CHAPTER NINE

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[Note: I made considerable tweaks to the two mushy scenes between Carlton & Juliet in the previous chapter, in case you only read it on Saturday evening when I first posted it. I was unhappy with the original version; now I am less unhappy!]

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After a while, the front door minion came in to say Camryn was on the phone with family, long-distance, and would be along in a few minutes. Lassiter decided against telling him to go up and rip the phone out of her hands because when the police want to talk to a person, family sometimes has to wait.

Juliet closed the door, came to him and drew him to his feet. "We could talk about the case, like good and responsible cops, or—"

He was already kissing her, pushing her back against the wall. What had passed between them in the film room was just the start, and more was definitely better.

Juliet's arms wrapped around his neck and his around her waist, and he pressed to her, mouth and body, feeling her heat and kissing her as deeply as a man could kiss a woman he'd been in love with for years.

Long years.

God, she smelled so good and tasted so right—the swell of her lips, the persistence of her tongue, the thrill of her sigh into his very soul… her curves molding to his angles in all the right places.

"Carlton," she gasped when he trailed his tongue down her neck. "Oh… more… please…"

But there wasn't a lot he could do here, while they were working, and he was already nearly to the point of no return. "Dammit," he growled, squeezing her hard and feeling her undulate against him. "I'm stepping back. I am. Any second now."

"No you're not," she breathed, and shifted her leg to wrap around his.

"O'Hara… don't…" But he had to kiss her again, what was left of his brain already imagining being with her fully, completely, unclothed, later, alone, forever.

It was when his hand moved to cup her breast through her jacket that she seemed to gather herself. "Okay," she said with difficulty. "Okay. Step back."

He obeyed, almost stumbling against the table, rubbing his face and taking deep breaths. "Quick. Tell me something to piss me off."

After a second, and still out of breath herself, she said, "Shawn's in the great room ruining the police department's reputation."

"That'll do it." He straightened up, went to the window and flung it open, letting in the cool morning air and drinking deep.

Juliet joined him, smoothing her hair down. Her cheeks were still rosy and she looked as if she'd just been making out, but maybe only to him. No reason for anyone else to think that.

"All right," he said more briskly. "We like Frank and Camryn for this. But Katherine's got an angle too."

"If they're having an affair," she said, refocusing her attention, "that could be another reason she hasn't made an opportunity for him to go home."

"And if the affair was over, all the more reason for him to want to go home so badly."

She patted her cheeks, breathing deeply. "Yet I don't see them in an affair. She's loyal and obviously trusts him implicitly but I don't see him either being with her or trying to run away from her. He just wants to be with his family."

"And away from this project in particular."

"Well, yeah." She grinned. "What do you think is going on in the great room?"

He shrugged. "I don't even care. Are you going to the stuffed animal show with Spencer?"

Juliet was surprised. "I don't think so. You heard that?"

"I found Frank's flight reservation five minutes before I called you over," he admitted. "I picked my moment to interrupt very carefully."

Her mouth dropped open in surprise, but then she laughed. "You didn't have to worry. Even if I had said yes, it wouldn't have been a date to me."

"But to him it would have."

"And I'd have corrected that impression as quickly as possible. Carlton, I do like Shawn. But I'm not attracted to him."

He looked at her, wondering if he dared to ask. "Has that always been true?"

She hesitated, but her clear blue gaze never wavered. "No. I was attracted to him for a while. But not for a long time, and never again."

Lassiter held out his hand, and she took it, hers warm and soft. "I owe him a favor, then. If he hadn't outed me about the biscuit lady—"

"Then I wouldn't have become irrationally jealous to the point you had to kiss me to shut me up." She beamed. "Looks like I owe him too."

"We'll send him a thank-you note," he said dryly, and she laughed.

Someone tapped on the door. Juliet moved away from him and called out "Come in."

Camryn was a tense little thing, Lassiter thought, watching as she finally entered the room. She was thin and angry and defiant and she knew something was up, and she knew it was bad.

"Sit," he said without any attempt to soothe her, but she only stood defiantly.

Juliet gave her a stern look, and that seemed to do the trick; she sat at the far end of the table, her chair half-turned so she could see out the window.

"What happened with the punch yesterday?" Juliet asked without preamble.

Camryn's head whipped around. "What?"

"Do you use eye drops?" he asked evenly.

She stared at him now.

Juliet: "Were you not sure about the correct dosage the first time, or were you just playing?"

Lassiter: "Laughing about poisoning people is sociopathic, you know."

She burst out, "Stop! I'm not a sociopath and I didn't poison anyone!"

"But you laughed about it," Juliet said with her steely smile.

"No, I—no. Stop. That's not true."

