In the morning, the contestants were roused early. They gathered on the
wharf where the launches from the Radiant Heart deposited them, along
with their coordinators, the singles, and camera crews. Tony Ariel was
there as well. He read off the assignments through a bullhorn and gave
each pair instructions on how to proceed to the location for their day
Harm wasn't too terribly surprised to find himself with Nikki Upton. Her
choice of activities was a twelve-mile hike through the mountains that
filled the center of the little Caribbean island. Harm had to chuckle at
that. If she thought wearing him out would lower his defenses to her
various charms, she was mistaken. At his age, all it was likely to do
was to wear him out.
One of three helicopters was waiting to take them to the trailhead. The
show's staff had provided light packs containing some basic first aid
supplies, climbing gear, food and water. The two cameramen assigned to
them had radios for emergencies. Harm simply laughed at Selena’s
repeated attempts to get him to take off the heavy-weave cotton shirt he
was wearing. There was no way he was going to cart an unfamiliar pack--
even a light one-- on bare shoulders. He’d known better than that since
his days in Laos.
Mac stood a short ways away, utterly breathtaking in a flowered bikini
and matching sarong. To be honest, Harm wasn’t entirely thrilled with
her wardrobe choice, but her instructions had been to wear something she
could swim in and she didn’t have any one-piece suits. They’d made all
their costuming choices several weeks before their relationship had
changed so dramatically, and he wondered what, if anything, Mac’s choice
of swimwear meant. After all, they had argued about her wearing-- or not
wearing, more specifically-- a bikini once upon a time.
Harm pushed the thoughts aside. It simply didn’t matter any more.
Mac turned as if sensing his attention. She smiled, tucking a few
strands of hair behind her ear. Harm’s heart skipped a beat. No, it
didn’t matter any more. Not at all.
Mac was going to be leaving soon, in one of several bright yellow Honda
Passports bearing the Temptation Cruise II logo. The young man escorting
her reminded Harm of the Greek statues of Adonis: curly black hair,
olive skin, and a physique to make an Olympic swimmer jealous. Not to
mention a Navy Commander or two. What were they supposed to be doing
today? Beach combing? He wondered how Mac would take to such a frivolous
activity. It didn’t strike him as the kind of thing she’d have the
patience for, but then again, he’d never been on vacation with her. He
really didn’t know how she would enjoy spending her days in the sun.
One of the cameramen, who also doubled as the driver for Mac and her
date, began indicating that it was time for them to go. Mac nodded
acknowledgement, then turned to Harm. The fearful longing in her eyes
took his breath away. He hated the idea of being separated from her,
even for a day, and hated even more the circumstances that would be
working to tear them apart.
Harm crossed the distance between them in two strides and swept her up
into a passionate embrace. He wanted to drink her in-- fix the taste and
scent and feel of her more firmly in his memory to make sure he could
take that much of her with him when they parted.
Mac sighed a little as they separated, but her smile was the one Harm
lived for. Everything he had accomplished in his life-- as a lawyer, an
officer, even a fighter pilot-- paled beside the knowledge that he had,
and did, make this woman happy. Marriage had always seemed like such an
awesome and frightening responsibility. Which it was, he had to admit,
but it also fulfilled some basic, masculine need inside him-- something
he hadn’t even suspected he was missing.
"Have fun, Mac," he said. "I love you."
Her smile deepened. "I love you, too. I don’t think I’ll ever get enough
of hearing that."
The comment sparked a thought, which Harm filed away for another time.
Mac liked romantic gestures, and this one didn’t require anything but
some time alone and a pad of post-it notes, which he was sure he could
come up with.
Then it was time for Mac to go. Harm walked her to her vehicle and held
the rear door for her while she got in. It gave him the opportunity to
meet Mr. Greek Statue’s eyes over the hood of the car and impress on him
the amount of pain he would be inflicting on himself if he behaved even
slightly improperly toward Mac.
Being who and what he was, Harm had a pretty intimidating stare when he
chose to use it. The young man swallowed hard before ducking to enter
the vehicle. Satisfied, Harm leaned down to smile at Mac once more, then
stepped back as the yellow Passport pulled away.
That done, Harm went in search of Nikki Upton. There was no sense in
delaying any longer. The sooner he left, the sooner he could return…
hopefully to find Mac waiting for him.
"Hey, Geordi, this one needs some cleaning up."
Geordi-- more properly George Laughton-- turned to look at his fellow
tech. George was young, black and somewhat baby-faced, but the nickname
came from his uncanny ability with electronics rather than his
resemblance to the Star Trek character. He walked over to his compatriot
and took the proffered headphones, holding one side to his ear. He
nodded to the other man.
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? A man’s voice.
Rabb, if he had to guess. The words were clear.
"Which cabin is this?" he asked.
"Six." Yes, that was the Rabbs.
"The cameras are still on?" It was more of a rhetorical question than
not. The audio units integrated with the cabin cameras were far better
than the secondary systems that kicked in when the lights went out.
Those recordings weren’t airable because they weren’t supposed to exist,
but the producers thought they could provide important information.
Geordi didn’t care much one way or the other. Anyone who volunteered to
go on the show, he figured, deserved whatever they got.
Was that an invitation? Mrs. Rabb’s response. Arch, confident, daring.
And still crystal clear.
"What’s the problem?" Geordi asked.
"Last line," was the response.
More of a challenge, really, Rabb was saying. How did he manage to sound
so innocent saying that?
Well, you know how much I love a challenge. Not that she was fooled.
These two were awfully funny to listen to.
Geordi heard footsteps, then a soft click, followed by the hiss of the
cheap analog recording system as it took over. His attention sharpened.
--at’s my --arine-- It was barely a whisper, followed by muffled,
intermittent sounds that made him think there probably wouldn’t be any
more meaningful conversation for a while.
He reached for the controls, spun the tape back and listened again.
That’s my… tangerine? Marine? A dream? Nothing jumped out at him as a
"You think it’s important?" Geordi asked, letting his skepticism show.
They had a truly terrifying amount of tape to sort through each day.
The other man shrugged. "Not really, but Steiner said to make sure he
got everything with these two in it, so he might think it was."
Geordi frowned, his thoughts suddenly turning in new directions. "Why
these two?" He hadn’t heard those instructions, but he wasn’t the senior
tech. Still, given his own private instructions from Steiner, the
possible connections were intriguing.
"It’s not just them. He wants the Andersons and Crossby/Esperanza, too."
Geordi shrugged. "Oh. O.k. Well, I can try to get some more out of it.
Mark it for me and leave it on my desk when you leave and I’ll try to
get to it after lunch."
The other tech gave him a sympathetic grin. "I’d tell you I’ll be
thinking of you while I’m sipping margaritas on the beach, but I’d be
Geordi chuckled. "That’s all right. I can’t stay in Ariel’s doghouse
forever." A few unappreciated comments had gotten Geordi condemned to
work the AV room while everyone else enjoyed their shore time. However,
since he’d done it intentionally, he could hardly complain.
The other tech finished up a few things, then left. Geordi waited. After
a while he checked the time. The dual banks of surveillance monitors
showed little activity. Almost everyone had gone ashore. No one was
likely to interrupt him now.
