AJ paced the waiting room of the vet's office like a caged tiger, waiting for Dr. Rasmussen to come out and let him know what was going on with Dammit. Putting his hands into his pockets, he felt Marcella's note and pulled it out to read again, shaking his head as he realized why he hadn't believed it to begin with: She had written it in English. While Marcella's skill in speaking English had improved greatly over the last months, she still tended to write everything in Italian - or a mix of the two. This note didn't have one single word of Italian. And she *never* said 'goodbye'. It was *always* 'arreviderci'.
Clara Rasmussen, DVM, appeared in the doorway. "Admiral."
"How is she, Doctor?" he asked, returning the note to his pocket as he faced the petite woman who had always struck him as far too small and fragile to be able to handle some of her patients, but she was an excellent vet, with a true affinity for animals.
"I think she'll be okay. It could have been worse."
"Someone gave her a strong tranquilizer. Probably fed her something that contained it. Very much more and she might not have been alive when you found her."
"Then it wasn't something she could have gotten into accidentally?"
"I doubt it. Most people don't keep things like that outside. I'd like to keep her here overnight if you don't mind - just to make sure that all of the drug gets out of her system."
"If you think that's best," AJ agreed.
"I do. Would you like to see her?"
AJ was leaving the clinic when his cell phone rang. After a quick glance at the screen, he answered. "Chegwidden. Give me good news, Harm."
"She didn't make reservations out of Dulles or National under her own name, Admiral."
"How's the dog?"
"She'll recover. But I was right. Someone drugged her so that they could get to Marcella. And she wrote the note under duress because it's in English, not Italian."
"Meredith Cavanaugh?" Harm suggested.
"I can't believe she'd do something like this. I know she was unpredictable, but I never thought she was unstable."
"Who else could it be?"
"You and I both know that I've made more than a few enemies in my life, Harm," AJ pointed out. "You don't get to be the Navy JAG without stepping on a few toes along the way. Make sure that Gayle Osbourne is still in the custody of his friends with the company."
"Anyone else, sir?"
AJ gave Harm a short list of names. "And you might as well find out a current address for Meredith. The university should be able to help out there."
"They're not going to want to give out that information, Admiral," Harm pointed out.
"I'll put my trust in your charm, Captain," AJ replied. "Call me when you have something."
"Where will you be?"
"I'm going back to the house; see if I can pick up any other clues."
"I'm sure Marcella's fine, AJ," Harm said, breaking protocol.
"I hope you're right, Harm."
Harm hung up from AJ and dialed Clayton Webb's number at Langley.
"Clay, its Harm. I need a favor."
"Hello to you, too, Harm," Clay said. "It's been awhile since I've heard those words. With you and Sarah no longer working cases directly *my* workload's gotten a little easier."
Under other circumstances, Harm would have laughed and returned the verbal jab. But there was too much at stake. "Clay, I need to know Gayle Osbourne's current status."
"Osbourne? There's a name from the past. I'll see what I can find out - mind if I ask why?"
"Marcella Paretti is missing. The Admiral thought that if Osbourne had been released -"
"I can't say I blame him. Last I heard Osbourne was still sitting in a padded cell, muttering AJ's name all the time. Does he have any other leads?"
"His dog was drugged so whoever took her could get near her. She apparently left a note, but AJ believes she was forced to write it. All of her things are gone."
"What did the note say?"
"That she was homesick and was going back to Italy."
"Ouch. Okay. I'll do some checking from this end and get back to you ASAP."
"Sooner if possible, Clay."
After a few more minutes, Harm hung up and passed through Jennifer's office going toward AJ's office. "Jen, could you have Tiner, Sturgis and Bud meet me the Admiral's office, please?"
"Right away," she said, already picking up the telephone receiver. "Has there been any news?"
"How's the dog?"
"Recovering. I need to see them now, Jen," he said, reminding her about his request before continuing into the office.
Fifteen minutes later, Harm sent his fellow lawyers out to do checks on the names that AJ had given him - but he'd kept the college for himself. Even though AJ didn't want to believe that Meredith Cavanaugh would have done something like this, Harm was getting a tiny, niggling feeling at the base of his skull that told him the suspicion was justified. Jennifer's recounting of her lunch meeting with the woman had left Harm with an unsettled feeling - like waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Well, it had dropped today. *Big time*. Jennifer came into the office as he was dialing the number for the Admin office for the university. She sat down in one of the chairs, watching him. "Yes, this is Captain Harmon Rabb Jr. with the Navy's Judge Advocate General's office. I'm trying to locate one of your professors . . . Dr. Meredith Cavanaugh." He frowned at Jennifer while the person he was speaking to transferred the call. When she rose from the chair she'd been sitting in and left the office, his frown deepened for a different reason. When someone finally came back on the line, he was taken momentarily off guard. "Uh, yes. I'm Captain Rabb with the Navy JAG office . . . well, I'm trying to get in touch with Dr. Meredith Cavanaugh . . . Why?. . . My wife - she's in Dr. Cavanaugh's class and needs to talk to her about an assignment - . . . No - it can't wait until tomorrow's class - . . . Look, my wife's -" Harm sighed and hung up the phone, wondering what the Admiral would say when he discovered that the vaunted "Rabb Charm" hadn't worked.
"Is this what you're looking for?" Jennifer asked.
Harm took the piece of paper that she held out to him and extended his arm as he had trouble reading the writing on it, ignoring his wife's knowing grin at his action. "Not a word, Jen," he warned as the words finally came into focus. "Meredith's address?" he asked, staring at her. "How -?"
"One of the girls that I'm in psych class with is taking her class this semester. In fact, she's a teaching assistant. I just - told her that Meredith and I were old friends, and that I needed to talk to her about something important. She also said that Meredith called in sick today."
Harm stood up and pulled her across the desk to give her a kiss. "Did I ever tell you that you're wonderful and that I love you?" he asked when the kiss ended.
"Once or twice," she replied, her smile fading as Harm moved around the desk and headed for the door. "Where are you going?" she asked.
"To talk to Meredith."
Following him into his own office, she watched him pick up his cover. "What about the Admiral?"
"I'll call and have him meet me there," he promised.
"Harm -" He stopped on the way out and looked around before giving her a quick kiss. "I know. 'Be careful,' right?" he asked, giving her that devil-may-care grin that she hadn't seen in ages.
"That's right," she said, keeping him there with a hand on his arm. "If you get hurt -"
"I'll be fine," he said, covering her hand with his before lifting it to his lips. "Hey. I promise."
"You've never let me down before," she told him.
"And I won't this time. Besides, we have a flying lesson this weekend, and I'm not about to miss that." While had and Mattie had continued their lessons over the last year, a combination of pregnancy and her father's health had kept Jennifer out of the cockpit. Now, however, she was eager to get back into the air.
"I'll hold you to that." She nodded and stepped back so that he could leave the office. As he got into the elevator and turned, Harm saw her still standing there by his office, watching him as the doors closed.
AJ checked the Caller ID to see if there had been any of the mysterious calls, but the screen was blank. Knowing that anything in the house that might be evidence would be there later, AJ returned to the spot where he had found Dammit tied to the tree. Reconnoitering the area, he discovered a set of footprints in the soft ground, which he measured against his own foot for size. Too small to have been a man, he decided.
That ruled out Osbourne, AJ decided. But it also meant that Meredith was now his prime suspect. AJ's sharp eyes began to pick out the path that she had taken out of the forest and back onto the path toward the house. Not taking his eyes from the faint trail for fear of losing it, AJ snapped open his cell phone when it began to ring.
"Admiral," Harm said, "Clay just called and told me that Osbourne's still in maximum security."
"It wasn't Osbourne. I found some footprints where I found the dog. It was either a small man or a woman."
"Jen got Meredith's address. I'm headed over there now. Clay's meeting me there."
The trail vanished at the point where the pavestones leading from the house began. "Keep me informed as to what you find, Harm. I'm going to play out a hunch here."
After they knocked and waited without any response, Clay watched Harm pick the lock on Meredith Cavanaugh's apartment, shaking his head. "Some day you'll have to tell me where you picked up that little trick," he said.
Smiling as he opened the door, Harm replied, "Misspent youth."
Clay's expression told Harm that he wasn't buying it for a minute. "Come on, Harm. All American boy next door? Lettered in football, basketball *and* baseball while keeping a straight A grade average and making the honor roll? Misspent youth?" he snorted in disbelief.
"Have to maintain at least *some* of my mystery, Clay," Harm said, lifting an eyebrow while he looked through the items on Meredith's desk. "And how did you know that I lettered in all three sports?"
Clay glanced up from the kitchen bar as he looked for evidence as well to meet Harm's gaze. "Background investigation for CIA operatives is SOP. Even for pilots. You should know that."
"I'm not CIA anymore."
"You know what they say -"
"No such thing as former CIA," Harm nodded, finishing the statement. "Once Company, always Company. Yeah. I know it. Doesn't mean I have to believe it."
"Whatever," Clay said, pointing toward the bedroom. "I'll look in there."
Harm nodded, continuing to carefully search through the papers on the desk and the drawers. Hidden in the back of one of the bottom drawers was an unlabeled large brown envelope, the flap closed with the metal clasp. Removing it, Harm opened the clasp, tipping the contents onto the desk.
Examining the contents, Harm called out. "Clay, I found something." He picked up a silver dog-whistle by the ends before putting it down as his attention was caught by something else.
"So did I," Clay said, returning with a couple of books in his hands. "I thought Sarah told me that Meredith Cavanaugh's area of interest was Shakespeare?"
"She is," Harm noted, going through some digital photographs printed on paper. "Evidently her interests have widened a bit -" he said, holding out one of the papers to show Clay the six photos of AJ's house in McLean - with Marcella working in the garden, sitting on the porch with AJ. "She's been stalking him."
"Anything there that would tell us where she might have taken Marcella?" Clay wondered, the books momentarily forgotten.
Harm rifled through the papers and pulled one out. "She apparently bought a one-way ticket from Baltimore to Naples, Italy in Marcella's name two days ago."
