"It's *perfect*, Mattie told Jen later when they stopped by JAG Headquarters. "It's *huge*! And the garage apartment is almost as big as our old one."
"Sounds like some place," Mac told Harm as they entered the main office, leaving the two young women talking.
"It's not bad. Wide front porch with a swing. And a patio in the back." He didn't tell her what else he'd found in the back yard, behind the small workshop. It would be better for her to see for herself. "It looks sound. And I think the guy's willing to make a deal to sell it. Might even go lease/purchase so we could move in right away."
"I'm starting to look forward to checking it out."
"Good. I was hoping you'd feel that way."
"Oh. You were on TV."
"Stuart Dunston didn't waste any time." She picked up the remote and turned on the VCR to playback the interview. Harm perched on the end of the desk, watching, wincing. "It wasn't that bad," Mac teased. "I thought you looked cute."
"Cute?" he questioned.
"Did he run the entire thing?" she asked.
"Just about. He might have done a little editing, but - has the SecNav seen it?"
"He as. He called just after it aired. Asked me to relay his compliments and gratitude and that he hoped you'd be ready to get back to work on Monday."
"I will be if I can get some uniforms. We stopped in on the way back from Lewinsville, they said they would try to get something ready to be picked up this evening." He glanced at his watch. "Speaking of which I need to get going so I can get there before they close. Anything going on here that I need to know about?"
"No. Everything's under control."
"Capable as ever," he said with a smile. "I might even take a few days off -"
"Don't even *think* about it, Flyboy." She frowned. "Your quals are coming up, aren't they?"
Harm nodded. "We'll talk about it tonight."
"Okay. We can discuss what Dr. Macon said," she told him, smiling nervously.
"He called?" he said, touching her hand.
"About fifteen minutes ago."
"I think so. Later."
He nodded, agreeing that this wasn't a discussion that they needed to have here. "Any idea what time you'll be getting out of here?"
"Somewhere around 1700, I think."
"Why don't we go out and get something to eat?" he suggested.
They stopped by Mattie's school after picking up Harm's new uniform so that she could clean out her locker and talk to a couple of her friends and teachers. He saw her come out of the building a few minutes later with Susan Smithfield and got out of his vehicle as they approached. "Hello, Commander," the girl said.
"Susan. How are you doing?"
"Managing. Like I told Mattie, it gets a little easier every day."
"How's your mother doing? I've been meaning to call her -"
"She's doing really good. She's taking some counseling courses this summer. I think it's good that she's getting out of the house."
"It is. Give her my best, okay?"
"I will. I never thanked you for everything you did after my brother died -"
"I didn't do it for thanks, Susan," he assured her.
"I know. Thank you anyway." She gave him a hug before turning to Mattie. "Keep in touch, okay?"
"I will. I'll call as soon as we have a phone number."
Harm put his arm around Mattie. "You ready to go?"
Harm opened the back door so that they could put her things into the back seat and then got into the truck.
Back at Mac's Mattie took a quick shower and changed into a pair of jeans and top. Both had managed to avoid too much exposure to smoke, and Harm promised that they would find a dry cleaner tomorrow to see about getting the rest of the things she'd brought cleaned to remove the smell.
Harm changed into the pair of dress slacks and button-down shirt that he had bought when he bought the jeans and shirt he'd worn all day. When he came out of the bedroom, Mattie was sitting at the dining room table with a pencil and paper, drawing out the floor plan of the house in Lewinsville. "That look right to you?" she asked, indicating the placement of a doorway.
"Looks good. I didn't know you could draw that well." The sketch was pretty close to proportional, Harm decided, taking the one she'd done of the ground floor while she worked on the second floor. "You have an eye for this kind of thing."
"I used to sketch a lot. Haven't done it much lately."
"Maybe you should start again. The Navy has an art program - Bud looked into it for his brother at one time. Before he went into the Academy. Might be something you could consider."
"Nope," she said, putting the paper aside to start working on an exterior view. Looking up at him, she said, "I'm going to fly, remember?"
"Oh yeah," he responded with a smile. "You want some water?"
"Sure," she answered, continuing to put pencil to paper. While he was in the kitchen, he heard the front door open and grabbed a third bottle for Mac, who was already unbuttoning her jacket to remove it as she looked over Mattie's shoulder.
"Hi," he said, handing her a bottle of water before placing Mattie's nearby her on the table.
"Hi. What's this?" she asked, picking up the papers with the floor plans on them.
"The floor plan of our new house," Mattie informed her.
Mac looked at the papers, and then at Harm, who lifted an eyebrow in shared surprise. "These are very good, Mattie. I never knew you could draw." She studied the one that Mattie was doing of the front of the house. "It's beautiful."
"It's even prettier when you see it for real. I can't do it justice with just a pencil."
"Well, I'll see it tomorrow - after we stop and get you some art supplies." Taking the drawing that Mattie had just finished, she asked, "Mind if I keep this?"
"If you want it -"
"Of course I want it," Mac said, carrying it into the kitchen, where she used the one magnet that she had on the fridge to secure the picture to the front. "Now, if you two will excuse me, Harm mentioned something about taking us out for dinner, and I need to shower and change out of this uniform." She walked through the dining room and living room, into the bedroom, closing the door behind her and leaning against it.
She hadn't planned on doing that. Putting Mattie's drawing on the fridge like she was a proud mom. Harm was probably out there, laughing at her being so sentimental and silly. She jerked the buttons loose and stepped out of her skirt, wondering how she was going to manage for the rest of the evening.
