Ace should say something. He really should. But Nick isn’t saying anything either so maybe it’s okay. Maybe it’s even more polite to say nothing. To save them the embarrassment. Nick had asked Ace to stay after closing to help move the fridge. They had a perfectly legitimate excuse for being huddled behind a fridge in the kitchen after closing, but their silence was a little less legitimate.
When Nancy and Bess came into the Claw with George following close behind, he initially thought it was a group meeting. After hearing Bess’ delicate sobs, it soon became clear that there was a private moment going on between the girls. Ace and Nick shared looks. Should we make our presence known? Maybe it was a decision or maybe they both just froze, but the two men remained silent in the dark kitchen while the girls comforted a tearful Bess.
“I’m going to be alone forever. Lisbeth was right to not trust me after I bailed on her. I don’t deserve anyone anyway.”
“That’s not true and you know it.” George said irritably. It always pissed her off when people were mean to her friends - even themselves.
“It is true. All I’ve ever wanted is love. Family, romance, stability. I never had any of those things before Lisbeth. I certainly never had stability with Odette, no offense George.”
“Ummm… none taken.”
“I just… I messed everything up. I feel so hopeless. I’ll never have the kind of love I want. Maybe I’m always looking in the wrong places.”
“Well…” Nancy said with a smile. “The ghost inhabiting George’s body is definitely the wrong place to look for love. But you will find it. You’ve only really dated Lisbeth, but there are lots of people out there, boys and girls, who could come into your life and bring you all the love you hope for.”
Ace smiled to himself. Nancy was so smart, not just when it came to solving mysteries. His heart ached for Bess but it felt wrong to insert himself in their moment, even for his platanchor. Speaking of…
“I don’t know what to do now.”
“You keep trying, Bess.” said George. “You don’t give up on something that’s important to you. And you’ll find what you’re looking for, usually somewhere you’re not looking. I never thought I’d have someone like Nick in my life. I didn’t see him coming, but it was like one day it occurred to me that I couldn’t imagine life without him.”
Ace peeked at Nick, who had a soft smile playing out over his usually stoic face. Ace had to admit, it was pretty adorable to hear what George said when she thought Nick wasn’t listening. He wondered if Nick was thinking the same thing.
“That’s so sweet,” Bess said with a sigh. “I know you guys are right. But it’s hard to just wait around to meet someone new. I don’t like surprises.” The girls laughed.
“Gil was a surprise for me. A bad surprise - but what we had was a specific moment, and I don’t think I regret it. I don’t know where to start again either. I guess I’m looking for someone who makes me feel stable and loved too.”
“What about Tamura?” Bess asked, a hint of smile in her voice. The change in topic seemed to have brightened her.
Nancy laughed, “Maybe. I don’t know. We’re very alike, but that might be a drawback.”
“Double Nancy is not a drawback; you’re great.” George said.
Ace smiled at George’s statement. A long silence hung in the air.
“What about Ace?” Bess offered.
Ace’s ears perked up at the sound of his name. His heart started beating faster and he almost worried that the others would hear the deep pumping of blood in his ears and it would give him away. The silence in waiting for her answer was unbearable. The only movement he took in was Nick’s eyes clearly dragging to his face. His eyebrow raised as if to say, Dude.
“Ace…” Nancy responded slowly.
“He’s a good guy - not as great as Nick but,” George said casually, “Nick’s mine.”
Nancy was still silent. Ace begged her to answer with his whole body. He was excited, terrified, guilty as hell for letting her talk about him and not revealing he could hear it. But he couldn’t bear to make a sound or move a muscle. He had to hear what she had to say. What answer he wanted, he couldn’t be sure.
“I won’t lie, I’ve thought about it.” Nancy said slowly.
Ace’s chest burst with pride. She thought about him. She’d CONSIDERED him a viable romantic option. No matter what happened next, knowing that was going to be a source of self-esteem that he’d have to tuck away for later.
“And…” Bess prompted. Bless her.
“It would never work,” Nancy sighed.
Ace’s widened eyes began to slip closed. Ouch. He wasn’t sure he could listen anymore. Nick was apparently finding a spot on the floor to be fascinated with.
“Why wouldn’t it work?” George asked.
Ace didn’t want to hear it. No, he wanted to hear it more than anything he’d ever wanted. No. He should stop listening to this private con-
“He’s too good for me.”
Ace perked up in confusion. What did she just say?
“Ace is like, the best guy I’ve ever known. He’s always there for everyone he cares about. He’s risked his life for me so many times. He’s brave, he’s smart, he’s kind.”
“Yeah, I can see why you’d think it wouldn’t work out,” George quipped.
“That’s the problem. I would destroy his life. Danger follows me - and I follow danger. Someone like Ace would always be putting himself at risk, compromising the rest of his life. I can see it already just from being friends. He would start to resent how much chaos I cause, who wouldn’t? My last boyfriend was stabbed for protecting me. I’m no catch. I couldn’t hurt him, or let him get hurt, or watch him grow to hate me for all my darkness. I can’t be as good as he is. He deserves someone better than Nancy Drew.”
