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Classification JAG Story, adventure, Romance (Harm/Terri Coulter)
Length Approx 105,000 words, 248 pages (8 ½” x 11”)
Spoilers Anything through “Back in the Saddle,” Season 9. Follows the show up to the point where the Admiral offers to reinstate his commission, but in this story, not as a JAG officer. Instead, there’s an opening for a military law instructor at Annapolis, and Harm gladly takes it.
 
Rating AO for adult situations
Author's Notes 1. A while back, there was big news about sexual assaults at the U.S. Air Force Academy, in Colorado. It seems the leadership was sort of keeping everything hush-hush, while dozens of female cadets were being punished and stigmatized for coming forward. Some of the incidents involved alcohol, and some of these cadets were punished for underage or excessive drinking, while their rapists got off without even a slap on the wrist. From the reports I read many months ago, the chain of command had failed miserably. Appropriate actions were not being taken, and nothing was being done to make it “safer” for the female cadets to obtain medical and psychological help. When the news broke, dozens more graduates came forward to tell their stories, that they’d kept to themselves for years, not having reported the crimes out of fear of jeopardizing their careers. As a result, most of the top brass at the Academy were relieved of their positions. I got to thinking about what might happen if Harm discovered something similar going on at Annapolis.

2. Last one, I promise! If you’ve ever read any of my other fanfics, then you know that I have a bad habit of writing the characters as I would *like them to be,* and not as they *actually* were on the show. So, when Harm breaks a few regs later on in the story, and maybe does some ethically questionable things, don’t throw rocks at me. This is your warning, right here. And, really, let’s face it: when finding a greater truth was at stake, Harm *did* break the rules, so this isn’t even that much of a stretch.
 
Summary Never having returned to JAG after his stint with the CIA, but still in the Navy, Harm is now a professor at the Naval Academy. What happens when he discovers Annapolis is hiding the same secrets that disgraced the leadership at the U.S. Air Force Academy?

 

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6
Part 7 Part 8 Part 9 Part 10 Part 11 Part 12

 

 

AUGUST 2005
0725 EST
UNITED STATES NAVAL ACADEMY
ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND



After retrieving his briefcase from the passenger seat of his car, Harm stepped out of the vehicle, put his cover on, and stopped to observe the scenery around him. Taking a deep breath of the warm summer air, he turned around slowly, absorbing the sight of stately buildings and bright green grass that surrounded him. It was hard to believe that he was starting his third year as an instructor at the Academy. Some days, it felt like it was only yesterday that he’d left JAG. Other days, it seemed like a lifetime had passed since he’d returned from rescuing Mac in Paraguay, and found that he’d been “blacklisted” from the billet he’d considered his home for almost a decade.

It was only a few months after that that he’d lost yet another job, this one as a CIA operative. He would never regret landing that C-130 on the deck of the Seahawk, and certainly, he would never regret saving the family he and his partner had taken aboard. But, if he’d been able to think clearly at the time, he might have thought twice about walking out of that aircraft, and stepping directly into the path of a television crew.

Even then, Harm could hardly complain about the turn his life had taken. If not for his identity being compromised, he never would have met Mattie, and being her guardian was an experience he wouldn’t trade for anything. When Harm first met her, the teenage girl had been defensive, petulant, and emotionally closed to the outside world. But a year later, when she reconciled with her father, she was more forgiving, understanding, and compassionate. And, dare he acknowledge it, Harm had undergone quite a transformation, himself. He was a decorated fighter pilot, and an accomplished attorney; yet, in the end, it was caring for a troubled young girl that had finally forced him to grow up.

And grow up he had. He missed his life in Washington, but, like so many other times throughout his career, he’d managed to create a new life, in a new location. He’d enjoyed working for Mattie’s crop dusting business, but after just a few weeks, the rational part of his mind convinced him it just wasn’t practical. He’d been considering his employment options one night, when Admiral Chegwidden stopped by unexpectedly. The admiral was just a few months away from retirement, and he had come to extend Harm an olive branch of sorts. He had heard about an opening for an instructor to teach military law classes at Annapolis, and he told Harm that while he still had some “pull,” he could reinstate his commission, as well as give him his highest recommendation for the job.

After that, things had moved rather quickly, and Harm found himself at the front of a classroom, facing a group of nervous midshipmen. He hadn’t been in a courtroom in over three years, but he liked to think he was still doing his part to give justice a push in the right direction. He’d met so many students, and given so many lectures – from plebe summer overviews on the UCMJ, to in-depth analyses of individual cases for the more advanced upper-class mids, and he knew of at least three former students who planned to go to law school, with ambitions of becoming JAG officers, themselves.

A day like today, the first day of the fall semester, especially reminded him of how much he enjoyed his new career. It was a beautiful day, if a little hot, but excitement was in the air, as anxious midshipmen hurried across the campus, eager to start another year. He studied them with amusement; over twenty years ago, he had been one of them. If someone had told him he’d return to this place, and most likely finish out his career here, he would have given the idea about as much credence as he’d given the tall tales the first-class mids had told him as a plebe.

He chuckled to himself as he made his way through the faculty parking lot. Things certainly had a funny way of working out. Looking up, he saw the American flag, flying atop one of the buildings. It waved just slightly in the faint hint of a breeze, and, juxtaposed against a flawless blue sky, it looked truly regal. At that moment, there were few places in the world Harm would have preferred to be.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before the oppressive humidity of August near the Chesapeake Bay made its presence known, via a drop of sweat that made its way down between Harm’s shoulder blades. It seemed to him the only people who loved Navy summer whites were civilians, who’d never had to actually wear them. He was inwardly cursing the person who invented polyester, when he heard something that cooled him like a tall glass of lemonade. He hadn’t seen her in years, but he’d kept in touch with her on the phone, and he’d know the smooth, sweet lilt of her southern accent anywhere.

