As soon as she slid out of the driver's side seat of her roadster, Nancy Drew raised her hand to keep her smart low-brimmed hat on her head. Spring had definitely arrived, she thought with a smile. The stiff breeze swirled the skirt of her cornflower-blue cotton shirtdress about her legs, and, redoubling her grip on the small paper bag, Nancy crossed the street to her father's office building. It was lunchtime, and many of the day workers who occupied his building and those around it were heading out in their shirtsleeves to enjoy the mild weather as they ate their midday meals. A few blocks down, Nancy could see a line of local residents lined up to receive assistance at the soup kitchen.
Nancy shook her head, then lowered her hand and gave her skirt a little flip as she came in out of the wind. The Drews' housekeeper, Hannah Gruen, had asked Nancy to help with a church donation drive of old clothes and baked goods the next day, and Nancy had already drafted her closest chums, Bess Marvin and George Fayne, to help out as well. Bess had asked if they could volunteer some sort of entertainment, while George was eager to lend a strong arm for shifting boxes and bags. George was sure to stay out of the kitchen and off the stage if she could possibly help it, that was for sure.
As she made her way through the lobby to the bank of elevators, Nancy smiled at the lobby receptionist and the elevator operator. She was eager to find a new mystery to solve, and any visit to her father's office at least increased her chances. Nancy was a pretty girl of eighteen, golden-haired and blue-eyed, who had inherited the logical prowess of her father, a former prosecutor turned criminal defense lawyer who was well-respected in the entire state. Nancy did love puzzling over legal minutiae with her father, but he spent so much time in the courtroom that she didn't think she could ever be a lawyer. She craved a life of action and intrigue, and so far she had been blessed in that regard. She was always coming across tales of stolen inheritances, missing heirlooms, crooks, and frauds, and her father always turned a benevolent eye on such investigations.
Now that she was eighteen, though, in the course of a single month four adults had asked when she would be settling down with a beau and running a household of her own. Nancy had handily run her father's household for the eight years since her mother's death, but they clearly weren't referring to that. To them, the investigations she made and mysteries she solved were just a diversion, and now that she was an adult, she was to put such childish things aside and set her attention on the real work of being an adult woman of her social standing, which meant pairing up with someone equally suitable.
But Nancy hadn't met a man yet who could keep up with her, either mentally or physically. Oh, they had been diverting enough to escort her to country club dances or campfire roasts on the beach when she was vacationing, and sometimes to extract Nancy and her chums from a close shave or two, but actually settling down with any of them seemed like a step down, in Nancy's opinion. Her father had cheerfully told her several times that she was an absolute marvel at keeping his household well-arranged and running like a top while he was in the office, and as far as he was concerned, her application to keep that position forever would be accepted with sighs of relief all around.
But, she often wondered, would her life truly continue this way? She hoped it would, with every fiber of her being. She had proved of some assistance to police before, and maybe she could find a way to keep up her affiliation with them. She could just imagine how her father would take any announcement in that regard, that they would waste her intelligence and enthusiasm at a typewriter doing secretarial work instead of allowing her the free reign he did.
Nancy was startled from her reverie by the sound of a hard object hitting the marble lobby floor. She looked up to see a woman bending over a purse she had obviously just dropped, but when she sniffled, Nancy realized she was upset and bent to help her collect the handful of change and small makeup compact that had fallen a few feet away from her bag. When Nancy picked up the compact, she realized she had mistaken it; it was a fine silver cigarette case, a stylized L in script engraved on its face.
"Here," Nancy said, not unkindly, and rose as the young woman did. She raised her head, and Nancy took a good look at her. She wasn't that much older than Nancy herself, her skin a shade darker than the iced tea Hannah made by the pitcher during the summer, and her drop-waist cotton dress was a few years old, but had been carefully mended and maintained. Nancy smiled at her as the woman took the case and change with her own weaker smile.
"I'm sorry," Nancy said, her blue eyes studying the woman's face. She appeared distraught over something, and Nancy had never been able to walk away from such a sight. "Pardon me, but are you all right?"
The woman sniffled again, then found the handkerchief she had apparently been trying to locate and patted gently under her nose with it. "Thank you," she said, without truly answering Nancy's question, and then set off with such haste, glancing about her, that Nancy was left gazing after her, her brow furrowed. A moment later she was out on the street again. Nancy's immediate impulse was to follow her, but her father's lunch was in the bag and she knew he was waiting for it.
But, she thought to herself, I know that she has a cigarette case with a letter L on it, and that's somewhere to start.
Cheered by the thought, Nancy ascended in the elevator to her father's floor and greeted his receptionist and secretary with a smile. Thanks to the sensitive and highly publicized case Carson Drew's firm was working on, many of the secretaries and legal assistants had been ordering their lunch from the sandwich shop at the corner. Carson, joking that he had been spoiled by Hannah's cooking, had requested one of her homemade meals; he had told Nancy that after the last greasy hamburger sandwich and limp French fries from the corner stand, his stomach had been upset all night, and so Nancy had been more than happy to grant his request with a personal delivery.
"Nancy! And just in time, too." Carson Drew stood from the chair behind his large, impressive desk, pulling on his jacket. Nancy's father was tall, handsome, and very distinguished looking, with his keen blue eyes and salt-and-pepper hair. He was dressed to go to the courthouse, and he accepted the paper bag Nancy handed him with a smile. "I had an unexpected appointment."
"Not the young woman I just saw in the lobby."
"Possibly." Carson frowned. "I wish I had been able to give her better news. Well, thank you, dear, and with any luck I will be home for dinner on time."
Knowing how important her father's case was to him, Nancy let him rush out of his office, but she set her mouth in a moue that her father would have recognized if he had seen it. Nancy sensed a mystery, and when it came to mysteries, she had never backed down.
Nancy had her chance to ask about it that night. Her father was only ten minutes late for dinner, although Hannah Gruen treated his tardiness as a nearly unforgivable offense, reminding both Carson and Nancy that potatoes au gratin were nowhere near as delicious at room temperature.
As soon as she politely could, Nancy put down her knife and fork and looked expectantly at her father. Without even looking at her, he chuckled. "Yes, Nancy?"
"The woman who visited your office at lunch today," Nancy began. "Was there anything—"
At that, Carson's usually open, jovial expression, or at least the one he generally used with his daughter, became a frown. "Nancy," he said, shaking his head. "The answer to your question is no. No, there's nothing you can do for her. Please just leave it at that."
"And please at least try the bouillon," Hannah urged her.
A small frown between her eyebrows, Nancy dipped her spoon into the broth, but her mind was racing. Her father had urged her to use her utmost caution and be very careful before, but he had never outright forbid her from doing anything. She considered her best plan of attack before speaking again.
"So she had some insurmountable problem, Dad?"
Carson glanced up from his perusal of the evening paper, which drove Hannah absolutely crazy, but he was reading the journalist's sensational account of the day's courtroom activities, and had promised he would put it away as soon as he was finished. "Not insurmountable," he said slowly, "but quite difficult, and while I would love to help her, I am afraid that her problem requires a more involved and comprehensive solution than I can readily give right now."
"So it's some matter of law? Maybe a contested inheritance?" Nancy tried to keep the eagerness out of her voice.
Carson gave her a small smile and gave up on reading the newspaper; he folded it and sighed. "A matter of law," he agreed, "but a rather large one. And part of the same reason that I left the prosecutor's office."
Nancy's blue eyes grew round. When her father described those days, Nancy hadn't exactly seen it as the Wild West—her father riding in on a white horse and imposing justice on a band of lawless good-for-nothings—but it had felt almost close. He had seen corruption on both sides of the law: officers willing to take bribes to look the other way, but all too happy to punish those who couldn't pay to defend themselves; prosecutors and defense attorneys who manipulated evidence and testimony to their own ends; honest, innocent people who were hounded or badgered into terrible circumstances. He was able to do more good as a defense attorney, he had told her. He charged what people were able to pay, and his affluent clients who trusted him with minor matters of inheritance and real estate law made up for the working-class men and women who needed his expertise on navigating the corrupt system.
Carson Drew's zeal for good had made him a target a few times before, and Nancy hadn't missed the black-and-white patrol car that had been parked outside her father's office that afternoon. When he was working particularly controversial cases, a few officers who were above the bribes and bullying often kept an eye on him, and sometimes Nancy, just in case.
"But you aren't going to take her case?"
"Let's talk about this after dinner, Nancy." Carson paused. "As long as you understand that I'm only doing this to satisfy your curiosity, not whet it. I've given her the best advice I can, which is to get out of town until I can launch an investigation and see what she's up against."
At that, Nancy bit back a frustrated cry. An investigation. What did he think she had been doing for the past few years?
After their talk, Nancy did give her father a solemn promise that she would leave the investigating to him, but she was very careful in how she worded it. She would leave the investigation to him. But the young woman, whom her father had identified as Addie Carew, definitely looked like she needed a friend.
And Nancy wanted to be that friend.
It was a uniform, just like any other, the suit on the bed. Nicky stood in his bare feet and shorts, checking it over. Ink-blue with white stripes, red satin tie, shirtfront brushed until it gleamed, pocketwatch polished smooth as nickel-plated glass. He put it all on carefully, down to his shined shoes.
The rented room was bare, but he hadn't been in Chicago long, and he didn't need all that much. A young girl, her brown hair tight waves framing her heart-shaped face, pink-cheeked above her mild smile, gazed away from her silver frame on the battered dresser. From the angle, she looked like she was focused somewhere in the distance, and Nicky couldn't blame her. He checked for his small notebook, notations for the bets on tonight's game inside, went through his money clip, then locked the door behind him.
He hadn't been able to trust that his bona fides had been established, not until tonight. Oh, of course they'd had him along on last week's raid; he was the new kid, and he made the perfect fall guy. They had even taken to calling him pretty-boy, until he had threatened to punch out the lights of the next guy who tried it—and they had seen him work, knew what he could do. If he wasn't careful, he thought his next nickname might be a little less complimentary. Two-fist, maybe. Hothead. Firestarter. And that wouldn't be all bad.
The schedule wasn't so bad, either. His crew wasn't up with the dawn. They started festivities at a more leisurely hour, but Nicky didn't expect to be in until the sky was beginning to lighten, either. They had collected some protection money, run upstate to collect some product from just over the border, and tonight they were going to unwind and see Benny's friend at a speakeasy.
And the kicker of it all—in Chi-town, the speakeasies weren't buried down miles of twisting alley, behind false fronts and forbidding gatekeepers. Nicky found the address with no problem, and while his heart might have beat just a hair faster under the doorman's scrutinizing glare, apparently he passed the test. Invoking Gianelli didn't hurt, either.
Nicky made his way inside, picking up his fedora to reposition it on his head at a jauntier angle. The speakeasy's interior was fogged by cigarette smoke, but all the flesh on display seemed to gleam gold and bronze in the low lights; the women were dressed in sequins or satin or silk, the light gleaming on their teeth or on the paste or genuine stones lodged in the lobes of ears, circling their wrists or necks or fingers. Almost everyone had a cigarette. Nicky pulled out his cigarette case and idly tapped one on the meat of his thumb before sliding onto a barstool, scanning the place once he ordered his drink. The gold light made everyone both younger and older, bright but infinitely weary; the laughter seemed to be more relieved than jovial.
