How's that?" Mattie asked, putting the last fork on the table and stepping back as she looked up at Jennifer.
"Looks perfect as always," was Jennifer's response. Placing a hand to her swollen belly, she winced, and Mattie frowned.
"Are you okay?" she asked, moving around the table to her adopted mother's side, helping her to sit in one of the dining table chairs.
Jennifer nodded. "I'm fine," she said. "I just need to sit down for a few minutes before everyone gets here. But there's still so much that needs to be done -"
"Harm and I can do it," Mattie informed her, starting to stand up. But Jennifer grabbed her arm, preventing her from doing so.
"Don't tell Harm about this."
"Don't tell me what?" he asked, entering the room. When he saw Jennifer sitting down and Mattie almost kneeling beside her, he frowned and joined them. "Jen, what's wrong?"
She smiled at him. "Nothing. I just need to rest for a few minutes," she told him, touching his concerned face in a reassuring gesture.
"Maybe having everyone over for Christmas Eve wasn't a good idea after all," he said. "Come on. You can rest on the sofa in the other room for awhile." He lifted her easily into his arms and carried her through the entryway into the living room, where a warm fire was burning in the grate. He paused at the entrance to the room, glancing up. "Well, what have we here?" he asked about the mistletoe that Mattie had hung in nearly every doorway in the house. Dropping a kiss onto her lips, he continued on toward the sofa.
"I can walk, Harm."
"I like carrying you," he told her, smiling down at her. "Now. Let's see. Do you want to look at the fire or the Christmas tree?"
"The Christmas tree, I think," she told him.
"The tree it is, then. Mattie, could you get that throw from our bedroom?"
"I don't feel right, laying here while you and Mattie do all the work, Harm. I'm okay, really. I just need a couple of minutes -"
"Thanks, Mattie," he said when she brought the light blanket to him. "Would you mind going and keeping an eye on things in the kitchen for me?"
"Sure," she said with a worried look in Jennifer's direction.
He took the light blanket and spread it out over Jennifer's legs before sitting down on the edge of the sofa to look at her. "I want you to stay right here until I say so."
"No arguments. Not this time. I might be 'whipped', but for once I'm going to insist," he told her with a smile. "There's not that much more to be done. Dinner's within minutes of being ready, the eggnog is chilled." He leaned forward to kiss her. "Just relax."
Jennifer watched him leave the room, smiling. The luckiest night of her life had been that Christmas Eve three years ago when she'd been put into the custody of a certain JAG officer to await trial. Little had she known that three short years later she would be married to that tall, handsome officer, sharing responsibility for an adopted teenage daughter and expecting a child of their own. There were times when Jennifer still thought she was dreaming - that all of this couldn't possibly be really happening. Not to her - Jennifer Coates. But a small twinge in her lower stomach told her that it was all very real indeed, and Jennifer sat back against the cushion that Harm had placed behind her.
Mattie looked at Harm as he took the turkey from the oven to baste it again. "Jennifer's okay, isn't she, Dad?"
"I'm sure she is," he said, putting the bird back into the oven and turning the settings down to keep it warm before placing an arm around his daughter. "She's just overdone things, that's all." On their last visit to Dr. Grainger, he'd told them that he didn't believe the newest Rabb would be born before Christmas, which had been the deciding factor in the decision to have their friends over this evening. Kissing Mattie's head, he suggested, "Why don't you go see if she wants something to drink while I finish up in here?"
"Okay." Mattie started toward the living room, but the doorbell rang as she was passing the door. "I've got it!" she called out.
Harriet, Bud, and the children stood there, shaking snow from their shoulders. "It's snowing, Mattie!" Little AJ announced before rushing past her. "I gotta tell Uncle Harm!"
"AJ!" Bud said, raising his voice slightly, stopping his older son in his tracks. "We haven't been invited in yet."
"Come in," Mattie said, trying not to laugh. "I'll take your coats," she offered. "Merry Christmas."
"I know we're early," Bud started to say, but Harriet finished.
"I thought Jennifer and Harm might need some help," she said, giving Mattie her coat while Bud helped Jimmy and AJ remove their own jackets. "Where are they?"
"Harm's in the kitchen," Mattie said. "Jennifer's in the living room, resting."
AJ tugged at his mother's skirt. "Can I go see Uncle Harm?" he asked.
"Why don't we both go?" Harriet suggested, grabbing his hand. "*After* we say hello to Aunt Jennifer."
"I'm here," she told them, coming out of the living room. "Hello, Bud, Harriet. Merry Christmas. Hey, little guys," she said to AJ and Jimmy.
"How are you doing?" Bud asked Jennifer.
"She's supposed to be sitting down with her legs up," Harm informed them.
At the sound of his godfather's voice, AJ turned toward it. "Uncle Harm!"
Harm easily caught the boy up and lifted him into his arms. "Hi there, AJ."
"It's snowing!" AJ declared. He looked down at Jimmy, who was smiling up at him. "Hello, Jimmy."
"Unca Harm," the little boy said, lifting his arms to show that he wanted to be picked up, too. Shifting AJ to one side, Harm picked up Jimmy.
Mattie stepped forward. "Hey, you two," she said to the boys, "Why don't we go upstairs to my room and find a movie to watch?"
"Shrek?" AJ questioned.
"We'll see," Mattie promised. Harm set AJ onto his feet and handed Jimmy over to Mattie.
