Chapter 1: My Kind of Medicine is Whiskey Straight
By all accounts, it had been a normal enough day. Laura had escaped the usual range of catcalls on her walk to work by dodging the newest construction site—Starbucks had apparently determined that their four locations within the two minute walk between her subway stop and her office was not quite enough—and she had spent the majority of her work hours going through her personal files.
Her latest story was by no means interesting enough to warrant that much attention. It was a standard puff piece, a page seven column on the latest expansion at New West Hospital. She had finished the actual research (a tour of the facility and a few quotes from the higher-ups) the day before, and had approved the photographs JP had catalogued on what he deemed their ‘field trip.’
He was still enthusiastic. Still wide-eyed and tongue-tied to even hold a desk at the Lustig Herald.
Laura did not have it in her to crush his dreams, when he raved about the senior staffers or asked for another telling of the fire in ’79. To hear him speak, one might think the Lustig was the place to be—the end-all-be-all of his career. Laura, though, was too busy focusing her sights across town, on the trophy-like exteriors of the Times and the Post.
That was the place to be; somewhere that would not make her hide her actual research like it was a particularly steamy bit of fanfic. Somewhere where she did not have to duck into the alcove behind JP’s sorry excuse for a cubicle in order to organize her notes, or wait until she arrived home to use the printer.
The Lustig was a paycheck. A line on her resume. A ticket into the big city.
She was contemplating another cup of coffee—it was late, but she had planned to finish color-coding her notes on the narcotics ring she suspected was being run out of the nearby veterinarian’s office—when she heard the knock.
An ordinary enough day, really, with her piles of open file folders and uncapped highlighters, with her gray tank top and pajama bottoms decorated in little lightning bolts, with only one lamp glowing and the rest of her tiny studio swathed in quick-spreading shadows.
Until she opened the door.
“Married?” LaFontaine repeated.
It was the fifth time they had said it, and the incredulity in their voice only seemed to rise with each repetition. Laura was not sure how much higher their voice could go, but she was confident that Perry would be topping them, had she had the capacity to speak at all. She was still gulping like a goldfish.
Laura took another swig of much-needed whiskey.
“Yes,” she repeated, not without a little bite. “As I’ve already said… that is what the papers would imply.”
“Right. The divorce papers. Which you were served with. Last night.”
She downed the rest of the whiskey, and let the heat settle warm in her throat before she took another breath. It did nothing to steady her, though the small rush through her head—like an eraser dashing across a loaded whiteboard—felt nice.
A part of her had considered not telling them. It had crossed her mind, a fleeting, panicked sort of idea, but it had winked out just as quickly.
There was very little she would be capable of keeping from her best friends.
That, and she had been in desperate need of a life raft.
“Okay,” Perry began slowly, rolling her tongue over the word. She was blinking entirely too much, and Laura found it hard to look directly at her. “Okay, so these papers are saying that you are married. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are correct. If you have no recollection of getting married, then in all likelihood there has been a clerical error, somewhere along the line.”
LaFontaine turned expectantly to Laura, and she felt a slow flush working its way up her cheeks and into her ears. It had been roasting along her collar bones ever since the admittance had left her mouth, but there was no hiding it, now.
“Well… it’s not exactly impossible.”
“It’s not impossible that you got married to a stranger without any memory of the events?”
Maybe she should not have told them. Maybe drowning would have been better.
“Do either of you remember the trip I took in 2014? When I was interning at that paper in Portland over winter break?”
“You mean that really shitty paper; the one that kept spelling your name wrong? Didn’t you go to some convention just because your boss got food poisoning?”
“Oh, yes,” Perry agreed, nodding suddenly. “It was that pharmaceutical company thing. You were so excited, I remember, because you got upgraded to first class on your flight to—oh.”
The color in LaFontaine’s cheeks suddenly paled as well, their mouth dropping open.
“You actually got hitched!” they said, and it almost came out like an accusation, when their finger flew up to point at her. “Oh my god, Frosh, you’ve been married like… two years longer than us!”
Laura raised her hand to the bartender, and watched as he began pouring her another.
“It would appear so, yes.”
“So does this mean you’ve been committing some sort of tax fraud? Or is it actually a detriment, not claiming all those benefits?”
“Maybe we should focus on the important questions,” Perry suggested primly. She shook her head, when the bartender eyed her empty glass, but LaF accepted another beer. “For instance, Laura: who exactly is it that you married? You must at least remember her, if not the actual… nuptials.”
“And it is a her, right?” LaFontaine put in, wiping froth from their lips. “That would be awkward.”
“Of course it’s a her,” Laura grumbled, “I was drunk, not possessed by a straight girl. And all I have is a name. And… a lot of fuzzy memories.”
She glanced down at the half empty glass in front of her. That, at least, was familiar.
“I was only there for two days, and the first night I was so exhausted that I crashed in the hotel and almost missed my morning sign-in. And then the conference was boring, and I put together all the prelim work I needed on the piece, and you texted me to tell me I needed to live a little.” She eyed LaFontaine pointedly. They did not look ashamed, though their eyes did widen slightly at the implication.
“So, I found the nearest gay club and figured I would just… check it out. See what the Vegas scene was like, since so many people talk about it, and gay marriage had just been legalized in Nevada, which was a big deal. All I did was sit next to this girl at the bar, and I think I spilled my drink on her? And then we got wasted and I don’t remember the rest.”
She rushed through the last words, staring determinedly at her chewed-down nails where they were pressing into the cold of the glass.
There was a long beat of silence.
“So,” Perry asked, finally, with a delicate calm, “You… saw her the next morning? Or no?”
Laura’s face was on fire.
“I saw… evidence of her, the next morning.”
She could hear LaFontaine’s smirk leeching into their voice was they asked, “What sort of evidence, L?”
Laura buried her head in her hands, and admitted into the safe muffle of her arms, “Ugh, she left her underwear, you asshole.”
LaF let out a hoot. Laura pictured them trying to seek a high-five from Perry, and failing.
“Was it sexy underwear?” they demanded, but the question was immediately followed by a thwack, and an indignant, “hey! Ow?”
“Laura, honey?” Perry coaxed. She felt the other woman prod her shoulder, and reluctantly raised her head. “This must be… well, a lot to take in? If you want to come stay with us, for a little bit, you are more than welcome.”
As tempting an offer as it was, and as much as she detested her unwelcome cockroach roommates, Laura shook her head. “I’m fine, really. I’ll just… get the divorce.”
It sounded more bizarre out loud, and she groaned before she let her head fall back onto her arms.
“Oh god, how is this my life?”
Researching divorce, really, was no different than researching any other subject Laura had devoted her attention to in the last ten years of her journalism career. There were plenty of articles online, and she had a small library’s worth of sources listed out within the first hour.
(That she was doing so at work, when she was expected to be proof-reading a stack of articles, was something she chose not to dwell upon.)
The reality of her situation boiled down to a fairly simple conclusion:
If she did nothing, then, within the next month or so, she would be legally single once more.
The papers detailed that this Carmilla Karnstein did not want anything from her except for an amicable separation. Their assets would all remain as they had been during the time they were unknowingly married, and they would not even need to sit down in front of a judge. All she needed to do was ignore the notice entirely, and it would simply… go away.
A divorce by default.
There was a part of Laura that wanted to take that easy road. She could close all of these law sites and delete her download history, go back to adjusting her usage of adverbs in the page four piece on new sidewalks, and act like she had never been to Vegas or heard of this Karnstein woman.
And then there was the part of her that had read every last word of the divorce papers, and had bristled to find herself described as ‘coercive’ and ‘controlling,’ to see accusations like ‘took advantage’ and ‘abandoned the marriage.’
The real nail in the proverbial coffin, though, was the attached order of restraint. If she agreed with the divorce—the assumption any judge would make, were she to ignore the summons—she would also agree to stay away from Carmilla Karnstein.
Laura flicked back through her tabs, closing out the ones she had already mined heavily for information, or the ones that had merely been redundant, and reduced herself down to the last five or so; the ones that featured titles ranging from ‘Karnstein Industries Recovers After Tragedy’ to ‘Carmilla Karnstein: Is She The Next Lindsay Lohan?’
The tabloids aside, there was a plethora of information available—far more than came up when Laura had previously had the gall to Google her own name. Where ‘Laura Hollis’ turned up mostly images of other Laura Hollis’s and their social media presences, with a sprinkling of low-view-count articles from her college days and early New York career, typing ‘Carmilla Karnstein’ earned her hundreds of pictures and articles.
There were discussions on social media, blogs that seemed rather taken by her teenage modeling shots, and a great deal of talk about her ‘potential.’
Laura had found her initial search a tad overwhelming.
She was also grateful to have left off a name when she explained the situation to her friends. She doubted she would ever hear the end of it, once they found out she had gotten accidentally married to someone with minor celebrity status. LaFontaine would have a field day.
Her finger paused on the scroll wheel, her mouse hovering hesitantly over top of a stunning photograph. It was one of the first ones that had come up in her search, and had reappeared on nearly every site she had visited since. Carmilla was leaning against the brick wall of the first offices for Karnstein Industries, in dark jeans and a white blazer, hair pinned in an intricate bun, and her dark eyes seemed to pierce through the screen. Laura felt watched, in a way that made heat sink low in her gut.
She remembered the stare. Drunk as she had been, and as little of their evening together still existed in her memories, she doubted it was a look she could ever forget.
Carmilla was beautiful in a striking, dangerous sort of way.
Yet, as she rolled her lower lip between her teeth, fingers drumming on the desktop, she could not help but picture those eyes going soft, those pale cheekbones patched with red, and that enigmatic smile parting in an almost bubbly laugh.
The Carmilla that was featured in every exposé, under every article about the plane crash that killed her father, did not fully do her justice. If there was anything Laura was sure of, in the grand scheme of a mess they had made three years prior, it was that.
It did not take LaFontaine long to find out who she had accidentally married. Laura was hit with several missed calls before the string of texts began to pour in, later that evening. Apparently, it was possible to find anyone’s marriage records on the internet, if you knew where to look… and LaFontaine, unfortunately, always seemed to know where to look.
Laura finally picked up the phone on LaFontaine’s fourth attempt, barely getting out a greeting before they launched into a series of questions.
“How the hell did you not remember marrying a Karnstein, L!? I mean, I know this was like, four years ago, but that family was still practically royalty in the pharmaceutical world! I have ranted about K.I. at least a dozen times to you. Did you know who she was when you met at the bar? Did you even try to find her after that whole one-night-stand thing?”
Laura slumped into her couch, nursing her mug of tea with slow strokes of her thumb across the ceramic, and let her eyes slide shut.
“Laura. Are you still there?”
“Yeah,” she sighed.
“You weren’t responding.”
Perry’s voice cut across the line, “Well, you were hardly giving her a chance, LaFontaine. Laura, honey, are you okay? I told LaF not to bombard you…”
“Fine,” she said quickly, before Perry could begin a ramble of her own, “It’s not like all that much has changed. I was married last week, too… I just didn’t know it.”
“And what about this divorce?” LaFontaine piped up, “What are you going to do about it?”
Laura contemplated the remainder of her tea, turning the mug to watch it swirl. “I suppose I should just let it happen. I have like three weeks to respond, and if I agree with the terms and say nothing, then the next I’ll probably hear will be that it’s done with.”
There was a long pause on the other line, and Laura knew, without asking, that the two of them were sharing a telepathic conversation without her. She took a long sip of her tea, and waited.
“Laura?” Perry finally prodded, “Are you thinking you might… not agree, for some reason?”
She played through the words again. The accusations, the requirements.
And she saw Carmilla Karnstein’s brown eyes go soft under those perfect eyebrows.
“I’ve been married for three years,” she murmured. “I think I deserve to actually meet the girl I’m divorcing.”
The response was nearly instantaneous, when Laura got through with the legwork of obtaining the cheapest legal advice possible, crossing her t’s and dotting her i’s on the paperwork and sending it onward.
Simply put, she had declared she would meet with the judge to move forward with the divorce.
Carmilla’s legal team had sent a letter much like the first, delivered by a courier straight into her hands in the dingy passageway outside her apartment door.
They wanted to arrange a meeting at the offices of Luce & Straka on Monday, during which the paperwork would be finalized to present to the judge on their case. It all sounded very ominous and professional, though Laura had no plans to argue the division of their ‘estate’—she was hardly after Carmilla’s fortune, which she assumed was the main concern.
The very thought of this did give her a thrill of momentary power, however, imagining Carmilla Karnstein, heiress to the Karnstein Industries empire, worrying about someone as insignificant as Laura. She had always hoped to inspire fear with journalism, to have the mere notion of her poking her nose someplace strike fear into the hearts of men.
This was an unexpected twist of fate.
When the day of the meeting arrived, she was already on her third cup of coffee by the time she escaped from work—claiming she had a dentist appointment had seemed much more reasonable than ‘I’m ending a marriage I was unaware of’—and there was no denying the jitters as her leg bounced on the elevator ride to the correct floor.
Luce & Straka were housed on the top two floors of a low-level Manhattan office tower. It was impossible, when she stepped into the immaculately decorated lobby, not to notice the clear view of Karnstein Tower through the wall of glass directly ahead of her.
Until a week ago, she never would have paid the building any mind. The Karnsteins were hardly Tony Stark—there was no massive ‘K’ decorating the structure, nor any emblazoned gold title or marble pillars. It blended into the rest of the cityscape with ease, camouflaged amongst its siblings.
Now, it seemed, Laura could not ignore its presence. She picked it out in every postcard she saw on street vendor’s carts, in ever picturesque shot of the skyline that decorated the hallways of the Lustig.
“Ms. Hollis,” a receptionist greeted her with clipped politeness. She pushed a pair of gray glasses back up her nose, sniffing ever-so-slightly as she tapped away on her keyboard. Laura had not introduced herself, or even moved more than five feet from the elevator doors, but that did not seem to matter. “Take a seat. They will call you in shortly.”
Nodding dumbly, and feeling massively out of place in her cut-off dress pants and her cheap newsroom blazer, Laura settled into one of the few waiting-room-style seats. Even the potted fern next to her seemed to dwarf her in its regality.
It was a stout Asian man who came out for her, dressed in a tailored blue pinstripe suit and a flashy red tie. Laura knew her hand was clammy, when she reached out to accept the shake that he offered. His smile seemed fake, as he introduced himself as Theodore Straka, and she saw a truer glint of malice lock into place behind his eyes when he gave her a cursory once over.
She had never liked lawyers, but this one, more than most, gave her the hair-raising sense that she was prey.
He led the way back through a maze of open-formatting desks, each armed with its own suit-wearing worker and a teetering stack of paperwork. There was not much time to take in the scenery; Laura was just starting to wonder how many employees this place really needed when she was ushered into a conference room with dark walls and a single, long conference table.
The door clicked shut behind them.
Her own lawyer, a bumbling man with a comb-over and a permanently panicked expression, tripped over himself to stand and shake her hand in greeting. That he had arrived before her, at least, was somewhat heartening.
Laura did not care much about him, though. Her eyes had migrated at once to the slender figure seated directly across from the empty spot she was meant to take.
Carmilla did not stand to greet her. Her expression, too, did not shift at her arrival—Laura may as well have been an intern there to drop off fresh coffee.
Wearing a casual outfit much like that in her popular photograph (albeit with a red blazer instead of a white one), she was lounged back in her chair, legs crossed and eyebrows drawn together in a scowl. She looked the very picture of someone that thought she was too important to be there.
“Alright, then, let’s get this show wrapped up so that you ladies can get on with your lives, shall we?” said the second lawyer, the one that had introduced himself as William Luce while Laura was busy staring at Carmilla. He rubbed his hands together and actually grinned—grinned in a way that said he was enjoying himself.
Carmilla rolled her eyes.
Dan Barrow—Laura’s lawyer—nodded quickly and mopped at his brow with a handkerchief.
“Excellent. Perfect. My client is prepared to agree with your terms.”
Luce raised an eyebrow, his grin still twitching, “Is that so? She has an interesting way of showing it.”
“She is here willingly to get this resolved as quickly as she can,” Barrow insisted. He cut his eyes at Laura, but she paid him no mind.
She was still busy staring holes into Carmilla.
Being in the same room as her was bizarre. For the better half of the last week, Laura had been spending most of her free time reading about Carmilla’s life and studying photographs of her, trying desperately to match more of them with her vague memories. What the alcohol had not erased, time had certainly made foggy.
A part of her had thought that this—being in her presence—might help. She had been hoping for a jog of sorts, something to fill in the gaps and explain why on earth a single night on the town had turned into an impromptu marriage.
Laura was hardly a one-night-stand type of person, after all. Even when wasted, she was usually more interested in keeping possession of her stomach contents than she was in taking someone home. The only other woman she had ever woken up in bed with had been Danny—and they had been friends for a solid month prior, and begun a relationship not long after.
A relationship that had entirely taken place while Laura was married.
She pushed that reminder back down into the mental filing cabinet where she’d been keeping all of her pending concerns—it was a mental jungle gym she could puzzle her way through after all of this was said and done—and did her best to focus on the conversation at hand.
While she had been tracing the angular lines of Carmilla’s features, from her brow to her jawbone to the cut of her shoulders, her lawyer had been prattling through responses to several barbed comments. She had missed the majority, and only realized she was being addressed personally when a thick packet of papers, attached with a heavy-duty binder clip, landed on the table in front of her. A pen was set neatly beside it, and she looked up to find Straka hovering like a vulture.
“I have highlighted all of the places where your signature is required, Ms. Hollis. If you would?”
The pen was heavy and cold, when she picked it up and turned the barrel between her fingers. She lifted her gaze, her eyebrows drawing together with uncertainty, and found Carmilla’s piercing stare focused upon her with laser-like precision.
Laura wondered if there were bits of her scattered on the dark wall behind her head.
“This still says that this was my fault?” she questioned, glancing at her lawyer.
He swallowed thickly, “Technically, yes?”
Brow still furrowed, Laura looked between the lawyers. “Can that be… removed?”
“It is necessary,” said Straka, with a level of certainty Laura was not sure she had ever conveyed—not even when she was defending the importance of Harry Potter’s availability in her local library.
“But it wasn’t my fault,” said Laura. She let her gaze fall back on Carmilla.
The dark-haired woman did not respond, but Laura thought she saw, for a flicker of a second, her eyebrow twitch in surprise.
Luce and Straka exchanged a heavy look. It was Luce who took charge.
“If you are not interested in an amicable separation, Ms. Hollis, I’m afraid you will not like the turn that this takes.”
“What does that mean?” she demanded. Her hands were curling into fists in her lap, and she could feel heat crawling its way up her neck in blotches.
“It means that this is the simple route,” Straka supplied. There was no denying the flash of malice in his eyes, now, as he leaned across the table. Laura ground her teeth, refusing to break the glare first. He continued, “If you do not like the simple route, then we will gladly come after you for damages. Your assets are few, but I imagine it would be quite difficult to continue living in this city without them.”
The hair on her arms was beginning to stand on end. “Damages?” she sputtered, “What damages?”
In her seat, Carmilla shifted slightly. She focused on her manicure, her red lips pursed.
“Your attempt to damage the Karnstein name,” Straka explained with all the heavy pronunciation of someone trying to explain bedtime to a toddler. “It is clear from the evidence that you entered into this sham of a marriage with intentions to exploit the Karnstein name and its associated wealth.”
“But I haven’t done anything!” Laura cried in indignation. She turned to Barrow, who was sweating profusely. His handkerchief was dark in his clutches. “I didn’t even know I was married to her! How could I possibly have had any intentions?”
Straka started to speak, but only made it as far as “That’s not for you to say,” before he was cut short by a soft voice ringing clearly through the room.
“You didn’t know?”
Laura felt her breath catch at the soft gleam in Carmilla’s stare—the brown a soft caramel instead of a pitiless tunnel. She stuttered, searching for a proper response, something a little more eloquent than ‘well, duh,’ but she did not get the chance.
“Let us handle this, Ms. Karnstein,” Straka insisted.
Carmilla ignored him. Her gaze had still not broken from Laura.
“I would like to speak to Ms. Hollis,” she said. “Alone.”
“That is a terrible idea,” Luce scoffed, right as Straka put in, “Remember what your mother said.”
Carmilla’s hands fell on the side of the table, her fingers tightening like claws. The red of her nail polish glinted a bloody crimson.
“I think you are forgetting who you work for.”
There was a tense silence, in which no one seemed to dare breathe, and then Straka buttoned his jacket and made for the door. Luce followed, but not before leaning to whisper something in Carmilla’s ear that made her scowl.
With great uncertainty, Barrow teetered on the edge of his chair until Carmilla’s gaze fell upon him. He let out a sound reminiscent of a mouse’s squeak, and, mind made up for him, hurried from the room.
“Your lawyer is incompetent,” Carmilla pointed out.
Laura was too dumbstruck to think of a clever reply. She nodded instead, somehow managing to keep her jaw clamped shut when it very much wanted to drag on the floor.
“I was not expecting to see you,” Carmilla added. Her frown deepened, her head tipping to the side. For the first time, she straightened in her seat, facing Laura properly and folding her hands together on the table between them. “Why did you come?”
Laura’s thoughts had finally rearranged themselves into an order resembling human speech. “You mean, other than to steal away your fortune?”
Carmilla’s lips slipped into an easy smirk—a sort of half-raise that looked natural on her features.
“Other than that.”
With a hesitating shrug, Laura admitted, “I wanted to see what you remembered. If maybe there was an… answer, for all of this.”
A shadow slipped across Carmilla’s face, her smile crumbling. She rolled back, slow and languid, until she was sprawled once more, a disaffected expression on her face as she laced her fingers together over her abdomen.
“Not sure how I can help with that, cupcake.”
Laura frowned, thrown by the sudden shift in her demeanor.
“So, you don’t remember anything, either?”
“Nope,” Carmilla declared, popping the ‘p’ as if she were chewing bubblegum. She was staring more at the ceiling now than she was at Laura. She almost looked bored, her face unreadable.
Laura let out a huff. “You don’t think we could maybe try to, I don’t know, piece it together? I mean we got married, for goodness sake. That must have been somebody’s idea, and I highly doubt it was mine.”
Carmilla’s mouth fell open, a flash of anger shooting through her eyes and tightening every muscle in her jaw. Her eyes darted over Laura, picking her apart with unspoken malice, and then she snarled out: “Right, that would be totally above you, wouldn’t it?”
“Hey, hold on! What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You clearly think highly of yourself, buttercup. What are you—a perfect little daddy’s girl? Never got detention in school, every teacher’s prissy little pet? You’re so much better than a drunken one night stand, so it must be someone else’s fault.”
Anger sparked hot in her chest.
“There were two of us that night, in Vegas!” she argued. “And, fine, yeah, I had never done anything like that in my life! But, just because you’ve got a dozen personal stylists at your beck-and-call and your shirt probably costs more than my yearly rent, that doesn’t automatically mean it was my fault.”
“It is fascinating how the first thing you bring up is money. Given that you aren’t here for that.”
Gone were the curious, soft eyes; the rapt attention that had followed the departure of her lawyers. This was a different girl, one that was far more reminiscent of the tabloid story that claimed she had forcibly shut down a five star restaurant because she did not think her soup was hot enough.
“I’m not here for your stupid money!” Laura snapped. “Maybe I just don’t want to have this come back to bite me, when I’m running for congress or something and my opponent finds out I agreed with a divorce that called me manipulative and money-hungry!”
There was a long, heavy pause. Carmilla’s blink was slow, measured, as though she were calculating every fraction of the move.
“And the real reason comes out,” she said quietly. Her chair did not so much as creak when she pushed it smoothly out behind her, rising to her feet. “I think that’s quite enough for today. I will have the adjustments made to the papers, and you will receive them by the end of the week. Good day.”
“Why would you tell Danny?” Laura demanded, waving her phone in LaFontaine’s face. There were almost a dozen missed calls, all of them from the same number. “What could possibly be gained from her knowing about this?”
“She’s a lawyer, L. And you definitely need legal advice.”
“Not from my ex!”
Laura turned on Perry, who was sipping her coffee and purposefully staring up the street at a woman who was attempting to walk five dogs at once.
The other woman’s eyes darted to her for a fraction of a second, and then down at the table. “Well,” she hedged carefully, “I do think you need help, Laura. And, besides, you had to know she would find out eventually.”
“I would have gladly taken this to the grave, thanks,” Laura muttered. She downed the last of her latte in one gulp, and promptly spent several seconds trying not to choke.
“No need to rush that; the cat’s already out of the bag,” commented LaF. At Laura’s glare, they sighed before adding, “I suppose I should have consulted you first.”
Beside them, Perry nodded with the sage wisdom of a teacher whose pupil had just given a correct response.
