He was nodding in agreement with whatever Kent was babbling about when he felt a finger poke him in the back. Not some accidental brush, either; three stabs of a finger into his shoulder blade, over the harsh din of female laughter and male swagger.
He didn't care for the bar. He didn't care for the bachelor party going on in the back room, because unlike everyone else in that room, he didn't want to see a stripper in what appeared to be a skintight rubber red-and-gold bikini lick every inch of Miller's face. Maybe he would if he wasn't sucking down nonalcoholic beer and wondering what, exactly, Belinda was doing right now.
More like who. More like which.
So his brow was furrowed when he turned, his face already arranged into a pleasant version of the what-the-fuck-do-you-think-you're-doing expression. Then he dropped his chin, which ruined the whole effect, because the owner of the finger was nearly a foot shorter than he, even in stilettos.
She was giggling, the surface of her martini gleamed, and from the way her eyes had to shift twice to finally find his, he knew it wasn't her first. "Oh," she said. "You're not. Oops."
She was petite, straw-blonde and curvy, her hips already swinging to the music. When he glanced back, Kent gave him a shrug.
You saw her first, but if you don't want...
By the time he turned back, she was a bare back heading away from him in the crowd around the bar. She still had the martini at shoulder height, though, the liquid swirling dangerously brilliant at the frosted lip of her glass, and he followed that until she was weaving through the bank of dimly-lit pool tables. She pulled up short at one girl who lounged at a high stool, but their conversation paused when he came to an awkward stop behind the blonde, unsure of quite what to do or say.
The girl on the stool flicked her eyes up and down over him, a wry smile twisting her lips as she said, "So, you bring somebody back with you?"
The blonde turned around so fast that a small wave of vodka and sour apple dripped over her fingers. She made a face, so brief he almost didn't catch it, before she found his eyes again. "I'm sorry," she said. "I thought you were—someone else."
"Bess, he's not gonna show," the girl on the stool said, shaking her head.
The blonde, Bess, frowned, which looked utterly out of place on the rest of her elaborately made-up face. He hadn't even been aware that a shade of violet that deep existed. Then she smiled up at him, offering her fingers, still vaguely sticky with apple pucker. "Well, if he's not going to show... hi, I'm Bess."
"Ned," he returned, shaking her hand.
The girl on the stool shoved herself to the floor, and he noticed the pool cue she was bouncing in her loose left fist. "Now we need a fourth. You wanna go find George?"
Bess sighed. "Do we have to play pool?"
"Hey, you force me to drink virgin strawberry daiquiris, we play at least one game of pool."
Bess sighed. "Fine," she said, taking a gulp of her martini before she began to maneuver her way through the crowd again, pausing to give him one long significant glance before she was entirely out of sight.
"You're not just another asshole, are you?"
Ned turned back to the other girl. Her hair was up in a sleek ponytail and was almost pure red in the dim light, but she was taller, dressed in jeans and a black tank top. No bracelets, no rings, no necklace, no earrings. She had a boyfriend, he decided just then; but he hadn't come along and she hadn't felt the need to dress up. Plus, she was playing designated driver, just as he was, and nothing could put a person in a bad mood as fast as seeing everyone else on the planet get drunk.
"I'd like to think I'm not."
The redhead racked up the balls and lifted the triangle. "Bess... she just seems to attract that type. You don't look like one, but neither have most of the others."
Ned laughed, briefly, before he walked over to the pool cues and selected one. "You cut right to the chase, don't you."
"She's one of my best friends. I just don't like to see her get hurt."
Ned nodded, studying her for a second before he walked up beside her. He stuck out his hand. "Let's start over. My name is Ned, and I'm usually not an asshole."
"Nancy," she said, returning the handshake. Her grip was firmer than Bess's, and she met his eyes steadily, without blinking or fluttering her lashes at him. Definitely already has a boyfriend, he thought. Or girlfriend.
"So this George guy, he your boyfriend?"
Nancy stared at him for just a second too long, and he was just beginning to feel uncomfortable when she burst into laughter so hard that it shook her shoulders and made her cheeks flush pink. She took a long time to recover, and when she finally did, her eyes were gleaming. "Not—no. No."
Bess came back to the table, leading someone else, but Ned just kept staring at Nancy. "What is it?"
"Ned... this is my other best friend, George."
A third girl. Her dark hair was cut short, she was an inch taller than the redhead, but she was definitely a girl. She exchanged a glance with the other two before her dark eyes met his, and she stuck out a hand. "Ned? Yeah, my parents had a weird sense of humor, but it sounds like yours did too."
"Old family name," Ned said, shaking her hand. "Sorry."
George shrugged. "It's a mistake everyone makes," she said. "Including the Selective Service. I think I'm still on a list somewhere as a conscientious objector."
Bess was chalking up a cue. "George, you want to break?"
"I would love to," George said, her eyes dancing as she turned away from Ned. "I don't know how good you think you are at pool..."
"I'm not great, but I'm pretty good," Ned said, with a false modesty that Nancy recognized, and laughed softly.
"You have to be more than pretty good to beat those two," she said, coming over to stand next to him, and he could almost feel the heat radiating from her skin before she realized herself and pulled another inch away. "The cousins always play together."
George gave him a wicked smile from the head of the table before she broke, and he heard the low thunk in the pocket just below his waist. "Yeah. And we're stripes."
Ned shook his head, watching the dark-haired girl line up her next shot. "If anyone had been related... I thought maybe Bess was your sister or something."
Nancy pulled her ponytail down and tossed her head, letting her red-gold hair fall loose around her face. "Wrong on all accounts, Ned."
"I can't get anything right tonight, can I."
"Well, not being an asshole is a good start," she said, moving around the table to line up her first shot. "You mind if I take the first turn?"
He opened his hands in an expansive gesture. "Be my guest."
He figured out that George was a stronger player than Bess, as the four of them circled the table, lining up shots. He figured out that Nancy cared deeply about both of them but was involved with neither, and they had known each other forever, based on the number of rapid and complicated comments which seemed to inspire laughter but otherwise made absolutely no sense to him. After the third, Bess, happily buzzing on a fresh martini, managed to give him a mostly unobstructed view of her cleavage as she lined up her next shot, and from the deliberate way she met his eyes after, he knew it was intentional.
Nancy slapped him five after he made an especially impressive banked shot.
He couldn't shake the feeling that she did have a boyfriend out there, one who just happened to not be able to come tonight. Even though she was the most casually dressed of the three, he couldn't take his eyes off her, off the inch of warm tanned flesh that showed just above her jeans when she leaned over to line up another shot. She shot him a smile when she made it, and he smiled back immediately.
Something changed in Bess's glances at him after that. When the waitress came by to take their next orders, giving him a knowing smile at his request for another nonalcoholic beer, she asked for a diet soda. George had barely begun gloating over their narrow win when Bess, with a brief but genuine smile in his direction, began to drag her cousin toward the dance floor.
Ned nodded in their direction, George's laughter floating above the other noises of the crowd. "You don't want to go dance?"
Nancy shrugged. "Any other night," she said, and he mentally snapped his fingers, wishing he could confirm that she would look incredibly sexy on the dance floor. "Besides, what makes you think I'd want to dance with you?" her eyes laughed up at him, as she retrieved the balls and racked them up again.
He gave her an elaborately casual shrug. "Oh, I don't know," he teased her. "Maybe because you look like you need to relax."
"I'm fine," she said firmly, then sighed. "I'm fine."
"One drink won't hurt."
She glanced up at him. "Oh, you just want to win this game so badly you don't care what you have to do."
"We playing again?"
Nancy shrugged. "If you think you can handle it."
"Oh, I can."
He waited until she had just made a very difficult shot and was smiling in self-satisfaction before asking casually, "So what's his name."
She glanced up at him, startled. "Whose name?"
"The guy you've been wishing was here the entire night." Ned walked around to her side of the table to line up his next shot, but she didn't move from his side.
"I wouldn't," she began, then shook her head. "His name's Frank."
"And you went out looking so damn sexy tonight just to get back at him for whatever it is that he did?"
She burst out laughing, and shook her head. "Smooth, Ned."
"Nickerson," he corrected. "'Smooth, Nickerson.'"
She dipped her head in acknowledgement. "He didn't do anything. And if you think this outfit is sexy..."
"I know it is," he said, his voice low but firm. "And he had to have done something, or he'd be here right now."
"He's—he has work," she said. "A lot. A lot of work."
Ned spread his arms triumphantly as he sank another ball. "It's Saturday night," he said, turning to her. "Work is no excuse."
She shook her head. "And who are you here avoiding," she replied.
"I'm playing pool with you because the alternative is going into a back room where every guy from work that I know is probably already trashed, and one in particular is having very unsanitary things done to him by a stripper."
"I'm surprised. The stripper must not be that hot."
"Oh, she is," Ned said. "But I'm sure you could go back there looking even hotter, and make a few quick bucks if you're wearing something lace under that."
She laughed softly. "I should smack you," she said. "Besides, I'm not wearing that much under this."
He missed his next shot, which was entirely inexcusable, and when he stood a slow faint blush was making its way up his neck. "Your turn," he said, stepping back. "Although it shouldn't be. You play dirty, Nancy."
"Drew," she corrected him. "'You play dirty, Drew.'"
"You hear that a lot?"
"Not too much," she admitted.
He stared at her again, hard, his every nerve ending registering every millimeter her tank top slid up her back. "Nancy Drew," he repeated. "You're."
She nodded, raking her hair back from her face. "Nancy Drew."
"I'm from Mapleton," he explained. "You were in the newspapers practically every other week."
She ducked her head. "Yeah, well," she said. "That was a long time ago."
"Not really," he said, moving around the table to take another shot. "I remember something, just last month, kidnappers and a hostage situation..."
She shrugged. "It was nothing," she mumbled, a matching blush creeping up her neck. "Where do you work?"
He nodded to himself. "Oh, it's boring," he protested. "But if you want to be bored, I won't stop you. I work at one of those huge firms downtown, Massey & Stern, doing desperately tedious things to individual retirement accounts and money markets."
"And is that what you wanted to do? What you want to do?"
Ned shrugged. "You want the truth? That when I was ten I thought I'd be a doctor, at twelve a lawyer, and at sixteen a professional ball player?"
She laughed at the look on his face. "Something like that," she said. "If it's so boring..."
"Why don't I get out of it?" he completed, and she nodded. "Because I'm good at it. It gave me a nice car and a great apartment, and in a few years when I retire, I can do something I'm not only good at, but something that actually makes me want to get out of bed and go to do it in the morning."
"Professional ball, then."
"You're teasing me," he said.
She shook her head, then pursed her lips. "Maybe just a little," she said. "Maybe just because I want to believe that you were telling the truth when you said you weren't an asshole, and being a pro ball player... in my experience, anyway..."
"Why am I even slightly surprised that you've met pro ball players," he said. "Maybe I'd be the first. Non-asshole."
Bess found them again, when he could see Nancy almost starting to relax, and this time she had Kent's arms wrapped around her waist. "Nan, Kent knows about this great little club..."
Kent gave him a faintly smirking glance, but Ned smiled as he glanced over at Nancy, who reached for her purse. "I'll go get the car," she said. "Ned..."
"It was really nice to meet you," he said, and she nodded her agreement before walking out through the crowd, their eyes meeting once before then she was gone. Kent gave him another loaded glance before saying he was going to tell a few people he was going, and Ned had to take a deep breath before he leaned over to Bess.
"This is going to sound—would you mind giving me her number?"
Bess stared up at him for half a minute, a fresh martini haze over her. "Always," Bess finally said, with a flourish. "She always gets 'em. You know she has a boyfriend, right?"
"I know," Ned said, feeling a little defensive. "It's just her number."
Bess gave him a skeptical glance before finding a ripped half of an envelope in her purse and scrawling a number on the back. "Actually, we split an apartment, so it's all our numbers," she said. "You want to give me yours?"
Ned looked down at the envelope, which she was ready to rip in half again, and shook his head. "No," he said. "She—like you said, she has a boyfriend."
Bess nodded, as Kent approached. "She does," Bess said. "But... call her."
"You think I have a chance?"
Bess shrugged as Kent kissed her temple, and she laughed. "I don't know," she admitted. "But you're not like the rest."
"Nancy has guys after her wherever she goes," Bess said, and turned to return Kent's kiss. "You want to come with?"
Ned shrugged. "Wish I could," he said, slipping the number into his pocket. "But I'm the DD, and..."
"Yeah," Bess said. "I know how it is. It was nice meeting you."
"Nice meeting you, too."
"And if she asks, I gave you my number, and you were just incredibly surprised when she picked up," Bess tossed over her shoulder with a wave, laughing as she and George followed Kent to the door.
"Oh, you're home."
Nancy walked into their kitchen, her hair falling in a tangle down her back, to find Bess sitting at the table with a bowl of cereal, distantly studying the back of her box of Special K. "Yeah," Nancy replied, smothering a yawn as she poured herself a cup of coffee. "Sorry. I wasn't expecting it to take that long."
"You never do," Bess chastised her mildly. "You made the front of the paper."
Nancy groaned and pulled out a chair. "Below the fold?"
"Above," Bess said, almost gleefully. "Don't worry, the story's not actually about you."
Mayoral Candidate Murdered. Nancy reached over and turned the newspaper toward her, so she could read over it. The facts were few, speculation was rampant, and the reporter had dug into the ancient past that was five years ago to mention her name. She'd managed to foil another attempt on the candidate's life, but that one had been clearly telegraphed by threatening letters. This one...
"Hand me the phone?" Nancy asked, distracted, and Bess passed over the cordless handset before taking another bite of cereal. Nancy dialed the number from memory, checking for a jump tagline and finding none.
"Chicago Police Department."
"Can I speak to whoever's on lead for the McLachlan murder?"
Bess's eyes were sympathetic after Nancy hung up. "Miss it?"
"Miss what?" Nancy took a long sip of her coffee.
"What you used to do."
She shrugged. "I just needed to make sure the cops had tracked down her old campaign manager. It's a good lead."
"So you do miss it."
Nancy picked up a sugar packet and threw it at Bess, who caught it and laughed. "What did you think of that guy I ran into at the bar Saturday night," Bess said, then glanced sideways at Nancy.
"Kent? He seemed nice."
"Not that one. The one I picked up and then you laid claim to for the rest of the night."
Nancy burst into laughter, then went over to the coffeemaker again. "I didn't claim him... You been waiting the entire time I've been gone to ask me that?"
"Maybe," Bess replied. "I gave him my number."
"Well," Nancy said, and when Bess glanced at her she wasn't moving. "I thought you really liked that Kent guy."
"I do," Bess said, and stretched lazily, then unfolded her legs and brought her empty bowl to the sink to rinse it out. "What, you don't think Ned seemed nice? Be honest."
Nancy glanced away from Bess. "He seemed nice," Nancy mumbled.
"Good," Bess said. "Because he called, he has spare tickets to a concert, and we're going."
"There's no such thing as spare tickets to a concert," Nancy scoffed. "And... we meaning you and me?"
"He was already going with Kent, so yeah, you and me."
Nancy turned. "That sounds suspiciously like a double date."
"It would," Bess agreed. "If this wasn't your favorite band. And if I wasn't absolutely positive that Frank wasn't going to be able to make it this weekend."
Nancy groaned. "He called while I was gone."
"When are you not gone?" Bess returned. "But you have to go. Because, even though I am incredibly awesome, I'm gonna need to devote a lot of attention to Kent, so you need to keep Ned occupied. And I have complete faith in your ability to do that."
Nancy tried to back out three times that week, but she was the one who picked up when Ned called to finalize their plans on where to meet. She found herself tongue tied, only able to make a vague agreeing noise when Ned suggested seven o'clock at a bar a block down from the venue.
"Great," he said, his voice warm. "So we'll see you then."
Bess was sitting at the vanity in her room, her face already gorgeous, when Nancy came in to borrow a tube of lip gloss. Bess handed it over, but Nancy still lingered, her lips twisting into a smirk to avoid the smile that was threatening.
"It's not a date," she said firmly, and Bess agreed, but didn't meet her eyes.
Two hours later Nancy slipped into the booth, across from Ned and Kent, and the almost violent regret she'd been feeling began to fade when Ned gazed with unabashed appreciation at the riot of curls Bess had pinned up around Nancy's face, all the way down to the smooth glistening legs and impossibly high thin-strapped heels.
"Hi," she said.
"Hi," he breathed, and her heart skipped a beat when their eyes met again.
"She's in the mountains this weekend," George repeated. "With Frank. And I'm sure it's very romantic, which is disappointing."
"I was beginning to think this guy didn't exist," Ned grumbled. "Why is it disappointing?"
"Because Bess and I are cheering for you," George replied. "And you've been falling behind."
Ned scooted a little closer to his desk, brought the receiver a little closer to his mouth. "Why is it that you and Bess are cheering for me to break the two of them up?" he asked softly. "I mean, does he abuse her? Is he a bad person?"
"Not at all," George replied, and Ned breathed a sigh of relief. He hadn't thought Nancy was the kind of person to put up with that kind of thing anyway. "It's just that she's... most of the time she's not happy with him."
"But she's in love with him."
George sighed. "You know—did your parents ever have someone in mind for you, when you were younger? Some daughter of their friends, and they kept shoving the two of you together, making little innuendoes..."
"So it's like that."
"Kind of," George hedged. "We've known Frank and Joe a long time, and I won't deny that there is some attraction there, but Nancy loves her job. And Frank loves his."
"Hey, is that Ned on the phone?" he heard distantly, and then George muttered something before Bess came on the line, clear and strident. "Ned?"
"Who is this Joe person?" Ned burst out. "Hi, Bess."
"Frank's little brother," Bess said breezily. "Look, I have an idea. Nancy's supposed to be back Sunday night. You free?"
"Why, does she want to see me?"
"Yeah," Bess said, a smile in her voice.
"She didn't say that."
"She didn't say it because she doesn't know it yet," Bess said, and Ned had to laugh.
That Sunday night he took a long deep breath before he knocked on the door of their apartment. He heard chair legs scrape back against the floor as someone called "Coming!," and he looked down at his shirt.
He didn't usually do this. But Bess and George said he was behind, and Nancy wasn't like any other girl he'd ever met, and if he gave up now he'd never forgive himself. Whenever he had almost convinced himself that she wasn't interested and he should just move on, he caught a glance, an expression in her eyes before she turned away, and in those seconds he knew that she didn't want him to give up, either.
Bess opened the door, her thumb in her mouth. "Come in," she managed to say, and he stood just inside the doorway, looking around. High ceilings and good furniture, not the kind he was expecting in an apartment shared by three girls just out of college. George was still sitting at the table, with an overflowing pan of lasagna and an opened bottle of wine in front of her, a radio playing from one of the bedrooms.
"Hi," he waved back. "I heard you guys had a great time with Kent last night."
"You should've come," George chastised him, slipping out of her chair. "Had dinner yet?"
"Yeah, but I wish I hadn't," he said. "And something tells me that isn't a store-bought frozen lasagna, either."
"My mother would strangle me with her apron," Bess replied. "Come on, have a seat."
At the sound of the key in the door, nearly two hours later, Ned fought the urge to jump to his feet, while Bess leaned close to him and slipped her arm under his elbow. "Remember," she said softly, and he nodded.
When George pulled open the door Nancy stood with her key still poised in her hand, then maneuvered with her duffel through the doorway. "I, just had," she began, and then Ned and Bess turned in unison, and her face changed. Shuttered slightly. "Ned."
He gave her a little wave. "Hi."
She waved back, then vanished into the dim corridor to the bedrooms, and he exchanged a glance with Bess. She gave him a reassuring smile and squeezed his arm.
"You're enjoying this," he whispered.
She shrugged. "Only a little," she said, her eyes dancing.
When Nancy returned she was in a set of flannel pajama bottoms and a close-fitting white tank top, and she sat in the armchair on his other side with her legs curled up under her, and finished watching the movie with them. He made little comments, just loud enough for her to hear, and eventually she began to relax and smile back, and make a few comments of her own. When he stood and stretched and feigned exhaustion, Bess stayed on the couch, and Nancy hesitated only a second before she stood to walk him to the door.
"Tell Bess thanks," he said, crossing his fingers behind his back. "I had a really nice time today. She seems like a great girl."
"She is," Nancy replied, balancing her weight on one foot as she hooked the other behind her ankle. "Sorry I missed you, I-- had something else to do this weekend."
"I'm sure we'll see each other again," he said, laughing to lighten the sound of it. Oh, he was slipping. "Have a good night, Nancy."
"You too," she said, and when he reached the end of the hallway and glanced back, he caught the split-second gleam of her eyes before she retreated back into the doorway and was gone.
"Let's see who's behind now," Ned said to himself, a grin curving his mouth.
Monday morning, and Nancy was running late. Bess, who had slept through at least half of her morning undergraduate classes, was awake, had already finished her cereal, and looked way too damn chipper for Nancy's mood.
"Admit what." Nancy tapped her toe as she waited for the bagel to pop up.
"That it affected you when you saw Ned sitting on the couch next to me last night."
Nancy rolled her eyes, the mental clouds going a few shades darker. "Bess, I have a boyfriend," she said, repeated, in what seemed to be the endless litany since Frank had called and apologized and promised to make up for the fact that he was missing her twenty-first birthday. "Do I think Ned's cute, and you should already start naming the children you'll eventually have? Sure. Yes. Go for it. You have my blessing. I like him a little better than Kent, even."
"So you had a good weekend in the mountains with Frank."
Bess knew the answer to that. Bess had to know the answer to that. Nancy tamped down her annoyance before answering, "It was great, until work called."
Not that she had expected anything different. Even though she'd figured out that she could take Monday off, Frank had encouraged her not to give up her original Sunday afternoon flight home. And she hadn't. And now she was here, on Monday morning, instead of sleeping in a tent on the hard ground with no coffee waiting for her.
"Okay, it kind of sucked," Nancy said, finding a knife in the drawer and slamming it back into the cabinet. The bagel popped up and she hissed as it burned the tips of her fingers. "I mean—work calls him on Saturday night. Saturday fucking night. He can't get a flight out—how the hell did he even get a cell signal out there? And why didn't he turn the fucking cell phone off? I had mine off. I had mine off until he drops me off at the airport on Sunday morning with a kiss and a promise that next time it'll be better, but, I mean—this is the most time we've spent together since—when? I have no idea."
"His birthday two years ago," Bess supplied helpfully.
"And then I come home and see you sitting on the couch with one of the two guys you're stringing along right now. So, yeah. It did affect me, a little. I guess I just wanted to walk in and yell about it for a while with you guys, and there was Ned."
"So you think I'm stringing them along."
"I didn't—" Nancy spread lowfat cream cheese on her bagel. "Not like that. I mean, you don't seem serious with either one of them yet, and they're friends so I'm sure they talk to each other, it's not like you're dating them both without either knowing..."
"Because I'm not." Bess swept the tub of cream cheese off the counter and put it back in the fridge. "I really like Kent."
"So you spend the day with Ned instead?" Nancy furiously chewed a bite of bagel. "What is he, chopped liver? Does he know that you're not the one he wants?"
"Oh, he knows," Bess said. "I'm pretty sure I'm not the one he wants, either."
George came in then from her morning run, and Nancy felt a stab of jealousy, as she did nearly every morning. George could afford to go in late. "Hey Nan, toss a bagel in for me before you go," she called just before the shower started, and Nancy saw Bess smile before she closed the front door behind her.
It had affected her, and it shouldn't have. She only realized that during lunch, while she stared at her silent cell phone and stabbed at another defenseless lettuce leaf. While she had fumed at the airport, she had made a mental list of everything, and decided that the weekend would only be a total failure if she came home and figured out that Bess had spent any part of it with Ned.
And she shouldn't have cared. Shouldn't've mattered at all. But he'd been there and her heart had sunk down to the absolute floor and then, only then, was the weekend a total failure. Not Frank's unassailable belief that he was the only one who could crack the case on the theft ring. It was a theft ring, for God's sake, not a serial killer. So another day lost meant Frank would eventually recover another set of stereo equipment. And even that hadn't been as bad as his almost knowing, before they'd even left, that spending Monday with her was out of the realm of possibility.
Which paled in comparison to seeing Bess's arm wrapped snugly around Ned's.
Fuck, she snarled to herself, dumping her unfinished tray of salad into the trash.
She hadn't told Bess that the second she'd first seen Ned, her heart had been in her throat. It was inexcusable. Because the spark of their eyes meeting was electric, the way it had almost been a long time ago, before Frank seemed to find nearly any excuse to avoid spending time with her, but stronger.
Which was wrong. She was supposed to be with Frank, practically had been since childhood; their fathers were old friends, she and Frank thought so much alike it was almost scary, and, and...
She wondered if Ned ever kissed on first dates.
"So what are we doing this weekend," Nancy asked with elaborate disinterest in her voice that night, as she served herself another helping.
"I was thinking maybe a big group of us could just go out," Bess said, her eyes sparkling. "You know. Wherever we feel like, wherever the mood takes us. Like to that club that opened a few months ago up on Fifth."
"You gonna invite Kent?"
"Probably," Bess said, her eyes sparkling. "Maybe he can bring some people along too."
George pushed her chair back and rolled her eyes. "Ned's already said he'll go, Nan," she said, shooting a look at her cousin, seemingly oblivious to the flush that began to spread up Nancy's neck. "I mean, not that you're coming to see him, anyway."
"Of course," Nancy said, shooting an unconvincing glare at Bess for a second before she gave up and joined in with their laughter.
In the middle of conference, at the absolute worst possible time, he felt his cell phone vibrating against his hip.
It's tonight, she's calling to cancel, something came up and I won't get to see her...
Instead of reaching for it, he smiled at the couple, who had five years and an extra hundred thousand a year on him. The husband was wearing a coat he'd had his eye on last year, and the car they had downstairs in the lot wasn't scheduled to be available to the public for another month. Getting the commission on their account would feel good, but even the electric high buzzing under his skin wasn't enough to keep his heart from sinking as the phone fell silent.
Maybe she'll leave a voicemail and I'll get to hear her...
The red light on his office phone was blinking when he returned, but Nancy and Bess didn't have his office number. Before he bothered to check it, he flipped his phone open and checked the missed call history.
He sighed. She hadn't left a voicemail on his cell; she never did. She called his cell and if he didn't pick up, she called his office phone and left a message there, which he had told her a hundred times not to do. But part of dating a ballerina, and one as conceited as Belinda, meant that she never actually heard anything he ever said. Obviously she hadn't gotten the memo that their relationship was supposed to be mutually monogamous either, or she simply hadn't cared.
Well, at least Nancy wasn't canceling.
"I'm coming by tonight," Belinda answered her phone when he returned her call, and he made a face.
"That is really not convenient for me."
"You are not going to leave my things unattended, Ned. I know I left that bracelet over there, and I'm coming to get it."
The best thing he had done during their relationship was change the locks. He hadn't quite figured out how she'd ever gotten a key to his apartment in the first place, because he certainly hadn't given it to her. He'd never met a woman who was quite key material, but practically any other girlfriend he'd ever had would be ranked before Belinda in that department. She had breezed in wearing white linen and dropping air kisses one Saturday while he was watching the game in his boxers, and by Saturday night he was in the home improvement store buying a new deadbolt.
"Look, I'll box everything up and bring it by CBT, whenever, tomorrow, Monday, but--"
"Not leaving it unattended," she sing-songed, with an edge in her voice, and he smacked his forehead with the palm of his hand.
She's not your girlfriend anymore and you aren't ever gonna be looking for a sympathy fuck, so just dump everything on the front steps and ignore every phone call she makes after this one.
"Belinda," he began, then looked up to see his immediate supervisor standing in his doorway. "I'll call you back."
"No, I won't be around. See you at seven."
He wanted to scream what she could do at seven, but only the dial tone and his supervisor would have heard it. Instead he replaced the receiver and arranged his face into something approaching normal. He was finding it difficult to feel the same level of deference for his boss, after seeing him drink champagne from a stripper's bikini top.
"Congratulations on landing that account."
Black traced his thumb over the doorframe. "Heard you were gonna be at that new club tonight."
"A lot of us are going, so yeah, I was thinking about dropping by."
"I'm sure it won't be nearly as fun as last time..."
Ned simultaneously remembered that Miller was back from his honeymoon, and Black had been far too drunk to remember that Ned had ducked out pretty early on. "Yeah, I'm sure it won't be," he said, returning the knowing grin. "We'll just have to make do, I guess."
The second Black was out of his doorway, Ned pulled out his cell phone and called Bess's, and she answered in what sounded like mid-laugh. "You better not be flaking out, Nickerson."
"Not at all," he reassured her. "But I am not going to be a designated driver tonight."
"You and everyone else," Bess said, more soberly.
"Is still coming." Bess laughed again. "From the week she's had, she's not going to stay sober tonight, either."
"Anything I should know?"
"Nothing she probably won't tell you after three shots," Bess replied. "Look, I have..."
"Yeah," Ned said hastily, responding to the sudden hurried tone in her voice. "Yeah. Something came up, so I might be a few minutes late, but I will definitely be there tonight."
"Better be, Nickerson."
At seven o'clock the takeout had been eaten over the sink, the outfit had been perfectly assembled, and he was sitting on the couch next to a shoebox. He had, indeed, found a bracelet, and a glove, although he had no recollection of her having left either. He hadn't seen her in two weeks and the glove had been tucked between cushions in the couch, and he was just beginning to feel a little suspicious about the whole thing.
When his intercom buzzed, he picked up the phone and heard her already talking. "Be right down."
"No," she protested, and began yanking on the street door, but he hadn't buzzed her up. He locked the door behind him, the box tucked under his arm, and took the stairs in a quick shuffle.
She did look gorgeous. For the second before she opened those blood-red lips, he remembered why he'd ever asked her out. Her black hair was smooth, pulled back, her creamy shoulders bare under a delicate black wrap, every curve of her slender muscular body hugged by her gown. Then he heard her voice.
"I'm coming up."
"You are not coming up," he said firmly, maneuvering between her and the door and closing it behind him, before she could wedge her palm in and force it back open. He thrust the box at her. "Here. This is what you came for. Nice seeing you, hope you and Andre are doing great, bye."
She made a face, her heels clicking in rapid beats against the stairs as she followed him down. "I left more than this."
"No you didn't," he singsonged back, his keyring already in his hand. "I'm already late as it is."
"Ned Nickerson—" She managed to slide between him and his car just before he reached down to unlock the door, and he looked up to her face, his own darkening. "If you don't let me into your apartment right now I'm going to call the cops and tell them that you're withholding my possessions."
"Take you all day to come up with that?" Ned circled the car to the other side and unlocked the passenger door. "Give it up, Belinda."
She stomped one thin-stemmed heel on the sidewalk, her overtweezed eyebrows drawing together. "This isn't over."
Ned maneuvered over the gearshift to climb into the driver's seat, then turned the ignition and rolled his window down a quarter of an inch. "Get in my way and I will run over you, break those thin little legs, and we'll just see who makes first ballerina this season."
Her face was nearly purple with rage when he pulled away.
The apartment Nancy shared with Bess and George was just down the street from a block of casual restaurants, which made parking a nightmare. He drove around twice before following a couple back to their car, then watched in dismay as they climbed into a car parked on the street. Well, he sighed, glancing at his watch, and maneuvered into the spot just after they left it.
Nancy opened the door to him, after buzzing him up, and for a second they took each other in. She wore a blue silk halter a shade lighter than her eyes, a black leather miniskirt, and black stiletto sandals, but her hair was falling in loose waves over her bare shoulders and her makeup was understated, only the barest hint of blush and shine on her lips, cheeks, and eyelids.
"I was beginning to think you'd never show," she said, glancing back at his face again. She was smiling, though, when she stepped back. "Come on in."
Nancy's top tied just under her shoulder blades. Ned crossed his leg over his knee, trying to keep himself from staring. Not only were ballerinas high-strung and neurotic with a side of obsessive, but they generally couldn't fill out a top the way Nancy did.
"Tell me you're going to dance tonight," he found himself saying, his tone easy.
She laughed. "Oh, I'll dance," she said. "I'll drink and I'll dance and I will have a great time tonight. Well, Bess swears that last part is true, since I haven't been to this place yet."
"If Bess swears it, it must be true."
Nancy nodded at the doorway. "George had a little crisis and Bess is helping. Oh-- did you want something to drink?"
"Water, unless we're walking to the club," Ned replied. "But I'll get it."
"I'll get it," Nancy protested, and he pushed himself to his feet just as she was trying to pass him, and he linked his index finger and thumb around her bare wrist, and, oh God.
She has a boyfriend, she has a boyfriend, he told himself, searching her eyes, and they stood stock-still. Her wrist was warm under his touch. The plane of her face tilted, she blinked slowly, and with every heartbeat he waited for her to pull away, but she didn't.
Or maybe she doesn't, he thought, remembering Bess's teasing tone earlier.
"Good, you're finally here."
George's face was carefully blank when he and Nancy jumped apart. "Yeah, it was hell finding a parking space," Ned returned, as Nancy bowed her head and nearly ran to the kitchen. His hand was still open at his side.
Bess came around the corner, pulling one last curler out of her hair. "Hey Ned. Nan, get out of the kitchen, let's go!"
"Well, you weren't ready yet," Nancy called back. Her face was faintly pink when she came around the corner, a glass of water in her hand. "So now we're going?"
George volunteered to drive, and Bess said with a smile that if it wasn't too much trouble she'd claim shotgun, so Nancy and Ned ended up in the back of the car together. She perched the heel of her hand on the edge of the seat, between them, and he glanced at it, and at the hem of her black miniskirt against her tanned thigh, before he looked straight ahead at the gleaming halo of Bess's curls, smiling.
"So, Ned, how was your day?" Bess turned around in her seat to ask.
He shrugged. "It was going okay, until... hang on, I think you might know her, Nancy. Weren't you called in when that famous diamond was stolen off Katya Alexander, a few years ago?"
Nancy glanced up at him. "Well, I wasn't exactly called in," she said, but her mouth was turning up in a pleased smile. "But she was my favorite ballerina, so I wanted to help. And then it turned out that..." Nancy shook her head.
"I think she was with the company back then, because she danced in that, whatever it was... her name's Belinda?"
Nancy and Bess's faces immediately went dark, while George laughed. "Belinda, dark hair, total bitch...?"
Ned dipped his head in agreement. "She's the one. I actually dated her for a little while, and then she called me today and told me she was coming over. Didn't ask or anything. So that was unpleasant."
"I hope you broke both her legs," Nancy muttered, and Ned glanced at her in surprise.
"No, but I thought about it," he whispered back.
She turned her head so fast her hair flew, her blue eyes wide. "Oops. Did I say that out loud?"
"You dated Belinda?" Bess shook her head. "Sorry. We ought to let you out of the car right now. I'm not sure you're allowed to hang out with us anymore, if you could date her."
"Hey, it was before I knew she was crazy," Ned protested. "I guess pro ball playing and ballet just do something to people."
"You dated a pro ball player?" Bess's brow was furrowed, but Ned didn't hear or see her, not when Nancy turned to him with that look on her face.
"I guess they do," she said softly.
Ned started a tab with his second shot, and had just downed it when he saw Black across the room. Black and half the department, including Miller, who managed to look even more uncomfortable than Ned felt.
Nancy slid onto the stool next to his. "We're going out on the dance floor, I just wanted to let you know."
Ned glanced over his shoulder. Of course they would be lingering right where he'd need to pass. "You had anything to drink yet?"
She shook her head, her eyes shining. "Not yet."
"Let me get you something. What do you like?"
She shrugged. "Surprise me."
The bartender brought over a lemon drop martini. Nancy raised it to her lips, and then her eyebrows followed. "Don't think I don't know what you're trying to do."
"And what am I trying to do?" he asked, his eyes dancing, as she took her first sip.
She tossed her hair out of her face, then downed half the drink. "You buy me a martini and come in dressed all sexy, trying to get back at your bitchy ballerina ex-girlfriend."
He glanced down at his outfit. "You think this is sexy?" he returned, and he loved the way she looked when she laughed.
"Buy me another one and maybe you'll get a dance tonight."
"Well, if that's the reward, I think I'll buy you two more and make it a sure thing." He caught the bartender's eye and nodded.
"Never said it was a sure thing." She finished the martini and clicked the glass back onto the bartop. "You're awfully sure of yourself."
He met her eyes and held them steadily. "Not really," he said softly. "Not when I'm with you."
They carried the drinks to a small table at the edge of the dance floor, after managing to pass his officemates with no incident. Bess and George were seated there, watching the DJ. Bess's eyes lit up. "Ooh, is that a lemon drop martini?"
Ned glanced at Nancy, who shrugged. "Yeah," he said. "You want?"
"They're my favorite," she said, lifting one with a nod of thanks. "Nancy's second favorite."
"And what's your favorite, Nancy?" Ned asked, propping his chin up on his hand.
Bess opened her mouth, but when she glanced between the two of them she shut it again. "That's for me to know, and you to buy me drinks until you figure out."
"You think I won't?" Ned laughed. "After that dance you owe me."
"Nice try," Nancy said with a grin, then turned to George. "Come on, let's go."
George glanced back at them over her shoulder, laughing, as Nancy led her away.
Bess was right, Ned realized. After she joined her friends and the three of them danced together, they looked unbelievably sexy, and he couldn't stop watching. Neither could some of the other guys on the fringe of the crowd, which didn't bother Ned until he realized that a very drunk Black was one of them.
Kent had joined Bess, so Nancy was only dancing with George, which made it all the easier for Black to cut in. Nancy kept turning, trying to subtly tell him that she wasn't interested, but he was having for none of it. When Ned saw the first look of anger on her face, he shouldered his way through the crowd and tapped Black on the shoulder.
When he didn't respond, Ned tried again. Black had a scowl on his face until he saw Ned.
"Mind if I cut in?"
Black moved back with poor grace. "Only for a little while," he said, shooting Nancy a thinly veiled leer. She sneered, but managed to turn it into a distant smile before he saw it.
"I can take care of myself, you know," Nancy said, once they were relatively alone.
"I know," Ned replied, moving easily with her. "But I work with that guy, so I feel a little responsible. For some reason."
Nancy raised an eyebrow, dipping her hips low, and Ned's mouth went dry. "You work with a lot of pro ball players?"
He laughed. "Some," he admitted. "I've heard on good authority that he's been offered another job, though, so I hope not for too much longer."
"You got your eye on his job?"
Ned shrugged. "It wouldn't hurt," he said, letting his hand move to rest on her side, just above her hip. God, the silk was so thin. "Plus, I wouldn't be an asshole once I got it."
"You sure about that?"
"About that, yes."
When the song ended she began to move away, but he kept his hand at her side. "Hey."
"That was a dance," Nancy said, fluttering her lashes as she looked up at him.
"That was half a dance," Ned corrected her, stepping close to her. "What, you afraid of a whole one?"
Nancy lifted her chin, and he tried not to think about how easy it would be to just tilt his head down and kiss her. "I can take care of myself," she said again, raising her arms over her head, then sliding them to his shoulders. "A dance and a half."
A dance and a half turned into another, then another. Eventually Black moved off, but even after he was nowhere in sight, when one song faded into another she made no move to leave his arms.
"I think Bess really likes Kent."
He had to lean close to hear her, and from the expression in her eyes he almost thought it was intentional. "He's a good guy. Well... if you can trust my judgement, that is."
"We're all allowed a mistake or two," Nancy said, leaning in close before she pulled back again. "For a while I thought you were the one who was interested in Bess."
"Bess is a great girl too, and you can definitely trust my judgement on that," he said, and she laughed. "I just have my heart set on someone else."
The song ended, and Nancy took another step back. "I think I need a break," she said, looking away.
"That would be great."
She gave him a lightning-quick grin, over her shoulder, before she continued to the table. "Nice try."
When Ned was at the bar racking his brain, he felt a tap on his shoulder and turned around to see Black. "Didn't know you had a new girlfriend."
Ned debated whether he should lie to his boss or not. "She's not," he said. After a sufficient pause he added, "yet."
"So the ballerina..."
"You can have her," Ned said, clapping the other man's back. "With my blessing."
George and Nancy had their heads together when Ned returned to the table, a drink in each hand. The girls clammed up immediately, sitting back, and Ned nudged a few empty glasses aside before putting one in front of Nancy.
George took a swig from her longneck, then scooted her chair over to allow Ned some room. "I think you managed to get it in two."
"He did," Nancy affirmed, with a nod of her head. "Thanks."
Ned shrugged. "I like them too," he said. "That way, even if I'd missed, it wouldn't have been so bad."
Bess came over, leading Kent by the hand and laughing, when Nancy had almost finished her drink and Ned was just draining his. "Kent says it's dollar margarita night downtown, at that one club, that--"
"Oh, the one we used to go to all the time," George put in.
Bess pointed at her, nodding. "That one. We totally need to go there."
Ned glanced between George and Kent. "Is anyone cool to drive?"
When no one immediately volunteered, Bess shrugged. "We'll take a cab, it's not that far."
Ned saw the obvious problem with her plan, but didn't say anything until he flagged one down, and Bess and Kent slid inside. "I'll take the next one," he told Nancy and George. "You two go ahead."
"Nan, you can have the front," George agreed, sliding into the back and closing the door behind her.
Nancy opened the passenger door, then glanced back at Ned. "Go on ahead," she told the driver, and slammed the door.
Ned looked at her, but didn't say anything until she started rubbing her bare arms, against the wind and the hint of rain in the air. He took off his jacket and handed it to her, and for a moment she looked like she was on the point of refusal, then accepted it.
Another cab pulled up and Ned opened the door, waiting for her to get in first. She slid over, her leather skirt brushing the leather seats, and smiled at him when he joined her.
"You have a rough week?"
"What makes you say that?"
Ned gave the address he had overheard Bess giving to the other driver. "You just seemed a little... on edge earlier," he finished, sitting back.
Nancy sighed. "It's... I guess I wasn't very friendly when I saw you last weekend. Things hadn't... turned out the way I wanted, and I was in a bad mood."
"Ahh. The ever elusive Frank."
"Good guess," she said. "Either it's the vodka, or you're psychic."
Ned ducked his head. "Neither," he admitted. "Bess."
Nancy shook her head and looked out the window, away from him. "You know—God, you must think I'm desperate."
He tapped her knee lightly with his fingertips. "No," he replied. "I think Bess likes to party, I think George would be right at home in a sports bar... and I just happened to meet you at a time in your life when you wanted a little more than you have. Maybe I'm wrong, and I don't want you to misunderstand me. If he's your boyfriend, fine. I'm not trying to pressure you into anything. I'm just here to have a good time, and you and your—colorful—roommates, are a good time."
"'Good time'?" Nancy raised her eyebrows.
"Hey, when a guy doesn't have a bitchy girlfriend, he has to find his fun somewhere," Ned said, smiling. "It's been a while since I've hung out with girls, without having to worry about hurting feelings or giving the wrong impression."
