"What time is it?" Harm asked his wife as he snuggled a little closer to
her beneath the covers. With the drapes in their room drawn, the rosy
gray of early morning barely penetrated the darkness around them, but
Harm didn't need his eyes. Married-- lovers-- for only a shade over
three weeks now, he already had the feel of her memorized: the perfect
way she fit against him, the softness of her skin, the wonderfully
smooth flare of her hip as he ran his hand along her waist.
She chuckled sleepily, undoubtedly aware of the direction of his
thoughts. "It's… 5:04." He heard the pause as she translated to civilian
Harm sighed. "I guess I'd better get going, then." Reluctantly, he
slipped out of bed and into the clothes he'd left out. It was time to do
a little investigating. He heard Mac sit up behind him in a rustle of
sheets. She had her own job to do.
"Stay out of trouble," she said softly, her voice full of a smile he
couldn't see in the dim light.
"You know me," he answered with a grin of his own.
"That's what worries me."
Chuckling, Harm left. He closed the door of the stateroom quietly behind
him, then set off down the hallway. There was no way to avoid the
cameras that coated the ship, so the only option was misdirection.
George Laughton stared at the complex tangle of wiring in front of him,
thoroughly intrigued. He stood in one of the wiring closets, staring at
the fiber backbone that connected the two main computing networks
onboard the Radiant Heart. One network controlled the vast multitude of
cameras filling the ship, the other stored the data. George had been
checking the layout of the fiber against the documented specification,
and had found a few discrepancies. He crouched in the narrow confines of
the closet, flashlight gripped between his teeth as he copied down the
actual configuration. Tracing the connections back to their origins
would tell him whether the changes were mistakes, work-arounds, or
George started at the sound of a man clearing his throat. He whipped
around in guilty surprise, banging his head on the unyielding metal edge
of the wiring cabinet.
Harmon Rabb winced sympathetically. "Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you."
The tall lawyer stood a few feet behind him, arms crossed as he stared
at George in a mixture of humor and carefully veiled interest. His keen
gaze flicked to the tangle of wiring then back to George’s face.
George stared back, his throat suddenly dry. Does he know? was the first
thought that passed through his mind. Would that be a bad thing? was the
second. Pushing the questions away, he removed the flashlight from his
"Contestants aren’t really supposed to be in this area," he told Rabb as
he gingerly rubbed his scalp.
The other man waved the protest away with a casual wave and a guileless
grin. "I need to ask someone from the technical staff some questions."
George felt a stab of alarm, but tried to keep it off his face. The Navy
investigator wasn’t going to give himself away, was he? George rose to
"Well, I’m not exactly the resident expert, as witnessed by the fact
that I’m working the graveyard shift, but I know a few things." He
extended his hand in what he hoped was a sincerely friendly manner.
"Harm Rabb." Rabb shook his hand.
"I’m not sure what I can tell you," George continued. "I’m not supposed
to give out information to any of the contestants that might influence
the competition." He waved toward the camera mounted in one corner of
the room. "It’s all recorded, so don’t expect me to make an exception."
Rabb chuckled, apparently not put off by the brusque statement. "No
problem. I’ll ask my question, and you can decide whether or not it’s
information you can give me."
George wondered if he looked as wary as he felt. "All right." He didn’t
like having Rabb asking him questions. It jeopardized his own job aboard
the ship, drawing attention to him when he would much rather have
Rabb clasped his hands behind his back, seeming to consider his words
before he spoke. "Do you see everything that’s recorded on this ship?"
George couldn’t help but snort in mild contempt. "Are you kidding? We
work three shifts with four guys on the first two, and one on the
graveyard. I see maybe a quarter of the action shots."
George nodded. He felt pretty safe explaining a few technical details.
"Yeah. The recording is all digital, so any time there’s a static scene,
the recording gets compressed. There’s no sense in taking up all that
memory to record hours and hours of an empty hallway. Everything that’s
left is called an ‘action shot’. It just means something’s happening."
The lawyer absorbed the explanation. "But you would hear about anything
interesting, right? Even if it wasn't on your shift?"
George cocked his head, deciding to push a bit. "Like you betting with
Nikki Upton for a kiss?"
Rabb looked affronted. "Hey, I said no to that." His gaze narrowed. "But
I'll take that to mean you do."
George shrugged. "Sure." He grinned at Rabb. "We poor working stiffs
have gotta do something for entertainment."
Rabb chuckled, but his humor didn't last. The blue eyes grew somber.
"What about something that's not so entertaining?"
George paused. "What do you mean?" What was Rabb after?
"Violent." The other man pinned him with an expectant gaze.
Phew. Talks like a lawyer and stares like a fighter pilot. Some
combination. George debated his response. He was pretty sure he
understood, but it wasn't information he could give out without risking
the wrath of some important people in the television business. "Violent?
Like how?" Best to play dumb.
Rabb's expression gave away very little. "Like domestic violence."
"Oh." Immediately, George knew he'd given himself away. Rabb's
expression sharpened, the intense, hawk-like gaze skewering him where he
stood. Now what? The idea that jumped to mind startled him. But he'd
always had a secret desire to play Mission: Impossible.
Very slowly, George gave a discrete nod, the motion nearly invisible.
"No, nothing like that." He forced a smile. "I mean, you and your wife
are probably the most violent contestants we have."
Rabb chuckled, though the expression didn't quite reach his eyes. "All
in good fun."
They stared at each other in silence for an awkward moment. The question
in Rabb's gaze begged an answer.
"Well, sorry I couldn't be much help." George said.
Rabb shrugged, another of those guileless smiles appearing on his face.
"No problem. Sorry I interrupted… whatever you're doing."
George shook his head. "Just a little minor troubleshooting. It gets
pretty boring around here in the middle of the night, especially once
all the partiers have given up or passed out."
Rabb raised an eyebrow. "Things get pretty wild?"
George shrugged. "Oh, sometimes. Unlimited free booze, what do you
"Sounds like you're not into the party scene."
"Not every night." George smiled. "When I need to de-stress, I usually
join in on the HALO competition. Shooting things helps me relax more
Rabb gave him a confused, slightly alarmed look. "HALO?"
George nodded. "Yeah, it's a new game. Just came out on the market a few
months ago. It's a first-person combat sim, essentially. It has a plot,
though. And killer graphics."
