He didn't want to believe it. But there she was, in another man's arms.
Nancy Drew was absolutely gorgeous, and from their first meeting, from the first time she locked her beautiful blue eyes to his and directed a happy grin at him, he had been in love. She was incredible. The sound of her laughter was intoxicating; everything about her was fascinating. And he knew that she loved him, but sometimes she seemed to forget.
He couldn't help seething as he glared at the man currently holding her. He was tall and had dark hair, but everything else about him was blurred by rage. He was nowhere near worthy of her; he wasn't fit to kiss her feet. Nancy couldn't see anything good or honorable in the other man. It was impossible.
As he watched, a flicker of anxiety crossed her face, and he knew that she was having second thoughts about her lapse. He didn't know what the other man had on her; all he knew was he had to win her back somehow. Considering the time of year, a dozen roses would almost certainly be appropriate. To start, anyway.
But she needed to understand. What she was doing hurt him. Maybe she would apologize, promise it would never happen again, but she needed to realize that this truly would be the last time. Seeing her this way was tearing his heart in two.
He needed to hold her. His arms ached for her. He craved the warmth of her smooth skin against his lips.
It was so close. The end of what had been a terrible year, and the beginning of something new. It was the perfect time to convince her to give up flirting with other men, to commit to him. He imagined a summer wedding; he imagined romantic dates to discuss all the plans they would need to make, lingering over champagne and beautiful meals, seeing her in that gorgeous blue dress he loved. He knew he was getting ahead of himself, but he couldn't help it.
He and Nancy were meant to be together. He just had to find a way to get her to see that.
She glanced over her shoulder, her brow slightly furrowed, and he came very close to stepping into the loud, boisterous crowd surrounding her. Maybe it was subconscious, but her guilt was getting to her. She needed him. His fist ached to punch his jaw. He would take her hand in his, lead her away—listen to her protest that it had been a momentary slip, that she had never truly felt anything for him. All that was true was between them. Nothing else ever could be.
She was meant for him, and he was meant for her. Always.
She looked so breathtakingly, unbelievably beautiful. She wore a metallic red dress that clung to her curves, lipstick to match, tall spike heels; her reddish-gold hair fell in soft, perfect curls. There was no way she had done all this just for that other man; he tortured himself with the thought that she would be coming to see him after midnight. That maybe she would spend a few dances in his arms, but his bed would be the one she would warm. They were meant to be together. She knew that just as well as he did.
The golden champagne was flowing. The waiters passed out noisemakers, ridiculous plastic glasses incorporating the new year in their oversized design, strings of beads. Balloons had been pinned up behind netting, waiting for the clock to strike midnight so they could be released.
He wanted to make a scene. The longer he stared at Nancy and the asshole she was cheating on him with, the harder it was to stop himself from shouldering his way through the crowd around them and standing in front of her. He could imagine tears filling those beautiful blue eyes, as she gave up trying to lie and just apologized for hurting him.
He just wanted all the hurt to be over. He wanted their life to start. And he just needed her to understand.
As the time crept closer and closer to midnight, the already-loud buzz of conversation in the room became almost deafening. Inebriated men and women turned happily drunk. Couples danced with reckless abandon. It was joyful chaos.
But he didn't want her here, like this. He wanted her alone with him, somewhere quiet enough that they could hear each other, somewhere private. He wondered if she wore the beautiful black satin and lace lingerie he so adored under her dress, if he would be seeing it later. If he would feel its silkiness beneath his lips again.
He'd heard it said, many times, that at the moment the new year began, he should be doing something he wanted to do all year long. The thought of it beginning like this, miserable and burning with jealousy as she laughed and flirted with another man, made his heart ache. He wanted it to begin with her wrapped in his arms, those beautiful lips parted under his.
"Ten! Nine! Eight!"
His lips moved soundlessly, his gaze still locked to her. The crowd moved around her, but he kept staring. Willing her to turn around, meet his gaze, and rush to him. Whatever turned her head, he would never believe could turn her heart.
When the crowd reached a shouted "One!", the crowd parted to allow him a clear line of sight to her. He swept her into his arms and planted a long kiss on her lips, and his stomach turned. He looked away, but only for a few seconds. As much as it hurt, all wasn't lost, not yet. He would never accept that.
It would end tonight.
Normally, Nancy would have been excited, even exhilarated. The new year had just begun, and the party had been loud and energetic. The man beside her in the cab was handsome. Nancy knew she looked good. She'd shared a kiss at midnight; she wanted more.
But something was wrong. Awfully, terribly wrong.