“We are both sorry,” she added quickly. “Now that she knows, though, what’s the harm in getting some decent advice? Danny is quite good at what she does.”
That was what Laura kept hearing. Though they had agreed to remain friends, there was no denying that things were still awkward, when it came to Danny Lawrence. They only ever saw each other in group settings, at the coaxing of LaFontaine and Perry, and they carefully avoided being left alone in one another’s company. One time they had both stood to go to the restroom at the same time, and then both attempted to circumvent by going to the bar.
Seeing Danny was like a constant hallway dance, both of them trying to step the same way, neither of them sure how to get away.
“Well, what did she say when you told her? I’m sure she had plenty of advice, then.”
Perry and LaFontaine exchanged one of those telepathic looks that made Laura want to groan, and then LaFontaine began, “She was a little shocked. There was some colorful language; I mean, It’s not every day that this happens, y’know.”
“I am aware.”
“Yes, well,” Perry picked up, one hand landing on top of Laura’s with a gentle pat, “that aside, she wants to help you. You really should return her call.”
“Calls,” Laura emphasized. “There have been eleven of them!”
As if on cue, her phone began to buzz once again.
“Twelve!” she accused.
Rather than urge her to pick up, Perry plucked her phone off the counter and pressed it to her own ear while Laura looked on in open-mouthed astonishment.
“Good afternoon, Danny. Yes, she’s here—she’s not much in the mood to talk about it, unfortunately… mhm. Yes, I will let her know. Of course. You have a lovely evening.”
Laura was still staring when the phone was pressed into her open palm.
“Danny says hello, and she will see you tomorrow at one o’clock. Violet Corner Café on Twelfth and Main. Bring your papers.”
Despite Laura’s pessimism about the meeting—and the pain of hauling herself all the way to Brooklyn—Danny turned out to be quite helpful. She went through the new packet of papers that Carmilla’s legal team had sent over a few days prior, mumbling to herself and marking up the document with an excessive number of red sticky notes, and allowed Laura to pay for her own coffee with minimal fuss.
“I guess this makes me your mistress,” she commented softly, when she had run through all of the details twice and ensured Laura understood each component of the agreement.
There was no malice in the words. Perhaps, Laura thought, there was even a twinkle of amusement behind those blue eyes she had once been so lost in.
Her own smile was careful, but genuine. “I try to keep things interesting,” she agreed.
The next official meeting was scheduled for the following week, on February twenty-first. Despite the revisions to the divorce agreement, the restraining order still remained firmly on the final page, and Danny had cautioned her against allowing it to stay there. The language was more familiar to her than it was to Laura, and she had explained, with a lot of pen tapping and note-writing, that such an order could be used in the future to prevent her from so much as writing about Karnstein Industries.
And, with Carmilla set to take over the company the following month, upon the arrival of her twenty-seventh birthday, Laura would be barred from attending any event in the city that the future CEO was invited to.
Her career could be crippled.
Danny was unable to take on her case personally, what with the responsibilities and restrictions from her own firm, but Laura felt far better about her odds with research under her belt and a manila folder filled with reference documents tucked under her arm as she got on the subway that morning for the long ride downtown.
Carmilla wanted this over with. The woman might be rude and unpleasant, but Laura still felt a small surge of power over the situation.
That was, of course, until she focused in on the paper the man across the aisle from her was reading.
It was a low-level, trashy sort of tabloid that was barely ten pages in length, but, even wearing oversized designer sunglasses, the picture on the front was unmistakably Carmilla.
That, and the headline read: ‘CARMILLA KARNSTEIN’S SECRET WIFE’
Laura’s stomach plummeted down to the torn cushion of her seat.
“Can I see that?” she asked, tugging out one of her headphones and gesturing at the tabloid.
The man, who wore a thick, graying mustache and round spectacles, darted beady eyes up at her and clutched the pages a little tighter.
“Just for a second,” she promised. “I’ll give it back.”
With a grunt, he thrust it at her. She was very aware of his stare as she began to shuffle through the flimsy pages, and distantly hoped she had not just gained a stalker before she immersed herself in the article.
Underneath the fluffy, sensationalized words, the story was fairly close to what Laura knew of the truth, with only a few deviations. Carmilla had gotten married in secret, in late 2014, and told no one. She had been engaged at the time, to a member of the elite Vordenberg family. The engagement would fall apart in the wake of the ‘indiscretion,’ and Carmilla would be openly gay in the public eye within the following two months, with an entire marketing campaign at K.I. dedicated to her coming out.
Laura’s name, thankfully, had been omitted for the time being… but not without vague, cliffhanger-esque mentions to a follow-up exposé on the details of the impending divorce.
It was with that ominous thought in mind that Laura shoved the paper back into the man’s waiting arms and took her leave out into the foggy sunlight of a too-early morning in Manhattan.
She was nearly to the offices of Luce & Straka when her phone began to hum furiously in her pocket.
Danny Lawrence Calling.
“Hey,” she started to say, her next words prepped to explain that she knew, that she had just seen the article, but Danny steamrolled over her.
“Don’t go to that meeting,” she said urgently. “Tell me you aren’t already there.”
“I’m like… a block away. Is this about that article in the Sun?”
Laura stepped out of the flow of traffic, ducking under the awning of a hole-in-the-wall bar with dark windows. A faint drizzle had begun to coat the sidewalk.
“Yeah, just now.”
There was a sigh from the other end of the line. “Alright, good. I didn’t want to be the one to tell you. So, you’re heading home, now?”
She glanced up the street at the waiting business tower, and frowned. “No, my meeting is at eight.”
“I just said not to go to that.”
There was a pause, and then the sound of shuffling papers, or perhaps a juggling of her cell phone. The line suddenly became clear, losing all of its background office fuzz.
“Because they’re going to use this against you, Laur. You’d be walking straight into a lion’s den and saying ‘dinner’s served.’”
“Wait. You think they’ll blame me for the article?”
“Of course they will. They’ve already accused you of going after the Karnstein fortune. Now, they’ll frame this as you trying to extort money by threatening to go public with your story.”
“It doesn’t matter. This gives them grounds for a restraining order that you can’t argue your way out of. And if you don’t agree to something at that meeting, they’ll frame you as hostile.”
“And how will it look if I just don’t show up?” she demanded.
Her heart was starting to hammer in her chest, and she found herself pacing under the narrow awning, entirely uninterested in the freezing rain that was rapidly turning into an actual storm. Fellow pedestrians were running past, tugging jackets over their heads and using briefcases as umbrellas.
“You’ll call your lawyer,” Danny said calmly, “You’ll have him relay that you are upset about the article, that you see this as an attack—a threat—and you need time to evaluate options.”
Laura did not answer. She paused, pressing her temple into the cool glass beside an unlit beer advertisement. She was replaying Straka’s threat—his warning that they could come after her for damages. That she could be run out of this city that she loved, this city that she had put everything on the line to get to.
She was damned if she did, and damned if she didn’t.
“Laura, are you still there? Do you need me to send you all of this in an email?”
“Um, yeah. Sure. If you can do that, then I can just… I can send it on to Barrow.”
“And then I’m sure he can just—he’ll totally tell them it in the right words, because he’s such a great lawyer, and then I’ll get everything sorted out and not have my life ruined.”
She was gulping in breaths, the low panic that had been building in her chest threatening to tear out of her like the storm that was billowing her hair and soaking through her heels. There was a heat behind her eyes, clouding her vision, and she squeezed them shut tight.
“It’s going to be okay. Just get home, alright? One thing at a time, Hollis.”
“Right,” Laura whispered. She picked herself off the side of the building and pretended the trembling in her shoulders was from the rain as she trod her way back to the subway.
It appeared that the only thing that Dan Barrow was good at was stalling. He pushed their next meeting to the following Monday and, after she had eaten half a carton of Ben & Jerry’s, Laura felt significantly calmer about the whole ordeal.
Which was why she was less than thrilled to find a six-foot-tall ginger standing anxiously on her doorstep in the waning hours that evening.
“I brought Thai,” Danny offered, raising the heavy bag of takeout with a hopeful smile.
Sighing, Laura stepped aside and let her into the dim apartment.
Her place was not much to look at. Laura lived in the only housing she could really afford, which was a shitty studio off an alley in Washington Heights, and her priorities had always been on rent rather than furniture or style.
The single room would have been sparse, had it been of a reasonable size. Instead, her twin mattress (on the floor rather than an actual frame), loveseat, lawn chair, and the bookshelf that housed her rabbit-eared television all sat crowded together in a way that made it impossible to walk from one end of the narrow room to the other without engaging in an eccentric game of hopscotch.
Danny, who had played guest before, made no comment. She merely settled onto one half of the loveseat and set the bag of food on the floor while Laura collected two rickety folding trays.
“You didn’t have to come all the way out here,” Laura muttered, as Danny handed her a white takeout box and a pair of chopsticks.
“Well, you were upset, earlier. I wanted to make sure everything was squared away.”
Laura could not help but think that Danny could have answered the question with a phone call. She had noticed a hesitation when they met up the other day, as though Danny had something she wanted to say, but could not find the words, and she felt it again, now.
Whatever it was, Danny did not bring it up.
Laura stabbed her chopsticks into the container of Pad Kee Mao, twirling the noodles slowly. “It’s fine. Barrow got my meeting rescheduled for Monday. I guess I’ll just go in and… plead my case like we talked about. This article can’t be doing good things for Carmilla, either, right?”
“Depends,” said Danny. She set down her food. “Bad press has followed that girl around ever since her father’s plane crash, and business has only improved. As the saying goes: ‘any press is good press.’”
“You think she could be using this as a publicity stunt?”
Danny shrugged. “It’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility. I mean, had you heard of Carmilla before this whole mess?”
Laura shook her head. For all of the information on the web, none of it had sounded familiar—she had not seen any memorable headlines or followed her career.
“That’s because there haven’t been any recent breaking stories. Karnstein Industries is a pharmaceutical powerhouse; they’re renowned in their field, and well recognized by competitors. People like you and me, though? We aren’t paying attention to the company behind the medical breakthroughs. Especially when they make the sort of drugs we don’t personally need.”
Laura nodded. Her research had shown that K.I. focused largely on specific markets: things like cancer drugs and treatments for little-known chronic conditions. They weren’t producing anything in Laura’s medicine cabinet (which consisted mainly of heartburn chewables and Winnie the Pooh Band-Aids).
“Why would they care if we knew who Carmilla was, then?”
“Well, besides her brief modeling career and a few personal endorsements, the company tried to break into personal healthcare products a few years back. I think you know about her… engagement?”
Laura grimaced, “Yes.”
Danny toyed with the frayed edge of her NYU hoodie, and asked, with great hesitation, “Did she mention that, at all? When you two were… together?”
“Honestly, I can’t remember. But I really don’t think that night was any sort of discovery for her. The only thing that’s clear was that she started flirting with me at the bar. She bought me drinks, and kept calling me cute…” she trailed off, catching the shift in Danny’s expression, and cleared her throat. This was an awkward conversation to have with one’s ex. “Anyway! She had definitely picked up girls before.”
“Right,” Danny agreed. “And then she came out, and called the engagement off. But, had she gone through with it, the merger between Karnstein Industries and Vordenberg Solutions Inc. would have been a near-certainty.”
“Was VSI in trouble? Back then, I mean?”
The company, a name Laura had been familiar with, thanks to their endlessly advertised vitamin drinks, had collapsed recently. There had been a claim of embezzlement, followed by recent accusations of sexual harassment by high-ranking executives, and one of the big blogging circuits—a group of ‘concerned mothers’ had led a boycott that earned national attention.
It was just occurring to Laura, now, that she had not seen one of their obnoxious telethon commercials in months.
“Not at all. Their stock prices were actually through the roof. They had just released a new line of vitamins that were doing well… it goes to show what some bad PR can do to a company.”
“So, not all press is good press,” teased Laura.
“Fine. Yes. But I still think you need to be thinking about Karnstein’s motivations. This is the sort of scandal that makes people talk, not the sort of scandal that makes people boycott—well, people who aren’t homophobic assholes. But it’s not like those creeps would ever like her, regardless.”
Laura chewed thoughtfully through a few bites of her Thai, which had gone lukewarm during their discussion.
“What if she didn’t?” she asked. “Release the story, I mean.”
“Are you asking who it could have been, instead?” Danny tossed down a piece of shrimp with a gulp of her wine. “Anyone that wanted to hurt her and thought this was the way to do it—so, competitors, personal rivalries, that sort of thing. Or, more likely than not, just someone looking to make a quick buck. It could have been a low-level employee at the law firm, or even within K.I. itself. They got whiff of the divorce, did a little digging, and sold the news off to the first tabloid they could get to listen.”
“And if it was one of those options… then what are the odds of my name staying out of it?”
Danny pursed her lips, “Not very good, Hollis.”
The red blur of the digits on her alarm clock slid into view slowly, declaring that it was two minutes past three o’clock.
Laura’s phone was rattling across the plastic storage container she used as a nightstand, blaring the lyrics to Shake It Off.
She reached for it, her fingers tired and fumbling, and managed to knock it off the edge and onto the floorboards. By the time she had located it again, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes and muttering a string of curses, it had stopped ringing.
There was a faint ding, and the notification loaded on her lock screen.
‘Carmilla K – 1 Missed Call.’
With her heart thundering as she tried to process the unlikeliness of this, on top of her near certainty that she did not actually have Carmilla’s number in her phone, she almost tumbled off the mattress entirely when her phone buzzed again—this time with the notification of ‘Carmilla K – 1 New Voicemail.’
Laura unlocked her screen, still trying to get her brain functioning and off of the blurred edges of reality from the dream she’d been having. It had been something to do with time travel. And elephants? She had never been good at retaining dream memories for more than a few minutes.
She opened her contacts, and scrolled to K.
There she was: Carmilla K, complete with a New York phone number. The line for ‘Company’ was filled in with ‘it doesn’t have to stay in vegas.’
So, there was no way she had typed that.
“One thing at a time,” she muttered to herself. Shoving her unkempt hair back, she loaded the voicemail.
Through her tinny phone speakers, Carmilla’s voice sounded far away… and very, very drunk.
“Hey. It’s your wife. That’s me. Wife, wife… fuck, that’s a weird word. Isn’t it? Call me back.”
Laura stared wide-eyed at the screen for a long moment. And then she played it again, twice, to be sure she was not hallucinating. She pinched her arm for good measure.
It would be insane, to consider actually calling her back as she had requested. She was clearly out of her right mind, and there was no lawyer in the world, Danny least of all, that would advise interacting with the woman she was getting a divorce from. Especially without supervision.
But, perhaps, that was what made it so tempting. Carmilla, without her army of lawyers. Vulnerable and honest. No fancy, professional barriers between them, no threatening contracts waiting under her nose.
And there had to be a reason Carmilla was so eager to get in touch with her at this hour.
“This is a terrible idea,” she whispered to the dark apartment.
Almost in response, her phone began to sing once more.
Carmilla was calling. Again.
Laura sucked in a breath, and pressed it to her ear. “Carmilla?”
“Hey!” Carmilla yelled. Laura winced, and tugged the phone away from her ear. She could hear Carmilla, her voice still unacceptably loud, calling, “You are awake. I did not think you would be awake!” as she clicked at the volume settings.
“Well I tend to wake up when people call me in the middle of the night.”
“Huh. That’s a neat trick. I should remember that.”
Laura pinched the bridge of her nose, and then, regaining some of her senses, reached to turn on the lamp before scooting up to press her back against the wall. Her single pillow squished into the arch of her lower back, but she ignored it.
“I would prefer if you didn’t. Why are you calling me?”
“Ooh. You’re mad.”
“No,” she huffed, rolling her eyes up to where the glow-in-the-dark stars on her ceiling were fading from green back to white. “I just want answers.”
“So do I.”
“For what?” Laura sputtered, “What do you need answers for?”
There was a long pause. Laura halfway wondered if Carmilla had ditched her phone and was off getting sick somewhere.
“Stuff,” she said finally, her smugness leeching through the line.
Laura let out a sigh through her nose. “Of course. Well, if you’re just going to go in circles, then I’m going to go back to bed.”
“What? No, don’t go!”
This was unbelievable.
“Listen, okay? You’re already ruining enough of my life. I’d like to at least keep some of my sanity. So, unless you’re about to tell me that you’re done with all your accusations and restraining orders, then I am going to go. And quite possibly block your number.”
“But then… how would I call you?”
“You wouldn’t. That is entirely the point of blocking people, Carmilla.”
Carmilla did not answer. Instead, there was a distant, fuzzy shout from her side of the line, followed by static and Carmilla releasing a string of profanity.
“Where are you?” Laura asked.
“Dunno. Street somewhere.”
“I’m not a fucking child.”
“That’s not what I—you know what, just tell me where you are, okay?”
She was on her feet, shuffling through the pile of laundry on her floor for a decent pair of jeans and t-shirt. It was freezing outside, Carmilla was apparently wasted out of her mind, and, from the sounds of it, she was being harassed by potential muggers.
“I already told you.”
“Somewhere is not helpful direction! I need a street name at the very least! Come on, this is New York; there are signs everywhere. If you can operate a phone then you can read.”
Carmilla groaned dramatically, as Laura finished tugging on her jacket and a pair of boots. She was going to have to get a taxi, and she had no idea where Carmilla lived, or if Carmilla would be capable of giving directions to get herself back there.
Laura almost dropped her phone at the sudden declaration.
“Broadway and what?”
“I don’t know… oh, look, there’s a barbecue joint.”
She locked her apartment behind her, putting Carmilla on a hushed speaker so she could pull up the number for a cap company. She would need to call quickly, and keep Carmilla on the other line so that she did not lose her…
“Dallas BBQ. Aw, man, I think it’s closed…”
Laura’s heart thumped to a near halt. “Well, yes,” she said, as she pounded down the stairs at a near-run, “Things tend to do that at three in the morning.”
“But it’s not supposed to sleep.”
“Sure, whatever. Carmilla, listen to me. You’re somehow like three blocks from my apartment. Please tell me no one is following you.”
“Nope. All alone.”
“Good. Great. Stay there.”
Laura had been on her high school softball team, and had played a bit of Quidditch at her university, but she had never been the biggest fan of running. She preferred her exercise in purposeful, close-quartered circumstances. The hand-eye coordination of connecting a ball with a bat, or an elbow with a jaw, was more her speed.
She was out of breath by the time she jogged around the corner that housed Dallas BBQ and found a form huddled next to the dark doorway.
Thankfully, Carmilla was dressed-down, in torn up black jeans and a ratty hoodie. No purse. She blended in better on the streets than she would have in a blazer and heels; not that it would have helped her, had she wandered past the lower of societies criminals on her drunken stroll.
“Jesus,” Laura complained, as a waft of alcohol hit her. She hauled Carmilla upright. “What the hell are you doing all the way out here?”
Carmilla just shrugged, easily accepting the support of Laura’s shoulder.
It was an awkward trip back to her apartment. Carmilla kept mumbling, occasionally laughing to herself, and with each of these outbursts came a stumble that threatened to topple the both of them. By the time Laura had hauled them to the entrance of her walk-up, her shoulder was burning and her patience was on its last legs.
“Tired,” Carmilla complained, when Laura propped her against the wall and bent double in an effort to steady herself before the climb.
Laura was not in the mood to tell her off.
They took the steps one at a time, and Carmilla latched their fingers together without a word, about halfway up. Laura glanced down in surprise, but did not fight the contact.
Better than her breaking her neck in my hallway, she thought grimly.
That would not be an easy one to explain to the lawyers.
Carmilla let her go, once they were inside and she had successfully bolted all of her locks and turned on enough lights for navigation. A few more bulbs had burnt out on the Christmas strands that served as her wall décor, but she hardly thought Carmilla was going to be commenting on her surroundings.
She set about collecting her a glass of water and locating a final sleeve of Saltines in the back of her cupboard, but she need not have bothered.
By the time she turned back around, Carmilla had collapsed smack-dab in the middle of Laura’s bed, and was snoring peacefully.
Chapter 2: Here We Stand (The World Awaits)
In which Laura has a lot of questions, very few answers, and a decision to make.
The response to this story had been phenomenal. Let's pretend it's Friday.
Chapter title from Something Beautiful by Tim Halperin.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Laura was not polite about the morning wake-up call. She jerked the curtains apart on her sole window, bathing Carmilla’s slumbering form in the morning light without warning.
The other woman's hand flew up at once, a pitiful cry parting her lips.
“No,” she grumbled, burrowing deeper into the blankets. “Early.”
“It is early,” Laura agreed. “It’s seven-thirty, in fact! And I need to leave for work ten minutes ago.”
Either the reality of her words, or the unexpectedness of them being spoken in Laura’s voice, had an immediate chilling effect on Carmilla. She stiffened, dropping her hand and squinting around the room with rapidly paling features.
“Fuck,” she hissed.
“How’s your head, Captain Morgan?”
Carmilla clutched it as she rolled upright, scooting out of the direct sunlight and swinging her legs the short distance off the edge of the mattress and onto the floor. Her knees stuck up like a kid on a bicycle they had outgrown.
“I prefer tequila, actually,” she muttered, through a wince.
“Well it doesn’t seem to share your affection. Now get up. I called you a cab, and it’s gonna be here any minute.”
Carmilla staggered to her feet, giving herself a quick once-over (she was still wearing her outfit from the night before—Laura’s kindness had extended to blankets, but not to re-dressing) and then managed a smirk that looked rather painful.
“I’m giving this place one star on Yelp. Terrible service.”
“Only paying customers get to leave reviews, thanks,” Laura snipped. She went to catch Carmilla by the elbow, intent on dragging her to the door if she would not go willingly on her own, but the other woman’s eyes had lit up with glee at her wording, and Laura realized the mistake too late.
“Oh, really? You have many paying customers up here, Hollis?”
“No! That’s not what I—you know what I meant!”
“Would you like to be paid?” She folded her arms, raising an eyebrow as she gave Laura’s home a proper survey for the first time. “I’m sure I can afford one night. I might even have your whole month’s rent on me, in fact…”
She reached languidly for her back pocket, but the smile dropped almost immediately from her lips. They formed into a rapid-fire string of curses, instead.
“Fuck, shit, dammit!” she snarled as she patted all of her pockets, diving back towards the bed and throwing aside the layers of blankets one at a time.
“You don’t have your wallet?” Laura demanded. She scanned her meager apartment as Carmilla began to sift through her belongings, one after the other. Nothing was particularly valuable, but she could feel a protest forming as Carmilla began to rip through her laundry pile, and she jumped forward to catch her by the wrist before she could begin digging through the boxes that served as her dresser.
Carmilla did not need to go through her underwear.
“Hey! Unless you think I stole it, I’d rather you not invade my privacy. If it’s not in the bed, then you must have lost it before I found you last night.”
“Where was that?”
Laura blinked, “You don’t remember?”
“Gosh, what must that be like?” Carmilla snapped, all of the humor gone from her dark eyes. They flashed dangerously. “Of course I don’t remember. Just tell me where it was.”
“Up the street,” Laura began, gesturing in a vague, southerly direction.
She did not get to finish the thought. Carmilla was barreling past her, tugging open the door and vanishing out into the grubby hallway. Tugging on her coat and snagging her keys from the hook by the door, Laura raced off in pursuit.
“Carmilla!” she complained, “your cab!”
It was waiting at the end of the alley when Laura jogged out, the engine idling and the exhaust fogging up the morning air, but Carmilla ignored it entirely, whipping around the corner.
Laura paused to toss the cabbie a five dollar bill and an apology, and then hurried to catch up.
Carmilla’s strides were long and purposeful, and she barely glanced in Laura’s direction when she joined her, her breath puffing with the effort of keeping pace.
She had apparently retained some of the previous night, because she halted in front of the stoop at Dallas BBQ without instruction, wrenching her fingers through the tangle of her dark curls as she released another string of curses. The ground was bare, but for the water stains that lingered from yesterday’s weather.
“What was in your wallet?” Laura asked, burrowing her chilly hands deep in her pockets and trying to pretend she was not going to be hopelessly late for work. She did not bother checking her watch—it was a lost cause.
“What’s in your wallet?” Carmilla shot back. “Everything—cash, cards, license.”
“I mean that’s all replaceable, though, right? You can call your bank, and get a new license… and I’m sure you had more cash on you than is in my entire bank account, but you were literally just offering it to me like it was pennies.”
Carmilla shook her head. “Where was I, before this?”
“I don’t know! You called me from here, and you weren’t exactly giving me a play-by-play of your evening. You wouldn’t even tell me what you were doing in this neighborhood; which, yeah, still an excellent question.”
Carmilla’s jaw set, and then she did an abrupt turnabout. Laura was startled to find them face-to-face.
“Where’s that cab?” Carmilla asked.