"Thanks," he said, turning to give Jennifer a look as Mattie took AJ's hand and led him up the stairs. "Now, about your being up -"
"I'm fine, Harm," Jennifer insisted, looking to Harriet for moral support.
"Don't look at me. I wasn't nine months pregnant when we had everyone over for dinner," she said. "If I had been, I would probably have been grateful for the chance to sit down and get off my feet." Jennifer's sigh of defeat caused Harriet to wince. "Of course, you're doing *so* much better than I did," she said with a hint of envy.
"All the same," Harm said, taking Jennifer's arm and gently turning her back into the living room toward the sofa, "I'll feel better if I know she's not running around the house over doing things."
"I'll stay with her and make sure she doesn't," Bud offered, giving Jennifer a conspiratorial wink.
"Okay, okay. I give up," Jennifer said, but she was smiling at Harm. "I'll stay here."
"Thank you," he told her, touching her face. "I have a few more things to finish in the kitchen -"
"You need some help?" Harriet questioned.
"Sure, Harriet." Looking at Bud, Harm said, "Keep her here, Bud."
Jennifer shook her head as Harm and Harriet left. Seeing it, Bud said, "He's concerned about you, Jennifer. He loves you very much."
"I know, Bud. But I'm fine. Really. I just needed a few minutes."
"You know, most women would be happy to just sit there and let someone else do all the work."
"I'm not most women, Bud," Jennifer pointed out.
"No. No, you're not," he agreed. "You're the woman who managed to tame Harmon Rabb," he said with a grin.
"I really don't know how she's managed," Harriet was telling Harm. "Going to college, working for the Admiral, all while being pregnant. And according to Bud, she's never complained."
"Jen's special," Harm agreed. "I don't know where she gets all that energy. She's the one who insisted we do this tonight - I tried to talk her out of it, was afraid it would be too much for her this close to her delivery date. But Dr. Grainger said that as long as Jennifer felt okay, she should be allowed to do what she wanted to do."
"Did he give an exact date?" Harriet wondered.
"Anytime between today and the New Year," Harm told her. "Can you get that bowl over there?"
By the time Clay and Mac, who were spending Christmas Day with Clay's mother, arrived, the snow was coming down so hard and thick that it was difficult to see across the street in front of the house. But inside, the group of friends was warm and happy, enjoying each other's company.
"Have you two finally settled on a name?" Mac asked Harm and Jennifer.
"I would have been fine with continuing the tradition," Jennifer said, "but Harm -"
"I don't like the idea of hanging Harmon on another unsuspecting child," Harm replied, grinning.
"Which brings us back to my question," Mac pointed out.
"Jonathan Harmon Rabb," Harm said. "That way we continue the tradition with just a slight 'twist'."
Mac looked over to where Mattie was still entertaining the boys. "Her father's not coming tonight?"
"Not tonight. He'll be here for Christmas dinner tomorrow."
"I wonder where Tiner and Ens. Davis are." AJ said, frowning. Jason had returned to JAG in September as a newly commissioned Ensign. Ens. Paula Davis was Harm's assistant at the NLSO, and had struck up an immediate friendship with Tiner during Thanksgiving dinner at Bud and Harriet's. "It's not like Tiner to be late."
"Why don't you call Ens. Davis and see if he's picked her up?" Jennifer suggested. "She only lives ten minutes from here -"
Harm dialed the number, waiting. Finally he hung up, shaking his head. "No answer."
"Which means they'll probably be here any minute," Mattie said.
"I'm going to put things on the table," Harm decided.
"I'll help," Harriet offered, and Mattie followed as well.
Half an hour later, everything was on the table, and Harm was on his way to tell the others when AJ spoke from the front window. "They're here."
Harm opened the front door as Jason and Paula came up the steps, stomping show from their boots. "We were starting to worry," he told them.
"Sorry, sir," Jason said. "The roads are really getting bad out there."
"It took us over half an hour to get here from my apartment," Paula agreed.
"I'm sure the snow plows will be out soon," Harm told them. "Come on. Dinner's ready. We were just about to sit down."
Harm waited until everyone was seated before rising from his place at the table. "First, I want to thank you all for being here tonight. There have been a lot of changes over the last year that I'm very grateful for - I won't stand here and make a list so we can eat sometime this evening." He paused as everyone laughed. "I just want to say that I'm very grateful to have all of you in my life, and to glad that I can think of you all as a part of my family. Because we are a family." He lifted his glass. "To family."
"Look at that snow!" Mac said while helping to clear the table later. "It hasn't let up at all."
Jennifer nodded as she looked out over the back yard. "It's pretty, isn't it?"
"I wonder how long it's going to take for the snow plows to clear the roads," Harriet worried. "We need to think about getting the boys home."
"Maybe we need to start a snow shoveling party," Mac suggested.
"Sounds like a good idea," Jennifer said. "Ow."
Mac and Harriet both moved toward her. "Jennifer?" Harriet questioned, seeing the young woman lean forward and place a hand to her lower abdomen.
Mac placed an arm around Jennifer. "Everything okay?"
"Yeah," Jennifer said, nodding. "I don't think it was anything serious." She turned back toward the sink, only to grab at her stomach again. "Damn."
Mac turned to Harriet. "Go get Harm." Mac helped Jennifer back into the dining room and into a chair. "Just relax, Jennifer," she said in a quiet tone. "Do you think it could be labor?"
