Nancy had a cut over her right eyebrow.
In the Drew kitchen, Hannah pulled a sheet of cookies out of the oven. "How are those coming, Nan?"
Nancy had snatched a scrap of sugar cookie dough from the sheet she was busily rolling. She pulled her thumb out of her mouth and looked at Hannah, her blue eyes bright and dancing. "Great," she laughed. "Taste good, too."
Hannah smiled, and Nancy turned back to the sheet of dough, peeling miniature trees and candy canes out of the cookie cutters, spreading them on parchment paper. Hannah studied her then, in concern. The bruise had faded from her temple, her wrists were no longer red and scraped raw from rough nylon rope. She looked almost normal. Except for that cut above her eyebrow.
"You can go relax," Hannah said then. "Wait on the couch until he gets here."
Nancy smiled. "I'll finish this sheet," she said.
Hannah nodded in agreement and stirred the pot of hot chocolate slowly simmering on the stove. The snow was coming down fast and thick outside. "You sure you're dressed warm enough?"
"I'm fine," Nancy replied, smiling, her voice almost melodious. "I've been ice skating a thousand times."
"I know, I know," Hannah said. "Sorry, sometimes I forget you're eighteen, not eight."
Nancy tossed the last cookie cutter onto the counter and wrapped an arm around Hannah's shoulders. "It's all right," she said. "Really. I know you worry about me."
The doorbell rang and Nancy was gone, in a happy hum, sweeping her white leather ice skates up in her arms before she pulled the door open. Ned stamped his heavy snow boots on the doormat and shouldered the door closed, pulled off his hat and unzipped his coat, and lifted Nancy into a long, hard hug. "God, Nan, I missed you," he whispered.
"I'm not going anywhere," she laughed, kissing his cheek. "You're freezing. Hannah!"
"Coming," Hannah called, pouring the chocolate into cups, capping each with a spoonful of whipped cream. After a dusting of cocoa powder she brought them in on a tray, to the living room, where Ned and Nancy were on the couch, his arm around her. He had not stopped touching her since he had arrived. Hannah recognized the almost stricken look on his face. It mirrored the one Carson had worn the entire time, the one he still wore when he looked at his daughter.
"You're the best," Ned told Hannah. His cheeks were red with cold.
"Are you sure it's not too cold to go skating?" Hannah dusted her hands on her apron and looked back and forth between the two of them.
Ned looked over at Nancy. "The roads aren't too bad," he said. He studied her, then lifted a hand to rest at her eyebrow. He brushed his thumb over the cut, his lips parted slightly. "Nancy," he breathed.
Nancy leaned backward, away from his concerned touch. "It's fine. Won't even be able to see it once I have my hat on."
Ned looked down and took a sip of hot chocolate. Hannah, startled by the timer, went back into the kitchen and checked the oven.
"Come on," Nancy said. "See?"
Ned looked up. Nancy had put on a pale blue knit hat and a gleaming white puffy jacket. "All better." She lifted a hand self-consciously to her forehead, then let it drop to her side. "Now let's go, let's go."
Ned put his mug down and stood up. "You sure you want to do this?"
Nancy put a hand on his shoulder, and looked up at him through her lashes. "I feel like I've been under house arrest," she said softly. "Yes, I'm sure I want to do this. It's just ice skating."
The sky was washed-out white above them. Ned drove his car, the heater laboring, the windshield wipers shoving thick drifts of snowflakes over his windshield. He peered forward, at the dull grey landscape. "Hope we don't get stranded at the rink."
"At least they'll have plenty of hot chocolate for us." Nancy rubbed her mittened hand over the windshield. "Can you see all right?"
Ned chuckled to himself. "I know the way like the back of my hand."
The rink was nearly deserted, but the ice covering the lake was thick. Ned parked carefully in the slippery parking lot and they walked, glove in mitten, into the enclosure, laced on their skates, breathing clouds in the frigid darkness. Two or three other couples had braved the elements, and were smiling at each other, cheeks rosy and eyes glittering from the cold, their skates moving in perfect tandem over the scarred ice. Ned stood and Nancy tugged the zipper on his coat all the way up to his square jaw. Their gazes met for a long moment, in a connection he could not bring himself to break.
And then she was gone, in a blur of white and pale blue, her skates biting into the ice. Ned set off after her, shivering despite his long underwear and down vest. She kept glancing back at him, laughing the closer he came, the faster he skated. She skated beautifully, her long red-gold hair streaming away from her cheek as she executed a quick twirl and skated backwards, facing him. Ned reached for her hands and she took them, smiling up into his face. Half-melted snowflakes floated on her eyelashes.
