CHAPTER TWO

. . . .

. . .

Lassiter felt as if he were drowning... drowning in a crazy mix of want and confusion and desire and mystification and underneath it a tendril of irritation which amped up the confusion, so that even though Juliet kissing him was on the one hand utterly magnificent, it was also something he had to stop because it made sense like Denzel Washington in a tutu made sense.

He broke free and made it up the embankment to the road surface, staring at her—her dark blue eyes, her just-kissed lips, her flushed face.

What the hell was he supposed to do now?

Walk it off, said a cold little voice in his head. Whatever this is, it's not real.

"I'm heading down this road for fifteen minutes," he said with what was left of his resolve. "To see if I can find a cell phone signal. Fifteen minutes, and then I'll turn around. Stay here." He didn't wait, didn't slow down to hear her objections; he walked as fast as he could straight down the middle of the dirt road.

Son of a bitch. Son of an ever-lovin' bitch.

Juliet kissed him.

She frickin' said she loved him, and then she kissed him.

Sweet Lady Madness.

But she also said.

She also.

Said.

It was a problem she was trying to work through.

He was a problem.

Loving him was a problem.

A problem which made her so angry—maybe even disgusted—that she'd slammed the door in his face repeatedly for seven stinking weeks.

It was… he was… something she didn't want.

He stopped, breathing harder than he should have, but it wasn't the exertion of the walk. It was the roaring in his ears and the thudding of his heart.

Check the phone, doofus.

He did; no signal. Damn forest. Damn Ackerman, taking the radio.

Yes, getting involved with a partner was a complicated business: he knew it far better than she did, but she'd obviously learned from his mistake.

And he had no idea what was going on with her and Spencer—maybe that was why she was so angry. Maybe her inexplicable attraction to Lassiter was pissing her off partly because it was inexplicable, for one thing, and verboten for another. For two anothers: the boyfriend plus the partnership.

Stopping again, heart steadier as he calmed down very, very gradually, he looked at his watch. He'd been out for nine minutes and knew he'd walked pretty far down the dirt road. Adrenalin made for jet speed, and he had the long legs to go with it.

The forest was damp and chilly this January afternoon, but it would be cold before very long and dark even sooner.

He'd have to go back and face Juliet but he'd be damned if he was going to... to what?

To anything. He'd make the new partner request himself—hell, he didn't have to request; he was the Head Damn Detective and he could arrange the partnerships as he liked—and if Vick overrode him he'd just tell her how it was. That would do it. She'd have Juliet with another partner in less time than it took to draw a weapon on a perp.

Lassiter turned around, but took the return trek more slowly. He needed to get his poker face back on, and on tight.

When he got back up to the Vic and the ruined tree and his very tense partner, she was standing in the road with her arms wrapped around herself so tightly she might well lose consciousness if she weren't careful, and he considered telling her to relax.

On the other hand, if she passed out, he wouldn't have to avoid her searching gaze for a while.

Better to remain silent.

He said, "No signal," and passed her, sliding down the embankment again to open the car door. He reached in only far enough to start honking the horn in an SOS pattern, and when he dared to glance up at Juliet, she looked mutinous and worried and hellaciously kissable all at the same time, and damn her for opening up Pandora's Box.

After nearly ten minutes of noise, she nearly screamed, "Stop already!"

Lassiter completed the last of the SOS he was sending, and closed the door again, working his way back up the slippery slope. Juliet held out a hand as if to help him but he couldn't touch her. Not now.

He popped the trunk and inspected the contents. "Take this," he said, and handed out a sealed packet of granola bars and two water bottles, taking up the lone blanket and one of the flashlights before he slammed the lid shut.

The blinking red hazard lights were going to be very annoying once full dark set in, he mused.

Mused. As if he could forget he was there with Juliet.

Who had kissed him.

Twice.

Masterfully.

Damn her.

"Carlton," she said evenly, "I need you to talk to me."

"That's rich," he muttered.

"What?"

"I've asked you to talk to me for the last two months and got bupkis and you think all you have to do is ask me once?"

Juliet brushed a tendril of hair behind her ear, looking anxious. "I haven't been rational. I'm sorry."

"I'm sure you are," he said sarcastically. "I'm sure you're sorry about a lot of things." Particularly about the last two minutes before I went down the road.

He hoisted himself up on the trunk as he had earlier, taking the blanket and flashlight with him.

"Carlton, give me a chance to explain."

"No, O'Hara. I don't have to do that. Not yet. Do you want a hand up here or are you sleeping on the dirt?"

Now she sounded exasperated. "It's only five o'clock, you know—I'm not exactly ready to turn in."

"Suit yourself." He shook out the blanket, ignoring the voice which pointed out he'd have to share it with her later. Not to worry; it was big enough. He'd never have to touch her, and by God he'd try not to.

"But if I come up there with you will you let me explain?"

"Nope."

"Carlton, this is crazy. We have to talk about this!"

"O'Hara," he snapped, "I have given you seven weeks to tell me what was wrong while you were working out your obvious revulsion to the problem you had to work through which was apparently some temporary and aberrant attraction to me instead of your boyfriend. The window of opportunity is closed now; you get it? Take it up with a therapist. Or better yet, get your psychic to interpret it for you."