Nancy’s confession left the room eerily silent. There was a brief sniffle as if someone was crying but Ace couldn’t tell who. He was in shock. Destroy his life? Hate her darkness? Is this really what she thought of herself? Is this what she really thought of HIM? Every word was so foreign and upsetting to him, as if he wanted to interrupt and argue every point. The only thing that was true is that he would risk his life for her. He would do anything for the Drew Crew, but Nancy was special. That’s the perfect way to put it - Nancy was special. Knowing she thought she wasn’t good enough for him was as baffling as it was infuriating. How dare she not know how amazing she was? How amazed he was by her?
Finally someone spoke.
“That’s not true, Nancy. It’s just not. You deserve good things. You are good.”
Ace silently thanked George for saying something sane, but he still felt unsettled by the dour energy hanging over the room. Did he mention he felt guilty for essentially spying on his friends?
Nancy let out a fake, nervous laugh. “Anyway! Somehow I’ve made this about me. It’s fine. I’m fine. Ace will meet a nice girl who will take care of him like he deserves and I’ll wait for someone more like me. And we’ll both be happy.”
The silence stretched a bit longer. Ace heard the rustling of chairs and sighing and wondered if hugs were being shared. He wished he could go to her, comfort her. He suddenly felt very alone.
“It’s a warm night, how about a walk on the beach? The beach always gives me some perspective,” George offered.
“I think that’s an excellent idea.” Nancy sounded chipper, as if trying to lighten the awkward mood.
There was more rustling, then the bell over the door chimed as the girls exited the Claw.
Ace and Nick remained quiet for a moment longer than they needed to.
“So… wow.” Nick said, searching Ace’s face for clues to his reaction. Unfortunately, Ace had no clue either. It was a lot of information to sort through, a lot of feelings to consider.
“We should have said something so they knew we were here.”
“Maybe so,” Nick said. “But instead we heard what we heard and we can’t take that back. Question now is, are you going to do anything about it?”
“I don’t know,” Ace answered honestly. Nick gave him a pat on the back and wandered back to the office. Ace waited a moment longer, breathing deeply after he realized he’d been holding his breath for a while. He was confused, angry, heartbroken, hopeful, ecstatic. He didn’t know how to sort this out, but he figured he should go to the smartest person he knew, the one who figured everything out, Nancy Drew.
Ace heard the girls up ahead before he saw them. The three were barefoot, holding their shoes and enjoying the cool sand on their feet during the warm summer night. Their arms were wrapped lazily around each other as they leaned in for friendly chatter. He approached slowly, having a lot of trouble focusing on anything other than Nancy’s hair shining in the moonlight and her lilting laugh carrying up the beach on the quiet night. It was getting pretty dark now, but Ace didn’t feel any fear for things that go bump in the night. Instead he felt hyped up, electric, his mind running in every direction and getting nowhere.
He wouldn’t make the same mistake this time. He immediately called out hello as he came up on them. The hello came out more broken and strange than he expected, as if he suddenly had stage fright in front of his closest friends.
The girls looked at him in surprise.
“Ace! Is everything okay?” Bess asked, clearly a veteran in the “come with me, something crazy is happening” routine of their lives.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Everything’s fine. I just uh, I wanted to talk to Nancy for a second.”
He immediately felt a twist in his gut after saying it. Was he ready for this conversation? Surely he should sleep on it, or forget what he had heard entirely. He should carefully formulate what to say to her after searching his feelings and evaluating what he wanted. He should listen to his brain telling him to back off, think it over, don’t make a thing out of it.
Unfortunately, his gut seemed to be in charge, and his gut, no matter how nervous, wanted to talk to Nancy.
Bess and George exchanged confused looks, but quickly wandered off farther down the beach together. He saw them turn back briefly before leaning into each other to talk. What were they saying? Was he being weird? Damn it, he was being weird.
Nancy stared at him, puzzled. “What’s up, Ace?”
Showtime. Say something. Say anything. “Umm…” To stall he wandered closer to the bluffs nearby and Nancy followed, her face doing that scrunch thing it does when she’s concerned.
Ace turned to her but couldn’t bring himself to look at her face. A wave of fear overcame him. Would she push him away? If she really believed what she had said, she might run away if he got too real. He pushed himself to just say things that felt true, and see what happened.
He felt her hand rest gently on his arm and it was like a shock to the system. He forced himself to look up at her. She had moved closer and was leaning towards him.
“Ace, what’s going on? Are you okay?”
Now that he was looking at her, he couldn’t look away. He stared intensely at her worried face, her pursed lips, her wide inquisitive eyes. He knew her brain was working a thousand times faster than anyone else’s. He knew she was strong and brave and generous. He knew she was absolutely beautiful.