No radio was playing behind the bar. Nicky guessed the speakeasy would just be their first stop of the night.
The drink, when it finally made its way to him, was good. The first wave burned down his throat. A quartet played quietly on stage and the music wove into the smoke, the low hum of conversation. Nicky inclined his head as he caught sight of another of Benny's crew, and the other guy nodded too. His arm was around a statuesque girl with flame-red hair and thin lips, her eyes gleaming.
Well. That taste wasn't quite so bitter as the amber in his glass, but it was easily dismissed. He needed to make sure Benny was good with him, and he didn't have time for that kind of distraction.
Nicky checked his pocketwatch, and was just considering popping down to the next place to see if they kept a working radio behind the bar when the quartet finished on one long sultry note, to a smattering of indifferent applause. The red-velvet curtain behind them was perfectly still, and as they ducked behind it he considered dim hallways and smuggled merchandise and whispers in the darkness.
The lights around the stage dimmed. An eager-looking kid in shirtsleeves came over to check the microphone, and Nicky paused with the sole of one foot balanced, ready to push off.
Then Benny arrived, and Nicky's face went still and wary as he studied the three men with Benny. One was a blond with wire-rimmed glasses and a striped tie; he had his hands in his pants pockets, the set of his mouth halfway to a sneer. Nicky hadn't seen any of the three before, but striped-tie felt a little more dangerous than the usual unknown quantity. The other two were taller; they wore humorless faces, and from the way their jackets hung he could tell they were packing, and that was parsed easily enough. He thought of his own gun, and his fingers twitched once, briefly. Then Benny gave him a grin and Nicky returned it with a small smile of acknowledgement. No good to be too eager.
Striped-tie crossed the floor easily, his gaze locked on that empty stage. Benny joined him, then beckoned to Nicky and the other member of his crew. From across the room he could hear open palms slapping against backs, hearty greeting laughter.
A hush came over the entire place when the music began; it was slow, insinuating, still and glaring as the cloud of cigarette smoke around them. It made him think of the pale thin hours before dawn, when his blood felt cool, when his nerves felt so near his own skin.
Two girls in white sequined dresses moved onto the stage, each with one shoulder bare, showing a generous amount of stockinged leg. They stayed at the edge of the spotlight, faces obscured by smoke and the limits of the darkness. Striped-tie was drumming his fingertips on the table; he made an impatient gesture after the server delivered his drink order, then grasped the glass and tossed back half neat with the faintest grimace. Nicky caught sight of a signet ring on his pinky finger, a stylized L on its face, a diamond set into the lower loop. His glasses were off, and if his direct light-eyed stare could have burned a hole through the velvet fabric, Nicky thought it would have.
His gaze wasn't on either of the backup singers—and Nicky only placed them as that when the lead singer sauntered out on stage, the light catching every curve and gather in her shining red dress. Her skin was the color of dark amber honey, and the light caught in her dark eyes, leaving slices of pale gold there.
She had an undeniable presence, and as soon as she opened her red-lipped mouth and began to sing, her voice low and sultry, Nicky could sense the sigh of pleasure even if he couldn't hear it. So striped-tie was here for her. Nicky shrugged faintly as he picked up his own drink and tossed it back. When Benny leaned forward as though to confide something about their plans for the night, striped-tie made that same impatient gesture again, flicking his fingers, his brow drawing in like Benny and his undeniable influence meant nothing while the siren was on stage.
Then the two backup singers stepped forward, and Nicky was focusing on the rest of the night, on keeping his face impassive while his mind was racing, trying to figure striped-tie out. He glanced up.
And then his lips parted a little. His heart rose, and he rose slightly from his chair, drawn only by the sudden violent buzz beneath his skin. Like everything had all been static and suddenly, quick as another heartbeat, he was finally tuned in.
She looked barely a day out of the schoolroom, the backup singer on the left. Her blonde hair was shining, her eyes sapphire-blue, her lips cherry-red. Her skin looked creamy as fresh milk, especially under the glare of the spotlight; every time her lips rounded as she formed another note, Nicky felt the entire foundation of his being quiver.
She made him think of rumpled sheets; she made him think of amber smoke rasping in his throat, against her tongue. She made him spellbound with longing, and he wanted to know how her flesh would feel under his palm, how the point of her shoulder would taste.
The guy to Nicky's left—everyone called him Flash and he distantly remembered hearing him addressed as Corcoran—elbowed him. "Best not be makin eyes at Shay's girl," Flash muttered, then tugged his earlobe. "He's got a temper where she's concerned."
With supreme effort, his neck flushing, Nicky dragged his gaze from the blonde back to striped-tie, Shay, then back again. He hadn't mistaken him; Shay's gaze was locked to the lead singer, and when Nicky glanced at her, he saw a trace of fear in her eyes. There was no way she hadn't noticed him; Benny and Shay and the gang had taken the table directly in front of the low stage. While Shay wasn't as large as his two de facto bodyguards, he was quick. Nicky had learned to size men up quickly, and Shay most likely depended on his average size to make his opponents underestimate him. Shay looked like all he had to do was crook a finger and he could bring a world of pain down on anyone who crossed him—but he also looked like he would be wearing a brass knuckle in that deep pocket, clenched tight against a sweaty palm, ready for a vicious sucker punch followed by a kick in the ribs.
Nicky blinked as he looked back to the stage, to the blonde. It was eerie, he'd been told, how he could do that; how he could fight with a man once and walk away with just minor bruises and wounds. He knew he was charmed. The thing about charms was that they always ended.
They generally ended with girls like her.
When the song was over, Shay flinched at the polite applause around them. He cast a quick glance around the room, directing his darkened gaze at anyone else who happened to be gazing in the singer's direction. Nicky, who had long cultivated the air of a man who neither gave a damn nor cared if anyone else wanted him to, closed his lips about his still-burning cigarette and clapped too—but his gaze was on the blonde.
Who was directing furtive glances at Shay.
Nicky swallowed his sigh, then exhaled twin plumes of smoke and picked a shred of tobacco leaf off his tongue, flicking it into the darkness, languorous and low-lidded. God, the way that dress clung to her breasts. When she brought out a white and black-feathered boa for the next act, Nicky swallowed hard.
It was hard to focus on anything else; he knew she wouldn't vanish like a mirage if he took his eyes off her, but the longer he stared at her, the longer he wanted to stare at her. He felt an echo of the same fascination he had felt, the first time he had ever climbed to a tall place and looked down. It wasn't nausea or any flavor of dismay; it was seeing and knowing that the sudden speed of his heart and that protracted gaze could prove his undoing, but nothing stood between him and the ground this time.
Benny had apparently resigned himself, and knew that Shay wasn't leaving until the singer's set was over. When Flash asked what the vig was on the night's match, Nicky replied easily enough. God, cherry-red lips on a blonde made him feel like a hulking hot-blooded neophyte, clumsy and earnest as a schoolboy.
He told himself that perfect innocence had to be an act—but that did nothing to temper his distraction. It only served to whet it.
During the last song of the set, Nicky had to make a conscious effort to look at his cigarette, the other backup singer, Benny and Flash, anything—but his gaze kept stealing back to her. He learned the sound of her voice; he peeled it away from the sultry lead melody, from the breathy hush of the other singer's. With any luck, they wouldn't meet with Shay again, wouldn't end up back here again, but Nicky didn't know Shay's role or why they were with him, not yet. Just that he didn't trust the man.
And that if he spent much more time in the same room with the blonde, he would do something foolish.
When he saw the hungry look on Shay's face as the singer nodded, acknowledging the smattering of applause after the set was over, Nicky wondered if he had worn a similar expression while gazing at the other singer. He hoped not. Shay looked more like a hunter gazing upon certain prey. Nicky wondered if he had any idea, or if it was a message to the woman.
The blonde, he thought, wouldn't respond well to such a direct challenge. She needed someone steady, patient—
What does it matter? Nicky stubbed out his cigarette as Benny pushed back from the table, heaving a sigh of relief. The fight would take place with or without them, but they had other things to do tonight.
Half the lead singer's back was exposed, thanks to the cut of her dress. Nicky watched the three of them leave the stage, and he saw how ramrod-straight her spine was; she didn't slump with relief like the other singer.
The blonde, though—she was still tense, too. She turned to say something to the lead singer, and her blue eyes flashed back. For a split second, Nicky could swear they had caught his.
Then she was gone.
Shay tossed an empty highball glass down onto the tabletop, next to two empties; the glasses rattled and he didn't spare them a glance. Shooting his cuffs, his gaze fixed on the velvet curtain, he began to follow the singers. Nicky was just reaching for his cigarette case when he glanced over at Benny, who shrugged.
"What's his deal, boss?"
Benny lit a new cigarette off the smoldering remains of the last and pulled the first drag into his lungs before answering, as Nicky flicked his lighter to flame. "Ain't it obvious? It'll be better next door. We can listen to the fight and figure out who's on what tomorrow."
Nicky managed a casual nod, taking his own drag. He glanced over at the bar, wondering if he should order another drink, but he had a feeling he was going to need to stay as clear as possible.
The shout was muffled, distant—and no one else reacted. Benny and Flash were talking about something. The bodyguards—Nicky scanned the room for them. They were near the curtain.
Nicky's hand was stable as a rock, and he left his cigarette in the ashtray as he walked toward the backstage area, reaching down to make sure his jacket was unbuttoned and his rod in easy reach. The bodyguards did their best to stare him down; Nicky walked past with a steely glare, his jaw set, and they let him pass.
The hallway was dim; at the end of it, Nicky saw a slice of light interrupted by a slender brown arm. The wrist of that arm was clenched in Shay's fist.
"Come on, Lola."
The door opened a little wider. Behind the girl Nicky could hear someone panting, an edge of panic in the voice. The blonde poked her head through, glaring at Shay, her blue eyes fierce.
"Leave her alone. She doesn't want you here."
"Keep your nose out of it, missy."
"Hey," Nicky called, touching the butt of his gun without taking it out. "What's going on?"
Shay kept his head turned toward the doorway for a moment, long enough to demonstrate his disregard, before casting a brief glance back over at his shoulder, toward Nicky. Even though they were being quiet, he could hear the footfalls behind him. The bodyguards. Most likely the dressing room had an emergency exit—but if it did, he thought the singers would have taken it, to avoid being caught like this.
The blonde looked up into Nicky's eyes, and he felt his heart in his throat again. "Please," she said, breathlessly, her tone entirely different when she spoke to him. Softer. "We just want to change and go home."
Nicky licked his lips, glancing over at Shay. "You heard her."
"Lola, come on." Shay's voice turned ugly. "You think you can just walk away like this?"
"Please," the lead singer said, her voice husky. Her dark eyes were gleaming. "Just let me go... just give me a minute."
"A minute," Shay said finally, after a long tense moment. The bodyguards were close enough now, and three slender shoulders wouldn't be able to hold back even one of them if they decided to break that flimsy door down. Before Shay released that slender wrist and the door slammed shut, Nicky saw cinder-block, a sagging rack holding costumes.
"We were gonna head next door," Nicky said, his fingers aching for the cigarette he had left on the table. "Come on, I'm sure she's got another show. We can come back."
