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the farther i fall

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Friday afternoon. It was Friday afternoon, the Friday afternoon before a long weekend. Nancy fiddled with her watch band, then glanced over at the office door again. The floor was already practically deserted; most of the people who had come in that morning—those who hadn't taken Friday off to start their vacations early—had left at lunchtime. And yet Nancy was stuck at her desk, in a red short-sleeved button down and a tight pencil skirt, waiting for Rawlinson to leave so she could search his office.

And he kept not leaving.

Nancy reached for her cell phone, heading to the employee lounge.

"Hey sweetheart," Ned answered. He knew she was undercover, and it made things easier for her when they didn't use names, just in case she was overheard.

"Hey baby. I have... well, I have a choice to make," she admitted, closing her eyes. "I can stay here and—finish what I need to do, or maybe come back in the morning. Although tomorrow still might not work, depending..."

They had been invited to the lake for the long weekend, with the usual group of friends, and Nancy knew Ned had really wanted them to leave tonight if she was able. But if Rawlinson didn't fucking get out of his office soon, she was going to be tempted to pull the fire alarm just to get him out.

She wouldn't do that. But she was also impatient to get away with her husband for a little while.

"Are you asking what I want you to do?"

"Yeah," she said. "If I... well, it's already an hour after work, my feet are killing me, and I really just want to come home," she admitted, closing her eyes. "I think it'll be easier if I just come up tomorrow. And then I can just drive down to the lake after."

"Then come home."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah. I'll throw some burgers on the grill, and they'll be ready when you get here."

Nancy sighed. "You're the best, you know that?" she told him, absently massaging the back of her neck.

Ned chuckled. "I've heard that a few times," he teased her. "Come on home, babe."

Nancy texted Trent to give him an update when she was on her way out to the El. She hadn't wanted to park her car at her workplace, just in case someone had the bright idea to look up her license plate number. The people on the train looked both exhausted and exhilarated by the prospect of the weekend, or maybe that was just how Nancy felt. Once she was able to get into Rawlinson's office, she'd have the case wrapped up in a matter of hours, and she wouldn't have to put on high heels and go to the office and waste her time while she could be investigating something else.

Or with Ned.

Nancy found herself grinning when she thought of him. They hadn't been married for very long yet—she was only on the second case she'd been assigned since she returned from their honeymoon—but she still caught herself looking down at her wedding band, daydreaming about him, when she wasn't careful. Supposedly, eventually, her delirious happiness would wear off, or at least fade a little. At least, that was what other married couples had told her.

She didn't want it to ever wear off. Even if she did come back down to earth, the little thrill that she felt down her spine when their eyes met, the way her heart always skipped a beat when she heard his voice, those wouldn't change. Those never had.

Nancy took her heels off as soon as she was behind the wheel of her Mustang, letting out a soft, almost orgasmically pleased moan. She had taken the stairs more often than usual and she felt bone-weary. At least when she came by in the morning she would be able to wear jeans and sneakers and be comfortable.

Putting on her heels again to walk from her car to the townhouse was a pain, and as soon as she stepped into the living room, the scent of freshly-cooked hamburgers in the air, Nancy smiled and stepped out of her shoes again. The day had been too hot to contemplate pantyhose, and the cool linoleum at the entrance felt good against her bare feet.

"Hey babe." Ned glanced up from the couch with a smile, his laptop on his lap and a spill of papers on the coffee table in front of him, and only then did Nancy realize she had been worried he would be mad at her for putting off their departure. She couldn't sense even any vague irritation in his demeanor, though. Maybe he'd had some work to finish up before they left, too.

"Hey," Nancy said, tossing her heels onto one of the lower stairs before she headed into the kitchen, taking gingerly steps. She moaned in pleasure when she saw everything was already set out, and he'd already melted the cheese on her two burgers. "You're an angel," she called, opening the refrigerator.

Ned chuckled. "Oh, I'm definitely going to remember you said that, Drew."

He had waited to eat until she came home, so she assembled plates for both of them, dressing her second cheeseburger the way he liked, and brought the food into the living room. They ate while ESPN played from the corner, and Nancy had demolished half her burger before she spoke again.

"So, did you just want to eat before you head to the lake?"

Ned finished crunching on a chip before he turned to her. "Mike called me when he got off work, and he and Jan are probably staying home, and Howie's only gonna be there tonight and half of tomorrow anyway, so I thought we could just stay home too."

"Oh." Nancy took a sip of her drink. "Are you disappointed?"

Ned shrugged. "We've been to the lake plenty of times, so not really. And apparently Jan suggested that we take you two out on a double date. I think Mike's in favor of you two picking a sports bar." He winked at her.

Nancy shook her head. "Oh, no. Maybe a place with a bar, but I'm definitely in favor of seeing you dressed up, Nickerson. I like showing you off."

Ned grinned. "And that goes double for you, babe. I like everyone else seeing what a lucky bastard I am."

Once she was finished with her plate, she offered her other burger to Ned, and he said he'd eat it later. She put it away in the kitchen and when she walked back into the living room, Ned caught her hand, and she turned to him, her heart already speeding up just a little at the feel of his skin against hers.

"Whenever you're ready," he said quietly, keeping his eyes on hers, "I want to dominate you."

She chuckled faintly at the way he phrased it, but in an eyeblink she sank to her knees, bowing her head. "Yes," she whispered, and her breasts and the join of her thighs were already tingling in anticipation.

"Go upstairs and put on the sexiest little nightie you have," he told her. "Then come back down here."

"Sexiest to you?"

He shook his head. "Well, it might be—but I mean the one that makes you feel sexiest."

She stood up and headed for the stairs, sweeping up her shoes. "You mind if I take a quick shower?" she asked. "It was just so fucking hot today—"

"That's fine," he told her, and reached for his computer.

Nancy shook her head as she stood naked beside their shower, waiting for the water to warm up. They had only tried this a few times so far, but he never did exactly what she was expecting. She had always imagined him rough, leaving her bruised and sore. Granted, when she encouraged it, he did give her a thorough spanking, but when he dominated her, he didn't even put that on the table.

She let out a soft cry when she stepped into the shower. A week of walking around in heels and her feet were protesting. Her inner flesh was already tender in anticipation, but she ignored the impulse to relieve the tension herself.

By the time she came back downstairs, in a black satin slip trimmed in black lace, the sweetheart neckline plunging deep between her otherwise-bare breasts, Ned only had a few papers left in front of him. He looked up at her, his gaze going dark with desire as he saw what she was wearing. "You look amazing," he told her.

She walked over, her feet still aching a little, and stood beside him. Her nipples were erect, the points visible through the thin fabric. "Thanks," she told him.

"Sit down," he told her. "I just have a couple of things to finish up."

"I can't believe you're working on a Friday night," she said, sitting down near him. She didn't want to lean on him and interfere with what he was working on, even though she loved cuddling up beside him.

He shrugged. "Boss wants us to do a half-day Monday from home. This way I just submit my reports Monday at lunchtime and I'm done."

"Nice," she said. When the air conditioning hit her, she reached for the afghan tossed over the back of the couch and wrapped it around her.

"So you're not sure if you'll be able to get in tomorrow?"

She glanced over at him, surprised. "Yeah," she admitted. "I'm sure I'll be able to get in, but the fact that this guy almost never leaves his office makes me think there has to be some proof in there. I tried flirting with a guy in the IT department so I could use the intranet to break in, but no dice. I think he'd be more interested in you, to be honest."

Ned chuckled. "Flirting?" he repeated.

"Laughing at his stupid jokes," she reassured her husband. "Playing to his ego. I'm pretty good at that, if I do say so myself."

Ned glanced over at her, raising an eyebrow. "Oh really," he challenged.

"You don't want me to demonstrate."

"I don't?"

She shook her head. "Because if you want me to start stroking your ego, baby, I'll start telling you how absolutely gorgeous I find your cock, how when I was up in the shower just now I almost touched myself thinking about it. How much I want to make you come, how much I just want to make you happy. I don't care if you want me to suck you off and swallow, I don't care if you want to come on me instead of inside me, I don't care where you want to stick it, baby. I just want to make my master happy."

Ned swallowed. "Yeah, you're right," he mumbled. "I definitely didn't need to hear that, not when I have another paragraph to write. Are your feet okay?"

She blinked at the sudden topic shift. "It's just standing on my feet too much in those heels," she said slowly. "It's okay."

She stole the remote and smiled when he didn't stop her from changing the station. "You must really be working," she said. "You don't want to order me to change it back?"

Ned shook his head, his gaze still on the laptop screen. "You know what I love the most about dominating you?" he murmured. "The fact that it absolutely drives you nuts."

"Because you don't do anything I expect you to do."

Her pulse sped up again a few minutes later when Ned closed his laptop and put it down on the coffee table. "You know why I don't do what you expect?"

She shrugged. "To make it interesting?"

"Because then it would be you dominating me. And I know what you're afraid of." He leaned over and kissed her forehead. "I'll be right back."

Nancy, warmed by his words, shrugged off the afghan and looked down at the nightgown. It wasn't the most daringly cut, and it wasn't see-through; it was one of the first ones she had ever bought, for him. She looked up when he came back downstairs, in a faded t-shirt and shorts. He carried a bottle in his hand.

She looked up at him quizzically when he reached for her feet, then lifted them into his lap. The bottle was lotion, and he warmed it in his palms before smoothing it on, and soon she had melted from his touch, slumping down to the cushions. He rubbed the ticklish soles of her feet, caressed the lotion all the way up to her ankles, then worked the balls of his thumbs up and down the tired bottoms of her feet. Nancy let out a long moan and arched a little, closing her eyes.

"Okay, I take it back," she murmured, sinking back down against the couch as he finished with her right foot and began on the left. "What's a hundred times better than an angel?"

Ned chuckled. "So you like this?"

"God, it feels so good," she whispered. "You are the sweetest, most amazing guy..."

"So the next time we have a fight, I just need to give you a foot massage."

She nodded. "I'd forgive you almost anything," she admitted, wiggling the toes on her other foot.

When he was finished with her feet, he cleaned his hands, then returned to her. "Take it off," he murmured, and she slipped her gown off, leaving her entirely naked. He gestured for her to lay down on her stomach and then began working his way down her back, and soon she was moaning under him as he worked out the knots of tension in her back.

He was working on the small of her back when he murmured, "So do you want me to go with you tomorrow?"

Nancy had to make an effort to concentrate on his voice, over the unbearably glorious things he was doing to her back. "Mmm. Do you want to?" she sighed. It would be a little dangerous, but she liked the idea of having someone to stand lookout while she was in Rawlinson's office. At least that way he most likely wouldn't catch her red-handed in there, if he suddenly returned.

"It's been a while since we did a stakeout together."

Nancy chuckled, then arched a little as his hands drifted over her ass. "It won't be a stakeout. Just a search, honey. But... I'd love if you went with me."

Ned leaned down and brushed her hair away from the back of her neck, then gently kissed her there. "Thanks, Nan," he whispered.

She shivered at the feel of his breath against her skin. "Mmm. I'm dead," she moaned. "I could go to sleep right now, baby... give me a few minutes."

He picked her legs up so he could sit back down, snatching up the remote and turning the television back to ESPN. Nancy couldn't even muster the energy to protest. She felt incredibly relaxed and at peace.

And she was naked on their couch.

When she finally could, she drew her legs up and sat up, swaying gently, and swept her hair out of her face. "You want one too, sweetheart?"

He smiled at her. "Not yet, baby. Come here."

She crept over to him, totally naked. He drew her into his arms, her long legs sprawled over his lap, and he held her to him. When she shivered he reached for the afghan and pulled it over her shoulders. She rested her face against his shoulder and closed her eyes, her arm up around him.

"I love you," she whispered.

"I love you too," he murmured. "And I love being married to you, baby. I feel like we're still on our honeymoon, every time I look at you."

She smiled. "Me too," she whispered, and nestled further against him. "I keep looking down at my ring and I'm just so happy."

He touched her cheek and drew her up to him, and she melted against him when he kissed her. She slipped her fingers into his hair and they made out slowly, tenderly, and when the blanket fell from her shoulders, the caress of his fingertips up and down the line of her spine woke a throbbing awareness between her legs. He cupped her breast, gently circling her nipple, and she tightened her fist against his shirt, seeking the warmth of his bare flesh.

He nuzzled against the point of her jaw as she reached for his shirt, pulling it up. "I didn't want to go to the lake and deal with all that bullshit," he murmured, and when he briefly sucked the pulse point in her neck, Nancy let out a shivering sigh, drawing his shirt up to just below his arms. He moved back so she could pull it off, and she had seen him shirtless a thousand times but it never got old, the sight of his firm, taut muscles, the outline of his abs, the hard strength of his biceps. He reached for her again, and she had seen the strength in his hands, but when she was in his arms he was so gentle.

"The only thing I was looking forward to, was seeing you in a bikini," he told her. "Finding some little out of the way place where I could peel it off you and look at that gorgeous body of yours."

"We have all weekend," she murmured, and trailed her lips down the side of his neck. "And we don't need a lake to do that."

He ran his hand up and down her thigh, nuzzling against her shoulder. "I want to make you happy, baby," he murmured. "You are so damn amazing, and I'm so proud of you."

He pulled back to look into her eyes, cupping her cheek. "I mean it, sweetheart," he whispered, and her gaze fell. "Don't you dare look away, keep looking at me. I could not be more proud to be your husband, Nan. I have no idea how it's possible but every damn day I feel like I love you more, so much that my heart hurts when I think about spending more time than we have to apart. I feel like I'm—like everything's brighter when you're around."

She blinked at him, her eyes gleaming. "The only way I can fall asleep is in your arms," she whispered, "and even then I hate falling asleep and missing just being around you, baby. You're everything to me, and it means so much that you... that you actually want to go with me tomorrow. I just want to get this case over with so we can spend time together."

He kissed her hard, and she returned it hungrily, shifting so she could straddle his waist. Their tongues slipped against each other, and she shivered as he cupped her breasts, his thumbs brushing over her nipples. "Mmm," she moaned, between kisses. "Mmm, please, baby."

"Tell me what you want," he whispered.

"I want you on top of me," she admitted, panting when their kisses broke, when they nipped at each other, and he was hard against her, beneath his clothes. "I want you to pin me down, oh God I want you so much..."

He picked her up and bore her to the floor, and when she glanced over, beginning to reach for the afghan, he pulled it under her. "Put your legs up. All the way up, baby," he ordered her, and she brought them up, shuddering in anticipation. He gently ran his fingertips up her legs, and she cried out, bucking against him as he rubbed her clit.

"Like this?"

"Please get inside me," she begged him. "I'm so wet for you, baby."

He shoved his shorts down, and she trembled as he ran the tip of his cock just over the slick button of her clit. The sensation brought a hard flush to her cheeks, and she bit her lip, trying to keep herself from panting as her arousal tightened over her belly.

"Don't you dare bite your lip," he ordered her. "Let me hear it."

She whimpered quietly, rolling her hips as he guided his cock down over the slit of her sex, then back up again. She tipped her head back when the tip rubbed against the slippery heat of her opening, and Ned made a rough pleased sound. "You want it?"

"God, yes," she moaned. When she was like this she couldn't stop him, even if she'd wanted to.

He began to move over her and when she felt him just begin to push into the slick heat of her cunt, she arched, giving herself up to it. He pushed into her smoothly and she let out a choked cry. The angle of her hips made her inner flesh press so tight around him, and she shuddered hard, her mouth falling open as he grabbed her hands from her ankles and pinned them over her head, seating himself fully inside her. "Fuck," she panted, crossing her ankles behind his head, her hips rolling as he shifted his angle, beginning to slide out of her for another rough thrust. "Fuck oh fuck oh yes, baby, ohhhhhh."

He pushed down into her, his weight pinning her wrists down, and she rocked her hips back and forth, moaning in pleasure as he filled her again. She knew how crazy it drove him when she was loud, so she let herself sob at the pleasure of it, louder with his every thrust.

"More."

It was barely a question but she nodded anyway, gasping for breath, crying out when he drove into her again. "More, baby, harder," she managed to beg him, and when the growing pressure of her orgasm became unbearable she rocked her hips back—

And she sucked in a hard, desperate breath, screaming when he roughly sheathed the full length of his cock in the sensitive press of her cunt, and she bucked as she tightened around him, all of her gone tight with terrible need. He had been pinning her wrists to the carpet; he laced his fingers between hers and she gripped him tight, her legs brushing against his shoulder blades. She was babbling, begging him, and she didn't care what she was saying, didn't care at all, as long as he kept going.

"You feel so good," he told her, as he rapidly drove his cock in and out of her, and she could hear the wet sound of their joining. "So fucking good, baby. When I saw you in that tight little skirt this morning I wanted to shove it up around your waist and fuck you against the bathroom counter."

She shuddered at the admission. "Next time," she panted, and she didn't know if she was promising or begging. He was stroking his cock between her legs more roughly, and with every answering buck of her hips he was pushing deeper, harder. "Oh God oh God oh God oh God," she chanted, and she was burning up, and his cock made her feel almost painfully, deliriously sensitive. She had never ever known any other man who made sex feel this way, but he was her husband, and before that, he had been hers. Sex with him felt perfect and almost terrifyingly intense, like with every stroke he was finding his way under another layer of her defenses, so that when she finally came she was lain fully bare under him, left trembling and powerless by the force of her orgasm, and all she wanted was to feel him spend himself inside her as she came.

With the way he was pounding into her, she'd be lucky if her ass wasn't bruised black and blue in the morning.

She writhed under him, struggling against his hands, loving that he effortlessly kept her pinned down as she screamed, giving herself over to the painful joy of her orgasm. Her cunt pulsed around him as he kept fucking her, and when she tipped her head back, screaming again, his lips brushed her neck and all she could feel, all she knew was him.

She was still tightening around him in weak spasms, boneless and nearly spent, when he finally sank to her, his hips jerking to push him hard into her as he finally came. "Oh, God, baby," she moaned, and every shift of his weight, every breath made her shudder. "Holy shit, Ned."

His lips grazed her neck again, and he finally loosed her hands. She winced as she pulled her arms down, wiggling her fingers. He was still buried inside her when his hands slipped down to cup her breasts, and she moaned at how sensitive she still was. "So you liked that," he murmured.

She chuckled. "That's the understatement of the year," she told him. Then she tilted her head. "So if you liked the skirt I was wearing today, why'd you ask me to go upstairs and change?"

"Because I wanted you comfortable," he told her. "And when you're dressed up like you were today, you look sexy as hell, but not really comfortable. Those gorgeous legs of yours in high heels, button down shirt and tight skirt... I swear to God, if we worked in the same office and I saw you like that all the time, I'd be slapped with a sexual harassment suit by the end of the second day."

"It's not harassment when it's welcome," she pointed out, cupping his cheek. "Or when you're married. And every time I watch you get ready to go to work, all clean shaven in your suit and tie, I want to yank the knot down and ride you until you forget about leaving."

"You have a thing for suits?"

"I have a thing for you," she told him. "And, hell, I'll put on one of those tight little skirts for you, if that's what you want. You can put on your suit and I'll be your naughty secretary who just can't get that memo right..."

"Mmm. The kind of secretary who comes in with her shirt half buttoned and no bra underneath," he suggested, and gave her a rough, teasing kiss. "Garter belt and stockings with no panties."

"If there are any secretaries like that at your work..." she said warningly.

Ned chuckled at the jealous expression on her face. "You're the only one I'd want like that," he told her, and kissed her again.

"And maybe you'd be the kind of boss who spanks naughty secretaries?" she suggested, a gleam in her eye. "Or who keeps toys just for that purpose...?"

He slipped his hand into her hair, gently grabbing a handful. "Who's in charge here?" he growled, but the gleam in his eye gave him away.

"I think I am," she whispered.

He smiled at her. "We'll see," he said softly. "Come on, let's get to bed. I want to hit the gym in the morning before we go solve your case."

She gratefully took his offered hand and let him help her up. "Yeah. I mean, seriously, look at those disgustingly well-defined abs and those incredibly hot biceps. The only cure for this is clearly more working out," she teased him, then reached for her gown.

Ned gently smacked her ass, and she raised an eyebrow at him. "I'll be right there," he said.

Nancy had cleaned up her inner thighs and was back in her nightgown, slipping under the covers, when Ned walked into their room, carrying the lotion bottle and a small package. She watched him put them down on his nightstand before he went into the bathroom, and she heard the buzz of the electric toothbrush.

She couldn't tear her gaze away from the package. It was a bubble mailer. She saw the white corner of—what, packing slip, maybe?

She was just sliding over to his side of the bed, reaching toward it, when Ned walked back in, a knowing smile on his face. "Go ahead and open it," he chuckled. "I thought maybe we could use it tomorrow."

She reached into the package and pulled out a set of clamps, the three of them joined by a thin, substantial chain. She felt her inner flesh clench in answer when she realized what they were meant to do, and then she looked up at him again. "Wow, sweetheart," she murmured.

Ned flipped off the overhead lights, then slipped under the covers beside her. "We don't have to," he said.

"Uh... I think we do have to," she told him. "In fact, I don't know if I'll be able to sleep tonight for thinking about it."

"Well, let me see if I can help you out with that," he told her. "Because I would love a massage... and or to see your tits bouncing while you get on top of me and ride my cock."

She chuckled and put the clamps on her nightstand, then turned to him. "And how exactly is that different from every other night?"

"Because sometimes it's to see you on all fours in front of me while I fuck you doggy style, or to bury my hand in that gorgeous hair and force you to suck my cock...?"

She intentionally brushed her breasts against him as she stretched across him, reaching for the lotion, and her nipples were already stiff points under the satin. "Or to ream my tight little asshole while you pump a strap-on into my cunt," she said in a breathy moan, her blue eyes half-lidded and gleaming. "Or, you know, any of the other fifty ways you love to get that glorious cock near or inside me."

Ned growled as he brought her face to his for a kiss. "You think I don't know you're trying to get out of giving me a massage," he accused her, murmuring against her mouth, "but I know you too well, Drew."

"And you're the master, and you get a massage," she assured him, her fingertips trailing down his chest. "I just might start... here. You'll just have to let me know when you've had enough."

Ned grabbed her wrist, stopping her hand as she pumped his cock in her fist. "I'll never have enough," he told her, his dark-eyed gaze meeting hers.

And she smiled.

Chapter Text

Nancy was curled up on her side of the bed when Ned opened his eyes. In their sleep they had tossed most of the blankets down, seeking some relief from the misery of the late-summer night.

His wife.

Ned yawned quietly to himself as he slipped out of bed, moving slowly so he didn't wake her, and started getting ready. He looked down at his ring while he was brushing his teeth.

A few of the secretaries at his workplace had congratulated him on his marriage with obvious regret in their eyes. A couple of the guys who had been married a few years had advised him to reconsider getting shackled so soon. But Ned wouldn't have cared if everyone else on earth was saying he should wait. He had waited long enough, and while he'd thought nothing between them would really change...

Mike had told him that there was a difference, that the second she put that ring on his finger, his life would shift. He hadn't really believed it. Since he'd realized that he couldn't let Nancy go again without a fight, since he'd realized that she shared his feelings, the engagement, planning their marriage, had just seemed like a formality. He had pledged himself to her in a hundred different ways, spent most of his nights sleeping by her side, supporting her. What would change?

And then, on their wedding night...

Ned would never call himself an emotional person, but compared to Nancy, he wore his heart on his sleeve. It had taken him a long time to understand that just because she didn't say it, it didn't mean that she didn't feel the same way he did. Slowly, over their relationship, he had been trying to pull her out of her shell, trying to get her to be honest with him.

And then she had.

He hated the idea of punishing her. He hated the idea that she wanted him to do it, that she felt like she deserved it. Just the thought of it broke his heart. He was so used to seeing her strong and she had broken down in front of him...

He pulled on a faded t-shirt and a pair of shorts, reaching for his shoes and gym bag, and left a note for her on top of the alarm clock. Her face was smooth and blank in sleep, and he felt his heart clench a little when he gazed down at her.

He wanted to protect her. He always had. He just didn't know how to protect her when she was the one tearing herself down.

Ned felt happy when he locked the door behind him, though. The day was dawning clear and bright, and after the morning, he would have two and a half days with his wife, all to himself, without having to deal with whoever was on the lake trip. And it sounded like she was perfectly happy to go along with his little secretary fantasy...

He'd meant it, when he told her how crazy the idea made him. God—for a moment he let himself indulge the fantasy of her actually posing undercover at his work, wearing those tight skirts and high heels, pantyhose with a seam up the back. He'd keep her there for two weeks over schedule just because he wouldn't be able to keep his hands off her. She wouldn't be able to get a damn thing done because he'd have her braced against or bent over anything he could find as often as possible.

By the time his workout was over, he was drenched in sweat, and he felt exhilarated. He was very aware of what his physique did to his wife, and he had no intention of slacking off on his workout routine now that they were married. He was briskly towel-drying his newly washed hair, going through his duffel for jeans and a clean t-shirt, when he checked his cell.

About to head out the door. I'll text you when I get there.

Almost ready, see you in a few, Ned texted back with a smile.

She wore short jean shorts and a green tank top sprigged with flowers and trimmed in darker green lace, and her red-gold hair was skimmed back in a sleek ponytail, her sunglasses pushed back on top of her head. She bounced lightly on her sneakers, giving him an impish grin.

Mmm. He had a very fresh mental image of her naked and bouncing on top of him the night before...

He reached for her hand and they went inside together. He could practically feel the excitement radiating off her. "Good workout?"

"Yep. Not as good as the one I'm expecting to get later, though," he told her, drawing her into his arms as soon as the elevator doors closed behind them. She put up a halfhearted protest, but when he lifted her, holding her tight, and nuzzled against her neck, she squealed and squirmed against him.

"Baby..." Her voice trailed off into a soft moan when he dipped his tongue into the hollow between her collarbones. "Mmm. The sooner I get this done..."

"The sooner we can get back home," he murmured, letting her go as the elevator doors opened.

She directed him to wait near the reception area while she checked the office in question, and once she vanished inside, Ned gave a little fist-pump. So she'd be out soon. So they'd be able to head home...

He had just broken down and started checking sports news and scores on his cell phone when he received a new text message. He glanced over his shoulder, all around, but they still seemed to be safe and unobserved. The message was from Mike's cell.

Dude you are not gonna believe this.

Ned managed to wait until Nancy emerged from the office, a triumphant grin on her face, to say anything. "Good news?"

"Got it!" She skipped toward him, her cell phone still in her hand. "That asshole. Two phone calls Monday—well, Tuesday—morning and we'll have the bastard red-handed." She launched herself into his arms, giggling. "And now I think I deserve a reward." Her eyes were gleaming.

"Hmm." Ned gripped her tight as he carried her to the elevator, pressing the call button. "Like, ice cream?"

"Well, ice cream does sound good," she admitted. "Especially since it's so fucking hot. Maybe ice cream first and then another reward."

He kissed her gently. "I love when you're so excited," he admitted, pinning her to the wall as they descended, making a soft pleased sound when she ran her fingernails gently against his scalp. "And there's nothing I'd love more than to take you home right now and reward you properly. But Mike just texted me..."

The light in her eyes faded just a little. "Oh?"

"If you say no, we don't have to go," he told her. "But he has four tickets to the Emerson versus State game this afternoon."

"So we'd all go."

He nodded. "If you want to."

He didn't have to tell her how much he wanted to go to the game. The grudge match between the two rivals was always intense, and it hadn't been so long since Ned had been out on the field himself. He tried to keep a straight face, as much as he could, but she tilted her head, her gaze on his.

"Okay."

Ned kissed her hard, and he couldn't stop the grin that spread across his face. "You sure? Seriously, we don't have to..."

"No, it's okay," she told him. "It is. I know how much you want to go. I'll just have to wait a few more hours to rip your clothes off with my teeth."

They made a quick trip home to change. Nancy put on a purple tank top that clung to her curves, and it took him a full minute to stop staring at her breasts when he saw her in it. Her jean shorts left miles of long, tanned, slender leg on display, and she tied an orange ribbon around her ponytail.

Ned stepped into his shoes, then came up behind her, pulling her into his arms. He nuzzled against her neck and she shivered against him, laughing softly. "Mmm. I love seeing my girl in Wildcat colors."

"Really? I couldn't tell," she teased him, squirming her hips against his.

He let her go reluctantly, before they started something they wouldn't have time to finish. "You look insanely hot, Nan. Thanks so much for saying you'd go."

"Oh, you'll pay for it later, Nickerson," she promised, rummaging through the closet and emerging with a ballcap. She grabbed a bottle of sunscreen before they headed out.

Mike gave Ned an enthusiastic hug when they met up just outside the stadium, and the four of them headed inside, surrounded by fans dressed in orange and purple, some of whom were already inebriated. They found their seats and when Mike offered to buy the first round of beers, Ned shelled out for their hot dogs. He and Nancy were seated between Mike and Jan. Jan explained that she didn't want Mike leaning over her to talk to Ned the whole time, and besides, she needed to get in some girl time with Nancy. The crowd was growing louder in anticipation, ten minutes before kickoff, when Jan and Nancy announced they were going for nachos.

"So, has it worn off yet?" Mike grinned at his friend.

"Has what worn off?"

"That gooey lovestruck honeymoon stuff."

Ned shook his head, looking longingly at his empty beer, hoping that Nancy somehow sensed he needed another. "Hell no, man. It's been amazing."

Mike shook his head. "I shouldn't be surprised, I guess. You two were pretty much always like that."

"And it just keeps getting better. I know you said things would change once we were married, and I didn't believe you..."

Mike glanced over his shoulder to make sure their wives weren't nearby. "Well, treasure it. Just wait until she stops shaving her legs, when it's all white bras and boring underwear, when she starts using your razor." Mike shook his head.

Nancy and Ned had already lived together, and they had seen each other hungover, miserable with the flu, cranky, in terrible moods. They had managed to get through all that without murdering each other. "Mmm," Ned said noncommittally.

"But the worst, the absolute fucking worst, is when it's all about getting pregnant." Mike looked mournfully at his own empty beer.

"Really?"

Mike nodded. "Remember how it was when you just sat there with your fingers crossed praying the condom held out long enough or that you pulled out in time or whatever?"

"Yeah." And Ned vividly remembered Nancy's voice shaking when she had called and told him her period was late, years before, when he was still at Emerson.

"Imagine that in reverse."

Nancy and Jan returned, a large tray of nachos in Jan's hands, two beers in Nancy's. "Almost time, isn't it?" Nancy said, her eyes bright, as they sat down. She handed one beer over to Jan, and Mike was already trying to flag down the beer seller down the stands.

"Yep. Can I get a sip of that, babe?"

"Sure," Nancy told Ned, and when he handed her beer back, he leaned over and kissed her cheek. Mike was just frustrated that he and Jan weren't pregnant yet, that was all, Ned told himself. Given that pregnancy scare he and Nancy had had, if they did decide to have a child, he would be entirely unsurprised if they were lucky on the first try.

Nancy cuddling a child in her arms. Ned put that familiar mental image back in the lockbox and brushed his lips against his wife's ear.

"Were you two off gossiping?"

Nancy gave him a mock shocked glance. "Us? Never."

"Sure," Ned said, kissing her softly again before the PA system kicked up.

The game was intense, and the day was hot. By halftime the Wildcats were down by three and Ned was feeling great, sure that they would come back to thoroughly kick State's ass by the end of the game. Jan had switched to water but Nancy, Ned, and Mike had downed a few more rounds of beers and were definitely feeling no pain. The marching band came on the field and went through their show, and Ned told Nancy about the players he could remember from his last season on the team. The freshmen were juniors now, and they'd lost the guy who had come up behind Ned to a pro team. She nodded and followed along, and when Jan asked if Nancy would mind running down to the concession stands with her again, Nancy planted a kiss on Ned's cheek and went with her.

The cheerleaders had been making their way down the field in front of the stands, and Ned was halfway through a bag of popcorn, hoping it would help soak up some of the alcohol, when Mike returned from the concessions. He groaned when he sat back down, and Ned wordlessly offered the bag. Mike dipped his hand in, nodding his thanks.

"If you were still out there, we'd have this game in the bag," Mike said.

Ned grinned. "Well, they aren't doing so bad. They just need to not lose their damn concentration."

"Once the basketball season starts, if they're this scattered..." Mike shook his head without completing the thought.

"It's early in the season."

"And this is fucking State!" Mike replied. "My God, I remember how you'd put your head down and get through the play even with Denise flipping her pom-poms at you from the sidelines..."

Ned couldn't really figure out the sudden tightness in his throat until he glanced up and saw his wife standing there, her face a few shades paler than Ned remembered. He elbowed Mike and his friend glanced up, falling silent, patting his own wife on the leg as she walked past him.

"Doing okay?"

"Mmm-hmm." Nancy shot him a quick smile, but it didn't quite reach her eyes, and when the beer salesman came by again, Nancy held her hand aloft, signaling for another.

The game was a nail-biter. The Wildcats made a desperate play when the clock had nearly run out, and when it paid off, the stands erupted in a communal scream of victory. Ned vaulted out of his seat, then reached for his wife, pulling her into a bear hug, and she smiled at him, cheering.

"Can you fucking believe that," Mike shouted over the roar of the crowd. "They're trying to kill me! Oh, oh man!"

"That was amazing," Ned agreed, putting his wife down. Mike and Jan were standing too, and when a few drunk, cheering fans moved past them, their knees bumping against theirs as they went past, Ned saw Mike wince. His old injury hadn't stopped him from playing whenever he could—his determination made sure of that—but Ned knew he'd often had to use multiple ice packs after, that exhaustion could exacerbate it.

"You okay?"

Mike shrugged. "Yeah, I'm good. Man." He shook his head. "Great game. Fucking great game."

Ned's hand was joined to Nancy's as they merged into the flow of fans spilling out of the stadium and into the parking lot. "Hey, you want to get something to eat?" Mike asked, holding Jan's hand.

"Oh, that'd be great," Jan chimed in. "Although I am definitely gonna need a shower first."

"Come on, babe, you look great," Mike told her, and while she rolled her eyes at him, she still tilted up toward him to give him a kiss on the cheek. Mike might complain about their relationship, but they still seemed to be doing fine.

Ned turned to Nancy. "How about it, sweetheart?" he asked, meeting her eyes. He still didn't like the expression he'd seen there earlier—and, he noticed with some dismay, it hadn't entirely disappeared.

She took a deep breath. "If you want to," she told him, putting a smile on her face as she searched his eyes.

He felt his temperature spike a few degrees when he thought of her the night before, saying that he was her master, that whatever he wanted to do, she would do—but this wasn't like that. There was a time that he would have accepted what she had said at face value, and given Mike a definite yes.

"I don't know," Ned said when he turned back to Mike. "I think we're gonna head home. We got up kinda early this morning. Keep in touch, though?"

Mike nodded, and he and Ned gave each other a brief handclasp and half-embrace. "It was good to see you again," he said, and glanced over at Nancy to include her. "Just don't forget to come up for air every now and then," he told Ned with a wink.

Jan sighed. "Ignore him," she told Nancy as she gave her a little half hug, then nodded at Ned. "Too bad we couldn't make it up to the lake this time, but next time, definitely?"

They made the usual vague assurances, and Ned snagged a water bottle on the way out of the stadium, hoping it would sober him up a little faster. Nancy stole a few sips, but otherwise she seemed quieter than usual.

They had just walked into their house, and Ned was toeing out of his shoes, when he felt Nancy shove him.

He stumbled forward a step, then turned to look at her. "What the hell?"

She shoved him again, her pretty mouth turned down into a frown, and Ned reached out for her, grabbing her wrist firmly, but without squeezing her. She struggled against him, lashing out, and the only reason she didn't actually nail him was all the beer in her system.

"What the fuck, Nan?"

Her only response was a frustrated cry when she wrenched free, shoving him again, and Ned's temper finally flared and he shoved her in return, somehow managing to hold himself back. Given the state they were both in, if he put his back into it, he'd probably send her sprawling on the floor.

The light in her eyes was dangerous when she looked up at him, swinging toward him again. He caught her wrist, then grabbed her other shoulder and shook her.

"Hit me," she told him, and he couldn't tell if the flush in her cheeks was from the beer or not. "Come on, do it."

Ned set his jaw. "You want me to hurt you?" His eyes darkened when she nodded. "Punish you?"

When she nodded again he picked her up and tossed her over his shoulder, pounding up the stairs with her. He kicked their bedroom door shut and it closed behind them with a loud slam as he tossed her onto the bed.

"Get up," he ordered her gruffly, and when she sat up he reached for her tank top, yanking it up and over her head, and she was panting. He unhooked her bra and threw it behind him, and she unfastened her jean shorts before he yanked those down too. When he saw the thong she wore, dotted with small pink hearts and trimmed in black lace, he suppressed a smile. He yanked them down her legs to join the rest of her clothes.

Without asking for her consent, Ned went to their drawer and came back with the cuffs, and she reclined on the bed, stretching her arms over her head obediently. He grabbed her wrist roughly, threading the cuffs between the slats in the headboard before securing her there, and Ned heard her panting when he moved down the bed, tying her legs open.

When he looked down at her, she was spread-eagled, her nipples already hard, her brow knit as she panted for breath. He knew she was aroused, could just see the tip of her firm clit, and Ned shook his head as he tugged his shirt off.

She was fucking gorgeous. So, so fucking gorgeous. And drunk as hell, and just as angry.

"So what's wrong."

Nancy groaned loudly in frustration, bucking against the restraints, her blue eyes blazing. "Do it," she said, just the wavering edge of a plea in her voice. "Hurt me."

"Tell me why."

She tugged hard against the cuffs. "Hit me," she moaned. "I know you want to."

He didn't. No matter how frustrating she sometimes was, hitting her was never an option for him. He sat down beside her on the bed, but didn't touch her. "Why, Nan."

"You son of a bitch," she cried out, writhing against the restraints, and that sight, he had to admit, he found incredibly fucking sexy. "Fucking hit me."

"Why?"

"So I can feel something other than this," she screamed, and when she looked at him again, her eyes were wet.

Ned cupped his hand between her thighs, very gently, and she let out her breath in a long hiss. "What are you feeling?"

She railed at him again, almost begging him to hit her, her hips rocking up against his hand. He kept it there, without moving it, just resting his fingers lightly over her. He just kept gazing at her.

"You have to tell me."

She cried out again, but when her voice came, it was just a little quieter. "You hate me," she said, and she didn't sound angry, just resigned and infinitely sad. "I know you do."

Ned's eyes widened. "I don't hate you, baby."

Tears started spilling down her cheeks. "You do," she accused him, her voice rising. "Mike—Mike was hurt because of me and he'll never be the same again, and I didn't—I should have—trusted you—and I saw it in your eyes, the night you b-broke up with me, you hated me for what happened—"

"I don't," Ned said softly. "I didn't." He slipped two fingers up inside her and she trembled.

"And every—every time we see him all I can think is that you're thinking about it," she admitted, and she choked a little as he slowly worked the full length of his fingers into the slick heat of her cunt. "That—that after I left you could be with someone else, someone like D-Denise." She sobbed, flushed, as her hips ground against his fingers. "The ch-cheerleader thing..."

Ned kept slowly working his fingers in and out of her as he met and held her gaze. "First off, I have always loved the idea of you in a cheerleading outfit, and it doesn't have a fucking thing to do with anyone else on earth, so you can just shut that down right now. Doesn't have a fucking thing to do with Denise. You know no one else compares to you, baby. Not her, not any other woman in the world.

"The other thing..." He pulled his fingers out of her and just let them rest gently over the slit of her sex, very slowly teasing her as she moved under him. "I made a terrible mistake when I broke up with you, baby. I was angry and I said things I shouldn't have said, but I didn't hate you—and Mike didn't get hurt because of you. Mike got hurt because of some terrible mistakes he made. We all fucked up during that case. You should have trusted me—but he should have, too. And I swear to you that when we're together, I'm not thinking about it, Mike's not thinking about it. It's done. I mean, was Jan—?"

Nancy shook her head, her eyes a startling blue against her flushed skin, her cheeks wet. "She doesn't... she doesn't say anything like that..."

"And if you ask her I'm sure she'd say Mike was an idiot for getting involved in it in the first place. She doesn't bear a grudge, Mike doesn't bear a grudge, and I sure as hell don't bear a grudge. You did what you thought you had to do. I didn't understand that then. I understand it now."

Nancy let out a soft, trembling sigh, gazing up at him.

"You want me to hate you because you hate yourself," he whispered. "I think you're afraid that one day you'll say something to me, tell me something, and I'll stop loving you—but that will never fucking happen, never. This is forever, Nan. There's no deep dark secret you can tell me that will change the way I feel about you. Anything you did... it doesn't matter to me, Nan. It never will. You can tell me every fucking thing you did while we were apart, and I'll tell you that the one thing I regret? The one thing that drives me crazy? Is that I should have gone after you. I shouldn't have let you go the way I did."

She cried out when he gently breathed on her clit, when he brushed his lips over the slick, sensitive flesh. "Oh God," she whimpered. "Oh Ned, please, harder."

He licked her clit, making her shudder, and then sat up to look at her face again, his fingers slipping back into the hollow of her sex. "Let it go, Nan," he whispered, his heart aching for her. "I'll apologize as many times as I need to, for letting us drift that far apart—but you didn't hurt Mike. You would never have hurt him, and you aren't responsible. Let it go."

She trembled, her hips rising, as Ned ran the tip of his tongue up the slit of her sex. "Oh God," she gasped out. "Oh God..."

"Say it, Nan."

"It—it wasn't my fault," she forced out, and she started sobbing in the middle of it, hard.

"That's right, baby. Let it out," he murmured, and then his lips closed around her clit.

He suckled and teased and stroked her, gently working his fingers in and out of her, as she trembled, her entire body shaking with her sobs. He caressed her side, her hip, and swiped his tongue hard over her clit before he pulled back again, to look into her eyes. She was flushed and he gently stroked the backs of his fingers over her cheeks, brushing her tears away. Her hips bucked gently against his hand as he curved his fingers against her tender inner flesh.

"It's okay," he whispered. "Shh, it's okay."

She was panting when he knelt between her thighs again. He teased her slick inner lips with his tongue, then pushed it between her legs, lashing it around, up and down, back and forth. He stroked her clit with his thumb when his tongue was in her cunt, and soon she was making soft begging cries instead of heaving with great terrible sobs. Usually by now she would have her fingers buried in his hair. Instead she was writhing against the cuffs, and he smiled against her when she moaned.

He switched off, corkscrewing his fingers into her as he ran his tongue roughly over her clit, and she cried out, her hips trembling. Slowly, steadily, he built his rhythm, every thrust of his fingers a little harder, a little faster, until his wife began to beg him to fuck her. He ran the rough edge of his stubble against her sensitive flesh and she screamed, rocking up to meet him, and she began to pulse around his fingers.

And her sobs, when they began again, were pure pleasure, so intense it left her gasping. "Oh God oh God oh God," she squealed, the bedframe shaking as she tugged against the cuffs. "Oh fuck..."

She screamed again when he nipped at her clit, and he felt her ripple around his fingers, fluttering and clenching against him. He kept stroking her through her orgasm, brushing his lips over the delicate flesh of her inner thighs, tracing his tongue over the sensitive skin. When he pulled back she was faintly gleaming with sweat, her shoulders jerking, all of her trembling with the aftershocks.

Ned stilled his fingers inside her and she made a soft choked noise, her eyelashes fluttering up. "Oh God," she breathed, blinking, her eyes still shockingly blue against the flush of her cheeks.

He moved over her, his fingers still between her legs, and met her gaze. "Have you been carrying that around all this time?"

She swallowed, then nodded.

"Oh, sweetheart." He shook his head. "I will never hate you. No matter what I'll never hate you."

She tipped her head back, letting out a long moan when he finally sheathed himself inside her, and she was so, so fucking wet, so perfect around him.

She had asked him to hurt her.

Instead he made his thrusts slow and gentle, pushing as deep as he could and pausing, letting her adjust to the feel of him, her cunt so slick and tight around him. "I love you," he whispered. "I love you, I love you so much."

She could only take rough panted breaths, her body rising and falling to meet his thrusts. "Ned," she whimpered. "Oh God, baby, I love you too, I've always loved you..."

He moved steadily against her until she began to cry out, her orgasm rising again, and only then did he brush against her clit. She sucked in a swift desperate breath, her hips rocking urgently to meet his in response. He stroked her just a little harder, just a little harder, riding her until she came apart under him, her head tipped back, her body undulating against his as she screamed.

It took Ned a few minutes, after he finally let himself come, to regain the strength to look for the key to the cuffs. Nancy sat up when he released her and shoved her hair out of her face. Her cheeks were wet, and her tears had left her hair partially damp. After he untied her ankles he looked back at her, but her head was down.

He touched her chin, tipping her face up. "You're okay," he said softly.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, giving him a watery smile. "I've felt so bad about it for so long that... I just wanted to feel you take it out on me. God, it just... it hurts, so much."

Ned pulled her into his arms. "And if I'd gone after you when you shoved me..."

She bowed her head again. "I would've deserved it."

"No," he told her, firmly. "No. The woman I love doesn't deserve to have anyone's fists on her, ever. She deserves tenderness and softness and adoration, and love, so much love..."

She cupped his face in her hands. "You are the most amazing guy," she whispered. "And I love you so much."

"And I love you too much to let you keep doing this," he told her. "Show me how much you love me, Nan."

She glanced down at his lap, but he shook his head. "No, sweetheart. When you ask me to hurt you like that... when you ask me to do something so terrible to someone I love so much... you're asking me to hurt myself. I'd rather take a bullet for you than ever see you suffer."

Nancy opened and closed her mouth, her eyes shining. "I'm sorry," she finally managed to whisper.

He pushed her hair away from her cheek, where a few damp strands were sticking. "Just... just always tell me when you feel that way, and we'll get through it together. Okay?"

She swallowed, then nodded. "Okay."

"Promise me."

"I promise," she said softly.

Chapter Text

Nancy woke and her mouth was dry, her head thick with the sense of impending doom.

Oh. Oh fuck. Tequila. So much fucking tequila.

She brought her hand up to her head and winced, moaning. She was naked—no, not quite naked. She still had panties on. Her shirtless husband was in bed beside her, his face buried against the pillow, away from the threat of sunlight.

Oh God.

A glass of water stood on the nightstand beside her. She pushed herself up on her elbows, the covers falling down to bare her breasts, and when the world shifted, the nascent headache became an insistent pounding in time with her heartbeat. The water tasted stale but she took a few tentative sips, and when she put the glass back down, Ned was just pushing himself up. His hair was rumpled, and she wished she could look as damned sexy as he did when she just pulled herself out of bed in the morning.

"How're you feeling?"

Nancy groaned, her head spinning when she let it fall back to the pillow. "Aspirin?" she asked, and she'd beg if she had to.

Ned gave her a light kiss on the cheek, pulling himself out of bed, and even her hangover wasn't enough to stop her from gazing longingly at his naked body before he pulled his shorts back on. Mmm. He was so fucking gorgeous.

She hadn't taken her own clothes off.

"Here you go, sweetheart."

Nancy sat up to take the aspirin. "My shirt," she murmured.

"I threw it in the laundry room."

She nodded, then winced. Moving her head was such a mistake. "Thanks, baby."

Melanie was in town for a case that had just wrapped up, and when she had called to see if Nancy and Ned wanted to do anything, the night had just snowballed from there. Jules was free too, and Mike and Jan, and Howie and Tiffany, and after they hit the bar they had come back home and stayed up playing cards and talking and doing shots. A lot of shots. Way too many shots.

She couldn't quite remember everything that had happened near the end of the night. She remembered Ned patting her back and holding her hair while she threw up. She remembered a few guys she didn't know coming in with twelve-packs of beer. The television had been too loud. Jules had been gesturing and she'd accidentally tipped her chaser onto the floor.

But at least Nancy had already thrown up—

She had thrown up everything. It had been awful.

"Did anybody stay over?" Nancy asked, very slowly moving from beneath the covers.

"Yeah, Jules and Mel are still here," he said, as she found a bra and underwear.

"So I guess I can't just walk to the bathroom like this." She rubbed her forehead.

"Well, you could," Ned said with a little grin.

Nancy rolled her eyes at him, then regretted that. She yanked an old Emerson shirt over her head, and glanced back when she saw Ned was following her.

"I'm just gonna take a shower."

Ned nodded. "And I'm just concerned about you," he said slowly. "Just want to make sure you don't pass out in the shower or anything."

Nancy snickered. "At least tell me I wasn't topless when you brought me upstairs last night."

"Well..." Ned drawled quietly before they shut themselves into the bathroom. "Nah, you were okay. You're so adorable when you're drunk and happy."

After their shower—she only had to shove his hand away a few times; she didn't want to have sex in the shower while they had guests over, especially since she still felt just a little drunk—they found Mel on the daybed in the second bedroom and Jules sprawled across the couch, her folded glasses still clutched in her hand. Nancy took one look at the disaster of the kitchen and announced that they were all going out for brunch.

Mel opted for just a cup of black coffee, while the rest of them debated over eggs, pancakes, or toast. "So you guys are really sticking around here, huh," she said, stirring in artificial sweetener.

Nancy and Ned glanced up, then at each other. "Yeah," Nancy said. "Sorry, Mel. We'll have to limit our alcohol poisoning to visits."

Jules shook her head. "I'm so jealous of you guys," she said. "Your work is so much more exciting than mine."

"But you work there too," Mel said.

Jules rolled her eyes. "Yeah, answering phones and filing."

"Do you want to be an operative?" Mel asked, her eyes alight. "Have you ever done any work outside the office?"

For the next half-hour, Nancy gradually relaxed, smiling to herself as Mel tried to talk Jules into trying out some field work. Jules liked to run her own position at the agency down, but her amazing memory meant she was able to track down the information Nancy or anyone else needed quicker than they'd ever be able to, and she was always ready with a sassy comeback whenever Jake or Stephen made jokes. She might have listened with envy whenever any of them recounted an admission at gunpoint or a close escape, but she was queen of her domain at the office, and they never knew what they'd do without her.

Mel left Nancy with a hug after she gave Jules her number, promising that if either of them were in the same city they'd meet up, and left them to their pancakes and omelets. Jules's gaze followed Mel as she stepped out, hailing a cab so she could catch her flight back.

"So do you know if she's seeing anyone?" Jules asked, her eyes bright.

Nancy laughed. "I don't think so," she said, lifting her coffee cup for another long sip. "But I'll make sure."

Ned was chuckling when he and Nancy returned home. "Trying to play matchmaker, Drew?"

"I think they'd be cute together," Nancy said, and realized that her head had stopped pounding. She gave him a little grin. "You don't?"

"I can think of a few things that would definitely be pretty cute," Ned said, wrapping his arms around her in a soft hug. "And since Mel didn't end up in bed with us last night—"

She cast him a glare. "Ned..."

He shook his head, a glint in his eye. "I'm kidding. Mostly. But I have to tell you, it is torture to take your clothes off and know it's not going anywhere. I was really looking forward to getting you naked, baby."

"Mmm." She'd been looking forward to it too, and then she'd passed out. "You did get me naked. This morning."

His lips brushed against her neck. "Yeah," he growled approvingly, and cupped his palms over her breasts, squeezing her. "And then you kept slapping my hand away..."

"We had to..." She lost her train of thought when his fingers slipped into the waistband of her jeans. "Fuck."

"Yeah, we do have to do that," he murmured.

Before his fingertips could slide into her panties, Nancy let out a soft moan and forced herself to push away from him. "Look, if we start this now, we'll never get the kitchen clean..."

Ned gave her a little pout. His eyes were already dark with desire. "So I'll get a treat if I help you clean up?"

"More like you're going to help me clean up, and I'm going to make you pay for that little side comment."

"Oh, c'mon, Nan." He closed the distance between them quickly and pulled her into his arms. "You know you're all I've ever wanted. I just like how sexy you get when you're angry."

She shook her head and brushed the tip of her nose against his. "And I bet I know just what kind of punishment you'd like," she teased him, her voice low and seductive. "For me to cuff you to a kitchen chair and fuck your brains out."

His hips surged a little against hers. "Well, if you must," he teased her back.

"So get to work, Nickerson." She smacked his ass, grinning when he chased her into the kitchen.

The large bookshelf took up one wall of their living room area, partially because neither one of them had wanted to drag their immense collections of books, photo albums, and keepsakes upstairs to the spare bedroom. Nancy collected the abandoned red plastic tumblers that had been left perched on the shelves. She found a half-empty pack of cigarettes and a clear blue disposable lighter near the back door and remembered guests going out onto the patio, but only dimly. The night had still been warm, and the air conditioning had felt good against her flushed skin.

Ned took out the recycling—just looking at all the empty liquor bottles made Nancy's head ache a little—and Nancy surveyed the remains of their refrigerator. The salsa and dip were gone, along with two bags of chips, and most of the soda had been used for chasers. She shook her head, then remembered that Ned had tossed her almost-definitely ruined shirt into the laundry room.

Ned was in the living room, pretending that his gaze wasn't locked to the sports news crawl at the bottom of the screen, when she heard his phone chime. His boss was an enthusiastic smartphone user who dashed off emails as soon as he had questions or ideas, regardless of whether his employees were probably awake. Or sober. Or had any interest whatsoever in thinking about work. Ned liked grumbling about it, but he also enjoyed his work immensely. He was also a big fan of three-day weekends and long vacations, though.

Nancy heard her husband swear quietly to himself. "Shit," he murmured, and she heard his phone give its new-email chime.

"Don't tell me you aren't going to be able to work on the kitchen anymore," she called to him, mock-sternly.

"Shit. I just have to handle this—it'll take thirty minutes tops, I swear."

Nancy shrugged, taking out the spray cleaner. They were almost done anyway. She wiped down the counters and tossed the paper towel in the trash, then headed upstairs to go through the laundry so she could throw her shirt in with a load of clothes.

That was when she remembered what she'd been planning to do last night, before Mel's unexpected appearance.

Ned was still muttering to himself, peering at his laptop screen, when Nancy pushed a load of clothes into the washer, her discarded shirt liberally doused with stain remover, then headed back upstairs. The only reminder of her hangover was the slight pounding in her head once she reached the landing.

Twenty minutes later, she was happy with her outfit. She ran her hands through her hair, shaking it out a little, so that it tumbled in messy locks over her shoulders. She squared her shoulders and headed back downstairs, keeping her steps quiet.

Ned was just putting his laptop down with a sigh when she reached the foot of the stairs. "Sorry about that," he began, then glanced over at her.

His eyes widened.

She wore a white button-down, and the fabric wasn't quite opaque enough to disguise the darker pink of her hard nipples, bare beneath the shirt. She had zipped herself into one of her tightest dark pencil skirts, one that she almost never wore, and while it fell just above her knees, the slit at the back went just high enough to reveal the edges of the lace at the tops of her seamed thigh-high stockings. Her heels were a pair of black, red-soled stilettos so high that she never quite felt like she was touching the ground. Nancy had put on some dark lipstick and mascara, but her face was clear enough for her to forego the rest of her usual routine.

"Um..." she began. "I'm really sorry, Mr. Nickerson. I've misplaced that memo."

Ned's eyebrows went up. "Again? Miss Drew, you really are giving your temp agency a bad name. What is this, the third time I've had to dictate it?"

She opened her fist, putting what was in her hand down on the table near their front door, checking to make sure the deadbolt was engaged before she walked over to the kitchen and took the grocery-list pad off the refrigerator and found a pen in the pen jar. "I'm really sorry. I just... I get kind of flustered when I'm around you. Maybe if you watched over my shoulder..."

She sat down on one of the kitchen chairs, hiding her laugh when the height of her heels meant she had to practically just fall down onto the seat. Bess had gushed over the damned shoes, saying that the second Ned saw them on her he'd insist that he fuck her wearing them and nothing else—but that appeared to be exactly all they were good for, and, she remarked to herself, Ned hadn't yet succumbed to them.

Not that she wasn't already insanely wet, not that she hadn't been from the moment she had stripped her clothes off and started putting her outfit on.

Ned sighed theatrically and walked over to her, and she peered at him from beneath her lashes as she bent to smooth her stocking over her ankle, giving him an unobstructed view of her breasts, loose beneath her half-buttoned shirt. She tossed her hair back as she sat back up, swallowing when the fabric brushed against the sensitive tips of her breasts as they trembled, then looked up at her husband expectantly.

"Are you ready— Miss Drew?"

Nancy made her blue eyes wide and sweetly innocent. "Mmm-hmm," she murmured, and recrossed her legs.

Ned cleared his throat. "Start with the usual header. Salutation, Mr. Curtis, comma. Two returns. We have been very displeased with the reports from last quarter, specifically in regards to the customer satisfaction ratings on the new product."

Nancy nodded and began to record what he was saying, then bit her lip. Ned said a few more sentences, and even without looking up, she could tell his gaze was fixed on her breasts. She was already tingling in answer, in anticipation.

"Now read that back."

Nancy put her pen down, then reached down and casually opened another button of her shirt, tugging at her collar so more of her bare flesh was revealed. She grabbed a handful of her hair, then released it, letting it tumble back down her shoulders. "Um... header, then, 'Dear Mr. Curtis, comma, two lines. We have been very displeased about what happened last quarter'..."

"Ugh. You have it wrong again," he told her, walking over. "Keep going."

She shook her head. "Uh, the rest... I'm sure it isn't right..."

Ned walked over and took the pad out of her hand, and Nancy fought to keep a small smile off her face. She put on a nervous expression as she gazed up at him, remembering what she had written.

Oh, Mr. Nickerson. I can't fucking concentrate when I see you. God, if you only knew how wet I've been since I got dressed for you. I bet it would be heaven to sit on that gorgeous face of yours.

Ned ripped the top sheet off the pad and handed it back to her, letting out a slow breath. "Again," he told her. "Let me see if I can help you concentrate."

She straightened her back, the pen poised over the pad, and he moved behind her. Every bit of her skin was tender with anticipation as she waited for him to touch her.

"Salutation, Mr. Curtis, comma. Two returns. This problem—"

He slid his hands down her shirt and cupped her breasts, fondling them through her shirt, and Nancy arched, a small whimper escaping her lips as his thumbs brushed her nipples.

"—is getting entirely out of control, and the situation is becoming unbearable. If it gets any harder," he growled, unfastening the next button, "then we will definitely reach a point of no return. Read that back."

"Um," Nancy began, and shuddered, letting out a soft squeal, when his hand stole beneath the fabric to cup her, skin to skin. "Uh, it starts... uh... 'Mr. Curtis...'" He squeezed her nipples, rolling them between his fingers, and she made a soft choked sound, arching into his touch.

"Can I rip your shirt off?" Ned whispered.

She shook her head. "Please don't," she whispered. "I really love this shirt. I'll get a cheap one for next time, though."

He made quick work of the rest of the buttons, then pulled her to her feet and slipped it off her, leaving it on the kitchen chair. "Do you just not care about your job, Miss Drew?"

She was standing in front of him in impossible heels, topless, biting her lip. "I love my job," she protested. "It's just... it's just so hard to focus around you when..."

"When what." Ned stepped in close to her, taking her chin in his hand to tip her face up.

"When I cream myself fantasizing about taking dictation from you." She couldn't quite stop the slight twist to her lips at the end of it.

"Which you appear to be supremely awful at doing."

"Practice makes perfect," she told him.

"I think..." Ned was so close that she could feel his breath against her mouth. "I think you just need some additional encouragement, to keep your mind focused. Maybe if you knew what would happen if you screwed up."

Nancy smoothed her skirt down over her thighs, nervously. "And what will happen if I screw up?" she asked, putting a small tremor in her voice.

"You'll be punished," he told her. His lips barely brushed hers. "Do you think that would help you keep your mind on task?"

"Uh-huh," she breathed, tipping her chin up just a little to return the kiss. When he grasped her breasts again she so immediately melted that she nearly lost her balance, and had to grab his elbow to stop herself from falling.

Ned's tongue traced the seam of her lips. "Do you want me to... show you, Miss Drew?" he asked, his voice a low, husky whisper that sent a shiver straight down her spine.

She swallowed, nodding. "Yes, please," she moaned.

He unzipped her skirt, and with a flick of his wrist he sent it sliding to the floor, to pool around her ankles. She stepped out of it, and Ned took a moment to look at her. She wore a red lace-trimmed garter belt, the clips holding up her stockings, and the join of her thighs was bare underneath. Whenever her legs moved, whenever her sensitive inner lips rubbed together, she felt another startlingly strong shiver of anticipation and arousal.

Ned led her over to the couch, then retrieved the item she had brought downstairs with her. She was panting when he returned to her, and when she licked her lips Ned made a soft growl and reached for his jeans.

He was visibly straining against his boxers when he reached up and stroked the already firm tip of her nipple. "You have to tell me if it's too much, okay?" he whispered, and glanced up at her.

He waited until she nodded to put the clamp around her nipple, pinching the sensitive flesh between the padded clips, and she shivered, reaching for the couch behind her. When she didn't protest he followed with the other, and she felt her hips begin to rock, slightly.

"Okay?"

She nodded, her eyes wide, and when she saw his gaze wander down to her breasts, to the chained clamps around her nipples, another sizzling bolt of awareness went straight down her spine, waking another pulse of demanding arousal. He was clearly turned on by the sight, and she couldn't wait for him to finish.

He gestured for her to sit down on the arm of the couch, and when he gently parted her sex, she propped herself up on her hands, tilting backward so she could spread her legs for him. He let out a soft groan when he found her already incredibly slick, and he gently teased her clit from beneath its hood, until she had her legs fully parted and all of the sensitive pink nub was exposed.

Ned swallowed. "Ready?" he whispered.

"Oh God yes," she told him, already clenching a little as he found the clamp at the end of the chain pooled against her belly, and drew it down.

As wet as the idea had made her, they hadn't yet used the clamps. Her nipples already felt like they were throbbing.

Then he settled the third clamp around her clit.

Nancy bucked up, arching, crying out. He adjusted it slightly and she cried out again, trembling, panting for breath.

"Okay?"

"Oh fuck, oh holy fuck," she replied, rocking a little. "Oh my God."

He pulled her up and she stood trembling on her heels, in only her garter belt and stockings and heels, her nipples and clit throbbing as her slick hot cunt clenched hard, rhythmically, in anticipation.

"You ready?"

She nodded hard when he stepped close to her, close enough that she could feel his erection between them, and she whimpered when he smacked her bare ass, hard. "Now, you dirty little girl, are you ready to find out what your punishment is?"

"Oh God yes," she whimpered, staring into his eyes, and the breathlessness in her voice was entirely unfeigned.

Ned gathered the loose chain in his hand until he was just barely tugging the clamps in unison, and Nancy felt such an intense wave of pleasure wash over her that she literally fell off balance, panting hard, and only the couch behind her and his grip on the clamps kept her upright. "I'm going to keep tugging this chain while I ram every single inch of my hot, hard cock inside that slick, sweet cunt," he growled. "And you're going to take it and like it, you're going to keep taking your punishment until you get it right."

He turned her around, shoving her so she was bent over the arm of the couch, her legs spread, and her heels both kept her off-balance and put her hips at the perfect height. He gathered the chain in his hand, and she was lightheaded with arousal, her clit and her nipples throbbing sensitive, her cunt pulsing in anticipation—

And then he seated himself just inside her, and then, as he rammed into her with a hard, brutal first thrust, his fist jerked the chain.

Nancy screamed, the world beyond her eyes going white at the sensation of his long, thick, gloriously hard cock sliding rapidly into her cunt, the terrible pleasure of the clamps as they abused her tender flesh.

He paused for a second at the apex of his thrust, and she knew he was waiting for her to say the safe word, for her to beg off, to protest that it hurt too much.

She licked her lips. "Again," she whimpered, her voice shaking, her hair falling in her face. "Oh, again, baby."

He did it again, tugging the chain a little harder as he slammed into her, and her next scream was even louder. When he pulled back for his next thrust, he smacked her ass, and she shuddered. "You like your punishment, you dirty little slut?"

"Fuck yes," she panted, her voice breaking on her next scream, all of her trembling as her cunt clenched hard around him.

"Tell me how you love taking my cock, baby."

"Oh God so good so good," she babbled, her hips rocking back against him on his next thrust, and he groaned when another tug of the chain made her constrict hard around him. "So big, oh God Ned, you fill me up so tight and it hurts so good, oh God don't stop..."

"Come down here looking like a fucking wet dream come to life," he growled, his thrusts more rapid, and she was reduced to whimpering sobs, her screams ragged, as he drove her orgasm higher. She felt herself flushing more hotly, and the simultaneous tugs against her nipples and clit would have been enough to drive her to orgasm all by themselves. The feel of her husband ramming his incredible cock into her while he tugged the chain, though, made her shiver with brutal, intoxicating pleasure, and the more aroused she became, the more intense the clamps felt.

She let her head hang, and in the dim shadows she watched her breasts tremble with his next thrust, saw her husband's fist at the join of the chains, the dark, rubber-tipped clamps pinching her sensitive nipples. Her clit tingled when he tugged again, his cock buried to the hilt inside her, and she began to sob as she lost control. All she could do was rock with him, her belly and her breasts tight with need, and just the lightest brush of his skin against hers made her flinch with sensitivity.

He spanked her again and she shuddered. "I ought to smack that tight little ass of yours red... you fuck up again, Miss Drew, and I'll be reaming that tight little asshole of yours with the strap-on while we do this."

She shivered in anticipation. "Oh God yes," she begged him, feeling another gush of arousal between her legs as she took his full length again. "Yeah, baby, oh fuck oh fuck yesssssssss, right there oh God yes," she screamed, as her orgasm peaked, as he pounded roughly into her, rhythmically pulling the chain that linked her clit and nipples. 

She screamed more loudly, her knees buckling, her shoulders jerking as she came. He had to stop, he had to, but he didn't, and when she writhed, sobbing, she only succeeded in pulling against the clamps—and that drove her climax so high that she actually felt herself rocking into his thrusts, seeking the edge of pain buried in the pleasure. He pulled a little harder and she screamed so high she barely made any sound at all, hearing the wet sound of their joining as he slammed into her almost painfully sensitive cunt again. She didn't care about anything anymore, just the delirious wicked joy of it, and she trembled as her eyes rolled back, her throat dry from her screams, her lashes matted thick with tears she didn't remember shedding.

When he finally let himself come with a long groan, she collapsed to the couch, unable to move, unable to think or do anything more than work on just breathing. She kept panting far longer than she usually did; she had never in her damn life come so hard. He opened his fist to release the chain and braced his hands on her ass and she let out a low, weak moan, jerking when he slowly eased himself out of her, her inner flesh still weakly pulsing. The clamps felt like pure white pain against her nipples and clit, pain so intense that she trembled, panting, her hips still gently rocking.

Ned was panting too. "Baby, you okay?" he finally forced out.

"Mmmm," Nancy moaned. "Holy fucking shit."

He reached down and lifted her, and she was as pliant and boneless as a rag doll in his arms. She giggled when he turned her around, as she teetered on her heels, and when he gently parted her sex to take the clamp off her clit, she shuddered, collapsing to sit on the arm of the couch again.

"Seriously, you okay?"

She nodded dreamily, letting out a quiet moan when he took the clamps off her nipples and tossed the chain onto the coffee table. He made a soft noise when he saw the marks left on her by the clamps, and when he sat down on the couch and pulled her into his lap, she came along willingly.

He lowered his face to her breast and took her nipple into his mouth, and she let out a soft cry as he slowly stroked it with his tongue, his touch gentle against the throbbing awareness and pain the clamp had left there. He let her tilt back so her shoulders were supported by the arm of the couch, and she lazily ran her hand through his hair as he moved to her other nipple, tenderly caressing it the same way.

"Is your clit okay?" His brown eyes were soft with concern as he looked down at her, and she opened her eyes slowly. All of her was relaxed and spent from the intensity of her orgasm, so much that it was almost hard to concentrate on anything he was saying.

She swallowed. "You saying you're gonna kiss it and make it better, baby?"

Ned frowned. "I didn't mean to pull so hard," he muttered.

She tightened her grip in his hair and he looked back into her eyes. "Ned, that was... that was one of the most incredible orgasms I've ever had. So please don't fucking apologize for it. Oh God, it was soooooo good."

He dipped his head, then moved down, unfastening her garter belt, gently stroking her stockings down her legs without bothering to unclip the ribbons from the lace-trimmed tops. He took her shoes and the stockings off, then kissed her ankle, her opposite knee, her inner thigh.

She sucked in a loud breath when he knelt between her thighs and gently ran the tip of his tongue over her clit. With a moan she sprawled one leg over the back of the couch, letting her other fall open to bare her sex to him, and she felt her inner flesh throb weakly in answer as he gently ran his tongue around her clit. "Fuck," she whimpered, arching as he rubbed his tongue over the tip, and soon she was jerking under him, her hips pistoning against him as she came again, his hands cupped around her sore ass, his tongue working against her clit, her cunt still weakly pulsing and slick with her arousal and his seed. Her cries rose to a rough scream, her heart speeding as he circled her clit with his tongue again.

Ned pulled back and Nancy just lay there, sprawled and sated, sweat drying cool on her skin. She had finally managed to catch her breath again when she felt him get up, and he returned with a cloth to wipe her inner thighs.

Slowly, slowly, she opened her eyes again. Her nipples and clit still ached a little, but she had never experienced such an incredible orgasm in her life, so it wasn't such a terrible price to pay for it.

She smiled up at her husband. "Holy fucking shit," she repeated.

Ned smiled softly in return, brushing a strand of hair off her cheek. "So was that punishment effective, Miss Drew?" he teased her quietly.

Nancy mustered her strength long enough to pull herself up, bringing her legs back together, and leaned forward to kiss him. "Very much so," she told him. "That was fucking incredible. And feeling you fuck me while you did that... oh my God."

"So did you learn anything?" he chuckled.

"Yeah," she whispered, and put her mouth against his ear. "One day I'm gonna put that outfit on again, with one little minor change, and come to your work, and when you lock me in the copy room and bend me over a chair, when you reach up to slide your fingers into my pussy and make sure I'm already wet for you... I'll already be wearing the chain."

Ned spanked her hard one last time, and when she pulled back, her cheeks flushed and mouth open in mild shock, his eyes were dark with desire.

"And when I can't get any damn work done Monday because I'm just picturing that all day..."

"Just call ahead and I'll be waiting for you like that when you get home."

Ned's kiss was rough, and she tasted the tang of her arousal on his tongue. "Ready and waiting for some more dictation, Miss Drew?"

She grinned. "Always."

Chapter Text

Ned looked down at the rolling suitcase, a small smile on his face. The train car rocked rhythmically back and forth, metal squealing against metal.

He would be seeing his wife soon.

The weather was finally cool enough to make long sleeves comfortable, and dead brown leaves choked the gutters and gathered in the puddles. Ned loved the beginning of fall, but more than that, he loved Chicago, and he loved the feeling of coming home.

But his wife wasn't there. He already knew that.

He walked home from the station, relishing the feel of the wind on his face, the glare of the sunlight, the crunch of the leaves under his feet. Their neighborhood wasn't like the ones where he or Nancy had grown up—his wife had grown up the privileged only daughter of a wealthy and esteemed criminal defense attorney, and Ned the favored only son of a well-to-do realtor and his wife—but when Ned turned onto their street, he felt peaceful. Their townhouse was a few blocks away from campus housing, but far enough away to keep their small patch of grass free of overflow parking or stray pool inflatables. At sundown the smell of grilled meat and the sound of distant laughter reached them.

Eventually, Ned was sure, there would be a bigger house, maybe one with a nursery. But for now, he was happy.

They were in Chicago and they were together.

He hadn't lied to Nancy when he had told her that if she wanted to move to New York, they would consider it. They hadn't even really had the discussion, though. They both wanted to be near their parents, and while Nancy had worked a brief, relatively simple case with the Hardys after their engagement, neither of them had brought it up again. Letting Nancy's Aunt Eloise plan their wedding in the Hamptons had been their concession to the idea.

He wouldn't change anything about their wedding, and especially not about their honeymoon, the stretch of days they had spent in each other's arms, both endless and far too short. In Chicago he knew she took all kinds of cases, blackmail and embezzlement, tracking down cheating spouses and lost relatives and con men, but he'd never been able to shake the feeling that she was safer in Chicago than she would be in New York. And it didn't hurt that Frank was a considerable distance away.

Given everything else, he would have no problem with his wife spending time with Frank Hardy. There had been a time Ned would have trusted Hardy exactly as far as he could throw him, to not at least make a move on Nancy—but things were different now, and Ned was sure she fully belonged to him. He just worried that Frank might get her into another dangerous situation—and that this time, she wouldn't be so lucky.

Lucky. Considering everything else, he wouldn't exactly call the shooting or anything related to it lucky, but at least she was alive. Every time his lips or fingers or gaze brushed the scar the bullet had left in her skin, he was thankful for that fact again.

Ned hadn't told Nancy that she couldn't stay at their house alone while he was out of town. He knew better. Instead he had called Hannah, and left it up to her.

Nancy would have been fine. He knew that. But when it came to her, the gorgeous, rare woman he had married, he'd never been able to help feeling protective. She had taken on men nearly twice her size in hand-to-hand combat and he still didn't like the thought of her sleeping by herself in their house.

He hadn't liked sleeping without her, either. Soon after he had given her a key to his apartment, he had grown accustomed to sharing his bed with her. The month before their wedding had given him a taste of solitude again, but now that she was his wife, he loved sleeping beside her, loved waking to see the spill of red-gold hair across her pillow before she woke and smiled at him. While she had been on the handful of cases that had taken her out of town overnight, he had felt the distance between them like a soft, steady ache, one that only faded when she was in his arms again.

No other man Ned knew had gone through anything like what he had. None of them had run shaking fingers over the pale scar of a bullet wound, gazing with disbelief at how close their loved ones had come to dying. What was a garden-variety breakup or pregnancy scare or tearful reconciliation when he had come so close to losing her for good? And when they made love, when he saw that fathomless expression in her eyes, when she was somewhere else without him, he knew that the undeniable pull between them was what brought her back.

The rest of their lives wouldn't be long enough to make up for the time they had spent apart.

Quickly Ned wheeled his suitcase to the laundry room—no point in taking it all the way upstairs if most of the contents were going to end up downstairs anyway—and noted, with some amusement, the small signs of her brief occupancy in his absence, the small clues she had taught him to recognize. The half-finished mug of coffee on the counter, a handful of takeout menus on the table, her beat-up sneakers beside the laundry basket. Ned changed clothes and sent an email to his boss, indicating the trip had gone just as well as they expected, and then he was off.

His heart was actually beating faster at the prospect of seeing her.

Three nights. Four days and three nights without her. 

They had spoken to each other every night, through webcam or phone, and he had pictured her in her bedroom at her father's house, all long lean legs and thin cotton and warmth, gazing at the framed photo of him that was probably still at her bedside. His photo of her had gone to Emerson with him, even though he had memorized her features, the way her eyes danced, her laugh, the day they had met.

Nancy's car wasn't in the driveway when Ned pulled up. So she was still out with Hannah. He mentally figured out their most likely route and parked where they wouldn't pass his car on the way in, then went up to the porch. The air was cooler in the shade than in the sun, but still pleasant, and he could hear a backyard game of touch football going on down the block. Ned checked his email and found a response from his boss, and had just sent his reply when another car came down the street. Ned glanced up and recognized his wife's car. She didn't glance at the porch when she slid out of the car; she and Hannah were talking about an apple pie recipe, and when they started up the walk, still chattering, each of them carried a basket of fresh-picked apples.

Ned stood, remembering a night that felt both a lifetime ago and no less than a heartbeat away. The woman who was now his wife stepping out of the shadows on his parents' porch, the faintest hope in her blue eyes.

Hannah had taken Nancy's basket so her surrogate daughter could look in her purse for her key, and Nancy had just stepped onto the porch, still rummaging around in her bag, when she glanced up, her eyes wide, and looked Ned full in the face.

She gasped, and a second later she was launching herself into his arms. He noticed with some amusement that she wore a pair of faded jeans, the denim washed to the thickness of a whisper, and a much-loved Emerson t-shirt he had given her soon after he had started at the college.

"Ned! Oh my God," she cried happily, her arms tight around him. "You got back early? I would have come and picked you up..."

"I know," Ned said, closing his eyes as he savored the feel of her in his arms. Hannah was chuckling to herself, looking for her own key since Nancy had been distracted. "I wanted to surprise you, though."

"And this is the best surprise." She leaned forward and gave him a light, soft kiss, mindful of their audience, but it left Ned almost trembling in anticipation of more. She gave him one last squeeze, then followed Hannah inside.

"I should have known, all that talk of apple pie was sure to conjure you," Hannah told Ned with a smile as he took the other basket of apples out of her hands. "So you're definitely staying for dinner?"

Ned cast a glance at Nancy. "Sure," he said, when she grinned. "It's been way too long since I've had one of your home-cooked meals, Hannah."

Generally Nancy put Ned to work in their kitchen, and he liked that. Sometimes she still teased him about his impatience, all the times he'd botched cooking on the grill, and that usually ended with him pinning her against the counter, kissing her until she gasped out an apology. Hannah, on the other hand, insisted that Ned relax while she and Nancy prepared dinner. Ned sat down at the bar and watched his wife and Hannah work together to get the pie ready, rolling out the crust and chopping the apples. He told them about his trip as Hannah prepped the dough for rolls and Nancy snapped the ends off asparagus, and every time, every damn time Ned's eyes met Nancy's, he felt that perpetual awareness of her twinge in his belly.

Before, when she had been at home, when he would come see her during breaks at Emerson, there had been other nights like this one. When she was between cases, still humming a little with desire for a new mystery, he had watched Nancy and Hannah make dinner, until Hannah would shoo them out. Then they would go sit on the living room couch, and his fingers would try to trace every curve his gaze had lingered over, and she would giggle and shove his hands away, both of them waiting for the half-second of warning Carson's hand on the front doorknob would give them.

When nothing was left to do, Hannah glanced between the two of them. "Go on, you two," she said, a twinkle in her eye. "I'll call you when it's time to set the table, but I'm sure you two have missed each other."

"Are you sure?" Nancy said, but Ned was already grabbing her hand, giving Hannah a little grin as he tugged Nancy behind him.

He had no intention of doing this on the couch, where they could be interrupted any second by her father returning home. Instead he opened the back patio door and swept her into his arms once they were outside. She giggled, her blue eyes dancing, as the tip of his nose brushed hers.

"I missed you, baby."

"I missed you so much," she told him, her arms up around his shoulders, her gaze straightforward and simple.

And it had never been like that before. Before that awful breakup, he had always seen hesitance and reluctance in her gaze. She had been so afraid to commit herself, to treat what was between them with any gravity. Ned had always been painfully aware that he was the one cursed to desperation where they were concerned, that his need for her had always been stronger than her need for him.

Now, though, now that he could see into her heart... every sleepless night, every worry, was answered by the love in her eyes.

He brushed his lips over hers and she seemed to melt in his arms. His memory of her skin was never as good as it actually felt under his fingertips, and when he walked over to the patio loveseat and sat down, she sprawled over his lap, blinking slowly up at him.

"Was it nice to be back here?"

She nodded, running a hand through his hair. "Yeah. For a little while."

"And you slept okay?" It had been a few weeks since he had jerked awake to find her panting next to him, her eyes shining as a nightmare loosed its grip on her, and he'd pulled her into his arms, feeling her heartbeat slow as she relaxed into his embrace.

She shook her head. "I sleep lousy without you," she admitted, tilting to give him a slow kiss. "And then I wake up wet, wishing you were next to me."

"Every time I walked back into my hotel room," he told her, his lips brushing hers, "I was hoping that you'd found some reason to be in the city, that I'd find you in there waiting for me."

"I wish I had," she told him, and her lips traced the line of his jaw, lingered against his neck. "And I suppose you always hoped I was just laying there, sprawled across your bed, naked..."

"Didn't really matter how you were dressed," he told her. "Hell, you look sexy right now."

She chuckled against his neck. "You don't need to butter me up, Nickerson—you're definitely getting laid tonight."

"Yeah, but I think I will have to butter you up if I want you to put out in the next twenty minutes." He ran his palm slowly up her thigh.

She giggled, but she didn't push his hand away. "Yeah, I remember how we'd get to first and you'd try to steal third," she murmured. "No amount of buttering up is gonna get me to put out before dinner, sweetheart."

"You sure about that?" He cupped her breast, his thumb brushing her nipple through her bra, and she let out a soft moan, arching against him before she began to shove his hand away.

"Ned," she said warningly.

"You sure you don't want me to take you upstairs, carry you to your old bedroom?" he murmured, kissing his way down her neck, drawing small lazy circles over her stomach, drifting to the small of her back. "Make up for all those mornings you woke up wet and aching for me, when you had to make do with your fingers instead of sliding down onto my cock?"

She moaned softly again, and Ned made sure what they were doing wasn't obvious through the windows as he cupped her other breast. "I couldn't even do that," she admitted, dragging her nails down his spine. "I was too afraid they'd hear me and know what I was doing..."

"So you've been aching for it since I left," he teased her, and she let out a quiet cry as he ran the tip of his thumb hard over her tight nipple.

"Please," she whimpered. "Oh, Ned, please, please."

"Please what, sweetheart."

"I wish you could take me home right now," she whispered, and Ned hissed quietly when she just barely stroked him through his jeans. "Let me show you just how much I've missed you."

Ned's hips surged and he sat forward, slipping his hand into his wife's hair, pulling her to him. He kissed her roughly. She applied a little more pressure to his groin as her hand moved over his crotch, and he found himself wondering how quickly he could get her jeans off, if he could carry her to the side yard, bear her down in the shade of a tree and get them both off before Hannah called them in for dinner. He'd always been in favor of the idea of outdoor sex, and with her hair tumbling loose down her shoulders, her face scrubbed fresh, he saw her the way she had been when he had first fallen in love with her, when every brush of her skin against his had made Ned desperate for more. And then they had finally, finally made love, and he had never felt so shaken to the core, not with any girl before her, not with any woman after her. If he had never known her, he could have been happy with someone else—but, having known her, there could never be anyone else. Never. 

Ned slipped his hand under her shirt and she began trying to twist away from him before he pushed the cups of her bra up, freeing her breasts. She bit him gently as he cupped her naked breast in his palm, and when she first began to toy with his zipper, both of them paused. 

Nancy let out a long, slow breath, and he could feel her heart speeding under his fingertips. "Fuck," she whispered. "Ned..." 

Ned slipped his arms around her, ready to pick her up and carry her behind the closest shelter they could find—he was so fucking turned on that they'd be done in two minutes flat, he was sure—when they heard the back doorknob rattle. Hastily Ned pulled Nancy's bra back in place, and she hissed when the underwire dragged over her sensitive nipples. 

Their hair was mussed, Nancy's lips red from the press of his kiss, her blue eyes wide as she glanced toward the door. Despite the insistence of his erection, Ned had to hold back a chuckle. He couldn't count the number of times Hannah, Carson, or either of his parents had walked in to find them this way, clearly startled apart while making out. None of them ever said anything, though, and there had been a time Nancy and Ned had been convinced they were getting away with it. Ned was sure now that they never had. 

"Time to set the table," Hannah announced with a shake of her head, a small smile on her lips. "Your father will be home in about ten minutes." 

Nancy nodded and started moving to untangle herself. "Be there in a minute," Ned said. 

Once Hannah was back inside, Nancy glanced back at her husband. "You okay?" 

He shook his head, mutely. "And I think you have some idea why, Miss Drew." 

She bit her lip, then gave him a small wicked grin. "Anything I can do to make it up for you?" 

"Bring me a bucket of ice," he suggested. "Or take your jeans off and let me fuck you in the grass." 

Nancy rolled her eyes, standing up. "Sorry, sweetheart. Ice?" 

He shrugged, pulling himself carefully to his feet. "Walk in with me so I don't scandalize Hannah and I'll take care of this." 

Nancy raised her eyebrow. "You're seriously going to go jack it in the guest bathroom." 

Ned made a soft, vaguely outraged sound. "I thought we both knew that touching my zipper pretty much meant things were a go. Or, at least," he nodded toward his waist, "we both knew that. If you feel bad, though, it can be your hand..." 

She chuckled. "Fine. Go... relieve the tension. I'll just go set the table and act like my panties aren't practically soaked right now." 

"Mmm." Ned tightened his fingers on hers. "Can't wait to find that out for myself." 

It had been a while since the four of them had eaten dinner together. Every time he was around Carson Drew, Ned felt the knowledge of what he'd done pulse like a guilty secret—I've seen your daughter naked, fucked her brains out, fucked her until she was screaming, and you probably know it—but, as always, Carson's ease put Ned at ease, and soon they were all laughing. Ned kept an eye on his wife, and every time she shifted in her chair, he saw the brief knit of her brow that signaled a pang of arousal, but by the end of the meal she seemed to have recovered enough to help serve the pie and ice cream. 

They promised to get together again soon, Ned's fingers laced through Nancy's, and after he said his goodbyes to his father-in-law and Hannah, Nancy went upstairs to pack what she had brought with her, and Ned headed to the house. 

He had been relaxed. By the time he walked into their house, he was already half-hard again.

When Nancy walked in, Ned was waiting for her, and he barely had time to stand before she had tossed her duffel bag to the floor, kicked the door shut behind her, and launched herself into his arms. Her mouth fused hard to his, and she gripped his shoulders so she'd have leverage to bounce up and wrap her legs around him. Their kiss was rough, and Ned's hands wandered over her jeans-clad ass, tracing the seam.

"I need you inside me," she growled. "Right now, Ned. My cunt is so fucking wet for you... I need your cock, baby."

Her words took his erection from manageable to raging, and he carried her to the stairs. He was on the third step when she grabbed the railing, and he glanced at her quizzically.

"Right here," she told him. "Sit down."

He put her down on the stairs, opening his jeans as he watched her hastily strip off her shirt, toeing out of her shoes and sending them bouncing into the darkness. Her bra ended up dangling from the knob at the end of the banister. Ned sat down a few steps up, his bare feet resting on the last step, entirely naked save his wedding ring, and gazed up at his wife.

"I missed you so much, baby."

"I missed you too," she murmured, and Ned groaned, his head tipping back on his shoulders as Nancy took the head of his cock in her mouth, swirling her tongue around the tip. She bobbed up and down a few times, and when she pulled back Ned was panting, his hand just stealing up so he could lace his fingers through her hair.

"Mmm," she murmured, shaking her head as she began to climb the stairs. "God, that's what I wanted to do to you earlier, baby."

Ned shuddered as he imagined what would have happened if she had given in to that impulse. "Would've been hot as fuck," he told her, watching as she straddled him, grasping the rails on either side of the stairs.

"You're gonna have to help," she told him, and Ned brought his feet up another step to give himself more stability, watching in breathless anticipation as she sank down toward his cock. He held himself in place for her, and when she first touched him, her inner flesh already hot and slick for him, he let out a small groan of approval as he guided the tip of his cock against the slit of her sex. Her eyes fluttered closed when the tip of his cock was just inside her.

Then she squatted onto him, taking him in one smooth thrust of her hips, and both of them let out a long pleased sigh. She paused there for a moment, all of her weight supported by her arms and on the balls of her feet, and Ned cupped her breasts, roughly stroking her nipples.

"Mmmm," she moaned, and tossed her hair back. Her hips began to rock gently against him, and she readjusted her weight before she pushed herself back up. "You feel so fucking good, baby."

Ned shivered just a little as she rose, then slid back down onto his cock. "That feels amazing," he told her. "So, so wet. Mmmm."

"I hated when you were away," she said. She made a soft noise when he pinched her nipples between his thumbs and forefingers, and he felt her clench just a little tighter around him. "I hate sleeping without you."

"Me too," he whispered. He kept fondling her breast as he traced his other hand down, stroking her side, her belly, the curve of her ass as she rose and sank onto him, and in the stillness of their house, the sound of his cock against her slick flesh with her every thrust made a frisson of arousal slide down his spine.

"I love you so much," she said, and her voice rose to a moan at the end, as he just barely ran his fingertips against the join of her thighs. His thumb brushed against the tip of her clit and she cried out, shuddering.

"I love you too, baby," he told her, stroking her nipple and clit with the same rhythm—it always seemed to drive her nuts, when he did that—before he switched to her other breast. Her head tipped back and she angled her hips as she sank down onto him again, and Ned let out a moan at the tight clench of her cunt around him. "Oh, God, Nan..."

She cried out when he stroked her clit a little harder, her breasts bouncing with her thrusts. "Yes, yes," she begged him, her panted breaths rising into sobs. "Oh fuck, feels so fucking good," she said, her voice becoming a squeal at the end as the tip of his thumb ran hard over her clit. "Yeah, baby, oh God yes."

He took his hand off her breast, giving her one last squeeze, before he smacked her ass. "Faster," he panted. "Faster, sweetheart. You look so fucking gorgeous right now."

She let out an agonized sob, rutting down onto him, and Ned rubbed harder against her clit as he smacked her ass again. His fingertips drifted down the cleft of her ass as he soothed her with a gentle caress, and when he gently rimmed her asshole with his fingers, she shuddered, bringing her head up with a cry as her cunt pulsed in answer. She moved her grip further up the rails and shifted the angle of her hips, giving him a better angle, and he chuckled as he took the hint, rimming her again as she slammed down onto his cock.

"Oh God oh God oh God," she panted out, and Ned tipped up, his lips grazing her flesh as he groaned. She took the full length of him and rocked her hips, and he felt her inner walls spasm against his cock, over and over, as she came. Ned cried out as he let himself follow.

"Oh holy fuck," she whimpered, dangling by her arms as they kept gently rocking together, and Ned slipped his arms around her as she let go and rested against him, her chest to his, her legs still spread on either side of him. She kissed his collarbone, the hollow between, as he began to soften inside her, and he shivered a little when she ran the tip of her tongue over his skin.

"Mmmm," Ned sighed. "Holy shit, Nan."

She chuckled against him. "So you like that, huh," she breathed, still trying to catch her breath.

"Hell yes." It took another moment for him to find the strength to sit up, and he slipped out of her as he pushed himself to his feet, his wife still wrapped around him. He carried her to the kitchen with him and she wiped her thighs as he washed his hands.

She was leaning against the counter, unselfconsciously naked, her bare skin gleaming faintly with their exertion when he glanced up. Her blue eyes were low-lidded and she looked languid, thoroughly fucked, and so incredibly gorgeous.

And every time their eyes met, he felt an echo of their first meeting, the bolt of pure electricity that had surged through him.

He pulled her into his arms, and the feel of her skin against his, the feel of her breathing, the soft pleased sound she made as she nestled against him, her face against his neck, made him feel entirely at peace. "I'd almost say that if all my homecomings are going to end like that, I should go out of town more often," he murmured, stroking his hand over her hair. "Almost."

"Please don't," she whispered. "The entire time you were gone, half of me was just waiting for you to come home." Her lips brushed his shoulder.

He drew his fingertips down the length of her spine and felt her shiver gently against him before he moved back to kiss her. "I love you," he whispered.

She returned the kiss hard. "And I will always love you."

Chapter Text

Nancy's cubicle at the office, most of the time, felt like it was just for show. Trent was the one who needed an office, the one who usually dealt with clients; Nancy and the other operatives used their desk space to occasionally charge their laptops, to hold spare equipment, to keep the occasional bit of useful information that just couldn't be converted to digital files. Nancy's desk held a box of wigs, a few spare generic uniforms she could use to pose as a messenger, housekeeper, or generic attendant, the charger for her camera's battery pack, and her spare gun. Scrawled messages and reminders were pinned to the small corkboard to her left.

The only mementos she had brought in were snapshots. One of her father and Hannah, both grinning cheerfully. One of Nancy with Bess and George, mugging for the camera on the night of her bachelorette party, before they were all blitzed, before their faces became shiny and grins lopsided. A few more group shots from their wedding, the guests grinning widely.

And her favorite photo of Ned, from their wedding day. The photographer had captured him in an unguarded moment, his hand half-up, his gaze away from the camera. In stark black and white, the way the light fell over him, over the strong line of his jaw, he looked even more handsome than usual—and Nancy had thought that was impossible. Her coworkers, the ones who hadn't met Ned, all insisted that she had just cut the photo out of a magazine, that he was just some random male model, not her actual husband.

But he was. Nancy glanced again at the large bouquet standing at the corner of her desk.

I'm sorry, sweetheart. I love you.

Jules had dashed past Nancy's cubicle a few minutes before. She walked back more casually, rolling her eyes again in jealousy when she saw the bouquet. "You're lucky as hell, you know that?"

Nancy nodded. "Oh yes I do."

Nancy and Ned had fought a few nights before. It had been stupid—he'd had a bad day at work and so had she, his car needed a tune-up that he just hadn't made time to schedule, and the DVR had recorded one minute of one of their favorite shows, followed by sixty-one minutes of a pixellated freeze frame. He'd made a comment about dinner and she'd snapped at him, and soon they had both been yelling. For her, the last straw had been an angry reference he made to her injuries. She had stomped upstairs, slamming their bedroom door, half-waiting for him to stomp up after her and continue their argument.

But he hadn't, and she had fumed, glancing down at the elastic bandage wrapped tightly around her sprained wrist, her fingertips running lightly over the scrape on her cheek. Her bruised knees had throbbed when she thought of them. She had known the guy she was watching for her client was a misogynistic asshole; she just hadn't expected his friend to come up behind her when he'd ambushed her. She had been so high on adrenaline that she'd managed to break the friend's hold almost immediately, and he had thrown her to the pavement at their feet. She'd had to cup her other hand under the butt of her gun to keep them from realizing that otherwise it would have drooped from her sprained wrist, and she had bluffed long enough to get them both in custody.

And Ned hadn't liked it. She had known that even before she had come home from the emergency room. He hadn't liked that she was working a case at a strip club, even though she had spent all of two days there, helping Tasha get evidence that her ex was harassing her outside the club. Ned definitely hadn't liked that she had been hurt in the process.

But then she didn't expect him to do a happy dance on seeing his wife injured, she had to admit to herself. He was protective by nature, and she had known that when she'd married him. It was one of the qualities she almost always loved about him.

Eventually she had cooled down from their fight enough to think about speaking to him again, and the advice she had received on the eve of her wedding had come back to her. She had started downstairs and met him coming up, and they had both said they were sorry at the same time.

Then they'd called for pizza and made love until their dinner arrived. 

The flowers had come to her work the next day, and he had even taken the time to order them in person; his handwriting was on the card.

She really was the luckiest girl she knew.

With a happy sigh, Nancy checked her email again for the fifth time in as many minutes. She had a feeling Trent was afraid to send her out on a new assignment, and while she had so little down time that she usually couldn't even appreciate it when it happened, she was practically vibrating with impatience for a new challenge.

She had her licensure. After working at it for so long, she had taken the test and passed. She was a private investigator now, full-fledged.

And Trent hadn't asked it yet, no one at work—other than Jules, of course—had asked it yet, but she could feel it on their minds.

They were wondering when she was going to quit, to strike out on her own.

Her new-email chime went off, and Nancy pulled it up impatiently.

Congratulations, Drew! :) You're amazing. And my offer still stands, if you're interested.

Nancy's heart beat a little faster when she saw the sender's name.

There had been a time, not so terribly long ago, that she would have leapt immediately at Frank Hardy's offer. Running an agency with Frank and Joe, choosing their cases, pooling their resources—finding an office in New York, spending so much time with Frank... When she was fifteen, it would have felt like a dream.

But she had changed, and that change had begun the first time she had met Ned Nickerson's brown eyes.

Thanks, Hardy. I'll keep that in mind. ;)

She would keep it in mind. And she knew that Ned probably hadn't been lying to her when he had told her that if she wanted to work with the Hardys, if she wanted to move to New York and pursue that route, he would be open to the discussion.

But she didn't want to move to New York. Oh, she had no doubt the city would be exhilarating, always exciting, and always new, that she would have her pick of cases, that Frank and Joe would never again let their guards down the way they had the terrible night of her shooting. But she had never had a shortage of cases in Chicago, either—and Ned's work, and their families and many of their friends, were here. Their home was here.

And besides, if they moved to New York, they would be far less likely to go on the kind of trip they had planned for the weekend. That was, of course, if Trent didn't suddenly put her on a weekend stakeout.

Nancy didn't have to wait too much longer for her summons. Her wrist ached a little as she brought her hand up to knock on the doorframe outside Trent's office, and she remembered just in time to switch to her non-dominant hand.

"You wanted to get out of town this weekend," Trent began with no preliminary.

Nancy's gaze lingered, as it always did, on the green banker's lamp that stood on the closer edge of his desk. Trent had adapted most of the design cues in his office from old noir films. An ashtray and a sterling silver desk lighter stood beside the banker's lamp, although Trent didn't smoke, and didn't allow smoking in the office. Nancy had a feeling there wasn't even any fluid in the lighter; it just lent to the aesthetic.

She was pretty sure Trent would die of the sheer perfection of it, should some long-legged buxom blonde walk into his office in a slinky red dress, birdcage veil pulled down over her drowsy eyes, and pout that only he could get her out of the trouble she found herself in.

"I'd love to," Nancy said, hiding her smile. Well, it wasn't like she couldn't wear a costume on Halloween...

Trent passed over a file. In stark contrast to the boring beige cubicles that served for the operatives' personal space, Trent's files and notes were pigeonholed and organized, all carefully arranged, like Trent himself. "Track down Stan Blumenthal—might help if you can figure out his LKA—and you're done until Monday. Go relax and heal up so I can get you back out in the field where you belong."

Nancy sprang up from the oxblood-leather-upholstered visitor's chair, wincing only a little at the twinge in her bruised knees, a wide smile on her face. Finding a last known address was a bit of legwork she usually groaned about doing, but at least it was something. "And pass it on to you when I find it?"

"If you find it," Trent said, a teasing gleam in his eye. He knew how competitive she was. "Give it to Jules; Rick will be calling in for it."

Texting was a bitch with Nancy's sprained wrist, and exasperatingly slow with her nondominant one. As much as she wanted to tell Ned that their long weekend was a go, she decided to put it off until after she had tracked down Blumenthal. After an hour of combing through old listings for bankrupt businesses and decrepit boarding houses, Nancy's blood was up. She would find this guy.

You home yet? Want me to pick up dinner?

Nancy glanced at the clock. Five-fifteen. She sighed and called him back. "I'm still at work, hon," she admitted when he answered. "There's some chicken breasts thawing in the fridge, though."

"Like the kind that have to bake forever?"

Nancy rolled her eyes, giving a finger-wave to Jules as the other woman gestured she was leaving. "Like the kind that we can put on the indoor grill and they'll be done in ten minutes."

"Ooh. Mind if I make nachos with them?"

Ned and his nachos kick. Nancy had to admit that the mental image of a pile of chips covered in melted cheese, shredded chicken, salsa and black beans and sour cream, had her almost salivating. "If you want some sour cream on them you'll have to pick it up, but yeah, go for it. By the time you have it done I should be home."

"Ooooooooh. This is gonna be so good."

