đH geocities.com /jaghavenarchives/CLK_SecondDeg3.html geocities.com/jaghavenarchives/CLK_SecondDeg3.html delayed x =rÔJ ˙˙˙˙ ˙˙˙˙˙˙˙˙˙˙˙˙˙˙˙˙Č Đ‰› Ă÷ OK text/html `šĚ " Ă÷ ˙˙˙˙ b‰.H Sun, 12 Mar 2006 02:13:54 GMT Mozilla/4.5 (compatible; HTTrack 3.0x; Windows 98) en, * ;rÔJ Ă÷
Second Degree Part 3
An annoying sound was dragging Harm out of the best night’s sleep he’d had in a long time. They’d been watching the old war movie In Harm’s Way with John Wayne on PBS. Mac thought the title was amusing and insisted they watch. Halfway through, he had fallen asleep on Mac’s bed, still fully clothed. Now columns of bright colors were flashing from the TV with that ear-piercing sound that could only mean the station had stopped broadcasting for the night. Forcing himself out of bed, Harm stumbled around the corner and felt blindly for the button to turn the contraption off. Relieved to have peace again, and not to have woken Mac in the process, Harm paused to consider if he should return to bed or maybe go sleep on the couch. It was one thing to have fallen asleep watching TV, it would be another to willfully invade the privacy of Mac’s bed.
With every intention of sacking out the rest of the night on the sofa, Harm grabbed the pillow he’d been sleeping on. A small groan from Mac’s side of the bed caused him to hesitate and focus on her. Her arms were still, but he could see her hands were moving steadily. Stepping around to the other side, not wanting to wake her with the bright bedroom light, he flipped on the light in the bathroom shedding a soft glow into the bedroom. Mac’s face changed from moment to moment, her head shifting from side to side. She grunted and moaned, but none of the sounds came close to intelligible. She was having a nightmare. Of that much he was sure.
Not certain if it was best to wake her or not, Harm watched as Mac’s hands began moving more frantically, her left arm rising and dropping beside her, her voice carrying more loudly through the room.
“Mac, honey.” Harm kneeled by her side of the bed and whispered to her quietly. “Shhhhh, it’s just a dream.” He tried to soothe, afraid to touch her.
“Let Me!” Mac screamed. The first audible word Harm was able to make out. Her head began whipping about more violently. She was starting to shift her weight on the bed, worrying Harm she might hurt herself.
“Mac, honey, please, wake up.” This time, Harm dared to rub his hand across her cheek to help calm her.
“Snipers!” Mac smacked Harm hard with her left arm. Now Harm was really getting worried.
“Mac. Come on.” He grabbed her good shoulder and tried shaking her a little. “Wake up, it’s a nightmare.”
“Incoming!” Mac shot up straight in bed, panting heavily. “OUT NOW!”
“MAC!” Harm grabbed her and pulled her forcefully into his embrace. Restraining her flailing arms, he was no longer concerned about hurting her as much as he was concerned she might hurt herself. Whispering into her hair, his voice was quiet but desperate, “Mac, I’m here. It’s okay. Shhhh,” he hushed.
Blood, there was so much blood. Mac scrambled frantically to reach Corporal Beaux. The flames were so close, so hot. Pressure, she had to apply pressure. Ripping her jacket off, she shoved it into the gaping hole in the young boy’s side. Fire, the fire was so close, she was burning. They were burning. Bullets everywhere, her gun, where was her rifle? She had to return fire, but Beaux. Everything was getting louder. She could hear the fire crackling her skin.
“Mac!” The distant voice was calling her. Fire she had to stop the fire, save Beaux. Gunny where’s the Gunny? “Mac, please.” No, not the Gunny, Harm. That was Harm’s voice. No go away, she couldn’t have Harm in the fire. “I’m here, it’s okay.” The voice was so much closer, louder. Where?
Mac turned her head, opening her eyes. Harm felt the moment her body relaxed in his arms, her head slowly coming to rest in the crook of his neck.
“Are you okay?” he mumbled into her hair, resisting the urge to delicately kiss away the fear.
Mac was having a hard time catching her breath. Her side was killing her. “What happened?” She swallowed a ragged breath.
“You were having a nightmare.” Harm’s hands were gently stroking Mac’s back in slow calming caresses, no longer concerned with what his hold might do to her arms.
“I needed to save Beaux. We were all on fire.” Tears slowly began rolling down her cheek.
“You did all you could. It’s not your fault, Mac.” Even though she’d never actually said anything to him, he knew she was feeling guilty she survived and the young corporal didn’t. It had taken him years to get over his guilt of surviving the ramp strike that Lt. Mace didn’t.
Mac just let the tears pour while Harm continued caressing and calming her. His soft voice lulling her into a state of tranquility completely opposed to the horrid fear that had only moments ago consumed her very being. It had been several minutes when she finally noticed he was kneeling on her floor. Pulling away, she wiped her tears from her cheek with the back of her hand.
“You should get off the floor.” She tried to smile, her breath catching in her throat. “I doubt your knees are up to it.”
“Why don’t you let me worry about my knees.” Harm gently stroked away another tear before standing up. Without a word, he went into the bathroom, turned off the light, and came back with a box of tissues. Setting them on her nightstand, he pulled one out and used it to dab the last few tears left on her cheek.
“Are you feeling better now?” He should have had more sense than to have watched a war movie. How could he not have realized that type of movie could easily trigger memories of the explosion? Silently, he kicked himself for once again letting her down.
“A little, thank you.” Mac grabbed another tissue and began twirling it in her fingers. “I don’t remember what really happened after Beaux and I dived out of the humvee, but the dream seemed so real,” Mac frowned.
“It’s not, just relax. Lay back and I’ll go get you a glass of water, or would you rather have something hot like tea?” Harm stood by her bedside. What he really wanted was to drag her back into his arms and keep her safe forever.
“NO. I mean, no, thank you. Just stay with me.” Mac patted the bed to her right. It would be too much effort to shift over and make room for him on the edge of her bed, and right now the last thing she wanted was to be left alone, even for just a few minutes. She really needed him close, very close. As Harm walked around to the other side of the bed, Mac’s eyes fell to the pillow on the floor.