Shay's jaw was set, and Nicky felt that strong impulse to touch his gun one more time, just to make sure it was there. If Shay ever went down, it would be in an eyeblink, quick as a rattlesnake. That gleam in his eyes was as ominous as the dry tremble of the rattles.
Shay shook his head. "You stay here," he told the two bodyguards. "Make sure she doesn't leave. I'll be back soon."
Cinder-block. Nicky hadn't had time to scope the place out before walking in, not fully. He had no idea if they could get out that way, but he didn't think Shay would be that stupid.
"I think Benny said we might need your guys. Pullin down somethin big tomorrow. Come on, let's get a drink. The skirt'll keep."
That fierce glare-eyed expression didn't leave Shay's face, and Nicky wished again for his cigarette. No better way to look disinterested and relaxed when he wasn't. After a moment, Shay made a gesture to his guys, an index finger gliding toward the main stage again.
Get out of there, Nicky thought, as hard as he could. Get out now. I did what I could without tonight ending in blood.
Nancy lay awake in the single bed, listening to Addie breathe. She was okay. The swelling of her wrist had gone down under a cold cloth. The fan in the corner rattled, droning as it swept back and forth across the room.
The first night in the apartment house, Nancy had never been more afraid in her life.
For the first time, she had directly disobeyed her father. She had told him that she would be with Helen Corning Archer and her husband, traveling for a few weeks or a month, and her father had given her money to cover the cost of hotel rooms, incidentals, anything else she might need while she was gone. What he didn't know was that the suitcase she had so carefully packed for the trip was mostly undisturbed, because at the apartment house, she wasn't Nancy Drew. She was Ruth Miller.
Ruth Miller had found Addie Carew and told her that she was working with Carson Drew, and asked Addie to tell her about her problem.
And Addie had poured it all out, over a cup of weak tea at a downtown diner. She had come to Chicago looking to earn some money, to make her way to New York, and the waitressing jobs had eventually led to her taking a job as a backup singer.
Then Addie had attracted the attentions of a few handsome men, and that had been exhilarating—but one of them, one of them was more intense than the rest. He had piercing eyes and a hot temper, and at first, his possessiveness and desire had been charming. He had showered her with flowers and gifts; his nickname for her was Lola, and that was what he called her.
Then she had told him her dream of going to New York, and he had told her. You're not going anywhere. You're staying, with me.
After that, if Shay—the guy who had become obsessed with her—perceived or even sensed that another guy was paying any attention to her, he flew into a rage. He wanted to know where she was at all times. He found out where she lived; one night when she came home, items in her bedroom had been moved. He had been there. She hadn't understood how, not without a key.
Then she had gone out with a few of her visiting cousins. Even then, she had been wary of him. Reassuring him, calming him down was still the easiest thing for her to do, but it was more difficult. She had come home with her cousins and Shay had been there, two guys behind him. They had guarded the door. Shay had dragged her into the bedroom by her hair. There had been no reassuring him or calming him down.
And through her swollen, slitted eyes, through the pain that was so horrific that it almost felt like her entire body was screaming, Shay had told her not to bother going to the police; no one was going to listen to her or care. She was nothing. She belonged to him.
That was when she had seen the badges the men were wearing, the bodyguards who had kept her cousins from responding to her screams and pleading. The cops knew what Shay was doing, and they didn't care. They wouldn't help her. Not when they were helping him.
The hospital bill had wiped out Addie's small savings, and by the time she was able to make it back to work, once her face was healed enough to be covered by makeup, her boss was stern with her. Shay was in the state's attorney's office, and if he decided to, he could have the speakeasy where Addie performed shut down. It was in her boss's best interests to keep him happy. And Addie was part of keeping him happy.
Addie knew she needed to get out, but she was terrified and broke. If she stayed with a friend, Shay found her. Addie became concerned that he was following her everywhere, even to Carson Drew's office; she had gone to him because she had heard that he might be able to help her. But he hadn't been able to immediately come up with a plan of action, just a suggestion that she get out of town until he could launch an investigation into the man who was abusing her. When Addie had met "Ruth," she had been at the end of her rope.
And so Nancy had taken her, disguised, to an apartment building on the other side of town, and registered under a false name to keep Shay from finding them easily. Because Nancy couldn't do much all by herself, she had decided to try for a job at the speakeasy too, just so she could help keep Addie safe. Nancy had no doubt that her father would find a way to help Addie, but as he had pointed out to her, the corruption that meant Shay could use police bodyguards when he went to beat up his girlfriend meant that pursuing the case would be tricky. They would cover for him.
And Addie was stuck. Shay told Addie, Lola, that he loved her so much, and he had never meant to hurt her. If she didn't make him so angry, he wouldn't lose his temper.
Nancy had never known anyone who behaved the way Addie described. To her shame, she had believed that maybe Addie was exaggerating a little—until she had seen Shay's behavior for herself. The first night Nancy had escorted Addie to their new apartment, she had sensed that they were being followed for a long time; only by paying for tickets and ducking into a theater, then disguising themselves and coming out in a large crowd after, had they managed to lose the guys chasing them.
Addie couldn't leave, but she couldn't stay. And unless she went back to work, she couldn't make the money to leave.
And Addie wanted Shay to be punished for what he was doing to her—but she was also terrified. If she could get out, she would, but unless she had enough money to buy a place to live and food once she actually made it to New York, something to keep her going until she landed a job, she would just end up in a worse situation. And that, she didn't want. At least Shay was a known quantity; at least if he found her, all she had to do was try to reassure him...
But Nancy had seen the doubt in Addie's eyes as she had said it. When Shay's temper raged out of control, there was no reason.
While Nancy loved Bess Marvin dearly, when she considered letting one of her closest friends in on what she was doing, she had to admit to herself that Bess was not quite equal to this task. Bess was comforting, but in a physical confrontation, she often needed to be protected instead of providing protection herself. Bess was tenderhearted and Nancy valued her friendship, but she decided that in this particular case, George Fayne would be a better assistant.
George was no nightclub singer, though. Nancy had been shocked when the man who owned the speakeasy had given Ruth the backup singer job, but according to Addie, he was much more taken with Ruth's looks than he let on, and he was willing to overlook her woeful lack of experience. All the backup singers really were, according to Addie, was ornamentation anyway. The lead singer was the real focus of the attention, and the praise.
George was under strict orders to keep her activities with Nancy secret, and since Nancy was supposed to be on vacation with Helen and Mr. Archer, George couldn't exactly say she was helping Nancy with one of her investigations. Some nights George wasn't able to get away and help serve as Addie's bodyguard. And this was one of those nights.
Nancy sighed and turned onto her side. She had been over the problem so many times, but she had to admit that her father's caution made sense. If Nancy could find evidence of what Shay had done to Addie, or even convince her to make a statement—she didn't know who Addie could make that statement to. City policemen could make her statement vanish; worse, they could report to Shay that Addie was accusing him of brutality, and he could retaliate. Nancy's father had friends in the state's attorney's office, but Shay's influence meant those friends might be reluctant to help Addie. She had no highly influential friends, and she didn't have a high profile. If she vanished, her family and friends would know, but even her disappearance was unlikely to result in Shay's punishment. Addie had known a girl last year who had disappeared and been branded as a runaway, but Addie had said the girl would never have run away from her younger brothers and sisters. Something awful had happened to her, and the city had swallowed her.
Nancy had spent many happy afternoons and evenings in Chicago, shopping with her friends, sharing a meal with her father. She had known it was a dangerous place. But she had never imagined anything like the situation Addie lived in: afraid to be spotted by the very men who had sworn to protect her, trapped in a low-paying job that put her directly in the crosshairs of men who sought to exploit her.
If Nancy caught Shay in the act of some other crime...
But who could she tell? Her father would have to be very careful who he trusted with Addie's story, and if Shay became suspicious of Ruth, Nancy wouldn't have anyone to turn to. She was already nervous about how her own father would react to what she was doing.
If only she could talk to him. He had always been an incredible sounding board and source of information. She missed him; she missed Hannah and Bess, too. She missed being able to sleep soundly, without waking at each slight sound, convinced that Shay had finally found them.
As Nancy took a few long, deep breaths, trying to calm herself down so she could go to sleep, she thought back at the advice her father had given her when she was in school. Shay was a bully, pure and simple. He depended on his influence and his bodyguards, and Addie's fear and defenselessness, to keep him safe.
A bully, her father had taught her, was a coward. When the victim stood up to the bully, he or she often stopped their bullying—or selected a new target for their violence. It was an imperfect solution, and Nancy hoped that if Shay did decide to pick on anyone else, he accidentally chose someone who could stand up to him. But Addie wasn't that person. And Ruth didn't have nearly the influence that Nancy Drew or Carson Drew did.
Shay was a bully and Nancy couldn't come down on him with the full weight of the law. She couldn't walk into a police station and make a statement that she had seen Shay injure Addie's wrist, or that she had heard Shay threaten Addie. It was too much of a risk.
Nancy had met many police officers in her life. Some of them were helpful, some less so until they realized that she wasn't just a busybody who made up stories to hurt people. In Chicago, at least, her reputation would have some influence. But she just came back around to the threat of retribution.
If the law wasn't a refuge—and Nancy could see no clearer sign of that than her father's caution about the case. She needed a faster solution, before Addie was hurt badly—or worse.
To stand up to a bully, one need be fearless.
As much as Nancy hated to admit it, she was afraid—not of Shay, but of what he could do.
That made Nancy's thoughts drift back to a few hours earlier. She had been terrified that Shay would effectively imprison Addie in that room and prevent her from coming back to the apartment, and that was still a possibility. The only person she had ever seen stand up to Shay—and she had definitely been paying attention—was the tall, dark-haired man with the intense dark eyes she had seen sitting at his table. He hadn't been one of the cop bodyguards; he had been with Ben Riscetti and his gang. Nancy hadn't learned the rest of their names yet, but she recognized Riscetti; her father had been working with the state's attorney's office when Riscetti had been charged. Riscetti's case had been just one straw in the several thousand that had broken the camel's back, as far as Carson Drew was concerned. Nancy had been much younger then.
And Riscetti's gang wasn't known for mercy, or for helping little old ladies cross the street so they could get to church. That was the way Hannah liked to phrase it, in that ominous voice, anyway. They were hard men, and Shay fit right in with them.
But one of them had stood up to him. If he hadn't, Nancy wasn't sure how the night would have ended. Doris, the other singer who had been in the dressing room with them, had been entirely helpless and terrified when Shay had tried to follow Addie into the dressing room. Nancy and Addie had snuck out as soon as they could, with Addie cradling her injured wrist.
The idea, when it came to her, was repugnant. Shay was a violent man in league with violent men. Nancy couldn't count on policemen to protect Addie. But if a member of Riscetti's gang was convinced that he had violated their code or threatened them, or turned on them... then a man like the one who had stood up to him earlier that night would approach him in the dark, and Addie's problem would be solved.
Nancy's eyes popped open. She stared into the darkness beside the small bed, a sudden chill passing over her.
She couldn't take such responsibility into her own hands. As reprehensible as she found Shay's behavior, her father had instilled a sense of justice and fairness in her, and that was what Addie deserved—justice. And not the vigilante kind.
The dark-haired man had stood up to Shay before. If she approached him and said that Shay's behavior was threatening Riscetti's business, that might be enough. She could say that Carson Drew was investigating, but he might be persuaded to let the matter go if Shay never approached or threatened Addie again.
