Mattie came down the stairs two at a time, heading for the kitchen to help Grandma Trish with lunch. When the doorbell rang, she called, "I'll get it!" hoping that she wouldn't wake Johnny.
Opening the door, she paused upon seeing the strange man standing there. He was thin and was wearing a minister's collar. "Can I help you?" she asked.
"I'm looking for Jennifer Coates," he told her.
"I'm her daughter," Mattie told him.
His eyes widened in surprise. "Her - daughter?"
"Well, her adopted daughter," Mattie amended. "Who are you?"
"Who is it, Mattie?" Jennifer asked, coming into the entryway, carrying Johnny. Seeing the man standing in the doorway, she stopped. "What are you doing here?" she asked him.
"I wanted to see you," he said, his eyes moving to the infant in her arms. "Just for a moment. Please, Jennifer," he begged with a quiet desperation that caused Jennifer to frown at him. Conrad Coates wasn't the type of man who begged for anything.
Jennifer gave the baby to Mattie. "Take Johnny into the kitchen and stay there, Mattie," she said.
Mattie took Johnny. "Mom, who *is* he?" she asked.
"Your -" Mattie sent an angry glare in the man's direction. "Are you sure you want me to -"
"Go see if your grandmother needs some help," Jennifer said in a firm tone. "I'll be fine, Mattie," she said in a softer voice. "Go on."
Reluctantly, Mattie carried the sleeping infant through to the kitchen, where Trish was finishing a salad. "Who was at the door?" she wanted to know.
Trish stopped in mid-toss. "Her father?"
"He said he wanted to talk to her. She told me to come in here." Trish grabbed the telephone and dialed the direct number to Harm's office, tapping her fingernail on the counter as she waited for him to answer. Finally she hung up. "He's not there."
"Maybe he's on his way home for lunch," Mattie suggested hopefully.
"So. What did you want to talk about?" Jennifer asked her father, noticing that he seemed smaller. And thinner. He'd never been very big to begin with, but -
"Just - well, I want to see you again. It's been a few years. You haven't called -"
"Did you expect me to?" she questioned. "The last time we saw each other -"
"You were in trouble," Conrad Coates recalled.
"Nothing unusual for me, right?" Jennifer said, crossing her arms across her chest. "I was always in trouble back then. How did you find me?"
"I called the Navy - they told me that you were no longer in the service -"
"I didn't reenlist," she told him. "That still doesn't tell me how you found me."
"Luck, I suppose." He pulled a folded newspaper from his pocket and held it out to her. "I saw the birth announcement in the paper this morning," he told her.
Jennifer didn't have to read the notice. She knew it by heart. "Captain Harmon Rabb, Jr., Jennifer Coates-Rabb and daughter Mattie Grace Rabb welcome the arrival of Jonathan Harmon Rabb, born December 24 . . ."
"I have a friend who works in records," he told her. "He gave me your address."
"How nice of him," Jennifer said. "Is that why you're here? Because you have a grandson?"
"Of course not -"
"Well, I only ask because you were always blaming me for not being the son you wanted -"
"That's not true," Conrad insisted. "I never -"
"Oh, come on, Dad. You *never* accepted me. I was *never* good enough. You never - never praised me *once* when I did something good. And when - when Mom would - would try to praise me, you'd -"
"Hit her," Conrad said, closing his eyes and taking a deep, shuddering breath. "I'm sorry for that. Sorry for so many things -" He extended a hand toward her. "Jennifer -"
At that moment, the front door opened and Harm appeared. "Jen," he said, immediately recognizing Conrad Coates as he moved to join his wife, placing a comforting arm around her shoulders.
"You're the one who brought her to my house that night. Rabb. That's why the name was familiar. How long -"
"We've been married for a little over nine months, Mr. Coates," Harm told him. Looking at Jennifer, he asked, "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," she told him. "Johnny's with your mother and Mattie in the kitchen." Harm saw the silent request in her eyes, asking him to join them.
For one moment, he considered ignoring it before he nodded. "I'll go let them know I'm home," he told her. "Call if you need me."
"I will," she promised, seeing the look of warning that he sent toward her father as he left them alone again.
"Are you happy, Jennifer?" Conrad asked. "You look happy. And he loves you. I could tell that."
"I'm happy, Dad. For the first time in my life."
"Even though he's so much older?"
"The age difference doesn't matter. We love each other. Is that what you came to find out?" she wanted to know.
"No. I came to tell you that - that I hope you'll be able to forgive me someday for being such a terrible father - I don't expect you to do it now, but - maybe someday -"
"I'll think about it," Jennifer said, sensing that he was under some kind of duress. "Dad, are you okay?" she asked almost against her will.
"I'm dying," he said simply.
Harm found Jennifer sitting before the fireplace, staring into the flames. Sitting next to her, he pulled her close. "You okay?" he asked.
"I don't know," she said honestly, lifting her warm brown eyes up to look at him. "He told me that he's dying. He's - dying," she repeated as the tears began to fall. Her fingers gripped at his shirt as she cried, and Harm held her as tightly as he could, murmuring soft words of comfort as he rested his cheek against her dark hair.
When her tears faded into tiny, hiccupping sobs, Harm continued to hold her, rocking gently. "Why didn't he stay?"
"He said to call him if I wanted to talk," she said quietly.
She looked up at him again. "Yes." She smoothed the damp spot on his uniform shirt. "You'll have to change -"
"I'm not going back in today unless Paula calls me with an emergency," he told her, covering her hand with his before lifting it to his lips. "I wanted to be here for you."
