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Nancy let out a relieved sigh as she stepped into the hotel room and immediately toed out of her slingback open-toe pumps. Mel had been disappointed that Nancy hadn't wanted to stay out any longer, but a glance at her reflection told Nancy that she had made the right choice. Her eyeliner and mascara had smeared a little, leaving her eye makeup a bit more smoky than it had been when she left. She looked tired.

She was tired. She hadn't been able to sleep that much the night before, thanks to the job she and Mel had been working. Trent had sent her to Washington, D.C. for a training session, and then Mel's boss had called Nancy's. Trent had approved of her helping Mel, at least for a little while, but that had delayed her departure for Chicago. Ned hadn't been all that happy to hear it, but he had understood.

Nancy couldn't help chuckling as she reached up to take down her hair, rubbing the arch of her right foot against her other ankle. When she had been an amateur, she had rarely needed to ask permission, had made all her own choices—but a few of them hadn't worked out so well. She trusted Trent's judgement, though.

Granted, Trent didn't know how many shots Mel had just cajoled her to take, half of which had been sent over by guys Mel was obviously flirting with—but Nancy was off the clock now. She had teetered on the edge of inebriation for half an hour, but now she was just buzzing and happy, even if she was exhausted.

In that awful time leading up to her shooting, tonight would have been so different. For one thing, she wouldn't have asked or needed anyone's permission to work with Mel. One of the guys who had bought her a drink would have taken her back to his place, and she had known which one it would have been. She had known it without feeling anything, any sense of attraction or curiosity whatsoever. It had been that pair of sweet dark eyes, the ones that had reminded her of the guy back home waiting on her.

She would have felt euphoria on the way back to her hotel, a false euphoria to drown the emptiness. She knew it because she had been there, and she still would have been, if the shooting hadn't happened and her precarious destructive world hadn't crashed down around her.

The restaurant and the four-leaf-clover-bedecked bar around them had been too loud for her to hear anything, and when she pulled her phone out of her purse, she saw three new email notifications and two new text messages, the latter from Ned.

Her lips curved up into a smile as she took the few steps to the queen-sized bed and sat down at the foot of it, giggling when she almost slid off. She read Ned's text messages as she began to wrestle her pantyhose off.

I was only prepared for you to be away until today. I want you here. You're missing St. Patrick's Day. We could be drunk on green beer.

Call me. I love you. Please come home tomorrow. The other side of the bed is so empty.

Once she finished taking her pantyhose off, she released a sigh and fell backward on the bed, pulling up her contact list. She tapped Ned's name and closed her eyes.

She was disappointed when he didn't answer and her call flipped over to voicemail. She ended the call without leaving a message—Ned hated checking his voicemail—and laid the phone down beside her, then began to slide her earrings out. She wore the celtic knot earrings he had given her for their one-month anniversary the previous summer, as a nod to the holiday.

She had known that Ned might be asleep or across the apartment when she called, but she was still startled when her phone began to belt out his ringtone. She gasped and scrabbled for it, impatiently swiping the screen to answer.

"Hello?"

"Hey babe. Sorry, my phone was plugged in across the room."

"It's okay. I saw your messages. You drunk yet?"

"Yeah," he sighed, and then he laughed, and Nancy couldn't help laughing too. "Why aren't you here? I want you home."

Her laughter trailed off as her heart skipped a beat. He wanted her home—but his definition of home was his arms. She loved that, so much. "Well, I have an early flight," she told him, her voice light. "So tomorrow night, I'll be there. And you'll probably be not that drunk."

Ned groaned. "That isn't soon enough," he told her. "God, I want you so much. I've missed you."

"I know. I miss you too, baby. It's too bad this wasn't over a weekend so you could be here with me right now. I have a nice big bed all to myself, and no landlords right over my head."

"Now you're just teasing me."

"Maybe." She smiled. "Still hugging my pillow to go to sleep?"