Rabb's expression didn't change.
"It's a video game," George told him.
The lawyer's confusion deepened. "What, like Nintendo?"
George chuckled. "In the way a paper airplane is like the Space Shuttle,
sure." He looked at Rabb. "I take it you've never played?"
"I don't even own a television."
"Oh, well you're really missing out, man. You should come join us
sometime." George tried to put some extra emphasis in his gaze. "I bet
you'd have a blast." He watched Rabb, hoping he'd gotten the hint.
Rabb looked at him doubtfully. Then he shrugged. "Sure, I guess. When
George told him the particulars with a sense of excitement. Ethan Hunt
eat your heart out. This cruise was about to get much more interesting.
Mac waited for Tiner to transfer her to the Admiral with a sense of
trepidation. She'd called to talk to Bud, who often came in that early
in order to leave by mid-afternoon, but had been redirected to the
Admiral. She couldn't help but wonder if something had gone wrong.
"Colonel Rabb, good morning." The Admiral's voice was somehow warm and
gruff at the same time.
Mac paused, startled to hear herself addressed as "Rabb" by her
commanding officer. Wow. It's really real, isn't it?
"Good morning, sir," she managed.
The Admiral obviously heard her hesitation. "Everything o.k. there,
Mac nodded. "Yes, sir. It's just strange to hear you call me that." She
paused. "Nice, but strange."
As was his usual practice, the Admiral didn't extend the personal
interaction. "I'm sure you'll get used to it. Now, down to business."
"Yes, sir. I was calling Bud to see what he'd gotten so far on the items
Commander Rabb asked him to look into."
"Lieutenant Roberts is here with me, Colonel. We've discovered some
information you and your husband will undoubtedly find interesting.
Bud's voice came on the line. "Good morning, ma'am."
"'Morning, Bud." Mac smiled as she imagined Bud's round, cheerful face.
"Commander Rabb asked me to compare Mrs. Antony's account of the notes
she sent with the Naval reservists' to see what kinds of discrepancies I
could find. It turns out that the only one is the last note-- the one
Mrs. Antony supposedly sent inviting Mr. Brown and Mr. Rossman to meet
her. She denies sending the invitation. However, the rest of their
"So they were definitely involved, or planning to be." Mac found that
fact disappointing, though not very surprising. "That's convenient."
"For Mr. Ariel, anyway," Bud agreed.
"Now here's where it gets interesting, Colonel." The Admiral took over.
"We found a clause in Tony Ariel's contract for the original show,
awarding him a two million dollar bonus if there ended up being only one
couple left at the end of the cruise."
Mac digested the new information. "That sounds like a motive, sir."
"Glad the weeks in the sun haven't addled your brain too badly,
Mac ignored the comment, the only safe course in such instances. "What
about the recording quality? Do we have any new information there?"
"Some, Colonel," Bud assured her. "The poor quality appears to be due to
some kind of interference, probably from an improperly grounded wire in
the camera. The degradation shows up from time to time on that camera,
but not very frequently. The member of the technical crew I talked to
said they asked about trying to repair it, but since it was in an empty
cabin and since the problem didn't happen very often, Ariel decided not
"Ariel decided not to?"
"The pile of circumstantial evidence just keeps getting higher."
Mac ran a hand through her hair. "So he knew about the camera's problem.
Is there any way he could know when the picture would go bad?"
Bud sounded dubious. "Only if he caused the problem with the camera in
the first place and had a way of controlling it."
"Is this the only camera that had problems, Bud?" Ariel couldn't have
been that stupid, could he?
"No, ma'am. Several others had intermittent problems. The worst ones
were replaced during the course of the cruise, but there were a total of
three that Ariel told the technical staff not to bother with."
"Where were they?"
Mac tried to envision the layout of the ship as Bud read off the room
numbers. All three, she thought, were unoccupied cabins in widely
Another thought occurred to her. "What about the hallways? Even if the
room camera had problems, the hall cameras were fine. Can't we see who
came and went, and when?"
"Yes, ma'am." Bud sounded disappointed, like she'd beaten him to the
punch. "We think we've got that sequence all put together. Jessica
Antony entered the room alone. The Naval reservists are also seen
approaching the room, about forty minutes later. They left after about
an hour. Mrs. Antony remained in the room until the host and his
bailiffs arrived to escort her to the Tribunal." The Tribunal was the
mock court in which the evidence of indiscretions was disclosed and
couples officially disqualified from the competition. "She seemed
somewhat disoriented at that point, but didn't protest any of the
"So how did Ariel lure Jessica Antony to the cabin?" Mac toyed with the
ends of the belt on her robe as she tried to put the events in order.
"Unfortunately," Bud drawled the word, warning Mac of impending bad
news. "It doesn't appear that he did. Mrs. Antony claims she doesn't
know how she got to the stateroom, but the video definitely shows her
arriving alone and of her own volition."
Mac frowned. "Something doesn't add up."
"Colonel?" That was the Admiral.
"Sir, the reservists claim Ariel set them up to meet Mrs. Antony, but
say the incident was totally consensual. Mrs. Antony says she didn't
make any kind of invitation and that she was raped, but she can't
explain how she got there. She says she was drugged, but the hallway
video apparently doesn't support that. Mr. Ariel denies delivering the
invitation note, as well as doing anything like drugging Mrs. Antony,
but most of the circumstantial evidence points to him. However the
explicit evidence-- the hallway video-- doesn't implicate him. But, he's
the only one with a compelling motive. It just doesn't fit together."
"Keep working on it, Colonel." If he was perturbed by the apparent
inconsistencies, the Admiral kept it well concealed. "What has your own
Mac sighed. "Do you want details of the other contestants' private
"We haven't had much contact with Ariel. It seemed unwise to draw his
attention. Harm is going to try to get some information from one of the
techs who run the recording system, under the guise of trying to find
evidence that Booth Crossby is abusing his wife."
There was a short pause. "Make sure you stay on track, Colonel."
Mac heard the warning clearly. "Yes, sir."
There was a pause, and Mac's stomach tightened.
"That will be all, Lieutenant," she heard Chedgwidden tell Bud. After a
moment-- no doubt to allow Bud time to leave the office-- he went on in
a more personal voice. "How are you holding up, Mac?"
Mac drew a deep breath. "Sir?"