Her instincts told her that it would be dangerous to approach any of them; worse, all she knew about the dark-haired man was that he had replied to Addie's cry for help. But maybe that was enough. She was equally sure that she couldn't approach him at the speakeasy, not when he was around Riscetti's gang, and definitely not around Shay.
But she was too tired to puzzle through it tonight. She kept it in the back of her head as she let her eyes flutter closed again, happy to at least be resolved about something, finally. She had felt so powerless and ineffectual to help Addie for so long that even the barest trace of a hope was better than nothing.
Nicky had grown accustomed to the weight of gazes on him. It didn't seem to matter what suit he wore, if he kept the brim of his hat down, anything. He was sized up as a new member of Benny's crew; he was sized up as a stranger, someone still proving himself. Women's gazes stayed on him until they saw that he wasn't interested. It wasn't that he wasn't interested, but that he couldn't be.
He had stayed out of that speakeasy for the past few days. They had returned a few days after their initial visit; Shay had been seated right in front of the stage again, and Lola had been on stage again. That wrist he had been gripping, she had favored. But Benny had arranged for them to see a show at another club while they met with a guy from New York, and Shay had accompanied them on that trip. So no matter what else had gone on, at least that night the girls had probably been safe.
The blonde with those angelic blue eyes had been on stage again, and Nicky had chain-smoked and watched her. He had left without a second glance, too. She was all right. No new bruises; no blackened eyes or split lip.
But he'd had nightmares about that stricken face and wide blue eyes occupying the space between Lola's head and Shay's fist, and he had jerked awake in a cold sweat, his own fist clenching. Benny needed to stay on Shay's good side, and Nicky was keeping his head down and his eyes open.
Part of keeping his eyes open had been his awareness that he was being watched, more than he had been before. It wasn't a good feeling.
He was by nature a night owl, but at this time in the morning, his blood felt thin, and the arc of headlights in the dark felt lonely. He keyed into his place, his jacket off and shirtsleeves rolled up. The air was still and nearly warm, and he hoped the bedsheets were cool. He wanted to scrub the smell of cigarette smoke and cheap perfume off his skin, and the rotgut felt like it had made its way to his pores, but the sunrise would come soon enough.
He hadn't even taken a full step into his apartment before he paused, going for his gun. Someone else was in his place.
The voice was feminine. Nicky relaxed slightly, but not completely. Just because the voice sounded sweet didn't mean there wasn't an equally nasty gun underneath.
And, thanks to the strange synchronicity that sometimes happened, the golden light of the lamp he turned on revealed the blonde he hadn't been able to entirely chase from his thoughts from the second he had set eyes on her. She stood just in front of the straightback wooden chair that served as his landlord's concession to possible guests; a small purse was on the floor, out of easy reach, so he doubted she was hiding a gun inside. A small pert hat was in her hands, and she wore a cream and navy dress that covered a lot more than the outfits she had worn on stage.
That was disappointing. He had hoped that if he had to dream about her waiting for him to come home, she would at least be dressed a bit more provocatively. She still looked beautiful, though. But then she wouldn't be a singer at a nightclub if she weren't.
Nicky tossed his suit jacket over the footboard and began to unbutton his shirt. "What are you sorry about, angel-face? How'd you get in here, anyway?"
"Told your landlord I'm your sister."
Nicky chuckled, tugging the tails of his shirt out of his pants. He pushed down his suspenders and took his shirt off. His rod was still in easy reach, if she had managed to fool him. Her boss and Benny were definitely friendly, and while he didn't think Benny would have sent her to hurt him, he didn't want to be surprised. "Good for you, sweetheart."
She took a few steps forward, her lips parted. "I just need to talk to you for a few minutes."
Nicky raised an eyebrow. "You have until I pass out."
He had thought, based on her employment, that the innocent schoolgirl demeanor was just an act. When he unclipped his suspenders and tossed them on the dresser, then took off his undershirt, though, she blushed to the roots of her blonde hair, and that made her blue eyes all the brighter. It took a second for her to glance away, though.
"I don't think it's going to take long," he prompted her, and sat down on the foot of his bed.
She cast a quick glance at him, then swallowed hard and picked up the wooden chair. He was barechested, and he sighed as he slipped off his shoes and socks. As long as his gun was in easy reach, he was fine.
Her wide-eyed blue gaze drifted down to his bare chest, then back up again. "The other night," she said. "When you were at the nightclub and you—you made Shay back off when he was going after Addie."
Nicky raised an eyebrow. "Lola?"
"Y-yes. Lola is what he calls her."
Nicky shrugged. "Yeah?"
She licked her lips. That sent his thoughts off in an entirely speculative direction. "Why did you?"
He shrugged again. All he needed to do was take his trousers off and he would be ready for bed, and after the night he'd had, that was sounding more and more appealing. Especially if he could talk angel-face into joining him. It was late, and he was tired, and it had been entirely too long since he had felt slender legs wrapped around his waist.
He shook his head, casting that away before it even became a fully-formed thought. He needed to kick her out, but he couldn't bring himself to do it quite yet. It had been hard enough for him to leave the club the other night.
Nicky took a long, deep breath. "She sounded like she needed help."
"You're not afraid of him?"
He would have expected the words to be breathless, admiring. Her voice was brisk and measuring. He tipped his head.
"It doesn't pay to be afraid of much in this line of work. Cautious, yeah. Afraid? No. But I don't blame Lo-what'd you say her real name was?"
"Yeah. Addie. I take it he's been rough with her before."
The blonde nodded, and when Nicky stood and reached for his fly, her entire body seemed to cringe inward on the chair as she turned her face away. She didn't immediately flee, though. He would have taken it as a massive blow to his ego, but it fit in with that sweet, untouched air she had; he wondered how many other guys had been seduced by it. She was so good at it that it was hard to believe it wasn't genuine.
"Relax, sister. Told you I was getting ready for bed." Normally he wouldn't have been like this, but he couldn't help pushing her. He wanted to see what she would do, because she kept surprising him. "Didn't mean to scare you, Goldilocks. You're safe now."
He intentionally stayed seated but draped the blanket over his lap, just to see if she was still distracted by his bare chest. He wasn't disappointed. "Nicky," she said. "That your first name or your last?"
"Neither, exactly." He swallowed a huge yawn. "Might be a laugh riot for me to say this, but if that hothead's gone after her before, she might want to get the law involved?"
The blonde shook her head. "They don't care. His bodyguards are cops. She has no one who can help her except me, and I have no one who can help me." She brought those earnest blue eyes up to his. "Except you."
"And how can I help? What's in it for me?"
She tilted her head. "That's what I don't really know," she said softly. "Because I don't really get you."
Even when he was punchy from exhaustion, he knew better than to answer that with any seriousness. He just shrugged, and he couldn't keep the next comment from coming out. "I know of one thing that might help convince me, but it'll involve you being a lot less skittish, angel-face."
She blushed again to the roots of her hair. A blush, a slap, or a winking acceptance was what he expected from her in response; he was disappointed, but not surprised, and too tired to feel much. "You're the only guy who stood up to him, in that place," she said quietly. "I thought you were different."
She pushed herself up, finding her purse, and Nicky swallowed. "Look, I'm sorry. She can't... I don't know, tell him she's not interested?"
"She's tried. Does he honestly strike you as the kind of man who would so easily take 'no' for an answer?"
Nicky had to admit that he didn't. He watched her seat that pert little hat back on her shining blonde hair, and fought himself for a moment before pushing himself up.
"I got a lot going on right now, sweetheart, and I don't know you from Adam's housecat. You seem like a sweet girl and so does she. But I can't be your bodyguard."
"I didn't ask you to," she pointed out, a new edge in her voice. "And when the investigators do come in, don't say I didn't tell you so."
Nicky was out of bed in a flash, grabbing her arm, his grip firm but not hard. He swung her around, and he had to give it to her; she might be scared out of her mind, but she hadn't dissolved into defensive tears. "What are you talking about?" he asked, his voice low, and he had gone from drowsy to fully awake in the space of a few heartbeats.
"Addie's been to an attorney. He's working on a case against Shay. And the people who've been around Shay? The things he's involved in? They'll come after you and the rest of Riscetti's crew. If something happens to Addie, it'll be all the faster.
"But if Shay were to..." The blonde swallowed. "To keep his distance, to stop threatening her and going after her? All this trouble would go away."
"The attorney's name?"
She shook her head. "You think I'm giving you that?"
Her voice was tough, but her blue eyes were wider. He had struck a nerve.
And her skin was so soft under his fingertips.
After a moment, he released her arm and she seemed to shake herself. "So your leverage is that if I don't convince Shay to turn his attentions elsewhere, you'll make sure that the cops come after me and the rest of Benny's guys. Even though you're afraid to go to the cops yourself."
She frowned. "If—" She seemed to catch herself as she was about to say something. "If they can't get him for hurting Addie, they'll get him for something else. But if he doesn't stop going after her, I'll make sure the rest of it doesn't go away either. The guys like him, who think they deserve to abuse the power they've been given? They're going down; we both know it. And I didn't think you were like them. Do you really want to be caught up in this? I know times have been tough, but this is no way to live. Wouldn't you rather go to bed without your conscience pricking at you?" Her blue eyes were pleading. "She needs your help. Yours. Please."
He came within a hair's breadth of laughing, but he managed to restrain himself. She had no idea, no clue—and yet, somehow, she did. "Trust me, I sleep like a baby," he told her. "But I also don't want to get jammed up because that prick can't keep his temper in check or his pants buttoned. I'll..." He sighed, watching the blush rise and pulse bright in her cheeks as she registered what he was saying. "I'll talk to Benny. But you, angel-face... what are you going to do?"
She gave him a small smile. "Whatever I can."
He rubbed his face, catching her elbow with his other hand and gently steering her the few feet to the door. "All right. Don't push your luck, sister. You'll awaken whatever remaining modicum of hospitality I have left and I'll have to offer you a bed for the night."
"You only have one."
"Backbone of solid steel and observant. Before I let you go... you wouldn't be bluffing me."
She shook her head. "But could you risk it?"
He shrugged. He knew he could, but she didn't. "You know a little too much, angel-face. I don't quite get you, either."
"There's not much to get."
"Somehow I doubt that."
It was only after he had listened to the tap of her heels on the stairs fade into nothing that he realized he didn't even know her name.
The shell game Nancy was playing with Shay was getting harder, and after she actually worked up the nerve to talk to Nicky—part of her was still shocked she had done that—Shay didn't come around for a few days. She wanted to believe that Nicky was as good as his word, but she also had a feeling it wouldn't be that easy.
A part of her was still wondering if she had made a terrible mistake. It was only after she had returned to the room she shared with Addie and changed into her nightgown, then pulled the covers up over her, that she had realized the many ways the night might have gone wrong—and what she had done. She had told Nicky that an attorney was scrutinizing Shay and Riscetti's gang.
It would be much easier for them to eliminate that threat, than to call off Shay.
The idea that she had put her father in danger, and that she had no way to warn him about it without giving away her cover, that was terrible. But Nancy couldn't believe Nicky was like that. She didn't want to, anyway.