"I guess Mac was right after all," Jennifer told him. Harm frowned, confused. "About my 'daddy issues'?"
Her hand lifted to his cheek before he could continue the thought that formed with that statement. "But they *still* have nothing to do with how I feel about you."
"That's a relief," he told her. "You want to go see him this afternoon?" he asked.
"Mom and Mattie can watch Johnny - or we could call and ask your father to dinner instead. That way he'll be able to meet Johnny and Mattie."
"He won't be home yet, but I'll call and ask him."
"Good. I have some news that might make you feel a little better," he said.
"Before I tell you, do you think you'll be up to having a few people over for New Year's Eve?"
"As long as Trish and Mattie are here to help, I think might manage," she told him. "Why?"
Over lunch, which Harm insisted that Jennifer eat, Harm told his mother and Mattie about the plans for New Year's Eve. "Is that a good idea, Harm?" Trish questioned. "Jennifer just had a baby -"
"We discussed it, Trish," Jennifer assured her mother in law. "I think it's a good idea. And it'll just be close friends."
"Such as?" Mattie questioned.
"Bud and Harriet, Jason and Paula, Sturgis is going to drop by between Varise's sets that night."
"What about Mac and Clay?" Jennifer questioned.
"Clay wasn't in yet when I called earlier. His secretary said that he was out of town on personal business and she'd have him call me when comes in."
"AJ's still in Italy, isn't he?" Trish asked.
"According to Sturgis, he'll be there until next week."
"Frank should be here as well," Trish reminded her son.
"And he'll be more than welcome," Harm assured her.
"How did things go with your dad, Mom?" Mattie wanted to know, causing Jennifer and Harm to look at each other.
"He came to tell me that he's dying," Jennifer responded quietly. "He has cancer."
Trish expressed her sympathy, and then asked, "Didn't you tell me that your mother died of cancer?"
Jennifer nodded. "Breast cancer," she confirmed. "By the time they caught it, it was too late. Just like with Dad now," she said softly.
Harm reached over to squeeze her hand gently as Trish asked, "What kind of cancer?"
"He didn't say. But he said it was like it was with Mom - it's already spread too far for the doctors to treat it. I don't even know how much longer he has," she told him, tears in her eyes again. "I'm sorry," she apologized, pushing her plate away and leaving the table.
"I'm sorry, dear," Trish said. "I didn't mean to upset her further -"
"I know, Mom," Harm said, standing up. "And I'm sure she does, too. You guys stay and finish your lunch. I'll take care of her."
She was in the bedroom, sitting in the rocking chair beside the fireplace, Johnny nursing at her breast. Kneeling beside them, Harm said, "I didn't hear him cry."
"He was just waking up when I came in," she said. "I knew he'd be hungry." She touched the top of the baby's head. "Besides, I needed to hold him."
"I wish there was some way that I could make this better for you, Jen," he sighed, sitting on the hearth where he could continue to watch his wife and son. "Mom didn't mean anything by -"
"Its okay, Harm. I know she wasn't trying to hurt me. She was just trying to make conversation."
The telephone rang, and Harm said, "Mom or Mattie will get it and let me know if -"
Before he could finish, Mattie's head appeared in the doorway. "Dad? It's Clayton Webb."
He motioned for her to bring the cordless phone into the room, meeting her halfway. "Hello, Clay . . . Oh. I wondered what was going on when you were there earlier . . . Yeah. I know what you mean. She'll be home in time for New Years Eve, right? . . . Great. . . Did she happen to mention how it's going?" He smiled, watching Mattie sit on the hearth to watch Jennifer with the baby. "Sounds good . . . See you then." He hung up the phone.
"Mac and Clay will be here," he told them. "Clay was in Seattle with her last night."
"Really?" Jennifer said.
"Flew out after work, flew back this morning," Harm nodded. "Mac should be finished with her case on Friday morning, which will get her back to DC in time to be here." He noticed that Mattie seemed unusually quiet. "Is something wrong, Mattie?" he asked.
"No. I'm just - thinking," she told him, sounding distracted. "Excuse me. I need to go see if Grandma needs any help."
"Could you tell her that Jen's going to call her dad and ask him to dinner?" he asked her. "So she won't be caught by surprise?"
"Sure," Mattie nodded, getting up from the hearth.
Harm stopped her and gave her a hug, sensing that she was disturbed by something, but he was also aware that forcing Mattie to talk about things wasn't something that worked. Even with her Al-Anon meetings, she still tended to keep things to herself before talking to them about what she believed needed to be done to resolve whatever was bothering her. "When you're ready to talk, I'm here," he told her.
"I know," she told him, smiling up at him. "Thanks."
"She's too much like you sometimes," Jennifer noted, causing Harm to turn and look at her, lifting an eyebrow. "Doesn't like to talk about her problems until she's solved them in her own mind," she explained.
"I was just thinking the same thing," Harm said. "Not that she's like me - do I do that?" he asked, frowning.
"Not as much as you used to, but you do tend to go all broody every now and then," she told him with a smile as she rose to her feet and carried her sleeping son to his bassinet.
"*Broody*?" Harm repeated. "I don't -" he stopped when she turned to look at him. "I guess I do," he admitted as she slid her arms around his waist and leaned back to keep looking at him. "With all my faults, I wonder sometimes why you stick around, Jen."
"That's easy," she told him. "Because you'd be lost without me."
"I would," Harm agreed, wrapping his long arms around her as she leaned forward to rest her head against his chest.