A quiet tap on the door made her freeze in her tracks. "Come in," she said, grabbing a robe and slipping it on, tying the belt as Harm entered the room. "Go ahead. Laugh. Get it out of your system."
"Laugh? About what?" he asked, looking confused.
"Putting that picture on the refrigerator that way. It was silly and sentimental -"
"And I wanted to thank you for doing it," he said. "I had no idea she could draw like that, and was trying to come up with something that would show her how proud I was - and you came in and did it."
"You didn't think it was silly or sentimental, or -"
"Yes. And it was wonderful and sweet and you shouldn't be ashamed of doing it," he said as he moved closer to her until he could take her hands in his. "Thank you." Leaning forward, he gave her kiss on the cheek. "I'll let you go take your shower and change." Backing away, he said, "Oh, I hope you don't mind, but I hung my uniform in your closet. Looks good there," before leaving the room.
Mac nodded, placing a hand to the cheek that he had kissed as she turned toward the bathroom.
Over dinner, they discussed plans for the weekend, including a stop by the house on their way out to the funeral home in Blacksburg, where they were to make final arrangements for Tom Johnson's funeral. The discussion caused Mattie to fall silent as she finished her dessert.
"Something wrong, Mattie?" Harm asked.
"I'm just not looking forward to seeing my relatives again. None of them wanted me around - half of them are drunks and the other half are too busy to care. They'll probably all pretend to be devastated by what happened, but the minute they leave the funeral, they'll be opening a bottle and forget all about what happened."
"How many of them are there?" Mac asked.
"Let's see. My dad's sister, Aunt Marie and her husband Paul. They're the ones Dad left me with when he took off. They don't have kids - Aunt Marie's not the maternal type. She works as a waitress in a truck stop. Has for years. When she gets home, first thing she does it go to the icebox and get a beer."
"What about your uncle?" Harm wondered.
Mattie rolled her eyes. "Less said the better. He's part of the reason I left."
Harm frowned. "You've never told me any of this."
"No reason to. I didn't think I'd be seeing them again. Dad knew how I felt about them."
"Who else is there?"
"There are a couple of cousins and their families. Thought they could use me as a babysitter without paying me. And their kids are - well, let's just say monsters would be a step *up*."
"Well, it's only for a few hours," Harm pointed out. "Then you'll be able to say goodbye again."
"For good this time, I hope. And *please* don't try and fix things between us, Harm," she said. "They didn't like my mom." Seeing his look, she added, "They *didn't*."
"If you say so, I'll believe you. I don't think you'd keep things from me anymore."
Later, as they lay in bed while Mattie slept in the other room, Mac asked softly, "Do you think that her family is really as bad as she claims they are?"
"It's how she sees them. We'll know more tomorrow. I'm a little worried about the uncle she mentioned."
Mac turned her head to look at him. "Would you like me to talk to her? See if I can find out what happened?"
"Would you? I know it's a lot to ask -"
"No, it's not," she said, turning onto her side to face him. "We were going to discuss your quals."
He gave her one of his patented grins. "Now's just not a good time. Mattie just lost her father, the new house, all the changes at JAG - and I need to be here for you. I think I realized yesterday that if Krennick had succeeded in what she was planning, I wouldn't have been able to keep my promise to you to be here. Especially -" he turned to face her as well. "Especially if we go through with what we talked about."
"I don't want you to give up flying for me, Harm."
"I can still fly. And I'll have you know that except for that one time with you, I've never had a problem flying Sarah."
"That's the problem," Mac declared. "She's *jealous*!"
Harm stifled his laughter. "An airplane?"
"Okay. I'll accept the premise. For now."
"You're just in denial. That plane sees me as a rival."
"Maybe because you are," he suggested, his eyes serious now. "What did Dr. Macon have to say?"
"Everything looks good, and that I need to start using that monitor. Speaking of which -" she reached into the nightstand beside the bed and took it out, placing it on top of the stand. "We're going to try it without the fertility drugs. I'm not sure I want to risk the complications." She smiled. "He asked me to let you know that he's set an appointment on Monday at 0730 for you to come in and - make a - deposit."
Harm struggled not to laugh again. "A deposit, um?"
"Yeah. Hopefully, you'll get an excellent return on it."
"Even if it this doesn't work, I've already gotten more than I ever thought possible." He touched her cheek.
"Have you always been this -?"
"Silly?" he questioned. "Sentimental?"
"Sweet," she finished.
"Yeah. You just weren't ready to notice."
"Well, I'm noticing now," she assured him.
"I'm glad. Now turn over."
"So I can hold you while you're sleeping. No nightmares, remember?"
Mac turned over onto her other side, and Harm gently lowered his arm over her waist to pull her closer to him. "Night, Ninja girl."
"It's everything you said it was," Mac declared. "And Jen will love the garage apartment."
"It needs a little work," Harm told her, pointing to the floor in the living room, and the painted wooden mantle over the fireplace.
"How come I knew you were going to say that?"
"I'd be willing to take a portion of the cost of any work you did off the price, Commander," Mr. Cramer offered. "I'm not very good as a handyman. Just ask my wife. Last time I tried to replace a washer in the kitchen faucet we had a flood."
"Harm's good with his hands," Mac told the man. Mattie's giggle alerted Mac to what she had said, and she felt her cheeks grow warm as she stole a glance at Harm, who was wearing one of those smiles on his face. "I mean, he's good at -" Mattie burst into laughter, and Mac shook her head. "Never mind."