"The last episode we saw, things seemed a bit… tense between you and
Harm." The Admiral's tone indicated he was growing more uncomfortable by
"We're o.k., sir."
"Very well." She imagined him clasping his hands together on his desk,
frown in place. "That will be all." She could hear the smile in his
voice. "You two be good, Colonel."
"Yes, sir." Oddly encouraged, she ended the call.
After Mac finished her conversation with the Admiral, she climbed into
the shower. Her mind continued to run through the information she'd
received, trying to put it into some kind of comprehensible whole.
Unfortunately, her brain kept drifting to inconsequential details.
Colonel Rabb. She found herself trying to imagine what it would be like
to be back at JAG. Now, when the Admiral leaned out his door and yelled
Rabb! would that still mean Harm, or perhaps both of them? And every
time they reported to an assignment together, what would they say? Sir,
Commander Rabb and Colonel Rabb reporting as ordered. Every skipper or
CO they ever stood in front of would look at them cross-eyed. They'd
waste both time and good favor with each one, explaining how a couple of
married officers could work together. Eventually, word would get around,
and the wasted time would be replaced by, Oh, you two. Mac wasn't sure
which would be worse.
She sighed. Well, you didn't have to take his name. But she'd wanted to.
Growing up, she'd felt reassured by the fact that her mother was Mrs.
MacKenzie. Not that it had kept her from abandoning the family, but…
Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the bathroom door opening
and closing. A moment later, Harm stuck his head around the curtain.
"Mind if I join you?"
Mac summoned a smile. "Of course not." She cocked an eyebrow. "Morning
meeting?" They often showered together, both for the entertainment value
and because it was the only place they felt safe talking, certain the
conversation couldn't be recorded.
Harm nodded. A minute later, he joined her in the water. Mac slipped
into his arms for a hug.
"Bad news?" he asked.
"Confusing," she answered, and proceeded to describe for him the details
of her conversation with Admiral Chegwidden and Bud.
Harm's brow furrowed as he thought. "You're right. Something doesn't add
up. Either Ariel somehow modified the hall recording, or Mrs. Antony is
lying." He picked up his soap, turning it in his hands to make lather.
Mac wondered what it was about men and bar soap. However, since Harm
generally referred to her bath sponge as "that poof thing", she supposed
she already knew the answer.
"I may be able to work the hall recording angle," Harm went on,
oblivious to her thoughts. Mac forced her mind back on topic.
"You had a productive conversation with Mr. Laughton?" They'd picked him
after a little discreet asking around revealed that Mr. Laughton was
considered the black sheep whiz of the technical staff. And Tony Ariel
apparently disliked him.
Harm summarized his encounter with the technician.
"So he knows something-- about Boothe and Carmen, at least." Mac added
the new information to her growing collection of facts. Right now, each
one was like a puzzle piece, a random part of a whole whose image she'd
never seen. Once they'd gathered enough pieces and put them in something
close to proper order, the larger image would start to become clear.
Harm nodded. "I'm a little curious about what he was doing when I found
Mac frowned. "He said he was fixing something, right?"
"Yeah, but how often do they come in and start messing with the wiring
when we have computer problems at the office?"
Mac raised an eyebrow. "Never, as far as I've seen."
"My point exactly. It doesn't ring true. Maybe Bud can tell us what he
might have been doing in there."
Mac chuckled. Bud. Sweet, humble, unassuming Bud, who had more esoteric
knowledge stored in his brain than anyone she'd ever met.
"Probably," she agreed.
Mac picked up her bath sponge, squirted soap onto it, and began to wash.
The soap's hazelnut smell filled the air.
"Here, why don't you let me do that." Harm wiggled his eyebrows
suggestively as he held out a hand for the sponge.
Laughing, Mac surrendered it. "I take it we're done with the serious
"I can think of much more interesting things to be doing while standing
next to a beautiful, naked, soapy woman."
She grinned. "I'll bet." Keeping a hand on his shoulder for balance, she
closed her eyes as the sponge slipped across her skin. The bath was more
an expression of affection than desire, but Mac happily submerged her
thoughts in favor of the delicious sensation.
Some time later, Harm stopped abruptly with a low, angry curse. Mac's
eyes flew open. She turned her head to look up at him, not too terribly
surprised to find his gaze empty, locked on some distant point.
He dragged her into his arms for a tight, slippery hug, as if suddenly
Mac bit back a surge of alarm. "Harm, talk to me." She kept her voice
level. "What is it?" Obviously, the wheels in his head had continued to
turn and he didn't like where his thoughts had taken him.
He heaved a sigh. "Steiner was wrong when he said Ariel would target us
because we're lawyers."
Mac frowned, trying to follow his train of thought.
Harm went on. "Ariel doesn't care about the show's ratings. His bonus is
based on there being one winner, period. Steiner's too wrapped up in
where his own profits come from."
"Or he didn't know about Ariel's bonus," Mac reminded him.
Harm's expression said he didn't believe that for a moment.
Mac shrugged. Neither did she, honestly. "So what are you getting at?"
Harm didn't meet her gaze. "Why do you think Ariel picked the Antonys?"
He paused, and a hint of sarcasm crept into his voice. "Assuming, of
course, that he is guilty."
Mac shrugged. The answer was obvious. "Because Mrs. Antony already had
an ongoing… relationship, for lack of a better word, with two men other
than her husband. She was an easy target." Mac sucked in her breath in
sudden understanding. She pulled back to look up at her husband. "So if
we want to have any hope of getting him to try the same stunt with us…"
Harm's eyes filled with grim shadows as he nodded. "…then when the time
comes, we have to give him the same kind of opportunity."
They stared at each other in silence, heedless of the water that was
slowly growing cold around them. Mac wanted to yell at Harm, tell him he
was wrong, but the words lodged in her throat. Eventually, Harm reached
down to adjust the water temperature, bringing a fresh burst of warmth.
The water did nothing to dispel the cold fear Mac felt inside. She
deliberately turned her back to him and picked up the shampoo.
"We'd better finish up," was all she could find to say. She didn't look
at her husband.
She could feel his gaze boring a hole in the back of her head as she
worked the shampoo into her hair. "Mac, please, be reasonable." She
could hear the tired patience and regret in his voice, and underlying
them, the unyielding iron of his will.