Gathering his toolkit, he walked into one of several equipment rooms
that adjoined the AV room. His assignment from Steiner was tedious, if
technically interesting. Tracing every single recording circuit was
likely to take him the entire cruise, and he wondered what the show’s
producer thought he might find.
Mac was bored. B-O-R-E-D. Bored. Looking for seashells was all well and
good for a little while, but after several hours she needed a new
diversion. Unfortunately, Alex Tantanopolous, her lovely but shallow
companion, was convinced she should be having the time of her life. Oh
well. She was a Marine. She’d endured far worse.
Lunchtime arrived to her intense relief. Food was always a welcome
diversion and she was starved. Like Harm said, her metabolism ran at an
insane rate. She’d had to forego her usual midmorning snack, which left
her feeling truly famished. She was about to mention her hunger to Alex
when she spotted a picnic blanket and attending umbrella laid out on the
sand. She turned in that direction, assuming the spread couldn’t have
been meant for anyone else.
"Oooh, I’m starving. Let’s eat!"
Alex followed her, eventually breaking into a jog to beat her to the
site. He dropped to one knee beside a large picnic basket and began
pulling out various dishes. Mac helped, figuring they would get to eat
that much sooner. The smells wafting out of the basket made her stomach
Alex looked over at her in surprise.
"Yes, that was me," she told him with a touch of asperity. "I told you I
Alex smiled and handed her a plate. "Here, then. Eat."
Mac started lifting lids. "It smells wonderful." She guessed the dishes
were all Greek, based on her limited knowledge of Mediterranean cuisine.
But whatever they were, they were good. She demolished her first plate,
then slowed down to enjoy seconds.
Alex watched her in a mixture of amusement and awe. He didn’t take much
for himself, she noted. Lots of rice and vegetables, but not much of the
meat. And no sauce at all.
"You eat like my husband," Mac said, unable to hide her grin as the
words rolled off her tongue. My husband… that sounds so good.
Alex gave her an odd look. Well, if he thought she wasn’t going to
mention Harm, that was too bad.
"How so?" he asked after a moment.
Mac shrugged. "Disgustingly healthy."
Looking a bit wounded, Alex set his plate down. "A good diet is
important. I believe there are three basic components to a person--
mind, body and soul-- and each one has to be properly cared for…" He
went on for a while, espousing what Mac quickly deduced was his life
philosophy and which, apparently, covered absolutely every possible
moral, ethical and personal issue. She wondered if he’d gotten it from a
book, or more likely, a TV special.
That’s not very nice, she chided herself as she tried to maintain a
polite expression. Luckily she still had some food left to occupy part
of her attention. Not to mention dessert, if there was one. At least
Harm didn’t rely on some wacky philosophy to justify his health nut
Alex wound down just as Mac started her search for dessert. She found
something reminiscent of a fruit tart, and equally tasty.
Reclining on one elbow, Alex brought out a small book from a side pocket
of the basket and began to read.
Mac almost choked on her pastry. Poetry? He’s going to read me poetry?!
She managed to contain her reaction with an effort of will. In general,
she had little use for poetry. Not that one… or two-- short--
situationally appropriate poems… from Harm… might not be appreciated…
Sighing in feigned contentment, Mac found a comfortable spot in the sun
and lay back. She could at least work on her tan, maybe even daydream a
bit so long as Alex stayed put where he was, safely on the other side of
the picnic basket.
Lying there, she wondered if Harm was having as much fun as she was.
Nikki Upton was an ambitious woman. So far she was the only one who’d
managed to garner even the slightest notice from Harmon Rabb, a feat
that had won her instant respect-- and jealousy-- from the rest of the
female staff. Nikki reveled in it. Harm was, without doubt, the show’s
top prize, one she intended to claim. Whoever did that would be
remembered after the show ended. Her name would be instantly recognized,
and doors would magically open. Nikki didn’t really want to spend the
rest of her life working with computers. It would pay the bills until
something better came along, and hopefully that something better was
She knew how to win Harmon Rabb’s heart.
Not completely, of course. But enough to make him slip… and that was all
They were climbing a narrow trail along the edge of a precipice. Through
a thin layer of jungle, they caught glimpses of the spectacular view of
the rugged, foliage-covered mountains on the far side of a valley that
lay hundreds of feet below them. At the moment, Harm was leaning against
a convenient tree trunk, sipping from his water bottle. To Nikki’s
surprise, he’d had little trouble keeping up with her, even though she
was an experienced hiker. Well, she knew he was in good shape. But, the
spot she’d picked was only a little ways ahead. Hopefully, he was
amenable to a break.
She turned to Harm. "Do you mind if I explore up the trail a little
ways? There’s supposed to be clearing with an unobstructed view. It
sounded like the perfect place to stop for lunch."
Harm shrugged. "Suit yourself." He moved a short ways away and settled
on the lip of a moss-covered rock, digging out a small towel to soak
some of the sweat from his face and hair.
Pleased, Nikki headed up the trail. The forest steamed around her as the
sun baked off the early morning’s torrential downpour. She was sheened
in sweat, her bound-up hair falling in damp, curly wisps around her
face. The entire morning, she’d done nothing particular to invite Harm’s
attention save a little light flirting, which he’d reflected back at her
without ever stepping up the intensity. Even so, he’d been very pleasant
company. She could certainly see what his wife saw in him. Well, Mac
would get him back, Nikki didn’t doubt. She was that kind of woman.
A few hundred yards along, the trail widened into a small clearing that
jutted out over the edge of the cliff, just as the scouting team had
promised. The view was astounding.
"Wow, get a load of that," Nikki told her cameraman with a gesture
toward the panorama. He obediently swung the camera in the proper
direction, then returned his focus to her. Nikki addressed the camera,
and beyond it, the television audience.
"There are supposed to be some tree roots hanging out of the cliff just
below the edge over there, and I’m going to go take a look. See, I think
what Harmon Rabb really wants is to be a hero, so I’m going to give him
the chance to save me." She smiled for the camera, then turned and
walked close to the cliff edge to look over. Dark gray stone fell away
in a tremendous sheer cliff dotted with vines and flowering shrubs. A
few feet below the edge, a wide tangle of roots snaked their way across
the stone, as promised. They looked pretty sturdy.
Cautiously, Nikki inched closer to the lip. The dark loam squished
beneath her hiking boots, still wet from the rain. She crouched, trying
to figure out how best to lower herself. She didn’t have to go very far,
just enough to make it look like she was really in danger.
With a sickening lurch and a hiss like sand pouring out of a giant
glass, the ground suddenly gave way beneath her feet. Nikki shrieked in
terror as she began to slide over the edge, grabbing desperately for
anything that might stop her fall.
A woman’s scream echoed through the thick jungle growth from somewhere
up the trail. Harm bolted to his feet, racing toward the sound before he
could consciously command his body to move. Adrenaline poured through
his system, sharpening sight and sound, and turning time into a liquid
thing. Memory drew him back to his days in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam,
and as he ran he instinctively swept the trail ahead for signs of land
mines or trip wires. Not that he really expected to find anything, but
the training, the experience, ran deep. Inside he was very frightened of
what he might see when he caught up to Nikki Upton.
