

Harm hit the light switch as he passed it, plunging the room into darkness. She heard him laugh deep in his throat as his arms closed around her. "That's my Marine," he murmured in the moment before his mouth fastened on hers.

 

 

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