Nancy took a deep breath, then nodded slowly. "He's my boyfriend and you're a... friend. Who buys me the occasional drink and is a very good dancer."
Ned gestured expansively. "And you're so pretty that I bet you have tons of 'friends' like that."
Nancy tilted her head. "Like that," she said, but shook her head a little. "But none quite like you."
He held her gaze until the cab driver pulled up at the other club, and the rest of their group was still waiting on the sidewalk, and Nancy scrambled out of the cab in a flash of tanned thigh and black leather while Ned paid the driver off.
They didn't talk about it again. Ned shared a few dances with George, a few with Bess, but most of them were with Nancy. Despite her nursing the margaritas, he could tell they were getting to her, especially when her hips dipped a little too close to his, when she didn't immediately step away from his hand as it rested against her side, when she looked up at him after one especially long blink with her blue eyes hazed and brilliant in the low lights and he had to count his heartbeats to keep from kissing her.
He shook his head and this time he was the one to take a step back first. "You want another drink?"
She started to nod, then swayed slightly, and he put his hand on her shoulder to steady her. "I don't know," she said. "One more and I'll probably do something stupid." Then she laughed. "Which actually sounds great right now."
He brushed her hair back from her cheek with his other hand, and his fingers rested there, and she glanced up to search his eyes. One more drink and he would definitely do something stupid. Especially when all he had to do was touch her...
He ducked his head, and the spell was broken. "Let's go sit down."
The five of them drank and danced until last call, until Nancy looked exhausted, and Bess not far behind, but Ned couldn't remember the last time he'd had as much fun. "Okay," Bess said, tossing back the last of her margarita, making a face at how watery it tasted. "Closing time. You know what that means."
"Pancakes," Nancy and George chorused, and the three girls giggled while Kent and Ned shook their heads.
Ned didn't realize how hungry he was until he had a stack of pancakes in front of him. Nancy was across the booth from him, and as he sawed off his first bite, he felt her foot brush his.
He stopped with the bite halfway to his mouth and met her eyes, which were dancing. "Sorry," she said. "There's just no foot space at all here."
Bess and George exchanged a glance and started giggling. "Right," George said, stirring her coffee. "And seven margaritas don't help."
Ned chewed thoughtfully. "So you guys do this a lot?"
Bess shrugged. "It's a good way to end a bad week," she said.
"Amen to that," Kent said, lifting his glass. "And I could swear I taste scotch in this water."
After breakfast, the sun was coming up and the five of them stood on the sidewalk next to the cab Kent had hailed. "Okay, my car's at the club."
"And mine is too," George said. "So we can go there and pick them up..."
"And my car's back at the apartment," Ned finished. "We have to take two cabs anyway. I had a great time, you guys."
Bess and George gave him a parting wave as they slid into the cab, and Kent followed in the front seat. Nancy paused, then gestured for them to go on ahead.
"What?" Nancy said defensively, when Ned raised an eyebrow. "My feet are killing me, and I bet you're gonna get back to the apartment before George does."
Ned smiled, but hailed another cab anyway. "How can I turn down that logic," he said, sweeping the door open for her.
"You can't," she said triumphantly.
Her street was much less congested when they pulled up, and Ned stood next to his car after the cab drove off, only mildly surprised when Nancy lingered there with him. "I meant what I said," he murmured. "I had a really, really good time tonight."
"I did too." Nancy started to shrug out of his jacket, but he put his hand on her arm.
"Keep it," he explained, when she looked up. "I'm sure I'll see you again."
"All right," she said, searching his eyes, and he could tell she was tired, ready to fall asleep on her feet, but the exhaustion and the slow warm buzz and the food in his belly were combining to make him think crazy things.
He lifted his arm and rested his right hand against his car, keeping his eyes steady on hers, and he was almost able to feel her arm brush against his. "Nancy," he murmured, leaning another two inches toward her, and her eyes stayed on his, and she didn't shrink back. What am I doing, he thought. Dammit...
The sound of a cab pulling up, the door slamming, those didn't register. But the sound of another voice did.
For another second their eyes stayed locked, and then she turned her head to find the source of it, and sucked in a hard breath. He realized how close they were when her cheek brushed against his, and he closed his eyes for a second before he leaned back, following her gaze to find a dark-haired guy standing ten feet away, a stormy look on his face.
"Hi Frank," Nancy sighed.
"What the hell was that?"
The first thing Nancy did after walking into the apartment was drop into the armchair and take off her shoes. She closed her eyes in bliss, wiggling her toes, before she replied, "What are you even doing here?"
"I got the first flight I could," Frank replied, letting his duffel bag fall to the floor with a bang. "I wanted to surprise you. Which was a bad idea, since I really wasn't expecting to see my f—"
Nancy had been sitting in the armchair with her head tilted back and her feet propped up on the coffee table. In one quick smooth movement she stood, her eyes blazing. "You had better be about to say any other word but—"
"Fiancée," he finished defiantly.
Nancy stood for a long moment, seething. "We have talked about this," she said. "I am not even going to think about it until we live in the same fucking state, and I'm not moving."
"So I'm the one who has to move?"
"You can't exactly cleave to me from four states away, asshole," Nancy said, picking her shoes up and shoving past him.
"You know," Frank began, then went quiet as a key scratched in the lock, just before Bess and George walked in. "Hi, guys."
Bess opened her mouth, then thought better of it. "Hi Frank," she said. "Didn't know you were coming for a visit. I'm just gonna get a glass of water and go to bed."
Nancy stomped back into the living room in flannel pants and a tank top as George smiled at Frank and sidled by him. "I know what?" Nancy demanded.
"'Night, you guys," George called as she went down the hall to her room.
"They're going to bed? Were you out all night?"
"Yes, we were," Nancy said, settling back into the armchair and tucking her feet under her. "All five of us. You want me to dig up Kent's phone number and hand that over so you can yell at him some too?"
Frank sat down on the couch with his elbows on his knees, his jaw clenched. "Only if you were looking as cozy with him as you were with whoever that guy was downstairs."
"No, but Bess was. Maybe if you yell a little louder we can keep her awake too."
Frank stared at the blank television set for a long moment. "What's going on," he said softly. "I mean, I thought... after Sasha, and Mick, and Peter, and... God, I can't even remember all their names. I thought we were past that."
"You know what? Frank, you don't even know all their names," Nancy said, and when she turned to look at him, her eyes were gleaming. "You know why? Because you were never fucking around. I can practically find a guy anywhere I go who treats me better than you do."
"How the hell do I treat you badly?" He stood up. "How the fuck can I be treating you badly when I find you doing this? I mean, Nancy, if you had any respect or dignity, if you honored the commitment we made to each other—"
"What commitment?" Nancy stood, spreading her palms wide. "I'm sorry, I see you so rarely I can hardly remember what you look like, and—Frank, son of a bitch, you've been committed to your job since day one."
"And you aren't?" Frank was nearly shouting, but he stopped and shook his head. "Are we even... Nan, look, I've told you that this isn't about my father, or your father, or living in Chicago or Bayport."
"It isn't." Nancy sat back down, this time on the arm of the chair.
He hung his head. "You're still mad about the camping trip."
Nancy made an incredulous noise. "I'm mad about the camping trip. I'm mad about the hiking trip. I'm mad about the trip to the beach, and the weekend we were going to spend together for your birthday, and when you missed my birthday, and that other time you missed my birthday, and you 'forgetting' to invite me to your July fourth party the year we were eighteen, and the fact that I have never in my entire life, in our entire relationship, felt like you were ever paying attention to me. Just me."
By the end of it she was nearly screaming, and when she broke off she gasped for breath, her face red, her hands clenched in fists.
"And don't," she interrupted him, "talk to me about honor, or respect, or dignity. You don't own me. You're my boyfriend, not my keeper. Not my husband."
"But that's the way I see you," he said quietly. "I see you... and I know that someday, we'll be married, and I won't have to worry about something like whatever that was, down in the street just now, happening ever again."
Her eyes flashed. "So that's what marriage is to you. A way to keep me reeled in."
He reached out and touched her arm, and his jaw set when she flinched away from him. "Now you're just trying to start a fight."
He touched her arm again, more firmly, and he saw her face soften. Then she ran her hand through her hair.
"Frank, why are you here," she repeated softly, her eyes closed.
"Because I wanted to make it up to you." He stepped closer to her, his hand still lingering on her arm.
She tilted her head back and opened her eyes again, searched his, before she stepped back, out of his armspan. "You know what I've finally realized," she said. "That you'll never be able to make it up to me. Not all of it. And not for the rest of your life, of our lives. Frank."
He tilted his head. "What are you saying."
"That I don't think it's enough anymore," she said. "To remember how much fun we used to have when we were children, when we were teenagers, before college, before our lives started... I need to know that what we have now, that what we could have..." She pulled her fingers through her hair again and shook her head. "But I won't," she muttered.
"Nan, we do have fun together."
She smiled up at him, but it held no humor. "Oh, we do," she said. "We would. If you knew how to surgically remove your cell phone from your ear, I'm sure we could have a lot of fun."
Frank shrugged. "So we go away," he said. "I turn the cell phone off and we go away for the weekend."
"I'll play your game," she said, crossing her arms. "Leave the cell phone here."
He laughed, incredulous. "But what if we need a cell phone, what if there's an emergency?"
"It's Chicago. We don't need a cell phone." When Frank's stricken look didn't fade, Nancy hung her head in resignation. "See."
"Nan, my wanting to keep you safe doesn't mean..."
"Doesn't mean what," Nancy said, her voice infinitely tired. "That you give a damn? Look, Frank... go downtown, get yourself a hotel room... I'm gonna get some sleep."
"What do you mean, and what?" Nancy asked. "I can't... I can't think about this right now. I need some sleep, and to cool off, and... just go get a room."
Frank gave her a long look before he reached down and slowly picked up his duffel. "And then we'll talk."
Nancy waved her hand dismissively and walked to the door, waiting until he began his approach before unbolting and opening it. He leaned down, his lips resting just above her cheek, but she made no effort to meet him, so he kissed her and sighed before he walked out.
Bess stopped feigning sleep when Nancy walked into her room and sat on the edge of her bed. "That didn't sound good."
Nancy sighed. "Am I being an idiot?"
Bess sat up and propped her pillows up behind her. "About what."
"Maybe I'm being too hard on Frank."
"For which thing?" Bess asked, her lips curling up in a sardonic smile. "Seemed like you were yelling at him about plenty."
"He called me his fiancée."
Bess's eyes widened. "I thought you turned him down."
Nancy shook her head. "I've been with him for... God, almost ten years now. We work so well together, and I love him, and he loves me, and it's the logical next step."
"But you aren't willing to take it." Bess had her knees bent under the covers and had wrapped her arms around them, resting her chin on her knees. The expression on her face was bright, almost cheerful. Part of the reason Nancy liked coming to Bess to discuss her problems was Bess's obvious relish in playing the role of therapist.
"So am I being an idiot?"
"Maybe it's not the next logical step," Bess pointed out. "It's not like you've been... entirely... I mean, Nancy, I've seen the way you act with other guys."
Nancy blushed faintly. "I know," she said. "But he's busy practically all the time now... and that's no excuse, I know. But it's been ten years. He still lives in Bayport, and I still live in Chicago, and I'm not going to move. I love my job. And he loves his."
"You could transfer," Bess pointed out, and shrugged. "Not that I'm gonna push you into anything. But, surely you could find a job like yours..."
Nancy laughed. "There is no job like mine, Bess," she said. "And no. I don't want to transfer, and I'm not going to."
"Then you don't want to marry Frank."
"Practically since we were kids, I thought..." Nancy shook her head. "I thought it would be us, and we'd set up an agency together, have two kids and grow old together."
"But you're here and he's there, and didn't you tell me that he wanted you to move to Bayport right after we all graduated, and do something like that? Start an agency?"
"But I'd already taken the job..."
Bess rolled her eyes. "And you were in training. It wasn't like you'd really started."
Nancy sat up, staring at the wall, her eyes wide. "Is it possible that I really don't... want to do this? I've been unhappy before, but it's never been a question, it's always been... I've always known that I'd be with him. Just known. Never questioned it. I might like other guys, but never enough to break up with Frank..."
When Nancy didn't continue, Bess tilted her head. "Until now?" she said softly.
Nancy looked up. "Oooh, no. No. Not like that. I'm not—I'm not gonna break up with Frank just to..."
"Maybe not for another guy," Bess said. She stretched out her fingers, counting them. "Maybe for another guy, and because Frank isn't around, and your relationship isn't going anywhere, and it doesn't make any sense to continue with it, and have you seen Ned with his shirt off?"
Nancy's mouth fell open. "What?"
"I know, I haven't either, but don't you think he'd look good?"
Nancy chuckled. "Aren't you supposed to be thinking about Kent that way?"
"Hey, I'm not the one with a boyfriend," Bess replied, pretending to buff her nails. "I'm a free agent. You, on the other hand... have some choices to make."
Nancy sighed. "I know," she replied, groaning. "Thanks, Bess."
After fifteen minutes of trying to make herself sleep, Nancy sat up. The hangover, the adrenaline from their fight, her conversation with Bess, all together, her head was swimming, and when she reached for the phone, she already knew his number by heart.
"You should have let me kiss you earlier."
"Oh?" Nancy replied, bemused. "And why is that?"
"It would have changed your life."
Nancy laughed. "Sure would have," she said. "I'd be single right now."
Ned snapped his fingers in regret, and despite the troubling issues Bess's therapy session and her own conversation were raising, Nancy smiled at the sound of it.
"It would have," he insisted. "I know it would have changed mine."
"I'm twenty-seven years old, Bess. I don't swear. Unless whatever I'm swearing might result in my getting laid."
He could almost hear her pouting. "Fine. Nancy and Frank had a big argument after you left yesterday morning. What happened?"
Ned's eyes widened. "Nothing," he mumbled. "Nothing happened."
"She's had that—look on her face."
"She gets a look?"
Bess made a noise Ned couldn't quite interpret. "We've been friends with her since we were five. Yes, she gets a look. Several looks."
"And, of her several looks, what was this one?"
"You know the—oh, you don't. Nancy gets a look whenever she's on a new case."
"She told me that was ages ago," Ned replied. "A lifetime ago. She's still a detective?"
"Well, it was the look she used to get. Man, if you'd seen her. Nothing, not the most romantic thing Frank could ever do for her, not even the Mustang her father bought her right after she turned eighteen, nothing else gave her that look."
"That sounds good," Ned said. "Right? Unless... what, I'm a mystery?"
"Oh, trust me," Bess said, laughing. "If you're a mystery, that will definitely work for you."
After Bess hung up, Ned sat back with his fingers laced behind his head. Not even the most romantic thing Frank could do for her, huh, Ned thought, and smiled.
Even though he liked hearing Bess's encouragement, she wasn't the one he wanted to hear from. Nancy's conversation with him had been far too brief, and he thought that maybe he had pressed too hard. Especially with her boyfriend still in town... well, her boyfriend for now.
He still wished he'd found the nerve to do it. Boyfriend be damned. She'd almost been daring him to do it, not blinking, not moving away, and her foot brushing his, and the plane of her abs as her hips dipped in toward his, as he bought her one last drink and watched her brush her hair back from her glistening cheeks and shoot him a wicked, secretive grin. He knew exactly what she would taste like. He wanted to find out if he was right.
But Frank was around.
Ned sighed and grabbed his keys. A good long run would clear his head, and distract him from doing what he wanted to do. He wanted to go over to their apartment and find her, lean in and stare into her eyes, until she had to choose. He'd never seen himself as the kind of person who would break up a relationship; he was already angry enough when he found out that his girlfriends had strayed. But for her, God, she made him crazy. He wasn't even dating her, but he was spending every weekend since they'd met waiting for a message from Bess about what they would be doing, everything else be damned. Everyone else be damned.
"I have to stop this," he gasped under his breath as he finished the first mile. "She's a girl, she's just a girl..."
She was. And his parents had been bugging him to get married and start giving them grandchildren since he'd graduated college. Belinda had been a lot of fun, when she'd wanted to be, but he couldn't imagine her as a wife, much less a mother. But it wasn't just Belinda, and their basic incompatibility; he just hadn't been able to keep a girlfriend for much longer than six months. He became bored, the girl found someone else to be with, or it just didn't work out, and the thought of being a bachelor the rest of his life wasn't so bad. If his parents really wanted grandchildren that badly, they could adopt a seventeen-year-old and try again.
Until her. He'd never met anyone like Nancy. Like everyone else around Chicago he'd read about her growing up, skeptical that an eighteen year old girl could manage to outwit nearly all the criminals who came through her town, even if she was the privileged only child of the most respected and feared criminal defense attorney in Chicago. And God, she was beautiful. After Belinda, finding someone who didn't talk about herself all the time was a welcome change.
"Stop it," he told himself, rounding another corner. "Stop it. She's taken."
But how taken can she be, if she could look at me like that...
Ned shook his head and redoubled his efforts, until his shirt was soaked with sweat and his lungs were burning. She could be fascinating, and brilliant, and gorgeous, and he could wish that things had worked out differently, but she wasn't his. She already had a successful boyfriend.
who doesn't make her smile the way you do, the voice came back, purred.
He didn't feel any better when he made it back from his run and stood just in the doorway with his palms resting just above his knees, waiting for his breath to slow. In the shower he found himself searching his memory, trying to figure out if he'd ever seen the expression on her face that Bess had told him about, and stopped himself.
The answering machine light was blinking when he headed back into the living room with a bottle of water. He stopped next to it. It hadn't been blinking before he'd left...
"Hi, Ned... sorry, you must be out," he heard Nancy's recorded voice, loud in his silent apartment, and only then did he swear.
"Damn, Nan, you look like hell."
"I do?" Nancy closed the door behind her, leaned back against it, and shot the deadbolt home. Her eyes were puffy, her nose red. "No wonder I got out of that ticket."
"What happened?" George pushed back her chair at the table and came over to Nancy, who was just dropping, boneless, into her customary armchair.
"I think he said 'driving erratically,'" Nancy said, and sniffed. George found her a tissue and Nancy took it gratefully. "And then something about 'warning.' I think it's in my purse."
"No, I mean... did something happen with Frank?"
Nancy slumped down until her face was against her knees, her back shaking. "I think we're not seeing each other anymore," she said, her voice almost a wail, but she took a trembling breath and managed to stop herself from crying. "It all kind of blurs, y'know?"
"Oh, Nan, I'm sorry."
"He said—" She drew in a mighty breath and ran the sides of her hands over her wet cheeks, and when she let them fall her eyes were blazing. "He said that I do this all the time. And I don't do this all the time. He said... that he's been trying so hard to not be angry at me since I said I wasn't going to think about marrying him, the way things are right now, but it's too much... George, we've been together ten years, ten fucking years, and this..."
"I know," George said softly, and rubbed Nancy's back. "I was there."
"You were there!" Nancy affirmed, wiping her nose with the tissue. "You were there that summer when we, and... since I was fifteen years old, fifteen, I thought he was the guy. I thought he was it. He said maybe we just need some time to cool off, but, God, it's not that... what if I've lost him? For good this time?"
"What if you have?" George asked.
Nancy sighed. "I think he's met someone else."
George sat up straighter. "Why do you think that?"
"Because I've never seen him look at me the way he did today."
"How did he look at you?"
Like he was so tired of it, the same way I feel when I look at him. "I think this is it," she said. "He's not going to move, and I don't want to move, and if we're not going to be in the same place then why are we fooling ourselves like this and damn, I miss him," she whispered. "God, George, what am I going to do? He's all I know."
"Sometimes that's the best part," George said softly. "Maybe you know him too well. He's too familiar."
"Not today," Nancy said, looking down. "He was like someone I'd never met before. He was so mad at me."
"He's never been mad like this before?"
"He said this time was different," Nancy said, brushing her hands over her cheeks again. "That I'd changed..."
"What's changed," George said. "What did he think was different about you?"
"He said it was since our camping trip."
George waited until the silence had stretched a second too long. "Since you've met Ned."
Nancy nodded. "Since I've met Ned," she said softly. "I called him when I was on the way over here, but he wasn't home and I left him a message, and I must have sounded like a complete idiot..."
"Nancy, what's going on," George said. "You've never been like this."
"I know," Nancy said softly. "I've never felt like this before. I feel so fucking out of control of all of it, and I don't know what I would have done if he'd picked up that phone tonight..."
"Is this like... like with Mick?"
Nancy shook her head. "God, it's more than that," she whispered. "Mick, felt like... he was so far away from anything else I'd ever experienced, he was bright and fun and so intense, and it was so quick... but I can't imagine life with him. A hell of a weekend, yes. A life..." She shook her head. "Right now I can't even imagine a life with Frank."
"Maybe it's because you've never had one."
They turned as one, eyes wide, lips parted, when the knock sounded at the door. "George, go see who it is," Nancy begged in a whisper.
George looked through the peephole and gasped. "It's Ned."
"I can't—I can't see him right now," Nancy said, and shoved herself to her feet, startled by his more insistent knock. "Can you just tell him that, please, I'll call him when I... I just can't right now..."
George nodded, waiting until Nancy was out of sight before she pulled the door open a few inches. "Ned—"
He shoved the door open and George, surprised, stumbled back a few steps. "Is she here? Is she okay? She called me and left a message—"
"She's okay, Ned," George said. "She's upset, but she's okay, and she can't really see anyone right now..."
"Okay," Ned said, nodding. Then he sat down on the couch.
"I didn't mean just the next five minutes."
"I know," Ned said. "But I'm gonna wait here, if you don't mind."
"What if I did mind?" George crossed her arms, but a smile was trying to come over her mouth.
"Then I guess you won't be the one I bunk with tonight," he said, and she couldn't stop it any longer. "I just need to know she's okay."
"Ned, believe me, I wouldn't lie to you about that."
"I know," he said, and leaned back. "But you didn't hear the message she left me."
After making Ned promise that he wouldn't leave the couch, George went into Nancy's bedroom and closed the door behind her. "He's not leaving until he knows you're okay. I don't know what you said in that message, but you really managed to freak him out. I think Bess would say, props to you, at this point."
"Too bad she's not here," Nancy said, and sniffed. "She could distract him while I snuck down the fire escape and called in a bomb threat."
George shrugged. "I don't even know if that would make him move," she said.
Nancy looked up at George. "Thanks for putting up with me," she said.
"Yeah, well, if he pulls for the 49ers, I might steal him before you ever get a chance."
The growing dusk had reduced the room to shadow and the suggestion of pale when Nancy splashed cold water on her face until it didn't look quite so red or swelled, pulled her hair back, and found her old bathrobe, washed to softness and unraveling at the edges. She slipped into it, and smelled long-steeping tea and a thousand hungover mornings, and shuffled in bare feet down the hallway.
The lights weren't on and the television was quiet, the light straining through the empty beer bottle on the coffee table in front of him, but he turned his head anyway, his hair sticking up at odd angles, but the concern in his eyes almost made tears rise to hers again. He stood up immediately, but stood quiet for a second.
"I didn't know," he said, his voice strained, then cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, I know you probably just wanted to be alone, but... you sounded... I wanted to see for myself that you were okay."
She nodded, twice, slowly, her eyes swimming.
Then she walked forward until her face was brushing against his collar and his arms came around her, warm and tight, held her hard to him.
"Are you okay?" he whispered into her hair.
She shook her head.
"Is there anything I can do?"
She shook her head again. "Not really," she whispered.
When Bess came in an hour later, holding her shoes by the straps in one hand, George held her finger to her lips, her eyes bright. Bess took in the rest of the scene, managing to stifle herself to a gasp when she saw Ned on the couch, his arm around Nancy, her cheek against his shoulder, both of them asleep.
Bess gestured for George to follow her into the kitchen, and pounced on her immediately once they were alone. "What happened while I was gone?"
George laughed softly. "You'll never believe it."
Ned talked all day, all day long, sometimes with a false cheer, to the interested clients, to people who weren't yet sure, to his boss, to his coworkers, until some days he came home and didn't speak for the rest of the night, not after he yelled at the last jackass in traffic and shut his apartment door behind him and locked it, yanking the knot out of his tie. No cat or dog to kiss or pet or feed when he walked in, just silence and the hushed whisper of the air conditioner, the distant metallic slide of ice cubes in the freezer, the traffic on the other side of his window. He could feel his heart and blood slow, his brain shift out of high gear, and it was a good feeling.
Then he heard the knock at the door, quiet, hesitant, on the verge of flight, and he was speechless, mute with surprise when he looked through the spyglass and saw Nancy there.
He waited a breath before opening the door, and her gaze traced the lines, his cheek, his tie, his bare feet. "I'm sorry."
He found his voice. "It's okay," he said, and stepped back, the faint outline of his foot still showing on the hardwood floor for a moment. "Sorry. You okay?"
She drew her hand through her hair, but still stood within a foot of him, as though his was the only halo of warmth or light in the place. "I'm," she said, half-tilting her head, and her voice trailed off to nothing.
He had opened his eyes to find his face inches from hers, his arm slipped behind her to rest just above the small of her back, but she had been sleeping. Her head had been resting on his shoulder. She wasn't his girlfriend, she wasn't, but the room was quiet and the television off and they were alone, and he had rested his fingertips just over the warm curve of her cheek, tracing down, and he had lingered there for a few minutes before he could summon up the will to wake her and break the spell of it. She had hugged him goodbye and he had memorized the smell of her shampoo, slept in those same clothes just for the memory the faint scent had called to him, and dreamed of her.
Now that he knew how it felt to touch her, he couldn't help it; his hand rose, longing to cup the skin just above her elbow and steer her to the couch, lead her head to his shoulder, to make her part of the silence. But she smiled, her keys sounding faintly in her hand.
"I shouldn't have come over here."
"Yes, you should have," he said, and smiled. "I haven't had dinner yet, have you?"
"Don't tell me you cook."
He shrugged. "Some things," he said. "But I consider microwave popcorn a major food group, just so you know. I was thinking more about takeout."
She put her keys down on the overhanging lip of the bar, but didn't move to shrug out of her coat or put her purse down. "So you haven't had a wife to domesticate you."
He walked into the kitchen so she wouldn't see his face. "No, I sure haven't," he said. "Had a fiancée, for about two seconds."
"Oh, so you nearly were."
He shook his head. "It's... it's kind of a joke," he said, pulling out a bowl, a pot, and stood over the stove feeling vaguely ridiculous as he put them back. He was nervous, and instead of looking for the worn and stained stack of delivery menus, he was acting like he was about to cook her a five-course meal, impress the hell out of her, and sweep her off her feet. "I found out the girl had a husband still living."
"You sure know how to pick winners, don't you."
He shrugged. "Not only that, but she wanted to kill me and claim my body was his, just so she could take his inheritance."
"Had she not heard of DNA testing?"
Ned opened the shallow drawer under the phone and pulled out the menus. "She was hoping that the plane crash would burn my body beyond recognition."
Nancy's eyes were gleaming. "Wow," she breathed, and when Ned caught the expression on her face, he wondered if it was the same one Bess had told him about. "How'd you figure it out?"
"A thousand tiny things," he said. "Plus, no girl in her right mind would ever be as eager to marry me as that crazy bitch was."
"I wouldn't say that," she said, sliding behind him to open his fridge. "Mind if I get something?"
"Oh, no, I'll do that," he said, putting his hand over hers, and when she looked at him over her shoulder, he knew that she could feel it too. If he could bottle that feeling, he'd never need coffee again. "Sorry I don't have too much. Beer and soda and water, that's about it."
"Water," she decided, after a second of deliberation, and he was slow finding a glass, filling it with ice cubes, pouring it from the cold filtered pitcher.
"Pick out what you want," he said, nodding at the stack of menus. "I'm game for anything."
She shuffled through them, finding the old standbys, pizza and Chinese and sandwiches. "Sushi?" she asked.
"That what you want?"
"No, I was just surprised," she said softly. "Chinese, double of whatever you get and I'll pay you back."
He couldn't take his eyes off her. "Don't worry about it," he said softly. "Just grab a beer for me and we'll call it even."
They talked, about Jessica Thorne and his own rudimentary detective work, and when he was serving himself another spoonful of beef and broccoli she confessed that she also had her pilot's license. "It's come in handy," she said. "Sounds like it did for you too."
He nodded. "I don't know what I would have done if she'd picked some other way to off me."
He took a swig of his beer and she looked down at her water glass, running her fingertip around the lip. "Ned... I don't want you to misunderstand me."
"About what," he asked.
"I'm not..." she cleared her throat. "What I'm going through right now, I just don't want you to think... I need some time."
He nodded. "I told you," he said softly. "I'm not trying to pressure you into anything. And if you don't want me, if you never want to date me," he swallowed and didn't look at her, "then it's fine. But I think it'd be a shame to... to never see you again."
She smiled. "Yeah, same here," she murmured.
The shadows grew longer and they made the usual excuses, as she pulled on her coat and he helped just for an excuse to touch her again, watching her juggle her keys nervously between her hands. At his door, in half-shadow, she stood still for a moment and just gazed at him.
"You told me it would change my life," she said softly.
"It would," he said, and smiled. "It still can. It's not too late."
"It is tonight," she said, and laughed a little under her breath, before she closed her fingers around his and squeezed them for a second. "Good night, Ned."
"Goodnight," he told her, watching until she was out of sight, her red-blond hair sweeping over her shoulders. He counted his steps across his apartment, and the stillness and quiet were vaguely unsettling without her there to share them.
He watched from the window as she crossed the street and unlocked her car, turned on the headlights and pulled out. Her plate and fork in the sink, her empty glass with the trace of lipstick on the rim, were the only signs she had ever been there.
"I think it is too late," he whispered, touching her glass, the smudge of her fingerprints. "I think you already have me."
Nancy hadn't been strong enough to go home just after work, so she'd come to him instead, but as she stood with her back against the front door, she wondered whether she wouldn't have been better off to just come back here.
She had been thinking about Frank all day, telling herself that she was strong enough to resist calling him, but she knew that she was just waiting for him to do it. Every hour he didn't, she became more and more sure that he had found someone else, that he had been fed up with all of it for the last time. She had been with him--
No, she corrected herself, shrugging out of her coat, putting her car keys into her purse. She hadn't been with Frank; she'd merely been his girlfriend. A girlfriend, when all of it was said and done, who served only as an excuse to avoid the advances of other girls. They had never shared a bed, never shared more than a passionate kiss, and while he'd said he respected her decision to wait, even echoed it himself, she couldn't help but wonder if he resented her for it, the same way he resented her for not accepting his proposal of marriage, for not jumping at the chance to join him and build their life together in Bayport.
Nancy washed her face and looked into her own eyes in the mirror. She'd resisted crying at work. She'd resisted the urge to call Frank. She was stronger than this. She missed him like hell but she was stronger than this.
Maybe I'll never hear his voice again, never see him give me that smile again. Oh God, oh God.
She climbed into bed and pulled the covers up over her and the terrible stillness opened again. She didn't want to think about it, but it was all she could think about; otherwise she would be wondering what side of the bed Ned slept on, and if he spooned in his sleep, if he'd ever lived with anyone, if a kiss from him would actually change her life.
The prospect was ridiculous. She had kissed many men in her life, Frank mostly, and there were some very memorable kisses in there. Since taking her new job, since Frank's marriage proposal and her slowly growing realization that her life would have to change if she wanted it to ever be part of his, there had been less and less of the sudden mutual attraction to other guys, but more and more of her annoyance when her plans with him perpetually fell through.
Until Ned. In that way, Frank had been right. Everything had changed after Ned. Now it wasn't enough anymore, now an occasional weekend that would inevitably be interrupted by a call from his work wasn't enough.
We've been together so long, she thought, turning her face into the pillow, feeling the familiar tickle in her nose and the back of her throat, the tears threatening to rise again. The contact high of Ned's presence had put it off for a while, but she couldn't think about it. She couldn't.
She hadn't felt this way in so long, so very long. She knew how to flirt, knew how to tempt a guy far enough to buy her drinks, but Frank was the only one she'd ever loved. Loving someone else, after this... the thought of it was staggering, impossible.
What if Frank doesn't love me anymore, and the tears rose thick and fast and slipped from beneath tight lids down to the pillowcase. What if I was wrong, and I loved him this long and this, what we are, what I thought we were, we'll never be, we never were...
She had been so strong. But in the face of this, she was powerless. She could talk herself out of trouble and consequence, unlock a pair of police-issue handcuffs in under a minute, and survive cut brake lines, but this, she felt like she would never be okay again. He may not have been here, but he had been a large part of her life for a long time. She had known that her resistance would fade one day, and she would have the husband and the kids and the minivan, but now, that future was in doubt again.
Not that she'd ever been able to figure out how it would work, with the job she had chosen, the life she was leading. Frank had understood. Frank was just as committed to his job. Other guys wouldn't be so forgiving.
She turned over and saw her bathrobe hanging from the back of her closet door. She still felt miserable after she put it on, but she could smell tea, and something warm and slightly spicy and vaguely familiar.
Oh fuck, what am I doing, what have I done she thought when curled up under the covers again. None of it had happened until him, maybe none of it would have happened...
No, Bess's voice came again. She felt like she had talked to Bess about it for hours, until her voice was hoarse and none of the words actually made sense anymore. So it happened now instead of two months from now. And if Frank is seeing someone else...
"That bastard," Nancy hissed under her breath, her throat tight. She hadn't strayed, not this time.
What would you have done if Frank hadn't come.
Nancy turned over and pulled the pillow over her head. She would've pulled back. She wasn't that kind of girl.
Why? What's so different this time, from any other time, any other guy you knew was attracted to you...
"Because he's worth more than that," Nancy whispered, but before she could decide which one of them she meant, she heard her pager go off. She felt almost relieved as she dressed, shoving her feet into hard-soled slides, because going to work meant not crying anymore. Even if her job was good for nothing else, it did manage to keep her occupied, and for that she was grateful.
"This better be good," she said when she walked in, pulling her hair into a messy ponytail.
"It always is," her boss replied.
On the fifth day since he had heard from her, the invitation came in the mail. Mapleton High School, Tenth Class Reunion. Semiformal dress requested, a response card, a cute clipart graphic in the corner. What a bad time to be between girlfriends. He hadn't heard from Belinda since a spectacularly profanity-laden message on his answering machine, which vaguely disturbed him, but she was out of the question anyway.
Please specify whether you will be bringing a guest.
He'd resisted calling Bess and George, because if Nancy didn't want to hear from him, that was fine. He wasn't going to go back on what he had told her. He'd already pressed enough.
But her silence was killing him. He was pretty sure that she agreed with him, that she was on some level attracted to him, but her self-control was proving stronger than his. On the sixth night he argued with himself for an hour before he picked up the phone and called, and George answered, sounding pleased to hear from him.
"Is Nancy home?"
"No, she'll be back in tomorrow."
"She's... out for the night?"
"She has to travel a lot for work, she's out of town. I'm picking her up at the airport..."
"Oh. She goes out of town a lot?"
"Depends. Do you want me to tell her to call you when she—oh, hang on," George said, and her voice went muffled before he heard Bess.
"What took you so long, Nickerson?"
Ned laughed. "I was trying to keep from spooking her," he explained. "And I got an invitation to my tenth high school reunion in the mail, and..."
"Right. Arm candy."
Bess sounded delighted. "Let me see what I can do about that."
"Have you heard from her?"
"Yeah, a few times," Bess said. "Yes, she's talked to Frank twice. No, they aren't back together."
"Oh. I didn't call about that..."
"Sure you didn't," Bess said. "And I didn't tell you. It did her some good to get away from all this, though."
"To get away from me," Ned said softly.
"She's been with Frank a long time, Ned..."
"I know, I know. And the longest I've ever had a girlfriend is five months," he replied. "But she's okay."
"She's as well as she could be, considering. When's your reunion?"
"Good. Just enough time to assemble a fantastic outfit."
Ned laughed. "Glad to see you have your priorities in order."
"No girl can stay sad for long in the perfect pair of shoes, Ned."
When Nancy did show up, he wasn't sure if she was in the perfect shoes or not, but she looked great. Her hair was pulled into a loose bun at the crown of her head, a few loose strands hanging over her ears, which she tucked behind, nervously to match her smile. She wore a soft draping dress in a faded black, the hem just above her knees, and strappy heels that sent a signal through his eyes and directly below his belt, bypassing his brain. Her ankles were slender, her back bare, and he found himself wondering if she was wearing anything at all under her dress. If there was any way he'd find out.
No, he decided, when she raised her hand a few inches, a small sequined clutch in her fingers, and smiled at a point just over his shoulder. "Mind if I come in?"
"Sure, sure," he said hastily, moving to the side. As she passed from the light of the hallway into the muted shadow of his apartment he saw the line of her cheeks and the arch of her eyebrows glisten softly. She looked breathtaking but her cheekbones seemed more hollow, her collarbone more pronounced. She'd lost weight, and Ned almost never noticed such changes, despite the urgings of five high-school girlfriends.
"I almost didn't come," she confessed, this time staring at the left lapel of his favorite blue suit. "But Bess was so excited, she had an outfit all laid out for me, and I couldn't tell her no."
"I'm glad," he said, resisting the urge to brush her hair back, to stop her hand as it cupped another strand behind her ear, to slide a fingertip down the line of her arm, link his finger and thumb around the delicate curve of her ankles. More than that, he found himself wondering if he swept her off her feet and tossed her lightly onto his bed, would she laugh until her eyes lost that exhausted haunted look, would she finally meet and return his gaze.
"I really-- I told Bess not to force you to come," he said, watching her right foot hook behind the other ankle, the tense line of muscle beneath the flesh. "I didn't hear from you and I thought maybe you just needed some more time."
Her blue eyes flashed up then, her foot sliding back onto the floor with a soft click. "I did," she said softly. "Work sent me out of town and I had some time to think about things."
He nodded. "I just wanted to know you were okay."
She didn't talk very much on the way; all her conversation served to draw him out, tell him that she was listening. He filled the silence with stories about work, about a few of the people he expected to see at the reunion, but when he turned to stories about his time in Omega Chi and the friends he'd made there, he finally began to relax.
"College must have been a really good time for you."
He shrugged. "Back in Mapleton, everyone knew who I was. The quarterback, star pitcher, basketball captain... at Emerson, it wasn't just a given anymore. I had to work for all of it, and my brothers were there for me."
"And so modest on top of it," she said, but he could hear the smile in her voice.
"I don't have to be modest. I'd challenge you to a game of touch football anytime."
"I bet you would. Ned... we're going to this thing..."
"As friends," he supplied. "You're just doing me a favor, so I don't have to field the stupid questions about who the lucky girl is, I can just give a little nod in your direction and you smile and we dance a few times, and then I drive you home and we're still friends."
She nodded. "I think I can handle that. I don't know how good you are at touch football, but you're no slouch at dancing."
"And I think you'll make exquisite arm candy."
They groaned simultaneously when Ned pulled into the parking lot at the hotel. "'In the grand ballroom, another memorable night for the Mapleton High Class of—' God, Ned, you're ancient."
He grabbed her arm playfully, twined their fingers together for a moment. "Two years older than you makes me ancient." He could feel her heart speed up under his fingertips.
"There is a huge difference between twenty-five and twenty-seven," she informed him, leaning in to catch his gaze. "At least in girl years."
He stopped just outside the hallway leading to the ballroom, and she raised an eyebrow. Her arm was warm in his. "Just—need a minute," he said, wishing he'd already rested his palm at the small of her back, but it was too late. "I haven't seen some of these guys in years."
Nancy nodded. "How many ex-girlfriends of yours am I about to meet?"
"Oh... don't think of them that way," he advised her. "Just refer to them communally as 'half the cheerleading squad.'"
"Ahh, a man of discriminating tastes."
"Is it my fault that all the pretty girls happened to be on the cheerleading team?" He took a step and she moved with him. "Was it different in River Heights, and you were the head of the chess club instead?"
Nancy's lips curled up in a smile. "Close," she said.
When they stepped into the ballroom, the slow change was complete; her chin was high, her smile in place, she was poised and charming and gorgeous. He could barely believe she was the same girl who wouldn't meet his eyes an hour before. Almost immediately a woman approached them, a martini glass in her hand and a diamond sparkling in the strobe lights, and Ned didn't even recognize her at first, even after she trilled his name and stood expectantly a few inches too far into his personal space.
"How have you been?"
"I've been great," he said easily, then pretended to remember himself. "Nancy, this is Evie Lancaster..."
"Nice to meet you," Nancy said, shaking her hand with a smile.
"We dated," Evie explained, when Ned didn't elaborate. "Years ago. Ned, you look amazing. Still taking care of yourself?"
"When I can," Ned said. "Well, we need to make the rounds now, maybe get a drink or two..."
"It's so nice to see you again," Evie said, almost staring into his eyes. "Save me a dance?"
"I don't know, he's promised most of them to me," Nancy finally said, and he looked down into her eyes, matching her too-cute smile with one of his own. "Buy me a drink?"
"Of course. See you, Evie."
Nancy slid into a barstool and laid her clutch in front of her, propping her elbow up on the bar so she could rest her fingers lightly just under her chin. "Vodka and cranberry juice," she told the bartender, and sighed before she turned to Ned. "Let me guess. Head cheerleader."
Ned nodded. "She broke up with me a month before prom. I seem to be cursed to be alone at all major holidays."
"Prom as a holiday," Nancy marveled, poking a straw into her drink before she took the first sip. "You know, Ned, you look perfect, but there must be something wrong under the hood if the head cheerleader would break up with you, the star quarterback and a fine piece of ass to boot, right before prom."
Ned burst into surprised laughter. "I have a theory about that."
"I'm a bachelor."
Nancy waited for him to elaborate, then took a long sip of her drink and made a motion for him to continue. He shrugged.
"They just-- maybe they sense I'm not cut out for a long-term relationship."
Ned grabbed his beer. "I say we stake out a table and wait for them to come to us," he said, sliding off his stool. "Easier on the feet."
Nancy looked down at her shoes, ruefully. "Bess sure has an eye for heels," she said. "I just don't have the legs for them."
Ned curved his fingers around hers for a moment. "I beg to differ," he said.
She could always tell, somehow. Under the table, out of sight, her heels tucked safely under her chair, he could feel her bare toes brush against his ankle whenever another of the girls approached. When he saw them through her eyes, he almost cringed; they were so bright that they glittered now, brittle hair and deep tans and eyes that raked over Nancy like they were taking note of her every blemish and flaw, and he was gratified to know that they could find little to judge. She wasn't wearing a thick tennis bracelet or a doorknob for an engagement diamond over the dull platinum of a wedding band. She didn't have collagen-puffed lips or breasts swelled from feeding yet another child or a divorce in her recent past.
"Nancy," one of them said, one of the better in the bunch; instead of marrying young and popping out a pair of kids before the divorce, she had moved to Chicago and worked at one of the major television stations. "Not Nancy Drew."