Harm burst into the clearing Nikki must have been looking for and
spotted the second cameraman. He was standing near the lip of what had
to be a huge cliff, camera forgotten in his hand as he tried to peer
over. Near where he stood, a portion of the edge looked to have
collapsed, leaving a sloping divot in its surface.
"Help me!" Nikki screamed again, the sound echoing up from the front of
the cliff. Harm felt a wash of intense relief, followed by dismay. She
was still alive… and in a great deal of trouble.
"Get back!" Harm snapped at the cameraman. "Do you want to fall?"
The man turned to stare at him, then obediently backed away. He watched
the cliff edge fearfully. "She just… disappeared," he told Harm. "One
minute she was looking over the edge, the next she was just… gone."
Ignoring him, Harm dropped his pack about ten feet from the edge and
dropped to his stomach, crawling forward on elbows and knees. He
approached the lip cautiously, testing each position before trusting his
weight to it. He knew landslides from Southeast Asia as well.
He stuck his head over the edge and looked down. Nikki was maybe ninety
feet below him, her form obscured by a fleshy-leafed bush whose branches
she clung to. Harm could see little of her but bare legs and a pair of
hiking boots dangling beneath the green mass. The cliff face turned in
just below the bush, leaving her suspended over empty space.
"Nikki!" he called.
"Harm?" There was a clear note of hysteria in her voice. "Is that you?
Harm, help me! I’m going to fall!"
"It’s me," he answered, trying to keep his voice calm, reassuring.
"You’re going to be fine. Just hold on."
"No! Harm, help me! It’s pulling out by the roots!"
Harm studied the flowered bush, which did seem to be bent at an odd
angle. He turned quickly to look back at the cameramen. The one who’d
gone with Nikki was standing a short ways back, watching everything
through his camera lens. The other had his emergency radio to his mouth
and was speaking urgently into it.
"How long for them to send help?" he asked the man with the radio.
"One of our helicopters will be here in about two minutes," the man
answered, "but they don’t have rescue equipment. Mr. Ariel says a Coast
Guard helicopter is coming with a search and rescue team."
The cameraman looked blankly at him.
"Fifteen minutes, maybe more."
Harm shook his head. "She doesn’t have fifteen minutes. That bush isn’t
going to hold much longer." He poked his head back out over the cliff
edge. "Hang on, Nikki! I’m coming down to get you."
Harm scrambled back from the precipice and regained his feet. He hurried
to his pack, knelt, and began digging out the climbing equipment he’d
been given. He already knew the inventory and had made a cursory check
before they left, but now he checked each item with quick, focused
intensity. He had a rappelling harness and about a hundred fifty feet of
rope, and, thankfully, a pair of climbing gloves.
Harm stood and began unwinding the rope. "Do either of you have any
climbing experience?" he demanded of the two cameramen.
The one with the radio nodded. "A little."
"Good, then get over here." The man did. Harm handed him the rope.
"What’s your name?"
"Donald-- Don," the man replied.
"All right, Don. Hopefully, you understand what I’m doing here." He
glanced at the tree line on the far side of the small clearing. "Take
the rope and loop it around that tree." He pointed to the appropriate
one. It had a thick trunk and shaggy bark that might provide some added
friction. "You’re going to have to lower me. There’s not nearly enough
rope here to rappel. It’s going to be close as is." The tree he’d
indicated stood a good twenty, twenty-five, feet from the lip.
Don nodded and went. Harm watched him for a moment to make sure he
really did have some clue what he was supposed to do, then strapped on
the climbing harness. He looked up when his ears reported the blade
noise of the Temptation Cruise helicopter. It was too high pitched to be
the Coast Guard chopper.
The bright yellow helicopter crested the mountains on the far side of
the valley then dipped downward for a better look. Somewhat to Harm’s
surprise, the pilot kept a goodly distance between his bird and the
cliff. He was grateful. Had the helicopter come too close, the
vibrations could have further jeopardized Nikki’s life, and his own. The
helicopter flew back and forth, seeming to pace midair as the passengers
watched what was happening.
Harm made himself ignore everything but his climbing gear. He attached
the rope to his harness and checked the tension. Don stood ready with
the other end of the rope looped around the tree. He had threaded it
behind his back to allow him to use his body weight to counter Harm’s.
Nodding to Don, Harm walked to the edge of the cliff, turned, and slowly
leaned back over empty space. The rope and harness took his weight. Harm
began to walk down the cliff.
He drew even with the bush Nikki clung to just about the time his line
lurched to a stop. He could see her through the branches, scraped and
bloodied and staring up at him with desperate hope in her eyes. She had
wrapped one elbow around the base of the bush, a stalk perhaps two
inches in diameter. Harm could see where the bush had begun to tear away
from the cliff, exposing long, skinny roots that snaked back into the
"Don’t move," Harm told her. She nodded and tightened her grip on the
He looked up. "Don, I need about three more feet!" he called toward the
invisible men above. He couldn’t quite reach her from there.
After a moment, the second cameraman, whose name Harm didn’t know,
appeared at the edge. He appeared to still be filming. "He says there’s
no more! He’s at the tree!" he called down.
Harm muttered a string of curses. Three feet short. Now what? Nikki had
already dropped her backpack, so there was no real way to lighten the
load the overburdened bush was carrying.
The idea that leapt into Harm’s mind made him shake his head at himself.
No, too dangerous. But even as he thought it, the bush gave way another
inch. Nikki let out a little mewl of terror.
Harm tightened his grip on the rope. I must be out of my mind.
Very carefully, Harm inverted himself until he was dangling headfirst
with his back to the uneven stone. The climbing harness really wasn’t
intended to be used that way. It wasn’t secure. Harm felt the nylon
straps bite into his hip bones. That contact was now the only thing that
kept him from falling five hundred feet or more. Luckily, Harm wasn’t
intimidated by heights. He hooked the rope with one ankle like a circus
performer to give him better stability and extended his arms under the
bush toward Nikki.
"You ready to get out of here?" he asked casually, as if he were talking
about leaving a restaurant. The more confident she was, the higher her
chances of survival.
Nikki nodded, her face lighting with a tiny smile.
"All right, then. Take your right hand and reach over and grab my wrist.
Not my hand, my wrist. Do you understand?"
She nodded again, swallowing convulsively. "Just don’t drop me, o.k.?"
Very slowly, she let go with her right hand and reached for him. Harm
had to smile. She was doing her best to be game, and was keeping her
Her fingers closed on his wrist. Harm wrapped his hand around hers in
return, keenly aware of how small her arm seemed in his grip. Nikki’s
other arms remained locked around the bush’s trunk and still bore the
majority of her weight. Her legs dangled over empty space, making it
impossible for her to brace herself.
Harm kept his gaze locked with Nikki’s. "O.k. Now for the hard part. You
have to let go of the bush."
Harm stared into her eyes, trying to impart courage to her from that
contact. "Gravity will swing you this direction, but you aren’t going to
fall. I’ve got you. I’m not going to let go, so you aren’t going to
fall." That is, as long as me and this harness stay properly connected.
He smiled encouragingly, not letting his thoughts show.