“Um, long gone?”
“Right. I’ll call my driver.”
She extracted her phone—which she was miraculously still in possession of, despite the missing wallet—and pressed a quick sequence of buttons before shoving it back into her pocket.
Laura frowned, “What, did you change your mind?”
“No? I just sent the request.” Her tone said she thought this was obvious, and Laura was reminded in quick measure that she was dealing with the uber-rich, here. Of course Carmilla thought it was natural to have servants a mere button’s press away.
What a life.
“And they know where to find you?”
“I dropped a pin,” she shrugged. She seemed suddenly aware of the cold, then, as she hugged her arms about her torso and shuffled her feet. Her eyes darted back up the side of the building they stood in front of, and she frowned as her gaze connected with the sign. “This place looks like a pit.”
Laura let out a snort of laughter, “Last night you were devastated that they were closed.”
“Ew,” Carmilla muttered, her nose wrinkling, “Thank goodness for that.”
Laura, having picked up take-out from the place on several occasions, bristled, “Oh, yes, I’m sure it would be horrifying to accidentally consume such common food.”
“It would be. Seeing as I’m a vegetarian.”
Laura opened her mouth and snapped it shut again.
“Oh.” She had not known that. Somehow, it had never come up, in any of her research. “Is that… a recent thing?”
Carmilla, whose focus had faded off into the distance, no doubt watching for her ride, shrugged, “No. I’ve always been one. My whole life.”
“So… allergies?” Laura guessed.
Carmilla’s feet shifted, again, her gaze dropping for one brief flash. “You could say that.”
Laura did not get a chance to follow-up with more questions. Through some sorcery, a black car was pulling up to the curb, less than three minutes after Carmilla’s request. The laws of traffic must not apply to the wealthy.
A uniformed driver hopped out and came around to pull the door smartly open for her, dipping his cap in greeting. Laura held back a snort of disbelief.
Yet, when he went to shut it for Carmilla, she held out a hand, her frowning gaze locked on Laura.
“You need a ride… don’t you?”
Laura (9:57 AM): How did you get my number, anyway?
Carmilla (7:18 PM): Luck, I suppose.
Laura (7:19 PM): It took you ten hours to respond and that’s all you have to say?
Laura (7:20 PM): Plus that wasn’t even a real answer
Carmilla (10:42 PM): Meet me at the Guggenheim tomorrow.
Laura’s fake dentist appointment had morphed into a fake need for a cavity filling, which released her from the office at a convenient two p.m. and significantly cut down on the traffic she encountered on her way through the city.
The Guggenheim was iconic. Laura had been before, of course, but not in the years since she had actually moved to the city. Her visit had been one of many on the tourist hotspots list she had run through on vacation with her dad back when she was a teenager, and, as much as she had enjoyed it, she had never found the time to return.
Carmilla was waiting on the steps, downing the last of her coffee. At the sight of Laura, she tossed the empty cup in the nearest bin, shoved her hands in her pockets, and strolled across the stairs to intercept her.
“I’m surprised your lawyers let you come,” Laura said.
“Well, what they don’t know will definitely come back to bite them.”
Laura scoffed, even as she glanced towards the impressive entryway of the museum. It was already swarming with tourists.
“What are we doing here, anyway?”
Carmilla flashed a grin. “Am I not allowed to take my wife out for an afternoon?” she asked. Without waiting for an answer, she set off for the doors, leaving Laura little choice but to follow.
Laura also got little say in their tickets, because Carmilla showed something on her phone to the attendant, along with a dazzling display of her perfect teeth, and a moment later they were inside. Carmilla set off with a purposeful stride, and Laura huffed a little as she worked to keep up, with no idea of their destination. It was clear, at least, that Carmilla was familiar with the gallery.
“This is the Thannhauser Collection,” she explained, when she had led them up and into the depths of the second level, breezing past families and couples that were musing over the latest exhibition pieces in the rotunda. The space was as massive and breathtaking as she remembered, the whole place a surreal experience that felt apart from the rest of the city.
“I know,” she said carefully, stepping away to stand before Fernande with a Black Mantilla, a work she had found particularly striking, the first time around. Picasso’s mistress stared down and out of the frame, away from the viewer in a look Laura had always interpreted as melancholy. The tour guide had talked mostly about this being a step towards Picasso’s interest in the abstract, but Laura had been more interested in the emotion of the piece than in the style.
“You’ve been here before?”
“Once,” Laura said, pulling her gaze away from the painting and to its neighbor, the much brighter Fourteenth of July.
A family of five roamed past, a teenager quietly studying the paintings while the parents argued with his younger siblings about their desire for lunch right-this-second.
Behind them trailed an elderly man, alone, wearing thick glasses and carrying a cane.
Carmilla watched them all go, one by one.
“I come here to think, sometimes,” she admitted. “It’s easy to be anonymous.”
Laura could see that. None of the other visitors seemed interested in her and Carmilla; they were caught up in themselves, or in the artwork. The couple that had stopped nearby was arguing about the history of the Paul Gauguin art—though it was hard to tell the content, as their rapid-fire debate was entirely in French.
“I suppose you don’t want any more tabloid articles about us,” she reasoned aloud.
Carmilla caught the question, though Laura had not framed it as such. “My people are looking into who told the papers. They will be dealt with.”
“You don’t think it was me, then?”
Carmilla’s gaze was sharp, thoughtful, when she turned it on Laura.
“If I did, I wouldn’t have asked you here.”
Laura crossed her arms. “Does that mean you’ll actually answer some of my questions?”
“Perhaps. That would depend on the questions.”
“Alright. How did you get my number? And how was your contact info already in my phone?”
“I have resources,” Carmilla said, with a careless wave of her hand. “Your number was hardly stored in Fort Knox, cupcake. And I understand you want to be a journalist—you should be able to work out where my contact information came from, yourself.”
Laura flushed. “I am a journalist,” she corrected. Even if it was just at the Lustig, it was a real job. She had articles with her name in the byline and everything. Online and in print.
“Alright then, Lois, where do you think it came from?”
The flush was not going away. It burned hot, all the way to the tips of her ears, as she pictured the comment line that had accompanied ‘Carmilla K’ in her phone’s address book.
It doesn’t have to stay in vegas.
“I imagine you put it there. But, seeing as I don’t remember, I thought you might.”
“Hm,” Carmilla hummed thoughtfully. One perfectly sculpted eyebrow rose without the other. “You know, I imagine it could have saved us both some time, had you cleaned out your phone. Must have quite a collection of contacts, not to notice a new one.”
In truth, Laura had very few contacts. So few that she rarely strayed beyond her favorites list.
Dad, LaF, Perry, Danny, Work.
“Right, and if I had called you, I’m sure we would have figured it out,” she scoffed. “Unless you’re about to tell me you knew all along and have the marriage license framed, or something, I don’t see how that would have helped.”
Carmilla shrugged infuriatingly, her expression indifferent, and Laura held back a groan of frustration.
“Okay, fine. I have more questions, you know.”
“Ask away,” Carmilla declared, even as she began walking through the gallery. Laura followed.
“How did you figure out we were married?”
She hesitated a moment, before answering, “Lilita told me, last month, that she had discovered a marriage from Vegas.”
They were circling through the rotunda, again, rising up to the third floor and the café that occupied the whole of the tower space.
“Your step-mother?” Laura asked, as they wove through clusters of tables. The place was surprisingly crowded, for the odd afternoon hour they were visiting, but, then again, this was a Friday in tourist-central.
Carmilla found them a small table near the counter, and waved for her to sit as she moved to get in line.
When she returned, she was carrying two coffees. She set the second down in front of Laura—a frothy drink that wafted cinnamon and caramel into the air around them—and blew on her own as she settled into her chair.
“I didn’t ask for anything,” Laura said, blinking in surprise.
Carmilla gave a soft little hum, and Laura pursed her lips rather than offering the polite ‘thank you’ that her upbringing was begging of her. She did not ask how Carmilla had known what she would like. She suspected she would find the answer more than a little insulting.
“You were saying about Lilita?” she prompted.
“Ah, yes. Mother Dearest,” she sipped at her coffee, though it must surely be too hot, and then ran her fingers over the warm ceramic as she contemplated. “She says she was sorting out my affairs before the company is turned over to my name, and came across the information.”
“You don’t believe her?”
Carmilla’s lips twisted. “My father had a motto: Trust but verify. He always said that you believe in the people around you, that not to do so was to fail in your leadership… but that it was ultimately your own responsibility to ensure that each detail was truth.”
“So, then, did you… verify?” asked Laura.
“I did my own research.”
Laura waited for a long beat, watching Carmilla’s impassive features, and then stammered, “And?”
“And, we are clearly married.”
“That wasn’t what—I meant about how she—”
“I know what you meant,” Carmilla cut her off.
It was clear she was not planning to explain further, and Laura scowled from behind her mug as she downed a decent portion of the latte. It was delicious, which only served to further her frustration.
“I think it’s my turn to ask a question, don’t you?” Carmilla suggested. She barely waited for Laura’s reluctant nod before she continued, “Why did you agree to meet with my lawyers? Why go through all of this?”
Laura hedged on her response, for a stretching, aching moment. She could feel Carmilla’s eyes on her, waiting, but she focused on the coffee lines that stained the inside of her mug, and the swirling steam that was still rising from the foamy surface.
“I don’t remember that night,” she reiterated quietly. “The most I remember was meeting you—the drink I spilled and a few of the things we said back-and-forth at the bar.”
“I have been told my face leaves an impression,” Carmilla said. Despite their nature, the words lacked the teasing Laura would have expected. This was not narcissism, or an attempt to turn the moment humorous, and somehow the bitterness in her voice cut like the skip of a razor over Laura’s chest.
“It wasn’t about your looks,” she corrected, “it was about me. Even if I was drunk, even if I don’t remember the details, I clearly saw something in you—I wouldn’t have married you, if I hadn’t. And, well, if drunk-me thought you were deserving, then sober-me at least deserved the chance to meet you. Regardless of the circumstances.”
The admittance was met with silence. Carmilla had clearly forgotten her coffee, which she had not touched since her first sip. Her fingers were tight on the handle of the mug, her knuckles almost white, and she closed her eyes for a hovering second before she spoke.
“You know,” she murmured, “that might be the nicest thing anyone has ever said about me.”
It was hard to concentrate through the weekend, knowing that her next, and likely final, meeting with Carmilla would arrive on Monday.
The other woman had agreed to fight for the removal of the restraining order in the divorce papers. The thing had apparently not been her idea in the first place—a reveal Laura found some measure of unexpected relief in—and once it was gone, there was really no reason not to go forward with the legal separation.
Laura wished her the best. She really did.
Which was why she was surprised to find a new face waiting, when she was directed into the proper conference room at the offices of Luce & Straka.
Carmilla was there, flanked by both heads of the firm, but an unfamiliar woman had claimed the seat at the head of the table. When Laura stepped into the room, she rose with the lithe grace of a bird of prey, and her smile could have put shame to a crocodile.
She shook Laura’s hand like she was trying to break each of her finger in turn, and then sat primly back in her place and gestured at Luce to proceed.
He was quick to push a new stack of papers in front of her, though Laura was more interested in the stiffness of Carmilla’s features, and the way she had not so much as raised her gaze from her lap since Laura’s arrival.
“We have made the requested amendments, which are marked clearly throughout. The restraining order has been removed, and a final clause has been added to cover the necessary protections of our client. Your lawyer has already reviewed these changes, and assured us that they match with your demands.”
Laura flipped through, following the familiar document structure and verifying each of the major changes. Gone were the accusations that painted her as the villain of the piece—the papers now declared the marriage was rushed and unreciprocated, without putting direct blame on either of them. At the close, just above the space that awaited her final signature, the restraining order had been thickly crossed out, and a new section restricted Laura merely from going public with any details of the marriage, including the circumstances under which it had occurred and the events of these divorce proceedings.
With one final glance at Carmilla—who was still resolutely studying her own lap—she put pen to paper, initialing on every indicated ‘x’ and signing the final document with a hurried scribble.
“Excellent,” declared the woman. “We will see you on March 14th for the judge’s ruling, Miss Hollis.”
She swept from the room without another word, taking the stack of papers with her.
Laura did not need a formal introduction to know just who she was. All it took was one look at the pale shadows on Carmilla’s face.
Perry set the plate gently in front of her, the dollop of vanilla ice cream melting into the side of the apple pie slice.
“I’m sorry it’s not fresh,” she sighed, “It’s just not the same re-heated…”
“Perry, it’s delicious,” Laura insisted, shoveling an oversized bite into her mouth as if to prove it. Only Perry could turn a gift of free, homemade pie into an apology.
“Divorce going smoothly, L?” asked LaFontaine. They had wandered into the kitchen somewhere in the midst of Perry’s coddling (there had been attempts to serve her an entire five-course meal a moment prior), and were now groping around in the back of one of the cabinets, scowling in frustration.
“I’ve got a court date.”
“Nice. How’s your wife? Still hot?”
“LaFontaine!” Perry snapped. She hit them on the arm with a light tap of the spoon she was washing, and it left a soapy imprint in the flannel. “What are you looking for, anyway, hm?”
“The food processor.”
“Nothing bad, I swear. I’ll wash it when I’m done!”
“If you grind up any type of insect, LaFontaine, I swear to Mr. Clean, you will be sleeping in that lab of yours for the next six months.”
“No insects. I promise. Ah-ha!”
They had dug into the cabinet over top of the refrigerator, and came down successful, clutching the processor and it’s accessories to their chest.
Perry glared. “And nothing poisonous!” she shouted at her spouse’s retreating form.
“No poison!” LaF called over their shoulder.
A door shut distantly, and Perry returned her gaze to Laura with a long-suffering sigh.
“How is the divorce?” she asked, “I wanted to let you bring it up, if that was why you were here, but I suppose there’s no point, now… and you said you had a court date? That must be good, right?”
Laura nodded, and finished chewing another bite. “I suppose, yeah. They’ve agreed to my terms.”
“No restraining order, then?”
“Yeah, they took it out—Carmilla took it out. I can’t write a documentary on the experience, of course, but that’s fine.”
“Carmilla? As in, she did it herself? How did you manage that?”
Laura toyed with her fork. “We talked, a little. Without her lawyers. Don’t tell Danny—I’m sure she’d be all sorts of disapproving.”
“On the contrary, Laura, I imagine she’d be rather impressed. She and Betty had a client do something similar, during a case, and it lost them a hefty settlement. I would say Carmilla’s lawyers were probably fairly upset with her.”
From the iciness in that office, Laura would bet so.
“Who’s Betty?” she asked.
Perry made a small choking sound, and then looked anywhere but Laura’s face. “You know, Betty. You must remember Betty. She works with Danny. They—they’ve been dating for a year? Tonight is actually, well, their anniversary, come to think of it.”
Her eyes darted oddly to the clock.
Laura frowned. She did not remember Danny getting a girlfriend, though she supposed she would be the last to find out. The most the two of them had interacted solo had been in the past few weeks, and even then everything about those conversations had been focused around Laura’s legal woes.
“Danny hasn’t… mentioned anything about this, recently?” Perry probed.
Laura shook her head.
It took three more days, before the promised follow-up story made its debut in the National Sun. There were side-by-side images of Carmilla and her, both of them frowning in apparent anger, under the headline: ‘K.I.’s Latest K.O.’
Laura did not find it nearly as clever as the editor must have.
It was only thanks to a tip-off from an old university friend—one who happened to be dating a member of the tabloid staff—that Laura did not find herself the subject of unwanted attention on the subway, that Friday morning. Instead, she called into work, endured an excruciatingly embarrassing conversation with her boss, the details of which she’d be re-living in nightmares for the foreseeable future, and then set about building a cocoon out of blankets on her couch… with ice cream in easy reach.
She had no plans to be productive, regardless of her promises to the Lustig. As far as she was concerned, the outside world was not allowed to exist for the next twenty-four hours—or at least until she felt it safe to plug her home phone back into the wall, or to check her email.
For the moment, both were off the table.
The only reason her cell phone was not resolutely turned off and sitting in time-out was because she was awaiting a return call from her father, who, thanks to his shift schedule in Toronto, had likely been asleep during her first attempt.
He was overdue for a certain life-update.
Thankfully, there was nothing that could sour her marathon of Master Chef: Junior, while she waited. Annoying news updates could not break through to Hulu, and she had shut down all other forms of notification. As such, she was really not expecting any other name besides her father’s to appear in the caller I.D., when her phone began to buzz in the middle of the semi-finals.
Laura hurried to pause the show, freezing it on the distressed face of one of the youngest contestants as they awaiting Ramsey’s judgment, and pressed answer before she could fully process what she was seeing.
Instead of Sherman Hollis’s grinning mug, the screen was default black, and the name read ‘Carmilla K.’
Laura’s stomach seemed to jump straight past her heart and lodge firmly in her throat.
“…Hello?” a tinny voice called, when at least ten seconds had stuttered by in complete silence.
She nearly hung up in her haste to remember how phones worked: it generally helped if you put them to your ear. And said things.
“Carmilla?” she stammered.
“You know, if you didn’t want to talk, you didn’t have to answer.”
The words may have been an accusation, on another night and in another tone. Instead, Carmilla sounded amused, her most languid of smirks drifting immediately into focus across Laura’s mind. She could practically see her—lounged dramatically in some window like she were attempting to star in her own music video.
“Sorry, I just—I was expecting another call.”
“Mm. Busy morning at the Hollis Inn, is it?”
Laura flushed despite herself. “No. It is decidedly not. I’m actually in hiding. Considering witness protection.”
“I was unaware one could choose to be a government protected asset. I’ll have to look into that. Got any brochures, creampuff?”
“I’ll send you a recommendation,” she scoffed, “but that’s obviously not why you’re calling.”
Carmilla hummed into the line, half a sigh, half a thought. “No, it’s not.”
In direct defiance of rational thinking, Laura had purchased a copy of the Morning Sun, and, after reading it thoroughly—cover-to-cover, just in case she were referenced anywhere outside of the title article—she had kept the damned thing. It was sitting on the coffee table, one of the most unassuming elephants-in-the-room Laura had had the pleasure of rooming with.
She spared it a glare, and then flopped onto her back to focus on the ceiling. The phone dug at her earring, pressing the point back into her skin, but she ignored it.
“Did you ever read The Monkey’s Paw?” she asked.
There was a pause, and then Carmilla answered, “Once, a long time ago. Wasn’t my favorite.”
“Mine either. But, you remember the story? How any wish you made just got… twisted up and contorted until it was the opposite of what you wanted?” She did not wait for Carmilla’s response. “That’s what this feels like. Like—the opposite of recognition. The opposite of being famous.”
“You wanted to be famous?”
Laura resisted the urge to put the conversation back on track, to focus on the wallowing of the moment—or perhaps to ask why Carmilla had bothered calling in the first place—and instead sighed.
“Well, yeah. All I ever wanted was to be a respected journalist. Have my name on major stories… change the world.”
“Ah. And, now, should anyone deign to look you up, all they’ll find is me?”
Laura shook her head, even though Carmilla could not see her. “Not you, specifically. Just… a story. A scandal. I was supposed to break the news, not be the news. And, you have to admit, accidental marriage doesn’t paint either of us in a flattering light.”
For one brief, startling moment, she pictured herself trying to explain to anyone—a distant relative, a potential friend, a date—that she was already divorced at twenty-four. She shuddered and boxed the thought away.
“To be fair,” said Carmilla, with all the casual indifference of someone picking their nails in public, “I didn’t have much of a reputation to start with.”
“Well, sure. But, that wasn’t all your fault.”
From the other end of the line, there was a sound that could have been static, but Laura thought it was more like a sudden intake of breath.
“How so?” asked Carmilla.
Laura shrugged, burrowing another inch into her blankets, “I mean, you started out in the spotlight. When people are watching you, they’re bound to find something. I wouldn’t have appreciated paparazzi following me around during my awkward teenage years—I mean, not that you had those. What with, y’know, the modeling. Not that I looked into that, or anything. I just… it came up. When I researched you.”
“You should consider stopping before you hit China, cupcake.”
“The hole you’re digging.”
Laura was never more grateful for the privacy of a solely audio call.
Carmilla’s chuckle was soft, and unexpected. It seemed to vibrate through the phone, straight into the tips of Laura’s fingers.
“You’re something, Hollis.”
“Thanks. I think.” She took a careful breath, “So… why did you call, anyway? I know it wasn’t for tips on becoming a recluse.”
“Maybe I just wanted to talk.”
Laura frowned. She opened her mouth, preparing to stumble out a response or demand further clarification, but her phone began to buzz once more, rattling against her cheekbone.
She checked the screen, and then said, “Hey, I’m sorry, my Dad is on the other line…”
“Right,” Carmilla murmured. She did not make a comment about her ‘father-in-law,’ did not mock or jump into sarcasm. She simply said a soft, “Have a good day, Laura,” and hung up before Laura could fully process the use, for the first time, of her real name.
JP insisted on paying, when he asked her out for lunch the following week. Laura was still working from home—albeit this time with some actual working involved—and he had insisted that she had missed entirely too much around the office.
They met at Morris & Milo, a café within walking distance of the Lustig. It was one of Laura’s favorite lunch spots, and not just because it was themed around cats—they also had divine, handmade carrot cake that Laura was never able to resist. She always wound up taking half of the massive slice home with her, hiding it in the back of the office fridge for the rest of the day and keeping diligent watch to be sure it did not get snapped up.
JP got a slice for himself, when their sandwich plates were swept off and their coffee refilled, and then he leaned back in his chair and released a heavy sigh.
“Roseanne is retiring,” he informed her.
Laura almost choked on her drink.
Roseanne was an installation at the Lustig. Verging on eighty, she held coveted column space on page two, and almost never did anything of value with it. Laura had been convinced she would stay on at the paper until her dying breath—in fact, she had often feared being the one to discover the body.
“Next month. Harold made the announcement for her in Friday’s staff meeting.”
“Was it her idea? Or his?”
“Hard to say… you know how she is. Regardless, though, she’s going.”
Laura nodded, working hard to contain the jumping of her leg. The table was already rattling.
“Did Harold say anything? About… replacements?”
“Actually,” he hedged, “that’s why I wanted to talk to you.”
The waitress returned, setting their cakes in front of them and bustling off. JP picked up his fork and twisted it between his fingers, prodding at a clump of icing without tasting it.
“Harold asked me how I’d feel about taking it.”
His answer was already painted in the apology drawn across his brow, and suddenly his insistence on treating her for the meal made sense. Still, Laura had to ask: “And what did you tell him?”
“I told him I’d love it.”
Perry, lately, was talking more and more about the future. About top preschools in the area and the importance of ‘formative years’ in a person’s life direction. Whenever Laura visited, she would find some way to bring up her ‘timeline’—something she had been formulating since high school and which even Laura found a bit extreme.
LaFontaine, meanwhile, continued to show Laura a collection of puppy breeds.
Laura could not quite tell if this was all in the same vein—a practice baby, perhaps?—or if LaFontaine was just not ready, yet. Regardless, she found herself sitting next to LaFontaine at their favorite bar in Gowanus, cooing over a long line of shelter photos, the night before she was scheduled to finalize her divorce.
Perry was occupied with a large stack of papers in need of grading, not that Laura had been surprised by her bailing on the standing date. She rarely came, preferring to let Laura and LaFontaine use the time to catch up amongst themselves. After all, when Laura dropped by their brownstone she often found herself spending more time with Perry; the both of them had a natural gravitation for the kitchen, while LaF spent their evenings in the garage, trying not to blow any more holes in the roof.
“This one’s name is Bentley,” said LaF, grinning toothily as they showed her a mixed-breed dog with massive paws and droopy ears. “We’re going to check him out this weekend.”
“He’s cute,” Laura agreed. She bit her tongue to contain her many, many questions, and instead focused on the mundane: “How old is he?”
“Eight months, according to his profile. No details on his last owner or why they gave him up, but he’s been there for almost three months, now. And it’s the same shelter where Danny got Gumball.”
Laura blinked, feeling the familiar out-of-her-depth drowning sensation that always seemed to accompany news on her ex.
“She got a dog?”
“Cat,” LaF corrected. “Seriously, frosh, you need to come to movie night this month. Perry would be crushed right now if she knew you just asked that.”
Laura stirred her ice cubes with a tiny umbrella, frowning, “Why?”
“Well, it used to be the four of us, when you first moved to the city. And then you two broke up and she didn’t have her couples’ night anymore. Plus, she felt guilty because she introduced you in the first place. She’s worried that you won’t ever go back to being friends.”
LaFontaine blinked. “I mean, you had to know that.” At Laura’s bewildered look, they pointed forcefully, their finger swaying slightly with the weight of the two Bloody Marys they had already downed, “Don’t tell her I said anything.”
