Capturing Ariel turned out to be somewhat anti-climatic. They found him
in his stateroom, packing, as if he could somehow jump ship as easily as
one would skip town. Clay had stayed back while Agent Peters read Ariel
his rights, smiling slightly at their less-than-gentle handling as they
handcuffed him and took him to wherever they would be holding him. Clay
was glad the FBI was there to handle it. He wanted to skip due process
and simply shoot the man, preferably starting at the toes and working
his way upward. He had eleven rounds in his pistol, which might--
might-- be enough to quench his thirst for vengeance.
Afterwards, Clay had gone by both of the crime scenes, now taped off and
filled with forensics investigators. It was the bathroom that had gotten
to him. He'd seen a person bleed out before. It was impossible to
comprehend how much blood the body contained until you saw it all in a
pool on the floor. But that had been a man, and not someone Clay had
known. This was Mac.
Sometimes he wondered why he felt so protective toward the feisty
Marine. She was as tough as they came, and had courage enough to fly
with. She didn't need protection. True to her credo, she would stand in
the breach without thought for her personal safety if it would serve
justice or her country. But maybe that was why the men around her
automatically stepped in to shield her-- because they knew she would
never hide, would never back down. And none of them wanted to watch her
pay the price for her courage.
Clay shook his head sharply. It was a bad sign when he started waxing
"It gets to you sometimes, doesn't it?" Agent Peters stepped up beside
Clay nodded, eyes never leaving the desecrated bathroom. "Yeah." He
cleared his throat. "Especially this one."
"Have you heard whether she made it?"
Clay shook his head. He hadn't been able to bring himself to make the
Peters gave him a minute to collect himself before returning to
business. "We've got the video sorted out. Thought you might want to see
Clay looked over at him, both pleased and grateful for the development.
It gave him something to do beside stare at Mac's blood and wonder if he
was ever going to be able to look Harmon Rabb in the eye again without
Clay followed the Peters to the AV room. The group of techs that had
helped Harm clustered off to one side, having been ejected from their
normal places by a trio of FBI agents. The three looked up as Clay went
to stand behind them.
"Let's see it." Clay focused on the screen.
"Which one do you want?" one of the agents asked.
Clay sighed. "Let's do Ms. Upton first." That way I can avoid the
inevitable for a little longer.
The agent nodded and went to work at his keyboard. Not long afterward, a
picture appeared on the screen. It was Ariel and Nikki Upton, walking
down a hallway, cabin doors to either side. They were talking
"Ariel and Upton had dinner together just previous to this," the agent
said, narrating the scene. "Now he's walking her back to her cabin." The
timestamp in the corner put the time at just past eleven o'clock.
On the monitor, the two stopped. Nikki stepped forward to unlock her
"Here." The agent pointed as the tape froze, then went forward in
extreme slow motion. "You can see her jump, as if she's been pricked by
something." Onscreen, Nikki started and slapped at her leg as if chasing
an insect. Ariel's reaction was credible, both in surprise and
"And there it is." The agent froze the scene completely. His finger
pointed to Ariel's right hand, which was away from the camera and so
mostly hidden. But in this frame, he had turned slightly, revealing both
his hand and the slender hypodermic needle clasped in it. As the agent
advanced the recording frame by frame, they saw Ariel drop the needle in
his jacket pocket.
"So he drugged her." Clay wasn't terribly surprised. "What happened
The agent shifted to the camera inside Nikki's room. She walked inside
then paused, swaying, and put one hand to her head. Grimacing in pain,
she made her way to the bed and collapsed across it.
"That's it," the agent told him. "She doesn't move again. It looks like
she simply quit breathing." He gave Clay a grim look. "Whatever he used,
it was quick."
Clay nodded, not trusting himself to speak. He braced himself. "O.k. Now
how about Colonel Rabb?"
"You sure you want to see this?"