"Maybe," Jennifer said. "I don't know."
Harriet found Harm talking and laughing with everyone else in the living room. Pulling him aside, she said, "Could you come to the kitchen for moment?"
"Sure," he said, noticing the worried look on her face. "Everything okay, Harriet?"
"I'm not sure. Mac asked me to come and get you."
Seeing Harm leave, AJ and Bud approached. "What's going on, honey?" Bud asked.
"Jennifer's having some pains in her stomach," Harriet told them.
"Oh, no," AJ said, shaking his head. "I knew I should have made some excuse about coming here tonight," he muttered following Harm from the room.
Harm went directly to where Jennifer was sitting, kneeling at her side. "Jen, what's wrong?" he asked, looking worried.
"She's having pains, Harm."
Just as he asked, "How far apart?" Jennifer began to squeeze his hand. "Breathe, Jen," he said, forcing her to focus on his face. "That's it."
"She had the last one four minutes and ten seconds ago."
"Get her into a bed, Harm," AJ said, taking charge and giving orders. "Mac, call 9-1-1. She'll need to call Jennifer's doctor as well," he said, watching Harm pick his wife up and carry her out of the dining room and toward the master bedroom.
"Second button on speed dial," Harm called back to Mac, who nodded as she called for the ambulance.
"What's going on?" Mattie asked, following Harm. "Jennifer?"
Harriet and Bud intercepted the girl. "She might be in labor," Harriet explained. "Why don't we go -?"
"No," Mattie insisted, pulling away from the couple and turning back toward the bedroom doorway. "Dad?" she said, going over to the bed where Harm was holding onto Jennifer's hand, talking softly to her, reminding her to breathe and to focus as he timed the contraction. "Is there something I can do to help, Admiral?" she asked AJ.
"Hopefully we won't have to do more than keep her quiet until the ambulance gets here -"
"Which could be an hour or more," Mac announced, giving AJ a look of apology. "The snow has everything backed up because it's Christmas Eve."
"Why doesn't that surprise me?" he muttered, glaring at Harm.
"I didn't break my promise, Admiral," Harm said.
"No, I suppose not. Call her doctor, Mac."
Jennifer had relaxed as the pain ended, and Harm was smoothing her hair. "First babies don't usually come quickly, do they?" Mattie questioned. "That's what I've always heard, anyway."
"That's not always the case," Harm said.
"He wants to talk to you, Harm," Mac said, holding out the telephone.
Harm kept Jennifer's hand in his while taking the phone from her. "Dr. Grainger . . . yes, I don't -" He looked at Jennifer. "How long had you been having those pains, Jen?"
"I had little twinges most of the day, but nothing like - like -"
"Hold on, Doc," Harm said, wincing as Jennifer's fingers clamped down on his again. "Breathe, Jen, honey," he said, panting himself. "That's it," he said as the pain eased again. "Doctor? . . . You heard . . . About -" he looked at Mac. "How far apart?"
"About three minutes now."
"Three minutes . . . Dilated -"
"About six centimeters," AJ answered.
"Six." He looked up again. "Has her water broken?"
"No . . . We called an ambulance - but they can't be here for an hour because of the snow - I suppose we could try to drive her -. . . Do you think we have that long? . . . We have a friend here who's had experience -" Harm winced in a combination of another contraction beginning and the look that AJ sent in his direction. "Hang on," he said into the phone before turning his attention to Jennifer.
AJ grabbed the telephone. "Dr. Grainger, AJ Chegwidden. I think we need to talk." AJ left the room for a moment, returning to hand the telephone to Mac again in time to hear Jennifer's voice.
"I think my water just broke."
"You're sure you want to help, Mattie?" he asked, looking at Harm as he asked the question.
"They're my family and that baby's my little brother. He-heck yes, I want to help."
Seeing Harm's nod of approval, AJ told the girl, "I need some clean towels and a shoelace - a new one if possible. And some rubber gloves - Jennifer might have some for cleaning -"
"I know where they are," Mattie told him, leaving the room.
"I'm going to let everyone else know what's going on," Mac said as Jennifer started having another contraction. "Hang in there, Jennifer," she said, watching for a moment as Harm began coaching her again in those soft, gentle tones.
"You're sure about Mattie?" AJ asked when Jennifer relaxed again and Harm told her to rest until the next one, continuing to smooth her hair.
"I want her here," Jennifer said softly.
"Jen's right," Harm agreed. "She was going to be there at the hospital anyway."
Clay, Harriet and Bud joined Mac as soon as she entered the living room. "How is it going?" Clay asked.
"The ambulance won't be here for at least an hour because of the snow," Mac answered, enjoying the feel of Clay's comforting arm around her shoulders.
"Is there anything we can do, ma'am?" Jason wanted to know.
"How about not fainting?" Harriet suggested.
Jason's face turned red at the reminder of his actions when he'd tried to 'help' during Little AJ's birth. "I think I can manage that, ma'am," he said.
"I was just kidding, Jason," Harriet assured him. "I'm not sure that there's much any of us can do right now." She looked down as her oldest son tugged on her skirt.
"Yes, sweetie?" she asked, sitting down on the sofa beside him.
"Is Aunt Jennifer going to be okay?"
"She'll be fine, son," Bud said. "She's going to have a baby - just like when Mommy had your brother. Remember we told you about how Mattie was going to have a little brother too?"
