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Nancy felt a fingertip stroke down her cheek. "Nan."

Ned's voice. Ned's brown eyes gazing into hers as her lashes fluttered.

His shoulder was hard under her cheek, and Nancy straightened up with a soft groan, stretching. "What time is it?" she asked thickly.

Ned chuckled. "Time for bed," he replied, reaching for the remote.

The four of them—Nancy and Ned, Bess and George—had driven down from River Heights that day, to a borrowed lakefront house, for some much-needed vacation time. They had explored the house and gone for supplies, and then, after fifteen minutes of impassioned disagreement, managed to settle on a movie. Nancy remembered the lights being on, cuddling up to Ned, the credits starting while Bess made some microwave popcorn and George flipped through a fitness magazine she had picked up on the way down. Now the magazine was discarded on the coffee table, the bowl was empty save a few unpopped kernels, Nancy and Ned were alone in the dark room, and the movie was over.

Ned ejected the movie and put it back in its case, as Nancy slumped down on the couch, the cushion warm from her boyfriend's recent presence. Her eyes slipped closed again and she relaxed. Her last case had been tough, but even so, she couldn't believe she had missed the entire movie...

"Time for bed, babe," Ned said, and even with her eyes closed she could feel his gaze on her.

Nancy frowned, burrowing a little deeper into the couch. "Jus' five more minutes," she told him. She didn't want to move, couldn't imagine actually finding the strength to move.

Ned didn't say anything, but she didn't hear his footsteps retreat, either, although she could feel herself drifting off again. Then her eyes flew open as he slid his arms under her and lifted her up.

"Come on," he told her, cradling her to his chest, and she slipped her arms around his neck, resting her head back on his shoulder.

"My hero," she murmured, and he chuckled as he carried her up the stairs. She was already dressed in her pajamas, a pair of pink striped shorts and a loose t-shirt; Ned shouldered into the bedroom she was using and deposited her gently on the bed, helping her move under the covers. She released a happy sigh as she nestled into the pillow.

"Thanks," she mumbled.

"Good night," Ned told her, from the door.

She opened her eyes. His hand was resting on the knob, and he was cast into silhouette by the hallway light. His lips were curved up in a fond smile.

"You promised," she said slowly, sliding her folded arm under her head as she rolled onto her side.

"Hmm?" He took a few steps toward her.

"You promised," she repeated, and she was too tired to keep her poker face, to keep the small smile off her face. "That you were going to teach me how to play chess."

Ned's furrowed brow cleared, and he chuckled.

"You keep laughing."

"You're cute when you're so sleepy," he said, and walked over to her bedside. "I think I did say something about that. And all the practice you were going to need."

"I do," she said, all wide-eyed innocence, even though she was still almost drunk with exhaustion. She was perking up a little, though. "And here we are."

He nodded solemnly, then sat down gingerly beside her. "Well, it is a vacation," he mused. "I don't know how stoked Bess and George would be over us—sneaking off to play chess, though."

"They aren't here now," she pointed out, her eyes sparkling.

Ned raised an eyebrow. "Want me to shut the door?" he asked slowly.

She paused for only a few seconds before she nodded. "I'd hate for them to interrupt my concentration," she rationalized.

Ned shut the door, and when he returned to the bed she had moved over, leaving space for him, and tossed back the covers a little. Ned sat down again, but with his legs over the covers, and gazed down at her.

"You don't want to lie down?"

"I do," he admitted. "Very much. I'm just afraid I'll—take the practice a little too far."

"I'll tell you if I'm over my head."

Ned smiled and shifted so he could reach down and caress her cheek. His touch brought a pleasant flush to her skin.

"For you to be so confident, you must have had a lot of practice," she murmured.

"A fair amount."

"A lot of opponents?"

He shook his head. "Not a lot. A few."

"And you've... finished a few matches?" Her gaze met his. "Taken a few queens?"

He ignored the mistake in her metaphor, drawing his hand away as he held her gaze. He shook his head. "Opening gambits, yes," he said. "Some maneuvers. But I can't say I've ever made it to the last few stages of the game."

"And you want to teach me."

"I thought we could learn together." He slid down on the bed, holding her gaze, and rested his cheek on the pillow opposite hers. "And you? Have you... managed a checkmate?"

She smiled, shaking her head. She and Ned had never really been able to talk about this; it was easier, a little, to do it this way, so that she could always retreat into the safety of their game. "Opening gambits," she said. "And, I have to say, mostly with you."

"Oh."

For a moment their gazes just held, locked, and Nancy felt that warm, almost painfully intense awareness of him. He moved toward her and kissed her, and she looped an arm around his shoulders, lightly drawing her fingertips down over his shoulder blades.

"I'm very familiar with that move," she murmured, when he pulled back.

"Knight's gambit."

"Knight?"

"The knight is very chivalrous," Ned explained. "There is a variation, though, if you're interested..."

She nodded and he captured her mouth again, and this time his tongue traced the seam of her lips. She parted them and his tongue slipped against hers and she shivered, her face warming. She grasped the fabric of his shirt in her fist, matching the movements of her tongue to his, and when he pulled back she was panting.

"Too much?"

She shook her head. "Can you—can you get under the covers with me?" she asked softly. "Or—am I skipping ahead."

Ned touched her cheek, his gaze searching hers. "You swear you'll say if you're in over your head."

"Yeah," she replied, and Ned moved under the covers with her. As soon as he did, they moved together, and he paused with his lips just brushing hers before they kissed again.

All of her tingled at his closeness, especially the tips of her breasts, the join of her thighs. Only his lips and his fingertips were touching her, but she felt just as powerless as she would if his full weight were pressing her onto the mattress.

That thought sent a violent shiver down her spine, and Ned pulled back, his eyebrows up.

"You okay?"

"Yeah, yeah," she murmured, pulling him down to her again. "It's just so—perfect," she whispered, just before he sealed his mouth to hers again.

When their lips parted, she had her arms around him, and Ned was panting a little as he gazed down at her. "This is where a—a knight would bid you good night," he told her.

"You already have," she told him. "And maybe you're a black knight."

Ned laughed. "I'm not," he said.

"Well, that's a little disappointing," she replied, and then he was kissing her again, hard, pulling her onto her side so her front was pressed to his. His fingers slipped into her hair and she made a soft noise, frustrated. He fell onto his back and she propped herself up beside him, looking down at his face.

"So... is there a queen's gambit?"

"Like...?"

"Like..." She pushed her hair to fall over her other shoulder and leaned down to kiss him, slow and sweet at first, and then he buried his fingers in her hair and she let herself relax against his chest. She teased his tongue with hers and he looped his arm around her, and she wanted to climb on top of him.

That thought made her shiver, too.

He broke off the kiss with a little pop. "Are you cold, babe?"

She shook her head. "Just... thinking about moves I'm probably not quite ready to try yet."

Ned smiled, stroking her hair. "I'll take this as slow as you want, Nan."

"Slow learner."

His smile slowly faded, as he gazed at her. "How... how much do you want us to do?" he asked, slowly. "I—it'll help me a lot if I know—what's off the table."

"Well, tonight..." She touched his cheek. "Tonight I want to see what it's like to sleep next to the guy I love. And I think I do need some more practice on this move you've shown me."

He made a soft noise. "I'm more than willing to help you out with that. I just need to know where to stop."

"We'll figure it out when we get there."

She chuckled a little when he raised his eyebrows. "You sure about that?"

She nodded. "You're not?" she asked.

Ned opened his mouth, then closed it again. "I'm game for whatever you are."

She smiled. "Good," she whispered, as his mouth met hers again.

Chapter Text

"So, Dad has figured out my punishment."

Jessica Thorne, conniving psychotic sociopath and, technically, Ned's ex-fiancée, had been safely imprisoned for the past four days. Nancy and Ned had gone on seven dates in the meantime. After their latest, when Nancy had dropped Ned off at his parents' house, the porch light had been on. James and Edith had been waiting up for him, and they had been in the dark about the lie of Ned's proposal to Jessica for almost all of their "engagement." They had made no secret of how little they approved of Jessica as their future daughter-in-law.

Nancy glanced at her bedside alarm clock, one arm propped behind her head. She had to get up early—she had promised Hannah she would help weed the flowerbeds before she and Bess went on a bikini shopping trip—but talking to her boyfriend sounded a lot more appealing than a few extra minutes of sleep. Especially since they had so much time to catch up on.

"He was pretty mad," Nancy admitted, rolling onto her stomach. "They both were."

"Oh, I know," Ned sighed. "You doing anything this weekend?"

"You mean other than the fireworks display?"

"Oh, shit. That's why..."

"Why what?" Nancy said mildly, chuckling at Ned's casual profanity.

"I forgot. I... I thought maybe you might want to practice some more chess with me, but..."

"Where?" Nancy pointed out. A small, deliciously wicked part of her wanted him to suggest that he could sneak into her father's house, just as fast as he could drive over, but neither of them had found the nerve for that yet. Plus, when—it wasn't if, it was when—Carson Drew caught a boy in his daughter's bed, that boy would shortly have an extremely unpleasant future. Of that, Nancy had no doubt.

She had loved sleeping in the same bed with Ned, before their last case. Waking up beside him, feeling him move next to her in his sleep, trying to play it off in front of Bess and George... it had felt so exhilarating, so forbidden, but so right, at the same time. His proposal had felt like a natural extension of that closeness... and then he had announced his engagement to Jessica.

The tramp.

Nancy wanted to be that close to him again. She ached for it. She didn't understand why he hadn't just told her what he was doing before he had gone and announced that damn proposal; God, how it had hurt, thinking that he had slept beside her, wanted to marry her, when that hadn't been it at all.

Sleeping beside him again would put that hurt behind her.

Plus, he would probably try something new. That thought made her a little trembly, a little scared, all at once.

"Well, that's the thing," he said. "Do you have your heart set on a fireworks display? I might be able to find one... but you're probably going to want to be with your family..." Ned sighed.

"Spit it out, Nickerson."

"Dad wants me to go get the Cedar Lake cabin ready. This weekend."

Nancy's eyes had been drifting lazily shut. Now they opened wide. "Seriously? That's, like, a—five-hour drive?"

"Six," Ned said mournfully. "So... I'd have to stay there that night and start back in the morning. Wouldn't make sense to rush it in one day, after all."

"Ahh," Nancy said, and rolled onto her back, holding her phone cord out of the way so she didn't get tangled up. "Well, I'm sure they have fireworks in Carbondale. You wouldn't have to miss out."

"I'm just really worried about falling asleep on the trip," Ned said, through a huge probably-fake yawn.

"You could get an exciting book on tape," Nancy teased him.

"Listen to loud rap music."

"Drink a few two-liters of Mountain Dew."

"Plan chess moves to practice with my girlfriend once we get there."

Nancy grinned. "I don't know," she drawled. "Practicing chess, or watching the fireworks from my back porch..."

"I didn't want to have to play this card," Ned said slowly, "but you do know that chess skills tend to deteriorate over time, when they aren't being used. And, Nan, I'd hate for us to lose all the momentum we've gained, maybe backslide a little... That would be a shame."

"You're so considerate," Nancy mock-gushed. "Well, I'll see what I can do. Don't hold out any hope, though." She paused. "Even though Bess and I are going bikini shopping tomorrow..."

Ned groaned. "Babe, I'm going to drive over there and throw you into the car myself if you don't stop it."

Nancy chuckled. "Good night, Ned. Love you."

"Good night, baby. Sweet dreams."

Nancy paused. "You... aren't going to..."

She hated how insecure she felt, how insecure she had felt ever since she had seen Ned dancing with that slut, but it was hard not to feel that way. The strength of the jealousy Jessica had provoked in her had been startling. Almost invigorating. Her insecurity was just as intrusive and unwelcome.

"Sorry," he murmured. "Just thinking about how you'd look in some hot little string bikini with one of those... thong bottoms..."

Nancy blushed. "Ned," she said softly, putting a chastising note in her voice that she didn't fully feel.

"Nothing," he amended. "Ignore me. Just thinking out loud."

"Besides," Nancy murmured, and she could feel her heart beating hard in her throat. "I have a feeling those would be pretty hard to find at the department stores around here. Probably take a special order."

"Probably would," Ned agreed, with a chuckle. "I love you, sweetheart. And... I hope you can get away."

"Me too," Nancy murmured.

--

Ned's parents called the Cedar Lake house a cabin. Nancy had been invited a few times, but had never been able to make it.

Ned pulled up to the property and Nancy let out a low whistle. "Um. Cabin?"

Ned chuckled. "Uh... well, Dad picked this place up for maybe half of what it was worth. You know him. He sees a deal, can't pass it up."

The house was two stories, with large windows that had been shuttered for the off-season. Once they were open, they would reveal a spectacular view of the lake. Nancy spotted a flagstone patio to the lake side, and a short dock. A screened-off balcony from the upper floor held a few covered rocking chairs.

"I always wished Dad would get a place like this," Nancy said enviously. "Can you imagine the kind of parties you could throw here?"

"If this wasn't a seven-hour drive from Emerson..." Ned shook his head sadly. "Of course, maybe they planned it that way."

"So," Nancy said, "I say we have some lunch before we get started."

"Sounds good. Let's divide and conquer."

Nancy went to the store with the extensive list Mrs. Nickerson had prepared—charcoal, lighter fluid, matches, sunscreen; the list went on and on—while Ned started working, anxious to use the sunlight while they still had it. She came back with ingredients for sandwiches, sodas, chips, eggs and bacon for breakfast, orange juice and coffee, plus the other staples. She and Ned ate together at the kitchen table, consulting their task lists.

"Thanks," Ned said with a smile when he rose to throw away his paper plate. He dropped a kiss on the crown of her head before he headed outside, and Nancy watched him go, a small smile on her face.

Then she shook her head a little and set to work.

Her tasks didn't take so terribly long. She made up the bed in the master bedroom, and the room where she and Ned would sleep—and then the bed in another guest bedroom, for appearances' sake. She made sure the soap dispensers were all set out, that the bathrooms were all stocked, and then took the covers off the rocking chairs. Ned had finished taking the shutters off the windows, and the whole cabin felt golden, glorious.

While Ned went to the store for propane and gas for the small motorboat, Nancy swept the screened balcony and pulled out the patio furniture, yanking off the covers. Then she dusted off her palms and went inside, frowning at her dusty, sticky t-shirt. The sprinklers still needed to be set up. She sighed, then had an idea.

Down near the lakeside was a patch of sand, and once she had attached the hoses, leaving the sprinklers themselves in the flowerbeds, she dragged one of the lounge chairs out to the sand and popped the cap on a fresh soda. She wore a threadbare t-shirt as a cover-up, waiting.

Ned came back with the gasoline for the boat and strode down to the water, shading his eyes as he gazed at her. "Show-off," he said good-naturedly.

"You got a second?"

"Sure," he said, slowing.

Nancy reached down and pulled the hem of the shirt up, yanking it over her head. "Can you put lotion on my back?"

Ned didn't respond for a second, and she watched his gaze trail down over the bandeau top and very low-cut bottoms. "Sure," he repeated, and when his gaze met hers again, she felt a small frisson of awareness trail down her spine.

She stood, swallowing, and turned around, leaning over to adjust the chair back, and Ned drew in an audible breath. When she turned back around, he had come almost close enough to touch her, and that expression in his gaze was intense.

"They didn't quite have what you asked for."

"Hey, I'll take it," Ned said hoarsely, then cleared his throat.

Nancy had tried on the bikini while Bess had been looking at the cover-ups. She hadn't had the nerve to ask Bess's opinion about it—or about the other item she had purchased that day. The suit's top was nothing very impressive, but the bottoms were Brazilian cut, and while they weren't quite a thong, they were much closer than anything else she had ever worn in public. She felt exposed in the suit, but she and Ned were alone out here, and the look on his face was just as thrilling as she had thought it would be.

"So you like it?" she murmured.

Ned chuckled. "Just wear it around me, okay?" he said. "Anywhere else and you'll cause a riot."

Nancy colored a little. "Oh, stop."

"I think you said something about lotion...?"

She stretched out on the chair, and they kept up their little game; while only a few hours of meaningful sun were left, she did mean to take advantage of them. "Make sure to get under the edges," she mumbled as he worked the lotion in with firm, smooth strokes. She couldn't fight the little shiver that traveled over her when he just barely slipped his fingertips under the back of her bra top.

His hand moved down to the small of her back, and she had just opened her mouth to tell him she would take care of that, when he kept going. He very gently stroked lotion under the elastic waist of her bottoms, then down her upper thighs—

Her color deepened, and she was so aware of his touch as his palms cupped the revealed curve of her ass. He very briefly moved under the tight fabric and she squeezed her eyes tight shut, feeling an answering tingle between her thighs.

Ned cleared his throat again. "More?"

Nancy pushed herself up a little, aware that she was practically presenting her cleavage to him, and gazed up at her boyfriend. "What do you think?"

Ned's gaze met hers with some effort. "I think if you flip over that I'm going to need to go for a little swim, to deal with it."

Nancy smiled. "Why don't you finish up with your chores so we can get some dinner soon?"

"Yes, miss," Ned sighed, but he didn't move. "Want to catch the fireworks?"

"Definitely."

He nodded and took another deep breath. "Okay," he murmured. "What was I..."

"Gas for the boat," Nancy said, nodding in that direction. As soon as he bent over to pick up the gas can, she flipped over, drawing her hair off her face.

By the time she was getting ready for dinner, a dusting of freckles had darkened over her nose and cheekbones, and her hair looked just a little lighter. She put on a light sundress and threw her hair up in a few bobby pins, and Ned drove them to Carbondale. The streets were crowded with families vacationing nearby, coming up for the fireworks. They settled on a pizza place, and when the waitress came to get their order, Ned took out his fake ID and ordered a longneck.

"You okay with driving?"

Nancy shrugged. "Do I have a choice?" she asked, softening the question with a smile. Part of her wondered if him drinking might make their night together more interesting.

He hasn't even said we'll be sleeping together.

But he was talking about chess moves—

So what?

After dinner, Ned motioned for Nancy to get behind the wheel. "Where's the best place to watch the fireworks?"

"Not where all these people are gonna be," he said. His eyes were bright, and his handsome face was just a little flushed. His gaze had lingered on her for a long time when they were waiting for the check. "Turn left at the next stop sign."

 For a while Nancy thought Ned was leading her to the middle of nowhere, but she followed a faint path and eventually the car came through into a clearing. They had a great view of the sky, and the cover behind them made the spot secluded. "Good thing it didn't rain," Ned commented as he opened his door. "It's impossible to get back out of here if it rains."

Nancy cast a speculative eye at the stars overhead, but the sky was perfectly clear.

Ned pulled a quilt out of the trunk and they spread it on the roof, then clambered on top of the car. "How much longer?"

Nancy glanced at her watch. "Twenty minutes?"

"Mmm." Ned turned his head to face her. "Thanks for coming with me."

"Thanks for inviting me." She smiled. "We still haven't caught up on all that time you spent with—her."

Ned laughed, turning his gaze back to the sky. "And the sooner we can forget about all that, the better."

Nancy's fingers brushed Ned's, and he took her hand. "I think you said something about our continuing our chess practice."

"I believe I did," Ned said, and she glanced over at him. The flush was fading, and he looked more himself. "You want..."

She giggled when he moved toward her, a little. "Not out here," she said. "Back inside. I—I made up three beds..."

"Why?" he asked, his thumb stroking her hand. "Do you not want—?"

"No, I do. Want." She smiled. "Just didn't want to assume."

"Baby, if I can be in the same bed with you, then I want to be," he said. "Besides, we have practice to catch up on."

"Yeah," she murmured. "I... you said something..."

"What?" he prompted.

"That Jessica came onto you, pretty strong." She was looking away from his face, but she glanced back to him at the end. "Like how strong?"

He shrugged. "Uh, making out. She took her shirt off. Prancing around in front of me in little swimsuits. That kind of thing."

"Must have been hard," she said. "To fight her off."

Ned had snickered. "Well, the thought of how you'd react helped."

"She's gorgeous," Nancy commented, trying to keep the bitterness out of her voice. "And she was married, so... she probably knew what she was doing."

"Probably," Ned said neutrally.

"And you had to convince her that you loved her."

"I don't think she really cared so much about that," Ned said. "I don't know, maybe she got off on the thought that she was stealing me away from you. She sure did get turned on whenever you'd act jealous." He turned to look at her again, a faint smile on his face.

Nancy crossed her arms, then realized what she was doing. "So how did you do it?"

"Do what?"

"Fight her off," Nancy said. "She struck me as the kind of girl who wouldn't exactly take 'no' for an answer."

"I told her I wanted to wait for my wedding night. Make it special."

Nancy blinked. She was being foolish, totally foolish. "Is that really how you feel?" she asked softly.

"You want to know the real answer?"

"Yeah."

"The real answer is that I was waiting for the right girl, and I knew when I found her... and I told her that, too. She thought I was talking about her." Ned smiled again.

"So you don't really want to wait."

Ned shrugged. "I'm waiting for you to be ready," he told her. "If it's tonight or our wedding night or... whatever."

Nancy chuckled. "Thought you said you didn't want to talk about getting married for a long, long time," she said, as the first roar rose from the crowd.

"Well, I've had enough of ring-shopping and bridal showers and... being engaged to a psychopath. I just want to enjoy the rest of the summer, with you."

"Yeah," Nancy murmured, as the first fireworks went up. "Me too."

--

Nancy looked down. She had brought two options for sleepwear. One was a tank top and thin cotton shorts; the other... definitely wasn't.

She lost her nerve and swept up the tank top and shorts.

Ned came into the bedroom wearing a pair of shorts and a white undershirt. He ran his fingers through his hair, then smoothed it back down, and stifled a huge yawn.

Nancy smirked at him. "Sure you have the energy for any practice, Nickerson?"

"Hey, I've had a big day," he protested, pulling the covers back. "Six hours of driving—"

"Three," she pointed out. "I did half."

"Six hours of riding in the car," Ned corrected smoothly, "climbing up and down that ladder fifty times—coach'll love that—and then the beer..."

"Well, that was your choice."

"It's July fourth," Ned pointed out. "It's un-American not to have a beer."

Nancy chuckled and turned the lights out, then clicked on the bedside lamp. She slipped into bed with her boyfriend, her stomach jumping a little.

"Shall we do a little remedial work before we move on?"

Nancy nodded slowly. "Oh yes," she murmured, and Ned slid toward her. She curved an arm around him, drawing her fingertips over his scalp as he brushed the tip of his nose against hers, smiling, then kissed her.

He teased her with slow kisses, and she was the first to part her lips to him. It felt like he had scored some small victory on her when she did. He shifted his weight until he was lying slightly on top of her, and she was panting a little when he pulled back.

"You seem to have that down, Miss Drew."

"Oh no, Mr. Nickerson," she protested, drawing him back down to her. "Beginner's luck. Let me try again."

He rolled with her so that he was on his back, and soon she was sprawled against his chest, her tongue tangled with his as they kissed. He idly traced his fingertips up and down the line of her spine, and she shivered at the tingling she felt in response.

"Mmm," she murmured when she pulled back. Ned gazed up at her, his dark eyes heavy-lidded with desire. He looped his arm around her again and their kiss turned hard, passionate. Her breasts were beginning to feel sensitive, and she wanted to slide her leg over him...

She pulled back, then sat up. "Last time, when we were doing this, you asked me..."

Ned sat up too, and the way his gaze lingered on her mouth made her suddenly self-conscious.

"Uh," she mumbled. "You asked me where we needed to stop."

Ned nodded. "I just don't... I think it'd get awkward..."

She nodded, then looked down. "I... I think it would too," she admitted. "And... I think I do want to wait. Until we're married. I know you didn't want to talk about that..."

Ned's gaze locked to hers, and he gave her a small smile. "Until—do you mean when, not if?"

Nancy chuckled. "Well, I mean, your parents told me that you talk about us getting married all the time."

"Not all the time," he said defensively. "Not half the time. I mean, I've brought it up..."

She smiled. "But we're not talking about—doing that, anytime soon. Or that, honestly."

"I didn't think we would. Not until after graduation, anyway."

She nodded. "So maybe... we could do it all over again, after graduation. Another trip to Chez Louis..."

Ned shook his head. "No, baby. Not next time."

"So where, then?"

He shook his head. "It'll be a surprise," he said, his voice low, and tapped her playfully on the nose.

She moved back with a smile. "You're amazing," she told him. "Did I tell you that?"

"I can never hear it enough times," he said, and kissed her again, softly this time.

"So... I thought, until then... we could play... oh, to hell with it," she said impatiently. "We don't need to talk about it like five-year-olds."

"Really, Miss Drew?" Ned said with a grin. "We don't? You want to use grown-up words for this?"

"Yeah," she said, almost defiantly.

"So I can tell you that I've had a hard-on thinking about tonight ever since you said you'd come here with me," he said, his voice low and husky.

"And when we make out like that... it makes me tingle."

Ned grinned. "Same here. Tell me more."

Nancy blushed a little. "I want... well, I want us to have real sex on our wedding night, but... we could work up to that, in the meantime."

"So what's off the table? What do you define as 'real sex'?"

"To lose my virginity," she said, a little more quietly.

"So no penetration."

She blushed a little more. "Yeah. No penetration."

"What about... if we touch each other..."

She had to fight to keep her gaze on his. "We could try that, eventually."

"Like, if I touch you... inside..."

God, the room was too damn hot. Nancy swept her hair up into a loose ponytail and held it in her fist. "Fingers, yeah," she said with a little nod. "Not..."

"Grown-up words," Ned said, a wicked little gleam in his eye. "Not my dick."

"Yeah." Then she started giggling. "I can't believe we're talking about this," she admitted.

"I can't believe you're saying this," he admitted with a smile. "But... yeah. I'm glad. And if I have to just get up and... get out of the room, it's not you, okay?"

"Cold shower time?"

"Cold shower, or... finding another way to relieve the tension."

"Maybe... I could help with that. Eventually," she hastened to add.

"Eventually," he repeated with a nod. "So that's a lot of eventually, and we have a lot to... practice," he said. "What about tonight? Don't get me wrong, I love making out with you..."

"Me too," she said. "And I love sleeping beside you. When I wake up and we're still touching."

He smiled. "So."

"So, you said—she took her shirt off for you."

"Yeah," Ned said, and Nancy kept her gaze locked to his as she reached down and pulled her tank top off.

The bra she wore underneath wasn't sheer. It was an ivory lace balconet bra, trimmed in tiny pink bows between the cups and at the ends of the straps, and it had looked sweetly innocent to her. Her other nightwear option was the opposite, but it was still safely in her overnight bag.

Ned looked down at her bra, until Nancy knew she was blushing. "So if I tell you that she went down on me..."

Nancy smacked him lightly. "She did?"

Ned chuckled and shook his head. "She didn't. I swear. I was just teasing."

"Good."

"She offered to, though."

Nancy's mouth dropped open. "You're teasing me again?"

Ned shook his head. His gaze was still on her bra. "No. Totally serious."

Nancy crossed her arms and Ned's gaze finally went back up to her face. "Babe, I'm sorry," he said immediately. "I told her I didn't want to have sex with her and that was her... solution."

"Like that isn't sex."

He shrugged. "It... well, I mean, if we did that you'd still be a virgin. If I went down on you, you'd still be a virgin."

Her face felt like it was on fire. Why the hell had she turned on the bedside lamp? "Technically," she muttered.

Ned nodded, a little dreamily, and reached up to touch the strap of her bra. "You're so gorgeous, baby."

Nancy smiled, then tugged at the hem of his shirt. "Your turn."

Ned took his shirt off, then slipped his arms around her, pulling her down to the bed with him. She slipped her arms around him in return, and when his bare skin touched hers, she felt an undeniable spark of electricity between them.

He kissed her until she was almost swooning, her mind reeling. His touch made her—God, she wanted to take the rest of her clothes off, wanted to wrap herself around him until he forgot all about Jessica.

His fingertips brushed her bra strap and he slid it down to the point of her shoulder, and she pulled back, her lips red from the press of his, panting. "No," she whispered.

Ned nodded, panting himself. "Sorry."

"It's okay," she whispered, pulling him back down to her. She loved it, loved the way he kissed her, like she was what kept him alive. He broke the kiss and pressed his lips to her earlobe, the soft flesh beneath, and she let out a little moan, panting her breath back.

Then his fingertips drifted down to the elastic band of her sleeping shorts.

"No," she whispered, stilling his hand under hers as he barely began to slip his fingers beneath. "Not... not yet."

Ned brushed his thumb against her side. "Baby," he begged, trailing kisses down her neck. "Come on, sweetheart, I saw you in your swimsuit earlier..."

"That's different," she said firmly, though her panting kind of ruined the effect.

"You have a hot little thong under there?" Nancy shivered when his grip on her tightened.

"Well, you aren't gonna find out tonight."

"You're killing me, babe."

He kissed her shoulder and Nancy ran her hand through his hair. "Ned?"

"Hmm?"

"What... what exactly is... going down?"

Ned pushed himself up on his elbows so he could look into her eyes. "You're pulling my leg, right?"

She shook her head.

He swallowed. "I'll make you a deal," he said. "I'll tell you about it... when I get to see you naked."

She chuckled. "And that's a fair trade-off? You think that's going to make me take my clothes off?"

"Well, you are very curious," Ned said teasingly, leaning down until the tips of their noses were touching, until he filled her field of vision. "And I'm betting that it's just going to wear away at you, not knowing..."

"I'll just ask Bess."

"Really? You don't want me to... show you..."

Nancy closed her eyes, letting out a little moan as Ned's thumb stroked perilously close to the join of her thighs, through her panties and shorts. She cleared her throat. "I... I think that might be... dangerous."

"You and I existing on the same planet is dangerous," he said gruffly, as he captured her mouth with his again. Her fingers slipped into his hair and she returned the kiss easily.

Then he cupped her breast through her bra.

She broke off the kiss, ready to tell him to stop, but he squeezed her gently, and she let out a little moan. He grinned and kissed her again, moving onto his other side so he could cup her other breast, and, God. She felt a soft responsive twinge between her thighs. She gently ran her nails down the impressive muscles of his back and his hips brushed hers.

Ned pulled back a little, and when his thumb brushed her nipple through the lace, she closed her eyes for a second. "Feels good," he murmured, and she nodded her answer.

"It'd feel even better if..." He gently pushed her bra strap to the point of her shoulder again.

"Not yet," she whispered, although it was getting incredibly hard to remember why she was saying no.

"A guy can dream," Ned replied, and she drew him back down to her.

She couldn't wait for the next time.

Chapter Text

Nancy was heading back to River Heights in the morning, via train. Due to her delicate condition—almost dying could do that to a girl—Ned was going to drive her to the station himself and make sure she was set before he drove his car back home. His vacation from Emerson was almost finished, after all.

Bess had been called back to River Heights, and she hadn't wanted to go, not at all. Nancy had insisted. She was fine. The poison had left her a little weak, but the doctors were confident that the antidote had done its work. She would be back on her feet and a hundred and ten percent before the weekend. Dr. Liston was delighted with her progress.

Nancy couldn't wait to get home. She had been grateful—and still was grateful—for every breath she drew, every beat of her heart, but staying in the hospital bed was giving her cabin fever. She was allowed to go down the hall to the vending machine lounge, but that was all, and while her stamina still wasn't quite back up, she still felt like a captive.

The cafeteria food wasn't helping, either. Ned had gone to get some dinner, and had sworn that he would smuggle some in for Nancy. She looked forward to it. Other than the uninterrupted stream of courtroom dramas showing on the small corner television set, his visits were all she had to look forward to.

Ned poked his head into Nancy's room. Her heart lifted at the familiar sight of him. He cast an exaggerated glance around the room. "Nurse Ratched gone?"

Nancy stuck her tongue out at him. The nurses were, without exception, even-tempered, if hurried. "The coast is clear."

Ned produced a brown paper bag. "Visiting hours are almost over," he said mournfully, "so we have to make this quick. Unless, of course, you let me hide under your bed." He wiggled his eyebrows at her.

Nancy gestured impatiently for the food, shaking her head. "They'll catch you," she said confidently.

"No they won't."

"Yes, they will." Nancy unwrapped the cheeseburger, closing her eyes in rapture. Ned had ordered it just the way she liked it, and the scent was mouthwatering.

Ned collapsed into the chair beside her bed, unwrapping his own burger. "But, Nan... I'll be heading back to Emerson soon. And we haven't gotten any chess practice in."

Nancy swallowed the bite she was chewing, raising an eyebrow at him. "Well, I was dying for a while," she pointed out.

Ned's handsome face grew less jovial. "Don't remind me," he murmured.

"Besides, I'd hate for a nurse to come in to check on me and find us... practicing chess," she said.

"I had a feeling you might say that," he replied. He finished half his burger before he spoke up again. "You're so laid back about it—you must not enjoy our lessons as much as I do."

Nancy had to fight to keep her sip of soda down; she had almost spat it out indignantly. "Sweetheart... I love our chess practice. I do."

Ned turned pleading eyes on her. "You're going back home tomorrow," he said. "We won't be able to fool around then."

"We could... I don't know, go somewhere..." Nancy said, trailing off.

"Your dad is going to want to see you," Ned pointed out. "You almost died, babe. Besides, if we did steal a few hours, where would you suggest? Flanders Field? After hours at the country club?"

"I don't know," Nancy sighed, poking at the last quarter of her burger. Her appetite had shrunk so much that she couldn't manage the end of it.

"Which means tonight is perfect."

"Ned, we can't."

"We could lock the door," Ned said, a look of unabashed innocence on his face. "Angle the back of the bed up."

Nancy rolled her eyes.

"Oh, come on, babe," he begged her. "I almost lost you."

"Those two facts have nothing to do with each other," she told him, gazing up into his eyes, faintly amused.

"So are you saying you don't miss it?" Ned said, changing tactics. He stood beside her bed, his eyes dark as he returned her gaze. "That you don't think about it every night when you go to sleep?"

Nancy flushed a little. "I didn't say that," she said quietly.

"I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable," he said. "You're right. I—I'm sorry."

Nancy swallowed and reached for his hand. She said his name quietly, and he came back to her.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I've—I've missed that. I've missed you."

He smiled a little. "Me too."

"Come here," she whispered, and he leaned down to her. Their kiss was gentle at first, but she slid her hand into his hair, her lips parting under his.

Ned stroked her cheek when he pulled back. "I love you, Nan," he murmured, his voice rough. "I love you so much."

"I love you too," she whispered. "Thank you so much for coming up here to be with me, for wasting your break..."

"It wasn't a waste," Ned told her. "Being with you is never a waste. I just wish I could have helped you more."

The door opened, and Ned pulled back. "I know," Nancy sighed. "Visiting hours must be over."

"They are," the nurse confirmed. "But I just heard from Dr. Liston... let me just do a little check."

Ned sat back down as the nurse checked Nancy's blood pressure and pulse and respiration. "Okay," the nurse said with a smile. "Let me just prep the papers, and you'll be free to leave."

Nancy glanced up at Ned, her eyes wide. "What?"

"I just... gave her a little nudge," Ned admitted with a shrug. "I mean, you are doing fantastic."

"Hmm," Nancy said, glancing behind him to make sure the nurse was really gone. "And how on earth am I going to find a hotel room this time of night?"

"You won't," Ned said, shaking his head. "You just have terrible luck, Miss Drew. But since those chess lessons are of the highest importance, I guess I will just have to volunteer my humble abode."

"Keep talking like that and there's no way I'm coming home with you," Nancy told him with a chuckle, swinging her legs over the side of the bed. "And find my clothes, would you?"

--

As soon as she was in Ned's hotel room, Nancy vanished into the bathroom. She knew Ned was disappointed, she could see it on his face, but she had to take a shower. She had been in a hospital bed for days. She could practically feel the germs on her.

She had just slipped her underwear off when Ned knocked on the door. Nancy picked up a towel and wrapped it around her, then opened the door wide enough to see his face.

"Did you need something?"

Ned swallowed before he spoke. "Uh... just wondering if you wanted company."

Nancy gave him a dazzling smile. "I think I can manage it," she told him. "I'll let you know if I feel faint."

The corner of Ned's mouth turned up. "And, even if you don't?"

She shook her head. "You're incorrigible."

"I'm a guy," he corrected her. "And knowing that you're going to be naked and wet on the other side of this door..."

"Eventually," she told him, and reached up to draw his face to hers for a brief kiss. "Now think about glaciers and math and whatever else, because I'm about to get naked."

Ned groaned. "You're incorrigible."

The shower felt amazing, although thinking of Ned on the other side of that door was distracting to her as well. She hadn't quite decided how far they were going to go tonight, but she was positive that letting him get in the shower with her would make things escalate a lot more quickly than she could handle.

Not so many days ago, just being able to come to her boyfriend's hotel room without worrying that she would pass out had been an impossible prospect. But he had come for her. He had gone after Paul when he had thought Paul was responsible for her condition. He had been so worried about her.

She had never really thought about dying a virgin, dying without ever really being with Ned—or dying at all, really. A few seconds staring down the wrong end of a gun or escaping from a trap was worlds away from dying, by inches, over days. Considering how often her cases became dangerous, though, it was amazing that she had lived long enough to even be poisoned.

She walked out of the bathroom ten minutes later, her hair in damp waves, wearing one of his undershirts. Her legs were freshly shaved and her teeth freshly brushed. "Sorry," she told him, "but that was great."

"What did you do in there?" he asked her with a wink, and she gave him a playful shove. She heard him brushing his teeth as she slipped into bed.

Despite all her big talk, her frustration with being in the hospital, as soon as her head hit the pillow she felt a wave of exhaustion sweep over her, until she was almost giddy with it. She felt clean, and safe, and happy, for the first time in what felt like forever. The boy she loved was with her. She didn't want anything else.

Except possibly to make out with him every single second they had until they had to leave.

She heard the exhaust fan in the bathroom snap off, the rattle dwindling, leaving the room quiet. Ned crossed to the air conditioning unit near the door.

"Cold? Hot?"

"I'm okay," Nancy said, snuggling a little deeper under the covers. She blinked her eyes open just as Ned snapped the overhead lights off. The bedside lamp cast a golden halo over the hideous jungle-themed bedspread and low bedside table.

Then Ned stepped into the halo and she blinked up at him, holding his gaze. He just stood there for so long that she started to feel self-conscious, to wonder if she had left a trace of soap on her cheek.

She chuckled, a little nervously. "You aren't going to tease me about being too tired for our lesson?"

Ned shook his head. "I'm so glad you're okay," he whispered, his voice rough.

She reached up, to him. "Thank you," she replied, and when she saw that his eyes were gleaming a little, she felt her own begin to prick in sympathy.

He moved onto the bed, straddling her over the covers, and she slipped her arms up around his shoulders as he kissed her. The touch of his lips was gentle at first, but she parted hers, her fingertips sliding up and down the line of his spine. Their kiss became hungry, desperate, and he slid down until he was just barely pinning her body beneath his, the blankets between them.

She hooked her fingertips beneath the hem of his undershirt and he made a soft noise against her mouth, moving back an inch so she could pull it up. She pulled it to just beneath his arms and he pushed himself up so she could pull it over his head, her lips warm and wet from the press of his, her breath coming in pants.

"Get under the covers," she said, just before he leaned down, kissing her hard again. He moved to slide under the covers and she moved with him, smiling against his kiss.

As soon as they were both between the sheets, they moved together and his hand moved down her side. "Your turn," he murmured against her skin, his lips warm as they brushed her cheek, and she sat up and obediently raised her arms, letting him lift her shirt off.

He tossed it away and just gazed at her. For her trip she hadn't packed any of what she privately referred to as her Ned-underwear—the underwear she had bought solely for his benefit—and so her bra was a basic white, her panties blue with tiny white flowers. She hadn't even bothered putting on any sleeping shorts.

And Ned noticed. She was sure he noticed when he gently pushed down the covers pooled at her waist, to see her visible underwear.

He glanced up. "Cute," he said, with a small smile.

"I gotta say, that red plaid really brings out your eyes."

Ned glanced down at his boxers, then back up at her. "If you don't like them, I can take them off," he said, a gleam in his eye.

"That's okay," she said softly. "Let's just stay like this."

He touched her face. "For a while I was afraid we'd never have this again. I hated that feeling."

"Hey," she said softly. "You're the guy I love, okay? And I don't plan on dying anytime soon."

"I know you don't." He shook his head, his brow creased a little, and his fingertips traced lightly over her collarbone, her breastbone, her side. "But your skin is just as fragile as anyone else's," he whispered, and pulled her onto his lap. His lips brushed the side of her neck, the join of her neck and shoulder, just beside the strap of her bra. "You think nothing will ever happen to you, but Nan... it was terrifying..."

She leaned against the headboard, her eyes drifting shut, panting softly. She could hear the emotion in his muffled voice, and that, coupled with the incredible sensation of his bare skin against hers, was making her lightheaded. Her lids were so heavy, and the warmth of his flesh was clear through the thin fabric of his boxers.

"You know... I never thought about it," she murmured, sliding her arm around him. She kissed the point of his shoulder and he made a soft noise, laying her down on the bed, supporting his weight on his arms as he brushed his lips against the hollow at the base of her throat.

"Never thought about what," he breathed, and she shuddered. God, she wanted to be naked. She wanted to feel him, skin to skin, sealed tight to her—

She flushed. "I never thought I'd die before we could make love."

Ned paused, going still with his lips just above the join of her bra cups. "Baby," he whispered, and pulled back to gaze into her eyes.

"You're the only man I've ever imagined... being with," she said softly.

His lips turned up a little. "So you've imagined it."

"In my head it involves a lot of making out," she informed him with a chuckle. "But, Ned..." She shivered under him as he gently ran his fingertips down her side, brushing against the elastic of her panties.

"What," he prompted, when she let her voice drift off.

She opened her eyes, giving him an incredulous stare. "Well, you try to think straight if I—" She sat up and ran her hand down his side, ticklish-light over his ribs, then gently ran her fingertips just beneath the elastic of his boxers.

"Keep going," Ned murmured, as she self-consciously pulled back.

She shook her head a little, her cheeks warming.

He cupped her hip through her panties and pulled her to him again. "If you don't want to die a virgin..." he said, and he sounded almost serious.

"You mean you don't want to try the old 'We should express our love with our bodies instead of just words,'" she teased him, although her stomach was flipping.

"Hey, whatever works," he murmured, and kissed her again. Nancy moaned a little when his tongue slipped into her mouth, and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to press herself to him, to embrace him hard. She ran her hand through his hair and when they parted she was panting. He gently nipped at her neck and she shivered, letting out a little sigh.

When she pushed him he fell back willingly, and she straddled him, her heart beating wildly. She brushed her lips over the hollow at the base of his throat, down the center of his chest, and he threaded his fingers in her hair. "Baby," he began, but he drifted off when she shifted and her inner thigh briefly pressed against his boxers. She tasted the salt-sweat of his flesh, and a gleam came into her eye as she moved back over him, nipping gently at the side of his neck, the way he had nipped at her.

With a low growl Ned swiftly wrapped his arms around her, then rolled over so she was under him. She looked up at him innocently.

"You did it," she pointed out.

But his eyes were so dark as he gazed down at her that she shivered at the intensity. He looked away for a second. "What does it do to you," he murmured.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean I feel you kiss me like that and I want—" He swallowed. "I mean, do you feel it, here..."

He moved onto his side and cupped his large warm palm between her thighs, over her panties, and she trembled. She had to tell him no, had to tell him to stop. Had to.

But she couldn't get it out of her head, the desire to know what it would be like if she wasn't wearing those damn panties.

"So you feel it too," he whispered, and she had to force her eyes open to look at him. Too much blood. She had too much blood inside her, she was burning up with it, and oh, God, he very gently drew his fingertips up, and she held his gaze as she opened her legs to him.

Ned sucked in a breath. "Shit," he whispered. "If you don't tell me right now, to stop..."

She ran her hand through her hair. "We should stop," she breathed, and he moved away from her. She let out her breath in one swift frustrated rush, as Ned sat on the edge of the bed, staring at nothing.

Nancy sat up, looking over at her discarded shirt. "Should I... get dressed," she murmured.

Ned glanced over at her. "I don't want to stop," he said, and it was as though he hadn't heard her. "I don't fucking want to stop. I don't ever want to let you go, Nan."

She scooped her hair up, away from her flushed cheeks. If he touched her right now, if he pinned her under him and peeled her underwear off, she wasn't sure she would be able to stop him again, that she would even want to.

"Well," she whispered, but she didn't know what to say.

"If we keep doing this..." He ran his hand through his hair. "I just don't want to cross a line that you don't want to cross, and..." He shook his head. "Just seeing you like that is pretty much enough to make me hard."

She colored a little and Ned made a soft frustrated noise. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'll just..."

She still couldn't find the words, and then he was in the bathroom. She kicked the covers back and lay sprawled there, thinking about pulling her shirt back on, but she decided not to. Surely he would tell her if he couldn't handle her being like this.

He just did say that, basically, she thought to herself, and even though the intensity of his gaze had made her tremble in something too close to fear for comfort, the sight of him like that, wanting her... that was something she hadn't felt before. She felt sexy, desired, and it was intoxicating.

Ned returned to the bed, making a soft sound when he saw she was still uncovered. He moved under the blankets and she followed, draping her arm across him, her cheek against his shoulder.

"Ned," she whispered, stroking his upper arm as he looped his other arm around her. "I'm sorry. I am."

"Wasn't your fault," he told her.

"But I'm making you uncomfortable."

"Babe, believe me. As stupid as I know this is, I'd rather be uncomfortable like this, than have you sleeping in another bed."

She shifted as Ned rolled onto his side to face her. "You asked how it felt," she murmured. "When you... when you kiss me like that, when you touch me like that, I want take all my clothes off. I want to kiss you until I stop telling myself no, because when you touch me, I just want more. And... I know we've said we don't want to get married anytime soon, but I think... if we were engaged..."

He was gazing at her lips, and for a second she understood what she never really had before. She felt hypnotized. Her heart was his and whatever he asked her, she would want to give him. He had helped save her and no matter what, a part of her would always be his.

"If we were engaged," he continued, his voice low, "you might be okay with us... taking that last step?"

She bit her lip and nodded. "Yeah. I think so."

"You're just too damn curious, aren't you, Drew." He brushed the tip of his nose against hers.

"If I were really that curious, I'd ask you to marry me right now." She raised an eyebrow.

"You would not."

"Would so."

"Would not."

"I have some self control," she said, in a mock-haughty tone.

"And I don't?" Ned chuckled. "Besides, how can you be tempted when you don't even know what you're missing?"

She didn't know. She didn't know the answer to that, but she wanted it. Maybe she didn't know exactly what was that she wanted, but that didn't make her desire any less.

"And you do?"

"I have a very good idea." He kissed her earlobe. "I know that a few minutes ago, it wasn't really my fist I wanted. I wanted you."

"Oh," she whispered, flushing.

"I wish I could show you."

"You will," she told him, and slipped her arm around him, pulling herself tight to him.

"You give me another scare like this, Nan, and I'll carry a ring around in my pocket."

Her heart gave a traitorous little leap. "Just because you want to sleep with me that much?"

He made a face. "Because I love you. Because I always have."

She kissed his neck, gently. "I love you too, baby. Always will."

Chapter Text

Nancy kept an eye on Nikki Masters’ house, wondering if Dan would return to continue their argument, but even after she and Ned had demolished their pizza slices and were relaxing on the loveseat, the house remained dark.

Ned’s lips brushed her temple. “What are you thinking about?”

Nancy shook her head, trying to dismiss it. Like Ned had said, couples, especially couples as young as Nikki and Dan, fought, and fought in dramatic ways. Every disagreement was the end of the world, and every fight was the worst.

Nancy had a bad feeling about it. She hoped she was wrong.

“I was just thinking that I’m incredibly lucky,” she told him, resting her head on his shoulder. “To have my own Royal Mounted Policeman here.”

Ned chuckled, and she felt his shoulder vibrate with it. “You keep saying that, and we are definitely going to have to find a way to practice some chess.”

Nancy colored just a little in the dark. “I presume calling you a Mountie will be just as bad.”

“Definitely.” Ned slipped his arm around her waist, his fingertips brushing the hem of her shirt. “I mean, it is close to our anniversary. We could make a night of it, get a hotel room…”

“Oh. We could, but considering the case, we’d have to put it off a while…”

Ned groaned, good-naturedly. “Then how about we just make out until your Dad flips off the porch light.”

He pulled her onto his lap and Nancy slipped an arm around his shoulders, closing her eyes as his lips brushed against hers. They both tasted like soda and pepperoni, but God, she loved the tingle that went straight down her spine whenever they kissed.

“Well,” she said, her voice gone husky when he pulled back a little, “we’ll be waiting a long time. Dad’s out of town on business.”

“Oh, is he.” Ned kissed her just behind her ear, his breath touching her skin, and she shivered. “And I don’t have the fantastic good luck for Hannah to be out of town too, do I.”

“As a matter of fact…” Nancy tilted her head to the side, her eyes closed, as his lips trailed down her neck. She opened her eyes again when he pulled back, gazing at her intently, and then she couldn’t keep the grin off her face.

“As a matter of fact, she’s visiting her sister. Won’t be back for a few days.”

Ned blinked. “And when, exactly, were you planning on volunteering that information?”

She shrugged. “I thought it might come up…”

Ned shook his head with a chuckle. “Shit. I mean… do you want to…”

Nancy cupped his cheek in her hand, a small smile on her lips. “Yeah, I do want to,” she answered when he trailed off. “You look chilly, Nickerson. We should get inside.”

“Oh, I’m burning up,” he told her, placing her gently on her feet before he stood up himself.

She felt strangely self-conscious as she let him into her house, flipping on the lights. From habit she checked to make sure nothing looked out of place; given the number of times criminals had broken into her home, trying to intimidate her off cases, it was second nature. “Uh… want something to drink?” she said, heading for the kitchen, as Ned followed her inside, shouldering the door closed behind them.

“I have some soda left,” he replied. “But… Hannah didn’t leave a chocolate cake behind, did she? Because if I’m on a roll here, and I get all my wishes…”

Nancy laughed. “No, sorry. No chocolate cake, not while Dad’s out of town and I’m the only one who would be eating it. I have to watch my figure, after all.”

“No,” Ned replied, slipping his arm around her waist and swinging her around. “I need to watch your figure. I’ll fall on that sword. It is a responsibility of the Mounted Police, after all.”

“To ogle their girlfriends?”

“Among other things.” He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively at her and she squirmed out of his arms, giggling.

In the living room, she flipped on the television and Ned settled on the couch, draping his arm casually across the back. “You are totally positive that your dad isn’t going to walk in tonight,” he said, seriously.

“I talked to him earlier and he definitely said it was going to be a few more days.” She walked back into the kitchen, trying to burn off some of the nervous energy she was feeling. “Let me check in the pantry, we should have some cookies…”

“Nan, I’m fine. Come sit down, you’re making me nervous.”

“You’re making me nervous,” she replied under her breath, as she drew herself a glass of water and walked back into the living room. She didn’t understand it. She and Ned had spent the night together in that hotel room in Chicago, and they hadn’t crossed any of the lines she had forbidden. But here, in her house…

That was, if he was going to stay over.

She realized, when she had that thought, how disappointing she would find it if he didn’t stay.

“So what kind of moves did you want to practice tonight?”

“I thought we were using grown-up words,” she teased him, leaving a few feet between them when she sat down on the couch.

