Summary: A new acquaintance helps Harm and Mac in more ways than one.
Disclaimer: I don't own the characters or the premise. They belong to DPB, etc.
The countryside of Eastern Pennsylvania, sometime in January . . .
Harm's SUV was finding purchase difficult on the seldom-used and ill-maintained dirt road. The unseasonably warm weather, which was about to become a thing of the past according to the weather reports, had brought the frost out of the ground early, leaving the road surface covered in a deep layer of mud. So far, Mac had bitten her tongue (once literally) and held back the scathing comments she'd been wanting to hurl at him for the last twenty-three minutes.
It was twenty-three minutes ago that she'd become convinced Harm had no idea where in hell they were. Besides in hell, of course. That much was obvious. They had seen no houses for a long while, no people since they'd left the shop owner some time ago after buying supplies, and, aside from the utility poles and wires lining one side of the road, no signs of civilization.
What she would have said, if she hadn't been biting her tongue, went something like this:
"I cannot believe I haven't learned my lesson! 'Come with me, Mac'," she mimicked in her mind. "'We'll get away for the weekend for a little R & R. It'll be great - no shop talk, no Admiral, no demands.' And instead of rest and relaxation, here we are in the middle of nowhere! He's lost, but he won't admit it! We have no map and no directions! Who the hell planned this mission anyway?! No one, apparently," she answered herself. "And to top things off, those clouds are looking more ominous by the moment. But Mr. Meteorologist here, who knows more than the local weatherman and that Weather Channel guy put together, says, 'Don't worry. It's just another blizzard scare that won't amount to three inches'. And I fell for it! What am I doing out here, anyway? Why did he ask me to come? And why did I agree?" Exasperated, she exhaled forcefully and slumped against the door.
Harm looked at her from the corner of his eye without turning his head. He knew she was fuming, and he also knew that a monumental effort it was taking for her to remain silent. He intended to do nothing to provoke her any further.
Harm sighed inwardly. This weekend was not starting out very well. He'd invited Mac to go away with him for reasons which he had kept to himself. He had some vague plan about using this weekend to re-establish his relationship with Mac and hopefully re-define it as well. She had suggested that they talk "whenever it happened", and he was tired of waiting. The boundaries of their current relationship were unclear to him, but the way things were now was unacceptable in the long term. Maybe they could use this time to get closer. At least that was his plan, a vision which included romantic talks in front of a fireplace and hikes in the pristine wilderness. A friend of a friend owned a cabin in the wilds of Pennsylvania, and Harm had jumped at the chance to use it.
Before any of his plan could be set in motion, however, they'd have to find the place. Now where was that road?
Harm's thoughts were interrupted by the sudden jerking to the right of the steering wheel. Before he could stop it, his SUV had left the road and come to a jarring stop.
After he recovered from the shock, Harm asked, "You okay?"
Not trusting herself to speak without ripping his head off at the same time, Mac favored him with a look that could've melted steel.
Harm opened the door and jumped down into the squishy mud. He walked around the back of the SUV and surveyed the situation. Both right wheels were mired more than half deep in the partially-frozen mud. It appeared as though the shoulder of the road had simply disappeared under the weight of the vehicle. This did not look good.
He heard Mac open her door, and before he could call out, "Don't!", she'd pushed the door open. Her anger-fueled momentum and the uneven way the vehicle was sitting combined to propel her out of the seat much more quickly than she'd expected. She stumbled and attempted to regain her balance, but the thick mud clung to her boots and prevented her from picking up her feet. She pitched forward into the icy mud, almost, but not quite, catching herself.
Harm stood with his mouth hanging open, not daring to speak or move for seconds. Finally, he took three steps closer to her. "Mac?" he asked hesitantly. "Are you all right?"
Mac got to her hands and knees in the mud, spluttering in an attempt to get the mud out of her mouth. She rolled over and sat in the mud and looked up at Harm in disbelief.
Though he knew it was absolutely the wrong reaction, he couldn't help it. Harm bit his lip to try and keep the laughter at bay, but it was no use, and he finally threw his head back and laughed. She was covered in mud from the top of her head to the bottom of her boots, and he was pretty sure he'd never seen a funnier sight. He turned his back to her in the vain hope that if she couldn't see his face, she wouldn't know he was laughing. When he turned back to her, he was relieved to see that she was laughing herself.
Mac's first feeling upon hitting the cold mud was rage. As she lay there, however, the ridiculousness of the situation hit her, and she saw herself through Harm's eyes. She couldn't contain her laughter when she thought about the hopelessness of their situation. They were in the middle of only God knew where, their vehicle was apparently disabled, she was covered in cold mud, and a major snow storm was going to hit them at any moment. If she didn't laugh, she probably would burst a vein.
Harm extended a hand to her to help her up. Luckily for him, he saw the mischievous glint in her eyes before she took his hand. When she tried to pull him down beside her, he was ready for it and managed to pull her up without getting dumped himself.
"So what now?" she asked, trying as best she could go wipe the mud from her face. All she really managed to do was smear it.
"Now we walk," Harm said, surveying the gathering clouds above. "Or we stay here and use the vehicle for shelter."
Mac broke into another fit of uncontrollable giggles. "Wait," she said, holding up a hand. She took a deep breath. "Okay. I'm done laughing my ass off now."
Harm looked at her backside. "You left some," he said admiringly.
She slapped him on the chest, leaving a slash of mud on his otherwise clean jacket.
"Hey!" he protested.
"So what do you think?" she asked, ignoring his feigned dismay. "Stay or go?"
"I think we walk," he said, looking up again. "There are power lines here. There's got to be a house or cabin somewhere. We know how far back it is." They'd come at least ten miles since leaving the store. "I say we take a chance and keep going along this road. We're bound to find something."
Mac scanned the sky. "Well, we'd better get going. It looks like the sky is about to open up."
After checking to confirm their suspicions that a cell phone wouldn't work this far out, they packed what they could carry into two backpacks and set off down the road. They had walked for seven minutes when Mac said, "Oh, Harm! Look at the bunny!"
Harm looked in the direction she indicated and saw a white snowshoe hare bounding across the snow. They both stopped to watch it.
Suddenly, a single shot rang out, and they both flinched involuntarily. When they looked up again, the hare lay twitching in the snow, a growing crimson stain spoiling the virginal snow beneath it. Their attention was diverted by the sound of feet swish-swishing on snowshoes toward the hare.
They watched as a small individual, bundled up against the cold and burdened by the weight of a large backpack, trudged to the now dead animal and picked it up by a hind leg, spraying blood across the snow as the animal swung back and forth. They both saw the shotgun nestled casually in the crook of the hunter's arm, and without even realizing he was doing it, Harm stepped between the gun-wielding stranger and Mac, his intent to protect her obvious.
Mac made a small noise of disgust at his presumptuous behavior and stepped up beside him. When the stranger reached them, he removed his hat, revealing that "he" was actually a she, and a young she at that. Harm guessed her age at thirteen, but Mac was a little closer with her estimate of fifteen.
"You lost?" the youngster asked.
"Yes," Mac said at the same time Harm said, "No."
The child smiled in amusement. "Whichever it is, it's going to snow real soon." She looked up at the sky. "It's going to be a big one, too." She didn't miss Mac's angry "I told you so" glare at Harm, and that seemed to amuse her, too.
"Do you live around here?" Mac asked.
"Yes and no, ma'am," was the answer.
"Well, our vehicle is stuck back there," Mac said, indicating behind them with a wave. A brisk, freezing rain began to fall now. Already wet, Mac shivered. "We could really use a place to weather this storm."
"We could always go back," Harm offered. This shotgun-toting teenage made him nervous.
"Harm, I'm cold and I'm wet," Mac pointed out. "I'd like to be warm and dry. Sooner as opposed to later."
"I'll take care of you, Mac," Harm assured her.
"Yeah! You've done a great job so far!" Mac said sarcastically. She turned to her (hopefully) benefactress. "Have you got room for us?"
"Ma'am, I . . ." she stopped, obviously hesitant.
"I'm sorry," Mac said. "We should have introduced ourselves. This is Commander Harmon Rabb, Jr, United States Navy, and I'm Lieutenant Colonel Sarah Mackenzie, US Marines. We're both stationed at the Judge Advocate General's Office in Falls Church, Virginia. And you are?" Mac asked.
"JD," the girl said briefly.
"Should we talk to your mom and dad?" Mac asked.
JD thought quickly. "No. That won't be necessary," she said with more than a little resignation in her voice. "Of course you can come with me." She couldn't very well just leave them out here with a blizzard coming, could she? "It's not much further," she said with a sigh. "Come on." She put her hat firmly on her head, bent over to release her boots from the snow shoes, and picked them up by the harnesses.
"Can I take something for you?" Mac asked.
"No, thanks," JD said. She tucked the shoes under her left arm, holding the rabbit in her left hand. The gun she held in her right hand.
"Maybe I could take that gun for you," Harm suggested. He'd feel a lot better if he could get the weapon out of her hands.
The hard look she gave Harm reminded him of a certain Marine he knew. "That's kind of you," JD said, though her tone indicated her realization that kindness was not his motivation. "I've got it." She began to walk in the direction they'd been walking before she'd interrupted them.
Seventeen minutes later, with the rain just beginning to turn to snow, they were walking up the front steps of a small log cabin. JD dropped her snow shoes and the rabbit on the porch and opened the front door.
Mac followed her in and looked approvingly around the cabin. It was small but comfortably furnished. The cabin consisted of one main room with a fireplace, a small kitchen on one side, a table with four chairs, and some living room furniture. Through one open door, she could see a bathroom. Another door stood closed.
JD set the gun on the table, then wriggled out of the backpack. From the thud it made when she dropped it on the table, it was obvious that it was quite heavy. Mac marveled at this youngster, who couldn't have been more than five foot two and one ten soaking wet having carried that heavy weight on her back all those miles on snow shoes. She'd make any boot camp drill instructor proud.
As Harm poked around and attempted to light a fire in the fireplace, Mac realized that something about this situation was bothering her. She watched JD remove groceries from the back for a moment before she asked quietly, "Where are your parents?"
JD looked at her briefly, but didn't answer her question. She put milk and slightly-squished bread in the refrigerator, then turned back to the pack.
"JD," Mac started, but was interrupted by a shiver.
"You're cold," JD said quickly, glad for a change in the topic of conversation. "Do you have dry clothes?"
Mac nodded, but the look she gave JD told her they weren't finished talking about this yet.
"Bathroom's through there," JD said, pointing to the door. "Take a shower and put on some dry clothes. There's plenty of hot water."
Mac raised a finger at JD and seemed about to say something, then stopped. "All right. We can talk later."
Mac took her back pack into the bathroom and closed the door.
"So," Harm said. "Who lives here?"
JD returned to the groceries. "Seventeen spiders and a squirrel."
"You break in?" he asked conversationally. He'd noticed broken pane of glass in the front door which had been replaced with cardboard. He sat back and admired the blazing fire he'd kindled.
JD glared at him for a moment, then returned to emptying her backpack.
"So what's your story?" Harm continued. "You run away?"
JD threw her empty backpack into the corner. She picked the shotgun up and noticed with satisfaction that Harm straightened in alarm. She broke the gun open and removed on unspent shell and put it in her pocket. She closed the gun and returned it to its pegs on the wall. She then opened a drawer and removed a large hunting knife. She put her coat on and crossed to the door. While she was doing all of this, she was actively ignoring Harm's questions.
"Where are you going?" he asked her.
"I've got a rabbit to clean."
A short time later, Mac came out of the bathroom, dressed in sweats and a t-shirt, toweling her wet hair. She looked around. "Where's JD?"
"Cleaning the rabbit. What do you suppose JD stands for? Juvenile delinquent?"
"Harm, don't pass judgment on the kid. We have no idea why she's here. She's all alone, poor thing."
"Don't waste your sympathy on her," Harm advised. "She probably ran away because her mother wouldn't let her stay out all night with some boy with a pierced nose!"
"You don't know anything about her, and you've already made up your mind!"
They stopped talking when the door opened. Wind and snow blew in until JD closed the door. In her hands, she held a skinned rabbit, the knife, and her snow shoes. "It's really coming down out there," she noted, setting the snow shoes by the door. "We've got an inch already."
"Gee. You mean the weatherman was right?!" Mac asked, eyeing Harm.
"Go figure," he muttered.
JD took her coat off and hung it by the door. She took the rabbit into the kitchen and began cutting it.
"That's the little bunny?" Mac asked, fascinated.
"Uh huh. Ever had rabbit stew?" JD asked.
"Never," Mac said. "Anything I can do to help?"
"You can slice some carrots. They're in the bottom drawer of the fridge."
Mac found the carrots and a paring knife. "That was a terrific shot, by the way."
"Thanks. I've been hunting since I was a kid," JD told her.
Mac smiled at her reference to being a kid. "This is a great place. I wouldn't have expected an electric water heater in a place like this. That shower sure felt great."
"What happened to you anyway?" JD asked as she retrieved a pan from the cabinet. "You looked like something out of The Swamp Thing."
"I had a little disagreement with a mud puddle. After we got stuck." She smiled coyly at Harm.
"Sure. Blame this all on me," he said from across the room.
"Oh, I am," she assured him. "So tell me about yourself," Mac said as she poured the carrots into the pot with the rabbit.
"We need a few potatoes," JD said, deliberately ignoring Mac.
"I am going to crack you," Mac promised with a smile.
JD at first eyed her suspiciously, then smiled in return.
Harm watched them from across the room. When he'd been left alone briefly, he'd searched quickly through the cabin, looking for something to indicate who owned this place and also for shells for the shotgun, just in case. He'd found neither. Something about this situation struck him as strange, other than the obvious unusualness of a teenager alone in the middle of the wilderness. He intended not to let his guard down for a minute.