“Of course not.” Laura crossed her legs and leaned forward, one elbow propping on the bar as she bit her lip and admitted, “I didn’t know she was so upset. She never said anything.”
“You know Perr. She doesn’t talk about her feelings. She bakes.”
There had been an inordinate number of cookies in her mailbox, that first month after the break-up. Laura had assumed they were sympathy-based.
She hummed thoughtfully, “Well, I’ll come to movie night, if you really think it will help. I just figured Danny wouldn’t want me intruding. It was her thing, first. And now she’s got Betty.”
“Right,” LaF agreed, eyes narrowing slightly, “and, what exactly has Danny said, about Betty?”
Hazily, Laura recalled a similar question. She furrowed her brow, “Nothing. Perry asked the same thing, before. Am I supposed to know something?”
LaFontaine raised both hands as if in surrender, but said nothing.
“You’re a terrible liar, you know that?” Laura grumbled.
“Just come to movie night. Or ask Danny to get lunch.”
They were probably about to provide more cryptic platitudes, but they were saved by the sudden blare of Laura’s phone as it began dancing across the bar.
“Wait, is that her?” LaF demanded, instantly shuffling their stool closer to peer at her screen.
Laura snatched it up, and, with one warning glare at her friend, put the phone to her ear.
“Hey. Not getting cold feet, are you?”
On the other side of the line, Carmilla ignored the quip and responded with a sharp question of her own.
“Where are you?”
Laura covered her free ear with her other hand, attempting to drown out the beat of an Uptown Funk throwback. Several of their barstool neighbors were belting out the chorus.
“Can I see you?”
She checked her watch. It was just passing nine-thirty, and their appointment was first thing in the morning.
LaFontaine was eyeing her with impatient curiosity, clearly hoping for some sort of live-update, and Laura turned away in a meager attempt to gain privacy.
“I’m sort of out with a friend.”
“When will you be done?”
There was an urgency in her voice, unfamiliar enough that it jarred Laura somewhat back to sobriety. She cleared her throat.
“I don’t know… where did you want to meet, anyway? I’m not near my apartment.”
“I can send a car.”
Laura did not appreciate the lack of detail. She halfway wanted to say so—to tell Carmilla off for thinking she could just take over Laura’s life whenever it was convenient for her—but her other half was buzzing with even the idea of seeing Carmilla again, location and time be damned.
And tomorrow they were signing legal paperwork.
This could be important, even if history said it was more likely to be confusing.
Carmilla’s voice came once more, softer. “Laura, please?”
She squeezed her eyes shut, and then turned to LaFontaine with an apology in her eyes as she fed Carmilla the address.
It did not help that LaFontaine was grinning.
The driver that came for her was not the same driver that had picked them up outside Dallas BBQ, though the car was seemingly identical.
It only took minutes for it to pull up out front, and she felt distinctly uncomfortable when the uniformed man jumped from his seat to open her door for her—as if she were incapable of doing so, or as if she would not want to lower herself in such a way.
She got in without a word, and picked at her nails as they spun their way through the busy streets, taking shortcuts Laura did not know existed until she was thoroughly lost. It was not until she got a good glimpse of the upscale buildings that she realized where she was being taken, and that this was not going to be just an anonymous outing at a bar or club.
They were on the Upper East Side, outside an apartment tower overlooking Central Park.
The driver gestured her towards the gilded, golden doors, outside which an elderly butler stood at attention with a charming smile. He tipped his hat at her as she approached, and it was immediately clear that she was expected.
“The elevator on the left will take you to the penthouse, Miss Hollis,” he said, as he held the door for her.
Laura managed a weak, “Thanks,” as she crossed the threshold. Her hands smoothed over her skirt with nervous awareness. Even in her nicest sweater and a cute pair of heels, she knew she was underdressed to merely walk across the lobby, with its shiny floors and its impressive diamond chandelier. When the elevator on the right opened while she waited, she flushed at the way the young couple that stepped out raised their eyebrows.
The private elevator did not provide her with any options. It took her directly to Carmilla’s apartment, rising so smoothly that she barely felt as though she were moving. She jumped when the doors opened with a soft ding, and she was surprised not to find Carmilla waiting immediately inside the penthouse.
Instead, Laura was greeted with a high-ceilinged apartment, with regal blue walls and elaborate crown molding.
“Carmilla?” she called, as she stepped onto the waiting carpet runner and peered around.
“Hey, cupcake.” Carmilla appeared around a corner, bracing her shoulder against the jutting wall and pressing her lips thinly together. She was not wearing much makeup, and she was dressed only in a long sweater over leggings, with bare feet. She held up a mug with a raise of her eyebrow, “Can I get you anything?”
“Um. Sure, if you already have a pot made.”
Carmilla smirked, and led her into the kitchen.
The place was massive, not that Laura had expected any less. Every inch of her walls were covered in either bookshelves or artwork, but the living areas themselves were rather sparse. Gaping floor-space seemed to meet Laura at every angle, large enough to host a small dance class, and what she did have, in terms of furniture, was very modern and stiff—exactly the sorts of pieces Laura would expect to find in a place like this.
The kitchen was a striking contrast of blacks and whites, with shiny, silver detailing on the cabinets and appliances. The counters sparkled, unburdened with the typical piles of bills and displaced books that often found themselves on Laura’s own.
“It’s called a Keurig,” Carmilla explained, gesturing at the device, her eyes glinting teasingly, “I know it’s revolutionary.”
“And terrible for the environment,” Laura put in, before she could help herself.
Carmilla’s eyes widened with momentary surprise, but then she laughed.
“Would you prefer wine?”
Laura, who had already had enough to drink for the evening, and who felt the need to keep a level head around Carmilla whenever possible, spun the little carousel of coffee pods that accompanied the machine.
“You’ve already bought them,” she said. “The damage is pretty much done… do you have hazelnut?”
Carmilla wrinkled her nose, “No, but my mother might. Here,” she extracted a pod without showing it to Laura, and popped it into place. “This is probably more your speed, anyway.”
The mug began to fill slowly with hot chocolate, and Laura grinned.
“Do you have whipped cream?”
Shaking her head with an endearing sort of scoff, Carmilla nodded her chin at the refrigerator. “Maybe. Help yourself.”
She drifted across the space, as the Keurig finished gurgling, and Laura tugged open the fridge with blatant curiosity. She had always thought that someone’s kitchen was a better snooping point than a medicine cabinet. Heart burn and eardrops could only tell you so much—and there was a certain sense of betrayal that came with that level of digging, one that Laura had never felt okay with.
With permission, she eagerly shuffled through Carmilla’s chilly belongings—and found very little.
For starters, there was no whipped cream. The door panel, where Laura kept her own stock, was entirely bare, save for an outdated quart of milk. The shelves, meanwhile, were stacked with a neat collection of glass storage containers, each filled with what looked to be a professionally-prepared dinner.
Laura took one out, peeling back the rubber lid to look inside, and found a seasoned chicken cutlet, broccoli, and a tiny mound of rice.
There were two more of the same, and then another stack that featured steak, potatoes, and carrots.
It looked like Carmilla had lied about being a vegetarian. Why, Laura could not begin to fathom.
“Do you cook?” she called over her shoulder, bumping the door shut with her hip and collecting her steaming mug of hot cocoa.
Carmilla was waiting for her in the sitting area, legs curled up on the couch.
She shook her head, “No. Those come from Louise.”
“My chef,” Carmilla clarified.
Laura could not contain her laugh of disbelief, “You have a personal chef?”
“Yes,” Carmilla snapped. There was no humor in the word. “I’m sorry, do you have a problem with that, Sundance?”
“No. I just—I’ve never met anyone that actually had one.”
“And you’re judging me for it.”
Laura’s stomach twisted. A little. “I’m just not used to that sort of… extravagance.”
Carmilla scowled, “And what’s in your fridge? Are you hiding a farmer’s market and a set of antique pots and pans in that thing you call an apartment?”
In all honesty, her kitchen was a stockpile of non-perishables and boxes of cookies. The fridge was mainly where she stored leftover takeout and the science experiments that had at one point been fresh fruits and vegetables.
She took more offense at the latter half of Carmilla’s barbed jab.
“I didn’t see you complaining about the accommodations when you were busy passing out on my bed.”
“I’m not a picky drunk. I have slept in nicer alleys, though.”
Laura had not gotten so much as a sip of her drink. She set it down heavily on the nearest coaster. “I shouldn’t have come,” she muttered, turning on her heel to find the door.
Carmilla’s fingers danced along the back of her arm without grabbing hold. Still, the touch stopped her, and she dug a hand through her hair as she turned back to face her.
“Why did you ask me here, Carmilla?”
For a moment, she hesitated, eyes darting down and hands twisting, and then she sighed out, “I suppose it doesn’t matter anyway,” and met Laura’s gaze squarely before declaring: “My step-mother was the one that gave the Sun that story.”
Of all the things Laura had expected—all the way from some bizarre request not to go through with the divorce to a potential booty call—this had not made the list.
Carmilla sat down, letting her arms hang from her widespread knees in a look Laura could only describe as defeat. She shook her head, “I had some people look into it—people I trust, that don’t work for her. And all of the evidence links straight back to her office.”
“But, why would she do that?” Laura sputtered. She remembered all of the theories Danny had shared, when this was just starting—which seemed a lifetime ago, now—and this had not been among them. There had been the idea that K.I. could use this for publicity… but, without Carmilla’s knowledge? Without her consent?
She sat down as well, still ignoring her mug in favor of watching Carmilla’s drawn expression, the way her face worked before she formulated words.
“She always has a reason,” she murmured. “Always.”
“And…” Laura hesitated, “why are you telling me this? Tonight, of all nights?”
“Because we’re getting divorced in the morning,” Carmilla answered, as though this were obvious, “and you should have all of the facts.”
Laura failed to see the relevance.
“You think this should change my decision?”
Carmilla’s eyes were dark, and sad. “I think this is your last chance to fight back. She wanted this divorce to happen—she was furious when she discovered the marriage. Whatever she has planned, whatever its impact could be on your life, she’ll be getting her way, if you play along.”
“Well, what about you?”
“What about me?” Carmilla parroted, but her frown was genuine in its confusion.
“What happens to you, if I don’t ‘play along’? Don’t you need me out of the way, so that you can take over your company without people thinking I’m going to steal away your fortune?”
“You’ve thought about this a lot, haven’t you?”
Laura shrugged, “Of course.”
Carmilla, for the first time, took a long draft from her coffee, letting the mug tip back and forth a little in her hands and watching the contents swirl.
“I’m not sure I’ll be getting the company, regardless.”
The reality was not unexpected, not with all the stories Laura had read about Carmilla’s life. Still, she was startled to hear Carmilla say such a thing out loud.
Carmilla sighed, long and slow, and the sound whistled through her nose. “It was my father’s dream. The whole company—everything that Karnstein Industries is, was, and ever shall be was meant to revolve around his principles. But time didn’t stop just because he died. And my step-mother’s control is… far-reaching.”
“Legally, though, doesn’t the company belong to you? The moment you turn twenty-seven?”
“Ownership is not the same thing as control. K.I. is private right now—which, of course, means that shares of the company are divided amongst a small group of individuals. When my father died, he still owned forty-two percent of the shares. He left all of them to me.”
“And the rest?” Laura asked.
“The rest belonged to a number of people—my father’s first business partner, who was killed in a car accident a few years after I was born—relinquished his stocks to his family. Those are distributed to various descendants and in-laws, at this point. The eighteen percent my father sold went to members of the board, in order to get the capital he needed to expand to Manhattan. He started the company in Pennsylvania, which is where we still hold a number of manufacturing locations… all of the ones that haven’t moved overseas.”
Laura had read a decent number of financial journals in her time, but that was mostly to understand the leading journalists successes and to get a feel for the writing styles. She had never had a mind for business, or the terminology that came along with it.
“So, what does that all mean?”
“It means that, so long as I am the individual with the most shares, I am in charge. And with fifty-eight percent outside of my control…”
“Technically, you could be voted out?”
She finished her coffee, while Laura processed this information, and then nudged at Laura’s mug until she accepted it back, sipping at the lukewarm cocoa. Surprisingly, it was still good.
“Surely the board wants you there, though, right? You’re literally the face of the Karnstein dynasty.”
“Think long and hard about your research, Laura,” Carmilla said quietly, as she padded to the kitchen and set her empty cup in the sink. She rested her hands on the counter, regarding Laura from across the echoing space. “And consider if you’d want your future in my hands.”
The Honorable Judge William Montgomery had a relatively minimalistic office. Laura could not be sure if they were meeting in private like this because of some Karnstein-level privilege, or because Mrs. Doubtfire had lied to her about how divorce court was held—or maybe it was different, when there were no assets to divide or children to fight over?—but she had been ushered back through a maze of hallways as soon as she offered her information to the clerk.
She squirmed in the hard-backed wooden chair she had been shown into, watching as Montgomery flipped through the thick packet of paperwork which bore two sets of signatures.
Beside her, Carmilla was as well-behaved as a pristine china doll, her shoulders back and her neck straight. Only her eyes gave her away, aimed carefully down at the edge of the desk as she continued to resolutely ignore the presence of everyone else in the room.
Laura could not help but think this was thanks to the woman pacing along the bookshelves just behind them. Lilita had arrived with Carmilla, sweeping in on her own personal winter chill, and she was currently sending goosebumps down Laura’s spine. Her whole body was itching to turn and protect her vulnerable back from the lurking predator.
She had not gotten much sleep. Carmilla’s words had echoed again and again on center stage in her mind, refusing to let her drift off, and she had only fallen into fitful dreams sometime around when the first rays of sunlight broke through her blinds. The extra shot of espresso in her coffee that morning had done less to wake her up than the stress that was coursing through her.
“Everything seems to be in order,” Montgomery declared. He took off his reading glasses, letting them fall back against his chest on their glittering chain, and folded his hands together. “Your assets will be restored to their individual ownership, as they were before the union. You have no shared property or accounts to divide, which makes this all quite simple.
“Miss Karnstein, do you certify before this court that you agree with the terms of uncontested divorce laid out in this paperwork, and that you have signed this document of your own will, free of coercion?”
Carmilla coughed quietly, clearing her throat, and nodded out a soft, “Yes.”
Montgomery turned to Laura, reciting off the same question with practiced ease.
She could see Carmilla’s shoulders tightening, her chest stilling as a nerve jumping in her throat. Unbidden, a desire to touch her hand, to give it a reassuring squeeze where it rested tensely on the armrest between them, swept over her. She knotted her fingers together on her lap.
“Yes,” she said.
Chapter 3: Like a Thousand Suns
In which we mix business with pleasure.
Happy (almost) Friday, creampuffs!
Chapter title is from Hunger, by Ross Copperman.
Warnings: a bit of mentioned homophobia. Also nsfw.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
LaFontaine and Perry hosted a small ‘Happy Divorce’ party, on Friday afternoon. The theme of the event, Perry assured her, was entirely on LaFontaine’s head, as Perry had wanted a quiet evening with wine and cheese and pointlessly fluffy movies… something anyone else could have told her was unlikely.
There were a number of people in attendance that Laura did not know, which was a natural consequence of LaFontaine being in charge, and hardly a surprise. In many ways, Laura appreciated the easy distraction; she never had to seek out conversation, as it always came to her. Sometimes in the form of LaF’s friends from their government lab regaling her with stories about their experiment mishaps; or in Perry’s book club looking unsure why they had agreed to attend, but still chatting with relative animation about their thoughts on the direction of fantasy literature post-Harry-Potter; or, exclusive to today’s party in particular, in the form of Danny’s new girlfriend, Betty.
Betty, it turned out, was perfect. Her smile was dazzling, she listened with rapt attention to anyone that came up to her, and she spoke in a brash but honest way that made her instantly hilarious—especially to a room filled almost exclusively with wine-tipsy women.
She also told excellent stories about her and Danny’s cases at the firm, and Laura could not help but like her, even as she noticed, with a jolt of shock, a shiny ring on her left hand.
“I should have told you,” Danny insisted, when she turned to find that Laura had joined her in the abandoned kitchen. The jazz music blaring from the other room suggested that Perry had gotten control of the speakers, but it was muted in here, enough that they could hold an actual conversation.
“Why didn’t you?” asked Laura. She tipped another dose of red wine into her stained glass.
“Well, you were getting divorced. It seemed a little insensitive.”
Laura laughed, “Hold on. You were worried about my feelings?”
“Of course I was worried about your feelings, Hollis. I know you’re the one that ended things, but you were right. About a lot of it.”
“So were you,” Laura murmured. She set down her glass, her first sip having barely parted her lips. “I’m happy for you, you know. Betty is amazing.”
Danny’s face broke into a massive grin, her eyes shining, “Yeah, she really is. And, well, I’d like you to get to know her. I guess I just… I want us all to be friends. The way it was, before.”
Before their relationship. Before the awkwardness and the division of LaF and Perry’s time. Before everything became a dance of accidental insults and unnecessary apologies.
Laura’s agreement was easy, her smile genuine. “I’d like that a lot, too.”
It was late, when Perry called her a cab (after several offers of the guest room), and Laura was tired but reasonably content as she took the long ride back to Washington Heights from Park Slope. According to the phone call she had placed that morning, the divorce had been officially recognized by the state of New York, and she could now legally refer to herself as single once more. The documents would be making their way to her shortly, the clerk had promised, not that she needed them for any immediate purpose.
There was a sense of relief, that came with the closure of this chapter in her life. Carmilla’s lawyers were not going to come after her for damages. No one was going to accuse her of seeking money when she had signed away any right to such a thing. When the final details were undoubtedly flushed through the papers, this week, that would be the last of it.
Theoretically, by next month her name would have lost its household appeal. She could go back to ordering pizza without using a pseudonym.
That would be nice.
When the cab pulled to a halt, it took a moment for her wine-slowed brain to recognize that she was not quite in front of her own building. They had stopped a dozen or so feet shy, behind the fire hydrant instead of in front of it.
Laura did not want to know what the fare had cost Perry, but the driver wished her a gruff good night as the automated voice reminded her to collect her belongings. She hopped out onto the sidewalk, and watched as the cab swung back onto the street without signaling and vanished around the nearest corner.
The reason they had stopped short was immediately apparent. There was a black car idling on the curb, its lights on and engine humming.
The back door opened without waiting for the driver to come around.
“Hey,” Carmilla said swiftly, one hand resting on the open door and an uncertain furrow in her brow. She was not dressed down in the way Laura had become familiar with during their previous evening encounters. Instead, she was wearing her standard work outfit, sans blazer. Her shirt was crisp and white.
“Hey,” Laura echoed. She glanced up the alley, towards the dark window that belonged to her, and pictured the disastrous state her place was in. “I sort of… wasn’t expecting you.”
“I know. I should have called.”
The driver, who had climbed out in an attempt to assist, sank back into his seat and shut his door. Carmilla still did not step fully from the vehicle, though. Her fingers drummed on the curve of the door as she bit her lip.
“How long have you been waiting?” Laura asked.
“An hour, probably,” Carmilla said with a shrug. “You didn’t answer, but I figured you’d be back.”
“And you still didn’t call?”
Carmilla simply shrugged, and then eyed the interior of her ride with an apprehensive sigh. “I was hoping you would want to talk. I can go, if you don’t.”
“Wherever you like.”
Carmilla had not called her since the night before the meeting with the judge, and had not responded to her friendly text in the aftermath.
On the last dregs of wine-fed impulse, she got in the car.
They talked, on the ride. Carmilla wondered where she had been, and Laura reluctantly began to explain the details of the party. To her surprise, Carmilla found the idea deeply amusing, and pressed for more information about her friends. Before she knew it, Laura was telling her the full story—the way she had met Perry when she was a freshman in college and the other girl was her RA. How she had watched her and LaFontaine go through a series of pitfalls, how she had been a Maid of Honor at their wedding the same year she graduated.
She talked about her shitty internships, even the one that had led her to that fateful night in Vegas, and about how she had finally succeeded in joining her friends in the city less than two years prior.
They were still talking, as they took the elevator to the penthouse, and as Carmilla brewed them both steaming cups of coffee.
Carmilla said very little about herself, only interspersing small details when she found something to relate to about Laura’s experiences (she, too, had lived with a dreadful roommate her first year in college, though she had simply moved out and purchased a single, one month in), but there was something warm, something comforting, about having even the smallest of details.
“Why did you do it?” Carmilla asked, finally, when Laura had exhausted her stories about the Lustig and her recently lost promotion. They were on their second cups of coffee—decaf, at Carmilla’s insistence—and Laura tested the temperature in thoughtful silence as she considered the question.
She did not have to ask Carmilla what she was referring to.
“You want your company, don’t you?” she asked in response. At Carmilla’s slow nod, she continued, “If I fought it, at this stage, it would only have created more of a scandal. And, yeah, whatever, maybe someday I’d come out of it with some monetary rewards—with pretty slim odds, I’ve been told—but, what would it matter? If I wanted revenge for that article, the best thing to do would be to help you get the company away from her. Wouldn’t it?”
Carmilla’s mouth opened and closed twice. “That’s betting on me getting the company, creampuff.”
“I’d rather bet on you than draw out some sort of fight against you.”
They were sitting on the couch, the space between them occupied by Carmilla’s tucked up knees. At Laura’s words, she lowered them, her hand falling dangerously close to Laura’s own. The air seemed to crackle, and Laura’s mouth went dry as she watched the way the browns of Carmilla’s eyes melted like warm, delicious chocolate.
Carmilla shook her head. “Why do you care what happens to me?”
“Because,” Laura admitted quietly, “someone should. You deserve to be cared about, Carmilla.” There was a long silence, in which Carmilla did not seem to know what to say. She stared, and Laura held her gaze until she caught what she suspected were a hint of tears. Only then did she look away, clearing her throat, “So. What are you going to do about your step-mother? Do you have a plan?”
When Carmilla answered, her voice was tight, croaking slightly on the edges, but Laura pretended not to notice.
“I don’t know what I can do.”
“Do you think you can lead the company? I mean, are you ready to take over?”
“It’s all I’ve worked towards since I was fourteen.” She pressed her eyes shut, nostrils flaring as she let out a breath. “Everyone has been telling me, my whole life, that it was what my father wanted. And all I ever wanted… was to make him proud.”
“Do you want the company for him, then? Or for you?”
There was a sharp juxtaposition between the girl that Laura had read about in the headlines—the one that caused a scene at restaurants and ran through a series of relationships without a second thought—and the girl that graduated magna cum laude from NYU at only twenty years old. The girl that sank with vulnerability in the mere presence of her step-mother. Who spoke with such lost, desperate reverence of her father: not as the head of the company or the founder of her luxurious lifestyle, but as her parent.
“How long do you think you have?” she asked, wishing for her familiar pad of notepaper to begin a bullet-point list. “Your birthday is next week, right? If Lilita is going to try to lead a vote against you, how much time does that give you?”
“At least a quarter. Three months. Then there will be a review.”
“So, you have three months to prove to the board that you can do this better than Lilita. And, really, you only need a hair over eight percent to get a majority… how do you find out who holds how much?”
Carmilla’s eyebrows were drawn together, dark and thin. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“Of course. Now, you don’t happen to have a whiteboard lying around, do you?”
When Laura padded out of Carmilla’s guest bedroom in the morning, her hair askew and Carmilla’s spare shirt hanging long on her tiny frame, she found the other woman watching How I Met Your Mother reruns in the living room, her hair still wet from the shower.
The sheer domesticity tugged like a fishhook caught in her chest, and Laura shook away the visual—the suggestion she should not indulge—and joined her.
“Somehow, I didn’t picture you as a morning person.”
“I’m not, actually.” Carmilla nodded towards the kitchen, and Laura started at the realization that they were not, in fact, alone. There was a heavyset, red-headed woman going through Carmilla’s cabinets, wearing a black uniform and a tight chef’s cap. “I have to let in Louise.”
“On Saturday morning?”
Hesitantly, Laura sat on the edge of the nearest chair. “But, if you’re not a morning person, why not have her come later? Do you just really like breakfast?”
“It’s not as simple as that,” said Carmilla. She turned to watch Louise for a moment, giving her head a fractional shake. “I hope you like omelette.”
Laura did have to admit that the food smelled excellent. Carmilla muttered her thanks to Louise on the chef’s way out—though the woman did not acknowledge her in return—and sat herself opposite Laura at the mahogany dining table. Caught up in the professional cooking, Laura did not notice that Carmilla had not so much as lifted her fork until her own plate was half-empty.
She frowned, “Are you not going to eat?”
Carmilla shrugged, “Still a vegetarian,” she said, as she prodded the meat-laden omelette with a wrinkle of her nose.