He reached for her hand and she wrapped her fingers around his, taking a long breath, trying to calm down. The hair on the back of her neck was standing up. She had so wanted tonight to go well, but it also felt like it was already ruined.
And she was angry. How could he think he owned her, that he could stop her from living her life? How had things ended up this way? She could sense that he was hurt, that he somehow found her responsible, but it just felt so unfair, so miserable.
And somehow she knew that it would be tonight. He would beg her for something she could never give him, and then... it would be over. God, how she hoped it would finally be over.
She gazed at the man beside her. Neither of them smiled, not even a little. Then she took a deep breath. "I will be."
The hotel was one of the nicer ones in the city, and he already had the key to their room. Her hand stayed in his as they took the elevator up to their floor. Everything would be all right, and she knew that, but she was more afraid than she had been in a long time.
She wasn't afraid for herself. It had been a long time since she had actually believed she might be seriously hurt. But it had never been like this.
He keyed into their room and gestured for her to go inside before he followed. The room was dark, and her heart was pounding as soon as she was inside. It was safer for them to be together here. Maybe he wouldn't find out...
She couldn't shake the feeling that he already had.
She turned on the bedside lamp. Then fingers folded around hers, and she turned around to look up into tender eyes. She took a few breaths, trying to force herself to calm down, and reached up to slide her arms around him, up over his shoulders. "Hey," she whispered.
"Hey." He leaned down and lightly brushed his lips against hers, and a tingle went down her spine. Her every nerve felt sensitized, waiting for that other shoe to drop, but when he combed his fingers through her carefully arranged curls and deepened their kiss, that shivering pleasure just became more intense. They were hidden here, safe from the world, and she could be with him just as she wanted—but that anxiety was still holding her back.
She gasped quietly when he broke the kiss. His fingers found the pull at the top of her zipper and she shuddered hard. "God," she whispered.
She had her eyes closed as she shook her head. "No— I..."
But there were no words, and when she forced herself to open her eyes, that insistent fear became more intense. She couldn't explain... but she could feel him.
Anxiety made her gorge rise in her throat. All the sweet champagne turned to acid in her belly. "Okay," she whispered. "Now."
He half-unzipped her dress, and Nancy saw his adam's apple bob once. So he could feel it too. "More?"
They heard it at the same time, the quiet snick of the keycard being swiped, the almost-silent buzz as the door unlocked, the thunk of the door handle being pulled.
He was here.
She started to move in front of the man whose kiss was still sweet on her lips, but he growled deep in his throat, sweeping her behind him. "Stay here," he breathed.
No. Oh, no...
He stood, silhouetted in the open doorway with the light from the corridor casting him almost entirely into shadow, but she could feel those piercing eyes locked to her again. He was of average height, and his hair was dark brown. When he looked at her, he saw a piece of property, a piece of property whose feelings were defined and decided only by him. Idly Nancy reached up and brushed her fingertips over the almost-healed wound on her arm, her gaze still fixed on the man in the doorway. Her heart was in her throat.
Simon McIlvey was a handsome man; that was undeniable. He dressed impeccably, and his charming grins showed off perfect, even white teeth. Nancy had been hired to find out who was threatening his personal assistant, and as soon as she had met Simon, she had been impressed by him.
Later, she had decided, it was only natural. Simon was a sociopath, and that meant he knew how to be charming.
Simon had invited her to several "work sessions," which she later figured out he was seeing as dates. During the first one, a discussion of the case over lunch, he had commented on the beautiful diamond she wore on her left ring finger. "Yes—my fiancé has good taste," she had replied with a grin.
Simon's gaze had returned to his plate, and he had immediately changed the topic.
Simon wanted to be involved in every aspect of the case. He sent Nancy text messages and emails—at first only a few times a day, then more and more often. He seemed very concerned about what was happening to his personal assistant, facilitating meetings between them. One night she and Ned had been in bed, having very intense sex, when Simon had been blowing up her phone with more messages.
She'd had to tell Ned, of course, and then she had told Simon that she appreciated his interest in the case, but she had to draw a line. Simon had smiled and nodded, apologized, but something in his eyes... something in the way he looked at her, talked to her. She had kept her smile in place, but a cold chill had passed over her. She had begun to work hard on the case, in the hopes that she could tie everything up and find the culprit quickly. She had considered bringing someone else in to take over, although her pride was wounded by the idea.
The threats escalated. The assistant, who had said Simon was just overreacting, called Nancy several times to ask her if she had made any progress on the case, if she might know what was going on. She could hear the raw fear in his voice. Then he disappeared.
And Nancy had started to feel like maybe she had been drawn into something far, far more terrible than she had first suspected.