This weekend was certainly not going the way he'd planned, he mused. Once again, fate had intervened in his attempt to explore with Mac the future of their relationship. First they gotten misdirected (not lost) and stuck, now they had to put up with an annoying teenager with whom knew how many problems. He sighed. This could be a long weekend.
"This is terrific!" Mac said as she began her second bowl of rabbit stew. "I'll never look at a rabbit the same again, but this is really good."
"Thanks," JD said shyly. "It's a recipe my . . . I learned a long time ago how to make it. The secret's in the spices."
"Isn't it great, Harm?" Mac asked, trying to draw him out. He'd been strangely quiet all afternoon.
"Mmm," he agreed half-heartedly. "Great." His serving hadn't included any rabbit. If he'd been so inclined, he could have admitted that the stew was, indeed, very good. He just wasn't so inclined.
As the meal wore on, JD became quieter and more withdrawn. Mac noticed that the young girl's hands were shaking so badly that the stew hardly stayed on her spoon and that her eyes seemed glued to a spot in the living room. When Mac nonchalantly looked in that direction, she spotted a guitar standing against the wall. She suddenly understood what was happening, and she looked at Harm to see if he'd noticed. In his present mood, he wasn't likely to notice anything less subtle than a ton of bricks dropping through the ceiling. She stood up. "Harm and I will clean up."
JD started to protest, but Mac stopped her. "It's the least we can do. I noticed a guitar. Do you play?"
JD looked at her with so much gratitude that she was nearly crying. "A little," she admitted.
"Why don't you play something for us," Mac suggested.
Harm rolled his eyes. Great. Now he had to listen to the little twit strangle a guitar. And probably sing, too.
JD noticed Harm's reaction, but she didn't care. She needed this too badly. She pushed away from the table and walked to the guitar. She picked it up and sat on the edge of the couch. "Do you know Carolyn Dawn Johnson?" she asked, directing her question to Mac, though there wasn't much danger of Harm answering her.
"No," Mac said as she cleared the table. "Should I?"
"She's a new country artist," JD said, strumming the strings softly.
Oh, great! Harm thought. Country. This just keeps getting better and better.
"She's really great," JD continued absently, her fingers dancing on the strings. "She writes her own stuff."
JD then proceeded to play every song on the artist's debut album. It was immediately obvious to both Harm and Mac that they were in the presence of a very great talent. Not only could JD play the guitar as well as any professional, she could sing like an angel. When Mac finished her part of the cleaning up, she sat at the table and simply listened. JD appeared to lose herself in the music and played without any awareness that she had an audience, and she did so without the benefit of sheet music. She finished with a song called "Room with a View" which actually brought tears to Mac's eyes.
"My God!" Mac said, nearly breathless, when it became apparent that JD was finished. "That was wonderful!"
"Thanks," JD said, ducking her head shyly. She slipped the guitar strap over her head and stood up. "It's getting late. You'd probably like to get to bed. This couch opens up into a bed. You two can have that. I'll be in the bedroom."
"We don't . . ." Harm said at the same time Mac said, "We're not . . ." They both stopped, embarrassed.
"I'm sorry," JD said, understanding immediately the source of their discomfort. "You bicker like married people. I should know better than to assume. Commander, you take the bedroom. You and I can hot bunk out here, ma'am."
They both looked at her, surprised by her terminology. "Feel free to use the shower," JD continued. "You may as well be comfortable. It's going to snow for a while."
Dreading that prospect, Harm picked up his bag and went into the bedroom with a terse "good night".
Mac and JD had pulled the sofa out into a bed and made it up with sheets and blankets. JD went into the bathroom and changed into her pajamas. Since Mac was already in her sleeping attire, getting ready for bed was a breeze. She looked out the window at the wall of snow. She wasn't sure she'd ever seen it snow this hard, and she began to wonder about being stuck here longer than a couple of days.
JD came out of the bathroom wearing green and black plaid pajamas. She sat on the bed and began to unravel her braids. Loose, the ends of her auburn hair nearly touched the bed. She picked up a hair brush and began to run it through her thick hair.
"May I?" Mac asked, holding her hand out for the brush.
JD hesitated for a moment, then gave Mac the brush. Mac sat cross-legged on the bed, and JD repositioned herself with her back to Mac. Mac began to pull the brush through the girl's hair. "You have beautiful hair."
"Thanks. You have pretty hair. You should grow it out."
"I've thought about that," Mac admitted. "But it's easier this way. Wash and run if you need to."
They were silent for a minute or two before Mac asked quietly. "How long has it been?"
"How long has it been since what?" JD asked.
"Since you had your last drink."
In the bedroom, Harm raised his eyebrows. His vow to remain vigilant meant staying awake all night and, yes, eavesdropping.
It was some time before JD said, "How did you know?"
"I noticed your hands shaking while you were eating, and the way you looked at your guitar like it was some sort of lifeline."
"The music helps me to escape the cravings," JD admitted. "I can hide even from myself in the music."
"Do you want to talk about it?" Mac asked.
"Not really," JD said, though Mac sensed that she wanted to very much. "But I somehow don't think you'll leave me alone until I do. So to answer your question, it's been six days."
Mac continued brushing, hoping its effect was soothing. "Is that how long you've been here?"
JD nodded. "I knew I'd never be able to break the hold it has on my unless I went somewhere I didn't have access. So I came here."
"So you know who owns this place?"
"Yes. It's a long story."
"I'm not going anywhere," Mac reminded her.
"Neither am I," thought Harm.
"Can I ask you something first?" JD asked.
"I don't hear judgment in your voice. Most people who encounter a teen-aged alcoholic assume the 'how could you be so stupid' tone of voice."
"I try not to judge people until I know their story," Mac told her.
"Your Commander Rabb condemned me pretty quickly. And he doesn't even know I'm a drunk!"
"Don't mind him," Mac said. "I'll keep him in line."
"Oh?" Harm asked himself, again raising his eyebrows.
"Would you like some hot chocolate, ma'am?" JD asked.
"That would be great. And please call me Mac."
JD smiled gratefully and jumped off the bed.
Fifteen minutes later, she was back with two cups, one of which she handed to Mac.
"Thanks," Mac said, inhaling the sweet aroma. "Now, from the beginning."
"Okay. My mother was killed four months in a hit and run accident. She was a pedestrian. Somebody ran her down, then just drove off." JD stopped to collect herself.
"I'm so sorry," Mac said sincerely.
JD smiled weakly. "Before I hardly even knew what was happening, my father showed up. My real father. Mom had told me I was three when I last saw him, but I don't remember it. I don't even know how he found out. I certainly didn't call him. Anyway, he insisted that I live with him. I didn't want to. I didn't even know him. He'd shown no interest in me in thirteen years, and all of a sudden, I was supposed to act like his daughter."
"Did you have other options?" Mac asked. "Grandparents, aunts, uncles?"
"No. I wanted to go and live with my mother's ex-husband. They were married when I was four, and he was the only father I ever knew. I loved him like he was my real father. He and my mom divorced when I was fourteen, but I've kept in touch with him. He's a Marine, too."
"Oh, yeah?" Mac asked. "Where's he stationed?"
"He's an aircraft mechanic on the Thomas Jefferson. I know it would have been next to impossible to be with him, but I didn't care. I would rather be alone than live with my father. My real father said there was no way he'd agree to it anyway and that the court would never grant custody to someone who wasn't have a blood relative and had no stable home to provide a teenager. So I went with him.
"We didn't get along from the start. I was a recreational drinker before, but after my mom died and my father took me away, I came to rely on the alcohol more and more. First it was to help me sleep. Then it was to help me through the day. Then it seemed like I was either drinking or thinking about my next drink. My father and I had a blow-up a week ago, and I ran. I knew no one would find me here, if they even cared to look. My step-father owns this place. We used to come here when I was a kid. He's the one who taught me to shoot and how to make rabbit stew. He's in the middle of a deployment and won't be back here. My father doesn't even know this place exists, so I knew it was perfect."
"And how long were you planning to stay here?" Mac asked.
"I don't know," JD admitted. "I hadn't thought that far ahead. At least until I have this drinking thing under control. It's getting better, but I still have to fight it."
"It'll never stop. You'll always be fighting it. But it will get easier," Mac told her.
JD stared into Mac's eyes, and she could there see the answer to the question she had been about to ask. "You, too?" she asked instead.
"Yeah," Mac said, nodding. "I was about the same age you were when I started. I had to kill someone before I sobered up. You're doing it the right way."
"Doesn't feel it," JD admitted. She drained the rest of her chocolate. "So that's my sad story. Tell me about you and your commander."
"He's not my commander," Mac pointed out.
"Would you like him to be?" JD asked, causing Harm's ears to perk up. When Mac didn't answer, JD said, "I saw the way you look at each other. You're very close."
"We've been . . . friends for a long time," Mac explained.
"Just friends?" JD pressed. "Nothing more?"
"Okay," Harm thought in the bedroom. "Time to change the subject."
"It's complicated," Mac said vaguely.
"How do you feel about him?"
Mac hesitated. "I've indicated to him on more than one occasion that I'd be interested in pursuing something beyond friendship."
"And how does he feel about you?"
"I'm not sure. Sometimes he says and does things that make me think he doesn't even like me."
Harm was dismayed upon hearing this. He had a lot to make up for. That's what this weekend was supposed to be about, dammit!
"Have you ever slept together?" he heard JD asked.
"Not in the sense you mean," Mac sense. "We were stranded in the mountains once. We 'slept together' in a literal sense in a shelter Harm built. But we've never 'slept together' slept together."
"Can I ask you something personal?" JD asked.
Harm thought maybe he should go out there now and break this up, but he was too interested in what might come next.
"Sure," Mac said.
"How important do you think sex is to a relationship?"
"Have you ever . . .?"
JD shook her head, a little embarrassed. She was pretty sure she was the only sixteen-year old virgin left in the United States. Well, at least the eastern half. "There's this boy. We've been seeing each other. He wanted me to."
"You want to know what I think?" Mac asked. When JD nodded, she continued. "I think every time a woman sleeps with a guy, she gives a little piece of her soul to him. Doesn't matter if she loves him or respects him, that little piece is gone. There's only one way to get that piece back. Men . . . boys . . . are only capable of giving a piece of their soul when they make love to someone they actually love and respect. If they're just using you, you lose that piece of your soul, and you never get anything back in return. But if it's real, it's like an exchange. A piece of your soul for a piece of his. Does that make any sense?"
JD nodded. "It does. It makes a lot of sense. But how do you know how the guy really feels?"
"That's the tricky part," Mac admitted. "But with so much riding on it, it sure pays to be certain. You can only give away so much of your soul before you haven't got enough left to matter."
"Have you ever come out on the losing end?"
Mac considered. "Once," she said. "And it started while I was drinking."
Harm guessed she was referring to Ragle. He also thought, as he had many times in the past, that Mac was a pretty amazing individual.
"I think I'll wait until I'm married," he heard JD say.
"I think that's a fine idea," Mac agreed happily. "Now what do you say we get some sleep?"
"Okay," JD agreed. She stoked up the fire, then got into bed and was soon asleep.
Despite Harm's intent to stay away and "protect" Mac from the psychotic teenager, he, too, was soon wrapped in the ebony cloak of slumber.
Harm awoke the next morning to a stillness he hadn't often experienced. He stretched languidly before he remembered exactly where he was. He jumped out of bed and hurriedly dressed before opening the bedroom door enough to peer into the darkened living room. Only one form slept under the blankets on the sofa bed. He could tell by the length of the shape that it was Mac, not the kid. He stepped carefully into the living room and looked around. The bathroom door stood open, and Harm could tell no one was in there. It was easy to tell that the rest of the cabin was unoccupied.
Harm crossed the floor and stood beside the sofa bed. He reached out a hand to shake Mac awake, but stopped. He looked at her beautiful face, peaceful in slumber. Could he ever make everything up to her? he wondered. Could they ever get beyond the baggage they both carried and the messes they'd nearly made of their respective lives? He sure hoped so because she was the most incredible woman he'd ever known. Somehow he had to convince her of that. But right now, they had more immediate problems. He reached out and stroked her cheek gently with one finger. She twitched but didn't waken.
"Mac," he said, shaking her shoulder gently.
Mac's eyes flew open, and she looked about one second away from jumping off the couch. She realized quickly, however, where she was and that she was under no threat, and she relaxed back against the bed. "Morning," she said with a sleepy smile.
"Morning," he said, and he couldn't help but smile back. "I think our little bird has flown the coop."
Mac looked at the empty bed beside her, then sat up and looked around the room. "Where'd she go?"
"She ran," Harm said.
"Where to?" Mac looked out the window. "It's snowing to beat hell."
"I don't know," Harm admitted. "But it's obvious we spooked her."
Mac rolled her eyes and swung her legs over the side of the bed. "There's got to be an explanation."
"There is. She ran."
Mac's protestation was stilled before it began when the door opened and JD blew in along with a wall of snow. In her arms she carried a large stack of firewood, which she dropped into the box beside the door after kicking the door closed. "Wow," she said, brushing the snow from her hair. "It's really snowing out there."
Mac was impressed. She'd always been a light sleeper. Somehow this kid had managed to get out of bed, braid her hair, get dressed, and go outside, all without making a sound. Recon Marine in the making.
"How much do we have?" Mac asked with an I-told-you-so look at Harm.
"There must be seven or eight inches out there. And there's no end in sight. Who's hungry?"
"Me," Mac offered quickly. "What's on the menu this morning?"
"Bagels and donuts," JD told her.
"Nutritional," Harm noted.
