Laurel looked exasperated, which Michaela normally didn’t mind, but this time it was at her expense and that made all the difference. “Let me get this straight. No one answered when you knocked, so you decided to just waltz right in?”
“The door was unlocked,” Michaela sighed. “And it’s not like she wasn’t home since her car was parked out front.”
“Straight,” said Connor. “Interesting word choice. Go on, explain how you failed to learn from any fairy tale, horror movie, or shitty crime novel that an unlocked door doesn’t equal an open invitation.”
Asher nodded gravely. “Yeah, that’s some straight-up B-movie realness right there.”
Michaela hated admitting it, but it was possible she wasn’t at her best these days.
So maybe she hadn’t been very subtle when she’d come bursting into Connor’s place, which was now also Oliver’s place, and blurted out, “You need to promise not to tell anyone, but I just saw something crazy,” a split second before she realized there was a study group taking place and three additional sets of eyes were riveted on her.
“I was just going into her office to ask a question! I didn’t expect to see anything…untoward.”
She could swear she heard Wes mumble something that sounded like join the club, but that couldn’t be right. Besides, Laurel was already demanding her attention.
“Are you kidding me? Untoward? Is this suddenly 1960?”
Asher’s eyebrows skirted skeptically at his hairline. “Nah, man. I don’t think anyone talked like that past, like, 1904.”
“Yeah, lighten up.” Connor grinned and passed her a glass of wine. “It was probably just gals being pals.”
“Oh, please,” Michaela hissed, weighing the pros and cons of downing her glass in one go or just throwing it on him. She’d seen the sunset streaming in multicolored beams through the stained glass windows in Professor Keating's office, and she’d seen Professor Keating and Eve Rothlow bathed in all the brilliant hues of it, kissing. “This was not just gals being pals, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean.”
“They went to school together, right?” asked Wes, not looking up from his legal pad. “Maybe they were just having a moment.”
Connor gave a laugh that uncomfortably reminded Michaela just how many moments he’d had had with guys he’d gone to school with, Aiden included. “This wasn’t just a moment,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “There was action happening.”
“What kind of action?” demanded Laurel. “Action as in hugging or action as in, say, dildos?”
“Is it really necessary to go into detail?”
“Oh, hell yeah,” Asher said immediately, which made Michaela regret even asking. “Come on, we find out the AK shoots both ways and you’re not even a little curious?”
“I second that.” There was a small grin playing around the corners of Laurel’s mouth. “Hearing Michaela talk about sex is like hearing a kindergartener trying to curse you out.”
By now, Michaela was ready to slide Aiden’s ring back onto her finger just to punch Laurel in the face and leave the most indelible mark.
The funny thing was, if the five of them were actually friends, she might have shared more. That there was kissing and at least partial nudity and she’d escaped through the front door as quickly as she’d ventured through it, clasping a gloved hand over her mouth like it really was 1904. If they were bound together by something besides bad luck and happenstance and a dead man, she might have actually helped herself to more merlot and confided in them.
“C’mon.” Asher elbowed her. “Was there a ladder involved? Eve Rothlow is like seventeen feet tall.”
Michaela ignored him. “So,” she said brightly, “are we reviewing torts or civil procedure?”
The photo of an unsmiling young women filled the projector screen. Michaela sat up a little straighter, fingers poised over her keyboard.
At the front of the lecture hall, Professor Keating set down her chalk. “Rose Breland, age nineteen. During a campus recruitment fair, the accused allegedly threw a fake Molotov cocktail during a presentation by the campus Young Republicans organization. Can anyone tell me what happened next? Ms. Castillo.”
Michaela didn’t bother twisting around to see Laurel rise. “The crowd panicked and, as a result, one individual was jostled offstage by other officers of the organization and trampled, sustaining severe injuries.”
“Correct.” Professor Keating didn’t smile, but Michaela couldn’t tear her eyes away from her mouth. She had on a glossy plum lipstick, the same shade she’d been wearing when Michaela caught a glimpse of her laughing, actually laughing, before tilting her head up and letting Eve Rothlow’s mouth ease against her own. “So why aren’t the officers the ones we’re defending here?”
Michaela shot out of her seat, desperate to focus on something else. “The prosecution could argue that, in throwing a perceived Molotov cocktail in their vicinity, Breland put the club officers in fear of imminent serious bodily injury. This resulted in their actus reus of assault in pushing the other officer offstage while trying to get away.”
As she sank back into her seat, she couldn’t even relish the feeling of being right. Her mind was crammed with questions that no one in the room could answer based on a case brief. How many more secrets Professor Keating might be hiding. How long she’d been hiding them. How she would respond to being found out.