"Oh! And we're a go to leave whenever you want, this weekend," she told him with a grin. "Soon as I'm done tracking this guy down, I'm off until Monday."

Ned crowed happily. "For real?"

"Well, it's not like I can do that much with this bum wrist," she pointed out, glancing back down at the file.

"That's great news—I hate that it's because you're hurt, but I can't wait to get there. This weekend is gonna be awesome."

"Mmm-hmm," Nancy replied, amused. "Sometimes when you promise that..."

She intentionally trailed off, and Ned made a dismissive sound. "It's been too long since we've had the front desk called on us, baby."

"You know," Nancy said, her voice dropping to a softer murmur, "if I weren't already aware that you have absolutely nothing to be self-conscious about, I'd say this obsession you have with letting everyone within earshot listen to us having sex was hiding some serious issues."

"The only serious issue I have," Ned returned, his voice a quiet, playful growl, "is that you're on the other side of the city from me right now, and fully clothed."

"Well, I'll just have to see what I can do about that, Mr. Nickerson."

"See that you do, Miss Drew. Tardiness means cold nachos—and maybe a little corrective punishment."

Nancy squeezed her thighs together. "Oh really," she murmured. "I think you could argue that since I forgot to leave work at five, I've already been a bad girl..."

"Mmmm." Ned's voice had that low tone that went right down her spine, right between her legs. "Well, let me just tell this particular bad girl that the sooner she gets home, the more... thorough... her punishment will be."

The only reason Nancy didn't walk into their house already half-naked was what the neighbors would say, and the knowledge that cold nachos were awful. They sprawled on the couch with cold beers and the tray of nachos on the coffee table, catching up on the evening news, and by the time the sitcom reruns began, they were both stuffed and Ned already had her shirt off.

The bruises on her knees and her sprained wrist limited the positions they could try, but Nancy kind of loved it. He couldn't just sprawl on his back and wait for her to ride him, and the way he made love to her when she'd been hurt—God, she loved the reverence and love in his eyes, the tenderness in the caress of his fingertips, the way he drove her to a slow intense orgasm before he made love to her.

"Are you ready for your punishment, baby?" Ned whispered into her ear.

Nancy shuddered. "Mmm-hmm," she murmured.

He started slowly, gently pulling her bra strap over her bandaged wrist as he slipped it off, cupping his hand over the thin fabric of her panties as he suckled against her breasts, until she was grinding the join of her thighs against his fingers, panting. By the time he kissed his way down her stomach, she was rubbing her flattened palm over her nipple, shivering when he began tugging her panties down, the cotton already damp with her arousal.

"You trust me?"

"Yeah," she whispered, lazily opening her eyes. 

"I've got you."

She was naked when he lifted her by the hips, draping her over the arm of the couch. She let herself fall backward, so the tips of her hair were just brushing the floor, and she was helpless; she only had one good hand to prop herself up, and all the blood was rushing to her head. She parted her legs, draping one over the back of the couch, trusting her husband not to let her fall.

"You okay?"

"Think so," she murmured, and then sucked in a hard breath as he made his first thrust, jarring her hips backward so that only his grip on her kept her from falling. The speed of it, the roughness, made her cry out, and she shuddered when he pulled back for another thrust.

"You like what happens when you're a bad girl?"

"Mmm," she moaned, her inner flesh adjusting to the thick length of his cock as he moved inside her again. She had to take a deep breath before she could find the nerve to bring her hand to the join of her thighs, her index finger curving to tease the slick button of her clit, and she shuddered again as she brushed the tip.

"Yeah, that's right, baby," Ned growled, rocking his hips into hers, and she could hear their joining, how slick she was around him as he fucked her. "Harder, you dirty girl. Touch yourself until that sweet pussy is tight around me."

She was already feeling lightheaded, and when her orgasm began to rise, making his every thrust that much more intense against her sensitive inner flesh, she started panting. "Oh, oh, Ned—oh fuck, oh my God," she squealed, rubbing her clit even harder. "Yes yes yes yes yes fuck yes—oh God," she screamed.

"Oh, oh yeah Nan, oh yeah," he urged her on, his fingers digging into her ass as he tilted her hips, driving into her even harder, and she writhed, frantically rubbing her clit as she pulsed around him. He groaned and angled his own hips, ramming his full length into her as her cunt clenched tight around him. "Oh yeah, feels so fucking good," he groaned through her screams, and he pulled her hips toward him, balancing her on the arm of the couch as his hips pushed flush to his wife's, as they both came.

Ned sighed in pleasure as he pulled her hips further toward him, until the small of her back was supported by the arm of the couch, and she still stayed loose and boneless, panting her breath back. He kept a hand on her hip as he reached down and gently pulled her up, then drew her into his arms.

"That good?"

"Mmmm," she nodded, a small smile on her lips as she slipped her arms around him. "You keep punishing me like this, baby, and I'm gonna go on a crime spree."

He chuckled and brushed the tip of his nose over hers. "You would never."

"I would never," she agreed, then kissed his earlobe. "But I'd love to find out what you'd do to me after."

--

The drive to Emerson went quickly. Ned did most of the driving, thanks to her sprained wrist, and while she had been looking through a few still-unpacked boxes for a hoodie, she had found a music mix from when they were both in high school. They sang along, and Nancy giggled when Ned's voice rose in a falsetto, or when he kept his gaze straight ahead of him on the road and snuck his hand between them to tickle her ribs.

Nancy wasn't sure how she would feel when she was at Emerson again. Her last memory of it was painful. She had taken a case while she and Ned had still been apart, and spent the whole time dreading seeing him, even while she'd been aching for it. Now he was by her side, though, and he would be forever.

They were in the elevator when Ned's cell phone went off. He checked it and swore quietly to himself when they dragged their bags into the room. He had packed light, but both of them had garment bags draped over their shoulders. "Hell, I need to get going. I could've sworn that email said we were meeting for drinks half an hour before..." He scowled at his phone. "I'm sorry, baby."

"It's okay." She winced as she let her duffel fall to the armchair, her makeup case rattling inside. "There are, what, thirty places that deliver around here?"

"Something like that." Nancy sat down at the foot of the bed, enjoying the view as her husband hastily changed his shirt. He caught her gaze and shot her a small grin. "Like the show, sweetheart?"

She nodded. "You could keep going," she pointed out, pouting when he pulled on another button-down. "I mean fewer clothes, dear."

"Later," he promised, finding his toothbrush and toothpaste. Two minutes later, he gave her a soft kiss, patting his pocket to make sure he had his wallet as he headed for the door. "I'm gonna take a cab, in case you need the car. I'll call you when we're done."

"Take your time," she told him, following him to the door. "Maybe we can meet up and get a drink after. All the better for getting the front desk called on us."

Ned's grin was wicked. "I love the way you think, sweetheart." His next kiss was a little harder. "Love you, babe."

"Love you too," she said, smiling, and watched him until he turned the corner to the elevators.

Alone, Nancy sighed to herself. Ned was attending a meeting of past presidents of Omega Chi—apparently they were planning some kind of fundraiser or special event. He had been elected president his senior year, while they had been apart.

Nancy shook her head, letting it go. There was absolutely nothing she could do about their breakup now, and they had sworn forever. Every night she had spent in his arms with that ring around her finger had made her a little more sure that it was more than words, that he meant it just as much as she did.

Given the number of events they were planning to attend, Nancy had packed a handful of ensembles. She wasn't hungry yet, so she laboriously unpacked her bag with her sore wrist, considering the dim, casual bars near Emerson as she debated what to change into. Ned had always liked the way her legs looked when she wore tiny skirts, so she picked up a short pleated skirt, chewing her lip.

Her phone rang. It wasn't Ned's ringtone.

By the time she dug her phone out of her purse, the call had flipped to voicemail. The screen flashed over as the person called back again, immediately.

Frank Hardy.

Nancy's heart lurched a little. Her immediate impulse was to let it ring; she felt herself flush a little as she swiped the screen to answer it.

"Hello?"

"Hey," Frank said. "Busy?"

Nancy looked down at the clothes on the bed. Ned hadn't expected to be out of the meeting until at least a few hours from now. "Uh... just trying to figure out what I'm having for dinner," she admitted.

"Must be a tough choice."

Nancy sat down heavily at the foot of the bed. "Too many options," she said with a little chuckle. "So how can I help you, Frank?"

"Oh, it's not... I was just calling to chat."

A certainty solidified in her belly. She stared at the mirror on the opposite wall, the reflection of the boat and lake scene hanging above the bed. The edges faded into broad strokes. It was hideous, the kind of art she would usually expect to be hiding a wall safe. "Oh?"

"There's no pressure, Nan, I swear. It's just, we used to imagine it, the three of us. Running our own agency. And now that you actually have your license... I'm sorry, ever since you sent out that email I've been excited."

"Yeah, I remember," she said quietly. "We used to talk about it a lot."

"I guess... I don't know. Part of me just thought that as soon as you were able, you'd start your own agency."

For the longest time, Nancy had thought that too. Then she had started at Wilder, and the solitary work of reporting had appealed to her. She would be obligated only to the truth, and maybe her editor, and that was it. When everything else in her life had begun to fall away, she had been drawn to the freedom it represented.

She just hadn't had anything else left to lose. Not Frank's love, because each of them had known their cases came first. Not her friends, because they had already been gone. And not Ned, no, not him, because she had never let herself have him.

"Nan?"

Nancy sighed silently. "And you'd really want to work at an agency with me in charge," she said, chuckling a little.

"I think I could deal with it," Frank teased her.

It had been everything she had ever wanted. Had been.

"Like I said, no pressure. I know... you just got married and everything."

She knew he wasn't daring her to bring up the shooting. She knew that. And she had forgiven both him and Joe for it a long time ago. But the way he tiptoed around it—or maybe he never thought about it at all, maybe to him it had been just another injury, because he hadn't been the one waking up panicked and bleeding. Maybe to him it was all in a day's work. And maybe he never went a day without thinking about it.

She did trust them. But some part of her still didn't feel safe around them, and she wasn't sure if she ever would again.

Nancy ran her hand through her hair. "So what kind of cases have you and Joe been working on lately?"

Frank took the hint, and told her about a goose chase he and Joe had been led on through the Middle East. He and Joe had always enjoyed traveling, the adventure of working for Network, letting someone else handle the paperwork and red tape.

And that's who she would be, if she did open an agency with them. She'd be the responsible one while the brothers chased suspects and clues. She tried to imagine Joe being happy tracking down info from an LKA, or either of them getting excited about finding evidence that a middle manager was padding his paycheck by a few hours every week.

But then she had never thought she would be content to take those kinds of assignments, either.

Eventually Frank admitted that he and Joe would be hopping a plane to California the next day, hoping to intercept a suspected saboteur. "We could always use your help, though," he said, and she could hear the smile in his voice.

"As much fun as that sounds," she said, putting a soft note of regret in her voice, "Ned and I are up at Emerson for the alumni weekend, and I really can't get away."

"I'm sorry," Frank said, and he actually did sound genuinely sympathetic. "So you're stuck shaking hands and— oh no, is there a rubber chicken dinner too?"

"Who knows, maybe I'll get lucky," Nancy said lightly. "Maybe it'll be gray steak instead. Anyway. I'm sorry about that."

"Next time, then," Frank said. "And, if six months from now or whatever, you start liking the idea of striking out on your own... you know Joe and I would love to help."

They said their goodbyes and Nancy hung up the phone, her gaze fixed on the boat painting again. Her appetite had entirely vanished.

Ned called two hours later, when she was scrolling through the cable stations on the hotel room's television set for the thousandth time, halfway through her second can of vending-machine diet soda. "Hey sweetheart," he said when she answered, and she could tell immediately that he had been drinking. "Ready to get that drink?"

"I've been ready," she admitted, swinging her legs off the bed. "Where'd you want to go?"

"Well... that's the tricky thing."

Thirty minutes later, Nancy paid off the driver and slid out of the cab, her heart beating a little faster. Golden light spilled from the windows of the building in front of her, and she could hear bass pounding, insistent as a heartbeat. A light breeze kicked up, flirting with the hem of her pleated skirt, and Nancy crossed her arms just beneath her breasts, tight over her belly. The deep v neck of her navy t-shirt left a generous amount of flesh exposed.

The Omega Chi house. It looked virtually identical to the last time she had seen it, a lifetime before.

Nancy took a deep breath and strode down the walk. Friday night parties at Omega Chi were generally casual affairs; Nancy smoothed her hand over her skirt as she approached the porch. Judging by the girls she saw chatting there, red plastic cups already in their hands, she would fit right in.

Omega Chi. She had lost her virginity to Ned in this house, on the upper floor, second bedroom to the left. She and Ned had spent so many hours together in that bed, teasing each other, testing the lines they had drawn until none were left.

None save one, anyway.

"Nan!" Ned had one of the tumblers in his hand as well, and she hadn't even been inside ten seconds before he called out to her. He shouldered his way through the crowd to her, slipping an arm around her, and she could smell the scotch on his breath. "Hey, sweetheart. I'd like you to meet some guys—this is Michael, I think you remember him, and this is Wes, he was president last year. And this is Tony."

Nancy shook hands and smiled at each of them in turn, remembering Frank's dismissal of her weekend, of her role as arm candy. She didn't mind being Ned's arm candy; she had missed so many parties here, so many chances to linger in his arms...

It was gone and done now. She couldn't change it.

Two years—more than two years, now—had passed since Ned had been president of the fraternity, and for a year and a half before that, she hadn't been Ned's girlfriend. The guys who did remember Ned weren't old enough to remember her. While none of them were gauche enough to mention any of the other girls he had dated during that time, after Ned introduced her as his wife, Nancy could feel them sizing her up, comparing her to the girls like Jennifer.

"He always did have good fucking taste," one of them muttered, after Ned had turned away.

"Did," the other one said, even more quietly, under her breath.

That was when, despite her empty stomach, Nancy went to the kitchen and poured herself a tumbler of punch, and it burned all the way down on her first sip.

Nancy had never really let herself get full, totally, out of control drunk at the Omega Chi house. When Ned had first started at the college she had been significantly underage and reluctant to drink at all. By the time she had started drinking, she had been cautious about it, nursing glasses of punch, sticking to beers or wine coolers instead of the harder stuff. Part of her had been terrified of the prospect of losing the tight rein she kept on herself; part of her had always been focused on the current case, the next case, the next clue, the next suspect. She had been able to count on her fingers the number of times she had truly been fully present—with Ned or with any of her friends.

Her cases were so much easier to understand. They were problems to be solved, puzzles to untangle. Losing grip on her self-control would have been an awful mistake.

She would have shuddered at the prospect of spending time with Ned, without the perpetual excuse of a case to give herself time away from him. She had always dreaded the thought of his gaining her undivided attention.

Now she knew exactly what that felt like, and she had been right to be cowed by the prospect. She had been terrified that giving in to the fascination of his touch, of his love, would overwhelm her, would make her worthless for anything else. Now she knew that denying it had paralyzed her far more thoroughly than her desire for him ever could.

And she wanted to be that girl she had never let herself be, before. She wanted to be the girl who stuck by his side, making bright witty conversation, basking in his affection and attention instead of trying to deflect it. She didn't want to be the responsible girl who stayed sober, rolling her eyes at the drunk frat boys. Just once, she wanted to really experience a fucking frat party.

The punch was helping. And the warmth roiling in her belly was definitely distracting her from the unsteadiness she had felt ever since Frank's phone call.

She needed to talk to Ned about it. But he looked so happy, so delightedly drunk, so happy to have her by his side. She didn't want to ruin it, didn't want to disturb him. Not yet.

It was only once they were all drunk—Nancy lost count of how many glasses she'd had after three—that someone brought up the striptease Jennifer had given Ned on his birthday during a party their senior year. The way they talked about it, Jen had been blitzed out of her mind, and she had stripped down to her red lace bra and matching panties before Ned had apparently thrown her over his shoulder and taken her upstairs. Nancy knew better. Jen liked to play drunker than she was, and Nancy could just imagine her getting off on all the attention from the other frat boys while she teasingly began to flirt with the hem of her shirt or dress.

Ned looked uncomfortable at the reminder, though, and Nancy brought him a fresh beer when she saw his was empty, and gave him a kiss on the cheek when she handed it over. He had always said that whatever happened while they were apart was done, ancient history, and he didn't care about it.

She tried to feel the same way about it. She really did. But he'd had lovers before and after her, and while she loved hearing him say that he'd never been more turned on, never had so intense an orgasm, never felt about anyone else the way he felt about her, in her darker moments, she wondered if he was just saying it, if he'd said it to other girls too.

That couldn't be true. It couldn't.

And she would be damned if she would let that slut get to her. Jen had already brought out her big guns during that late trip, but Ned had still gone home with Nancy at the end of the night.

Nancy didn't care if Jen walked through the door in five minutes in that same red lace lingerie, her gaze low and sultry, and made a beeline for her husband. In fact, in the mood she was in, she would have welcomed it. She could fight a person; she couldn't fight memory.

Ned finally cut off the reminiscing when a guy Nancy didn't recognize mentioned that one time, after he'd scored the winning basket for the Wildcats in a huge grudge match, that Ned had come back to the frat to find his victory prize waiting for him in bed, wrapped in an Emerson scarf and nothing else, and they had all been surprised the Big Nick had the stamina to keep her screaming for four hours after the exertion of the game...

Nancy went to the kitchen and poured herself a double shot, her head pounding. A part of her knew that the group around Ned, the ones who would remember all he'd done after their breakup, was small, that the entire party wasn't looking at her in sympathy and pity. She knew that. But another part of her felt so fucking frustrated that she just wanted to scream.

She glanced up when the door at the back of the kitchen opened to admit a guy a couple years younger than Nancy, leading a dark-eyed girl behind him. The girl was brushing her fingertips over the edges of her lipstick, making sure it wasn't smudged, a gloating, challenging look in her eyes, a satisfied, low-lidded expression on her boyfriend's face.

That was another thing she hadn't understood, before. Whenever she went out for air during the parties, Ned had always told her to use the front door. Guys took girls to the backyard when they were too drunk to navigate the stairs, when they weren't actually frat members and didn't want to bring the girls back to their own rooms—or when the girl just wasn't bed material, when the guy just wanted a quickie and the girl was willing. New pledge duty, Ned had eventually informed her, usually involved tidying in the backyard the morning after parties. Along with the usual cigarette butts and red plastic cups, all the brothers had collected their share of used condoms and wrappers, and the occasional piece of abandoned clothing.

She had half-pitied, half-hated those girls. Pitied them because her boyfriend would never have fucked her in the backyard like some cheap girl he didn't care about, and hated them because she saw their behavior as reprehensible and dirty, condom wrappers notwithstanding.

Those girls had let themselves lose control, the way Nancy had never let herself.

Nancy tipped back another double shot, distantly noting that it had almost no taste, then shouldered her way back through the crowd, back to her husband. His brow was furrowed; when his gaze met hers, his was worried. He didn't like everything that had come up in the course of the conversation. But when she grabbed his hand and gave him a small smile, Ned's face cleared.

She stood on her tiptoes. "You ready to get out of here, baby? I think you promised me that we'd have some fun tonight..."

"You bet," he murmured back, sliding his arm around her waist and giving her a little squeeze.

She had his hand in her good one, and she began to lead him through the crowd—but toward the kitchen door. The floor didn't quite feel steady beneath her feet, and her head was entirely too light. She wasn't sure if she'd yet overshot, but she felt glorious, dangerous, and both angry and horny.

She'd show those assholes inside who wanted to rub in her face what she had left Ned to do. She'd show Jen and Sarah and all those other girls who had tried to take what was hers.

And she'd show her husband exactly what he'd been missing while they were apart.

The shadows on the back porch and under the trees swam a little as her eyes adjusted, and as she saw the couples already joined at mouth and hip, who didn't seem to care that two more had joined the audience. She gently guided Ned to the back of the yard, where the tree cover and the shadow of the shed created the barest modicum of privacy. When she saw a folded lawn chair on the grass, she swept it up, shivering a little in the wind.

She barely had time to prop the chair against the side of the shed before Ned had swept her into his arms, his mouth rough against hers, tasting of scotch and rum and everclear from the punch. She moaned softly as she wrapped her good arm around his shoulders, feeling him slip his hand under her skirt and barely ghost his fingertips up the crotch of her panties. The surge of pure desperate arousal she felt in response made her tremble, and she knew she was wet.

But they would have time for that.

She pushed her body hard against his, feeling his erection through his pants, and swirled her tongue against his as she reached down to his fly. With her good hand she opened his pants and pushed the zipper down, and when she eased his underwear down and freed his cock, Ned broke the kiss, panting a little.

"'s cold out here," he murmured against her cheek. "Think you can find me somewhere hot to put this?"

"I'll try," she murmured, gently pumping him in her fist a few times before she reached for the chair.

Ned was leaning against the chain-link fence, but he began to push himself up when she unfolded the chair. Nancy shook her head, placing it in front of him, and tilted a little off-balance as she began to sit down. She giggled as she hit the seat with a thump, but only for a moment; she was going to be sultry and seductive and amazing, damn it, and sultry, sexy girls didn't giggle.

Her little slip didn't seem to deter Ned, though. He let out a soft sigh of appreciation, seeing her sitting down in front of him. "Mmm, baby," he said in approval. "I love where this is going."

"I'm sure you'll love where this is going," she murmured, using her good hand to angle him and give him another stroke, before she took his cock in her mouth.

Nancy had worked hard at learning how to give her husband head. Every now and then he liked to tease her that she still needed a little more "practice," but both of them knew that she had it down to a science. With her dominant hand hanging from a sprained wrist, she was at a disadvantage, but when she took him so deep that the head of his cock just barely brushed her soft palate, Ned's fingers laced into her hair.

"Oh yeah, baby," he groaned, pushing off the fence so he could rock his hips in time with her sucking. "Oh yeah, feels so fucking good..."

She didn't usually let him go so far, but she was sucking his cock behind his old frat house, and when he held her in place and thrust his cock deeper into her mouth, she closed her eyes and let him, until she was deep-throating him. She fought down the panic it woke in her, but the smell of him, that musky scent of his cock and sweat and soap and cologne and him, the soft pants and groans he was making, kept her from shoving his hips backward and making him stop. She choked when she swallowed against one thrust and Ned let out a louder groan, his fingers tightening against her scalp.

God, she was wet. She had never thought going down on him would make her wet, but just the fact that she was pleasing him was making her inner flesh pulse in sympathy.

"Oh yeah, baby, yeah," Ned told her, and she felt two tears track down her cheeks, then two more. She touched his hip, remembering dimly that if she slapped him twice, he would stop... or, he might stop. They were both too fucking drunk to decide much of anything.

She slipped her hand between his legs as he thrust into her mouth again, her fingertips finding and gently caressing his balls, urging him to come.

Ned groaned, a long, low, pleased sound, and she knew he was close. She could feel it.

Then the head of his cock brushed hard against her soft palate before he climaxed, and she felt the hot salty gush of his cum hit the back of her throat.

She was barely able to keep it down, and as soon as he released her head, tilting backward to lean bonelessly against the fence as he pulled his cock out of her mouth, she turned her head and heaved so hard that she slipped out of the lawn chair, falling to her already-bruised knees with a wince as she was violently sick on the grass. Her cheeks were wet with tears as she expelled everything, the shots and the punch, everything she'd had since she'd walked into the Omega Chi house.

"Oh... oh, honey, I'm so," Ned began. "I—"

And then—it wasn't quite funny when it happened, not yet—he threw up too.

--

It was all the worst part. Calling for the cab, waiting for the cab, walking back through the house with bits of grass stuck to her knees...

But the alcohol still in her blood and the temporary euphoria of being sick put a little swing to her hips. She had wiped her ruined mascara off before she had walked back into the house, and she kept her lashes low. When she heard one particularly jealous girl comment that from everything she'd heard, she was utterly unsurprised that Ned's wife would get down on her knees in the fucking backyard and worship at the altar of the Big Nick, Nancy tossed her hair, her fingers tightening on Ned's.

"See those bruises on her knees? Wonder if she waits at the door for him that way..."

She knew Ned was drunk; she had no doubt about it, no doubt that all the alcohol they'd consumed was why they had been so sick a few moments earlier. Even so, when Ned stopped and turned to glare at the guy who had made the snide comment, she was startled by the speed of his reaction. "You fucking apologize to my wife right now," Ned said, his voice hard.

The crowd around them went quiet as the other partygoers turned to stare, to see if a fight was about to break out. 

The other guy was weaving just a little on his feet, his forehead gleaming faintly with perspiration, his right hand in a fist. From beneath lowered brows he glanced from Ned to Nancy and back again. For not the first time Nancy damned her sprained wrist. Well, her knee would still work—it might be sore as hell, but she could still do some damage with it, if she needed to.

"You really want to—"

"Hey, everything going all right here?" a dark-haired guy asked, his voice clear and strong with authority. It took Nancy a moment to place him as Tony, the current frat president.

Even if the drunk idiot didn't know who Ned was, he clearly knew who Tony was. He bristled a little. "Didn't do anything," he muttered. Around them, the buzz of the crowd kicked up again as people decided the threat had lessened.

Nancy's fingers tightened on Ned's in speechless caution, but his brown eyes were blazing as he glanced over at her. "Yeah, you didn't—you didn't apologize," Ned said to the guy.

The guy glared in Nancy's direction. "Sorry," he muttered, his lips turning up in a little sneer. "Guess only classy girls get on their knees in the backyard."

And oh, Nancy saw red. "Oh, go fuck yourself," she told him. "Since I don't see a line of girls waiting to do it for you. Asshole."

By the time the other guy backed down and Nancy and Ned carefully made their way down the front porch steps, they were swaying against each other, sighing as the cooler air bathed their flushed faces. The cab was already waiting, and Nancy sighed in relief when she saw it; she wasn't sure how much longer she was going to be upright, and Ned was definitely losing that battle.

"Thanks," she mumbled, once they had tumbled, laughing, into the backseat of the cab.

"For what?" Ned asked, his face tipped back and his eyes closed as the cab pulled away.

"For defending my honor back there."

Ned chuckled. "Next time I'll carry a glove and slap that in his face," he declared, and that sent them both off on another round of laughter.

Ned was practically passed out by the time they reached their hotel room, and even his wife's hands on his bare skin as she stripped him to get him ready for bed weren't enough to rouse him. She divested him of all but his underwear and urged him under the covers, and when she returned with a wet washcloth for him and gently laid it over his forehead, he made a soft, pleased moan, his eyes still closed.

He was right, she realized. Getting him practically naked and realizing it wasn't going anywhere after definitely sucked. She swayed against the bathroom counter as she wiped her makeup off, then wearily stripped down to her underwear and crawled into bed beside her husband, covering her eyes with her own cool washcloth.

She felt like she was never going to sleep. She could sense each individual beat of her heart, and as soon as she was still, she started shivering. She ran the washcloth over her flushed face, letting out a sigh, then turned onto her side, her leg brushing Ned's. Oh God, she hoped she didn't...

She only realized she had fallen asleep when she woke up. The toilet was gurgling faintly to itself as Ned padded across the carpet and slipped back into bed. Her eyes—her head—ached a little as she tilted up to see what time it was.

Which was pointless. The room was chilly and still nearly pitch black, and the dawn still felt a long way off.

She sank back onto the pillows, sweeping her hair off her cheek, and when Ned curled up behind her, tucking his legs up to spoon against her, she let out a soft sigh.

"You okay?"

"Mmm-hmm," Nancy replied sleepily. "You okay?"

"Prob'ly. Just took some aspirin."

Nancy made a soft irritated noise. "Shit."

Ned waited a beat, then slipped out of bed, returning with the aspirin. "Thanks," she told him, swallowing two with a gulp of water. "I knew I forgot something."

She began to relax again when Ned gently pulled her into his arms, her back to his front. He draped his arm over her and she cupped her hand over his, and when she shivered again she nestled back against the heat of her husband's body. Her stomach still felt a little queasy, but she was pretty sure she was all right.

She drifted off, secure in Ned's arms, and when she woke again, she was so exhausted the room seemed to be spinning. Ned's hips were tight to hers, and he was hard; Nancy felt awareness tingle down her spine to between her thighs, and she was just wondering whether she should shift to put some space between them when she felt his hand move just a little against her belly.

She made a soft noise, and when he slipped his hand down, she felt immediately lightheaded with arousal. His fingertips gently brushed over the join of her thighs and she shifted her hips, arching to give him a better angle. She reached behind her and unhooked her bra, pulling it off, and Ned slipped his hand under her to keep gently caressing her through her panties as his other palm cupped her bare breast.

"Mmm," she moaned as he lightly plucked at her nipple. Her inner flesh tightened in answer, and a spike of pure desire lanced through her as he just barely brushed her clit through her panties. "Mmmm, I need you."

"I need you too, baby," Ned growled behind her as he began to work her panties down. She helped him pull them off, and when he spooned up behind her again, running his hand between her thighs again, she sucked in a hard breath as his hand found the bare tip of her clit.

"Mmmm," she moaned, panting a little. "Oh, more, please."

Ned teased and caressed her, stroking her breasts, urging her legs open so he could dip his fingers into the slick warmth between, circling her clit between alternating strokes inside her, until she was rocking against his hand. He kept caressing her breasts as he pulled back, and she cried out in frustration before he pressed against her again, his naked erection against her ass.

She reached behind her, parting her legs a little more, and they both groaned when she touched him, when he barely fitted himself inside her. He pushed into her, gently, then reached over her hip to run his fingers between her legs, and she shuddered hard when he rubbed her clit again.

"Oh—oh yes," she whimpered, rocking impatiently against him. "Oh, so good, baby."

He pushed as much of his length inside her as he could, thrusting gently, and she panted, trembling as they both fondled her breasts. He kissed her shoulder, then gently nipped at her, and she cried out when she arched, his angle shifting as his cock stroked against her slick, sensitive cunt.

"Mmm," Ned grunted. "You feel so good..."

She cried out loudly when he pulled out of her, and reached for him again. "I need to see your face," he told her, rolling her onto her back, and she was trembling as she opened her legs for him, her inner flesh already tender in anticipation. "So fucking beautiful, Nan..."

It took a second for her eyes to adjust to the brightness of the lamp, her entire head pounding from it. Ned was kneeling over her, and he looked just as exhausted as she felt, but his gaze was dark with desire, his touch so gentle. She bucked under him as he nuzzled against her breasts, the short stubble on his chin brushing the sensitive tips of her nipples, and he suckled against her briefly. She let out a loud cry when he slipped his fingers between her legs, rubbing her clit as he stroked them in and out of her.

"You're wet as hell," he growled.

"I've been wet for you since I was sucking you off, baby," she told him, as her desire rose tingling over every inch of her skin, deep in her bones, centered between her thighs.

He leaned down and kissed her cheek, the point of her jaw, and she shivered as she reached between them. His cock was already slick with her arousal, and when she ran her fist gently up and down his thick length, he bent in, arching over her, nipping at her neck.

"Please," she moaned, her hips rocking as he kept steadily stroking his fingers against her slick inner flesh. She tugged him gently. "Please..."

He lined their hips up, and when he slipped his fingers out of her, she felt desperate to feel him again. She angled his cock and positioned him just at her entrance, and he held her gaze as he pushed into her, in slow, shallow thrusts. She shuddered every time, with every shift of his hips, her mouth falling open, her cheeks warm as her orgasm began to rise. "Yes," she breathed, as he moved over her, and when he was finally, finally seated fully inside her, so thick and hard that the pleasure was just barely edged in pain until she stretched and relaxed for him, she tipped her chin back to hold his gaze and they both shivered a little when their eyes met.

"I love you," he told her.

"I love you too," she breathed.

When he pulled back for his first thrust she found her clit and just barely brushed the tip, and immediately arched up under him. They both groaned when she tightened around his cock. He pulled almost fully out of her, then drove back in, building a slow rhythm, and she began to circle the slick nub of her clit with her fingertip, her breath speeding up as she panted, as she began to sob.

"Oh, oh my God," she cried out, winding her legs up around his waist, gripping him hard, tightening against him to urge him to go faster, harder, as deep as he possibly could. "Oh my God ohmyGodohmyGod, oh..."

"Yeah," Ned growled, his hips driving hard to hers. "Louder, baby."

"Oh God," she sobbed, stroking her clit harder, and she was bucking hard, the rhythm of her hips no longer under her own control. "Oh, fuck, oh yeah! Right there right there oh God, oh..."

Her voice became an incoherent cry as he fucked her harder, and she tipped her head back, her shoulders jerking, her fingers working rapidly against her clit as her slick, tender cunt began to pulse and clench around him with her orgasm. Her eyes rolled back and she sobbed in pleasure, and God, he felt so good, so good as his cock stroked in and out of her. Her voice broke as she ran the tip of her nail over her clit, and her legs fell open as Ned collapsed on top of her, her inner flesh still pulsing around him as he came.

"Mmm." Ned's face was buried in the pillow above her head. "Oh fuck, baby."

She was panting her breath back, pinned helplessly under the weight of his body, her hand trapped between them. "Yeah," she whispered, swallowing against her dry throat. "Son of a bitch."

He arched just a little and Nancy pulled her hand from between them, slipping her arms around him and holding him to her, just feeling him breathe. By the time she had come down from her climax, Ned slipped out of her and moved so she was nestled against his shoulder.

"So," he murmured, angling onto his side so he could see her face, "I'll ask the question I was too drunk to ask at the time—how the hell did I get so lucky?"

"Oh?"

"What did I do for you to reward me with a blow job behind the Omega house," he clarified, and brushed a strand of hair off her cheek.

She gave him a slight smile. "I was just so desperate for you that I couldn't wait until we were back here."

He shook his head. "Try again, sweetheart." He leaned down and his lips found the pulse point in her neck.

Nancy shivered. "I just didn't want your last memory of that place to be—one of them," she muttered, her voice barely above a breath.

His lips stilled against her skin, and he pulled back to look into her eyes again. She touched his cheek, glanced away from him, then back.

He didn't say anything for a moment. Then he leaned down and brushed his lips gently over hers, very softly. "You're everything to me," he whispered. "I don't give a fuck about anyone else, baby—because you, love, you're all I've ever wanted. I could've killed them for bringing all that shit up tonight."

She took a breath and hated that her eyes pricked with tears. "I'm sorry," she whispered.

He shook his head. "You talk about wanting to be punished... but punishment is to stop something from happening again. And I've been punished enough for a lifetime." The tip of his nose brushed hers. "You are the only woman for me, Nancy Drew Nickerson."

A pair of tears slipped down her cheeks when she blinked up at him. "And you're the only man for me, Ned," she whispered. "Forever."

--

Their hangovers weren't terrible, but only because they had managed to throw up most of the alcohol the night before. The main festivities of the alumni weekend took place on Saturday, when they all dressed in Emerson colors and headed out to the stadium to watch the afternoon's football game. Nancy saw so many people she remembered from before, so many of Ned's friends—Mike, Jan, Paul, Howie, Maury, Brook, even Campbell—and none of them brought up Jennifer's presence a few rows away, or the glances she kept casting over her shoulder at Nancy's husband.

That was fine with Nancy. She was welcome to look as much as she wanted. Let her remember.

For more than two years, Ned was the only man who had shared Nancy's bed, her only lover. It was hard for her to remember what any of the rest of them had been like. All she knew for sure was that making love to her husband was better than it had ever been with anyone else, better than she had let herself imagine it would ever be after their breakup.

None of them had any intention of attending the Saturday night dinner, so they grabbed a few tables at the neighborhood grill and pushed them together. Nancy had been careful with her beer, and so had Ned—she was pretty sure he hadn't forgotten what had happened after the last football game they had attended together—and that made the hamburgers taste even better than they remembered. Most of them were going to the dance back at the hotel, though, so they finished dinner quicker than they would have otherwise, promising to see each other later or to meet up back in Chicago when they could.

Nancy was able to manage okay one-handed while she was getting ready, although putting her makeup on took far, far longer than it should have. Maneuvering into her underwear was tedious, though, and when she slipped her dress up over her shoulders and reached for the zipper, she winced.

"Hey, baby," she called through the bathroom door. "Got a second?"

Ned's collar was open, his tie hanging loose around his neck, when he opened the bathroom door and she presented her back to him. He pulled the zipper of her dress up, then leaned down, and she jumped a little, giggling when his lips brushed her neck.

"Mmm. Was that so I could get a sneak preview for later?"

She turned around, swatting lightly at him. "Yeah, because I need you even more horny before we get out there on the dance floor."

"Don't think that's possible," Ned commented, a small grin on his face as he buttoned his collar. He shook his head as his gaze slid all the way down, then all the way back up her body. "You look gorgeous, babe."

He had taste.

Nancy looked down at her dress. The navy fabric clung tight to her curves, flaring out from her waist. The sweetheart neckline was flattering without plunging so deep that it looked slutty, and the entire dress was covered in a scatter of tiny crystals, shimmering against her every movement.

"Really?"

Ned nodded, slipping an arm around her waist, and she put her thumb against his mouth to stop him from kissing her and smudging her lipstick. "Most beautiful thing I've ever seen," he murmured, his gaze locked to hers, and he kissed her thumb.

"Speak for yourself," she whispered.

When she came out of the bathroom, Ned had his tie done and was just brushing some lint off his jacket. "About ready to go?"

Nancy nodded. "Just need you to help me with my earrings," she told him.

The pair she had brought to wear with the dress were ones he had given her, small glittering diamond studs. His fingertips were warm against her earlobes, and it took him a little time to figure out how to work the back onto the post, but then he moved back and pronounced her ready.

She idly smoothed the skirt of her dress over her hips. "How much time do we have?"

Ned shrugged, glancing at the alarm clock. "We're already fashionably late." He gave her a little grin. "But we could always be a little later..." he began, wiggling his eyebrows meaningfully.

She shook her head, slipping her wrap over her mostly bare shoulders. "You definitely owe me a dance, Nickerson. We haven't had one since our wedding day."

Ned slipped a room key into his pocket. "Remember how I said it was in the running for being the best?" She nodded, and he gave her a little smile.

"It was, baby," he murmured, his fingertips just resting against the small of her back as they walked out of the room.

She had left her phone behind, just in case another call came in, another call she didn't want to answer.

When Nancy had been in high school, putting on a long dress and heels and makeup had felt like she was pretending to be someone else, someone confident and self-assured, someone who could actually look like she belonged in that kind of outfit. She had always felt faintly ridiculous. She was at home in jeans and cotton t-shirts; she kept waiting for someone to point out the artificiality of it all, how unnatural it all seemed.

But when Ned looked at her with such desire and love, when she moved into his arms and felt him embrace her in return, she had finally felt right in it. She loved Ned whether he was in jeans or a three-piece suit, though she had to admit the sight of him totally dressed up did seem to tap into some elemental part of her brain. She thought that maybe it was the same for him, and for a little while she did become that woman, the one who was brilliant and beautiful, and she didn't care if the only place she really was those things was in his eyes.

The edges of the dance floor were taken up with round tables, set with white tablecloths and small orange and purple centerpieces. Couples were gathered near the open bar. A disco ball spun lazily overhead. Nancy dropped her wrap and purse off at the table, where Howie and Jan were gazing down at a sheet of paper. "Whichever table gets the most trivia answers right, gets the big door prize," Jan explained, her eyes bright.

"Is it good trivia?"

"College trivia," Howie groaned.

Nancy and Ned contributed what they knew, and when the DJ put on the next song, Nancy glanced over at the dance floor. Ned's hand was just reaching for hers when Campbell strolled over, a drink in his hand. Campbell had greeted Nancy and Ned heartily enough when they had met at the game, but Nancy had overheard what he was talking about after. He was still feeling Ned out, trying to see if he would consider moving to the city. She knew it was the usual eagerness, and maybe Campbell just wanted to know there was another familiar face around, someone he could count on, nothing more sinister.

Even so, given Frank's phone call, the prospect still put a little lump in her throat.

"Haven't heard from Mel lately, by chance?" Campbell said, trying for a casual tone.

Nancy and Ned exchanged a bemused glance. "Well, she was in town not too long ago," Nancy admitted.

"Doing okay?"

"Seemed to be. Want me to pass on a message next time I see her?"

Campbell shrugged and Nancy stifled a laugh. "Nah, that's okay. If I'm meant to, I'm sure I'll run into her again." He smiled. "And if not, maybe I'm just not destined to be as lucky as Nickerson here."

Nancy fluttered her eyelashes. "Flattery will get you everywhere."

"Practically," Campbell said, raising his glass. "And if I say you two would be golden—I mean, fucking golden if you moved to the city?" Campbell shook his head, swaying slightly, and Nancy was sure he wasn't on his second or third of the day. "King and queen of every dance, everyone dying of fucking envy to be in your circle. Man. It was the life, when we were here."

She wondered if, for that brief space of time, that was how everyone had seen them, as perfect and inviolate, when nothing had been easy between them. How gentle and patient Ned had been with her, before they had finally had sex. How terrified she had been of letting anyone, but especially him, in. She had tried to keep herself free and apart, but Ned's friends, all their friends at Emerson, had loved hearing about her cases, helping her track down clues. She wasn't the average girl—sometimes, very rarely, she had wished she was—and Ned was the kind of guy who had the ambition and drive to make something of himself instead of working himself to a dead-end job in middle management. That strange duality in him, determination and modesty, compassion and conviction, was what had drawn her to him in the first place, what had made her fall in love with him, what had terrified her.

Campbell was right. Ned had a great job in Chicago; she couldn't even imagine how far he would go in New York, or what kind of cases she would get into there...

"Penny for your thoughts."

Nancy blinked as she glanced up at her husband. His dark eyes were soft as he gazed down at her. She shook her head, letting the fingers of her good hand drift over the back of his neck as they slowly spun together on the dance floor. "I don't know," she said softly, and he leaned in so he could hear her. "Just remembering something my therapist used to tell me."

"Strange thing to think about while we're dancing," Ned commented neutrally. "Unless it wasn't about dancing..." She could tell by the way his eyes widened that he wondered if it was something about him.

"She said that for whatever reason, I didn't trust anyone," she said quietly. "Not really. Only myself. And when I... buckled, that's why it hurt so much." She shook her head again. "That I was too afraid to let anything change because I didn't know if I could deal with it... and, at the end of the day, I was the only person I'd let myself depend on."

Ned kept one arm at her waist as he lifted the other, brushing the backs of his fingers up the line of her jaw. "Still feel that way?"

"I didn't think I did." She glanced down. "Frank called me yesterday."

Nothing in Ned's face changed, not really, not exactly, but she could still feel it, could see the sudden shift in his eyes. "He did," Ned said softly.

She nodded and glanced away, her lips quirking up in a small smile. "We used to talk about it, the three of us. Opening our own agency. It was a long time ago... but he brought it up again."

"You, opening an agency with Frank and Joe."

Nancy nodded, keeping her eyes on his adam's apple. "What would you say," she whispered. "I mean, with what Campbell's been saying..."

Ned crooked his finger under her chin and tipped her face up, studying her eyes for a long moment. "I would ask you what you want, Nan."

"And if I said I wanted to think about it..."

"Then we'd talk about it," he said evenly. "Is that what you're saying?"

She blinked. Her sight was a little blurred, but at least the tears weren't spilling over. "No," she breathed. "No. I want to stay here with you. I want to be with you. But I don't want... I don't want to keep you back, if that's what you want."

Ned clenched his jaw for a moment. "I love the city," he admitted. "I do. I love spending time there. But I never saw a life for myself there. When I told you I'd give you the moon if I could, sweetheart, I meant it, and if you tell me tomorrow that you think being there will make you happy, if you tell me three months from now, or six, or a year, that opening an agency with them is what you want, if it will make you happy..."

She shook her head. "I don't feel safe around them anymore," she whispered. "And I don't know—I can't tell them that."

Ned pulled her to him and embraced her hard, lifting her just off the floor. "Then just tell them that your husband loves his job and his life and everything about Chicago... and they'll just have to find someone else to keep them out of trouble."

She smiled a little, closing her eyes. "And that's really how you feel," she whispered.

He nodded. "And, Nan, I swear to you... the only dealbreaker for me is not being with you. Anything else... I would move to Antarctica for you. Wherever we needed to go, as long as we were together."

She brushed her thumb over his lower lip, as he gently lowered her back to the floor. "You said you never saw a life for yourself there," she said softly. "How do you see your life, Ned?"

"With you," he replied immediately, his face close to hers, and then he swallowed.

"In Chicago."

He nodded. "In Chicago, if we can at all help it."

"And that's all."

He shook his head, and then his lips brushed her ear. "I know we said we were going to wait, and I'm fine with that, I'll wait as long as you want. And maybe we never will have kids..."

"But you want to," she finished, when he trailed off.

"Yeah," he admitted. "I've always... I've always thought you would make the most amazing mother, Nan."

Nancy gently brushed the side of her finger against her lashes. "I don't even know how," she whispered.

"I think, between all of us, we can muddle through." His lips brushed her ear again. "When—if—if we decide we want that."

She could feel how hard, how fast her heart was beating, as she nestled into her husband. He didn't say anything else, and she closed her eyes, her body swaying with his.

She couldn't give voice to it, but she felt like she had known it for years, now. If she opened that agency with Frank and Joe, she would never live long enough to raise a child. If she and Ned were lucky enough to have a child, that little girl with her eyes and his hair, that little boy with his speed and her singlemindedness, would grow up as she had, always wishing for a mother who had died far too soon.

A little bit of both of them. And that was what he wanted.

By the time the next song came on, she felt strange, like a weight had been lifted from her, like another different weight had come to rest in its place.

She wasn't ready yet, but maybe she never really would be ready.

She definitely hadn't been ready the day she had fallen in love with Ned.

Eventually she was distracted from those thoughts. The DJ put on a few ridiculous dances that had been popular when they were in middle school and soon the crowd was lined up, laughing at each other, stumbling through steps some of them barely remembered. When Ned asked if she wanted a drink, Nancy decided to try a cranberry and vodka, hoping that it would be different enough from everything she'd had the night before. The door prizes were given away, and the organizers had decided all the registrants could use a little something, so Ned ended up collecting a satchel of bath salts that he passed to his wife with an eye-roll.

The caterers had just finished assembling a cupcake display when Ned went to the podium. He'd been nominated by the other past presidents to speak to the gathered alumni, and Nancy propped her chin on her hand, just gazing steadily at her husband. He hadn't shown a bit of nervousness or self-consciousness about it all day, and while she saw him refer a few times to something on the podium in front of him, for the most part he was easy, natural, and charming.

He would be great. He had always been great at almost anything he tried.

And this was the life he wanted, one in Chicago with her.

Ned was on his way back to their table when he stopped to collect a few cupcakes, and Nancy saw a tall, well-dressed black man stop to talk to him. They greeted each other enthusiastically, and Ned came over to Nancy with a smile on his face, offering her a cupcake. "And this is my wife, Nancy," Ned introduced her, and Nancy extended a hand, smiling at the man. "Nancy, this is Darius Tanner. Tan played basketball with me."

"Pleasure to meet you," Darius said, smiling back at Nancy. "Nick, you really are one lucky bastard. Wish I knew your secret."

Ned grinned, shaking his head. "Just being in the right place at the right time," he demurred.

"Yeah, like that was all it took to land this pretty little lady." Darius winked at her.

"He might have had to put a little more effort into it than that," Nancy confided with her own wink.

"Hey man!" Howie reached over to greet Darius with a firm handclasp. "How's life been treating you?"

It was during the next slow dance that Ned pulled Nancy to him, and their eyes were glowing as they gazed at each other. "There's something I'm pretty sure I don't tell you enough," she said softly.

"Oh?"

"That you're pretty damn amazing," she said. "And I'm really proud of you."

"Well, every now and then I seem to remember hearing that I'm amazing," he teased her, and his lips brushed her ear again. "But it's usually when we're wearing significantly fewer clothes..."

She squeezed him a little tighter. "I'm serious," she said softly. "You were great up there. And, yeah—you can be moderately amazing in bed too."

"Moderately," Ned repeated, but when he looked down at her, she could tell he was glowing. That was something else the therapist had helped her realize, before. She was sometimes too quick to judge other people based on their usefulness to her, too slow to compliment. It was easier with Bess and George, Bess especially, because Nancy had always known Bess loved to be complimented about practically anything—her hair, her outfit, her makeup, bypassing the sundae in favor of a diet soda—but Ned showed that kind of vulnerability so little that it was easy to forget.

He'd told her once, how hard he found it to give her anything. She hadn't realized until later that she found it so very difficult to accept anything from anyone else, too.

"You about ready to see if we can shoot for above average?" she teased him. "Because, let me tell you, I've been wanting to rip this suit off you since you put it on."

"And as much as I love the way you look in that dress, I can't wait to see it on the floor."

They stayed on the floor for one more dance, though. They hadn't found time lately to go out on a date, just the two of them, and it had been too long since they had been able to dance together. She loved staying home with him, making dinner together and talking about their workdays, but she loved this, too. Halfway through the dance he found any excuse to brush his lips over the join of her neck and shoulder, to murmur into her ear everything he planned on doing to her later, his fingertips warm as they trailed over the line of her spine and the small of her back. She loved every moment of it, and when the song ended, the only thing that swallowed her disappointment was knowing that they would be alone soon.

Nancy was a little lightheaded with arousal when she and Ned walked back to the table together, hand in hand. Jan and Mike were just walking off the dance floor too, although Jan had a small frown on her face. Nancy didn't want to say anything if she and Mike were having a fight, but from the look on Mike's face, he was just as concerned as Nancy felt.

"You okay?"

Jan shook her head, lightly rubbing her belly. "Ugh. No more drinks," she muttered, leaning on Mike's arm. "I'll be right back."

"Jan, you need some help?" Nancy asked.

"Oh... yeah. Ugh." Jan took Nancy's hand, and Ned caught his wife's gaze for an instant before the women headed to the restroom just outside the ballroom. Jan let out a little moan, her face pale, as they found no line waiting.

"Don't feel bad. Ned and I both got sick last night," she told Jan, as the other woman shut herself into a stall. "Should've known better than to have punch at the frat house."

It took a moment for Jan to respond. "Yeah, think I heard about that," Jan commented. "Ned got in a fight?"

"Kinda," Nancy admitted, giving the next woman who walked into the bathroom a polite smile. "Not quite, but yeah."

After a few minutes, Jan came out of the stall, still pale but looking a little less queasy. "God, I wish I could get over this damn stomach thing," she muttered.

"Sure you're not pregnant?" Nancy asked, softly.

Jan rolled her eyes, blotting her face gently with a paper towel. "Do you know how long we've been trying? I've even..." She shook her head. "Well, anyway, I'm just not getting my hopes up. I'm blaming all this on the super-weak screwdriver I had with dinner."

Nancy shrugged. "Okay, then, but if you do get some good news..."

Jan gave Nancy a weak smile. "You'll be one of the first to know, I'm sure, with as loud as Mike will be yelling when he finds out. We've both been so frustrated it's taken so long." She sighed, then washed her mouth out. "You two planning on some good news soon, too?"

Nancy shook her head. "No, not yet. I don't... I don't want to retire quite yet."

"Oh." They walked slowly back to the ballroom. "You'd quit your job?"

Nancy shrugged. "I guess... I always thought I would," she admitted. "I don't know, though. Given how much is done online now..."

Jan smiled again. "Yeah. And you'd be happy that way...?"

"Maybe," she said. "Until the kid can hold a lockpick kit, anyway."

After he was assured that Jan was going to be all right—Mike said they were probably going to call it a night, anyway—Ned made their goodbyes as quickly as he politely could. Both of them were a little disappointed when they didn't have the elevator to themselves, but Nancy didn't mind a little anticipation.

Ned's lips grazed her ear. "You okay?"

She nodded, the fingers of her good hand folding around his. "I'm kinda surprised you didn't want to get some guys together and go have some drinks," she admitted.

Ned shrugged. "After last night the idea isn't quite so appealing," he told her, and she smiled in sympathy. "Plus I want to take advantage of that king-sized bed."

"Plenty of room to spread out," she murmured, wiggling her eyebrows.

Ned chuckled and kissed her cheek. "Exactly."

They were the only ones to exit the elevator on their floor, and Ned caught Nancy's hand in his, then picked her up, his arms wrapped tight around her waist. Nancy slipped her arms up around his neck, a warm flush spreading over her as she remembered him carrying her the same way on their wedding night.

He put her down gently at the foot of their bed and she gazed up at him, letting her wrap slide down her shoulders. "You're going to have to help me," she reminded him.

"And, let me guess, I can't just rip it off you..." he teased her, pulling the knot of his tie loose.

She shook her head, standing so she could step out of her heels. "I had this really great corset to wear with my dress, too," she said mournfully. "Damn sprained wrist."

"You couldn't fasten it?"

She shook her head. "All the hooks," she explained, then chuckled. "Hell, to put this bra on, I had to fasten it and then pull it over my head."

"Mmm. Then I'll be looking forward to seeing it," he told her.

Nancy let out a little sigh as Ned slipped out of his button-down shirt, then stripped off his undershirt to reveal his bare chest. "I've gotta say, the only thing I love more than seeing you get dressed up... is watching you get undressed."

Ned gave her a small grin. "Right back at you, sweetheart." When he was down to his briefs, he gestured for her to turn around, and she shivered a little as he slipped the zipper of her dress down, then brushed his fingertips over the ice-blue lace of her strapless bra.

"I brought it with me anyway," she sighed, almost like an afterthought.

"The corset?"

She nodded, tipping her head to the side as Ned's lips brushed the side of her neck.

"Well, let me see it."

She nodded at her duffel bag. "It's in there."

"No." He slid the strap of her dress down, then kissed the newly-bared skin gently. "On you."

She pushed down the other strap and began to shimmy her hips out of her dress. "You'd have to help me put it on."

Ned shrugged and unzipped her bag. "Oooh," he said, when he found it.

Nancy blushed a little. "You like it?"

"We'll see," he told her, and picked up her dress to toss it over the armchair.

Nancy brought her hands to her hair, then winced. "Shit. It still hurts from when I was putting my hair up earlier..."

Ned chuckled, and Nancy sighed a little when she felt him touch her hair. She had just put it into a French twist; while she would have loved to do some elaborate curls, she was sure her hair would have looked atrocious from using her wrong hand. "I feel like I haven't really been able to brush it out in days," she admitted.

Ned felt his way down her hair, gently pushing the bobby pins out, and she almost purred. "Yeah, I remember how much it sucked when I broke my arm," he said softly. "Poor baby."

Once her hair was loose and tumbling warm over her shoulders, she turned and gave him a soft kiss, then went to take her makeup off. When she returned, he had her hairbrush in his hand.

She raised an eyebrow. "Is this... have I been a bad girl...?"

Ned chuckled. "Not quite yet," he said, gesturing for her to sit down.

She obeyed, shivering a little. "Mmmm," she murmured when he first pulled the brush through her hair.

"You like this?"

"I love it when people play with my hair," she told him. "Best part of sleepovers, hands down. Other than the gossip and the junk food, sometimes."

"Oh, Nan. The best part of sleepovers is always the pillow fights while you're wearing a skimpy little nightgown that just happens to fall right off you..."

"Yeah, we should totally do that one night." She moaned quietly when he worked the brush through her hair again.

"Fuck foreplay. All I really need to do is brush your hair," Ned teased her. He laughed when she shivered at the thought.

By the time he was finished, Nancy was flushed warm. He put the brush down and unhooked her bra, slipping it off her, and she held the corset up to her chest.

Ned touched it tentatively. "Yeah, I've got a lot more practice taking this kind of thing off," he admitted. She moved onto the bed, on her stomach, and it was strange, to feel her husband hooking the corset instead of taking it off her. But she loved the contact, and when he finished, she rolled over, then sat up. The corset was a pale, almost greenish blue, printed with a chinioserie pattern. She looked down at it, then up at her husband, at the desire in his eyes.

"Very nice," he told her. "Not as beautiful as the woman wearing it, though."

She flushed happily, denying her first impulse to deflect the compliment. "So you like it?"

He nodded, and she watched him cross to the light switch, then flip the bedside lamp on. He gently moved her so her hair was fanned on the pillow under her head, and she bent one leg, her good hand resting on the bare flesh between her corset and panties, as she waited for him.

He took her hand, and when he sat down on the bed beside her, he lifted it to his mouth and kissed her fingertips. She shivered as he trailed kisses up the underside of her arm, up to her shoulder, across her collarbone. He took his time with it, gently stroking his fingers down her injured arm, kissing those fingertips too. She moaned softly, tipping her head back when he brushed his lips over the hollow at the base of her throat, then worked his way down, nuzzling down until his lips brushed the shadow of her cleavage just between the cups of the corset.

She let out a soft impatient cry when he moved back, his hands cupping her sides as he stroked his way down the satin, down to the edge of her corset. His fingertips flirted with the bare skin just beneath, and when he moved down the bed to kiss her belly, she squirmed under him. When he nipped gently at her hip, she breathed out in a quiet sigh, feeling her inner flesh clench in response. He caressed her, his fingertips gently teasing the sides of her panties as he circled her belly button with his tongue, and she tilted her hips, panting softly. She ran her fingers through his hair, very gently drawing her nails against his scalp, and he made a soft noise as he worked his way down.

She shivered when his lips brushed the lace of her panties, as his breath warmed her through the insubstantial fabric. "Mmm," she moaned, arching as she parted her legs for him. "Oh yeah, more..."

He slipped her underwear down an inch, moving back up, and ran his tongue over the skin he had just revealed. Her fingers tightened in his hair, and she felt the vibration of his laughter against her skin. "More?"

"God yes," she panted.

He tugged her panties down another agonizing inch, and she bucked her hips when he gently licked the very top of the slit of her sex. She flushed hotter, groaning in frustration when he slowed even more, and when he finally peeled her panties below her hips, then slipped them all the way off, she opened her legs as wide as she could for him.

He smiled, shaking his head a little, then traced two fingers down the slit of her sex, down until he was just barely teasing her opening. She bent her knees, tipping them back to angle her hips, and he stroked her a few times, then bent down.

"Oh God," she cried out as he circled her clit with his tongue. "Oh God yes, yes, oh God," she squealed as he lashed it harder. "Mmmmm."

She rocked her hips, panting hard, as he worked his way down, flicking the tip of his tongue against the slick press of her cunt. "Mmmm, oh God," she moaned. "Yes, baby, so good."

With one last swipe of his tongue against her clit, Ned moved back, shoving his briefs off, and Nancy trembled as she gazed up at him. He pulled her up to sitting, then placed her on his lap, and Nancy moved forward until she could rub against his erection. He gently bit her shoulder, growling, as he worked his way down the hooks he had fastened earlier. She moaned as she rocked against him, shivering whenever the tip of her clit made contact with his skin, and when he finally pulled her corset off, she pressed her bare breasts to him, savoring the feel of his warm skin against hers.

Ned reached between them and when he angled his cock, she pushed herself up on the balls of her feet, holding onto him to keep her balance as she sank onto him. They both sighed in pleasure, and she whimpered with every inch she took him. Her lips brushed his cheek and he turned his face to kiss her, the taste of her arousal still on his tongue.

When he was fully seated inside her, their hips flush together, Nancy began to push back to thrust again, but Ned wrapped his arms around her and held her to him. He pushed off the bed and Nancy cried out loudly when he stood with her, the angle of his cock shifting between her legs. "Mmm," she moaned, and when he pinned her against the wall, her legs wrapped around his waist and his palms cupping her ass, she cried out again, her hips already shifting a little.

"Okay?"

She nodded, her brow creased as she shivered, and he pulled back to bury himself deep between her thighs. "Oh fuck," she sobbed, arching as his hips pushed smoothly against hers, as the thick length of his cock filled the slick hollow of her sex. "Oh my God, baby, oh..."

He pushed himself up at the apex of every thrust, and when their gazes met, she couldn't look away. The intensity she saw in his eyes shivered straight down her spine, and his next thrust was faster. He was panting and she felt him shift again, a little more—

She sucked in a swift breath, writhing against him. "Oh God right there right there oh God, God," she cried out, her hips trembling as he kept driving into her, keeping the same angle. She bucked against him like she was fighting him, but oh, oh holy fuck, the sheer pleasure of his thrusts was radiating all the way down to her toes. The coarse hair beneath his navel brushed against her clit and her shoulders and hips jerked as she felt her arousal rise to such unbearable heights, right before she—

She let out a cry that rose into a broken scream as she came, her heels tightening against him as he pumped roughly in and out of her, panting harshly as he fucked her. "Yes, oh yes! Oh fuck, oh, mmmmmmm..."

Ned growled as she bucked hard against him. "So good, baby," he panted. "Oh God, you feel so good."

He tilted so just the angle of his hips and the press of his cock between her thighs kept her pinned to the wall, cupping her breasts before he squeezed her nipples, and Nancy shuddered against him, her inner walls clenching hard around his erection. He did it again and she whined at the terrible pleasure of it. She was so fucking sensitive, every single nerve felt like it was alight, and all she had to do was look at her husband's face and she was clenching tight and slick around him again.

She felt his hips tremble, felt him tense as he came, and once he did, he pressed his chest to hers, kept her tight against the wall as he slumped a little against her. He sighed against her neck and she ran her fingers through his hair, slowly, gently.

He made a soft noise as he cupped her ass again. "God," he groaned. "Oh, baby. So good."

She chuckled quietly when he pulled back to look at her. "Thought we were going to take advantage of all that room," she said, nodding at the bed. "And instead here you are, fucking me against the wall like..."

"Like what?" he prompted, when she trailed off.

She peered at him through her lashes. "Like you just couldn't wait."

Ned ran his fingertips up and down her thighs a few times before he let her slide back to her feet. "One night," he told her, "when we're at a club, you're gonna get me past the point of no return... and I'm gonna drag you outside, rip whatever excuse for underwear you're wearing off, and fuck you against the wall. Just like that."

She cupped his cheek in her hand and shook her head, but a small smile was flirting with her lips. "You'd do that?"

"Oh hell yes, baby."

The smile widened into a grin. "Promise?"

Chapter Text

Ned keyed into their townhouse, and while he wasn't exactly surprised to find it still dark, he still felt a little disappointed. "Honey?" he called, closing the door quickly behind him. Just the walk from his car to the door had left him shivering, and while their place was very still and a little chilly, it felt much better than the cold wind outside.

"Nan?"

No answer. Ned pulled out his cell phone as he reached for the remote, navigating to ESPN before his wife arrived and flipped it to the news.

How's it going, Nan?

He hated going for the obvious—if you don't move that fine ass we'll be late was probably the wrong message to send, anyway—and sometimes she did lose track of time. Ned pulled a beer out of the fridge and sighed when he took the first pull, then headed upstairs to change, his cell phone still in his other hand.

Going OK but I'll have to meet you there, that OK?

What choice do I have? Ned thought, texting her back with a shrug. They had reservations at a new place uptown to celebrate his raise. The dinner out had been her idea; Ned would have been just as happy making dinner at home with her. Even so, this meant she wouldn't see him until he showed up at the restaurant. Ned checked his watch, then began to pull his clothes off. He had just enough time for a quick shower before he had to dress and call a cab.

His cell phone chirped when Ned walked out of the bathroom, rubbing a towel over his wet hair, otherwise naked save the band of his wedding ring. He checked it.

I'm so sorry, baby, running late. Can u run a tiny errand for me? :)

Ned rolled his eyes. The only good thing about running an errand for his wife was knowing she would likely reward him in bed for it later. What do u need? he replied, finding a pair of clean briefs in his dresser.

She texted him back with directions, which he checked as soon as he was dressed. He wore a pair of tailored grey slacks belted at his narrow waist, and a black shirt. Nancy liked to pretend that she didn't care what he wore, but Ned knew better. The glow in her blue eyes when she saw him dressed well gave away what she was thinking. And if she came straight from the office in what she had worn to work, a clinging silk top and a tight black skirt...

Ned shook his head, a small smile on his face as he reached for his watch and decided on the cologne she had given him for Christmas.

The address she had texted him looked normal enough, but Ned should have realized something was up when the cabbie had given him a little chuckle after hearing it. Ned checked the number in her text message against the number on the outside of the building. They matched.

"Wait right here," Ned said with a little sigh. "I'll be right back."

"You sure about that?"

"Very damn sure," Ned replied, waving his left hand. "I'm on the way to dinner with my wife."

"Sure, buddy," the cabbie replied with a grin.

The building looked nice on the outside. The sign wasn't the usual dingy, flickering neon; lamps were set above a metal sign above the door.

The Limited 720

Gentlemen's Club

The place had opened after he and Nancy had started seeing each other exclusively, and since his bachelor party had been in New York, Ned hadn't had a chance to check it out. Not that he'd wanted to, he told himself sternly. He'd heard it was nice, but he also had a feeling that if Nancy found out he'd visited, the punishment she'd dole out would have less of her naked and more of him sleeping on the couch.

Ned was still hoping, though, that once Howie finally got hitched, they'd have a perfectly legitimate reason to take a little strip-club tour of Chicago. And Ned would of course have to go along. And then maybe go home and rip his wife's clothes off.

Maybe she would never go for a threesome, but clearly she had visited this club before. He made a mental note to ask her if she'd even entertain the thought of coming here with him. Maybe for his birthday. The thought of her watching a show with him... oh, that made him imagine her getting drunk and climbing up there on stage, her eyes glittering with intensity as her gaze held his...

Ned shook his head, putting his hand on the door handle. He was about to go have a celebratory dinner with his wife at a nice restaurant—and, he realized, checking his watch, that he would be late for their reservation if he didn't get a move on. He needed to get in and get out and stop thinking about his wife or any other woman in a pair of high heels and a few scraps of black lace, gyrating for him on stage.

A pair of burly bouncers, their short sleeved black t-shirts tight over their biceps, stood looking imposing near the door. Ned walked in and stole a quick glance around.

Ned had been to his share of strip clubs, mostly while he'd been at Emerson, and most of them had been dim, dirty, cheap-looking. This place was nice, though, and the women circulating among the guests with drink trays looked more like high-class escorts than bored, jaded strippers. A long bar stood along one wall, and a young woman, her hair a mass of loose straw-colored waves, wearing a pair of glittering high heels and a white feather boa and very little else, was dancing on the stage. The recessed lighting revealed leather booths and dark grey matte walls. The carpet was still plush and vibrant. Off to the side Ned saw another hallway, another bouncer with a red velvet rope beside him. The private and VIP rooms.

The hostess, a young woman with creamy skin and dark eyes, her chestnut hair cut in a short glossy bob, raised an eyebrow at him. "We take cash and credit card," she prompted him. Her top was cut low enough to reveal the lace-trimmed cups of a black bra.

"Oh—no, I'm just here to pick up something."

"I'm sure you are," the hostess replied, her gaze sweeping down his body and back up, and she had a small smirk on her face when their eyes met again. "I'm Stella, and welcome to The Limited 720 Club. If you have a credit card, I can go ahead and set up your tab at the bar..."

Ned shook his head, reaching for his cell phone. "No, really. I just need—" He checked Nancy's text message. "I need to talk to Ruby for a second. That's it. I'm actually on my way somewhere, my cab's outside, it'll just be a minute..."

"Oh. Ruby, huh?" Stella's gaze drifted down to Ned's waist again. "Sure, big boy."

Stella picked up a handset and Ned found his attention wandering back to the stage. The blonde kept the boa strategically placed over her bare chest as she strutted over to a pole, swinging around it, her glittering gaze low-lidded. Ned cleared his throat and made himself glance away.

Hell, the next time Howie went through a breakup, they should bring him here. Just to cheer him up.

An Asian woman wearing a fringed gold bra and panties walked over to Ned with a smile on her face. "Ned? Right this way," she said, making a gesture to Stella, who nodded in reply. Ruby reached for Ned's hand and he took a few steps with her before raising his eyebrow.

"Nancy sent me. Nancy Drew?" His wife went by her maiden name when she was on cases. "She said you had something for her?"

Ruby glanced back at Ned, her dark eyes glittering. "Yeah. She did me a favor." Ruby shook her head. "You ever come here with a party, Ned? We'll make sure we treat you right."

"I'll keep that in mind," Ned said. Ruby winked at the bouncer keeping the red velvet rope and he pulled it back, allowing them through to the hallway. Maybe whatever she had for him was in the dressing room...

Ruby stopped outside a room marked with a 4. She took a key from the ring at her wrist and unlocked the door—it was painted black, with a matte satin finish; Ned couldn't remember ever being in a club that looked so damn high-end as this one—and gestured for Ned to step inside, with a little flourish.

"So it's in here?"

Ruby chuckled. "Wait here," she told him.

The room was small. A black leather armchair was facing away from Ned, toward a large, translucent sheet of of heavy plastic mounted in the middle of the room. Beyond the barrier was a platform, and a pole.

He was in a private viewing room.

Ned turned back to Ruby, who was just closing the door. "Wait," he called out. "I think there's been a mix-up—"

Ruby shook her head. "Sit down," she told him, nodding at the chair. "No mistake."

Ned tried the door as soon as it shut behind Ruby, afraid that he had fallen into a trap meant for him, maybe to retaliate against his wife—but the door opened easily. It locked from the outside, but he could get out.

Maybe Ruby was just going to go get whatever it was he was supposed to pick up. Ned found his phone and sent a text to Nancy. At the place, should be on the way soon.

That message was neutral enough.

The space beyond the plastic was dark. Ned glanced around curiously. A sign in the corner said Smile, You're On Camera. A paper towel dispenser was mounted on the wall, with a basket. He saw a small speaker, a half-sized monitor in the wall. Distantly he could hear bass pounding through the walls.

Ruby, Ned told himself sternly, had better get back soon. He had a date to keep with his wife. And he definitely didn't need to sit down in the armchair. He perched on an arm of it.

He'd never actually been inside one of the private viewing rooms. Watching the girls on stage had been enough for him, and besides, once he was back at the frat, generally two or three drunk girls would put on an equally hot show with little urging. Even so, just being able to watch...

Ned was facing the door, waiting for his wife to text him back, when he heard a clicking noise behind him. He turned. The lights were coming up, on the other side.

A woman walked very slowly up to the pole.

Ned stood, shaking his head. Oh shit, oh shit oh shit. He was going to kill Ruby. "I'm sorry, wrong room," he called.

The woman shook her head, walking over to the left corner, and he saw her press a button. A small green light came on beside the wall-mounted speaker.

Ned walked over to it. "I'm sorry, miss, but I'm not here for this, you're in the wrong room," he told her. He was trying hard not to look at her. All he could see was miles of slender leg and black satin.

"I don't think I am," she replied, her voice a seductive purr. "Why don't you sit down, Ned."

Ned glanced up at her, his eyes narrowing.

She wore a long black gown and gloves, and her hair was pulled back, her face partially obscured by a black lace mask. She definitely wasn't Ruby or Stella, or the blonde he had seen on stage. And her voice...

She touched a panel on the other side, and Ned heard a throbbing, rising bass beat start. Her hips swayed slightly, moving back and forth to the beat, and despite himself, despite his knowledge that he really needed to get the fuck out of here as soon as possible, definitely needed to get the hell out of this situation, the rhythmic swaying of her skirts, her slender waist, and more than that the glittering intensity in her gaze, had him pinned. He swallowed hard. His internal temperature had spiked a few degrees.

And his cell phone was still in his hand. Nancy was going to text him back any minute, asking where he was—

Nancy.

The woman reached up and unpinned her hair, shaking it loose over her shoulders, and he had only seen that particular shade of red-gold on one head, a head he knew very well. His wife's.

"Nancy," he breathed, sinking into the armchair, and his internal temperature went up a few more degrees. Maybe a few hundred.

Her hips were still swaying as she reached up and slipped the mask off. "Surprise," she purred, then grinned.

Ned shook his head. "Damn, baby."

"Did my heart good to see you freaking out before you recognized me, Nickerson," she said, tossing the mask to the floor. "Although you didn't immediately run..."

"Who says I didn't recognize you as soon as you walked out?" Ned asked, sitting back so he could see her better. Hell. It was like she had read his damn mind.

"The panic in your voice," she told him dryly. A low, seductive female purr joined the throbbing bass of the song, and Nancy touched the barrier between them before she began to work her long satin glove off. She walked slowly around the pole, tossing her hair as she pulled the glove off, then began on the other.

"And... those reservations...?"

Nancy chuckled. "I can always trust you to be thinking about food when I'm taking my clothes off," she teased him. "Relax, we have time for a few songs before we have to leave for our reservation."

Ned shook his head with a smile, spreading his knees a little wider. "A few songs," he repeated. "Hmm. And to what do I owe this little waking wet dream?"

Nancy did another circuit around the pole before she put her fingers on the top button of her dress. "A congratulations for all the hard work you've done," she said, unfastening the first one. "I thought my incredible, handsome, drop-dead sexy husband deserved a treat."

Ned laced his fingers behind his head. "Best treat ever," he told her.

Nancy slowly stripped for him. Beneath the black satin gown she wore a thin black lace-trimmed slip, so loose that she was able to push the straps down and let it slide down to pool on the floor at her feet, and she kept her gaze locked to his the entire time. Ned shifted in his seat as his erection went from tentative to full. Under the slip she wore a black and silver lace bra and panties. The bra was thin as a whisper and he could see her hard-tipped pink nipples through it, and the panties, he could see when she took the pole in one hand and swung around it, narrowed into a thong at the back.

She danced for him, bending over to touch her toes, then bringing herself back up slowly, tossing her hair. She grabbed the pole and tilted back so her arm was fully extended, then rocked her hips, dancing closer and closer until she was grinding up against the pole, tipping her head back. Ned found his hand, of its own volition, sliding down to his zipper.

She bent her knees, sliding down the pole, their gazes locked until she glanced down and saw what his hand was doing. "You can touch yourself, baby," she purred, climbing back up. "Let me see what I'm doing to you. Let me see that cock, baby."

Ned unbuckled his belt and pulled his pants open, stroking himself a few times through the thin cotton of his underwear. He didn't take his eyes off his wife as he leaned over to the basket and found a bottle of lotion by touch, dispensing some into his hand.

The next song began and Nancy climbed up, wrapping one leg around the pole and spinning around it, and he could see the hard muscle in her thighs and calves. She arched, letting her legs slip down, and then climbed back up again. He watched her work the pole, and when she did one particularly tricky move, doing a wide split in the air, her hair hanging down and her lips parted, Ned groaned, slowly palming his cock.

When the song ended, Nancy grinned at him. "You like?"

"Hell yes," he told her. "Oh hell yes, sweetheart."

"I thought I'd let you pick the last song." She pressed a button and the monitor on the wall lit up.

Ned raised an eyebrow at her, sliding over so he could see the panel. He had scrolled through a few screens when one song caught his eye. "Anything?" he asked, glancing over at her.

She nodded slowly. "Yeah."

"And... will you finish?" he asked, gesturing to the bra and panties she still wore.

Nancy shook her head. "Uh... there's a camera up there near the ceiling, and considering everything I've already done, I'm sure Maurice is in the back room jacking it as we speak."

Ned's mouth quirked up a little. "But there must not be any sound, if you're talking about it."

She smiled. "No. No sound."

"So, if I... cover up the camera. Can I give you instructions?"

She raised her eyebrow. "Maybe."

Ned managed to block the camera with a makeshift blind, and Nancy had her hands on her hips, her eyebrow quirked up. Ned put a little more lotion in his palm, then selected the song.

Nancy's eyes widened when she heard the first bar. "Really," she said softly.

"Yeah." Ned gazed openly at her, slowly stroking his shaft again. "Strip for me, baby. And then..." He nodded at his lap. "Touch yourself for me."

A soft flush rose to her cheeks, but she brought her hands down as the singer's voice began, in an intent whisper.

You let me violate you

You let me desecrate you

You let me penetrate you

You let me complicate you

She bit her lip, her hips swaying to the beat, as she reached up and cupped her breasts through the bra, stroking her thumbs over her nipples. She arched, her lips parting, as she shrugged one strap, then the other, down.

Help me I broke apart my insides

Help me I’ve got no soul to sell

Help me the only thing that works for me

Help me get away from myself

She slipped one leg around the pole and he watched her rock her hips as she peeled the cups of her bra down, glancing up to make sure the blind was still in place over the camera before she began to pluck at the hard tips of her nipples. He groaned as she reached behind her and unhooked the bra, tossing it at him, then worked her way back up the pole, wrapping her legs around it and arching upside down, grinding against the pole as she fondled her bare breasts.

I want to fuck you like an animal

I want to feel you from the inside

I want to fuck you like an animal

My whole existence is flawed

You get me closer to god

Ned stroked himself harder, mouthing the words as he stared at her, watching her grind and undulate against the pole as she slipped down. She swung around it, tossing her hair, and he let out a groan of pleasure as she stopped, glancing back at him over her shoulder, rolling her hips. She hooked her thumbs in the sides of her thong and began to teasingly inch it down, then sent her panties sliding to her ankles with a flick of her wrist.

You can have my isolation

You can have the hate that it brings

You can have my absence of faith

You can have my everything

Her eyes were dangerous, low-lidded as she turned to face him again, entirely naked save her wedding rings, her creamy flesh glowing faintly with exertion. She backed up against the pole, holding onto it with one hand as she parted her legs, sinking down into a split before she bent her knees, her gaze still locked to his. The line of curls at the slit of her sex was already damp with arousal.

Help me tear down my reason

Help me it's your sex I can smell

Help me you make me perfect

Help me become somebody else

Her hips jerked a little as she cupped one breast, her other hand trailing down her belly, between her thighs, and Ned held his breath, still mouthing the words.

I want to fuck you like an animal

I want to feel you from the inside

I want to fuck you like an animal

My whole existence is flawed

You get me closer to god

She leaned back against the pole, her legs spread wide open, her hips tilted so he could watch as she slipped her fingers between her legs, her thumb finding the slick button of her clit. She cried out, her fingers plunging deep into her cunt, and Ned groaned to himself as he stroked his cock harder, watching her get off. Her eyes were low-lidded and she moaned, stroking her fingers in and out of her sex, roughly circling her clit with her thumb. "Oh God," she moaned, as the song kept pounding in the air between them.

"Yeah, baby," Ned growled, touching himself faster. "Yeah, baby. Get that tight little cunt ready for me."

She rose onto shaky legs, her breasts trembling with her every movement, then tilted so she could press the join of her thighs to the pole, her hand still working as she touched herself. She ground against it and Ned hissed in pleasure, brushing his thumb over the head of his cock.

Through every forest, above the trees

Within my stomach, scraped off my knees

I drink the honey inside your hive

You are the reason I stay alive

Nancy sucked in a swift breath, tipping her head back, one hand gripping the pole, the other still between her thighs as she rocked her hips hard against her fingers. "Oh yeah," she moaned. "Oh yeah, baby. Yes yes yesyesyesyes—"

"So fucking hot," Ned groaned as he pumped himself harder. "Mmm, so hot, Nan."

She walked the few steps up to the barrier between them and sank down to a squat, her knees against the plastic, tilting forward so her forehead and her breasts were against it. She moaned loudly as she plunged her fingers swiftly up into her cunt, rapidly stroking her clit, a hard blush in her cheeks as she began to sob in pleasure. Ned rose to his feet and shuddered as he watched her come, her hips and shoulders jerking, and groaned as he let himself come.

With one last jerk, Nancy let out her breath in a long sigh, falling backward as she pulled her hand from between her legs. She tilted back to lean against the pole, panting, her blue eyes low-lidded as she gazed at Ned. He was still trying to get his breath back as he took a paper towel and began to clean himself up.

She chuckled. "That work for you, Nickerson?"

"Fuck yes," he declared. "Son of a bitch. One of the hottest fucking things I've ever seen, Nan."

Once she had her breath back, Nancy slipped back into the satin gown, telling him she would meet him at the restaurant. Ned had to walk back out through the club, and as soon as he was back on the main floor, Ruby approached him again.

"How'd she do?"

Ned laughed. "Uh... she was incredible."

Ruby grinned. "Good. She worked hard. Glad it paid off."

"She did?"

Ruby nodded, her eyes sparkling. "You think girls are just born knowing how to work a pole? Took her a little while to get the hang of it, but if she ever feels like changing careers, she'd make a killing here."

"I'm sure she would. —Oh shit, my cab's still waiting..."

Ruby patted him on the back when they reached the door. "Relax, we took care of it for you. See you soon, big boy," she told him before he pulled the door open, and Ned wondered just how many of them had been in the back watching the surveillance tape while his wife had danced for him.

He was the first to reach the restaurant, and he had just ordered a bottle of wine and glasses of water for them when Nancy approached the table. She wore a short, tight black cowlneck dress and high heels, and her hair was pinned back up, though he could still detect just a hint of blush in her cheeks.

"Mr. Nickerson," she said, as she took her seat.

"Mrs. Nickerson," he said, gazing intently at her. "Have a good day at work?"

She shrugged, smiling as the host took her coat and swapped her white napkin for a black one. "It was nice," she told him. "Pretty uneventful. By the way, have I told you congratulations yet?"

He raised his eyebrows, a small smile on his face. "You have," he said evenly. "But I was thinking I'd like to celebrate a little more once we get out of here."

He refrained from mentioning her little show all during dinner, and after the waitress brought back a slice of cake boxed for them to take home, Nancy led him out to her car. Her heels clacked against the pavement, and she showed a generous flash of leg as she slipped into the driver's seat.

"So you actually practiced that for me."

Nancy glanced over at him. "Yeah," she admitted. "Those bruises I had a few weeks ago? Yeah, I was incredibly fucking clumsy the first few times."

He touched her leg, sliding his fingertips up her outer thigh. "Well, you were sexy as fuck up there," he told her. "And if that glass hadn't been between us? God, baby, I would've been all over you."

She flashed a smile at him. "So you wouldn't, by chance, want to demonstrate what you wanted to do when we get home?"

"I think I could do that," he told her. "Since you definitely deserve a treat."

When they walked in, Ned was feeling pleasantly buzzed, and he watched his wife shrug out of her coat and hang it up. He did the same, then crossed to the kitchen and pulled one chair away from the table as she found her iPod and began to scroll through the songs.

Ned slipped his arms around her waist and kissed the top of her head. "So we're gonna need music for this?"

She nodded. "Definitely."

He kissed her behind her ear. "Oh, so now you'll turn on 'Closer' and I'll be the one grinding up against you."

She chuckled, then turned to him. "Are you teasing?"

"Do you want me to?"

She gave him a little nod. "Yeah," she said softly. "I mean, if you want to give me a lap dance, Ned."

"I'm up for that challenge," Ned declared, and they both laughed when she glanced at his waist.

"Okay. Hang on, let me find it..."

Ned was leaning against the side of the couch, his arms folded, and Nancy's eyes were twinkling devilishly as she selected the song.

Oh, my, god, Becky, look at her butt

Ned laughed, shaking his head. "Sorry, baby... that one won't work. While I do love your ass, it definitely isn't big."

She giggled. "Okay, okay," she said, scrolling through again. She finally decided on one, selected it, then sat down in the kitchen chair, crossing her arms and looking up at him. Ned glanced up at the lights overhead with a little wince.

"At least you had flattering lighting."

"What are you trying to say, Nickerson?" Nancy replied, raising an eyebrow.

"That you're just gonna laugh?" he responded, as the music started.

I've heard people say that

Too much of anything is not good for you, baby

Oh no

But I don't know about that

There's many times that we've loved

We've shared love and made love

It doesn't seem to me like it's enough

There's just not enough of it

There's just not enough

Oh oh, babe

Nancy shook her head. "No, sweetheart. Well, I might laugh, but it definitely won't be because you're not hot."

"So reassuring," Ned said as he reached for the first button of his shirt. He gave an exaggerated swing to his hips and Nancy grinned, her gaze traveling from his waist back up to his face.

My darling, I can't get enough of your love babe

Girl, I don't know, I don't know why

Can't get enough of your love babe

Oh, some things I can't get used to

No matter how I try

Just like the more you give, the more I want

And baby, that's no lie

Oh no, babe

His fingers made their way slowly down his shirt, and once it was fully unbuttoned, he slowly shrugged out of it, and Nancy clapped, a wide grin on her face. "Damn," she breathed.

"If we're ever gonna do this again, I really should get some tearaway pants," Ned said, shaking his head as he began to unbuckle his belt. Nancy was gazing at his hands in rapt attention.

She shook her head. "Noooo," she said softly. "No, this... this is good. Mmmm."

Ned laughed at her, then came over to her chair. "No touching the dancers," he told her, pulling her arms behind her, and he used his belt to bind her to the chair. She could have gotten out of the belt in under five seconds, but she made a little show of struggling against it, her eyes wide in mock pleading.

"But I didn't touch you."

"Yet." He shook his head. "I could see it in your eyes, though. You wanted to put your hands all over this." He gestured at himself.

"Well," she temporized, grinning. "Maybe."

Tell me, what can I say?

What am I gonna do? 

How should I feel when everything is you?

What kind of love is this that you're givin' me?

Is it in your kiss or just because you're sweet?

Ned toed out of his shoes and took off his socks, then slowly opened his pants and pushed them down. Nancy grinned, bouncing a little in her chair. "Oh yeah, baby. Take it off!" she called out.

Ned laughed, then turned and pulled down the side of his briefs, showing her half his ass. "Yeah! Show me that fine ass," she told him, her eyes dancing.

He finished pushing his briefs off, then turned around, and her gaze immediately went to his erect cock. She licked her lips, then glanced up into his face.

"So you got to jack off while you were watching me," she pointed out slowly.

"You saying this is making you wet?" he asked, walking toward her. He stood in front of her, cupping her cheek. "You want me, babe?"

How can I explain all the things I feel?

You've given me so much

Girl, you're so unreal

Still I keep loving you

More and more each time

Girl, what am I gonna do

Because you blow my mind

"Always," she told him, and while her eyes were still alight, her tone was quietly sincere.

He leaned down and kissed her softly, and it was the first time their lips had touched, the first time they had really touched the whole night. He kept kissing her as he moved forward, crouching over her. He rubbed his erection against the fine warm fabric of her dress, against her crotch, and she shivered, pushing her shoulders back, arching so her chest was more prominent.

Ned ground against her, slowly and firmly, and her blue eyes blazed as she gazed up at him. "I want to be naked," she moaned. "Please, baby."

Oh no, babe

My darling, I can't get enough of your love babe

Yeah, I don't know, I don't know, I don't know why

Can't get enough of your love babe

"Naked?"

She nodded. "When I came earlier," she told him, "I was fantasizing about your cock the entire time."

Ned groaned quietly before he kissed her again, reaching behind her to free her hands, and immediately she reached for his cock. She led him over to the iPod and turned it off while he collected his clothes, then reached down and stripped her dress off in one smooth movement. She wore the silver and black lace underwear beneath, and he could see her peaked nipples, could smell the musky scent of her arousal.

He reached for her and she ran for the stairs, her heels sounding on the floor, squealing and laughing when he swiped and managed to brush against the bare skin of her back. They raced up the stairs and when they reached the landing Ned picked her up in his arms and carried her to their bed, tossing her lightly onto it.

In the time it took him to drop his clothes on the floor, she had her bra off, and Ned pulled her panties down, letting out a soft hum of approval as she opened her legs to him. He knelt between her legs, drawing his fingertips up her thighs from her knees.

"God, watching you grind up against that pole was so fucking hot," he growled, leaning in to nip at her neck. "You are so unbelievably sexy, Nan."

She smiled at him. "I'm so glad you liked it."

"Liked it?" he repeated incredulously, cupping her inner thighs with his palms and parting her legs a little more for him. "Liked it? Holy fuck, sweetheart."

She reached between them and pumped him in her fist a few times. "I saw you mouthing the words," she told him, her voice a low, sultry purr. "You want to fuck me like an animal, Ned?"

He shuddered as she tightened her grip on his cock. "Hell yes," he growled.

"Do it," she begged him in a soft moan.

When he swung off her to dig in the drawer in their bedside table, she cried out in frustration. "I'm wet as hell," she told him. "Please, now."

He came back to her, dropping what he'd retrieved on the comforter, and kissed her again, hard, cupping her hips as he ground against her. She shuddered against him, letting out a breathy moan as his cock rubbed against the slick, hot folds of her sex. "Mmmmm, yeah," she whimpered against his mouth. "More."

Ned dipped his tongue into her mouth, teasing hers, feeling her arch and grind against him. He teased her until she was digging her nails into his back, her legs hooked around his, and when he pulled back so his cock was barely touching her, she bucked up hard under him, impatient.

He rolled onto his back, his fingers sliding over the comforter beside him. "Ride me," he growled. "Ride me like you were touching yourself, baby."

She made a soft noise as she straddled him, tossing her hair out of her face. "I thought you were treating me," she complained softly as she maneuvered her hips into place.

"Oh, you'll get yours, baby," he swore, and both of them groaned as she touched the tip of his cock to her clit, rubbing him against the sensitive nub of flesh before she guided him down, seating him just inside her opening. She pushed her knees forward, propping her hands over his shoulders to lock her gaze to his as she slowly mounted him, her cunt slick and hot around him as his cock parted her tender flesh.

"Mmmmm, oh," she breathed, blinking slowly down at him as she sank down. "Oh, God, baby, that feels sooooo good. Mmmmm."

He waited until she had taken his full length, her eyes closing as she paused on top of him, her cunt still gloriously tight around him. She leaned back, reaching behind her to prop herself up with one hand as she used the other to cup her breast and tease her nipple, and Ned pressed the button on the bullet vibrator to turn it on, then pressed it firmly against her clit.

Nancy screamed, her eyes popping open in surprise, her hips bucking. "Fuck," she cried out, and when she began to ride him, her thrusts were short, rapid, desperate. "Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck oh God that feels so good," she sobbed, her voice rising to a squeal at the end.

"Yeah," he growled. "Oh yeah, baby."

She tipped up a little, shifting her hips as she continued to ride him, bringing her other hand up so she could pinch both nipples simultaneously. She started to rotate her hips, and he could hear little hitches in her breathing, between her screams, every time he shifted the vibrator against her clit.

"Feel good?"

She sobbed out another cry, nodding vehemently. "Oh my God," she screamed, tossing her hair, arching as she sank onto his cock again, and when his full length was tight between her legs, she rocked, flushed and panting, and he felt her cunt begin to pulse around him. He moved the vibrator so the tip was buzzing against the tip of her clit.

She screamed again, bouncing on top of him, her breasts trembling. "Mmmmm, oh God oh God oh God," she whimpered, and her sex tightened around his. "Oh fuck so fucking good."

"Yeah, you love it, dirty girl," he growled, as she fucked him harder, grinding against the vibrator. "Just like you loved touching yourself for me. So fucking sexy." His groin was tight with need, his arousal spiking every time he felt her slick inner flesh tighten around his cock.

Her whole body was trembling when she screamed again, tipping her head back, her shoulders jerking. "Shit," she sobbed, and when he circled her clit with the vibrator she rutted against him, as hard and fast as she could, her brows drawn together, her lips parted. Her cries became incoherent pleading, her nails digging into his flesh, and she was rippling, undulating, totally undone above him as he finally took the vibrator away from her clit and let her orgasm peak and begin to fall. Her hips were still rocking against his as she collapsed to him, moaning, and his hips rose once as he finally let himself come.

"Mmmm," Ned murmured, barely mustering the energy to reach up and stroke her hair. "Okay?"

She responded with a groan. "Oh God," she whimpered. "Oh... wow."

He grinned. "Still complaining about being on top?"

She moaned quietly. "Baby, if you do that every time? I'll ride you until you have fucking friction burns on that gorgeous cock. Holy shit."

Ned kissed her cheek. "That's how I know it was good," he told her with a little chuckle. "When you're threatening to hurt me next time."

She swatted at him, then began to slowly dismount. "And here I was thinking you were just going to bend me over the bed and take me from behind."

Ned grinned. "There's always the weekend."

Chapter Text

Nancy was dying.

The pain from the bullets were excruciating. The first had struck one of her ribs in the back and cracked it; the second had slipped between and oh, her heart, her heart, she was dying—

She fell to her knees like a penitant, but when she tried to speak, nothing came out.

She had to find help. Had to get help. The world tilted crazily around her as she tipped off-balance, onto her side, and with every beat of her damaged shattered heart, another gout of blood soaked into the warm fabric of her shirt.

It had all taken a handful of seconds, and she could feel the ground beneath her trembling faintly as the person who had shot her fled the scene.

Because she was dead, and there was no saving her now. Absolutely no way to save her. Otherwise she would have felt the next bullet as it slammed into her skull, cracking the thin stubborn porcelain that cradled her brain, and even more of her blood would be pulsing out of her—

She found her cell phone and her hand felt like it belonged to someone else. When she touched her chest her fingers came away slick with blood.

It hurt so much.

It should have hurt more.

She was going into shock.

Her fingers fell open as she closed her eyes, and her last coherent thought was his name.

Ned. Ned.

When she opened her eyes again she was on the floor of the Hardys' van and her lips were trembling. She was so cold. Joe was shouting something and he looked like he was bent over her, but she couldn't tell. Everything hurt. Nothing hurt.

My heart, she tried to tell him. You have to fix it. It's split. It's broken.

Joe placed his palm on her chest and she screamed. She couldn't feel her feet. Her fingers were tingling.

You have to get Ned. You have to get him.

Joe didn't hear her. Frank was shouting something back to Joe.

And she could feel the night around her, cold and black, and she knew they would never make it to the hospital, that she would bleed out and the pain would somehow end, and there would be no dawn, not for her, never again.

I'm dying.

She touched her fingers but she couldn't tell if it was the numbness or if her rings weren't there. What if—what if they would take her into surgery and cut her rings off. What if—

They were speeding away from the grey water, from the pool of her blood on the ground, from where they had left her to drown with every pulse of her weakening heart. Her lung. Pulling a breath felt as difficult as trying to run uphill through wet cement.

You have to get Ned. You have to tell him.

She was going to die. Her cell phone was smeared with blood and she couldn't concentrate, couldn't figure it out. Couldn't call him. She would never see him again and she had been such a fool and he hated her now, she had finally let him go and he deserved better than her and she was going to love him for the rest of her life—

She would love him with every fiber of her being, every beat of her dying heart.

Hang on, Nan, Joe told her, and she could see it in his eyes. He knew that she was dying, that he and Frank were responsible. He knew. Her blood was on their hands.

She saw that her blood was literally on Joe's fingers and she tried to laugh, tried to tell him. Her grip, the fingers she had kept so tight for so long, oh, they had been loosening since the day she had walked away from Ned that last time, and she had lost herself by pieces until she didn't recognize who she was anymore. This girl on the floor of their van wasn't her anymore. And she was a girl who wanted death, welcomed it, this girl who had found the other half of herself and then walked away.

She was so tired. And it didn't matter what she did.

She would never see his face again.

Her rings, her rings...

She closed her eyes.

--

Nancy opened her eyes and screamed.

A chair scraped downstairs. "Nancy!" Ned shouted, and she heard his footsteps pounding toward the stairs.

Their bedroom was cold. Her head was pounding, and her face was wet with tears, her lips trembling, her body shaking with sobs. She touched her long-sleeved henley, just over her left breast, and felt the speeding pulse of her heart there, and she couldn't stop crying. Her fingers came away dry, not slick with blood.

A slice of light was visible through their open bedroom door. She had left it open when she had come to their room to lie down; Ned was up late working on a project, one they were scrambling to cover after the official final draft had been overwritten, and that was why she had been alone. Usually when she slept in Ned's arms, the nightmare wasn't this bad.

Ned pushed through the open door and a heartbeat later, he had scooped her up into his arms. She was still sobbing, and Ned held her tight, his lips brushing her cheek. "Shhh, shhhhhhhhh, sweetheart," he whispered. "Shhhhhhhhhhhh. Hush, hush, it's okay."

She wrapped her flannel-clad legs around him, holding him tight to her, burying her face against his neck, and he was so warm, so solid and alive against her. For a moment she sobbed even harder and Ned sat down with her at the edge of the bed, gently rocking her back and forth. "Shhhhhhhh, Nan, it was just a nightmare. Shhhhh. Calm down, baby."

He was okay. She was okay. She was all right. She had gotten through it, and it was done.

Her husband brushed his lips against the join of her neck and shoulder. "Shhh," he whispered against her skin. "Hush, sweetheart, just calm down. You're safe."

She finally calmed down enough to pull back, but tears were still streaming down her cheeks, and her breath kept catching. She looked over at the tissue box and Ned pulled one out for her, offering it to her as his other hand stroked slowly up and down the line of her spine. She wiped her nose, and she had been crying so hard that her eyes hurt, that she had a headache a breath away from a migraine.

"You okay?"

She nodded a little, and the pain in her head became a stab for an instant. "I'm sorry," she whispered, her voice watery.

Ned shook his head, gently stroking her hair. "It's okay, sweetheart. It's okay. Don't be sorry."

"You were working," she began, weakly.

"It's okay. Why don't you come downstairs with me," he said, and brushed a strand of hair, wet from her tears, off her cheek. "It shouldn't be more than half an hour."

"I'll... I'll be okay," she protested, but her protest was halfhearted. Once the nightmare started, it felt like every time she closed her eyes, the tape rewound and began again, and she kept finding herself falling to her knees, her shirt soaking with her blood.

Ned shook his head. They had tossed an additional quilt over the bed when the weather had grown colder. Ned picked it up and wrapped it around her shoulders, and she clung to him, her legs still wrapped tight around him, as he picked her up and carried her downstairs. The television was on, and a panel of talking heads was yelling to each other quietly about some team's playoff chances.

He put her down on the couch and she wrapped the quilt around her. "Need anything?" he asked softly.

"Um," she murmured. "Would you mind making me some tea? My head's really pounding."

He shook his head, and Nancy grabbed the tissue box. He returned with a mug of chamomile lavender tea and two aspirin for her, and she smiled up at him, aware from the sympathetic expression on his face that she still probably looked like a mess.

She picked up the remote and turned the television to a sitcom rerun, something mindless with a laugh track, then cuddled under the blanket. The aspirin and tea were undoubtedly working, but her adrenaline was still up.

Her therapist had told her that she had been through a traumatic event; having nightmares about it didn't mean there was anything wrong with her. It still felt like something stalking her, though. Just when she had grown comfortable, when she had begun to think that maybe, just maybe, she had managed to move past it, it rose like something terrible, sending her heart speeding, terrifying her again.

It had been months since she had woken up screaming. Just the mere fact that she was in contact with her husband's skin seemed to keep the worst of it at bay. And if she knew what caused it...

Nancy frowned, snuggling deeper under the blanket, and felt her head throb a little in answer. Frank had called her two days earlier, asking if she was free to help them on a case, and she had turned him down, even though she knew her husband was going to be out of town at the time.

She had worked other—small—cases with the Hardy brothers since. It was just her depression at knowing Ned would be out of town, coupled with the rest of it.

She felt like her eyes had just drifted closed when Ned was picking her up. The room was dark, the television off, and she blinked up at him, making a soft sound. "Shh," he murmured. "I'm just taking you to bed."

"Mmmm." She cuddled against him. Part of her knew she should be offended by his insistence on taking care of her, but he wanted to, and he was Ned. If he had been anyone else she would have insisted on taking the stairs by herself. But she felt so damn safe in his arms.

