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Classification Romance (H/M)
Length Approximately 24,000 words, 54 pages (8 ½” x 11”)
Spoilers Up to sometime in Season 8 or around 6 months to a year after Afghanistan
 
Rating AO for sexual situations
Summary Another complete fluff-fic, not attached to any particular episode. Harm plots a course of action with typical twisted logic, but, as the title suggests, doesn’t dive right in, exactly. Will he succeed? How long will it take? Let’s see . . .

 

Part 1 Part 2

 

 

 

It started with an innocent touch, one of those friendly, curious gestures he had a tendency to make at odd moments.

They’d been sitting on her couch after dinner, when suddenly he’d noticed how little her wrists were, how delicate. Without a word, he reached over and grabbed one; his fingers and thumb overlapped almost to the second knuckle.

“Look at that, Mac,” he said in quiet surprise.

She watched him instead with surprise of her own. Six years together, and he focused that startling intensity on her wrists? Could he see what that light touch did to her, how it shot up her arm to her core? Did he have any idea how the sight of his long, tanned fingers wrapped around her slighter bones affected her? The simple contrast of large, strong male to smaller, finer female was enough to set her heart pounding insistently.

He felt it in the pulse beneath his thumb, and his own accelerated to keep time.

Watched it in the darkening of her eyes as mystery and desire filled them. Almost experimentally, he tightened his grip, then loosened it and brushed his thumb carefully along the veins of the pale inner side. And saw in amazement the tiny shiver that drilled down her spine.

In one great, silent shattering, some cord connecting his mind and heart shifted; its moorings collapsed, reforming with new purpose in the space of a heartbeat. Before, he had been focused on all the limits between himself and Mac, on protecting and preserving them, if for no other reason than force of habit. Now, he was simply overwhelmed with the possibilities of breaking them – images of excitement, of fear, of completion. This was what they could have, he thought in awe. This turmoil of beauty and wonder was what was waiting for them, had always been waiting.

Because he could’ve taken her right there without a thought to the consequences or consideration for her feelings, he forced himself to let go. It was dangerous, this hungry warmth that bound them. Touching her had always been a risk, an event, that swept everything else into the distant background, leaving only the rush of arousal, the brutal twist of need in its wake. This spark of contact between them had never abated, yet never failed to move him. Each time, left him wanting more.

And so more he took.

It was a gradual, easy progression . . . at least, that’s what he hoped it would seem. When you wanted to dive right in and take all, it was hard to plot the middle points, to make sure you met each step before passing to the next one. There were so many places on Mac, his Mac, that he’d never felt, never known in the six years he’d had her. So many steps to hit while working his way to greater intimacy.

Eliminating his own boundaries accomplished much toward that end. By allowing himself to touch Mac as he’d have touched her from the beginning if he hadn’t forbidden it, he established a slow, steady rhythm, so natural it passed almost without notice, lulling and entrancing him as effectively as it did her.

Every day, he granted himself a new touch. One that might seem casual, even meaningless, to anyone else. He rubbed her shoulders as they hunched over some file on her desk, a favor he hadn’t done in ages. When they walked in uniform, he placed a hand at the small of her back to guide and caress. Out of uniform, he held her hand or her elbow, pretending not to notice the sideways glances of alarm she sent his way the first few times it happened.

At home, he took the most daring liberties, and reaped the highest rewards. A brush to the nape of her neck as he sat next to her at the table revealed skin that was captivatingly fine and prone to shivers. A flick of her nose in retaliation for teasing impudence showed him the way her eyes glowed with surprise and mirth. Running a hand distractedly up and down her arm while reading, he discovered his fingers alone could trail goose bumps in their wake. He tucked hair behind her ears when her arms were full – a task he’d often longed to perform – to see a tender smile of thanks flit from her eyes to her lips.

And never had he felt so completely the difference between male and female, his own blunt strength to her supple grace, as when he squeezed the curve of her waist to shift her out of his way in the kitchen or pull her down beside him on the couch. It was a move he made frequently now, and never without imagining what it would feel like to hold her there as he raised and lowered her body over his naked length.

This was a dangerous exploration; if he hadn’t known so at its inception, every night the point was driven achingly home as he lay awake and hopelessly aroused, feeling her on his fingertips, hearing her voice in his mind, smelling her on the air, and realizing anew that these fleeting touches, these small desires fulfilled, could never be enough.

He wasn’t going to let it go any further. Didn’t think he could afford to, really. A stroke of her wrist had nearly undone him; any more substantial contact might snap him in half.

Then she wore the dress.

Well, skirt, he supposed – that was what women called it when it came without a top. It was white and airy and swirled around her knees like something she’d have worn as a Russian Gypsy. Her shirt was light green speckled with faint yellow flowers and just the tiniest bit flounced at the shoulder straps. Each time she wore it, his heart dipped precariously. She looked lithe and feminine and heartbreakingly luminous, making his fingers itch to trace her waist and collarbone, his chest tremble with the need to press
her against it.

She was right on time, as always; he was running behind, as usual. He answered the door with his shirt half open and a tie hanging from his neck. His jaw dropped the instant he saw her.

“Hi,” she said carefully, giving him an odd glance from where she stood in the doorway. “Can I come in?”

“Oh, yeah . . . yeah.” He shook himself and stepped away from the door, allowing her into the apartment. And got lost in the image she made as she walked past.

She turned and caught him staring, raised her eyebrows with a mixture of exasperation and bashfulness. Sometimes it was nice to see she’d thrown him for a loop.

“Harm? . . . Harm.”

Like a dog out of water, he tossed his head fiercely and blinked the daze away. “Yeah – um, sorry, I, ah . . . do you want something to drink?”

Now she bit back a smile, looked at him a little worriedly. “Ah, Harm, we’re meeting Keeter and his fiancée for drinks in twenty minutes. You ready to go?”

“Yeah.” He heaved a sigh, disgusted with himself. “I’m ready.” He motioned for her to precede him to the door, but once there, she stopped and blocked his exit.

When he only continued to look down at her in confusion, she rolled her eyes and snorted a laugh, starting to feel really self-conscious. If she hadn’t checked the mirror at least half a dozen times before she’d left her apartment, she’d be worried she had food in her teeth or that she’d forgotten to put on her blouse or something equally mortifying.

Carefully, she reached up to fasten his buttons, leaving the top two open. Then she pulled the wide end of his tie, rolled the fabric around her fingers, and set it down on the shelf to her right. “No tie tonight,” she instructed.

He was still watching her with an intensity that was at once burning and vacant; his mouth closed long enough to allow him to swallow, then fell back open. His chest burned though she’d only grazed his skin while fixing his shirt.

Gently, she tapped him under the chin with her index finger. “Now you’re ready.”

When she smiled at him again, he felt another circuit in his brain sizzle and split. She turned and sauntered to the elevator.

And had to come back and grab his sleeve to remind him to follow.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

The bar Keeter had chosen was an out-of-the-way bluesy establishment, with a jazz group cramped onto a small stage in the corner behind the dance floor that took up most of the space to the bar. It was smoky and dark, but there were just a handful of people there under thirty, and for a Friday night, it was only pleasantly crowded.

“Hammer!” an unmistakable voice boomed, and they both turned to the right. Harm, at six foot four, had a distinct advantage over Mac, who’d worn flat sandals. He caught a glimpse of his old friend and grabbed Mac’s hand to haul her along in his direction.

“Keeter,” he greeted, returning the other man’s bear hug eagerly. “Good to see you.”

“You too, buddy.” With a genuine Jack Keeter grin, he turned to Mac. “Ah, Sarah MacKenzie.” And like a teasing older brother, he ruffled her hair and pulled her into his arms. “How’s my girl?”

She wrapped her arms around his neck and laughed into his shoulder. “Not your only girl anymore,” she answered and pulled back to watch him expectantly.