"I brought what I could pack and as little that required refrigeration as I could," JD told him coldly, as if anyone with half a brain should have known that mobility was the most important consideration while on maneuvers. "I'll make coffee."
JD moved to the kitchen, and Mac's eyes pleaded with Harm to leave the poor kid alone. Harm looked back at her with all the innocence only the self-righteous can muster.
JD sat at the table next to Mac.
"You're kind of young to be drinking coffee, aren't you?" Harm asked.
JD looked at him with a look of insolent rebellion teenagers throughout history have perfected. "You're kind of old to be asking stupid questions, aren't you?"
Mac sighed. "Look. We're stuck here for who knows how much longer. It'll be much more pleasant if you two aren't sniping at each other the whole time."
They both looked at her with a "he/she started it" expression. Mac sighed again in resignation. I could be a long day.
After breakfast had been cleared away, JD asked Mac, "Do you play cribbage?"
"No, but Harm does."
Harm rolled his eyes. Great. Now he'd have to play with the little twit.
More than two hours later, Harm owed JD $425.00. He'd thought he was good, and he'd pulled out all the stops, but she'd beaten him every time. Damn lucky kid. Harm decided he'd better quit before he lost his Corvette.
JD paced around the cabin, stopping periodically to look out the window. As time passed, she seemed to get more and more agitated. Mac was sitting on the couch reading a book she'd found, and she stopped to watch JD pace. She knew exactly what the youngster was going through, and she sympathized with her. She remembered how difficult it was to fight the cravings. JD needed a distraction. "Drop and give me twenty!" she ordered.
JD stopped pacing and looked at Mac in surprise. Suddenly, she dropped to the floor and whipped off twenty perfect push-ups. When she was finished, she jumped back to her feet and stood, almost at attention, waiting.
"Fifteen laps around the room," Mac barked.
Without hesitation, JD began a brisk jog around the perimeter of the room. Harm watched them both, not entirely sure what was going on here. What he'd overheard last night gave him some insight into the problem this child had, and he knew that Mac was much better equipped to handle this than he was.
When JD stopped, she'd hardly broken a sweat, but her breathing was a little quickened.
"Now pick up that guitar," Mac ordered softly, understanding that if JD didn't lose herself in something soon, she'd be in much worse shape.
Gratefully, JD picked up her guitar and began to strum it softly. She played the songs of George Strait and Alan Jackson and Collin Raye and Reba McEntire.
"Do you think you could do something besides country?" Harm asked. He'd finally reached his limit.
JD stared at him with that look again. She continued to strum softly, then made up her mind. James Taylor should make the old geezer happy.
JD played for a while before Mac got up to go to the bathroom. JD strummed loudly while she was gone and looked calculatingly at Harm. "I dare you to ask her to dance," she said.
Harm looked at her, trying to figure out what she was up to. "And why would I do that?"
"I saw you way you looked at her while she was sleeping this morning. And the way you touched her face. Ask her to dance."
"You should mind your own business," Harm advised.
"Chicken," JD taunted as Mac came out of the bathroom.
Mac looked from one to the other. She could feel the tension in the room. JD innocently continued to strum away, then began to play a song called "The Simple Things". She looked at Harm, the challenge clearly on her face.
Harm looked back at her defiantly, then stood up. "Dance with me," he said to Mac, extending a hand to her.
Mac's surprise was evident. "You want to dance?"
"Yes," Harm said, taking her hand and pulling her closer.
"Um – all right," Mac agreed. Harm took her into his arms, and they began to dance to the music. Without much transition, JD slipped into something much slower and more romantic, a song called "When You Lie Next to Me".
Mac rested her head on Harm's shoulder. She could stay like this all night. Harm's arm tightened around her waist, and she looked up at him. He smiled down at her, and she smiled back shyly. His eyes bored down into hers, and suddenly, they were alone in the room. Harm bent his head down, moving his lips close to hers, and Mac wondered if he was actually going to kiss her. Just before their lips met, Harm seemed to reconsider what he was doing and stopped. He smiled at her again, somewhat sadly this time. Her smiled faded, and she looked at him with questions in her eyes.
He didn't speak, but she understood what he was telling her – he wanted badly to kiss her, but he didn't want to rush. She smiled again, signifying her understanding, then surprised him by reaching up and kissing his lips briefly. Harm touched her face gently, his feelings overwhelming his ability to speak.
JD continued to play, not wanting anything to break the trance they were in. Finally, when it became obvious that Harm was not going to kiss Mac the way she obviously wanted to be kissed, JD angrily ran her fingers across the strings. She startled them both, and they jumped away from each other guiltily.
JD put her guitar down on the couch. "I'm gonna fix supper," she said in disgust.
Mac smiled at JD's youthful impatience. She and Harm knew what was happening her, and they knew they had time to let it develop. "I'll help," she offered.
Harm had been elected by a simple majority vote (2-1) to do the dishes. Mac looked out the window. "Hey! The snow is stopping!"
Harm looked out the window near the sink. "You're right. Finally! It's too dark to go anywhere now. First thing in the morning, we'll hike back to the store and call Triple A. We should be home by suppertime." He sounded very pleased by that prospect.
Mac was happy, too, but her joy was tempered by her uncertainty over what to do about JD. They couldn't just leave a teen-aged girl alone in the middle of the wilderness. She hadn't really told Mac what exactly she'd run away from, but Mac was pretty certain she wouldn't be able to talk JD into going home voluntarily. What were their other options? She needed to talk to Harm privately, though she wasn't sure how much good that would do. He seemed to have some strange antipathy toward JD, and she couldn't figure out why. Maybe she'd ask him that when she got him alone.
JD had gone to bed fairly early, pleading fatigue. When Mac was sure she was asleep, she said softly to Harm, "Let me help you pack up for tomorrow."
He looked at her strangely. He'd never *un*packed. Even if he had, he certainly didn't need any help packing. She was inclining her head toward the bedroom, and it suddenly dawned on him that she wanted to be alone with him in there. His eyebrows raised as he considered her motives. He finally decided the best way to find out what she wanted was to go and see, so he got up and followed her into the bedroom.
Mac closed the door after he'd entered. "We need to talk."
Harm raised his eyebrows again. Was she pushing the issue, forcing them to acknowledge their feelings? Was she really ready to get into all that now? And where might it lead? Though these thoughts were racing in his brain, all he said was, "Okay."
"What are we going to do about JD?" she asked.
Harm wasn't sure he'd heard her right. "You brought me in here to talk about the kid?"
"What else? We're leaving tomorrow. What are we going to do about her?"
Harm was disappointed, but he covered it well. "Why do we have to do anything?"
"Harm, she's just a kid! We can't just forget we ever met her."
"I could," Harm protested.
Mac's look told him to be serious.
Harm sighed. "When we get to the store, we'll call the police. Someone must be looking for her. Let them handle it."
"Is there some reason why you don't like her? Because it's quite obvious to me and to her that you don't."
"She's annoying," Harm said lamely. His real problem, if he'd chosen to admit it to her and himself, was that he held JD responsible, fairly or not, for his plans for this weekend going so awry.
"She's a teenager, Harm! It's her mission in life to annoy the adults around her. Don't you remember what it was like?"
"I was never like that," Harm denied.
"Yeah, right!" Mac said in disbelief. "Actually," she said, reconsidering. "You probably weren't."
"And what is that supposed to mean?"
"It means that despite the fact that your father was MIA, you had a very privileged childhood. You never wanted for anything."
"Except peace of mind," Harm pointed out.
"Peace of mind doesn't seem very important when you don't have enough to eat, or warm clothes to wear, or a safe place to sleep!" Mac was beginning to get worked up.
"I know what this is about," Harm countered. "She's a teenager with a drinking problem, and you see yourself in her."
Mac stared at him. "How do you know about that?"
Harm turned away and said nothing, wishing he hadn't let slip that little piece of information.
"Were you eavesdropping on our entire conversation?" Mac demanded.
"Yes," Harm admitted.
Mac was steamed, but she kept her temper in check. "That's a subject for another time. What are we are going to do about JD?"
"I told you what we're going to do. When we get back to civilization, we'll call the police and let them deal with it," Harm said with finality.
Mac didn't respond, but he could tell clearly that she disagreed. "Mac . . ." he tried in his most reasonable voice.
"Harm, I just want to understand why she's here. Maybe she's in danger."
"Or maybe she's just a mixed-up kid who didn't get her way, or maybe she's a fugitive from justice. Don't get involved," he advised.
"I'm already involved. I'm going to ask her to come back with me. I'll get her to tell me what's going on. Then I'll figure out the best way to help her deal with it."
"I'm not gonna be able to talk you out of this, am I?"
"Nope. You can support me, or you can step aside."
"You have got to be the most thick-headed person I've ever met."
"Thank you," she said proudly. "But don't think that gets you off the hook for eavesdropping.
Morning found the ground blanketed with a thick carpet of snow. The clouds had finally dried up and gone away, and the sun shone blindingly on the sparkling snow.
JD got out of bed and began to pack. Mac awoke, stretched, and yawned. She watched JD for a while before she asked, "Going somewhere?"
"I'm not naive enough to think you're just going to walk out of her and leave me alone. As soon as you and the Commander leave, I'll be going, too."
"Where?" Mac asked, sitting up.
JD shrugged. "I don't know. I'll just keep walking until I come to . . . something."
"Are you open to alternatives?" Mac asked.
"Depends," JD said warily. "On the alternative."
"Come back with me," Mac suggested. "Let me help you."
"You can't help me. But thanks for offering."
"Don't be so sure, JD," Mac said, standing up. "I've got a lot of resources. Tell me what I can do."
JD sighed. "It's too complicated. You don't know what you're getting yourself into."
"Hey, I'm the master of complicated, remember?" She reached out and took JD's hand. "I know you think you can handle this on your own. And although you're obviously an amazing kid with a ton of things going for you, you can't handle *this* alone."
When JD looked up, she had tears in her eyes. "I know," she admitted reluctantly.
"Come home with me," Mac urged. "You tell me what's going on, and I promise I'll do what I can to help you."
JD thought briefly. "Okay," she said quietly. "I'll go with you. But don't say I didn't warn you."
Harm's ETA was an optimistic one as it turned out. By the time they'd hiked back to the store, waited for AAA to come, waited while the SUV was extricated, and then driven home, it was early evening before they pulled up in front of Mac's apartment.
"Let me take you to dinner," Harm offered. "It's the least I can do."
"Thanks," Mac said. "But JD and I have a lot of ground to cover. We'll get something quick."
Harm was clearly disappointed. He got out and began to remove bags from the back of the SUV. Mac leaned into the back seat and woke JD, who had fallen asleep some time ago. "Come on, kiddo. Wake up. We're home."
JD blinked sleepily and looked around her. "Home?" she repeated.
Mac smiled. "For now anyway."
Harm stood at Mac's door, reluctant to leave. "I'm really sorry about how this weekend turned out."
Mac smiled reassuringly. "Don't worry about it."
"I mean it. I wanted this weekend to be about us – you and me and working some things out."
Mac suddenly understood. "Is that why you've been so upset with JD? Because she interrupted your plans? It's not her fault, you know. In fact, if it hadn't been for her, we could have been in real trouble."
"I know, but . . ." Harm seemed at a loss for words.
"Don't worry, Harm. There will be other times to talk."
"It's always some other time," he complained.
"I promise you," she assured him. "We *will* talk."
Knowing he could do nothing but accept, Harm smiled. "Good night, then."
"Good night, Harm. And thanks for the weekend. It was . . . interesting."
After their ordered-in dinner of Chinese food had been eaten, Mac and JD sat on the couch. "Talk," Mac ordered.
"Where do I start?"
"The beginning is always helpful," Mac suggested with a smile.
"The beginning," JD repeated. "Well, let's start with this. My name is Jillian Dakota Wells. I was born in Kansas City, Missouri. My mother and father were never married. When I was four years old, my mother married a man named John Edwards. He's the only father I ever knew since my real father apparently never wanted anything to do with me. As I told you, my father was in the Marines, and we traveled a lot. When I was thirteen, my mom decided she wanted to stay in one place for a while and concentrate on her career. She was an interior designer. She and I moved to Calverton, Maryland, which isn't too far from Baltimore. Six months later, they got divorced. I was devastated. I blamed my mom because she's the one who insisted that she wouldn't travel any more. Dad - John - promised me that things wouldn't change between him and me. We kept in touch regularly by phone and e-mail, just as we always had." JD paused, taking a breath. Mac smiled encouragingly.
"A few months ago, my mom was killed in a hit and run accident while walking to her care one night after work. She died at the hospital before I got there. The driver of the car was never found. Before I could even turn around, my real father was there. I have no idea how he knew so quickly, but there he was. He insisted that I come and live with him. I didn't even *know* him. I called John and told him what had happened and asked if I could live with him. He e-mailed me back and told me that he'd spoken with a lawyer on board ship and had been told that he had no chance of getting custody of me unless my real father agreed. When I asked him, he went through the roof and told me there was no way he'd agree to let me live with John.
"So that was that. I moved in with him. He basically ignored me except when he was telling me how much trouble I was or how worthless I was or how awful my friends were. He was very difficult to live with, and I just kept wondering why he'd come for me in the first place. Then I figured it out one night when he'd been drinking and got into bed with me." JD stopped, hugging her knees, unable to look at Mac.
"Did he rape you?" Mac asked gently.
"No," JD said, lifting her head proudly. "I kneed him in the balls. He hit me and called me some awful names and then he passed out. I packed my stuff while he was snoring on my bedroom floor, and I just left. He didn't know about John's cabin in Pennsylvania, so I figured I was safe there for a while. I really didn't have a plan other than to get away from him and quit drinking. So far, I've done okay on both counts. But when you and the Commander showed up, I knew you'd send me back."
