Nancy Drew parked her convertible and sat for a moment, raking her fingers through her tangled hair. The house was charming, an old white converted farmhouse with an enormous front lawn, the grass already beginning to stiffen and crackle under the fall heat. Behind was the horse barn, the paddock, flowers tipping their withering faces to the unblinking sun between the careful rows of the kitchen garden.
Before she could talk herself out of it, Nancy pocketed her car keys and walked up to the house.
She was leaving in three days. Her enormous steamer trunk was open in her bedroom, half-packed with clothes, heavy boots, sandals, fingerprint powder and brushes and her lockpick kit, salve and a rain slicker and a scarf for her hair. A marine biologist from a university in Chicago had contacted her, requesting her help in finding a missing colleague, and had mentioned a rumored sunken treasure, dating back well over a hundred years, the masterpiece of which was a deep blood-red ruby. The train trip would be exhausting, but the excitement of having a new case had been humming under her skin for days.
Until she'd found out Ned had returned.
Nancy knocked firmly and took a half-step back, clasping her hands behind her to keep them from trembling. An older woman, her iron-gray hair pulled back from her high forehead and brown eyes, answered Nancy's knock, wiping her hands on the apron tied at her waist. Comprehension dawned a moment later, but her smile was subdued, self-conscious. Ned's grandmother rested her hand on the screen handle, but didn't swing it open.
"He's around back. At the creek."
Nancy smiled and nodded her thanks, passing Ned's car as she circled the house. In the months he'd been gone, Nancy had driven by his parents' house when she had absolutely no reason to do so, on the way back from the farmer's market or on the way to her father's office, just to see his car. It was never anything more; it could never really be anything more. The unanswered letters had just underlined it for her.
Nancy self-consciously smoothed down the gauzy green peasant top, hooking her thumbs in her belt loops. The horses nudged and spoke softly to each other, their ears flicking against the wind.
Ned was standing with his back to her, his grandfather close beside him, fishing rods in their hands, the low angle of the sinking sun casting golden flecks through his brown hair, gleaming on his grandfather's scalp. Nancy had met Ned's grandparents a few times, but she had only been here once. Coming here now, with what was between them, almost rooted Nancy's feet to the ground, but she felt the strength to cross to him, to put her hand on his arm.
Ned's eyes were alight, from whatever joke he and his grandfather had just shared, but when he turned to her, that light went out in the space of a heartbeat. His grin faded into a smile, then something slightly less. Seeing such an expression on his face almost cleaved Nancy's heart in two.
Ned's grandfather cleared his throat. "Would you like a drink? Ned, Nancy?"
Ned shook his head. Nancy had to force the lump in her own throat down before she managed to say, "A lemonade would be nice. Or a water."
He nodded and stepped off, leaving the two of them alone, as alone as they could be at the edge of a wood, standing over a creek, on his grandfather's property. The day's heat radiated from the ground in perceptible waves, but Nancy crossed her arms, rubbing away her sudden goosebumps.
Ned's faint insincere smile returned. "How'd you find me?"
"Hannah ran into your mother at the market." Nancy's gaze centered on the lure at the end of Ned's hook as he flicked it, with slight jerks of his wrist, across the surface of the water. "Maybe the letter where you told me when you were coming back got lost somewhere between."
Ned's mouth tightened and he didn't look at her.
"You stopped writing," she said quietly, and it wasn't really a question, but when he stayed quiet, Nancy nodded to herself. "Ned, I thought you said we could still be friends."
Ned pulled the lure out of the water and pivoted sharply, tossing his line upstream. Nancy watched as it drifted toward them. He was quiet so long that she almost gave up and turned away, her heart sinking even further than it already had.
"I was wrong."
Nancy had always considered herself a logical, rational person; she wasn't given to emotional displays or outbursts, and preferred to keep her feelings to herself. Even so, for a second, she felt her knees buckle, felt an almost irresistible desire to collapse to the grass at the edge of the water.
She wished with all her heart that Ned had never proposed to her.
It was part of his preparation, but she hadn't known that then. She had only known that he was going away to Hong Kong for five months, maybe six, and there would be no visits home. They would be apart. And she knew that she'd miss him.