“Okay, what base am I allowed to reach, and what base am I allowed to steal,” he returned, completely ignoring the television.

She considered. “We’ll see,” she said. “I mean, considering last time…”

Ned sobered for a moment. “Hey, as long as you tell me where the line is… I’ll be good.”

She held his gaze. “Okay,” she whispered.

He reached for her hand, not taking his eyes from hers. “Do you want me to head home soon?”

She shook her head. A curious sensation was creeping over her; she felt almost spellbound, lost in a dream. “I don’t,” she whispered.

“I can call my parents and tell them not to expect me.”

She nodded. “I… if you want.”

Ned chuckled. “I’ll be right back.”

She had just heard him tell whoever was at the other end of the line that he was helping Nancy out with a stakeout and didn’t expect to be home anytime soon, when she headed for the stairs. She wanted to take her makeup off, and make sure her room was relatively clean—oh God, he was going to be in her room—and put on something…

As soon as she opened her door, she groaned quietly at the pile of jeans and shorts tangled like an enormous denim octopus at the foot of her bed. Her desk was a mess.

And, on top of it, she saw the box she had picked up a few days earlier.

“Hey, Nan?”

“Yeah?” she called back downstairs, moving rapidly to her desk and shoving the small box under a few loose papers.

“You don’t have a spare toothbrush, do you?”

Nancy smiled, heading for the upstairs guest bathroom. Good old Hannah. She found a still-wrapped toothbrush and toothpaste, and took those to him. He met her halfway up the flight of stairs.

“Did you… want me…?” He tipped his head.

She shook hers. “No, not yet. I’m just going to wash my face, that kind of thing, but I’ll be right back.”

She didn’t know why, but the thought of him in her bedroom now—she needed time to adjust to it. And to decide, without his influence, exactly what she was going to wear to bed.

She moved swiftly through her room, dumping all the dirty clothes into the hamper, shuffling her papers into a relatively neat stack, placing the box on top. She didn’t really have time to wrap it, and Ned wouldn’t mind. She went to her bathroom and scrubbed her face clean, brushed her teeth thoroughly, then went to her closet.

There, at the very back, in a nondescript plastic bag, she kept her Ned-underwear. She wasn’t quite sure why she hid it; her father never went through her clothes, and Hannah would definitely see the satin and lace when she was washing it. But it was private and hers and special, and so she kept it guarded like a secret.

She smoothed out a wrinkle in the counterpane as she dumped out the bag, sorting through it. Bess and George didn’t even know about this. It was just for him.

When she walked downstairs a few minutes later, she felt incredibly self-conscious. The gown was lilac, opaque, and it barely brushed the tops of her thighs. She had put on a white lace bra and panties with it; she felt too exposed, when she had tried it without the bra.

Ned was still entirely, fully clothed when she walked around the couch, and when he glanced at her, she thought he would have to pick his jaw up off the floor. “You’re beautiful,” he whispered, hushed, as though he was realizing it again for the first time.

She gave him a small, pleased smile. “Thanks,” she murmured. “I got it for you.”

“Can I just say, best anniversary present ever? In fact, hands down, best present ever period?”

“Oh, this isn’t your anniversary present,” she told him. “I have something else for that.”

“Is it better?” His tone told her he didn’t see how that could be possible.

“You’ll just have to wait to find out.”

He wrinkled his nose at her, but a moment later he reached over and pulled her swiftly onto his lap. She giggled, sliding her arms up around his neck as he nuzzled against her cheek.

“Thanks.”

“For what?”

“For being you,” he said softly. “For letting me stay over. Besides, I’ve been dying to try out the mattress in your room…”

She clucked her tongue, gently running her fingers through his hair, and when their gazes met she leaned down to brush her lips against his. “Is that all you’ve been dying to try out in my room,” she murmured against his mouth.

In retaliation Ned cupped her cheek and kissed her hard, and she shivered when he drew her close. She felt so damn exposed; when she shifted the hem of her gown slipped up a little, and she had known it would be an almost irresistible provocation to him, to see her in it. He stroked down her back, his fingers catching the hem, tugging on the silky fabric.

His tongue slipped along hers and then he was leaning back, and she was leaning over him, pressing herself as tight to him as she could, craving the contact, the heat he radiated. She wasn’t sure how but she ended up standing on her knees over him, his fingers threaded through her hair as they made out, their kisses deep and passionate. She reached for the hem of his shirt and almost immediately he obediently raised his arms, letting her pull it off him, and once he was free of it they were immediately joined again, and she shivered at the delight of his bare chest under her fingertips.

She pushed her knees forward until she was sitting almost at his knees, and Ned slipped his arms around her, pulling her closer. She was almost straddling his lap, and while she knew that wouldn’t help, she also couldn’t deny how much she wanted to do it.

She glanced up, her blue eyes heavy-lidded. “I think we should go upstairs,” she murmured.

Ned didn’t need any further convincing. He pulled her to him and stood, and she waited a breath before she squirmed against him, trying to stand by herself. His eyes darkened, but he let her go, reaching for his shirt.

She checked the doors and turned off the television before she took him by the hand and led him upstairs, her heart pounding wildly. Habit made her close her bedroom door behind them, even though they were alone in the house.

Ned glanced around, their hands still joined, and she followed his gaze. The framed photo of him beside her canopied bed, her computer and case notes on her desk, her awards shelf. A large stuffed bear he had won for her at a carnival soon after they had started dating. Her jewelry box, full of gifts he had given her.

She dropped his hand to pad across the room, to her desk, and the box there. “Like I said, it isn’t much, and I’ll give your real gift to you on our actual anniversary, but… I thought it might make you smile.”

Ned smiled at her as he took the box. “Thanks,” he said.

She nodded at it. “Open it.”

Inside was a pair of cuff links. Ned chuckled when he saw that they were in the shape of miniature knight chess pieces.

“They made me think of you.”

He closed the box and put it on her dresser, then slipped his arms around her, picking her up in an enormous hug. “You’re amazing, you know that?”

“You may have told me a few times.”

“Well, you are.” He kissed the corner of her mouth. “I have something for you too, but Nan, this? Being here with you? That’s what I really want.”

She smiled. “Me too.”

He kissed her again and she looped her arms around his neck, returning it just as hard, her heart lifting when he walked the few steps to her bed and placed her on it. He moved with her as she scooted back, and she felt impossibly light, her skin tingling whenever it found contact with his. He reached for the hem of her gown and she let him pull it off her, reluctantly pulling away as he tugged it over her head, and when she looked down, Ned crooked his finger under her chin and tipped her head back up so he could gaze into her eyes.

"You okay?" he murmured, his voice husky.

She nodded. "I love you," she whispered.

"I love you too," he replied, his thumb stroking down her cheek. Then he glanced down. "So which side of the bed is yours?"

"Oh." She looked at it, too. "I don't know, generally next to the alarm clock."

He stretched out on the other side, reaching for her hand, pulling her down to him. She propped her head up on her hand to look down at him, her other hand idly trailing down his bare chest. He still wore his jeans; she knew she shouldn't, but she couldn't master the impulse to gently brush her fingertips against the point of his nipple, down the center of his chest, over the line of hair beneath his navel. She hooked her thumb just inside the button of his fly and tugged a little, and when she glanced back at Ned's face, she saw that expression there again, the one that had thrilled and frightened her a little before.

She pulled back, afraid. "I'm sorry," she murmured.

"Don't be," he said, pulling her hand back down to rest against his stomach.

"What do you want to do?"

Ned chuckled. "I want you to do what you want," he told her. "What I really want is for you to climb on top of me and just go for it, but, barring that..."

"Can you take your pants off?"

He didn't even answer, just reached down and opened his fly, then maneuvered out of his jeans. He wore nothing save his boxers when he returned to her, and she slid her arms around him as he pinned her under him, his kisses light and teasing before her lips parted under his.

He rolled over so she was sprawled over him, her chest against his, and she moved her knee to the other side of his hips, realizing belatedly that she was straddling him. She moved back a little to put some space between them as she kissed him, his fingertips leaving tingling trails over her skin as he brushed them over her neck, her shoulder blades.

He gently cupped her breast and she moaned. The sensation was amazing, and immediately echoed between her thighs. He cupped the other, his thumbs finding and gently glancing over her nipples, and it took an effort for her to open her eyes, pupils blown wide, her lips parted.

"Ned," she whispered, kissing him hard, straddling his lower belly, and when he tentatively began to peel the thin lace of her bra cup down, she gasped against his mouth. His thumb slipped beneath and at the direct contact, at the feel of his skin against the hardened tip of her breast, she shivered.

He moved her bra strap down to the point of her shoulder, then made a soft frustrated noise and pulled her into his arms, sitting up with her. Her parted legs were definitely straddling his hips now, and he rocked just a little under her as he kissed her shoulder, her collarbone, pushing her bra straps down. Then he reached behind her and found the hooks.

It wasn't a question, not really, but when he paused she reached up and kissed the point of his jaw, the soft flesh beneath his ear, and he let out a trembling breath as he unhooked her bra. She dropped her arms to let it slide off, then embraced him hard, delighting at the sensation of his skin against her bare breasts.

"Mmm," he breathed when their kiss slowed, his palms wandering over her bare back, but she knew what he wanted. And the longer their hips were pressed together like this, the less control she seemed to have.

He moved her back and just gazed down at her for a moment, and she felt herself blush just a little. Then he cupped her breast again—

She tipped her head back, her lips parting. Oh, God, yes. When his thumb brushed over her nipple again, she gasped, shivering. "Feels so good," she mumbled, closing her eyes.

He cupped her other breast and gently fondled her, his thumbs brushing teasing-light over her nipples, and she let out a little sigh, shifting against him. That felt good, too, and soon she was rocking her hips against his upper thigh, pushing against him in slow firm strokes.

Ned made a small choked sound and Nancy opened her eyes, afraid she had done something wrong. "If you'd move, just a little," he murmured, gently squeezing her, and she slipped her arms around his shoulders.

"You know how you asked if I felt anything, before," she panted.

Ned nodded.

"Yeah," she said, a little vaguely, and Ned smiled, but his eyes were still so impossibly dark.

Then he grasped her hips, pulling her up onto her knees, and she had just let out a soft disappointed sound when he kissed her just between her breasts, trailing his lips to brush against the underside, and then he dragged the tip of his tongue up—

She whimpered when the tip of his tongue flicked against her nipple. "Ned," she whispered, her fingers sliding into his hair, holding him to her, and she felt him chuckle a little as he kissed the other. His lips lingered, and then he pulled the hardened tip of her nipple into his mouth, suckling.

The sensation sent a bolt of pure desire sizzling between her thighs, and she heard a soft, pleading cry come out of her. He rubbed his thumb over her other nipple as he suckled, and she undulated in response, panting. She felt nothing outside his touch, nothing at all.

He switched off, his saliva cooling against her breast before he caressed her nipple with his thumb, and his other hand trailed down her spine to the small of her back. He pulled her to him, and his palm brushed against her ass, over her panties. Her hips jerked in response.

God, she wanted him. 

His teeth grazed her nipple, and when she groaned he gently bit her. She whispered his name again, and even though what he was doing to her felt incredible, the impulse to slide down, sealed tight against him, was stronger. 

Ned sucked in a breath when Nancy straddled his waist, pressed tight to him, and he was firm there, under his boxers. She rocked against him and oh, oh God

"Yes," she whispered, shivering when he pinched her nipples gently between thumb and forefinger. He was moving in answer, against her, and shit...

His hands trailed down to her hips again, but this time he slipped his thumbs into the waistband of her panties and began to inch them down, a little. His mouth found hers and she kissed him hard, her nipples rubbing against his chest as he pushed her panties half down—

Nancy pulled back, reeling, trying to remember why the hell she shouldn't let him do this.

"No," she whispered, and Ned groaned aloud, as though his heart was breaking.

"Baby, you can't rub up against me like that and..."

She tilted back a little, even though God, it had felt so good. "I'm sorry," she murmured.

"Baby..." He cupped her hips again. "I won't, I swear, I won't do anything you don't want, I just..."

She wavered, and she knew he knew it. To stop herself, she sat back. "I'm afraid to," she admitted. "I don't want to... I don't want to do something and then you can't stop and..."

Ned nodded, although his hands were so warm against her. "But, what we were just doing..."

"That was good," she said, with a smile. "Does it feel that good for you?"

He slipped his arms around her as she moved to him again, tipping up to press her mouth to his, her fingertips glancing over his chest. She gently rubbed her thumb over the point of his nipple, and when he growled a little she caressed the other as well.

"Like?" she whispered, and gently bit his lower lip.

Ned growled again. "You seem all innocent, and then..." he murmured, shaking his head.

"What," she whispered.

He cupped her face in his hands and gently bit her lower lip in return, then kissed the point of her chin, stroking his lips along the line of her jaw until he reached her ear. He pulled her earlobe into his mouth, then brushed his lips against her ear.

"I want to love you," he whispered, and she shivered, her eyes closing. "We love each other, sweetheart, there's nothing wrong with it, it'll be just like what we were just doing, but naked..."

She shook her head, slowly. "We can't," she whispered plaintively, although when he cupped her breast again, her entire body seemed to sway in answer.

Ned sighed. "If I had a ring on me I would ask you to marry me right now."

She moved back, running her hand through her hair. "I don't want it to be like that," she told him.

"I'm—you know I don't mean it like that."

She nodded. "It's just... the Jessica thing, and... I don't want it to be just because you want to get me in bed..."

He cupped her cheek again. "Nan, baby, I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Whether we have sex tonight or five years from now, I want to be with you. It's just... it's just that when we're this close... you are just so fucking gorgeous and I know you're hot for me..."

She glanced down. She never meant to rock her hips against his, not like that, but when he was touching her that way, it was all she could do to relieve the tension.

Ned sighed, his thumb stroking down her cheek. "I'm sorry. —Why is it these lessons always end in me apologizing..."

She looked back up. "I'm the one who's sorry," she said. "I don't mean to—to tease you."

He smiled. "You'd be a tease if you hadn't already told me where the line was," he told her, then moved off the bed, heading for her bedroom door.

"I... have a bathroom..." She nodded at that door.

Ned shrugged. "I... I'll be right back," he said, despite her offer.

Nancy sighed and glanced down at the bed. She tossed her bra in the direction of the hamper, even though she'd barely worn it at all, and slipped the gown back over her head. She couldn't shake the feeling, though, that if he did get her panties off, that was it; they would have sex. They wouldn't be able to stop it.

And that knowledge, while still frightening, held a slowly growing fascination for her.

Ned came back and closed the door behind him, returning to her bed. "All better?" she asked, slipping under the covers.

Ned chuckled. "It'll do," he murmured, joining her. "So, you all better?"

She tilted her head.

"You...?" He made a vague gesture, and she raised her eyebrows. "You don't."

"I don't?"

"Have you ever..." He shrugged a little again. "Come?"

"I... no?"

"So when we... make out like that, and I have to go... take care of my... self..." She smiled a little, at the incredibly interesting expression on his face. "You don't."

"I put my clothes back on," she said.

"But you don't touch yourself. Because," he added hastily, "there is absolutely nothing wrong with you doing that, in fact, it would be the hottest thing ever and if you ever do I would fucking pay to be here with you—"

Nancy raised an eyebrow again. "So that's what you go do, in another room, but you want me to do... whatever... in front of you. And how does that make sense?"

"Because you getting off is fucking hot," he told her. He shifted under the covers. "Plus, I was pretty sure that if I didn't get to see you naked, you probably didn't want to see me naked."

"It's only fair," she said. "I mean, I guess it's only fair."

"But you want to watch me... getting off."

She shrugged. "I'm curious," she said, and thumped his chest when he laughed. "Yeah, like you didn't know. And I do want to see... what makes you feel good."

"Sweetheart, when we get to that point—you are not going to have any problem figuring out what makes me feel good. The only real rule is no teeth on bathing suit areas."

"No teeth," she said, with a solemn nod. "But it felt good, when you..."

"Tell me more," Ned said, when she trailed off. "Those little noises you were making... those were fucking hot, too."

She giggled. "You've got a dirty mouth, in bed," she said.

"There will come a point in your life," Ned said, holding her gaze, "that if I don't make you say the word fuck out loud, as in Oh my God that feels so fucking good, I have not done my job right."

"So that's the benchmark we're shooting for."

"Definitely."

She smiled. "I'll hold you to that, Nickerson."

Ned kissed her. "Happy anniversary, Nan," he whispered.

She nestled against him, brushing her lips against the point of his jaw. "Happy anniversary."

Chapter Text

The problem wasn't that Ned doubted their reconciliation on the beach after the boat race. Sasha was out of the picture, after all.

But Ned could still feel it, between them.

He didn't understand.

He had loved Nancy for so long, and while he knew that their "chess lessons" had very little to do with the emotion, a small part of him had believed that their deeper relationship meant something to her. Maybe he had broken up with her, hurt and angry after Mike had been injured; maybe she had turned down his proposal, certain that they weren't yet ready for that kind of commitment. But he had long believed that it was only a matter of time.

Time, though, had done its best to pull them apart. All she had done was spend a few months away from him, and...

Ned didn't want to think about it, but he couldn't not remember. The shocked, guilty look she had worn when he had interrupted her chat with Sasha. The expression on the Russian dancer's face every time he had gazed at Nancy. The way everyone spoke about them, as though Sasha had so easily taken Ned's place.

He had been away from her all summer, but the time had only made him ache for her even more. Given the intimacy they had shared at their anniversary, he had thought she felt the same way, that they would barely be able to keep their hands off each other. He'd imagined teasing her into wearing that scandalously-cut bikini for him, finding a room where they could be alone, pinning her to the counter in the kitchen and practically daring Bess and George to happen upon them.

Instead, it had been another mystery and Sasha and all Ned had been able to think, all he had known, was that his life wouldn't be anywhere near the same without her in it.

He just had to make her see that.

This time, she was ready five minutes early for their date, gorgeous in a strapless navy dress with white polka dots and high-heeled sandals. Over their meal of shrimp and lobster, Ned caught her up on all it had felt impossible to say over the phone. Nothing had seemed interesting while she was gone, and for once he had actually wished for a mystery, something to bring her back to River Heights. She told him in more detail than their swift phone conversations had allowed about the other cases she had worked during the summer, and while Sasha's name came up a few times, he made himself shrug it off.

He had missed just being with her, like this, ever since he had arrived. A few times their feet brushed under the table, and when he glanced at her after, he wasn't imagining the slight blush in her cheeks.

"So what do you want to do now?" he asked, her arm tucked through his, after they finished their dinner.

"Hmm." She brushed her hair out of her face, the sea breeze whipping her skirt against her legs. "I think I'd like to get back to Aunt Eloise's," she admitted. "Maybe we could go for a little moonlight stroll."

"Sounds perfect," he told her. "You're not too tired, are you?"

She glanced over at him, shaking her head. "We only have a few weeks before you go back to school, right?" she asked, and he nodded. "Well. We have a lot of summer to make up for."

Back at the house, Eloise, Bess, George, Tommy, and Gary were watching a movie with the lights out, popcorn and snacks scattered across the coffee table, empty soda cans littering the bar.

"Back so soon?" Eloise asked, glancing at them. "We can start the movie over—"

The other four teens groaned. "How about we just catch them up," George suggested.

"No, no, it's okay. I just need to get changed, Ned and I are going for a walk." Nancy glanced over at him, a soft smile curving her lips. "Don't worry about it."

She headed for the stairs to the bedroom she shared with the other two girls, and Ned leaned against the bar, smirking a little at the soda cans. If this were an Omega Chi party, they'd be doing keg stands and stumbling drunk down to the beach, trusting the most sober people to set up the bonfire.

Tommy launched himself off the couch and opened the refrigerator. "Hey, Ned. We were going to go sailing tomorrow..." he said quietly.

"Sounds good," Ned said, although most of him was wondering exactly what Nancy was going to change into, and how long they would need to walk on the beach before he could smuggle her into his room. The cramped bed would be a challenge, but he didn't expect them to be lying side by side on it. At least, not for long.

Tommy smiled. "How long have you two been together?"

Ned shook himself a little. "Since high school," he said. "Years, now."

"And you've known Bess for a while too?"

Ned chuckled. "She's a great girl. And she seems to really like you."

Tommy smiled. "I know, when you got here, how strange things were... but Sasha didn't mean anything by it. Hell, I had a little crush on Nancy too, for a while." He shook his head. "She's amazing."

"I know."

Nancy stood in the stairwell leading to the bedrooms, smiling at him, and tipped her head to shrug at the patio door. She was keeping out of Eloise's direct line of sight, and Ned could see why. She wore a white sleeveless button-down and cutoffs so short that Ned immediately wanted to run the backs of his fingers up her inner thigh and tease those little frayed edges while he kissed her.

"Catch you later," Ned murmured to Tommy, his gaze still locked on Nancy, as he crossed to her. "Ready to go, babe?"

Nancy nodded, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear.

The beach wasn't entirely deserted, but it was close enough. A bonfire in the distance was reduced to a vague reddish spark, flickering, surrounded by figures whose voices were swallowed in the eternal crash of the waves.

Ned laced his fingers through hers. She was barefoot, and when the sand gave out under her heel, she tipped into him, glancing up, her eyes alight. He didn't want to break the spell, so he just smiled back at her. God, the only thing better than the sight of her was the feel of her lips against his. Or any of the rest of her skin.

He wanted her so much, and he wanted her to be his, forever. No more dreading time she spent without him, wondering if some other man, someone new and different and very much his opposite would turn her head. Feeling her slip away from him had been terrifying. But the harder he tried to claim her, possess her, keep her, the more quickly she would leave. That was just who she was, how she was, and every stolen hour or evening they had shared, he had felt like he was taming some panicked wild bird, that one false move would send her scrambling away from him, terrified and shocked by the possessiveness of his desire.

For not the first time he felt himself wondering if anything would keep her. What if the most elaborate cluster of diamonds in the world, the heaviest band of gold, the ultimate consummation of their desire would only keep her faithful as long as he was in her sight?

But, he reminded himself, they had never yet specifically said they were exclusive. He thought of the cheerleaders and classmates who had barely bothered to disguise their interest in him.

Compared to her, though, they paled to insignificance. He just wished it was the same for her.

Nancy squeezed his hand. "I'm sorry," she whispered.

"For what?"

She shook her head. "For letting it get out of hand," she said. "I never meant to hurt you."

"I can't blame him for falling for you," Ned said. "I can't blame any man with eyes in his head for falling for you. I just..."

Nancy stopped, releasing his hand, and glanced back at the house. They had drifted down the beach, and while they could still see the dim light from the kitchen window, they were well out of sight.

"When I saw Marina, and that blonde girl—whoever she was—when I saw them flirting with you on the beach..." Nancy shook her head. "I know we're both adults, that we've never really said we're... we're not tied to each other..."

"We aren't," he agreed, a small smile curving his lip up. "I distinctly remember you turning me down when I asked."

She made a face. "Yeah," she said softly. "I couldn't even go over there and say anything to you."

"What did you want to say?" Ned asked, leaning close to her, to catch her words over the swell of the waves.

"That it ripped me apart to see them all over you. Touching you the way I wanted to." She was gazing at his mouth. "That I deserved it, but oh, God, how it hurt." She closed her eyes. "After everything, Ned..."

He caught her hands in his. "After everything, to see you look at him that way," he said hoarsely.

Nancy shook her head again, a single tear tracking down her cheek. "I forgot, for a while," she whispered, "that other guys might turn my head... but no one else could ever touch my heart. Not like you."

She stepped in close to him and he put his arms around her, feeling the little hitches in her breathing. "Nan," he whispered, his lips brushing her temple. "No one else could ever be as perfect for me as you are."

She pressed her face against his neck. "I don't deserve you," she whispered.

"Sweetheart..."

She pulled back and gazed up into his eyes. "I don't," she said. "I know, no matter what I do, I can never make up for hurting you that way... But... I thought this might help."

Ned knew he should tell her no, to stop, but when she set her fingers to the first button of her shirt, he couldn't speak. She made swift work of her shirt, glancing around to make sure they were alone before she shrugged it off her shoulders. Ned swallowed hard as she unfastened her shorts and shoved them down too.

He couldn't care less about what she was wearing, only what she wasn't, but his gaze lingered appreciatively on her underwear. Her bra and panties were ivory lace trimmed in rose, and she kept her chin up as he let his gaze touch her everywhere his fingers wanted to follow.

"How do I—"

"You look beautiful," he murmured, his fingertips tracing lightly down her bare arm. His gaze met hers. "Tell me you didn't take many moonlight strolls like this..."

She shook her head. "I have to say, this is the first," she murmured. "Good thing it's still warm out here."

Then she turned to pluck her shirt and shorts off the sand, bending down a little, and Ned made a soft choked noise. The panties were low-cut at the front, but at the back, they narrowed into a thong.

Ned pulled his shirt off, following as she walked toward the shadow of the pier. He couldn't help but glance around, making sure they were out of sight, and paused to step out of his pants. He wished he'd thought to bring a blanket or towel, but then he hadn't exactly expected a moonlight striptease.

When they were well sheltered from the houses by a high dune, she stopped, tossing her shirt and shorts back on the sand, and turned to him. Her gaze wandered down his bare chest, to his underwear, then back up to his face, and he knew his gaze on her was just as intent. She looked so gorgeous in the moonlight.

He didn't care if he never sank to one knee to propose, if they never gave their relationship the benefit of a label. He knew what he felt for her. He knew that no matter what, it would never change, never die.

He dropped his clothes on the sand as well and took a step toward her, but she held up a hand. "No," she murmured.

Ned rocked back on his heels, gazing at her expectantly. "I think we're safe," he told her.

She chuckled, a little nervously. "We never are," she whispered.

--

Nancy looked down at the sand for a moment, taking a deep breath.

A part of her was saying that she definitely didn't need to do this. Maybe Ned hadn't quite forgiven her, but they were on their way back to where they had been before Sasha.

Sasha. God. Ned stood there, his dark eyes burning with the same desire she had seen there before. She couldn't imagine doing this with Sasha; how had she ever forgotten that? Sasha had put her on a pedestal; Ned never kept her there for long, and she didn't want him to. She was nowhere near perfect.

All afternoon she had been wondering if she had just been afraid. Sasha was new and different and deferential; his kisses were sweet and gentle, and he never pressed her. Ned, though... she still grew uncomfortably aware when she thought of Ned's mouth on hers, on her breasts, his warm fingertips pushing down her panties. Ned wasn't safe, the way Sasha was. She knew the kind of effect she had on Ned, and exploiting it wasn't going to help them get past her betrayal any faster. Especially since she knew that one day, he would ask and she wouldn't be able to say no.

But she could reach out and touch it, now, the sheer thrill of being so exposed and seeing the desire in his eyes in response. Maybe not much else made sense to her right now, but she couldn't deny how incredibly sexy she felt, standing before him like this.

She was playing with such fire, here, but now that they had begun, she couldn't find it in her to stop.

She reached behind her and unhooked her bra, letting it fall down her arms, and tossed it to join the rest of her clothes, her heartbeat echoing loudly in her head. Then she swallowed and pushed her panties down.

Ned was staring at her. More especially he was staring at the join of her thighs, and then he glanced up at her face.

He waited a beat, then pushed his own underwear off.

She was curious, she had never denied that, so she gazed openly at his sex. It was the first time she had ever seen a naked man.

"You look so different, from me," she whispered.

Ned chuckled. "That's good. It'd be a huge turn-off if you didn't."

She took a tentative step forward. His sex was red, curved up, and looked much too large to fit comfortably inside her. She had no idea exactly how much room she had down there, but that definitely didn't look like it would feel very good.

"You can touch it," he told her, taking a half-step forward.

Nancy shook her head. "I... I think it would be a really bad idea for us to touch right now."

Ned laughed. "I think it's the best idea ever. Why?"

She shook her head.

"What are you afraid of?"

"Not being able to stop," she murmured.

"Babe, I know I'm horny as hell, but when have we ever not stopped when you said no?"

She gazed at him, pleadingly. "That was different," she said. "We were... I mean, there's nothing..."

She gestured between them.

"Nothing physically stopping us?"

She nodded. "Yeah."

"Other than you saying no if you want to stop." He tilted his head. "Or is that what you're afraid of," he said, more quietly. "That you won't."

Nancy crossed her arms under her breasts. "I'm just trying to be considerate," she said, shifting her weight. "Besides, I think the exact terms of our agreement were that I had to get naked, not that anything had to happen after that."

Ned thought for a minute. "Remind me to close the loopholes next time," he chuckled. "I think you wanted to know what 'going down' meant."

She nodded, then glanced down at her clothes. She spread her shirt on the sand, then sat down on it, Indian style. Ned spread out his shirt and sat down too, so close to her that their knees brushed.

"If you were to go down on me," Ned said, and cleared his throat, "you'd kiss me." He reached for her hand, and her palm was already damp.

"Ned," she said warningly.

"I thought you wanted to know," he told her, and when he brushed his lips against her fingertips, she stopped trying to halfheartedly pull away. He guided her hand down, and she twisted her wrist so the pads of her fingers gently brushed against the head of his sex.

Ned closed his eyes for a second. "You'd kiss me, right there," he said, his voice low. "Then all the way down..."

With his urging she traced her fingertips down the length of him. He felt so strange, so different from her. He was hot, incredibly firm, and moving a little in response to her touch.

"Gentle," he said, as she brushed against—well, she guessed his balls. They didn't look the way she had thought they would, but she had had only the vaguest idea of what he would look like at all.

"So it's just kissing," she said, glancing from what her fingers were doing back to his face as she traced her way back up.

Ned shook his head. He reached down and wrapped her fist around him, and she flushed. "Then you'd put your mouth on me," he murmured. "You'd take as much as you could, in your mouth, and move up and down—no teeth, definitely no teeth. Tongue, yes."

"Oh," she forced herself to say.

"And you'd just keep doing that until I... until we were finished."

"And how long would that take?"

Ned chuckled, although she could hear the strain. Her fist was motionless—she was terrified that if she moved her fingers, he would just tackle her—and carefully she released him. "Sweetheart, I think all you'd have to do to make me come right now is just lick the tip once."

Her blush deepened. "Well... not tonight."

Ned sighed a little. "Can't blame a guy for trying," he said.

Tentatively she touched him again, brushing her fingertips in a feather-light caress over his sex. She traced the ball of her thumb over the head and Ned made a soft strangled noise.

"Not okay? I'm sorry—"

"More like too okay," he told her. She did it again and felt some wetness against her thumb.

"Oh my God, is that—did you—"

Ned shook his head reassuringly. "I'm just really, really hot for you right now," he told her. "That happens before..." He made a vague gesture. "Before the real thing."

"Oh." Gently she explored the base of his sex, the coarse hair that began as a trail from his belly button.

"And if I went down on you..."

Nancy felt a fresh wave of heat pass over her cheeks. "I don't know," she said softly.

"You don't know if you'd like it? You won't know until we try," he pointed out.

"It's just... more kissing?"

Ned chuckled. "Yeah," he murmured, and cupped her breasts, brushing his thumbs over her nipples.

Nancy moaned, tipping her head back. "We need to stop," she sighed, but when he gently squeezed the pebbled tips, her hips jerked. She was tingling with awareness again.

"I'd kiss you there right now, if I didn't think it would give you a heart attack," Ned said. She shivered at the thought of him suckling against her breasts again, and forced her eyes open. She had to stop thinking about it. "But I'd start there. Until you were rocking up against me. Then I'd work my way down..."

No, she thought, as his fingertips drifted down, over her chest, down over her belly. She was panting, almost quivering with anticipation as he reached the edge of her pubic hair.

"I'd slip you open and taste you," he whispered, moving his hand so he was cupping her hip, only his thumb stroking against her coarse hair. "I'd find your clitoris and taste that too, kiss every bit of you, slide my fingers up inside you and stroke you and kiss you until you came."

Nancy's hands closed into fists. "I don't know what that means," she whispered, her head tipped back. "Oh, God, Ned."

Ned groaned. "Baby, I want to make you come."

She nodded, slowly. "I want to do that too," she whispered. "I want to taste you too. I want you to be saying my name when you... when you come."

Ned released a low growl, cupping her hips, and pulled her up to join him on her knees. His sex was hard and hot against her belly, pressed between them, his hand buried in her hair as he kissed her, hard. She felt—she didn't understand it, the sensation of slick tingling awareness between her thighs, as Ned's tongue plunged into her mouth. She slipped her arms around him, pressing her breasts to his chest as she returned the kiss.

They were naked and touching and, oh God.

Ned bit her lower lip gently as he squeezed her breast, and she let out a low pleading cry. Her fingertips fluttered against his hip. If she touched him, when they were like this, would he pin her to the sand...

Ned pulled back. "I have to... baby, I'm about to explode. Do you want to..."

He made a vague gesture and she glanced down. She couldn't resist the impulse to brush her thumb over the head of his sex again, intrigued by the wetness she found there. Ned shuddered, pulling her to her feet.

"Can I watch?" She colored a little. "I just... I don't want to do it wrong, when I do it."

Ned took her hand. "As long as one day, you let me watch."

She shook her head, confused. "What do you—oh."

"Yeah. If you don't like it you don't have to do it... but I want to know how to touch you, too."

She chuckled as they waded into the water. "I don't even know how," she mumbled.

Ned clasped his fist around his erection. "Then I can't wait for us to both learn."

Chapter Text

We have to break up.

Nancy had been practicing the speech in her head for most of the flight back to the States. While Bess and George slept off their exhaustion—none of them had been able to sleep that last night in Greece, dreading their departure after the amazing summer they'd had—Nancy stared at the back of the seat in front of her, without seeing it.

She was coming back with a gorgeous tan, a suitcase full of souvenirs, and a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. She didn't want to have this talk with Ned, but she couldn't imagine not having it, either...

She couldn't believe how difficult it was to picture Ned's face, even now. Her dreams had been filled with the image of a handsome green-eyed blond Australian for months now.

Thinking about Mick Devlin was easier than rehearsing what she was sure was going to be an incredibly awful conversation. Nancy closed her eyes. Mick had proposed to her. He hadn't been angry when she had turned him down. The door is always open, Nancy, he had told her, and even now that thought gave her a warm glow. Maybe in a few years, when she really was ready to settle down, she would take him up on his offer. Travel to Australia, meet his doubtless charming parents. Jet around the globe solving mysteries with him by day, sleeping beside him by night.

Nancy and Mick's relationship had been confined to spine-tinglingly long kisses, tender embraces, the intimacy of slow dances. More would have felt like betraying Ned... despite the terms they had parted on, technically he was probably still her boyfriend, and she felt the slightest twinge of guilt over what they had done. But she didn't have to tell Ned any of that. And when she saw Mick again, when she was free... The thought of Mick on the beach with her, the lean lines of his body turned silver in the moonlight, his fingertips tracing their way down...

"Has the stewardess been by yet?" Bess mumbled, blinking sleepily at Nancy.

"Not... not yet," Nancy managed to say. She was relieved when Bess closed her eyes and appeared to fall asleep again within seconds.

The question came back, the one she hadn't been able to stop asking herself since she had turned down Mick's offer.

If she could fall so hard for Mick, how could she stay with Ned?

For Ned, she was enough. Any flirtation he had with another woman—and a small part of her hoped that while she had been gone, he had dated other people, given her some vague retroactive excuse, even though that thought still filled her with dull rage—would remain a flirtation.

But she had seen it all, in that argument before she had boarded the plane in Chicago at the beginning of the summer. Ned wanted an ordinary life. He wanted the boring nine-to-five job at an insurance agency, or some place equally thrilling. He wanted the kind of woman who would be happy to entertain his friends and stay around the house and exist for only him.

Nancy knew she wasn't that person, would never be that person. She needed a guy like Mick. Oh, Mick would have been perfect—if he just hadn't proposed. A part of her wondered if she would ever feel ready for that kind of commitment to anyone, even Mick.

Even Ned.

It was unfair to Ned, to keep him this way. The adoration Ned felt for her... she couldn't deny that it thrilled her. The time they had managed to steal, the way his lips felt against hers, against her skin as they trailed down...

She shook her head. No.

The letter he had sent her, that she had received in Greece, had felt different. His last paragraph had been short, to the point. I'm sorry about how we said goodbye, and I miss you, Nancy. Let's take some time together when you get back. Let me make it up to you.

She didn't, she did not want him to make it up to her. How had she ever been so foolish as to believe that she would stay with him her whole life? He was worried for her all the time; if they were married, it would only take a few months for him to forbid her detective work. And then, oh, it would be over between them. It was over now; they just hadn't said the words. The first brush of Mick's lips against hers, it seemed, had made her sure of it.

--

When Nancy woke in her bed in River Heights at eleven o'clock the next morning, Ned was gazing at her.

Nancy blinked at the framed photo beside her bed. Ned had called for her the day before, left a message for her to call when she came in; she had been, honestly, too tired to do anything more than pull her clothes off and climb into bed when she came home.

When she had gone to sleep, her stomach had been a solid knot of worry, at the idea of speaking to Ned. A part of her wanted to call him immediately, tell him that she would meet him for lunch or something—she was sure he was still just as devoted to his blasted job as he had been when she had left—and just get it over with, just rip the bandage off.

She closed her eyes, shoving her tousled hair out of her face. The urgency that had filled her yesterday had calmed a little.

But to tell Ned, to actually admit to him what had happened with Mick...

She couldn't win. She was going to hurt him either way, by breaking up with him or by admitting what she had done. And putting things off had never made them much easier.

A shower first would help, though. And breakfast. She had missed Hannah's cooking.

Then she told herself that Ned wouldn't appreciate her calling his work, and the prospect of talking to Ned's mother when she felt like this couldn't have been less appealing.

Hannah answered the phone at seven o'clock that night, as Nancy caught up with the local news report, a bowl of ice cream in her hands. "For you," Hannah mouthed, handing the phone over.

Ned.

Nancy's heart flipped, and she swallowed hard before bringing the receiver to her ear. "Hello?"

"Hi Nan," Ned said. "I know you're probably exhausted and I don't know if you got my letter, but I just wanted to tell you I'm sorry. I'm sorry for—for not going with you. A few times, I thought about taking a week's vacation... I don't know, the longer it went, I just..."

When he trailed off, Nancy blinked. He didn't usually sound quite so nervous. "I... yeah, I am tired, but I did get your message. I just didn't know what your schedule was like today, and I didn't want to interrupt..."

"I wish you had," Ned said. "Nan, I missed you. I am so sorry I let this come between us. You... you're mad, aren't you."

"A little," she said, and suddenly realized it was true.

"I know you just got back, but my cousin Evan and his wife Laurel invited me out to their house in San Francisco for a week and a half, and they'd... they'd love for you to come, too." Ned cleared his throat. "I thought it would give us a chance to catch up."

A week and a half with Ned? A week and a half? Nancy's throat started to close up.

"Please say yes," Ned said quietly. "Nan, please. It's not too long before the fall semester starts, and... this could be perfect."

Her nose was suddenly closed up. Nancy took a deep breath over the lump in her throat, a tear tracking down her cheek. She hadn't heard his voice in what felt like years, and she couldn't even imagine what actually seeing him was going to do to her. Her heart ached. No matter what, she was going to hurt him.

She could fly back from San Francisco early if it got out of hand. Or maybe spending that much time with him, without his work or a case to distract them, would prove to her once and for all whether she had made the right decision. What she had felt for Mick had seemed to eclipse everything; now that he was out of her life for a while—she wouldn't put it past him to surprise her by flying in to Chicago, though—it would be good to figure out who she was again. Her summer in Europe had been amazing, but she was home now, where she had decided she belonged.

Ned was such a huge part of that, had been a huge part of it for so long. Was he still?

"Nan?"

Nancy realized that Hannah was staring curiously at her, as Ned hesitantly said her name. "Um... do you mind if I check with my Dad, make sure? I think... I think we could..."

"Great," Ned said warmly. "Just let me know what he says, okay? Evan and Laurel are so excited for us to come out there."

Us. He had already basically told them she was going, apparently. Nancy tried to feel angry about it, but the tumult inside her had just left her numb to everything else.

"Okay," Nancy said, wiping her face. "I'll check with him and call you back. ...Good night."

"Good night."

Hannah took the phone again, then immediately turned back to Nancy. "Okay, what's going on," she demanded.

Nancy wiped her face again. "I'm about to make the stupidest decision of my life," she said softly.

Two days later, the day before Nancy and Ned were supposed to leave, she still hadn't seen him in person. Her father had grumbled but had given his blessing, and Nancy was packing for the trip, wondering if she and Ned would even make it through the X-ray machine at the airport before they were having the kind of argument that made the original seem like child's play.

She didn't want to lie to him, but with every passing day, her silence felt like another lie. When she thought with some vague longing back on her time with Mick, she realized how carefree it had all seemed, and how incredibly exciting. She had never seen Mick at rest, not really, and the fact that he had just jumped on a plane and followed her to Italy, then Greece... and the way he kissed, his easy smile...

She had been swept up in it all, and then, when she had told Mick she couldn't marry him, he hadn't suggested that they try to maintain a long-distance relationship, that he could come visit her back in the States.

I'll never forget you.

Like he was letting her go in the same moment she told him that she wasn't ready. She was his bride, or... what, nothing to him?

That wasn't true, and she chastised herself for thinking it.

She had turned Ned's marriage proposal down and then nearly immediately they had been working on a case together.

Nancy shook her head. No calls or letters or any other communication from Mick since she had returned.

I'll never forget you.

She was sure she would never forget him. But he hadn't really tried to keep her, either.

"Nancy! Telephone!"

Nancy let the shirt she had absently been folding and refolding for five minutes already drop onto the suitcase and picked up her bedroom extension. "Hello?"

"Nancy?" an unfamiliar female voice asked.

"Yes," Nancy said cautiously. "Speaking."

"Oh, good. I'm sorry, I just—this is Laurel Chandler, my husband is Ned's cousin Evan—"

"Oh, hi," Nancy said, her voice brightening a little. "I'm sorry. I'm—I'm looking forward to meeting you."

"I'm looking forward to meeting you, too," Laurel said, a smile in her voice. "I just had a question, and... it's kind of embarrassing, but I didn't want to assume anything..."

Nancy raised an eyebrow. "Um... so what's the question?"

"Will you and Ned be sharing a bedroom, while you're staying here?" she asked, and rushed to add, "I mean, it's totally fine if you will be, I just didn't want to say 'Here's your room' if you weren't—"

Nancy knew her face was hot. "Uh—no," she said, firmly. "No. Separate bedrooms. And—thanks for asking. It's... really nice of you to offer."

Laurel chuckled. "See? We're already off to the right foot. I ask you the single most awkward question ever before we've even met. I'll have to make a really epic welcome basket to make it up to you."

"Oh, don't worry about it," Nancy reassured her. "Really. It's... it was really nice of you to ask, and now I'll just forget all about it, won't bring it up, it's okay. Honestly."

Nancy hung up the phone once she had sufficiently reassured Laurel, then wandered over to the closet, lost in thought. Not so long ago, she would have taken Laurel up on her offer, shared a little conspiratorial giggle over it... But now, the prospect of getting on a plane with Ned, spending so much time with him, was enough to send her into cold sweats.

This was going to make or break them. After this trip she would know for sure if they should be together or not...

She glanced at her bedroom door, then found the bag at the back of her closet.

Well, packing the underwear didn't mean she had to wear it.

--

After Tina was led away and the case was over, the conversation Nancy had overheard between Ned and Laurel stuck with her. Ned knew something had happened while she was in Europe. She just hadn't found the words to tell him exactly what.

And when Ned said that he didn't want the career that had nearly ended his life—the glamorous, exciting modeling career, so different from what she saw as the incredibly boring job he'd become focused on at the insurance agency, the career that could put his name out there in a big way—and said he had found the person he wanted to share his actual life with, she had smiled in agreement, her heart lifting. She had been wrong, so wrong to doubt this, to let a stupid fight tear them apart this way. To let some exotic Australian detective come between them this way.

But this life he wanted... she couldn't start it like this.

That night she put on a summery tiered dress in a delicate floral pattern and knocked on Ned's door. When he answered, she went inside, melting a little when his dark brown eyes met hers.

The knot was back. The horrible knot was back in her belly at the thought of this conversation.

She smiled at him. "I thought we could get dinner somewhere," she said. "Go for a little walk, unwind now that the case is over."

"Sounds perfect," Ned said, with a smile.

After making the two of them swear that they would actually eat dinner at home at least once during their visit—Laurel claimed to be mortally wounded by their lack of faith in her cooking—Evan recommended a nearby cafe. Ned brought out his fake ID and ordered a beer, while Nancy opted for soda. Their conversation was easy, despite her nervousness, and they sampled each other's sandwiches and made tentative plans to go to the beach if the weather held out.

When they finished their meal and headed out, Ned reached for Nancy's hand and they walked along in companionable silence for a few moments. San Francisco really was lovely, and she was glad she had let Ned talk her into coming with him.

She slowed her steps once they reached a small, well-lit park and she saw an unoccupied bench. "I wanted to talk to you," she said softly.

Ned just sat down beside her, quietly, waiting.

Her throat closed up again. She looked down at her hands, waiting for the panic to pass, but she was in cold sweat again. He had every right to be angry at her over what she was about to tell him, and having realized all over again how much he meant to her, his anger would completely break her heart.

"I'm so glad you're okay," she said suddenly. "The hot air balloon..."

Ned slipped an arm around her. "It's okay," he said, stroking her arm. "We're all right."

Nancy pinched the bridge of her nose. "Ned," she sighed, and it was almost a moan. "After... when you said you weren't coming with me this summer..."

She felt Ned's arm slide off her shoulders. She swallowed and made herself continue.

"I didn't know where we stood anymore," she said softly. "I felt like you were making a choice between your work and me, and your work won, and... I didn't know where that left us."

"You know I'd never do that—"

"But that's how it felt," she told him.

Ned raised his eyebrows. "Nan... do you know how many times I've felt that way?"

"I can guess," she said weakly.

Ned shook his head. "And something happened, while you were over there," he said, his jaw tight.

Nancy nodded miserably. "I met someone," she whispered.

Ned didn't speak, after that. Half the time she couldn't even bring herself to look at his face. She told him the circumstances of their meeting, Mick's outrageous flirtation, how it had started as something harmless and developed into more. The longer she and Ned were apart, the more they seemed to drift, and she hadn't meant to fall in love.

When she told Ned that Mick had proposed to her, his face drained of color, and his jaw was clenched so tight that she was surprised she couldn't hear it creaking under the strain. She glossed over the internal debate she'd had after—when she thought back on it now, she couldn't believe that she had ever really taken his proposal seriously, only the adventure it represented—and told Ned that she had told Mick she wasn't ready. And that had ended things between them.

By the time she finished, her throat was dry, her voice almost hoarse, and as she gazed at him, her eyes wide and scared, the first tear streaked down her cheek.

"I was wrong," she said, a pleading note in her voice. "Ned, I'm so sorry. I was angry over the way things were between us and he was everything I thought I wanted—and then he said he wanted to marry me..." She shook her head.

"And that's why things have been so fucked up between us," he said, his voice rough, and glanced up at her. "Because you met some asshole with a different accent—"

Nancy flushed. "If you'd just come with me like you were going to—"

Ned stood up. "You know what? If you... if you can be like that, if that's all it takes? If what we have is so worthless," he spat out, "to you..."

He ran a hand through his hair and turned away from her, visibly angry. Nancy stood and almost reached for him, but she was afraid of what he would do if she touched him.

"I can't be around you right now," he muttered, shaking his head, and walked out of the park.

Nancy's throat was aching with unshed tears, and she only let him walk a few steps before she followed. She had been insane with jealousy over Amanda, and the attraction between Ned and Amanda had been mostly on the cinnamon-haired model's end. If their situations were reversed, if Ned really had met someone while she had been gone and they had fallen so deeply in love that he had considered marriage, even for a moment... The way she felt now, she couldn't imagine how betrayed and angry she would feel.

God, she couldn't believe she had ever wished that he had strayed the way she had.

They were almost back at Evan and Laurel's house when Nancy forced herself to touch his arm. The cold anger in Ned's eyes when he turned to face her rendered her speechless for a moment.

"I didn't want to tell you," she said quietly. "But I didn't want to not tell you—"

"So you wait until it's a safe bet, to pull that out of your pocket," he said, his voice tense. He shook his head. "I should've known. I should've fucking known. After Sasha, those other guys... I'll never be enough for you. And, you know what the funny thing is? Part of the reason I gave up all this," he said, gesturing around them, "was for you, because I thought it would make you happy. But there's never been a fucking thing I could ever do, to make you happy."

Nancy brushed her fingers over her wet cheek. The tears were flowing freely now. "You make me happy," she forced out, her voice jumping.

"Clearly I don't." Ned shook his head. "Look, it's good you told me. Much as it hurts, I'm glad I didn't waste any more time on this. That I spent all fucking summer working and saving up for—"

He stopped himself short, shaking his head again. Then he turned away from her and went inside.

As soon as the door closed behind him, Nancy buried her face in her hands, stifling her sobs. It took a long, long time for her to finally calm down, and she knew her makeup had to be totally wrecked. With any luck, everyone else would be in bed so no one would see her this way.

God, she wanted so badly to call Hannah, or Bess or George, but it was already late, even later for them, and she didn't want to charge long-distance calls to Ned's cousin. Especially given the argument they'd just had.

Nancy wiped her face one last time and went into the house.

The television was on in the living room.

Nancy muttered a curse under her breath and found a tissue to wipe the remains of her makeup off. She couldn't do anything about her puffy, bloodshot eyes, but if she just raced for the stairs...

Laurel glanced up from the book she was reading when Nancy walked in. The woman's eyes widened, and she stood. "Nancy? Are you all right?"

For a second she almost didn't admit it, but she shook her head miserably. "No," she whispered.

"Ned looked pretty angry when he came in," Laurel admitted. "Something happen?"

Nancy nodded.

Laurel sat down on the couch and patted the cushion next to her. "So let's figure it out," she said firmly.

--

Ned had thought things were strained between him and Nancy at the beginning of the trip. Now, though, their relationship was beyond strained, and part of him was seriously wondering if it was over.

It had taken him hours to get to sleep after their talk. He rose early the next morning and went for a run, the kind of hard exhausting run he usually took during training for the season, and when he returned, he found a note telling him he was welcome to toast and eggs for breakfast—the supplies were ready for him to make it—and Nancy and Laurel would be back later.

He had been dreading seeing her, so that was fine by him.

The tenuous happiness he had found on the vacation had dissolved entirely, but he didn't want to blame that on his cousin and Laurel, so he resolved to stick it out. If he told Nancy that it was over, she would probably find a flight to River Heights the same day. Or, at least, he hoped she would.

He and Nancy barely made eye contact, when Ned joined Laurel and Evan for dinner at a tex-mex restaurant. Once they had placed their meal orders, Laurel cleared her throat. "So we've decided," she said. "The night before you two leave, we're going to throw a barbecue in the backyard. And there is absolutely no question of missing it, okay?"

Ned glanced down at his water glass. He wanted a beer, desperately. "Sounds great," he said, forcing a smile.

"You have to tell me what you want me to do, to help," Nancy insisted, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. Ned snuck a glance at her. She did look fantastic in her dress, something deep pink and fluttery with little straps over her tanned shoulders, but that wasn't the question. He knew she was gorgeous. So incredibly gorgeous that she would never want for male attention. And that was what she wanted.

