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Chapter 20

 

The next few weeks passed with less trouble than Harm expected. After that first, disastrous outing, the others somehow seemed mundane. As did the women. What he'd feared might really be a long, hard struggle with temptation had turned out to be… very little. Certainly the girls were attractive, but that was hardly enough to divert his attention from Mac. Not when she was everything he'd ever wanted.

The cruise wasn't an entirely pleasant situation, but it was manageable.

Truth be told, managing Mac was far harder (though infinitely more rewarding) than dealing with all the rest of the women on the ship put together, including Nikki Upton who was beginning to make Singer seem like a pleasant person.

Harm had come to recognize the constant tug-o-war taking place inside his wife-- trust in him versus a numbing terror that he would betray and abandon her, just like her parents had. On the one hand, he understood that her fear wasn't a reflection of him, or even their marriage-- that it was a byproduct of the home she'd grown up in. But on the other hand, it hurt. Every time suspicion and fear flared in her eyes, he felt like he'd taken a gut shot. Why won't you trust me? was always the first thing that wanted to leap off his tongue, and the one he worked hardest to keep hold of. It wasn't about trust. No that was wrong, he corrected himself. It was about trust. It just wasn't about him.

Sighing softly, Harm opened his eyes. He wasn't going to get any more sleep this morning. He turned his head. Mac lay facing away from him, curled up in a ball with the covers tucked up to her chin, as always. The steady rise and fall of her breath confirmed she was still sleeping.

Rolling onto his side, he reached out beneath the covers to brush the backs of his knuckles along her spine, relishing the simple act of touching her. The warmth of her skin comforted him in a way nothing else could. For a moment he let his eyes close, wondering if he might be able to go back to sleep after all.

After a few minutes, he reopened his eyes. Not today. Moving carefully so as not to wake Mac, he slipped out of bed and padded to the bathroom. A tiny smile lit his features. Not the head, the bathroom. He was getting into the habit of using the "proper" word. For a moment he wondered what would happen if he ever made the opposite mistake while onboard a Navy ship. Probably bust me back to lieutenant, he thought with a grin.

Once inside, he secured the door and spent a few minutes brushing his teeth and splashing water on his face. When he felt reasonable coherent, he turned on the shower, leaving the water set on cold. Then he fished under the sink for the black case containing the satellite phone. He and Mac had accumulated a number of questions over the past couple of weeks-- questions they couldn't answer without reviewing the evidence. There was some risk in using the phone, but they'd searched the confines of the little room several times without finding any sign of bugs, so he was willing to take the chance.

"Good morning, Bud," he said when the lieutenant answered his phone at JAG.

There was a short pause. Harm imagined his friend's eyes widening the way they did when he was startled.

"Good morning, sir. It's good to hear from you." The warmth of the greeting gave way to cautious alarm. "Is everything all right, sir?"

"Everything's fine, Bud." Harm rubbed his eyes, trying to extinguish the last of his grogginess. "I need some information, though."

"Name it, sir."

"I need you to go through the testimony from the two Naval reservists and compare it with Mrs. Antony's statements about the notes she sent them. I want to know when, how many, what each one said, and if there are any discrepancies in their accounts."

Harm could hear the scratch of Bud's pencil in the background. "Yes, sir."

"Also, how is the sorting job going with the tape from the first show?" Before he and Mac left, they'd tasked a couple of ensigns with the unenviable job of going through every single recording made during the first cruise to look for missing segments. Failures did happen, but a blank spot might also be an indication that someone-- namely Ariel-- was doing something he didn't want recorded.

"It's going, sir. It'll probably be at least a week before they're done, though."

Harm kept his sigh to himself. They had the time to spend, but if he and Mac could wrap up the case before the end of the cruise, he would be more than happy to do so. "O.k. I'll check back on that one."

"Anything else, sir?" Bud asked.

"Yeah. I want you to have the rape recording analyzed."

"We've already had it checked for tampering, sir. It's not a fake."

"No, I didn't think it would be, Bud. What I want to know is why the recording quality was so poor. According to all the involved parties, the incident took place in one of the ship's cabins, so the recording should have been as good as anything else used on the show. I'm assuming what you're seeing on t.v. twice a week is a lot higher quality than that footage, right?"

Bud cleared his throat. "Uh, yes, sir."

"Then I want to know why."

"Got it, sir." There was a pause in which Bud was obviously gathering himself to say something forward. "…sir?"

"Yes?" Harm tried to keep the amusement out of his voice. He could all too easily guess what it would be.

"I just want you to know that… we're all rooting for you and the colonel, sir."

Harm grinned, deliberately misunderstanding. "To solve this case? Why, thanks, Bud."

"No no no, sir. I mean… in the competition. The show." Harm was fairly certain the lieutenant was blushing furiously and fought to keep from laughing.

"Ah. Is anyone giving us odds?"

"Lieutenant Singer is running a pool, if that's what you're asking… but, don't ask. You don't want to know what odds she's giving you." A smug note crept into his voice. "Some of us are going to make a lot of money at the end of this thing."

At that, Harm did laugh, though he kept it quiet for fear that the cabin recording system would pick it up. "Bud, I like your style."

"Thank you, sir."

"Is there anything else I need to know?"

"I don't think so."

"How's Sergei doing?"

"Fine, as far as I know, sir."

Harm nodded and ran a hand through his sleep-rumpled hair. "O.k. I'll check back with you in a couple of days."

"Sounds good, sir."

Harm disconnected the call and replaced the phone in its case. He doubted they would find sufficient evidence from the first show to implicate Ariel, if he was indeed guilty. Most likely, it would all come down to his and Mac's ability to set themselves up as candidates for a repeat offense… and that was someplace Harm really did not want to go.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

"Did you hear?" Carmen asked brightly as Mac and Harm walked up to the table where she, Boothe, and the Washingtons sat together over lunch. Mac watched her warily. There was something… off about her behavior. Something sharp and brittle in her gaze that Mac didn't like at all.

"Did we hear what?" Mac asked while Harm pulled out her chair for her. It was, by now, a familiar courtesy, but eyebrows still went up around the table.

"The Sorensens are out, as of this morning."

"And then there were five," Harm commented quietly as he took the chair beside Mac. With the Sorensons gone, the only couples remaining were the three seated around the table, Jeb and Stacy, and the Moleneuxs, a couple from New Orleans.

Mac picked up her menu, her appetite dimmed. Beneath the table, Harm laid a hand on her thigh and gave her an encouraging squeeze.

"Aren't you going to ask what happened?" Carmen said after a moment.

Mac sipped her water, meeting the other woman's gaze over the rim. "I don't particularly want to know the details."

Delia chuckled. "Good for you, Mac. I don't have that much willpower when it comes to gossip."