Even in the falling light he could see the bright spots of color in her cheeks, and it was dawning on him that she was armed when she threw a water bottle at him. It hit him in the chest—which hurt rather a lot—but somehow he caught it before it fell into the ditch.

"I don't have a psychic," she said icily, and then pitched the other bottle at him too.

Lassiter couldn't catch that one; it bounced off his arm and rolled away into the murky ditch water with a splash. "Well don't stop now, O'Hara," he shot back. "Why don't you waste the granola too?"

Her hand rose as if to do just that, but then she backed away, into the middle of the road, standing there in her ridiculous heels, granola packet in one clenched fist.

She really was beautiful when she was angry, cliché notwithstanding, and he was so very sorry she had kissed him because now he knew, and knowing how it was to kiss her was going to make it ten times harder to give her up.

But then again, knowing he was only a problem she was trying to work through might help with that.

Then the penny dropped. Senses prickling.

"What do you mean you don't have a psychic? Apart from Spencer being a complete fraud?"

Juliet dropped the granola and sank to the ground, sitting cross-legged and looking for all the world like a lost little girl. "I broke it off with him."

Lassiter stared. And stared. And pondered. "Was it seven weeks ago?"

She shrugged. "Give or take."

"And you've been pissed at me ever since?"

"Yes. No. No!" Juliet protested. "Okay, yes. But…" She sighed.

"You know what? Never mind. I don't want to know." He spread the blanket out over his legs; the temperature was dropping fast and it was already hard to see Juliet, except for when the flashers illuminated her.

"Carlton," she said, so very wearily. "Please. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry I've been a bitch. It really wasn't you. You didn't do anything and you absolutely did not deserve to be treated that way."

"Now there we agree."

She hugged herself tight again, shivering.

Crap.

"O'Hara, get up here."

After a moment, she got to her feet and came to the Vic; he reached out to grab her hand and helped her up beside him, and without thinking about it overmuch, spread the blanket over both of them once she'd gotten situated at his side.

Damn her for smelling good, too.

"Look," he started, because although he really didn't want her to spell out how much she didn't want to be attracted (temporarily) to him, he knew she was right: they had to talk about this. "I don't understand much about the female brain but I know about breakups. They screw with reality and make you look at everything—everybody—differently."

"Sometimes seeing everything differently is what leads to breakups," she countered. "And sometimes it's about admitting that you've always seen it and you were just an idiot."

"Well, I know about being an idiot too."

"Carlton," she admonished. "You're only human like the rest of us."

He shrugged. "So you say."

She caught his hand, warming it in the chill of dusk. "I do say."

Squeezing her hand back briefly, he would have let her go, but she held on.

"I broke up with Shawn because it was past time. There's a lot of good in him; you know there is. I care about him and I always will. But whether I gave it another year or another decade, our relationship was never going to survive, and you already have your own list of reasons why I'm right."

"Trust me," he said dryly, "I would never try to talk you into staying with Spencer."

Juliet squeezed his hand again, and he heard the smile in her voice. "I know. Anyway, even though the breakup was inevitable, the truth is the timing was because of you."

"But how in the hell is that possible?" He turned to see her face, lit intermittently by the reflection of the blinking taillights. "What did I do?"

Juliet lowered her gaze to his hand, which she had somehow pulled into her lap over the blanket. "You broke up with Marlowe," she said softly.

Lassiter was at a loss now, really. Truly. "He's around here somewhere, isn't he?"

"Who?"

"Denzel in a tutu."

Juliet smiled, puzzled. "What are you talking about?"

"Insanity."

"Apparently. Listen... here's the thing. From the first time I saw you with Marlowe, I had a problem with her."

Stiffly, he interrupted, "She is a very nice woman and—"

"I know. I know she is. That was the problem. You were standing there with her, and you barely knew her, but you were already connected to her. There I was with the idiot bloodfeast brothers, and you two looked so... right together."

It had felt right, but he'd been foolish. Naïve. Desperate, even, for a chance to break Juliet's hold on his heart.

"Then the next time." She hesitated. "When we... interrupted you."

Lassiter flushed. He remembered it all too well.

"You were making love to her," she whispered.

"I was trying," he agreed grimly. "But no such luck."

"You were trying," she amended, "and to this day I will never forget how you looked at the door."

"Stupid military garters." He remembered that all too well, too.

"No. You... in passion. Shirt open, hair messed up... my God, it was..." She stopped, and he couldn't help but stare at her again, at how she touched her cheek with her free hand and seemed to be fanning herself despite the chill. "Anyway," she rallied. "It got to me. A lot. Seeing you with her after, and at her house... you just looked so loyal and so determined and so very... not mine."

He was back on At-A-Loss Central.

"I told myself I was only jealous because I was greedy. I had a boyfriend but I wanted my partner to stay available, to stay my best friend, to stay... unattached, because I didn't want to share you."

I had to share you. And I got precious little—Spencer held your attention far too well.

