CHAPTER EIGHT: Rice
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They sat on the stone bulkhead in the sunshine, legs dangling over the side. Juliet's hand was firmly in his, and her head rested on his shoulder. She was all warmth on this chilly morning.
She had asked to see where he was the day he finally called her, and so he drove to the Alabama Point bridge and walked with her past the cranky herons to the spot where everything had changed between them.
"Here," she said with a faint smile. "It's beautiful."
"More so with you next to me."
She tilted her head up and kissed his cheek.
"I still can't really believe any of this," he admitted. "I had... I had no hope, Juliet. None. There wasn't even one part of my being which thought you could ever feel anything for me."
"You were wrong." She squeezed his hand. "And it's not that I think you're perfect now or we're going to have an easy time of it. I know you, Carlton. You're going to tork me off and I'm sure I'll tork you off and we're still going to squabble in the bullpen and in the car and I'm going to smack you in the arm when you have it coming."
"Which I will." He smiled up at the clear blue sky, not even bothering to deny he could be a pain in the ass.
"Which you will," she agreed, laughing. "But the idea of a life without you close beside me... the reality of it. That scared the ever-loving crap out of me. I took for granted you'd always be there for me and I took for granted that those little... longings I felt now and then were just the natural byproduct of a close partnership. And when that was gone, and when I had to consider I might be the reason it was gone, it was sort of like being smacked by a two-by-four." She grinned. "No, like being tasered, minus the potential loss of bladder control."
Carlton laughed, oddly charmed at the analogy, and pulled her hand up to kiss her fingers. "I should have run away a long time ago."
"Maybe so." She sighed, and nuzzled his face again. "I'm just so happy we're together now. Fully."
They'd never left the condo yesterday, not even as far as the beach proper. Wrapped up in each other and exploring, they'd given each other pleasure after pleasure, laced with emotion and trust. He had never once envisioned such a complete joining with another person, and the soft words she'd whispered to him through the day and night still danced in his head.
After awhile they got up so he could show her more of his haunts over the past two months, pausing near the second cranky heron so Juliet could ask her how they could improve her mood. Clearly offended, the heron promptly flew away, her grace a puzzling counterpart to the grating sound of her accompanying outraged squawk. "How rude," Juliet declared.
At the car door, he put his arms around her and slid his hands possessively into the back pockets of her jeans, tugging her closer.
Juliet liked that, leaning in and smiling up at him. He knew that look: an illicit kiss was coming, and that was quite an attractive prospect. He already knew her mouth—its shape, its taste, and Lordy, its power over him—and kissing her was nirvana.
But just before her lips touched his, a pickup door slammed nearby and someone yelled, "Don't you kiss him, girl!"
Carlton was both exasperated and amused, and Juliet glanced between him and the man. "That's Bob," he explained. He'd told her about his sometime fishing companions and their slight likeness to Spencer and Guster.
"Why not?" she tossed back at Bob.
"Bob gets jealous," explained Adam, who got out of the driver's side of the pickup.
Bob laughed, coming closer.
"So do I," she said, not moving away from Carlton, and in fact sliding her hands into his back pockets. Crap, not the time to be feeling arousal.
"You must be the girl," Bob said, and Juliet freed up one hand to shake his.
"This is Juliet," Carlton agreed. "She is the girl."
"Woman, thank you very much, and yes, I am the woman. I'm afraid to ask what he said about me."
"Not nearly enough," Adam said, shaking her hand as well. "He's too good at keeping his mouth shut."
"Yes he is," she agreed, her tone neutral, but he didn't miss that gleam in her eye.
"I'm Bob," said Bob. "Adam's the crazy one."
Carlton cleared his throat. Adam rolled his eyes.
"Okay, I'm the crazy one." Bob took a look at Carlton, who raised one eyebrow at the scrutiny. "But then again, you ran away from this beautiful lady, so I dunno how crazy I am compared to you."
Adam said flatly, "No one's as crazy as Bob, but yeah, I have to admit he's right about this one."
Juliet was amused. "Well, in Carlton's defense, if he hadn't run away, I might not have caught him."