"I think I understand, Colonel," Mr. Cramer assured her, his own laughter carefully hidden behind a professional façade as Harm gave Mattie a look of parental warning. He told them what he would be willing to take for the house on a lease purchase basis. The monthly figure caused Harm and Mac to look at each other in silent communication. Seeing it, Mr. Cramer said, "If you'll excuse me for a moment, I need to make a quick call."
Alone, the three of them moved closer. "I'm sorry, Mac," Mattie apologized. "But - the look on your face when you realized -"
"It's okay," Mac assured her. "This time."
Harm looked at Mac. "You think we could manage it?" he asked.
"Between the both of us - and if we rent the garage apartment out to Jen, I think we could do it. It's going to be heck to keep the place warm in the winter -"
"The furnace looked to be in good shape yesterday when Mattie and I looked at it."
Mac saw two pairs of blue eyes watching her as she considered all sides of the issue. "Let's do it."
"Yes!" Mattie said, pumping her fist in the air before throwing her arms around Mac. "Thank you!" Releasing Mac, she gave Harm a hug as well. "When can we move in?"
"We have to talk to Mr. Cramer, first," Harm reminded her. "There are contracts to be agreed on - lease agreements -"
Mr. Cramer returned a moment later, smiling. "Is it safe for me to assume that you've decided to take the house?" he asked.
"We have, Mr. Cramer," Harm answered.
"I took the liberty of preparing a lease/purchase agreement - the figures I mentioned are in place. Why don't you take it with you, look it over and get it back to me when you're ready? If you have any questions, you know how to reach me."
Harm took the papers from Mr. Cramer. "Thank you."
Mac touched his arm. "We need to get going. We told Mr. Brooks that we'd be there at 1300. It's 1105 now."
Harm saw Mr. Cramer's surprise when he realized that Mac hadn't so much as glanced at her watch before making her statement, and nodded. "You're right. We'll be in touch, Mr. Cramer." Seeing Mattie's face, he remembered her question. "After we sign the contract, how long before we can move in?"
"Immediately. Just need to turn the utilities on and change the electric to your name."
"Yes!" Harm heard Mattie say softly.
"We'll see you later, Mr. Cramer," Mac said, taking Mattie's arm. "Let's go."
As they drove towards Blacksburg, Mac glanced at the contract. "How's it look?" Harm asked.
"Not bad. We can go over it later point by point, but on a cursory run through, everything looks on the up and up. There's already a clause about his agreeing to repay at least 50% of all repairs made if we decide to purchase the property until the end of the lease/purchase term."
"How long is the term for?"
"Wow," Mattie gasped. "That's a long time."
Harm nodded, glancing in the mirror. "Yeah. Longer than you've been around," he teased, winking at Mac. He was glad they had done this before going on to Blacksburg. It would keep Mattie's mind off of what lay ahead.
The Brooks Funeral Home was in a converted house, and the middle-aged man who greeted them gave Mattie a somber smile. "Mattie. I'm very sorry to see you again under these circumstances, my dear. But at least your parents are together now."
Mattie moved subtly closer to Harm. "Thank you."
Niles Brooks looked at Harm. "You must be Commander Rabb. It's a pleasure to meet you."
"Mr. Brooks. This is Sarah Mackenzie."
The man talked them through the events that Mattie had decided on - the viewing this evening, and then a short memorial service the next day at the graveside. "Would you care to see him?" he asked. "To say your goodbyes in private, before your family arrives?"
Mattie squeezed Harm's fingers. "He's ready?"
"Oh yes. I think we did a very good job, if I say so myself."
Harm looked down at her. "It's up to you. If you don't want to -"
She took a deep breath, straightening her shoulders. "No. I'll do it," she decided, and Harm squeezed her hand in return.
"We'll be with you," he promised her, glancing at Mac, who took up a position on Mattie's other side as they followed Mr. Brooks down a narrow hallway into a gently lit room. A coffin stood in one corner, draped with daisies and lilies. Mr. Brooks easily moved the display and lifted the top portion of the lid, revealing Tom Johnson's body.
"He looks like he's asleep," Mattie whispered, her voice slightly broken. "Like he'll just - wake up any minute." She lifted a hand to touch his hands folded carefully over his chest as a tear escaped to roll down her cheek. "I'm sorry, Daddy. I love you."
She turned into Harm's arms, burying her face against the fabric of his new sports jacket, dampening it with her tears. Mac dug a handkerchief from her purse and stepped between Mattie and the coffin to dab at her cheeks as Mr. Brooks approached them again.
"Excuse, Mr. Rabb? May I speak with you for a moment?" He looked pointedly at Mattie. "Privately?"
Harm gently pried Mattie loose, handing her over to Mac. "I'll be right back," he promised, smoothing the girl's hair as he saw the moisture in Mac's eyes as well. He knew that she was recalling her own father's funeral, and wished again that he'd been able to be there for her. Touching her cheek, he followed Mr. Blake out of the room.
Mac held Mattie for a moment, remaining quiet as the girl's tears began to fade into soft hiccups. "It's hard, isn't it? Wishing you could have done more than you did, but not knowing how much you *could* have done," she finally said, looking at the person in the casket. But instead of Tom Johnson, Mac saw Joe Mackenzie, finally at peace with himself and hopefully his Maker. "When my father died, I got there too late to settle anything with him. He was already in a coma by that time and never woke up."
"Your father?" Mattie questioned.
"Harm didn't tell you?"
"I've asked, but - he said it wasn't his story to tell."