“Why is there a pillow on the floor?”
Harm stopped mid-stride and doubled back to pick up the pillow. “I was carrying it when I noticed you were having a nightmare. I guess I dropped it there when I tried to wake you up.”
“Why were you carrying a pillow?” Her eyes followed Harm walking around the bed.
“I was on my way to the couch.” He sat cautiously on the opposite side of the bed.
“What do you mean why?”
“Don’t answer a question with a question. Why did you get out of bed to go sleep on the sofa?”
“I was never IN bed, I fell asleep on it, on your bed. The key word being ‘your’.”
“Obviously it’s my bed, but you can’t possibly expect to take care of me for who knows how long sleeping on the sofa.” Mac hadn’t really given any thought to where Harm would sleep. They’d shared bedrooms and beds before. It never occurred to her he wouldn’t feel right sharing her bed now. Oh, that was a thought. If only she were in any condition to really share her bed with him. Get a grip MacKenzie. She could barely catch her breath, this was no time to let her mind wander in that direction.
“It won’t be the first or last couch I’ve slept on. I’ll be fine,” Harm shrugged half-heartedly.
“Harm, you are not sleeping on the sofa and that is final. If you’re going to take care of me, you need a good night’s sleep and you’re not going to get that in my living room.” Mac reached the short distance across the bed to take his hand and tug him a little closer. “Besides, I don’t want to go back to sleep alone, not now.”
Harm’s heart sank to his stomach. Swallowing hard, he took a deep breath. The sexiest sick woman he’d ever known was insisting he share a bed with her. He might just have to fall asleep in his jeans every night.
The night seemed to be passing quietly, and in slow motion. Harm kept waiting for Mac to have another nightmare, but instead she seemed to be sleeping peacefully, her hand gently folded in his. After what felt like forever, he finally dozed off to sleep with his hand tightly gripping hers, unwilling to relinquish his only link to the woman he loved.
Blinking a few times to clear the sand from her eyes, Mac was filled with a wonderful sense of comfort. Since the firefight, she hardly moved at night. The aches and pains were improving but she was still too sore and stiff to move around well, especially when lying flat in bed. The burns on her arm were healing faster than her leg and didn’t hurt nearly as much as they had the week before. Every day she could see major improvements. She’d actually thought her abdominal muscles had healed almost completely since the surgery, that was, until last night when she’d sat back on the sofa, and later when she raised her arms over her head and the pain shot through her again like a missile on fire. Movements like those would most definitely be something she was going to have to avoid for a little while longer. Sometimes she felt as though the hands of the entire medical division in Iraq had been rummaging through her insides in search of that elusive bleeder. Not once, but twice, no less. For now she would stick to button-down shirts, at least until her body had more time to recover, and especially until she had gained more mobility in her injured shoulder.
Inhaling deeply, Mac was particularly thankful that at least her ribs didn’t affect her breathing anymore. It had been horrible not being able to breathe deeply, or to laugh. Laughing uncontrollably, or worse -- coughing -- was still not a pleasant experience, but she could however, chuckle and laugh lightly without feeling like her insides were on fire. Not that she had much to laugh about at the moment; her body bore a tremendous resemblance to a tic-tac-toe board with strawberry jelly smeared all over. The incision on her abdomen was healing well enough, and fortunately wasn’t as large as she had originally envisioned. The doctors had given her some ointment to help reduce the scarring, but no matter what she did, she was pretty sure her bikini days were over.
Her biggest obstacle by far was definitely going to be her leg. Between the gash from the explosion and the burns from the fire, her leg was still a painful nuisance. Not only did it prevent her from being able to roll over and move at night, but it kept her from moving too quickly in the daytime as well. Besides, it looked just awful. If she’d thought the scar she’d gotten ages ago from the homicidal poacher’s bullet was unfortunate, the ramifications from this most recent escapade were going to be the source of many an interesting conversation. Never mind a bikini, not even a pair of Bermuda shorts would be able to hide this scar.
Aware of the morning urge to relieve herself, Mac really needed to get up and use the bathroom, but she so wanted to relish the feel of her hand in Harm’s for a little while longer. She understood why she didn’t move much in her sleep, but she was truly surprised to find Harm still gripping her hand in practically the same position he’d been in when she’d fallen asleep last night.
“What’s so funny?” Harm mumbled out of the side of his mouth. With his eyes barely open, Mac hadn’t noticed he was watching her watch him. When her lips curled up in a small smile, he couldn’t resist asking what she was thinking.
“You and your sense of chivalry.” Shaking her head with an even broader smile. “You probably would cram your oversized frame into that little sofa for all eternity if you thought it was improper to do otherwise.”
“My frame is not oversized.”
“But it is chivalrous.”
“That much I’ll agree to. Is that such a bad thing?”
“Not at all. I like your frame just the way it is, thank you.” All the color drained from Mac’s face just before her cheeks flushed bright red at the dawning of exactly how that must have sounded.
“Your frame’s pretty likable too.” Harm couldn’t resist the small grin that teased at the corners of his mouth. He’d hoped she might feel a little something for his ‘frame.’
“My frame ain’t what it used to be.” Suddenly serious, Mac pulled her hand away and started to sit up. Clenching her teeth, she discovered something else the pain in her side didn’t want her to do. Remembering what the nurse had told her, she dropped back heavily and rolled to her side. Placing her right hand awkwardly on the mattress in front of her, she used her arm to push herself up, thanking God every second that her arm was no longer in pain.
When Mac looked up, Harm was already standing in front of her, his hand extended.
“Would you like some help?” He didn’t want to tell her he saw the pained look on her face when she’d first tried to sit upright.
“No, I’m fine.” Mac started for the bathroom.
“Do you want to do your bandages after breakfast?” Harm tried not to let his voice show how nervous he was about this.
“Uh, yeah I guess so.” She found herself once again very thankful for the ability to take a deep breath. If she didn’t, she just knew her heart was going to jump right out of her chest. What had she gotten herself into?
“How do you want your eggs?” Harm backed away slowly, concerned Mac might need help and not want to ask for it.
“However.” Inching her way to the bathroom, Mac didn’t really care about breakfast at the moment. She wished desperately that she could take a long hot soak to help with the stiffness.