AJ looked over at his brother, who was curled up, fast asleep on the other end of the sofa. "Oh. I told her not to run away after he's born to get 'tenshun'."
"Good for you, AJ," Bud said, giving his son a hug.
"Do you think it would help if someone were to clear the walk up to the house, ma'am?" Jason asked Mac. "So that when the ambulance does get here, they'll be able to get in?"
"That's a good idea, Jason," Mac nodded. "Let me see if Mattie can tell me where the shovels are."
"Probably the garage," Clay said.
"You're probably right," Mac agreed. "But let me see if Mattie can tell me exactly where in the garage."
"One more push, Jennifer," AJ said, glancing up to look at her sweat-soaked face.
"You said that last time, sir," she growled.
"Well, if you'd listened the first time," he told her with narrowed eyes and a glare designed to bring out the woman's stubborn streak, "I wouldn't have to tell you again."
He winked at Mattie as Jennifer bore down again with a determined groan as Harm sat beside her, gently urging her on. "That's it, Jen," he said, "That's my girl."
"Shut up, Harm. It's all your fault," Jennifer ground out.
"That's it," Mattie said, standing on the other side of the bed from AJ. "I can see the head."
"You're doing good, Jennifer," AJ told her. "One more. I promise."
"I don't think I can do this," Jennifer said, sounding tired.
"Push. And that's an order, Petty Officer!"
As he expected, Jennifer took another deep breath and pushed, allowing the baby's shoulder to escape. Almost immediately, the infant began to cry, which was a very good sign.
"Okay, Jennifer," AJ said. "You can rest now."
"Not in the Navy anymore," she mumbled.
"It worked, didn't it?" AJ questioned as he worked on cleaning up the baby. "Hello there, little guy."
"He's so tiny," Mattie said, awed as she reached out to touch on of the baby's hands.
"They usually are," AJ agreed before instructing Mattie where to tie the shoestring around the cord. "Harm, you want to cut the cord and say hello to your son?"
Harm moved around to look at his son, taking the scissors that Mattie had found to cut the umbilical cord. AJ finished wrapping the baby in a clean towel before handing him over. "Hi there, Johnny," Harm said, returning to Jen's side and placing him beside her.
Mattie started to help AJ clear away towels and such, but he stopped her, taking her hand and nodding toward the head of the bed. "I'm going to go see where that ambulance is," he said, glancing back at the family scene from the doorway.
Harm glanced up to see the expression on Mattie's face and reached over to take her hand. "Are you okay?"
"It was totally amazing," Mattie declared, touching the thick, dark hair that covered the baby's tiny head. "I'd read about it in school, but - it's -"
"Yeah," Harm agreed with a wide grin. "It is."
It was almost midnight by the time Harm and Mattie arrived at the hospital and found Jennifer's room. "Where's the baby?" Mattie asked first thing.
"In the nursery. They said they would bring him to me when the doctor finished examining him," Jennifer explained.
"How are you doing?" Harm asked, leaning in to give her a kiss.
"Sore. Still tired. But I wanted to wait until you got here. I thought it would be later."
"We left as soon as everyone was gone," he told her.
"You came straight here?"
"Yeah," Mattie said. "Of course. Where else would we have gone?"
"Harm, its Christmas Eve. You always go to -"
"To the Wall," Harm nodded. Taking her hand in his, he brought it to his lips. "Not tonight. I can go tomorrow. This is where I belong right now."
Jennifer smiled. "You're sure?"
"Jen, if I wanted to be somewhere else, I would be." He found a chair and pulled it close to the bed. "Now *you* get some rest before they bring Johnny in."
"Did you call your mother?" she wanted to know.
"I will," he promised. "Rest."
"Is that an order?" she asked.
"It is if you obey it as well as you did AJ's earlier."
Jen lay back. "He's the Admiral. You're just my husband," she told him, smiling and giving Mattie a wink before closing her eyes.
Mattie chuckled softly. "Whipped, Harm. Totally."
Clay woke up and reached out, intending to pull his wife closer, but his hand found only empty bed. Blinking, he sat up and looked around the room. "Sarah?" he called softly as he got out of bed, grabbing his robe as he moved toward the door.
As he went downstairs, he could see the faint, twinkling light from the Christmas tree they had set up in a corner of the living room. Clay hadn't usually bothered with a tree - if he was in the country, he spent Christmas at his mother's, and putting up a tree just for himself seemed to be more trouble than it was worth.
But this year had been different. He had looked forward to Christmas, to spending it with Sarah, even if he ended up sharing her with people from JAG and with his mother tomorrow. They would be together here, at home.
She was standing at the tree, fingering one of the ornaments they had bought together. Clay approached quietly, slipping his arms around her waist. "Merry Christmas," he told her, nuzzling the side of her neck.
"It is Christmas, isn't it?" she replied, lifting a hand to touch his face. "Merry Christmas."
"What's wrong?" he asked. "I woke up and you weren't there -"
"I couldn't sleep," she told him. "Too keyed up, I guess."
"That's understandable, after everything that happened this evening." He sighed, fully aware of the reason for her attitude. "Sarah," he said, turning her into his arms so that he could look at her. "It'll happen. We just need to give it time -"
"How much more time do we have, Clay?" she wondered aloud. "We've been trying for seven months and I'm still not pregnant."