Terri Coulter shook hands with a male lieutenant commander, before the officer saluted her and headed off, toward a lecture hall. When Terri was alone, Harm set his briefcase down, stood up to his full height, and folded his arms across his chest.

“Commander Teresa Coulter,” he said, a smile on his face and in his voice, “what the heck are you doing in Maryland?”

Terri scoffed, but her smile belied any offense she might have felt. “It’s nice to see you too, Harm.”

The words were barely out of Terri’s mouth before Harm closed the few feet that separated them, and pulled her into a long overdue embrace. He marveled at how good it felt to be near her again, even as the unrelenting humidity urged him to let go. He resisted for several seconds, just enjoying the comfort of having his old friend close to him. When he finally did release her, he took a small step back, but held onto both of her hands. “Sorry,” Harm said, chuckling. “I’m just really surprised to see you here, that’s all.”

“Well, get used to it,” Terri said playfully. “I’m teaching here this semester.”

“Get out of town!” Harm reacted in shock.

“I can’t,” Terri said, still smiling. “I’ve already rented an apartment!”

Harm only shook his head. He seemed unable to remove the grin that had cemented itself on his face. “I can’t believe you’re here!”

“And here I thought you’d be happy about it,” Terri replied sarcastically.

“You know I am,” Harm defended himself. To prove it, he pulled her into another hug.

“Careful, Harm,” Terri whispered against his chest. “We’re giving those mids over there a free show.”

Pulling away, Harm smiled at her. “So? This is the best entertainment they’ll get all week.”

Terri shook her head, smiling. She’d always found Harm’s smile contagious, and it seemed to her that that was still the case, even though she hadn’t seem him – or his smile – in almost four years. Their unrelenting professional schedules had prevented them from visiting each other during that time. They’d managed to make the occasional phone call, however, and every time they had, they’d fallen into the comfortable conversation of old friends, whom neither time nor distance could separate.

Straightening her cover, which had shifted during Harm’s hugs, Terri said, “So, really, Harm, what do you say? You think you could handle being my colleague?”

Harm briefly put his hand over his heart. In the best old-Western movie accent he could muster, he said, “Well, that’s a tall order there, pard’ner, but I think Professor Rabb’s up for the challenge. So, whad’re ya’ teachin’ little lady?”

“Little lady?” Terri asked, trying to suppress a giggle at Harm’s antics. “Harm, I’m pretty sure a ‘little lady’ wouldn’t be teaching introductory forensics.”

“Really?” Harm asked, his voice instantly back to normal. “I didn’t even know they offered that here.”

“It’s brand new this semester,” Terri informed him. “This is going to sound so ridiculous, but, believe it or not, they developed the course because of student demand. I guess with the popularity of shows like NCIS, and CSI, young people are getting more interested in those kinds of jobs.”

“That sounds logical,” Harm noted. “Should be pretty interesting.”

“I think so,” Terri agreed. “Only thing is, I’m terrified.”

Harm’s brow furrowed. “Why?”

“Well, this is kind of a trial-run for the course,” Terri explained. “And, for some reason that is completely incomprehensible to me, I’m the one they chose to teach it. So, basically, if the class is a bomb, there’ll be only one person to blame: me.”

“Terri, don’t be ridiculous. Why on earth wouldn’t it go well? And, as for your responsibility for it, Terri, the brass here know what they’re doing. They only want the best to teach their classes, and they hit this one on the head when they went and got you.”

Terri rolled her eyes. “Harm, the only thing I’m the best at is making my grandmama’s sweet potato pie.”

Harm raised an eyebrow. “The best, huh? I might have to see that for myself.”

Terri answered without missing a beat. Something about the man before her had always kept her on her toes. “Just tell me when and where, Harm.”

To his surprise, Harm felt a tingle at Terri’s casual proposal. But, there would be another time and place to talk about taste-testing her grandmother’s recipe. Right now, there was something more pressing to address. “Seriously, Terri,” he said, “you have the education, the skills, and the experience to be great at this.” Not to mention the compassion that every teacher should have, whether they’re in a kindergarten classroom, or the Naval Academy, he added silently.

Terri blushed, and Harm continued. “You have every reason to be completely confident about this,” he told her. “And, if you’re not, well, whatever you do, don’t let the mids know that. They can smell fear, you know, and they’ll eat you alive.”

Terri sighed. “Thanks, Harm. I feel so much better now.”

“Hey,” Harm smiled, “I teach military law, not motivational speaking.”

Terri shook her head. “I don’t suppose our paths will cross much on campus. I’m teaching in the science building, because we’re going to do some hands-on work in the lab from time to time.”

Harm nodded. “Well, you’d be surprised. It’s a pretty small place.”

“With some really big ribbon racks,” Terri grumbled.

“Don’t let those fool you, Terri. You belong here. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have been hired. Give yourself some credit, lady. The department heads obviously think you’re qualified, so why don’t you think so?”

Something about the way Harm said it made Terri truly believe it. “I thought you just said you don’t teach motivational speaking.”

Harm flashed his dimples. “I’m only telling the truth. If it happens to motivate you, well, that’s a great bonus.”