He put her down on the bed, and she spread the quilt, feeling like a sleepwalker, but she fought it. Ned brushed his teeth, then came back in stripping his clothes off, and Nancy went to brush her own teeth. He slipped into bed barechested and Nancy was about to join him, then dug in her drawer and found a tank top. She shucked off the henley and flannel pants and was shivering when she joined her husband in bed, immediately cuddling in close to him.

Ned made a soft noise as they tangled around each other, his knee slipping between hers. "You okay?" he asked, through a huge yawn.

"I'm okay now," she replied, nuzzling against his chest.

"I'm sorry, baby." He took the arm slung over her and idly drew his fingertips down her spine. "I'm sorry you go through that."

"Me too," she whispered against his skin. "I think I'm just..."

"Just what, sweetheart," he murmured, his voice slow with exhaustion. It was late, and she knew he had to get up early in the morning. They both did.

"I'm going to miss you so much when you're on that trip."

He chuckled. "Why don't you take some vacation time and come with me?" he suggested.

"Oh... but you wouldn't want that," she said, even though her heart beat a little faster at the thought.

"Sure I would. You can hang out with your aunt or Bess or whatever during the day, and then I won't have to order room service and eat alone at night."

Nancy grinned. "And you're sure you wouldn't mind?"

Ned gave her a soft, slow kiss. "It's up to you, babe, if you can take the time. If you can't, that's no big deal. But I'll miss the hell out of you while I'm gone, too."

She returned the kiss, then nestled back against his chest. "I'll ask Trent about it tomorrow," she told him.

--

It was just one night.

Ned's flight was Wednesday morning. Trent told her that he could let her go for the majority of the trip, but she couldn't leave until Thursday. She had stayed in their townhouse alone before, a few times, and she felt safe—while their neighborhood wasn't wealthy, it wasn't terrible either—but she still hated sleeping without him.

She drank a glass of wine while she was on the phone with her husband, who told her that the hotel room wasn't bad. He was touring a few different facilities with some consultants in New York, and while he knew he might have to go to a few pre-dinner mingling sessions, he had eaten Wednesday's dinner with the rest of the group and managed to do some networking. After she arrived, their evenings and the rest of the weekend before they boarded the plane Sunday afternoon were earmarked for her. Nancy had talked to Bess and Bess had snagged them tickets for Friday night, for the production she was doing. Her Aunt Eloise had claimed Friday afternoon for some girl time. Ned told her he wanted her all to himself for Saturday, and she giggled as she started going through her lingerie drawer, trying to figure out what she was going to pack.

When she fell asleep, she was hopeful that she wouldn't remember her dreams, or that if she did, they would be pleasant. A few times she had dreamt of looking down to see her belly rounded with pregnancy; a few times she had dreamt of a small child in her arms.

She hadn't told Ned about those dreams, but she always spent the day after wondering, imagining. She wasn't ready yet, they weren't ready yet, but eventually, one day...

But when she slept, when she dreamed, she saw her husband, his hand in hers. Instead of snow, they were walking through a blanket of fallen leaves, on their way to meet Frank and Joe. Ned was telling her that soon she and Trent would have to go to Hawaii. She was the only one who would be able to find the lost inheritance. She nodded.

"You're bleeding."

Nancy touched her chest and her fingers came away wet with blood. She looked over at him.

She hadn't even felt it, that time.

The sound of the gun firing was terrible, so loud it seemed to tear her apart, and then she saw his eyes widen. She saw the corona of blood on his chest, saw it spread, and she opened her mouth but she couldn't scream.

"Nancy," he whispered.

Her eyes pricked with tears and only when he fell to his knees, when she fell beside him, her entire world coming apart around her, did she finally—

She woke in their bed, panting, crying, and her throat hurt like she had screamed herself awake. Her heart was pounding so hard that the echo filled the stillness.

She was all right. The only dampness was sweat from being bundled under the covers still in her flannel pajamas. And Ned was in New York, and he was all right, she knew that, but she reached for the phone anyway.

"'Lo?" Ned answered sleepily. "Nan?"

"Hey," she said, and sucked in a shivering breath, unsuccessfully trying to stifle a sob.

"Oh, Nan, sweetheart," he said softly. "What's wrong?"

"Bad dream," she said, then cleared her throat. "It—it's okay, now. I just needed to know you were okay."

"I'm fine," he told her. "Missing my wife like a son of a bitch, but I'm fine. Was it different?"

"Yeah," she admitted, and told him what she had dreamed. By the end of her account she was crying again, pushing her hair off her wet face, and her heart ached with the memory of it.

"Shhh, Nan, it's okay," he told her. "It's okay, baby. God, I wish you were here." She could hear the distress in his voice; he hated that he couldn't comfort her, and if she had deliberated about it for another thirty seconds, she probably wouldn't have called him at all, but the reassurance of his voice was better than nothing.

"I wish I was too," she replied. "It's okay, I'm sorry—I shouldn't have woken you up."

Ned growled quietly. "We've talked about this," he said, just the barest stern edge in his voice. "Always wake me up, Nan. Always. It would hurt me more to know I could have helped you, than missing a few minutes of sleep."

She smiled. "Well, let me go. I need to take some aspirin and try to get to sleep. And I'll see you at the hotel around... five-thirty?"

"Five-thirty or six," he confirmed. "Thought we could get something to eat around seven. Look, if you need to call me, sweetheart, call me, okay? We take breaks during the day and I can call you back if I can't get to the phone right when you call, but don't ever hesitate to call me."

"Okay," she said softly. "I love you, Ned. And I'm so glad you're okay."

"I'm glad you're okay too, baby. And I love you more than anything else in the world. Try to get some rest."

The mornings after her nightmares were the worst, but for the entire rest of the day, a part of her felt fragile, almost bruised. She had left a message with Mel, and when she was waiting for her checked bag to reach her on the carousel, Mel texted her back.

I have a few hours this afternoon! Meet up at Osteria Morini?

Sounds great! I'll text you when I'm on the way.

Ned had described the hotel as "not bad." He had clearly been lying through his teeth. She picked up the key at the front desk, then let herself into their room.

It was utterly sumptuous, with plush carpeting and muted lighting. The duvet cover was a rich, deep textured silk, with curtains to match, and she even saw a genuine fireplace in the corner.

She chuckled as she shrugged her shoulder bag to the carpet. You faker, she texted Ned. This is "not bad"?

Mel greeted Nancy with an exuberant hug as soon as she walked in. "Nan! You look great," she said. "The martinis are to die for here. So how long are you in the city?"

"We're flying back Sunday. Bess is in a play so we're doing that Friday night. You know, good chance to get away for a little while before the holidays really kick in."

Mel shook her head. "Oh, marriage. Full of in-laws and decorate soap baskets and..." Mel made a flourishing gesture, and Nancy laughed at her.

"You don't even know," Nancy said, her eyes bright. "Marriage is great. Once you find the right guy."

"Well, I did," Mel pointed out, as they took their seats. "It's just you managed to snatch him up before I did. I'll just have to keep looking." She tossed her hair. "Although I've gotta say, I'm having way too much fun right now to consider settling down with one guy forever."

"Well, I don't think Campbell would mind me saying that he would love you to look his way."

The first martinis went quickly, and Mel and Nancy decided to split a plate of assorted crostini. Being around Mel again, and her unsteadiness from the nightmare, plus the waiter's attentive service, meant Nancy was finishing off her third drink, with only a single crostini in her stomach to help compensate, before she realized it.

"I shouldn't be telling you this."

Mel's eyes lit up. "Those have to be some of my favorite words in the English language," she said with a grin. "I mean, unless it's that I have spinach in my teeth."

Nancy giggled and shook her head, realizing that her cheeks were flushed. The martinis really were damned good here. "My husband admitted soon after he met you—before he was my husband, really—that he..." Nancy dissolved into giggles, reaching for her water glass.

"Unh-uh, Drew—Nickerson—Drew Nickerson, whatever—you better put that water down and get back to it."

Nancy shook her head, and it took Mel threatening to vodkaboard her before she would finish her statement. "He, uh... he admitted that he would love to take you up on that offer."

Mel wrinkled her brow. "What offer?"

"Well..." Nancy propped her chin on her hand. Mel hadn't exactly offered a threesome, but Nancy had known her long enough to be pretty sure about her reaction. "To go see our hotel room... and go to bed with us."

Mel crowed with laughter. "Oh my God, really?" She took a stiff slug of her drink. "Oh, that's gorgeous. Well, I hate to say that my schedule tonight is pretty well booked, but..."

"Oh!" Nancy said, shaking her head. "No, no. No. No. No. I mean, he would love that. And now every time you see him... shit, I've just made everything super awkward."

Mel shook her head. "No, no. I mean, am I going to tease him a little? Maybe." Nancy's friend leaned forward. "So, he's into the idea, but you aren't?"

"I've told him that the only other person I'd let into our bed is Johnny Depp, and much as I love you, Mel, you definitely aren't him."

Mel's grin was wicked. "So you don't want to indulge this little fantasy? I mean, did you never... experiment?"

Nancy shook her head. "Sorry. I'm one of the straightest girls you've ever met," she said.

"Straight doesn't mean you can't... play." Mel raised an eyebrow that told Nancy that she was taking Nancy's revelation far too seriously. "Look, I get that you guys are on a tight schedule this trip, but next time I'm in Chicago, let's schedule a little play date?" She wiggled her eyebrows.

Nancy groaned. "Mel, seriously," she begged, reaching for another crostini, hoping that would help her head stop spinning quite so much. "I shouldn't have even told you."

"Yeah, you really shouldn't have," Mel said with a grin. "Seriously, I'll be good. Would I get a kick out of watching that insanely gorgeous man get naked and pounce on you? Hell yes."

"He... was hoping you'd have a more active role," Nancy admitted, even when a surge of jealousy rose in her belly.

"Oh, I'm sure he did," Mel said, with another wicked laugh.

Nancy made Mel swear that she wouldn't do anything—"Just keep it in mind," Mel said with a little wink, and Nancy had shaken her head—before she went back to the hotel to get ready for Ned's arrival. She drank enough water to make herself feel half-drunk again, but it soon settled to a pleasant buzz, a warmth all the way down to her toes and fingertips.

Ned texted Nancy to let her know that he was almost there, and she finished her preparations, then took a seat in the desk chair, crossing her legs. She was trying for a sultry, detached look, but as soon as Ned walked through the door, a happy grin on his face when he saw her, she found herself across the room, wrapped in his welcoming arms.

"Hey baby," he said happily, and his lips brushed against her cheek as he trailed kisses over the soft flesh, ending at her lips. "God, I missed you."

"I missed you too," she breathed, returning his kiss. "Mmmmm, I love you."

"I love you too." He had just barely picked her up, and with one last brush of his lips over hers, he put her down. She took a step back and he swept his gaze down her outfit, then back up, his eyebrows raised. She joined her hands behind her back, a little flush rising to her cheeks.

She wore a white shirt, tucked into her tight pencil skirt, unbuttoned far enough to reveal the absence of a bra, her nipples visible through the thin fabric. She had opted to leave off the garter belt and stockings, partially because her drink-stumbling fingers had found the task of hooking them impossible. She was shod in the ridiculous red-soled heels again; she was shocked that she hadn't fallen on her face when she had been crossing the room to him.

"That a good shirt?" Ned whispered.

Nancy shook her head. "Definitely not," she whispered in reply.

"Do you want me to be rough, baby?"

"Yes," she whispered. "Please."

"Do you want me to dominate you?"

"Oh, yes, please."

Ned's voice rose to its usual volume as he took off his suit jacket, putting his briefcase on the floor, and locked the deadbolt behind him. "Well, Miss Drew, I must say it's a surprise to see you here."

Nancy ducked her head, her flushed, glowing cheeks hidden under the spill of her hair. "Yes, sir."

"I'm afraid to ask what brings you to my room at such an hour."

She cleared her throat, then glanced back up at him. "The memos... I lost them."

"Lost them? All of them?" Ned was loosening his tie.

"All of them," she said with a nod.

"And how did that happen?" He took his tie off and began to unbutton his shirt, then whipped it and his undershirt off.

"I... they were burned. All of them. The building, too. Fucking memos."

"That sounds very bad, Miss Drew."

She nodded. "I came expecting some... punishment." She licked her lips.

"For burning down the building..." Ned made a tsk-ing sound, coming in close to her. He took the open edges of her shirt and yanked them apart, his gaze dark and intense on hers, and the buttons flew off with soft popping sounds, landing in the carpet. He jerked the tails of her shirt out of the skirt and yanked them apart too, whipping the shirt off her. "You really aren't interested in any further employment with this company, are you."

She shook her head. "I was hoping you might want to keep me in custody," she admitted, nodding faintly in the direction of the bed. "Make sure I don't get in any more trouble."

Her voice faded into a soft moan at the end of it, as he cupped her breasts. He glanced over at the bedside table, and she heard him suck in a little appreciative breath.

The cuffs were the standard play set, ones she could break out of given about twenty seconds. A pair of individual nipple clamps, a black feather dangling from each. A bottle of lube and a handful of condoms. And a large, thick vibrator, as close to the same girth and length of her husband's cock as she had found, with an attachment meant specifically to tease her clit.

He leaned down to her and kissed her mouth softly. "Just wanted to do that once first," he whispered against her lips.

Then he grabbed her by the hair and marched her over to the bed, throwing her onto it. She had to grip his forearm hard to keep her balance in the tall heels, and she bounced when she hit the mattress, gasping. He grabbed her and turned her onto her belly, unfastening the skirt before he roughly yanked it down, and she toed out of her stilettos, leaving her naked and flushed on the bed.

Almost idly he unfastened his pants, leaving him in his briefs. "It seems," he said in a bored conversational voice, picking up one of the nipple clamps and adjusting the tension a little, "that all my efforts in this vein have been unsuccessful, Miss Drew. And you must know that it gives me no pleasure to punish you, but you've given me no choice." He picked up the other clamp, and she felt her inner flesh throb softly in answer.

She had pushed herself up, propping her weight on the heels of her hands, and she whimpered when he seated the first clamp over the tight bud of her nipple. He had increased the tension from their previous session, and when he put the second on her, she was panting. He watched her closely, but didn't ask if she was okay, and when he had given her enough time to say the safe word if she wanted, he shook his head and turned to the bedside table again.

"Hands and knees, you dirty, naughty slut."

The alcohol and her nakedness made her shiver a little as she obeyed him, and the clamps were a steady stabbing pain against her nipples, sending a continuous tremble of arousal down her spine. He smacked her ass and she let out a soft cry, spreading her knees a little wider before he spanked her harder.

Then she felt the cool, rounded head of the vibrator against the slick opening of her sex, and she moaned as she ground gently against it, as he spanked her again.

He drew it away from her. "If you want it..."

"Please, please," she begged him, and he soothed her stinging ass with a warm caress as he touched it to her again. She slid her knees apart a little further, and then he rammed half the length of the vibrator into the slick tender press of her cunt as he spanked her again.

She screamed, her cry fading to sobs as he pulled it half out, then worked it almost fully into her. Her hips began to rock down to it, and she shuddered when he spanked her again.

"Bad, bad girl," he told her in a low growl, and she let out a sharp cry as he gave it a hard shove, seating the vibrator fully inside her. She felt the nubbed attachment brush against her clit, and shivered. "Bad, bad girl who likes to get punished."

"Yes," she sobbed, and when he twisted the base of the vibrator and it began to buzz to itself inside her, the attachment humming against her clit, she cried out again. "Oh yes yes yes yes yesssss," she moaned, her hips rocking.

"Mmmm," Ned said warningly, pulling it back, and she sobbed in frustration. "I think you're enjoying this punishment way too much."

He spanked her again, then soothed the sting with a warm caress. She was shaking, her head bowed, as she heard him rip open a foil packet, then snap open the lube.

"Mmmm," she hummed softly.

He moved behind her again. The vibrator was still as he worked it up between her legs again, until she had taken the full length, and when he gave a little twist to his wrist and the attachment rubbed against her clit, she whimpered in pleasure. He slipped two condom-covered fingers, slippery with lube, down the cleft of her ass, then gently began to rim her tight asshole as he slowly worked the motionless vibrator inside her, in shallow, gentle thrusts.

"Oh," she sobbed softly, flushing as he gently began to relax her so she could take his cock. She arched, rocking against him, her hair hanging down as she hung her head. Her arousal sent a tingling, painful awareness down over her, deep in her bones, all the way to the edges, to her fingertips, her toes, her lips, her nipples, her clit. With every brush of the vibrator against her, she shuddered, crying out again, and she could hear how slick she was in response to him, how slick she had been since she'd stepped off the plane.

By the time he worked the length of his fingers into her ass, she was trembling, on the cusp of orgasm, arched so she could brush the tips of her throbbing nipples against the cool bedsheet. "Mmm, yeah, keep that tight little ass up," he told her, slipping his fingers out of her, letting the vibrator slip out of her, and she shook in anticipation.

He slicked his fingers with her arousal after he'd taken the soiled condom off them, and made a low, pleased growl when he felt the tender heat of her inner flesh. "Oh yeah, baby," he breathed, stroking it over his cock before he sheathed himself in a fresh condom, then slicked himself in lube.

He moved behind her, and he didn't ask if she was ready, just positioned the tip of the vibrator against the opening of her cunt, the tip of his cock just against her asshole.

Nancy pushed herself back up onto the heels of her hands, crying out as he pushed the vibrator into her, in time with the press of his cock. He panted as he worked inside her in shallow strokes, to keep from actually hurting her, grunting in pleasure.

When he spanked her again she trembled, clenching against him, her mouth falling open. "Oh yeah," he grunted, and she cried out when he spanked her again. "Yeah, that's right, baby. Mmmmm."

Then he moved, twisting the base of the vibrator so it was at half-speed as he pushed it the rest of the way into her, pushing nearly the full length of his cock inside her, and she screamed. He was filling her, so tight and so deep it almost hurt, and when he smacked her ass again she sobbed, her hips grinding and circling against the hum of the vibrator, against his cock.

"This what you wanted, bad girl? This what you need?" he growled, turning the vibrator up a little higher, and Nancy screamed, her hips twisting and rocking to keep the attachment rubbing against her clit.

"Yes," she cried out, and felt a pair of tears slip down her cheeks. "Oh fuck oh fuck yes yes so good, don't stop don't stop!"

"Oh, I won't," he promised, thrusting his cock rapidly into her again as he matched the movement with his wrist, then sent the vibration almost all the way to maximum.

Nancy screamed again, her eyes rolling back, her nails digging against the sheets as he fucked her, as her arousal rose in a dizzying wave, leaving her lightheaded, tender, throbbing. She screamed every time the attachment vibrated against her clit, and when her orgasm finally began to break, as she rippled around him, her entire body tensed, jerking with his every thrust.

"Yeah, baby," Ned growled, sending the speed to maximum, and she bucked under him, her next scream so high it was inaudible. Her throat was dry from her screams and she was fucking rutting against him as he filled her up, as he fucked her tight ass while he stroked the vibrator rougly in and out of her.

She had to summon every bit of strength she possessed to speak the safe word.

Ned slowed down. "What is it?" he panted.

"The clamps," she whimpered. "Please—they hurt—"

"You can take them off," he allowed, and she whimpered in relief when she did, tossing them onto the floor beside the bed. Then he pushed the vibrator up into her again and she shuddered when he picked up speed, sending her crashing through to the crest of another orgasm.

He spanked her one more time, groaning when she tightened around him again, and she felt him jerk against her when he came. He kept working the vibrator inside her, though, and she felt loose, limp, powerless to do anything more than respond to the terrible pleasure of it. When he slowly eased his cock out of her, he urged her to roll onto her side, and she was moaning, tilting her hips to give him a better angle as she rolled onto her back and he kept stroking the vibrator in and out of her.

"Like my birthday," she breathed, arching again, her eyes rolling back as she panted. "Oh fuck, oh fuck oh God! Yesss oh my God so good, oh God!" she cried out.

He stripped the condom off, then leaned down, holding the vibrator so she could plant her heels and grind her hips, her legs open wide as she rubbed her clit against it, and then he gently licked her throbbing nipple. She shuddered, her sobs rising to screams as she came again, writhing under him, as he gently suckled against each of her aching nipples. When she collapsed, spent, he was gently nuzzling against her breasts. She kept rocking as her cunt rippled and clenched around the vibrator, and Ned twisted it off slowly, and she heard how wet she was as he slowly pulled it out of her.

He put the vibrator on the bedside table, then pulled her into his arms, and she was limp, still gasping for breath as she sprawled over him. Her skin was slick with sweat and all of her felt almost achingly sensitive. He gently stroked his palm up and down her back and she let out a soft sigh.

"You okay?"

"Mmmm," she responded, her cheek against his chest. "Mmmm, yeah, baby. I'm hungry but I don't think I'm gonna be able to move," she moaned.

Ned chuckled. "Sorry it hurt," he said soberly.

"It's okay," she murmured. "Mmmm. That was so good."

"Hell yes it was," Ned murmured, and gave her a little squeeze. He gave her a cloth so she could clean herself up before he went to the desk, and returned to her with the room service menu.

"Really?"

"Yeah," he said, looping an arm around her as he pulled it open. "Because I have absolutely no interest in seeing you get dressed again tonight."

She shivered. "Mmmm," she said approvingly, nestling against his shoulder.

--

When her Aunt Eloise asked if she was doing all right—really doing all right—Nancy was able to nod entirely truthfully. She had slept in her husband's arms the night before, naked, dreamless; after their dinner of room-service sandwiches, Ned had picked her up and taken her back to bed, working his way down as he parted the thick robe she had put on, and made love to her, sweetly, tenderly. While she loved when he was rough with her, she loved even more the look in his eyes when she propped herself up on her hands and held his gaze, her hips rocking down against his as she rode him. She loved the passion, the desire, the bliss she saw in his eyes when he was taking pleasure from her body. She loved feeling him surge inside her as he reached his climax.

She loved him. She loved all of him. She loved that he had let her come along with him instead of sprawling out, savoring his time alone with a big empty bed all to himself and constant ESPN.

"The first year of marriage is supposed to be hard," Eloise said thoughtfully, then took a sip of her soda. They had grabbed a late lunch at a local deli.

Nancy dipped her head. "We've fought," she admitted. "A few times. But we've been together so long... and he knows how much I need him, now. For the longest time I was afraid I couldn't rely on anyone, not really... but I think a part of him needs me to."

Eloise patted her hand. "I'm so glad you found him, Nan," she said. "I'm so glad you're happy."

"Me too," Nancy admitted, grinning before she took another bite of her sandwich.

She and Ned were holding hands that night as they watched Bess perform in her play. Bess wasn't playing the lead, but she had a strong secondary role, and as they watched her stroll confidently across the stage, Nancy was struck by the strange duality of it. She had known Bess for the majority of her life, and before Wilder, Bess had been timid, occasionally outrageous, fashionable and curvy, good-natured and polite. The woman on stage was slim, confident, and almost forceful, and at the close of the show, when the cast came out for their curtain calls, Nancy and Ned both stood, clapping and cheering for Bess.

She met them after, confessing that she was dying for Thai food, and when they placed their orders, Nancy was faintly bemused when Bess opted for a light chicken, shrimp, and vegetable dish. Ned selected a moderately spicy curry dish, and Nancy picked noodles with shrimp in a sweet broth.

"You were amazing up there," Nancy said, as Bess took a first sip of her water. When Ned nodded and voiced his own agreement, Bess flushed with pleasure, gazing between the two of them.

"Really?"

Nancy nodded. "Seriously. You're really great at this, Bess, and I'm so happy for you."

Bess grinned. "Oh... thanks, you guys. I mean it. I'm so glad you made it on a good night." She clapped her hands. "It's so exhilarating, being up there. I'm going to audition next week for a part on a TV show, too."

"That's so exciting!" Nancy said, her smile turning to a congratulatory grin. "Oh, girl, I always knew you were going to be amazing at whatever you tried."

Bess tucked a lock of blonde hair behind her ear, touching a large vintage dinner ring on her right hand. After the play she had dressed in a pair of straight-leg skinny jeans, a green sequined tank top, and a heavy ivory peacoat, with suede ballet flats and a soft cashmere scarf. Large hoops dangled from her ears. She looked the way she'd always wanted, like she could be a model, with her long-lashed big blue eyes and flawless skin.

"So I was thinking I'd probably come back home for Christmas," she said, and Nancy noticed that her friend was gazing at Ned when she said it—and that he was smirking slightly. Nancy glanced between the two of them, her eyebrow raised.

"And what is it you're not telling me?" she asked.

Bess chuckled, and Ned glanced over at his wife. "Well, you already kinda knew—Terry already has plans to be in Mapleton too."

Nancy's eyes were dancing when she turned back to Bess. "Oh really?"

"Yeah," Bess muttered, but she was smiling. "I mean, he seems like a great guy..."

"He is a great guy," Ned interjected.

Bess shrugged. "So who knows."

Nancy grinned. "I think I know. And if you need a matron of honor..."

Bess chuckled, throwing her straw wrapper at Nancy. "Talk about counting your chickens, Nan."

Nancy shrugged. "Ned? Care to place a wager?"

He grinned. "I like being surprised," he said. "But I'd also bet that my cousin isn't stupid, and that I'll get to wear a tux again before too long."

"And you'd be doing me a favor," Nancy told Bess. "The only thing better than seeing this man in a tux..."

"I can guess," Bess said dryly. "Thanks for the vote of... confidence? Outright delusion?"

"All of the above?" Nancy suggested, and the three of them laughed.

--

Nancy and Ned didn't get back to their hotel room until late Friday night. After the Thai restaurant they had gone by a bar and grabbed a few drinks with Bess, and they slept in, mildly hungover, wrapped in each other's arms. After Nancy took her shower, she walked out of the bathroom in a pair of comfortable jeans and a green and white striped sweater and ankle boots, and Ned had that smile on his face, the kind of smile Nancy knew well.

"What's up, Ned?"

Ned shook his head. "Nothing. And don't you dare try to get it out of me, Drew. I am a sealed vault."

"You want to see about that?" she asked, her voice pitched low and husky, her eyes heavy-lidded. She swung her hips as she walked toward him. "You sure there's absolutely nothing I can say, or... do, to persuade you?"

Ned swallowed hard. "Get your coat."

She gave him a small playful pout, but grabbed her coat anyway.

They had been to the Met together before, and to most of the museums and major tourist attractions in the city, the Empire State Building, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. They had never made it to the Cloisters, though. After brunch they spent the rest of the morning and part of a leisurely afternoon strolling through the museum together, then went to Central Park. Ned bought them each a soft pretzel and they split a coffee as they wandered together over the snowy paths, their noses growing cold from the brutal wind.

"Thanks."

"Mmm? Good pretzel?"

Nancy made a face at him, smiling. "For inviting me. It... it means a lot."

Ned bumped her shoulder, gently so they wouldn't spill the coffee. "Well, I thought you might like a little break, and that we could have a nice dinner tonight. I had to pull some strings, but I got us a reservation."

"So that was why you had the look."

He smiled. "Guilty as charged. Sound good?"

She nodded. "Definitely," she said, slowing her steps, and once they stilled she reached up and kissed his cool cheek. "I love you, babe."

"Love you too," he murmured, brushing his lips over hers.

Nancy had brought along a few dresses, just in case she and Ned were able to have a nice dinner. She was just slipping diamond studs onto her ears when Ned came out of the bathroom dressed in a charcoal grey suit, white shirt, and black tie. He looked incredibly handsome.

His gaze swept over her, and she straightened. Her gown was slate grey, cowl-neck, the hem right above her knees. It left most of her back bare, and in anticipation of the chilly night she wore stockings and a pair of sleek black boots. She had styled her hair straight, and it fell in a sleek curtain down to her bare shoulder blades.

She felt a shiver of arousal make its way down her spine as her husband's gaze met hers. "Wow, Nan," he murmured.

"Wow yourself," she said with a smile. "You look amazing."

"And you have got to be the most gorgeous woman in New York," he said, slipping an arm around her waist. When he leaned down to give her a kiss, she presented her cheek to him so he wouldn't smear her lipstick, and he chuckled but indulged her anyway.

The restaurant was done in warm colors, every table occupied by well-dressed men and women, full of the hush of murmured conversation and louder laughter, the clink of silverware against porcelain and ice against glass. The host looked up their reservation and immediately became even more deferential, and Nancy wondered exactly who had given Ned the favor, if Campbell had managed to get the table for his fraternity brother. When they were shown to their table, for a moment she wondered if anyone else would be joining them, if he had planned on a reunion of sorts. When the waiter arrived, though, Ned confirmed it was just the two of them. So no Campbell, no Mel—oh God, was she going to be nervous anytime Mel was around Ned from now on—no Bess, no Eloise. No Frank or Joe. Just them.

"Can I start you off with an appetizer? Something to drink?"

Ned glanced over the menu. "Honey, crab cakes sound okay?"

Nancy nodded. "Sounds fantastic."

"We'll start with that, some water, and..." He consulted the wine menu. "We'd like to taste the Pomerol Château La Conseillante."

"Very good, sir."

Nancy raised her eyebrows when she saw the price of the bottle. "I know you just got a raise a little while ago..."

Ned reached for her hand. "And we're celebrating. We deserve to splurge a little."

"Celebrating?"

Ned nodded, gently stroking his thumb along the side of her hand. "Six months since the happiest day of my life," he told her. "Six months of being married to an amazing, gorgeous, brilliant woman. Six months since I married my best friend and the love of my life."

Nancy was flushing happily when he finished. "Oh, Ned," she said softly. "I never knew it was possible to be this happy. I've loved being with you so much, and being married to you... I finally have almost everything I ever wanted."

"Almost?"

"You—you're the most amazing guy I've ever met, funny and sweet and handsome and so strong, so very strong... and..." 

"And?" he said softly.

"And one day you are going to be the most amazing father," she said softly. "Not yet... but one day."

Ned's face lit up with a wide grin. "And I can't wait," he told her softly.

When the waiter returned, Nancy ordered the sea scallops and Ned the New York strip. They pronounced the wine fantastic, and managed to make the bottle last through the meal, swallowing the last after the final morsels of the raspberry beignets they ordered for dessert.

She had lingerie ready for him; she had worn a new gown the night before, black trimmed in gold and thin as a whisper. When they walked into the room, though, Ned immediately had his arms around her, and she gave herself up to him, lifting her arms so he could pull her dress off. She began to peel the petals from her breasts, and shivered when Ned ran his hand gently over her ass, then unhooked her garter belt and began to slip it down, along with her stockings. Then he rose and lifted her into his arms to carry her to bed, and she was clad only in a black lace thong as she began to pull his tie down, unbuttoning his shirt.

He kissed her as he knelt over her, and her fingers flew down his shirt as she swiftly unbuttoned it. They kissed until she touched the hem of his undershirt and began to pull it up, and he hastily stripped the rest of his clothes off, sending his shoes sailing onto the carpet, and she giggled before he returned to her. His kiss was warm and soft, so gentle, and she ran her hands through his hair, gently stroking her inner thighs against his sides, his hips.

He began to work his way over her, slowly, softly, nuzzling against her breasts, kissing the scar of her bullet wound and her inner elbows, dipping his tongue into the hollow of her hip before he slipped her thong off and left her naked. He had told her once that he thought of it as his version of the immunity potion she had once given him, the stroke of her fingertips over his face when she had told him she was warding off flirts like Laura forever. He wasn't warding off other men, though; he was warding off her nightmares.

She moaned when his lips brushed her inner thigh, and she parted her legs wide for him. "Mmmm," she whispered. "I love you, baby."

"I love you too," he whispered against her skin, and when he pulled back she blinked her eyes open so she could look into his face. His eyes were faintly gleaming. "I love you so much, sweetheart."

She reached down and cupped his cheek, her brow furrowing. "What's wrong?" she whispered.

"I hate that you have those nightmares," he told her, his brown eyes dark with sympathy. "I hate that it hurt you, and I hate so much that it was so close. I thank God every single day that you didn't die that night.

"And I hate that you have those nightmares because I have them too," he admitted.

Nancy's eyes filled with sympathetic tears. "Oh, sweetheart," she whispered.

"I would be lost without you," he whispered. "I would be..."

He choked up, shaking his head, and Nancy reached up, kissing him gently. She drew him down to her, wrapping her legs around him, and held him, feeling him tremble faintly against her.

When it finally passed, she rolled him onto his back and began to work her way over him, slowly, caressing his bare chest, brushing her lips over the hollow of his collarbone, running her tongue around his belly button. When she was finished she straddled him, putting her face on level with his, and he reached up and cupped her cheeks, gazing up at her.

"I touch you so I know you're real," he whispered. "So I know I'm not dreaming anymore."

"And when you have those nightmares?" she asked softly, searching his eyes.

"Then I hold you and feel how warm you are, feel you breathing, and wait until I can believe you're real, that this is real." His jaw was tight.

She leaned down, and he slipped his arms around her as she trailed her lips over his throat, as she pressed her mouth in a lingering kiss against the throbbing pulse in his neck. She kissed his earlobe softly. "Just wake me up, sweetheart," she said softly. "I do it to you all the time. Wake me up so I can hold you."

His fingertips traced up the line of her spine as she kissed him again, sweetly, and when the kiss ended he pushed himself up to sitting, with his wife straddling him. They wrapped their arms around each other, tight, and her lips brushed his neck as she nuzzled against him.

"Shhhh," she whispered. "Shhh, baby. You're okay."

"If you had told me," he murmured, his voice trembling just a little, "that you wanted to open that agency with Frank and Joe... I would have lost my mind, baby."

Nancy felt her own eyes begin to sting with tears. "Ned," she whispered. "Please, never let me go, never let me... because if I do that I would never come back..."

He kissed her hard, both of them shaking. When he bore her back down to the bed her head was spinning, from the wine and their desire and her anguish, and she kept her hands on him as much as she could, feeling the warmth of his skin. When he broke the kiss they were both gasping, and she rolled her hips when he cupped the join of her thighs, sighing in anticipation as he gently caressed her, his fingertips tracing the slit of her sex.

He trailed soft sweet kisses over her, nuzzling against her breasts again, but this time when he reached her belly button, he circled it with his tongue and kept going, and she let out a soft pleading cry, flushing when he slipped two fingers into the slick heat of her sex. His breath was hot against her skin and she arched up to meet him, sobbing quietly as he stroked his tongue over her clit, his fingers stroking in and out of her.

"Oh," she whimpered. "Oh my God, baby, that feels so good..." Her voice trailed off into a moan as he suckled, and she rocked her hips, planting her heels on the bed so she could angle up to him. "Oh God, so good... oh my God, Ned..."

He circled her clit with his tongue and she sobbed in pleasure, her belly tightening with arousal, and she shivered when he ran his fingertips against the thin, sensitive flesh of her inner thighs, when he slipped his thumbs between her legs and parted her sex to him so he could trace his tongue against her slick inner lips.

She cried out in desperation when he drew his tongue back up and licked her clit again, then moved back. Her eyes opened and he moved over her, angling himself so he was just inside her, then propped himself so they could stare into each other's eyes, her legs fully open to him, her entire body tingling sensitive with arousal.

She moaned in pleasure when he first began to move inside her. "You feel so good," he whispered, twisting his hips with his next thrust, and her mouth fell open in a soundless cry. "Oh God, Nancy..."

"Mmmmmm," she panted. "Oh my God, yes." She reached up and cupped his cheek, traced her fingertips down over the soft hair at the back of his neck, swirling her nails over his shoulder blades, her body rocking with his every thrust. When he sank to her, cupping her ass to hold her in place as he kept thrusting into her, she began to cry out, whimpering desperately, her hips trembling. "Oh God, yes, yes! Oh my God..."

She slipped her arms around him, still rocking against his thrusts as she began to spasm around him, and he groaned, his fingers pressing into the curve of her ass. He sank to her and she felt him shudder as he surged inside her, and when he stilled she wrapped her legs around him, holding him tight to her, her body pinned prone by his.

She closed her eyes, gasping her breath back. Tears were pricking in her eyes. He was so strong, she had always known that, but she had never even considered it... looking back, though, she could remember waking to find herself wrapped tight in his arms, mornings when he joined her in the shower and made love to her until they were both shaking. And he had never said anything.

They clung together for a few more moments before he finally moved back, reaching up to brush a strand of hair off her cheek. "I love you," he whispered.

She reached up and brushed her lips against his. "And I will always love you."

--

Nancy was grinning at him. Her hair was skimmed back into a ponytail, and she wore a white ribbed tank top and denim cutoffs. Her long legs dangled from her seat on the countertop. Around them was the detritus of the old floor; he hadn't been in the basement apartment for too long, but already he was making good progress. The last full rays of the afternoon sun caught in her red-gold hair.

And he was so glad she was there with him. He had believed that he would never see her again, but here she was, just the way he remembered her, and it was like no time had passed at all.

"I love you," he told her, and his heart was aching with the weight of it. "I always have, sweetheart."

Her grin became a soft smile. "And I have always loved you," she told him, and he felt the suggestion of warmth in her fingertips as she barely brushed them against his cheek.

"I'm so glad you came back to me."

"And I'll never leave," she promised. "Not for as long as you want me."

"Oh, Nan... I will always want you."

He could drown in those blue eyes. He had drowned there so many times, drunk with his love for her.

She made a soft sound and he glanced down. A black circle ringed in a halo of blood was showing above her breast.

"You're bleeding," he whispered.

She frowned. "I'll be right back," she told him, and went to his bathroom.

When heard the knock at the front door he opened it immediately, and was a little surprised to see his father standing there. James Nickerson stepped inside, frowning, his eyes serious as they met Ned's.

"You have to let her go," he said, his voice firm.

Ned shook his head. "I can't," he said. "I can't let her go."

James put his hands on Ned's shoulders, staring into his eyes. "You have to," James repeated. "I won't let you do this to yourself. This isn't good for you."

Ned shook his head again. "How can you say that? How can you... she loves me and I love her, and she's all I've ever wanted..."

James's lips were trembling when he spoke again. "She's dead, son. She's dead."

Ned wrenched away from his father, jerking open the bathroom door, to prove to his father that she was alive and well. But the room was empty; he checked the shower, checked the wrecked bedrooms, but the apartment was empty, except for them.

"She..." Ned said disbelievingly. "She was just here."

James shook his head. "She died three and a half years ago," he said, his voice slow and steady. "Bled out in Frank Hardy's arms, and you've never been able to accept it. You keep making yourself believe she's really here because it's easier... told yourself that if only things had gone differently, you would have found your way back to each other. But you never did; she never had the chance. You keep imagining that she came back, and sometimes you even..." James choked a little. "Sometimes you even imagine marrying her, kissing that bullet wound in her chest, making a life with her, but the girl you imagine, she isn't even the girl you knew.

"And you have to let her go."

Ned shook his head. Her engagement and wedding rings had been sparkling on her finger; he could still imagine them so clearly. "No," he said angrily.

"You can't live clinging to a ghost," James said, his voice rising, his eyes pleading. "You couldn't save her and there's nothing you can do now. You have to move on. It's what she would have wanted."

Ned shook his head again. "No," he insisted. "For... for as long as I want her, she'll be here for me... she's the only woman I ever loved, the only one I'll ever love, and... and she deserved more than..."

Ned was horrified when the first few tears streaked down his cheeks, and his face crumpled. His father wrapped him in his arms and Ned remembered the blood-ringed hole in her shirt, the clean lines of her flawless skin.

"I'll never leave. Not for as long as you want me."

He looked up. She was standing near the doorway, and her shirt was half-soaked in blood, her eyes shining as they met his.

"I will always love you, baby."

"Please," James said, oblivious to the woman standing behind him. "Please, Ned. You have to let us help you get past this. There are other women out there."

No, there aren't. Not for me.

Ned's lips trembled as he glanced from Nancy to his father. "I'm sorry," he said softly. "I'm sorry."

James nodded. "It's going to be okay," he said. "I know how much you cared about her, but you have to move on."

She blinked and two tears slipped down her pale cheeks.

I never will, baby.

He closed his eyes.

--

Ned opened his eyes and his chest was tight with unshed tears. He had known that talking about the nightmare at all might bring it back, but when it hadn't come to him Saturday night, he had been hopeful that it wouldn't. Now, Sunday night, back in their townhouse, he was shaking from it again.

She died. She bled out in Frank Hardy's arms and there was nothing you could do, so you just pretend she's all right again.

He turned to his wife.

The other side of the bed was empty.

Ned looked down at his hand and saw the wedding band there, but it wasn't enough to calm him. He sat up, began to move the covers back.

Nancy walked through the bedroom door, closing it behind her, wearing the same tank top and flannel pants she had changed into for bed. She yawned as she glanced at him, and her eyes widened. "Oh shit, babe, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you up..."

She had just shoved her pants down when she looked at him again, and Ned could feel every individual beat of his heart.

So many times, so many damn times he had opened his eyes and wondered if this was the dream, if what he thought of as the nightmare was real...

"Oh, Ned," she whispered, realizing, and scrambled onto the bed, wrapping herself around him. "Oh, sweetheart, are you all right?"

He embraced her hard, bruisingly tight, and she was warm and breathing and alive. It couldn't be a lie, it couldn't. This was real. She had to be real.

"Shhh." She pressed her lips to the side of his neck, gently rocking with him, and just as he had done to her so many times, she took his hand and placed it over her heart, holding it tight there. "Shhhhh, sweetheart, shhhhh. It's okay. You're okay."

He realized then that he was trembling. "You're real," he breathed, the faintest note of doubt in his voice.

She nodded, and he felt her arch against him when he cupped her breast, loose and hard-tipped under the tank top. "I'm real," she said softly, nuzzling against him, and she shivered again when he brushed his thumb over her nipple. "It was just a bad dream, baby."

He shook his head, and she raised her arms when he began to pull the shirt over her head. His fingertips, his lips, found the scar of the bullet wound, and he kissed it. She was clad only in her panties, and she was shivering.

He moved back under the covers, pulling her with him, and they kept touching, maintaining the reassurance of warmth. She straddled him and he wrapped his arms around her, stroking the soft skin of her back, as she pulled back and gazed down into his eyes.

"I need you," he whispered, running his fingers through her hair. "I need to be inside you, baby."

Her blue eyes were shining, and she moved to pull her panties off as Ned pushed his boxers down. When she returned to him she pushed her knees forward so she could grind her inner flesh against his erection. He slipped his hand between them and found her clit, and she tossed her hair back with a soft cry.

"Oh, Ned," she whimpered, rubbing against him in more rapid thrusts as he fondled her clit. "Oh God oh God yes, baby, just like that..."

He used his other hand to angle his cock and when she butted against him, together they angled until he was just barely rubbing against her opening. "Mmmm," she moaned, and propped her hands above his shoulders so she could gaze down at him while she took his cock. Ned groaned when he felt the slick, tight warmth of her sex enfold his, and she worked against him with three rocking thrusts before he was fully inside her.

"Oh God," she moaned, and he felt her surge against him when he began to rub her clit again. "Oh God, you feel so good... I love you so much," she told him, and her eyes were still shining as she rode him.

"I love you too," Ned whispered, rubbing her clit harder. He was tight with need, and he had to feel her come, had to feel her spasm around him as she reached her orgasm. "I need you so much, baby."

She fucking rutted against his cock, sobbing and moaning in pleasure, especially when he reached up and cupped one of her breasts. They were bouncing with the rapidity of her thrusts, and her nipple rubbed against his palm. "Oh yes yes yes!" she cried out, angling to take him deeper, and Ned arched under her to tilt his hips. "Yes yes yes oh fuck yessss!"

He pinched her nipple, still rapidly stroking her clit, and felt her inner flesh ripple against him as she began to come. She was incoherent, pleading, and when he let himself come, his hands slowing, she collapsed to him with a rough moan.

"God," she sighed, her face against his chest, their hearts speeding against each other. "Oh my God, Ned."

He held her tight, closing his eyes.

He was hopelessly in love with her. He always had been. From their first meeting, he had known that.

She moved to press her lips softly against his. "I love you so much," she whispered, as he ran his hand over her hair. "You make me whole, baby."

"I couldn't live without you," he whispered. "And I'll never let you go."

She nuzzled against his neck, her lips brushing his skin. "Never," she whispered. "Never let me go."

Chapter Text

Hannah Gruen had rules about such things. The tree had to be live, purchased in the weekend after Thanksgiving, and large. After Nancy and Carson picked it out, they spent an evening in front of the fire decorating it with tinsel and lights and ornaments, handmade popsicle-stick reindeer and pipecleaner-and-bead candy canes sent home with her from elementary school classes, pinecones dusted with glitter and construction-paper shapes, delicate lace snowflakes and silver ribbon and Baby's First Christmas ornaments, cheesy gavel and scales ornaments given to Carson as tongue-in-cheek gag gifts. Ned had been lucky enough to witness it a few times, to sip Hannah's cocoa while he watched the woman he loved and her father coordinate their efforts as they moved around the tree, giggling over specific ornaments or making careful judgements about the symmetry of globe placement.

The Nickersons had their own such rituals. Ned had always picked the tree, and every year his mother had decided on a theme: blue and silver, gold and burgundy, pure white. All his handmade ornaments were lovingly perched on the branches of the smaller tree in the den, and that tree was always decorated in colored lights and fuzzy silver tinsel with a star on top.

Ned was on the couch, his feet propped up, wholly enraptured by ESPN when Nancy swept in. "Whoooo!" she announced, closing the door against the bitter wind and snow flurry that came with it, and dumped an armload of bags in the entryway.

"And what is all this?" Ned asked, a smile on his face, as he stood and stretched. He was in his flannel pajama pants and a white short-sleeved t-shirt, and gooseflesh rose on his arms from the chill that had come in with his wife. She swept the hood off her red-gold hair and backed onto the mat so she could stamp the snow out of her boot treads.

"The stuff for the tree!" Her blue eyes were dancing as she grinned at him. "You're going to help! Right?"

Ned chuckled at the sudden note of doubt in her voice. "Sure, sweetheart. How about you unpack everything while I make us some hot chocolate, and then we can get started."

When he returned with two mugs filled to the brim with creamy hot chocolate—made with milk, the way she liked it—capped in generous dollops of whipped cream, the couch looked like Christmas had exploded all over it. Nancy had bought spools of ribbon, two tree skirts, box upon box of various colors of shatterproof globe ornaments, tinsel, strands of both white and colored lights, both an angel and a star tree-topper. On the coffee table Ned could see boxes of bows, gleaming glass stars, plastic candy canes, and even a pair of oversized stockings. Nancy had slipped out of her heavy coat, and even out of her sweater and boots; she wore a thin silky camisole and flared jeans, her socks still on her feet. She smiled at him when he handed over her mug, and the whipped cream left a white foam on her upper lip that she licked off with a swipe of her tongue.

And if he hadn't been holding his mug of hot chocolate, he would have shoved her jeans down just then.

Instead he chuckled at the mess around them. "Think maybe you might have gone just a little overboard?"

She raised her eyebrows at him, a slightly wounded expression on her face. "This is our first Christmas together; I just wanted it to be perfect," she told him. "And I didn't know which one you'd like more..."

Ned placed his mug on the bookcase and wrapped his arm around his wife's waist. "Baby, as long as we spend it together, I don't care if we decorate the tree in cranberries and strands of popcorn."

She directed a stricken glance up at him. "Is that what you—?"

He cut her off with a kiss. "I mean whatever we do will be perfect," he told her.

She smiled a little at that. "Well, we can try, anyway."

An hour and a half later their mugs were empty and the living room was even more of a mess than before, but they stood at the front door, surveying their efforts. The tree was near the staircase, and the white lights twinkled merrily in the branches. She had even bought a wreath for their front door, an evergreen-branch circle capped with a red velvet ribbon, and stocking holders for the mantel over their gas-log fireplace, and a stuffed Santa doll to prop between. Ned had cleared off a place for the miniature nativity scene on the low table beside their front door, where Nancy usually left her purse and Ned his keys. Nancy chewed her lip for a second, then let out a startled "Oh!" and ran up the stairs. "Be right back!" she called.

Ned smiled and began gathering up all the ornaments and decorations they hadn't been able to use. With all they had leftover, they could easily decorate three more trees. Nancy came downstairs with a small ornament in her hand, then set it on a branch at the top, near the Our First Christmas ornament she had been so proud to show him.

"See?"

Ned laughed happily when he saw the miniature Emerson Wildcat mascot hanging from the tree branch. "What did I tell you? It was gonna be perfect," he told her, looping his arms around her waist and kissing the crown of her head. "I love it. I love all of it."

She let out a soft, contented purr. "I'm so happy," she told him quietly. "I love you, baby."

"I love you too," he murmured against her hair. "And now, I seem to remember you promising me something for helping..."

"Oh?" She crossed her arms, giving him a little smirk. "Hell, I forgot to look for mistletoe..."

"Guess I'll just have to find some other excuse to kiss you," he murmured, picking her up, and she wrapped her legs around his waist, looping her arms around his shoulders. 

"So we need excuses now?" she whispered as she rubbed the tip of her nose against his, her lips curving up.

"Maybe the excuse that I am the happiest, luckiest guy in the world," he replied. "And the smartest, most gorgeous, most amazing woman has made me that way."

She grinned, tipping her head and just barely brushing her lips against his. "Really," she whispered. "She sounds great. Maybe I'll meet her one day."

He kissed her. "You didn't, by chance, maybe stop and get something else?" he asked teasingly. "Maybe a little early Christmas present for me, the kind I can rip off you with my teeth?"

"Well, we did have plenty of ribbon left over," she teased him back, nuzzling into him as he carried her up the stairs.

--

Ned woke with a yawn the morning of Christmas Eve, and as soon as he opened his eyes, a steady, soft throbbing settled in behind them. He groaned and closed his eyes again.

The night before, he and Nancy had hosted a little gathering for their friends. Nancy had been happy to show off the tree and prepare the turkey, her second one without Hannah's help, and she had set up the gift exchange, too. Their townhouse had been warm and bright and filled with laughter the night before, especially once the wine had started flowing. Bess and George, Howie and Tamara, Mike and Jan, Jules, Campbell, Helen and her husband, Paul, and Brook had attended, along with a few of Ned's closer work colleagues, and the kitchen table and counter had been crowded with their casseroles and desserts and deli sides and packaged rolls. The last guest had stumbled out into the snow after 1 a.m., but everyone had been sober enough to drive or smart enough to take a cab, and Nancy and Ned had finished off the remains of the last bottle of wine before they had gone to bed—

And that had been the mistake, Ned was sure.

Nancy came back into their room yawning hugely, still dressed in the oversized t-shirt she had pulled on before they had gone to bed, both of them happy but exhausted from the party. They had made out, giggling, before falling asleep in each other's arms.

Ned had been kissing Nancy, off and on, for more than seven years now, and he still felt a frisson of arousal down his spine every time their lips met. And even though they hadn't clung to each other for the duration of the party, even though they had circulated and laughed with their guests, she still brought him refills whenever his drinks were low, and he still took the trash out for her without asking once it had gotten full. And half their guests had teased them about it, about the newlywed glow that still clung to them, even though their marriage had been more than six months before.

But none of them really understood, Ned knew. His friends didn't understand how close he had been to losing her, how much it had taken for them to reconcile, and Ned had meant it when he told her that he thanked God every day for her, that she was still alive, that they had found their way back to each other.

She smiled at him when he opened his eyes, offering him her closed hand, and when he opened his palm she dropped two aspirin into it. "Thought you might need these," she told him, shivering as she bundled back under the covers. She murmured happily when she cuddled up against his warmth.

Ned glanced over at their alarm clock once he had swallowed the pills. 8:22. "What time are we supposed to be there?"

"Eleven," Nancy said, her eyes closed.

"Mmmm." Ned slipped out of bed and Nancy let out a disappointed whimper, then cuddled into the warmth his body heat had left in the blankets. She looked so blissfully happy that Ned had to smile.

He rummaged around in their toy drawer before returning to bed. "Hey, babe?"

"Mmm?" Nancy swept her hair out of her face, barely opening her eyes. She widened them when she saw what he was holding up.

"Interested?"

Nancy chuckled. "I don't think I've ever gotten wet that quickly in my life," she admitted, sitting up so she could pull her shirt off. By the time he came back to bed, she had slipped out of her panties too and was sprawled on the sheets, naked and waiting for him.

"Hurry," she moaned when he paused to relish the sight of her, her nipples already hard-tipped, her legs spread.

"You that ready for me, baby?"

"I'm that cold," she teased him, and arched when he began to slip the harness on her.

The butterfly vibrator was suspended between cloth straps he fastened around her hips and upper thighs, and she moaned when he seated it over her, gently pressing until she rocked her hips up, panting. He shoved his underwear off and when he climbed back onto the bed, she had moved to the middle, the vibrator's remote control in her hand, though she hadn't turned it on.

"You want to control it?"

"If you'll let me." She grinned. "But I'll let you have it next time, if you want."

"Sounds fair," he told her, kneeling between her thighs. He pulled the covers up over her lower legs, fully aware that they would probably have them kicked off the bed within five minutes, then nuzzled against her neck. She giggled and squirmed when he teased her with gentle nips and swipes of his tongue.

"So my girl needs help getting warmed up?" he murmured against her skin.

She purred when he latched onto her nipple, cupping and stroking her other breast with his fingertips. "Yeah, I am just freezing," she chuckled, moving restlessly under him as he kept suckling and fondling her.

He worked his way down her body, slowly, rubbing the tip of his nose against the sensitive flesh of her inner thighs, and she let out a soft sigh. "Are the batteries dead, or are you gonna start using that thing?" he murmured against her skin.

"Waiting for you to catch up, big boy," she replied, and arched when he sucked hard against her inner thigh. "Don't you dare..."

"The rule was no visible hickeys," he reminded her, gently biting her other thigh, and she giggled. When Ned pulled back she was idly stroking a thumb over her nipple, her blue eyes low-lidded with desire.

He touched the hand holding the remote. "Turn it on, baby," he whispered. "I want to watch."

Her hand stilled in its stroking, and the color rose faintly in her cheeks. "Long as you promise to join in," she said softly, and when he nodded, she pushed the dial with her thumb and spread her legs wide, her eyelids fluttering just a little when the vibrator began to hum against her clit.

"Feel good?"

She nodded hard. "Mmmm," she moaned, and Ned's erect cock twitched when he saw her thumb press the dial up another notch. She started panting, bending her knees and drawing her heels up toward her, her legs still spread as she rocked her hips.

"Touch me," she whimpered, her brows drawing together. "Please, baby, touch me."

He cupped her breasts, taking her nipples between his forefingers and thumbs and rolling the sensitive flesh, and she moaned more loudly, her hips rocking harder when she pushed the vibration up another notch. "Oh fuck oh fuck oh my God," she moaned, her breasts trembling as she propped on her heels to thrust her hips up and down, and Ned was sure he had never been harder in his life, watching his wife get herself off. 

She let out a frustrated groan when he stopped touching her breasts, but when he brought one hand down to her bucking thighs and plunged two fingers up into the wet, tender press of her cunt, his other hand stroking his cock, she tipped her head back, crying out, and the purple butterfly seated against her clit buzzed more loudly as she pushed the vibration up another notch. "Oh fuck oh God yes yes oh God oh God oh God yes please, pleaaaase," she sobbed as he kept working his fingers in and out of her, her hips pistoning, her pale skin gleaming faintly. "Oh shit feels so good, so damn good, oh my God Ned!"

He took the fingers between her thighs and rapidly stroked the slick warmth of her arousal over his cock before he grasped her hips, just barely pressing the tip of his erection between her legs, and her eyes rolled back in pleasure, her head tipped back. "Oh my God feels so fucking good! Please baby oh shit please ohhhhhhh God yes!"

His cock twitched as he watched her reach orgasm, and he was only barely inside her. She was panting desperately, the vibrator buzzing so rapidly it was almost an angry hum, and she began making low wordless pleading sounds, the kind that made him tight with need. Her hips were jerking, her face contorted with the terrible pleasure of her climax, and when she cried out one last time, her hips collapsing to the bed, she thumbed the vibrator control all the way back down.

Her eyes had just fluttered open again when Ned picked her up, pressing her back against the headboard. She had dropped the remote and Ned felt her tense around him when he pushed his cock fully between her legs, her lips parting when she took his full length.

"Oh, oh..." She moaned loudly, running her hand through his hair, and her eyelids fluttered when he arched at the right angle to press the butterfly against her. He kept his gaze on her face as he began to move between her legs, and his fingers followed the cord to the remote.

"Oh holy fuck," she screamed when he took the vibration from nil to half of maximum in one rapid push of his thumb. Ned groaned when she dug her nails into his back, her cunt pulsing around him. "Oh God oh holy fuck Ned, oh God..."

She screamed even more loudly, bucking against him, when he shoved the control to maximum, and he could feel it buzzing between them with his every thrust. He cupped her ass, guiding her as he fucked her, and she sobbed between her cries, pressing her heels against the mattress to give herself leverage as she rocked into his thrusts. Her earlier orgasm had left her so slippery she was almost frictionless as she clenched around him, and Ned groaned at how fucking amazing it felt.

"God, you feel so good," he growled, slamming harder into her, and she tipped her head back, sobbing in pleasure. "Oh my God, Nan..."

She whimpered, bringing her head up to look him in the eye, and Ned cried out when he felt her break, felt her rut desperately against him, her legs spread wide, bouncing from the balls of her feet as they moved together, as she climaxed again. He dug his fingers hard against her ass and she screamed again, her face flushed, her entire body trembling as the angle of her hips shifted and he drove hard, deep between her thighs. They were both panting desperately, their eyes heavy-lidded as Ned finally gave up his control and pulsed inside her, letting himself come.

"Oh God," Nancy moaned. She found the remote he had dropped and quickly thumbed it all the way down, panting in relief as the vibrator fell silent. They slumped down to the bed still joined, their skin slick with sweat, and she slipped her arms around his shoulders as he wrapped his around her waist, clinging to each other.

"Mmmm," she murmured, nuzzling against him, when they were finally breathing something close to normally again. "Was that an early Christmas present?"

Ned chuckled, brushing his lips against the edge of her ear. "Oh, sweetheart, when I give you a present you'll know it," he teased her. "I just didn't see 'hard-on wrapped in a red bow' on your Christmas list."

"Oh, it was on there," she purred. "It's always on there. But it's also on my wish list for any day ending in 'y.'"

--

Two hours later Ned was parking on the street in front of Nancy's father's house. They were freshly showered, and Nancy glanced down at her soft white cashmere sweater and skinny jeans. A red lace camisole showed above the deep v-neck of her sweater, and a pair of soft black suede boots completed her outfit.

Ned chuckled when he looked over at her, and Nancy ran a hand over her shining hair. "What is it?"

Ned shook his head. "Nothing."

"No, come on!" She was smiling as she put on her leather jacket and found her gloves. Ned wore a pair of jeans and a green cable-knit sweater over a green plaid shirt with brown leather boots, which Nancy had reassured him a thousand times would be fine. Privately, she thought he looked like he had stepped straight off the pages of a magazine advertisement. She wasn't sure how he managed to look hotter pretty much every single day.

"It's just going to be fun, spending the day around your father and trying not to think about how much I made you scream this morning."

Nancy gave him a playful swipe, pulling a soft knit cap over her hair before she opened the passenger side door. "And if we have a daughter one day and you're the father then?"

Ned sobered immediately. "Shit, Nan. Is sending her to a convent an option?"

While Lady Douglas had made it to America for their wedding that summer, they had still been surprised when she had announced her intention to visit again, this time coming to Chicago to stay with her granddaughter's widower. Nancy's aunt Eloise and her husband Seth were also staying with Carson, and Hannah had been delighted at the prospect of having a house full of people to feed again.

Even though her father's house no longer felt like home, walking through the front door still made her happy. The scent of freshly-baked pies and bread greeted them, under the succulent odor of the roasted turkey. The tree in the corner was decorated just the way it always had been, even down to the ridiculous craft project ornaments with Nancy's name in careful block print on the back.

"You know you don't have to keep using these," Nancy said with a chuckle, tapping a googly-eyed reindeer head.

"But it would hardly be right without them!" Hannah insisted, beaming. "Anything to drink?"

They hugged everyone, and Eloise was grinning when she looked at her niece. "You look great, Nan. Both of you do."

"So do you," Nancy said with an answering grin. Her aunt seemed to positively glow when she was around Seth, and Nancy was glad she had finally found someone she could be happy with. "It's so good to see you again."

Lady Douglas, Nancy's great-grandmother, was small and white-haired, but her eyes were still bright, and her mind still sharp. "Oh, love. Let me look at you."

Nancy stepped back, a warm flush radiating from the contact when her husband wrapped his arm around her waist and gave her a little squeeze. "Such a pretty girl, and so like your mother," she smiled, her Scottish accent lending the words a lilting quality. "And such a handsome man you married. I have been told we are on a strict schedule for today's meal, but I was wondering if you could help me upstairs after?"

From the expression in her great-grandmother's eyes, Nancy had a feeling that wasn't all she was asking, but she nodded anyway. "I'd love to, Great-Grandmother."

"So you have a busy day tomorrow?" Carson asked, once they had settled down at the table. Hannah had given him the electric carving knife, and he stood over it with his shirtsleeves rolled up, smiling as he looked over at his son-in-law.

Considering his remark earlier, Nancy wondered if the sight of Carson with a knife in his hand was giving Ned any sense of trepidation. She smirked when he swallowed his sip of punch. "Yes, sir," he answered with a nod. "We're having lunch with my grandparents, on my father's side, and then we'll be stopping by to see my mother's family on the way back in tomorrow night."

"How much are you going to have to drive?" Eloise asked, spooning some stuffing onto her plate before she passed the bowl.

"Two hours there and two hours back," Nancy volunteered, glancing over at her husband. "Although we'll be riding with Ned's parents."

"Sounds lovely," Lady Douglas said. "And I see that yet again Mrs. Gruen has entirely outdone herself. This is surely a gorgeous spread, my dear."

Hannah smiled broadly. "Thank you so much, Lady Douglas."

Nancy took a small spoonful of almost everything, but her plate was still overflowing by the time everything had been passed around. Green bean casserole, stuffing, cranberry sauce, corn, mashed potatoes, turkey, and even a small slice of ham were on her plate; Ned had also managed to get a serving of macaroni salad and pineapple and cheese casserole onto his plate.

After the meal they were all groaning, lethargic, and deeply complimentary of Hannah's cooking. Nancy kept her eye on Lady Douglas, though, and after they had all recovered enough to stagger the few feet into the living room, her great-grandmother's eyes met hers.

The older woman only barely held Nancy's hand as they slowly made their way up the stairs, to the guest room, and Nancy felt amazed at how strong she still was all over again. When they were in the room Lady Douglas sat down on the bed with a little sigh, giving Nancy a smile. "Thank you, dear. Now, if you would, that small box on the dresser...?"

Nancy picked it up and brought it over to her. The box was lovely, made of carved wood. Lady Douglas lifted the clasp and slowly raised the lid.

"While I do try to be optimistic," Lady Douglas said, a sparkle in her eye, "my doctor has told me it's most likely best if this is my last trip to the States. And I do hate that this may be the last time I'm able to see you."

Nancy reached over and gave her great-grandmother a gentle hug. "Oh, you know this won't be the last time. Ned and I would be happy to come visit you at your house if you wanted."

Lady Douglas smiled. "Oh, but I'm sure you young people would much rather spend your time sightseeing than being bored at my estate. Unless, of course, I happen to misplace another priceless family heirloom..."

Nancy smiled at the reminder of her visit to Douglas House. "I can make an exception," she told Lady Douglas, with a smile.

"In any event, my dear... I don't wish to leave such things until I no longer have the time," she admitted, and from the box she produced a square of their clan's dress tartan. When she unfolded it, Nancy's eyes widened. A round silver brooch, the delicate strands twisted into the shape of a large tree with amethyst-studded leaves, rested in the middle of the tartan, along with two gold rings, one a cameo, one a moonstone.

"Oh, no, I couldn't," Nancy said, when it was offered to her.

"My dear, the prerogative of advanced age is knowing you cannot be refused," Lady Douglas said, her eyes twinkling. "These are for you, love. I know they are old-fashioned, but as I have been told time and time again, such things do occasionally come back into style."

And Bess would absolutely kill her for that moonstone ring, Nancy knew. She reluctantly accepted the gift. "Thank you so much."

"The cameo is of your... hmm. Great-great-great grandmother. I wore it sometimes after my mother died; it made me feel closer to her. And if you have a daughter, perhaps she might wear it someday."

Nancy's eyes gleamed faintly. "Yes," she agreed softly. "Oh, thank you so much."

They went back downstairs in time for Hannah to serve the pies, and Nancy curled up with Ned after they ate, his arm around her shoulders, and snuggled up against him. She felt utterly content, and full to bursting. For a moment she dreamily considered pulling Ned upstairs with her just so they could curl up together on her old bed, safe in each other's arms.

Trent had promised that he wouldn't call her in unless he had any emergencies, and so they had the next week off; they hadn't been able to spend so much time together without work getting in the way since their honeymoon, and Nancy was definitely looking forward to a lot more morning sex. And afternoon and evening sex.

She caught Ned's hand flirting with the hem of her sweater and pulled back, shooting him a significant glance. She was sure her great-grandmother wouldn't appreciate seeing him trying to feel her up, although the prospect of taking him upstairs was becoming far more appealing.

"I think I'm gonna get some cider. You want some?"

Ned nodded, pushing himself up off the couch. "I'll come with you."

Nancy had just drawn him a mug of cider when Ned stroked his hand down her side, then gently turned her so she was facing him. She made a soft noise when he leaned down and kissed her, their bodies tight together as he pressed her against the counter, her fingertips catching his collar as she returned the kiss.

When Ned broke the kiss Nancy was suddenly convinced that her father was in the room. She was still a little startled when she turned her head and he actually was standing there. Half the time, that awareness was just her paranoia.

Ned cleared his throat, immediately stepping back. "Sorry, sir," he said quickly.

Carson shook his head, the barest suggestion of a smile on his lips. "It wouldn't be Christmas if I didn't catch you two making out," he said ruefully. "I just wanted to talk to you both for a minute. In my study?"

Nancy and Ned exchanged a glance before they followed him. Carson had caught them together pretty much every time Ned had come over for the holidays, either at Thanksgiving or Christmas, on the front porch or in the backyard, on the stairs or in the kitchen. The first time, when she had been fifteen and Ned sixteen, her father had given her a very long talk about appropriate behavior and saying no and deciding when she was ready; it hadn't been quite as mortifying as the sex talk he had had with her a few years earlier, but it had still been pretty fucking terrible. Nancy had barely been able to look at Ned for the first five minutes of the next date they'd had.

"Close the door," Carson said pleasantly when Nancy and Ned came into his study. They took their seats and Nancy took her husband's hand, trying to comfort him. Ned had always been a little bit in awe of her father, and especially since he had just caught them making out again, she knew Ned was probably uncomfortable as hell.

Or, she considered, Ned had just been continuing that long, dubious tradition of interrupted kisses.

"Are you two doing okay?"

Nancy and Ned glanced at each other. "Um," she said slowly. "Yes...? What do you mean?"

"Well, I know that for all intents and purposes the two of you were living together for a significant period of time before you were married, but moving into a new place, all the expenses involved, can be hard."

Nancy flushed just a little. Her father wasn't pointing it out to chastise them about it; she was very familiar with his disapproving voice. Even so, she knew he hadn't been happy about their de facto cohabitation.

"Plus, Nancy, you were telling me the Mustang was acting up."

Ned glanced over at her, as she shrugged. "It's okay. We got it fixed."

"It's been a good car for you." Carson steepled his fingers. "And given the level of responsibility you've displayed since Wilder... I've been wondering what to give the two of you for Christmas, and I'm willing to take you—both of you—to a dealership and make a down payment on a new car, if that's something you would be interested in doing. Maybe something with four doors instead of two?"

Nancy caught the faintest implication and found herself blushing again. When she didn't say anything, Ned cleared his throat.

"While I—we, while we definitely appreciate the offer..." Ned glanced over at her, raising his eyebrows a little. Nancy tilted her head.

Then she turned back to her father. "You mean as a short-term interest-accumulating loan?"

Carson chuckled. "No, Nan. Free and clear. Like I said, you, both of you, have been very responsible, and I'm very impressed that you haven't given in to the impulse to live above your means, at least not that I've seen. This would be a gift. If you want it."

Ned squeezed her hand, and Nancy bit her lip. "Well, we have been budgeting for a new car," she admitted. "A new-er car, anyway. But, if we said no...?"

"Then we can talk about other options," Carson said. "Or I could just put it aside in a savings account for my potential grandchildren."

Nancy blew out her breath in a silent sigh. "Thank you," she said. "That's really amazing. Can we just have some time to talk about it?"

Carson nodded. "Of course," he said, standing up. "Now, I think I'm in the mood for some cider... and maybe just a sliver of pie."

Hannah had turned the television to a classic Christmas movie, and while Carson, Eloise, Seth and Hannah held a murmured conversation, with Lady Douglas occasionally interjecting, Nancy and Ned cuddled up on the loveseat again, lost in their own thoughts. The movie was half over when Nancy happened to glance at the back patio windows.

She sat up a little straighter, stifling a curse. "Hmm. It's really coming down," she said softly, glancing over at Ned.

He pushed himself up, then went to the front window. "Yeah," he murmured, "and it looks like the plows haven't quite made it out here yet."

Carson and Hannah glanced up in concern. "What do you want to do?" Hannah asked, raising her eyebrows. "If the roads are too terrible, your old room is free..."

Nancy shook her head. "No, no. It's okay. But we probably should get on the road, as much as I hate to leave." She stood and stretched, smoothing her sweater over her stomach.

Hannah rose from her comfortable chair, bustling toward the kitchen. "Let me pack you up some food for you to take with you," she said firmly.

"Hannah, really," Nancy began, following her.

"No buts! We won't be able to eat all this, you know that," Hannah insisted, pulling containerized leftovers out of the refrigerator. "I'll have this ready in a jiffy."

Twenty minutes and several sets of hugs later, Nancy was in the passenger seat of Ned's car, shivering as the air conditioning fought the chill in the wintry air, watching Ned scrape snow off the windshield. He was shivering too when he swung into the car, wincing as he folded his fingers around the steering wheel.

"You think we'll be okay?"

Ned nodded. "Yeah, we'll be okay; might be slower than usual, but at least it's not ice. Why, did you really want to stay over?"

Nancy shook her head. "I want our bed," she told him. "And if you get the crazy idea to wake me up by going down on me or whatever, I don't want to have to scream into the pillow."

Ned chuckled. "That a suggestion, sweetheart?"

"Not a suggestion," she teased him. "Just... I don't know. A thought."

They both tensed up when the car fishtailed a little, and Ned took his foot off the gas. "Little slower," he muttered. "Well, shit. I bet you anything my mother's going to call tonight and say we need to get on the road an hour early."

"Well, if it's like this tomorrow, that might not be the worst idea." Nancy finally felt warm enough to start working her gloves off her thawing fingers. "Ned, what Dad was saying... do you want to do that?"

"Honestly? No," he replied. "I don't."

"Why?"

She asked it neutrally, without either judgement or relief in her voice, and Ned glanced over at her. "Because I... I kind of feel like it's a test, for one thing?"

"A test?" Nancy wrinkled her brow. "Dad's not like that."

"I'm not saying he means it to be. It's just... with everything he was saying, if we had jumped at the opportunity, I think he would have seen that as a sign that we aren't doing well."

"Well, we didn't expect to replace the damn transmission on the car," she pointed out. "That was awful."

Ned nodded. "But my car works, and we use the El in the city most of the time anyway," he pointed out.

"But... I mean, he bought me the car. You think he shouldn't have done that?"

Ned chuckled. "Okay, devil's advocate—I should know better than to even start talking about this kind of thing with you. When you were eighteen and he bought you the Mustang, he was your dad. But now..."

"Now I'm your wife and it's not okay?"

"Now we're a couple," he corrected her, "and our vows were about us, not about what your dad was going to do for us. Would it be fucking sweet if he would basically buy you a new car? Hell yeah, Nan. But I just... I don't know, I don't want to set the precedent."

She chuckled at his use of the legal term. "Well, you did buy your first car by yourself."

"Well, Dad basically insisted on it," Ned reminded her. "And I loved that car. Nail polish splotches, gold paint, and all."

Nancy laughed. "It was a good car. Not the prettiest in the world..."

Ned nudged her shoulder, smiling. "Anyway, from what he was saying, I half expected him to come out with 'Well, you two are definitely getting a minivan, since I'm sure you'll need one soon...'"

"Well, Great-Grandmother was having pretty much the same thoughts," Nancy admitted, telling Ned about the conversation they'd had.

"And here I was glad that everyone had stopped asking when the date was and whether we had cold feet," Ned sighed. "Guess now it's going to be all about when we're going to buckle down and have kids. Maybe we should build a robot baby just to shut them up."

"You read my mind, Nickerson," she laughed at him.

"Besides, it's not like used minivans are even that expensive." Nancy raised her eyebrows. "What? I do look at stuff on the internet that isn't porn."

Nancy shook her head. While she knew that Ned had looked at that kind of thing while they had been dating and engaged, she had told him about a week into their marriage that she found the idea of him looking at other women uncomfortable, and that if he ever needed to see a naked woman, she would almost always be happy to oblige. She hadn't searched his phone or his laptop for any suspicious videos or images, but given how often they were together, she was pretty sure that he was at least trying to keep his word.

She had just found a radio station playing Christmas carols when Ned's cell rang. He groaned. "Can you grab that, honey?" he asked, peering through the windshield at the huge snowflakes blowing against it.

Nancy chuckled when she saw the name on the caller ID. "Hi, Mrs. Nickerson," she answered his phone.

"Nancy! Hi. Merry Christmas Eve."

"Merry Christmas Eve," Nancy replied with a smile. "Ned and I are on the way home from my dad's house; did you and Mr. Nickerson have a good day?"

"It was lovely, but busy. Did your grandmother—no, sorry, your great-grandmother—make it down?"

Nancy and her mother-in-law chatted for a few minutes before Edith finally got around to the reason for her call. "With the way this snow is coming down, James and I were thinking that maybe we should leave an hour early tomorrow."

Nancy grinned in her husband's direction as he muttered at the terrible visibility on the road in front of him. "We were just wondering about that ourselves," she said, and Ned chuckled very quietly to himself.

"Would it be all right with the two of you, then?"

"Well, if the weather is still this bad in the morning..."

"If it's coming down like this all night, we may have to wait," Edith admitted.

"So what if we play it by ear?" Nancy suggested. "We'll get up and get ready and if we all decide to go early, we can just take off. Want me to call when we wake up?"

"I suppose that will work." Edith sighed. "Oh, if it had just held off a few days! I hate not having everything decided."

"It will work out," Nancy reassured Edith. "It will be okay. It's Christmas. And even if we can't make it all the way out to Grandpa Nickerson's house, I'm sure my darling husband will still insist that we can at least make it over to your house."

The roads were somewhat better in their neighborhood, but they still both gave a little sigh of relief when Ned's car was parked in front of their house. "Mind grabbing the leftovers, baby?" Nancy asked, pulling her gloves back on. "I forgot to get some more presents out of my car."

Ned wiggled his eyebrows. "Mmmmm."

She gave him a playful nudge with her shoulder. "For the kids, you pervert."

"Oh. I thought some little satin and lace number you might wear while we were trying to make kids."

Nancy rolled her eyes at him, a little grin on her face, and grabbed a large bag of assorted toys from the trunk of her car while Ned lugged the styrofoam cooler Hannah had insisted on sending with them inside. By the time Nancy came back downstairs with the wrapping paper, tape, and ribbon, her husband had his boots and sweater off, his shirtsleeves rolled up, his feet up on the coffee table, and ESPN on the television.

She laughed at him. "Before I lose you for the rest of the night, you want any dessert? I'm just going to put everything away otherwise."

"Maybe in a little while," he said. "Do we have any beer?"

She rolled her eyes and pulled one out of the refrigerator for him, uncapping it on the way. She put it down on a coaster and when she was passing beside him to go back to the kitchen, Ned caught her wrist in the cage of his fingers. She glanced down at him, one eyebrow raised, and he reached up to cup her cheek, urging her down to him. He kissed her slowly, his tongue teasing hers, and her eyes closed, her heart fluttering. When he broke the kiss her eyelids were heavy, and he was smiling when their gazes met.

"Hey, baby."

"I'll bring you ten more if I keep getting rewarded like that," she murmured, and they both laughed.

Hannah had given Nancy easily a dozen of her special Christmas cookies, sugar cookies decorated with meticulous detail in royal icing, and while Nancy almost hated to eat them, they had always been one of her favorite things about Christmas. She put them where Ned wouldn't find them so she could tuck them into the stockings before morning, then sat down at the table. She had asked Edith the names and ages of all the children expected to be at the Nickerson family gatherings, and while the transmission replacement had blown their budget and made them promise that they would stick to a set price limit for their own gifts, she had set aside a little money and used it to buy all the kids a little something.

In a few Christmases, maybe she would be wrapping presents for their own child.

Nancy was wrapping a floppy miniature rag doll, her head topped in orange yarn hair, when Ned brought his empty beer bottle into the kitchen, dropped it into the recycling bin, then brushed a kiss on the crown of Nancy's head. "I'm gonna get changed," he said. "Need anything?"

Nancy shook her head, giving him a little smile. "Just don't forget to take your boots with you!" she called.

Ned made a face at her. "Yes, sweetheart," he called, sweeping them up.

As soon as Ned had vanished upstairs, Nancy ran lightly over to Ned's stocking, depositing the last gift she had bought for him into it. She had stuck to their agreement—but then she had found a great deal, and it hadn't cost too much, and when it came to Ned, she just couldn't feel bad about spoiling him, not after so much time apart. Then she picked up the remote and found a Christmas movie playing, and when Ned came back downstairs in flannel sleep pants and a henley, he made practically the same face at her again.

"It's Christmas Eve," she told him. "Don't give me Blue Steel, Nickerson."

Ned laughed, sweeping her up and brushing the tip of his nose against hers. "Just trying to see if you're still impervious, Drew."

She finished wrapping the last few children's gifts, loaded them all back into the bag, and put it next to the tree before turning the overhead lights off and snuggling with her husband on the couch. The small lights on the tree reflected off the ornaments, giving that entire side of the room a soft glow, and Nancy felt warm and content. It wasn't their first Christmas together as a couple; it wasn't even their first Christmas living together. Even so, none of the rest of them had felt quite like this one.

Neither of them felt equal to more dessert, but they were halfway through their mugs of hot chocolate when Nancy's cell rang. Nancy, who was sprawled out in her own pajamas, grumbled a little when she moved away from the warmth of her husband's arm, wrapped around her shoulders.

"Merry Christmas Eve!" she answered the phone.

"Merry Christmas Eve," Bess chuckled in answer. "I'm not interrupting anything?"

"Nah. What's up?"

"Just wondering what you were going to wear tomorrow."

Ned stayed on the couch for a few more minutes, then gave Nancy a forehead kiss and nodded toward the stairs. She nodded, giving him a smile, then cuddled into the warmth of his seat on the couch. Bess hadn't been to any of the Nickerson family gatherings and just wanted to make sure she didn't stick out like a sore thumb.

"Nervous?" Nancy asked, running a hand through her hair.

"Mmm. A little," Bess admitted. "I'm just... ugh! I hate feeling so freaked out!"

"Bess, you are a gorgeous, fantastic woman," Nancy said, reaching for her hot chocolate. "And they're going to love you."

"And then what?" Bess asked. "Seriously, Nan... I love my life in New York. I love it. And if... if somehow Terry and I..."

Nancy smiled sadly. "It's hard," she agreed, when Bess trailed off. "But talk to him about it. Ned told me that if I wanted to move to New York and open an agency with the Hardys, we'd talk about it. You don't know what he's going to say—whenever you guys get to the point that you're having that talk."

"Ned actually said that?"

"Yeah," Nancy said, frowning at her cold feet. She pulled the throw off the back of the couch and tossed it over her lower legs.

"Was it recently? I mean... you could move?"

Nancy bit her lip. "We talked about it, when I became licensed," she admitted. "But... no. I don't..." Her throat started closing up at the thought.

Bess sighed. "See, I was kind of hoping you'd say you were, and then you could convince Terry to move too, and..."

Nancy swallowed hard. "Sorry," she whispered.

"Are you okay?"

"I will be," Nancy said. "And as much as I hate that you're so far away most of the time, and I wish you could be happy back here..."

Bess made a soft noise. "Well, I'll probably have some down time in the next few months, if nothing comes of this audition," she said.

The next time Nancy glanced at the clock, she couldn't believe that an hour had passed. She and Bess had coordinated their outfits, talked about everything Bess loved about Terry and Nancy similarly loved about Ned, what they had decided to get them for Christmas, and their jobs. Bess didn't mention the possibility of a move to New York again, but when they hung up, excited at the prospect of seeing each other again the next day, the thought returned to Nancy. She tucked Hannah's cookies into each of their stockings before turning off the lights and heading to bed.

Ned was on his side of the bed, his eyes closed, the lamp still on, a book open and face-down on his chest. While they had put a television set in the guest bedroom, they had agreed not to put one in their own bedroom, and their house was quiet under the low sound of the freezing wind. Nancy smiled at the sight of him, stripping out of her lounging pajamas and into one of Ned's old threadbare t-shirts. She gently took the book off her husband's chest, then reached for the hem of Ned's henley and started pulling it up. Her husband was like a personal electric blanket; he generally slept in his underwear and no matter how cold she was when she went to bed, when she cuddled up against him, she was immediately warmed. Ned made a soft sound when she pulled on his shoulder, then reluctantly sat up, letting her strip his shirt off. He bundled back under the covers with a happy sigh, and Nancy flipped the lamp off before she slipped between the colder sheets, then cuddled against Ned.

"Mmmm," Ned mumbled, nuzzling against her. "Sleep?"

"Yeah. Sleep, baby," she murmured against his chest, and he slipped an arm around her, holding her to him. The peace and love she felt, just after that simple act, was almost enough to make her cry.

She did miss Bess terribly, although it was better now that they were friends again, now that they were able to talk to each other regularly. But just the thought of moving to New York turned her blood cold, and she made a soft sound as her knee slid between Ned's legs, moving until they were practically tangled together, until they were almost as close as they possibly could be. His palm moved against her back and she nestled against him, lulled to sleep by the sound of his heart.

--

"Nan."

It never failed to amuse Ned. When he left the bed before Nancy, even when they had been living together in his basement apartment, on cold mornings she always gravitated to the warmth of his side of the mattress. On Christmas morning he wasn't surprised to see the tangle of her red-gold hair on his pillow instead of hers.

She groaned softly. "Mmm?"

"Merry Christmas, sweetheart."

She opened her eyes, and the smile that lit her face when she saw him standing there broadened into a grin when she saw the cup of coffee in his hand. "Mmmmm. Merry Christmas," she said, slowly sitting up, and Ned's old threadbare shirt swallowed her slender frame. She hummed happily when he handed her the cup.

"Guess Santa found us at our new place," Ned teased her. "And he left a gorgeous woman for me in my bed..."

"That he did," she chuckled, then took a long sip. "And you wouldn't by chance want to make pancakes for me...?"

"Only if I have permission to thoroughly unwrap my present later."

Once they were in their pajamas and downstairs, Nancy opened the front door and looked out. The plows had been out, and the sky was relatively clear. Ned made a batch of pancake batter while she turned on the local news, checking the weather. "Think your mom's still freaking out?"

"Maybe."

"I'll call her."

Once Edith had granted a reprieve, they dug into stacks of hot, buttery, syrup-laden pancakes, and Nancy closed her eyes in rapture at the first bite. "Mmmmmm. God, these are good."

"Thanks, baby." He watched her swirl another bite in a pool of syrup. "So is Bess doing okay?"

Nancy nodded, taking a sip of milk before she answered. "Yeah, just nervous about meeting your family for the first time. She'll be okay, though. I told her to bring her flask."

Ned gave his wife a playful tap on the arm. "Are you saying it takes alcohol to get through a day with my family?"

"It couldn't hurt," she teased him. "Although you did perform admirably well yesterday, Nickerson. And I'm pretty sure you were sober the whole time."

Ned had to finish up the rest of Nancy's pancakes once she declared herself full. He had rinsed the plates and put them in the dishwasher when Nancy rose and stretched, yawning, her henley shirt clinging to her breasts, and Ned found himself arrested by the sight. She had a small smirk on her face when his gaze rose to meet hers again.

"I know we're waiting until tonight to open presents, but I thought we might look at our stockings now."

Ned came over to her, sweeping her into his arms, and she giggled when he nuzzled against her neck, her back to his front. "And I thought this was all the present I was getting this year," he growled against her ear, slipping one hand down to cup the join of her thighs. She shivered against him, letting out a little sigh.

Then he put her down and she turned, slipping her arms around his shoulders and giving him a brief, hard hug. "You deserve so much, baby," she told him. "So much. You are the sweetest, most amazing guy I've ever known, Ned, and every morning when I wake up and see you beside me, I can't believe how lucky I am."

He cupped her cheek, shaking his head. "I'm nothing special," he told her. "But if I could, Nan, I would give you the world."

She drew her fingertips down the back of his neck, pulling him down to her, and when he boosted her in his arms their lips met, and she tasted so sweet. He placed her on the arm of the couch and she wrapped her legs around his waist, his fingertips slipping under the shirt and tracing slow circles over the small of her back as their mouths met, over and over.

Nancy's eyes were low-lidded when he pulled back, and she swept her hair out of her face, still panting faintly. Her legs loosened around him to release him, and he brought over their stockings, handing hers to her.

The cookies, still bagged, were the first item Ned found in his stocking, and he patted his belly in anticipation. Nancy chuckled, but her eyes were still on his face as he reached down. He pulled out a game, clearly used, and his eyes lit up.

She was immediately apologetic. "I know we said how much we were going to spend but I found it used for cheap, and, I'm sorry—"

He cut her off with a kiss. "Babe, as long as it works, I couldn't care less," he told her. "Thank you so much, sweetheart."

She gave him a small smile. "I'm so glad you like it."

He nodded at her stocking. "Your turn."

She pulled the cookies out with a smile. When her fingers encountered the small box in the heel of the stocking, she glanced up at him, her eyes wide.

"Besides, I can't be mad at you when I did the same thing."

She pulled the box out of the stocking, shaking her head at him, but a small smile curved her lips. She opened the box, and Ned's gaze was on her face as she looked down at it.

"Oh, Ned, it's beautiful."

"Turn it over," he said softly.

The gold heart pendant was set with a small blue stone the color of his wife's eyes. He'd had the back engraved. Above their wedding date were the words you will always have my heart.

Nancy's eyes were gleaming when she glanced up at him, and she launched herself into his arms, wrapping herself around him. "And I just got you a stupid game... Oh, Ned, I... Thank you."

He smiled as she nuzzled against his neck. "The game is great, sweetheart. I'm just glad I could make you happy."

She drew in a shuddering breath. "All you have to do is hold me and you make me the happiest I think I've ever been," she admitted softly. "But oh, sweetheart, I do love it. I'll wear it today."

"Maybe you could model it for me now," he murmured. "After all, we do have a little bit of time to kill... and I think you promised I could unwrap the best present of all."

She slipped the necklace over her head before he carried her upstairs, her arms up around his shoulders. Her lips brushed his and before he realized it, he was pressing her against the wall just beside their bedroom door, their lips meeting in harder and harder kisses. She let out a soft moan when he nipped at her lower lip, and then she arched, pressing the join of her thighs directly against his hardening cock.

He made a soft sound, dipping his head to suck at her neck as he shouldered into their room, and she squealed, squirming against him. He tightened his grip, though, and when he lowered her onto the bed he was still sucking his way down her neck, not holding on quite long enough to leave the lingering bruise of hickeys on her pale skin. She bucked as he flicked his tongue over her windpipe, as he kept her caged beneath him and unfastened the tiny buttons at the neckline of her shirt. He trailed his mouth down to the lowest point the opening would let him reach, then growled and pulled her shirt up so he could bury his face between her naked breasts.

"Mmmm," she moaned, running her fingers through his hair. "Oh, baby, please."

He pulled her nipple into his mouth, suckling against it while he fondled the other, until she was grinding against him, and then he switched off. She arched under him so she could pull her top off, and when she settled back down under him, he drew his unoccupied hand ticklish-light down her side, down to the band of her flannel pants.

"Mmmm," she groaned again, this time in frustration. She took a handful of his shirt in her fist and began to tug at it, pulling it up. He moved back to let her take it off him, then ran a hand through his undoubtedly mussed hair, just gazing down at his wife.

His wife. His best friend, the woman he had never thought in a million years would truly be his, and yet she was.

She smiled up at him, reaching up to cup his cheek. "Make love to me, Ned."

"Every day we can for the rest of our lives, baby," he murmured, reaching for the band of her pants and sliding them down her legs. She moved to the middle of the bed, her red-gold hair on the pillow, and by the time he had rejoined her, he was naked and she was clad only in her panties and the necklace, her legs open. He cupped his hand over the join of her thighs as he leaned down to kiss her again, his fingertips tracing the slit of her sex through her underwear as his tongue dipped into her mouth. She whimpered, rocking into his touch as she ran her hand through his hair, the other tracing down his back.

He brushed a teasing-light stroke over her clit and she shivered under him, tilting her head so she could suck the side of his neck. He could feel the heat of her through the thin fabric of her underwear, and she was making soft pleading sounds, trailing a hand down his chest until she reached his cock. She stroked her palm gently up and down the underside of his shaft and he pressed his fingers harder against the slit of her sex, and she cried out softly against his skin, rocking harder against him.

Ned let her stroke him a few more times before he began to work his way down, feeling her panties grow damp under his fingertips as he kept teasing her. He reached the join of her thighs and slipped his thumbs beneath the fabric to part her, and she was panting when he nipped at her clit through her panties.

She cried out again, her voice high, pleading. "Oh, oh God," she moaned as he ran his teeth over her, and when he slipped his thumbs under the fabric again, running them up and down the slick edges of the slit of her sex, she tilted her hips back, making those soft pleading sounds that drove him insane. He rubbed his thumb over her clit and she sobbed in pleasure, and when he gently bit her she bucked up under him, her hands fisting in his hair.

"Oh fuck oh fuck please," she begged him, reaching down to push the side of her panties down, and as soon as they were halfway down her hips he ran his tongue against her bare clit and she moaned, gasping. He kept stroking her clit with his thumb as he pulled her panties all the way off and she opened her legs fully again, already panting in anticipation.

He suckled against her clit, stroking her inner lips with his thumbs, and her panted breaths grew louder until she was crying out. She planted her heels against the mattress so she could rock against him, her hand fisting in his hair as she brought the other to her chest, to pinch and stroke her nipples as he went down on her. "Oh God, oh God baby, feels so good," she moaned, gasping when he circled her clit with the tip of his tongue.

Then he ran his tongue down, tasting her arousal, stroking her clit rapidly with his thumb as he traced the opening of her cunt. She arched hard, tensing against him, making desperate pleading noises until he ran the tip of his thumb hard against her clit and she screamed. He lashed his tongue against her and she trembled, her cries growing louder, and he held out until she was jerking against him with the force of her orgasm. Her screams of pleasure made his cock throb hard with need, and he suckled one last time hard against her clit, then pulled back, rubbing the slick nub with his thumb again. Nancy was flushed, arched and glowing, her hand fallen open by her side, her head tipped back as she sobbed in desperation.

"Come here, baby," he growled, and she opened her eyes, pushing herself up. He took her in his arms and stood, turning so the backs of his legs were against the mattress. She slipped her arms around his neck and he parted her legs, watching her face as she planted her heels against the mattress behind him. He angled, letting out a groan when the tip of his cock found the slick heat of her opening, and as soon as he was barely inside her he cupped her ass, shivering when she moaned.

"Oh, Ned," she sighed, shuddering as they moved together, and when the full length of his cock was snug between her thighs she let out a long, delighted moan. "Oh yes, baby, oh God that feels so good..."

He pulled back for the first thrust, holding her hips at the right angle, and she tipped her head back, sobbing as he plunged into her. "Oh fuck yes," she urged him, and when he pulled back again she tightened, rocking as they moved back together.

He had no idea how he held back as long as he did; she was impossibly, gloriously slick around him, and watching her toss her hair, watching her breasts tremble with their every thrust, was one of the hottest things he had ever seen. She hummed and gasped with pleasure until he slipped his hand between them to rub against her clit again.

She sucked in a swift breath, immediately bucking against him. "Oh fuck oh fuck yes yes yesssss!" she urged him on, her inner flesh throbbing against his cock as they slammed together, her cries rising until she was screaming again, her feet sliding further apart. He angled his hips a little and she dug her nails into his back, shuddering with another orgasm, and when he sat down on the bed, still holding her to him, she wrapped herself around him. They rocked together, her fingertips brushing against the nape of his neck as he surged inside her, groaning with pleasure.

She nuzzled against his neck, and when he began to fall backwards she opened her knees, moving with him. He lazily drew his fingertips up and down her spine, panting his breath back.

"That reminds me," she mumbled.

"Oh?"

"We really need to take our neighbors that fruit basket."

Ned chuckled, running his hand over her hair. "True."

--

After their shower, and the hasty delivery of the fruit basket meant to apologize for their being such noisy neighbors, they loaded up the presents and began the trek to Ned's parents' house. Nancy wore a soft dark-green sweaterdress and tall brown boots with the necklace he had given her, her hair pinned back from her face and falling in soft waves down her back. Ned wore jeans and a black v-neck sweater over a red shirt.

"You look so damn sexy," Nancy said, tucking her hands underneath her. The car hadn't quite managed to warm up yet, and she was still bundled into her heavy coat.

Ned glanced over at her. "You do," he returned, and they grinned at each other.

Despite Edith's worry, the trip up to James's parents' house was only ten minutes longer than usual. The entire way they listened to Christmas music, and while Ned did pull out his phone to check it a few times—Nancy checked her own phone and found an email asking if a guy she had been investigating had any possible connections in Colombia—for the most part they listened to Edith and James. Nancy knew Ned loved spending time with his parents, that he wished he was able to see them more often, but by the time they reached his grandparents' house, both Nancy and Ned were more than ready to stretch their legs and eat.

"I talked to Pamela a few days ago," Edith said, as she and Nancy sorted through the presents, with James and Ned waiting patiently to carry them inside. Pamela was Ned's aunt, and Terry's mother. "She's so looking forward to meeting Bess. I'm sure Pam will love her."

Nancy smiled. "I really do hope so," she said, handing the bag of presents to Ned. Despite her misgivings, Bess really did seem to care about Ned's cousin, and Nancy hoped the distance wouldn't prove an insurmountable obstacle.

James's parents lived in a large farmhouse beside a creek, and the land all around was covered in vast smooth drifts of unbroken snow, the tree branches heavy with it. Nancy had visited the place with Ned when she had still been in high school, and his grandparents had been warm and inviting to her. Ned bore a strong resemblance to both his father and grandfather, and Nancy was sure that if she did have a son, that son would have the strong Nickerson jaw, their kind beautiful eyes, their even temper.

From all the cars and minivans already parked along the wide gravel driveway, Nancy knew the house would be crowded, and it was. Toddlers and children were whining to their mothers and calling to each other, ducking around the adults' legs. Ned's cousins Terry, Jessica, Diana, Jack and Elaine waved in greeting when they saw Ned and Nancy. She had come the previous year as Ned's fiancée, and almost everyone at the farmhouse had been there to see her become Ned's wife that summer.

Bess waved from the floor. Nancy couldn't quite remember which child belonged to which cousin—some of the older children had been outside making snow angels and building a snowman, under Ned's uncle Robert's watchful gaze. A chubby redheaded boy with bright brown eyes, a dark-haired girl with a red-and-white-striped headband and a thumb wedged firmly in her mouth, and Anna, Elaine and Jeremy's adopted daughter, were climbing all over Bess. Nancy took pity and lifted the boy into her arms, seating him firmly on her hip as Anna mumbled something about juice.

"Hey Bess," Nancy said with a grin as her friend stood and embraced her. Bess wore a soft pale-blue tunic-length mohair sweater over a pair of dark skinny jeans, the fabric molded tight to her slender legs. A pair of tall slouchy boots and a natural-colored scarf completed her outfit. She looked incredibly glamorous, especially once she wasn't covered in toddlers.

"Nan! I thought you'd never get here." Bess swept her hair out of her face, glancing over, and Terry glanced up to meet her gaze almost immediately. Terry was only an inch or so taller than Bess when she was in such high heels, but otherwise he and Ned looked similar enough to be brothers. He came over to greet Nancy with a hug, and Ned, who had stashed the presents behind the tree, joined them.

"Merry Christmas!"

"Merry Christmas," Ned said cheerfully, hugging his cousin. "I'm glad the roads weren't bad enough to keep us in Chicago."

Terry and Diana weren't married yet, but Jessica, Jack and Elaine all were—and they had all had children already. Diane had brought a boyfriend this year, possibly just so all the aunts and uncles would stop teasingly asking when she was going to take her nose out of a book long enough to meet someone.

Grandma Nickerson always insisted on making the entire Christmas dinner herself, and while Nancy had insisted it would be no trouble at all to bring something over, Edith had just smiled and shaken her head. For as long as Edith had been married to James, the enormous feast had been a one-woman affair. The snacks were provided by Ned's aunts and uncles; platters covered in crackers, dip, and vegetable sticks stood on coffee tables. Clusters of family photographs hung on the living room walls, and when Nancy went over to James and Edith's cluster, she saw photos of Ned—and a photo of all four of them at the wedding, Nancy and Ned, James and Edith.

She was with them, now, immortalized as a member of the family. She felt somehow more legitimate.

Lunch was an insane affair. Grandpa Nickerson gave the blessing and the group descended upon the dishes set on the kitchen counters, the island, the stove. The grandparents and their children and spouses ate in the dining room; Nancy and Ned, Bess and Terry, and Diana and her boyfriend, whom she introduced as Will, ate in the kitchen, while the great-grandchildren and their parents were relegated to tray tables and another spare buffet table in the living room. Every five minutes conversation was interrupted by the frustrated wail of a child, or a small stampede of toddlers, or an impassioned demand for juice or cookies.

"Best argument for birth control I've ever seen," Diana said with a shake of her head. "God, I don't see how they do it. Jess doesn't look like she's slept in a month."

Bess shrugged. "I'm sure they're easier to take in small doses," she said. "All together they just keep trying to one-up each other."

Terry's eyes twinkled as he looked over at Ned. "Remember when we were seven and Jack almost got us to jump off the loft?"

Ned shook his head. "And Grandpa would have murdered whatever was left of us," he said. "Good thing Elaine tattled on him before we made it all the way up."

Nancy was mindful of the enormous meal she had eaten the day before, and had taken just enough of everything to be polite without overloading her plate. Bess, Nancy noted, had taken only a few pieces of meat, vegetables and salad; she had left the stuffing, rolls, syrup-sweet yams and corn behind. Nancy supposed that her friend had to keep herself trim for her career, but she couldn't help remembering the rapture that had crossed Bess's face whenever she used to dig into a slice of chocolate-topped cheesecake, or a hot fudge sundae.