Clay snapped his head around to stare at the agent. His heart felt like
it had turned into a lump of ice in his chest. "Tell me he didn't rape
The agent shook his head. "No, but he got pretty friendly." The man
shrugged. "It sounded like she was a friend of yours--"
"She is a friend of mine," Clay interrupted harshly. "Is." He bit his
lip, running a hand through his hair as he tried to contain his
distress. He regained control in stages, then turned back to the agent
who watched him compassionately. He took a deep breath. "Just show me."
The agent nodded and turned back to his keyboard. Clay watched the video
in silence, his jaw tightly clenched, as Ariel removed each piece of
Mac's clothing and ran his hands-- and occasionally his mouth-- over
what was exposed. When he was done, Ariel donned a pair of gloves then
picked up Mac's still form and carried her into the bathroom. A moment
later they heard the sound of water running.
"He's filling the bath," the agent said unnecessarily.
That went on for a while, then eventually shut off. They heard a few
indistinct noises coming from the bathroom, but nothing identifiable--
until Mac screamed.
"We figure that's when he cut her." The agent tapped his fingertips
against the base of the keyboard. Ariel walked out of the bathroom a
moment later, gathered up Mac's clothes, and shoved them under the bed
in passing. The cameras followed him out of the room and down the hall--
all the way back to his stateroom.
The screens blanked. The agent leaned back in his chair. "That's it,
unless you want to see Rabb coming in to get her."
Clay shook his head. "No, thanks. Good work." But it didn't sound like
praise when he said it. He turned away, wandering aimlessly out into the
hall. How in the world had they let this happen?
After a moment, he drew out his cell phone and dialed a number. He
couldn't avoid it any longer. The phone rang several times before being
answered by a familiar voice.
Clay sighed wearily. "A.J., it's Webb. How is she?"
The first thing A.J. saw when he stepped off the elevator on the third
floor of Tampa General Hospital was the crowd of reporters milling
around in the waiting area. Beyond them, two armed Marines blocked
access to the hallway leading to the surgery wing. The reporters took
note of his arrival-- and his Navy uniform-- with great interest.
Cameras swung around to face him as a number of the reporters closed in.
"Sir, who are you?"
"Can you tell us anything about what's happened?"
"Admiral, can you tell us who's been injured? Was it one of the Rabbs?"
The questions came from every direction. A.J. was tempted to push past
without comment, but at the last minute he paused. This entire set of
events had been put into motion to help the Navy's reputation with the
public. He couldn’t do anything to ruin that now.
He turned to face the group, squinting against the glare of the camera
lights. "I'm Rear Admiral A.J. Chegwidden, Judge Advocate General of the
Navy. I'm Commander and Colonel Rabbs' superior."
"Sir, why are you here? Has one of them been hurt?" The reporter
directly in front of A.J. was very young and eager-looking. But he was
also the only one who had addressed A.J. as "sir".
He turned to the young reporter. "Yes, Colonel Rabb was… badly injured."
He paused, knowing his own information was sketchy at best. He'd gotten
a courtesy call from the FBI office in Tampa, but they hadn't known much
beyond where their helicopter had dropped off his officers. "I don't
have any details." He held up a hand as the reporter opened his mouth.
"Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go see my people."
A.J. shouldered his way through the crowd. The Marine guards came to
attention as he passed, then returned to their parade rest stances.
They, too, were there to take care of their own. That was the first
thing A.J. had done on hearing the news.
A.J. stopped at one of the nurses' stations for directions, then headed
to the far end of the wing. His shoes clicked loudly on the polished
floors. Tampa General was an upscale hospital, existing primarily to
serve the wealthy retirees in the area. The area A.J. walked through
bustled, but had none of the crowding or desperation he expected of big
He found Harm eventually, seated on a padded bench at the very end of
the hall. A young black man in a hospital gown and attending IV stand
sat next to him, eyes fixed on the far wall. The commander sat leaned
over with his elbows resting on his knees. He was covered in blood, now
dried. It stained his clothes and streaked his skin, matting the hair on
his arms into gruesome whorls. There was a dejected air about him that
A.J. had rarely seen.