“Something wrong?” Harm noticed Mac stop abruptly just inside the bathroom door.
Closing her eyes, Mac gathered her courage. “I don’t want to lift my arms.”
“If I don’t lift my arms, I can’t take off your t-shirt.” Mac turned just in time to see the flicker of fear flash behind Harm’s panicked green eyes. She also saw the wave of fighter pilot calm wash over him as he took a step towards her.
“No problem.” Placing his hands on either side of Mac, he grabbed the shirt. “I’ll just close my eyes.” Making every effort not to touch her skin as he had done the night before, Harm gently tugged the t-shirt over her head and handed it to her, then with his eyes still closed, turned his back to her.
“Scrambled, or better yet, cheese omelet?” He called over his shoulder.
“Um, with mushrooms, and maybe some bacon too?” Slightly stunned, Mac was clutching the t-shirt against her bare chest, her mouth moving of its own accord when her stomach growled loudly.
“I’ll hurry,” Harm laughed, walking a little faster at the sound of her protesting stomach.
Tossing the shirt in the hamper, Mac turned to stare at her reflection in the mirror as the sink filled with warm water. Lifting a dry washcloth from the counter, she pressed it against her cheek, slowly dragging it down the length of her face and throat, continuing between her breasts, stopping sharply at the edge of the scar on her abdomen. The bright red of the deep mark contrasted shockingly with the pale gray tone of the rest of her skin. ‘Likeable frame?’ Not anymore, she scoffed at the memory of Harm’s words.
Soaking the rag in the now lukewarm water, Mac carefully began washing up. Despite avoiding her own reflection, she couldn’t help but notice her hair was a stringy mess. Wringing out the small towel, she watched the water run back into the sink. There was no way she’d be able to wash her hair without Harm’s help. Hanging the washcloth on the towel rack beside her, she opened the bottle of lotion Dr. Schmell had given her for the scar. Rubbing the cool salve into her healing skin, her eyes darted briefly to her bandaged leg. She was most definitely a mess. The memory of Harm’s alluring smile flashed through her mind. Why had she ever agreed to any of this?
Harm took several deep breaths. What he really needed was a very long, very cold shower. Just knowing there was a practically naked Sarah MacKenzie within inches of his touch was sending all the wrong messages to all the right places. She had, once upon a time, been his best friend, and despite her original misgivings, she had trusted him enough to help her. There was no way he was going to betray that trust by letting his lustful imagination get the better of him. He had to do this, not only for her, but for their friendship.
Mac struggled painfully changing into clean panties. There was nothing on this earth that would have her ask Harm for help with that. Bending over hurt her side, and lifting her right leg hurt her burns. She compromised and did a little of both before sitting quietly on the toilet and waiting for the pain to subside. Some times she felt great, as though nothing was wrong, and then there were other times where one simple movement would remind her of what she had been through and why she needed help.
Finding button down tops long enough to cover her legs was going to be a challenge. She had one old flannel nightie. Looking at the sleepwear, she couldn’t resist laughing quietly. Something about the words nightie and flannel seemed amusingly contradictory. She hadn’t worn it in years, but it buttoned half way down and reached mid thigh. It would have to do for now, but she couldn’t very well wear it every day. Maybe Harm had a few old shirts he wouldn’t mind lending her?
“Do you need some help?” Harm called from the other side of her bedroom door. Breakfast was starting to get cold and he was beginning to worry. It had occurred to him that she would need more time than usual, but even so, she seemed to be taking too long.
“No, I’m coming.” Mac forced a broad smile and opened the door.
“Cute.” Harm raised an eyebrow and turned back to the kitchen. “Going to wear that to the next Marine Corps ball?”
“Don’t push your luck, Rabb,” Mac snapped back, moving slowly towards the table.
“You okay?” Harm stepped aside, his brow furrowed deeply, he was sure she had been moving more easily the night before.
“Yeah, fine,” Mac lied.
“Mac.” Harm could tell she was hurting. He’d have to be a blind fool not to notice.
“I told you, I’m fine,” Mac insisted.
“Have it your way. Breakfast is on the table.” Harm waved his arm briefly towards the food, then carefully followed her the last few steps to the table. Watching her struggle to sit down, he tried to disguise his look of concern.
“Mac, please tell me what happened?” Harm picked up his fork.
Sighing heavily, “I just moved wrong while getting dressed. I have to learn to be more careful, that’s all.” Mac spread her napkin on her lap and reached for her fork.
“Moved wrong?” Harm’s fork hung halfway to his mouth.
“It was nothing.” Mac took another bite.
“IT what?” His hand dangling in mid air, Harm still hadn’t taken that first bite.
“Your food’s getting cold.” Mac waved her empty fork at him.
Harm glared at her in thought. She was obviously not going to tell him what she’d done, at least not right now. Maybe she was right; maybe all it meant was that she would have to be more careful for the time being. Harm made up his mind: he would watch her like a hawk and make sure she didn’t do anything out of fear or pride that might cause her more pain.
“You win this time, Marine.” Harm finally took a bite of his eggs. “But promise me, if I can help tomorrow, you’ll ask.”
Not on your life, she thought. “If I really need your help, I’ll ask.” Hesitating a moment, she debated with herself if she really wanted to ask what was on her mind. “I... actually...I wouldn’t mind...”
“Wouldn’t mind what?” Harm took another bite.
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to wash my hair and I think I’ll be needing some help.” Mac’s eyes dropped to her plate in an attempt to hide her discomfort.
“Sure,” Harm smiled. That wasn’t so hard. Maybe she was learning not to try everything alone.
Having finished breakfast over less tense chitchat, Harm reached over to pick up Mac’s empty plate. “Why don’t you meet me in the bathroom? I’ll put these in the kitchen and then we can change the dressings.” He tried to reassure her with a smile. He knew she was a tad unnerved with him having to do this, and he wanted to appear as calm as possible to help put her at ease.
“Right,” she nodded. She hated needing help. Marines weren’t supposed to need this kind of help.
Sitting on the head waiting for Harm to finish up in the other room, Mac could feel her palms beginning to sweat. Fidgeting with the corner of the bandage, she began unwinding the wrappings on her arm. The pink flesh was fully exposed by the time Harm reached the bathroom.