No man she had ever met had looked at her the way he had. For that matter, no man had ever undressed in front of her. While she had been terribly shocked by it, while her manners had told her that a man who could strip well past the point of decency in front of her after they had barely been introduced wasn't a good man—and he was a member of Riscetti's crew, after all, and definitely not a good person—she still wanted to believe she had made a good choice when she had decided to trust him.
She had been trembling all the way down the stairs, after he had told her that she had to leave before he offered her his bed. His bed.
Nancy had been in many, many dangerous situations. None had ever affected her quite the way that had.
Addie was optimistic about Shay's absence, though. Nancy had decided that if he stayed away from Addie for two weeks, far longer than he ever had before, she would ask Addie to check in with her every few days, but she would return home and hope for the best, too. Maybe after one last conversation with Nicky, just to ask him to keep an eye on Addie if he could.
That Thursday, Addie had been feeling sick, and she had a bad headache about thirty minutes before her first set of the night. Nancy urged her to return to their apartment; she would go with her, and do what she could to get her comfortable and recovering. When Nancy tracked down McConnell, though, he shook his head.
"She doesn't go on tonight, and has no replacement? She's out. That's it."
On the one hand, if Addie found other employment, at least it would be another barrier between her and Shay, at least until he found her again. Addie had worked at two other clubs while Shay had been following her, though; he found her every time. And being fired from her job wouldn't look good when she needed to find another one. When Nancy went back to Addie and hesitantly told her what McConnell had said, Addie shook her head, her eyes wide. She couldn't afford to take the night off; she couldn't lose the income, and she had no one she could send on stage in her place.
For the first time since she had taken the case, Nancy desperately wished that Bess Marvin was helping her. George Fayne was an excellent helper in several ways, but she couldn't pose as a nightclub singer. Bess would have been timid and shy about it, but much more equal to the task than her cousin.
Finally, Nancy sighed. "I'll ask if I can go on in your place," she said. "And I'll give you the pay for tonight. You need it more than I do."
It took another fifteen minutes to convince her; by then, it was almost time to go on stage. Nancy was glad it took so long to talk Addie into it. It didn't give her much time at all to anticipate and panic.
What did make Nancy nervous, though, was when she walked out on stage, up to the microphone, and scanned the room. Shay wasn't there, and that was good. As soon as he saw Nancy on stage, he might have been able to guess that Addie would be vulnerable. But she did spot Nicky at a side table. When he glanced up at her, his gaze caught hers, and she was reminded again of the glowing expression in his dark eyes as he had started taking his clothes off.
Nancy's voice wasn't nearly as strong or as sultry as Addie's, and when the music reached her cue and she opened her mouth, at first she was afraid nothing would come out. Her stage fright felt like a coiled tense weight in her chest, like it was strangling her. But she managed the first note, then the next; she sang a low, pleading love song, begging her lover to return, just the kind of thing that would have made Shay go crazy trying to find hidden meanings if Addie had performed it. The second song was more upbeat; she was a woman reunited with her man, and everything was right again. The third felt like she was going backwards. She was pining, aching, putting a desperation into her voice that she had never truly felt, at least not when it came to a relationship.
The smattering of applause she received after was about the same Addie would have received, so Nancy was satisfied that she had earned the money. She had felt Nicky's gaze on her a few times, and her heart had skipped a beat, her strength faltering for an instant.
If she could, she would have made sure that he wouldn't have that kind of effect on her. It didn't matter, though. Soon she would be out of his life, she was sure.
Every bit of reason she had told her that he wasn't a good guy. But if she could convince him to turn on Riscetti's gang, somehow, she would be doing a good thing...
Nancy shook her head. She was getting ahead of herself, and she knew it. She couldn't even imagine what her father's reaction would be, if he knew where she was right now and what she was trying to do.
But it was tempting, she had to admit. She dearly loved her father, but because she knew he would never know what she was doing, she had felt more free to do things she didn't necessarily think were the safest options. And she had done so many things she hadn't before. She had been inside a speakeasy several times. She had rented an apartment by herself. And then there was Nicky.
She went back to the dressing room as soon as her set was over to hurriedly change and return to their apartment, just in case Addie was feeling worse. She stepped out wearing a sprigged cornflower-blue dress with a plain lace collar; she looked far less glamorous than she had on stage, but felt much more comfortable. In fact, now she looked a lot more like one of the patrons.
Nicky was standing when Nancy entered the main room of the speakeasy, and Nancy's heart skipped a beat. Addie had said that Shay had kept an eye on her before he had begun stalking her. Nancy didn't sense that Nicky was that kind of guy. Maybe he had information for her, though.
"Could I ask you for a dance?"
Nancy glanced up at him, trying to put herself in the Ruth persona she was using, but around him it was hard. "Thank you," she told him, "but I really can't. I need to get home."
He offered her his hand, and Nancy wavered. Then he smiled, reaching for her own hand.
The soft instrumental was just audible over the hum of conversation around them. Nancy had been to countless dances before, but the circumstances had always been wildly different. She wasn't really dressed for dancing, but he didn't seem to care, and when he wrapped his arm around her waist, closer than propriety really allowed, she felt her face warm a little, but she didn't protest. She had seen other couples dancing this way in the speakeasy, and once they were wild with drink, even closer than this.
His lips barely moved when he spoke next, and Nancy felt a little overwhelmed by his proximity. She could smell his cologne and soap and the faintest hint of leather polish.
"You off the clock?"
She nodded. "Yes. I told you, I'm about to go home."
"Yeah, but are you off the clock or do I need to talk to the barkeep?"
Nancy tilted her head. "I don't... why would you need to talk to him?"
Nicky's eyebrow went up a hair. "Boy, are you good," he murmured. "What I'm asking is whether you have any boy friends coming over... because I need to talk to you, and if I can escort you home without causing problems..."
She shook her head. "No one's supposed to be coming over."
He didn't say anything else for the rest of the dance, but Nancy's heart was pounding. It was hard for her to think about anything other than the larger-than-life, so very solid and firm and real shape of him as they twirled together. When his lips brushed her temple, her eyes fluttered shut.
He was presuming. At a country club dance or benefit fête, she would have taken a large step back and pinned him with a blue-eyed stare. But she wasn't Nancy Drew here, and he wasn't her approved escort, and so she allowed it, marking the night in her memory as just another she had done something she would most likely never do again.
After the dance, he kept his hand joined to hers, but headed for the door. He tipped his hat to Riscetti, who directed a vulgar glance at her, then gave Nicky an approving grin.
As soon as they were outside, Nancy dropped his hand and raised her own for a taxi. She didn't want to waste any time if she could help it, especially after taking longer than she should have with their dance. He stayed by her side; he had said he would accompany her back to her apartment, and when the taxi driver asked for the destination address, for a second she hesitated. Finally she gave an address about four blocks away, and they set off.
"Have you talked to anyone else about this plan you have?"
Nancy turned to look into his face, shaking her head. "Did you talk to him? Is that why he hasn't been at the club?"
Nicky pressed his lips together. "I'm working on it," he said, without directly answering. "But he's also been out of place for the past few days. Does Addie have a key to his place, or an in?"
Nancy's brow furrowed. "I don't know why she would," she admitted.
Nicky's gaze stayed locked to her face for a moment longer. Then he shook his head, making a soft noise that almost sounded scoffing. "Well, I need to talk to her for a few minutes."
"But why would she have a way to get into his place?"
"Are you..." Nicky shook his head, then started over. "Because she was his girl."
Nancy shook her head. "No. She wasn't his 'girl.' Not really." She noticed that her words were far closer to the ones she truly would have used, that her tone was more clipped, but her temper had flared a little.
"What would you rather I call it, angel-face?"
That nickname again. When he had used it in his apartment, she had melted a little; now, though, she resisted that urge. "She doesn't want to be with him. She's afraid of him."
"Maybe she is now. And don't get me wrong; that's okay. She doesn't want to take his money anymore, that's between him and her. But she might know something that can help me."
Nancy pressed her lips together, considering. "You just need to talk to her."
He nodded. "Yep. That's all."
"Help you with what?"
He shook his head. "You have your party going on, and I have mine."
She shook her head. "No. If you don't tell me, we don't have an agreement."
He paused, too. "I'll tell you after I talk to her. All right?"
Nancy leaned forward, considering whispering the real address to the taxi driver, but she went ahead and spoke it normally. When they arrived, Nicky would know where they were. She couldn't do anything about that. She couldn't stop to call ahead; Addie wasn't expecting a call, and they had no 'phone in their apartment.
When the taxi pulled up in front of the building, Nicky glanced at the black car parked ahead of them—and he stiffened. Nancy's heart rose into her throat and she tossed the driver the bill she had already taken out of her purse, then climbed out of the cab in a swirl of skirts. Her gaze immediately rose to the window on the fourth floor at the left, the front window of their apartment. She would have expected the soft glow of a lamp, or no light at all; instead, full light blazed through the curtains.
Thinking quickly, Nancy ran for the front door of the apartment building, with Nicky hot on her heels. She wondered if his insistence on coming home with her had been a setup, but at this point, she had to deal with the problems one at a time. She slammed to a stop in front of her landlord's apartment, pounding hard on the door with her fist. "Mr. Rains, please! Please!"
He came to the door in an undershirt, suspenders, and slacks, his feet bare; she registered hairy toes before she looked up at his face. "Yeah, blondie?"
Nancy tried desperately to imagine what kind of problem would provoke such a reaction in her. "The sink! I don't know what happened, but the faucet is stuck on and the water is all over the floor, we tried everything..."
Mr. Rains growled something that sounded distinctly profane, grabbing a grubby fingermarked toolbox beside his front door. "C'mon," he growled, wiping his grease-slicked lips with a hairy forearm.
As the three of them headed upstairs, Nicky last, Nancy couldn't help wondering if she would suddenly feel fingers close about her wrists in an iron grip, but it didn't happen. Nancy had her key out by the time they reached the apartment she shared with Addie, and Mr. Rains was ready to charge in and stop the leak. She didn't need the key, though.
The door had been kicked in, and the small apartment was in shambles. Two imposing brutes Nancy only vaguely recognized were in the apartment; one mattress was askew, the pillow tilting drunkenly. Addie's bed. One of the thugs was pounding on a closet door; the other had a gun out.
"Hey! What the hell is this?"
The one holding the gun gestured with it. "Just wanted a word with the lady."
"You know these guys?" Rains snarled in Nancy's direction, taking a wrench out of his toolbox.
Nancy shook her head, wide-eyed. "No, sir. You said no men in the apartment."
The one at the closet door snickered. "We'll be gone when we're good and ready."
"Yeah. You and what army?" The one with the gun sneered.
Nicky stepped into the doorway, his own gun drawn. "How far you want to take this?" he asked, his voice low and dangerous.
The strangers sobered a little. Nancy read the glance between them. They were trying to figure out if they could bluff or strongarm their way through. "Addie," Nancy called. "You okay?"
Addie's reply was mostly unintelligible, but at least she was still conscious. Nancy couldn't fight the urge to glance up at Nicky this time. His jaw was set, his dark eyes steady and challenging. She felt a thrill go down her spine and blamed it on her heightened nerves.
Once the two thugs backed off and pounded down the stairs, Mr. Rains cursed at the busted lock. Addie looked even worse than she had when she had agreed to go home and rest. Staying there with the lock busted would be impossible.
