Admiral A.J. Chegwidden looked up at the knock on his office door. Gunny stepped inside a moment later, followed by a man the Admiral didn't know. He was tall and thin, with sandy blond hair that fell in thin wisps to below his collar. His eyes were pale and blue, their intensity hidden behind large framed glasses that were conspicuously ten years out of date. The man's dress was more casual than A.J. was used to seeing-- casual pants and a black t-shirt. Most civilians dressed up when they came to visit an Admiral in the United States Navy.
Gunny came to attention. "Admiral, Daniel Steiner is here to see you, sir."
So that was who he was. A.J. fought to keep the revulsion off his face. He did not stand to greet his guest. "Thank you, Gunny."
Gunny left, and A.J. waved his visitor to the chairs fronting his desk. "Please have a seat Mr. Steiner. I'll be with you in a moment." He returned his attention to the paperwork in front of him. He scribbled a few more lines before putting the papers aside.
When he looked up, he found Steiner slouched in his chair, watching him appraisingly.
"Now, Mr. Steiner, what can the Judge Advocate General's office do for you?"
Steiner's gaze didn't waver. "Since your boss called me, I was expecting you'd already know."
Unfortunately, A.J. did. The Navy needed some damage control and had come to him to make it happen. The sheer humiliation of what his superiors were asking, however, made the orders hard to swallow.
Steiner rolled his head around, eliciting a loud pop from one of his vertebrae. He grinned at the Admiral. "So, do you have investigators for me or not?"
A.J. nodded reluctantly. He touched his intercom. "Lieutenant Tiner! Tell Commander Rabb and Colonel MacKenzie I want to see them asap."
"Which one's the woman?" Steiner wanted to know.
A.J. didn't answer. A few moments later, the two officers walked in. They came to attention in front of his desk, their gazes locked straight ahead, their faces impassive. Neither one showed the least curiosity about the Admiral's visitor. Anything less would have earned them a rebuke from their superior.
Steiner took one look at the pair and jumped to his feet. "Wow. Now this I can work with." He turned and walked off to Lieutenant Colonel MacKenzie's side, studying her with avid, almost lascivious, interest. "Sexbomb city." He grinned at A.J. "Slick the hair back and put her in a bikini… baby." He turned his attention to Commander Rabb. "He's not bad either. Tall, dark and handsome always goes over well. Especially if there's a sixpack under that uniform." He gestured toward the commander's midriff.
A.J. fought to keep his face expressionless. The eyes of his two officers were rolling in anger and indignation, though neither one moved an inch.
Finally, Steiner seemed to register the stiff attention of the officers. He gave A.J. a quizzical look. "How long are they just going to stand there like that?"
"Until I say otherwise," the Admiral answered. Steiner could use a demonstration of military discipline.
Steiner remained doubtful. "If you say so. I really need to hear voices sometime, though. I mean, I can work with the bodies. No sweat there. But, if the voices suck…" He rolled his eyes. "This is reality t.v. We can't do voice-overs."
A.J. let it go for a little while longer. The silence in his office grew heavy. Finally, he looked at his officers. "Be seated, Commander, Colonel."
Like statues come to life, the two took deep breaths in unison. "Yes, sir."
Then, ritual complete, they became the people A.J. knew as friends as well as subordinates. The two settled in their chairs as Mac whipped around to stare venomously at Steiner.
"Sir, who in the world is this-- this--"
"Cretin?" Harm supplied mildly.
"Cretin." Mac looked at A.J. "And what business does he have with JAG?"
Steiner did not look the least put off by the insult. He smiled ingratiatingly. "I'm Daniel Steiner, executive producer of Temptation Cruise."
At their blank looks, his smile faded a notch. "Temptation Cruise? It's only the highest rated show in prime time for the past season." The blank stares didn't change. Steiner became indignant. "Don't you people watch t.v.?"
Harm and Mac looked at each other.
"You don't mean that show where they stick a bunch of newlywed couples on a boat for six weeks and have the crew try to entice them into cheating on each other?" Harm asked.
Steiner beamed. "That's the one."
Mac stared aghast at the producer. "How horrible!"
Harm's expression turned thoughtful. He turned to the Admiral. "This is about that rape case."
A.J. nodded, and the atmosphere in the office immediately turned businesslike. "Yes. A contestant on Mr. Steiner's t.v. show claimed she was raped by two of the ship's crew members to keep her and her husband from winning the million-dollar prize. Unfortunately, both of the accused are Naval reservists."
"I suppose that explains JAG's interest," Mac said. She eyed Steiner as if he were a particularly hideous variety of spider she'd spotted on her living room wall. "Is the case going to be tried under military jurisdiction?"