“You should have waited for me to do that.” Harm took the dressings from her hand and tossed them in the wastebasket behind him. Bending down on one knee, he gently pushed the hem of her nightie up her thigh. His eyes glanced briefly at hers, silently requesting both permission and forgiveness. Swallowing hard, he slowly began to peel away the corner of the bandage, thanking God for his pilot’s nerves of steel. He was convinced they were the only thing keeping his hands from shaking enough to register on the Richter scale
His fingers moved with surprising grace for a man with such large hands. Mac couldn’t help but ponder what it might have been like if he hadn’t turned her away, if she hadn’t said never, if they had somehow gotten together before it had been too late. What would those fingers be able to do to her healthy body? Closing her eyes, she tried to brush away those thoughts, to lock them in a box deep in her mind not to be tampered with. She couldn’t help the loud breath that escaped from her lungs as she closed the door on her deepest desires.
“Did I hurt you?” Harm froze. He’d been counting on her having healed enough that cleaning the burns wouldn’t be as painful as it had been the first couple of weeks. At the sound of what Harm mistook for a whimper, he quickly stopped washing her arm.
“What?” Mac opened her eyes and looked into Harm’s deep green gaze. She saw raw pain in his eyes. The old cliché ‘this hurts me more than you’ flashed through her mind.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you. Am I being too rough?” Harm’s fingers were beginning to tremble. He had thought he could do this, but maybe he was wrong.
“No, it doesn’t hurt much at all anymore,” she smiled with a bit of a single shoulder shrug.
“But you winced. I know you, Marine. You don’t wince for ‘not much’ pain.” Harm leaned back a little further on his heels.
“It wasn’t wincing, I was just thinking. It has nothing to do with what you’re doing. Promise.” Okay, so maybe it was a little white lie and it had everything to do with his fingers on her, but not in the sense he feared.
Hesitantly, Harm leaned forward again and finished washing her arm before shifting to clean her thigh. The scar from the shrapnel damage and subsequent surgery was healing nicely. It wasn’t nearly as frightening as it had appeared to him at the field hospital in Iraq. Most of the discoloration had cleared, yet still, caring for this wound intimidated him the most out of all her injuries.
Gingerly, he proceeded to clean the burns. The sheer fear of doing anything that might hurt Mac was the only thing keeping the rest of his body from reacting to such intimate contact. He tried to keep from exposing as much of Mac as possible, but the dark brown sheen of her panties occasionally caught his eye. He wondered if changing her underwear had been what had caused her so much discomfort earlier this morning, it would certainly explain why she hadn’t called for his help.
Mac gritted her teeth behind pressed lips. Focusing on ignoring the pain was better than dwelling on the awkwardness of the situation. She could see Harm’s chin occasionally duck deeper against his chest whenever her nightie slid up and exposed her panties. If she weren’t in so much pain, the chivalrous gesture would have warmed her heart. Scooting back against the tank, Mac set the heel of her foot on the toilet to allow Harm easier access to the rest of the burn. She almost laughed to herself; only another couple of inches up the side of her thigh and the panties would have been a moot point anyway. For whatever reason, fate had at least allowed the burns to stop in such a way as to allow her some sense of modesty.
Harm hoped his ears weren’t turning bright red, he was sure his cheeks had to be. There was no mistaking the color of her underwear now. With her foot up on the toilet, he pretty much had a clear view of things he shouldn’t even have been thinking about, never mind seeing. God help him now, he was only partly done. The antibiotic ointment still needed to be applied. He was beginning to wonder if maybe he had gotten himself in over his head.
“I’ll be right back. I think I left the ointment in the other room.” Harm excused himself for a minute. He knew darn well the ointment was on the bathroom counter, but he needed a few seconds to re-group. This was ridiculous. There was nothing sensual about caring for an injured friend. Why was he struggling so? That had to be a stupid question. He was a man in love with a beautiful woman. That was the problem, and no number of injuries would change that. He was just going to have to get a grip. Straightening his shoulders, Harm returned to the bathroom.
“I can’t find it,” he shrugged.
“That’s because it’s on the counter here.” Sitting quietly on the commode, one hand resting above her knee the other below her hip, she was slowly kneading away some of the discomfort of the recent cleaning of the burned leg, and pointed to the sink with her nose.
“Thanks.” Harm avoided meeting her eyes, and diverted to wash his hands before bending down beside her again. Carefully, he raised her leg at the knee and began applying the gel. His mind focused solely on helping Mac heal. When he finished with her leg and arm, he wrapped them in fresh bandages and smiled proudly, looking her in the eye for the first time since he’d returned to the bathroom.
“Thank you.” She was as confused about all this as he was. They were two grown adults behaving like awkward teenagers. “Maybe we should reconsider this,” Mac suggested timidly.
“What?” Harm dropped his hands on her knees.
“Harm, it’s obvious you’re not comfortable with this.”
“You need me. At least, I hope you do.” Shifting his weight from his heels, Harm sat on the floor.
“Yes, I do, but maybe not for this.”
“I think we’ve got to at least discuss this, and honestly.” Mac glared at him pointedly. “But to be perfectly frank, I don’t want to have this discussion while I’m sitting on a toilet.”
Harm couldn’t resist chuckling at her sly grin. “Yes, ma’am.” Standing up, he extended his hand to help her up. “The living room?” he suggested.
“Yeah.” Mac didn’t let go of his hand until they’d reached the other room.
Taking her time to sit down carefully, Mac propped herself up comfortably on the sofa. Finally comfortable, she looked over at Harm for a few long minutes.
“I’m not sure we can do this,” she almost whispered.
“I can do it,” Harm insisted from the other side of the sofa.
“Okay, hotshot lawyer, then tell me this: why did you leave the bathroom before you were finished?” Mac knew full well what was wrong. He wasn’t fooling anyone. She was going to find a way to let him off the hook.
“I needed to stretch a minute.” It was partly the truth.
“What else?” Like a dog with a bone, if nothing else, she was persistent.
Harm turned his head to look out her window. Why did they have to do this? Inevitably he would open his mouth and the wrong words would tumble forth ruining everything. Maybe he could give her part of the truth… the part that wouldn’t make her want to deck him.