In the backseat of the car, on the way back to Evan's house, Nancy's hand tentatively brushed his. Ned pulled away, gazing out the window.

He needed to just say it, he knew he did.

We have to break up.

It would be better to get it over with. Otherwise he was just going to remember San Francisco as the place that his relationship with Nancy died a slow, lingering death, and he didn't want that.

He didn't know why he couldn't just pull the trigger, but every time he saw her, he felt angry at her, angry at himself. He had been so foolish, thinking that she cared about him. He could've sworn that she did, but if she cared about him at all, she wouldn't have done this.

He should have known, when she hadn't come to his bed that first night.

When he tried to sleep, a part of him wondered if she had done that, too. If she'd let that Australian asshole feel her up, when she had always cried off with Ned.

We have to break up.

She was the one. Since the moment they had met, even through all the rough patches, Ned had never doubted that.

It broke his heart that she didn't feel the same way.

--

Nancy had been keeping out of his way. The few times she had made overtures, Ned had shut her down. He didn't want to hear her apologies or justifications or rationalizations, or her pleading. She had done all that before, after Sasha—and at least Sasha hadn't fucking proposed to her. And whatever she said, he knew it would be a lie. She just wanted to keep him around. Good old dependable Ned. Good old doormat Ned.

She had stayed in San Francisco, though, and he wondered why, because she didn't just corner him and insist that they talk. Instead, she and Laurel had been planning the party, the cookout they were both absolutely required to attend.

They were civil to each other, but that was all Ned could really say. Once they were back home in Illinois, he'd have to talk to her again—or maybe he wouldn't. Clearly if he just left things alone, she'd be able to find a new guy in a matter of minutes.

Ned felt himself getting angry again, and made himself calm down. He would be back at Emerson soon, the school he loved, the place he loved, and he'd be okay again, with or without her.

The day before the cookout, Ned went for his usual run in the morning, pushing himself harder than usual. By the time he returned to his cousin's house, he was drenched in sweat, but the runner's high had been amazing.

He knew he needed to talk to her, but he was just as equally reluctant to do so. He couldn't honestly say that he didn't love her, and that was the worst part. He had forced himself to walk away from her before. Just letting her go would feel twice as bad.

He didn't notice the envelope on his pillow until after his shower, when he was briskly toweling his hair dry. He picked it up and opened it without thinking, his heart speeding up a bit.

Ned...

I wish I knew what I could say or do to make this up to you, and it tears me apart to know that there's nothing. Nothing I can do or say. What happened—no, what I did —is unforgivable and I don't deserve your forgiveness. I don't deserve you .

When I was on the way back to the States, I knew that we would have to break up. I knew it. I can't excuse what I did... I wish I could. I wish that somehow... I wish I could carry your love around with me, that it could make me immune to other guys. I wish I could swear that to you. But that isn't the kind of relationship we have, and maybe that's the way we need it for now, until you're out of college.

The thought of being tied down —to you, to anyone—scares me to death. And that doesn't make what I did okay, but I... I don't want to lie to you. I want you to be happy. And I resented you staying behind. I want you with me, I always want you with me, and I love you so much.

I've been crying myself to sleep at night and you have no idea how much I hate telling you that. Every day when I see you I want to just wrap my arms around you and make you talk to me, make you just let it all out so we can get past it, but I think I've finally realized what I knew all along—there is no getting past this. Mick wasn't the problem, he was a symptom.

And I don't know how to fix it.

All I know is that I love you and when things are so miserable between us, I'm miserable too. 

If you want to end things between us, if you can't get past it, I understand. And I'll always hate that I let myself fall for him, because I think what I wanted all along was just the adventure and newness of him—but what I need is you. And I took you for granted. I always thought you would just be there for me, but that's unfair to us both. You need someone who's there for you, too.

I love you, Ned. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, despite this blasted summer, I know I'm always going to love you. And if you can give me another chance, somehow, I will do everything I possibly can to make this up to you. Everything . You deserve that.

What we've had together is worth more...

If you need time, tell me. If you hate me, tell me. Maybe you just haven't talked to me because it's going to be hard, but it's harder not knowing, dreading waking up every morning thinking that my whole world might be about to fall apart.

Tell me what to do, Ned. Please tell me. Please let me make this up to you. And if we can't... then it was my fault, and I'll have lost the best thing I ever had.

I love you, Ned. I always have, and I always will. No matter what.

Nancy

When Ned finished reading the letter, he felt like he'd been punched in the stomach.

Ned met Evan for lunch. Although Evan was distracted by the ongoing repairs in the office and keeping up with his clients, he had arranged to meet Ned at a cafe down the block.

"The shoot going okay?"

"Oh, yeah." Evan smiled. "Freddy would kill to get you back on, he's had to settle for another guy he keeps moaning is 'generic,' but yeah. No more hot air balloon shoots. I'm sure he'll tell you all about it at the cookout tomorrow."

"Oh. Everyone's going to be there, huh." Ned took a large bite of his burger. "I don't know why I thought it was going to be some small gathering, but Laurel has been awfully busy..."

"Laurel and Nancy both," Evan agreed. Then he glanced curiously at Ned. "You guys must have had some fight."

Ned glanced down. "Yeah," he said gruffly. He shook his head.

Evan cleared his throat. "I'm really sorry to hear that."

Ned took a long swig of his soda. He didn't want to talk about it, had no intention of talking about it, but he heard himself saying, "I don't know what to do."

"Do you love her?"

"That's never been the question," Ned said quietly.

"Who screwed up?"

"She did." Ned chuckled darkly. "Oh, oh boy, she did."

Evan laced his fingers together. "All her?"

Ned tilted his head. "You seem to be enjoying this," he said.

Evan smiled. "I deal with insecure high-strung models all day long. Half of what I do is therapy and damage control."

Ned sighed. "She wanted me to go with her to Europe, and I didn't go. I had a job this summer that was really important... and while she was gone, she got involved with someone else."

"And she's still seeing this guy?"

Ned shook his head. "She ended it. But she told me that the guy—that things got so far with him that he asked her to marry him."

Evan let out a low whistle. "That sounds serious."

"Exactly!" Ned ran a hand through his hair. "And she tells me she loves me, that she wants us to find a way to get past this... but I don't see how."

Evan nodded. "It'd be hard," he said neutrally.

"Hard? Try impossible."

Evan shrugged. "I work with models who—well, I can't really talk about it, but they'd hardly feel like they were in a relationship until they went through something like this." He shook his head. "She sleep with the guy? I mean, he asks her to marry him—"

Ned's jaw tightened. "I don't think so," he said. "She and I—haven't, really—"

Evan nodded. "So it could be worse. Is that the dealbreaker? What would it take to make you stop loving her?"

"I'm..." Ned sighed. "I hate it, but I don't think I'll ever stop loving her. She could kill someone and I'd probably help her hide the body. She could flirt with another guy right in front of me and I wouldn't be able to stop. But we just can't keep doing this..."

"So tell her that," Evan said. "When you know you'd be more miserable with her than without her... that's what you have to ask yourself. That's when you have to walk away."

Ned had no doubt that at some point during the afternoon, Evan called Laurel. When he walked downstairs in his favorite suit, ready for the night's dinner reservations, Nancy was already sitting on the couch in a pale cream and yellow gown, her hair up. The sight of her made Ned's stomach flip. Laurel glanced from Evan over to Nancy and Ned, and he caught the expression in her eyes.

"Jane needs me to go to a client dinner tonight," Evan said apologetically. "Laurel and me, anyway, and it's probably going to run pretty late. I'm really sorry, guys."

Ned glanced over at Nancy, too quickly to actually catch her gaze. "Well, I'd be fine with a sandwich or something..."

"No, no," Laurel said, shaking her head. "Those reservations were hard to get. Go take them."

Nancy glanced over at Ned, too. "Well, we have to eat," she said quietly.

During the drive to the restaurant, Ned turned on the radio and Nancy didn't even try to make conversation. Maybe she had said all she was going to say in the letter, and the ball was in his court now.

She did look great, but he could see it, subtly, in her face. She looked exhausted, and nervous, and almost resigned.

"Did you..." she began, once the waitress had taken their drink orders and gone over the specials.

"I found the letter this morning," he said, tonelessly, and she nodded, unrolling her napkin. She fidgeted with it, with her silverware, with her straw paper after the waitress delivered their drinks and took their orders.

"I hate this," she burst out, and Ned glanced up at her. "Ned, I miss you. I feel like we're a million miles apart and I'm responsible and I hate it. Please—please just talk to me."

Ned shook his head. "I don't know what to say," he said softly. "And that's the honest truth. Nan, what we have—what we had—it was special."

Her lip trembled, and her eyes began to gleam.

"Don't," he told her fiercely, keeping his voice low. "Don't you dare."

She clamped her mouth shut, and a tear streaked down her cheek. "You want me to act like this doesn't hurt?" she forced out through gritted teeth.

"You're just upset because you were caught."

She shook her head. "I wasn't," she said, her voice rising, and she caught herself, looking down. "Do you wish I hadn't told you? Because I couldn't pretend it didn't happen. Would that have made you happier?"

Ned took a long breath. "That's not—"

"Oh my God," she whispered. Ned knew how much she hated to cry, especially in public, but when she glanced up, her face was wet. "Ned, please, please. Please don't do this."

"You did this," he told her angrily. "Don't put this on me."

She sucked in a breath for a quiet sob. "I know," she whispered.

The waitress arrived with their appetizer, and Nancy glanced down, trying to hide her face. "Is everything all right?" she asked, trying to sound casual about it, but she was gazing from Nancy to Ned, sympathetic, curious, questioning.

"Everything's okay," Ned said with a tight smile. "Thank you."

Nancy looked up, once the waitress was gone. "Okay," she said, and while her voice was quavering a little, she sounded calmer. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry I hurt you like that."

Ned nodded. He didn't trust himself to speak, and his appetite was totally gone.

"We..." She shook her head.

"We can't fix it, Nan," he said. "How can we fix it? How can I trust you?"

She shook her head. "I don't know," she whispered. "I wish I knew."

"I love you so much. I'm going to love you forever, and I can't believe you're making me do this..."

She looked up at him. "I love you so much..."

Ned's hand tightened into a fist. "I feel like I'm cutting my heart in half," he whispered.

Nancy put her hand on the table, taking a deep breath. "Ned, please. Give me a week, two, something. Let me prove it to you. Because we have to try. We can't just let this go."

"You fell for someone else," he said. "You did let it go."

Nancy wiped at her eyes. "I was wrong."

"Yeah."

Nancy shook her head. "Ned, if you send me away, if you tell me it's over... I'm never going to stop wanting you back. I'll never give up on us. And you know how I know it's over with him? Because, for him... I knew him for two months and he was convinced he was in love with me, but he hadn't been with me through even a hundredth of what you have. I told him I couldn't marry him and, as far as he was concerned, we were through.

"But Ned... you're my home. My friends and my family and you. Losing you would be like losing a piece of myself and... and Ned, I can't help it, I want you to be happy, I swear that I do, but we belong together—"

"So prove it," he hissed. "Show me. Because you keep saying the words... and it's so damn hard to trust you when I keep wondering when it'll happen again..."

She swallowed, reaching for his hand. "Give me a chance and I will," she told him. "I will prove it. And you won't regret it, I swear. I love you so much, and I will show you, every day. I promise."

Ned gave her a sad smile. "You say you will."

"I will." She squeezed his hand. "I could walk away from almost anyone else in my life, but I can't walk away from us, Ned, and I've been waiting for you, dreading it, but I think you can't do it either."

Ned looked down at their joined hands. "Evan told me something," he said softly. "That when it's more miserable to be together than to be apart... you have to walk away."

"Is that how you feel?"

Ned brought his head up, holding her gaze steadily with his. "If we do this, if we try this again... that's the rule, Nan. As much as it would kill me... if it's better for us to be apart, we have to let it go."

She shook her head. "I will never let it get that far."

"Don't make promises you can't keep."

Now hers was the steady, intense gaze. "It isn't a promise, Ned," she said quietly. "It's a fact."

--

The cookout was a huge success. Given all the time Laurel and Nancy had put into it, anything less would have felt like a major disappointment.

Nancy wore a blue-and-purple abstract-print sundress, although halfway through the night she left the heels in the house and just walked around the backyard barefoot. Evan handled grill duty, and while four bottles of wine were out for the more discriminating guests, the cooler full of assorted beer cans was seeing a lot of traffic. Ned cracked his first of the night about halfway through the party, and when Laurel offered Nancy a glass of wine, Nancy hesitated for only a moment before she accepted it.

The first sip was awful. The second sip wasn't so bad.

She and Ned weren't quite okay, and she wasn't sure how long it would take for them to get back to normal. Maybe they never really would. But she kept his plate refilled, brought him fresh beers when he ran out, when she wasn't helping Laurel keep the dip and chip or veggie trays full or passing out napkins.

The kiss after that aborted hot air balloon shoot felt like a million years ago, and she missed even the small intimacy of his embrace. Hand-holding was good, but after their nights together, a part of her felt like they would only really be okay once they had another chess lesson. And after they were back home, it would be a thousand times more difficult, if not impossible, to find some time to be really alone together.

Nancy picked up two lemon-frosted cupcakes from the serving tray and began to shoulder through the crowd, heading for Ned. Her boyfriend always had been a sucker for dessert.

She almost stopped short when she spotted him, though. He was standing with a group of models: a pair of wafer-thin willowy brunettes, a curvy redhead, and an athletic-looking blonde. Nancy looked down at her sundress and felt positively plain beside their loose, shimmering tops and skintight skirts and pants.

"You sure you're out of the business for good?" the redhead asked, touching Ned's arm. "Because I'd love to shoot a commercial with you anytime."

"Well, if I got a good offer..." Ned shrugged. "I really don't think so. It was a blast, though."

Nancy put on a smile and nudged Ned's shoulder. "Hey, sweetheart," she said, her heart beating a little faster. "Thought you might want one."

"Oh, thanks." Ned smiled at her as he took a cupcake. "I was just telling Evan's clients that modeling is a little too exciting for me."

"But it's not," a brunette moaned. "It's a minute of excitement, after four hours of makeup and hot lights and costume changes."

"Yeah, but have any of you ever been inside a giant bleach bottle?"

Nancy squeezed Ned's hand before she walked back to check on the toppings table. She didn't want to hang all over Ned; he hadn't liked the way she had acted when he was around Amanda. She was trying to keep her hands to herself, too, but seeing him surrounded by those women made Nancy want to grab him, pull him down to her and kiss him within an inch of his life. Claim him.

The salsa con queso bowl was almost empty, and Laurel was deep in conversation with Evan and Jane. Nancy went to the refrigerator and stuck the already-prepped bowl in the microwave.

"Bathroom?"

The guy asking was taller than Ned, with cheekbones so angular they could probably cut glass. His dark hair was streaked with blond. "Right through there," she motioned, and the likely model followed without a single real glance in her direction.

She felt invisible, among all the models. At least Ned hadn't reacted to her admission by changing his mind and signing back on with JZA.

She took out the salsa and cheese dip, refilled the tortilla chips, and passed Laurel just mixing up a new pitcher of punch. Nancy had just taken the rest of the chip bag into the house when she heard the door open behind her.

She jumped when a pair of arms slipped around her.

"Shhh," Ned murmured, drawing her back to his front. "Just me, sweetheart."

Nancy closed her eyes, relaxing against him. "Hey," she said softly.

"Hey." Ned's lips brushed against her ear, once, lightly, and she almost moaned in frustration. "You guys have been busy all day."

"But it was worth it," Nancy pointed out, nodding in the direction of the party.

"Yeah." She could smell the beer on his breath from here, and it reminded her of the night at Cedar Lake...

She turned around in his arms and looked up at him. Part of her was convinced it was the alcohol, but they had decided to make another try at their relationship the night before, and the desire she saw in his eyes wasn't tempered by the anger that had been radiating off him before that decision.

She touched his cheek. "Ned..."

One of the waifish brunettes walked in, glancing over at them. "Oh," she muttered, and stumbled in the direction of the bathroom.

Ned glanced over in irritation, then shook his head. "Come upstairs with me," he murmured, and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.

Nancy pursed her lips. "Let me just see if Laurel..."

Ned leaned down, pressing his mouth against her ear. "Come upstairs with me," he said again, and she felt a shudder slide down her spine in response.

"As long as you promise to mouthwash," she said. "You smell like a brewery."

"And you smell like fermented grapes," he retorted, then smiled.

Nancy shoved him lightly. "I'll be right back."

"You'd better," he said, heading for the stairs.

Nancy's heart was in her throat when she found Laurel, touching her lightly on the arm. "You okay for a while? I just wanted to take a little break..."

"Oh, sure," Laurel said with a smile, and spontaneously gave Nancy a little half-hug. "You've been a huge help, Nancy. Thank you so much."

"No, thank you for putting up with us," Nancy said. "I was glad to help."

When she went upstairs, Nancy was glad to find the guest bathroom unoccupied. She brushed her teeth thoroughly, took her makeup off, and checked her reflection before pulling on a short robe.

Ned was sprawled on the bed when she walked in. He gave her a wide grin. "Minty fresh," he said cheerfully. "But don't just take my word for it..."

She smiled, turning the lock on the bedroom door before she switched off the overhead lights. His bedside lamp cast the room in a warm amber glow. "So my chess moves are a little rusty," she said, toying with the belt of her robe. "I seem to remember we were going over some pretty tricky maneuvers, last time."

It took a moment for him to smile, but he did. "So you didn't do any practicing without me."

"Opening gambits," she admitted, softly. "But you're the only teacher I really trust, so..."

Ned pushed himself up off the bed. "Tell me one day all this will feel like some nightmare I had once," he said. "That it'll stop hurting."

Nancy slipped her arms around him. "As long as we're together... it will. I know it will."

When his mouth brushed hers she almost sobbed aloud. She hadn't realized how much she needed this until she had thought it was gone forever. Maybe he didn't trust her fully, maybe only time would heal what she had done, but she vowed again that she would never hurt him like that, so fiercely her head pounded with it. He was hers, and a small part of her was terrified to acknowledge that if he sank down onto one knee and proposed, right now, she wouldn't be able to find it in her to say no. If that was what he needed to assure her fidelity, she would give him that promise, she would swallow her fear and anxiety and do that for him.

Her lips parted and his tongue plunged into her mouth as she arched against him, holding him tighter. Where their skin touched she felt uncomfortably aware, her breasts and between her thighs warm with it.

He reached down, parting her robe, his large warm palms cupping her sides, sliding down her ribcage. He boosted her and she wrapped her legs around his waist. His sex was hard. She could feel it against her, through their clothes.

She kissed his ear, sucked his earlobe into her mouth, kissed the tender flesh just behind it, and he laid her down on his bed. She tugged at his shirt and together they pulled it off, and he wrestled his pants off. When he returned to her, she buried her fingers in his hair, moaning softly into his mouth as they kissed.

Then, and she was thankful for the pounding bass downstairs, she released a soft sigh as Ned traced his lips down her neck. He kissed her shoulder as he pushed her robe down her arm, and they were moving so fast, but with every kiss, every caress, she felt like they were moving past their fight. Maybe they weren't, maybe tomorrow things would be awkward again, but when he touched her like this...

The doorknob rattled a few times. Nancy glanced over, holding her breath, but the lock held, and whoever was at Ned's door moved on.

"Mmm," Nancy said with some dismay, then tilted her head back as he kissed her other shoulder. "I better not find some random couple sleeping in my bed later."

"Mmm." Once her robe was off, Ned kissed her again, and Nancy slid her arms up around his neck. He picked her up and she straddled him easily, sucking his lower lip into her mouth as he unfastened her bra. He cupped her bare breasts and she moaned.

"Feels so good," she whispered, trailing her fingertips down the line of his spine, panting as he stroked her nipples with his thumbs. She leaned back and buried her fingers in his hair as he began to trail his mouth down, brushing his lips over the curve of her breast before he suckled.

"Ned," she whimpered, as he ran the tip of his tongue over her nipple. "Oh, Ned, yes."

He rolled and pulled her with him so she was straddling him, closing his lips around her other nipple as he stroked the first, and she made a soft choked sound. It felt amazing, and she panted, bowing her head, pressing her hips tight against his stomach. Soon she was rocking gently against him, and when he released her with a quiet groan, she moved down, trailing kisses over his chest, licking his nipples. She brushed her lips over his abs, and when she caught the elastic at his waist in her teeth and tugged, his fingers slid into her hair, pressing against her scalp.

"Baby," he groaned, his hips pushing up as she gently trailed her fingertips up and down his length, through his underwear. She brushed her thumb over the head of his cock and Ned sucked in a swift breath.

"Yes," she whispered, and he rolled her onto her back again, pushing her thighs apart. He nibbled and sucked his way down her belly, holding her knees wide open, and when he breathed on her through her panties, she trembled at how amazing it felt.

"You have got to be wet for me, baby," he whispered, crawling back over her, pinning her down, and she could feel the hard length of his erection against the tender join of her thighs, through their underwear. He kissed her and she flushed hot. His hips rocked down against hers, hard, and even if she'd wanted to she couldn't have moved—

He took her wrists and loosely pinned them over her head, holding them there one-handed as he stroked his fingertips down over her skin, and she wrapped her legs around him, rocking against him in return. Her nipples rubbed against his chest as he rocked against her, and oh God, it felt so good.

He angled his hips.

Nancy tipped her head back, breaking the kiss, letting out a soft moan. "Oh my God," she whispered. If they weren't wearing their underwear, he'd be inside her.

He rocked down, his hips tight against hers, and Nancy cried out. "Ned," she sobbed, struggling against the restraint of his hand. "Please..."

"Feel good?"

She whimpered as he rocked again, and she felt herself arch, leaving herself even more vulnerable to him. She didn't know what he was doing, but when she wrenched herself free, Ned caught her around the waist and rolled back over with her, so she was straddling him.

Immediately she began to rock against him, rubbing the slit of her sex against the length of his cock, and he let out his own strangled cry. She planted the heels of her hands on the mattress to give herself leverage, letting out a delighted sob when he cupped her breasts again, squeezing the hard tips. "Yes, yes," she whispered.

Suddenly Ned's hips rocked up hard against hers. "Oh shit, baby, I can feel it," he growled, and she circled her hips, moaning when he squeezed her breasts. "Oh fuck, you're wet..."

"I don't," she mumbled, her hair falling in her face. She didn't understand, but all she knew was that her belly felt tight, all of her felt gloriously sensitive, especially between her legs, and God, it felt so good to rub against him this way.

It didn't count if it was through their clothes. It couldn't.

Ned was panting when he reached down, peeling her incredibly brief lace panties down, and she was rubbing herself against him through his boxers alone, and he felt so hot, so hard, through them. "Fuck," Ned cursed, squeezing her ass. "Oh my God, Nan."

When he made these sounds... "Do we need to stop," she managed to moan, although she kept riding him, and when his hips shifted—

She cried out loudly. "Oh my God," she whimpered, grinding down hard against him. "Oh my God yes yes—"

"Yeah," Ned urged her, clasping her hips to force her harder against him as they rocked frantically against each other. "Yeah, baby, feel good? Shit, I want to be inside you, oh shit, Nan..."

Her brow creased and she found the right angle again, sobbing out at the pleasure of it, so intense it almost felt like pain. She rocked against him in short rough strokes and Ned pulled at her panties in frustration.

"Nan, please," he begged, as she whimpered. "Just a second, please, baby, let me come, it'll feel so good I swear please—"

She forced her eyes open, and Ned's eyes were so dark, his skin gleamed with sweat and—

She collapsed to him, her hips still rocking a little, and she felt Ned's hand moving frantically against his boxers. With a soft groan she pushed herself up, and she felt suddenly both exhilarated and exhausted, a soft second pulse beating between her thighs as her sex seemed to throb in answer.

Ned suddenly stilled with a groan. "Fuck," he mumbled, and she rolled onto her side, fumbling at her waist to pull her panties back up. She felt—she felt slick and sensitive.

"Shit," Ned whispered, and glanced over at her. "You okay?"

She nodded, slowly. She was still panting a little, and her throat felt dry. "Yeah," she murmured. "I... what..."

"I've never seen that look on your face before," he told her, reaching up to tuck a strand of her hair behind her ear. "You were so wet, baby, did you come?"

She flushed. "I don't know," she whispered. "How... what does it feel like?"

"I don't know how it is for you," he said softly, "but it's like this incredible pressure that keeps building and building and I just need it—I need my hand or something, it just feels so damn good, and then when I come it feels so fucking amazing. And then I just usually want to sleep."

"Then... yeah." She looked down, embarrassed. "I think so... you kept saying 'wet'..."

"Your pu—" He flushed a little at the slip, but kept going. "Your pussy gets wet when you're ready, when you want me. So it'll be easier for you when we have sex."

"Oh," she said. "I feel... slick."

Ned swallowed hard. "I bet you feel so good," he murmured. "I was about two seconds away from pushing my underwear down and letting you rub up against my cock, baby."

Nancy shuddered. "We were that close?" she whispered.

"It wouldn't have been sex," he reassured her.

She tipped her head back up and gazed directly at him. "That wouldn't have been sex?"

"Not sex," he said. "Not... not the kind of sex that would mean I'd popped your cherry."

So they could do that, without violating the rules she had already set in place. She considered.

"And we could really do that without it turning into sex?"

"Uh..." Ned shrugged. "I've never... been in that situation before. And I'll be honest, yeah, I really wanted to just... get inside you, when you started doing that..."

"I think you said that, during," she murmured, and Ned chuckled.

"Sorry. I'm sorry. You're okay?"

She nodded. "I'm okay. A little cold..."

"Oh." Ned pulled the covers down and she slipped beneath, and Ned looked ruefully down at his underwear. "Let me just... go get cleaned up."

Ned peeked into the hallway before he made a run for the bathroom, and Nancy found her bra, making a face when she moved. Between her legs still felt uncomfortably sensitive. She opened his top drawer, hoping to find an undershirt, and pulled one out.

She saw a handful of foil packets underneath, and that sent a fresh blush to her cheeks.

When Ned returned in fresh boxers, she was safely under the covers. "I borrowed one of your shirts," she admitted. "Hope you don't mind."

"Looks good on you."

"You can't even see it," she giggled.

"I can imagine it." He reached for her and she slipped into his arms. "Nan... I love you."

"I love you too," she whispered, nuzzling against his chest. "Forever."

"Just... just don't forget again," he said, gruffly.

She pulled back to look up into his eyes. "I won't," she swore. "I won't, baby."

Chapter Text

"Nan."

Nancy tipped her head back to gaze into her boyfriend's eyes, their bodies swaying together with another slow dance. "Hi," she murmured.

"Hey," he replied, with a chuckle. "You seem to be a million miles away."

"Sorry." She shook her head. "Just hoping Maury will have some luck soon."

"Well, he's not here," Ned said, glancing around. "I'm sure he's up in his room, hard at work. Parker's safe, away from any music that's going to make him freak out again."

"Bess is really upset."

Ned nodded. "I know, but until Maury finds a clue for you, or one just drops in your lap..." His voice went a little deeper, and she knew what he was probably thinking about. "There's not much we can do. So relax and enjoy the party."

Nancy tilted her head. "I think I'd be enjoying it a lot more if I were drunk," she said dryly, glancing around. When they had returned from their trip to the infirmary, the crowd was significantly louder and more rambunctious, and the frat was out of all the less serious liquors that Nancy would have even remotely considered trying.

"You want to catch up with them? Two shots of everclear, two aspirin, and I'll hold your hair for you in the morning."

Nancy smiled. "I'll pass, thanks. Don't need to have a hangover tomorrow while we're trying to help Parker."

"I would be a terrible brother to Parker if I interfered with that," Ned said, releasing a grim sigh. "I bet you're going to tell me soon that you really need to turn in, rest up for tomorrow."

Nancy glanced down at her watch. "Well, it is getting late..."

Ned's eyes were gleaming, and he leaned in close to her, his voice so low it sent a delighted shiver down her spine. "Keep in mind I'm only thinking of you and the case here, but if you're really concerned about getting in touch with Maury first thing in the morning... you really should stay here tonight."

"And how on earth would I do that," Nancy said, fluttering her lashes at him.

"Well, I know this guy who's out of town this weekend, and his room's available..."

Nancy's eyes widened. "Oh," she said, her voice small and disappointed.

"Which means there's no one next door to my room," Ned said, and grinned.

Nancy shoved him. "You—you—"

"I what," Ned said, leaning down, claiming her lips in a kiss.

Nancy halfheartedly shoved him again, then slipped her arms up around his shoulders, standing on her tiptoes as she returned it. When they pulled apart, a few people clapped.

"Good going, Nickerson!"

"Hey, you've got a room!"

"We seem to be disrupting the party," Nancy murmured to Ned, with a wry smile.

"Well, we can't have that," Ned said, and took her hand, leading her to the stairs. She giggled as she followed, but once she reached the landing, she didn't follow Ned as he began to walk to his room.

"Nan?"

"I should go find Bess."

Ned raised an eyebrow. "Really?"

"Well... I'd hate for her to come looking for us and... interrupt..."

"Good point," Ned said.

Parker was sleeping—Nancy tried not to let his perpetual exhaustion worry her—and Bess was keeping watch over him. After Bess said she would just sleep on the futon in his room, Nancy told her friend she would be down the hall without saying specifically where, and headed to Ned's room.

She wasn't sure why she had never told her friends about... well, she did know. She didn't want to share what they were doing with anyone. Bess would doubtless spend an entire week reading aloud to her from Cosmo, instead of the typical desultory bullet points she usually shared, and George would tease her any time she spent more than a few seconds alone with Ned, and then one of them would accidentally slip and make some reference to it in front of Hannah or Nancy's father... And, up until now, she had avoided lying about that to her father or to Hannah. She wanted to keep it that way.

She knew what they were doing wasn't wrong. She just didn't want to risk hearing someone else tell her it was.

Nancy looked down. She wore a hunter green cowlnecked sweater dress and tights, tall leather boots, and underneath...

She paused at the hallway bathroom to wipe her makeup off and brush her teeth, then resumed her course, her pulse speeding up a little bit.

When she opened Ned's door, he was sitting on the bed, and she was mildly amused to find that he was still fully dressed, save his shoes.

He grinned. "Subliminal messages must work."

"Oh?"

"All day long—well, honestly, practically since the second you arrived—I've been sending you one, to spend tonight with me."

Nancy chuckled, stepping forward, until their legs were almost touching. "That's not subliminal, that's telepathic."

"Either way," Ned said with a shrug, and stood. "Whatever works. So what am I thinking right now?"

"Probably... that you want me naked?" Nancy said slowly, giving him a mock quizzical look.

"You are on a roll," Ned said in approval, slipping his arms around her and kissing her again. With none of his frat brothers around to object, their kiss lingered, and he backed her into the wall. She slipped her fingers into his hair, her lips parting under his, and she arched against him.

"Mmm," Ned murmured, finding the hem of her dress and inching it upward. She raised her arms and let him pull it off, caught it and tossed it to his desk chair, then backed him to the bed again. He sat down and she bent over, giving him a brief, rough kiss before she tugged his shirt off.

"Yeah, baby," Ned said encouragingly, then caught her around the waist, swinging her to his bed. She laughed as he rolled over onto her, squeezing her breast through her bra, his mouth finding hers again, and he fondled her nipple through the thin fabric as she unzipped his pants.

Ned broke the kiss, trailing his lips down the line of her jaw, to her ear. He let out a soft sigh as she opened his pants and began to push them down, and she shivered as he peeled her bra cup down.

"Have I said recently how amazing you are?" Ned whispered into her neck.

"Don't think so," she managed to whisper, as he pushed her bra strap down. "But then you just want me to put out."

"Speaking of, these tights? They have to go."

With a sigh and a smile Nancy sat up, immediately took off her bra, and started unzipping her boots. "Ned..."

"Hmm?"

"Thanks for inviting us," she said softly. "For inviting me up here."

It wasn't that things had been awful in the months since her return from Europe. But sometimes she felt like they were pretending it hadn't happened at all... and she didn't want him thinking that she was back to taking him for granted. She never wanted to do that again.

"Well, you were the most gorgeous arm candy available." Ned winked.

"Oh, so that was all."

"You mean—oh, and the sexiest, smartest—"

"That," she nodded. "I can't think of a single guy I'd rather be arm candy for. You silver-tongued devil."

Ned finished taking his pants off and glanced at her. "Now who's sending subliminal messages?" he asked with a smile.

Nancy blushed a little as she peeled her tights off. "That... I don't think I'm quite ready for that, yet," she said. "But I thought maybe you could help me..."

"Help you with what?" Ned asked softly.

Nancy tossed her tights over to join her dress, shivering just a little. She was clad only in a pair of thin silk panties.

"I want to learn how to touch you," she told him, forcing herself to hold his gaze.

Ned's gaze, however, went from her eyes to the door, and he stood to lock it immediately. "Remember... what we did, in San Francisco?"

She nodded. Very much so.

"Well, if you want, we could start with that, and then, after you... after you get off, we could do that."

A part of her wanted that, a lot. Another part of her was completely positive that if they tried that again, he'd end up pushing his underwear down and they would go from fooling around to full-on sex.

She shook her head, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. "Not... not tonight. But, do we need to make out...?"

"Do we need to make out?" he said, incredulously, and reached for her. She giggled when they collapsed to the bed, and cupped his face in her palms.

"Do you want to make out," she murmured, gazing at his lips, then looking into his eyes.

Ned shivered a little under her. "God, you have no idea what that does to me, do you," he whispered, threading his fingers into her hair, pulling her down to him for a kiss. She teased him, fluttering her tongue against his, tilting her head, and moved onto her side so she could stroke her fingertips down his chest.

He was hard, through his underwear. She just barely brushed her fingertips up and down his erection, warm even through the thin fabric, and Ned growled softly before he broke the kiss. She rubbed him a little more firmly, tracing all the way down to his balls, then back up. 

"You really want to do this?" he panted.

She nodded, looking down at her fingers, at what she was doing to him. His hips shifted in answer.

He sighed and pushed himself back, and she sat back on her heels, watching him curiously as he opened his bedside table's drawer. He pulled out a bottle, glanced down, then made a face.

"Part of me says we should use a condom," he said. "But..."

"We don't have to," she said softly.

Ned handed her the bottle—she noticed that it wasn't entirely full—and pushed his underwear off with a little sigh. Now he was naked, and she was only in her panties, and this... her curiosity was swallowing her fear.

Personal lubricant.

Nancy glanced from the bottle back to Ned.

"Put some on your hands," he said with a little nod, and she popped the cap. It was clear and incredibly slippery. She capped it again and rubbed her palms together, wrinkling her nose just a little.

"When it feels about the same temperature as your hands... just..."

She nodded, then gently, tentatively, stroked her fingertips down the underside of his shaft.

Ned closed his eyes, shivering.

"I'm sorry," she immediately apologized, and began to pull back—

"Don't stop," Ned said, and his voice sounded strange. "Wrap... wrap your fingers around me, baby..."

She did, then shifted to angle her hand more easily. She glanced at his face, noting his wrinkled brow, and gently clasped him as she moved her fist up and down his cock, slowly, then again.

Ned groaned. "Oh my God, baby," he panted. "Faster..."

He reached down and wrapped his fingers around hers, guiding her hand, and together they stroked him again, again, faster. She glanced her thumb over the head of his cock and she couldn't tell if he was already wet, but his hips were rocking up against their touch.

The way he looked... she was curious, and she knew she was blushing, but he looked desperate, almost, almost pained.

"Touch my balls, sweetheart," he murmured, and his hand fell open, away from hers, as she obeyed. She distantly recalled some half-remembered Cosmo article and, as she reached the head of his cock, gently twisted her fist around.

Ned let out a strangled groan, rocking against her ministrations. "Shit," he growled, and he shuddered when she cupped his balls.

I bet if you just licked the tip...

She kept stroking him, pressing her fingertips more firmly against his shaft, and licked his nipple. He made a soft noise and she kissed her way down, nipping gently, tracing the tip of her tongue over his skin, and then she felt him cup the back of her head.

"Nan," he panted, and she kissed his hip, then an inch closer to his cock.

"Oh, shit, baby—"

She pulled back and Ned was rocking frantically up against her. She clasped him in both hands, gently rotating her fists away from each other as they slipped up and down his cock.

Ned half-groaned, half-cried out a curse and pulsed in her hands as he came, trembling.

"Mmm," he said, his eyes closed, as her strokes slowed.

So that was what it was like.

It took Ned a long moment to open his eyes again. "Oh my God," he murmured, gazing up at her.

"It was okay?"

"Oh, yeah." He glanced down at her. "Oh shit, I'm sorry. Hang on."

He reached for the tissues and she wiped off her hands as he cleaned himself up. Then she looked at him, a small smile on her face.

"Was it everything you dreamed it would be?" he said, a slightly mocking smile on his face.

"And more," she teased him back, laying down on her side, still gazing at him. "So that... you do something like that."

"Yeah, but... it is a thousand times more awesome for you to do it."

Nancy blushed a little, again. "I didn't even know what I was doing," she murmured.

"If that was you when you didn't know what you were doing," Ned said, "then you are going to blow my mind next time."

Nancy smiled.

"Now... your turn."

She flushed a little when he reached for her. "No," she whispered.

"It's okay, sweetheart," he said softly, and kissed her. "I told you..."

She reached up and cupped his cheek. "No," she whispered again.

"Why?"

She looked down. "Why do you want to..."

"Why did you want to?" he asked in return.

"Because I..." She trailed off and he crooked his finger under her chin, so she would meet his gaze again. "I wanted to make you happy," she whispered. "To know I was the one giving you... that kind of pleasure."

"And that's what I want," Ned murmured. "I want to know what you feel like, baby. What you taste like, what happens when you come..."

Nancy glanced down again.

"Baby, talk to me," he said, drawing her into his arms, and she buried her face against his chest. He was still naked, and she was very aware of that fact, but being so close to him, so exposed, did give her a little thrill.

"I'm afraid," she whispered.

"Of what?"

"I'm afraid if you touch me... if we're naked.... we won't stop."

Ned kissed her ear. "I could be fully dressed," he suggested.

She shook her head. "Won't be enough," she murmured.

"I know what we said, a long time ago," he said softly. "You said you didn't want to go that far unless we were engaged."

"Yeah," she said. "And, last time, we were... you wanted to keep going..."

"Baby, I am always going to want to keep going. I want you. It's like breathing. But if you don't want it..."

"You'd be inside me," she whispered, and when she felt him twitch a little against her in answer, she pushed away and sat up.

"You were, like, two inches away from going down on me, and that wouldn't have counted?" he asked, gazing up at her.

"I don't know," she whispered.

"Baby, it would just be my fingers. I swear."

She shook her head, reaching for her bra.

"Baby," he groaned, reaching for her. "I'm sorry..."

"It's not that. I can't think while you're staring at me."

"I wasn't," he began, and trailed off when she glanced over at him. "I'm a guy. It's what we do."

She drew her legs up and hugged them to her chest. "See, that's the problem," she murmured. "You're a guy. It's not your fault that you get... aroused. It's not your fault that you can't stop staring at me. It's not your fault that you don't want to stop. And you don't." She looked down. "And, when I... it's... defenseless," she said, angrily.

"I asked you how it felt for you, but... Ned, I wanted you. If you had been naked, if you had... if you had started to..." She shook her head again. "Whatever you asked me to do, I would have done," she whispered. "And that scares the shit out of me."

Ned took a breath. "I know it's scary," he murmured. "It's... I don't know exactly how it will be either... but if we both want it..."

Nancy made a frustrated noise. "That doesn't make it okay," she said.

Ned touched her cheek, stroking it slowly, before he spoke again. "We love each other," he said. "And if I've ever—if we've ever done anything that made you feel uncomfortable, I'm sorry. But, Nan... I'm not sorry that I'm so attracted to you. That you, despite your best efforts, are that attracted to me."

Despite herself, Nancy's lips curved up in a brief, small smile.

"I think if we have sex it'll be amazing," he said. "Maybe not the first time—supposedly the first time is going to be pretty damn bad—but... you have to stop getting so worked up about this. If tonight or tomorrow night or a week from now, we get caught up and it happens... what's so terrifying about that?"

"That it'll hurt," she whispered. "That I'll get pregnant. That I won't be good at it. That... that we'll never be the same after."

"Well, it might hurt," he admitted. "I'll do everything I can to make it good for you, but you might have to be drunk at the time, because if you're that tense..." He shook his head. "We'll use condoms. You're going to be amazing. And... I can't imagine regretting making love to you." He stroked her cheek again. "I can't ever imagine that. I want to learn how to make you happy because, Nan, you're my first and my last and my only, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you.

"I know you don't want to lose control." He scooted closer to her, trailing his fingertips down her back. "I know you try to make yourself perfect all the time, and this isn't perfect, it's sloppy and new and exhilarating, but you... you just made me come apart, Nan, and talk about defenseless? You just had your hands all over the most sensitive part of my body."

She blushed a little, again.

"And I want to do that too," he told her. "When you trust me enough I want to be the person you can give that control to. If you say, no matter what, going in, no matter what you say that you don't want to have sex that night, we won't. I promise. I want you so fucking much but not at that cost."

Nancy released her legs and pulled him into her arms, holding him tight. "You're pretty amazing, you know that, Nickerson?"

Ned smiled. "I do my best," he said.

She kissed his cheek. "If I want to go to sleep... are you going to be upset?"

"Baby, you just gave me an amazing hand job," he told her. "Probably both of us could use a nap."

--

Nancy was standing in front of him, her blue eyes direct on his. "Ned," she said softly, and smiled. "I've been waiting for you."

Then she took him by the hand, and as soon as their skin touched, she was naked, arching up against him, begging—

Ned didn't know why he was awake, only that he desperately wanted to know what was going to happen after that, and that he was harder than hell again. Remembering what the actual, non-fantasy Nancy had done to him a few hours before sent a frisson of desire straight to his groin.

Then he felt it. Nancy's fingers, idly making tiny strokes over his bare abs. He had put his shorts back on before they had lain down together, and he was straining against the fabric now; given how strangely skittish she was being, he thought not going to bed naked would make her feel better.

God, if only she had let him...

He wanted to make her come. God, he wanted it. He wanted her gasping, breathless, begging under him, desperate and trembling. He wanted to know what made her come so that when it was his cock between her thighs instead of his fingers, maybe, just maybe, that first time, he would be able to do it again.

He heard a small hitch in her breathing and knew she was awake, and slowly turned onto his back.

She was still quiet for a moment, and then she whispered, "Will you promise to do everything I say?"

"Yeah," Ned nodded, his voice rough with sleep.

He heard her move, and her voice was jumping just a little when she murmured, "Take your shorts off."

He scrambled to obey and was naked seconds later. "I'm... well, let's just say that if you want to practice what we did earlier again, now would work."

She moved close to him, sitting up on her knees.

"I want to see you," he whispered. She turned on his bedside lamp and he saw that she was bare-breasted again, clad only in those damn flimsy panties. For about half a second he fought down the impulse to see how quickly he could rip them off her.

Then she swung over him, straddling him, and reached for his hands. She led them to her breasts. "Touch me here," she whispered, and immediately Ned began to fondle her breasts. "Just don't... don't try to take my underwear off again."

Ned nodded, and then—

He arched, closing his eyes, when she let her knees slide apart, when the join of her thighs touched his cock. She was so hot through the thin silk and it was all that was between them, and when he gently squeezed her nipples, she let out a soft sigh and rocked down against him.

The party was over, though he could distantly hear the sound of a radio or television show. They would have to be quiet.

Her brow furrowed a little, her blue eyes closed, as she stroked the slit of her sex against the length of his cock, slowly, deliberately.

Thin silk. Just the tiniest layer of thin silk between them. Soon he would be able to feel how wet she was through it.

Ned clenched his jaw hard. She had no fucking idea what this did to him.

God, he wanted to fuck her. He would never say it that way, never tell her, but he wanted to peel those damn panties off, pin her under him, see those big blue eyes open wide underneath him as he rammed his cock into the tight heat of her slick pussy. He wanted to hear her beg him for it before he let her come.

His cock twitched and he looked at her face. Her lips were parted, her face flushed, and she had planted her palms against the mattress as she rocked her hips against his. Little tease, little fucking tease, and if he was just one beer drunker or two percent less considerate, he would roll her onto her back—

His cock twitched again. This definitely wasn't helping his stamina.

He squeezed her breasts again, his thumbs glancing over her nipples, and she panted. "Mmm," she breathed, and Ned answered her rock with one of his own. "Mmm. God, yes," she mumbled.

Then she pushed her knees even further apart, and gasped. Ned's gaze was riveted to her face. He memorized the almost pained edge to her expression, the way she gritted her teeth.

She let out a soft, almost orgasmic cry, and it was the single most erotic thing Ned had ever experienced. "Oh my God," she whimpered, and Ned figured out that she pressed harder against him when he played with her nipples. He pinched them firmly between his fingers and she cried out again, panting loudly.

She was wet. She was fucking wet. He knew it, and now, he knew what she smelled like when she was aroused...

She had only said not to try to take her underwear off. Ripping her panties off was different.

As much as he wanted to do that, as much as his rapidly unbearable arousal was demanding that, he didn't want to risk the shocked, angry look she would probably give him after, so he did the next best thing.

He kept one hand up, fondling her breasts, as he cupped the head of his cock, holding just the tip of his thumb up—

And then she stroked down especially hard and rubbed against his thumb—

"Oh my God," she whimpered, desperation rising in her voice. She rocked against him again, and fuck, the silk was practically soaked through with her arousal, and that made it feel even thinner...

"Come, baby," he whispered, as she—maybe it was her clit, it had to be her clit—rubbed herself roughly against his thumb. Her soft flesh was beginning to gleam from exertion, and suddenly he felt her hips jerk erratically against his.

"Ned, oh my God, yes," she sobbed out, collapsing to him, bare breasts and hard nipples pressed to his chest, her mouth against the side of his neck as her hips jerked and quivered and he came in his hand.

Fuck.

His hands were trapped between them. He pulled his clean hand out to rub up and down her back.

Nancy chuckled once. "Thanks," she whispered.

"Thanks?" Ned repeated. "I think I deserve at least a bouquet for letting you dry-hump me. Or a six-pack."

"Such a romantic," Nancy murmured, rolling onto her side.

Ned kept his occupied hand in place as he turned to kiss her. "You came," he whispered, watching her closely.

She blushed just a little and nodded.

"Next time..."

"I'll think about it, okay?" she whispered. "And... thanks for... letting me do that."

"Hey. The only thing more important than you getting off, is both of us getting off."

She stuck her tongue out at him, and after he had grabbed a tissue and cleaned himself up, he leaned over her and kissed her, hard.

"You are the most unbelievably sexy woman I've ever seen," he whispered against her mouth. "That was incredible."

"Silver-tongued devil," she murmured, nestling into his shoulder when he laid back down. She was still mostly naked, and he fully so.

If he woke up again having another dream about her—

He sighed disappointedly, reaching for his underwear again.

Chapter Text

Despite the paramedic's warning, Nancy was awake well after Bess and George were breathing peacefully. She really wanted to sneak out, take the car and go over to Hank Morley's place, see if she could track down any clues...

And, if they woke and figured out that was where she was, they would kill her.

But it wasn't doing her any good to sit up here awake, either.

Nancy sighed quietly to herself and flopped onto her side, then winced at the soreness in her arm. Aspirin.

The bathroom light switch also kicked on a noisy exhaust fan, so Nancy took her toiletries bag to the balcony window, to find the medicine by moonlight. As she shook two pills out of the bottle, she glanced out. The water rippled invitingly...

And she found her thoughts, as they always did, turning to her boyfriend. They had been alone since his arrival, but never for long enough, and all day she had been looking forward to tonight.

Then she'd been shot.

Bess and George would never agree to go with her tonight, but Ned... she had some leverage on Ned.

She very gingerly opened her suitcase in the dark, left a very innocent note, and crept out of their room.

Ned didn't answer her soft tentative knock immediately, and for a long moment Nancy felt guilty about waking him. He had been stung by a scorpion, for God's sake, and he needed his rest, and—

He opened his room door, his hair tousled, blinking sleepily at her. The bedside lamp was on behind him, but otherwise his room was dark. "Nan? You okay?"

She glanced up and down the hall, and when she stepped forward, Ned let her into his room. He was clad only in wrinkled boxers, and Nancy had to admit, that sight did prove incredibly distracting.

"Get dressed," she whispered urgently.

Ned walked over to his suitcase. "What's going on?" he asked, his voice a little clearer.

"Ned, we have to get out there and check out—"

Ned's gaze immediately centered on her face. "Absolutely not," he said.

"Ned, please," she said, looking down and then back up at his face. She was peering through her lashes, and she knew she probably had a little pout on her face. "Please."

Ned shook his head. "It'll keep. You're hurt, you need to go back to bed..."

Nancy tilted her head. "I couldn't sleep," she told him. "Besides, if you go with me, we can spend some time together..."

Ned opened his mouth, closed it, and opened it again. "Are you seriously trying to say that you'll want to fool around if we go do this?"

Nancy bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing as she gave him a solemn nod, taking a step toward him. "Yeah," she said, her voice husky.

Ned's eyes narrowed, and he took a step toward her. "And you think I'll just let you lead me around by the dick..."

She blinked slowly at him. "Is that what you want, Ned?" she asked, her voice pitched low, and—God, what was she doing, this kind of game was always dangerous—

But, she had to admit, she did love the way he looked at her when he was thinking about having sex with her.

Ned reached for her, slowly, pulling her into his arms. "I think you know exactly what I want," he growled into her ear. "You knew that when you walked in here, and you knew I wasn't going to let you out of my sight, either. So, Nan, because you need your rest, either we are going to march right back to your room, wake up George and Bess, and tell them to keep watch so you don't try to pull this again, or I'm going to insist that you get in my bed so I can make sure you relax."

Nancy closed her eyes. "What if..."

Ned pulled back so he could look into her face. "Go on," he said when she trailed off. "The answer's probably no, but keep going."

Nancy sighed. "What would it take?" she asked.

"For me to go out there with you tonight?" he asked, and she nodded. "Nan, short of you stripping naked and giving me permission to... cross the line, and even then... it'll keep." He stroked his fingers down her cheek. "And you act like you're totally fine but if that bullet had been just a little further over..."

The expression on Ned's face made Nancy feel suddenly awful. She slipped her arms up around his shoulders and pulled him close to her. "I'm okay," she murmured.

"I don't know what I'd do, baby."

"And, the scorpion..."

She tilted her head up as Ned tilted his down. "I'm okay," he murmured against her lips. "But if you want to kiss it and make it better..."

Her lips parted and Ned's fingers threaded into her hair as they kissed, slow, deeply. She had been terrified, even while she had been reassuring him that he would be fine...

"I've missed you," she whispered, as Ned's kisses trailed down her neck. It had been too long since their last opportunity to be alone, and she moaned a little when he began to push her shirt up. Her heart sped up, her pulse echoing in her ears, and she tried to focus. Damn, he was good at distracting her. She had wanted them to...

He was right. It would keep.

She raised her arms as Ned pulled her shirt off, and teased him with hard, bruising kisses against his neck as he backed her into the bed. She grasped his hip and when he rocked against her in reply, she let him push her off balance, and fell backwards onto his bed.

Ned made a soft pleased sound at seeing her prone before him, and began to peel her pants down. "Is it hurting?" he asked softly, nodding at her arm.