His mischievous grin softening to a smile of real happiness, he turned back to the table and held out his arm, motioning to a beautiful woman who rose and took her place beside him. There was a dark-Irish look about her, long black hair running in waves down her back, fairy blue eyes, and pale skin dotted with freckles. She looked to be around Mac’s age, and her willowy body was only about two inches shorter than her fiancé’s, making her at least six feet tall.

“Harm, Mac,” Keeter began proudly, “I’d like you to meet – ”

“Alanna,” Harm finished with a sick, deer-in-the-headlights _expression.

Alanna’s face flushed as she glanced guiltily between the two men. “Ah, hi, Harm,” she replied, looking a bit queasy herself. “Nice to see you again.”

Mac had never seen either of the cocky aviators so dumbstruck. Keeter looked like he wanted to punch something; Harm looked ready to run. The poor girl caught in the middle was growing green around the gills. With a mildly disgusted glance at her partner, she stepped forward and offered her hand and a smile.

“Alanna, it’s so nice to meet you. I’m Sarah MacKenzie.”

“Sarah.” In an admirably quick recovery, she seized Mac’s hand as her last salvation. “Hi, it’s good to meet you too.”

“So, you two know each other,” Keeter commented in a deceptively bland tone, looking from Harm to Alanna with a dangerous glint in his eye.

“Ah, yeah,” Harm said slowly. “We, ah, met a few years ago when I was down in Pensacola renewing my flight status after the crash. It – ”

“Well, isn’t that just dandy?” Making no further effort to cover his anger, Keeter crossed his arms and scowled ferociously. “I guess I didn’t have to worry whether you would get along, did I?”

Alanna narrowed her eyes, showing the tip of her temper as well. “Jack, that was almost ten years ago. And not that I have to justify anything to you, but nothing happened! We met one night at a club – ”

“I don’t think I want to hear the details,” he ground out stubbornly, all but growling when Harm shifted from one foot to the other.

Silence descended again, in which Keeter ground his teeth, Harm gazed at the floor, and Alanna gripped Mac’s hand like grim death. It was a bad movie come to life. Accustomed to cleaning up Harm’s messes, Mac pasted on another smile and glanced warningly at Keeter. “Why don’t we sit down and catch up a bit?”

Because no one seemed to know what else to do, they trailed after her and took their seats. While the men glared steadily across the table, sizing each other up like crude beasts, the women exchanged a few token pleasantries, pretending not to notice the tension radiating from their companions.

“So, Alanna, I know you were in the Navy and that you’ve been civilian out of Pensacola for awhile. What do you do there?”

Jumping at the distraction, she answered quickly, “I’m in jet propulsion and aeronautical physics. Basically, we test different chemical compounds to see how well they oxidize and determine the effect on the jets of the runoff. It’s the test pilots like Jack who work the hardest,” she insisted at Mac’s fascinated expression. With transparent admiration and a mute plea for forgiveness in her eyes, she looked up at her fiancé. “They’re taking a risk every time they go up with new fuel mixtures and gas equipment, no matter how many lab tests we run beforehand.”

“Sounds like pretty intricate work,” Mac decided, suitably impressed. “Did you always know you wanted to be a chemist on such a grand scale?”

The other woman chuckled self-deprecatingly. “Oh, no. Actually, right up until the defense of my thesis, I was sure I should’ve gone to flight school. It was the eye exam that decided my fate. But I’m very happy where I’ve ended up.” The last was said with another hopeful sidelong glance at the man still mulishly ignoring her.

“Wow,” Harm murmured, finally breaking away from Keeter’s fulminating gaze. “You’ve sure come a long way. I think last time we met you were still in correspondence classes off the Eisenhower.”

Though she knew, deep down, he’d only meant the comment as a friendly gesture to attempt a second ice-breaking, Mac could’ve kicked her partner for making such an obvious blunder. Then worried she’d have to keep his buddy from doing just that.

“Well,” Keeter said shortly after draining the rest of his beer in one gulp. “I guess some of us have more catching up to do than others.” Dividing his glare between Alanna and Harm, he rose abruptly and held out a hand. “Mac, care for a dance?”

Swallowing her surprise, she prepared to decline. Until she saw the look of helpless frustration in his eyes and her heart melted. “Yes, I would.”

They made their way to the middle of the dance floor, where Keeter half-heartedly took her in his arms and swayed distractedly to the music. Mac let him wallow for a few moments, then clucked her tongue and pinched him to get his attention.

“John Henry Keeter, what do you think you’re doing?”

He stared down at her, incredulous and offended. “Me? What am I doing? They’re the ones who . . . who . . . What the hell do you mean what am I doing?”

She shook her head with maternal affection. After two days in The Big Desert, she’d felt like she’d known him her whole life, and they’d both been half-convinced she’d been put on the planet solely to boss him around, and he to give her a hard time. This sibling-like dynamic had carried over into every conversation they’d had since and had been firmly in place that night from the second he’d hugged her.

“Jack, you know them,” she argued calmly. “If they say nothing happened, then nothing happened. They met once, a long time ago, and it doesn’t mean anything anymore, if it ever did in the first place. You can’t hold it against them.”

“Watch me,” he countered, resentful and petulant. “It obviously meant enough that they both remember each other after how many years. What the hell am I supposed to think about that?”

She fixed him with a stern expression. “You know better than that. Aren’t you the one who once told me you remember every pretty girl you ever met?” He had the grace to look chagrined. “As I recall, you made it through the list all the way to junior high before I had to muzzle you with my scarf.”

That dragged a reluctant chuckle from him, as she’d hoped it would.

“The way I see it,” she explained, “Harmon Rabb has put the moves on about half the eligible women in the free world. And you’ve got at least the other half and probably some of his under your belt. Those pools are bound to collide once in awhile. But you’re the one she’s marrying, and the one she’s watching, looking about as pissed off and jealous as you did five minutes ago.”

When he craned his neck around to check, Mac stepped on his foot.

“Hey!”

“Don’t look,” she admonished. “Play it a little closer to the vest, man. You can let ‘em sweat it out a little.”

He heaved a sigh and cast dejected eyes to the floor. “I don’t know about this, Mac,” he confessed with uncharacteristic uncertainty, and her heart went out to him. “I don’t want to be standing in church with Harm next to me, wondering if it’s me or him she’s lookin’ at when she walks up the aisle.”

At that, Mac reached up and tugged his ear with just enough force to make him wince. “Jack, if you think for a second that girl is going to be looking at anyone but you for the rest of her life, you’re crazy. I haven’t known her ten minutes, and it’s obvious to me she loves you.”

With a gentle smile, she continued. “And so does Harm. This is hard on them too, and if you could see their faces right now like I can, you’d know just how bad they feel.”

Again, he turned toward their table, and again she trod on his big foot. “Subtlety, John Henry,” she reminded with a grin that took the sting out of her next remark. “Now listen, you know you’re going to get past this sooner or later – you care about both of them too much not to. So why not save yourself the angst and do it now, and have fun tonight instead of letting everyone be miserable until you get your head out of your ass?”

He watched her for a long minute before breaking into his old grin and hugged her so hard her feet came off the ground. “I like the way you think, Sarah,” he chuckled against her hair. Setting her down, he tweaked her nose lightly, then kissed her on it. “I’m happy he found you,” he told her simply, eyes shining with humor and fondness.

“So am I, most of the time. Come on, let’s go put them out of their misery.”

As soon as they got back to the table, Keeter wrapped his arm around Alanna’s shoulders and drew her in for a sloppy kiss on the cheek. She smiled and relaxed immediately against him, relief and gratitude in her gaze. Keeter’s glance to Harm was still a little wary, but much warmer than it had been before his talk with Mac.

“I’m buying the next round,” he announced. “Hammer, what’ll you have?”

