Your life of crime starts small. While you’re in undergrad, when your parents are short on cash, when your stipend for the semester runs out early (budget cuts – so not your fault), you resort to stealing travel size toothpaste and body wash. You know the security cameras were broken in the gas station mart just off campus. You’ve even offered to fix them. You’ve always been good with hardware.
You steal a little, here and there, because money is tight and you can’t very well go without brushing your teeth for a month. You adjust to cold showers and studying by the light of the street lamps. You adjust to stretching leftovers to last a week, and cut back as much as you dare on coffee and weed. If your class and lab schedule allowed for a part-time job you would gladly look for one. You don’t want to be a criminal.
Not at first.
It is totally a thrill to sneak out with something, sure, but if you got caught – you probably wouldn’t have been expelled, but having any sort of a record would have seriously hurt your grad school chances. You’re careful. You never take more than you need and you never hit the same store twice in the same month. You learn to sweet talk your way to free drinks, free food, free love. You’ve slept with strangers just for a night in a warm apartment, but who wouldn’t in Minneapolis? Right?
You don’t have many friends, not even back at Berkeley. You don’t have anybody you trust enough to know all the ways you cut corners to save money. You don’t have anybody pulling you back, telling you it might be a bad idea to lean closer to the sharp blonde at the bar, to ask how long she’s in town for, to follow her up to her top floor executive suite, to fuck her until the sun peeks through the swanky hotel curtains.
That’s how you met Rachel, five years back.
You don’t see her again for a few months. You didn’t expect to see her again at all, but then there she is, back in town on business. You ask what kind of business as your body reacts to the warmth of her hand on your back. She smiles at you, all precision and cold blooded efficiency, and kisses your cheek instead of answering. Rachel trails her hand up your arm and you follow her back to bed. She’s the best you’ve had, and you’ve had plenty. There’s something magical about seeing her in the morning, hair tousled and eyes bleary, her voice raw as she orders breakfast for two. You kiss her until room service shows up and pocket some toothpaste on your way out.
The third time you see her is when you realize there’s something off about Rachel. You come home after a long night in the lab and there she is: in your apartment, idly scrolling through what you assume are emails on her phone.
She doesn’t even look up at you when she asks, “Why doesn’t your heat work?”
“I can’t afford it,” you tell her. You’re too shocked to lie. You never told her where you live.
“Why don’t you have a bed?” Rachel meets your eye across the darkened room, her blonde hair shining in the scarce light from the street.
You set down your bag and empty your pockets on the kitchen counter: dry shampoo, a box of mints, an apple, a few protein bars, and a bar of soap. “Same answer.” You sold your bed frame and mattress last semester to pay for your books. Your couch isn’t that lumpy.
“You can’t live like this, Cosima,” Rachel says. Her tone of voice leaves no room for arguing.
You try anyway, “I don’t exactly have a choice. I’ve looked for cheaper digs, but moving can be expensive, and it’s time consuming, and my program keeps me really busy, and….” You trail off, shaking your head, wondering why you’re explaining yourself to the woman who broke into your apartment.
Rachel presses against your back, wrapping her arms around you. She’s warm, but then again, she has a full length coat on and you’re wearing a second-hand wind breaker and a sweater. “I don’t like it,” she whispers against your ear.
You relax into her, completely legitimate questions about how the hell she got your address still on the tip of your tongue. “Yeah, well,” you chuckle, leaning your head back on her shoulder, “I’m not a huge fan of being cold all the time and having no lights either, but what’s a broke grad student to do?” You shrug and bite back a gasp as Rachel’s arms tighten protectively, possessively, around you.
“I don’t want you to live like this,” Rachel’s still whispering.
You turn as much as she lets you, “I’m open to suggestions.” You’re joking.
You are, but Rachel’s not.
“Would you let me help?”
Two weeks later you’re living in a completely different section of the city, in a studio that probably costs more than your folks’ three-bedroom house back in San Francisco. Rachel visits roughly once a month, after that. Rachel sets up a grocery delivery for you. She leaves her coat behind with a brand new, top of the line smart phone in the right pocket.