"JD . . . Should I still call you JD?" Mac asked.
"Jillian, I can't keep you here forever, but I promise you that I'll do whatever I can to get you away from him for good. Do you think your father has notified the authorities that you're missing?"
Jillian shrugged. "Probably."
"All right. Let's assume he did. What we have to do now is notify the police where you live that you're safe," Mac began.
"No!" Jillian said, her fear obvious. "They'll make me go back!"
"We'll tell them what your father did to you. They won't send you back unless and until Child Protective Services does an investigation."
"They won't believe me," Jillian said miserably.
"Why do you say that?"
Because my father is the sheriff of Montgomery County. Everyone there thinks he walks on water. And he's made sure that everyone knows about my drinking problem. No one will believe me," Jillian said confidently.
"I'll *make* them believe you, Jillian," Mac assured her. "But I can't keep you here without notifying someone. I'd be breaking the law."
"Then I'll go," Jillian said, standing up in her agitation. "I'll go now. Wait until tomorrow to call. I can be along ways from here by then."
Mac stood up and put her hands on the girl's shoulders. She looked into Jillians' eyes and said, "Trust me. I'm not going to let you down. We'll turn you back over on *our* terms, not your father's. He's not gonna hurt you anymore. Will you trust me?"
Jillian searched Mac's face, looking for a reason to trust. She so badly wanted to, but she wasn't sure Mac understood just how powerful her father was.
"Jillian, it's gonna be all right," Mac said.
With tears in her eyes, Jillian nodded. "Okay. We'll do it your way. But can we wait a couple of days? Please? I'd like to get some rest and make sure I have a handle on this drinking thing before I face him. If I go back now, I know I'll start drinking again."
Against her better judgment, Mac agreed. "Okay. We'll call first thing Wednesday. Now let's get some sleep. It's been a long and tiring day."
Harm and Mac met over the coffee pot the following morning. "Good morning," Harm said, smiling brightly at her.
"Morning," Mac replied, her smile just as radiant.
They stood that way, just smiling at each other, until the Admiral entered the room. Somewhat guiltily and very reluctantly, they each tore their gave away from the other. The Admiral just looked at them, wondering if he was losing his mind or if they were losing theirs.
Mac was the first to speak. "Good morning, sir."
"Good morning, Colonel, Commander," AJ said, nodding curtly at Harm as he stepped to the coffee pot and poured himself a cup.
"Good weekend, Admiral?" Mac asked.
"Fought the good fight with the snow drifts," the Admiral said, then took a sip of the dark brew, leaning back against the counter.
"Victory, sir?" Harm asked with an amused smile.
"For now," the Admiral said. He stood up straight. "Carry on," he ordered and walked to the door. "On second thought, maybe it would be better if you didn't carry on. If you get my meaning. At least not in the damn break room."
"Aye aye, sir!" they both responded, but the Admiral was already gone.
They smiled at each other after he left. "How's your house guest?" Harm asked.
"She's okay. She was sleeping when I left."
"Aren't you concerned about leaving her there alone?"
"No. Why would I be?"
"Mac, what do you really know about this kid?" Harm asked.
"I know she's in trouble. And I know I can help her," Mac retorted.
"You have to call the police. She's a runaway at the very least," Harm pointed out.
"I know. And I will. But she asked me for a couple of days, and I agreed. Two more days won't hurt anything."
"Just be careful," Harm advised. "On a more pleasant note, I still owe you dinner. How about tonight?"
"I think I'd better stay home with Jillian?"
"Jillian?" Harm asked, puzzled.
"JD. Her name is Jillian. I'd like a rain check on that dinner, though," she said with a smile that contained enough warmth and promise that Harm suddenly forgot to be angry with that that troublesome teenager who'd so disrupted his life as such a crucial time.
Harm stopped by Mac's after dinner. He told himself that he was just concerned about her welfare while the juvenile delinquent was there, but the truth was, it was getting more and more difficult to be away from her for any length of time.
She opened the door dressed only in a robe. She smiled at him, pleasantly surprised by his presence, and he was pretty sure he'd never seen a more beautiful sight.
"Harm! Come in. What are you doing here?"
"I just came by to check on you, make sure the juvenile delinquent hadn't murdered you in your bed and run off with the silver," he joked, disquieted by how the fact that he couldn't seem to think about anything but whether she was wearing anything under that robe. "Where is the little beast?"
"What a horrible thing to say!" Mac protested, but with a smile. "She's gone to a movie. Have a seat. I was just getting changed into something more comfortable. I'll be right back."
Harm grabbed her hand. "You don't have to change on my account," he said, his eyes boring holes into hers. "I think you look good enough to eat."
His forthrightness surprised her. "Harm . . ."
"What? I can't compliment you now?"
"No. I mean, of course you can. I like it." She felt herself blushing. "It's just surprising."
"Then I have to ask for your forgiveness. Because no woman as beautiful as you are should be surprised to hear a man say it."
"Okay," she said, joking feebly. "What do you want?"
"Just this." He placed his hands on her neck and kissed her deeply. They looked at each other after their lips parted, their eyes full of so many things - fear, longing, passion, uncertainty and, yes, love. Neither wanted to speak for fear of breaking whatever spell they'd fallen under, but there was something Harm needed to know.
"How long will she be gone?" he whispered.
Mac looked at him a moment before answering. She knew what he wanted – she wanted the same thing. "The movie started at seven. She shouldn't be home until nine fifteen. That gives us almost two hours."
Mac began to walk to the bedroom, pulling him by the hand. Harm took two steps after her, then grabbed her up into his arms, already missing the feel of her there. They kissed again, more passionately this time, and Harm's hands reached up to untie her robe. Without breaking the kiss, he reached beneath her robe and placed his hands on her hips. She pressed herself against him, and his arms went around her back. She could feel his excitement straining against her, and she was convicted she'd never wanted any man as much as she wanted Harm right now. There was only one way to properly extinguish a fire that burned this brightly.
Caught up as they were in what they were doing, neither of them noticed the sound of the door opening. Jillian entered and stood gaping at them. It filtered through to Mac first that they were no longer alone, and she pulled away from Harm, quickly tying her robe.
"You want me to wait outside?" Jillian asked, an amused smile on her face.
Mac could feel how bright red her cheeks were. "No. Of course not," she said. She moved to stand between Jillian and Harm, aware that he had no way to hide the evidence of his arousal, a move much appreciated by its intended beneficiary. "What happened to the movie?" Mac asked with an innocent air.
"Sold out," Jillian said. "Sorry. Maybe I should have called first."
"No. Of course not. It's fine," Mac assured her. "Everything's fine. You remember Harm?" she asked inanely.
"Yes. I just saw him yesterday, remember?"
"Of course you did." Mac heard herself giggling. God! This was embarrassing!
"Hello, Commander," Jillian said.
Harm nodded at her, not yet trusting himself to speak. Completely in control now of the rest of his body, Harm stepped around Mac and cleared his throat. "I'm going now," He said. "I'll see you tomorrow."
Mac followed him to the door and stepped out into the hallway with him. Jillian flopped on the couch and turned on the TV. "I'm sorry, Harm."
"Me, too," he said, more sincere than he'd ever been.
"Now you owe me two rainchecks," Mac told him. "Dinner and . . . dessert."
He looked at her and smiled in acknowledgment.
"Sometimes I like to have dessert first," she told him, then went inside and closed the door.
Harm stared at the door for a while, silently cursing "that kid" and her rotten timing.
The next day . . .
"Good morning," Harm said, standing in Mac's office doorway.
Mac looked up from her work and smiled. "Morning. You're late."
Harm smiled back. "You noticed."
"I notice everything about you," she said with a suggestive lift of her eyebrows.
"Careful, Marine," he warned. "Don't start something you can't finish."
"Oh, I have every intention of finishing this," she assured him.
"Can't. I promised Jillian I'd take her to a hockey game. She's never been, and the Capitals are in town, so I said I'd take her. Sort of a girls' night out."
"Need a chaperone?"
Mac laughed. "Then it wouldn't be a girls night out, would it? We'll behave."
"I should hope so. I don't want you misbehaving with anyone but me."
"Here comes the Admiral," Mac said.
Harm jumped and whirled around, but the Admiral was no where in sight. He turned back to her. "Not nice, Colonel," he said, wagging a finger at her.
"I had to get you of here some how. Shoo. I've got work to do."
"Until we meet again, fair lady," Harm said. He bowed low and backed out of her office, running smack into the Admiral.
"Commander. Something wrong with your back?" the Admiral asked drily.
"No, sir. Sorry, sir. I was just . . . leaving, sir," Harm stammered, then high-tailed it to his office and closed the door quickly.
Mac kept her head bent studiously over the files on her desk, hiding her smile from the Admiral.
The next morning . . .
Jillian answered the knock on Mac's door just after breakfast.
"Where's Mac?" Harm asked.
"Good morning to you, too," Jillian replied sarcastically. "She's getting dressed."
"Who is it?" Mac asked as she walked into the room. She smiled when she saw her visitor. "Morning, Harm. What brings you here this early?"
"We need to talk."
She could tell he was serious and that something must be wrong. "What is it?"
"Why are there cops in the hall?" Jillian demanded. She'd heard someone in the hall, and when Harm had stepped into the room, she'd looked to see who it was.
Two Washington, DC, police officers stepped into the doorway, blocking egress from the room. Jillian edged away from them, then turned to run into Mac's bedroom. Mac grabbed her on the way by, stopping her in a bear hug. "Harm, what is going on?!" she demanded to know. Jillian struggled to free herself but stopped when it became obvious that Mac wasn't going to let her go.
"I had them run her fingerprints. They found any outstanding arrest warrant. I'm sorry, Mac. I didn't want it to be this way."
"Why didn't you tell me?" Mac demanded of Jillian, holding the teen-ager by the shoulders.
"Because I didn't know! I told you he was powerful! He made this all up! Please don't let them take me back!"
"Do you have to do this?" Mac asked the officers. "Can't I bring her in myself?"
"Sorry, ma'am. It's a felony arrest warrant," one of the officer said.
"Please, Mac," Jillian begged, tears in her eyes. "Please don't let them take me."
Mac pulled her into a hug. "I'll be right behind you, honey. I'm not going to leave you. I'll get you out of this. Be brave for me, okay? You're a Marine, and Marine's are *not* cowards."
Mac felt Jillian pull herself together. When she pulled away from Mac, her tears were gone. She looked at Mac and nodded.
"Semper fi, Marine," Mac said. She kissed Jillian's forehead.
Jillian turned around and said to the officers, "Let's go. I don't have all day."
One of the officers removed a pair of handcuffs.
"Is that really necessary?" Mac asked. "She's just a kid."
"Sorry, ma'am," she was told. "SOP."
"It's okay," Jillian said. She extended her hands toward the officer. "I've never worn handcuffs before." The office snapped the cuffs onto her wrists. With a gentle hand on her shoulder, he led her out the door.
Harm, who had been quietly watching the proceedings, now spoke. "Mac, I didn't want it to be this way."
Mac looked at him coldly. "I think it would be better right now if you just didn't say a word."
He could tell she was furious, and he just watched her go.
Harm had been watching for Mac to come in all morning. Finally, just after lunch, she did. She went into her office and closed the door without speaking to anyone. He watched her through the window as she sat at her desk and put her head in her hands. Should he go in there? he wondered. He knew she must still be angry with him. This morning hadn't gone exactly as he'd intended it to. He'd asked the officers to wait out in the hall. He was going to explain to Mac what he'd learned and then convince her that he'd done the right thing. Why did nothing go right for him when it came to Mac?
Mac looked up and caught him staring, and he smiled hopefully at her. She looked coldly at him, then looked away. She got up from behind her desk and closed the blinds in her office, cutting off his view of her. What now?
Mac knew who was at her door before she looked through the peephole. "What do you want?" she asked through the closed door.
"We need to talk."
"I don't think that's such a good idea right now."
"Please, Mac. Let me in."
Mac debated going to bed and just leaving him there. Instead, she sighed loudly and turned the lock, but she didn't open the door. She sat on the couch and waited for him to bring his sorry excuses inside.
Harm turned the doorknob and opened the door slowly, ready to duck away from any projectile that might be launched at him. He came inside and closed the door.
"I'm sorry, Mac."
"You have no idea what you've done," she told him.
"So tell me."
"She's gone. They wouldn't even let me see her. I kept telling them I was her lawyer, and they kept telling me that they weren't charging her with anything, that they were just acting as the arresting agency, and that I couldn't see her. Then, someone finally came out and told me that she'd been taken away."
"Mac, I'm sorry, but she was wanted for murder!"
"You just don't understand. Who issued the arrest warrant?"
"I don't know. Some judge in Montgomery County, Maryland."
"Jillian's father is the Sheriff of Montgomery County, Harm. He probably swore falsely to get an arrest warrant issued so that wherever she turned up, she'd be immediately returned to him, putting her credibility seriously in question at the same time."
"Come on, Mac. You really think someone would go to all that trouble and abuse the law that way just to get her back?" Harm challenged.
"Yes, I do. She told me he tried to rape her. He's either afraid she's going to report it, or he wants her back so he can try again. Either way, she's in danger."
"Did it occur to you that she might not have been completely honest with you? She's got a drinking problem. Maybe she makes up stories, too."
The look Mac gave him now was filled with hurt. "I have a drinking problem. Does that mean I lie, too? Does being a drunk automatically make you a liar?"
"Of course not, Mac. But that's different. I know you, and I trust you. I don't know her, and I don't trust her."
"Well, I do, Harm. I wish you had talked to me about it before calling the police. I was going to take her down to Baltimore Child Protective Services tomorrow. They could have put her in a foster home until they checked out her father. Now she's with him, all alone and defenseless. I promised her I wouldn't let that happen, and I let her down."