Harm grinned, jumping at the offer. “Whatever you’re having, Keeter. Thanks.”

“Mac?”

“A ginger ale, please.”

“You got it, sugar. I’ll have the waiter bring it by. Alanna and I are gonna go dance.”

Alanna lifted an eyebrow at his presumptuousness even as she rose to follow him. “Whatever you say, dear,” she agreed dryly, too happy to have him back to normal to complain.

Mac watched them leave with a serene smile; it faded when Harm turned to her expectantly. Just as he opened his mouth to thank her, to promise her anything in the world in return for calming Keeter down, she shot him a glare and rolled her eyes in distaste.

“I can’t believe you,” she declared with cool matter-of-factness.

“Wha – Mac!” he whined, blindsided by her anger. “What did I do now? If Keeter’s not mad at me anymore, how can you be?”

“Because,” she insisted, “you’re just . . . unbelievable! Your habit of hitting on anything with a uterus has gotten you into trouble before, but this takes the cake. Do you have any idea how much this upset Jack, or how embarrassed Alanna was?”

“Yes! Damnit, Mac, I was just as embarrassed as she was. And I’m not as emotionally retarded as you think I am, you know. You don’t think I feel awful about this whole thing?”

She only continued to frown at him in a cross sort of pout that told Harm there was light at the end of the tunnel. When Mac didn’t fight back, he knew she wasn’t really angry and just needed an excuse to set her bad feelings aside.

“Come on, Mac,” he coaxed. “It was eight years ago, for one night, at a noisy bar crowded with sailors. We danced a little, had a few drinks, that was it. I hadn’t even met you yet – ”

Wait a minute. That sounded suspiciously like something he’d have said to a girlfriend, and it didn’t really fit the current nature of his relationship with Mac. But saying it made him feel better, so he decided not to worry too much.

Still scowling, she glanced at him briefly, then turned her gaze to the tabletop. “You don’t even like brunettes,” she mumbled sullenly.

Ah, so that was the problem, he thought merrily. Sarah MacKenzie was jealous.

“Actually . . .” He reached over to tug on a lock of her hair. “Brunettes are my favorite.”

She brushed his hand away and crinkled her brow. “Don’t try buttering me up now.” But he caught the hint of a smile she bit her cheeks against.

Undeterred, he walked his fingers from her shoulder into the crook of her neck, pressed down to tickle. She choked back a giggle and clamped her ear to her shoulder, trapping his hand between. “Quit it, ass wipe!”

“Only if you dance with me,” he bargained digging his fingers in a little further and launching a sneak attack with his other hand. She twisted crazily as he tickled her sides, no longer able to hold back her laughter.

“Okay, okay!” she squealed, grabbing his hands to fend him off. “I give up – you’re impossible.”

“And you can’t be mad at me anymore,” he added, wiggling his fingers threateningly when she remained silent.

“All right, I won’t be mad at you.” Her eye roll was as genuine as her smile. “Come on, then, let’s go.”

The evening flowed smoothly from there. Between drinks and healthy bites of grilled appetizers, they danced, reminisced, and discussed wedding plans. Keeter pulled Mac onto the dance floor three more times and didn’t object at the last, when Harm followed with Alanna in tow.

After an hour or so, they settled into real conversation, which, with three former pilots at the table, turned inevitably to aerodynamics. Mac kept up for awhile – she hadn’t spent six years with Harm for nothing, after all – then smiled and nodded. Just as her eyes began to glaze over, Alanna turned to her with an apologetic smile.

“Sarah, we must be boring you to death with all this shop talk.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Mac replied easily, deflecting Harm’s glance with a grin. “I was actually with you up until you threw in the long division. You guys go ahead – I’ve gotta excuse myself for a minute anyway. Anybody need anything while I’m up?”

Keeter and Harm shook empty beer bottles at her; Alanna motioned to her half-full martini and shook her head. Mac gave Harm a friendly shove and slipped out of the booth behind him. He hooked his finger with hers in silent good-bye before sitting back down.

When she hadn’t returned ten minutes later, the back of his neck began to prickle unpleasantly. Alanna and Keeter broke off their conversation when they realized he’d fallen silent.

“Looks like Mac found an admirer or two,” Alanna’s voice was mild as she nodded to the bar, but she cut a knowing look at the man across from her.

Harm pivoted frantically in his seat, his gaze landing on his partner almost immediately. She looked positively tiny standing at the bar surrounded by a boisterous group of middle-aged men, most of whom were tall and running to fat. Mac had already turned back toward their table, only to be stayed by the hearty protests at her leaving that had signaled all to congregate around her, blocking her path. Smiling politely, good-naturedly refusing repeated offers to buy her a drink, she sidled carefully through the crowd, only to discover two men before her for every one she passed.

“Thassa very nice shirt,” a balding banker-type wearing a polo shirt and a wedding ring slurred in her ear.

As unobtrusively as possible, Mac backed away with matter-of-fact thanks. Bald-Polo was not so easily dissuaded, however, and reached out to touch the fabric at her shoulder. Harm shot out of the booth at the movement and strode furiously over to the bar, swearing that if the prick so much as brushed Mac’s skin he’d never see that finger again. With the confidence of a pleasant buzz and the security of Keeter – and Mac if it came to that – at his back, he was ready to take on any man who dared to breathe on what was his.

Though he didn’t make it in time to prevent her getting pawed by Bald-Polo, he saw with some relief that Mac had worked the gesture to her advantage and now stood at the outside of the little party, poised to make her escape. Never one to miss a chance at playing Superman, however, he swooped in to inflict what damage he could on the nasty perverts still trying to get their game on.

“Hey, baby.” Congratulating himself on the smoothness and suavity of the move, he grabbed the beer bottles from her with one hand and wrapped the other arm around her in an undeniable sign of possession, drawing her away from the blubbering hoard and staring down anyone who stepped too close. “What do you say you let a real man show you how to dance?”

He was just sober enough to be grateful her back was to the others when she rolled her eyes at him in indulgent exasperation. “Ohhh, sweetums,” she drawled, leaning into him with exaggerated coyness. “Would you really do that for little old me?”

His growl was pitched just loud enough for her to hear. The arm around her shoulders tightened in warning. “Excuse us, gentlemen,” he sneered, grinning smugly when they groaned their disappointment.

Detouring only to drop the beers off at their table, where Keeter and Alanna were, for some reason, laughing hysterically, he dragged her onto the dance floor and jerked her against him, absently holding her close while he watched over her shoulder to make sure the idiots in the corner didn’t get any ideas.

“Very impressive, Harmon,” she said in a tone that implied just the opposite. Truthfully, she was more amused than upset. A jealous Harm was always an interesting sight, and Harm jealous and drunk was usually pretty entertaining. At the risk of counteracting women’s rights initiatives across the country, she had to admit the caveman routine could be a little exciting every once in a while.

“That was pathetic.” At the memory of Bald-Polo’s hands on her, he pulled her closer and ran his palms down her arms, determined to erase the image.

“I’ll say,” she agreed with a wistful sigh. “In my heyday, those would’ve been frat boys, not their dads and grandpas.”

“You’re not helping,” he sulkily informed her as he lifted her hands and set them behind his neck.

“Oh, Harm, they were perfectly harmless. Don’t forget, I was born and raised handling drunk men. I was more than holding my own when you burst onto the scene.”

He snorted an eloquent opinion of that. “Whatever. Crusty old tools. What the hell did they think they were doing?”

More out of desire to torment him than from any real offense, she raised an eyebrow and smacked him lightly on the chest. “You don’t know what they were doing hitting on me? Thanks a lot, Harm.”

