"You've never asked me why I married Vittorio, AJ," Marcella said as they sat on the front porch, enjoying some wine.
"I didn't have to," AJ answered. "Francesca told me that your parents arranged it. Said that they had intended for you to marry him before I came along and that they were relieved when he agreed to renew that arrangement after you returned."
"I was - damaged goods in their eyes," Marcella told him. "A divorced woman with a daughter. Papa tried many times to find someone before I finally agreed to the marry Vittorio."
Marcella's soft laughter. "AJ, can you really think that anyone could convince me to do something that I did not wish to do?"
He had to smile at that. "Honestly? No. I can't."
"Don't you want to know the reason that I agreed to marry him, AJ?" Marcella asked.
"If you want to tell me."
"Because I gave up waiting for you to follow me. I waited four years, hoping all of that time that I would look up one day and you would be there, so tall and handsome in your uniform." he heard her voice break with the memory before she continued. "If it had not been for the check that arrived every month from the Navy for Francesca, I might have thought you had been killed on a mission -"
"You would have been told," AJ said, glancing at her in time to see her surprised look. "Francesca's listed as my next of kin. If anything had happened to me, the Navy would have notified her through you when she was younger."
"I did not think of that," Marcella said honestly. "Of course, there were times when I wished you *were* dead," she added. "When I was so angry with you that I could not think clearly. But almost immediately I would regret the thought and ask forgiveness for having it. And then I would cry myself to sleep because you were not there with me."
"So loneliness was the reason you married Paretti," AJ nodded. "I can understand that -"
"It was not only that, AJ. In those days, it was not easy for a woman alone in Italy. Especially a woman with a young child. My father had made many enemies during his time as mayor. But he could not protect me. Vittorio promised to always treat Francesca as if she was his own. He offered security for me and for my daughter. I had known Vittorio for most of my life - would have married him if I had not fallen in love with you. I suppose I felt that I - owed him another chance since he had waited for me."
"Were you in love with him?" AJ asked, refusing to look at her now as he waited for the answer.
"No," she said, and AJ released the breath he'd been holding. "I was grateful to him, I cared about him. But I realized a long time ago that I would only ever love one man for the rest of my life."
AJ turned to look at her. "Marcella -"
She held up her hand to quiet him. "Per favore, AJ. Now that I am telling this, I must finish. You accused me once of knowing what kind of business Vittorio was involved in. I suppose, some part of me always knew - but he was not involved in his *family's* business until after his brother Franco was killed." She rose from her chair to move gracefully toward the railing that surrounded the porch. "Even then, it was easy to turn a blind eye to things. Vittorio - Vittorio and I had not been - close for many years, AJ. Like many men, he wanted a son to follow after him. Two years after we were married, I discovered that I was going to have a child." AJ frowned, surprised by the confession. "Vittorio was delighted, and believed that it would be the son that he so wanted."
Seeing the sadness in her eyes, AJ asked, "What happened?"
"My son - died soon after he was born, and I very nearly died as well."
"Dear god," he sighed.
"Vittorio was never the same after the doctors told him that having another child could kill me -"
"I don't recall any problems when you had Francesca," AJ said, frowning.
"No," she agreed, meeting his eyes and AJ knew that she was recalling the fact that he'd been there when Francesca was born - had, in fact, insisted on being in the delivery room with her. "Francesca was an easier birth. The doctors explained all of it to me, but over the years, I've forgotten what they said. But whatever it was, it had the effect of keeping Vittorio away from me. After that, I can count on the fingers of both hands how many times we shared the same bed," she told him. "We had separate rooms, lived separate lives. If possible, he was even more generous than before with his money, he still treated Francesca the same - but we became strangers to each other." Her dark eyes turned toward the darkness beyond the porch as she continued. "I knew Vittorio saw other women. Those kind of things are not easily kept hidden. But I never spoke with him about it - I remained the good little wife, never questioning, never demanding more than my husband was willing to give." AJ rose from his chair as well, joining her at the railing. "I could have taken a lover myself," she told him, looking up at him again to touch his face with her hand. "But in all of these years, there has been only one man who has touched my heart and my soul as well as my body. And if I could not have him, I preferred to be alone."
AJ captured her hand with his and brought it to his lips. "You should have called after -"
"AJ, I was not raised to be the one to - chase after a man. I was raised to believe that I should wait for him to come to me. But I am not the same woman anymore. And I believe that this is too important for me to remain silent any longer."
AJ knew he was risking his heart again. The last time he'd placed it into this woman's hands, she had torn it out and left it in tiny pieces from here to Italy. But he had to try. Taking her other hand from where it lay against his chest, he met her eyes. "Marcella, stay with me. Let's try again. Maybe we'll get it right this time. These last six months have been -"
"AJ," she said, smiling up at him. "Stop talking and kiss me. I've dreamed of it happening for -."
He didn't give her a chance to finish her sentence as his lips met hers. He wasn't surprised when she returned his kiss, and when he felt her hands slide from his and around his neck, AJ pulled her as close as he could, still mindful of her injured shoulder.
Breaking the kiss, she said, "I won't break, AJ. You don't have to be gentle with me."
She'd said that once before - right after their marriage. Remembering what had happened after, AJ laughed as he lifted her into his arms to carry her into the house and directly to his bedroom.
The laughter faded as he released her legs so that she stood before him again. "You're sure you want -?" he began, but before he could finish, Marcella began to unfasten the belt at her waist. Before he knew it, she stood naked before him, watching his reaction to her with uncertain eyes. As she started to cross her arms across her breasts, AJ took her hands and placed them on his chest. "Don't," he said. "You're even more beautiful than you were the first time I saw you."