“Breland also committed assault,” someone was saying towards the back of the room. “But she could claim she was acting under extreme mental and emotional distress because she had friends who were being tormented by members of the organization the way her brother was when he was in school ten years ago. She said herself she’s upset nothing’s changed.”
Things do change, Michaela’s fingers typed out, but sometimes you have to change yourself to make it happen.
She recognized Connor’s voice as she deleted her words, hoping no one had caught a peek of them over her shoulder. This was a thought she’d had before when she caught herself writing down anything unrelated to the class itself, but she was damned if she was giving up her spot in the front row for something so stupid. “The accounts of others present at the scene corroborate Breland’s claim that a nearby security officer drew but did not discharge his weapon. The presence of a firearm may have spooked the crowd even more than the fake explosive.”
Professor Keating leaned back against her desk. Michaela couldn’t help noticing that her leather pumps looked like they cost more than her own immediate family made in a year. “Interesting theory, Mr. Walsh. Is there a reason the security guard and club officers wouldn’t argue they felt their responses were immediately necessary to protect themselves against the use of unlawful force by Breland?”
Sometimes self-preservation at all costs is the only option, Michaela thought, but this time she kept the words in her head and off her screen.
Back at the office, Asher was the one who found a way to get their foot in the door, which surprised everyone. Michaela couldn’t bring herself to admit it, but as a team they’d been functioning much more smoothly since they'd stopped competing for the trophy and started pooling their collective mental resources.
“There’s a gala coming up. Rose Breland’s brother and his partner are on the planning committee, so obvi they’ll be out, no pun intended. A couple of us go, schmooze it up, learn how big bro really feels about baby sis going all vigilante.”
“Which gala?” asked Wes.
Asher couldn’t have looked more like a cat with the cream if he’d suddenly sprouted whiskers. “It’s sponsored by the Visibility Collective.”
“I’m in,” Connor said immediately.
Connor lifted one shoulder. “It’s an LGBT organization.”
“Oh,” said Laurel. “This is going to be good.”
Michaela groaned. “Why is this suddenly our go-to plan?”
Laurel looked at her sharply. “Maybe you don’t care about our client, but we need to prove she’s a good kid who was led astray, maybe fell in with the wrong crowd.”
“Or maybe she really did have probable cause, if these people were the life ruiners she says they are,” Wes muttered.
Asher gave him an indignant moue. “Hey, Young Republicans have a history of--”
“And also,” Connor interrupted, “we need to talk to a family who won’t talk to anyone, which is always awesome. But if you don’t care about that, then fine, sit this one out and explain it to Annalise.”
“I never said I didn’t care!” Michaela burst out, but Connor had already turned back to his phone.
“Man,” Asher said in a low voice, “I am so up for this.”
Michaela didn’t even try to hide her disbelief. “You?”
“Dude. I can totally pull it off, maybe be some arm candy for Waitlist.”
Wes’s dimples flashed out for a moment. “You’d get us kicked out for asking all the lesbians for threesomes.”
“And for being that creepy guy who asks if bisexuality means you have to be with a man and a woman at the same time.” Laurel held up her hands. “No lie, I’ve actually heard that before. It’s amazing what straight guys think are good pickup lines.”
Connor set his phone aside with a sigh. “Hey guys, you know how I said I’m in?”
“Yeah,” Asher said slowly, “because it literally happened two minutes ago.”
“Well, I’m no longer in.”
Michaela whirled around. “What?”
“Oliver’s got a work thing that night...and he’s not really into me tapping into my slutty side to get information out of people.”
Asher made a whipping sound a few times.
“I’ll do it,” said Laurel.
Suddenly, all eyes were on Michaela.
For once, the first thing that popped into her head was also the first thing that popped out of her mouth. “Oh, hell no. I don’t even own any flannel.”
“It’s a gala, Michaela,” Connor said, like he was talking to a six-year-old, “and we all know you love to look pretty and get the dirt on people before anyone else. This should be a piece of cake for you.”
Laurel was already halfway across the room. “Forget it. I can’t go with someone who’s a homophobe.” And she disappeared through the door before anyone could say a word.
“Girl,” murmured Asher, stretching the word until it was several seconds long.
“For the love of…” Michaela grumbled, and went after her.
It was freezing on the porch, but Laurel didn’t seem bothered. The pink in her cheeks could have just as easily have been from the wind as it could from annoyance.
Michaela waited for her to speak until the silence and the cold were overwhelming. “I didn’t mean it that way,” she protested at last. “I just wasn’t expecting...that.”
“Oh, say no more,” Laurel said flatly.
“And I’m not homophobic. I mean, I get along with Connor and Oliver, don’t I? And I have a gay cousin.”
