CHAPTER FOUR

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(A/N: Sorry for the delay. Pick a reason: Christmas prep, travel related to that, almost no Internet access while away (*shiver*), ten inches of snow after freezing rain causing temporary lack of 'lectricity, general post-everything madness…)

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Henry Spencer was a larger-than-life sort of man. Carlton admitted to admiring his service record and commitment to quality police work, but on a personal level, he was never quite comfortable with his blunt nature.

Carlton himself had been called blunt, and considered it a compliment, but Henry's bluntness always had a knowing, very personal edge to it. Whereas Carlton could quickly identify and label accurately someone as an idiot ("it's called profiling"), Henry could also explain the origins of the idiocy based on observations it took others a lot longer to see.

It was one reason he was absolutely certain Spencer Jr. wasn't psychic: Henry had obviously trained him well.

At any rate, it was unsettling that Henry was unfazed not only to see him arrive with Juliet, but also that he turned around just as Juliet was stealing a kiss while Carlton was standing with her near the open coat closet, trying to get a recalcitrant jacket button undone.

Caught by two Spencers in one day: yeah, he and discretion obviously weren't on speaking terms anymore.

Not that he minded the kiss, or how lovely Juliet looked with her flushed cheeks and that light in her eyes he would love to see every day for the rest of his life.

"Stop that," he told her sternly all the same, and she laughed.

Henry interrupted. "Shawn says you're doing dishes. Can I trust him?"

Carlton frowned. "Do the first sentence and the second sentence go together?"

"Good point. Put a question mark at the end of the first sentence."

"Yes, I am doing dishes. I appreciate the invitation."

Henry grinned. "I'm just glad Juliet brought a date. I was worried she was going to stay on the shelf forever."

"Henry!" she protested, reaching out to swat him, which he naturally dodged while laughing at her.

And that was it: the full extent of the Henry Spencer Inquisition.

The other guests—Guster, his parents, assorted other department personnel at loose ends for the holiday—were curious but not unduly so about Carlton with Juliet. If it had been up to him, he'd have tried to pretend they were just there as coworkers, for her reputation more than his. But Juliet kept hold of his hand quite openly, and the one time he muttered something about speaking to Vick before they outed themselves as... whatever they were, she simply said Fate had gone to so much trouble that it was inevitable everything would all work out.

How could he argue with her logic?

Especially when he didn't want to?

Spencer Junior's new girlfriend, Starr North, was a bubbly girl who seemed to know as much as he and Guster did about 80s TV and movie trivia, which made her a shoo-in for the gel-head's attentions. Guster had his own date in attendance, Jacqueline Frost, a woman from his pharmaceutical company who seemed to meet with Winnie Guster's approval (something Carlton was sure didn't come easily).

The Gusters had (apparently) forgiven him and Juliet for having arrested them in the past. Made for a nice holiday moment, not being despised.

Dinner would be turkey and ham. Henry said he'd considered making a pirducken after watching the Christmas episode of Duck Dynasty—a duck inside of a chicken inside of a turkey inside of a pig—but had run out of time to acquire either the pig or a large enough oven (or spit). Everyone assured him traditional preparation methods of traditional holiday foods was quite all right.

There was Christmas music throughout the house, underneath the ongoing conversations, and occasionally Carlton could make out bits of familiar lyrics. Each time, he reflected, they seemed to fit his exact frame of mind, or rather, frame of heart: all I want for Christmas is youMerry Christmas, darling… you make it feel like Christmas all year long

"Is this really happening to us?"

The surprising thing about the wondering tone of the question was that it came from Juliet, not him. They were standing in front of the Christmas tree, surveying the ornaments Henry had saved all these years, even the ones his son had made as a child (including some which should have been retired or 'accidentally' broken years ago).

"Uh, you're asking me? I'm pretty sure I once told you all romance ends in despair."

"Or death," she reminded him, smiling. "You also said people were out there just to destroy any chance of happiness I might have."

Carlton looked at her steadily. "I was speaking from personal experience."

"I know. I knew it then too." She took his hand again—she'd only let go to adjust an ornament's position, and he'd missed her warmth every second—and said more softly, "Just like I know you would never be one of those people you warned me about."

"Never," he agreed. "Not so long as I breathe."

"How long, Carlton?"

"Well, I figure I've got a good thirty, forty years in me unless I go out in the line of duty, but—"

"No," she interrupted with a laugh. "I meant, how long have you… cared for me?"