Everyone had been there, at the party at his parents' house. His grandparents, Bess and George, Hannah and Carson, Burt and Dave, boys from his fraternity and his high school graduating class. The cake they had was fourteen thin layers tall, an old family recipe. Her going-away present had been a Swiss army knife, backup to the one he already had, silver with his initials engraved on it. She had spent all of five minutes debating it and picking it out, taking it to the service counter to have it wrapped, putting it on her father's charge card.
The ring he presented to her, in his parents' backyard, had been passed down in his family, sized to fit her, resting not on black velvet but in the palm of his outstretched hand, his brown eyes fixed on hers as he knelt at her feet. She could see it in her head, the way it was supposed to go; the clap of a trembling palm to her sudden grin, a tearful nod, a joyful hug. An announcement to the gathered family and friends, and plans for a winter wedding. She could see it all.
But she also knew that it wasn't her, and she urged him to his feet, shaking her head.
She had wanted to explain, but after he understood that she was turning him down, he didn't hear anything else. Couldn't hear anything else. She had told him that she still wanted to be friends, that they would always be friends, and he had nodded numbly, and she had clung to the (ridiculous, naive) idea that he meant it, that they could go on as they had been, as though that ring in his outstretched palm had never happened.
She had been a fool.
It had ended while she had her head turned. It had ended while he was half the world away, while her messages had been making their way across the sea and never finding him.
She had not felt it. She had not felt it end. The grief slammed into her, on her way home, once the dam she'd built against it broke, and she pulled to the side of the road, the chill blowing through her in the dark air. She climbed out of the car and wrestled the convertible top into place, blinking tears from her eyes with every breath, and when the top was finally bolted in place she slumped back into the driver's seat, hands streaked with dust and shaking as she touched her forehead to the top of the steering wheel.
He was—no. No, he had been her friend. No more. The loss felt endless, bottomless.
What did you expect?
It was the gentle, chiding voice Hannah had used on her when she was younger, when she tried to do something dangerous or borderline impossible.
Nancy had no illusions that she had led a mostly-charmed life. Her father adored her and had the money to provide her every whim, if she wanted him to. Hannah was always there for her. But whenever Bess or George had made some comment about how they envied her, Nancy always saw that shift in their eyes, when they remembered. Nancy's father might be well-off, she might have (had) the most perfect boyfriend any of them had ever met, but her mother was gone. And that loss, she was sure, had been bottomless too, but now it was like a phantom limb.
She couldn't imagine that this would ever feel like a phantom limb. It hurt so much that she could barely breathe. For the entire time he had been gone, she had been desperate, almost guiltily so, to see him when he returned, to soothe and reassure him until he forgot all about what he had done, until they were back to what they had been.
But then, maybe, he had felt something like this paralyzing pain, on knowing that, as much as she cared for him, it wasn't enough.
What did you think? Nancy's brow furrowed as that voice came back. He graduated. He wants to get a job, have a life. Did you think he'd never ask you? That it would never be a question? That he would just wait until it didn't matter to him anymore?
That was somehow worse, the idea that he would find someone else. Maybe he already had. Some girl who would keep his house and put dinner on the table, give him children.
Nancy forced herself to relax her tight fist. She couldn't be angry at the thought of it; she'd let him go, told him they could still be friends. His life wasn't up to her anymore. He wasn't even her friend.
Nancy tried as hard as she possibly could to fight the tears back down, but they rose again. She was surprised she had any left.
So what are you going to do? Sit here and feel sorry for yourself, or do something about it?
Nancy sighed and wiped her eyes with the cuffs of her shirt, gasping her breath back. She needed to get home. Hannah or her dad might have some idea. But in the end, it was up to her. Ned had drawn his line in the sand.
If she wanted him, she had to cross it.
Two days. Nancy, in her striped pajamas, sighed when her gaze fell on the open steamer trunk. She had to wait until Dr. Kennedy could meet her at the station, and from there they would take a day-long boat ride. She would be out of communication for, easily, two weeks; phone service so far out was sporadic and not dependable. This couldn't wait that long.
Nancy finger-combed her hair and met her own eyes in the mirror, after she dressed. She hadn't slept well, and the flesh under her eyes was dark. Her eyes themselves were even a little swollen. What little sleep she'd been able to take, she had cried herself into.
As soon as she walked downstairs, Hannah traded her usual plea for Nancy to eat breakfast, to insist that she knew just what to do for tired eyes. After she smeared some cream under Nancy's eyes and rubbed it in, Nancy had to admit that she looked marginally better.