Nancy smiled politely. "One and the same," she said.
"No wonder I couldn't keep Ned's attention," the woman said, shaking Nancy's hand. "He always seemed a little... bigger than Mapleton. You two been together long?"
Ned glanced at Nancy, but she was the first to speak. "Only a month or so," she said. "So, tell me more about Ned's wandering attention."
The woman laughed. Simone. Her hair was lighter blonde now, and she was more confident, more sure of herself. He could almost remember why he'd dated her. "Maybe it was just always on sports. I think he played everything Mapleton offered, and still somehow found time to study. Never did figure that one out."
Ned shrugged, blushing a little. "And I see you're still charming as ever."
"Just a little jealous," she said easily. "It was good to see you again, Ned. And nice to meet you, Nancy."
Once Simone had vanished back into the crowd, Nancy turned to Ned, smiling, her voice low. "Okay, either your cheerleading squad was four times the size of a normal one, or you made a big impression on half the girls in this room. At least."
"You think there's something wrong with my theory?"
"I don't know whether you were meant to be a bachelor," Nancy replied. "But I think they'd like to do their best to make sure you have to work for it."
Ned finished the last of his beer and stood. "Okay, enough resting the feet," he said. "We have to go out there and dance at least once." He reached out for her hand.
"We have to? My pretending that you're my boyfriend wasn't enough?"
"We don't have to, if you don't want to."
She maneuvered under the tablecloth and then stood on her slender heels again, reaching for his hand. "Okay," she said. "But you twisted my arm."
"Is that your alibi?"
She nodded, her fingers brushing his wrist. "If anyone asks, I didn't want to do this."
He slipped his arms around her and Nancy put her arms up around his neck, and he gazed down at her. "What if I ask?" he said softly.
She looked at his collar, blushing faintly. "Against my better judgement."
"Nancy, I really didn't do this to make you uncomfortable..."
She traced her thumb over his neck, just above his collar. "I know," she said softly, even though he shivered. "I'm not uncomfortable. I just feel like I'm pretending I'm okay, and I'm not, and no one here knows that I'm not your girlfriend, no one here knows about... what just happened. It's strange. And I almost expect you to take advantage of this and try to kiss me, and... damn, don't let me drink anymore."
A smile was twitching on his lips as he turned with her. "You're fine," he said. "I'm not gonna take advantage of you, or of this, just because you were nice enough to help me out for a few hours. Besides, I think it's incredibly bad taste to indulge in public displays of affection."
"Well, for other people," he said. "If you wanted to indulge in a little making out, I wouldn't stop you. We make such a pretty couple that it'd practically be a photo opportunity."
She laughed, even though that look was creeping back into her eyes. "Maybe you'll get another dance for that."
"I hope so." He held his breath when he brushed her hair behind her ear. "You know I'm teasing you, right? I just... don't want to see that look on your face again."
"The one you had on your face when you knocked on my door tonight. Like you'd rather be covered in tarantulas than go out with me."
"Oh, I'm sure I didn't look like that," she replied, searching his eyes. "I'm sorry I didn't call you while I was gone, I know how it must have seemed to you..."
He shrugged, looking down at the curve of her shoulder, the way the light reflected off her skin. "It's all right," he said, and smiled a little, but there was no humor in it. "If there's anything I'm used to, it's having a girl not call me."
She ran her hand over his hair a few times. "Ned..."
He shook his head. "Confirmed bachelor, remember," he said softly. "I think, after this, maybe..."
"One more dance," she said. "And then some coffee for the ride home."
He could tell that she was surprised when he pulled up in the parking lot of a restaurant. "'The Happy Pancake,'" she read, skeptically.
"They have the best coffee," he said. "And even better pancakes. I used to come here all the time when I was in high school."
"So this entire night is gonna bring back memories for you, huh," she said, climbing out of his car. "Which one of the girls I met tonight did you make out with in the parking lot?"
"I have to say, that's one tradition I never started," he said, holding the door for her. "And you're getting a stack of buttermilk pancakes, you look like you need it."
"What, can you hear my stomach rumbling?"
"No, but I think I can almost see your ribs," he said, gently running his hand over her side. She pulled back, searching his eyes, but the corner of her mouth rose in a half-smile.
She resigned herself to his ordering for her, but only made it halfway through the stack of pancakes. She folded her hands around her mug of coffee as Ned finished them off.
"Do you believe in fate? That some people are just... meant to be together?"
Ned swallowed a bite of pancake and took a sip of his own coffee before replying. "Not really," he said. "But I'm sure you guessed that."
She smiled. "Yeah, I was pretty sure," she told him. "I thought that I was meant to be with Frank."
Ned considered his next bite of pancake, but at the sound of the other man's name, his stomach was suddenly in knots. He put down his fork. "You did."
She nodded. "I mean... we'd known each other practically forever, and then, when I was fifteen, it was like I suddenly realized that I actually did care about him. We were at Fox Lake, and it was beautiful..."
"Fox Lake?" Ned raised his eyebrows. "Did you spend a lot of time there?"
"Every now and then," Nancy said. "Why?"
"My parents have a cabin there," he said, smiling. "It is beautiful. I'm surprised I never happened to run into you up there... I'd remember you. We were going to spend the entire summer up there... it must have been that same year. My Dad got a promotion and Mom decided we should stay in town with him."
Nancy tilted her head, her eyes shining. "That's amazing," she said.
"I know," he said. "But I'm sorry. You were saying..."
She ducked her head. "You don't want to hear about this."
He gazed at her until she raised her head to look at him again. "I want to hear anything you want to tell me," he said. "It's the least I can do. After tonight."
She tilted her head. "So you never feel like you found the one, the first girl you'd ever love, the one you were meant to be with."
He chuckled. "I can't say that I have," he replied. "It all seems so—artificial. There are so many people out there, and it—it's almost—I don't want to hurt your feelings."
She waved her hand. "I won't take any offense, it's your opinion."
"It seems so... egocentric to think that I would find the one person I was meant to be with. It's not all about me; God, it's never been all about me. I finished fifth in my class in high school; I played every sport but I never took a pro contract, and even now... I like my work, but at the end of the day, I have a quiet apartment and the thought of being with you... and now you're the one who's gonna need to stop me from taking another drink."
"So you're not happy with your life."
"You ask me if everyone's meant to find someone," he said, tilting his head. "It feels like a game of musical chairs I've never managed to win."
"I've never even played," she said softly. "He asked me if I would be his girlfriend, and it seemed to make sense then, because when you're fifteen it doesn't matter if your boyfriend lives four states away. It almost makes it even more romantic. But when you're twenty-five and he—" She looked down, her lower lip trembling. "God, listen to us."
Ned gestured to the waiter for the bill. "I think this is how people are supposed to feel after a high school reunion," she said. "Tired and depressed and sad, wondering what could have happened."
"In two years, remind me not to go to mine," she told him. "So now we go back to Chicago and lie awake, wondering what we should have done differently?"
He threw a few bills on the table and let his hand rest on the small of her back as he escorted her out. "I'm a big believer in not regretting," he said. "So we don't regret. We go back to Chicago and park at my place and take a cab to a small quiet little bar a few blocks away, where we can drink until we've forgotten all of this."
"I thought you just said I was gonna have to stop you from taking another drink."
"So you got a better idea?"
She smiled. "You know the way to River Heights from here?"
He raised his eyebrows at her when she directed him to pull into a clearing just off a dirt path. The charred remains of a barn stood in the distance. "This looks mysteriously like the kind of place where high schoolers would go to park."
"So I've heard," she teased him. "Though, I'm sure you're wondering, and no. I didn't ever park here with the star quarterback and make out with him until five minutes before my curfew."
"You want to start that tradition?"
"Nice try," she said, then pushed open the door of the car and stepped out, tossing her shoes back in behind her. When she came around to the front of the car, in the dark silhouette of the headlights, she crooked her finger at him, and it took only a second for him to follow.
"Where are we?"
"Flanders farm," she whispered, when they were out in the moonlight. "I was out here when that barn burned down. Ages ago."
"So the star quarterback was a pyro."
"No... remind me to tell you the story sometime," she said, slipping her hand into his. "It's been a while since I've just stopped for a while and..."
"Breathed," he finished. "I have a blanket in the trunk of my car, I think..."
The blanket, once discovered, was a worn and faded heavy quilt, and he settled down on it and kicked his shoes off and looked up at her, her ankles already wet in the high grass. He patted the blanket next to him.
"I don't bite."
"You sure? Maybe that's why you can't keep a girlfriend," she said, and fell gracefully to the quilt with her legs crossed in front of her. "Because I really can't figure it out."
He pulled up a blade of grass and ripped it in half. "I've heard that I'm too intimidating," he said. "That I never stop and... breathe," he said, and laughed. "With Belinda, it was not paying her enough attention, but I think no one in her life has ever paid her as much attention as she wanted."
"Trust me," Nancy said, patting him on the back, "hers is the last opinion you should listen to."
He looked down. "Yeah, well," he said. "So you burned down the barn over there?"
She laughed. "I didn't burn down the barn," she said. "I just happened to be here. It was kind of crazy."
He nodded. "You don't like to talk about yourself."
She bent her knees and pulled them to her chest, resting her chin on top. "I think practically any other topic's more interesting," she said. "It was really interesting to meet the people you went to high school with."
He smiled. "There you go again," he said.
She looked away. "Do you really want to know what I'm thinking about?"
He nodded. "Sure."
"That I am so scared that I will never find another guy who... understands me and loves me the way Frank did."
"What's so difficult to understand about you?"
She smiled. "You know how you feel about your work? That you're good at it, but it's just something you're going to do to save time until you can do what you really like?"
He nodded. "Sure."
"I... love my work. Love it. I've been doing this... Bess and George say it's solving mysteries, but it feels like so much more than that. It's like a drug. When I'm between, I just wait for the next one, the next puzzle, and there is nothing like a new case."
Ned remembered Bess's comment again. "I think Bess even said you get this particular look on your face..."
She grinned and looked down. "They like to tease me about it."
He stretched out and studied her silhouette. "So you found something you love to do," he said softly. "That's not so hard to understand."
She turned to him, her eyes gleaming. "But... it doesn't stop," she said. "I mean, I don't go home at the end of the day and take my shoes off and not think about it anymore. It's all I think about. And Frank's the same way."
"No wonder you two couldn't make it work."
"He's dedicated," she said. "And that's part of what I loved about him."
She sighed and tilted back until she was facing him across the quilt. "Yeah."
He traced the curve of a vine over the fabric with the tip of his finger. "It sounds like you... what you love, it just filled up your life, and maybe the only reason it worked with Frank was because he wasn't... around. I know you were frustrated when you couldn't see him."
"I was," she said. "But... he asked me to marry him. Invited me to come to Bayport and have a life there."
"When you were on that camping trip?" He propped his head up on his hand.
"No... it was a couple years ago."
Ned made an incredulous noise. "And he stayed with you after you turned him down? I mean, were you two engaged?"
"I thought it would have been ridiculous to be engaged to a man who lived four states away."
He laughed. "True," he said. "I'm already convinced that long-distance relationships don't really work, but I can't imagine an engagement would be any easier."
"It really wasn't."
"So... all those things you were saying earlier, about true love and being meant to stay with only one person... that was just, what, an intellectual exercise?"
"What do you mean?"
He tried to read the expression in her eyes, but sighed and gave up. "If you thought you were meant to be with Frank, why didn't you agree to marry him?"
"Because... because he lives so far away, and I have a life in Chicago, and--"
"And even if you loved him, it wasn't enough to make you change," he said softly.
"It's not." She flipped onto her back and stared up at the stars, her hands clasped loosely over her chest. "I don't know," she whispered.
"You say you're complicated, but from where I'm sitting, it's really simple," he said. "If you wanted to be with Frank, you would have. You would be. If you wanted to be with Frank, then you wouldn't—" He cut himself off.
She turned to him. "What?" she asked, when he didn't continue.
He shook his head. "Nothing," he muttered.
"No, what?" She propped her head up and poked his shoulder with the tip of a polished nail. "What is it?"
"If you wanted to be with Frank then you wouldn't be laying on a blanket in the middle of a field in the dead of night with me."
Her lip trembled before she forced a smile. "You make it sound almost scandalous."
"I wouldn't," he said, tracing his finger down her cheek, "presume to make you feel any worse tonight than you already do."
She looked down, but didn't shy away from his touch, and his hand fell away after a minute. "I'm sorry," she said finally. "I'm a total buzzkill right now."
He smiled. "Like I'm any better."
"You are. You're great. I'm..."
He shook his head. "I think... that it boils down to the same thing. You won't move... do you know that I've never given any of my girlfriends a key to my apartment?"
Nancy smiled. "I don't think that's such a bad thing."
"Yeah, but it's... I've never felt that level of... trust, when any of them. And you couldn't take that leap either."
"So what are you trying to say?" She put her hand over his, her fingers brushing the back of his hand. "That you just haven't found the love of your life either, despite all evidence to the contrary?"
"How can you, a logical, rational human being, believe that there is just one person out there for you?"
She smiled a little then. "It was easy because I thought I'd found him," she said. "Maybe it would've been easier if you'd found one too."
If there was ever, in my entire life, anyone that I ever felt like I could spend the rest of my time here with, I think that person could be you. "Maybe," he agreed. "Too bad I didn't meet her."
"You still have time," she said softly. "Maybe we both do."
They lingered there in the field, until the night grew chilly, and she was quiet. He could just feel her fingers on his, he could just make out the way her dress slipped down her inner thigh as she bent her leg and raised her knee, the sole of her foot sliding in on the quilt, the pale length of her inner forearm. Once he thought she gasped in a quiet faint sob, and he propped himself up on his elbow so that he could look down at her. Her eyes glistened in the dark as she held and returned his gaze, searching his eyes, and he caught the faint movement as her lower lip dropped softly.
She would taste sweet and warm. She would be hesitant at first, she would drop her chin and break away with her eyelashes fluttering between them, and then she would hook her arm around his neck and draw him in again, close to her, on her toes. He knew it. He wanted to feel it.
He studied her lips for a moment, and he could almost hear the faint hum of it, the soft breath of the electricity he could feel between them every time they were together, every time he spoke to her, every time he thought about her. He traced his gaze over the sharp angle of her collarbone, the shadowed hollow at the base of her throat, the slow rise of her stomach as she took another breath.
I don't know if I'll ever believe in true love, but this is as close as I have ever come...
"We should go," he said softly, and she let her breath out in a quick sigh, and he almost thought he saw regret in her eyes.
By the time they came back to her place, it was late but it wasn't late enough. He had watched her sweep her hair up again when they were almost there, even though he preferred it loose and free around her face, as it had been. He parked on the street, and the sound of laughter echoed out of the bar down the street as she stepped out onto the curb.
He spoke first, at the street door. "Thank you for coming. I know there were a thousand other things you would rather have done tonight..."
She shook her head. "It's fine," she protested. "I had... an interesting time."
He smiled. "Not a good one."
She tilted her head. "Next time it'll be good. I'll be good."
"What if my definition of 'good' doesn't quite agree with yours?"
She smiled. "It will," she said. Then she looked down. "Thanks."
"For listening," she said softly. "For letting me breathe, for a little while."
He smiled. "It is important," he said, reaching out and tracing the line of her cheek. "I'm going to wish you good night before..."
"Before what?" She slipped her fingers over his.
"Before another one of your admirers comes up and takes you away from me again."
"Not much risk of that happening."
He swallowed hard before he stepped toward her, his fingers barely resting over the curve of her neck, under the warmth of her hair. "Are you just trying to convince me..."
"Convince you of what," she said, her voice just louder than a breath, her eyes fluttering closed.
He hovered there, just there, her face in shadow under his. She wasn't moving.
Then he saw the faint glisten of a tear at the edge of her eyelashes, just above the apple of her cheek, and he sighed. He closed his eyes and brushed his cheek just over hers, their skin just touching, before he moved away.
"Good night, Nancy."
Her eyelashes fluttered up again, her eyes gleaming as her gaze found his. "Good night, Ned."
Only once she had vanished into the apartment building did he let his chin drop to his chest, to study his shoes, the pale tails of his shirt from under his suit jacket. He felt like he could run around the block a hundred times and never feel it, but he didn't want to go back to his empty apartment just yet.
Then he looked up, at the faint sudden square of light in her window, at her silhouette. She pushed up the sill and he grinned.
"You still haven't changed my life, Ned," she called down, just loud enough for him to hear.
"I will," he called back, his heart beating hard in his chest. "I will, Nancy."
The Saturday morning found her with her hair tied up in a high ponytail, wearing a shirt she'd bought at a concert she and Bess went to the year she was seventeen, so old that a hole had worn through at the shoulder and the hem was unraveling and the band graphic was so distressed that it was nearly illegible. She stood in the middle of the floor, looking around her bedroom.
Other girls, she knew, in this state, went through everything they owned for reminders and put it all into a shoebox and shoved it out of sight, into an attic, into a fire, off a bridge, into a body of water. After ten years, she supposed that the process usually took a storage trailer and a gallon of gasoline.
Nothing she owned reminded her of Frank. Everything she owned reminded her of him.
There were the songs they listened to, together, during long-distance phone calls, while she lay with her finger twisting in the cord, staring up at the ceiling, laughing. He wasn't one for letters or cards; in everything she owned, she doubted she had more than ten samples of his handwriting. A mixed CD hand-labeled with the track names, a note telling her that he had figured out the case and to meet him at the pier, the card he'd signed and tucked into a dozen roses. She had a ballcap she'd swiped from him during a run and pulled onto her own head, an oversized police department sweatshirt, a delicate thin-linked gold bracelet with a miniature magnifying glass charm. A picture of the two of them, his arms around her shoulders, both relaxed and grinning easily.
Bess knocked on her door, then came in with a plate of waffles, as Nancy folded up another shirt and dropped it onto her bed. "How was last night?"
"It was..." Nancy looked at the waffles, but shook her head when Bess offered her one. "I don't know what it was."
"It was... it started out bad. Awkward. And I really didn't want to be there."
"I know, I know," Bess said, cutting off another section of waffle. "But after that?"
"We talked, a lot." Nancy smiled, then started flipping through her CD collection. "Then we went out to Flanders farm and..."
Bess's fork dropped to the plate with a clink. "What?"
"And talked some more," Nancy said loudly. "That was it."
"Didn't I hear you shouting something out the window last night when you got back?"
"It was—nothing," Nancy said, but her cheeks colored faintly. "I think I probably turned him off anyway, I started talking about Frank..."
"Nancy, Nancy... never talk about the ex. Never."
"I thought it was only fair, I think I met half the girls he's ever dated at the reunion."
"What did they look like?" Bess's eyes were bright as she took another bite.
"All pretty, and thin, and... I think most of them were still kind of in love with him."
"I would be too," Bess declared. "Whew."
"So... I don't know."
Bess looked at the things on the bed, then turned to Nancy with sympathetic eyes. "Cleaning house?"
"Yeah," Nancy replied, briskly. "I don't know what I'm gonna do with all this stuff."
"If you want, I am entirely willing to go get drunk with you tonight, and then help you think up something suitable to do. Like maybe burn all of it, except a few things, and then mail the ashes to him in a box."
Nancy shook her head. "I don't hate him," she said softly. "I'm not out to hurt him. I'm just... sad." She sighed. "It would almost be easier to just clean all this stuff out and start over."
Bess shrugged. "Why not? I've been dying to redecorate this place."
Nancy sat down beside Bess, at the foot of the bed. "You know, it feels like... almost like what we had between us, was a child, a little bit of both of us, and I wasn't just Nancy anymore, I was Nancy-Frank's-girlfriend... but it's not a part of me anymore. He's not a part of me anymore. I thought he always would be."
Bess looped her arm around Nancy's shoulders and gave her a half-hug. "He always will be a part of you, a little," she said. "Maybe you don't have a baby to show for it, but you were with him for a long time. And I think even though I was surprised that you two stuck it out for as long as you did, this was entirely out of the blue for you."
Nancy dropped her chin to her chest. "It hurts," she said softly. "I wasn't ready for this to be over, but Ned said... that if I wanted to be with Frank, I'd be with Frank, instead of going to his high school reunion with him last night. I even pretended for a little while that I was his girlfriend, just because I didn't like the girl who walked up to us as soon as we came into the place."
"Ned promised he wasn't going to do anything like that, I can't believe—"
"Oh, he made it clear from the start, we were just playing it as friends. But... I don't know, training took over. I mean, it's not like I kissed him or anything."
"And babe, that is a damn shame," Bess laughed. "Now. We gonna redo your bedroom or what?"
Nancy looked around. "Nah," she said, and found a box in her closet, began to gather the detritus from her bed in great armfuls. When she was finished, she looked down at the full box at her feet, her cleared bed, and met Bess's gaze again. All the overt evidence of their relationship, of the child they'd never had and the union never legitimized, all so easily excised from her. Everything but the last swelled wash of tears behind her eyes.
"I think we just need to redo me."
Do it, do it, do it, do it, do it, do it, do it.
Her earrings had done it. Huge thin silver hoops dangling from her earlobes, brushing against the curve of her neck. Her hair was up, her heels were high, her wrists were a mass of silver bangles and her lips gleamed a wicked, sinful red.
Do it, do it, do it, do it. Now. Do it now.
Ned didn't fully understand it, he never had, how the black rims around her eyes, how the silver shadow behind her eyelids, how the height of her heels and the gleam of her legs and the curve of her bare shoulders could do this to him. Bess and Kent were at the bar getting another round of drinks, George was hustling some drunken frat boys who didn't know any better out of the money in their pockets, and Nancy was grinning up at him, her eyes clear, her arms jingling faintly as she raised them over her head. They weren't by themselves, but they were as alone as the club would ever let them be.
He sucked in a breath and took the plunge, leaning in so close that their cheeks brushed, his lips next to her ear. "Go to dinner with me tomorrow night."
When he pulled back she was still smiling, but her eyes searched his. "You sure?"
He swallowed. "Yeah."
Two weeks had passed since his reunion. Three of the girls he'd run into there had somehow found his number and left messages on his answering machine. Three times he'd gone out with Bess, George, Nancy, and Kent. He'd thought about kissing her too many times to count, especially once she had lost the pinched, devastated look, especially once she'd begun to smile again.
His nerve had just never coincided with their being alone, not until tonight. He was almost glad. Tonight she hadn't mentioned the other man's name once, she hadn't stirred her drink with that distracted look on her face, and she hadn't turned him down for a dance any time he'd asked.
"Do I need to cut you off? No more drinks tonight?"
He curved his arm around the small of her back and drew her in close to him, the insides of her wrists brushing against his temples. "I've been nursing one beer the entire night," he said, seriously, diffusing it with a smile. "One beer."
"And if I, did, by some chance, decide..." She waved as Bess and Kent headed back toward them, and lowered her voice, so that he head to lean even closer to hear it. Her breath was warm against his ear. "What did you have in mind? Someplace small and intimate and French, with cloth napkins and a wine menu starting at a week's pay per bottle?"
He wanted to brush her earlobe with his lower teeth. He wanted to pull the slender strap down her arm, hold it in his fist while he buried his face against her neck. He wanted to kiss her until the sin-red lipstick was smudged against her blush-pink cheek and she was gasping for breath. All he could think was no, black lace, hotel champagne and strawberries, and you so exhausted that all we can do is roll over and order room service and pretend that anything I want to do doesn't involve you gasping my name and digging your nails into my back.
"I was thinking... small and loud and Greek, laminated menus and paper napkins and a completely incomprehensible wine menu, but we'd probably order beers and play footsie under the table and sing happy birthday to a couple twelve year olds while we waited for our food, and after I'd try to kiss you and you'd tease me with something about how good Catholic girls don't kiss on the first date and if you did, you'd have to confess it in the morning anyway."
"You think I'm a good Catholic girl? Is this gonna involve some sort of roleplaying and uniform thing?"
"Do you want it to?"
She laughed, her lashes a dark fringe on her cheek as she closed her eyes. "I'm not Catholic. And I probably wouldn't look good in a plaid skirt."
"Oh, I think you would," he said. "Not that you'd be wearing it for long."
Her breath against his neck. "You're good."
He smiled. "I try to be. But you're pushing me. Tell me yes, Nancy."
She pulled in a breath and he heard it in his head before she ever opened her mouth. It's too soon; I've been talking to him again; I don't feel that way about you; I don't want to jeopardize our friendship for this.
He pulled back and held her gaze with his, searched it. "Really?"
"Really," she said. "With the caveat that I'm a fragile and overemotional woman just getting over a very long and serious relationship, and that it's not only good Catholic girls who don't kiss on first dates."
"You're hopeless," he said, moving with her, and out of the corner of his eye he caught Bess approaching them. "I'll pick you up at seven."
To fill the time while he waited for seven o'clock to arrive, he found his old game console and played races over and over, beating his best times, flying off the course whenever he caught himself wondering what she'd be wearing and whether it might be a skirt and whether it might involve black lace. In the end he had decided that it would involve some sort of schoolteacher-type gown, high neck with a white lace collar, but that quickly involved her wearing a leather bustier underneath, and he sighed as he crashed his fifth car of the afternoon. He shook his head and put the controller down.
He changed his sheets, although doing so before the third date usually meant he wouldn't be lucky enough to get that far. He changed his outfit twice and even though he tried to wait as long as he could, he was still dressed and sitting on the couch with his hands on his knees by six o'clock.
When he called the apartment, George answered, mid-laugh. "Yes?"
"I was just—hell, I don't know why I'm calling," Ned said, wiping his damp palm on the couch cushion beside him. "I guess because I think maybe I dreamed it."
"Oh, so you're the reason Nancy's in curlers right now," George teased him. "Yeah. Trust me, Bess has the big makeup kit out. I say you run to a jewelry store and buy something large and shiny immediately."
"She looks that good, huh."
"She will," George promised. "Sorry, I have some wax heating up on the stove. You'll be here at seven?"
"Why do you—never mind," Ned replied, shaking his head. "I'll be there at seven. Sorry, I didn't know a simple invitation to dinner caused so much chaos."
"Usually it doesn't. I think you're a first."
George chuckled. "It's been a long time since Nancy's had a boyfriend who lived close enough to interfere with her social life."
"That sounds—so wrong, on so many levels," Ned replied. "But I'd better let you get back to the hot wax."
"You'll thank me later," George said cryptically. "See ya."
Maybe she wants Italian. Maybe she wants it all formal... maybe I should change.
In the end, he showed up with a dozen red roses and a grin that looked far more confident than he felt. For a heartbeat, once the door was opened, he wondered if Bess's makeup job had served to change Nancy's face completely, until he realized that Bess was the one standing at the door, holding it open, her expression incredibly sad.
"Hi... is she just almost ready?"
"She... has the worst timing ever," Bess said softly. "Ten minutes ago work sent a car by to pick her up. Ned, I'm so sorry."
"She couldn't... call me? Bess, you can tell me if she changed her mind, you don't have to lie."
George beckoned him over to the couch, and he handed the roses off to Bess and sat on the arm and read the folded note George gave him. Hurried script.
Ned, I'm so sorry, I'll make this up to you. I'll call you as soon as I can.
Bess was watching him closely when he looked up. "Is this real?" he asked her.
Bess nodded, slowly. "She looked great when she left here, and she would have done anything to have five more minutes just so she could see you before she left."
"She'll be back later tonight?"
"We never have any idea," George replied. "She could be back in a few hours or a few days."
"Damn," he said under his breath. "Well, I guess... I'll go home and crawl into a bottle."
"No, no," Bess insisted. "We're gonna take you out. I've already called Kent, you guys can... bond, or something, and we'll make sure you get home at the end of the night. It'll be good. Not as good as it would be if Nancy's stupid work hadn't called her in, but what can you do."
At two o'clock that morning he stumbled back into his apartment and took in the clean sheets and fresh towels and the bottle of wine in the fridge, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. He was supposed to be stumbling in with her right now, and she was God knew where, avoiding him. She had to be avoiding him. He had snuck out of the bar at midnight, after too many shots, and tried her cell phone, only to get her voicemail.
"Dammit," he hissed under his breath, and dropped heavily to the couch. "Dammit. I knew it wouldn't, knew it..."
When he woke in the morning, he had a terrible headache pounding between his temples and a rose petal closed in his fist.
Nancy sat facing the bar, the mirror, nursing a ginger ale in a highball glass. The man behind her couldn't have cared less about where she was, which was good, because every five minutes her stomach knotted up again.
She was almost positive she had seen Ned. Which was almost impossible, because she was in New York City and he was in Chicago, convinced that she had stood him up for their first date two days before.
So she watched every figure cross the lobby, keeping half an eye on the man in the brown leather trenchcoat, waiting for him to make his move. If it was Ned, he had been in sweats, which was bad enough because she was surrounded by tourists and half of them were dressed the same way. At least this isn't like last time, with the nightclub and the bouncer and the key that stopped working at the last minute.
"Still got him?"
Nancy raised her hand and pressed two fingers against her ear. "Yeah," she mumbled.
"We finally got into the computer. I'm sending Jason up to the room."
"So I'm off the hook?" Nancy mumbled the last into her drink, then took a swallow.
"For now. But if he makes a move tonight..."
"I know." Nancy threw a few bills onto the bar, then turned and walked briskly through the lobby. "I'm coming out there."
Once she was in the van, she pulled out her earpiece and took a long breath. "If you're in the system already... Kev, mind doing me a favor?"
Kevin could pull up Ned's entire genealogy, credit history, and college sports statistics at the push of a button, but she didn't need any of that. Just a room number and a master keycard and a rough approximation of a maid's uniform, which, judging by the selection in the van, ranged more toward French slut than strict utilitarian. Nancy made do with a pair of khakis, a collared polo shirt, and a hint of mascara.
Only when she reached his door did she turn off the transmitter on her earpiece and take a deep breath. She kept her face turned down, so that only her scalp would show if he tried to look through the door, and knocked three times, but he didn't answer.
Maybe he hasn't made it back yet.
She swiped the keycard quickly, before she could lose her nerve, which was ridiculous; they had been tracking their target for two days, he was planning to kill at least ten people, if he caught them there would be hell to pay, but even their search for him hadn't made her feel like this. The door was just swinging shut behind her when she heard the shower running.
She froze for a second. Even so, force of habit led her to stop the door with her palm and lead it slowly into the frame, so that he wouldn't hear it. She crossed the room and sat down at the desk, cradling her forehead in her hand.
He walked out of the bathroom a few minutes later, making a startled noise. "What—"
She turned to him, and stared at a point over his shoulder, blushing a little. "I'm sorry," she said softly.
She let her eyes drift down to his face, once she could see the white blur of a towel around his waist in her peripheral vision, and raised her hand in a little wave. "Hi."
"How did you—what are you doing in my room?"
"Well," Ned said, rubbing his wet hair with another towel before he tossed it back into the bathroom. "Give me a second, and then you can uncomplicate it for me."
While Ned hastily dressed in the other room, Nancy listened to the distant chatter over her earpiece. "Okay, great, the cameras are coming through fine," Kevin reported. "So now we get to stakeout for the rest of the night. Drew?"
She switched her transmitter back on. "Yeah?" she whispered.
"You gonna be around?"
"Can you guys make do without me for the night?"
"If you must. Keep in touch, though."
"Sure," she said, and switched it back off when Ned came out of the bathroom. She smiled, and he just gave her a long, steady look before he found his shoes and socks and put those on.
"So what brings you to New York?"
"Major client," Ned replied. "I thought we were going to get everything wrapped up earlier, but... yeah. Now I get to meet him for brunch tomorrow morning and it'll all be taken care of... so why, exactly, are you in my hotel room? Shall we start over?"
"I was around, I thought I saw you, and," she shrugged. "And I decided to apologize in person, because I... I really wish I could have gone out with you Saturday night. It killed me to leave."
He looked away from her, his jaw set. "Then... why did you," he said.
She walked over to Ned and sat down next to him, tilted her head over to find his gaze, and stayed there until he returned it. "You remember when I told you about my work."
She could see the muscle in his jaw working, but when he began to turn away from her, she reached up and forced his gaze back to hers.
"Ned, I work for the government," she said softly. "I'm a spy."
His breath hitched softly, the corners of his eyes creased, and his head turned until her fingers were tracing over his lips. "Nancy, look, if you didn't want to go out with me, all you had to do was say so."
"Do you honestly think that anything but the security and safety of the American people could have made me miss having dinner with you?"
He laughed a little at that, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. "It just seemed... too convenient. That you'd get cold feet and then make up some excuse about work just to save my feelings."
She shook her head. "If I ever get cold feet, I'll tell you; I won't make up some excuse. Trust me."
"So you followed me here just to tell me that?"
"Not quite," she admitted. "We're doing... something here tonight. Don't repeat that to anyone."
"Is this going to be like in the movies? I'll have to leave immediately, all our lives are in danger, men in black masks and...?"
She shook her head. "I'd feel safer, for you, if you weren't here, but it's nothing like that. With any luck no one else here will even know there was anything wrong."
"But you're gonna stay here."
She nodded. "They might need me, and I'd like to be around until we get this... taken care of. But I think I owe you dinner."
The corner of his mouth lifted in a smile. "What did you have in mind?"
She studied him, then glanced at her watch. "Meet me at the restaurant on the corner in ten minutes."
He tilted his head without answering. "Why ten minutes?"
"Because you deserve more than khakis and a polo shirt, considering the dress I was wearing when I had to leave Saturday night. It would be a damn shame to go like this."
"You know, if we really are doing this... I couldn't care less about what you're going to wear."
"Oh, we're doing this," she replied. "If you don't hate me. Ten minutes, okay?"
He gazed at her for a long moment, then sighed. "Ten minutes," he agreed. "And I don't know why I'm doing this."
"Because you're a doll," she said, and gave him a kiss on the jaw.
"Because I'm a fool," he returned, but she could see the slight smile on his face. "Now go, work your magic. I'll grab a table."
Once she was back in the van, while she half-listened to Kevin and Michael coordinate strategy, she dug through the outfits, bypassing the French maid costume. The dress she had been wearing was hanging up safely at the back, under a full tuxedo; in the tiny enclosed space she wriggled into it, then hastily made up her face, slipped into a pair of platinum heels, and tried to make it unobtrusively past Michael.
He grabbed her arm and whistled under his breath. "Isn't that what you were wearing when we hustled you into the car Saturday night?"
"Yeah, and I'm trying to undo the damage you guys did when you whisked me away," she returned, then twirled in front of him. "Think this'll do it?"
"I'd forgive you anything," Kevin said, holding his hand over his headset's microphone before he turned back to his screens. "Jason, how you holding up?"
Nancy twisted her hair up and pinned it, sliding her fingertips over her ears to make sure the receiver was out of sight. "All right, I'm down the block, don't do anything that'll require my coming back here unless you two want to get your asses kicked."
"Keep your earpiece on," Kevin sang just before Nancy slammed the van door behind her.
She was two seconds late and he didn't see her when she came in, so she approached him unobserved and watched him for the moment before he saw her. He hadn't shaved; she could see the faint line of stubble over his lip, had felt it tracing his jaw when she had kissed it earlier. The expression on his face was wary, almost vulnerable. He had one elbow on the table, as though prepared to bolt and vanish into the night, once he had given up on her impassioned plea.
He turned to her quickly, and his gaze traced over her figure more slowly. "Hey," he replied, standing up, coming around the table to pull her chair out for her. "That was what you were going to wear?"
"This is what I was wearing," she told him, taking her seat and letting him push it in. She was in blue silk, thin straps over her bare shoulders, the hem just above her knees. "It's my favorite dress."
"Is it lucky? Wear it on all your first dates?"
"Haven't had that many first dates," she reminded him, unwrapping her silverware and draping the cloth napkin over her lap. "I guess I'll find out how lucky it is, tonight."
"You look gorgeous," he said, just as the waiter approached them again, giving them both glasses of iced water before he placed a thin vase in the center of the table and exchanged a nod with Ned.
"What was that?" Nancy asked, amused, after the waiter was out of earshot. "And thank you for the compliment."
"Well, if this is a do-over, you should have a dozen red roses," he told her. "But you didn't give me quite enough time for that, so you have to settle for this one."
Nancy took the white rose out of the vase and held it lightly between her fingers. "It's beautiful," she told him. "Man, I'm sorry I missed that."
"I'm sure Bess is really loving it, though."
"Bess does love a bouquet," Nancy confirmed, then slipped the flower reluctantly back into the vase. "Don't let me forget it."
"I won't," he said, his voice low and rich, and his gaze was almost too much to bear, so she glanced away. "I didn't know that—people in your line of work, ever got time off."
"We kind of don't," she confirmed. "We have slow times... it just so happened that our first date had terrible timing."
"So how'd you get into it?"
"A... friend," she said, taking a sip of her water, and from the look on his face she knew that he understood who she meant. "I hold a degree in journalism, but... this... seemed like a good way to make money while I was in school. Then it escalated. And here we are." She gave a little shrug, a smile, and then met his eyes.
He chuckled. "You know, just when I think I've never met anyone like you... every time I talk to you, I'm convinced yet again that there isn't anyone like you."
"I get that a lot," she said. "Now do you understand why I said that I thought... any other relationship would be difficult."
He nodded, slowly. "I can see how a long-distance relationship would have its advantages," he said. "Although now it shocks the hell out of me that you two were ever able to see each other, at all."
"There's... a difference between us," she said. "I can tell them that I need some time off, that I need to take a break for a little while. He... never did. Doesn't. I love what I do, but there's more to me than my job, and I don't think he can separate his from who he is, not anymore. There was a time when that wasn't true." She looked down at the table, then forced a smile. "All right, and that is the last time we're going to talk about that tonight," she said.
He shrugged. "Gives me a good idea of what not to do," he said, smiling. "How many times have you been to New York?"
"Oh, I've lost count," she said. "My Aunt Eloise lives in the Hamptons over the summers, so I've probably been there more than I've been in the city. Have you been here a lot?"
"Only for the major clients," he told her. "And that, only within the last year. Before, it was... oh, once while I was in college."
"Do you like the city?"
He took a deep breath. "I love being here, while I'm here," he replied. "And then I go back home and love Chicago just a little bit more."
She laughed, and nodded. "Yeah. I've been to some gorgeous places, and I love to travel, but at the end of the day, it's being where my friends are... having a place to actually call home."
"Doesn't much seem worth it, without that," he agreed, propping his chin on his hand, gazing at her. "You seem so exotic, Nancy... I was just convinced that you'd finally figured out how boring I actually was, and had moved on to the next guy."
She propped her own chin on her hand, studying him from the other side of the table, a grin on her face. "I know Bess might tell you that I'm quite the man-eater, but Ned... if you were boring, I wouldn't be sitting here with you right now, I guarantee you that."
"You should be," she told him. "I have met a lot of interesting people. But... no, this would sound incredibly egotistical..."
She sighed. "I feel like you and I are on equal footing," she said. "Like I can talk to you without holding myself back. Like if I suggested that our next date be skydiving, you wouldn't immediately wuss out."
He shrugged. "Well, I've never been, but I'd love to try."
She laughed. "See? You're too perfect. Let me guess, you kill your ex-girlfriends."
"If I did, there would have been five people at the reunion."
They had just finished an excellent dinner, and Nancy was considering the dessert menu just so she would know what she'd had the willpower to refuse, when she heard shouting through her earpiece. "Drew! Get to the lobby now, let me know when you're there."
Nancy clicked on her transmitter while she dug through her purse. "On my way," she said, making a few mental calculations, then threw a few bills on the table. She pushed back her chair and looked at Ned, who was just staring at her.
I'm talking to thin air. Of course he's surprised. "I have to go," she said, her voice apologetic.
"Where? Or... can you even tell me."
"Back to the hotel. Right now. You can stay, get a coffee or something, dinner's taken care of, but I..."
"I'm coming with you."
Her forehead furrowed, but she didn't have time to argue. "Do exactly as I tell you, stay close to me. I mean it."
He nodded. "Haven't seen this side of you before," he said, nodding to the hostess as they made their way out the door. She broke into a run and he followed, catching up to her easily. "So... dominant. I think I like it."
Nancy made a derisive noise. "Almost there. What am I looking for in the lobby?" she said, pushing on the earpiece.
"Curzenow's blond bodyguard. Disable him and then head up to the roof."
"On it," she replied, then glanced at Ned.
"Hey," he shrugged, "I haven't had this much excitement... since the last time I saw you. Can I do anything?"
She paused for a second at the door, then shoved it open. "Wait here," she told him. "If I don't give you any kind of signal in the next minute, take the elevator up to your room and stay there until I come by."
Nancy sauntered into the lobby, her hips swinging, eyes low-lidded and sparkling dangerously, her entire demeanor changed. She walked up to a guy sporting a blond ponytail and black leather jacket, and whispered something to him, then produced a pack of cigarettes out of nowhere and waited for him to provide a light. She took a few drags and then suggested something, something which immediately grabbed his attention, especially when she hooked her index finger through his belt loop and tugged him by his hips toward a dimly lit corridor. A moment later she walked back out again, neither the cigarette nor the bodyguard in sight.
"Do I even want to know what just happened?" Ned whispered, once they were alone on the elevator.
"Probably not," Nancy mouthed, pressing on her earpiece. "Headed for the roof," she reported.
"Will all our dates end this way?"
She met his steady gaze for a moment, then bit her lip. "I hope not," she said, reaching up to rest her palm against his shoulder. "Besides, this date's not over."
He leaned down, until their foreheads were almost touching. "It is if you have to go save the world."
She smiled and shook her head. "Just a little corner of it," she whispered, wondering if he was going to kiss her... but the doors opened to reveal a family of eager tourists and Ned stepped off, twirling her white rose in his fingertips.
Nancy heard a throat clear in her ear. "Well, Miss Drew, if you're finished with all the sappy love talk..."
Nancy smiled and waited until the family stepped off the elevator to answer. "I believe I promised an ass kicking."
"Hey, bring it. As soon as you help Jason set up the security feed loop and have that online, I'm sending Michael in, and this little non-vacation is finished."
"If nothing goes wrong," she mumbled.
"Nothing's going wrong," Michael replied, his voice carrying over Kevin's. "You could do this with your hands tied behind your back."
"Probably have," she said wryly. "All right."
Jason was waiting on the roof in a black cap with a circuit board cradled in his hands. "'Bout time you got here."
"Hey, I had a hot date," Nancy protested. "And this is the second time you guys have interrupted it."
Jason chuckled. "If he's gonna date you, girl, he's gonna have to get used to that. Come here, hold this steady for me."
Nancy sighed and tapped her foot after she obeyed. "And you couldn't have just put it on the ledge over there."
Jason tugged gently on a few wires looped to the board and leading to the box. "Nope. Sorry."
After he was finished, after the feed was looped and she was given the all clear for the night, Nancy took a deep breath and knocked on Ned's door. Then she heard Kevin's voice in her ear.
