CHAPTER SIX: New Again

. . . .

. . .

Juliet lay next to Carlton, her head on his shoulder, her hand on his chest, feeling his steady heartbeat. The room was cool but the bed was warm, and everything was simply... right.

Certainly this was only the eye of the hurricane; she needed to talk to Shawn and she was likely facing suspension for having clocked him, but for now, sleepy in the embrace of her love, she felt nothing but hope and contentment.

The secret door was open wide.

Carlton was hers again at last—only more so, more completely, more wonderfully.

He said softly, "Two months ago. When you came to me. I thought you were... agreeing to let me go."

She tilted her head to see his face, and he turned, his blue gaze curious and yet careful.

"I was. I... it just felt like unfinished business. I felt like you were trying to slip off quietly and I didn't want it to be so easy."

"It was never easy. Not for one damned minute."

The flash of pain in his eyes made her regret saying it. "I know. I know. I'm sorry. I meant I didn't want to be forgotten. I wanted some way to imprint myself on you. If I'd lost you. Which..." she hesitated. "I thought I had."

He didn't say anything, but the pain faded.

"And I wouldn't have come to you at all if I didn't already want you subconsciously."

"Despite Spencer in your life?" The question was level but his hand around her shoulder trembled just a little.

"Yes." She was absolutely sure of it. "Because my life with you came first. It was more complete, even just as friends and partners. I hadn't been taking very good care of our relationship since I started dating Shawn, I know that, and I'm sorry. I let you fall by the wayside too often, and I hate that. But in some way I guess I never doubted you'd always be at my side. So when you cut me off..."

Carlton rolled onto his side and wrapped her up close against him. "I'm sorry."

Juliet kissed his sternum. "No. I understand. You felt you had no choice."

He stroked her hair back with gentle fingers. "It was for nothing. I could have moved to Timbuktu and I'd still be crazy in love with you in ten years."

"Well yeah," she teased, "because after about three months I'd have followed you over there."

He laughed, and kissed her warmly. "You make me think happiness could be possible on a daily basis."

"Can't it be? Maybe not 24/7, but in little pockets here and there throughout the day?"

"Like when you come to the coffee bar so I can see you," he suggested, his voice low.

"Like when I go to the coffee bar so I can see you," she agreed. "It's been the highlight of most of my days."

They exchanged a leisurely, smiling kiss, while Carlton insinuated his lean leg between hers.

But he didn't press his advantage. "What happened the day we went to El Cielo?"

Juliet grinned. "I got drunk and threw myself at you." She draped her thigh over his, moving closer.

"Ohhh... right. But I meant what made you call me."

"Ah... I found out Shawn had been in my apartment, rearranging things to suit himself. But I was looking for a fight anyway. I might even have been looking for an excuse to call you." She clamped her thigh around his possessively. "I just... you don't know how much I missed you."

"Mmmm," he sighed. "Yeah, I do, because I missed you that much too. But we didn't have anything like... this... before. What..." he hesitated. "When did it..."

She answered first with a kiss, slow and luscious, tasting his lips and nuzzling his jaw. She didn't think she could explain to him how perfect it felt to be with him intimately. How much of a natural extension it was of their original partnership.

But he wanted some kind of answer, and she was helpless under the draw of his ocean-blue eyes.

"I don't know, Carlton. I guess the simplest answer is that once I'd been to your condo, once I learned how it could be between us, all those little urges I'd had over the years just sort of blossomed. I was supposed to be letting you go, but I couldn't get my heart or subconscious to agree with me. Like..." She paused as realization dawned. "Oh."

"What is it?"

She could hardly say the simple words. "There was a secret door to me, too."

Carlton looked confused at first, and then slowly smiled. "I thought it was closed when you started dating Spencer."

Juliet was too misty to say more, her heart too full. He kissed her, seeking and needing and loving, and was met with her ardent response. His lean body melded to her softer curves, making them close enough to be one body, one loving and intimate whole.

They never had need of doors again, because there was never again a wall.

. . . .
. . .

Vick glanced at her watch. Three o'clock, and she hadn't heard anything from Lassiter in several hours. Collins wasn't back from the crime scene, which needless to say had been disrupted by the officer-on-consultant scuffle, and she was ready for a damned update.

She called Lassiter's cell phone.

"Chief," he answered briskly. "I was just about to check in."

"What's going on?"

"O'Hara is calm and extremely unlikely to pulverize Spencer again."

"Very funny. Put her on. I'd like to speak to her."

Moments later, Juliet gave her a cautious greeting. "Chief, once again, I apologize for my behavior. I never imagined I could lose control—" She paused; Vick heard Lassiter's voice in the background.