"Although maybe the worse you look, the better," Hannah said speculatively, scrutinizing her work.
Nancy rolled her eyes. She doubted Ned would listen to anything she had to say, and looking like a sleep-deprived and hysterical ex-girlfriend probably wouldn't help her case.
Ned's car was in his parents' driveway, but his parents' car was missing. Her tentative knock went unanswered. Force of habit made her try the knob, and the door swung open under her fingertips.
Nancy's eyes widened, and she hesitated for a moment before stepping inside.
The hall was cool and dark, although the light was on in the living room. From upstairs, where she knew Ned's room was, Nancy heard the popular rock station she'd been half-listening to on the way. The Rolling Stones ended, and the announcer came on to read an advertisement. Nancy heard wood smacking into wood and found her hand on the bannister before she was aware she had crossed the room.
Nancy almost laughed, sarcastically, when she saw the open suitcase on Ned's bed. He wasn't unpacking it; he was repacking it. As she watched, he sorted through a stack of shirts and slid three inside, shutting the rest back in the drawer.
Because she was looking for it, because she couldn't stop her hopes from rising, she saw the look in his eye when he turned to her, before he had time to put the mask in place and set his jaw. She saw pain there. Not as raw, as fresh as the pain she still felt every time she took a breath, but just as deep.
He took a breath and gave himself a little shake. "I'm going to training next week," he said, and scooped a few matched pairs of socks out of a drawer, but he seemed to be moving on autopilot.
He nodded. "The aptitude test— it's a long story. Secret Service." He shrugged, but she could see the pride in his eyes.
"Ned, that's— that's fantastic," Nancy said, taking a step into his room, and she meant it. It was no faint praise. She had seen him in action. He would be an amazing agent.
An amazing agent probably far, far away from River Heights.
Belatedly, Nancy forced a smile to her lips, but Ned had already turned away. "I know. It's a great opportunity. I'm so good at Mandarin now that they'll probably send me back there. You should—"
For a second he forgot himself and Nancy's heart was stabbed again by the familiar expression on his face, the exhilaration he had shared with her so many times on her cases. "You should really visit there," he finished, but the animation had left his voice again. "Although I'm sure you will."
Nancy nodded. "Your parents must be sad, to see you go when you just came back."
Ned shrugged. "It's time for me to get out here," he said neutrally, but Nancy heard what he wasn't saying. That it could have been with her.
Sighing, Nancy stepped forward and put a hand over Ned's, stilling him as he took a pair of pants from another drawer. "Ned, I know you're never going to forgive me, and I deserve that, but I just wanted to tell you I'm sorry."
That sarcastic smile was on his lips. She didn't know if she wanted to slap it off, or kiss it away. "And where is your next case, Miss Drew? The wilds of Canada, the Egyptian desert?"
Nancy looked down at his packing. "The sea. Sunken treasure," she said, her voice emotionless. "But I don't suppose it matters so much to you, anymore."
Ned dropped the awful smile and gazed down at her. "I know— yesterday, it was just a shock. It just hurts too much to— to think about it. You can understand that."
Nancy shook her head. "What kills me is the thought of you not being in my life at all, anymore," she said. "But I guess you can't really understand that."
Ned closed his mouth and sat down on the bed. "That wasn't good enough anymore. Just having you in my life wasn't good enough anymore." His expression hardened. "You never wanted to put a label on it, but it was going to end this way or the other. Together or apart."
"But we weren't at the end." Nancy bit her lip.
"So I should have waited? A month, a year? Two?"
She could sense the trap, but she couldn't stop herself from nodding. "Yes."
Ned snorted and shook his head. "You're never going to be ready," he retorted angrily. "You and I both know it. And you didn't say 'Maybe later,' you said no."
"I didn't know! How could I possibly have seen that coming?"
Ned threw his hands up in the air. "We've spent practically the last three years together. I've graduated. It's time for me to get a job, a real life. This? What you do, what your father lets you do? That's not a real life. How did you see this ending? With you as a female private investigator? Oh, that'll work."
The anger pushed through her tears. "And your plan is to play lawman with a gun and badge, like any girl will want to be with you knowing that odds are good you'll never come home?"
Ned pushed himself to his feet again, his face coloring. "Speak for yourself! I'm surprised you actually managed to not get killed while I was in China, with all the risky situations you manage to get into!"