Laurel gave a brittle laugh. “Everybody has a gay cousin.”
She turned to face Michaela, framed in the dissipating plume of her own breath. “But you know what? I believe you. I don’t think you have anything against gay people, or bi people, or whatever. I do think you have something against surprises. You don’t like not knowing things. And when someone’s sexuality isn’t what you expect it to be, that freaks you out. You did it with Aiden, you did it with Annalise, and you’re doing it now.”
Michaela swallowed. “Look. I'm sorry. And I’ll do it. I might not be very good at surprises, but I’m good at my job. Now can we please go back inside?”
A hint of warmth crept into Laurel’s eyes. “Okay.”
She couldn’t exactly blame Connor for this, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t going to pump him for pointers either. So later in the week, she armed herself with a smile and a box of gluten-free cupcakes and paid him a visit.
“I’ve never been to a function like this before,” she said sweetly, “but I’m sure you can tell me plenty of things I need to know.”
Connor gave her a long-suffering look, but helped himself to a lemon creme. “Do I even need to ask why you think this is necessary?”
“Uh, not if it means these go away,” said Oliver, protectively putting a hand on the box.
“I’m just thinking, if I’m going to try and politely badger our client’s brother for personal information while pretending to date Laurel, I need all the help I can get.”
“Flattery. Nice. Ollie, do we have any more merlot?”
Michaela didn’t even consider trying to convince him that he and Oliver would be much better suited to this. In addition to the reasons Connor had mentioned, Michaela suspected he was trying to keep his boyfriend out of further murder club entanglement, which she could certainly respect and even admire. How long can you really go on before all your secrets come out, she wanted to ask, knowing she never would, not even if the answer made itself known the hard way.
“Okay,” Connor announced once they were all situated with plates and glasses. “First of all? We’re not here to, I don’t know, gaysplain things to you or whatever. Second of all, my experiences with girls are seriously limited, so there’s that. Third, same-sex relationships aren’t really that different from straight ones and I can’t believe you brought over baked goods just to hear me say that.”
“Thanks.” Michaela rolled her eyes. “I was really hoping for a lecture and not tips on how to blend in.”
“Honestly?” Oliver smiled crookedly. “The most you probably have to do is hold her hand. You don’t even have to dance. But you should definitely agree on a backstory so you don’t give two different answers if people ask how you met or how long you’ve been together or what your cat's name is.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, but Laurel and I aren’t going to have a cat.”
“If you decide you’ve been together six months or more,” Oliver said seriously, “you’re probably going to have a cat.”
Connor smirked. “And don’t draw attention to yourself with too much PDA. Find someplace a little more private for that.”
Michaela didn’t dignify that with a response.
“Also your outfits should...kind of go together, but not in a matchy way? Just don’t clash and you’ll be okay.” Oliver grimaced. “I’ve never given anyone fashion advice in my life, but that sounds right.”
Connor popped a frosting-smeared finger into his mouth. “Seriously. This is the guy who has the same outfit in like twelve different colors.”
“It’s not boring, it’s classic,” Oliver said archly. “And it’s never bothered you before.”
“Hey, this could be me getting all dressed up and mingling, but someone decided that wasn’t gonna happen and I respected their wishes.”
“I’m not giving you a cookie for not hooking up with someone for information. That’s only okay when it was me. And I still have second thoughts about that sometimes.” Oliver looked pensive for all of two seconds before he couldn’t keep a straight face.
“Ouch,” Connor deadpanned, and stole a sip out of Oliver’s wineglass.
“He’s got a point,” said Michaela. “Being in exclusive relationship and not sleeping with other people is kind of expected. You should really be thanking Laurel and me for taking one for the team. I can recommend some good gift basket providers if you’re interested.”
“Please, Laurel’s got all the reward she needs.”
Michaela froze. Connor leaned against Oliver’s shoulder, unconcerned. “Excuse me?”
“Also he kind of forcibly moved in with me, did you know that?” Oliver said, oblivious.
“Connor,” Michaela barked. “What do you mean she got her reward?”
“Everyone dreams of getting the uptight good girl to loosen up. It’s not rocket science.” Connor waggled his eyebrows. “Then again, neither is going to a gala...”
Michaela couldn’t quite put her finger on why that stung so much, or why her stomach was suddenly fluttering like she’d swallowed an entire bottle of wine instead of a glass. “I could kill a man and I’d still be the good girl, wouldn’t I?”
Watching Connor sputter merlot all over himself was a lot more gratifying than she expected.
Maurice Breland was a very nice man.
He was charming and well-spoken and deftly steered all conversations away from anything that might so much as graze the subject of his sister Rose.