“Wait, so your chef comes at inconvenient hours, and only makes you food that you won’t eat?” Laura set her fork down with a clatter, her mouth falling open rudely before she caught herself and swallowed. “That doesn’t make any sense. Don’t you pay her?”
“Lilita pays her.”
“And you… you can’t tell her what to make?”
“Not if it goes against Lilita’s diet plans for me.”
The wonderful mix of cheeses and herbs and sausage suddenly felt like sand on Laura’s tongue. “But, why don’t you fire her? Get someone that will do what you want?”
“Mm. It’s a nice idea, but, unfortunately, all of my assets are in holding patterns at the moment.”
Carmilla refilled her coffee, taking her time as she added a dose of cream and stirred with a spoon. The way she held her shoulders and tipped her head, Laura could tell she was trying to come off disaffected with the whole thing. She wondered if it had always been like this, from the moment they had met in that lawyer’s office: Carmilla playing it cool when there was a layer underneath.
Only, Laura could see it, now.
“My father did not have many liquid assets, when he died. He was expanding the company, and most of his resources were tied up in investments and purchases. My trust fund paid my way through college, and set me up to be comfortable, but the rest of what I have is provided by Lilita and her massive, self-ordered salary.”
“The personal drivers?” Laura guessed.
“Among other things. This apartment, for one.”
Laura had always assumed Carmilla was rich. And she was, of course, but there was an apparent difference between Laura’s picture of Carmilla’s lottery-sized bank account and reality.
“So, if you don’t get control of the company…”
“Then I’ll be at Lilita’s mercy, and I’ll have little choice but to sell more of my stake.”
Laura considered this for a long moment, pushing the remainder of her omelette around her plate with growing disgust, and then she stood without warning.
“C’mon,” she said, “I vote we get some real breakfast.”
Carmilla looked skeptical, but, when Laura insistently held out her hand, she accepted and followed her from the penthouse.
The place that Laura took them to was one of her favorite breakfast spots in the city. Paris Baguette was a little Korean bakery with a rash of locations across town, and the one she frequented most was on Park Avenue South.
It was still overrun with tourists and late-morning weekend commuters, but Carmilla did not complain as they got in line. She peered around in fascination, eyeing the pastries in their cases and the trendy décor, and she only raised her eyebrow a little at the group of hipsters arguing about ‘modern pop’ in the corner.
When they got to the front, though, she sputtered as Laura paid for both of their orders.
“You should have let me,” she argued, once they had shouldered their way back onto the street. Laura angled them towards Madison Square Park, glad that the snow had fully melted, and shrugged.
“I’m aware that you have plenty of spending money. But, I’m still allowed to be the one that treats. Just eat your croissant so that I don’t regret it, okay?”
Carmilla took a thoughtful bite. “Thank you,” she murmured.
“Don’t mention it.”
Spotting a free bench, Laura caught her wrist and tugged her to it, laughing around a mouthful of pastry as Carmilla struggled to dodge around a particularly feisty pigeon. She missed the contact, the moment Carmilla’s fingers slipped away, and tried not to think of ways to gain it back.
She had not yet stopped thinking about that charged moment between them, the night before.
“Did you mean what you said?” Carmilla asked, abruptly, “About… about helping me get back my company?”
“You weren’t just drunk?”
Laura frowned, “I was nearly sober by the time I climbed in your car. And then we had multiple cups of coffee. Besides, I’m telling you now: I want to help.” She watched the lines shift on Carmilla’s face, the uncertainty dancing in the shadows of her eyes, and added, biting down against disappointment, “You know I don’t want anything from you, right? The divorce is finalized, so this would have to be a pretty stupid scheme, if I did.”
“I know. It’s just… sometimes, it’s hard to believe you’re real.”
Laura’s traitorous hand acted without her permission, finding Carmilla’s in her lap and giving it a reassuring squeeze.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard that used as a compliment, before, you know,” she teased. “Most of the time, people are saying it after I’ve done something monumentally stupid. Once, I walked straight into a fountain.”
“A fountain?” Carmilla asked, her lip twitching.
“Yes. It was deeply embarrassing. There were signs and everything. People yelled.”
“What, were you on your cell phone, or something?”
“I really wish I was.”
It was a Sunday morning, two weeks after Carmilla’s twenty-seventh birthday, when Laura first knew she was in trouble.
She was sprawled on Carmilla’s couch, flipping aimlessly through television stations and complaining aloud that their standard mid-afternoon marathon of Leverage had been co-opted for some religious fundraising telethon, and Carmilla was rooting through the kitchen. When she returned, she was carrying two boxes of Girl Scout Cookies. Wordlessly, she held out a silver sleeve to Laura, and, chomping on half of a Thin Mint, fish-hooked Laura’s feet by the ankles to lift them out of her way.
She set them back on her lap before plucking the remote from Laura’s fingers, as though it were the simplest thing in the world. As though they did this all the time.
And she realized: they did.
There was evidence all over the apartment. Laura’s things were strewn about; there were multiple jackets and spare shirts hanging off chairs, the kitchen was stocked with things she liked to eat… even the fridge was loaded with her standard takeout fare. There was an unfinished game of Monopoly lying in wait on the dining room table, their wine glasses from the night before still standing beside, and at least five of the books sitting out and about were there because Carmilla had pulled them down to lend her.
“What’s wrong?” Carmilla asked, around her second cookie. Her teeth were stained with chocolate, Laura noticed, and her raised eyebrows were partially hidden behind a pair of early-morning glasses, because she had not yet bothered to pop in her contacts.
“Nothing,” Laura said swiftly. When she turned back to the television to find that Carmilla had put on re-runs of her favorite baking show—the one Carmilla normally complained about—she knew.
And she nearly forgot how to breathe.
Carmilla’s transition to CEO of Karnstein Industries did not take place in the span of a single day. The way she explained it to Laura, there was a team of lawyers that had been working around the clock on this very thing for the past several years, and their efforts had simply ramped up in the weeks before her twenty-seventh birthday.
It also was not that she would merely step into the building and take over. Carmilla, in many ways, had held a leadership role within K.I. since her early twenties, even when she was still finishing off her degree.
The final decisions, and the day-to-day, fell to Lilita, while Carmilla attended meetings, went over finance sheets, and was briefed on the latest research and sales trends. Laura need not have asked if she was ready to take over—Carmilla had been acting as silent CEO for at least six years, just without the power that such a role entailed.
“If I had given anyone a direct order, they’d have followed it,” she assured Laura one evening, as she flipped through a heavy file-folder of reports from the week prior.
“But, then you’d have had to deal with Lilita.”
Pushing aside her empty soup bowl, Laura picked up one of the papers, scanning over the charts with frustratingly low comprehension. The red, squiggly line was holding fairly steady towards the center of the chart, but it was impossible to tell if that was a good thing or not.
“How do you understand all of this?”
“Years of training,” Carmilla shrugged. She peered over at the paper in Laura’s grasp, and then tapped at it with one manicured fingernail, “Those are sales projections for Trazorisil.”
The name was printed across the top, but that did little to help Laura.
“What does that one do?”
“It’s a specific type of drug used to target muscle tension, but it’s really only used by athletes, because it doesn’t fall under any enhancement categories, like steroids would.”
“So I guess this is a pretty standard seller, then?”
“It does okay. Drug patents protect us from copyright infringement for twenty years, and this one is still relatively new. What this means,” she tapped the line again, “Is that my sales division does not expect to see any shifts in the market—no new competitors, no rising diagnoses.”
“And this is in dollars?” Laura frowned at the scales.
“Units. Per thousand.”
“And this one?” she held up another—this one with a line that was rapidly climbing towards the top of the chart.
Carmilla actually smiled as she took it from Laura’s grasp. “Karnelin,” she said proudly. “The formula that started it all. This was Dad’s first big breakthrough.”
“The cancer drug,” said Laura, and earned a nod of affirmation from Carmilla.
She had read a decent amount about the founding of K.I., and Karnelin had come up more than once. Peter Karnstein had developed the formula in his spare time, while he was working for a large biomedical corporation. His business partner, Donovan Eckhart, had been key in providing the research space and starting the clinical trials process, but it was Peter who was the real brain behind the operation.
This chart was in dollars.
“It’s doing well,” she commented.
“More and more doctors are prescribing it,” Carmilla explained. Her eyes dropped, her fingers toying with a bent corner on the paper, “We’re still working on an actual solution, of course. But… something like this? Something that can lessen the damage of other treatments? It can add years—the kind of years that my mother never got.”
Laura reached out and touched Carmilla’s wrist. It was just a soft tap of her fingers, but Carmilla’s eyes flicked up to her and she smiled faintly before she returned her attention to the work before her.
Her curiosity about Carmilla’s work never quite sating, Laura tried to do the same. She flipped through documents and scanned charts that showed various success stories, but she did not want to further interrupt Carmilla’s process by having her explain every small project her company was working on. Eventually, she gave up in favor of loading the dishwasher.
“Did you have any luck with Sanders?”
Carmilla frowned at the memo she was reading, and then let it fall back onto the stack.
“Unfortunately, no. In fact, I found out he’s rather homophobic.”
Laura’s eyebrows flew up, “What? Did he say something to you?”
“He heavily implied that our divorce ‘made sense’ because it ‘wasn’t right in the first place.’”
“That’s… horrible. And he just said that to you? At the office?”
“In front of Fairweather. Speaking of which, cross her off, too.”
Shaking her head, Laura demanded, “Did she agree with him or something?”
Carmilla sifted through her remaining papers, dividing them into two stacks based on criteria Laura could not begin to fathom.
“No. She argued with me for half an hour about the Lanheiser Acquisition. Which was three years ago, and outside of my control, I might add. And then she called me a bitch.”
That was two more names. Two more board members that they had lost for their cause. Adding them to the ones that Carmilla had already ruled out, that left only a narrow field of play for them to work within.
There was still Anaya Dara, who held at least half of a percent and nodded along with anything Carmilla said, and Samuel Gonzalez, who clocked in around the same and had pulled Carmilla aside personally to vow his support.
The heavy-hitters, though—the people they needed to achieve the rest of the missing seven percent—were still out of their league.
For starters, over a quarter of the company still belonged to the Eckhart family, and their research showed that it was tied up in two siblings that appeared to have no interest in cooperating with Carmilla. They always voted together, and according to their own interests—which, unfortunately, seemed to line up well with Lilita’s. If Carmilla wanted to win them over, it would have to be entirely based upon job performance… and, with less than three months to make any real impact, those prospects looked doubtful.
Which left them with the new members; people like Sanders and Fairweather.
“There’s still Fitzgerald.”
“Ah, yes, Fitzgerald,” Carmilla scoffed, “the only one who could not be bothered to attend today’s meeting.”
That made Laura straighten her back, a glass nearly slipping from her fingers.
“He didn’t show?”
“No. And his office has not returned any of my calls.”
“Fuck,” Laura whispered.
Carmilla’s eyes widened. She abandoned her paperwork entirely, stepping around the island to take the dishes from Laura’s hands, and her touch was tender as it caught about Laura’s fingers and offered the gentlest of squeezes.
Her eyes, suddenly so close, were like liquid copper.
“Sometimes, I think you forget that this isn’t supposed to fall on your shoulders,” she said. Her gaze darted, slipping to follow the line of Laura’s hair that fell uneven over her cheek. Laura watched the way she seemed to bite her lip in painstaking slow-motion. “This is my problem, cupcake.”
“Well, sometimes,” Laura echoed, her breaths uncertain and her eyes losing the battle to stay focused on Carmilla’s, rather than drifting lower, “I think you forget that people care about you.”
Slowly, Carmilla shook her head. And then she reached up, freezing Laura’s breath in her lungs as she did precisely what Laura had hoped, and tucked her loose strands behind her ear. And yet, before she could process the proximity, could get control of her heart, Carmilla had stepped back.
There was still a soft smile playing in the corner of her lips, the faintest of lines crinkling around her eyes.
“No, I think it’s just you,” she said. She slid back onto her stool and returned to her papers, as though the whole of time had not just frozen at her command. “But, I’m okay with that.”
Governor Michael Sheridan was relatively well-known. Laura, even growing up in Canada and living in her university bubble, had grown familiar with his career in the early 2010s, just like everyone else. Sheridan claimed to be a champion of the blue collar middleclass, with a large portion of his agenda leaning itself towards cutting restrictions on American manufacturers. His campaigns usually focused on his tough stance on immigration, his defense budget, and, of course, his charming family.
Grace Sheridan was a cookie-cutter housewife with an ever-rotating series of hairstyles and a smile that bordered on manic. Their two children, Evan and Elle, were private school angels who appeared repeatedly in Sheridan’s ads over the years—first as gap-toothed children, and later as supposedly successful young adults.
The real reason that Laura knew the family, though, was because, for the duration of the American presidential campaign in 2012, she had heard his name and seen his face over and over again as the potential VP.
His party had lost, of course (much to Laura’s pleasure), and he had resumed his duties in New York, quietly, with nary a blip until 2015, when his daughter was caught in a compromising position with one Carmilla Karnstein.
Carmilla had never talked about it—had never told Laura what had happened with Elle, or with her broken engagement—and Laura had never asked.
It had never seemed like her place.
Laura already knew why LaFontaine was calling, when her phone began to buzz early one May morning. She had seen the papers, on her way into work, and, having guiltily paid for one on the corner outside of the Lustig, she had spent the past twenty-four minutes wrapped up in the article that sat front-and-center on the cover of the Sun.
‘Off the Market?’ read the headline, over a long-lens shot of Carmilla murmuring something into Elle Sheridan’s ear, one hand resting on the other woman’s arm.
There is no denying that it has been a busy month for Carmilla Karnstein. Newly minted CEO of her father’s empire, the revolutionary pharmaceutical company Karnstein Industries (K.I.), the young Karnstein has been embroiled in a divorce settlement since early this year, which only just came to a close in recent weeks.
The marriage, which has been declared a ‘youthful mistake’ by K.I. spokeswoman and former CEO Lilita Morgan, began in Las Vegas in late 2014, and did not exist outside of the event itself. Morgan stated, in a press release in February, that Karnstein had not spoken to her supposed wife—one Laura Hollis (24) from Toronto, Canada—since that night.
Hollis has refused to comment.
Sources now say that the divorce was timed not to coincide with Karnstein’s takeover of K.I., but with Karnstein’s latest romance, or, rather, return to romance, as Karnstein has recently been spotted in familiar company. On Tuesday night, Karnstein was seen leaving Le Bernardin with Elle Sheridan (pictured above).
This is not the first interaction between the two high-profile women. In 2015, Karnstein famously ended her engagement to Harris Vordenberg, son of Baron Vordenberg of Vordenberg Solutions Incorporated (VSI), after photographs of the two kissing were released to the public. The affair ended around the same time, and, according to spokespeople for both Karnstein and Sheridan, the two had ‘went separate ways.’
Laura answered her phone with a tired, “Hey, LaF.”
“Hey. Perry wants to ambush you with some sort of distracting evening baking cookies. I thought I’d give you a heads-up.”
“So, you saw?”
“Hard not to.”
Laura sighed. It was true: the Sun’s sales were way up. Apparently, ‘lesbian drama’ was a new bestselling category, and even the other tabloids, after they got through with their copycat articles on her and Carmilla, had begun to lean towards other queer news in an attempt to capitalize. It was more than a little insulting.
“You okay, L?” LaF asked bluntly, “I mean, you don’t think it’s true, right?”
“I don’t know what to think. She never mentioned that she was talking to Elle; that has to mean something, doesn’t it? And—and we’re just friends. That’s all we’ve been, this whole time.”
“Hm,” LaF grunted, with all the emphasis of a ‘bullshit’ callout.
Laura spun in her desk chair, twirling a well-chewed pen between her fingers.
“Besides,” she reasoned, “We’re divorced. It complicates things. It’s already weird enough that we’ve become friends; she’s never going to want to actually be with me.”
“Oh, come on,” LaF griped, “You two have absurd heart-eyes for each other. Movie night last week was nauseating; I swear Perry’s been picking out china patterns for you guys, ever since.”
She flushed, “Carm only paid more attention to me because I was the only one there that she knew.”
“Right. I’m sure that’s why Carm spent the whole of the movie staring at you rather than paying attention.”
“She’s just… not a fan of rom-coms.”
“Uh-huh. Are you seeing her, tonight?”
Laura chewed on her lip, rolling the question over in her mind. She and Carmilla did not have set plans—they never did, really. Oftentimes, Laura just showed up at the penthouse and Carmilla handed her a mug of cocoa before they settled in to watch whatever they happened to find on Netflix that evening.
(They’d run through all of The Great British Bakeoff in recent weeks, and had just started in on Jessica Jones, which Laura was astonished to find Carmilla had not yet seen.)
It was safe to say that she was expected at Carmilla’s, these days. The guest bedroom was always ready for her, and Carmilla had taken to stocking the bathroom with Laura’s favorite products. She had her own toothbrush, there, a detail which had delighted LaFontaine to no end.
“I don’t know.”
“Someone once gave me excellent advice. Do you want to hear it?”
Laura closed her eyes and, knowing what was coming, grumbled out a, “No.”
LaF prattled on, anyway: “It came from this annoying little freshman that happened to live in the dorm my best friend was RA’ing. She told me that, if I wanted to know how Perry felt about me, I should just be upfront about my own feelings.”
“Mm. That sounds like very specific advice for your very specific situation.”
“Nice try, Frosh. Think about it, okay?”
Laura sighed, “Maybe.”
When Perry called to propose her aforementioned cookie-baking-consolation-evening, Laura turned her down without absolute certainty about why. She had yet to decide if she was going to seek out answers from Carmilla directly, after all, and an afternoon with Perry certainly would have been distracting enough to keep her mind off the issue.
She ate a dinner that consisted mainly of toast and wine, did not bother turning on her television, and found herself looking out the window at a darkened city before she could comprehend the passing of hours. She was no more decided about how to proceed, when her phone hummed with an incoming text.
Carm (9:42 PM): I saved you some cheesecake from a work event today.
Carm (9:45 PM): Peanut butter flavored. It’s even got little mini cups.
Laura clicked off her screen and took an extra-long shower.
When she returned from the bathroom, despite the pleasant steam and the warmth that still sizzled in her muscles as she toweled off and pulled on a bathrobe, she still felt a jump of icy guilt as she checked her notifications.
Carm (10:17 PM): Are you okay? You never take this long to respond.
‘Carm K – 2 Missed Calls.’
Carm (10:22 PM): Please just let me know that you’re safe.
Laura’s fingers hovered over the keyboard, her heartbeat hammering but no words coming to mind. She could say she was fine, but that would lead to a slew of new questions—Carmilla wondering why she had not responded, and asking why she had not come over.
Carmilla had to know about the story. No doubt her public relations team had been working to mitigate the situation since they had gotten wind of the release.
Which meant that Carmilla saw no reason why Laura would be bothered.
And Laura could not handle getting that sort of confirmation.
She updated her Snapchat story with a foggy picture of the slice of Manhattan skyline visible from her window, captioned it ‘Looks ghostly out there!’ and, satisfied that Carmilla would know she was alive and at home, went to bed.
There was a car waiting outside of her apartment, when Laura ducked up the alley in the first rays of sunlight, messy hair tugged up into a bun and makeup only halfway done.
The sight drew her to a halt, and she half-expected Carmilla to rise gracefully from the backseat when the driver swept around to open the door with a mechanical sort of efficiency. The seat, though, was empty. And the driver’s gaze on her was expectant; he was waiting for her to climb inside.
“Tell her I have work,” Laura told him, not without exasperation.
She had awakened to a half-dozen more texts, none of which expressed any explanation for the story about Elle or why Carmilla would not have told her something so important, and she had finally responded with a simple and only somewhat untrue: ‘I’m fine; busy workweek.’
A part of her knew she was being petty, and perhaps a bit passive aggressive, but if Carmilla could not work out for herself why Laura was upset, then Laura really did not want to explain it to her. She was embarrassed enough, as it was.
“I can take you there,” the unnamed driver offered.
“I’m fine with the subway, thanks.”
She left him there, but that hardly stopped another, identical, car from arriving outside the Lustig at five o’clock. A few of her coworkers pointed it out, eyebrows raising and gazes automatically seeking her face, but Laura was already cutting away through the crowded sidewalk, her ears burning and her feet working at twice their usual speed.
When there was another in front of her building, she barely spared it a glance, dashing down her alley and up the stairs to the refuge of her apartment.
Less than five minutes later, a new message rang in, and Laura broke.
Carm (5:51 PM): You’re avoiding me?
Laura (5:52 PM): I don’t want to talk about it, okay? Stop sending cars.
Carm (5:52 PM): I just want to explain.
That was unexpected. As was the next message:
Carm (5:52 PM): In person.
Laura sucked in a breath.
Laura (5:53 PM): About what?
Carm (5:53 PM): Please, come over? My driver is still outside.
Laura (6:02 PM): Ok
Laura trusted that Carmilla did not want to hurt her. Regardless of how she expected the evening to go, it was this that she held onto as she climbed shakily from the car and made her way to Carmilla’s penthouse.
The other woman was waiting for her in the living room, still wearing her work outfit, blazer and all. It looked rumpled and out of place, with the way she was curled into the corner of the couch, her feet bare and pale against the dark of the fabric.
She did not wait for Laura to take her seat.
“I’m not seeing Elle.”
Laura blinked, sinking low into the cushion and raising an eyebrow.
“Oh,” she said.
Carmilla nodded quickly, but said nothing more. Her eyes were tracing Laura’s face with unexpected urgency—there was a frantic energy Laura had not seen in her, not even when they were going through her company details with the growing certainty that Carmilla was going to lose.
“So, that dinner..?” Laura stammered.
“She asked me to meet. But… it wasn’t what I was expecting.”
Laura chose not to ask what Carmilla had been expecting. “What happened?”
The name alone was enough to send chills into the pit of Laura’s stomach. The last Carmilla had mentioned of her step-mother, the woman had attended a board meeting with a sickly sweetness, and had spoken privately with several top investors, not permitting Carmilla to sit in or hear the details. It had put her on edge, and Laura as well.
“Wait, she was there?”
The article had mentioned nothing about that. Not that it would, Laura realized belatedly, if Lilita was, once again, the Sun’s source.
“Yes,” Carmilla muttered bitterly, “she was there. She arranged the whole thing.”
“And… what did she want?”
Carmilla’s expression twisted, paling as she gritted her teeth. “I was right,” she murmured, “When I said that she had a reason for pushing the divorce, I was right.”
She took a steadying breath, gripping the edge of the couch as if she were afraid of falling, and closed her eyes tight.
“She wants me to marry Elle.”
Laura had only once been punched in the stomach. It had happened in kindergarten, when a particularly snotty boy named James had not taken well to her lack of interest in being chased around the playground by him. She had told him he had cooties, and he had thrown his fist into her stomach. Despite her protests, her friend had told the teacher and, though she did not remember it well, she was sure he got in a great deal of trouble.
What she did remember was that feeling—the doubled-over, gasping for breath sort of feeling.
That was what this felt like, now.
“She wants me to marry Elle,” Carmilla repeated tiredly. “She made that… quite clear.”
“But she can’t—that’s not something she can make you do,” Laura insisted. She watched the way Carmilla’s gaze dropped, and stammered, with growing concern, “Is it?”
Carmilla tugged her fingers through her hair, her dark manicure standing out starkly against the pale of her skin.
“Do you remember what we talked about, the last time we went over my papers?”
Slowly, Laura nodded, “It didn’t exactly… look promising.”
“That’s because it isn’t. Fitzgerald hasn’t been around because he sold his stocks. Same with the others that we could never get in touch with.”
The realization hit with all the force of a freight train, and all of a sudden a measly punch seemed like nothing. Laura’s head was spinning.
“And…” Carmilla’s shoulders tightened, “And the Eckharts.”
Her hand was on Carmilla’s arm without any conscious planning on her part to move it there. She squeezed, shuffling closer across the cushions and searching Carmilla’s broken features.
The guilt came back tenfold.
“Carm, I had no idea. I should have been here. I’m so sorry; I was being stupid, thinking you had kept things from me—”
“Don’t apologize, please. It’s fine,” Carmilla promised at once. Her hand landed on top of Laura’s, returning the pressure, and the depth in her eyes said she meant it.
It took a moment for Laura to straighten out her thoughts and push forward.
“How much does Lilita own, now?”
“At least forty-four percent.”
Laura swallowed. “More than you.”
“Yes. More than me.”
“And… what is she going to do, next? This thing, with Elle…”
“It’s her offer,” Carmilla sighed. “If I want anything to do with my company, I can marry Elle and remain a part of K.I., in an unofficial capacity. I’ll get a salary and I’ll keep this apartment and all of my staff…”
“And if you don’t take it?”