"We have a witness," Lassiter told her. "Someone who heard you laughing about how Katherine was going to have to pay everyone off. We also have video footage of you spending a lot of time at the punch bowl and somehow mysteriously getting some on yourself and having an excuse to disappear to change clothes—maybe also to hide a bottle of eye drops?" He didn't really believe it; it didn't make sense that she'd poison the punch with the camera right there, unless she really was a sociopath and was daring them to catch her.

Camryn was horrified. "No! No!"

"Then what, Camryn?" Juliet softened her tone. "Tell us what's going on."

She looked helplessly from one to the other, and then put her head in her hands on the table. "I had nothing to do with anything," she said, her voice muffled.

"Sit up," he snapped.

Obeying, and slightly grayish in color, she said shakily, "I didn't do anything. I admit to being glad the Daliettes were sick and I hoped they would all go home. It's a stupid ship and I liked that it might be sunk."

"Charming," Juliet muttered.

"But I had nothing to do with it, and no, I don't use eye drops."

"What happened with the punch bowl?" he persisted.

"Nothing, I swear. When the girls started catcalling I turned to see who it was and my cup hit the side of the bowl and tipped it. That's all. I swear."

"And what about the laughing over it later?"

Her eyes filled with tears—shame? Sorrow? Embarrassment? Realization she was an idiot? Lassiter waited to find out.

"I just…" She sniffled. "I just know I'm not going to win and if this stuff keeps happening Katherine will pull the plug and I've put too much time and work into this to go home without the money. That's all. It was just talk. I swear."

Juliet asked, "What happened to your bold claim the other day that you were going to win?"

"Hell," she said with feeling. "That was just talk, too. I am a good writer. I am. I'm really really good. But since I got here I can barely write a grocery list." She sniffled again, wiping her eyes. "The truth is, a Joniette should win. The Daliettes and Jontons are full of crap and there's no way Fake is going to take any script of theirs, period."

Lassiter couldn't help it. "I read a Daliette. It was excellent." He felt Juliet's glance, but didn't dare meet it.

Camryn glared at him, her old belligerence back. "You don't know what you're talking about."

"And you were wrong the last time you said that too, weren't you, Einstein?"

She had the sense to keep quiet.

"Who else besides you had motive?"

"I didn't have motive!" she protested.

"Who else?" he repeated.

"Nobody! I don't know of any contestant who'd be crazy enough to do this. Not even a Jonton."

"What about the crew?" Juliet asked, her tone neutral. "Any of them set off any alarms?"

Camryn curled her lip. "Well, that Charlie Young's a perv. He's hit on, like, ten of the girls already."

"Poisoning alarms," Juliet elucidated.

"No. No one. Everyone's here to make this work, not make it fail."

"That's probably the most rational thing you've said to us all week," Lassiter said. "We'll be talking to you again, Camryn, but you can go for now."

She was out of the room like a shot.

Juliet hmmmed. "Should we still talk to the other six women on the list of writers who aren't going to win?"

"One of them is coming back from the hospital, right?" He got out his notebook, on which he'd jotted the list yesterday. "Rachael. I think we'll skip her."

"Be a good cover, wouldn't it?"

"Yeah," he agreed, "but would you risk your health for a lousy five grand?"

"No, but then I'm sane, and we don't know anything about Rachael yet."

"True." But then Lassiter thought of something else instead. Something alarming. "Do we know if anyone went with Frank to the hospital?"

"I'll ask," she said, and went out into the hall. He heard her heels clicking on the flagstone floor and after a moment followed, to very reluctantly see what havoc was being Shawn-wreaked in the great room. Broken sofa?

Juliet was speaking to the front door minion when Lassiter cautiously entered the great room.

Shawn was standing on the fireplace hearth, arms upraised. Gus was being pinned down onto one of the still unbroken sofas by three young women, all of whom appeared very angry. Whir the cameraman was panning the room, but Charlie's camera was focused in on Shawn.

"I am having a vision," Shawn said dramatically, "of—"

Lassiter closed the door, already uninterested. He spared a thought for Guster, but assumed no real harm would come to him. Probably.

Juliet beckoned from across the hall. "Frank went alone in the van, about two hours ago."

"Isn't that a little long to pick up women and bring them home?"

"Hospital checkout paperwork?" She was trying to read him. "What are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking," he said quietly as they walked back toward their room, "that if he's really desperate, we need to make sure that van and its cargo get back here safely."

She already had her phone out, calling the hospital; Lassiter called McNab to look up Frank's cell phone number, which he knew was in their files back at the station.

"The hospital says they all checked out over an hour ago," Juliet told him, concerned.

He glanced at his watch. "It's fifteen minutes from here, tops."

McNab called back in a few minutes, but what he told Lassiter at length wasn't at all what he wanted to hear, and he repeated it to Juliet with anger. "The damn van was in an accident twenty minutes ago." He started for the door but she yanked him back.

"What else? What else did he say? Are they all right?"