“He’s good,” Laurel said admiringly, straightening her necklace with a manicured hand. “I hate him. I have no idea what to say to him that won’t make him shut me out.”
The two of them were strategically seated at one of the small candlelit tables on the periphery of the dance floor, just close enough to eavesdrop.
“What are we even doing here if we can’t even make eye contact to him?” Michaela wailed. “We’ve been sitting here for like twenty minutes. God, we should have just let Wes and Asher do this. Asher would have him all liquored up by now and Wes has one of those faces that makes you want to tell him your life story.”
Laurel’s gaze narrowed. Her eye makeup, Michaela had noticed, made them look even bluer than usual under her stark black brows. “Michaela,” she said deliberately, “I swear to God if you don’t stop being such a baby I’m speaking nothing but Spanish the whole night and making you struggle through all the talking.”
“We’re going to be struggling no matter what, but sure, find a way to pin it all on me.”
“Jesus,” Laurel sighed into her martini. “You’re the pettiest person alive. No wonder you’ve never had an orgasm.”
“I’m the petty one?” Michaela had a sudden urge to take off her earrings and maybe knock the clearly very strong martini right out of Laurel’s hand. “We’re not talking about this.”
Laurel set her jaw. “No, I really think we need to because it offends me and it should offend you too. How the hell have you never had one? We live in a world where there are sex toys that guarantee them. You were pre-med, for fuck’s sake! You know how it works!”
Michaela leaned in until they were practically nose to nose. “Laurel. Honey. Do not make me throw my drink on you and stage a messy breakup because I will do it.”
“You can’t break up with me.” Laurel looked affronted. “Do you know how much these tickets cost? At least wait until after we’ve enjoyed the open bar some more.”
“Well, I definitely can’t sit here and argue with you anymore either.”
Unexpectedly, Laurel swallowed the rest of her drink and stood up. “Fine. Let’s dance.”
Michaela did a double take, not just because Laurel was particularly striking in peep toes and Chanel. “Connor and Oliver said we could get away with holding hands,” she blurted out.
She immediately wanted to dart under the table.
Laurel’s rose-glossed lip was caught between her teeth. “I’m sorry, what?”
“I said...we can just hold hands, that’s enough. No dancing necessary.”
“No, no, no.” Laurel pressed her fingertips to her temples. “You went to Connor for advice on how to be gay? I know you two have kind of bonded since you’ve both hooked up with Aiden or whatever, but that’s ridiculous.”
“I’m not going to apologize for building background knowledge,” Michaela said stiffly. “The urge to break up with you is definitely on the rise, by the way.”
Laurel looked like she was holding back either a laugh or a curse. “So no dancing?”
“Bathroom,” Michaela snapped. “Right now.”
“I can’t. I can’t do this.”
Michaela never thought she would swallow her pride enough to say that in front of Laurel, but it was surprisingly easy, if not eased by the champagne she’d had earlier. “I can’t do this,” she said again, listening to it resound in the silent room.
They were in a typical five-star hotel bathroom, with plush armchairs and chaises in the waiting area. Michaela sank onto the nearest one and Laurel, after a moment’s hesitation, perched beside her.
“Michaela...fuck. I’m sorry I said that, all right? I’m just stressed out. We can still do what we need to do.”
“No,” Michaela said. “That’s not what this is about. Okay, maybe I thought this would be easier than it is, but that’s not it. I’m tired of faking my way through life and I’m tired of acting like everything’s okay when it isn’t. And now this is one more thing I have to add to the pile and I'm not doing it unless I can get it right, and I can’t.”
“Hey, calm down,” Laurel said softly, taking her hand. “Didn’t you go to that swingers party and handle yourself just fine? You can do anything.”
Michaela didn’t have the energy to protest there was way more to it than that. She heaved a breath, closed her eyes, and let herself sink against Laurel’s shoulder for a minute. It was almost comforting until Laurel reached up to stroke her head.
“Do not,” Michaela gritted, “touch my hair unless you are a professional cosmetologist.”
Laurel laughed so hard she snorted.
In her purse, Michaela’s phone vibrated, making them both jump. “If that’s Connor asking how things are going, I’m going to scream,” she muttered, digging it out.
“Well?” asked Laurel, after a beat.
“It’s a calendar reminder I have a dentist appointment tomorrow. And...I think I found us an in with Maurice Breland.”
Laurel eyed her. “How?”
“I made a fake LinkedIn profile and he added me back earlier today, but I haven’t checked my mail since this morning. He had internships at two different nonprofits for queer youth and it looks like he majored in international business, minored in Latin American studies.”