He blinked. How long had he been breathing?

No… she needed a real answer.

"I figured it out when you reconnected with Scott Seaver."

Juliet stared at him. "But that was the same time you told me romance was doomed."

"I know. Again, I was speaking from personal experience." He was wry. "I could see he was a good guy. I could see he was better for you than gel-head over there and by God he was better for you than I was. It hurt, and I didn't want to think about why it hurt, but it just kept staring me in the face until I had no choice but to accept it."

Her tone was soft. "But you… you gave me your blessing, in a way. With Scott."

"Yeah." He felt fidgety. "Accepting I was in love with you meant also accepting you deserved to be happy more than I deserved something I was bound to screw up for the both of us."

"Oh, Carlton." She slid her arms around him, resting her head on his chest. "You've hidden so much innate… goodness from the world. From me."

He sighed against her fragrant hair. "Not true. I'm a tough and unfeeling robot bastard."

"Screw that." She lifted her head and smiled tremulously at him. "You are not, and besides, I want the mushy side."

Very much afraid she was going to elicit full-out mushiness from him in view of everyone else at Henry's, he steeled himself against the emotion evident in her lovely dark blue eyes and cleared his throat. "Okay. Well. Not the place."

Good call too, because when they turned to face the room, Winnie Guster was beaming at them and whispering to her husband, and Shawn Spencer raised a glass of what Carlton hoped was eggnog (it was greenish) in their direction.

"There's a Christmas miracle right in front of us," he commented as his personal Starr grasped his arm. "Juliet O'Hara has melted Frosty the Icicle Man."

"Snow man," Gus corrected him.

"No, I'm sticking with Icicle. Lassie's no mere ball of snowflakes. Snow's hard to keep together. Ice, now, ice is—"

"Shut it, Shawn," Juliet said pleasantly, and the others laughed. "In fact, keep it shut for the foreseeable future."

"Hear, hear," Carlton agreed, and was never so glad to see a man with a ham as he was when Henry carried in the last platter and set it on the table.

"The feast is served!" Henry declared, and the group assembled to stuff themselves senseless.

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Juliet watched Carlton wash the fourth pot. His sleeves were rolled up, his tie long discarded. He was well-fed and relaxed and she absolutely loved seeing him like this. He'd reluctantly allowed her to dry, having been prepared to do everything himself, but she'd pointed out (with a bump to his hip) that drying would allow for legitimate proximity.

He'd bumped her hip back and bent down to kiss her lightly, not having any idea how much she wanted to hoist herself up on the counter and start unbuttoning his shirt right there.

But maybe he did, because there was a dark and dangerous cast to his piercing blue gaze, and his voice was a bit husky when he advised her to get that look off her face before he caused a spectacle which would get them thrown out of Henry's for good and possibly give Winnie Guster a coronary in the process.

Flush with delicious heat, Juliet wisely picked up her towel and started drying.

"Thanks for pushing me to come over here," he said after a moment, scrubbing the fifth pot clean.

"Are you being sarcastic?"

"Nope." He smiled: one of those rare smiles which stripped away the layers of heart-protecting armor.

"Then you're welcome. I thought you were going to complain about dishpan hands."

He pulled one long graceful specimen out of the soapy water and inspected it. "I'll survive." He glanced at her meaningfully. "Unless you'd prefer a softer touch."

Juliet felt that delicious heat returning. "Oh. Um. Well. I…"

Carlton was laughing—and looking a bit prideful—when Henry came in.

"Thanks for the cleanup, Lassiter. You're going above and beyond what I expected. Of course," he added judiciously, "my standard is the promises Shawn keeps, which are, shall we say, infrequent."

Juliet had no doubt of that.

Carlton dried his hands and faced him fully. "You know I'm a man of my word, Henry."

"Yes, I do." Henry reached past Juliet to pick up a dry pot and put it away. "So what finally put you two together?"

She felt oddly unembarrassed saying it. "A song."

"Ah. A song you'd never heard before, which seemed written just for you?" He was amused.

"No, actually," Carlton said. "It's a song we've both heard a million times before."

"But never at the same time?"

Juliet thought about it; the odds of them not having heard Twelve Days together at the Christmas season over the years were pretty low. "No, we've heard it together before." She looked at Carlton, and he nodded.

Henry folded his arms. "Then it's Fate."

After a pregnant-with-triplets pause, Carlton asked carefully, "How do you figure?"