"You're all right, aren't you?" he asked, their hands linked across the space between them. "I'm sorry I couldn't come earlier. As soon as I knew..."
"I'm fine," she assured him again. "I keep saying it and no one believes me. I'm fine. I'm fine. A thousand times." She twirled around in his arms, and then they were both skating forward, side by side, hand in hand. "Faster."
She set off with a grim determination that startled him, urging him forward, if only to keep their hands together, their balance stable. She raced and he followed, and the other couples were blurs of striped scarves and patchwork coats, the snow swirling around them, silent from the dusk-stained sky. Ned pushed himself hard, his heart speeding in his chest, his other arm pumping in time with his skates. They leaned into the wind at the curves and he looped his scarf up over the lower half of his face, his breath warming the fabric, his eyes streaming at the bite of the icy wind.
It was just the two of them. He stopped seeing or hearing anybody else, over the wind against his red numbed ears, the thick-falling snow. Nancy's hand in his, her eyes when she darted a glance at him, his pulse pounding.
She released his hand and leapt off the ice, into a slow twirl, her skates throwing up a fine spray of crystals. Ned put his head down, put on an extra burst of speed and caught her up in his arms when she landed, her face up to his. They slammed into the concrete railing together, her back against the cold wall, Ned's arms joined around her waist.
His eyes were level with hers, dark, blinking away the snow falling between them. He could feel her breath on his lips. After a long moment he lowered her gently back to the ice and she swept her hat off, revealing her red-gold hair.
"You okay? I didn't mean to hit so hard," he hastily finished, remembering her dismissive response.
"I'm fine," she told him, and smiled. "Maybe we should get something to drink."
She staked out a bench on the side of the rink, looking out over the deserted and snow-bleached ice, and accepted the cup of apple cider with an appreciative smile. They sat in silence, listening as the snow fell softly around them, bending the pine branches until they gently loosed the weight. Once he finished his cider he looped an arm around her padded shoulders and pulled her close to him, but they still did not speak.
"Maybe we should head back," Nancy finally said.
"Yeah," Ned agreed.
Neither of them moved. Nancy finished her cider and crushed the cardboard cup between her mittened fingers. The snow was thick on her hair, melting against her scalp and turning her hair a darker red.
Ned looked over at her, then slipped his gloved fingers clumsily against the crown of her head and pushed them over her hair, brushing the snow off. "You have to be cold," he said quietly, his gaze dropping to linger on her lips.
She nodded, gazing at him, tracing his face, the line of his cheek, his mouth. She put her freezing mitten against his cheek and he did not shrink back; she looped her arm over his shoulder and pulled herself up. He slipped his arm under her knees and drew her to him, until she was sitting across his lap, her skates dangling off the edge of the bench. He scooped the hat off her lap and pulled it over her hair again, his thumb lingering again over the healing cut over her right eyebrow. Nancy closed her eyes.
"I know what you're going to say."
"What am I going to say?" Ned pulled his glove off and brushed his fingertips over her cold-numbed ear.
"What my dad has been saying." She tilted her head and let it rest against his shoulder. "I have to stop being a detective. It's too dangerous, it puts me at too much risk, it's foolish..."
Ned rested his thumb over her parted lips and she opened her eyes. He shook his head, not breaking their gaze. "I'm just glad you're all right," he said softly. "That's the only thing that's ever mattered to me. That you're safe and happy."
"I wasn't," Nancy said. "I was sure he was going to kill me."
"But he didn't." He rested his cheek against the crown of her head, and she stared out onto the ice. Their view was nearly obliterated by the snow swirling around them.
"We should go," she sighed, finally, as the wind began an endless howl.
He carried her in his arms back to the enclosure, where they painstakingly unknotted their skates with numb fingers. The snack booth was closing up as they passed. "Real bad front headed this way," the man called to them, and Ned nodded back in acknowledgement.
The hail began when they were on the road back, but it was coming down hard when Ned pulled into the Drews' driveway. Nancy and Ned raced across the lawn, and Hannah waved them inside, until they were stamping their feet in puddles of melting ice and snow in the hallway. Hannah took their wet coats and mittens and scarves to hang up, and when she was out of their sight Ned swept Nancy up into his arms, his breath warm against her frozen face.
"Thank God you made it back," Hannah said, and Ned reluctantly released her, her eyelashes brushing soft against his cheek. "Traffic in Chicago is at a standstill. It's freezing out there."
Nancy nodded. A shower of ice clattered onto the roof over the porch, and she started. "There's no way you're going back out in that," Nancy told Ned, her eyes serious.