"Have a good night, Drew. Just be at the airport at midnight."
"Thanks," she muttered, as Ned pulled open the door and leaned against the frame with one shoulder, giving her a soft smile.
"All right, we have a few hours," she told him, reaching up to trace her fingertips down his cheek. "Any ideas?"
He reached up and slid his fingertips down her cheek, then curled his fingers around her ear, nudging the earpiece. "This how you talk to them? You're heading back with them tonight?"
"Yeah, midnight," she murmured, aware that the entire team could hear them.
Ned pulled the piece out of her ear, grinning, and fitted it into his own. "Hey," he said, even as Nancy shoved her way into the room, pummeling his chest with her fists, demanding for him to return it. "Can you guys do me a favor?"
"Ned, give that back to me right now."
The door swung shut behind them and he twirled away from her, laughing. On the other end of the conversation, the overlapping male laughter resolved itself into one voice. "Depends on what it is, Nickerson."
"Oh ho ho," Ned cried out, looking at Nancy, whose face was flushed with mock fury. "Have you told everyone you know about me?"
She pushed up on her tiptoes to snatch at his hand. "Give that back," she hissed.
"Can you..." He twirled away from her again, laughing. "Can you, magic voice, book Nancy on a flight out of New York tomorrow, around noon... in fact, if you guys are such wizards, just book her on my flight tomorrow. Adjoining seats, if you can manage that."
"Caught us just in time," the voice replied, over a hail of keystrokes. "All right, Nickerson, you're good. Sorry we interrupted your date."
"Oh, I think we're even now." Nancy lunged one more time, and Ned let her snatch the earpiece out of his hand.
"I'm..." She glanced up at Ned. "Actually, I think we're good now. You got me booked?" He laughed when she grinned. "All right, see you guys after lunch."
She clicked off the transmitter and tossed the earpiece onto the other bed in his room. "Now what?"
He picked up the white rose and handed it to her, then reached down and laced his fingers between hers. "Now," he murmured, "we finish our date."
She twirled the stem in her fingers, meeting and holding his gaze as he leaned close to her. "I can't wait."
"What have I gotten into?"
"Come on," Nancy tugged on Ned's arm. "They're gonna close soon."
"And why do you suddenly have an overwhelming desire to buy some overpriced souvenirs?"
She stopped, on the street, right in front of a bodega, and hooked her finger under the hem of her dress, pulled it away from her legs. "This? Is all I've got with me. And it's a little bit much to wear on the plane back to Chicago."
"Oh, I don't know, I think it looks good."
She laughed at the carefully innocent look on his face. "You would."
She had gone along easily enough with him, to the tiny restaurant nestled between incomprehensible signs in sharp angular print and faded striped awnings, once she had assured him that she was finished for the night, that she wouldn't get in trouble for staying over with him. He'd opted out of offering to split some sort of outrageously decadent dessert with her, because she would have expected it. Instead, he waited until she protested that she was stuffed, then finished hers off.
He didn't know what she said to the unsmiling owner standing just inside the bodega, but a minute later she was inside, browsing through plastic racks of garish tourist shirts. He flipped through postcards and keychains, keeping her at the edge of his sight, and in just under five minutes she was standing at the counter, a bright smile on her face, a pair of black sweatpants with "NY Angel" printed over the hip and a white I Love NY t-shirt under her hands.
Ned walked over with two shot glasses in his hand, and the cashier rang it all up, expressionless. Ned slipped a bill over the counter, and Nancy walked out onto the street again, heels clicking on the sidewalk, the thin plastic bag swinging from her wrist.
He shrugged, smiling when she laced her fingers through his. "I don't think that was our final destination, was it."
She shook her head. "But you said you trusted me, so."
"Do I have much choice?" he laughed. "I can't seem to say no to you."
She grinned. "Good."
Three blocks later, she led him into the mouth of a dark alley, the kind of place where he half-expected to see prostitutes waiting. She swung her hips to avoid a trash can, still leading him by the hand, and then pushed open a door he could barely see in the darkness.
He followed her inside without hesitation.
The club was smoky and dim, the floors spread with once-rich, now shabby carpets, everything in dusky red, matte gold, black. She exchanged a half-hug with the bouncer at the door, who nodded Ned in only because Nancy's fingers were laced tight around his. From the other room he could hear the muted shrill blast of trumpets and trombones, the bass drum pounding in the floor. Then she swept through a beaded curtain, which fell soft against his shoulders, and they were in.
He had never seen anything like it. The ubiquitous bar was in the back corner, but the low close stage barely held the four musicians and their instruments. The floor before the stage had been worn dull with the press of a thousand feet, and Nancy, who had dropped his hand to hurriedly pin her hair up again, fit right in with the rest of the girls. Their faces glowed in the light, their hair shining and curled close to their faces, their skirts falling just above their knees, their long thin arms bare. He hadn't seen her put on the bright lipstick, but her teeth gleamed when she grinned at him, her eyes sparkling. A thin strata of smoke twirled around their necks. His foot was already tapping in time.
"Buy me a drink first."
The tables were all crowded around to the walls. One overexuberant couple almost jostled his elbow, but he recovered the drinks in time, smiling at their wordless apology. Nancy had her chin propped in her hand when he placed the Manhattan in front of her.
"I thought it was appropriate."
"Thanks." She nodded at his. "Good thing we go everywhere in cabs."
He raised his glass, then drained it, catching the cherry at the bottom on his tongue. She tilted her head back and drank hers quickly, and he caught the faint reflexive spasm on her face before she smiled.
"Now we dance."
Swing had just been coming back into fashion the year he'd graduated college, and his girlfriend at the time had dragged him to her sorority house's jazz night, so when Nancy started swinging her hips, the hem of her dress rippling over her knees, he knew what to do. She was athletic, but incredibly graceful, and so light in his arms that when he slipped his hands under her arms and lifted her over his head, their movements were sure and easy. The brass gleamed on the stage, the loud whine of the trumpet, the trombone, the sax, the players' puffed cheeks and dancing fingers and sleeves rolled up to reveal glistening forearms, and every time his fingers touched hers, her waist, her arm, the euphoria he felt in her presence grew just a little bit more.
"Is there anything you can't do?"
She twirled away from him, and the rose in her hair was bright under the dim lights, the fringed low lamps on the tables. "I don't know," she confessed, when they were close enough to speak again, over the squeal of the horns. "There are a few things I've never tried."
"Don't get your hopes up, Nickerson," she laughed, as he swung her.
They took a break when the band did, and he ordered waters with their next round. She drank half of hers before she tossed back another Manhattan. "You know," she said, regarding him with her eyes half-lidded, her arm resting along the length of the table with her pale forearm up, "you're really good out there."
He smiled and covered it by taking a sip of his drink. "You weren't half bad yourself."
She opened and closed her fingers and he rested his hand, palm-down, against hers, and it might have been the look in her eyes or his third drink or the sweet bite of the cigar smoke, but he felt that he had never touched anyone more intimately. She met his gaze and didn't move her hand away, and he was speechless.
Then, in the shadows behind the stage, another curtain pulled back, and he saw why it had seemed so small before. The piano swallowed the floor space effortlessly, all in gleaming black, and a young man who seemed to be all legs and arms unpacked a bass and set it up beside, always keeping his eyes low and hidden in the shadow under the brim of his hat. The crowd's murmur swelled, and when Ned glanced around he saw every face in the room turned in breathless expectation to the stage, cigarettes smoking motionless from between long thin fingers, hair swept back from gleaming foreheads, the length of smooth legs under the bare low tables.
"How do you know about this place?"
Her fingertip moved against his palm, and his mouth went dry. She shrugged and the white rose shifted in the bed of her red-gold curls. "Just something I picked up," she said, her voice low and rich. "I've known about it for a long time, but I have to say, I've never danced with a guy who was as good as you were out there. And I've danced with a lot of guys."
He linked his fingers around her slender wrist, and her fingers curled up to rest against the heel of his hand, and he held her gaze. "A lot of guys, huh."
She blushed faintly. "Not every guy," she murmured.
A man walked on stage carrying a silver trumpet loose in his right hand, and as the piano began, soft and slow, Nancy raised her eyebrow to Ned. He rose with the rest of the couples and held out his hand, ready to lead her out onto the floor. She kicked her shoes off first and left them under the table, gliding on the balls of her feet to join him.
"You must really trust me."
"You've proven yourself," she shrugged, and he watched the slow sweep of her hips as she danced close to him, wrapping her arm up and under his to rest her hand against his left shoulder, her cheek resting against his right. He held his right palm lightly against the small of her back, barely breathing as they began to move together.
He closed his eyes and she was warm and he could almost feel her breathing against his breastbone. Their feet shuffled slow together, in a tight circle, as the saxophone joined the piano and bass, and his fingertips traced just over the tangle of curls pinned up at the back of her head. She nestled into his shoulder and her lips brushed the skin just above the button at his collar and his heart stopped for a second.
He had resigned himself to never feeling this way, but here, away from his life and hers, this entire stolen evening had almost made him feel that he had been premature. He opened his eyes slowly, and she was so close to him, the line of her cheeks gleaming. He lifted his hand and stroked it down the line of her spine, against the thin warmth of the silk, and under the soft wail of the sax he heard her make a small noise, and draw ever so slightly toward him.
"If they keep playing like this much longer..."
She tilted her head back, her eyes opening lazily, and they were too close, far too close. "Then what?"
His gaze dropped to her lips, and he could feel himself tilting his face toward her. Hell, oh hell...
The sax dropped out, the trumpet, the piano, leaving only the low mournful sound of the bass. He took a long breath and then the music began again, a riotous sound, rising to shrill joy, and he shook his head.
"Mind if we sit this one out?"
She shook her head, and her fingers trailed down the back of his shoulder, to his elbow, to his hand before they walked back to the table together. He signaled the waitress, who wore her hair in a short jet-black bob paired with heavily black eyelashes, and she brought over another pair of martinis.
"What were you going to say earlier?"
He tossed his drink back, catching the cherry on his tongue again. "Nothing," he managed. She reached for her own drink, wrapping her fingers just under the bowl, and her dress's thin strap slid down her shoulder. She hooked her fingers around it and drew it back up and he couldn't stop watching it, her skin was so smooth and perfect and he loved her then, briefly, intently, and it left him speechless.
Her cherry was still resting in the pool of amber liquid at the bottom of her glass. She curved her fingers down to grab it, and he could see her tongue when she dropped it into her mouth.
I'm drunk. I have to be drunk. I've never been this drunk so easily in my life. And I'm going to ruin this by saying something stupid.
"I was thinking that this would be a great night, if I didn't have to get up early in the morning and finish the deal."
She picked up her glass and swirled it so that the liquid gleamed. "It hasn't been a great night?"
She turned her gaze on him from under lowered lashes, and he smiled. "I guess I just don't want it to end."
She returned his smile. "Me either," she sighed. "But maybe we can get one more dance in."
He dipped his head in agreement.
She slipped her shoes back on, and she was invulnerable and perfect and incredibly lovely, but he missed the vulnerability and the feel of her palm against his shoulder blade. They danced, breathless, swirling around each other, their gazes almost always locked, and when the trumpet finished with one final blare the crowd gathered around them clapped. He hadn't even noticed that they were alone in the corona until that moment.
"Well, we can't top that," he laughed, breathless.
She grinned at him, her cheeks flushed, the rose falling from her hair, and he reached up to touch it. "You sure?"
"No," he admitted.
Once they headed out of the club, and Ned noticed with some amusement that she hugged the bouncer again on the way out, they found a taxi and directed it back to his hotel. She dug through the plastic bag and pulled out one of the shot glasses.
"You collect these?"
He shook his head. "Already have some. I just... felt like having something."
"Two shot glasses?"
"Well, one was for you, but if you don't want it..."
She punched his arm lightly. "Thank you."
"For putting up with me. And being such an excellent dance partner."
He gave her a solemn mock bow. "Anytime."
They stumbled into the hotel lobby together, laughing, and she was just approaching the front desk when he looped his arm through hers.
"What are you doing?"
She nodded at the desk and the sleepy clerk behind it. "Getting a room?"
She rolled her eyes. "I thought we were back here so you could get some sleep...?"
"Sure we are, but... why don't you just stay in my room tonight?"
She snorted. "Oh, come on, Ned..."
"No, not like that." He shook his head. "I mean... my room's already paid for, it has two beds, why bother paying for another one when we're just going to sleep... I swear to you, I'm not gonna try anything. Besides, if I did, I'm convinced that you'd be able to kick my ass without even trying."
She laughed. "Probably," she admitted. Her fist clenched the plastic bag between her fingers. "And you mean it. Straight to sleep."
He raised his hand and held three fingers together, in a scout's-honor gesture. "Straight to sleep."
She sighed, but the corners of her mouth were twitching. "Oh, all right. I didn't know that you invited girls to bed on the first date."
"What can I say," he said, pressing the button to summon the elevator. "You're just special."
Back in his room, she sat down on the bed furthest from the door and slipped out of her shoes, while he vanished into the bathroom with his heart pounding in his ears. He brushed his teeth and changed into sweatpants, and walked out with his chest bare. The color rose in her cheeks when she saw him.
"Um. You don't have a clean shirt I could wear to bed, do you."
"Sure," he said hastily, digging through his suitcase. He tossed her a plain white pocketed t-shirt, and watched her slide the pins out of her hair, lay the rose carefully on her side of the nightstand. He picked up the phone and made arrangements for his wake-up call, looking carefully away from her, but when he turned back she still sat on the edge of the bed, in her dress, bare legs dangling over the side.
"I didn't do this to... oh, hell," he muttered. "If you're uncomfortable, I'll go downstairs right now and get you another room. I know you weren't planning on staying over, anyway..."
She shook her head. "No, it's all right," she said softly. "I'll need to borrow a little bit of your toothpaste, but... yeah. I'll be right back."
The room was too quiet, after she vanished into the bathroom. He touched the remote, but didn't turn the television on. The last time he'd shared a hotel room with a girl, he'd been a junior in college and it had been spring break, and there had been eleven other people in the room, in sleeping bags or curled up tight in uncomfortable armchairs, grabbing a few hours of sleep before they went out to the beach again. Before that, it had been a prom night, an awkward and utterly forgettable evening. He couldn't even remember the color of her dress or the name of the hotel.
She walked out still in her dress, licking her teeth. She went immediately to the drapes and pulled them tight, then to the door.
"You mind if I go ahead and turn out the lights?"
He shook his head, and a minute later he was blindly listening for the creak in the other bed. She scrambled under the covers and he heard her moving against the stiff sheets. "Would it offend you too much if I said this reminded me of the sleepovers I used to have with Bess and George when we were little?"
"And what did those involve?" He laced his fingers behind his head, then laughed in surprise when a pillow landed on his stomach. "What, you want to have a pillow fight?"
"Please don't," she replied, her voice just carrying over the rasping gurgle of the air conditioner under the window. "No pillow fight. For tonight, we're going to pretend like there's a twenty-mile gulf between us, and we're going to sleep. Right?"
"Right," he replied. Even if there was before tonight, there's not anymore. You can't fool me.
He scooped up the pillow and tossed it back onto her bed, and she startled, and laughed. "Ned."
"What can I say," he said, mock-innocent. "Guess I just have a good arm."
The bedsprings creaked as she shifted. "Good night, Ned."
"Good night," he sighed. "As long as you realize you still owe me a first date."
"What?" She clicked on the lamp between them, and he looked at her in surprise, her hair hanging loose around her face, the white sleeve of his shirt showing from beneath the covers. "That wasn't a date?"
He propped his head up on his elbow, facing her. "It was," he admitted. "And it was great. But I didn't get to pick you up, or grab the check out of your hand and pay it, or offer to split dessert with you, or..."
"Or what?" She sounded a little amused.
"Or walk you to your door at the end of the night when we've both had a little too much to drink..."
"And then after that we would have done the awkward things? I would have asked you if you wanted coffee, you would have come in knowing that Bess and George were on the other side of the kitchen door listening to every word we were saying..."
He laughed. "Doesn't sound quite as romantic, when you put it that way."
She smiled. "So it should be romantic."
"I'd hope so."
Their gazes caught and held for a long moment, before she seemed to come to herself again, and looked away, the smile still on her face. "Then it will be. Good night, Ned."
"Good night, Nancy."
She clicked the lamp off, but it was still a long time before he could fall asleep.
They took turns cooking. When Nancy woke she smelled stir-fry, which meant it was George's turn. Nancy lost track of the days when she was away, but since she was usually home on the weekends, she managed to get out of cooking most of the time. Saturday night was date night, Sunday for leftovers, and by Monday morning Bess was shoving some unimaginable amount of meat and vegetables into the slow cooker for their dinner.
"Thought you might be home," George said over her shoulder, dumping a bag of frozen pearl onions into the pan, as Nancy pulled out a chair at the table and put her head in her hands. "Things took longer than you thought?"
"In a way," Nancy admitted, then sighed and pulled her hair back from her face, threading it through an elastic. "Anything I can do to help?"
George shook her head. "Everything's just down to stirring. Although Bess said something about stopping by the bakery and getting dessert for tonight."
"She didn't want to bother making it herself?"
"She still hasn't gotten their recipe for the raspberry tart exactly right. I think she thinks if she tastes it enough, it'll just come to her." George covered the wok and pulled out another chair. "So, is the world still safe?"
Nancy smiled. "Until the next time they interrupt my life, I hope so."
"Speaking of... Ned seemed pretty disappointed that you missed your date on Saturday night. Have you called him or anything?"
The two of them turned when Bess's key scraped in the lock, and she swung into the kitchen, her eyes just visible above the paper bag in her hands. "I think I kind of outdid myself," she said, sliding it onto the counter. "Nancy! Did you see those great roses you would've gotten if you'd been here Saturday night?"
"Yeah, Ned told me about that," she said, and George, who was almost back at the stove, stopped dead in her tracks.
"So you have talked to him."
Nancy smiled. "You could say that. We ran into each other in New York."
Bess stopped unpacking the bag immediately and sat down at the table, on Nancy's other side. "Okay, spill. Everything. Don't leave anything out."
She told the cousins everything, noting with some amusement the gleam in Bess's eye when she mentioned their sleeping arrangements, that Kevin had managed to get her the seat adjoining Ned's, that they had parted warmly at the airport before climbing into separate taxis and going back to their lives.
"Even though you were in that," Bess said in mock disapproval, as they sat with the remains of George's dinner in front of them and she served them each a slice of the raspberry tart with vanilla ice cream.
"Hey," Nancy said, plucking at the t-shirt and pulling it away from her side, "at least he paid for it. He didn't have to."
"Hell, girl, if you bought dinner, buying you some cheap t-shirt was the least he could do."
"And this," Nancy said, unfolding her legs and sliding on her bare feet, back to her room. Her gaze lingered on the white rose for a moment before she scooped up the shot glass and brought it back to the kitchen. Bess was just licking a smear of vanilla ice cream from her thumb when Nancy returned.
"A shot glass," George said thoughtfully. "So he wants to get you drunk."
"You two are terrible," Nancy said, laughing as she took the plate Bess extended to her. "It wasn't that bad. He's not that bad. I just... I can't believe I spent last night in his hotel room."
"Neither can I. Didn't it take you five years before..."
Nancy looked down at her plate. "Yeah, but I was twenty, and nothing happened. Nothing ever happened. I mean, say what you want, but I've never slept in some guy's t-shirt while he was five feet away from me."
"Well, if you had to pick one." Bess took another carefully considered bite of her pie. "Besides, if he thought you looked good before... I cannot wait until you two have your 'actual' first date."
Nancy gave in to Bess's subsequent pleadings for another of their marathon shopping days, and they were all sitting in the living room, the television flickering blue on their faces, when the phone rang. Nancy jumped for it immediately.
Ned could already tell their voices apart on the phone. Bess had had some boyfriends for so brief a time that they never quite got the three straight. "Right. Lucky guess?"
"No, it was that tone in your voice. You must have caller ID."
Nancy waved at Bess and George, then vanished down the hallway toward her own bedroom. "We do. What tone did I have in my voice?"
"Like you'd been waiting all day to hear from me."
"Or at least the last seven hours," she teased him. "You think I miss you that much?"
"I'm kind of counting on it," he said softly.
She lay down on her bed and looked up at the shadowed ceiling. "How could I not miss you, after our marathon playdate."
He laughed. "Don't take it as an indication. My dates don't normally last for ten, twelve hours at a time."
"That's a little disappointing."
"Oh? I seem to remember that by the end of it, you were bored to sleep."
She'd barely been able to sleep. She'd been listening to him breathe all night, her heart like a hummingbird singing under her skin.
"You just won't believe me, will you," she chided him, rolling onto her side. "I had the best date of my life last night. Did that do it?"
He chuckled. "It's a start," he admitted.
Ten minutes later, she rejoined Bess and George in front of the television, her eyes sparkling. Bess raised an eyebrow.
"So... you think we can find the perfect outfit by Saturday night?"
Bess smiled. "When have I ever let you down."
He had somehow created a monster.
It wasn't supposed to be bad, not like this. He'd already spent twelve hours alone with her, for God's sake, on top of all the dinners and dancing they'd had on their group dates. He was supposed to be at least somewhat over the sweaty palms and outfit changes and second guessing.
Their nightly phone calls didn't make it any better. Despite all her reassurance, he couldn't bring himself to believe that she wasn't, for whatever reason, going out with him just to let him down easy. She was gorgeous; she was a spy. It didn't get any more exotic than that. He was just a boring recent college graduate, slogging away at a firm until his life could really start. They had nothing in common.
Except flying. And the kind of music they listened to. And she was the perfect height, and she fit just right in his arms when they danced, and when they were together, he'd felt eyes on him, in a way that he never had before. In jealousy and envy, in speechless adoration. Sure, he'd run in the perfect pass before, he'd scored the winning goal, but when he was standing with the most gorgeous girl in the entire room, in the entire city, smiling up at him, he was on another plane altogether.
And it scared the hell out of him.
Three days before their date, he managed to sleep through the entire night. Two days before, he woke at three o'clock in the morning and had to convince himself not to call her. He could count the hours by her teasing e-mails and the interminable lag between when they were both pretending to do work. He could hardly concentrate on anything, when his mail notifier blinked calmly in the corner of the screen at him.
No new messages. No new messages. One new message.
He was checking the weather forecast when another email arrived, protesting that she would be fine with whatever he had in mind, even a loud cheerful Greek restaurant where they'd have to sing happy birthday twice in the space of forty-five minutes and she would mispronounce everything and play footsie with him, the vinyl booth cushion squeaking when she shifted her weight. Ned had been hoping for a clear night, just cool enough to make the offer of a jacket worthwhile, but now there was something blue and curving and covered with spikes descending from the blank mass that was Canada, on the time-lapsed forecast map, and the usually cheerful sunshine graphic was gone, replaced with an animated storm cloud.
He had been the one who insisted on Saturday night. It was only fair that he'd get to monopolize the major date night of the weekend. It was all supposed to fall into place. But that grey storm cloud, frowning as it flashed jagged bolts of lightning into the temperature graphic... that grey storm cloud promised that nothing was going to go right.
He clicked the reply button and sat with the cursor blinking at him. He wished that he could be the guy he pretended he was in his emails to her. Flirty, a little bit cocky without being arrogant, calm and assured. He wished he could forget the utter letdown when he'd appeared at her door for their first date and found that she wasn't there.
Tell me more about what this footsie will entail, he typed, and smiled.
Saturday dawned grey and cool, and he went to the gym, in the hopes that when he emerged a few hours later, exhausted, the wind would have swept the city clean, the rain evaporating in the sunlight. He rounded the weight machines three times, worked out on the elliptical until he was almost trembling with exhaustion, trying to drive all his nervous fear out. He stepped off the machine, his palms resting just above his knees as he tried to catch his breath, and the cheerful blonde newscaster on the televisions facing him looked a little like her, and all his hard-won calm was lost.
At six o'clock that night he had been staring at the clock on his VCR, keeping track of the unbearably slow passage of time, telling himself that calling her apartment as he had last time would be bad luck. Even though he wasn't superstitious. He just couldn't shake the feeling that it wasn't going to go right, that she'd be gone again...
Then his doorbell rang.
He glanced at the jacket, tossed over the back of the couch, and glanced through the spyglass, then opened the door. She stood there, smiling, and for a moment he was speechless.
She wore a dress under the loose charcoal trenchcoat, hugging close to her chest, tied behind her neck, black to the waist, white skirt ending just above her knees. She looked clean and elegantly casual, where Belinda would have looked flashy and overblown.
"I'm really sorry," she said, and he could only register plum lips and the flutter of heavily black lashes. "I was going to call you, but we lost track of time, and... anyway. Kent's been at our place practically all weekend." She rolled her eyes. "I just had to get away from them."
Ned found his voice. "Bess and Kent?"
"Yeah, they've been all over each other since last night." He moved back and she strode a few steps inside, smiling when he offered to take her coat. Her shoulders were smooth, her arms and fingers bare as she turned to face him.
"Sorry, our reservation isn't for..." He checked his watch. "Far too long. Did you want something to drink? We can go early, see if there's a bar..."
She raised an eyebrow, her gaze tracing over him. Coal-black suit, crisp white shirt, black tie, perfect hair. "There's a bar at this quaint little Greek restaurant? Don't you think you're a little overdressed?"
"Don't you?" he returned, taking her arm, his fingers resting at her elbow.
She laughed a little, as he piloted her to the couch. His coffee table was gleaming. His coffee table hadn't gleamed since he'd bought the damned thing. "Bess wouldn't take no for an answer. After she saw this on me, I was either wearing this or nothing."
"Well, if that was the choice..." He sat down beside her. "I don't think there's any quaint little Greek restaurant that would've turned you down."
As soon as they left the apartment, they heard it at the same time, the sudden soft hush of the rain. Nancy walked to the hall window, resting her fingertips against the glass, as the sheets of water descended to the gleaming streets. She turned to him with a rueful smile on her face.
"You knew this wouldn't be easy, didn't you."
She shook her head, opening her mouth to say something, but changed her mind. "Come on," she said lightly.
Under his enormous black umbrella, they stood on the streetcorner, watching the taillights swish through the puddles, and Ned glanced over and caught Nancy staring at him. "What is it?" he asked, smiling.
"I'm just..." she shook her head again, as a taxi stopped before them, and Ned put his arm down and opened the door for her. With a swish of her white skirt, she slipped over in the seat, and he joined her, shaking the umbrella out before pulling it inside. He reeled off the address, noting that Nancy hadn't slid all the way into the other seat, and their hips were a mere inch apart. She gave him a speculative glance, but didn't finish her comment.
"Out with it," he demanded.
"Are you okay?"
He looked down at his hands, loosely clasped between his knees. "Do you want to know the truth?"
He smiled. "I'm nervous as hell," he told his hands.
"Hey, I already know you snore."
He looked over at her in surprise. "I do not."
She smiled. "See?" she said. "What do you have to be nervous about?"
"Everything. Except... well, at least you did show up this time," he murmured.
She put her hand over his. "I told you I wouldn't be here unless I wanted to be. Don't tell me that you don't believe me."
He was quiet for a minute. "What are we doing here?" he asked quietly.
"'Cause this is where you asked for."
Nancy and Ned turned toward the driver in surprise, and he smiled at them. "We're here."
Ned held the umbrella over her shining head as they walked up to the restaurant, with its demure striped awnings dripping onto the gleaming sidewalks, the faint glow of the candles from the dim warmth of the restaurant. She put her hand over his again, when he reached out to open the door for her.
"I don't know," she answered, then smiled. "But whatever we are doing... I don't really want it to stop."
He held her gaze, her fingers warm on his, and then smiled. "Me either," he said softly.
The rain meant that the restaurant wasn't as crowded; he'd managed to call in a favor for his reservation, mindful of the fact that he usually saw couples lingering around the entrance every night. He ordered a bottle of wine, which made her chuckle.
When the waiter walked away, he gazed at her for a long moment, then pushed back his chair and leaned toward her. He slipped his fingertips just behind her ear, watching her blue eyes widen.
She smiled. "They know they're dead if they even think about calling me tonight."
The waiter arrived with their bottle, and Nancy nodded, her fingers clasped under her chin, when the waiter asked if she'd have a glass. "Why do I have a feeling that you listened just a little too hard to what I said?"
He smiled. "Some things," he admitted. "I have to admit, I didn't know if you were the kind of girl who would go for this kind of thing..."
"Turn down a fantastically expensive French meal, a bottle of wine, and your charming company? What kind of girl would that make me?" She covered her smile with a sip from her wine glass.
"An entirely unknown quantity," he admitted. "What kind of food do you like? For next time we do this."
"Anything, really," she said. "George cooks relatively healthy, usually Asian meals, Bess loves Italian, and I just make whatever's quick and simple."
"Is there any place you want to be that you haven't already been?"
"For the next weekend getaway you plan?" she asked, one eyebrow raised, and he laughed.
She considered for a moment. "I want to be in Ireland on a sunny day," she said. "I want to spend a week on an island with water so clear I can see my feet in it. I've done a lot of the things I always wanted to do. I haven't marked everything off my list, but I'm trying. Where do you want to go, Ned?" She propped her chin on her hand. "Do you know yet, what you want to be when you grow up?"
He shook his head. "I don't know who I want to be," he said. "I have a pretty good idea of who I don't want to be; I see people like that every day. I don't want to wake up on my sixtieth birthday and realize that I wasted my life watching other people's money grow."
"So what do you want to remember, on your sixtieth birthday?"
Ned's gaze shifted away from Nancy's face, to a couple at another table, a girl's slender tanned arm stretched across the pristine white cloth, her date's fingers resting against hers. "For a long time I thought the only way I'd be successful was if I woke up next to a woman who loved me, if I had children, grandchildren, a comfortable house, a car with a good speaker system," he said, and chuckled.
He shrugged. "Part of not believing in true love, is knowing how unlikely that scenario is."
"I don't think it's unlikely." He glanced down, but was startled by the sharp reprove in her voice.
"Stop it. I can see what you're doing."
"And what am I doing?" He met and held her gaze, although he could feel his skin prickling with sudden warmth.
"Telling yourself that whatever I'm saying isn't true."
"I wasn't," he protested weakly.
She searched his eyes for a moment. "How old were you the first time someone broke your heart?"
He shook his head. "I don't think someone you don't love can really break your heart."
"Yeah, but tell me about her anyway." Her expression told him she would brook no argument.
Over their elaborate and almost intimidatingly beautiful meal, each course nearly dwarfed by the expanse of white plate around it, he detached from the words he could still somehow faintly hear coming out of his mouth, as he told her about the first, the only, the girl he'd begun dating the year he was seventeen, who had broken up with him a week shy of their one-year anniversary. He had never told the girl that he'd loved her--
"What was her name?" Nancy asked softly, her fork motionless on her plate.
"Jenny," he replied, breathing the word like a curse.
But it hadn't mattered. Even what he'd whispered in the privacy of his own head, back in that distant time when his parents' questions were still vague and good-natured, when it was all over she was gone. She hadn't been at the class reunion. Nancy's presence at his side had been, among other things, a buffer against that chapter from his past coming back to him for another round, and he could tell from the expression on her face that she was glad he hadn't intentionally denied her an opportunity to meet his old flame.
"She made you doubt everything."
He shook his head. "She just helped me figure out that a wife and grandkids wasn't the be-all and end-all of existence."
"It isn't," Nancy agreed. "I guess I'm just a little disappointed to hear you talking like this..."
She smiled. "You're too young to be this bitter," she replied. "And if this girl, the one you really didn't love," she repeated, doubt twisting her voice, "could manage to hurt you this badly, I don't see how there's any hope for me."
"You're stronger than I am."
Nancy poured herself another glass of wine, then asked with her eyebrows if he wanted a refill. Their fingers touched when he handed her his glass. "I don't believe that," she replied. "There's a huge difference between being able to aim a gun, and when to make a judgement call on when to pull it. There's a huge difference between twenty-five and twenty-seven. And you, my friend," she said, handing him his glass, and he felt his skin tingle pleasantly at the brief press of her fingers against his, "haven't had enough to drink, and I haven't had enough psychology classes..."
"Another bottle of wine?"
"Don't change the subject," she told him with mock severity. "There's a huge difference between denial and acceptance."
"Right. I've accepted what I am."
She studied him, until he could feel the drink blushing in his cheeks and he was just beginning to feel uncomfortable under the intensity of her gaze. "You've denied to everyone, even yourself, what you are."
"And what am I."
She shook her head and took a sip of her wine.
"Nearly perfect," he barely heard her whisper. "If you'd let yourself be."
In the taxi, on the way back to his apartment, he felt both a faint, dawning, creeping horror, remembering with some incredulity what he'd said to her, and the wine, which was demanding that he kiss her, or at least stare at her lips while biding his time.
"You know you're not like that, right," she told him, suddenly, when the taxi was at a red light, and she had one arm against the line of the car door, her gaze not quite finding his face. The second bottle of wine, half of which was currently sloshing in the green glass nestled between his gleaming dress shoes in the floorboard, had been a mistake, and he had to fight the urge to take another long sip, because the horror was still nameless, but was fast growing undeniable.
What the hell did I say to her.
"Not like what?"
"Not some player, not some confirmed bachelor who will never find a meaningful relationship."
"And what, exactly, Miss Drew, are you trying to say?"
"You're not accepting, you're in denial."
He leaned in close to her, until he could almost smell the sweet bite of the wine on her breath. "You know," he said, trying to stop the words before he could speak them, but not quite able to remember why part of him thought it would be so hideously wrong to tell her what he was thinking. "I think you're great. Almost perfect. And I wanted everything to be exactly right tonight, but... the rain, and... and Jenny, God, I really shouldn't have talked about Jenny, that was such a mistake. This was supposed to go so much differently. And—you know what? I take it back. You are perfect. You're too perfect. You're too good for a guy like me. And I wake up every day dreading that you'll figure it out, and this'll all be over, and what I keep telling you, that life, that... that nightmare. It'll be true. All because I wasn't, because I didn't..." He took a deep breath. "Because I couldn't hold on to you."
The cab stopped at the curb in front of his apartment building, and as Nancy sat speechless, the color high in her cheeks, Ned pulled out his wallet and found a few bills, which he tossed to the driver. "Take her back to her place... it should be enough," he muttered, and he fumbled the umbrella open after he managed to find the door handle. He looked back at Nancy, whose lips were slightly parted, her gaze almost wondering as she met his eyes.
He climbed out of the car and juggled the wine bottle and umbrella for a minute, at the front door, before he simply put the bottle down on the pavement and found his key with his free hand, not letting himself look back at her. His apartment, once he reached it, was cool and dim, and his head was just beginning to ache, his shoes squeaking from the rain. He shook out the umbrella carelessly, then propped it against the front doorjamb, where it immediately slid to the floor and made a loud whacking noise upon impact.
"Shit," he muttered, looking at the green bottle clenched in his fist. "Stupid rain. Stupid rain. Stupid."
The bottle went onto the counter, and then he shrugged out of the coal-black jacket, unbuttoned his collar, and sat down on his couch in the dark.
He'd blown it. Never before, on this magnitude, had he managed to destroy what was supposed to have been the perfect night so utterly, so completely as this. Right now she was probably just getting back to her apartment, telling a wide-eyed Bess and George how utterly disastrous the entire evening had been—
His doorbell rang, and Ned pushed himself unevenly off the couch to answer it, berating himself under his breath the entire way. He'd left the door unlocked when he'd come in, and he didn't even bother checking the peephole before he turned the knob. She was out of his league, and if tonight hadn't shown her that...
But Nancy was standing there, her hair darkened from the rain, standing straight and tall and shivering slightly in her charcoal trenchcoat, and he had enough time to draw a single breath before she spoke.
"Change my life, Ned."
For ten years, Nancy had been learning how to kiss Frank Hardy. Months apart meant that she had learned how to kiss other men, as well.
The last time she'd been in another anonymous hotel room, waiting for the sunrise and the end of her assignment, she'd fallen asleep wondering how Ned kissed.
She'd known he was drunk when she watched him negotiate the front stairs, finding the task of walking, keeping himself as dry as possible, and holding a wine bottle all at the same time close to impossible. The cabbie had waited for her to give him another address, but when she watched Ned vanish into his apartment house, she found a cry had risen to her lips, a demand that he come back to her and finish what the night was to have started.
His collar was open, his eyes glazed over from the lateness of the hour and the wine and the despair was almost visible on his face, but his entire expression changed when she said the words, the words that had been on her lips since she'd first heard him say them.
Now her heart was in her throat as he stepped forward, slow, careful, deliberate, closing the space between them in a single stride, and she found her eyes fluttering shut as he silently lowered his face to hers.
He kissed her slow at first, his lips hovering just above hers, the electricity immediate and undeniable, before their mouths met, her chin raised almost defiantly, the coat wet and heavy on her bare shoulders. He slipped one hand up to cup her cheek, their mouths separated with an audible pop as she dropped her chin, and she had just drawn a single swift breath when he was kissing her again.
Her knees went weak.
He tasted like wine and she knew she did, she knew it burned on her tongue and hot in her throat, but she made a soft noise, too close to a moan for comfort, when his tongue touched hers. His fingers slipped down, beneath the damp curtain of her hair, to curl at the nape of her neck, and she reached for him blindly when he didn't deepen the kiss, suddenly afraid that if she didn't touch him, she would just fall to the floor, unable to stand on her own. Her palm slid up his arm to his shoulder, her fingers tight against the muscle as he tilted his head and his mouth found hers again. Her nails rasped against the back of his shirt as she swept them toward the back of his neck, the folded warmth of his collar.
He gasped her name when they pulled apart. His eyes were hazed, his expression soft, but he shook his head and seemed to come to himself, stepping back and gesturing for her to follow him in.
She kept her fingers just barely brushing the crook of his arm as they came inside, teetering on her heels. She shrugged out of her coat and his palm brushed the bare line of her back before he swept it out of her arms. She turned to him, her lips slightly parted, and their gazes met, and the look in his eyes...
He kissed her again and she took a half-step back, startled, and he followed, until the backs of her legs brushed against against the straight back of the couch. She returned his kiss, her hand lifting to brush over his hair, sighing when he pulled back again.
She smiled. "That was even better than I thought it would be," she murmured.
He was studying her mouth, and then she felt his fingertips brush hers. "I'm sorry, did you want to sit down?"
She laughed at the expression in his eyes. "Sure," she said, and as Ned vanished into the half-kitchen, she unfastened her high sandals, wiggling her toes. When he came back he held a glass of water in each hand, and she took hers gratefully.
He flipped on the television set, and Nancy waited a moment, until he turned to gaze at her again, before she took the remote and thumbed the volume down to a whisper.
"You didn't give me a chance to respond to anything you said back there."
Ned looked down at his hands. "I know," he mumbled. "I kind of didn't want to hear whatever you'd say."
Nancy nodded, half to herself. "I think you loved that girl, the one who broke your heart," she said softly. "And when she broke up with you..."
He half-smiled. "It's in the past," he said softly.
She reached over and touched his chin. "No it isn't," she replied, "not if you've let it convince you that you're not good enough, for me or anyone else."
"Yeah, well..." he spread his arms in a sweeping gesture, standing again, his shins brushing the coffee table, the water rippling in her glass. "How can I compete with anything else in your life--"
She stood swiftly and pulled him down to her so quickly that he had no time to protest or resist, and cut him off with her kiss. When she pulled back they held each other's gazes, breathing hard, and he reached for her again, his lips parting, her eyelashes fluttering against his cheek as her mouth opened under his. She heard the scrape of the glass against the coffee table as her calf brushed into it, and when they pulled apart again she gently shoved him back to the couch, her eyes hooded.
"Stop it," she said, gasping in another breath.
He met her eyes, his gaze confused, then leaned forward and rested his palm against the curve of her hip. "This?"
She shook her head, staring past his eyes, then smiled. "You must think Frank hung the moon."
Ned's expression turned slightly darker at that, his fingers curling to her back. "Not really," he muttered.
Nancy sighed and took her seat on the couch again, noting with some amusement that his arm came to rest against her shoulders. "Can you promise me something?"
"Depends on what it is," he said softly.
She leaned in close to him and pressed her lips lightly against his cheek and the corner of his mouth. "Give me a chance," she murmured. "Even if you can't give yourself a chance, give me one. Give us one."
"To do what?" He traced his fingers down her cheek, pressing his lips against the corner of hers. She closed her eyes.
"To prove you wrong," she whispered. "I want to see if this can work, really work, I want to..." She sighed, shivering when his lips brushed her jaw. "I want us to date and go have fun like a normal couple and stumble through everything, and... what I do, it's not who I am. Ned, I'm nothing special."
He laughed, and she shivered again when his breath fell warm on her neck. "Yeah you are."
She took his head in her hands and forced his gaze to meet hers. "Try. For me."
He nodded, leaning forward to kiss her again, and despite herself, it was the wine and the lateness of the hour and oh God, he knew how to kiss, and she melted against him.
"I'll try," he whispered, just before he kissed her again. "As long as you keep... helping... me."
"No argument here," she laughed, and after their kiss she let her forehead rest against his. "Look, Ned..."
She opened her eyes and found him staring into hers. "You look..."
She pursed her lips, which made him laugh. "Relieved," she said, slowly.
"I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't broken up with him," he admitted. "I think I kind of..."
"Kind of... what?"
"I think I knew that night in the bar..." He brushed her hair away from her forehead, and tracked the path of his hand instead of meeting her eyes. "I think I knew you were my last chance to get this right."
"To get what right?"
A smile flirted with his lips. "A happy life," he said, so faintly she had to lean even closer to hear him, and she obeyed the sudden impulse to duck in and press her lips against his neck, the hard beat of his pulse, and she smiled when she felt it jump in return.
"At least now you're willing to try."
Ned woke and scrubbed a palm over his face before he remembered. Then he smiled so wide that his cheeks hurt, even through the faint headache and the rotten spicy taste on his tongue, the marks of his hangover.
He couldn't remember what time it had been, when she had finally protested for the fifth time and insisted that she had to, had to go, and he had kissed her again, again, slow and lingering, just inside the door of his apartment. He'd startled when she'd let her sandals drop to the floor and wrapped her arms around him and kissed him one more time, just one more time, until their mouths were both sore and swelled and red and her eyes gleamed when they searched his.
"Okay, I really have to go."
He nodded. "You really have to go," he repeated, the tip of his nose pressed against hers, and his voice was slurred with exhaustion and the long-dissipated influence of the wine, but neither of them made a move.
"Yeah," she sighed, just before he kissed her again.
He went down in the elevator with her, and she held his hand as they waited for a cab to stop. The rain had stopped hours ago but the streets were still gleaming, and he couldn't tell if the rising sun or light pollution were turning the horizon pale.
She groaned when the cab stopped in front of them, echoing his own silent response. "Okay. I guess..."