Carmen's gaze roamed the table, looking for a more receptive audience. Harm and John were chatting good-naturedly about the hazards of a red meat diet, something Harm believed and John just liked to razz him about. Delia and Boothe had apparently already heard the story, but Mac didn't think that would stop Carmen.

It didn't. "Apparently, Mrs. Sorenson decided she'd had enough of her husband treatin' her like dirt… so she went to the bar, got up on one of the tables, took off all her clothes, and then asked who wanted to take her home."

The table went quiet at Carmen's abrupt statement, or, more likely, the vicious tone with which she'd said it. Mac's nerves began to scream as long buried warning signals came to life in her mind. She fought to keep her expression mild. Beneath the table, she caught Harm's hand in hers, squeezing it tightly. His instincts were good. If something were really wrong he would notice, too. But when she risked a glance at him, all she saw in his eyes was puzzlement and concern.

John broke the silence with a long sigh. "I wonder if it's worth it." He waved a hand. "All this."

"Worth a million dollars?" Harm asked.

John shrugged and looked tenderly at his wife. "Worth anything."

Delia smiled back, a surprisingly shy expression from the brash, outspoken woman.

"Are you guys thinking of withdrawing?" Mac asked. For some reason her heart was fluttering in her chest. With hope for them? For herself?

John's answer was another shrug, but Delia nodded. "Thinking about it," she confirmed.

Harm solemnly offered his hand, and John shook it. "Well, we wish you the best, whatever you decide to do," Harm said, and Mac could hear the sincerity behind his words.

John smiled. "Thanks."

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

"Lieutenant Roberts is here to see you, sir." Tiner's voice sounded tinny on the desk speaker in the Admiral's office.

"Send him in," A.J. replied. He didn't look up from the newspaper that lay on the desk before him as the door opened, then closed with a soft thunk. He heard Bud's footsteps approach, coming to a precise halt in front of the desk.

"At ease." A.J. looked up into Lieutenant Robert's round face. Salt of the earth, he thought as he always did when he saw Bud. If God had made a more humble man than Bud Roberts, A.J. had yet to meet him. And with the growing confidence that age and experience were bringing, the Admiral suspected the lieutenant would mature into a very fine officer indeed.

A.J. sat back with a frown. "Have you seen the paper this morning, lieutenant?"

Bud shook his head. "No, sir."

A.J. picked up the section he'd been reading and handed it to Bud. "It appears Rabb and MacKen--" He paused, struck by the humor in his own slip. "Rabb and Rabb?" He shook his head at that one. Happy as he was for them, it really did complicate things. "The commander and the colonel's identities have finally been discovered by the media."

Bud glanced at the paper in his hands, taking in the gist of the entertainment page's top story in a matter of seconds. "It certainly took them long enough," he said. A.J. had to smile at the assessment.

"Have you talked to Mr. Webb about this yet, sir?" Bud asked.

"Actually, I'm going to let you do that, lieutenant."

Bud nodded, not looking terribly pleased. "Yes, sir." He folded the paper and tucked it under his arm. "I spoke to Commander Rabb today, sir."

Startled, A.J. stared at him. "I trust nothing has gone wrong?"

Bud shook his head. "No, sir. At least, not that I know of. He had some questions and I'm working on finding the answers."

A.J. frowned, then nodded in dismissal. "Very well. Keep me apprised."

Bud came to attention. "Yes, sir."

He watched the lieutenant leave, then turned to his television. He found a midday entertainment show and let it play in the background as he worked. Considering the phone calls he'd been fielding, he would eventually hear something. He wasn't disappointed.

"We have with us today Daniel Steiner, executive producer of the hit reality show, Temptation Cruise II."

A.J. turned. A vaguely familiar, stylishly blond woman looked out from the television screen. The camera panned to Steiner, seated beside her. A.J. noted with a touch of asperity that he was dressed in a suit. But then, Steiner no doubt attached far more importance to appearing on t.v. than to visiting the Judge Advocate General of the Navy. The two exchanged pleasantries and other meaningless chitchat for a while, but eventually the woman asked the question the Admiral had been waiting for.

"Mr. Steiner, can you tell us why two of the contestants on your show are really military officers from the Judge Advocate General's office?"

Steiner's expression remained politely neutral. "They are conducting an undercover investigation with the full cooperation of the production studio as well as the FBI."

The woman's eyebrows rose in feigned surprise. "Is this related to the rape allegations made against two employees of the original Temptation Cruise?"

Steiner nodded solemnly. "Yes, though I really can't say more about that because of legal considerations."

A.J. nodded in grudging approval. Whatever else Steiner might be, he did know how to handle himself in front of a camera.

The woman shifted in her seat. "All right, then. What can you tell us about the two officers?"

Steiner smiled, warming to his topic. "Harmon Rabb is a commander in the Navy. Sarah Rabb is a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps."

"They're really married?"

"Yes."

The woman flashed him a smile. "Now, the Judge Advocate General, that's the military's legal division, correct?" Steiner nodded, and she continued. "So the Rabbs are lawyers?"

"Very good ones, I'm told." Steiner leaned back in his chair, radiating casual ease.

The interviewer paused for a moment, either to check her teleprompter or to gather her thoughts. "We here on the Morning Show did a little background checking on the Rabbs earlier today, and were surprised to learn that both have combat experience. Apparently Colonel Rabb served a tour of duty in Bosnia during the crisis there, and Commander Rabb was… and still is… an F-14 pilot."

Steiner nodded. "Yes."

The woman leaned forward. "How is this information going to affect both the ongoing criminal investigation and your show?"

"It's not." Steiner's casual posture didn't change. "The Radiant Heart and its compliment are totally isolated from the rest of the world. No one there will have any idea the Rabbs are anything but what they seem."

The interviewer's eyebrows rose fractionally as she turned to the camera. "Well, I think it's safe to say we will all be watching the remaining episodes of Temptation Cruise II with great interest to see what happens."

A.J. picked up the remote and switched the television off. He could only hope Webb had the situation under control.

 

Chapter 21

 

Mac jabbed toward Harm's midriff, catching him just beneath the solar plexus. She followed with a second, faster and harder, and was rewarded by a small grunt of pain.

"You're not playing nice today," Harm observed as he danced out of her reach. They were sparring in the ship's gym. With gloves and headgear, there was little chance for either of them to get hurt, and it made for a nice break from running. Usually.

A crowd generally gathered to watch whenever they did, and today was no exception. Mac really wished they would all go away. The cheering and jokes from the sidelines only served to irritate her.

Mac blocked her husband's return swing, feeling the jolt all the way up into her shoulders. Ouch. Not that she hadn't asked for it. She was feeling… violent. This had seemed like the best way to work out the roiling unease that had plagued her since lunchtime. Talking to Carmen had strung her nerves taut and the sensation simply would not go away.