"Oh." Mac glanced around and saw a sofa sitting against one wall. "Why don't we sit down?" she suggested. "My father was an alcoholic," she began. "He used to hit my mother, and then he'd start crying, promising never to do it again. I'd curl up in my bed, listening, crying, closing my eyes and hoping it would all just go away," she explained, closing her eyes as if she were still that little girl.
"I used to do the same thing," Mattie said, her hand stealing over Mac's as they lay in her lap. "Mom and Dad would argue about his drinking - but he never hit her. I guess I was lucky in that."
"Yeah. The night of my fifteenth birthday, I slept over at a friend's house. When I came home, my mother was gone. She'd just - walked out without even saying goodbye and left me with him."
"Oh. Do you know where she is?"
"Not now. She came back when my father died - but she wouldn't even stay for the funeral. She refused to see him at all. She told me that he'd been drunk again and threatened to kill her. So after he passed out, she ran away and never looked back."
"What happened to you? Is that why you started drinking? I heard you tell my dad you were an alcoholic and he mentioned that you helped him get into the rehab center -"
"That was part of the reason. Mostly, it was just to escape from the pain and anger of being abandoned by the one person in my life that I thought I could count on. And it just keeps happening. People don't stay in my life for very long."
"Except for Harm," Mattie pointed out, and Mac smiled at her.
"You know, it took me eight years to figure out what it took you six months. Yes. He's the only one who's stayed. Only one who's always been there if possible. I've made a lot of mistakes in my life, Mattie."
"But you overcame them and now you're the best Marine Harm says he's ever known."
"Harm really said that?" That was high praise from Harm.
"Yeah. He did. He also said that he -"
"You two ready to go get something to eat before everyone starts coming in?" Harm asked, giving Mattie a stern look, as if reminding her of something, Mac thought. "I thought we could go to that Italian place that you and I went to a few times," he told his ward.
Harm kept a hand on Mattie's arm, allowing Mac to move ahead of them. "Mattie -"
"I didn't say anything," she told him.
"I know. Only because I stopped you. Let me handle this, okay? She's not ready -."
"Something wrong?" Mac asked, stopping at the SUV to look at them.
"No," Harm assured her, opening the passenger side door first for her and then for Mattie before going around to get behind the wheel. "Just reminding Mattie about a promise she made."
"Ask Harm," Mattie said, earning a small glare from him in the mirror which caused her to sit back.
"Put on your seatbelt," he told her, ignoring Mac's look of curiosity as he started the engine and put the vehicle into gear.
While at the small, family owned Italian restaurant, Mattie was greeted by several people who had known her mother or her father and accepted their condolences with a quiet dignity that made Harm proud. A hand found his under the table and he saw the same look in Mac's eyes.
The dignity faltered a little when someone asked if she had spoken to her aunt or cousins, but it was still there. Some of them mentioned how much she looked like her mother, and most appeared to have been her friends rather than Tom's.
Noticing that they were all finished eating, Harm asked, "Are we ready to head back over to the funeral home?"
"Just let me go to the bathroom," Mattie told them, rising from the table at which they were sitting to cross the room.
"What was all of that about earlier, Harm?" Mac asked. "On the way over. And don't tell me 'nothing'," she finished quickly.
Harm captured her hand in his as he turned to look at her. "I told her something in confidence and I was worried she might say too much, that's all."
"Something about me?"
"About how I feel about you," he admitted. "It's just - something I think you should hear from me, not a third party."
"I see. And when can I expect to hear it? From you, I mean?"
"When you're ready."
"I'm ready, Harm," she said softly. "Are you?"
Hearing her say the words from his fantasy left Harm momentarily speechless. But he struggled past it, answering before he could think clearly enough to back away. "I've been ready, Sarah," he assured her. "But - what about Clay?" he asked. "It hasn't been very long -"
She smiled up at him. "I'll always have a special place in my heart for Clay - but even when he was here, he knew where I really wanted to be. What did you tell Mattie that you didn't want her to tell me?"
"She asked me one day if I was in love with you."
"And what did you tell her?"
"I told her yes," he answered, his eyes searching her face, searching for some sign that she returned that feeling - that this wasn't just a fallback position. That he wasn't second best.
Her hand cupped his cheek. "I feel the same way, Harm," she assured him, and Harm closed his eyes against the flood of emotions that her words unleashed. "Open your eyes, Harm," she said, still speaking in that quiet tone. "You have such expressive eyes. I was always afraid to trust what I saw in them."
"And what did you see?"
Harm wanted to shout, to stand up and yell to the entire world and share his happiness. But realizing that they were in a public restaurant, he settled for lifting her hand to his lips and pressing a kiss to the soft skin, his eyes on hers, filled with silent promise. "As much as I hate to say the words, I think we need to table this until later," he said, catching sight of Mattie returning.
Catching sight of their clasped hands, Mattie sat down again. "So. What did you two talk about while I was gone?" she asked, a knowing smile on her face.
"Oh, this and that," Harm hedged. "Grown up stuff."
Mattie grabbed her napkin and tossed it in his direction. "I'm a grown up," she informed him with a haughty air.
Retrieving the napkin, Harm told her, "Grown ups don't throw napkins in a public restaurant," before lobbing it back in her direction.
"Then *you're* not a grown up either," she shot back.
"Never claimed to be." He smiled at Mac.
"But you're getting there," she told him. "Are we ready to go?"
Marie Johnson Hackett was a bottle blonde with far too much make up and a loud voice that carried easily - which was probably an asset in her job as a waitress. The moment she saw Mattie, she burst into tears and wrapped the girl in her arms. "Oh, you poor thing. You poor, poor little thing. Losing them both so quickly. And Tom had such plans, too."