"This is it," he nodded, turning to her, giving her one last kiss, soft and sweet. She was just opening his eyes when he pulled back, swaying gently in his arms.
Oh, I have her.
"I'll call you," she managed, stumbling over the words, and he caught her staring at his mouth, but she shook her head slightly and looked down when he opened the door of the cab, waiting for her to slide inside.
"I'll hold you to it."
She slipped her fingers from his, then cupped his cheek and returned his kiss. He knew he was grinning like an idiot when she pulled back, but he didn't care.
"Goodnight," she breathed, her fingers lingering against his skin before she slipped into the cab, and he had watched until only the cab's taillights were visible.
Now the sun was definitely up, turning his opaque curtains bright, and he gazed at the phone for a moment before he picked it up and dialed her number.
"Kent?" Bess answered.
"Sorry, this is Ned," he replied, lightly. "Nancy there?"
"Yeah... can I get her to give you a call back?"
"Sure," Ned said, mildly confused, but didn't question it. Bess sounded like she was on edge, and he didn't want anything to kill his mood. Not today. "I'll be home."
The bottle of wine was still on the counter. Ned made sure it was corked securely before he slipped it into the fridge, then looked around. Their abandoned water glasses on the low coffee table, and there, across one of his armchairs, her charcoal trenchcoat, still slightly damp between the folds.
He could still almost feel her on his skin, the taste of her kiss. The trenchcoat was smooth under his fingertips, and he picked it up and hung it on the book beside the door, wondering if she'd be back for it that evening.
Now she knew about Jenny. She didn't know everything, but she knew about Jenny, and that seemed almost as bad. Ned let his hand drift down the sleeve of Nancy's jacket, then walked back to his bedroom and found the box in his closet, the one crammed full of his high school memoirs, and dug through it until he saw the yearbook.
He put it back without opening it. Instead, he found the glove he'd used, the one his entire team had signed, a lifetime before. He pulled it over his hand and the black-marker signatures bent as he flexed his fingers. He couldn't remember the last time he'd thrown a baseball.
He caught himself checking his cell phone to make sure it was turned on, the battery was charged up, and the signal was strong every fifteen minutes, until he forced himself to go out for lunch. The rain had cleared the air, and across the street from his favorite diner, weekend fathers and dog owners were cluttering the park with frisbees and picnics.
She called, finally, when he was on his second beer, settled on the couch in front of the game. "I'm so sorry."
"Is everything okay?"
Nancy sighed heavily. "With me, yeah."
"Is not doing so well."
"What's wrong?" Ned took another sip of his beer and settled back into the corner of the couch, resting his arm over the back.
"Kent. I'm not sure what it is yet, but Bess... I don't know if you've picked up on this at all, but Bess is just the smallest tiniest bit a drama queen."
Ned chuckled. "Surely not."
"Yeah, I know, she hides it well. Anyway, George and I have been watching chick flicks and mixing strawberry daiquiris and telling her that Kent is a jerk all day long, and I think I'm ready for a break."
He smiled. "Great. You know that park on South?"
"Yeah, I think I do."
"Meet me there."
Fifteen minutes later he was waiting for her, wearing his old glove, tossing a baseball lightly in his left hand. Nancy climbed out of a cab and onto the sidewalk, and as she approached he fought back the wide grin that was threatening to creep over his face, and the impulse to run to her, in the least dignified way possible, lift her into his arms and kiss her until she was breathless.
She was in a pair of loose jeans, frayed at the knees, a Cubs shirt that just managed to swallow her whole, her red-gold hair pulled back into a ponytail, but even so she approached him with her hips swinging, and he was already leaning down before he realized it, to meet the kiss she was standing on her toes to give him. "Hey," he breathed against her mouth, finally letting the smile widen into a grin.
"You know how long it took me to find this?" She held up a faded, well-seasoned glove. "And it isn't even mine, it's George's."
"Couldn't have taken you that long."
"Yeah, well. I'm probably going to suck at this," she said, but the sparkle in her eye told him otherwise. She linked her arm through his as they found a relatively unoccupied stretch of land between two trees, then backed apart.
"Bess doing any better?"
Ned tossed Nancy the ball, and she caught it, gazing down at it thoughtfully before she pounded it into her glove a few times, not looking at him. "A little, I guess."
"You don't sound too sure." He snatched the ball out of the air when she tossed it back, working his fingers in the still-stiff glove.
"How well do you know Kent?" Nancy glanced up at him, her mouth set.
Ned shrugged. "To be honest, I think I've seen more of him whenever I've been with you and Bess. We'd go out for drinks, but..." He laughed. "It's not like we were best friends or anything."
"Did you know any of his girlfriends before this?"
"Why are you asking me this?" Ned asked, tossing the ball back again.
Nancy shrugged. "Just a hunch," she murmured.
As the sun set they walked the blocks back to his apartment hand in hand, and when they were alone in the elevator car he wrapped his arms around her, backing her into the wall, and lowered his face to hers, kissing her against her relieved giggle. "I needed that," she said, when he pulled back.
"Yeah, I've heard I kiss pretty well."
"Pretty well?" She raised an eyebrow. "Don't flatter yourself, Nickerson. You kiss damn well."
He laughed as she grabbed his hand and led him out of the elevator, to his own door, which he backed her against. "You're not so bad yourself."
When they pulled apart again, she rested her forehead against his shoulder. "I just needed to get out of that apartment. I have a feeling that tomorrow... is gonna be rough."
"But not tonight," he promised, and unlocked the door. "Not tonight."
Nancy shouldered open the apartment door, juggling her keys and three plastic bags all the way to the kitchen. The handle on one bag broke as soon as she reached the refrigerator, and she sighed.
"Is that Kent?"
George swung around the corner, then answered Bess's call with a sighed "No" before she crossed the kitchen to peer over Nancy's shoulder. "Whatcha got?"
"Reinforcements," Nancy explained, and pulled out a carton of triple chocolate ice cream. "She any better?"
George snorted. "Can't you tell?" She dug through the other bag, pumping her fist when she found a bag of cheese chips. "You were gone for a while."
"I just... needed a break."
George smiled. "Sure you did," she murmured, pulling open the bag of chips. "So is this gonna be a pattern? Not being able to stay away for Nickerson for more than twelve hours at a time?"
"He is addictive," Nancy said, hiding her flushed cheeks by ducking into the refrigerator. "Thanks for the glove."
"You were just lucky it was here and not at my parents' house."
Nancy stopped for a second, resting her elbows on the counter. She nodded in the direction of Bess's room. "You getting a little bit fed up with this?"
George swallowed a mouthful of chips. "A little bit? I think I've had three times as many daiquiris as her, and every time she even hears a creak in the living room, every time the phone rings, all she does is ask whether it's Kent."
"Well, tomorrow... I hope she's over it, because I don't have any sick days left..."
"I thought you told me that they don't even let you have sick days."
"They don't. So I'd just be taking more of the sick days I don't have."
George smiled. "It's okay. I can go in late tomorrow, get off early, something. Besides, this is Bess. He probably just didn't bring her the exact shade of roses she wanted."
"Yeah," Nancy murmured. "Okay. Maybe a triple chocolate sundae will cheer her up."
Ned had the tone in his voice that meant he'd just been with a major client, when she called him the next afternoon, while she was creeping through the traffic on the interstate on the way back to her apartment. "Hey."
"Hey," Nancy replied. "You doing anything tonight?"
He chuckled. "You have something in mind?"
"This isn't—it's not like that. And George has already given me a hard time for seeing you so much."
"Maybe I should have a talk with her," Ned teased her. "You want to hang out tonight?"
"Actually, I had an idea."
"I will be."
"What's your idea?"
He was in a loose white t-shirt and sweatpants when she arrived, and he stood aside to let her in. She began to maneuver past him, when he suddenly looped an arm around her waist and lightly pulled her to him for a kiss.
"It's too early to say I miss you, isn't it."
She smiled up at him. "Does that mean you won't say it?"
He nodded firmly. "I won't say it. All I'll say is that I was five minutes away from you and about the suggest the same thing, when you called me." He backed into the door to close it, and deadbolted it behind him.
Nancy reached into her purse and pulled the shot glass out, slipped it onto the kitchen counter and found its twin. "You got anything we can put in these?"
Ned chuckled under his breath. "Oh, do I."
He tossed back his shot of vodka without any chaser, but Nancy took a long draft of her diet cola, tears standing in her eyes, before she smacked the shot glass down on the counter again.
"Okay," Ned said. "Not that I had a great day or anything, but why did we just take a shot?"
Nancy met his eyes, but shied away before his gaze could hold hers. "I need another one."
"That bad?" Ned tipped the vodka bottle toward her glass again.
"Yeah," Nancy coughed after she tossed it back. "Yeah. George called me at work today. She talked to Bess."
"Oh?" Ned linked his fingers through hers and tugged her toward the couch, away from the shot glasses, the vodka pooled in their curved bowls, the uncapped bottle.
"Yeah." She sat down beside him on the couch, slumping against his side. "Bess missed her period, and Kent..."
She could almost feel him, ever so slightly shrinking away from her, even though his arm was resting against her shoulders. "Seriously?"
Nancy nodded. "And he didn't take it well."
Ned ran his hand through his hair. "He was at work today... but he looked distracted."
Nancy gave him a wry smile. "I've heard that kind of news can distract a guy."
"Man... yeah. Yeah. I'm sorry."
Nancy rested her head on his shoulder. "I thought it was the usual stuff, I wasn't expecting this..."
"Neither was I."
"So Kent must not be bragging in the locker room about how he's nailed my best friend, then."
Ned patted her shoulder. "No. Although... I think contractually, I wouldn't be allowed to tell you if he was."
"Yeah. Part of being born with a Y chromosome."
"So even if I..." Nancy leaned forward and paused with her lips nearly touching his. "If I tried to persuade you..."
Ned closed his eyes and groaned. "If anyone asks, tell them I put up a fight, okay?"
"Deal," Nancy murmured, just before she kissed him.
Ned woke up with his cell phone burning on his open palm.
He turned his face into the couch and took a long breath before he looked blearily at the television, which was promising that several dozen hot and lonely coeds were dying to talk to him. He dragged his hand over his face and yawned.
He had been talking to Nancy. Now everything was dark and he was uncomfortable in his jeans, the afghan tight and hot over him.
His phone chirped. He punched in the numbers from memory as he snapped off the television and shuffled into his bedroom and the welcome cool of his sheets.
"Don't bother calling me back, I'm in a bad cell area and I'm about to turn my phone off anyway," he heard her say, and he sighed as he collapsed to the pillow, almost able to mouthe the words along with her recorded voice.
She sighed into his ear. "I'm not sure how long we'll be gone this time."
"Dammit," he replied to the recording.
"I'll call you when I can."
He had been exhausted, before, before hearing her voice, but after he snapped his phone shut, he lay gazing at the other pillow for a long time before he could make himself sleep. He hadn't seen her in days; she only called him after Bess went to sleep, or at least grew quiet in the solitude of her room, but he hadn't been able to coax her into visiting him again.
Kent, Ned thought, and closed his eyes.
Kent didn't avoid Ned, didn't avoid talking to Ned, but in the morning Ned felt like Kent was almost as uncomfortable as he himself felt. While Nancy had been there, telling him how Bess had been, her anguish, he'd only been a passive observer, accepting everything Nancy said, her railing and disbelief. But with that buffer gone, he found himself studying Kent through the Venetian blinds, watching him flirt with one of the new secretaries, his coffee cup clenched in one fist.
Nancy wasn't Ned's girlfriend, and he'd noticed the new secretary, but he'd be damned if he'd flirt with her. Even with Nancy some untold number of miles away, a quiet voice on the other end of the phone line.
She sighed into the phone. "Hey Ned."
"You doing okay?"
"What did Nancy tell you?" Bess didn't sound suspicious, only resigned, weary.
"That Kent's being an asshole," Ned found himself saying, before he knew it.
She made a faint noise that might have even been amused. "He is," she agreed. "I'm sorry. Nancy..."
"Left this morning," Ned finished. "Yeah, she actually did call me this time, which was great. Do you get sick of hearing that same message, over and over?"
She paused, and he could feel her measuring him. "Sometimes," she replied, softly. "But we've been friends with her so long... and we know that she'll always come back to us. Is that what you're afraid of?"
"Maybe we all are," he replied.
"Come with us to pick her up," Bess said, suddenly.
"Okay," he said, after a moment.
He found himself standing beside Kent in the breakroom, stirring another sugar into his coffee, and Kent cast a sideways glance at him. "Ned."
Ned inclined his chin. "You going out with us again anytime soon?"
Kent had the grace to look away. "Yeah, well," he muttered.
"Bess is a sweet girl."
Kent nodded, and looked away, and Ned walked off without another glance.
Bess gave Ned a hug, the first time he'd seen her since Nancy had told him the news. Her smile, in answer to his, was weak, but her grip was firm. "It's okay," she said, and laughed a little. "I'm not going to break in half."
"You sure about that?"
Out of Bess's sight range, George half-shook her head, and Ned patted Bess on the back.
"Haven't broken yet, have I?"
Nancy came out of the airport, and her surprise at seeing him was unmistakable. She hugged Bess and George, then threw herself into Ned's arms, laughing when he lifted her up off the ground.
"We have to stop meeting like this."
Even though Ned had kept his voice low, George chuckled and replied with "Good luck with that."
Nancy pulled his face down to hers. "I've been sleeping on the ground for three days," she groaned, her eyelashes fluttering against his cheek. "And I thought hotel beds were bad."
"They are," he told her, searching her eyes. "Maybe this'll make up for it."
Bess and George climbed into the car, exchanging a knowing glance, as Ned wrapped his arms around her, pinning her against the back door as he kissed her. When they finally pulled apart, gasping, she grinned and traced her fingertips down his cheek.
"Oh, I think it'll take another few hours of that," she replied, then giggled when he kissed her again.
On the couch back at the girls' apartment, Nancy had changed into a pair of soft flannel pants and a tank top, and had almost fallen asleep against Ned's shoulder when he pushed her hair back from her ear and whispered to her about his exchange with Kent.
"This is bad," she said when he was finished, blinking slowly before she met and returned his gaze.
He nodded, slowly. "Yeah."
Nancy's lips quirked up in a lightning-quick smile before she closed her eyes again and snuggled into his shoulder. "But you aren't like that."
Ned wrapped his arm around her other shoulder and nestled his cheek against her hair. "I'm not like that," he agreed. "I'd never be like that."
"Because you're good," she whispered, her voice trailing off to nothing.
He closed his eyes and he could only feel the warm breathing weight of her against his side, and for the first time since he'd received her voice message, he felt himself begin to drift away.
"I don't know if I'm good," he murmured into her hair. "But I'm better now."
"I don't think I want to go."
Nancy was sitting at her vanity, brushing mascara over her lashes, when she saw Bess's reflection in the mirror. She pushed the wand back into the mascara stick and turned around.
"Bess, you are so going."
Bess sighed and slumped dejectedly on Nancy's mostly made bed. "I mean, it'd be bad enough if I didn't know he was going to be there..."
"So you broke up with him."
Bess ducked her head and Nancy sighed. "You didn't."
"Well, once I figured out it was a false alarm, I just... it's not like it was real."
"And that gave him the right to just blow you off the way he did? Even when we all thought it was true?"
Bess ran her hand through her hair and shoved it back. "We haven't even been dating that long," she muttered. "I can't blame him for freaking out."
Nancy turned back to the mirror and took in the look on her face, forced herself to relax the tightening at the corner of her lips. "Can I blame him, then?"
Nancy gave up on her makeup and came over to the bed to sit beside her friend. "Look... do you honestly think he's worth it? I mean, how many times did you talk to him after you told him?"
Bess's expression shuttered. "I don't want to talk about this."
Nancy looked down at her hands. "Okay," she managed. "Okay, we won't talk about it. Will you do my eyeliner?"
"You guys ready yet?" George called from the other room, and Nancy studied Bess in the mirror before her friend walked over to join her.
"Not quite," Nancy called back.
Bess looked at Nancy's outfit, then dug through her makeup and picked out one of her eyeliner pencils. She knelt down and Nancy opened her eyes wide, and they began the usual routine. Nancy opened her mouth and searched Bess's eyes, and Bess fought to keep a straight face and hand before she giggled.
"You don't really think he's so horrible... okay, close your mouth," Bess said, standing up to see if her lines were even.
Nancy blinked, then looked obediently up at Bess. "I think he could have reacted better," Nancy said cautiously. "Did you... Bess..." she sighed. "I'm not trying to make you feel bad. Really, I'm not."
Bess sat down at the foot of Nancy's bed. "I'm not... I'm just sad," she said softly. "But that doesn't mean I'm about to give up on him, Nan. He's a lot of fun, and he cares about me. I know he cares about me."
Have you ever heard him say it? Nancy pressed her lips together and looked away for a minute, before she forced a smile. "Okay," she said, and the phone rang in the other room, and she caught the sudden twinned look of hope and fear on Bess's face.
"So you think maybe now you'll want to go?"
Nancy brushed off her knees and stood, and Bess followed, looking down at her strappy sandals. "I guess it'd be a shame to let you two have all the fun..."
She exchanged another look with Bess. "Good news, or bad?"
Bess shook her head. "Don't look at me. Any psychic powers I've ever had were totally sapped by this past week."
Nancy ran on the balls of her feet, her thin heels slapping on the hardwood, into the living room, where she scooped the receiver off the couch. "Hello?"
"Hey," Nancy replied, chuckling silently when Bess mouthed Ned's name and playfully rolled her eyes. "Tell me you're just calling to confirm."
"I'm... I want you guys to go on without me."
Nancy looked down at the gleam of her fingernails, her toenails, her freshly shaved legs. "But you're just going to be late."
"Yeah." Ned sighed. "Yeah, I hope so. It's just, I'm working on this huge account, and we have to do this presentation... and..."
"It's okay," Nancy said. "I mean... would you be... what if I just stayed in tonight, if you promise to call me..."
"Oh, I will definitely call you," he said, sighing in relief. "I'm so sorry. I mean, if you guys still want to go out..."
Nancy avoided looking at Bess, who had lifted a throw pillow and was poised to hit her with it. "No... I mean, Bess might, but—"
Nancy shrieked as Bess brought the pillow down and knocked the wind out of her with it, and George hurried in, still threading a wire earring through her earlobe.
"Sorry," Nancy laughed into the phone, picking up the other pillow and holding it poised threateningly in Bess's direction, but they both knew she was only bluffing. "I think we're gonna end up having a pillow fight, actually."
"Now you're just trying to get me to come over."
Nancy laughed. "I don't even want to know what you're picturing."
"No, you probably don't," Ned admitted. "Look... I swear, I'll call you back..."
"It's fine," Nancy assured him. "It's fine. But thanks for letting me know."
"You mean 'thanks for letting me know' in an 'you're an asshole' way, don't you."
"No, because your name's not Kent," Nancy said, almost under her breath, as Bess and George chased each other into the kitchen. "You'd better call me later."
"Because otherwise, I will come find you."
"With a pillow, right?"
"Don't push it, Nickerson."
She could hear him smiling. "Maybe later."
"Work hard, okay?"
He had been staring at his screensaver. It wasn't particularly interesting, just a set of frighteningly neon self-propagating pipes, but he had been staring at it anyway.
The city was beautiful this time of night, all amber streetlights and gleaming windows, but Ned couldn't spare the time to go look. He had his shoes off, but was still wearing the black socks, and he looked down at them with a sudden irrational burst of anger.
"Be right there."
Lynn had her hair pulled back and a pencil tucked behind her ear and her shoes off, which wasn't fair. He stared at her legs, trying to figure out if she was wearing pantyhose or not, and then asked himself why it mattered.
"Okay. So. If you were a Japanese businessman, what would you want to see in this presentation?"
Paul lifted his latest cup of coffee, the strongest batch they'd made yet, and announced, "Big-eyed cartoon girls."
"Thanks," Kent replied. "Yeah. Cause I'm sure I could find some clipart of that right now."
"You'd be surprised." Paul gave a mock toast.
"Yes, thanks," Ned said wearily, slumping at the conference table. "Because these pipes weren't giving me enough nightmares."
"Come on. We have to get this done."
Ned looked over his shoulder at Miller's door. The door was closed, the light was off, the blinds pulled. All around them were the blank dark faces of monitors. Kent's tie was off, his collar unbuttoned, his cuffs rolled up to his forearms. Lynn had brought a small tinny radio from her desk, in the outer half of the corner office, and now it was tuned to the local college rock station, and all of it was combining to make Ned feel, unanimously, one thing.
He wanted to be wherever Nancy was.
"What else can we do?"
He could see the rectangles on the screen, white boxes, trimmed and numbered, displayed on the opposite white wall. A forty-five minute presentation, followed by tours and handshakes and steak dinner and then commission checks and leather and a closer parking spot.
"I think that would make us look less than confident."
"Well, at least it's better than big-eyed Asian cartoons."
"Oh, come on."
Kent. Ned rubbed his socks together under the table. He'd heard Bess giggling in the background, and Kent looked none the worse for wear. He was keeping his distance from Lynn, though, which was good.
It wasn't fair. The presentation still wasn't for a few days, but here they were, hopped up on coffee, laughing at each other, when he could be at Nancy's apartment. Or back at his. Which was better, whenever he imagined it, because his apartment meant lots of making out, uninterrupted making out, and beer, and the knowledge that his bedroom was just one more shot, one more glass of wine away.
"I need some air."
His shoes felt clumsy and tight, unfamiliar, on his feet, as the elevator doors closed before him. He punched the button for the uppermost floor with his knuckle and weighed his cell phone in his palm. He was going to lose it soon, they were all going to lose it soon, blank boxes for a damn PowerPoint presentation.
No cars on the roads, not really, not this late. He could hear the distant swish of them driving by, but it was all disconnected. His head was light on his shoulders and she was number three on speed dial, and only after the first ring did he think to wonder if she was even still awake.
"What are you doing?"
He imagined her stretching, her face half buried in the pillow, her hair falling in her eyes, and smiled. "Wishing you were here," he said quietly. "Or that I was there."
Nancy chuckled. "You don't want to be here," she told him. "We split a bottle of wine between the three of us and listened to Bess try to convince herself that Kent isn't a bad guy."
"And had more pillow fights, I hope."
"Yes," Nancy said, all mock seriousness. "We put on these little pink frilly nighties and smacked each other with pillows until we were all so tired that we fell on top of each other on the floor."
He paused for a second too long and she burst into uproarious laughter. "I don't even have to try with you, you know that?"
"You should still try anyway," he said, shaking his head. "Do you even own a little pink frilly nightie?"
"And why would I ruin the mystery for you, like that?"
Ned rubbed his palm over his forehead. "Because I've been awake for twenty hours straight and all I've been hearing about the last few hours is Asian cartoon teenagers and how this is the single best thing, the single biggest account, and..."
"Yeah," she murmured, when he trailed off. "I can imagine."
"It's never like this, at your job, is it."
She laughed, and he heard, or imagined, the bedsprings creaking when she shifted. "It's... different," she said. "And I think that's all I can say on an unsecured line."
"I really wish we'd been able to go out tonight."
"Because anything's better than a work presentation," she teased him.
"Because I love the light in your eyes after your second daiquiri." He rested his forearms against the railing and stared out across the rooftops, into the starless night.
"George was right, you are just trying to get me drunk."
"I love it more when you're stone sober and you're just knocking on my door and you can't keep yourself from smiling at me, no matter how hard you try."
"And you never try to stop yourself, do you."
"Nope," he said, his smile in his voice. "Because I'm giving this a chance. And I didn't know... I didn't know that you would become such a huge part of my life."
"You say it like it's a bad thing," she murmured, but her voice was still light.
"There wasn't much else in it to begin with," he admitted, his voice just louder than the wind. "I want to get away from this. I want us to go skydiving."
"Yes, tonight," he teased her. "Actually, from here it would be more base jumping."
"I would call your bluff, Nickerson..."
Now the smile was in her voice. "Too afraid that you'd take me up on it," she murmured. "I would talk to you all night, but I want to hear from you again, and I think that means telling you to go back to work, and finish whatever it is that you're doing, making a slide show of Asian teenagers and stock projections..."
"If we keep at it much longer, I'm sure that's what it will end up looking like," he chuckled. "Okay, I know where I'm not wanted. I'll tell you good night, and get back to it, like the good little money manager you deem to date."
"Good night," she chuckled. "And... you are wanted. You know that, right?"
He was glad for the breeze, then, against his warmed face. "Sometimes," he said softly. "Good night."
Kent had another cup of coffee ready for him when Ned came back, and they all looked up from the conference table with matching, somewhat silly smiles. "Good?" Kent asked, but the expression on his face asked an entirely different question.
"I think," Ned replied. "For now."
"I'm so sick of this."
The three of them had managed to meet for lunch that Thursday, but Nancy picked at her salad while Bess tackled an enormous plate of pasta, and George finished her first bowl of soup.
"All these damn long hours Ned's keeping."
George took a long sip of her iced water. "When's the presentation?"
"Tomorrow," Nancy and Bess chorused, and then Bess giggled.
"Hey, at least this way I know Kent's not lying when he says he can't come see me. I think Ned would move heaven and earth to come see you, if he could."
Nancy cracked her first smile at that. "Yeah," she admitted. "I think tomorrow night he's just going to lose it, and drink himself under a table somewhere, and then call and sing me some terrible pop song at three o'clock in the morning."
"Unless you're with him," George pointed out, lifting another spoonful of soup. "The idea of having a drunk Ned under our power is very appealing."
Nancy burst out in shocked laughter. "Just for that, I really hope that if we do go out tomorrow night, you two aren't around."
"Well..." Bess trailed off, her cheeks coloring. "I kind of... have something else planned."
George turned avid eyes from her cousin to her best friend. "So you're both going to ditch me, aren't you."
"Not ditch you," Bess said softly, her voice too sweet to be serious. "More like... call you when it's last call and ask you to come pick us up."
"Which is no fun at all," George protested, as Nancy smacked Bess on the shoulder. "I'll just have to go out Friday night and find my own guy."
"And you know what? Then we'll all win, because you won't be pestering me to go jogging at six o'clock on Saturday freaking morning." Bess twirled her fork in her pasta.
"Yeah, but it's tradition," George protested, grinning. "I knock on your door, you throw a pillow at me, and by the time I get back you've made pancakes."
"So that's why you wake me up," Bess said in mock outrage. "You just go and jog off the pancakes before you eat them."
With ten minutes left on her lunch break, Nancy stopped by the downtown florist, drunk with the memory of roses. Bouquets made of flower-shaped cookies, in vases hugged by big-eyed teddy bears, tall with sprigs of baby's breath. Besides, she couldn't imagine Ned squealing with joy upon receiving a vase of Gerber daisies or a pot of chrysanthemums.
He's not even my boyfriend, Nancy thought when she caught herself trying to remember what she would have sent Frank, if he had just finished a complicated case. She would have sent him herself, for one of their weekends, which always seemed better in the planning than the execution. He's not my boyfriend, she thought at an especially cute bear dressed in a football jersey, complete with helmet and a miniature ball tucked under his arm.
"You shouldn't have," Ned said, when he called an hour later.
"You don't like it."
"No, I do," Ned said, defensively. "I do like it. And the stripper you sent with it was outstanding. Absolute tops."
"The florist must have mixed up my order, then. Or you have another girl."
"Another girl..." He chuckled. "I don't even have enough time for you."
"But you'll have enough time for me tomorrow night, won't you?"
"Oh yes," he promised. "Because I've been looking forward to tomorrow night... I mean, you have no idea. I will be attached to your hip the entire weekend."
"That could prove awkward," she chuckled. "I've never had a siamese twin before."
"We can just tell everyone we're doing a three-legged race all weekend."
"Okay, now you're scaring me," she told him. "How many shots of espresso have you had today?"
"Too many," he admitted. "The good news is that the slide show's finished. The bad news is how long I was volunteered to babysit a copier."
"Have you not discovered modern civilization's gift to hapless money managers and procrastinating college students, the professional print shop?"
"Only hapless money managers who aren't trying to keep their newest international strategies secret."
"Tell me about it," Nancy chuckled. "All right, tomorrow night. Hell or high water."
"Or Japanese tourists," he promised. "You got anything in mind?"
"I do," she said, her voice low. "But it's a surprise."
"Then I can't wait."
Nancy wore a skirt. In the back of the car it slid up to the middle of her thigh and stayed there. She tasted like fake plastic cherries and sweet soda, and his fingers tangled in her hair when they kissed.
He pulled back from her, his eyes hazed from exhaustion and desire. He had been on the edge of it for days now, fighting himself to keep awake for one more hour, long enough to see it all through, and now his head was light as air above his shoulders, and now he half-dreamed.
She nodded, once, and then her gasp was pressed against his mouth when he kissed her again. She was wearing a zippered sweater, the pull resting at the rise of her breasts, where he dared not touch for fear of her reaction.
She laughed when they pulled apart, backing away from him too much, her eyes not quite meeting his. "Maybe we should watch the movie."
He almost groaned. He hadn't seen her in days, due to the damn project, had given up hours they could have spent together, and here she was, in the back seat of her car with him, and in a skirt, for God's sake. It required no thought on his part.
Apparently it required thought on hers.
She brushed a hand over her hair and pressed her lips together and tugged her skirt down an inch, as the two leads held a rapid-fire conversation through the speakers at the back of his head, and his skull felt almost tender, and her knee brushed his. He could feel the beginning of an apology on her lips.
She offered him a piece of red licorice rope, and when he refused it, he watched her slice off a bite with the rapid click of her teeth, her lips red in the dark.
He was just aware that he had been staring at her too long when at his other side the group of rowdy teenagers, all perched on the edge of the truck's flatbed, started hooting at the screen. Two of the boys started shoving each other, and he heard the splatter of a cup of soda against the pavement.
She turned at the sound of it, as well, and when he turned back to her their gazes met. He reached up and cupped her cheek in his palm, and she closed her eyes.
"Hmm?" she breathed, her eyelashes only shadow on her cheek, and her lips were gleaming.
"You know I care about you, right?"
Suddenly her blue eyes were open, their gaze so piercing it almost brought his headache back. Her lips parted, but she didn't speak.
He scooted a few inches closer to her. "I know we've been taking things slow..."
She nodded, and blinked, but her gaze never stopped searching his. "What are you saying," she breathed.
In the depth of the kiss that followed, he rested his fingertips lightly on the zipper pull before he inched it down, and when the sweater hung open she turned her face just to the side, so that his lips were pressed against her cheek. His palm was warm on her knee, and she bowed her head, her hair falling like silk between them. "Ned, what," she whispered, and he shifted his hand, smiling when he felt her shiver.
"Are you okay?"
She raised her head, then dragged a hand through her hair to pull it away from her face before she met his eyes. "Can I ask you something..."
"How many girls have you... slept with?"
His hand slipped off her knee, until the heel was resting on the seat and only his fingers were just barely within the faint warm aura of her flesh. "Three," he admitted. "But I'm clean."
"Oh." He leaned in close, until he could just feel the blush burning in her cheeks. "That wasn't... why I was asking."
He cupped her cheek again, tucking her hair behind her ear. "You want to see if I get good recommendations?"
She shook her head and her lips brushed his palm. "I think that maybe you expect... something... from me..."
"Well, Nan, I mean, you did bring me out here to a drive-in, in that cute little skirt, and..."
She ducked away. "Yeah," she murmured. "It's just that Bess was planning something special with Kent, and I thought this would be fun..."
"And it is fun." He slipped his hand against her side, between her shirt and sweater, and she drew in a swift sharp breath, pulling ever so slightly away from him, her eyes fluttering shut. He was aware of her hand resting just on his knee, and he waited to feel her nails through the fabric of his pants, waited for her to give in and climb on top of him, trusting the dark to keep them hidden from the teenagers who had parked beside her.
"How many guys do you think I've slept with?"
His thumb traced a slow semicircle against her side, and he shrugged. "At least one," he replied. "More?"
She shook her head. "Not even one."
His thumb stilled. "What?"
She sighed and turned her head toward him, even though from the angle of her face, she was directing her remarks at the center of his chest. "I haven't slept with anyone."
Before he could stop himself, Ned felt the laughter, the giddy sound of it, spill out. "Are you serious? Not even..."
She nodded, and even though something in her gaze had hardened slightly, the lack of sleep and the caffeine and the euphoria of being in her presence were too much. "Not even with Frank."
Ned slumped back against the cushions, his expression incredulous. "No wonder," he said softly, then shook his head and chuckled. "Poor guy."
"I thought you hated him."
"No... no, I didn't hate Frank, and I definitely won't now. How long did you date him, and you still didn't put out?"
Nancy shook her head. "Just forget it," she said, her mouth a firm line, as she tugged the zipper back up. "I don't know why I'm even telling you this."
"Just... just go, okay?"
"I don't care where you go, as long as you get out of this car." Her eyes were blazing now, and under the force of that gaze, he couldn't even form a coherent sentence, much less an apology.
Five minutes later he was standing in the vacant parking spot, ignoring the bald stares from the teenagers, with his cell phone open in his hand.
"I need a taxi, please."
After the longest ten minutes of his life, once he was in the back of the cab, wondering how it had all gone so completely and disastrously wrong, the driver turned around.
"Home," Ned replied, exhaustion hard in his voice. "Just take me home."
George looked up when Nancy stormed into the sports bar. "Things not go well?"
"I need a drink before I talk about it."
George chuckled and gestured to the bartender for another round, as Nancy slid onto the next stool, shoving her purse onto the bar and tossing her hair back. "You know, as much as I hate the fact that Bess is with Kent right now, I think if she comes home in this mood that I'm just going to pour you each five shots and go to bed."
Nancy kept her furious gaze on the flat-panel hanging over the bar for another second before she turned around to look at George. "Do you know what he said?"
"No, but I'm sure it was bad." George pushed the shot glass the bartender poured toward Nancy, then lifted her own drink.
"He said—he said he understood why Frank had broken up with me. That he felt sorry for him."
"Man, you guys must have had some fight."
"But we didn't!" Nancy downed the shot, then winced and took a long sip of her chaser. "We were in the backseat of the car, and..."
George lifted a hand. "You can stop there."
"No... not like that..."
Over another few rounds of drinks, the end of the game, and selecting their pool cues, Nancy spilled the whole thing to George, who was chuckling by the end. "He actually said that?"
"Yes. He said that." Nancy chalked her cue angrily. "So I told him to get out of my car, and then I called you, and here we are."
George made a faint incredulous noise. "No you didn't."
"Oh yes I did."
George racked up the balls, shaking her head. "Well, I have to hand it to you. So how long are you going to keep him waiting for it?"
Nancy threw the chalk at George. "Very funny."
"Or at least until you're going to start taking his calls again." George broke. "You're stripes."
Nancy surveyed the table, considering. "I don't know," she said. "I mean, he's been working on that project for the whole damn week, almost, and I don't know the last time he slept..."
"So you'll both sleep on it, and he'll call tomorrow and say he's ashamed of what he said tonight, and then everything will be fine. Right?"
Nancy met George's eyes and gave her a half-smile. "He's no Kent, right?"
George sighed. "You know, I love Bess to death, she's great, and I wouldn't change her for worlds. Except for her abysmal taste in men. That, I'd change in a minute."
"I know. She's one of the sweetest girls I know, but every time, every single time..."
George smiled. "How many times have we had this conversation?"
"I don't even know," Nancy admitted, lining up her own shot. "I guess it just hurt to hear him say it."
George mentally shifted gears and nodded. "Have you talked to Frank, since...?"
Nancy shook her head, brushing her hair out of her face. "I keep... I know I probably should, but I just can't."
"I'm kind of surprised."
"Why?" Nancy paused with her stick resting on the edge of the table, loose in her hand.
"You were with him forever." George ducked away and didn't meet Nancy's gaze.
"Yeah, and then I saw the look on Ned's face after I told him that I was twenty-five and hadn't had sex yet. It's just, for so long, I thought it would be Frank, it would just happen after we were married, but then we never were..."
"Not from his lack of trying."
"But it never... it never felt right."
"You still feel that way?"
Nancy held her tongue until she took her shot, then trained her gaze on George. "Why are we talking about this?"
"I guess, with everything that Bess has been going through, and she has been going through a lot... and you seemed so happy with Frank."
Nancy smiled. "There at the beginning, yeah,"
George nodded. "I don't know. I guess I just don't want everything to implode again."
"Everything's not going to implode... damn, scratch. George," Nancy said, stepping back from the table, "what we need to do is find you a boyfriend."
George chuckled. "Ohhh, no. No, thank you. Watching you two go through every predicament known to man is enough for me."
"Ned and I will get through this. We'll be fine. And then we'll sit Bess down and tell her about how a decent guy is supposed to act. Maybe try some scary online dating service."
"Ohhh, no, we aren't. Remember the time she answered a personal ad?" George asked. "Nix on that. At least, not until we screen the guys."
Nancy smiled. "Okay, so... we'll find her a nice doctor..."
"Podiatrist," George decided, lining up her shot. "So he'll have good money, but he won't be too proud and he won't sleep around on her."
"Right," Nancy nodded. "And for you?"
"I'm gonna need another drink for this," George announced, signaling to the waitress.
"I can't wait." Nancy crossed her arms over her chest. "One for me, too."
After her fourth shot they were only knocking the balls around on the table, laughing at each other, and Nancy dug her cell phone out of her purse. "Should I turn it back on?"
"And call him?"
"Noooo," Nancy protested. "I'm not gonna call him. He can sit and rot in that parking lot for all I care."
"With Bess's imaginary podiatrist, and my stock market analyst..."
"Oh come on, he can be anything. Why not make him a porn star?"
"So he'll leave me in the morning with a cup of coffee and a scorching case of herpes? No thanks."
"Yeah." Nancy sighed. "Okay, so, who should I get?"
"You mean after our next shot?"
"As long as you didn't drive here." Nancy giggled.
George ordered a margarita from the bemused waitress, then turned back to her friend. "Okay. So. You go on world tour as a backup singer for the Rolling Stones, and when you're in Japan you manage to recover the kidnapped heir to the throne, and in thanks, they marry you off to whoever it is that's supposed to be in charge of England. Well, the next guy, at least. On the day before your wedding, Ned flies all the way to London to find you, and he begs you to take him back, and you say..."
"I say," Nancy announced, giving up on the pool game entirely, "that if he wanted me, he wouldn't have said he felt sorry for my ex-boyfriend!"
George nodded sagely. "Right."
"You know what I think?"
"What do you think?" George lifted her glass to toast Nancy's daiquiri.
"I think you've been sneaking Bess's romance novels."
"I would never, ever do that," George said in mock outrage. "Never. Unless I ran out of things to read, and I was waiting for the lasagna to cool off."
Nancy giggled and took a long sip of her daiquiri, then grimaced. "Okay, that's it for me."
"Definitely no driving," Nancy confirmed. "No driving, and probably no happiness tomorrow, either. Although I feel awesome right now."
"So it must be time for us to go home."
"And pointedly ignore Ned's calls."
"Exactly," George said. "That's exactly what I was thinking. Ignore Ned's calls, and hope that Kent doesn't even make any."
Nancy sighed. "You know, I even tried to talk to her about him. She just won't even listen."
"She will," George said, shaking her head. "When it's too late, she'll listen."
In the back of the cab Nancy fanned herself, the sweater already off and draped over her arm. George snatched Nancy's phone out of her purse when her forehead was pressed against the cooler window, and Nancy cried out in outrage when she saw George turn the phone back on.
"Ooh, two missed calls."
"Give that back," Nancy cried, snatching it out of her hand. She pouted when she checked the call time. "He's probably asleep by now," she mumbled.
"What did you expect?"
"I don't know," Nancy said grumpily, tossing the phone back into her purse and crossing her arms. "Boys," she muttered.
Her mood persisted through the entire ride back, and she was quiet when she and George came to the front door of their apartment, studying her shoes.
Then she saw the other pair of shoes, the legs stretched out across the hall, the styrofoam cup of coffee resting on the hardwood, and the naked uncertain expression of Ned's face as he studied her eyes.
"Hey," he whispered.
"Hey," Nancy replied.
Nancy nodded, studying her feet. She was still flushed, although their stroll around the block, fighting the sharp moist edge of the wind every step, had helped, and she had her sweater wrapped tight around her.
"I mean, what I said back there... do you want to know the truth?"
She let out a low chuckle at that. "I don't know. Is it going to make me madder?"
"I just couldn't believe that the smartest, most beautiful girl I'd ever met..."
"Is still a virgin? And I'm staying that way, whether you keep buttering me up or not," she said, and he finally began to hear the humor creeping back into her voice.
"Especially not after you'd been dating the same guy for ten years."
Nancy smiled. "It was easier," she said, just loud enough for him to hear. "I just always knew that he'd be there, and one day we'd be married, and there was never any question that it would happen, just when."
"And then it didn't."
She nodded. "And it didn't. And our breakup was bad enough..."
Ned nodded. "So he never..."
She glanced sideways at him, waiting for him to finish his sentence, and when she saw that he wasn't going to, she laughed again, and of its own volition his hand began to rise toward hers.
"He wanted to. I... didn't."
"So you don't in general, or you didn't, specifically, with him?"
She paused. "Are you being this direct because you haven't slept in a week, or because you've been thinking about this the entire time since I dropped you off in that parking lot?"
"Left," he corrected her. "Left me there in that parking lot. And you're damn lucky I had cab fare. Unless, of course, you wanted the cabbie to shoot me when he figured out I couldn't pay him."
"I wasn't quite that mad. Close, but not quite."
"Why? I mean, if you're that defensive about it..."
She shot him another sideways glance. "You're not even like this when you've been drinking."
"I probably am," he replied, "you just haven't seen me this drunk. I've been running on caffeine and adrenaline for days, and as soon as I think it, it seems to come out of my mouth. I'm sorry. On Monday I'll probably wake up and hope this weekend was all some fever-inspired dream, but for now..."
She ducked her head. "I thought I'd be married by now," she said. "I never thought we would go this long, this way, without one of us breaking down and moving to be with the other one. And I always thought it would be him."
"If you were so sure about this guy, why not...?" Ned shrugged.
"The timing never felt right."
"Which means he never made the timing feel right."
Nancy's mouth fell open. "What are you trying to say, that it was never my choice at all?"
"I mean..." Ned stopped, searching for words. "I think that if he really wanted to be with you, he would have tried harder. I'm not just talking about..." He made a vague gesture, his hand describing an arc through the air before it fell again to his side. "I'm not talking about whether you had sex with him or not. But if you two were so close, and he never pressed you about having sex..."
"Well, he really did want to get married."
"And being married to him meant having sex with him."
"And a whole lot of other things," she said, laughing. "But yes, that."
"And you didn't want to."