Not having a suitable response, Terri could only stand there, marveling at the incredible power Harm had over her. He’d always had it, and what made it worse was he was entirely unaware of it. It made him at once irresistible and infuriating. She’d always known herself to be a strong-willed woman, so, why was it that in the presence of this man, under the pull of his blue-green eyes, she’d do anything he’d ever ask? Why was it that her bones turned to jell-o at the very sound of his smooth, deep voice?

Still, she was content with the relationship they’d maintained over the years. It had never been more than friendship, but it was the kind of adult, platonic friendship that allowed them the freedom to flirt with each other, without raising any expectations. She’d never lied to herself about the attraction she felt toward the tall, ridiculously handsome man she’d first met during the investigation of the remains of the Native American, Jimmy Blackhorse, but neither had she ever given serious consideration to it becoming more than a treasured friendship, with fodder for some incredibly inspired daydreams.

Remembering the friendly goodbye he’d witnessed between Terri and the unidentified lieutenant commander, Harm said, “So, are you free for dinner tonight, or has some insanely lucky officer already snagged you for the evening?”

Terri smiled. “That would be nice, Harm, but I’ve got way too much work to do. I got into town just a few days ago, and everything was shipped here ahead of time. I’ve got a whole house worth of boxes sitting in my living room, waiting to be unpacked.”

“A sexy, young sailor is asking you to dinner, and you’d rather unpack?” Harm scoffed playfully.

“Sexy? Young? Where?” Terri teased, whipping her head left and right, looking for such a man.

“Hey!” Harm pouted.

Terri laid a gentle hand on Harm’s arm. “I’m just teasing, Harm. But seriously, if I don’t go through those boxes soon, I’m afraid they’ll stay on my living room floor until Christmas.”

“So, this is perfect,” Harm said. “You’ve got a lot of work to do, and I’ve got two, strong arms that are ready and willing.”

At that, Terri quirked an eyebrow up. She couldn’t resist. “Harm, if you’re offering me access to those strong, willing arms of yours, I can think of something a heck of a lot more fun to do with them than unpacking boxes.”

Now it was Harm’s turn to be surprised. His mouth opened, but he was incapable of forming a coherent word.

“Oh come on, Harm,” Terri teased. “You didn’t think I could let a comment like that go unchecked, did you?” She shook her head, smiling. “It’s not often I get to leave you tongue-tied.”

That’s what you think, Harm thought. In fact, he could remember the very first time the woman before him had rendered him speechless. It was not too long after she’d assisted him with the Annie Lewis case. Terri had called to find out how Darlyn was doing, and she’d ended their conversation with a casual, yet all-too-meaningful goodbye: “Call me sometime, when you don’t need something.” Harm had always suspected that, if not for his relationship with Jordan at the time, he most definitely would have made that phone call.

“Come on,” Harm encouraged. “How about this: since you know what you have, and where you want to put it all, you unpack, while I cook you a welcome-to-the-neighborhood dinner?”

“The welcome wagon?” Terri asked. “We’re not talking tuna noodle casserole, are we?” She winked, knowing Harm would take it for the joke it was intended. He’d made dinner for her once or twice in the past, and he’d proven himself to be as talented in the kitchen as he was in the courtroom.

“I’ll think of something good to make,” Harm assured her, “and I’ll even help with the heavy lifting.”

“Careful, Harm. A girl could get used to that.”

Harm smiled. On the outside, he said, “Never let it be said that Trish Rabb didn’t raise a gentleman.” On the inside, however, his first thought was that he, too, could get used to having dinner together. Changing the subject, he said, “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming here? I would have picked you up at the airport!”

“The Navy’s paying for a rental car until mine gets shipped up here,” Terri explained. “Besides, I wanted to surprise you.”

“Mission accomplished,” Harm said. Noticing that the mids on the quad were hurrying much faster now, Harm checked his watch. “Terri, I’d love to keep talking, but I have to go.”

“Me too,” Terri nodded. “I don’t teach until 1030, but I have a meeting with the dean first thing this morning.”

“Well, knock ‘em dead, Commander,” Harm said.

“They’re already dead,” Terri teased. “Forensic pathology, remember?”

Harm grinned at her words. “Leave your address on my voicemail,” he told her. “I’ll stop at the grocery store on my way over.” Harm hadn’t even met his students yet, but as he watched Terri walk away, he was certain of one thing: it was going to be an interesting semester.



1327 EST
 

Harm neared his classroom, and through the open door, he could see that all of the students were already in their seats. He would have been flattered if he hadn’t known better: it was the first day of the semester, and everyone would be trying to make a good impression. The students’ enthusiasm had nothing to do with their desire to jump headfirst into military law, and everything to do with the three stripes on their instructor’s shoulder boards. The last thing they’d want would be to start the year off with extra marching for even the slightest offense.

As Harm stepped over the threshold, the midshipman nearest to the door jumped up, shouting, “Officer on deck!” The rest of the students followed immediately, automatically assuming the position of attention.

“As you were,” Harm told them. “Please, take your seats.” He set his briefcase on the large desk at the front of the room, and proceeded to take a cursory glance at the students before him. They were a small group, twenty-five or thirty, at most. It was a third and fourth-year law class, and Harm was quite satisfied with the numbers. He liked to get to know his students as more than just a shiny nametag on a uniform, and he didn’t think that would have been possible if he’d taught something like Psychology 101, standing before a crowd of two hundred, reading verbatim from PowerPoint slides, like some kind of all-knowing preacher, from a more modern-style pulpit.