"No, you didn't. I did," Harm pointed out.
"Is that supposed to make me feel better? She hasn't been able to count on an adult in her world for a long time. Her mother died, the step-father she loved wouldn't fight for her, and her father used her. She trusted me to help her, and no matter what the reason, I let her be sent back to her father. *I* let her down."
"So what are *you* gonna do about it?"
"I'm going to track her down, starting tomorrow. And I'm going to find her if it's the last thing I do."
"Do you think that if I helped you do that that you can begin to forgive me?" Harm asked quietly.
"No," she said, just as quietly.
He looked up at her in surprise. That wasn't the answer he'd expected.
She let him suffer a moment longer. "I've already forgiven you, Harm. I know why you did it. I still wish you hadn't, but I understand. Where did you get her fingerprints anyway?"
"Remember the soda she bought at the store before we started home? She left it in the back seat." He paused. "So are we okay?"
Mac nodded. "We will be. As soon as we find her."
Mac arrived at JAG early the next morning. She had a lot to do. First, she researched newspaper archives on-line until she found articles dealing with the hit and run accident involving Jillian's mother. As Jillian had said, the newspaper reported that Stacia Wells had been struck by a car at 6:00 p.m. while crossing a street. There were no witnesses to the accident. A motorist had come across her body in the street and called for an ambulance. An investigation had been conducted, but with no witnesses and the victim dead, there was little hope of finding the culprit.
Mac read Stacia's obituary. She'd been predeceased by her parents and left only her daughter surviving. She had no brothers or sisters, so there was no family member to step in and care for Jillian. Except her father.
Mac next tired to find out what she could about Jillian's father. She visited the County of Montgomery web site, but learned only that Vincent Mosher had been the sheriff of that county for eighteen years. He looked exactly as sheriffs of small-time law enforcement agencies were supposed to look - gray-haired, somewhat over-weight, and a steely glint in his eyes. The thought of that man pursuing Jillian made her blood run cold.
Mac sighed when she realized what time it was. She put aside her research and began to prepare for a suppression hearing she was attending this morning. Any further attempt to find Jillian would have to wait until after court. When she left for the courtroom, Harm still had not appeared.
When Mac returned from court, Harriet stopped her before she could reach her office.
"Ma'am," she said, handing Mac a stack of phone messages. "Someone's been trying to reach you. She's been calling collect every half hour or so. She wouldn't leave her name. She sounds like a kid, Colonel."
"Next time she calls, Harriet," Mac ordered. "Find me. Wherever I am, whatever I'm doing. Make sure she waits until you do. And don't worry about the charges. I'll pay for the call."
"Yes, ma'am," Harriet said with a nod.
Mac looked into Harm's office. He was there, but on the phone. When he looked up at her, she smiled and waved. He smiled back, listening to whoever was on the other end of his call.
Mac went into her office and sighed at the stack of files on her desk. It was time to review, re-organize, and re-prioritize. She grabbed the file on top and flipped it open. Petty Officer Stacy Higginson. Charge: disobeying a direct order. That could wait, so she tossed it aside. Mac reached for the next file, but before she could open it, her phone rang, and she snatched it up. "Yes?"
"It's her again, ma'am. Line three. I've accepted the charges," Harriet said.
"Thanks." Mac pressed the flashing button. "Jillian?! Where are you?!"
"I'm at school."
"Are you all right?! I've been worried sick!"
"I'm fine," Jillian assured her. "Really."
"What is going on? Why aren't you in jail?"
"That whole arrest warrant thing was bogus. I told you my father had made it all up just to get me back. As soon as I got back here, it just . . . disappeared."
"Jillian, are you in danger?"
"No. I think it's going to be okay?"
"Has your father . . . has he tried anything?" Mac asked.
"We made a deal," Jillian told her.
Mac didn't like the sound of that. "What kind of deal?" She head a school bell ringing in the background.
"I gotta go," Jillian said. "Or I'll be late for class."
"What kind of deal, Jillian?!" Mac demanded.
"Don't worry, okay? Now I really have to go. My father I can handle. Mr. Pierce, now he *really* scares me. Thanks for everything you did for me. I'll never forget it."
"Jillian, keep in touch. Please. If you need me for anything, promise me you'll call," Mac pleaded.
"Mac . . ."
"Promise me, Jillian!"
Jillian sighed. "All right. I promise."
"Hey, kid," Mac said softly. "I love you. Be careful."
"Love you, too." The connection was broken.
Mac hung her phone up, relieved on one level to know that Jillian was all right and relatively safe, but still concerned about this "deal" she'd made with her father.
"Hey, Mac," Harm said from her door. "Any luck?"
"Yeah. As a matter of fact, I just talked to Jillian. She called me from school."
"Is she okay?"
"I think so."
"You don't sound convinced. Why isn't she in jail?"
"She said the arrest warrant was bogus, that her father swore falsely in order to get it. Just as she told us when she was taken away." She ignored Harm's look of chagrin. "She also told me she made a deal with her father."
"What sort of deal?"
"I don't know. She wouldn't say. But it worries me."
"Well, at least we know she's all right now."
Mac smiled. "Yeah. I guess that means I can get back to this," she said, waving a hand vaguely at the mess on her desk.
Harm smiled back. "Don't let me keep you. Think we could finally have that dinner I owe you?"
"I think so. And don't forget dessert."
His smile grew wider. "How could I forget that?"
"Would sir or madam care for dessert?" the waiter asked as he cleared their plates away.
Harm and Mac exchanged a look and a brief smile. "No, thank you," Harm said.
"We'll be having dessert at home," Mac said, causing Harm to blush.
Without blinking, the waiter said, "Very well," and left them.
"I can't believe you said that!" Harm missed, but his eyes twinkled with amusement.
Mac picked up her coffee cup and brought it to her lips. "I'm full of surprises," she promised him with a suggestive raise of her eyebrows over the top of her cup.
"So your place or mine?" Harm asked.
"That was quick. Why mine?"
"Because *you* don't have neighbors."
"Thank you again for dinner. It was wonderful," Mac said as they walked into his apartment.
"You're welcome again," Harm told her. "Can I take your coat?" Harm reached up to her shoulders, and Mac shrugged out of her coat. Harm hung her coat up, then took his own coat off and hung it up as well. He turned to he, somewhat awkwardly, unsure how to begin this. "You want coffee?"
"No, I don't want coffee," she answered. The way she was looking at him told him she didn't feel awkward at all. "I want you to come over here and put your arms around me."
Harm did as she asked. When she was firmly in his grasp, she continued. "Then I want you to kiss me."
Harm willingly complied with her directive. She tasted liked the mints she'd taken from the restaurant and chewed in the car on the way here, and he wanted to devour her. She made a little whimpering sound in the back of the throat, a sound of submission and uncontrolled passion, and suddenly he could wait no longer. "I want you," he mumbled into the kiss.
Mac broke the kiss and looked up at him. "Then take me."
Harm crushed his mouth to her again in a bruising kiss. Pressed together, they began to move toward the bedroom. Mac pulled Harm's shirt out of his pants and ran her hands over his chest, brushing his nipples, then around his back. Harm ran a hand down her back to her leg until he found the hem of her dress. He slipped his hand beneath it, then reached up to cup her firm buttock. Mac withdrew her hands, loosened his tie, and began to unbutton his shirt. She'd only managed three by the time they reached the bed.
Harm's weight pushed Mac onto the bed, where he landed on top of her. She pulled his shirt and his tie over his head and tossed it aside. She put her mouth to his little erect nipples, one at a time, and ran her tongue in a circles around them. Harm had managed to work her dress up until it was bunched around her waist. Though she was a little distracted, one thought managed to sneak through from the logical part of her brain. She'd paid a lot of money for this dress. "Harm, wait," she said.
He let her up enough to allow her to pull her dress up over her head. She dropped the dress on the floor and lay back down. Harm landed heavily on her and began to kiss her neck. Mac reached between them to unbutton and unzip his pants. She slid her hand beneath the waistband of his briefs and found him waiting very eagerly for her. She gripped him firmly and was rewarded with a nip on the neck.
"I want you now," he breathed into her ear.
"Patience, my dear. Patience," she chided.
Harm gasped. "Then you'd better stop doing that."
Mac slid her hand out. "Take those off."
Harm quickly jumped up and removed his remaining clothing. While he was doing so, Mac relieved herself of the same. Before he rejoined her, Harm stood staring at the sight before him. "You are so incredibly beautiful."
"Shut up and c'mere," she growled.
Harm dropped to the bed beside her. She ran her hands up and down his body, arousing him exponentially with every journey. He returned the favor for her until he heard her say, "Harm!" Her urgent tone caused him to open his eyes. At that point, he hadn't even realized his eyes were closed.
"Give me your hand." Before he could comply, she took his hand and guided it between her legs. He dared not move as she used him to push herself over the edge into the abyss of ecstacy. When she'd come back down from the high she'd reached, she looked at him sheepishly. "Sorry."
He was anything but sorry. Watching her lose control had been the most erotic sight he'd ever seen. But he couldn't let her know that. Not yet anyway. "No fair," he said. "You made me wait."
That was all Harm needed. He rolled on top of her and kissed her. He poised himself to enter her, but then stopped. He sensed that this was to be the very last time he'd ever experience a woman for the first time, and before he claimed her for his own, he wanted to remember everything about this moment – the look of mixed surrender and domination in her eyes, the way she smelled, the way her skin felt next to his. When he could wait no longer, he slid into her without resistence, confirming every speculation he'd ever hazarded about how she would feel and how magnificent this moment would be. He knew he wasn't going to last long, and when she made that little whimpering noise again, he was gone.
They'd slept in each other's arms after exhausting themselves with the pleasures of the flesh. Harm woke up to find Mac's brown eyes looking warmly into his. "Morning," he said. He thought back over his past, trying to remember if he'd ever been this happy. Nope, this was the pinnacle, the apex, the top of the mountain.
"Morning," she answered, a smile lighting every part of her face.
"Breakfast?" he offered.
"Maybe later," she said, snuggling next to him, her head on his chest.
He put an arm around her and had to resist an amazingly strong urge to squeeze her tightly enough to hurt. "Question," he said.
"Ask," she replied.
"I remember hearing you tell JD about how you give a piece of your soul to someone when you sleep with them, and that if it's right, you get back a piece of your partner's soul the same size as the one you gave away. I just wanted to make sure you felt we'd traded evenly."
"First of all, we didn't 'sleep together'. What we did was much more than sleep together. We made love, Harm, and it was beautiful. Thank you." She reached up and kissed him, conjuring up images of what they'd done only hours before.
"I should be thanking you," he said when she pulled away from him. "But stop trying to distract me. You didn't answer my question."
"I also think we did much more than trade pieces of our souls. I think we *traded* souls. I've got yours, and you've got mine. Take good care of it."
"I'll cherish it and protect it with my life," Harm swore.
She knew he meant it. "I know you will."
One week later . . .
Mac sat at her desk, lost somewhere between the file on her desk and outer space. She was thinking about – what else – Harm. He seemed to be occupying her thoughts a lot of late. Mac remembered this feeling - she'd experienced it once before. Harm would probably be surprised to learn that it wasn't with John Farrow or Mic Brumby. The last time she'd experienced feelings this deep, she'd been a teenager, and she'd been in love with Chris Ragle. Being in love with Chris had been new and raw and intense. She'd never approached that level of abandon with John, Dalton or Mic because the maturity she'd gained in intervening years had held her back. But this . . . thing with Harm felt just like what she'd experienced as a teenager, and she was reveling in it.
She wondered if Harm felt the same way about her as she felt about him. She also wondered if he'd ever been in love deeply enough that he'd lost control over the little things in his life – like missing exits on the freeway, burning breakfast, having to read a page in a book three times to comprehend it – all because his mind was occupied with other thoughts. She rather doubted it – he wasn't the type to give up control easily.
Mac sighed and resolved to concentrate and get some work done. She turned to her computer to check her e-mail. She and Harm sent messages back and forth to each other several times a day. Hey, work could wait while she read one little message, couldn't it?
She was briefly disappointed when she saw the one message in her inbox hadn't come from Harm. She didn't recognize the address of the sender, and the subject line said, "Remember me?"
Mac clicked on the message and read:
*Hey, Mac. Remember me? It's Jillian (otherwise known as the Juvenile Delinquent). How RU? Before you ask, I'm doing all right. Things are quiet with me and the old man. He's behaving, and so am I.
The reason for this missive is to invite you to a little concert of sorts. My piano teacher is insisting that I do this. I've agreed on the condition that I get to choose my own music. She's agreed as long as she has final veto power. Anyway, it's next Friday night. A formal invitation is on its way in the mail, but I wanted to give you a heads-up. It's formal, so if you come, dress appropriately. Oh, and you can bring the Jolly Mean Giant if you want to.
I really hope you can come. I think everyone will find the last number especially . . . enlightening. No RSVP is necessary. In fact, I'd really prefer if you didn't. No privacy, you know? I hope to see you soon. I miss you.*
"I miss you, too," Mac said aloud.
"Talking to me?" Harm asked from the doorway.
Mac looked up and smiled. "I was *thinking* that about you. But I was talking to Jillian. She just sent me an e-mail."
"How's the juvenile delinquent?"
"Okay. She's invited me to a concert she's giving. She wants me to invite you."
"She said that?" Harm asked, surprised.
"She said I could bring the Jolly Mean Giant. Who else could she mean?" Mac asked with amusement.
"When is it? Where?"
"Next Friday. She didn't say where. I'll be getting an invitation in the mail. It's formal. We'll have to dress up."
Harm made a face. "Do you want to go?"