Lassiter forced himself to calm down. "Investigators are on the scene but witnesses say the van jumped the curb without warning and rolled into a culvert. Some of the women were injured and Frank's claiming the brakes didn't work."

"Carlton," she whispered. "He's gone over the edge."

"But why now? Why on his way back? He might actually have achieved a shut-down with this second poisoning, given our investigation."

They looked at each other intently and suddenly he knew, but she said it first: one word, in a low voice. They turned as one and marched to the film room door, opening it without knocking.

Katherine jerked up in her seat, pissed off at the interruption. "Working here," she snapped.

Lassiter kept his eyes on her while Juliet darted forward and snatched up the cell phone which lay next to the keyboard. "You warned him," he said coldly.

"Give me my phone," she said, getting up, but Lassiter held a hand out to tell her wordlessly to remain seated. "What are you talking about?"

"You warned him," he repeated. "You warned Frank about us."

She was mutinously silent for a moment, watching Juliet inspect her phone.

"Here," Juliet exclaimed. "A call to Frank twenty-two minutes ago."

"All I did was ask what was taking so long with the girls and he said they'd sweet-talked him into going by Starbucks." She rolled her chair back and started to rise again, and again Lassiter pointed for her to sit. "They'll be here any minute now."

"You warned him," he said one more time, "and now you've lied about it."

"You're being an ass," she declared. "I am the producer of this show and I have a right to communicate with my staff about the well-being of my contestants. They're my responsibility, and I take my responsibilities very seriously."

Juliet pocketed the phone, to Katherine's outrage, and said icily, "Well, he seems to have deliberately wrecked the van, so I guess that's your responsibility too."

Katherine went white. "What? What do you mean, he—is he okay? Is anyone hurt? What happened?"

Lassiter felt nothing but profound anger toward this spiky-haired TV person. "Now you want to know? When we wanted to talk about him before you shut us down because you were so sure he could never work against you."

"Just tell me," she said faintly. "Tell me they're okay."

"Everyone's alive." Juliet's tone lacked sympathy. "All we know for now is he jumped a curb and rolled the van for no apparent reason. Two minutes after you called him."

If she was white before, she was whiter still now. "Oh, God," she whispered.

"Yeah. You should be real proud of that one." Lassiter was still furious.

"I swear. I had no idea. Why would I help him hurt anyone?"

"Do you know—have you been withholding—anything which points to his involvement in the poisonings?" Juliet moved to stand closer to her, as if buffering her from Lassiter's wrath, but he knew from the set of her shoulders that she was just as angry.

"No, I swear. He's been asking to go home. Pleading. But he always said he understood when I couldn't let him go."

"Have you ever been involved with him?" Juliet pushed.

"No!" Katherine seemed genuinely shocked. "We're just…" she paused, and finished helplessly, "friends. Partners. That's all." She covered her eyes with her hands for a moment, breathing raggedly. Then, because the show had to go on, she got up despite Lassiter's warning and said firmly, "I need to know about the girls."

"You'll know when we know." Juliet was blocking her path.

"You don't understand. They really are my responsibility and I do care about them. I need to get to them. Frank can wait."

"Well, that's ironic," Lassiter remarked. "Because I believe letting Frank wait is what started all this crap."

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They escorted Katherine to the hospital where McNab said Frank and the contestants had been taken. Most of them were going to be released in a matter of hours; they had cuts and bruises, but nothing more serious, accompanied by complete shock that this roller coaster ride didn't seem to have an end.

Whatever irritation Katherine had felt for 'the girls' over the eight weeks they'd been together, she put it aside and became the adult they needed (although some of them were older than she was) for the time being.

She did not ask to see or speak to Frank, and Juliet knew it meant she accepted there was no other explanation for all this than his guilt.

Frank had glass cuts to his face and arms, and ribcage bruising from the seatbelt, but was fully able to be stuffed in a squad car and taken to the police station for questioning. He wasn't saying much.

Juliet and Chief Vick watched from Observation while in Interrogation A, Carlton asked Frank, "Did you poison the Daliettes' water?"

Frank sighed. "Yes."

"Did you poison the punch?"

"Yes."

"Did you deliberately wreck the van after Katherine called to warn you we knew about your flight reservations?"

He swallowed.

"You knew you were never getting home," Carlton said more gently. Juliet was touched that he made the effort.

"Yes," he said hoarsely. "And getting home is all I ever wanted."

"Not to rub it in, but attempted murder is a sure-fire way to screw that up."

Frank sighed. "It was only supposed to take one dose. If she had just stopped production for a few days after the first one, I'd have been done. I just wanted three days at home. That's all."

"But your dose wasn't strong enough and everyone wanted to go on."

"I told you," Frank said flatly. "I told you this place was my permanent hell."

"You did," Carlton agreed. "Looks like you had it pegged from the start."