Mattie disentangled herself from the older woman's embrace to turn to Harm and Mac. "Aunt Marie, this is Harm. And this is Mac. My aunt. Marie Hackett."
"Mrs. Hackett," Harm said, extending his hand and smiling tightly. "It's a pleasure. Just wish it could have been under -"
Marie stared at Harm's hand as if it were holding a weapon of some kind, making no move to take it. "Don't expect me to be friendly, *Commander* Rabb. You stole my brother's little girl from him. If it hadn't been for you -"
"Now, Marie," the big, gruff man with her admonished in a strangely gentle voice as he put an arm around his wife's waist. "This isn't the time or the place." He smiled, taking Harm's hand in his to shake it. "Paul Hackett. Mattie's uncle. Nice to finally meet you, Harm. You too, - Mac, was it?"
Mac shook the man's hand as well, looking more than a little uncertain as she explained. "It's a nickname. Sarah Mackenzie."
"Oh. Sarah's a lovely name," he told her. "You'll have to excuse Marie. She and Tom were close, and well, his death's been pretty hard on her."
"I understand," Mac assured him, and Harm was certain that she saw the look of patent disbelief that crossed Mattie's face at his claim.
Paul smiled at Mattie. "Hello, Mattie. You look so much like your mother. More beautiful every day." He held out his arms. "Aren't you going to give your favorite uncle a hug?"
Mattie hung back, moving closer to Harm as if seeking protection. "Ex-Excuse me," she said, turning and leaving the room. "I'll go check on her," Mac said to Harm before following the girl.
"She was never friendly, but that was downright rude," Hackett noted.
"She's going through a lot at the moment," Harm pointed out in an even tone. "She's just getting over her mother's death and was just starting to rebuild her relationship with her father when Tom died."
"And it was your fault he died," Marie accused. "If you hadn't taken her away, he'd still be alive today. You should never have gotten custody and if I have anything to say about it, that will change."
Paul grimaced, lowering his voice. "I wasn't going to mention it here, Harm - it's okay if I call you Harm, isn't it?" he asked and continued before Harm could say that it wasn't okay. "But Marie wants Mattie to come live with us again. After all, we're her family. You're just a stranger who took a shine to her -"
"I took more than a shine to Mattie, *Mr.* Hackett," Harm said. "And no one's taking her away from me. Certainly not you and your wife."
"We're her family!" Marie insisted. "She belongs with us. Not with a stranger."
"I'm not a stranger to Mattie. And I think the courts will agree. Now, if you'll excuse me-" He was stopped by Paul Hackett's hand on his arm. Glancing down at that hand, Harm lifted his eyes to lock with the other man's dull brown gaze. Hackett removed his hand and stepped back, allowing Harm to continue out of the room, looking for Mattie and Mac.
Mac followed Mattie out of the viewing room just in time to see her enter the bathroom. Knocking, she said, "Mattie? It's Mac. Can I come in?" she asked, and was considering asking Mr. Blake if there was a way to open the door when she heard the lock open.
Slipping into the small room, she watched as Mattie took a paper towel from the holder and wet it to wipe her face. "Are you okay?"
"Sure. I just - I guess it was too much."
Mac took the towel from her and turned Mattie around, taking over the job. "Mattie, did Paul Hackett ever - hurt you in some way?" Seeing the look on Mattie's face, Mac thought she had her answer.
Mattie turned away again. "He -tried. When Aunt Marie was at work on the graveyard shift. He would come into my bedroom after I'd gone to bed and sit down on the edge, saying he wanted to - talk." She drew a deep breath. "He - he put his hand -" she lifted her own hand, letting it hover over her breast before it fell to her side.
"What did you do?"
"I kicked him and got away. I told him that if he ever touched me again, I'd kill him and tell the police what he'd done. He left the room, but said he'd be back to finish what he'd started. That's when I gathered my stuff and got out."
"Oh, Mattie," Mac sighed, pulling the girl into her arms. "You should have gone to the police -" Mac smoothed the girl's hair back from her face, listening, frowning when there was a knock on the door. "Just a moment," she called out.
"I couldn't. If I had, they would have put me into a foster home - or made me go back if they didn't believe me."
"Stay with me or Harm, Mattie. He won't dare to try anything with either of us around." She tossed the towel into the wastebasket and unlocked the door, giving the elderly woman standing in the hallway an apologetic smile. "Sorry. She's a little upset."
"It's understandable," the woman replied, patting Mattie's hand as she moved past them into the bathroom.
"Do you know her?" Mac asked.
"She's not familiar," Mattie said as Harm appeared.
"There you are." He gave them both a look before putting his hands on Mattie's shoulders. "Are you okay?"
"I'm not sure."
"As long as she stays away from her uncle, she'll be fine, Harm," Mac explained pointedly, meeting his eyes as she spoke.
Mac grabbed his arm to stop him from turning toward the main room. "Harm, no. This isn't the time or the place. And it won't help Mattie."
Harm looked down at the girl, seeing the look in her eyes and knew Mac was right. "He won't hurt you again, Mattie. I promise."
She managed a smile for him as more mourners arrived. "Oh, great. Cousin Wes and his family are here."
Wesley Johnson and his wife were both only slightly less unfriendly toward Harm than Marie Hackett had been. And they both made a fuss over Mattie, while their three children, who ranged in ages from three to eight, ran around the place unrestrained and unnoticed.