Coming to realize he was digging himself a hole from which there was no safe escape, he squirmed and executed a strategic retreat. “Can we talk about this in the morning?” Then, in a mercurial shift of mood typical of him when tipsy, he lowered his arms to her hips and nuzzled closer, all at once pleased as could be to hold her while she wore the pixie skirt and flower top and smelled like moonlight and breathed quiet and warm into the vee of his shirt. “This is nice,” he murmured hazily, closing his eyes and letting it seep in.

“Mmm-hmm.” She settled her forehead into the hollow of his shoulder and smelled the comforting mix of his aftershave, deodorant and body heat. If the music hadn’t stopped, she could’ve spent the rest of the night just so.

When the bassist announced the band was taking five before its last set, they separated, suddenly too embarrassed to meet each other’s eyes. For a moment, Harm looked as if he wanted to say something, but with a bashful shrug, simply guided her back to their table and took his place beside her.

Any awkwardness was briskly dispensed with, however, in the face of Keeter’s merciless teasing of both. “Mac, you sure are a hunk-magnet,” he proclaimed with relish. “I don’t know why you didn’t go after that guy with the comb-over. He was a stone fox. And Harm, I don’t think I’ve seen you move that fast since we got busted Saran-wrapping Professor Gilman’s Porsche – ”

At that point, Alanna cut in with a few choice selections of Keeter’s Most Outrageous Moments and the tables were neatly turned. For the next half hour, the men traded tales, trying to best the other’s recollection and recounting of pranks and schemes instigated at the Academy and flight school as the women listened with laughter – genuine for those stories they’d never heard before, affectionate for those they had. When the band wrapped up and the lights came on, all were sorry to see the evening end.

Keeter and Alanna had walked from their hotel and intended to taxi back, but Mac insisted on driving them.

“Please, you’d be doing me a favor, really,” she said, addressing Alanna who, being Irish and by nature a light drinker was far more rational a subject than her groom, who had wandered over to commiserate with Harm on the evils of computer-manned aircraft. “We brought the Lexus just for this, and I love to drive it but never get the chance.”

“Well . . .” She was interrupted by the sound of the men butchering a sailor’s hornpipe, looking as if nothing short of death could part the hold they had around each other’s necks. With an arch grin, she agreed. “If you’re sure you don’t mind, I’d really appreciate it.”

The women shared a commiserating glance, acknowledging evident female superiority, and went to collect their dates.

Harm and Keeter agreed to the plan whole-heartedly and, with a lot of shoving and slobbering, got themselves to the car in one piece. The drive to the hotel took only a few minutes, and, as the street was fairly deserted at so late an hour, everyone got out of the car to say their good-byes.

“Sarah, it was so good to meet you,” Alanna sighed, pulling her into a quick hug. “I’d heard so much about you, but it didn’t come close to the real thing. Thank you for what you did tonight. I hope Jack and I will have what you and Harm do a few years down the road.”

Mac started to correct the mistake, but something in the other woman’s eyes told her it wasn’t necessary. With a shy smile, she answered diplomatically, “I think you and Jack will have everything you want. It was good to meet you too, I can’t wait for the wedding. Have a safe trip to Boston.”

They waited patiently while the men finished their macho back-slapping and head-butting. When Keeter looked over with a gleam in his eye and charged, Mac knew she was in trouble.

Growling like a lion, he snatched her up and held her at eye-level, grinned brashly at her squeak of surprise. “Good bye, Sarah my love,” he cried passionately. “I’d beg you to leave that sorry bastard behind and run away with me, but I’m a taken man now.”

She giggled in delight. “You certainly are, Jack. I know when I’m beaten. I’m so happy for you,” she said earnestly. Then, because she knew he was nervous about meeting Alanna’s entire family, added, “Have fun in Boston. They’re going to love you.”

“Thanks, darlin’. Take care of yourself now, and stay out of trouble.” With a sweet smile, he pulled her in for a hug.

“You too, Jack. Be good.”

“Always,” he promised with a drunkenly dashing wiggle of eyebrows. “Come on, baby,” he bellowed, turning to Alanna. “Let’s go see what kind of room service we can scare up.”

Harm and Mac climbed back into the car with a few last farewells and strict instructions to call Harm’s apartment if they needed anything before they left the next day.

Companionable silence ensued as they headed toward Alexandria. Mac was just about sure he’d fallen asleep, when he began muttering something, gazing out the window with an agitated frown. For some reason, this struck her as absolutely adorable, and she bit back a smile and left him to it.

“ . . . Sarah.”

“Yes?” she replied absently, skimming through a yellow light.

“Keeter calls you ‘Sarah.’” He sounded grouchy and had crossed his arms obstinately over his chest.

Shooting him a curious glance, she wondered where he was going with this. “Yes, he does sometimes. That’s my name, you know.”

“That’s dumb,” he insisted, scowling fiercely and huddling into the corner of the seat like a stubborn little boy. “I like you more than he does, and I don’t call you Sarah.”

She smiled encouragingly, deciding accommodation was the best tactic. “You can if you want.”

In response, he huffed and rolled his eyes with such zeal she had to swallow a laugh. “No, Mac.” He launched into his explanation as slowly and patiently as if she’d been the one who was drunk, gesturing with exaggerated care. “I wanna call you Sarah when I wanna call you Sarah. Keeter doesn’t get to decide. That way when I say ‘Sarah,’ you know it’s because I wanna say ‘Sarah.’”

“Oh, I see,” she replied with a sage nod, totally lost. There was something strangely endearing in the drunken ramble that she set aside to puzzle out later.

Satisfied he’d convinced her, Harm crowed with glee. “Good! Tell Keeter next time.”

“Will do.”

Problem solved, his brain moved on to other matters. “You liked Alanna,” he observed contentedly.

“I did. She’s very open and kind. And I like her sense of humor. She’s a good match for Jack.”

“And you’re not mad at me anymore, right?” Without waiting for an answer, he babbled on, slurring and uncharacteristically chatty. “I met her a long time ago, you know. We just talked one night at a bar. I remembered her because she was tall and had a weird name and was so into jets. She has blue eyes too. I used to like blue eyes, you know.”

“Really?” she commented, feigning surprise at the insight. It was a fact she’d figured out long ago; Annie, Jordan, Kate and Renee all had big, simpering blue eyes.

“Yeah. I like brown eyes best now.”

Though her focus was on the road, she could feel him turn to watch her and stuck her tongue in her cheek. “Do you?”

“Mmm-hmm . . .” When she said nothing more, he elaborated, making sure she understood the compliment. “You’ve got brown eyes, Mac.”

She made a show of checking her blind spot to hide her grin. This was simply too cute to endure with a straight face. “I sure do, Harm. But honestly, I like blue better myself.”

He mulled this over for a minute, worried his charm had been too subtle. Then, with an arrogant grin of discovery, he recalled, “I’ve got blue eyes, you know.”

With sham astonishment, she turned to verify the claim, smiled affectionately at the droopy eyes in question. “Sure enough.”

“Sing me a song,” he wheedled with boyish eagerness, his attention again rapidly and unaccountably diverted. “A Russian drinking song.”

This was one of Harm’s favorite games when he was drunk or punchy with exhaustion. There was something soothing and endlessly entertaining to him in hearing both music and a foreign language in her voice. It was one of Mac’s favorite games too, as she could usually switch roles on him with little trouble.

“No, you sing me a song,” she countered easily. “One of your Irish ones.”

Without any false modesty or humble protestations whatsoever, he opened his mouth and complied. He chose the melancholy “Raglund Road,” but sang it with such cheerfulness, she forgot it was about lost love and chuckled because he performed in a thick Irish brogue while leaning across the console between their seats and gazing up at her with utmost sincerity. He was still singing when they pulled up in front of his building.