She didn't know if it was the surreal high his proximity gave her or the knowledge that she had taken the aspirin, but her graze wound only throbbed a little when he made her think about it. She shook her head. "It's okay," she murmured, reaching for him as he pulled her pants free and climbed on top of her.

She was relieved when he straddled her instead of parting her legs, when his mouth touched hers. The first pair of panties she had found in her suitcase had been a pink lace thong, and she had been a little hesitant to put them on, but she had been in a hurry...

Ned stroked his palms up and down her sides, slowly, his tongue tangling with hers, and when he cupped her breasts through her bra, she shivered. He fondled her through the lace, squeezing and caressing until she moved restlessly under him, her fingertips trailing down his back, over his ass.

He made a soft noise and moved back, and it was so hard to keep her eyes open. Her heart was in her throat and every brush of his lips and fingertips made her feel weak.

He kissed his way down her neck, sucking at the sensitive flesh, and she moaned quietly. He buried his face between her breasts, and when his teeth gently caught her nipple through the lace, she whimpered, feeling an answering clench between her thighs. "Mmm," she said encouragingly, threading her fingers through his hair.

"You are so beautiful," he whispered, before moving to her other breast. He nipped at her a little harder and she arched, and he smiled. "So damn beautiful."

Nancy panted a little. "I love you," she breathed, and he moved so she could draw her legs up, bending her knees and parting them for him.

Ned growled softly, pinning her hips to the bed beneath his as he nuzzled the cup of her bra aside and pulled her nipple into his mouth. Nancy let out a soft begging whimper, reaching behind her to unhook her bra. "God," she breathed, and wrapped her legs around him, holding him tight to her.

He was aroused, and he was lined up right—

She tipped her head back as she tilted her hips, and then Ned was grasping her hip hard. "Babe," he said, and she knew he was warning her but the desperation in his voice was so fucking hot and she felt her sex twinge in answer. He suckled her other breast, rubbing the first nipple with his thumb, and she couldn't help it. She rocked harder against him, opening her legs wide.

It would feel good, it would feel so good, if he would just...

Ned groaned quietly, glancing his thumbs over her nipples as he began to work his way down, trailing kisses over her belly. She was shivering with anticipation, panting when he kissed her just under her belly button, just above the band of her panties. "God," she groaned, angling her hips.

Then he moved back over her, his lips finding her ear as he traced his fingertips up and down her sides, and she bucked impatiently under him. "You like this," he whispered into her ear, almost deep enough to be a growl.

"Yeah," she whimpered in reply.

"I want you," he told her, and his words, his voice, seemed to vibrate straight down her spine, into the secret hollow of her sex, and she cried out when his hips ground against hers. She kissed his neck, tasting the salt of his sweat.

"I want you too," she moaned, flushing, but it was true. She wanted him so much and she could feel how slick she was, and even though the thought was almost terrifying, she was ready for him.

He moved back a little and she whimpered at the loss, and then he was cupping his hand between her thighs, rubbing one finger—

He brushed against her and she buried her face in the pillow, desperate, crying out. He did it again, more slowly, more deliberately, and she trembled, her legs falling open even wider.

"Yes," Ned groaned, and when he took her panties and began to inch them down, she didn't protest. Once he pulled them all the way off and she was naked, she opened her legs to him again, nervously.

He gazed down at her and she was trembling a little. She felt like she was about to come out of her skin. God. What if he—

She whispered his name and he glanced up at her face. "Please," she whispered. "Just... leave your underwear on, okay? Even if I..."

Ned nodded, and then he was very gently, very tentatively touching her.

Nancy held her breath as he stroked a fingertip up and down. "Tell me what you want," he said softly.

She flushed a little. "Just touch me," she whispered.

"Then tell me what feels good and what doesn't."

He started at the top and gently ran his thumb down over her sex, and she sucked in a swift breath as he touched one place—

"Clit," he whispered, and her hips trembled. Oh, oh God, the sensation was so amazingly intense that she couldn't tell if it hurt, but he ran the tip of his thumb around her and she sucked in a breath, whimpering.

"Nan?"

"Oh my God," she groaned, feeling utterly at his mercy as he stroked his thumb over her again.

"Too much? Too..."

"Ng," she mumbled, gasping for breath.

She relaxed a little when his fingers kept sliding down, tracing over the slick folds of flesh between her thighs, down. He kept his touch light and gentle, almost teasing, and then moved back up. He stroked the sides of her inner lips and she rocked a little, flushing. She didn't know what to do with her hands, so she rested them on her stomach, her nails digging in when he—

"God," she cried out, when he rubbed the ball of his thumb over her again.

"Tell me," Ned said, frustrated, as she arched. "You have to tell me, baby. More?"

She nodded with a whimper. "More," she breathed, and when he rubbed her a little more firmly she turned her face into the pillow beside her and cried out again, louder, arching up under him.

He stroked down again, sliding the tips of his fingers into the secret places, caressing. Then he pushed one long finger in, deeper...

"Fuck," Ned said, startled. "Nan... here? Feel good?"

"Mmm," she said with a nod.

"Fuck, you're wet," he breathed, and she flushed again when she realized what he was doing. He pushed his finger into her slowly, in gentle strokes.

"Oh," she said. "That..."

"Too deep?"

"Yeah," she admitted, and when he pulled back a little, she relaxed, her hips rocking gently. "Is that..."

Ned chuckled. "How is it that I know more about this than you do?"

"Maybe because I don't start frantically touching myself every time I'm alone," she said, and sighed a little when he ran his fingertip around, inside her.

"So not every time," he teased her.

She shook her head. "I never thought about it," she whispered. "I just thought, when the time came... we'd figure it out. Can't be too hard, right?"

"You're a lot more complicated than me," he told her. "Plus, if you're uncomfortable when I don't even have my entire finger inside you, sex..."

She glanced down. "I'm sorry."

He shook his head. "We'll figure it out," he told her, and now he was moving his finger in and out of her, slowly. "Feel good?"

"Mmm," she nodded, shifting under him. "Can you..."

"Your clit," he said, and he rubbed his thumb over it, his finger still moving inside her, but now his thumb was slick with her arousal, and—

She sobbed aloud. "Oh my God," she cried out, before she buried her face in the pillow. "Oh my God oh my God oh my God."

"You like that."

"Keep going, don't stop, don't stop," she begged him, and now her hips were moving desperately under him. He ran the tip of his thumbnail over her clit and she sucked in a hard breath, trembling.

Ned leaned down and licked her nipple, and she cried out again. He kept fingering her, stroking her clit, and when he suckled her nipple, hard, she tilted her head back, her hips jerking. He suckled the other, bit it gently, and then he circled her clit the other way.

She screamed full-throated into the pillow, her hips rocking to meet his fingers.

"So wet, baby," Ned mumbled into her breast. "So fucking tight, oh God, I..."

He added another finger with the first and she knew she was going to die. She knew nothing beyond the incredible sensation of his touch, and she was slick with sweat, her nails digging into the pillow as he fucked her with his fingers. Her sex. Oh God, it would hurt so much if only this hurt, he was thrusting a little too deep but if he just kept touching her clit she didn't care, he could pull his fingers out of her and—

At the thought of him actually sliding the impossible length of his cock inside her, she felt herself tighten around his fingers, and Ned actually cried out a little.

"Come, baby, come," he growled, and stroked her clit with the tip of his nail again.

She screamed into the pillow, panting for breath. "Come—come with me," she begged him. "Oh my God, Ned—"

"Say it again," he ordered her.

"Ned, Ned," she sobbed. "Oh my God, please, I want you, please, please, come inside me—"

Ned cried out in frustration, sliding his fingers out of her, and then his other hand, his cooler fingers, he plunged three inside her and she arched hard up off the bed, her hips circling. A tear streaked down her cheek and his thumb was jerking against her clit and then she heard him stroking himself. "Fuck," he groaned, "baby, you, it is gonna feel so good—"

She didn't know why, only that it was true, it scared the hell out of her but it was true. "Come inside me," she begged him. "I want to feel you come..."

He knelt between her thighs, frantically stroking himself. "Don't," he growled. "Baby, don't, you don't know how bad I want it..."

She trembled, her eyes rolling back as she came, and Ned groaned, his fingers slowing inside her as he followed. She kept rocking against him, slower now, and she jerked whenever his thumb brushed her clit.

"More?"

She shook her head, panting her breath back, and sighed loudly when he slipped his fingers out of her. "Shit," she whispered. "That felt so fucking good."

Ned chuckled. "Good," he said. "I made you come."

She nodded, brushing her hair out of her face. "So good," she whispered. She heard Ned leave the bed for the bathroom, and when he came back, she opened her eyes.

"Nan..."

"Hmm," she whispered, and when he slipped into the bed, she moved into his arms. She winced when she accidentally grazed her wound.

Ned tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, gazing into her eyes. "Baby, what you were saying..."

She looked away.

"You can't do that."

"It was true," she whispered. "I wanted you..."

"Are you..."

She made a frustrated sound. "I want you," she said. "It scares the hell out of me but I want you, and when you were touching me... I thought about you... about you inside me..."

Ned growled. "God, Nan," he whispered.

"And that's when I came," she admitted, and she rolled onto her back when Ned's mouth found hers, and he kissed her hard, possessively. She threaded her fingers through his hair and she felt lazy, fully relaxed, his.

"Nan," Ned said softly, and touched the tip of his nose to hers. "Baby... if you... it was so fucking hard not to do what you said. And you... you are gonna feel so fucking good..." He trailed his mouth down to her jaw, slowly. "I want you, oh my God I want you, I want to feel you come when I fuck you..."

Nancy shivered, her eyes closing. She drew in a shuddering breath.

"When we make love," he corrected himself.

It took her a minute to find the words. His lips were warm against the pulse point in her throat. "Making love," she repeated. "Like in all those romantic movies Bess loves so much. Slow and gentle... But it wasn't like that." She looped one leg around him. "Which one do you really want?"

"Both," he whispered, into the hollow at the base of her throat, and then he pulled back to gaze into her eyes. "Whatever you want."

"Tell me what you really want," she said, and her gaze flicked from his mouth up to his eyes again.

Ned growled a little. "I..."

She pulled him down, sucking his earlobe into her mouth before she breathed into his ear, "Tell me. You just had your fingers inside me, you just made me come, baby, just tell me..."

"I want to fuck you," he panted, squeezing her breasts, pinching the sensitive tips, and she writhed under him. "Every way possible, everywhere possible. I want to pin you under me and push into you so deep you scream. I want to know how it feels when you come around me, I want you to ride me, I want to taste every inch of you, and every single time I'm sleeping so close to you I dream about this. I wake up hard and jerk off thinking about how your mouth would feel on me."

Nancy shivered as he gently bit the side of her neck. "Oh," she whispered.

"And then I think about waking up next to you, slow and lazy, making love to you." He nuzzled her breast. "Making babies with you."

Nancy tensed. But she had told him to tell her the truth.

"Nan," he whispered, and pulled back. "I'm sorry."

She shook her head and touched his cheek. "Makes me hot when you talk like that," she murmured.

"The babies part?"

"The stuff before that." She chuckled. "Babies scare the hell out of me. Well, all of it... but to know that that's how you feel about me..." She shook her head. "It makes me actually feel sexy."

"Babe, you are always sexy."

She shook her head. "When you... when I see you like that... I feel like I'm yours," she whispered. "Like I was made for you, like you are the only person who will ever love me. And I want you... and I know what I said, and I meant it, but Ned, it feels right and..."

Ned kissed the corner of her mouth. "It is right," he whispered.

"And it scares me," she said softly. "That I'll... that I'll say no and we won't stop."

"Baby, I swear to you," he said, his dark eyes steady and solemn on hers, "if you say no, we'll stop. No matter what."

She pulled him down to her, nuzzling against the hard muscle of his shoulder. "I want to make love to you too," she whispered. "And when I see that look in your eyes... I imagine you finding me across a crowded room, throwing me up against the wall, yanking my panties down and..."

"And what," Ned whispered, his lips brushing her ear.

"And fucking me," she admitted, in a quiet moan, and Ned's hips moved against hers, once, hard. "Like you can't even wait until we're alone."

"And what do you do, when you think about that," Ned said, a soft teasing note in his voice.

"I usually come find you," she said.

"And when I'm not near you? Nice cold shower?"

She nipped at his neck. "What do you want me to say, pervert?"

He pressed his mouth to her ear. "That you find somewhere to be alone and slip your fingers up into yourself, rub your clit until you come," he growled.

She shook her head. "Why do you want that so much?"

"Because it's so damn hot."

She kissed his cheek, then pressed her own mouth against his ear in retaliation. "But why would I do that when it's really your cock I want inside me," she moaned, and Ned pinned her to the bed roughly in response.

"You're going to kill me," he growled.

She smiled. "As long as you promise to fuck me first."

Chapter Text

"Ned," Laura said in a singsong voice, patting the couch beside her. "We were in the middle of something."

Nancy and Ned had just walked back into the Lodge; the warmth was welcome, after their run through the snow. Nancy's arm was linked through Ned's, and she felt warm at the contact, even through their heavy winter coats. It was a relief, to not feel that anger anymore.

Even so, Nancy gazed directly at Laura, then back at her boyfriend. Ned patted Nancy's hand.

"I'm feeling pretty beat," Ned said, with a smile. "I think I'm gonna turn in."

Laura pursed her lips in a little pout. "We do have a big day tomorrow."

"Yeah, we do," Nancy murmured into Ned's ear.

"Speaking of, I'd better go do that little errand while he might still be awake," Ned murmured, and leaned down.

Nancy's heart rose as Ned's lips brushed hers. She reached up and laced her fingers through his hair, holding him to her, and their kiss lingered for a long moment. When they parted, Nancy didn't even have to look over at Laura; she heard the brunette make a huffy, impatient sound and turn on her heel.

"I think I'm gonna go back to my room and make some hot chocolate," Nancy said slowly, then directed her gaze at Ned's.

Ned licked his lips. "Have I ever mentioned how much I love hot chocolate?"

"Well, if you promise to be good, I might make you an extra mug."

Ned leaned down to whisper in her ear, looping one arm around her waist to squeeze her, "The only thing I'll promise is to not be good."

Nancy chuckled. "I'll keep that in mind."

Ned released her and was about to walk out when she reached for him. "On second thought... do you have a hot plate in your cabin?" When Ned nodded, she stepped in close to him. "Yours is kind of... a little more isolated," she pointed out, running a fingertip up and down the zipper of his coat.

Ned's eyes were dark. "Why, I hadn't noticed," he teased her.

After he left, Nancy borrowed a bottle of milk from the Lodge refrigerator, said good night to George and Matt, and walked slowly back to her cabin, to give Ned plenty of time to talk to Joseph. She had an idea, and she didn't want to be standing out in the cold waiting for Ned to return for very long.

Once her legs were shaved, her lashes freshly darkened, she unzipped the inner pocket of her suitcase and pulled out the satin and silk and lace she had packed for just this occasion.

A knock on the door startled her, and Nancy made sure her thick, heavy robe was shut and her suitcase closed before she answered it. George smiled back at her.

"I'm kinda keyed up. Want to go for a run?"

Nancy laughed. "Wow, George. I'd offer you some hot chocolate but I think I'm about to turn in, and considering everything going on around here, a run, this late?"

George laughed as she moved past Nancy, then sat down on her bed. Nancy nervously checked the suitcase again. She almost wanted to tell her friend that the real reason she was so impatient was because she was about to go to Ned's cabin and, with any luck, spend the night there, but considering how skittish George was about even talking about Matt, she would probably have an aneurism if Nancy mentioned it. But the case...

"I know you haven't had much time yet, but any luck with Fiona?" Nancy asked.

George shrugged. "I think I'll have better luck tomorrow. She seems pretty cool, though."

"Not when she was screaming at Joseph earlier," Nancy said, idly swinging the tail of her robe's sash. She sighed. "I can't believe Evelyn's actually trusting that stupid note. Whoever is behind all this just wants to get her off guard."

By the time George left Nancy's cabin, promising that if she did go for a run she would find someone else to go along with her, Nancy was almost jumping with anticipation. If she went over to Ned's cabin and he was already asleep...

Well, he wouldn't be. Not after their conversation.

She put a pair of jeans and a thick grey sweater over her outfit, then bundled into her coat. Her overnight bag was already packed for tomorrow, along with cocoa and milk.

"Hey," Ned greeted her, pulling her into his arms when she walked into his cabin. "I was just about to go over to your cabin in case I misunderstood."

"Oh, I'm sure you didn't," she said, pulling out the milk and cocoa. "Now, first things first."

"Yeah, first things first," Ned said, taking them out of her hands. Then he embraced her, picking her up off the floor as he kissed her.

Nancy was panting when they finally broke apart. "Is someone overcompensating, sir?"

"I would never," he said, with false hurt. "I've just missed my girl. And I hate to admit it, but sometimes when you're jealous, it's hot."

Nancy shook her head. crossing to Ned's hot plate when he let her go. "Not on this end," she told him. "I mean, when you two were walking along, singing, I just—"

"You saw that?"

"Yeah," Nancy said, incredulous. "And I wanted to punch her in the mouth. Or both of you. Mostly her." Nancy stirred the cocoa a little more vigorously than necessary. "Her and her big eyes and tiny waist—"

Ned slipped his arms around her. "Your waist is perfect," Ned said, nuzzling into her neck, and she shivered. "Your breasts are perfect." He kissed her ear. "Your pussy is perfect."

Nancy blushed. "So that's all I need to do, flash you a thong and you'll run back to my side? I'll have to keep that in mind."

"It wouldn't hurt." When she turned, Ned kissed her before she could retort. "You are gorgeous, baby, and she isn't even a hundredth as awesome as you."

Nancy giggled. "Okay, now you're definitely overcompensating."

"Hey. It's not a lie. And I am going to keep talking," he murmured, kissing her once more, "until you lay down on my bed and open your legs for me."

"I had something a little different in mind," she said, shivering just a little, as she handed him a mug of cocoa.

"Oh?"

She nodded, blowing on the drink before she took her first sip. "Yeah. I think you'll like it, though."

After they finished their drinks, Nancy went into Ned's bathroom, then carefully peeled off the jeans and sweater. She ran a hand through her hair, then walked out again, tossing her clothes on top of her suitcase.

Ned's gaze was wide and dark. "Nan," he breathed.

She fought the urge to glance down at her outfit, her hands dangling at her sides. The black babydoll tied between her breasts and parted to reveal her bellybutton and the matching thong. Both were embroidered in cream and gold.

"You look... amazing."

She smiled. "Thanks," she murmured, and walked over to him. He was sitting on the edge of his bed, and she pulled him to his feet, then reached for the button of his jeans.

"You gonna tell me what we're doing?"

"I was pretty sure you'd figure it out." When she peered at him through her lashes, Ned took his shirt off, and she pushed his jeans down. His underwear followed, and then she pushed him back onto the bed.

Nancy closed her eyes and took a slow breath, then sank to her knees in front of him.

"Nan?" Ned said, and his voice sounded like it was about to break.

She ran her fingertips up the underside of his shaft, his erection flushed and hard. "I don't quite know what... how to do this..." she admitted, and circled the tip of his cock.

Ned swallowed hard. "Uh, no teeth," he forced out. "Lots of tongue, and start slow, and we'll figure it out... since I've never actually done this either."

She smiled. "I was hoping you'd say that," she said softly. "Remember that potion? I'm hoping that this will do the same thing..."

Ned laughed. "Look, whatever reason you want to give me a blow job? That's fine. But... baby, I'm yours. Always will be. She was just flattering, that's all."

Nancy kept idly stroking him, building up her nerve. "Yeah, well, she might be flattering, but... didn't you tell me you woke up fantasizing about this?"

Ned nodded.

"Well, I hope I can live up to that," she murmured, and took him in her hand, then licked the tip of his cock.

Ned shuddered. "Oh my God," he groaned, as she ran her mouth down the underside, gently flicking her tongue over the sensitive flesh. She made her way slowly all the way down to the base, then ran the tip of her tongue over the skin between his balls.

"Yeah," Ned breathed, and his hand came to rest on her head. "Oh yeah, baby. Please."

She tentatively licked him, swiping her tongue over his balls before she moved up again, dragging her tongue up his cock again. She angled him and then took the sensitive head in her mouth, swirling her tongue around it, and Ned let out a long breath. She felt him shivering as she bobbed her head down a little further, sucking him gently. She traced her tongue over the head of his cock, flicking the center—

Ned let out a loud groan. "That feels so good," he told her. "You are so good, baby."

She pulled back and kissed his thigh, taking him in her fist, her fingers slick with her saliva as she pumped him a few times. She nipped at the sensitive flesh and he jumped a little.

"Baby, could you get a pillow," she asked, and she had barely gotten the words out when he flung one on the floor, panting. She slipped it under her knees and began again, making a mental note at what made him gasp or groan or tremble.

"Can you go deeper," he whispered, and she nodded, bobbing down. His fingers tightened on her hair and she touched his balls, cupping them gently.

Ned groaned. "Baby, I'm gonna come," he told her, and she glanced up at him. "And it would be super hot if you just kept going, but..."

She released him, panting a little, and kept gently teasing his balls as she stroked him with her fist again. "Do you want me to do this?"

He nodded hard. "I can't believe... that was so good, baby," he told her, his hips shivering, and he was so hot and hard in her hand. She flicked her wrist and Ned came, letting out a long, loud groan.

She gently let him go, then went to the bathroom to wash her hands and rinse her mouth out. When she returned, Ned was lying on the bed, his pants still around his ankles, looking incredibly relaxed.

"I think we're so far out that no one's gonna hear us," he commented, his eyes still closed.

"Probably," she said, amused. "Why?"

Ned opened his eyes. "Because of what I'm about to do to you."

Nancy flushed. "Ned..."

Ned took his pants off, leaving him naked, and pulled her beside the bed. He was still sitting, and he reached up, teasing the ribbon tie between her breasts.

Then he cupped her through the fabric, and she let out a little sigh. Her nipples were already hard, and she didn't understand why, but when he flicked them through her nightgown, it made her knees weaker than usual.

He slid backward on the bed and she climbed up, straddling his legs, standing on her knees as he untied the babydoll and pushed it down her arms, leaving her clad in only the thong. He gently pushed her knees apart and when she was sitting on his upper thighs, he bent down and took her nipple in his mouth, suckling against it gently.

"Mmm," she encouraged him, threading her fingers through his hair, trying not to think about what he might be planning on doing. "Feels so good," she breathed, her hips rocking just a little. He suckled harder and she gasped, shivering when he switched off, cupping her breast as he ran his other hand down her side.

She flushed, aware of how incredibly slick she was, when Ned gently bit her breast, then the other. She let out a little sob, her hand tightening on his head.

"Good?"

"Yes," she groaned, bowing her head.

He cupped her breasts again, briefly, then took her by the hips and swung her to lie on her back, on his bed. He began just between her breasts, then trailed his lips down, agonizingly slow, over her abs, her belly button, her panties. He breathed on her, and then ran the tip of his nose over the material—

Nancy sucked in a swift breath as he managed to brush her clit. "Oh my God yes please yes," she begged, squirming under him.

Ned chuckled. "You want it?" he whispered.

"Yes," she sobbed. "Yes, baby, please, please touch me..."

He took her thong and inched it down, slowly, and as soon as he had it off her she parted her legs for him, panting, almost shaking in anticipation. He tipped her hips up and nipped down her belly again, then brushed his lips lower, until he was almost touching the join of her thighs.

He did touch her, first. He parted her and ran his thumbs up and down her slick lips, once, then more slowly. He brushed all around but didn't actually touch her clit, and she wriggled in frustration, then gasped loudly when he slipped one finger into the press of her sex, slowly pulling it back out again.

"Ned, please," she said desperately, "please, baby..."

Then he licked the tip of her clit, and she let out a loud cry, her fingers tightening in his hair again. "Oh yes yes yes," she begged, flushing a little, and he kissed the sensitive bit of flesh, then sucked it into his mouth.

Nancy screamed, remembering to turn her face into the pillow halfway through, her hips shuddering. 

He thrust his finger back into her sex and she screamed again, writhing. Oh God, oh God, he was suckling her clit, and then he pushed another finger inside her, thrusting it rapidly in and out of her.

She sobbed, panting for breath, tipping her head back. "Oh my God," she moaned, her shoulders jerking as she felt her orgasm build. "Oh shit, oh my God, baby..."

He pulled back. "Feel good?"

"Don't stop, don't stop," she babbled, and he took his fingers, slick with her arousal, trailing them up to her clit, circling the nub, and she jerked, crying out again.

Then she felt him press his tongue into her sex, tasting her, flicking against the sensitive flesh, pressing as deep as he could, and he was still rubbing her clit—

She cried out again, glad no one could hear her. There was no way she could be quiet while he was doing this. Then he switched off, suckling her clit again, plunging three fingers inside her this time—

She screamed as she came, her hips rocking hard up to meet him, her eyes rolling back as she pulsed around his fingers. "Feels so good, feels so fucking good baby," she panted, and screamed again as he gently bit her.

She was burning up, unable to move, unable to even pull her legs back together as Ned gently pulled his fingers out of her, and she winced at how sensitive she felt. "Oh my God," she moaned, blinking up at him, gasping her breath back.

"And you didn't want to do that," he teased her. "You look sexy as hell right now."

She swallowed against her dry throat. "That felt so good," she admitted. "Oh shit, Ned."

He went to the bathroom and when he came back, Nancy had almost gasped her breath back. "Can I just request," Ned said, moving onto the bed, "next birthday, I come back to my room and find you just like this?"

"I hate to tell you," she said with a smile, "but without what we just did... I am definitely not gonna look like this."

"Good point." He started to pull her into his arms, then stopped. "Uh... you gonna sleep over?"

She nodded, running her hand through her hair. "I couldn't walk right now if I wanted to. Unless there's a fire."

Ned chuckled. "Well, one of us needs to put some underwear on."

She blinked at him. "Oh?"

"I mean, unless you don't care if I wake up having a sex dream about you and accidentally end up inside you."

She blushed again.

He groped on the floor for his underwear, made sure the hot plate was off, then flipped off the lights. "You weren't begging me to... be inside you, this time," he said, softly.

"Mostly because what you were doing felt amazing, and I don't think you can have your mouth and your dick there at the same time..."

Ned chuckled. "You're amazing, Nan."

She pressed her face against his neck. "So... you liked what I did?"

"Oh my God, baby," he said, smoothing her hair. "Can we do that, like, every single time we see each other again?"

"If you promise to go down on me too," she said, glad the room was dark. Her face was probably red as a tomato by now.

"You know, we could do it at the same time..."

She nestled into his chest, and his hand stroked down her back. "And I am fully behind this whole sleeping naked thing," he murmured.

It did make her feel a little uncomfortable, but really sexy, too. "Do you dream about having sex with me a lot?" she whispered into his chest.

"All the time," Ned admitted.

"I dream about wanting to have sex with you," she murmured.

"And when you're awake?"

"When I'm awake I know I do," she said, and slid her arm around him, holding him close to her. Her breasts were pressed tight to his chest.

He was quiet for a moment. Then he moved and kissed her, and they tasted like toothpaste and she was suddenly aware that he was hard again, that she wanted him...

She almost whispered it, when he pulled back, and her heart was beating so hard. She kissed him again, sucking his lower lip into her mouth, and then he rolled onto her, pinning her under him.

"I love you," he whispered, when their lips parted. "I love you so much, baby."

She ran a hand through his hair. "I love you too," she breathed.

Ned swallowed. "Baby," he murmured. "I want you..."

She closed her eyes. "We should... wait..."

"We should," he agreed, and then he nuzzled against her cheek, and she shivered. "But... you know... just a little, we could try just a little..."

She trembled. "No," she breathed, although a part of her knew that if he asked again, she would waver...

"Please," he whispered. "Oh my God, it would feel so good, baby..."

She stroked a hand down his back. "I'll go down on you again," she whispered.

Ned kissed her ear. "What will it take," he murmured.

"A ring," she whispered. "And a promise."

Ned sighed, rolling onto his side. "We've promised so many times," he said.

"I know." She cupped his cheek. "And if I had a diamond on my finger I could have flashed it at that—at Laura and shut her down right there."

"So that's all it would be to you?"

"Of course not." She brushed her lips over his. "It would be knowing that we were together, no matter what, that you were mine..."

"I am yours."

"And I'm yours," she whispered, and kissed him again. "Please, baby, please. I want it too." She felt her eyes sting a little. "I want it too but..."

"It's okay," he whispered, when he heard the tremor in her voice. "It's okay, baby. I'll wait for you. As long as one day..."

She shivered at the thought. "One day, yes," she whispered. "Yes."

Chapter Text

Come to my room tonight.

Nancy shivered as she recalled the kiss Ned had given her in front of the sorority house. If he had picked her up and just bodily carried her to Brook's room, to his own room—hell, to any flat surface they could find whatsoever—she would have gone along with it.

She hated arguing with him, and she hated even more how intense he was getting over her case. She was sure he hadn't stolen the test answers, and that she would find the culprit. She always did. She just needed him to have a little more faith in her.

Spending the night with him... she'd been longing to do that since she'd arrived. While she was glad that he hadn't just assumed she would stay with him, that she would need her own space, the ability to make her own choices, she did also hate going to sleep alone, knowing he was so close to her.

She smiled to herself. Not so long ago, just the prospect of sleeping in the same bed with him had seemed like the most dangerous thing she could possibly do. Taking her clothes off while she was alone with him? Unthinkable.

Now, though, she was wondering exactly how thin the walls in the Omega Chi house were...

Nancy decided not to mention the note implicating Paul, as she hastily unzipped her suitcase. She could maybe ask Paul a few questions, feel him out tomorrow, before she upset Ned by asking about his friend. She didn't want him upset. She wanted him the opposite tonight.

Brook could be back from her date soon, and Nancy knew that. Even so, she plucked a set of items out of the tangle of silk and satin in her suitcase's inner pocket, breathed a silent prayer that Brook would stay on her date a while longer, and took a lightning-quick shower. Her close call on the bleachers, and the warm night, had left her feeling sticky with perspiration. Still wrapped in the towel, Nancy locked the bedroom door and took a deep breath.

The outfit took longer than she wanted to put on, partially because she hadn't tried a practice run. And then, once she had the damn thing on, she had to figure out how to get from Theta Pi to Omega Chi without anyone else seeing her in it.

Nancy flipped rapidly through her suitcase, finding a pencil skirt and then a button-down shirt. The shirt wasn't quite opaque, definitely not opaque enough, but Nancy decided to just throw on a light jacket and go with it.

"Hey, Nancy!" Andy greeted her when she knocked on the door at Omega Chi. "And which lucky guy are you here to see tonight?" he asked with a wink.

"Oh, I don't know," she teased back. "I'd ask if you've been keeping out of trouble, but the school year's barely started..."

"And I'm sure we could definitely find some trouble to get into," Andy said, his face perfectly serious, although the effect was spoiled by the slight twitch of his lips. "If, by chance, you're here to see a certain Mr. Nickerson, I believe he's in the kitchen."

Nancy unobtrusively smoothed her skirt down over her thigh as she headed to the kitchen. Ned, Howie, and Mike were there, energetically discussing what she eventually identified as a new defense Coach Burnett had been working on. Nancy's gaze lingered on her boyfriend. She loved the way he looked, the energy in his expression, even just the sound of his voice—it seemed to vibrate down her spine, straight into her.

When Ned sensed her gaze on him, he glanced up, and his brown eyes were immediately alight. His expression was meant for her alone. "Hi Nan," he said.

Howie and Mike glanced over at her. "Well, that's it for the night, huh," Mike said with a smile. "You know, Nan, it's a good thing you don't live any closer than you do. Between classes and homework and you, we'd never see Ned again."

Nancy smiled at them, but as they wished Ned a good night and headed out to the common room, she was only aware of Ned's gaze, his presence, the almost magnetic pull between them. She felt a little shiver, wondering exactly how he would react when he saw what was under her outfit.

Ned reached for her hand and stroked it softly with his thumb. "Thanks," he murmured.

Nancy's eyes sparkled. "You think we could make this quick? I'd hate for Brook to get back from her date and think someone ran away with me. Some big nefarious guy who wants nothing more than to pick me up, throw me over his shoulder, and carry me to his bed."

Ned chuckled. "I don't know about the nefarious part, but I hate to tell you—I have no intention of letting you out of my sight anytime soon."

"Well, I did leave a note," she admitted, and pressed her toe into the floor, tipping her heel up. "So I guess you have, what, a few hours? When's your next class?"

"For you, baby," Ned said, "I'd skip."

He picked her up and tossed her over his shoulder, and she halfheartedly protested as he carried her up the stairs. The reluctance she felt at letting anyone else know about their more intimate relationship didn't really seem to apply to Ned. Though she tried to keep her voice down, a handful of Ned's fraternity brothers clapped and whistled catcalls when they saw him making off with her.

Once they were alone in his room, he very gently put her down, and she put her bag down as he locked the door. "You know, I really should—"

Then she cut herself off. Maybe he wouldn't agree.

"Should what?"

Nancy tried to shrug. "Um. Leave some clothes over here for when we... hang out. If you wanted," she hastened to add.

"You mean you don't want to wear three-sizes-too-big Emerson sweats when you head back to Theta Pi tomorrow?" he teased her. "Sure, Nan. I like the idea of you having a drawer in here. You know, maybe you could leave a few of those tiny little nightgowns, for those long lonely nights."

Nancy raised an eyebrow, sliding out of her jacket. "And what exactly do you plan on doing with them?"

"Wearing them, of course," Ned answered, deadpan, and she burst into giggles.

Then she tossed the jacket over his desk chair and very slowly, her hips swaying, walked over to him. "Sir," she said softly, her voice pitched low and sultry, "I treat it very seriously when a man saves my life."

The intent behind Ned's gaze was plain as it drifted up and down her form. "You wouldn't by any chance be referring to some kind of... payment, would you?"

"Did you have some sort of appropriate reward in mind?"

"Well," Ned said thoughtfully, playing along, "your safety is my primary concern, miss. So I really think I need to make sure, for myself, that you're really okay."

"As long as you swear to be gentle. It really has been a very trying evening, and my exertions were extreme."

Ned slipped his arms around her waist. "Keep talking like that and you'll have to find somewhere else to sleep tonight," he teased her, his body warm and so tight against hers.

"That would be an unbearable shame," she murmured, sliding her arms up around his shoulders.

Ned brushed his lips lightly over the line of her jaw, nuzzled against her neck, following the curve down to her shoulder. She stood on her tiptoes to kiss his earlobe, her palms warm against his back. God, she craved the feel of his skin against hers.

She had almost lost him, almost physically lost him when she had nearly crashed to her death through the bleachers, but worse than that awful realization was the cold fury she had seen in his eyes. She hated how weak it made her feel, that in that moment a part of her had wanted to sink to her knees, beg him to forgive her, that she would do anything, anything he wanted.

She couldn't lose him. She could not, could not lose him. If she did...

Ned gently loosed the first button of her shirt, then moved to the next, as she fought to keep herself under control.

She loved Ned with her whole heart and she would never, never love anyone this way again. If they... if somehow she lost him...

Oh, God, she had never wanted to love him, never wanted to love anyone with this desperate, clinging agony, this jealous possession. The thought of him with another girl made her blind with anger, and the prospect of their breakup sent her into panicked despair. It would be so much easier, with someone else. With Frank, who loved to be by her side, who made her feel valued, needed, content.

Ned, especially like this, made her feel like she was about to come out of her skin.

He had only loosed the first three buttons of her shirt, and now he was trailing his lips down, pressing them against the shadow of her cleavage. "Mmm," he whispered. "Just relax, baby... let me make sure you're all in one piece."

He pulled back and their eyes happened to meet, as he reached for the buttons on her shirt again, and Ned's eyes widened. "Nan?"

Nancy shook her head, horrified to feel her eyes filling with tears. She slipped her arms around him and pulled him to her, hard.

She would never be able to hold him long enough. Never, never. She wished she could just pull him to her and never, never let him go.

She was weak and foolish, she knew that. She was being foolish. She and Ned weren't tied to each other, and the thought of that commitment filled her with a terrible desperation.

But, she knew, one day the prospect of spending her life without him would be more horrifying than the thought of being tied to him. One day she would give herself to him fully, he would take her innocence, and if he ever walked away after that, he would destroy her.

Nothing else would be able to touch her or hurt her, ever again, after that.

Ned's arms slid around her waist and he held her to him, hard. "Baby, what's wrong," he whispered.

She couldn't say it.

"I just almost died today," she murmured, wiping under her eye. "Almost lost you."

Ned shook his head. "You'll never lose me, baby."

An ugly certainty pooled in her stomach. She had seen the anger in his eyes. He might promise now, but after another fight, another disagreement?

The only way to save herself was to hold back. No matter how badly she wanted him, she had to hold back. As much as they loved each other, she knew that another case, another flirtation, might prove too hard for them to withstand, and as intense as their relationship was, she wouldn't be able to pretend she was okay if that happened after they had made love.

She made herself smile. "Good," she whispered, pulling him down to her for a kiss.

His hands slipped between them and she felt him unbutton her shirt, slide it up out of the skirt, and push it to the points of her shoulders. When he reached for the back closure of her skirt, her hands were already there, unzipping it and shoving it down past her hips.

She took a step back, immediately glancing nervously up at his face, to see how he was reacting.

Ned's mouth dropped open, and she couldn't help smiling in satisfaction.

She wore a black satin teddy with a garter belt, and the straps held up silky sheer stockings, complete with seams up the back. She put her hands on her hips, shifting her weight to one stiletto-shod heel.

She had to hold back. But a part of her was terribly afraid that if she forbid it, if they stopped sleeping together at all—well, she had shown him what he would be missing, and she had no doubt that he could find, easily, dozens of other women willing and able to go farther than she, to please him in ways she had never even dreamed about.

Maybe this wasn't quite the most risqué outfit she could have worn, but the garters, the stockings, and especially the expression on Ned's face, all made her feel like she was, quite possibly, the sexiest woman in the world. Or at least in Illinois.

"Nan," Ned whispered, and she felt a warm flush when she saw that he was already straining against his pants.

"You like?"

"Oh, hell yes," he breathed. "Very much. You look... incredible, baby."

She took his clothes off, smirking when she saw how eager he was to help her, then kicked off her heels and moved onto the bed. She sat there, gazing at him, her hair spilling down her back, legs crossed. "You want me like this, baby?" she cooed.

"How does the thing... come undone?"

She sat up, keeping her gaze on his, and reached between her legs to unsnap the teddy. Ned blew out a long breath.

"Fuck," he whispered. He almost said something else, but cut himself off.

What was he thinking about, with her like this? Was he thinking about the way she had begged him to make love to her? Or maybe about all the time she wouldn't be here, the nights he would be alone and lonely in his bed. He didn't have to settle for his hand when he could take any girl upstairs during the weekly Omega Chi parties.

She opened her legs a little wider. "Come here, baby," she whispered, moving onto her back.

Ned shook his head. "Do you... do you want to leave all that on?"

"Do you want me to?" She pitched her voice low, then bit her thumb. Oh, this was getting ridiculous, but she could actually see his reaction.

Ned sighed. "Babe, you look hot as fuck right now, but... tell me what you want."

She was caught by the expression in his eyes. "Your skin on mine," she admitted. "Always."

He pulled her to the edge of the bed, and she unclipped her stockings from her garters, sighing a little as he rolled the silky material down her legs. He took off the garter belt next, then gently freed her from the teddy, leaving her entirely naked.

She was gazing up at him as he cupped her cheek in his hand. "I'm sorry, Nan," he whispered. "I'm sorry I got so angry on the way back, I just... I'm so close, I can't get kicked out of here..." He shook his head. "I know how I want the rest of my life to be, and I can't... I can't wait to graduate."

Nancy suddenly found she couldn't breathe, at the intensity in his eyes. She didn't know what he wasn't saying, but she had a feeling it involved her.

At his urging she moved back to lie prone on his bed, and he glanced his fingertips over her, up and down her arms, her sides, her thighs and calves. His caress was so gentle, feather-light, and then he told her to roll over.

He rummaged around in his bedside drawer and then he gently stroked down her back, over her ass, and she was so sensitive and aware of him that just the lightest brush of his fingertips made her clench in anticipation.

When he returned to her, he had some lotion on his hands, and he began at her shoulders, the balls of his thumbs gently tracing down the back of her neck as he massaged her. They were both entirely naked and he was taking the time to give her a massage...

He worked his way down, gently, then began over again. "Tell me if you want more," he murmured, working at a knot he had found in her shoulder.

"I'll let you know if it hurts," she murmured, sighing as he finally worked it free.

He popped her back a few times, kneading the flesh, working his way down over her ass. She tingled in anticipation when he ran his fingertips up and down her upper thighs, but he kept going down and she sighed a little in disappointment. 

When he turned her over again, he lavished the attention of his palms and fingertips over her arms, her thighs, her legs, her stomach. He wasn't quite massaging, just stroking and caressing, but she reacted as though it was the single most erotic thing she had ever experienced. She knew what to do when he was rubbing up against her in the dark but here she felt exposed, her skin going slick, panting, her hips pushing up gently.

"I love you so much, Nan."

"I love you too," she whispered, as he leaned down to brush his lips against hers. She threaded her fingers into his hair and held him to her, kissing him thoroughly, feeling that same delicious awareness his kiss had wakened in her earlier.

They couldn't make love, but it was a dangerous line they walked, like this.

He shifted his weight, then gathered her into his arms, pulling her up. He was sitting with his legs over the edge of the bed, she was draped across it, but they wrapped their arms around each other, her breasts brushing against his chest as they made out, their kiss growing hungry and desperate again. 

What if giving herself to him was the cost. What if it was the only way...

She drew her legs back, standing up on her knees, her heart in her throat. She wanted to straddle him, wanted to feel him against her, the way he had begged, but all he had to do was move and it would all be over.

Ned looped his arm around her and moved onto the bed, and she did straddle him, as they kissed again. It was hard to think, hard to remember there was anything beyond them, beyond this room.

She loved him so much, so very much. She wanted this. And if this was what it took...

No, no.

He moved onto his back, cupping her breasts, and she settled down onto him, her hips flush against his, naked. Nothing between.

Her heart fluttered in a burst of panic. She looked down at him, her lips parted, but oh, fuck, he was rolling her nipples between forefinger and thumb, squeezing the tender pebbled flesh, and she let it out in a sigh. It wouldn't hurt, just once, just a little, to press herself against his bare cock...

He was hot and hard under her, and her brow furrowed as she reached down, gently parting her sex—

And she was enfolding him, she was wet and when she angled right her clit rubbed against the underside of his shaft—

She whimpered, pushing herself up on her hands to give herself leverage, her hair falling against her cheeks as she made herself look down at him. He was still squeezing her breasts, more urgently now, panting.

"Oh my God, yes," he urged her. "Keep doing that, baby."

She bit her lip, flushing as she stroked herself against him, rubbing the wet folds of her sex against the underside of his cock. They had done this while at least one of them was wearing underwear, but he was naked, and oh—

She sobbed out his name suddenly, and he pinched her nipples as she ground down hard against him. Her hips jerked. It would be like this, she thought, and clenched a little at the image.

She panted, rocking harder against him. More, more.

"Tell me," he said, his voice a low growl. "Say it, Nan."

"I want you," she sobbed. "I want you—baby, please, no one else, no one else like this—"

Ned grasped her, rolling over with her, and when he rubbed the underside of his cock between her legs, he eyes rolled back a little. "Oh my God, baby," he whispered, his thumb finding her clit.

She barely managed to pull the pillow over her face before she screamed, her hips jerking up under him. He was going to take her, she knew he was. He was going to pin her under him and take her—

She shuddered, and then he moved, rubbing himself against her at a different angle, still stroking her clit.

She had to guard her heart against him, because he was the only man who could ever possibly break it.

But she loved him, she loved him so much, and how could it be wrong...

He moved again, and she writhed, her hips jerking and grinding up to meet his touch, her breath coming in ragged pants as she came.

"Nan," Ned breathed, and he was flushed and panting too, his eyes dark as he gazed down at her. "Oh my God."

"We were close," she managed to gasp out, her hips settling back to the bed. "Weren't we."

He nodded. "We have to be careful," he whispered. "You... you aren't on birth control."

Her stomach clenched as she looked up at him, wordlessly shaking her head.

"Shit," he breathed. "We... well, I have condoms."

Nancy swallowed painfully. Her throat was dry. "I... we were going to wait," she said, her voice shaking.

Ned moved from between her thighs and she pulled her legs back together. "We are," he said, reassuringly. "We are. But I think even if I accidentally come and it could just barely... well, it's better safe than..."

She colored a little, and nodded. "Yeah. I understand."

Ned smiled. "That's just... not quite in the plan, yet."

Nancy finally found the strength to sit up, and wrapped her arm around her legs, hugging them to her chest. "So when do I find out about the plan?" she asked softly, sweeping her hair out of her face.

"I guess... when I get all of the plan figured out."

She smiled at him. "So you think we should... use condoms."

"If we do anything like that again, yeah." He nodded. "I... God, it was so hard not to just..."

Nancy nodded. "I... so you want to do that? I mean... what if..." She took a deep breath. "What if I went on birth control?"

Ned's eyes were wide.

"It's not like that would mean we'd need to have sex," she said. "Just... if we were... doing that and had an... accident...?" He nodded. "It... I don't know, condoms just don't..."

"Get you hot?" he asked, with a little chuckle.

She shrugged. "It's you I want," she admitted, wishing she could just make herself stop talking, but it was true. "I don't want... rubber inside me instead of you."

Ned shivered. "Nan, if you go on the pill and your dad finds out, he'll kill me."

"I'll just tell him the doctor said I needed to do it. Bess's doctor did that last year," Nancy said.

"Just—go on the pill. For non-sex reasons."

"Yeah," Nancy said. "She says it's awesome, that if we plan a beach trip she can make sure she won't be on her period."

"Oh."

Nancy chuckled. "Sorry. Too much information. But... it's your senior year," she pointed out.

He glanced up at her, and she held his gaze. She didn't say it aloud, but she realized that for a while now, she had expected this to be the real test of their relationship. Once he graduated Emerson and found a job, despite all the promises he had made to her, would he still want to be with her? Or would he consider her his high school and college girlfriend, whose mysteries were entertaining enough, but who would never make a suitable wife?

And if he did ask her... what would she say?

Ned was the first to glance away. "Yeah," he said softly. "You... you want something to wear tonight?"

She put the teddy back on and moved under the covers, and Ned put his underwear back on before he joined her. He curled up behind her, looping his arm over her waist, and she could feel his breath against her hair.

She felt a tear slip from beneath her lids, and wiped it away.

If he married her... he would be able to see into her, all of her, dig his fingers in, and lay her bare. She wouldn't be able to hold anything back, anything at all. Her heart would be his.

She could see them, in a house in the Chicago suburbs. Room for the family gatherings, room for the children they would have. And Ned, waiting for her when she came home, sleeping beside her, loving her.

Ned might have a plan. That didn't mean she couldn't have one too.

She would keep that small handful of herself guarded against him, until he was wholly hers, until she knew. Then she would let him in.

And God help anyone who tried to come between them, after.

Chapter Text

"I hate to admit this," Ned said, his arm wrapped around Nancy's waist, as the elevator ascended to their floor.

"You mean you didn't hate the conversation we just had?" Nancy asked lightly, glancing at her boyfriend. She hadn't meant to snap at him about Kara, and she knew his disappointment at her taking a case on their weeklong vacation made him a little touchy about talking it over with her, but she was glad their argument had blown over so quickly.

Nancy didn't know quite what it was about Kara—or Ned's mild fascination with her, really—that got under her skin. Maybe because Kara had a husband, a child, a career she loved that was exciting and dangerous that she was working to get back into, and Ned was awed by her. And Nancy had never really been able to shake the feeling that, if she and Ned were married, if they had a child, he would in no way be eager for her to return to detecting after. Solo climbing on a competitive level like that took an incredible level of skill and dedication—just as she knew her detective work did, and would.

Part of her wanted Ned to just accept what she loved as who she was. But, she had to admit, another part of her melted a little whenever he was protective. He cared about her too much to just let her throw herself into danger.

Ned made a face at her. "Well, that was super awkward too, but... I'm hungry."

Nancy had to laugh. Given Ned's bottomless appetite, she had been rather surprised when he had let their disagreement interfere with dinner. "What are you in the mood for?"

"For, or after dinner?"

"For," she teased him back, as the elevator doors slid open. "I have a feeling I already know what's on the dessert menu."

As soon as they were in the room, Nancy started to clear all her rejected outfits from the king-sized bed while Ned went for the room service menu. Almost absently he flipped on the television set, then sped through the channels until he hit ESPN.

Nancy groaned. "Really?"

Ned looked up. "Is there something else on?"

"Uh, anything else?" she suggested, hanging up a silk gown she feared she wasn't going to get to wear at all on this trip.

"Oh, come on. Don't you want to know how the Bulls are doing?"

"That has been weighing on my mind all day," she sighed dramatically.

Ned brought her the room service menu. She noticed how distracted he was by the crawl across the bottom of the screen, and momentarily considered stripping naked and timing how long it took him to realize it. Then she shook her head.

"I'm not really that hungry."

Ned slipped his arms around her from behind, pressing her to his chest, nuzzling against her hair. "You have to eat," he said, and she shivered at the feel of his voice vibrating through his chest to her back. "We're about to climb a fucking mountain, Nan, and your ribs are already visible."

"Are not."

"Really?" he said, reaching for the hem of her sweaterdress, and she pushed his hands away. "Well, I can feel them fine from here..."

He ran his fingertips up her sides, lightly, and she twisted in his arms, trying to squirm away from him. She was too damn ticklish.

They ended up sprawled on the bed together, her skirt twisted up around her waist, Ned's tie askew, breathless with laughter. Then he shifted and his hips pressed against hers, and she glanced up at him, her eyes alight, his dark and intense.

She reached for his tie, loosened it slowly. "We forgot the best part of the argument," she said softly. "Making up after."

"Oh, I definitely didn't forget about that part," Ned told her, leaning down to kiss her hard. She gripped his tie in her fists and pulled him to her, and she made a soft noise into his mouth as he cupped her breast, the sports news utterly forgotten.

When their kiss ended she was panting, studying his eyes as he pulled back.

Then Ned's stomach emitted a loud growl, and the moment was broken. Nancy snickered and Ned rolled off her, reaching for the room service menu.

"Decide, Drew," he said, mock sternly. "Or I'm going to order you the lobster dinner and make sure you eat every bite."

"Will not," she retorted. "Because, sweetheart, you don't want me falling asleep with the last bite." Then she glanced at the menu. "And God, definitely not at that price."

She tossed his tie on the dresser as he called the desk for room service, then began to remove her jewelry, toeing her shoes off. She glanced over at him, taking in the way his shirt opened at the collar, the messy state of his hair after she had run her fingers through it, his sock-clad feet as he gazed intently at the television. Her heart clenched a little.

A lifetime ago, in Chicago, they had shared a room, but it had just been for that night; they hadn't had this easy domesticity then, hadn't checked in together and fought over closet space and argued about what channel to watch. He hadn't checked into a separate room and snuck her in, this time. They had stood at the front desk together and registered for this room together. It was theirs. That huge king-sized bed spread out before her was theirs.

It thrilled her, she had to admit. It felt grown-up and real and incredibly sexy, even after all the nights they had spent together.

