For the first time in her life, Nancy truly has no idea what she’s doing.
There’s no plan. No destination. She simply wakes up at dawn on the Fourth of July, soaked with sweat, with a single thought: After everything she’s been through in the past year, the idea of watching the fireworks from the parking lot of The Claw again seems like regression, or resignation, or some other dysfunctional cousin of regret.
So she decides she won’t do it.
Instead, she puts on a striped tank top and stretchy shorts and little white sneakers; she pulls her hair into a ponytail to keep it up off her sticky neck and leaves a note for Carson and Ryan that says she’ll be back in a few days and there’s a bowl of leftover clam chowder in the fridge if they want to risk intestinal pyrotechnics that could rival those that’ll be exploding over the bay.
And then she drives.
The top is down on the Sunbeam, the warm wind whipping loose tendrils of her auburn hair across her flushed cheeks, her eyes squinting a little against the blazing sunlight despite the enormous pair of dark sunglasses perched on her nose.
The air carries the scents of salt and fish and her own suntan lotion; to Nancy it mixes into a potion that smells like the electric charge before a storm, like anticipation, like standing on the precipice of something vast and unknown.
It feels good.
So she pushes the accelerator closer to the floor and leans back into the seat, the engine pulling harder, roaring louder, every mile setting her a little more free. She’s singing off-key with the blaring radio, her fingers drumming on the steering wheel; she’s as close to flying as she can be as she speeds down the coast, the white-capped ocean crashing into the jagged rocks far below.
An hour in and she starts daydreaming about where to go, briefly entertaining the idea of going to see the massive fireworks display they put on down in Boston — but the thought of dealing with crowds of that size makes her sweat even more than the heat does.
Instead, she stops when she reaches Portland in the late afternoon.
Finding a place to park — and grateful once again to drive such a small car — she wanders the quaint downtown for an hour or so, winding down sidewalks and into a few small shops. She picks up an old book for Carson and a sparkly trinket for Bess, brushes her fingertips over a baseball hat and tries not to think of Ace.
(She’s spent two months trying not to think of Ace, but even with all that practice, she’s still terrible at it. It may be the first thing the Hero of Horseshoe Bay has truly, spectacularly failed at, and she’s not quite sure what to do with that — how to process it, where to carry it. For now, it rattles noisily around in her chest, a cold, heavy weight against her heart.)
But today is about heat. And freedom. And not thinking about beautiful-eyed boys on romantic road trips with their equally beautiful girlfriends. Nancy takes a deep breath, blows it out between loose lips, then consciously relaxes her shoulders.
And she walks on.
She passes the small and intriguing International Cryptozoology Museum, frowning at the Closed sign hanging in the window and vowing to drag her friends back to visit it. (For research purposes, obviously. Because if any of those creatures actually exist, odds are they reside in Horseshoe Bay, magnet for all things weird.)
Her stomach growls around dinnertime so she picks up a hot dog at a curbside cart and then a firecracker popsicle from a passing ice cream truck. It’s cold and sweet and painting her mouth and tongue in shades of brilliant red and blue as she makes her way out to the harbor, searching the Eastern Promenade for a place to sit and wait for the show.
She’s strolling slowly, relaxed and peaceful and sun-baked—
—and definitely not expecting to hear someone call her name.
She stops so quickly she nearly drops the popsicle, the bead of sweat that’s rolling down her spine suddenly turning to ice. Because she knows that voice, knows it as well as she knows her own. She’d recognize it anywhere, even here, where she least expects it. Least wants it.
She spins, plastering a smile across her face, hoping it doesn’t look as fake as it feels.
He stares up at her from a worn quilt spread out on the ground. He looks good — tan and rugged, cheeks sharp and stubbled, hair long and wind-tousled. He’s mostly lying sprawled out but has propped himself up on his elbows, hands splayed against the quilt, tendons and veins standing out against his skin. Nancy can’t seem to stop staring at his long fingers.
“I— I didn’t expect to see you here,” she finally manages.
“Ditto,” he answers, and smiles. It’s his rare, broad, beaming smile, the one that shows his teeth and scrunches the skin at the corners of his eyes, and she shifts her stare away from his hands only to slowly drown in that sparkling clear blue gaze, like the surface of the sea on a calm, still, sunny day.