“I don’t want to hurt you. It’s taking all the control I have to keep from shaking in there. The last thing I want to do is cause you any more pain.”
That was not what she was expecting. She could read in his eyes he was telling the truth, and yet, in the bathroom she thought she had seen something else in his eyes.
“I’m sorry. I thought you might find me too... revolting.” Now it was Mac’s turn to look out the window.
“WHAT!?” Harm hadn’t meant to shout.
“It bothers me to look at myself... I thought ... I thought it was affecting you too.” Mac continued to stare out the window.
“Mac…” Scooting closer to her, Harm curled his finger under her chin forcing her to face him. “You’re affecting me all right. What I really need is a cold shower.” Harm smiled inwardly at the wide-eyed look of shock that instantly spread across her face.
“Really?” It made no sense to Mac. How could so much battered flesh have done anything but turn his stomach?
“You are the most beautiful, sexy woman I know, and I’m ashamed that in your current state of pain and injury I can’t stop myself from wanting you.” Harm stopped breathing, hoping he hadn’t ruined everything.
“What?” After what had seemed like forever to Harm, Mac managed to softly speak, her mind having a hard time accepting the concept that Harm meant wanting her in the way it sounded.
Taking her hand in his, he smiled shyly. “Mac, I think I’ve already made it pretty clear that I want to be a part of your life. I’ve also tried to let you know I’m willing to wait as long as it takes, to give you whatever time and space you need. But I’m only human. It’s a lot easier to give you time and space when you’re dressed in marine green. When I have your soft skin under my fingers and can see the color of your underwear, no matter how hard I try not to... Oh, Mac, I can’t help the things it does to me. I’m trying, really I am.”
Mac sat there, dumfounded. Could he be telling the truth, or was he just trying to make her feel better? In Iraq he had told her he needed her, and she didn’t think she’d been dreaming when he’d said he loved her. But even so, her skin was raw and scarred. Surely it wasn’t passion he was trying to hide from her?
“Say something, please?” Harm was beginning to panic. He hadn’t meant to tell her that much of the truth, but he couldn’t let her think he found her repulsive. My God, he could never think that, no matter how badly scarred she was.
“I don’t know what to say.” Mac was speechless.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything. Just give me another chance. I’ll learn to handle this, I promise.” Harm was desperately regretting having said anything. How could Mac possibly let him touch her again knowing he was lusting after her with every stroke?
“You’re really serious? You really want me that way, in spite of…?” Waving her hands over herself, Mac tilted her head as though that would somehow make everything clearer to her.
“Oh, Mac…” There was so much doubt in her eyes. Still holding her hand, he slid further along the couch until he was teetering on the edge beside her. Placing his free hand behind her head, he drew her into his advancing lips, capturing hers in a tender caress. He had every intention of keeping the kiss short and sweet, but when he felt the softness of her lips press against his, he found himself lost in the sensations.
Releasing her hand and wrapping his arm around her, careful of all her sore spots, he pulled her more tightly against him, as close as he dared. His lips played and teased with hers, his tongue slid past his lips and pleaded with hers for entrance. Mac’s fingers raked their way up his chest as her tongue darted out to meet and tangle with his. She tasted exactly the way he remembered.
His heart was racing wildly. Her fingers, swirling tantalizing patterns across his chest, were sending shivers down his spine and a few other places as well. Alarm bells were going off in his head. He had to back away before he did something foolish. Every ounce of his body was craving more of Mac. Unable to move his arms for fear of brushing against a painfully sensitive part of her bruised body, Harm forced himself to break the kiss.
“Woooww… that was some kiss, sailor.” Mac pressed her lips together, savoring the lingering taste of Harmon Rabb.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to let that get away from me.” His breath heavy and ragged, Harm rested his forehead against hers, dropping his hand down her arm. Hesitating briefly as it brushed across her bandage, he took hold of her hand again.
“I’m so glad you really mean that.” Mac squeezed his hand, her breathing a little heavy too.
“Someday I hope to show you exactly how much I mean it.” Harm raised his head and kissed her forehead. “If you’ll let me.”
‘If I’ll let him?’ That had to be the stupidest thing Harm had ever said to her. Mac was having a hard time getting her breathing under control. His thumb was slowly caressing the back of her hand, stoking the fires that had been so powerfully ignited by that searing kiss. Her body was tingling, desperate with desire. She couldn’t help but curse that blasted humvee. There wasn’t an inch of her body, heart, or soul that didn’t want Harmon Rabb right now as much as she hoped he wanted her.
Harm watched Mac’s closed eyelids, wondering what she was thinking. Would she be ready to continue with this when her health allowed, or was she contemplating how to fling him across the room without causing herself any pain? Unconsciously, his thumb stroked and played with the back of her hand, much in the way he wanted to stroke and caress her entire body. He was having a hard time getting back under control. Practically lying on top of her most likely wasn’t helping. Her hands were no longer between them, and he could feel the soft form of her breasts molding against his body. Trying not to think about them was only making the situation more difficult for him. He simply had to pull himself away. At least off the couch, probably across the room would be good, or maybe, better yet, outside in the winter cold without a coat. Yeah, maybe that would solve his problem.
Shifting uncomfortably in his now very tight jeans, Harm let go of Mac’s hand and made his way to the chair across from her.
Having sensed her watching him walk across the room, Harm turned to look in her direction. He locked onto her gaze, still unable to determine what was going on behind those beautiful dark brown eyes.
“I, um, don’t want to leave you alone, but I really could use some fresh air, or a shower maybe,” Harm smiled, hoping she didn’t think he was running away.
“Me too,” she chuckled, “But I’m not allowed to do either.”
Oh great! That was just what he needed, visions of Mac and him in a shower together began dancing around in his head. Immediately, his jeans were becoming increasingly more uncomfortable.
Harm dropped his face in his hands.
“Are you okay?” Mac panicked, that wasn’t a move she’d often seen Harm do.
“Yeah.” He replied through his fingers. His shoulders started shaking as a low grumbling chuckle grew into a hearty laugh. “We make quite a pair don’t we?” Harm dropped his hands and looked straight at Mac.
“You could say that,” she smiled.
“Why didn’t we do this years ago?”