The aunts took over the kitchen once everyone was groaningly stuffed and satisfied. Nancy found Bess helping gather dirty plates and nudged her, motioning to follow her out to the porch.

Outside, while the laughter and conversations were still barely audible, at least they could actually hear themselves think again. "So how are you doing?" Nancy asked.

Bess tightened the scarf around her neck with a little smile. "Pretty good. It's been a while since I've been around a guy and only wanted to just stare at him..." She sighed softly. "It feels good, and scary."

Nancy nodded. "And he is d—darn handsome," she said, mindful that children could interrupt them at any time. "Almost as handsome as Ned." She chuckled. "And I always thought you'd fall for some hunk in New York and that would be it."

Bess shrugged. "I don't know... they're different there, and Terry... he's so, just, genuinely good, you know?" She made a helpless gesture. "When I'm around him... I just feel loved, and like I'm so damn unworthy of it all. He looks at me and I feel so happy it scares me, a little."

"I know what you mean," Nancy said. "But the day you stop feeling scared?" She shook her head slowly. The words were so hard to say, even when she was only talking to Ned. "Oh God, Bess, I—I made so many mistakes, so many, and I was so miserable, and it took me so damn long to find the strength to ask him to forgive me, to even believe I deserved to be happy. And from everything I know about him Terry could be that guy for you, and you deserve that too." She poked Bess's hip. "Even though you're getting so thin I'm worried about you."

Bess glanced up into Nancy's eyes. "It's not..." She shook her head, and she didn't have to say any more. From their senior year of high school Bess had been on the verge of an eating disorder, and when Nancy and George had confronted her over it, telling her they were worried enough about her to take her to the hospital and have her put on IVs if that was what it took, they had all ended up crying and apologizing.

"It's just work—I'm so busy all the time and... I don't know, after so long, it just feels good to finally be thin." Bess shrugged. "But I am eating, I swear. At least two meals a day. And I'm not... obsessing over it anymore." She smiled at Nancy. "I even talked Terry into stopping last night so we could get some sugar-free fudge before the stores closed."

"And how did last night go?" Nancy wiggled her eyebrows at Bess. After so long away from Terry, Bess had planned to give him an evening to remember.

Bess giggled and bumped her shoulder against Nancy's. "It was great. And once he sees what I brought for tonight..."

"Mmm." Nancy nodded. "You and me both."

"What who brought for what?"

Bess and Nancy turned to find Ned and Terry behind them. Ned was smirking, his arms crossed, while Terry was beaming. "Bad boys don't get visits from Santa," Nancy chastised her husband, slipping her arms around his neck. "Eavesdropping, Nickerson?"

"Well, since you taught me to do it..." Ned leaned down and nipped gently at his wife's earlobe. "Maybe I should take you home and bend you over my knee," he whispered directly into her ear.

Nancy shivered, pulling back to regard him with a mock-grave expression. "Maybe you should," she said solemnly.

Bess and Terry were laughing. "Uncle Rob really is looking more and more like Santa every year, isn't he," Terry said, shaking his head.

"Definitely more than he did when we were little," Ned agreed, giving Nancy a squeeze before he released her.

Rob came in fifteen minutes later, dressed in an elaborate Santa suit complete with a huge white beard and mustache and shiny black boots, and started distributing presents for the children. Soon the floor was papered in gift wrap and the room was full of exuberant screaming, growls and tinny music and chiming, the rasp of superhero voices and the clatter of blocks hitting the floor. Diana, Nancy noticed, was rolling her eyes, but the bright eyes and smiles of the kids made Nancy feel a nascent longing. She took Ned's hand and squeezed it, and he stroked his thumb along her hand, a small smile on his face.

Nancy and Ned made time to talk to his grandparents before they left, and both of them were wrapped in warm hugs. Grandma Nickerson insisted that they take some leftovers home. Edith had been through the drill before; she had brought a cooler along.

"We really should get together and go out," Nancy told Bess as she and Ned shrugged into their coats. "We can even bring the guys, if you want, maybe meet up with George?"

"I'll be seeing George tonight, at the big family thing," Bess admitted, sweeping her hair out of her face. "I swear, I thought my family was big, until today. And I'm pretty well booked up for the rest of the time I'm here. But next time definitely, okay? And if something opens up I'll definitely let you know."

Nancy nodded with a little chuckle as she gave Bess a farewell hug. "Just give me an hour's warning so I can peel Ned off me and take a shower," she joked.

Bess rolled her eyes as she returned the hug. "You two are supposed to be fighting all the time," Bess chastised her. "First year of marriage, remember?"

"Most of the time we skip the fighting and just make up," Nancy laughed. "Besides, I think we got all of it out of our system before we ever got married."

Bess shook her head. "Well, since you've got it figured out, Drew, what's the secret?"

Nancy shrugged. "Wake up every morning grateful to be alive," she said softly. "Knowing how close you were to never finding this kind of happiness."

Bess smiled at her, giving her another small hug. "I'm so glad you did, Nan."

An hour into the car ride, lulled by the carols and the soft conversation in the front seat, Nancy had half-fallen asleep on her husband's shoulder, his arm around her, when he gently brushed his lips against her forehead.

"Mmm?"

"Mom," he said softly in explanation, and Nancy straightened, blinking.

"James and I have been wondering what to give you two for Christmas," Edith began, and Nancy glanced over at Ned, a smile curving her lips. "Is there anything you need?"

"Not really," Ned admitted, his fingers gently stroking the top of Nancy's arm. "We're doing pretty well, honestly."

"Well, given how much you two like it..." Edith began.

"We were thinking we could give you the keys to the lake house for the year, as your present," James finished. "I have another rental property down there we can use if we need it. And that way you two can just take a little break whenever you need one."

Nancy grinned. "That sounds amazing," she said. "You've been so generous, letting us use it..."

"Well, we would have done it at your wedding, but I really wanted to give you the china," Edith admitted. "And it's such a gorgeous pattern... anyway."

"That does sound amazing," Ned chimed in. "Really. I can't wait to get down there again."

Nancy turned to brush her lips against Ned's ear. "And I can't wait for you to get down there again either," she murmured, her voice just loud enough for him to hear, giggling when he began to tickle her ribs.

Their last stop of the night was at Grandma and Grandpa Chandler's house. The children were, thankfully, tuckered out, crashed from their sugar highs, and the guys were talking over the football game in the living room while the women were gathered around the dining room table, gossiping and playing cards. Nancy greeted Laurel and Evan, and Ned's other cousins, Sharon and Thomas and Margaret and their spouses. Laurel was overjoyed to see Nancy, and told her that she looked like she had a glow about her.

"Are you...?" Laurel made a vague gesture.

Nancy glanced over at her husband, who was talking to Evan. She chuckled when she saw that he had already managed to snag a beer. "Not yet," she said. "We're going to be waiting a while, I think; where we're living right now..." She shrugged. "I can imagine we might move closer to Ned's parents or my dad if I get pregnant. Get a little house in the suburbs. Minivan and all of it."

Laurel smiled at her. "I made Evan promise me one thing: no minivan. Station wagon, maybe; SUV, maybe. But minivan?" She gave an exaggerated shudder. "And not that you wouldn't be welcome regardless, but we'd love to have you two visit again sometime."

Nancy remembered the other visit she and Ned had made to Laurel and Evan, when she was eighteen, with a little shudder. They had been going through a rough patch, a rough patch with a name she didn't even want to think about anymore. "We'd love to."

"And this time I'll make Evan swear not to pull you into a murder mystery," Laurel promised.

"Ned would hardly know what to do with himself if we boarded a plane and didn't find a mystery on the other side," Nancy chuckled.

Another two hours had passed by the time Ned keyed into their front door, and they walked inside, burdened with leftovers from both sets of grandparents, plus a dessert Edith had insisted they take home. Ned immediately cranked the heat up, turned the television on, and began to tug his boots off, while Nancy rolled her eyes and began to put the leftovers away.

"Need any help, babe?"

Nancy chuckled. "No, sweetheart. Put your feet up and I'll have a beer out in a minute."

"Can I have milk instead?"

Nancy staggered to the archway between the kitchen and living room, her eyes wide in exaggerated shock. "Who the hell did I bring home? Because certainly no husband of mine would ever turn down a beer."

Ned held up his hand, and Nancy chuckled when she saw one of Hannah's sugar cookies in it. "Just thought it might not go with this," he said, his voice muffled by a bite.

Nancy laughed, and as soon as she had rearranged enough of the refrigerator to accommodate all the leftovers, she poured them both glasses of milk and brought them over to the couch. Nancy was only able to eat one cookie before she couldn't bear the thought of another bite of anything. She worked her boots off, wiggling her toes and sighing with happiness once they were off, and Ned pulled his sweater off.

"Ready to open presents?"

Ned glanced over, wiggling his eyebrows. "That an invitation, Drew?"

"I think I've been unwrapped once today already, sir," she teased him, fluttering her lashes. "Although I do seem to be dressed again... maybe you could do something about that."

He gave her a soft kiss before he went over to the tree, coming back to the coffee table with the few boxes they had wrapped for each other. For Ned, Nancy had bought a charcoal-grey sweater fine enough for him to wear to a work event and a bottle of cologne. For Nancy, Ned had bought a reinforced vest with a dozen pockets to use in her work, the kind she had been lusting over since her last one had practically worn out, and a sheer lace nightie. She was chuckling when she glanced from the lingerie to her husband.

He had a carefully innocent look on his face. "You said it was okay."

She shook her head. "Baby, if you want me naked, all you have to do is ask."

Ned smiled. "I like it better when I get to help."

She picked up the box, leaning over to give Ned another kiss. "Well then, I'll be right back," she whispered against his lips.

He reached up to cup her cheek, stroking his thumb over her skin. "Thank you so much for my presents, baby."

She smiled. "Thank you for mine," she replied.

"You want me to meet you upstairs?"

She shook her head. "I'm not quite ready to go to bed yet." She chuckled when he gave her a small frown. "I said bed, honey, calm down."

Ned patted the couch cushion beside him fondly. "You know, I think we've had almost as much sex on this thing as we have in our bed," he chuckled.

Nancy had one present left to give her husband, but she hadn't quite found the nerve to do it yet. And yet, she thought to herself, she had no problem putting on the few scraps of lace and satin passing for an outfit and parading in front of her husband in it. She hastily stripped, took her makeup off, and pulled on the top, chuckling when she found the whisper-thin excuse for a g-string that came with it.

She was halfway down the stairs, her lips barely parted, about to call out something to him, when she glanced over, and her heart stopped for a second.

He had found it. He had found the present where she had left it, tucked in the shadows under the tree. He was holding it in his hands, and then he glanced up at her, his eyebrows raised.

She swallowed. "You can open it," she said softly, in response to his unspoken question.

He waited for her to finish walking down the stairs, and she walked over to the couch on bare feet, her steps light. The lingerie hid absolutely nothing, and tied with a satin bow just below her breasts. It was so short that a strip of bare skin was visible between it and the g-string. She sat down beside him, her heart beating hard as he began to rip open the paper.

"You look so gorgeous, sweetheart," he told her.

She gave him a nervous smile. "Thanks, baby."

The book he unwrapped was old, the endpapers speckled and browned with age. It had taken Nancy a while to track a copy of it down, and her heart had been in her throat the entire time she had been writing the inscription.

To my husband, with all my love—these are all the words I could never find.

Nancy

She swallowed hard again when she watched him read it. "My dad gave my mom a copy of this book when they were dating," she said softly. "She kept the letters he wrote to her in it, and a few years ago, he gave it to me, with the letters she wrote to him." A lump rose in her throat, and she heard her voice start quivering a little. "It's one of the only things I have, of hers."

Nancy reached for their empty milk glasses and saucers and took them quickly into the kitchen, her sight blurring with tears. On nights when the wound in her chest had ached and she hadn't been able to sleep, on nights when she had been convinced that she had driven Ned out of her life for good, on nights when she had felt more alone than she had ever felt before, she had flipped through the book, touching the old pages lightly with her fingertips, finding each dogeared love poem and quotation.

Doubt thou the stars are fire;

Doubt that the sun doth move;

Doubt truth to be a liar;

But never doubt I love.

She had read the words and felt such an emptiness inside her, sure that she had found a man who somehow carried a piece of her, a man who could have been everything to her if she had let him, but she had driven him away.

Ned didn't follow her into the kitchen, and she went back into the living room a few minutes later, walking slowly, having wiped the tears off her face.

And he had found it; of course he had. He had found the piece of paper she had tucked into the back of the book.

Every time I try to tell you what you mean to me, Ned, I find that there are no words; you could flip to any page in this book and find it said better, more eloquently than I ever could—but they speak of love, and that is only the beginning of it.

You taught me to love. You did. You taught me that love wasn't being powerless; love could make me powerful. You taught me that depending on the right person didn't make me weak; it made me a hundred times stronger. You taught me that love, true love, allowed no room for fear.

Every morning, every evening, every time I see your face, I fall a little more in love with you, and the farther I fall, the farther I find myself from the nightmare that my life was without you. I know in my heart that the reason I survived what happened to me was to have this life with you, Ned. I know that I could have managed to go on if you had told me you never wanted to see me again, but I would have lost a part of myself forever, the better part of me. You are the best part of me.

I have been thankful for every single second I've had with you, and when we swore the rest of our lives to each other, I had always thought it would feel like dying, but when you put the wedding ring on my finger, I felt like I was finally free. You had given me back a piece of myself that I had convinced myself I didn't even deserve to have anymore.

I would give you everything if I could, because you have given me everything. The moment you became my husband, you gave me more than I had ever dreamed, and no matter what happens, for as long as you're beside me, I can get through anything.

Every hour, every moment, every single second of every single day, never doubt that I love you. Doubt anything else but never doubt that I love you, that for as long as I exist I am yours.

Nancy

Ned gently ran his thumb over the edge of the paper, then carefully folded it and slipped it back into the book. When he glanced over at Nancy, his eyes were gleaming faintly, and a few more tears had streaked down her cheeks. Her gaze was anxious.

He reached for her, pulling her into his arms, and she clung to him, wrapping herself around him as he held her tight. She buried her face against his neck and listened to the echoing beat of his heart, her tears cool against his skin.

"Nan," he whispered. "Oh, sweetheart... that meant so much to me."

She kissed the flesh just below his ear. "I meant every word," she whispered.

He swallowed hard, and she closed her eyes when he nuzzled against her. "Sometimes in my dreams... in my nightmares... you didn't live, but you... you come back to me anyway." His lips brushed her neck and his grip tightened on her, just a little. "You tell me that for as long as I want you, you will never leave, and I know that I will never give you up. And that's when they tell me... that this life I have with you, that everything, all of it, is just a fantasy, that I've never been able to deal with the knowledge that I lost you. They tell me that I have to let you go.

"And then I know, with every fiber of my being, baby, that if I had lost you... that I would never have let you go, never. That the dream of you would mean more to me than anyone else, than any flesh and blood person ever could.

"And when I wake up... I have to touch you, I have to feel you in my arms, have to feel you breathe. I have to feel your heart beating. Because what we have together, Nan, this life I have with you... now that I have it... it's so easy to believe that this could be a dream. You make me happy in a way that no one else on this earth ever has or ever could. And every time I feel your heart beat, every time I feel you warm and alive against me, it's like I can finally breathe again, like I'm not drowning anymore.

"My heart belongs to you, Nan. It always has and it always will."

"Oh, Ned," she whispered, running her palm over his back in a slow circle. "Oh, Ned, I'm so sorry."

"Don't be," he whispered. "You're here, baby, you're alive and you came back to me, and all that matters is that when I wake up, when the dream is over, that that is true."

She didn't know how long they held each other, how long it took for them to stop trembling. She only knew that when her lips brushed his, it felt right. She opened his shirt because she needed to feel his skin against hers, needed to feel his heart beating. His fingertips brushed over her nipples before he untied her gown, and she shrugged it off, leaving her in the tiny g-string, the necklace he had given her still hanging around her neck.

When they were naked and wrapped around each other, he pulled the throw around her and she nestled against him. Every time he held her, especially when they were like this, the love she felt for him was almost terrifying in its intensity. From the first time they had ever made love, she had craved the intimacy of it, she had craved the love she saw in his eyes, the pleasure she had given him, the pleasure he had given her in return. Above that, though, simply lingering in his arms seemed to calm everything in her, every doubt and fear, and all she felt was love. Like she was exactly where she had always belonged.

For as long as she existed, he was her home. Wherever she was, wherever he was, he was her home.

They moved together without a word, but she knew the rhythm of her heartbeat was matched to the throb of his own. They made love slowly, and she ran her hand through his hair, kissed his cheekbones, every rock of their hips punctuated by another brush of her lips against his. By the time he moved between her thighs she was gloriously slick and her lips parted at the feel of him inside her, but she kept her eyes open, her gaze on his face.

He picked her up, pressing her into the corner of the couch so her hips were cradled between the arm and the back, and she propped up her heels, her legs spread wide, a cry escaping her lips when he first slipped into her again. He pressed himself up into her and she rocked down to meet him, her hips rising and falling in counterpoint to his. He ducked his head and she felt his lips move over her skin as they moved together, every atom of her being centered on the feel of him against her.

My love. Oh, my love.

She heard him make a soft frustrated sound over her own panted breath and then he brought himself up, and she wrapped herself tight around him, her legs up and around his waist, her arms up around his shoulders as he moved rapidly inside her. She let out a desperate moan, her nails digging into his back. When she slipped down an inch and his angle changed inside her, she moaned more loudly, clenching hard around him.

Ned panted in response, his hands cupping her ass, holding her so he could rock harder against her. "Oh, Nancy," he groaned. "Oh my God."

"Yes," she cried out. "Yes, oh my God yes, Ned, ohhhhh..."

She buried her face against his neck and sobbed in pleasure, arching to let him press more deeply into her as her climax tightened over her belly, down deep in her center. Ned's lips brushed her hair and she pulled him tighter to her, and they trembled as they came, together, both of them crying out.

Once they could breathe again, Ned sank back down to the couch, Nancy still wrapped around him. She closed her eyes, nestled against him, her lips brushing his neck.

"I love you," Ned whispered softly. "So much."

She tightened her embrace for a moment. "And I love you," she whispered. "I always have, and I always will."

Chapter Text

Ned left his wife in the bathroom putting her makeup on after their shower. The townhouse was chilly in the freezing January morning, and Ned slipped into his undershirt and pants, found a tie and belt. He went back to the bathroom with his button-down shirt open and passed Nancy on the way. She had dried her hair straight, and it fell in a long red-gold curtain down her back, as long as he had ever seen it. He loved the way it looked on her, and he loved catching a handful in his fist and tugging, loved watching it ripple down her back when she rode him.

When he returned from the bathroom, his teeth freshly brushed and facial hair trimmed close, Nancy was dressed in a pair of gray slacks and a v-necked navy sweater, a white button-down shirt underneath, searching for a pair of shoes. When she saw him, though, her eyes widened.

"Okay, seriously, no."

"No?"

Nancy shook her head. "I swear to God if you leave the house looking like that..."

Ned looked down at his outfit. "Does this tie not..."

Nancy came toward him, a soft smile on her face. "Every woman who sees you like this," she murmured, gently drawing her fingertips down the line of his stubbled jaw, "is going to be fantasizing about you... so I can't let you leave the house like this."

"So you like it?" Ned asked with a cocky grin.

"Oh God yes," she murmured. "Baby, I don't understand how I wake up every morning and you're hotter."

Ned reached up and drew his fingers through her hair, chuckling when she let out a soft moan. "And I love your hair this long," he told her. "You look so gorgeous, Nan."

She smiled at him. "I'm glad you like it, baby."

"And I can't wait to get home tonight so I can bury my fingers in it while we fuck," he told her.

"Oh." Nancy stroked a hand over his hip as she headed back to the closet to find her shoes. "Didn't you say you and Mike were getting together tonight?"

"Yeah," Ned replied, pulling the ends of his tie even so he could knot it. "Just for dinner and maybe a few beers with Howie; we shouldn't be out too late. What's up?"

"Oh, nothing. I might be meeting Mel and Jules for some drinks tonight too, but I shouldn't be out too late either, knowing what'll be waiting for me when I get home." She brushed her lips against his cheek in a soft kiss, then ran her thumb over his skin to remove the mark left by her lipstick.

"You bet I will, baby," Ned told her, slipping his arm around her waist to give her a little squeeze.

--

Even though Jules was beyond eager to see Mel again, and even though Nancy could tell she had dressed up specifically for the occasion in a black satin top and skinny jeans, Jules was highly disappointed when she received an emergency call from her parents and had to leave early. They were only on their second round of drinks, splitting a platter of stuffed mushrooms and fried calamari with marinara in lieu of an actual dinner. Nancy watched Jules go, giving her a little wave, the dread she had felt since Mel had texted her a few days earlier rising in her chest.

She should never, never have fucking told Mel about Ned's fantasy. She had known that, but she just hadn't been able to resist telling her. Part of her had just wanted Mel to be outraged on her behalf; she hadn't expected Mel's devilishly wicked streak to come out.

Well, if she was being totally honest, she kind of had. Just a little.

But she had no intention of bringing anyone else into their bed, regardless of their teasing. Early in her relationship with Ned, after their reconciliation, she had been all too painfully aware that there already were other people in their bed, the other women he had slept with, the other men she had slept with, and she had felt almost insane with jealousy when she felt just the slightest suspicion that he might have been thinking about someone else. Especially Jennifer.

It had been a long time, but she still hated the thought of Ned comparing her to someone else. She hated even more the thought of some other woman's hands on her husband, of Ned's hands on someone else; the thought of being with someone other than her own husband made her feel physically ill. Her relationship with Ned was so intense, and she trusted him so much, that jeopardizing what they had in any way would have torn her apart.

Mel finished her second drink and ordered the next round, including Nancy even though she hadn't yet tipped down the last few sips of her martini. Nancy had always been just a little jealous of Mel, her apparent ease, her bright smile, her carefree attitude. She was cynical but she had a sense of humor about it, and she wasn't bitter; Mel was the kind of person who could lift Nancy out of a bad mood with a ten-minute phone call. Nancy was just glad that she hadn't felt such despair in years, but Mel was still a blast to be around. 

Usually, anyway. When Nancy wasn't waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Mel tugged her strapless copper-colored top up a little, then propped her elbow on the table, plucking an orange slice off the top of her drink. "So, you guys have a good Christmas?"

Nancy smiled. "It was great. How was yours?"

"Good," Mel said with a little nod. Then a grin came over her face. "And your husband's doing well?"

Nancy thought again of how incredibly sexy her husband had looked that morning when they had been getting ready, and a slow shiver went down her spine. "He is," Nancy said neutrally.

"Is he home waiting up for you?"

Nancy cast a strict look at Mel. "I doubt it, and if you want to stay over tonight that's one thing, but Mel, that thing I told you... it was stupid, and..."

"What thing?" Mel said, an expression of false innocence on her face. "I don't know what you're talking about."

Nancy shook her head, lifting her drink. "Exactly," she muttered.

Two drinks later, when Nancy was just beginning to think that maybe she should have ordered some dinner to soak up the alcohol in her belly, Mel told the waitress that she'd take the check. "I have an early flight tomorrow, and if you don't mind me using your guest bed...?"

Nancy waved her hand. "No, that's fine," she said with a smile.

Mel tipped back the rest of her last martini. "So you haven't even thought about it...?"

"Mel!" Nancy said, then started giggling as she reached for her chaser.

Mel's face lit up with a grin. "So you have been thinking about it. Come on, Nan, it'll be fun."

Nancy shook her head, swallowing a sip of her diet soda. "No."

"What are you afraid of?"

Nancy was too buzzed to concentrate hard enough to lie. "That you'll take it too far," she admitted. "Hang on. What... what are you talking about doing?"

Mel laughed, her eyes dancing. "Letting Ned think we're into the idea of having a threesome," she spelled out. "And then, if you aren't... I can just duck out."

"And you'd do that," Nancy said skeptically.

"Sure I would. The question is whether you would," Mel replied. "I'd get a hell of a kick out of it. And can you imagine how crazy he'll be with you in bed when you get him that turned on?"

Nancy did have to admit that Ned probably would lose his mind if she even said the word "threesome" while Mel was in the house.

"Come on," Mel said, signing the check with a flourish before she slipped out of her chair, wobbling a little on her stilettos, her long legs shown to advantage under her black leather miniskirt. Nancy looked down at the gray pants and shirt and sweater she had worn to work with a little grimace. Next to Mel, who looked incredibly glamorous, she felt like the opposite.

And Ned would love it.

Nancy sighed as Mel took her hand, guiding her out so they could flag down a cab. At the feel of the cold air on her face, she had enough presence of mind to say, "Well, if we're going to do this, there have to be rules..."

--

When Ned keyed into the townhouse, he was greeted by the sound of female laughter coming from the kitchen. He toed out of his shoes and walked over to the archway between the living room and kitchen, and saw his wife and Mel sitting at the kitchen table, a vodka bottle, four shot glasses, and two red tumblers between them. They both clammed up when they saw him, although Mel's eyes were still dancing when she glanced up at him, her gaze frankly speculative. She looked fantastic, Ned had to admit.

"Nice to see you, Mel," Ned said, then leaned down to kiss his wife on the temple. "And it's great to see you, gorgeous."

Nancy grinned when she cupped his cheek, arching up to brush her lips over his. "Hey baby," she said happily.

"Jules staying over too?"

Nancy shook her head. "She had to leave early," she said. "And Mel's got a flight in the morning."

"Well, I'll leave you two to it."

Mel picked up the vodka bottle. "Oh, come on, Nickerson," she said, nodding at him. "The party doesn't have to end quite yet. Do a shot with us."

Ned already had a buzz before he'd come home. After three more shots with the girls, he was feeling great—and he couldn't help but notice the little glances that were passing back and forth between his wife and Mel. No, no, I'm imagining it, he told himself, tipping back the rest of his chaser before he went to the refrigerator for a refill on it. Hell no. There is no fucking way I'm that lucky.

"Where did you go for dinner?"

Nancy shrugged. "Maggiano's, but we only had appetizers," she said, then burst into giggles. He hadn't seen her this drunk in a while. "Where'd you guys go?"

"Oh, here and there." He poured himself another shot. "We kinda... well, Howie was feeling a little down so we went by the Limited 720..."

Nancy's eyes widened. "Oh, you did?"

"We were only there for twenty minutes. I knew you'd kill me if we stayed longer, but Howie was really happy when Ruby came over and paid him some attention..."

Nancy shook her head. "And if I call Ruby..."

"She'll tell you I was a perfect gentleman," Ned told her, his gaze steady on hers, despite the fact that the room was wobbling slightly around them. "Scout's honor, baby. Because I knew what was waiting for me at home."

"Mmmm," Mel said a moment later, breaking the mood between them; if they had been alone, Ned would already have had his wife on the couch and half-naked. "Okay, one more shot."

The three of them clinked their glasses, and Ned was positive he was at his limit when it went down with almost no taste. He chased it anyway, his head fuzzy and light on his shoulders.

Nancy smacked her palms on the table. "Well, Mel has to borrow something to sleep in, so we're gonna go get ready for bed," she said, and pushed her chair back. "Give us about ten minutes, okay, babe?"

Ned nodded, and even though the euphoria of his buzz, he could see something in her face, in the way she looked at him. She leaned down to give him a kiss, tasting of vodka, rubbing his shoulder with her palm before she and Mel headed for the stairs.

"Good night, Mel," Ned said.

Mel chuckled. "Good night, Ned," she said, her voice low and sultry.

Ned shook his head, gathering their empty cups and the shot glasses, putting the vodka bottle back in the cabinet. Then he flipped on the television for a few minutes, just to catch up on the sports scores.

Mel had to borrow something to sleep in.

Ned shook his head, hard. No. Nope. He wasn't going to think about her and Nancy going through Nancy's lingerie drawer, maybe even stripping naked before they picked out sheer lace nightgowns, getting turned on at the sight of each other...

Ned gritted his teeth when he felt his groin begin to throb in answer. Nancy had made it clear that she wasn't going to indulge that particular fantasy, even though she was game for practically anything else, and while he had halfheartedly told himself that a threesome probably wasn't as awesome as he had always believed it would be, he couldn't really make himself believe it. Nancy hadn't liked him looking at porn, either, but that didn't stop the images in his head, the ones he remembered and the ones he fantasized about.

He might never get that threesome, but at least when he was fantasizing about his wife being involved, it didn't make him feel nearly as guilty as the few times he had succumbed to temptation and browsed a few sites. Compared to his porn consumption at college or before their marriage, it had barely been a blip, but knowing how much it would upset her had made him feel a thousand times more guilty.

Ned focused on the recap of the game until he had his erection back under control. From the kisses his wife had been giving him, he was sure Nancy was waiting for him upstairs, on their bed, ready and willing, and while they would have to be quiet, he couldn't wait to have sex with her. Her inhibitions were close to nothing when they were this drunk, and he was loving the idea of putting the clamps on her and watching her scream into the pillow to keep from waking Mel while he fucked her. He turned the television and the lights off, then headed upstairs, stopping in the bathroom to clean up and brush his teeth before he headed to their bedroom.

The door was just barely cracked open, and Ned heard soft whispering before he pushed it open.

And then, he was totally positive, he was dreaming. He was fucking dreaming. He had fallen asleep on the couch and he was lost in the most amazing dream he had ever had.

Because his wife and Mel were in their bed, standing up on their knees facing each other, and Nancy's hand was cupping Mel's cheek as they made out. His wife wore a sheer red lace nightgown, her breasts bare and nipples peaked and standing through the fabric, a black thong showing beneath. Mel wore a strapless navy lace bra and matching thong, and she had one hand buried in Nancy's hair, the other wrapped around her waist.

Before Ned knew what he was doing, he had his shirt off, and his dick had gone from standby to full attention. Some small hysterical voice in his head was chanting ohshit oh holyshit ohholyfuckingshit—

He slipped onto the bed and nearly groaned when Nancy broke off the kiss to look over at him. "Hey baby," she purred, reaching for him. "You like?"

"Holy fuck, Nan," Ned growled, kissing her hard, and Nancy let out a soft squeal. Ned looked down, and his erection throbbed when he saw Mel's hand cupping his wife's breast.

Mel had a wicked little grin on her face as she dropped her hand. "You want me to take her nightgown off, Ned?"

"Yeah," Ned breathed. Every single inch of his skin felt like it was sizzling with arousal, and his heart was beating so hard it echoed in his head. If Mel touched his wife again, he was afraid he was just going to come in his pants at the sheer fucking hotness of it. "Slow."

That shadow crossed Nancy's face again, and as soon as Mel had pulled the gown up over Nancy's head, Nancy covered herself. "Okay," she said quietly, but there was an edge in her voice.

"Now kiss her again," Ned ordered, reaching for the fly of his pants.

Mel noticed, and her eyes were dancing as she reached out to touch his arm. "You really do like it, huh," she purred.

Nancy growled. "Okay," she repeated, her voice harder this time.

Mel glanced between them, pouting a little as she began to slide off the bed. "Time for me to get to bed," she said, clearly reluctant to do so.

Ned glanced back and forth between the two of them. "Shit, really?"

Nancy nodded. "I... we just thought you'd like it," she said, looking down.

"And what did I tell you?" Mel said, grinning.

Ned shook his head. "Oh, Miss Drew, if you thought you'd ever been punished before..."

Nancy raised her head to meet his eyes. "I'm very sorry, Mr. Nickerson," she said, her voice gone breathy.

Mel took the few steps back to the bed. Nancy had dropped her hands and was clad only in the black lace thong, her breasts bare and hard-tipped. "I know the rule is that I can't touch," Mel said, her voice low, "but if you want me to watch..."

By then Ned had a hand twisted in his wife's hair, in what was usually one of the first signs of his domination of her. His cock twitched at the suggestion, and he turned his gaze from Mel to Nancy, his eyebrows raised in question.

Nancy was pale and wide-eyed as she said the second safe word, the one that meant he absolutely had to stop.

Ned swallowed his disappointment. "Miss Drew says no," he told Mel regretfully. "So I'll just tell you goodnight, and that there will be screaming from behind this door—and I swear I'm not killing her. Feel free to listen if you want."

Mel gathered an old threadbare t-shirt to sleep in and walked out of their room with a cheeky swing to her hips and a significant glance over her shoulder as she wished them a good night. Ned rose to lock the door behind her, aware that Nancy was still almost vibrating with tension and anxiety, and when he turned back to his wife she had her head bowed again.

Ned crossed to the bed and took a fistful of his wife's hair, jerking so that her face was tipped up to him. "If I had total control over you right now," he told her, his voice quiet but firm, "I would rip that little thong off you, tie you to the fucking bedframe and ask Mel to get back in here and lick that tight little pussy and clit until you were screaming."

Nancy shook her head, her eyes wide. "Please," she whispered, her voice shaking. "Please, Ned, no."

He growled deep in his throat. "So you were never going to go through with it."

He released her hair and she shook her head, wiping a pair of fresh tears from her cheeks. "Mel just thought it would drive you crazy," she admitted. "I... I told her that you'd thought about it..."

Ned's eyes widened, and he shook his head. He reached for her panties and yanked them down her legs. "Bring me the chained clamps and the strap-on," he ordered her. "And some condoms and the lube."

She obeyed him, her head down, and he could sense that she was more shaken than she was letting on. He crooked a finger under her chin and tipped her head up so he could look into her eyes.

"I want you to understand one thing," he told her quietly. "That was... cute. But if you ever try to pull that again, babe? I'm going to call your bluff. Because it was all I could do tonight not to just go for it. Okay?"

Nancy nodded rapidly. "I'm sorry, Ned."

"If I find you in bed with another girl like that again I'm going to assume it's because you want to have a threesome with her."

Nancy nodded again. "You won't," she said, her voice firm. "I swear you won't, baby."

Ned shook his head. "If it upset you that much... why did you do it?"

She tried to look down again, and Ned kept her face tilted up. She took a deep breath before she met his eyes. "I want to make you happy," she said softly, and a tear streaked down her cheek. "But when I th-think about a-any other woman t-touching you..."

He cupped her face in his hands, stroking her cheeks with his thumbs. "Baby, I would never touch her or anyone else," he told her. "I want to watch you with her, yeah, but I know you don't want that, and I'd never force you to do that. If we get super drunk one night and it just happens..." He shrugged, and she made a wry face at him.

"You're all I want, Nan. Forever."

She smiled up at him. "Good," she whispered.

"And I am gonna fuck you within an inch of your life," he told her. "Spank that tight little ass red and listen to you scream."

She was still smiling when he moved off the bed to strip his pants and underwear off, and she brought her knees up and hugged them to her chest as she watched him.

"So," he said, "out of curiosity, have you and Mel done anything like that before?"

"Like...?" she prompted him, tilting her head.

"Making out, touching each other...?"

She made a soft noise, shaking her head. "We weren't making out, and—"

"You were making out," he told her. "I was there. I didn't think you were that drunk..."

She shook her head again. "It's a trick," she told him. "I never had to use it with you because I actually like kissing you, but..."

She stood up and walked toward the foot of the bed, and he met her there. They were both naked as she cupped his cheek in her hand, then placed her thumb over his lips. Then she leaned down and kissed her thumb, and while their lips were a hair's breadth from touching, she wasn't actually kissing him.

Then Ned reached up and pulled her hand from between them and their mouths crashed together, the tip of his tongue flicking the seam of her lips before she parted them and let him in, and she moaned softly when he slipped his arms around her. She ran her hands through his hair, returning his kiss hard, arching when he cupped her breast, rubbing his thumb over her nipple.

"And when she did this?" Ned asked, his lips against hers as he kept fondling her breast.

Nancy pulled back a little, rolling her eyes. "The rules were that once you touched me, she was supposed to leave," she explained softly. "And she wasn't supposed to touch me either, but clearly, Mel hasn't ever really thought rules applied to her."

"And you knew that. You knew she might try something."

Nancy shrugged. "Maybe."

"And you kind of wanted her to."

Nancy shrugged again. "I knew it would turn you on if she did," she said, her brow creasing just a little again.

Ned recognized the expression and let it drop. "Sit down and spread your legs, Miss Drew," he growled in command. "It's time for your punishment to start, and I'm not going to stop until you swear to be a good girl."

She peered at him from beneath her lashes as she lowered herself to the bed, moving onto her back as she opened her legs wide for him, already parting her sex with her fingers so the firm pink nub of her clit was exposed. "I dare you to try," she purred, her voice low and sultry.

He seated the clamps over her nipples before placing the last one on her clit, and she moaned softly, her legs moving restlessly over the comforter as she squirmed at the pain. Ned pulled back to look down at her, and his cock bobbed gently in response. "God, you're gorgeous," he whispered. "Bring your legs up."

She obeyed him, and Ned put a pillow under the small of her back to prop her up a few inches before he ripped open a condom packet and found the lube. Nancy was gently rocking, her breath coming in ever longer moans, and from the way she kept glancing at him from beneath her lashes, Ned knew it was mostly for his benefit. He rimmed her asshole with lube-slicked fingers, then gently began to work his fingers inside her, and she cried out. "Yeah, that's right, baby," he growled, and when he picked up the join of the chains linking the clamps and tugged, she arched hard under him, crying out even more loudly.

"You like that?"

"Oh God oh God oh God," she chanted, tipping her head back to bare her throat when he tugged again, and she let out a sharp moan, her fingers digging into the comforter.

He released the chain as he kept relaxing her, until she was rotating her hips in time with the strokes of his fingers, her stomach tilting back and forth, the light catching in the links and flashing there. He could smell the musk of her arousal when he caught the chain again, and this time the sound she made was a scream.

Ned gently pulled his fingers out of her, discarding the condom before he slipped on the strap-on, ripping open a fresh condom to stroke over it. He slipped three fingers up into her cunt and she burbled in answer, and Ned slicked the hot slippery evidence of her arousal over the condom before he pushed her legs back up to give himself a good angle. He seated the head of the dildo just against her asshole, then fitted the head of his bare cock just at her entrance, letting out a pleased moan when her hot slick flesh came into contact with his erection, when she crossed her ankles behind his head.

His heart throbbed hard when he took the chain in his hand again, when his wife blinked up at him, her hips still faintly rocking, her lips parted.

"Say my name," he ordered her.

She drew a breath, and Ned tilted forward, pushing his cock into the slick tight heat of her cunt as the dildo moved in her ass, and then he tugged the chain.

"Oh fuck Ned," she screamed, her breasts trembling as she arched. "Oh Ned oh God oh fuck baby oh my God!"

He worked into her in steady smooth strokes, tugging the chain at every apex, drawing another broken cry from her every time, her brow creased, a flush rising in her cheeks. When he finally drove his full length between her thighs, feeling her throb weakly around his cock, he slipped his hand between her legs, and with one more tug of the chain he rubbed his thumb over the tip of her tender clit.

Nancy pushed herself up, shuddering under him, arching as she tipped her head all the way back and screamed full-throated, so loud Ned was sure their neighbors would call the cops again. He couldn't resist, though, and when he did it again she screamed even more loudly, her hips rocking as he pulled back to slam into her with another thrust.

"Say it," he ordered her again, his voice a rough growl as he slammed into her again, making her take every inch of his cock, the full length of the dildo.

"Oh fuck!" she screamed, her shoulders jerking as she rocked against him, her voice rising every time he tugged on the chain. "Oh my God, oh Ned, oh God oh God oh God yesssss, yes, oh Ned..."

He fucked her harder, watching her writhe, his balls tight with need as she sobbed in pleasure. With a growl he moved onto the bed, kneeling as he pounded into her, and pulled the chain just a little harder.

Nancy screamed again, and he felt her sex clench hard around him as she began to come. "Oh my God," she panted, her entire body trembling as she met his thrusts. "Ned, oh God, Ned... baby, come, come with me, oh holy fuck..." She let out a desperate cry as he pushed himself fully into her, pinning her under him as he let himself climax.

Nancy parted her legs and Ned sank onto her, feeling the texture of the chain against his chest, the clamps pressed between them. She reached up and ran her hand through his hair, her other hand drifting down his back, her fingertips tracing the line of his spine.

"Mmmmm," Ned moaned. He shifted and she sucked in a quietly pained breath, and Ned scrambled back with a whispered curse, easing his cock and the dildo out of her. Her brow creased when he took the clamps off her, and she stretched, sprawling on their bed.

"You okay, baby?"

She nodded slowly. "God, I need to clean myself up but I don't want to move," she moaned.

Ned found a cloth for her and gently wiped her thighs. The color in her cheeks was still high, and her skin gleamed faintly with sweat. When she looked up at him, though, a deeper blush came to her cheeks.

"Can you... the cream," she said softly.

Ned nodded, taking off the strap-on as he went back to their drawer. He tossed it and the clamps back in, returning with the cream and another wrapped condom, and she let out a long sigh as he stroked it over her sore flesh. Before he returned to their bed he flipped off the overhead light and turned on the bedside lamp, dumping the soiled condoms and wrappers into the trash.

Nancy moved under the covers, still naked, and Ned joined her, smiling when she moved to him. She cuddled against him as he slipped one leg between hers, their bare skin warm and still damp with exertion.

Nancy chuckled, her cheek against his chest. "Bet Mel is feeling jealous as hell right now."

Ned ran his hand over her hair, then gently drew his fingers through it, feeling it tumble warm down over the pillow. "Was that the goal?"

"No," she admitted. "The goal was for you to... well, to do what you just did, basically."

"Glad I could oblige," he said dryly.

She made a soft sound as she ran the tip of her nose against his chest. "Thanks," she whispered. "For not... for not forcing me, when you could have."

"Hey," Ned said softly, reaching down to cup her cheek, gently brushing his thumb over her lips. He peered into her eyes. "You said the word, and that's the rule, Nan. No matter what. And I don't ever want you to do something you don't want to do. I want you to enjoy whatever we're doing when we're making love."

She gave him a wry smile. "Well, whether or not we just made love, I did enjoy the hell out of it."

"Good." He nuzzled against her cheek and she squealed, squirming as his stubble brushed against her. He grasped her hips and rolled onto his back, pulling her on top of him.

Nancy straddled him, brushing her lips against his. Ned ran his fingers through her hair again, the strands warm and silky against his skin.

"And it was making love."

Nancy shook her head, brushing the tip of her nose against his. "What you just did was fuck me, Nickerson," she told him. "There's a big difference."

"Oh?"

She nodded, and a lock of her hair slid down, brushing against his cheek. "Anything that leaves me wondering if I'll be able to sit down without wincing tomorrow is definitely fucking."

"So what's making love?"

She pulled back, looking into his eyes, and shivered just a little as he idly drew his fingertips up and down the line of her spine. Her gaze dropped to his lips. "When it's gentle and sweet," she murmured. "When it's like..."

"Like what?" he asked, when she trailed off.

"Like you're worshipping me, almost," she whispered. "When just for a minute I feel like I'm the center of your world, like you're the center of mine."

He tilted his head up and gently urged her face down to his so he could kiss her. "And you are," he murmured against her lips. "You're my wife and nothing really makes sense without you, sweetheart." He kissed her again and she moaned quietly.

When she arched over him, sliding her knees forward, their hips meeting, Ned buried his fingers in her hair again, his lips parting under hers as she kissed him. They both sighed when her inner flesh, hot and slick, rubbed against his groin. He teased her tongue with his, then slipped one hand down her back to gently squeeze the curve of her ass. Then she pushed herself up, their lower bodies still joined, her hair falling around them, brushing against his cheeks. They just gazed at each other silently for a moment, and when her gaze shifted to his lips, Ned began to urge her down, and she came to him willingly, her tongue slipping between his lips as she kissed him.

"Make love to me," she whispered against his mouth.

--

Oh, she remembered nights in Ned's bed at the fraternity, nights when they had come so close, when they had been the space of a breath or a heartbeat away from crossing the line. Ned had been frustrated whenever she pulled back, whenever she had cried off, afraid. Some nights she had begged for it and then she had felt him just inside her, and she had gone still, knowing that if they took that step, they would never, never be able to take it back. Their foreplay had lasted months, and she had given her virginity to him piece by piece, allowed him victory by inches. He had worked for all of it; she had made sure he had to.

Some nights, some lazy afternoons, they had made love to each other with their fingers, with lingering kisses, stifling each other's cries and moans. Some nights when he had held her to him, both of them naked, her heartbeat echoing in her, she had imagined what it would feel like if she didn't feel afraid, if she parted her legs to him willingly, if when he slipped inside her she just nodded and drew him to her until the impossible length and girth of his cock was somehow fully inside her. She had imagined their lovemaking as something soft and slow and beautiful, imagined him so gentle with her, so tender.

She hadn't known then how much she would crave him, hadn't imagined that she would find such delirious pleasure in pain, that she would ever scream in delight when he was rough with her. Because then, at the beginning, all they had known was gentleness, all she had known was hunger and wonder and love that swallowed what she had always been taught was shameful and wrong.

Oh, how she had loved him then, in those moments. Oh, how it had terrified her, the depths to which she was shaken when she saw the love in his eyes in return. She had wanted so badly to find it with someone else, but from the first second their eyes had met, a part of her had known. He was hers just the same way she was his, and nothing she could say or do, no denials she could ever make, would ever change it.

The first night, the first time, neither of them had known or planned for it. He had put just the tip of his cock inside her, and while they had agreed that was okay, that it didn't count, they had both known how dangerous it was to be so close. And then they had been moving together, moving until he was deeper, until it hurt, and his lips had stilled against hers as she had gasped at the pain.

He had slowed, then, and she had known that he was taking her virginity, that he was pressed against that barrier inside her. He had slowed, and she had listened to his breath, listened to the pounding of her own heart, listened to the silence while he waited for her to do what she always did and beg off.

And she hadn't.

Their first time had hurt her, and she had been horrified when she had cried, her arms wrapped around him, her legs spread wide and his hips between as he had come inside her, sheathed in a condom. He had arched to kiss her, his lips brushing against her cheek, asking if she was all right, whispering that he loved her, he loved her so much.

And she loved him too, so fiercely. His heart had beat against hers and she had gasped when he had slid out of her, and she had been right. They had been different from that moment on, and for the rest of her life, though she hadn't been his first, he would always be hers.

She remembered it again as her husband rolled her onto her back, as she threaded her fingers through his hair and made out with him. Her legs were open and his hips were between, and she remembered nights when this would have made her breathless with panic and arousal. Now she was just breathless and lightheaded with need, but that wonder came back to her every time.

Ned took his time with her, the way he usually did after he used the clamps on her. He stroked one breast, his fingertips light over her nipple, as he pressed gentle kisses against her chest, then circled her other nipple with his tongue. Nancy let out a long sigh, arching under him as he soothed the skin that had been in the clamp, then drew the tip of his tongue over the tight tip of her breast. He didn't suckle, just stroked her slowly, then moved to her other breast, his thumb brushing the newly slick tip.

Her hips were rocking slowly as he ran his tongue over her nipple one last time, then began to kiss his way down her chest. Her skin tingled with arousal everywhere he kissed her, and she slipped her fingers into his hair, her other hand cupping his as he kept gently fondling her breast. The closer he came to the join of her thighs, the more harshly she panted, and he slowed, running the tip of his tongue in a circle around her belly button before he brushed his lips lower down her belly.

Nancy let out a soft pleading cry. "Yes," she moaned, pressing her heels into the mattress so she could tilt her hips. "Oh yes, baby."

He nuzzled against the join of her thighs, brushing the tip of his nose against her lower belly, and when he gently parted her and licked her clit the first time, Nancy tipped her head back, her hand clenching into a fist in his hair. "Mmmmmm, oh God," she gasped out. "Oh God, oh!"

He stroked her clit with his tongue, gently, circling it, closing his lips around it so softly. Nancy squeezed her eyes tight shut, pressing her fingers into her husband's hand as she held it to her breast, shuddering with pleasure as he fondled her. When he slipped one finger slowly into the tight slick press of her sex, she sobbed, rocking harder, then cried out as his stubble rasped against her sensitive flesh.

"Oh fuck, Ned," she whimpered, surging under him. "Oh fuck, mmmmmm..."

He made some soft sound against her skin and she was angling against him as he brushed his chin over her again, and she let out a louder cry. Her clit was still overly sensitive from the earlier abuse, and when he alternated licking her clit and rubbing his chin against her, she moaned loudly in pleasure, rocking her hips from side to side. He gently plucked at her nipple and she shuddered, crying out again.

Mel had an early flight.

Mel had touched her husband while they were in bed together, so Nancy didn't give a damn how well she slept, not at all. Mel had wanted her husband, wanted the man whose face was buried between Nancy's thighs.

Nancy ran her fingers through Ned's hair again, panting as she writhed under him. He dug his chin against her sensitive inner flesh and she tipped her head back until the crown was against the pillow, sobbing desperately as her sex tightened around his finger. "Oh God yes!" she cried out, her breasts trembling as she rocked against him. "Oh yes, oh God Ned that feels so good..."

He gave her one last swipe with his tongue, slipping his finger out of her, and when he moved over her, fitting the tip of his cock just inside her, Nancy tipped her head up. Their gazes met and she felt that same bolt of attraction sizzle through her, the one she felt every time he looked at her this way.

"Please," she whispered. "Oh, Ned, please."

He moved inside her, slowly, and her hips trembled with his every thrust, her lips parting again. Their gazes stayed locked together and when he moved fully inside her, she cried out, tipping her knees back, her legs wrapped around his waist. He let out his breath in a long pleased moan, stroking in and out of her.

"So good, oh God, you feel so good," he told her, and she dug her nails into his shoulder blades, rocking to meet his thrusts, shivering as she sobbed in pleasure. "Fuck, Nan, God, I love you so much."

"I love you too," she moaned, and when he tilted his hips and his skin brushed her clit, she arched hard, crying out. "Fuck, oh fuck, yes! Oh yesssss..."

He began to thrust harder when her sobs rose to sharp delighted cries. Then he circled his hips and Nancy bucked under him, her body jerking under his as she came again, her inner flesh clenching tight around him as he kept driving into her. He groaned as he sank to the cradle of her thighs, pulsing inside her, their bodies tight together, slick with sweat.

Nancy closed her eyes, panting her breath back, still wrapped around her husband. "Mmmm," she whispered. "You're so incredible, baby."

Ned chuckled, moving back to look down at her. "You're incredible," he told her, brushing a strand of hair from her cheek. "So fucking sexy."

She smiled up at him. "You make me feel that way," she told him, then brushed her fingertips over his chin. "What did I tell you?"

He smiled, then ducked in to nip at her earlobe, and she squealed as his stubble rubbed against the edge of her cheek. "Babe, if we could get away with it, I'd just stay here with you all day long." He traced the outer curve of her ear with the tip of his tongue.

She shivered. "Me too," she murmured. "And for as long as you keep shaving that way, I might just take you up on it."

He nipped at her neck before he pulled back. "You're all I've ever wanted," he told her, his gaze intent on hers. "All I've ever needed, baby. Forever."

She ran her fingers through his hair, then tipped up to press her lips softly to his. "And you're everything to me," she whispered. "Now and forever, baby."

Chapter Text

Nancy slouched in the driver's seat of her Mustang, her gaze locked to the plate-glass window of the mailbox provider across the street. She didn't want to waste gas by cranking the car's ignition, but just the thought of even a few seconds of intense heat was enough to make her feel weak with longing. The lower half of her face was under the turned-up collar of her coat, and her fingers were freezing even inside her warm-lined gloves. The cuffs of her sweater were pulled up over her wrists to keep any stray freezing air from touching any skin it absolutely didn't have to.

If her quarry didn't show up soon, Nancy was going to have to call in a favor—and it would probably involve Scott. Scott wasn't so bad, but calling him would probably involve his delivering a full detailed synopsis of the most recent episode of his favorite sci-fi television series, along with promising him a favor to be redeemed later.

Or she would be able to wait it out, if Ned was working late, or if he had made some last-minute plans with Howie or Mike.

Nancy kept her gaze locked to the mailbox place, but a small frown turned down her lips and put a crease in her brow at that thought.

Ned had been preoccupied for the past week or so. He hadn't told her what was wrong, and for the first few days she had thought it was just a temporary pensive mood, that it would pass, that the snow and cold had just taken their toll on him. When it had persisted, she had asked what was wrong, and he had told her nothing, nothing's wrong, it's okay, and had given her a smile.

She had called Ruby anyway, and Ruby had confirmed that Ned had visited with two friends for about half an hour on the night Mel had been visiting and hadn't been back since, not that she was aware of, anyway. And Nancy hadn't really thought that he was suddenly regularly visiting a strip club, that that explained his preoccupation, but she hadn't been able to resist asking anyway. Ned had sworn to her that, while he had found it unbelievably hot, he was leaving the ball in her court when it came to bringing another woman into their bed, and she had absolutely no intention of ever doing so.

She just needed to make sure he was still happy with her, even knowing a threesome was off the table for good. And she would have been worried about it, if Ned didn't draw her into his arms every night, holding her close to him, and press his lips against the crown of her head. She would have been worried if they had been having sex less often, or if it hadn't been as good as it always was. She didn't sense that he was upset with her, or that he was dissatisfied with her.

But the very fact that she didn't know, that she wasn't sure what was wrong with him, that he hadn't shared it with her, was driving her nuts. She didn't want to upset him, but if he didn't tell her soon, she was going to have to insist.

Maybe it was the money. After the unexpected transmission replacement and the money they had spent on Christmas presents, they had decided to save up and take a trip for their anniversary over the summer. They had agreed to cut back on eating out at restaurants and eat more at home, but they would still go on regular dates, only cheaper ones, just because neither of them could bear the prospect of not being able to get dressed up and go out for a little while. Maybe he had found something he wanted and couldn't justify the cost; maybe his car needed a repair and he just hadn't found the nerve to tell her they would have to dip into their small vacation fund.

Maybe it was something she didn't want to know... but she shook her head. No matter what it was, she wanted to know.

It was just... he wasn't usually like that. She was so used to being the first person he came to whenever he was going through something. She hated feeling the distance between them.

Her phone buzzed from her pocket. Nancy hissed as she worked her glove off so she could swipe the screen and read the message.

Busy tonight?

Nancy frowned at the screen, then glanced up at the shop again. She really, really didn't want to have to turn Ned down if he wanted to see her tonight—and she definitely preferred the prospect of dinner with him in their townhouse to a solitary stakeout in her freezing-cold Mustang.

She heaved a sigh, glaring across the street as she put her phone down in her cupholder near her diet soda and lifted her 35mm camera to her face, twisting the lens and tapping the trigger to refocus. Calling Scott wouldn't be the end of the world, and if it put her home to be with her husband, it would be worth it.

Nancy was just bringing the camera down to scroll down her contacts list for Scott's number when a short bottle blonde in a shearling-lined aviator's jacket, her hands jammed into her pockets and the collar flipped up, strode briskly toward the mailbox store.

Nancy brought the camera back up and quickly snapped off a few frames, following the woman as she walked into the store. She caught her opening Box 238, then took a series of pictures of the blonde walking out of the store with the package, the paper wrapper half ripped back, her face turned sideways to glance around her suspiciously.

She had her. Nancy fucking had her now.

She put down the camera, carefully, then picked up her phone. Nope. Something in mind?

Dinner & movie?

Nancy raised her eyebrows as she looked down at the screen. Hmm.

Sure, baby. Sounds great. :)

She wanted to go home and change first, but when Ned suggested the 5:30 movie, asking if that was too early for her, she had shrugged and agreed to that, too. She wore flats, a pair of tailored slacks, and a soft caramel-colored sweater, and she guessed that would just have to do.

Ned was waiting for her just outside the theater, and Nancy was breathless when she approached him. "Hey sweetheart," he murmured, handing her the ticket he had bought for her, and he dropped a kiss on the crown of her head before they ducked inside, still shivering from the brutal wind.

It was Friday night, premiere night, and they walked in when the lights were just dimming for the first preview. The stadium seats were almost packed with people, but Ned found three seats on the side so they didn't have to sit in the front and crane their necks, and they even had a buffer seat between them and another couple. Nancy took the inner seat and Ned sat down beside her, and she flipped the cupholder armrest between them up, placing her purse on the floor and sighing quietly, happily to herself when Ned slipped his arm around her.

Nancy's favorite kinds of movies had always been mysteries, but so few were done well that she was wary of watching ones she hadn't seen recommended. Action and drama were next, and when she was down she liked to watch a good comedy. As a genre she didn't love romantic movies, but her father had told her once that the first movie she had ever seen was Casablanca, when she was a little girl, sprawled on her parents' laps. It had been her mother's favorite movie and so it had become one of Nancy's, another of those slight tenuous connections to the mother she had never really known.

Ned's selection for the evening's entertainment was a mindless action movie, but Nancy didn't mind. After the last preview was over and the opening credits began to roll on the feature presentation, Nancy leaned down to dig in her purse, then handed Ned a bag of peanut M&Ms she had picked up at a convenience store on the way back in after her stakeout.

"Thanks, babe," Ned said in a quiet whisper, sounding a little surprised, then brushed his lips against her temple.

"You're welcome, sweetheart," she breathed in reply, smiling. All she had managed to grab for lunch during her stakeout had been a pack of peanut-butter cheese crackers, and she hadn't wanted her stomach to start growling in the middle of the movie. She began to crunch her way through her bag of peanut butter M&Ms.

As the gang of commandos made its way deeper into the jungle, led by an experienced-hardened, battle-scarred veteran and the young, fiercely handsome man he had taken under his wing—whom, Nancy idly noticed, had his facial hair trimmed close, similarly to her husband's—Nancy put her head on Ned's shoulder and tried to remember when they had last gone to the movies. It had been a few weeks, at least; they had watched one of the Oscar-bait films a few days after Christmas. God, she had loved the time off, loved spending it with him. She loved her work, but their time together had reminded her of their honeymoon, and it made her look forward to their planned summer trip with all the more longing.

She tried to put her anxiety out of her mind. Whatever Ned had to tell her, even if it meant postponing their trip, it wasn't going to be the end of the world. If he didn't bring it up when they went to dinner, though, she was determined to get it out of him by the end of the night. She didn't want to spend the entire weekend gazing speculatively at him, trying not to imagine the worst.

When she caught herself trying to remember when he had last been to the doctor for a check-up and whether some delayed test results could have come back with bad news, she forced herself to focus on the movie instead. The hot younger guy had been wounded, and the older guy had him slung over one shoulder, an automatic in his other hand.

She smiled wryly to herself when she remembered the first movie she and Ned had watched together when they were dating again. A mercenary had brought out a semiautomatic and Ned had almost immediately asked if she was okay. He had been worried that it might make her panic at the memory. Truth be told, his concern, and being able to nestle into his shoulder, his arm tight around her, had dispelled whatever slight panic she had felt.

After the gang made their triumphant return to American soil, unaware that the villain's even more evil twin brother was even then plotting his revenge for the sequel, the lights came up as the credits started rolling. Nancy and Ned blinked at each other, and for not the first time, Nancy saw the shadows under his eyes. He hadn't been sleeping well, but he hadn't disturbed her. She hoped his preoccupation wasn't due to his nightmares; after what he had told her about them, she would have given anything to wrap herself around him and hold him tight, feel their hearts beat together as she soothed him back to sleep.

The restaurants in the city were all almost guaranteed to be busy, so Ned suggested that they try the strip mall about a mile away from their house. A small casual Mexican restaurant had opened there in the fall, and while their drink menu wasn't incredibly extensive, the food was great.

The hostess recognized them and greeted them with a smile, directing the attendant to seat them in the bar area, where they could see the television sets. Nancy ordered a water and Ned ordered a bottle of beer, and within thirty seconds a basket of warm tortilla chips and a dish of salsa were on the table between them.

Nancy ran her fingers through her hair, pulling it back from her face, absently threading it through an elastic. Knowing her husband, he would get a kick out of watching her take it down later. She reached under the collar of her sweater and drew out the chain holding the heart pendant he had given her, letting it rest over the fabric. While she was on the job she tried not to wear too many distinguishing articles of clothing or pieces of jewelry, just in case, but she had wanted to have it on anyway, even if she had to wear it against her skin most of the day.

Ned smiled when he saw it, reaching across the table to gently brush his thumb over it. "Looks good on you," he murmured.

She gave him a glowing smile. "Have I told you yet today how fantastic you are?"

Ned's chuckle was interrupted when the waiter returned with their drinks and took their dinner orders. As soon as his beer was at the table Ned took a long pull and ordered another. Once the waiter had left, Nancy pushed the basket of chips across the table toward her husband, her eyebrows raised.

Ned shrugged and took a chip. "I'm okay. I'm just..."

"Distracted," she filled in, when he trailed off.

He nodded. "Yeah. Things have been... tense. Three guys in my department were let go today."

Nancy's mouth dropped open a little. "Oh my God, really? That's awful..." She raised her eyebrows at him.

Ned shook his head. "No, no. I knew all of them, but I wasn't one of them. God, I wouldn't have invited you to the movies tonight if that had been the case..."

She shrugged. "I thought it was just to get your mind off things," she pointed out.

"It was," he admitted. He gently spun the beer bottle on the table top, watching the condensation pool there. "I've heard rumors that the owner is thinking about selling out, and they might get rid of some more people—clean out the redundancies before the merge."

Nancy propped her chin on her hand, gazing at him. "Are you worried that you might be next? I mean... you got that bonus..."

Ned shrugged. "The last quarter was pretty flat, and that bonus was thanks to the account," he told her. "And they were doing better then."

Nancy shook her head. "I thought things were supposed to be getting better."

"They were," Ned said. "They are. It's just... not everything is better yet."

Nancy reached across the table and touched Ned's hand. "So that's what's been bothering you?"

He nodded. "When the pink slips started going out last week... I kind of panicked," he admitted.

She slipped her fingers between his. "I wish you'd told me," she murmured. "I could see you were upset but you kept telling me everything was fine..."

"I didn't want to worry you."

"It worries me more when you don't worry me," she told him, with a small smile.

"Okay," he said, giving her his own small smile. "Okay. Point taken. It kind of scared the hell out of me and I just didn't want to tell you without... without a plan."

Nancy took a chip and dipped it into the salsa, then devoured it, her other hand still in Ned's. "So does that mean you're telling me tonight because you have a plan? And, also... I had a plan too but it mostly involved getting you to tell me what was on your mind before the night was over."

"So if I'd held out a little while longer, we might have spent a very interesting evening together back at home?"

"Who says we won't?" Nancy told him, wiggling her eyebrows. "But seriously, sweetheart, it was getting ridiculous, all the things I was imagining, trying to figure out what could be so bad that you wouldn't tell me. I thought maybe your car needed a serious repair, maybe the doctor had given you bad news, maybe... maybe that thing with Mel had just... I don't know, made you bored with me..."

She trailed off to a mumble at the end of it, looking down, and Ned put down his beer and reached for her face, tipping her chin up so he could meet her gaze. "No," he told her firmly. "No to all of that but especially to that last one. I consider myself the luckiest bastard in the world if that's one of the few things you have off the table, okay?"

She gave him another tentative smile. "Okay."

If they had been totally alone, she would have slipped her arms around him and drawn his face to hers. The mood was dimmed when the server arrived with their meals, and they reluctantly parted. Ned finished his first beer before digging into his combination fajitas, and Nancy picked up her hard-shell taco first. She was starving, and they didn't pick up the thread of their conversation again until Ned was pushing his plate away, letting out a contented sigh.

"So I've been thinking."

"The plan," Nancy said, cutting off another bite of her smothered burrito with the side of her fork, and Ned nodded. "Are you considering looking for another job? Do you think you might be next?"

Ned took a sip of his beer, then shrugged. "I don't feel like I am, but I doubt any of the other guys did either," he admitted. "But yeah, looking for another job is an option. It just feels like the longer I'm there now, the worse it will be, waiting for the other shoe to drop."

Nancy nodded, picking up her water glass.

"But I've been there for two years..." He shook his head. "It would be nice to go somewhere else and get a fresh start, but I've built a lot of connections where I am."

"So you could just put your resume out there and see what happens," Nancy suggested, then picked up another tortilla chip and dipped it in the salsa.

"Yeah. And there's a third option." He swallowed and looked up, meeting her gaze. "I've been looking into what it would take to go back for my MBA."

"Is that something you'd want to do?"

"It... I don't know," he admitted. "It would make me eligible for more jobs, better-paying jobs. But I didn't even want to start seriously considering it until I talked to you about it."

"Ned, if doing that will make you happy..."

"Even if it does, it's a huge financial commitment. I'd need to take out loans. And we were planning that trip over the summer..."

Nancy tried to hide her disappointment and hoped she was mostly successful. "We were," she said, keeping her voice neutral. "Do you think it would interfere?"

"It might," he said. "I found a program in the city and if I get my application and scores in soon, I could start attending during the summer term."

So he really had been looking into it. Nancy swallowed. "Oh."

Ned reached for her hand. "Like I said, Nan... I can put out my resume; I can hope for the best. Going back to school is just one option."

"But it would pay off in the long run."

"Yeah." He finished off his beer. "It's just... I've already been out of school two and a half years, and I kind of feel like, if I'm going to go back, I need to go back sooner rather than later. And if I'm not... then I need to find some place with good long-term prospects. Even if it means another job."

Nancy sighed, then gave him a small smile. "Why is it nothing's ever easy?" she said. "Why is it that the best choice isn't obvious?"

Ned shrugged, brushing his thumb over her knuckles. "I wish I knew. I wish I could just tell you what the best thing was. But I can put out my resume, and I can put in my application for grad school, and we can look at the options."

"If you went back, would you go back full-time?"

Ned shook his head. "The loans would be insane, to keep up the mortgage payment and everything if I went back full-time."

"But you'd be done faster."

Ned shrugged. "Not that much faster. Two and a half years for the night-classes program."

"So you'd be living at home with me, going to work, and taking classes every night...?"

"Probably two or three nights a week. Not every night. And if they had some stuff online..."

They kept talking about it as they waited for Ned's buzz to pass from his second beer, then drove home separately. When she was alone in her car, Nancy gently touched the heart pendant.

They didn't have to go on an anniversary trip. They didn't. She knew that. She had been looking forward to it so much, though.

Then she started thinking about it, and by the time she was slipping out of her car, her messenger bag over her shoulder, she had come up with something. She was just afraid Ned might not like it.

She changed into a long-sleeved henley and a pair of flannel pants, then joined Ned on the couch, and he showed her the websites for local MBA programs. "At least I wouldn't have to pay for room and board, just tuition and fees and books."

The tuition cost and fees, though, were high enough by themselves. She felt just a little more dismayed when she saw it.

Ned caught her frowning and touched her cheek. "I know it's expensive..."

"It's grad school. I'm sure it was always going to be expensive." She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "And if we have to, we can put off our anniversary trip..."

Ned sighed, then brightened a little. "Well, even if we can't get away, we do have the keys to the lake house. And there's always a little break between semesters..."

"That's true," Nancy said with a smile. "So we will get away for a little while, no matter what?"

Ned chuckled at her pleading expression, leaning down to brush a kiss against her lips. "Yeah, we will, baby. It's been too long since I've seen you in a bikini."

She giggled at him. "Uh, you see me in my underwear just about every morning, Nickerson."

"Not the same," he said. "Definitely not the same."

After their usual Friday night routine, watching one of their favorite shows together, Nancy stood and stretched, then looked down at her husband. "So I think you wanted to see what I had in mind for tonight?"

He took her offered hand, then turned off the television as he stood. "Oh. Thought that was off the table," he said, nodding slightly at her outfit.

"What? You don't even know what I'm wearing under this," she teased him.

"No, but I really hope I'm about to find out," he said, sweeping her into his arms and dropping a kiss on the crown of her head.

They brushed their teeth and Nancy washed her face before they went to the bedroom together. As soon as the door was closed behind them, Ned reached for the hem of her shirt and she laughed as he pulled it up over her head.

"I'm supposed to be the one torturing you," she reminded him.

"Oh, sorry," Ned said, sounding the opposite of contrite as he nuzzled against the join of her neck and shoulder. "You want to punish me, Miss Drew?"

"I think I'm going to have to," she teased him. "You need to learn your place, mister."

"God, I hope my place is under you," he growled, but he was smiling.

She cuffed him to the bed by his wrists, leaving his legs free, and when she moved back to look at him, a smile turned up her lips. She remembered when they had met, how she had been afraid to keep her gaze on him for too long, afraid that the attraction she felt to him would be obvious. Even after they had started dating, she had still resisted the urge to just stare at him. Now he was hers, totally, now and forever, and she found whenever she gazed at him that the lines of his body were almost as familiar to her as those of her own—and that the longer they were together, the more unbelievably handsome he looked to her.

It didn't matter how often they had sex; the more often they made love the more often she craved it. Coming home after their honeymoon had been bad enough. She had been practically counting off the days until they could go on their trip together.

Nancy pulled herself to her feet, keeping her gaze on Ned's as she pushed her flannel pants down. Her string bikini bottoms were green satin trimmed in black lace, her breasts already hard-tipped in the chill. She had piled her hair on top of her head before she washed her face; now she reached up and pulled the elastic out, tossing her head so her red-gold hair fell down her back.

"Mmmm," Ned murmured in appreciation. "Oh yeah, baby, keep going."

She gave him a small grin. "You know, if I really wanted to torture you, I'd use one of our vibrators... in another room. And leave you in here listening to me scream when I came. Still tied up so you couldn't even get off."

"Yeah, but you don't want to do that," Ned said, his voice low and incredibly seductive. "You know you want my cock, baby."

Nancy chuckled, slipping her panties down and stepping out of them, walking over to their bed naked save her wedding rings. "Really."

He nodded. "You know as good as it feels to get yourself off, it's never as good as when I'm inside you."

Slowly Nancy straddled him, her blue eyes glowing as she looked down at him. The tips of her long hair brushed against his bare chest; it was the only way she was touching him. "Is that how it is for you?" she murmured, sliding her knees a few more inches apart. "As good as your hand feels it's never as tight or as wet as my cunt?"

Ned moaned when she whispered the last word. He brought his knee up and she smacked his leg lightly. "No," she ordered him. "Back down. No touching unless I say it's okay."

"And what will you do if I'm a bad boy?"

"Tie your legs down too," she told him. "And then maybe see how you like the clamps."

He growled, but straightened out his leg again. "Holy fuck, if you had them on right now..."

"But I don't." She slowly bent down so she could rub the tip of her nose against his. "Just think about it, baby. Think about how good it will feel if you just give in to me." She could feel his breath against her lips as she gazed steadily into his eyes. "How much you want me to reach down and wrap my fist around your cock while I open my legs for you."

"Mmmm." The cuffs sounded faintly as Ned shifted. "You know I do, baby."

"And you'll feel so much better when you tell me." She brushed her lips against his ear, then flicked her tongue against the lobe. "Because then I'll ride you the way I've wanted to do all day long. I'll take you so deep, baby, I'll take every inch of that gorgeous cock, up inside me where I'm so tight and hot and wet for you, where I've ached," she made her voice a breathy moan, "for you, and oh, Ned, I'll touch my clit, rub it until I'm shaking, until my wet little cunt is even tighter around you." Ned was panting when she pulled back, her eyes dancing when she met his gaze again, and then she pressed her mouth to his other ear. "Oh, baby, it makes me so hot when we fuck, when that massive cock is inside me, when you feel so good inside me that it almost hurts. When you fill up my tight wet cunt and, ohhhh, Ned." She dipped down a few inches, until the tips of her bare breasts were just barely brushing against his chest, and rocked her hips down until she could feel the heat of his skin radiating against hers. She caught his earlobe in her teeth and felt Ned gasp as she slipped her legs even further apart, rubbing the slit of her hot, wet sex against the underside of his cock for a brief, trembling moment before she pushed herself back up.

"And then, baby, when I'm about to lose my mind with how good it feels, when you finally jerk your hips up under mine... mmmmm, when I feel you come inside me, oh, oh God." She briefly ground her hips down against his again, and Ned groaned loudly. "So good, baby, it feels so good. Do you want that?"

"Fuck yes," Ned growled. "Fuck yes. Let me watch those tits bounce while you take my cock, you dirty girl. Ride me until you scream, Nan, until I fill that tight little cunt up with my cum."

She rubbed against him again, her clit brushing against his cock, and she shivered. "Oh yeah," she moaned. "Mmmm. The only thing that's almost as good is when you're forcing that gorgeous cock down my throat, pulling my hair, making me suck you off until I taste your hot cum. Mmmm."

Ned's hips jerked up under hers, seeking contact. "Fuck," he growled in frustration. "Baby, holy fuck I need to be inside you. I'd give you any fucking thing you asked right now, just let me feel that cunt around me..."

Nancy smiled to herself before she pulled back to look into Ned's eyes, her own low-lidded. She was being entirely intentional; she knew exactly what he loved, what he wanted to do to her, and she wanted him almost begging for it. She loved sucking him off, letting him force her to deep-throat him, only because he loved it so much, and because she loved how rough he was, how totally powerless she was, how intimate it felt.

But she couldn't deny that talking about it for so long, being naked and on top of her husband for so long, had made her sex slippery hot, almost pulsing with anticipation. "Anything?"

He nodded when their eyes met. "Anything."

"Good," she purred, reaching down, and they both shuddered when she angled him, fitting him just inside her, then sank down onto his cock. Ned tipped his head up so he could watch her, groaning in pleasure as she started to ride him.

"Oh yeah, baby," Ned groaned, and God she was so fucking wet, she could hear it with every rock of her hips. "Oh yeah. Rub your clit, sweetheart."

She tilted back, propping her hand behind her so she could keep her balance as she kept sliding up and down his cock, and cried out when she first touched her clit. "Mmmmm," she sobbed at the pleasure of it, rocking down so he was fully inside her, so so very hot and tight against her slick inner flesh before she pulled back up again. "Mmmmm, yeah, baby, oh yeah..."

"Harder, Nan." Ned bent his knees a little, using the leverage to rock his hips up savagely against hers.

Nancy rubbed her clit more frantically, her breasts bouncing as she fucked him more rapidly, his hips bucking as he rose to meet her, pounding hard against her. "Oh yes oh fuck yes! Oh fuuuuuck yes baby, so—oh, oh God!"

She ran the edge of her nail against the tip of her clit and screamed, tipping her head back, gasping frantically for breath at how unbelievably good it felt. "Oh yes yes yessssssssssss, mmmmmm—"

"That's right," Ned panted, his hips slamming into hers. "Oh yeah baby that's right, just like that!"

She had considered dismounting him when they were both a few heartbeats away from reaching orgasm, just so he would beg her to finish him off, but she couldn't bring herself to do it. The terrible intoxicating pleasure of her climax was tight and hot in her core, leaving her shaking, and she rubbed her nail harder against her clit, bucking against him as her inner flesh clenched tight around him. "Oh Ned, yes! Oh God ohgodohgodohgod yessss, baby!"

"Yeah, baby, come," Ned demanded as she jerked against him, sobbing at the sheer joy of it as she obeyed. "Oh fuck yeah, so good," he groaned as he bucked up under her a few more times, letting out a soft cry as he came.

Nancy let her hand drop, her face burning hot, a sensation of flushed pleasure suffusing her as she tried to catch her breath. As they slowed the chill in the air hit her again, and she summoned the energy to reach for the keys to the cuffs before she collapsed to him. He slipped his arms around her when she released him, her legs still sprawled loose around him, her face nuzzled against his chest.

"Mmmm. I'm gonna have to be a bad boy a lot more often, if that's my punishment," Ned murmured, stroking his fingertips down her back. "God, you are sexy as hell, Nan."

Nancy chuckled. When she had the strength, she pushed herself up to look into Ned's eyes. "You promised me anything," she reminded him.

"Oooh. Is 'anything' multiple choice?" He pushed himself up a little, kissing her briefly.

Her lips curved up, but she searched his eyes. "I have an idea," she told him. "Not—not one of those ideas. But—just hear me out, okay?"

"Hear you out, as in you think I might not like it?"

She made a face. "Maybe."

"Well." Ned ran his fingers through her hair. "I'll hear you out... as long as you promise me a treat for it."

"A treat?"

Ned nodded. "A treat which may or may not involve me watching you with a vibrator until I'm ready to join in."

Nancy chuckled as she slipped off him, finding a cloth to clean herself up. "We'll see if you're still in the mood for it after."

--

When they pulled up outside the restaurant, Nancy glanced down at her outfit. She wore a pair of straight-leg jeans and a navy-and-gold striped sweater, the pendant Ned had given her around her neck, brown boots on her feet. Her red-gold hair was pinned half-up and fell straight down her back. She gave a slight nod of approval, then slipped into her leather jacket.

Ned was looking troubled again. Nancy reached over and touched his hand, giving him a tentative smile, and his answering smile was faint. "Sweetheart..."

Ned shook his head a little. "I... Nan..."

She slipped her fingers between his. "Did you change your mind?"

He shrugged. "Can we just explain to him that this wasn't my idea?"

Nancy's father waved to them when they walked in. Ned was wearing the sweater she had given him for Christmas and a pair of dark jeans, and just as she always did when they were in public, Nancy noticed the women whose gazes tracked her husband from across the room. For not the first time she sent up silent thanks that he had decided not to pursue a modeling or acting career; while he was definitely more than charming enough and hot enough for it, she would have gone crazy if he had been around sexy, flirtatious women all the time.

"It's so good to see both of you," Carson said with a smile as Ned pulled out Nancy's chair, then took his own. "Everything going okay?"

Nancy nodded, smiling back at her father. "Everything's going mostly okay. How are you doing?"

"Can't complain, especially not since my favorite girl—and son-in-law—are here. It was nice to have guests over the holidays; maybe we'll be able to do something together again over the summer."

They placed their orders once the waitress approached. Nancy opted for a bowl of minestrone soup and half a grilled turkey and cheese sandwich. Ned ordered a roast beef sandwich with chips, and Carson asked for the grilled chicken flatbread pizza. "Hey, sometimes I like to try something new," he said, when Nancy raised her eyebrows at him.

"So, as much as I love to see you two..." Carson sat back expectantly, looking back and forth between the two of them, and Nancy saw a certain gleam in his eye. Oh, she hadn't even considered what he might be anticipating when she had called him that morning and asked what his schedule was like.

Nancy draped her napkin over her lap, then reached for Ned's hand, and she was relieved when he wrapped his fingers around hers. She knew that he wasn't fully on board with her plan, and she understood, but she was still determined to ask.

She smiled at her father. "Dad... what we were talking about, at Christmas. When you asked how we were doing."

Carson nodded. "More car trouble?"

She shook her head. "No, the car is running fine for now, but... Ned's company is going through a rough patch, and we were talking last night about the possibility of his going back to school for his MBA." She squeezed Ned's hand. "I just thought it would be smart to ask if you had an opinion on it."

Ned relaxed marginally beside her, before Carson glanced over at him. "Well, Ned, that is a shame, but going back for your MBA would definitely be a plus," he said with a smile. "You have how much experience, now?"

"Not counting the internships I did while I was at Emerson... just over two and a half years," Ned said. "And the programs I was looking into wouldn't be full time, so I could keep working while I'm in school."

Nancy sat back as the two of them began discussing the options in front of them. Carson had connections to a few of the people in the city's top MBA program—of course he did; Nancy was only surprised when her father didn't know someone who knew someone. While they talked, Nancy was a little surprised when Ned admitted that his job had become both a little more stressful and a little less challenging than he wanted, and even if the situation stabilized, he was still seriously considering finding another employer. By the time they were finished, Nancy would have been considering going back for her own MBA—if she had any interest in such a thing.

Nancy stirred her steaming bowl of soup, then took a bite of her sandwich. "Dad," she said slowly, "I know that you fully intended to pay for my undergraduate costs... I think you called it an investment in my future."

Carson nodded, swallowing his bite of flatbread. "And it ended up being a learning experience, but that's okay. I've been very proud of your career, sweetheart."

She gave him a brief, genuine smile. "Ned... well, we've been talking about options, if he does decide to go this route, and given the expense involved..."

Carson nodded again. "An MBA would definitely be a significant investment in the future."

Nancy dipped her head. "I was wondering if we could use a part of the money you were going to use for Wilder, for that investment. Because it is an investment, in our future, and... Ned's told me he didn't even really want me to ask you, but... if he applies and he's accepted, it's something we could use now, something we need more than we need a new car or a college fund for our future children or any of that."

Carson glanced between the two of them. "But Ned, you don't want...?"

Ned shook his head firmly. "I've never been one to ask for handouts, sir," he said, his voice steady. "And when I married your daughter, the vows we made to each other—I vowed to provide for her, and I fully intend to do that. Our lives are my responsibility. If it takes saving up for a while, applying for loans... then that's what I'm willing to do."

Carson studied his son-in-law for a moment. "You've always had a very sensible head on your shoulders, Ned," he said finally. "What Nancy said is true; I had the money set aside, and still have the money set aside. And I can afford to do this.

"So, we can compromise," he said, glancing over at his daughter. "Most of the programs are a little over two years; I'd like to pay for the first year, at least."

Ned started shaking his head. "Sir—"

"I can't begin to tell you how much it means to see you two settled," Carson said, and Ned closed his mouth. "And I couldn't have possibly asked for a more responsible son-in-law. It's been a while since I've been able to spoil Nancy; I'd be happy to do this for you. And my reward will be seeing the spoils of it, knowing that I've helped the two of you. So let me do this, Ned. Humor your father-in-law."

Ned chuckled softly, shaking his head. "Well, we still haven't decided for sure, but... we will definitely consider your offer, and if I'm accepted, we'll... we'll let you know."

Nancy reached for Ned's hand and squeezed it. "Sweetheart, you know if you apply you'll be accepted," she told him. "You're amazing."

Carson smiled. "You will definitely be a strong candidate, especially if you do well on the entrance exam," he agreed. "And once you graduate you'll have five years' experience... I would definitely consider it an excellent investment."

Ned squeezed Nancy's hand in return before he reached across the table and shook Carson's hand. "Sir... thank you," he said simply.

"I'm glad you didn't make me go into lawyer-mode," Carson said, smiling as he raised another slice of his flatbread pizza.

"True. There's no defense against lawyer mode," Nancy said solemnly, only a touch of mockery in her voice.

"No defense for most ordinary mortals," Carson agreed. "Although I raised you, sweetheart, and you ended up being my own kryptonite. Thank God you only use your powers for good."

Nancy chuckled. "Speaking of, I saw some news coverage on your trial from last week..."

For the rest of the meal they only talked about cases and work, without talking about Carson's offer. Before they parted Carson hugged his daughter and shook Ned's hand, telling them that he definitely expected to see them come to River Heights for dinner within the next few weeks; if Hannah had enough warning, she would certainly be happy to make one of Ned's favorite desserts, just to sweeten the bargain.

Ned released a long, long sigh after he slid into the driver's seat, unfastening his coat. "See, that wasn't so bad, right?" Nancy said, her voice light.

"I just hate feeling like we have to depend on anyone else," he admitted softly.

Nancy reached for his hand again. "I told you last night," she said. "It's not like that. He wanted to help us, and it's no hardship on him at all. Besides... this is a way for me to help you." She smiled at him. "Wilder wasn't the right choice for me... but if you decide going back to school is the right choice for you, then it's like it wasn't a total waste."

Ned put the key in the ignition and turned it. "And your dad, I'm sure, is going to invite us to a lot more family dinners now..."

"Don't tell me you begrudge going to River Heights," she said, shaking her head. "I don't ever say a bad word about going to Mapleton..."

"That's because my parents love you—sometimes I think more than me," Ned teased her. "And you know that as long as Hannah's cooking, I've never minded going to River Heights."

Nancy chuckled. "Well, let's just get them all together for one big meal—that should make them happy for a while. Which leaves us with one last thing."

"Oh?" Ned glanced over at her as he paused at a stop sign.

Nancy traced a meaningless design on her knee with her fingernail, looking down, her teeth sunk into her lip. "If you're not happy with what I just did, Mr. Nickerson, I guess you'll just have to take me home and punish me."

"Hmm," he mused. "I don't know about punishment, Miss Drew. I kind of had plans for this afternoon."

"Oh?" she replied, her heart sinking a little.

"You know, send out a few resumes, maybe start studying for the entrance exam." He negotiated a turn, pointedly not looking at her. "And then tying my wife to the bed and seeing if we can break our record."

"Which one? Number of times we've had sex in one night, number of times you've made me come in one night, number of times I've screamed, number of times the cops have been called because of my screaming...?"

He flashed her a wicked grin. "Let's shoot for all of the above."

Chapter Text

"Oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit," Nancy muttered, darting into the grocery store as soon as the automatic doors parted. Her cell phone was in her hand, and she watched the screen impatiently, waiting for the call to connect.

The grocery store's front display case was crowded with red-and-white frosted cookie cakes, heart-shaped cakes, pink-sprinkled cupcakes. A cupid cutout swayed gently above the specially priced cabernet. Red rose bouquets tilted hopefully in a refrigerated endcap. Miniature cartoon valentines and heart-shaped chocolate sampler boxes sat on displays in the middle of the main aisle.

Nancy bypassed all of it without a second glance, skidding as she rounded the corner onto the baking aisle.

"Hello?"

"Hannah!" Nancy cried. "Hannah the top of the cheesecake cracked and I don't know what to do—"

"Ganache," Hannah replied instantly.

"But what do I need?"

Six minutes later, Nancy dashed out of the store carrying a bag filled with chocolate chips and heavy cream, and some strawberries for good measure. At every stoplight she tapped her palm hard against her steering wheel, gritting her teeth. Ned's car wasn't parked outside their townhouse when she arrived, and she had her keys out and in her hand by the time she reached their front door.

Hannah had warned her not to rush through making the ganache. Nancy turned the heat as high as she dared under a small saucepan, then dumped in the chocolate chips and the heavy cream and a dash of vanilla extract. When Ned walked through their front door, Nancy had only taken the time to toe out of her shoes between stirring. The mixture had melted into a gorgeously glossy deep brown, and after liberally spreading it over the top of the cheesecake, Nancy had just slipped the pan back into the refrigerator.

"Hey."

"Hey," Nancy said, licking a smear of chocolate off the ball of her thumb. Ned put his briefcase down near the front door, toeing out of his own shoes. At least the paper bag in his hands looked too small to hold a box of chocolates, too light to hold a bottle of wine.

Ned and Nancy had decided that he would study for the GMAT and apply to grad school, and they would continue to save up for their anniversary trip, and part of their agreement was that they wouldn't buy anything special for Valentine's Day. Nancy had been very sincere when she had told him that she loved the heart pendant he had given her for Christmas and she really didn't want anything else, and she had been determined to make him a great homecooked meal in lieu of a fancy restaurant dinner. The pot roast had been simmering all day in the slow cooker, and the gloriously rich scent of roasted beef, potatoes, carrots, and onions in a savory broth had filled their townhouse. Nancy was just searching the cabinet for the bag of rice when Ned came into the kitchen and slipped his arms around his wife, dropping a kiss onto the crown of her head.

"Smells fantastic, babe."

Nancy turned her head to grin at him, and he brushed his lips against hers. "Want a beer?"

"I'll get it, you're busy," he said, lightly squeezing her before he moved over to the refrigerator. "Although—we still have that bottle of wine I picked up last week...?"

"Mmmm. That sounds great."

The rice was simmering on the stove when Nancy ran upstairs, stripping off her work clothes. The last time she and Bess had gone out for a shopping trip, Bess had talked her into buying an incredibly low-cut black dress, the bodice embellished by a scattering of sequins, the skirt swirling saucily at her knees. The back dipped low enough to make wearing a bra impossible, and so Nancy slipped into a tiny pink lace thong, then tugged the dress on.

She had piled her hair on top of her head and was threading an earring through her lobe when she heard the timer go off downstairs. "Hey babe, could you take the rice off the eye?" she called down to her husband.

"Sure," Ned called back.

The timer stopped its insistent bleating and Nancy marginally relaxed. She finished putting her earrings in, applied a layer of wickedly cherry-red lipstick, and pulled out a pair of glittery peep-toe heels she had only found one other opportunity to wear.

Ned raised his eyebrows when she stepped into the entryway. "Damn, sweetheart. You look... you look amazing."

Nancy grinned and gave him a little curtsy. "Thanks," she said.

"Well, I'd better go upstairs and get changed; I don't think I meet the dress code anymore," Ned joked, rising from the couch. He looped his arm around her waist and pulled her tight to him. "Seriously, Nan. I'd love to take you out and show you off—if I didn't think every guy within a fifty-mile radius would be panting over you immediately." He gently traced a fingertip down from her collarbone to the lowest point of the dress's neckline, and Nancy swallowed hard.

"As long as you're one of them," she said, her voice low and sultry, but the effect was ruined by her grin. "I'll go ahead and set the table."

A GMAT prep book was open on the coffee table. Nancy's gaze lingered on it for a moment before she went to the cabinet to take out two plates. Ned only had a few weeks left before the absolute last date he could take the exam, and he had spent every spare second he could find studying for it. On Monday night he had already planned to meet with a few guys he knew from Emerson who had previously taken the exam and could get him some prep tips.

He had been home, he had always been home, or at least a phone call away. Nancy shook her head as she found knives and forks. This was important to him and so it was important to her. So she had been spoiled by his presence for a while...

But it didn't feel like being spoiled at all. It felt like her natural place was in his arms, and every moment she was out of his presence some small part of her just grew steadily more distracted until their gazes met again.

She set the table with the dinner plates and salad bowls, wineglasses, knives and forks, and tied an apron around her to keep her dress clean before she pulled all the salad ingredients out of the refrigerator. Ned came back downstairs, his cell phone to his ear, and she heard him laugh before he ended the call.

"Something come up?"

Ned shook his head, brushing a hand through his hair. He left the phone on the coffee table and joined her in the kitchen, and her mouth went dry at the sight of him. He was dressed like they actually were going out, in a dark grey button-down and a pair of tailored slacks.

Ned's gaze met hers and Nancy realized that she was standing totally still, her hands still poised above the lettuce she had been chopping for their salads. Ned gave her a grin and she felt a shiver travel all the way down her spine, down into her core.

"Need some help?"

Very deliberately Nancy let her gaze travel over him, all the way from his dark hair to his leather shoes. "You know what you said earlier, about not wanting to take me out? Holy hell, Ned." She shook her head. "A girl could get pregnant just looking at you. And I am the luckiest girl in the world."

Ned smiled, coming over to stand behind her and slip his arms around her, and her eyes fluttered shut as he embraced her, his chest, the long muscular lines of his legs, pressed to her back. "That's how I feel every morning when I wake up and see you beside me," he told her, his voice low, and she shivered when his lips brushed against her neck. "I can't believe this incredible, gorgeous woman is mine."

Nancy drew in a trembling breath. "As much as I'd love to, I'm afraid that if you touch me one more time..."

"That what?" he murmured, and gently traced his tongue against the join of her neck and shoulder. "It's not like we don't have a microwave..."

She made a soft frustrated sound, wiping her wet hands on the kitchen towel hanging on the oven door, then turned in his arms. His hips pressed to hers, the counter lip against the small of her back, as his mouth crushed against hers, her hand coming up, her fingers running through his hair. His tongue slipped against hers and when she drew a breath her bare breasts pressed to his chest through their clothes, and God, the smell of him, the smell of his aftershave and cologne and just him, the deliberate stroke of his fingertips down the line of her spine, picking at the knot of the apron, were enough to leave her trembling.

She let out a soft whimper when they broke the kiss, and with just the faintest rock of her hips against his he was bending to her again. He had her trapped, his broad chest and taller frame hemming her in, and she loved the thrill of that, of feeling small and powerless in his arms, fully aware that he would never betray her trust in him. At the end of the night, no matter what they had pretended, he would always take her into the safe circle of his arms.

"So beautiful," he whispered against her lips, pulling the strings of the apron free as he untied them, and he cupped her hip as she sighed. "You are so incredibly beautiful, Nan."

"Oh God, Ned," she whispered, slipping her arms around him again as he nuzzled against her neck, boosting her so she was fully in his power. When her legs parted to cradle his hips she felt how damp her thong already was. "God, every time I see you you're all I think about—I can't believe how much I want you, how much I just need to touch you, to look into your eyes." When he tipped back, bringing his head up so he could gaze directly at her, she shuddered even harder against him.

"You are my drug, baby," he whispered, brushing the tip of his nose against hers.

"And you're mine," she breathed, tilting her head so she could brush her lips against his one last time.

They released each other reluctantly, and he even retied her apron for her, then swatted her ass. She giggled.

"You definitely need to wipe your face, Mr. Nickerson."

"You saying this isn't my shade of lipstick, Ms. Drew?"

She shivered when he addressed her that way. "Not quite. Who was on the phone?"

"Oh—my parents. Who say happy Valentine's day, by the way."

"Aww. Do they have plans tonight?"

"Yep. They're actually coming into the city," he said, tearing off a paper towel to wipe off the trace of her lipstick. "But they promise they aren't going to come by," he said when she glanced over her shoulder at him, transferring the lettuce into a serving bowl.

Nancy chuckled. "That's good. Because you're the only person I have any intention of entertaining tonight."

"You want me to do anything?"

Nancy tipped her chin to indicate the far cabinet. "Want to grab a platter and get the roast out of the crock?"

The last thing Nancy did before they sat down at the table was pop the rolls into the oven. Ned uncorked the wine and poured them each a glass, then raised his, nodding at her to do the same.

"To my wife," he said softly. "To the other half of my heart. I know things have been a little crazy lately, but it means so much to me that you've been supporting me through it, sweetheart."

Nancy swallowed against the rising lump of tears in her throat, raising her glass. "To my husband," she whispered. "To the most amazing guy I've ever met, and the other half of my heart. I want you to have everything you've ever wanted, Ned, even if it means going back to school for a while, just as long as I'm by your side all the way through it."

They clicked their glasses together, and Ned smiled at her. "If you had told me you didn't want me to do it, babe, then I wouldn't have," he told her. "And who knows, maybe I'll land some amazing job next week—but I want you to know that as long as you're happy, as long as I'm able to support you and keep you safe, that's what matters to me."

She smiled at him, unable to speak, and then the timer went off.

The pot roast had come out as close to perfect as any Nancy had attempted to make, and Nancy fought the urge to take a picture of it just to show Hannah. While Nancy was okay at cooking, comparing her meals to Hannah's always left Nancy feeling supremely inadequate. The potatoes, carrots, and onions barely held together long enough to reach their plates, and Ned dipped the gravy out of the tray to swirl over his rice.

"Nan, seriously—I can't imagine anything better," he told her, glancing up from his plate. "You did an amazing job."

Nancy blushed a little. "It was nothing," she said with a small wave.

"Oh no, it definitely is something. I'll have to treat you next time."

Nancy chuckled, remembering their time at Chef DuPres's cooking school. "Maybe we can whip up a nice roux together."

"I'm sure we can whip up something together," Ned said, wiggling his eyebrows.

The roast was just slightly overdone, but she loved the way it immediately fell apart when she slipped the tines of her fork into it. The rolls came out perfect, a delicious golden-brown, and once their plates were cleared, Nancy ruefully patted her belly, taking one last sip of her wine. "All salads tomorrow," she said ruefully, rising to put their plates in the sink to rinse them before loading the dishwasher.

Ned shook his head, opening a cabinet to find a container for the leftover roast and vegetables. "You look gorgeous, babe," he told her. "And I love that I don't practically cut myself on hipbones or ribs when you're naked."

She tossed her napkin at him, her eyes sparkling. "Glad I can oblige you, Mr. Nickerson. You feel like doing cheesecake now...?"

Ned, intentionally misinterpreting, directed a lecherous glance at her long, bare legs atop her glittery heels. She giggled again. "If it involves those gorgeous legs of yours," he growled with a smile. Then his eyes lit up, almost dangerously. "Speaking of...?"

It took a second for Nancy to figure out what he was talking about. She put the rest of the salad in the refrigerator and raised her eyebrows. "Tonight?"

"Tonight, right now," he said with a shrug, finding space on a shelf for the plastic container he had loaded. She put the serving platter in the sink to rinse, then reached for the wine glasses, and the table was clear. "I mean, if you want...?"

"Well... Can I go upstairs and get ready?"

"You look great right now," he pointed out, "but yeah, if you want. In fact, upstairs might be better—and we can work up an appetite for dessert." He wiggled his eyebrows.

Nancy took a deep breath, wiping off the table, then came over to him and drew his face to hers for a soft, lingering kiss. "Just give me a sec, then follow me up," she told him, her voice low and husky.

Ned had just mentioned it casually, almost tentatively, clearly unsure if she would go along with it. She had told him that she didn't like when he looked at porn, and that conversation in itself had been hard to get through. It had been hard for her to even bring it up; she had been afraid that he wouldn't understand, that he would protest or get defensive. He had agreed, though, saying that if it upset her that much, he would give it up for her.

Then he had suggested that if she didn't like him looking at pictures of other girls, maybe she wouldn't mind him looking at pictures of her instead.

Nancy had raised an eyebrow at him. "I thought half the thrill of it was imagining having sex with someone who wasn't the person waiting for you at home."

He had shrugged. "Well, kinda, but it doesn't mean anything," he had told her. "It's not real. But I love seeing you naked, and if I have that..."

Nancy had intentionally ignored the porn he had had before, so she didn't actually know for sure the kind of thing he would like. The first thing she did was make sure his necklace was still hanging around her neck. She reapplied her lipstick, though, and when she saw a tube in her makeup drawer, she shrugged a little to herself, uncapping it. She ran a hand over her belly, momentarily wishing that she hadn't eaten quite so much of the roast or that they were waiting until she'd had time to hit the gym for an hour or two. Regardless of her self-consciousness over the way her body looked when she was naked, she had never seen Ned look at her with anything but desire in his eyes, despite the paler circle of flesh marking her bullet scar, despite the other scars her work had given her.

Ned was in their bedroom when she walked in. Nancy had traced a line of subtly glittering lotion over her decolletage, and Ned grinned when he saw it, when he saw the look of something like shyness on her face.

"Just like that, sweetheart," he said, and raised the camera. Nancy's fingers toyed idly with the hem of her dress, and she gave him a soft smile as he took the snapshot.

"So how do you want me?" she asked.

"Why don't you just sit down," he said, gesturing at the bed.

She sat down a little self-consciously at the foot of the bed, and though neither of them had said that he was in control, she obeyed his instructions as though he was. He asked her to slowly unzip her dress, to slide one strap down, to bite her thumb and look at the camera from beneath lowered lashes, taking a snapshot each time. As soon as he had taken the shot she giggled a little. The wine was warm in her, and while she couldn't quite believe she looked as sultry as any of the women he had watched in those videos, when she saw that look in Ned's eyes, it was almost enough to change her mind.

Once she slipped out of the dress, she put on the soft pink bra that matched the thong, then pulled down one of the cups, directing a seductive glance at her husband. He let out a soft growl as he pressed the button and the flash went off. "Yeah, baby."

"You like this?" She cupped her breast, covering it and giving him a little pout.

"Oh hell yes, Nan."

She slipped the other strap down, revealing her other breast and parting her legs. "And this?"

