CHAPTER THREE

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. . .

Lassiter stayed clear of Juliet while the warehouse was searched.

Their phones had been dumped by the main door, the Crown Vic was where they'd left it; the guns were long gone, holsters along with them. There was plenty of evidence left to establish that Lawson's gang had been using the warehouse, but where they'd relocated was up for grabs.

At the moment, he didn't care. He was waffling between the professional shame of being taken down by common criminals and the personal aftershock of what happened with Juliet.

He glanced across to where she was speaking to Dobson, noting how disheveled she was (knowing he must look the same)... but still, she was gorgeous. Luminous. Kissable. He—Carlton Lassiter—had kissed that mouth, those cheeks; had tasted her throat and her earlobes and felt her grinding against him, and...

Feeling the heat as he remembered it all, he said a bit brusquely to Miller that he wanted to go around one more time, but they should get Juliet back to the station. Having issued this command, he strode away, but Juliet called his name about five seconds later.

"Carlton!"

She could be rather commanding too, so he turned. They were standing within sight of the main doors, but out of earshot of the others. "Go on back to the station, O'Hara."

"Why? Because you're freaked?"

Blunt. He accepted that. "Well, I—"

"Since I know you don't think I'm too delicate to do my job."

"Of course not. I just—"

"I know you, you see. Six years I've known you. I know when you get freaked out and I know what freaks you out, and no way did this not freak you out." She paused. "Not, you know, during. But now."

"I'm not arguing with you."

Juliet looked at him quizzically. "Sounds like you are."

In for a penny… "No, I mean, I'm not denying being freaked. I am freaked. You're distracting the hell out of me and I can't think straight. You're just too…" Say it. Saaaay it! "Dammit, O'Hara, you're too tempting." He ran his hands through his hair; the hell with professional appearances now.

Her expression softened, and a small smile lit her face. "Why didn't you say so in the first place?"

Despite everything, he had to smile back. "Please go back to the station. We'll talk later."

"Really?" She was suspicious, and he couldn't blame her.

"Yeah. I'll be less freaked." Maybe.

"Maybe," she echoed.

. . . .

. . .

He didn't get back to the station until mid-afternoon, and Juliet wasn't at her desk. He did have something to say to her, but not here, and not in person, for while he was a card-carrying tough son of a bitch on the job, he knew the limits of his bravery regarding matters of the heart.

His tiredness was legitimate, and his shoulders and hips ached from the box-tossing events, so he signed out for the day, to Vick's surprise but clear approval. She wasn't used to him taking care of himself.

When he got to his car, he sat for a few minutes, letting the thoughts he'd had all afternoon coalesce into something he could work with.

A forced-upon-him therapist had once told him that while planning operations and investigations to allow for every detail and contingency was necessary to be a good cop, there just wasn't any way to make those kinds of plans when it came to personal relationships.

Lassiter knew it was true—hell, he'd lived that truth—and knew he had to get the problem down to its core.

He could either tell Juliet how he felt, or not.

If he told her how he felt, one of two results was possible. She'd reciprocate—green light, or she wouldn't—red light. For whatever reasons in whatever permutations and flavors, those were the two outcomes of telling her: green light, red light. Green would leave him happy; red would keep him unhappy.

If he didn't tell her how he felt, it was all red. He could stay, he could leave; didn't matter. It was just red.

So if 66.6% of the possible outcomes were going to leave him unhappy… well, that sucked. And he was sick of things sucking. He was sick of his own fears and choices being the reason for most of the suckage in his life.

Besides, tomorrow was his frickin' birthday, and 33.3% was better than 0%.

He texted Juliet.

I've spent my life overthinking everything. I'm good at it. I'm also tired of it. You said "what happens in the box stays in the box" but I'm going to tell you now, in this much smaller box, that I love you, and if you were free, I'd show you how much. But you're not free, so that's really it, isn't it? I'm going home to take aspirin and get drunk, and tomorrow, as they say, is another day.

. . . .

. . .

She texted him back around six, when a third of the whiskey was gone, he was lying on the sofa staring at the ceiling, and everything looked red.

I may not yet be free, but what happened is not staying in the box. I don't want it to stay in the box.

He sat up, alert despite the alcohol and the aches.

Another text followed: Besides, I just found out you're like the best damn kisser in the world. I'm not leaving that in any stinky box.

Lassiter grinned at the screen, and the red cast to his world began to fade away as he answered: Take your time. You know where I work.

Then he added a second text: And live. And drive. And have lunch and coffee. And interrogate suspects, and…

Juliet sent a smiley face and then: Pretty sure I love you too, you know.

While he was staring at that, his heart pounding, she sent another.

Pretty sure I have for a long time.

He let out a breath.

I'll see you in the morning… but stop drinking. That 'tomorrow is another day' line will feel a lot better without a hangover.