"I love you, AJ," Marcella declared, her fingers faltering as they began to work buttons through the buttonholes of the shirt that he'd changed into after they returned home. Frustrated, she muttered a curse in Italian before gripping each side of the fabric and pulling it apart, sending buttons flying across the room . . .
Harm woke and immediately realized that Jen wasn't next to him as she usually was. Sliding his hand across the sheets, he searched for her, but the sheets were cold - and empty. "Jen?" he called, sitting up to look around the darkened room.
Seeing that she wasn't there, Harm tossed the covers aside and grabbed a pair of sweats to slip on before going to try and find her. The living room, dining room and kitchen were all dark, and the alarm system was still armed and working - so she hadn't left the house.
Climbing the stairs, he stopped by the door to Mattie's room - left open tonight since she had offered to listen for Johnny so that Jennifer could get some rest. He could see Mattie sleeping soundly in her bed, illuminated by moonlight through the window.
The door into the garage apartment was closed, so Harm turned toward Johnny's room.
She was sitting in the rocking chair beside the crib, watching the little boy sleeping. Bending his knees, Harm touched her shoulder to let her know he was there. "I missed you."
"I'm sorry," she said. "I needed to be with him. I know that it doesn't make sense -"
"Yes it does." Placing a finger under her chin, he gently turned to face toward his. "And I need to be with you. If there was some way I could make this go away, Jen -"
"I know, Harm," she told him. She looked at him. "Why didn't you tell me that you'd helped him with his will?"
"I tried. But you didn't want to listen."
"You should have tried harder," she insisted. "I'm sorry. It's not your fault. There are just so many things going around and around in my head -"
Johnny stirred at the sound of his parents' soft voices, and Harm rose to reach into the crib and place a hand on the boy, rubbing his back.
"Is everything okay?" Mattie asked, and Harm looked up to see her standing in the doorway, a look of concern on her face.
"Everything's fine, Mattie," he assured her.
"Did Johnny wake up? I didn't hear him -"
"No. You didn't miss it," Jennifer said. "I just came up to check on him since I couldn't sleep."
Harm moved to Mattie and gave her a quick hug. "Go on back to bed. Get some sleep."
Mattie nodded. "Night, Jennifer," she whispered.
"Let's go back to bed, Jen," Harm suggested, kneeling beside her again. "Tomorrow's going to be a long day; we're all going to need our rest. Especially you."
He saw her jaw tighten before she responded. "Stop treating me like a child, Harm -"
"I'm not -"
"Yes, you are. You've been walking on eggshells all evening, treating me as though I'll going to shatter at any moment."
"I'm just worried, honey," Harm told her, reaching out to smooth her hair. "I know how upset you are. Losing your father -"
"Be honest, Harm. You didn't like him," she accused. "You're glad he's dead."
"Jen, that's -" Harm said as Johnny stirred once more. "Let's go downstairs and talk. We're disturbing Johnny and Mattie."
Jennifer stood up and left the room without another word, leaving Harm to soothe their son back to sleep before following her.
For a moment after he entered the bedroom, Harm worried that she hadn't come here after all. But as he reached out to turn on a light, she spoke. "Don't."
He found her sitting on the hearth before the dark fireplace. Approaching her slowly, Harm said. "You're wrong, Jen. I'm not glad he's dead. I *am* angry, though. Angry that he kept putting off talking to you - I mean *really* talking to you - about all of the things you two needed to discuss."
"I was just as guilty of that as he was, Harm," she told him. "Every time the topic seemed to be there, I would change the subject so that we wouldn't have to face it."
"Because he manipulated you into doing that," Harm said firmly. Sitting down on the hearth as well, he continued. "Conrad told me flat out that he didn't want to confront those issues with you, Jen. Because he didn't want to lose you again. I could understand it - but I couldn't agree that it was best for you in the long run."
"Best for me?" she questioned.
Harm stopped her attempt to stand by taking her hand in his. "Yes. I wasn't in love with your father, I *am* in love with you. And anything that causes you pain, causes me pain." His thumb began to move against her palm as their eyes met. "I didn't want you left behind, having to deal with all of that along with your guilt at having left him to begin with."
"Do you think he was right? Would my staying have made things different?"
"I don't think so. Not in a good way, at least. You said on the witness stand during my trial that he used to hit your mother - it's possible that he might have turned that anger against you after a time."
Jennifer's head fell forward as she spoke. "He tried. Once. I was out with Hal and he got arrested for being drunk - since I was underage, they took me home. Even though I told them to take me to juvenile hall instead because he wouldn't care. While the police were there, Dad was all pious and forgiving and promised it wouldn't happen again. But the minute we were alone, he started in on me, calling me every name he could think of - a few of which I didn't think he knew. He let me know in no uncertain terms how much of a disappointment I was, that if I'd been a son,-" she paused, and Harm put his arm around her, pulling her close to his side. "If I'd been a son, things would have been different."
Harm wanted to say something to comfort her, but sensed that what she needed right now was to simply talk things through - and someone to just listen.
"I don't even remember what I said to him, but it infuriated him so much that he raised his hand as if he was going to hit me. I pushed him back and ran to my room, putting a chair under the doorknob to keep him from getting in without breaking it down. I gathered my things and stuffed them into a small suitcase before climbing out of the window."
"You ran away?"