Clay held her. "We could try seeing a specialist," he suggested. They had both visited their personal physicians, and both had been given a clean bill of health, with no apparent reason why they had so far been unable to conceive. "Or, we could just - stop trying so hard," he said, watching her reaction.
"I don't know about you, but lately, it seems that every time we make love, we're more concerned about trying to have a baby instead of just being together and giving each other pleasure."
"I guess you're right," she admitted slowly, leaning forward to rest her forehead against his. "Maybe we are trying too hard," she said.
"Tell you what, why don't we just put it out of our minds? Just - get back to enjoying being with each other?"
"I suppose we can - try."
Clay cupped her cheek in his palm. "I love you, Sarah."
She slid her arms around his neck. "I guess we should get back to bed so that Santa can get here."
"You know, it's *just* possible that Santa's already been here," Clay told her, wanting to see a smile on her beautiful face. "Just a minute," he said, pulling away just enough so that he could find the package that he'd slipped under the tree before they had left for Harm and Jennifer's. Holding the long, narrow package out to her, he said, "Here you go."
She began to remove the brightly colored paper, glancing at him as she did so. Opening the hinged lid to reveal the contents, her dark eyes widened. "It's lovely," she declared, studying the thin gold chain on which a single, perfect pearl was suspended. "Thank you." She removed the necklace from its satin bed. "Would you put it on for me?"
Clay unfastened the clasp and refastened it around her neck. The pearl shimmered against her skin, seeming to glow in the twinkling lights of the tree.
Mac ran her fingers along the chain to touch the pearl. "It is beautiful," she said again. "But - why a pearl?"
"The pearl of great price," he told her, and saw her frown. "The bible story about the pearl merchant who sold all that he had to buy the most perfect pearl," he explained. "You're *my* pearl of great price, Sarah. It seemed the best way to show you that I love you and that would willingly give up anything and everything I have to have you in my life. That I will do whatever it takes to make you happy."
He saw the tears in her eyes. "You certainly know how to sweet talk a girl, Clay," she said, sniffing. "And all I got you for Christmas was a new watch," she told him, giving him an embarrassed smile.
"That's okay," Clay told her, returning the smile. "I needed one."
"I'm sorry for causing any trouble, Admiral," Jennifer told AJ the next morning when he came to see her and the baby.
AJ smiled at her, letting the baby's tiny fingers close over his index finger. "Trouble? Hell, I've just about decided that Meredith was right about one thing, if nothing else."
It was the first time he'd mentioned his ex-fiancée's name, and the room grew quiet as he spoke. "What was that, Admiral?" Harm wondered.
"That I needed to hang a shingle and go into the midwife business," he drawled. "Actually, that's not entirely accurate. But she did tell me that I'm a - 'facilitator'."
"When was this, sir?" Jennifer asked, glad that he finally felt comfortable enough to talk about Meredith at all.
"Christmas Eve - two years ago. When I delivered Corporal Tenny's son?"
"I remember. I'd only just arrived at JAG from the Seahawk."
"And got tossed into the fire," AJ remembered, glancing at Harm. "Took it all in stride without missing a step, too."
Jennifer took a deep breath before asking her next question. "Have you - heard from Dr. Cavanaugh, Admiral?"
"No. But rumor has it that she moved to Italy last year to teach."
"Oh. I'm sorry," Jennifer began, but AJ raised a hand to stop her.
"No. I'm the one who should apologize."
"You don't have to," she insisted. "I was out of line and shouldn't have pushed so hard."
"You pushed because you cared, Jennifer." AJ said. "Don't ever apologize for caring about the people around you." As if realizing that the conversation had taken a more personal tone than he had intended it to, he looked around. "Where's Mattie?"
"She called her Dad earlier," Harm explained. "He was supposed to have dinner with us today, but with Johnny being born, she agreed to spend a little time with him on her own."
"Are you okay with that?" AJ asked, studying Harm.
"Tom's her biological father. She needs to get to know him."
Jennifer placed a hand on Harm's arm. "No matter what happens, she'll always be our daughter, too. And she's really excited about the new baby."
"I noticed that last night. I also noticed that she was as cool as a cucumber while she was helping. She'll do the Navy proud, I think."
"I agree, sir," Harm said with a proud smile.
"When are they going to let you and that baby out of here?" AJ asked Jennifer.
"Hopefully this evening," Jennifer informed him.
"My mother's coming in this evening and plans to stay for a few days."
"I imagine she's excited to finally have that grandson she's been wanting."
"You have no idea, Admiral," Harm replied.
"He's adorable," Trish Rabb Burnett declared, holding her grandson. "He looks just like Harm did when was born," she told Jennifer. "I brought some pictures that his father took - I'll show them to you once I unpack."
"I'd like that," Jennifer said, smiling at Harm's discomfort. "I hope you're not disappointed about - I mean that we didn't name him after Harm and his father -"
"Of course not. Frank was delighted, Harm," she told him. "He told me to tell you how sorry he was that business prevented him from coming right now -"
"I understand," Harm nodded. "I'm just glad you're here," he said, watching as she returned Johnny to the bassinet beside the bed.
"Well, I'm going to unpack," Trish informed them. Smiling at Jennifer, she said, "Thank you." Giving Harm a brief hug, she left the room.
Harm moved to cover Johnny with the blanket, aware that Jennifer's eyes were on him. "Harm?" she said.