"How long is it gonna be?" she asked, carefully putting her earrings and necklace away.

"Two burgers and fries? Better not take too long," he replied, glancing up at her. She saw some indescribable softness in his eyes.

"I think I'm gonna get ready for bed," she said softly. "Make sure you don't have to wait for dessert."

When she started to dig through the pocket of her suitcase—God, she hadn't realized how much underwear she'd packed; soon she would be like Bess, requiring a tractor-trailer for an overnight trip—she was startled when Ned's hand touched hers. She cast a questioning glance at him.

"Just curious," he murmured.

Her heart beat a little faster as she pulled it all out for him, the thin scraps of lace passing for bras and panties, the satin and chiffon of the little baby dolls and teddy. He let out a low whistle and she blushed.

"Well, I didn't exactly plan on us hiking up a mountain and sharing sleeping quarters with everyone," she admitted, pushing her hair out of her warming face.

"Or skiing very much either, huh," he said, slipping his arm around her waist. "God. It's like Christmas."

Nancy giggled.

"You do know," Ned said, his lips brushing against her temple, "that while I love all this, if you walked out of the bathroom and dropped your robe and you were naked, I'd still be incredibly hot for you, right? Shit, you'd look sexy as hell in a threadbare Emerson t-shirt and nothing else."

She pouted, just a little. "Before... I never had anything like this," she admitted, touching a pair of aubergine satin panties. "You're the only one who's ever seen it, and I like picking it out for you. Imagining how you're going to react when you see it." She shook her head. "It makes me feel... sexy, for once."

Ned turned her to face him. "I keep hearing you say that," he whispered. "Baby, you are the most gorgeous, sexy as hell—"

She shook her head. "I'm not," she said. "I... I know I'm not. I don't know how to do anything in bed, and I..." She glanced down.

Ned tipped her chin up to meet her gaze. "Do you know how incredibly amazing it is... sweetheart, to know that I'm your first? That you've never been with anyone else this way?" He shook his head. "That you put up with me not knowing what the hell I'm doing—"

Nancy laughed just a little. "Considering all we've done," she said, "when we actually know what we're doing? I can't even imagine how that's going to be."

"Exactly." He brushed his lips over hers. "It is so fucking sexy when you rub up against me when you come," he whispered against her mouth. "When you let me see you like that. Whatever little outfit you want to put on, whatever makes you feel gorgeous—that's fine with me. Just know that you could walk in wearing, I don't know—overalls and combat boots, whatever the hell—and I'd still be hot for you."

She smiled. "I like it... when you come, too," she whispered. "When I feel like..." she swallowed. "Like you want me that much."

He tucked her hair behind her ear, leaning in to kiss it softly. "Oh, I do," he whispered. "Every second, every hour of every day. I love that you're letting me learn you, baby..."

He worked his way down her neck, sucking and nibbling, and she shuddered, feeling an answering throb between her thighs, her fingers threading through his hair. She breathed his name, and they both startled when a knock sounded at the door.

Nancy took a breath, then frantically began to shove all the underwear back into her suitcase. Ned stopped her with a hand, then touched one particular item.

"That," he told her. "If my vote counts at all, I vote for that."

--

When Nancy came out of the bathroom, she was wrapped securely in one of the plush robes, her hair pulled up in a loose ponytail. A few wisps of hair curled against her cheeks as she took a seat across from her boyfriend, tucking her legs up under her, smiling at the sight of the hamburger and steak fries on china waiting for her.

The position was almost childlike, and Ned felt a surge of familiar protectiveness rise in him at the sight.

She was so fearless about everything else. He had never met another person who could walk unarmed into the most terrifying situations he had ever seen, and walk back out—usually—unscathed. She had been tied up, knocked out, trapped, nearly drowned and suffocated... and she never let up. Threats, to her, were like a red flag to an angry bull.

But she didn't think she was sexy.

Just the mere thought of her could make him hard, even in the most inappropriate situations. When she'd cast a glance back at him over her shoulder, peer at him through her eyelashes, glance from his mouth to his eyes, sink her teeth into that plush lower lip; when she would claw at him at the height of her orgasm, her hips bucking under his, begging him to give in to what deep down he knew they both wanted, what he had to believe they would one day experience together...

God, she was so fucking sexy, and she was his, and even in her naivete, in her innocence, she was irresistible. How could she be ashamed of not knowing anything? It made him hard to know that she had never experienced with anyone ever what she was experiencing with him, that he was giving her pleasure she had never felt before.

The thought of taking her virginity, of losing their virginity together—that scared the shit out of him. He was so afraid of hurting her, of making it bad for her. He had asked around it a little, overheard certain conversations, but he was sure most guys didn't bring their girlfriends to screaming gushing orgasm the first time out, no matter what they said.

Nancy dipped a fry into ketchup and took a bite, then swiped the trace of it off her finger and popped it into her mouth. Ned swallowed against his suddenly dry throat.

He had it almost figured out, all of it. The other guys in his class, worrying about passing their last math or language classes, looking for jobs, debating whether their girlfriends were really forever material... a small part of him envied them. Their plans were easy, simple.

Nancy was the kind of girl a guy just couldn't plan for. As well as he knew her, he knew there was a part of her that he would never be able to hold. He would tear his life apart and build it around her, to win her... but even if he planned the perfect proposal, the one that would win any other girl's heart, he still didn't know what her answer would be, if there was a single thing he could do to keep her.

The thought of being tied down —to you, to anyone—scares me to death.

She had said it outright, and every argument they had, every flirtation with someone else, every fleeting doubt, he wondered if she was ever going to change her mind. Because, oh God, he wanted her. He wanted her so much, wanted that with her, and she didn't need him.

Maybe he did make her feel sexy, but maybe that wasn't enough. And if he couldn't convince her that he really did feel that way about her... maybe she would try to find that somewhere else, with someone who did know what the hell he was doing in bed.

Ned tipped the rest of the ketchup out of his individual serving, mechanically eating another fry.

The shy virgin thing... God. It hit him in a way that the knowing, bored girls on those videos, the experienced girls who frequented the frat parties, never ever could. He wanted to protect her, to keep her safe. And to fuck her senseless.

She had said she wanted to wait, to share that with him. But he loved her so much, and the wait...

He wished he knew how it would end.

He finished his meal before she did, and took the remote, flipping to the evening news. That caught her interest, and as she picked the tomato slice off her burger and ate that with her fingers, the glow of the screen caught in her eye.

He went to the bathroom to brush his teeth. "Finished, honey?" she called.

"Yeah," he said through a mouthful of lather, and heard her put the tray out in the hallway.

He wondered how it would be, to actually live with her. Then he shook his head, rinsing his mouth out. Well, apparently it would be a less ESPN-based existence.

She was standing at the foot of the bed when he came back in, her hair loose; slowly she untied her robe, shrugged it down her shoulders. The nightgown was the one he had selected for her; the top was white, translucent chiffon that left her breasts a whisper from bare, and the skirt some black silky material. It was slit up the middle, to the tie, and he could see miniscule white chiffon panties beneath.

She was blushing just a little when he dragged his gaze back up to her face.

Then she picked up the tie he had been wearing and walked over to him, sliding it around his neck, gently tugging on the ends.

"I kind of... wanted to try something," she murmured.

"Anything," he breathed.

"But you have to tell me, if you think... if we can't do it without... having sex."

Oh holy hell, the way her gaze went from his lips to his eyes, the way her voice dropped to a whisper at the end. And she thought she wasn't sexy.

If his fraternity brothers could see this right now, they would be screaming at him to take her, to caress and stroke and fondle her until she was begging for it, until she moaned out a yes, and then slide into the slick pleasure of her sex.

"Okay," he managed to force out, wondering how soon was too soon to just start frantically taking off his clothes.

She swallowed hard, then released one end of his tie, pulling it down.

"I was wondering if... you want to... tie me up..." she murmured.

Ned had no idea how he didn't come at just the sound of those words. It was close for a second, that was for fucking sure. He clenched his fist tight, focusing on the dig of his fingers against his palm. "Do you want me to?" he said, his voice shaking just a little. The rest of him was definitely shaking, too.

She nodded. "I think so," she whispered.

Ned picked her up, holding her tight to him as he kissed her, hard, and he groaned when she wrapped her fucking legs around him. Did she have a fucking bet going with one of his brothers at Omega Chi? Because for God's sake, just the thought of her tied to the bed, naked, her eyes wide and blue as she gazed up at him—

He had to slow down or he was going to come before he'd even gotten his pants off.

He yanked the ribbon tie to part her nightie and somehow they were on the bed, she was on her knees making those little hot as fuck mewling noises as he suckled her breast, and the chiffon was rough against his palm as he gently squeezed her hips. He pulled back and squeezed her breast, watching her moan, then claimed her lips again, stroking her nipples until he felt her quiver.

"Are you sure," he said, panting. Her lips were flushed from the press of his, her blue eyes even brighter above her blushing cheeks.

"Do we—should we wait?" she asked, searching his gaze. "We don't have to..."

If he said he could hold out, she was going to trust him to fucking tie her up and not fuck her.

He wasn't even sure if he would be able to withstand that kind of temptation. Holy hell. No court in the land would hold him responsible if he forgot even his own fucking name at the sight.

Ned took a deep breath. "If you don't want us to go that far, we won't," he said. If she told him no, he wouldn't go any further. That, he knew.

What scared the hell out of him was whether she would say yes.

She glanced down, and he could see how hard her pulse was beating, the tiny tremor in her breast. Then she lay back, the tie still in her hands, and raised them over her head, just brushing the slats in the headboard.

The last coherent thought he had was, Thank God she's on the pill.

--

Nancy was naked, her hands tied to the headboard, and her heart hadn't stopped speeding since Ned had tied the last knot.

Oh God, oh God.

She would be powerless under him, but she always had been.

While the knot was secure, she also knew that, with thirty seconds of effort, she could get out of it. That was the only thing that kept her from entirely freaking out.

That, and how incredibly wet she was.

Ned took his clothes off, turned the television and the overhead light off, flipped on the bedside lamp. He took a very long breath before he sat down beside her on the bed.

She smiled, briefly. "So... you like this," she murmured, her voice lilting up at the end.

His hand was warm, his touch light as he cupped her breast, gently stroking her nipple. "Nan," he whispered, his voice hoarse. "I can't believe you can... oh my God, baby. You look so fucking hot right now."

She shivered at the tone of his voice, the naked desire in his eyes, and when she squeezed her thighs together, her clit tingled in anticipation.

"I want you," he said, his voice even lower, and he caressed her other breast, and she made a soft pleading noise. "And you—sweetheart, I want to pick those gorgeous legs of yours up and fold them around me and slide into you—"

She heard a low moan and realized she was making the sound.

"You make me forget myself," he said, and moved over her, his knees on either side of her hips, his eyes even with hers. "You are so unbelievably sexy, and every day I'm thankful that you're mine."

He kissed his way slowly down her body, and she shivered, her hips rocking up once, when he first suckled against her breast. He moved to the other, nipping and suckling at her breast until she was panting, her knees coming up to clasp his hips.

He had said he wouldn't.

She was so afraid. If he did it, if he moved inside her—she would lose her damn mind.

She would lose her mind if he didn't.

He made his way down, agonizingly slow, and she was afraid that if he touched her between her thighs, he would be shocked at how wet she was. She flushed a little, and realized belatedly that she wasn't going to be able to grab a pillow to bury her face against if he—

He gently parted her and sucked her clit into his mouth, pressing two fingers up inside her.

She sobbed out a desperate cry, turning her face to muffle herself against her arm, but oh God, his tongue stroked over the sensitive bit of flesh once, again, and she screamed, shaking, pulling hard against Ned's tie. Her hips bucked and she writhed, her head tipping back.

He slowed the stroke of his fingers, pulling back to look at her, but he didn't stop and she rocked, panting, shuddering when his thumb brushed over her clit.

"You are so beautiful, Nan," he said, and she had to force herself to open her eyes. The expression on his face made her shiver. "So beautiful, baby."

She shook her head, opening her legs a little wider as he pressed his fingers deeper into her sex.

"Say it," he ordered her.

"Please," she panted, flushing again.

"No." She whimpered as he circled her clit with his thumb. "Say that you're beautiful."

She swallowed. She knew she was gleaming with sweat, sprawled under him, unable to obey anything other than the impulse to move with his touch. But she saw it in his face.

"I'm beautiful," she whispered, and felt herself clench tight around his fingers.

"That's right, baby," he growled, and then he was kneeling between her open thighs, and she shivered as he pushed her knees up toward her chest, angling so he could press the length of his cock against the slit of her sex. His eyes closed at the pleasure of it as he rubbed against her, and she could hear how wet she was.

"Say it again," he said, opening his eyes again, and she cried out as he rubbed against her clit.

"I'm beautiful," she breathed, her legs falling open. "Oh my God—"

"So beautiful," he told her. "So incredibly, unbelievably sexy." His hips were stroking more rapidly against hers. "Is this okay?"

She nodded, whimpering, trying to swallow. "Feels so good," she cried out. "Oh my God, feels so fucking good, baby."

"That's right," he said, and then his hips moved down and the head of his cock—

She felt him slide against the slick folds of her flesh, felt how close he had been, saw the way the pleasure was almost pain on his face—

"Yes," she moaned, pulling against his tie again. "Yes, baby, yes—"

Their hips were jerking, rocking together as they came, and she cried out in frustration when almost immediately he pushed himself off her, coming in his hand.

Then he thrust two fingers deep between her legs, his thumb finding her clit, and she screamed against her arm, her hips rocking desperately against his touch. He leaned down and kissed her, sealing his mouth to hers, swallowing her scream, his tongue—

The taste on his tongue. That was her.

He rubbed her clit harder and she came again, trembling, writhing against him. Tentatively she touched her tongue to his and he growled softly.

She was trying hard to catch her breath when he pulled back, leaving her tied to the bed as he cleaned himself up, and then he returned and untied her. Immediately she curled up, her throat dry and aching, still uncomfortably aware of her clit.

Ned shook his head. "Baby," he whispered, and cupped her cheek.

She cupped her hand over his. "I love you," she whispered. "I love you so much, baby. Thank you."

He smiled, briefly. "I love you," he murmured. "I must love you, because you have no idea how much I wanted to..."

He trailed off, and she stroked her fingers over his. "I know," she whispered. "I wanted it too."

He kissed her gently, softly. "And then you beg me," he whispered. "One day you're going to beg me not to stop... and I won't."

She returned the kiss. "I know," she whispered with a little shiver.

Chapter Text

"Good night!" David called, laughing. "If I can find my room, that is..."

David, Nancy, and Ned had been to the wildest party yet that they had attended in Belize, and Nancy couldn't even focus on her watch long enough to figure out what time it was. She had a feeling maybe it was around three, but she wasn't sure; at some point during the evening she had blinked and when she had opened her eyes, it was thirty minutes later.

And she was drunk. Spectacularly, gloriously drunk. Walking on her wedge sandals had become far too difficult a few hours ago, so she was barefoot, her hair in a long messy tangle down her back, her skin gleaming. Manny had showed up soon after the drinking had started, and Nancy had sensed that Ned wasn't all that excited about how often she had been dancing with the Mayan hottie, but whenever she had turned back to him, Ned had been dancing with other girls. It was after the—fifth? seventh?—round of shots that Nancy and Ned had stumbled into each other's arms, clinging to each other, totally ignoring the beat of the music to sway together.

Negotiating the stairs was hilarious. Nancy only started muffling her laughter when she was pausing on the landing, the long skirt of her sundress pulled taut as she knelt on the carpet, snickering into her palm.

Ned half-collapsed, half-sat on the landing next to her, laughing too. "I am thirsty as hell," he stage-whispered, and Nancy found that utterly hilarious too.

She wasn't quite sure how they made it all the way upstairs; things became a little blurry. She did realize, though, that she and Ned stopped in front of Ned's room, and he pulled her inside.

"Hey," he said, wrapping her in his arms as soon as the door was closed behind them.

"Hey," she replied, dropping her shoes to the carpet and moaning a little when his mouth met hers. Tequila. Fucking tequila. Nancy was pretty sure that was half Ned's bloodstream on the weekends at Omega Chi; she wasn't nearly so impervious to it as he seemed to be.

"So you and Manny sure seemed..."

He searched for the right word and Nancy pulled back, scrunching her nose up. It felt funny, and she fought down the impulse to laugh. "Me and Manny seemed what?" she asked, putting her hands on her hips. "The only reason you weren't out there dry-humping Becca on the dance floor is because she's in prison for being a crazy bitch."

It took Ned a minute to be able to speak again. "I thought you said you liked her."

Nancy shrugged. "I can understand why she did what she did," she said, although it took her far, far longer than usual to get through the sentence, and she collapsed heavily to the foot of his bed, taking a deep breath. She giggled when she almost lost her balance, and scooped her hair out of her face. "The way she did it, though."

Ned chuckled, then hiccuped. "You're cute when you're jealous," he said, brushing his fingers over her cheek. She had a feeling that more delicate gestures were beyond him at the moment.

"Then so are you."

He scowled. "Babe, it was nothing..."

"A couple slow dances, when we..." She made a vague gesture, indicating his bedroom. "I just wanted you to be paying attention to me."

"And I wanted you to be paying attention to me."

They gazed at each other, and then she smiled. "So why weren't we paying attention to each other, again...?"

Ned kissed her, drawing the strap of her sundress down her arm. "You've been prancing around in front of me in those tiny bikinis this entire trip," he murmured, pulling her to him. "And then making me sleep alone."

"You could have come to me."

"Really?"

She considered for a moment. "Yeah," she said. "I mean, I might have said no..."

Ned kissed her again. "And tonight?"

"When's the wake-up call?" she asked, giving him a slow smile.

He reached for her skirt, clumsily pushing it up around her hips. She was glad she had packed so many damn bikinis; given how many times they ended up in the water, she had taken to wearing them under almost everything. The one she wore tonight was miniscule; the bandeau top was tight, but the bottoms tied at the sides. She moaned when he toyed with the ties, when his thumb brushed the join of her thighs. They had been sleeping so close to each other and the only thing that had kept her from walking down the hall to his room and stripping naked was her anger over his behavior around Becca. Now that they were together, though, she couldn't help feeling they had a lot of time to make up for.

"I think," Ned murmured, "that if we try to do anything tonight..." He shook his head. "I think we're too drunk to... stop..."

"Maybe you are," she said, playfully tapping his nose. It had happened before, a few times—nights back at the Omega Chi house when he had urged her to climb on top of him and do whatever felt good, and her fear was the only thing standing between them and her desire to know what it would feel like when he was inside her.

"And I'd hate it if..." He pulled back, taking a deep breath. "I just don't want you to wake up regretting anything."

Nancy closed her eyes. "I won't," she promised. "Ned, baby, you can't just leave me like this."

Ned chuckled. "Do you know how many times you left me like this? Hard as hell and dying for almost anything? Do you know that every time I slide my fingers up inside you it is hard as shit to keep myself from fucking you? Every damn time, baby. I love... what we do, fooling around and everything, but it's—it's the hardest fucking thing in the world to pull back."

Nancy took a deep breath. "I'm sorry," she murmured.

"Don't be sorry. Don't." He shook his head. "It's just the truth."

She fell back onto the bed, wincing when the room spun around her. She moaned quietly. "We're leaving in two days," she murmured.

"So tomorrow night let's just not get nearly this fucking drunk," he suggested, flopping down on the bed beside her.

She pouted. "Baby, I'm so wet for you," she moaned, rolling onto her side to face him. "Please..."

Ned shook his head. "You're not helping your case," he told her, his eyes closed. "I mean, unless you've decided that tonight's the night and we are going to... totally go for it."

Nancy let out a disappointed sigh. "At least you can do something about it," she mumbled, slowly rolling off the bed and climbing unsteadily to her feet. She suddenly really needed to feel the moonlight on her skin.

The view was amazing, and it struck her again, how much she was going to miss Belize when they left. She wouldn't miss watching Ned flirt with Becca, and she wouldn't miss the little leap her heart gave when she saw Manny—given everything else between her and Ned, she hadn't really enjoyed the complication—but the country was beautiful. She pulled in a lungful of the humid air, clinging to the balcony door to keep from losing her balance.

Ned was in no state to sneak up on her, and when he came up behind her, sliding his arm around her, gently cupping the join of her thighs, her already-flushed face felt a little hotter. "Ned," she murmured. "The balcony's open."

"No one can see us," Ned murmured in response, his lips brushing the join of her neck and shoulder. He lightly sucked the skin there and she let out a little moan.

She turned in his arms and kissed him, hard, clinging to him to keep her balance, and together they stumbled to the bed again, their mouths fused together. Her skirt—there was just too fucking much of it. She was tangled up in it and desperate to get it off, she would rip the fucking dress off if she had to, to feel him against her.

Ned groaned in frustration, sliding off the bed to pull her to her feet again. Together they managed to get her dress off without ripping it, and he laughed when she started to tug his shirt up over his head.

They kissed again, falling back onto the mattress, and Ned laced his fingers between hers, pinning her hand to the bed above her head. She let out a little moan, remembering when he had tied her to the bed during their thwarted skiing trip. He was hard for her, though, and she tugged impatiently at his pants one-handed, trying to get him to take them off.

Then Ned took the hand pinned under his and led it down, and she was bucking under him, lightheaded and dangerously reckless.

She didn't want him to stop. She didn't. And it would be so easy...

He untied the side of her bikini bottoms one-handed, then led her hand between her thighs.

Nancy broke off their kiss, her head spinning, to see him gazing down at her.

"Touch yourself, baby," he whispered. "You promised you would do this for me..."

Nancy opened her mouth to protest, even though distantly, maybe, maybe she had promised, but—probably she hadn't, probably she had said she only might...

She shook her head. "Ned, no," she said. "Baby, I want you..."

Ned sucked her earlobe into his mouth, pulling gently, and she let out a little moan, her hips shifting. "Baby, it will be so fucking sexy," he growled into her ear. "Do this for me, please, please. I want to see it, I want to see what makes you come..."

"You make me come," she protested.

"But if we do this, I won't have to pull back," he pointed out, and sat up. "I hate having to stop."

Nancy sighed, sitting up too, watching as Ned took his shorts and underwear off. He was already aroused, and she looked from his erection to his face with an expression of longing.

It was true. Every now and then, when he left her gasping, wanting, and she knew that he could just finish himself off, she envied him. He wasn't left trembling, so sensitive that just the weight of clothes was too much. But just the thought of it made her flush uncomfortably. It seemed... dirty. It had seemed dirty when she had found out about it, found out guys apparently did it constantly. The only thing even vaguely hot about it was that Ned was so attracted to her that he couldn't control it, that he had to please himself only because she wasn't able to do it for him.

But here he was, sitting right beside her. And naked, too.

"Why are you naked," she asked slowly.

Ned looked down. "Because... aren't you? Going to be?"

She blinked at him, then started giggling. If he was naked, it made sense for her to be naked too. Because oh, she wanted him to touch her, so incredibly badly.

She struggled out of her bikini top, slipped out of the bottoms, then sat at the foot of the bed, her feet nearly dangling. She cast the most seductive look she could muster at Ned, but ruined it by giggling.

Ned scooted toward her. "You need some help getting started?" he murmured.

She nodded, swallowing hard. With any luck he would forget what he had asked.

He pulled her so she was standing on her knees, straddling his hips, and kissed her. She responded immediately, sliding her arms around him, moving so her hips were practically pressed to his. She was already flushed, lightheaded, and his kiss made her feel like she was going to fly apart.

Ned trailed his lips down her neck, slowly, soothing the soft bites he left there with gentler kisses, and she rocked against him in anticipation. Ned reached behind him and took her hands, then placed them on her own breasts.

"Touch me," she begged, whispering. He gently rubbed his palms up and down her outer thighs, still sucking at the side of her neck, and she knew she was going to have a damn hickey, that he would probably like that.

Experimentally, with very gentle movements, trying to keep Ned from noticing, she cupped her breasts, then ran her thumbs down to her nipples.

"Oh," she breathed. It didn't feel nearly as amazing as when Ned suckled them, but she flicked the sensitive tips and a shudder slid down her spine.

"Mmm-hmm," Ned hummed into her neck, and then he pulled back. He trailed his hands up to her ass and squeezed her gently. "Show me what feels good, baby."

He had pinched her before; she tried that and her hips jerked. She pinched a little harder and while it hurt, the pleasure it was edged in made her gasp. She squeezed hard, until she was flushed more deeply, rocking against him.

He kissed her ear and she shivered. "It's good, isn't it," he murmured. "See if you're wet, sweetheart."

She felt herself clench a little in response, but she shook her head, even when Ned laid her down and moved next to her. His eyes were in shadow from the moonlight, and a soft breeze blew the curtains, carried with it the scent of the sea. He took her knees and opened her legs, and she shivered when the air touched her slick flesh.

"It's okay," he whispered. "You're so gorgeous, baby."

She was panting a little when he picked up her hand and led it down again, gently placing it between her legs. Her heart was beating so, so hard, and when she kept just gazing at him, without moving, he cupped his hand over hers, moving her index finger, and she shuddered.

"Start here," he suggested, and pressed her index finger against—

Her clit. The tip of her finger was against her clit, and she swallowed, curiously running her finger around it, and her nail caught—

Her fingernail brushed against the tip of her clit and all of her tensed as she sucked in a desperate breath. "Oh God," she moaned, her hips tilting up, and she stroked it a little harder, a little faster, writhing every time she ran her nail over the sensitive flesh.

Ned released a shuddering sigh and she forced her eyes open. He was idly stroking his cock as he watched her.

Well, that was incredibly unfair. She wanted to be the person doing that.

"Keep going," he urged her, and this time she kept her eyes open and on him as she kept rubbing her thumb over her clit, her fingertips slowly sliding down. The wet folds were gloriously sensitive, and it took her longer than she expected to find her opening.

She gently pressed one finger up inside her, and let out a soft cry, her hips bucking up against the sensation.

"Yeah, baby," Ned said, stroking himself faster. "That feel good?"

She nodded, a second finger joining the first, then a third, as her other hand stole to her breast. She pinched her nipple, rubbing her clit hard, her fingers thrusting rapidly in and out of her sex, and her mouth dropped open as she began to come.

Most of the time, when he touched her this way, he was more hesitant, so careful. She wanted more, though, wanted to know what he felt when she came, what the glorious pleasure of her orgasm felt like to him.

"God," Ned whispered, as she arched up, her hips circling, her head tipping back. She panted desperately, and when she flicked her nail over her clit again—

oh, oh God, she felt her own slick flesh clench against her fingers, and she screamed silently, writhing against her touch. She went faster and faster, and she could hear Ned stroking himself just as rapidly. Oh shit.

The room had been spinning pretty wildly before. Now it was even worse.

Every tweak of her nipple went straight down to her clit, and if she had been able to figure out how to fondle both nipples while stroking her clit, she was pretty sure she would have lost her mind at how amazing it would have felt. She kept going, panting for breath, and when she looked at Ned his fist was moving just as quickly as her own. She paused for a second, every single atom in her quivering with anticipation, and arched hard when she brushed her thumb over her clit again. She came with a whimper, her fingers motionless but buried deep between her thighs, feeling her inner flesh clench tight and release as she spasmed over and over, and when she slipped her fingers out, she winced at how intense the sensation was.

Ned groaned and when Nancy looked up at him again, he was slumped, panting.

"You know," Ned mumbled when he finally caught his breath, "maybe we should have been doing this instead of..."

Nancy made a face, shivering. Her fingers were... ugh. "I need to wash my hands," she said, and felt her stomach clench.

They were still drunk enough to walk out to the hallway naked, trusting the late hour to keep them unobserved. They took turns cleaning themselves up, although when Nancy dried off her hands she lost her balance and sat down on the edge of the tub, her gaze gone distant.

"Nan?" he said, glancing back at her.

"Oh shit," she forced out, and scrambled to kneel at the commode.

That was the worst part. She wished she could figure out the magic number when it came to drinks, the number that would make her feel happy and giggly and amazing without this. Ned patted her back awkwardly, swept her hair away from her face, and found a washcloth to wet and place against the back of her neck.

"How are you not throwing up right now?" she asked, after a particularly hard few minutes. Tears were streaking down her cheeks, and she found a tissue, probably smeared her makeup even further with it.

"Figured it out when I was a sophomore," he told her. "When it tastes like water you've gone way, way too far..."

"Ugh," she said, blushing as she heaved again. And she had just actually masturbated in front of him. That thought made her heave, too.

When she finished throwing up she felt shivery, but a thousand times better, almost euphoric. She knew that wouldn't last either, but when Ned took her hand and led her back to his room, she had the strength to squeeze him back.

She collapsed to his bed, wincing, and he put on his underwear before joining her. "Did it start tasting like water?"

"Yeah," she admitted, rubbing her forehead. "Oh my God. I can't believe you made me do that," she said, turning to him.

"I had nothing to do with all that tequila—"

Nancy made a face. "Ugh. No, not that. The... other thing."

"So you didn't like it? Because... you really looked like you did."

She looked away from him.

He rolled onto his side, cupping her cheek. "You came," he said.

She closed her eyes. "Yeah," she grudgingly admitted.

"Why are you upset?"

"It was... dirty," she whispered.

"Yeah," he said. "Hot dirty."

She opened her eyes just to cast a mild glare at him. "You can't have... it was..."

"Hot," he repeated, moving close to her to press his lips to hers. "Oh my God, it was so hot. The only thing hotter is when you're naked and on top of me..."

"And that's what I like," she told him. "I like you."

"But it felt good, didn't it? What were you thinking about?"

She kissed him back, gently, and whispered against his mouth, "I was thinking that this was what you feel when you're inside me, when you're making me come..."

"It feels amazing," he said. "You were... quieter, though."

"I like it so much better when you do it," she told him, and gently began stroke her fingertips down his back, her breasts brushing against his chest. "I knew..." she blushed. "I knew what I was about to do, but when you... when you do it..."

He stroked her back too, down to her hip, letting out a little sigh as she kissed his cheek. "Sweetheart... at least when we're—not touching, there's no risk—"

"But I like that," she admitted, her eyes closed, whispering into his ear, arching against him. "When you... I like knowing you want me..."

"I want you every second of every day," he whispered. He looped his arms around her and pulled her tight to him. "And seeing you out there with that jackass... looking at him the way I wanted you to be looking at me..."

She kissed him hard. "I know you'll look," she said. "I know I look. But... as long as it's nothing more than that."

"I wouldn't," Ned whispered. "I wouldn't risk us, baby, not like that."

They gazed into each other's eyes, and she swallowed. "I don't ever want to lose you," she whispered, wishing she could say what she was dying to scream. She would be his, forever, if he asked. At least, she thought she would.

She wanted it so much, but the prospect scared the hell out of her.

The moment passed, and she pressed her face to his neck, savoring the feel of him so close to her. Soon they would be back home, sleeping apart again.

And his graduation day was getting closer and closer.

"Go to sleep, baby," Ned whispered, stroking his hand down her hair.

"I love you," she breathed, nestling against him.

"I love you too," he whispered.

Chapter Text

Nancy looked down into her jewelry box, searching for the perfect pair of earrings. Most of the silver, gold, and gems she saw there had been presents—presents from her father, from Hannah, from Ned. She found a small pair of emerald studs and threaded them through her ears.

Ned would be back tomorrow.

The thought sent a thrill of fear through her belly. She shoved it aside, slipped her feet into a pair of navy pumps, and headed for the stairs.

"Are you sure you don't want lunch?" Hannah asked from the kitchen, when she heard Nancy flying down the stairs.

"I'm sure," Nancy called back, searching the hall closet for her coat. "Thanks, though!"

"Have a great day at work, honey!"

During her drive in to Chicago, Nancy felt again that impatience to find her own place. She loved Hannah and her father, loved not having to pay rent, but she needed to be out. If she had her own place and went out for drinks with Bess and George, Hannah wouldn't be up worrying about her. She wouldn't get sucked into watching her father's favorite show when she should be doing research.

And, if she wanted Ned to stay over...

She tried not to think about it, but the drive was long, and her thoughts kept circling back to it, even as she tried to mentally prepare herself for the day.

Ned had graduated Emerson two weeks ago. He had flown out to New York for a long weekend, going through the interview process for an ad agency. Now he was in Los Angeles, on another interview. Whenever she asked about it, keeping her voice light, he responded enthusiastically. His life was full of possibilities.

Nancy had made her own choice six weeks earlier, after completing the work for her private investigator's license. A large investigation and security firm in Chicago whose agents she had worked with in the past, had been at the top of her list when it came to possible employers. They weren't hiring, and Nancy knew she could work virtually anywhere in the world, that if she called Frank Hardy and suggested she put up a shingle with him and Joe she had definite reason to believe he would most likely jump at the chance—but she had walked into the Chicago agency, charmed her way into a ten-minute audience with the managing partner, and walked out with a probationary job offer, without once mentioning her father's name. She had been tempted to go in using an alias, but had given up that idea. She was who she was, and anyone who thought she was just coasting on the strength of her father's name had never seen her in action.

It was Chicago. Near her father and Hannah, near Bess and George, near everything she knew. She had a good relationship with the police officers and fellow investigators she'd met, and while she knew she could probably make more at a New York or California agency, she loved Chicago.

It was near Ned's parents, too. Near where they had both built their lives.

But he was going on interviews on the other sides of the country, and with every second that had passed after his graduation, she felt her tension level rising.

She loved him so much. But she didn't know what he wanted. She wasn't even sure what she wanted. All she knew was that she loved the agency, loved the work she was doing—and if Ned told her that he was opting for New York or Los Angeles, they could try to make the long-distance thing work again.

She didn't know how long that could work, though. The nights they spent together made her want more. Even if he didn't propose, she loved the idea of coming home to him, picking up takeout, talking about their days while they curled up together in front of the television. Going to bed with him, waking up with him. She wanted a life with him... but she didn't know if he wanted a life with her.

She found a parking spot and swallowed hard, trying to put those troubling thoughts out of her head.

"Nancy! Hey!"

Nancy turned to find the source of the call and smiled when she saw Mark Cantor. "Hey!" she replied, picking up her briefcase, folding her coat over her arm before she locked her car. "You had the right idea," she said, nodding at his styrofoam cup of coffee.

Mark grinned. "I think we're gonna need a ton of caffeine today," he said ruefully. "Equimax sent over a bunch of files last night before I left."

Nancy groaned, then gave him a grateful smile when he held the door for her. "Better to be busy, though," she said.

Mark chuckled. "Rookie mistake, Drew," he said, calling the elevator.

As soon as she walked in, the receptionist called her name. Mark gave her a little wave as he headed for the conference room. "Mr. Brown would like to see you," the receptionist said, conscientiously.

"Did it seem like he was in a good mood? Bad mood?" Nancy asked conspiratorially.

"Really don't know," the receptionist confided apologetically, before pressing a button on the phone bank.

Reggie Brown was on the phone when she knocked tentatively on his door. "Drew!" he said, beckoning her in, before he finished up his call. "Drew! Get in here."

"Good morning," Nancy said slowly, smoothing her skirt over her knees as she took a seat.

"Had a case come in. Asked specifically for you." He chewed on the end of a pen; apparently it was a holdover from his years smoking. "Not company policy to do that."

Nancy's stomach flipped. She fought to keep her face impassive. "Oh. I'm sorry, sir."

"I'd rather the billing hours come through the office, though," he said, glancing down at his desk, shuffling a few papers over. "And it's one of those damn grunt-work cases. Get you some experience." He pinned her with a glance.

Nancy knew the bait, and she refused to take it. "Then I'd be happy to work on it, unless you have something else for me," she said, keeping her voice even.

Brown slammed a few desk drawers. The empty coffee mugs at the edge of his desk clattered in sympathy. "Emily!" he bellowed, and a light-eyed blonde poked her head around the door, grabbing the frame to keep from overshooting. "Get Drew the—the Stansfield contact info."

Emily nodded and vanished.

The Stansfield case was going to be a bitch, Nancy saw as soon as she took it to her desk. She skimmed through the preliminary info, then the phone messages left for her on other active cases. By the time Mark poked his head around the wall of her cubicle to ask if she wanted to grab some lunch with him, she gestured with an eye-roll to the elevator music coming out of her phone speaker; she had been on hold for twenty-five minutes already, and was regretting not taking Hannah up on her offer for lunch.

Her other line rang ten minutes later, while she was deep in conversation with the airline agent, going through all the possible aliases Whitmore could have flown under. Two minutes later Jane came around the side of her cubicle and dropped another one of those damn pink and blue phone-message slips onto Nancy's desk.

Ned called. 310-555-6237.

He was calling from Los Angeles. What if he had taken the job? What if he—

"I'm sorry, what was that?" Nancy had to ask the agent, forcing herself to focus again. Her appetite had entirely vanished, though.

Once she had the information she wanted—which was too little for forty-five minutes of irritation, honestly—Nancy took a deep breath and picked up the phone again, resigning herself to another vending-machine lunch. She always had such good intentions, to grab a salad or wrap, but days like this were so busy she often forgot she even needed to eat.

And, honestly, she loved that.

Call him, Drew. Call him, she told herself sternly, finding the message slip.

"Hello?" Ned answered when he picked up.

She hadn't heard from him in a few days, and she was glad she was sitting when she finally heard his voice. God, she had missed him. A wave of pleasure drifted all the way down to her toes, though she could still feel that damn nervous thread through it.

"Hey," she replied, smiling. "How's it going out there?"

"Lousy. I miss my girl."

Her smile became a grin. "And I miss my guy. You still coming back in tomorrow? Need a ride from the airport?"

"I'll be back tomorrow," he confirmed. "But I... don't need a ride. I have a few errands, an interview... I just wanted to hear your voice."

"Oh." Nancy tapped a pen against her keyboard's wrist rest. "So, just... let me know when you're back, when you're free." She tried to make her voice lighter than she felt. "Maybe we could get dinner or something."

"That sounds great, Nan." Ned cleared his throat. "Look, I have to go. I love you."

"Love you too," she replied, and once she hung up she let herself take one deep shivering breath before she put it out of her head.

What if he wants to break up—

Nancy glanced at her watch, then called Bess's workplace. "Hey," she said, once she was finally connected to Bess's desk. "You and George free tonight?"

"Uh..." Bess frantically shuffled through some papers. "Yeah, maybe seven? There's that new place downtown, but I don't know. Might need to be quick. Let me call George and get back to you."

Nancy didn't finish what she was working on until six that night. By then her stomach was growling every other minute, and her energy was flagging. Most of the other new agents were apologizing to spouses on the phone, loudly discussing ordering pizza. Nancy picked up the phone and called Hannah Gruen.

"Let me guess. You won't be home for dinner," Hannah said. "And if those are the next words out of your mouth, you're taking this for lunch tomorrow."

"I'm sorry," Nancy said. "Yes, I will bring it for lunch. As long as you didn't make pork ribs."

"It's roasted chicken. It'll make you a nice sandwich," Hannah said, in her matronly way. "You received a few things in the mail today."

"That's great, Hannah," Nancy said distractedly. "Look, I'll be there in a few hours, I'm going to meet Bess and George..."

"Oh?" Hannah said, and Nancy heard a timer going off in the kitchen behind her voice. "Tell them I said hello."

"I will. Okay, see you soon."

Nancy couldn't bring up what was bothering her until after she had finished her first martini, although the stack of files in the trunk of her car was still an almost palpable weight on her shoulders. She was going to have another night of four hours of sleep, she just knew it.

"Ned's coming back from California tomorrow."

George nodded. "So we won't see you again for, what, a month? When you aren't at work I'm sure you'll be with him."

"If we were dressed to go to the club, I'd say we should go now," Bess said with a sigh.

Nancy shook her head. "I just don't know. All the interviews... I don't know what he's going to do."

George broke a roll in half. "California and New York, right?"

"And he mentioned Hong Kong last week..."

Bess's mouth dropped open. "What?"

Nancy smiled gratefully at the waitress when she brought the next martini. "I'm just afraid that when we see each other again... he's going to..." Nancy broke off, shaking her head. "I don't know," she whispered.

George patted her hand. "Have you talked to him about how you feel?"

"How can I? I think we've spent two hours together since graduation." Nancy stirred her drink, then took a sip. "I keep thinking he's avoiding me."

"Well, what do you want?" Bess asked.

"I want to know what he wants," Nancy said. "I don't want to... to put myself out there if he's... if he wants to be somewhere else."

"But what if that's what he's waiting for?" George said, reaching for her water glass. "What if he needs you to put yourself out there?"

Nancy was considering that when she parked outside her father's house, locked the car, and headed inside, leaving the files for the moment. Hannah had left the porch light on, and the mail was on the hall table where Nancy usually left her purse.

One of the envelopes bore no return address. No postmark, either.

Nancy's heart sped up a little as she broke the seal.


Ms. Drew,

I must consult with you on an urgent matter. Your particular expertise is required, and while I know your time is valuable, I promise that you will be amply rewarded. Since the matter is of an extremely personal nature, I would hesitate to involve your current employer, but if you insist, I will have something put on the books.

I will have a taxi waiting for you between seven and seven-oh-five tomorrow night at your workplace. Give the driver the enclosed card and he will take you to my location.

I look forward to seeing you there.

-knight


Nancy read over the letter carefully again, then looked at the enclosed card.

Then she smiled.

--

At six-fifty-six, Nancy was in the first-floor bathroom at her workplace, shimmying into a copper sequined cocktail dress. She glanced at the door before she scrutinized her reflection in the mirror. The dress brought out the highlights in her strawberry-blonde hair and clung to her curves, and after a fresh coat of mascara and lipstick, she was ready. Praying that she wouldn't meet any of her workmates out front, she put on her belted trench and headed out.

As the cabbie headed through traffic, Nancy wondered what would have happened if she had been unable to make it, if she had been a few minutes late. When the cabbie stopped and she began to dig in her purse for the fare, he shook his head.

"How long were you told to wait for me?" she asked, handing through a tip anyway.

"As long as it took," he told her, taking the tip with a smile.

Nancy headed into the restaurant, noting the tasteful decor, the quietly deferential staff, the elegantly-dressed patrons. Her dress, thankfully, fit right in. When she mentioned her name to the hostess, she was asked to wait just a moment, then directed to a small room at the back. The server took her coat, then opened the door for her, and for a second Nancy was convinced something was terribly wrong. The room was dark—

Well, not entirely dark. Candles flickered on the other tables, and then she noticed that the other tables were unoccupied. Once her eyes adjusted to the low light, she saw a figure at the back. He moved toward her, and while she heard the door swing shut behind her, all of her awareness, all of her was centered on him.

She hadn't seen him in ten days. Just the sight of him made her weak in the knees.

She met him halfway, though, throwing her arms around him, and he picked her up, holding her tight to him. His aftershave smelled like home.

Even when he put her down, they still clung together. "Hey," she whispered, her eyes closed, just memorizing the rhythm of his breath. "I missed you so much."

"I missed you too, baby," Ned whispered, and then, finally, he let her go. He pulled out the chair for her and she sat down, then glanced behind her.

They had let him take the entire room, let him fill the other tables with flickering candles. The only other light was the warm halo coming from the lamp above their table.

As soon as they had placed their orders, when the sommelier had taken their wine order, Ned cleared his throat. "So, how's work been?"

Nancy opened her mouth, then tilted her head. "Short answer, or long answer?"

"Either?"

"It's been really, really good," she said. "I love it. I mean, I'm working my ass off, but I wouldn't have expected anything else. I don't want anyone to have the nerve to say I only got this job because of Dad, you know?"

"I can understand that," Ned said with a smile. The sommelier returned with their wine, and he took a long sip, reaching for Nancy's hand. "It's long hours, isn't it."

She found herself wanting to lie, suddenly, but he knew her too well for that. "Sometimes," she admitted. "I think Brown is just seeing how much I can take, right now. Once I prove myself, I'll have more freedom. He doesn't waste his top people on combing through airline and telephone records."

"And you're going to be on top," Ned said, and there was no hint of sarcasm of bitterness in his voice. "Because you are the best, Nancy Drew."

She colored just a little, pleased. "So I'm dying to know how things went in Los Angeles," she said, taking a sip of her own wine, hoping he didn't notice the slight tremor in her voice.

Ned took a deep breath. "Really, really well," he admitted. "New York and Los Angeles—they're so different, so big, and there's so much going on. Either place I'd be starting low—"

"Why?" Nancy asked, genuinely surprised. "Your portfolio is great, babe."

Ned chuckled. "And incredibly small," he reminded her, "once you take out all the spec stuff. First time out... well, the first year's always gonna be hard. Guess we're in the same boat when it comes to that."

Nancy smiled at him, although her stomach was still jumping a little. "You're a natural," she told him. "After a month they'll be throwing money at you. Just you wait."

Their salads arrived. Ned mentioned that he had managed to have lunch with Evan and Laurel, and they had asked about her. Their dinners were served with a flourish, but Nancy could only manage a few bites of her entree. She couldn't concentrate for not knowing.

The server returned and asked if they needed anything. Nancy asked for a box and was shocked when Ned asked for one as well. "And would either of you care for dessert? The chef has prepared an excellent tiramisu," he cajoled.

"That... would be great," Ned said, glancing over at his girlfriend.

"I'll split it with you," she suggested. "I'll only want a bite, anyway."

The server whisked their dishes away to wrap them, and Ned wiped his mouth, then tossed his napkin on the table. He motioned for her to hold on for a second, and she heard him doing something behind her. Then he reached for her hand, pulled her chair out for her, and she rose, letting him pull her into his arms.

Their song began.

Nancy glanced up at him in surprise, her eyes filling with tears. She knew it so well, and whenever she happened to hear it on the radio, her heart always beat incredibly hard at those first few notes. Just like that particular scent of his aftershave, hearing it produced an almost visceral reaction in her, a longing for him.

Ned smiled. "That's not the response I was looking for," he said softly, brushing the first off her cheek. "Baby, I've missed you so much."

She smiled at him. "I've missed you too," she whispered.

Even when the server returned with their boxes and the dessert, they kept swaying together, and when they were alone again, she rested her face against his shoulder.

"You look so beautiful tonight."

"You look incredibly handsome too, Nickerson."

He held her a little tighter, as the song faded. They slowed to a stop and he leaned down to kiss her softly. She returned it with growing eagerness, her body arching against his, and when they parted it was reluctantly.

True to her word, Nancy could only take one bite of the tiramisu. Ned managed to finish it, and Nancy tried not to just stare at him. She had a good feeling about tonight, but she didn't really know.

Ned pushed away the plate, offered to top off her wine before he topped off his own, and then he was gazing into her eyes. It took her breath away.

"Nan," he said softly, extending his hand, and she met it with her own. "I have another interview tomorrow."

Her heart sank. "Oh," she murmured.

"It's here, in Chicago. One of my brothers at Omega Chi, he has an uncle in the business." Ned's thumb stroked down the back of Nancy's hand. "The agency in New York already got back to me with an offer, and I have a really good feeling about the job in L.A. It's amazing, babe, really amazing. Better than I ever thought it would be."

She nodded, forcing a smile.

"But, Nan..." His right hand moved, and in the halo of light, she saw a flash of brilliance. A diamond nestled in black velvet. "The only thing I really want is you."

Nancy glanced from the ring to his face, her eyes filling with tears again. "Ned," she whispered.

Ned's eyes were wide, and his adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed, hard. "Nancy, sweetheart... I've loved you for so long now, and I know... I know what you said, I know this scares you. It scares me too." He gave her a small smile. "But... in all honesty, what scares me more is... thinking that you don't feel this way.

"I love you so much, all of you, even when you drive me crazy. There cannot be a person on this earth I could love even a tenth this much, because there is absolutely no one else like you. And you asked what the plan was, and the plan... is that, wherever I am, wherever you are, we're together. I'll interview at every agency in Chicago if you want to stay here. I'll teleconference from Antarctica if you want to live there. If you'll let me, Nan... I want to spend the rest of my life with you."

Nancy smiled, wishing fleetingly that she had thought to wear her definitely waterproof mascara; she was sure her cheeks were streaked with black. "Yes," she whispered. "Yes, I want to spend the rest of my life with you. And I'm sorry, I'm so sorry that you thought... I might not want that... it's just that you were going on interviews, and I was afraid that I—that you wouldn't want to be with me, that you would want the kind of girl who would stay home waiting for you, and... and I want to be that for you, but the hours, and—"

Ned gently pressed his thumb over her lips, quieting her, and plucked the ring out of the velvet. She extended her hand and he slipped it onto her finger.

"I know who you are," he said, his voice pitched low and shivering right up her spine. "I'm not walking into this blind, baby."

She grinned. "Good."

He pushed his chair back and pulled her into his embrace, hard, and the server came in. "Oh, congratulations!" he said. "A toast?"

"A toast would be perfect," Ned said, and Nancy giggled when he lifted her off the floor. They were barely alone before he was nuzzling against her neck. "You smell so good," he murmured against her skin.

Nancy shivered, brushing her lips against his earlobe, feeling his embrace tighten around her. She had her ring and her promise... and she remembered all too well what she had promised him in return. "I love you," she whispered.

"I love you too," he whispered, and she closed her eyes.

By the time they walked out of the restaurant, she was feeling a little lightheaded from the wine and how entirely surreal the night had become. When she had walked in, she hadn't been sure if they would be together at the end of the meal. She glanced down and the engagement ring sparkled back at her.

He followed her gaze, and the arm he had slipped around her waist tightened a little. "I've had it for a while now," he confided, his breath warm against her ear. "Waiting for the perfect moment."

She turned to brush her lips against his. "It was perfect," she told him, blinking back another wave of tears. "I've always known you were romantic, but that was amazing, Ned."

His smile was brief; his gaze was intent on hers, when she glanced up at him again. "The summer you went to Europe," he said softly, and she felt her stomach clench at the reminder of that awful time. "I was working every single hour at the insurance company that I could so I could get you that ring..."

They were standing on the sidewalk, by then, and Nancy's face fell. "Oh, Ned," she whispered, sliding her arms up around his neck, holding him tight. "Oh my God, baby, I'm so sorry, I'm so fucking sorry, I didn't know..."

"It's okay," he murmured.

"It's not," she replied. "Why didn't you tell me? That stupid fight—and you... I didn't know..."

"Because I didn't know what you'd say," he told her, moving back a little, brushing a tear off her cheek. "Or, I did. That we were too young, where would we live, how would we live..."

Nancy shook her head, remembering his first proposal, what felt like a lifetime before.

"And then you told me that you didn't want to be tied down, not to me or to anyone, and I thought... well, at least now I know."

Nancy pulled her coat a little tighter around her, then reached for his hand. "With anyone else, that's what it would be," she whispered. "Tied down. But with you... who I am with you is so much stronger than who I am alone." Her voice shook slightly, and she glanced away, swallowing when Ned tipped her chin back up to look into her face. "When we're together, Ned..." She choked up, and when his mouth touched hers, she let out a soft sob.

He kept stroking her, his fingertips warm on her skin, and she had to work hard to focus over the deafening pounding of her heart. "When we're together sometimes it's like we're a part of each other, that losing you would mean losing half of myself. More than that, really." She chuckled humorlessly. "Like losing all of me. I would never be the same, without you, and there was a time I used to be safe... and then I met you."

"For as long as I'm alive, baby, you will be safe."

She shook her head. "I will never be safe, as long as I could lose you," she whispered.

"You never will, baby," he told her. "I swear, you never will."