"Mmmmm."

She took her bra entirely off and let her hair down, tossing it seductively, and Ned made encouraging noises. If she just focused on him instead of the camera, on pleasing him instead of thinking about him looking back on this, she didn't feel quite so self-conscious. She moved so she was on her back on the bed, her red-gold hair fanned out on the coverlet, then raised her joined legs straight into the air, gazing directly at him through the lens of the camera.

"Mmmm. Yeah, sweetheart. So fucking sexy."

She cupped her breasts, arching, and she could hear Ned panting as she drew her fingertips down, lightly, down over the line of her chest, until her thumb was hooked in the elastic of her underwear, the flash going off with every shot he took. "What will you give me if I show you everything, Mr. Nickerson?" she asked breathlessly, pinning him with a sultry stare.

"Every fucking inch," he vowed, his voice a low growl. "Every fucking inch until you're screaming, Miss Drew. Now show me how wet that sweet little cunt is for me."

She teased him, though, making him wait as she rolled over onto her knees, her bare breasts loose as she bent her legs to bring her feet up. He walked around the bed to get a shot of her from behind and she got onto all fours, her hair in a messy spill down her shoulders as she directed a sultry gaze back at him. Then she stood up on her knees, arching as she stretched with her arms up in the air, and Ned groaned. His erection was already tenting his pants as the flash went off again.

"You want me in one of your shirts, baby?" she asked, her voice low and breathy.

"Mmmm. Only if you take that damn thong off soon."

She dipped her head, finding one of his old shirts, and buttoned it half up, then piled her hair back on top of her head in a messy bun. She pulled the cuffs of the shirt up over her hands and bit her thumb as she stared at him, then pulled the collar a little further open to reveal more skin. She stretched again, then cupped her hands over her hips, drawing the fabric tight over her breasts so that the rosy tips of her tight nipples showed through.

"You're gonna kill me," Ned groaned. "Holy hell, Nan."

She looked down, unbuttoning all but the last button, then pulled the shirt open to reveal her breasts. "Now, Mr. Nickerson," she murmured, "what was it you said you wanted?"

"You know exactly what I want," he growled.

She slipped off the bed, letting his shirt fall down from her shoulders, then hooked her thumb in the waistband of her thong. She turned so she was almost in profile, almost in silhouette, her breasts already hard-tipped, then slowly pushed the side of her thong down. Instead of letting it fall she bent over to slip it all the way down to her ankles herself, and by the time she brought herself back to her full height, Ned was practically panting in anticipation. She wore only her wedding rings and the necklace he had given her, and she stared straight at him as she took her hair down again, tossing her head.

"Was it... here?"

Ned's adam's apple bobbed as she let her fingertips drift down her breastbone, down her chest, to the neat line of curls at the slit of her sex. She traced just the edge, her lips parting.

"Right there, baby."

She moved onto the bed, sitting down and slowly parting her legs, then bending her knees and drawing them up. "You wanted to see it?"

"Yes."

His voice was so low that it sent a shiver down her spine as she reached down and parted her sex, and the cool air served to arouse her even more as it touched the glistening flesh of her cunt. The slick button of her clit throbbed as Ned moved close to her, the camera pointed at the join of her spread legs.

"Oh fuck yes, Nan. God, you are so fucking sexy."

"Tell me how much you want me," she whispered.

"I want you every second, every minute of every day," he told her, his voice a low growl that made her shiver. "I want every inch of you, every bit of you, I want to kiss and lick and suck my way down, taste that luscious pussy. I want to feel you shiver and scream against me while I fuck you, babe. God, I love when you're so slick and hot around me..."

She fully opened her legs, feeling entirely exposed, her heart beating so hard she could hear it echoing in her ears. "Mmmm," she moaned. "Oh yeah, baby."

"Can you... use a vibrator for me?" he asked, tapping the camera.

Nancy blinked up at him, arousal tingling down her spine. "Let's do that later," she murmured, and drew her legs back together.

Ned released a long groan when she reached for the thong. "Why are you getting dressed?" he asked, sounding almost desperate.

"Because I want some cheesecake," she told him, picking up her dress and brushing it off before she slipped it back on. "And it's Valentine's Day, and I don't want a toy inside me tonight, baby, I want it to be you, all you."

She was happy to see, when she pulled the cheesecake out of the refrigerator, that the ganache over the top had set. She carefully unbuckled the sides of the springform pan, then slowly worked a knife between the crust and the bottom of the pan, transferring it to a serving platter.

"Wow, sweetheart, that looks fantastic."

She directed a soft smile at him. "Thanks. I just hope it tastes good."

"I'm sure it will."

She placed a slice of cheesecake in front of her chair, two halved strawberries on the plate, then brought Ned's slice to him. He reached for it, but she didn't hand it over.

"So we need to talk about those pictures," she told him.

Ned raised his eyebrows. "How so?"

"Like the fact that they are for your... personal use only," she said, and only then did she hand over his slice of cheesecake and return to her seat.

Ned nodded. "I know."

"And I don't want you emailing them to yourself, because I can just see one 'accidentally' getting sent to all your friends..."

"Baby, you know I wouldn't do that."

"I know you wouldn't intentionally do that." She cut off a bite of cheesecake, lifting it to her lips. "I'm okay with you looking at those pictures, but the thought of someone else seeing me like that..."

Ned nodded. "I know, baby. And I won't."

"Okay," Nancy said, then tasted the cheesecake. "Oh... how do you like it?"

Ned gestured at his plate; half his slice was already gone. "It's great, Nan. I love it."

She smiled. "Good. I mean, I did freak out a little when the top cracked..."

She told him about making the ganache, and then Ned asked about her day, and she told him about her progress on the corporate espionage case she had been working all week. She was undercover at the firm as a temp, and she had found two very talkative administrative assistants who had a weakness for half-price margaritas at the restaurant just down the road from the firm. Ned was just pleased that his own week at work had been relatively peaceful. Rumors were still swirling about the possible sale, but they seemed to be all speculation, no hard fact yet. He was planning on using Saturday as a test prep day, studying and working on a practice exam.

Nancy had just swallowed the last bite of strawberry when Ned sat up straighter. "Oh hell. Almost forgot."

"Oh?"

He went over to the table beside the front door and handed her the small paper bag he had brought in. "I know it's not much, that we agreed... but I had to give you something, especially after how hard you worked on dinner. Happy Valentine's Day, Nan."

"Ned..." She glanced up at him. "Baby, we agreed..."

He nodded at the paper bag. "Just open it."

She opened the bag, her brow furrowing as she looked inside. She reached in and pulled out a paper heart linked to the next by a loop of red yarn. The hearts were in a chain, and each one had been cut from a map. The largest was in the middle, and when she looked at it more closely, she saw that Chicago was at the center.

Written in Ned's handwriting, in a thick black felt marker stroke, over the heart were the words "I love you."

"Oh, Ned..."

Each heart bore another city in its center. Most of them were places they had visited together: New York, Miami, San Francisco, South Padre Island, Paris, London, Edinburgh, Hong Kong, Tokyo. He had written the words again on each, in other languages, Spanish, French, Italian, Greek, Mandarin.

"This is so sweet," she said, looking up at him with a smile. "I'm going to take it to work and put it up at my desk, if that's okay."

He smiled at her. "I just wanted to do something," he said, with a small modest shrug. "And baby, you know I would have loved to put a diamond necklace in that bag, or a tennis bracelet..."

"But I love it," she told him, coming over to him and slipping onto his lap. He tipped his face up and she leaned down, giving him a soft kiss. "It means more to me that you put some actual work into it and made something so sweet for me."

He slipped his hand into her hair and pulled her down to him again, his lips parting, and they both tasted like strawberry and cheesecake and chocolate. Her eyes fluttered closed and she melted against him, letting out a little gasp as his warm palm cupped her breast through her dress. The neckline was so low that he tugged just a little and her breast was exposed. She shivered when he rubbed the ball of his thumb over her bare nipple, and then she gently bit his lower lip, sucking it into her mouth.

"You want to go upstairs so you can show me just how much you appreciate it?" he said, his voice low and husky.

"How about I show you right now?" she replied, leaning down to kiss him again.

Ned groaned in approval, then freed her other breast so he could fondle both. She made a low pleading sound, reaching behind her to unzip her dress, and when the kiss ended he pulled it over her head, leaving her clad only in her miniscule pink lace thong.

"Happy Valentine's Day to me," Ned murmured as he looked down at her.

She nodded, moving to straddle his lap, then wrapped her arms around his shoulders. "I want to unwrap the rest of my present," she told him, leaning in to flick her tongue against his earlobe. "You are wearing way too many clothes, sweetheart."

"So are you," he murmured, leaning down to suck the tight dusky bud of her nipple into his mouth as she set to work unbuttoning his shirt.

"Mmmm," she moaned, arching as he suckled against the sensitive flesh, plucking at the other with his fingertips. "Mmmmm, God, that feels so good, baby."

She opened his shirt and he released her nipple, leaving it slick, then rubbed the stubbled point of his chin against it, glancing up at her face to see her reaction. She shuddered, crying out.

"Should've known you'd like that," he murmured, repeating the motion, and her fingers tightened to a fist in his hair. He stroked her nipple with his thumb as he moved to the other one, his teeth glancing against the hard tip.

Nancy groaned as she moved forward to grind against his erection, clearly straining against his pants. "Mmmmmm... shit," she sighed, working on his fly.

He kept fondling her breasts with his mouth and hand as he slipped his other between her legs, deliberately stroking his thumb hard against the slit of her sex, and she gasped, bucking her hips. "Ned..." she moaned.

"I have been dying for you since we went upstairs," he growled against her breast. "And you will be dripping wet for me by the time I let you come."

Even though she was undulating against his touch, she forced herself to slide off his lap and pull him to his feet. Her knees were just a little wobbly, and even though the kitchen was chilly, Nancy was burning up, flushed with arousal. She pushed his pants down and Ned took his shirt off, and she picked up their empty plates and practically tossed them onto the countertop, leaving the kitchen table bare.

Then Ned grabbed her, one arm looping around her waist, the other tightening to a fist in her hair as he kissed her, roughly. She slipped her arms up around his neck and boosted herself, and he was in only his boxers, she in only her panties, and she shuddered at the feel of his warm, broad, muscular chest against her breasts, at the rough swipe of his tongue in her mouth. He took a few steps forward and they bumped against the table, her fingers in his hair, their kiss growing more desperate.

She moaned when he tipped his chin, breaking the kiss, and shivered when he began to work his way down, his lips hot against her neck, her shoulder. She bent her legs so she could use the sides of her feet to begin to push his boxers down, pulling the elastic away from him so it didn't catch the tip of his throbbing cock, and then his hips surged forward, the lace of her thong rough between them. Ned growled as he took the back of her thong and tugged it so the fabric slipped against her sex, and she gasped as the fabric rubbed against her clit.

"Oh, oh God," she whimpered as he squeezed her ass hard, then tipped her backward so that she lay prone on their kitchen table. She panted as he worked his way down, nipping at her breasts, her hips bucking as her thong pressed to her clit. Her fingers tightened to fists in his hair and she tipped her head back, groaning in pleasure as Ned slipped his hand under the thong and just barely brushed his fingertip over the slick button of her clit.

"Oh yes, yessss," she urged him on, planting her heels against the edge of the table to tilt her hips up, to grind in anticipation as he took the sides of her thong and began to slip it down. She tipped her head up to watch him, to see the desire and need in his eyes as he dropped her thong and returned to her.

"My sexy girl," he murmured. "My gorgeous, sexy wife..."

She brought her arms under her so she could prop herself up on her forearms, and he cupped her hips, dragging her to the edge of the table. She opened her legs wide for him, and he brushed the tips of his fingers just barely against the line of trimmed reddish curls at the edges of her sex. She moaned at his teasing, grinding her hips, seeking any contact at all.

"My husband," she whispered. "My handsome, incredibly sexy husband. I need you, baby..."

"You need me... here?" He brushed his fingertips lightly over her left nipple.

"Well, you're getting warm," she murmured with a smile, moaning when he arched over her, ducking down to briefly suckle and nip against her breast.

"Here?" He cupped her hips, drawing her up to him so he could suck the tender flesh just behind her earlobe.

Nancy twined her long legs around him, shivering when the length of his cock pressed against the slit of her sex. "Colder, baby," she moaned.

He kissed the point of her shoulder, the hollow of her hip, the underside of her knee, swiping his tongue up the sensitive flesh of her inner thigh. Whenever she tried slipping her legs around him again, trying to draw him against her again, he reached behind him and opened her legs again.

"Here?" He brushed his fingertips ticklish-light against the crease just beneath her belly, just above her pubic mound.

"Close," she moaned, sweeping her hair out of her face, her bent legs spread wide for him again. "Oh God, baby, please."

She was so sensitive, so tender in anticipation that when he kissed her belly button, then began to brush feather-light kisses down lower, his fingertips barely flirting with the tips of her pubic hair, she bucked under him, panting. "Mmmmm, please yes," she urged him, her brows knit. "Please, oh my God, oh my God."

"You sound a little unsure," Ned teased her, licking his way down until his breath was hot against the top of her sex. "Is this what you want?"

He nuzzled against the join of her thighs, the tip of his nose brushing against the slit of her sex. She reached down to part herself, feeling lightheaded and desperate with arousal, and then Ned ran the tip of his tongue over her firm clit—

She shuddered, her body drawing inward, tighter, as she bucked under him. He circled it and she whined, slipping her thumbs up and down the slit of her sex, holding herself open for him. "More," she begged, and he closed his lips around the slick bud, flicking his tongue just over the tip in harder and harder strokes, and Nancy whimpered, arching against the table.

"Oh yes, fuck that is so good," she cried out. "Oh God, baby, please, please..."

"Please what," Ned growled between licks. "Say it."

"Please fuck me," she whimpered. "Please, baby, oh God I need you, I need you so bad, please. My cunt is so wet for you."

She cried out when he traced his tongue down the slick folds of her sex, pressing it into her cunt, and she shivered as he lashed it against the tender flesh, circling, tasting her.

"Oh yeah, Nan," he said, and when he parted her sex and slipped his thumbs into the quivering slick heat of her opening, gently biting her clit, she tightened her fingers to fists in his hair, crying out again. He suckled her clit, pressing his thumbs deeper inside her, and she bucked, grinding up against his face.

"So sweet and tight," he growled, and she screamed when he rubbed the stubbled point of his chin against her clit, hard. "Mmmm, sweetheart. You taste so good."

"Please, please," she begged him again, sobbing in pleasure as he kept licking and rubbing his chin against her clit. "Oh so fucking good, Ned."

He licked and sucked and nuzzled against her until she was trembling, her skin gleaming faintly, her blue eyes hazed with desire. She dug her nails into his shoulder blades, her hips jerking as the glorious pressure of her arousal began to rise even higher, and she was desperate with need for him. He pulled back and she cried out in frustration, still bucking against the air, her cunt practically aching for his cock.

"Told you," he panted. "Dripping wet, sexy."

Her scream was so high it was soundless when he fitted himself inside her, then drove into her in one hard, rough thrust. His thumb rubbed hard against her clit and she wrapped her legs around him, and God, all of her was centered on the feel of his cock, hard and so gloriously big in the tight heat of her sex, as he moved inside her. She sobbed in pleasure, propping herself up again, tipping her head back to expose the column of her throat as she rocked to meet his thrusts.

"Oh yeah, baby," Ned groaned, and he trailed his fingertips up her sides and grasped her breasts, rolling her nipples. She tilted her hips, panting as he kept slamming into her.

"Oh, Ned, oh fuck, touch me," she begged him, and she screamed loudly when he dug his thumb against her clit. He let out a pleased moan when her cunt pulsed tight around his cock. "Oh yes yes yes," she gasped out. "Yes oh God yes! Mmmmmm, so good, oh Ned..."

Ned brought his other hand to her hip, his fingers digging into her ass as he stood on his tiptoes to cant his hips, and she screamed as the angle of his cock changed, as she tightened around him again. They rutted against each other and she couldn't breathe, she couldn't feel anything other than him, his fingers, the heat of his hips as they moved between her thighs, the hard press of his cock. She sobbed and God, she could hear how wet she was, could hear him moving inside her.

He dragged her so she was just barely hanging over the edge of the table, and when she brought her knees up, Ned cried out. "Oh God, please baby tell me you're close," he begged her. "Oh fuck Nan you feel so fucking good, oh shit."

She let out a desperate moan and when Ned bucked harder against her in sharper thrusts, leaning down to pull the bud of her nipple into his mouth again, she felt her core pulse as her orgasm broke. She sucked in a breath and screamed, her nails digging into his shoulder blades. "Oh fuck oh yes yes! Oh God don't stop," she screamed, and he was slamming into the table, she could feel it vibrating under her. He stroked her clit more rapidly and she screamed again, her brow knitting as he pounded into her.

"Louder," he ordered her. "Louder!"

"Ned!" she screamed, and then she was incoherent, burbling "Yes yes yesssss" over and over as he kept fondling her, as he suckled against her other breast. He bit the tight bud of her nipple gently and she dug her heels against the small of his back, all of her shuddering, her throat dry, her eyes rolling back as he drove her orgasm impossibly high.

"Oh God, come," she cried out, shuddering again as he licked her nipple, and he drove himself roughly between her thighs, trembling as he spent himself inside her. His face was still pressed to her skin, her body tangled around his, and he moaned when she trembled with the aftershocks, when just the feel of his breath against her skin made her clench.

"God," Ned groaned, pulling her up and into his arms, and she felt limp and useless, spent at the force of her climax. She slipped her arms around him in return, nuzzling against his neck, feeling his lips brush against the join of her neck and shoulder in return.

"Oh my God," she sighed, letting her legs slip apart, her thighs caressing his hips. "Oh my God, baby. Oh, oh God."

She was shivering, and Ned gripped her tighter, pushing himself up to his full height. "You cold, Nan?"

"A little," she admitted, her eyes still closed. "Everywhere I'm not touching you, anyway."

He wrapped one arm around her back, using the other to support her ass as he carried her up the stairs, and when he gently lowered her to her bare feet in the bathroom, she shivered at the feel of the cool tile on her skin. He ran a washcloth under warm water and she sighed as he ran it against her inner thighs, then cleaned himself up.

"You okay?"

She reached up and threaded her fingers through his hair again, drawing him down to her for a kiss. "You are so good," she whispered against his lips, tasting herself on his tongue. "So fucking amazing, baby. Mmmmmm."

She was shivering again when they went to their bedroom to put on flannel pants and long-sleeved shirts, then headed back downstairs. She gathered up their discarded clothes while Ned went to the television set, cueing up the movie.

"You want another glass of wine, baby?" she asked, looking in the refrigerator.

"And some more cheesecake," he said with a smile. "I seem to have somehow worked up an appetite."

She cut out a generous slice and put another handful of strawberries on the plate, along with two forks. She switched to water but poured Ned another glass of wine, and when she settled on the couch, snuggling into his side, he pulled the blanket down and tucked it around her, stroking his hand down her side, his lips curved up in a gentle smile.

Nancy's heart swelled as she searched his eyes. "I love you so much," she whispered.

"And I love you," he told her, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. "I always have, sweetheart, and I always will."

As the credits began to roll Ned picked up the cheesecake slice, lifted the first bite, then turned to Nancy. "Open up."

She chuckled but opened her mouth anyway, letting him feed her the first bite. "Mmmm. It is pretty good," she admitted.

"It's great, Nan," he told her, taking his own bite.

Deciding on a movie to watch had taken a little time. Nancy didn't really go for that many romantic comedies, and Ned usually liked more plot than they provided. They had settled on an action movie; a hard-drinking British ex-spy played by a brooding handsome actor found out that his presumed-dead partner, a beautiful woman for whom he had always nursed strong feelings, was alive and living under another name, and he had to find out why.

Nancy sighed with contentment as she swallowed the last bite of her strawberry, leaving the top of the fruit on the plate. She pulled the blanket back over her, nestling into Ned's side, and she couldn't imagine possibly feeling happier. Ned's arm was draped over her shoulders, and she leaned against him.

On the screen, the male lead recoiled when he used a telephoto lens to spy on his former partner, and saw her with a small child in her arms. He leaned back, his expression going distant.

A child.

Nancy blinked lazily, the flesh between her legs still tender when she shifted, and felt herself begin to drift off, warm and safe, entirely sated.

A child.

The next few scenes were irritating because she had done surveillance so much and the ex-spy's use of the computer was entirely wrong, but Nancy perked up during the fistfight. Ned rested his cheek against the crown of her head and Nancy chuckled, her foot brushing his.

"How are you doing?" he murmured.

"It's good," she told him, and felt his fingertips brush against her thigh. She slipped her hand under his and their palms were matched. "I mean, none of those punches connected at all..."

Ned chuckled. "Sorry."

"It's okay."

His lips brushed her scalp. "I'm sorry we couldn't make a whole weekend of this, baby."

"Of wild sex and feeding each other cheesecake?" She smiled. "Guess we'll just have to put that on the agenda for our summer trip."

"Yeah." He laced his fingers between hers. "I love you, sweetheart."

"I love you too," she murmured, then closed her eyes. "I... Ned, you're going to be in school for two and a half years..."

"If I'm accepted," he said mildly.

"After you're accepted," she corrected him. "And you decide to go. And... I was thinking that maybe... maybe once you're graduated, we could talk about..."

"Talk about what?" Ned prompted, when Nancy trailed off. He moved to look into her face, and both of them were entirely ignoring the movie.

"Maybe... maybe about trying to get pregnant."

Ned's dark eyes studied hers, a small smile teasing his lips. "And maybe we could talk about it in two years," he murmured. "Because, after all, Miss Drew, making a baby takes a bit of practice."

"Oh, is that what we've been doing, practicing?" she murmured, her smile turning into a small grin.

"Yeah," he whispered, leaning down and kissing her softly. "Nan... that would be great."

She tilted her head and kissed him again, sweetly, bringing her other hand up to run her fingers through his hair.

"If I wasn't about to try to go back to school—are you—" Ned made a soft frustrated noise, his forehead against hers. "Are you sure you want to wait that long? Is it going to upset you?"

Nancy shook her head. "No," she said softly. "I just want us to be in a good place. I don't want you not studying because there's a baby crying in the next room, and I want you to be around for all those little moments, and there's no way I could ever do it without you... and maybe if we work hard for the next two years, we'll get all this desperately kinky shit and screaming orgasms out of our systems..."

"You mean all those really loud and terribly dirty things we've been doing to each other, those things which are highly inappropriate for a set of suburban parents to do?"

"Yeah," she said with a slow nod.

"And we'll be reduced to five-minute missionary-position before the ten o'clock news, like you told me?"

"Yep," she said, making her eyes wide and innocent. "And I'll be a good girl who will be positively scandalized if you ask me to put on the clamps and fuck myself with a vibrator while I deep-throat you, and I'll blush like a virgin if you pull out the strap-on..."

"Oh, but Miss Drew, will you truly be good?" He let his fingertips drift against the join of her thighs, leaning in to nuzzle against her ear, his breath warm against her skin. "Because I hate to tell you this, but every single second of every single day I want you... and the only concession I intend to make is maybe an investment in a gag. Which will pain me deeply, because there's nothing hotter than hearing you scream while I'm pounding into that sweet cunt."

Nancy bit back a soft moan. "Good," she sighed, arching when he sucked against the pulse point of her neck. "Because I might blush like a virgin but the thought of you and that strap-on is always gonna get me wet."

Only with the most intense effort did they manage to return their attention to the movie. He kept his hand between her thighs, and she knew when he was losing interest in the plot when he idly traced his fingertips against her. She kept picking up his hand and moving it away, but he kept gravitating back to her, and she kept smiling every time he did.

The soundtrack kicked up as the ex-spy embraced his former partner and their child, and as the screen faded to black, Ned turned to Nancy, brushing his lips against her cheek. "Should've lit some candles," he said in a soft growl. "Would've been perfect... God, I love the way you look in candlelight."

Nancy moved to press her mouth, hard and brief, to his, then pulled herself out of his embrace, finding the matches in the kitchen and a pair of white pillar candles left on the bookcase from the last time the power had gone out. She brought them over to the coffee table to light them as Ned turned the television off, and when she turned back to him with a triumphant smile, the small flames dancing, the soft light playing over them, she saw it reflected in his eyes and her heart clenched painfully in her chest.

"Exactly," he whispered, bringing his hand up, tucking a strand of red-gold hair behind her ear. "Exactly like this."

"Just think," she said softly. "We won't be able to do this anymore, after."

"Yes we will," he told her, pulling her shirt off, and she squirmed when he nipped at her hard-tipped breasts. "Because once a week, love, you and I will have a date night, and the kids will be far enough away that you'll be able to scream your heart out. Promise me that."

She nodded, running her fingers through his hair. The candlelight caught gold in the dark strands. "Yes," she murmured. "Oh, yes."

They stripped out of their clothes, their caresses growing bolder, fingertips and then nails scraping over skin, soft kisses turning rougher, and once they were finally naked she straddled him, tossing her hair, moaning in pleasure as he cupped her breasts. He slid his hips toward the edge of the cushion to give her space to maneuver, and she stood up on her knees, panting as she sank down onto his cock.

Ned caught her hair in his fingers and tugged lightly, his other hand sliding down her belly so he could tease her clit. "Mmmmm," he murmured. "Oh yeah, baby. God, you look so gorgeous."

"So do you," she moaned, teasing the hair at the back of his neck as she circled her hips, sliding back down onto him. "Oh, oh my God..."

He licked his thumb, then rubbed it against her clit, and she shuddered as she pulled back for another thrust. He tugged her hair again, then released it to trace his hand down her spine, squeezing and massaging her ass.

"You want a spanking, baby?"

She shook her head, her lips parted as she whimpered. "I want you everywhere," she admitted. "Oh, oh my God..."

"Everywhere? Here?" He gently brushed his fingertips just over the cleft of her ass.

"Yes," she moaned.

"Here, too?" He worked his thumb harder against her clit as he traced her softly panting lips, and she kissed his palm, nodding.

"All at once?"

She nodded. "Fill me up," she breathed, her hips trembling, bucking as she rocked down against him. "Everywhere, baby."

"If you hadn't said no toys..."

"Next time," she promised, then gasped as he ran the edge of his nail over the tip of her clit. "Oh, oh God oh God so soooooooo good!"

He tugged her hair again, harder, as she cried out. "Two nights a week," he grunted. "God, I can't go six whole days without feeling you around me..."

"Oh my God," she sobbed out as she made her strokes shorter and sharper, rutting against him, bouncing to take the full length of his hard, thick cock. "Oh yes oh yesssss! Mmmmm, oh my God!"

"Come," he ordered her, leaning back so he was angled against the back of the couch, using the leverage to thrust his hips up under hers. "Come, Nan, oh God..."

She tipped her head back, the ends of her hair swaying, her breasts bouncing as she canted her hips. "Mmmmmm, mmmmm! Oh holy fuck, yes!"

Her nails were digging into his shoulder blades and she let out a cry as she came, as he came with her, still rocking together. She swayed almost drunkenly, her mouth hanging open, her brow knit as her knees slid fully apart, her inner flesh pulsing around his cock.

Ned looped an arm around her waist, holding her up, and she tipped forward, collapsing to him, their skin slick wherever they touched. They slipped their arms around each other, holding tight, and all she knew was the beating of her own heart, the soft pleased moan he released, the feel of him so deep inside her.

"You really want that?" he murmured against her ear.

"To fuck myself with a double-headed vibrator while you grab my hair and force me to deep-throat you?" she murmured with a little chuckle. "You mean that?"

Ned growled, slipping his hand down to slap her ass, and she clenched weakly around him. "You are gonna be the death of me," he murmured, nuzzling against her. "Holy fuck, Nan. That's all I'm gonna be able to think about tomorrow."

She chuckled and kissed the point of his jaw, her breath warm against the stubble there. "Just consider it a reward," she murmured. "We'll do that when you get home from taking your test." She paused. "I mean, if you want to."

"I would fucking love to," he told her. "And if I do a good enough job, maybe you'll put on the clamps too...?"

She giggled, moving back to look into his eyes, into the soft light dancing there. "We'll see. I just don't want you distracted by a massive hard-on the entire time you're taking it."

"Oh, I probably will be, at the thought of you 'taking it,'" he told her, and she laughed at the exaggeratedly lecherous look on his face.

"I love you," she whispered, still smiling. "Mr. Nickerson."

"And I love you." He brushed the tip of his nose against hers. "Beautiful Nancy."

Chapter Text

Ned looked down at the study guide, then sighed, rubbing his forehead. The coffee table in front of him was cluttered with his laptop, an open energy drink, a bag of nacho cheese-flavored chips, a container of chocolate chip cookies, flash cards, two pillar candles...

Ned smiled, remembering Valentine's Day, the golden light against his wife's skin as she rode him.

The energy drink had sat open for too long. Ned brought it to his lips and grimaced when the room-temperature liquid washed over his tongue. ESPN had been too distracting, so he had turned on reruns of a predictable crime drama his wife absolutely loved to skewer.

His wife.

Ned rubbed the ball of his thumb against the curve of his wedding ring, frowning, then chastising himself for frowning. It was unusual enough for him to be at home alone, but he had been distracted by thoughts of her all day long, and he wasn't quite sure why.

The nightmare.

He hadn't had one, at least one he could remember, since before Christmas; not until last night, anyway. He was oddly soothed by that knowledge. Both he and Nancy were more susceptible to bad dreams when they were apart, but the night before he had spooned up behind her, his arm slung over her. He had fallen asleep with the smell of her shampoo lingering, and when he had opened his eyes to the dark, panting for breath, his heart about to pound out of his chest, he had embraced her so tightly that he had accidentally awakened her. She had made a soft sound, turning to face him, and when she had recognized the panic in his face, she had drawn him down to cradle him against her breasts, shushing him, stroking his back until his panic had passed. She had stroked her fingers through his hair again and again, slower and slower, until they were both still. They had both been so tired that they had fallen asleep again, without trying to make love. 

"Shhh, baby. Shhhhh. It's okay. It's okay."

He rubbed his thumb against his ring again.

Anxiety. It was just anxiety doing it. And he knew that thought should reassure him, but he couldn't read more than a sentence without losing all his focus.

His job search had finally yielded a few results, and after an interview with an insurance agency, Ned had accepted an open management position there. He would have to go through orientation, but he had arranged to work his last day at his current job the day before he had scheduled to take the GMAT, then to start with the insurance firm the following Monday.

The prospect was exhilarating, but Ned still felt a little uneasy. The layoffs at his current job hadn't stopped, and since he had submitted his notice, he was worried every morning when he went in to work, waiting for his boss to call him over and say he could go ahead home for good. He was working hard to finish up all his open projects between study sessions for the GMAT, and he hadn't wanted to leave anyone behind the eight-ball when it came to his quitting.

He had made friends there, though, and he genuinely liked his boss most of the time. He just hated to see it ending, and he hated not knowing if the insurance agency would be a great opportunity, or just more of the same bullshit that had left him feeling frustrated and bored. Every indication told him that he would like it, and when he had mentioned his plans to complete his MBA, his interviewer had definitely liked that.

Ned touched his wedding ring again.

Then his phone went off.

Thinkin of u. How things used 2 b. Miss u.

Ned frowned at the message. The number wasn't one he recognized, but if Nancy was using a strange cell phone...

But he couldn't imagine that she would text him that. Must be a wrong number.

He shook his head, navigating to his text messaging screen, but the last text he had received from his wife had been on her phone, at lunchtime. She had agreed to do a favor for a coworker after hours, and with any luck, she was hoping to be home in time to watch her favorite show with him before they went to bed.

It was strange, how much he enjoyed the domesticity of their relationship. Even if they were both on their laptops, catching up on some last-minute emails or doing some research, he liked watching television with her, liked bumping the side of his foot against hers as they propped them up on the coffee table, liked talking about his day and hers during the commercial breaks. He knew how much the show was engrossing her by how strenuously she rejected his advances, how quickly she shoved his hand away when he caressed her. Sometimes she was totally distracted, and during the first commercial break she would slip into his arms, kissing him until the show drew her attention again—if it managed to do so.

And once he finished his degree—he tried to imagine it. His wife, her belly gently rounded, their child growing inside her. A small hand or foot fluttering just under her skin. A lovingly-assembled crib in the corner of their room, a small rosebud mouth...

Mike had called Ned to give him the good news the day before Jan had posted it online. Jan had just reached the end of her third month of pregnancy, and since they were out of the most dangerous time, they had announced that they were expecting. Both Nancy and Ned had suspected, especially when Jan had stuck to soda or fruit juice the last few times they had gone out as a group.

Nancy had told him that she didn't mind waiting, but Ned wasn't quite sure whether to believe her. As soon as she had mentioned the possibility Ned had found himself evaluating everything: how much money he was making, the size of their house, the suitability of their cars for baby seats, the size of their backyard. Carson's offer to assist them with Ned's first year of schooling would definitely help when it came to saving up for a new house, new dependable vehicles, tiny clothes and toys and baby food.

But, he reminded himself, as long as Nancy's birth control kept working, he didn't need to worry quite yet. He had two and a half years to spread out his worry.

And that didn't loosen the knot in his belly either.

Ned stretched, then went into the kitchen, washing his hands and splashing cool water on his face, trying to get himself to focus. He didn't even glance at the study guide when he sat down again. Instead he reached for his cell phone, pulling up his wife's name so he could send her a message.

Hope everything is going OK. Love you.

He sighed and dry-washed his face with his palms, hoping that wherever Nancy was, she was okay. Then he flipped back to the beginning of the section in the review book, trying to force himself to read.

His heart jumped when his phone began to ring. He let out his breath in a long sigh when he saw the name flashing on the screen.

"Hi Hannah," he said, burying his disappointment. He had been hoping his wife was calling to let him know she was on the way home.

"Ned, honey. How's your day been?"

"Not bad. Just trying to get some studying done," he admitted.

"Oh! Oh, I'm sorry. I can call back...?"

"No, no, it's all right. I haven't been able to concentrate, anyway."

Hannah chuckled. "Nancy's fault?"

He almost, unthinkingly, answered Yes before he stopped himself. It wasn't Nancy's fault that whenever they were apart, he could feel her absence with every beat of his heart. His ear was tuned to the small sounds from outside: the particular sound of the Mustang's engine, the sound of her shoes on the front walk, the jingle of her keyring. Until he heard them, some small part of his consciousness would simply wait.

"Not really—she had some work to do tonight, but she should be home soon. Do you want me to get her to call you?"

"No, actually—I was hoping to talk to you."

"Oh?"

"Mr. Drew and I were wondering when Nancy wanted to celebrate her birthday, and I didn't know if you two already had plans. Since it's on a Thursday..."

Ned pulled up a calendar on his laptop. "Well... hmm. I think that's about the time that I'll be scheduling admissions interviews, so it might be easier for me to do the weekend after her birthday—although, I mean, if you don't want me there—"

"Oh, Ned, don't be ridiculous. Of course we want you there. I think Mr. Drew in particular will be disappointed if you aren't able to come."

"Oh, so you won't miss me at all," Ned said playfully.

"I didn't say that! I hate to see a good cake go bad," Hannah replied with a chuckle. "It's just that since you two got back together, when she's not around you... she seems almost preoccupied. Like she's waiting for you to walk through the door." Hannah paused for a second. "And it makes both Mr. Drew and me very happy to see her as... content, as she seems to be around you."

Ned smiled. "The feeling is entirely mutual," he murmured.

"So I'm going to mark the weekend after her birthday on the calendar. Maybe we can get together for a Sunday lunch. And we had such a good time when your parents came over, if you want to invite them too?"

"I'll check with them. And am I allowed to tell Nan?"

"Once we make sure everything's set." Hannah was already humming to herself. "Hmm. Maybe a lemon cream cake this year..."

Ned was laughing to himself when he hung up the phone, but at the reminder of her approaching birthday, he found himself wondering what to buy or make for his wife. She had really loved the chain of map-paper hearts he had given her for Valentine's Day; she had put them up at her desk at work and snapped a photo to put online, captioning it with a comment that she was the luckiest girl in the world, with the sweetest husband imaginable. Bess and George had both liked the photo and commented that she sure as hell was an incredibly lucky girl.

He made a face when he looked at his test prep book. He was trying not to procrastinate, and he had worked really hard at his study sessions, had been working really hard every possible moment for quite a while. Taking one night off wasn't going to kill him.

Ned stood and stretched, flipping to ESPN before he went to the refrigerator to see how much beer he had. If he was going to just totally give up on studying... He shrugged and pulled out a bottle of water instead, changing his mind. He had a feeling with that lingering jittery feeling, the beer wouldn't touch him.

He picked up his phone and checked the idle display.

Nancy still hadn't texted him back.

He shook off the feeling of discomfort that gave him. Sometimes she was away from her phone; sometimes it didn't make sense for her to have her phone out. She would find a way to get a message to him when she could.

His eyes widened when he realized that some part of him had already decided that if he didn't hear from her by eleven, he was going to call Trent's cell phone and ask where she was. Ned had never taken that step before, but even when they were just dating, he had asked for the number, just in case. He shook that feeling off, but when he found that even ESPN couldn't keep his attention, he knew something was wrong.

His phone rang. Unknown number, local area code.

Ned swallowed hard before answering. "Hello?"

"Is this Edmund Nickerson?"

Ned's eyes widened. Under the circumstances, at this hour, whatever the caller had to say could only be bad news after that greeting. "Yes," he forced out.

"I'm calling from Chicago Mercy."

--

The receptionist wouldn't let him go to her.

"Sir, if you'll just take a seat, I'll let you know when she's able to see visitors."

But Ned couldn't sit down, couldn't calm down. Couldn't breathe. He tried his best not to glare at the receptionist, but the man just didn't seem to understand that if he didn't see his wife in the next five minutes, Ned would force his way through every barrier between them to find her. "Can you let her doctor know I'm here?" Ned said as evenly as he could manage.

"Sure."

Ned had been hot enough on the way over that he hadn't even felt the cold, and the waiting area felt unbearably warm. He drank a cup of water and pulled out his cell phone, as though she was going to text him...

All the nurse who had called him knew was that Nancy had been involved in a shooting, and she was being examined. When he asked if she had been shot, panic twisting tight around his heart as he said it, the nurse had told him that she didn't know, only that as far as they knew, her injuries weren't life-threatening. And at least that was something.

Ned bothered the receptionist three more times, feeling closer and closer to breaking each time, until he was sure the man was only a few seconds away from calling security—but Ned couldn't help it. He was going to lose his mind if he didn't see her. He stood, his thumb rubbing against his wedding ring, and started over to the receptionist area again.

A door opened. "Mr. Nickerson?"

"Yes," Ned said immediately. "Is she okay?"

"If you'll come with me?"

Ned was almost vibrating with impatience as he followed the nurse through to the curtained-off examination areas. "We had to send her to x-ray, just as a precaution, but the doctor can tell you more," the nurse said, leading him to a curtain-enclosed bed. Nancy was there, nodding at something an orderly was saying to her, and Ned's heart broke when he saw her. A smear of blood still darkened her cheek, and her face was nearly as pale as the pillowcase beneath her head—save the livid mark of an impact on her cheek.

She turned in almost the same instant and saw him, and Ned could tell the second that she stopped posturing, that she stopped holding herself up, relaxing simply because he was there. "Ned," she murmured, and her blue eyes gleamed.

Ned shouldered past the orderly, who said something—Ned couldn't give less of a damn what—before walking out of the makeshift "room." Nancy pushed herself up a little, wincing, as Ned approached her bed.

"No, no," Ned told her, his voice hoarse and breaking. "Shhh. Lay back down." He cupped her uninjured cheek, stroking his thumb against her soft skin.

She cupped her hand over his, searching his eyes. "I'm so sorry," she whispered. "I—you were studying..."

Ned shook his head. "It's okay," he murmured. "I couldn't concentrate without you there anyway, sweetheart. Are you all right?"

"I'll be okay now," she told him, and drew in a slow, shuddering breath.

"Did you get hurt?"

"Mr. Nickerson?"

Ned turned, still stroking Nancy's cheek, when he heard the voice. "Yes?"

"I'm Dr. Phillips," said the speaker, a short, balding redheaded man wearing a white coat, a stethoscope hanging from his pocket. "Nancy, I've just taken a look at the x-ray, and it appears that the laceration was just a graze, aggravated by the fall afterward. I saw no evidence of shrapnel or detritus in your wound, and your ribs are all intact. However, due to your injuries and the amount of blood you lost, I'm going to give you a prescription for antibiotics and pain relievers, and a note for your work, letting them know that you'll need to be on light duty for the next few days. Get plenty of rest and replenish your fluids, and you'll need to come back so we can take the stitches out..."

The doctor took Nancy's vitals one more time, admonishing her to get her prescriptions filled and go to bed as soon as possible. She had already been given a dose of pain reliever, and Ned could see the effect of it in her eyes, in the few extra seconds it took her to respond to anything. Still, she took the time to ask about Desmond, whom Ned assumed she had been helping on the case.

Once the stitches were in place and she was bandaged up, she was visibly flagging. Ned helped her back into the clothes she had been wearing, but her sweater was ruined—easily a third of it was soaked a deep red-black with blood, and the waistband of her pants was stained and stiff with it, too. Ned shook his head and left her in her bloodstained bra and pants, then wrapped her in his coat, and she blinked gratefully up at him, gingerly wrapping her arms around her.

An orderly brought a wheelchair for them to use. "I don't... I'm okay," Nancy protested, but Ned shook his head.

"No. Don't argue with me, Nan."

He very gently slipped his arms around her and deposited her in the wheelchair, and she shivered a little. Just before they left he remembered to grab her purse, heavy with the weight of her gun and holster.

After they went through the discharge process and Ned asked to have the prescriptions called in to their local 24-hour drugstore, he rolled his wife's wheelchair out to his sedan, then transferred her into the passenger seat, even though she protested weakly that she could do it herself.

"My car," Nancy said faintly, sounding like it took supreme effort for her to form coherent words, as he turned the key in the ignition.

"Hmmm?"

"My car," she said softly. "It's still..."

"It'll be okay."

She frowned, closing her eyes. "'S in a bad neighborhood," she murmured. "Shit."

Ned glanced over at her as he pulled out of the hospital parking lot. "I'll take you home," he said, "and then I'll go get your car, okay? I can pick up your prescriptions too. If you'll be okay?"

She nodded, rubbing her forehead. "Yeah," she whispered, and when he looked over again she had her head tipped to rest against the passenger window.

She passed out on the way home, and so Ned very carefully carried her into their townhouse, his coat wrapped around her, and she nestled against his chest. He put her down on the couch and she made a soft sound as she shifted onto her uninjured side, her eyes closed. He left a glass of water beside her; the chips were still there if she was hungry, but she looked like she was out for the night. Then he pulled the blanket over her legs and made sure to lock the door behind him when his cab pulled up. 

Ned was relieved when the driver brought up the latest Cubs game; he could have that conversation on autopilot, and often did. Besides, he was happy to be occupied for a while, and at least he was distracted until he paid off the cab driver and found his wife's car.

It had been a while since he had been out like this, alone at the wheel of her Mustang, the lights of the city a halo against the dark. He knew there was a conversation going on in his head but he didn't let himself hear it; instead he turned up the stereo. The song on the radio was something glossy and poppy with a great beat, and while his fingers tapped the steering wheel in time with it, it was still hard to hear over the screaming, the screaming he had been able to at least partially ignore when he wasn't alone.

A bullet graze. A fucking bullet graze. A shooting. She had been involved in a shooting, and a bullet had touched her. Again.

He turned the music up just a little louder, until the bass was throbbing from the speakers, echoing slightly in his ears. The distraction, that feeling that he was split and his attention divided between himself and her, had come back even more strongly. He had no idea how he had been able to leave her so defenseless in their house, in the state she was in—

But he had no say in it, and he knew that. No say in it. That had been part of the agreement, part of the deal he had made when he had first fallen in love with her, and when he had fallen in love with her again. He might hate that she was ever in danger, but he trusted her, and she was careful, intelligent, strong.

And that didn't matter. None of it mattered. He remembered that every time his lips brushed the paler flesh of the scar tissue above her breast, and every time his fingertips traced down the blue web of her wrists, every time his fingers sank into the flesh of her hips. She was strong but so much in the world could take her from him; so many things nearly already had.

She hadn't moved when he returned with the pill bottles, and when he looked down at her, his heart fluttering until he saw her chest slowly rise with her breath, he saw that smear of blood still on her cheek. All the blood. All the fucking blood.

He carried her up the stairs, leaving her on their bed. He took a clean washcloth and soaked it in warm water, wrung it out, then gently, carefully took her clothes off. He washed the blood from her cheek, sucking in a swift breath, then made his way down over the other traces of dried blood and antiseptic, wincing when he saw the bruises, wincing when she winced and closed her fist, her eyes still closed.

He slipped a pair of clean panties onto her, ones that weren't bloodstained, and found a long-sleeved flannel nightgown. He had seen her wear it exactly once, but he was afraid to put a long-sleeved top on her, one that would be too close-fitting and maybe irritate her injuries. He moved her under the covers and went to the bathroom to brush his teeth and get ready for bed. Even though he didn't generally go to bed quite so early, he knew he would be worthless for studying or anything else; he needed her in his arms, needed to feel her breathing if he was going to find any peace whatsoever.

What if... what if she hadn't been as lucky, what if the bullet hadn't just missed her...

Shut up. Shut up. You can't think that way.

He made sure the house was locked up tight, then slipped into bed with his wife, trying his best not to disturb her. She had rolled onto her uninjured side, facing him, and he studied the pale suggestion of the lines of her face in the dim light through the blinds, her hair falling over her cheek.

Then she made a soft noise and opened her eyes, her gaze pointed at his face. He gave her a soft, tentative smile, reaching up to gently move her hair back. He wasn't even sure if she was awake or really aware of him.

"Go to sleep," he whispered. "It's okay, sweetheart, just go to sleep."

She reached for him, clumsily. "Please," she murmured.

He moved toward her, careful not to disturb her injured side, and she nestled against him, slipping her leg between his as she touched her forehead to his chest, so that the crown of her head was just beneath his chin. He rubbed a palm slowly up and down the line of her spine, and she shifted, making a soft noise.

"It's okay, baby," he whispered. "Shhh."

She reached up, looping her arm over him, and her fingers folded in the back of his collar so their skin was touching. Her flesh was cool; the gown had ridden up her legs and her feet were cold, and he wanted to hold her tight to him, to stroke his hands over every inch of her until she was warm again.

She was okay.

Ned moved to brush his lips against the crown of her head, sending up a silent thanks that she was intact, in his arms, in their bed.

He woke twice in the night to find her whimpering, shivering, trapped in a bad dream. He pressed his lips to her forehead, whispering that she was okay, she was safe, stroking her back until she calmed down again. His alarm went off far sooner than he wanted, and after he turned it off he held her for a moment longer, then sighed and went to draw her a glass of water so she could take her next dose of medication.

"Nan."

She moaned softly, rolling onto her back and blinking up at him. "Mmm."

"Can you sit up, sweetheart? It's time for your pills."

She looked slightly more awake when he helped her sit up, and after she had swallowed her medicine, she glanced at the table on her side of the bed. "Mmm."

"You okay?"

"My phone," she said, taking another sip of water and wincing.

"I'll go get it for you. Just wait here."

She smiled at him apologetically. "I'm really sorry," she murmured.

"It's okay. I'll be right back."

He took a quick shower, leaving her in their bedroom with her phone, then dressed for work. When he asked if she wanted anything for breakfast before he left, she asked if he could help her get downstairs.

Ned frowned slightly. "The doctor said for you to take it easy."

"And I will. I promise. I just want to be downstairs so I can get to the fridge and veg out in front of the TV until you get home."

Ned relaxed marginally. "So you're not going to work. You promise."

"I promise," she said solemnly, starting to maneuver out of her nightgown.

He helped her dress, and when he lifted her into his arms to carry her downstairs, she chuckled softly. "I really need to not get used to this," she said.

"Too late," he told her. "I really like it."

He quickly fried them both bacon and eggs and slotted bread into the toaster, pouring them each a cup of coffee. Nancy was flipping through the channels when he brought her plate into the living room, and she smiled up at him. "Thanks, sweetheart."

"You're welcome." He sat down beside her, forking a bite of egg. "I'll come back at lunch, and I know you'll probably need some Gatorade—"

Nancy swallowed a bite of bacon. "Oh, Ned, you don't have to do that."

"Yeah I do." He dragged a strip of toast through egg yolk. "Just let me know what you want to eat around eleven and I'll pick it up for us, okay?"

She waited a moment before nodding slowly. "Okay."

He took their plates to the sink when they were finished, then returned to her, slipping into his coat as he leaned down to kiss the top of her head. She caught his tie in her hand and gently tugged him down, brushing her lips against his.

Her eyes were gleaming faintly when he pulled back. "Thank you," she said softly. "For doing so much for me..."

He kissed her gently again. "That's what I'm here for," he told her. "Get some rest, okay? Call Hannah if you need her, and let me know what you want for lunch."

She nodded, smiling when he pulled the blanket up a little higher, then found his keys.

Ned actually didn't give a damn whether his boss raised a fuss over it; he told him that his wife had been hurt and he needed to take a little extra time at lunch to go check on her, and his boss just waved his hand dismissively, saying that would be fine. For the rest of the morning Ned worked on coordinating his in-progress projects, keeping his cell phone on vibrate and close to him in case something happened and she needed him.

Grilled cheese for lunch?

Sure, I'll get cheese & gatorade. Anything else?

Nah, we have soup here. Going 2 take nap. Wake me when u get here. Love u.

Love u 2 sweetheart.

He stopped at their local grocery store for supplies, and when he came in, Nancy was stirring, wincing against the sunlight coming through the blinds. The smell of simmering chicken broth reached him.

"Hey baby."

"Mmmm," she said, gingerly pushing herself up, gasping when she moved a little too fast. "Hey."

"Please tell me you didn't get up and make soup."

She shook her head, sweeping her hair out of her face, as Ned walked into the kitchen and found the butter and a frying pan. "I called Hannah and she made chicken noodle soup," Nancy admitted. "She had some errands to run, otherwise she'd still be here."

Ned served her an iced glass of Gatorade, then made three sandwiches, two for him and one for Nancy, and dished them both out bowls of soup. He helped prop her up against an arm of the couch, and they ignored the talk show on television as they tried the soup.

"Hell. I don't know how she does it..."

"She makes stock," Nancy replied, and she sounded almost normal again. "She actually makes chicken stock; I've seen her do it. God, it's so good."

Once they were finished with their lunch, Ned sat back, smiling in contentment, and then looked over at Nancy. She was taking a sip of her drink, and when she caught his gaze on her, she gave him a small smile.

"Thanks for coming home to take care of me."

"I'm sorry I couldn't take the day off..."

She shrugged. "It's okay. Seriously, once you leave I'll probably go back to sleep. These pain pills make concentrating a total bitch."

"So... do you want to talk about what happened last night?"

Nancy looked down at her hands, her brow furrowing. "You know how sometimes agencies in other cities call us for favors," she said, and Ned nodded. "Well, an agency in Cleveland called and asked us to be on the lookout for a guy..."

The guy in question was Burke Petersen, who had skipped town after apparently taking a large amount of money from his employers, who were also his in-laws. They didn't want to press charges; instead, they wanted him to come back, work out some plan to repay the money, and not get the police involved. They were trying to avoid some embarrassing series of stories in the local newspaper, or notoriety they didn't need.

As they generally did with guys they fully expected to flee, Desmond had the main area covered while Nancy kept an eye on the back entrance. It was Desmond's case, and he had been gleeful about the short period of time it had taken him to track Petersen down.

But then three men had come into the bar, and Nancy and Desmond had discovered why Peterson had skipped town with the money: he owed it, and probably much, much more, to a bookie. And that bookie had sent some guys after him.

"And Petersen had a gun," Nancy said quietly. "And so did the enforcers, and so did Desmond and I. It was so quick..." She shook her head, unconsciously tightening her arms about her waist, looking away from Ned. "It just got so out of control. Desmond was hit twice, I think, and I knew I had to get him out of there, and it was just..."

Ned reached for her, covering her knee with his warm palm. "It's okay."

She cleared her throat, then continued after a moment. "I called Trent this morning, and he said Desmond's gonna take some time to heal, but he'll be all right."

"That's good. And he better have given you the rest of the week off."

"He did. Although if I can do some research Friday, he'd really appreciate it. Just research," she said quickly, when Ned frowned. "Just on my laptop. I won't leave the house, I promise."

"Okay." He stroked his thumb against her knee. "And are you... okay? That had to have been really terrifying for you."

For a second she hesitated, but then something in her expression changed and she nodded once, just a jerk of her chin down and back up, like it hurt to admit it. "Yeah, it was," she whispered, her voice shaking, and her blue eyes gleamed with tears. "I was so afraid..."

He reached for her, carefully, wrapping her in his arms, pressing his cheek against the crown of her head. "For as long as you're here, baby," he whispered, "I swear you're safe. I swear I will do everything in my power to keep you safe."

She looped an arm around him, her body nestling into his. "It was so close," she whispered against his shirt. "And it would have been so fast... Ned..." She pulled back to gaze into his eyes. "You know I love you," she said hoarsely. "I love you so much. And if I'd—if something had happened to me—"

"Then I would lose my mind," he told her, brushing her hair back from her cheek. "I would lose my damn mind if you were seriously hurt again, baby."

He looked at her lips but he couldn't find it in him to say it, not when a single tear dropped from her eye. "I used to think it would never..."

Ned shook his head and leaned down, pressing his lips to hers in a soft, slow kiss. He nuzzled against her neck after, just drawing in the scent of her, and the antiseptic smell of the hospital sheets still clung faintly to her skin, even after a night in their bed. She melted against him, her fingers catching in the collar of his shirt again.

Releasing her was incredibly hard. He didn't want to leave her and go back to work. He wanted to hold her, to feel her heart beat against his, until it quieted the panic quivering between his ribs.

"Do you want me to pick up some dinner on the way home?" Ned asked as he put the skillet in the sink and put away the soup. "Or did you want to have leftovers?"

"Mmm." Nancy yawned. "Pick something up, maybe? Oh—do we have pizza dough left?"

"Yeah, we do."

"Can we do that?"

"Of course, baby." He leaned down and kissed her, and she ran her fingers through his hair, holding him to her. "God, I don't want to leave you."

"I don't want you to leave either," she whispered, and then her eyes widened. She hadn't meant to admit it.

"It's okay," he murmured, stroking her arm as he gazed into her face. "I never want to leave you, honestly."

She tipped up to kiss him softly again. "But then what would we have to talk about over dinner," she chuckled.

"True."

He had thought that studying the night before was impossible. At work he just counted the seconds until he could leave—and then, thankfully, a member of his team drew him into a complicated issue involving copyright infringement for the illustrations on one of their projects, and he was able to distract himself with research for a while. At five-oh-one, though, he was shutting his computer down, tapping his foot as he slipped his coat on.

When he pulled onto their street, though, he saw Nancy's father's Lincoln parked in front of their townhouse, behind Nancy's Mustang.

Nancy hadn't texted him after lunch, so he was hoping nothing was wrong. Even so, he smoothed his hair and straightened his collar before he keyed inside.

Carson was sitting in the recliner. It had belonged to Ned's parents, and when they had redone the den in January, they had offered Nancy and Ned the whole set. The furniture was plush and oversized, and Nancy and Ned's living room was a little too small for all of it, but Ned had his heart set on the recliner, and Nancy had finally agreed that they would take it, even if they couldn't use the rest of the set. What Ned's parents hadn't known—or, at least he hoped they hadn't—was that one Saturday while they were out of town, he and Nancy had had sex in the damn recliner, and Ned had utterly adored the blush that had come into her cheeks whenever she had walked into the den at his parents' house and seen it afterward. It was beginning to go a little threadbare at the base of the footrest and at the edges of the arms, so Nancy had bought a slipcover for it, and that had made Ned laugh, too. "Did you soak it in Scotchguard?" he had teased her, and she had swatted at him, a small grin on her face.

Nancy caught the faint light in Ned's eyes when he walked in and gave him a small smirk, knowing exactly why it was there. "Good evening, Mr. Drew," Ned said, putting his briefcase down and shrugging out of his coat.

"Sorry to drop by unannounced, but when Hannah told me what had happened..." Carson glanced over at his daughter.

"He had to check on me," Nancy said, a hint of apology in her voice. "I told him that you had been taking excellent care of me."

Carson nodded to confirm. "If you need to go back to the counselor..." he said quietly.

Nancy glanced up at Ned, then down at her hands. "If I... if I do, I'll let you know," she murmured, looking up at her father, then back at Ned again, including each of them.

Ned felt terrible for a moment. He knew that she had seen a counselor in the time after her shooting, and while he knew this had to be hard for her, especially after having gone through that, he had just thought that talking about it with her would be enough. But he wasn't a therapist, and a few introductory psych and management courses weren't enough to tell him what she needed. All he knew to do was hold her, to whisper to her that she was all right, that he would always keep her safe, but both of them knew that those assurances were hollow.

Carson cleared his throat. "I see that you're studying hard," he told Ned, gesturing at the GMAT study books and flash cards Ned had stacked in the low shelf under their coffee table.

Ned smiled. "Yeah—I can't believe the test is so soon. Can I get you a drink, sir? Nan?"

Nancy glanced at the glass on the coffee table, wrinkling her nose when she saw how much the melted ice had watered it down. "Some more Gatorade, if you don't mind," she said. "No ice this time."

"Some water would be nice," Carson said with a smile.

When he was in the kitchen, Ned went ahead and preheated the oven, pulling the toppings he needed for the pizza out of the refrigerator. He returned with the drinks for his wife and father-in-law. "Nan said something about pizza for dinner, and you're welcome to stay...?"

Carson swallowed a long sip of water. "While that does sound great, I've learned to never disappoint Hannah when she's confirmed I'll be home for dinner," he said with a chuckle. "Next time, though?"

As Carson stood, reaching for his coat, Nancy began to slip off the couch to stand as well, and Ned reached for her hand to help her. "Thanks for coming by," she told her father, and embraced him, her eyes closed. "I love you so much."

"I love you too, Nan, and I'm so glad you're okay." He patted her back before he released her, then reached for Ned's hand to give it a clasp. Ned, recognizing the worried expression in Carson's eyes, gave him a brief half-hug as well.

They both loved her, had loved her for so long, but Ned hadn't been there when Nancy had been so close to breaking, and for a second Ned wondered if Carson resented him for that. God, Ned would have given almost anything to have her not go through that, and he wished he could say that, but it was done.

It had been Nancy's choice to break up with him those years ago, but Ned had been so hurt that he had let her walk away—and he refused to waste his energy regretting what had come before. He couldn't go back in time and stop that bullet with his own body; all he could do was promise her every second he had left, every second he would exist, and all the love he had ever possessed.

"Take good care of her," Carson said quietly.

Ned nodded. "I will," he said. "I promise."

Nancy was still standing when her father closed the door behind him, and Ned walked over to her, slipping his arms around her to give her a gentle hug. "Hey," he whispered, his lips against the crown of her head.

"Hey," she whispered. She spoke to him differently when they were alone. Her voice was lower, less guarded, more intimate.

Ned's lips brushed her temple. "You okay?"

"I'm okay. I'm better when you're here."

His eyes were dark with concern when he looked down at her, but then the oven chirped from their kitchen, signaling that it had reached temperature, and he reluctantly released her.

He pressed the dough into the pan, sauced it, and topped it with mushrooms, pepperoni, onions, green peppers, and sausage. When it was finished baking he deftly cut it into slices and served them both on the couch. Nancy's eyes were low-lidded, but he supposed that after spending a day sedentary on the couch, he'd be exhausted too. They watched the evening news together and Nancy told him the pizza was fantastic, with a smile.

After dinner Ned changed into lounging pants and a t-shirt and came back downstairs, loading the dishwasher before he pulled out his study guide and navigated to the online practice materials.

"Did you have a good day?"

Ned looked over at his wife. "It wasn't too bad," he said, running his fingers through his hair. "Got some work done on one of the projects, and I really think they'll be able to handle everything once I'm out—as long as they don't keep cutting staff." He sighed. 

"That's good."

"Did you get a lot of rest?"

Nancy nodded. "Yeah, but I slept so much my head's aching."

"I'm sorry, babe." Ned looped an arm around her shoulders and brushed his lips against her forehead. "Did you—I mean, that bruise on your cheek...?"

"My head's okay, the doctor said. No dilated pupils or nausea. Although I already knew; I can recite the symptoms of a concussion in my sleep."

Ned chuckled. "Okay," he said, glancing down at his book, but he couldn't stop himself from asking. "The counselor..."

"I'll see how I'm feeling in a few days," she murmured. "Maybe just check in... but if I start... having flashbacks..."

He reached up and traced his fingertips down her uninjured cheek. "You had bad dreams last night," he whispered.

Nancy looked down. "I'm sorry."

Ned shook his head. "Don't be sorry. I'd rather know; I'd rather help you if I can. I just... I wish I knew how."

She tilted up to him, kissed his cheek. "You're here," she whispered. "And you have no idea how much it helps, just to feel you beside me in our bed... I never sleep as well as I sleep with you, Ned."

"I'm glad," he told her.

She curled up beside him while he studied for the test. He was getting more comfortable with the kinds of questions, and performing better on the practice tests. He had contacted four of his professors from Emerson to provide recommendations, and had settled on three schools offering night MBA programs, and his applications were nearly done. Ned was trying not to get his hopes up about it, despite his wife's optimism; he knew many other men and women were in his situation, applying to go back to school when they were exasperated or disappointed by their prospects, and he didn't want to just assume he would be accepted to any of the programs. They would make it even if he didn't go back to school, and while he wanted the degree, he didn't relish the thought of being home less.

But it would only be for a relatively short time, a shorter time than he had spent at Emerson.

And at least when he had been a student at Emerson, he had been able to help her out on her cases every now and then. Since she had become a private investigator, he had only helped her on the occasional stakeout or after-hours clue-finding session, and once he went back to school, he doubted he would be able to do that much anymore.

He knew he couldn't always be there, no matter what. But he hated the thought of not being home when she was, and he dreaded the prospect of receiving a call like the terrifying one he had received the night before, telling him that he was needed at the hospital, that his wife had been hurt.

She sighed beside him and began to move the afghan aside so she could put her feet on the floor. Ned glanced over at her. "You need something, sweetheart?"

"Thought I might try something with a little caffeine," she said, giving him a tired smile.

"Babe, it's okay. You can go to sleep."

"I wanted to take a shower before we went to sleep tonight, and I was kinda hoping you could help me. Once you're finished studying."

"Well, if you put it like that..." Ned moved his laptop aside. "I'll get you a drink, and I'll just have to finish studying soon."

He finished up the section on the practice test, while Nancy checked her email on her own laptop, tapping out a few replies. Then she clicked something, and Ned didn't understand it, but it felt like the temperature in the room changed, like he could feel something against his skin, even though there was nothing there.

And Nancy had gone pale.

"You okay?"

Nancy's lips pursed slightly. "Email from Frank," she murmured.

"Asking for a favor?"

"Something like that." Nancy clicked something else, then closed her laptop.

Ned put his own computer down and slipped the guide back under the coffee table, then reached for her, and she wrapped her arms around his neck after he placed her on his lap. She nestled into the join of his neck and shoulder, her lips pressed against his skin, and he gently stroked her back.

"Can I tell you something," she said softly.

"Anything," he whispered. "You know you can tell me anything."

He felt her eyelashes brush his skin. "I..." She swallowed hard. "I knew I'd die if I stayed with Frank. I knew that even if he and I were... together, even if we had kids... that I wouldn't live to see them grow up."

Ned began to slowly stroke her hair, and he couldn't find any words.

"And... when I think of having a baby with you..." She stroked her fingers against the back of his neck, slowly. "It scares me. But I want it anyway." She chuckled. "Kind of the way I always felt about you, too."

He ran his fingers through her hair. "I always wanted this with you," he told her. "And baby, you—our life, everything, makes me so happy, whether we have kids or not. And if you're not sure, we have time..."

Nancy pulled back and gazed into his eyes. "I know we do," she said softly. "I thought we did too, and then yesterday..." She shook her head. "It hit me. I kept thinking I could make myself safe, but I don't know if that's true."

Ned cupped her cheek. "But we're not immortal, Nan. No matter what we do."

She nodded. "But... I could find another job," she said softly. "One where I won't be running into people carrying guns all the time. I could work on private security, or I could start my own agency..."

"With him?"

Nancy shook her head. "I might consult with him every now and then, but no. I wouldn't start an agency with the Hardys. Maybe Mel and Jules and a few other guys I've worked with—and yes, I'm fully aware that you'd love for me to work with Mel more often."

Ned stifled his smile, his gaze falling to Nancy's lips. "I want you to be happy," he told her. "I hate seeing you in danger, and you know that, and if you think starting an agency is the way to go..."

She shrugged. "I don't know. I hate all the admin stuff involved, the kind of thing Trent is so good at doing. The insurance, billing, taxes, all that stuff..."

Ned chuckled. "You mean all the kind of stuff I went to school to learn how to handle."

"And that's why you and I are so perfect for each other," she told him, with a slow grin. "You're the only person I really trust to have my back, and you could handle all the paperwork while I drum up business, and then we'd come home together..."

"Exactly."

She leaned forward and gave him a soft kiss. "I love you," she murmured.

"And I love you, baby." He ran his fingers through her hair again and she made a soft pleased noise. "You ready to get cleaned up?"

"If I didn't already feel totally gross, I'd suggest that we get dirty first," she chuckled.

The night before, when Ned had undressed her, the room had been dark and her bruises had been faint. Now the blood pooled under her pale skin was darker, almost livid, and when they were naked in the shower and he saw the bruises, Ned's stomach clenched. Nancy moved under the spray to rinse her hair and caught his gaze on her.

Her soft smile faded as she glanced down. Ned shook his head, reaching for her.

"I'm sorry," Ned whispered. "I'm sorry. I know you didn't do this to yourself, I know... I just hate seeing you this way."

Nancy gazed into his eyes. "I hate feeling like I've made you upset," she said softly.

Ned wrapped his arms around her and they stood together under the warmth of the spray. "I'd rather you be like this, and alive," he whispered. "Always. Always. I just always want you to come home to me."

He washed her hair for her, noticing the soft pleased noises she made as he massaged his fingers against her scalp. He was gentle over her bruises, and then Nancy ran the loofah over Ned's back, his outer thighs. He raised his eyebrow at her when she strayed a little too close to his cock, and her eyes were dancing when they met his.

"You gonna start something you can't finish, Drew?"

"Oh, I have every intention of finishing," she told him, her voice pitched low.

He helped her out of the shower and they dried off, then brushed their teeth. "Bed?" he murmured as he put his toothbrush back in the holder.

Nancy glanced down at her bruised, naked body. "I had another idea," she told him. "Let me just grab a towel."

"I'm intrigued," Ned told her, his voice a low growl as he kissed her earlobe, then went to their bedroom to find a pair of clean boxers.

Nancy followed him in, going to her lingerie drawer. She pulled out her blue lace flyaway babydoll, and Ned's gaze darkened with desire when she turned to show it to him, her eyebrows raised in unspoken question.

"So, yes to this, then."

"Definitely." Ned came up behind her and gently wrapped his arms around her, nuzzling against her neck, his hand brushing over her belly button, his fingers trailing lower. Nancy moaned quietly when his fingertips brushed the trim line of curls between her thighs, teasing her with the gentlest touch.

"I don't want to hurt you," he whispered. "I'll be so gentle, baby."

She cupped her hand over his, keeping it warm against her sex. "I love you," she whispered, turning so she could look at him from over her shoulder. "Oh, Ned, I love you so much..."

He tipped his head so he could kiss her softly, and she parted her lips, slipping her tongue against his. He gently brushed his fingertip against the slit of her sex, feeling the smooth hot edge of her inner lips, and she trembled against him, her eyes fluttering shut as his cock hardened.

"If we don't stop I won't even be able to get this on first," she whispered, reluctantly pulling back, her blue eyes low-lidded with arousal.

"And that's not so bad," he whispered, but he released her after one more kiss.

Nancy raked her hair out of her face, the color high in her cheeks, then gave him a soft smile. "Go on downstairs, baby. I'll be right there."

"Downstairs?"

She nodded, finding the thong that matched the babydoll.

Before she came downstairs Ned heard her turn on the blow dryer. Ned checked his phone and was relieved to see no new notifications or texts before he took a match and lit the two large candles on the coffee table, and then he heard her slowly coming down the stairs. She had a folded towel wrapped in her arms, almost protectively over her chest, and her red-gold hair was falling in soft waves down over her shoulders. The babydoll was a few shades lighter than her eyes, the lace shimmering against her skin; it was one of her favorite outfits, and he loved the way she looked in it.

"You look so beautiful," he told her.

"So do you," she murmured. Nancy smiled when she saw the lit candles, then flipped off the living room light and spread the towel in the seat of the recliner.

"There, baby?" He smiled at her. "Again?"

She nodded, turning to face him, the small flames dancing in her eyes.

"At least this time we won't be listening for my parents' car..."

"God, wouldn't that be hilarious, if they chose tonight to just drop by," she said with a chuckle, walking over to him. She cupped his cheek, drawing him down to her so she could brush her lips over his.

"I love you," she whispered, and her entire slender body shivered when he cupped her hips, felt the warmth of her skin through the thin insubstantial fabric. "I love you, baby. I love you, I love you..."

She kissed the point of his jaw, his throat, his adam's apple, her fingertips tracing over his shoulders, the hard lines of his biceps. Ned ran his hands under her babydoll, plucking at the sides of her thong, then trailing his hands up to the tie between her breasts as he tilted his head to kiss her.

"I love you," he whispered, taking the straps of her gown and drawing them down her smooth shoulders, and she let her gown fall to the floor.

She moaned softly when he picked her up, and she wrapped her legs around his waist, running her fingers through his hair as she returned his kiss. He turned so he could sit down in the recliner, but she broke the kiss and shook her head.

"I want you on top," she whispered. "I think it'll be easier for me..."

He nodded, kissing her again, cupping her ass, gently squeezing her. She rocked against him, the warm lace of her thong rubbing against his erection through his boxers, and Ned growled, gently putting her down in the recliner.

Nancy made sure the towel was still spread out under her hips, then reached for the handle, releasing the leg support. Ned slipped out of his boxers, then climbed onto the recliner, over her, straddling her hips. He moved slowly, watching the soft blush rise in her cheeks as he braced his palms against the back of the chair, pushing until it was fully extended and he was caging her prone under him.

She cupped his cheek, her thumb brushing the smooth skin above the carefully trimmed edge of his stubble. "We shouldn't do this," she told him, her eyes wide as she searched his gaze. "Your parents will be home any minute..."

Ned shook his head. "They'll be gone for hours, baby," he told her, playing along. "It'll be okay." He leaned down and nuzzled against the sensitive flesh of her neck.

"But what if they come back early," she whispered, tentatively running her fingertips over the hard muscle of his back. "If they see us... they'll think I'm a bad girl..."

"You're not a bad girl," he whispered against her skin, working his way down, and she moaned, arching under him when he drew the tight bud of her nipple into his mouth. She ran her fingers through his hair, drawing her leg up, brushing his bare inner thigh.

"You're so good," he whispered. "So good. And they'll never know, baby." He suckled against her other nipple, rubbing his thumb over the first, and the chair creaked as she shifted under him.

She made a soft noise. "Oh, Ned," she whispered. "Oh..." 

He ran his fingertips gently over her thong and she blushed even more hotly, her lips parting. "Please," she whispered.

"Please," he repeated, moving up so he could gaze into her face as he stroked her, as he gently slipped his fingers between her thighs, urging them to part, his thumb rubbing gently against the slit of her sex through the lace. She bit her lip, and even though it had been years since she had lost her virginity to him, years since they had been tentative with each other in bed, the sight of her, shy and reluctant—it made him remember so vividly the way they had been the first time they had been in bed together, all the months of foreplay, of drawing and redrawing the line, knowing how much she wanted to make love to him, seeing how afraid she was of giving in to him.

"I'll be so gentle, baby," he whispered, the same reassurance he had given her in their bedroom, the same reassurance he had repeated to her over and over when they were in his bed, aching with desire.

She closed her eyes for a moment, then gazed up at him. "I'm scared," she whispered.

"It's okay, Nan, they aren't coming back," he told her, intentionally misunderstanding her.

"But what if it hurts," she said softly.

Ned shook his head. "I'll never hurt you," he whispered. "You know that, baby. I'll never hurt you, never."

"And you won't... you won't think I'm a bad girl," she said softly, her eyes wide.

He shook his head, leaning down to capture her mouth in a sweet kiss. "I would never think you were a bad girl," he whispered. "Baby, this..." He cupped the join of her thighs again, and she barely, just barely, parted her legs for him, "what you feel for me, what you want... what we both want... it's not bad, sweetheart. It's not wrong. I just want to love you."

"So when we do... this..." She tipped up and kissed him again, softly. "It's not enough..."

He knew she was wet; he could smell her arousal, could read it in her lowered lashes, the quickness in her breath whenever he caressed her, the tight dark buds of her nipples. He couldn't remember the last time she had made him work so hard for it, and he distantly wondered if she needed this again, needed him to seduce her all over again.

He had sworn her forever, the first time they had made love. He had sworn he would never let her go. And then he had.

He kissed her again, closing his eyes. "I can never have enough of you," he whispered against her lips. "I will never have enough of you. And I know that we were made for each other, that you are my love, my only love, for the rest of our lives."

He took the hand that was stroking the join of her thighs and found her hand, guiding her to touch his erection, and she curled her fingers around his cock easily before she remembered their game. She released him, drawing her fingers teasing-light and tentative up and down the underside of his shaft. He cupped her again and she parted her legs a little more, letting out a soft breathy moan.

"I will never hurt you," he told her, and she ran her fingers through his hair again, her lips parted as he kissed her again. "Never, never, baby. Never."

"Will you promise to be gentle?" she breathed, blinking slowly up at him as he pulled back.

He nodded. "I want it to be good for you."

"And I want it to be good for you," she told him, and he saw that her eyes were gleaming. "I want to make you happy, baby—I never, never want you to regret being with me. Because it would break my heart." She wrapped her fingers around his cock again, gently pumping him once in her fist.

"It's just that, once we do this... we can never take it back," she whispered. "And I know you've had other girls... but if you're my first..." A tear slipped down her cheek. "Then there will be no one else for me. Even if we're apart, you will always be the only one in my heart."

"And that scares you?"

She nodded. "Do you have any idea how hard it was for me, to let you in?" she whispered, and a lump rose in Ned's throat. "A part of me... I thought that you would find someone else, that while we were apart you would get bored with me... and then you, you wanted me, and I was so afraid that I would be so awful the first time that you'd never want me again, that I... that I'd never be able to tell you, to show you how much I love you..."

"Nancy," he whispered, caressing her hip. "Oh, Nan..."

She blinked and sent a pair of tears down her cheeks. "Love me," she whispered. "Oh God, I never wanted to need you this much, Ned, but I need you, I need you to love me..."

He moved over her, sliding off the chair so he could gently slip the thong down her legs, and she spread her legs wide for him, hooking them over the arms of the recliner so she was completely open and vulnerable to him, her hips canted up off the seat to give him better access, her inner flesh already dusky and slick with arousal.

Ned knelt between her open legs, and God, she was so warm as he arched over her, as he kissed her earlobe, as she slipped her arms up around his shoulders again. "We were made for this," he said softly. "I was made for you, baby. I was made to love every part of you, and when you gave yourself to me, when you let me make love to you, every single time you let me make love to you... I knew. I knew I would never love anyone else the way I loved you. All those other girls..." He shook his head. "No one else could touch me, could shake me to the fucking core the way you do. You are all I want, all I need, and once I knew how right this felt... I knew that no matter what, I could never, ever have enough of you. I will never be bored with you, baby.

"And if you had told me... oh, Nancy..." She shuddered, whimpering as he found her clit, brushing his thumb over it for the first time that night. "Baby, it meant so much to me, to be your first, that you let me in..."

She gently rocked her hips against him as he stroked her clit. "My only, oh, my only love," she whispered, and made a soft sound as he angled his cock to slip just inside her. "Oh, Ned... please, please. Please, I need you, I always have..."

He kissed her, and she trembled as he slowly, slowly moved inside her, still stroking her clit. Her hips rocked to meet him, her nails raking against his shoulder blades, and when their kiss broke she was panting, her brow furrowed.

He had slept with two other girls before he and Nancy had slept together, but the sensation had still been mind-blowing, and his control so easily lost. With his wife spread open and trembling beneath him, though, Ned knew how to hold himself back, and he knew just how to touch her to drive her wild, to bring her to the cusp of orgasm before he sent her over it. He kept his thrusts smooth and even, his stroking regular against her clit, and moved deeper and deeper with each press of his hips against hers. By the time he had worked himself hilt-deep inside her, she was writhing, her head tipped back, her breathing ragged and punctuated by low begging moans.

"Oh, oh," she whimpered when he just brushed the edge of his thumb over the tip of her clit. "Oh, yes." Her hips began to rock up against his more urgently.

He had been with girls who were absolutely insatiable in bed, whose delight and relish almost gave him pause; he had been with women who could make him hard with a simple touch, with just a meaningful glance. And absolutely none of them had ever, ever made him feel the way Nancy had. None of them had ever captivated him or woken such blind protectiveness, such unquenchable need in him.

In the face of it, this fiercely independent, beautiful, intelligent woman had panicked—but he knew, knew better than he wanted to admit, that fighting this desire between them was like fighting gravity or air. Once he had known what she was to him, he could never unknow it; once they had met, there was no way he would ever have felt whole again without her.

"My love," he whispered. "Oh, Nan..."

Her nails dug into his shoulder blades, and then she dragged them down his back, down to his ass, and he surged inside her. "My love," she gasped. "My only."

The only one in my heart.

They moved together, panting, skin flushed gold in the soft candlelight, and he could hear how slick she was, could feel it every time he drove home between her thighs. He circled her clit and she cried out, canting her hips as he pressed his cock into the slick tight heat of her. Her breath caught as she quivered, on the cusp of her release.

"Oh, love," he whispered, and nipped at her earlobe. "Come, baby. Come for me, sweetheart, oh God, yes..."

She cried out, her hips jerking as he felt her clench tight around him, as he stroked her clit a little harder. "Oh God," she sobbed, shuddering hard. "Oh God, oh God, oh... feels so good, oh!

"Yes," Ned murmured, his voice low and husky as he rocked inside her. "Oh yes baby, Nancy..."

She shuddered again, meeting his thrusts as he rode out her orgasm, her nails digging into the flesh of his ass. She was incoherent, her hips canting, the chair rocking under them with every thrust, and when he finally drove his cock fully between her thighs and let himself come with a low, rough groan of satisfaction, her hips sank to the towel and cushion beneath her, and he settled his weight onto her, careful to keep most of it on his knees and palms. But she loved when he pinned her under him, and she whimpered when he shifted his hips a little, pressing her deeper into the chair, both of them trembling with the aftershocks.

She kept one hand against the small of his back, drawing the other up the line of his spine as she panted her breath back. "Ned," she murmured, then swallowed. "Oh, God..."

She nuzzled against his chest and Ned carefully slipped his arms around her, holding her as tight as he dared. "My love," he whispered. "You're my everything, baby. Everything."

She brushed her lips in a soft kiss against the base of his throat. "And you're mine," she whispered. "And I will never, never let you go."

Chapter Text

Mmmm.

Nancy woke on her belly Saturday morning, naked in their bed, and stretched, lifting her head only the few inches required to look at the alarm clock. Mmm. Then she remembered that she didn't really give a damn what time it was, no one was waiting for her at the office—and buried her head in the pillow again.

Mmm. That was the thing about anal sex—she was aware of it the next morning, the same way she woke still just a little tender if they had had rough sex the night before. And Ned had taken his test the day before, so last night she had put on a ridiculous leopard-print nightie trimmed in black lace and brought out the double-headed vibrator she had bought a few days earlier.

And Ned had loved watching her with it. She had asked him to get her ready for it, and he had done as she asked, rubbing lube over his fingers and relaxing her, leaving her slick enough that it wouldn't be as painful. The second head of the vibrator wasn't as thick or as long as her husband's cock, and when she had been sprawled wide for him, her thighs open, frantically rubbing her clit as she had worked the vibrator up in her cunt and her tight asshole, Ned had been hard as hell, his eyes dark with desire.

And then she had begged him, actually begged him to fuck her mouth, to make her gag on his cock...

Nancy closed her eyes against the pillow, blushing a little. He had grabbed her hair and she had been jerking, her eyes streaming as he had slipped his cock into her mouth—

And God, she had loved it. He had managed to arch over her so he could cup his hand over hers, helping her stroke the toy between her legs while she had deepthroated him, and even when she had been quivering with her release, he had kept going, until her throat was constricting around his cock while her cunt had rippled around the vibrator.

God. Oh God, oh God. She felt herself tighten a little just thinking about it.

Once they were both totally spent, exhausted and sated, Ned had helped clean her up, careful not to touch her still-healing side, and they had slipped under the covers together, naked and happy in each other's arms. He had whispered into her ear that she had been amazing, and she had smiled as she nuzzled against his chest, feeling his lips brush against the crown of her head.

She had loved the sensation of him filling her, the terribly dirty things he had been groaning while he fucked her mouth, while he had worked the toy inside her, driving her orgasm impossibly high. But what she loved even more was when she returned to their bed at two o'clock in the morning, still shivering from the cool tile of the bathroom floor against her bare feet, and he had stroked his palm down her back. They had moved together lazily, slowly, until she had given in and rolled onto her back, pulling him with her.

No matter how rough they were with each other in bed, no matter what he did to her, she never, never doubted that he loved her, and he never let her fall asleep without telling her so. Almost every time she let him dominate her the way he had, once they were both recovered he made love to her, sweetly, soothing where he had been rough before, gentle where he had been forceful. She was still careful with her injured side, but they had rolled together, her legs wrapped around him, their hips shifting together.

Nancy looked over at her husband with a soft smile on her lips, moving gently to keep from waking him. They had made love slowly, gently, nuzzling into each other, and it had been one of those times when her orgasm had been so slow that when it had finally broken she had been frantic, muffling her screams into his shoulder as they had moved together. By the time he had let her finish and spent himself inside her, they had been wrapped tight around each other, slick with sweat, gasping for breath.

And oh, oh, how she loved him. She loved the feel of his dark hair as she ran her fingers through it, loved the hard, taut muscles of his chest, the way his lips curved up when he looked at her, the way his eyes lit up when they met hers...

Moving slowly, she glanced at the clock again. While she didn't want to get up, and while their plans for the day were just a little vague, she knew he would be disappointed if they wasted the morning in bed together.

She pulled her long hair up into a messy bun and put on one of her husband's old shirts and her worn flannel pants, then went silently downstairs. The scrambled eggs, sausage, and buttered toast were quick, and she assembled their plates, giving him the extra slice of toast, the extra egg. Two mugs of coffee later, breakfast was ready.

She shouldered into their room with a tray in time to see Ned turn over and give her a lazy, sleepy smile. "Good morning, gorgeous," he told her, sitting up.

"Good morning," she told him with a grin, nodding gratefully when he moved to help her with the tray. "Hope we have time for breakfast?"

"Definitely," he told her, making a pleased sound as he took his first sip of coffee. "Shower will have to be quick, but for breakfast in bed with the woman I love, it's worth it."

Since he was in a hurry and she wasn't, she decided to brush her teeth and wait to take her shower until after his—and when he stepped out, his body slick, beads of water clinging to the dark hair of his chest, arms and legs, Nancy swept her gaze over him, swallowing hard. He gave her a grin.

"Keep it in your pants, Drew."

"Well, even if you aren't, someone seems happy to see me," she told him, arching an eyebrow as she nodded at his waist. He briskly rubbed his hair, then wrapped the towel around himself, shrugging in the direction of the shower—and she was gratified when he stopped stock-still, gazing at her as she peeled his shirt off, leaving her barechested.

"See something you like?"

It was Ned's turn to swallow hard, and she saw his adam's apple bob. "See something I'm going to love later," he growled as she pushed the flannel pants and her panties down.

They had decided to drive separately, since Nancy was going to visit Hannah for a few hours. Ned kissed her, confirming that they would meet up at his parents' house for lunch, and after he had left Nancy picked out a pair of medium-wash jeans and a soft blue long-sleeved shirt. The March morning was still cool, and she was grateful for her denim jacket as she locked their front door and headed to River Heights.

Hannah greeted her surrogate daughter with a warm hug. "He actually went through with it," Hannah said, shaking her head as she released Nancy.

Nancy chuckled incredulously. "But it's too cold!" she said, shivering. "He's crazy."

"I learned a long time ago; can't tell him anything," Hannah said with an indulgent roll of her eyes. Carson had been talked into going to the golf course with a few of his colleagues. While Nancy had learned to play golf, along with most of the other country club pastimes, squash and tennis and racquetball, she had always associated golf with her father. Ned had reluctantly turned down Carson's invitation to go with him that morning, but had promised he would make it the next time, if it was humanly possible.

"Now, did you decide on what we're doing for your birthday?"

"Well, the lemon cream cake you were talking about does sound good," Nancy said, sitting down at the breakfast bar, her legs dangling. "But as to the rest... oh, Hannah, you know that anything you make is going to be spectacular."

"Yes, but it would be lovely if you could at least give me somewhere to start," Hannah said with a smile. "Maybe some nice roasted pork? Lamb?"

"Either?" Nancy shrugged helplessly.

Hannah began to pull the ingredients for buttercream frosting from the refrigerator and pantry, insisting that Nancy stay seated when she offered to help. When Hannah asked how her recovery was going, Nancy was honest with her. Her healing was progressing as well as could be expected, and she and Ned had agreed that if she had significant trouble sleeping thanks to insomnia or nightmares, or flashbacks to her first shooting, she would definitely make an appointment to see the therapist again. While the first week after her injury had been tough, and her first day back at work had been a little harder to get through than she had expected, she was doing well.

A part of her almost didn't want to admit it, but she knew that all her father and Hannah cared about was that she was okay. Nancy couldn't put it in words, the calm that just being in her husband's arms gave her, just knowing that if she woke him and she was shaking with fear at the memory he would hold her and comfort her until she was okay again. He just wanted her better, and so many nights she had fallen asleep on the couch beside him while he studied, her chilly toes tucked under his thigh or the crown of her head against the side of his knee, waking when he lifted her into his arms to carry her to their bed.

That had melted her heart, too. He had spent so much time and energy studying for the test, but he had still taken the time to talk to her about her day, to make dinner every other night, to comfort her when she knew he needed sleep.

Hannah reminded Nancy to ask the Nickersons over for her birthday lunch as she carried the cake container out to the Mustang. "And if you suddenly figure out what you want to eat, you tell me!" Hannah said, hugging Nancy before Nancy climbed into her car.

"Fine," Nancy said with a smile. "Roasted pork with asparagus. That work?"

"And potatoes au gratin," Hannah said, rubbing her hands together. "Mmmm..."

The drive between River Heights and Mapleton was so familiar that Nancy, while she and Ned were in high school, could have driven it in her sleep, and a few times nearly had. The weather wasn't quite warm enough for her to put down the Mustang's convertible top, but soon it would be, and she turned up the radio, singing along until she parked in front of her in-laws' house.

Edith shook her head when Nancy walked in with the cake container. "I told you not to bring anything," she said, but took it out of Nancy's hands anyway.

"It wasn't me," Nancy said cheerfully. "You can blame Hannah."

"Then I will," Edith said with a chuckle as she put the container on the counter. She wrapped her daughter-in-law in a warm greeting hug. "Having a good Saturday?"

Nancy nodded. "And how has your week been?"

"Good. Still trying to decide what to get Margaret for the baby shower, though. I wish she would just find out if it's a boy or a girl!" Edith shook her head as she checked on the contents of the oven. "You're still coming?"

Nancy nodded. "I should be there—although I haven't figured out what to get her either. I've heard onesies are always a good bet, though?" She tucked a long strand of red-gold hair behind her ear as she took a seat at the kitchen bar.

"That is true. Maybe in yellow or green..." Edith sounded exasperated. "Why on earth they decided not to find out the gender is beyond me. Would you do that?"

Nancy flushed slightly. "Um... I don't know," she said honestly. "I guess it would kind of depend on whether Ned wanted to find out or not."

"Remind me to make sure he would," Edith said. "That, or you'll just get generic bibs and diapers at your shower."

Somehow her daydreams had never included baby showers, just the joy on Ned's face when she gave him the news, his lips against the curve of her belly as it swelled to cradle their child, his hand gripped tight in hers once they reached the hospital. Her heart sped up a little bit at the thought. "Or lots of Sesame Street characters."

They talked for a while about how Meg had decorated her nursery, and Nancy was relieved when they weren't talking about the possibility of her own pregnancy anymore. She was still fully intending on waiting until her husband was finished with school, or nearly so, to even start trying to get pregnant.

Nancy needed the time. Having a child would change her life, and she knew it; she also knew that the moment she was sure she was pregnant, she would no longer be able to work the way she was now. No more walking into potentially dangerous situations and putting their child's life in danger. She knew Ned hated the thought of her being hurt, but Nancy wouldn't be able to live with herself if her job hurt their child, not if she could have helped it.

"So what exactly is Ned doing today?" Nancy asked, propping her chin on her hand. He had only told her that his Grandpa Chandler needed some help, and James was apparently over there as well.

Edith shrugged. "Just helping Dad out," she said, crossing to the refrigerator. "I'm so sorry, would you like something to drink?"

Imagining a tall glass of iced soda made Nancy almost shiver. Distantly she heard the wind rattle its way around the corner of the house, catching in the gutters. "You don't have any tea, do you?"

"I think I could dig some up," Edith said with a smile, finding a ceramic mug. "Anyway, if I find out that they're all together watching a ballgame or something, Jim will be in the doghouse for a month. Though it is nice of him to spend time with my dad."

Nancy stirred honey into her tea once it had finished steeping, then took a long first sip. "Mmm. It's weird that you have in-laws too."

Edith chuckled. "I hope it's not as bad as all that."

"No..." Nancy shook her head, scrunching her nose at Edith's teasing glance. "You and—Jim are great." She still felt a little strange, referring to Ned's father by his first name. "But... is it weird that he's over there with your dad? Does it make you nervous?"

"Would it make you nervous if Ned and Carson were together without you?"

Nancy chuckled. "I guess not. I think they're good around each other—Dad even invited Ned to go play golf this morning. Although Ned seemed to be pretty freaked out around Dad at first."

Edith smiled at the memory. "Jim was pretty much terrified around my father," she admitted. "By our third date I think we were both sure that we wanted to get married—we had been in a few classes together, and we knew each other before we started dating, but from our first conversation..." Edith sighed happily, reminiscing. "I think the only reason Jim waited until we'd been dating for six months to ask my father for permission to propose was because it took him that long to work up the nerve. We were incredibly lucky, though. I've seen what can happen when two people who have nothing in common fall in love with each other, and end up sticking together for the kids."

Nancy shook her head, stirring her tea again. "I can't imagine that," she said softly.

Edith finished setting out the plates, silverware, and glasses at the edge of the bar. "I think when Ned fell for you, it was the same as when Jim fell for me," she told Nancy. "They give their hearts so totally. I had a few boyfriends before Jim, but for me, there was no comparison. The way he would look at me..." A soft flush rose to Edith's cheeks, and she excused herself to go find the napkins.

They were still so much in love, after all this time. For a moment Nancy's eyes pricked with tears, until she shook her head and took another sip of tea. This was what Ned had seen the entire time he was growing up, and when he treated Nancy like she was the most precious thing in his life, a part of her was still amazed. Her father had been there for her, always, but he had also raised her to be independent, to make her own life, to make good decisions. It had taken Nancy a while to realize that when Ned worried about her, it was because he loved her, not because he didn't trust her.

Nancy knew that her father still loved his late wife, and that he always would, and every memento of that love, every photograph and letter, she had studied until she knew them by heart; she had touched the lace of her mother's wedding gown and felt such a wordless longing for something she hadn't even been able to name. Nancy had never seen her parents together, not that she could remember, but a part of her had been both drawn to and frightened by the way her father looked at her mother in those fading photographs. For the entire time she had known her father, he had been safe; he was in love with a ghost, and the loss of her might hurt every day but it was an ache and a loneliness he could apparently endure. He was alone now, and he could do as he wished; all Hannah minded was whether they were home for dinner and if they were safe.

Nancy had been mystified by the very idea of the kind of love her parents had shared, and she had seen how lonely it had made her father by its loss. Maybe Carson had loved Catherine with all his heart, but that hadn't been enough to keep her with him forever...

And when Nancy had realized how strongly she had felt about Ned, she had felt lost. She didn't know what to do; she didn't know how to handle it, how she was supposed to act, only that for her father it had ended with a broken heart and a child who became the center of his world, and who would always remind him of Catherine.

When Edith returned with the cloth napkins, Nancy finished her tea, putting her mug down carefully on the counter. "Can I ask you something?" she said softly, glancing at the timer on the stove. It was set for thirty more minutes; with any luck she and Edith would have a little time alone before the men came in for lunch.

"Of course you can."

Nancy swallowed. She loved Hannah, very much, but in some areas, Hannah wasn't able to help her. "Was being pregnant... scary? I just don't know what it's like..."

Edith glanced over at the timer. "Why don't we go sit down in the den," she suggested, and Nancy slipped off the barstool to follow her. "We have some time before we need to set the table.

"Now, are you...?"

Nancy shook her head, sitting down on the couch. It was hard for her to even talk about this kind of thing, even with Ned. "No, and I told him—Ned—that I thought maybe we could think about getting pregnant when he was finishing his degree. He's going to be spending so much time studying on top of working and I didn't want to think about it on top of all that—but..." Nancy pulled the elastic out of her hair, then ran her fingers through it. "The thought of having a baby is kind of terrifying," she admitted. "I know Ned really wants us to have one, and I do too, but..."

Edith nodded. "Having a baby is a lot of responsibility," she said sympathetically. "You won't sleep for the first six months—if you're lucky—and I don't blame you for not wanting that on top of Ned studying and attending classes when he isn't at work."

Nancy nodded. "But what is it like?" she asked softly.

Edith patted her knee. "It's amazing," she told her daughter-in-law. "When I found out that I was pregnant the first time..."

Nancy's eyes widened, and Edith noticed, and gave her a small nod.

"The first time I found out I was pregnant was just before our first wedding anniversary," she said softly. "I was nervous and scared and so excited. My sister had already had her first child, and she was full of advice, and my mother too, and they were the first people I told after Jim. And then, a month later..." She shook her head.

"We tried again, but I miscarried again, and oh, sweetheart, I hope that once you and Ned start trying, you don't have to go through that." She shook her head again, slowly. "I felt broken, like something was wrong with me, even though the doctor told us that nothing was wrong; sometimes it just isn't the right time, sometimes everything isn't just right, and it wasn't our fault. And then I found out I was pregnant again, and I didn't even want to tell Jim; I didn't want to tell anyone. Until I was in my fourth month, I spent every waking moment so nervous, just waiting for that pain to hit me again. But it didn't. The doctor let me listen to the baby's heartbeat but I was so afraid to believe it was real, that he would make it. But every visit the doctor told me the pregnancy was fine, I was doing well, the baby was doing well. I was in my sixth month when we finally decided we were going to name him Edmund—and even then it was hard, like giving him a name might turn our luck...

"Was it scary? It was one of the most terrifying things I had ever done because I had this living thing growing inside me, making me tired and irritable and ravenous, and I was so, so afraid that I would lose him—and yet, from the first moment I knew I was pregnant, I loved him, with my whole heart. I loved all of them with my whole heart." Edith smiled. "I thought I did, anyway. And then, after Ned was born, when they cleaned him off and let me hold him... when I saw his face, it finally felt real. Like I'd been holding my breath for nine months, praying every morning when I woke up and every night before I went to sleep that he would be okay, that he would make it. I don't think it hit Jim until then, either. But then he held Ned in his arms, he looked down into that tiny face, and it was like our lives made sense. And I would never wish a miscarriage on anyone, and it still hurts to think about them—but in some small way it was like that heartache and pain were worth it, because we made it through, and we finally had this perfect, beautiful baby boy.

"We tried one more time after Ned." Edith shook her head again. "It felt kind of like we were tempting fate, and I guess we were. Sometimes I did wish that I had been able to have a little girl, too, but I wouldn't give Ned up for the world. And then Ned found you... and it's like I do have a daughter, now, in a way." Edith smiled at Nancy.

Nancy reached up and wiped her eyes. "I'm so sorry—I didn't mean to make you upset—"

Edith reached over and wrapped her arm around Nancy, and they hugged each other for a minute. "It's all right," Edith said. "It is, it's all right, and it's been long enough that it doesn't hurt quite so much to talk about as it did. Don't apologize, sweetheart."

Nancy shook her head. "I didn't know."

"I know. It's okay." Edith reached over and pulled a tissue out of the box for Nancy, then took one for herself. "And I know you don't have many other people in your life you can talk to about this, and I would be happy to talk to you about it. Once you do have a baby, if you want me to come help you out, I would be happy to do that too." She smiled at Nancy. "And, sweetheart, I'm so sorry that you lost your mother so early. I would love to have met her."

Nancy wiped her eyes again. "God, I bet I look like a mess," she said, chuckling humorlessly. "I hate crying."

"I don't know too many people who enjoy it," Edith admitted. "But it's all right. And I don't know if that helped at all..."

"No, it did," Nancy said softly. "It did. I guess it's normal that I just... It's this huge thing, to be pregnant, and I just wanted to make sure I wasn't weird for being nervous."

"You're not," Edith assured her.

Nancy had enough time to visit the restroom and bathe her red eyes before she helped Edith set the table, and she was pleased to see that Grandpa Chandler had accompanied Ned and Jim to the house for lunch. "It's so nice to see you again," she told him, and he opened his arms for a hug.

"And it's a pleasure to see you, sweetheart." Grandpa Chandler patted her on the back before releasing her. "So I've heard it's your birthday soon?"

Nancy nodded. "Next month."

"I've stopped counting mine," he told her with a broad grin. "Ann and I decided ten candles was plenty."

Edith had baked cabbage rolls stuffed with smoked sausage, rice, and onions, topped in a chunky tomato sauce, and warm garlic-herb croissants. Nancy was surprised for a second when she saw the size of the full casserole dish, but Ned had inherited his appetite from his father, and Grandpa Chandler was no slouch either. Nancy took only a sliver of Hannah's butter pecan cake, even though it was one of her favorite recipes, and the guys rhapsodized over it.

"So are you finished with your project?" Nancy asked, as Ned forked the last bite of cake into his mouth.

Her husband shook his head. "Not yet. I should be done by dinnertime, though." He glanced over at his grandfather, who nodded when Ned asked if that sounded like a good estimate.

"Maybe the three of us can meet? Want me to see if Jan and Mike are available too?"