"What was your step-father 'delighted' by our choice of name for the baby?"
He looked up at her with a sheepish grin. "Frank's middle name is Jonathan," he told her. "Francis Jonathan Burnett."
"Oh. Why didn't you tell me?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. Never came up, I guess. And when I thought of the name, it didn't occur to me *why*."
"It's a good name."
"Yeah," Harm agreed, sitting on the edge of the bed and putting an arm around her shoulders. "I guess subconsciously I wanted to let Frank know that I appreciate everything he tried to do for me - even if I *was* resistant to his attempts most of the time."
"Because you couldn't accept him," Jennifer nodded, understanding.
"Yeah. And at the time, I wasn't even positive that my dad might still be alive out there somewhere. That came later," he told her, smiling. "I used to wonder why he bothered to stay around at all. I was surly and not very likeable."
"Did you finally figure it out?"
"Yeah. It was the summer after I ran away to try and find my dad. Mom was furious. Wanted to ground me for a year. But Frank - Frank never said a word in anger. He just told me that I'd worried my mother a great deal by running away like I did, and that he'd been worried as well -" he laughed and shook his head as he continued, "and then he said that next time I decided to do something like that to let him know at least before I went." He sighed. "Frank's the only reason I managed to get into the Academy. I could have waited until I was 18, but it would have put me behind a year - so I needed Mom's signature. He convinced her to sign the papers."
"Told her that if she didn't that I'd just wait a year and try for another appointment. And that she was risking losing me if she refused to sign."
"She'd already lost your father - she didn't want to lose you," Jennifer said.
"Yeah." He dropped a kiss onto her hair. "You need to get some sleep before Johnny decides he's hungry again."
When he started to pull away, Jennifer grabbed his arm, stopping him. "Where are you going?"
"To see if Mom and Mattie need help with dinner."
"They can handle it, can't they? I want you here."
Harm settled back again, pulling her against his body. "Okay. I'm here," he promised. *Right where I belong.*
AJ's answering machine was blinking when he entered the house, and he frowned, wondering who would have left - he paused to count the number of blinks. *Ten messages?*
After his visit to the hospital earlier, he had gone to the office to finish some paperwork, not bothering to let the switchboard know that he was there so that he wouldn't be disturbed. Pressing the button on the machine, he listened to the messages.
"Papa, its Francesca. Please call me as soon as you can. Mama - has - there was an accident. Please, Papa -"
AJ heard the fear and desperation in his daughter's voice and picked up the telephone to place an overseas call to Francesca's cell phone. It seemed like forever before the connection was made. "Francesca, what's going on?"
"Papa! Thank God," she said, and AJ could hear her struggling to speak through the tears. "I've been trying to call you -"
"I know. I was out. Captain Rabb's baby decided to be born last night - I was at the hospital and then went to the office -" AJ realized that he was starting to babble and forced his worry aside, focusing on his daughter. "I'm sorry, Francesca." He sat down. "What happened?"
"Mama had been visiting with me for Christmas. I was taking her to the airport, to return to Napoli and - a car ran into ours."
"Are you okay?"
"I am fine, Papa. The other car hit mine on the passenger side. Mama - Mama was in surgery for almost five hours - her left leg broken and her left shoulder was dislocated - and she had some internal injuries -"
Taking a deep breath, AJ asked, "What's her condition now?"
"She is still in serious condition. Papa -"
"I'll be on the next flight out that I can find, Francesca," he told her. "What hospital is she in?" he asked, listening to the information.
After hanging up the phone, AJ rested his head in his hands, thinking about Marcella, praying that she'd recover from this, and grateful that Francesca had escaped serious injury as well. Grabbing the telephone again, he called the airline to get a flight to Milan.
The reservation made, he threw some things into a suitcase while letting his answering machine clear. Hearing Francesca's frightened voice on the tape, AJ felt something squeezing at his heart as he silently berated himself for not having called her this year. She had been planning a trip the states around the New Year and they were going to get together then.
Driving to Sturgis Turner's apartment, AJ knocked on the door and waited what seemed to be forever before it opened. "Admiral," Sturgis said, looking surprised. "This is a surprise. Merry Christmas."
"Hello, Sturgis," AJ said, "Merry Christmas. May I come in for a minute?"
"Of course," Sturgis said, stepping back as Varise Chestnut came from the kitchen to place a dish on the table that was set for two.
"Hello, Admiral," she said with a warm smile. "Would you like to join us for dinner? There's more than enough -"
"No, thank you," AJ refused. "I need to speak with you, Commander," he told Sturgis, knowing that using the man's rank would tell him that it was JAG business and not personal.
Varise smiled and vanished into the kitchen again, leaving Sturgis looking at his commanding officer. "Is something wrong, Admiral?"
"I have to go out of the country for a few days, Sturgis. You'll be in charge at JAG while I'm gone. If there are any questions, Jennifer has my daughter's cell phone number in Milan. I can be reached there if need be."
"Is your daughter okay, sir?"
"She and her mother were in an automobile accident earlier today," AJ explained. "Francesca's fine, but her mother wasn't as lucky."
"Admiral, what about - the promotions list is due out this week -"
"Damn," AJ sighed. "You'll have to handle it."
"Yes, sir," Sturgis agreed.
"Jennifer's on top of things - if you need any help, ask her - Only she won't be there. Damn," he said again.