It’s a good feeling, one she’d repressed so hard she’d nearly forgotten it. And now, despite the incessant heat wave, she finally feels warm in a way she hasn’t in months — it’s softer, more molten, something that spreads slowly into all her dark corners and softens the sharp edges, something that reaches all the way down to her bones.
“It’s been a while,” she says, aiming for nonchalant but not quite sticking the landing. Maybe he won’t notice — it has been a while, after all. Eight weeks. Two whole months since she stood on his porch with her heart in her hands and her throat clogged with words and feelings she was desperate to speak, needed to say, only to have her hopes crushed beneath the gardening boot of his well-intentioned mother.
(She and Ryan had eaten every last one of those cookies by breakfast the next day. Her stomach still aches when she thinks about it.)
And in all those eight weeks, she’s been slowly choking on those unsaid words, because there hasn’t been a single bit of communication between them. Not a call, not a text; no email or letter or carrier pigeon. Total and absolute radio silence.
(Her stomach still aches when she thinks about that, too.)
She glances around, looking for that mane of thick, shining dark hair. “Where’s Amanda?”
“New Mexico, most likely.” Ace shrugs, scooting over on the blanket to make room for Nancy to sit, even though she’s made no indication that she plans to stay. “She had me drop her at a bus station less than a week after we left town. We both knew it was the right thing to do — there was just something missing with us. She thought she’d find her piece of it when she tracked down her mom.”
Something that had been wound painfully tight in Nancy’s chest begins to loosen; she takes a cautious, experimental breath around it. It feels good. It feels dangerous.
It feels like hope.
She almost doesn’t dare to ask, “And your missing piece?”
The corner of Ace’s mouth twitches — he’s carefully staring out at the waves on the horizon. “It took me a little longer to realize where to find that.”
“But it’s here? In Portland?”
He smiles again as he flicks his gaze back up at her, this one small and private and a little enigmatic. “It is today.”
Nancy glances around as if the answer is going to materialize there, midair, clearly labeled and ready for her to examine. It doesn’t, of course; there’s too much crowding the space between them, the ghosts of so many things unsaid haunting her, clouding her vision. Still, she can’t help but exhale and take a deliberate step onto the blanket, a hesitation to allow him to stop her before she settles in.
He doesn’t. Of course he doesn’t.
So she lets gravity draw her right next to him, shoulder to shoulder, as if nothing has changed and no time has passed. He’s as warm and solid and unmoving as ever.
Nancy closes her eyes and leans in, breathing in the perfect, familiar scent of his smoke and skin and aftershave; when she exhales, the heavy cage around her aching heart shatters, suddenly and completely, the icy shards melting and breaking free.
It feels so good she can’t help but laugh out loud.
And Ace just nods and nudges her with his elbow, like he understands perfectly.
Because he probably does.
It’s been like this between them from the beginning, as if time is a loop instead of a line. Like they’ve always known one another and always will; their relationship is an endless series of these tiny, quiet recognitions of a familiar soul. Soft, reassuring exhalations of “Oh, there you are,” playing on infinite repeat.
It feels like putting on her favorite sweater, like the comforting click of turning her key to unlock her home’s front door.
She offers him the half-eaten popsicle. “Wanna share?”
The sun is setting behind them, painting the sky in burning orange and red, turning the sea to a navy so deep it looks like a glossy black. Their faces and hands are sticky, the empty popsicle stick discarded and forgotten on the far corner of the quilt.
They’ve mostly been enjoying one another’s presence in companionable silence, but Nancy’s inquisitive nature has begun buzzing inside her brain. It’s growing steadily louder, more insistent, until she simply can’t leave her questions unspoken any longer. She’s staring up at the sky when the first one rises up out of her, her voice quietly burning and rough, the words like a stream of smoke signaling the fire stirring to life beneath her ribs.
“Were you ever planning on coming home?” She manages to keep from sounding wounded, all her acting skills on full display.
“Tomorrow, actually,” he says, the answer fast and easy and unexpected. Nancy rolls onto her side so she can see his sharp profile carved against the darkening horizon. He’s wearing his earring again, the metal sparkling as it catches the last of the sunlight. “I told George to expect me for the dinner shift tomorrow night — running into you today is quite the cosmic coincidence.”
“I don’t believe in coincidences.”
“Of course not,” Ace says. “No good detective does.”
