Nancy slotted the key into the lock, squaring her shoulders to disguise her trepidation, more from habit than anything else. The manicured shrubs lining the front of the house were blanketed in blue-white snow, and under the sound of the whistling wind, she could hear dogs barking a few blocks away.
She had seen the pictures, of course, but that had been eight months ago, and she had only been able to glance through before deleting the message. She'd had no sense of scale, of the layout of the house; besides, despite everything, it hadn't been her choice anyway. She remembered mustard-colored walls, scuffed baseboards, cheap cabinets.
The key had been cut just for her, and she had to jiggle it a bit to make the tumblers engage, the entire time mentally triple-checking herself in case she had misread the address, or the signs. But the lock clicked back and she pushed open the door, finding the light switch. The insistent chirping of the alarm panel beside the front door subsided as she hastily entered the memorized code, and the lights on the panel flashed to a sedate green.
Nancy gasped as she turned around, seeing the room for the first time. The overhead fixtures cast the room in warm, inviting light, despite the chill in the air. She had still been picturing those hideous walls and stained, worn carpet. The carpet was all gone, and the living room floor was warm hardwood. Oversized brown-leather couches and recliners were grouped around the television set and entertainment center. The walls had been painted a warm neutral taupe. A fully-decorated Christmas tree had been placed beside the front windows, although the lights were off now. Through a doorway, she could see the dining room; behind the loveseat, she saw steps leading to the upper story.
Nancy closed and bolted the door behind her, keeping her steps light even though she knew no one was home. Gone were the cheap, dated cabinets she had seen in the photos, or he had refinished them—and how long had that taken? She couldn't even imagine. The downstairs bathroom, clearly meant for guests, still sported a dated milky-jade tile, but he had updated the fixtures, and it looked almost quirkily nice.
When she reached the master bedroom, her steps became even slower, even quieter. His alarm clock was beside the bed, and she saw a basket of dirty clothes near the dresser. The bed had been spread with a quilt made with blocks of red, green, and white plaid; Christmas always had been his favorite holiday. On tiptoe she walked to the bathroom. His toothbrush and toothpaste, his razor, his deodorant and aftershave and cologne. His soap, his shampoo and conditioner and facewash in the shower stall.
She let out a breath she didn't know she had been holding. In her heart, she knew that she couldn't have blamed him at all, if he had found someone else, if someone new had begun sharing his life and his bed. But her heart would have been broken by it.
Nancy hadn't reset the alarm or turned off any of the lights as she explored the house. When the front door opened, she flinched, drawing a quiet, startled breath.
"Here, have a seat," she heard his voice.
"Thank you," a breathless feminine voice replied.
Nancy's heart sank. How cruel, for it to be like this—but oh, how she hoped she was wrong. Keeping her duffel bag on her shoulder, she crept quietly toward the cozy living room, staying just out of sight beyond the doorway.
"My friend Benny must have come over," he muttered. "Anyway, yeah—have a seat too. Do you want something to drink, something warm? I can make some hot chocolate."
"Yeah!" a boy's voice replied.
The fist in Nancy's stomach began to loosen some.
"You really don't have to do this. But thank you." The woman sighed. "That van has been a catastrophe. No wonder the guy gave me such a great deal on it."
"Martin, the guy I called to come get it? He's a good friend, and I know that if you're looking for something else, he can help you find a deal. On something that won't leave you stranded. Let me turn the heat on—and you're welcome to grab that blanket behind you," he called, as he walked into the kitchen and flipped on the lights. "This'll just take a couple of minutes."
"You have a really nice house," the woman called.
"Thanks," he replied. "I've put a lot of work into it—and I'm not done yet, but I hope I will be soon."
Nancy let the duffel bag gently slide to the floor with a muffled thump, then crossed her arms as she took slow, noiseless steps toward the kitchen doorway, careful to stay out of sight of the woman and two children in the living room.
He stood there, at the door of the pantry, hunting through it; she saw a gallon jug of milk and three mugs already set out beside it on the counter. With a quiet, triumphant cry he emerged from the pantry, a box of instant hot chocolate mix packets in his hand.