"I was going to ask about that," Sturgis pointed out. "Harm called earlier to give us the news. We'll manage, sir," he said in his quiet tones. "Go take care of your daughter and her mother."
"Thank you. I'll be in touch," AJ promised. He nodded in Varise's direction when she appeared in the kitchen doorway again. "I've got to get going if I'm going to make my flight."
As soon as the door closed behind AJ, Sturgis picked up the telephone to call Harm and tell him about the Admiral's visit and fill him in on what was going on.
AJ entered the hospital and asked the woman at the front desk what room Marcella Paretti was in, grateful that his Italian wasn't as rusty as he'd been afraid it might be. After being told that Marcella Paretti was in Room 214, AJ went to the elevator, pressing the button for the second floor.
He was about to opt for the stairs when the doors finally opened. The three people in the car got out, and AJ stepped inside. Just as the doors began to close, he heard a female voice calling out in Italian.
"Tenga l'elevatore, per favore!"
AJ reacted quickly, placing a hand between the doors to stop them from closing and to allow the woman who had called out to dash through them.
"Grazie," she said, catching her breath, looking up at him.
"AJ!" she said at the same time as the doors closed, leaving them alone in the elevator. AJ pressed the button for the second floor, more out of need to be away from this woman than anything else.
"What are you doing here?" they both asked.
"Before you say anything, AJ," Meredith said, looking embarrassed, "I want to apologize. I -"
"It's over Meredith," he told her, frowning. "Why are you here?"
"We were in an auto accident -"
AJ was getting a sick feeling in his stomach. "When did this accident happen?"
"Yesterday," she told him as the doors of the elevator opened on the second floor.
"Christmas Day?" he questioned, his frown deepening when she followed him out of the elevator.
"Papa!" Francesca called out, rushing into his arms. "Thank goodness you are here!" she declared.
AJ saw Meredith's eyes widen momentarily. "This is *your* Francesca?"
"Yes," he told her, the sick feeling increasing.
"I'll - uh - just be going, then," Meredith said quickly, moving away from him and Francesca.
He put his ex-fiancée out of his thoughts as he comforted his daughter. "I'm here, now, honey," he told her quietly. "How's your mother?"
"A little better. I told her that you were on your way, but I don't think that she believed me."
"Well, why don't we show her that you were telling the truth?" AJ asked.
Francesca nodded, using the handkerchief that he offered to wipe her cheeks. Glancing down the hallway, she said, "Why were you talking to that woman, Papa?" she asked. "She was in the car that ran into mine and almost killed Mama."
"Was she driving?"
"No. I don't think so. There was a man with her. From what the nurses have said, his condition is worse that Mama's. He is not expected to live."
"She didn't look as if she was injured in the accident."
"Neither she nor I suffered any real injury - I overheard the nurses talking among themselves that he had been drinking and that they had been arguing just prior to the accident."
AJ nodded as they entered Marcella's room. She looked so tiny lying against the stark white sheets, her still mostly dark hair loose. There were bruises already darkening her face, he noted, making her closed eyes appear shadowed. Her left arm was in a sling and her left leg was encased in plaster. AJ felt a familiar tug at his heart, mixed heavily with a sense of failure that he hadn't been there to protect her. Not that he would have been able to do anything, the logical part of his brain pointed out - but he should have been there.
"Mama?" Francesca said, touching her mother's shoulder with a gentle touch. "Someone is here to see you."
Marcella's dark eyes opened to slowly focus on him, and AJ managed a smile. "Hi there."
"AJ. You came."
"You didn't think I would?" he asked, reaching out to take her right hand in his. "I leave the two of you alone for a little while and look what happens," he teased with a smile.
A couple of hours later, AJ left a sleeping Marcella, going into the hallway and to a window, where he overlooked the duck pond below. His mind was filled with memories of his brief marriage to Marcella. They'd been happy - or at least he had - until he came home from an overseas deployment to find both Marcella and Francesca gone, and a note explaining that she was homesick for Naples and could no longer be his wife.
He hadn't fought the divorce or custody agreement - he was a Naval officer, with a dangerous job. He couldn't have taken care of a little girl - and he'd been the first to admit that perhaps he hadn't spent as much time with his wife as he should have done.
The last time he and Marcella had met, she had still been in mourning for her recently deceased husband, Vittorio Paretti. The marriage to Paretti had been arranged by Marcella's parents upon her return to Naples divorced and with a child. He had adopted Francesca, insisting that it would allow her more protection than being the daughter of an American Naval officer would have done. It still seemed more than a little ironic that in the end it hadn't been AJ's past that had endangered Francesca's life, but her step father's Mafia ties had.
"She's very lovely."
AJ's hands clenched into fists inside his pockets as he heard Meredith's voice. Without turning, he said, "Who?"
"Your daughter. Since she *is* your daughter, I guess that means that her mother is -"
"My ex-wife," AJ nodded. "What do want, Meredith?" he asked.
"I - suppose that - I foolishly thought that maybe you'd come here because of me," she said in a halting voice.
AJ finally turned to look at her, only to find that she was focused on the view beyond the thick glass in front of them. "Why on earth would think that?" he wondered. "Why in God's name would you think that I'd even care?"