"I *am* going to go. You're welcome to come with me."
"Do I get a reward?" he asked with a sly twinkle in his eyes.
"Depends on how good you look in a tux."
A week from Friday . . .
"I knew I recognized this address," Harm said as he pulled into the drive. "This is Clayton's mother's house."
"Wow," Mac said, looking at the palatial home on what appeared to be huge grounds. "You said they had money, but . . . wow!"
"Yeah," Harm said, agreeing with her assessment. He pulled his Lexus in beside a Beemer and opened his door. When Mac started to open hers, he said, "You wait."
He got out and went around to her door. He offered her his hand. "Mi'lady," he said with a curt bow.
Mac took his hand and stepped down to the ground. "Thank you, mi'lord," she said with a curtsy.
"Have I told you how absolutely stunning you look tonight?" Harm asked into her ear as they approached the front door.
Mac smiled. She'd dressed with great care, and she was pleased to know it hadn't been wasted. "That makes three times. But who's counting. You look rather handsome yourself."
"So do I get that reward?" he asked.
Before she could answer, the front door opened and a man greeted them. "Good evening, sir, ma'am. Please come in."
Mac gave Harm a smile full of promise and followed the man inside.
After Mac had been relieved of her wrap, they were led to a large ballroom. Several chairs were arranged in two rows facing a huge grand piano. Several people, all dressed to the nines, mingled in the room, talking, drinking and snacking on hors d'oeuvres.
A petite vision in an emerald green dress approached them. "Ms. Mackenzie," she said, very formally. "I'm so very pleased you could join us this evening."
"Jillian?!" Mac asked in surprise. This was not the little girl Mac had last seen in her apartment being hauled off in handcuffs. Her auburn hair was piled high on her head, with only a few loose, strategically-placed tendrils framing her face. She wore an off-the-shoulder evening gown with high heels.
The vision giggled. "It's me," she said with a wide smile. Then she turned serious. "Might I invite you into the cloakroom so we may speak more freely?" Jillian turned and left the room.
Mac looked at Harm and saw that he was just as amazed as she was by Jillian's transformation. With a shrug, Harm indicated that he should follow.
When they reached the privacy of the cloakroom, Jillian threw herself in Mac's arms. Mac held her for a moment, then pushed her away. "Jillian, what is going on?"
"Mrs. Webb insisted I do this. She's been my piano teacher since I moved out here. All those old people out there are from schools of music. It's supposed to be some kind of audition. I've told her a hundred times I'm gonna be a Marine, but she doesn't listen. So I thought, what the heck? If it'll make her happy, I'll do it. She's terrific. I'm so glad you came."
"We need to talk, young lady," Mac said sternly. "I want to know what's going on with you. You're planning something tonight. I know it. I want to know what it is."
Instead of answering, Jillian turned to Harm. "If it isn't Commander Charming Rabb."
"My friends call me Harm," he said. "You can call me 'Commander Rabb, sir'."
Jillian saluted smartly and seemed about to retort when Mac interrupted. "Will you two cut it out! Jillian . . ."
It was Jillian's turn to interrupt. "I can't talk right now," she said just as Mrs. Webb pushed open the door. "But I do want to talk to you."
"There you are, Jillian," Mrs. Webb said. "It's time, dear."
"Mrs. Webb," Harm said. "It's very good to see you again."
"Commander Rabb," Mrs. Webb said warmly. "So nice of you to join us."
"Ma'am, this is my . . . partner, Sarah Mackenzie."
"It's a pleasure to meet you," Mac said. "I've heard a lot about you."
"The pleasure is all mine," Mrs. Webb said. "Clayton has told me so much about you. I look forward to speaking with both of you later. But now, we really need to get started." She turned to Jillian and pulled her dress up so that it was no longer off the shoulder. "You're supposed to be exhibiting your musical talents, dear, not your physical attributes. Come along."
Jillian rolled her eyes in Mac's direction but followed Mrs. Webb without comment.
"Please everyone, we're about to get started," Mrs. Webb announced. "If you'll take your seats."
Mac led Harm to two seats in the back row. She removed a sheet of paper, then sat down to read:
*An Evening of Music
Performed by Miss Jillian Wells
Gondoliera - Franz Liszt
Spinnerlied - Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy
Etude No. 3 in E Major - Frederic Chopin
Reverie - Billy Joel
Invention in C Minor - Billy Joel
Fantasy - Billy Joel
Sonata No. 14 in C Sharp Minor - Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata No. 11 in A Major - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Waltz in C Sharp Minor - Johannes Brahms*
Mac showed the program to Harm. "Guess which ones Jillian chose."
Harm smiled in acknowledgment, then turned to face the piano.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," Mrs. Webb said. "Thank you all for coming. Miss Jillian Wells."
As Mrs. Webb took her seat, Mac noticed from the corner of her eye that someone entered the room. She jabbed Harm discretely in the ribs nodded in the direction of Clayton Webb. Clayton sat down beside his mother and kissed her on the cheek.
When Jillian began to play, everything disappeared but the music. She wove a web of magic around those who listened, a spell broken only when she stopped playing just prior to the first intermission. For many seconds, no one moved, wanting only to remain in the enchanted place where Jillian had led them. Finally, the reality of silence intruded, and people began to stir.
Mac looked at Harm to see if he was as spellbound as she was. It was clear from the look on his face that, though he might not want to admit it, he'd been very impressed. "Wow," she said.
"Yeah. Who was that masked man?" Harm joked.
"I'm surprised to se the two of you here tonight," Clayton told them.
Harm and Mac stood up. "Clay," Mac said. "It's good to see you."
"I wasn't aware you knew Jillian," Clayton said.
"We met several weeks ago under rather unusual circumstances," Mac explained. "She's incredible, isn't she?"
Clayton nodded. "Mother has taken her on as sort of a protege. She's done that in the past. All of her former disciples have gone on to successful musical careers. Jillian's insistence on being a Marine has Mother rather frustrated. You wouldn't be responsible for that, would you?" he accused Mac.
"Me?" Mac asked innocently. "I had nothing to do with it. But she'll make one hell of Marine."
"Rather a waste of an incredible talent, though, don't you think?" Clay countered.
Mac watched Jillian as she made her way through the crowd, touching hands and chatting sociably. When she finally made it to them, Mac gave her a quick hug. "You were wonderful! Can we talk now?"
"No time," Jillian said. "Sorry. Maybe later." With a smile, she was gone again.
At the second intermission, Jillian disappeared through a door at the back of the room. Harm and Mac chatted with Clayton Webb. Fifteen minutes went by, then twenty, and still Jillian didn't return. Mrs. Webb left the room looking for her, but returned several minutes later alone.
"Is something wrong, Mother?" Clayton asked.
"I can't find Jillian. I've looked everywhere. She's disappeared."
Mac immediately became nervous. She knew Jillian was planning something tonight, though she had no idea what it was. Before she could wonder much more about Jillian's reason for disappearing, the butler approached her and handed her a slip of paper, folded over. She opened it and read.
I've asked Jonathan to give you this note in case I don't make it back. I was going to publicly reveal something about my father tonight. I thought perhaps he suspected what was going on, and I thought he might do something to stop me. If you're reading this, I guess I was right.
My father is aware that I have evidence which incriminates him. He doesn't know what or where it is. I suspect he'd like to know both those things, though I have no intention of telling him. I'm not sure to what lengths he will go to get this information.
I can think of only one place nearby where my father might take me. There's an abandoned shed out on Canyon Road. I'll draw a map on the back. If he hasn't taken me there, I have no idea where I've gone, and I doubt I'll be seeing you again. I sincerely hope it doesn't come to that.
"Harm!" Mac said, handing him the note. Clayton read it as well.
"We need to call the authorities," Clayton said.
"We can't," Mac said quickly. "Her father *is* the authorities. We have no way of knowing how far his reach is."
"What's she talking about?" Clay asked. "What was she going to reveal?"
"I don't know. But I know she made a deal with her father when she went back to live with him. She had some incriminating information which she agreed to keep quiet if he'd leave her alone."
Clay searched her face. "Leave her alone? Does that mean what I think it means?"
Mac nodded. "We've got to get out there."
"Mac, have you considered that this might be some elaborate scheme on her part?" Harm asked reluctantly.
"To what end, Harm?"
"A means of getting attention maybe," he suggested.
"I don't believe that for a minute. But even if it was, what do we lose by going out there?" Mac asked. "I'm going. Are you coming?" Her question was directed at both men.
Harm sighed. "Let's go."
"Let me just tell mother where we're going," Clay said.
Following the map Jillian had drawn, Harm pulled from the highway onto a seldom-used dirt road. He pulled off to the side and turned the motor off. "If there's anyone down there, no sense in announcing our presence."
Harm leaned over Mac and retrieved a pistol and a clip from the glove compartment. He slammed the clip into the gun, and they all got out of the vehicle. Clay removed his pistol from his shoulder holster, checked to make sure it was loaded, and inserted it into his waistband. Mac felt naked without a weapon, but that wouldn't stop her from wading into the fray.
"Mac, why don't you stay here," Harm suggested.
"Like that's gonna happen, Harm."
"You don't have a weapon," he pointed out.
"Give me yours, and you wait here," Mac suggested.
"Then let's quit talking and get moving."
"We're wasting time here," Clay pointed out. "Mac, you approach the front. Quietly. Harm and I will circle around. I'll take the right."
"Let's do it," Mac said.
"Be careful, Marine," Harm growled. He astonished Clay by taking Mac into his arms and kissing her briefly but soundly.
"You, too, Sailor," Mac answered.
Mac approached the front of the shed noiselessly. She'd split from Harm and Clay a hundred yards from the shed after they'd spotted a pick up truck in front of the shed and lights inside. As Mac got closer, she heard the sound of flesh meeting flesh forcefully, followed by a pained grunt.
"Where is it?" she heard a man ask.
"Go to hell!" a voice Mac barely recognized as Jillian's spat back.
Mac had to tell herself to wait, when all she wanted to do was rush in there and beat someone senseless before grabbing Jillian.
She heard again the sound of multiple blows being landed.
"Great going, Joe," a male voice said. "Now you've gone too far. You knocked her out."
"Don't worry," the other man said. "I know how to wake her up. And this time, she's gonna talk."
Where in the hell were Harm and Clay?! Mac had just about made up her mind to go in without them when Clayton materialized by her side, startling her with his sudden proximity. Before she could catch her breath, Harm was there, too.
"No back door," Harm mouthed.
"We need to go in now!" Mac mouthed back. "There's at least two of them."
Harm nodded once, then looked at Clay, who nodded his understanding. Harm moved Mac out of the front of the door. Holding his gun at the ready, Harm held up one finger, then two, then three. On three, he kicked the door open and entered the shed with his gun pointed. Clay following directly behind him, and both were followed by Mac.
Harm's gun was pointed at one of the men, while Clay's was trained on the other. Both men, obviously surprised, held their hands out in front of them, but both looked furtively about for a way out.
Jillian lay slumped on the floor, not moving. Mac went to her quickly, dropping to her knees on the cement floor. "Jillian!" Mac called to her. "Can you hear me?"
Jillian groaned but didn't open her eyes. Mac rolled her onto her back and gasped at the child's appearance. A deep abrasion covered most of Jillian's right cheek, her right eye was swollen almost shut, and blood ran freely from her nose and mouth.
Behind her, Mac could hear Harm and Clay securing their captives with rope found somewhere in the shed. "It's gonna be okay, Jillian," Mac told her, stroking the girl's hair. "We're gonna get you to the hospital."
"She okay?" Harm asked.
"She pretty badly beaten, Harm."
Harm helped Mac up, then handed her his gun. "Help Clay. If they give you any trouble, shoot 'em."
"With pleasure," Mac said, swinging the weapon around to face the two men. "One of them breathed," she said. "Sounded like trouble to me."
Harm scooped Jillian up into his arms. "Better not shoot," he advised. "Then we'll have to wait until he bleeds to death. Could take a while."
"Yeah, you're right," Mac agreed, sounding disappointed.
"Hey, Bonnie and Clyde," Clay called. "If you're done threatening the prisoners, why don't you get the kid to the hospital. I've got the FBI on the way. They'll be here within minutes. I can take care of these guys until they get here."
"You sure, Clay?" Harm asked.
"No problem. Go."
"Consider yourselves lucky I'm not leaving you with her," Harm told them on the way out.
Jillian's cuts had been tended to, and she'd been taken to x-ray. She'd been in and out of consciousness since arriving at the hospital, and when she'd been awake, she'd been in a great deal of pain. A nurse had just inserted an IV to administer pain medication when the doctor entered the room.
"What's the word, Doc?" Harm asked.
"Well, besides the bruises and abrasions which are obvious, she has four fractured ribs. There's no sign of concussion. She'll heal. She's a brave young lady. From the wounds on her hands, I'd say she gave almost as good as she got. Do you have any idea how we can contact her parents?"
"Her mother's dead, and her father is responsible for the shape she's in," Harm told him.
The doctor raised his eyebrows, but not very high. He'd seen just about everything in his line of work. "Are you family?"
"No. Just a concerned friend. Can I stay with her?"
"Sure. She'll probably sleep for a while. The nurse will check on her periodically. Let them know if you need anything."
Harm had been sitting watching Jillian for some time. He'd been very wrong about her from the very beginning, and he wondered how he would ever make it up to her. If it hadn't been for him, she wouldn't have been returned to her father like she was, and she probably wouldn't be lying in a hospital bed now.
Jillian began to stir, and her eyes fluttered open. She looked with confusion around her, then seemed to realize where she was and why.
"Hey," she croaked to Harm.
"Hey," he said in return. "How do you feel?"