Frustrated, Mac launched herself at Harm, the assault intended for her own untenable emotions rather than him. She went after him with a flurry of punches that forced him to cover up. As he fell back a step, her swings got harder, wilder. A little voice in the back of her head told her she was getting out of control… over-committing, but she didn't care.

Not until Harm's glove came out of nowhere and smacked her in the temple, that is. Mac landed flat on her back, the breath knocked out of her. Flickering lights danced in front of her eyes. She blinked furiously, trying to clear them.

"Mac? You o.k.?" Harm loomed over her, looking worried. "Geez, you walked right into that."

Instinctively, Mac raised a hand to her head, which was starting to throb. But between the glove and the foam helmet, she couldn't really tell how tender the spot was.

"I'm o.k." she told him, angry at herself for dropping her guard.

Harm reached out a hand to help her up. She swatted it away.

"I'm o.k." She climbed to her feet and assumed a ready position.

Harm stepped back, his expression guarded. "Mac, what's going on?"

"Nothing. Now shut up and fight." She threw a sharp jab in his direction. He raised his gloves to block the blow and stepped back again.

"Not until you tell me what's going on."

Mac glared at him. She could see the brick wall going up in his eyes-- that infuriating self-controlled calm that nothing could crack. How could she explain to that how she was feeling, especially when she didn't understand it herself? Why would she want to try?

A humorless smile twisted her lips. "Make me."

The blue eyes narrowed, but he made no move to continue. He stood quietly, arms at his sides, watching her. Mac ground her teeth. All she wanted was a good fight. Where was the harm in that? The safety gear would make certain they walked away with nothing but bruises. She'd gotten far worse in the past.

Mac didn't acknowledge the voice in the back of her mind that said, But not from Harm.

"Come on!" She stalked toward him, fists raised.

Harm raised his gloves in the signal to end the match. "No." Ignoring her approach, he stripped off his gloves and dropped them on the ground. "I have no idea what's gotten into you, Mac, but I don't want to have anything to do with this." He pulled off his helmet, sweat-soaked hair sticking out wildly in all directions. "I'm out."

"Well, you never were very good at hand to hand." The blatant insult startled Mac at least as much as it did Harm, and blunted the edge of her sourceless rage. Harm was actually pretty good at hand to hand, having been trained first in Laos by a Marine Recon colonel, and then later by several different SEAL and Recon teams for various missions he'd gotten involved in. It wasn't something people knew about him since most of the fights he got into were of the bar-brawl variety, where lethal techniques were, by unanimous accord, always left at the door.

Mac saw her husband's eyes go cold. He threw his helmet to the ground with unnecessary force. "I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that." He turned and walked away, his long strides swift and angry.

"Where are you going?" Mac demanded, her anger quickly turning to fear. What in the world was wrong with her?

Harm spared her a sharp glance over his shoulder. "I'm getting out of your hair until you turn back into a reasonable person. Go cool off, Mac." And with that he was gone, leaving Mac alone in the center of a small, silent crowd.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Mac spent a solid hour at the punching bag, until her arms felt like lead and her kicks were about as dangerous as an assault with a feather duster. What had possessed her to deliberately alienate Harm like that?

Exhausted and thoroughly disgusted with herself, she gave the bag one final swipe, then headed for the locker room. She passed several women as she threaded her way through the rows of lockers, all of who seemed to be getting ready for an exercise class. Probably the step aerobics. A brief smile crossed Mac's face. Harm had teased her about doing the class, until she'd said that she would only if he did. She hadn't heard another word on the topic since.

Sighing, Mac dropped onto the bench in front of her locker and rested her elbows on her knees as she worked her gloves off.

"I heard a rumor your old man used to beat you up."

Mac looked up sharply to find Carmen standing a few feet away. She leaned against the row of lockers, arms crossed over her breasts. Her dark eyes, usually hard and uncaring, were filled with a nameless need.

Mac stared at the other woman as all the unease she felt congealed in a bitter pool in her stomach.

"Mostly my mom, but… yeah," Mac answered, her voice strained. "My first husband, too." She couldn't have said why she answered the question honestly. Carmen was hardly a friend. Yet something in the other woman's gaze compelled her.

"Is that why you took up boxing? So he couldn't hurt you any more?"

Mac dropped her gloves on the floor between her feet. "He was already gone by then. I just wanted to make sure it never happened again."

"Did it work?"

Mac kept a neutral expression on her face as a number of tiny details clicked together in her mind. Slowly, she nodded.

"Does Boothe hit you, Carmen?" Mac asked in return, her voice tightly controlled.

Carmen's expression closed over. She stared at Mac in silence for several long moments. Mac held her breath, afraid to say anything else for fear of breaking the tenuous link she had with this woman.

Finally, Carmen shrugged. "Sometimes." She looked away, biting her lower lip. "It's my own fault."

"No!" Mac rose to her feet like an uncoiling spring. "Don't say that. It is not your
fault!"

Carmen's dead stare didn't change. "What about Harm?"

"What about him?" The question came out more sharply than she intended.

A faint smile touched Carmen's lips. "Does the boxing make sure he won't hurt
you?"

Mac was utterly appalled by the idea, but buried her reaction. "Harm's more likely to commit suicide than he is to hit a woman in anger," she answered matter-of-factly. It had taken a long time just to get him to agree to spar with her. She flashed Carmen a tight, rueful smile. "But, the truth is no, kickboxing probably wouldn't be enough if he ever really tried to hurt me." Nine inches and eighty pounds made sure of that. If he didn't have any training at all, maybe... She shook her head softly. "He won't, though."

Carmen's disbelieving snort spoke volumes. "That Boy Scout routine's really got you fooled, honey." She looked at Mac with what could only be described as pity before turning and walking away.

Mac stared after her, her thoughts turning. She didn't stir until long after the other woman had gone. Then she quietly gathered her things and headed for the showers.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

George Laughton leaned back in his ergonomically correct chair, stretching hard enough to nearly knock himself over backwards. He straightened after a moment, working his jaw until it popped, then took another sip of the warm diet Coke sitting beside his keyboard. Another day done. The day's transmission of tape segments had just gone out, which meant he also had a fresh download sitting on his computer.

George didn't like being disconnected from the world. So, when he'd learned this cruise would be incommunicado except for the daily satellite transmission to the production studio, he'd made provisions for his own newsfeed to come back with the studio's acknowledgement. Since he'd designed the system on the studio's end, it was easy enough.

George took a final look around the AV room to make sure he was alone. Everyone else was off in the conference room, playing HALO. Geeks that they were, the technical staff had brought a total of four X-Boxes with them, which they had networked together. The HALO sessions often went long into the night. There was fierce competition between the staff and the singles, but only a couple of the marrieds had yet been enticed into playing with them. George smirked. Well, he supposed they probably had better things to do with their time.