She turned as well, looking up at him. "I hurt you, AJ. And I'm sorry. I should have - handled things better than I did, should have told you that I was having doubts and that I was - terrified at the idea that I'd never be able to measure up - to be a military wife -"
"Yes. You should have," AJ agreed. "But you didn't, did you? If you had, we might have been able to handle it - or decided to go our own ways without -" He took a deep, calming breath. "It's over, Meredith. There's no reason to rehash it. You made your choice."
"He's dying, AJ," she said softly that he wasn't sure that he heard her at first, and AJ felt a momentary twinge of something at the news.
"What happened, Meredith? Francesca told me that he'd been drinking."
"Alesandro had two glasses of wine with dinner," she said. "He wasn't drunk, AJ."
"Then what caused him to slam his car into Francesca's?" AJ wanted to know, keeping his tone carefully neutral.
"We were arguing," she told him, looking down at her hands. "He wanted to go back to Genoa, and I wanted to stay a little longer in Milan."
AJ glared at her in disbelief. "And *that* caused the accident which nearly killed Marcella?" he questioned.
"He took his eyes off of traffic for just a moment, and then we were - He's going to pay for that with his life, AJ -"
Removing his hands from his pockets, AJ folded his arms across his chest. "And I suppose you believe that you have no responsibility for what happened."
"I wasn't driving," Meredith reminded him.
"*He* shouldn't have been driving either. He was drunk - and knowing that you *still* distracted him by arguing. You know, Meredith, I'm suddenly very glad that things ended between us. I never realized how lucky I was until right now."
"But AJ -" she cried softly, placing her hand on his arm.
AJ jerked away from her touch as if burned. "Not another word, Meredith. Stay away from me. And stay away from my family. You've done more than enough damage." He turned and walked down the corridor, back toward Marcella's room, where Francesca was waiting for him.
Francesca looked up from the fashion magazine she was reading when he entered. "She's still asleep," she told him in a quiet voice, watching him as he moved to the side of her mother's bed. "Papa?" she asked, and AJ looked at her. "Is everything all right? You seem - troubled."
"Why don't we go and get some coffee or something while she's resting?" he suggested. "I need to talk to you."
"Very well. I will tell the nurses that we will be downstairs if we are needed."
AJ brought two cups of coffee to the table where Francesca was sitting. Looking at her, he asked, "You're sure that you're all right?"
"I was lucky. I am a little stiff and sore, but other than that, I am fine. I should have insisted that she stay another day, Papa, instead of going back to that big, lonely villa in Napoli."
"Why was she going back? Someone waiting for her?"
"No. Mama hasn't dated another man since -"
Knowing the reason for her hesitation, AJ reached across the table to capture her hand. "You can call him Father, Francesca," AJ said. "Vittorio was there for you when I couldn't be. And he died trying to save your life." He was rewarded with a smile. "Now. What was so important in Naples that Marcella had to return?"
"I don't know. I'm not sure there was anything of real importance to explain it. But I had to beg her to come here for Christmas, Papa. She seldom leaves the villa anymore."
"Her parents died a few years ago, didn't they?"
"When they're ready to release her, she's going to need someone to keep an eye on her," AJ observed.
"I know. I suppose I could do it -"
"What about your work?" AJ asked.
"I would have to put it on hold until she was well. But I think that she will hire a nurse to live at the villa -" She looked at him. "Do you have another idea?"
"Possibly. Do you think she would agree to come to the States - just until she's well enough to take care of herself?"
"And stay with you?"
"I'd have to hire someone to take care of her during the day, I have some leave accumulated, so I can take some time off if necessary -"
"You're still in love with her, aren't you?" Francesca realized.
AJ's eyes were focused on his hand on the table. "She stopped loving me, not the other way around."
"I don't believe that," Francesca told him. "I think she loves you, too, but she is too afraid that you would turn her away because of what happened to tell you how she feels." It was her turn to place her hand over his. "Perhaps this accident had a purpose after all, Papa, if it serves to bring the two of you back together again after all this time."
"The promotions list just arrived, Commander," Petty Officer Jorgensen said. "You asked to see it immediately."
"Thank you, Petty Officer," Sturgis nodded, taking the paper from the young man. After glancing through the names on the list, Sturgis left the Admiral's office, telling Jorgensen that he would be down in Captain Rabb's office if needed.
Ensign Davis smiled when she saw him enter the office area. "Commander Turner."
"Is he in, Davis?" he asked.
"Yes, sir. I'll see if he's busy." She picked up the phone. "Captain, Cmdr. Turner is here . . . yes, sir." She hung up, smiling at Sturgis. "He said to go right in, sir."
"Thank you, Ensign." Opening the door, Sturgis entered the smaller version of the Admiral's office.
"Come in, Sturgis. I was going to call you later. Have you heard from the Admiral?"
"He called me this morning - said that he hopes to be back by the end of next week if things work out as he hopes they will."
"That's good news."
"How's the baby?"
"Perfect," Harm said with a huge smile. "What's on your mind?" he asked, indicating one of the chairs before his desk.
"This," Sturgis answered, holding out the promotions list. "The Admiral told me to handle it, but I think it probably deserves more than just a three minute ceremony."
Harm nodded in agreement. "You're right. And I know Jen will want to be there as well." He thought for a moment. "Let me make a couple of phone calls, see what I can come up with. I'll let you know before the end of the day."
"Make it quick, will you? I'm not sure how long we're going to be able to keep a lid on this."