Chapter 38

Mac woke in stages. The dark warmth that cocooned her gave way to a reddish glow she knew instinctively to be gentle light shining on her closed eyelids. After that came voices, rising and falling in conversational waves. She picked out Harm's resonant tenor after a minute, finding joy in the intimately familiar sound. She imagined his face-- the strong, clean lines of it, framing a perfect smile and sea blue eyes that could reflect a soul as deep as the ocean they resembled… or nothing at all. Her first image gave way to a new one, of the heavy doors slamming shut behind Harm's eyes, sealing away his overwhelming horror behind an empty mask. The image frightened her, but for a moment she couldn't figure out why. But then she remembered Ariel, and the scissors, and the blood. Only then did Mac truly become aware of her body. Pain crashed down on her, crushing her arm and radiating into her shoulder and across her chest.

With a gasp, Mac opened her eyes.

Harm was immediately there. She felt his fingers engulf hers on her uninjured side as he leaned over her, a worried crease between his brows. "Mac?"

"Is it over?" she croaked. Her throat felt like sandpaper.

His brow smoothed out. "Yeah, it's over." His fingers caressed her face, trailing gently down her cheek. "You're safe."

Reassured, Mac let her gaze wander away from his face. "Where am I?"

"Tampa General Hospital," another voice told her. A young man leaned over her, white coat draped over his shirt and tie. A stethoscope was tucked into the coat's breast pocket. He smiled down at her. "Welcome back, Sarah. You've been asleep for--"

"Fifty-three hours, sixteen minutes, and forty-four seconds," Mac supplied automatically. That was how long it had been since she'd seen Harm standing in the bathroom doorway onboard the Radiant Heart.

The doctor raised an eyebrow.

Harm chuckled. "Now I know you're going to be all right." But the dark shadows that lingered in his eyes told a much larger story.

Mac felt an odd twinge of guilt. "I'm sorry if I scared you, Harm."

He just stared at her, blue eyes unguarded, and for a moment Mac found herself staring into an abyss. She'd seen similar expressions on disaster survivors and war veterans-- those who had seen things that would haunt them forever. She wondered if maybe she'd had the easier time of it, all things considered. After all, she'd been unconscious for most of it.

"You gave us all quite a fright, Colonel." Admiral Chegwidden stepped up behind Harm, coming into her range of view. With a start, Mac realized that there were several other people in the room as well. Trish and Frank were there, and Clayton Webb. All of them looked tremendously glad to see her.

"Admiral." Feeling self-conscious, Mac tried to push herself into a sitting position, only to have Harm gently but firmly press her shoulders back against the bed.

"At ease, Colonel," the Admiral told her with a smile. "I don't expect you to snap to for a couple more days, at least."

"Yes, sir." Mac agreed. She looked over at the doctor. "Am I allowed to sit up?" She didn't like being flat on her back with everyone looming around her.

He nodded and reached for the controller that dangled near the top of the bed. "Of course." With a sound of grinding metal, the bed began to fold. Mac's head swam at the motion and she grabbed Harm's hand to steady herself. The bed stopped immediately.

"I think that's far enough," the doctor said.

"O.k." Mac agreed, her voice faint. Her stomach twisted with nausea that began to dissipate once she quit moving.

"Mac?" Harm asked, his concern obvious.

Mac blew her breath out in a sigh. "Phew. I'm o.k." When she was able to, she turned her head and smiled at him. The smile dimmed.

"Did we get him?" That was the one question she needed an answer to. Had it been worth it?

Harm nodded somberly. "Ariel's in custody. The DA is talking about asking for the death penalty."

Mac gave him a curious look. "Capitol punishment?"

Clayton Webb approached the bedside. "Nikki Upton is dead." Mac saw Harm flinch ever so slightly at his words. "We have Ariel on tape giving her a fatal dose of the same stuff he gave Mr. Laughton."

Memory overwhelmed Mac for a second, flashing before her eyes. "He was trying to make it look like I'd done it--" She met Harm 's gaze. "In a fit of jealousy. And then killed myself afterwards."

"He very nearly succeeded," Webb told her. She watched as he and Harm exchanged glances. The communication was swift and silent, but Mac had the feeling a great deal passed between them.

Mac squeezed her husband's fingers as remorse and guilt washed over her. "I'm sorry, Harm."

He stared at her incredulously. "You don't have anything to be sorry for, Mac."

She shook her head. "Other than wishing that girl dead from time to time--"

Harm turned swiftly to sit on the edge of the bed. He drew Mac into his embrace, carefully avoiding her injured arm, and held her tight. "If it's anyone's fault, it's mine."

"Harm--" Mac began, at the same time his mother broke in.

"Don't be ridiculous, Harm. It's Tony Ariel's fault, and no one else's."

Harm didn't move. His head was tucked again her shoulder and Mac reveled in the feel of his arms around her waist and his body against hers. "I just keep thinking I should have seen it coming," he said into her hair.

Mac sighed. "Yeah, well… you're not the only one. I walked right into it, too." She pulled back far enough to smile up at him. "I'm just glad you figured out where I was."