Juliet looked at him steadily. "Then you bought a condo... for her. So I thought it was time for me to get more serious with Shawn, and I started leading him into moving in with me despite all our problems, despite how I knew there was no way it could ever last. Ironically, Henry getting shot put a stop to that, and Shawn went on being Shawn after Henry recovered."

Her hand was so warm in his, and she covered it with her other hand as well, completing the feeling of rightness.

"When you told me you broke up with her, I was..." She seemed embarrassed. "I was so incredibly relieved, Carlton. I'm honestly appalled at how relieved I was."

"O'Hara." He paused. "You were just looking for an excuse. Or a distraction. I get it."

"No, you don't get it. I mean, yes, I probably was looking for an excuse to end things with Shawn but that had nothing to do with you. With... how I felt about you."

"You got confused," he repeated, and then he got it. "After the breakup when you realized you didn't have feelings for me—"

"Please don't. Please don't... assume."

"O'Hara, you can't—come on. I know you about as well as you know me. You don't..." He couldn't say it at first. "You don't love me. You care about me because you're my partner and my friend but you're not... you don't..." He felt sick. What he knew to be true, once spoken out loud, was inordinately depressing. More so in the dark and cold, lit by the flashes of red against the tree limbs and dirt road and shadowy recesses of the forest.

Juliet sighed. "Carlton, you could not be more wrong. The reason I have struggled with this—the reason I've taken out my frustrations on you—is that I do love you. I admit I don't want to, because we're partners and you're skittish and it's only going to freak you out and make you crazy and besides, you just broke up with Marlowe and I'd never hold up as a rebound after her. She seemed so right for you." She paused. "Other than trying to drain your blood and breaking into a blood bank, that is. You seemed... happy."

Lassiter had been to Astounded and back so many times in the past half hour that he'd lost track. "O'Hara. You really think you..."

"Love you?" She smiled. "I know I do. And now I just want you to get over Marlowe so you can take a look at me."

Holy crap.

Slowly, he started again. "No. You really think you don't outclass any other woman I've ever known?"

Juliet drew in a sharp breath. "I... I don't know about that."

"Marlowe wanted me to get over you so I could take a look at her."

Her hands tightened around his. "Oh."

"She ended it because she was tired of how I talked about you."

"Oh," she said again, and kissed him, finding his mouth unerringly in the dark, all heat and need.

Lassiter was more than ready this time, returning the kiss with immediate hunger, tracing her lips with the tip of his tongue and breathless at how breathless she was. Juliet curled against him under the blanket, arms around his neck and back now as he held her, and really there was nothing else around them at all. Not the night, not the blinking red light, not the shadows or the cold or the damp.

"Better," she breathed, stroking his face. "So much better."

"Damn straight." He had to kiss her again, just in case he was dreaming all of this.

When her hand slipped inside his shirt, her fingertips brushing his chest, he couldn't help but deepen the kiss, and for a while the two them were locked in a delicious competition—who could kiss the other into submission first.

But Lassiter was already lost to her, and happy about his downfall.

"So does this mean we're each other's rebound?" she asked, teasing.

"No. Marlowe was my rebound from you."

Juliet's smile was tremulous. "I'm sorry I was such a bitch. And I'm sorry about so many other things."

"You don't have to be sorry about anything, O'Hara." He was nuzzling her throat, tasting her cool skin, skin rapidly warming under his breath.

"I hit you with a water bottle."

"Okay, yeah, that hurt a little." He nibbled her earlobe, making her gasp.

"Carlton?"

"Yes?" He paused, meeting her gaze, suddenly afraid there was a big "but" to all this.

"Just so I'm clear... your feelings for me are...?"

Beyond relieved, he grinned. "Of course I love you. What the hell kind of lame-ass detective couldn't figure that out?"

Juliet laughed and slung her leg over his, adjusting the blanket on their makeshift divan. "I've been off my game."

He barely heard her; the feeling of her curvy warmth pressed to him was making him blind to any other sensations. Truly, Denzel Washington could have walked by in a tutu and Lassiter wouldn't have noticed.

The kissing... and touching... went on for quite some time. He learned a lot about how Juliet reacted to him, and learned also that how he reacted to her was nearly enough to make him want to risk getting caught having sex on the trunk of the ditched Crown Vic.

She whispered that she loved him and had for a long time. He whispered the same true words back to her, and forgave her for every minute of hell she'd given him the past two months. She promised to make it up to him over time.

"I think we have to make love now," she added in a heated whisper against his throat, making him shiver more powerfully than any cold January night could manage.

"I think we already are," he said, settling his mouth down over hers again.

Lassiter was glad later for that moment's strength, because shortly thereafter a ranger's Jeep rumbled down the road from the north, headlights slicing through the dark and the fallen tree's branches, a crazy patchwork of light illuminating the world on their side of the tree.

They both yelled out their presence, scrambling down off the car and back up to the road, but Juliet kept her hand in his, and Lassiter realized something rather profound: he'd already been rescued.

And having been rescued by Juliet meant only one thing: he was hers forever.

She whispered, "I love you, Carlton," her eyes shining in the light.

He said it back... and thanked her, delighted now to have been the problem she'd worked through.

. . . .

. . .