George went through the process to uncompress his download, then sat back with a satisfied sigh to read. He wanted to see how the White Sox had played today.

When he came across the articles describing the undercover investigation taking place onboard the Radiant Heart, George sat bolt upright in his chair, nearly choking on a mouthful of soda. A Navy Commander and a Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel? Really? And a fighter pilot, no less. He let out a low whistle of amazement. No wonder they were so odd sometimes.

George quickly scanned the rest of the news for anything else of import, then deleted the files as permanently as he knew how. He leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling, contemplating the new information in light of his own job on board the Radiant Heart.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Harm looked up when the door to the cabin opened. He sat in one of the room's plush chairs, reading a book Frank had given him for Christmas several years earlier. It had been languishing in his "I'll read it someday" pile since then. He'd brought several such books with him on the cruise in the hopes of making some progress on the pile. Harm slowly closed the volume in his lap.

Mac stood in the doorway, fingers laced together in front of her and her gym bag slung over one shoulder. She shifted from foot to foot uncomfortably.

"Hi," she offered in a timid voice, not quite meeting his gaze.

Harm set the book aside, but didn't move to rise. "Hi."

She licked her lips. "Can I come in?"

"You live here, Mac."

She nodded, a flush rising in her cheeks. After a moment, she walked into the room. Bypassing him, she entered the bedroom. He heard the thump of her bag hitting the ground. Not knowing what to say, or if he should say anything at all, he stayed where he was.

Eventually she emerged, dressed for bed though it was barely dinnertime. Her long satin nightgown was the color of summer peaches and, though pretty, it was probably the most conservative one she had. Harm watched her with concern and a simmering frustration. Something was very obviously bothering her-- hurting her-- and so far she had excluded him to the point that he didn't have even the faintest clue what was going on.

She walked up to his chair, bare feet silent on the carpet. Harm looked up into her face. "Are you ready to tell me what's going on?" he asked with as much aplomb as he could muster.

Mac's hands closed into fists at her sides. She shook them open, then crossed her arms over her chest, closing her fingers around her biceps. She stared at the floor. "I had a talk with Carmen today." Her voice held a dull note that alarmed him. "Boothe hits her."

Harm pursed his lips. He wasn't terribly surprised by the revelation. He'd met others of the type before and Boothe certainly fit the profile. He could understand why Mac was upset. Why take it out on me, though? He answered his own question a moment later. He was the closest target, both physically and emotionally.

Harm stood, intending to take her in his arms for what looked like a much-needed hug. But as he moved toward her, Mac flinched, taking a half step back.

Harm froze. Ignore it, he instructed himself firmly, fighting the surge of hurt and anger her reaction generated. Abuse doesn't just go away.

"Mac… Sarah, look at me." He kept his voice soft, non-threatening.

Mac raised her head obediently. Her eyes were wide and full of the shadows of old terrors.

"Are you afraid of me?" Harm asked. He thought he already knew the answer, but the question needed to be asked. He steeled himself as tears welled up in her eyes and began to trail down her cheeks. Nothing in the world felt worse than making Mac cry.

She bit her lip, her expression helpless. "I… shouldn't be."

Harm had to look away. He closed his eyes, feeling the weight of his dreams as they came crashing down on him. Is that really what kind of man you think I am, Mac? How are we ever going to make this work?

Mac's fingers touched his chest, just over his heart. "Harm, please don't be mad." Her voice broke. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. Please--"

Harm's eyes snapped open. Capturing her wrist, he dragged her into his arms, wrapping her in a tight hug. "Stop it!" She stiffened with a gasp and Harm forced himself to speak more gently. "You did mean it, and that's…" He buried his face against her neck, needing the comfort. "That's o.k., Mac."

She was silent for a long time. Harm felt her relax by degrees against him, though her shaky breath didn't change.

"I thought I was past all this," she finally said, her voice muffled against his shirt.

Harm stroked her hair, uncertain how to respond.

Mac turned her head and laid her cheek against his arm. "I thought… since I finally made a good choice in men--" Harm smiled at her admission. "--that it wouldn't be an issue anymore."

Harm squeezed her tightly. "I wish it was that simple, too."

They stood together for a while in silence. Harm closed his eyes again and tried to lose himself in the feel of Mac's hair between his fingers and the coffee-and-cinnamon smell that was so much a part of her. He didn’t want to think but his mind refused to obey, turning what he'd learned about their relationship over and over again, looking at it from every angle he could conceive of. It was an attribute that made him an excellent investigator, but it also contributed to his obsessive tendencies.

Eventually, he settled on one question that summed up all of his uncertainties. "What will it take for you not to be afraid of me, Mac? On any level?"

She stiffened, then slowly withdrew from his arms. She never raised her eyes to look at him.

"Mac?" he asked in concern as she turned away, folding her arms across her chest once again. Her shoulders began to shake.

"Mac." Harm hesitated to touch her, but then reached over to lay a hand on her shoulder. He could feel the rigid tension running through her body, testament to the vicious emotional battle taking place inside.

"I am so tired of being damaged." Mac's voice was a ragged, angry whisper. "When is enough, enough? When do I get a chance to really be happy without all this garbage haunting me?" She threw her arms wide in a gesture of frustration as she turned to face him. "Haven't I worked hard enough? I cleaned up my act, got sober, put myself through law school, and made myself a life. A life I'm proud of. And now, I have even managed through some miracle to end up married to a man I not only love with all my heart, but admire and respect, too! So I ask you, when will it be enough?"

Harm stared into her dark, flashing eyes, both pleased and a little taken aback.

Mac bit her lip, her expression falling. "When do I get to leave the past behind?" The desperate plea in her voice tore at Harm's heart.

Wishing he had a better answer to offer, he gave her a rueful smile. "You're asking me? The man who nearly got you killed… twice, no less… in Russia trying to resolve my own issues with the past?"

Mac cracked a smile. It was small, but genuine. "Only twice?"

Harm grinned, relieved by her reaction. "O.k. Maybe three times." He sobered. "But that still doesn't answer my question."

Mac sighed, brushing away a stray tear. "I don't know. It's not really you that scares me. I hope you realize that."

Harm nodded. He did-- intellectually, at least.

She went on, "It's the… the possibility, I guess… that, despite everything I know to be true about you and about our relationship, that somehow I'm still going to end up being hurt again. And I'm not going to be able to do anything about it. Again. I don't know how to make that go away."

"Trying to clobber me in the sparring ring isn't going to help."

She flashed him a sheepish look. "Sorry."

Harm closed the distance between them. He caught Mac beneath the elbows, drawing her close without-- hopefully-- making her feel trapped. He stared into her chocolate eyes. "Listen to me, Mac. I will never deliberately hurt you."

She sighed and laid her hands on his chest, palms flat. "I know. I trust you with my life."