"Method to my madness," Carlton offered. "After the fact, of course. I never thought I had a chance."
Juliet smiled. "I never thought I had one."
Bob scowled. "Crap, they're gonna get mushy. Come on, Adam, let's go find some fish."
"No, wait," she said, separating from Carlton but keeping hold of his hand. "How did you guys meet him?"
"Fishermen always find each other," Adam said. "We met up at the Salty Seas and now we can't seem to go anywhere without running into him."
"They're stalking me," Carlton said.
"No, no—Bob's stalking you. I'm stalking Bob."
"Well, who wouldn't?" Juliet laughed, and Bob actually blushed. "What's he been like?"
"Who, Carlton?" Adam was surprised. "He's been... a guy? What do you mean?"
Carlton was amused. "They're fishing guys, Juliet. They only know if another guy is a fishing guy too."
"He's a good fishing guy," Bob said. "Not too gabby, not too smartassy."
"Kind of smartassy," Adam amended. "But that's only a problem because Bob doesn't like competition."
"He can be kind of smartassy." Juliet laughed when Carlton gave her hand a warning squeeze. "But he's also the best man I know." She looked up at him with shining eyes, and he swallowed hard at the way it melted his heart.
"Yeah, they're getting mushy now. Let's go, Bob." Adam grinned, and both men shook her hand before they went back to their truck.
When they were alone under the bridge again save for the herons, Carlton cupped her face and kissed her hard, tasting heat and cinnamon and passion.
"Mmmm, I love you," she said with a sigh, leaning against him. "Now take me to the Salty Seas. I want to meet Marcy."
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During the very short periods when he wasn't either talking to Juliet or making love with Juliet or damn near unconscious after the latter, Carlton had given some thought to how he should handle The Marcy Issue.
It was pretty simple in the end: Marcy was then. Juliet was now... and forever.
Marcy had been his friend, and he would be hers by respecting her privacy as long as he could. If Juliet ever asked him point-blank, he would not lie—he could not lie, not about something like that—but until such time, his night with Marcy would remain private.
He knew this was right for many reasons, and his head and heart were clear when he and Juliet walked into the Salty Seas.
They'd just opened, and a waitress he hadn't seen before offered to show them to a booth, but Carlton led Juliet to the bar, where Marcy, head down, was counting money at the register.
"47, 23, 311," he said.
"I don't serve wise-asses," she muttered, but looked up as she dropped the last coin into the drawer. "Well, hello!" She smiled broadly at him for a moment and then turned her attention to Juliet. "You are gorgeous!"
Juliet was startled, yet took it in stride. "So are you!"
She was, rather. Marcy with her dark eyes and long curly brown hair was a dramatic contrast to his fair-skinned, blue-eyed Juliet; she was also more blunt and much more likely to show temper (he'd seen the waitstaff step lightly around her as well as Dave some days) but he knew her heart was kind.
Marcy laughed. "Maybe we should get a room." At Carlton's expression, she laughed again. "Kidding. You're Juliet, and I'm Marcy. Thank God you're here."
"Thank God you beat him up," Juliet countered.
"All in a day's work." She came from behind the bar and shook her hand briskly. "He needed it."
"I know, and I owe you big. I mean it, Marcy. You gave us this chance."
Marcy nodded, either embarrassed or trying not to seem cocky. "I'm glad I could."
Carlton rubbed the spot where she'd hit him. "You know you nearly cracked my rib."
"Next target was your kneecaps," she retorted. To Juliet, she said confidentially, "He's been a dead man walking the last few weeks. Getting him to call you was becoming a public safety issue."
Juliet looked at Carlton, smiling, and slipped her hand into his. "Then you saved two cities at the same time."
Marcy nodded. "I expect I did. So, since you got here two days ago and this is the first I've seen of you, I guess everything's going... well?" Her tone was sly.
He couldn't say anything.
Juliet went pink.
Marcy laughed delightedly. "I'll take that choked silence as a yes. So go sit down! I'll make sure the cook doesn't drop any of your food on the floor, and the beer's on me." She shooed them away.