They faced each other, panting in anger, and he towered over her, his fists clenched at his sides. She had never feared that he would hit her, she didn't fear it now; her anger felt like it could leap out of her in one red murderous rush and crush him if he so much as raised a finger. How dare he.
"I can take care of myself, Ned Nickerson."
"Until the day you don't."
"Speak for yourself," she snapped back, her arms folded over her chest.
Ned held her angry stare for another moment before he looked away, suddenly chuckling. "I'll give you the answer you couldn't give me," he said, as though the fight had gone out of him. "I'm sure, after a while, we can be friends again. That I can—" he swallowed— "put myself through that. But for right now, it's too much."
"'Put yourself through' being friends with me?" Nancy uncrossed her arms just to put her hands on her hips. "No, thank you."
"You know what I mean."
Nancy shook her head. "Tell me you aren't going off on this ridiculous plan to get yourself killed."
Ned shook his head. "I plan on being around a good long time, Nan." He seemed to come to himself, then. "But, for now, I have to finish packing."
He shouldered around her to get back to his suitcase and Nancy hooked her arm through his. When he stopped, she turned, to meet his gaze.
"I never saw us ending," she said softly. "Never."
Ned's smile was sad. "I didn't either."
He didn't flinch back when she touched his face. Her fingertips drifted over his brows, his eyelids, his cheeks, his ears. When he opened his eyes again they were half-lidded and she felt a sudden flush of awareness. They were alone, in his bedroom. Alone.
She swallowed. "Then don't let it," she whispered. "Don't let us."
He had never kissed her so desperately. Never. Not when he found her inches from death, not after months of separation.
He backed her up until her lower legs were pressed against the bed and his mouth closed over hers, his tongue tracing the seam of her lips before she opened her mouth to him. His tongue slid against hers and Nancy left out a soft noise, glad the bed was propping her up. Her knees had gone weak.
When they parted he traced her face in turn, her temples, her brows, her flushed and parted lips, following with soft kisses. She slipped her hands around his shoulders and shivered when his mouth found hers again. The front of his body was pressed to hers, and the sensation, on top of a sleepless night, hollowed out by her tears and grief, was enough to make her nearly swoon in relief.
Her fingers slid under his collar and Ned let out something that almost sounded like a purr, and when he picked her up, bringing her face to level with his, Nancy's cheeks were coloring at the realization that she wanted very badly to wrap her legs around his waist, and that she didn't think he would object. Not for long, anyway.
"I wasn't ready," she whispered. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
She held his gaze, waiting for it, waiting for him to ask again, but instead he gave her a little nod as he leaned forward to kiss her again. She melted in relief.
Two incredibly passionate kisses later, she heard the suitcase hit the floor, and opened her eyes to see Ned over her. She was on his bed, on her back, her legs parted a little under her knee-length skirt.
He was on his side, propped up on an elbow, looking down at her. He rested his thumb over her lips. "It's okay," he whispered. "It's okay."
She shook her head, feeling her hair slide against his mattress. "I just didn't want to be tied down."
"That's not what it will be," he sighed. "Is that really what you thought? What you think?"
"You can do whatever you want. I won't be able to."
"And that's all you wanted, the rest of your life," he said neutrally. "No long-term relationship. No children, no house. Just you and whatever you want to do."
She shook her head. "And you. And you, forever."
He smiled, and then his lips found hers again.
When he took his shirt off, a few breathless kisses later, Nancy could barely stand the heat, and it seemed to be the only logical choice. She sat up and set her fingers to the first button of her shirt, and Ned sat up too, his eyes widening.
Nancy stopped. "Oh. I— I'm sorry."
Ned shook his head, touching the button. "It is hot in here, isn't it," he said, and then his gaze rose to hers.
Nancy nodded, feeling distinctly that that wasn't the question she was answering. Self-consciousness made her blush even hotter as she slowly unbuttoned her shirt. Her bra was a utilitarian beige, but Ned reacted like it was the most amazing thing he had ever seen. His gaze was rapt on it.
"Is this what it takes?" she whispered, barely hearing herself. "For you to love me again?"
Ned's face immediately sobered, his gaze rising to hers. "No. No, Nancy. I am always going to love you. Always. And if you don't want this," he shook his head, "I'll wait. This, I'll wait for."
The shirt fell down her arms. "You loved me? Even when you were gone?"