“Fear? Okay, Stupidity,” she shrugged.
“Sounds more like it.” Harm looked down at an unusually intriguing spot on the carpet. Still focusing on the floor, “Does this mean we finally want the same thing at the same time?” He was afraid to look up and see her reaction, but he had no choice.
“I’d like to think so.” Mac tried not to blush.
“Then you’re not mad at me?”
“For what? For telling me you want me? That you don’t find me repulsive? Or for kissing my socks off? The answer to all of the above is ‘no’.” Mac could see the wave of relief literally wash over Harm’s face.
“We’ll probably have to readdress this again at a more appropriate time, like maybe when your legs don’t look so damn gorgeous draped across that sofa.” Harm raised a suggestive eyebrow, breaking into a broad grin. Her legs were gorgeous, and the way she sat hiked her nightie up high enough to pretty much expose most of the long limbs.
“Sorry.” Mac blushed again, tugging at her nightgown.
“Don’t be. If you can trust me with another chance, I can do this. Really I can. I’ve been watching those legs for years.” Harm rolled his eyes at her playfully. A sense of humor was probably the only way they were going to get through this.
“Nothing you do can ever make me lose trust in you. Don’t you know that yet?” Mac shifted her weight and used her arm to push off the sofa. “Under any circumstance, or condition, I’d trust you with my life… and my virtue,” she giggled. Like she’d really seen that in the recent past. Dropping her hand on his shoulder, she smiled at him. “You want to help me wash my hair before or after you shower and change?”
Thankful she was making this easy for him, Harm grinned up at Mac, his hand covering the one resting on his shoulder. “How much of a mess do you think we’ll make?” He was taking the less serious approach to this one.
“If you build the ark, I’ll collect the animals,” Mac played back.
“Then we’d better tackle your hair first.” Harm stood up chuckling and took hold of Mac’s hand.
“Where is the best place to do this?” he asked more seriously.
“Under normal circumstances, I’d say the kitchen, but the way I feel, I’m not sure.”
Harm ran the options through his mind and decided it would indeed still be easier in the kitchen, especially with the vegetable sprayer. Besides, he was much calmer now, but wasn’t too sure he was ready to be confined with her again in the small space of the bathroom.
They bumbled their way through figuring out whether it was easier for Mac to face forward or backward, if she should stand or sit in a chair, could she help a little or was he going to do have to do it all. When Harm squirted the shampoo all over his chest and then sprayed the water across the kitchen, not once but three times, they laughed until they cried.
Once Harm had cleaned up the sloppy mess they’d made in the kitchen, he showered and dressed, then joined Mac in the living room for a game of Scrabble. Somehow, knowing it was okay to be attracted to Mac took some of the edge off the situation. The afternoon was pleasant and playful. After Scrabble they played cards, watched a movie and then played cards some more.
By three o’clock, Harriet had called and told them not to cook dinner. She was bringing over a casserole, and if they were up to it, she and Bud would love to stay and visit. Mac and Harm agreed company would be nice. All Mac had to decide was what to wear. She had no intention of greeting company in a flannel nightie.
Buckling her bra in front and turning it around, she managed to pull up the straps with a minimal amount of struggle. She chose a loose dress that made her look like a whale, but it wouldn’t hurt any of her bumps, bruises, or incisions. The only catch was it zippered in the back and she would need Harm’s help with that. Regardless, helping with a zipper would have to be easier than yesterday’s sweatshirt escapade.
After calling Harm into her room to help with the zipper, she almost jumped out of her skin when he leaned down and kissed her bare shoulder before raising the zipper to cover her exposed back.
“Sorry,” he offered, not sounding at all repentant.
“No, that’s okay. Actually, more than okay, that was nice.” Mac turned her head to smile at Harm over her shoulder. This might not turn out to be so bad after all.
Feeling free to express at least some minor affection was definitely making the entire situation more bearable for Harm. At least, it seemed to for now.
Harriet had been in Mac’s living room all of ten minutes when she noticed something different in the air. She’d left the kids with a neighbor and had driven over alone to meet up with Bud. Expecting him any time, they’d opted to leave the casserole warming in the oven.
“How are things working out, ma’am?” Harriet took another sip of her drink and shifted in her seat. She’d been watching her two friends carefully but couldn’t quite put her finger on what was nagging at her.
“Harriet. You’re not in uniform and you’re no longer on active duty… surely you can remember my name?” Mac sighed in frustration.
“Yes, ma…ac,” Harriet chuckled to herself, then looked down at her watch.
“What time did Bud say he’d be here?” Harm asked, noticing Harriet kept glancing at the time.
“Five thirty. I guess something must have come up at the last minute. If you’re hungry, I don’t think he’ll mind if we start without him,” Harriet offered.
“Nonsense, it’s barely six o’clock. I don’t think starvation is an issue,” Harm reassured her.
“He’s right, Harriet, there’s no hurry. It’s not like I have anywhere to go.” Mac’s laughter was interrupted by the ringing of her phone.
“MacKenzie. Oh, hi Bud… We were just talking about you…. Of course… Understood….Not a problem… We’ll see you when you get here.” Mac hung up the phone and turned back towards Harriet.
“It seems Cresswell called Bud into his office as he was about to catch the elevator, so he couldn’t call sooner. He just got out and is on his way.”
“I guess that explains it then.” Harriet shrugged, her expression much calmer. Harriet didn’t like to worry unnecessarily, but having lost baby Sarah and then with Bud stepping on a landmine, she didn’t presume bad things couldn’t happen to them.
Harm played host so Mac wouldn’t overdo it. He refilled Harriet’s drink, and brought out some crackers and cheese to munch on while they waited for Bud to join them.
“It must be awfully busy at your house now with four children?” Harm stated the obvious.
“It’s different. I’ll give you that. Twins is nothing like having one baby. If I thought I didn’t get much sleep with AJ or Jimmy, I had no idea,” Harriet laughed loudly. “You learn just how little sleep you really need to survive when you have twins.”
“When I’m feeling better, maybe you can leave the kids with us for an evening, or even a weekend?” Mac glanced at Harm for his approval.
Harriet turned to see Harm nod his agreement before Mac continued.
“Yes, wouldn’t a weekend alone, getting all the sleep you want, be a nice treat?” Mac offered.