She came home to Ned's apartment the night after the disappearance and opened her top dresser drawer, looking for a pair of socks—and saw her black lace and satin teddy spread out on top of her other clothes. That wasn't how she had left it, and Ned didn't put her lingerie away for her.
Her skin had begun to crawl.
When Ned was in the bathroom the next morning, that anxiety hadn't entirely gone away, and Nancy had been sitting up in bed when Ned poked his head out.
"Did you get some makeup on my razor?" His brow was a little furrowed, but not in anger, just curiosity.
Her skin had crawled again as she had taken his electric razor and tipped it into a zippered plastic bag. A fine yellow powder had been dusted over the head's blades, and her brain had helpfully filled in half a dozen possibilities: a poison or irritant that Ned might inhale or ingest somehow, that might go through his pores and thus into his bloodstream and hurt him. She knew it wasn't her makeup.
He had been there, in Ned's apartment. Simon.
He had touched her lingerie.
Simon's personal assistant Andrew was an attractive, if nerdy, guy who was dating a beautiful woman. When Nancy talked to the girlfriend, she discovered what she had feared. Simon had met Andrew's girlfriend at a company party, and at first his attention had been flattering. Of course the girlfriend had thought Simon was attractive. He was charming and wealthy.
She hadn't seen her boyfriend since he had disappeared, and she didn't think it was some elaborate hoax Simon was perpetuating to keep Nancy on the case. She thought he was dead.
Nancy was beginning to agree. And she was also starting to see a pattern. The pattern meant that Ned was in danger.
She had done what she had to do, to protect the man she loved. She had turned the case over to one of her coworkers. She had told a few officers on the local force and they had done her a favor, keeping an eye on Ned's place when they could, in case Simon tried anything else. She had worked on other cases. But her thoughts kept returning to the last case, especially when the new investigator didn't turn over anything new.
What had Simon done to his assistant? Had he been responsible, or had he hired someone else? He had been so careful with the threats—and the assistant hadn't even seemed all that disturbed by them, but he was a man. It had given Simon an excuse not to call the police. And due to the nature of the threats, Nancy had never been able to get permission to search the servers.
The police were investigating gang wars, shootings, organized crime. There was no body to say that the assistant was definitely dead.
It was hell. And Simon was free.
Then the notes had begun, addressed to Ned, no sender listed. Simon had never entirely stopped emailing her and texting her, but he was smart. Nothing he said was an overt threat. He paid her compliments, suggested dates. Her responses that she was in a relationship, living with her fiancé, were ignored.
She belongs with me.
If you touch her again, know that it's the last thing you'll do.
I'm always watching.
The last note made Christmas a nightmare. She was too anxious to work on the plans for their wedding. She was afraid that visiting Ned's parents would put a target on them. Whenever she kissed Ned goodbye to go to work, she was afraid she might never see him again.
The fear made her angry. On Christmas Eve, while she and Ned relaxed naked in each other's arms, she made up her mind. They had to end this. She had to draw Simon into a confrontation, and she needed someone to take him into custody immediately, before he could make good on any of his threats. Before he could hurt Ned.
When she told Ned, he cupped her cheek in his hand and gazed into her eyes. "He hates seeing us together," he said softly.
She paled. "No," she said.
Only then did he smile, but there was no humor in it. "Hypocrite," he said softly.
Color returned to her cheeks in a flood. "I don't fucking care," she replied, her words coming out in a rush. "I can't put you in danger."
"I'm already there. The only way I could be out of danger is by breaking up with you. Never seeing you again. Leaving you at the mercy of a psychotic stalker who sees me as the only obstacle keeping the two of you apart." He leaned down and kissed her, slowly. "Which is clearly not an option."
She sighed as she looped her leg over him, then rolled onto her back, drawing him on top of her. "Not at all."
Ned didn't want Simon in custody. He wanted the other man dead.
He supposed he couldn't help it. Anyone who threatened Nancy the way Simon had
(if you keep hurting me, I'll have to hurt you too)
didn't deserve to be in any position to make good on his threats. And Ned could see it: Simon hiring some high-priced lawyer and getting off, using his wealth and connections to go after her. He could abduct her, take her to some other country and keep her captive. Hurt her. Whatever was going on in Simon's head, it bore little resemblance to reality.
Simon was dressed like he had attended the same party they had just left, and Ned didn't doubt it; Nancy had told him she felt like they were being watched, like the trap had worked. She had been idly tracing the crusted wound on her arm at the time. An assailant with a knife had gone after her on the street a week earlier, soon after Simon had sent that note. She had wanted to believe it was someone else's handiwork. Ned had no doubt about who was responsible.