Nikki’s grip on the bush tightened. She took a deep breath, her eyes
terrified. "I can’t."
"Yes, you can. Look at me, Nikki." Obediently, her eyes fastened on him.
"Do you trust me?"
Slowly, she nodded.
"I will not let you fall. Now let go of the bush and reach for me." He
held out his other hand.
With a convulsive motion, Nikki released her hold on the shrub. Just for
a moment it seemed like her hand would cross the distance to his, but
then gravity took hold. She swung free, hanging solely from the one arm
Harm held. She screamed in terror, her free hand instinctively flinging
outward at the sensation of falling.
His own heart pounding in fear as the harness shifted against his hips,
Harm reached for her. "Grab my hand!"
Nikki reached up blindly and after a few very scary moments, Harm
managed to capture her wrist. The change in momentum swung them both
into the stone cliff. Harm grunted in pain as sharp protrusions jabbed
him in the back.
As he’d intended, Nikki hung facing toward the cliff. He pulled her
upward by brute strength, his shoulders screaming. "Get your toes into
the rock." The instruction came out as a gasp. The point where the stone
wall dipped inward was now approximately even with her knees.
Nikki scrambled, but managed to get her feet up and planted. As she
began to shift her weight to her legs, she was able to raise herself,
putting her head level with Harm’s. The precarious position meant he was
still straining to keep her from falling backward, but it was a lot
better than it had been.
"Good. Now find a hand hold," he told her.
Following his instructions, Nikki got her hands onto the rocks and was
soon clinging to the sheer stone face. Harm let go of her completely. He
shifted himself a couple of feet away and gratefully turned right side
up. Spots danced in front of his eyes for a moment, something he was
familiar with from pulling g’s. He ignored it.
Now in a more secure position but still a bit higher than Nikki, Harm
could reach down with one hand to grab the back waistband of her khaki
shorts, steadying her as she inched her way upward. Harm could see her
limbs trembling with each movement and guessed she wouldn’t be able to
do much more. Silent tears trailed down her cheeks, though the only
sound she made was the harsh gasping of her breath.
When she’d climbed to a point that put her even with him, Harm simply
moved over behind her, straddling her. He found solid footholds, then
wrapped one arm around her ribcage, supporting her and bracing them both
against the stone face. Nikki’s hands closed spasmodically around his
arm. A tiny sob escaped her as she leaned into him.
Harm took a deep breath, allowing himself to feel relief.
"We made it," he told her with an encouraging smile. "It’s going to be
all right. We can wait here for the Coast Guard search and rescue team."
He made himself say the name out rather than calling it SAR, as he
normally would. He yelled up to Don, telling him to tie off the line. He
had to be getting very tired.
Tucked against his chest, Nikki was silent. They waited. Ten minutes
later, the whump whump of the Coast Guard’s HH-60 recovery helicopter
filled the air around them. Harm turned his head to look, spotting the
distinctive orange and white paint scheme easily as the helicopter
approached. The Temptation Cruise helicopter backed off a little
further, probably at the Coast Guard pilot’s instruction.
Harm and Nikki watched as the HH-60 came to a hover above them. The door
opened and a crewman slowly descended on a line. Harm could see the
second harness attached just below the crewman. The pilot’s aim was dead
on. The crewman came straight to them.
"You folks o.k.?" he asked when he reached them. Beneath the white
helmet and tinted visor, his face was nearly invisible.
Harm nodded. "We’re fine now."
The crewman braced himself against the stone as he and Harm worked to
fasten the second harness around Nikki.
"Well done, sir," the crewman told Harm as he tested the connections.
"Thanks." Harm bit his lip. It felt odd to be sirred as a civilian
rather than as an officer. He wondered how much he’d done to compromise
his mission by his actions that day. Not that he would have done
anything differently, but…
"Are you ready?" the crewman asked Nikki.
She nodded, but as the winch inside the helicopter began to reel them
up, she grabbed for Harm, nearly strangling him in the process of trying
to get her arms around his neck. Her eyes were wide, terrified.
"Don’t let go of me! I don’t want to fall." She buried her face against
The crewman halted the winch with a quick hand signal to his partner in
the helicopter while Harm struggled to loosen Nikki’s death grip.
"Hey." He managed to gain enough space to look into her pale, drawn
face. She’d kept her head while her life depended on it, but now she was
losing the battle with hysteria. "You’re safe, o.k.? The crewman is
going to take you up to that helicopter up there, and then he’ll come
back for me." He pointed upward as he spoke.
At that, she let go. Harm watched as she was taken up into the
helicopter. When the crewman returned, he quickly attached the rescue
line to his harness and released the other one. Drifting free of the
cliff, Harm balanced his weight in preparation for the short ride up to
the chopper. It wasn’t quite like flying to hang suspended like that,
but it was still fun.
"You’ve done this before," the crewman said as the winch hauled them
upward. His tone made it a question.
Harm considered his reply. He could say any number of things, make all
kinds of excuses, but it was hard to be so conservative after the events
of the past half-hour.
Instead, he winked at the crewman and said nothing.
Mac was nearly frantic by the time the Coast Guard helicopter appeared
over the trees. All she knew was that someone from Harm’s party had gone
over a cliff and there’d been a rescue attempt. All of the other
contestants’ groups had been recalled to the landing to wait for news.
Since then, Mac’s imagination had conjured every possible scenario in
which Harm was either badly hurt or killed, though she knew he was
probably the least likely person to fall off a cliff. He didn’t take
stupid risks. But all she could think of was how much it would hurt to
lose him now that she’d finally found him.
The HH-60 settled on the concrete landing pad that had been constructed
for the show, its rotors throwing up a choking cloud of sand and dust.
Covering her mouth with her hand, Mac struggled forward. She waited
impatiently at the edge of the pad as the rotors wound down.
The main door opened in the side of the aircraft and a crewman in an
orange jumpsuit climbed out. He turned to help a rather battered-looking
Nikki Upton out of the helicopter. Harm followed on his own, and Mac’s
heart leapt into her throat. Some small part of her brain catalogued his
condition, noting the bits of blood that decorated his elbows and
streaked his shirt, and the painful deliberation with which he moved.
But when he caught sight of Mac he smiled his perfect, patented flyboy
smile, and all of her fears evaporated.
Mac rushed forward. For the first time in their many years of
friendship, she allowed herself to act on the feelings that surged
inside her whenever Harm put himself in danger. She threw herself into
her husband’s arms, indulging her need to hold him, touch him.
Harm hugged her back. "Hey, Ninja Girl. Don’t tell me you were worried
about me." His voice was full of laughter.
Mac grinned, knowing he could read the truth in her eyes. "Nah. I just
Chuckling, Harm released her, but kept an arm about her waist as they
moved away from the helicopter. Mac was aware of Nikki Upton watching
them from where the Coast Guard medic was examining her, a peculiar
expression on her face. Mac deliberately turned away.
"What happened?" she asked Harm.
He shook his head. "I guess she was standing at the edge of the cliff.
It gave way, and she fell about ninety feet before managing to stop her
fall." He glanced in Nikki’s direction. "She’s in pretty good shape, all
"Thanks to you, no doubt."