At the conclusion of this impromptu recital and upon giving the singer his requisite – and not unsolicited – praise, Mac stepped from the car and went around to assist her friend. She wrapped her arm around his waist to help him onto the elevator – thankfully in working order for once – and into his apartment. It wasn’t really necessary; he seemed to be managing all right. But it was a good feeling to hold him as close as she wanted, under the safe guise of support.

He had only a small mishap with his keys before they got inside. Immediately, he trudged to the couch, flopping down with arms spread and legs propped heavily on the coffee table. His chest heaved in a monumental groan that was both relaxation and regret – he would definitely be feeling this one tomorrow.

With a sympathetic snort, Mac followed and perched on the table beside his feet. Matter-of-factly, she began untying his shoes.

“Mac, don’t!” He sounded so appalled she instinctively jerked back. Rather than explaining, he assumed the task himself with more vigor than success. When he chanced a quick glimpse at her, his expression was so fearful and ashamed, she could only stare at him, dumbfounded.

“I’m not that drunk, Sarah,” he mumbled as he yanked off his right shoe and dumped it under the couch.

His use of her first name, if nothing else, revealed the reason for his sudden distress. It reminded her that one of the only things she’d ever told him about her childhood was the way her father had come home drunk and screamed for her to take off his shoes.

“Harm.” Gently, she covered the large hands still fumbling at his left shoe with her own. She waited until he looked at her before continuing. “I could never think anything like that.” But she was unbelievably touched that he could, especially in his present state. “It’s okay.” And to show him it was, she removed the remaining shoe and placed it beside its mate.

He watched her thoughtfully for a minute, then gave a half-smile and squeezed her hand.

“It’s almost 3:30,” she noted, rising with a yawn. “I should take off.”

He stood surprisingly fast and grabbed for her. “No, stay.”

She wanted to. Despite the perils of a night on his unforgiving sofa and the walk of shame awaiting her in the morning, she really wanted to. Uncertainly, she glanced over her shoulder at the door.

“Please, Mac,” he wheedled, already pulling her towards the bedroom. “It’s too late – I’ll just worry. And if I walk you down to your car now, I don’t think I’ll make it back up.”

It was the right card to play. With a soft smile, she gave in. “If you’re sure you don’t mind.”

“I’m sure,” he answered vehemently almost before the words were out of her mouth. “Hold on, I’ll get you something to sleep in.”

A minute later, a huge grey t-shirt and a pair of boxers flew out at her. “You’re safe out there,” Harm called reassuringly from the loft. “I’ve gotta brush my teeth and stuff.”

In the bathroom, Harm splashed cold water on his face and looked in the mirror as rarely as possible. He scrubbed his teeth and tongue as hard as he could, cursing himself for breathing the smell of alcohol over Mac all night. Insensitive asshole. Somehow, it was harder to be a merry drunk in the familiar bright lights of his own home.

When he returned to the kitchen in a fresh t-shirt and pair of underwear of his own, he found Mac at the fridge, a tall glass of orange juice and an even taller one of water standing, threatening, on the counter beside her. He groaned pitifully at the sight; his back teeth were already floating – he didn’t think he’d ever be thirsty again.

“You’ll thank me in the morning,” she promised wisely.

Because he knew he would, and had in the past, Harm obediently started on the juice. Mac went to the living room and cracked a window, then hung her clothes on a chair beside it, figuring even the night air of Alexandria had to be better than the smell of stale bar that now permeated them.

“I’m gonna go brush my teeth,” she announced, checking to make sure the front door was locked before she climbed the stairs.

Once he heard the sink running, Harm peeked furtively at the glass blocks of the bathroom wall and lifted his water over the sink. He estimated he could ditch about half of it and still fulfill the spirit of his assignment . . .

“Don’t even think about it, Harmon Rabb!”

A muffled curse was his only response, but he set the full glass dutifully back on the counter and finished his juice. Damn woman had eyes in the back of her head, he groused silently. And x-ray vision on top of it.

In the bathroom, Mac snickered to herself as she dug out one of the spare toothbrushes Harm kept in his towel cabinet. His famous 33-second attempt, as she liked to call it, foiled again. Sometimes, it was just too easy.

She went back to the living room to find Harm’s good humor restored, if the dopey grin on his face was any indication. Because he seemed to be staring at nothing in particular, some inebriated musing or other must be responsible.

“Looks like you’ll have some good dreams tonight,” she noted fondly.

“Definitely. What are you doing?” He frowned when she grabbed a pillow from the chair and tossed it on the couch.

“Going to sleep.”

He leaned over and threw the pillow back into place. “Aw, we can share the bed.” With an engaging grin, he added, “Don’t worry, Mackie, I’m too tanked to bother ya – I’ll be passed out in ten minutes.”

“You make it sound so inviting,” she drawled with an arched brow and a playful smile, remembering another time he’d invited her to sleep with him in nearly so enchanting a manner.

His smirk told her he remembered as well. “You want an invitation?”

No sooner had she nodded than he came at her with arms open wide and scooped her up, one arm behind her shoulders and the other around her knees so that he held her diagonally across his body.

She shrieked and latched her hands around his neck. “Harm, what are you doing?”

Leering down at her with piratical arrogance, he declared, “You’re too pretty to walk to bed.” Then proceeded to carry her toward the steps.

Mac giggled at the thrill and tightened her hold. “You’ll topple us both!” she protested dramatically, making no effort to stop him from doing so.

“I certainly will not.” With the feigned stiffness of offended dignity, he stumbled to the kitchen, knocked the light switch with his forearm, and staggered up the steps. Both of them laughing, he dropped her onto the bed and dove in on top of her. She wiggled them under the covers and settled in contentedly when pulled her against his chest.

Though she knew her hair must’ve smelled like cigarettes and cheap beer, Harm nestled his chin on top of her head without complaint. Laughter wore into a muted glow of comfort that surrounded them. Sighing with satisfaction, she burrowed closer and closed her eyes.

This is new, she reminded herself, even as he curled around her in a move that felt familiar, perfect. So new, but somehow not unexpected. Though she wouldn’t have imagined when she’d first knocked on his door that she’d be spending the night in his arms, ending the day this way seemed an oddly natural conclusion. Things between them lately had changed, in a way that was more like sliding into place than falling out of it.

Affectionate gestures were the most obvious sign, and at times, the most dazzling. For years she had longed for the freedom of his body, and her own, to stroke and tease and hold. Had wondered what it might be like to ruffle his hair, clasp his fingers. The smallest touches had, for so long, sustained her, dissolved her, and as their frequency decreased over time, their effect had only been amplified so that, when he’d begun touching her regularly, purposefully, she’d been all but deluged by the tides of shock, fascination, and yearning that rose in the wake. But the gestures hadn’t blinded her to the recent changes in Harm himself.

Not long ago, she would have given anything to get him to really see her, to take the time to look. Now, it seemed he couldn’t get enough of doing so, with eyes so deep they seemed lost. The shock and worry, even the desire, within them she recognized. But there was something else now too, dark and patient and tender, waiting for her in his gaze.

It needed to be addressed, eventually. But Mac had resolved not to bring it up until absolutely necessary. Part of her was terrified that this new closeness wasn’t being secretly cultivated by both, that Harm was, in fact, entirely oblivious of what he was doing and, once made aware of it, would draw away, leaving them distant as ever. It was a chance she wouldn’t take, she promised herself as she cuddled into his chest. Not while hot geysers of desire spurted from her center to her limbs at every touch, leaving warm rivers of contentment in their path. Not while she could pretend, for a little longer, that things were finally working out the way she’d always wanted them to.

Her thoughts had just carried her under the first thin veil of slumber when Harm started a little, locked his arms more firmly around her. “You won’t leave, will you, Sarah?”

Imperceptibly, she pressed a kiss above his heart and slipped her leg between his. “I won’t leave.”