He saw several faces he didn’t recognize, and some he did. One face, in particular, made him smile as he caught the student’s eyes. He’d known Midshipman Second Class Laura Henry since her plebe summer, when she’d asked him some impressive questions during the introductory UCMJ briefing. She’d interviewed him a few months later, for a paper she was writing about how the military is portrayed in the media. She was the only person in her immediate family to wear the uniform, but it had been her dream for as long as she could remember. Ever since she’d seen A Few Good Men, she’d been interested in the Navy’s JAG Corps. Her parents supported her “hobby,” and provided her with news clippings whenever they appeared. Laura had followed much of a certain commander’s career, and she jumped at the opportunity to learn from “the best.”

Laura was in Harm’s class just last semester, and here she was again. Harm was happy to see her. Teacher’s weren’t supposed to have favorite students, he knew, but he also knew it was simply human nature to connect with some people better than with others. He had seen something special in Laura Henry from the moment he met her, and she hadn’t disappointed him. Everyone at the Academy had something going for him or her, but Laura was truly a stellar midshipman. Her GPA was quite near the top of her class, she was a star on the volleyball team, and she’d managed to contribute countless volunteer hours, on top of it all.

Harm saw that Laura’s good friend, Midshipman Susan Miller, was also in the class. Susan hadn’t expressed as big an interest in military law as Laura had, but she was a good student, and Harm was glad to have her “aboard,” as it were.

Looking beyond Midshipman Miller, Harm was happy to have in the class a handful of students whom he knew had already declared their intentions to continue on to law school upon graduation from the Academy. He was acquainted with some of them, and he was satisfied in believing that the future of JAG would be safe in their hands.

Still, that did not ease the pressure he felt to make sure that that would hold true. It was up to him to make sure that these students came out of his class with the firm knowledge that the law was an institution, but not one so hallowed that it should never be questioned, altered, or, in extremely rare cases – some of which he had, in fact, been party to – broken, when it served a greater good. Practicing law was an art, not a science, and, for this semester, at least, it was his job to ensure that they approached that art from many angles, rather than trying to plug numbers into formulas that were preordained to work. The law was not a fragile, delicate thing. In fact, Harm, himself, had rolled up his sleeves and put up his proverbial dukes in the courtroom more than once. The law was a strong, solid animal; it could take a challenge now and then. In fact, it needed to be kept on its toes, and, somehow, it always came out the stronger for it.

After checking the class roster and taking attendance, Harm gave his students a speech in which he addressed those points. He distributed the course syllabus, and reviewed it in great detail, so the students would know what they’d be up against. Anyone who was no longer interested could drop the course as soon as possible.

Just a few minutes before it was time to dismiss his students, Harm reviewed the back of the syllabus, where he’d outlined his expectations for them.

“As members of this class,” he said, “I expect you to come to class prepared, and ready to work. I expect you to complete your homework before each class period, and not to be scrambling to copy from someone else at the last minute. I won’t waste your time with my speech about the honor code, because I trust that, as midshipmen second and first class, you are already intimately familiar with it.

“When assignments are to be turned in, I expect them to reflect your respect for the law, for me, and for the Navy. I don’t want dog-eared pages, and I don’t want to see coffee stains.” To lighten the mood, he added, “I’ve spilled my share of middle-of-the-night coffee on more than one legal brief, and, believe me, it was worth staying up the rest of the night to redo them, rather than facing the wrath of a judge who thinks I hold him in such low esteem as to hand him a legal document that looks like my imaginary dog chewed on it and spit it back out.”

Harm continued after some mild chuckling subsided. “You don’t have to spend extra money on fancy report covers, or page protectors, or anything like that. All I’m saying is, you are professionals in the United States Navy. I’m going to treat you as such, and I expect you to treat me the same way. Is that understood?” The students answered with a chorus of “Yes, sir,” and Harm nodded. “Good. Beyond that, I expect you to observe proper protocol at all times in this classroom. While we may occasionally review some “spill-hot-coffee-in-your-lap-and-then-sue-the-restaurant” type cases, more often than not, we will be examining cases involving everything from fraudulent enlistment, to theft of military property, to dereliction of duty resulting in serious injury or death. So, I expect you to conduct yourselves like adults, and like naval officers. We can have fun in this class, when it’s appropriate, and when it’s not, well, you’ll know when it’s not.”

After asking again if they understood, and receiving the same swift answer, he added a final note. “If you’ve been daydreaming until now, and I know some of you have, please listen up. If you take away anything from today’s meeting, take this: Not everything we’re going to study this semester will be found in the textbook. We’re going to review some real-life JAG cases, some of which I may have been involved in. I’ll expect you to approach those cases as you would any others. Speak up freely, and criticize as you would anything else. Don’t short-change your education just because my name is listed as prosecution or defense. Uninhibited questions are justice’s best friend.”

With intentions of ending on a more upbeat note, Harm again attempted a joke. “And, remember, there’s no such thing as a stupid question. Well, okay, yes, there is, but I promise not to laugh at you in front of the class.” He paused suddenly, for effect, and then spoke again. “I’ll wait until you leave, and then I’ll laugh behind your back.”

The joke had the desired effect, and the students were laughing and smiling. Harm dismissed them, and they came to attention in unison. As they filed out of the room, Harm acknowledged those he knew with a nod, or a smile, and exchanged pleasantries with a few of the ones who had time to stop and say hello. He caught Midshipman Henry as she was heading for the door.

“Midshipman Henry,” he called to her.

The girl walked briskly toward him, coming attention before him. “Sir?”

“At ease,” Harm told her. “It’s nice to see you, Midshipman.”

“You too, sir.”

“Do you have a few minutes, or do you need to get to another class?”

Laura shook her head. “No class, sir. I just need to go to the bookstore, but that can wait. In fact, I’m probably better off waiting a little while; it might be less crowded later.”