Once he had kissed the tears off her cheeks, she took a few deep breaths, then headed for a pay phone halfway down the block.

"Nan?"

"I'm super late. I told Hannah I'd be in the city tonight, but she gets worried sick." She reached for his hand. "I... could tell her that I'm too tired to drive home, that I'll just get a room in the city..."

Ned nodded. "Do that," he murmured, and the low demand of his voice sent a shiver down her spine. The warmth and weight of his fingers against her hip were enough to make her slick in anticipation.

Sounding tired was difficult, with her pulse speeding the way it was, with Ned's fingers drifting in meaningless patterns against her side. She managed to pull off the conversation, though, and then almost immediately he was flagging down a cab, calling out an address.

He already had a hotel room for the night. When he opened the door she had the impression of layers of cream, ivory, white, a king-sized bed, his suitcase, blond wood and chrome—

And then his mouth was fused hard to hers as he kicked the door shut behind them, the key dropping from his fingers to the floor.

"Nancy," he groaned, when they broke the kiss, their lips swelled red, her purse on the floor. He pushed her trenchcoat off and she sighed when it slipped down, joining her purse. "Oh my God, you said yes—I was so afraid you wouldn't say yes—"

"I was so afraid you were going to tell me—" She gasped when he boosted her up, working his way down the column of her throat, and she squirmed against him, her pulse speeding up again. "Tell me you took a job—somewhere else—that you'd outgrown me—"

Ned pulled back, his fingertips hooked just inside the back v of her dress, his gaze incredulous. "No matter what, baby, I'm never gonna outgrow you. Never. You are everything to me. I mean it." His eyes were fierce. "Everything, baby, and now... you'll be mine..."

Her eyes pricked with tears again, and she grimaced. God, she hated crying. "I've been yours," she whispered. "From the first time you kissed me, the first time you touched me. All you had to do was ask."

Ned groaned softly, and then he was kissing her hard, his fingertips finding the zipper of her dress. She closed her eyes, her tongue moving against his, as he inched it down, moving her dress to the points of her shoulders.

She kept her arms up around his neck, and slowly, slowly they broke the kiss, though she nipped at him again, again, desperate for his touch. He touched the straps again and she took a half-step back, making sure his gaze was on her before she dropped her arms and let him push it down.

She was entirely naked underneath, and she took a step toward him, wearing his ring and her stilettos and nothing else.

Ned sucked in a sharp breath. "Holy fuck, Nan."

"I'm yours," she whispered, and she could already see that he was ready for her. She knew she had no control, but at least like this, she could feel like she did. "For the asking," she murmured, taking another step. She took his tie in her hand, gently began to work the knot free. "For the taking."

Impatiently Ned toed his shoes off, unbuttoning his shirt, and she was struck again at the sheer size of his body. He was a full head taller than she was, and from the moment they had touched in the restaurant, she had been very aware that she was naked under her dress. Standing in front of him entirely naked while he was still dressed—well, half-dressed—felt incredibly hot.

She helped pull his shirt out of his pants and when he stripped it off, when he pulled his undershirt off and buried his fingers in her hair, tipping her head back so he could press his mouth to hers again, she started shivering. He was... they were going to make love, and it was one thing for his kisses to make her weak, but her boyfriend—fiancé; he was her fiancé now—could easily pin her under him, cage her hands and press them to the mattress above her head as he pressed his hips to hers—

But he wouldn't, he wouldn't do that against her will. They had come so close so many times and he had never gone further than she wanted.

Oh God, oh sweet God.

He looped his other arm around her waist and began to back her toward the bed, and her stomach flipped. She dragged her nails lightly down his back, and by the time the backs of her knees touched the mattress, she had his pants unbuttoned, the zipper halfway down.

She sat down at the foot of the bed, and when she pushed his pants down, when she gently pushed his underwear down, she looked up into his face.

God, she loved him. She loved him so much.

She gently stroked her fingertips up his shaft, and he let out a soft moan as she parted her legs.

He would be hers. Forever.

--

She had said yes. Nancy Drew, the love of his life, the smartest, most gorgeous, and fiercely independent woman he had ever met, had said she would marry him.

And she was sitting on his hotel bed, practically naked, angling him as she flicked the tip of her hot wet tongue over the head of his cock.

He groaned, gritting his teeth so he would just stroke her hair instead of holding her head in place while he fucked that sweet little mouth of hers. She was already terrified, and he didn't need to make it any worse.

She hadn't said anything, and he thought maybe she believed he didn't know, but they had been together for years and he could see the little signs, the hitches in her breathing, the tremor in her fingertips, the way her eyes could only meet his for a second or two before she was glancing away again.

As much as he enjoyed what her mouth felt like against his cock—

His fingers tightened in her hair when she brought her hand up, stroking the slick trace of her saliva down to the base of his cock, fondling his balls. Pulling back was literally the most difficult thing he had ever been able to do.

Her lips were wet when she glanced questioningly up at him, her fingers still idly caressing his erection. Ned swallowed hard, then sat down beside her.

"Nan... It's okay. Calm down."

"I'm calm," Nancy said reassuringly. She stroked his thigh. "I am."

He shook his head. "Baby... I know what you said, but if you don't want to go all the way tonight, that's okay."

Nancy looked down. "You want to," she murmured, and it wasn't a question, not really.

He tipped her chin up so he could look into her face. "Tonight has already been the most amazing night of my life," he said softly. "We could go to sleep right now and I'd be happy, sweetheart."

She closed her eyes. "I want it," she whispered. "I want... to make love. If you do."

He moved in close to her, his lips grazing her cheek, and hers were parted when he kissed her. "I love you so much, Nan."

She made a soft sound. "I love you too," she whispered, and shivered a little when he moved her up so her head could rest on a pillow while he knelt over her. She slipped her arms around him, her fingers threading through his hair as she drew him to her for another kiss.

Her legs were just barely parted. He slipped one knee between, gently fondling her breast as she stroked his tongue with hers, gently sucked it. He shivered, pushing his knee up so he could feel the heat radiating from the join of her thighs.

I've always been yours.

When he broke the kiss she brushed her lips over his again, panting, her eyes wide and blue as she gazed up at him. He didn't even have to try; as he gently, slowly began to work his way down her body, he could feel her heart pounding, vibrating against his lips. He cupped her breasts, remembering how rough she had been when he had watched her touch herself, but started slow anyway, avoiding her nipples until the lightest accidental brush made her arch and gasp underneath him. Then he pulled one into his mouth, kissing it gently, beginning with the lightest swipe of the tip of his tongue against the sensitive flesh.

She was writhing, the join of her thighs gently stroking against his knee, by the time he suckled hard, needling the tight bud with his teeth. She tipped her head back, letting out a desperate, almost keening moan.

"Ned," she begged, cupping her hand over his as he fondled her other nipple. "Oh my God, Ned, please."

"Say it," he whispered. "Tell me what you want, baby."

"I want..." A tear streaked down her cheek. "I want to feel you inside me," she breathed. "I've wanted it so long. I want you to love me, show me how it feels, baby, make me your first..."

"My only, Nan," he said, his voice a rough growl. "You're all I've ever wanted, baby, and I want you so much..."

She picked up his hand, guiding it between her thighs. She shuddered when he just barely brushed his fingertip against her inner lips and found her slick.

"I think I'm ready for you, baby," she whispered.

"You are so wet," he groaned. "Fuck, Nan..."

"Please," she whispered, and he glanced up at her. She was shivering, and she looked like she was about to come out of her skin. He felt the same, nervous and scared as hell and almost drunk with desire for her, praying that he didn't do anything wrong, that he didn't hurt her, that he didn't make her hate this forever.

With more self-control than he could swear he had ever possessed, he gently tugged at her nipple with his teeth, then continued down her body. He brushed the tip of his nose over her abs and felt her quiver, ticklish, under him. He kissed her inner thighs before he parted her and breathed gently on the slick folds of her flesh, and she let out a pleading cry, her hips circling under him.

She was incredibly slick. For a second he considered getting the bottle of lube, maybe a condom, but she hadn't ever been enthusiastic about using condoms. And he couldn't imagine the lube would make any real difference.

He shivered at just the thought of easing himself inside her.

Instead he traced his fingertips up and down the slick folds of her flesh, managing to avoid her clit, and felt her begin to rock her hips, trying to rub herself against him. He slipped his index finger up into the hollow of her sex and she let out a small sob, and he rolled his eyes back for a second. Holy fuck, she was wet.

He kept his finger, just the one, inside her, kept it still as his thumb brushed her clit.

It felt like she fucking exploded under him, her hips thrusting up as she sobbed, panting. "Oh my God," she whimpered, her voice edged in pain, shivering with pleasure. He watched her closely, watched her arch, and she tipped her head back, baring her throat, her fingernails digging into the comforter. "Oh fuck yes yes please fuck yes," she cried out.

He was fucking dying to be inside her, he had to grip his cock hard just to keep from fucking humping the air near her and coming all over her stomach, especially once he slipped another finger inside her and she writhed, turning her face into the pillow so she could scream, parting her legs even wider for him. She planted her heels so she could rut against his hand and Ned growled. This gorgeous, unspeakably sexy woman under him wanted him.

She groaned in frustration when he pulled his fingers out of her, stroking his cock with the slick glide of her arousal, and then he parted her, just gently fitted the tip of his cock in her opening, and oh fuck fuck fuck her pussy was so fucking tight, so hot, so incredibly slick around him.

Ned swallowed hard, She was gleaming faintly with sweat, blinking up at him, and he could see that small frown between her brows as she gazed at him.

Since the second they had met, he had been meant for this. Meant to be one with her, to know how incredibly amazing making love to her would be.

He gritted his teeth. Slow, take it slow, so slow, look at her

She let out a quiet breath, a look of faint concentration on her face, and then she sucked in a breath as he gently, slowly pushed himself the first inch inside her.

"Oh my God," he mumbled, right before she echoed the sentiment. He somehow managed to find her clit and her brows knit as he pressed just a little deeper inside her.

She whimpered, her face creasing, and Ned froze, afraid to move. "Baby?"

"It's... it's okay," she whispered, her eyes closed. "It's okay."

Ned's heart broke at the sight, and he pulled back. He hadn't realized how tense she was until he saw her relax, her hips sinking back down to the bed.

"I can't, baby," he whispered. "I can't hurt you. I can't."

Nancy took a breath, shoving her hair away from her face, then opened her eyes. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "We..." She closed her eyes again. "We could try it..."

But her voice was shaking a little, and Ned shook his head.

"Maybe we should wait," Ned was shocked to hear himself whisper.

Nancy looked up at him. "Until our wedding night," she said softly.

He nodded. "It won't be so long," he murmured, reassuring them both. "And we can... work up to it. We can just save... that... for our first night together."

She glanced down at him. He was about to explode. "There was so much," she murmured. "Oh God, you feel so big..."

"Baby, that was basically the tip," he told her.

Her mouth dropped open. He guided her hand to his cock, showing her just how much of him had been inside her, and she shook her head. He shuddered when she ran the heel of her hand up and down the underside of his shaft.

"I'm gonna come in three seconds," he told her through gritted teeth.

She let her hand drop, then tilted her head. "Do you... I mean, if we're not... what do you want? To do, tonight?"

He had to control his breathing or he was going to just destroy her. He looked down at her. "Do you trust me?"

"You know I do," she whispered.

He flipped her onto her hands and knees, and almost lost it entirely when she tossed her hair and it fell in silky reddish-blonde tresses down her back. He knelt behind her, lined up their hips, and parted her lips so he could rub his cock against her slick inner flesh—

He groaned loudly when he thrust for the first time. Oh shit, it would be so fucking easy to just shift his hips a little, change the angle, and—

He cupped the join of her thighs, digging his thumb against her clit, and she screamed, the pleasure edged in pain. He kept going, stroking her with a brutal rhythm as he rubbed the length of his cock against the slick heat of her sex. At a different angle, fuck, this, he would be inside her, oh shit

She sobbed out his name. "Ned, oh God, please, more, fuck, oh yesssssss—"

He bit the join of her neck and shoulder, her hair like silk against his lips as her hips rocked against his. "Rub your nipples, baby," he growled, rocking harder against her, and he was tight with need when she obeyed him, her hips jerking against his in response.

"Please," she sobbed. "Yes, there, yes oh God."

He kept rubbing her clit even as he came, and when he let out his breath in a long groan she did a slow split, trapping his hand between her hips and the bed.

He pressed his thumb to her clit and thrust three fingers up inside her, panting as he watched her undulate, riding his hand. Oh fuck, one day she would do this on top of him, he would watch that incredibly firm and perky ass or her perfect glorious breasts bounce as she took his cock.

Ned let out a strangled groan. "Come, baby," he ordered her, and she leaned down, trembling as she began to spasm and clench around his fingers.

It took a long time for them to recover, panting, flushed, sprawled lazily over the bed. The overhead light was still on and he could see all of her like this, could see the diamond flashing on her finger as she shoved her hair back.

"I'm sorry," Nancy whispered.

"About what, baby?"

Her voice became even quieter. "For making you stop," she breathed. "When I told you it would take a ring, I meant it... it's just... it hurt," she admitted.

He rolled onto his side and gently cupped her cheek, gazing down at her. "It's okay, baby. We'll figure it out."

She gave him a small smile. "Are you disappointed?"

"Nan, the only thing that would have made me disappointed... is not seeing that ring on your finger right now." He stroked his thumb against her. "I'm sorry. I never want to hurt you, and the look on your face..."

She shook her head. "I wanted you to keep going."

"You did?"

She nodded. "Part of me did," she admitted. "Part of me, though... I'm just so afraid I'll be bad at it—I already am bad at it—"

Ned shook his head. "Sweetheart, we will figure it out, we just need to get through that first... part."

"Popping my cherry."

"Yeah." Ned let himself fall back to the mattress and pulled her into his arms, smiling when she nestled into his chest.

"And... after that. It won't hurt anymore?"

"That's what I've heard."

"Hmm." She kissed his chest. "I like the thought of saving it for our wedding night," she admitted. "That the first guy who will... do that with me... will be my husband."

"First guy? Only guy," Ned murmured, half-teasing. "And now there's gonna be all this pressure and anticipation and I'm gonna have to be amazing..."

"You are," she told him, idly drawing her fingertips over his chest. "And you'll be mine."

"I always have been, baby," he whispered. "And I always will be."

Chapter Text

"That's not what the minister said," Ned laughed, putting the car in reverse and checking behind them before he backed out of the parking space. "He said 'You will give of yourselves, to each other.'"

Nancy shook her head, loosely gathering her hair in her hand before she let it fall back to her bare shoulders. "Well, maybe... but the other way..." She giggled. "Like I could walk up to you and say 'Give yourself to me,' and you'd have to obey. Like that's what marriage is."

The rehearsal had gone well; the rehearsal dinner had been a loud, boisterous affair. Nancy had passed out gifts to her bridesmaids, Ned had distributed flasks to the groomsmen, and after all the toasts and encouragement, Nancy was feeling a bit of a buzz, though not enough to make the next day miserable. She wore a white sundress that showed her recent tan to advantage, a bright blue sash knotted about her waist, and wedge sandals.

"Maybe it is," Ned mused aloud. "But you would... you'd do that? I mean, if I said that... you'd let me do whatever I wanted?"

She was shrugging when he glanced over for just a second, her lips parted, her blue eyes direct on his. "I don't know," she murmured. "I think so. As long as I could tell you to stop, if things... went too far."

"So, a safe word."

Nancy chuckled. "Yeah. A safe word."

Ned shook his head, groaning. "Nan... are you trying to drive me crazy?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, ever since that damn counseling stuff, no fooling around, no sleepovers, and then you say something like that..."

She gently stroked his chin. "All I have to do is breathe around you and you're hard, so don't pin this all on me. Plus, the apartment is a wreck."

"And whose fault is that?" Ned asked, arching an eyebrow at her.

Ned had a small two-bedroom apartment in a not-too-terrible section of Chicago, and while he had been saving up for something better, their wedding was proving to be a huge expense. Nancy had grudgingly agreed to let her father pay for the reception, and Ned's parents had covered the rehearsal dinner, but everything else—the flowers, the photographer, their honeymoon—was coming out of their own money. Since Nancy was still living at home with her father, until tomorrow night, when Ned carried her over the threshold of what would be no longer his but their apartment, her living expenses were pretty low. While she did think it would be romantic to live with him in comparative squalor, they had decided to find something new in a year, eighteen months tops.

In the meantime, though, she was in the process of moving her wardrobe and professional equipment over to his place. And, because she didn't want to give in to temptation, she had barely managed to unpack a single box, so his living room looked like a disaster area.

In the early months of their engagement, even though she was living at home, she had found many opportunities to stay late for work in Chicago... and she had spent half those nights in his arms. Their dates became takeout and then a challenge to see who could hold out longest, who could refrain from ripping whose clothes off first. One night the door hadn't even been closed behind them before he had been unbuttoning her shirt; one night they had actually made it halfway through the movie before she was unfastening his pants, although she had absolutely no idea what had happened plotwise before that.

And oh God, every stroke of his fingers over her skin, every time he sealed his mouth over hers to muffle her screams when she came, clenching tight around his fingers, seemed designed to make her question their agreement to wait. Her desire for him had only grown, and part of her was disappointed every time he finished himself off instead of yanking her legs apart and burying himself deep inside her.

But if her desire had grown, so had her fear. They had scrupulously kept from crossing that line again, and oh, the pain... the pain wouldn't last so long; she had to believe that. It was the tenderness on the other side that she craved.

She hadn't wanted their wedding night to feel like just another night, and after keeping away from him for so long, she was positive that it wouldn't.

The premarital counseling had been her father's idea. Nancy had never really seen a marriage in action, and Carson had thought it would be a good idea for them to talk to someone about what they were getting into. Ned had been reluctant at first, but both of them knew how challenging their life together was going to be. They would be newlyweds, both working in extremely stressful careers, and for most of their relationship the prospect of total commitment had put her in a panic.

During their third session, the minister had folded his hands and looked between the two of them. "While the physical aspect of your relationship is only a small part of marriage, that doesn't make it any less important. Expressing your desire for each other in that intimate way..."

Nancy had glanced away, blushing, and while she hadn't quite been able to meet the minister's gaze after that, he had clearly sensed what might be troubling her.

"Even if you have been together... the wedding night is—it can be—very special. I know how tempting it is to give in to, well, to temptation, but the rewards of waiting can be immense."

Ned had grumbled something about blue balls in the car after. And Nancy knew—well, she was pretty sure—that her father and Hannah, that his parents and Bess and George didn't know what they had done together, but she knew. And no matter how good, how right it had felt, that fear, the fear that she had gone too far, done something wrong, allowed him too much, became a certainty. Oh, it was right, just not right quite yet, and their wedding night... that was when it would no longer feel like such a sin.

Such a heady, incredibly delicious sin.

Less than a day from now, he would be her husband.

She had been running late, so she hadn't been able to drop off the clothes she had packed. Ned went with her to her car, hefting the duffel as she reached for her rolling suitcase, even though the wheels were absolutely no use when it came to the four flights of stairs they were facing.

The boxes, laundry baskets, and crates had been stacked against one wall of the small living room. Nancy groaned when she saw how much space her belongings already took up. The sofa was a fabric hand-me-down, the television set one his parents had given him when they replaced their own, and he had brought the bean bag chairs from his dorm room. His bed didn't even have a headboard. Their dishes were hilariously mismatched, and one of Ned's aunts had sent a fucking wok for a wedding present; it loomed on top of the refrigerator, still in its box, like an ominous reminder that they would never be able to live comfortably in such a small space.

It was shabby and desperately needed serious renovation, but it would be theirs.

Ned caught her hand in his, after they had put the bags down, and her heart sped up as she glanced up at him. She had admired the close fit of his trousers and the way his shirt emphasized the powerful lines of his muscles all night.

Of the three men who had ever proposed marriage to her, who had ever said they wanted her that way... the others were no comparison, none at all, in the face of what she felt for Ned. And now that he was so close to being hers, forever, the attraction between them was breathtaking, overpowering.

He moved close to her, slowly, and she backed until she was braced against the wall, unable to tear her gaze from his. His fingertips gently brushed the strap of her sundress as he pressed his lips to hers.

"Stay with me tonight," he breathed, and she shuddered.

She was wet, and she knew it; she whimpered a little when he kissed her, when he cupped her hips, drawing her up so they were on level with each other. He pressed his hips to hers and she could feel how hard he was for her, and her breasts tingled, the join of her thighs warming in response.

She slipped her arms up around his neck, kissing him back hard. Her skirt slipped up at the sides as she boosted herself, wrapping her legs around his waist.

Ned groaned, his hips moving against hers, and she whimpered as he brushed against her clit, through their clothes. "Oh God," she whispered.

"I want you so much, baby," he begged, and the desire in his voice sent a shiver down her spine. "I've been dying like this... just let me make you come..."

He kissed her, gently nipped at her neck, and she had the sudden quiet thought that if he sucked a hickey on her neck, she would have to make sure she covered it in the morning before the pictures, and—

The morning. They were so close.

They were so close, and tonight they had said the words to each other, and she had seen such incredible tenderness and love in his eyes, had known it was reflected in her own. So close.

But not yet.

She actually moaned in frustration, her hips moving once against his, and she almost gave in, then. "Stop," she breathed, even though every atom in her wanted this, wanted his fingers, his tongue, his cock inside her.

"Baby," he groaned, and the expression on his face was pure agony. "Nan..."

She shook her head, then cleared her throat as she released her grip on him, putting her feet back on the floor. "My dad... he wanted to talk to me tonight, and... God, you have no idea how much I want to stay here..."

He threaded his fingers through her hair, his lips brushing against her earlobe. "Oh, I think I have an idea," he whispered, just before he sucked it into his mouth.

She shivered, gasping, a blush rising to her cheeks. "Tomorrow," she begged, "we just have to wait..."

"Why," he asked, and her eyes fluttered shut when his hips pinned her hard to the wall. "I love you so much, just let me..."

His hand stole between her thighs and Nancy moaned, arching against him. "I love you too," she whispered. "I love you so much, but... we have to stop..."

Reluctantly Ned took a half-step back, his eyes still dark and intense with desire. "You really don't want to," he said softly, and shook his head.

Nancy slipped her arms up around his neck, pulling her down to him, kissing him hard. "You know I do," she said fiercely. "I want you so much, baby, I'm wet for you, and when I go home tonight it's all I'm going to be able to do not to touch myself and think about you—"

Ned growled, slamming her into the wall again. "If you don't get out of here in about thirty seconds, I can't promise I won't carry you to my bed and beg to watch."

She chuckled, drawing her fingers through his hair. "Tomorrow night, baby. I'm about to climb out of my skin but tomorrow..."

He nodded. "And Nan, promise me something?"

"Hmm?"

"That if you go home and do... give in to temptation... at least call me so I can listen."

She shook her head, kissing him one last time. "I'd rather wait until tomorrow night... and I'd rather you do way more than listen."

Nancy spent half the drive back to her father's house still high, tingling from the euphoria of their close call. Once she was closer to home, though, she worked hard to calm herself down, to act something close to normal.

It was perfectly okay for a girl to be keyed up the night before her wedding. She just hoped her father wasn't about to give her the talk again. The first time had been awkward enough.

Carson and Hannah were standing in the kitchen when Nancy arrived. The entire reception was going to be catered, but Carson was going to host a huge brunch for all the out-of-town guests on Sunday, before they left for home. Nancy and Ned would already be on the way to their honeymoon by then, though she was kind of sad to be missing it. Not sad enough to delay their departure, however.

"Ned's going to be broken-hearted if he misses out on your chocolate cake," Nancy pointed out when she saw Hannah's shopping list. She poured herself a glass of lemonade, smiling at the housekeeper.

"Well then, you can just tell that boy to stay here," Hannah said with a wink. Then her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. "Although if you ever want to sweet-talk him into doing anything for you, sweetheart, just let me know and I'll whip one up for you. You'll have him wrapped around your little finger."

Nancy smiled, giving Hannah an affectionate squeeze of the shoulders. "Thanks, Hannah. I knew there was some reason I liked you so much."

Carson cast an affectionate glance at his daughter. "Got a minute, Nan?"

They went to his study, and while she curled up in the familiar armchair before his desk, he closed the door behind them. She couldn't imagine what on earth he was going to say, and that had her a little anxious.

Carson sat down, folding his arms, and didn't speak for a moment. "So, tomorrow," he said, and shook his head. "Can't believe I'm losing my little girl tomorrow."

"Don't plan on it," she told him, a sparkle in her eye. "I still fully intend on keeping half my stuff here. And calling you to talk about tough cases."

Carson chuckled. "Glad to hear it, sweetheart."

She took a long sip of her lemonade. Oh, she hadn't really let herself think about it that way; she knew that her father's house would always be open to her. But tomorrow, it wouldn't really be home anymore. Her home would be wherever Ned was, and this place, while special, wasn't where she would come at night.

Carson sighed. "I'm sorry," he said. "I feel like... like you're walking into this... not knowing, Nan, and I hate that for you. I hate that you didn't know your mother, because God knows she would have been a lot better at this than me." He chuckled.

"Being married... it's amazing, sweetheart. And it's hard. Every single day it's hard. And I raised you to be independent, to think for yourself, to... well, to be my sounding board, and being married... means letting someone else in. You have to compromise, and give in sometimes when you don't want to, when your pride is screaming at you to get the last word in. And Ned's a good guy; I know he's a good guy. He might make some crazy choices every now and then, he might infuriate you and drive you crazy, but if you love him, you two can get through it.

"I learned the hard way that complaining to other people about what's going on... well, that backfires. You'll see." He shook his head. "But I want you to know that this house is always open to you. And if he lays a finger on you in anger and you say the word, I will personally rip him in half."

Nancy shook her head. "Daddy... he wouldn't. He would never do that."

"He'd better not." Carson's mouth was a firm line for a moment. "I would say that you two should enjoy yourselves on your honeymoon, but apparently you already have."

Nancy glanced up at her father, horrified when she couldn't stop the blush spreading across her cheeks. "What...?"

"Left something in my pants pocket and had to go through the laundry," he said casually. "And I found some... articles that definitely weren't mine or Hannah's." He shook his head. "And I wanted to find Ned and rip his arms off, I'll admit. But you two have been dating for a long time, and since for a while you were spending more time 'working late' than a first-year law student—and I should know—" He sighed. "At least you've been careful. When you said you two were getting married, I did keep an eye on you for a little while..."

Nancy could only glance at her father for a few seconds, her face suffused in heat. The rest of the time she had her gaze on the floor. "Um," she said, her voice remarkably calm. "Ned and I... you actually thought I might be pregnant?" she finally burst out.

Carson shrugged. "I didn't say I wanted you to be, just... that I knew it was possible."

"We haven't even," she began, exasperated, then shook her head. "We... no."

Carson smiled. "Good."

Nancy took another sip of her lemonade. "Oh, sweet lord," she whispered, shaking her head again.

"So, is there anything... you want to know?" he said, glancing at her face.

Nancy took a deep breath. "We went through the counseling," she reminded him. "I just... I love him so much," she said, glancing up at her father. "When we're apart... it actually hurts. It's terrifying." She shook her head. "I just don't want to screw it up, you know?"

"Try not to go to bed angry," Carson advised. "And, believe me, there are some nights it will be everything you can do to even say a civil word to him."

"You mean... you actually fought with Mom?"

Carson chuckled. "You take after both of us, Nan. She was just as passionate as you, and when she knew she was right, she would not back down."

She had never imagined that. Intellectually she knew that her parents had had a normal marriage, but in her head they had always been blissfully in love. "Oh," she murmured.

"When you're apart, try to talk at least once a day, if you possibly can. If you get in the habit of not speaking to each other, it gets easier to keep not speaking to each other... and that doesn't end well."

Nancy nodded. "Okay."

"And above all, Nan... be friends with each other. I know you love him so much right now, that you can't imagine ever falling out of love with him, but on a day when everything has been awful, he's going to be the easiest person to lash out against, and you'll be the same for him. Just remember that."

--

The ceremony itself was small, and brief, given what it was. They were promising to spend the rest of their lives together, in front of all their family and friends, and that part of it, the actual vows, the exchange of rings, was over with in a few minutes.

But everything changed for him, in those few minutes.

I promise to love, honor, cherish and obey you, Ned told her, his gaze steady on hers, and her eyes began to gleam. For the rest of our lives I swear to hold you first, above all others, above myself, because you are my heart, Nancy. When I'm with you... I'm better than when I'm alone, and I'm going to spend the rest of my life showing you how much you mean to me. You made me the happiest man in this world when you told me you loved me, and I can't wait to start the rest of my life with you.

Ned... She smiled at him, and her fingers tightened on his. I promise to love, honor, cherish and obey you, to spend every day of the rest of my life treasuring you, because you are everything to me. You are the best man I have ever known, and I'll never deserve you, but I swear I'll try to make that up to you, sweetheart. I am so grateful that you put up with me through everything, that you actually want to spend your life with me—and I am the luckiest girl in the world, because you love me.

Ned actually felt a shiver pass over him when he slipped the ring onto her finger, repeating the minister's words. With this ring, I thee wed.

My love, my only, for the rest of our lives, he thought.

His gaze was locked to her face when her fingers, cool with nervousness, slipped the ring onto his finger. With this ring, I thee wed, she whispered, and when her gaze rose to his, he wanted so badly to just lift her into his arms, to hold her to him and never let her go.

They didn't make it back to the apartment until eleven o'clock that night. At the reception Bess and George got spectacularly drunk, along with half of Ned's frat and a few of Nancy's more interesting relatives. Bess's toast involved a winking reference to all the times Nancy used to sneak out to meet her boyfriend, and Ned caught the expression on Nancy's—on his wife's—face.

His wife. His wife.

They had thought no one knew. Now he was wondering if they had fooled anyone.

Frank and Joe Hardy were there too, although Frank looked more than a little preoccupied, the few times Ned glanced in his direction. Ned's mother insisted on a dance and when he took her out onto the floor, he saw Frank apparently ask Nancy for the same, noticed that her blue eyes sought him for a moment before she agreed.

Ned's eyes narrowed for a second, although he kept the same smile on his face.

He didn't know why, not exactly, but he wanted to cross the room and slap the younger man's face.

Near the end of the dance one of the caterers came over to ask Edith a question and Ned crossed the room, to his wife and Frank. Nancy wore her long strapless wedding gown; the bodice was laced up the back with blush-pink ribbon, and Ned was dying to free it, to pull her out of her dress, pin her against a wall—

Nancy glanced up and he saw the wariness in her expression before it softened. She whispered Ned's name and Frank waited a beat before he released her.

"Thanks for coming, Frank," Ned said, reaching for his wife, sliding an arm around her waist. "You and Joe been keeping busy?"

Frank nodded. "Definitely. Uh, congratulations, you two," he said, with a smile.

When the next song began, Ned pulled Nancy tight to him, his lips finding her ear. "Baby, if we don't get out of here soon, I'm going to find a dark corner..."

"Where you and your hand can be alone?" she asked, her eyes sparkling as she glanced up at him. "I don't know if you've noticed the thirty-pound dress I'm wearing."

"Oh, that's nothing," he dismissed, then looked down. "Thirty? Really?"

She vanished after he slipped her garter off and tossed that—and the little shiver he felt when he slid his hand up her leg was almost enough to end him—and when she came back she wore a short pale-green dress, and he knew she was ready for them to leave. She tossed the bouquet and Jan Teller caught it, and Mike shot Ned a half-amused, half-dirty look.

Because they were leaving so early, because they wanted to save all the money they could for their trip, they had chosen to stay at Ned's—at their—apartment on their wedding night. Ned deeply regretted that when they walked into his building and he saw the four flights of stairs standing between them and the bed.

When he turned back to Nancy she already had her small bag slung over her shoulder, heading for the stairwell. "What are you waiting for?" she teased him, giggling as she squirmed away from his grasp.

"I'd carry you, if I didn't need to save my energy."

He did carry her, though, once he keyed open the apartment door. He picked her up and she looped her arms around his neck, her blue eyes steady on his.

She was his, now.

And the look on her face, the trembling joy and nervousness and peace, shook him to the core.

She leaned forward and kissed him, gently. "I'll be right back," she murmured, and when he put her down she vanished into the bathroom.

Every kiss, every caress, every embrace they had ever shared, had been leading to tonight.

She was his wife. Just that thought made him shiver.

Ned touched his wedding ring and began to unbutton his shirt.

--

Nancy gazed critically at her reflection in the mirror one last time. She had kept meaning to hit the gym more often, but her schedule had been so busy, and she had worked her ass off in the past month, getting everything in order so she wouldn't be swamped when she came back from their honeymoon.

And, honestly, working such long hours had helped distract her from her nervousness about today, about tonight.

She touched her new wedding ring idly with her thumb before she walked out of the bathroom.

She had looked through so many nightgowns, had even considered wearing something he had seen before, but in the end she had picked an opaque white satin nightgown trimmed in pink ribbon, like her wedding gown. The hem hit her at the tops of her thighs and she wore white satin panties beneath. It definitely wasn't the sexiest thing she had ever worn for him, but the light that came in his eyes when he saw her filled her with a swift warmth.

He would make love to her tonight. Her husband.

He had placed a few candles on the bedside table, and when she saw the lube there too, she shivered a little. She crossed to the light switch and flipped it off, and the room was cast into flickering silhouette and shadow.

Ned made a soft noise and turned on the lamp. "I need to see you," he said softly.

She waited for him, her eyes wide, as he crossed the room to her. They had touched so many times today, swaying together when the DJ played their song at the reception, holding hands when they said their vows, but now, knowing, just the brush of his fingers against hers made her shudder.

"I can't believe it," he said softly. "I can't believe no one kidnapped you this morning, that you didn't find a threatening note in your mailbox, that your dress wasn't stolen by some psychopath..."

Nancy laughed, and it felt good to laugh over all her nervousness. Between them they almost had their own language, and he was the same man she had always loved, whose body she knew almost better than her own.

He was her best friend, and that ache, that longing she had felt for him, for this, would be satisfied tonight.

She cupped his cheek as he kissed her, and they had kissed a thousand times before but she trembled against him like it was their first kiss again. She tilted her head and when his tongue brushed hers, her knees went weak. He looped his arm around her waist, supporting her, holding her to him, and God, it had been so long. She was going to lose her mind with the first brush of his fingers between her thighs.

She moaned quietly when he swept her up into his arms, carrying her those few steps to the bed. "You are so beautiful, baby," he whispered, brushing a strand of hair from her cheek. "So incredibly gorgeous."

She smiled. "Did you like my dress?"

"I loved it. Especially those tie things at the back. You have no idea how much I wanted to walk over and just start untying them."

She touched his hand. "When I saw you up there... I couldn't believe it was real. I couldn't believe you were mine."

He slowly traced his fingertips up her thigh, and she shivered. "My wife," he whispered.

"My husband," she whispered, and tensed slightly when he barely slipped his fingertips under the hem of her gown. "Ned, I love you so much."

"I love you too," he whispered, and when he began to push her gown up, she sat up, obediently raising her arms. Instead he took her arms and draped them over his bare shoulders as he pulled her onto his lap.

His lips found her ear and she shuddered. "I think... we need to take it slow, baby," he murmured, his fingertips tracing up and down her spine. "We have the rest of our lives, and I want to make this good for you."

"What about for you?" she asked, her hips moving gently as he nipped his way down her neck. "I want it to be good for you too."

Ned chuckled. "It will be, sweetheart," he whispered. He cupped her breasts, lightly brushing against her nipples through the satin, and she whimpered, arching to give him better access.

"We can do everything," she said, her eyes low-lidded as she gazed at him. "We don't have to stop anymore, baby..."

He breathed on her nipple, through the fabric, and she squirmed. "Feels so good," she whispered.

Ned shook his head as he led her down, to lie on the bed. "I want to take you out in the middle of nowhere," he told her, making a soft pleading sound when she opened her legs to him. "So when you come you can scream as loud as you want, because baby it is so fucking hot..."

She shivered. "I've been wet for you for months," she told him, her gown bunched up above her hips.

"Did you touch yourself last night?"

She shook her head. "Not after the talk I had with Dad," she admitted.

Ned immediately sat up. "Oh?"

"He... he found some of my... well, I don't actually know what he found, in the laundry," she realized, "but it was something I wore for you, and he said when he saw it... he wanted to break your arms. And that when I told him we were engaged, he wondered if it was because I was pregnant."

"God," Ned muttered. "So he knew we were..."

She shook her head. "I told him we... well, that there was no way I would have been pregnant."

"Shit."

She squeezed his forearm. "He didn't kill you," she pointed out.

"And today he just stood there," Ned said wonderingly.

"Because he knows you're a good guy."

Ned shook his head. "Nan, you have no idea how many times I was a second, an inch, away..."

"And you didn't," she said, reaching for him. He moved over her, straddling her, his eyes locked to hers. "But, Ned... tonight, sweetheart? Tonight I want you to take me," she whispered. "After all those times we've had to pull back, tonight... I'm yours."

He kissed her hard, and she threaded her fingers through his hair, arching up under him. He stroked her again, his caress teasingly light through her gown, then moved the fabric up as he trailed his mouth down her neck.

She actually felt herself clench when all he did was gently suckle one nipple. He pulled hard, then gently, teased the sensitive bud with teeth and tongue, and when he moved to the other she was practically bucking up under him, panting, whimpering.

"Oh my God, feels so good," she mumbled, moving so she could wrap her legs around his waist. "Baby, I want you, please."

He smiled. "Good," he whispered against her breast. He suckled against her until she was digging her nails into his shoulders, begging him, and when he cupped his hand between her thighs, he groaned.

"Touch me, sweetheart."

She immediately pushed his underwear down, clasping his erection in her fist, then looked away. She released him and he growled, and she blushed as she slipped her fingers beneath the elastic of her panties. She curved her fingers between her thighs, trembling, and when she touched him again, her hand was slick with her own arousal.

Ned pinned her beneath him, kissing her hard as she pumped him in her fist. She felt drunk in a way that didn't involve the champagne they had shared at the reception, and while she kissed him back, she trembled at the girth of him in her hand, imagining him inside her.

She slowed as he rocked into her caress, and he broke the kiss, nipping at her earlobe. "Keep going, baby," he breathed, his breath hitching.

"But don't you want—"

"I want to last," he told her. "Baby, oh God I love you—"

He groaned as he came on her stomach, and she gazed up at him, wide eyed. She felt the tension that had been rising in her belly begin to subside, and when he grabbed a tissue and cleaned her up, she felt disappointed.

Ned saw the expression on her face. "This way I can last," he murmured.

She shook her head, started to say something, and closed her mouth again.

"What, baby?"

"I just want you," she whispered. "I want to feel you do that inside me."

He reached for her panties and she arched, letting him slide them off. "I will," he promised, his eyes dark. "We have all night."

The tone of his voice made her shudder, especially when he kissed his way down, over her belly button, her inner thighs.

"Mmm," he murmured, parting her inner lips, and she was arching up under him in anticipation. "Come for me, baby," he whispered, just before he licked her clit.

Her mouth fell open. "Oh my God," she cried out, her legs falling fully open to him as he sucked the slick nub into his mouth. She moaned, wanton, flushed and begging, and he suckled hard, his fingertips drifting up and down her thighs, teasing light. He bit her gently and she pulled the pillow over her face so she could scream, and she couldn't stop screaming as he rubbed the stubbled point of his chin over the sensitive flesh. She was panting, her brow knit, her hips circling and trembling, and oh fuck, oh God it felt so fucking good, and she tensed under him as she came.

And he hadn't even slipped his fingers inside her.

He pushed the pillow off her face and smiled down at her, her legs spread wide, still trembling from the aftershocks. "Hey," he whispered.

She panted, brushing her hair out of her face. "Shit," she whispered. "Come here."

He lay down facing her and she drew him into her arms, burying her face against his chest, feeling her heart slow. "Mmm," she whispered. "Why did you do that?"

"Because I need you relaxed," he whispered into her hair. "It was either that or getting you so incredibly drunk that you might not even remember we'd had sex."

She shook her head. "I want to remember," she mumbled against his chest. "I want to remember this the rest of my life."

He stroked her hair. "Me too," he admitted.

She just lingered there for a long moment, lulled by the low light and the satisfaction of her orgasm, but she had one leg slung over him and she couldn't forget how much she wanted him, wanted to come with him tonight. She kissed the side of his neck, her hand stealing up to stroke his nipple, and he made a soft pleased sound as he rolled onto his back. He caught her knee and pulled her with him, so she was straddling him.

"Are you ready, baby?"

She was making her way slowly down his chest, flicking the tip of her tongue over his nipple, and she paused, her heart speeding again. "I think so," she whispered.

"When you're ready just hand me the lube."

He kept his hands on her, cupping her hips, stroking against her shoulder blades, as she trailed her lips down over his abs. She caressed his hips, his inner thighs, slipping between to gently cup his balls, and he moved restlessly under her, his hand on her shoulder.

With a sigh she tossed her head back and Ned's grip tightened on her. "You are so sexy when you do that," he admitted.

She smiled, shivering just a little as she swung off him to reach for the lube. "You'll take it slow?" she murmured, handing him the bottle.

Ned popped the cap with ease, squeezing out a few drops, and she watched him stroke it over his cock before he handed it back. "We'll go as slow as you want, baby."

"How?"

Ned chuckled, reaching for her. "Get on top of me," he told her. "And when you're ready, we'll just..."

Nancy swept her hair out of her face. "Are you sure?"

"I don't want to hurt you," he told her. "And this way, you can control it."

She swallowed, nervous as she straddled him again. "Can you touch me," she whispered, and immediately Ned cupped her breasts. She closed her eyes as he rubbed his thumbs over her nipples, lowering her hips to his. A part of her wanted to just rub herself against him until she came, but her desire to feel him inside her was stronger.

Her clit rubbed against the slippery underside of his hot, hard cock and she shivered. "Mmm," she breathed. "Oh, honey, harder."

Ned pinched her nipples, chuckling, and she angled her hips to rub harder against him. "Mmm," she encouraged him, her hair swaying as she rocked.

"You like that?"

"Mmm-hmm." She shifted her weight to one palm as she swept her hair back. "Now."

Ned reached down, helping her angle his cock. When she took him in her hand and touched the tip of his cock to her clit, she let out a moan, hanging her head. Her hips jerked at the sensation, and Ned was panting, tensing under her. "Fuck," he groaned.

She traced him down, between her thighs, and Ned made a soft choked sound when the head of his cock brushed against her opening. "Yes," he begged her. "Please, now, baby."

She bit her lip, her brow knitting, as she stood up on her knees. When he slipped a little he reached down to help her, and she let out a small whimper as her knees slipped apart, feeling like she was about to come out of her skin. She took him in an inch, gingerly, and sucked in a breath.

"It's okay, sweetheart," he said, his gaze sympathetic on her face.

"I don't know what I'm doing," she cried, agonized. "I don't know—"

"Just take it slow, it feels amazing," he told her. "It's okay."

She rocked down a little further and gasped, then planted her hands on the mattress.

"Baby, what do you need? Do you want me to touch you?"

She nodded, sucking in a breath, and a tear slipped down her cheek as he cupped her breasts again, his hand still slick from the lube. "Oh my God," she cried, squeezing her eyes shut. 

Ned froze, gazing intently at her as she moved another inch. "You feel so good, baby," and when he pinched her nipples her hips jerked, and Ned's eyes rolled back.

"Shit," he panted, trying to catch his breath.

She moaned as her knees slid a little further apart, as she took another inch, her cheeks flushed. "Please," she whimpered. "Ned, please, I can't—"

"You're doing great, sweetheart."

"Please," she begged him. "Please, I need you to do it, baby, please."

He realized what she was saying and pushed himself up, and she whimpered as his cock moved in her. Ned groaned. "Fuck, sweetheart..."

She slipped her arms around his shoulders, holding him tight to her, her breasts pressing against his chest. "Make love to me," she moaned into his ear.

"Baby, we don't have to—" He was panting. "We don't have to go further than this—"

She shivered, rocking her hips a little, her mouth falling open. "Make love to me," she repeated, gently biting his neck.

Ned drew in a long breath, cupped her hips and pulled her to him, and she shuddered, panting against his skin, another wave of tears slipping down her cheeks, and then her hips were flush against his.

"Nan," Ned breathed, stroking her hair. "Oh holy shit, Nan."

They held each other, and she was shaking, almost sobbing against him. He kept so still, afraid to hurt her any more than he knew he already was.

After a moment she nuzzled against his neck, her face wet. "Please tell me that's all of you," she whispered.

Ned chuckled. "Yeah, baby. That's all of me."

"How does it feel?"

"Amazing," he admitted. "And if you hadn't jerked me off earlier, I would've already come."

She chuckled, wiping her face.

"Are you okay?" He moved so he could look at her, gently tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. "Does it hurt?"

She nodded, then met his eyes. "Yeah," she whispered. "But it... it's okay."

He cupped her cheek, then brought her face to his. "I love you," he whispered against her lips. "I love you so much, sweetheart."

She returned his kiss, threading her fingers through his hair, and when she shifted the angle of her hips they both gasped. "I love you too," she whispered, as he stroked his hands down her back, cupping her ass. She kissed his earlobe, the tender skin just beneath, and he shivered against her. "You feel so deep, baby."

He leaned back a little, then slipped his hand between them, and she cried out when he gently touched her clit. "Are you okay?" he murmured.

She nodded, and her eyes flew open when he rubbed his thumb over the sensitive flesh again. "Oh my God," she whimpered, and Ned groaned when she clenched weakly around him.

"Baby, I need to..."

She nodded, her brow creasing when he slipped just a little out of her, and they both cried out when he gently pushed back in. "Holy fuck," he breathed, rocking once more, and she dug her nails into his back, arching as he brushed her clit. She sobbed with his every thrust, trembling in his embrace, and Ned groaned, pulling her tight to him, his cock buried hilt-deep in her when he came.

She let her head drop to his shoulder, panting, shaking. "Was that..."

"Yeah," Ned said, his voice a little shaky. "Your pussy feels so fucking good," he groaned, sliding his arms around her.

She flushed again. "I made you happy," she whispered.

He moved back so he could see her face, cupping her cheek. "Oh, Nan... baby, I'm sorry."

She shook her head. "It's okay," she whispered.

"It still hurts," he said, and it wasn't a question.

"I feel sore," she whispered. "But... I don't know, it... I wanted to make you happy..."

He smiled. "I want to make you happy," he told her, and kissed her.

Her brow creased when they parted, and she panted as she rolled onto her back. Ned went to the bathroom and cleaned himself up, came back with a cloth for her, and she trembled as she wiped her thighs.

"So," she murmured, when he had joined her under the covers, "that's how it feels to lose your virginity."

He looped his arms around her, his chin against the crown of her head. "Was it like you thought it would be?"

She shook her head. "No," she whispered.

"I'm sorry, baby."

She kissed the base of his throat. "I didn't know..." She trailed off, and he stroked her hair. "I felt so close to you," she breathed. "Like you were a part of me."

He traced his palm down her back. "I can't wait until it feels as good for you as it does for me," he murmured.

She tipped her head back, her chin against his chest, as she gazed up at him. "You looked scared."

"I hate hurting you, sweetheart," he said, frowning. "I hate knowing that I'm hurting you."

She pushed herself up to kiss him, softly. "You weren't hurting me," she whispered. "Not like that, baby."

He kissed her back, harder. "You're incredible," he whispered.

She smiled, then snuggled back against his chest.

--

The candles had drowned themselves when Ned blinked awake at three o'clock in the morning. Moving carefully, he slipped off the bed, but Nancy didn't move.

His wife. She was his wife now.

Naked, shivering a little, he returned from the bathroom and moved under the covers. She was curled up on her side, facing away from him, and he hesitated a moment, gazing at her in the dark.

He had hurt her. He had sworn he would never hurt her, but he had seen her face, and no matter what she said, he knew.

He knew it wasn't anything he had done—he had offered to stop, for God's sake, even though he had been trembling with desire—but that didn't make him feel any better. He still felt awful, despite her reassurance.

They had slept together in so many beds, including this one, but never naked, never like this. He turned onto his side, touching the unfamiliar weight of his wedding ring. He wanted to curl up behind her, pull her into his embrace, but he was afraid that she needed her space.

She made a soft noise, turning so she was on her other side, facing him. She let out a soft sigh, then blinked, opening her eyes.

"Hey," he whispered.

"Hey," she whispered, sweeping her hair out of her face. "What time is it?"

He glanced at the alarm clock. "Three-fifteen."

"Mmm." She closed her eyes, then murmured, "Why are you so far away?"

Ned chuckled and moved toward the middle of the bed, reaching out for her, and she slid toward him. "I wanted to give you your space," he murmured, draping his arm over her.

She shook her head and mumbled, "We're married now. Don't need space."

He stroked his hand down her back, his fingertips drifting over her spine. "Feel better?"

"Yeah. Still a little sore," she admitted, but she sounded more awake. "Damn it," she mumbled, and slid out of bed.

When she returned from the bathroom, she dove under the covers and moved back into his arms. "It's so strange," she whispered. "That I won't be going back to Dad's house tomorrow. That we'll be here." A smile crept into her voice. "That we won't be sneaking around anymore."

"Strange in a good way?"

She moved back to look into his face. "Yeah," she whispered, and the happiness that he saw on her face when he stroked her cheek made the knot of tension in his stomach relax a little.

"How did you think it was going to be?" he asked quietly.

She thought for a moment. "It's stupid," she whispered, tucking her hair behind her ear.

"Tell me anyway."

"I thought you would just—in and out, once, done," she admitted. "And you... you feel so big inside me."

Ned tried not to smile, but he couldn't help it, and she swatted at his shoulder.

"You like hearing that, huh."

"Yeah," he admitted.

"I thought you would... be on top of me," she whispered. "I thought you would just..." She made a soft vague sound. "And then it would be over."

"Is that what you wanted?"

She shrugged. "I like it when you're... in control," she whispered, and then she did that thing where she kept her gaze down and then glanced up into his eyes, the thing that made him want to grab her and kiss her senseless. And do other things that would leave her senseless. "But... thank you. For... for trying to make it good."

He stroked her cheek with his thumb. "Do you want me... in control, Nan?"

She nodded, and then she turned her face, lightly kissed his palm.

Ned felt himself stir in answer, and when he moved toward her, touching his forehead to hers, she closed her eyes. He traced his way down her body, every single place he had found that made her shiver and moan: the gentle curve of her breasts, the slope of her hips, the join of her thighs. When he cupped her she rolled onto her back, and blinked lazily at him, parting her legs. While he could tell she was still a little nervous, she didn't look nearly as upset as she had before.

He ran the backs of his fingers over her neck, her collarbone, her breast, then followed with his lips. She sighed under him, idly stroking her fingers through his hair.

"Do you know why I wanted to wait," she whispered, as he knelt between her legs, still working his way down her body.

"Because of the damn marriage counselor?" he murmured against her belly. "Because you were afraid it was going to hurt, because you were terrified that I had no fucking clue what we were doing..."

She stroked the back of his neck. "Because if we had done this and then broken up... it would have killed me," she whispered.

He glanced up at her. "Nan," he breathed. They had fought two or three times, early in their engagement, over flirtations, broken dates, and then after, when they had made up, he had seen that same fear in her eyes.