Mac spun to face him, overwhelmed by a flood of emotions. "No, I will
not be reasonable! Not about this." Throwing her arms around his neck,
she kissed him with everything that was inside her-- love, passion,
anger, fear, determination. Harm answered her with a savage passion of
his own, crushing her against him. Water and suds ran down Mac's face in
torrents, filling her mouth with the taste of soap. She didn't care. She
was his, and he was hers. Nothing could ever compromise that. She
wouldn't let it.
Eventually, they separated. Mac lay her head against Harm's shoulder,
feeling his collarbone beneath her cheek, as he buried his face against
her neck. She spluttered a bit, trying to spit out the taste of the
"Blech," Harm agreed in her ear.
Mac couldn't help it. She burst out laughing, shattering the intensity
of the moment.
"Note to self: Rinse out the shampoo first," she said.
Harm joined her laughter. "I'll give you points for spontaneity,
Mac raked her hair back from her face as their mirth faded. Harm met her
gaze. His eyes were deep and blue and calm.
She sighed and squared her shoulders. They'd gotten past the emotions.
Now it was time to talk business. "So, this means I need to cultivate a
Harm nodded, not looking terribly pleased at the prospect. "Yeah.
Slowly, though. We've still got three weeks left on this ship."
"At least we've got a believable set up going."
Harm gave her a curious look.
Mac returned the look innocently. "You and Ms. Upton, remember?"
She felt him tense. "Mac--"
"It's o.k., Harm." She cut him off mid-protest, smiling in reassurance.
"I know you're not interested in her. However, she is interested in you,
and the whole world by now knows I don't like it." She gave him a
self-deprecating smile. "I'm sure we can play it into reason enough for
me to…" Mac's voice faded as the enormity of what she was saying hit
her. "…to be unfaithful." She bit her lip, forcing herself to meet her
husband's gaze. She saw her own fears reflected there.
He shook his head slowly. "We don't have to do this, Mac."
"If we want to catch Ariel, we do."
He didn't try to argue that. "Forget Ariel for the moment. This is us
I'm talking about." Harm captured her hands in his, pressing them to his
chest, over his heart. "I want you to promise, Mac. If this… charade…
starts to get confusing-- if either of us starts to doubt that we're
acting-- we walk. No questions asked. We get off this ship and get on a
plane and go someplace totally private, and we work it through." His
fingers tightened around hers until they ached. "We've had too many
misunderstandings already. I won't lose you to another one."
Mac's heart swelled at the words and the intensity of his stare.
Weak-kneed, she nodded. "I promise." She licked her lips. "I love you,
His smile was like a sudden light. "I love you, too, Sarah. We'll get
Mac smiled back at him. "Semper Fi, Navy."
He touched her face in a tender caress. "Semper Fi."
The aircraft turned out to be a Stampe-- a Belgian aerobatic trainer
dating from the mid-1930's. The plane had been beautifully restored and
had a modern avionics package in the cockpit. Harm wondered whose
airshow Ariel had raided. But, with five thousand feet of air beneath
his wings, he didn't really care. He was just grateful.
"Ready for another one?" he shouted to Nikki over the roar of the prop.
A small video camera mounted on each of the windscreens recorded
"Yeah!" She was laughing in sheer exhilaration.
Harm added power and pulled up, putting them in a steep climb. At ten
thousand feet, he tipped the aircraft over, added rudder, and let the
wings stall. Suddenly unable to generate lift, the biplane turned into a
brightly painted rock. They fell out the sky, spiraling earthward.
Nikki screamed enthusiastically.
At four thousand feet, Harm recovered from the spin. He pulled out at
about 2 g's, grinning as he was shoved back into his seat. It felt so
good to fly, especially after his conversation with Mac that morning.
Things were uncomplicated in the air. For a little while, at least, he
could forget his problems, his fears, and lose himself in the
unadulterated joy flying brought him.
Harm banked the aircraft and headed out over the water. Beneath them,
the massive Radiant Heart looked like a bath toy. The ocean darkened in
gradients as the land beneath the water fell away. They could clearly
see the outline of reefs near the tiny island hosting their activities
that day. The sun gleamed on the water, making the shallows glow an
unearthly turquoise, and turned the whitecaps golden.
Harm brought them down to the deck. Over the calm Caribbean waters, he
felt safe dropping to twenty feet. They skimmed across the shallow water
near the beach. Nikki waved to the people who lined the shore, watching
them. Harm performed a ninety-degree snap roll, completing the pass with
his wings perpendicular to the ground. Nikki cheered.
"So, are you still being nice to me?" Nikki shouted as they gained
altitude once again.
Harm grinned. "So far. Why? You ready to try some serious flying?"
Her laughter was torn away by the rushing wind. "Bring it on, Harm!"
To her surprise, Mac was having a great time. Her escort for the day was
a young man named Toby Mathis. The ironic thing was that Toby could have
been Nikki Upton's twin brother. He had the same deep tan and
sun-streaked blond hair, the same cocksure smile. But despite being a
full decade younger than Mac, he turned out to be pleasant enough
company. They were snorkeling along one of the reefs, something Mac had
never done before. She was amazed by the beauty of the fish that filled
the water around her. Toby took time to point out different varieties of
sea urchins and anemones, their puffy bodies decorated in a riot of
pinks, purples and oranges. A diver followed them with an underwater
camera, but Mac rarely noticed him. The sea itself was too captivating.
Around lunchtime, though, hunger finally drove her to shore.
Laughing, Toby followed. "I've heard about your appetite."
Mac flopped down in the sand, clapping one hand over her stomach. "It's
all true. Oh, I'm hungry." She glanced behind her to where a small crew
was discretely setting up a small table, complete with flowers and white
tablecloth. "I hope they don't take too long."
"Nah. They're usually pretty quick."
Mac chuckled. "I see. So I'm not the first woman you've used this
He looked down at his toes. "Caught me." His grin was guileless as he
shrugged. "I just love snorkeling."
Mac waved his embarrassment away. "Can't blame you for that. It's
They chatted amiably until lunch was ready, then moved their
conversation to the little table. Mac stopped short when she saw the
food that had been laid out.
"Toby, you're my hero." Mac sank into her seat with a huge grin. Each
plate held a monstrous hamburger, piled high with unhealthy goodies, and
a mound of fries.