"That sounds great," Ned agreed, and his brow furrowed when his cell phone chirped, indicating a new message. Nancy knew she hadn't just sent him one, and since he hadn't started his new job yet, she wondered if it might be a text from someone at his old workplace. Edith, Jim, and Edith's father were talking about their plans for Easter, and Jim had just asked if Nancy and Ned were going to make it up to the lake cabin once the weather was a little warmer, when Ned stood up, walking toward the den, his eyes narrowed as he looked at the screen of his cell phone. Nancy responded, smiling, that they definitely were planning on it, then excused herself to follow Ned.

"What's wrong?"

Ned shook his head, then glanced up at his wife. "I got this weird text message the night you—the night I picked you up from the hospital," he said, and she nodded. "And then I got the call from the hospital and I just totally forgot about it. And then the next week, I got another one, and I just thought it was a wrong number." He handed her his phone. "And now this one."

Nancy scrolled up to the top of the screen and read from the beginning.

Thinkin of u. How things used 2 b. Miss u.

Hope u had a good week, handsome. U + black sweater = hottt!

Do u think of me as much as i think of u?

Ned had replied to that one. I'm sorry, I think you have the wrong number.

How could u say that? :( had been the reply.

Then, the latest message, timestamped only a few minutes earlier: Let me know if u got the flowers I sent. <3

Nancy looked from the phone to her husband. He looked worried, but she didn't see any guilt in his expression. "Black sweater," she said.

Ned shrugged. "I don't know what that was about. Like I said, it's gotta be a wrong number..."

"Did you reverse-lookup the number?"

Ned nodded. "All it said was that it was a local cell phone number. That was it."

"Did you try calling?"

"He—" Ned dropped his voice, remembering that his parents were in the next room. "Hell no."

"Any missed calls from this number?"

Ned shook his head.

"That's good," Nancy said. "Can I have your Facebook password?"

Ned nodded and gave it to her, and Nancy put it in on her own phone. "I thought you already had it," he said.

"I did, but then you changed it?"

"Oh, yeah. When I got that email about someone in Canada trying to get into my account."

Nancy nodded. "I'll take care of it," she told her husband.

Ned raised an eyebrow. "Take care of it, like...?"

"Like take care of it." She reached up and pulled his head down to hers, kissing him softly. His lips tasted sweet from the frosting. "Don't worry, I'll be careful."

"You'd better." Ned slipped his arms around her, embracing her gently, as he kissed her again, and Nancy closed her eyes, melting into his arms. If that recliner had still been in the den, she was pretty sure they both would have been tempted, even for just a moment.

When the kiss ended, Ned nuzzled against her ear. "I love you, sweetheart."

Nancy sighed. "I love you too," she whispered.

Nancy and George had arranged to go to the movies together, since they had some time and Ned would be out of the house anyway. After Nancy invited Ned's parents to her father's house for the Sunday lunch Hannah was organizing, saying it would be great if Ned's grandparents came too, Nancy headed back to their townhouse. She was going to leave the car there and take the El to the theater, just so they wouldn't be driving separate cars everywhere.

Her stomach twisted, though, when she approached their house, and for a second she almost thought it was for nothing—until she saw the vase in a shadow in front of their front door.

So it hadn't been a wrong number.

She pulled out her cell phone and took a picture of the flowers before she picked them up and read the card.

Ned, I've been thinking about you a lot lately. Maybe we could catch up over drinks sometime.

The note was unsigned save a small heart. Nancy pulled out her phone and called the florist.

"Hi. I am sooooo sorry," Nancy began in a breathless voice. "I'm Katherine, I live next door to the Nickersons, and I was walking my dog and he got to this bouquet sitting at their door before I realized what was going on, and I think it was delivered to Ned Nickerson...?"

The person who had placed the order, Nancy discovered, was a woman with blonde hair who had paid in cash. The only other thing the clerk could remember was that she had been carrying a beige raincoat, which was entirely unhelpful.

Nancy sighed and hung up, glancing at her watch. If she didn't get a move on, she would be late for the movie, and she didn't want to be late. Instead of opening her laptop, she pulled up Facebook on her cell phone and cleared her own email address and password, putting in her husband's.

By the time Nancy saw George in front of the theater, she had confirmed a hunch. A picture of Ned, wearing a black sweater, had been put up on Facebook a few days before he had received the text message complimenting the way he looked in it. Most of Ned's page was locked down, but that photo had been put up by a friend, and it wasn't behind a privacy lock. The messages on his account were all standard, run of the mill reminders about local band performances and parties, with a smattering of personal conversations. None of them looked suspicious.

Then she pulled up Ned's pending friend requests. He didn't have any.

Nancy furrowed her brow, then put her phone away as she walked up to George. "Thanks for meeting me," she told her friend. "Been busy?"

George shrugged, handing Nancy a ticket. "Not too bad."

"You didn't have to buy my ticket," Nancy protested.

"Sure I did. Since we're splitting a popcorn."

Nancy laughed, shaking her head as they walked inside and headed to the concession stand. George preferred no butter, since it was the least healthy thing she could imagine, so they compromised on light butter and cheddar topping. George asked for a bottle of water, and Nancy ordered a diet soda.

"So your birthday's coming up," George said.

"I keep hearing that," Nancy chuckled. "Yeah. It's no big deal, though—maybe we could all just go out to dinner, or maybe for drinks, although that'll stick poor Jan with being the DD..."

"And that's such a bad thing?" George laughed. "I thought maybe you and Ned might be taking a trip for it."

"I'd love to, but he'll be scheduling interviews for grad schools around then, and besides, he's just starting his new job on Monday—and he doesn't want to take a lot of time off, not at first anyway." Nancy slotted her drink into the armrest cupholder and put her purse between her feet, then began to shoulder out of her coat.

"With Ned going back to school, has that made you think about it too?"

Nancy shook her head firmly. "I'm doing what I love," she said. "I have my license and this is what I want to do, and going back to school..." She shook her head again. "No. Not at all. But I'm really proud of him for doing this. I'm just going to miss him."

George was looking forward to spring break and the time away from school, and if Bess wasn't able to come out to Illinois, George was thinking about going out to see her, and maybe asking if Terry wanted to tag along too. Nancy was hoping that Bess would be able to come out so they could all spend time with her; she was sure Ned wouldn't be able to take the time off, and she didn't want to have to leave him behind if she went to New York. The previews began before George could tell her much more than yes, Terry and Bess were still talking. According to Nancy's last conversation with Bess, she was still conflicted about what exactly she wanted to do, whether she wanted to ask Terry if he was interested in relocating, or if she wanted to relocate herself, or if what they had was even worth them rearranging their lives. Bess felt like it could be, but she had been burned before.

During the previews Nancy asked George if it was okay with her, then texted Jan, Mike, and Howie, asking if they were interested in meeting for dinner. Then she put her phone away.

The movie was good, but Nancy found it a little difficult to concentrate. She didn't like the flowers. She didn't like that the texts had escalated even after Ned had tried to politely dissuade the sender. And she especially wasn't looking forward to the conversation she needed to have with Ned later. That was distracting her more than anything else.

Originally they planned to meet at a tapas and wine bar after the movie, but when they arrived, the wait to get inside was already forty-five minutes. They debated the options for a while, and when they decided on a pizza place, Ned laced his fingers through Nancy's. "You okay?" he whispered, as Mike and George hailed cabs.

She nodded. "Yeah... I'm okay. I'll be okay."

Ned studied her eyes. "You're lying," he said softly.

Nancy shook her head. "I will be okay," she said firmly, and reached up to kiss him. "I just might need to get kind of drunk tonight."

Mike and Jan, Nancy and Ned, George and Howie and Howie's new girlfriend took a pair of tables draped in red-and-white cloth and ordered three pizzas to share. The house red was tolerable, and Jan toasted with her glass of diet soda as the rest of them split one bottle, then another. The waitress brought baskets of crusty, buttery, garlic-rubbed French bread, and Nancy put her nervousness to the side long enough to drink three glasses of wine. The warm buzz in her head was dimmed a little when she ate her first slice of pizza, but then Mike ordered another bottle and they were laughing, swearing that they would get together for Nancy's birthday, and definitely over the summer, that they would go away to the lake house for a while and just relax. And, Jan was sure to note, Jennifer would definitely not be invited along this time.

At that mention Nancy filled her wineglass again, and her head was swimming.

She sobered up just a little on the way home. She had hugged everyone goodbye, and George had promised to let her know what Bess's plans were as soon as she knew. Then Nancy and Ned were alone in the cab for the ride home, and Ned laced his fingers through hers, holding her hand, and neither one of them spoke.

Nancy was flushed as they walked up to their front door, supporting each other to keep from falling. Ned keyed inside and Nancy immediately took her denim jacket off, flipping the overhead light on, and slipped out of her shoes.

"So what's wrong," Ned said quietly, shrugging out of his own coat, his dark eyes intense as he gazed at her.

Nancy closed her eyes. Sometimes wine made her maudlin, and she could already feel it; she already knew it was going to be a bad night, unless she got herself under control. "Let me get changed first," she told him.

She didn't want to say it. God, she didn't want to say it, not at all.

She went to the bathroom and washed the rest of her makeup off, twisted her hair up into a loose bun, and put on flannel pants and a worn long-sleeved t-shirt. She didn't want to look at all alluring for this conversation. Ned did the same, stripping off his jeans and boots, and while she knew they could just sit down on the bed, she didn't want to talk about this in their bedroom.

She found half a bottle of a decent red in the refrigerator, and poured each of them a glass, along with a glass of diet soda. Ned took their coats and hung them up, and they sat down on the couch with the television off. A part of her hated the stillness and the silence.

It was such a little thing. Such a damned little thing, and yet.

Nancy took a deep breath. "I need you to tell me about the other girls you dated," she told him, and then forced herself to meet his eyes.

"Nan..."

She laced her fingers together and squeezed tight. "I think one of them got your phone number and she's been sending you messages," Nancy explained. "She's been stalking your Facebook; that's how she saw you in the black sweater, unless she's been physically stalking you. She sent flowers to our house today with a note attached, saying that she wanted to meet for drinks and catch up with you."

Ned had turned pale. "Was it signed?"

Nancy shook her head. "Remember how you told me that you didn't want to punish me for things you've already forgiven me for?"

"Yes," Ned said quietly.

"As far as I'm concerned, whatever you tell me tonight... I've already forgiven you for. I have no right to get upset at you for anything you did while we were apart, and," Nancy swallowed hard, "the only thing that matters to me is that you're with me now, that they're in the past. But I need you to tell me about them." Nancy looked down and back up again. "As much as I don't want to hear it, I need to. I've seen cases like this before, and if she escalates, she could turn dangerous..."

"So we figure out who it is and I go talk to her?"

Nancy shook her head firmly. "No. Definitely not, not if she escalates. At this point she's just playing with you; she managed to get your number somehow, she hasn't actually tried to friend you on Facebook, maybe, but she knows our address... and if she's become obsessed with you, any contact you have with her will just make it worse."

Ned shook his head. "I just... I can't imagine that any of them..."

"I know," Nancy said gently. "I know. But this is what I do, Ned. You tell me about them and I find out who it is, and I take the steps to protect us. It might mean a restraining order; it might mean contacting her myself. It might mean both of us being a lot more watchful for a while."

Ned dry-washed his face with his palms. "And what if it's not..."

"Then it's someone you've met through your work, in the city maybe, and she'll be harder to track down, but I'll find her. With any luck I'll find her first thing Monday morning."

"Then why... why talk about it," he said softly.

Nancy reached for his hand. "Because I want it behind us," she said, just as softly. "I don't want this... this thing, lingering between us anymore."

Ned's thumb brushed the back of her hand, over her knuckles. He reached for the wine and took a long sip, and she waited, her eyes downcast.

"Baby," he whispered.

She swallowed, then leaned forward, wrapping her arms around him, tight. "It's okay," she whispered. "It's okay. Because you're mine, Ned, forever, just the same as I'm yours, and whatever you tell me, baby, it's done. It's all done. Telling me won't change it."

He nodded, embracing her in return for a long long moment, and they slowly released each other. He reached for his wine again, and when he put it down it was half-empty.

"You know about Amy and Lily," he said softly, not looking at her, but Nancy nodded anyway. When he was fifteen years old he had slept with Amy, and he had thought he was in love with her; then he had dated Lily, before he and Nancy had met. While Nancy knew that they might have changed in the years between, Nancy had scrutinized their pictures when she had known that they had slept with Ned before she did. Amy had pale blonde hair, and Lily had dark hair.

"Yes," Nancy said softly, prompting him when he stayed silent.

"I... after you broke up with me, I dated Denise," he admitted, and Nancy squeezed his hand gently. "Crystal..."

"Describe her," Nancy said immediately. "Hair and eye color."

"Reddish hair, light eyes," Ned said, and reached for his wineglass again. "Sarah—black hair, blue eyes. Rachel, brown hair and—brown eyes. Susan, blonde hair and light eyes. Jen—Jennifer." When he put down the glass it was empty, and he clenched his hand into a fist. "And there are... four or five girls in there who... whose names I didn't know. They were... they were at the parties..." He shrugged.

"Can you describe them?"

Ned shrugged miserably. "I remember one was a redhead," he said softly. "I think one of them was blonde. I don't know. Nan, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."

Nancy squeezed his hand again. "Shhh," she whispered. "Shh. I told you, it's done, baby. And we can't go back and change it."

"I thought we were done," he said softly. "I would never... I would have waited..."

She moved over to him again, slipping her arms around him and holding him tight. "You didn't know," she said softly. "And I didn't know either, and it's not your fault. It isn't. It's okay."

Ned let out his breath in a long sigh. "And there were times... I was offered a threesome once... God." He ran a hand through his hair. "Crystal... she showed me a tape of her with a girl. Rachel... we had sex on the library steps. Sarah practically went down on me in front of the rest of her sorority..."

Nancy wasn't even sure when she had started crying, and Ned still wasn't looking at her. "And Jen, God... she was insane, everything she did..."

Nancy took a deep breath but her voice was shaking anyway. "Did you have unprotected sex with any of them?"

"Twice," he whispered. "Both times with Sarah, but it was... it was oral, that was it, I swear. Every time, other than those, I used a condom."

She released him and Ned reached up to wipe his face before he looked up at his wife. "I'm sorry," he whispered again.

Nancy shook her head, forcing a smile on her face. "I asked," she said softly. "And I don't want secrets between us."

Ned nodded. "Baby... I need you to know that I don't ever think about them, okay?" he said, his voice almost hoarse. "I don't... I don't look back at that point in my life and want it back. I just felt so lost without you..."

"I know," she said softly. "I don't think about the guys I slept with either."

Ned looked down again.

"Is there anything else?" she said softly. "Anything else you need to tell me?"

Ned shook his head.

Nancy twisted her hands together again. "I dated Peter after I broke up with you," she said, and cleared her throat. "But I didn't sleep with him. I slept with Jake... and then I dated Michael, and Carter, and J-Jamie... and there are three guys in there whose names I don't know." Nancy reached up and wiped her wet cheeks. "Then there was Frank... and then, after him, I started seeing Trent... and Trent's how I found my job."

Ned's head jerked up. "You mean—"

Nancy shook her head, a small, humorless smile on her face. "No. Different Trent, and no, he doesn't work there."

Ned relaxed marginally. "Oh," he said softly.

Nancy looked down again, a pair of tears splashing on her flannel pants, turning the fabric darker. "Carter liked to... to hurt me, to bruise me," she admitted, and covered her face. "And Jamie... there was a party, and we were both drinking, and I told him no, but he..." She couldn't talk anymore.

Ned touched her and she shuddered, and then he wrapped his hand around her wrist, drawing it down as he tipped her chin up. "Nancy," he whispered, his voice breaking. "Oh, sweetheart."

Nancy swallowed hard. "The—my therapist, she told me... I was just, I was so tired and I just gave up, I stopped fighting him, and it wasn't..." She shook her head.

"Nan," he whispered, and pulled her into his arms, holding her tight. "Oh my God, baby."

She wrapped her arms around him. God, she couldn't stop crying, and during the session she had talked to the therapist about it—it had come out when she had asked Nancy about her past relationships, when they had talked about the guys Nancy had picked up at bars and fucked without feeling anything more than such a terrible emptiness. That had only happened after Jamie, and yet she still hadn't let herself think about it, not really, not even when the therapist gave it that awful name, telling her that because she had said no, because she had tried to squirm out of Jamie's arms, because he had pinned her down—

"And I even went out—slept with him a few times after," Nancy whispered, her voice shaking. "I just couldn't... I couldn't believe it... I just felt so fucking worthless..."

"You're not worthless," Ned told her, his voice quiet but firm. "You are not worthless, Nan. You're priceless. Tell me his last name."

"Ned..."

"Tell me his goddamn last name."

Nancy started sobbing harder. "Ned, please," she whispered. "Please. It... it was years ago."

"I don't care how long ago it was."

Nancy pressed her face against his shoulder. "Please," she whispered again, and she was shaking. "Please."

Ned reached up and smoothed her hair. "Shhh," he whispered. "Shhhh. It's okay. It's okay. Calm down, baby, it's okay. It'll be okay."

He held her, stroking her hair, her back, murmuring to her that she was going to be okay, he swore that she was going to be okay, rocking her gently. He comforted her until her tears began to subside, until her heartbeat began to slow to match his, and even then she couldn't let him go.

"You asked me about... unprotected sex," he said softly.

She nodded slightly. "The night of the party—he didn't use a condom," she said softly.

"When he raped you."

Nancy's face crumpled and she couldn't reply. All she could do was bury her face against his shoulder again, tighten her arms around him. "I... It wasn't... that. Because he and I had had sex before, and he cared about me, and..."

"He didn't," Ned said softly. "If he could do that to you, he didn't care about you." He nuzzled against her cheek. "Remember what I told you, baby—you always have to be able to say no. Always. I don't even care why you say no, but you have to be able to say no, and the thought that he..." Ned shook his head, his voice quivering with rage.

Once Nancy had recovered enough to speak, she pulled back. "I was tested," she said softly. "I was clean. There were two other times, without anything—but I'm clean."

Ned cupped her cheek. "Nan," he whispered, gazing into her eyes, and she knew that if she asked him to, he would find Jamie and kill him with his bare hands for her. "Baby, I'm so sorry."

Nancy gave him a small humorless smile. "It's done," she whispered. "And as much as I wish I could take it back, I can't."

Ned reached for her wineglass and took a long sip. "When you said that other guy liked to be rough with you..."

Nancy shrugged. "He did," she murmured. "But that was all he wanted. He was never soft with me." She cupped her husband's cheek. "And even when you're rough with me, baby, I know you love me. I know you don't want to hurt me just for the sake of hurting me." She looked at his mouth.

"I do," he murmured. "I do love you, and I always will, no matter what." He shook his head. "But if I ever meet this guy... he won't walk away, Nan."

Nancy didn't smile. She couldn't. "I understand," she said softly.

Ned leaned forward, touching his forehead to hers, gazing at her until she couldn't see him through her tears. The expression on his face, in his eyes, was breaking her heart. He was hurting for her.

"I didn't want to tell you," she whispered, her throat thick. "I didn't want you... oh God, Ned..."

He brushed the tears from her cheeks. "No more secrets, baby," he whispered. "No more. If I'd known..."

"That's why I didn't want to say it," she said softly, closing her eyes. "I didn't want you to look at me—like I... like I was... weak..."

Ned's thumbs brushed her cheeks again. "You are one of the strongest people I know," he told her firmly. "I mean that. I mean every word of that. I have never, never thought you were weak, and I don't think you're weak now. I think you just... you just didn't want to believe someone you cared about could do that to you."

She nodded. "He told me once," she said softly, "that sometimes good girls feel like they just have to say no... and they just have to be... convinced, to say yes." She squeezed her eyes tighter shut and another pair of tears slipped down her cheeks as she sucked in a breath, catching in a ragged sob. "And I could have—I could have stopped him but I just... if I'd kicked him or hit him..."

Ned wrapped her in his arms again. "You can't think that way," he said softly. "You told him no and that's supposed to fucking be enough." He shook his head.

She pressed her face against his neck, skin to skin. "I'm so sorry," she whispered.

Ned shook his head again. "Don't be sorry, Nan. Don't. You know how you said everything that happened before... it's done, it's forgiven?"

"Yeah," Nancy whispered.

"Do you—do you forgive me?" His voice was rough.

"Yes," she said softly.

"Do you forgive me for not being there to stop him?"

Nancy pulled back, looking into her husband's eyes. "But you—Ned, that, that wasn't your fault, you didn't know—"

Ned nodded. "And everything that happened while we were apart, I forgive you," he told her. "Everything. And what that asshole did to you wasn't your fault."

Nancy's lips were trembling. She looked at him, but she couldn't speak.

"The therapist told you that, right?"

Nancy nodded once, slowly, without speaking.

"And if I'd been there, baby, I would have beaten the fucking shit out of him when he laid a finger on you after you told him no. The fucking shit." Ned shook his head, disgusted. "And I fucking hate that it happened to you, but it wasn't your fault. And I can see—I can see in your eyes that you won't even admit it to yourself and God, that hurts me, Nan. It doesn't make you weak. It doesn't. And it doesn't change the way I feel about you. Nothing ever will."

She looked down and Ned cupped her face again, wiping the tears from her cheeks. She couldn't think. Half her mind was racing; the rest felt frozen, blank, shut out, like all of it was happening to someone else.

We can't change what we've done or what has happened, Nancy. All we can do is take each day as it comes and do the best we can with it. But you have to be honest with yourself to get past this—and what happened to you that night, that was rape. Even if you never tell him, even if you never tell anyone else, you have to understand that. He had sex with you when you didn't want him to, and that's what it is. That's the truth of it.

And you're worth more than that. Your voice is worth more and your will is worth more. Never forget that. Any man who excuses something like that by saying he's just "convincing" you, that you just needed some encouragement—that man doesn't care about you or your feelings, and he's toxic for you.

You are not worthless. You are not. The next time a man treats you that way, I want you to get away from him as quickly and safely as you can and call me. I don't care where you are or what time it is. I will personally make sure someone comes to get you away from that situation as fast as I can.

Nancy had stared at her hands the entire time her therapist had said those words, and every time she had tried to bring it up after, Nancy had just changed the subject. Her therapist just didn't understand. It wasn't rape. It wasn't, it wasn't like that, she had just... she had just been reluctant—

She hadn't wanted to have sex with Jamie that night.

Nancy was quivering, her fingers twisting in fists against her flannel pants. It was hard to breathe.

She just felt so ashamed.

"Nan," Ned whispered, and when he tipped her chin up so he could look into her face, she let him. She could see the shining path of tears down his cheeks. "Nan, say something."

She just shook her head. Her nose was running, and Ned grabbed the box of tissues on the coffee table, offering it to her. She blew her nose and she was still shaking. Her eyes were swollen, her lashes matted from all her tears, and her skin felt raw.

She wasn't one of those girls. She had never been one of those girls. She had always told herself that the second a guy attacked her, that guy would be on his back, wondering what had happened, before he knew what was going on. She had always known that, if it was within her power, she would never let someone make her do something against her will.

And it had been within her power, and she had been too afraid, too shocked to even admit to herself what he was doing, and she wasn't one of those girls. She wasn't a fucking victim, and the only way she could make sure she was no victim was if there had been no crime.

She wasn't one of those girls.

She was still silent when Ned pulled her back onto his lap, wrapping his arms around her, rocking her and shushing her, and Nancy closed her eyes. A small part of her had believed that if Ned found out, he would blame her. She had slept with Jamie even after; she had slept with men whose names she didn't know, her only thought to make sure the condom was on before they had sex.

She had hated herself, and a part of her had wanted Ned to hate her for it, too.

"I love you," he whispered, and she was sobbing again suddenly, her arms wrapped tight around him.

He took her to bed then, carrying her to the upstairs bathroom and letting her bathe her puffy eyes in cold water after her tears subsided again. The night was cooler, but Ned stripped down to his underwear anyway—and Nancy kept going, slipping out of her bra and panties before she dove between the sheets. The cotton was so cold against her bare skin that she immediately started shivering, violently, and Ned immediately pulled her into his arms, his skin hot against hers.

"Shh," he whispered, and she had her knee slipped between his legs, they were tangled together, her breasts pressed to his chest. "Shh, baby. Shh. It's okay." His palm stroked over her shoulder blades. "Shh. Shh. It's okay."

Every time she thought she had cried all the tears she ever would, somehow she found there were more.

"It's okay," she repeated softly, her voice a rough whisper.

Ned nodded. "It's okay," he whispered. "It's going to be okay, baby."

"You still love me." It was like hearing someone else's voice come out of her.

"Oh, Nancy. Sweetheart." Ned's lips brushed her forehead. "I always will. I will always love you. And I will never, never, if it's within my power, I will never let anything like that happen to you again."

She nestled against him, skin to skin, concentrating on her breathing until she stopped shaking. She still couldn't say the words. Not out loud.

Ned would go after anyone who laid a finger on her. She knew that with every fiber of her being. If he found out Jamie's last name...

She knew she had to stop thinking about it, but she couldn't stop herself. She could just imagine how incredulous and defensive, how dumbfounded Jamie would have been if she had ever put it in those words.

But you stopped saying no, baby. But you let me. You let me do it. You changed your mind.

I'm not that kind of guy. I would never do that.

If you had just—stopped me—

I tried. I tried and tried.

Ned tugged the blanket up over them, then embraced her again, and Nancy closed her eyes. Her cheeks were cool, but in the warmth of the blankets, against the warmth of her husband's skin, she felt herself relaxing again.

Promise me this is forever.

It has always been forever. I will never stop loving you, Nan. I will never leave you, never again.

She nestled against him, and when a cold teardrop touched his arm, he pulled back and then brushed his lips against her cheek, kissing her tears away, and the sheer tenderness of the gesture made her shiver. 

"Tell me what to do," Ned whispered, his voice breaking. "Tell me how to help you, Nan. Please."

She sighed, and the sigh was trembling with the tears she was holding back. "Never let me go," she whispered. "Just please never let me go."

"I'll never let you go, baby."

She wasn't sure when she fell asleep. She was so exhausted that the room seemed to tilt and yawn when she moved her head, so hollowed out and swollen sensitive from her tears that she felt numb with it, the space behind her eyes pounding with every beat of her heart. She only realized she had been asleep when the scrape of Ned's foot against the bedroom floor woke her, and she blinked lazily against the darkness, tense, her heart in her throat until he returned.

He had a glass of water and a dose of extra strength pain reliever. "Baby," he whispered. "Sweetheart, you need to take a pain pill."

He was trying to head off the hangover she had a feeling they were both going to have, but she took the pills anyway, drinking the entire small cup of water before she handed it back to Ned. He tossed it into the trash, and as soon as he slipped back under the covers she was in his arms again, as close to him as she could be.

When Nancy woke up for good, the sun was weakly streaming through the curtains and she was still cuddled against her husband. And she had told him, and now she could never take it back. He would never look at her without knowing. He would never look at her without remembering what she had told him.

Ned moved against her, making a soft noise as he woke. "Hey," he whispered, his voice gravelly with sleep.

Oh God. What if he never looked at her the way he had before...

Suddenly she had to see his eyes, had to know.

I never look at you any other way.

She cupped his cheek and he brought his head up, his dark eyes meeting hers. All she saw there was the same love she had always seen, the dark eyes she had lost herself in so many times, and his concern. She had told him her most terrible secret, the worst thing she had ever thought she would endure, the night before, and he wasn't angry; he only wanted her to be okay.

And she had been so close to losing him forever, this man who loved her so much that sometimes it still scared her a little.

Nancy briefly bit the soft inner flesh of her lips, pressing them together and releasing. "Hey," she whispered.

He reached up and stroked his fingers through her hair. "You okay?"

"I will be," she whispered. "I... if you don't have anything else going on... I just want to be with you today."

"Of course," he whispered, cupping her cheek. "I'd love that, baby. And I think it's my turn to make breakfast..."

They didn't really take turns, not when it came to breakfast, but she let him go. She dressed hastily, slipping on her flannel pants and long-sleeved shirt again, and the collar felt a little cooler under her dried tears. When she returned from the bathroom she dove under the covers again, seeking the last trace of his warmth, still lingering in the sheets and the comforter.

He made pancakes, and brought her a warm stack already drizzled in syrup, the butter melting into the fluffy cake, and a mug of coffee just the way she liked it, and when he slipped into the bed beside her, smiling at her, she shook her head.

"I love you so much," she murmured. "This is so sweet."

He kissed her forehead. "I love you too, Nan," he whispered. "I always will."

She was waiting for him to talk about it, during breakfast, after they showered and went downstairs together, but he didn't bring it up. Her anxiety didn't go away, though. She had clammed up when he had tried to talk to her about it the night before, and Ned wasn't just going to let it slide. She knew that.

He suggested that they take a trip to the home improvement store, and although he was between jobs for a few days, they were still doing okay. Not enough to splurge on one of the enormous grills or the high-efficiency washing machine and dryer sets she had been eyeing, but okay. He had her pick out a new water-filter attachment for their kitchen sink, and then he wandered over to the lighting aisle, remembering that she had mentioned looking for a new pair of bedside lamps for their room.

The small, functional lamps were cheap, but boring. Nancy's gaze lingered on a medium-sized Tiffany style lamp, but she went over to the brushed steel lamp bases, looking at the display models.

Ned stopped at the Tiffany lamp, though. "Is this the one you want?"

Nancy wrapped her arms around her belly, walking slowly back to him. "It's... I want to get a matched pair and it's really pretty but it's more expensive, and I want to get something you'll like too..."

"It's a lamp, sweetheart." Ned wrapped his arm around her, against the small of her back, and dropped a kiss on the crown of her head. "If this is the one you want, that's great."

Nancy swallowed her objection. She couldn't fight the feeling that he was offering to buy her the lamp as an attempt to cheer her up after their conversation the night before, and while she wanted to be irritated at him, she couldn't. He wanted to make her happy. He wanted to know how to help her.

And she had always liked the lamp. She had always loved the one in Hannah's sewing room, ever since she was a little girl.

"Okay," she said softly, smiling at him, and Ned kissed her again before he put them in the cart.

On the way home they called in an order to the Mexican restaurant, and when they were home they unpacked their containers of tortilla chips and salsa, enchiladas, tacos and rice. They were full and happily satisfied when Ned went into the kitchen to install the new faucet filter, and Nancy took the lamps upstairs.

The lamps looked good beside the bed, although they made her want a new comforter...

Nancy shook her head, wrapping her arms around her waist again, then glanced at her dresser, looking at the top drawer. She pursed her lips, but when she went back downstairs, she had only taken her hair down. It spilled in red-gold waves over her shoulders.

In her absence Ned had turned on the game, and Nancy toed out of her shoes, then joined him on the couch. She snuggled against his side, and Ned took the afghan draped over his legs and pulled it around her too. A can of soda rested on a coaster, in front of him on the coffee table.

"You want something to drink, sweetheart?"

"I'll get it," she told him, kissing his cheek, ignoring his protests as she pushed herself up. She wanted another mug of hot tea, and as she pulled out the honey to sweeten it, she remembered the conversation she had had with Edith the day before.

I felt broken, but it wasn't my fault.

Oh, it wasn't my fault, it wasn't...

"Is this okay? Did you want to watch something else?"

Just the mere fact that Ned was even asking her if she wanted him to turn it made her smile. She almost never asked him to turn the channel if he was watching a game, and he was probably banking on that, but she didn't mind.

"No, it's fine, baby. I need to check my email anyway."

To keep from distracting him, she moved to the other end of the couch, but tucked her bare toes under his thighs, the afghan draped across both their legs. She opened her laptop and pulled up one of the search sites she used through her work, but when she moved the cursor to the search bar and clicked, it blinked at her, and she considered for a moment.

Nancy had saved the card that had come with the flowers just in case there were prints on it, but she had thrown out the flowers and vase, and in all honesty, as raw as she felt, she didn't really want to do this right now. She didn't want to type in a phone number and see the name of some girl Ned used to date pop up. She didn't want to think about it.

What she really wanted to do was go to her workplace in the morning, wanted to put on her sturdy heels and her backup weapon, and there, in the safety of her office, not here, she wanted to see a name and reduce it to a mark, a suspect. She wanted to cull databases and search Facebook and not feel this way.

Four or five girls whose names I don't remember.

Nancy had been telling the truth when she had told him she forgave him, and after what she had heard at Omega Chi during the alumni weekend, she was surprised it was only four or five. In no way had she been unaware that her boyfriend had turned heads wherever he went. For God's sake, his cousin had practically talked him into taking a modeling career, even if that had only lasted a few days.

She took a deep breath, quietly. Ned had told her that they never crossed his mind, and she could say with all honesty that Frank's emails were the only reminder she ever let herself think about. Even then, she looked back on her time with him with a finality. What was between them was done. She tried not to regret that it had ever happened; it was over, and she had the man she loved now.

George had sent Nancy an email. Bess was going to try to visit around the same time as Nancy's birthday, and George suggested, entirely seriously, that if they all went out, maybe Terry could come along...

Nancy smiled as she composed an email in return, and when Ned finished his soda she noticed immediately, going to the refrigerator to bring him a fresh one despite his protest that he could get it himself.

But she knew. No matter how conscientious she was, no matter what she did for him, she couldn't take back what she had said. 

She had thought it would be a relief. Part of her had believed, though, that it was a terrible test. He had told her so, so many times how much he loved her, and now that he knew...

Now that he knew, how could he love her? How could he look at her the same way?

I stopped fighting. I let him do it.

The screen blurred when her eyes filled with tears again, and she reached up to wipe them away, trying not to let Ned see what she was doing. He glanced over at her, though, and when he drew his brows together slightly, his jaw tightening, Nancy had to look away. She drew in a quiet breath and wiped her wet fingers on her jeans.

She couldn't. If he said anything to her she couldn't. She just couldn't.

It was years ago. Just fucking get over it.

She closed her laptop, putting it down on the couch, and reached for her shoes.

"You okay?"

"Yeah, I'll be right back," she told him, forcing a smile. "I'm okay."

She didn't know why, but she had a hunch that if Ned's stalker hadn't already driven by where they lived, she would, especially since she knew their address. Nancy had one of the motion-activated webcams she used with her work in the back of her car, and she knew Trent wouldn't mind if she just had it set up at their townhouse for a week. Since they lived in a cul-de-sac, any car caught by the camera would be suspect. She found a good place for it, sheltered from the bright sun and any rain, and rigged it so it could get a good shot. She had done it so many times when working on other cases that she could practically do it in her sleep, and the most irritating part was always making sure the battery pack was in place and securely plugged in, and that the whole thing wasn't immediately obvious.

And as much as it angered her to think about it, at least it was easier to think about the camera and whoever was sending her husband those messages than the conversation they'd had the night before. From the messages Nancy had a feeling Ned had met the girl before, but she wasn't so sure it was one of the girlfriends...

Then why talk about it at all.

They hadn't talked about it early in their renewed relationship because it was still too raw, it still hurt too much, and Nancy had been afraid that he was always comparing her to those women. And then they just hadn't talked about it, until it had become so big, so damn much, and she hated that feeling, that they were both still so sensitive over it that they could share almost everything else, their deepest fantasies, their dreams, just not that. That one day she might run into one of them again, other than Frank, and Ned wouldn't know immediately, or that she would shake hands with one of those girls without knowing. And knowing hurt now, a little, but it was so long ago. Ned had been a different person. She had been a different person.

And they were different people now, too. She loved him so much because she couldn't take him for granted now, not anymore, never again. And every time Ned told her how much he loved her, she was still caught off-guard. She didn't deserve it. She craved his love, his desire, the safety she felt in his arms so much, but it was so, so hard for her to feel worthy of it.

She had spent those first few months, before they had slept together, waiting for him to walk out the door again, and knowing that she would have no defense, none at all.

A jogger went by with a golden retriever on a leash. Nancy sat down on their front steps with her arms around her bent knees.

Her therapist had called it spiraling, and whenever she realized she was doing it, she was supposed to think of other things, positive things, until she was okay again.

She had a great job, and friends who loved her; she made herself name all the girls who had gone with her on her bachelorette outings, who still dropped her little cards and emails to catch up with her every now and then. Bess and George were a part of her life again. She had a family and in-laws who cared so much for her, who wanted her to be happy. She hadn't died the night of her shooting.

Nancy looked down at her left hand.

And she had a husband...

He loved her so damn much that it scared her, and if he hated her after this, if he decided he couldn't be with her anymore, she realized, it would just confirm all those fears. The fear that she had never been good enough, that his love was conditional, that one day she could, she would, fuck this up, and lose this man she loved more than life itself...

She heard the door open behind her, but Ned didn't say anything. She hadn't taken a coat outside with her, and she was shivering, her face wet. Ned draped his coat over her shoulders and the scent of his cologne clung to the collar and Nancy closed her eyes tight, a pair of tears slipping down her wet cheeks.

And then he sat down beside her, and when he wrapped an arm around her and drew her to him, she laid her head on his shoulder and neither one of them spoke.

In the shower that morning, when she had moved under the spray, he hadn't joined her; he had waited until she was finished, then taken his own shower. She knew it might be stupid, but she was so afraid that he didn't find her attractive now, that he didn't want her now. He might say he loved her, but when he looked at her, maybe he just saw her as something damaged and unworthy. He was giving her space, but what if he never stopped, what if the space just grew and grew...

"You're missing the game," Nancy whispered.

"It was sucking anyway," he murmured. "I couldn't concentrate. You're shaking, baby."

"Yeah," Nancy murmured, chuckling humorlessly as she wiped her cheeks. "Sorry."

He brushed his lips against the crown of her head. "Come inside," he murmured. "Okay?"

She pulled his coat tight around her as she slowly pushed herself to her feet and followed him into the townhouse. The coat was heavy and thick, and from the first time Ned had ever draped his coat over her shoulders, even back when they were dating, before they had ever said they loved each other, she had loved it. She had loved being wrapped in his scent, in the bulk and warmth, and she could almost imagine that the heat of his skin lingered in the lining, that it was almost as good as feeling his arms around her.

But it wasn't. Nothing would ever feel as good to her as his arms around her, his lips against hers.

She toed out of her shoes, reluctantly hanging up his coat, and when she turned back to him Ned was still standing, his dark eyes intense and gleaming faintly as he gazed at her.

She had never, never wanted to hurt him. Never. And sometimes she felt like that was all she did.

Nancy went to him and when she reached for him, slipping her arms up around his neck, her heart was in her throat as he slipped his arms around her in return. He drew her to him and they held each other, close as a slow dance, her body pressed tight to his. He ignored the game, nuzzling against the crown of her head, and they swayed slowly together.

It took her a long moment to find the nerve, but she finally did, her heart beating so hard that she could feel it pounding in her skull. She tipped her head back and he looked down, into her eyes, and she searched his gaze before she ran her fingers through his hair.

And she was so afraid that if she tried to urge him down to her...

His gaze dropped to her lips, and he slowly tipped his head down, their lips meeting in the softest kiss. She opened her mouth and his tongue slipped against hers and she couldn't remember the last time she had felt so damned nervous around him. His palm moved over the small of her back, and she swallowed hard before she reached for his hand, slowly moving it up, then holding it to her breast. They broke the kiss and she let out a soft sigh as he cupped her through her bra.

"I need you," she whispered, another tear spilling down her cheek as she searched his gaze.

He leaned down and kissed her again, harder this time, and she closed her eyes when he pulled her into his arms, boosting her so she could wrap her legs around him. She held him tight as he carried her up the stairs, and when his lips weren't pressed to hers, he was nuzzling her cheek, her temple. He opened the door to their bedroom and with the lights off it was all blue and grey, cool shadow.

He put her down and inched her shirt up to pull it off her, gently unclasped her bra and drew it down her arms, and pulled his own shirt off before he led her to the bed. He slowly took her jeans off and she pushed herself up on her heels so he could slip her panties off, and when he joined her in their bed, they were both naked.

And then he kissed her, the hollow of her throat, the circle of scar tissue above her breast, the flesh between her breasts, and nuzzled down to her belly button. He kissed the insides of her elbows, the delicate skin of her wrists, the insides of her knees, the curve of her ankles. He traced his fingertips over her, and he was always in contact with her, always. He cupped her hips, the heels of his hands tracing the hollow of her hipbone, then leaned down and traced slow, sweet kisses over her belly. He nuzzled against her inner thighs, and when he briefly sucked against the sensitive skin, she arched under him.

"I love you," he whispered. "I love you so much."

"I love you too," she whispered.

He nuzzled against the join of her thighs and she fully opened her legs to him, and then he cupped her as he moved back up, drawing the tight darker bud of her nipple into his mouth. He slowly suckled against her, the heel of his hand gently moving against the reddish-gold curls between her thighs, and she ground herself against him, rocking her hips, her fingers threading through his dark hair.

He ran his tongue over her nipple, teasing her until she moved restlessly against him, then moved to her other breast, his touch still teasing light between her thighs. She drew her heels up, her knees bent, tipping her head back and panting as he slowly drew one fingertip up the slit of her sex.

She shivered as he traced his finger back down, as he lashed his tongue against her nipple. Her heart was beating wildly, and when he released her breast, moving back down again, she moaned softly.

She was panting, lightheaded, when he parted her. He barely traced the tip of his tongue against her clit and she arched hard, her every breath another plea. Slowly, with every stroke, she felt the pressure of her desire build, her need for him. He circled the opening of her sex, teasing her with gentle swipes of his tongue, and she let out a soft cry when he stroked her clit with the ball of his thumb.

He went down on her until she was flushed and trembling. He traced the sensitive folds of flesh between her legs, suckling against her clit, slowly working two fingers into the tight press of her sex. Her fingernails dug against his shoulder, the fingers of her other hand buried in his hair, and he nipped at her clit and she cried out more loudly, as his fingers curved up, teasing her g-spot.

"Oh my God, oh my God, oh God," she sobbed, her hips rocking as she ground against him. "Oh my God, oh my God, Ned, please, oh please, baby..."

He pushed himself up, his thumb brushing her clit as he worked his fingers inside her, and she knew that he could bring her to orgasm this way alone, and she was so close, so fucking close—

"Please," she begged him, a pair of tears streaming down her cheeks. "I—I need you..."

He slipped his fingers out of her, then moved between her thighs, guiding himself to her. She felt the bare tip of his cock gently move against the slick, sensitive flesh of her sex, and she reached for him, pulling him down to her as he slowly moved between her thighs. She needed his skin against hers, needed his arms around her. She needed him.

He slipped deeper inside her, supporting his weight on his palms as he arched over her, his handsome face and broad shoulders all she could see above her. To her horror she felt herself begin to sob in earnest, in great gasping cries, and he stilled inside her, kissing the tears from her cheeks so gently. She wrapped her legs around him, her arms around him, and held him to her, shaking.

"Please," she whispered, her eyes closed as he kissed a teardrop from her temple. "Make love to me. Please..."

He pulled back. "Open your eyes, sweetheart," he whispered. "I need you to look at me."

She obeyed him, opening her eyes, her lips parting as he pushed forward until the full length of his cock was fitted snug between her thighs. She moaned, tipping her bent knees back to give him easier access, and he pulled back, then moved inside her again.

"I love you," he whispered. "I love you so much, Nancy. No matter what I will never stop loving you."

Her eyes were swimming, and she blinked a pair of tears down her cheeks, keeping her gaze locked to his as he moved in and out of her. She felt so helpless, so powerless when she saw the sympathy and tenderness in his eyes, and so unworthy of it.

But he had never asked her to be worthy of it. All he wanted was her, her presence and her love, and as pitiful as those seemed, they were all she had to give.

He arched against her and his skin brushed her clit and she tightened around him, blinking, sending another pair of tears down her cheeks. "Ned," she whispered, gasping in a breath as he moved inside her again. "Oh Ned..."

He brushed against her clit again and she shuddered, tilting her hips back and forth as he slipped out of her, then pushed inside her again. "I love you, I love you, oh, oh Ned... oh, please..."

They were both panting as she threaded her fingers through his hair, as he plunged into her, over and over, her body trembling as she took his thrusts, their gazes still locked to each other. Watching him, feeling him make love to her—she flushed more deeply, her wet cheeks prickling with the heat.

And then she arched a little more, and at his next thrust she let out a loud cry, her nails dragging down his back. "Oh God!" she sobbed, tipping her head back, her hips rocking to meet his. "Oh my God yes, yes!"

"Look at me."

She forced her eyes open, forced herself to look at her husband again. He was glowing with exertion and she knew she was, and she gasped when their eyes met again, her nails digging into his shoulders again. She let out a loud cry when he grasped her hips, pulling her up to straddle his waist as he sat in the middle of their bed, and Nancy slipped her arms around his shoulders, holding his gaze as she rocked against him, so wet that she could hear it every time she moved against him.

And then his thumb dug against her clit.

She sucked in a breath and cried out, rutting against him, her knees spread wide. She felt tender, achingly sensitive, and Ned groaned when another flick of his thumb made her tighten hard around his cock.

"Yesss," he whispered. "Oh, you feel so good, sweetheart. So perfect."

She whimpered when he ran the hand not occupied by stroking her clit, down the long messy waves of her red-gold hair, combing his fingers through it. He splayed his fingers over her hip and she took him hilt-deep in the press of her sex, over and over, until they had driven her orgasm unbearably high, until all she knew, all she could feel was the sensation of his cock against her slick inner flesh, his thumb against her clit.

"I love you," he breathed. "Oh, I love you, Nan. Come for me."

She was sobbing with the pleasure of it, and when she finally, finally let herself crash through her climax, their gazes still locked together, he laid her back down. He rode her through it, until she was writhing under him, moaning his name, every brush of his thumb against her clit making her hips and shoulders jerk, her inner flesh clench hard around him. When he finally pinned her open under him, when she was spent, boneless and trembling, he groaned as he reached his own climax, his hips snug between her inner thighs as he came deep inside her.

She gasped for breath, slipping her arms around him when he collapsed to her, finally closing her eyes. She ran her fingers through his hair as he gently slipped his arms around her, and his lips brushed her neck, her shoulder, his breath warm against her skin.

"I love you," he whispered again, his own breathing ragged. "Oh, I love you, baby. I always will."

She swallowed hard against her dry, aching throat. "I need you," she whispered. "And I was so afraid... that you wouldn't love me anymore."

"I know," he whispered, and pulled back to gaze into her eyes. "But there is nothing you can admit to me that will make me stop loving you. Nothing."

She searched his eyes. "And I will never let you go," she whispered. "For as long as you love me I will never, never let you go."

--

Tiffany Walters Devereaux

Nancy hadn't realized until she walked into the office and Jules arched an eyebrow, asking if she was feeling okay, how severely she had dressed. After a weekend spent feeling more vulnerable than she had in a very long time, when Nancy dressed Monday morning, she had put on a short-sleeved form-fitting grey turtleneck, pair of tailored black slacks and low black heels, her hair pulled tightly back. Her gun was holstered at her back, and the necklace Ned had given her was under her shirt, resting against bare skin.

The first thing she had done once she reached her desk was type the cell phone number into the search bar. Tiffany's name was the only hit.

A file was already waiting for her, standing in her inbox. Nancy clicked the button that would show her Tiffany's driver's license, then pulled up the Emerson College web interface. The back door they sometimes used on such databases was strictly speaking illegal, but the alternative was calling Emerson, posing as Tiffany and requesting that an unofficial transcript be sent to the office fax—and she didn't really want to do that unless she had to.

Her name had been Tiffany Walters, when she had been at Emerson. Two years younger than Ned, and her name didn't look familiar to Nancy. She compared Tiffany's schedule to Ned's and saw that they had taken the same philosophy class during fall semester of Ned's senior year.

Nancy pulled out a spare piece of paper and made a few notes, then closed the search screen and opened the new file.

She had to wait until lunchtime, when she was heating up a leftover chicken breast and serving of green bean casserole from the night before, to text her husband. Hope you're having a great day, sweetheart! :)

The reply came ten minutes later. Pretty exciting so far tbh. Really liking this place. :)

Nancy grinned at her phone, pleased. After they had made love Sunday afternoon, they had made dinner together, Ned handling grilling the chicken while Nancy assembled the casserole, and the leftover slices of Hannah's butter pecan cake had been their dessert. They had talked about Monday, and she had asked if he was nervous, and he had said that he was, a little; he was happy he would be making more money, but he wouldn't really know if he had made the right decision until he was there, working.

And God, she wanted him to be happy. She wanted him to love the new place, especially since they were willing to work with his school schedule.

"If I'm accepted," he had reminded her, then forked a bite of his cake into her mouth.

"You will be," she had replied, just as she always did, and fed him a bite of her own slice.

They had slept wrapped in each other's arms, and when they woke he had set the alarm early enough that they were able to shower together. This time, he didn't keep his hands to himself, especially once she had encouraged him.

They hadn't talked about it again, and while she knew they would, eventually, it mattered to her more that when he touched her, she didn't sense any disgust or fear in him, and she felt foolish for even thinking he might feel that way. But that was how she felt, and she had expected nothing more from him.

And Nancy would be damned if Tiffany kept trying this shit, especially now.

The camera she had set up outside their townhouse was set up for remote viewing and playback, and Nancy pulled up the surveillance as she finished her lunch. A car matching the make and model of Tiffany's had driven by their townhouse, probably while they were making dinner, the night before; the driver had long blonde hair.

Nancy shook her head. Fine.

Tracking down Tiffany's license plate number and the name of her employer—and the name of her husband—took five minutes of research, and Nancy remembered the days when it would have taken her a good five hours of wheedling and pleading and outright lies to get the same thing. She ran into Trent when she was delivering a file to Jules, and mentioning that she was kind of organizing a meal out for her birthday if Jules was interested. Trent said that Desmond was doing well in recovery, then asked if Nancy would mind doing a little legwork for a weekend security job. Nancy said she didn't mind—as long as she could leave work fifteen minutes early.

Tiffany Devereaux wasn't pretty. Her driver's license photo had been misleading. Nancy flipped the collar of her trenchcoat up, shivering a little in the brisk wind, as she watched the other woman approach her car after she got off work. Tiffany Devereaux was fucking gorgeous, in an angular sort of way. She was tall and willowy, her blonde hair expertly dyed and styled, her cashmere sweater clinging to her slender frame and bringing out the color in her pale eyes. She had a small upturned nose and sharp cheekbones and pursed lips, and an expensive leather handbag swung from her shoulder.

"Tiffany?" Nancy said, putting a pleasant smile on her face.

Tiffany stopped short, pulling her keys out of her bag, and looked Nancy straight in the eye—and Nancy was looking for it, so she saw the small start of recognition. If Tiffany had been Facebook-stalking or physically stalking Ned, she had most likely seen him with Nancy, and knew who she was.

"I'm sorry, do I know you?"

Nancy kept her arms crossed. "Maybe. I'm Ned's wife."

Tiffany shook her head, then looked down at her keys, pressing the button on the fob to unlock her car doors. "I'm sorry...?"

Nancy nodded. "Yeah, you are," she said, that bland, polite tone still in her voice. "If you touched that card you sent with the flowers, then I have your fingerprints, which, I'll be honest, I really don't even need, since I have you on surveillance footage driving by our house. Plus those cute little texts you've been sending my husband."

Tiffany's gaze was sharp when it met Nancy's again. "Look, I don't know what you're talking about."

Nancy took two steps forward, uncrossing her arms, idly slipping one behind her back to touch her gun. "Here's what I'm talking about: you had the bad luck to get hung up on a married man whose wife is very familiar with the law, and who carries a gun. If you text my husband again, I'll call Dan at work and have a nice long chat with him. If I see you on surveillance outside our house again—and don't even pretend you had a reason to be on our cul-de-sac, either—I'll file a restraining order against you."

"But he's not here saying this stuff," Tiffany pointed out, flipping her hair.

"You want to hear it from his lips? Just try anything more and I'll have you brought up on charges, and you'll get to hear it when he gets on the stand." Nancy held up her left hand, rings out. "And if you ever get the bright idea to break in, if I catch you in our house, I will definitely assume that you intend me or my husband bodily harm, and I will take care of it."

Tiffany glared at Nancy, pursing her lips. "You're just afraid of what he'd do if he saw me again," Tiffany accused Nancy, a sneer in her voice.

Nancy shook her head slowly. "Sorry. I'd love to see what he'd say to you, Tiffany. And the only reason he's not here saying it is that you wouldn't believe him, no matter what he said. But if you have any self-preservation at all, you will walk the hell away from this. Because you do not want to make me angry."

"Because you're so tough?" Tiffany said, crossing her arms.

Nancy shook her head, her heels clicking on the pavement as she began to walk away, and her voice was cold and hard as ice when she replied. "Because I know exactly how to make it look like an accident."

Chapter Text

In the state of Illinois, prosecution for criminal sexual assault charges must be commenced within three years of the crime.

Ned would have found it funny, under other circumstances. His father-in-law was the most highly respected criminal defense attorney in the state, probably in the Midwest, and yet Ned was reduced to doing basic web searches—on his phone, while he was at work on his lunch break—and digging through pages of results instead of asking Carson and finding out the answer in thirty seconds. Ned was afraid to run the search on his laptop at home, afraid Nancy would pull up the browser history for some reason and discover he was even thinking about it; he was afraid to run the search when they were even in the same building together, as though she would be able to sense it, and she would turn those blue eyes on him and he would feel like a total asshole.

Illinois, Ned had found out, apparently didn't even have laws governing rape, only sexual assault. Not that any of it mattered. His wife refused to acknowledge, to herself or to anyone else, that she had been raped.

Just thinking the words made Ned's throat ache.

Even under an ideal scenario, the assault had happened outside the statute of limitations. The man—the asshole—who had done this to her would never be punished for it.

When he realized that, Ned's heart sank. He hadn't relished the thought of trying to convince Nancy that she needed to file charges against the guy; she had turned almost frighteningly quiet and shuttered when he had pressed at all, that night. In the week and a half since she had told him about it, he had seen that look cross her face a few more times. When she had told him, very casually, that she had scheduled an appointment to see her therapist that Friday afternoon, he hadn't made a big deal out of it. The nervousness in her eyes had belied her calm, and he had been afraid to break it.

He had wakened from a deep, dreamless sleep the Wednesday after she told him about the assault and found himself alone in bed. She had been downstairs, watching her tea steep, her face wet, when he had found her, and he had come up behind her and whispered her name before he wrapped his arms around her and just held her, her hands cold as she held them over his.

And he didn't know what to do. He didn't know how to help her. The fact that she had decided to go to her therapist without his having to bring it up had made him relax just a little, but he still didn't know what to do. And he was so, so terrified of touching her, of triggering her somehow, of making her feel anything other than safe.

God, he hadn't known, he hadn't, and for nearly three years afterward they had been having sex, and he hadn't known.

He had wanted to talk to her therapist himself, but everything he read told him that was a bad idea. She needed to trust her therapist, and believe everything she was saying to the doctor was in confidence. Some of the sites said he could benefit from going to a therapist himself, that the anger and betrayal he was feeling were normal.

The victim may try to pretend the assault never took place.

Well, she was definitely doing that.

The victim is dealing with feelings of disgust, shame, betrayal, and loss of trust. Don't say those feelings are inappropriate, or ask if the victim has "gotten over" it yet. The healing process takes a long time.

When the victim shares information about the assault, he or she may feel deeply guilty or ashamed about revealing the fact that the event even took place; even if he or she has spoken about it before, to others, each sharing is exposing that secret again, and that can be traumatic.

When talking about the assault, the victim might relive the event, or experience a panic attack.

Ned rubbed his palm over his face. A very, very small part of him almost wished that she had never told him. Feeling like just touching his wife could remind her of something someone else had done, feeling like she was going through something horrifying and he was utterly fucking powerless to do anything to help her—he hated it. He hated seeing her beautiful face streaked with tears, hated seeing her eyes shining with them, when there was nothing at all he could do to fix it.

But she had told him. It had taken her almost three years, but she had told him. She had finally trusted him enough, and this was the woman who had admitted on their wedding night that she fantasized about him hurting her—but he had never dreamed that might be why.

I have to know that you can say no.

At least she had used their safe words sometimes. At least she had known that he would stop if she wanted him to.

Ned would have lost his fucking mind if he had any thought at all that she had ever wanted to tell him to stop, but hadn't said it. He could remember some nights, very few nights, when he had wanted to have sex and she hadn't; he could remember even fewer nights that she had wanted to have sex and he hadn't. And it had always ended there, with them curled up together.

I need you.

Making love to her after she had told him had been so hard. He could see it in her eyes, that she did need him, but it was more than that. He could remember the vulnerability in her voice when she had told him she was afraid he wouldn't love her anymore, that he wouldn't feel the same way about her anymore, and the entire time he had been terrified that she would freak out—

And less than two days before, he had pushed his cock into her mouth until he could feel her throat constricting around him, his fingers tangled in her hair as he had worked that fucking toy between her legs—

He felt sick at that thought, now. She hadn't given him the sign that she needed to stop, she hadn't slapped his thigh twice, and yet—God, he hadn't known, he had had no idea.

I just didn't want you to look at me like I was—weak.

Like he could forget what she had told him, now. Like he could ever forget.

And somehow he had been able to make love to her like she wasn't about to break, like she was the same person she had been three days earlier—because, to all intents and purposes, she had been. She had been just the same. Knowing wasn't supposed to change her or them.

And then she had started to cry, and he'd had to stop. He'd had to wait until she was okay again, until she told him she wanted him, and even then, his heart had been aching for her.

They had had sex in the time since. Not quite as often as before, but they had. The very few times he had instigated, he had been so tentative, so gentle. And when he looked back, he realized that she hadn't put on any of her lingerie for him since, that they'd been having sex in the shower more often.

For some victims, part of the healing process is a strong desire to bathe or feel clean.

He wanted her to feel better. And he just didn't want to feel so goddamned powerless when he thought about it.

But then, she had probably always felt that way, and she probably always would.

I let him.

She had always found it easier to blame herself than other people. Easier to tell herself that she should have been stronger, than to believe that she could get so close to someone who could do something so terrible to her.

For the first few months after they had started seeing each other again, she had been proving to him that she was in it for good this time. Well, Ned decided, in the few months left until he might be starting graduate school, he was going to do his best to show her that he was in it for good too, that he would do everything possible for the rest of their lives to show her that she was loved.

There was just one thing he had to do to get through this, and it was something he would probably never be able to tell her.

Ned was on the way home when his cell phone rang. "Hello?"

"Are you home yet?"

"Not yet," Ned told his mother.

"So there's no way Nancy can hear me."

"Shouldn't be," Ned chuckled.

"Dad just brought it over so I could see it, and oh, it's gorgeous."

Ned smiled. "You think she'll like it?"

"I think she'll love it, sweetheart. I'm definitely jealous. And I've told your father that now he definitely owes me something spectacular for my birthday, since I saw that."

Ned could hear the teasing note in his mother's voice. "After all those birthdays and Christmases when he gave you those black velvet boxes?"

"True," Edith said wistfully. From a young age, Ned had seen the delight on his mother's face when she opened the boxes and saw the rings, necklaces, bracelets, and earrings her husband had given her, and whenever he had tried to figure out what to give Nancy, it had felt natural to go to the jewelry store. He wasn't even sure how many pieces he had given her over the years they had been together, but he did love seeing the heart pendant hanging around her neck when she was getting ready for work in the mornings.

That, and her wedding rings. He loved those too.

"And I do love what he picked out for me—but Nancy's gift? I'm sure it's going to mean so much to her that you put in all that time on it, and it's so beautiful."

"I'm glad you think so." Ned glanced down at his wedding ring. "Can I ask your advice about something?"

"Of course you can."

"If you... were upset about something, and it was in the past, and you couldn't do anything to fix it... what would you want Dad to do?"

Edith was quiet for a moment. "Was it something he had done?"

"No, no. Not at all."

"So an apology wouldn't do it."

"No."

Edith made a soft humming noise. "So she's upset about something and you can't do anything to fix it."

"Yeah. Basically."

She considered for a while. "Sweetheart, I wish I knew what to tell you. I guess it depends on what she's upset about...?"

Ned actually felt himself flush a little at the thought of telling his mother what his wife had told him. "I can't... I can't really tell you," he said softly. "It's not my secret to tell."

"Good," his mother told him. "Okay. Well, does she seem to want to talk about it?"

"Definitely not."

"So it sounds like you need to do something that's not about that at all," his mother replied. "Maybe you could go out for a date, or take a little trip? The weather's finally getting a little nicer; maybe you could go to the lake house, or somewhere else?"

"That's a good idea," Ned said. "We could just get away for a few days and have fun together..."

But he had been able to feel it. Nancy was nervous around him.

Before he had done any research whatsoever, he had been sure he was going to have to get her to talk about it—but that wasn't the case at all. He couldn't fight the feeling that the longer she held it back, the worse it would be when she finally let it out, but maybe she was talking to her therapist about it. And at least that meant she would be talking to someone, even if it wasn't him.

He just didn't want her to be nervous around him, but he was equally afraid that if he tried talking to her about it at all, she would clam up again. Maybe going away together, taking a trip together, getting out of Chicago—it could be an early birthday present, since they couldn't really take a trip on her actual birthday. He had two interviews scheduled for that week, and he couldn't really afford to take the time off work, but a weekend away could be great.

Ned had just pulled up the website for Campbell's family hotels when Nancy keyed into their townhouse. "Hey sweetheart," he said, trying to keep himself from sounding too excited, but Nancy looked up at him anyway, a small smile on her face.

"Hey," she said, shrugging her purse from her shoulder, putting her keys down as she toed out of her shoes. "You didn't want to eat yet?"

Ned shrugged. "Got distracted. And I wanted to wait for you."

"Distracted?"

Ned nodded, slipping his laptop onto the coffee table before he came over to her. "Good day?"

"Wasn't bad. Found out I have an undercover case Monday, so that'll be fun. I'll be right back—mind getting the rice out and putting it in the microwave?"

Nancy had left a pork roast simmering in the crock pot all day, and when she came back downstairs, her face scrubbed clear of makeup, her hair in a messy ponytail, wearing jeans and fuzzy socks, Ned had the table set and the rice in the microwave. She turned on the oven and prepped some asparagus while it came up to temperature, snapping off the bottoms of the stems and drizzling them with olive oil, then tossed them with salt and pepper.

"So what kind of undercover case?"

Nancy swept a loose wisp of hair out of her face as she closed the oven, leaving the asparagus to roast. They had some leftover rolls from the night before, and as Ned took those out, Nancy checked on the pork, smiling in satisfaction when the meat fell apart under the twist of a fork. "I get to be a temp," she said with a smile. "So lots of little pencil skirts and button-downs."

"Mmm," Ned said, slipping an arm around her waist, and for a second, somehow, he was able to forget. "Then I am definitely going to be looking forward to it."

Nancy glanced up at him, then reached up and cupped his cheek, turning so they were facing each other. She stood on her tiptoes and he met her halfway, kissing her softly.

"I love you," she whispered.

"I love you too," Ned murmured, looking into her eyes.

Over dinner, Nancy told him a little more about the case she would be investigating. A manager had hired Trent's company to find out which of his employees had provided a copy of their mailing list to one of their major competitors. Only four people had access to the information, and Nancy would be working with them, trying to determine who had made the sale. Ned relaxed a little when he knew her case wouldn't involve her getting close to a man suspected of infidelity. While he was pretty sure she had taken some of those cases while they were apart, after they were officially together again, Trent had found other operatives to take those cases.

It wasn't that Ned had thought it was for his sake, but now... it made a little more sense. Ned had to admit to himself, though, that he had hated the idea of her taking those kinds of cases even when he hadn't known about her assault.

"So how was your day?" Nancy popped another forkful of shredded pork into her mouth.

"It was good," Ned told her. "I ironed things out with Patrick and I think we'll be okay now. He just gets very tense when production is running close to schedule instead of ahead, and if I keep that in mind, he should be all right."

"Great," Nancy told him, smiling. "I'm glad. And everything's a go for your admissions interviews?"

"Yep," Ned nodded. "And, baby, I'm really sorry about how they fell..."

Nancy shook her head. "It's okay, seriously. We'll go out that Saturday night and everything will be fine. Don't worry about it."

Ned reached for her hand. "I'm still sorry, though."

The admissions interviews, just as Ned had feared, were all close to her birthday. One interview was scheduled for Friday afternoon, one for Saturday morning, and one for the following Monday afternoon. He would have loved for them to get out of town for her birthday, but there was no chance with that schedule. At least the dinner they had planning with their friends, and the lunch on Sunday with their parents, would still work.

Ned waited until they were sitting on the couch, watching the evening news, an open container of cookies on the coffee table, before he reached for her hand. She glanced over at him, one eyebrow barely raised, her lips parted.

"I was wondering if maybe you wanted to get away this weekend."

Nancy's eyes widened. "Get away...?"

"I could call Campbell, and he could get us a good deal on a room—if he didn't just give it to us outright. And didn't you tell me that Jennifer could get us on a standby flight pretty easily?"

Nancy nodded slowly. "Yeah, but... I wouldn't be able to leave until after work Friday, and I have to be back Monday for my case..."

"I know, and that's fine. We could pack our bags and leave as soon as we were free Friday."

"But if it's a standby ticket, it might not be all that flexible..." Nancy reached for a cookie and broke it in half. "Where were you thinking about going?"

"I pulled up a list of the hotels Campbell's family owns. We have a lot of options; we can go anywhere you want. Or, if you want to go somewhere else, we can do that too." Ned touched her knee. "I... I just wanted to do something for us, for you, since we can't really get away for your birthday."

Nancy glanced back up at him, giving him a small smile. "And it's very sweet of you," she told him. "I mean it. It is. I just... the thought of packing up, flying somewhere for a day before we have to get back here?" She tilted her head.

"Well, if you don't want to fly... we could go up to the lake house," he suggested.

She gave him another small smile. "I... Can I be honest with you?"

"Of course you can."

"I want to go up to the lake house when it's warm," she admitted. "If we go up there now, the water will be freezing..." She shrugged. "I'm sorry."

Ned smiled at her. "It's okay. It was just an idea."

He was disappointed, though. He had hoped she would be excited by the prospect, debating the options for where to go with him, happy at the idea of getting away, even if it was for a two-day weekend. He had hoped they could use the time to reconnect. Sometimes it felt like they had begun to fill their time together with other things, just so they wouldn't have to talk about what had happened to her.

But maybe she just wasn't ready for that yet. Ned found that thought infinitely depressing. If she wanted to go somewhere warm, they could have figured that out together...

Nancy swallowed the last bite of her cookie, then took a sip of milk. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her idly turn her engagement ring around her finger.

"I'm sorry," she said softly.

"It's okay."

"No..." Nancy touched his knee. "If you... if the important thing is getting away for a while... we'll be going away this summer," she pointed out. "So it's not like we won't be going soon."

"That wasn't it," he told her. "I mean, it kind of was... I just feel like we've been so busy lately that we haven't been able to... to talk that much."

Nancy paled a little, and he hated seeing that. She withdrew her hand, looking down at her lap, and he saw her swallow hard.

"So let's take the weekend," she said softly.

"And go...?"

She shook her head. "No, we can just stay here. We have everything we need here, and we won't be spending money on a tank of gas or plane tickets or whatever. But we can turn our phones and our computers off, and do things together—go to the movies, make dinner together. I know that might not sound quite as romantic as you wanted..."

"No, no. It's okay. Kind of like Valentine's Day, except we'll have the whole weekend to ourselves?"

She nodded. "We could spend all day in our pajamas watching movies, if you want. Just whatever sounds good. Maybe some New York strip and baked potato for dinner?"

"It's a deal," he told her, reaching for her, and kissed the crown of her head. "So at five o'clock Friday, baby, I'm all yours."

"And I'm all yours," she told him with a smile, tipping her face up to his for a kiss.

--

Friday morning, when Ned was sitting down for a logistics meeting, he pulled out his phone to idly check his email before the coordinator came in. Two guys were pouring themselves cups of coffee, while the customer service rep was considering one of the packaged muffins.

The subject line of Howie's email was in all caps, and followed by five exclamation points. Ned chuckled as he opened it.

Karaoke at Sullivan's tonight! We have to go. Who's in?!?!

Howie had a decent singing voice, but something about the deep, rich tone of it drove girls absolutely crazy—he always sang in talent competitions when he participated, and he had been dying to take his newest girlfriend to a karaoke place. But karaoke was no fun unless a big group came along, so Howie had made Ned and Mike swear that they'd come along and bring their wives, whenever he found a place.

But Ned and Nancy's weekend together was starting at five.

Nancy's email address was listed as one of the recipients, too. Ned frowned at his phone.

A text message from his wife popped up on the screen. Get Howie's email?

Just did, Ned typed quickly, on the lookout for the coordinator. He definitely didn't want to look like he wasn't paying attention.

Want to go? Up to u. They have pool.

Sullivan's was kind of a dive, but the drink selection was pretty good. And it had been a while since he'd had an opportunity to play pool. He had no intention of getting up in front of the place and making a total fool of himself; he'd be there to watch Howie just because it was funny. But if he and Nancy opted out, Jan probably wouldn't go...

Ok. If ur sure it's all right? Ned watched the send progress bar race across the screen as the coordinator walked in with another member of their group, the two of them in intense conversation.

Great. :)

At least going to Sullivan's meant they wouldn't be home just looking at each other, wondering what to say.

Halfway through the meeting, Ned caught himself wondering if that was why Nancy had wanted to go.

At five o'clock, though, Ned was thankful for the change of plans. He needed to finish up a report for a meeting Monday, and while it should have only taken a few minutes, then his boss came by and asked how he was doing. The fact that Oliver actually stayed as long as the rest of his staff did and didn't take off early, or half-days on Friday, had made Ned respect him more. Ned didn't end up leaving until after five-thirty.

He was upstairs looking through their closet when the front door opened and closed, and he heard Nancy toss her keys into her purse. "Honey?"

"Hey," Nancy called back, sounding a little breathless.

"You running late too? I just got here."

"Yeah, a little." She came into their bedroom with her button-down shirt already open to reveal a lace-trimmed camisole underneath, toed out of her heels and stripped off her black slacks. Ned saw a flash of her plain white bra and panties before she opened a dresser drawer and pulled out a pair of dark skinny jeans. She chuckled at herself as she tried to put them on too quickly and ended up hopping over to the bed to collapse onto it, and Ned smiled at her.

She caught his eye and returned his smile with a small one. "So what are you wearing tonight?"

"Can't decide," Ned admitted. "What do you think?"

Nancy buttoned her jeans, then wrapped her arms around her bare waist as she came over to look in the closet. The fabric of her bra was opaque, but just seeing the creamy tops of her breasts, knowing that with a flick of his fingers she would be naked to the waist...

For the longest time he would have just obeyed the impulse. He looked down, then began to unbutton his own shirt so he could shrug it off.

"This?" Nancy suggested, holding up a blue sweater still on the hanger, raising her eyebrows as she offered it. Ned was finding a pair of jeans himself and was stripped down to his briefs, and he loved the way she went temporarily speechless when she saw him mostly naked, the gleam of arousal in her eyes when her gaze met his again.

To hell with karaoke. He wanted her, now.

But he was afraid to make the first move.

She swallowed hard and handed him the sweater, and when she emerged from their closet again, she was already dressed. She had picked out a sleeveless olive shirt covered in small printed flowers, made of thin, almost transparent material, a beige tank top underneath. She grabbed a cardigan and flashed him a smile as she headed down the hall to the bathroom, leaving Ned to finish getting dressed alone.

Sullivan's was moderately busy, and as soon as Nancy saw Jan, they immediately made a beeline to each other and started talking. Nancy had been to a baby shower for one of Ned's cousins the weekend before, and Jan's sister was apparently planning a shower for Jan. Ned had seen a faintly wistful expression on Nancy's face a few times when Jan had been talking about the baby, and a part of him wondered if Nancy had changed her mind about their timeline, if she wanted to start trying earlier, but he was going to leave it in her hands.

He just wished that they could talk, really talk, just so he wouldn't feel so afraid of upsetting her. He didn't want to go back, he didn't want her to regret telling him what had happened to her, but he wanted to be able to open his mouth without scrutinizing everything he was about to say; he wanted to be able to touch her without being tentative.

But maybe she would always need that, and if that was what she needed... he just needed to know that.

"Come on, man!" Howie had an arm wrapped around his girlfriend, and tapped Ned on the shoulder. "Let's go check out what the guy's got to choose from. Have to pick out something good." He wiggled his eyebrows.

"You know you do, baby," Howie's girlfriend said with a grin.

"How's work going?" Mike asked, as the four of them headed to the small karaoke setup, near a corner stage. The DJ had a few large white binders full of song lists, and Howie found one and started flipping through it.

"Going great," Howie said. "And they're sending me to a conference in Philly in May, too."

Ned smiled. "Lucky. Everything's going pretty well at mine so far."

"How many interviews have you lined up?" Mike asked, watching the pages as Howie flipped them. "Oh, man, you should so do a Rolling Stones song."

Howie shot Mike a dirty look. "You mean you should, skinny white boy."

Ned chuckled. "Three," he replied to Mike's question.

Mike shook his head. "Wonder how weird it'll be to not be at Emerson," he commented. "Although... man, I loved college. Loved it. It was like taking a break from life for a while." He glanced over at his wife, who was still talking to Nancy.

Ned followed his gaze. "It's not that I want to take a break from life," Ned said. "Just... just want to make sure everything's ready for us when we decide to settle down. Do the whole picket-fence, two-and-a-half-kids thing." He bumped his shoulder against Mike's.

Mike smiled. "All I keep hearing is horror stories. How we won't get a full night of sleep until the kid's a year old. All about colic and diaper rash and..." Mike gave a dramatic shudder. "At least we got to paint the nursery so we can start filling it with all this stuff relatives keep bringing over. Rocking chair and stuffed bears. I got him a glove and ball and Jan flipping rolled her eyes at me."

"That's because you should have gotten him a basketball," Howie pointed out with a chuckle.

Mike actually brightened, at that. "Hey. Little hoop... yeah. We can totally do this."

"How's your work going?" Ned asked.

Mike shrugged. "It's going okay. And Jan has an interview next week."

"That's great," Ned told Mike, and he was honestly happy for them. The company Jan had been working for had gone under, and while her supervisor had given her glowing recommendations, finding another position somewhere else was difficult. "Hey, good luck. And if anything opens up at my work, I'll be sure to let you guys know."

"That would be awesome, man. I know most of the HR people, the second she says she's pregnant, just immediately stop listening, but she's really good, and it's not like she can't do most of her job from home."

Ned knew of several companies that just farmed out editing work, but actually having someone on staff to do it was much better—when they weren't just doing contract work, when they were in face-to-face contact with actual people, the editors seemed to take a lot more care over and pride in what they were doing. Jan, Mike was often proud to point out, had been called a natural editor by her teachers at Emerson, and Ned knew his wife kept track of Jan's blog. Jan had done some contract work since she had been let go, but she really wanted a full-time position.

And Ned couldn't blame her. Though from everything he had heard, he doubted Jan really would be able to do that much work from home with a screaming infant bouncing on her knee.

"Okay!" Howie slapped his hand down on the bar as he filled out the request slip, then took it over to the DJ, who added him to the growing list. "Now somebody else has to do it too."

Mike and Ned immediately held their hands up in the air in a not-it gesture. "Let me go make sure Nancy and Jan aren't hatching any schemes," Ned said.

"You think your little lady might want to get up there?" Howie asked with a twinkle.

Ned chuckled, shaking his head. "Not this time, not without a lot more alcohol. Maybe later."

"Think you can get Jan to do it?"

Mike made a noise. "Without being able to get liquored up...?"

After Jan agreed to get up on the stage and do one song—with Howie's girlfriend and Nancy as backup singers, anyway—Ned went up to the bar and rented one of the pool tables. George and Jules and her friend Tony had arrived, and Jules and Tony were bent over the DJ's binder, figuring out what song they wanted to perform. The bar was warm from the press of bodies and breath; Nancy had taken her cardigan off, and stood with her hands in her back pockets. He noticed the heart pendant hanging around her neck, and a pair of small sapphire earrings he had given her for Christmas gleaming on her earlobes, and he gave her a smile as he brought the triangle over and began to rack the balls up.

She returned the smile, but Ned could tell something was bothering her.

He wasn't quite sure why he did it, but he looked down when he put the triangle away, then over at her. "So, gorgeous, you come here often?"

She blinked once, quickly, but she was used to thinking on her feet. "Not very often," she replied, crossing her arms. She had let her hair down, and it fell in a shining reddish-gold curtain down her back. Oh, he loved seeing it so long. "You?"

"I'll be sure to come out here more often if I know you'll be here," he told her, glancing at her quickly before he went to pick out his pool cue. She chalked hers, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

"It's so warm in here," she commented softly.

"Can I buy you a drink?" he asked, picking up on the hint.

She considered. "Think they do a lemon drop martini here?"

"I'll check. What do you want if they don't?"

"Rum and coke."

Ned nodded, heading over to the bar. He placed his order for a beer and the lemon drop martini, and while the bartender shook his head at the order, he agreed to bring it out. When he saw George head over to the pool table, he made the order two beers, knowing she would probably want one too.

"You're in luck, beautiful," Ned told her when he returned to their table. "It'll be right out."

Nancy graced him with a smile, but her blue eyes were speculative. "My hero," she said, a tinge of amusement in her voice. "The first one's free, right?"

"How do you mean?"

George came back chalking up a pool cue, and glanced between the two of them.

"I mean... you look like a nice guy. And you're just doing me a favor since I'm just so thirsty."

"Maybe," Ned replied, his lips curving up a little.

"So you wouldn't be expecting anything else."

"I wouldn't," he said mildly. "But... you want to make it interesting, beautiful?"

"Depends on what you mean by 'interesting.'"

"Whoever loses our pool game buys the next round."

"So if me and my friend here win..."

"I'll buy you both whatever you want. And the first round is free."

"And if you win?"

"Then I collect." Ned pulled a quarter out of his pocket, offering it to George so she could flip and determine which of them would go first. "And you have to pay me back for the first round. Just not with money."

Nancy glanced over at George. "Heads. —And before you get any ideas, sir, my friend and I are very good girls who fully intend on getting back to our dorm rooms tonight alone."

George chuckled as she flipped the coin. "Bad luck, Nan. Tails. —And as for me, handsome," she said, nodding at Ned as she accepted the beer he had offered for her, "she might plan on sleeping alone, but I've had a long week, and I fully intend on having some fun tonight."

"She's got the right idea," Ned told his wife. "How's your martini?"

Nancy regarded him over the rim of her martini glass. "Excellent," she told him. "Why don't you put your money where your mouth is and show us what you've got, handsome."

The first game went quickly, although halfway through it Nancy had finished her martini and when the waiter came by to collect her glass, she hesitated a second before ordering another. Ned and George both ordered another round of beers. Ned was at the point of winning when the DJ called Jan's name, and Nancy excused herself to go up to the stage.

"Another?"

The waiter was picking up Nancy's empty second glass. Ned and George glanced at each other; they were only halfway through their second beers. "I'll ask when she gets back," Ned told the waiter, who moved off.

"Does Nancy seem... a little..." George shrugged slightly, watching Nancy join Jan and Howie's girlfriend as they went up on the small stage. George was frowning a little.

Ned swallowed hard. He had no idea how to answer her. From everything she had told him, Ned had a feeling Bess and George had no idea what had happened to Nancy. "I... maybe she's just had a rough day," Ned said lamely.

George glanced over at him, but then Jan started singing, so she didn't say anything.

Jan had picked a recent song, something poppy and upbeat, and her singing voice was pretty. Ned saw that Mike was gazing, enrapt, at Jan, and he was glad. While Mike was a great guy, he was usually quick to complain or become frustrated, and Ned knew that when Jan had lost her job that had put both of them under a lot of stress, but they had always loved each other.

And Ned couldn't imagine Nancy taking center stage to sing in front of the crowd—not unless she was undercover, anyway—but he loved the light in her eyes, the flash of her nervous smiles. The martinis had loosened her up enough that she was swaying with the beat of the song, exchanging little grins with Howie's girlfriend as they halfheartedly tried to coordinate their movements.

The song ended to clapping and cheering, and Nancy headed back over to the pool table, the color high in her cheeks. She ducked her head as Ned and George clapped for her.

"You looked great up there, beautiful," Ned told her.

Nancy glanced up at her husband, blushing a little more. "I seem to remember someone was about to finish wiping the floor with us," she told him.

"Long as you promise to stick to our deal."

Nancy crossed her arms, her hip against the pool table as she regarded him with dancing blue eyes. "Promise," she murmured, her voice quietly husky, and Ned felt a frisson of desire travel down his spine in response.

The eight-ball had just bounced into the corner pocket when the waiter came by again, and Nancy ordered another martini. "What if we make a new deal," Nancy said, tilting her head.

"Mmmm," Ned said warningly. "I don't know..."

"If George and I win this game," Nancy said, "you buy all the drinks. And no collecting anything."

"And if I win?"

Nancy glanced over at George. "What do you think he should get if he wins?"

"If he wins..." George said slowly, "I will get on stage with you and we will sing whatever song he picks."

Nancy's eyes widened. "You sure? I really think we should get final say..."

George bumped Nancy's shoulder, and the waiter brought her fresh martini. "You chicken, Drew? I thought we were definitely going to win."

"Mmm. True." Nancy glanced up at her husband. "Just nothing by Nine Inch Nails."

Ned, for a split second, let himself remember the sight of his wife dancing for him, behind the glass in that damned strip club, her fingers working between her thighs as she touched herself for him—and then tried to imagine her actually singing that song to him, and that soft tremble of desire suddenly felt like a bolt through him.

"Deal," Ned said. "As long as I get one more thing, too."

"Oh?"

Ned nodded. "One kiss."

Nancy took a long sip of her martini, then kissed her fingertip, a trace of the pale liquid clinging to her skin. She walked over to him, her gaze locked to his, and extended her finger to him, pressing it gently to his lips. He darted his tongue out to quickly lick her fingertip, and he saw her tremble slightly.

"That's as close as you're gonna get, handsome," she told him, and gave him a little grin.

Howie sang another song, and then Jules got up on stage and ad-libbed the majority of another, mugging outrageously for the crowd. Jan came by to watch their pool game for a moment before she went to the bar for a diet soda, and when Mike came over and asked Ned if he wanted to maybe shoot some hoops over the weekend if the weather was decent, Ned told his friend that he had plans, but they should definitely do that soon—and he didn't miss the silent gratitude in Nancy's eyes. Maybe he and Nancy were both a little bit nervous about the weekend, but as soon as they were home together, Ned was going to follow through with their original agreement. He was hers for the weekend, and they didn't have to talk about what had happened to her in the next few days, or ever again if she didn't want to—as long as, at the end of it, they were a little closer to being comfortable around each other again.

Nancy and George won the second game, although Ned made them work for it, and he'd had no intention of letting them win at all. They got lucky when his hand slipped on a shot. A part of him had really been hoping that Nancy would let him win, just so he could collect his kiss...

He went to the bar to settle up the tab as the rest of their group gathered around the pool table. He'd had three beers, George two; Nancy had finished off four martinis. On top of a light dinner.

He glanced over at her before he signed the ticket with a flourish, handing it back to the bartender with a smile.

The next time they were all getting together was for Nancy's birthday, and everybody confirmed their plans to attend; George was especially that her cousin would be there, and she shot Ned a significant glance when she said she was looking forward to meeting this Terry guy she had heard so much about.

Nancy was shivering a little as she put her cardigan back on, laughing at something Jules was telling her. Howie and his girlfriend were heading to another bar, but Mike and Jan were calling it a night—Jan was visibly flagging, although she still looked happy, and smiled whenever anyone complimented her performance. Jules and Tony apparently didn't want the night to end just yet either, and George was debating whether to stick with the rest of the group or head home.

Ned came over to his wife as Jules and Tony waved from the door, following Howie and his girlfriend to a cab. Mike, Jan, and George were heading out to hail cabs too. "So, gorgeous, any plans after this?" he asked, his hands jammed into his pockets, holding her blue-eyed gaze.

Nancy tilted her head. "Passing out back at my dorm, alone," she told him, but with a little grin.

"But what if you get sick and no one's there to hold your hair back for you?" Ned asked, bringing one hand out of his pocket so he could tuck a loose strand of hair behind her ear.

"Guess that's just a chance I'll have to take."

Ned shook his head. "But it would be on my conscience forever," he told her, "if I found out something happened to you tonight. You have to let me escort you home."

Nancy bit her lip, swaying just a little. "I'll let you escort me to the door," she decided. "And you have the cab ride there to tell me why you should be allowed to come inside."

"Deal," he told her, and when they shook on it, she dissolved into giggles. The martinis were clearly hitting her, and she had to lean on him as they walked out to flag down a cab.

She took his hand as they settled into the back of a taxi and directed the driver to take them home, then leaned her head on his shoulder.

Ned looked down at her, then twisted so he could gently cup her cheek. "You okay, sweetheart?" he whispered, dropping the ruse.

She gave him a little smile. "Yeah," she murmured. "I'm okay. You okay?"

"I'm great, baby. You seemed like something was bothering you?"

She closed her eyes. "I'll be okay," she murmured, and he had heard that before. "I just want you to hold me."

Ned couldn't believe how late it was when they finally stumbled through the front door. It felt like they hadn't been out for too long—but they had been drinking and joking during their games, stopping to listen to the more outrageous singers on the stage, and they had been having a good time. Or, at least, he hoped his wife had been having a good time. On top of four martinis any time would probably be good.

They stripped down to their underwear before they slipped into bed together, flinching as their bare skin brushed against the cool sheets. Nancy was shivering when she moved into his embrace, her lips barely brushing against Ned's breastbone, and he sighed as he pulled the blanket up over them, until they were cocooned in warmth.

"'Night, baby," Ned murmured. "Love you."

"Love you too," Nancy whispered.

He stroked her hair slowly, idly, until her breathing was soft and regular, but even then he didn't fall asleep. They hadn't had sex for longer than usual, and the sight of his wife bent over the pool table as she lined up her shots, the shadow of her cleavage, the glint in her eye—and he'd had that damned Nine Inch Nails song stuck in his head since she had alluded to it.

He had been hoping that as soon as they walked through the door, they would have come upstairs the way they would have before—their fingers tangled in each other's hair and clothes, mouths fused together, laughing as they stumbled into their bedroom. He wanted to suck the dark bruise of a hickey on her inner thigh; he wanted to pull her on top of him and gaze into her eyes while she rode him, the silken tips of her hair brushing his shoulders while he ran his hands all over her.

I want to feel you from the inside

Ned closed his eyes tight, trying as hard as he could to just put it out of his head, the warm smooth strands of her hair under his fingertips. Before he would have kissed her awake, cupping the join of her thighs, stroking and teasing her until she was begging for it, but now...

God, he had to stop thinking about it. He was already half-hard.

He gently eased his hips away from hers, keeping his arm over her, his fingers still gently stroking her hair. Just the scent of her perfume was making him almost lightheaded.

To distract himself, he tried to figure out what he wanted to do Saturday and Sunday, what she might like. They could go to the movies, but nothing currently playing really appealed to him, at least among the movies they hadn't already seen. They could rent a movie through their cable service—and he liked the idea of that, just sitting together on their couch...

He drifted off, his fingers still in her hair, and imagined her beside him on the couch, trying to pretend she was paying attention to the movie. She wore a denim skirt, frayed to white strands at the hem, and a little tank top, her breasts loose underneath. That was always the way he loved to imagine her.

Her slender legs were smooth to the touch, warm under his fingertips. He drew his hand up her inner thigh and she giggled as she batted him away, but the way she arched, the glint of her blue eyes, told him that she was enjoying their little game as much as he was. When he ducked in and sucked at the pulse point in her neck, she moaned softly, the red-gold of her hair like fire in the sunlight streaming through the blinds. She radiated heat against his lips, his tongue, and when he nipped at her she opened her legs, the hem of her skirt sliding up, her hand coming down to stroke his inner thigh.

Mine, she whispered, and her lips grazed his jaw, her nails dragging against his jeans. He growled as she sucked at his neck, her fingers drawing closer to his crotch.

Always, he whispered. His fingertips encountered bare skin beneath her miniscule skirt as he cupped the join of her thighs, and she tipped her head back, baring the column of her throat, and God, she was hot and slick against his palm, pushing herself up so she could grind against him. And you're mine.

Always, baby. Always.

He pulled her shirt up and they kissed each other roughly, teeth sinking into the soft slick inner flesh of their lips, the tip of her tongue wicked as it flicked against the roof of his mouth. He cupped her breast, fondling her, and she pushed herself up on her knees, parting her legs so he could plunge his fingers between. Her nimble fingers made swift work of his belt and fly, and she made a soft sound deep in her throat, one of longing, as she gently freed his cock, palming him in warm, smooth strokes.

He had her bent over the arm of the couch, and she was screaming his name as he pounded into her—

Ned opened his eyes.

"Shhhh. Shhh. Shh. Shh."

His arm—he couldn't feel her under him.

The mattress shifted. Nancy was shushing—had he been snoring?

But she was sitting up, on her side of the bed, facing away from him. "Shhh, shh, shh," she whispered again, and he heard a sob catch in her voice. "Oh God. Oh God oh God no, no, shhhhh..."

"Baby...?" Ned murmured, pushing himself up, and the blankets fell down, leaving his chest bare.

"N—Ned...?" Nancy's voice was so quiet, so lost. He sat up, moving over to her.

"Are you okay? What's wrong?"

"Talk to me," she said, her voice just a little stronger. He gently touched her hand and she wrapped her fingers around his, tight. "Please..."

"Talk to you about what?"

"Anything," she said, and she sounded desperate.

"I don't know... God. Um. Your birthday. I—the present I want to give you—you said you didn't really want anything...?"

"Keep talking," she said distantly, nodding, when he trailed off, and she wasn't looking at him. He put his other hand over hers, stroking softly.

"I just—I hope you like it. After that present you gave me at Christmas, baby? That meant so much to me, and I just wanted to give you something that would mean a lot to you too. And I'm so glad that you like the necklace I gave you. I love seeing it on you. And I love you, I love you so much..."

She was quivering, and she bowed her head. He became aware that she was at the point of hyperventilating, she was breathing so fast.

"This summer, baby, for our anniversary, we'll go somewhere warm, and if all you want to do is lay on the beach, that's what we'll do. We'll go somewhere with clear water, nice sandy beaches, and we can just relax. It will be so nice to get away for a while with you."

"Shhhhh, shh, it's okay, it's okay," she whispered to herself. "Shhh. Shh. It's okay. It's okay."

"It's okay," he repeated, moving so he could touch her arm, and she shivered. "It's okay, baby. It's going to be okay."

He felt so helpless, so fucking helpless, and by the sound of her voice he knew she was crying. He reached up and cupped her cheek and she let out a soft sob, and her skin was wet against his palm.

"Baby, it's okay. It's okay. I don't—I don't know what you need. I just... God, I wish I knew how to help you."

She bent over, still squeezing his hand, and sucked in a breath. "Oh God. I—oh God."

She scrambled off the bed, swinging around the foot to get to the door, and a second after she banged the bathroom door open, he heard her throwing up.

He ran his fingers through his hair, then slipped out of their bed, following her. He found her sprawled in front of the toilet, moaning quietly, sweeping her hair out of her face, and the trace of mascara that had been left on her lashes was streaked down her face from her tears. She had barely made it to the bathroom in time, and he reached for one of the thin rough towels to wipe the floor.

"Are you okay?" he whispered. 

She looked miserable, and she spat a few times, then wiped her mouth, her eyes streaming. He helped her up and she wiped her chest with the tail of the towel, then made a face and unfastened her soiled bra to shrug it off.

"I feel nasty," she said unhappily, and then her eyes widened as she convulsed again. He reached down and gathered her hair as she collapsed to her knees again, retching violently, and some of the strands were slick against his fingers. She spat again, then moaned, miserable, and he saw her shivering.

"Okay," Ned said, and found one of her elastic bands in the drawer at the sink, threading her hair through it before he turned on the shower. "Baby, you feeling any better?"

"Yeah," she murmured weakly.

"Let's get you cleaned up."

He turned the water a little hotter than they normally made it, and when he asked if she wanted to take some aspirin, she made a face but agreed. Ned took a dose as well before he sprayed the linoleum, tossing the bath mat into the hallway so he would remember to take it to the laundry room for washing. Nancy pulled the elastic out of her hair and slipped out of her panties, and Ned stripped as well before moving into the shower with her.

She scrubbed at her face under the water, wiping off the dark trace of the mascara, and the slight trembling in her hands began to lessen. She washed her hair as Ned took the soap, handing it to her after he had rinsed away the lather and sweat clinging to his skin.

They didn't talk in the shower, and he only touched her a few times, both times brief brushes of his fingertips. When they were finished and cleaned up, she stepped out of the shower and spat a few times, but didn't throw up again. Ned wrapped her in one of the enormous fluffy bath sheets they had received as a wedding present, and she towel dried her hair, moving briskly until she tilted off-balance and had to sit down. Ned toweled himself off too, and Nancy had an almost frozen expression on her face, like her calm was a few seconds from breaking.

"You okay, sweetheart?"

She looked up at him slowly. "Yeah," she murmured, a moment later. Ned had the eerie feeling that she wasn't really seeing him. "I'm okay."

Ned couldn't stop himself. "Baby, stop it."

She blinked, and when he reached for her she slipped her arms up around his neck, pressing her naked body to his. Ned swallowed hard but looped his arms around her waist, holding her to him as he pulled the towel around her and carried her back to their bedroom.

"You want some pajamas?"

"Yeah, I'll get them." She sounded weary, but at least she sounded like she was present again. She stepped into some panties, then a long-sleeved shirt and a pair of flannel pants, and Ned flipped off the lights before he slipped back into their bed.

Nancy joined him, and then she pulled the comforter up until she was entirely underneath it. Ned pulled himself underneath too, and he couldn't see her, not at all, he could only smell shampoo and soap and water, could only feel the faint warmth of her skin through the flannel.

He touched her hand and she cuddled against him again.

"I... I'm sorry."

"About what, baby," Ned whispered.

She sighed. "My therapist—Dr. Monroe. She wanted to see me again, and at lunchtime she told me she had a cancellation, so I got off work a little early and went over there..."

"Oh," Ned said softly.

"Yeah." She brought her knees up toward her chest. "I... I just wanted to talk about... when I was hurt again, the trouble sleeping, but... I told her that we talked about... Jamie." Her voice was so soft that Ned had to strain to hear it.

She took a deep breath. "When I went to Wilder and it wasn't working—I felt like I was disappointing Dad. He wanted me to go to school; he wanted me to earn a degree. And I hated everything about it. Everything that seemed good... it just soured. I felt awful. I felt like I couldn't give up—and that made me feel worse. And then you were gone, you were out of my life, and it was my fault; Bess and George were out of my life, and it was my fault. The guys I dated—it was my fault too, my bad judgement, and nothing worked... and when I finally quit Wilder, but it wasn't because I was giving up, it was because I was so fucking broken that I couldn't go back.

"Dr. Monroe keeps telling me that Wilder isn't the decision that changed everything, and that it doesn't even matter now—but I look back at it, and... and if I had gone to Emerson with you..."

Ned reached for her, tentatively tracing his fingertips up her arm until he could cup her cheek, and he brushed his lips against her forehead. "We can't go back, baby. I wish we could but we can't go back."

"I know." Her voice went soft again. "I wanted to die. When I was back home and I was in so much pain, all the time, and I had to fucking depend on Dad and Hannah for everything, I just wanted it to end. I just wanted to stop hurting.

"And I told her that, and she made me swear that I don't feel that way anymore, and I don't, baby, I swear I don't... but she asked me today how much—how much of that was from what... what happened that night with Jamie..."

"So you were thinking about it," Ned murmured. "Is that what was wrong earlier?"

He felt her move. "Yeah," she whispered. "She... God." Her voice was even smaller when she spoke again. "She wanted me to... to say what he did..."

Ned slipped his arm around her, pulling her to him, and she buried her face against his chest. "I'm sorry," Ned whispered. "I wish she hadn't put you through that."

"But... tonight, when I went to sleep... God, it was like it was happening again..." She shuddered. "I don't ever, ever, ever, want to think about it again and she kept saying that I have to go through it, I have to get past it..."

Ned just held her, his lips against the crown of her head, and she was coiled so tight, her breath coming in almost pained gasps. He closed his eyes and stroked her back, and together the way they were, under the blanket, in perfect darkness, this world was theirs alone.

"That's why you wanted me to talk to you," he whispered. "To pull you back."

"Yeah," she whispered.

"Why you were shushing..."

"I was trying to tell myself to calm down," she said, and reached up to touch her face, and he heard her wipe tears away. "That I was okay. But I don't know... I don't know how to be okay anymore..."

Ned swallowed against the lump of tears in his throat. "Does this mean you're going to start seeing Dr. Monroe again?"

Nancy sighed unhappily. "A part of me wishes you could be there with me," she admitted, and then she choked back a small sob. "But I—I hate even talking to you about this, I hate making you even think about this..."

He nuzzled against the crown of her head again. "Baby... I need to hear it," he told her. "I want to know, because it's hurting you and I hate not knowing what to do or how to help you, and..."

"And what," Nancy said softly.

Ned's jaw set. "And I hate thinking that I might touch you somehow and upset you," he admitted. "I don't ever want you to be afraid of me, and I never, never want to hurt you."

She touched his shoulder. "You never will."

"I never would intentionally," he told her. "But I... I hate feeling like that might happen. I... God, when you fell asleep earlier all I wanted to do was kiss you awake and make love to you..."

"Why didn't you?"

"I would have, before, but now I look back at everything, every damn time we ever had sex, and I wonder if you were comfortable, if you actually did enjoy it..."

She cupped his cheek. "Ned, you never, never made me do anything I didn't want to do. Never. And you and I both know that you wouldn't do that."

Somehow he found it easier to talk about it like this, and he wasn't sure if it was because they couldn't see each other's faces in the dark, because it was late and they were exhausted and he was still just a little buzzed, or if he was just so tired of not saying what he had been feeling. "But, Nan... if you can't admit to yourself what he did to you..."

Nancy made a soft noise, but she didn't say anything.

"Baby..." Ned made a frustrated sound. "I don't... God, Nan, oh God, I just want you safe, I just want you to be okay. I hate seeing you in pain like this, and thinking of you reliving what that asshole did to you makes me hurt. But if you want me at the appointment with you, if you want me there to hear it, I'll be there. I will listen to all of it and I'll take you home and hold you until you feel better, I will do everything in my power to make you feel safe again.

"But she's right... We can't get past this until you name it, because until you name it, until you're honest... if you can't be honest with yourself how will you ever be honest with me?"

Nancy was quiet for a very long time. Then he heard her sniffle and knew she was crying, and he cupped her cheek, brushing the tears from her warm skin.

"I'm sorry," Ned said immediately. "Baby, I'm so sorry—"

She sobbed more loudly, and he felt her cringe. "He—he took advantage of me," she whispered, her voice shaking. "He—he hurt me, and I told him no, but he... he r-raped me..."