She nodded. "I went to stay with some friends - luckily it was during the summer, so I didn't have to worry about missing school -"
She had told Harm about how her mother had stressed the importance of finishing school and doing well - and that a promise to her mother had been the only reason she had finished high school in the first place. Conrad had used that promise to convince Jennifer to return to college instead of taking a semester break, one of the only things that Harm was genuinely grateful to the man for doing.
"Friends?" Harm questioned. "Let me guess: Hal's motorcycle buddies."
"You guessed it. Stayed there for almost a month before Dad found me and dragged me back. He tried to ground me for another month - but he never raised his hand to me again."
"Tried to ground you?"
"I told him that I'd tell everyone in his congregation exactly where I'd been and what I'd been doing for the past month. He told everyone that I was 'visiting relatives' out west."
"Ah. So you weren't above blackmail."
"Not when it came to him. After that, he more or less let me do whatever I wanted. His standing in the church was more important to him than I was," she said. Harm saw the tears on her face and pulled her even closer. "I just wanted to be important to him. I don't think he ever understood that." She laughed, and Harm winced at the sound. "Hell, his coming here wasn't even about *me*. It was about *him*. About having someone around when he died so he wouldn't die alone. It was about him," she said again, her voice breaking on the words.
Harm pulled her fully into his arms as she cried - rocking gently back and forth, murmuring softly as he did so.
"I guess Mac's right," she said at last, her face still against his bare chest. "I do need to see someone."
"If you want to." He tilted her chin up to look into her eyes. "You know I'll stand by you whatever you decide to do, Jen."
"I know," she told him, smiling through the tears that still fell. "The luckiest day of my life was the day I met you."
"It was my lucky day as well. Just took me a little time to realize it," he said, lowering his head to kiss the tears from her cheeks before finding her lips. Jennifer's arms moved around his neck, lengthening the kiss.
"I need you, Harm," she said when the kiss ended. She rose from the hearth and untied the belt of her robe, letting it slide to the carpeted floor. Holding out her hands toward him, she said, "Love me."
Harm stood up as well, taking her hands. "Always," he promised.
AJ woke the next morning to an empty bed. For a moment, he wondered if last night had just been yet another of the dreams he'd been having for the last six months. Only this one had been extremely vivid. He could still feel the softness of Marcella's skin under his fingertips, smell the scent of her perfume - Sitting up at that thought, AJ winced at the protest of little used muscles and realized that it hadn't been a dream: Marcella had spent the night in his bed. Well, most of the night, anyway. Tossing the covers aside, he pulled on a pair of sweats and a black tee shirt before heading out of the bedroom.
Marcella's room was empty - her bed still immaculately made, so AJ followed the scent of freshly brewed coffee to the kitchen, where he poured himself a cup of the strong liquid and took a drink as he moved toward the back windows. A movement of bright color drew his attention, and AJ smiled as he opened the door and stepped out onto the porch. "Good morning," he said, watching as she worked in the small flower garden that she had planted a couple of weeks before.
She looked up at him with a smile. "Good morning to you, too. I see you found the coffee."
He held up his cup. "I did. Thank you." He looked over the garden that was slowly beginning to take shape thanks to her green thumb. "You're doing a good job with the garden. I guess I'll be able to tell the people that usually take care of it not to bother." He looked down into his cup as he said, "That is, if you're staying." He was suddenly uncertain, even after last night. He was aware of her coming toward the porch, removing her wide brimmed hat and gardening gloves as she did so.
"Look at me, AJ," she said, standing before him. When he lifted his eyes to hers, he discovered that she was smiling at him. "After last night, I could no more leave than I could stop breathing. I do not want to be anywhere that you are not, AJ."
"Even if it means living here?" AJ asked, putting his cup onto the railing so that he could place his hands on her shoulders. "And not in Naples?"
"The villa will be there. But it is a reminder of a life that I did not truly want, AJ. I will adjust to living here - to the snow and the cold - As long as we are together, it does not matter, don't you agree?"
"Oh, I agree, Marcella," he assured her, pulling her close for a good morning kiss that left them both more than a little breathless before AJ lifted his head to smile down at her. "What do you want for breakfast?"
Harm could tell that Jennifer was surprised when all of their friends attended the memorial service that afternoon. Even Trish and Frank had managed to catch a late flight out of Southern California to be there for support. In lieu of a casket, an old photograph of Conrad sat on the table before the altar, draped in black bunting, surrounded by flowers. The obituary, filed early that morning, would ask that anyone who wish to pay tribute to Conrad Coates should donate to the American Cancer Society.
Chaplin Turner, at Conrad's request, gave the eulogy, in which he recounted Rev. Coates' contributions to his church and his regret that he hadn't been a better man to those who had known him as husband and father.
Harm sat beside Jennifer, feeling her tight grip on his hand as they listened to the words. Mattie sat beside her, holding Johnny, who seemed to sense that this was a solemn occasion and remained surprisingly quiet during the service.
They returned to the house after the service, and Harm found Jennifer a few minutes after their arrival talking to Mac. Thinking that they were discussing Jennifer's decision to see someone about her issues with her father, Harm approached the two women.
"I'll tell you like you told me at your wedding, Mac. Make the announcement."
"What announcement?" Harm asked, putting an arm around his wife's shoulders. Seeing the look that the two women exchanged, he frowned. "What?"
"Mac and Clay are going to have a baby," Jennifer told him.
"You're kidding!" Harm declared, causing several of the mourners to look in his direction as he laughed. "That's great!" he declared, giving his friend a hug.
"You don't have much choice now, Mac," Jennifer said. "Find Clay and tell everyone."