“Then she cuts me off. From everything. After I get fired next month, of course.”
“Why, though? Why would she want you to marry Elle?”
“There’s a long list of reasons. Half of them I’m sure only she really knows. But, in the end, it all comes down to power. And Elle’s father is powerful. It was why she set me up with Vordenberg, all those years ago, too. Power over her empire, power over politicians, power over me.”
Laura leaned back. When her hand dropped, Carmilla kept hold of it, lacing their fingers and gripping back as if for dear life. Laura could not imagine letting go.
“What about Elle? What does she get out of this?”
“A return to civilization,” said Carmilla. “Her father has kept her out of the public eye for years, ever since what happened with me. Now, he’s apparently come to grips with her sexuality, and he and Lilita have worked out some deal.” She looked down at her free hand, digging at some dirt under her nail as she shook her head, “You would think this sort of thing didn’t happen anymore, but it does. It’s like I’m being sold off.”
“Wait, you’re going to do it?”
The question was out of her mouth before she could stop it, and Laura heard the desperation in her own words with a belated wince.
Carmilla’s eyes went wide.
“I mean, I know how much the company means to you, so I-I would never judge you for it,” Laura stammered hurriedly, “And—and I’m sure Elle is great, and super nice, and she’s definitely pretty, s-so you could be happy with her, if that was what you wanted!”
Carefully, Carmilla slid her hand free of Laura’s, and returned it to twist with her other.
“If that was what I wanted,” she echoed hollowly.
Laura’s heart was pounding.
“Is it… not?”
Carmilla whispered out a sigh. “The company has been my whole world. My father, when he started this, was doing work that was helping people; that meant something. But, the more I look over the numbers, the more pointless meetings I sit in and the more decisions I’m asked to make, the more I realize that it’s already changed. Lilita did that. She changed it, and now everything is just a little bit… off.
“And maybe I could do something about it, if I could actually take over, if I could sit in that office for the next few years and rearrange the corporate structure and hire new VPs and focus on the right sorts of research projects—the ones my dad would have been interested in—but I don’t have that sort of time. And even if I did, what the hell would it matter, if I was trapped under her thumb all the while?”
Laura had seldom heard Carmilla talk this much, gesturing with her hands and rambling without so much as a pause for breath. Her expression was tired, world-weary, but her eyes were still alight.
“What I had with Elle was a possibility, but it wasn’t what I really wanted, even when it was happening. We were using each other—we were an escape hatch and ultimately it blew up on us and we paid our prices. Elle’s, unfortunately, was higher than mine. But that doesn’t mean I should marry her, or that keeping my access card to Karnstein Tower could ever be worth going through with a marriage I don’t want to be in.”
Laura glanced away, down at her own lap, and managed a small sort of laugh, “Yeah, and I suppose you have already done that part once.”
Carmilla furrowed her brow. “That wasn’t the same thing, Laura. You and I got divorced because—because we didn’t actually know each other, and it seemed like the logical thing to do. The reason I wouldn’t want to be married to Elle would be because I do know her, and I could never be happy like that. We’re different people.”
Carefully, her hands gripped together to hide the tremble in her fingers, Laura asked the question that had been swirling through her thoughts for months.
“Do you regret it?”
“The divorce?” Carmilla frowned.
“The marriage. Our marriage. If this had never happened, and there was no scandal right before you took over, you could be running the company without distraction.” She shrugged, “Winning votes… keeping your job. Everything you want.”
“Laura,” Carmilla shook her head, lips parted in wonder. “Surely you’ve figured it out, by now.”
“Figured what out?”
She watched Carmilla inhale, her chest expanding and her eyes sliding shut. She let out the breath slowly, fingers tightening in her lap.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said, “that I’m losing the company. It was lost a long time ago—but that’s not the point. Even if it wasn’t, even if I was in charge, it wouldn’t matter. God, you are the single best thing that has ever happened to me, and you don’t even know it.”
She looked up, meeting Laura’s gaze with a sadness, a desperation, that took Laura’s breath away.
“This was the point I was trying to get at. I don’t want to go through with Lilita’s plans, and I have no intention of doing so, because I already know what I want. And it’s you, Laura. It’s been you for a very long time.”
The admittance hit Laura as if on a delay, her brain processing several seconds behind reality and a dull hum taking up residence in her ears as if to simulate a short circuit.
Carmilla was watching her expectantly, blinking far too much and looking far too beautiful, and Laura, for one lengthy moment, did not believe it could be true. Surely, she had heard Carmilla incorrectly. Surely, this was a dream and she was going to awaken any moment with a familiar knife-twist of regret.
And then Carmilla gave a sharp, short little gasp, and her slender frame curled away like a shriveling ember as her head began to shake back and forth.
“Okay,” she stammered, “Okay, okay, that’s—I shouldn’t have assumed that you would—”
Laura’s brain caught up.
She pressed forward immediately, no longer caring if this was only a dream, and caught Carmilla’s tortured face between her hands, her palms cupping perfectly around the angles of her jaw and her thumbs tracing the planes of her cheekbones.
Carmilla fell silent, her dark eyes wide and shimmering. They darted down towards Laura’s lips, and she complied at once, pressing them together in a desperate surge. She felt Carmilla relax beneath her, the tension draining from her shoulders even as her hands came up to tug at the nape of Laura’s neck, and to tangle in her hair.
When Carmilla shifted away, it was with a nudge of her nose along the line of Laura’s, and a press of their foreheads. Her breath was warm as it tickled across Laura’s cheek.
“Did you mean that?” she asked.
Laura nodded into her, eyes barely open and heart still at a gallop.
“And—and you’re definitely not drunk?”
She nearly pulled away to question that, but instead she found her lips pressing themselves tenderly back against Carmilla’s.
“No, definitely not drunk. Are you?”
Carmilla hummed a nonverbal “no.” Through a grin, she nipped and tugged on Laura’s lip before recapturing her in whole and tracing the line of her teeth with her tongue.
Laura’s hands had found their way to Carmilla’s shoulders, but they slipped lower at the contact, landing hot on the curve of Carmilla’s hips and tugging her closer.
She was soft, and wonderful, and familiar—Laura could taste the coffee she kept stocked, and a hint of the mints that she always had in a little dish by the door. She never wanted to not be kissing her, to not feel those hands urging her closer, to not hear the little sounds she made when Laura slipped away from her lips to worship the line of her jaw or nip at her ear.
When they paused for breath, it was with very little actual pausing. Carmilla had one hand in her hair, pushing it back off her forehead, while the other was working its way in a line down the front of Laura’s shirt, undoing buttons one-by-one. She had lost her blazer, Laura having shoved it from her shoulders, and it was nowhere to be seen.
Laura’s shoes, too, had long been kicked away, and at some point, she had wound up in Carmilla’s lap. They were angled against each other, now, chests nearly flush, and when Carmilla got to the last button she paused with trembling hands still gripped at the edges of the pink fabric.
“Are you sure?”
In answer, Laura kissed her again, hard and quick. Their teeth clashed, but she did not care.
“Bedroom,” she insisted.
She had seen Carmilla’s bedroom before, of course. Her glimpses had been in rousing Carmilla on a morning when she was feeling particularly childish, or in fetching something Carmilla called for from across the apartment, or in merely stepping past the door on her way to the guest bedroom that had become her home-away-from-home.
None of that had prepared her for this.
The room was dark, when they pushed their way through the door, hand-holding no longer enough as Carmilla’s eager fingers pulled at her hips and Laura gladly complied.
They tumbled onto the bed, as Carmilla clawed with one hand for the lamp switch and—from the crashing sounds that they both ignored—knocked every other object in her way to the floor. She found it, though, and the room was bathed in dull light, casting shadows onto the deep purple of her comforter and the elaborate artwork she kept on her walls.
She was messy; there were things on the floor, and clutter on the bookshelves, and her laundry was half in the basket and half out. One of her dresser drawers was wide open.
Laura felt a surge of warmth tugging upwards in her chest, a buoy rising like her smile, and she thought I know her, as she slipped her own shirt off her shoulders and let it drop to the floor; I love her, as she shimmied from her pants.
Carmilla was frozen, halfway through finishing off her shirt buttons—her own pants had disappeared with breakneck speed—and she caught Laura by the arm as she reached around for her bra clasp.
“Wait,” she said, and her voice was hoarse, her eyes blown out and dark.
Heat pooling low in her stomach, Laura nodded. She watched as Carmilla shed her shirt, and then they were both crouching on the bed, the mattress dipping under their weights, and Laura could not believe that they had done this before and that she had forgotten it.
She could not stop meeting Carmilla’s gaze, her breaths coming quick with anticipation and goosebumps gathering along the bared skin of her neck and her stomach and her back.
Carmilla was intoxicating, in her beauty. She was a fascinating juxtaposition of angles and soft curves, of snowy whites and darkest blacks, and all Laura wanted to do was fall into her, was drink in the sight forever of her in her matching set of midnight lingerie.
Carefully, as though she were touching something fragile, she reached up to push a soft wave of raven hair out of the way, and let her fingers trace through the tendrils as she slipped it behind the shell of her ear. When she kissed there, letting her breath ghost over the sensitive flesh, she felt Carmilla shiver… just before the other woman’s hand landed on her leg and returned the favor with a feather-light trace of finger pads over the delicate edge of her inner thigh.
“Can I..?” she heard Carmilla ask, and there was a hand on her back, in the hollow of her spine. When she nodded—urgent and very much on the edge of undressing herself and then Carmilla immediately after—Carmilla’s fingers worked the clasp of her bra and set it free.
Laura wasted no time in helping her, hearing Carmilla’s soft intake of breath as she let the simple, flowery thing slip off. She was not aware of where it went, nor did she care, because Carmilla’s lips were back on hers in an instant, hot and eager, and her hands were exploring newly exposed skin with a sort of reverence Laura had never been shown.
When Carmilla palmed her breast, testing its slightest of weights, she pressed urgent into her hand and shoved her tongue into Carmilla’s mouth, exploring her as Carmilla teased her nipple between her fingers.
“Fuck,” Laura gasped, pulling back and sucking in a deep lungful of air. Her vision had dulled at the edges, and it took a second for her to lock back on Carmilla’s face and recognize that she was grinning.
“You’re beautiful,” Carmilla murmured. “So fucking beautiful, Laura Hollis. And you have no idea how long I have wanted to tell you that.”
And I’m in love with you, Laura’s heart echoed, in its uneven thrums, but Laura did not say so out loud. Instead, she shook her head, pressed her mouth hot against the curve of Carmilla’s neck, and undid the other woman’s bra.
If she could not tell her, she could sure as hell show her.
And she intended to.
They rolled horizontal at the slightest of nudges from Laura, and a moment later she was straddling Carmilla, their hips pressed together and Laura’s hands caught in Carmilla’s hair and against her chest.
“Mm, taking charge, cupcake?” Carmilla hummed.
Laura silenced her with another kiss, and, before she could say anything further—particularly with use of cutesy nicknames—she captured one of Carmilla’s nipples in her mouth.
Carmilla’s moan was loud, and Laura would have grinned if she were not occupied. She laved the stiff peak under her tongue, curling around it and feeling the way Carmilla twitched under her, the way her hips jerked ever so slightly at each stroke.
She turned her attention to the other nipple, and Carmilla’s hands found their way to her shoulders, her fingers digging into the blades and holding her there as her head fell back in agitated pleasure.
“Jesus, Laura, I swear, if you don’t—”
Carmilla had made no move to shift their positions, but her legs had kicked slightly and her grip had become more urgent, and Laura dipped a hand obligingly between them, lifting herself up to get a better angle and find the hem of Carmilla’s panties.
The moment Laura raised her weight, Carmilla was shimmying out of them, kicking the offending article desperately off of her legs and sending them flying across the room.
She touched at Laura’s cloth-clad hip with hopeful fingers, her eyes locked on Laura’s and her lips pink and swollen from their kisses, and that was all it took for Laura to tug the fabric free—watching Carmilla’s widening, shifting eyes all the while.
When she lowered herself back into place, both of their breaths caught at the aching skin-on-skin contact, Laura’s hot center pressing into Carmilla.
And then Carmilla was tugging her down again, hands splaying across the bare of her back and lips seeking hers. Laura’s hand fell back between them, their legs tangling as she slipped her fingers through Carmilla’s soft curls and into the wet, coursing heat of her folds.
Carmilla bucked against her at once, and Laura kissed the corner of her mouth as she found her clit and teased at it with a swirl of moistened fingers.
“Fuck,” Carmilla moaned, the word drawn out through gritted teeth. She pressed firmly into Laura’s hand, nudging and searching. Laura slid a finger inside of her, grinding urgently against her own hand as Carmilla continued to curse in soft, encouraging whimpers.
She was even more beautiful like this, somehow; glowing with sweat, her hair tangled in a black halo across the pillows, head thrown back.
Maybe, Laura thought in a blip of a moment—the world narrowing as she felt Carmilla stiffen underneath her, her walls clenching around the two fingers Laura had now buried inside her—Carmilla was just always getting more beautiful.
Carmilla ground out her name, as she went over the edge, and she continued to rattle it off, a helpless stream of “Laura, Laura, Laura” as she urged their lips back together.
“I’m here, Carm. I’m yours,” Laura whispered back, when she had smoothed the hair off of her sweat-glistened forehead. Their noses were brushing, their foreheads hovering only an inch apart, and Carmilla’s eyes slowly came back to herself.
And then she turned with surprising strength, rolling so that she was crouched on top, and her weight on Laura’s stomach was at once heavy and wonderful. Laura blinked up at her, mouth falling open.
“You’re about to be,” she agreed.
Come say hi: jg-firefly
I have not been to Paris Baguette, but I have been told it is quite good!
PS: Please share your thoughts? (I've never posted smut, people; I'm afraid)
Chapter 4: I Won't Let You Go
In which there are unexpected visits.
Chapter title from the Snow Patrol song of the same name.
You guys have been phenomenal. Happy Friday, creampuffs.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The last time Laura had been in a relationship had been almost a year prior, and had involved very little in the way of personal affection. Josie had been nice enough; she laughed at all of Laura’s stupid jokes, for one, but she also rarely stayed the night. She would slip out when they were finished, citing a variety of ‘early morning plans,’ and Laura reached a point where she accepted there would be no cuddling on the couch or hand-holding on walks.
As such, when she awoke to the trace of fingers along her hairline, her legs tangled and the weight of an arm that was not hers draped across her abdomen, Laura went stiff with the surprise of it.
The hand stilled and, through tired, wondering eyes, Laura found Carmilla staring at her from mere inches away. She was biting her lip, and focusing on an innocuous point on her cheek as if to avoid meeting Laura’s gaze directly.
“Mm. Hey,” Laura breathed.
“Hey,” Carmilla echoed softly. Her gaze flicked up briefly, and she removed her hand.
There was a great deal of light streaming through the window, cutting apart the silky cream of the curtains, and Laura’s memory bounded back to her in slow, loping strides, filling in the events of the evening before.
Carmilla had said she wanted her—that she wanted Laura.
A slow warmth curled in her chest, expanding outward.
“What time is it?” she asked.
Instead of answering, Carmilla shuffled away and the loss of contact was like a pang in Laura’s chest, like forgetting how to breathe. She wanted to reach for her, tug her back close, but Carmilla had sat herself up against the headboard.
“Past eight, I think,” she said, without looking at Laura, and then, “You have work, I suppose.”
“I just need to call in.”
On the mattress between them, Carmilla was toying with a thread that had come loose from the pattern, her eyes locked on the twisting of her own fingers. She’d pulled the blankets up tight, almost like armor, and there was an attempt at casual indifference in her tone, as she asked, “Will they mind, if you come in late?”
Laura, whose gaze had wandered to the door at the realization that her phone was likely abandoned somewhere at the start of their trail of discarded clothing, turned back to her sharply.
“What? No. I’m not going to work. Like… at all.”
Carmilla seemed surprised by this. Her eyes actually met Laura’s, and the brown of her irises was softer this morning, somehow.
“Of course not. Unless—” oh god “—did you want me to go..?”
“No!” Carmilla’s head shook fervently, “No.”
“Okay. Good.” Laura released a heavy breath. She reached towards Carmilla’s hand, only moving to lace their fingers when she was certain Carmilla was not going to pull away. “So,” she teetered carefully, rolling her lip around a smile, “last night… you and I…”
Carmilla glanced at her around the hair that had fallen loose over the side of her face, and Laura saw the little jump in her throat as she swallowed her nerves.
“It meant something to me, Laura. I just… I need to know, did it mean the same thing to you?”
Laura’s grip on Carmilla’s hand tightened, and she was aware that she might actually be hurting her at this point, but she couldn’t seem to get her muscles to unclench. Her head spun.
“What? Yes. Yes, Carm. I wouldn’t have done any of that if it didn’t.”
“And—and do you actually want to be with me?”
Laura could not keep from kissing her any longer. She had been dying to feel her lips from the moment she had awakened with her face so teasingly close, but she had lost that chance and she did not plan to lose this one.
With one sure hand she turned Carmilla by the line of her jaw, and pressed their lips together tenderly, her movements calm and languid until she was satisfied that her point was made. Still lightly cupping her face, she touched their foreheads together, holding Carmilla in place and smiling hesitantly.
“I never want to be without you, Carm.”
Carmilla’s smile lit up the room far better than the sunrise ever could. She glowed, from the sudden flash of her teeth to the brilliant shimmer of her eyes to the warm pink of her cheeks.
“Surely,” Laura murmured, her thumb still tracing along Carmilla’s cheek and the gentlest of pressures sliding them apart just far enough that she could look her squarely in the eye, “you must have figured that out by now.”
Carmilla laughed in one short bark of disbelief, to hear her own words parroted back at her, and then she rolled forward like an all-consuming tide, her arms locking Laura to her in a desperate, wonderful embrace as she kissed her once more.
“If there’s ever a contest for ‘weirdest way to meet someone,’ you two would definitely win,” LaFontaine commented, as they tugged a sock free from Bentley’s mouth. They studied it incredulously and then held it up for Perry to appraise, “Does this even belong to us?”
Perry shook her head no, lip twitching up in humor, and LaFontaine gave a sigh of exasperation.
“Guess we’ll add it to the pile, huh, Ben? And maybe one of these days we’ll figure out how you’re getting this stuff…”
“You could try a GoPro,” Carmilla suggested, lowering her cup of coffee.
She eyed the dog with the wary curiosity of someone that had clearly never had a pet. When Bentley had attempted to lick her face (a brave move, given that he only reached up to her belly button with the very tip of his nose, when he was stretching) she had tapped his head rather than ruffling through his fur as any normal dog-person would.
“Oh, yeah!” LaF cried, their eyes lighting up. “I’ve seen people do that. Maybe we’ve got some weird neighbor that breaks in just to play with him, and we could catch him in the act.”
“I wouldn’t put it past anyone,” said Laura. She reached for Bentley, and he came to her at once, snuggling into her outstretched hands and wagging his tail with all his tiny might. “Because you’re precious, aren’t you? The most precious!”
She heard Carmilla chuckle, and looked up to find her shaking her head. She was smiling, and Laura beamed in return, retrieving one of her hands to reach over and tug at Carmilla’s fingers imploringly.
“C’mon, Carm, just say hi. You’ve never felt anything so soft.”
“He doesn’t bite,” Perry promised. At a cough from LaFontaine, she added hastily, “Anymore.”
Carmilla still looked doubtful, but they had been sitting in LaF and Perry’s living room for nearly an hour and thus far the most threatening thing the dog had done was whimper for treats.
She reached forward and gave the top of Bentley’s head a tentative rub. He bounced restlessly, and so she withdrew almost at once, but Laura still gave her hand a pleased squeeze.
She was not going to push Carmilla any further.
From the kitchen, there was an encouraging little ding, and Perry hopped at once to her feet.
“LaFontaine, the table!” she breezed over her shoulder.
There was not much to be done to prepare—it had already been beautifully set when Laura and Carmilla arrived, but LaF obliging collected a pitcher of ice water from the refrigerator and began filling glasses. Perry carried in a steaming glass casserole dish, filled to the brim with lasagna, as they took their seats.
“It’s vegetarian,” she promised Carmilla, as she tugged off her oven mitts and flitted back to the kitchen for the side dishes. “I’ve got some little ham rolls if you want meat, Laura. And there’s salad as well—here you go, Carmilla.”
Carmilla was still blinking in astonishment from the first proclamation. She held the salad utensils loosely, lips parting as she turned to Laura.
“Did you tell them I was vegetarian?”
“Of course. We were having dinner—I wouldn’t want the main course to be something you couldn’t even enjoy, Carm.”
Carmilla rarely showed affection in public. This was partially, Laura knew, due to the ever-present need to keep their relationship under wraps. When they did go out together, they avoided spaces that normally got media attention. Once, they had spent twenty minutes circling random neighborhoods, trying to lose a paparazzi tail before they could return to Carmilla’s apartment.
The other part, though, was a reservation Laura realized she should have been expecting. When it was just the two of them, Carmilla would pull her closer on the couch, or draw patterns on her thigh, or just slide their hands together for no reason at all. When they grabbing breakfast or wandering down Museum Mile, Carmilla shied from such things with surprising uncertainty. As though she were constantly afraid of being judged—even when there was no one there to do the judging.
At her explanation, though, Carmilla’s gaze softened in a way that Laura recognized only from their most intimate, vulnerable moments. And then she leaned over and pressed a tender kiss to Laura’s cheek, just on the corner of her lips.
LaF and Perry busied themselves with loading their plates, while Laura blushed with pleasure and attempted not to grin like too much of a loon.
“What made you go vegetarian?” Perry asked, once they had all dug in and murmured their appraisals for her cooking. “I’ve contemplated it, myself, but never quite made the switch.”
Carmilla finished chewing her bite of lasagna, and dabbed at her mouth with one of Perry’s unnecessarily fancy linen napkins—the ones she insisted on using for even these smallest of gatherings.
“My father was a vegetarian,” she said evenly.
Laura felt her fork lower back to her plate, her mouth closing.
“He was?” she stammered. Carmilla had never told her that.
Carmilla gave a little hum of affirmation, and then shrugged her shoulders. “Not many people know. He was hardly vocal about it—he had a meat allergy. It wasn’t a choice.”
“So you were raised without meat?” asked LaFontaine.
Carmilla fixed her eyes on them, the faintest of guards still rising behind her gaze. She shook her head, “No, there was always the option. My mother still ate meat, from time to time. I just… preferred to follow in his footsteps.”
She cut another piece of lasagna, hesitating as though she expected further questioning. When it did not come, she raised her fork and chewed slowly.
Perry began asking about their week and how work was going, but Laura’s thoughts had faded elsewhere, to memories of prepared lunches stacked in Carmilla’s fridge and fresh-cooked breakfasts that Carmilla would not eat, and she felt the beginnings of anger unfurl in her gut.
The first real sign that they might have a chance against Lilita came near the start of June, with just a few short weeks remaining before Carmilla’s review with the board of directors.
They were sprawled in the living room, Carmilla in a chair with her glasses perched on her nose and an open file-folder in front of her, and Laura lying across the couch on her stomach, flipping through memos from the last hundred or so board meetings.
The files dated back nearly a decade, and Carmilla had been carrying them home bit by bit across the weeks and letting Laura organize them with her system of color-coded files and tabs.
There was not much more to be done, in the way of earning votes the old fashioned way. As with any regime change, the company had taken a dip in value the moment she had stepped behind the controls. By the end of the quarter, if trends held true, she would only just be breaking level with where Lilita had left things. Those on the board who already supported her remained loyal, but there were far more against, and Lilita, of course, still held the majority of the deck in her claws.
As such, they had resorted to new tactics. Namely: search and destroy.
Laura had reasoned, after perusing the rather tense listing of minutes from the last quarter review, that there must be something they could exploit from the many years during which Lilita had held the reins. At the very least, there might be enemies that they could use, or information that could sway favor back to the rightful Karnstein heir.
She was in the middle of trying to extract the last of the Lo Mein from a takeout container with clumsy chopsticks when she heard Carmilla let out a sharp exhale.
“What is it?” Laura demanded. She nearly spilled her file folder in her haste to right herself on the cushions.
Carmilla’s eyes were wide, as they darted between the papers in her lap and Laura’s eager expression.
“Do you remember those charts you looked at? Months ago? When you asked me what units they were measured in?”
The memory stirred vaguely, and Laura offered a nod.
“I just found their companions.”
Setting aside her things, Laura padded over to lean across the back of the chair and see for herself.
In Carmilla’s grasp were a small pile of projection charts for K.I. patented drug sales, held side-by-side with those showing the same information by units.
Laura frowned, “They’re different.”
“Yes,” Carmilla agreed, “Yes, they are.”
