“Nope,” O’Hara said. She was heading Carlton off from the living room, prodding him back. He could hear the television on low and the measured tones of what was clearly news, but he couldn’t make any of it out.
“No you don’t. Stay in the kitchen. And don’t worry about the dishes; I’ll be in to take care of them later. Or better yet, I’ll make Shawn and Gus do it,” she said. Carlton gave her a look, but she just pointed over his shoulder. “Go!”
He retreated on protest—it wasn’t as if he particularly wanted to be watching the news, but he couldn’t hide from it forever—but at least in the kitchen he wasn’t alone. Henry had left not long ago, but Karen was still at the table nursing a cup of decaf.
“They’ve been acting like that all week,” Carlton complained. He dropped back into a chair at the table and Karen smiled a little over the rim of her mug.
“They’re your friends, Carlton; that’s what they’re supposed to be doing.”
“Ordering me around?”
“Protecting you.” She held up a hand. “And don’t give me you-don’t-want-them-to; if you really wanted them to stop, you’d have made them by now. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating it.”
Carlton huffed once, quietly. “I still have to protest; have an image to keep up, don’t I?”
Karen just smiled knowingly at that.
“A few years ago you’d never have let them...or anyone,” she said after a moment. “Had to do everything yourself.”
He shrugged once and glanced toward the stairs. Lily was asleep above them. “I don’t have that luxury anymore.”
Karen glanced up briefly too, and seemed to know what he meant.
“It’s more than that,” she said. The smile came back. The one that meant she always knew more than they thought.
“They wore you down, Carlton.” Her head inclined a bit. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I think you’re better for it.”
Carlton hiked an eyebrow at her. “You been taking know-it-all lessons from Spencer?”
“I don’t need lessons for that.”
As if on cue, Spencer’s voice from the next room followed her answer. “Lassie! They’re going on about me now; living room’s safe!”
Juliet woke up to the sound of Lily crying in the next room. Deeper hushed tones told her Carlton was awake and seeing to his daughter, but something made her get up anyway. At least now she had proper pajamas.
In Lily’s room Carlton was pacing around the room with her, speaking to her quietly and trying to soothe her. A fresh bottle sat on the nightstand by the rocking chair in the corner.
There were sheets and a blanket and pillows on the twin bed shoved to the back of the room. Carlton had been sleeping in here this week. She’d known it, but being reminded didn’t make Juliet feel any better.
“Carlton?” she asked. She closed the door behind her; Shawn and Lauren were still asleep, presumably.
He paced over to her, rubbing Lily’s back. It didn’t seem to be helping. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I changed her, I tried to feed her; she’s been sleeping…”
“Don’t apologize.” Juliet held out her arms. “Want me to try?”
“I’m not sure what good it would do.”
“Let me do it anyway. Maybe you should go downstairs and try to get back to sleep. I can put her back to bed. It’ll be a long day tomorrow; you should rest.”
He shook his head. “So should you.”
Juliet gave him a look. “You know what I mean. Are you going to let me try, or not?”
Carlton let out a breath, and let her take Lily. The little girl thrashed against her for a moment, still wailing, but after a moment something seemed to change. She started to relax.
“Yeah, see?” Juliet said softly. “You’re okay. And you’re pretty. Does your daddy tell you you’re pretty?”
She heard Carlton make a small sound at that. Maybe a laugh. He handed her the bottle from the nightstand and Juliet shifted Lily down in her arms and offered her the bottle. She took it now, but this wasn’t going to work for long standing up. The arm holding Lily was going to get tired.
“Do you want her back, or should I not interrupt her now?” Juliet asked.
Carlton guided her toward the rocking chair, and that was a much better way to do it.
“I’ll be back,” Carlton said.
Juliet looked up, but he was already slipping out of the room. Had his voice sounded thicker just then? But there was nothing she could do now. Lily needed to eat.
The door opened again a minute or two later. Juliet glanced up again hoping it was Carlton, but it Shawn. He padded in and yawned.
“Jules? What’s up?” He scrubbed at his eyes, took in the room, and seemed to note Carlton’s absence. “Where’s Lassie?”
“I don’t know. I think I need to find him.” Juliet got to her feet and circled around behind Shawn to herd him to the rocking chair. “Sit down there. I need you to take her.”
“I need you to finish feeding her for me.”
“I don’t know how to do that!”
Juliet backed Shawn into the chair. “If you want all those kids you need to learn. Here.”