"She doesn't have to find me," Clay said, appearing at Mac's side. "I'm here."
After the announcement was made, the wake became a celebration instead, and Jennifer found herself standing by the window of the living room, allowing the sounds of people talking to wash over her when she heard a heavily accented woman's voice ask, "How are you doing, Jennifer?"
Smiling as she turned to look at Marcella, Jennifer answered, "I'm fine, Mrs. Paretti."
Extending a hand toward the others, Marcella said, "This - celebration does not trouble you, I hopee. It is only the - ciclo di vita. The cycle of life. Your father is dead, but soon there will another life to replace his. I know that does not give you much comfort, but -"
"But it does, Mrs. Paretti," Jennifer assured her. "I'm sure that the Admiral has told you about my father. He wasn't a very nice for much of his life."
"But you loved him," Marcella stated.
"Yes. I didn't always like him very much - and we spent a lot of time apart because he couldn't accept me for who I was - but I did love him." She looked oveer to where Mac and Clay were talking to Bud and Harriet. Mac was positively glowing. "Mac has been trying to have a baby since she and Clay got married. I'm glad they've succeeded. They deserve a chance to be parents instead of always being god parents to the children of their friends."
"AJ has told me that you are - remarkable young woman, Jennifer. I see now that he was correct."
Jennifer felt her cheeks grow warm at the compliment. "Thank you, Mrs. Paretti."
"Marcella," the woman insisted, placing a hand on Jennifer's arm. "Please." She looked over to where AJ and Chaplin Turner were talking in a corner. "AJ and I have agreed to - give it another shot, I believe is the term? I hope that you and I will become friends."
"I'd like that, Marcella," Jennifer said, smiling at the petite woman standing before her, not at all surprised that she had managed to capture the Admiral's heart - if she'd ever really lost it to begin with. She saw the Admiral glance in their direction, and the look on his face for Marcella only confirmed Jennifer's thoughts. In all of the time she'd known him, Jennifer had never seen him look at another woman in that way - not even Meredith Cavanaugh.
On Monday morning, Jennifer was just leaving her English Lit class when she almost ran into someone else. "Excuse me," she said, sidestepping to avoid the collision.
At the sound of the familiar voice, Jennifer stopped in her tracks and pasted a smile on her face before she turned. "Dr. Cavanaugh. I wasn't aware that you were back in the area. Are you here on a visit?"
"I'm teaching here next semester. I was just checking in with the Prof. Hollinsworth about my schedule - I'm surprised to see you here."
"I'm back in college," Jennifer said. "Excuse me, Dr. Cavanaugh; I really have to go -"
"It's lunch time. Why don't we have lunch?" Meredith asked, stepping sideways to keep Jennifer from passing her.
"Dr. Cavanaugh - I usually study during lunch," Jennifer insisted, holding her books close to her body like a shield. It wasn't a total lie. Today was an early day, and she had to work at JAG for the afternoon. She would eat a sandwich at her desk before everyone else returned from lunch while she studied.
"You have to eat, too, don't you?" Meredith questioned, grabbing Jennifer's arm and pulling her toward the doors at the end of the corridor.
Jennifer pulled away from her. "Please, Dr. Cavanaugh, I don't have time - I have to get to JAG -" Immediately Jennifer realized she'd made a tactical error and mentally scolded herself for it.
"So you're still at JAG."
"Yes, ma'am, but -"
"How is AJ?" Meredith asked.
"He's - well, ma'am," Jennifer answered. "I really *do* have to go -" she insisted, juggling her books as she made another attempt to escape.
Suddenly Meredith's eyes widened and she grabbed at Jennifer's left hand. "You're married! When did this happen? And who's the lucky man?"
"Almost fourteen months ago," Jennifer answered. "And I'm married to Harm."
"Harm?" Meredith blinked. "As in Commander Harmon Rabb? But - you're enlisted. I thought the Navy frowned on that kind of thing -"
Sighing, Jennifer said, "I *was* enlisted. I didn't reenlist the last time it came up, deciding to go back to college so that I could go back and apply to become an officer."
"But - I thought that Commander Rabb and Colonel Mackenzie were -"
Knowing that if she didn't answer the questions now, she'd end up being cornered later, Jennifer sighed and said, "Why don't we have lunch, ma'am?"
"I'm willing to cut your client a deal, Commander," Tiner told Bud as they sat in the conference room with Gunnery Sergeant Conklin.
"Dishonorable discharge and five years."
Bud looked at his client, asking for his response. When Conklin shook his head, Bud sighed. "Sorry. No deal. My client would prefer to take his chances in court."
Tiner pulled a paper out of his briefcase and slid it across the table toward them. "You might want to read this before you make a final decision."
Bud glanced at the paper and frowned as he looked at Conklin. Looking at Tiner again, he said, "I need a moment with m client, Lieutenant."
"I'll be in my office if you want to talk," Tiner said, barely controlling his look of distaste at being in the room with the Gunny.
"How's it going, Tiner?" Harm asked as the young man crossed the bullpen heading toward his office.
"Pretty well, sir. I believe Cmdr. Roberts will agree to my offer in the Conklin case."
"You sound pretty sure of yourself, Tiner," Harm noted, crossing his arms across his chest.
"I spent yesterday doing some research, sir. Gunnery Sergeant Conklin was lying about his alibi."
"Very good," Harm noted as the telephone in his own office began to ring. "Excuse me." Entering the cubicle, he picked up the receiver. "Rabb."
"Harm, I'm going to be late getting in to work."