"Yeah. It's not working." He sighed again. "I know when I first moved in I slept alone... but it was so long ago. I don't remember how I did it."

"You're supposed to tell me that you loooooove being able to sprawl out and take up the whole bed and snore..."

"Yeah, I know." His voice dropped to a rough murmur. "But my deep dark secret is that I am way too used to you being here. It feels weird not to talk to you when I get home, or to eat dinner with you. To watch TV with you. And maybe that sounds needy and dependent, but that's not it at all. I just love you. I'm lonely. As pathetic as that sounds, it's true."

"It's not pathetic." She folded her arm under her head and let her gaze wander over the popcorn ceiling of her hotel room without really seeing it. "It's sweet. As long as you did actually go out with your friends tonight and have some fun."

"Of course I did," Ned said, with such indignance that she had to laugh again. "It's St. Patrick's Day. Howie and Mike were already planning the pub crawl a week ago. If I'd had one more drink I would've been puking up rainbows tonight."

"All Irish car bombs and flaming Dr. Peppers?"

"Ugh. Shh," he told her. "Mercy. Don't make me think about it."

"You just want me there so I can rub your back and bring you a wet washcloth."

"I want you here because—do you know how damn weird it is when my house doesn't feel like home because you aren't here? This is my place. Our place. And, yeah. I love when you cluck over me when I have a hangover. And when I wake up and we're already thirty seconds away from fucking..."

She closed her eyes, smiling again. "Yep," she murmured. "There it is."

"Tell me you miss me. Tell me you wake up wishing I was there so I could wrap my arms around you and stroke your hair until you fall asleep again."

"I do," she murmured. "I miss you all the time. I feel every mile between us like a splinter. I miss waking up to your face. I miss feeling your arms around me. And I hate that I wasn't there with you tonight to glare at any woman who made a pass at you."

"Speaking of. You sound a little drunk right now too, Drew. Any guys who needed to be taught a lesson?"

"Nah. I went out with a really hot chick and she was the magnet. If I needed a wingman, she'd be a great one."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. So, no fear. But I'm very aware that you're the hottest guy in any group you're in."

Ned made a demurring noise. "No one can top Howie's moves on the dance floor."

"Except you, Nickerson."

"'Liquid sex.'"

"Yeah." She sighed softly. "Liquid sex. I love you."

"Love you too." She didn't know how, but she could hear it in his voice, that his long dark lashes were low, that he was on his couch and only a few minutes from drifting off.

"I wore the earrings you gave me today," she told him. "For our one-month anniversary. The gift on top of the key."

"Mmm. That brings back some good memories."

"Yeah," she agreed, and her heart clenched like a fist in her chest for a few seconds, her loneliness was so palpable. "Why can't you be here," she whispered.

"I wish I could be." Then she heard the faint smile in his voice. "Remember when we'd be on the phone so late that we'd fall asleep with the line open..."

"Mmm-hmm." She closed her eyes. "Dad was really unhappy when he saw that phone bill."

"Yeah." Ned's voice was so low and warm that it left her shivering a little. "I'd close my eyes like I'm doing right now and I'd imagine that you were in the same room with me. It was nice."

"But not as nice as when I'm actually there."

"Nothing can top that, beautiful."

She smiled and made herself open her eyes. "Go to bed, Nickerson," she told him. "I'll be there when you get home from work. As long as Trent doesn't send me out on assignment once I'm back."

Ned groaned. "Why did you say that?" he sighed. "Now he'll send you to Timbuktu or something. And I am running dangerously low on my recommended daily dosage of you, sweetheart."

She chuckled, her palm resting over her belly. "That is the cheesiest line I've heard in a while, Nickerson."

"Then get home so we can make out. No more cheesy lines. Just you and me and this couch."

"I think we spend more time on that couch than in your bed."

"I think so too. At least it doesn't feel quite as lonely as my bed."

"Or this one." She smiled, a little sadly. "I'll see you soon, Ned. I love you."

