RYAN VALORE DRUMMED his fingers on the countertop. He’d waited on hold for—he checked his watch—five minutes to speak with the Dean of Admissions at Calvin Coolidge School of Law. The letter on the counter next to him, the one which he’d received a week prior, messed up all his well-laid plans.
His gaze sought out the worst words on the letter: wait-list, reservation fee. A hand smoothed down his spine, distracting him. His girlfriend of not-very-long, Nora Leslie, gave him a half-smile before sitting on one of two kitchen chairs.
“Mr. Valore?” a bored voice inquired—finally.
“Yes, I’m here.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Valore; the dean is occupied at the moment. I’ll give her the message you called, and she’ll return your call at her earliest possible convenience.”
“Ma’am.” Trying to hold off the headache threatening, he shut his eyes and rubbed his forehead. “This will be the fifth message I’ve left the dean. May I schedule an appointment to meet with her?”
“Of course,” the woman answered, and for a moment, hope sparked. “I’ll leave a message with her, and she’ll call to schedule your meeting.”
Swallowing a groan, he asked, “Can’t you please schedule the meeting?”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Valore,” she repeated. “The dean prefers to manage her own calendar. I’ll leave a message for her, all right?”
Phone calls were getting him nowhere. “Yes,” he ground out through clenched teeth. “Please do.”
Nora watched him worriedly as he ended the call, but he couldn’t manage a smile to reassure her.
“What happened?” she asked after a moment.
“Can’t get through.” Dropping the phone on the counter, he slammed his palm onto the countertop. “Dammit!”
Immediately, she came to his side, wrapping an arm around his waist and resting her head on his arm. Sucking in a deep breath, he felt his tension lessen with her presence.
“We should take a ride.”
“I can’t, Nore.” The topic change confused him. “I’m going to try the dean again in a while. Maybe I’ll annoy her into speaking with me.”
“That could work.” She nodded. “But it might be more effective to annoy her in person.”
Smart girl. Wrapping his arms around her, he stared into her upturned face. “You could be right.”
She hummed in agreement. “It’s not very far. An hour? All highway…”
“Let’s go.” After kissing her nose, Ryan sent off a quick message to his best friends and roommates. Apollo and Cai were out, and Matisse was asleep, despite the late hour.
Earlier in the day, he’d caught Seok creeping out the door, a troubled look on his face. When Ryan had inquired, he’d mentioned a new woodworking project and Nora, before slipping outside.
While Ryan typed, he followed Nora to the front door. She held out his jacket for him, and he smiled, putting in one arm and then another like a little boy.
“You’re in a silly mood,” he observed.
“I think I’m feeling a little sleep-deprived.” She yawned widely. “You guys are party animals.”
Chuckling, he unlocked the door and waited for her to get in before circling the vehicle to climb into the driver’s seat. Already, her eyes had closed, head resting on the palm of her hand. Her eyes were rimmed in dark circles he knew were his— and his friends’— fault.
Nora’s twenty-first birthday had been on Friday, and he and his roommates Seok Jheon, Apollo Morris, Matisse Boudreau, and Cai Josephs had taken her out for dinner. They’d gone to a Chinese restaurant where food was served as soon as it finished cooking, and they all shared the dishes around a huge round table. All of them drank, with the exception of Apollo, who lived by the my body is a temple mantra. Poor Nora, lightweight she was, struggled after one glass of white wine, which she didn’t even like.
Then Matisse demanded they order the sweetest, girliest drinks the restaurant served so she could try everything. And she did, good sport, but the result was a ten o’clock bedtime with rounds of vomiting at eleven, one, three, and five, at which point all of them were pretty much up for the day.
It had taken her longer to recover than the rest of them, though he still gagged a little when he thought about the appletini he’d sipped.
His phone dinged, distracting him from Nora’s tired visage. “Mind checking?”
Opening her eyes reluctantly, she peered around the console for his phone. “Want to put in your password?” She held it out for him.
She tapped the password and read his message. “Apollo wants to know if you’re making dinner, and if not, can he go grocery shopping?” Without waiting for him to reply, she began to type a message back. “I’m giving him a very specific list. I’m going to cook tonight. Think he’ll follow it?”
Knowing Apollo? Definitely not. Shaking his head, he glanced away from the road for a moment. His girlfriend’s golden eyes twinkled with amusement, and her lips turned up at the edges. Seeing her happy made him happy.