"What's he saying?"

Dryly, she said, "That it was no different from subduing a perp."

Karen chose not to show her agreement aloud. "Just to keep you informed, you know I'll be speaking to and collecting statements from everyone who witnessed the incident, including you. You'll need to come in tomorrow to turn in your own statement."

"Of course, first thing."

"But needless to say, based on department policy, you're suspended without pay for a week. I expect you'll be required to attend an anger management session based on your mandatory meeting with the department psychologist during that time." She sighed. "Truthfully, maybe it should be called a Spencer Management session."

Juliet gave a quiet amen to that.

"I'm sorry, Juliet."

"Oh, Chief—for what? It's all me—"

"No, unfortunately, it's not. It's been a group effort, really, which has allowed Shawn to behave the way he does almost unchecked. My preference would be that we don't punch our consultants, but then again, I'd also prefer our consultants behave like adults."

"That would be nice."

Karen added carefully, "I also realize that your personal relationship with Shawn… got… punched today too."

Just as carefully, Juliet answered, "You may assume that my personal relationship with him was in serious trouble before I decked him, and also that it's over now."

"I see." She somehow knew not to express condolences.

"And Chief... thank you for sending Carlton here. It was—he was—exactly what I needed."

"Oh?"

"In every way," Juliet said, and Karen—woman-to-woman—understood precisely what that tone signified.

She wasn't even really surprised, given how both of her detectives had been acting since their split. "Well. Uh… you're welcome?"

Juliet laughed lightly, and Karen imagined Carlton Lassiter sitting nearby blushing. For some reason, the image warmed her heart. Maybe Juliet should have punched Shawn out a long time ago.

After the call concluded, she spotted Collins passing her office door. Summoning him to stop and come in, she waited while he seated himself. He looked worn out and more than a little frazzled.

"Crime scene wrapped up?"

"Finally. Preliminary suggests the closest neighbor did it."

"Spencer was escorted off site after… the incident, right?" Henry had told her about his command to Gus.

"Yes. Thank God," he muttered.

Karen hid a little smile. "Care to give me your informal take on what happened before you write your formal statement?"

He rubbed his temple briefly. "Simple story is that Spencer just wouldn't shut up about Lassiter. We all warned him to can it, but—hell, it seemed like he couldn't. It was like he was some Lassiter-bashing robot with a fried circuit." He looked at her, puzzled. "How can a guy be so smart, and see so many details so fast, but not see someone's about to go off on him?"

"Oh, Detective, you are by no means the first person to ask that question."

"Guess not." He settled into the chair. "Bottom line? I'd have popped him myself about ten minutes before she did. I think it's admirable she lasted that long. I say we give her a damn commendation."

This time she couldn't hide the grin, but kept herself from actually laughing out loud. "All right. Thank you, Collins. When you write up your statement—"

He grinned too. "Don't worry. I'll stick to the facts."

. . . .
. . .

When Vick called, they were actually showered, dressed, and discussing going out for an early dinner.

El Cielo, of course; that was their restaurant now.

Juliet put her still-damp hair up in a ponytail, and Lassiter admired her upraised arms. She was wearing a blue and yellow sundress and looked so fresh and pretty that he could easily be talked into not going out at all.

"That look," she commented, coming to sit on his lap on the sofa, and immediately slipping one cool hand inside his shirt. "I'm learning that look."

"It's the look which says I'd rather have you than food," he agreed, kissing her and then planting yet more kisses down her neck to her collarbone and back up to her ear. He enjoyed the deliciousness of her shivering in his arms.

"Staying in is good too," she agreed breathlessly.

He slid his hand under her dress, along her smooth thighs, while she nibbled at his earlobe and throat, and if she happened to part her thighs just so, well, he didn't mind the favor. Nor did he mind her hand undoing his shirt buttons so she could more fully stroke his chest, and their mouths locked together in heat-seeking intensity—something he was already certain would always be that good between them.

With his other hand, he pulled at the bodice of her sundress, exposing more of the creamy skin underneath.

Juliet arched, her head thrown back, sighing in anticipation as his lips moved unerringly toward her still lace-covered nipple and his other hand moved with deliberate slowness between her legs. "Carlton," she sighed, and he loved the way she sounded, all need and desire and excitement.

Knock. Rapid knocking. An accursedly familiar voice. "Jules! Let me in—we need to talk!"

"Ah, crap," Lassiter hissed, automatically starting to push her out of his lap, the guilt-response in full throttle because according to Spencer (and well, everyone else in the world), what he was interrupting was pure and simple cheating. "I'll go—"

"Stop," she whispered urgently, holding his arms. "You are my best friend and you have every right to be here. Besides, Vick sent you, remember?" She got up and straightened out her dress as Spencer went on knocking.