"I need to call my dad," she said.
"Do you want me to stay in here while you make the call?" he asked.
"No," she told him. "I think I can manage."
"I'll go spend a few minutes with Mom and Mattie, then," he told her, dropping a kiss onto her lips.
Jennifer checked on the baby again as she dialed her father's number on the cordless phone. It was answered on the second ring.
Jennifer blinked back the tears as she said, "Hello, Dad . . ."
Harm found his mother cutting vegetables when he entered the kitchen. Reaching around her, he stole a slice of zucchini, earning a motherly tap on his hand. "Stop that. You just had lunch."
"I didn't finish, remember?" he told her.
Trish turned to look at him. "Do you want me to fix a sandwich for you -?"
"No, I'm fine, Mom," he told her as he gave her a quick hug. "Did Mattie tell you that Jen's dad might be here for dinner?"
"She mentioned it."
Harm glanced around. "Speaking of Mattie - where is she? I thought she was coming in to help you."
"She offered, but I told her to go out and get some fresh air," Trish said, nodding toward the back yard. There were still places where the snow which had fallen on Christmas Eve lingered, even with the slightly more moderate temperatures. Mattie was standing next to the wrought iron fence that separated the pool from the rest of the yard, staring off into space.
"Does she see - I don't know - distracted to you?"
"She's been quiet since Jennifer's father arrived," Trish told him, giving him a meaningful look.
Harm took his jacket from the hook beside the door and left the house, moving toward the young woman. When she didn't acknowledge his presence, Harm stood there for a moment, looking up at the sky. "This keeps up we should be able to go flying this weekend."
"It's supposed to rain tomorrow," she said.
"Good. Maybe it will wash the rest of the snow away."
"If it doesn't freeze again."
Harm cupped his hands and blew in them. "It *is* cold," he agreed, putting his hands into his pockets before speaking again. "So, you ready to talk about it?"
"Ready to talk about what?" she asked.
"Whatever it is that's bothering you," he answered, giving her a look out of the corner of his eye.
"Guess I'm pretty transparent, huh?" she said.
"Only because we're so much alike."
"Like father like daughter, I guess," Mattie said, finally looking up at him.
He took a hand out of his pocket and put his arm around her shoulders. "What's wrong?"
"I don't know. Jennifer talking to her dad and being so upset that he's sick - after everything he put her and her mom through, I guess I got me to thinking about -" her voice faltered as she hesitated.
"About your Dad?" Harm questioned, watching her.
"You're my Dad," Mattie told him, her blue eyes meeting his. "But yeah. My 'birth father' I guess you could call him. I suddenly wondered if I would react the same way as Jennifer has if he was to get sick."
"He *is* sick, Mattie," Harm reminded her. "Alcoholism is a disease just like cancer - only sometimes - if a person is lucky - they recover."
"Like Mac," she said.
"And your father."
Harm nodded. "Tom."
"It remains to be seen whether it'll stick this time," she told him. "He's quit before."
"It's been how long now? Over a year?"
Mattie nodded. "Something like that. That's longer than he's ever quit before. I think his previous record was something like six weeks."
"And it's tough for him," Harm guessed. "Especially not having anyone close to share his success with."
"Yeah," Mattie nodded.
"And that's what's bothering you, isn't it? You're trying to figure out how to be more of a daughter to him while still being our daughter. Jen's and mine."
Mattie blinked, shaking her head. "How do you that?" she asked. "You cut right through all the crap - sorry - and get right to the heart of the problem."
Harm laughed, squeezing her shoulder again. "It's a gift," he told her with a grin. Turning her to face him, Harm said, "Look, Mattie, if you want to spend more time with Tom, it's your decision. As long as you don't lose sight of your own goals in the process."
"Don't worry about me, Dad," Mattie assured him. "No way am I going to mess with Rabb family tradition."
"Why don't we go in and see how Jen's doing?" he suggested. "She was calling her dad to invite him to dinner."
"Is she going to be okay with this?" Mattie worried. "I mean, I've heard that women who've just had a baby sometimes get depressed - and with her dad coming back this way -"
"Jen's a pretty strong lady," Harm said. "A lot like you. She'll be okay. But we'll be here for her - just in case."
"I never agreed to go with you, AJ," Marcella Paretti declared with the spirit that AJ remembered well. "I can take care of myself. I don't need your - charity!" she spat him. Her recovery had been more rapid than any of the doctors had anticipated, but they still wanted someone with her until the cast was removed from her leg and her shoulder was totally healed. This was her first day out of bed - and while Marcella hadn't responded to Francesca's initial suggestion that she go with AJ back to Washington at the time, she was being *very* vocal about her refusal now.
"My - charity?!" AJ responded, barely keeping his temper in check. "And just how the hell do you plan on taking care of yourself?" he wanted to know. "By hiring a full-time nurse to stay with you around the clock until you can walk again?"
"I am sure that Francesca will -"
"Francesca has a life of her own, Marcella," AJ said. "It wouldn't be fair of you to expect her to give up that life to take care of you when someone else is willing to do it."
"But what if I don't *want* to move to America?"
"Then I'll stay here," AJ said firmly, only realizing what he'd said after the words were spoken and Marcella's eyes widened. "I'll retire and move to Naples."
"You would - give up the Navy - to stay with me?" she asked, sounding totally surprised - and doubtful.
"Yes," he told her, knowing that he was speaking the truth. "If that's the only way I can take care of you, I'd give it up without a second look."