Harm nodded. “So, how was your summer ?”

Laura smiled. “It was great, sir. I was on the Patrick Henry.”

Harm’s face lit up. “You’re kidding!”

Laura’s smile was even bigger when she answered. “No, sir. Your old stomping ground, or so I was told.”

“Yeah, it was. I did some of my best flying off her deck. Me, and the best damn RIO in the U.S. Navy.”

“Skates, sir? Lieutenant Hawkes?”

Harm’s eyes grew bright at hearing his old friend’s name. “Yeah. How did you know? They’ve got my biography hanging up somewhere, or something?”

“No, sir,” Laura answered. “You know how, during the summer, they send us mids out to get a taste of life underway? Well, there were a bunch of us on the Henry, and, in order to keep us out of the captain’s hair, they had a special guide to teach us about the ins and outs of a carrier battle group.”

Harm’s eyes narrowed. “Why do I get the feeling I know this ‘special guide’ from somewhere?”

“It was Tobias Ingles, sir.”

“No kidding,” Harm chuckled. “How is the captain, these days?”

“Well, he’s retired now, sir, but he works for the Navy as a civilian.”

Harm nodded. “He was an excellent skipper, and an even better human being.”

Laura smiled. “Y’know, he said the same thing about you, sir.” She paused, then quickly amended, “Well, he said ‘aviator,’ not ‘skipper,’ but you know what I mean.”

“That’s high praise, coming from him. He and I had our fair share of disagreements, but the simple truth is, I owe him my life. Every morning, without fail, when I wake up in one piece, I remember that it was men under his command, who pulled me out of the ocean four years ago, in the worst storm that part of the Atlantic had seen in years.”

“Yes, sir,” Laura nodded. “Captain Ingles told us some very…um…’colorful’ stories about your days aboard ship.”

“Colorful, huh?” Harm chuckled. “I may have to give him a call this week,” he added, grumbling.

“You came out looking good in most of them, sir,” Laura assured him. “No matter what ‘stunts’ you might have pulled, you always put the mission first; the captain made sure to emphasize that point. Not to mention, even if he’d wanted to, he couldn’t deny your record, sir. You and the F-14…you were like one soul.”

Harm smiled. “Flattery will get you everywhere, Midshipman.”

Laura looked at him curiously. “Do you miss it, sir?”

“Flying?” Harm asked. Laura nodded. “Sometimes,” Harm admitted. “I have a plane of my own, and she’s my prized possession. But she’s no Tomcat.” A shadow fell across his face as he remembered Mac saying something similar, years ago, only she was talking about Dalton Lowne’s Porsche. God, had that temporary goodbye really taken place seven years ago? It felt like another lifetime entirely. “I miss the rush of catapulting off the deck, and I miss losing my breath when I catch the wire. Most of all, I miss carrier life: I miss the camaraderie with the other aviators, and I miss the bond that can only be formed between people who sleep on hard-as-a-rock racks, and eat canned and frozen food for months at a time, ten thousand miles from home.” Harm paused, considering his next words. “But I came to love JAG just as much. More of my naval career has been spent in the courtroom than in the cockpit, and I can say, without reservation, that I’m not sorry it turned out that way.”

“Honestly, sir?” Laura questioned. “Without reservation?”

“No,” Harm answered. His honesty was automatic, if slightly unsettling. There was no question in his mind that he had loved his work at JAG, and now, at the Academy. Nevertheless, there was no denying the plain truth: given the chance, he’d sooner have his hand on the throttle than on a legal pad any day.

On the other hand, there was no denying that he was over forty years old. Men almost half his age were in flight training now; they would be the ones to get the job done in the future. It’s not that he didn’t trust them. On the contrary, he had the utmost faith in the Navy’s flight schools. Still, it was just human nature that nostalgia was so often accompanied by a twinge of sadness and regret.

“I guess, deep down,” Harm said, “in my heart, I’ll always be an aviator. But you know what, Midshipman? The reason I stayed in the Navy, even after I was grounded, is that they were willing to give me a second chance. They’d lost me as a pilot, but they had enough faith in my skills as an officer, to let me go to law school at their expense, and then qualify as a JAG lawyer. The Navy looks out for its people, and now, I guess you could say, as an instructor here, I’m looking out for the Navy.”

Laura smiled. “Yes, sir.”

“Not like they were going to let me get away,” Harm added, his tone sarcastic. “Do you have any idea how much it costs to train an aviator? They weren’t going to let that big of an investment just walk out the door,” he teased.

“And how much does it cost to train a lawyer, sir?” Laura chuckled.

“A lot less than we’re worth, Midshipman. A lot less than we’re worth.”

“Yes, sir,” the girl smiled.

“It’s nice to have you in the class,” Harm said. “Now, go on, go buy those books.”

“Yes, sir. Have a nice day, sir.”

“You too, Midshipman. Dismissed.”

Laura snapped to attention, executed an about face, and left the room.

A nice day is right, Harm thought. Any day when he got to look forward to dinner with Terri Coulter could most definitely be classified as “nice.” In fact, he thought, “nice” doesn’t even begin to cover it.
 


1723 EST
TERRI’S CONDO
ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND



Waiting on Terri’s doorstep, Harm barely managed to ring the doorbell while balancing a bouquet of flowers in one hand, and two large grocery bags in the other arm. At the end of the day, he’d gone to the grocery store, and then to his apartment to shower and change before heading over to Terri’s. He knew she wouldn’t have minded if he’d shown up in his uniform, but Harm had never liked mixing business with pleasure, and sharing dinner with Terri was definitely all pleasure. Not that it was a date, he’d told himself a hundred times during the short drive through the suburbs of Annapolis. Terri was an old friend, nothing more. Said friendship had always included flirting, of course, but they’d had an unwritten agreement to keep things platonic. Even if they’d wanted to change that, they’d always lived at least five hundred miles away from each other. There would have been little hope for success.