The corner of his mouth curled upward. "Tossing that towel out there was brilliant, Mac."

She had to smile at that. Harm didn't hand out compliments lightly, even to her. "So what's going to happen now?" she asked, her gaze moving from her husband to the Admiral and back.

"Well," Chegwidden drawled, rocking lightly on his feet, "the Andersons have officially won the million dollars since you two didn't remain aboard until the end of the cruise."

"Will there be any charges against Dan Steiner or the production company, sir?"

The Admiral shrugged. "Probably not. There's no proof he knew anything before the fact."

"What about our case?"

Another of the Admiral's light shrugs. "The reservists will most likely have the charges against them dropped. Lieutenant Roberts finally figured out the last piece of the puzzle."

Harm gave him a curious look. "Which puzzle is that, sir?"

"The hall recording. We knew the timestamp had been tampered with, but there's no way to know what it originally said. What the lieutenant finally figured out is that the hall video didn't mesh with any of the principals' stories. Remember, the video showed Mrs. Antony going to the room alone first, and then the two reservists arriving some time later. She didn't take anything in with her, nor did they, but both Mr. Brown and Mr. Rossman said in their statements that she had created a romantic atmosphere with candles and music-- which the room video supports despite the poor quality. We know from the ship's manifest that the room wasn't stocked with candles. It's a fire hazard. So, the conclusion to be drawn from these events is--"

"That someone had to have set Mrs. Antony up." Harm finished. Mac smiled at him, shaking her head. Only he could finish the Admiral's sentence for him and not get chastised for it.

"I'm sorry to interrupt--" The doctor looked over at Mac's visitors. " But I need to examine Sarah, so I'm going to have to ask you all to wait outside for a little while." He glanced at Harm. "You're welcome to stay, Mr. Rabb."

Harm nodded. He released Mac and stood, recapturing her hand after a moment. One by one the others came to the bedside before departing. The Admiral simply smiled at Mac, looking a little uncomfortable. He never had like personal situations. Frank and Trish each gave her an encouraging squeeze, and a second one for Harm as they passed him, headed for the door. But it was Webb who truly blew her away. With an indecipherable glance at Harm, he bent down to kiss her on the forehead.

"Get better, Mac," was all he said. He turned away before she had a chance to formulate a response.

She looked questioningly at her husband once Clay was gone. "What was that about?"

Harm's gaze was shrouded. "He took your almost dying pretty hard."

She blinked, taken aback by his tone as much as the words.

"What about you, flyboy?"

Harm brought her fingers to his lips in a tender caress. "Me, too." For a moment she glimpsed his pain, his terror at the prospect of losing her.

The doctor started his exam then, keeping Mac from pursuing the subject. She watched with trepidation as he pulled away the bandages covering her forearm, revealing the long gash. To Mac's surprise, the ugly wound she remembered had been replaced by a line of black spidery-looking stitches.

"Wow. Is that it?" She rotated her arm, giving the wound a critical examination. It hardly looked dangerous.

The doctor prodded the edges with a gloved finger, eliciting a hiss of pain from Mac. He gave her an apologetic glance. "It looks to be healing well. No sign of infection. How's the pain?"

"It's fine," Mac assured him. Her arm was throbbing, but she was leery of taking any more medication than necessary.

"Mac." Harm obviously wasn't buying her claim. "You had surgery. You're entitled to some pain meds."

She glanced at him, taking in the stubborn set of his jaw, and sighed. "I don't like being all doped up."

"How about an unlimited supply of Tylenol, then?" the doctor asked with a smile. "In large quantities, of course."

"Deal," Mac answered promptly and saw Harm's expression lighten. "When can I go home?"

The doctor chuckled. "A couple of days, provided no infection develops." His humor faded. "You've had the equivalent of a blood transfusion, Sarah. Your body will need time to recover from the shock. We also had to reconstruct the artery in your arm, which went well, I'm pleased to say. However, there's a great deal of healing going on under these stitches. It's not nearly as minor as it looks."

Mac swallowed hard as understanding hit her. Ariel really had almost killed her. She hadn't honestly stopped to consider how close she'd come…

The tears came out of nowhere. One moment Mac was thinking about how soon she could get on with her life, and the next she was sobbing in a combination of terror and fury for all the things that had so nearly been stolen from her.

Harm wrapped her in a tight embrace. Mac knotted her good hand in his shirt, burying her face against his chest. The tears passed as swiftly as they'd come. Mac closed her eyes, resting her head against Harm and listening to the steady beat of his heart beneath her ear. She was vaguely aware of the doctor replacing the dressings on her arm while she sat there, but everything else was submerged beneath the flood of gratitude she felt simply to be alive. And not just alive, but with everything to live for.

"Harm--" Reaching up, she hooked her hand behind her husband's neck, drawing him down for a much-needed kiss. Their lips met, melding in a reaffirmation of the bond that had been forged between them and would never be broken.

Not if Sarah Rabb had anything to say about it.