He grinned, but whatever reply he might have made was lost when one of
the Coast Guard crew approached them. He held a first aid kit in one
"Sir, I came to make sure you’re all right. You’re bleeding in a couple
of places that I can see."
Harm glanced down at himself, obviously surprised, then shrugged. Mac
helped him shed his ruined shirt, noting how gingerly he moved with new
"What did you do? Crack a rib?" She kept her voice light. She’d seen
Harm chafe when his various girlfriends had tried to mother him. She
doubted she’d have much more success.
Shaking his head, Harm settled on the edge of the landing pad. "No, it’s
all in my shoulders. I’m sure I pulled something-- probably a few
somethings." He gave her a rueful smile as she sat down beside him. "I’m
getting too old to play hero."
Mac looked him over. He was a mess of scrapes and bruises, but nothing
that looked like it would hurt for more than a few days. Her eyes traced
the clean lines of his chest, watching the subtle play of muscles as he
"I don’t think so."
She didn’t realize she’d spoken aloud until the crewman tending Harm
chuckled. Mac flushed and looked away, covering her mouth with one hand.
Yep, that’s me. Harmon Rabb’s personal groupie. The thought made her
After a moment, Harm shifted his seat until his thigh brushed hers. "So
how was your day, dear?"
Mac chuckled. "It was fine until you called me dear."
He laughed. Mac joined him. She was amazed by how different she felt now
compared to all the other times she’d been with Harm after he came back
from something dangerous. Then, she’d had to fight to keep her fear, her
rage, her relief all bottled up-- invisible. Today she could openly
admit her relief and laugh her fears away.
Mac looked at her husband, wondering why. There are no more regrets
between us, she finally decided. That was the difference. Hopefully,
they would never have to live with regrets again, not where each other
Mac reached over to take Harm’s hand, relishing the feel of his fingers
closing around hers. No more regrets, she repeated, this time making the
words a promise.
Thursday morning, A.J.'s work was interrupted by what sounded like a
somewhat heated conversation taking place outside his office. He stepped
unobtrusively up to the open doorway to listen. The topic wasn't too
hard to guess. He'd seen the evening news the night before, with its
brief clip of Commander Rabb dangling upside down from a rappelling line
in the midst of what was being called a "daring rescue attempt". Steiner
had released just enough footage to whet the audience's appetite-- even
A.J. could get nothing more from him save a confidential assurance that
the commander was unhurt. The entertainment column in the morning paper
was predicting a record audience for the premiere episode that night,
thanks in part to Rabb's foolhardy heroics and the ensuing media
A.J. peeked around the corner. Gunny, Tiner, Singer and Harriet were
standing in a cluster beside Tiner's desk.
"I'll bet Colonel MacKenzie was mad," Gunny was saying, "with her
husband going off and playing hero with some cute blond."
"Oh, come off it, Galindez." Lieutenant Singer rolled her eyes. "Why
would she care? It's not like they're really married."
Gunny shook his head. "You weren't there, ma'am. They're married."
"You mean, in the biblical sense?" Tiner chimed in, a bit wide-eyed. The
comment earned him a snort from Gunny and a reproving stare from
"Lieutenant!" Harriet scolded, her disapproval marred by a smile she
couldn't quite hide. "Don't forget these are senior officers we're
Tiner stiffened at the rebuke. "Yes, ma'am."
Singer frowned at the exchange, her face its usual disdainful mask.
"Even if it's
true-- and I doubt it is, by the way-- it won't last. They'll be
divorced inside a year. Two, tops."
There was a moment's silence, in which A.J. had to force himself not to
step out of his office. It was beneath him to get involved in such a
Galindez broke the silence with a chuckle. "Yeah, right. I'll believe it
when I see it, ma'am."
Harriet cocked her head, giving Singer a penetrating stare. "What makes
you say that, Lieutenant?" The question was sincere, if somewhat wary.
"Several things." Singer raised her chin a fraction. "First-- and with
all due respect--" the aside was said in a slightly mocking tone. "The
commander isn't exactly a one-woman man, if you get my drift. Even if he
reforms now, his mid-life crisis is just around the corner. If you don't
think there won't be a string of bimbos then, you're being naïve."
A.J. winced invisibly at the thought of Rabb hitting mid-life. The man
already got into enough trouble as it was. Hopefully that day was still
a few years off, though A.J. suspected it would begin the moment the
commander could no longer fly fighters.
"Second," Singer continued, "Colonel MacKenzie is very much the jealous
type, all her talk notwithstanding. She's never going to completely
believe he's not cheating on her, so she's going to keep demanding
proof. You know… 'If you love me, you won't go out with the guys
tonight.' 'If you love me, you won't do your carrier quals this year.'"
She mimicked Mac's throaty voice surprisingly well. "Over time, one
ultimatum will lead to another and eventually…" Singer shrugged as if it
were of no consequence to her. "Well, you get the idea."
A.J. pursed his lips. Singer, I think you missed your calling as a
clinical psychologist. Despite himself, A.J. was impressed by the
analysis. He thought she was being too bleak, but her take on the two
officers' characters was disturbingly accurate. It was probably a good
thing she hadn't gone into psychology, though. There was no telling how
many patients she would have killed trying to cure them.
"Lieutenant, I think you put entirely too little trust in the commander
and the colonel." Harriet's firm statement made A.J. smile. "They're
"I guess we'll find out tonight, won't we." Singer nodded to the other
three and took her leave from the conversation.
Tiner and Gunny exchanged worried looks, then turned in concert to stare
at Harriet. "She's coming tonight?"
Harriet shrugged. "I couldn't very well not invite her. It would be
There was a short pause in which many things were carefully left unsaid.
"Hey, does anyone know if Colonel MacKenzie is going to change her
name?" Tiner asked suddenly. "It's going to be confusing to have two
Rabbs in the office."
Gunny shrugged. "At least their rank structures are different."
"I'd love to see the clients' reactions when they find out their defense
attorney is married to the prosecution."
Gunny frowned at Tiner. "I'm not sure they'll be allowed to go against
each other in court any more. 'Appearance of impropriety' and all that."
Harriet gathered up a pile of papers from the corner of Tiner's desk.
"Well, I'm sure it's a small price to pay, all things considered. Now,
if you'll excuse me, I really need to get back to work." She smiled at
the two and walked away.
A.J. decided he'd better get back to his desk before someone noticed his
eavesdropping. He'd already been turning over the question of how to
handle having his two most senior attorneys married to each other, but
as he settled in his chair, he pushed the thought away. The SecNav
himself had promised he could keep them both in JAG. He was certain they
would be able to work out the details.
Somehow, A.J. thought, word of the JAG Temptation Cruise party must have
spread. He didn't think Harriet could possibly have invited all the
people who filled the Roberts' small home to overflowing. The guests
were a truly astonishing mix of people, all of whom seemed to have
agreed to shed their various ranks and positions for the night to a
degree that shocked the Admiral. He'd counted a total of three
congresspeople, one senator, two judges… and one very
uncomfortable-looking CIA agent in the press.