. . . .

. . .

When he got to work (no hangover), he found flowers on his desk. Flowers? Why yes. A not-too-frou-frou grouping of blue and purple flowers gathered around a red rose in a silvery, angular vase. He smiled—how could he not?

From his right, and bearing coffee, she said, "Happy birthday, Carlton."

He gazed at her, and she seemed to gaze into him. "Thanks. And for these, too," he added, touching one of the blossoms.

"I like that tie pin," she said, nodding at the Glock, and even though he'd worn it because of her, he still felt the blush on his face. "I'm buying you lunch today, and here, sir, is your first perfect cup of coffee of the morning."

He took it from her, smiling. "You treat a man well."

Juliet beamed. "I have good reasons."

Hmmm, maybe so. "Beautiful earrings," he commented. "Gift?" Felt a little reckless, but the light was looking pretty damned green from where he stood.

She touched the dolphins lightly, a bit pink herself. "Yes. From someone I love."

Lassiter forgot how to breathe for a few dangerous seconds.

"Nothing about yesterday was a dream, Carlton," she whispered. "I'll prove it to you, I promise."

"You don't have to make that promise," he said simply.

"I know. But I am." She stepped a little closer. "There are two things I would change about it, though."

He wondered if anyone would notice if he stepped closer to her, but as it turned out, his feet were frozen to the floor. "Yeah?"

"For one thing, I'd have liked another half hour in the box before we got rescued," she said with a most wicked grin. It faded as she added softly, "And I'd like to edit two of the texts I sent last night—to remove the words 'pretty sure.'"

What was the big deal about heart palpitations anyway?

"O'Hara," he managed, but that was all.

It seemed to be enough for her; she smiled and went back to her desk. Lassiter had to sit down before his legs gave out.

. . . .

. . .

It was the best birthday he'd ever had, all things considered. In the past, not including the year Juliet inadvertently sent a few dozen ex-cons to his house, she'd always found a way to make the day special, from where they went for lunch to finding him a simple yet perfect little gift, simply because she wanted to.

He spared a thought for Spencer, about to get the axe, and considered it an extra birthday gift that the bunny-loving comedian didn't show up at the station today.

Normally, this far into a nice day, Lassiter would be actively looking for the 'catch' which would bring things back to the reality he knew, but… but nothing happened.

He smiled. A lot.

At the end of their shift Juliet came to his desk. "I have another birthday present for you but I'd like to bring it over to your place tonight. Is that all right?"

"Sure. Can I make you some dinner? Nothing fancy."

Juliet's smile was broad. "Absolutely. I would love that. Did I tell you how good those cupcakes were?"

"About ten times. Maybe twelve." He restrained his smirk.

"Smartass. Did I also tell you I ate them all myself?"

Lassiter laughed. "No, you didn't tell me that. I thought you'd share them out because you're so damned nice."

"Red velvet, Carlton, is nothing to be 'nice' about." She touched his hand lightly. "I'll be over at seven, okay?"

More than okay.

He had time to shower and change and put together some stir-fry and salad, humming the whole time, because… well, hell, because. He knew he should be nervous about her visit, and what she might bring, but in the forefront of his mind was the simple reminder: just go with it. It's Juliet, and she will never hurt you, and if she wants to give you a chance then shut up and go with it.

Still, when she knocked, he jumped about a foot, and was probably out of breath when he opened the door.

She had changed into a skirt and green blouse (green, he noted; how appropriate) and those dolphin earrings went so well with her blue-gray eyes and he just smiled appreciatively at her for a moment as she stood in the doorway.

"Permission to come aboard?"

"Permission granted." He stood back, and accepted the bottle of wine she thrust into his hand. While he was reading the label, she stepped up and kissed his face lightly. "Hey," he said, putting his arm around her and letting her kiss his mouth next. It was hard to pull back from the sweetness of her lips and the promise they offered. Very hard. "Stir fry awaits."

"Let it wait a little longer." She stood by the end of his sofa, arms folded but not in a tense way (he hoped). "I didn't want to tell you at the station, but I… I talked to Shawn last night." She hesitated. "It's over."

Lassiter looked at her and understood that the woman he'd loved for so long was essentially telling him there were no more barriers between them. Sensing that whooping would be inappropriate, he only asked, "How did he take it?"

She shook her head. "As well as any man who honestly had no clue there was even one thing wrong with the relationship until the very moment it ended, despite multiple conversations and warnings and reminders." She paused. "And death threats." A crooked grin and she continued, "He can be so thoughtful and so sweet and it was that plus his sense of humor which drew me to him in the first place, but… I'd already waited too long for him to grow up. And I was doing that waiting while the man… the very best man… was standing right in front of me."

He was blushing again. "Did it take the box to make that clear?" He had to know.

"No. It was already clear. The box only made it clear that you were finally available."