Now, though, things had changed. They were finally in the same time zone. Hell, they were in the same zip code, for once. Easy, tiger, Harm told himself. He knew it would take Terri a little while to get used to her new surroundings, and her new job. The last thing an intelligent woman like her would want to do is throw a man into the mix.

Still, that hadn’t prevented him from following his impulse to stop in at a florist on the way to her condo. Every woman liked flowers, and Harm figured as long as he stayed away from red roses, he wouldn’t be sending the wrong message.

Harm shifted the packages gingerly in his arms, when Terri finally opened the door.

“Special delivery for Commander Coulter,” Harm joked.

A bright smile lit up Terri’s face when she saw the flowers. “Oh, Harm, you didn’t!”

“I did,” he admitted. “And, if you don’t take them from me, you’re going to have shards of broken vase on your doorstep any second.”

Terri took the amethyst-tinted glass vase from him and led him inside. “Most of the dining room is set up, so I’ll put them on the table there.” When she set the vase down, she leaned in to the flowers and inhaled deeply. “They’re beautiful, Harm. You shouldn’t have.”

Harm only shrugged. “Consider them a housewarming gift.”

“Well, speaking of housewarming, let me know if you’re too hot or cold in here. My place in Memphis had individual wall units for the AC, but this condo has central air. I’m still trying to figure out how to set it.”

“It’s fine,” Harm assured her.

“Can I get you anything to drink? All I have is tap water and pineapple juice,” she confessed, “so you’re probably better off going thirsty.”

As he followed Terri into the kitchen, he couldn’t help noticing the sway of her hips in the khaki shorts she wore. Maybe it *is* a little warm in here, he found himself thinking.

“Oh,” Harm said, “that reminds me.” He set the bags down on the kitchen counter and pulled out a medium-sized package. The box wasn’t wrapped, but it did have a red gift bow on it.

“What’s this?” Terri asked, as Harm handed it to her.

“A water filter, for your faucet,” Harm explained.

“I think I prefer the flowers,” Terri teased.

Harm smiled. “Hey, I already gave you something that was beautiful, but useless, so, now, here’s something very practical, albeit slightly aesthetically challenged. Maryland tap water is not for the faint of heart, y’know. When I punched out with Skates a few years ago, I must’ve swallowed at least half an ocean of seawater, and I distinctly remember it tasting better than what comes out of the sinks in this neighborhood.”

Terri chuckled. “In that case, thanks.”

“So, what’s the plan?” Harm asked. “Do you need me to unpack anything, or should I just get started on dinner?”

“That depends – what are you making?”

“Angel hair, with shrimp and scallops, in a lemon butter sauce.”

Terri’s jaw dropped. “You start dinner. I’ll unpack.”

“Aye, aye, ma’am,” Harm winked. “But, seriously, if there’s anything you need help moving, give a holler.”

“Will do,” Terri told him. “I managed to unpack the pots and pans before you got here. Just root around the cabinets; you’ll find everything you need.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Dinner was ready an hour later, and Harm called Terri in from her bedroom. As Terri came down the hallway, she found herself stunned yet again. Harm had not only surprised her with flowers, and then prepared a scrumptious meal to make any five-star chef jealous, but he had brought all the fixings for a regal presentation, as well. Terri could only stand there, mute and immobile, as she took in the sight: two tall, white dinner candles were burning in elegant silver holders, and red linen napkins had transformed her ordinary white china into a setup fit for royalty. He’d even supplied two wine glasses, and a bottle of white wine was chilling off to the side of the table.

“Too much?” Harm asked nervously.

“I…it’s…um…” Terri stuttered as she tried to form a sensible response. “Not at all,” she finally settled. “It’s perfect.”

Harm shrugged. “I figured you probably had an exhausting first day, and this might help you relax.”

How can I relax when you’ve got my heart racing, Terri thought. Down girl, she told herself, not for the first time since seeing him that morning. This is Harm you’re taking about. Your friend. Your friend, who happens to be gorgeous, and who could get just about any woman he’d want, with nothing more than a wink and a smile.

“Yeah,” Terri agreed, “I think this just might work.”

Harm pulled out a chair for her, before taking a seat himself. He poured two glasses of wine for them, and then raised his glass. “What should we drink to?”

“To old friends,” Terri suggested.

“And new duty stations,” Harm added, before touching his glass to hers.

They had small salads, and then Harm served the main course, complete with freshly baked bread.

Terri marveled at the sensory overload. “Y’know, I thought I smelled this while I was unpacking, but I didn’t dare to dream. Whoever heard of baking bread from scratch, on a weekday?”

“You overestimate me, Terri,” Harm confessed. “It was a mix.”

“But still, you had to put it in the oven, right? That’s more than most people want to do at the end of a long day.”

Harm shrugged, dismissing her praise. “I promised you a nice welcome dinner, and I intended to deliver.”

“Careful, Commander,” Terri teased. “I already told you once, a girl could get used to this.”

“I could think of worse things,” Harm said.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

After dinner, Terri insisted on doing the dishes herself, since Harm had worked so hard on the meal. While she worked, Harm gave himself a tour of her condo. Spotting her guitar in the corner of her bedroom, he tuned it as quietly as possible, and then headed back into the kitchen, to surprise her with a serenade.