"You refused to do that the last time I made the suggestion," she said as they moved slowly back toward her room, AJ pushing her wheelchair.
"I don't seem to recall you asking me to choose the last time," AJ pointed out.
"Because I knew what the answer would be if I *had* asked"
He stopped the chair and moved to kneel before her. "If you had asked, if you had let me known how unhappy you were, -"
She lifted her right hand to his cheek. "And then *you* would have been unhappy, il mio tesoro," Marcella said in a quiet voice. "And then you would have ultimately blamed me and perhaps even Francesca for being the cause of your giving up something so important to you."
AJ captured her hand in his. "Marcella -" seeing a movement in the corridor behind the wheelchair, AJ glanced up and saw a teary-eyed Meredith leaving one of the rooms. For a moment, their eyes met before Meredith realized what was happening and turned in the opposite direction. "I'll give it up - if that's what you want," he told Marcella.
"I cannot ask you to do that, AJ."
"Then come back with me. Once you're well, you can go back to Naples - if you want to. Just - give me the chance to take care of you. Hopefully I can do a better job this time around."
Refusing to allow her to pull her hand away, even though nurses and others were beginning to notice them, AJ said, "The doctor said that he would be ready to release you by the end of the week. Think about it."
"I will," she promised.
The promise was enough for AJ. Rising to his feet, he pushed her chair back to her room where Francesca was waiting. Ignoring her objections, AJ carefully lifted Marcella out of the chair and back into the bed, leaving her to rest under the watchful eye of their daughter.
Moving down the corridor, his thoughts on what would be entailed for him to resign if it became necessary; AJ paused as he heard a familiar voice.
"Thank you for everything," Meredith was telling one of the nurses.
"I am sorry that the Professore did not survive, Signorina Cavanaugh," the nurse responded. "Good luck to you."
"Thank you," Meredith said again, turning around and seeing AJ. Her eyes were red-rimmed, revealing that she'd been crying. "Oh, AJ," she sighed, leaning toward him, as if seeking solace from his presence.
AJ didn't respond to the movement. Instead, he remained where he was. "He's dead?"
"Yes," Meredith confirmed. "He never fully - regained consciousness."
"What are you going to do now?" he asked, not really caring. He had little reason to mourn the death of a man who had been part of the cause for so much of AJ's personal pain. "Return to Bologna and continue to teach there?"
"No. With Alesandro gone, there's no reason for me to stay in Italy," she said. "I'll probably go back to Washington and find a position there -"
"I'm sure you'll manage," he told her, turning with the intention of going back to Marcella's room.
"Maybe it - means something that the accident brought you here, AJ," Meredith said, her voice hesitant.
AJ stopped and took a deep breath, fully aware of where she was intending to go with her speculation. Turning to look at her, he smiled. "You know, you're right, Meredith. I think it means that I might have finally opened my eyes and been forced to accept the fact that I never really stopped caring about or being in love with my first wife." He saw the realization on Meredith's tear-stained face as he finished. "I've asked Marcella to come back to Washington with me when she's released."
"To - recuperate?" Meredith questioned him, her expression now a curious mix of hope and fear.
"For a start. I hope that she'll agree to give me another chance."
"AJ, I know that I hurt you terribly," Meredith said, reaching out toward him. When AJ didn't take her hand, she let it fall back to her side. "Please, AJ. I was hoping that our meeting here like this meant that we could try again. What happened was a mistake, AJ. I regret what I did, I'm sorry I hurt you and I've learned my lesson -" Her hands came out, grasping his shirt.
Grabbing her hands, AJ practically snarled at her. "My God, Meredith. You're a real piece of work." He released her hands with a slight push away from him. "The man you've spent the last year with just died! His body is barely cold and here you are begging the man that you left so that you could be with him to give you another chance!" Shaking his head in disbelief, AJ wondered how he had ever considered marrying the woman standing before him. How he could have been so blind. Had he really been that desperate to have someone - anyone - in his life? "Good-bye, Meredith," he said firmly, turning on his heel, leaving her standing in the middle of the corridor.
Entering Marcella's room, he saw that she and Francesca were talking quietly. Both women turned to look at him expectantly. Hands on his hips, AJ declared, "You're coming back to Washington with me, Marcella. Any argument?"
"Would it do any good for me to argue, AJ?" Marcella asked.
"Not a bit," he told her, struggling to maintain his no-nonsense expression. When he failed, he added, "Except that we'd get to make up afterward."
Marcella's answering smile lit up the room. "Then I suppose I have no choice but to agree."
"Good. I'll start making the arrangements," he acknowledged before leaving the room again.
Francesca turned to look at her mother, seeing the smile that was still on her face. "Mama?"
"Now *that* is the AJ that I remember," Marcella said.
"And fell in love with?" Francesca asked.
"Yes," Marcella answered, her sparkling eyes still focused on the door. "And fell in love with."
"He's absolutely adorable, Jennifer," Mac said as she held Johnny in her arms.
"Harm says he looks like me," Jennifer said. "But Trish and I both say he looks more like his father."
"I don't know," Harriet said, studying both Jennifer and Johnny's faces, "I think he has your nose."
Mac nodded. "I don't think I've heard him cry since he was born," she told Jennifer.
"Oh, he cries," Jennifer assured her. "But he's really a wonderful baby."
"Can I hold him?" Harriet asked. She and Bud had left the boys with a sitter.
"Sure," Mac said, handing the baby over. Glancing over to where Bud was talking to Jason Tiner and Paula Davis, she asked, "He still has no idea what's going on, does he?"