Mr. Rains trudged off to call and make a police report, but Nancy was still shaken. So Shay had found Addie. They would need to find a new place.
Nancy hated the feeling that swept over her then. Helplessness, anger, fear. It was unfair. Addie deserved a place she could go where she wouldn't stay awake all night waiting for Shay to find her. She deserved to be left alone.
"C'mon," Nicky said with a sigh. He had put his gun away. "Pack a bag. I'll find you two a place to crash tonight."
The place ended up being his own apartment building. Nancy overheard part of the conversation he had with his landlord, which involved reminding the man that he had promised to keep his nose clean and not have any loud parties. With poor grace the landlord showed the two women to a vacant barely-furnished apartment on the second floor. The bathroom was tiny and the bed was a narrow double, but it would work.
Nicky followed them in. Nancy cast a worried look at Addie. She still looked sick and pale, like she was probably in shock. Nancy knew that Nicky wanted to talk to her, but she wasn't sure that was a good idea. She poured Addie a glass of water and took out the headache powders she had packed, urging her to lie down. Nicky didn't look happy, but he didn't protest, either. He looked at Nancy and said she knew his apartment number if she needed anything; he would be back in a few hours.
He was doubtless going back out to join up with Riscetti's gang. Nancy wondered if he was going to find Shay and talk to him, too.
Before Addie went to sleep, she told Nancy that the two men had broken in; she had scrambled for the closet, not knowing what else to do. She wasn't sure how long it had been. She had taken Nancy's advice and gone to bed when she went home, hoping the headache would pass if she did. Now the headache was worse, and Nancy found a cloth to wet in cold water and drape over her forehead, hoping that would help.
How had Shay found her? Nancy had a feeling that if Addie hadn't been as cautious as Nancy had urged her to be, thanks to her headache, maybe he had just been waiting—and when he had stayed away from the club, it had just been to lull her into a false sense of security so she would slip up. Nancy felt a cold shiver touch her spine when she wondered what would have happened if she had gone by her original plan, and if Shay hadn't played his hand too quickly.
Once Addie was fully asleep, Nancy began pacing as she considered. With every sweep of headlights down the street she glanced down, waiting for a car to stop, waiting for two or three or four burly men to come out and stare purposefully up at their window. She didn't realize what she was waiting for until she roused herself from dozing at the foot of the bed she and Addie would need to share and went to the window again. A cab was pulling up. She blinked a few times, yawning.
She carefully locked the door before she went to Nicky's apartment; he had just slipped his key into the lock, and she saw him tense before he recognized her. "You should be in bed," he said, his voice soft. "Something happen?"
Nancy shook her head, and when she followed him in, he didn't protest. Almost immediately he was letting his jacket drop down to his wrists. She saw the shine of his gun still hanging at his waist.
"She's resting. Will you tell me what's going on?"
He sighed, rubbing his forehead. Then he slipped his arms out of his suspenders and let them fall. "No time," she heard him mutter, more to herself than her; when she saw the shadow of his eyelashes, the set line of his jaw, her heart skipped a beat; she felt lightheaded, almost delirious from exhaustion, but if Shay found them—
Or maybe Nicky had tipped him off. If Addie had vanished without a trace, no one would have been around to lodge any complaints against Shay.
Nancy crossed her arms. If Nicky went after her, he had a gun and she didn't—and she had brought Addie right to him.
It had been the only choice she had known to make.
"Look, I'm dead-tired," he told her. "I need to get some rest, and so do you. We can talk in the morning."
Nancy swallowed hard. "How do I know we'll still be alive in the morning?"
He turned to her, his eyebrows up. His fly was open; he put his gun on the bed and began pushing down his pants. "You really think I went to all the trouble to tell my landlord that you two would be here, and then went out and arranged a hit?"
"You wouldn't need to arrange one," she pointed out, nodding at his gun.
He made a soft incredulous sound, almost like a snicker. "I wouldn't," he agreed. "You're safe tonight, as safe as I could make you. I don't know what'll happen tomorrow, or after that. But if we keep meeting like this, maybe I will have to have a conversation with the barkeep, angel-face."
Nancy shook her head. "I don't understand—"
"You aren't for sale yet?"
Nancy shook her head in confusion, although she found herself blushing, just from the expression on his face. "For sale?"
Then Nicky crossed his arms. He was in his underwear; his strong jaw was lined with stubble, and she could see the same exhaustion on his face that she felt herself. "Who are you, really?"
"I'm... I work for someone who's interested in helping keep Addie safe."
"And yet you're naive enough to believe that you were hired for your pipes? Don't misunderstand me, you have a sweet voice—but how do you think Addie was introduced to Shay in the first place? She's for sale, or she was even if she isn't now. And you?"
Nancy actually choked. She didn't know what to say, and something in his gaze was making her feel more and more self-conscious.
He stepped closer to her. "You... you don't make sense," he said, his voice softer. "And that doesn't usually happen to me. You aren't who you say you are, you can't be, unless you're the best actress I've ever met."
Nancy took a breath. "I can't tell you."
His lips twisted. "Then let's do this the other way. You're high-class. I'd be surprised if you're a day over nineteen. You carry yourself with confidence but not with arrogance, and you're not accustomed to finding yourself in situations you can't best—but when we danced, it was all you could do to keep from pushing me away. I'm not like the kind of escorts you usually have."
He was close, too close now. Nancy looked down, then up into his eyes. "And you," she returned, her voice firm, "don't make sense either. You watch and you don't make a flashy show of yourself; but then, you don't need to. You hang back and you want very much for Benny and the rest of the guys to like you, but you came to the defense of a singer in the back of a speakeasy instead of just walking away."
"Maybe I was expecting to find you waiting for rescue."
She bristled, and when Nicky propped the heel of his hand on the door behind her, keeping it closed with his weight and partially pinning her there, Nancy swallowed hard. "Even if you had, you didn't walk away when you knew I wasn't the one in danger."
"You're used to thinking on your feet."
"And so are you." Nancy's chin was raised, defiant.
"A high-class teenager—untouched, if I don't miss my guess. Not seeing how the other half lives just for kicks. What are you doing here?"
"And what are you?" Nancy's heart was pounding. "I tell you that Shay pursuing Addie is bad for Riscetti's business and instead of getting rid of her, you're helping protect her."
"Maybe I'm just a sucker for a sob story." His gaze flicked from her eyes to her lips and back again; she was close enough to feel the heat radiating from his skin.
Nancy's breath caught. Every bit of her was tingling. Even though she had felt exhausted ten minutes earlier, she had never felt more awake or alive than she did right now. "Either you've already given us away—or you're not one of them."
She didn't see a single flicker of fear in his steady, dark eyes. "And there's no way you work in an attorney's office, unless your family lost everything in the crash. If I kissed you right now, you'd probably faint with mortification."
Nancy took a slow, trembling breath. She wanted to respond, but she couldn't find any words. Her eyes widened as she stared into his.
"You wouldn't," she said, and she hated that soft waver in her voice.
He paused for just a second, and in the eternity of that heartbeat, she thought that her bluff had worked. Then he bent down.
He tasted like smoke and alcohol; they were harsh against her tongue. Her lips had been parted and his tongue slipped against hers and Nancy flushed hotter than she ever had before, but she couldn't find the will in her to push him away.
He was almost naked and it was very late and—
And after that one kiss, he stepped forward and she found suddenly that her fingers were in his hair, her head tipped back, his body pressed to hers. He kissed her hard again, without any apology or hesitance; he wasn't holding himself back at all, not in this. But he had been.
Slowly he pulled back, then planted another kiss against her lips, and the world felt unsteady beneath her feet. Everything felt unsteady, flickering; only he felt solid against her skin. She made a soft noise as her lashes fluttered back up.
And he made one as well. "You aren't for sale," he breathed. "No one would ever be able to afford you."
"Tell me the truth," she whispered. "You can't... you can't be one of them."
"Because you don't want me to be?"
She inclined her head slightly. "I suppose it doesn't truly matter anyway, does it."
He sighed. "Tell me who you are," he said softly, and ran the back of a finger down the line of her cheek. "And I... I'll tell you who I am."
"Ruth? It's time to wake up."
Ruth, Nancy thought, and everything in her head was fuzzy. She blinked awake to see Addie's face above hers, in full sunlight. Addie looked better; her expression was still faintly pinched, like her headache hadn't entirely receded, but she was smiling.
Nancy hadn't gone to bed until the sky was faintly touched with the pale light of dawn. She had barely been able to stagger from the door, where Ned escorted her, to the bed where Addie was sleeping; her mouth had been dry from talking so much, her skin faintly damp with perspiration and warmed by his closeness. The night had felt endless, and like it had passed in only a few moments.
Ned Nickerson. His name was Ned Nickerson, and he was a prohibition agent. He worked for the government, had worked for them for the past six years; he was a handful of years older than she was, but her curious gaze had picked out old scars. He had worked in Washington and New York, and then he had been sent to Chicago to find out everything he could: to locate the suppliers and the sources for the speakeasies, all the people involved. If they found out who he was, they would kill him. She hadn't been wrong about him, after all.
And he had sworn her to absolute secrecy. She wasn't allowed to tell anyone.
And Nancy had told him who she was, how accurate he had been with his guesses. She told him that it was in her best interests for them to keep what she was doing secret, too; her father didn't know, and she definitely didn't want him in danger.
If I had been anyone else, beautiful, I promise you things wouldn't have ended like this.
But you weren't anyone else. You were the only one I trusted, and I didn't even understand why.
When she breathed in, she could still smell him, the scent of his breath and skin on her. It made her ache like nothing else.
Shay's planning something. We get in there and we put him away? Addie's safe. By the time he gets out, she's gone. But it will be dangerous.
Nancy hadn't even hesitated. What's the plan?
But Nancy couldn't tell Addie what she and Ned had discussed the night before; Addie didn't even know Nancy's true name.
As she and Addie dressed and prepared to go out, Nancy found herself longing for the convenience of her bathroom at home. But, she had to admit, she wouldn't have traded the excitement of her current task for a readily-available tub with hot and cold taps, or the everyday tasks she used to fill her time at home, going over menus and helping organize her father's social calendar. Bess had always been jealous that Nancy had the experience to run a household, that a man would doubtless see that as attractive. Nancy would have resented any man who saw that as a reason to court her.
Bess would definitely be scandalized if Nancy ever happened to mention what had passed between her and Ned the night before. In the light of day, his behavior with her had been incredibly inappropriate, presumptuous and... and like nothing she had ever experienced before. His fingers had twined with hers when he had been walking her back to the room she and Addie would share.
Even a few hours before, she had been afraid to have her body so close to his, and he had told her with a wry twist to his lips that he could definitely tell she had never been kissed that way before. She had been paralyzed by shock, passive and overwhelmed. If he took the opportunity to kiss her again, she promised herself, she wouldn't be so passive again.
Again... That began a train of thought Nancy didn't feel equal to following yet.
Part of Ned's plan was to make it obvious he had a crush on her. A few of Riscetti's crew had already commented on it, and when they saw him leave with her the night before, that had added credibility. He couldn't serve as Nancy and Addie's bodyguard without drawing attention to it, but he could escort them home. The next day, he called around and found another room not far from his apartment, and disguised himself with a borrowed truck and overalls to seem like a hired mover. The three of them made a game of it: ducking through crowded movie theaters and diners, finding alternate exits and paths through the city to get through undetected.