"Jen? Why? Did the car break down -?"
"No. I probably won't be more than a few minutes later than usual. But I need you to clear it with the Admiral for me."
"What's going on?" Harm questioned, frowning. He'd tried to convince her to take a few days off after the weekend, but she had insisted she was fine and needed to get back into her routine. So neither of them put in for the days off that he'd mentioned to the Admiral after all.
"I - ran into an old friend," she said. "We're having lunch together."
"An old friend?" Harm questioned, suddenly flashing back to her 'old friend' Hal. "How old?"
"I can't really explain, Harm. She's waiting for me. I'll talk to you when I get there."
Harm looked at the phone after she ended the call. So she was having lunch with a woman. Someone she considered an 'old friend'. Glancing up, he saw Bud heading for Tiner's office.
Tiner looked up when he heard Bud knock on the doorframe. "He'll take the deal," Bud said, coming into the room. "How did the investigation miss that he lied about his alibi?"
"They didn't talk to the right people," Tiner told him.
"Well, congratulations. You've just won your first solo case."
"I'd have preferred to do it in court," Tiner said.
"Don't worry. You will. Harm was right. You're a good attorney."
"Thank you, sir."
"So. Tell me everything," Meredith insisted as they sat down with their food at a corner table. "How on *earth* did you and Harm end up married to each other?"
"It's kind of -involved, ma'am," Jennifer said. "Did the Admiral tell you about Harm taking guardianship of a fifteen year old girl at Christmas just before -"
"I believe he might have - mentioned it," Meredith answered, frowning.
"Well, he needed someone to share an apartment with her until he found a house for them. My own housing situation wasn't the best at the time -"
"I *do* remember you mentioning that," Meredith recalled. "Something about one of the girls breaking your hair dryer?"
"Yes. Anyway, Harm found out about the problems I was having and suggested that I pay half of the rent for an apartment in his building, and he would pay Mattie's half."
"Mattie's the teenager that he took guardianship of?"
Jennifer nodded. "She's a great kid."
"And since you were thrown into his company because of Mattie - the two of you became - close?" Meredith questioned.
"Friends at first. Honestly, I'd always had a huge crush on Harm, but I never acted on it because he's an officer and I was enlisted. I didn't want to wreck both of our careers."
"So what changed?"
"Colonel Mackenzie had been seeing someone else after they got back from South America and Harm was really hurting because of it. It - hurt *me* to see him hurting that way, so I took a chance and told him how I felt."
"So you left the Navy and came back to school so that you could be together," Meredith sighed. "How romantic."
Jennifer had to smile, "It was, actually. We got married, adopted Mattie, and we have a baby."
"A baby?! How wonderful. A boy or a girl?"
"A boy. Jonathan Harmon Rabb." She opened her purse and pulled out a family photograph. "That's him," she said, showing the photo to Meredith, pointing to Johnny sitting in Harm's lap. Mattie was standing behind and in the middle, her hands on Jennifer and Harm's shoulders.
"What a lovely family. You're so lucky, Jennifer," she said, handing the photo back across the table. "How's - AJ?" she asked.
"Dr. Cavanaugh, I don't think -"
Meredith's eyes fell to the food on her plate as she pushed it around with her fork. "I suppose he - told everyone what happened.-"
"Honestly? He made an announcement to the office that the wedding was off and that he wouldn't discuss it any further with anyone."
"Did he seem - upset?"
"I don't think I should discuss this with you, Dr. Cavanaugh," Jennifer said again. "It doesn't feel right, discussing the Admiral's personal life with someone else."
"You're not in the Navy anymore, Jennifer. What can he do?"
"Fire me? And I *will* be in the Navy again in another year," Jennifer pointed out. "The Admiral trusts me, and I won't betray that trust, ma'am."
"Surely you can tell me if he's - seeing someone else -"
"I believe he is," Jennifer answered.
"Is he happy?"
This question Jennifer could answer honestly. "Yes. Happier than I've seen him in a very long time, ma'am."
Meredith pushed her plate away, the food uneaten. "Thank you, Jennifer. I should have known that he wouldn't wait around - But I would like to talk to him again. TTo apologize for everything that happened - Do you think that he would be willing to - talk to me?"
"I couldn't say, ma'am."
"I don't suppose you'd be wiling to - intercede in my behalf?"
"No, Dr. Cavanaugh, I wouldn't," Jennifer declared, gathering her purse and books as she rose from the table. "I really have to be going, ma'am. It was nice seeing you again," Jennifer said and escaped before the other woman could say anything else.
Jennifer noticed that the bullpen was mostly deserted when she arrived and breathed a sigh of relief that she wasn't going to be late after all. Explaining the reason for her tardiness to the Admiral wasn't something had been looking forward to. Putting her purse into the desk drawer, Jennifer sat down as she noticed Harm approaching.
"Are you okay?" he asked, moving around to perch on the edge of her desk close to her chair. "You look a little rattled."
"I am," Jennifer confessed, seeing the frowned on his handsome face deepen.
"Why? What happened?"
"I told you. I ran into an old friend who's going to be teaching Shakespeare at my college next semester."
Harm's eyes widened as he realized who she was referring to. "Meredith? You had lunch with Meredith Cavanaugh?"
"Shh," Jennifer hissed, glancing around Harm, and froze as she saw they weren't alone. "Admiral."
Harm jumped to his feet, standing at attention. "Admiral, sir. I didn't expect you back so early. You had a meeting with SecNav -"
"It was postponed until tomorrow," AJ said, his eyes still on Jennifer. "You were saying something when I came in?"