She placed Lily in his arms and gave him quick instructions. When he seemed to have the hang of it and Lily seemed to be feeding comfortably she hurried quietly out into the hallway.
The door to the upstairs bathroom was open, and it was dark in there. The door to the master bedroom was closed, but that was where Lauren was. The only place left was downstairs. Maybe Carlton had listened to her after all.
But she didn’t have to go all the way down to find him. She nearly tripped over him in the dim stairwell on the landing halfway down.
He was huddled on the top step of the bottom half of the stairs, leaned over his knees, the heels of his hands pressed into his eyes. When Juliet lowered herself to the step beside him and draped an arm around his shoulders she could hear the breaths he was taking—deep and measured. The kind of breaths you take if you’re trying not to cry.
“Carlton…” She was leaning in so close she said it almost into his shoulder. He didn’t answer. The heavy breaths continued, growing more uneven rather than better.
“It’s okay to cry more than once, you know,” she whispered.
He did, just for a minute or two, muffled and stiff and Juliet’s heart ached, but all she could do was sit with him.
“I think…” he said, when he could. He cleared his throat quietly. “I think she knows something’s wrong now. Lily. She um...at the hospital everything was different. After a day or two she accepted it, I guess, but we’re home now, and it’s her bed, and...and she thinks everything should be back to normal. She expects Marlowe to be here, but she’s not…”
Carlton trailed off abruptly. It sounded like his throat closed on him and he had no choice but to stop. He made a face and looked away. Juliet waited, because she didn’t think he needed her to say anything yet. He needed her to listen.
“If you hadn’t been there at the hospital with me this week and she hadn’t gotten used to you, I don’t know if that would have worked,” he told her, referring to the fact that Lily had calmed down for her. He paused. “Thank you...Juliet. Everything this week. You and Henry, and Lulu...even Spencer and Guster. I don’t know if I could have...I mean I um…”
He stopped again. This time Juliet spoke up.
“We love you,” she said, because whether he was Carlton Lassiter or not it was time to put that into worlds. “We all do. Please tell me you know that.”
Carlton looked at her, and she was almost afraid he would say something...him. But then he didn’t. He just nodded.
“I’d still rather skip tomorrow,” he said after a moment.
“I think we all would,” she agreed.
“My mother is going to be here early…”
There was movement above them, and when they glanced up Lauren climbed over her brother to sit on the step below him. She took his hand and squeezed. “Don’t worry; I’ll take Mom duty,” she said.
Carlton released a breath that wasn’t really a laugh, but it was close enough.
Shawn was next, padding down the stairs after her.
“Hey,” he whispered, poking his head around the bend in the stairs. “Lily drank most of the stuff, and there was burping involved, and then she fell asleep, and I put her back in her bed. That’s good, right?” He didn’t wait for an answer to climb over Juliet and huddle down with the rest of them. “Why is there a party on the stairs without me?”
“It was a conspiracy, Shawn,” Juliet said seriously.
“Well that’s no good. I don’t know how I feel about that.”
Carlton shook his head at them and tried to get to his feet. “All of you go back to sleep. I’ll be downstairs.”
“Why will you be downstairs?” Lauren questioned suspiciously. She dragged him back down, and Juliet helped.
“Because I don’t think I’m going back to sleep; I’ll be fine.”
“You need to sleep,” Juliet protested. “It’s a long day tomorrow.”
“You said that already, O’Hara.”
But he wasn’t listening to her. He stood up again.
Shawn jumped up too. “I’m making popcorn!” he said, and he darted down the stairs before Carlton could.
Juliet pushed up to follow. “Popcorn? It’s three in the morning, not movie night. We have to make pancakes. Obviously.”
Spencer and O’Hara charged down into the kitchen and started to turn lights on. Carlton watched them go, stalled on the stairs, and Lauren got up but stayed behind at his side.
“Hmm?” he asked. He was distracted.
“I love you too, you know.”
Carlton blinked and glanced down at his sister, and when he did she hugged him. “Lulu?”
“I’m sorry...I avoided you…” she said quietly.
“I probably deserved it; I ignored you enough when you were little…”
She snorted. “So what, we’re even now?”
“No, not even close. And that’s my fault.”
Lauren shook her head against him. “Don’t say that. Let’s just say we are, ok?”
Carlton hesitated. “If that’s what you want.”
“That’s what I want.” She let go of him so she could look up at him more easily. “Can we start over?”
And he couldn’t answer that, not right now, because his throat was clogging again. But he nodded, and she took his hand again and pulled him down the stairs after her.
“I heard something about pancakes.”