"You think that Marcella might have gone back?"
"No," Harm said, shaking his head, studying the ticket. "The flight should have left an hour ago."
"Why don't I see if Marcella Paretti made that flight?" Clay suggested, taking out his cell phone and dialing a number.
While Clay talked on the phone, Harm continued examining the contents of the package. But his attention was caught by the pill bottle that Clay had placed on top of the books he'd found in the bedroom. "What's this?"
"Tranquilizers," Clay told him while he waited for whoever was on the other end of the line to get back to him. "She had the prescription filled yesterday. The bottle's almost empty."
Harm opened the cap and discovered that Clay was telling the truth. There were only a couple of capsules left, and the prescription had been for twenty. The books Clay had found were interesting - and frightening. One was about drug reactions, the other was about making incendiary devices out of every-day, easily obtainable items.
He glanced up as Clay hung up. "Marcella Paretti - or someone who claimed to be her - confirmed the ticket to Naples, checked four pieces of luggage and is *apparently* on the flight."
"No way of knowing for sure or that it's her without contacting the flight itself. They're going do that and get back to me." He indicated the books. "Interesting reading, don't you think?"
"Scary is more like it. At least we know how she got the dog away from Marcella to drug it," he said, indicating the book, pills and whistle.
Harm put everything back into the package, including the books and the pills. "I think that AJ needs to see this."
"Want some company?" Clay asked as they turned off the lights and left the apartment.
After driving his car down the road and leaving it at a neighbor's, AJ had returned to the woods behind the house and crouched behind a tree, forcing his worry for Marcella aside as he waited. If he was right, Meredith hadn't wanted him to find Dammit tied to a tree. She would have lured the dog out here, drugged the animal, and tied it up so that it couldn't return to the house and wouldn't' raise an alarm so that she could get inside and get to Marcella.
She would have to return to release Dammit at some point. With no idea that he'd come out here during the day, Meredith would believe him to still be at JAG, totally unaware of what she was doing until it was too late.
He just prayed that it *wasn't* too late for Marcella. Because if it was, no force on this earth would keep Meredith Cavanaugh safe.
Hearing a noise in the brush, AJ tensed, waiting.
"I said I'd be back -" Meredith said as she reached the spot where she had left the dog. "Dammit?" she called softly.
AJ rose silently to his feet and circled around to stand behind her. "She's at the vet's Meredith. I found her earlier."
Meredith turned, her eyes wide as she realized he was there. "AJ. What are you talking about?"
"I heard you, Meredith. You came back here to release the dog so that I wouldn't know she'd been drugged."
"You're not making any sense, AJ," she insisted, stepping back from him. "Is something wrong? I -"
He grabbed her arm to prevent her escape, ignoring her wince of pain. "Where is Marcella?" he asked.
"How should I know where she is?"
"Because you drugged the dog, tied her up, and then went back to the house and forced her to write *this*," he said, shoving the letter under her nose. "Only you made one mistake: you had her write it in English. On her own, Marcella would have written that note in Italian."
"AJ," Meredith said, glancing at the letter. "You mean she left? Oh, poor AJ. She did it the first time, too, didn't she? Left you a note and - vanished." Her attempt to touch his cheek with her hand was slapped away by AJ.
"Stop acting, Meredith," he growled. "Where the hell is she?"
"You're scaring me, AJ," she told him, trying to free her arm from his iron-grip.
"Oh, no you're not going anywhere until you start telling me the truth," AJ declared, half-dragging her back to the path and toward the house as his cell phone rang. "Chegwidden," he said, maintaining his grip on Meredith's arm, not caring that he was probably leaving a bruise on her skin. There would be more to join it if he didn't find out where Marcella was.
"Clay and I found something at Meredith's, AJ," Harm said. "We're on our way out there."
"Good. Make it fast. I have company."
"For the moment," AJ said. "I don't guarantee her condition if she doesn't start cooperating."
"Don't do anything you'll regret, AJ," Harm said. "We'll be there in ten."
"AJ, please!" Meredith cried, struggling as he started up the steps to the back porch.
"Shut up!" he told her, pulling her into the house, through the kitchen and into the living room, where he released her and pushed her onto the sofa. "The only thing I want to hear from you is where Marcella is."
"You're upset. I can understand that. Her leaving -"
"Don't!" he warned, glaring at her, hands on his hips. "No more lies, Meredith. This isn't one of your games. Now where is she?" When she simply looked back at him, AJ took a deep breath and sat down on the coffee table across from her. "Meredith, I need to know where Marcella is. Please."
Meredith sat forward, placing her hands over AJ's. "She left you, AJ. Again. Isn't that what's really bothering you?" She lifted one of her hands to his face. "Don't worry. I know it will take time, but -"
AJ grabbed her hand in a fierce grip as he heard the sound of Harm's Vette pulling into the drive. Standing up, he glared at her. "Stay." Keeping an eye on her, AJ went to the door and opened it for Harm and Clay.
"Any luck?" Harm asked, looking in Meredith's direction.
"Hello, Harm," she said. "Congratulations on your marriage and the baby. Jennifer showed me a picture -" When she started to rise from the sofa, AJ sent her a warning look which caused her to sit back down.
"Thank you, Meredith," Harm said, holding the envelope out to AJ. "You might want to take a look at what's in here."
Seeing Clay's nod of agreement, AJ took the envelope over to the coffee table and opened it, emptying it onto the table before Meredith, watching her reaction to his actions. Other than a quickly drawn breath, he saw no reaction whatsoever. "Let's see what we have here, shall we?" he suggested.
"One dog whistle," Harm said. "To call Dammit without Marcella hearing anything."
Meredith sat back on the sofa as if she wasn't worried.
"A bottle of tranquilizers," Clay said, "-filled yesterday and there are only two left."
She looked at him. "Do I know you?"
"Clayton Webb," Harm explained. "Mac's husband -"
"Oh." She looked from Clay to Harm. "How nice that you're friends now -"
AJ was losing patience, and Harm picked up the book about medications. "Thinking about going into medicine, Meredith?" he asked, "Or just doing some research about how much of the tranquilizer it would take to knock out a dog - and Marcella?"
"If you'll look, you'll find an airplane ticket among all of that," Meredith sighed, leaning forward to pull the slip of paper out. "Baltimore to Naples. I put her on the flight before I came back."
"Marcella didn't leave willingly," AJ stated in a soft, dangerous tone. He picked up the needlepoint from the chair. "She wouldn't have gone anywhere without this." Surging forward, he grabbed the woman by the shoulders and physically lifted her from the sofa. "Now, you tell me where she is -."
"AJ -" Clay said, stepping up along with Harm to free the woman. Watching AJ warily as Harm pulled him back, he said, "I contacted the airline the ticket was written for. They said that Marcella Paretti did confirm the ticket and boarded the flight before it took off."
AJ shook Harm's hands from his arms as Meredith smiled. "See? I told you. She was worried about the embroidery. That's why I came back. I told her that I'd get it and send it to her in Naples."
"Why were you in the woods?" he asked.
"Very well. Yes, I *did* give Dammit a couple of the tranquilizers," she admitted. "But only so that I could talk to Marcella. I know it doesn't make much sense, but - the last time I was here, Dammit actually *growled* at me, AJ," she told him. "At *me*. It was as though I were a - a stranger."
"You were," AJ pointed out. "You left, remember? Marcella's been here every day for over six months."
"And she was homesick. But she didn't know how to tell you - and she didn't want you to be alone. When she realized that I would be here for you, she realized that she could go back to Naples and her late husband's villa with a clear conscience."
"You're lying. Marcella wouldn't have left that way. Not again. She and I -"
Clay's cell phone rang, and he stepped out of the room as he answered it. Harm took the moment to pick up the pages of photos. "She's been stalking you and Marcella, AJ," he said, holding them out for AJ to examine.
"Why?" AJ asked Meredith.
"I took up digital photography," she told him. "It's a new hobby."
"All of me, Marcella, the two of us together - this house?"
Meredith lifted her shoulders as Harm picked up the second book. "I suppose this is a new hobby as well?" he asked, handing the book to AJ. "Thinking of becoming a terrorist, Meredith?"
"I was just curious about -"
Clay returned from the kitchen. "The Captain on the Naples flight just checked in. They did a passenger check - Marcella isn't on that flight."
Harm tensed as he saw AJ turned toward Meredith, getting ready to pull his CO and friend away from the woman once more. So he was surprised when instead of yelling, AJ sat down on the coffee table in front of his ex-fiancée. "Meredith, tell us where she is."
"I can't do that, AJ," she told him, sitting forward. "Don't you see? You don't belong with her. If I hadn't been so foolish, we would have been married for over a year, AJ. When Alesandro had the accident, I was telling him that I wanted to come home. That I wasn't happy. That's what we were arguing about. So when you turned up at the hospital, I really did think that you were there for me. I made a horrible mistake, AJ. I was weak. Isn't there anything I can say, anything I can do to convince you to give us another chance?"
AJ looked down at their clasped hands before speaking. "Meredith, the only think you can do is to tell me where Marcella is." As she started to refuse, he continued. "If you do that -" he paused to make sure he had her attention. "If you do that, then I'll personally send Marcella back to Italy, Meredith and we can try again."
Meredith studied his face for a moment, trying to gauge his sincerity. "You're trying to trick me, aren't you?"
"No," he assured her, his voice calm and steady. "I want to be with you, Meredith. Marcella was just a - momentary aberration, like Alesandro was for you." Seeing her hesitation, he pressed home his advantage. "But I could never be happy if I didn't know she was all right. If not for my sake, for my daughter's. Francesca needs her mother."
"She would always be there, between us, keeping us apart, Meredith. I have to *know* that Marcella's alive and well before I can be free to spend the rest of my life with you."
"You'll send her away?" Meredith asked, and Harm held his breath as he heard the question.
"The minute she's safe."
"I promise. She'll be gone. And I'll spend the rest of my life with the woman I love."
"I can take you to her," Meredith told him. "But we have to hurry. There's not much time."