"I didn't want to marry Frank. Not until we were closer... we were so close once, but being close at sixteen is entirely different from being close at twenty-four, and... and I couldn't even imagine how the two of us could build a life together," she sighed, finally. "Not with my job, and his job. Even if we did live in the same place, it still wasn't like we'd spend that much time together, and maybe that would have worked in the long run, since our entire relationship was spent at arm's length, through phone conversations and long letters and the occasional visit. Maybe it would have been the easiest thing in the world, everything the same, just with a new last name."
He reached over and rested a palm against her forehead, their steps slowing again. "How many did you say you had to drink?"
"Not enough," she retorted, her eyes shining, as she pushed his hand away. "This is too much for one o'clock in the morning, isn't it."
"No, I think it's perfect," he said, after a moment's consideration. "Just tired and drunk enough to say what we need to say, but tomorrow, we still have the plausible deniability."
"I can't wait to hear what excuse you have for being this fascinated by my sex life. Or lack thereof."
"It is fascinating," he protested. "I would never have said you were easy. It's just that I never saw you as someone who would be saving herself for marriage."
"Because it's an outmoded and meaningless moral concept? So you never thought that you would wait?"
He shrugged. "I did," he said, shoving his hands into his pockets, his gaze on his feet. "Then I realized that I might never find a girl I loved, I might never find one who would be willing to marry me. And at seventeen, that's... well, that was enough to make me change my mind."
"And when I was seventeen, I had no doubt about it. Any of it."
Ned kicked at a stone a few times. "Which brings me back to my other question. Frank specifically, or sex in general?"
She looked away from him before she answered. "Frank specifically," she said, then darted a quick glance back at him, gratified by the sudden grin on his face. "If I wanted to be with him right now, like you said... I would be. But I'm not."
"You're with me," he said softly.
She nodded, slowing her steps to match his, as they came to a stop at the front door of her apartment building. "I'm with you. Although," she said, and chuckled a little, but there was no humor in it, "I understand if you want to stop seeing me, knowing what you know now. That you're not getting anywhere on the twentieth date, the fiftieth date..."
He shrugged, then pulled in a long breath. "I understand. And it's not that I'm saying I want our relationship to change with what I'm about to say, but..."
He shook his head. "I sound like I'm twelve," he muttered under his breath, then forced his gaze back to hers, his shoulders arched as he shoved his hands deeper in his pockets. "Would you be my girlfriend?"
Her lips curved up in a grin. "You want to go steady, Nickerson?"
He relaxed a little, then, letting his hands fall loose and open at his sides. "Yes. I want to go steady, and have monthly anniversaries, and kiss you goodnight even though I'm dying to know what color your underwear is."
"Black," she replied dryly, her eyes sparkling. "Yes, I'll be your girlfriend. I feel like you should have handed me some slip of paper with check-boxes on it."
"You're lucky I didn't," he said. Then he slowly reached for her hand, and she let him take it in his. "But then it would have been so much easier for you to shoot me down."
"Which you deserved," she said, but her voice held no rancor, no anger, and her gaze was steady on his. "But you already looked so pitiful, and knowing that you were sitting there in our hallway waiting for me, that entire time..."
"That's what I like to hear," he said. "That I won the sympathy vote."
"You've already said you felt sorry for Frank," she teased him. "Now it's all you. And you can't say you didn't know what you were getting into."
"Yeah, I know what I won't be getting into," he said, then ducked as she directed a playful slap at his cheek. "I'm sorry. That was uncalled for."
Her fingers tightened in his. "You want to come upstairs? You look like you're about to pass out."
"I keep praying that it'll happen," he admitted. "That I'll sort of just buckle and find myself twelve hours from now, in some clean soft bed, and I'll be able to think again."
"I can't wait to see what you'll say when that's true."
"Not much different," he said, leaning in close to her. "It'll just be cleaned up. Maybe I'll even use finger puppets, for the more difficult parts."
"Sounds good," she murmured, her eyelashes fluttering down when he kissed her, slow and hard. "I can't offer you a bed, but we do have a couch, and you're welcome to it."
He hesitated, glancing between her and the street, but finally, the feel of her fingers twisted against his palm settled it. "Okay," he murmured. "Okay. But no funny business, Drew."
"Wouldn't dream of it," she said lightly, fishing in her purse for her keys. "And... Ned...?"
"Hmm?" He slumped against the side of the elevator when the car arrived, smiling when she moved in close to him.
"You still feel that way? Like you're never going to find someone you love, that way?"
He looped his arm around her waist and pulled her in even closer, leaning down until his lips were resting at the point of her jaw, and she rocked faintly against him as the car began its ascent.
"I think you're beginning to change my mind."
Nancy groped on the bedside table until she found her alarm clock, peering at it with bleary eyes. "Hey Dad," she murmured into the phone, pushing her hair out of her face.
"I was just calling to make sure you remember we're supposed to have lunch today?"
Nancy let her head fall back to the pillow. "Oh sure," she replied, closing her eyes. "So the conference is this week?"
"Right. And I think I've talked to Bess and George more often in the past month than I've talked to you."
Nancy smiled. "Sorry," she replied. "Someone has to keep the world free."
"No excuse," Carson replied, but she could hear him smiling. "Am I going to have to get Hannah to make your favorites, to get you to come home and see your dad?"
"No, I promise. I'll be there around noon. Make yourself pretty."
Carson chuckled. "Maybe a nice sweater-vest."
After Nancy snapped her phone shut, she climbed out of bed in her t-shirt and was at her door before she remembered, looking down at her bare legs.
A faint blush rising to her cheeks, Nancy found her bathrobe and belted it tight around her before opening her bedroom door.
He was still there. The night before hadn't been a dream.
He had his face buried in her spare pillow, his back against the overstuffed back of the couch, the quilt pulled tight and wrapped around his legs. She could see the faint shadow of stubble on his cheeks and the soft sheen of exhaustion still under his lashes, but she didn't let her gaze linger on his face, afraid he would be able to feel its weight.
Her bare soles slid over the hardwood as she made her way quietly to the kitchen and started the coffee maker. The percolation was overloud, and she made her way back to the living room and her favorite armchair. She wasn't sure whether it was the smell of the coffee or his sensing her stare, but a minute later he turned over, careful to keep on the couch, and opened his eyes. He rubbed a palm over his face before catching her eye and smiling back at her. "Hey."
"Hey," she replied, folding her legs and tucking her cool bare feet under her thighs. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you up."
He shrugged, tucking the quilt under his side. "At least your couch is comfortable."
"You even noticed? I think you fell asleep two minutes after we walked in last night."
Ned closed his eyes, pressing his cheek into the pillow, and grinned. "Do not think that it was in any way a statement on how smoking hot you are."
"And what is that supposed to mean?" Nancy propped her elbows on her knees and her chin on her hands, studying him with bemused eyes.
"That if I'd been able to keep my eyes open, I think I would have just stared at you all night."
"You feel that way too?" she said softly.
He nodded. "I can't believe you said yes," he whispered.
"I can't believe I said yes either."
"Hey," he protested mildly, opening his eyes again, to find her giggling. "So... do I get a do-over?"
Nancy smiled. "We can't get anything right on the first try, can we."
Ned stifled whatever reply he was about to make. "Let's just say that I can behave a little better after eight hours of sleep."
"One can only hope," Nancy said, all mock seriousness. "And I would totally take you up on that, and spend all of today on the couch with you... but I have to go see my dad. You wouldn't believe the kind of guilt trip he can give."
"Oh, I think I would," Ned replied, pushing herself up on his elbows. "When are you going to go see him?"
"In a few hours."
"And when do Bess and George get up?"
"George has probably been awake for ages, and we won't see Bess until after lunch. If she even made it home last night."
"Well then," Ned winked, and pulled the quilt up. "Come here."
Nancy pushed herself to her feet and walked over to Ned, her heart catching in her throat when her blue eyes met his brown ones and held. He patted the couch next to him, and when she sat down he tugged her down to lie next to him.
"Breakfast in bed," he promised, brushing her hair away from her cheek. "Pancakes from scratch. Something really... perfect, next time."
Nancy looped her arm over his shoulders, resting her lips just above his collarbone. "Give yourself a break," she whispered. "Right now... this is all I want."
"So what have you been up to?"
Nancy looked up from the sink, where she was rinsing their dishes from lunch. "The usual," she admitted. "Outwitting the wicked and protecting the weak."
"Sounds exactly like what I wrote on my first job application," Carson laughed. "Bess and George doing well?"
Nancy nodded. "And we haven't even killed each other yet," she told him, pointedly, smiling.
"I know, I know. Just because most people can't live with their high school friends..."
"Doesn't make me most people," she finished, drying her hands before joining her father in the living room. "We really should do this more often."
"You bet. Else I'll call some people and have you put on desk duty for a while."
"You wouldn't," she said, her eyes widening.
"I will," he returned, but the corners of his mouth were turning up in a smile. "Unless you tell me the name of the young man who's been taking up so much of your time, nearly every time I call your apartment."
Nancy opened her mouth, blush coloring her cheeks, and sighed when the phone rang. "After this, maybe," she teased him, settling back against the couch as her father answered the phone.
He returned ten minutes later. Nancy had loaded the dishwasher and was ducking in the refrigerator, searching for something other than water to drink. "So, where did you want to start?" she asked, keeping her voice even only with supreme effort. Carson Drew had approved of Frank Hardy, and telling him of their breakup was almost as bad as the event itself. Introducing Ned to her father...
"Do you know a Celia Quaid?" Carson asked.
Nancy mentally shifted gears. "Celia Quaid? She graduated with me, but I can't say that I really kept up with her. The last time I saw her was at one of Wendy's reunion parties at the beach house."
"What did you think of her? In general?"
Nancy raised an eyebrow at her father, but answered anyway. "Quiet, kept to herself. A little bit of a chip on her shoulder, but I really can't say that I blamed her for it, after the terrible way she was treated in high school."
"You don't know her boyfriend..."
Nancy shook her head and pushed a lock of hair out of her face. "Last time I saw her, she didn't have one, that I know of. Dad? What's this about?"
"She just called me. From jail. Wants me to defend her from murder charges." He smiled, but the expression held no humor. "Think I should take the case?"
"So how are things with the girl?"
Ned chuckled, dribbling the ball up the court. "You will never guess what happened last night."
Mike raised his eyebrows. "Really? Do tell."
"She's a virgin."
Mike shook his head in sympathy. "She was? Or she is?"
"She is." Ned ran up to the basket and sank it effortlessly.
"Last night must have been a blast, then."
Ned nodded, passing Mike the ball. "We had a fight, I apologized, and then I asked her to be my girlfriend."
Mike laughed. "You really do lead an exciting life, huh, Nickerson."
"I try," Ned smirked. "I've just... never met anyone like her."
"You have it bad," Mike said, shaking his head. "Do you know nothing? Virgin. Virgin. Paranoia, suffocation, clingy, crazy..."
"And how are you and Jan doing?" Ned asked pointedly.
"We're doing great, thanks for asking. How old is Nancy?"
"Old enough." Ned grabbed the ball on the rebound. "Play nice."
"Hey, any girlfriend of yours is a friend of... my wife," Mike said. "I mean, as long as she's not a bitchy entitled princess..."
"Or a frigid prude?" Ned grinned sarcastically.
"I've seen you date entitled princesses," Mike returned. "Not so much the frigid prudes. Of course, it never lasted that long with the princesses..."
Ned shrugged. "She's not a frigid prude," he said, gracefully maneuvering away from Mike's block and sinking a three-pointer. "Maybe we can double-date some weekend."
"Between your work schedule and hers, I'm surprised you have any time to see her."
"You'll understand, when you meet her," Ned promised. "I make time."
Back in his car, Ned turned his phone back on to see a missed call from Nancy.
"Ned!" she cried in greeting, when he called her back. "I didn't wake you up, did I?"
"Oh, no. I'll sleep like the dead tonight, but for now I'm fine. What's up?"
"I'm in River Heights with my Dad, we're on the way to the police station."
"Do I want to know what happened?"
"It's nothing bad... well, it is bad, but—a girl I went to school with called Dad, and wants him to defend her on murder charges."
"And yet, you still sound excited," Ned mused, negotiating a turn. "I must be missing something."
"Celia may not have been the most pleasant person in the world, but there's no way she did it."
"Still lost," Ned admitted. "Am I still asleep? Or did you have something to drink over at your dad's? "
Nancy sighed in mild exasperation. "Well, of course I'm going to help him prove she didn't do it."
Ned burst into laughter. "I keep forgetting who I'm talking to," he finished. "I'm talking to the girl who tracked me down in New York and took me to some tiny awesome jazz club I'd never heard of, not the girl whose couch I slept on last night."
"Is that how you think of me?" Nancy asked, genuine curiosity in her voice. "Two different people?"
Ned shrugged, scouting for a parking spot. "A little," he admitted. "Just because who I am at work, isn't who I am with you. I guess I kind of see you the same way."
"So which of me do you like better?" she asked, low and flirtatious, and he could almost hear her batting her eyelashes over the line.
"I don't know yet," he admitted, chuckling. "Spy Nancy gets to wear wigs, and that's hot, but Girlfriend Nancy..."
"Whom you've known for all of what, twelve hours?" she interjected, laughing.
"Yeah, but she seems pretty awesome too," Ned finished. "Despite the lack of wigs. And speaking of she who is now my girlfriend..."
"Would Girlfriend Nancy like to meet my best friend and his wife? Not tonight or anything..."
"Sure," Nancy replied. "That sounds great. Anyone you call a best friend..."
"Well, we went to college together, so he knows all the dirt on me. Kind of like Bess and George. Which means I'm going to get you really, really drunk that night, so that you don't remember anything he tells you. If that's okay with you."
"Definitely. Did I tell you about my best friend, the mini cassette recorder?"
"I thought your best friend was the omniscient voice on the other end of your earpiece. Or your lockpick kit."
"Shh, you'll give me away," she chuckled. "We're almost there. I'm gonna call you back, okay?"
"Please do," he replied, then paused for a second. "Miss you."
She laughed. "Miss you too," she told him softly. "Later."
Ned was sitting on the floor in front of his entertainment center, his hair still wet from his shower, sorting through his movie collection, when his phone rang. Thinking it was Nancy, he scrambled for the phone and was out of breath by the time he picked up. "Hello?"
"So, I heard about what you two were up to last night."
"Hey Bess," Ned sighed. Then he raised an eyebrow. "Which part?"
"The part where now you're her boyfriend," Bess clarified. "And, since you are her boyfriend, I thought it was only fair that I let you know..."
"Let me know what?" Ned's hand dropped from the movies he was flipping through, down to his knee, warily.
"Do you remember, back ages ago, when you and Nancy first met..."
Ned chuckled. "Yeah. I think I can remember that far back."
"Remember how I told you that she had that same look she gets when she has a mystery?"
"Yeah," Ned replied. "And I've seen her when she was... on assignment, so..."
"No," Bess interrupted, gently, and chuckled. "Trust me. Assignment is not the same as mystery. And Nancy..."
"She called me. Something about her father defending some girl you guys went to high school with?"
"Right," Bess said. "Oh, you naive boy. And you think you're actually going to see her anytime soon."
"I was kind of hoping," Ned admitted. "What the hell? Do you mean I'll be seeing her less than I saw her before she was my girlfriend?"
"Well, I'll put it this way. If you feel like seeing her anytime in the near future, volunteer to help her."
"Anything she asks," Bess suggested. "Trust me."
"Wow." Ned shook his head. "So I just picked the worst possible time ever, huh."
"I wouldn't say that," Bess said, reassuringly. "But I do think your life is about to get much more interesting."
"Here in your official capacity, Mr. Drew?"
Carson nodded. Chief McGinnis gave them both a tired smile, which Nancy returned, tugging at the hem of her shirt. She'd scoured the scant wardrobe she still had left at her father's house, but still felt underdressed in her jeans.
"Good to see you," Nancy replied, smiling. "Celia in the interrogation room?"
McGinnis made a sweeping gesture. "All yours."
Celia sat at the other side of the scarred butcher-block table, raking her hair back from her face, her makeup smeared on her cheeks. Across the table, his back to them, sat Officer Kelly, his forearms on the table between them, leaning forward to stare down Celia. When she saw Nancy and Mr. Drew, Celia pushed her chair back, relieved. "Thank God you're here."
"Has Miss Quaid been formally charged?" Carson asked Officer Kelly.
Kelly glanced between Celia and Carson. "She is under arrest," he confirmed.
"There's no way there's been a bail hearing yet," Carson continued.
"You're right," McGinnis said, from the doorway. "And I'm sure you want a chance to confer with your client. She's ROR, in your care, if you'll have her back by dinner."
"How very kind of you," Carson returned, not without humor. "Miss Quaid?"
Celia looked from the Chief to Carson. "I can go?"
"With us," Nancy confirmed. "For a little while."
"We can go see them too," Carson said, "while we're out. But we don't have much time..."
An hour later, Carson latchkeyed into his office and ushered the two girls inside. Nancy looked around, solemn in the unfamiliar stillness. The overachieving paralegals had already gone home for the day, and Nancy had never seen the office so quiet.
"Nancy, in order for privilege to cover you, you need to be in my employment in regards to this case," Carson said, and Nancy was already nodding before he had even finished. "Celia? If you could, start at the beginning."
Celia sat down on the couch in Carson's office, shrinking into the corner. "I was at my apartment this morning," she said, her voice barely audible. "The cops came and told me that my exboyfriend was dead, and asked me where I was last night."
"And where were you," Carson asked.
Celia raked her hair back again. "I saw him last night," she admitted. "We used to live together. I came by to pick up a few things, he was there... we had an argument, I left, and that was it."
"And he was alive when you left."
Celia sighed, rolling her eyes. "Yes, of course he was alive."
"You said you had an argument. Did you fight, get physical?"
Celia shook her head. "Just yelling. And the walls in that apartment house are so thin that I'm sure other people heard us."
"And after you left, where did you go?"
Celia started picking at a hangnail. "Back to my apartment. Dressed to go out, went to a club..."
"With friends?" Nancy put in.
Celia nodded. "I got back to the apartment around one o'clock this morning."
"Were you with your friends the entire time?"
Celia shook her head. "We... we all started out in the same place, but it's a big club. I had a few drinks. I took a taxi back to my apartment when I saw that my roommate had already left."
"So they can prove that you had motive and opportunity to do this."
"Motive?" Celia snorted. "Maybe we fought, but it's not like I wanted him dead."
"Is there anyone else you can think of, any enemies your exboyfriend had?" Carson prompted. "Because as it stands right now, you look pretty..."
"Defenseless?" Celia gave them a sarcastic smile. "Someone else did this. All we need is reasonable doubt, right?"
Carson nodded. "We need a viable alternate theory to the crime, some way to convince the jury that the prosecution is wrong. But, in order for me to do that... did he have any other exgirlfriends? Was he involved in anything... legally suspect?"
Celia shrugged. "He was seeing another girl. I don't know her name. As for anything else..."
Nancy had been studying Celia closely. "How long were you with him?"
"Two years," Celia answered. "We lived together for about eight months."
"And you moved out when you found out he was cheating on you?"
"Yeah," Celia said softly, and looked away.
"When was that?"
"Two weeks ago."
Carson gazed at his daughter for a long moment, and she returned his gaze briefly before continuing. "Did you two fight a lot, enough to have the cops called on you?"
Celia shook her head. "Nothing like that," she answered.
"What did you and..."
"Jack," Celia supplied, when Nancy trailed off. "His name is... was Jack."
"What did you and Jack fight about last night?"
Celia shrugged. "Just... you know how it is, we just fought."
Nancy nodded, and when she glanced over at her father again, he picked up on her cue. "Maybe we should take you to your parents now."
Celia stood and brushed her pants with the palms of her hands. "That would be great," she admitted.
Nancy stood. "One last thing," she said. "Can I get the address of Jack's apartment?"
"And then what?"
Nancy sat back on the couch. "I drove by," she admitted. "But the apartment is in a kind of rough part of town, so I thought that maybe..."
"Maybe you could use an escort?"
Nancy laughed at the look on Ned's face. "Something like that," she said. "I know it's already getting pretty late, but I was thinking tomorrow around lunch..."
Nancy gazed at him for a long moment, until he ducked his head. "I just want to spend time with you," he admitted. "And if this is what you want to do..."
She tilted her head, and then the expression in her eyes changed, so subtly that he almost didn't catch it. "Oh God," she whispered.
She closed her eyes and shook her head, gently. "I've been your girlfriend for twenty-four hours, and this... look," she said, laying her hand on his cheek. "I know you said next time there would be pancakes and breakfast in bed, but after this, I swear I'm going to make it up to you."
"Like... make up how?" Ned asked, sliding closer to her on the couch. The two of them had stopped paying attention to the movie half an hour ago.
Nancy slid her fingers up his cheek, through his hair. "The way Frank never quite managed to make it up to me," she murmured, then smiled. "Any suggestions?"
"Well, maybe, something like this," he whispered, then leaned forward and brushed his lips softly against hers, lighter and slower than a kiss. She felt his breath on her cheek and turned toward it, letting her mouth drop open slightly as she returned with a brush against his. He kissed her hard, then, rough, demanding, his arm sliding around her waist, and then she heard him groan when they pulled apart, gasping for breath.
"What is it," Nancy managed, panting. Then she grinned. "Is this the part where we'd usually adjourn to the bedroom?"
"'Adjourn'?" Ned repeated, chuckling. "You really are a lawyer's daughter, aren't you."
She nodded, then pushed herself up on her knees. He tilted his head back to hold her gaze, the tips of her hair brushing his cheeks. "This is the worst timing ever," she groaned. "You're going to think I'm the most terrible girlfriend..."
Ned tightened the arm around her waist, until she fell off balance and into his lap, giggling. "That is not true," he said solemnly. "Because I've already had the worst girlfriend ever, and her name is Belinda Morrison. No matter what you do, you could never be as bad as she was."
She put her hand behind his head and drew it down to hers for a long, slow kiss, and when he pulled back she whispered against his mouth, "I think I could. Because this... is way too important to me, to mess up."
"Then don't," he whispered, his fingertips sliding over the back of her neck. "Look, I know you have your life, I understand that. Just keep me in the loop, and whenever you can, let me help you."
She smiled. "You think I won't?" she replied. "Baby, you are going to be so far in the loop that you wish you could get out."
Ned chuckled something under his breath, then leaned forward again, and for a long moment Nancy couldn't think of anything else. "That is right where I want to be, Drew," he murmured, when they were still breathless, and her eyes were just fluttering open again.
She smiled. "Finally."
"I was hoping for Spy Nancy."
She thought for a second, then smacked him hard on the arm. He winced, rubbing the spot, mock-scowling at her.
"Please. Say it louder."
"We're alone," he protested. "Besides, as far as I'm concerned..."
They stood in the elevator, too close. He had her cornered against the back wall, and despite himself he couldn't stop playing with her. He could feel it wearing on the edges of her nerves, and she swatted his hand away every time it brushed her arm, her hip, her cheek. Her gaze kept straying to the elevator buttons.
He hadn't had this much fun since... well, since the last time he'd seen her.
He'd been looking forward to it all morning. Fielding emails about projects, watching the light hit the wall opposite his desk, fidgeting and counting the minutes until he could plausibly leave for a long lunch. He wore a black suit. He felt like a process server out of an old movie, just without a brimmed derby and cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth.
"As far as you're concerned, what?" She was almost, almost half-smiling. He could see it in her eyes.
"It's all wigs and makeup and short skirts," he returned, sliding the tips of his fingers over her hair. She looked like herself. One knee bent with her pump against the wall, shoulders back, darkened lashes. Loose twist at the nape of her neck, a two-piece suit that felt rough under his fingers. Very businesslike.
She glanced down, and then in one smooth lurch the elevator doors were opening and she had her palm open in the middle of his chest, pushing him back, away from her, two feet on the floor, calm as silk. Now her eyes were dancing.
They were in sight of the yellow crime-scene tape and seal across the door when suddenly he saw a bundled length of black velvet in her palm. He reached for her other hand and spun her around on her heels, so quick he caught the edge of a gasp, her mouth falling open.
"Where'd you hide those?"
"Wouldn't you like to know." She swung with his weight and they were moving again, her heels almost soundless on the linoleum.
"I would," he growled. "The words 'strip-search' come to mind."
"Oh, Ned..." She ran the backs of her fingers down the angle of his jaw, holding his gaze with hers. "I don't like to be disarmed."
He raised his eyebrows as she turned back to the door. "Are you saying you'd put up a fight?"
"Something like that."
The elevator chimed at their floor, twenty feet away, and he found himself pinned against the wall opposite their target apartment, her fingers tangled in his hair, her mouth hot and sweet against his. The next chime was distant, drowned in the unbearably loud thrum of his pulse in his ears. She slowed, their mouths separating with an audible pop, and he looped an arm around her waist without her shoving him immediately away.
"The words 'mixed signals' don't even begin to describe you," he sighed, following as she crossed the hallway again. A single glance at her confirmed that she was almost as unsteady on her feet as he felt. "Isn't it terribly clichéd to start making out as a cover?"
"You knocking it, Nickerson?"
"No, no," he replied. "In fact, I think I hear someone coming right now."
She carefully tugged the tape and seal back with her fingernails, then slipped on a pair of gloves and began working in the lock with two thin black wires. "Nice try."
He nodded. Then he started eyeing the back of her neck. If he kissed her there...
"I can feel your eyes," she murmured, under her breath. "If I swear to you that I'll see you for dinner tonight..."
He traced his fingertips over the nape of her neck, and she shivered, almost imperceptibly, against his touch. "I wouldn't believe you," he whispered, leaning in close, brushing his mouth just over her skin. "You, my darling, always seem to be working late."
He noted with some satisfaction that her hands weren't moving, only trembling slightly, and her voice was weak when it finally came. "Darling?"
"You don't like it? Too soon?"
She swallowed hard. "Try it again in a week," she said, and then shook her head softly and went back to work. "You don't really want me to get in here, do you."
"I know you will," he replied. "I just like making you blush."
She gave a soft pleased cry when the lock clicked back, and then pushed into the apartment. "Don't touch anything," she murmured, as she reached for the light switch.
He nodded at the back of her head. "So what are we looking for?"
"The things Celia didn't tell me," she said.
"Something the police wouldn't have found?"
She shrugged. "You'd be surprised how many people in the police department know me. And how many will know that my father's defending their best suspect."
"You need me to seduce a file clerk?"
She cast an appraising glance over at him. "You do know there are male file clerks now, right? After that whole equal-opportunity thing?"
Ned made a face. "Uh... no, thanks."
"Besides, you think I want you chatting up some bottle-blonde in fishnets while I'm doing all the dirty work?"
"Fishnets...?" She looked up from her cursory search of the cabinets to glare him into silence. "See, I was thinking of buying some poor working girl a drink and then lifting her keys while she was in the powder room, not... whatever you were thinking."
"You sure you're not with CIA?"
"Like I'd tell you if I were."
She laughed aloud at that, then produced a slender camera. He only figured out what it was when she held it to her eye and pointed it at things like the scraps of paper hanging from magnets on the front of the refrigerator, and him.
"Now you're just trying to make me feel insecure."
She glanced between the camera, which was about the size of a five-stick pack of gum, and him. "What, this?" She had that devilish twinkle again, the one that made him wish for approaching footsteps and another possessive kiss. "If you're jealous of this, maybe we really should..."
"What?" He walked over to the desk and, pulling a pen from his inner pocket, started poking through the tumble of papers on its surface. "We really should what? I know how I'd finish that sentence, but..."
She shook her head with a half-chuckle, then went back to taking pictures. "Nothing."
He trailed her through the entire apartment, in the soft weight of companionable silence, until they were both standing in the narrow bathroom, inspecting the crowd of miscellaneous junk in the medicine cabinet. She was opening every bottle, sniffing delicately at the contents.
"You'll have dinner with me tonight?"
"Cross my heart and hope to die," she said, her voice distracted, before turning to him with a brilliant smile. "If I give you a kiss and a pair of gloves, will you go through the trash in the kitchen?"
"See, I'm not even allowed to seduce female file clerks, and then you try to make a deal like that," he playfully complained, leaning forward. He caught her off-balance and kissed her hard, the heels of her gloved hands braced against the lip of the sink as she returned it, meeting his intensity with her own. When he pulled back he could almost see the beginning of fear in her eyes. Fear and awakening desire.
"I don't like competition," she explained breathlessly. Then she produced another pair of gloves, pushing her lower lip out in the mockery of a pout. "Please?"
"Dinner at my place," he said sternly. "As for the kisses, I reserve the right to demand more."
"More kisses, or more than kisses?" She put her hand on her hip. "And I'm sorry, what makes you think you can demand anything, darling?"
"The fact that I can hear your heart beating right now," he replied, gratified at the deepened color washing her cheeks. "Also, if I find a severed head in the trash, I can't promise that I won't scream."
"As long as it's not a girly scream, I won't tell anyone," she vowed, watching him snap the gloves on. "And I will make it up to you."
He looked back at her from the doorway, his dark eyes suddenly serious. "Don't make me start hating those words," he said softly.
Nancy looked down for a second. "Dinner tonight," she replied. "At your place."
His gaze softened. "And if you wear fishnets, well, that's up to you."
"Maybe you can show me what you've got. Buy me a drink and try to steal my keys."
He couldn't help but smile at her broad grin. "Deal," he replied. "If I get them, well, that would mean you can't get into your apartment... so you'll have to stay over?"
She propped her hand on the sink again, rocking back on her heels into a consciously seductive pose, regarding him from beneath her lashes. "Guess we'll have to find out," she purred.
"God," Ned muttered, gripping the door hard before swinging away, toward the kitchen. "And I thought I couldn't make it until lunch."
"So what did you find out?"
Nancy, wrapped in a towel, stood over her lingerie drawer. Her hair was still dripping wet, but if she wanted Bess to do anything with it, and it was looking more and more like she'd have to, Nancy needed lingerie.
Listening to the internal debate over what to wear was making her conversation with her father a thousand times harder.
"I..." Nancy tugged a black lace cami and matching shorts out, then made a face. No lining.
No lining might be a good thing...
"I sweet-talked the phone company into giving me his records, and he was making a lot of calls to the bar Celia visited the night he was killed. A lot of calls. I checked his employment history and he's worked for another club, owned by the same company. It fits the time frame of two weeks ago."
"Did you do any work today?" Carson chuckled.
"Everything I just told you? Took a ten-minute computer search and then five more before I had the phone records faxed over."
"And that, my dear, is why I leave the legwork to you."
"Because I'm good," Nancy smiled. Everything in her lingerie drawer was black. She pulled out a buff-colored demi bra and white cotton panties.
Yeah, he'll love that.
At least if I wear this, there's no way I'd let him see me in it.
Wonder if Bess still has those fishnets...
"So what's the next move? Do I need to call my guys and get someone to go out there and ask questions?"
"I had something different in mind," Nancy admitted. "I'll let you know tomorrow. If he's been calling the club, someone there has to know him, and they might have some ideas about who would have done this. And if Celia's known him for two years, she has to know who some of his friends are."
"The attack was pretty violent."
"But it was someone he knew," Nancy replied, searching a pair of opaque black tights for runs. "There wasn't any sign of a struggle. Maybe Celia's wasn't the only lover's quarrel that night."
"How about I check on the neighbors. Sounds like you have enough on your plate."
"Do I need to be worried about you tonight, or get you to call me at midnight so I know you're safe?"
"I'll be fine," Nancy sighed, rolling her eyes a little. "I'm going to take a little break from the case, so you don't need to worry about me."
"So I can call you later if I think of anything else."
"How about if I call you."
Nancy scooped the entire contents of the drawer into her arms and dumped it on the bed, then crossed her fingers.
"Where are you going to be tonight, Nan?"
Dammit. "Ned and I are having dinner."
Carson chuckled. "If I hear his name five more times, you have to bring him down to River Heights so I can meet him."
"Says who?" Nancy teased.
"Says your lawyer. You sure he's not mixed up in this?"
"He's never met Celia or Jack, so no. I doubt that he's in any way involved. Why would you think that?"
"Because I remember quite a few times when you showed me pictures of yourself on cases, and there were always rather handsome men you met..."
"Have you been talking to Bess again?" Nancy demanded. "They were nothing."
"Mmm," Carson replied, neutrally. "I talked to Fenton this morning."
Nancy closed her eyes and sat down on the edge of the bed, slowly, not saying anything.
"He does still miss you."
"Yeah, well," Nancy replied, then cleared her throat, but she couldn't continue.
Carson was quiet for a minute, too. "Have a good night, Nan," he said finally.
"You too," Nancy replied. "Love you."
After she hung up, Nancy swept a black push-up bra and a pair of tantalizingly brief panties up, savagely.
George was standing over the stove, checking on the crock of soup that had been simmering all day. "You look pissed," she commented, as Nancy walked in, still in her towel, curlers in her hands.
"Shouldn't there be a rule that your father is no longer allowed to talk to your ex's father?"
"Oh," George said, sympathetically. "Yeah, there should be. Has Frank been talking smack about you?"
"The opposite," Nancy admitted. "Well, as far as I know, the opposite. God. I really didn't need this tonight."
"Hmm," George said, looking Nancy up and down. "So I guess you'll have the soup for lunch tomorrow, and I have Ned to thank for this."
"If I'd known you were making soup, I would've invited him over," Nancy apologized. "Besides, it's not fair that you can lay around the apartment all morning, throw some things in a pot, and by the time we get off work, voila."
"And you get to take 'business trips' all over the freaking world," George said, making quotes in the air with her fingers, smiling. "Given that choice? I don't know what possessed me to check off 'physical therapy' when declaring my major."
"Bess?" Nancy called, leaning out into the hallway, holding up an index finger to tell George to wait.
"Be right there, dammit!"
Nancy clicked back over the floor in her stilettos, disappeared into the pantry, and came out with her hand in a box of Special K.
"It's just cruel and unusual of you to do that," George protested.
"If I promise to have a cup before I go, will you let me off the hook?" Nancy munched thoughtfully on a handful of flakes. "You think we should try to find a bigger apartment once our lease is up?"
George chuckled, stirring the soup a few times before putting the lid back on. "What brought this on?"
"Jack—Celia's ex—his apartment was huge. And he'd been living there even before he met Celia."
"You don't want us to move into some dead guy's apartment."
Bess came in, in time to catch George's last words, and she turned to Nancy with her mouth open. "What? I am so not moving into some dead guy's apartment."
Nancy's furrowed brow cleared. "No. No, really."
George sat down at the kitchen table, next to Nancy, while Bess spread out her cosmetics on top. "Dinner in thirty minutes," George told her cousin, who nodded, then turned back to Nancy. "Let's be realistic here. By the time our lease is up, you'll have moved in with Ned, and Bess, well, I don't know what she'll be doing, but she practically lives over at Kent's anyway."
"Do not," Bess protested, with absolutely no heat, her voice flat as she set to combing Nancy's hair.
"And I'm not moving in with Ned," Nancy returned.
"Oh, Miss Stilettos and Black Underwear?"
Nancy pulled the towel a little tighter around her. "He's just so much fun to tease," she confessed. "But, no. We aren't moving in together. Anytime soon."
"Suit yourself," George shrugged, then headed for the refrigerator. "But I'd be willing to put twenty bucks on it."
"Me too," Bess said, through a mouthful of bobby pins.
"You two are terrible," Nancy announced. "And if Dad calls her later, don't you dare give him Ned's number. I know where you two sleep."
"Never would've thought of that," George said, a note of wonder in her voice, then ducked, laughing, as Nancy hurled a curler at her.
"I'm almost done. Go ahead and sit down."
Ned smiled and gestured Nancy to the table she'd never seen him use, and she smiled as he pulled her chair out for her. "Is it okay if I admit I'm a little nervous?"
"About my cooking?" Ned went back into the kitchen.
"Didn't you say something about considering popcorn a major food group?"
Ned laughed. "Probably," he called back. "Don't worry. You're special, so you get pancakes."
"From the Happy Pancake?"
"I'm going to come back in there and kick your ass."
"I'd like to see you try," Nancy called back, unfolding a napkin and draping it over her lap.
Two minutes later Ned came in carrying a pair of white bowls. "Don't start yet, I'll be right back," he warned, and Nancy laughed as she saw that the bowls were full of soup.
"Is something wrong?"
"No," Nancy managed, through her laughter, but didn't elaborate. Ned vanished into the kitchen again, returning with a basket of sliced french bread.
"No, really, is there something wrong?"
Nancy took pity on Ned, the naked concern on his face. "George made soup tonight too," she explained. "So I'll be eating a lot of soup the next few days."
Ned gave her a little half-smile. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be. Really. Don't." Nancy tasted it, then glanced up at him. "I mean it. This is great, and nothing like what George makes."
"Soup is soup," Ned dismissed, but she could tell by the look on his face that he was pleased.
After dinner they went to the kitchen together and washed dishes, and she watched him ladle the remainder into containers and seal them while she dried, and her heart beat a little more forcefully while she thought of how good this seemed, how right, to be doing something so domestic and normal with him.
Frank never cooked me a meal. Unless we were camping. And making s'mores doesn't really count, does it.
It rose to her lips but she didn't say it. Instead she put the last dish away and walked past Ned, trailing her fingers over the small of his back, pointedly not looking at him, as she headed to the living room.
She had almost made it to the couch when he slid his arms around her waist and pulled her backward, her back to his chest. She put her hands over his and closed her eyes, sighing.
"So, we doing some more spying tomorrow?"
"You want to?" Nancy turned around in his arms to face him, and met his eyes. "I mean..."
"I'm here for whatever you need," he said, leaning in, and she put her hand on his cheek as he kissed her. They moved together, his hand sliding over her hair to cup the back of her head and keep her mouth pressed to his, until she backed into the arm of the couch, and then she fell backward, her legs still draped over the arm, her back against the seats. He half-followed, his knee sliding up between her legs, and she blinked and then he was staring at her, his eyes wide.
"God, I'm sorry."
He pushed off her and Nancy pushed herself up on her elbows, her heart still a little fast, and peered at him from beneath her blackened lashes. "If you wanted me on my back, all you had to do was ask."
His mouth dropped open a little, but then he came back to himself and sat down beside her. "I thought all I had to do was steal your keys," he teased back.
"Or that," she agreed, pushing herself all the way up. "Dinner was really good. I take all those horrible things I said back."
"Heck yes you do," Ned said, sliding his arm around her shoulders and reaching for the remote. "Or I'll never cook for you again."
"I can't have that," Nancy chuckled. "Look..."
"Hmm?" Ned turned to gaze at her.
"I know it probably feels like you've been doing this all day, but... would you mind going over the case with me? It helps to tell everything to someone else and hear it out loud, get a second opinion."
"Sure," he said easily, holding her gaze steadily with his. "I guess I'll save the liquor until we're done, huh."
"It's a work night," she protested, but only mildly, with one eyebrow raised.
"So you think we should start drinking now?"
She smacked his arm, lightly. "No play."
"Play?" Ned's eyes lit up and he started tickling her, and she started shrieking, and then he was half-pinning her under him, and she was gasping for breath.
"Hey, if you don't want to talk about the case, just say so," she forced out, keeping her voice light, her face flushed as she searched his eyes.
"You're my girlfriend," he said softly. "I know, you're different, just give me a little time to get used to it."
"Ease you in, huh."
His mouth curved up in a lopsided smile, and with her hands pinned, all Nancy could do was lean up and kiss him, hard. "You have a dirty mind," she murmured against his mouth.
"I was just agreeing with you," he protested, kissing her again.
"I'm an acquired taste."
"Then I must have acquired you in record time."
She sighed against his mouth when they kissed again, and when he loosed her hands, she ran her fingers through his hair. "Look, just..." He cut her off with another kiss, and she met it eagerly. "How about we just... just have a drink and then we can talk about it, and..."
"Yeah," Ned replied. "Let's have a drink."
Then he kissed her again, slowly, deeply, and Nancy stopped thinking about drinks or the case or anything beyond the feel of his mouth, his weight on hers.
Nancy took her shoes off when he offered her the first glass of wine. She pushed the stilettos under the coffee table and accepted it, her eyes dancing.
"So that's everything?"
"It wouldn't have taken so long if we hadn't kept... interrupting ourselves," she replied, smiling. "But yes. That's everything. And it really isn't that much."
"It isn't that much? I can't even keep everything you just told me straight in my head. I'm used to being fed information via PowerPoint presentation."
She looked relaxed and comfortable, the wineglass still in her hand. He only realized that because every now and then he made some comment and something in her face shifted, and it took her a few minutes to regain her equilibrium again, fully.
"Maybe I should bring over a whiteboard and markers."
"So how many different leads are you and your dad tracking down?" Ned took a long sip of wine, keeping his eyes steady on hers.
"Neighbors, friends, past workplaces, the bar Celia went the night Jack died..."
"How many calls did he make to this place?"
"I don't have it with me, but it was at least a few times a week."
"While the bar was open, or not?"
"Didn't check," Nancy admitted, swirling the last of the wine in her glass before finishing it off. "Good point."
"Hmm," Ned said, pleased, and leaned in to kiss her again. Without looking he managed to put his wineglass down and then leaned in until she was braced against the back of the couch, her hand curving around his upper arm.
"So," she murmured, when they broke apart. He started to move away and she tightened her grip slightly on his arm, and he didn't protest, staying well within her personal space. "I reward you with kisses?"
"When you say it like that, it makes me think of strip poker," he admitted, his gaze dropping to her lips. "What were we talking about?"
"The case," she reminded him, gently, her tone the same dreamily distracted as his. "Point out something I haven't thought of, and you get a kiss..."
"What if I solve it?"
Her eyes cleared, just a little. "You figured out who did it?" She sounded just, just the faintest touch defensive.
"It was Belinda," he replied, leaning in, and as she closed her eyes he smiled and went for her earlobe instead. "He probably said she looked fat in something, so she killed him."
"Did she really know him?" Nancy tilted her head against the back of the couch as Ned slowly traced a line down her neck.
"Not that I know of," Ned sighed, and traced the neckline of her dress with his knuckles, stopping an inch above the lowest point of the V. He glanced up and found her watching him, her lips slightly parted.
"How many dates have we been on?"
"Quite a few."
She lowered her lashes and ran her fingertips over his knuckles. "How long does it usually take your girlfriends to jump into bed with you?"
"Unless there are special circumstances," he said, nodding slightly in her direction, "um... would have been months ago."
He chuckled and she joined in, but her eyes were still low.
"I thought so."
"I usually have a pretty intense screening process, but... you saying you want to jump into bed with me, Drew?"
He curved his forefinger under her chin, but hadn't yet tilted it up when her blue eyes were on his again. "Hypothetically," she began, then took a breath, "if I said I did, would you?"
"Is this a trick question?"
"A hypothetical," Nancy replied, lightly, and searched his eyes.