The house was full after the service, and Jules stayed busy helping Lassiter’s mother and sister with anything food-related. Every time Shawn passed Gus he was eating food, to distract himself enough not to succumb to his sympathetic-crying habit.
It was also probably a nervous tic, seeing as half the people here were probably ex-cons. Friends Marlowe had made who’d gotten out since or during her prison stint. Some of them looked like it. The most obvious were Big Wendy and some sort of entire posse she’d brought with her. Woody was following them around with gusto. Chief Vick was splitting her time between the kitchen and breaking up possible fights between the varied guests.
Henry hovered in a corner and seemed to wish to remain invisible. Sometimes he had Lily, and sometimes Lassie took her back. Both of them seemed to have figured out that if they were carrying a half-asleep baby they were less likely to be bothered.
Outside, McNab and a couple of the other younger guys from the station were taking it upon themselves to patrol the picket fence at the edge of the yard, occasionally yelling at approaching reporters. Well. Some of them yelled. McNab politely asked them to leave.
So Shawn was on his own. He was trying to keep an eye on Lassie, but Lassie was good at disappearing when he really wanted to. After a little while, he did, and Henry didn’t have Lily.
Shawn found both of them hiding out the back door, in the garage. Not that this garage had ever really been used as a garage. There was always too much stuff in here. There was still too much stuff in here, and half of it was still his dad’s. Come to think of it, Lassie’d said something earlier in the week about there still being old Spencer boxes in the attic, too.
Good job getting rid of the house, Henry.
“What are you doing?” Shawn whispered. Lily seemed to be really asleep now, on her father’s shoulder.
Lassie was anxiously pacing the concrete floor, occasionally pausing to peer through a small side window of the garage at the small crowd of media on the street. His breathing was leaning dangerously in the direction of panic-attack levels.
He also didn’t answer. Shawn didn’t know if he’d noticed anyone else was there.
“Lassie!” Shawn called, a little louder.
Lassiter spun at his name, on high alert. He’d seemed fine, mostly, until now, but it had been a long day.
“Yeah. Just me. What are you doing?”
“What does it look like I’m doing? Keeping myself sane.”
“Are you ok?”
He waved one arm. “Of course I’m not okay! Pancakes doesn’t fix how much I didn’t want to do this!”
Shawn made a face and wandered closer. “I know that, man...they’re just a perk. Look, it’s almost over. Everybody’ll be gone soon.”
Lassie was shaking his head, like that wasn’t acceptable. “I need these people out of my house,” he said. His voice was ticking higher than usual—something he certainly wouldn’t have allowed to happen in front of Shawn under any normal circumstances. The last time Shawn heard it himself, Marlowe was about to give birth in the back of a food truck.
Lassiter’s waving arm motioned to the window, and his voice dropped back down and became more firm. “I need those people away from my house. Telling them about O’Hara coming back here was supposed to help today. Of course it didn’t; it barely helped yesterday. Cause they’re all vicious little— ”
“Whoa, Lassie...calm down.” Shawn was holding up hands, trying to help, and…
Then he knew what to do.
He held up one finger instead. “Actually, I’ve got this.”
“What, Spencer?” Lassie asked. It came out tired and confused.
“Clarification first: If there was an alternate universe where no one thought I was psychic but you still knew how good I was, you’d hire us, right?”
Lassiter blinked at him. “What?”
He tried again. “If there was magically a way for the public to think I’m not psychic without having to tell anyone about the actual, you know, lying and all, you’d hire us as normal consultants, right?”
Lassie rubbed at his head. “I have no idea what you’re going on about, but I told you years ago: You get results, and I can’t argue with that. Unfortunately.”
“You were more than a little drunk at the time.”
“Sadly, I still meant it.”
“Just checking. So that’s a yes?”
“Fine! I guess it is. What do you want from me, Spencer? There’s no way—.”
Shawn cut in, swung behind him, and urged him toward the door back into the house. “That’s what you think. Come on; back inside.”
“No questions! Go hang out in the living room or something. Anywhere with lots of people. I’ll be right there.”
“Spencer, I really don’t have the energy for your nonsense today. I—”
But Shawn shushed him and gave him a push back into the kitchen. Lassie glanced back and rolled his eyes, but he wandered reluctantly off in the direction of the living room and most of the people.
Shawn found Jules first, and tugged her into a corner of the kitchen. “It’s go time.”
“Lassie’s hit critical.”
“Shawn, are you sure this is—?”
He silenced her with a kiss, and she didn’t complain about that.