As soon as he turned, he saw her.
Nancy's eyes filled with tears, and she let her crossed arms drop to her sides. "Hey," she whispered, her lips turning up in a crooked smile.
Ned dropped the box of hot chocolate, staring at her like she might be a ghost, a vision brought to life from his sheer desire to see her. The cardboard struck the kitchen linoleum with a dull thwack. Then he crossed the room in long, rapid strides, a huge grin lighting up his face, and drew her into his arms, until her feet were no longer on the floor, holding her tight against him. Ned's hugs had always been the best ones she had ever experienced; she felt completely surrounded by love and safety and comfort. She wrapped her arms around him too, clinging to him, and a pair of tears slipped from her flooded eyes down her cheeks.
"Nan," he whispered. "Oh, baby, I've missed you so much."
"I've missed you too," she whispered, as he touched his forehead to hers, and she ran her fingers through his hair, over the nape of his neck. She could feel his heart beating. So often she had to do everything she could to forget this, to push it out of her mind, so the need for it wouldn't eat her alive. Now it all roared back, monstrous, made all the stronger by her months of denial and neglect, and it was as though her heart could only beat in proximity to his.
"Two weeks. I hope."
"Mmm." She knew he had to be disappointed; she was too. But at least it was two weeks. With a reluctant sigh, he gave her one last squeeze and lowered her back to the floor, but he didn't release her. "Then I'll just look at it as an incredible Christmas present."
She smiled, stroking his cheeks, memorizing the texture of his skin under her palms all over again. His handsome face and muscular body was as familiar to her as her own, sometimes even more so. "You've done some amazing work on the house."
He grinned, moving so he could look into her eyes. "You like it?"
She nodded. "It looks really great. I'm impressed, Nickerson."
"Good." He leaned down and gave her a brief, sweet kiss. "It was for you, babe. It's yours too. Do you want some hot chocolate?"
"Yeah," she admitted off a sigh, as he released her. "That actually sounds pretty great."
They kept glancing at each other, as they worked together to heat the milk and stir in the chocolate powder. She helped him carry the mugs into the living room.
The woman whose voice she had heard was perched at the edge of the recliner, clearly anxious. The stiff line of her back and shoulders relaxed slightly when she saw Nancy. The woman had clearly been desperate, to accept a ride from a stranger, but Chicago was bitterly cold and more snow was on the way. Seeing another woman was doing a lot to calm her fears.
"Nancy, this is Monica. Her van broke down about a mile away, and I called a tow truck for her, but it was too cold to wait out there. These are her little boys—"
"Xavier and Gabriel."
"X," the larger of the two boys told her proudly.
"You both have great names," she told them. "I'm glad to meet you. I just wish it had been under happier circumstances."
Monica nodded. "It's nice to meet you, too," she said politely. When Ned offered her a mug of hot chocolate, she reluctantly accepted it.
The boys had noticed Ned's game system and were excitedly asking him questions about which games he had, when his cell phone rang. The tow truck driver had arrived, and Monica hastily finished her hot chocolate and began fastening the coat she had never actually removed. By the time Ned had finished his conversation, she had the boys back in their coats, too.
Ned gave Nancy an apologetic look. "I'll be right back, unless you want to come with us," he said. "Martin will be able to take them home, if he can't fix the car tonight."
Nancy glanced between Monica and the two boys. "Would you like to eat dinner with us?" she suggested.
Monica immediately shook her head, drawing her coat tighter around her. "Oh, no, we couldn't," she said. "Thank you so much, but my mom is expecting us. I'll give her a call from the garage and let her know what's going on. Thank you, though."
Nancy nodded. "Well, I'm glad Ned could help," she said. "I'll see you when you get back, okay?"
Once Ned's taillights had vanished, Nancy closed the blinds with a sigh, then plugged in the tree lights. They twinkled from the branches, illuminating miniature candy canes and teddy bears, keepsake globes and porcelain ornaments Ned had collected as souvenirs on various trips. She stood there gazing at the tree as her hand stole up to the collar of her sweater. Slowly she drew a necklace from beneath the fabric, still spellbound by the tree; she parted the chain and let the circlet of gold fall into her palm. The band was slightly loose against the base of her left ring finger.