"I'd heard you were a major carnivore." He gestured for her to proceed.
Mac dug in with gusto.
Toby watched her for a moment, shaking his head and laughing. "Doesn't
your husband feed you?"
Mac met Toby's gaze across the table, surprised. "Usually. He makes me
eat vegetables, though."
Toby popped a french fry into his mouth. "Potatoes are vegetables."
"Point." Mac smiled, cocking her head to study him. "You know, you're
the first of my escorts to voluntarily mention my husband to me."
Toby shrugged, seeming unconcerned. "Facts are facts. You are married,
and seduction's not really my style. The way I figure it… I'm here, I'm
available, and I'm a nice guy. If you want to do something about that,
go right ahead." He turned on a charming smile, then let it fade. "If
not, that's o.k., too."
Mac absorbed his explanation, then slowly grinned. "Deal." She went back
to work on her food. "So what's the plan for the rest of the day?"
"Well, we can keep snorkeling, or I've got a boat reserved so we can do
"Hmmm. Choices, choices." Her contemplation was interrupted by a
distant, high-pitched roar-- the unmistakable sound of a small airplane.
Mac looked up, shading her eyes as she scanned the sky. She spotted the
red and yellow plane a moment later and smiled in satisfaction. It
looked like Nikki Upton was getting exactly what she'd asked for. If she
could still walk once Harm got her back on the ground, Mac would be
"So what do you think of Nikki?" Mac asked her escort after a moment.
Toby grinned at her. "Why? Is she the competition?"
Mac waited a beat too long to answer. It was too good an opportunity to
pass up. "Of course not."
To her surprise, she saw sympathy in the younger man's gaze as he
answered, "She is pretty hot. Bossy, though."
Mac had to chuckle. "Well, if there's one thing Harm can't stand, it's
"Sounds like you don't have anything to worry about, then."
Mac sighed. "No, probably not."
It was nearly midnight as Harm made his way toward the conference rooms
that hosted the frequent HALO sessions. All things considered, he would
much rather have gone to bed with his wife. Despite George's claims,
Harm didn't find any real appeal in the idea of staying up all night to
play video games. But, duty calls… Who knows, maybe being able to play
one of these things will win me some points with Chloe. He grimaced
sourly. Yeah, right.
Harm reached the correct room and stepped into a computer generated war
zone. Images were splashed across two walls in the darkened room. It
took him a moment to realize they were first-person views of the same
location, from different angles. The graphics were better than the best
flight simulator he'd ever flown. A pile of computing equipment sat on
the floor beneath each projected image. Two pair of speakers blared with
noise-- voices shouting and giving commands, gunfire, screams and
explosions. The weapon sounds were unrecognizable to his trained ear,
but everything else shouted to Harm that he'd walked into the middle of
a firefight. He tensed instinctively, fingers twitching toward a weapon
he wasn't wearing.
"Pretty real, huh?"
Harm whipped around to stare into George Laughton's round face. The
other man took a half step back, his smile dying. Harm forced himself to
relax before he gave himself away. It's just a game.
"You're not kidding. I almost dove under the table." He cracked a smile.
A table at the center of the room held the video projection equipment.
Others were scattered about the room. Here and there, people sat to
chat, eat or just watch.
George gave Harm an odd look, but chuckled. "Well, c'mon. Let me
introduce you to some folks and then I'll show you the basics of the
game." They wound their way through the tables, pausing from time to
time to meet the people sitting there. The Radiant Heart was a small
community, all things considered, so Harm was familiar with most of the
They ended up next to one of the players. "Hey, Geordi," the man said,
never taking his eyes from the screen. Harm was surprised to recognize
Don, the cameraman who'd helped him rescue Nikki almost three weeks
"Hi, Don," Harm said, causing the other man to look up sharply. Then
Don's face split in a wide smile.
Harm rolled his eyes. The ribbing about that little stunt had finally
died away, for the most part.
George chuckled. "Looks like you've already got your screen name."
"Not likely," Harm told him. He would never live it down at JAG. "Yours
George grinned. "Yeah, you know, Star Trek: The Next Generation?"
Harm just shrugged. When it came to television, he was pretty much lost.
"Never mind." George gestured toward the wall in front of Don. "They're
playing capture the flag, every man for himself," he explained. "We have
a total of four systems running, so there can be up to four players in
the same game environment."
Harm watched the screen for a moment, then nodded. He'd flown
multi-pilot simulations, even done a little dogfighting in that
environment, so the concept wasn't new.
George spent some time giving him an overview of the game and explaining
the various weapons and equipment available to the video game
characters. Then, once Don's round had finished-- Harm had no idea who'd
won, except that it wasn't Don-- George sat him down in the player's
seat for an introduction to the hand controller. Under George's
directions, Harm took his character off line for a practice session.
Once he was driving, Harm felt a lot better. As a fighter pilot, his
reflexes and hand-eye coordination were exceptional, as was his ability
to process information from multiple inputs in a realtime environment.
Once he'd adjusted to the feel of the controller and started memorizing
how to access things like his inventory, he quickly made progress.
"Hammer?" George asked at one point, referring to Harm's screen name.
Harm shrugged. "It was my dad's call sign in Vietnam. Seemed
"Your dad flew in Vietnam?"
In the midst of fighting his way out of a small ambush, Harm didn't look
away from the screen. "Yeah."
"Cool," was George's only response. Harm had to smile. George's
generation was the one after Harm's, and it was obvious he hadn't lived
through the decade of vicious backlash against that war or seen the deep
rift it had caused in the country. To the younger man it was just
another piece of history-- 'cool' because America had stood up for
something, even if they'd done a poor job of it.
"The guy's a natural," Don commented to George a little while later as
Harm wrapped up the practice round. The other man looked impressed.
George laughed and wagged a warning finger at Harm. "You aren't supposed
to be this good at this." Harm stared as he continued, "I'm supposed to
be bringing in fresh meat, not serious competition."
Mentally, Harm shook his head. It was just an innocuous statement. There
was no way for George to know who he really was. George held out his
hand for the controller.
"Here, I'm not going to try to walk you through joining a networked
game. This time, at least, I'll just do it."
"Fine by me." Harm surrendered the controller. "I'm trying to memorize
too much already."
"You seem to be doing pretty well at it," Don commented dryly.