Harriet shook her head. "No. Not a clue. He just thinks we're here because it's New Year's Eve."
"When is Sturgis going to be here?" Mac asked Jennifer.
"He told Harm that Varise's first set ends at eight, and he should be here around eight thirty."
Without glancing at her watch, Mac asked, "It's eight fifteen now."
"I wish it was over," Harriet sighed. "It's been hard keeping it a secret from him."
The telephone rang, and since Jennifer was sitting closest to it, she answered. "Hello? . . . Happy New Year to you, too . . . Just a minute -" She pulled the phone away from her ear and looked around the room. "Where's Mattie?"
Harm, who had watched Jennifer answer the phone, heard her question and answered. "She's in the kitchen, getting something to drink."
Jennifer held up the telephone. "The phone's for her."
Frowning, Harm asked, "Who is it?"
The answer caused Harm's frown to deepen. "I'll tell her," he volunteered, leaving Clay and Frank to head for the kitchen. Halfway there, he met her coming out. "Tom's on the phone. He wants to talk to you."
"Thanks. He said he might call. I'll take it up in my room," she told him.
Harm watched her go before continuing on into the kitchen.
Jen waited until Mattie picked up the extension and then hung up the phone. "I guess things are better between Mattie and her father now?"
"She's decided that she needs to be there for him a little more," Jennifer said. "I think I'll put Johnny in his bassinet before Sturgis gets here -" Harriet reluctantly handed the baby over.
"Don't tell Bud, but every time I hold a little baby, I start wanting another one."
"I know the feeling, Harriet," Mac commented, standing up when Jennifer did.
"It'll happen, Mac," Harriet said. "I'm sure of it."
"I wish I was a sure," Mac sighed. "Mind if I tag along?" she asked Jennifer.
"Not at all."
In the bedroom, Mac watched as Jen put the baby into the small bed and then covered him with a blanket. "How are you doing?" she asked the younger woman. "Harm mentioned that your father came to see you."
"I'm doing okay. Did he tell you that Dad's sick?"
Mac nodded. "Yes. I'm sorry. I know it's not easy. But at least you've had the chance to mend some fences. I didn't have that chance with my father. By the time I got to him, he was already in a coma -"
"I know. I'm trying to convince him to move into the garage apartment, but so far he's refused. Says that I have enough to do with a new baby and school starting again in a few weeks."
"He could be right."
"I just don't like the idea of his being alone. Mattie's father has family to go to if necessary. Dad doesn't have anyone but me. Sometimes I feel as if -" Jennifer shook her head, her long hair falling over her shoulder.
"As if what?"
"Nothing," Jennifer said. "We'd better get back out there. Sturgis should be here soon."
Mac nodded, but stopped the younger woman with a hand on her shoulder. "Jennifer, if you ever need someone to talk to - I'm not always here, but I'm just a phone call away. Will you remember that?"
"I will," Jennifer said. "Thank you."
Harm was getting another tray of canapés out of the refrigerator when he looked up to see Frank standing there. "It's not easy, is it?" his stepfather asked. Harm frowned, not understanding the question. "Being a - step father."
"Oh. I, well, let's just say that I have a new appreciation for some of what you must have gone through, Frank. It's not the same, really. Mattie didn't want anything to do with her father at first - and now -"
"Now you're afraid you might lose her to him."
"I don't think that will happen, and I know that she *needs* to have a good relationship with Tom, but -"
"You're jealous of that relationship," Frank finished for him. Harm looked at the man. "Just like I was always a little jealous of the relationship you had with your father. And that made even *less* sense, if you think about it."
Frank Burnett lifted his hand to stop Harm from speaking. "I'm past it, Harm," he said. "I haven't thanked you for naming the baby after me, have I?"
"It's not necessary."
"I think it is. When Trish told me the baby's name, I was - stunned. I never expected -"
Harm placed a hand on his shoulder. "Frank, maybe I haven't said it enough, but - I do appreciate everything you did - everything that you tried to do for me. And hey, you made my mother happy. I figured it was as good a way as any to let you know that - that I'm glad she found someone like you instead of spending the rest of her life alone."
The two men embraced before Harm picked up the tray again. "I'd better get these out before the troops get restless," he said with a laugh. On the way through the entry hall, there was a knock at the door. "Would you take this on in, Frank?" he asked, handing off the tray.
Harm opened the door to reveal Sturgis. "Where's Varise?" Harm asked.
"She decided to stay at the club in case I didn't make it back before her next set," Sturgis explained. Looking around, he asked, "We ready to do this?"
"Ready and waiting. I think if we don't do it, Harriet's going to burst."
"Well, now, we can't have that happen, can we?"
They had discussed which of them was going make the presentation, Sturgis saying at first that since Harm was senior officer and Bud's oldest friend at JAG, it should fall to him. But Harm reminded him that Sturgis was acting JAG in the Admiral's absence, and therefore Bud's temporary CO.
Sturgis had finally agreed, saying that it was a good idea for him to present it, considering all that he and Bud had been through in the previous year.
Now, as Harm and Sturgis entered the living room, Harm gave Harriet a quick nod before calling out, "Okay, everyone! May I have your attention?" He saw Mattie coming down the stairs and was relieved when she smiled at him. "Is everyone here?" he asked, scanning the faces. Jennifer, Mattie, Harriet and Bud, Mac and Clay, Jason and Paula, Frank and Trish - they were all looking at him. "Sturgis -" he said, stepping back.