Three minutes later, his gentle snoring lulled her to sleep.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

He awoke to the soft sounds of puttering in the kitchen, feeling like something hit by a tractor and left on the road to die. Cotton wove thick in his mouth, its loom creaking and crashing inside his head. At the feeble groan that escaped him, he got a whiff of his own breath and nearly gagged at the stale, sour scent.

‘Please God,’ he thought as he rolled to the floor and lurched to the bathroom. ‘Don’t let Mac have smelled that this morning.’

Even as he winced from the glare of light reflected off of mirror and porcelain, he caught signs of her presence. Her pajamas, folded neatly atop his hamper, a damp towel hanging on the bar above the toilet, the shower door closed where he usually left it ajar. Though he ached with misery, the sight smoothed something over his heart.

Once he reached the sink, he turned the cold water on full blast and stuck his head under the faucet. Then brushed his teeth twice and gargled three times with Listerine. After a long hot shower and another go with the mouthwash, he felt almost human again. Throwing on a fresh t-shirt and jeans, he padded barefoot to the kitchen.

She’d left a glass of ice water and three aspirin on the counter for him; there was coffee on the warmer and bread in the toaster. He looked around to thank her . . . and froze in his tracks.

She stood gazing out the window, leaning lightly against the pane. Sunlight bounced around her, through the pale blouse and wispy skirt. She glowed with it, beckoned. He was simply helpless to resist.

Reasoning, knowing, she would tense and pull away, that he should expect nothing else, couldn’t compare to the need roaring through him. There was desire, of course – with Mac, there was always desire, no matter how carefully disguised – but more too, something painful and frightening eating at him, laughing at him. It lathered and seethed in his gut, taunting him with the knowledge that, if he didn’t get to her soon, get to her and just touch her, hold her, something inside would be irreparably shattered.

He didn’t realize he’d moved until he found himself behind her. All but trembling in relief, he wrapped her in his arms carefully, gently. Squeezed his eyes shut and breathed her in to battle back the ominous tide of emptiness within. Here, at last, he was safe.

She felt small in his arms, delicate like the fair her clothes brought to mind, but strong and enduring as well, her own unique contrast. Spreading a hand wide over her belly, drawing her back against him, he dropped his chin to her shoulder and sunk.

‘Mine,’ he thought, delirious, overwhelmed with possession and protectiveness. Mine.

Mac had, at first, been unable to move. Then she was too afraid, dreading that anything larger than a breath would break the spell that wound so vividly around them. This, she knew, was no simple grasp of the wrist, no brush of the hand. This was beauty, indulgence, and savage restraint intertwined, nearly indistinguishable. The desperation in him was tangible, scraping at her back, boiling under her hands when she finally dared to wrap them around the forearm clamped beneath her ribs. Arousal surged, molten and heavy, through her veins – didn’t overpower the flood of quiet comfort but somehow added to it, fueled it. She leaned blindly into the embrace, reveled in him, blazing and limp and renewed.

In mild spurts of color, the world gradually filtered back into place. Urgency ebbed and abated as his pulse recovered, and he began rocking them imperceptibly. He was no longer frantic or lonesome but hadn’t gotten his fill of this new wonder and didn’t dare let her go until he steadied.

“Hi,” he whispered, and it was the most ordinary thing in the world for his lips to brush her neck, her ear, as he turned his head towards her.

“Hi,” she replied, a bit shaky herself, crossing her arms around his to hold in the warmth. “How you feeling?”

His head pounded fiercely; his stomach was in uproar. He was standing at a window with Mac soft and pliant in his arms. “Happy.”

She held the word in her head, another gift for a morning already full of them. In six years of asking that question, Harm had never answered so perfectly.

“What time is it?” His voice was a rumble vibrating between them, his chin pleasantly scratchy in the curve of her shoulder.

She sighed and lingered in the sensations. “Ten forty-seven.”

“Mmm.”

Minutes passed in the peaceful absence of ambition and any hurry to start the day.

“What are you doing today?” he asked idly, nuzzling against her just a bit and sending a tremor of want hurtling through her middle.

Unconsciously, she tilted her head to allow him greater access. “Ah . . . laundry at some point. Grocery shopping. I bought a book last week that I haven’t started . . . maybe a movie later.”

He would not, he vowed, invite himself along. It would be presumptuous, overbearing, clingy, impolite. Maybe he could hint a little.

“What kind of movie?” ‘Action, action, action,’ he chanted, willing his thoughts to her mind. ‘Rental, rental, rental.’

“Oh, you know, whatever’s out.” With a shrug, she danced a fingernail through the hair on his arm. “Something from the store – I don’t feel like going out.”

Inwardly, he rejoiced and commended his psychic powers. Maybe he couldn’t tell time without a watch, but there was hope for him yet.

‘Ask me to go with you,’ he telegraphed intently. ‘Ask me to go with you.’

“What are you up to?”

Damn. Easy come, easy go.

“Um, I dunno, just lying around I guess, till the hang’er wears off. I should probably do some laundry too.” He decided to hint a little harder. “The washers downstairs are broken again.”

Harm’s building had two ancient pairs of washer-dryers in the murky, putrid basement that always malfunctioned in tandem. When one washer broke, so did the other; if a dryer was on the fritz, the second was sure to follow. Luckily, not only did Harm’s primary wardrobe consist of items that required dry cleaning, but he had a large assortment of civvies and enough spare boxer shorts to supply half the adult male population of the Metro area. He could put off laundry for as long as two months.

“You just did laundry last weekend,” Mac pointed out, and he could hear the frown of doubt in her voice.

Shit, busted. “Um, I, um . . . I’m out of clean underwear.” His brain flashed the red ‘mistake’ siren the moment the words were out of his mouth.

“You have 52 pair!”

This was not an exaggeration. Because she sounded distressed about it, he determined not to tell her about the three-pack he’d picked up at Target two Wednesdays ago to stave off the chore for a few more days.

“Well, I should probably wash my sheets.” Rabb, you are a genius! He wrinkled his nose with suppressed triumph. “They smell like smoke.”

Whether she had forgotten about the six other sets of sheets he had in the linen closet or just chosen not to press him on it, he didn’t care. His hints had, at last, come to fruition.

“Okay. You could bring them to my place, if you want,” she offered, and his eyes widened in disbelief when he caught the trace of shy hesitation, as if she was really unsure he wanted to spend the day with her. And she’s supposed to be the brains of this operation, he thought, fondly shaking his head.

“I want,” he answered plainly, with an undertone of suggestion that turned boyishly hopeful. “And we’ll watch a movie?”

One eye narrowed suspiciously, she half-turned to look up at him. “Only if it’s something good.”

He reared back, open-mouthed with mock affront. “I have excellent taste, for your information. Who was it who picked out ‘Best of Show’ and ‘Stolen Summer’?”

Laughing incredulously, she whirled around and poked him in the chest. “Who was it who conned me into watching ‘Howard the Duck’ last month because you let Bud convince you it was classic cinema?”

“That movie was a work of art!” he defended vehemently, lying through his teeth for the sake of principle.

“Oh-ho, now I know what to tell Harriet to get you for Christmas! I pick the movie, sailor, and you bring your own laundry detergent.”

At the thought of a night stuck watching Brad Pitt or George Clooney melt the socks off her feet, he decided negotiation was his only option. It was something he was quite good at, after all. “How about I pick three, and you pick two of those, and I use your detergent because I don’t have any.”

She crossed her arms, playfully considering. “You pick four, I’ll pick one, you use my detergent – even though you used it last week and promised to buy more – and you buy me ice cream at the grocery store.”

Once he got Mac into Blockbuster, it was pretty much a given he could convince her to rent two movies. And he supposed he could swing for a half-gallon of ice cream in return for the use of her appliances . . . especially since he knew he could get her to help him fold his stuff.

“Done,” he pronounced briskly, sticking out his hand.