A.J. walked up to Harm. The other man didn't look up. His hands rubbed
continuously against each other, thumbs brushing away dark flakes of
Harm's head jerked upward. A.J. stared into the face of the man who was
more of a son to him than any other, and his heart went out to him.
Exhaustion and stress had taken their toll, leaving him haggard. Even
Harm's deep tan couldn't hide his pallor, or the emptiness in his gaze.
He stood after a moment, swaying slightly.
A.J. feared the worst. "Mac?" he asked softly.
Harm stared straight ahead, not really seeing his superior. "She
arrested on the table." His voice was flat, hollow. He took a shaky
breath, then went on, "The doctor said she was down about ninety
A.J. needed a moment to process the meaning of his words. "Where is she
now, son?" he asked carefully. He hadn't realized how dire Mac's
Harm's gaze moved over A.J.'s shoulder, toward the wide doors leading
into the surgical theater. "Surgery. They had to repair the artery--
they couldn't stop the bleeding."
"How long has she been in?"
Harm checked his watch. A.J. watched him struggle to do the simple
calculation. "Two-- two and a half hours."
A.J. simply nodded. It might be a while until they heard anything, then.
He shied away from thinking too hard about the situation. If he did,
he'd have to envision Mac lying on an operating table, fighting for her
"I called your mother. She and Frank should be arriving any time. I'm
surprised they didn't beat me here." A.J. paused to unlimber the carryon
bag from his shoulder. "I brought you some things."
Harm made no immediate move to take the bag, so A.J. set it on the floor
by his feet.
"Thank you, Admiral."
"You're welcome." He watched Harm a moment longer. "This isn't a time
for formalities, son. Call me A.J."
Harm nodded, but remained silent.
"There are some fresh clothes in the bag for you." A.J. wasn't sure how
to comfort the other man, who was very obviously still in shock. "I'll
be happy to stay here and wait for news while you clean up. I'm sure
there's a shower somewhere you can use."
"Hey, you can use the one in my room for all that," said the man beside
Harm. He looked over at A.J. and offered his hand. "I'm George
A.J. shook his hand. "A.J. Chegwidden."
"Thank you, sir… A.J." Harm shook his head. "But I'd rather stay here."
A.J. shrugged, familiar with the stubborn expression on the other man's
face. He kept his tone light. "It's your call, but do you really want to
have to deal with your mother when she sees you like this?" He glanced
significantly at Harm's ruined shirt.
Harm followed his gaze, eyes widening as he took in the bloodstains that
covered him. He looked back up at A.J, utterly disarmed. "No wonder the
nurses kept stopping to ask me if I was hurt."
A.J. nodded in sympathy.
Just then the double doors behind A.J. swung open and a man in green
scrubs walked out. He came over to the trio, giving A.J. a sidelong
glance but keeping most of his attention on Harm.
Harm nodded, dread filling his gaze. A.J. moved a bit closer to his
officer in an unconscious show of support.
The doctor folded his arms across his chest. A hint of a smile appeared
on his face. "Your wife is quite a fighter."
Harm sagged in relief as the implication hit him. A.J. hurried to catch
his elbow, his own knees weak.
"Will she be all right?" he asked.
The doctor glanced at A.J. "We managed to stop the bleeding, so from now
on she'll be gaining ground." He returned his attention to Harm, his
expression encouraging. "She's made it through the hardest part. Like I
said, she's a fighter. I can't say she's out of the woods yet, but her
chances get better with every passing minute."
"When can I see her?" Harm asked.
The doctor glanced over his shoulder at the surgery doors. "They'll be
moving her up to ICU when she comes out of recovery. I'll have a nurse
come get you."
Harm nodded. "Thank you." His voice was faint.