You’ve never been the type to look a gift horse in the mouth, or whatever, so you roll with it. If some mysterious rich woman wants to take care of you, if she wants to groan your name in that delicious upper crust British accents of hers on a monthly basis, if she wants you whenever she’s in town and wants to buy your textbooks and take you out to dinners you could never afford, then okay. That’s her prerogative. If making your life easier makes the eccentric, secretive blonde happy, then okay.
You can live with being on call in exchange for all she does for you. You can live with not asking too many questions about what Rachel does, even when you overhear her talking about pay offs and tax loopholes to one of her minions. Rachel calls them all associates, but the more you get to know her, the more you suspect that your lover is some sort of white collar crime boss. She’s clearly the one in charge, and when she leaves the keys to a fucking Tesla behind with a note that she’ll be out of town for a few weeks, you don’t really feel like asking anymore.
Three years in, you move in with her. Rachel pulls some strings to get you an interview with the DYAD Institute, a global leader in biomedical research, and encourages you to get your Ph.D. through the University of Toronto. Your parents have started dropping hints that they want to meet your girlfriend, but you put them off. You think your folks would like Rachel, or at least appreciate how much she seems to care for you, but you’re not entirely sure Rachel is your girlfriend.
Yeah, you’re living together. Yeah, she’s been supporting you financially for a while. Yeah, she bought you a car that costs more than a hundred grand for no reason at all except that she could. Rachel travels a lot though, for work, and for all you know she’s got lovers stashed around the world.
It bothers you more than you care to admit. The part of it that should bother you, the part where you’re pretty fucking sure you’re living with a career criminal, doesn’t. You don’t care where the money comes from. What bothers you is the thought that you’re just part of a list to her, just one stop on a whirlwind tour of sex and conference centers and private parties on multi-million dollar yachts. That’s the part that makes you insecure and snippy when your parents ask about the woman you moved to Canada for. Maybe that makes you a bad person, but it’s the truth, and it’s not like she’s killing people.
At least, you don’t think she is.
You think too much about it all one night. Rachel’s flight home from Taiwan is delayed and you stay up waiting for her. You stay up and drink expensive wine and smoke really good weed, conjuring up outlandish stories in your head about her other lovers. You should be working on your dissertation, or sleeping, but at 4 am when Rachel finally gets back, jet lagged and grouchy (even for her), you’re wasted and looking for a fight.
She settles next to you on the white leather couch that only cost fifteen thousand dollars and brushes her fingertips up your arm like she always does.
You pull away and she knows, immediately, that something is wrong.
“How was your trip?” You curl up, creating as much distance as you can without stumbling your way off the couch.
“Productive,” Rachel says, her eyes searching for yours, “what is it, Cosima?” She doesn’t comment directly, but you know from the way her nose scrunches that she can smell the wine on your breath from where she is.
The empty bottles and spent joints are on the table, anyway.
“How many of us are there?” You croak, close to tears.
“I don’t understand what you mean,” Rachel inches closer, gently taking your hand and putting it in her lap. Her warmth is usually soothing, but right now it just makes you that much hotter and you feel like you’re going to spontaneously combust.
“How many pets do you have? One per country?” You swallow harshly, biting through your lip as your close your eyes against her answer.
Rachel’s quiet for a few minutes, her fingers idly playing with yours.
You don’t quite have it in you to tell her to stop.
“Do you remember the night I surprised you at your flat? When I asked if I could help you move somewhere more… suitable?” Rachel’s voice is soft. Rachel is rarely soft, even with you.
It’s enough to get you to look at her, and you’re surprised to see how serious she is. You nod, letting your tongue run over the small cut in your mouth. Your head hurts, but maybe it’s your heart. Hard to tell, after so much alcohol. Your pulse is still pounding in your ears.
Rachel looks exhausted and part of you feels bad for springing this on her tonight. This morning. Whatever. She doesn’t look angry, or offended, or anything like it, really. Just spent.