“Not sure at all,” he said after. He tried to move off, to find Gus, but Jules grabbed him back and kissed him again.
“I love you,” she said.
Gus said the same thing Jules had said first, when Shawn passed him and whispered it was go time, but Gus said it around a mouthful of food.
“Go time. Show time. You found me somebody?”
Gus swallowed and set his plate down the food table beside him. “Actually, Hazel’s in town visiting James Earl Craig.”
“Huh,” Shawn said. “How is the old homelessman?”
“Not homeless anymore, thankfully. And he’s much better after making a full recovery from the poison.”
Carlton found Henry in a corner of the living room, and chose to station himself there.
“Your offspring is up to something,” he grumbled.
“He usually is.” Henry motioned to Lily. “She asleep? I can take her.”
Because he didn’t know what Spencer was up to, he agreed. Henry took Lily off his hands. Spencer and Guster, meanwhile, ambled into the living room. They were pretending to talk, but they caught his gaze and Guster made a subtle nod toward the yard.
Carlton nodded back in confusion, but he waited. Through the front windows his eyes followed them outside, and nothing happened at first.
Then Spencer collapsed dramatically in the grass near the fence.
O’Hara elbowed past him on her way to the front door. “Come on,” she said.
“What is he doing?”
“I’m not supposed to know yet,” she whispered. She pushed the front door open and raced down the front steps, luckily bringing her on-the-job acting skills to bear rather than her real ones. “Shawn!” she called. “Shawn, what’s wrong!”
Spencer was writhing in the grass shouting, Guster was standing over him, and the media was certainly starting to notice.
“Gus!” Spencer cried. He came up on one elbow, the other hand clutching at his chest. “Something’s wrong! I can’t feel them, Gus! It’s wrong; it’s empty! Oh spirits, don’t abandon me!”
Guster dropped down beside his friend to hold his arm, and called to the crowd in the yard. “He’s having a psychic heart attack! Someone call 911!”
Oh dear lord, what was this nonsense?
The cameras on the other side of the fence were going, the reporters were chattering, but no one seemed to have noticed Carlton was out here. They were all focused on Spencer.
But he supposed that was the idea.
“Wait!” O’Hara was saying. Now she was kneeling in the grass with them too. “We don’t need an ambulance; I’ll take him.”
“A hospital can’t help me, Jules. It’s the spirits! I can’t feel them! It hurts, Jules. It hurts!”
She took Spencer’s hand, and she was doing a fantastic job of looking worried.
It also probably had something to do with the fact that she’d purposefully placed her back to the crowd of reporters. If she could see the cameras she’d be choking.
“What are you talking about, Shawn? Where are they?” O’Hara asked.
“I don’t know!” Spencer curled in on himself and cried out. “Someone help! I need...someone. Hazel!” He looked up again, eyes wild. “The good witch Hazel! My dear friend! Before...I sensed she was near. I need her! She can tell me what’s happening!”
The cameras were getting all of this, of course, just the way Spencer liked it.
But what was he doing?
Carlton sensed someone at his elbow, and glanced sideways to find Lauren there.
“Is Shawn ok?” she asked anxiously.
“I...have no earthly idea.”
“Ok, Shawn,” Guster was saying, evenly and loudly for the cameras. “But maybe we should get you to a hospital anyway, just in case. You’re right—Hazel’s in town—but I can call her and she can meet us there. Ok?”
Shawn nodded in a shown of mock reluctant agreement. “Ok, Gus. You’re right. We should be sure there’s nothing physical in my condition.” He looked up earnestly. “Do you think she can fix it? The spirits can’t be gone, Gus! I need them!”
Carlton let out a breath as Guster and O’Hara pulled Spencer to his feet. They supported him as they made their way slowly for O’Hara’s car.
The media teams on the street broke for their own cars and vans. They were going to follow, and apparently that really had been the plan all along.
He saw his chance to clear the premises, and turned to the crowd from inside the house that had come out at the spectacle.
“I’m sorry, everyone, but if you could all go home now I’d like to go with them,” he told them. “Mr. Spencer is my former partner and new head detective’s fiance, after all, and a long time acquaintance, and I’d like to be sure he’s all right. Thank you, to all of you, for coming out today; I appreciate the support, but if you’ll excuse me...”
Lauren followed a few steps with him when he made a beeline after O’Hara and the others. “I’ll stay here with Lily,” she said.
“Henry and Karen can stay too, if they want,” he said. “And Mom and Althea, I suppose. Just make sure everyone else leaves?”