A part of him still couldn't believe that they had made it down the aisle. After all their time together, the fights and her reluctance... he had been waiting for the other shoe to drop, for her to find someone better. For the longest time he had thought that man would be Frank Hardy. As senseless as it was, he had thought that if he made love to her, if he took her virginity, lost his to her, it was a tie between them that would keep them together, no matter what.

But even if they hadn't, even if they had in fact broken up without crossing that line, he would still have spent the rest of his life knowing that he had lost the other half of his heart.

But he understood. Oh, he understood.

He moved up, over her, and kissed her hard, and she slid her arms around him, her bent knees gently stroking against his hips. "Nan," he whispered against her mouth. "Oh, sweetheart... if we had broken up, no matter what... I would have spent the rest of my life trying to get you back. You're the best thing that's ever happened to me."

She made a soft sound. "How can you say that," she whispered. "I work those crazy fucking hours and I've gotten you hurt so many damn times and—and you have to be sick of putting up with me—"

"You are my heart, baby," he told her. "I just want you to be safe and happy and in my bed."

She smiled at him, kissed him hard. "I don't know what I'd do without you," she whispered. "I am so incredibly lucky that you fell in love with me."

He lowered his hips to hers, parted her, and rocked his hips, rubbing the underside of his cock against her slick inner flesh, against her clit, and she shivered, her nails digging into his shoulder blades. He loved her like this, loved the expression of such incredibly intense pleasure on her face as she whimpered. "And this," she mumbled, her brow knit, "you are so incredibly good at this."

"Glad to hear it," he chuckled, shifting his hips. "Tell me when you're ready, baby."

He waited until she was pushing up from her heels, rocking against him, moaning. "Now," she begged him, "now, baby, please."

He arched to suckle her nipple and she tipped her head back, panting desperately. "Oh my God," she moaned. "Oh please, please baby. Fuck." She gasped when he rubbed his thumb against her clit, pulling back to just barely fit himself inside her.

"Nan," he gasped, "sweetheart, tell me if I have to stop—"

"Don't stop," she said, squeezing her eyes shut as he cupped her hips, holding her at the right angle, and then—

She arched hard, crying out, and he took it slower than he really wanted but in three strokes he was buried fully between her thighs, in the slick hot press of her, and oh holy fuck, it felt amazing. She was panting for breath, but she wrapped her legs around him and Ned rocked his hips forward. She sobbed out his name.

Ned gritted his teeth and paused, letting her become accustomed to him. Finally her brow unknit a little, and Ned leaned down to brush his lips against hers.

"Open your eyes, baby," he breathed, and she blinked up at him. He tipped forward, shifting the angle of his hips, and when he brushed his thumb against her clit he felt her clench a little around him.

He groaned, planting his hands on the bed to give him better leverage. "Do that," he told her, and she licked her thumb before she slipped her hand between them. She arched when her thumb brushed her clit, her inner walls constricting around him, and Ned pulled back for his first thrust, and she shuddered, crying out again.

"You feel so fucking good," he told her, as her lips parted, as she began to rock gently under him, against his thrusts. She angled her hips a little on the upstroke and Ned completely fucking lost it. He leaned down, driving into her in a rough regular rhythm as he sealed his mouth over hers, muffling her cries. She dug her nails into his back hard enough to draw blood, and oh God he could hear it, could hear how wet she was as he slid in and out of her, his every muscle tensing as he came.

Their mouths parted slowly, wetly, and his weight pinned her to the bed as he collapsed to her. "Shit," he groaned, and when he felt her try to slip her hand from between them, he arched a little to make it easier. "Mmmmmm."

She sighed and he only realized she was still digging her nails into his back when she released her grip. "You okay?" he murmured, moving back to look into her face.

She blinked up at him, and he saw the wet track of tears down the sides of her face, but she nodded. "Yeah," she whispered.

"Did you come?"

"I think it hurts too much," she told him, and stroked his cheek.

"It hurt again?"

"Not quite as much," she said, and gave him a small smile. "I guess I just need some more practice."

He kissed her gently before he pulled out of her. "Well, I guess I can just sacrifice the next week helping you practice. If you insist."

When he had cleaned them up and returned to the bed, she immediately rolled onto her side, nestling against him, and for a moment just the feel of her so close to him, so relaxed with him, made him speechless with sheer love.

"I think it'll take longer," she murmured against his chest. "I think it'll take the rest of my life."

He kissed her forehead. "I think I can manage that."

Chapter Text

"We have plenty of activities on the island," the driver said in moderately accented English. "The beach, diving, kayaking, hiking. You will enjoy it."

"Yes, we will," Ned said, slipping his arm around Nancy.

She nestled her head against his shoulder, enjoying the feel of her—husband!—husband's warmth, over the rattling air conditioning in the taxi. They had been traveling for what felt like days, through layovers, across the Atlantic Ocean, and now they were finally nearly there.

She had been looking for somewhere just a little out of the way, somewhere she had never been before, a place with a lot of activities—even though Ned had pointed out that he had no intention whatsoever of leaving their accommodations for the majority of their trip. She had packed for every eventuality, though: plenty of tiny bikinis and bathing suits, hiking gear and cocktail dresses. Possibly just one outfit meant for covert activity. And, of course, the majority of the lingerie she had received at the shower Bess and George had thrown for that express purpose.

Capoliveri was located in the southeast corner of Elba Island, off the coast of Tuscany, and the travel agent had gushed about wine tours and romantic beach walks. While a motel stay would have been cheaper, Nancy had talked it over with Ned and they had splurged on a secluded little vacation rental home, fully furnished and ready for them, where they could cook meals and relax together.

The driver stopped in front of the house, and Nancy was pleased to see that when the agent had promised it was a stone's throw from the beach, she hadn't been lying. She could practically see the waves lapping up on the sand from the car window.

The driver was eager to help them with their luggage—Ned had been playfully exasperated at her bags, given the planned duration of their honeymoon—and Nancy was about to carry two duffels inside when Ned grabbed a strap and pulled her back.

She glanced back at him quizzically. "Something wrong?" She lowered her voice; the driver had carried two bags ahead of her. "Does the driver look suspicious?"

Ned's eyes widened, and he gave a loud genuine laugh, wrapping his arms around her. He slipped her bags off her shoulders before kissing her temple. "I never really have to wonder what's going on in there," he murmured against her forehead. "Always looking for another mystery."

She kissed his neck. "Not always," she murmured, against his shiver.

He picked her up in a bear hug and carried her over the threshold, and she giggled when he put her down. "Didn't we do this last night?"

He brushed his lips over her ear. "How about we do this every night," he murmured, and she shivered.

After Ned paid the driver, tipping handsomely for his serving as bellhop, and Nancy put away the cold groceries, they wandered through the house. Nancy was pleasantly surprised to find it was renovated with modern fixtures; the downstairs bedroom was lovely, all white and cream and sand, and a door opened onto the patio. They could grill out, one night when they had no intention of dressing well enough to leave the house. The kitchen was loaded with sleek coordinated appliances, and the living room held overstuffed furniture and a large television that would definitely make her husband happy—if they had satellite.

She heard Ned climb the stairs, and then he let out a low whistle. "Hey, babe?" he called. "I think we have to stay up here."

Once she made it upstairs, she had to agree. The view was incredible, and the windows surrounded them, giving them a panorama of the beach. In the distance she could see a few tiny colorful figures trudging down the sand, but it looked like the stretch of ocean was theirs for a while. Ned slipped his arm around her waist.

"You win," he said. "This place is gorgeous, Nan. Almost as gorgeous as you."

Nancy gave him a grin. "You don't have to butter me up, Nickerson. I already married you."

"It's not buttering you up when it's true," he told her. "So, let me start with the luggage, since that's going to take a good four hours..."

She stuck her tongue out, reaching for the hem of her shirt. "I think I'm gonna get a shower. Twelve hours of recycled air... I feel like I'm covered in cold germs."

Nancy had just finished rinsing her hair when Ned came into the bathroom, already naked. He opened the shower stall and stepped in, and Nancy turned to face him.

While she had seen him just after or before a shower, they hadn't yet done this.

Ned's gaze went slowly all the way down, then all the way back up, and she had an eyebrow cocked when she met his gaze, having done the same to him.

"You are so incredibly handsome," she murmured, reaching for his hand.

"And you are so beautiful," he told her, stepping toward her. They kissed, slowly, as the water flowed over them, and then he backed her into the wall, his hand sliding between her legs.

She gasped as his thumb found her clit, as he slipped two fingers up inside her, and she bent her knees, angling her hips to give him better access. 

"You like this?"

"Mmm." She nodded, her brows knitting. When she started panting, her breaths edged in quiet encouraging cries, Ned kissed her hard, then pulled back, his fingers still working inside her.

"Still sore, baby?"

"Mmm." She tried to focus. "I don't know, please don't stop—"

But he did pull back, and she let out a frustrated cry, blinking up at her husband. She moaned his name, and he shivered. "We'll get to it," he promised.

She shook her head, reaching for the shampoo. "Now I'm going to be distracted," she told him, lathering her hair. "And wet as hell."

Ned smiled. "Exactly."

He finished his shower before she finished hers, and when he stepped out, wrapping a towel around him after he dried off, she rinsed between her thighs, remembering the blood she had seen on the tissue the night before. She heard Ned rummaging around.

"What are you looking for?" she called over the din of the water.

"My razor..."

"Uh... would you mind holding off on that for a little while?"

Ned chuckled. "Heard that loud and clear."

She finished her shower and towel-dried her hair, walking out with one wrapped around her. When she crossed to her suitcase and started rummaging through it, Ned slid off the bed and came toward her, still naked.

He slipped his arms around her waist. "What are you looking for, babe?"

She glanced back at him, a small smile on her face. "Well, I have all this cute lingerie..."

He kissed the tip of her ear. "Mind holding off on that for a little while?"

She chuckled as he reached for the towel and slowly slipped it off, leaving it on the floor. He led her to the bed and she followed willingly, feeling almost delirious with exhaustion, but the tension he had teased to life in her was still simmering in her belly, and she had been practically trembling in anticipation of their honeymoon for what felt like weeks.

He moved between her thighs as she sprawled across their bed, bringing her legs up to fold them over his shoulders, and she arched up under him as he began to kiss his way down from her belly button. "Hey, baby," she managed to pant out, her fingers tangling in his still-damp hair.

"Mmm?"

"I kind of want to try something."

When she swung over him, straddling his shoulders, he made a soft pleased sound. "You sure about this?"

"We'll see."

Ned chuckled, then stroked the small of her back before he pushed her down, the join of her thighs over his face. She slowly, idly stroked his cock with her fingertips, studying him. He felt so large when he was inside her, and here, the afternoon sun was streaming in, and there was absolutely nothing to hold them back anymore.

He gently ran his tongue over her clit.

Nancy moaned a little, arching over him, her breasts pressed against him as she angled his cock. She swirled her tongue around the head and Ned retaliated by sucking her clit into his mouth.

She was so, so glad that she had told him not to shave. She took him deep, cautiously, until she felt her gag reflex clench, and Ned teased her with his teeth, his tongue, his stubbled chin, and then his fingers. He pressed his tongue into the slick hollow between her thighs and she massaged the base of his cock, felt his hips jerk up under her as he tried to press deeper.

The closer she came, her hips shivering, her entire body shaking, the more rapidly she stroked, sucked, caressed him. He hissed against her inner flesh as she played with his balls, and when she screamed against his cock, her chest heaving with her pants, she took him as deep as she dared—

And he came, in her mouth, as she began to climax.

If she had eaten anything at all in the last few hours, she probably would have thrown up. Instead she pulled back, forcing herself to swallow, and whimpered as Ned's stubbled chin rubbed against her. "Oh fuck, oh fuck," she panted, grinding against him. "Oh God."

He was panting too, and he fucked her with his fingers as he trembled under her. "Shit, baby," he mumbled. "Oh shit."

She rolled off him, her hips bucking, and he followed, switching to his other hand as she arched up under him. "Oh fuck oh fuck please," she begged, tipping her head back. "Oh my God please baby right there oh shit right there—"

"Come, baby," Ned panted, rubbing the edge of his nail against her clit, and she gasped loudly. "Let me hear it."

She cried out, over and over, until she was almost screaming, begging, her hips rocking rapidly against his touch. She was so sensitive she felt almost sore, but she couldn't stop. "Oh my God," she sobbed, her nails digging into the sheet, her toes curling. "Oh my God baby I want you so much oh yes—"

She was jerking up under him, her stomach tight with desire as she came. Ned had three fingers pressed up inside her and when she imagined his cock instead, she arched again, feeling herself tighten against him.

Ned rolled onto his back, panting, and she let out a low, satisfied groan. "Mmm," she mumbled.

Ned swept his arm over the bedspread. "Okay, we have to do that again sometime," he murmured.

Nancy closed her eyes. "Well, except for you finishing in my mouth."

"Oh hell, baby," Ned muttered, pushing himself up. "I'm sorry, I just..."

She shook her head. "It's okay. You got into it."

"You didn't like it."

She pushed herself up to sitting, gingerly, still tingling. "It... let's just not do that every time."

"Maybe every other time?" he said, but he only seemed to be teasing a little. Nancy made a face at him as she pulled back the covers, then glanced over at him.

"Uh... how long has it been since we ate?"

Dinner was casual, although Nancy wanted it to be absolutely perfect because it was the first meal she was cooking for him as his wife. She put him in charge of chopping the lettuce and vegetables for the salad, as she took out the fresh pasta she had bought at the store. She made the sauce and Ned wrestled with the oven to figure out the right setting for garlic bread.

And there were no candles, but there was a nice bottle of wine.

They served their plates in the kitchen and sat down at the small table, and Ned poured the wine. "Looks delicious, Nan," he said, and glanced up at her with a smile.

Nancy's heart rose and clenched painfully hard. The look on his face, and doing this, tucking her leg up under her as she lazily swirled her pasta through the garlic cream sauce—

Oh, they had taken a few vacations together, slept in the same bed countless times, but they had never really lived together, not this way. And then they would return to Chicago, to his—their—little apartment, where she would make dinner for him and he would make dinner for her and they would race each other to bed.

Ned glanced up and caught her staring at him. "Nan?"

She shook her head. "I just can't believe it's real," she said softly. "You know?"

He nodded. "Keep thinking I'm gonna wake up, and I'm dreading it."

"I never want to wake up from this."

When they were cleaning up the dishes, she poured herself another glass of wine. "So... there is one thing we kind of have to do while we're here."

Ned dried his hands, then slid an arm around her waist. "Oh, don't worry, we'll do that. A lot of that."

She giggled. "Well, of course that. But... I do want to take a wine tour."

Ned pretended to consider for a moment. "Well, I guess we could. If you make it worth my while."

"And the bike tour?"

Ned ducked in and nipped at her neck, and she shivered. "Depends on what we're going to do after," he murmured against her skin.

"And we have to go down to the beach."

"Well, I have always wanted to have sex in water..."

She shook her head. "Bess read me this incredibly scary Cosmo article about why that's an awful thing to do."

Ned groaned, then reached down and jerked the drain plug out. Nancy let out a disappointed squeak as the soapy water began to drain. "After all those favors you're asking, I think it's only fair that you give me a little preview of my reward," he said, and sucked at the join of her neck and shoulder, squeezing her waist.

Nancy rinsed her hands, shivering when Ned moved behind her, sandwiching her between him and the counter. He moved her hair aside and kissed the nape of her neck, and Nancy let out a long sigh, shifting her hips. She could tell he was already hard; he was pressed tight against her.

"You like that?" He breathed on her neck and she shuddered. "I want to kiss you everywhere, find every place that makes you do that."

"Okay," she said, her voice trembling a little, and Ned chuckled.

They left the rest of the dishes in the sink and ran upstairs, their hands joined, and she couldn't help giggling. She was happy, in a way that she felt only when she was with him, content and safe in his arms, blushing under the adoration of his gaze.

The babydoll she picked out was a black georgette halter, embellished just below her breasts, and when she walked out of the bathroom, her teeth freshly brushed, she struck a pose and felt herself melt at the pure desire in his gaze. "Twelve seconds," he swore, diving for his toothbrush. "I swear, Nan, I am gonna rip that off you..."

She sat down at the foot of the bed, propping her hands behind her and tilting back. "But it's so pretty," she said, with a playful pout.

"And it'll look even better on the floor," he said, walking back to her. He pushed his underwear down, his gaze locked to hers. "Do you want to try again, sweetheart?"

She didn't have to ask what he meant. She gave him a little nod and he moved behind her, untying the halter ties, and when he kissed the nape of her neck again she sighed, her head hanging. He worked his way down her spine, until he reached the top of her gown, then pulled it over her head, leaving her in her panties.

Nancy moved with him under the covers, blinking at him as he cupped her cheek. "Tell me what will make you come," he whispered.

She snuggled in close to him. "Let's find out," she murmured, sliding her leg over his hips.

Ned kissed her gently, closemouthed at first, until she made a soft pleading sound and gently ran her tongue over the seam of his lips. He rolled over onto her and she slipped her arms up around his shoulders, running her fingers through his hair. She could feel him, hard between her thighs, through her panties, and she felt like they were back in his room at Omega Chi together, but there was nothing to be afraid of now. Not really.

He broke their kiss, gazing down at her, and hooked his thumbs in the waistband of her panties and began to push them down a little. She arched under him, letting him pull them off.

He settled back to the bed on his side facing her, cupping her cheek gently. "I love you so much," he whispered. 

She smiled. "I love you too," she whispered. "You're amazing."

He moved closer to her, touching his forehead to hers. "I wish I knew what to do," he whispered. "I want to make it good for you, sweetheart."

She stroked his cheek. "We'll figure it out," she whispered.

"You're just so tight," he whispered, his hand sliding down her side, to rest on her hip. "I feel like I'm going to break you."

"I think you already did," she said with a wry smile, running her thumb over his cheek to soothe the words. "It won't be like it was the first time, anymore."

"You scared the shit out of me, baby."

She reached down and very tentatively stroked his erection. "It was intense," she whispered.

He cupped his hand over hers, guiding it, his lips brushing her cheek. "As great as that feels," he murmured, "if I'm gonna last at all..."

He rolled over onto his back, then pulled her over him, so she was straddling his upper thighs. She looked down at him, her brows drawn together a little.

He wanted her to ride him. She flushed slightly.

"It's okay, sweetheart."

She caught his hand and brought it to her breast, her eyes closing as he stroked his thumb over her nipple. "So you want to last," she murmured.

Ned chuckled. "Well, yeah," he said. "I want you to get off too."

She moaned quietly as he squeezed her other breast. "What if we... touched each other and then when we..."

Ned propped the pillow up behind him and sat up, shifting his hips back, and she moved with him. He moved to turn on the bedside lamp, then muttered a curse.

"What?"

"The lube," he said. "It's in my suitcase."

She leaned forward to kiss him. "I'll get it," she murmured.

She found it and brought it back to him, aware that he was gazing at her. He had packed a few other things, too, tucked into that little pocket, and she wondered exactly what they were.

He put the lube down on the small table, then reached for her hand, pulling her onto his lap again. She was feeling a little nervous again, and then he cupped her cheek, kissing her gently. She returned it, sliding her arms around his neck, and he was so warm and solid against her.

When she reached down and wrapped her fingers around his cock, he tipped his head back. "Baby..."

She kissed the side of his neck. "Touch me," she breathed, and he cupped her hips, then gently pushed her hand away from him.

"You don't seem to understand," he whispered, "that I can go zero to sixty in the time it takes to get your clothes off. This is for you, sweetheart."

She kissed him hard, shifting to stand on her knees as he caressed her inner thighs, ticklish light. "I like touching you," she told him, breathing against his ear, and he shivered. "Making you do that."

She whimpered when he cupped the join of her thighs. "You want to hand me the lube when you're ready?" he murmured.

"Okay," she breathed, her eyes closed, grinding against his hand. He kept his touch gentle and slow, and she buried her face against his shoulder, panting, her knees sliding apart. When he squeezed her breast again she let out a soft groan, shivering as he fondled her nipple.

"Mmm," he said encouragingly, moving so he could see her face. "Good?"

She swallowed, nodding. "Yeah," she breathed.

He ran his thumb down against the slick folds between her legs, and when he brushed her clit she cried out, jerking against him. She ground against him, panting. "Please," she whispered, digging her nails into his shoulder blades.

"Like this?"

He gently pressed two fingers up inside her and she flushed, angling to trap his hand between her and his lap, and he kept his hand still as she began to ride him. She trembled when the full length of his fingers was inside her, and every time his thumb brushed her clit she whimpered. "Please, please," she whispered, and when he finally began to rub hard against her clit, she tipped her head back, angling her hips, circling them as she rode him even harder. She cried out when his mouth brushed her throat.

"The lube, baby," he whispered, and oh God, she could feel it, and she couldn't stop. When she reached down and grasped his cock he moved to angle himself for her, and she groaned when he slipped his fingers out of her.

"Here," she whispered, her voice shaking, and cupped his hips, moving him forward. He nodded, and she moved over him, positioning herself over his cock.

"You don't want," he murmured, and when she shook her head he slicked himself with the trace of her arousal still on his fingers.

"I love you," he whispered, and she forced herself to meet his eyes, to see the expression on his face as the head of his cock slipped just between her legs. She wasn't going to do it this time, she swore to herself, wasn't going to make him take over. She could do this.

Maybe she could do this.

He touched her clit again and she sobbed out a cry. "Slow?" he murmured.

They had tried slow.

She took a deep breath and rocked her hips, shuddering as he slipped into the slick tight hollow between her thighs. Ned groaned, ducking in to draw her nipple into his mouth, and she trembled again. The soreness flared as she took him a little deeper, but she ran her hands through his hair and closed her eyes, sliding her knees even further apart, circling as she took him hilt-deep, his thumb still rubbing against her clit.

Ned released her nipple, straightening to look at her face. "You okay?" he panted.

She nodded, her brows drawing together again, and let out a quiet sigh. When a tear streaked down her cheek, he leaned forward and kissed it away.

She turned and tasted it on his lips when she kissed him, as she slowly pulled back for her first thrust.

"Fuck," Ned growled, his thumb stilling on her clit, and she made a soft noise of protest, crying out when he circled it the other way. She rocked against him gently at first, shuddering when he was buried fully inside her, and she tossed her hair back.

"Oh God," she sobbed, as his nail grazed the tip of her clit, and she gripped his shoulders hard, using him for leverage as she pulled back, then thrust down against him again. He flicked her harder and she began to pant desperately, her toes curling, her skin tingling. The expression on his face, when she finally forced herself to open her eyes again, was pure bliss.

"Talk to me," she whimpered.

Ned's breathing had turned to ragged pants too, and he brought his head back up to look at her. "You are so, you feel so fucking good," he told her, and she cried out when he flicked her clit again. "Oh fuck, baby. Yeah, harder—you okay?"

She nodded, her skin gleaming with faint perspiration as she rocked harder against him, almost bouncing up and down against his cock. Her mouth fell open and she whimpered, her inner flesh tightening around him as her arousal peaked.

"Come, baby," he begged, his hips rocking up to meet hers. "Please, please, baby, please."

She sobbed out his name, burying her face against his shoulder again, and when he grasped her hips, holding her to him, she reached between them and rubbed her clit, tipping her head back and screaming.

"Holy fuck," he groaned, thrusting hard against her. He tightened his grip on her hips, dug his fingers into the curve of her ass, then smacked her lightly, grinding roughly against her. "Oh shit, baby, yeah, yeah."

He came with a loud groan, his hips sinking back to the bed, and Nancy collapsed to him, resting her cheek against his shoulder, breathing hard against his neck. She pressed tight against him, her arms around him and her chest to his, shivering a little as her damp skin began to cool.

"Mmmmmm," Ned murmured, nuzzling against her shoulder. He stroked a hand up and down her back, and she trembled at his touch. "Oh my God, sweetheart. You okay?"

"Yeah," she whispered, her eyes closed. "You okay?"

He kissed her cheek. "Did you..."

She smiled. "Not... not as much as before, but yeah," she murmured. "And... did you smack me?"

"I... think so..." he said slowly. "I..."

She hugged him tighter. "It's okay," she said. "I just wasn't expecting that."

"In a bad way?"

She pulled back, touching the tip of her nose to his. "I've been through worse," she teased him. "If you like that, I'm cool with it."

He gently spanked her, and she tilted her head and kissed him. He stroked his fingertips down the curve of her ass, soothing the skin, and when she broke the kiss she moved back, lifting herself off him. She burrowed under the covers and Ned glanced down, then over at her.

"Wow," he murmured. "Maybe we should've used lube."

She pushed her hair out of her face. "Mmm?"

He slipped off the bed, heading for the bathroom, and came back with a cloth for her. She saw the blood on the cloth, the concerned look on his face.

"It's okay," she told him. "It is."

Ned shook his head. "I'm sorry, sweetheart."

As soon as he slipped back into bed, she moved toward him, cuddling against his chest, both of them still naked. "That freaked you out," she murmured. "It's okay, baby."

Ned made a soft noise, stroking her hair.

"It happens to me five days every month," she murmured.

"That's different." He sighed. "I hate feeling like I'm hurting you."

She moved up so she could look into his eyes. "You didn't have a gun to my head," she told him. "We did that because we both wanted to do that, okay? So stop beating yourself up about it. If I want to stop, I'll say so, okay?"

Ned pushed her hair off her cheek. "Promise?"

"Yeah," she nodded. "Come on, babe. I was the one on top of you, remember?"

He chuckled. "That's true. And it was incredibly fucking sexy, too."

She smiled, slowly. "Really?"

He tilted and kissed her softly. "Oh hell yes," he murmured against her lips.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Nancy woke to the smell of frying bacon. She stretched lazily. Her inner thighs were sore, but she shrugged it off; so she'd just given them a good workout the night before.

By the time Ned made it back upstairs, she had put her gown back on, brushed her teeth, and combed the tangle of her red-gold hair. The sunlight poured through the windows, and she grinned at her husband when he walked in with a plate and a glass of orange juice.

"No tray?"

"Guess no one else was romantic enough to do breakfast in bed here before," he shrugged, handing her the plate and putting the juice down on the table with a flourish.

"Where's yours?"

"Back downstairs. Be right back."

He brought in his own plate and two mugs of coffee, and Nancy demolished her scrambled eggs, toast, and bacon in record time. "That was great," she told him.

Ned raised an eyebrow. "I can't remember the last time I saw you clean a plate," he said, and ran his fingertips against her ribs, through her gown. She giggled and squirmed away from him.

"What can I say, Nickerson. I worked up an appetite."

Ned took a sip of his coffee. "So, darling, what's on the agenda for today?"

"Wine tour," she said, tossing the covers back.

"And what's on the agenda for after the wine tour?" Ned asked, then finished his coffee.

She bent over to dig through her suitcase, then glanced back over her shoulder to give him a little wink. He groaned, gathering up their plates, smacking her ass lightly as he walked down to the kitchen.

For the wine tour she wore a blue and turquoise printed sundress and sandals, and Ned put on a pair of cargo shorts and a button-down top. They followed the guide with their hands joined, nodding appropriately at the barrels and bottles, and when it came time to taste, they accepted samples of everything. It didn't take long for the guide's pretentious vocabulary to make Nancy giggle aloud, although she did smother it behind her hand and direct the majority at her husband, her eyes dancing.

When it came time for lunch they were already tipsy, and they settled on a small cafe specializing in paninis. The bread helped soak up the alcohol, and after a large glass of water Nancy felt just a little more sober.

When she returned from the restroom, Ned settled back in his seat, patting his stomach, and glanced over at her. "Hey, Nan?"

"Hmm?"

"Just wanted to make sure no one was stabbed to death in the bathroom while you were in there. Or that the waiter didn't slip you a note saying your life was in danger."

Nancy shook her head, propping her chin on her hand. "Nope. We appear to totally under the radar, Nickerson."

"I don't believe it," he murmured, shaking his head.

Her eyes sparkled as she grinned at him. "Hey, I promised, remember?"

"You promised," he agreed, "but the universe has a way of fucking up my plans."

"For a week," she said, "the law enforcement of the world can handle the bad guys. Because I am not going to waste a single second of our time together."

"Not even on a wine tour?"

She made a face at him. "I thought you were enjoying it."

"It's not too bad," he admitted grudgingly. "I don't know, it's just whenever we're in public I'm always waiting for you to stumble across a dead body or a blackmail case."

She reached across the table for his hand. "And in public you can't just rip my clothes off," she pointed out, her voice pitched low.

"Really?" He ducked, laughing, when she threw her straw paper at him.

And then, after a day of drinking, it seemed stupid not to order a bottle of wine with dinner. And the wine was amazing, and Ned just kept gazing at her, and an hour later when they took the cab back to their rented house, she knew she was slick and ready for him.

She tossed her shopping bags to the floor near her suitcase—she had bought souvenirs for Bess and George, Hannah and her father—and the sea breeze had put a soft curl in her hair, she found when she ran her fingers through it. Ned was unbuttoning his shirt, and when he shrugged it off, he reached for her hand. She had just pulled her sundress over her head and toed off her sandals.

He pulled her into the bathroom with him and started the shower, then reached for her again. Their time outside had brought a soft glow to her face, and from her reflection she saw new freckles on her cheekbones before Ned drew her to him, his gaze intent on her.

"Hey," she whispered, cupping his cheek.

He leaned in, kissing her gently. "All fucking day long," he murmured, "I've wanted to just drag you behind a building and—"

"And into a shower," she teased him, shrugging her shoulders after he unhooked her bra.

"Anywhere we could be alone," he agreed, testing the water.

Once her hair was wet, Nancy grasped Ned's hips and backed him into the wall. He raised his eyebrows at her, a smile curving his lips. "Mmm?"

"Mmm," she agreed, tipping her face up to his for a kiss.

They finished their shower as quickly as they could, and as soon as she was relatively dry, her hair in damp waves, Ned picked her up and carried her to the bed, growling when she nipped at the side of his neck. "You owe me, baby."

He put her down and she tugged the covers back, sliding onto the bed, her eyes bright when she gazed up at him. "I could make you dinner," she suggested playfully, drawing one leg up.

"Already ate," he said, moving onto the bed with her, propping himself up so he wasn't pinning her under him, at least not yet.

"Well, there's always Hannah's chocolate cake..." she teased.

"I'm impatient," he told her, touching the tip of his nose to hers. "I want my payment now."

"Maybe you have a mystery that needs solving?"

"Oh, I definitely do, Mrs. Nickerson."

She shivered, hearing her new name on his lips. "And what is that, Mr. Nickerson?" she murmured, gazing into his dark eyes.

In answer he tilted his head, and she parted her lips for him immediately, shivering when his tongue dipped into her mouth. She ran her hand through the damp waves of his hair, her eyes fluttering closed as they teased each other. He eased himself slowly down, his hips angling against hers, and she parted her legs, cradling him.

"Nan," he breathed when he pulled back, and she made a soft noise as he shifted against her, the hard length of his cock rubbing between her legs. He kissed her again and she brought her knees up toward her, shivering as she gave him better access.

He kissed her earlobe, her neck, as he stroked his palm down her side. She didn't realize she was grinding against him until he moved down and her hips lost contact with his, but he was nipping his way down, his tongue swirling over her. Every single place he touched her, her skin tingled, and she began to rock up against him, seeking him again. "Mmm, so good," she breathed. "Feels so good."

He brushed his lips against her inner thighs, nuzzling against her, and she throbbed in answer, her fingers digging into the pillowcase. But she didn't need to keep quiet, even though it was hard to remember just why. She still felt a little fuzzy from the wine—

"Ngh," she mumbled, panting, as he traced the tip of his tongue between her legs, brushing over her clit on the way, and she was burning alive, she was desperate for more. They had been so close to this so many times and she was still amazed whenever he did this, whenever he tasted her, when he practically worshipped her with his touch and his kiss.

He moved back up, over her, his tongue circling her belly button, and then he was gently biting the underside of her breast as his thumb found her clit.

She whimpered. "Mmmmm," she urged him, her hips moving in gentle counterpoint against his touch, languorous at first, stilling when he teased her nipple with his mouth. Then he slowly worked two fingers inside her, stroking and caressing her slick inner flesh, and she arched, planting her heels against the mattress, writhing against him as desire tightened in her belly.

She shivered, tipping her head back as he latched onto her other nipple. "Oh God," she moaned, as he rubbed her clit harder. He bit the tip of her breast and she sobbed out his name, her hips rocking as he fingered her faster. "Please please please please oh yes yes, oh my God yes," she cried out, panting even more loudly.

Hers. He was hers, forever, and oh fuck her hips were jerking and she slid her fingers into his hair and tugged a little, feeling her orgasm rise. "Please, baby, please, now," she begged, and sobbed, circling her hips, the press of her inner flesh tight around his fingers—

And then he slicked himself with her arousal and she panted in anticipation, shivering as he made his way back up her neck.

He kissed her and she tasted the tang of her own arousal on his tongue as he maneuvered between her legs, the head of his cock circling, then finding her, slick and hot, ready for him.

He broke the kiss, breathing her name as he moved over her, moved just inside her.

She let out a sob as he pressed his full length between her legs, his hips pressing to hers. She squeezed her eyes tight shut and her knees tipped back, and she shivered as she moved with the force of his thrust. He kept stroking her clit and she dug her nails into his shoulder blades, whimpering when he pulled back again, and when she shifted her hips he groaned.

"You okay, baby?" he panted.

"Yeah," she whispered, wrapping her legs around him as he slipped inside her again, so fucking deep that she trembled.

He found a rhythm and drove into her smoothly, and she panted as she circled her hips. Oh God, oh God she could feel it, and she dragged her nails down his back, and he pinned her down even harder with his next thrust. He brushed his fingertips over her clit and she pressed her heels into the small of his back, her legs spread wide, his shoulder gleaming faintly above her in the low light.

"Mmm," she breathed, and then she caught her breath, gasping, tilting her hips back as she flushed. "Oh God," she moaned, arching.

"Louder, baby," he panted, and ran the tip of his nail over her clit, sinking deep between her thighs again.

She shuddered, and when he thrust again her brows knit and she sobbed out his name. Her legs fell open and Ned grunted over her, thrusting faster, and she was powerless to do anything more than react, to just breathe.

"Oh God, baby," Ned panted, and she was crying out, arching up under him, gripping his shoulders hard, moving with him as he plunged between her legs. He felt so good, he felt so fucking good inside her, and her entire world became the sensation of his body against hers. She begged him to stop, begged him to never stop, and she was burning alive—

And then her hips, her inner flesh spasmed as she came. She writhed, shuddering under him, bringing her knees up, and she dug her nails into him again. His fingertips brushed over her clit again and she screamed, her eyes rolling back, her shoulders jerking as her orgasm crashed over her.

Ned fell heavily between her thighs, gasping for breath as he came, his hips driving hard against hers. He buried his face in the pillow above her head, pinning her under him. She was still throbbing sensitive, so fucking aware of him, and she kissed his shoulder, flushed and spent. She felt tender. She felt relaxed.

It was exactly the way she had thought she would feel after she had sex with her husband.

And then he shifted inside her and she let out a long moan. Their skin was slick where it touched and she felt another spasm shiver over her.

Ned moved down and his lips pressed against her temple. "Mmm," he whispered. "That was so good, baby... you okay?"

She stroked her hand down over the back of his head. "I can't move," she mumbled. "That was... that was perfect."

He pulled back to look into her face. "Really?" he murmured, his brown eyes searching hers.

She nodded, stretching a little under him, and when she smiled he grinned. He kissed her hard as he slipped out of her, and her eyes fluttered closed as she returned it.

"You felt so good," he whispered. "My hand was about to fall off but you felt so good."

She had to giggle. "That was amazing," she told him.

He kissed her earlobe, the point of her jaw. "Mmm... well, I'm sure you don't want my hand to fall off."

"Not when you're so good with it," she replied, nuzzling against him in return. He brushed his lips over hers and they kissed lazily. She sighed in disappointment when he rolled off her, and brought her legs back together, shivering a little. She took a few tissues from the box and wiped her thighs, then cuddled back against her husband.

"Cold," she murmured, and he pulled the covers over them, then put his arm around her.

"I love you," he whispered against the crown of her head.

She smiled as she pressed her face against his chest. "I love you too," she whispered.

--

When Ned woke, sprawled on his side of the bed, he was alone, blinking against the sunlight. From downstairs he heard a pan sizzling. He yawned and rubbed sleep out of his eyes, slowly sat up, looked for his underwear, then shrugged and walked to the bathroom naked. It wasn't like his wife hadn't seen him naked a hundred times before.

Perfect.

Ned had to grin at himself again, in the mirror above the sink.

Nancy came in with fried eggs, toast, sausage and coffee for him, her cheeks pink as she smiled at him. "Good morning."

"Good morning," he replied, gazing up at her. Her smile turned into a grin. "This looks great."

Once they had finished their breakfast, Ned glanced over at her. "So, Mrs. Nickerson... what's on the agenda for today?"

"Well, Mr. Nickerson," she replied, meeting his gaze, "I know yesterday was a little exhausting, so I thought we'd take it easy. Go down to the beach, grill for lunch?"

"Sounds perfect," he said. "And I will be highly displeased if I find any tan lines on you later."

She wrinkled her nose at him, walking over to her suitcase, then over to the closet. She had hung up a few of her long dresses, but she rapidly went through the rest, sliding her casual t-shirts and shorts and underwear into the dresser. Ned laughed when he saw that her lingerie took up practically an entire drawer.

"What?" she said, putting her hands on her hips, but her eyes were sparkling. "You didn't even let me wear any last night."

Ned pushed himself out of their bed, stalking toward her. "Oh? Are you really complaining?" he asked, smirking when he saw her gaze drop to the join of his thighs. He grabbed her around the waist, and she shrieked and giggled, squirming against him as he carried her back to the bed.

When she had taken their breakfast dishes back down to the kitchen, Ned unpacked his own suitcase, sliding a few particular items under a stack of clean boxer shorts in the dresser drawer. He wasn't quite sure how she'd feel about them, but maybe if he got her a little drunk first...

He shook his head, finding his swimming trunks and vanishing into the bathroom.

When he came out, Nancy was waiting, her cheeks a little flushed. "Um... this might take me a little while," she told him.

Ned raised his eyebrows. "Oh?"

"Well, I didn't have a chance to..." She shook her head. "It always goes better when I do a test run first."

Ned chuckled at her. "It's that complicated? Think you might need a little help?"

She playfully swatted his hand away when he reached for her swimsuit. "Remember the first time I wore a garter belt?" He nodded. "It took like forty-five damn minutes for me to figure everything out."

He shook his head. "Well, babe... it was totally worth every single minute," he told her, and leaned forward, giving her a soft kiss.

She wasn't wrong about it taking a while, though. Ned gathered the towels, sunscreen and tanning lotion, a large floppy hat that he found on her dresser, a few bottles of water. Then he wandered downstairs, turned on the television, and flipped through the channels until he found a game. It was soccer, but at least it was something.

Barely a minute later, he found a movie he barely remembered, dubbed in rapid Italian.

He was seriously considering going upstairs and knocking on the bathroom door when he heard her moving around in the bedroom, and then she came downstairs, wearing a cover-up, miles of long gleaming leg showing under its short hem. "Honey, have you seen my—oh. Wow, you are just on top of things today."

Ned shot her a cocky grin. "Well, if you insist..."

She crossed to the bag and put on her hat, wrinkling her nose at him, but her eyes were sparkling. "You ready to go?" she asked, digging in her purse for her sunglasses.

"Whenever you are."

She kept her cover-up tight to her, holding it against her thigh with her palm, and that made Ned want to slide it off her. Together they crossed to the shoreline, and while they saw a few couples or families, they were far down the beach, reduced to tiny figures near the horizon. Ned spread out his towel, then pulled one out for her, shaking it out and watching it twist as it began to drift onto the sand.

He glanced up at Nancy, who was still standing, her hat and sunglasses and cover-up still on, biting her lip.

He patted the other towel, shading his eyes.

She cast a glance down the beach, then the other way, and Ned was about to grab her hand and pull her down to him when she shook her head, slipped her hat and sunglasses off, then reached for the hem of her cover-up.

She wore a white string bikini, and the bottoms were definitely the smallest he had ever seen on her outside his bedroom.

And then she walked to the edge of the towel to sit down, and he saw the back.

The bottoms were thong-cut, tied on either side.

Ned swallowed hard as she sat down. He was going to have to get in the water soon. Preferably with her. Preferably with her in his arms.

She glanced over at him, her blue eyes wide with some anxiety. No wonder she had been so careful with the cover-up. She made a soft inquisitive noise.

"I can't believe you actually got it," he told her, and moved closer to her, playing with the tie at her hip. "What would you have done if someone else was out here?"

The corner of her mouth quirked up. "Left my cover-up on," she admitted. "Waited until we went back inside to show you."

"Good," he said, and she chuckled. "Babe, seriously. We can't have sex in the water?"

She shook her head. "Sorry. Besides, I think you said something about tan lines... so would you mind putting some lotion on me?"

Ned dove dramatically for the beach bag, and she giggled, then turned onto her stomach. He untied the string tied at the middle of her back, then smoothed the lotion onto his palms.

"All you had to do was tie... four knots," Ned said, curiously. "What took so long?"

"You'll see," she murmured, her voice muffled by the towel.

He worked the lotion into her shoulders, down the backs of her arms, down over her spine, and she giggled, squirming, when he ran his hands down her sides. He put more lotion on his hands before he went over the small of her back, then massaged her ass, and she buried her face against the towel, making soft noises.

"Hmm?" he asked teasingly, and he was unable to resist the urge to hook his finger around the back of the thong and tug it. She pushed herself up, glancing at him over her shoulder, her bikini top loose over her breasts.

"Ned," she said warningly.

"Mmmm?" He tugged on the string again.

Nancy brought her knees under her, then sat up, holding an arm over her breasts. "I will grab you by the earlobe and drag you back to the house right now, Mr. Nickerson."

"Oh?"

She nodded, her blue eyes fierce. "And I don't know what will happen next. I might just tie you to the bed..."

"Yes?" Ned breathed. "And?"

"And eat an entire steak dinner right in front of you. Naked. Without giving you a single bite."

Ned laughed. "That definitely sounds like a terrible punishment."

"Be good," she told him severely, and laid back down again.

He finished rubbing the lotion into her legs, and she let out a contented purr, taking out her ponytail ring and shaking her hair so that it tumbled over her shoulders. Ned opted to go without and sprawled on his back, closing his eyes against the glare of the sun.

The first time he had ever seen her naked, it had been on a beach, in moonlight.

God. For the longest time he had wondered if they would ever get this far, if she would ever agree to marry him. He had spent so many hours dying for her, listening to those little moans and whimpers she made, hard at just the thought of her, and now she was his.

It was perfect.

Ned smiled at the pleasure the thought gave him. He had felt her come from the inside. His wife.

He drifted off for a while, lulled by the sound of the waves, and when he lazily opened his eyes and glanced over at her, she was turning onto her back, holding her top in place. "Hey," she murmured.

"Hey," he replied, reaching for her.

She squeezed his hand. "Can you put some more lotion on me, baby?"

He grumbled good-naturedly, reaching for the bottle, as she untied the other string from around her neck and tucked the loose top between her sides and her arms. "You could just take it off," he said, with a teasing smile.

"Yeah... no, thanks. If I get a sunburn, that is the last place I want it." She grimaced. "Well, one of the last places, anyway."

He started at her feet, working his way up over her calves, feeling the firm line of her muscles. He worked the lotion over her abs, his fingertips sliding under the low band of her bottoms, and then up, over her upper chest, down her arms.

Then he leaned over her, close, working the lotion down, just under the top of her bikini top. He stroked his fingertips down a little too far and barely skimmed her nipples, and she let out a soft moan, bending one knee.

"Be good," she chastised him, although she was making no move to shove him away.

He sighed and sprawled out on his stomach. "I don't want to be good," he told her, turning to face her, and she turned lazily to face him. "I want to take you out in the water and get inside you."

A blush came to her cheeks. "When we go back for lunch."

Ned made a face. "You can't wear a little thong like that around me and expect me to act like a saint."

Nancy chuckled and put her arm over her eyes. "You, a saint?"

"Hey," he protested, then pitched his voice low. "I seem to remember you begging me to get inside you, when you were naked and fucking gorgeous and begging me, and I didn't. Sainthood is imminent, babe, because that was a miracle."

She shivered. "I always thought I knew how it would be," she whispered. "Oh my God, sweetheart, last night..."

He reached over and squeezed her hand.

She turned and looked at him. "It didn't hurt," she whispered. "Felt so good, baby. You felt so good when you were inside me..."

Ned closed his eyes. "I'm gonna throw you over my shoulder and take you to bed right now," he growled.

"The stairs," she whispered, almost a moan. "We won't even make it up the stairs..."

Ned reached for the side of her bikini bottoms, yanked on the strings, and the fabric parted. She made a soft noise of protest, and then he had slipped his hand beneath, cupping over the join of her thighs—

The skin there was smooth.

Ned sat up, his mouth dropping open. "Oh my God, Nan."

The color was high in her cheeks as she shoved his hand away, retying the bottoms. "We're in public," she told him, but she was panting a little.

Ned shook his head. "You shaved," he whispered. "Fuck."

She put her arm back over her eyes, keeping a hand protectively at her side to keep him from untying her suit again. For a second Ned considered just grabbing her top and running off with it, but instead he stood, heading for the water. If he didn't cool off soon...

He swam out into the water, as far as he dared, but he was a strong swimmer and the only thought keeping him close to shore was letting Nancy catch up with him. Down the beach the figures still played, rendered silent by the everlasting crash of the waves.

One day that would be them... maybe. He imagined Nancy kneeling on the beach over a little girl with reddish-blonde hair, a little boy with dark hair, helping them build a sand castle. Imagined chasing them around in the waves, watching them squeal and clap as he swooped around them, raising them high above his head.

Not yet. The apartment waiting for them in Chicago was tiny. But oh, one day, once they were settled down in a house...

Her top was knotted securely around her again as she swam out into the water to join him, and soon they were chasing each other, splashing and laughing, ducking under the surface to snatch at each other's legs. He managed to dunk her once and she surfaced, sputtering, her hair plastered to her face, immediately coming after him for revenge.

The walk back to the house, once their stomachs were rumbling, was long and tiring. Inside the air was almost shockingly cool, the linoleum cold to their bare feet. Ned went to the refrigerator and pulled out a beer and the sausages, while Nancy went to the downstairs bathroom to splash her face and rinse the sand off her legs.

She took a bottle of beer too, and they took their time over lunch on the patio, passing the bag of chips back and forth, washing down the salty taste with the beer. When Ned finished his she went back inside and brought him another one, and he smacked her ass as she went back to her seat.

She quirked an eyebrow at him.

"Don't tell me to be good," he said. "We aren't in public and I want to rip that thing off you with my teeth."

Nancy ran her fingers through her hair; it had dried into loose waves after he had dunked her, and she looked gorgeous, lean and tanned, her nose and cheeks dusted with new freckles. "So you don't want me to wear it again."

Ned shook his head. "I want you to wear it for me," he said. "Only me. I don't want any other guy to ever see you in that. Because you are fucking gorgeous."

She glanced away and Ned took a long pull of his beer before he stood, hooking a finger under her chin and tilting her head up so he could look into her eyes. "And you're mine," he whispered. "You're the most amazing, incredible woman I've ever met and you're mine."

She stood and wrapped her arms around him, hugging him hard to her. "I love you," she whispered. "So much, baby."

He cupped her ass, his hips angling against hers. "I love you too," he whispered.

They left the remains of their meal on the patio as he carried her inside, and she boosted herself to wrap her legs around his waist. He nuzzled against her shoulder, and she glanced up at him in some surprise as he released her on the couch.

"Mmmm?"

"Here," he said, and untied the string knotted at the base of her neck. She reached behind her and untied the other, and her top fell down, revealing her breasts. She glanced up at him, her blue eyes low-lidded.

He knelt in front of her, gently nudged her legs apart. Slowly he pulled the string tied at her right hip, running his finger just beneath the band, over to her left. She swallowed, shivering as he took his time with it.

She was smooth and pale between her thighs, once he slowly drew the fabric down.

Ned gently stroked his fingertips over her, and she shivered again. "Bess... she said I should get a Brazilian before I left town, but..."

Ned glanced up at her. "Remind me to buy her a drink when we get back."

"I didn't know if you'd like it."

"Babe, this is sexy as hell," he told her, and parted her legs a little more, pulling her forward.

She let out a shivering sigh as he grasped her breasts, starting gently, just barely brushing his thumbs over her nipples. Her hands tightened to fists as he squeezed, then pinched the tips of her breasts. He took one into his mouth and suckled hard and she tipped her head back, arching, letting out a soft moan.

Then he closed his teeth around the rosy pebble of her nipple and tugged, and she whimpered. He tugged the other harder and she buried her fingers in his hair, gasping.

"More?"

She was rocking gently, and when she nodded he alternated suckling and nipping hard at her breasts, leaving her panting, marked by his mouth. She parted her legs, whimpering as he traced his lips down, over her belly button.

He found her clit easily, swiping it with his tongue, and she shuddered hard. "Oh my God, baby," she cried out, and brought her feet up so she could rest her heels on the cushions, spread wide and ready for him, and she was so fucking wet. He suckled hard against her clit and she arched, her nails gently raking against his scalp. "Mmmm, yes," she begged.

He slipped two fingers inside her and her brow creased, her mouth falling open as he thrust hard, harder. He gently bit her clit and she writhed, panting, and he pulled back to see her, slick and undulating, moaning with desire.

His knees were starting to hurt and he couldn't just leave her like that, and he shoved his trunks down, stepping out of them before he sat down on the couch, reaching for her. She swung onto his lap easily, panting, and together they angled him, and she spread her knees wide as she sank onto his cock.

Ned groaned, finding her clit and flicking it hard, latching onto her nipple and cupping her other breast, and she cried out his name, her head tipped back. He teased her roughly, digging hard against her clit, nipping hard at her breasts, and she rode him desperately, her nails digging over his shoulder blades. She found a rapid rhythm, alternating the angle, moving in what turned into a figure eight. Ned rubbed the tip of his nail over her clit, and she screamed in pleasure, her inner flesh pulsing around him as she sank to him, slowing.

He grasped her hips, resting his cramping fingers, and turned to push up on his knees. Nancy moaned as he moved inside her, and when he swung her so her shoulder blades were resting on the arm of the couch, she hooked one leg over the back and bent the other, her foot against the seat cushion to keep her hips even, her head still tipped back. The marks he had left on her breasts were wet and red, now.

He took a deep breath and thrust into her hard, and she cried out, her hips trembling. He drove into her again, again, and when she brought her head back up, she was rocking against his thrusts, her brows knit.

"Oh my God, baby, yes, yes," she cried out, and he was buried hilt-deep inside her when he gently rubbed his fingertip against her clit again, and she sucked in a hard breath, letting it out in a desperate, orgasmic scream. He made his rhythm quick, his thrusts shorter and sharper, and she began to jerk in time with them, so wet that he could fucking hear every time he moved inside her.

Her hips circled and he flicked her clit. Her inner flesh spasmed hard around him as she came again, sobbing his name, her moans becoming deep pleased cries. He buried himself brutally hard inside her and kept stroking her clit, feeling her tighten and release around him, trembling as he kept touching her.

They were both slick with sweat, panting hard when he pulled out of her. "Shit," he breathed as she slowly sank back to the couch, onto her knees, shivering. He found a napkin on the coffee table and she wiped her thighs, swallowing, blinking lazily.