Ned actually took a long breath and considered, his heartbeat rising, thinking past the immediate Fuck yes, yes, now, please don't let this be a trick. "I don't know," he admitted. "You've already made it very clear that you want to wait, and I guess... I wouldn't want you to wake up tomorrow morning and regret making a decision on the spur of the moment, like this."
"Tomorrow morning," she repeated softly. "It must be incredibly frustrating for you."
He shrugged. "It'd be different if you were a cocktease," he said. "Which you aren't. Really, it's not that bad."
"Cold showers and hand lotion?"
"Something like that," he agreed, even while thinking that yes, life had become very much about that, of late. Stilettos and a low-cut black dress. She had to know the kind of signals she was sending him. At least now he knew they were just that.
If he didn't think about something else soon, he'd end up in a headlock on the floor for trying something too far across the line.
God, her lips are so full.
"You think the case will be wrapped up by this weekend?" Ned uncorked the wine again.
Nancy made an incredulous noise. "Not unless there's some massive break, I think Dad's already gone into trial preparation mode just in case. Why?"
"Because I had an idea, and I kind of made reservations, and I know that was stupid of me but it was going to be a surprise..."
"If it's for dinner or something, I'm sure that won't be a problem," she said, and her fingers brushed his when he handed her the glass again. In college it had been too easy to make this an excuse, for him or for the girl to say they were too drunk to drive, and then begin the elaborate dance of who would make the first move. He was a little disappointed that she could always call a cab and make it home safely, that they wouldn't have to dance around his offer to take the couch and let her sleep in his bed, lend her a shirt again, brush their teeth together at the sink while his shirt rode up on her and revealed what were undoubtedly sexy black panties...
Oh shut up, Ned begged his internal monologue. At least until she's gone.
"Not quite," he told her, after clearing his throat. "Something a bit more involved. Something that'll probably take all of Saturday morning. I guess I can cancel, if you think you can't take the time away, or if your work..."
"There is always that," she admitted. "You've intrigued me."
Her hand came to rest on his. They had turned on the television set, talked over the case, in a fruitless effort to distract themselves from the long makeout session the night was still threatening to become, and she turned back to the sitcom, her thumb stroking the side of his.
She turned to him again and he kissed her, hard, until her lips were swelled from the pressure of his, her eyes hazed with the same desire he'd seen while they were searching Jack's apartment. His hand lingered on her shoulder.
"Why did you ask your little hypothetical?"
She shrugged a little, the corner of her mouth turning up into a smile. "I guess I'm a little worried that if you want it and expect it in our relationship, and we... don't..., that you'll go elsewhere."
"I think it's sexy that you want to take things slow."
She raised her eyebrow, her expression inquisitive, and Ned chuckled. "I'm used to girls who don't even make it to the third date before they're trying to jump me. It's kind of a nice change, to find someone playing hard to get, for once."
"You still consider this," she gestured between them, "slow?"
"Hey, it's not like we're not making progress," he murmured, leaning in to kiss her again. "Besides, instant gratification is overrated. I like anticipation."
"Then you're going to be the happiest guy in the world," she whispered, before returning his kiss.
"It's a good lead."
Bess sat in the most comfortable chair in their living room, frowning at her cup of yogurt while Nancy stared at her expectantly. George was half-ignoring them, watching a sitcom, and dipping out of the bowl of popcorn between her and Nancy.
"Nan," Bess said, warningly. "Why can't Ned do it? Better yet, why can't you do it?"
Nancy sighed. "Because I can't very well go undercover if at any time I actually have to go back to my real job and go undercover," she explained. "You know that."
"And Ned?" Bess pouted.
Nancy slid over on the couch, nearer to Bess. "There's no way he could be as good as you," Nancy said, smiling. "You can talk anything out of anyone. I'm counting on that. Otherwise..." She shrugged. "I don't know what's going to happen to Celia, if we can't make some progress on this case soon."
"Oh, go ahead and do it," George said, still staring at the television, without even bothering to glance over at her cousin. "It's not like you don't want to."
Bess shot a dirty look at George, sighed heavily, then looked back at Nancy. "O-kay," she mumbled. "I guess."
"You are the best," Nancy cried, hugging her. "You know that."
"Yeah, well, if I find out this was just so you could get more alone-time with Ned," Bess said, mock-sternly, hiding her smile. "Because there was a time when you would have been the one to go undercover."
"I would," Nancy said, sincerely. "God, it'd be nice to do something like that again."
"And how long?" Bess unfolded her legs and headed into the kitchen, calling behind her.
"All I need to know is who Jack knew at the club, and why he was calling there so often. It shouldn't be hard. Unless there's something more to it."
George half-smiled. "There always is," she muttered.
Nancy could still hear the rain through her black-out curtains, even after she went to bed. She lay in the dark, and thought of how many e-mails she and Ned had exchanged, and his suggestion of a picnic lunch for Saturday if the weather was nice.
"Hey," Nancy sighed, listening to Ned shift, the bedsprings creaking softly under him. "I'm sorry. I didn't think you'd pick up if you were asleep."
"Yeah, well, you get to talk me back down," he groaned, yawning. "You all right?"
"Have you ever been a bartender?"
"As in paid for it? No. Frat parties probably don't count."
"They don't," she agreed. "Frat parties?"
"Frat parties," he repeated. "Because I belonged to a fraternity. In college. Have we not discussed this?"
"Oddly enough, no," she said, folding her arm under her head and letting the phone rest on her cheek. "I would remember that."
"Why were you asking about bartending?"
"Because I'm sending Bess in undercover at the club where Jack used to work," Nancy explained, her voice a little slow with exhaustion.
"Still don't see the connection."
"She asked why I didn't send you, but..."
"But what? Am I still on probation?"
"A little," Nancy admitted. "I haven't seen how you react under pressure, yet."
Ned chuckled. "Remember that entire last date we had? Yeah. A lot of pressure was going on, there."
"That was nothing."
"That was something," he corrected her. "Are you in bed right now?"
"Yeah," Nancy admitted, closing her eyes, drawing her knees up a little.
"What are you wearing?"
The blush that had already begun spread over her, warming her face, and Nancy brought her hand up to the phone. "None of your business," she replied, keeping her voice light.
"I thought we were making progress," he said, matching her tone.
"How is finding out what I'm wearing right now, progress?"
"You're right," he returned. "I don't know how it's progress. I just know that it is. And after your cute little hypothetical, I don't think I'm being unreasonable."
"T-shirt and underwear," Nancy sighed, dropping her voice a level.
Nancy paused for a beat before answering. "No."
"Nice," Ned sighed. "Always?"
"Not while I'm in the— why am I telling you this?"
"Because I'm your boyfriend," Ned said patiently. "This is the kind of thing a boyfriend asks his girlfriend if he doesn't have a chance to find out firsthand. And it's not like we aren't in bed right now. It's normal to talk about this kind of thing."
"We're not in the same bed," she pointed out.
"Which is why I have to ask. Instead of coming up with some inventive way to find out by myself."
"So what are you wearing, Ned?"
"Boxers," he replied. "No shirt."
"How do I know you're not naked right now?"
"You want me to be? I can do that."
Nancy chuckled. "I don't think I'm quite ready to talk to you while you're naked."
"You seemed to be fine with it, in that hotel room in New York," he reminded her.
"Yeah, well, that was different," she said. "Spy Nancy is better at dealing with that kind of thing."
"And what would Spy Nancy be doing, right now?"
"Listening to you tell me how to disable an alarm system, or where guards are stationed, or how much time I have before the dead drop..."
"And all Girlfriend Nancy wants is to find out if I've ever made a strawberry daiquiri before."
"Yeah," she admitted. "What would you be wearing if I was in your bed right now?"
"What would you?" he countered.
She smiled at the black-out curtains. "Good night, Ned," she murmured.
"Good night, Nancy," Ned replied. "Sweet dreams."
"Same to you."
"Oh, they definitely will be now," he promised. "And you know you can tell me if I ever go too far."
"How could you, from the other side of Chicago," she teased him, raking her hair away from her face.
"I don't know," he admitted, slowly. "I say stupid things when I'm tired. You know that."
"I deserved it," she replied. "Good night."
She snapped her phone closed and rolled onto her back, wondering how it would feel to nestle into a bare chest with a strong arm wrapped around her, some other rainy night.
Noon on Saturday, in Chicago. Nancy was standing next to a fountain, tapping her heel impatiently, her face in shadow under a tipped hat, her fingers at her ear like she was cupping a cell phone headset there. Noon in Chicago. The stars were already out overhead.
She sighed, and felt miserable.
The tech sighed impatiently back to her, into her ear, and then the voice of their boss came over the wire. "Walk it off, Drew."
"He's not going to show," she muttered under her breath, searching the horizon for any lit coffee shops, anything still awake and alive after the sidewalks had been rolled up.
"We don't know that yet."
She knew that was true but she hated knowing that back in Chicago Ned was doing something without her. Bess had gotten the job, though, had even managed to sweet-talk her way into working the Saturday night shift, and Ned had said maybe he'd drag Kent by so they could do a little sleuthing of their own. She smiled, remembering he'd said that word, sleuthing, drawing it out, grinning at the end.
But even that wasn't helping her mood. Another excuse missed, to wear some skimpy black dress around him, to watch him drink in her curves, to feel his hands warm on her hips as she danced too close to him. She closed her eyes, thinking to herself that they would definitely go dancing, when she came back.
Then a shape hurtled past her in the dark and she turned on her heel, quick as a thought, and took after it while the cacophony of voices sounded in her ear.
We will go dancing.
"What are you doing Thursday night?"
Ned leaned back and grinned, glad Nancy couldn't see his face. "Anything you want," he replied.
"So we can go check out the club where Bess is working?"
Ned looked down at his blotter on his desk. Nancy had been out of town for almost a week, missing all their tentative dates, and he hated it. When he'd known she was gone, on Saturday, he had gone to the club with Kent to check the place out, and serve as Bess's informal bodyguards for the night. Bess had given him so many double shots, flirting with him the entire time, that Ned had woken up Sunday morning hungover and miserable and missing his girlfriend. Movies had gone unwatched, elaborate dinners had gone unmade. Television was only so much nonsense. He was falling apart without Nancy.
And she was asking him to go to the club again, her voice bright with the same excitement he'd heard other people express upon winning the lottery. He chuckled and shook his head.
"I think that would be an excellent idea."
The club was seedier than the ones he frequented, on the outskirts of the bad part of town, but the drinks were good, and if Bess just gave Nancy half as many drinks as she'd given Ned, he knew he'd have her back to his apartment and there for the night easily.
"Good. I think we should show up separately."
"So that if one of us gets caught, the other one will be able to get away."
"'Gets caught'? What are we going to be doing?"
"Well," she drawled, and he could almost imagine her twirling a lock of hair around her finger, "Bess says there's a locked door that she can't account for, and she has some suspicions about what's probably going on, and we're going to need proof..."
"Proof? Like evidence your father can use in court?"
"Pretty much exactly, yeah."
"Evidence that should be collected by cops?"
Nancy sighed. "Look, we just... go in, figure out what's there, and once we know, for sure, we call the cops in. Although..."
"Although, in my experience," she said slowly, "it just... seems like the cops come in really late in the game."
"You're scaring me," he admitted.
"Don't worry, I'll make you the lookout," she reassured him, brightly.
Bess, Ned had to admit, looked great behind the bar. She was completely in her element; outrageous and flirty, she flashed grins at the college boys and sultry smiles at the habitual drinkers. When Ned came in, Nancy was already there; Bess gave a little faint jerk of her chin and they met her five minutes later, in the alcove leading to the phones.
"You really, really need to be careful," she said, and he noticed her nervous gleam then. "You get caught? They won't find all the pieces of you."
That gave Ned pause, even if he'd never admit it. Nancy accepted it with horrifying calm. "In and out," she said, grinning.
Bess shot her a weak smile. "I mean it. You watch her back," she told Ned, firmly.
Tightening the straps on her waist apron, Bess flounced back out, sliding into her place behind the bar. Nancy moved deeper into the shadows, trying the knob of the main office, as Ned moved to the edge of the doorway, keeping his gaze on the dance floor, always moving. He couldn't hear her pull the picks out, even though he was listening for it, through the roar of loud conversation and bass backbeats and heels and soles and heavy-bottomed glass tumblers against wood.
Ned blinked and saw Nancy with her hair flying in the smoke of a downtown club. New York. New York.
He reached behind him and found Nancy's shirt, the slick fabric sliding between his fingers. She froze.
Ned skimmed his fingers up her back and caught the tie. Her shirt was one of those slippery shapeless things, that hugged her breasts tight because it was tied at her back. With a jerk of his fingers, the tie was swinging loose to her knees.
"Just a precaution," Ned muttered back, sliding back through the shadows to his perch. "Hurry."
With a muffled snort Nancy bent back to her work, and released that same soft pleased cry when the lock gave under her fingers. Resisting the urge to glance back at her, Ned sidled out, nodding to Bess to make him a drink. When it was ready, Ned, keeping a sharp eye on the doorway, strode over to the bar, fighting the urge to break into a run.
"How long have you two been friends, again?" Ned asked, before downing half his drink with the first sip.
"Since we were old enough to talk."
"How many stomach ulcers do you have?"
Bess laughed and swatted at him. "You'd be amazed, what you can get used to. Joey just walked in; you need to look out."
"And which one is he?"
"Dark suit, maroon tie—oh, sorry, dark purplish tie."
"I know what maroon is."
"Oh, do you, now?" Bess raised an eyebrow, then held a finger up, gesturing for him to hold on. Ned wandered back into the alcove, miming trying the doorknob as he peered in at Nancy, who was shuffling through papers on the desk. Composing his handsome features into a disappointed frown, he headed back to the bar.
"Anything you need to tell me?"
"Maroon was one of the colors of our rival school."
"Sure it was."
Ned turned around, bracing his back against the bar. "He look all right?"
"Joey?" Bess scrubbed at a pool of condensation. "If by 'all right,' you mean 'like a loaded pistol,' then totally."
Ned finished his drink. "I don't like this."
Bess tapped him on the elbow, and dropped her voice so low that he had to strain to hear it when he turned around. "Then get out now," she said softly. "This? Is not going to change."
Ned was about to reply when Bess suddenly glanced at the door, and her face drained, her skin turning pale. "Go get her, whistle or whatever."
Ned put his glass down on the bar and headed for the alcove, shouldering into the room. Nancy's head snapped up and when she saw the look on Ned's face, she hurriedly lifted her shirt, showing Ned the barest hint of bra, and slid a handful of papers between her stomach and pants, letting her shirt fall to cover them. She fairly sprinted across the room, but when Ned heard footsteps approaching, he grabbed her. She only had time to glance up at him once in momentary confusion, bleeding to understanding, before the doorknob was moving.
Maneuvering so he was between Nancy and whoever was at the door, he angled her so she was braced, from the knee down, against the beat-up leather sofa facing the desk. He threaded his thumb through her belt loop and slowly inched her jeans down a little, carefully, to keep the paper from crinkling, and gave her one hard, bruising kiss before his teeth were gently pressing into the join of her shoulder and neck.
"Ned," Nancy said, her voice wavering a little, and he wondered how much of it was true, and how much was her playing the part.
In the movies there was always a sound, of a gun cocking. When Ned turned, his arms still at Nancy's waist, after the brief glimpse of Nancy's wide blue eyes and parted lips, the automatic in Joey's hand came as a total shock.
"Hey, man," Ned apologized immediately, holding both hands, palms out, in the air. "We'll leave. No big deal."
"What were you two doing in here?" Joey had no neck and a sparse goatee and looked like he had no sense of humor whatsoever.
"What did it look like?" Ned replied, keeping one hand up, catching one of hers with his other. "Just calm the fuck down. I'm sure there's an alley out back."
"Alley?" Nancy turned and there was almost no hint of nervousness about her; all of it was swallowed by her indignation. "Is that what you had in mind? God, I knew this was a bad idea." She released his hand in disdain, nearly throwing it, and went to stand in front of Joey, and Ned's heart clenched when he saw that she was standing directly in the trajectory, the path he was trying to keep her out of. "Hey, you can have him. He was all full of himself, telling me he owned the place, but I'm guessing that was another lie, too." She snorted.
Joey, glancing between the two of them, lowered the gun, and Nancy, with a swivel of her hips, was past him. She was in his old position at the mouth of the hallway, though, as Ned put his hand back up.
Ned gave Joey a you know how it is shrug, and Joey pushed back his coat, revealing another gun in his waistband.
"Go for the alley next time, dickwad."
Ned cut his eyes, but nodded, following Nancy out. She made a point to flounce away from him, and Bess was flirting with another guy at the bar, but her gaze rose apprehensively to Nancy. Ned let her go, although everything in him was telling him to follow her.
Ned nodded curtly, drumming his fingers on the bar. He glanced over at the alcove. The space between his shoulder blades was starting to itch.
"Yeah," Ned said, reaching for his wallet. He should be trying to pick someone up, he knew. When Bess came back, his drink in tow, she handed over his bar tab and Ned handed back a bill without even looking at it, catching her hand in his.
"You're not doing anything later, are you?"
"You mean besides putting up with more utterly charming guys like you?" Bess grinned.
"Well, honey, I would love," she leaned over, displaying another few inches of cleavage, "to show you a damn good time, but I have a girlfriend who will be very disappointed if I don't get home. To see if she's maybe at her boyfriend's place. Because, let me give you a tip, there is nothing that makes a girl hotter than a super-secret mission."
"Right," Ned said, releasing her hand. "That's a good tip."
"Thought you might like it."
Before he walked out, Ned glanced over at the alcove. Joey was staring back at him.
And then, it took every ounce of will he had, to leave Bess in the club.
"Well, considering the initials and the phone records, it's a good lead. The last date is... three days before his death." Nancy was grinning at the ledger pages spread out on her bed. Breaking the code hadn't taken long; Joey had been too convinced of his own intelligence.
"Make sure you put your copies in a safe place," Carson said, absently. He was already considering how to use the evidence as part of his defense. "And he doesn't know you found them."
Joey's desk had been a confused jumble of papers; with any luck, if he looked, he'd just believe he had misplaced them. "I'm sure he doesn't, but—" She had been about to finish with "I'll put them back before he can look," but that definitely would have set off her father's sensitive radar.
She heard a knock at the door and raced to answer it. "Someone's there?" Carson asked, sounding wary.
Ned smiled at her from the other side of the door, and she gave a little sigh, turning the deadbolt. "Yeah, it's just— someone," she said, trailing off at the end, remembering what her father had said about hearing Ned's name.
"Your young man," Carson guessed with a chuckle.
Nancy made a face, and Ned raised his eyebrows when he saw it, closing the door behind him. "Anyway. I'll get you copies so you can look over them."
"Thanks, Detective Nancy," he said, and Nancy laughed at hearing the old nickname. "One more mention, and I'll tell Hannah to make a chocolate cake for dessert for our dinner."
"One?" Nancy jumped a little when Ned caught her hand in his. "Dad..." she drawled, leading Ned down the hallway to her bedroom so he could see the spoils of their mission.
"Come on. Humor your father."
After she wished him a good night and tossed her phone onto the bed, Nancy brought out her small high-definition camera and turned her desk lamp on. "So," she began, and when she turned to Ned, she realized he was glancing with obvious interest around her room.
Then she noticed the clothes she had discarded while trying to select tonight's outfit, the tangle of underwear in the laundry hamper, the clutter of makeup and product on her vanity, and despaired a little.
"So this is your bedroom."
"No," she tried to say with a straight face, "it's Bess's. Mine is much cleaner."
She chuckled. quickly snapping photos of the borrowed documents. Ned slipped his arm around her waist, peering at the cramped handwriting.
"And this is evidence?"
She nodded eagerly. "I cracked the code. Five notations with Jack's initials within the week of his death. Not quite sure what the abbreviations mean, but I'll figure it out," she said confidently.
He kissed her temple, and Nancy closed her eyes for a second. Her excitement over the new lead, coupled with the high she felt from Ned's closeness, made her feel almost drunk.
"So tell me you're done for the night, so we can talk over the case," Ned murmured, pulling her into his arms, and with a little sigh she slipped her arms up around his shoulders, shivering when he kissed her.
"You were a natural in there," she murmured, before claiming his lips again. "And you definitely deserve some reward for that—"
"That is exactly what I wanted to hear," Ned murmured, taking a step forward, and the backs of her knees were against her mattress.
Her bed. He was alone with her in her bedroom.
Nancy opened her eyes, her heart in her throat, her fingers tightening against him as he brushed a soft kiss against her earlobe.
They were interrupted by the sound of a key in the door, and both of them glanced at her open bedroom door. "I'm home!" George called, and Nancy heard something thud against the counter.
Nancy was equally disappointed and relieved; Ned's response was far less ambiguous, she could tell by the expression on his face. She smoothed a hand over her hair and took a deep breath before she gathered the papers and walked to the kitchen, Ned trailing along behind her. George glanced up, raised her eyebrows when she saw Ned standing there, and smirked.
Nancy glanced back and noticed that his hair and shirt definitely looked rumpled. Well, she was never going to live that down, was she, not with that half-playful bet between the cousins.
"You two have dinner yet?"
"Dinner, but no dessert," Ned said, and both Ned and George glanced at Nancy, and she made a face.
"Okay, look... let's just act like adults, here," Nancy said, exasperated.
"I think you two have been acting like adults," George pointed out with a grin, rearranging bags of frozen vegetables to jam a carton of ice cream into the freezer.
Nancy made a frustrated sound. "George, I need to ask you a huge favor."
"We've discussed this, Drew. I don't care how hot he is; no threesome."
Nancy was shocked she didn't hear Ned's jaw hit the floor. George's eyes were sparkling; she was clearly enjoying Nancy's immense discomfort.
"Sorry, sorry," George apologized, and she seemed at least vaguely sincere. "Found out I don't have to go in to work tomorrow and I'm ready to do a few shots and make some bad decisions. Just not that one."
Nancy cut Ned off with a raised palm. "Mmmmmm! Shh. Shh. As for you, Miss Fayne... I think our plans dovetail perfectly. You can go check in with Bess and... return these for me."
George idly ran her fingers through her hair as she accepted the papers. "And these are..."
"Uh, stolen from the bar office," Ned said, sliding an arm around Nancy's waist.
It wasn't that they hadn't been affectionate around Nancy's roommates before. It was the fact that they had just been in her room and the mention of a damn threesome, and...
George glanced up. "Sounds like a really dangerous mission," she said, speculatively. "And, since I'm guessing you two burned your bridges there, or else you would handle it yourself..."
Nancy sighed. "Okay. What do you want in return?"
"Give me a minute," George said slowly, tapping her chin. "It's gonna be good, too, Drew."
"What about a ticket to Saturday's game?" Ned mused aloud, his fingertips idly stroking Nancy's side, and both Nancy and George turned to look at him. "One of my clients has a standing offer," he explained.
"That... sounds fair," George said with a grin. "Hey, you're pretty awesome, Nickerson. Maybe that threesome decision was too hasty."
"That's it," Nancy declared, seething, and darted into the living room. She returned with a throw pillow.
Fifteen minutes later, after George had combed her mussed hair and changed into something more appropriate, promising to check in with Bess when she reached the club, she left and Nancy locked the door behind her, blowing the loose strands of hair out of her face with a sigh. Ned was sitting on the couch, his gaze dark when it met hers.
"Do you really have a standing ticket?"
"Mmm-hmm." He smiled. "I just wanted to save you from your misery. And, maybe, kinda claim that favor for myself."
"Those weren't really the rules," she pointed out.
Ned shrugged, standing up. "Well, I got to watch you have a pillow fight with another girl. I'll just let that hold me for a while."
Nancy shook her head, crossing to sit down beside her boyfriend on the couch. "You're incorrigible."
He chuckled. "I seem to remember that we were in the middle of something," he murmured.
"Yeah." She stroked her fingertips down his cheek. "Uh, my dad wants to meet you."
Ned did a double-take. "I'm sorry, what?"
She shook her head apologetically. "Your name just kept coming up, and... yeah. He's really not that scary," she hurried to add.
"Not that scary," Ned repeated skeptically. "I think maybe we have different definitions of what that phrase means."
"I know. And if you... well, I'll talk to him. Tell him to take it easy on you. And I'll sweet-talk Hannah into making some incredible dessert for you."
"And?" he prompted.
"...And?" she repeated, raising an eyebrow.
"And there's nothing else you can think of that might sweeten the deal?" he murmured, moving close to her, stroking his thumb down her cheek. Her gaze went from his lips to his eyes and back again, her lips slightly parted.
"Did you have something specific in mind?" she breathed.
She wasn't sure how much time passed between his wordless reply and his cell phone vibrating with a text message, but when she came back to herself again, panting her breath back, she was leaning back against the arm of the couch, her shirt hiked up a few inches, and her head was still spinning. Ned made a frustrated noise as he dug his cell phone out, glanced at the display, then tossed it onto the coffee table and returned to her.
She threaded her fingers through his hair, meeting his gaze. "So you'll have dinner with me and my dad?"
He brushed the tip of his nose against hers. "Sure," he murmured. "And then maybe if you're feeling up to it... we can find some place more comfortable to do this."
Nancy shivered as Ned planed a soft kiss on her lips, and the sensation sent a thrill straight down her spine. She arched a little and her breasts brushed against his chest and she let out a soft sigh as he kissed the point of her jaw.
It took both of them a moment to realize what the sound was, when the land line began ringing. They let out simultaneous frustrated groans, and Nancy groped behind her, trying to find the phone.
Nancy was a little out of breath, and expected George to immediately start teasing her. Instead, George sounded worried, almost brusque. "Nan? Look, I think you'd better get down here."
Nancy sat up and raked her hair out of her face, and Ned sat back. "What's wrong?"
"You said for me to check in with Bess—"
"Yeah, she's on until eleven."
"Well, she's not here."
"And the papers?"
"I still have them. There's a guy with a gun standing outside the office, and he really doesn't look happy."
Nancy had two guns tucked into the waistband of her jeans as she walked easily into the club.
Ned could only see them because he was looking for them. Her shirt flowed easily over the unmistakable silhouette, and only then did he wonder if maybe she had known the night was going to end this way.
When they had pulled up at the place, she had taken out the flask-sized vodka bottle and offered it to him before she took her own slug, carefully letting a single drop slide down her chin. Ned was more than slightly aroused when she gazed over at him, after, her lips parted, hair mussed. She carefully slipped an earring out of her ear and put it in her pocket.
"I need you as backup," she explained. "And if it looks like we've both been drinking..."
He had wanted to grab her and kiss her right then, but they were probably about to die.
All the more reason, he thought, following the reddish gold of her hair as she maneuvered easily through the crowd.
She caught his hand with hers and Ned thought of that haze in her blue eyes as she had blinked up at him from the couch. His heart was racing, and when she shoved past the guy at the door with barely a second glance, Ned gave him an apologetic smirk.
He was going to get fucking shot tonight.
Joey and another guy were muttering to each other, and all that Ned could make out was the profanity, as Nancy walked in and strode over to the desk, her gaze on the floor. "I know it's in here," she murmured.
"Hey!" Joey looked up, and Ned's gaze was immediately locked on the gun Joey had pointed at him. "The fuck?"
"The—the lady left her earring," Ned said, and he sounded more nervous than drunk, but who the hell wouldn't be nervous in this situation, that's what Ned wanted to know. Even without looking he knew Joey's two henchmen had their guns pointed at him too.
Nancy tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, moving to covertly pull out the papers George had returned to her in the parking lot.
Ned cleared his throat, wishing with every fiber of his being he could reach down and take one of her guns. Just for a second.
"Get the fuck out of here," Joey snarled, gesturing with his gun.
Ned shrugged, his eyes wide. "You would not believe what she was doing to me, and then she said she had to come back and get that fucking earring. I'm dying here," he groaned. "Trust me—"
Joey took a step toward Ned. "I don't know if you're drunk or stupid or both—"
"Found it!" Nancy rose to her feet with her hand up in the air, her earring dangling from her fingers. She clutched the edge of Joey's desk to steady herself, giggling a little. "God, it's hot in here," she murmured. "Come on, baby."
"I don't think so," Joey said, coming around the desk.
Nancy had taken Ned's hand in hers, and she pouted at the man. "Tell him," Nancy stood up on her toes to stage-whisper into Ned's ear, "what we interrupted to come back here." Even though he had more adrenaline flooding through him than he'd felt since his last season on the baseball field at Emerson, Ned's eyes still fluttered closed when her lips brushed his earlobe.
She was sexy as fuck when she wasn't even trying, and Ned's reaction to her caress was anything but feigned.
"You trying to sneak out of here with something that isn't yours, honey?" Joey asked, a wicked little grin on his face as his gaze went up and down Nancy's slender frame. "T.J.? Why don't you check little miss thing here."
Ned raised his hands, palms up, into the air as Nancy made a face. "I swear, I will give you whatever money's in my wallet if you will just let me take her home right now," Ned murmured, and he was only partially joking.
T.J. put his gun down so he could use both hands to frisk Ned's girlfriend. Ned held his breath. If he was thorough at all, he'd find the guns stuck into her waistband.
But right now, it was two guns to two guns, if Ned could disable T.J.
"Hey," Ned said, glancing behind him at the guy, who was clearly enjoying the search. "Watch it there, buddy."
Nancy turned to Ned, directing a slow, exaggerating blink of her eyes at him, but when her eyes were open they were hard and clear. "You know, baby, I thought you said you'd deck anybody you caught hitting on me..." She raised her eyebrows as T.J. ran his palms down her sides. "And I think this definitely counts."
When T.J.'s hands began to slide around toward her back, Nancy twisted in his grip, shaking her head at him. "Mmm," she warned him.
"You keep your hands to yourself," Ned said, flexing his fingers.
"Keep going," Joey insisted.
The uppercut was good, nice and clean, and when Ned glanced up from T.J.'s prone body a few seconds later, Nancy had both guns out, and they were pointed at Joey and the other guy. Her eyes were cold, deadly steady.
Joey sneered. "Who?"
"The blonde who was working the bar."
Ned's gaze was locked on the gun in Joey's hand. For some reason it hadn't been so bad when it was pointed at him. Now, though, both Joey and the other guy had their guns pointed at Nancy.
Ned's hands were trembling a little.
"Who the fuck are you?"
"I'd show you my badge, but..." Nancy shrugged. "Give up now, it'll be easier. And tell me where Bess is."
The commotion outside was quiet at first, so quiet that Ned only registered it as a vague unease. He couldn't imagine how Nancy did this, when she went on her missions—and while he had been irritated beyond belief the last time she had vanished for a week, he had imagined her as the woman he had met in New York, playing dress-up and trading snarky comments with whoever was on the other end of her earpiece. This was lightyears away from that.
The door jerked open and Nancy angled so she could keep both in view, but she could only look in so many directions at once.
That was when the shot rang out.
Nancy wished to hell that she had left Ned in the damned car.
It wasn't that he wasn't athletic and capable; it was that he wasn't used to being in this kind of situation, and she had to devote half her attention to him, to making sure he wasn't in danger.
She snorted to herself. Well, any more danger than all the damn guns presented.
She aimed wide over Joey's head intentionally, smiling to herself when he ducked behind the desk, just as she had intended. Ned had moved closer to her, and though he didn't seem particularly happy when she maneuvered in front of him, he remained behind her.
Her aim wasn't quite as good with her left hand, but she was still ninety-five percent accurate with it.
A shot sounded from behind the desk. Nancy jerked back instinctually, avoiding the path of the bullet, and one of the guys in the doorway let out a startled cry, dropping his gun. Nancy darted forward and kicked it behind her, out of his armspan and toward Ned.
She spared him a split-second glance. "Cover Joey," she said quietly. "I've got this."
Ned's gaze was still troubled, but he nodded and sidled around the desk, the muzzle of the gun pointed at the opposite side. She aimed high over the doorway and the men there dropped back, ducking into the hallway, and Nancy heard screaming from outside as the bar patrons finally realized what was going on in the inner office.
It was about fucking time.
Moving quickly, Nancy kicked the door shut, then jammed a heavy chair beneath. Joey's expression was enraged as he glanced between Nancy and her boyfriend.
"Bess. Blonde girl. Was working the bar earlier tonight. Where is she."
Joey's arm tensed. Nancy raised her eyebrows.
"You want me to shoot your hand off?"
The corner of Joey's mouth went up. "You're bluffing."
Without taking her gaze from his—her boss would have reamed her out for it, but he wasn't here to see—she raised the gun in her right hand a few inches and loosed a bullet that kissed his ear, making him howl in pain. "I'm sorry, what was that?"
"Basement," Joey said angrily, cupping his ear. "You bitch. You're gonna pay for that."
The pounding at the door was growing louder, and Ned looked concerned. "Get the lamp," she said, and Ned raised his eyebrows. "The cord," she explained, tilting her head. "You, asshole. Get up."
Ned was able to manage a pretty tight knot, Nancy noticed, although he ducked when one of the frustrated henchmen outside managed to shoot through the sheetrock. "You wanna kill your boss in here?" Nancy shouted, holding her cell away from her ear as she dialed, and the angry rumblings just got louder, but at least the shooting stopped. "Hi, this is Nancy Drew. There's been a shootout downtown..."
Ned was gazing at her quite frankly when she hung up the phone, having arranged for some cops to come collect Joey and whoever else they could round up before they vanished. "So this is what you do," he said wonderingly.
She shrugged, aware but not really giving a damn that Joey, tied to his desk chair, was still watching them. "Depends on the day," she said lightly, although she did notice that when she scrolled through her contact list again, her hand was shaking a little. Adrenaline.
"Hey, George? Bess is apparently in the basement. Want to go check it out or... Yeah. We'll be up here for a while, keeping this asshole company until the cops get here. ...Yeah, true. Okay. See you in a minute."
Despite herself, Nancy's lips turned up in a small smile when she heard the fire alarm go off. The chaos outside rose to a damn roar, and Ned's eyebrows went up again.
"You sure know how to show a guy a good time."
Nancy's smile widened into a grin. "The night's not over yet, sweetheart."
George tapped on the door in the usual code knock a moment later, and Nancy moved the chair, cautiously letting her in. "George is gonna hang here with Joey while I go get Bess," she said, casting a glance back at Ned. "You can stay here if you want—"
George accepted the gun Nancy handed to her and pointed it at Joey, obviously less than comfortable with the situation, but she still looked very able to handle it. Ned shook his head immediately. "To hell with that. I mean, I wish you'd said something about packing my bulletproof vest before we left the house..."
For a second Nancy almost asked if he was serious, as she glanced into the hallway, her gun at the ready. "Well, I was trying to decide what to get you for Christmas," she commented, keeping her voice low as he followed her. He leaned close to hear her over the drone of the fire alarm, the distraction George had set up so she could more easily sneak inside. "It is pretty hard to know what to buy for the first Christmas together."
"So you're actually assuming we're going to make it through tonight. Instead of getting shot forty-seven times by gangsters."
Nancy snorted. "Okay, if these guys were Russian or Albanian? We'd really be in fucking trouble. The worst part is going to be getting to the basement. And, yes, we are definitely making it to Christmas."
She could hear the smile in his voice with his next words. "I would hug you, but I'm afraid you'll accidentally shoot me. By the way, you look kind of like Lara Croft right now."
"Is this a good thing?" she asked, scanning for possible doors to the basement.
"Very good thing. Plus you look hotter. So, besides a bulletproof vest, what else were you considering?"
"Well, there is this red-velvet white-fur-lined Mrs. Claus suit that seemed appropriate," she said musingly.
"Well, that's a damn tough choice," Ned said.
"Especially since I didn't know Mrs. Claus was apparently such a slut."
Ned was quiet for a moment, and Nancy glanced back at him. "Okay, hand me a gun, Drew, because I have some tension that I definitely need to release now."
Nancy chuckled. "So that was a vote for the bulletproof vest, then?"
He didn't have a chance to respond before they rounded a corner and caught sight of a man guarding a door. Nancy smoothly tucked her guns back into her waistband, outside her shirt this time, and reached for Ned's hand. He slowed to match her lazy gait, and when she tipped her head back to gaze adoringly up into his eyes, he chuckled a little.
They came even with the guard, and Nancy squeezed Ned's hand before she turned to the other guy. "You mind watching out for us?" she said, fluttering her lashes as she reached for the doorknob.
"Can't go back there," the guard said.
"Come on," Nancy said with a pout, reaching behind her back. The guard shook his head, but before he could raise his own gun, Nancy had hers out.
"Ned," she murmured, handing him the other. "I'll be right back."
Bess's blue eyes were wide with relief when Nancy cut the ropes and pulled the gag out of her mouth. "You okay?" she asked, helping her up.
Bess nodded, a little unsteadily. "Yeah," she murmured, touching her cheek and wincing.
"Did that asshole rough you up?" Nancy said angrily.
"A little," Bess admitted, following her to the door.
"Let's get back to the office so I can pistol-whip him a few times before he's in custody."
Bess chuckled weakly. "I know you're joking, but I really wouldn't mind that."
"Oh, I'm not joking," Nancy said, and Ned's eyes widened when he saw the two of them.
"Bess, you okay?"
Bess smiled at Ned. "I will be," she said.
Nancy gestured for the guard to get in the basement, then began to rush them back to the main part of the bar. "So you decided to be my knight in shining armor?" Bess teased Ned.
"Well, Nan promised me some making out later, so..."
Nancy cast a mock-glare back at her boyfriend. "I must have missed that part of the conversation."
"Sorry, I thought that getting shot at kind of implied that..."
George sighed with relief when they walked back into the office. "Bess, you okay?"
Bess nodded, but she stumbled a little when they walked in. "Yeah, I'm... well, I'm feeling a little weak..."
George glanced between Bess and Nancy. They could hear sirens growing louder as the emergency personnel closed in. "I better get her to the hospital," George said worriedly. "Can you guys handle it from here?"
Nancy nodded. As George wrapped her arm around her cousin's waist and began to lead her out, Nancy cast a look back over her shoulder at Joey. Shouts of "Police!" reached their ears. Joey glared back at Nancy.
"You're damn lucky they're here," she told him. By the time the cops found them, Nancy had her guns tucked back under her shirt, and her threatening scowl was replaced by a pleased smile.
"We'll need your statement," the policeman said, as he untied Joey to cuff him.
Nancy nodded, then glanced at her boyfriend. "Look... this usually takes a while," she said apologetically.
Ned glanced at his watch. "Shit. Well... look, when you get home, call me, okay? Let me know you made it in."
She nodded, glancing over at Joey, who was noisily and rather profanely demanding his lawyer. She waited until the cops had led him out before she stood on her toes and kissed him.
He brushed his thumb against her cheek. "This definitely isn't the way I thought tonight was gonna end."
When the policeman walked back in, his notepad out, Nancy smiled and put her mouth against Ned's ear. "Tell me all about it when I call you."
"So I have a question."
"Mmmmm?" Ned asked, rolling onto his side. Nancy sounded way too damn awake for—twelve-thirty in the morning. Ned rested the phone against the side of his face so he could get comfortable in his bed again.
"Remember when we had those plans for Saturday morning and I was called out of town?"
"Yes," Ned said. "Vividly."
"Was that—what you wanted to happen tonight?"
She sounded adorably worried over it, and like she had just downed three cups of coffee. But she had just been in a damn gun battle. "Well, it was similar," he mused aloud. "In that it was going to take a few hours, and be at least moderately exciting. But no."
"I'm sorry," she said softly.
"So tell me more about this Mrs. Claus costume."
Nancy chuckled, and he heard a soft creak. "Tell me what you wanted us to do tonight."
"Fine, fine. I guess I'll just have to imagine it all to myself," Ned said, with a mock mournful sigh. "Well, first—you were asking about what I had planned for while you were out of town, and can I just say that it's definitely a challenge to plan exciting dates when I'm dating someone like you."
"I'm the easiest date in the world," Nancy replied, putting a haughty tone in her voice. "All I want is you, probably some food, and... well, not dangling off a ledge listening to people scream through an earpiece is probably my only requirement."
"Dammit. Kevin told me that was the one thing you definitely wanted in a date."
Nancy made a soft tsk-ing noise. "Maybe that's what he wants."
Ned chuckled. "I thought... maybe we could go skydiving. In a non-life-threatening-situation kind of way."
"Ooooooh!" Nancy squealed, then shushed herself. "Sorry, Bess was feeling really exhausted when she got home."
"How is she?"
"She'll be all right. She was more freaked out than anything."
"I keep thinking that eventually it must get easier, to be around you—but it really doesn't, does it."
"How do you mean?" she asked quietly.
Ned raised his eyebrows. "Well... you are the single most fascinating and adventurous girl I've ever met, and when I think about a quiet night at home in front of the TV, I always think, 'No, she wants more than that—'"
"Sometimes," she admitted. "But most of the time I just want to relax with you."
He paused for a moment. "That's—that's actually what I wanted to do tonight."
"Well, if I hadn't had to talk to the cops for an hour, we could've hung out some more. Dammit." She sounded genuinely disappointed.
"True," he said. "But... I was kind of hoping that while we were at the bar you'd drink enough to let me bring you back here. For the night."
"And you thought it would take getting me drunk to make that happen?"
"I didn't think it would hurt."
She was quiet for a moment. "And what, exactly, did you think would happen once we got back to your place?"
"Well, the realistic version involved you wearing one of my t-shirts to bed and sleeping with you in my arms and waking up beside you when my alarm went off. And maybe... maybe just a little making out."
"That does sound—" Nancy cut herself off.
"Great? Amazing? Worst idea ever?" Ned prompted.
"I guess I'm just wondering... joining a group that Belinda Morrison is also a member of. Or—is she one of the three?"
Ned rolled onto his back, catching his phone before it fell. "She and I did sleep together," he admitted, his voice low. "But she's... not one of the three."
"Yeah." Ned winced. "I've been in serious—well, long-term—relationships with three women. Belinda's... on a different list."
"The girls you weren't serious about."
It was both harder and easier to talk about it, not being able to see her face. "Yeah," he said quietly. "There were a lot of parties at the frat, a lot of... well, a lot of nights I'm kind of glad I don't really remember."
She was quiet even longer this time, and Ned fought the urge to ask if she was still on the line. The one slug of vodka she'd had earlier definitely wasn't enough to take the edge off any of it, and he couldn't even blame it for talking to her about this. Although the first time she was around Mike and the guys, Ned knew it would all have come out anyway. Exploits at the Omega Chi house had practically been legendary.
"So which list am I on?"
"You're on a list all by yourself, Nan."
"The only girl who wouldn't put out on the first three dates."
"No," Ned sighed. "If that was all I was interested in, with you... God, I wish..."
"I wish I could see your face right now," he admitted. "See how far I've stuck my foot in my mouth."
She chuckled softly. "I'm sorry," she said. "You're right. This would probably be a lot easier in person."
"Well, you could come over."
"It's a school night," she said. "Plus, you dangle the prospect of skydiving in front of me and then offer a nice sedate evening in your arms."