Laura jumped to her feet the moment the elevator announced Carmilla’s arrival. She had been at the penthouse for nearly an hour, having let herself in after work, and she had been waiting anxiously all the while, checking her phone fruitlessly every few minutes.
The only update she had received was a quick ‘on my way,’ text, nearly a half hour prior.
“Finally!” she burst.
Carmilla hurried into the living room, not bothering to shed her heels, and tossed her bag down into the first free chair. From it, she tugged a thick file folder.
Neither of them spoke, as she began to lay out the contents on the coffee table, both of them falling easily to their knees.
The majority of the papers were dense—covered almost exclusively in words or financial tables. Carmilla passed Laura the novel-like ones, and kept the rest for herself, thumbing through with a look of utmost concentration.
“This is the right one—I’m sure of it. She had it locked in her personal desk.”
Laura nodded as she skimmed.
They had been hunting for what seemed an age, now. Laura found it immensely frustrating that she could not help in the actual, physical search of Karnstein Tower. Carmilla feared—and, Laura admitted, probably rightfully so—that her presence there might be just the sort of tip-off that could ruin them. And so, Carmilla was left to snoop through her own building, rooting out old paperwork. It had taken them longer than it should have, to realize where they should have been focusing their efforts.
Though Lilita was not currently CEO, she had an office in the building, and still held considerable weight as a shareholder. From Carmilla’s chilling descriptions, she lurked amidst cubicles like a vulture, keeping impossible hours and watching everything.
“She knows what we’re up to,” Carmilla had insisted, more than once, panic curling into her words.
Lilita had not come for them, though, and she had not pressed further with her offers. Laura suspected she was waiting until time was truly up—waiting for Carmilla to be ousted and desperate.
The very idea made Laura’s stomach turn.
As did the information they had uncovered, so far. The charts Carmilla had put together had come from separate files—one set that she had been shown during her various reviews over the years, and the other which had been stored in the depths of the finance department.
Carmilla had never asked to see such things. She had always been briefed on the big picture, and there were advisors who she expected to look out for her, who were meant to give her these sorts of updates and explanations.
When they told her that a drug’s numbers were level, it was because it was selling the same as always. When they told her that a drug’s revenue was up, it was because of some uptick in the market—some success she should be celebrating.
And with each of these, there was a clear message. Carmilla was to ignore certain information, brush it off as the day-to-day, and to focus her attention, her praise, her criticism, only where directed.
The truth of the matter was that nearly every drug Karnstein Industries produced was bringing in more money than it ought to.
If sales were down, prices were up. If sales were up… prices were further up.
The cost of a single dose of Karnelin was nearly ten times what it had once been, when Peter first obtained the patent and began producing large-scale. Production costs were down—with the introduction of better processes and equipment, as well as the continuous outsourcing of their manufacturing overseas—and there was no justification for the price jumps.
But ‘jumps’ was the only way Laura could describe them. Incrementally, over the span of almost ten years, the price of everything K.I. produced—from the lowest-level muscle relaxants to the top-shelf cancer drugs—had sky-rocketed.
“Here,” Laura said, tapping a paper halfway through her stack. She ran her finger over the line of text: “Motion passed to institute bonus structure proposed by L.M. To go into effect immediately at start of next quarter.” She looked up. “This is dated less than a week after the third price hike.”
“I’ve got those numbers,” Carmilla agreed, applying a bright orange sticky note to one page.
Laura read several more lines, shaking her head. “How did they hold these meetings without you? And without the Eckharts?”
“They were acting management meetings. They were passing along some of these gains to the Eckharts, see? But not nearly as much as they were giving themselves; just enough to keep them fat and happy. And that bonus structure carried down, so it looked more like they were rewarding the company.”
“Without ninety-eight percent of the company knowing how well things were going.”
Laura looked again at the paper in front of Carmilla: the one that listed salaries. She tried not to choke at the number of digits next to C. Karnstein.
“But not to you,” she said.
Absurd though the numbers might be, they did not shift with nearly as much intensity as Lilita’s own—or her trusted circle’s.
“I imagine,” Carmilla muttered dryly, “she thought I might disagree with her methods.”
There were more, of course. What they held was a disjointed puzzle, but it painted one very large picture. They found repetition of the pattern on and on, up to the present, where the shifting numbers drew to a halt six months before Carmilla was set to take charge.
“Now what?” Laura asked, when she set down the last of the papers and leaned her back up against the couch. It seemed unlikely that they were going to corner Lilita with a dramatic ‘ah-ha!’ moment (though Laura thought that sounded quite satisfying.)
“Now, we have a lawyer look at all of this and figure out what she’s actually done wrong.”
“You mean, besides raised the prices on dozens of life-altering drugs that people can’t get anywhere else?”
“Surprisingly, not illegal,” Carmilla sighed. “The world is a terrible place, sometimes.”
Laura’s heart hammered with the injustice, and she could see it simmering low in Carmilla as well, her eyes turning away for a moment and her knuckles tightening on the folder as she sorted everything back into place.
“I might know a lawyer or two,” Laura suggested. She somehow doubted that Luce and Straka would be invited into the fold.
“You trust them?”
Laura nodded, “Implicitly.”
She was awakened by an argument, and, at first, Laura thought she had slept at her own place, and her upstairs neighbors were merely going at it again.
The voices, though, were coming from the other side of the bedroom door, and she was definitely in Carmilla’s apartment. The other half of the bed was cold in its emptiness, as if Carmilla had been up for quite some time.
Thinking she must have overslept, Laura stretched for her phone, glancing all the while at the windows, which seemed rather dark for it to be mid-morning… and she was right. Her lock screen informed her that it was only just past seven.
She pulled on Carmilla’s bathrobe and a pair of slippers, and made her way to the door.
In the living room, she was met with an unusual sight. Carmilla, wearing the same oversized t-shirt she had put on for bed and not much else, was engaged in a hushed shouting match with a tall, black woman that Laura had never seen. She was dressed for business, in a curvy dress, a sharp blazer, and heels that looked like they could easily double as weapons.
For a moment, neither seemed to register her presence. Carmilla was waving her arms, whispering as angrily as she could, while their unexpected guest continued to respond at a normal volume, her voice thick with venom.
She noticed Laura first, and smiled in a way that immediately had Laura shifting back a pace. She wished she had put on a real outfit, but it was too late for that, now.
“Well, this must be the little gidget herself!” she preened, “How nice to finally make your acquaintance.”
Laura got the sense that it was not nice at all. She darted her gaze to Carmilla, who appeared frozen in a way that was all-too-familiar.
“Who are you?” Laura demanded, forcing the quiver from her voice.
The woman’s smile never faltered. “Matska Belmonde. From your surprise, I suppose my dear sister never bothered to mention my existence?”
Laura’s eyes darted again, her mouth falling open. “S-sister?”
The way Carmilla’s shoulders stiffened was as good as confirmation.
“Well, half-sister, I suppose… kitty’s usually the one leaping to make that distinction,” continued Matska, with a flippant wave of her hand. “We shared a mother, you see, and not much else.”
The longer Carmilla remained silent, the faster Laura’s pulse seemed to race. She shifted her feet, begging her with the force of her gaze to just say something. To explain what was happening, why her sister had burst in on them so early this morning, and why they were fighting.
Matska continued in her stead, “I’ll be on my way in just a moment, and let you get back to all of this… domestic bliss. I do hope that I’ll be invited to the next wedding, Carmilla, dear; what with how you just went on about the last one.”
“Mattie!” Carmilla practically snarled. She had come alive, at her sister’s words, and she was braced like a wild cat about to leap, feet spread apart and hands clenched.
“Wait, what?” Laura stammered.
Carmilla’s sister turned back to her with a new grin. This one flashed with triumph. “Well, well, it would seem some of us are not quite… in the loop, shall we say?”
“Get out,” Carmilla demanded. “Get out of my apartment, Mattie!”
Mattie hardly raised her voice as she continued, chin tilted high and proud, “Why, kitty here could not stop talking about you, back in the day—‘oh, she just understood me like no one else, Mattie!’ and ‘I’ve never felt connected with someone like that, in just a single night!’”
The air had vanished from Laura’s lungs, evaporating in one shuddering instant. It was not true—it could not possibly be true. Carmilla had forgotten that evening, same as she had. They had established that from the very start. Laura had clung to that, had felt kindred in the relief of piecing together who Carmilla was and why they had gotten married. When she had asked for answers, Carmilla had been just as lost…
They had been lost together; that was the point.
Lost together, and then found.
One look at Carmilla, pale and furious, and Laura could hear the mantra of no, no, no, begin chanting in her mind, following the rhythm of her shaking head.
“OUT!” Carmilla shouted.
Laura was not looking at their intruder—she was focused helplessly upon Carmilla—but she heard Mattie’s high laugh before she clicked her way up the hall. The ding of the elevator was far too cheerful, like the sound of a greeting bell in a sick ward, and then she was gone.
The air, still, did not return to the apartment. Laura, were she capable of feeling anything, imagined she would feel cold, right about now.
“You remember,” she whispered.
It was not a question.
Slowly, Carmilla nodded. “Yes. I-I never forgot.”
When Laura blinked, it was with the sudden realization that there were tears building under her eyelids. She ignored them. “But you told me that you did.”
There was a long pause, and Laura saw Carmilla’s jaw tighten, a crinkle form in the delicate curve of her chin, before she whispered, “I was going to tell you.”
“When?” Laura cried. She threw an arm towards Mattie’s exit route, “When we got married, again?”
“Or—or was that never what this was? Did you mean any of it; any of the things you’ve said the past few months?”
Carmilla’s expression cracked, her eyes glistening as she took an imploring step forward, “Laura, of course I did! I’ve meant everything. This, with us… you are everything!”
Laura could barely hear the words. Her thoughts were on replay, rushing back through every conversation they had had, from that first day when she walked into that conference room full of lawyers, up through last night when Carmilla was curled warm into her side.
Everything was coloring odd, was twisting away from her.
She was remembering her first girlfriend sleeping with their mutual friend for months, behind her back; Danny reading her text messages, because she wanted to make sure Laura was ‘safe;’ Josie, vanishing in the twilight hours without so much as a kiss.
When she blinked her vision clear and stared back into Carmilla’s panicked gaze, she could not reconcile her with the person she had sang karaoke with last Tuesday, or the person she had kissed on Saturday mornings to help clean chocolate off her lips; or the person she had held close all those nights, wondering when the right moment would be to share that she was in love.
Laura shook her head, her chest aching as though she had taken a bruising punch in kickboxing, and took a step backwards.
“I need to go,” she said. “I need to… I need to think.”
“Laura—Laura, please… I can explain, just let me explain…”
Her head was still shaking—she wasn’t sure it had ever stopped, from the moment the secret had left Mattie’s lips.
“Later,” she said. “I just… I can’t be here, right now.”
The ding of the elevator was all the more painful, when it came for her.
‘Carm K – 1 Missed Call’
Carm (11:51 PM): Please call me.
Carm (12:38 AM): I’m so sorry, and I want to tell you that out loud but if I can’t then I’ll send it here: I’m sorry, Laura. I should have told you a long time ago, and you deserve to be angry with me.
Carm (12:39 AM): I don’t want to lose you.
Laura (6:45 AM): I promise I want to talk about this, I just need a few days
Laura (6:45 AM): I’m flying up to see my dad and clear my head
Laura (6:45 AM): I’ll see you when I get back, and I set up a meeting with Danny about the lawyer stuff. She’ll contact you soon
‘Carm K – 3 Missed Calls’
Carm (8:20 AM): Laura please don’t get on a plane. Please.
Carm (8:22 AM): What flight are you on? When is it supposed to land?
Carm (8:23 AM): I promise I’ll leave you alone forever if you want, just please tell me as soon as you land safely. I’m begging, Laura.
One of the things Laura had always loved about her father was his calm sense of rationality. It could be said that this left him, when it came to Laura’s safety, but, for everything else—from the best recipes for macaroni and cheese to matters of the heart, he was reliable beyond measure.
Growing up, Laura had never understood her peers for keeping things from their parents. She told her dad everything, even if it might get her in trouble. The very concept of hiding details of her life had simply never occurred to her.
When she had told him how she felt about girls, he had been the one to tell her there was a name for that, and that it was not only real, but that it was something she could be proud of. He had found literature and educated the both of them, and he had invited over her first girlfriend with a beaming smile and fresh-baked cookies. When she cheated on Laura, he had told her about a girlfriend who had done the same to him, and promised her that things would get better. And, when things eventually soured with Danny, he had been the first to tell her that her happiness mattered more than how nice the relationship looked on paper.
He took her straight to her favorite childhood brunch spot, the moment she landed, and they chattered on about the different weather between here and New York, how his work was going, and what had changed in the neighborhood since she had visited at Christmastime.
It was not until their food arrived—a brimming plate of eggs, French toast, and bacon each—that he cleared his throat and asked what he had done to deserve the abrupt visit.
And so Laura told him about the morning before, with the sister she had not known existed and the revelation that Carmilla had been lying to her from the very start.
“Do you think she loves you?” he asked, when she had finished.
Laura chewed on her lower lip. “I—yeah. Or… at least I hope she does. And it seems like she does, when it’s just the two of us and she says something sweet or she does things without me asking her. I used to think she was so indifferent, so above it all, but now she’ll bring me cocoa or she’ll come home with a new book she thinks I’ll like and… and it feels like love, dad.”
He nodded, working his way slowly through his breakfast without ever really taking his attention off of her. The way his brow wrinkled, it reminded Laura of just how old he had gotten. There were more lines then there used to be, spreading down to the corners of his eyes and stretching to the edges of his receding hairline. There were little gray tufts in his hair, and in the stubble that reminded her she had dragged him from his morning routine.
“Well, then, are you still mad at her?”
This was easier. Laura shook her head at once, “No. I-I stopped being angry the minute I left her apartment, I think.”
“And she hasn’t said why she lied to you?”
Again, Laura shook her head. After a silent, thoughtful moment, she met his gaze and sighed out, “I was scared that—that it would be like with Lucy. That I’d hear the answers and that would make it worse, and it would just… it would be over.” Her throat tightened, “Dad, I don’t want it to be over.”
“Hey, kiddo,” he said, reaching out to engulf her hand in the warmth of his own. The weight was heavy, reassuring, and it made her feel like a child. The heat died out from behind her eyes, and she swallowed and offered a watery smile as he continued, “From everything you’ve said, it sounds like she loves you every bit as much as you love her. Remember what your mother always used to say? Assume best intentions?”
Laura laughed in one short burst. She remembered.
It was the sort of advice that she could never truly forget.
“Trust that she has a good reason. And then decide what you want.”
The whole of the weekend, Carmilla only sent Laura two messages. On Saturday morning came a quick ‘Thank you, Laura’ in response to her message affirming her safe arrival in TO, and then, on Sunday evening, there was a text seeking information about her return flight.
Laura sent a response saying that she would see her when she was ready, and then frowned when she received a quick reply.
Carm (5:15 PM): I won’t send a car, I promise. I just want to know when you’re in the air.
Laura (5:17 PM): I board soon and I should land before 8pm
Carm (5:17 PM): Please be safe.
Laura could not help but think that she had very little control over that, and, had things not been uncertain between them, she might have responded with a quip about how that was out of her hands. Instead, she switched over to a distracting game of Candy Crush and raised the volume of her music to drown out the giggling teenagers that had crowded in next to her.
When she made her way through LaGuardia—skipping baggage claim with her overstuffed carry-on rolling along behind her—she half expected to find an unwelcome black car on the sidewalk, or perhaps even a familiar driver standing at attention with her name on a placard.
Neither of these things happened, and, without fully realizing what she was doing, Laura found herself supplying the cabbie with Carmilla’s address instead of her own.
That her girlfriend had the information on Laura’s flight, and more than enough resources to push at her, and yet did not, somehow pulled at the cords in her chest with more force than any grand romantic gesture could have. Carmilla, the same woman who had once sent cars to follow her just to arrange a conversation, had backed off the very moment Laura had asked.
She just understood me like no one else.
I’ve never felt connected with someone like that, in just a single night.
I promise I’ll leave you alone forever, if you want.
She was barely able to breathe, by the time she rang the access bell on Carmilla’s elevator. Her pulse was racing far too quickly, her lungs tight and her eyes burning with the threat of tears.
If Carmilla were not home, she did not know what she was going to do. The very thought of returning to the curb, of not seeing Carmilla’s face and not holding her for another long night, made her stomach spin. But, the elevator opened and rose with the same efficiency as ever, and on the other side of the doors was the only person Laura had wanted to see for days.
She did not wait. She threw herself at once into Carmilla’s arms, pulling her close with a helpless, gulping sort of breath. Her lungs, she was certain, had not been able to fully expand in all the time she had been away. Even sitting in her childhood kitchen, playing calming games of Go Fish with her dad and hearing all of his funny stories, there had been a clamp about her heart, weighing down all bodily function.
Carmilla gasped into her, and immediately clutched back. Her fingers dug cold and urgent into Laura’s shoulder blades, her nose pressing into Laura’s neck and her breath brushing the curve under her ear. Laura shuddered with something that might have been a half-lost sob, or perhaps just a sigh of relief.
When she shifted back, teetering to regain her balance, she swiped hurriedly under her eyes.
Carmilla did not bother—her tears shone against the pale of her cheeks, and her eyes were huge and shadowed with lack of sleep.
“You came,” she rasped. “I-I didn’t think you would come.”
Now that they were not touching, the last of the contact slipping between their fingers and the both of them left hugging arms about their own chests, Laura felt more lost than ever.
She nodded, and went for honesty.
“I missed you.”
Carmilla’s frame seemed to collapse, “God, Laura, I missed you, too—so much.” She reached out, into the space between them, but then rethought and let her arm fall limp back to her side. “Do… do you want to sit with me?”
Laura did not miss the way her gaze lingered hopefully on Laura’s luggage, and she shed her belongings carefully beside the kitchen table before following Carmilla into the living room. They settled opposite one another, facing over the coffee table, and Laura hated the formality. She longed for the casual brush of their arms and the tap of Carmilla’s foot into her hip as she adjusted her posture.
Fiddling with her fingers on her lap, she cleared her throat and asked the question she had once thought had no answers.
“What happened, that night?”
Carmilla had to have been expecting the question, but she still tensed, pressing her lips together for a long moment before she dared meet Laura’s gaze and begin.
“You remember the start—we met at Trist. I barely wanted to be there, but I needed a drink after dealing with Lilita’s plans for me all day, and I was not going to suffer through a straight bar. And then you came in, all nervous and clearly out of your element.” She managed a smile, her gaze dropping away to her lap, “It was cute. And… I would have been mad about the drink that you spilled on me, but you were so beside yourself about it, and thinking you needed to pay me back, so I said you could have a drink with me, and that would be payment enough.”
“Mm, well, cutie, if you let me buy the next round, and you promise to actually drink yours, that will be payment enough.”
The words fell back into place, drawn to life from the hazy edges of Laura’s memory. She had known there was something—that Carmilla had been entirely too generous.
“Then, you started telling me about why you were in Vegas. About halfway through you realized it was probably a bad idea to tell a stranger that you were alone in the city, but I promised you I didn’t have any plans to murder you. You thought that was hilarious. And then… for some crazy reason, when you composed yourself and asked why I was drinking alone, I actually told you the truth.
“I told you about Lilita and the company and my engagement to Vordenberg, and you just kept asking more questions. By the time I got through it all, we were both wasted. I don’t remember the exact details… but I remember telling you I hated the city because you couldn’t see the stars. And you dragged me outside and tried to find even one.”
“And did I?” Laura asked quietly.
Carmilla’s head jerked up, looking at her with blatant, hopeful surprise before she shook her head.
“Well, we saw a shooting star… but, in hindsight, we were very drunk and it was definitely an airplane.”
Laura nodded. “That would make more sense. What—what happened, next?”
Her eyes closing briefly, Carmilla let out a sigh, “You said I didn’t deserve to marry some stupid man. And then you… you said we should get married, so Lilita couldn’t make me do it.”
“It was my idea,” said Laura, her mouth falling open. “That was why you were so angry, the day we met again!”
Carmilla’s smile was wry, humorless. “Yes. I had been stupid—hoping that you remembered.”
Her mouth had gone too dry to formulate words, and Carmilla took this as a sign that she should move forward with the story.
“We got a cab, took it through one of those drive-through chapels. Our cabbie was very invested in the whole thing and I think he waived the fee, but I gave him the rest of the cash in my wallet, anyway. You were particularly excited about that, until you realized I’d taken us back to Trist. You pouted about how the ‘night was still young’—a phrase I am confident you had never used before—and so I bought champagne for everyone at the bar, and they toasted us.”
None of this had sounded familiar. There were no sudden jolts of memory, no lightbulbs flicking on over her head. Yet, it all felt vivid and real, painted in Carmilla’s soft words, and Laura could not have doubted the truth of her story even if she had tried.
She swallowed, crossing and un-crossing her legs. “So then… we went back to my hotel?”
Carmilla let out a breath, “As far as I know, yes.” It took her a long moment, before she could compose her expression and line her dark gaze back up with Laura’s expectant one. “I remember that I got my credit card back—it’s particularly vivid because I had lost the damned thing twice the month before, and it was a sticking point with Lilita—but that’s all, Laura. That’s all I remember, until the next morning.”
She inhaled sharply, “You… don’t remember sleeping with me?”
Carmilla’s gaze turned pleading, helpless. “I swear, Laura. I-I know I lied about the rest, but when we got together—when we really got together—that was our first time for me, too. I could never have faked that. I wouldn’t have.”
Laura would be lying, if she said this had not been one of her greatest concerns—and also one of the few things she had not brought up with her father. The idea that Carmilla had held those memories, that their first time together had not been the same for her as it was for Laura, had bothered her in ways she was both unable and unwilling to articulate. That, and there were some things that he did not need to know.
“Hey, I believe you,” she promised. She had leaned forward without realizing it, and she was perched on the very edge of her seat, her knees bumping the coffee table and her fingertips resting on its smooth, mahogany surface. “Of course I believe you.”
Carmilla’s lip trembled, and then she nodded too quickly and dashed a hand up under her nose.
“I’m sorry, Laura,” she whispered.
All Laura could do was shake her head, forcing forgiveness to stand aside for just one more minute.
“Why didn’t you just tell me, Carm? We’ve been dating for over a month, and we’ve talked about this so many times, talked about the divorce and your family… and you never mentioned any of this, or the fact that you have a sister.”
“I wanted to! So many times, Laura, I wanted to just lay it on the table.” This time, when she reached out, she did not back down halfway. Her hands clasped around Laura’s, squeezing desperately, “I was planning to tell you the night that I shared my feelings, but then you felt the same way—and that’s not an excuse, I know, but it was everything I had ever wanted. From the minute I met you, in Vegas, I wanted to be someone to you. And when you never called, I tried to tell myself there was a good reason, or just accept it as a trick of the universe.
“But then you wanted to meet, when Lilita pushed the divorce, and I couldn’t stop myself from hoping. Hell, I’m pretty sure I was trying to find you, to tell you the whole story and beg you to still be interested in me, the night you found me wandering the streets. I still have no idea where I got so hammered, or what happened to my wallet. And then I was too afraid to try again—even after we started dating. I was terrified of losing this. Losing you.”
Laura cleared her throat, not daring to move even an inch for fear of losing Carmilla’s touch, “And your sister?”
Carmilla’s expression turned stormy. “Mattie and I used to be close, a long while back. And then she got in a tough spot, and I was forced to ask Lilita to bail her out. Putting her in that sort of debt… she was furious with me. She never seemed to care that it was the only option, or the strain it put on me, and things just… they were never the same, after that.” She took back one of her hands, using it to push through her hair. “I don’t talk about her, much. It’s too hard.”
Laura watched her for a moment. Watched the way her jaw shifted and her eyes stayed shut.
“Okay,” she said.
Under her gaze, the entirety of Carmilla’s posture and expression shifted. She gaped up at Laura, eyes and mouth wide, and edged further off the couch until she was in danger of slipping to the floor.
“Okay?” she echoed.
“Yeah, Carm, I don’t expect you to tell me everything. I mean, yes, I wish I hadn’t been so blindsided by Mattie, and I really wish you had told me the truth about that night sooner… but I think I understand.”
There was disbelief blossoming on Carmilla’s face, right alongside the flickers of hope. Her eyes darted across Laura’s features, searching helplessly.
“You’re not breaking up with me?” she whispered.
Laura almost laughed, the tension cracking from her shoulders as she began to frantically shake her head.
“God, no. No, Carm.”
When Carmilla’s look of uncertainty refused to vanish, the creases in her perfect face drawing like scars into Laura’s heart, she surged across the table to press a kiss firmly to her lips. It was an awkward position, and she nearly fell in spectacular fashion, but Carmilla’s hands were steady on her shoulders in an instant, kissing her back like Laura was the only oxygen she needed.