The doctor smiled a real smile. "You're welcome. Now, if you'll excuse
me…" He turned and headed back through the double doors.
A.J. watched Harm, both perplexed and concerned. He'd expected the other
man to snap back to himself once they'd heard good news, but he still
seemed as dazed as ever.
"Harm?" he finally asked. "Are you all right?"
Harm turned. "Not really, sir." He shook his head. "I honestly… didn't
think she would make it." His blue eyes met A.J.'s, unguarded and full
of pain. "I've been sitting here for the last couple of hours trying to
figure out how I was going to live without her…" He made an aimless
A.J.'s expression quirked. "Well, quit it, commander." Rabb knew how to
wallow better than most, but this was no longer an appropriate time. The
sooner he snapped out of it, the better.
Harm turned to stare at his superior in surprise, but then accepted the
chastisement. "Yes, sir."
Satisfied, A.J. nodded. "Good. Now go get cleaned up before you give
your mother a heart attack." He paused. "That's an order, son."
"Aye aye, sir." Harm bent to retrieve the bag A.J. had brought.
George Laughton watched the two officers, his expression bemused.
"Do they really say 'aye aye' in the Navy?" he asked Harm once the two
started to walk away. "I thought that was just in the movies."
Harm's amused snort floated back down the hallway to A.J., who took it
as an encouraging sign. They'd be all right, he finally decided. As long
as they had each other, Harm and Mac would always make it through.
He was still standing there when his cell phone rang. A.J. answered it.
"A.J., it's Webb." The CIA agent sounded infinitely weary. "How is she?"
Mac woke in stages. The dark warmth that cocooned her gave way to a
reddish glow she knew instinctively to be gentle light shining on her
closed eyelids. After that came voices, rising and falling in
conversational waves. She picked out Harm's resonant tenor after a
minute, finding joy in the intimately familiar sound. She imagined his
face-- the strong, clean lines of it, framing a perfect smile and sea
blue eyes that could reflect a soul as deep as the ocean they resembled…
or nothing at all. Her first image gave way to a new one, of the heavy
doors slamming shut behind Harm's eyes, sealing away his overwhelming
horror behind an empty mask. The image frightened her, but for a moment
she couldn’t figure out why. But then she remembered Ariel, and the
scissors, and the blood. Only then did Mac truly become aware of her
body. Pain crashed down on her, crushing her arm and radiating into her
shoulder and across her chest.
With a gasp, Mac opened her eyes.
Harm was immediately there. She felt his fingers engulf hers on her
uninjured side as he leaned over her, a worried crease between his
"Is it over?" she croaked. Her throat felt like sandpaper.
His brow smoothed out. "Yeah, it's over." His fingers caressed her face,
trailing gently down her cheek. "You're safe."
Reassured, Mac let her gaze wander away from his face. "Where am I?"
"Tampa General Hospital," another voice told her. A young man leaned
over her, white coat draped over his shirt and tie. A stethoscope was
tucked into the coat's breast pocket. He smiled down at her. "Welcome
back, Sarah. You've been asleep for--"
"Fifty-three hours, sixteen minutes, and forty-four seconds," Mac
supplied automatically. That was how long it had been since she'd seen
Harm standing in the bathroom doorway onboard the Radiant Heart.
The doctor raised an eyebrow.
Harm chuckled. "Now I know you're going to be all right." But the dark
shadows that lingered in his eyes told a much larger story.
Mac felt an odd twinge of guilt. "I'm sorry if I scared you, Harm."
He just stared at her, blue eyes unguarded, and for a moment Mac found
herself staring into an abyss. She'd seen similar expressions on
disaster survivors and war veterans-- those who had seen things that
would haunt them forever. She wondered if maybe she'd had the easier
time of it, all things considered. After all, she'd been unconscious for
most of it.
"You gave us all quite a fright, Colonel." Admiral Chegwidden stepped up
behind Harm, coming into her range of view. With a start, Mac realized
that there were several other people in the room as well. Trish and
Frank were there, and Clayton Webb. All of them looked tremendously glad
to see her.