By the time Wesley's brother Kyle arrived with his family, Mac had the beginnings of a major headache. Between the seven children running around without any sign of adult supervision and the barely concealed hostility coming from Tom Johnson's family toward Harm, and herself by default, she needed a few minutes to regroup. Making sure that Mattie was with Harm, she excused herself to step outside of the building to get some air and retrieve her pain pills from the Lexus.
Harm had given her a look of concern when she'd told him where she was going. "Are you in pain?"
"A little. My back, my head -"
"We won't be here much longer," he told her. "Don't be long."
It took her only a few minutes to realize that she wasn't the only one outside. Turning a corner toward the Lexus, Mac came face to face with Paul Hackett as he was returning a silver flask to his jacket pocket. The smile that spread across his face sickened Mac, knowing what she did about him.
"Well, well," he drawled, and Mac smelled the liquor on his breath. "If it isn't the pretty lady Marine." He was blocking her path toward the car, and Mac sized him up. He wasn't as tall as Harm, but he was bigger - and he was out shape.
"If you'll excuse me, Mr. Hackett -" she said, trying to pass him.
But he remained where he was. "What's your hurry?" he asked, putting a hand on her arm.
"Let go of me, Mr. Haskell," Mac said in a tone of voice that she usually reserved for recalcitrant witnesses and clients.
"What're you gonna do?" he asked, that smug grin still on his face. "Beat me up? Or get that pretty boy you're with to do it? Betcha he'd be too scared of getting that handsome face of his marred to do much -"
"I don't need someone else to fight my battles for me," Mac told the man. "Now take your hand off of my arm," she said, this time louder.
Harm and Mattie came out of the building just in time to hear Mac's voice as it cut through the quiet late afternoon air. As they reached the corner, they saw Paul Hackett pull Mac closer instead of releasing her as she'd told him to - just before he doubled over in pain as she drove her fist into his stomach.
"You bitch!" he yelled at her, and would have grabbed for her, but Harm got there first, sending the man to the ground with a well placed right to the jaw.
Harm shook his hand, wincing at the pain before turning to Mac. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine. Thanks."
"You started it. I was just the clean up." Hackett groaned as Harm took out his cell phone and dialed 9-1-1.
"Who are you calling?" Hackett asked, not daring to move from where he was sitting on the sidewalk.
"The police. I was going to wait until after tomorrow to do this, but you forced my hand." When the dispatcher picked up, Harm told her that they needed an officer dispatched for a physical and possibly sexual assault in the parking lot of Brooks Funeral Home.
"The police? I wasn't doing anything, just wanted to talk." He saw Mattie lingering behind them. "I don't care what *she* told you, it's a lie. She's a little troublemaker." He put a hand to his aching jaw. "Just like her mother."
Harm gave Mattie the keys to the Lexus. "Mattie, go and get into the car and stay there."
She took the keys, giving Hackett a wide berth as she moved toward the parking lot as Harm reached down and grabbed Hackett's collar, jerking him to his feet. "You're scum, Hackett. And I'm going to make sure you get locked away where you can't prey on anyone else."
Marie appeared, taking in the scene. "What's going on here?" she asked, picking her way over to them, walking carefully.
"Your - husband tried to assault me, Mrs. Hackett," Mac informed her.
"Paul? You've got to be mistaken. Paul wouldn't hurt a flea, would you, honey?" she asked, stroking his already darkening chin. "Women are always misunderstanding Paul's friendly nature."
"Innocent young girls too, Mrs. Hackett?" Harm questioned, arms across his chest as a sheriff's deputy pulled into the parking lot.
"What are you trying to imply, Commander? You're the one who took a young girl into your house. You're not married. If anyone's motives should be suspect -" Marie's eyes widened when she saw the police car. "You called the police?"
"Paul. Marie," the deputy said, nodding at the couple as he turned to Harm. "Commander Rabb?"
"Yes. Commander Harmon Rabb, Jr., deputy. This Lt. Colonel Sarah Mackenzie."
"Deputy Morgan, at your service, ma'am. What seems to be the problem here? The dispatcher mentioned something about assault?"
"She hit me!" Paul told Morgan, pointing at Mac. "All I was doing was trying to talk to her, make her understand that Mattie belongs with her family and she *hit* me. Then this guy came up and socked me in the jaw!"
"You'll get a chance to tell your side of things, Paul," Morgan assured him. "Would you and the Commander mind stepping over here, ma'am?" he asked Mac.
Once they were a distance away, he asked, "What happened, Colonel?"
"I was going out to get something from the car when Mr. Hackett blocked my way and refused to let me pass. He put his hand on my arm. I asked twice, politely, for him to remove his hand, but he refused to do so. Instead, he tried to kiss me. So I hit him in the stomach to force him to release me."
"How did you get involved, Commander?" Morgan asked.
"I came out to see what was keeping Mac and heard her telling Mr. Hackett to let her go. As I came around the corner, I saw him grab her, trying to force himself on her. When she hit him, he doubled over, but was raising his hand to hit her when my fist connected with his jaw."
Morgan turned to look at Marie and Paul. "To be honest, sir, ma'am, this isn't the first time we've had a report like this against Paul Hackett."
"And he's still on the street?" Harm questioned.
"None of the women have ever been willing to testify against him, Commander. He's got some pretty rough friends. We've just never been able to prove that Paul's responsible for intimidating witnesses."
"What about young women?" Mac asked. "Teenagers?"
"Never had reports about that, ma'am." His eyes narrowed. "You're here with Mattie, aren't you? Her father's funeral."
"She's my ward, Deputy," Harm informed him, easily reading the young man's face as he put two and two together and came up with the correct answer.