Lassiter, on his feet, still didn't know what to do. Flee? Stand his ground?

"Carlton, relax," she insisted. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes bright, but she was determined.

He buttoned up his shirt and made sure everything was under control as she padded to the door.

Shawn was inside almost as soon as she opened it. He stopped when he saw Lassiter. "I thought that was your Fusion out there. You can leave now." His face was bruised and he looked tense, but not combative.

Generally speaking, Lassiter didn't like to be told what to do, and this moment was no exception. "I'll leave the room, Spencer, but I don't leave here until Juliet says so."

Juliet immediately said, "You're not leaving. But maybe you should—" She glanced toward the hall, and her bedroom door, and Lassiter knew Spencer didn't miss that. On the other hand, the apartment wasn't exactly the Taj Mahal; where else was he going to go?

He nodded, and went back to the scene of their crime.

. . . .
. . .

Juliet, studying Shawn, felt genuine regret—as well as genuine fondness.

He was uncomfortable, and when she gestured for him to sit, grabbed a pillow to hold in his lap like always, only more tightly this time, as if it were a security blanket.

"Shawn, I apologize for hitting you. I really regret losing control of myself like that."

"Forget about it, Jules. I know I had it coming."

"Nobody deserves to be hit," she said, and she meant it. "I never thought I'd be that kind of person."

"You're not. Funny, because when I was growing up, I never thought I'd be the kind of person who could bug someone enough to get hit." He grimaced. "Not counting my dad. I bugged him plenty."

"He never hit you."

"No, but I was a kid. I'm not a kid anymore. I'm a grown-ass man and I really screwed things up between us."

She met his gaze but said nothing. Not yet.

"Can we fix this?" he asked very quietly.

Now.

"No, Shawn. But not because I hit you."

"You said you'd give me a chance—"

"I did say that, and in the past month you have tried. I know you have. But don't you see? After today, isn't it obvious that if we went forward, it would always be you trying and me trying not to go off on you?"

"Jules…"

"Listen, Shawn. Hitting you—that wasn't right. It wasn't even healthy—I'm sort of looking forward to the mandatory psychologist session during my suspension. It's just that at the moment I hit you, I honestly believed there was no other way to shut you up. What I should have done was handcuff you and have you removed from the scene. But I was so frustrated and angry I couldn't think straight. I don't want to be in a relationship like that. Not anymore. I can't do it."

He leaned forward, into the pillow, sighing. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. There just has to be a way to make things right between us. This all started when Lassie broke you guys up. You haven't been the same since then."

"You're right," she admitted. "Losing Carlton was really hard."

"But... he's here now," Shawn said slowly.

"Yes, he is." She wasn't going to say more. If he asked, she'd tell him, but she wasn't going to volunteer it.

"You told me he was your best friend," he went on, still slow and careful.

"He is."

"Should have been me, Jules."

Her heart twinged. "Partnerships make for—"

"I'm tired of hearing about partnerships," he snapped. "I know about partnerships. It's like that with me and Gus."

She remained outwardly calm. "Right. No one understands why it works between you, but it does. It's the same for me, Shawn. Carlton and I get each other the same way you and Gus get each other, and now that we've found our way back, I'm not losing him again. And he's not losing me."

He looked at her, unhappy but resigned.

Then his gaze moved to her upper chest, near the shoulder strap of her sundress.

She willed herself not to blush, because she knew exactly what he was seeing: evidence of Carlton on her skin, a small bruise from his persistently delightful mouth. She'd left a few marks of her own on him. Why the hell had she chosen this dress to wear after their shower?

Shawn didn't say anything... at first.

But he glanced down the hall toward the closed bedroom door. "I guess he's not losing you. I get punched, he gets lucky. Is that how it is?"

Juliet stood up fast, tense again. "Shawn, I'll always care about you. I think you're a remarkable person and I don't regret the time we spent together, or the years of friendship before that. I hope—"

He was waving his arms. "Stop. It's okay. I'm sorry."

She went on more evenly. "I hope you'll continue to offer your services to the police department and if you want to press charges against me for assault, I understand. But I really don't have anything else to say to you right now except I'm sorry things worked out this way."

Shawn stood up too and tossed the pillow to the chair, half-defeated, half-impossible to read. "So am I, Jules. More than you know. Now can I go down the hall and punch Lassie? Sort of a pass-it-on thing?"

Tightly—hands clenched—and knowing she was speaking the absolute frickin' truth, she said, "Go ahead. He'll kick your ass all the way to Ojai."

"Yeah?" A bit belligerent.

"Yeah. And then I'll kick it down to L.A."