In the booth, they composed themselves, laughing a little. "You are glowing," he said.
"No more than you, Romeo."
"No hickeys in sight," he assured her.
"One of yours might be if you'd unbutton that—" She reached across the table and he pretended to slap her hand away, making her laugh.
They had left little marks on each other, but he figured as long as the most important marks were in each other's hearts, the surface didn't matter.
Marcy took their orders herself and sat with them a little while later on. She and Juliet seemed to hit it off; he watched the two of them and decided they were each as 'natural' as he'd ever seen them. He hoped he was, but in honesty, he wasn't as concerned as he might have been at another time in his life. Maybe it was the quiet certainty that he had Juliet's love, or maybe he was simply more whole himself now... but these women chatting was okay. It felt okay.
She made them promise to come back for a meal or two over the next few days, and asked Carlton, "So does this happy ending mean you're going home ahead of schedule?"
Juliet looked surprised. "We haven't actually talked about it."
"Oh... well, guess you will now!" Marcy grinned and went to attend to the rising lunch business.
Juliet tilted her head. "I really hadn't thought about it. I do want you home, of course, in case you wondered."
"Not as much as I want to be there," he said fervently, although really he would consider anywhere home if she was with him.
"But I don't want to cut your vacation short."
"It's only been a vacation on the outside. The minute you get on that plane it's going to feel like a prison sentence." It had been like that before, but now—knowing his feelings were shared—it would be worse.
"For me, too. What would be nice," she suggested slowly, "is if Chief Vick gave me another week off. We could drive back together and still have some time after we got home." She smiled. "You don't have to come right back to work but I would love to know you're only a few miles away instead of a whole country away."
Paradise, even without the seaside. "I like the idea. And in case Vick wants to separate us, I'll already be on extended leave while she figures out where to transfer me."
Juliet's eyes grew huge and alarmed. "She is not going to transfer you. She can't."
"She could," he said quietly. "And it'll be me who goes, sweetheart. Not you. I won't let another partner take the heat for me."
"It wouldn't be for you. It would be with you. I'm not working without you anymore. If it comes to that, we can both quit, open up our own detective agency, and compete with Psych." She was talking fast, in pre-panic mode, and he reached across the table to take her hand firmly.
"Slow down. We might not have anything to worry about. I'm just telling you that I will not allow your career to suffer because you happen to love me." While she was staring at him plaintively, he added, "And there'd be no competition with Psych. Please. They'll eat our dust."
For a second longer, she still stared, and then burst into laughter. "Hell yeah they will."
"And on that topic… we haven't really talked about Spencer." He'd been unsure about bringing him up, but as long as they were discussing the future at all, it seemed a logical segue.
Juliet subsided at once. "He tried to talk himself back into my good graces a few times but I just kept telling him it was over and he'd have to move on, because I was."
Carlton studied her. "He's not going to like who you moved on to."
"I know, but I can't do anything about that. You and I are adults and we're going to be discreet. If there's any trouble, it'll be on his side, and we'll deal with that if we have to. Together, right?"
"Always," he promised. "I'm going to be on you like white on rice."
Her eyebrow went up, and her smile was feline. "I like the sound of that. Can you demonstrate later without any clothes on?"
Carlton took a quick slug of his beer. "Yep."
Laughing, Juliet whispered something about finishing lunch quickly so they could get back to the condo and get started on that.
After a quick goodbye to Marcy at the bar, they got in the car and Juliet promptly flung herself at him, her kisses hot and her hands wandering his body, making him impossibly aroused. He had to beg her to back off long enough for him to drive, but her fingers still traced maddeningly sensual patterns on his thigh until he grabbed her hand to keep it still—ignoring her laughter and protests.
When they were home and up the stairs and behind the locked door, Juliet started taking off her clothes on her way to the bedroom, but Carlton caught her wrist and pulled her close there in the hall, shimmying her out of her jeans and panties and lifting her leg to hook around his thigh. He was still dressed, but he ground against her and she was gasping with desire.