Harm and Clay exchanged a concerned look as AJ pulled Meredith to her feet. "We'll follow you," he told AJ, who nodded while guiding Meredith out of the house and down the steps toward her car.
As they followed the other car out of the drive, Clay looked at Harm. "He *was* just giving her a line, right?"
"I'm sure he was," Harm answered. "It was the only way she was going to show us where she'd left Marcella."
"I think it's time to bring in the authorities," Clay decided, taking out his cell phone.
In Meredith's car, AJ found the dark wig, sunglasses, and headscarf laying on the front seat when they'd gotten into the car. The items made him realize that she had gone to Baltimore pretending to be Marcella. "You got on that plane as Marcella, didn't you?" he asked.
"I wanted you to believe that she left," Meredith told him, tossing the things into the back seat. "Once on board, I went into the restroom, removed the wig, and left the plane, telling the boarding agents that I had changed my mind about going, and left before they could ask my name." She sounded very pleased with herself. "It would have worked if Mr. Webb hadn't called and asked them to check on things. You would have believed that Marcella went back to Italy and dropped out of sight. It would have been so much easier than knowing that she was dead, don't you agree?"
AJ didn't answer as he realized where they were going. "We're headed toward the lake, aren't we?"
"You remember the empty, abandoned cabin there -"
AJ managed to keep his temper. The place was a ramshackle, ancient building that should have been torn down years ago. The owners lived out of the area, and never came to visit, so it had fallen prey to time and weather. The last time he'd seen it, AJ had wondered how it was still standing at all - and had suspected that it was being used by transients through the area. Its one saving grace was that it sat on the edge of a five-acre private lake with some of the best fishing in the area, even though the view of the lake from the cabin itself was blocked by brush and undergrowth.
The entire place was a fire hazard, and recalling the book that Meredith had been reading, AJ gripped the steering wheel even more firmly, allowing whatever Meredith was talking about to roll off of his back. She had been talking about how sorry she was that she'd been forced to do all of this; about how soon they could arrange for another wedding; about how happy she was going to be now that she was back where she should have been all along.
"I suppose there's no way we could get that Chapel at the Naval Academy again," she was saying. "But I'm not sure I want a huge wedding like we were planning before. I'd much prefer something simple with just close friends and family. Don't you agree?"
"Sounds good to me," AJ agreed, but he wasn't picturing Meredith as the bride, however. The gate to the property where the cabin was located appeared to be locked when he parked the car in front of it. "Do we walk from here?" he asked.
"Of course not," she told him, digging in her purse for something, finally pulling out a key. "It fits the lock." AJ noticed that the key looked brand new - as did the lock on the gate in front of them. "I'll go open it for you," she told him, opening the passenger side door and getting out.
The moment that she was out of car, AJ pulled out his phone and hit 'redial' to call Harm's number. "I don't have much time, Harm. I know where Marcella is - after Meredith opens the gate, I'm not going to stop to pick her up -"
"We'll take care of it, sir," Harm assured him, watching as Meredith unfastened the padlock and removed the chain before pushing the gate away from her car. "Get ready," he told Clay. "AJ's not going to stop to pick Meredith up once he's inside."
Once the gate opened, AJ gunned the engine of the sedan, shooting forward and continuing on the narrow, graveled road. "AJ!" Meredith called after him, distracted enough that she never noticed Clay getting out of the Vette before it came to a complete stop to grab her. "Let me go!" she told him, struggling to free herself.
"It's over, Meredith," Harm said.
"No!" she screamed. "He promised!"
Clay looked at Harm. "What do we do with her now?" he asked. "Tie her to the hood?"
"We walk," Harm answered, taking Meredith's other arm to keep her between them as they followed the road.
AJ slid the car to a stop, sending up a spray of gravel in the process. He was out of the car and halfway to the cabin - which looked in even worse shape than AJ recalled - before the engine sputtered to silence. "Marcella!" he called, reaching out a hand toward the door - only to stop as his SEAL trained senses alerted him to danger.
Floating in a tranquilizer induced haze, Marcella thought she heard AJ's voice, calling her name from a great distance. But it was probably only her mind playing tricks, she decided, allowing her mind to replay scenes of the day's events from the moment she had looked up to see a smiling Meredith Cavanaugh standing before her until now.
The woman had said that she was there because she wanted to apologize, that she wanted them to be friends. She had apologized for the accident which had caused Marcella's injuries and asked if they might have some tea while they talked about Italy - which Meredith claimed to miss, asking if Marcella was ever homesick.
Marcella had agreed to make some tea, and had informed her that she wasn't in the least homesick, because this was where her heart was now. With AJ. While the teakettle was on, Meredith asked about the dog, and Marcella, concerned about where Dammit had gone, went to the window to look for the animal.
That had to have been when Meredith placed the tranquilizers into Marcella's cup - only a small dose, enough to put her off of her guard, to make her susceptible to the other woman's tale that AJ wanted her to leave, to return to Italy, so that he could be with Meredith again. Marcella knew that she was lying, but wasn't able to summon the strength to fight when Meredith had placed pen and paper before her, telling her what to write. It took longer than it normally would for several reasons, among them the fact that while she would have normally written the letter in Italian, she chose instead to write it in English hoping that AJ would recognize that it had been written unwillingly.
She recalled Meredith leading her into the bedroom, sitting her in a chair to watch as she packed suitcases with clothing, emptying the closet and dresser before carrying the cases outside. Vaguely Marcella recalled catching sight of her needlepoint lying on one end of the sofa where she had left it the evening before, but hadn't said anything, silently praying that it would be another clue for AJ to pick up on.
Meredith had taken her out to the car, and still Marcella hadn't objected or tried to stop what was happening. She recalled the short drive that ended here, at this hovel of a cabin, with its broken floorboards and drafty walls. Meredith had given her a bottle of water to drink from, and after that, Marcella had no further memories. Everything had gone gray and fuzzy.
She seemed to remember hearing Meredith talking as she tied Marcella's ankles and wrists with fabric strips while Marcella lay on a lumpy mattress on a rusted bed frame, but she couldn't remember any of the words. The sounds had simply washed over her, much like the winds that swept across the villa back in Napoli.
So tired. It would be so easy to just give up. *I am sorry, AJ* she thought sadly. *We were so close *
AJ pushed at the door again, hearing the click of something being activated as he pushed into the small, dark room. Suddenly the entire building seemed to erupt into flames around him. "Marcella!" he called again, finally seeing the outline of her body in the light of the fire.
Dashing across the room, he barely avoided being hit by a burning ceiling board. Lifting her into his arms, AJ was relieved to hear her moan softly. "AJ," she said.
"I'm here, Marcella," he promised, quickly removing the ties from her ankles and wrists. Knowing she was alive was such a relief that AJ nearly collapsed. But he knew that they had to get out of the cabin before it was too late. Turning around he realized that the path back to the door blocked by fire as the hungry flames consumed the wooden building.
For a moment, he thought that he'd been too late to save her after all.
Harm and Clay watched in horror as the building burst into flames. Rushing back to his car, Harm grabbed a fire extinguisher from behind the seat. "Call the fire department, Clay," he said, moving toward the building, aware that the tiny cylinder in his hands was going to do as much good as spitting into the ocean. Clay snapped open his phone and dialed 9-1-1, telling the dispatcher where they were and that there were two people trapped inside the building. He informed them that it was arson, and that the person who had set the blaze had been apprehended.
He turned to look at Meredith, and was chilled by the look of satisfaction on her face as she watched the building burn with AJ and Marcella inside.
Harm sprayed the fire suppressant toward the door, keeping an eye on the ceiling, aware that it could collapse without warning. "AJ!" he yelled, hoping that they could hear him over the roar of the fire.
Through the flames, he could see AJ holding Marcella in his arms near the back of the cabin, which had yet to completely burn. Turning as the extinguisher emptied, he dropped it to the ground and yelled for Clay. "I need help! Get some from the car to use as a pry bar! Hurry!" he said, running around the side of the building.
Clay glanced once more at Meredith before he turned to Meredith's car. There wasn't much she could now, he decided. Taking the keys from the ignition, he opened the trunk to find the tire iron before he followed Harm around the building.
He found his friend trying to pry a warped board free with his bare hands without much luck. The smoke was beginning to thicken, and both of them were coughing. "Let me in there," Clay said, shoving the iron bar in where Harm's hands had been.
Pulling the bar forward, he levered the wooden plank out of place, hearing it splinter and separate from the boards beneath while Harm called out between helping pull boards away. "AJ! We're coming! Just hang on!"
"Hurry up, Harm!" AJ's voice came back. "This place is a damned tinderbox!"
Clay redoubled his efforts, removing more boards between coughing from the smoke that surrounded them. When they finally had a large enough space, AJ slipped through, Marcella still held tightly in his arms.
Clay and Harm followed him around the house, hearing him talk quietly to Marcella. "It's over, Marcella. Everything's gonna be okay now, darlin'."
"Not quite, AJ," Meredith said, and all three men looked up to find her standing there, a gun in her hands, pointed at AJ. "You were both supposed to die in there."
"Meredith -" Harm began, but she shook her head.
"I'm sorry that you had to be involved in this, Harm. You too, Mr. Webb. It wouldn't have happened if AJ hadn't lied to me. If he'd just been honest about your feelings."
"Meredith, don't do this," AJ said.
Harm and Clay exchanged a quick glance before turning back to watch Meredith's face.
"I'm sorry, AJ. I have to. It's the only way."
Seeing her finger tighten on the trigger, both men put their hands on AJ's shoulders forcing him down to his knees as they dove toward the woman. But she spun and ran away, toward the lake. Harm followed as Clay went back to AJ and Marcella.
"AJ?" he said, kneeling beside the older man, who had released Marcella's legs but retained his hold on her shoulders. "Dear god," Clay muttered, seeing the spreading blood stain on AJ's left shoulder just as he heard the sound of sirens approaching - and another gunshot from the direction of the lake.
Harm ducked behind a tree as Meredith took a shot. "Meredith!" he called. "You can't get away. There's nowhere to go!"