Dismay hit him like a blow. "It's your heart I want."

Mac's breath caught, her eyes filling with tears. "It's yours." She leaned into him, pressing her forehead against his chest and wrapping her arms around his waist. "As much as I know how to give it, it's yours."

"What if that's not enough?" Harm didn't know whether to be angry, hurt, or just afraid. "You're my wife, Mac. That's supposed to mean we love each other with all our hearts, forever."

For a moment, Mac didn't answer. He could feel her gathering herself.

She took a step back and looked up at him, her expression unreadable. "You know, there's a bridge in Australia where they once wrote 'Eternity' in lights."

Harm stared at her in horror.

Mac took a deep breath, her fingers closing and unclosing at her sides. "When you told me that, I thought it was an evasion… maybe even a taunt." She shook her head. "I didn't realize until just recently that you were making me a promise--" A smile flickered across her face. "--in your own oblique way. That it would be Eternity for us, eventually, even though you were saying no right then."

She straightened her shoulders, another swift smile crossing her face. "So now I have to ask you to accept the same promise, though hopefully with a little less misunderstanding." She reached for him, the motion hesitant. "The answer is yes, I will love you with all my heart, forever… even if right now I'm not quite sure how to get there."

It took Harm a moment to absorb what she'd said. Then he hugged her. Hard.

Mac hugged him back. "I really do love you."

He kissed her forehead, lips, throat. "I know."

Mac's fingers knotted in his hair as she pulled his face toward hers. Her kiss was passionate and sweet and filled with promises.

Harm answered her in kind, his mind's eye filled with an image that had touched him deeply from the moment he saw it: A far-spanning arch, bridging between two distant places, and the word 'Eternity' inscribed in lights across it.

 

Chapter 22

 

A.J. looked up in surprise as Lieutenant Roberts blew into his office, a sheaf of papers clutched in one hand. The young man's face was suffused with anger, something the Admiral rarely saw.

"What is it, Lieutenant?" A.J. asked as Bud came to attention in front of the desk.

"Ariel's guilty, sir, and Steiner knows it!" The words came out in a rush. Bud thrust the papers at A.J.

A.J. took the pile curiously, for the moment willing to overlook the breach of decorum, and scanned the top document.

"Sir, the one thing we didn't have was a motive for Ariel. Why would he risk felony charges just to get the Antonys out of the running?" Bud gestured broadly as he spoke, his motions as agitated as his voice. He pointed to the stack of papers in A.J.'s hands. "The answer's right there, sir. The Antonys were one of the last two couples on the ship, with only three days left in the cruise. Ariel's contract says he gets a rather sizeable bonus--" Bud's eyebrows arched in sarcastic emphasis, "--if there is one clear winner to the competition. Steiner had to know about it."

"Not necessarily," A.J. countered absently as he read. He found the details of Ariel's bonus and pursed his lips in a silent whistle. "Two million dollars?" He looked up at Bud. "That's quite a motive."

"Yes, sir. At Commander Rabb's request, I've been going through the testimonies from the reservists and Mrs. Antony about the notes they exchanged. It appears there was intent, at least, to engage in… well, whatever… between the three of them, but not until after the cruise ended. Mrs. Antony denies making the invitation that led to the incident, and claims she doesn't remember how she got to the stateroom where it took place. That's the only exchange between herself and the reservists that doesn't check out from both sides."

A.J. leaned back in his chair. "So you think Mr. Ariel simply took advantage of a pre-existing situation to get the Antonys out of the competition and thereby securing a two million dollar bonus for himself?"

"Yes, sir. He probably didn't think Mrs. Antony would bring rape charges, all things considered." Bud paused. "Heck, sir. He might not even have thought it was rape, if he knew about the plans they had."

"If she was drugged, then in wasn't consensual," A.J. reminded him.

Bud gave him an affronted look. "I didn't say I agreed, sir. Just pointing out that it's possible Ariel might not have recognized the crime he was committing."

A.J. sighed and laid the papers on his desk. "Well, the circumstantial evidence against Ariel is pretty compelling, but that's all it is-- circumstantial. We don't have anything but the various parties' word about what happened."

"As it stands now, do you think the reservists would be convicted, sir?" Bud asked.

A.J. shrugged. "It's pretty much a toss up. It would depend on whose story the jury believed." He laced his fingers together on the desk in front of him. "The problem is, whether they're convicted or not, the Navy is going to be damaged. Unless Ariel can be proven beyond any shadow of doubt to have orchestrated the entire incident, and the two reservists therefore exonerated of any malicious intent-- the Navy's reputation will still suffer."

"Do you think Steiner knows the truth, sir?" This time Bud's expression was troubled.

A.J. sighed. "Probably. Whether he was involved in the plot…" He met the lieutenant's gaze. "Does Steiner have a clause like this in his contract, too?"

Bud shook his head, looking disappointed. "No, sir. That was the first thing I checked. He does get a bonus, but it's based on a combination of net proceeds and the show's viewership."

A.J. digested that, finding himself more concerned rather than less. "Keep working on it, lieutenant. Let me know what you find out."

"Yes, sir."

A.J. handed the stack papers representing Tony Ariel's contract with the studio back to Bud. "Very well. Dismissed."

As Bud left, A.J. turned to stare out the window. Maybe it was time to have a talk with Daniel Steiner.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Mac sat bolt upright with a cry, her nightmare shattering. One moment she was fending off heavy hands that shoved her backward, pinning her with their weight, and the next she was in her own bed with sunlight streaming cheerfully through the windows. Disoriented, she looked around, trying to regain her bearings. Her gaze fastened almost immediately on Harm, who watched her with deep but wary concern from his own side of the bed.

"Mac?" He prudently didn't try to touch her.

Smart man. Mac had to smile at the wayward thought, the last vestiges of her dream fear slipping away. Taking a deep breath, she nodded.

"I was having a nightmare."

Harm's eyebrows arched eloquently. "Some nightmare." Now he did reach for her and Mac was more than happy to crawl into his arms. She laid her cheek against his chest.

"A man attacked me…" She shook her head. "You know how it is in dreams when you ought to be able to fight or run or scream, but you can't make your body work?"

Harm nodded. "I've had a few of those."

"It was like that. I knew he was going to hurt me, but I have no idea how or why or even who he was." She sighed. "It was strange."

"You think it has anything to do with how upset you were yesterday? About Boothe and Carmen, and… everything?"

Mac's lips twisted in a sour smile. "Delicately put, counselor." She looked up into her husband's face. "You don't have to tiptoe around the subject, Harm. It's hard and it hurts, but it's something I have to deal with."

Harm ran his fingers through her hair, cupping the back of her head. "We have to deal with. You're not alone any more, Mac." His solemn gaze bored into hers.