"You couldn't resist either, I see, A.J." Judge Amy Helfman stepped up
beside him, a glass of wine in one hand. Her normally solemn gaze
flashed with amusement. "What's your excuse?"
"I'm staying abreast of an ongoing undercover investigation." He cracked
a smile. "What's yours?"
She chuckled. "Me? Oh, I've always been a closet soap opera addict."
"This is a far more sordid obsession than Guiding Light, Your Honor."
Clayton Webb raised his glass in salute as he joined them.
"I notice that didn't deter you," A.J. pointed out.
Webb grinned. "Heck, no. I think we've all been quietly dying to see
these two together, so why not indulge my voyeuristic side along with
Bud Roberts appeared at A.J.'s elbow then, saving him from a response.
"Sirs, ma'am, it's almost eight o' clock. The show's about to start."
"Thank you, Bud." A.J. nodded to his conversation mates then went to
find himself a seat.
Meanwhile, Harriet stepped up in front of the muted t.v. and raised her
voice. "If I could have everyone's attention, we're about to get started
The volume in the room dipped for a moment, then resumed. People found
seats or stood behind the clustered furniture, drinks in hand. Harriet
had popped a truly astounding amount of popcorn, which circulated the
room in two large Tupperware bowls.
"Now," Harriet said, clapping her hands together in front of her, "we
all know why we're here--"
"To see Colonel MacKenzie in a bikini!" Webb called from the back of the
room, to loud applause and a few whistles.
"Webb!" A.J. stared at the CIA man, who grinned impudently.
Harriet made shushing motions and slowly regained the room's attention.
"Seriously, I think we've all, at one time or another, thought to
ourselves that Commander Rabb and Colonel MacKenzie would make a great
couple. I know I have." She grinned, bouncing with excitement. "So
tonight, we'll finally get to see them together."
"Everybody sing it with me," Tiner jumped in. "Am I the only one who
hears the screams, and the strangled cries of lawyers in love…"
"Lieutenant!" A.J.'s bark cut through the howls of laughter.
Tiner straightened abruptly in his chair. "Yes, sir. Sorry, sir." He
looked intimidated but not very repentant.
Sighing, A.J. stood and held up his hands. The room quieted expectantly.
A.J. let his gaze roam the gathering. "It appears I need say something
on a serious note, before this evening gets entirely out of hand."
"Oh, lighten up, Admiral." Bobbi Latham grinned sweetly to take the
sting out of her words. "Personally, I've been looking forward to this
premiere ever since that little get together at your place. Harm and Mac
put on quite the show." She raised her eyebrows expressively.
A.J. fought the temptation to roll his eyes. "May I remind you all that
Commander and Colonel Rabb's presence on this show remains part of an
serious undercover investigation, despite all appearances, which I'm
sure will be quite to the contrary." He was a little afraid of just how
contrary. Harm and Mac would still have to work with these people when
"Let me also remind you all that you are professionals, whether military
or civilian, and that I expect everyone to maintain a certain level of
decorum this evening." A.J. swept the room with his gaze, noting the
subtle shift of expressions. Satisfied, he let the smile he'd been
holding in emerge. "But don't let that dim your enthusiasm."
He retired to his chair while a chorus of "Yes, sir!"s ran around the
room, accompanied by laughter.
The show started a few moments later. The theme music began, heavy with
tribal drum rhythms, as the Temptation Cruise II logo appeared. Images
flashed across the screen. Some were obviously staged shots, others
"real". Each of the couples was shown in some kind of sultry pose as the
announcer said their names. In Harm and Mac's case, the two stood face
to face, his arms hooked around her waist, holding her close. They were
dressed for a night on the town save that the commander's shirt was
about halfway unbuttoned. Mac held the lapels in her slender hands as if
she'd paused for a moment in the early stages of undressing him. They
were staring at each other, smoky gazes unmistakable, until something
off camera called for their attention. The two turned in unison to look
at the camera, and then the scene cut away.
"This is going to be worse than I thought," A.J. muttered under his
Beside him, Bobbi Latham laughed. "But just think how much ammunition
this will give us to use against them. I'm not going to have to do Harm
any more favors for quite some time," she added, her tone playfully
"Don't bet on it, Congresswoman," Webb said from across the room. "He'll
find a way to guilt you into it no matter what you've got on him."
Bobbi turned, her grin deepening. "Are you speaking from personal
experience, Mr. Webb?"
Webb cleared his throat and looked away, eliciting a chuckle from A.J.
The t.v. soon recaptured his attention. The show's host stood on a
tropical-looking beach, explaining to the audience the rules of the
competition. He moved quickly from there into a combination introduction
of each couple and summary of the wedding ceremonies.
"Today saw nine couples joined in holy matrimony," the host said from
his spot on the beach. "Obviously, we can't show you everything, but we
will give you the highlights. Some of the weddings were perfect--" the
screen flashed through several scenes of couples saying 'I do' or
exchanging rings and kisses. "Some were not so perfect--" The t.v.
jumped to a scene that could have come from America's Funniest Home
Videos, with a bride tripping on her skirt and wiping out both her
husband-to-be and best man. "And some were just a little strange." This
time the scene was of Harm scratching a square in the sand. The camera
stayed with them as he explained his actions and Mac's inexplicably
"Does anybody know what their thing was with the porch?" Victor Galindez
asked, his gaze on Sturgis.
Sturgis raised his hands. "Why are you looking at me? I don't know any
more than the rest of you, and probably less. I'm the newcomer around
"So, Harm, Mac, what was the significance of the porch?" This time, the
question came from the television. Harm and Mac sat in plush chairs side
by side, their casual dress proclaiming that this had taken place
sometime after the wedding. Their hands were clasped, balanced on the
adjoining arms. A thirty-ish woman sat across from them. The set up was
very obviously an interview.
The first thing A.J. noticed beyond the oddity of seeing his officers
holding hands was how relaxed and happy both seemed.
At the question, however, the two shared a significant, slightly guilty
look. "We're going to have to come clean about that, aren't we?" Mac
His answering chuckle held a clear note of embarrassment. "Go right
ahead. It was your engagement party, after all."
She rolled her eyes. "Gee, thanks."
A.J. blinked as the implications sank in.
"You know, they did spend an awful lot of time together on your front
porch that night, Admiral." Bud's eyes were round with realization. "You
don't think… something happened… do you?"
"I think we're going to find out, Mr. Roberts," he answered tightly. He
felt just a little trepidation at the prospect.
Onscreen, the perky interviewer gave Harm a curious look. "Now, when you
say 'your engagement party', I'm assuming you mean she wasn't engaged to
you at the time."
A.J. saw the aviator's unflappable cool settle into place. "That would
be correct," he answered with an easy smile.
Harm glanced at Mac, giving her the field. She stared down into her lap
for a moment, gathering her thoughts. "Let's see. It was the night of my
engagement party. A friend hosted it at his house. Harm had gone out to
the front porch to wait for his girlfriend, who was running late, and I
went to talk to him about a case we were working on at the time." She
flashed Harm a nervous smile. "We ended up talking about old times and…
and why it had never worked out between us, I guess. It was supposed to
be a goodbye of sorts."