He heard her running again, and went after her, staying close to possible cover in case she decided to fire at him again. She ran toward the water, out onto a wooden pier that had seen better days. Several boards were broken out of it, and Harm knew that it probably wouldn't support both their weight for very long. At the end of the pier, Meredith stopped, looking into the dark water below.
Keeping his hands up, Harm moved as close to the end of the pier as he could. "Meredith, let's go. We'll get you some help -"
"I don't need help. I just need AJ," she told him, spinning around, gun pointed at him again. "Don't come any closer, Harm."
"Meredith, come on," he said. "I'll - I'll take you up in my plane again," he offered. "You remember how much you enjoyed that?" he said, sliding closer to her one foot at a time, waiting for the rotted wood to give way. "I'll even let you take the controls -" he continued, holding his hand out. "Just give me the gun, Meredith -"
"I know what you're doing, Harm," she told him. "You're just like him. Willing to tell me anything to get what you want. I knew he'd do it, you know. I knew he'd lie to me again; tell me that we'd be together. That's why I delayed as long as I could in bringing him here. I knew that if I timed it just right, they'd both be killed."
"Meredith -" Harm said again, wincing as he heard the wood crack beneath them. "This pier isn't secure. Let's go back up onto the shore and discuss -"
"There's nothing to discuss!" she screamed, pointing the gun at him again. Harm froze, hearing gunfire. Only it had come from behind and to the right, not from Meredith's gun. The bullet hit Meredith in the chest, causing her to lose her balance and fall into the water.
"Are you okay, Harm?" Clay asked as he reached the end of the pier, the gun still in his hand that now hung at his side.
"You had a gun?" Harm questioned.
"It belongs to the police officer who drove your Vette in so that the fire trucks and ambulance could get in," Clay told him, watching as Harm carefully renegotiated the pier until he was back on the shore. "I had a feeling she wasn't going to listen to reason," he said, looking at the lake. "The ambulance should be here by now."
"How is AJ?" Harm asked.
"He's got a bullet hole in his shoulder, but I think he'll be all right."
"She was still out of it when I left them," Clay said as they climbed back toward the still burning cabin.
Harm stopped, frowning as something Clay had said sank in. "Someone drove my Vette?"
"Well it was either that or push it out of the way," Clay pointed out. He grabbed Harm's arm to pull him along. "Don't worry. He didn't scratch it." He paused. "Much."
The paramedics were loading Marcella on a gurney into the ambulance when they reached the scene. Clay went to return the officer's weapon and tell him what had happened before joining Harm at the back of the vehicle where they were still examining AJ.
"I'm fine," he growled at one of the attendants. "Just get her to the hospital."
"We have to make sure you're *both* stable before we transport, Admiral," she told him. "The longer you keep me from doing *my* job, the longer it's going to take to get you *both* to the hospital."
"She has a point, sir," Harm said, feeling those dark eyes on him, silently asking for a report.
"She's dead, Admiral. Clay shot her to keep her from shooting me."
AJ's jaw tightened. "A damn waste," he sighed, looking toward the now smoldering remains of the cabin. "Thank you both for helping."
"How is Marcella?" Harm asked.
AJ smiled and reached over to take her hand. "They think she'll be fine once the tranquilizers are out of her system. Hopefully, she won't remember much of it."
"Okay, Admiral, we're ready to go," the paramedic declared.
"Harm -" AJ began. "You're in charge. I'm taking a few days of emergency leave."
"Yes sir," Harm agreed. "You can count on me."
"Why do you think I gave you the job?" AJ asked.
"You just worry about taking care of Marcella, AJ," Clay suggested. "I'll tell Sarah to keep an eye on this troublemaker."
AJ managed to smile as the doors were closed. Harm and Clay stepped back as the vehicle pulled away.
Turning, they saw two more paramedics carrying Meredith's dead body back from the lake as one of the police officers came up to them. "Would you two gentlemen mind telling me what happened here today?"
AJ was sitting beside Marcella's bed when she opened her eyes. "Hello there," he said, taking her hand in his.
"AJ," she murmured, looking around the room with eyes that revealed her confusion. "What happened?"
"What do you remember?"
"I was - in the garden with - Dammit. She - ran away."
"She's fine," AJ quickly assured her. "What else?"
"And then - Meredith Cavanaugh. She was there - told me that - that you wanted me to leave. To return to Italy so that you could - be with her."
"She lied, Marcella," AJ said. "Losing Alesandro unhinged her mind. She went crazy and decided to get rid of you so that she could take your place." He brought her hand to his lips before continuing. "What she didn't realize was that no one could ever take your place."
Her gaze fell to the sling holding his left arm in place. "You're injured, AJ. What happened?"
"It's just a scratch," he lied. "You get some more rest. She gave you a pretty hefty dose of tranquilizers."
"You won't leave me?"
"Not for anything in the world. When you get out of here, we're going to have a discussion about the future."
He easily read the look in her eyes. "The future?"
"*Our* future," AJ amended. "What do you think Francesca would say if she found out that her parents were going to be married again?"
"Was that a proposal, il mio tesoro AJ?" she wanted to know.
He glanced around. "Well, it's not exactly the setting I would have chosen. I had then entire thing planned out. A romantic, candle-lit dinner, - but yeah. I guess you could consider it to be a proposal," he confirmed. "I should warn you that if you say no, I'll just keep asking until you finally say yes."
"So," she said, obviously still fighting sleep, "you intend to - 'wear down my resistance'."
"Whatever it takes," AJ promised. "Will you marry me, Marcella?" he asked.
"Si, AJ," she answered. "I will marry you. Again."
"This time, it's for keeps."
"How much longer are you going to be?"
Harm looked up from the paperwork spread out before him to find Jennifer standing in the doorway of the study. At her insistence, they had converted the garage apartment into his study, since he had been working in the dining room since before Johnny's birth. Smiling at her, he shook his head. "Shouldn't be too much longer. After spending most of the afternoon out of the office, I need to play catch up." She came into the room as he spoke and moved to stand behind him, her hands moving to his shoulders and beginning to smooth out the tight muscles she found there. "That feels good." Mattie was spending the night with a friend, and it was just them and the baby in the house.
"Johnny wants to you to tell him goodnight," she said, leaning down close to his ear. "And Johnny's mother wants you to make love to her."
Harm pulled her around and into his lap, placing kisses along her jawline . . .
As they sat there wrapped in each other's arms, the sound of Johnny's voice reached them. "Sounds like your son's still waiting for Daddy to say goodnight," Jennifer observed.
"Umm." Kissing the top of her head, Harm sighed. "I'll go take care of him."
"I'll clean up the mess in here," she nodded, surveying the papers covering the floor - a result of their have made love on the desk - as he helped her to her feet.
"Don't worry about it," Harm told her, handing her robe out for her to slip into before stepping into his sweats. "I'll get up early and take care of it." Sliding an arm around her waist, he pulled her close again to give her a kiss. "I'll meet you downstairs."
"I won't be able to sleep knowing this mess is up here, Harm," Jennifer insisted. "It won't take a minute. By the time you finish tucking Johnny in and getting him back to sleep, I'll be ready to go downstairs with you."
"Okay," he agreed, giving in as he always did. Padding down the hall in his bare feet, he entered Johnny's room to find the little boy sitting in his crib, holding onto the rail, vocalizing and laughing as he threw a stuffed lamb of the crib. "You, young man, are supposed to be asleep," Harm said, and his son turned to look at him. "You heard me," he continued, picking up the lamb and dropping it back into the crib. Johnny held out his arms and curled his fingers, wanting to be picked up. Lifting the boy of his crib, Harm sat down in the rocking chair. "Let's see. Why don't I tell you a story," he said, looking over at the books on the nearby shelf.
"Da da da da da," Johnny vocalized, bringing his hands together.
"How about this one?" Harm suggested, holding one of the books up.
"Ba ba ba."
"Excellent choice," Harm agreed, opening the book and settling back with Johnny as he began to read . . .
"I can't believe Meredith tried to kill the Admiral and Marcella," Mac sighed as she lay beside Clay in bed. "She never seemed the kind of person who would do something like that."
"Everyone has their breaking point, Sarah," Clay pointed out, resting his hand on her hip. "From what Harm told me, Meredith probably found hers after her friend died in Italy."
"You're sure they're okay? He and Marcella?"
"They're fine. Marcella probably just needs a couple of days for the tranquilizers to clear out. And AJ's wound was clean. It won't keep him down for long."
She looked up at him. "Are you okay? Having to shoot her like that -"
"If I hadn't she would have killed Harm. I sure as hell didn't want to face AJ, Jennifer *or* you if that had happened and I could have stopped it."
Mac snuggled against him again. "At least it's over now."
"Yeah," he agreed, smiling when he felt her hand on him. "Sarah -"
"Hmm?" she asked, her breath warm against his chest.
Without warning, Clay rolled onto his side, putting her on her back. His hand moved to cover the very slight swelling of her abdomen. Even though she was only three months into her pregnancy, he was still amazed to think that his child was growing inside her. Their child.
Mac's fingers were busy as well, and Clay pulled her against him, letting her know how much he loved her.
Nurse Velma Watkins entered the Marcella's room, and stopped in surprise at the sight that greeted her. Marcella was sound asleep, curled against the side of the man who had come in with her and had insisted on staying here after his own wound had been treated. Marcella's head rested on the man's uninjured shoulder, and his arm was curved around her protectively.
It was a violation of hospital policy, but Velma, who was a romantic under her tough-as-nails exterior, decided not to bother the sleeping couple, and backed out of the room, leaving them alone to their dreams. . .
Harm and Clay had dropped AJ's SUV off at the hospital the previous afternoon on their way back to town so that they would have a way home the next morning. They also picked up some fresh clothing for AJ, but there was nothing left at the house for them to bring for Marcella to wear.
So, after receiving clean bills of health from their doctors, AJ and Marcella stopped to buy some new clothes for her, and then to retrieve Dammit from the vet's office. The dog was fully recovered - and delighted to see her owners. She barked the moment she heard their voices, and nearly took AJ down when she jumped up onto him. After thanking Dr. Rasmussen, they continued back to the house.