Harm shrugged. "I'm a lawyer. Memorization is my life. You want me to
quote you the Constitution?"
Don gave him a strange look. "All of it?"
"It is the basis for all law in the United States."
Don grimaced. "No, thanks. I hated Social Studies."
"There. You're set." George handed the controller back to Harm. Harm
accepted it, and was surprised to feel something other than plastic
along the back of the device. He gave no sign, however, just palmed the
slip of paper and tucked it in his jeans pocket. Then he gave all his
attention to the virtual combat world of HALO.
Harm got back to the room just as Mac was waking up. She sat up in bed,
looking deliciously tousled as she tried to gain her bearings.
"Are you just getting in?" she asked, her voice still thick with sleep.
She rubbed her eyes and brushed a lock of hair away from her face,
Harm grinned, then knelt on the edge of the bed to kiss her soundly. He
was still running high on adrenaline and caffeine, and she was just too
beautiful to leave alone.
Mac laughed when he released her, dark eyes dancing. "I take it you had
a good time?"
Harm pushed himself away from the bed. Standing, he stripped off his
shirt, then sat on the edge to take off his shoes. The jeans he would
leave on until he got into the bathroom and could take a look at
whatever George had passed him. "More than I expected, actually. I
swear, the game's addictive."
Mac watched him as he undressed. "Are you headed for bed?"
Harm flashed her a smile. "I couldn't sleep right now if I had to."
She grinned wryly. "I know. You're positively bouncing."
He headed into the bathroom. Mac followed him. Once they were safely
away from the cameras, Harm pulled out George's note.
Mac raised an eyebrow in silent question, and Harm nodded. He unfolded
the paper, tilting it so Mac could see it as well. The note read:
There's a secondary recording system in the contestants' cabins-- sound
only. It records while the cabin cameras are off. Only the bathroom is
Harm frowned. The information wasn't exactly a huge surprise, but the
confirmation only served to anger him. Such recording was, technically
speaking, illegal, though whether there was enough to make a case
against Ariel, Steiner, or the studio, he couldn't say.
Mac's brow dipped as she tapped the note. "He didn't say anything about
Boothe and Carmen," she whispered.
"Not explicitly," Harm countered, also in a whisper. "But he could be
implying there's evidence on these sound tapes. Something that happened
when they didn't know they were being recorded."
"Maybe. Or maybe the warning is directed at us." She gave Harm a grave
stare. "Do you think Webb could have planted someone on the ship?"
He blinked. That had never occurred to him. "George? That would be a
pretty big coincidence." He shrugged. "But I wouldn't put anything past
Webb. We can ask the Admiral."
Mac watched him thoughtfully. "We're going to have to be really careful
not to step out of character for the next few weeks."
Harm nodded grimly. The apparent rift they generated to give Ariel the
opportunity to target them would have to exist twenty-four hours a day
because of the secondary recording system.
He shoved the thought away. For now, at least, such concerns remained in
the future. They could still legitimately be a happily married couple
until the opportunity to start destroying the relationship presented
itself. Unconsciously, he fingered the ring on his left hand, and the
miracle it represented.
"Mac, did I ever tell you how sorry I am that it took something like
this insane investigation to shove me into marrying you?"
Her brown eyes widened in surprise. "No, but--"
Harm silenced her with a finger to her lips. "Then I should." He cupped
her cheek in his hand, lightly stroking the line of her lower lip with
his thumb. It was getting easier to be honest with her. He took a deep
"You deserved better than this, Mac. You deserved…" He faltered for a
moment. He had had his own secret dreams of what their wedding would be.
"You deserved to have your wedding in a rose garden, and to know that
the only reason it was happening was because there was a man who loved
you more than more than anything-- more than his independence, more than
flying… more than life itself." Harm wasn't entirely sure when he'd
realized that he'd be willing to walk away from anything else in his
life if it meant keeping Mac.
Mac's eyes filled with tears. "Dress whites and roses…" She smiled
wistfully. "That's how I always envisioned our wedding, too." She raised
a hand to cover his where it rested on her face, her expression firming.
"But it doesn't matter. What matters is that we're together."
Harm wondered if she had any idea what an amazing woman she was. "No, it
does matter, Mac. I can't turn the clock back, and, to be brutally
honest, I'm not sure I would ever have gotten to this point without
being forced into it--" He sighed. It was disappointing to see this flaw
in himself so clearly. "But with the wisdom of hindsight, I just wanted
to tell you that I wish I'd been able to do it right."
With a crooked smile, Mac raised her left hand to show him her wedding
rings. The diamond that had once belonged to Harm's mother sparkled and
flashed in the harsh electric lighting.
"Are you so sure you haven't?" she asked him.
He looked at her blankly. Her smile deepened.
"Your mother told me about this ring, Harm." She looked down at her feet
for a moment, her expression filling with pain. "It was the only thing
that kept me from completely coming apart that last day or so."
A knife to the heart would have been kinder. Harm pulled her close,
feeling the hot sting of tears. "I'm so sorry, Sarah. I never wanted to
Mac sighed softly. "And I forgive you, if there's any need for it." She
shook her head. "We were so messed up, Harm… As crazy as this whole
thing has been, I'm not sure we could have made it any other way." She
pulled back to look up at him, her gaze firm. "I'll take the reality
over the fairy tale any day."
Harm had to smile at that. "Me, too."
Harm stood at the bar in one of the Radiant Heart's dance clubs, quietly
nursing his bourbon. Mac had already gone to bed and the HALO session
wouldn't start for another hour, so he was killing time. Heavy techno
music throbbed through the crowded room, so loud he felt like his teeth
were vibrating. A couple of women had come by already with invitations
to dance, but he'd turned them down. For one, none had been Nikki. And
even if she had been there, it was a step he was deeply hesitant to
take. There would always be another opportunity. On this ship, that much
He took another sip of his bourbon. Maybe if I procrastinate long
enough, we can come up with a better plan. One that didn't involve
walking the gray line between fidelity and betrayal.
A hand closed on Harm's shoulder, strong fingers digging into the joint.
Harm turned in surprise to find Boothe behind him, his face suffused
Boothe leaned forward, his eyes narrowing. "Just where do you get off
telling people that I abuse my wife?" he shouted over the music.
Harm pulled out of the other man's grasp and turned to face him. "Do
you?" he shouted back.