“I haven’t slept with anyone but you since then, dear,” Rachel smiles haltingly, looking down at your hands.
You squint because you’re pretty sure she’s blushing and Rachel Duncan does not blush.
“Oh,” you breathe out the word. You feel absurd, suddenly, for doubting her, and all of your negativity and insecurity dissipates in a rush of emotion that feels frighteningly like love.
“We’ve never really talked about our relationship, have we?” Rachel looks up at you again, her face pink as she smiles sheepishly through a yawn.
“No, we haven’t,” you confirm, tugging on her hand, “but it can wait a little longer. Bed?”
You do talk about it over a very late breakfast the next day. You explain that your mom and dad want to meet her. You giggle into your coffee because you’ve never seen Rachel tense up like she does in that moment. You laugh because you realize, for all her mystery and all her power and all her money, Rachel’s still human. She still has weaknesses and still feels fear, and it’s definitely fear you see in her eyes that afternoon. Rachel’s nervous about meeting your parents. The knowledge makes you lightheaded as you pull your girlfriend back to bed for the rest of the day.
Your parents adore Rachel. You learn more in a few days about what Rachel does for a living, legally at least, than you had in the four years prior. Rachel is courteous and smart and an extremely successful businesswoman and; honestly, what more could you want for your kid than for her to end up with a beautiful, intelligent, loaded woman who thinks the world of her?
You’re still convinced that there’s more to Rachel’s work than what she divulges while the two of you are visiting California. You’re not certain if the rest of it is connected to her day job or totally unrelated, but you don’t really care. You do know that Rachel has three cell phones, only one of which you have the number for. You do know that Rachel speaks twelve (twelve!) languages fluently and that her parents died when she was young. You do know that Rachel only tells you what she believes it safe for you to know. You should probably be concerned by that, but you aren’t.
Sometimes you ask questions just to rile her up. Rachel doesn’t like it when you dig for information about her job (jobs?). Sometimes you push and sometimes she does tell you more than usual. Usually she just rolls her eyes and kisses you until you stop asking. Rachel knows you’re toying with her, trying to frustrate her, and most of the time she plays along.
Tonight is different, apparently.
“Rach?” You bump your noses together, draping your arms over her neck as you stand together in your bedroom with the lights dimmed after a few glasses of wine.
“Hmm?” Rachel’s been distracted all night.
You want to know why.
“Something on your mind, babe?” You scratch the nape of her neck lightly, smiling as her eyes slide closed.
“Yes,” Rachel whispers. She always whispers when she’s about to ask you a question she isn’t sure she’ll like the answer to. “I want to tell you more about my… work, about what I really do.” Rachel keeps her eyes closed.
You think, maybe, she’s afraid.
“Why now?” You kiss her lightly, lingering, trying to counter the apprehension that’s rolling off of your girlfriend and filling the room with nervous energy.
Rachel quirks her lips into a smile, opening her eyes to look you over, “I don’t want you to ever leave me. I want this,” her hands squeeze your hips, “to be forever. How can it be if I keep you in the dark?”
There’s not enough oxygen in the world to fill your lungs.
Rachel nudges you backwards, nodding her head to the dresser behind you, “Top right drawer.” She waits patiently while you retrieve what is absolutely a ring box from under her neatly rolled socks. She takes it out your hand and pulls you close again. “I want to tell you everything, Cosima. I want you to know and I want you to stay with me.” She whispers like maybe, just maybe, she’s afraid you won’t.
You clear your throat a few times, “Are you asking me to marry you?”
Rachel nods, pressing your foreheads together.
You take a deep breath, “Are you asking because you love me or because you’re involved in some sort of super illegal shit that we’re going to need to invoke spousal privilege for if you get caught?” You want to make it sound like a joke, but it’s not, really.
Rachel fidgets in your arms, “Is both an acceptable answer?”
You snort because, yeah, that’s exactly the reply you were expecting.
“Can I tell you a secret?” You whisper against Rachel’s lips.
“I think my fiancé is a criminal.”