Once they arrived, AJ suggested that Marcella take a bath while he found something for their lunch. "What about you?" she questioned.
"I'll take one after lunch," he said, and went into the kitchen. Giving Dammit fresh food and water, he went to the refrigerator and looked inside. Ever since they had awoken in Marcella's bed earlier that morning, neither one had seemed to want to talk about what had happened. For his part, AJ was suddenly terrified that she had changed her mind about marrying him.
Not that he would have blamed her after everything she'd gone through the previous day. He was afraid to bring the subject up, afraid to hear her say that she wanted to go back to Naples after all. He was putting the sandwiches he'd made for them onto plates when something made him look toward the door.
Marcella stood there, wearing one of his robes that he seldom used. Made of black silk, it clung to her body in a way that made AJ think about dragging her to the bed and making passionate love to her. He found himself unable to look away as she crossed the room with bare feet, her hips moving under the silk in a way that caused his own body to react.
"Feel better?" he asked, picking up the plates.
"Much," she assured him. "I still do not remember much of what happened."
"Maybe that's for the best," he told her, carrying the plates over to the table in the kitchen before pulling a chair out for her to sit in. But instead of sitting down, Marcella placed a hand on his arm, looking up into his eyes.
"AJ? What is wrong? Are you - regretting asking me to marry you again?"
"Regret -?" AJ repeated, and suddenly relaxed, pulling her close to him. "God, no. I was afraid *you* might be having second thoughts -"
"Never," she assured him. "You risked your life to save mine. I need no further proof of how you feel." Her hand moved up his arm to his uninjured shoulder. "Are you hungry, AJ?"
He was smiling down at her. "Not for food," he had to admit, his hand cupping her hip through the silk, bringing her close enough to let her feel how she was affecting him as he lowered his head to kiss her thoroughly.
"Then lunch can wait, can it not?" she asked, stepping back and taking his hand to pull him out of the kitchen and to the bedroom without giving him the opportunity to answer.
Once they were gone, Dammit watched the door for several minutes before lying down in the middle of the floor. Everything was right again in her world.
AJ returned to duty at the beginning of the next week, in such a good mood that everyone on the staff couldn't help but notice. At staff call, he announced his engagement to Marcella, and informed them that the wedding would take place in two months - and they were all invited. "It would have been sooner, but Francesca can't get away until then."
"She must have been very happy to hear the news, Admiral," Harm said.
"You still have a talent for understatement, Captain. Delighted would be closer to the truth."
After that, he handed out case assignments and heard reports on open cases. Dismissing the meeting, he asked Harm to remain behind for a moment. "Yes, sir."
Once they were alone, AJ looked at his adjutant. "How long have we known each other, Harm?"
"A long time, sir. Over ten years now."
"We've had our ups and downs, haven't we?"
"Yes sir. One or two."
"I never got around to asking you this when I was going to marry Meredith - Of course, at that time, considering everything that was going on, you probably would have refused, but - Would you do me the honor of being my best man, Harm?"
Harm blinked, surprised by the request. "Me, sir?"
"Do you see anyone else in the room?" AJ countered.
"No, sir. I just -" he recovered his wits and smiled. "I'd consider it an honor, sir."
"Good. I - uh, don't suppose that Jennifer would have the time to help Marcella with planning everything?"
"It wouldn't hurt to ask her, Admiral."
"I will then," AJ nodded. "Now, let's get back to work."
Two months later, in a simple, private ceremony, attended by AJ and Marcella's friends and family - including, to everyone's surprise, his sister Adele - Marcella Paretti became Mrs. AJ Chegwidden for the second time. Francesca was her mother's maid of honor, smiling proudly throughout the ceremony which was conducted jointly by Chaplain Turner and Father Martin from the local Catholic Church.
After the ceremony, the couple hosted a reception at a local restaurant. Afterward, the couple left to spend a week an unknown location. It had been AJ's idea; he wanted to make sure no one was going to interrupt their time together. They left Dammit with Harm and Jennifer, since they had a large fenced yard - and a pool in which the dog loved to swim.
"Captain, you *must* do something about that animal!" Mrs. Jennings informed Harm as entered the house near the end of the week.
Hiding his smile at the familiar words, Harm put his cover onto the table and asked, "Why? What's she done now?"
"She insists on jumping over the fence into the pool area, taking a swim, and then coming into the house before she shakes off the excess water!" the woman declared in an angry tone. "I've lost track of how many times I've mopped the kitchen floor over the last week."
"Where she is now?" Harm wanted to know.
"She's outside where she belongs. Mattie and Johnny are with her."
"The Admiral and his wife will be back this weekend. She'll be gone then."
"Not too soon for me," Mrs. Jennings said with a disdainful sniff.
Harm went to his and Jennifer's room to change out of his uniform, recalling that she had class until seven again tonight. Putting on jeans and a tee shirt, he grabbed a bottle of water from the refrigerator as Mrs. Jennings informed him, "Dinner will be ready in half an hour, Captain."
"Thank you, Mrs. Jennings," he said, taking a drink as he opened the back door and stepping outside.
Johnny was sitting on the patio, laughing as Mattie threw Dammit's toy for her to chase. Dammit would retrieve the toy and start to bring it back to Mattie, only to veer away at the last minute and run in a circle around her. Hearing both Mattie and Johnny's laughter, Harm smiled and moved over to pick Johnny up to perch on his lap. "Hi there," Harm said, and his son looked up at him before reaching his hand out toward the dog and Mattie. "Dog," he said. "You see Mattie chasing that silly dog?" he asked as Johnny laughed again.
Mattie finally chased the dog back over to where he was sitting and gave Harm a hug before sitting heavily in the other chair. Dammit sat beside Harm, her tongue hanging out, her tail wagging wildly. "How was school today?" Harm asked, feeling the dog's wet nose against his arm, signaling that she wanted his attention, too.
Absently stroking the dog's head, Harm listened while Mattie told him about her day, including a meeting with a Navy recruiter who had come to the school to talk to some of the older students about enlisting. "He was really excited when Marcus and I told him that we're going to apply to the Academy next year," she said. "And he was even more excited when I told him my name. He asked if I was related to Lt. Commander Harmon Rabb, Jr. He said he'd heard of you."
"Really? What was his name?"
"I have his card inside," she said. "Lt. Anderson, I think. He said he was a Petty Officer when you were on the Seahawk as a pilot."
"Anderson. I think I remember him. Communications."
"How do you do that?" she wondered, shaking her head as Mrs. Jennings opened the back door to tell them that dinner was ready.
Dammit barked, her tail wagging again as she headed toward the back door, only to find that the housekeeper had closed it to keep her out. Trying not to laugh since he knew that Mrs. Jennings was watching, Harm asked Mattie, "Would you mind feeding the dog?"
"No problem," she said, going over to the plastic tub where they kept the food. "Come on, Dammit, girl." Dammit looked from the door to Mattie, as if trying to decide what to do. But when she heard the sound of food hitting her dish, her mind was made up and she made a dash for the bowl. Mattie patted the dog's head as she followed Harm and Johnny into the house. "I'm going to miss her after she goes home," she said. "It's been nice having a dog."
Once they were seated at the table, Johnny sitting in his high chair parked beside Harm, Mattie picked up her fork. "Dad?"
Harm paused as he was giving Johnny some green beans to look at her. "I know that tone. It usually costs me money."
"Not this time. At least, not much, anyway. When we first talked about getting a house - you mentioned something about - getting a dog?"
"Da," Johnny seemed to repeat, echoing Mattie's words. "Da da da."
"See? Even Johnny wants a dog. Don't you, Johnny?" Mattie asked.
"A dog," Harm mused, glancing around to make sure that Mrs. Jennings wasn't within earshot. "I'll discuss it with Jen," he promised. "But I don't think Mrs. Jennings will approve."
"It wouldn't have to be a big dog like Dammit," Mattie insisted. "And it could stay outside. Mrs. Jennings couldn't object to that, could she?"
"We'll talk about it," Harm promised, continuing to feed Johnny while eating his own food.
Harm was in the study working on some files while Johnny played in his playpen later when Mrs. Jennings came to the door. "I'm going now, Captain," she told him. "Mrs. Rabb's dinner is in the oven as always."
"Thank you, Mrs. Jennings. Good night."
"Good night," she said. He heard her stop by Mattie's room to say goodnight before going down the stairs.
"I need some help on my calculus," Mattie said a moment later as she came into the room.
Harm held up a hand, writing some notes. "Just a minute. I need to finish this notation."
Mattie knelt beside the playpen as Johnny threw a soft, stuffed little airplane out onto the floor. Picking up the toy, she 'flew' it back into the pen with him. "Gotta be more careful with those planes, champ." She leaned closer. "Don't want to be like the old man and crash 'em, you know," she whispered loudly, watching Harm out of the corner of her eye as he looked up.
"You mentioned something about needing help with calculus?" he questioned. "And who have you been talking to?"
"Oh, Mac and I were talking at the Admiral's wedding," she said with a shrug.
"Don't believe everything Mac tells you," he told her, smiling. "She tends to - exaggerate."
"Then you didn't make an emergency landing in Sarah the first time you took her up?" Mattie asked, opening her book on the desk before him.
Harm rolled his eyes. "I missed a cracked fuel line in preflight," he explained. "We took off safely."
"And you *didn't* crash a biplane the two of you were in and take the wings off?"
"Remind me to have a talk with Mac the next time I see her," Harm muttered to himself. "That one was *classified*," he pointed out. "We both walked away," he said.
Mattie laughed, tapping the book. "Help?"
"It's a good thing you're too old to turn across my knee, young lady," he said, shaking his head as he turned his attention to the problem she was working on as they heard the dog barking. "Go let her in while I sort through what you've already done and see if I can find where you went wrong."
Hearing Jennifer pull into the garage, Harm went downstairs and was putting her dinner onto the table when she came into the room. Taking her books from her, Harm gave her a long kiss. "I missed you," he said.