"Yes, sir," Jennifer answered, feeling - not for the first time - as if she were still in the Navy. "I ran into Dr. Cavanaugh at college. She's going to be teaching there next semester. She - insisted that I have lunch with her."
"I see. My office, please, Jennifer."
"Admiral -" Harm began, but stopped as AJ turned to look at him.
"You're dismissed, Captain."
There was no way that harm could possibly fail to recognize the tone of his commanding officer's voice. "Yes, sir," Harm replied crisply, leaving Jennifer's office for his own.
"Mrs. Rabb?" AJ said, indicating that she should precede him into his office. "After you."
"Admiral, before you begin -" Jennifer started to say as he went to the windows and stared out, hands clasped behind his back.
"I'm not angry with you, Jennifer. I know how persuasive the woman can be when she wants something. What did she say?"
"She noticed I was married, we talked about that - and she asked about you, sir." Jennifer looked down at her hands before continuing. "She asked if you were - seeing anyone else."
"What did you tell her?"
"That you were - but I didn't mention anything about who you were seeing." She looked at him again. He was still at the windows. "I also told her that you were happier than I've seen you in a very long time, sir."
"Did she mention anything about - what happened between the two of us?"
"No, sir. And I didn't ask. I didn't feel that it was any of my business, Admiral."
AJ took a deep breath before turning to face the room. "Have a seat, Jennifer." He moved to sit in the other chair. "I suppose I owed you an explanation when it happened, considering everything you'd been asked to do, but at the time -"
"Admiral, you don't owe me any explanation."
"I happen to think I that I do."
Marcella was working in the garden when she saw Dammit lift her head as she lay nearby at the same time that she heard a car pull into the graveled driveway. Aware that it was still far too early for AJ to be home, Marcella watched as the dog rose to her feet and ran around the corner of house, barking. Following cautiously, she found a small car of some kind sitting in the driveway. The driver was nowhere to be found.
Frowning, Marcella turned toward the steps up onto the porch as a woman appeared at the top of the step. Dammit had stopped on the steps and growled softly at the woman, who seemed surprised by the action. She paused and extended a hand. "Hello, Dammit. Don't you remember me?"
The dog sniffed, and her tail began to wag slowly in recognition. "Dammit," Marcella said in a firm tone, and the dog seemed to glance between the two women before moving back down the steps to sit beside Marcella. "Hello," Marcella said, trying to remember where she had seen the woman before. There was something familiar about her. "May I help you?"
"Dammit doesn't usually take to people easily," the woman said. "AJ was always the only one that she would listen to."
"We've met somewhere," Marcella stated firmly, ignoring the woman's attempt to sidetrack her thoughts. "The hospital in Milano. You were in the car that crashed into my daughter's car." That memory brought another. "You were AJ's fiancée. Meredith."
"He's told you about me, then?"
"Of course he did. AJ and I have no secrets from each other. I am sorry that your - friend died as a result of the accident."
Marcella saw the shadow that crossed the other woman's face at her words. "I wasn't in love with him," Meredith said. "It was a huge mistake. I should never have hurt AJ that way -"
"But you did. And now, you must pay the consequences for your actions," Marcella pointed out calmly, moving to inspect a flowering shrub, as Dammit lay down, remaining between Marcella and the stairs.
"You wouldn't even be here if I hadn't -" Meredith said hotly. Reacting to the loud voice, Dammit sat up, watching Meredith carefully.
Marcella straightened and met the woman's gaze head on. "But I *am* here. And I intend to stay. AJ has asked me to, and I said yes. I have never stopped loving him. We have been given another chance."
"And what if I told you that I spoke to AJ just this morning and he led me to believe that he had forgiven me and wanted for *us* to try again?" Meredith asked, her voice softer now.
"Then we will wait here until AJ returns and let him choose between the two of us," Marcella answered, fully aware that no such meeting had occurred between AJ and this woman. AJ Chegwidden was the most honorable man that Marcella had ever known. There was no way that he would have said such a thing to one woman after having just slept with another. Smiling, Marcella asked, "Would you like some tea, Doctore Cavanaugh?"
"No, thank you," Meredith said, coming down the steps. The dog stood up, as if ready to defend her territory. "I can't stay. I just wanted you to know where you stood with AJ. But if you refuse to believe me, maybe you'll believe him."
"Perhaps it will be you who will be forced to believe the truth," Marcella noted, turning back to her flowers in a deliberately dismissive gesture. "Arrivederci, Doctore."
Marcella hid her smile as she heard the small car speed away leaving a spray of gravel behind it. But the smile faded as she began to worry as well. Women such as Meredith Cavanaugh had been known to cause trouble - and if AJ's words about her had been true, then the woman had never been entirely stable to begin with.
Placing a hand on Dammit's head, Marcella took the cordless telephone from the oversize pocket of her gardening smock and dialed the number for AJ's office.
Jennifer had just returned to her desk after hearing the Admiral's explanation about his and Meredith's engagement. It wasn't that Jennifer didn't believe the story - Harm had told both she and Mattie about his one flight with the woman in Sarah - but hearing it had been a total shock. It had explained so much about why AJ had acted the way he had.
The telephone rang, and Jennifer picked it up. "Admiral Chegwidden's office."
"Jennifer. How are you doing?"
"Better. I'm just taking it one day at a time, Marcella," Jennifer said. "Thank you for asking."
"Is AJ busy?"
"I think he'll talk to you. Just a moment." She put the line on hold and pressed the intercom for AJ's office. "Admiral, Mrs. Paretti is on line one."