Harm poured a cup of water from the pitcher by the bed and then helped Jillian to sit up and take a sip. She fell back against the pillow. "Thanks."
Harm smiled and set the cup down.
"I must look like I went ten rounds with Mike Tyson."
Harm turned Jillian's head slightly. "Nah. You've still got your ears."
Jillian chuckled, then winced. "Ow! Don't make me laugh!"
"She went home to change. You got blood all over her dress."
"Who's your friend?" Jillian asked.
"What? Oh, this," he said, holding up a stuffed white rabbit. He'd forgotten he was holding it. "I saw it downstairs, and it reminded me of you." He felt self-conscious about the gift he'd bought for her. "You're probably too old for stuff animals."
Jillian held her hand out. "A girl is never too old for stuffed animals."
Harm gave the rabbit to Jillian, and she tucked it comfortably under her arm.
"Do you want to tell me what tonight was all about?" Harm asked.
"My father killed my mother," she said softly.
"Are you sure?"
"I'm positive. The day after my mother was killed, he had his car fixed. It had a dent in the front fender and a broken headlight. I found the invoice, and I went to the garage. The guy had saved the broken pieces of headlight because they had blood and hair on them. He didn't report his suspicions because he was afraid of my father, and he was more than happy to give the pieces to me. I told my father I had evidence of what he'd done, and I told him if he didn't leave me alone, I'd give it to someone. I also told him if anything happened to me, I'd left instructions with a friend where the evidence could be found. He believed me."
"Why did you decide to tell?"
"My father is a terrible human being, Commander. I couldn't sit by and watch him abuse the law any longer. And I want him to pay for what he did to my mother. I thought it I told what I knew in a public place that I'd be safe. But he suspected what I was up to and sent his goons to stop me."
"Who were those guys?"
"Two of my father's henchmen. He doesn't like to get his hands dirty. Except with my mother. He did that himself. Probably took great pleasure in it, too. Could I have another drink, please?"
Harm suspected she needed a break more than she needed a drink. He poured her a cupful and handed it to her. She emptied it and said, "Thanks," before handing him back the empty cup.
"So," she said. "Have you and Mac – you know – yet?"
"Do you really think that's any of your business?"
"I've *made* it my business. I could see there was something between you two. All you needed was a push."
"And you pushed," Harm said, remembering their dance at the cabin.
"I did, Commander Rabb, sir," Jillian said with a merry twinkle in her eyes.
Harm smiled. "I think you could probably call me Harm."
Jillian smiled in return.
"So," Harm said, getting the conversation back on track without having answered her very personal question. "Do you want to tell me where the stuff is? We'll need it if we're going to go after your father."
"It's at Mrs. Webb's. In the room I used to change. Under the bed," Jillian told him, her ability to form complete sentences abandoning her in the face of growing pain. "Be careful. My father can be a very dangerous enemy."
"I'm not afraid of any many who's cowardly enough to send two goons to beat up his own daughter. Besides, the FBI will probably handle everything."
Harm could see that Jillian was fading quickly. "Why don't you get some sleep," he suggested. "I'll stay right here. You'll be safe."
"Hey! You're awake!" Mac said as she entered the room, dressed now in jeans and a flannel shirt and carrying a knapsack.
"Barely," Jillian admitted.
Mac sat on the edge of the bed. "Are you okay?"
"I'll be fine," Jillian assured her, her eyes closing. "I didn't tell them anything," she said proudly before she slipped into the blessed relief of sleep, clutching her new white rabbit tightly to her side.
Mac tenderly stroked Jillian's forehead. "What did she mean by that?"
"Have a seat," Harm invited. "I'll tell you the whole story. Is that a change of clothes?"
A guard had been posted by the FBI outside Jillian's room. The two men who had abducted and assaulted Jillian had been more than happy to give up their boss in exchange for reducing the charges currently pending against them. Concern for her welfare had increased when they learned that her father had disappeared before he could be apprehended. After little discussion, a decision was made that Jillian would be placed in the FBI's protective custody until her father was caught and brought to justice.
Clayton Webb remained involved in Jillian's case unofficially, mostly at his mother's urging. It was he who brought Jillian to JAG to say good-bye before she "disappeared" following her released from the hospital.
"You're looking better," Mac said after giving Jillian a gentle hug.
The scrape on Jillian's cheek was healing, and only a slight blue still tinged the area around her right eye. Her ribs were taped, and her movement was restricted, but she was glad to be out of the hospital.
"Thanks," Jillian said. "Clay just brought me in to say good-bye."
"You're going now?" Mac asked sadly.
"Yeah. He won't tell me where."
"That's the point of this, isn't it?" Clay pointed out. "The fewer who know, the safer you are."
"Let me go find Harm," Mac said. "He'll want to say good-bye."
"I'm sure he will," Jillian said drily. "He'll probably throw a party once I'm gone."
"Mr. Webb," Admiral Chegwidden said from Mac's office door. "Why do I get nervous every time you show up here?"
"I have no idea, Admiral," Clayton said. "Today I'm just a delivery boy."
The Admiral looked skeptically at him. Webb could turn even a simple errand into an event with international implications.
"Admiral, I'd like you to meet Jillian Wells," Mac said.
"It's nice to meet you, sir," Jillian said, offering her hand to the Admiral.
"I've heard a log about you, Jillian," the Admiral said, shaking her hand. Mac had told him all about the courageous youngster. "It's a pleasure to meet you. Mac tells me you want to be a Marine."
"Yes, sir," Jillian answered.
"Did she also tell you that Jillian has been offered full scholarships to the three colleges with the top music programs in the country?" Clay asked.
"Don't start again," Jillian said, a smile on her face, but a note of warning in her voice.
"Good luck. Whatever you decide to do," AJ said before taking his leave.
"I'll get Harm," Mac said and left the room.
Clay and Jillian started malevolently at each other while she was gone.
"You're finally getting out of my life," Harm said.
Jillian looked up and smiled. "It'd be worth staying around just to bug you."
"Well, don't let me keep you," Harm said. "I'm sure Clay has better things to do than babysit a juvenile delinquent."
"It was nice knowing you, too," Jillian said sadly.
"We do need to go," Clay informed them. "We have a plane to catch."
Mac pulled Jillian into her arms. "You take care of yourself, kid. I'll be seeing you again some time soon."
They both had tears in their eyes when Jillian pulled away. "Thank you for everything."
Mac held Jillian's face in both her hands. "Thank *you* for everything."
After another quick hug, Mac turned her back to the others. This was more difficult than she'd anticipated.
Jillian looked shyly at Harm. "Good-bye, Commander Rabb, sir," she said softly. "Thank you."
Harm smiled, though with little humor. "Good-bye, Jillian."
Jillian turned and left the room quickly. Harm felt terrible. Why hadn't he said something meaningful or hugged Jillian? She had to know he was only joking about what he'd said. Didn't she? He turned to Clay. "I'm holding you responsible for keeping her safe."
Clay looked as if he were about to respond, then thought better of it. He was about to follow Jillian when she came hurtling back through the door and threw herself into Harm's arms. Surprised, he held her tightly. Though it hurt, Jillian hugged him for a long time. Without saying a word, she pulled away from him and left the room again. Clay shook his head and followed her.
Harm smiled after her, moved himself. She knew.
Months later . . .
Mac stood perusing the shelf in the library, wondering for the third time if she was missing the book she was looking for or if it simply wasn't there.
She was startled when someone appeared directly behind her. "Wild thing," Harm growled in her ear. "You make my heart sing." He kissed her neck.
"Harm!" Mac protested. "You're gonna get us both court-martialed!"
"So long as we have adjoining cells," Harm said, but he stepped an appropriate distance away from her. "Whatcha doing?"
"Looking for a book," she said, then she spotted it. "Ah ha! There it is!" She would have liked to claim it was mis-filed, but it was exactly where it should have been. She pulled the book off the shelf, smiled at him as she brushed by him, and sat at a nearby table.
Harm sat across from her and stared at her while she read. She finally looked up at him. "Don't you have something to do?"
"Huh? Oh yeah!" He opened his briefcase and removed some papers.
"Why aren't you doing that in your office?" Mac asked.
"Because you're in here," he said simply without looking up.
Pleased, Mac continued with her work. They sat quietly until the Admiral entered the room. Before they could get up out of their chairs, he waved them down.
"Anything I can help you with, sir?" Mac offered.
"No, thank you, Colonel. I still remember how to look up a statute," he said good-naturedly. He crossed to the set of statutes, pulled out a volume, and flipped it open.
Harm began to tap his pencil in a staccato rhythm on the table. Mac looked up at him. "Harm."
"Yes, sweetie?" he asked absently.
Mac's eyes flew open, and she looked immediately to the Admiral to see if he'd heard. It was obvious to her from the way he was looking at them over the top of his glasses that he'd heard very clearly. He snapped the book closed and took it with him when he stalked from the room.
"I can't believe you did that!" Mac hissed.
"What?" Harm asked, looking bewildered.
"You called me sweetie!"
"You did! Did you see the Admiral's face? We are in such trouble! Oh, I can't believe this! How could you?!" She closed the book she'd been reading, jumped up and left the room.
"Boy, I really thought the Admiral would read us the riot act after what you said today," Mac said as she sat across the table from Harm in his apartment. He'd made linguini, and she'd eaten a little more than she should have. A thought suddenly occurred to her. "Maybe he's saving up his wrath. Maybe he'll unload it all tomorrow." Now she was worried. She thought they'd escaped, but maybe punishment had only been delayed.
"It's okay, Mac. I talked to him."
"You what?!" she squawked.
"I talked to the Admiral. It's okay."
"You talked to him?! What did you tell him?! Why wasn't I there?!"
"I wanted to explain. You thought I didn't realize what I was saying in the library, but the fact was, I had a plan. I wanted to give the Admiral some advance notice so he wouldn't be surprised when you showed up tomorrow wearing this." Harm held up a ring, a modest diamond sparkling in the light.
Mac's eyes opened so wide they began to tear and her mouth dropped open. Harm got up and came to stand beside her. He knelt on one knee and reached for her left hand. "Sarah Mackenzie, will you marry me?"
Mac couldn't speak. She realized her mouth was open, but she couldn't seem to close it, so she covered it with her free hand. She made no attempt to hold back the tears that threatened to fall. She tried to speak, but words still wouldn't come, so she just nodded.
Harm slid the ring onto her finger. "I love you," he said. "More than life itself."
Mac closed her mouth and lay her hand gently on his cheek. "And I love you. "You've made me happier than I ever thought possible."
He kissed her hand, then Mac pulled it away to look at the ring. "It's beautiful, Harm."
"It pales in comparison to you."
Mac snorted with laughter at his romantic prose. The spell broken, Harm returned to his chair.
"So you called me sweetie in front of the Admiral on purpose?"
"I should have known. You never call me sweetie."
"Would you like me to?" he asked. "Or snookums?"
Mac laughed again. "Snookums! And I'll call you pookie."
"I'll pass, thanks."
"I feel like we should celebrate. Any suggestions?"
Harm raised his eyebrows suggestively and inclined his head toward the bed.
"After you, Snookums," Mac said.
"I'm Pookie. You're Snookums. Get it right," he said, grabbing her hand and pulling her toward the bedroom. "Come on, woman."
Mac pulled her hand away. "Woman?!" she repeated. "Did you just call me 'woman'?!"
"Well, you are, aren't you?" he asked.
"This woman also happens to be a Marine. And I'm not sure you can handle it if I decide to thrash you," she said playfully.
"Oh, really? I'm not sure you can handle what I can dish out."
A shiver of excitement raced through Mac's body. "That sounds like a challenge. A Marine never backs down from a challenge issued by a Squid. What did you have in mind?"
Harm took her into his arms. "I'm gonna make you beg for it," he said, nuzzling her neck.
"There's not much I'd be willing to beg for," Mac said defiantly.
"We'll see about that," Harm promised.
Mac fell onto the bed with Harm on top of her. "Rules of engagement?" she gasped as his hands began to roam over her body.
"I'm in complete control. You remain silent. Speak only when you can take no more. You move or speak before that, you lose. Can you handle that?" Harm asked, emphasizing how difficult it would be by sliding his hand into her underwear.
"Easily," Mac said with a sharp intake of breath. "Moans and groans are not considered speaking. We begin now."
"Take your shirt off," Harm ordered. "Woman."
Mac glared at him defiantly, but did as she was told, removing her bra in the process. She lay back on the bed, and Harm began to massage her breasts. He moved his mouth to one breast and began to suckle the engorged nipple, rolling the other between his thumb and forefinger. Mac closed her eyes and arched her back, wanting more. She felt Harm's hands pushing her pants down, and she raised her hips to make the job a little easier.
When she lay naked before him, he kissed her, his hand trailing up the inside of one thigh and down the other. Mac shivered, wanting badly to return the favor, but knowing she'd lose this bet if she did. She concentrated on kissing him back, thrusting her tongue into his mouth, dueling with his tongue, then leading his tongue into her mouth. She sucked on his tongue, then bit him when she felt him insert one finger inside her.
"Ouch!" he said, pulling away from her.
She looked up at him apologetically, but didn't speak. With one finger still inside her, he used his thumb to press against her clitoris. He was immediately rewarded when he felt the flood of her excitement cover his hand. He looked at her, wondering if she was ready yet to give in. To the contrary, she looked back at him, sated for the moment, but ready for more. Much more.
Harm withdrew his finger and returned his attention to her breasts. He took one nipple between his teeth and pulled gently. Mac put her hands underneath her back to keep them from reaching up to his head and forcing him back onto her breast when he pulled away. He continued to suckle her, first gently sucking, then using his teeth roughly, then circling with his tongue. She was being driven closer and closer to another orgasm, and he sensed that, so he pulled away. He looked at her triumphantly, sure that her desire must have built to a level where she'd do anything to have him now.