"I love you. Sleep well, sweetheart."

--

Home.

Her father's house in River Heights had been home for as long as Nancy could remember. Even when her father and Hannah weren't at home, that brick house was familiar and safe, and represented security and peace. She knew where Hannah's latest batch of cookies would be stored, where her mother's books were, everything. She had spent hours in the attic, and hours in what had been her parents' room, exploring the artifacts her mother had left behind. Her favorite reading chair had been the window seat in her father's study.

It was strange that a basement apartment at the bottom of an unremarkable cement stairwell could feel like home, too. It wasn't hers; it was Ned's. The windows were high and small, and though it wasn't full of natural light like her father's house, it still felt open. The furniture was Ned's, the appliances were Ned's, although a little before Thanksgiving a dresser had appeared in his bedroom with a blue gift bow on top, an antiqued-white piece of furniture with hinged drawer pulls that was just for her. She had accumulated so many clothes at his apartment that a single drawer in his dresser was no longer enough for her. She had already, apologetically, taken over a third of his closet.

They had never really said it. He hadn't invited her to live with him. He just begged her to stay when she was preparing to leave after their dates, and she had justified it a hundred ways: his apartment was closer to her work, it didn't make sense to drive back to River Heights at one o'clock in the morning, she was too drunk to drive anyway, he had just bought another sex toy...

She did live with him. It had been slow, just a few nights a week, and now it was rare for her to stay at her father's house. She had gone back for her father's birthday and Hannah's birthday, for a visit from her aunt, once when Ned had been out of town on a business trip and she hadn't wanted the loneliness of his empty bed. She had never really lived by herself; after Wilder she had been at her father's house, and she woke disoriented when it was to an empty house.

Ned's apartment was empty—for now. But he would be home after work, and so that was different.

She tossed her dirty clothes into the appropriate hamper, then put away the clean folded clothes she found in the laundry basket on his bed. He had washed a load of clothes; she found the drying rack set up in the guest bedroom, her bras and a pale blue nightgown and one of his shirts neatly draped over the rails, and marveled silently at her incredible good luck. He washed clothes—and not badly, either; he didn't turn white shirts pink or shrink her sweaters. He had shrugged the first time she had commented on it, and said that it didn't take long to do it, he had washed his own clothes while he was living in the Omega Chi house, so it wasn't a big deal.

She had dated guys who seemed to be trying to win some competition about who could take the most laundry home over break, about who could boast about going the longest while just buying new underwear when they needed it. When she had begun staying with Ned so often, she had half presumed that he would expect her to handle the laundry and cooking and cleaning. When it had really turned out to be her helping him, it had felt less like a chore, and more like one more domestic activity that made her feel like she belonged here. She belonged with him.

When she was here, she felt like his partner. And he didn't remember her broken and depressed, the way her father and Hannah did; he remembered her hopeful and apologetic and fun, and happy just to be with him. It was a relief that he didn't sometimes treat her like a fragile piece of china that would shatter at the wrong word. He remembered her strong, and she wanted to be strong, and she felt safe with him.

It was spring, finally. They had been together for six months now, and her belief that she had made the right choice by renewing their relationship had never wavered. She was sure that she wanted to spend as much time as she possibly could with him. Being with him hadn't solved all her problems or made her life effortless, but knowing that he loved her so much definitely boosted her confidence.

Other guys had caught her eye, turned her head, provoked his jealousy. But he was the only man who had ever captured her heart.

She changed into comfortable clothes and made a run to the local market; Ned was good about many things, but he often didn't leave any leftovers, especially when he was just cooking for himself. She bought the ingredients for shrimp in a buttery garlic cream sauce over linguine, along with a loaf of crusty bread. When she saw grapes on sale, she grabbed some of those too, along with a bag of chips and some French onion dip. She restocked Ned's supply of yogurt, too.