"Thank you, Jennifer," he said.
Jennifer waited until she saw the Admiral's line one button light up before she hung up her telephone and turned her attention to work.
"Marcella. I was just thinking about calling you," AJ said.
"Then it is a good thing that I called, isn't it?" she asked.
He could hear from her voice that something was wrong, and frowned. Sitting forward, he asked, "Is everything all right?"
"You tell me, AJ. An old - friend of yours stopped by a few minutes ago."
Certain about exactly who that 'old friend' had been, AJ felt his anger beginning to grow. "Meredith," he said through clenched teeth.
"Yes. Your ex-fiancée. She was only too eager to inform me that she had spoken to you this morning and you had forgiven her that you wanted to try again."
"Marcella, I haven't spoken to Meredith Cavanaugh since before we left Italy."
"I know," she assured him. "You forget how well I know you. You are far too honorable a man to ever do such a thing."
"What did you say to her?"
"Only that if what she had told me was the truth, we would wait together for you to return home and allow you to make your decision then."
AJ chuckled. "I can imagine that didn't go over very well."
"No," Marcella agreed. "I offered her some tea, but she said that she had to leave."
"If she comes back, Marcella -"
"Don't worry about me, AJ. Dammit is here to protect me when you cannot be."
"She did not seem very pleased to see the doctore, AJ."
"She wouldn't. Meredith wasn't much of a dog person. She tolerated Dammit for the most part."
"Well, you would have been proud of her today. She remained between the two of us - but truthfully, I am not sure if that was to keep your Meredith from getting to me or me from getting to her."
"She's not *my* Meredith, Marcella. But I hope you're still my Marcella."
"Of course. Do you know what time you will be home today?"
"Usual time," he was saying as the intercom buzzed. "I'm sorry, Marcella, but I have to go."
"I understand. Until later."
AJ disconnected the call, and then pressed the intercom button, "Yes?"
"Just reminding the Admiral that he has an appointment in half an hour with the CNO at the Pentagon."
"Thank you, Jennifer."
"Good morning, sir," Jennifer said as AJ entered his office several weeks later.
"You're even more chipper than usual this morning, Jennifer," AJ noted as he took the stack of messages that she handed him.
"I aced my psych exam sir," she told him. "
"I thought you were going to business administration?" AJ said with a frown.
"I am. With a minor in psychology," she told him. The telephone rang, and Jennifer answered while he studied the messages. "Admiral Chegwidden's office . . . Hello? . . . May I help you?" Shrugging, Jennifer hung up the phone.
"Another one?" AJ asked, frowning again. Over the last few weeks, there had been several of those calls, always on AJ's private line with no one on the other end.
"Apparently so, sir."
"Has it been happening on any other line?"
"Not that I'm aware of, Admiral."
"Have they been logged?" he questioned, referring to the telephone log of all calls that came into the office.
"I haven't been logging them," she said, locating the log. "Neither has anyone else, apparently."
"Start. From now on, I want every call that comes into this office logged, even if it's a wrong number or if there's no one on the other end."
"Yes, sir. I'll make a note of it for my relief." Seeing the look on his face, she asked, "Is there a problem, Admiral?"
"I'm sure it's nothing," he said, turning toward his office, only to stop. "Uh, Jennifer, have you seen Dr. Cavanaugh lately?"
"We see each other on campus occasionally, Admiral. Since I'm not taking Lit this semester, I'm not in that department as much." Her eyes widened. "You don't think that she might be making those calls, do you?"
AJ appeared to consider the idea for a moment before shaking his head. "No. I'm sure it's nothing. What time is my first appointment this morning?"
"Nine-thirty, sir. The day's schedule is on your desk."
He stopped and smiled at her. "I'm going to miss you once you finish college and move on, Jennifer."
"Graduation is still nine months away, sir," Jennifer reminded him.
"Too soon for me," he sighed, continuing on into his office, his mind once again focused on the mysterious telephone calls. If they had just been coming in to JAG, he might not have given them a second thought. But over the last few weeks, there had been similar calls to the house - usually when he was out and Marcella was there alone.
There had been no further contact from Meredith, but the calls had begun only a few days after her visit with Marcella. Picking up his private line, AJ contacted the telephone company to add Caller ID to his phone line at the house.
By the time he was finished dealing with the phone company, he wasn't in any mood to face the CNO's adjutant about the Hawley case, but it was too late to postpone the meeting. Making a mental note to call Marcella after the meeting, AJ told Jennifer to have Captain Rabb and Commander Turner into his office to discuss the case before Capt. Rodriguez' arrival.
"Would you mind staying for moment, Harm?" AJ asked when the meeting ended. Harm remained in his chair while Sturgis and Rodriguez left the room. "I need to drive out to the house for an hour to take care of something - I'll need you to take care of staff call while I'm gone."
"No problem, Admiral," Harm assured him. "I hope there's nothing wrong with Marcella -"
AJ considered his options for a moment before folding his arms across his chest. "I'm sure that Jennifer's mentioned her - impromptu meeting with Meredith Cavanauggh a few weeks ago -"
"She did mention it, sir. It hasn't gone any farther -"
AJ nodded. "I wasn't concerned about that, Harm."
"Has something else happened, sir?"
"I don't know. I might be reading too much into it, but one the day that Meredith 'ran into' Jennifer, she paid a visit to Marcella as well, trying to cause trouble. Luckily Marcella wasn't taken in, and I haven't heard from Meredith at all. But over the last weeks there have been some rather - disturbing phone calls. Both here and at home."