She cried like her heart was breaking, and Ned pulled her into his arms, holding her tight, whispering that he was so sorry, that she was okay, that she would be okay, he swore she would be okay. When she didn't flinch away from him, he kissed her forehead, her cheek, her earlobe, kissing her tears away, and then she nuzzled into him.

"I need... I need a tissue," she murmured, and Ned pushed back the covers to grab the tissue box on his side of the bed. She wiped her face, then sat up and blew her nose, her breath still coming in soft gasps, audible and trembling.

"He raped me and you never have and you never will," she said, her voice still shaking. "I—when I want you to stop, when I've ever asked you to stop, you did."

Ned nodded, taking a slow breath. "I'm sorry," he said again.

"I didn't want that to ever happen to me," she murmured. "I never wanted anyone to ever hurt me that way, and I thought that no one ever would or could; I thought I was strong enough to do anything, and then I went to Wilder, and every single fucking thing I ever thought..." She sniffled and wiped her nose again. "That night he made me feel just as fucking worthless as I thought I was. He made me feel—" She choked up. "He made me feel like what I wanted didn't matter and it was like I was drowning in it, like what I needed... like it was nothing. Like all I was to him was something warm to get inside, and I—after, when I was with him after that, all I wanted—I needed him to make me feel love again, but he never would, he never could. Because you were what I needed. And I wasted so much time and so much damn energy trying to convince myself that running back to you was the weak thing to do. Like what I wanted mattered at all."

Ned touched her knee. "Baby, I'm so sorry."

She hung her head. "I'm sorry," she told him. "I'm sorry that I made you uncomfortable."

"Don't—don't apologize for that, Nan. I mean it." Ned shook his head. "I wish that had never happened to you—and I wish you'd been able to see him punished for what he did to you."

Her hair swayed slightly as she moved her head. "But that wouldn't have changed it."

"It wouldn't have," he agreed. "And nothing, nothing is ever going to make up for what he did to you. Nothing. But didn't that hurt, knowing that he just walked away, after he did that to you?"

"Like I was nothing," she whispered. "I didn't know anything could hurt as much as that did."

He reached for her and she moved into his arms, nestling her face against his bare shoulder, her lips brushing lightly against the base of his neck. "Every time we make love I feel like the luckiest man on this earth," he said softly. "I crave you, baby, every minute of every single day, and you are so precious to me. So precious. He did a terrible thing to you, so terrible I can't even imagine going through anything like that."

"I couldn't either," she whispered, and he felt the brush of her eyelashes against his neck. "And... if it didn't happen, then I was okay. It wasn't true." Her arms tightened around him. "I told myself I'd never let something like that happen to me, so it couldn't have."

Ned rocked her gently in his arms. "If you want me to go with you to the therapist next time, I will," he murmured.

She made a soft humming sound. "I'll let you know," she whispered, and nuzzled into him. She started to say something, then stopped herself.

"What," he whispered, stroking her hair. "Baby, let's just get it all out, all of it, and that way we can try to deal with it..."

"I can feel you pulling away from me," she whispered.

"Oh, Nan, no... it's not that, I swear it's not that. I just don't want to hurt you, and I don't know how to not... how I need to treat you now..."

"Don't treat me any differently," she told him. "I need you to—I know I can't take back telling you, but when you stop yourself, I feel like... like you don't want me, like I am damaged." A cold teardrop hit his shoulder. "I wish you'd woken me up earlier, when you wanted to. Then I might not have had that fucking dream."

Ned made a soft sound. "And if I'd touched you while you were in that fucking dream?"

"Then I would've told you to stop," she told him. "I need you to—to trust me, to trust that I'll be all right, that I won't break, okay? I need—I need us to be as close to normal as we can be."

Ned nodded, moving to brush his lips against her cheek, and she blew her nose again before they slipped back under the covers. She stayed cuddled up against him, and Ned's grip on her tightened when she shivered.

The sunlight was streaming bright through the blinds when Ned woke, and it felt like he had been asleep for only a moment, but Nancy's side of the bed was empty.

"So that's it? You just leave, just like that?"

"And why the fuck would I want to stay here?"

Their neighbors were shouting so loudly that Ned could hear them through the walls. His head was pounding and slow with exhaustion, and he closed his eyes.

Nancy's side of the bed was empty.

His thumb brushed the edge of his wedding band as Ned pushed himself up. Footsteps pounded down the stairs in the neighboring townhouse. He heard the impact of something against the wall, something heavy and loud.

"You're an asshole."

"It's over. It's been over. Ever since you—"

The voices became less distinct, and Ned groaned. He blinked lazily and saw a note on his wife's pillow. No wonder he hadn't smelled breakfast cooking.

Have to run to the store, was going to go last night - w/any luck I'll be back before you wake up. Love you.

In the neighboring townhouse, Ned heard a scream of frustration, followed by the sound of a door slamming so hard he was surprised a rain of broken glass didn't follow. Less than a minute later he heard the growl of a racing engine, then the squeal of tires against the asphalt as a car roared away.

Well, there was no way he was getting back to sleep now, especially knowing Nancy wasn't home.

Ned was in his flannel pants, brushing his teeth, when he heard their front door open. He spat out a mouthful of lather. "Babe?"

"Hey!" Nancy called back. "I have some groceries in the car but I picked up breakfast. Hungry?"

"Definitely," Ned said, and washed his mouth out.

He found two large cups of freshly-brewed coffee on the kitchen table, beside a bag of fresh, warm muffins, half blueberry with streusel crumb topping, half apple cinnamon. He took an apple cinnamon muffin and the cup marked the way he took his coffee, and when he came to the door and opened it, Nancy was walking up the steps, her arms full of groceries.

"This is all of them."

Ned nodded, swallowing his first glorious bite of muffin, glancing over at the neighbor's door before he closed and locked their own. Four shirts and a guitar had been left in the tiny front yard, and if Ned had to guess, he would bet they had been thrown there.

"So our neighbors were fighting again this morning," Ned commented.

"I kind of gathered that," Nancy said, unloading the bags. She took out a pair of brown paper parcels that immediately made Ned start salivating in anticipation—she had stopped by the butcher, the really good one, and bought their steaks there. Large russet potatoes followed, then a head of broccoli, a small loaf of sourdough bread, romaine and roma tomatoes, a container of blue cheese, a head of lettuce, candied pecans, a bag of chips, salmon fillets, fresh green beans, slivered almonds, a pair of large yellow onions and hamburger buns. The other bag held buttermilk, a pound of unsalted butter, a dozen eggs, confectioner's sugar, vanilla extract, baking chocolate. Nancy immediately took two sticks of butter out of the box, and they put away the rest of the groceries together.

"Good morning," Nancy told him, standing on her tiptoes and brushing her lips against his cheek. She had put her hair up in a messy bun, and loose red-gold strands brushed her cheeks.

She had told him to treat her like everything was normal.

He cupped her cheek and kissed her more thoroughly, and she tasted like coffee, and her lips were a little cool from the brisk March wind as they parted under his. She reached up and brushed her fingertips down the base of his neck, making a soft noise deep in her throat as she tilted her head the other way, their tongues lazily tangling.

He wanted to strip her damn sweatshirt off and throw her on the kitchen table, but the muffins were getting cold.

He reluctantly released her, and faint color was staining her cheeks when they parted. "Good morning," he replied, his voice a little husky, and she chuckled as she reached for her own cup of coffee.

She was fresh-scrubbed and just a little pale without her makeup, a light dusting of freckles showing over her nose and forehead, and she wore a faded-orange hooded sweatshirt, the sleeves long enough to cover the heels of her hands. She toed out of her sneakers and left them at the foot of the stairs, swallowing a bite of muffin when she returned to the kitchen, in white socks and a pair of old threadbare jeans, the back pocket and hip streaked with white paint. She looked ready to take on a home improvement project or join in a tag football game, and her lashes were brown without mascara, and she looked just a little tired, but she smiled when she looked at him.

And, to him, she was beautiful.

"So what are we doing today?"

They had each finished two muffins, and Nancy had her head tipped back as she drank the last few sips of her coffee. "Mmm," she murmured as she swallowed. "Well, I thought we could have sandwiches for lunch, and we've got the steaks for dinner, and I was going to make a cake..."

"A cake? From scratch?"

Nancy nodded. "I know it would've been easier to just pick something up at the bakery, but..." She shrugged.

"And would this be a cake I've tried before?"

"If I'm lucky. If I'm lucky I'll end up with a double-chocolate layer cake."

Ned's eyes lit up. Hannah's recipe for double-chocolate layer cake was Ned's favorite of all time, and his wife knew it. "And if you aren't lucky?"

"Then at least we have half a box of Oreos in the pantry."

Ned chuckled and turned on the television, and Nancy leaned against him, nestling against his shoulder when he wrapped his arm around her. He turned on ESPN, waiting for Nancy to object, but when he looked down at her, her eyes were closed.

Ned smiled at her fondly, but five minutes later, he had convinced himself that he just needed to rest his eyes for a moment... and then he woke up, his head pillowed on the arm of the couch, Nancy's head resting on his thigh. He chuckled when she yawned, stretching, and slowly sat up.

"Guess we didn't get enough sleep last night."

"Guess not." She smiled at him. "And if I don't get started on the cake, there's no way we'll be able to have it for dessert tonight."

"Is it really that complicated?"

Nancy shook her head, pulling the elastic out of her hair. She hadn't blow-dried it the night before, and so it fell in messy waves down her shoulders; she gathered it in her hands and twisted it into another bun, this one a little higher, a little tighter. "Just need to make sure it's cool before I frost it. Learned that lesson the hard way." Ned pushed himself up and Nancy brushed her lips against his cheek in a soft kiss before she rose.

She had just put the cake in the oven when Ned's stomach rumbled, and he went into the kitchen to see Nancy in an apron, a streak of flour over her belly, clinging to the heel of her hand, brushed against her forehead. He chuckled as he traced his thumb over her forehead, then opened the refrigerator, looking for a soda.

"Hungry?"

"I could eat," Ned admitted. "But then I could always eat."

Nancy pulled out the leftover roast beef, then sliced up some of the tomatoes, and they made sandwiches on the sourdough bread. She toasted the bread, melting slices of swiss cheese over the beef, before they loaded the sandwiches with mayonnaise, tomato and lettuce, and Nancy took a small handful of chips before passing him the bag. She had opted for the low-fat mayonnaise, too, while Ned refused to eat anything other than the original flavor.

She checked on the baking cake a few times while they were eating, turning on the light in the oven without opening the door. A minute before the timer was set to go off, she took out a toothpick and tested the center of each cake, then pulled out the layers and put them on the counter to cool.

Ned picked up their empty plates and loaded them into the dishwasher, then came up behind his wife, wrapping his arms around her. "They look great, honey," he whispered against her neck, and he felt her shiver against him.

"Thanks," she murmured, twisting to set the timer for thirty minutes, and then she put her hands over his. "We've got some time; what do you want to do?"

"We could talk," Ned said. "Play cards, watch a movie. Take another nap, maybe with fewer clothes this time."

Nancy laughed softly. "A movie sounds good," she told him.

Ned pouted, nuzzling against her neck again. "And a mostly naked nap doesn't?"

"A mostly naked nap sounds like it might take longer than the thirty minutes I have before I need to turn these cake layers out," she told him.

He kissed the other side of her neck. "Well, isn't someone optimistic," he teased her, and she laughed.

She wasn't wearing a fraying denim miniskirt or a tank top, and he was sure she had on underwear, and he knew there was no way his little fantasy was going to come true, but even so, every time their skin touched, he felt hyperaware of her again. When the timer went off she went into the kitchen as he paused the movie, and then she came back and sat down at her edge of the couch, and she pulled him down so his head rested in her lap. 

They had been watching in silence for a while when she shifted under him, then rested the flat of her palm against his chest and idly stroked his shirt, up and down, slow over the hard muscle of his abs.

Ned was enjoying the movie, but he had to admit, he was enjoying the feel of her warmth even more. He turned to look up at her, and she kept her gaze on the television set as her fingertips trailed perilously close to the waistband of his jeans without actually touching them.

He swallowed hard, and when her fingers stroked up and back down again, he caught her hand in his, catching the hem of his shirt in his fingertips so he could pull it up, so she was touching his bare chest. She still didn't look down at him, though. She idly traced slow circles over his skin, and it had been too long, too fucking long; he was keyed to her, and while he never wanted her to stop touching him, he knew that she had to, before he reached the point of no return. Usually he had some self-control, but it appeared to have evaporated sometime in the last ten minutes.

"Babe..." Ned said softly.

Nancy's fingertips just barely stroked beneath his waistband, still against his bare skin, and the ache in his groin became a thousand times more pronounced. She looked down at him and smiled. "Want to help me make the frosting?"

"Sure," Ned forced out, moving carefully as he sat up. 

Nancy consulted the recipe, then went to the refrigerator, and Ned opened the freezer door, standing as close to it as he could. Nancy's lips were curved up in a soft smile as she shook her head.

She unwrapped squares of baking chocolate and put them in a glass bowl, and instructed Ned to microwave them in thirty-second intervals until they had just begun to melt. She rinsed out the mixer equipment and put the softened butter in the bowl, then separated an egg.

By the time the melted chocolate was cool enough to beat into the butter and sugar, Nancy tested the warmth of the cake layer against her fingertip, then made a face. "Almost," she said, as Ned stirred the coffee into the chocolate.

"Almost?"

Nancy nodded, scraping some of the chocolate into the mixer so she could finish mixing the frosting. "It's almost ready. Could you get the cake container out for me?"

She slowly incorporated the melted chocolate and coffee into the butter and sugar, and when she finally turned the mixer off, Ned saw a trace of confectioner's sugar on her forehead, and a few drops of chocolate on her apron. She took a spatula and scraped down the sides of the bowl, mixing the frosting together until it went from a marbled brown to a consistent brown. Then she dipped her fingertip in, brought it to her lips—and changed her mind, extending her finger to Ned.

Remembering the look that had crossed her face the night before, Ned took her hand and sucked her finger into his mouth, holding her gaze. She squirmed, flushing slightly, as he thoroughly licked every single trace of the frosting from her skin, then began at the base of her finger and drew his tongue all the way up. He kissed her palm before he released her hand, and her eyes were glowing as she swallowed hard, then reached for the cake container.

"You did a great job," she told him, her voice low, as she placed the first layer in the center of the container. "Thanks, sweetheart. Why don't you go relax; I'll be right there."

"All right," Ned murmured, and came up behind her, kissing her neck. She swatted at him and he ran his lips against the trace of powdered sugar on her forehead, then licked it off his lips.

Ned had totally lost the thread of the movie, and when he navigated away from the channel, he dismissed the message informing him that they had the remainder of the twenty-four hours to finish watching the movie if they so chose. He found a game on, and tried to focus on it or anything else, but the ache of his arousal was still there, lingering, and it was all he could do not to go back into the kitchen, boost Nancy up onto the kitchen counter—

Ned let out a silent frustrated groan and slumped in his seat. He was in the recliner, mostly because its position let him look into the kitchen and watch his wife frost the cake.

When he heard her fastening the lid of the cake container, he looked up to see her smiling. She put the cake in the refrigerator, and then she went toward the pantry, and Ned glanced at the clock. They had a few hours before dinner; maybe if he was lucky, she'd continue that little impromptu massage she had almost been giving him earlier, and maybe that would lead to more...

He heard the rustle of clothing, but he ignored it, pulling up the channel guide. Nothing was ever showing on television on Saturdays, not even with their cable package. He put the remote down on the coffee table as his wife walked back into the living room, moving between the couch and the coffee table. Ned glanced up. She was carrying the bowl she had mixed the frosting in, and he could see the remainder, what had been left after she had frosted the cake, streaked against the inner edge. She was still wearing the apron.

However, she didn't appear to be wearing anything else.

Ned's eyes widened, and when he looked up at his wife's face, she was smiling. "Hey," she murmured.

"Hey," Ned replied, glancing down at her bare, smooth legs. "Damn. Did I fall asleep again?"

"I don't think so..."

"Because this looks a lot like something I'd dream about."

Nancy tilted her head. "Really," she purred softly. "Then how can we be sure this isn't a dream?"

Ned shook his head. "That's not the question," he told her. "The question is, even if it is a dream—why the hell would I want to wake up?"

"You've got me," she murmured. "Now..." She put the bowl down on the coffee table, then swiped her finger around the inner rim, picking up some of the leftover frosting. "I need you to get undressed, Mr. Nickerson, because I have a bad feeling some of this frosting ended up in very inappropriate places..."

Ned stood and quickly stripped off his shirt, and her blue eyes were dancing as she watched him unbutton his fly and push his jeans down. Under other circumstances he would have been at least mildly self-conscious about his instantly massive erection, but considering how long he had been dying for her, dying for the feel of her against him, he just felt proud of it.

And he was pretty sure he wasn't imagining the faint musky scent of her own arousal.

She was waiting patiently, and when he sat back down in the recliner, she brushed a trace of frosting over each of his nipples. "What did I tell you," she murmured, shaking her head, and leaned down, licking the chocolate buttercream off his skin.

Ned growled. "And you?" he murmured. "I have a bad feeling you have gotten awfully dirty too, beautiful."

"Surely you don't mean—" She ran her fingertip up his abs, then knelt between his knees and ran her tongue in one long wicked swipe against the hard muscle, finding the trace of frosting she had left there. "Under my apron?"

"Very much under your apron," Ned growled.

Nancy reached over and swiped her finger through the leftover frosting again, then looked up at him, holding his gaze as she ran her finger up the underside of his shaft. Ned was panting slightly even before his wife ducked down and began to work her tongue over his cock, her other hand gently fondling his balls.

Ned leaned back, opening his knees wide, and rested his hand on her head, her hair warm and silky under his fingertips as she stroked her tongue against his sensitive flesh. She flicked her tongue against the base, swiped it gently over his balls, then brought her head up so she could take him in her mouth.

Ned let out a long, pleased moan. "Mmmm, baby," he sighed. While his fingers were resting against her hair, he didn't let himself press her down, and she didn't deepthroat him, but that was okay. She wrapped her fingers around the base of his cock, stroking him, pumping him gently in her fist as her tongue circled the head.

"Mmm," he groaned, a little louder, and closed his eyes when she fondled his balls again. "Oh, God, just like that..."

He warned her before he came, and she looked up at him, her eyes wide, but she didn't let him go. He shivered as he spent himself, and she made a soft sound before she released him, then stood up and went to the kitchen. He turned his head just in time to catch a glimpse of her bare ass, and smiled.

She came back after she had washed her mouth out, and Ned stood up before she reached him. He looped an arm around her and tugged the bow out of the apron, then lifted it over her head, and when he dropped the canvas on the floor she stood before him naked, her nipples already hard, her skin almost pale enough to be luminescent; over the summer he would watch her long limbs darken, but her pert breasts and the join of her thighs would stay almost this fair, and he loved tracing her tan lines with his tongue, like he could taste the sunlight lingering in her skin.

He couldn't imagine looking down at her, into the depths of those blue eyes, and ever, ever being able to hurt her the way Jamie had.

How can I ever believe you again...

She had been able to tell him no before. And he had to trust her.

Ned reached down and ran his fingertip through the leftover frosting, then looked into his wife's eyes again. "You ready to get cleaned up, baby?"

She raised her eyebrows. "Depends," she murmured.

"On what?"

"On how thorough you plan to be, Mr. Nickerson."

"I plan to be..." He swiped his finger over her left nipple, then her right, and she shivered slightly. "Very thorough."

Then he picked her up, draping her over his lap as he sat down in the recliner again, one arm of the chair supporting her back, the other underneath her bent knees. She brought her hand up and ran her fingers through his hair as he leaned down, thoroughly, slowly licking every bit of the frosting off her nipple before he moved to the other. Then he leaned forward and dipped all his fingers into the frosting, then dragged them down her belly, and she squealed and squirmed under his touch.

He reached down and pushed the handle to extend the footrest, then bent over her, licking and sucking and nuzzling against her as he found all the frosting on her skin. He swirled his tongue around her belly button, and when he cupped the join of her thighs, she moaned, bringing one knee back, resting the sole of her foot against the arm of the recliner. He sucked hard against the sensitive flesh of her inner thigh, until she was writhing, until he had almost given her a hickey, and then he gathered the last trace of the frosting on his fingertip, touching it to the tip of her nose, the hollow of her collarbone.

He dipped his tongue against the hollow at the base of her throat and felt her muscles tighten as she tipped her head back, baring the column of her throat to him. He nuzzled his way up, idly fondling her breast with his hand, stroking the damp skin of her nipple, as he kissed the point of her jaw, the tip of her chin.

She laughed when he flicked the tip of his tongue over the end of her nose, and he smiled at her, grasping her breast a little more firmly, squeezing her nipple between thumb and forefinger. Her laugh became a soft moan as she let her leg fall open to the side, the points of her nails gently dragging down the back of his neck, down to swirl over his shoulder blades. He drew his fingertips over her belly in a soft, slow caress, and when he teased the very tips of her pubic hair, she let out a louder moan.

"Hey," he whispered, looping his other arm under her shoulders, and she blinked up at him as he bent over her. She ran her fingers up, through his hair, her lips parted, as he kissed her, his tongue slipping into her mouth.

Then he slipped his fingers down between her thighs, and holy fuck, she was wet; he could feel her arousal slick against his fingertips as he traced her inner lips, bringing his thumb up to rub against her clit as he worked two fingers up into the tight heat of her cunt, as he kissed her again.

She made a soft sound deep in her throat, and he felt her roll her hips as she opened her legs fully to him. He stroked her slowly at first, and their kisses were lazy and gentle; then he moved a little faster, a little deeper, and she nipped at him, her hips trembling.

Nancy broke their kiss, crying out when he slipped a third finger up into her cunt, when he drove his thumb hard against the slick button of her clit. "Oh, oh," she sobbed, panting, and when he kissed her again she was rocking against him, her tongue wicked against his as she returned his kiss, harder, desperate.

She dug her nails against his back when she moaned into his mouth, her hips bucking up against his touch. He plunged his fingers up inside her hard, harder, rubbing his thumb back and forth over her clit, and she rolled her hips like she was almost fighting him, but oh, the way she rose under him, the soft pleased whimpers she was making. He could feel her breathing hard, could feel her arching to leave herself even more vulnerable to him, and their lips were swelled red, their eyes low-lidded, when he finally broke the kiss again.

"Oh God, oh, oh!" She cried out, her brows drawing together, sounding like she was in pain, like she was begging him, as she circled her hips. "Oh, Ned, oh yes, oh, yesssssss..."

He brushed his lips against her neck, and her skin was damp with sweat under his touch, her pulse speeding. She tipped her head back, and when Ned caught her nipple between his lips again, she bucked under him, sucking in a sharp breath. "Oh God, oh God! Oh my God yes, yes, ohhhhh..."

He looped an arm around her shoulders, drawing her back up. "Look at me, baby," he said, and she blinked up at him, her cheeks flushed, her lips parted. He could hear how wet she was as he plunged his fingers in and out of her, and the sound of it sent a frisson of desire up his spine. "My beautiful girl."

His fingers were going numb, but he changed the angle and she cried out, shuddering, her hips grinding against his touch. She sobbed in delight, her face contorting in pleasure so intense she looked like she was in pain. He felt her just begin to clench around him a little, and the chair squealed and rocked as she writhed.

"My love," she panted, gasping for breath. "Oh God I love you, so much, so—oh fuck yes yes yes!"

She pushed herself up, and her ass brushed against him, close enough that he felt himself stirring. She kissed him hard and they nipped at each other, and then she twisted, moving her knees so she could straddle him, and he kept touching her, kept stroking her through it.

"I need you—I need you inside me," she moaned, trembling, and when she pushed him down, her knees sliding forward so she could position herself over his hips, he leaned back against the cushioned back of the recliner, one of his hands coming up to cup her breast as she canted her hips against his other fingers.

She reached between his thighs and stroked his cock, moaning with pleasure as he kept fingering her, and as she slowly moved down, he let her go, stroking himself with the slick heat of her arousal. Her hair was still pinned up; he released her breast and cupped her cheek.

"Take your hair down for me, baby."

She held his gaze as she reached up, pulling the elastic out of her hair, and her red-gold hair tumbled down over her bare shoulders, her blue eyes glowing. He angled himself for her and their fingers brushed as she touched him.

They both groaned when the head of his cock brushed against the slick heat of her inner lips. "Oh yes, oh yes," she sobbed, gripping the edge of the chair to give herself leverage as she rocked her hips down, and Ned arched under her, closing his eyes in pleasure as she worked her way down, her cunt slippery hot and tight around his cock. She brought one leg up, hooking it over one arm of the recliner, trying to find a good angle so she could ride him as hard as she wanted.

"Oh fuck, baby, grab one of those pillows," Ned gasped out, and he held her hand so she could keep her balance as she leaned over to grab one from the other couch. Ned arched up and positioned the pillow under him, boosting his hips up higher.

"Put your legs—on the outside of the arms," he told her, and she obeyed him. It left her spread wide, and when she grasped the back of the chair again, arching over him, he angled his cock until it was brushing against her inner lips again. The soft tips of her long hair were brushing his shoulders as she gazed down at him.

And then she mounted him, and he arched up to drive himself into her, and her lips parted, her eyes drifting closed.

"My beautiful girl," Ned whispered, cupping her flushed cheek, his thumb brushing her soft lips. "My only one, forever."

She swallowed, then opened her eyes again. "My only one," she whispered, and began to move against him, to pull back so she could take him in another quick thrust. "Oh, my love, my heart."

Ned bent his knees a little, planting his heels so he could rock up when his wife rocked down to him, and her breasts trembled, she let out a soft sharp cry every time the full length of him was sheathed inside her. She shifted and the angle of her hips changed, and he buried his fingers in her hair and pulled her face down to his, kissing her hard when he was as deep inside her as he could be. The tips of her hair were warm and ticklish against his bare skin, and she gasped against his lips, sucking in a hard breath when his fingers found her clit again.

"Oh yes oh yes," she sobbed, riding him faster, and he brushed his lips against her neck. "Oh Ned yes!"

"Nancy," he groaned, pounding his hips up against hers, and she canted against him as he rubbed her clit harder. "God, you feel so good, baby."

"Oh God, ohhhhhhh, oh yes," she sobbed. "Mmmmmm."

He held out, gritting his teeth to keep from climaxing too soon, and flicked her clit with his thumbnail, and she tightened, shuddering around him. They slammed together and God, she felt so, so fucking good, her mouth brushing his, her tongue flicking against the seam of his lips, against his earlobe. She was moaning in desperation, but he was waiting for it—

He was good at making his wife come, but when he was able to hold out long enough, when he was able to find the right rhythm, he could push her arousal so high that she she almost went crazy against him, and those orgasms were even more amazing. And he knew she had reached it when she—

"Oh fuck!" she screamed suddenly, her hips jerking, her voice so high it was almost inaudible, and she was beyond pleasure or pain, she was fucking rutting against him, and when he roughly fondled her nipple she screamed again. He stroked her clit rapidly and she trembled in response, fucking him hard, slamming down to meet him as he drove into her.

"Yes, yes baby, oh God," Ned growled, and he was tense with need, the chair rocking against their every thrust. "Oh God yes, baby, come, come for me..."

She buried her face against his shoulder and he felt her bite him, and she was sobbing, whimpering with every stroke of his thumb over her clit. Ned arched as her cunt began to tighten against his cock, and she cried out, turning her face against his neck as he buried himself deep inside her, still rapidly stroking her.

When he finally, finally let himself come, his hips sinking back down to the pillow under him, she sank with him, gasping for breath, trembling with the aftershocks of her orgasm, and her legs were spread wide, hooked over each of the recliner's arms. She let out a long, low moan, her breath warm against his neck, her breasts pressed to his chest.

"Mmmmm," she sighed, and Ned wrapped one of his arms around her waist, the other stroking her hair. The late afternoon light turned the fine strands a burnished gold, and she gasped as she pulled one leg back in, then the other, straddling his hips with her knees against the seat again. They nestled against each other, utterly spent.

Ned's fingertips drifted over the small of his wife's back. "I love you," he whispered.

"I love you too," she whispered against his neck, then nuzzled softly against him. "That was so good, baby."

He smiled, closing his eyes, and he was content enough to just fall asleep, just like this. "Yeah," he whispered, and tightened his grip on her.

--

On Saturday night they grilled the steaks and ate them with baked potato and steamed broccoli and wedge salads. When Ned tasted the first bite of the chocolate cake, the frosting against his tongue made him think of his wife kneeling between his legs, and he wondered if he would always remember that every time he tasted it. And he decided that wouldn't be so bad, really.

Sunday they were lazier. They slept in, ate leftover muffins for breakfast, dressed and went to one of the small independent theaters to see a movie with good reviews. Nancy pressed out hamburgers for lunch when they came back home, still talking about what they thought of the ending, and Ned cut one of the large onions into slices so he could make onion rings. He cut himself a slice of the chocolate cake for dessert, and when he was finished, patting his belly in contentment, Nancy swiped her finger over the trace of frosting left on the plate, then brushed her fingertip over his lips. She gave him a soft kiss and he buried his hand in her hair, holding her to him, kissing her back thoroughly.

And it felt easier, what was between them. He didn't feel so much like he was walking on eggshells anymore. When they were sitting on the couch together after, Nancy's head nestled against his shoulder and his arm wrapped around her, he asked casually if she was going to be seeing Dr. Monroe again regularly, and she sighed just a little when she said that she probably would. He offered to go with her, and she said she appreciated it, but she thought she would be okay—and then she reached up and kissed his cheek, and Ned held her a little tighter as she settled against him again.

She had stopped looking like she was somewhere else, like there was something going on in her head that he couldn't see or understand. He was never going to understand what she had been through, though. He was never going to understand how, after that kind of violation, she could willingly let him in, could wrap her body around his and let him move inside her.

But he had been her first, and she had told him that had set him apart. In a way, she had been his, too. She had been the first girl he had ever truly loved, the only girl he had ever truly loved. Making love to her had been so much more than the hasty breathless fumblings he'd had with his first two partners, and Nancy, this beautiful fearless woman, had been so vulnerable when they had gazed into each other's eyes, when they had given themselves over to the desire simmering between them. In all the years since they had met Ned would have sworn that they had been keyed to each other from their first shared glance, their first touch.

And he would never intentionally hurt her. Never, never. He had just been terrified that he might unintentionally hurt her.

She wanted them to be the way they had been before. She didn't want him to treat her differently.

For dinner they ate broiled salmon fillets and green beans with slivered almonds, and she toasted a loaf of crusty French bread. They each had a glass of wine with dinner but no more, mindful that they had to be awake for work in the morning. They were almost finished eating when Nancy's cell phone chirped, and as soon as she had popped the last bite of almond and green bean into her mouth, she went to her laptop, apologizing for checking her email. He knew it had to be work-related, and he couldn't really begrudge her, remembering all the times he'd had to finish projects or answer emails when they were spending time alone together.

He turned to ESPN and caught up on the games he had missed, and Nancy went through some emails, replying to a few, then put some notes into her phone for the next day. When she sighed and announced that she almost wanted to relax in the tub before the next morning, Ned raised his eyebrows.

"You really want to?"

She made a face. "Maybe we could do that next weekend. If we get in the tub I have to wash it."

"I could do that," Ned pointed out mildly.

She shrugged. "It's all right. Raincheck?"

"Sure, babe." He patted her knee. "But, if you wanted to take a shower tonight, I'd be happy to join you... make sure you get totally clean."

Nancy laughed. "And maybe very dirty first," she teased him. "Let's do that in the morning. Our weekend together isn't quite over yet."

"True," he murmured, gazing at her, and she turned back to him. Her lips were slightly parted, but she just let her drawn breath out in a sigh instead of saying whatever was on her mind.

"We're okay, aren't we," he murmured.

She nodded. "Are you okay?"

Ned reached up and cupped her cheek. "The last thing, the absolute last thing that I want is to see you in pain," he told her. "But it's worse to think that there could be something I could do to help, and not even being able to do that. I just need you to keep letting me in; these past couple of weeks have been terrible..."

She gave him a soft humorless smile. "I'm sorry," she whispered.

Ned shook his head. "No, I am," he told her. "I'm sorry I didn't know what to do, and I'm sorry I pushed you..."

She bit her lip, then pushed herself up on her knees and touched her forehead to his. "It hurt," she whispered. "But you were right. Not—not admitting what really happened didn't change it, and I think that just made it worse, but in a way I've always known... and when Dr. Monroe was saying that—what happened that night—might have been part of why I was so depressed..."

She shook her head, and Ned pulled her into his arms, holding her tight. "It's okay," he whispered. "It's okay. You're safe now, baby. And for as long as I can, for as long as my heart is beating, I will do everything in my power to keep you that way."

She rested her head on his shoulder as they swayed slightly together. "Do you have any idea how much I love you?" she whispered. "How much my heart would have broken if you... if you had hated me... the way I hated myself..."

Ned turned so his mouth was brushing hers, and he kissed her hard, his throat aching from hearing the stifled tears in her voice. "You sound like you wanted me to."

"Sometimes I think it's all I deserve," she murmured, her lips brushing his, her breath warm against his skin. "Sometimes I think all I do is hurt you."

Ned reached up, swallowing hard before he buried his hand in her hair, taking a handful and tugging hard, and her eyes widened slightly. "You want me to hurt you?" he asked.

She paused for an almost imperceptible second before nodding. "Yes," she whispered, then looked down.

"Then go upstairs and get ready for me," he told her, and released her hair.

After his wife went upstairs, Ned went to the kitchen and poured himself a glass of cold water, then gulped it down. He was trying not to think about it, but he could feel how quickly his heart was beating, in his jaw, his throat, between his thighs.

He had to treat her like nothing was wrong.

And if he let this go on, he knew it would never stop. She wasn't glass, and she wanted him to trust her, to trust that she would tell him no if she needed to do so. If she wanted him to hurt her...

He put his empty glass in the dishwasher, then walked into the living room and turned the television off, turned the lights off, checked the deadbolts on the doors before he slowly went upstairs. He brushed his teeth thoroughly, then twisted his wedding ring around on his finger before he went to their bedroom.

She was sitting at the foot of their bed, her head bent, her hair falling in loose waves, hiding her face. The heels of her hands were perched on either side of her hips, her feet flat on the floor, and she had taken the time to light some of the candles near their bed.

In the time since she had told him about her assault, in the past two weeks, she hadn't put on lingerie for him.

Tonight she wore a sheer black robe he had seen before, the cuffs and hem and belt opaque black satin. With her head bent, in the low light, he couldn't see what she wore beneath it, if anything. She kept her head down as Ned closed their bedroom door, slipped out of his sweater and jeans, stripping down to his boxers.

He swallowed the sudden thickness in his throat as he went over to her, grasping a handful of her hair. "Stand up," he ordered her roughly, and she obeyed him, still facing the floor.

He felt the sudden absurd impulse to fall to his knees at her feet, his own head bent. Instead, one of his hands still in her hair, his fist tight, he touched her chin with his other hand, tilting her head up. Her eyes were gleaming faintly when they met his.

Ned looked down, taking in the rest of her, and his internal temperature spiked what felt like a few hundred degrees. She was wearing the chained clamps beneath the robe, and nothing else.

He released her chin and brushed just the ball of his thumb over the tip of her nipple,  through the sheer fabric, and she drew in a sharp breath, through her teeth, quietly. He did it again and she swayed slightly.

He moved forward, his lips brushing her temple. "Did you touch yourself while you were putting the clamp on your clit?"

She shook her head. "No," she whispered.

"So you reached down and opened yourself up, and you didn't have to stroke yourself to get the clamp on?"

She shook her head again.

Ned tightened his fingers in her hair. "Because you were already wet for me?"

"Yes," she breathed, closing her eyes.

"Open that robe for me," he growled, and she swallowed as she untied the sash. She parted the robe, and as Ned pushed it down one shoulder, she shrugged it off. And the sight of her made Ned ache with need.

He backed her into the bed, the front of his body pressed to hers, and he kept a firm grip on her hair as he reached down and spanked her, hard. She gasped and swayed a little against him, and then he took the join of the chains in his fist and released her hair so he could spank her other cheek, yanking the chains at the same time.

She cried out, trembling, her knees going weak for a second. Her lips were still parted when he looked at her face, and she was panting for breath.

"You like that?"

She whimpered, looking down.

"Say it," Ned growled.

"Yes," she whispered, and her voice was shaking.

Ned released the chains. "Get me the strap-on," he told her.

He intentionally didn't ask her to bring him the lube, curious as to whether she would just do it, or whether she might actually want him to use it without. She took a deep breath before she walked over to the drawer, then sank down to her knees and found the toy. She came to him with the strap-on, the lube and a couple of condoms, and he motioned for her to put them on the table at his side of the bed.

Then he reached for her again, twining his fingers in her hair, and tugged until her head was tipped back, until he could look into her eyes. Neither of them said anything, but her gaze locked to his, and he couldn't, oh, he couldn't—

But it was what she needed. She needed him to do this because she could be free with him, because she understood that no matter what, he never took pleasure in inflicting pain on her, only in the pleasure he gave her.

He looped his arm around her and drew her tight to him, feeling the chain move against his belly every time she breathed. She waited a moment before she rested her head against his shoulder.

"Baby," he whispered. "Baby, you have to—you have to say the safe word if you need it. Promise me."

"I will," she whispered. "I'll stop you if I have to."

He kissed her temple again, softer this time. "I'll be rough with you," he murmured. "Until you're screaming. If that's what you want."

"Yes," she whispered, and he felt her tremble once again. "Oh yes."

He took a half-step back, and then, careful not to disturb her still-healing side, tossed her onto the bed. Then he went to their drawer and pulled out the cuffs, yanking her arm up and locking the cuff around it. He threaded the other through the headboard and cuffed her there, and she was gazing up at him, looking utterly defenseless, naked and ready for him.

He picked up the bottle of lube and a condom, and she brought her knees up, parting them without waiting for him to order her to do it. He knelt at the foot of the bed, gazing down at her, and then he glanced up at her face, her softly parted lips.

He reached up and caught the chain in his grasp again, pulled up sharply, and she arched, crying out. He tugged again, again, and she shuddered, moaning, and he could smell her arousal.

Ned stood up on his knees and grabbed both pillows, bent one in half. "Pull your legs up," he ordered her, and when she figured out what he wanted, she rolled her hips, bending so he could put one beneath her hips. She gasped in genuine pain, and he put his palm on the small of her back, helping keep her up as he pushed the other pillow under her. He let her legs back down, and thanks to the pillows, her hips were up at a better angle, giving him good access to her.

"You okay?"

She nodded. "Sorry—my side," she murmured.

He very gently ran his fingertips over her side, then caressed her belly, the join of her thighs. He nudged the chain with his fingertip, then brushed the tip of her clit with his thumb, and she made a desperate wordless sound deep in her throat.

Ned ripped open the condom wrapper, lubed his fingers, and slowly began to relax her, rimming her before he worked his fingertip into her tight asshole. She tipped her head back and he listened to her as she panted, the chain between the cuffs sounding faintly as she grasped the rails in the headboard.

Once she was ready for him, he reached for the strap-on, seating it under his cock before he rolled the condom onto it and slicked it thoroughly with lube. While he loved fucking her tight asshole as he rammed the dildo into her slick, tender cunt, he knew that she preferred him this way—and besides, he needed to see her face, needed to be sure she was okay while he did this.

Ned reached down and grasped her ankles, pulling her legs up so her feet were resting on his shoulders. With her hips perched precariously on the folded pillows, all her leverage was in her feet, and when he pulled the chain again and she shuddered, gasping, he felt her heels push against his shoulders. "Mmmm," she moaned desperately, and he yanked again, a little harder. She let out a low sharp cry.

"You want me to fill you up?"

"Yes," she begged him, and moved so she could dig her heels into the backs of his shoulders, so she could urge him down to her, as he tugged the chain again. "Oh yes please please baby, yes."

He released the chain and she was still rocking gently as he slipped his hands down between her thighs, his thumbs tracing the slit of her sex, and then he parted her, feeling how incredibly wet she was as he pushed his thumbs up into the slick tight heat of her cunt. He worked one thumb fully inside her, until it was buried to the heel of his hand, and she moaned, rocking her hips, grinding against him.

"Deeper, baby," Ned growled, as he circled his thumb inside her, and she gasped, her blue eyes low-lidded. "You want it deeper?"

"Yes," she whimpered. "Oh God, please, baby. Fill me up, I need you—I need you hard." When he pushed himself up on his knees, she pressed her heels into him, urging him to her.

He fitted the head of his cock just inside her and she began to pant again. Her skin was glowing faintly with exertion, and she tilted her hips up, shuddering when the head of the dildo nudged against her tight asshole.

"Please," she breathed again, and Ned swallowed, taking the chain in his fist again. He gave it a sharp, hard tug as he surged inside her, and she let out a ragged cry, the bedsprings squealing, the headboard creaking as she pulled on the slats in her white-knuckled grip. He tugged again and again, just as hard, with his every thrust, and her cries built until she was screaming, full-throated, arching and bucking against him, and he moved slowly to keep the dildo from tearing her sensitive flesh, despite the lube and how relaxed she had felt. When he was finally able to thrust his full length into her, when his cock was buried hilt-deep in the slick tender press of her cunt, he began to tug the chain more rapidly, and with every tug he felt her clench around him.

"God, yes," he growled, and her hips canted with his thrusts as he moved inside her. She arched until the crown of her head was against the mattress, and he could see her pulse beating hard in her throat, could hear her whimpering before he tugged the chain again.

"Ned!" she screamed, and he groaned loudly as she clenched tight around him. She sucked in a sharp breath when he tugged again, and he had to swallow hard when she began to rut against him, her hips up off the pillows, and she sobbed desperately.

"Oh yeah, baby," he groaned, wrapping his thumb around the lowest chain so he could tug her clit even harder, and when he slammed into her, tugging again, she arched like she had been struck by lightning, screaming even more loudly.

"Oh, oh, oh God, oh fuck! Please, please!" She had her hips at the perfect angle, her ankles crossed behind his head, and as she bounced against his cock Ned gritted his teeth and drove into her, and her sobs and cries of pleasure made him shudder with delight. She writhed and he tilted forward, gazing down at her.

"Look at me," he ordered her, and when she brought her head up so their eyes could meet, he tugged the chain and drove hard into her, and the color was so high in her cheeks, her blue eyes were low-lidded, and her face creased with impossible pleasure.

"Yes, yes—fuck—" She rolled her hips when he tugged the chain again. "Oh holy fuck yessssss!"

By the time he let her come, her eyes were streaming, her hips pistoning against his, and her screams were wordless pleading as she pushed the heels of her hands against the headboard. He pushed himself fully inside her, tugging the chain again, and she sobbed as her inner flesh spasmed against him, tight against his cock. He gave one last jerk to his hips and she moaned, shuddering as they came, the full length of his cock and the dildo buried inside her.

Ned released the chains and cupped her hips, panting his breath back, and her legs fell open. He gently slipped out of her, and when he took the clamps off her clit and nipples, she relaxed against the mattress, closing her eyes. He pulled the pillows out from under her hips, then went over to the drawer, found the keys, and unfastened the cuffs. Her wrists were faintly red, and he took them in his hands, brushing his lips against the sensitive skin, the blue web of veins showing beneath.

"You okay, baby?"

"Yeah," she murmured, slowly blinking up at him. "Oh... oh God."

He came back with a cloth and the cream, wiped the slick trace of them off her thighs, then gently worked a bit of the cream against her abused nipple. She arched, one hand coming up to cup his biceps as he slowly caressed her, and when he moved to the other, she arched up again, her lips parting.

He moved to put the cream on the bedside table when he was finished with it, then gazed down at her. He loved the warmth of her skin in the candlelight; he loved seeing the golden light reflected in her eyes, loved the way it caught in her hair. She looked up at him, cupping his cheek under her palm, and when she gave him a soft, tentative smile, he returned it, leaning down so he could brush his lips against hers.

"I love you," he whispered.

"Love you too," she whispered.

He rolled onto his back, pulling her to his side, and she sprawled against him, nestling against his shoulder as he stroked her back. They were both still naked, and when she began to shiver as their sweat dried on her skin, he pulled her under the covers with him, then into his arms.

"I do love you," he murmured, his lips brushing her forehead. "So much. Oh, Nan..."

She made a soft sound, nestling against him. "Thank you," she whispered. "I know that was probably hard for you."

"It was," he whispered. "But if you needed it..."

She nodded slightly. "I love when you do that," she whispered. "I want to make you happy, baby... I don't want you to-to think I can't be with you the way we used to be, anymore."

He kissed her temple. "And I need you to understand that if something's uncomfortable for you now, even if it didn't used to be... you have to tell me. Because I can't bear the thought of upsetting you, sweetheart."

Her eyelashes brushed against the base of his throat. "And I hate the thought of not making you happy."

"Then I guess we're even." He kissed the bridge of her nose.

She had relaxed against him when he eased out from under her, then blew out the candles, returning shivering to their bed. She nestled back against him, and Ned closed his eyes, wrapping her in his arms, his heartbeat slowing to match hers.

They woke the same way, wrapped tight around each other, cocooned in warmth, and Ned blinked at their alarm clock, then let his head fall back to the pillow.

"Time 's it?" Nancy mumbled, burying her face between his cheek and the pillow.

"We have thirty minutes," Ned mumbled back. "'Fore the alarm goes off."

"Mmm." Her hand moved against his bare stomach. "I think I can work with that."

When she straddled him, he saw a flash of pain cross her face, and he cupped her cheek, gazing with concern into her eyes. "You okay?"

She gave him a soft smile and a nod. "Yeah. Muscles I didn't even know I had started screaming after we had sex like that in the recliner," she told him, her hips sinking to his.

"Sorry about that."

Nancy shook her head. "Don't be. It was fucking awesome."

Ned laughed, and then she took his cock in her hand, angling him so she could sink down onto him, and they both moaned in pleasure when she fitted him just inside her.

They didn't take it nearly as slowly as they had before, but that was okay. He ran his fingers through her long hair, stroked her breasts, fondled her still-tender nipples. She hissed when he rubbed his thumb against her clit, rocking harder against him, and soon she was gasping, her lips parted as she panted for breath, his hips slamming up under hers to press him deeper inside her.

After they took a shower together, Nancy dressed for her new temp job in a button-down and pencil skirt with dark pantyhose, and it was all Ned could do not to strip her out of it and bend her over their bed. He kissed her goodbye and she smiled at him as she wiped the trace of her lipstick off his lips.

Ned's phone went off late that morning, when he was just beginning to wonder when he wanted to take his lunch. He pulled it out, smiling, half expecting a message from his wife.

It was a new email, though. Ned's heart started beating a little faster when he saw the sender's address. In the space of a breath he went from feeling perfectly fine to almost sick, but he opened the email anyway, his heart in his throat.

His name is James Harrington IV.

Let me know if you need anything else.

Chapter Text

"Hey, Shelby?"

Nancy glanced up from her computer, idly tucking a loose strand of red-gold hair behind her ear. "Hey Chris," she replied with a smile. "What's up?"

"We're trying to convince Jess to hit the bar with us after work, and I seem to remember that you wanted some suggestions for cool places to go...?"

While Nancy smiled and agreed, keeping her expression open and friendly, a part of her was studying Chris. He had dark curly hair and thick black-rimmed glasses, and he was one of the three people targeted by her investigation, although she had all but eliminated him as a suspect.

For the past week, Nancy had been chatting up the four suspects the client had passed along. She was posing as Shelby, a temp worker who had just moved to the Chicago area with her husband of a year. She had been put onto projects with all four of them, and after Nancy had found an email from Jess to a creditor promising a major payment soon, Nancy had been pretty sure that Jess was the culprit, that she had sold the mailing list. Whatever she had been paid for the list hadn't lasted that long, though; Jess had worn new pieces of jewelry every day Nancy had been at work, and she spent her lunch breaks surfing shopping websites.

In an attempt to get Jess to open up to her, Nancy had played the role of the naive new girl to the hilt, and constantly complimented Jess's new jewelry and her sense of style. While Nancy herself rarely wore rings other than her engagement and wedding rings, Shelby had bemoaned her low salary and all the gorgeous things she wished her husband could buy her, and Jess, who had been cautiously friendly those first few days, was becoming more open with her. 

On Thursday of the previous week, Nancy had asked Trent to assign a rough shadow, just to force things along a little. Trent had obliged, and Jess had definitely noticed the hulking man doing a terrible job of following her when she was coming to and from work. On Monday, when Nancy had made some comment about her imaginary sister being followed by an ex-boyfriend, Jess had visibly shuddered, had almost said something—but she had cut herself off.

Going to the bar with her workmates would be perfect.

Nancy pulled out her work phone and texted Bill, who was handling the rough shadow work, to let him know where they would be going. Then she texted her husband.

I'll be a little late tonight - I'll try not to be too long. Love you.

I'll just get some practice in. Love you too babe.

Ned was doing a pretty good job of keeping calm, but Nancy had known him for a long time, and his interviews were a big deal. They were only a few days away, and he wanted to make a great impression on the interview committees. He had been running Internet searches, trying to find tips for how to best prepare. He had even shaved off all his facial hair, although when he had told her he was planning to do that, she had begged him to go down on her one more time before he did, and holy hell, had it been amazing.

She had reassured him that he was going to be great during his interviews, and she believed that he would be. She just hoped that he would be able to relax and enjoy himself when they went out for her birthday. He'd be finished with two of his interviews, but he would still have one left to go, for the following Monday.

Her birthday. She had found her birthday present, already wrapped in polka-dotted paper. Ned had wrapped it in a plastic bag and put it in the cabinet over their washer and dryer, shoving it behind the bottles of bleach and fabric softener, and she had found it a few days earlier. Between them it was almost like an Easter egg hunt; Ned knew she couldn't help looking, but he tried to at least make it a little bit of a challenge.

She was wondering what the present was as she and Jess stood on the sidewalk, waiting to flag down a cab. The April weather was mild, and Nancy was glad to finally be able to wear outfits that didn't involve sweaters and boots.

Bill actually had a newspaper out and was holding it in front of him. A fucking newspaper. Nancy wasn't sure how she was able to stop herself from snorting with laughter, but she managed it. Jess had turned pale when she looked back at Nancy, and by then Nancy had carefully composed herself, and wore a bland, faintly eager expression.

The rough shadow idea was old, and it didn't work all the time, but with someone like Jess, who was a little older, Nancy had had a hunch that it would. In the cab Nancy turned the conversation to neutral topics, waiting for Jess to volunteer some information, waiting for her to make some slip.

Alex, Chris, Jess, Patrick, and Nancy walked into the bar ten minutes later, which was thankfully one she didn't frequent with Ned and their friends, so she hoped she wouldn't see anyone who knew her. It was dimly lit and noisy, and the only entertainment, other than the rows of gleaming bottles behind the bartender, seemed to be the large flat-panel television sets mounted over the bar.

"You don't look all that impressed," Chris commented, shouldering through a crush of bodies near the bar with her so they could scope out a table.

Nancy gave him a half-smile. "It seems pretty cool," she said, a little doubtfully.

"They have a bunch of great local beers on tap," Chris told her, with an anticipatory grin. "On Saturdays they do this hilarious drunk-dancing thing and put it up on the TV sets..."

After they found a table, Nancy went up to the bar to order her own drink, since she didn't want anyone else to know her tall glass of amber liquid was just ginger ale. She ordered a basket of chili cheese fries too, knowing that they were one of Jess's favorites, and headed back to their table. Chris and Patrick were already bitching about their workplace's upcoming website redesign.

"I think we need some shots," Alex said, pounding her fist on the table. "What's on special?"

A waiter delivered Nancy's order of chili cheese fries. "Jager bombs," she answered, putting a stack of napkins down on the small, sticky table.

"Oooh, that sounds great."

Nancy shifted in her seat, then looked over at Jess. Jess's gaze was on the door. She was waiting for Bill to come in and glower at her from across the room.

"Hey, something bothering you?" Nancy asked gently, taking a sip of her ginger ale after she offered the basket of fries to the table at large. Jess had happily taken a handful, but now that they were finished, she definitely seemed distracted.

"Uh..." Jess nearly glanced around the table, and Nancy knew she wasn't going to say anything when their coworkers were within earshot. "It's—it's nothing."

Nancy made an excuse a few minutes later to leave the table, and to get Jess to go with her. When Nancy casually mentioned the guy she had seen reading the newspaper outside their work seemed to be at the club, Jess blanched, glancing around. She confessed that he was freaking her out some, and Nancy innocently asked why she was afraid of him.

Jess admitted that maybe she had done something, but it had been a small thing...

Nancy and Jess went back to the table together, and Nancy unobtrusively checked her watch. What worried her more about Jess was what she was planning to do; if the sale of the maillist hadn't taken care of her financial problems, Nancy had a feeling she would convince herself that the company owed her just a little more, and that she might sell other, more serious proprietary information—or find a way to embezzle from the company itself. If she could just get Jess to admit exactly what she had done...

"Here you are," the waiter said, setting a tall glass in front of each of the guys. "Two Jager bombs."

And it was something, something about that fucking smell—

Nancy closed her eyes slowly, and whatever Patrick was saying, whatever Alex was saying, whatever anyone else was saying, it felt like the world was dwindling, like everything was receding from her, going soft and dim. She tried to swallow but her throat was closing up.

That smell. The smell of the Jager and beer.

She pushed herself off the barstool, her feet a little unsteady under her, and when Jess asked if she was okay, Nancy managed to force some words out, something about needing some air. Her heart felt like it was about to beat out of her chest.

His breath against her ear—

Nancy shuddered, gasping as she went through the front door and the cooler air outside washed over her. She could feel her panic trying to pull her under, and even as she told herself to calm down, she knew it wasn't working. She had hoped that being away from the smell would make it okay, but even over the strong odor of gasoline and exhaust, it somehow seemed to linger.

She fumbled in her purse, and her fingers closed around her cell phone.

She couldn't breathe, couldn't breathe, and she felt like she was divided. She knew Jamie wasn't anywhere near her, but part of her was convinced that somehow he was there.

Dr. Monroe had told Nancy that she could call whenever she wanted to, whenever she needed help getting through a rough situation or a panic attack. She hated the idea of calling her therapist after hours, though.

Ned was prepping for his interview—

Nancy's hand was shaking as she navigated through her list of contacts and found her husband's listing. Her eyes were swimming, and she had him listed under another name because it was her damned work cell phone, and when she pressed the button to call him, she was feeling lightheaded, nauseated.

"Hello?"

"Baby..." Nancy swallowed hard, feeling the brick front of the bar behind her against her fingertips. Her voice was weak, trembling. "I—I need you to talk to me..."

She was going to lose control, and she knew it. If she didn't somehow manage to head it off, she was going to have a full-fledged panic attack, and that knowledge made her feel desperate and defenseless, helpless and angry. For so long she had been okay...

But all she had been able to do was force it down deeper, and Dr. Monroe had compared it to pushing a beach ball deeper and deeper under water. Pushing it down took more and more force, the deeper it went, and when she had released it, when her grip had finally loosened, it had plunged upward, faster and faster, through all the layers and weight she had buried it under.

It was going to hurt, Dr. Monroe had told her. It was going to hurt for a long time, and just like the path of the bullet had left a pale permanent circle of damaged flesh in her chest, the assault would be a mark on her forever. Maybe she would go whole days without thinking about it, but it would always be there. Always.

Always.

Ned was better, now, with her panic attacks. As soon as he heard the fear in her voice, he started talking to her, his voice even and steady, conversational. "I've been looking at my suits and debating what to wear. I think a basic black one would probably be good, nothing too flashy, but I have a lot of options when it comes to ties. That silver and black striped one Hannah gave me for Christmas a few years ago is really nice, but it might be just a little bolder than I really want. Bold might be good, though. Paisley's probably out, though."

"Yeah," Nancy whispered, closing her eyes, focusing on the sound of his voice. "That's a little too much."

"Maybe blue or green, though. Something muted but not boring. I'm wondering if they're going to ask me about hobbies; it'll be bad if they ask me what the most difficult thing I've ever been through is. I have way too much to choose from. And if they ask me what the best is... I have way too much to choose from there, too. The most difficult thing I've ever faced? Depends on which continent we're talking about. And yet..." His voice went a little softer. "And yet, for some reason, I keep thinking about that weekend when I asked you to marry me..."

She blinked, and while she still wasn't seeing what was in front of her, at least now the images in her mind's eye were something pleasant. Ned realized that what he was saying might upset her and started talking about what he had done at work that day, but she was remembering that weekend, the weekend he had started talking about.

Ned paused, taking a breath, and his voice was still that level, even cadence as he said, "Baby, you want me to come get you?"

"Yeah," Nancy whispered, swallowing hard.

"Are you outside?"

"Yeah," Nancy whispered, looking down at her engagement ring, her wedding ring.

"Go back inside if you can, baby. I'll let you know when I'm there. Are you all right? I can call you back after I call the cab..."

"I'm okay," she murmured, then cleared her throat. "I'll be okay. I love you."

"I love you too, sweetheart. So much."

Nancy went back inside, putting her phone away, soothed almost to a mild trance by the soft sound of his voice. She went back to the bar, but when she smelled the Jager and beer again, she had to go to the bathroom, afraid she was going to throw up. As she stood there in the grimy, dim bathroom, her thumb touched the large stone in her engagement ring, and she thought back again, to the night he had given it to her.

Ned had told her two weeks in advance that he wanted to take her out somewhere nice for dinner, and while she had had to call in a few favors and work a Saturday before, she made totally sure that absolutely no one would call her that night unless there was an emergency. She had been able to sense when he had asked her that it wasn't going to just be any dinner, and then she had been putting his socks away when she had seen a black velvet box in his drawer.

And, of course, she hadn't been able to help herself. Her eyes pricking a little with tears, she picked it up and opened it.

And she had seen a small scrap of paper with a smiley face on it staring up at her, instead of the diamond ring she had been expecting.

Nancy's lips had twisted into an appreciative smirk. She had picked up the scrap of paper and flipped it over.

Good try, sweetheart. <3

She would have been a little disappointed, honestly, if it had been that easy. Still, the very fact that he had left the box where she was almost sure to find it...

The night of their date, she had dressed very carefully, making sure her legs were perfectly smooth, her toenails neatly polished, her makeup flawless. She had picked out a shimmering aquamarine cocktail dress with a sweetheart neckline, accenting it with a silver necklace he had given her. She pulled her red-gold hair back with a pair of rhinestone combs, and their sparkle matched the one in her eyes. A pair of strappy heels later, she was ready to go.

Or at least she hoped she was. Before she would have asked Bess for a last-minute once-over, but that had been a long time ago.

The expression on Ned's face when he saw her in her outfit made the small splurge for the dress worth it. "You look beautiful, sweetheart," he had told her, his brown eyes sweetly sincere.

"And  you look very handsome," she had told him, her gaze alight as she had swept it over his classic dark suit and white button-down. As much as she loved to see him so dressed up, she couldn't wait to see what was underneath.

For their dinner he drove them into the city, to a new restaurant specializing in romantic candlelit ambiance and modern American cuisine. The couples waiting were crowded in the reception area and spilling onto the sidewalk; Ned bypassed them all, and as soon as he gave his name to the hostess, they were assured their table was almost ready. Less than five minutes later, they were seated.

"I'm impressed, Nickerson," she had told him, raising an eyebrow as she regarded him over her menu. She had been told on good authority that getting a table at the restaurant, especially on the weekend, meant a six-month wait.

"Good," he replied, with a grin that had sent a tingle all the way down to her toes.

She waited, during their dinner, for him to bring the conversation around to marriage or their future together, or maybe some allusion to their upcoming anniversary. They had been celebrating their monthly anniversaries faithfully, and she had seen it as a way to make up for lost time. Even if they didn't exchange gifts, even if they only made dinner for each other and split a bottle of wine, commemorating the fact that they were together again after so long apart made her both happy and sad—happy that they were okay again, but sad that she still felt nervous at the thought of the future. She hadn't been lying when she had told Ned that she didn't care if they ever put a name on their relationship; she just wanted them to promise each other forever, even if that promise didn't come with a ring attached. They had been around each other for months, had been living together since practically the end of the previous summer, and the more time she spent with him, the more sure she was that she never wanted to let him go.

She was pretty sure that he felt the same way, or at least that he had, and she hated wondering if one day he would grow tired of her, if one day he would decide that the hurt had been too much, or that she wasn't as exciting as the other girls he had been with...

Well, she had told herself, there's only one thing to do. If he's not going to say anything, then on our anniversary, I'll just have to ask him. Not to get married; just... just to say that we're committed to each other. And that will be enough.

The meal was delicious, but Nancy had so many butterflies in her stomach that she had to force herself to finish her chicken, and their conversation was pleasant but light. Nancy's Aunt Eloise had invited Nancy and Ned to come up to New York for some time that summer, so they talked about that for a while, and they were both delighted at the prospect of spending some time in the city.

Their server had asked if they wanted dessert, and Ned shook his head, saying that while he was sure it was excellent, he was ready for the check.

"And what if I was dying for some crème brûlée?" she teased him, once the server had left to retrieve their check.

"Then we'll just have to do that next time," he had replied with a wink.

She had realized where they were going practically as soon as they had returned to the car, but she wasn't quite sure how; it was just something about the air between them, something about the mood, a frisson of anticipation that she had been able to feel in him. He drove them to River Heights, and when she saw Chez Louis in front of them, her heart had started beating faster.

He had proposed to her here, the first time, years ago, and neither of them had been ready. A part of her had always expected them to come back here, to try it over again—but they were so different now, so different from the innocent boy and girl who had kissed in front of that sunset.

Again they bypassed the couples waiting for tables, and when Ned approached the hostess stand, she smiled at him. "Mr. Nickerson?"

Ned had nodded.

"It'll be right out."

Two minutes later, a server brought Ned a plastic bag, and Ned thanked him with a smile. He walked back to the car with his girlfriend, and let her hold the plastic bag as he opened the trunk, pulling out a blanket and a wicker basket.

"And what's this?"

"You're about to find out, Miss Detective," Ned told her, smiling as he bent down and brushed the tip of his nose against hers.

She had to laugh, when he unpacked it all. He spread the blanket on the riverbank, then pulled out a still-chilled bottle of champagne, two flutes, napkins, a pair of sturdy white candles and a box of matches. She took the matches and lit the candles, and the small flames danced in the light breeze. The sky was streaked with the last few rays from the sunset, and when Ned saw Nancy shiver, as they settled down on the blanket beside each other, he took off his jacket and handed it to her. She accepted it with a quiet smile, and when she put it on, she could feel the warmth of his body still lingering in the silky lining.

Ned had ordered them both dessert from Chez Louis, and Nancy's lips closed around the first forkful of hers with a delighted smile. When they finished their servings of warm berry pastry with whipped cream, Ned poured them both glasses of champagne, and they touched the flutes together with a quiet clink.

"A toast?"

"Sure," Ned replied.

"To my boyfriend," she had said. "Who has given me an amazing evening already—who makes every day of my life better just by sharing it with me. To the man I love with all my heart."

"And to my girlfriend," Ned had said, his dark eyes intent on hers. "To the girl who totally bewitched me the moment I met her, the woman I have always loved and will always love, forever. To the other half of myself."

Nancy had wanted to lower her eyes; she knew they were gleaming. She couldn't force herself to look away from him, though. They touched glasses again and drank, and even before the champagne touched her lips, her entire body felt warm.

She had never been able to tell him how much it meant to her, that he could tell her how he felt so easily. When Nancy tried to come up with the words, they always felt hollow, like pale imitations of the emotions she actually wanted to express.

He loved her, and he had no idea about everything she had been through while they had been apart; she had no idea of what he had been through while they had been apart. And, in a way, none of that mattered anymore. She had no intention of going back there, of being that person ever again.

Ned had finished off his champagne, then beckoned to her. "Come here, Nan," he murmured, and she had slipped out of her shoes before she had moved into his arms, seating herself on his lap, bent so she could nestle her head against his shoulder, and as he slipped his arm around her back and held her, she let out a soft sigh. She felt content.

He had just told her that he would love her forever, and that was all she wanted. At the heart of it, she knew that was all she wanted.

Then he slipped his hand under the jacket she wore, and she tipped her face up, brushing her lips against his. He returned the kiss gently, and if she hadn't remembered the half-finished glass of champagne in her other hand, she probably would have pushed him down to the blanket and made out with him thoroughly, teasing him until they had to race back to his apartment to finish what they had started.

Then Ned had broken the kiss, and Nancy had known her heart was in her eyes when he had pulled back.

He looked down at what he had pulled out of his jacket pocket, and she followed his gaze. A square of soft white cloth, folded around something, lay in the middle of his open palm.

"Open it," he had whispered to her.

Nancy had glanced back at his dark eyes once before she had obeyed, putting down her champagne before she delicately unfolded the cloth. In the center she had found a silver ring, a large emerald-cut diamond set into the simple band. The stone was flanked by clusters of smaller stones; two tiny diamonds and a larger sapphire were set in each side.

Nancy's eyes had filled with tears. Just before her birthday, he had taken her to the jewelry store, and they had spent quite a long time looking at rings; when he had given her a necklace instead, she hadn't been disappointed, just mildly surprised.

"Oh, Ned," she whispered, and glanced from the ring into his anxious eyes.

"Do you like it? I tried to make it like the ones you liked..."

"It's gorgeous," she murmured. "It's so beautiful. I love it."

Ned smiled, relaxing a little. "The diamond in the middle—that was from my great-great-grandmother's sister's engagement ring. My great-great-grandmother gave the ring to her daughter, and then it came to me."

Nancy glanced up at him. "Oh—you showed it to me, but it was..."

"Different," Ned nodded. "Yeah. Mom said the setting was way too old-fashioned, and she told me I should definitely have the stone put in a new ring. We were going to have to get it sized anyway..."

"So you've been thinking about it for that long?" she murmured.

Ned swallowed. "I... I knew I wanted to marry you about a month after we started dating," he admitted. "When we were still kids. But when I asked you, that first time—I know we were too young then, and I hate that I asked you for such a stupid reason, but if you had said yes, I would have married you. I would have waited until I was graduated from Emerson, but I would have married you, sweetheart.

"At the lake, when you told me that you didn't care if we ever really made this official... I didn't know if you..." He looked down.

Nancy touched his cheek and brought his face back up so she could look into his eyes. "I meant that," she whispered. "But this..."

He smiled at her. "I will love you for the rest of our lives," he murmured. "I always have and I always will. That's what this means. And if you feel that way too..."

She nodded, wordlessly, and a pair of tears slipped down her cheeks.

"I want to marry you," he said softly. "For the longest time, practically from the moment I met you, I knew that. If you don't want to—if you don't want to do that, that's okay..."

She cut him off with a kiss. "I do," she whispered. "I want you, I want a life with you, and... and I thought... oh, Ned, I thought all I wanted was just to know that you loved me, that we would be together, but this..."

He brushed his lips against hers again. "So you want this?" he asked, and the joy in his eyes was almost painful. "You want... you want to stand up in front of everyone..."

She nodded. "I want to be your wife," she told him. "I want to wake up beside you every morning for the rest of my life, I want to be yours forever, because there is no one else for me, there never will be."

"And I want to be your husband," he told her, and when his lips brushed her ear, she shivered against him. "I want to be there for you, and I want to stop having to lie about how often you sleep over at my place, and I want to find a place with you that's ours, really ours, and I want to be able to kiss you awake and fuck you until you're screaming..."

"You've been lying about how often I sleep over?" Her eyes were wet as she smiled at him. "Considering I think we might have spent a week apart over the past three months?"

"If it was even that much," Ned agreed. "Let's just say that when I went to my parents' house and asked about the ring, Mom was really happy."

She grinned at him as she slipped the ring onto her finger. "It's gorgeous," she told him again. "It really is. The sapphires..."

"They reminded me of your eyes," he said softly.

She turned to face him, slipping her arms around his neck, touching her forehead to his. "I love you," she whispered. "I love you, I love you, I love you. You make me so happy, Ned."

"And you make me happy," he told her, then kissed her softly. "My beautiful girl. My—my fiancée."

She giggled. "Say it again," she whispered.

"My fiancée," he said, his voice a little stronger this time. "The beautiful woman who will be my wife."

Nancy shivered, tilting her head to kiss him, and his palm was warm at the small of her back. The kiss started slow and became gradually more intense, until she moved to straddle his lap, his fingertips stroking over her shoulder blades, tracing up the base of her neck. He touched the top of her dress's zipper and she pulled back, their lips slick and pressed red, their eyes gleaming, panting faintly.

"Take me home," she whispered to him, and brushed the tip of her nose against his.

"Already?"

Nancy nodded slowly. "Because as much as I'd love to just make love to you out here, I think some of the patrons of Chez Louis might not be as eager to see it."

"Oh, you definitely underestimate how gorgeous you look naked," Ned teased her, but he released her with one last kiss.

And he had taken her home, to the apartment, to the apartment that had always been his, the place that had felt like home to her since he had given her a key to it on their one-month anniversary. She loved being there with him, but it was still his, and waking up beside him almost every morning, cooking for each other, coordinating their showers and weekends—even that hadn't been like this. With the engagement ring on her finger, the basement apartment still wasn't quite theirs, but when he was there with her, it still felt like home.

And he would be her husband.

Oh, since they had agreed, it had felt like a terrible tightness had loosed in her. She had been so convinced that she had hurt him more than she would ever be able to repay or he would be able to forgive, and that she would have to settle for whatever time and intimacy he was willing to give her. Now that she knew, now that there was no barrier, now that she could have all of him...

Oh God, she couldn't imagine settling for anything less than this. She wanted him—she needed him. During the drive back to the apartment, her cheeks ached from the grin she couldn't keep off her face, and she kept touching the ring, the stone and the band. She called her father first to give him the news, and heard Hannah shrieking with joy in the background once Carson shared the news with her. Ned called his parents and laughed as he handed Nancy the phone.

"Finally," Nancy heard Edith say. "Finally. I'm so glad you said yes, Nancy. So glad." And then she had choked up a little, and James had given his own congratulations, and Nancy had been crying again, happier than she could remember being in a long, long time.

And then, after he had parked at his apartment, he had swept her up and carried her down the stairs, both of them laughing, and when they had made love, it had been slow, gentle, by candlelight. He had gazed at her with the same worshipful expression he had given her before, but this time she didn't just feel like the warmth and love in his eyes would fade when they slumped to the bed in the afterglow. She had always feared it; she had always feared that, on some level, his love depended on her body, that it was the only way she would keep him. When they had been reconnecting, that fear had faded, but not entirely.

Part of her had always believed there would be an end. Now there never would be.

"Nancy," he had whispered, his lips grazing her cheek, their bodies entwined as he moved inside her, slow and steady. "Oh, Nancy. I love you."

"I love you," she whispered, her eyes drifting closed as she moved with him, flushing when his fingertip brushed her clit. She rolled over with him, their bodies hot and damp, gold and shadowed in the candlelight, and they kissed and kissed, moving together until she had to muffle her cries and screams against his skin, slow and perfect as a dream.

And he had been hers, and she had been at peace, her guard finally down, for the first time in what felt like forever. It was more complete than the total boneless exhaustion she had felt on her birthday, after the hours of their lovemaking, when she had come more than she had ever thought possible. It was more than the peace and love she had always felt in her father's embrace, because her father and Hannah loved her and always would; she was her father's daughter and always would be, and he loved her like breathing.

But Ned—she had given Ned the choice, when she had come back and asked to be a part of his life again, and with every step, every decision, she valued their relationship even more. He had had so many chances to walk away, and he hadn't.

She knew she could never earn his love, because after what she had done, she didn't deserve him. She felt helpless in his arms; she would follow him to the ends of the earth if he let her, she would follow him anywhere, because without him, now... without him, she didn't like who she was. And when she had been without him, when she had been outside the warmth of his love...

She had nestled into him, after, her body still wrapped around his. Her husband. She still couldn't believe he had asked her; she still couldn't believe she was awake, that this wasn't some beautiful dream. Her husband, and she his wife.

He wanted a life with her, even after everything.

Her heart had felt so full that it hurt, she loved him so much.

And she still did, almost two years later. She waited a little while, then went back to the table to apologize and say that her husband had called and really wanted her to come home. Jess, Alex, Patrick, and Chris protested, told her that she absolutely had to stay, just for one more drink, but then Nancy felt her cell phone vibrate in her pocket and gave them another smile, thanking them again for inviting her, telling them that she would definitely come out for their next trip.

She saw Bill on the way out, but their eyes only met for a split second before she was outside. He was doing a great job. Nancy would be surprised if Jess didn't make a panicked confession within the next two days.

She would have stayed, just in case Jess weakened, but Nancy still felt a little off-balance. In some ways it felt like walking in the dark, knowing she was near a cliff; for the rest of the night, she would have to be careful, always waiting for the ground to start crumbling under her feet again. And going to sleep—God, she didn't even want to think about going to sleep.

Just pulled up, sweetheart.

A yellow cab was idling outside the bar. Her step quickened when she saw it, and she tried not to just dash for it, but it was hard. Nancy opened the back door and Ned moved across the seat, leaving space for her.

She gave the cabbie the address for the lot so she could pick up her car, then looked over at her husband, her lips parted, her eyes pricking with unshed tears again, and she was gasping for breath, against the tightness in her throat, the roiling panic between her ribs. She was with him now; she was safe, she knew she was safe, and he would never let anything happen to her.

"Oh, Nan," Ned murmured, reaching for her, pulling her into his arms. She nestled against him, wrapping her arms around him, her face against his neck, just breathing in, smelling soap and cologne and him. He stroked her back slowly.

"You're okay," he whispered. "You're okay, sweetheart. It's okay. Are you feeling better?"

She nodded, her lips brushing his neck. "Now I am," she whispered.

"Do you know what it was?"

She closed her eyes. "Yeah," she whispered. "Not—not yet, okay?"

He held her a little tighter, tipping his head down so his lips brushed her cheek. "Okay," he agreed.

By the time the cab reached the parking lot, she could feel her husband stirring beneath his jeans. They had been nestled against each other, her lips brushing his neck and ear, for practically the entire ride; she wasn't surprised, although when he gently eased himself away from her, she did raise her eyebrows.

He just didn't want her to be uncomfortable, and considering what had provoked the panic attack, she was grateful.

"Do you want me to drive?"

Nancy shook her head as he finished paying off the cab and they walked toward her car. "I can do it," she told him, sounding more confident than she really felt yet. Driving to their townhouse was something she could practically do in her sleep now, and she nearly had a few times. Walking through that door, though, and what came after, actually trying to sleep and knowing that closing her eyes might be all it took to provoke another flashback...

Nancy took a few deep breaths before she cranked the Mustang. Every time she blinked she could feel it again, and she was aware of every individual beat of her heart, every breath she took. Ned reached for her hand after she pulled out of the lot, and she wrapped her fingers around his, squeezing gently.

Then she released his hand and touched his knee.

Ned didn't require much encouragement, but then he almost never did. She slid out of the driver's seat in front of their townhouse, tugging at the hem of her skirt, and Ned came around the car, pulling her into his arms. She could feel him already straining against his pants, and she wrapped her arms around his neck, boosting herself so she could wrap her legs around his waist. The night had turned a little cooler, and his skin was so warm against hers.

They were practically on the street, in full view of everyone, but Ned turned to sandwich her between him and the driver's door, and his hips pushed the skirt up to bunch at her hips, his erection brushing against her through his jeans and her panties. He moved against her slowly, deliberately, his dark-eyed gaze intent on hers, and her lips parted, a flush coming to her cheeks as he managed to brush against her clit.

"Please," she whispered. "Please, I need you."

He leaned down and caught her lips in a hard, claiming kiss, and she ran her hands through his hair, willing her heart to slow. She used the car as leverage to grind her hips up against his and Ned let out a groan, nipping at her.

"I need you," she repeated, moaning softly against his lips. "I need my husband."

He held her tight to him as he carried her inside, and as soon as he kicked the door shut behind them, she let her shoes fall to the floor, fusing her mouth to his again. When she was like this, she needed him to pull her back from the edge, and letting herself drown in them, in how good he felt, the love in his gaze, his kiss, the caress of his fingertips, was her favorite way to come back.

He had her skirt and panties off before they reached the couch, and she had his shirt unbuttoned and parted, his jeans open. He paused there, slowly placing her on her bare feet, and she blinked up at him. He began to pull the pins out of her hair and both of them were panting quietly for breath, and Nancy moaned softly when he gently removed the last pin and buried his hands in her hair, his fingertips rubbing against her scalp.

He let out a soft chuckle as he kept massaging her scalp, and dreamily Nancy reached up and began to unbutton her shirt. She needed to feel as much of him as she could, for this. He leaned down and flicked his tongue against her throat, and she shivered as she unhooked her bra and shrugged it off.

"What was it, baby," he whispered against her skin. "What did it."

She let out a shaking breath. "The Jager," she whispered. "Jager and beer..."

He brought himself back up and looked into her eyes. "What about it?" he murmured.

Nancy blinked and a pair of tears slipped down her cheeks. "That's—what he was drinking that night," she whispered.

Ned leaned down and brushed his lips against hers, and she shivered, parting her lips, sealing her mouth against his. He tasted faintly of spearmint, but she didn't even detect a hint of beer on his breath, and she sagged against him, her bare breasts pressed to his chest. "You're okay," he whispered, as he broke the kiss. "You're okay, baby. It's okay. You're safe."

She blinked again, reaching for his jeans, pushing them down so she could feel his cock. She palmed him through the warm cotton of his underwear and he nipped at her again. "Please," she whispered.

He kissed her hard, then let out a soft frustrated sound, picking her up and moving to sit down on the couch. He pushed his jeans and underwear off, leaving him naked, and she was standing on her knees to give him space to maneuver when he nuzzled against her breast, drawing her hard-tipped nipple into his mouth, fondling her other breast with his hand, idly drawing his thumb back and forth over the tip. She ran her hand through his hair again, letting out a soft moan, and he leaned back against the back of the couch, pressing his palm against the small of her back to guide her to him.

She touched his shoulder, letting her fingertips drift down his arm, down until she was touching his hand. Her thumb found his wedding band and brushed over it, and she bowed her head as he suckled hard against her breast, then released it to move to the other.

"Oh," she whispered, and God, she felt like she was going to come out of her skin. "That feels so good, baby."

He ran the backs of his fingers against her inner thighs, feather light, stroking up and down a few times before he cupped her hips, pushing her down so she was straddling him. When their lips were on level she kissed him first, her eyes drifting closed, her tongue plunging into his mouth.

Ned slipped his palm between her thighs, and they both shuddered when his thumb brushed against the tip of her clit. Her mouth fell open and her hips ground against his hand, and she moaned as she dipped her head, her lips drifting against his neck. "Oh," she moaned, "oh, yes..."

She pressed her forehead against his shoulder, panting when his fingertips barely brushed against the edge of her slick inner lips, and she reached down, pumping his cock in her fist a few times before she angled him. He held her open as she held him in place, her hips gently rocking as she moved into position, and when he was just barely inside her, she let out a low soft moan, letting him go so she could wrap her arms around his shoulders, her body pressed tight to his as she sank onto his cock.

"So good," Ned whispered, bringing his thumb back up to rub against her clit, and she shuddered as she pulled back to sink back onto him again. "Oh, so good, baby. God, you are so incredibly sexy when you ride me..."

She was whimpering as she ground her hips against his, canting forward and back, and she cried out when she took him as deep as she possibly could and felt him rock his hips up under hers. "Oh God," she sobbed, her knees open and legs spread wide, and Ned's hand drifted over her ass. Her heart was beating so hard, too hard, and she looked up at him, her vision swimming as he gently traced one fingertip up the cleft of her ass, barely brushing against her.

"Condom," he breathed, and Nancy tipped backward, rummaging in the wicker basket under their coffee table for the few condoms they had hidden there. They had been tired of running upstairs for condoms when they needed them, but leaving them in plain sight on the coffee table hadn't seemed like the best plan, either, not with their parents stopping by with a moment's notice.

She handed him one, settling back on top of him, blinking and sending another pair of tears down her cheeks. She knew her mascara had to look awful. Ned used the backs of his fingers to brush her tears away before he tore open the foil wrapper.

She shuddered hard when he took the fingers sheathed in the condom and ran them against the slick flesh at the join of her thighs, then traced her ass firmly. She planted her heels and rocked harder against him.

"Nancy," he whispered, gritting his teeth, and she gasped when his fingers, slick from touching her, just rimmed her tight asshole. She clenched around him and he slammed his hips up against hers, and his other thumb rubbed against her clit.

"Oh, oh," she cried out, whimpering as he began to gently tease her ass with his fingers, as the ball of his thumb rubbed harder against her clit. She bounced against his cock, crying out more loudly, more desperately every time he filled her, so tight and hot, all the way to her core. "Oh my God!"

"Look at me," Ned demanded, and she blinked another pair of tears down her cheeks before she obeyed, letting out a half-pained sob as he fingered her ass. "Look at me, baby. Good?"

"Yes," she moaned, flushing, and Ned pushed his hips forward, giving her a better angle. She screamed when he matched the rhythm of his fingers to her thrusts, and he was rubbing his thumb hard against her clit, faster. She dug her fingernails into his shoulder blades as she gave herself over to it, and Ned groaned as her inner flesh clenched hard around his cock.

"Say my name," he panted.

"Ned," she cried out, her face contorting with the awful pleasure of it. "Oh my God, Ned, oh God oh God ohhhhhh..."

He pushed his hips up under hers and they slammed together, and she was circling her hips, moving to grind against his touch. She brought her head up, her eyes heavy-lidded, and when their lips brushed they kissed again, hard, before she arched and sank down onto him again.

"Come," he panted, stroking her clit harder, and she screamed, her nails digging into him again. "Come, baby. God, you feel so fucking good..."

Her eyes rolled back as they joined again and again, his fingers still stroking in and out of her tight asshole, and when she finally broke, rutting against him, she sank her teeth into his shoulder, making soft guttural noises of speechless pleasure. He dipped his head in and bit her shoulder too, nipping hard at her, and she knew it was going to leave marks against her pale flesh but she shuddered in pleasure, and God, she was so fucking wet around him, so achingly sensitive and sobbing at how good it felt as she finally came.

She moaned as she slid down, taking him fully inside her as her inner flesh still rippled around him, and he kept touching her. She shook her head, then bit his shoulder again, her hips moving gently, languorously against his. He was still hard inside her, and she shuddered every time the sensitive tips of her breasts rubbed against his chest, every time he pressed his fingers into her ass, every time he rubbed her clit.

Ned bit her neck, then sucked hard against the pulse point, catching her earlobe in his teeth, and she cried out. "Oh my God oh my God," she moaned, her hips circling, and she felt like her skin was on fire, she was so hot.

"Yeah, oh yeah, baby," Ned said, his voice rough. "Yeah, just like that."

She gripped the back of the couch, her knees brushing against the back cushions as she ground against him, tipping her head back and screaming at how good it felt. The pressure was incredible, and she never wanted it to stop, never...

She was coming down from her next orgasm when Ned slipped his fingers out of her ass, stripping off the condom before he grasped her hips and guided her to the cushion beside them.

"Oh, oh! Oh my God!" She arched so the crown of her head was against the cushion, panting desperately as he drove himself hard between her legs, and her legs were wrapped around him, she was spread open and vulnerable, and then he bit the other side of her neck hard, soothing it with a swipe of his tongue against the sensitive skin. She bucked wildly under him, hearing how wet she was with every thrust of his cock between her thighs, trembling uncontrollably as he bit her shoulder again.

He rode her through to another orgasm, her legs wrapped around his waist and her arms up around his neck, crying out with his every thrust. Her legs fell open and she looked up at him, a pair of tears slipping out of her eyes, and she was so fucking powerless, unable to do anything more than cling to him. "God, oh God, oh God," Ned panted, and Nancy raked her nails down, swirling them against his ass, shuddering as he drove himself hard into her, as she ran her fingertip up the cleft of his ass.

Ned shuddered, and she locked her gaze to his, doing it again, a little more firmly this time.

"Fuck," Ned snarled. "Oh holy fuck, Nan."

Her lips were parted, and he caught her lower lip in his teeth, driving hard into her one last time. She dug her nails into the flesh of his ass, her hips and shoulders jerking to let him deeper, and when he collapsed to her she wrapped her arms around his waist, his hips snug in the cradle of her thighs.

They were panting, slick, her inner thighs sore. She brushed her lips against his collarbone, tasting the sweat on his skin, feeling her heart slow against his. Ned nuzzled against her, his breath warm against her skin.

He swallowed. "Are you okay," he whispered.

She nodded, her eyes closed. She felt fully sated, exhausted, too spent to move or focus on anything more difficult than breathing. It took supreme effort for her to thread her fingers through his hair, stroking it, but oh, she loved feeling so thoroughly mastered by him. "Yeah," she whispered. "Was that—okay?"

"Hell yeah." He kissed her neck. "Oh yeah. I loved it. Maybe..." He kissed the join of her neck and shoulder. "Maybe, if you wanted to keep going next time..."

"If we're upstairs, with the lube..."

"Yeah," he whispered against her skin. "Yeah. Mmm."

They lingered in each other's arms for a long, long moment, nuzzling against each other, until he finally pushed himself up with a soft sigh, slipping out of her. He found a paper towel and she frowned at the rough feel of it against her sensitive flesh as he cleaned her up, but then he lifted her into his arms and she cuddled against him.

"I love you."

"I love you too," she whispered, reaching up to kiss him again. "I love you so much, baby."

--

On the morning of her twenty-third birthday, when the sky was still dark, Nancy woke, warm and safe in bed beside her husband. She could hear Ned breathing beside her, and when she slowly opened her eyes, he was on his side, facing her.

Her heart was beating a little faster as she touched his hand, picking it up so she could slide underneath his arm and nestle against his chest. His breathing became quieter and she smiled as he tightened his arm around her.

"Happy birthday," he whispered, his voice gravelly with sleep.

Her smile broadened into a grin. "Thanks, baby," she whispered against his skin.

"Mmmm. Go back to sleep. Santa isn't here yet."

She giggled, slipping her knee between his legs so they were tangled together. "Okay," she whispered. "If you insist."

When she woke again, she could hear something sizzling downstairs, and she was alone in their bed. She stretched lazily, glancing at the clock, trying to determine how soon she would need to get up.

Ned came into their room a few minutes later, carrying a tray. He had made her French toast with butter and syrup, and a cup of coffee, and she sat up, sweeping her messy hair back as she gave him a grin. "Wow, sweetheart."

"Happy birthday," he told her with a smile, putting the tray over her lap.

"This looks so good," she told him, humming happily as he gave her a soft kiss on the cheek. "Thank you."

"Only the best for my girl." He took his coffee mug off her tray and slipped back into the bed beside her.

Her father and Hannah individually called her when she was on her way to work, and Bess, George, and Jan each texted her to wish her a happy birthday. When she checked her phone at lunchtime, she saw a voicemail from Edith, and a flood of well-wishes had come in via email and Facebook. Eloise and her great-grandmother both called, and even though Frank and Joe were on assignment and she wasn't expecting to hear from either of them, she saw an email from Frank just before she keyed in through their front door.

She had some time before she expected Ned to be home, so she went upstairs and stripped out of her work clothes, took a sponge bath, then walked into their bedroom naked. She pulled open her lingerie drawer and considered, her arms crossed over her belly.

It had been hard for her to put on any of the little nightgowns, the lacy bras and low-cut underwear, since she had told him what happened to her. She hadn't brought that particular issue up with her therapist, and it had just been easier to bypass all of it in favor of her more basic bras and cotton panties. She plucked a daringly low-cut demi bra out of the drawer, so low that it barely covered her nipples, the pale blue satin trimmed in black lace, and swallowed hard as she put it on. She slipped into the matching g-string next, pulling it over her hips, and didn't look down at it as she went to their closet.

She put on her blue dress, the heart pendant necklace hanging around her neck, and found the same rhinestone combs she had worn the night he had asked her to marry him. She slipped those into her hair, looking with some amusement down at her bare toes. She had put on some light pink sparkly polish over the weekend, and after spending all day in formal shoes, she had no desire to put heels on. Ned had said they would be having dinner at home, anyway.

"I'm home!"

Nancy grinned, her thumb brushing against the curve of her wedding band as she flew down the stairs. Ned had just shouldered in carrying shopping bags, and she followed him to the kitchen, watching him put the groceries down on the table.

Then he turned to her, his dark eyes alight as he saw her outfit. He reached for her, slipping his arms around her and spinning her around. "Mmmm. You must not be very hungry."

"I'm starving," she told him with a smile, reaching up to stroke his cheek before she gave him a soft kiss. "Why do you say that?"

"Because I think you know exactly what seeing you in that dress does to me," he told her, returning the kiss.

"I know what I'm hoping it does to you," she replied, giving him one last kiss before he put her down. "Need any help with dinner?"

Ned shook his head. "Nope. I've got it all under control. Go relax—I'll even let you watch something other than ESPN. Just this once, since it's your birthday and all."

She giggled, then obeyed him, tucking her bare legs under her as she nestled against the arm of the couch. She kept glancing back at him, though, smiling whenever he muttered to himself, when he hummed in pleasure whenever something went right.

Ned made shrimp fettuccine alfredo with toasted garlic bread and caesar salad, and on the way home he had stopped by one of their favorite bakeries and picked up a half-dozen cupcakes. He had even put two candles on the table before he told her their dinner was ready, and she smiled when she saw the spread. He had his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and he was still wearing his work clothes under the canvas apron.

"This looks amazing, honey."

Ned smiled at her. "I hope it turned out okay—the sauce tastes pretty good."

He grated some aged parmesan over everything, and she giggled when he pulled her chair out for her, seating her at their small table. He had actually done a really good job with the alfredo sauce, and when she had cleaned her plate, she sat back, patting her belly.

"That was so good," she told him, with a wide, genuine smile. "I loved it. You really have come a long way since lemonade chicken."

Ned gave her a mock scowl. "That was a long time ago. And one time."

She pushed herself up out of her chair, coming around the table to wrap an arm around his shoulders and give him a hug. "And you cook better than I do, now."

Ned shook his head. "You're fantastic, babe. That chocolate cake?"

"Yeah, that is about all I'm good for."

"You're good for a lot of things," he told her, turning so his lips were brushing against her belly, through the thin fabric of her dress. "Although, birthday girl... are you ready for your present?"

"Do you mean the one that's over the washing machine, or the one that's in your pants?"

Ned stood, then lightly smacked her ass, and she jumped away from him, giggling. "Right. You get that one later."

"Not too much later, I hope."

Ned shook his head, but his eyes were gleaming anyway. He went to the laundry room and returned with the polka-dotted package she had found a few days before.

"Happy birthday, sweetheart. I hope you like it."

"I'm going to love it," she assured him, sitting back down as she began to unwrap it. "I'm sure I will."

Under the wrapping paper, she found a plain cardboard box, secured with packing tape, most likely so Ned could be sure she didn't get into her present early. She cut through the tape, opening the top.

She saw a box about as wide and tall as a standard hardback book, although the dimensions were deeper. She lifted it out of the cardboard box and placed it on the table.

The lid and bottom were made of a dark, gleaming rich wood. A mosaic of small polished amber tiles shot through with darker veins had been laid into the lid.

"Grandpa Chandler and my dad helped me with it."

Nancy glanced up at her husband, her eyes wide. "You made this?"

Ned nodded once, slowly, and while his expression was modest, she could see the pride in his eyes. "I put it together. Mom had the idea for the tiles on the lid, though."

Nancy lifted the lid slowly. The jewelry box had been designed to hold a tray of shallow rounded wells above the lower cavity. The inside of the lid was painted with a pattern of bright pinprick stars. The lower cavity was lined in padded dark blue velvet.

Force of habit made her estimate the dimensions of the box, and she glanced up at him. She saw the faint smile on his face, and knew he had been waiting for her to figure it out.

She closed the box and flipped it over, feeling very slowly and gently along the lower edge until she found a slight indentation in the wood. She pressed it with the edge of her thumb and a small spring-loaded drawer came out. It wouldn't be able to hold much, but that didn't matter so much as the fact that it existed, and she was delighted by it.

He had left a slip of paper in it for her. She unfolded it.

you are more precious to me than all the stars in the sky.

She looked up at him again, her eyes gleaming. "And you are more precious to me than anything else on this earth," she told him. "Oh, Ned, I love it so much. I can't believe you made this for me. It's so beautiful."

He smiled. "I'm so glad you like it, baby."

She stood up and wrapped her arms around him, squeezing him tight. "I mean it. This is so, so much better than anything else I could imagine, and you are so amazing."

He crooked a finger under her chin, tipping her face up so he could brush his lips against hers. "Like I said, I had help... but any way you want to reward me, is fine by me."

She grinned at him. "Let me just fortify myself with a cupcake, and I definitely will reward you, Mr. Nickerson."

"I can't wait, Miss Drew."

He took the apron off, then found the small box of assorted birthday candles he had bought along with the groceries for their dinner and stuck one in a cream-cheese-frosted cupcake. He struck a match to light it, and she gazed into the small flickering flame when he placed it in front of her.

"Make a wish."

Nancy closed her eyes for a second, thinking of everything she wanted. She wanted to stop panicking, stop flashing back, stop feeling so fucking broken over what Jamie had done to her. She wanted Ned to have great interviews and to be accepted to a great graduate school, even though part of her was dreading the time it meant he would probably spend away from her.

But when she opened her eyes, when she saw Ned gazing at her, she gave him a brief, genuine smile before she blew the single candle out. She wasn't quite where she wanted to be yet in terms of her career, but she loved her job, and she loved him so much. She would've loved a little more space, a larger place, a newer car, but that wasn't what she needed. She needed him and a career that made her feel fulfilled, her friends and family, and the knowledge that every morning they could, for the rest of their lives, they would wake up in each other's arms. And she already had that.

They ate their cupcakes, the cake base a delicious red velvet, and Nancy licked a smudge of cream cheese frosting off her thumb as she swallowed the last bite. With her other hand she reached over and touched the jewelry box, then looked over at her husband.

"I'd like to take it upstairs," she told him. "Care to join me?"

"Sex in our bed?" Ned teased her. "Wow, it's been a while."

She gave him a slow grin. "I thought we might mix it up a little," she said, standing, and when he rose to join her, she took his hand. "Thank you again, baby, for everything—for dinner, for the present, everything. You spoil me so much that I have practically nothing left to wish for."

Ned smiled when she kissed his cheek, but his brow was a little furrowed. "Next year we'll do something big, I promise," he told her. "I'll have been at my job for a while—"

Nancy had laced her fingers through his, and she squeezed them to make him stop. "Ned, it's okay," she said firmly. "I mean it. As long as you remember that I have a birthday, I'm happy."

"And at least we're going out this weekend."

Nancy nodded. "And we'll be able to spend time with our friends and families—and that's what I want."

They turned off the lights and locked the doors before heading upstairs, and Nancy took the jewelry box to their room while Ned brushed his teeth and prepared for bed. She did the same once he was finished, and when she returned to their room and closed the door behind her, Ned had lit several candles, and she was surrounded by their flickering warm light.

Nancy smiled. "I do love the way you look in candlelight," she told him, crossing the room to him. He was seated on their bed, and when she reached him he gazed up at her, idly drawing his fingertips up from her knees to her outer thighs, under her dress. Nancy shivered a little.

"Me too. And as much as I love seeing you in this dress," he told her, standing so he could draw it slowly over her head, "I love you even more without it... shit, baby."

She colored just a little as Ned glanced down at her lingerie. "Like it?" she said softly.

"You know I do. You look amazing, sweetheart. So incredibly sexy."

Nancy reached up and cupped his cheek. "I love you," she whispered. "I am so incredibly lucky to have you."

Ned's fingertips trailed down to her hip as he sank back to the bed. "I'm the lucky one," he told her quietly. "I get to wake up next to a beautiful, sexy woman every day, the most amazing woman I've ever met. Every day I'm thankful that you came back into my life, because without you, I wouldn't be whole. That note... Nan, you are more precious to me than almost anything else in my life, and I love you more than I could ever possibly show you or tell you."

Nancy gave him a small smile as she gazed at him. "I love you so much I ache with it," she whispered. She picked up his hand and led it to the warm flesh above her breast, the flesh over her heart. "And even when I thought you would have every right to—to push me away—"

Ned pushed himself to his feet and took her into his arms, holding her tight. "I would take a fucking bullet before I would willingly see you in pain," he told her fiercely. "How could I possibly push you away, Nan? It would be like tearing my own heart in half."

She pressed her face against his neck, breathing him in. "But you had the choice," she said softly. "You could have sent me away; you could have told me that you didn't want to marry me, or that just living together was enough... but you didn't know..."

He pulled back to look into her face. "I knew that no matter what, the woman I saw waiting on my parents' front porch that night was the woman I loved. I know you lost your way for a while, but we both did..." He ran his fingers gently through her hair. "And what matters is that we found our way back to each other."

He leaned down and kissed her softly, and she arched, pressing herself tighter against him as she returned his kiss. The fabric of her lingerie was so thin that she could clearly feel the heat of his bare skin radiating against hers, and she savored the intimacy of it, the light brush of his fingertips as he trailed them over her back. She shivered against him, flushing with arousal as his hand strayed lower, and he pulled back the bedspread, guiding her to the bed.

He kissed her again, his hips snug between her spread thighs as she took his weight, and she ran her fingers through his hair, her lips parted under his. Ned surged a little against her and she gasped softly, deep in her throat, rocking her hips back and forth once. She had wanted to try something just a little different tonight, but she wanted him so much that she was finding it hard to remember that, or anything over the dizzying sway of her desire.

"So," Ned murmured as he broke the kiss, both of them panting for breath, "what did you have in mind for tonight? Your choice."

She very gently ran her nails over his scalp, and felt him rock gently against her in response. "Could you go get the butterfly for me, baby?" she whispered, gazing into his eyes as she brushed the ball of her thumb over his cheek.

"I like where this is going," he growled with a smile as he kissed her cheek, then slipped off the bed. He returned to her with it, and Nancy put it on her bedside table, then reached for him again.

"Get me ready for it," she said with a smile. "Please."

He sat down at the edge of the bed, gazing down at her. "You look so fucking sexy in anything—or nothing—at all, but I love you in blue," he murmured. He very gently traced the ball of his thumb over the lace-trimmed edge of her bra cup. "You weren't wearing this when you got dressed this morning, were you?"

She shook her head. "I put it on for you," she murmured.

He smiled as he gently nudged her bra cup down just a little, and her nipple rose above it, showing pink through the lace. He rubbed her through the fabric and she moaned, shifting restlessly against the sheet. "I love that you do that."

"Get off when you're touching my nipples?" she asked, arching her back.

"Put things on that are just for me."

"Maybe I'm just encouraging you to grow your facial hair back," she teased him, and her eyes fluttered shut as he eased the other cup down a little, touching both simultaneously.

"You did really love that," he mused.

"Because you," she slipped her hands under her and unfastened her bra, "were amazing when you were going down on me with it."