"Hey. I think if we do go skydiving, it will be so terribly exhausting that we will have to do that after."
"You want me to dare you, Drew?"
"Have you ever been skydiving, Nickerson?"
"No," he admitted. "And the thought is kind of terrifying, but I'm really trying to expand my skill set. Like I said, you're a lot to keep up with."
"What list am I on, Ned?"
How do you not know, he thought. "The list of girls I've never felt this way about in my life."
"You're sweet," she murmured. "I've never felt this way about any other guy, either. You are a damn fine kisser."
"Oh, I see how it is," Ned said with mock outrage, relaxing. "And which of your lists am I on, Drew? The better of the two men you've kissed?"
"Hey, I just said he was my only boyfriend before you. Let me tell you that I've made out with a lot of guys."
"Oh, have you? On missions?"
"On missions, on cases... because they were cute? Because I'd had a little too much to drink... because they kissed me. I don't know." She sighed. "Sometimes I think I knew something was missing and I was looking for it... and then I found you."
"So you've stopped making out with random guys, is what you're trying to say."
"Except when the mission calls for it," she said, with a wicked giggle.
Ned groaned. "If you were here right now I'd tackle you," he told her. "Make you promise to stop that. I don't want to think about any other guys' lips on my girl."
"Mmm," she said, and he could hear a smile in her voice. "Well, I don't want to think about any other girls' lips on my guy."
"Well, there is a good way to fix that."
"Get over here and put your lips on me."
"Maybe I will," she said.
Ned froze for a second. "Really?"
"Not—not right now. I have a lot to think about."
Ned sighed. "Baby... I'm sorry I wasn't totally honest about it."
"Well, I kind of mentioned it to Bess—that you were in a frat, and she said you were probably surrounded by slutty girls every weekend, and... I don't know. I mean, it's kind of a turn-on, actually."
"It is?" Ned said, surprised.
"In that... well, you know how I always said it would happen with Frank—with him eventually?"
"Yeah," Ned replied, trying to keep the tightening in his jaw from showing in his voice.
"Well, he and I were both virgins, and... at least you'll know what you're doing."
Ned chuckled, then. "Is that a 'when we have sex' thing? Or an 'if we have sex' thing?"
"Uh... both?" she admitted. "I don't know. I mean, I hate that you're gonna be thinking of every other girl you've ever seen—that you already do, when you see me..."
"Nan, I'm with you," he pointed out. "Not any of them, not for a long time. And I love that when—if, whatever, but it's gonna be a when—we get that far, that you might let me be your first."
"Yeah, every guy dreams of deflowering a twenty-five-year-old virgin," she said softly, scoffing at herself.
"I don't compare you to other girls, but... yeah, part of me does think it's a turn-on that you'd trust me that much. If we get there."
"When we get there," she teased him.
Ned was quiet for a second. His exhaustion, the comedown from the adrenaline, had left him in a state that felt not entirely unlike a strong buzz. "There are so many walls around you," he murmured. "I want to see behind them all."
"Maybe you will," she said softly. "Maybe. Take me dancing, Ned. Please."
"Well, if we were in New York," she said longingly. "No, this weekend. I want to get dressed up for you and I want to feel your arms around me."
"We'll see," she replied. "Look, thanks for coming along tonight. You did a great job."
"Yeah, I'm a pro at just holding a gun and looking mildly threatening," he joked.
"No, really. You were great. Although a bulletproof vest isn't such a bad idea..."
"If I'm wearing a bulletproof vest, could you be in full body armor?" he said, and he was only half-teasing. "Damn, when all those bullets were flying... you have no idea how much I wanted to just tackle you and keep you safe until the cops got there."
"Thanks for mastering the impulse," she said lightly. "You are sweet, though. It's sweet that you worry about me."
"How can I not worry about you?"
"I don't know, you could remember that I'm a highly-trained and highly qualified government agent, and I'm fully able to take care of myself?"
"You could be made of steel and I'd still be worried about you. It's terrifying, to see someone I care about so much in danger."
"I care about you too," she whispered. "Dancing should be pretty safe, though."
Ned chuckled. "Okay, we'll go dancing," he told her. "Although the sexier you look, the more dangerous my arms are gonna be, because it's all I can do to let you go now."
"Was that supposed to be a threat?" she chuckled.
"More like a promise."
"Good," she murmured. "Good night, Ned."
Nancy walked into Bess's bedroom the next morning balancing a plate of blueberry pancakes, a cup of coffee, and the latest issue of Cosmo. "Hey," she said softly as Bess began to stir, wincing when she opened her eyes against the bar of sunlight crossing her pillow. "How are you feeling?"
"Like I was hit by a truck," Bess said, her voice rough with sleep.
"Well, I know this," Nancy said, nodding at the pancakes, "isn't nearly enough, but thanks for all you did last night. I'm really sorry you got hurt while you were helping me."
Bess sat up and propped the pillows up behind her, accepting the plate of pancakes with a small smile. When Nancy saw the nasty bruise on Bess's cheek, she winced. "God, I'm sorry."
Bess touched her cheek and grimaced. "Yeah, that felt like it was gonna bruise."
Nancy shook her head, sitting down at the foot of her friend's bed. "It's rough, seeing someone you care about get hurt," she murmured.
Bess raised an eyebrow. "Not that I don't appreciate it, but, uh, we've been doing this kind of thing for years. I'll live. What brought this on?"
"Ned," Nancy admitted, sweeping her hair out of her face. "I talked to him last night after we got home."
Bess sliced off a bite of her pancakes, the fluffy golden-brown cakes saturated with melted butter and drenched in syrup, just the way she liked them, and followed with a sip of coffee. "You brought me a Cosmo," she pointed out mildly. "So what kind of favor do you want?"
Nancy mock-scowled at her. "No favor. God, I think I've asked for enough for a while."
Bess shrugged. "So what's on your mind? Did you bring me a tube of Clé de Peau Beauté concealer, too?"
Nancy shook her head, hugging her knee to her chest. "Ned—admitted he lied to me about something."
Bess's eyes widened. "Oh God. Please don't let it be herpes."
"God!" Nancy exclaimed. "Bess! What the hell?!"
"That's a terrible lie to tell someone," Bess said solemnly.
George tapped on the door and walked in without waiting for a reply. "How are you doing?" she asked her cousin.
"Okay," Bess answered with a dismissive wave of her hand. "Come on, spill, Drew. What did he lie about?"
George raised her eyebrows and sat down at the other side of Bess's bed, waiting expectantly for whatever Nancy was about to confess.
Nancy blushed. "Uh... the number of people he's slept with."
Bess's eyes sparkled with interest. "So how many was it?"
"He... he didn't exactly say," Nancy said slowly. "Uh—more than three?"
"Well, of course more than three," George scoffed. "Frat boy? And have you seen his ass in jeans?"
"Apparently you have," Nancy retorted, her brows knit, sweeping up a throw pillow and smacking George with it.
"Hey! Uncle, uncle! Didn't we do this enough last night?" George cried, holding up her hands to defend herself. Just as quickly, she snatched the pillow out of Nancy's hands and smacked her with it in return.
"Last night?" Bess repeated, taking advantage of the conversational interlude to finish off her pancakes while George and Nancy shrieked and giggled, batting ineffectually at each other. "Damn, I really missed out. Glad that damn bartending job is over."'
"Yeah, I turned down a threesome," George sighed, a wicked smile on her face, especially when Bess started choking on her last bite of pancake.
Nancy glared at both of them in turn, her hair wild from the brief pillow fight. "You," she told George, "shut up. You—stop encouraging her."
"Uh—you so can't leave that out there without telling me what happened," Bess said, wide-eyed.
Once the situation had been explained to all their satisfaction, and not a little embarrassment on Nancy's part, George glanced at her watch and made a run for the door, muttering about being late for work. Bess put her plate on the bedside table and took a long sip of her coffee.
Nancy looked down. "Yeah. I—I don't know. He said he's been in three serious relationships... which puts him at two more than me. And that Belinda wasn't one of them. Although he did say he slept with her."
Bess shuddered. "So he occasionally has some really awful judgement."
Nancy shrugged. "Well, I did stay with Frank for a long time, because I..." she trailed off. "I thought what we had was everything," she murmured. "I mean, last night? I wouldn't have been worried about him at all. He would've—" She cut herself off, looking over at Bess, who was intently studying a hangnail, her face carefully blank. "What?"
"Well—Frank was perfect for you," Bess pointed out. "When you were in high school, anyway. But you two can't ever sit still and I was always shocked when you were able to see him for more than an hour at a time. But Ned—I don't know, seems like he wants to stick around here. And he's like a hundred times cuter than Frank. No offense."
Nancy shrugged her agreement. "And a much better kisser."
Bess giggled, then sobered. "Maybe Frank was right for you for a while, and now Ned is," she said quietly. "Unless you always saw yourself with someone like Frank."
Nancy glanced down at her watch. "I don't know," she admitted. Although she knew she really needed to get ready for work and leave, she couldn't make herself end the conversation quite yet. "I think part of me is afraid that he's been with so many girls that he's impatient for us to get past just making out."
Bess glanced to the magazine at her side. "Well, Cosmo would be delighted to help you out with that," she said, wiggling her perfectly sculpted eyebrows.
Nancy collected Bess's empty plate and smiled at her. "Well, I did talk Ned into taking me dancing this weekend, I'm pretty sure," she said. "I know George is busy, but if you and Kent wanted to come along...?"
"Well, I should say no," Bess drawled, "but I did just take some hits to the face for you, so I'll ignore my better judgement and say yes. And maybe I'll be able to get a definite number out of him..."
"Bess!" Nancy exclaimed, her eyes narrowing. "Don't you dare—"
Bess waved her off, tossing back the covers. "Calm down, Drew. You're okay. I'll be good. And if I stop being good, just drag his ass home and do something from—" she glanced down at the cover of Cosmo— "page one-forty."
Nancy flipped Bess off as she took the plate to the kitchen, and the other girl giggled.
They arranged to meet at the new Italian place after work, and Bess's finicky curling iron made them twenty minutes later than they had been expecting. When they came into the crowded waiting area, Nancy in a one-shoulder grey shirt and a printed miniskirt, Bess in a tiered chinoiserie gown, Nancy smiled when she saw her boyfriend, glancing over his shoulder at her. But the look on his face made her stomach clench more than her nervousness at seeing him after their conversation the night before was.
Bess caught sight of Kent and headed toward him, beckoning to Nancy, although Nancy only had eyes for Ned, and the girl he was talking to.
Not a girl, though. She looked about his age, and her belly was rounded slightly with pregnancy.
Nancy had faced down a thousand terribly dangerous situations, but she had to fight hard to keep walking forward, toward Ned. If this were a mission, she would saunter over, wrapping her arm around him possessively. But this was real, and his expression... it made her uneasy.
"Nancy," Ned said, when she finally made her way to his side. "Nancy, this is Jenny Allen. No, not Allen—"
"Scott," Jenny said with a smile, reaching for Nancy's hand. "Hi Nancy. Pleased to meet you."
"This is my girlfriend, Nancy Drew."
Nancy shook Jenny's hand in return, putting an easy smile on her face, while she sized the other woman up. Jenny wore low heels, which put her a few inches shorter than Nancy, and she was toned and slender everywhere but her rounded belly. She wore a wedding band but no engagement ring, and while Bess would know for sure, Nancy was pretty sure that Jenny's handbag was moderately expensive. She was glowing, and the expression that came into her eyes when she glanced up at Ned was enough to make Nancy want to smack her, pregnant or not.
Nancy had absolutely no doubt that this wasn't just any girl. It was her. The girl.
"Well, I'd love to catch up with you some more, but it looks like Jason finally got a table," Jenny said, glancing over and hiking her purse strap up an inch. "I'll see you around, okay?"
Ned nodded, sliding his arm around Nancy's waist, and Nancy felt herself relax, if only fractionally. Jenny walked away, casting one last glance over her shoulder, and then Ned glanced down at Nancy.
She put her hand over his. "So... Jenny."
Ned nodded wordlessly, and when the hostess called Ned's name he followed her to their table, taking Nancy's hand in his. When he released her so he could pull her chair back for her, Nancy cast another glance up at him, a little worried.
Ned finished unwrapping his silverware and draped his napkin over his lap, then glanced up at her with a little shrug of his shoulders. "Yeah. I just wasn't expecting to see her."
Nancy tried to imagine what a shock to the system it would be to just run into Frank in a place like this, and reached for Ned's hand, patting it comfortingly. "That would be hard to deal with," she said, pushing down her jealousy.
He shook his head a little. "Tonight isn't about her," he said firmly, as though he was trying to convince himself of that fact. "It's about us and dancing and celebrating the fact that we lived through last night."
When the waitress came and asked if they wanted to sample a bottle of wine, Ned ended up ordering a higher-end bottle of red. Once their glasses were poured, Ned raised his and held it out.
"To living," he said.
"Living well," she added, raising her own glass and gently tapping it against his. "To making better decisions."
"And not looking back," Ned finished quietly, then took a long sip of his wine.
Their appetizer of fried calamari helped soak up some of the alcohol, but by the time Nancy excused herself from their table, she had a pretty good buzz going. She made her way to the bar section of the restaurant, where Bess was laughing heartily at a group of guys loudly protesting the game playing on the corner television set. Kent was clapping too, and Nancy had to work hard not to glare at him. The wine was really not helping her self-control at all.
Judging by the flush in Bess's cheeks, she had a pretty good buzz going too.
Nancy tapped her on the shoulder, ignoring Kent's glance in her direction and hoping for his sake that he did the same. "Bathroom, now," she said.
Bess immediately pushed her chair back, grabbing the edge of the table to keep herself upright. Bess had dragged Nancy to the bathroom hundreds of times in the time they knew each other; Nancy almost never did, and by the time the door swung shut behind them, Bess's eyes were gleaming with interest.
"Oh my God, did he tell you his number?"
Nancy shook her head impatiently. "His ex is here."
"Ugh. God, I hope not. No, the one who got away, the first girl he ever fell for."
"Damn, that's even worse," Bess said, and when she swayed a little on her heels, she propped her hip against the counter. "So you saw her?"
"He introduced us."
"You met her? So what does she look like? Super-hot, total mouse?"
Nancy described Jenny to Bess, and noted with some dark amusement early on that apparently the agent-trained part of her brain had kicked in. She remembered everything down to the color of her roots and the bit of mud clinging to her heel. Bess was nodding as Nancy wrapped it up just short of estimating her weight and how long it would take to best her in a fight.
"I just want to punch her," Nancy admitted, her voice becoming a moan at the end. "I seriously hate feeling this out of control."
Bess patted Nancy's shoulder. "Well, you never had to deal with any of Frank's exes. Although she sounds like the mother of all exes. The thing is... does he talk about her a lot?"
Nancy shook her head. "Honestly, no. He talked about her when I asked, but he doesn't just bring her up at random."
"That's good," Bess reassured her. "So he's not still hung up on her. Well, maybe he is a little, but shit, if you'd walked in and saw Frank—"
"Yeah," Nancy agreed, and took a deep breath.
"Besides, I'm sure you're a thousand times hotter than her."
Nancy gave Bess a wan smile. "You're awesome," she told her friend.
"Oh, honey, I know that. Now get out there and take his mind entirely off her." Bess grinned.
"What would that be, Cosmo page ninety-eight?"
Bess shrugged. "Take your heels off and put your foot on his crotch under the table, and just watch what happens."
The woman washing her hands at the sink, who looked old enough to be their mother's ages, cast a mildly appalled, scandalized look in Bess's direction. She just shrugged it off. "Seriously, Nan. You two have been moving soooooooo slowly. Do you think it's because he doesn't want to go further?"
"He does," she replied.
"And you don't, because you and Frank never went too far—and look how that worked out."
Nancy chuckled, shaking her head. "Do you have a date in the pool, or do you get some kind of commission if I give it up to him?"
Bess's mouth dropped open in mock shock. "That is a fantastic idea, Drew."
Nancy made her way back to the table, shaking her head. Being with Frank for so long had meant not really worrying about him comparing her to other women—they barely had time to spend together, and he had always been more faithful than she. Bess was clearly enjoying watching her best friend turn into a girl who actually had insecurities and doubts and a life that didn't revolve around the next case or mission. To some degree, anyway.
Nancy was so accustomed to being in control of any situation she walked into. She hated not knowing exactly what to do and how to fix it.
The club Ned took them to after was loud and crowded, and they carved out some space for themselves on the dance floor. The look on Ned's face when Nancy peered at him from beneath her lashes, her body swaying to the beat, made her incredibly glad that she had suggested it. He took her hand and pulled her close to him, and she danced against him, draping her arms over his shoulders, keeping her gaze locked to his.
"You're amazing," she told him, speaking directly against his ear so he could hear her over the music. "This is exactly what I wanted."
"Mmm, I can't complain," Ned replied, his voice a growl as his hands drifted dangerously low on her back. "Not when it means you're holding that insanely sexy body up against me."
She ran her fingers through his hair, letting them drift down the back of his neck, matching her movements to his. She felt intensely aware of him, and when his hips shifted against hers, her eyes fluttered closed. He said he wanted to find his way behind all the walls she had put up, but she couldn't fight the feeling that he was already so close.
"I have something for you," he murmured, after he drew in a sharp breath. "Back at my place."
"I thought you were going to say it was in your pants," she said with a chuckle, and Ned's grip on her tightened.
"Well, that too."
They stayed for an hour. Nancy bought the first round and then they took turns buying the shots. During one song Kent and Ned watched with some amusement as Nancy and Bess danced together, laughing, twirling each other. When Ned pulled Nancy back into his arms for the next dance, his hand drifted almost immediately to her ass, and she didn't find it in her to tell him to stop.
Ned was ready to leave the club soon after, and from the way he was looking at her, she had a feeling she knew why, and that the alcohol in her system might let him get further than he ever had before. It made her feel nervous and exhilarated, and when she told him she was going to find Bess and tell her they were leaving, he made her promise to hurry back.
“We’re gonna get out of here,” Nancy said, ignoring the gleeful look on Bess’s face when she told her. “I’ll see you later, okay?”
“You might,” Bess said, with a significant glance in Kent’s direction, “or you might not.”
Nancy shook her head, leaning close to her friend. “You make him double-bag it, girl.”
“Same to you,” Bess said with a wicked chuckle, and Nancy flipped her off before she followed Ned out.
They were walking down the hall to his apartment when Ned pulled her to him and kissed her, softly at first. He had been in contact with her since they’d left the club—his fingers tangled in hers, his lips brushing the hollow at the base of her neck or the top of her collarbone, his foot nudging hers. Even so, she wanted more, and kissing him made her feel almost lightheaded.
He pulled back when they reached his door, fumbling in his pocket for his keys, and she drew him down to her again, standing on her tiptoes to meet him. Her fingers tangled in his collar—oh, if he were a mark, he would be so easy to distract while she planted a bug or a tracer—and she slipped a little on her heels, pivoting so the doorframe was at her back. Ned took advantage of it, pinning her against it, halfheartedly fumbling with the keys as his tongue slipped between her lips.
She was flushed when he pulled back, above the alcohol, and he shot her a pleased smile as he finally unlocked the door and pulled her inside.
Had he done this with her, with Jenny? Tumbled into a room together, drunk on their kisses?
Ned tossed the keys onto the counter and lifted her in his arms, pressing his lips to hers softly a few times before he released her. “Mmm,” he said approvingly, at her disappointed moan. “I’m thirsty as hell. Want anything?”
He actually kept Diet Coke in his refrigerator for her, after all the times she had come over with her own. They settled down on the couch, their glasses of soda on the coffee table, and Ned turned to her, his hand coming up to stroke her hair back from her undoubtedly gleaming face.
“Are you okay?” she whispered, searching his eyes, damning herself for even asking.
Ned raised an eyebrow. “I am awesome, Nan,” he said, and when his lips brushed hers, she closed her eyes. “I feel great. Are you okay?”
She nodded. “Yeah, I just… I know how hard it would be for me to run into someone…”
She let herself trail off and he let his hand drop, his gaze still on her when she glanced back up at him. “It was a long time ago,” he said softly. “And I was always a little afraid that if I saw her again—well, I don’t know exactly what I thought would happen, but in my head, she was still the girl I knew when I was seventeen. And she’s not, anymore, and I’m glad I did run into her tonight. She’s happy. And I’m happy. Because she found a great guy, and I found you.”
Nancy stood up on her knees and kissed him hard, and when he leaned back, pulling her onto his lap, she didn’t object. She ran her fingers through his hair, sighing, as he slipped his arms around her.
“Are you saying I make you happy, Nickerson?” she murmured when they broke the kiss.
Ned nodded. “Very much so, Drew. And, speaking of, as much as I love having you in my arms right now…”
She chuckled when he gently moved her beside him, then went to his bedroom. She took a long sip of her drink, fanning her flushed cheeks. Maybe he hadn’t been totally off-base after all. The idea of staying over tonight, even though she could easily take a cab home, was proving far more tempting than it ever had before.
But, if she spent the night in his arms…
Ned returned to her with a small paper box, and though she knew he was trying to hide it, the anxiety in his expression made her give him a reassuring smile. “I hope you like it,” he murmured. “Mike’s wife Jan does a lot of photoshoots for different places and she was hired by the guy who makes these, and… well, it just seemed neat.”
Nancy untied the blue ribbon and lifted off the lid, then the square of cotton batting. Underneath rested a large dark skeleton key. The oval bow had been filled with a smooth polished chunk of amber in the shape of a heart; a ribbon was threaded through the space between the cleft in the heart and the edge of the key.
“Oh, Ned… thank you,” she said, glancing up at him. “It’s so pretty. I love it.”
The grin she saw on his face in answer was enough to make her melt. He was so happy he had found something that would please her. “Really?”
She nodded. “No one’s ever given me anything like this before. And the key… will you put it on me?”
He slipped the ends of the ribbon behind her neck and tied it in a knot, and she touched it gently. The amber felt almost warm under her fingertips.
She glanced up at him. “You make me happy too, Ned,” she told him softly. “Not just because of the necklace—I love the necklace, but being with you… I love being with you.”
He sat back down beside her, pulling her back onto his lap. “I love being with you too,” he said. “Especially when it involves what we were doing earlier… Remind me what we were doing again?”
She grinned at him, running her fingers through his hair as their lips touched, and soon she could feel his own fingertips drifting down her spine, over the small of her back, and she was shivering in answer. He traced them up her side and just barely over the curve of her breast, and she sighed, arching into his touch as he cupped her gently through her bra.
She had no intention of getting him to the double-bag stage tonight. But just the thought of his fingertips against bare flesh was enough to make her flush in response.
And that was when she realized, the amber heart warm between them as his lips brushed her cheek, that she would find it so, so damn easy to fall for him.
Ned checked his reflection in the mirror one last time. He wore his favorite blue suit, with a pale blue shirt and an understated tie—somehow he doubted that Carson Drew was the kind of man to appreciate cartoon characters or impressionist pastels. Nancy had a little half-smirk on her face, but when he went from sneaking peripheral glances at her to looking her full in the face, she had recomposed her expression into one of wide-eyed innocence.
“What?” he growled, adjusting the knot in his tie. “This is a really big deal.”
“Hey, I’ve never done it before either,” she pointed out. “Bringing a guy home for his approval. Although he’s really not that scary.”
Ned shook his head. “Not to you. He’s kind of famous, Nan.”
Nancy shrugged. “He’s always just been my dad,” she said.
“And you are just his precious little girl,” Ned said, and when he moved to pass her he lunged and swept her up into his arms. She struggled, giggling, and he took the opportunity to bury his face against her hair, nuzzling against her. When he put her down she smoothed down her hair impatiently, shooting him a playful dirty look.
“So when do I take you home to meet my parents?”
Nancy’s blue eyes widened. “Oh. Um… whenever you want, I guess,” she said, following him to his door.
“See, that panic you’re feeling? Yep.”
She smacked him lightly on the shoulder. “That sounded like a dare.”
“Everything sounds like a dare to you, honey.”
He hadn’t missed that she was wearing the necklace he had given her, showing above the first button of her printed shirtdress, and during the entire drive to River Heights, he asked her about cases he only vaguely remembered her solving. By the time they crossed the city limits, he was shocked that she had made it past her eighteenth birthday. Thrown down a well to drown, poisoned, drugged, tied up against an ocean pier, concussed countless times and always making it out by the skin of her teeth. A few times she suddenly paused or changed the topic a little, and he sensed that she had worked those cases with Frank, and she didn’t exactly want to bring it up.
“You worked with Frank every now and then, didn’t you.”
He stated it neutrally, and she glanced over at him, sweeping her hair back. “Yeah,” she said, her tone apologetic. “When he was available.”
“Kind of like when you dragged me along on that shootout.”
She chuckled at the mock horror in his voice. “Well, I didn’t know it was going to turn into one,” she defended herself.
“Yeah. Because you just tuck two guns into your waistband when you’re out checking the mail. Totally unforeseen circumstance.”
“There have been plenty of times that I wish I slept with a gun under my pillow.”
Ned made his voice low and gruff, gangster-ish. “Stick with me, hot stuff, and you won’t need to.”
She laughed at him, her eyes bright. “We’ll see about that, mister.”
Ned was trying to remember the last time he’d gone through this, when it didn’t involve a prom date. He had dated a girl who lived in Emersonville and she had taken him home a few times, and he had gotten along pretty well with her parents, but they definitely hadn’t been high-profile criminal defense attorneys.
“Hannah!” Nancy threw her arms around the matronly brown-haired woman who answered Nancy’s brief knock.
“Nancy! Land sakes, girl, it’s been an age since you’ve been home.”
“Work,” Nancy said, rolling her eyes a little, and Ned had the impression that this conversation was perpetually repeated. “Hannah, I’d like you to meet Ned Nickerson. Ned, this is Hannah Gruen. She practically raised me since I was a little girl.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Hannah,” Ned said, reaching for her hand. Hannah seemed to size him up immediately, her gaze drifting over his belt and tie, his fingers, the angle of his jaw. By the time her eyes met his, Ned felt that he’d been thoroughly catalogued—but he wasn’t sure what her judgement of him was. She had a polite smile on her face, and her brown eyes were open and friendly.
“I’ve heard so much about you,” Hannah replied, shooting a glance at Nancy, who waved her off.
“Please tell me lunch will be ready soon. I’m famished.”
Hannah patted Nancy’s hip. “That could be because you never eat in the city,” Hannah said severely, “and every time you make it out here I have to try to fatten you back up again. A man likes a girl with some meat on her bones. Doesn’t he, Ned?” Hannah asked, her eyebrows raised as she glanced up at him. Nancy was a head shorter than Ned, and Hannah was half a head shorter than her, so she had to crane back pretty significantly.
“Um…” Ned shrugged. “I have to say that Nan looks utterly gorgeous to me, no matter what. And if you’re even half as good a cook as she says you are…”
Hannah made a pshaw gesture, while Nancy patted her on the back. “Every year the Martins try to steal her away,” Nancy said affectionately. “Her desserts? I would cross hot coals on my hands and knees to have one.”
“Well, it’s a good thing I love you enough to just put it right in front of you,” Hannah teased her back, circling Nancy’s waist with her arm and giving her a little squeeze. “Grab the pitcher of lemonade, would you, Nan? If the weather holds out we’ll be on the back patio.”
Ned had been attempting to keep a sharp lookout for Nancy’s father, and he fought the urge to yank at his tie. Nancy put him to work carrying a bowl of potato salad out, and she preceded him with the lemonade. The sunlight caught in her hair and turned it to a halo close around the crown of her head as she maneuvered deftly on her heels.
The backyard of the Drew home was meticulously groomed, he saw. The flagstone paths were outlined neatly in fresh-clipped grass and the rosebushes framing the yard were all blooming in various shades of pink, yellow, and red, without a single petal out of place. The table outside was already set with a cloth and place settings, and Nancy impatiently brushed a fly off a plastic-swathed bowl.
Ned put the bowl he was carrying down, simultaneously relieved and disappointed to find that Carson wasn’t waiting for them. “So?” Nancy said, and he turned to see her gazing at him, a small smile on her face. “What do you think?”
“I think you grew up in a great house,” Ned said, and her smile widened as she reached for his hand.
“Thanks. I really love coming back home, and I wish I was able to make it back more often.”
“Even more than jetting off to Scotland or dipping your toes in some insanely clear water on a sandy beach?” Ned teased her, swinging their joined hands back and forth gently.
She nodded. “I always saw myself settling down in a place kind of like this,” she admitted, and then she glanced up at him, through her eyelashes.
“It would be nice,” Ned agreed, his gaze dropping to her mouth. She was just tipping her face up when the patio door began to slide open, and they sprang apart, immediately releasing each other’s hands.
Carson was turned back to address something to Hannah, and by the time he turned to face them, Ned had smoothed his hair and his tie down, feeling uncomfortably like he had been caught red-handed. Nancy swept around the table and gave her father a delighted hug, and Carson laughed, returning it with equal fervor.
“So I have to bribe you with a case or Hannah’s Italian cream cake to get you out here,” he said when she pulled back, gazing fondly down at his daughter. “I see how it is.”
“Dad!” Nancy objected. “Ooh, and how is the—" She remembered herself and glanced back. “Well, we have time to get to that. Dad, this is Ned Nickerson; Ned, this is my father, Carson Drew. And, now that introductions are out of the way,” she said swiftly, “I think I’ve held up my end of the bargain.”
Carson shook his head. “You didn’t anticipate my plan,” he replied, coming around the table toward Ned. “As soon as your young man tastes Hannah’s Italian cream cake, he’ll be planning to bring you back here a lot more often.”
“Dad, he is not,” she began, blushing a little, but the pleased smile on her face belied her protest.
Carson extended his hand to Ned, and Ned wished he’d thought to wipe his clammy palm unobtrusively on something first. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ned,” Carson said easily, his eyes sparkling with intelligence, and for the second time in ten minutes Ned felt himself being sized up. This time felt a lot more intense, though. Nancy talked about her father a lot, and Ned had a feeling that if Carson didn’t get along with him, Nancy was more likely to stop seeing him than to defy the other man in her life.
“So,” Carson said, “are you now or have you ever been a communist?”
Ned turned wide-eyed to Nancy, who had her hand clapped over her mouth, her eyes gleaming. “Dad, for God’s sake, let the man sit down and have some lemonade before you start ferreting out political affiliation or possible subversive tendencies. And, and, you need to tell me how the hearing went!”
Ned was relieved when Carson shook his head and gestured for both of them to sit down. “Guess we’ll just have to resume this later. I hope you have some good answers for me, young man,” Carson said, sitting down at the head of the table.
“I swear, if you call him a whipper-snapper I’m leaving,” Nancy said, shaking her head. “And I’ll steal half the cake before I go, too. The hearing?”
“The hearing went well. All charges dropped. Overwhelming evidence in the case suggested a persuasive alternate theory of the crime.”
Nancy clapped. “Hooray! I really should take her out to dinner or something to celebrate; I wish Celia and I had hung out more in school.”
“Her apartment did seem pretty cool,” Ned commented, and then his eyes widened as he realized what he was saying.
And it didn’t escape Carson’s attention, either. “Nancy? You—“
Nancy rolled her eyes, putting her glass of lemonade back on the table. “It’s a habit. Mixing business and… dates.”
Carson shook his head. “And you still haven’t run away screaming,” he said to Ned, as Hannah bustled out of the house with a plate of rolls.
“Well, I almost did, after what happened—“
Ned cut himself off when Nancy made a frantic kill gesture, and Carson glanced between them with some amusement. “I’ll assume that any further questioning along this line will result in a plea for the fifth,” he commented, and Nancy nodded frantically, swallowing a sip of lemonade.
Once Hannah assured them that everything was on the table—save the Italian cream cake, which the three of them had talked about enough to have Ned salivating in anticipation—Carson began to serve the salad plates. “So what is your profession, Ned?”
Ned cleared his throat. “Well, I can’t exactly speak to my profession, honestly; I do enjoy my job, but I have to say that the most exciting part of my life right now has been spending time with Nancy.”
Nancy chuckled. “That is the Drew guarantee,” she murmured.
“Nancy’s been solving mysteries since she was old enough to interrogate suspects,” Hannah said proudly, offering the rolls to Nancy.
The banter between the three of them was perpetual, cheerful, and, between Carson and his daughter, peppered with arcane legalspeak and references to events Ned definitely hadn’t witnessed. Whenever Hannah gently urged them back to a more familiar topic, Ned gave her a grateful smile. He was glad he had kept up with the evening news for the past week or so; Carson was able to share information on current cases, arrests and investigations, and though he was careful not to mention names or too many particular details, Ned could tell that he relished the interest in Nancy’s eyes, and her rapid-fire interjections.
Carson settled back once Hannah started clearing the table. “Tell me about your parents, Ned.”
“Well, my father runs a real estate agency in Mapleton, and my mother helps him part-time, but she definitely enjoys keeping house a lot more. She has an accounting degree, so she’s good with numbers, but hanging around an office never really appealed to her.”
“Well, that sounds entirely unlike anyone I know,” Carson said, casting a significant glance at his daughter.
“Hey, offices are great. For other people,” she teased him, then glanced over at Ned. “I know Ned’s been at work late a few times, and didn’t enjoy that at all…”
“Well, there’s not much to enjoy about being stuck inside at night juggling money,” Ned said, and though he knew his heart was beating faster than usual, he was finally starting to relax around Carson.
“So what would you do, if you were able to do anything?” Carson asked, loosely crossing his arms, and though Ned knew he probably wasn’t trying to appear threatening, he could see how the man would be a ferocious opponent in the courtroom. He was incredibly sharp and had a great poker face—when he wasn’t looking at his daughter, anyway. The adoration on his face was perfectly clear whenever he glanced at Nancy, and it was obviously entirely mutual.
Ned was glad Carson didn’t know the way Nancy had been looking at him, especially lately.
“Hmm,” Ned said. “You know, honestly? I wouldn’t mind being the voice at the other end of the earpiece.”
Carson glanced at Nancy, who was chuckling. “Uh—Ned may or may not have met—‘met’—some of the support staff I work with on assignments.”
Carson laughed in surprise. “Okay, then you definitely should have brought him out here to meet me sooner. You must be special, Ned, if she trusts you that much.”
She was idly toying with the necklace he had given her, her blue eyes a little distant. “That was a special circumstance,” she admitted. “And I wouldn’t mind Ned’s voice on the other end of that earpiece, as long as it wasn’t always only there.”
Ned was becoming very aware of Carson’s gaze when Hannah returned with the cake and four plates and forks. “I hope it’s good,” she said anxiously.
Nancy dismissed Hannah’s concern with a wave. “Hannah, you could make a miracle with dirt. This looks spectacular.”
Ned was sure he had tried Italian cream cake a few times in his life, but the rapturous expressions on Nancy and Carson’s faces when they took their first bites still didn’t prepare him for how incredibly delicious it tasted. Hannah watched him devour the slice of cake with a gleam in her eye. “You could use some meat on your bones too, Ned,” Hannah teased him. “I may just have to send one of these home with you.”
“I know you’re teasing me,” Ned said, “but honestly, I would not turn that down. This is—this is the best thing I think I’ve ever tasted, and don’t you dare tell my mother I said that. Please, please tell me you’ve taught Nancy how to cook.”
Nancy shook her head, swiping a trace of icing from the corner of her mouth. “She tried—"
“It was hard to pin Nancy down long enough to teach her anything,” Hannah said with a sigh. “But she does have my chocolate cake recipe, and she does a great job with it—“
Nancy cast a despairing look at the woman who had raised her. “It comes out okay,” Nancy said. “I swear, you must have left out an ingredient, because it never tastes as awesome as yours does.”
Hannah shook her head. “Just make sure to put some love in it,” she said, casting a knowing glance over at Ned, and Nancy colored just a little, ducking.
They headed back inside when the night started to grow a little cooler, and though Ned was impatient to draw Nancy away, hopefully to somewhere he had a convenient excuse to wrap her in his arms, he didn’t let his anxiety show when they all settled on the couch. Carson accepted the cup of coffee Hannah offered, while Nancy and Ned stuck to lemonade. A cold beer would have been awesome, Ned couldn’t help thinking, his gaze roaming over the large television set, the high-end sound system, the understated immaculate furniture and curtains. The kitchen, he had noticed when they walked through, was large, spotless and inviting, and he could imagine Nancy sitting on one of the stools at the breakfast counter, her long legs dangling as she dug into a bowl of oatmeal or cereal, watching Hannah pack her lunch.
Who was he kidding. Before she was dropped off at school—he couldn’t imagine that Nancy had ever been forced to take the bus—she probably took the time to crack a few Russian spy codes or save kittens from dangling tree limbs.
“So you wouldn’t mind joining the agency either,” Carson said, stirring his coffee.
Ned shrugged. “When I was at Emerson—Emerson College, that is—I enjoyed so many of my classes that it was difficult to decide on one thing. Financial planning seemed like a safe bet, but there’s so much else out there.”
Carson nodded. “Emerson College. I seem to remember, from a few years ago—there was some talk about you possibly going pro, wasn’t there?”
Nancy glanced between her father and Ned, and Ned was gratified to see the interest in her eyes. “Some,” Ned agreed, modestly. “I loved being on the team, loved playing football and basketball and baseball, but I think a big part of it was the atmosphere at Emerson, how amazing my coaches were. Playing on the professional level just felt like it would be incredibly limiting, you know? Being paid to do something I love, but knowing that with one false move or bad play I might be incapacitated for life. I’ve just never enjoyed gambling that much.”
Carson nodded solemnly. “I wish you would try to talk Nancy around to that way of thinking,” he said, nodding at his daughter. “I used to think that maybe I was a little too cautious, but next to Nancy, a stuntman’s life looks sedate.”
Nancy shook her head at both of them. “I can’t be an armchair detective,” she said, running her finger down her lemonade glass, bringing it away slick with condensation. “There is no rush like finding the solution to a case, tracking down another clue…”
Carson shook his head. “Can you imagine?” he asked Ned. “When Nancy didn’t come home I wasn’t worried that she was out with boys—I was worried that she was bound and gagged in some villain’s trunk, speeding toward the county line.”
“I have to say, I was shocked she managed to reach her eighteenth birthday,” Ned agreed solemnly.
“Okay, you two…” Nancy shook her head. “Look, I’m glad you’re bonding and everything, but Dad and Hannah can tell you. I don’t give up, not when it comes to this.”
Hannah agreed. “She doesn’t. And it’s all we can do to get her to visit when she does. It’s like she doesn’t want to come home anymore,” the housekeeper said, with a dramatic pout.
“Oh, Hannah, you know I love you. I’d come home every weekend if I could, but I just don’t know what it is, Bess and George and Ned keep finding fun things to do…” Nancy wrapped her arm around Hannah’s shoulders.
“Not to mention all those weekends you’re off chasing down international criminals.”
“It is a sacrifice,” Nancy said with a sigh.
Carson made Nancy and Ned both promise to come back for a visit soon. “I’d love to,” Ned said, shaking Carson’s hand again. “And, you know, if Hannah happens to make any desserts that need to be finished off, I’m your man.”
Carson chuckled. “You and every other person who has ever tasted her cooking,” he said.
“It really was a pleasure to meet you, sir. You’ve had an amazing career.”
“And I don’t plan on retiring anytime soon,” Carson said, a twinkle in his eye. “I’ll be eighty-five and in a wheelchair before they can get me out of the courtroom.”
Ned cast a dramatic glance at Nancy. “Don’t you dare say the same,” he told her, and she shook her head.
“Wheelchairs and missions don’t really mix,” she said ruefully. “That’s for d—darn sure.”
“It was a pleasure to meet you, Ned. And I know this is a Herculean task in every sense of the word, but try to keep an eye on my daughter, if you could. You seem like a very capable man to do that.”
“I’ll try, sir.”
Ned hadn’t even slid into the passenger seat of Nancy’s car before he had his tie loose around his neck, and once they were safely inside, Nancy burst into giggles at the sight of pure relief on Ned’s face. “What?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Nancy assured him, sliding the key into the ignition. “You did great in there. You really want to be the voice in the earpiece, Ned?”
“Is your dad watching us right now?”
Nancy cast a glance over Ned’s shoulder, then shook her head. “Not that I can see,” she said.
He leaned forward and caught her earlobe in his mouth, and she squealed as his hand drifted down to cup her side. “I want to be this voice in your ear,” he growled.
She squirmed playfully away from him, especially when he nipped lightly at her neck. “Oh shit, he’s watching—“
Ned pulled away from her immediately, and when he saw the mischievous look on her face, he reached over and ruthlessly tickled her ribs. She screamed and tried to maneuver away from him, but in the close confines of the car, she had nowhere to go.
“Stop! Oh God stop, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”
Ned finally took pity on her and pulled back, then reached for her again, more slowly. She flinched, but all he did was trace the ribbon down to the key hanging around her neck. She relaxed, and her gaze was on him when he looked up into her eyes.
“He likes you,” she said softly.
Ned shook his head. “How could you tell? I thought he was going to murder me and eat my heart to gain my strength.”
“You did not,” Nancy said, starting the car. “There at the end you two were best friends. Telling you to take care of his little girl…” She shook her head again. “Ugh.”
“Hey, it’s sweet,” he said. “He worries about you. And I worry about you too.”
“I really do need to train you on interrogation techniques, though,” Nancy said, checking before she pulled out into the intersection. “You caved two seconds in. You’d never hold up if I really got to work on you.”
“Okay, that definitely sounded like a dare,” Ned said. “Take me back to my place and do your worst, Drew. I’ll never break.”
“Let me stop back by my place on the way and you’ll tell me your social security and bank account numbers in thirty seconds,” she promised. “At most.”
“What’s it gonna be? Hot pokers? Water torture?” He swallowed as a mental image came to him. “Wrap those sexy legs around my neck and squeeze until I promise to talk?”
She cast a glance at him. “And that would work?”
“Like a fucking charm,” he promised. “God, I’m gonna love this.”
She chuckled. “Just for that, I should drop you off at your place and refuse to take your calls for the next week.”
Ned groaned. “Please don’t. Seriously, Nan… I hate not hearing from you. I hate going an entire day without hearing your voice.”
“Which makes it the best torture of all,” she said, and smiled. “How could my dad not love you, Ned? You have to be one of the most charming, handsome, sweetest guys I know. And the way you kiss? Oh!” She kissed her fingertips and made a flourishing gesture, and Ned laughed at her. “Makes my knees weak just thinking about it.”
“All the better to carry you away,” Ned growled playfully. “Although… I have a feeling your dad has my address, social, and bank account numbers and is running them right now.”
“Oh, Ned,” she said, shaking her head as she pulled out onto the highway. “I’m sure he did from the moment I first mentioned your name. We’re going to have to work hard to avoid all the bugs he’s probably planted in your apartment.”
Ned wiggled his eyebrows at her. “I’m up for the challenge.”