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With Frank's full confession collected, Juliet and Carlton were back at their desks immersed in the copious paperwork for the case. Juliet looked at the clock; it was just past noon and she still couldn't believe so much had happened in one morning.

She looked over her shoulder at Carlton, who looked back at her, his blue gaze direct and full of promises for later. Feeling the blush—and the anticipation—she had trouble getting her mind back on her work.

Shawn and Gus erupted into the room—well, Shawn erupted; Gus just coasted along in his wake. "Guys! We've been at the FakeFic house for hours! When did you leave?"

"Oh… sorry, Shawn. I guess we forgot you."

"How could you forget us?"

"We practice," Carlton muttered, but they all heard him, and Juliet hid her smile.

"We heard Frank's the shooter?"

"Poisoner," she corrected. "And van-wrecker."

"But not home-wrecker. Shame. Well, we're certainly glad we could help out on this one."

"Uh, yeah, Shawn. So are we." She never failed to be astonished by his ability to deny reality. "But just so you know, between the bills for what you ate and what you broke, Henry says your fee is going to be cut to about fifty bucks this time."

He was shocked.

She added sweetly, "And that's generous."

"Dad!" he started to bellow, but Henry was nowhere in sight.

"Take the money and run," Carlton called out.

"Yeah, like—"

"I'm serious, Spencer. Take the money. And run."

Shawn turned his back on Carlton. "So what about FakeFic? Is Katherine still going forward?"

"Too soon to tell. It's really up to the contestants now."

"We were bonding with them really well," he mused.

Gus retorted, "When you say 'bond' you must mean 'being despised by.'"

"There was love, Gus."

"There was no love, Shawn."

Shawn's gaze fell to the folders on Juliet's desk. "There's love in those Joniette stories. Please, Jules? May I read a few more? I just feel like Jon deserves all the lovin' he can get from his sweet Mariette."

Juliet suddenly threw her hands up into the air, startling them both. "I just figured it out! It's you! Jon reminds me of you! How did I not see it before?" She felt like a big 'duh.'

Shawn grinned broadly, as Juliet and Gus and Carlton all stared at him. "Hell, yeah. Jon is beyond cool."

Juliet immediately thought of a few ways he wasn't cool at all, and glanced at Carlton, who only raised one eyebrow and kept quiet.

Gus said, "Dude, that means Juliet is Mariette!"

Shawn's grin became even wider; Carlton rolled his eyes, and Juliet knew she looked disbelieving. "Now that is what I call karma," he nearly purred. "Mariette, Juliet, oh yeah. And Jon has her, which means…" He winked in an exaggerated manner.

Clearing his throat, Gus said, "Don't get too cocky, Shawn. If you're Jon, and she's Mariette, than means Lassiter is Dalton."

"Yeah, whatever," he started, still mock-leering at Juliet. "It doesn't—" He stopped abruptly and furrowed his brow at Carlton.

Juliet struggled so not to laugh. Carlton's only reaction was the slightest hint of a knowing smile.

"Uh, Shawn? Do you look that way because you're afraid he's coming for you?" Gus' voice was so silky. "Or do you look that way because you're afraid he's coming for Juliet?"

Shawn's expression was priceless; a combination of disbelief, puzzlement, alarm, distrust and hey-how-did-I-get-into-this. "Don't be like that, Gus," he finally said. "It's just a TV show." Then, obviously determined to get back what control he thought he'd had, he smiled winningly at Juliet. "The lady will settle it all in the end. Lunch, Jules? Gus and I were thinking of stopping by Cheesy McCheddarhead's for some cheese soup, cheese salad, cheese fries, cheeseburgers and cheese pie."

"With cheese sticks on the side," Gus added.

"Because otherwise it's just overkill."

Juliet frowned. "You disturb me, Shawn."

Carlton got up from his desk, reaching for his jacket, and said with no special tone in his voice, "If that all appeals to you, O'Hara, I'll see you later." A faint smile lit his blue, blue eyes. "Unless you'd like to come with me to check out that French bistro we read about in Lawson's Coastal Dining."

Shawn gasped. Gus looked intrigued.

"Come on, Jules," Shawn cajoled. "It's cheesy time."

Juliet took him by the arm and pulled him aside to say very quietly, "Carlton's not coming for you, Shawn."

"He's not?" He actually did look a little relieved.

"No. I got him first."

His eyes grew wide. "Jules, no! That—that goes against canon!"

"I'm sorry. I just don't care." She kissed his cheek. "I gotta go now." As she passed Gus, she said, "Say hello to the kittens and bunnies tomorrow."

When she drew even with her smiling Carlton, she murmured, "No gloating," and he shook his head. "But lunch, yes."

"And more later?" he asked too softly for anyone else to hear.

"Everything later," she agreed with a smile. "Everything."

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