When he came to his door and keyed into his apartment, she had timed it so she was working on dinner when he came in. "Babe," he said happily, putting down his briefcase before he came over to her, wrapping his arms around her from behind. "Oh God, you're home. And something smells great."

"Shrimp with linguine. Sound okay?"

"Sounds great. Let me get changed and I'll help." He kissed her cheek before he released her, and she thought that she had to be glowing from the warmth of his embrace.

In moments like this, she knew down to her bones that despite everything, she was lucky. She had almost died so many times, but she was still alive. He had let her prove herself to him again, but it was more than that; he had let her back in after she had caused him so much pain. She was happy to cook for him because he didn't take it for granted. He appreciated it, and he wanted to help.

He came back wearing sweatpants and a tank, and cut slices from the loaf on the diagonal, then buttered them and dusted them with garlic powder. The oven had finished preheating by then, so he put them in. Her dish was practically done, she was just finishing the sauce to toss it all together, so he cut wedges of iceberg lettuce and microwaved bacon until it was crisp to crumble over their salads.

As they moved around his small kitchen, they bumped hips sometimes and laughed, and she told him about her trip and he told her about the pub crawl the night before. His voice still carried a trace of that seductive rasp from the night before, and when they took their plates to the coffee table, she was still smiling. Mike, Ned had been proud to point out, had put away more shots than he or Howie—but when Ned had texted him during lunch to check in with him, Mike had definitely been a lot more miserable than Ned had felt.

Once they were settled, Ned twirled his fork in the pasta and speared a shrimp to hold it on, then took a big bite. "Mmmm," he said, his voice muffled, and once he swallowed he shook his head. "Baby, this is so good. I love it."

She grinned. "Glad you like it."

He shook his head. "Love it," he corrected her. "While you were gone I just ate microwave pizza and potato skins. This is so much better."

She swallowed her own bite of pasta and shrimp and crusty toasted bread. "And green beer."

He wrinkled his nose. "Please don't remind me."

After dinner they were both full, far too full to even think about dessert. The NCAA playoffs had just started, and he flipped to the game, glancing over at her. "Go ahead," she told him. "I'll probably be asleep in twenty minutes anyway."

He chuckled. "I believe it. C'mere."

The plates were cleared, and he laid down on the couch on his side, with his back against the back cushions and his head pillowed by the arm. She settled on her side with her back against his front, his arm draped over her, and felt him kiss the crown of her head.

"This is right where you belong," he murmured, and she closed her eyes, her lips turning up. "I missed you, baby."

"I missed you too," she whispered. "It feels so good to be home."

She didn't think she lasted ten minutes. Ned idly stroked her hip and her belly, and although it wasn't sexual—he generally wasn't subtle about such things—it still made her tingle pleasantly between her thighs. She drifted off with his palm resting against her belly, and everything about it was familiar and right. She really was home.

When she woke, she distantly remembered being disturbed a few times by his movements, undoubtedly responding to the game. "Shh, it's all right," he told her. "I just needed to get up for a minute."

"Mmm." She stretched a little. "I think I'm gonna go to bed. So you can yell at the TV all you want."

"Really?" He gave her such a pitiful look that she had to chuckle.

"Well, okay. For a little while longer, then."

When he returned, he spooned up behind her again and she fell deeply asleep. She woke again and the apartment was dark, and she was in his arms, and he was carrying her to his bed. She stirred, cuddling against him.

He chuckled. "Yeah. Now it's bedtime."

She managed to drag herself to the bathroom to brush her teeth and wash her face, but it was a struggle. She dropped her clothes in the hamper and crawled into bed in her underwear, with Ned between her and the door, where he always slept.

She really was entirely, completely exhausted. Ned had brought his laptop to bed and she snuggled against his side, closing her eyes against the dim glow of the screen. The soft tapping of his fingertips on the keys lulled her, but she was in bed with him, and she just wanted to fall asleep with him.

"Babe? Your phone set?"

"Shit," she slurred, trying to summon the strength to move. "In my purse..."