*"Ha!"* Mac thought. *"It's gonna take a lot more than that to make me beg!"*
Harm rested his head between her breasts. Mac withdrew her hands and put one on the top of his head, gently pushing him down. It wasn't until he'd reached her mound of soft curls that he realized what it was she wanted. As soon as the realization struck him, he looked up at her, his cheeks a very cute shade of pink. "Mac, I don't . . . I've never . . ." He couldn't bring himself to say it.
*"You really are a prude!"* she thought. *"I have got so much to teach you. First, I need to show you what you've been missing."*
Mac reached down past Harm's embarrassed face and inserted her own finger where Harm's had been only moments before. That act alone was enough to arouse Harm almost beyond endurance. When she withdrew her finger and forced it into his mouth, he wasn't sure he'd be able to contain himself long enough to get naked. Instead, he unbuttoned and unzipped his pants, found his way through the fly in his briefs, and plunged into her, emptying himself immediately. The zipper on his jeans cut into Mac's sensitive skin, but she bit her lip and said nothing until he'd finished and collapsed on top of her.
Harm looked down at her, amazed at what had just happened.
"I win," she said. "Could you get off me, please. That zipper really hurts."
Harm did as she asked.
"Thanks," she said.
Harm looked at her, but he didn't speak. He realized with a sudden clarity that he was afraid of Mac – afraid of this power she held over him, afraid that she'd annihilated his free will, afraid that she had changed his life irrevocably. When he realized that he was not afraid of having lost control or afraid of being afraid, the love he felt for her grew so much that it almost hurt. So moved emotionally that he was almost in tears, he said with great feeling, "I love you, Sarah Mackenzie."
Mac had been about to tease him about a Squid being unequal in any battle with a Marine, but she heard the emotion in his voice, and she stopped. Not sure what had brought it on, but sensing he'd had some sort of epiphany, she ran a hand through his hair and pulled her body next to his, laying her head on his shoulder. "I know, Harm. And I love you, too."
The following Monday . . .
Mac wondered how long it would take for someone to notice the ring. She made no attempt to hide it, but still it was nearly lunch time before someone spotted it. It was no surprise that it was Harriet.
"Ma'am . . ." Harriet said, then stopped, unsure how to frame her question.
"What is it, Lieutenant?"
"The ring, ma'am."
Mac looked at the ring and smiled. "What about it?"
"It's beautiful, ma'am."
"Yes, it is," Mac agreed, enjoying Harriet's discomfort.
"Are you . . .?"
"I am," Mac confirmed, beaming.
"Well, that's terrific, Colonel!" Harriet said. "Congratulations!"
"Who is it?" Harriet blurted out, unable to control herself any longer.
Mac laughed. "Guess."
Harm picked that moment to leave his office and walk across the bullpen. Mac's eyes followed him until he was out of sight, and Harriet no longer had to guess.
"Oh, ma'am!" she squealed. "I am so happy for you!" She threw her arms around Mac and hugged her.
Harriet pulled away. "I can't believe we didn't know! Oh, I have to tell Bud!" She bustled away, full of this exciting news. Mac smiled and watched her go, sure the news would find it's way to everyone's ears by the end of the day.
Later that night . . .
"So the news is all over JAG?" Harm asked.
"From my mouth to Harriet's ears to the public PA system," Mac told him. She lay in the crook of his arm, stretched out on her sofa.
"Let's go away this weekend," Harm said suddenly.
"I don't know. Let's just get in the car and drive. We could go to New Hampshire. The leaves should be turning now. I bet it's beautiful. We'll drive until we come to some little bed and breakfast." He played with the hair on her forehead as he spoke. "We'll get a little room with a big bed and a fireplace. We'll make love, and we'll eat breakfast, and we'll make love. Then we'll eat lunch and make love again."
"What about the leaves?"
"I'm sure we'll be able to see them out the window. So what do you say? We could leave on Friday. No pun intended."
It took her a moment to figure out what he meant by that. "Very funny," she said when she had. "It sounds lovely, but we can't. At least, we can't leave on Friday."
"Because Harriet is planning a little party for us Friday night at McMurphy's."
Harm rolled his eyes. "Do we have to?" he groaned.
"It won't kill you," Mac said simply. "You should have seen her! I think she's happier than we are."
"I doubt that's possible," Harm said, kissing the tip of her nose. "It just doesn't sound like as much fun as you and me and New Hampshire . . ."
"And the leaves?"
"Yeah," he said, bending down to kiss her, on the lips this time. "The leaves."
That Friday evening at McMurphy's . . .
Harm was nursing the one and only beer he'd allow himself tonight. He sat at a table with Bud, Sturgis and Bobbi. Mac and Harriet were bent over the juke box, studying the selections, apparently trying to decide on the best bang for their buck. The Admiral was at the bar picking up another round, and Singer was dancing with some guy she'd brought to the party. He tried to follow the conversation going on around him, but the point on which his world now turned was all the way across the room, and missing her was using up a lot of his concentration. She must have felt him staring because she looked up. They exchanged small, secretive smiles, reassured that the other was still there.
*"Oh, you've got it bad, my friend,"* Sturgis thought to himself with amusement. He was glad for Harm. It was about time he settled down. And Mac was just the one to tame him without his realizing that he was being tamed.
Harm's eyes met Sturgis', and Sturgis smiled guiltily. He was glad when the Admiral returned, bearing a tray of drinks. As he passed them out, Mac and Harriet returned to the table.
After they were all seated again, Harm looked at his watch. He'd had enough. "Well, this has been great, but . . ."
"Now just hold on," the Admiral said. "We're not all here yet."
"Who else is coming, sir?" Mac asked.
"I mentioned this little get-together to Clayton Webb. He said he'd be here," the Admiral told them.
"Maybe he's off somewhere playing Super Spook," Harm mused, still hoping he could get out of here soon and get a certain Marine officer alone at his place (or hers).
"We'll wait a bit longer," the Admiral said in the voice of a man accustomed to being obeyed, which, of course, he was. "In the meantime, here's to the longest engagement in the history of the universe," he said, raising his glass in toast to the happy couple.
They didn't have much longer to wait. Minutes later, Clayton approached the table, obviously in a hurry. "Good! You're still here. I was afraid I'd miss you."
"You damn near did," the Admiral said. "Rabb here seems to be in a hurry to leave for some reason."
Harm and Mac blushed at the implication of his words.
They were thankful that Clay ignored the Admiral. "Congratulations, you two."
"Thank you, Clayton," Mac said with a warm smile. Harm smiled his thanks.
"I couldn't figure out what to get you," Clay said. "I thought about it for a long time. I wanted to get you something unique, something you'd appreciate. And then it came to me."
"What came to you?" Harm asked when Clay didn't continue.
"Not what. Who." He nodded in the direction of a point behind them.
Harm and Mac turned around to find Jillian, smiling brightly and waving at them from across the room.
Mac jumped up so fast her chair tipped over. "Jillian! Is that you?!" It looked like Jillian, except that her beautiful long hair had been chopped off above the shoulders.
"It's me," Jillian confirmed.
Mac rushed to Jillian and gave her a big hug. "Is it safe for you to be here?"
"FBI picked her father up three days ago. His trial in absentia was to being Monday. Now the guest of honor will be in attendance," Clay explained.
"So she's no longer in protective custody?"
"We'll keep her safe until the trial's over and her father is sentenced," Clay assured her.
"Thank you, Clayton," Mac said, surprising Clay by hugging him.
"You're welcome," Clay said, loosening his collar a little. It was suddenly warm in here.
"Where have you been?" Mac asked Jillian.
Jillian looked at Clay, and he nodded. "I've been with Mrs. Webb the whole time. The plane was a decoy. I've been right next door."
"I'm so glad you're back," Mac said. Life couldn't get any better. She and Harm were engaged, and Jillian was back.
"Congratulations, Commander Rabb, sir," Jillian said with a shy smile.
"Thank you, Jillian. And I do mean that," Harm said, looking at Jillian to make sure she understand that he was thanking her for so much more than her good wishes. Without her, although this moment might have arrived, it would have been at a much more distant point in the future. He'd be forever grateful to her for the extra time she'd helped to give them together.
Jillian's smile told him that she did, indeed, understand.
"I wanted to get you guys something, but I'm broke," Jillian said. "So I wrote you a song. Can I sing it for you?"
"Of course you can," Mac said, squeezing her hand.
"Bet you don't dare to ask her to dance," Jillian said to Harm.
Harm smiled in recognition of her challenge. "I don't think that will ever be a problem again."
Harm and Mac danced while Jillian played the guitar and sang the song she'd written for them. It was a song about the choices made in life that sometimes seem wrong right after you make them, but which lead you to the place where you were meant to be all along. It was a song about acceptance of your perceived mistakes for what they are – crossroads in life, forks in the road with no directions to guide you and no reassurances that the route you've chosen is the correct one. It's only with the luxury of time and hindsight, when you look back over your life, that you can clearly see the path you took and how it brought you to where you are today. It was a song written just for Harm and Mac, whose paths had run parallel for a number of years but had finally merged into one.
Mac was moved to tears, and she hugged Jillian for a long time after she'd finished. Harm, too, was moved by the emotions in the song and by the youngster who had been able to capture their lives so perfectly.
When the party finally broke up, Mac asked Clay if he thought it would be safe for her to bring Jillian back to her apartment. Clay agreed that with her father behind bars, Jillian should be fine.
"You're taking her home with you tonight?" Harm complained.
"Yes. But this time, there's no reason why you can't come, too."
Mac and Jillian talked well into the night. Jillian told Mac that while she'd been staying with Mrs. Webb, she'd been tutored and completed the requirements necessary for her high school diploma. She'd then enrolled in Goucher College and began classes there in the Marine's ROTC program. She was majoring in political science and minoring in music.
After Harm had had enough girl talk and went to bed, Mac told Jillian how her relationship with him had evolved, how he had proposed to her, and that, while they hadn't yet talked about a date for a wedding, they were talking about moving in together.
Finally, they'd talked themselves out. Jillian settled herself on the couch, and Mac slid quietly into her bed. Harm was warm and snuggly, and she spooned herself up behind him.
He stirred and moved back against her. "What time is it?"
"Shhh," Mac whispered soothingly. She kissed his shoulder. "Go back to sleep. I love you."
"Love you, too," he mumbled, and in the time it took for him to take a breath, he was asleep again.
"Harm. Do me a favor?" Mac stood in Harm's office door, her brown eyes appealing to him.
Harm looked up at her. When she looked at him like that, he'd do just about anything for her. But it was better if she never knew that. "If I can," he said cautiously.
He hadn't thought it possible, but she turned the pleading look up another notch. He felt himself turning into a puddle.
"Jillian's testifying at her father's trial today," she told him. "I have to be in court all morning. Could you go over there and give her some moral support? I'd go myself, but . . ."
Harm was relieved. Thank goodness she'd asked him for something so simple. "I think I could find some time." He had nothing on his plate today that couldn't wait until this afternoon or tomorrow.
"Thank you," she said with a bright smile. "I'll owe you one."
"I like the sound of that."
Jillian paced agitatedly in the small witness room at the courthouse. The more she thought about what she was about to do, the more afraid she became. What if her father wasn't convicted? What if he was set free and came after her? She didn't want to spend the rest of her life in hiding, always looking over her shoulder. Clay had told her she didn't have to do this. If she said the word, he'd take her out of her. She'd just decided to take him up on that offer and opened the door when she ran into Harm.
"Whoa, Chief!" he said, reaching out to steady her. "Where's the fire?"
"Sorry," she said, backing up a step.
Harm had seen enough reluctant witnesses in his time to recognize the cornered-rat look in Jillian's eyes. "You okay?" he asked.
Jillian's eyes darted all over the room, looking everywhere but at him. "Sure. Fine. I was just . . ."
"Running?" Harm guessed.
Jillian sighed. "Yes. I was running. I know, I'm a coward."
"You're not a coward, Jillian," Harm said softly. "Come sit down."
Reluctantly, and with her eyes still on the door, Jillian sat down.
"Talk to me," Harm ordered.
She paused a moment to gather her thoughts. "What if he gets off?" she finally asked. "What if he comes after me? You've seen what he's capable of. He won't stop next time until I'm dead."
"You have the power to help make sure he's put away for a very long time," Harm pointed out.
"But I'm just one little insignificant person. My father is a powerful man."
"Jillian, you are not insignificant. I used to think that everybody once in their life met someone special, someone with the power to change the lives of those they come in contact with in a positive way no matter how fleeting that contact."
"You don't believe that any more?" Jillian asked.
"Oh, I still believe it. But now I've met two people like that. You and Sarah Mackenzie."
"Have you told her that?" Jillian asked.
"Not in so many words," Harm admitted.
Harm smiled. "I will. But back to you. Jilly, you can't let your father dictate the rest of your life. Take charge and control your own destiny."
"Will you come in with me?"
"Of course I will."
"We both will," Mac said from the door.
They both looked up and her and smiled. "Jillian Wells," the heard the bailiff intone in the hallway.
Jillian stood up. "Let's go." Mac squeezed her hand reassuringly as she went past.
"I thought you had court this morning," Harm said.
"I did. The judge had something come up. We had to postpone."
"How much of that did you hear?"
Mac smiled. "All of it. Why? Do you want to take it back?" she teased.
"Absolutely not. I meant every word I said. You amaze me every single day, and I consider myself blessed to have you in my life."
"If I weren't wearing this uniform, I'd throw myself into your arms," Mac said quietly.
"We can fix that later. Right now, the other special person in my life needs us."
Walking as close as they could without touching, they walked together into the courtroom.