“I think a weekend would be a bit long, especially since I’m nursing, but an evening out like tonight is always a nice perk.” Harriet’s mouth was saying one thing but her mind was working overtime on something else. Mac offered ‘us’ before checking with Harm. Something was definitely up. Could it be they were really together and hadn’t told anyone? No, there’d be no reason to hide that from her and Bud. Harriet hadn’t realized her brow was curling deeper and deeper in thought as she pondered what was happening around her.
“Is something wrong?” Mac asked, suddenly concerned by the contorted expression on Harriet’s face.
“What? Oh, no, just lost in thought I guess. With four children they say the mind is the first thing to go!” Harriet laughed, hoping she’d diverted everyone’s attention. Based on the laughter filling the room, she was fairly sure she’d been successful.
It wasn’t long before Bud was knocking on the door. Harm hopped up immediately and greeted his long-time friend.
“Good to see you.” Harm patted Bud on the shoulder, stepping aside to let him into the room.
“You too, sir,” Bud smiled. “You’re looking much better, Colonel.” Bud handed Mac a small bouquet of mixed flowers.
“You didn’t have to do that, Bud. Bringing dinner was already above and beyond the call of duty.” Mac couldn’t hide the smile that spread across her face as she sniffed the beautiful arrangement. “But, I have to admit, I’m glad you did. They’re glorious.”
“Here, let me put them in a vase for you.” Harm was at her side in a flash, ready to receive the colorful blooms.
Harm almost tripped on his way to the kitchen. She’d called him ‘hon’. He was sure she hadn’t said ‘Harm’, and if the deer in the headlights look on Bud’s and Harriet’s faces were any indication, they’d noticed the slip too. Mac, on the other hand, had either lost her mind or was completely oblivious to what she’d just done.
Noticing Bud standing frozen in place, Mac pushed herself off the sofa. “Here Bud, let me take your coat. Sit anywhere you like. Dinner will be ready shortly, I’m sure.” Mac reached for Bud’s overcoat.
“No need to get up, ma’am. I can take care of it. Where do you want me to put it?” Bud offered, suddenly annoyed with himself for being so dense and giving Mac time to get up at all.
“Nonsense, a little exercise is good for me.” Mac extended her hand again waiting for the coat.
“Thank you ma’am.” He grudgingly handed the coat over, shrugging apologetically at his wife and Harm.
Glaring pointedly at Mac, as she turned to carry the garment into the other room, Harm silently scolded her for not letting him get the coat. “Bud, why don’t you and Harriet come sit at the table? When Mac comes back we can go ahead and start dinner.” Harm didn’t see any need to make her get up off the couch again in a few minutes. They might as well wait for supper at the table.
“So, did Cresswell have anything interesting for you?” Harm asked, pulling the casserole out of the oven.
“Sort of.” Bud hadn’t wanted to bring it up until after dinner.
Making her way back from the bedroom where she’d left Bud’s coat, Mac sniffed heavily at the air, rubbing her tummy in anticipation of real food. “Harriet, this smells even better than it did when it was still in the oven.”
“One of the moms from AJ’s class gave me this great recipe for tuna casserole. It’s made with potato chips.” Harriet scrunched her face with amusement.
“Whatever it’s made with, Mac is right, it smells great.” Harm placed the dish on the table. Tossing the oven mitts to one side, he took a seat next to Mac.
Bud was relieved that for now the subject of Cresswell had fallen by the wayside.
“Honey, Harm and Mac have offered to watch the kids for us some night when she’s feeling better.” Harriet scooped food on a plate and set it before her husband. Deliberating a fraction of a second, she glanced at Mac’s cast and decided to continue serving the rest of the table.
“Thank you,” Bud smiled politely.
“Actually, we offered an entire weekend, but Harriet said that wasn’t practical while she’s still nursing,” Harm added, accepting a plate from Harriet and setting it in front of Mac.
“Let’s see what you think after one night. If the offer still holds, maybe we’ll take you up on it sooner than you think.” Harriet handed Harm a plate and began serving herself.
“I’m sure we won’t change our minds,” Mac spoke for both of them. Harm just nodded in agreement.
Harriet took a bite of food, her eyes darting back and forth between Harm and Mac. Something was most definitely going on, she just couldn’t put her finger on it.
“So Bud, you never did tell me what Cresswell needed you for.” Harm took a bite of the casserole, his fork preparing for his next mouthful.
“Well, sir...” Bud hesitated a moment, he didn’t think he could stall any longer. “He wanted to see me about you, sir.”
“Me?” Harm stopped with his fork in mid motion to his mouth.
“Yes, sir. It seems there was an incident at the prison in Iraq.”
“And?” Harm let his fork fall quietly to his plate. He could feel Mac’s eyes boring a hole through him and purposely avoided looking in her direction. He’d neglected to mention anything about the incident to her.
“Well, sir, it seems the DIA was more than a little upset the prison command overlooked the incident. They’re insisting on an Article 32. Conduct unbecoming, and assault, sir.”
“An article 32 without a JAG investigation?” Harm sat back in his chair, his appetite nowhere to be found.
“Not exactly. Colonel Howell refuses to send the incident to hearing without an investigation. Apparently a Gunnery Sergeant Todd Billings has stated for the record that there was no assault. Another witness, a Sergeant Andrew Kepo has been on special forces operations for the last 8 days and has not been available for comment.” Bud took a bite of his food, even though he wasn’t very hungry at the moment either.
“I see.” Harm picked up his fork again.
“Well, I don’t,” Mac spat rather angrily. “What’s this all about? And exactly how do you fit into it Bud? Is the General sending you to investigate?”
Bud looked at Harm, silently pleading for assistance. He hated it when Mac went into marine interrogation mode.
“Well, ma’am. I believe the General was just fishing for input as to the Commander’s …uhm…level of concern for you, ma’am.” Bud quickly took another bite of food. Perhaps if his mouth were full she’d stop asking questions.
“What?” Three voices chorused around him.
“He wanted to know if your …relationship with the Colonel is conducive to unprovoked attacks of perceived threats.” Still looking at Harm, Bud set his fork down again. If he was going to have to face the firing squad he might as well not do it with his mouth full.