Officially, she and Ned were no longer in a relationship, and hadn't been in the past six years. Officially Nancy Drew was a single CIA operative specializing in long-term undercover missions, who had spent the majority of the past six years abroad. Officially Ned was her ex-boyfriend.
The minister who had finally agreed to marry them six years ago had been sworn to secrecy. No marriage license had been filed; they hadn't even applied for one. On paper, legally, they were exactly as they said they were. Two people who had loved each other, then been separated by life and work.
She had left the handwritten record of their marriage with Ned, signed by them both on the day they had spoken their vows to each other and exchanged their rings. The rules said she couldn't be legally married, and she wasn't. They weren't.
But they had been married in every other way. He was her husband, the husband she could never acknowledge or truly have. They had never shared a home or lived together, not really, only during their all-too-short honeymoon and brief visits she had been able to make. When she had been able to visit last year, it had been his apartment. It had never been theirs, but she had still thought of it fondly.
This... She looked around her. This place was a home. A place for a family.
She was more grateful than she could ever possibly say that Ned had agreed to their secret marriage, that even when she had told him she would understand if he couldn't go through with it, he had still wanted this. She knew he was lonely, though, just as she was. It was impossible to be married for two weeks of the year, sometimes less, and single for fifty more.
And she didn't want to wear her wedding band only behind the privacy of closed doors, when they were alone.
But that wasn't an option. When she had accepted her assignment, the separation should have ended them, should have closed this door. That they had even managed to carve out such a tiny place for themselves was both impressive and maddening.
He deserved more. They both did.
She was unsurprised to find a Christmas album in the sound system; she cued it up and left the volume low, afraid the television laugh track would be grating and intrusive. She took the emptied mugs to the kitchen, rinsed them out and left them on the counter beside the sink. The fireplace in the kitchen didn't look like it could hold a fire; Ned had stacked holly boughs and pinecones in it for a festive display. Or his mother had.
When she heard his car pull up again, it was impossible not to rush to the door. She hadn't been able to relax with him while they hadn't been alone, but now...
He opened the door and she barely let him step over the threshold before she was launching herself into his arms. "Nan," he breathed, and their lips met as he kicked the door closed behind him, their arms wrapped around each other. They kissed and kissed, over and over, her fingers in his hair and his body so warm against hers. He put her down and unzipped his coat, and they kissed again, slow and intense. When he pulled back, she knew she was flushed, her lips warm from his kisses. He kept his arms around her and studied her face.
She kept gazing at him, his sweet dark eyes, his strong jaw, his handsome face, as she found the necklace beneath his own shirt and tugged it up. When she slid his wedding band onto his finger, he released a soft, pleased sigh.
"Do you want to see the house?"
She nodded. She wanted to be in contact with him, and he was clearly proud of all the work he had put in. So was she. She laced her fingers through his once he had put his coat away, and he took her on a tour of the house. The dining room was simple, furnished with a large table and six chairs. Enough for the two of them, plus Ned's parents, and Hannah and Carson... maybe one day. Nancy saw little touches that definitely made her think Edith had been over to help Ned decorate, like the red satin ribbon tied in a bow on the dining room chandelier, the white and gold poinsettia centerpiece, the dull-bronze curtains.
He told her about the work he had done in the master bath, refinishing the cabinets, retiling, putting in a new mirror. All the floors throughout the house were hardwood now, with all the old, worn carpets ripped out. A guest bedroom was set up, and an office. The house was more than twice the size of Ned's old apartment, so the house definitely wasn't cluttered, but he had done a good job of filling it with nice furniture. Nancy saw Edith's influence in that, too, and imagined that his father had helped him get a good deal on the house. James Nickerson knew several realtors in and around the city.
At the top of the house, they looked out. Some of the houses in the neighborhood were lit up with Christmas decorations. It was a cozy scene. She gently squeezed his hand.
"You did an amazing job. Really. I love it."