“Nancy… I’m okay, I promise. I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m sorry.”
Nancy immediately looked relieved. Unfortunately, she started moving her hand away from his arm and leaning back. Ace panicked at the retreat and impulsively caught her hand in his own. Nancy looked startled but didn’t retrieve her hand. Ace, suddenly self-conscious, let their hands drop in a casual way but held on softly.
“Nancy, I … I guess I want to tell you something - that is, I want you to know something.”
“What is it, Ace?” If he wasn’t mistaken, her voice was considerably lower than it was just a moment ago. She was staring at him, too. They seemed to be caught in each other’s gazes, unable or unwilling to look away.
The summer night breezed through her moon-lit hair. It was such a beautiful color. He felt brave. What was his plan again? Oh right, say things that were true and don’t worry about the consequences.
“I think you’re special.”
Nancy smiled softly. A familiar smile he liked to think she reserved just for him. Like maybe she was laughing at him, or maybe she was comforted. He blushed.
“Yeah. You - everything you do. You’re not like anyone else. I was just washing dishes and watching my life go past me. But then I met you, and it’s like the whole world opened up to me. What we do together - it’s meaningful. It’s exciting. It matters. Every day of my life matters now that you’re in it.”
Nancy just stared, looking a little surprised, maybe a little sad. Eventually she chuckled uncomfortably. “What a compliment to get from the Hero of Horseshoe Bay.” She clearly was trying to lighten the intense mood, but if he wasn’t mistaken, she had moved just a bit closer with the motion of her laughter. From an outsider, the two looked to be already standing strangely close, but Ace felt a charge hum between them, bringing him subconsciously closer.
“I wouldn’t be a hero without you.”
Nancy's face turned sad again. “You wouldn’t need to be a hero if I didn’t put anyone in danger.”
He leaned in just a bit more as if to emphasize his point. His eyes bored into hers. “Funny, I was just thinking about how many people you’ve saved from danger. How many you’ve helped. I’ve been feeling - I think for a while - about how lucky I am that I get to be part of what you do. That I get to be near you.”
“Ace…” Nancy trailed off and he swore her eyes darted down to his lips and her mouth opened just a bit as her face went slack. Was she moving closer or was he?
“Nancy…” And it happened. It wasn’t a crash of tongues or an awkward peck. It was smooth and soft. Like they had glided towards each other with a magnetic force. Like it was natural, inevitable, unspoken. They fit together easily.
Ace felt drugged in the best way. His thoughts and worries melted away and turned into a swirling lightness in chest. He held his breath, he closed his eyes, his body tense and poised. He was struck by the heat of her body so close to him, almost close enough. Not close enough.
He leaned in. Just a bit more. Just a more solid connection. A rumble in her throat encouraged him. He separated their mouths by just a hair, just long enough for him to take a step closer and slide his hand around her waist and firmly to her back, pressing her gently towards him. As he slid back into the kiss, her arms rose up and wrapped around his neck, soft fingers running through the hair by his scalp as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
It was like they’d been together for years. Not a trace of awkwardness or nerves. Not frantic or aggressive. It was warm and passionate and intense as they melted into each other. It was just… lovely.
He broke the connection with hesitation. He didn’t go far - he leaned his head back and touched their foreheads while they caught their breath. He kept her firmly in his arms and relished the pressure of her arms around him. His eyes slid to her face and met hers.
“Ace… what… I…”
“I want you, Nancy. I love you.” There. He said it. And it was true.
Her eyes widened and she turned her head away, as if to get her bearings. He knew over-thinking would be his enemy.
“Ace. I don’t know if we should -”
Ace slid a hand up to her chin and moved her face back to look at him.
“Do you want me?”
“Yes.” She whispered, as if surprised and relieved by her own answer.
“Do you love me?”
“Yes.” Were those tears in her eyes?
“Then we should. Don’t be afraid. I know you. I see you. And I’m not going anywhere.”
There were definitely tears in her eyes now. His thumb slid slowly up from her chin and wiped a tear at her cheek. He smiled. Apparently it was contagious. A giddy grin swept across her face and in an instant their mouths were connected again.
A couple of wolf whistles split through the air and the couple swung around, startled.
Nick, George and Bess were higher up on the dunes, watching the show. George and Bess cheered suggestively; Nick gave a slow clap.
“Oh god…” Nancy hid her face in Ace’s chest. As much as he hated that she was self-conscious by their friend’s snooping, he was pleased that she had instinctively moved to him for comfort. This was going to work. He knew it.
Ace rolled his eyes at the loud trio and gave Nancy a squeeze. She looked up from his chest, a sly smile lingering on her face. He took in that lovely sight for just a moment before grabbing her hand, giving it an ostentatious kiss, and leading her up the beach to their inescapably annoying friends.
He snuck glances at her as they trudged up the dune. He wasn’t annoyed by the interruption. They had plenty of time. This was just the beginning.