"I'll go get it."

He put his computer down and returned in a moment with her phone, which he plugged in. "What time?"

"Need shower."

"I'll assume you mean alone." His voice was almost teasing. He set her alarm, then put her phone down.

Despite herself, she was relieved when he closed his computer and moved under the covers. The apartment was cool, but Ned was so warm, and she settled against his side, her head nestled against his shoulder. He looped his arm around her and she released a contented sigh.

"Love you."

"Love you too," Ned murmured. "Mmm. Feels so good to have you here, Nan. I hate sleeping without you."

"Me too," she whispered, her arm draped over him, her fingers moving against his side. Her bare breast was pressed against his chest, the covers pulled up over her shoulders, and he was so warm. The times they had slept together at Emerson, at his parents' house, she had always been afraid someone would walk in on them; Sonny and Jane left Ned alone and gave him his privacy, and most of the time she was completely at ease with him. Unless he was hosting a party or guests, it felt like his apartment existed only for the two of them.

"It's your birthday soon," he murmured.

She smiled. He hadn't been around during her last few birthday celebrations; last year it had been a quiet affair with her father and Hannah, some of her favorite foods and a very pretty, spring-decorated cake. Bess had left a generic happy-birthday wish on her Facebook page; she remembered that Ned had too, and seeing it had sent a bolt of pain and regret through her broken heart. Somehow it had felt worse to see a bland, impersonal post from him, than she thought it would have to see nothing at all from him. They had meant so much to each other for years. To see it reduced to a few words, knowing how much time and thoughtfulness he had put into her gifts while he had been her boyfriend, just hurt.

"Anything special you'd like? Or like to do?"

"Mmm." She nestled a little further under the comforter. "I'd like to spend it naked... and end so thoroughly fucked that I can't do anything but pass out. I mean, if that sounds good to you."

"I think I can definitely work with that note."

She chuckled. "I'm not your boss," she murmured.

"Mmm. But you'd make such a good boss. I'd love to be under you, Miss Drew."

She smiled. "Oh, would you?"

"Definitely. A beautiful, incredibly sexy naked redhead on top of me... I'd die happy."

"That would definitely put a damper on the evening," she teased him, and traced her fingers up and down his side again.

"But before that... we should go out. Have a thing with our friends, or just the two of us, or with your family... whatever sounds good to you. So we can have a good meal that doesn't involve either of us cooking, and I can give you a present that isn't my dick."

"My second-favorite present in the world."

"Second favorite?" Ned said, sounding mock outraged.

"The way we were tonight being the first," she murmured. "Trust me, I love riding that magnificent cock, baby. But when I'm just warm and safe and... at peace..."

He shifted and she rolled onto her back, looking up at him. "That's how I feel too," he murmured, gazing into her eyes. "And I just don't want to let you go because I don't want it to be over. I love you being here, especially so often. I love sharing so much with you. I—I don't ever want to stop."

"Yeah," she whispered, and smiled. "I feel like it'll never be long enough. And I... I've burned my bridges with so many people. I am so, so incredibly grateful to have this with you. I love you so much."

"And I love you," he murmured. He moved toward her slightly, and her heart skipped a beat when she sensed what he wanted. "What I have with you—I've always wanted this. Always."

Her throat felt thick for a few seconds. "Yeah," she whispered, her voice barely audible, and reached up to stroke his hair. "Come here."

"Sure?"

She nodded, reaching down to slide her panties a few inches down her hips. She shuddered when he curved his fingertips around the elastic and began to work them down; she felt so sensitive, and she practically hummed with joy at his touch.

After he had pulled them free at her ankles, she bent her knees and parted her legs, shivering again as he moved over her. His bare flesh radiated heat, and when he lowered himself and stared into her eyes, she felt completely spellbound.