Upon hearing the first few strummed chords, Terri looked up to see a devilish grin on Harm’s face. God, was there anything sexier than a man who could sing? Or a man with those hands, she thought, as she observed Harm’s long fingers as they moved along the frets. God, those hands…

Terri was suddenly painfully aware of her own hands, hidden by bulky, yellow rubber gloves, with a sheen of soap bubbles from the dish detergent. Attractive, Teresa, very attractive.

Harm continued to play for her as she finished the dishes, and tried her best to concentrate on not dropping the plates, as the sound of his smooth, deep voice filled the room. When she was finally done, and the dishes were air drying in a rack on the counter, Harm suggested that she have a seat on her sofa while he prepared dessert.

“Dessert, too?” Terri marveled. “Harm, this is too much.”

“No, it’s just right,” he insisted. “Terri, it’s been what, three years, since we last saw each other? I’m just trying to make up for lost time. I haven’t been able to spoil anyone like this in a long time.”

Terri blushed. “And I haven’t been spoiled like this since…well, never.”

“Then we agree,” Harm grinned. “It’s perfect.”

A few minutes later, Harm appeared with two parfait glasses, containing pound cake with rich vanilla ice cream and fresh raspberries.

Terri took her spoon from Harm and proceeded to take a taste. “Oh, God,” she moaned. “I have absolutely died and gone to Heaven. You’re not allowed to leave,” she informed Harm. “I’m going to chain you up in the kitchen and make you my dinner slave.”

“Ouch,” Harm chuckled. “In that case, next time, I’m bringing McDonald’s.”

“No,” Terri said, “next time, I’ll cook.”

“Then what will I do?” Harm wondered.

“You’ll sing to me while I do it!” Terri beamed.

When they were finished with dessert, Harm installed the filter on Terri’s kitchen faucet, and Terri dug her coffeemaker out of one of the moving boxes so they could make a decent pot of coffee. After it was brewed, they sat together on the sofa and filled each other in on the events of their day.

“I’m teaching plebes in the morning,” Harm said, “but in the afternoon, I have a third and fourth-year law class, which looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun. My favorite student is in it, and that always helps.”

“Playing favorites already?” Terri teased. “Shame on you, Professor Rabb.”

Harm smiled sheepishly. “I know we’re not supposed to get attached, but you’ll see for yourself soon enough, sometimes it’s hard not to.”

“Well, I don’t think any of my students is going to get too attached to me,” Terri confessed. “In fact, I’ll bet some of them drop the course by the end of the week.”

“Why?”

“I think some of them were disappointed to see me at the front of the classroom, and not Mark Harmon, or Mariska Hargitay. Some of the students seemed genuinely interested in the kind of work I do, but there were plenty of others who were expecting to be taught by the cast of NCIS, or Law & Order: SVU.”

Harm laughed out loud. “Well, if they do drop it, they’ll be sorry. They don’t know who they’re missing.”

Blushing yet again, Terri decided to change the subject before she risked saying something stupid. “So, how’s everyone at JAG?”

“Pretty good, I suppose,” Harm answered. “I don’t keep in touch like I should, but I guess we were bound to drift apart eventually. Half the people I worked with aren’t there anymore, anyway. You know the admiral retired, and Coates took a leave of absence to get her degree. But Bud and Harriet are fine. With me and Mac both gone, Bud’s one of the senior attorneys now, so he has a lot on his shoulders. And Harriet’s got three kids to look after. She usually sounds wiped out when we talk on the phone.”

Terri nodded. No matter how hard she might try to stop herself, she knew she would bring up the subject of Mac eventually. It was almost impossible not to: the woman had practically been the center of Harm’s universe for eight years, and now, she was just…gone. For the life of her, she couldn’t comprehend what had happened.

“And…how about Mac?” Terri asked gently.

Harm sighed, eyeing her warily. “Terri, I must’ve told you the story a hundred times.”

“Tell it to me again,” she insisted. “It’s like the movie Back to the Future – every time I see it, or hear it, in the case of you and Mac, I discover something I never noticed before. It’s like a huge mystery that you give up on ever solving, yet you can’t get it out of your mind, so you keep going back to it, knowing all the while how pointless it is.”

“I know the feeling,” Harm said, a streak of exhaustion in his voice, “but I’ve given up on it, so why can’t you? It took me two years to close that chapter of my life. Now that it’s over, I’d prefer it to stay that way.”

“I’m sorry,” Terri said sincerely. “I didn’t mean to make you angry. I just…” she shook her head, “I just don’t get it. You’ve told me everything you could about what happened in Paraguay, and, assuming that none of what was classified had anything to do with why Mac left, I still can’t fit the pieces together. She ran off with Webb, and requested a transfer out of JAG headquarters. I don’t think it’ll ever make sense to me.”

Holding his coffee cup, Harm slowly ran his thumb along the rim while he spoke. “It took me giving up my commission and risking my life in a lawless foreign country to see Mac as she truly is, for the first time. It took her throwing those actions back in my face for me to realize that Mac needs a lot of ‘fixing’ before she’ll be capable of a healthy, long-term relationship with a man. I tried, you know, God, I tried to help her for so long. But nothing I did ever got inside her head, or her heart. Both of those things have been so thoroughly sent through the shredder that I wonder if she’ll ever be able to piece herself back together.” He paused for a moment, collecting his thoughts. “I wanted so badly to be the one to help her do that, but I couldn’t. Personally, I don’t think Clayton Webb can, either, but Mac’s going to have to learn that for herself. Clay and I have had our differences over the years, but I wish the guy luck. God knows he’ll need it.”