"That distinctly sounded like a challenge, Miss Drew."

"Did it?" She fluttered her lashes, then gasped when he pinched both her nipples—not hard, but enough for her to definitely register it. "Well, I did ask you to get me ready..."

"Hmm." He slipped her bra straps down, tossing her bra to the floor, then pushed his fingers between her g-string and her bare skin. His fingers were just a little cooler than the rest of him, and she tipped her head back, gasping when he plunged two fingers up in the slick heat of her cunt, then moved his thumb to circle her clit. "You feel very ready to me, Miss Drew."

Nancy opened her legs wide, rocking her hips to meet his thrusts. "Mmmm, mmmmm, that feels so good, baby..."

She shuddered when he leaned down and kissed the flesh just below her belly button, but then he pulled back and began to ease her panties down. She made a soft sound as the cooler air touched her sensitive flesh, and once she was naked Ned reached for the butterfly, seating it over the slit of her sex before he fastened the straps around her legs and waist.

Nancy reached down to adjust it, her eyelashes fluttering as the toy rubbed against her already-swelled clit. Ned touched her hand and Nancy opened her eyes, her legs sprawled wide as she waited for him.

When he tried to hand her the controller, she shook her head. "It's all you tonight," she told him with a slow smile.

"Hmm." Her pulse sped up a little when he gazed between her legs. "Well, it is your birthday," he murmured. "And we did have that little tradition..."

Her inner flesh throbbed in response. "But we do have to work tomorrow," she pointed out. "So let's just see how much you can get done by midnight, sir."

"With the understanding that this weekend, you're mine," he growled, a smile curving his lips as he kissed her.

She kept waiting for him to take the controller and turn the vibrator inside the butterfly on, but he waited for it, fondling her breasts and stroking her nipples until she was moaning and moving restlessly against the sheets. She spread her legs as wide as she could and sighed in pleasure as the tight straps seated the butterfly firmly against her clit, and then began to rock her hips to move the motionless toy in slight teasing strokes against her sensitive flesh.

Ned took his left hand off her breast so he could nuzzle against it, and Nancy kept rocking her hips, her breath coming in soft pants. She let out a shivering sigh as he ran the tip of his tongue against her nipple, and then—

"Oh, oh!" she cried out, as he took the vibration from zero to half-speed with one rapid swipe of his thumb. She was still spread wide and vulnerable, and the toy was seated directly against her clit. She arched, tipping her head back and panting desperately. "Oh fuck, ohhhhhh fuck."

Ned took the vibration back down to almost nothing and she gradually relaxed, still slowly rocking her hips. He licked her other nipple, then bit her gently, simultaneously pushing the vibration back up again, and she let out a sharp cry, her nails scratching against the sheet. "Holy fuck," she cried out.

"You like that, baby?"

"Mmmm," she moaned. "Oh God oh God oh oh ohhhhhh yes!"

"Yeah," Ned groaned, and Nancy panted for breath when Ned dialed the vibration almost back down to zero again. She was incredibly wet, and the tension thrumming in her even after the vibration was turned off left her quivering with the aftershocks. She swept her hair out of her face, her skin flushed, and then Ned dragged her hips to the edge of the mattress, parting her legs wide again.

He slipped out of his boxers and returned to her, standing beside the bed to give himself good leverage, and her pupils were already blown wide with desire, her lips parted as she gazed up at him. He stroked her outer thighs as he guided her to wrap her legs around his waist, then bent over her, his cock just barely stroking between her thighs, and she let out a desperate moan, already arching to give him a better angle.

He propped himself up, gazing down at her. "So beautiful," he whispered, and when he reached down to just barely fit himself inside her, she shuddered, running her fingertips up his arms, over his strong biceps. The vibrator was still humming gently to itself, purring against her clit and just at the top of the slick hollow of her cunt, and when he arched over her to kiss her, the motion tipped her hips up, her ankles crossed and locked at the small of his back.

She slipped her arms under his to grasp his shoulders from behind and the press of him against her pushed the vibrator more firmly against her clit, and when he kissed her she was trembling. He made his kisses gentle and sweet, then pulled back to look down at her, and that same familiar tingle went down her spine when she saw the desire in his eyes, reflecting the golden candlelight.

"I love you," she whispered. God, that knowledge had been a terrible burden while they had been apart, and she had tried to deny to herself, had tried to put out of her head, convinced that she had irreparably broken their relationship, that his love for her hadn't been able to withstand that final test she had put it through. Their sporadic contact during their time apart had almost made it worse. Too many times she had tormented herself with the idea that he had found someone perfect for him, someone whose life wasn't consumed by cases and mysteries, someone who could be everything he had ever wanted... and the part of her that had always loved him and always would only wanted him to be happy. Even if it had meant their not being together, she had only wanted him to be happy.

It had been beyond her wildest dreams that she was the woman she had been wishing he would find.

"I love you too," he whispered, and when he began to move inside her, her lips parted, and he breathed in her quiet moan. He was the first man who had ever made love to her, and every time they were together this way, she felt an echo of their first time together. Oh, she had been so afraid, so curious, and she had wanted to be good for him, knowing that he had been with other girls before, that he knew how it should feel even when she didn't. She had been so terribly conscious of how she probably looked to him, how warm his touch made her, the undeniable pull between them that made her open her legs to him even though the girth and length of him had stretched her nearly to the point of pain. He had swallowed her moans then too, waiting for her tentative nods before he took her further, and then, oh God, he had been fully inside her and there was no going back, no way that she could have this with anyone else. He was her first forever. More than that, though, even from that first night, when they were joined this way, it felt like what he had told her that night in the recliner was true. They were made for this, the two of them, and when she let herself fall, she knew he would always be there, always.

She flushed, blinking lazily up at him as he briefly pushed his full length home inside her, then moved back to work his way in again. No matter how many times they had sex, he was always so tight inside her, and he sighed in pleasure as he moved between her legs again.

She dug her nails into his shoulders, moaning again as he pushed home, rolling her hips. Ned brushed his lips over hers softly, then harder, and she nipped gently at his lower lip. He was pressing her so firmly into the mattress that she could only gently rock under him, and she kept one hand on his shoulder as she drew the other down the line of his spine.

Ned growled softly, and then she felt him shift his weight.

"Mmmmm, yes," she breathed, tipping her head back as she felt him push the vibration up again. He drove into her a little harder, and at the apex of every thrust he upped the vibration a little more, until her breath was catching in desperate sobbed cries.

He slowly took it to maximum, and she sobbed louder, harder, writhing under him until she tipped her head back, her eyes rolling back as they fluttered shut, her hips rocking under his. "Oh God oh God oh God oh God," she chanted, her entire body tensing with the rising swell of her orgasm, her shoulders jerking.

"Fuck," Ned breathed. "Oh fuck, you feel so good, baby."

He drove into her harder, and she could hear how wet she was with his every thrust, could feel her inner flesh clenching and throbbing as he alternated the vibration, dialing it down just to drive it sharply back up again. She let out a loud cry, her heels digging into the small of his back to pull him closer as he drove into her again and again.

He angled his hips on his next thrust and Nancy broke with a scream, and then she couldn't stop. She arched hard up under him, circling her hips to move the vibrating butterfly against her clit as she trembled with his thrusts, and she couldn't control herself, couldn't do anything more than move to meet him as he fucked her.

"Oh yeah, oh yeah," Ned groaned, his lips grazing her temple. "Oh God, so good, baby."

She shuddered under him like she was fighting him, begging him not to stop, and she arched until the crown of her head was against the mattress. She screamed again when he tugged at her nipples, and when he did it again she dragged her nails hard over his lower back, her screams so high they were inaudible.

"Oh, Ned... oh God oh God ohhhhh, yes, so good! Oh God!" She screamed again, bucking against him. "Oh!"

"Yeah," Ned groaned, tugging her nipples again. "Oh God, yes."

He shifted his weight to his hips and drove into her rapidly, three, four, five times, and when he collapsed to her she was burbling, flushed and panting and incoherent. Her entire body tensed when he dialed the vibration down, then slammed it as high as it would go again. She felt him pulse inside her as she finally began to come down, as he slowly, slowly took the vibration down again.

She couldn't move, though. They were both gasping for breath but she was so fully spent and sated from the intensity of her orgasm that she could only tremble with the aftershocks, her throat dry, her skin still achingly sensitive.

"More, baby?"

Nancy moaned quietly. "Oh God... no, baby, not yet. That was so good..."

"Hell yes it was," Ned murmured, then kissed her temple. She opened her legs to release him and when Ned pushed himself up, she moved backward on the bed, sprawling out, sweat drying cool on her skin. Ned found a cloth and wiped her thighs with it, and she blinked slowly up at him.

"Oh," she whispered. "I'll move."

Ned chuckled as she began to slide over to her side of the bed. "Actually... I was just wondering if you wanted another cupcake."

Nancy laughed too. "How did you know," she teased him. "Why don't you go get us both one."

Ned went downstairs and returned with two cupcakes, and by then Nancy had pulled the covers over her. She sat up and Ned handed her one, and she sighed at the first bite. She was still naked, still gloriously relaxed from their lovemaking, and eating a birthday cupcake. She couldn't really imagine a better way to spend the night.

When they had finished their cupcakes, Ned moved behind her, pulling her back to his chest, and wrapped his arms around her. She had left the butterfly still strapped around her, and she heard the controller moving against the mattress as they shifted together, as she put her hands over his, her head nestled against his shoulder.

"I'm so happy right now," she whispered, smiling, and turned to nuzzle against him.

"I'm glad, sweetheart." She closed her eyes when he moved his hand to her breast and began to gently rub his thumb against her nipple. "Baby..."

When he trailed off, Nancy tightened her fingers over his other hand. "What is it?"

He sighed. "I just love you so much," he murmured. "You almost ready?"

She could sense that he had been about to say something else, but she really didn't want him to stop, and she could always ask him later. "Just a little more," she murmured, and he cupped her other breast, fondling both nipples. A pleasant tingle slid down her spine and she arched against him, her ass brushing his crotch, her lips parting as she slowly opened her legs again.

"Mmmm." Ned released one breast, then followed the line from the butterfly to the controller, and Nancy whimpered when he moved his thumb and the butterfly began to vibrate gently against her clit again. He rolled her nipples between his fingers and she opened her legs wider, reaching down to press the butterfly more firmly against her clit.

"More," she moaned quietly, and Ned obliged her, finding the controller again. He dropped a kiss against her shoulder as she rocked her hips, then bit her gently, and she shivered.

"Can you get on your knees," he murmured into her skin.

"Yeah," she whispered, and obeyed him, feeling him move over her.

He kept touching her, stroking her, as the vibrator hummed against her clit, and God, she was so wet and so incredibly sensitive that every brush of his skin against hers made her shiver with anticipation. He dropped kisses against the back of her neck and her shoulders, between her shoulder blades, still caressing her breasts, and when she felt his hard cock brush against her ass, she closed her eyes, wondering if he was going to go get the strap-on.

He pushed the vibration up a little higher, then slipped his fingers between her legs. "Mmmm," he groaned in approval, kissing the join of her neck and shoulder, and she brought her head up a little. He twined his fingers in her hair and tugged gently, and she moaned, circling her hips as he teased the slick hot opening of her cunt with his fingertips.

"Mmm," she agreed, her brow furrowing as he fondled her. "God, that feels so good."

"We might have to always do this," he told her, moving himself into position behind her. "Because your cunt felt incredible before, baby."

She hung her head, panting as the tip of his cock traced her slick inner lips. "Please," she moaned. "Oh God, baby, I need you, I need you—I need to feel that hot, hard cock inside me. Fill me up, Ned, oh please..."

Ned growled, and she smiled to herself, knowing he couldn't resist when she begged him for it. "I can't say no to my girl," he said, his voice so low that it sent another shiver up her spine, and she took a deep breath, the ends of her long hair brushing the mattress as she hung her head again. Ned pushed the vibration up again, gradually, the tip of his cock teasing her entrance as she began to gasp and cry.

"You like that?"

She swallowed against her dry throat, nodding, loose strands of her hair against her lips as she whimpered. "Oh yes, oh—oh!"

He pushed the vibration up a little higher, and Nancy rocked her hips more urgently, sobbing as the butterfly buzzed against her clit. "Oh God oh yes yes please, baby, please, please, fuck me, oh Ned..."

He nipped at her neck as he moved deeper inside her, and when she pushed her hips back to meet him he smacked her upper leg, biting her shoulder. "Oh, you bad girl. Do it again."

She rocked her hips again, panting desperately, and moaned as he moved deeper inside her. "Oh God, oh God," she sobbed when he smacked her other leg, and when he cupped her breasts and squeezed she bucked, crying out.

"Yes?"

"Yes, yes," she cried out, and when he pushed the vibration up to maximum she gasped for breath again, the tension rising in her as he slammed into her, one of his hands drifting down to push the butterfly more firmly against her clit as he pushed into the slick heat of her cunt, and the angle meant he was—

She screamed as the tip of his cock brushed against her g-spot, her hips trembling, her entire body slick and sensitive. Ned groaned in pleasure as he fucked her hard, harder, and she writhed against his hand, all of her tight with desire and need, all of her centered on the sensation of the vibrator and the slick glide of his cock inside her.

"Good, baby?"

She screamed again, her face contorted at the almost painful pleasure, and God, she could feel it, God, he felt so fucking amazing. "Don't stop don't stop don't oh God ohhhhhh yes baby!"

He moved his hand from the vibrator to the delicate skin of her inner thighs, tracing it as he slammed into her again and again, and when he pushed the heel of his hand against the butterfly again, Nancy broke fully, writhing as she moved rapidly against his thrusts. Her eyes rolled back as she screamed in pleasure, and God, he had to stop, he had to, she was so fucking sensitive—

But he didn't stop, and when he moved against her g-spot again she screamed, rutting against him, flushed and trembling with arousal. He rode her through her orgasm and she was shuddering, bearing down against him, her cunt tight around his hot, hard cock as he slammed into her again.

"Oh yeah, Nan, just like that, oh fuck," Ned groaned. He pinched her nipple and she tossed her hair, circling her hips, sobbing when she tightened around him again.

He had driven her orgasm so terribly high that she was panting in ragged sobs, her nails digging into the sheet, her cunt tight and pulsing around him as she angled her hips and came with a hot gush of slick arousal, and Ned moaned as he felt it. "Oh God, yeah," he growled, his voice so low it made her tremble, and he bit her one last time, soothing the ache with a soft kiss as he slammed his hips into her hard, pulsing inside her as he came.

Then he scrambled for the controller and dialed down the vibrator, and Nancy slumped to the mattress, her legs still spread wide, whimpering as she tried to catch her breath. The sheets were cool against her sensitive nipples, and she could feel the slick trace of their joining against her thighs, but she couldn't bring herself to care. She was still jerking a little, her hips and her shoulders, and the sheet felt so good against her burning cheek.

Ned ran his palm down the line of her spine and rolled onto his side beside her, still stroking her. It took supreme effort for her to turn to face him, and when she lazily opened her eyes, he chuckled.

"You must've liked that," he murmured, and his fingertips brushed her cheek. "I remember that look on your face on that other birthday, too."

She took a deep breath. "I don't even want to move," she moaned, and had to attempt to push herself up a few times before she succeeded. She rolled onto her back and groaned, her legs still open, and she made a face when she felt the damp patch under her. Ned ran his fingertips over her lower belly and she shuddered.

"Can you take it off me?" she whispered, reaching over to run her fingers through his hair.

Ned nodded, his fingers making quick work of the straps, and he slipped the butterfly off her, putting it on her bedside table. When he returned to her she reached for him, pulling him into her arms, and they held each other tight.

"I love you," she whispered.

"I love you so much," he replied, nuzzling against her, his lips brushing her temple. "Always have."

She kissed the hollow of his throat, then trailed her lips down his chest, nuzzling against him. "You're the best present I could ever have asked for," she whispered against his skin.

"And so are you," he told her, rolling onto his back so she was sprawled over him. She pulled back to look down into his eyes, and he ran his fingers through her hair. He glanced down at her lips. "My wife," he whispered, and when his gaze went back up to meet her own, she shivered. "You are so precious to me."

She gave him a soft kiss and he gently cupped the back of her head, his other arm wrapped around the small of her back. "And you mean everything to me," she whispered against his mouth. "My husband."

--

Nancy couldn't help it; she was checking her phone all day long, from the moment she left for work. She had made breakfast for herself and her husband, and they had eaten at the kitchen table, smiling at each other over coffee and buttered toast with jam, bacon and cheesy scrambled eggs. When they had kissed each other goodbye, Nancy had squeezed him tight, telling him he was going to be great, to just be himself. He had nodded, kissing her again, and she had watched him climb into his car, giving him one last wave.

He was going to do great, and she knew that. He was. She didn't know why she was so nervous. She just hated the idea that they might actually somehow decide they had found better candidates than her husband, that he might be disappointed in his attempt.

Nancy hadn't lied to George. She didn't regret her decision to leave Wilder, or to leave her degree unfinished. Earning a journalism degree, or a criminal justice degree, wouldn't make her a better investigator, and she knew that. But she loved the fact that her husband was ambitious, that he wasn't content to go through the motions in a middle-management job, that he wanted more. She knew that whatever he chose to do, he would be great. She just hoped with every atom of her being that he was able to pursue his dream.

Ned had let her know when he was going into his interview, and he had told her he would alert her when he was finished. In the meantime she had finished up and left her work for the day and walked into their townhouse, nearly quivering with nervous energy. She hoped for his sake that she was worrying enough for the both of them, that he was calm and charming for his interview.

Nancy took her hair down, shook it out, then put it back up in a messier bun before removing her makeup and putting on a pair of faded jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. She tried flipping on the television when she came downstairs, but she was too keyed up to concentrate on anything for long, and besides, almost nothing was appealing.

She had just pulled their mail out of the box when she saw Rebecca emerge from her front door. Their work schedules didn't coincide, but Rebecca was usually dressed in business casual for work in the mornings; on the weekends she didn't go out too much, and she had already changed out of her work clothes, into a pair of sweatpants and a zippered grey hoodie. Nancy gave the other woman a hesitant smile when she saw her. From experience, she knew that sound carried through the wall between their homes, and Rebecca was probably very aware of how many times Nancy and Ned had had sex the night before.

"Hi Rebecca."

"Hi Nancy. How's it going?"

"Pretty well. Glad it's the weekend. How are you doing?"

"Okay," Rebecca said. While the guitar and the clothes weren't on the small lawn in front of Rebecca's townhouse anymore, the man who had been living with her hadn't been back that Nancy had seen, and she didn't seem to go out that much.

"Hey, if you didn't have any plans, I'm going out tomorrow night with a big group of people. We're just going out to dinner, probably gonna hit the bar after." Nancy gave Rebecca a smile.

"Oh..." Rebecca looked down at the mail in her hand. "I don't know. I have some errands to run tomorrow, and..."

She trailed off, and Nancy's lips turned up slightly in a sympathetic smile. Rebecca's dark hair was pulled back into a messy ponytail, and her work wardrobe consisted of a lot of solid slacks and neutral button-downs. If Nancy had felt anywhere near close to her, she would have begged Rebecca to let Bess get her hands on her for a complete makeover—very little delighted Bess quite so much as a makeover—but in the meantime, dinner and a few drinks could be a good start.

"It's no big deal. Maybe if you can't do dinner you could meet us after for the drinks. Or next time."

Rebecca nodded. "Yeah," she said, and gave Nancy a smile. "Thanks, really, for inviting me. I just..." She shrugged.

Nancy made a split-second decision. "Want to come over and have a cup of coffee or something?" she asked. "My husband isn't home yet, and I don't expect him for a little while." She paused. "You'd be doing me a favor, really. I need some distraction."

Rebecca paused, then gave her head a little shake. "Sure," she said, then chuckled as she and Nancy walked up to Nancy's townhouse. "You two do seem really... uh, involved? With each other?"

Nancy chuckled, blushing slightly. "Yeah. We haven't been married quite a year yet. Everyone says we're still in the honeymoon stage, and if we are, I hope we never get out of it." She opened the door for Rebecca. "And, uh, I really am sorry about... last night..."

Rebecca shrugged a little, looking around their living room when Nancy stood aside, brushing off the soles of her shoes on the welcome mat. "It's okay. I'm just hoping that if anyone actually is murdering you, you'll shout something helpful like 'Seriously this guy is killing me and I mean it!'"

Nancy laughed. "I'll try to remember that."

Nancy made them drinks—she opted for tea, while Rebecca asked for coffee—and they sat down at the kitchen table, talking. Nancy had only spoken to Rebecca a few times—once when she and Ned had hastily delivered their apologetic fruit basket at Christmas—and Nancy didn't quite want to come right out and ask what had happened with Rebecca's partner, but the conversation came around to it anyway.

"I came here from Michigan," Rebecca said, looking down into her coffee cup. "I didn't want to relocate, but Rob had family here, and I found a good job..." She shrugged. "But he kept staying out late, telling me he had to sober up before he could drive home... and then I found out... he was seeing someone else." Rebecca brushed a tear from her cheek. "After everything. He came to my work a few weeks ago, apologizing, begging me to take him back... and I miss him so much."

Nancy bit her lip, then reached over and patted Rebecca's hand. "That has to be so hard," she said softly. "Were you together long?"

Rebecca nodded. "Three years," she said softly. "I mean, I know I've put on some weight since high school, I know I don't always want to go out all the time, but we're not in school anymore, you know? And all he wanted to do was play that damn guitar and..." She glanced up. "I'm sorry. I... I must be boring you."

"No, not at all. Seriously. Three years is a long time and I know... how hard it is to lose someone you really care about. Are you considering calling him?"

Rebecca shrugged. "When I get lonely I do," she admitted.

"So go out with us tomorrow," Nancy said. "Seriously. It'll get your mind off things for a little while. And my friends are awesome—especially my friend Bess, who's going to be in town. She loves makeovers, and she always has such amazing outfits—she's an actress in New York. And—I'm sorry. Now I'm getting ahead of myself. Plus, the least I can do is buy you a drink after—all the sleep my husband and I have interfered with you having."

Rebecca chuckled and shook her head. "Okay. I guess that is only fair. I've gotta say, I miss Rob a lot whenever I hear that... Sometimes he would ask if I wanted to try to outscream you."

Nancy let her hair down and tossed it so it could hide some of the flush in her cheeks. "I really am sorry about that."

A few minutes later, after Nancy and Rebecca had moved on to more neutral topics, Ned texted Nancy to let her know he was on the way home, and Rebecca stood. "So when, tomorrow?"

"I think we'll grab a cab around six," Nancy said. "Since I don't think either of us really want to be designated driver. Sound okay?"

"Sure," Rebecca said, and gave her a grin. "Thanks. For inviting me. You're right; it will be nice to get out of the house for a little while. It's been hard to do that lately."

"And it'll be a lot of fun, I swear."

Nancy and Rebecca had made it to the front steps when Ned pulled up. He climbed out of his car with his briefcase, looking incredibly handsome, and gave Nancy a welcoming grin. "Well, hello," he said to Rebecca.

"Ned, Rebecca," Nancy said, gesturing between them. "I was just inviting her to go with us tomorrow night."

"Oh, fantastic! The more the merrier. You can help us sing Happy Birthday."

Rebecca turned to Nancy, mouth agape. "You didn't tell me!"

"I didn't want to guilt trip you into going," Nancy said defensively, then raised her eyebrow at Ned.

"Well, now I have to get you a present..."

"No! No, no! You really don't," Nancy insisted. "I mean it. Honestly."

Rebecca shook her head. "All right, then," she said, skeptically. "Tomorrow at six."

As soon as Nancy and Ned were inside their townhouse, Nancy took his briefcase out of his hand and clasped his hand in hers, gazing eagerly up into his eyes. "Okay, part of me really, really wants to ask how it went..."

Ned reached up and loosened his tie. "I think it went great," he admitted.

"Oh!" Nancy threw her arms around him and squeezed tight. "Oh, Ned, that's great! I knew you'd be great," she said immediately.

Ned chuckled. "Yeah, I can see that," he teased her, brushing the tip of his nose against hers. "That anxiety in your voice totally didn't give you away."

"Hey. I was busy worrying for the both of us. I just invited Rebecca over to distract me." When Ned slipped out of his coat and suit jacket, she took them both and hung up his coat. "Why don't you go upstairs and get changed while I get dinner ready. I'll even go ahead and turn it to ESPN."

"Wow. Now it feels like my birthday," he said, kissing her cheek. "Okay, babe."

Nancy made cheeseburgers and oven fries for dinner, telling Ned he could have one beer, and after dinner they settled in front of the television, Nancy in her cotton sleep pants and a faded Emerson t-shirt, Ned in his flannel pants and an undershirt. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and she nestled against him, reaching up to let her hair down, and she purred when he ran his fingers through it.

"What time do you have to get up?"

Ned reached for his cell phone, checking his calendar. "I have to be there at nine. They gave me an option and I took the second slot of the day."

"So you have to be up kinda early."

"Kinda. For a Saturday," he agreed. "Why? Have something elaborate and exhausting in mind to make sure I get some sleep?"

"Not until tomorrow night," she told him, and kissed his cheek.

Ned made a soft outraged sound. "Don't you think it's important for me to get a full night of rest tonight?" he pointed out, softly pleading.

"I do," she agreed. "So I thought I'd give my man a nice relaxing massage before I put him to bed for the night."

"Hmm. Well, if it's that or sex..."

"It's that or sleep," she corrected him. "And to make it up to you, I don't plan on putting on clothes Sunday."

Ned angled to the side, sliding his fingers into her hair as he nuzzled against the join of her neck and shoulder, and she tried to squirm away from him, but when his tongue flicked against her bare skin, she stopped struggling. The join of her thighs was warming in response. She tried to pin him with a fierce glare, but he kept his face buried against her neck.

"How about you give me a little sneak preview, sexy," he growled against her neck. His other large, warm palm cupped her hip, then began to flirt with the hem of her shirt.

Summoning every ounce of self-control she still possessed, Nancy took a deep breath and managed to extract herself from his grasp, even though her every atom was quivering with desire. When he looked up at her, a wounded expression in his dark eyes, her heart melted, and she swung her knee over his legs, straddling him, careful to keep their hips apart.

"Yeah, baby," Ned murmured, slipping his arms around her, his lips brushing the hollow of her throat. "Mmmm. The best part of coming home is knowing you're here waiting for me. You and our sweet television set and the beer in the fridge..."

Nancy giggled, then tipped forward to place her lips against his ear. "How about you pick what I wear tomorrow? That a good trade?"

"Nothing," he declared immediately.

Nancy shook her head, nipping at his earlobe. "That's Sunday. Eager boy."

"Eager boy who needs to be punished," he teased her, cupping her hips. He pushed her down before she realized what he was doing, until their hips were tight together, and she could feel him, stiff under his flannel pants.

"And the best punishment..." She propped her hand on the arm of the couch, using the leverage to swing herself off him before she gave in to the impulse to grind her sex against his. God knew neither of them would be able to stop then. "Is making you burn with anticipation."

Ned shot her another wounded look, and when the broadcast cut to commercial, he suddenly tackled her, bearing her down to the couch, and she squealed and squirmed against him.

He kept doing that until they went to bed, and she kept fighting him off—it was more like play wrestling than anything else, and despite her protests, she did love the feel of him so close to her, of his body pressed tight to hers. But then, she always had. And she trusted him. He might like teasing her, but if she gave him a serious no, she knew he would stop.

Dr. Monroe had been so relieved to hear that Nancy's relationship with Ned had deepened to such a degree since their reunion. Neither of them felt like they had leapt blindly into their relationship, or that they had taken things too fast. Maybe neither of them had known everything going in, but what he had told her had been true. They had known what was important. Regardless of anything else, when she looked into his eyes, she knew he was the man she had fallen in love with at the age of fifteen, the man who had never betrayed her trust, never intentionally hurt her.

They went to bed at a time both of them considered early for a Friday night, and she had been entirely honest when she had told him she was going to give him a massage. She found one of the oversized plush bath sheets they had received as a wedding gift, and when she came back to the bedroom with it, Ned was naked.

She cocked an eyebrow at him. "Really?"

Ned gave her a little pout. "I was just trying to make sure you could get everywhere you wanted," he said innocently.

"I think you're trying to make sure you can get everywhere you want," she murmured, almost under her breath, as she spread the bath sheet over the fresh sheets she had put on their bed.

Ned stood, and despite her best effort, her gaze sank to his waist. "Why, Miss Drew," Ned murmured, "are you trying to seduce me?"

"I wouldn't try," she retorted immediately, before she thought. "If I wanted to seduce you I'd do it."

Ned raised an eyebrow. "Really."

A bit of color rose in her cheeks as she gestured for him to lie down on the bed. "Yes."

"So do it," he said, as he moved onto the bed.

"Tomorrow?"

"Sure," he said, as she uncapped the massage oil and let it warm on her hands, then began to stroke it onto his bare back. "Tomorrow. Put your money where your mouth is."

"So what are the terms of this?"

Ned let out a soft moan as Nancy stroked her palms down his spine, then moved back up, finding a knot of tension in his shoulder. "You do your best to get into my pants."

"And you do everything to resist?"

"Yeah."

Nancy scoffed. "Candy from a baby. All I have to do is breathe in your direction and you have a hard-on."

"That may be true..."

"Is true," she corrected him, stroking her palms firmly down his back to his ass, which she squeezed, before moving back up to his shoulders.

"But you may forget that for almost three years, my hand and I got some excellent practice in before you and I ever had sex..."

"And what you may forget," she said, leaning down to kiss the cup of his ear, "is that for almost three years now, we've been fucking like rabbits at practically every opportunity. Sure, Nickerson, you may have had the barest edge of willpower when you were seventeen. Maybe. But I can't even remember the last time you asked if I wanted to have sex that I turned you down. You don't have the strength anymore."

Ned chuckled. "Candy from a baby."

"Anything off limits?"

"Nope." Then Ned made a soft sound. "Hang on. Okay, you can't actually get on top of me and start riding me."

"And why not?" She sucked on his earlobe, her earlier protest that they couldn't have sex all but forgotten. "If you have willpower, Ned, surely you'll just be able to stop me..."

"We have to draw the line somewhere," he said, his voice mock solemn. "Oh, and no rohypnol."

Nancy made an affronted sound. "I didn't say I'd have to drug you to have sex with you. Fuck."

"But you're welcome to get me drunk."

"And so are you." Nancy chuckled as she worked the balls of her thumbs into the tight muscles of his shoulders. "So who loses the bet?"

"Who do you think loses the bet?"

"Hmm. If you have any willpower whatsoever, I lose, because I love riding that gorgeous cock of yours." She straddled him, leaning forward to put more pressure into her palms as she kissed his ear again. She dropped her voice, making it low and husky. "Taking every hot hard inch of you into my sweet tight cunt, until you're filling me up, and you're so big it almost hurts, but it feels so fucking amazing. Looking into those sexy brown eyes while I fuck you. Oh, Ned..."

She almost forgot herself, almost pressed her torso against his back, but she swallowed and remembered just in time. She brought her arm up and wiped her brow against her sleeve.

"Getting hot, sexy?"

"I'm working," she reminded him, and began to massage him in earnest again.

"Oh, really. Because I think you're working on creaming those tight little panties, baby. Let's say midnight—if I break before midnight, you win. If I make it to twelve-oh-one, I win."

"And what will I win when I have your pants off and your cock inside me five minutes after we walk through that door tomorrow night?"

Ned's voice was husky when he responded. "You mean besides the best sex of your life?"

"That's a really fucking high bar to set, Mr. Nickerson," she told him, her voice serious. She leaned down to whisper into his ear again. "My husband made me come for three hours straight once."

"You doubting me, Miss Drew?"

"Never." She worked her way down to his lower back again, his tanned flesh gleaming from the oil she was rubbing into it. He was quiet for a few minutes, save for some pleased moans as she worked on some tension in his taut muscles.

"Loser makes dinner Sunday."

"Dinner as in picks up the phone and calls for a pizza?"

"Dinner as in makes dinner. Smartass."

Nancy's lips turned up as she grinned. "Hope you've gotten good at baking cakes, Nickerson, because I definitely expect some dessert after I give you the ride of your life."

"And I hope you're good at multitasking, because I'll be fucking you against the oven while you're making me dinner, Miss Drew."

Nancy stroked her hands down over his ass again, then spanked his right cheek lightly. "You're on."

Ned rolled over and shook her hand. "Hmm. Lobster bisque, maybe..."

She shook her head, sliding off the bed and tossing his boxers at him before she let her hair down, and it tumbled in red-gold waves over her shoulders. "I didn't know Hannah was included in the bet, 'cause that's the only way you're getting lobster bisque, buddy."

"Spoilsport." Nancy flipped off the lights and Ned, clad in his boxers, pulled her into his arms as soon as she slipped under the covers. "Love you, baby."

"Mmm," Nancy murmured, nuzzling against her husband. "Love you too. And I am so winning our bet."

Ned brushed a kiss against her temple. "Can't wait to see you try, gorgeous."

--

Nancy was just beginning to stir the next morning when Ned muttered a curse.

"What is it?" she mumbled, her words slurring. She had one arm slung over her eyes to keep the sunlight out.

"I think you're gonna have to get dressed Sunday, sweetheart."

"Oh?"

"Lunch with our parents. And my grandparents."

"Shit," Nancy hissed, repeating his earlier curse. "Oh shit. How did I forget that?"

"Because you were too busy creaming yourself at the thought of bouncing on top of me?" Ned answered, laughter in his voice. Nancy picked up his pillow and blindly hurled it at him.

She met him after his interview and they had lunch in the city, at a small casual bistro. He was more optimistic about his second interview than his first, and that delighted her. Seeing him dressed up in a crisp, tailored black suit and the shirt she had ironed for him wasn't too bad either.

"So is our bet still on for tonight?" Nancy asked casually, propping her chin on the heel of her hand.

"Sure. After all, we can still say that the loser makes dinner."

Nancy pouted a little. "I was really looking forward to having you all to myself for the day," she murmured.

Ned reached for her hand. "I think you reminded me not too long ago that we were going away for our anniversary anyway," he told her. "And if you let me pack your bag, it'll just be full of lingerie and tiny little bikinis, and not much else."

She smiled at him. "And your bag might have some boxers in it, if you're lucky. Plus a bunch of toys."

Nancy dressed carefully for their night out. While Ned had been at his interview she had gone for her regularly scheduled bikini wax, and had splurged on a manicure and pedicure as well. She considered her wardrobe carefully, then pulled out the red dress she had bought to keep his eye on her three years before, during their lake trip. She hadn't found many other occasions to wear it, and the night would be a little chilly to wear it alone, so she paired it with a black wrap and sparkly black platform heels. She was very careful with her eyeliner and her lipstick, and when she surveyed her reflection, she gave herself a little nod. While she didn't really want to wear the breast petals under her dress—she knew that the sight of her nipples, erect against the fabric, would definitely turn him on—she didn't exactly want the rest of their group to witness it.

Ned swallowed hard when he saw her. "God, you're gorgeous," he murmured, shooting his cuffs to adjust them. "So incredibly gorgeous."

Nancy struck a pose against the doorframe. "Good enough to eat?" she purred, regarding him through her lashes.

"Maybe," he chuckled, shaking his head.

Their group was large, and once they were all gathered in the waiting area at the restaurant, it almost felt like they were holding their own mini frat party. Rebecca had accompanied Nancy and Ned in the cab, and Mike and Jan were there, along with Howie and his girlfriend, Bess and Terry, George, Jules and Tony. Everyone save George and Jan ordered drinks when they sat down at the large horseshoe-shaped table surrounding the flat cooktop, and when the chef emerged with their food and began to prep it in front of them, they were all laughing and happy. Rebecca was between George and Bess, and although she still seemed a little shy, she was warming up to them, laughing at the constant stream of barbs and commentary the cousins kept going between them. Terry, Nancy noticed, was very conscientious of Bess; every now and then he would touch her shoulder, lean in to whisper something to her, and she would glance up into his eyes, blushing faintly, a small smile curving her lips.

Ned touched his wife's side. "You doing okay?"

"Doing great," she told him, then leaned over to brush her lips against his ear, just faintly. "Your cousin and Bess are so cute."

"Mmm," Ned agreed. "Yeah, they are... cute. Not as cute as you."

George glanced over at Nancy and Ned and rolled her eyes. "I'm beginning to think that you two gave me entirely unrealistic expectations of relationships," she called to them. "The honeymoon phase is supposed to stop eventually, I thought."

Nancy shook her head, her earrings swinging with the movement. "Never," she said with a laugh.

Nancy and Ned split the steak and chicken dinner for two, and Nancy had a mai tai before dinner and during dinner. Then they headed to a busy club uptown, all twelve of them.

They headed inside and Nancy looked around. The music was loud, the song catchy, and the bass pounded through her. All around them were energetic couples, clusters of scantily-clad girls, the usual club scene. If Nancy were to drop her husband's hand and head to the bar alone, she knew it wouldn't take her long to pick up a guy or two—and making her husband jealous was a sure way to make him come after her, to get him to reclaim her with kisses or, even better, a quick trip to the club restroom. Still, she had a feeling that their bet didn't include fucking him against the wall in the club. She decided on another strategy.

Ned squeezed her hand. "Want a drink?"

Nancy nodded. "Mai tai. And get Rebecca something too, okay? As a thank you for putting up with us." She kissed his cheek.

Ned chuckled. "Small price to pay," he teased her before heading to the bar.

While Ned was gone, Nancy took the time to talk to each of their friends. Howie and his girlfriend congratulated Nancy on her birthday; Jules and Tony were jubilant, possibly thanks to the sake they had ordered back at the restaurant, and Jules handed Nancy a card. "Don't spend it all at one place," she advised Nancy with a wink. George arranged to have lunch with Nancy sometime that week, and Jan wrapped Nancy in a warm hug. Jan was relieved that her energy was finally coming back, and her recent interview had gone well. When Jan returned to Mike, Nancy was happy to see Mike wrap an arm around his wife's waist and kiss her cheek. At first she hadn't really believed Ned when he had reassured her that Mike and Jan didn't hate her over what had happened at Emerson so many years earlier, but time had made her relax around them, and she felt a little lump in her throat when Jan patted the small round of her belly. Ned was so incredibly sweet and loving to her now; she couldn't even imagine how attentive he would be while she was pregnant, what an amazing father he would be.

Rebecca handed Nancy an envelope when Nancy came over to ask how she was doing. "I know you said not to get anything," Rebecca said sheepishly, "but I couldn't help it. If you don't like it, just let me know."

Responding to the anxiety on Rebecca's face, Nancy went ahead and opened the envelope to find a gift card to a makeup boutique. "Oooh! Thank you so much!" Nancy said with a sincere grin. "It's great, really. Thank you."

Rebecca smiled. "Whenever I see you, you always look so pretty, even without makeup—I mean..." The other woman trailed off with a little shake of her head.

Nancy made a mental note to get a gift card to the same store for Rebecca the next opportunity she found. "It's okay. Thank you, really. And I'm so glad you were able to come along."

Bess and Terry were deep in conversation when Nancy approached them, but Bess flung her arms eagerly around Nancy anyway, squealing with joy. "Happy birthday, Nancy Drew Nickerson! Have I said how absolutely gorgeous you look tonight? God, I wish I would look like that in that dress." She shook her head. "I'm so short I'd look like a yard gnome."

"Would not," Terry told her, shaking his head as he gave his cousin's wife a brief hug. "Happy birthday, Nancy. Thanks so much for inviting me. I wish we could hang out more often."

Nancy directed a loaded glance at Bess. "Well, maybe if someone we know would visit more often, we could double date. In fact, Bess...?"

Ned found Nancy and handed her the mai tai she had ordered, then shook his cousin's hand, clasping his back. "Hey Terry. Good to see you, man."

"Tell them we need to double date," Nancy told Ned.

"We do," Ned agreed. "I don't think we've had time to actually sit down and talk in a long time."

"Bess?" Nancy wiggled her eyebrows. "Come on. Come on. It's my birthday, after all."

Bess chuckled. "Okay. I'll try to find some time before I head back to the city. You've twisted my arm enough."

Nancy finished her drink, and she felt lightheaded and gloriously happy when she took her husband's hand and pulled him out onto the dance floor. She had peeled the breast petals off during a trip to the restroom, and when she slipped her arms up around his neck, pressing tight against him, her lashes fluttered a little at the sensation of his warmth through the thin fabric of her dress, teasing the hard tips of her nipples.

"How are you doing, beautiful?" Ned murmured, gazing down into her eyes, his fingertips brushing the back of her neck.

"Great. I'm doing great," she told him with a blissful smile. They moved together like they had been born to no other purpose, and Ned trailed his fingers down her spine, down the line of skin the back of her dress left nearly exposed. She shivered against him, peering at him through her lashes.

"Just considering our bet," she murmured. She had trained herself to be alert and aware while drinking, to keep as levelheaded as possible, but she was around people she trusted—and proximity to Ned had always made her feel a little intoxicated.

"You mean what you'll be cooking for me tomorrow night?"

"What you'll be cooking for me," she told him, running her fingers through his hair. "After all, Ned, do you really want to waste the time once we get home denying what you know you want, when we're going to have to get up tomorrow and have lunch with our parents and everything instead of rolling around in bed together? Are you really saying that you'd rather win some stupid bet when I..." She leaned in close to him, her heels putting them on more equal footing than they usually were. "When my cunt is practically dripping wet at the thought of you yanking my skirt up and bending me over the arm of the couch when we walk inside, waiting for that first time, waiting for you to pull that big, gorgeous cock out and plunge it up into my hot, tight little cunt, so deep I scream—"

Ned's hand tightened at the small of her back, and when his voice came, it was strangled. "Hold that thought," he mumbled.

Nancy was blushing when Mike approached them, but the strobing lights would hopefully be enough to hide it. "Howie's buying a round. What you want, Nick, some Jager? A beer?"

Ned glanced down at his wife. "Tequila?" he asked her, and she nodded once, glad he had chosen something besides Mike's suggestions. "Two, silver."

Mike nodded with a grin, and when he turned away, Ned looked down at his wife again. "Please continue," he requested pleasantly, and his voice had lost that strangled quality.

She made a moue of slight annoyance at him. "Why don't you tell me what you'd like to happen next?"

Ned raised an eyebrow at her. "You sure you can handle it, sweetheart?"

"Positive, Nickerson."

Ned leaned down and pressed his lips directly against her ear. "Well, what we could do, is a few more rounds of shots, and the entire cab ride back home, you'd be thinking about how bad you want me, how you feel so empty, so incredibly horny when you think about what you want me to do to you. And when we walk in, you could even just say two little words..." He traced the lower curve of her earlobe with the tip of his tongue. "'I forfeit.' So easy. So simple. And then, baby, I'd untie this knotted excuse for a dress you're wearing and pull you on top of me, suck those tight pink nipples while I finger your hot, sweet little cunt, until you're pulsing around me..."

By the time Mike returned with their shots, Nancy was finding it hard to remember how to even breathe. Ned was aroused, and she knew it; she could feel him, erect through his pants. However, she was practically trembling with need, and with every brush of his hips against hers, every swipe of his lips against her earlobe or her jaw, her heart beat a little faster. What he had described wanting to do to her had left her dripping wet, and she took the silver tequila shot Mike handed her quickly, licking the last drop from her lips as she met her husband's eyes in a direct challenge.

"Another one?"

"Hell yes," Ned replied immediately.

They did another round before Nancy released Ned to dance with her girlfriends, and she knew his appreciative gaze was on her when they went out on the floor. She threw herself into it, making sure Rebecca was invited to come with them, and while she stayed at the outskirts of the group, she still looked like she was having a good time. Bess took Nancy and George's hands, while Jan and Howie's girlfriend giggled together, gesturing for Rebecca to join them. Jules came back with a fresh drink, her eyes bright, declaring that she loved the song. Her dancing was so energetically goofy that Rebecca laughed and joined in.

"So you and Terry look really happy," Nancy commented, twirling Bess.

Bess nodded, then tipped her head back. "I was thinking about maybe taking three weeks off," she commented, her voice just loud enough to carry over the music. "I have a break coming up, and maybe he and I could take some time away together... you know, get to know each other..."

"That's great. He really does seem like a great guy," George commented. "Speaking of, Nan... what do you know about that Tony guy?"

The three of them gossiped together for a little while, eyes bright, and Nancy was struck again at how, three years earlier, she would hardly have believed this life possible for her. Reunited with her best friends, married to the love of her life, happily celebrating another birthday. She glanced over where her husband was standing with Mike and Howie and Terry, a longneck in his hand, and it only took a second before he had turned his gaze from his friends to her—and the smile that he gave her was enough to melt her heart.

By the time they all called it a night, Nancy glanced at the clock on her cell phone and was relieved to discover it was just after eleven. Less than an hour until their bet would be decided—and she would have him on top of her before midnight, she was sure.

Mostly sure. Kinda sure.

Nancy and Ned held hands during the cab ride home, and when Nancy invited Rebecca to come with them on their next night out, if she was able to make it, Rebecca agreed almost immediately. Nancy was already mentally planning a party for her husband once he heard back from his admissions interviews, and it wouldn't take too much arm twisting to get him to invite some single guys he knew. Nancy didn't want to play matchmaker—she was content to leave that to Bess—but the few times she had interacted with Rob, she hadn't had the best impression of him, and if Rebecca could meet some other great guys, all the better, as far as Nancy was concerned.

Nancy hugged Rebecca goodbye at the door, and then Ned practically dragged his wife inside. Just the contact of their fingers was driving her crazy. It hadn't even been forty-eight hours since they'd had sex, and yet she felt like she'd been on a desert island for six months, she was so incredibly horny.

"We didn't define what breaking was," she reminded him, running her fingers through his hair and guiding him down to her, his face tipped over hers so she could kiss him. "A kiss?"

Ned shook his head, his lips brushing hers. "My cock being inside you," he growled, his voice low enough to send a shudder down her spine. "Anywhere inside you."

"So foreplay's okay?"

Ned threaded his fingers in her hair and tugged slightly, a smirk on his handsome lips. "Sure," he told her. "We've had a lot of practice with that."

"Wait here," she told him, taking a few steps back. She reached behind her and untied the string, letting the dress slide down to pool at her feet, revealing her bare, hard-tipped breasts and a tiny black-and-silver lace thong, the same one she had worn for the striptease she had performed at the club. She saw Ned's adam's apple bob up and down once as his gaze slid down her naked body, then back up again.

"I mean, unless you want to help me."

"Help you put on more clothes?"

"Or take these off," she purred, hooking her thumb in the side of her thong and pulling it away from her hip. She wore the heart pendant and wedding rings, her heels, the thong, and nothing else, and she could tell it was definitely affecting him.

"I'll just be down here," he told her, sitting down on the couch.

She hadn't expected him to come upstairs with her, not really. She glanced at her watch, and even though time was running out, she still smiled.

Nancy put on the bra that matched her panties, then pulled on her sheer black robe and tied it around her. She considered putting on the clamps, her black lace garter belt and some stockings, but shook her head and let her hair down, wiping her makeup off. She slicked a layer of ruby red gloss on her lips, slipped out of her heels, and headed back downstairs.

"Do your worst, Drew," Ned murmured, glancing over at her. He had unbuttoned his shirt and toed out of his shoes, and he was seated in his usual place on the couch, his arms spread against the back, his legs parted.

"Having trouble keeping your legs shut, Nickerson?" she teased him, her hips swinging as she walked over to her husband.

"Are you?" he returned with a smile.

"Only when you're around, handsome." She sat down beside him on the couch. "But when my teacher has a firm hand, I might be able to learn... slowly, of course."

"I think that's a habit I wouldn't necessarily want to break you of, Miss Drew." He shifted when she reached over and ran her fingertips up his inner thigh, reversing just before she touched his crotch. "Although you do seem to relish punishment. Maybe we need to try something different."

"Oh?"

Ned nodded, and when he turned and kissed her, she accepted it, bringing her hand up to cup his cheek. She swung her knee over him to straddle his lap and he kissed her again, harder, bringing his hand up to caress her breast through her robe and bra. She settled the join of her thighs against his crotch, feeling how stiff he was under his pants, and a flush rose in her cheeks as she deliberately shifted her weight, rubbing against him.

Ned slowly broke the kiss, pulling back, his gaze low-lidded. "Careful," he whispered. "You don't want to start something we can't finish in the next..." He glanced at the clock. "Twenty-two minutes."

She gave him a slow grin. "Worried, Nickerson?"

"Never," he murmured, leaning forward to kiss her again. "Not when I'm with you."

He was trying to get her to give in, and she knew how dangerous this game of chicken was, but she loved it. He deepened the kiss and she ran her fingers through his hair again, tipping her head to the side, kissing him sweetly. She tilted her hips against his again and his pants brushed against her clit through the rough lace, and Nancy made a soft sound, her lashes fluttering.

"All you have to do," Ned whispered, "is say two little words and I'll be inside you, baby. You know how good it'll feel..."

Nancy tipped her head down and sucked at the skin just under his earlobe, rocking against him again. "It will feel good," she moaned. "Oh God, you know it will. Just let me see your cock, baby, let me feel it against my skin..."

Ned reached for his pants and opened them, and Nancy tipped back a little to let him do it, unbelting her robe and shrugging it off, reaching behind her to unfasten her bra and toss it to the floor. Ned sighed as he pulled his cock out, and Nancy looked down at it, and the desire in her eyes was unfeigned. "Mmmm, baby. Take my thong off, sweetheart..."

Ned chuckled. "How is it that you're the one giving orders right now?"

"Because it's my birthday," she pointed out, then glanced up into his eyes. "Scared?"

He shook his head and tugged her thong down. "Never," he growled.

They kept teasing each other, and their inebriation and the sheer swooning weight of her desire and their stubbornness meant that soon they were tangled together on the couch, Ned's shirt off and his pants halfway down his legs, and Nancy's legs twined around his waist. When she reached for his cock and began to angle it, Ned took her hands and pinned them over her head, and she grinned at him.

"Just wanted to give my clit a little attention," she teased him, bucking her hips. "Would you mind, sweetheart? You do remember where it is..."

He took her wrists in one hand and brought the other between her legs, growling as his thumb found her clit. He swiped it a few times before plunging two fingers into the slick heat of her cunt, and she cried out, arching under him.

"Will this calm you down?" he growled as he worked his fingers out, then back into her.

She shook her head. "Baby, I need you," she moaned, tugging at his grip so that her breasts trembled. "I need you inside me, please, please, God, it will feel so good..."

Ned was panting as he increased the pace of his fingers. "Two little words, baby, and you can have me, all of me..."

She cried out again, trembling. "Oh please, please, baby..."

Ned leaned down and sucked at the column of her throat, digging his thumb into her clit, and she tipped her head back, sobbing, begging him, and it was at the tip of her tongue, the tip of her fucking tongue...

She writhed against his grip again. "Ned," she screamed, "oh God, oh God, fuck me, I need you... I'll do anything, anything..."

"Say it," he panted. "Holy fuck, Nan."

She clenched around him as she came, hips bucking, and Ned slipped his fingers out of her, smacking her hip in frustration. She moaned at the loss of contact, digging her heels into the small of his back to draw his hips down to hers, and when Ned pushed himself back Nancy was flushed and trembling, and she could smell how aroused she was. Ned reached for his cock, slicking her arousal over the flesh as he pumped it in his hand a few times, and Nancy shook her head, trying to gasp her breath back.

"Not fair."

"Definitely fair," Ned forced out. "Doesn't violate the rules."

She frowned at him. "I hate when you come and you aren't inside me," she pouted. "Here... don't you want me to touch myself while you fuck my mouth, baby?"

Ned shuddered, glancing at the clock. "Holy hell."

She pushed herself up, standing on her knees. "You told me a long time ago that I was your drug," she whispered. "You're mine too, baby... let me taste your cock, let me taste that hot cum, oh please..." She cupped her breasts, squeezing them, offering herself to him.

Ned's dark eyes were smoldering as he glanced up into her own. "Why the fuck did I agree to this," he murmured.

Nancy reached for the hand he was using to stroke his cock and held his gaze as she brought it to her mouth, sucking his index finger into her mouth and stroking it with her tongue. Ned visibly shuddered again, unable to look away from her.

"Mmmm." Nancy kissed the center of his palm, the pulse point in his wrist, his inner elbow. She pushed him down, kissing the center of his chest, stroking her fingers down his abs, over the saddle of flesh at his hips, to his cock.

Ned groaned loudly when she kissed the tip of his cock, tasting their mingled arousal, and he grasped her hair, sliding his hips back. "Oh holy fucking shit I can't believe I agreed to this," he growled. "I cannot fucking believe I have to wait to feel that sexy mouth on me..."

"You don't have to wait," she pointed out, crawling forward, peering at him from under her lashes as he backed away from her. "Just relax, baby, and let me take care of you."

Ned grabbed her, pinning her under him, and she wrestled with him, slipping her legs around him. They ended up falling to the rug at the foot of the couch, narrowly avoiding the coffee table, laughing at each other, her on top of him, and Nancy leaned down, brushing the tip of her nose against his. Neither of them would be able to last the five minutes left until midnight, and she was going to die if she didn't feel him inside her right now.

"Truce?" she asked, panting, searching his eyes. "And we can try this again sometime?"

"And we'll just make dinner together," Ned murmured, reaching between them to angle his cock, and they both sighed when she immediately sank down onto him, her cunt still slippery wet and so sensitive. "Oh holy fuck, thank God," he groaned as she pushed herself up, her long hair tumbling down her back as she began to ride him. He cupped her breast, fondling her nipple before he slipped his hand down her chest to rub her clit, and caught a lock of her hair in his other hand, tugging gently.

"Happy birthday, sweetheart."

She tipped forward, her lips parted, and when she traced his lips with her index finger, he sucked her fingertip into his mouth and lashed his tongue against it. "Love you," she moaned softly, rising and sinking down onto him again, shivering at how amazing it felt.

He kissed her fingertip. "Love you too, babe."

Chapter Text

The first really warm day in May, Ned was feeling good. It was Friday, he was going to have all his projects finished before he left work for the day, and his boss had told him that he was sure Ned would be hearing from graduate schools soon. The sun was bright on the other side of his office window.

The first anniversary of his marriage was coming up. Ned looked down at his wedding ring, smiling as he thought about it. He and Nancy had both been working hard lately—she had been working a case the majority of the previous weekend, and she had been undercover the past week, staying late at work. She had been coming home tired, the clear-lensed plastic square-rimmed glasses she wore as part of her disguise pushed up on her hair, and the night before Ned had given his wife a foot massage she had enjoyed so much that she had practically been passed out by the end of it.

They had been on a few double dates with Ned's cousin Terry and Bess in the past few weeks, as well. From what Nancy had told him, Bess was feeling like things could be serious with him, maybe. When the girls had gone to the bathroom together, Ned had put down his beer and asked his cousin how he felt about Bess.

"She's a great girl," Terry had said. "I just wish the circumstances were different. We're going away next week; maybe we'll be able to figure something out."

"Going away?"

Terry had nodded. "Yeah. Thought we'd spend some time together, see how we like it. Who knows." He shrugged. "New York isn't so far away, if I decide I can't live without her."

Ned had offered the keys to the lake cabin—his parents wouldn't mind, he was sure, since Terry had been responsible save the usual youthful mistakes—but Terry had been convinced Bess would rather go somewhere with more to do, and Ned couldn't help agreeing with him. Bess wasn't active the way Nancy and George were, and despite her current slender shape she still preferred shopping over a visit to the gym, but he couldn't imagine Bess being all that thrilled about a solitary week at the cabin. The water still wasn't terribly warm yet, and the weather still wasn't hot enough for sunbathing.

Ned had to admit to himself that he wouldn't mind taking Nancy out there anyway. They could play volleyball and swim, make dinner together, have incredibly loud sex without disturbing neighbors. They would probably have more fun if Jan and Mike were staying nearby, maybe the rest of the gang like they had been able to do over a few summers, but in all honesty Ned just wanted his wife to relax again.

They had the weekend in front of them, and barring any unforeseen emergency, he would be able to give her his undivided attention for all of it.

Howie texted Ned midafternoon to ask if he and Nancy had decided about going out that night. He had invited them earlier in the week, and Ned knew Mike was going along even if Jan didn't feel up to it—and that Jan's decision to go would probably entirely depend on whether Nancy did. Nancy hadn't been sure about work, though, and had told Ned that it was okay with her if he went, even if she couldn't.

Let me check, Ned texted Howie, then pulled up Nancy's name and sent her a brief text message before he glanced at the clock. Nancy was probably in her weekly session with Dr. Monroe, and wouldn't be able to answer until after.

And that was another reason Nancy and Ned rarely went out on Friday nights. After her usual therapy session on Friday afternoon, sometimes Nancy didn't feel up to doing anything, and the last thing she wanted was to be around people.

She had been in the middle of a tricky case, though, and he didn't know if she would head back to work after her session, or if she would even go to her session. But she had told him to go on anyway...

The day was pleasantly warm and sunny when Ned left work, and his cell phone was still silent. Howie had told Ned where they would be meeting and had left it up to him. He was just supposed to text Howie either way.

Ned glanced at the display again, just in case, but she hadn't texted him in the five seconds since he had last checked.

Just a beer, he thought. Just one beer. It'll be quick, in and out. Besides, if her schedule's anything like it's been the rest of the week...

Ned had just walked to the edge of the sidewalk and was about to hail a cab when his stomach clenched, and he frowned. He checked his phone again, and when the display remained stubbornly blank, he navigated to his wife's listing and called her, listening to it ring on the other end. Her voicemail clicked on.

"Hey babe. I... just wanted to check in. Call me when you can, okay?"

She would be at least moderately exasperated if she was in the middle of some tricky operation, but Ned didn't like the feeling in the pit of his stomach. He texted Howie and asked if he might be free Sunday afternoon, maybe to come over to Ned's place and watch the game and have a few beers. Then he sent the same message to Mike. He made the offer contingent on his wife's decision, and his two friends agreed.

Nancy's car was parked in front of their house when Ned arrived. Ned swallowed hard as he parked as well. He was a little reassured that the door was bolted, and keyed inside quickly.

"Honey?"

The lights downstairs were off. Her pumps were on the stairs, one on the lowest, one on the stair above. Ned heard the water running upstairs, and he took the steps two at a time, calling her name.

The bathroom door wasn't locked. They didn't lock doors around each other. Ned stepped onto the tile and was surprised when he didn't see his wife's silhouette behind the curtain. "Nan?" he repeated, then pushed back the curtain.

His wife was sitting in the bottom of the tub, facing away from the water, hugging her knees. She was naked and her hair fell in long dark-red soaked tresses down her back. The water beat down on her, and her head was bowed. He saw the livid red marks of hard-dragged fingernails over her pale shoulders.

"Nan," Ned said again, reaching for the water to turn it off. He found a bath towel under the sink and reached for her, touching her tentatively. In the stillness, when he said her name again, his voice sounded too loud.

She rose easily enough when he lifted her, and she was shivering. He wrapped the towel around her, briskly drying her off, then rubbed the towel over her hair. Her mascara was smeared over her cheeks, her makeup ruined, and he left the towel draped over her shoulders as he searched under the cabinet again. When he rose with a dry bath sheet, she was mechanically wiping her face with the tail of the damp towel, her gaze still a million miles away.

Ned wrapped her in the bath sheet and he saw her blink. So she wasn't totally gone. At least that was reassuring. He walked with her to their bed and she climbed in, curling up in a ball, her lips trembling.

Ned considered for a few seconds. Sometimes she needed to be alone, but more often she liked to have his arms around her. He toed out of his shoes and swiftly unbuttoned his shirt, leaving him barechested, pushed his pants off, and joined her in the bed wearing nothing but his briefs. Her entire body was trembling, and he gently moved against her, his chest to her back, his legs tucked up with hers as he spooned behind her. He draped his arm over her and cringed when he saw one of the scratches on her shoulder was bleeding.

"Shhh," he whispered, kissing the bare flesh between her shoulder blades. He didn't want to stroke her bare skin for fear it would trigger her, so he kept his hand palm down, resting on the towel beneath her, near her belly. "Shhh. I'm here. Shhh."

She shuddered again, harder, gasping in a breath. "Ned," she whispered, a note of something like panic in her voice, and she seemed to curl up even tighter. She laced her fingers between his and her skin was cold, and Ned made a soft sound as he pulled the towel over her, then the blanket, trying to cocoon her in warmth. Her hair was still damp, and he was sure that wasn't helping.

She held his hand to her bare belly. "Warm," she whispered, and Ned took a deep breath, then rolled her onto her other side so she was facing him, pulling her into his arms and holding her tight, her bare chest to his. She felt cool against him, and Ned put as much of his body in contact with hers as he could. Beyond the window the late afternoon was still and warm, drenched in gold, but she felt like the sun had not touched her.

"Shhh," he whispered. "Better?"

"Yes," she whispered, their voices close and quiet as a secret in church, and then she swallowed. "I'm sorry."

"About what, sweetheart," he murmured, gently caressing her cheek.

"Thought you were going out..."

"I wouldn't go out and get a few beers with the guys if you were feeling like this. You know that. They took a raincheck and we'll get together Sunday if you're feeling better." He kissed her forehead. "I wish you'd called me."

"I thought—I thought it would pass." Her voice was shaking. "I thought I'd be okay, that I wouldn't have to bother you."

"It's no bother, baby. None at all."

She nestled into him and he stroked her back, careful to avoid touching her injured shoulders. Their legs were tangled together and slowly, gradually, she stopped shaking quite so hard.

"Can you talk about it?"

Nancy made a faint sound, almost a whimper. "She... she told me it wasn't my fault."

"It wasn't," Ned agreed immediately. He didn't even have to ask. "It wasn't your fault at all, baby. You didn't ask for it and you didn't deserve it."

She shifted against him, and when her voice came, it was barely above a whisper. "If that's true how the hell can I make sure it never happens again?"

Ned swallowed hard, holding her tighter. If it was nothing she had done, then it was out of her control, wasn't it, and it wasn't like she had made a mistake. No behavior she could point to and say "That, if I never do that again, I'll be safe."

"I don't know," Ned whispered, and when she started crying, he made his decision.

He kept holding her, and it broke his heart to see her upset. He hated ever being the person responsible for her tears, but it felt worse when there was nothing he could do to make her feel better. She told him that she had been able to just barely hold on until she had walked through their front door, and then she had just felt like she had to take a shower, she felt dirty again, like no time had gone by at all. And it felt like that too often, and she hated it.

"Your shoulders," he whispered. "Did you scratch your shoulders?"

She whimpered softly. "Sometimes I hurt so much and that's the only way to let it out," she breathed, and he had to strain to make out what she was saying.

He cupped her cheek, stroking her, until she glanced up at him, her blue eyes shining with tears. "Please don't do that," he murmured. "Please. Please call me next time, baby. I won't... I won't do anything you don't want me to do, I just don't want you to be alone when you're going through that." He touched his forehead to hers, gently touching her wedding band. "That's what this means, okay? You promised to always let me in, sweetheart. And I need you to do that."

She blinked and another pair of tears slipped down her cheeks. "Baby, I'm sorry," she whispered, her voice cracking. "It's... it's so hard to even... to listen to her... when she makes me think about it..."

Nancy's fingers tightened against her hand and Ned took her hand in his, letting her squeeze it. She gasped in a breath and closed her eyes.

"I don't want to be this person," she said angrily. "I don't want to be this broken fucking person. I want to be—I want to be who I was before I ever—before I met him. Before I met any of them but especially him. I was... I was okay, I was whole..."

Ned's lips brushed against her forehead. "I know, baby."

"But you don't," she said, and gasped in another breath, so agitated that she had to force her words out. "You don't—you don't understand. You can't fucking—understand—oh God..."

She trembled for a moment, unable to speak, and sat up, burying her face in her hands. She drew her breath in shallow ragged gasps, so quick he thought she would hyperventilate and pass out. He sat up too, his gaze locked to her face, afraid to say anything to her.

After a long time she finally took her hands away from her face, revealing red-rimmed bloodshot eyes, puffy eyelids, glistening cheeks.

"Every time I see you like this," Ned told her, his voice low and steady, "I wish to God I could take it away from you. I'd do anything to try to make this better for you, Nan, I swear I would. And you're right, I can't understand it. I can't imagine how it would feel to look at someone I cared about and be afraid that that person might overpower me and do something to me against my will. It... what he did to you makes me physically sick.

"But I do understand how it feels to remember being someone else, and feeling like some part of you is gone, and you'll never have it back. Because I lost you. I lost the better part of myself when I lost you. I did things I'm not proud of having done when we were apart. But I can't change it, and all I can do now is love you all the more to make up for that time we lost, every day for the rest of our lives."

He reached for her hand, slowly, and she accepted it. "Tell me what to do and I'll do it," he said, holding her gaze. "I will do anything in my power, anything you ask me, to help you feel better."

She pulled in a slow breath, her eyes gleaming again, and then she climbed onto his lap, wrapping herself around him. Under any other circumstances it would have felt like a come-on, but she was hurting, out of herself, and he just wrapped his arms around her in return, his eyes closing when she nestled her head against his shoulder.

"You would," she said, her voice faint and almost weary. "You would do what I asked, wouldn't you."

He kissed her temple. "I'd rip my own heart out for you," he whispered. "You know I would, baby."

She sighed. "Don't do that," she whispered. "You... you are so precious to me, Ned. Even when I don't deserve you. Even though I never will."

Ned moved back and took her face in his hands. "Baby, I have loved you... I loved you from the moment I knew you. I don't understand how you could ever feel like you don't deserve it."

She blinked and a pair of tears slipped down her cheeks, onto his fingers. "The way I loved you... the way I love you, I knew I would never feel like this again, for anyone else, just like I knew... one day you'd leave me, and I would never..."

She choked up, and Ned pulled her to him again, rocking her slowly. "I've always been able to say it," he whispered.

"And I never have," she whispered. "Because there are no words..."

He put his mouth against her ear. "But there don't have to be," he whispered. "Because I've seen your face after we've made love. I've seen the way you can look at me across a crowded room and suddenly it feels like we're the only two people there. I've felt you curl up against me in the middle of the night and fall asleep just because we're touching. I saw the—the joy on your face when I asked if you wanted to marry me, and how nervous we were on our wedding day. The book and note you gave me at Christmas.

"And, Nan, no... no, there's nothing you could do that would make you deserve this—because... baby, we were meant for each other. Every time I touch you or kiss you or look into your eyes, I know that. We're two halves of a whole and that's just as crazy as saying one half of an apple deserves the other half. You're a part of me and I will never willingly let you go, or see you in pain when I can do anything about it."

He shook his head. "And when you say you knew this would end... there was a time I thought that, too. That something this perfect, this incredibly rare, could never last. That I loved you so incredibly fiercely, so strongly, that it would have to burn itself out. But it's only gotten stronger for me, Nan. I'd go through the gates of hell for you. I would break every rule, every law for you." His thumb brushed her cheek. "I'm just lucky you didn't turn to a life of crime, because I would be there beside you."

She made a soft sound, her arms tightening just a little around him. "You... you were meant for me."

He nodded, his lips brushing her ear.

"And even... after everything... you still feel that way about me too. Like I... like I..."

She choked up and Ned stroked her cheek, pulling back to look into her eyes.

"Like you wouldn't be... this happy with anyone else," she said, her voice the softest whisper.

His heart ached when she anxiously searched his eyes, looking for any sign of doubt there. "I know that you are the only one for me," he told her. "That no one else will ever make me this happy."

"Even when I'm..." Like this, she didn't quite say, but she didn't have to.

"There is no even, no except. Always, Nan. Always."

She wiped her cheeks, shaking her head. "I am thankful for every day I have with you," she whispered, and her voice was thick from her tears. "And infinity wouldn't be long enough. I never want to be away from you or apart from you. And every time someone says to me 'Oh, it's the honeymoon phase, it'll pass'... I can't... I feel this way every time I look in your eyes, and I always have, and it... it scares me, baby, because I never wanted to depend on anyone..."

She made an irritated sound when her nose started running, and Ned leaned over to grab a tissue for her. She gave him a smile before she wiped her nose.

"But I need you to," he said softly. "I need you to trust me."

She wiped her cheeks again. "I'm trying," she whispered.

"I know." He touched her side. "I know you are."

She hugged him again, lingering in his arms, before she released him, walking to the bathroom to bathe her swollen red-rimmed eyes. Ned found the antiseptic and put some on her wounded shoulders, and while she cringed, she thanked him with a smile. She put her hair up in a messy bun, dressing in a pair of light cotton pants and one of Ned's faded Emerson t-shirts, and the way the fabric hung on her frame made her look even smaller than she actually was.

"I'll make dinner," he offered when they went downstairs.

She shook her head. "I'll do it. I need to take my mind off..."

Neither of them could really decide on what they wanted. Nancy had left a package of tuna steaks in the bottom of the refrigerator to defrost, and that seemed as good as anything else, so Ned went outside and prepped the grill while Nancy pulled out ingredients for a spinach, walnut, and dried cranberry salad. She tossed it all together, then poured herself a soda, bringing him a beer. He had dusted off the chairs and they sat down outside, waiting for the grill to get up to temperature.

Ned had just put the tuna on the grill when Nancy's phone chirped. She picked it up and smiled. "Looks like you'll need to entertain yourself tomorrow afternoon," she told her husband, and she sounded almost normal again.

"Oh?"

Nancy nodded. "Bess just got back into town so she and George and I are going to the mall tomorrow."

"George?" Ned repeated, raising his eyebrows, and Nancy chuckled.

"She misses her cousin, so she'll take what she can get." Nancy took a sip of her drink. "I have some birthday money to spend, anyway. Want me to pick you up anything?"

Ned shrugged, keeping a close eye on the tuna steaks. They were too easy to overcook, and he didn't want a repeat of the lemonade chicken incident. "If you see any dress shirts you think would look good," he said. "Or, you know, if you feel like getting some new lingerie..."

She smiled at him. "We'll see," she said, glancing back down at her phone. "I hope their trip together went okay."

It took a second for Ned to realize what she meant. He hummed a few bars of the Matchmaker song, and Nancy made a face at him.

"I just... I feel like their relationship isn't gonna go anywhere until they live in the same place, you know? Long-distance is hard; you know that. And at least we were still in high school when we met, and the trip to see you was ten minutes instead of hours."

Ned nodded. "I told you about Terry's high-school girlfriend, didn't I?"

Nancy perked up. "Oh?"

Ned nodded, his gaze still locked to the grill. "Babe, mind getting me a plate?"

She dashed inside and returned with a plate, and he deftly slid the spatula under each of the steaks, then slid them onto the plate. She took them inside and prepared the table while Ned made sure the fire was out.

"So?" she said impatiently when Ned walked in with his beer.

"Terry went to basic right out of high school and he and Luz had been dating for two years—and he was serious about her. Really serious. He came back from basic and she was seeing someone else. I don't know all the details, but for a few weeks she gave him the runaround, tried to deny anything was going on. It got ugly. He finished training and was deployed, and I think it was a relief to him to get away from all this, because it reminded him of her. She was at all the family events, and she was so friendly and sweet. It was a huge shock to all of us that she could be like that."

"So they're both a little gunshy," Nancy said slowly, taking the goat cheese and a bottle of balsamic vinaigrette out of the refrigerator.

"Pretty much."

It was strange, Ned reflected, as Nancy gradually relaxed over the course of the meal, as he raised another forkful of couscous to his mouth and saw her hand tremble a little as she reached for her drink glass. When he had been around Nancy in the throes of a panic attack, she had been clingy, and if they had made love, she stayed snuggled close to him after. Nightmares did the same thing to both of them, when she flashed back to the rape or her shooting, or when he had the same old nightmare, that she had died years ago. And then, sometimes, she didn't want to be touched. Instead of letting him in, she seemed to fold in on herself, as though she had to fortify herself for what she was going through, shrinking in defensively, marshaling all her strength.

He understood that Dr. Monroe was helping her. Nancy had explained it like digging out a splinter after years of skin had healed over it. Digging through would hurt, and maybe it sometimes seemed like it would have been easier to leave the splinter in place, but at least this way she could deal with it. But going through the rape again always hurt, and it seemed to leave her asking what she had done, what she could have done, whether she could truly trust herself after denying what had happened to her for so long. It left her feeling weaker than she had before. And it left her angry, depressed, vulnerable.

And Ned, who had never touched a woman against her will in his life—the closest he had ever come were a few drunk nights in bed when both he and the woman with him were blitzed out of their minds—hated seeing Nancy angry, hated when she was short with him, but he'd had enough introductory psychology to know. She saw Ned as safe, and she knew that he would never hurt her. She could lash out at him even if she couldn't lash out at the man who had actually hurt her. He could take it, and at the end of it Ned would still take her in his arms and hold her and shush her while she cried.

Understanding it didn't mean he enjoyed it; he didn't enjoy it at all.

But maybe that was what she was reacting to. He hated seeing her like this, and she knew that, so she had tried to stop him from seeing it. She had come home and tried to deal with it herself, and just made it worse.

After dinner they sat down on the couch together, near each other, and Ned left his hand open on the couch between them. Nancy reached for it idly, but didn't lace her fingers through his. She traced his fingertips, his wrist, all the way up his forearm to the inside of his elbow. She ran her fingertips between his knuckles, tracing his lifeline across his palm.

When she had said all she had to do was breathe in his direction to get him hard, she hadn't been stretching the truth. Ned glanced ruefully down at his lap. She had been so tired after work for the entire past week that they had slept curled together every night without anything more happening, and he was more than ready to make up for their abstinence.

She glanced over at him, drawing in a slow, soft breath. "Come here," she whispered, and drew him down so his head was resting on her lap. She put her palm on his chest and Ned put his hand over hers, holding it to his heart as they watched the evening news. Gradually he relaxed, telling himself that if he had to wait—or just take care of himself before they went to bed—it wasn't the end of the world.

During the first commercial break of their usual Friday-night show, Nancy ran her fingers through his hair. "I'm so proud of you," she whispered.

Ned turned to look up at her. She had a faint smile on her face. "You are?"

"Oh yes, baby. You actually put yourself out there when you didn't have to, took the test and applied, and you did great on your interviews. And in a few months I'll be kissing you goodbye when you head off to school and helping you study after you get back home. If you want."

"I'd love that," Ned said quietly. "I'm not looking forward to being away from you during class, but it's worth it. If I'm accepted—"

"And you will be," she said firmly, running her fingers through his hair again.

He gave her a small smile. "I'll probably be put in charge of the department once I'm done, if I'm lucky... and we'll be able to find a bigger place... a big sunny room where we can put a crib..."

He turned his head to brush his lips against her belly button, through the shirt she wore, and she dipped her head. He looked up at her again, reaching for her hair, and she helped him pull the elastic out of her hair so that it tumbled down.

"You're going to be an amazing father," she murmured. The show had come back from the commercial break, but neither of them looked at it.

"And you're going to be a great mother, Nan."

Nancy closed her eyes. "I hope so," she whispered. "I just... your mom was so nice when I talked to her about it, and she said she'd help out all she could. I look at Jan and Meg and... I want that for us, too. Even though it scares the hell out of me. I want to have a little piece of both of us." She smiled a little. "I still don't know if I really know what it'll be like, to be a mother, but you were the only person I could ever imagine having a child with."

He cupped her cheek and she slowly opened her eyes. "I love you," he told her. "And our kids, baby... they're going to be amazing."

"Kids, plural?" she teased him, her voice soft. "Do you really think that after I get through one pregnancy I'll ever let you near me again?"

"I sure hope so," he said, reaching up to tangle his fingers in her hair and draw her down to him. She brushed her lips against his, softly, and he released her hair, tracing his fingers down the side of her neck.

"Does this mean you changed your mind?" he asked softly, after their kiss. "Do you not want to wait anymore?"

She shook her head. "No, no. I haven't changed my mind. I still think we should wait a few years. I'm just starting to look forward to it, that's all." She brushed the tip of her nose against his. "I've been anticipating our anniversary trip practically since we got back from our honeymoon, remember?"

"I do seem to remember that," Ned chuckled.

She picked up the remote and rewound the show, and when they finished watching it, Nancy gathered up her loose hair and put it up again. "Ned..."

"Hmm?"

"I need to get a haircut."

Ned turned to look up at her with a little frown. "Really?"

She nodded. "It takes forever to dry and I have split ends and it's starting to get warm outside... and I promise I won't cut it all off, okay?"

He smiled at her. "It's your hair," he said. "I mean, if you decide that you don't want it above your shoulders..."

She chuckled. "Fine," she told him, and ran her fingers along his jaw. "And if you decide that you want to not shave tomorrow..."

"Touché, Miss Drew."

They stayed up even past when they normally would have gone upstairs holding hands and tumbled into bed together. She found an old movie and they checked their email a few times, and when Ned saw another text from Howie, Nancy told Ned she would be happy to be hostess if he invited Howie and Mike and whoever else over to watch the game Sunday—Jan and Howie's girlfriend too, if he wanted. And, she mentioned very casually, if he wanted to invite Terry and ask how his trip with Bess had gone...

"Okay, what do I get for participating in your machinations?"

Nancy wrinkled her nose at him. "I'm not... machinating. Just helping things along. Will I object if Bess is sporting a diamond when she goes to your grandparents' house for Christmas this year? Not at all..."

Ned laughed, but he could hear the slight longing in her voice. She did miss having her best friends around her, and he knew that, even if she didn't necessarily need their help on her cases, she still valued their companionship. Bess did seem genuinely happy with her career, though.

When Ned found himself starting to drift off, he yawned, pushing himself up off the couch. "I'm gonna get to bed," he told his wife. "Staying up?"

She shrugged. "I'll be up in a little while. Go ahead."

Ned prepared for bed slowly, hoping that she would join him before he fell asleep, but he was too tired to stay awake for very long, and he wasn't even sure if she wanted to come to bed anytime soon.

What if all three of the responses he received were rejections? She had said she was proud of him, and he didn't doubt that, but she would be disappointed if he wasn't accepted. He knew he could apply to other schools, but he had been so convinced that his interviews had gone well, and though he had been trying not to do it, he realized that a part of him had been sure that their timeline would work, that in a couple of years he and Nancy would be trying to get pregnant, finding a bigger place to live, maybe even one closer to their parents...

Ned drifted off, thinking about work, the rest of the weekend, their anniversary trip, the tearstained expression on his wife's face, that slight hesitation he could feel every time they had touched since he had found her in the shower. He rolled onto his side, nestling into his pillow. The weather had grown warm enough that they only had one blanket on the bed, but he had it pulled over his bare shoulders. He could still feel Nancy's absence, though, and he fell asleep hoping she would come to bed soon.

Their anniversary trip. It would be good for both of them to get away for a little while. They had found a place where they could relax on the beach, soak up the sun, go on day trips, and then spend the night reliving their honeymoon all over again. He imagined her in one of her tiny string bikinis, her hair shot through with sunlit gold and tumbling down her back, her skin warm in the heat. He imagined pulling her into his arms, their bodies tight together, and holding her safe against him.

God. For as long as she was in his arms, he would swear to keep her safe. He would lay down his life a thousand times for her.

He stirred, waking in the stillness when the mattress springs creaked under his wife as she slipped into their bed, on the window side, behind him. He was drifting off again, relaxed by her presence, when she rolled onto her side, cuddling up to his back.

Then she put her arm over him, her palm touching his bare chest. She gently toyed with the hair there, and Ned opened his eyes, making a soft sound as she traced her fingertips down to his abs. He rolled onto his back and she caressed his abs, then gently slid her fingers under the elastic of his briefs.

He reached down to help her take them off, and when she returned to him she took his erection in her hand, stroking him a few times before she took him in her mouth. She took him deep, moving up and down his cock, massaging the base with her fingertips, then pulled back and kissed the thin flesh of his balls.

She drew it out, caressing him with slick warm fingertips, her lips and wicked tongue, and then she finally began to bob up and down, pumping the base of his cock in her wet fist as she sucked him off. Ned's hand stole up and he laced his fingers through her hair, the red-gold strands falling in loose tresses over her shoulders, the tips brushing ticklish-light over his hip. She had turned on the lamp on her side of the bed and the stained glass cast her in blue shadow, made her skin more pale.

Ned groaned, warning her before he gave in and let himself come, and she kept her mouth on his cock until he was spent and softening. She slowly released him, then brushed a kiss against his abs before she sighed and returned to her side of the bed.

"Thanks, baby," he murmured.

She sat up, and he glanced over at her as she reached for the lamp. She still wore his old t-shirt and her cotton pants. He touched her hand and she turned to look at him, her eyes tired, her movements slow. She was trying to tire herself out, trying to make sure she didn't have a nightmare—the alarm clock confirmed that he had been asleep for a few hours before she had even joined him in bed.

Ned sat up too, reaching for the hem of the shirt she wore. She blinked but raised her arms obediently, letting him pull the shirt off, letting him unfasten her bra and draw it gently down her arms, carefully over her injured shoulders. She released a soft sigh when he touched her hip, but slid down to lie on her back again, helping him slip her pants off.

He looked down at her, her body bare and exposed to him, the lamp still casting dim light over her. He felt lightheaded, the house totally still around them, so quiet he imagined he could almost hear her heart beating. When he straddled her, her eyes widened, and he bent over her, brushing his lips against the round of scar tissue above her breast. He nuzzled against her, then swiped his tongue over her nipple, and she brought one hand up, drawing her fingertips up the line of his spine, up the nape of his neck, running them through his hair.

He brushed kisses over her, the tender undersides of her breasts, her sides, the hollow of her hip, her inner thighs. He guided her to bend her knees, then spread them wide and settled between, running the tip of his nose against the crease of flesh between the mound of her sex and her inner thighs, running his fingertips against the trim line of curls. He breathed on her, teasing her until she began to gently rock her hips, the bedsprings creaking as she arched.

He went down on her with soft deliberate swipes of his tongue, taking his time with her, stroking her clit with the tip of his tongue until she gasped. Then he switched off, caressing her hips, teasing the slick hollow of her sex. She brought her feet up, pressing her heels into the mattress to rock into his movements, her fingers tightening in his hair.

He kept going until she was whimpering, until he could feel her quivering. Then he sat up and grasped her ankles, pulling her legs up to drape them over his shoulders, and she was blinking up at him, her lips parted. He fitted the tip of his erect cock just between her thighs and she shivered, tipping her head back as he bent over her, beginning to move inside her. She was so tight around him with her legs up this way, and when he touched her cheek she opened her eyes to gaze at him again.

And he could see the moment she relaxed, when she gave herself over to the desire and pleasure. She released a soft moan, her inner muscles tensing as she shifted, running her fingers through his hair and then caressing his cheek. He turned to kiss her palm, the taste of her still clinging to his lips and tongue, and her cunt was so gloriously hot and slick around him.

He didn't fully pin her under him until he reached between them and flicked her clit, and she writhed under him, her breath coming in harsh pants. She reached between her legs and together they fondled the slick button of her clit until Ned planted his palms above her shoulders, angling his hips, driving rapidly into her.

She whimpered, her entire body shivering with his thrusts, and when she brought her hand up to lick her thumb, then slipped her hand between them again, Ned groaned, surging inside her.

They hadn't been this quiet in a while, and it reminded him of long nights tangled together in their bed at the basement apartment, swallowing her moans, muffling their cries into each other's skin. Under his own rough breathing, under her moans and desperate sobs, he could hear how wet she was with his every stroke, could feel her tremble against him. She kept rubbing her clit, circling her hips, and he kept his gaze locked to her, making sure she was all right as he pounded into her, his strokes long and hard.

She flushed, sucking in a breath as she bucked under him. "Oh," she whispered, and it was the first word she had spoken since she had joined him in their bed. Her brow creased as she let out her breath in a low pleading moan. "Mmmmm, Ned..."

"Baby," Ned groaned, feeling her tense around him at the apex of every thrust. "Oh yes, you feel so good..."

She sobbed more loudly, her nails digging into his back as she kept flicking her clit, her body moving with his as he drove into her. "Mmmmm, yes, yes..."

He felt her break, as she began to writhe under him, her head tipped back, her eyes rolling back. "Oh my God, oh my God," she cried out, and she was gasping desperately, her every breath another sob as she tipped her chin back down, her hazed blue eyes meeting his.

Ned grunted, hanging his head as he pushed into her with one last thrust, finally letting himself reach orgasm. He spent himself with a long groan and she slowed, still trembling. His lips brushed her cheek as he collapsed, and they both panted when she opened her legs, when gravity pulled him down to rest in the cradle of her thighs as her legs fell open under him.

"I love you," he whispered, wrapping his arm around her and rolling onto his side, their limbs tangled together, her face against his chest. Her cheeks were still flushed and burning from her arousal, and she cuddled against him, her leg sprawled over his.

"I love you," she breathed, her eyelashes brushing against his collarbone. "I love you, baby. So much."

He traced his fingertips down her spine, his lips brushing her red-gold hair, and she made a soft sound when he tilted his head down to kiss her cheek, her neck. She swallowed and he felt her muscles move under her warm flesh. She brushed her lips against his adam's apple, and when she ran her fingers through his hair, he pulled back to look down at her.

"Never let me go," she whispered when their gazes met. "What we have is... it's everything to me, Ned, and I'd lose myself if I lost you."

He kissed her forehead, the taste of her arousal still on his tongue. "I'll never let you go," he whispered. "Never, baby."

He found the cloth and cleaned them up, and then they moved under the covers together. She pulled her panties back on and he slipped back into his own underwear, and she curled up on her side, Ned's chest to her back, his arm curled over her belly, spooned up behind her. He gently kissed the top of her shoulder and she sighed, resting her hand over his.

It would be okay. It would. And he would do everything in his power to make sure of it.

--

"Behave yourselves, okay?"

Terry chuckled. "You must have us confused with two other handsome devils."

Nancy shook her head as she smiled at him. "I've heard some stories," she told him, her voice playfully stern. "And I thought I was bad."

Terry was just hanging up his coat as Nancy touched Ned's chin, standing on her tiptoes to kiss him, her purse already slung over her shoulder. She wore a navy-and-white striped shirt and low-slung jeans, and when Ned tipped his head down to return her kiss, he reached up and gently tugged her ponytail, and her eyes were dancing when they parted.

"I'm gonna miss you," he told her hair, combing his fingers through it one last time before he released it.

She wrinkled her nose at him. "It won't be too short," she promised. "And I'll grow it out for you again. Now, there are chips in the pantry, dip in the fridge, and you know where the car is. If you run out of beer just text me and—well, shit, if you guys are getting together tomorrow..."

"We are," Ned nodded.

"Then I'll pick some up on the way home anyway." She reached up and gave her husband one last kiss. "Love you."

"Love you too," Ned told her, squeezing her hand before he let her go. She tipped her head at Terry, but her last glance was at her husband.

After Nancy's departure, Ned asked if Terry had grabbed lunch on the way over, and when he said he hadn't, Ned went to the kitchen to pull out the ingredients for a pizza. Terry grabbed a beer out of the refrigerator and sat down at the small kitchen table, watching Ned assemble it.

"What was she talking about? Being too short?"

Ned smiled. "She's getting her hair cut today."

Terry shook his head, lifting the beer to his lips. "Hate it when they do that."

"Speaking of—and believe me, Nancy's the only reason I'm asking—how was the trip?"

"Good. It was good. You're asking because of Nancy?"

"For her. She thinks you two make a really cute couple." Ned checked the oven, but it hadn't finished preheating, so he grabbed his own beer, then sat down across from Terry. Terry wasn't looking forward to the day when Bess would be returning to New York, although Ned didn't sense that an elopement was imminent. Terry was still being cautious, and while Ned understood his hesitance, he reminded his cousin again that Bess was a great girl.

"And if it's right..." Ned shrugged. "I don't know. The thought of waiting... when it came to Nancy, anyway. I didn't want to."

"Yeah, but at least you two could just move in together, like you basically did. If we decide to try that, one of us has to totally relocate..." Terry took another sip of his beer.

"Well, if you put moving to New York on the table, I have a lot of friends there. Nancy's aunt lives there too. And here... I know Nan would really love it if Bess moved back here."

"See? It's a hard choice to have to make."

"And I don't envy you," Ned admitted, rising when the oven beeped.

During the pregame show, Ned heard steps on the porch, then the metallic sound of the mailbox. He and Terry had already finished off half the pizza, and Ned hastily wiped the traces of sauce and grease from his fingers before going to the door. He didn't want to get his hopes up, but every time he had checked the mail in the past few weeks, he hadn't been able to help it.

He flipped through the usual junk, one of Nancy's magazines—she had explained that subscribing to Cosmo had made her feel closer to Bess somehow, and even after they had made up, she had kept the subscription, teasing him that it was for the crazy sex tips—and a new DVD rental.

Behind the magazine was a large manila envelope, addressed to Ned. University logo with the return address.

Ned's heart was beating faster as he shouldered back into the townhouse, dumping the rest of the mail on the table near the door. He tore into the envelope, removing a small sheaf of papers.

Mr. Nickerson, based on your outstanding portfolio and personal and professional achievements, along with your excellent performance during your interview, we are pleased to offer you admission to the graduate program. The enclosed brochures include information about the next orientation session, and we look forward to seeing you there.

Ned laughed, delighted, then looked up at Terry. "Shit," he said happily. "I got in!"

"That's great! Congratulations," Terry said with a wide smile.

Ned shook his head, reaching for his phone, and speed-dialed his wife. He couldn't stop grinning. She picked up on the third ring, answering with a slightly breathless "Hello?"

"Guess who may or may not have just been accepted to his first choice—"

Nancy let out a loud delighted squeal. "Oh my God, baby, really?"

"Really. Just got it in the mail."

"Oh my God! Oh, Ned, I am so happy for you! This is amazing! Okay, seriously, we have got to have a party now. Maybe something next weekend?"

"Sounds great, sweetheart. I can't wait."

"I am so proud of you, Ned. And now I'll definitely have to pick you up a little treat when we're at the mall... maybe something silk."

"Well, I definitely can't wait for that, gorgeous," Ned murmured. Imagining his wife dressing up for him...

That made him think of the night before.

The game began, but Ned was distracted, both incredibly happy that he had been accepted to his top-choice program and thinking about his wife and what he had decided the day before. During a round of commercials, Ned mentioned the plan to get together with Howie and Mike and their significant others to watch Sunday's game, and Terry said he didn't see why he and Bess couldn't also come, if she agreed.

But Ned didn't know if he'd have a better chance to talk to his cousin.

After a tense ten minutes, when Ned and Terry both shouted at the television in frustration, Ned brought a pair of fresh beers back from the refrigerator and handed Terry one. He had a mild buzz going, and that made it just a little easier to talk about, but Ned still felt incredibly nervous at even the prospect of broaching the topic.

"Terry," he began, fiddling with the bottle cap as another commercial began, "if I asked you to help me out with something... it's something that might be a little dangerous..."

"What kind of thing are we talking about?"

"A guy I'm tracking down."

Terry took another pull from his beer. "Guy owe you money or something?" he said, with a small grin.

Ned swallowed hard. "A guy who raped Nancy."

Terry almost dropped his beer bottle, then put it down on the coffee table, his face going pale. "What? Some asshole attacked her?"

Ned shook his head, his gaze locked to the bottle cap as he gently spun it against his knee. "She was dating the guy and one night... well, she told him no, and he didn't stop. It was a few years ago, when we were split up."

"And you didn't go after him then?" Terry said, sounding surprised.

"She didn't tell me about it until recently," Ned said quietly. He drove the ball of his thumb against the edge of the bottle cap, hard. "She didn't even admit to herself that it was rape until recently. And it's been long enough that even if she wanted to file charges against him, she couldn't. The time limit has expired."

"Shit," Terry breathed, shaking his head. "God. I can't believe that. She looks... she looks okay."

Ned had to focus on his breathing for a minute. "She has nightmares about it," he said, his voice hard. "Flashbacks. I came home yesterday and she was just shaking, in the shower, and it was like she was in a trance, just gone, for a little while. And then she looked at me and... and she said, if it wasn't her fault—and it wasn't her fault, not at all—what the hell was she supposed to do to make sure nothing like that ever happened to her again?"

Ned finally glanced up at Terry, and Terry looked horrified. "God," he said quietly.

"This asshole," Ned said, looking down at the bottle cap again, "hurt her. He made her afraid. The law isn't going to punish him. He'll never be punished for what he did to her.

"Not unless I'm the one to do it."

Terry's jaw was set when Ned looked up at him again. "So what did you want to do," Terry said, his voice just as hard as Ned's.

They finished watching the game after they talked, although it took them both a few minutes to get back into the mood to pay attention. They were both still keyed up once the game was over, and so Ned hooked up his gaming system and handed Terry a controller.

"Look, it's... she doesn't talk about it. No one else knows, not even Bess. So just don't..."

"Hey," Terry said, opening his arms with a shrug. "My lips are sealed. I'm just—Bess doesn't know?"

"Not as far as I know, and I sure as hell don't want to be the one to tell her. She—Nan is so... she feels so ashamed that something like that happened to her, and God, she thought I wouldn't love her anymore once I found out..."

Terry shook his head. "Look, seriously, as far as I'm concerned whatever you want to do to this guy is fine with me. I know we're not even engaged or anything, but if some asshole did anything like that to Bess?" The expression on Terry's face was grim. "I'd lose it."

Ned shook his head, remembering the night she had told him. "If she had told me his last name the night she told me about the rape..."

"She didn't?"

Ned shook his head. "She got so upset that I just dropped it. I contacted a guy I know who does some PI work, and he got the name for me. She doesn't know."

Terry was quiet for a minute. "Why would she have kept that from you?"

"Maybe because she knew that if she'd told me that night I would have killed him."

After a tough five minutes of heavy play, Terry sighed and sat back as his half of the split screen went dim for a moment, while his avatar respawned. "You don't think she... was trying to protect this guy, or anything."

"What do you mean?" Ned asked, keeping his voice level.

Terry paused again. "I'm not saying she's like this, but... I don't know. I mean, she was dating this guy, things got out of hand and then she suddenly, years later..."

Ned put his controller down, aware that he was flushing a little. "We were having one of those conversations," he explained. "Talking about our pasts, because a girl I... slept with at Emerson thought it would be cute to catch up with me again. Started sending me these little text messages. I didn't really think anything of it, not really, but she sent me flowers, said she wanted to see me, and I told Nan."

"You didn't just go to the chick and tell her that she needed to cool off?"

Ned raised an eyebrow. "I'm married to a private investigator," he said. "I meet up with some woman I slept with once or twice, and wherever Nancy is, her damn spidey sense would start tingling. I can just imagine her answering my phone for me one day and losing her mind if she saw some shit like what Tiffany had been texting me on there, if she hadn't already known about it."

"So...?"

"So she asked me about the girls I used to date, to try to figure out which one of them it might be... and then she told me about it." Ned made a frustrated sound. "After she broke up with me... you know how it is when you're single and there's no reason not to go after that? Girls were throwing themselves at me, back at the frat, during the parties, practically all the time, and I took advantage of it. And God, I know how many guys were always going after Nan, and once we split up... well, things weren't great, but they were okay for me. With Nan, though, she didn't like being at Wilder anymore, things were going to hell with her friends, and then she was with this guy... and, Terry, I've seen her at gunpoint, knifepoint, come within an inch of dying. And that was all before. When she came back to me, she had been shot, come so, so close to bleeding out and dying. The scar's still in her chest. She's not the same person she was anymore, and part of the reason is what that asshole did to her."

"I guess I'm just..." Terry shook his head again. "I mean, when you two were talking... you don't think she was just telling you that so..."

"You mean that she would have lied about it?"

"Not... lied, exactly. Exaggerated, I guess. To make it sound better for her."

Ned had seen that kind of attitude before. At Emerson, sometimes even at work, if a woman made an accusation of rape, some of the guys would always say there had to be extenuating circumstances. It had been a misunderstanding, she had dressed provocatively, she hadn't said no strongly enough. When a weapon was involved, a gun or knife, no one felt sympathetic, but especially if one of them knew the guy in question, he just "wasn't that kind of guy." He wouldn't do that.

But Ned couldn't put it in words. From the moment Nancy had come back into his life, she had acted like she was in his debt, like she owed him for even considering taking her back. When he had told her that was over, that he had forgiven her for everything, it hadn't been enough—because he hadn't known everything. And, as far as she was concerned, if he didn't know what she had done, it was still a secret that could make him finally leave her. It could be the last straw, another mistake in a series of so many mistakes that could somehow make him stop loving her.

Like she could be less to him because of something that had happened to her.

Neither of them had ever made any secret of the fact, or tried to act like they hadn't slept with other people when they had been apart. If anything, he would have expected her to downplay the relationship she'd had with Frank while they had been apart... but Ned had known. Maybe he would never trust Frank Hardy around his wife, no matter how much he trusted Nancy. But he had known about Nancy and Frank's relationship before their marriage, had really known even before he had asked Nancy to confirm it soon after their engagement.

And he hadn't lied then, wasn't lying now. It was done. He couldn't change it or fix the past, and neither could she.

"We've always been honest with each other," Ned told Terry. "If she wanted to lie about something like that... well..." Ned set his jaw. "If she lied then I can guarantee it was to make it sound better than it actually was. She was trying to rationalize it even when she was telling me about it. Just that she didn't want to sleep with him. Not that he'd even raped her." Ned clenched his fists hard as he considered it. "She doesn't want to be seen as a victim, and for as long as she told herself that Jamie didn't rape her, then she wasn't a victim, it was just... just a night when she hadn't wanted to have sex, and he didn't convince her to do it, she didn't come around. She just fucking gave up." Ned's voice was flat, almost cold, as his anger grew. "That's what she told me."

Terry's arms were crossed; neither of them were paying any attention to the game anymore. "And you don't think it was just an honest mistake."

Ned shook his head. "She told him no. She struggled and he pinned her down. And, like I told her then, I can't imagine dating someone and being in any fear at all, that the other person could just physically overpower me and have sex with me when I didn't want that. I can't even imagine it. I can't imagine having sex with someone who didn't want to."

Terry ran his hand through his dark hair. "I don't mean to piss you off. I just—"

"You're saying exactly what she would have heard if she had decided to report him," Ned said. "No wonder she didn't. 'Did you lead him on? Did you tell him no more than once? Did you try to fight him off? How long did you try to fight him? Could he hear you? Did you have sex with him before that night, or after?' Because she did. Because she was trying to undo it. She actually thought that he could, that he did care about her, even after he had done something like that."

Terry sat forward. "Look, any guy who does anything like that to a woman is a despicable human being. And I'm with you, whatever you decide. But we need to be smart about this."

Ned nodded. "And if he did this to her, he's done it to other women," he said quietly. "He got away with it, with her. He thinks it's okay."

They talked until Nancy texted Ned to let him know she was on the way home, and Ned cautioned Terry again not to give them away. They heard her car pull to a stop outside, and Ned couldn't stop himself from rising and going to the door to greet her. As soon as he opened it he saw her walking up the front steps, a wide, delighted grin on her face. She carefully dropped her shopping bags when she walked in, then launched herself into his arms, embracing him fiercely.

"I am so, so prou