"What kind of calls?"
"Nothing threatening. You answer the phone and there's no one there - or else you can *hear* someone there."
"Disconcerting," Harm agreed.
"Especially for Marcella when the calls start while I'm away."
"Have you contacted the authorities?"
"With what? I don't have any proof that Meredith is making the calls - she hasn't spoken directly to me since before I left Italy with Marcella. I *did* call the phone company earlier and asked them to put Caller ID on the line, but I need to pick up one of those little boxes and take it out so that we'll have a record of where the calls are being made from at least. And I've instructed Jennifer to log all calls here, no matter who's on the other end."
"Sound precaution, Admiral."
AJ smirked. "I'm glad you approve, Captain," he said. "I shouldn't be more than two hours."
"No problem, sir. I'll keep everything under control."
"I'm sure you will," AJ agreed. "Why don't we go over the case assignments before I leave?"
Marcella was tending her garden when Dammit, who had been lying nearby, lifted her head and barked, looking toward the woods behind the house. "What is it, girl?" Marcella questioned without looking in her direction.
When the dog barked again, Marcella glanced in her direction as she jumped to her feet and took off at a run. "Dammit!" she called, "Come back!" but the dog ignored her, disappearing into the underbrush. Deciding that she would return when she was ready, Marcella returned to her task, putting the animal out of her mind.
Several minutes later, Marcella's concentration was broken by the sound of gravel crunching underfoot and turned to see who was there . . .
AJ parked the SUV in front of the house, grabbing the small package that he'd picked up at an electronics store. As he got out of the truck, he paused, some sixth sense alerting him that something wasn't right. He couldn't point to any one specific thing that caused the feeling, but it was there.
Impelled by that fear, AJ quickly climbed the steps and went into the house. "Marcella!" he called out, placing his cover on the dining room table along with the package. Hearing no response to his voice, the sense that something was wrong tripled in strength. "Marcella?" he said again, entering the bedroom that the two of them had been sharing.
There were several drawers open on the dresser - all of the ones that Marcella had been using. Crossing to inspect them, AJ discovered that they were empty. The closet yielded similar results: all of Marcella's dresses were gone. Glancing at the bed, he saw a piece of paper lying atop the pillow.
Picking it up, he recognized Marcella's neat handwriting - only it wasn't as neat and precise as it usually was, he told himself, beginning to read.
"My dearest AJ,
I am sorry, but I cannot stay any longer. I am homesick
for Napoli and the villa. Please do not try to follow me
or contact me. It is for the best.
"Damn it!" AJ yelled, and then looked up, halfway expecting to hear a dog bark in response. When that sound didn't come, AJ's frown deepened. Folding the note, he put into his pocket and moved toward the kitchen, but something in the living room caught his attention first and sent him there instead.
A square of white linen stretched over a round frame - Marcella's needlepoint- lay on the sofa where she had been working with it the previous evening before bed. Over the last months, he had gotten used to sitting here in the evenings, working while she created magic with needle and thread. Running his fingers over the brightly colored threads of the stitching, AJ knew that she wouldn't have left willingly without this - she had once told him that the hoop - made of wood - had belonged to her maternal grandmother. The same grandmother they had named their daughter for.
Placing the item on the table, AJ continued on through the kitchen and unlocked the back door, stepping out onto the porch. "Dammit!" he called loudly, listening for an answering bark, his sharp eyes scanning the forest for any sign of movement.
But the only reply he received was the wind sighing through the trees. Returning to the house, AJ went into SEAL mode, methodically attaching the small box with its screen to the telephone line before moving to his desk, where he unlocked the bottom drawer and removed the metal case in which he kept his weapon. Sliding a clip into place, he felt the calming weight of the cold steel in his hand before stuffing it into the back of his trousers.
Going back outside, he moved down the path into the forest, listening, his senses fully alert for any movement, any sound that would be out of place.
"Dammit!" he called again.
This time, there was a response. Faint, barely audible over the sound of the wind, he heard a quiet whine.
"Dammit! Where are you, girl?" he called, standing totally still until he heard the sound again, off to his left, through the brush. This time the whine was accompanied by a weak, whimpering bark.
The German Shepard was lying beside a tree, tied there by a rope. When she saw him, her tail wagged slowly, as if it were an effort to do that much. She whimpered and whined, but even after AJ untied the rope from her collar, she stayed where she was. "Come on, girl," he said, grabbing her collar, but she either wouldn't - or couldn't - move. Kneeling, AJ examined her for injury, and found nothing wrong. Dammit looked up at him with her big brown eyes as if she knew he would help her, all the while still whining and whimpering as if she were in pain.
"Okay, girl. Let's see if we can't get you some help," AJ decided, slipping his arms under the large dog's body to lift her up. "Oomph," he grunted. "You need to chase a few more rabbits." Carrying her back to the house, he managed to put her into the back of the truck, leaving the front door open as he went back inside to lock up the house.
Taking out his cell phone as he started the vehicle and turned out of the driveway, AJ dialed a number. "Judge Advocate General's Office."
"Jennifer, is Harm around?"
"He's in his office, Admiral," she said. "Just a moment."
AJ knew that he was nearing the Rasmussen Veterinary Clinic, and waited impatiently for Harm to pick up the phone. When he did, AJ barked, "Took you long enough, Rabb."
"Is something wrong, sir?"
"Marcella's missing, and I have reason to believe she didn't go of her own accord."
"What do you need me to do, Admiral?" Harm offered.