"Well, how else do you explain that a song you've heard a million times should suddenly get you to see each other in a new light? Something happened, right? Don't tell me," he warned. "I really do not want to know. The point is, Fate uses whatever tools are at her disposal to accomplish her goals."

"Fate's toolbox is full of some weird-ass crap," Carlton muttered.

Juliet grinned. "He's right about that. But Henry, I didn't think you were the kind of guy who'd put much stock in Fate."

"Hey, Fate is Fate. Or God. Or something bigger than us, anyway, and if you learn anything in life, it should be that there is always someone—or something—bigger than you out there." He laughed. "Or up there. And in your case, it got tired of waiting for you two to figure out what some of us saw a long time ago."

Blushing down to her toes, and sensing the same reaction from Carlton without even daring to look at him, Juliet tried to think of anything coherent to say in the thirty seconds Henry spent laughing at their mutual discomfiture.

"Just take it slow, kids." He put away a frying pan, and threw another grin their way. "But not as slow as you've taken it the past few years. Hell, you'll be ready for the nursing home if you go much slower."

That roused Carlton to peg a damp sponge at him, and Henry darted out of the kitchen before more trouble could come his way.

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It was nearly midnight, and on Henry's doorstep in the chilly December dark, Juliet leaned against him, sighing. "You're coming over, right? Like you promised?"

"Did I promise?" He was only kidding: he'd go anywhere she asked. Even a harp concert.

"I may have assumed you weren't going to argue with me."

"Oh, I would not presume to argue with you." Despite the surprise of enjoying himself rather immensely on the other side of that door, he'd been ready since before they arrived to be alone with her again.

Juliet smiled and slid her hands under his jacket, warming his skin through the shirt and sending his pulse into overdrive. "Then let's go, Wise Man."

He followed her over to her place, where the Christmas lights around her window blinked merrily, and even the wreath on her door seemed to welcome him in.

The apartment smelled of cinnamon candles and apple pie, and Juliet urged him out of his jacket and into her arms before the door had even fully closed.

He kissed her slowly, tasting her fully, reveling in the feel of her moving against him. This was real. It was.

"You kiss so very well, Carlton Lassiter." She planted a trail of kisses down his throat to where his collar began, and sighed when he nuzzled her earlobe. Shivering, she pressed herself to him. "I wish I'd known sooner."

"So do I," he agreed, "but then Fate would have had to pick on some other couple this season."

Her mouth was so warm and insistent. He suspected it wasn't just Juliet having a little trouble keeping in an upright position, so he drew her to sit with him on the sofa.

She turned off the lamp—only the Christmas tree lights provided a beautiful, colorful glow to the room—and wrapped herself around him, soft and curvy and pliant.

He was completely unable to imagine ever having been separate from her before—or again in the future. "Juliet," he whispered. "You are the ultimate Christmas gift."

Her eyes were luminous despite the dim light, and he closed his when she kissed him again, but it wouldn't have mattered if they'd been wide open, because the only sensation he could register was the enormity of being with her, in all its iterations—and so far it was only kissing.

And bodies tight together, molding together in all the right places.

And hearts pounding.

And pulses racing.

And heat, and emotion, and years of longing interlaced with complete trust that this was real and final and not to be escaped—forget Fate; Carlton wouldn't allow it now, and he knew down to his last fast-moving blood cell that Juliet felt the same way.

It shouldn't have been possible for her to care about him: he was a wreck of anti-social and borderline neurotic tendencies. He was older and people didn't like him and she was beautiful and generous of heart and nature.

But… she was here. In his lap, her sweet warm mouth locked to his, one arm flung around his neck while with her free hand she was busy unbuttoning his shirt.

She was here as he unbuttoned her blouse and tugged it out of her jeans, and sighing when he licked her lips. Trembling when he kissed her throat and moved south, her blouse open and her warm, soft skin so delicious to his seeking mouth.

She was here. With him.

The clock on the mantel chimed midnight, hardly a blip on his consciousness.

He and Juliet sank to the floor in front of the Christmas tree and made love, slow and sweet and perfect, and after, she pulled pillows and a velvety throw off the sofa for them, returning to his arms and seeming completely content to lie there draped across him.

"Merry Christmas, Carlton." The twinkling lights from the tree gave a rosy glow to her face, and he thought for the millionth time she was the most beautiful creature in God's world.

"Merry Christmas, my love," he murmured, for she was… and he knew he was hers.

She didn't object anyway, saying only, "It is Christmas now, you know. Half past midnight."