"Damn. I'll take him into custody, Commander, if you're both willing to come down and swear out a complaint and then come back to testify. As for the rest - the Sheriff will want to talk to Mattie if she's willing."
"We'll follow you to the station right now to swear out the complaint, Deputy," Mac told him
"Okay." He turned back to Paul and Marie. "Paul, I'm afraid I have to take you in," he said, taking his handcuffs out.
"You're not going to arrest him?" Paul wanted to know, waving in Harm's direction.
"Sounds to me like he had cause, Paul. You're under arrest for attempted assault. You have the right to an attorney . . ."
Marie stood watching as Deputy Morgan led Paul to the patrol car as he informed him of his rights. Finally she turned to look at Harm and Mac. "I can't believe you would do this. My brother's funeral is tomorrow. How am I supposed to show my face?"
"Same way you always do, I'm sure, Mrs. Hackett," Mac said. "He's not worth your worry."
"Excuse us, Mrs. Hackett," Harm said, guiding Mac around the woman and taking her to the car, where Mattie was watching the patrol car pull out.
"What happened?" she asked.
"They're arresting Paul for attempted assault," Mac explained. "Harm and I are going to the station to file a complaint."
Harm glanced at Mattie. "The Sheriff would like to talk to you about Paul, Mattie, if you want to."
She sat back in the seat. "I don't know."
"Mattie, it's important that you face this and help get him off the streets so that he can't hurt anyone else."
"The last time he was arrested the woman disappeared before he came to trial," she said.
"That's not going to happen this time, Mattie," Mac assured her. "Even if you don't feel like you can do it, I have to."
"I guess if - you're willing to take the chance, I'll talk to the Sheriff." She looked up. "You'll both be there when I do it, won't you?"
"All the way, kiddo," Harm assured her.
Mattie was greeted by several of the deputies when they entered the Sheriff's office, and spoke quietly to the dispatcher while Harm and Mac wrote out their reports and filed the charges against Paul Hackett. As they were finishing, Sheriff Green arrived, giving Mattie a fatherly hug and asking how she was doing.
Harm had met the man once, before he had gotten custody of Mattie, and trusted him to do the right thing. After hearing why they were there, Green shook his head. "Maybe this time we'll finally be able to put Hackett behind bars where he belongs. I hope you two just keep a close eye out. Man's got some mean friends."
"I think we'll be safe enough, Sheriff," Mac told him.
"One of my deputies mentioned that you might want to talk to me, Mattie?"
Mattie glanced at Harm and Mac again before nodding. "Yeah. About - Paul."
Green frowned, uncertain. "Why don't we go into my office?"
"Can - Can Harm and Mac come in too?" Mattie asked nervously.
"Don't see why not. I was going to suggest it anyway."
Half an hour later, Mattie had given a statement about Paul Hackett's attempt to sexually assault her while she'd been staying with her aunt and uncle, and even about his later attempt after she moved out. It had only been thanks to a gun of her father's that she had threatened him with that had stopped him from going after her.
When the Sheriff asked why she hadn't told him about it before, she said that she'd been afraid to, afraid that they wouldn't believe her, since it was her word against his.
"Would you be willing to stand up in court and tell this story, Mattie?" he asked.
"I think so."
"Good girl. Now, I'll need you to tell your story again, this time so we can write it down for you to sign. Can you do that?"
"Yeah. After finally telling someone, it's easier now to talk about it."
"It usually is," Mac assured her.
When they left after another hour, Harm placed an arm around the girl's shoulders. "I'm proud of you. But I wish you'd told me about this."
"I figured being away from here, I wouldn't have to worry about again."
"Did you tell your father about it?" Mac wondered.
"No. We didn't really discuss family much. Except each other."
"You're doing the right thing, Mattie," Harm told her. "If he tried it with you, there might have been other girls that he succeeded with. Maybe once they find out that you're willing to speak out, they'll come forward as well."
Mattie looked at him. "Can we stop by the new house on the way home?"
"It's not ours yet," he reminded her. "But yeah, I think we can."
"Sorry I rushed in and didn't let you finish that creep off today," Harm told Mac later.
"I could have."
"I know. But sometimes a guy just has to protect his girl, you know?" Mac laughed, and Harm rolled his eyes. "It didn't sound that corny in my head."
"I don't think it was corny at all. I thought it was kinda sweet. And speaking of a guy and his girl - we have a discussion to finish."
"Mmm. So we do," he said, playing with her hair as they lay on the bed. "Let's see. Where were we?"
"Ready, as I recall," Mac reminded him.
"I want to do this right, Mac," he said. "No short cuts. No cutting corners."
"You're still worried about Clay, aren't you?"
Harm took a deep breath and lay on his back. "Yeah. Afraid that if I let myself believe that we're finally on the same page, suddenly he'll be there."
Mac lifted his arm around her, resting her head on his shoulder, her hand on his chest. "I'm exactly where I want to be, Harm. I feel safe with you -"
"That's what every man wants to hear," he muttered.
"You know what I mean," she said, swatting his chest gently. "You'd never hurt me. Not intentionally. Oh, you might say things without thinking sometimes, but -"
"Foot in mouth disease," he sighed.
"I'm not immune, either," Mac admitted. "If I could take back one word that I said in Paraguay, it would be 'never'."
"Why don't we agree to put the past behind us and leave it there?" Harm suggested as he placed his hand on her back. "Start over with a clean slate? Apologize for the bad things and just let them go."
"Move forward?" Mac asked.
"If you say that 'today is the first day of the rest of our lives', I'm liable to hit you, Harm."