“He asked you that?” Harm seemed surprised.
“More or less, yes. I explained that you and the Colonel have been partners and friends for many years and that you both hold yourselves to the highest of standards in all situations, regardless of circumstances. I also added that you would defend any fellow officer if their lives were threatened or their reputations attacked.”
“And what did he say?” Mac asked this time.
“Not much, he just told me if I needed to go to Iraq, to take Coates with me.” Bud shrugged his shoulders, not sure why the General saw a need to use Coates.
“Apparently he’s trying to broaden her resume,” Harm mumbled under his breath.
“Well, sir, you have to admit you couldn’t ask for two better advocates for the investigation.” Harriet tried to find the bright side to the situation.
“I suppose he could have sent Sturgis,” Harm scoffed.
“Harm, you two may have your recent differences, but you’ve been friends a lot longer. Under any circumstances, Sturgis wouldn’t ignore the truth.” Mac placed her hand on Harm’s arm, a gesture not unnoticed by Harriet.
“He also wants to see you in his office tomorrow. The sooner the better,” Bud added.
“I can’t come in now,” Harm blurted out without thinking.
“Sure you can. I can be left home alone for a few hours. It’s not like I’m an invalid. I just need your help with the wound care and my clothes.” Mac regretted her words the minute they left her lips. She knew Harriet caught that last comment and Mac didn’t dare look in Harriet’s direction.
“Still, what if something happens?” Looking directly into Mac’s eyes, Harm completely ignored her remark about clothes. Right now what anybody else might be thinking of their situation was the last thing on his mind.
“Nothing can happen. It’s not like that commercial ‘I’ve fallen and I can’t get up’. I can do almost anything alone if I have to. We’ll just see to it that everything I need help with is done before you leave.” She could tell Harm still didn’t want to leave her alone.
“If you’d like Harm, I can come stay with Mac while you meet with General Cresswell,” Harriet offered.
“You need to speak to the General, sir. So far all he has is the brief statement from the Gunny and the DIA’s report on the prisoner’s accusations. The fact that it’s the same prisoner that sent the Colonel to the infirmary already doesn’t bode well for his claims. It would really help your case if the General heard your side of it, sir.” Bud knew that Harm wouldn’t disobey a direct order to report for duty, but a little encouragement in the right direction couldn’t hurt.
“Very well.” Harm immediately noticed Mac stiffen when she heard Bud mention it was the same prisoner who had attacked her. He knew he was going to have a lot of explaining to do after Bud and Harriet left. He’d better start appeasing her now. “Tell the General I’ll be in as early as I can once the Colonel is set for the day.”
“I’m sure everything will be cleared up once you speak to the General and this other sergeant returns. In the meantime, everyone finish up. Did you bring it Bud?” Harriet’s eyebrows inched higher in anticipation.
“I left it in the car.” Bud took his wife’s hand in his and turned to his hosts. “There’s German Black Forest cake for desert.”
Mac’s eyes opened wide as saucers. “Harriet you’re an angel. You know that’s my favorite.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Harriet answered gleefully. She was so glad Bud was able to pick up a cake on his way in from the office. It was just the ticket needed to lift everyone’s spirits after the stressful news.
Later that night while putting fresh ointment on the burns and changing the dressings, Harm explained to Mac what had happened at the prison.
“So you’re saying Gunny lied?” Mac was standing in the bathroom holding her skirt above the burns, so Harm would have more room to work on her leg. They’d agreed the foot on the toilet wasn’t the most comfortable for her, nor a very practical way for Harm to take care of the wounds. If she simply stood and held her skirt high enough to expose the burns, the entire process would go more smoothly. Harm neglected to mention this new, more modest, strategy would be much less stressful for him, too.
“No. I’m saying I persuaded the prisoner not to disrespect a United States Marine.” Harm put the cap back on the tube and reached for the gauze.
“Harm there’s a fine line between persuasion and assault.” Mac bit her lower lip as he wrapped the first layer of gauze around her leg. “That’s a little tight,” she whispered.
“Sorry.” They probably should have had this discussion after he was finished.
“What are you going to tell the General?”
“The truth.” Harm taped the gauze in place.
“What about us?” Mac ventured.
“I don’t think that’s any of his business.” Harm wasn’t going to mention he wouldn’t know what to tell him even if it was. He still wasn’t sure what to make of their relationship. How could he possibly fathom explaining it to someone else?
“Can you separate the two things?” Mac dropped the hem she’d been holding and turned her back to Harm, so he could unzip the dress.
“I might have overreacted slightly because you were the officer he’d attacked. But, if it had been Bud, or even Sturgis in that bed fighting for their lives, I still would have been incensed at the prisoner’s insolence.” Harm lowered the zipper on her dress without her needing to ask.
“Would uh…” Harm hesitated a moment wondering if maybe what he was thinking would be overstepping an already delicate boundary, but he quickly decided not to let himself play those mind games. “Would it help if I unsnapped your bra for you?”
“Anxious to show off your one-handed maneuvers?” Mac couldn’t resist teasing.
“Maac.” Harm knew he was blushing. Just because she was right and he could probably unsnap any bra ever designed with only one hand, didn’t mean he wanted to be reminded of that now.
“Yes, thank you. It would help if you don’t mind,” Mac smiled to herself. The horrible awkwardness that had threatened to suffocate them just this morning was nowhere to be found.
Using both hands, just to prove a point, Harm unsnapped her bra letting his fingers rest against her bare back for a few seconds longer than he probably should have. Brushing her hair out of the way, Harm placed a barely there kiss at the base of her neck before stepping back. “I’ll go get your nightgown.”
“Thank you,” Mac whispered so softly, she wasn’t even sure Harm heard her. Her entire body was tingling from the brief touch of his lips.
“Here you go.” Harm reached his arm into the bathroom, the flannel nightie hanging in front of her. “I’m going to go clean the kitchen, whistle if you need anything else.”
Mac listened to the sound of his footsteps until he closed the bedroom door behind him. She almost wished she would never recover just to be able to keep him around. But then again, she was really looking forward to the day when she’d be strong enough, as Lauren Bacall had so eloquently put it, to ‘put her lips together and blow’ for what she really needed.
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