Mac smiled. "We," she repeated, accepting the admonishment. She sighed. "And on that subject, what are we going to do about Boothe?"

Harm shrugged. "Other than offering Carmen the services of two very good lawyers, I'm not sure what we can do. She has to be willing to stand up to him before the law can help her." He shifted to a more comfortable position. "There's a problem with us getting involved, though."

Only one? Mac didn't voice the thought. The room cameras were on. "I'll admit there's a conflict of interest--"

"A million of them, don't you mean?" Harm grinned at her.

Mac rolled her eyes. Neither of them cared in the least about the prize-- even if they "won", they wouldn't be able to keep it. "I can't just sit by and not at least try to help. No woman deserves to live in that situation."

"I wasn't advocating doing nothing, Mac." Harm's hands were warm against the exposed skin of her back. "We just have to be careful what we say. There are some pretty big ethical pitfalls that could hurt Carmen as well as us. Plus, we don't know for sure that Boothe is guilty."

Mac tensed. "It was in her eyes, Harm."

"Maybe," he conceded. "And maybe she made it up. The longer we stay on this boat, the crazier people seem to get. It's like all of the normal rules of proper societal behavior have been suspended here and people are beginning to test the waters-- if you'll excuse the pun-- to see how far they can go without repercussions."

Mac mulled that for a moment. He had a point, as much as she hated to admit it. Carmen probably had an ulterior motive, though whether it was to further her chances of winning or was a plea for help escaping an abusive relationship, Mac couldn't guess.

Mac sighed. "I'll talk to her. Maybe Boothe was stupid enough to do something on the cruise. Then we'd have proof."

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

"Have a seat, Mr. Steiner." A.J. speared the producer with one of his sharper stares as the other man walked in.

Steiner raised an eyebrow as he settled in one of the chairs fronting A.J.'s broad desk. "Something on your mind, Admiral?"

A.J. folded his hands in front of him. "As a matter of fact, there is. Tell me about the bonus the network will be paying you based on the success of the show."

Steiner's expression never changed, but something wary sprang to life in his eyes. He smiled. "It's a percentage bonus, based on Temptation Cruise II's net proceeds and a fairly complex combination of our Nielson ratings and viewership numbers from the network."

A.J. kept his own expression to one of polite interest, though an ex-SEAL Admiral's polite interest was a little more intense than most people's. "How much did you get for the original Temptation Cruise?"

Steiner didn't look very comfortable in his chair. "That's a matter of public record, Admiral."

A.J. flashed him a hard smile. "Spare me the effort of looking it up."

Steiner sighed. "4.2 million."

"And how much are you likely to make off the current show? In addition to your negotiated hourly rate, that is."

Steiner gave him an ingratiating smile. "I have no idea. The show's only halfway through. I don't have good numbers to use." He spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness.

A.J. silently ground his teeth, careful to keep his expression neutral. "Will it be more than the first Temptation Cruise, do you think? Or less? Surely you know that much."

Steiner uttered another sigh. "Oh, more, most definitely. Those investigators of yours have gone and made my show. Which I resent, by the way. If it works, I want to be able to take credit for it." He shrugged. "Who would've thought adding a Cops element would be so successful? Here we've gone and re-invented reality television, and I can't even claim the idea as my own." He ran a hand through his lanky hair, seeming irritated.

A.J. studied his guest. He suspected he was being carefully stonewalled, and didn't much care for it. "How about Tony Ariel? What will his bonus be like this time around?"

The wary expression came back to Steiner's eyes. "I'm not privy to the details of Tony's contract. It's probably the same as last time, though. Two million."

"And I suppose you're going to tell me you don't know the conditions under which Mr. Ariel receives his bonus."

A.J. saw the sudden flash of recognition on Steiner's face before the other man buried it. "No."

"You realize that if I can prove you did, you might be charged with conspiracy."

"Conspiracy to what? Rape? I absolutely did not have anything to do with encouraging those two men to hurt Jessica Antony. I think it's abhorrent." Steiner glared at him.

A.J. was surprised to hear a small ring of truth in his words. Did the man actually have some moral standards, albeit low ones?

"But you can't deny that having one clear winner to the competition is a good thing for you, in terms of your success with the show."

Steiner gave him a credibly puzzled look. "Of course not. But what does that have to do with anything?"

A.J. kept his disappointment to himself. It was too much to hope for to catch Steiner operating on information he claimed not to possess. Still, it had been worth a try.

"Did you ever encourage Mr. Ariel to make sure there was only one couple left by the end of the cruise?"

Steiner gave him an appraising look. "Ecourage? Of course. That was the stated goal of the production team. Tony and his people were supposed to do their best to see to it that all of the couples were given every possible opportunity to… give in to temptation, let's say. There was no way to be certain there'd only be one couple left by the end of the six weeks, but what would be the point of making a reality show if everyone knew ahead of time how it would end? As the number of couples in the competition dwindled, the heat on each of them obviously increased, so it seemed reasonable to expect we'd be down to one by the end. To be honest, I was a lot more concerned that the competition might end early and leave us unable to fill all our time slots."

"So you never told Ariel to make sure there was a clear winner?"

Steiner met A.J.'s gaze. "No, I did not."

A.J. switched subjects. "What have you been telling him this time around?"

Steiner cocked his head. "About?"

"My officers, in particular. Are you certain their identities are being kept confidential?"

Steiner nodded. "Yes." He leaned back in his chair, resting one elbow on the back. "And given how popular the Rabbs have become, it hasn't been easy. We have to do everything twice-- once with real information for ourselves and the network, and once for Ariel with the Rabbs popularity scrubbed from the data." Steiner's fingers drummed on the hard wood of his chair. "Assuming Ariel is fixing the results, we want to make sure your people become his target, which they won't be if they're the clear favorites."

A.J. studied Steiner as understanding dawned. "You want him to be guilty."

Steiner flashed him a wolfish grin. "Don't you? The Navy's getting great press out of this."

A.J. forced himself to stay calm. "Is he guilty, Mr. Steiner?"

Steiner's expression never wavered. "I guess we'll find out, won't we?"

 

Chapter 23

 

Harm leaned casually against the light bamboo structure that passed as a bar, sipping from his Coke. The sweating glass felt wonderfully cool against his fingers. He resisted the temptation to press the glass against his cheek. The midday sun had become downright brutal, and even the light breeze gusting across his face was hot. The striped umbrella shading the two men gave little relief.

Beside Harm, Jeb chatted with a couple of young women who worked on the ship, telling them about some college event with the naďve enthusiasm of youth. Harm kept his amusement to himself with an effort of will. The two girls were very patently hanging on his every word, but Jeb was too engrossed in his story to notice. He obviously had no idea what the girls were thinking about him, nor what he could do with the situation-- if he chose.