Then Simon pulled a gun.
Ned heard a choked sound from behind him, but he couldn't risk glancing back. He had to protect her. He extended an arm behind him just to make sure she remained there, and felt her fingertips brush his. "Put it down," Ned said.
Simon kept his narrowed glare fixed on Ned as he took a few steps forward. Ned knew the sight of her like this, beautiful, in a hotel room with him, dress half-unzipped, would make Simon angry. He hoped the other man wouldn't be too angry. He wanted to go home and celebrate the new year with his future wife in his arms.
"Come to me," Simon told Nancy. His voice was almost—tender. Almost pleading. The sound of it made Ned feel sick. "Come here, honey."
She whimpered quietly. "You have to get behind me," she breathed to Ned.
Ned shook his head once, sharply. "You stay the fuck away from her," he said to Simon, his voice low and hard.
Simon took another step forward, and Ned used his peripheral vision to search for any possible weapon or shield he could easily reach. "You have to stop hurting me," he told Nancy, and he was staring past Ned. Ned's hands clenched into fists. "What will it take? I'll kill all of them, Nancy. This one and all the rest. All those guys you've been flirting with behind my back. Come home with me. Tell me you're sorry and come home with me."
All the guys. A polite smile directed at someone else was enough to set this guy off.
Ned took a breath. "Her home is with me," he said. He could feel his own heart beating, the blood roaring in his ears. The pure sizzling rage was intoxicating. He was just so, so afraid.
It couldn't end this way. Not after all she had been through, not after all they had been through together. To finally be planning a life together, the start of a new year, the year they would be married—
Ned took a step forward. The only word for the sound Nancy made was a choked sob.
Simon's eyes narrowed. "You can leave," he told Ned. "As long as you stay away from her for the rest of your life. She doesn't love you."
"And she has feelings for you, I suppose."
Simon nodded, his gaze shifting between Nancy and Ned, the gun steady in his hand. "From the first time we set eyes on each other," he said quietly. "I knew. We're meant for each other."
Ned's skin felt cold. "And if you can't have her," he began.
Simon's gaze became a glare again. "It won't come to that, if you let her go," he threatened.
"What if she doesn't want to come with you? What if she wants to stay here with me?"
Simon's mouth drew down into a frown. His brow furrowed. "Then there's no reason to let you live," he said, and cupped his hand under the butt of the gun.
Ned had to give them credit. The two officers who had been hiding in the bathroom emerged slowly, without making a single sound, without a creak or cough. They had the evidence they needed, the threat, the weapon. Ned was sure to keep Nancy's body shielded by his as the officers stepped closer.
"Just like your assistant?"
Simon glared at Ned. "Shut up."
"You just wanted to keep her around, didn't you. Instead, she cut you off. All those dates you've asked her to go on—the guy you sent to scare her a week ago. You wanted her to run to your arms, right? But she's here with me. You already killed for her, didn't you."
Simon tilted his head, starting to turn toward the bathroom, as though he had sensed movement there. Ned's heart gave one hard beat.
"Or you just wanted her to think you had. Pathetic."
Simon set his jaw. A vein throbbed in his temple.
"I bet you've never even fired that gun. Pretty boy."
"Is this what you wanted?" Simon shouted, gazing past Ned at Nancy again. "Too weak to resist him? I see the way they look at you! All of them! Even Andrew!"
Nancy made a soft distressed sound. "You killed him because he was competition," she whispered. "Not just to keep me on the case. To make sure I— What the fuck is wrong with you?"
"You don't have it in you," Ned sneered. "Just gave him an all-expenses-paid trip somewhere to keep him out of the way, to keep Nancy looking for him while you kept trying your pathetic pick-up lines."
"She's too smart for that." Ned could see a faint sheen of sweat on the other man's forehead. "She can't find him."
"Liar. She will."
"You killed him." The disgust in her voice was clear.
Ned took another step forward, willing Nancy to stay behind him. "You think she'll fall all over herself to kiss your feet if you shoot me in cold blood, right in front of her? You really are delusional."
Nancy took a deep breath. Then she stepped around Ned, holding her dress together with one hand, the other a fist. "If Ned's in danger then—" She made a soft sound, but her next words were firm. "Tell me the truth, Simon. Did you kill Andrew?"
Simon nodded, staring into her eyes, even as Ned tried to grab Nancy's hand and shove her behind him. She was too close to the gun. Too close to that psychopath. "Come with me," he said. "No one else to tempt you. No more hurting. Come with me."
Temptation. Ned stepped between Nancy and the gun, again. The officers who had been watching and waiting took another quiet step forward.