"Admiral." Feeling self-conscious, Mac tried to push herself into a
sitting position, only to have Harm gently but firmly press her
shoulders back against the bed.
"At ease, Colonel," the Admiral told her with a smile. "I don't expect
you to snap to for a couple more days, at least."
"Yes, sir." Mac agreed. She looked over at the doctor. "Am I allowed to
sit up?" She didn't like being flat on her back with everyone looming
He nodded and reached for the controller that dangled near the top of
the bed. "Of course." With a sound of grinding metal, the bed began to
fold. Mac's head swam at the motion and she grabbed Harm's hand to
steady herself. The bed stopped immediately.
"I think that's far enough," the doctor said.
"O.k." Mac agreed, her voice faint. Her stomach twisted with nausea that
began to dissipate once she quit moving.
"Mac?" Harm asked, his concern obvious.
Mac blew her breath out in a sigh. "Phew. I'm o.k." When she was able
to, she turned her head and smiled at him. The smile dimmed.
"Did we get him?" That was the one question she needed an answer to. Had
it been worth it?
Harm nodded somberly. "Ariel's in custody. The DA is talking about
asking for the death penalty."
Mac gave him a curious look. "Capitol punishment?"
Clayton Webb approached the bedside. "Nikki Upton is dead." Mac saw Harm
flinch ever so slightly at his words. "We have Ariel on tape giving her
a fatal dose of the same stuff he gave Mr. Laughton."
Memory overwhelmed Mac for a second, flashing before her eyes. "He was
trying to make it look like I'd done it--" She met Harm 's gaze. "In a
fit of jealousy. And then killed myself afterwards."
"He very nearly succeeded," Webb told her. She watched as he and Harm
exchanged glances. The communication was swift and silent, but Mac had
the feeling a great deal passed between them.
Mac squeezed her husband's fingers as remorse and guilt washed over her.
"I'm sorry, Harm."
He stared at her incredulously. "You don't have anything to be sorry
She shook her head. "Other than wishing that girl dead from time to
Harm turned swiftly to sit on the edge of the bed. He drew Mac into his
embrace, carefully avoiding her injured arm, and held her tight. "If
it's anyone's fault, it's mine."
"Harm--" Mac began, at the same time his mother broke in.
"Don't be ridiculous, Harm. It's Tony Ariel's fault, and no one else's."
Harm didn't move. His head was tucked again her shoulder and Mac reveled
in the feel of his arms around her waist and his body against hers. "I
just keep thinking I should have seen it coming," he said into her hair.
Mac sighed. "Yeah, well… you're not the only one. I walked right into
it, too." She pulled back far enough to smile up at him. "I'm just glad
you figured out where I was."
The corner of his mouth curled upward. "Tossing that towel out there was
She had to smile at that. Harm didn't hand out compliments lightly, even
to her. "So what's going to happen now?" she asked, her gaze moving from
her husband to the Admiral and back.
"Well," Chegwidden drawled, rocking lightly on his feet, "the Andersons
have officially won the million dollars since you two didn't remain
aboard until the end of the cruise."
"Will there be any charges against Dan Steiner or the production
The Admiral shrugged. "Probably not. There's no proof he knew anything
before the fact."
"What about our case?"
Another of the Admiral's light shrugs. "The reservists will most likely
have the charges against them dropped. Lieutenant Roberts finally
figured out the last piece of the puzzle."
Harm gave him a curious look. "Which puzzle is that, sir?"
"The hall recording. We knew the timestamp had been tampered with, but
there's no way to know what it originally said. What the lieutenant
finally figured out is that the hall video didn't mesh with any of the
principals' stories. Remember, the video showed Mrs. Antony going to the
room alone first, and then the two reservists arriving some time later.