Mac paused for a deep, bracing breath. "To make a long story short, he
kissed me… or I kissed him… I'm not really sure who started it… and all
the things we felt for each other but had never said somehow just…
boiled out in that kiss--"
"Sounds passionate," the interviewer observed.
Harm arched his eyebrows. "You have no idea."
The interviewer laughed. "So your friend's porch was where you two first
realized you loved each other?"
Mac's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "Not really." She glanced at Harm. "I
knew long before that, anyway."
He shrugged. "Me too, I guess. But that was the first time we allowed
ourselves to realize how deep it ran." He raised Mac's hand to his lips,
watching her all the while. She smiled gently in return.
"Did you know about this, A.J.?" Bobbi asked with a twinkle in her eyes.
A.J. looked at her. "That two of my officers were making out on my front
porch at such an inappropriate moment? No, I most certainly did not." He
wondered if he sounded properly appalled, or just irritated at his
ignorance. "If I had, Ms. Latham, you can be sure I would have done
something about it."
"Like?" Bobbi continued to grin at him. But then again, baiting people
was one of her favorite sports.
A.J. lowered his voice to a murmur. "Like ordering them to take it to
the guest bedroom and not come out again until they'd figured out what
they wanted." He met Bobbi's gaze squarely. "Just think: Rabb wouldn't
have gone down in the Atlantic, Mac wouldn't have gone TAD for three
months… can you imagine how much more work my office could have gotten
done this past year if I'd known what was going on then?"
Bobbi chuckled. "I never took you for such a romantic, Admiral."
"Thank heaven for small favors."
The premiere continued with introductions of each of the singles on the
"Hey, look. It's the commander's chippie." Singer pointed to the
television. A young woman with shoulder length blond hair and a deep tan
was smiling for the camera.
"Singer!" Harriet stared at the other woman, who shrugged.
"I just call 'em like I see 'em," she answered.
Nikki Upton, A.J. thought, was far too attractive for comfort's sake. To
him she looked painfully young, but from the comments the young men in
the room were making, he deduced that he was probably outnumbered in his
opinion. Unfortunately, Commander Rabb fell somewhere between those two
examples. He wondered what that would mean.
"She's not as pretty as Mac," Bobbi observed while Nikki told the
audience about her childhood in southern California.
"She is blond though, ma'am," Gunny returned.
Bobbi turned on him. "Is that supposed to mean something, Sergeant?
Gentlemen prefer blonds, perhaps?" Her question was as sharp as her
Galindez sucked in his breath. "No, ma'am. I wasn't speaking personally…
it's just that Commander Rabb does seem to have a thing about blonds."
"You know, that's true." Bud looked between the two with surprised
realization. "Renee, Jordyn, Annie…"
"I'm not blond," Bobbi pointed out, her expression one of feigned
Bud paused for a moment, staring at her. His mouth closed with a snap.
"No, ma'am." A.J. chuckled.
Sturgis turned to the congresswoman, his expression curious but not
entirely pleased. "Were you planning to tell me about this at some
"You didn't know?"
"Should I have?"
She gave him a helpless look. "I figured someone would have said
something, if for no other reason than to make Harm squirm."
Sturgis's expression cleared. "Ah." He glanced at A.J. "In retrospect, I
believe the Admiral attempted to tell me, but I apparently missed the
full implication of his words."
Bobbi chuckled and waved one hand dismissively. "There's very little to
tell, honestly." She smiled. "Even if Mac weren't around, you would have
nothing to worry about."
A.J. returned his attention to the show once he was certain another of
his officers' love lives wasn't about to blow up. With the introductions
complete, the show had gone into commercials. A.J. took the opportunity
to refill his drink.
When he returned to his seat, the show's host stood at the ship's rail.
"Paradise hasn't been without its ups and downs for these nine couples
already. Very soon, we'll show you who's been arguing and why. But
first, let's go to our panel of experts for some quick and dirty
The scene flashed to a group of four people-- two men and two women--
sitting in a loose semi-circle across from the female interviewer they'd
seen before. Each of the four was introduced as some kind of
psychologist or relationship counselor.
The interviewer checked her cue cards, then looked at the panelists.
"Having had forty-eight hours now to observe the couples, who do you
predict will win?"
"The Andersons," one promptly answered and heads nodded down the line.
"What? No way!" Boos filled the Roberts' living room. Tiner even went so
far as to throw a piece of popcorn at the t.v.
The interviewer continued her questions. "All right. Who do you predict
will be the first couple disqualified from the competition?"
"No, the Sorensons."
"Opinions appear to be divided." The interviewer smiled at the foursome.
"Which couple would you say is most passionate?"
Several people cheered. A.J. had to smile. Add 'mule-headed' and 'prone
to getting in trouble', and that pretty much sums them up.
"I'd have to say Crossby/Esperanza," one of the others countered.
"And the most likely to still be married fifty years from now?"
The other panelists’ heads turned toward their colleague in surprise. He
leaned forward. "Consider what we've seen and heard just in these first
forty-eight hours. They've been through too much to get to this point,"
he explained. "They're not going to let anything permanently separate
A.J. raised his cup in solemn salute to the psychologist. "Amen to
The interviewer cocked her head, her expression doubtful. "But you don't
think the Rabbs are likely to win this competition?"
The psychologist just shrugged. "No. But I think they'd survive an
Silence filled the Roberts'. A.J. felt a growing anger at the very
thought. "Well, they wouldn't survive me," he growled at the television.
"I would personally wring the responsible party's neck and send the
broken corpse straight to Hell in a custom-crafted handbasket."
"I'm sure people would be lining up to crucify the commander, sir,"
Gunny assured him, his dark eyes snapping as if he had every intention
of being first in said line.
"I hate to say this, Galindez," Webb injected calmly, "but you probably
have the wrong culprit. Mac's got the rotten track record there. Harm
may have had a lot of women…" For a moment a spark of humor showed
through. "But never more than one at a time."
"How do you know?"
"I'm CIA, Gunny. We know everything." He flashed Galindez a superior
Tiner threw popcorn at him.
Following on the panelists' discussion, the television began showing
arguments. Trash t.v. that it was, of course Temptation Cruise spent a
great deal of time focusing on any and every apparent rift between
couples. Some of it was ludicrous enough to laugh at, but seeing Harm
and Mac at each other's throats over Brumby while still dressed in their
wedding attire tore at A.J.'s heart. His hands clenched into fists that
didn't relax until they'd resolved the argument. And when Commander Rabb
dipped his new wife there in the passageway for a passionate kiss,
resounding applause broke out in the Roberts' living room. A.J. cheered
right along with the rest.
The general mood lightened as they watched snippets of The Newlywed
Game. A.J. got to explain to those who were unaware about Mac and Harm's
ill-fated flying expedition and why 'Crash' was so incredibly apropos as
a description. And later, Mac's "Do I look fat?" drew shrieks of
laughter from the women in the room.
"I have to hand it to him," Judge Helfman said with a smile. She
gestured toward the t.v. with her glass, her eyebrows raised in
amusement. "He managed to answer the unanswerable question."
Webb started to chuckle. "Can you imagine what would have happened if
he'd tanked that one?"