I don’t think I was ever that innocent, Harm thought with a small pang of regret. His own nature and the months he’d spent in Southeast Asia had seen to that. Then Harm grinned into his drink as the memories surfaced. His "What I Did on my Summer Vacation" essay the next year had nearly given his English teacher a heart attack.

Raising his gaze, he swept the wide expanse of deck visible from his position, looking for Boothe. Mac had managed to talk all of the remaining married women into a few hours at the spa-- something about facials and manicures and whatever the heck a Vichy shower was-- in the hopes of getting some more information from Carmen. Harm was supposed to take the opportunity to do the same with Boothe, but so far he’d been unable to find him.

His survey was interrupted by a new presence at his elbow.

"Hi, Harm!" Nikki Upton grabbed his arm in a hug, her slender body momentarily pressed against his side. She let go before he could react, stepping back to look up at him. A playful smile lit her face.

"Guess what?"

Harm watched her warily from behind a polite smile. "What?"

She bounced on the balls of her feet, clearly excited. "I won the Singles’ Challenge this morning, so that means we get to spend the day together tomorrow." The winner of the Singles' Challenge got to choose their companion for the next outing. She tapped him lightly on the chest. "And you’re going to take me flying. I’ve already worked it out with Mr. Ariel."

Harm blinked, taken aback. "Sounds like fun," he managed after a moment. The idea of going flying sounded like a lot of fun, actually. Too bad the company wouldn’t be more enjoyable.

Jeb turned at the mention of flying. He grinned at Harm. "Lucky dog." His gaze shifted to Nikki. "What kind of airplane is it?"

She shrugged dismissively. "Oh, I don’t know. It has two wings, though."

Harm coughed lightly. "Would that be two wings stacked, or one on each side of the airplane?"

Jeb made a choking noise, which sounded suspiciously like smothered laughter. Harm slapped him charitably on the back until he'd regained control.

Nikki watched them with a frown. "Two wings on top of each other… like the Red Baron." She seemed to have figured out that the men were laughing at her.

Harm held on to his composure by a thread. "Ah. A biplane. That'll be fun."

Nikki rallied gamely. "Well, it's a two-seater. I do know that." She winked at him.

"Have you ever been flying in a small airplane?" Harm asked.

She shook her head, her smile reappearing as if by magic. "No, but it sounds like a trip. I’m sure I’ll have a great time." There was a glint of challenge in her gaze.

Harm chuckled despite himself. "Don’t be too sure about that. I’m a qualified aerobatic pilot."

Nikki gave him a diffident stare, one eyebrow cocked. "And?"

Out of his peripheral vision, Harm saw Jeb bite his lip, his blue eyes dancing.

Harm couldn’t resist the opportunity. He gave Nikki a glimpse of his most dangerous smile. "And… unless you have an extraordinarily strong stomach, you’re only going to have a ‘great time’ if I decide to be nice."

The well-manicured eyebrow hiked another notch. "Oh, really. Care to place a wager on that?" She leaned toward him.

Harm echoed her. In the back of his mind, he realized he was getting into dangerous territory. Still, he’d never been one to back down from a challenge.

"What did you have in mind?" he asked Nikki without breaking eye contact.

She grinned invitingly. "How ‘bout the loser gives the winner a kiss."

Harm laughed outright. "No." He straightened, giving Nikki a congratulatory bow. "But nice try."

She just shrugged, utterly unrepentant. Harm nodded to Jeb as he turned away.

"See you tomorrow," Nikki called after him as he walked away.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

"Oh, wow. I could get used to this." Mac exhaled blissfully. She’d been pretty doubtful when Carmen suggested the warm cucumber wrap, but now, with steaming towels wrapped around her body and her skin tingling from the smelly concoction the masseuse had smeared on her beforehand, she was glad she had.

Carmen chuckled, sounding smug. "Told ya."

None of the other women had been willing to join them, for which Mac was grateful. Of course, she wouldn’t have done it either except for wanting to talk privately with Carmen. She might have to make a habit of it from now on, though. Mac smiled to herself. Harm would be thrilled she’d finally found a reason to like cucumbers.

The silence stretched comfortably. Mac tried to stay focused on her objective, though it was hard in the sultry environment of the spa. Plus, she didn’t know how to bring up the subject of Boothe’s abuse without sounding like she was trying to undermine her fellow contestant’s chances of winning.

Finally, Mac sighed. "Carmen, can I ask you something personal?" She directed the question toward the ceiling, unable to turn her head for fear of disturbing the hot towels that covered everything but her mouth and nose.

Carmen’s response was wary. "Sure."

"Do you love Boothe?"

Carmen snorted. "Honey, there’s no such thing."

Mac sighed. She’d expected something like that. "Well, I guess for most of my life I would’ve agreed with you."

"Yeah, right. Until your knight in shining armor came along."

Mac chuckled. The armor was gunmetal gray rather than shining, and the trusty steed a Tomcat, but it wasn’t a bad description. "Yep. Pretty much," she agreed.

Carmen was silent for several moments. "I bet you know lots of nice men." Her voice was full of rancor.

Mac pursed her lips, considering her reply. She wished she knew what had happened to Carmen to make her so bitter. She would have a much better idea how to respond. Finally, she decided just to be honest and see what happened.

"I work with a few," she agreed cautiously, "but when it comes to relationships I seem to have really, really poor taste." She grinned, realizing what she’d said. "Not counting Harm, of course. He’s definitely the exception to that rule."

She got another snort in reply. "I hate ta tell ya this, but nobody’s that good." Carmen’s tone turned sisterly. "Don’t let him break your heart."

Mac sucked in her breath. It would be so easy to buy into Carmen’s mindset.

"He won’t."

Carmen laughed mockingly. "Yeah. You just keep tellin’ yourself that. You’ll see."

Mac closed her hands into fists, fighting for calm. "I’m a good attorney, Carmen. If you need representation against Boothe, I can help."

"What, like in a divorce?"

"Yes. You don’t have to let him hurt you."

Carmen’s voice quieted. "Well, now, there you’re wrong." There was a reflective quality to her words that Mac hadn’t heard before.

"About what?" she asked, just as quietly.

Carmen sighed. "I signed a prenup."

"A prenuptial agreement?"

"Yeah." The bitter tang returned to her words. "I came into the marriage with nothin’ an’ if I leave it’ll be the same way. I don’t plan on leavin’, though."

Mac chewed on her lip. "Isn’t there anyplace else you could go? Any family? Friends?"

"No." A pause. "What about you? Who’d you go to?"

Mac smiled sadly at the memory. "My uncle. He was the one who straightened me out in the first place. He was always there to get me back on the right track."

"He approve of your Prince Charming?"

Mac smiled again. "Yes. Harm impressed him, and he’s not an easy man to impress." It had been Uncle Matt’s high regard that had first prompted Mac to look beyond the arrogant, flyboy façade for the real man hidden within her new partner. Otherwise, she might never have taken him seriously.