Boothe took a deep breath, then opened his mouth for a response. Harm
braced himself. But then Boothe seemed to deflate. He gave Harm a look
that was part fury, part disgust, and rolled his eyes. He waved toward
the door as if to usher Harm outside.
Curious, Harm complied. Leaving his drink, he followed Boothe out of the
club. The main concourse was fairly deserted at that late hour, giving
them some semblance of privacy.
Once they had walked a short distance from the door, Boothe stopped and
turned around. "Now I'll answer your question. No, I do not-- and have
not ever-- abused my wife." His voice was taut with suppressed anger.
"Where do you get off accusing me? Did you know Tony Ariel came to see
Carmen and me and suggested that we withdraw?" He made a sharp gesture.
"Apparently they don't want a wife-beater on their show!"
Harm watched the other man cautiously. Boothe appeared to be sober. Harm
crossed his arms over his chest, keeping his demeanor casual.
"Carmen told Mac you hit her."
Boothe looked startled for a moment, then the anger returned. "You're
lying." He took a step closer.
Harm shook his head, but otherwise didn't give. "I'm not. Do you deny
"You sound like a cop."
Harm frowned. "No, just a lawyer."
Boothe glared. "Then stop talking to me like a lawyer!"
They were nearly nose to nose now. Harm smiled in what he hoped was an
engaging way. If at all possible, he wanted to defuse the situation.
"Sorry about that. It's what I am."
Boothe stared at him, the menace in his expression unwavering. "Look, I
don't know where this is coming from, but it's not true. It's some head
game of Carmen's, so stay out, got it?"
Harm raised his hands, palms out. "Hey, Mac was concerned so we started
asking some questions. That's all. Do you know if Carmen has any abuse
in her past?"
Boothe's laughter was hard and brittle. "Little Miss Rodeo Drive? Daddy
would have had them shot."
Harm took a deliberate step back. "Wait-- Carmen grew up on Rodeo?"
Boothe nodded, and his mind started turning in new directions. Rodeo
Drive meant serious money. "She hasn't been disinherited or anything,
That earned him an odd look. "No. Why would you say that?"
Harm shook his head. "Never mind. You're right. She's playing some kind
of head game with Mac."
Boothe's stormy expression began to fade. He nodded sharply. "All right
Harm studied him. He was beginning to get the feeling it was Boothe's
position in the marriage that was precarious, not Carmen's.
Harm cocked his head. "Her family doesn't like you very much, do they?"
Boothe gave a derisive snort.
"How'd you two end up on the show?"
Boothe shrugged. "Carmen's idea. I figured it'd be a lark, though." He
looked at Harm. "What about you and Mac?"
Harm chuckled. "I'm chalking it up to temporary insanity."
Boothe grinned, and for the first time Harm began to feel like he had
some idea what was going on inside the other man. He wondered if Boothe
had married Carmen for her family money, or if he really cared for her.
Harm didn't envy him, in either case.
He took his leave then and headed for the HALO rooms. Now all he had to
do was figure out how to continue the investigation without the excuse
of digging into Boothe and Carmen's relationship.
Mac wandered the confines of the stateroom restlessly. She'd told Harm
she was going to bed, but she couldn't force herself to lie down. Every
time she closed her eyes, her mind conjured another image of her
husband-- in the arms of Nikki Upton.
"Oh, for goodness sake!" Frustrated with herself and her overwhelming
insecurity when it came to her relationship with Harm, she stalked over
to the closet and began to dress. She would go crazy trapped in here.
The night air felt good against her face as Mac stepped out onto the
deck. Overhead, the stars were bright and so numerous they looked like
salt scattered across a dark cloth. She went to the rail and stood there
for a while, watching the water.
"Penny for your thoughts?" a man's voice asked from a few steps behind
Mac glanced over her shoulder to find Toby watching her, his expression
curious. "You wouldn't be getting much for your money," she answered,
and turned back to the water.
He came forward, leaned his elbows on the rail next to where she stood.
"That's o.k. It's an investment."
Mac couldn't help a small smile.
"So where's hubby?" Toby asked after a moment.
"Playing video games."
"He got sucked in to that, huh?"
Mac nodded, unconsciously clasping her hands together in front of her.
"Third night this week." She sighed softly.
"Uh oh. Well, he's an idiot for ignoring someone as nice and smart and
beautiful and funny and--"
"Oh, stop!" Mac was grinning widely. Her smile quickly faded. "Thanks."
They stood together in silence. Mac watched the dark water and listened
to the soft rush of air past her face.
"You hungry?" Toby asked suddenly.
Mac flashed a smile. "Always."
"You want to go get something to eat? I hear the midnight buffet's to
die for." After a moment's hesitation, he offered his hand.
Mac stared at him. I don't want to do this. It's necessary. It's not
worth the price. Harm knows it's not real. It too easily could be. Mind
and conscience warred over her response.
"Just friends?" she asked, biting her lip.
He grinned and shrugged. "Sure."
Taking a deep breath, Mac slipped her hand into his.
They wandered the length of the ship, arriving eventually at the buffet.
There were a few people around, and Mac self-consciously pulled her hand
away from Toby's as those nearby took note of their arrival.
Together, they moved to the head of the buffet table. Mac picked her way
through the food, wishing she was as hungry as she claimed. Eventually
they settled at a table near the edge of the cavernous room. Despite
Mac's fears, Toby did nothing overtly suggestive. He was friendly and
lighthearted-- exactly what she needed to take her mind off Harm. They
talked about inconsequential things, shared stories from their college
days (though his were a good deal more recent than hers), and had a
generally good time.
They'd been there about an hour when a voice she knew better than her
own shattered the small measure of peace she'd gained. Mac heard her
husband's laughter and looked around, startled. He had just walked in,
along with five or six others. They were all chatting companionably, but
Mac's gut twisted at the sight of a certain blond head bobbing along
beside Harm. Nikki Upton had apparently figured out where Harm was
spending his evenings.
"Looks like the game crew got hungry," Toby commented. He sounded as
wary as Mac felt. "Do you want to go say hi?"
Mac started to shake her head, but stopped when Nikki reached up to lay
a hand on Harm's shoulder, leaning into him as she talked.