"Yes," he growled, "I would like you to get another week off." He nipped at her lower lip, licking and nibbling while she moaned. "But first I want to get you off."
She nearly went limp in his arms when he slid a hand between them, but her tongue was forceful against his and her leg clamped around him hard. He brought her to orgasm quickly and then carried her the rest of the way to the bedroom while she trembled with aftershocks.
Later, as the frenzy continued, he was caught between marveling at what she did for him, what she let him do for her, and what they could do for each other—what they wanted and needed to do for each other.
He lay half on top of her, out of breath and unable to move, but Juliet liked him where he was, judging by how she tightened her arms around him when he did try to roll off.
"You're not going anywhere," she whispered. "Never again."
Nuzzling her earlobe, he whispered back, "I only have the condo until mid-March."
Juliet laughed and swatted at him, capturing his mouth for a fully decadent kiss. "Oh, Carlton, I love you so. I'm so sorry it took this long for us to get together."
He kissed her cheekbones and her forehead. "Worth the wait. More than worth the wait. And you'll be asking yourself if you're crazy before too long."
"Oh," she scoffed, "I already know we're both crazy. But that's something else we can do together, partner. Happily ever after."
"Say it again," she whispered. "Say you love me."
"I love you with every ounce of my being, Juliet. With every beat of my heart. With every breath in my lungs. With every swimmer in my—hey!" he protested when she swatted him.
She had dissolved into laughter, and pushed him onto his side so they could lie together. "We'll talk about your swimmers when we get back to Santa Barbara."
"At which point I will have said I love you at least ten thousand times. Plus two."
"That's more like it." She curled her fingers into his hair, making him shiver as she brushed the back of his neck. Her dark blue eyes were mesmerizing him again, and he felt so utterly complete and good and ready for anything. More. Everything.
"Happy New Year, Juliet," he murmured.
She smiled, and kissed him with gentle, simmering heat. "It is now."
It was indeed.
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Chief Vick didn't separate them.
Juliet was granted another week's leave, and Carlton even let her help with the driving on the way back to California. She said smugly that this was the proof she needed he was in it for the long haul. He rolled his eyes; she smacked him in the arm, and they stopped for the night ahead of schedule to take of sudden urges.
Actually, that happened every night of the trip, which is why it took two extra days.
Carlton stayed off work another two weeks after their return, spending time at the shooting range to be absolutely sure he hadn't lost his edge, and helping Juliet move her things into his condo, which was all the better for it.
Spencer stood down sans drama. He and Guster declined cases for awhile but eventually a need to pay their TiVo bill won out, and Psych resumed sniffing around for cases. Carlton didn't engage with Spencer, didn't gloat, didn't rub it in—didn't even want to. He didn't want to upset Juliet, and besides, what glory was there in reminding a man he'd lost something incredibly valuable?
After five months, Juliet convinced Carlton she really didn't want a big wedding but did really want to be married to him. Forever. No take-backs.
Forever, he mused. The "ever after" which followed "happily."
Not a phrase he'd ever thought to associate with himself, but as he stood with his radiant blue-eyed Juliet in front of a judge in late June, it seemed to be indisputably true.
Juliet glowed, lighting the room with her happiness, and Carlton's heart was overflowing with joy he still couldn't quite believe he was allowed to have.
She kissed him and whispered that she loved him, and he whispered back that he knew, and Judge Lawson was surprised to see Juliet swat him—a recurring theme now—but not so surprised when he swooped down and kissed her senseless.
"I'll love you forever," Carlton murmured into her ear.
Juliet beamed. "That's just for starters."
"Like white on rice," he said with a grin. "Like white on rice."
They were late to their own dinner reception and disheveled when they got there—and no one who'd seen them over the last few months was at all surprised.
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Of course they honeymooned in Orange Beach.
They fished with Bob and Adam, they drank beer and played darts with Marcy, they walked the Gulf State Park pier, they spoke to the herons at Perdido Pass under the Alabama Point bridge, they made love for hours on end, and all things considered, "happily ever after' was a phrase which fit the two of them pretty well.
Sort of like... no, exactly like white on rice.
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