"Then I won't say it. But I can think it."
"You're an old softie. You know that, don't you?"
"I prefer to think that I've mellowed."
"Like fine wine. Non-alcoholic, of course. But addicting nonetheless."
Harm reached down and lifted her chin so that he could see her face. "Addicting?"
"Totally. Like chocolate. Just these few days have been enough for me to realize how much I need you in my life. You - and Mattie - and if we're lucky -"
"We will be," he assured her, pulling her closer to him.
Her fingers curled into the hair on his chest. "You know, you *could* just skip that appointment on Monday and I could toss the monitor and we could try to do this the old fashioned way."
"We *could*," he agreed. "But I meant what I said, Mac. I want things to be right this time. You told me that it hurts to -"
His fingers found the spot on her back that she complained hurt so much and began a gentle massage. "I don't want to hurt you. So I can wait - for as long as I have to."
Mac slid a leg over his, rubbing her foot against his legs. "That sounds like a challenge, Flyboy," she told him, pulling herself on top of his body. "And you know that I don't back down from a challenge."
Her mouth on his swallowed whatever else he had been about to say - and for the life of him, Harm couldn't have said what those words would have been. Her tongue traced his mouth, requesting an invitation, demanding a response.
Harm groaned softly, still mindful that Mattie was asleep in the other room, and stopped fighting his better impulses, opening his mouth, his tongue meeting hers, exploring places that he'd once thought were forever lost to him. Mac's mouth left his and she sat up, straddling his hips, grinding her core against him.
Smiling at him, she lifted the oversize tee shirt over her head, leaving her body totally visible to his hungry gaze. Leaning forward again, her breasts rubbed against his chest, and he gasped at the contact. Another kiss, and she began to slide down his body, leaving a trail of fire wherever her mouth touched his skin. "Oh Sarah," he whispered, lifting his hips when she started tugging at the warm ups that he'd bought to sleep in.
He watched as her fingers curved around him, stroking his erect member until a drop appeared at the tip. Harm struggled to breathe as her tongue appeared, licking the drop away before circling the sensitive head. She licked her lips before covering him with her mouth, taking him in inch by inch. "Sarah, please," he groaned, reaching out for her, placing his hands on her shoulders.
Lifting his head, he realized that her other hand was between her own legs, her fingers tangling in the dark triangle of hair. As he watched, she withdrew her fingers and brought them to her lips, spreading the glistening moisture on them before she straddled his hips again. Leaning forward, she kissed him, letting him run his tongue over her lips, tasting her. Mac lifted up, positioning his cock at her entrance, and then lowered herself onto him, wrapping his throbbing manhood in her soft warmth. "That feels so good," she whispered, taking his hands and bringing them to her breasts. "Touch me, Harm," she begged, beginning to move in a slow, rolling motion, as if she were riding a horse at a slow walk.
Something he'd read in one of the pamphlets from Dr. Takashi popped into Harm's mind, and he drew Mac down into a kiss as he pulled a pillow from the head of the bed. Without breaking the kiss, he rolled them over so that Mac's hips were resting on the pillow, elevated. "What -"
"Shh," he admonished, continuing the slow, easy pace that she had set. Bracing his upper body on his hands, he lowered his head to gently suckle each of her beautiful breasts, circling the erect tips with his tongue until they glistened, never breaking eye contact with the woman beneath him. When her legs wrapped around his waist, Harm's movements sped up, and he saw her put her hands between them, down to where they were intimately joined together, pressing against her love button. Harm changed his movements so that his pubic bone hit that spot instead, allowing Mac to slide her hands up his chest and tangle her fingers in the curling hair.
"Harm, I'm - oh, oh, oh-" he lowered his mouth to hers, capturing her cry of completion. Her body clenched tightly around him, bringing Harm with her into a place of bright lights and warmth and gentle winds.
"Sarah," he murmured against her lips. "My beautiful Sarah."
When he collapsed beside her, unable to support himself any longer, Mac started to remove the pillow from under her hips, but Harm stopped her. "Don't. Not for at least ten minutes."
"Ten -?" she started to say, and then remembered what Dr. Macon had told her about after they did the procedure. "Oh." She smiled at him, reaching over to touch his face. "I can't believe that you remembered that."
"I can't either. I couldn't have remembered my name if I'd been asked," he told her, bringing her hand to his lips to give her a kiss. "Are you okay?"
"I feel wonderful," she told him. "Like I'm still floating somewhere."
"Same here," he said, snuggling up to her resting one hand over her breast. "You're so beautiful."
"So are you," she told him, tracing his mouth with her fingertip, gasping softly when he captured it with his teeth and circled it with his tongue. "Why did we wait so long?" she wondered.
"No thinking about the past, remember? No wondering 'what might have been'."
She nodded, giving him a smile. "It's been ten minutes." Lifting her hips for him to remove the pillow, she winced, and tried to hide it, but Harm noticed. "You're in pain."
"Just my back. It'll be okay."
"You're sure? I can get your pills -"
"Harm, I'm fine. Let's go to sleep. Tomorrow's going to be another long day."
His fingers spread out over her stomach. "You realize we could have made a baby tonight?"
"I hope so," she said, covering his hand with hers. "But I think we should keep trying, just in case."
"I like the way you think, Marine," he said, grinning as he pulled the covers over them. Once they settled down for the night, spooned against each other, with Mac wrapped securely in his arms, Harm whispered. "I love you."
When she didn't answer, Harm decided that she was asleep and closed his eyes to join her. The words weren't important. The only thing that mattered was that they were finally together.
To Part 6