They smile, hers aimed at his face, his pointed straight up to the sky. But both fade when she continues, soft and a little vulnerable, “Why didn’t you call me? Or text? All this time, you’ve just been wandering around alone, and you never said anything.”
He turns to face her now, their bodies curving toward each other like mirrored parentheses, faces so close she can see the tiny freckles the summer sun has painted across his nose, the way his eyelashes fan against his cheeks when he closes his eyes.
“Because I have something I need to say to you that can’t be said on a phone, something important enough that talking to you without saying it feels like lying.” He shakes his head a little, cheek scrunching against the blanket, a lock of hair falling over his forehead. “And that’s something I’m never going to do.”
“You could tell me now.”
He looks at her carefully, studying her like she’s a greater mystery than all the ones she’s solved combined. She knows what that feels like, reaching for the missing clue, spinning the facts around, trying to fit all the pieces in their proper place. So she just lies there, unmoving, unblinking, and lets him find whatever he’s searching for.
But he must not trust what he sees, because when he finally speaks, it’s a simple, almost whispered, “Can I?”
She crawls her fingers an inch closer to him, letting her shaking hand rest in the small empty stretch of blanket that separates them. “You can tell me anything, Ace. Always.”
He inches his fingers forward to match hers, the barest brush of their fingertips sending sparks singing across her nerve endings, electric and burning. Her hair is on fire; the air is so thick it’s nearly impossible to breathe.
“What we do — all of us, the whole crew — it’s the most important thing I’ve ever done,” Ace says, easy but sincere, opening himself up in that way that’s always left her equal parts envious and terrified. “We’re the best thing I’ve ever been a part of. I can’t lose that.”
Nancy swallows. Hard. “Why would you lose it?”
“If I’m greedy. If I try to have too much, reach for something I can’t have, and screw it all up.”
Nancy licks her lips, takes a deep breath, and meets him halfway.
She lifts her hand and traces one finger slowly, carefully across his index finger, over knuckle and bone, tendon and tender skin, all the way to the base of his wrist. She curves her fingers under, feeling his pounding pulse. “There’s nothing you can’t have, Ace. Not when it comes to me.”
He takes a shaky inhale and flips his palm over, tangling her fingers between hers. “Are you sure?” His eyes flick between both of hers, still searching, still a little uncertain. “Because the truth is that I’m in love with you, Nancy Drew.”
The burning warmth in her chest bursts into bloom, a smile spreading across her face, its roots burrowing down into the deepest parts of her. “Good,” she answers, “Because I’m in love with you too, Ace.”
He grins back, sagging a little with relief before rolling toward her with a soft laugh. He lifts up just enough to lean over her, the stars beginning to twinkle in the dark sky over his head. She weaves her fingers into his thick hair as he meets her smiling lips with his own, kissing her slow and careful and deliberate, taking his time. Nancy feels like a paper lantern, on fire as she floats and drifts across the sky on the soft summer breeze.
Because being with Ace, loving Ace, out loud and held safe in his arms after all this time, is like settling in before a warm campfire and with a sweet toasted marshmallow on her tongue. It’s the first sip of coffee in the morning and snuggling into her blankets at the end of the day. It’s a beginning and an end, a flame clearing away everything old and dry and brittle so it can forge something strong and new. It’s the answer to every question and the mystery she’ll spend her life trying to solve.
It’s home. It’s where she belongs.
Ace finally pulls back just far enough for them to catch their breath, his forehead resting against hers, wonder in his eyes and a smile on his lips.
Nancy thinks back over his words, how she loves the way her full name had sounded in his mouth — a gesture she hadn’t been able to fully reciprocate.
She tilts her head a little. “What is your last name anyway?” she asks, stunned to realize that she still doesn’t know.
He traces a finger gently over her cheek and says something—
—but it’s drowned out by the first of the fireworks exploding with a deafening bang over their heads, an enormous shower of glittering golden sparks raining down in slow, flickering arcs.
It’s beautiful. It’s perfect. It’s just like Ace, no matter what his real name is.
So she beams and decides it can wait, pulling him back down to kiss him again, and again, and again. She knows everything about him that truly matters anyway. She knows she’s safe. She knows she’s loved.
She knows she’s truly, finally free.
The only fireworks she sees for the rest of the night are the ones bursting behind her eyelids and burning beneath her breast; she wouldn’t have it any other way.