He smiled at her and searched her eyes, and she could feel the question he wanted to ask her, but he didn't speak it. "I'm glad, baby. Are you hungry? I'm sorry, I should have asked—"
She shook her head. "I ate on the way in. I didn't expect you to be ready to feed me."
"Well, I have some of mom's soup in the fridge. I was going to have that for dinner."
In his apartment, Nancy had always felt like she was visiting him, but the place was definitely his. He had never said that, and he had always left space for her to put her belongings, but because of their relationship and what might happen if anyone found out, she couldn't leave things with him. She couldn't make the house truly theirs.
And yet... and yet. She saw a framed print of a painting she absolutely adored in the corner of the living room. On the dresser in the bedroom, Ned had placed a small white bear that she had won at a fair and then had given Ned, almost as a joke, when they had been in high school. He couldn't do anything so overt as placed framed photos of the two of them everywhere, but he had left signs of the shorthand of their relationship in all the smaller touches. He had written a few lines of his vows on a scrap of paper and pinned it under a magnet on the fridge.
that here and now, my heart is fully yours, as it always has been
and for as long as we both shall live, I will be your home
He was her home. And this felt like her home.
While Ned warmed up the soup, Nancy found a loaf of French bread and cut it into thin slices to toast. The refrigerator was sleek and modern, and as she found the butter and closed the door, she found herself imagining what it might be like to live here, for longer than just a week or two. To wash and dry dishes with Ned at the sink, to relax with him on the couch without feeling the distracting ticking of their last seconds together.
"So how was work?" she asked him, sitting across from him with the pile of toast between them. She picked up a slice and crunched into it, savoring the taste.
"It was good," he told her. "I got a promotion, did I tell you?"
"About a month ago?" They nodded at each other. "But tell me all about it. All I know is that you're making a little more money now."
"Yeah, a couple more thousand a year, but... oh, it's been great so far. Tyler's impressed with me. I think I might have a shot at making VP."
Ned said it casually, but Nancy's eyes widened. "Babe, that's great!" she exclaimed. "I mean, I know you're incredible, but I know you'd be fantastic at that."
Ned grinned. "Thanks," he murmured, and told her all about his new responsibilities as he finished his bowl of soup. "So since you're gonna be here for Christmas, are you planning on going over to your dad's?"
She nodded. She could read the longing in his eyes, and she felt it too. While their families didn't know about their situation and believed, as everyone else did, that they were broken up, they still had good relationships with each other's parents. Their staged breakup had been friendly. After being parts of each other's lives for so long, they hadn't been able to give that up.
But it would have looked suspicious for Nancy to go to the Nickerson home with him for Christmas, just as it would have been strange for him to come home with her. Nancy had loved that time together, though. Edith Nickerson had made sure she had a stocking, and she had been part of all the celebration, the preparations for the grand meal and the trip out to see holiday lights, and visits to Ned's grandparents. She missed it so much.
She missed Ned. She missed her home and who she was here. Without her friends and her family and her husband, when she was away, she felt like her connection, the continuity between who she had been and who she was, grew more fragile. Without them, the person she had been was gone.
Nancy knew other operatives who had been glad to leave their pasts behind, or at least to build something completely new for themselves. She knew others who were too homesick to make it through more than one or two assignments, who begged for desk duty, for analysis, for a stable life.
There had been a time when Nancy had pitied those people, even knowing that her marriage to Ned was a sign of that weakness in herself. Now she wasn't so sure.
Ned was working on updating the guest bathroom, so she helped him with that. He had a few tile samples and they considered them; he said that when he was on break for the holiday, they could go to the store, maybe pick out the new tile together...
And they could, but they would have to take off their rings, stage a chance meeting, just in case. It was one of the things she hated most about this. No slow, comfortable romantic dinners in restaurants in the city. No bowling or pool, or dancing together at any club. Everything that he had loved to do with her, and that she had loved to do with him...
He had to get up for work in the morning, and she could tell he was tired. When he yawned she suggested that they go to bed, and he nodded, running his fingers through his hair, leaving it rumpled and sexy. She followed him to the master bedroom, but before she could cross the threshold again, Ned shook his head.
"Come here," he murmured, and scooped her up into his arms, into the bridal carry.