It had always been like this, for her. He had been her first lover; for a time, she had begun to let herself imagine that he might be her only lover. As much as she hated their time apart, now, a part of her was glad that she didn't have to wonder whether she was missing out. He was the best. He had shown her such love and tenderness and satisfaction that he had ruined her for everyone else, and not just in bed.

And she had somehow fooled herself into thinking that she needed to find out who she was without him. At least now she knew that she was here because she wanted to be. She had been so afraid to need him, but this felt so right that the alternative was unimaginable.

She parted her lips, wrapping her arms around him as he kissed her, as his hips moved into the valley between her thighs. She wasn't the nervous, inexperienced teenager she had been when they had made love for the first time; she knew his body, knew how she responded to his touch, and when she shivered it was in anticipation.

She sighed happily when he broke the deep, thorough kiss to nuzzle and nip down her neck, and she ran her fingers through his hair as he kissed her breasts, teasing her nipples. He brushed a light kiss over the scarred bullet wound, and she gently folded her leg over the small of his back, her lips parting again as he rubbed against the join of her thighs.

"Please," she whispered. "Oh, please..."

Ned moved back up, shifting his weight so he could stroke the side of her hip and her outer thigh, and her lashes fluttered down as he kissed her again. He cupped her between her thighs and she moaned, her fingers splayed over his shoulder blades.

He had learned to tease her until she was completely aroused, desperate, her hips rocking in anticipation, until her inner flesh was tender and ready for him. She was too tired to truly stifle any of her reaction to him, and when she felt him move into position over her, she draped her legs around him, moving to nuzzle against the angle of his jaw.

Then the head of his cock moved between her thighs, to the slick lips of her sex, and her heart beat faster. He swiped his thumb against her tender flesh—

"Ohhhh," she moaned as he rubbed the ball of his thumb against her clit, as he began to move inside her. She tensed a little and released, but oh, how he filled her, and she forced herself to look up at him.

Ned. Oh, oh God, how she loved him.

He moved until he was fully sheathed inside her, his hips flush against hers, and she felt that same familiar fluttering of something that wasn't panic, not anymore—just awareness, just the shivering knowledge that they were unmistakably one. She had known before they made love that this was what it meant to him, but he had told her after that it was more, that his first time with her had been more intense and more right than it had been with anyone else.

He had had sex before. He had never made love to anyone, not the way he had to her.

His lips brushed hers, and she tensed and relaxed in time with his thrusts, her fingers in his hair and splayed over his back. She gave him all of her; she returned his kiss willingly, her legs wrapped around him to draw him closer, and she began to whimper and sob with every stroke of his thumb against her clit.

"Ned," she moaned. "Oh baby that feels so good..."

"Yeah," he groaned. "You are so fucking incredible, Nan. Mmm... that's right, a little more..."

He changed the angle of his hips and she tipped her head back with a cry she tried to muffle, and his lips brushed her temple. His cock was slippery hot with her arousal, and he moved inside her over and over, until she strained and bucked under him. She knew she couldn't cry out, but God it was so hard not to, and she muffled it to an almost silent, breathless scream.

He moved in her through her orgasm, until her eyes had rolled back, until her throat was dry from her sobbed cries. He moved in her until she was spent, until she was limp and overwhelmed, and then his hips jerked once and he groaned as he relaxed against her.

"Ned," she whispered, trembling as sweat began to cool on her skin, as the aftershocks passed over her. She stroked his hair as he cradled her, their limbs tangled together, her heart slowing.

"God, baby. Oh God."

She was too tired to reach for her panties when he finished cleaning her up, and he chuckled as he reached for them and helped her slip them back on. "Poor baby," he murmured. "You were already tired."

She nodded, but cuddled against him when he slid beneath the sheets again. "Shh," she whispered. "Oh my God... I love you."

"Love you too." He stroked her hair, his other arm wrapped around her waist, and she relaxed against him with a contented sigh. "Now get your rest. You're gonna need it for your birthday."

She chuckled, then drifted to sleep almost immediately, safe in his arms.