"Missed you too," she replied, sliding her arms around his waist.
"Dinner's ready," he told her, guiding her toward the table and sitting with her as she ate. "How was class?"
"Boring. I know most of what we're doing now already. Anything interesting go on at JAG after I left for the day?"
"No. Sturgis and Tiner are taking the Bonnelli case to court martial, but -"
"Tiner refused the plea bargain?"
"He did. He seems to think that he can win in court."
Jennifer studied his face. "You don't think he can?"
"Hard to say. Tiner's a good attorney, he's got good instincts, but I'm not sure he has the evidence to get a conviction."
"Bud's second chair, isn't he?"
"At his request," Harm nodded. "He thought Tiner's self-esteem could use a boost."
"He's right. And so are you. Jason's good. He's had good teachers," she told him, reaching over to place a hand on his arm as Dammit ran into the room and skidded to a stop on the tile floor. Jennifer laughed and pushed her plate away to pet the animal. "Hello, girl."
"Mrs. Jennings isn't going to be happy if that dog marked her floors."
"She's still complaining?" Jennifer questioned.
"She hit me the minute I came in the door about having mop up the floor after Dammit goes for a swim in the pool."
"Oh. Today was your turn, then. I got the lecture yesterday."
"I told her that AJ and Marcella would be back this weekend and take her home, but she's not happy. And now Mattie wants a dog."
"A dog," Jennifer repeated.
"I - mentioned getting one to Mattie when we were first talking about getting a house," he admitted.
"I told her we'd discuss it. It wouldn't have to be a big dog like Dammit," he pointed out. "A smaller one would do. Maybe a - Jack Russell terrier or -"
"Harm," she said quietly, interrupting him. "*Who* is it that wants the dog again? You sound like you're pleading your own case instead of Mattie's."
Harm shrugged. "I just - I think a little boy should have a dog, that's all. Mattie'll be leaving in a couple of years, and Johnny, well -"
"We can look around," she said.
"You mean it?"
"Harm, I *like* dogs. We had one when I was little, some little mixed breed that used to play tug of war with a chew toy. I remember Dad could pick him up with the toy in his mouth. Dad took him to the pound after Mom died," she recalled sadly. "Said he was too much trouble to take care of."
This time it was Harms turn to cover her hand with his. "We'll find one that we all like."
"Except Mrs. Jennings," she sighed.
"Let me handle her. The right dog - and I have a feeling that hard heart will melt."
"Rufus," Mattie decided, looking at the scraggly little mixed-breed terrier's face. The dog barked, trying to lick her face, causing her to laugh. Hearing the sound, Johnny began to laugh as well.
"I think he likes the name," Harm said, grinning at Jennifer. "Jen?"
She took the squirming dog from Mattie and looked at the woman who stood nearby, waiting for their decision. "We'll take him," she decided.
"You made a good choice," the woman assured them. "He's a good dog Very well trained already. His owner married a woman who hated dogs and they had to move when he was transferred so they left him here a week ago. Let's go take care of the paperwork, shall we?"
After AJ and Marcella retrieved Dammit on Saturday morning, they had decided to buy a dog from the local shelter instead of a pet shop. After filling out papers and paying the fee, they took the dog out to the SUV.
"What are we going to tell Mrs. Jennings?" Mattie wondered, holding the dog in her lap.
"We'll figure that out by the time she arrives on Monday morning," Harm said, turning the vehicle into a parking spot in front of a pet store.
"What are you doing, Harm?" Jennifer asked.
"Well, we need a leash and dog dish and other stuff -" Seeing her look, he shrugged. "We do," he insisted.
Monday morning arrived, and when Mrs. Jennings got out of her taxi and headed up the walk Mattie sounded the alarm. She, Harm, and Jen all exchanged worried looks. Suddenly Harm's expression changed to one of determination. "Okay. Operation Rufus is on," he told them. "Positions." At that, Mattie dashed back upstairs while Harm and Jennifer ducked back into their room to wait.
Mrs. Jennings entered the house using her key and went directly to the kitchen, fretting to herself that no one appeared to be out of bed and they were all going to be late. Upstairs, Mattie dropped a dog toy from the window, getting Rufus' attention. He picked up the toy and ran around the yard with it before dropping it at the back door and barking.
From near the kitchen doorway, Harm and Jennifer watched as Mrs. Jennings turned toward the sound. "I thought they were getting rid of that animal," she sighed as the bark came again. From the look on her face, it was clear that she had sensed a difference in the sound of the bark, and Harm smiled as she moved toward the door and opened it.
Rufus stood there, his tail wagging, and barked again. "And where did you come from?" Mrs. Jennings asked. The dog remained outside, panting and looking up at her. "Well, you might as well come in," she said, and the dog entered the house. "At least you're better mannered than the last beast they had here," she told him, closing the door. "You wait for permission before coming inside." Sitting in a chair at the table, she looked at him. "I wonder what your name is?" she asked, and the dog rose on his hind legs to rest his front paws on her knee.
"Try Rufus, Mrs. Jennings," Harm said, coming into the room with Jennifer and Mattie, who was holding Johnny.
"Rufus, hmm?" she said, standing up quickly and trying to pretend that she wasn't in the least happy with having another dog in the house. "As long as he stays out of my way, I won't complain," she declared, turning to the sink to wash her hands before starting breakfast again.
Jennifer, Mattie, and Harm all shared a silent 'high five' at their success. Watching them, Rufus wagged his tail and barked once as if agreeing with them.
Harm looked up as AJ appeared in the doorway. "I'm going to be sitting in on the Davenport court martial, Captain," he announced. "Care to join me?"
Harm grinned as he rose from his desk. Lt. Davenport was a Hornet pilot who had been accused of causing a fatal accident which had taken the life of another pilot and several personnel on the ground in the crash. Bud was defending Davenport, and Sturgis was prosecuting. Mac was on the bench, the first trial that she had heard before any of her former JAG colleagues. She was also within a month of her due date, something that Harm was aware made AJ more than a little nervous. After this case, however, she was going on leave until after baby Matthew was born.
As they entered the courtroom and slid onto a bench, Sturgis was questioning a witness. "Did you see Lt. Davenport on the night in question, Mrs. Hawley?" he asked the woman, who was the widow of Lt. Hawley, whom Davenport was accused of killing.
"Yes," she admitted, giving Davenport a sad look. "I'm sorry, Philip. I can't lie."
"You and the Lt. Philip Davenport were having an affair, weren't you, Mrs. Hawley?"
"Yes. Yes, we were. But he didn't kill Mark -"
"And how can you be sure of that, Mrs. Hawley? Where you there on the base when your husband took off in his F-18?"
"No, I wasn't, but -"
"Then how can you know what happened?" Sturgis asked her. "Witnesses *saw* the two of them arguing just minutes before they took off on a training mission -"
Bud spoke up. "Your Honor. Counsel is making a summation -"
Mac took a deep breath. "He's right, Commander," she said to Sturgis. "Either allow the witness to answer the question or move on. Sustained."
"Very well, Your Honor." Turning back to the witness, he said, "You have no way of knowing for certain that Lt. Davenport did not kill your husband, do you, Mrs. Hawley?"
"No," she admitted, nearly in tears.
"No further questions at this time," Sturgis said, returning to his seat.
"Commander Roberts?" Mac asked.
Bud rose from his chair. "Mrs. Hawley, did Lt. Davenport ever give you any reason to believe that he wanted your husband dead?"
"No. He didn't."
"In fact, isn't it true that Lt. Davenport liked the fact that you were a married woman?"
"Objection," Sturgis said. "The witness has no way of knowing what the defendant would have preferred."
"I'll rephrase the question," Bud said. "Mrs. Hawley, did you ever suggest to Philip Davenport that you wanted to get a divorce so that the two of you could be together openly?"
The woman looked down at the handkerchief in her hands as she answered. "Yes. I loved Philip."
"What was his response to that suggestion?"
She glanced at the defendant. "That he wasn't interested in a - long-term relationship. He said that he only had affairs with married women because they didn't - tie him down."
"And what was your response?" Bud asked.
"I - I kept seeing him," she admitted. "I knew it was wrong, but - Mark and I, well, we hadn't been getting along very well - I was lonely -"
"You would have done anything to escape from a lonely, unhappy marriage, wouldn't you, Mrs. Hawley?" Bud questioned.
"Yes," she agreed, beginning to cry again.
"Even arrange for the death of your husband?"
"Objection!" Sturgis said. "Mrs. Hawley has already said that she wasn't at the base on the day her husband was killed."
"I didn't ask if Mrs. Hawley was there," Bud said to Mac.
"Are you going somewhere with this, Mr. Roberts?" she questioned.
"Yes, ma'am," he said.
"I'll give you some latitude, then. But don't try my patience, Mr. Roberts. Overruled."
Bud went to his table, picking up a paper. "Mrs. Hawley, how well did you know Chief Colin Edwards?" Edwards had suffered a fatal heart attack the evening after Hawley's death, leaving him unavailable as a witness for either side.
"He was my husband's flight mechanic," she said. "I'd known him for years."
"Isn't it true, Mrs. Hawley that Mr. Edwards was good friends with your father, Master Chief George Grayson, and that he was in fact your godfather?"
"Your Honor, the prosecution fails to see the relevance of this line of questioning."
"Just a few more questions, your honor," Bud said to Mac.
"Less than a few," she said firmly. "Overruled. Answer the question, Mrs. Hawley."
"Yes, Colin was an old family friend."
"Did you meet with Chief Grayson on the morning of your husband's death, Mrs. Hawley?"
"I don't remember."
Bud looked at the woman. "Have you ever been to the coffee shop outside the base gate, Mrs. Hawley?"
"Of course I have," she said, beginning to shred the linen in her hands.
"On the morning of the day that your husband died, you were seen by a waitress - a Miss Jean Carson - having coffee with Chief Grayson. I can call her as a witness if necessary, Mrs. Hawley. Now, did you meet with Colin Grayson on that morning?"