She didn't take anything in with her, nor did they, but both Mr. Brown
and Mr. Rossman said in their statements that she had created a romantic
atmosphere with candles and music-- which the room video supports
despite the poor quality. We know from the ship's manifest that the room
wasn't stocked with candles. It's a fire hazard. So, the conclusion to
be drawn from these events is--"
"That someone had to have set Mrs. Antony up." Harm finished. Mac smiled
at him, shaking her head. Only he could finish the Admiral's sentence
for him and not get chastised for it.
"I'm sorry to interrupt--" The doctor looked over at Mac's visitors. "
But I need to examine Sarah, so I'm going to have to ask you all to wait
outside for a little while." He glanced at Harm. "You're welcome to
stay, Mr. Rabb."
Harm nodded. He released Mac and stood, recapturing her hand after a
moment. One by one the others came to the bedside before departing. The
Admiral simply smiled at Mac, looking a little uncomfortable. He never
had like personal situations. Frank and Trish each gave her an
encouraging squeeze, and a second one for Harm as they passed him,
headed for the door. But it was Webb who truly blew her away. With an
indecipherable glance at Harm, he bent down to kiss her on the forehead.
"Get better, Mac," was all he said. He turned away before she had a
chance to formulate a response.
She looked questioningly at her husband once Clay was gone. "What was
Harm's gaze was shrouded. "He took your almost dying pretty hard."
She blinked, taken aback by his tone as much as the words.
"What about you, flyboy?"
Harm brought her fingers to his lips in a tender caress. "Me, too." For
a moment she glimpsed his pain, his terror at the prospect of losing
The doctor started his exam then, keeping Mac from pursuing the subject.
She watched with trepidation as he pulled away the bandages covering her
forearm, revealing the long gash. To Mac's surprise, the ugly wound she
remembered had been replaced by a line of black spidery-looking
"Wow. Is that it?" She rotated her arm, giving the wound a critical
examination. It hardly looked dangerous.
The doctor prodded the edges with a gloved finger, eliciting a hiss of
pain from Mac. He gave her an apologetic glance. "It looks to be healing
well. No sign of infection. How's the pain?"
"It's fine," Mac assured him. Her arm was throbbing, but she was leery
of taking any more medication than necessary.
"Mac." Harm obviously wasn't buying her claim. "You had surgery. You're
entitled to some pain meds."
She glanced at him, taking in the stubborn set of his jaw, and sighed.
"I don't like being all doped up."
"How about an unlimited supply of Tylenol, then?" the doctor asked with
a smile. "In large quantities, of course."
"Deal," Mac answered promptly and saw Harm's expression lighten. "When
can I go home?"
The doctor chuckled. "A couple of days, provided no infection develops."
His humor faded. "You've had the equivalent of a blood transfusion,
Sarah. Your body will need time to recover from the shock. We also had
to reconstruct the artery in your arm, which went well, I'm pleased to
say. However, there's a great deal of healing going on under these
stitches. It's not nearly as minor as it looks."
Mac swallowed hard as understanding hit her. Ariel really had almost
killed her. She hadn't honestly stopped to consider how close she'd
The tears came out of nowhere. One moment Mac was thinking about how
soon she could get on with her life, and the next she was sobbing in a
combination of terror and fury for all the things that had so nearly
been stolen from her.
Harm wrapped her in a tight embrace. Mac knotted her good hand in his
shirt, burying her face against his chest. The tears passed as swiftly
as they'd come. Mac closed her eyes, resting her head against Harm and
listening to the steady beat of his heart beneath her ear. She was
vaguely aware of the doctor replacing the dressings on her arm while she
sat there, but everything else was submerged beneath the flood of
gratitude she felt simply to be alive. And not just alive, but with
everything to live for.
"Harm--" Reaching up, she hooked her hand behind her husband's neck,
drawing him down for a much-needed kiss. Their lips met, melding in a
reaffirmation of the bond that had been forged between them and would
never be broken.
Not if Sarah Rabb had anything to say about it.