“Wow,” breathed Laurel. “I really could kiss you right now.”
Michaela was going to put “smiling politely through a passionate fifteen-minute conversation about the intersection of the LGBT and Latino communities” on her CV as soon as she could figure out how.
She didn’t miss a beat when Laurel introduced her as “my girlfriend Michaela” and made sure to nod at all the appropriate moments as she and Maurice traded stories about the nonprofit world. She wondered how much of Laurel’s information had come from Kan, before she decided for whatever idiotic reason to prioritize Frank instead.
Then Laurel went for broke, laying a hand on Maurice’s arm and amping up the earnesty in her gaze to pageant queen proportions. “I understand if you’d rather not talk about this, but I wanted to say I can’t imagine what your family must be going through and I hope everything gets resolved peacefully.”
Michaela held her breath, waiting for him to smile politely and walk away.
Maurice sighed. “Thank you. It’s been rough for all of us.”
“If there’s anything we can do…” Laurel started, but Maurice cut her off with a dry laugh.
“Thanks, but unless you can reeducate every spoiled, narrow-minded kid on the planet, I think we’re out of luck.” He studied her curiously. “Where did you go to school?”
“Brown,” she said modestly. “I know, I know. It’s a very inclusive environment. We even have a mentoring program for queer students and there’s a zero tolerance policy for bullying. So obviously my experience was a 180 from yours.”
“What they did to me was more like psychological warfare. I dropped out my junior year and spent some time in the hospital, but eventually got back out there after I transitioned. It wasn’t easy, but I finished school just a year behind schedule.”
Michaela felt Laurel fumbling for her hand and clutched it. “I’m so sorry.”
“Rose was just a kid when she saw what I was going through. I don’t think she realized how messed up it was until she got older, but she knew it wasn’t normal.”
Michaela couldn’t help herself. “I need to be honest with you. We work for Annalise Keating and we really need your testimony. I know it was a terrible experience you went through, but it clearly left its mark on Rose and impacted her decision.”
Even as she said it, she could see Maurice closing himself off. Laurel was gripping her hand so tightly it was going numb.
“Mr. Breland, I understand how important it is for people to have your back when you’re falling apart. My mother was sixteen when she had me. Black babies are at the bottom of most adoptive parents’ wishlists, but I had neighbors who were willing to take me in when she was too busy having meltdowns to take care of me. I got lucky. My mother didn’t. All my life I’ve been driven to make sure everyone has a chance to get the help they need. Will you let us do that for you? And for Rose?”
Maurice Breland glanced between them and opened his mouth.
“I cannot believe we just did that.”
Laurel was staring dazedly at some point over Michaela’s shoulder. She looked positively shell-shocked. Their hands were still interlocked between them.
“Yeah,” Michaela breathed. “Me too.”
“Was that true? You’re either a better actor than I thought or you just shared the most personal information I’ve ever heard from you at one time.”
“Why can’t it be both?”
Laurel grinned. “That was kind of awesome. We nailed it”
Michaela cocked her head. “Still thinking of kissing me?”
“Depends if you still want to break up.”
Michaela kissed her first.
Neither of them were expecting it, so the whole affair was a mess of bumping noses and clicking teeth like fumbling high schoolers. But when she pulled away, Laurel was breathless, eyes searing and cheeks blazing under the soft upsweep of her hair.
“Remember when Annalise took us out that one time?” Laurel asked in a low, soft rush.
“You mean when you manhandled me onto the dance floor to atone for your ring-stealing ways?”
“It wasn’t too bad, was it?” Laurel gave her an impish look from under her lashes. “I didn’t think you'd know how to dance at all, but you weren't bad.”
They’d been drunk, but not too drunk for the memory to blur. Laurel’s hands on her hips and the light, sweet scent of her perfume; both of those had scorched their impressions into Michaela’s consciousness long before she’d let herself process their significance. And when the pulse of the music had drowned out their bickering, she’d gotten a glimpse of the quick, shy little grin Laurel sometimes let slip out like she wasn’t used to it. Michaela was used to cataloging little details about people in case they became useful to her at some point, and she’d stored that moment away like a secret ever since.
“I’m not a very impulsive person,” Michaela admitted.
Laurel gave a genuine laugh, soft and musical and gone in an instant. “None of us are. We’re ruthless and calculating, that’s why we’re in law school.”
Michaela held up a finger, mentally testing the weight of her words before she let herself say them. “But I’m open to learning new things.”
“If it means we actually get to dance now," Laurel said solemnly, "I’ll teach you everything I know.”
Michaela felt a smile fighting its way onto her face and for once she did nothing to smother it. “Stop showing off, Ms. Castillo.”