"Lt. Bud Roberts, front and center."
Bud frowned, looking at Harriet. "Go on, Bud," she urged, accompanying him as he moved slowly to stand in front of Sturgis.
"The Admiral wanted to be able to do this, Lieutenant, but when he was called away on personal business, he asked me to take care of it. I'm sure you're aware that the promotions board met just before Christmas?"
"Yes, sir," Bud said, already looking a little shell-shocked as he began to understand what was going on.
Sturgis put a hand into his pocket and pulled it out again, opening it to reveal two gold oak leaves lying in his palm. "Congratulations, Lt. Commander Roberts."
"I made it?" Bud questioned, taking the insignia from him.
"You made it, Bud," Harriet confirmed, giving him a hug.
"You knew about this?" he asked.
"I think we all did, sir," Jason answered.
Bud looked at Sturgis. "Thank you, sir. It means a lot to me that you - after, well -"
Sturgis smiled, holding out his hand. "It's in the past, Bud, and forgotten. As it should be. The Admiral called earlier. He'll be back in the office on Monday to administer the oath. If you can wait that long."
"I think I can," Bud nodded.
"Did the Admiral say anything else?" Mac wondered.
"Only that Francesca and her mother would be with him."
"He called me this morning," Harriet volunteered, looking uncertain when everyone turned to look at her.
"You didn't tell anyone?" Bud asked.
"Well, he - uh- he asked me not to. He wanted to know if I could go out to his place and make sure everything was ready - get the guest room aired out, stock the refrigerator -"
"That's where you were this afternoon," Bud realized.
"What else did he say, Harriet?" Jennifer wanted to know, feeling let down that he hadn't called her to take care of things. Immediately on that feeling was the knowledge that he hadn't called because she'd had a baby a week ago. But that didn't relieve all of the disappointment or the feeling that she'd let him down somehow.
"Apparently Francesca's going to stay for the next few days taking care of her mother until the Admiral can hire someone to stay with her during the day while he's at work."
"Marcella Paretti's *staying* with the Admiral?" Harm questioned.
"Just until she's fully recovered," Harriet confirmed. "But he sounded like he kinda - hoped that it would be for longer than that."
After congratulating Bud and seeing Sturgis back to the door, Harm made his way to Mattie's side. "How's your father doing?"
"Okay," she answered. "He just called to wish me a Happy New Year early and to verify that he's expected for dinner at one tomorrow." She looked up at him. "You don't mind him being here, do you, Dad?"
"Of course not. Why would I mind? I'm the one who told you to spend more time with him, remember?"
"And you're also that one who frowns every time he calls," she countered.
"I don't frown when he calls," Harm objected.
"Yes, you do. You're afraid I'll decide to go live with him, aren't you?"
Harm started to deny her words, but something in her blue eyes forced him to be honest. "I guess I am, a little," he said.
"That's not going to happen, Harm," Mattie said. "I promise. When I leave, it will be to go to the Academy."
He pulled her into his arms with a relieved sigh. "Let's go find Jen, shall we?"
AJ lifted Marcella out of the back seat of his SUV, pausing as he turned toward the house so that she could get a good look at it. "Well?" he asked, looking down to try and gauge her reaction to the rustic setting.
"So this is your 'cabin in the woods'," she said, recalling his description from years ago. "Francesca told me that it was beautiful," she told him. "She was right."
"Wait until you see inside, Mama," Francesca said, moving ahead of them with the keys to unlock the front door.
"It's nothing special," AJ insisted, "just a place to live."
"You don't have to carry me, AJ," Marcella objected, indicating the crutches that Francesca carried. "I need to use the crutches they gave me."
"Not until your shoulder is healed," he said. "Right now, we'll do it this way."
"Very well. But I hope you don't think that I'm going to be this submissive all of the time, AJ."
He looked down at her with a soft snort of amusement. "Believe me, Marcella, submissive isn't a word that I think about in connection with you."
Francesca stood back as AJ carried her mother over the threshold and into the house. Laying her carefully on the sofa, he said, "Is that okay?"
"Yes, thank you." Marcella's eyes scanned the room. "Very - what is the word - peaceful - no, that is not the word - restful. A good place to relax. I can easily see you in this place, AJ," she told him. "It suits you."
"I'll go get the luggage," he said. "I asked someone to come by and stock the kitchen and get the guest room ready -"
"I'll check it out, Papa," Francesca said.
"I'm sure it will be fine, AJ," Marcella assured him. "Stop worrying."
"I'm not -" he started to say, and then stopped. "I'll just - go get the luggage."
Francesca giggled when he was out of earshot. "He's nervous, Mama."
"I know," Marcella said, smiling. "I could use a drink of water."
"Right away," Francesca said, turning toward the kitchen.
She returned with a glass of cool water just as AJ returned, laden with suitcases. "Let me have some of those, Papa," Francesca insisted, relieving him of two cases and leading the way into the guest room. "It would appear that your 'someone' was here," she told him. "The room is spotless."
"It's been awhile since you visited," AJ told her. "I was going to have it ready by this weekend, since you were coming, but -"
She put a hand on his arm. "Its okay, Papa. And I promise that from now on it won't be such a long time between visits."
He smiled at her. "I hope not. Did you check the kitchen?"
"Your friend was there as well. From what I could tell, it is fully stocked."
"I'll go see about starting dinner, then," AJ decided.
"And I will start unpacking her cases and putting things away." She smiled at him. "Unless you think she would be more comfortable in the other bedroom - with you?" she teased.