"Finally? O'Hara, it's been six years. I was—"

Juliet held up her hand. "Between Victoria and your fear of being linked to another partner, plus your natural inclination to think you don't deserve happiness—and then Marlowe—I never thought there'd be a chance for us." She sighed. "Marlowe really threw me. I was with Shawn by then but when you got involved with her I was stunned how much I hated the idea."

He was surprised, but matched her honesty. "I went for Marlowe because she liked me without me having to work for it. And because she distracted me from you, something I really needed once I found out about your relationship with Spencer." He cleared his throat. "And acted like an ass by polygraphing you."

"You shouldn't have had to polygraph me, because I should have told you sooner. But let's forget that. It's in our long and complicated past and it's time for us to live in the present."

"I like the sound of that very much."

Tilting her head, she smiled curiously at him. "Speaking of presents, what do you want for your birthday?"

Lassiter glanced at the clock. "It's almost over. Does it matter now?"

"To me it does. What would you like?"

He rubbed his chin. After everything else that's happened, and seeing how honesty has actually paid off here, might as well go all the way. "Well, if you think of this room as a bigger version of the box, and we hold to the rule that whatever happens in the box stays in the box, then what I'd really like is to make love to you until dawn." He watched as her mouth opened slowly, and waited for her smile. "And then I'd like to call in sick for the rest of the week and go on making love to you until at least March."

"I see." She was amused, and titillated; he could see it in her eyes.

"Stopping for stir-fry and showers now and then, of course."

Juliet laughed. "Well, then I must be…" She paused, reaching down into her skirt pocket, turned away from him slightly and then faced him again, wearing a silver gift bow on her blouse. "The most thoughtful shopper ever. What do you think?"

Lassiter felt desire for her from the top of his head on down to more southern regions. "Yes, you are. Of course, if you were really thoughtful, you'd already be naked." He grinned. "Instead of gift-wrapped."

She laughed again, stepping into his arms at last. "And if you were such a hot-shot detective, you'd have been naked when you opened the door. I've been waiting a long time to see the whole chest which goes with this," she said, running her fingers under his open collar.

He had no rejoinder other than to kiss her, but then had a better idea; he bent to put his head down to her waist, and while she was wondering what he was doing, he threw her over his shoulder and carried her down the hall to his bedroom.

Juliet laughed all the while, gasping as he dumped her on the bed, then grabbed at him and pulled him down to lie with her, kissing him hungrily.

"Hope you don't mind it's more comfortable than the box," he murmured against her throat.

"Hope you don't mind me being as close to you as if we were still in the box," she said, and started unbuttoning his shirt.

"I don't mind at all." He opened her blouse and slid his hands under her body to unhook her bra. "Let me know if I'm going too fast."

"Let me know if you don't want my hand on you right here," she shot back, and he gasped when he felt her, and that was through the fabric of his slacks.

"No, it's okay," he groaned. "I can help you with that zipper."

"I'm good. Need any help with my skirt?"

"It's never going to fit me, but other than that—" He stopped talking when she kissed him, her tongue insistent, and for a few minutes they were focused on that: mouth to mouth, seeking and giving and tasting.

Nudity ensued soon enough, mutual admiration and caressing following—she of his lean strong body, he of her lovely soft breasts and other sexy 'lady parts'—and then they were together. Her thighs locked around his hips, her body yielding to his demands but taking from him all the same, in a perfect sensual joining of years of longing and desire and love.

The latter was spoken aloud later, when he cupped her face, his fingers in her hair, and whispered, "I love you, Juliet."

"I love you back, Carlton." She smiled, her misty blue eyes full of sincerity and passion. "Happy damned birthday."

"Thank you very damned much," he laughed. "May I have another?"

"Another birthday?"

"Noooo," he drawled, and kissed her perfect lips tantalizingly. "Another taste of you. Another chance to make you crazy hot for me. Another chance to show you how I feel about you."

"Let me think about it," she suggested with a grin. "Okay, I thought about it. Yes." She urged him onto his back and straddled him. "You have until 2062. Get busy."

"I'll be 93 in 2062. You'll still want me?"

"Hell no. I write you off at 92, buster. When I'm 80 I'm moving to Boca and taking up with an illegal alien caretaker at the nursing home."

Lassiter laughed. "That's fair. But you know he'll only want you for your citizenship."

"Don't be a hater," she purred, and licked a path from his sternum up to his Adam's apple.

He was lost after that, especially once she started wriggling on top of him, and while they didn't call in sick the next morning, they did have to throw out the stir-fry and start dinner over again.

All in all, that was an acceptable loss.

And he kept the silver bow.

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[That's all, folks… with thanks to AlyshebaFan1 for sussing out that Lassiter's birthday is 2/22 when she posted her very entertaining Lassiet story Just Another Day.]