"Where do you want to take her?"
"Far away." Simon shook his head. "I'll give you everything you want. Everything you could ever want." He held out his other hand. The gun was still trained on Ned's chest.
Ned reached back. Nancy's hand found his and gripped it tight.
Then Ned stepped backward, dropping to the carpet, pulling her down. With every atom of his being he wanted to cover her body with his, to shield her and protect her—but Simon wanted to shoot him. He couldn't put Nancy in even more danger.
"Simon McIlvey, you're under arrest—"
When the gun went off, Ned couldn't help it. He rolled toward Nancy, and found her already moving toward him. They clung to each other and he stroked her hair, as the sounds of the scuffle reached them. The floor vibrated with the impact of bodies.
"Shh. Shh. It's all right."
Every muscle in his body was tensed, but he held her gently. The bullet had passed through the exterior wall, and one of the officers had tackled Simon to the carpet a foot away from them. Simon struggled hard, his face flushed almost purple, his lips slick with spittle as he bellowed with rage. Ned knew he wouldn't soon forget the image.
And Nancy—God, oh God. She was incredible. She pulled herself together, walking down to the waiting police cruiser, talking to the officers. She was a little disheveled, but otherwise looked unharmed. Ned couldn't relax until he saw handcuffs gleaming around Simon's wrists, until he saw the other man in the back of the police car. Away from Nancy. Away from her, with any luck, forever.
At his apartment, Ned carefully locked the door, deadbolted it. Around them, the city was still celebrating the first few hours of the new year, with sparklers and noisemakers, the pop of champagne corks, loud laughter and joy. For Ned, it hadn't quite sunk in yet.
For weeks, nothing had been safe, especially not the woman he loved more than life itself. Every noise, everything that seemed out of place, was another hint, another clue. When he kissed her goodbye every morning, it had been all he could do not to just wrap his arms around her and hold her tight, keeping her with him.
He didn't fear temptation. He feared anything that would hurt her.
He found her scouring the apartment, checking light fixtures, wall sockets, for surveillance. Ned had seen it before, all the places she usually looked. She checked his new razor, wild-eyed, frantic. She was pulling in great trembling breaths. For her, it didn't feel like it was over either.
He came to her and put his arms around her from behind. "Shh," he whispered, and after a brief struggle, she slowly obeyed. "Shh. It's over."
She sniffled. "We have to find him," she whispered. "The—the body. Oh God..."
"It's not your fault. It's not. Shhh."
She turned around in his arms and embraced him, and he held her tight, her feet up off the floor. Her eyes were wet. Her breath was warm against his neck.
Their shoes came off in the hallway. Her dress spilled glittering crimson on the floor beside his bed. Her kisses were fierce, desperate, and she released a startled groan when he laid her down, his knees between her spread thighs.
Oh God. A love that hurt and killed all it touched. But it was no love at all, and Ned knew that.
He couldn't be out of contact with her, not now, not tonight. He fondled her, slipped his hand into her delicate silk panties and stroked her until she sobbed and clung to him, until he felt her slick inner flesh constrict around his fingers. When he came to her then, finally, they were both naked, and he kissed the band of her engagement ring, kissed her collarbone, kissed her sweetly panting lips.
She cried out his name when he first began to move inside her; she reached for him, gripping him tight. "I was—I was—so afraid," she gasped out, staring up at him. "Oh my God..."
"Shh," he whispered, and she arched as she accepted him, tensing and then relaxing against his erection. "I love you, I love you so much."
"I love you," she gasped. "I can't lose you..."
He lowered himself to her. "And you never will."
The fireworks, the shouts, the laughter continued, as midnight came and passed beyond, as the last year died, as the fear and horror died. As their hearts accepted what their eyes had seen. Simon was gone. It was over.
Their lovemaking was rapid, almost frantic, as though they hadn't seen each other for six months, as though they were making up after a terrible fight and were too relieved for words. Her cries, her breathless pleading, echoed in his ears, and when she screamed, her nails raking against his back, he slowed and nuzzled against her, feeling her tremble with her orgasm.
They stayed locked together after, their hearts pounding, skin damp as they gasped for breath. Her fingertips idly stroked the nape of his neck, the marks her nails had made on his back smarting. His lips brushed her neck.
"Ned," she whispered.
He kissed her soft skin. She was so sweet, so vulnerable, and she was his. Not because she feared him, or because she feared what he might do if she left him. They had chosen each other, and they always would.
"Happy new year," he whispered. "The year you'll become my wife."
Her lips found his, and she kissed him long and hard, her legs still wrapped around him. "Forever," she whispered. "My only love, forever."