"Your father," Hannah began, but Nancy heard his steps on the porch before he pushed the door open, bringing a fresh gust of snow-choked wind with him. Carson stamped his feet and blew into his palms, after dropping his briefcase.
"Nan? Did you go out?"
Nancy nodded to her father. "We just made it back."
"Good timing," Carson said. "It's only getting worse out there, and they don't expect it to let up. Even if you have chains, Ned..." Carson shook his head.
"You're staying for dinner," Hannah called from the kitchen.
Ned looked back and forth, between his bright-eyed girlfriend's hopeful gaze and that of her distinguished father. "Guess I'm staying for dinner," Ned laughed.
Nancy went into the kitchen to help Hannah, while Ned called his parents. Nancy was slicing a thick loaf of French bread when Ned walked up behind her and dropped a kiss onto the crown of her head. "So?" she asked.
"So, I have their blessing. Mom says for me to just stay here tonight. The roads are sheets of ice."
Nancy put down the knife and slipped her arm around his waist. "But that means you won't be home on Christmas morning."
Ned shrugged and wrapped his arms around her waist. "As bitterly disappointed as I am that I'll have to force down second helpings of Hannah's excellent cooking, I'll try not to cry too much."
Nancy laughed and Hannah swatted Ned lightly on the back with a damp dishtowel. "Just for that, you get to set the table," Hannah smiled, and handed Ned a stack of plates.
After French onion soup and roast beef with Hannah's mashed potatoes and a warm apple pie with ice cream, Nancy and Ned loaded the dishwasher while Carson scanned the television listings. "'It's a Wonderful Life,'" he read to them. "That sound good?"
"That sounds perfect," Hannah piped up, bustling back into the kitchen. "I'll take care of the rest of this, go sit down, go sit down." She shooed the three of them out of the kitchen, into the living room and the glow of the white-lit Christmas tree.
The four of them watched the movie in silence punctuated by the crackling fire and the hail still crashing on the roof. Nancy, her hair curled faintly at her scalp, leaned against Ned's shoulder, and by the middle of the movie her eyes were closed and her breathing was softly regular. She had tucked her legs up underneath her on the couch, and Ned pulled her close to him. She made a soft noise, brushed her hair clumsily out of her face and nestled back into his shoulder.
"She asleep?" Carson asked.
Ned looked up, surprised, and nodded gently.
"Good," Carson said, and smiled.
Ned did not have the heart to wake her after the movie, so Hannah did, gently, telling her to go upstairs to her own bed while she found Ned pillows and a pile of thick blankets. Nancy disappeared upstairs, her feet slow with exhaustion, without making any comment to Ned; Carson wished him goodnight and followed his daughter. Hannah gave Ned a thick fleece blanket and a pair of heavy quilts, and once he was alone Ned stripped down to his long underwear and dove under the covers, pulling them up to his chin. Lazily he watched the fire dim and sputter, in the blinking glow of the lights on the tree.
Ned's eyelids were heavy, his limbs numb, when the sound of a creak on the stairs jolted him awake. He watched a slender feminine silhouette glide down the staircase, then shuffle in slippered feet toward him.
"Nan?" he managed, in a hoarse whisper. At her nod he sat up and gestured for her to join him on the couch, which she did, after the briefest hesitation. "I thought you'd be asleep."
Nancy smiled. "It's been hard for me to sleep," she admitted, reaching up to cup his face in her palms. "I'm sure it'll get better."
"I hope so." Ned pulled the quilts up over her legs and tucked them around both of them. He trailed his fingertips over her cheek. "Here, put your head on my shoulder, I'm sure you'll be back to sleep in no time."
"Maybe if you weren't solid muscle," she said, chuckling softly, but she rested her head against him anyway. Ned stroked her hair softly, his other arm around her shoulders. After a moment he leaned down and pressed his lips very gently against her forehead. Nancy made a soft noise, and when Ned pulled back, she reached up and cupped her palm over his cheek, stroked it softly with her thumb.
"For what," Ned breathed, still stroking her hair.
She smiled. "For everything," she said. "For being you. For sitting up with me on Christmas Eve and not asking me any questions and being the best boyfriend I could ever have asked for."
Ned smiled back, then leaned down and pressed his lips to hers softly, his fingers stilling on her hair. When he pulled back he rested his forehead against hers and Nancy reached up to take him into her tight embrace.
"What can I say," Ned whispered, wrapping his arms around her in return. "I love you."
"I love you too," Nancy said. "Merry Christmas, Ned."