She giggled as she gazed up into his face. "We've done this before," she pointed out softly.
"But not here, and this is our house. It finally feels right." He gave her a slow, gentle kiss before placing her on the bed. "And that's the view I've been waiting to see since I moved in," he murmured.
She smiled. "I know you're tired," she began softly.
He shook his head. "Not that tired," he told her. "If you're up for it."
She took her turn in the bathroom first, brushing her teeth, combing her hair, washing her face. When she came out, Ned had already changed into a pair of flannel pants, and he smiled at her before closing himself into the bathroom too.
Nancy could still count the number of times she and Ned had made love since their wedding. It still felt new and sweet, and when it had been so long, she even felt nervous. She knew some women took this for granted, that sharing a bed with their husbands was less than unremarkable. For them, maybe even the thought of sex was insipid.
She found one of Ned's button-down flannel pajama tops and quickly stripped off her clothes, then pulled on the top. The sheets were cool against her bare legs, and her teeth chattered a few times.
Ned came to bed, and when he saw that she was cold, he smiled. "Let me warm you up," he murmured, taking off his pants and shorts before he slid into bed naked.
Her heart skipped a beat when he touched her cheek. "I love you," she whispered.
"I love you too," he murmured, gazing into her eyes. "I'm so glad you're here. It finally feels like I'm home now."
She gasped when he moved on his knees between her legs. Her pulse was heavy in her ears as he began to unbutton the top, and as much as she wanted this, she had made herself not think about it for so long that she felt almost a little afraid.
Ned looked into her eyes, then gently parted the top, baring her breasts under the covers. He moved over her, touching his forehead to hers, and she closed her eyes, wrapping her arms around him. "I dream about you," he whispered. "I dream about this almost every night. My wife."
"My husband," she whispered. "Can you hold me? It's just... it's so much..."
He rolled onto his side, sliding his hand under the top to stroke her back as she moved into his arms. She buried her face against his chest, his leg sliding between hers, and for the first time since she had arrived, she felt herself begin to relax. When they were together, she and Ned were so in tune, but it took a little while to bring it back again. Since their wedding, every time they had seen each other again, they had met as partial strangers. They completely loved each other, but during the time apart, they had changed. Most of what Nancy had been through, she couldn't even discuss with Ned.
And she was supposed to leave him behind, like everything else. She had left so much behind.
She kissed his collarbone, rubbing his back, breathing him in. She stroked her fingers down the small of his back, and he inhaled as her palm rubbed over his fine ass, then stroked against his hip. When her fingertips brushed against his erection, he moved to kiss her.
She wanted to be one with him. She wanted to make love with him.
His tongue slid into her mouth, and he moved on top of her again, his palm cupping her bare breast, his thumb stroking her hard nipple. She felt him growl deep in his throat when she ran her fist to the base of his erection, then to the tip.
It was so fast, but they would have time to be gentle and slow, to rest together, to linger in each other's arms. For now, though...
He kissed her deeply and she returned it, feeling a rush of warmth between her legs. When Ned broke the kiss, he nuzzled against her cheek, her earlobe, her neck.
She gasped, arching, when his lips closed around her left nipple, when he began to suckle against it and fondle the other at the same time. Her legs parted wide as she buried her fingers in his hair. "Yes," she moaned, tipping her head back as he switched off, rubbing a saliva-slicked thumb against her sensitive nipple, plucking at it. He cupped her hip, feeling her gently rock under him, encouraging him. She felt so wet and tender inside.
Then he moved up again, looking into her eyes. "Like this?" he murmured.
She nodded. She loved letting him do the work in their lovemaking; she loved the lust and need she saw in his eyes when she rode him, too. He was the only man who had ever shared her bed, and nothing was like making love with him.
He moved to pull open the drawer in the bedside table, and she slipped out of the open pajama top as he rolled a condom onto his erection. The bed was no longer cold; she was burning up in anticipation and desire. She gazed up at him as he moved over her again, and her heart ached with love.
She released a cry, drawing her heels toward her to cradle his hips between her thighs as he began to move inside her. He touched her clit and she released a quiet sob, reaching up for him, wanting to feel him so deep inside her.