“Please, never get on another plane,” she choked, and when she pulled back it was only by a fraction. Her eyelashes flicked with the finest droplets of moisture. “If something had happened to you—I would never have recovered, Laura. I’d never have forgiven myself.”
“Hey, I came back. I’ll always come back, Carm.”
Her forehead pressing hard into Laura’s and her breath drawing ragged, Carmilla whispered, “My dad didn’t.”
It only took Laura the flash of a single, horrified heartbeat to clamber across the table and into her arms.
Carmilla had not fully met with Danny, in Laura’s absence. The redhead had dropped by and collected copies of the notes they had put together—organized by importance—but it was not until late Monday afternoon that they joined Danny at her apartment in Williamsburg to discuss the matter in-depth.
It was Betty who met them at the door, ushering them into the bright, shiny space. When they had been dating, Danny had lived only a few blocks from Laura, in one of the less cockroach-infested buildings in Washington Heights, which meant she had never seen this place—but she barely got a chance to appreciate her surroundings, or the touches Betty had clearly put on it.
Danny was sitting on the couch with a grim expression on her face and papers stacked in a neat semi-circle across the table.
“This looks promising,” Carmilla muttered, dropping heavily into one of the armchairs.
“There’s good news,” Betty offered.
Carmilla leveled her with a stare, studying her up-and-down with narrowed eyes. Laura had told Carmilla about the situation—Danny being her ex, and now being engaged to Betty—but, as of yet, Carmilla had met Danny exactly once, and Betty not at all.
“Which implies that there is bad news as well.”
If she were bothered by the appraisal, Betty did not show it. Her expression remained bright-eyed and unfettered, though her eyebrow did twitch upwards. She glanced to her fiancée.
“This one doesn’t mince words,” she said. “I like her. And you are right,” she agreed, turning her piercing gaze back to Carmilla with a nod. “There is bad news.”
Once she and Laura had claimed their seats, and everyone was armed satisfactorily with coffee, Danny began setting specific documents in front of them, one at a time. They were littered with post-its and tacked-on pages of notes, and Betty frequently referenced a notebook that seemed filled to the brim with uneven scrawl.
The gist of it was that Carmilla had a case—but not an airtight one. Lilita had violated no actual laws, but she had toyed with the lines of obligation that were laid out in K.I.’s contracts. She was required to properly inform all stakeholders of company value shifts, and she had failed to make Carmilla aware of their rising profits from her price gouging tactics. The Eckharts, too, had been out of the loop, but to involve them in any legal action could be tricky—not to mention they had sold their stocks to Lilita at an accurate value.
Either Lilita had told them the truth (unlikely, Laura thought) or she had marked up her offer from their perceptions of value to convince them now was the time to sell.
Danny and Betty had, unfortunately, been unable to find anything in the paperwork for the sale to show unlawful deceit had taken place. Lilita had offered a price, and it had been accepted.
Proving that Carmilla had actually been kept from the information, too, would be difficult. She was on the record in several instances making claims about not needing a massive salary. At press conferences and company gatherings alike, she announced that she felt she did not deserve extravagance when she was not at the helm—something that had not been interesting enough to make headlines, of course.
It was in black and white on the memos Danny highlighted for them, though, and Carmilla’s expression soured as she read through her own words, again and again.
“That was Lilita’s idea,” she said hollowly. “She said I should tell the company, when I refused my first raise. It went out to the workers, and she said it would make me look good. I believed in what I was doing, so I went along with it—I actually thought she had my interests in mind, just that once.”
Laura reached for her hand. “She’s a monster, Carm. And we’ll find some way to stop her.”
“That brings us to the other thing you asked us to look at,” Betty agreed. She dug out another file folder. This one was thin and yellow, and Laura had never seen it before. “It’s a bit crazy, but, well…” she shrugged at Danny, who took over:
“But, it’s legal. And if you want to do it, then power to you.”
She actually looked impressed, even if it was only begrudgingly. Laura’s gaze darted from her to Carmilla, her brow furrowed in confusion.
Carmilla heaved a sigh, and then took the file from Betty’s hands and passed it to Laura.
“Plan B,” she said.
As always, feel free to say hello, either here or on tumblr! jg-firefly
Chapter 5: Epilogue
In which time moves forward
The first time Laura truly met Elle was unexpected.
Though the end of August was approaching, this was the hottest summer she had ever experienced in New York and Laura was relieved to be indoors after a long morning walking the city on a shopping mission. The Department of Finance might not be the most exciting place in the city, but at least it had air conditioning.
It was also the center of Laura’s recently green-lit investigation into abuses of the Parking Ticket system, and she had an interview that had been scheduled to start ten minutes prior. An aid was supposed to be collecting her, according to the stuffy lady at the front desk—who seemed displeased with her mere presence on the waiting bench, and kept sniffing every few minutes.
Laura almost didn’t register when someone called her name. Some meeting or other had just let out, and there were men in suits milling about in the entry, one of them sweet-talking the unpleasant secretary and the others carrying on lengthy conversations as they made their way off to their next appointments. Laura was more interested in whether or not her target had been in this meeting, and if he was therefore going to be free to speak to her, now.
“It is Laura, right?” the woman repeated, appearing suddenly in front of her. “Laura Hollis?”
Laura fumbled with her badge, flashing her New York Times ID with an uncertain smile, “Oh, yeah. That’s me.”
“You probably don’t remember me,” said Elle, though Laura’s face had flashed with recognition as she looked her over. “I’m Elle Sheridan.”
“No, no, of course I remember you.” Laura scrambled to put down the many things in her arm, delicately placing her still half-full coffee cup down beside her so she could offer a handshake. “You’d be hard to forget.”
Elle laughed, “As would you.”
She glanced around, her tight dress barely swishing at the movement, and then frowned every-so-slightly at Laura.
“What brings you here? Big story?”
“Medium, I think. It sort of depends on what I get out of today.”
Elle laughed, “That sounds about right. Carmilla did tell me you were good at your job. I see your pieces, every now and then—I’ve read a few. She’s not wrong.”
Laura knew when to take a compliment. She flushed, “Thanks. I’ve had some lucky breaks, and a good editor. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about the Parking Ticket system, though, would you?”
“Nothing. I’m just here to sort out a tax issue.”
From Laura’s shifting expression, Elle must have known she found this surprising. She said nothing, though she would be well within her rights to call Laura on her assumption. It was only natural to think that Elle would be at a government office because of her Governor father, even if the two had not been on speaking terms for months.
“Ah,” Laura hummed. “Figured I’d give it a shot.”
She eyed the doors, again, but there was no sign of the aid that was supposed to bring her to the offices. If she was not finished here within the hour, she would have to wait until next week to pick up the order she had placed that morning, which was unacceptable. She had paid extra to have it expedited, and if she did not have it by Saturday night…
“I’ve seen the non-profit is going well,” Elle commented, interrupting her internal musing.
“Oh! Yes. It’s been a long year, but Carm loves it, and it’s been worth every second.”
She hesitated, knowing what she should say, next, but unsure how well it would be received. Elle had always been a bit of an enigma to her—she was someone Laura knew solely through the eyes of Carmilla, after all, and having her standing before her now, buttoned and polished and entirely pleasant, was a bit of a depth-adjustment.
“And, um, how is everything going, with you?”
Surprisingly, Elle laughed. “You make it sound like I have a terminal illness. Just because my father doesn’t approve of my girlfriend doesn’t mean everything is terrible, you know. I seem to remember you thriving in the face of Lilita.”
Laura turned bright red, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply—”
“It’s fine. Really. Parents, right?” she waved a hand. “I have my own life, and Erica and I are helping manage a shelter for homeless women. Honestly, I’d rather you not know what is going on in my life—the less my name is in the papers, the happier I am.”
“Now that,” Laura agreed with a chuckle, “I can definitely agree with. And I promise I won’t mention I saw you here.”
“I would hope not. I’d like to think my evening activities are below the interests of a corporate corruption investigator.”
“Miss Hollis?” a petite woman with hands folded tight behind her back questioned, appearing nervously at Elle’s side. She glanced between them. “Um, Mr. Aber will see you now?”
Elle took a pace back and raised a hand in farewell. “Go get him, Hollis.”
Peter’s Hope had not been a spur-of-the-moment decision. Carmilla had first painted the picture for Laura on the evening of Lilita’s downfall, as they lay bundled together across the tiny couch in Laura’s apartment.
Having a decent idea of the fate that awaited her penthouse, she and Laura had spent a good portion of the week beforehand gathering what little of the place she actually owned and enjoyed. This consisted primarily of trinkets from around the world, which formed a combined collection of Carmilla’s own souvenirs and those she had inherited from her father. The fruits of their efforts were stacked in haphazard boxes around Laura’s already miniscule apartment.
“He really loved Lilita, you know,” Carmilla had murmured, when the story had cycled across the TV screen for the second time, “It wasn’t always like this.”
Laura turned to her, her shoulder digging unfortunately into Carmilla’s ribs as she adjusted her angle.
“What was it like?” she asked.
She watched the sadness flicker over Carmilla’s face for a long moment, and felt it tug weightily in her own chest.
“She made him smile again. It wasn’t that he wasn’t happy, before that—he loved me, and I have… so many memories of when it was only the two of us. It was just that he never smiled like that. The way he smiled in the photographs with my mom.”
“And you liked her, then? Lilita?”
Carmilla nodded, her frown twitching again. Laura reached up to stroke a finger along her jaw, and softened in relief to feel Carmilla turn into the touch. A moment later, she had threaded her fingers into Laura’s hair, playing gently with the ends as she spoke.
“We were all very happy, for a time. Dad would never have married her, had I not approved—he made that clear. Looking back, I can’t help but think that was why she was so sweet to me. Why she bought my the best presents, and said the most thoughtful things…”
“Do you… do you think she loved him?”
It was by far the scariest thing Laura had asked thus far. She felt Carmilla’s fingers still their ministrations.
“I do, yeah,” she murmured. “There are some things that you cannot fake. And when he… when his plane crashed…” she inhaled sharply, “she was devastated. Even inheriting millions, even the position it put her in with K.I… she wasn’t celebrating. I know that much.
“And she started out on the right track, when she took over the company. The papers prove at least that much. If—if she hadn’t swayed at some point, started finding more value in the money than in the good work being done, then maybe we wouldn’t be where we are.”
On the television, the story was being recalled to the forefront once more, the headline splashed across and a panel of newscasters going back and forth about the details. When Carmilla frowned at it, Laura reached for the remote and clicked the screen off.
“That was her choice,” she said. “And I think, from what I know about your dad, that he’d be proud of what you did.”
Carmilla’s smile was rueful. “You mean, ruin his company?”
“Don’t think of it like that,” Laura insisted. “He wanted you to be his legacy. No matter what you do next, it will honor his name.”
Carmilla’s expression turned thoughtful, her gaze falling distant on some unknown point.
“What is it?”
She shook her head, “It’s just… I’ve been thinking about that a lot. What it would mean to—to actually honor his legacy. Dad would have been horrified to have his company exploiting sick people for money just because they had no other choice. He wanted to find solutions; help people in hopeless situations.”
“I think you’ve already sort of done that,” Laura reminded her. She gestured at the dark television screen.
“No, I mean… long term.”
Laura shifted from her grasp, turning to face her seriously. She crossed her arms over her tucked-up knees and raised an eyebrow.
“You have a plan in mind?” she asked hopefully.
“I… yeah. I think I do.”
‘KARNSTEIN INDUSTRIES RELEASES PATENTS INTO THE PUBLIC DOMAIN’ read the first headline on the wall of framed papers that lined their front hallway. It was the only one that did not feature Laura’s name on the byline, but it was certainly the one Laura was most proud of. She glanced at it as she tugged off her shoes, lips twitching up into a smile that she could not help.
“I’m home!” she called.
“Kitchen!” came Carmilla’s returning shout.
The apartment smelled distinctly like burnt garlic, which Laura did not take as a promising sign. When she rounded the corner, she found Carmilla dodging around the narrow space wearing a filthy apron and a great deal of flour. It stood out starkly against the black of her hair.
“Hey,” said Laura, crossing her arms and surveying the clutter-covered counters and the pile of pans in the sink.
“Hey. I made dinner.”
“Yes, I see that,” Laura agreed. She spotted the plates waiting on the counter, and raised an eyebrow. “Those look like pancakes.”
Carmilla nodded. “Good to see you don’t need to visit an eye doctor, cutie. And I even put little chocolate chips in yours. Y’know, the way you like.”
The way she shifted in place, clearly nervous, kept Laura from commenting on the clearly failed attempt at sautéed vegetables. There were bits of chopped carrots and onions littering the floor, and far too many abandoned cutting boards. When she glanced in the trash bin as she passed by, she spotted something black halfway hidden in a heap of paper towels, which might have at one point been asparagus.
“These are great,” she said, around her first mouthful of pancakes.
Laura leaned over to turn her chin and press a quick kiss to her lips. A sticky trail of maple syrup lingered between them, when she pulled back.
“Mm. Really. Now sit down and eat with me. Tell me about your day.”
Carmilla launched into a familiar list of issues and goings-on at the offices of Peter’s Hope. Their partnership with NYU was still on the fence, but the system error with payroll had been repaired and their employees were back on track, and the new researcher Carmilla had been so excited about had accepted the job offer and was set to start in a few weeks.
“I got another call about movie rights,” she added, as she dusted off her second helping of pancakes. “Some little studio I haven’t heard of promised they’d make it ‘very gay,’ which is an upgrade from what Universal tried, at least.”
Laura scoffed, “That is an improvement. You haven’t changed your mind, though, have you?”
A part of her still thought the movie was a good idea. It would give Carmilla some measure of control over the story, for starters. The papers had done a decent job—as had Laura’s carefully crafted, personally published piece, launched on her blog a few short weeks after she walked out of the Lustig—but there was something entrancing about the concept: seeing their story, their victory, painted out on the big screen.
Lilita had not taken the end of her reign well. Though neither of them had been present when the news was broken to her, they had been able to glean a fairly accurate picture from the stories that leaked out of Karnstein Tower in the aftermath.
Rather than waiting to face her review and inevitable dismissal, Carmilla had gathered what information she had and packaged it neatly—with Laura’s help—to send off to every major news outlet. And then she had asked LaFontaine to put together a website.
The setup was simple; nothing flashy. The website, fully accessible to the public, featured a brief introduction dictated by Carmilla and edited by Laura. Beyond that, there were scans of five documents: the major breakthroughs made by Peter Karnstein himself in his final years. As was detailed in his will, and in the company contracts, these were controlled entirely by his share of the company stock, and they had passed into the ownership of Carmilla in the wake of his death.
Within six months, competing drugs were on the market and affordably priced. The value of Karnstein Industries had plummeted.
More importantly, Lilita Morgan was out of a job.
Carmilla shook her head. “No. We know what really happened, and everyone else knows as much as they need to. The rest of it, the part they really want to sell… that’s ours.”
The little box, tucked away in the bottom of her work bag, stirred warmly in Laura’s mind.
She smiled. “Just ours,” she agreed.
To get from New York City to Toronto, one could easily book a flight that would not only arrive in less than two hours, but also without the hassle of a layover. Laura had been making the trip whenever she could justify the expense, ever since she had moved to the city, and had thought very little about the means of transport.
The first time she had taken Carmilla to meet her father was also the first time she made the trip via car.
“You can drive?” Carmilla had asked skeptically, when Laura first made the suggestion.
“Of course I can drive. I wasn’t raised in the city, Carm.”
Still, Carmilla had taken extra cautions to check her seatbelt buckle and had gripped her knees rather tightly for the first ten minutes, until they had entered a steady flow of traffic outside of the city and it had become clear Laura was not lying about her abilities.
She had been a bit rusty—it had been years since she had been someone with a regular, non-subway-based commute, after all—but she had taken the time to practice a few evenings that week with an astonishingly trusting Danny.
The drive itself was just over eight hours, and, with Carmilla lacking a license, they took frequent stops for bathroom and food breaks, and just to give Laura a moment to stretch her legs. By the time they reached Toronto, it was past dark, even though they had left as early in the morning as Carmilla had been capable of.
“Finally!” her dad had declared, when they pulled up his gravel drive in Newmarket. He had hugged Carmilla tight before she had gotten out a proper hello, and ruffled Laura’s hair as though she were five, not twenty-five.
He made them sausages out on the back grill and did not bother trying to offer them separate bedrooms, when the embers had worn low and they were stuffed with s’mores and embarrassing childhood stories.
It was not until they were safely shuttered behind the closed doors of the guest bedroom—the queen bed much more accommodating than the twin that still remained in Laura’s untouched childhood bedroom (to which Carmilla had been given an excruciating tour not long after her arrival)—that Carmilla turned to Laura with huge eyes and declared:
“I think he actually likes me.”
Laura, who had been in the midst of trying to sort her things out from Carmilla’s—the latter being a truly dreadful packer—set down a pair of leather pants that definitely did not belong to her and frowned.
“What do you mean? Of course he likes you.”
Carmilla’s incredulous expression had not disappeared. “Parents never like me,” she stated, with an air of absolute certainty.
Laura scoffed, “Well, then you just haven’t met the right parents. Besides, all that matters to him is that I’m happy. And he knows that I love you, so of course he’s going to love you, too.”
“You love me?”
The words had spilled without her intending them to, and Laura’s mouth fell open.
“Shit. That wasn’t—I didn’t mean to—that was not how I was planning to tell you that, I swear!”
Carmilla’s hands caught at her shoulders, stilling her frantic hand movements. She locked her gaze with Laura’s, a slow smile spreading across her features.
Oh, thought Laura, the panic syphoning off as though flipped by a switch at the tips of Carmilla’s tender fingers.
“Leave it to you to be upset that the best news I’ve ever heard wasn’t romantic enough.”
“Love you too, Laura. Yes,” said Carmilla. And then, barely waiting a moment, she had kissed away Laura’s own look of disbelief.
On Saturday evening, after an early dinner at a simple Greek restaurant, Laura urged Carmilla into a car that was waiting on the curb, and climbed into the driver’s seat, herself.
“Do we have plans I don’t know about?” Carmilla asked, when Laura’s chatter—a bit more nervous than usual—had died off at around the hour mark. This time, there had been no questioning of her driving skills, and Carmilla had rolled her seat back as far as it would go, one arm cushioning the back of her neck and the other draped over Laura’s lap.
Despite this apparent trust, Laura had turned onto I-80 West, with no indications that she planned to get off anytime soon, and they had only a moment ago passed a sign welcoming them to Pennsylvania. Carmilla had good reason to be suspicious.
“Yep,” Laura said simply. Digging one hand over the console and into the backseat, she found the bag she had asked Danny to stash and tossed it up into Carmilla’s lap. “Don’t worry, I brought snacks.”
It was a long drive, and Laura had been well-aware of this when she made her plans. For a while she had been on the verge of reconsidering—planning something local and less obvious—but the idea was not one she could shake, and it no longer mattered to her if Carmilla knew what was coming. What mattered was that she got the sort of romance she deserved.
They talked as she drove. Laura mentioned seeing Elle, they discussed LaF and Perry’s due date and how they would need to figure out the right time to plan a baby shower (though Carmilla largely wrinkled her nose and promised only that she would show up), and Carmilla mused about ways to obtain more funding for the latest research projects at Peter’s Hope.
At some point, Carmilla drifted off. Laura started to say something to her, only to look over and laugh under her breath to find her girlfriend’s face mashed up against the window, her mouth open and her eyes closed.
She let her sleep through the final hour, as the display on the dashboard informed her that it was now closing in on midnight.
When they finally departed the main roads and closed in on the State Park, Laura found herself glancing more and more frequently to Carmilla, making sure she was well-and-truly out of it. She was beaming by the time she pulled the car into the tiny lot outside the remote cabin.
It took several pokes into her arm, and finally a lingering kiss just beside her ear, to draw Carmilla back into the land of the living.
“Wha-?” she stammered, wincing before she scrubbed the drool off her cheek. “Where are we?”
“No questions,” Laura said, her grin still firmly in place. “C’mon, follow me.”
Blinking the sleep from her eyes, Carmilla climbed out of the car and agreeably took the bag that Laura offered her from the trunk. She did frown at it, as they headed up the walk and Laura tapped the PIN code into the key lock box, but that was fine by Laura. Keeping Carmilla’s attention leveled in front of her was a top priority, for the next five or so minutes.
“Laura, what is this?” she insisted, gaping around the lavish interior.
Laura merely shook her head and offered another shush. She tugged the bag from Carmilla’s grasp and unzipped the top, tugging out a folded blanket and a black bandana.
“Turn around,” she instructed.
Carmilla’s skepticism went up several notches, her arms crossing as she stared at the offending article in Laura’s grasp. “What? No.”
She waivered on the pleading tone in Laura’s voice, and then groaned and turned around. “If I trip and fall on my face…”
Laura tugged the bandana up and over Carmilla’s eyes, tying it loosely around the back of her head. Her hair was still disheveled from her unfortunate sleeping position, and Laura let her fingers linger through the tresses, releasing some of the tangles. When she spun Carmilla back around by her shoulders, she could not resist leaning in for a brief, gentle kiss.
“Mm. If this is the whole plan, I might be okay with it,” Carmilla hummed.
“I think you’ll change your mind about that, in a minute.” She retrieved the final piece of the plot from the bag, tucked it in her pocket, and then laced their fingers together.
The walk outside was tricky. She had to warn Carmilla to lift her steps so as not to catch on the planks of the deck—which produced a comical effect on her gait that Carmilla certainly did not appreciate—and then there was the navigation down the stairs and across the uneven field.
“Stay,” Laura instructed, when she released Carmilla’s hand at last and set to work laying out the blanket on the grass.
Her heart was pounding in a furious staccato by the time she pulled Carmilla down to sit beside her, and her fingers were trembling almost too much to undo the blindfold. Laura was not sure she had ever been this nervous, her whole life.
It was insane, to think she had once done this with so little thought.
Carmilla’s brown eyes fell upon her the instant the fabric was freed, and they searched her face with trusting expectation before they bothered to check her surroundings.
“Look up,” Laura managed to whisper, the words hoarse and shaky.
Carmilla looked up.
With a moment’s hesitation—her gaze lingering on the wonder that was coloring Carmilla’s every feature—Laura let her eyes follow suit, and felt her own breath slip away.
Though she had known what to expect, and had done extensive research on the site, there was nothing she could have done to fully prepare for the number of stars scattered across the open sky. Laura had seen stars aplenty in her years, and in particular during her brief stay in Oregon, but not like this. This was the whole of the world cracked open and poured into breathing color. There was more light than she’d have imagined, more depth, more character. The stars were not mere pinpricks, they were glowing orbs, each accompanied by hundreds of neighbors.
Her reading had said there would be anywhere from ten to thirty thousand visible, on a clear night, and she did not doubt that was what she was seeing, now.
Carmilla’s hand caught first at her sleeve, and then found her arm and squeezed, her face turning from the sky in astonishment.
“Laura…” she breathed, and Laura could see there were tears shimmering in her eyes. She could feel them in her own, as well.
The box was in her palm, clenched in tight fingers, and she must have shifted it, must have drawn attention there somehow, because Carmilla’s gaze darted down and her grip tightened at once.
“Yeah,” Laura laughed, the word bubbling out like a happy sob. She opened the box, turned it to Carmilla, and let out a shivering, lengthy breath. “Carm…”
“You’re supposed to let me—”
“Yes, Laura Hollis, yes, of course I’ll marry you!”
“I had a whole speech!”
Carmilla drowned her out with a kiss, tumbling them over onto the blanket and thoroughly stealing what little remained of her breath.
“I love you,” Carmilla murmured, the shake of her head brushing their noses together, “I don’t need a speech.”
Laura surged their lips back together, and then rolled them so that they were side-by-side, their legs still tangled and their shoulders pressed tight together. They both took in a sharp breath at the span of the Milky Way, spread so clearly above, taking up everything they could see.
“You did all of this for me,” Carmilla insisted.
“Well, as the speech would have thoroughly explained, I’m sort of head-over-heels in love with you. And I know this isn’t quite as romantic as a drunken Vegas proposal, but—”
Carmilla shoved her shoulder, laughing loud and unrestrained, the kind of laugh she only shared when it was just the two of them and she was truly free.
“This is a million times better, Laura, and you know it.”
“Well, there was a lot of planning involved, I will admit.”
“No,” said Carmilla, the timbre of her voice dropping low with certainty.
She freed the ring from its box and held her hand in clear view as she slid it into place on her finger. When she turned to Laura, there were ten thousand stars resounding in the warmth of her eyes.
“This is better because it’s real.”