And wasn’t that the kicker because she made not only him, but each of his roommates happy as well.
As he refocused on the road, part of him wondered if perhaps his wait-listing might be related to the unique situation he and his four other roommates had chosen.
Ryan had met Nora first. A suspect in a horrible school shooting, she’d called Legal Aid for a lawyer. His professor from Brownington College was assigned her case, and Ryan, who was interning with the man, had gone with him to meet the girl they’d heard so much about. From the moment he saw her in the hospital bed where she was recovering from a gunshot wound, his life had changed. Something about her drew him in.
Back then—in what felt like another era: pre-Nora—she’d been a shadow of herself. In the wake of the shooting, she’d hidden her beautiful personality. It had taken all of them to draw her out, and in the process, they’d fallen for her.
When he sighed, she linked her fingers with his, sandwiching his hand between both of hers. She didn’t ask him what was wrong, just gave him the comfort of her presence.
After the initial shock and anger following in the wake of Ryan and his friends learning they’d all fallen a little bit in love with her and she with all of them, they’d come to an agreement. They would have a relationship with her. She was his girlfriend, but she was also Seok’s, and Matisse’s, and Apollo’s, and Cai’s.
It was remarkably easy, sharing her affection. Probably because she loved each of them so fiercely. Her love was additive, not subtractive. It didn’t lessen what she felt for him, and strangely enough, it didn’t lessen his affection. In those early days, when she was still healing from her wounds and hounded by the police, his roommates’ protection and caring for her put him at ease. If he couldn’t be with her, one of them could. If she needed love, comfort, support, there was always someone there to give it.
For the first time in as long as he could remember, he wasn’t waiting for the other shoe to drop.
But, of course, it did.
Nora had begun participation in a research study at Brownington College. In exchange for answering questions and taking tests, she’d been offered tuition as well as room and board. Dr. Murray, the psychologist running the study, had arranged for her to live in a dorm.
But Ryan and his roommates wanted her to live with them, and eventually she’d agreed to stay, permanently. Unfortunately, after letting the college know she wouldn't be returning, Nora was saddled with a bill of fees for a dorm room where she’d never even spent the night.
Simultaneously, he’d learned the early admittance he was counting on at Calvin Coolidge School of Law was reneged, and he’d been placed on the waitlist. Given his well-above-average grades, his near-perfect score on the LSAT, and the recommendations he’d received from his professors, it made no sense. No one at CCSL would tell him why he was waitlisted, and even his professor and mentor, Erik Bismarck, had had no luck getting answers.
A part of him worried that the reason was his relationship with Nora.
Which is crazy, isn’t it? There was no way someone could have learned about their living arrangements so early, and cared enough to report it to a dean. Not to mention it was illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation. Though he wasn’t sure his part of the polyamorous relationship qualified, as the only person he was interested in being with was her.
Thinking about being with Nora made him harden, causing him to shift uncomfortably. Coordinated he might be, but not enough to hold hands while driving seventy miles down the highway and shift his dick.
Giving him a quick kiss, Nora let his hand go. He adjusted his pants and allowed himself a quick glance her way. She propped her elbow on the window again and rested her head on her hand, gnawing at her lip while watching the scenery pass by. As if she felt him watching her, she turned to him.
“Ry…” She hesitated, her brows drawing together while she gathered her thoughts.
He waited for her, watching the road and glancing over now and then.
“Do you think you were waitlisted because of me?”
Considering he’d had the same thought, he didn’t deny it. Hurting her or lying to her? It wasn’t a choice he wanted to make.
“I don’t know, Nore.” Reaching for her hand again, he struggled to push the truth out. “Maybe.”
“Because you represented me…” She trailed off, looking at her lap guiltily.
Damn. His involvement in her case wouldn’t be the reason. While it wasn’t an unreasonable assumption on her part, defense attorneys made their names with high profile cases. The wider public may sneer at them, but within the community, defense was merely a separate branch of expertise, and not one particularly looked down upon. So, no, he didn’t think the fact he interned with Professor Bismarck, who’d represented her in a case now closed, impacted his admittance into law school.
He stayed silent, unwilling to have her second-guess their relationship. With a shock, he realized he was willing to surrender his chance at law school before giving her up.
No matter how long he’d wanted to be a lawyer, compared to her, it paled in importance. Something about this revelation eased his tension and anxiety. He would get answers from CCSL. Maybe he’d have to apply to other law schools, but there was no way he’d give up Nora for it. No way.