"Yes," Ned whispered. "Oh my God, sweetheart, you feel so good."
She nodded. "More," she gasped.
He began to stroke in her with deeper and deeper thrusts, still slowly fondling her clit, and she trembled, panting for breath. For a second, for the space of a heartbeat, she felt an echo of the uncertainty, the pain of losing her virginity to him. Then he was deep inside her, and she relaxed even as she tightened around him.
He kissed her and she wrapped her legs around him, her hips jarred by his every thrust. He was so, so deep inside her, and he filled her so completely, so perfectly. She dug her nails against his shoulder blades, burying her other hand in his hair.
"So good," Ned gasped when he broke their kiss. "Fuck..."
She whimpered when he stroked his thumb against her clit again. "Don't stop," she begged him. "Feels so good, I've missed you, I've missed you..."
A lump of tears rose in her throat, making her voice waver. She had not let herself think about it for so, so long, and it left her trembling.
He circled her clit, panting as he searched her eyes. "I love you," he said, his voice hoarse.
"I love you too," she moaned softly. "Oh, God, I love you so much."
He changed his rhythm against her clit, making his strokes inside her longer, and she released a long, desperate moan.
"There's no one on the other side of the wall to overhear, be as loud as you want," he told her. "Scream, if you want to."
Experimentally she gasped out a louder cry, then an even louder one. "Ned," she sobbed. "Oh my God yesssss, yes! Oh my God!"
He moved down toward her, still stroking in and out of her slick, tender sex, still fondling her clit. "Yes," he breathed against her ear. "So fucking good. Come. Come for me."
She gazed into his eyes, her own swimming, the tension building deep inside her, tensing her stomach, her shoulders. With another stroke against her clit, she felt her inner flesh clench hard around his erection, and she cried out as her orgasm sent a shudder down her spine. Her inner flesh pulsed in fluttering spasms around him, and as he moved in her with more rapid thrusts she tipped her head back, arching under him with a loud, sobbing cry. With the new angle of her hips, the way he felt inside her—
She screamed, her hips moving in rapid thrusts to meet his, her breasts bouncing. When Ned brought a hand up so he could tweak one of her tender nipples, she screamed again, clenching tight around him.
Ned rode her through it, until she was sobbing, babbling "Oh my God" over and over, clinging to him. She held him tight when he slowly lowered himself to her, still buried deep inside her, and he nuzzled against her cheek, her neck. Nancy was trembling, gasping for breath. Her legs were still wrapped around him.
"Nan," he whispered. "Oh, sweetheart."
"Yes," she whispered. "So good. Oh, you're so good..."
She didn't know how long it took to recover, until she was breathing normally again. They clung to each other, and her eyes were closed, her skin damp from exertion. She could feel her every heartbeat, and the echo in his own chest.
Then Ned kissed her cheek, and she turned her head and gave him a long, sweet kiss. Her palm was resting against his shoulder blades, and his skin was so warm against hers.
She chuckled softly when he broke the kiss. "Hmm?"
"You did a great job of warming me up," she murmured. "That was incredible, honey."
He smiled and brushed the tip of his nose against hers. "Same to you, beautiful," he murmured.
After he had disposed of the condom and cleaned them both up, he slid beneath the covers again and she moved into his arms, both of them still naked. The blanket was pulled up almost over their heads, and he was so warm and solid against her.
He had dreamed about this, and now she felt like she was the one in a dream. When they were apart, she could only rarely afford the luxury of thinking about this—because if she let herself think about it too much, she would never want to leave him. Even now, she could feel their time together ticking down.
But she didn't have to.
She had told him, and he had respected it. She knew what he wanted, and she wanted it too. But they couldn't have it yet. Not yet. She couldn't bear for him to even ask.
Even so, she could still feel it on his lips, in his heart. His leg was tucked between hers, and his breath ruffled her hair. It was going to be so hard to leave, and she knew that was what he wanted.
She nuzzled against him, and he made a soft pleased sound, tightening his grip on her.
I will, she vowed silently. One day, I swear I will.