He nodded, slowly. "Why else would it have hurt so much," he whispered.
Nancy launched herself into his arms again, sliding her arms around him, her chest pressed to his. She had her knees on either side of him but knelt down to him, until he grasped her waist and brought her to him in one swift movement, her skirt hiking up to her hips as she straddled his waist.
With a gasp she pulled back, her eyes low-lidded. "Your parents are going to be home any minute."
He glanced at his bedside clock, although his hand was drifting dangerously low on her back. "Guess we'll have to make this quick."
She had just opened her mouth to protest his joke when he ducked to her, catching her lips in a swift kiss that turned slow, his tongue hot as it tangled with hers. He slipped his fingers under the back closure of her bra and she tilted her chin down, their mouths parting audibly as she closed her eyes, her forehead against his temple.
"You'll rip your stockings."
Nancy's gaze followed his down. The tops of her stockings, the garter clips still in place, were in full view, and she unsnapped them with practiced ease before her eyes rose back to meet his.
She was supposed to say no. She had that distant thought, as her gaze wandered down his chest. Good girls said no.
She kissed his earlobe, noticing that his breath sped up when she tilted her weight to their joined hips. "How long are you going to be gone, Ned?"
He slowly unfastened her bra, giving her plenty of time to protest, but she dropped a kiss on his shoulder, staying quiet. She released a long sigh as the straps came loose and a shrug sent it to her elbows. Ned pushed her back, and his gaze lingered on her breasts until her blush spread to her chest.
"How long are you going, Nan?"
Nancy bit her lip. "You can touch me, you know."
He brushed a palm over her nipple and she tilted her head back, a soft whimper escaping her lips as he gently pressed it between forefinger and thumb. "A few weeks," she said quietly, her hips rising as he tugged her other nipple, and she settled back against him. His breath caught again, and she felt him—
"Do that again," he said roughly, gently squeezing her breast.
Her gaze rose wonderingly to his as she pulled back and pressed her hips to his again, and through her panties, through his pants, she could feel him. With a muffled groan he pushed himself up and bore her to the bed, her legs still spread wide, and she ran her hands through his hair, drawing him down to her as he rubbed the hard bulge in his pants against her panties.
"Ned," she whispered, when he drew his lips from hers.
"Tell me when to stop," he mumbled, and her eyes widened as he hooked his thumbs in the waist of her panties, but she didn't tell him to stop.
He froze anyway, when the front door opened downstairs. They looked to his bedroom door at the same time; she hadn't bothered closing it when she walked in, and the radio was still playing beside them.
With a muttered curse Ned swung off her, reaching for their shirts. Nancy whipped her bra back on, letting out a frustrated grumble when it took her two tries to fasten it, and hooked her garters, swinging off the bed to shimmy her skirt back down her hips. Ned handed her her shirt and her fingers trembled as she fastened the buttons, making sure each was in the right position.
When she was done, she stepped back into her pumps and smoothed her skirt down, smiling when Ned answered his mother's called greeting. "Do I look okay?"
Ned looked her over from head to toe, then ran his hands through her hair, his fingers warm against her scalp. Every muscle in his entire body seemed to be tensed; without her bidding, her gaze fell to his crotch. She could clearly see that firm bulge, still there.
"Go ahead downstairs. I'll be there in a minute."
"If you're trying to divert suspicion, I don't think it'll work." She gave him a tentative smile.
"If that's true," he returned her smile, "guess you'll have to marry me now."
She knew he was joking, but if that what was it would take, to see what she hadn't been able to bring herself to stop, she'd take it.
Nancy nodded, tilting herself up on her toes to kiss him swiftly. "Don't be too long."
He was so close to her. When their hips brushed her knees tried to go weak. "Sure, Nan."
On the stairs, Nancy tugged her shirt down, nudged the waist of her skirt down another inch, straightened her stockings before she came within sight of the living room. Ned's father was reading the newspaper; his mother was unloading a bag of produce from the market.
"Ned, I saw Nancy's car—"
Ned's mother looked up and stopped mid-word, seeing Nancy at the foot of the stairs, a small smile on her face.
"Hi, Mrs. Nickerson."
"It's nice to see you, Nancy," Ned's mother said, and her eyes sparkled. "Helping Ned pack?"
"Doing more harm than good, I'm afraid," Nancy said, forcing herself to chuckle, and crossed the room. "Can I help you, though?"