"What about you, Carmen? Don’t you have anybody?"

"Just Boothe."

Mac sighed, frustrated. She was getting nowhere. "Well, if you ever change your mind, you can call me. O.k.?"

Carmen’s only response was a grunt.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

"I heard a vicious rumor you're going flying with Nikki Upton tomorrow." Mac stood in front of the bathroom mirror, putting the finishing touches on her hair. Her voice floated out to Harm, who stopped dead at the harsh note underlying her words.

He paused, then went back to tying his bow tie. The evening's dinner was a formal event.

"Unfortunately, it's true as far as I know," he answered when he had his reaction under control.

"Unfortunately?" Mac stuck her head around the doorjamb, one eyebrow arched in disbelief.

Harm kept his tone light. "Well, not the flying part. Just the Nikki Upton part."

Mac's expression softened minutely. "She has a crush on you, you know." Straightening, she emerged from the bathroom and walked toward Harm. Her evening gown, a slinky affair of burnished gold, clung to every curve. Harm watched her appreciatively, enjoying the fact that he didn't have to hide his interest and could stare unabashedly at this gorgeous creature without the least bit of guilt.

"Harm?" Mac stopped in front of him, her voice filled with amusement.

"Hmmm?" He deliberately didn't raise his gaze to her face.

She chuckled, tilting her shoulders to give him a better view. "You're incorrigible." She reached up to finish tying his tie.

Harm caught her gaze and smiled one of his famous, melt-her-into-a-puddle smiles. "That's why you love me."

"Uh huh." Her tone said she knew exactly what he was doing. She finished with his tie, sliding her hands down the front of his shirt before hooking them in the waistband of his pants. "Don't avoid the subject."

"Of what? Nikki Upton?" Harm let his hands come to rest on Mac's hips. The thin material of her dress scrunched beneath his fingers. "It's not a subject worthy of much attention."

Mac's expression turned serious. "I just don't like the idea of you flying with her."

Harm tried not to let his exasperation show. "Why? What do you think's going to happen?"

She dropped her gaze. "Well, you know how those pilots are." In contrast to her expression, her tone remained playful.

Harm tensed. "That's not fair, Mac."

She sighed and brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes. "I know. It's not. But it's still how I feel." She turned away, crossing her arms in front of her.

Harm closed his eyes for a moment, struggling with himself. This was going to turn into a fight. He could feel it. "What is it about her that makes you feel so
threatened?"

Mac shrugged. "Oh, I don't know." Sarcasm tainted her words. "She's young, pretty… blond." The look she flashed him over her shoulder was almost apologetic.

Harm stared to laugh. "You have got to be kidding."

Mac whirled. "Don't patronize me."

Harm sobered abruptly. "Patronize you?" He stared incredulously at her. "You're accusing me of wanting to sleep with this girl because of her hair color, and I'm patronizing you?"

Mac paused and heaved a huge, grating sigh. "I'm not accusing you of anything." Her gaze narrowed at his disbelieving look. "Really, I'm not. Look, this is Woman 101, or at least Mac 101, o.k.? Yes, I have irrational fears about you and other women. I have irrational fears about you dying every time you get in an airplane, too." She spread her hands helplessly. "I have lots of irrational fears, and even some legitimate ones. Fear is part of being a woman. Men just don't seem to understand that."

She drew a deep breath. "When I get scared all I really want is for you to hug me and say, 'Honey, I love you and I'm never going to leave you. You don't have to worry because everything is going to be all right.'."

Harm stared at her in silence as he tried to process what she'd said. Women didn't make any sense at all, particularly this one. This was Mac-- fiercely independent, Marine, aggressive, skilled at hand-to-hand combat and thoroughly weapons qualified. And she wanted a platitude?

"That's it?"

Mac gave him a crooked smile that didn't reach her eyes. "Most of the time."

"It seems… too simple." He said that last cautiously, uncertain how she might react.

She snorted. "It's just reassurance, Harm. It's not supposed to be all that difficult."

Harm stared at her. "I don't get it," he finally admitted.

Mac threw her arms up in the air. "What's to get?" She gave him a look filled with desperation. "I told you what I need. I don't know how to be any clearer."

"Just repeat those words verbatim, and everything will suddenly be o.k.?" His voice echoed his doubt.

Mac's hands clenched at her sides, her dark eyes snapping in frustration. "Geez! Any variation on the theme will do!"

"'Honey' and all?"

Mac rolled her eyes. "O.k. Maybe not 'Honey', per se. You know what I mean." She met his gaze. "Are you messing with me?"

Harm shrugged, smiling. "A little."

"Well, don't. It's not funny." He was shocked by how much hurt suddenly shone from her eyes.

Shaking himself into motion, Harm closed the distance between them and laid a hand on either of her shoulders. She said it was what she wanted…

Harm stared into her eyes. "Honey, I love you and I'm never going to leave you." He felt a little silly saying it. Shouldn't this be obvious? "You don't have to worry because everything's going to be all right."

In an instant, Mac's expression cleared. She slipped into his arms, burrowing against his chest and hugging him tightly. She sighed, sounding both happy and relieved. "Thank you."

Utterly mystified, Harm hugged her back. I do not understand women. "You're welcome."

He waited a few minutes before speaking again. "…uh, can we safely go back to the blond part now?"

Mac tensed, withdrawing a half step from his embrace. "Sure." Her mouth twisted in a sour smile. "I can sum that one up for you with one word."

"Renee?"

Her gaze darted to his, then away. "Yep."

"Why?"

Mac sighed. Looking down, she toyed with her skirt, smoothing imaginary wrinkles with her fingers. "I tried so hard to hate her. I really did. I wanted her to be the Evil Video Princess so I could justify wanting to rip her throat out."

Harm stared at her, fighting a smile. "The 'Evil Video Princess'?"

"Don't laugh."

He couldn't help it. He started to chuckle. Mac flashed him a genuine smile before growing serious again. "But, you know what? I couldn't. She's a pretty decent person and she tried very hard to be my friend despite all the… complications. And she was good for you. I think that's what I hated most about her."

Somewhat surprised by the assessment, Harm reached over to catch Mac's hand. "But not nearly as good for me as you are," he told her.

Mac smiled shyly, the expression lighting her entire face. "Well, yeah," she agreed.

Harm took that for an invitation and pulled her close. He brought her hand to his mouth, kissed the inside of her wrist. Mac gasped softly. Desire turned her eyes the color of melted chocolate. "How do you do that to me?"

Harm grinned. "C'mere and I'll show you."

Mac laughed deep in her throat. "We're already dressed for dinner." But her body was soft and pliant in his arms, the protest entirely rhetorical.

 

 

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