"She can stay in here," AJ answered, and then smiled as he continued. "For now." Before she could say anything else, he turned and left the room.
Marcella was looking slightly bored, AJ thought as he entered the living room. "Francesca's unpacking your things," he told her. "Would you like to go into the kitchen with me while I make something to eat?"
"You cook, AJ?" she asked.
"Had to learn once you left if I didn't want to starve or eat out all the time," he told her, bending to lift her into his arms again.
"You're going to injure your back if you continue to carry me around, you know."
"I'll risk it," he told her. He sat her in a chair at the table, pulling a second one over for her to put her broken leg on for support.
"You're trying too hard, AJ," Marcella said quietly.
"Maybe," he nodded, going to the refrigerator, where he found a note written by Harriet. "But I don't think I tried hard *enough* last time." Opening the note, he smiled as he read it.
*Admiral, I brought a casserole over for you to put into the oven, since I doubt any of you will want to cook. It's in the refrigerator with the other things that you asked for. Cook it at 350 degrees for half an hour. Welcome home, sir. Harriet.*
"Thank you, Lieutenant," AJ sighed, opening the refrigerator and finding the casserole.
"Talking to yourself, AJ?" Marcella observed. "You *have* lived alone for too long."
"And you haven't?" he questioned. It had been six years since Vittorio's death, and if Francesca were right, Marcella had spent much of that time alone.
"I have servants around me at the villa to talk to."
"But do you talk to them?" AJ challenged, slipping the casserole into the oven and turning it on.
"Sometimes," she admitted with a small smile.
"It's not the same as having someone close to you around to talk to, is it?" he suggested, finding ingredients for a simple salad.
"No. But then, Vittorio and I never spoke very much to each other," Marcella told him. "So sometimes even having someone around is not the answer. Unless it's the right someone. There were times when I would have been grateful for a good fight. It would have been better than the silence."
AJ had never really let himself think about what Marcella's life had been like after her marriage to Vittorio Paretti. He supposed that he'd always assumed that they had been happy together. She had told him that the man had been a 'good husband'. But after Paretti had been killed, AJ had stayed on for the funeral at Francesca's insistence. To this day, there were only two things he remembered clearly about that day: Francesca's very real sorrow for the loss of the man who had raised her; and the fact that he never saw Marcella shed one tear for her husband of twenty years.
Even when he had returned Francesca to her mother's grateful arms, and had told her that her husband was dead, her stoic acceptance of the news had surprised him.
AJ opened his mouth to question her about it, but Francesca chose that particular moment to enter the kitchen. "I put your suitcase in your bedroom, Papa," she told him. "You left it in the guest room. Is there anything that I can do to help in here?"
"You could set the table," AJ suggested. "We'll eat in here since your mother's already sitting at the table. No sense in her moving to the dining room." When Francesca moved toward the cabinet where he'd kept the plates during her last visit, he spoke again. "The plates are two doors now."
"A - friend of mine decided that she didn't like the way I had things arranged," AJ said, aware that both Francesca and Marcella were watching him as he continued to cut tomatoes. "I prefer it the way it was, but I - haven't had the time lately to change it back."
"Was this - friend the woman Francesca told me that you were going to marry last year?" Marcella questioned, and AJ spared a look at his daughter.
"I felt that she had to a right to know that you were planning to get married, Papa," she told him. "I did not think that it was a secret."
"It wasn't," AJ said, putting the tomatoes into the salad bowl with the rest of the ingredients while Francesca set the table. His tone left no doubt that he didn't want to discuss it any further.
He stole a glance in Marcella's direction and knew that it wasn't going to be that easy.
Harm followed Conrad Coates out of the house, telling Jennifer that he was going to walk her father to his car. The day had been a strain on Jennifer as she had continued to insist that Conrad agree to move into the garage apartment where she could keep an eye on him. It had been worse when he had the former minister had admitted that he was selling the house in Hagerstown and planned to go into a hospice.
"You didn't have to see me to my car," Conrad said, sounding exhausted. "I'm not helpless. Yet."
"I know. But I - wanted to talk to you."
"Oh, you're not going to start now, are you? I know you don't want me here, Harm. My daughter might have forgiven me, but I don't think you have."
"Whether I want you here or not isn't important. It's what Jen wants that's important," Harm explained. "Right now, she wants you close."
Conrad placed a hand on the side of his beat up old Chevy, looking up at the clear sky above them. "Jennifer doesn't need to worry about me -"
"Then why did you come back into her life at all?" Harm questioned.
"I suppose I never thought she would forgive me," Conrad sighed. "I don't want to be a burden for her - she has enough to worry about. Her own family, school -"
"Her worry is more of burden than your being here would be," Harm pointed out. "Conrad, I know you're a minister, but - have you talked with anyone?"
"Another minister? No. I haven't stepped behind a pulpit for several years -"
"I know someone - he's the father of one of my oldest friends. A Navy Chaplain. Would you be willing to talk to him?"
"I might as well. I suppose even a minister could use help sometimes."
"And at least consider Jen's offer? It's important to her."
"I'll think about it."
"What happened, AJ?" Marcella asked, watching as AJ placed another log on the fire from her place on the sofa. Francesca was taking a bath, leaving her parents alone for a few minutes.
"About what?" he answered.
"To your plans to marry. Francesca told me that you sounded happy when you told her about it. Happier than she had ever heard you sound before."