Ned thought they should be more vigilant. If Shay had found the apartment and sent two men to collect Addie, Ned didn't think that was a good sign, and Nancy had to agree with him. Staying close to his place gave them another place to run if something went wrong, and that was good. To keep the ruse up, though, Ned kept inviting Nancy to join him back at his apartment; Addie was very cautious about going home, and she thought that "Nicky's" flirtation with "Ruth" was cute, she just warned her to be careful.
But the flirtation wasn't just a front—at least, she didn't think it was. When he handed her four roses wrapped in ribbon after her performance one night, Nancy accepted them, searching his eyes to see warmth and a touch of humor there.
Ned's life depended on his fooling the people around them. She was just hoping that he hadn't decided the best way to take Riscetti's gang and Shay down involved duping her, too.
Ned heard stirrings that Shay had something planned for Saturday night. He returned to the speakeasy with Shay, Riscetti, and a few other members of the gang on Friday night; Shay took his usual seat in front of the stage, and looked like he wanted to bound up on stage at Addie. Only the fact that she was singing and in some form of public seemed to keep him at bay. Maybe McConnell didn't mind so much if Shay went after her backstage, but in front of everyone, it drew attention.
After Addie's set, Ned asked Nancy to dance, and Shay asked Addie. Addie glanced over at Nancy, who gave her an encouraging nod. They had talked about it, and for Ned, it was a calculated risk.
Ned drew Nancy close, and the way her body relaxed against his, swayed with his, wasn't feigned. "We have a—an errand, after this," he murmured, his lips close to her ear. To anyone else, it would look like he was whispering sweet nothings to her, but the feel of his breath against her earlobe made her shiver. "Can I take you out to dinner after, though? Can your friend—stay with Addie?"
Nancy nodded. George had planned on staying over anyway, even after Nancy had told her that she would be relegated to a cot; George was eager to have a person to fight, though. She had been outraged on Addie's behalf, and if Nancy could get her involved when she and Ned made their move, Nancy knew she would appreciate it. She hadn't quite figured out how that would work, though. Eating dinner with Ned would give them a chance to discuss it.
Nancy glanced over at Addie. She had relayed to Addie that if Shay planned something and invited her, they should go. Nancy hadn't been able to tell her that Ned was working for the good guys and could use anything they found there as evidence, but the worst part—for Nancy, anyway—was that Shay's obsession with Addie could be used to their advantage. If Addie could distract him or use his attraction to her to keep his attention elsewhere while she and Ned were looking for clues or evidence...
Nancy didn't like the idea of putting Addie in danger, but if George were there, she would feel better about it. Addie was tough, though. Otherwise Shay wouldn't have sent two bodyguards after her; otherwise, she would have been long gone when Nancy and Ned had brought Mr. Rains up to the apartment expecting the worst.
Then Ned kissed Nancy's earlobe, and though the brush of his lips was brief, she still felt glowingly self-conscious. She made a soft cautioning noise, but then he planted a firmer kiss on her neck just beneath her earlobe, and Nancy shivered.
"Mmm. That's right," he murmured.
"And what's so right about it?" she replied, her voice very quiet but still dripping with icy disdain.
Ned chuckled. "Acting like this isn't driving you crazy."
"If you mean driving me crazy in the sense that you... are most definitely taking advantage..." Nancy trailed off as he nuzzled against the side of her neck. "Sir, I'll have to ask you not to sample the merchandise before you purchase."
His chuckle this time was louder and appreciative. "So there is a price?"
"One you couldn't afford."
"True." He kissed the other side of her neck anyway. "And later tonight, when I romance you over candlelight, I trust you will look just as haughty and disgusted as you do right now, angel-face."
"I do not..."
His next kiss was brief and soft, but it was against her lips. "Don't worry, sweetheart, it fits. It works. I wouldn't be asking you for this if I thought you couldn't handle it."
She blinked once, slowly. "Do I really look haughty?"
He grinned at her, his dark eyes glowing with amusement. "Very much."
When she tried to arrange her features into a benevolent smile, he chuckled and kissed her again. "You're a dream," he told her. "Spun-gold hair, gorgeous blue eyes, creamy white skin and untouchable as ice. A princess whose hands have never been dirty. Do you know how tempting it is to put dirty hands all over that white skin, to smear that cherry-red lipstick and see you panting, wide-eyed and breathless..."
At his words she flushed again.
"Yes," he murmured. "Yes, exactly. You'll be fine."
Nancy, George, and Addie had made plans to meet down the block at an all-night diner. Ned told her that he would meet her there unless he was too late; then he would just come over to the new apartment she and Addie shared and pick her up, so they could go over their plans for the next day. Nancy had asked George to go by her house and pick up two dresses, and bring her own; Nancy could do some emergency tailoring and adjust one of her dresses for Addie in a pinch. She didn't want them to look out of place, since Ned was pretty sure Shay's event would involve a party.
Nancy was on her second glass of water, sitting in a booth with Addie and George and her face toward the door, when Ned walked in. He still wore his fedora, and his jacket was on, but he looked rumpled. Her gaze caught a smear of dust that hadn't been on his thigh before, and a trace of something dark at the cuff of his sleeve. Her eyes were wide when they rose to his face.
"George, this is Nicky," she introduced him to her friend. Although Nancy had told Ned that George was a girl, she could still see him readjust when he was introduced. He was generally smooth, but she could still catch him every now and then. "I'll be home after dinner, all right?"
Nancy began to slide out of the booth, but George did too. "Can I talk to you for a minute?"
They went out onto the sidewalk. The city was still humming with activity, but the tone of it was different. Anyone on the street at this hour was looking for a good time, and many of them were heading for the same kind of place Nancy and Addie worked. A place to relax, to have fun and unwind.
You aren't for sale?
Nancy had just reached up to touch the brim of her hat when George turned to her, a concerned expression on her face. Nancy trusted George fully; she trusted her with her life and had several times before, and she hadn't had a chance to tell George about Ned. Above the fact that he had sworn her to secrecy, she had never known anyone like him, and a part of her, she had to admit, was enjoying the fact that they were keeping each other's secrets. He trusted her.
And Nancy could read the suspicion in George's face. "Nancy, are you sure about this? Do you want me to follow you there and make sure he doesn't do anything...?"
Nancy shook her head. "I'll be okay. It's more important for you to be with Addie; she needs someone with her."
"And you don't? He... he has a gun." George whispered the last word.
"I'll be fine," Nancy repeated. "I'll be back later. And if tomorrow night goes the way we think it might, we... we won't be around him much longer." Nancy hadn't realized that until she spoke the words, but it was true. She was helping Ned achieve his mission, and once his mission was over, he would be moving on. He would vanish effortlessly into another life, one she wasn't a part of.
That thought remained with her during dinner. Ned took her to a nice place, the kind with long white tablecloths and a floor show featuring sequined dancers; it was the kind of place McConnell only wished he had. They sat right next to each other in a corner booth, and spoke to each other only in whispers in case they were overheard. Every now and then he gave her a wide grin, maintaining the pretense that they were on a date; more rarely, she returned his grin with one of her own. When he slipped his arm around her waist, even though it was out of sight beneath the level of the table, she still pushed his arm away.
"Tell me 'later,'" he advised her. "With those cold blue eyes."
She pouted slightly. "They're not cold."
"Cold as ice," he corrected her. "Stare me down knowing full well that every man's eyes in this entire place are on you. They all wish they were the guy sitting next to you. And here you are, with me. If they breach during the party, Nan, promise me you'll get down and stay down. Things get crazy. If we get separated and they arrest you, don't give my name. I'll find you. Can you do that?"
She nodded. His pupils were dilated. He was serious; his voice was low and it sent a tremor down her spine.
"I mean it. I don't want you to get hurt."
She nodded. He slipped his arm around her waist again and when she touched his hand to shove it away, something in his dark eyes made her stop. He was more earnest than she had ever seen him.
"We need to go back to my place for a few hours. You game for that?"
Nancy swallowed. "Okay."
His lips touched her cheek. "Ever carried a gun, angel-face?"
She shook her head. "No. I wouldn't want to, either. If we're interrupted and they find me with a gun..."
"I could still get you out of it."
"Not if I'm dead."
He kissed the point of her jaw, and her lashes fluttered down a little. "I wouldn't want that."
He almost said something else, but when the waiter arrived, he slowly pulled away from her. He drew a well-loaded money clip out of his pocket, peeled off a few of the bills and glanced up to see the waiter's smile.
"Come on. Time for dessert."
Only once they were back at his apartment did she understand what he had meant. As soon as they walked in he began to take his jacket off, and she saw him wince. A few dark spots of dried blood showed on the fabric of his shirt, near his waist.
"Are you all right?"
He shrugged, in stark contrast to the sharp surprise and concern in her voice. "I'm fine," he said, his voice a little gruff. He unbuttoned his shirt, and while the sight of him in his underwear was no longer shocking, she still couldn't say that she was immune to it. A basin of water stood on a small table near the window; Nancy took a cloth, dunked it into the water and wrung it out, bringing it over to him.
Ned sat down at the foot of the bed dressed only in his underwear, and Nancy took the cloth and gently dabbed around the wound. To her eyes it appeared that a ring had grazed his flesh, cutting into it; what frightened her more were the marks made by the impact of a fist.
Ned put a hand on her shoulder, and she glanced up into his eyes, then back down at her work. His room was dim, lit only by the streetlamps below, and she turned him so she could get a better angle. She had never been so close to a man, never one as naked as him; she had never studied the way the light and skin gleamed over muscle like this.
Her heart was pounding so hard that she could feel her lips trembling faintly.
"What made you become an agent?" she asked as she gently ran the cloth over his skin.
"Mmm. I want to help. Didn't want to stay home on the farm." He made a soft noise. "They told me I could have been a lawyer. Could have been a boxer."
"Would've been a shame to see you with cauliflower ears and broken teeth."
"And I guess, looking at this—well, just know that the other guy didn't walk away like I did."
"And how could he?" Nancy pointed out, rising and rinsing the cloth again before bringing it back to him. "Because you're on the side of good."
"So are you."
"A lawyer, though?"
She heard the smile in his voice. "I've got a good memory and—well, I like rules. I like knowing where the line is, and which side of it I'm on. And that's why you made me so uneasy, angel-face."
She glanced up at him. "Me?"
"You didn't fit. Then again, I'm beginning to think that you're one of a kind."
She gave him a small smile. "Pretty sure you are, too."
He reached up and touched her cheek. "You make me want to..."
Without saying anything, she brought her gaze up to his and slowly stopped running the cloth against his side. The air in his room was so still; only the oscillating fan in the corner, rattling quietly to itself, stirred anything.
He reached up and touched the collar of her dress, and Nancy's heart rose in her throat so fast she thought she might choke. He brushed his fingertips against the knobs of her collarbone, tracing the hollow between; his lips were parted faintly, and the lingering ghost of cigarette smoke caught in their hair and in the folds of her dress swirled into cologne and sweat and her perfume. Nancy had never smoked in her life, but in the space of a heartbeat she knew that from then on, just a whiff of cigarette smoke would make her think of this, of him, of them this way. What was between them no one would understand; Nancy knew she didn't, but she didn't need to understand.