Something inside Mac snapped at the casually familiar gesture. She rose
from her chair like an uncoiling spring, hands curling into fists at her
side. Marines didn't back down, didn't surrender a position once they'd
taken it. And Harm was hers.
She stalked toward the group. A small, rational voice in the back of her
mind insisted she was making a foolish mistake, but the rest simply
wasn't listening. In that moment, Mac didn't care about the
investigation, the Navy, or even the two reservists waiting for them
back in Virginia. All that mattered was that there was another woman
making a move on her husband, and he was doing nothing to stop it.
The group of gamers was too involved in their conversation to notice
Mac's approach. Even Harm, who had uncanny spatial awareness, didn't
give any indication he'd seen her.
Nikki had her back turned, so it was a simple matter for Mac to walk up,
grab the other woman by both shoulders and spin her away from Harm. Mac
caught some of Nikki's hair in the process, and was rewarded by a
screech that plunged the room into silence. She stepped into the vacated
spot, putting herself between Nikki and Harm, and glared at the blond
co-ed. Very deliberately, she raised her hand to shake away the long
blond strands that clung to her fingers, keeping her eyes locked on the
"Mac, what are you doing?" Harm's voice came from behind her, hard-edged
and carrying a clear warning note.
Mac ignored him. She took a step forward, arms held away from her sides
and fingers spread in an unconscious fighter's stance. Nikki swallowed
hard. Mac grinned at her discomfort. She leaned forward until her face
was only a couple of inches from Nikki's.
"Stay away from my husband," she said in a quiet, clearly-enunciated
Mac studied her for a long moment, then nodded in satisfaction. She spun
on her heel to leave, only to nearly collide with Harm who stood a pace
behind her. They stared at each other in silence. Harm's expression
could have been chiseled in stone for all the reaction he showed. Only
his eyes were alive, flashing with indignation and anger.
"What do you think you're doing?" he demanded.
Mac raised her chin, her stomach clenched in a hard, cold knot.
"Defending my marriage, which you, apparently, don't care to do."
Harm's gaze flicked to Toby, who had followed Mac and now stood a few
feet behind her, watching everything with ill-concealed nervousness.
Harm raised an eyebrow. "Oh, really?" His tone was thick with sarcasm.
"Looks to me like we're on pretty even ground. Maybe you should go look
in a mirror before you make any more accusations."
"Maybe so," she agreed tightly. "At least then one of us would still
remember what I look like." With that, she turned and strode away.
"Thanks for the company, Toby," she told the young man as she brushed
past him, her eyes firmly fastened on the far wall.
"Any time," he answered from behind her, but the statement lacked
Feeling the eyes of everyone in the room on her back, Mac forced herself
to keep her steps even as she walked out.
Having nowhere else to go, she went back to the room she shared with
Harm. She turned the lights on as she entered, knowing that she'd turned
on the cameras as well despite the hour, and dropped heavily onto the
edge of the bed.
Reaction set in. She began to shake. Tears quickly followed. Leaning
forward, Mac clasped her hands together between her knees and let them
Harm returned to the room just before 0400. Mac was still awake, curled
up in one corner of the bed, reading. She'd been too keyed up to sleep
and too afraid of the kinds of dreams she'd have if she'd tried, so
she'd done her best to lose herself in a halfway intelligent mystery
novel she'd bought a few days earlier.
She looked up when Harm entered. Their eyes locked across the length of
the room. Mac couldn't bring herself to speak.
After a moment, Harm pulled his gaze away. He headed for the bathroom,
stripping off his shirt as he went and leaving it in a heap on the floor
behind him. Mac stared at the crumpled pile of cloth. It was such an
un-Harm thing to do that she was momentarily shocked.
Tossing her book aside, she followed him, wondering with some
trepidation what she might find. She tried not to let her fear show,
though. If anyone had a right to be angry it was she, and to that
effect, she kicked the bathroom door closed behind her as she entered.
Harm was waiting for her. He leaned casually against the edge of the
sink, arms crossed over his bare chest. But the cold, impassive face
he'd worn since walking into the stateroom cracked when the door slammed
"Wow, Mac." The blue eyes suddenly twinkled with wicked humor. "You're
Mac caught her breath in a gasp as everything turned right in the world
"You're not so bad yourself," she managed, crossing the distance between
them in two strides. Harm barely had time to open his arms before she
hit him, wrapping her arms around his neck and seeking his mouth with
desperate need. He pulled her tight against him, one large hand knotting
in her hair as he kissed her roughly in return.
The kiss ended as abruptly as it began. They stared at each other for a
long, frozen moment. Then Harm's painful grip on her hair loosened. His
gaze softened as he gently stroked the disturbed locks back into place
and leaned forward to kiss her on the forehead. Mac smiled at the
feeling of his lips against her skin.
"Are we o.k.?" he asked, his breath warm on her hairline.
Mac let out a deep sigh. "Yeah." She kissed his throat, then tipped her
head to touch her lips to the soft spot just beneath his jaw. The dark
stubble of his beard scraped her mouth, sending a thrill through her
He chuckled. "I thought for sure you were going to take the poor girl's
"I was tempted, believe me." She turned her attention to the other side
of his neck, feeling his skin warm in response to her ministrations. His
pulse quickened beneath her lips.
The tenor of his laugh changed. His hands came to rest on her waist.
"Mac, I really like what you're doing, but you've got to stop."
Regretfully, she pulled away. "I suppose, seeing as we're supposed to be
Her comment damped the desire flaring in his eyes. His lips twisted in a
sour smile. "How do you want to play it?"
Mac gave the question careful consideration, ignoring the insistent
voice in the back of her mind that told her to bag the investigation in
favor of kissing this man until she couldn't remember her own name.
While she thought, Harm gave her an amused look from beneath his brows.
"I would love to know what's going through your mind right now."
Mac flushed, grinning in embarrassment. "Yes you would," she agreed, but
didn't elaborate. She pushed her thoughts back onto the question at
hand. "We both need some sleep. Do you think frigid silence would be
believable? I'd really like to lay next to you even if I have to pretend
I'm not enjoying it."
He smiled ruefully. "I think we can make it work." He paused, eyebrows
wriggling with irrepressible humor. "If you think you can keep your
hands off me, that is."
Mac chuckled. "I can if you can."
He bowed with a flourish, gesturing toward the door. "After you, then."