Biting back a smile, she took it in a firm shake and scowled for good measure.

Forgetting about his headache, his queasy stomach, and his gritty eyes, he grinned like the devil and erased the scowl by bringing her hand to his lips and kissing the knuckles lightly before breezing to the kitchen to take his aspirin.

An hour later, after lounging over breakfast, taking their time collecting his dirty clothes, and stopping off at Mac’s place so she could put on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, they set off for the grocery store. He was grateful Mac had requested the Lexus for its cargo space, as he suspected the low-riding, leg-crunching Corvette would’ve made him more than a little carsick, all things considered. He was even more grateful she’d salvaged his macho pride by asking to drive; the sunlight alone was almost enough to send him running for cover.

The nearest decent store was a Giant west of Alexandria. Because it was noon, the aisles weren’t as crowded as they might have been, given it was a weekend. Harm stepped through the sliding doors with a glint of excitement, Mac with a sigh of resignation. While shopping for food was a sort of multidimensional challenge for her partner, she was just as happy to get in and out as quickly as possible.

With a purposeful stride, he made for the produce section, ready to play through the pain of his hangover, all but rubbing his hands together in anticipation. Mac hung back, dawdling to grab a cart and examine the sales tables set up at the entrance, knowing it could take him half an hour to pick out a handful of whatever was in season. Thirty-six minutes later, their journey but half complete, Mac conceded defeat: there was no way she could get him out of there within the hour. Their styles were just too different.

She was a buyer of habit built on impulse; she threw into her cart what looked good and was reasonably priced, and what she liked, she stuck with. Out of a sudden yen for Corn Pops in Aisle 2, she’d broken her tried-and-true rule against buying cereal from a grocery store. This she considered enough supermarket adventure for one outing.

Harm, on the other hand, was methodical and tireless. Selecting against stained and bruised fruit was just the beginning. There were labels to be read, parent company manufacturers and their locations to be divined, metric measurements to be converted to American for more thorough comparison. She had just reorganized and front-faced five shelves of jams and jellies while he puzzled out the loaf of bread that would best meet her needs with the impenetrable focus of a Zen master. Now they were stuck in the Mexican section as he agonized over which salsa to choose. After four and a half minutes of patiently waiting behind the cart, she’d been rewarded when he narrowed his options to three, each a different flavor of the same brand.

When he started making noises about sodium levels and citric acid, she grabbed his biceps from behind and laughed ruefully. It was either that or yank out her hair.

“Harm,” she groaned, beating her head against his back and wishing it was a brick wall. “I give up. You pick out whatever salsa you like and anything else that’s going to take you longer than eight minutes at a stretch to decide on. I’m going to the dairy aisle. Meet me in frozen foods when you’re done, and you can help me pick out an ice cream.”

“Hmm?” Mildly surprised, he glanced over and gave her an absent nod. “Okay, hon. Ice cream, ten minut – no, fifteen, I promise.” He shifted aside as she pushed the cart past, discarding one of the finalists on principle because he hated the word ‘chipotle.’

Shaking her head benevolently, she tossed a pack of sliced cheese, a case of pudding cups, and a few yogurts into the basket, grabbed a half-gallon of skim milk and two cartons of generic orange juice on sale, and debated over the utility of cottage cheese, ultimately deciding against it, all in less time than it took Harm settle on Vegetable Medley Medium.

Thirteen minutes later, proudly bearing the assigned items, he wandered over to the freezer section. The salsa was the least of his contributions – he had also chosen for Mac a very fine brand of tortilla chip (low in salt content, fried in canola oil), the variety bag of mini-candy bars with the highest Krackle count (he’d checked fourteen different packages), and a dozen eggs (seven of which he’d had to trade from other boxes in order to perfect the set).

“Did you decide on one yet?” he asked, placing his wares carefully in the cart and moving to stand beside her. Both gazed thoughtfully at the freezer doors, trying not to let their eyes rest too long on one flavor in particular.

“Nope.” Yup. But it was the kind they’d chosen last week when they’d shared ice cream, and the two times before that. She was afraid he’d find it overkill. “What do you think?”

He shrugged a little, not wanting to make his preference so clear that she’d be obliged to choose it. “You want something chocolate?”

A withering glance was her only reply.

“Dumb question.” Of course Mac wanted chocolate. “Do you want . . .” he skimmed the assortment again . . . “something with peanut butter?”

She murmured non-committally. “I could be talked into it, if you’re in the mood.”

Not a very encouraging response, and hopefully one he would never hear outside the grocery store. “Mint?”

Another murmur, this one even less enthusiastic.

He paused, then, convinced the appeal in his tone was carefully masked, proposed, “Coffee?”

“Hmmm . . .” Interested, she quirked an eyebrow and slid closer. “What did you have in mind?”

This was a good sign, he knew. Still, he tried to hide his hope with a casual gesture. “Well, there’s that espresso chip kind we got last time . . .”

She lifted a shoulder with a vaguely agreeable expression and eager eyes. “Works for me, if you’d like it.”

“Yeah.” He attempted to sound as nonplussed as possible. “That would be cool.”

No sooner had the words left his mouth than, all but tripping each other in their haste, they lunged for the door.

“Damn, this stuff is good,” he sighed blissfully as he shoveled ice cream from the enormous bowl in front of him into his mouth.

“Mmm-hmm,” she agreed around a hearty mouthful.

Purposefully, Harm kept his attention focused on the opening credits of their first film. Mac was an ice cream savorer. She heaped huge globs on her spoon, then licked and nibbled away at them in so unconsciously sexy a manner that watching her left him half-crazy with desire. He had discovered this literally the hard way on several occasions, and had since vowed to forbid himself more than the tiniest peek. Soon, much to his relief, he was aided in this task by the movie, “Enigma,” which had an interesting plot and was quite good for something he’d never even heard of.

Their afternoon had gone swimmingly once they’d gotten into a line that actually progressed at the grocery store – no mean feat, considering Mac’s characteristic bad luck with that sort of thing, and Harm’s utter indifference as to which line they were in as long as it had a National Enquirer he could browse. They’d returned to Mac’s place, where he’d put away her groceries while she’d prepared her dirty laundry. An alcove in the hallway outside her apartment held a trio of stackable washer-dryers, and by merging their things and sorting in threes, they’d managed to get everything in at the same time. Mac dusted, read, and gave her kitchen and bathroom a quick touch-up while they waited; Harm took a nap on the couch and, in a stroke of misfortune, woke up just in time to help fold the clothes. He was convinced she’d given him the load of colors to torment him with the sight and feel of her lingerie and to better make fun of his
pit-stained white undershirts. If so, her mission had been handsomely accomplished. They shared the folding of their sheets and towels with an ease born of habit and practice.

Out of respect for his mending stomach, they’d had a light, early supper of vegetable soup and cinnamon toast, after which they walked down the street to the local Blockbuster.

“Enigma” finished out well, they decided after a brief discussion, and an intermission was tacitly agreed upon. Mac used the facilities and put on pajamas while Harm washed their ice cream dishes and fiddled ineffectually with her drippy faucet, making a note to bring his wrench and a few spare washers the next time he came over.

The second movie was billed as a suspense/thriller, and so, of course, had to be watched in the dark with a handful of candles burning eerily at the far corners of the living room. Harm’s purpose in choosing this film was twofold: one, he’d been legitimately interested in seeing it; two, it would give Mac an excuse to curl close and keep him around after it was done. Though she pretended to be as brave as the next guy when it came to horror flicks, told him sternly at the end of every one that it was only a movie, trying to convince herself as well, he knew she was more frightened than she’d ever let on. Once, after they’d watched “The Candyman” on Sci-Fi while on assignment at some hotel, he’d crept up behind her and thrust a hooked hand around her throat. She’d body-slammed him in a wicked flip he never saw coming, then chewed him out for fifteen minutes because she was worried she had really hurt him.