No time, he had murmured. And still, there was no time.
He let his hand drift down her arm, then sighed. "I'm sorry. I am. I guess we should talk about tomorrow."
Nancy nodded, but she was feeling uncomfortably warm. He was closer to naked than he was clothed, and she didn't think he felt the same way she did; for a brief, fleeting moment, she wondered what he would do if she so nonchalantly disrobed in front of him the way he did her—but she didn't have the nerve.
Ned told her everything he had found out about the event, which would be held at Shay's house, at the edge of a prosperous Chicago suburb Nancy had seen a few times. He told her that, just to maintain his cover identity, he might be arrested with everyone else, but he would be sure to get Nancy, Addie, and George out if they were caught with everyone else. He would be able to use Riscetti's panic over the arrest to pump him for information, and then move on to the next step in the chain. From some of what Riscetti had said, apparently Ned suspected that shipments were coming in from two sources over the Canadian border.
She knew their "date" needed to last a few hours, and that if they were watching his apartment, if they suspected either of them, they needed to hold out. Even so, their "date" had started late and Nancy was already tired. He asked if she had any suggestions, though, and Nancy was touched by the genuine interest in his eyes. She mused aloud that Shay had to have a list of contacts, which they might find useful and which he might ditch before the police were able to collect him. Addie would have the best chance to go through his clothes, but Nancy told Ned honestly that she was nervous about Addie's safety. She didn't want anything bad to happen to her.
"So you really think... you think Addie and Shay..."
Ned was on his back in the bed, his fingers joined behind his head, his bare chest on full display. "More likely than not," he told her.
Nancy swallowed before she slipped her feet out of her shoes. Just that mere concession to her own comfort felt like she was giving up something. Her garter clips were digging into the backs of her thighs.
"If I ask you to close your eyes, would you?"
"Maybe." He was smiling when she directed a withering glance at him. "Okay, okay. Yes."
Nancy stood, turning her back on him, but then she changed her mind and turned back to face him, to make sure he was really keeping his eyes closed. She blushed as she reached under her skirt and unfastened her garter belt, then began to slide her silk stockings down her legs.
And why is it fair? she asked herself. That he can be comfortable and I can't be.
"Ned?" she asked softly, as she picked up her stockings and the belt and draped them carefully over the table beside the window.
"Hmm?" He opened his eyes, then sat up a little.
"I... it's pretty warm in here..."
"It is," he agreed.
"Would you help me..." She turned, showing him the button fastening at the nape of her neck.
She heard the springs creak and then he touched the button, unfastening it, then the one beneath it. She wore a silk slip under her dress, so he still wasn't seeing bare skin, but it was still scandalous; no other man had ever seen her so close to naked. He reached down and began to pull her dress up, over her head, and she turned to take it from him and drape it over the table.
That teasing smile he had worn had entirely vanished when she looked up into his eyes again. She knew she was blushing. If anything, she felt warmer than she had when she had worn the dress.
His adam's apple bobbed slightly as he reached down, linking his index finger and thumb about her wrist, and she followed speechlessly as he guided her to his bed. The sheets smelled like him.
She was supposed to feel more comfortable, more relaxed. Instead she felt twice as solid as she usually did, and incredibly aware of his presence beside her. She turned onto her side and felt slightly less vulnerable, and that was good.
He looked over at her. "Better?"
"Not really," she admitted softly, her gaze locked to his.
"Anything I can do?"
She shook her head. "Thank you," she murmured.
"For not..." She shrugged a little.
"The night's not over yet."
"But I'll be going home soon," she murmured. Her eyelids felt so heavy.
"I won't," he murmured.
"Do you miss home?"
"Sometimes. Sometimes I do. But what I'm doing is more important."
"That's how I feel too," she murmured, and struggled to open her eyes again. "People—I know they mean well, but they keep asking when I'm going to settle down... like that's what has to happen. Like this is just another step and at the end of it, there's a house, children, putting dinner on the table every night..."
"And that's not what you want."
"Not now. Not yet."
She felt Ned's hand on her shoulder, and when he slipped the strap of her slip down, her heart rose again. Her brassiere strap was still snug against her skin, but he was dangerously close to revealing the lace cups. "I thought," he breathed, his fingertips tracing a circle against the point of her shoulder, "that if only things had been different... but I wouldn't have you any other way. Nancy."
"Any other way...?"
"We're dreaming," he murmured. "And tomorrow, we'll wake."
Then his lips touched her neck, and her fingers wrapped around his arm blindly in the dark, and she didn't let go.
Nancy didn't want it to end. She never wanted the mysteries she investigated to end; even though she felt a tremendous thrill when she apprehended a culprit or recovered a lost treasure, the letdown she felt afterward was tremendous. It felt a thousand times worse, that Saturday.
She was horrified to find that a part of her actually hoped that something minor would go wrong and Ned would have to stay. For just a few days, a week more, Nancy could lie and say Helen had extended their trip and spend some more time with him.
But the evening went better than Nancy had ever expected. Alterations on the dress George had chosen for Addie didn't take long, which was good, because Nancy knew she had slept—it just hadn't been for long. If it was the last night she was to spend with Ned, she had wanted to remember it.
George had asked what had happened to keep her away all night. Nancy had said she would tell her later, but she wasn't sure she ever would. Maybe George would forget. Nancy wouldn't. And if by some chance she did ever find herself in the darkness and silence of a marriage bed, she would do her best to put the tentative, trembling desire she had felt in Ned's arms out of her mind, but she wasn't sure she would succeed.
She had gone to his bed a virgin, and she remained one. When his hands had moved over her, he hadn't done what he had promised in that soft smirking voice while they were dancing. He hadn't taken her slip off, but oh, how warm his palms had felt through it. She had blushed, but no protest had risen to her lips. If he had gone too far, she would have stopped him—but a part of her wasn't completely sure, and he hadn't called her bluff.
Addie looked radiant in Nancy's peach silk dress, although she was still nervous. George wore a black frock, all the better to blend into the background. Nancy's dress was a soft teal with a filmy overlay, a bow in the back, and a trim silhouette; her skirt wasn't quite ankle-length. George had told her that the color brought out her eyes. Ned, when he first saw it, looked almost speechless.
He slipped his arm around her and kissed her in greeting. He looked perfectly groomed and incredibly handsome, and Nancy couldn't help hoping that George had seen him looking like this. Maybe she would understand. Maybe.
"You'll be careful."
Nancy nodded, setting her mind to the task at hand. Addie understood the plan as Nancy had roughly outlined it and was going along with it, but Nancy had been sure to tell her that it wasn't worth her life. She had only been able to tell Addie that if they were successful, they might be able to get rid of Shay for a long time.
Occasionally Ned had to leave her side, but for the rest of the time they were together. Ned knew most of the cars that Riscetti's gang and associates used; a few times, he went out to check the registrations on the cars he didn't recognize. Nancy eavesdropped; because the men viewed her as part of the hired entertainment, while they dropped their voices a bit when she approached, they didn't stop speaking entirely. Addie stayed near Shay, and when the room grew warm from occupancy, Addie offered to take his jacket; when she had offered to get him a drink, he had twined his arm possessively about her waist. Nancy knew Addie was uncomfortable about it, but she was bearing up well. And it wouldn't be for long.
Addie passed the jacket to Nancy, who hastily searched it before draping it over the back of a chair. She found three folded notes, which she passed to Ned the next time she saw him.
And the liquor was freely flowing, and as the guests' tongues loosed, Nancy threaded through the crowd with more frequency. Two trucks arrived with product; Nancy said she needed some fresh air and went out to take down their license numbers.
Whenever Ned passed close to her, whenever he was with her, his arm rested easily about her waist, and losing that contact made her heart drop every time. She couldn't help wondering when would be the last touch.
In the morning, before he had let her go, he had kissed her again, kissed and kissed her, and regardless of what he had told her, it hadn't been a dream. The previous night hadn't been a dream, and the memory of his lips against hers, his arms tight around her, that wasn't a dream either.
The air was thick with cigarette and cigar smoke, perfume and the pungent sting of liquor. Nancy didn't dare to pick up a drink. If the party was due to be busted up by agents at any moment, she didn't want to give them more reason to arrest her.
But if they let her go, and she never saw him again...
On their next pass, Nancy went in to check on Addie, who gestured her into the corner. "Here," she murmured, her eyes wide, and handed Nancy a small notebook in a battered black cover. Immediately Nancy took it to Ned, who was checking his watch.
Any moment. Any second.
And she didn't know what to say to him, or if there was anything she could.
The crunch of gravel sounded different, somehow. She heard no siren, no cry to alert her, but she knew, in that last handful of seconds. They had arrived. It was almost over.
Addie would be safe. That was what was most important. Addie would be safe, and she would be able to leave Chicago and she would be safely out of Shay's reach.
The agents surrounded the house and burst in simultaneously, shouting. Ned was near Nancy, and when he began to pull her down, Nancy did the same to George. "Stay down," he advised them both. His hand was warm on hers.
The agents were more focused on Shay and Riscetti's gang; one of them tried to run and Nancy could hear the shouting, the scuffle. Nancy was hauled to her feet and hustled out to a waiting car; she glanced back over her shoulder. George was okay, even if she was shaken. Ned would make sure Addie was okay.
In anticipation, Nancy hadn't brought any identification with her. She didn't want to have to call her father, but if they took her to a police station, the question of her identity would be cleared up soon enough, especially if she saw any officers she had met before.
Nancy swallowed hard, her gaze locked to the house, waiting to see him emerge. Angry men and red-faced women were being led out; on the lawn, a group of agents had started pouring out all the liquor they could find. She could see the glowing tips of their cigarettes as they gazed down at it.
Then the other car door opened, and Nancy glanced over. Ned was sliding in next to her.
"Oh, thank goodness. You're okay? Did you see Addie?"
Ned nodded. "She's all right. Her and George. I just... I just wanted to see you before I went in."
Nancy gazed directly into his eyes. They were alone in the car; apparently Nancy hadn't looked like a flight risk.
"You were amazing tonight."
Nancy gave him a small smile. "Thanks."
"I mean it."
Nancy nodded, waiting. She didn't know what else he wanted to say, only that he did.
Ned cleared his throat. "I think I told you, I'll still be... around. I just wanted you to know that you made a great partner. And it's a shame you won't be going with me."
Nancy took a slow trembling breath. "If I'm such a great partner, who says I can't?"
Ned paused, then let out a startled chuckle. "Good question."
"After all, there have been female Pinkertons, female spies... who ever said a woman couldn't be a prohibition agent? I think we four did a great job tonight."
Ned's eyes were alight when they looked into his. "Well, one of us in particular, anyway."
Nancy reached for his hand. "You said we were dreaming," she murmured. "If it's okay with you... I just don't want to wake up just yet."
"Me either," he murmured, moving closer to her. "Nancy... it would be dangerous, if they let you. It's hard work. Your life would be at risk all the time."
"But we'd be doing good," she replied, and he nodded. "So I would love every minute of it."
"And so would I," he murmured, leaning down until his lips were a hair's breadth from hers. "If it meant I could be by your side, angel-face."
"Always," she murmured, tipping her face up so her lips touched his.