"So it is." He tucked a stray curl behind her ear, smiling at her shivering. "Best ever."

"And it's the twelfth day. We had eleven Piper Perabos piping up, ten British Lords a-leaping over a rat, nine naked ceramic ladies dancing, eight maids of Milliken, seven Swanns a-swimming…" She trailed off.

Carlton picked it up. "Six Geese A-Laying, five golden onion rings, four crystal Colly birds, three French Faverolle hens, two chocolate turtle doves—though I still think that was kind of a reach—and a Partridge on Peartree."

She laughed. "It is pretty crazy, isn't it. Any theories about the drummers?"

"Just one." He pointed to his chest.

Juliet touched his skin—his turn to shiver—and gave him a questioning look.

"There's at least twelve in there going at it right now." He smiled. "Truth is they've been pounding away since this started, and every day since we found the stupid geese, I've thought I might be about to have a heart attack."

Her mouth was open slightly in surprise, and he leaned in to kiss her. The drummers, oddly, settled down a bit.

"Carlton," she whispered.

"Damned drum corps in there, O'Hara. Can't you hear it?"

She stared, her smile slow and wondering.

"So it doesn't matter whether your neighbors put on an impromptu drum parade at dawn, or if twelve drums of oil roll down the street or twelve drum fish drop from the sky or if the next twelve times we turn on the radio we hear Little Drummer Boy. These guys," and he punctuated it by covering her hand on his chest with his own, hoping she could feel his heartbeat, "are enough proof for me."

Juliet started shaking, and pressed herself close to him; he enveloped her in his arms more tightly than he could ever imagine holding another human being, yet still she seemed to want more. More closeness. More him. More them.

"I love you, Carlton." It came out preceded by a sniffle. "Probably for a lot longer than I even understand."

"Don't think about it too much," he advised her, and she laughed. "I don't want to jinx it."

"Fate wouldn't let you," she countered. "Not now."

"I hope you're right."

"I'm hardly ever wrong, and exhibit number one is you, Carlton."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. I knew you were a treasure years ago."

"Buried deep, and rightfully so."

She nipped at his earlobe, and he laughed even as it stung. "Stop that. I've dug you up and you are mine. Finders' keepers."

Carlton didn't want to be anyone else's, and told her so; she pulled him to lie half on her, under the soft throw, sighing at the sensation of their bodies together.

"Just as well about the drum fish," she commented, drawing lazy circles on his shoulders with one warm fingertip.

"Yeah. They're hard to cook right."

"Oil might have been nice. Good eBay sale."

"We'll probably be awake at dawn anyway, so the neighbors' show would be okay."

"You don't plan to sleep much tonight?" Juliet teased, and shivered when he kissed her hard. "Mmmm, me either."

She insinuated her leg between his, which made him feel a little dizzy. "But I draw the line," he declared, "at twelve Little Drummer Boys. I hate that song."

"Oh, I know. I have your 'if I hear one more pa rum pum pum pum I'm going to pa rum pum pum pum someone in the damn nose' rant memorized."

He had to laugh, despite the gentle mockery, but the laughter stopped when the movement of her thigh between his became more deliberate.

"Okay. No more talk," he said breathlessly, and they sank back into renewed passion for each other, by the glow of the twinkling Christmas tree lights.

And Fate, to be sure, was happy with a job well done.

Fate even went so far as to have Noelle Singer's boyfriend Nick Shepherd turn himself in the day after Christmas, confessing to the burglaries and to the unintentional shooting of Mr. Carroll. His cohorts, Franklin Sentz, Murphy Gold and Gloria Wiseman, also came forward, and after processing them through, Carlton and Juliet braced themselves for real trouble and went to speak with Chief Vick about their relationship.

She said she was surprised to find out it was new.

She even said she thought they'd been involved for a very long time and had merely maintained appropriate levels of discretion.

When they stared at each other in mutual surprise, Vick laughed. "It's always so entertaining when clueless people figure out they're in love after everyone else already knows."

That, Carlton figured, was Fate having one last snicker at their expense.

But then on the other hand, he had Juliet now. If he'd been played by Fate into that happy state of affairs, well, Fate could snicker all damned year.

"It really has been a wonderful Christmas," he murmured to Juliet as they exited Vick's office.

"The first of many, Carlton."

With a smile that lit the room, she slipped her hand into his and suggested a private coffee break somewhere away from the station, and neither one noticed Sergeant Allen humming The Twelve Days of Christmas when they stopped to sign out.

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