When he returned to the front room, Mac keyed the tape and fast-forwarded through the FBI warnings. She stopped at the previews – they loved the previews – and backed over to the sofa. Harm, already strategically sprawled over two-thirds of the cushion space, utilized his new favorite move, snagging her slim waist to pull her down beside him.

Already tense in anticipation of the movie, she gasped and spun to face him, a little quizzical, but not enough so to shift from his embrace.

“You need a new sponge for your dish wand,” he murmured off-handedly to distract her, wrapping his arm a little tighter when she wasn’t looking. Then he nodded to the screen, where the preview for an indy comedy feature was playing. “We should see that one.”

Reluctantly, she shifted her attention to the television, little by little eased her head onto his shoulder. “Maybe next time,” she answered, settling in and sighing contentedly.

By the conclusion of the movie, she was sitting ramrod straight at the edge of the couch and had inched her way so close to Harm she was nearly in his lap. He watched her with amusement when he could tear his eyes from the film, which had him almost as tense as it did his partner.

She didn’t wait for the credits that ran in eerie silence, but stopped the video and flipped to a sitcom rerun, more for the comfort of noise than for entertainment.

“Could you believe that ending?” he asked, cheerfully incredulous. “I thought that guy was dead meat.”

Mac stuck out her chin and took a deep breath. “It’s just a movie, Harm,” she informed him determinedly. “Honestly, I didn’t think it was all that scary.”

Because she wrung her hands and checked the dark corners of the apartment as she said it, he decided to play along and nodded sagely. “Oh. I guess you saw through it faster than I did. But you’re always better at that sort of thing.”

Hiding a grin in his shoulder, he gave her knee a congratulatory pat and stood up.

Before he could take more than a step, she bolted out of her seat and landed so close to him he had to catch her elbows to keep her from stumbling. “Wh-where are you going?”

Feigning surprise at the question, he turned wide eyes innocently from her face to the front door and back. “I’m going home, Mac,” he explained as though it were obvious – which actually it was. “It’s late, and I’m pretty beat.”

The alarm in her eyes was visible even by candlelight. He couldn’t resist reaching over to smooth away a stray section of bangs that blocked his view.

“Oh.” That stymied her for a moment, but she was quick to recover. “But I’m already in my pajamas and . . . and everything. I don’t really feel like going out again tonight.”

He watched, waiting for the inanity of the statement to hit her. After ten seconds without a reaction, he frowned thoughtfully, as if considering the matter.

“Well now, you see, Mac, you live here,” he reminded her patiently. “So you wouldn’t have to come with me when I go home.”

“My car’s at your place.”

Ah, he’d forgotten that handy detail. It only furthered his cause. Brilliant.

“You’re right.” He frowned harder to mask the glow of triumph in his eyes. “Well, I suppose I could just bring it back tomorrow sometime.”

“But that would leave me here without a car all night,” she protested quickly, shaking her head at the impossibility of the notion. “What if I need something later on?”

She’d just said she didn’t want to go out anymore, but he was gentleman enough not to point that out. All he could do was shrug helplessly at this fine new dilemma.

Mac motioned vaguely and swept her eyes across the floor. “I guess maybe you could just stay here tonight,” she suggested as if the idea – not wholly untenable, but certainly not overly-appealing or indispensable – had just occurred to her.

He stuck out his lower lip, nodded complacently. After all, if it would be doing her a favor, it wouldn’t kill him to spend the night at her place . . . in her bed . . . in her arms . . . A cocky grin shone through his mind – he had her right where he wanted her. “Maybe I could,” he agreed, trying to sound as indifferent as possible.

“Good.” Her smile was bright and immediate but somehow more impersonal than grateful. “Do you want the bed or the couch?”

WHAT? He shot her a glance of abject dismay, his eyes and mouth gaping with shock, horror, at the question. This wasn’t the way things were supposed to go, his mind argued frantically. This wasn’t at all according to plan! What the hell did she mean did he want the bed or the couch?

He could do nothing but watch, struck dumb with the collapse of his strategy, as her expression shifted from polite to smug, her brow raised in impish delight. Slowly, so slowly, she spun around, holding his gaze as she went, then with a laugh that was positively evil, sauntered into the bedroom.

Stunned, he looked weakly about the room, confused suspicion giving way to comprehension and an unquenchable thirst for revenge. Had, he thought disgustedly. He’d been had by Sarah MacKenzie once again. But this time, he vowed, he would have the last laugh.

Bird-dogging her into the bedroom and tackling her onto the bed would be too easy, and just what she’d expect. No, this game called for a shrewd and talented player; luckily, he was just such a man.

With purposeful strides, he canvassed the living room, blowing out candles, checking the door locks. When everything was in place, he cleared the couch of all pillows but his favorite purple chenille, stripped down to his boxers and t-shirt, and sprawled out heavily, ready for bed.

He counted to two hundred and eleven before he felt her presence next to the couch. Opening his eyes in what he hoped was a mildly curious, accommodating manner, he found her standing over him, hands on her hips. The streetlights were sufficient to illuminate the indulgence in her gaze.

“What are you doing?” It wasn’t so much a question as a veiled suggestion to reconsider.

Calling your bluff, he thought arrogantly, but kept his actions ingenuous. With a guileless shrug, he gestured at the long legs stretched out before him. “I’m just going to sleep, Mac. I decided I’d better take the couch.”

“You did, huh?”

A glimmer of doubt sparked unpleasantly. This detached understanding wasn’t the response he’d expected. She was supposed to cajole and pout and finally admit she’d been categorically mistaken to try to tease him, thus satisfying his ego and luring him to her bed in one fell swoop.

“Well, gosh, Mac – ” perhaps this was laying it on a little thick; he hadn’t said ‘gosh’ in thirty years – “I didn’t want to put you out or anything like that – ”

“Harm.”

His mouth closed reflexively at the tone of voice that usually meant he should shut up while he was, if not ahead, then at least not too far behind. When she continued, all thoughts of one-upping her in their comic game of chicken fled.

“I’d like you to come sleep in bed with me.” The simple declaration, given with quiet confidence of love and acceptance, fried some vital synapse in his brain. His vision narrowed until she was all he could see. When she offered a hand, he took it automatically, let her draw him up, lead him to the bedroom. At that instant, he would have followed her into the sun if she’d asked.

She waited expectantly by the door while he got into bed, then turned out the lights and climbed in after him. He liked to think he was a pretty clever guy, and usually he was; but she’d known him too long and too well to fall for his Mr. Innocent routine, especially when he wanted something so badly his nerves practically hummed with it. His complete consternation when she’d offered him the couch had been almost too much to bear – she’d had simultaneous urges to crow out her victory and kiss the worry away.

She had to admit, his ploy to call her bluff had been a stroke of minor genius. She’d been expecting something more along the lines of all-out physical warfare, which would allow Harm to use his undeniable advantages of weight, height, and brute strength. But it seemed brains over brawn was the order of the day.

In that vein, she’d dispensed with the preliminaries and gone straight for the honest, emotional appeal, knowing it would either make her partner fold or shut him down entirely. Judging by the dazed silence in which he’d let her guide him to the bedroom, it had done a little of both.

Not at all above taking advantage, she cuddled closer, nestled her cheek into the firm, warm hollow beneath his shoulder. He felt good in her bed, she decided, closing her eyes and wrapping her arm around his waist.

“’Night, Harm.”

The whisper snapped him out of his reverie, and he brought his arm around her, pressed a gentle kiss to the crown of her head. Had, he thought blissfully, absorbing the fresh fragrance and soft feel of her sheets, so much more welcoming than his own. He’d been had by Sarah MacKenzie once again.

“G’night, Mac.”

 

 

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