Having said all he was willing to say on the matter, Harm took a long drink of his now cold coffee, and set the mug on the table. “Enough about the past,” he announced. “I’d much rather focus on the present.”

“Oh?” Terri smiled. “And what about the present has you feeling this way?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Harm said, as he stood up and retrieved Terri’s guitar once again. “I was hoping you would do me the honor of a goodnight song.”

“A goodnight song?”

Harm nodded. “I’ll play, if you’ll sing.” The last time Harm had heard Terri sing was nearly a year ago. She had called to wish him a happy birthday, and she’d left a beautiful rendition of the traditional song on his answering machine. Harm had never told Terri, but he’d saved that message for months, listening to it whenever he’d needed a pick-me-up. It had put a smile on his face more times than he could recall, and on nights when rest eluded him, he’d listen to her voice over and over, and it unfailingly soothed him to sleep.

After one song, and then a second, Harm and Terri both agreed it was time to call it an evening.

“Harm,” Terri said, as she walked him to the door, “I can’t thank you enough for dinner. And for dessert. And for the flowers…”

“Don’t forget the water filter,” Harm teased.

Terri smiled. “I’ll think of you every time I take a drink.”

And I’ll think of you…all the time, Harm thought, if what I’m feeling right now is any indication. “Hold on to the candlesticks,” Harm told her. “We’ll use them next time.”

“Next time?” Terri asked.

Harm took her hand. “I wasn’t kidding when I said we have some lost time to make up for, Terri.” At that, he brought her hand to his lips and kissed it lightly.

If not for the feel of Harm’s big hand around hers, Terri would’ve sworn she’d melted into a puddle on the floor. Her whole body tingled from just that small action. Filled with a sudden courage, whose source she couldn’t identify, she pressed him for more. “Come on, sailor,” she said, “you can do better than that, can’t you?”

Surprised, but definitely encouraged, by her forthrightness, Harm whispered, “You know I can.” He cupped Terri’s face in one hand, gently raising her chin and lowering his own to compensate for the difference in their height. Their lips met briefly. Sweetly.

Although he was reluctant to do so, Harm pulled away before it could become more. It was only a kiss, but it was a very big step for them. There was no need to rush things; with Terri teaching at Annapolis now, they would have plenty of time for things to develop.

If they developed, Harm corrected himself. Thinking about it logically, Terri had given him every indication that she was interested in him as more than just a friend. On the other hand, Terri had been a good friend for years now, and he wouldn’t want to screw that up. Walking to his car, he decided he would just let whatever happens, happen.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Standing on her doorstep, Terri watched the taillights of Harm’s SUV until they disappeared out of sight. She went back into her condo, and proceeded to put away the dinner dishes, which were now dry. As she unpacked a few more things, she couldn’t help but think again of Mac. A line from the movie A Few Good Men came to mind, when Tom Cruise called Demi Moore “galactically stupid.” Terri could say the same thing about Mac, for letting Harm slip away from her. No, more like for pushing him away, hard. Shoving him out the door with a kick, then slamming the door behind him, and turning the lock loudly, so he’d know he was permanently barred from her life. If she couldn’t see the wonder of this man, then she didn’t deserve him, Terri thought.

And Harm was right – if he, himself, had come to terms with it, then surely she could, too. Of course, Tom Cruise couldn’t hold a candle to Harmon Rabb. She had never seen the infatuation over Tom, anyway. He was completely unattainable. A celebrity, with fancy parties, fancy cars, and fancy women. But Harm was real. He was down to earth, with a down-to-earth water filter. And Tom Cruise had sung in many of his movies – Top Gun and Jerry Maguire came to mind quickly. But the man’s singing voice couldn’t match his acting skills. Harm, on the other hand, could melt butter with just a few notes.

When Terri had unpacked to near exhaustion, she went into her bathroom. She took a good look at herself in the mirror. God, it was a wonder Harm hadn’t run away in horror at the sight of her, let alone kissed her like he had. When she’d gotten home from work earlier, she’d changed out of her uniform, and into a comfortable T-shirt and shorts, complete with her long, blonde hair up in a kerchief. She’d had a lot of unpacking to do, and she wasn’t going to do it in a pretty skirt, just because Harm was coming over. She’d had no intention of dressing to impress. They were old friends, and this wasn’t supposed to be a date – just two people catching up over dinner.

However, all that had changed the minute she saw the flowers in Harm’s arms. Whether or not he’d intended to, Harm had given her the impression that this was more than just any old meal. His comments about “making up for lost time” only served to reinforce that notion.

Still, Harm was one of her dearest friends. She’d known there was something special about him from the moment they met, during the investigation of the remains of the Native American naval hero, Jimmy Blackhorse. After that, Harm’s passionate, relentless investigation of Annie Lewis’s death had hammered home the point even more. This was not a man who did anything lightly, including having dinner with a woman. Terri felt fortunate to be a part of his extraordinary world, and she marveled at the fact that he wanted to be a part of hers, too.

She had always been a confident woman. She was intelligent, and highly skilled in her career, among many other talents and credits to her name. She’d never felt unworthy of any man, so why was it so with Harm? Maybe it was his own naval career, which seemed to dwarf hers completely. Or, maybe it was his reputation for being the best at everything he did, even outside the courtroom. Or, maybe it was just the way he looked as he was bent over her sink, installing the water filter, or the way his eyes seemed to bore right through her in the candlelight during dinner.

Whatever it was about Harmon Rabb, it stirred Terri down to her very core.

 

 
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