"Yes!" she said, angry now. "I was upset. I wanted to leave Mark. I thought that if I did, I could convince Philip to give us a chance. Colin - Colin knew what I was going through, he let me cry on his shoulder. I told him that my marriage was over."
"What else did you tell him, Mrs. Hawley?" Bud asked.
"What?" she asked, blinking at him.
"Did you also tell him that you wished your husband were dead, that he would have an accident so that you wouldn't have to go through a divorce?"
"No," she said, "I never -"
"Your Honor, the defense is simply trying to muddy the waters with this line of questioning," Sturgis said. "He would have the court believe that Chief Grayson was responsible for the death of Lt. Hawley and suffered a heart attack as a result that action when there is no evidence to support this assumption."
"Wrap it up, Commander," Mac told Bud.
Bud started back toward his desk, and then stopped, turning back to the witness stand. "Mrs. Hawley, would you still be willing to continue your relationship with Lt. Davenport even though he's accused of having killed your husband?"
"Yes," she answered. "I would."
"No further questions," Bud said.
AJ leaned over to Harm, speaking behind his hand. "You taught him well, Harm. He might just do it."
Harm, who had been watching the members when Mrs. Hawley answered the last question nodded. "I think he *did*. Reasonable doubt."
"Call your next witness," Mac started to say and then winced, appearing to be in pain.
"God, not again," AJ groaned softly as Mac lifted her gavel.
"Court is in recess for the rest of the day. We'll resume at ten am tomorrow morning."
The moment the gavel came down, Harm, AJ, Sturgis and Bud all approached the bench, behind which Mac was bent over. "Mac?" Harm asked, placing a hand on her back. "Are you okay?"
"No, I'm not 'okay'," she shot back. "Damn," she said.
"Mac, you are *not* going to do this to me."
"I don't think its labor, Admiral," she said. "It's too early."
As he and Harm assisted Mac from behind the bench and out of the courtroom, AJ started barking orders. "Bud, get an ambulance here ASAP. Someone call Webb."
Harm held out his cell phone for Sturgis. "His number's on speed dial," he said. "Where to, Admiral?"
"My office," AJ decided.
Seeing them, Jennifer spoke. "I'll get some blankets and pillows."
Mac cried out as another pain hit, nearly doubling her over. "Damn," she said again. "Sorry."
"Don't be sorry, Mac," AJ said as he and Harm slowly lowered her to the floor. "Not for that, anyway. Has your water broken?"
"I don't think so. That's why I don't think this is -" she squeezed Harm's hand in a death grip.
"Easy, Marine," Harm teased, "I might need that hand some day."
She just glared at him in reply, and he backed off as Jennifer returned with blankets and pillows. AJ told him, "Why don't you go wait for the ambulance, Harm? Make sure they get up here this time?"
"Good idea, sir," he agreed, letting Jennifer take his place at Mac's side. "Hang in there, Mac."
Jennifer took Mac's hand in hers as he left the room and went in search of Sturgis. "Did you reach Clay?" he asked his old friend.
Sturgis nodded, glancing behind him. "He said he'd call the doctor meet her at the hospital unless we call him and tell him otherwise. How's it going in there?"
"I wouldn't go in there if I were you. If you think Marines are bad, you've never seen a pregnant Marine going into labor."
"Thanks for the warning. Where are you going?" he wanted to know as Harm turned toward the stairs.
"To make sure the ambulance gets up here. When Harriet had little AJ, they took another pregnant woman who was in labor instead."
"Why the stairs?"
"Bud got stuck in the elevator that day, too."
Harm grinned. "Never a dull moment around this place. You should know that by now."
"Want some company?"
"Sure." They entered the stairwell, and started down. "When are you and Varise going to join the club, Sturg?" Harm asked.
"We're - discussing it," Sturgis replied. "With her schedule and mine, it's not easy."
"Bad excuse, pal," Harm said, shaking his head as they came out into the lobby and headed toward the front doors, where he told the Marine guard that Col. Webb was waiting for an ambulance in Admiral Chegwidden's office.
"She's in labor now, sir?" the guard questioned, frowning.
Knowing the cause for the man's worry, Harm grinned. "What's wrong, Sergeant? Lost the baby pool?"
He grinned sheepishly. "Just by a month, Captain. Here's the ambulance, sir."
Harm and Sturgis went out to meet the paramedics.
Bud had taken Jennifer's place at Mac's side while she and AJ crossed to the other side of the room. "That ambulance had better get here soon," he told her.
"Is there something wrong, sir?" she asked, her voice as quiet as his.
"The pains aren't regular, she's not dilating. I'm not sure what's wrong."
"Stop whispering behind my back," Mac called out. "Where's that damn ambulance?" she wondered.
"It just arrived," Jennifer announced, looking out of the window. "They'll be up any minute now."
AJ sighed with relief at the news, returning to Mac's side. "Are they easing up at all?" he asked.
"No, sir," she told him. "And they're not regular. The last ones were forty-five seconds apart. It's been -" she winced, grabbing at Bud's hand as another pain began. Once it ended, she finished her thought, "sixty seconds that time. And the pain was only ten seconds long. Something's wrong."
"Maybe he doesn't have his mother's sense of timing," AJ suggested, his expression hiding his concern.
"Right in here," he heard Harm telling someone and stepped aside as the paramedics entered the room and took over.
Ten minutes later, Mac asked Harm to go with her in the ambulance. "You're sure you want me to go, Mac?" he questioned.
She grabbed his hand. "Yes. Please, Harm?"
He glanced up at Jennifer, who smiled and nodded her approval. "Just let us know what's happening."
"Good luck, Mac," AJ said, watching as the gurney was loaded into the ambulance. Once it had pulled away, he turned to the others. "Let's get back to work, people."
Sturgis looked down at Bud as they turned back into the building. "Bud, are you just blowing smoke about Mrs. Hawley and Edwards or do you have something more?"
Bud looked at him for a moment. "The waitress is willing to testify about the meeting on the morning Lt. Hawley died. And she heard 'snippets' of something that could have been a plot to kill him."
"Snippets? *Could* have been?" Strurgis repeated.
"Reasonable doubt, Sturgis."
Nodding, Sturgis asked, "Has Mrs. Hawley spoken privately to Lt. Davenport to your knowledge since her husband's death, Bud?"
"Not to my knowledge."
"I think it's time they did, don't you?"
Clay was waiting, as promised, at the hospital, Dr. Myers standing with him. Clay took Harm's place at Mac's side immediately, giving his friend a look of gratitude as he took his wife's hand.
Once they were in the examination room, Clay remained where he was as Dr. Myers asked Mac the prerequisite questions. Hearing Mac say that the contractions weren't regular but that they were also very strong, Dr. Myers pulled the sonogram over to the table and ran the scanner over her abdomen.
"Is he okay, Dr. Myers?" Mac asked.
Turning the monitor around so that Mac and Clay could see it, Dr. Myers smiled. "He's fine. Just not quite ready to be born yet."
"Then why is Sarah having contractions?" Clay asked, wincing as she started another contraction before talking her through it.
"No way of telling - we'll give her something to try and stop them - but if they don't stop, we might have to consider a caesarian." Mac was focused on the monitor, watching her baby. "Mac, have you done any lifting or anything like that?"
"No," she answered.
"Anything stressful going on at work?"
"I'm hearing a murder case," Mac explained.
"That could do it. Your blood pressure's a little elevated, but that could also be from the contractions."
"He's not turned, is he?"
Dr. Myers glanced at the monitor again. "No. That's part of the problem. For some reason your body said that it was time, but he's not quite ready."
"If we had to do a caesarian -"
"He'd be fine. But I'd prefer we give him as much time as possible - let him do it on his timetable instead of ours."
"What do I have to do?" Mac wanted to know.
"Well, first, we'll see if the drug we're giving through your IV works to ease the contractions. If it does, I'm still going to recommend - strongly recommend - that you stay off your feet until this baby's born."
"I was going to start maternity leave in a few days," Mac explained.
"Well, you're going to start it today," Dr. Myers stated. "Now, why don't we let you rest for a few minutes and see if the medicine takes effect?" she suggested.
"Okay. Thank you."
"Just doing my job," Dr. Myers said as she left the room.
Mac looked at Clay. "I'm sorry, Clay."
Brushing hair from her face, he smiled at her. "For what? This isn't your fault."
"For getting everyone so upset." She smiled. "You should have seen the Admiral. He was terrified he was going to have to deliver another baby."
Clay chuckled. "I'm sure everyone understands, honey," he said, leaning over to give her a gentle kiss. "I'm going to let you rest for a minute while I go let Harm know what's going on."
Harm was sitting down when Clay entered the waiting area. "How is she?" he asked.
"What happened?" Harm wanted to know.
"Early labor, I think. The baby's not turned so they're giving her something to ease the contractions so that they don't have to do a caesarian. She's resting right now." Clay sat down heavily in a chair, and Harm sat next to him. "Thanks for coming down here with her, Harm."
"Hey, no problem," Harm assured him.
Looking at the floor, Clay sighed. "Seeing her like that - In pain, knowing that there's nothing I can do to stop it - I think I'm starting to understand how she must have felt in Paraguay."
"Yeah," Harm nodded.
"I don't think I ever thanked you for what you did down there - saved Sarah, saved me. Hell, saved my career."
"I didn't expect thanks, Clay. Besides, seeing Mac happy is thanks enough."
Clay laughed. "Who would have thought after all's that's happened that we'd be sitting here like this?"
"Not me. Look, I'm going to find a phone and let everyone at JAG know what's going on."
Nodding, Clay said, "I need to call Admiral Morris and let him know that Sarah won't be back until after Matt's born. Dr. Myers thinks it would be a good idea if she stays off her feet until he's at least in the right position."
"Have you called your mother and let her know what's going on?"
"Are you kidding? My mother is the *last* thing Sarah needs at the moment. Dr. Myers said she needed less stress. Mother's not exactly what I'd prescribe to achieve that."
Harm shook his head and went to find an exit so that he could use his cell phone to call Jennifer.