He sat down in his usual chair before answering. "I thought I was. Still good at fooling myself, I guess," he said thinking back over his having convinced himself that even though he and Marcella usually fought like cats and dogs she would never make good on her threat to leave him and take Francesca with her.
"AJ," she said now, sighing. "How am I supposed to know what you are *thinking* if you never *talk* to me about anything important?"
He picked up the glass of wine that he'd left on the table before responding. "She - found someone else," he told her.
AJ shook his head, smiling. "You're not going to let it go, are you?"
"No. I'm not. Tell me about her."
How the hell was he supposed to do that, AJ wondered. "Meredith was - I'd never met anyone like her. She was college professor. Taught Shakespeare."
"Ah," Marcella said, lifting her own glass of wine. "Shakespeare. I should have known."
He smiled, recalling that he had wooed and won Marcella by reciting the Bard's work. "The woman wasn't afraid of anything - except being the wife of a Naval officer. She was always looking for something new to try - usually with disastrous results - but she seemed to understand me better than anyone had in a long time. I accidentally ejected out of a Tomcat a couple of years ago -"
"Out of a - Tomcat?" she questioned, frowning.
"An F-14. It was a - mistake. But it was in the middle of winter and it was snowing. I was missing for several hours. I kept seeing Meredith - it was one of the things that got me through the ordeal. That and Dammit," he said with a smile.
"A dog. A German Shepard. She'd been abandoned by someone and was as hungry and cold as I was. I took her in."
"That explains the dog dish I saw in the kitchen," Marcella said. "Where is this - Dammit now?"
"I put her into a kennel before I left for Italy. I'll get her out on Monday - you don't mind having a dog around, do you?"
"Of course not. I like dogs. Vittorio was -" she paused, searching for the word she wanted.
"Allergic?" he suggested.
"Yes. He was allergic to dogs. So we never had one." She smiled. "Why do you call her - Dammit?"
He chuckled and began to recount how it had happened. "I tried every name I could think of, but she didn't respond to any of them. Then she jumped up into this chair, and I said, 'Get down, dammit', and she did."
Marcella laughed. "And so you gave her the name."
"I like the sound of that," he said, looking at her.
"And *you* are trying to distract me from the point of our conversation," she told him. "The reason that your engagement ended?"
AJ picked finished his wine and stood up. "I need a refill. You?"
"No, I am fine. And you're not going to keep putting me off, AJ."
He turned to look at her. "Meredith went to Genoa over
Christmas a year ago. I couldn't go with her - work kept me here.
She met a Professore Alesandro Selvaggio who came to DC a month
later and took her to dinner a few times." He went to the
fireplace, opening the screen to reposition the logs as he continued.
"There was a - problem with the diamond in Meredith's engagement
ring that Selvaggio discovered and pointed out to her. While I
was tracking down the source of that problem Selvaggio took advantage
of the fact to take advantage of Meredith's confusion and doubts
-" He closed the screen. "I went to see her, planning
to surprise her with a new ring -"
"Go on," Marcella urged softly.
AJ braced a hand on the mantle as he continued. "She was in bed - I thought she was asleep. Until Selvaggio came out of the bathroom, half-dressed and saw me standing there. He called her name and she sat up and the look on her face -"
"And what did you do?
"I turned around and left."
"You gave her no chance to explain?"
"What was there to explain? Oh, she tried to call me over the next week or two - but she finally gave up and ultimately returned to Italy with him."
"Selvaggio. That was the name of the man who ran into Francesca's car, was it not?"
"Yes," AJ said.
"He died -"
"And he wasn't even cold before Meredith was trying to convince me to take her back," AJ nodded.
"Is that why you asked me to come here, AJ?" Marcella wanted to know. "As a - barrier between you and this woman?"
"No," AJ said, looking at her. "I asked you to come here before that. Whatever I felt - or believed I felt - for Meredith is gone, Marcella. If it was ever there to begin with."
Marcella held out a hand toward him. "Come here, AJ," she said. He moved to sit on the coffee table as he took her hand. "I am very grateful to you for coming to Italy when Francesca called you -"
"I don't want your gratitude, Marcella," he said.
"I know. I am also glad that you came. I wanted to call you after - after a suitable period of mourning for Vittorio, but -"
"Why didn't you?"
"I was afraid," she told him.
"Oh, no. I was afraid that you could never forgive me for - all of the lost years between us." She slowly lifted her injured arm, placing a hand to his cheek. "You see, I never stopped loving you, either, AJ."
"Do you think we could make it work this time, Marcella?" AJ wondered. "I'm even more set in my ways than I was thirty years ago."
"You are a lawyer now, not a SEAL."
AJ smiled. "That doesn't necessarily mean -"
She put her fingers against his lips to silence him. "That you don't use a gun. Like you did when you rescued our daughter," she nodded. "I know. You are not the kind of man who can stand by and watch an injustice being done without taking action. It has taken me thirty years, but I understand that now."
"Why don't we take this - one day at a time, AJ?" she suggested. "Take this time while I am recovering to get to know one another again?"
"I'd like that."
"So would I."
AJ brought her hand to his lips. "Ti amo, Marcella. Per sempre."
"I thought you said that your Italian was rusty," she scolded gently, her eyes shining with unshed tears.
"Only parts of it," he confessed. His keen sense of hearing alerted him to another presence in the room, but he didn't move or release Marcella's hand as he spoke. "Did you enjoy your bath, Francesca?"
"Yes, Papa," she assured him. "And it would appear that you and Mama put the time to good use as well."
AJ smiled at Marcella. "I think we did," he said.