He stared at her for a few moments, hazel eyes fierce, but finally relaxed. "All righty then. Just thought I'd throw that out there."

She felt her fists unclenching, and Shawn gave her a small smile, which she was able to return. "So we're clear now."

"Yeah, we are." Leaning in quickly, he kissed her cheek. "Bye, Jules," he whispered against her ear, and then went to the door; no looking back.

A moment later she heard the motorbike engine, and a moment after that, Carlton came out of the bedroom.

. . . .
. . .

Lassiter stood at the window, staring down at Spencer's Norton in the parking lot, the whole time he was in the bedroom. First he'd made the bed, in a lock-the-barn-after-the-horses-hit-the-casinos attempt to conceal the truth, but if Spencer had burst in, he'd have known.

There was nothing to see, but he'd know.

He could hear their voices, but not their words. The conversational tone was mostly calm, and that was good. He was marginally afraid Spencer would wangle another chance out of Juliet, but for the first time in his life, optimism—no, certainty—overruled the old familiar voices of doubt and insecurity.

He felt Juliet's love even now, like a blanket, or maybe a shield. She loved him and they were a solid unit. Spencer could chip at it, the equivalent of a kid throwing pebbles at the side of a mountain, but he couldn't break it.

Honestly, Lassiter didn't think anyone could. Not now. He smiled, just a little one, allowing himself to feel... happy.

It was damned nice.

After a short while, he saw Spencer going down the steps and to his bike; when he was headed toward the street, Lassiter opened the door and went back to the living room.

Juliet smiled at him, her eyes clear and her love evident. "Hey."

"Everything went okay?"

She crossed the distance between them, resting her head on his chest while he hugged her. "Yes. I think so." She pulled back, touching the small bruise he'd left earlier. "He noticed that. I think he figured it out. But he didn't push it."

"Sorry," he said, at once feeling guilty. "I hope he didn't think—"

"Oh, I'm pretty sure he understands we would have broken up no matter what."

They sat on the sofa, curled up together, and Juliet's fingers moved gently in his hair as she told him about their conversation.

He grinned at the ass-kicking denouement, and she let him kiss her most wickedly. "You're right, you know. You're not losing me. Ever."

"I know," she sighed happily. "Because if you think I won't go all Kathy Bates Misery on your ass, you've got another think coming."

Lassiter laughed.

"I shouldn't be in such a good mood, though," she said more soberly. "I got suspended for punching a civilian today, and I just stomped on a guy's heart."

"O'Hara," he admonished. "You also put mine back together. I happen to think that's a big damn deal."

Juliet kissed him, her mouth sweet fire against his, and after she worked her way back into his lap, she slid her hands into his hair again and kissed his cheeks and forehead. "It is, because you were pretty handy with putting mine back together, too."

"I might have gotten some of the pieces of your heart mixed up with mine during the gluing," he advised her.

She seemed enchanted by the idea, her smile wide and her dark-blue eyes a bit misty.

He touched her lips gently. "A while ago you asked me—after a certain drug-induced sword-wielding incident—what one thing in the world would make me feel better." He gave her a crooked grin. "At the time I wasn't allowed to say you. So what one thing would make you feel better now?"

"You," she said promptly.

"You already have me."

"Then…" She studied him a moment. "Okay. I can't go back to work for a week, so you know what I'd really like? I'd like you to take a few days off so we can just be together again."

"But I don't take time off, O'Hara." Hell, he'd take a year off for her.

Juliet squeezed her thighs around his. "No?"

"I could make an exception."

"Would you?" She wriggled in his lap. "For me?"

"I could make all exceptions for you." He pulled her closer for a kiss to prove his point.

"Am I a better partner than Grimaldi?"

Now he laughed. "You really want to go there? I'm about to get you naked and you want to compare partners?"

"What makes you think I'm going to let you get me naked?"

He grasped the hem of her dress and pulled it up, then off, and Juliet did not interfere. "That."

"Oh. So is Grimaldi a better partner?" She stayed his hands when they started to reach around to undo her bra.

"Is Collins?"

Juliet undid his belt. "No. He's not you."

"And Grimaldi's not you," he sighed as her hand went for his zipper.

"So we agree, then. Your brilliant move stuck us both with inferior partners." She licked his earlobe, and he shuddered.

"Yeah," he gasped. "That's about right."

"Okay then." She unhooked her bra herself. "Just wanted to get that out of the way."

"Let's get some other things out of the way too," he growled, pushing her off his lap but only so he could lie beside her on the sofa. "Like your panties."

Juliet dreamily agreed.

And later, they agreed an off-duty partnership was going to work out just fine.

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T H E

E N D

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