By 1800 hours, most of the JAG staff was in the OB waiting area, waiting for Dr. Myers to make a final decision. When Clay came out of Mac's room, everyone looked at him. "Clay?" Harm asked, seeing the worry on his face.
"The baby's not getting enough air because of the contractions."
"I thought they were easing," AJ said, his arm around Marcella.
"They were. But they started again. They're going to do a caesarian and deliver the baby. I need to call Mother."
Two hours later, Harm and everyone stood outside of the hospital nursery as Clay saw Matthew Neville Webb for the first time.
"Do you see her name in the program?" Bud asked Harriet as they sat with the rest of the JAG family - minus Harm, Mattie, and Johnny - in the auditorium.
"Here it is," Mac said, juggling Matt and the program as she showed it to them. "Jennifer Coates Rabb. Magna cum laude graduate."
"Always knew she had it in her," AJ noted as Harm, Mattie, and Johnny joined them to take their seats. Leaning forward, AJ asked, "How's she doing?"
"She's nervous," Harm answered, taking Johnny from Mattie. "They're getting lined up to come inside."
"You didn't tell me that she's Magna cum laude, Harm," Mac said.
Harm grinned. "She was just as surprised, believe me."
The processional began and the graduating class filed into the auditorium. Eighteen-month-old Johnny, seeing his mother pass by where he and his father were sitting, stretched out his hand. "Mama."
Harm covered his hand and nodded, then placed a finger to his lips. "Shh."
The audience was asked to hold their applause until after all of the diplomas had been awarded, but when the Dean called out Jennifer's name and she crossed the stage to receive the document, a little boy's voice was clearly heard. "Mama!"
Jennifer gave the Dean an apologetic smile, and he winked in response as he shook her hand. "Congratulations, Jennifer," he said, and then she moved on, returning to her seat.
Once all of the graduates had come forward, they were asked to stand and turn to face their friends and family, at which point the crowd erupted into applause and whistles of approval and pride.
Filing out of the auditorium a few minutes later, the group found Jennifer talking to one of her classmates. "I did it!" she said to Harm, throwing her arms around his neck.
"Was there any doubt?" AJ asked her.
"To tell the truth, I kept expecting someone to come and tell me that I wasn't graduating at all, and I'd have to leave."
"Well, maybe this will make it a little more real - Ensign Rabb," AJ told her, holding out an envelope with her name on it.
Jennifer handed Johnny back over to Mattie as she took the envelope, her eyes wide. "Ensign?"
"Well, you will be, in a little over four months, I believe."
Scanning the paper from the envelope, she looked up at Harm as he asked, "What's it say, Jen?"
"Yeah," Mattie joined in. "Share."
"This is to inform you that your application to attend Officers Candidate School in Pensacola, Florida has been accepted pending you re-enlistment into the United States Navy at your prior rank of Petty Officer Second Class -" She continued reading in silence, handing the paper to Harm before looking at AJ. "Thank you, sir. It says that your recommendation was one of the factors that gained me the early slot."
"You've earned it, Jennifer," AJ told her. "Now, Harm, I thought I heard something about a party at your house?"
"Let's go," Harm agreed, putting his arms around Jennifer and Mattie as he led the group toward the parking area.
AJ came out of his office, cover and briefcase in hand, pausing beside Jennifer's desk. "Everything ready at home so they can do without you for next few months?" he asked.
"I think so, sir. Mattie will be home all summer - and Harm's mother will come out once school starts to help take care of things."
"It's not going to be easy, leaving the family behind, is it?"
"No, sir," she told him. "I just keep telling myself that it will all be worth it in the end."
"Any idea of where you'll be stationed after finishing OCS? Other than here in the Washington area, of course."
"I'm hoping I'll get a local billet," she answered. "But I'm not sure exactly where. I've decided to go into Public Relations."
"Following Harriet Roberts footsteps, I see."
"Yes, sir. She and I discussed it after my college graduation, and I think I can use my skills best there."
"Don't tell anyone I said this, but - this place won't be the same without you," AJ admitted.
"Don't worry, sir. Your secret's safe with me."
"I know. Keep in touch. And make sure that husband of your lets us know when your graduation ceremony is. Just in case some of us would like to attend."
"I'd be honored if you would, Admiral."
AJ put down his cover and briefcase. "I might as well do this now, since the next time I see you, protocol won't permit it. Hell, technically, it doesn't now." Moving closer, he gave her a brief hug and kissed her cheek. "Good luck, Jennifer."
"Th-thank you." As he grabbed his cover and briefcase and left the office, Jennifer lifted a hand to her cheek where he'd kissed her - and smiled.
Harm saw her standing there, staring into space. "Jen?" When she didn't respond, he tried again, "Jennifer?"
"Oh. Harm," she said, blinking. "Sorry."
"Are you okay?"
"Yes. I'm - fine."
"Are you ready to go? It's 1630."
"Yeah. Let me get my purse and shut down the computer."
He stood there, cover in hand while she squared things away, making sure everything was where it should be for the new yeoman to find it on Monday morning when she came in. "Jen -" he said, glancing at his wristwatch impatiently.
"Are you late for something, Harm?" she asked as she picked up her purse.
"No," he said, placing a hand to her back as they moved toward the elevators - "Damn," he said, stopping as the doors opened.
"I left some reference material in the conference room. I need it for the budget report. Come on. It won't take a minute -"
Sighing, Jennifer followed him toward the conference room, watching as he waited for her, his hand on the doorknob. All she wanted was to go home so she could spend time with him, Mattie and Johnny before she had to leave for Pensacola on Sunday morning.
Harm opened the door so that she could go into the room ahead of him.
Jennifer froze, glancing up at her husband before turning to survey the faces of everyone from JAG, including Mac. "Did you set this up?" she asked Harm.
"I can't take full credit," he said. "You're not an easy woman to surprise, Jen," he told her.
"Why, Harm?" Mac teased, handing them each a glass of sparkling cider from a tray on the table, "Because she can see through you?"
"Very funny, Mac."
"If I can have everyone's attention?" AJ said, holding up his glass. "To Jennifer. Good seas and fair winds."
"Do you see her?" Mattie asked, peering at the officer candidates in their dark uniforms as the paraded around the field.
"Third group, second row, fourth from this side," he told her, his blue-green eyes already focused on Jennifer.
"Yeah. I see her now," Mattie nodded as Harm bent to point Jennifer out to Johnny.
"She doesn't look any the worse for wear," AJ noted.
"She looks thinner to me," Marcella sighed. "But she was thin to begin with, I suppose."
"Actually, she told me that she's gained a few pounds," Harm told the older woman.
"Probably muscle," AJ decided. "Tiner had bulked up when he got back."
"I think they're starting," Mattie said.
After the brief ceremony, during which the candidates recited the oath and were proclaimed Ensigns, they marched back off of the field.
"Let's go find Mommy," Harm told Johnny.
Back at the barracks, they watched as Jennifer's group was dismissed. She approached the group, looking uncertain even though both men had chosen not to wear their uniform to the ceremony. Harm gave her a big hug. "Congratulations, Ensign."
"Mommy," Johnny said, reaching out toward her from Mattie's arms.
Jennifer gave Mattie a hug as well before taking her son. "You look great, Jennifer," Mattie declared. "I hope I do half as well when I go to the Academy."
"You'll do fine, Mattie," Jennifer said, looking at Harm. "I think he's grown since I last saw him," she said, referring to Johnny.
"He has," Harm acknowledged, watching as Jennifer accepted a hug from Marcella, but hung back from AJ for a moment.
Finally AJ shook his head. "Come here," he sighed extending an arm toward her. "Why do you think we decided wear civvies?"
"I thought it was because you didn't want anyone connecting me to JAG," she answered.
"Never. But I would probably have ended up out on that damn field if I'd worn it," he acknowledged, "just because I'm a two-star."
"Are we going to lunch?" Mattie asked, and shrugged when the others looked at her. "I'm hungry."
"So am I," Jennifer agreed. " Let's go."
After lunch at a local restaurant, Marcella asked, "Where do you go from here, Jennifer?"
"Back to Washington," she said. "I've been assigned to -"
"The Inspector General's office," AJ finished, smiling.
"Sir?" Harm questioned.
"You're the one who -?"
AJ sat forward, telling Harm, "Do you remember when Bud and Harriet were getting married and they were worried about one of them having to leave JAG?"
"Of course I do. You had Harriet transferred to the IG's office and he sent the TAD to -" Harm shook his head as he realized what AJ had done.
"To JAG?" Jennifer finished. "You mean I'm going to be back at JAG?"
"You didn't think I'd find some way to keep someone with your organizational skills in that office, Ensign?" he asked. "Besides, you're the only one who can keep my adjutant in line," he confided, winking at her.
"Ignore him, Jennifer," Marcella said. "He won't admit it, but he's missed you."
"I'm only thinking about keeping the office running smoothly," AJ insisted, but his smile revealed the lie.
"What about school?" Mattie asked. "I thought you had to go to another school after OCS?"
"She will - in DC. For eight weeks, and then she's back at JAG - where she belongs."
Later, holding Jennifer in his arms as they sat together on the hearth in their bedroom, Harm kissed her head. "I'm glad you're home."
"So am I," she said, lifting her head to look up at him.
"And I'm proud of you. I know I don't say it enough - but - you do so much - being a wonderful mother to Mattie and Johnny - keeping me straight. I told you once that I didn't know what I'd do without you - I meant it then, and I mean it even more now."
"I haven't done anything special, Harm. I just fell in love with you."
"And I happen to be madly, passionately in love with you. Thank you."
"For loving me. For giving me a wonderful son. For just - being you."
"I've been gone for thirteen weeks," she reminded him, standing up and letting her robe fall open. "Are you going to talk all night or are you going to take me to bed?"
Grinning, Harm rose as well. "I thought you'd never ask "
Much later, with Jennifer sleeping secure in his arms, Harm kissed her gently and reflected that if her luckiest day had been the day that they had met, then his luckiest day had been the day when he'd finally succumbed to her charms and given in to fate