"He'd have had one ticked off Marine on his hands, that's for sure,"
Webb tossed off the last of his drink. "Jerry Springer, eat your heart
After another commercial break, the premiere moved into its last
segment-- the outing. The host returned to give them a short
"As you are all probably aware, the first outing didn't exactly go as
planned. Due to a very serious emergency, the details of which we'll
show you in a little while, the day's activities ended slightly before
noon. However, before we get to the potentially deadly situation two of
our number found themselves in, let's take a look at how the rest of the
couples enjoyed the early part of the day."
A.J. and the others were treated to a montage of film clips, each
showing a man and woman involved in various innocuous vacationing
activities. They saw John Washington struggling to figure out how to use
a Ski-Doo while his companion darted across the waves in the distance.
They also saw Stacy Anderson giggling, one hand clasped in her
companion's as he gallantly helped her across a rickety wood bridge.
"Whoa, baby!" Webb's comment summed up the general male reaction as
Mac's image appeared. She lay sprawled on her back in the sand, staring
at the cloudless sky as she turned a seashell over in her fingers. Her
bikini and flawless tan only made her more lovely-- not to mention more
visible-- than usual.
"You're not planning on forming a fan club, are you, Webb?" A.J. asked
with as much disdain as he could muster.
A male voice from offscreen accompanied Mac's image, either reading or
reciting poetry. As they watched, Mac rolled her eyes and exhaled her
breath in a sigh that fluttered her short bangs.
"Now that is a bored Marine," Bobbi observed.
"Well, you know Marines, ma'am," Tiner said with a sly glance in Gunny's
direction. "They think beaches are only good for invading."
"At least we're not afraid to get off our boats and get in a real
fight," Galindez returned.
"Gentlemen." A.J. called them to order before the generally friendly
rivalry could get out of control.
After a little while, the show's host returned. This time he stood on a
humid jungle plateau, rugged mountains framing him in an awe-inspiring
"Here is where it happened," he solemnly told the audience. "Here is
where a woman nearly lost her life, and a man put his own at risk to
save her." The host gestured toward the cliff edge. "The cliff below me
is a staggering five hundred and eighty-four feet tall. I warn you that
some of the footage you are going to see may be disturbing, even
frightening. If you are easily alarmed or have a fear of heights, we
advise you to use discretion while watching this next segment."
This time it was Gunny who threw popcorn at the t.v. "Would you get on
with it already?"
The host steepled his fingers in front of him. "The story actually
starts this morning as our couples said good-bye to their spouses and
prepared to head out for the day. Specifically, I'm talking about Harm
and Sarah Rabb." The screen changed to show Harm and Mac amid the
milling chaos that had to be the staging area on the beach. The host's
voice continued to narrate as Harm turned abruptly to sweep his wife up
in a desperate-looking kiss.
"It seems like Harm somehow sensed the danger that lie ahead for him,"
the host observed, "if this kiss is any indicator. But the day started
out routinely enough."
The view changed to show Harm and the single girl, Nikki, climbing a
rugged trail. They exchanged occasional words in sporadic but friendly
"What Harm could not have known was that his companion had put a plan
into motion that would nearly cost her her life."
They watched as Nikki took off up the trail ahead of Harm and emerged on
the same clearing where the host had been standing. She turned to face
the camera, then proceeded to explain her plan for letting Harm rescue
her and become her hero.
A.J. felt the blood drain from his face at the girl's unimaginable
"What an idiot!" Gunny shook his head sadly.
Singer shook her head also, but in disgust. "Boy, did she ever nail that
one on the head. The commander is such a sucker for the whole 'damsel in
distress' thing. I wonder if he thinks women really like that."
Bobbi turned to give her a wide-eyed, innocent stare. "You mean we're
not supposed to?" At Singer's affronted look, she chucked. "I'm a huge
fan of seeing women take charge of their lives and accomplish anything
and everything a man can… but I'll be the first to admit I love having a
big, strong man to come to my rescue when I need it."
"And when have you ever needed rescuing, Congresswoman?" Sturgis asked
her with a smile.
She grinned. "Why, every time I go to open a new jar of olives. Or have
to program my VCR."
Harriet wrinkled her nose in an impish expression. "For me it's every
time the car makes a funny noise." She smiled at Bud.
"Or I need to hitch the trailer to my truck," added Judge Helfman.
Bobbi laughed. "See, men are indispensable."
While the conversation was taking place, on the television, Nikki had
gone to the edge of the cliff to look for tree roots. The collapse was
so sudden it startled the room into silence, broken only by Nikki's
scream. The camera cut to Commander Rabb where he rested further down
the trail. His head snapped up at the sound, his face filled with alarm.
They watched in silence for the first tense minutes as Harm ran to the
clearing, assessed the situation and devised a plan. A.J. could see him
become the officer he was. He gave orders will the full expectation of
being obeyed, his assumption of command both effortless and efficient.
A.J. found himself nodding as Harm walked down the cliff.
"Well done, Commander," he said softly.
"I do believe he'll make a good CO someday," Sturgis added.
A.J. chuckled. "With a few years of marriage and fatherhood to mature
him, I'd have to agree." He crossed his arms. "Maybe by then I'll be
ready to retire."
"You, sir?" Sturgis smiled indulgently "I'll believe that when I see
The remainder of the rescue footage was a mixture of tape shot from a
helicopter and images from the second cameraman who'd been with the
commander. There was little sound beyond the noise of the helicopter
blades and the few instructions Harm had shouted up the cliff face. But
it wasn't hard to guess the conversation that took place between Harm
and the girl. Her heart was written on her face-- desperation, hope, and
faith. The way she clung to the commander after the rescue helicopter
arrived spoke very loudly of her feelings.
"You know, that's going to be trouble." Harriet watched the screen with
a worried frown as the Coast Guard helicopter landed at the beach to
disgorge its battered passengers.
Webb waved the comment away. "Pfah. Harm's hardly going to be impressed.
He gets to play hero all the time." His gaze cut toward A.J. "Amazing
thing, that, especially since JAG is considered a non-combat
"Oh, I'm not worried about Commander Rabb," Harriet assured him quickly.
"I'm worried about that girl. Did you see her face when Harm and Mac
walked away together?"
Webb's brow wrinkled. "What about it?"
"Ooooh, she's right." Bobbi's mouth formed a little moue of concern.
"Nikki might have been trying to win Harm's heart with her little stunt,
but it worked the other way around."
Harriet gave him an are-you-really-that-dense look. "She thinks she's in
love with him, Mr. Webb."
There was a short moment of silence.
"Well, I wouldn't be too concerned," A.J. finally said, his voice
intentionally casual. "I'm sure Mac can handle it. And her."
"Probably with a good old-fashioned right cross," Gunny added with
On the television, the episode was wrapping up. Harm and Mac sat side by
side, hands clasped, while the Coast Guard medic looked Harm over. The
two appeared to have eyes only for each other as they talked and
laughed. The camaraderie that had always characterized their
relationship showed clearly, but it had grown into something new.
Something stronger and deeper than any mere friendship could be. A.J.
felt an almost fatherly swell of pride.
For the first time since the entire investigation had begun, A.J. began
to feel truly confident that the two would be able to make it work.