A.J. shook his head. "No. It'll be tried in civilian court."
"So how are we involved, sir?"
A.J. steeled himself. "The reservists claim they were acting on the instructions of the show's director, a Tony Ariel. They agreed to… ahem, take advantage of the young lady, but deny the rape charge. They say she was flirting heavily with both of them and that the incident was consensual." He shrugged, uncomfortable. "I don't need to tell you how much bad publicity this is generating for the Navy. But, if the reservists claim about Mr. Ariel is true, it could be useful as a means of deflecting the attention away from the U.S. military."
"Not to mention that it'll look good for you folks to have been involved in the investigation," added Steiner.
At the word "investigation", Harm and Mac exchanged worried looks.
"Sir, you aren't suggesting that Commander Rabb and I…?" Mac trailed off uncertainly.
A.J. nodded. "Unfortunately, I am, Colonel. You and Commander Rabb are going to go undercover to investigate the truth of these allegations about Mr. Ariel. Temptation Cruise II will begin filming in approximately three months. You two will be contestants." He paused. "Providing Mr. Steiner approves, of course."
Steiner grinned his irritating grin. "I like what I've seen so far." He transferred his smile to Harm and Mac. "All I need now is proof that these two can pass for newlyweds and I'll sign off."
A.J. knew Steiner had been adamant in his refusal to let his show be "tainted" by the investigation of his director. Though he professed to be furious over the possibility that Ariel had rigged the results of the show, he also insisted that only "real talent" be allowed onto the sequel, lest the ratings suffer. It had taken quite a bit of pressure from high up in the Navy to gain his grudging agreement to "assess" the JAG investigators. A.J. knew how important it could be to the Navy's reputation to be an integral part of this investigation. He also knew he was putting his officers in a particularly difficult situation. He folded his hands on the desk in front of him, projecting calm as best he could.
"What would satisfy you, Mr. Steiner?" he asked.
Steiner shrugged. "A kiss, to start with. Let's see if there's any kind of chemistry."
Harm and Mac both stared at him, their gazes owlish.
Steiner's voice turned harsh. "Well? This is just a screen test. If you can't do this, you'll never make it on the show." He transferred his attention to Harm. "Put some heat into it, Commander. Forty million viewers are going to be dissecting every move you two make. If you can't convince me, you'll never convince them." He sat back, arms crossed.
After a moment, Harm shook himself out of his stupor and turned to A.J. "Sir?" His expression fell somewhere between bewildered and amused.
The Admiral spread his hands. "This falls under the auspices of an undercover investigation, Commander. Fraternization regs don't apply. You have my permission."
A hint of mischief crept into the other man's eyes. "Yes, sir."
Turning in his seat, Harm leaned across the distance separating him from Mac. Smiling ever so slightly, he cupped her cheek in one hand and kissed her. Rather thoroughly, A.J. thought. Mac's fingers tightened on the arms of her chair until the knuckles turned white, but she sank into the kiss as if she'd never wanted anything else in her life.
Outside the unshuttered windows flanking the Admiral's door, the hubbub of the JAG office came to a standstill as the members of the staff turned to stare at the unprecedented sight. A.J. bit his lip against a laugh as a pile of papers cascaded unnoticed out of Harriet's fingers. Her mouth formed a perfect 'O' of surprise.
Sometime later, Harm and Mac separated. Their eyes lingered on each other for a bare moment before Mac looked away, ducking her head with unusual shyness for the outspoken Marine.
Harm cleared his throat, his discomfort well hidden. "Good enough?" he asked Steiner. A.J. admired the even, unconcerned air he projected. Harm still carried his naval aviator's cool, which served him well both in and out of the courtroom.
Steiner applauded lightly. "Bravo." He smiled at the Admiral. "They'll do."
Harm turned to A.J., his face impassive. "Is that all, sir?" The question carried a tremendous weight of disapproval in its stiffly formal tones.
A.J. turned the question over to his guest, who nodded.
"I'll have my assistant send over all the paperwork and a rough draft of the schedule. You'll be expected to make appearances with the rest of the contestants, as well as do the photo shoots and advance interviews," Steiner said.
A.J. noted that his officers looked like they'd rather be boiled in oil and decided to end the appointment as quickly as possible. All the parties had agreed, so there was no point in prolonging their exposure to each other. That only increased the risk of something going wrong.
The Admiral dismissed Harm and Mac. Looking relieved, the two rose and came to attention before exiting the office. A.J. saw them exchange eloquently helpless looks before each went to their own office. Neither one acknowledged the curious stares of the other staff members.
All in all, A.J. pitied them.