"Yeah," she agreed softly, then stood. "Oh God."

Ned ran a hand through his hair. His shoulder blades were probably a livid red; they stung from the dig of her nails.

She walked back to him from the kitchen, still gloriously naked and relaxed, and slipped onto his lap, sliding her arms around his neck. "Mmmmmm," she murmured, her lips brushing his cheek as he kissed her shoulder.

"Good?"

"Fuck yes," she whispered into his ear, and he shivered. "I came twice," she said, her voice wickedly low, and he hugged her as she trailed her mouth down his neck.

He crooked his finger under her chin and brought her face to his, kissing her hard, burying his fingers in her hair as he leaned back. She sprawled over him, bare breasts pressed to his chest, and when she shivered he knew she was tasting herself on his tongue.

He stroked a hand down the line of her spine when she pulled back, her lips red from the press of his. Her blue eyes were hazed with sated desire.

"I want to stay like this forever," she whispered. "Just like this. Safe with you."

He tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. "Me too," he whispered.

"Was it good for you?"

He tickled her ribs and she shrieked as she squirmed away from him, her breasts bouncing invitingly. "You were so good, baby," he told her. "Felt so fucking amazing."

She smiled.

He stroked a fingertip down her cheek. "You are so beautiful," he whispered.

"And you are so damn handsome," she told him, moving onto his lap again. "So handsome that I wish I could lock you in the house all day. Make sure no one else could lust after this smoking hot man I'm married to."

He chuckled. "You'd make me a kept man?"

"I would," she said. "And if you were good I'd take you out on Saturday nights and we'd go dancing and I'd slap any girl who looked at you too long."

"Just like I'd punch those guys who can't stop staring at that fantastic ass of yours," Ned murmured into her shoulder.

She shivered. "Okay, so this is why we shouldn't do this so far away from the bedroom... I'm getting cold."

He wrapped his arms tight around her. "I'll keep you warm, baby."

She giggled, and Ned closed his eyes, his heart rising at the sound.

Chapter Text

So... the bike tour hadn't exactly been a bad idea. She definitely wouldn't say that.

It had been a lot of fun, especially once Ned's morning coffee had kicked in and his competitive streak had made him challenge her to a race or two over the more boring patches of trail. They had packed a picnic lunch and shared it in one of the most picturesque spots they had found on the island, and then she had remembered that they had no pictures, practically, other than from the wine tour. Ned had suggested that they rectify the lack immediately, starting with some intimate candid shots once they were back at their rental house.

Even though she had swiped at his shoulder, she had blushed a little at the thought. He was only half teasing. Oh God, the way he looked at her when they were naked together made her shiver. She had heard him call her beautiful so many times, but when he was making love to her, the desire and adoration in his eyes, feeling him come with her... that made her feel it.

So they took pictures together, arms wrapped around each other's shoulders, and even one with their noses pressed together, facing each other against the sunset. Only a few of the other bikers on the tour had opted to take the harder trail, and by the time Nancy and Ned made it back to their house, it had been all she could do to draw them a hot bath and grab a few beers along with the extra-strength pain reliever. The water had worked on their aching muscles, and they had lingered in the tub together, nestled against each other, until they were tired of letting out the lukewarm water to replace it with more hot.

She had put on a white bra and panties trimmed in lavender before she had gone to bed with her husband, and he had curled up behind her in his plaid boxers, nuzzling in close to her. It took more than a few minutes for them to get comfortable with all the aches, and she had been so exhausted that she had just given up and fallen asleep.

When she opened her eyes sometime later, the night had deepened and it felt late and lonely, and Ned sighed beside her.

She loved him so, so fucking much. And their honeymoon was already half over.

She had always felt like she was waiting, when the cases were over, waiting to be awake and alive and energized again. The monotony of regular life had been enough to make her scream. Eating out, going to the movies or picnics or parties, running errands, had all just felt like opportunities to run across another mystery, like she was just sleepwalking.

And then, she had slowly realized, being with Ned made her feel that way too. This man who had somehow fallen in love with her, who had made her love him for his bravery and his strength and his innate goodness... what was between them felt like a mystery she was never really going to be able to solve, and she felt like she would never be with him long enough, could never talk to him long enough, could never make love to him long enough. She had done everything she could to make sure no one could get this close to her, and here they were together, and now the only thought that terrified her was losing him, losing this.

Ned's arm was slung over her side. She cupped her hand over his, nestling a little deeper into the pillow.

When they went back to Chicago, she knew that gradually her job would take over her life again, seep into the cracks and fill all the free moments, that she would have to carve out her time with Ned unless she was careful. And she dreaded it. She dreaded going back to a life that was more than just the two of them, locked together, in love.

Ned's fingertips fumbled against hers, and she shivered as his hand drifted down her belly. He made a soft noise and then his fingertips were gently sliding beneath the band of her panties.

"Mmmm," he mumbled, two fingers following the bare slit between her legs.

She flushed, turning over and groaning when her back twinged in protest, and arched to let him pull her panties off.

How had she ever had the strength to tell him no, to cry off when he did this before. She wanted him so damn much.

As soon as his boxers were off she stroked the underside of his shaft, and his hips squirmed as he panted. "Mmmm, baby," he breathed, cupping his hand over hers. "Mmmm, so good, sweetheart."

He was already so hard, and when he reached for her she swung over him. Her inner thighs were already protesting, but when he angled himself for her, she slid her knees apart, and together they fitted the head of his cock just inside her.

She closed her eyes, and Ned let out a pleased groan as she rocked down, taking his full length. "Mmmmm," she sighed, moving up and down, and when he cupped her breasts, she tossed her hair back, moaning.

His eyes were open when she planted her hands above his shoulders, squirming her hips against his as she rode him, and his hands roamed over her, her hips and ass, her breasts, her belly. She let out a shivering breath as his hips began to rock under hers, meeting her thrusts.

"I love you," he murmured, his voice still a little gravelly with sleep, and his thumb found her clit.

"Oh, oh God," she whimpered, her inner flesh clenching him tight in response. "I love you so much."

And his eyes, the slow stroke of his thumb against her... she blinked and a tear slipped down her cheek, falling on his chest.

He cupped her cheek. "Baby?"

She shook her head, unable to find the words in her. She had never needed to find the words for this.

He stroked his hand over her, down against her hip, moving harder against her. "It's okay," he said, and she bowed her head, blinking her tears away again.

"I love you," she whispered, her voice catching in a soft sob, and he cupped her cheek, panting as he moved under her. She cried out, panting desperately as he circled her clit, her toes curling. The pressure of her arousal was so high that she felt like she was going to explode, her belly tight, her skin tingling with it, and she angled her hips—

And she screamed when the head of his cock brushed against some tender place inside her, tipping her head back and rocking hard down against him as she rode him roughly, and when he dug his fingers into the flesh of her ass and arched up under her, she trembled.

"You feel so fucking good," he growled, and they moved in perfect tandem, crying out as they came. She collapsed to him, her cheeks wet, their skin slick with sweat, sprawled and sated. He grasped her hips and held her to him, and she shook, her face against his shoulder.

When her heart had finally slowed a little, she felt Ned stroke her hair, and then he ran the backs of his fingers over her still-wet cheek. "What's wrong, baby," he whispered.

She closed her eyes. "I don't want to go back," she whispered.

Ned chuckled. "I know what you mean, but I thought by now you'd be dying to get back. Get deep into another case."

She sighed when he ran his fingers through her hair. It took a long long moment for her to speak. "There are no words for how I feel about you," she whispered. "I think it'll take the rest of my life to figure it out."

"So I'm your mystery," he said softly.

She propped herself up so she could see his face, her eyes pricking. "Everything I ever thought love was... When I see you, my heart skips a beat and I want you. I want to hear your voice, want to see you smile, want to feel your arms around me. And being with you like this..." She touched his cheek. "I'm addicted to you. I hate being away from you, and it's so much more than that..."

He tucked her hair behind her ear. "I know, baby," he breathed. "You're everything to me. I could lose anything else but if I lost you..."

She gave him a watery smile. "Yeah," she whispered.

He put his arms around her, holding her hard to him. "I used to wonder if you'd ever feel the same way about me that I did about you," he said softly.

"It's scary as hell," she told him. "I want to be in control, and this? I'm... I have no control at all when it comes to this."

"And that's exactly how I felt," he said. "From the moment we first met."

She smiled. "Until the day I die," she whispered.

"And that better not be anytime soon," he told her sternly. "I need at least a good sixty years with you. It's the least you can do, after all those incredibly dangerous situations you seem to attract."

"Hey," she protested. "It's... coincidence."

"Guess you just have the kind of face that makes people want to confide in you about swindled fortunes and death threats."

"Everyone needs a character flaw."

He brought his head up to kiss the crown of her head. "Never leave me," he whispered, his voice rough. "Promise me that we'll never walk away from this, that if some guy has a gun to your head you'll remember that I will set the entire world on fire to get you back."

Her eyes pricked a little again. "And I would too," she whispered. "I promise, baby."

--

Ned had his wife pinned against the kitchen counter the next morning when they heard the knock at the door. She glanced over, her blue eyes already blown wide with desire, and he took her chin in his hand, turning her back to face him.

"I don't care who's at that fucking door," he said, drawing her leg up, and she propped her palms on the counter behind her. She boosted herself up, wrapping her legs around his waist, and he stepped in close to her, teasing her with short, sharp kisses as his fingers gently pressed between her thighs.

The counter was littered with dirty dishes, pots and pans, and when Ned moved between her thighs, she cried out and the dishes rattled, and the knock was repeated.

"I swear to God," Ned said, and Nancy panted desperately, tipping her head back as he slid into her with an especially quick thrust, "if that's someone here to ask for your help, I'm going to carry you upstairs and tie you to the fucking bed."

"Then—I hope—it is," Nancy forced out, bouncing with his thrusts, her brows knitting as she came.

They were still a little sore from the bike tour the day before, but Ned allowed himself to be talked into going souvenir shopping with his wife. They were just leaving the house, the earlier knock entirely forgotten, when Ned saw the note taped to the mailbox.

Lightly tossing the keys in his hand, Ned raised his eyebrow at Nancy, picking it up.

Her eyes were sparkling. "Oh please let it be for me," she said, teasing him. "Please."

But it actually wasn't, Ned was startled to see when he opened it. It was addressed to him. The wording was a little strange, but it appeared to be from the rental agency. Ned's office had called and left a message the night before, and requested a call as soon as possible.

Ned glanced at his watch. "And... they're all in bed right now. Damn." He snapped his fingers in mock disappointment.

Nancy took the note and glanced over it. "Um... so what was our agreement again?" she said, raising her eyebrow at him.

"Hey, baby, you want to take me back inside and tie me up? I am totally okay with that."

She spotted the cab coming down the shoreline road, and wrinkled her nose. "Guess I'll just have to take a raincheck on that."

Late the night before, while they had slept or maybe while they had made love, a storm had washed the streets clean. By the time the taxi pulled up in front of one of the main shopping areas, the sky was a gorgeous blue. Nancy slid out of the cab before Ned did, and he noticed the appreciative glances being sent her way, even if she seemed oblivious to them. He had never understood that. She drew men's eyes like magnets wherever she went, and yet she seemed to believe that only he was subject to the attention of the opposite sex. Ned slipped his arm around her waist and she cast a delighted glance up at him.

For the longest time, he had known he would love Nancy until the day he died, regardless of whether she felt that way about him in return. The longer they were together, the more she trusted him, the more certain he was that there would be no leaving her behind. She was dug into him now. Her fingerprints were worn into his skin, into his heart.

And she felt the same way.

He kissed her temple and she tipped her face up toward his for another on the lips.

In all honesty, he hadn't expected their shopping trip to take long, but she seemed to be determined to buy everyone she had ever met a souvenir, citing all those trips she had taken without finding the time to breeze through an airport gift shop on the way home. After Ned pulled her into a gelato cafe, she made a beeline for a kiosk selling postcards and shot glasses, and Ned rolled his eyes.

"Babe, how about we meet back up for lunch?"

Nancy looked down at the bags she was carrying, then directed her wide blue-eyed gaze up at him. "I'm sorry, baby. You must be bored."

He shrugged. "Just... distracted."

"About the message, having to call work?"

"That, and..." He leaned down, his breath brushing her ear, and she shivered. "How long it's gonna be before I can find out what you're wearing under that dress."

A faint flush rose to her cheeks, and she smiled. "Well, if you could be a sweetheart and carry these for me... I'll try to be quick."

Ned gave her a kiss on the cheek as he took her bags, then wandered down a side street, toward a neon sign promising beer. At the corner he passed a jewelry store, the window displaying headless mannequins modeling necklaces, velvet ring boxes.

And he paused, drawn by a blue stone the exact same shade as her eyes.

He wasn't wearing one of his business suits when he walked in, but everyone on the island seemed to be wearing beachwear, ready to walk out of stores and straight into the surf. The salesperson was polite to him, and while he wished he had enough for the large stones, brilliant and almost glowing from within, he found something in his price range and debated over it before walking to the counter.

Ned, you're all I need. Just you.

He knew it made her self-conscious when he gave her jewelry, when he gave her anything, but seeing her wearing something he had picked out for her—especially her wedding ring, her engagement ring, definitely those—made him feel like she was proud of him, proud of being with him.

He wished he could give her everything, give her the world. She deserved to wear beautiful things, deserved so much more than he could give her, but this would be a start.

He was going to spend the rest of his life with her.

He was the luckiest damn man in the world.

When they rejoined each other for lunch, she was four shopping bags heavier, and as soon as she sat down she ordered a cocktail. "I don't know about you, but I'm still sore from yesterday," she sighed, then cast a flirtatious glance at him. "Plus, that little... distraction, after breakfast."

"Oh, is that what we're calling it now?" he teased her in return. "More like a very large, very manly distraction."

He loved seeing her blush, and he wasn't disappointed. "So how long do you have to stay in town?"

"Oh, don't tell me you're finished."

"I said I wasn't going to take all day," she reminded him, smiling her thanks at the waiter when he delivered her drink. She took a long first sip, closing her eyes.

Ned tried to remember the last time he'd eaten so many consecutive meals with her, and he couldn't, he literally couldn't. He was pretty sure he never had; he'd never spent so much time with her, period. Their vacations had always been brief or interrupted by cases or work, and he knew they always would be, but she had promised before they had left that she would be with him and him alone, and she had been.

"I think I'm going to roast a chicken," Nancy said, her eyes sparkling. "For dinner tonight. Hannah always told me that if I made it for you, you'd be on one knee after the first bite."

"And you didn't?" Ned said, his eyes sparkling.

She shrugged. "Guess I didn't want to risk screwing it up and ending up at the hospital instead."

"That's reassuring," Ned teased her, pushing his plate away.

She kissed him before she left, the bottom of her skirt swaying as she walked away, a certain swing in her hips.

The call to work wasn't as bad as it could have been—Ned knew of several projects that could have gone into a nosedive in his absence—but Andrew was looking for updated contact information on one account, the artboards for a second. Then Macdougald came on the line and said he was going to have Ned start working on the Ruby account as soon as he came back to work.

Ned hung up thinking hard. Working on the Ruby account would be great for his portfolio. It was a medium-sized account, but their media budget was good for their billings.

He glanced down at the small bag by his side as he took a cab back to their place. Under the nest of tissue paper, the recipe book for his mother and the tie for his father, was the jewelry box, and if he was on the Ruby account... well, it definitely wouldn't be the last.

When he walked in, he smelled roasting chicken, garlic and rosemary and lemon, and headed upstairs to dispose of his gifts. He heard the patio door close when he was coming down the stairs, and then...

Ned had never heard Nancy seriously sing. Oh, sometimes when they were in the car with Bess and George the three girls would start shouting the lyrics along with the radio and giggling, voices trembling with exaggerated vibrato or mock gravity, but she wasn't trying, none of them were.

And she wasn't singing now, not really, just murmuring the words to herself, her voice rising and falling with the tune.

"Oh, my love, my darling
I've hungered for your touch
A long, lonely time
And time goes by so slowly
And time can do so much
Are you still mine...
I need your love
I need your love
God speed your love to me
Lonely rivers flow
To the sea, to the sea
To the open arms of the sea
Lonely rivers sigh
Wait for me, wait for me
I'll be coming home, wait for me..."

Ned made his steps heavier on the lower stairs, alerting her to his presence, and when he came into the kitchen she was wearing a pretty little frilled apron and her eyes were a little bright, but he didn't hear her singing anymore.

He wished she still was, though. It was a side of her he hadn't really seen, and any time she ever showed him any vulnerability at all, he wanted to pull her into his arms and hold her.

She greeted him with a soft kiss. "It'll still be a little while, and I'm going to roast some potatoes too."

Ned kissed her back. "That sounds absolutely perfect," he said. "Dessert?"

"Oh... well, with the chicken in the oven I didn't..." She folded her arms, glancing at the refrigerator.

"Hey, it's okay. You said it'll be a while? There's a bakery section at the grocery store downtown. I'm sure I can find something."

"You're sure?" She raised an eyebrow.

"I'm sure, sweetheart. You look adorable in that apron," he added, leaning back against the counter. "You're wearing way too much under it, though."

She checked on the chicken, shooting him a look. "You have a one-track mind, babe."

"And that's why you love me."

The chicken did come out nearly perfect, Ned had to admit when they sat down to dinner. The entire meal was great. Nancy had neither the time nor the patience to cook that often—and she hadn't had to, with Hannah in charge of the Drew kitchen—but he did marvel at her. There wasn't much she couldn't do, and anything she didn't grasp right away, she worked on until she mastered it, or came as close as she could.

And there was so, so much they hadn't yet tried in bed together. He was still getting used to just the knowledge that he was having sex with her, and that both of them were enjoying it. Now that they had crossed that line, he wondered if her curiosity was equal to the many, many scenarios he had fantasized about while they had been holding off.

When it came time for dessert, Ned offered to assemble their plates. He bought her a slice of tart, a scoop of ice cream, and then put the jewelry box down beside it, his gaze on her face.

Nancy looked up at him when she saw it. "Oh, Ned... you didn't—"

"I know I didn't have to," he said. "I wanted to, though." He paused. "Macdougald told me I'll be on another account, and I just wanted to celebrate a little."

"Sweetheart, that's great!" Nancy wrapped her arm around his waist and squeezed him a little, as he opened the box.

"Oh," she said, touching the small silver and sapphire pendant. "Oh, it's so pretty."

"Here," Ned said, lifting it out of the box, and fastening it around her neck. She touched it lightly, then smiled up at him.

While he was away, she had cleaned up the kitchen, and she insisted that they immediately tackle the dishes before heading to bed. The longer they were in the house together, though, the more he wanted her, and he didn't think it was ever going to wear off. They would be living together back in Chicago, and he didn't think he was going to be able to keep his hands off her, when he came home and saw that cute little ass...

When he came home on time, anyway. When she wasn't out of town on another case.

He put that out of his head, wrapping his arms around her from behind, touching his chin to the crown of her head. She made a small pleased sound.

"You remember what I promised earlier?"

"That I was going to be tying you up tonight?" she replied, a small, wicked laugh in her voice.

They hadn't yet tried that, although he wasn't sure why they hadn't. Tying her up had been probably the hardest thing he had ever done. Not because it upset him, but because he had come so, so fucking close to sliding inside her. If she had tied him up, that wouldn't have been a risk. Probably.

And now he couldn't wait. Just the thought of her naked and riding him, taking complete control of their lovemaking, was enough to make him hard.

He kissed the side of her neck. "You want to?"

She shivered at the touch of his lips. "If you want to," she replied. "And if you promise to tie me up before we leave."

Ned's hips surged hard against hers at that thought.

--

Nancy walked out of the bathroom wearing an outfit that, quite honestly, had put a hot blush to her cheeks when she'd unwrapped it. It had been a gift from Helen Corning Archer at the lingerie shower. Helen had been married for two years already, and she had given Nancy a very knowing look when Nancy had finally managed to meet her eyes.

"He is going to love it," she promised. "If it doesn't fit, the receipt's in there, but trust me."

Nancy had tied her husband's wrists together and up to the headboard, and let him wait while she had dressed and worked up her nerve. Although, she thought to herself as she had surveyed her outfit, he was the one tied to the bed out there. She could walk out entirely naked and not have to fuss with any of this...

But she had, and she had left the necklace and her wedding rings on, and the look on Ned's face when he saw her outfit made it entirely worth it.

"God," he whispered. "Turn around, baby."

The black satin would have been a bustier if it made any attempt to cover her breasts, which it didn't, but it was curved to support her. It ended above her belly button, and she had gone to the trouble to attach the garter strings to sheer stockings... and wearing panties underneath, even a thong, had been too much trouble.

She did a slow turn for him—she had no idea what the view did for him, but it did something—and when she was facing him again, his eyes were even darker, hooded with desire. She began to walk toward the bed, but he shook his head.

"You can say no—I just wanted to try something."

She raised an eyebrow. "So I need to untie you?"

He shook his head. "There's... something in the top drawer," he said, nodding to the dresser he was using. "Under the clothes."

She shot him a glance before she crossed to it, feeling around under the t-shirts. Something small, cool and smooth brushed against her fingertips, and she closed her fingers around it and brought it out.

"Yeah. Now come over here. God, baby, you look so fucking hot right now."

She smiled faintly, then took her time as she climbed over him, straddling his belly. His gaze slid immediately to the join of her thighs, the pale newly-smooth flesh there. The first day she had been aware of it, under her clothes, but now it wasn't so strange anymore. Even so, she still felt more exposed this way.

"So..." She opened her palm, then glanced up into Ned's eyes. "What is this?"

"It's a bullet vibrator," he said. "I just thought, since I'm tied up and I can't... help... just press that little button on the bottom and have fun with it."

She felt her neck flush. "Oh," she said softly, and she had to press the button hard to turn it on, but then the vibrator began to buzz to itself, moving against her palm. She turned it on and off experimentally a few times, then glanced up at Ned.

"Do I have to?"

He shook his head. "Not unless you want to, babe. But that's always true."

She put it down on the bed and it rolled to his thigh as she leaned forward, kissing his cheek. "Is it yours?" she asked, gently running her fingers through his hair, her lips grazing his jaw. "Have you played with it?"

Ned shook his head. "I bought it for you," he admitted, and she felt his neck move under her lips as he swallowed hard.

"Are you mine?" she murmured, moving back to look into his eyes, remembering the conversation they'd had before the wedding. "Are you giving yourself to me?"

He smiled faintly. "Yes," he said softly.

"I want to see if you like it," she admitted.

Ned paused for a second. "Then I think we should have a safe word."

Nancy raised an eyebrow. "Oh, I see how it is," she said. "We don't have a safe word when you tie me up..."

Ned made a defensive sound. "We should have. I'm sorry, babe."

She shook her head. "It's okay. So, what word?"

They debated for a while. It couldn't be something easy like stop or no, or a word that could easily be misunderstood. They settled on one together, and then Nancy ran the backs of her fingers down the taut muscles of his arms, down his sides, and began to kiss her way down his neck. She rubbed her breasts, her hard, sensitive nipples, against his chest as she worked her way down, flicking the tip of her tongue over his nipples, down over his abs.

She sat back on his upper thighs and found the vibrator, pushed the button, then slowly ran the trembling tip down the center of his chest. He squirmed when she moved close to his erection, and she veered off-course, tracing it down over his hip, over to the other. She traced the saddle of flesh from his hip to his groin, then touched it to the base of his cock, glancing up at his face as she moved it up the underside of his shaft—

Ned groaned loudly. "Fuck," he swore, his hips rocking, "oh shit, baby."

She circled the head, then moved it down and up again, paying close attention to him, the way he tipped his head back, the way his breathing sped up. She drew it away from him and he brought his head up again, panting.

"I'll come if you do that again," he warned her.

"Do you want me to?" she whispered.

He shook his head. "Not unless I'm inside you."

"Hmm." She turned the bullet off and leaned forward, her knees sprawled on either side of his hips, and kissed him. He could tilt his head, but he couldn't cup her cheek, couldn't control her, and she slipped her tongue into his mouth, teasing him. He was panting when she sucked his lower lip into her mouth, and then she needled the sensitive flesh with her teeth and he groaned.

"Please," he whispered. "Please, baby, you're so wet I can smell it..."

"I'm sorry," she murmured immediately, looking away from him.

"No, it's fucking hot, don't apologize," he said. "Everything you're doing right now is so fucking hot. Please, let me watch you with it... I want to see if you like it too."

She glanced up at him, then found the bullet again. While it was still off, she gently traced it over her nipple, then turned it on, rubbing it over the tip. "Oh," she whispered, biting her lip, and arched her spine as she rubbed it over her other breast. Slowly she guided it down the line of her chest, down between her thighs, and led it against her clit.

"Oh my God," she sobbed out loudly. "Oh God feels so good oh God—"

She undulated, her hips bucking as arousal tightened across her belly, down her spine. Every movement of the bullet against her clit made her gasp. She whimpered, then scrambled toward him, reaching for his erection, angling him, and she was so slick that he was almost frictionless inside her, even as he fitted snug between her legs.

Ned was panting hard, his hips shifting up under hers as she took his full length and touched the vibrating bullet to her clit again. She sucked in a swift breath and screamed, rocking hard against him to take him deeper, pressing the bullet hard against her sensitive flesh.

"Feels so good," Ned growled, straining at the restraints. "Tell me, sweetheart."

"You," she cried out, "oh shit oh shit, you feel so good it feels so good oh God oh God—"

She fucked him harder, circling her clit with the bullet, and her husband cried out when he felt the first clench of her inner flesh against his cock. She rode him even faster, shifting the angle of her hips, screaming as she tipped her head back. She came hard, and held the bullet to her clit as she spasmed around him, jerking, begging him, shaking.

"So good, baby, oh my God," he told her, thrusting hard up under her, shuddering as he came. "So fucking hot, Nan."

She dropped the bullet and it took her a few tries to find it and turn it off. She raked her hair out of her face and tilted forward, her chest pressed to his.

She had just recovered a little when Ned nuzzled against her temple. "Wish I could hold you," he murmured.

"Me too," she replied, reaching up to free his hands. He stretched, then wrapped his arms around her, his fingertips sliding down the black satin to her bare ass.

"This is the hottest fucking outfit that has ever existed," he told her.

She chuckled, turning her face against his neck. "Pun intended?"

"In every sense of those words."

She shook her head. "I almost died of embarrassment when I got it at the shower."

"So there were other girls buying you lingerie?"

She pulled back, making a face at the lecherous tone of his voice. "Are you serious? I wouldn't even know where to find anything like this. Much less have the nerve to buy it."

He smiled. "Look, babe, as long as I can get under whatever you're wearing, you know I don't care. But you do look hot as hell right now."

She squirmed, then pulled away from him. "The hotter it is, the more uncomfortable," she commented, reaching for her garter strings.

"Can you... wear that the next time I tie you up," he said slowly.

She nodded. "Yeah," she murmured.


Chapter Text

It was the last real night they would have on the island. The next day was still theirs, but they would be leaving early the day after, and they would be packing, putting the house back in order, seeing how little sleep they could do without if they could just have a few more uninterrupted moments together.

The night was warm, so warm that it gave Nancy a faint glow, but that wasn't why he couldn't keep his eyes off her. She wore a yellow halter dress that shimmered every time she moved, every time she breathed, and the hem was so high that he could see practically all of her tanned, shapely legs. She had done her eyes in something smoky that shimmered too, and her lashes were incredibly dark and her heels were impossibly high.

He wanted to take her in the back of the cab, but she swatted his hand away whenever he ran his fingertip down the edge of the deep plunging V at the back of her dress, or when he ran his warm palm up over her upper thigh.

She definitely wasn't wearing a bra. He really wanted to find out if she had put on panties. And, if so, how fast he could get them off her.

As soon as they walked into the club, he was struck by how very American it seemed, after he had navigated the grocery store with the help of a pocket language guide and hoping he was selecting the right thing, after waiting hours for the check when they went out to eat and puzzling through the transportation system. Even the music sounded like it was in English, set to a throbbing, pounding bass that went right through him. The girls were darker and the guys shorter, but it was a club, and everyone was there to get out on the floor and get as close as they possibly could in public.

And to drink. Nancy ordered them both cocktails and brought them back to him, as they surveyed the room from the corner.

He could smell her perfume, and for days now they had been able to have sex practically whenever they wanted. If he had wanted to find out what color her panties were, if she was wet, if she wanted him, all he'd had to do was flip her skirt up, or inch the zipper of her shorts down. He desperately wanted to pull her fucking dress off, to kneel in front of her and suckle against her clit until she was moaning his name, then fuck her bruisingly hard against the wall.

But this was Italy, not a sex club in fucking Los Angeles.

He settled for letting his fingertips drift along the hem of her skirt as he followed her out onto the floor two drinks later. He could barely feel it but Nancy hadn't frequented the Omega Chi parties the way he had, and she was already grinning up at him, blinking slow as she slid her arms up around his neck. He savored the feel of her bare skin under his fingertips as he trailed them over her back, and she shivered, pressing her body close to his.

"You're the most gorgeous woman here." His lips grazed her earlobe before he kissed her neck, once, softly.

She giggled. "You don't know that. You barely looked around."

"I don't need to look," he growled against her skin. "No one else could look as fucking beautiful as you do right now."

He felt her shiver a little, and then she flicked her tongue against her earlobe, their hips moving together to the beat. "I feel so great right now," she admitted, and when he slipped his knee between her legs, she tilted her hips, grinding against him for a second. "I need another drink after this. And..."

She let out a little trembling sigh when he bit the join of her neck and shoulder, tipping her head back, her hair spilling down over her shoulder blades. She was gleaming, breathtakingly gorgeous, and Ned was utterly unsurprised when he stepped away from her to glance over her and a guy tapped him on the shoulder, nodding at her, desire alight in his eyes.

Ned shook his head, holding up his hand so the man could see his wedding ring.

Nancy brought her head back up, laughing, swaying in his arms. "Another drink?"

He really had to stop thinking about pulling her into a dark corner near the back of the club and pushing that damn skirt up. "Sure, another drink," he agreed. Maybe if she got drunk enough she would pull him back to a dark corner all by herself.

She downed two more drinks in quick succession and when she led him by the hand out onto the floor again, he was disappointed that they stayed there. Girls around them were gathered in clusters or draped against their escorts, hips swaying seductively to the beat, and Nancy's lashes were low as she raised her arms, shimmying her hips down by slow degrees. She ran her nails down his hips, down the sides of his legs, through his pants, and Ned's internal temperature went nuclear when she practically fucking knelt before him on those strappy heels, her head on level with his aching groin. He had to dig his fingers into his palms to keep his self-control, but the alcohol was agreeing with his erection and he didn't think he was going to be able to last through another dance. Or possibly even a cab ride.

She slowly threaded her fingers through his belt loops as she stood again, peering at him from beneath her lashes, and then she giggled. "You look like you want to kill me," she admitted, squeezing his ass as she pulled him close to her.

"Well, after we're done, I think we'll definitely be dead to the world for a few hours."

She grinned. Then she kissed his earlobe, and thank God his hips were pressed tight to hers. He was harder than hell.

"Tell me what you want to do to me," she whispered, drawing her fingers through his hair, toying with the ends above his collar, brushing against the back of his neck.

Ned took a deep breath. "I think you know exactly what I want to do to you."

"Tell me anyway," she whispered. "Tie me up again?"

Ned shivered, squeezing her ass, his hips moving against hers. "I'd tie you up, tease you with that little vibrator until you were begging me for it, until you were wetter than hell, and then I'd slide into that tight little pussy of yours and fuck you until you were screaming. Then I'd flip you over and find out how that hot ass of yours—" he squeezed her again "—feels around me."

She ran her nails against the back of his neck. "You... you want to do that?"

"Yeah," he admitted, mostly glad that the club was too dark for him to read her expression. She was still loose and swaying in his arms, her hips brushing against the tented front of his pants. It was driving him crazy. "If you want... I mean, I'd take it slow..."

"The rest of it sounded good," she murmured against his ear. "I'll think about it, okay?"

He slipped his hand against her back and under the side of her dress, tracing over her ticklish side, and she gasped and squirmed away from him, laughing. He was holding her hips tight to his, though, and soon she was grinding against his upper thigh, and he sealed his mouth tight to hers, swallowing her moans as he cupped her ass. When the song began to fade into the next her blue eyes were low-lidded and she was panting for breath, her nipples standing through the thin fabric of her dress.

She took a deep breath. "Another drink," she said, smoothing her palms down her thighs, over her skirt.

He stayed close to her—he couldn't get that far away from her, really, not like this—and two drinks later they were back on the floor again. He was going to explode if she didn't stop this, if she kept looking so damn hot in that tiny dress, if she didn't stop looking at him, if she didn't stop touching him.

He had thought their engagement was impossible. Now that he knew how she would feel around him—God, he hadn't had to use any self-control about this in almost a week now, and he just wanted to fucking drag her outside, find some unobserved length of wall or patch of ground—

They were at the edge of the floor. Couples and single men and women were clustered at the walls, and Ned heard himself groan aloud as Nancy's leg slipped between his, gently brushing against him. "Babe," he growled, and nipped at her neck.

"Do you know what I want," she gasped, undulating as he tasted the sweat of her skin.

"What do you want."

"I want to give myself to you," she moaned softly into his ear, and he grasped her hard. He was lightheaded with arousal at her words and he actually traced his fingers up to the fastenings of her dress, at the back of her neck, groaning in frustration because she was still talking. And he had had no fucking idea what blue balls really felt like until now.

"I want you to take me," she breathed, and he found one of the hooks, his fingers trembling as he unfastened it. "I want to make you happy, baby. I want you to tell me what you want, and I'll get down on my knees and suck you off, I'll do what you want, I just want to make you come... and I want to feel you come inside me, with me, it feels so fucking good—"

He found the other hook and her dress was loose in his hands, and for a second they were both still, gazing at each other. Ned licked his lips. If he told her that he wanted to take her outside—

He shook his head. No. No, he wouldn't think about her naked save those strappy heels and her wedding rings—

She waited a beat longer before she reached up behind her neck and refastened the dress. Ned couldn't bring himself to do it.

They both swallowed hard. He pulled her into his arms, his cock brushing against her, and she ran her hand through her hair before she slipped her arms around his shoulders.

"If we were back at our place right now," he murmured into her ear, "I'd have that fucking dress off you and across the room."

She nipped at his neck. "Then take me home."

In the cab she somehow managed to make small talk with the driver. All Ned could hear was his pulse speeding in his ears, the soft rustle her dress made whenever she moved, the quiet sigh of her breath. Their hands were joined and he stroked his thumb down the back of her hand, over and over, wanting to unzip his pants and pull her onto his lap, spread her knees wide and make her ride him until she was screaming. The cab driver would probably enjoy the hell out of it, but Nancy would also probably be uncomfortable as hell—and he wanted her consumed and distracted with arousal, screaming, shaking when she came.

She was giggling as she tried to unlock the door, fumbling with the key, and while she made a halfhearted protest as he unfastened her dress again, she didn't make too much of an effort to fight him off. As soon as the door was closed behind them he unfastened the last hook. She faced him as the dress slid down, leaving her in a tiny white lace thong and those damn strappy sandals. She stepped out of it, her eyes low-lidded. Ned quickly toed his shoes off, stepping out of his pants.

She was waiting for him, just waiting for him to tell her what he wanted.

"I want you to scream my name when you come," he said.

She was nodding, and the heels put her closer to his height, but he still had to lean down to kiss her. She drew his shirt up as they kissed, sighing in pleasure as her bare breasts brushed against his chest, and he let her pull his shirt off before he kissed her hard again. She trembled when his fingertips brushed under the sides of her thong, and when he cupped the join of her thighs, he found the fabric already damp with arousal.

"Mmmm... please," she panted when he pulled back. "Please."

"That's right," he said, and she moaned when he cupped her breasts, rubbing his thumbs back and forth over her firm nipples. "Beg for it, sweetheart. Give yourself to me."

She let her hand drift to the front of his boxers, running the backs of her fingers up and down the underside of his shaft, through the thin cotton. "I'm yours," she whispered. "Always. Let me make you come." She gently slipped her palms between the elastic of his boxers and his bare skin, careful not to catch the tip of his cock as she pushed his underwear down. "I want to taste you, I want to feel you, baby. I'm so wet at just the thought of this." She closed her eyes, her lips parting as he pinched her nipples, and a shudder ran over Ned's abs. She liked when he was rough with her, and he had never trusted himself to do that before...

"I was hard from the second you put on that tiny little dress, just like you wanted," he growled, his hips shifting as she gently stroked his cock. "And you've been a bad girl tonight, too, getting me so fucking worked up out there." She glanced the ball of her thumb over the sensitive head and Ned's hips jerked.

She peered at him through her lashes. "Then I was a bad girl for years," she said breathily, stepping in close to him, and he trailed his hands down to grasp her ass hard. "Getting you harder than hell and saying no when all I wanted was to feel you inside me..." She cupped the back of his neck, tilting her head back so she could nip at his ear. "Feel your big, hot, hard cock inside me."

They were still in the pool of illumination under the entryway light. With a growl he grabbed her and led her to the couch, the living room area shrouded in half-darkness, and shoved her so she was bent over the back, her ass up in the air, her hips on level with his as she stood shaking in her heels. He cupped her between her thighs and she whimpered as he pushed his index finger between her legs, through the thin fabric of her panties. He traced his finger against the slit of her sensitive flesh.

She gasped, trembling, and he knew he'd found her clit. He felt the firm button of it and ran his nail against the tip and she sobbed out a cry, her hips circling to rub against his touch. "Oh my God," she whimpered.

He put his thumb there and guided his fingers down, pushing aside the thin strip of fabric, already soaked with her arousal. She was panting. "Yes, yes," she begged, as he pulled it to the side, then rubbed his cock between her legs. God, she felt so fucking good.

He fitted the tip just inside her, and when he rubbed hard against her clit, she tilted her hips, trying to urge him to move faster. "Baby, please, please," she cried out. "Oh my God I need you, please, please baby, I need to feel you inside me, please—"

He found the right angle and pushed his hips forward in a rapid deep thrust and she choked, and she was so incredibly fucking tight and slick around him, hot and perfect. "More," she cried, "oh please, harder," and Ned pulled back and smacked her hot little ass, pinning her with a rough thrust.

"Yeah," he growled, ramming into her again, again. "Teasing the shit out of me when you were dying for it too. Bad girl."

She shuddered at the apex of his next thrust. "Yes," she cried out. "Yeah, baby, show me, come, punish me—"

He throbbed hard inside her and then pulled out, and she was trembling as he came on the small of her back.

Nancy's eyes were cut when she glanced back at him. "You did not just—"

"Just—hang on," Ned said, panting his breath back, and came back with a paper towel to wipe her off. She turned around, her arms crossed, when he threw it away.

"What the hell?"

"You said to punish you," he said, his voice light. "That was the best punishment I could think of."

Nancy shook her head. "Just for that I should go upstairs and lock the door and play with that vibrator." Then she saw the avid look on his face and sighed, her brow furrowed. "But you'd like that, wouldn't you."

"Yeah," he admitted.

Then he swiftly gathered her into his arms, tossing her over his shoulder, and she writhed as he carried her up the stairs, trying to get herself loose.

"Calm down," he told her. "Unless you're not up for round two."

She laughed. "Look who's talking," she replied.

--

Her husband tossed her onto the bed, and Nancy bounced when she hit. He closed the door behind them and crossed to her, and he was still naked.

And, in all honesty, she was still a little pissed. Her arousal made her feel desperate, and she hated that. And she would be damned if she begged him now.

But she had given herself to him.

She didn't know what that meant, without one of them being tied up, without a beginning and an end. She wondered if he was going to tie her up again... and her clit throbbed in answer.

She was propped up on her elbows when he reached her, her legs bent at the knee and her sandals dangling just above the floor. Ned took her thong in his hands and she began to arch, to give him space to slide it down her legs.

Instead he fucking ripped them off her, his gaze locked to hers, and her eyes widened.

"I've always wanted to do that," he murmured, releasing the ruined scrap of lace.

Nancy's heart began to pound even harder. "What... what else have you always wanted to do," she whispered, then swallowed hard.

He slid off the bed and went to his top drawer, and she was already clenching in anticipation when he brought the bullet over to the bed. He lazily parted her legs, and he didn't even turn it on as he ran the cool smooth head of it down her inner thighs, low across her hips. She squirmed, arching.

"Please don't tease me," she breathed. "Please, not again."

"You teased me for so long," he replied, his voice even. "So fucking long."

She choked a little when he turned the bullet on, when he traced it over the tip of her nipple, watching her face. His legs were between hers, keeping her knees parted, and God, she was fighting to keep herself calm but she was arching, pressing herself up, her mouth falling open. When he moved to her other breast she tipped her head back, opening her legs a little wider.

"Feel good?"

"God, yes," she moaned. She brought her head back up, slowly opening her eyes when he turned the bullet off.

"The safe word," he said. "Do you remember it?"

She nodded, her eyes wide.

"Don't forget it."

She brought her legs up, her heels perched at the edge of the bed, giving him better access to her as he traced the curved head of the bullet around the slick button of her clit. She knew how it would feel, and she swallowed, trembling a little as she let herself slump to the bed.

"You told me to punish you," he said softly.

She closed her eyes. "Do you—want to," she panted out.

"Did you mean it?" He traced the bullet lower, down the slick folds of her flesh, and teased her opening with it. She bucked up off the bed, choking out a cry.

"I want you," she sobbed out, arching. "Please, baby."

"You used to say that," he said, his voice still low, almost dangerous. "Used to beg me. Did you really want it?"

She nodded, and though the bullet wasn't nearly the size of his cock, she still trembled when he traced the tip just inside her. "Yes."

"I wanted to fuck you out on that dance floor." She shifted her hips, flushing, her arousal tingling low over her belly at the thought. "Push your skirt up, rip those damn panties off you and fuck you."

She quivered, panting. "Yes," she begged him, "yes, please don't stop."

Suddenly he tossed the bullet to the side and grasped her wrists, pulling them over her head and holding them there, all his weight pressing her down. He moved both wrists to one hand and she gazed up at him, her heart beating painfully hard. "Can you get loose?" he murmured.

She writhed hard, tugging her wrists. She twisted her hips but he pinned her under him, his hips tight between her legs. Even when she bucked he held on, his eyes dark.

"Every fucking time," he murmured, "you'd tell me to tie you up or you'd climb on top of me and this is all I wanted to do—I wanted to pin you under me and show you exactly what you were asking for, wanted to fuck you until you screamed. Hard, baby. So hard."

She licked her lips. She had already been slick with sweat before she had tried to escape his grip; now she was throbbing, the heat of his groin against the join of her thighs, her spine tight, her thoughts hazy with arousal.

"Show me," she whispered.

He growled, and she heard the vibrator buzzing to itself before he—

"Fuck," she screamed, tightening as soon as he touched it to her clit. "Oh my God—"

She tipped her head back, fighting him, struggling hard against him. He shifted his hips and circled her clit with the vibrator, and when he pressed it just underneath she sobbed in desperation, her hips jerking as she sought the sensation again, and oh fuck, oh fuck, it was too much—

She screamed his name, her eyes rolling back, and her hips were at the edge of the mattress. She tipped her knees back and she still had those damn heels on and she wanted to make him pay for leaving her like this, so close to reaching her climax, but then he arched over her.

She shuddered, her brow knitting, panting hard when he thrust into her, swiftly, brutally. Her legs slid tight up around him and her inner thighs were tight and oh, oh fuck, he felt huge like this, and he was pounding into her, his thrusts wet from her arousal.

"Yeah," he grunted in approval as she moaned under him, her chin tipping up. The rhythm of his cock as he thrust in and out of her was so rapid, so rough, and when she released a low orgasmic groan he worked in her even more swiftly, and then, oh fuck, the vibrator had slid out of place and he found it again, touching it to the tip of her clit—

"Ned," she screamed, her hips jerking against the stroke of the bullet over her clit as she came, clenching hard around his cock. He kept riding her and she arched under him, and oh God, his feet were still on the floor and he was using the leverage to press deeper inside her, harder. When the bullet slipped out of his fingers he used his thumb against her instead, frantically rubbing the slick button of flesh, and she bucked into his thrusts, sobbing out her cries, losing herself utterly as her orgasm crashed over her. She rocked back and forth under him, writhing, and he pulled back for one last thrust before he collapsed to her, letting out a stuttering groan as he finally came, her slick inner flesh still clenching weakly against his cock as his fingers tightened against her wrists.

He released her, then. She was panting hard, her eyes closed, and she felt so achingly sensitive between her thighs. When she was finally able to move again, she slowly brought her hand up, sliding her fingers into his hair. Her lashes moved against his neck.

Ned groaned quietly as he pushed himself up onto his forearms to look down at her. "You okay?"

She nodded. "Yeah," she whispered, and swallowed against her dry throat.

He pushed a strand of hair off her cheek. "Really?"

She traced her fingers down to the back of his neck. "Is that really what you wanted to do to me?"

He looked away for a second. "Yeah," he whispered, then gingerly slipped out of her, and she cringed, whimpering. He moved off her and she sat up, taking her heels off and sighing with relief.

Her thighs were slick. She found the vibrator and took it with her to the bathroom, washing it off before she ran a cloth between her legs. She found a trace of blood there and ran the cloth under the water, rinsing it out before Ned could see it. She walked back to Ned naked, offering him a clean cloth, and crawled under the covers. He joined her a moment later, and when he made no move to embrace her, she slid closer to him, resting her cheek against the hard muscle of his shoulder, her fingertips drifting in meaningless patterns over his chest.

"Thanks," she whispered.

He made a soft noise, then slipped his arm around her.

"I'm glad you waited."

"Baby..." he murmured, and she pushed herself up to look down at his face. She brushed a lock of dark hair from his forehead, then leaned down and gave him a soft slow kiss, her bare breasts pressed to his chest. He tightened his arm around her as her tongue slipped into his mouth, and even after she pulled back, she stayed close to him.

He finally relaxed a little, turning onto his side, and she moved into the circle of his arms, brushing her lips against his chest. "You're okay," he whispered.

She smiled and shivered against him. "That was really fucking hot," she murmured against his skin.

He ran his hand over her hair, tucking a lock behind her ear. "I didn't want to hurt you," he said. "Not... well, maybe a little."

She nuzzled against him. "That's okay," she said softly. "I like... I like you being in control. And if that turns you on..."

He brushed his lips against her temple. "Only if it turns you on," he murmured.

She turned so their lips brushed again. "Baby, when you make me come that hard, you can do pretty much anything you want to get me there."

--

Nancy was sprawled on her belly, on her side of the bed, her face obscured by the tangle of her reddish-gold hair. When he returned from the bathroom she was just pushing her hair out of her face, propping herself up on her elbows, and the sight of her, naked and golden in the morning sunlight, was enough to take Ned's breath away. She fell onto her side, her gaze warm on him, her lips curving up when their eyes met.

He didn't want it to end either. After this, he would be awful at work, thinking of her like this, sprawled in their bed and waiting for him.

But their honeymoon had been a week, and after this, they had the rest of their lives together.

It was her turn to make breakfast, and once he finished his he went to the shower. He had just stepped under the spray when she followed him in. They kept their hands off each other, for the most part, but when they walked back into the bedroom, naked, the sheets still tumbled on the bed, she touched his hand and that was all it took.

He reached for her and she slipped her arms around his neck easily, standing on her tiptoes to meet his kiss as he backed her toward the bed. From the second he had been awake he had been aching for her. He needed to know she was okay, after what had happened the night before.

It felt like he just kept breaking every one of those little rules he'd set. Not the big ones. He would never injure her, not willingly. He would never set out to make her cry. But she hadn't cried off, not even when he was slamming hard into her, into the slick heat of her sex.

He remembered wide, scared blue eyes the first time he had tried to take her panties off. They were light-years past that now.

He laid her down and she caught his hand, pulling him down with her, sighing as he nuzzled her neck, brushing his lips down the line of her throat. She parted her legs as soon as he cupped the smooth join of her thighs. He slipped his finger between as he kissed her, and she moaned into his mouth, her fingers threading through his hair as she cupped the back of his head.

"Mmmm," she sighed when he moved down again. Her hips angled as he very slowly traced the slick folds of her inner flesh, and he was gentle, almost teasingly light as he suckled against her breasts. "Mmmmm, yes," she murmured, arching as he pressed a finger inside her, sliding down, trailing soft kisses over the flat plane of her belly.

She cried out when he just barely flicked the tip of his tongue over her clit, and he chuckled, following with his thumb. "I still can't believe you actually like this," she panted out, and when he ducked down and suckled against her clit, hard, she bucked up against him, sobbing at the pleasure of it. He kept the pressure steady and constant, and when she began to rock back and forth, writhing under him, he thrust three fingers up inside her and rubbed his thumb against her clit and she came, even when he slipped his fingers out and rubbed her clit as he pressed his tongue between her thighs. She was liquid heat, clenching tight around him, and she sounded desperate and sexy as hell.

He pulled back when her hand fell limply off his head. She was flushed and panting, her eyes closed, when he glanced up at her.

"I can't either," he said, belatedly. "When I first heard about it I thought it sounded incredibly..." He shuddered. "Ugh. But I was a lot younger."

She chuckled, pushing her hair out of her face. "Yeah, I was so young when I learned about it myself," she said, casting an impish glance at him.

He shook his head. "But you sound so fucking sexy when I'm doing it," he said, climbing back on top of her, then rolling onto his side as her eyes widened.

"It feels so good," she murmured, and she kissed his neck, his adam's apple, the base of his throat. He rolled onto his back, cupping the back of her head, threading his fingers through her red-gold hair as she made her way down, licking his nipples, kissing his abs. She ran her tongue over the base of his cock, brushing her fingertips over his balls as the tip of her tongue traced up the underside of his shaft, and he shuddered, letting out a soft, pleased moan as she took the head in her mouth.

She bobbed down a few times and his fingers tightened against her scalp, as she gently massaged the base of his cock. He panted, his hips shifting as she swiped her tongue over the very tip of his erection, and when she pulled back he almost cried out in frustration.

"You're so much quieter than me," she said.

He chuckled, but his fingers tightened in her hair and she got the message, ducking down to take him in her mouth again, gently sucking the sensitive flesh. "Well, my hand didn't need verbal encouragement... plus a guy gets used to coming quietly."

She made a soft noise and when she pulled back, a tear had streaked down her cheek. "You okay?" he asked, his eyes widening.

She nodded, swiping at it impatiently. "Gag reflex, went too far," she explained, and he grabbed her upper arms, pulling her so she was sprawled over him.

"I'm so close," he murmured, and she straddled him, pushing herself up so she could look into his face. "Ride me, baby."

Nancy stood on her knees and together they angled him, until he was finally lined up right, just inside her. She paused like that, her fist wrapped around the base of his cock. "I thought you liked it when I was loud," she said, shyly.

"I love it, Nan. It is so fucking hot."

"Can you be loud for me?" she said, peering at him through her lashes, and then, before he could answer, she was swiftly mounting him, sinking until the full length of his cock was buried between her legs.

Ned arched when she cried out, groaning as she grasped his shoulders. "Yeah," he panted, his fingers brushing against her outer thigh as she pulled back, then rocked down to sheathe him inside her again. "Yeah, baby, you feel so fucking good."

Her eyes were low-lidded when she opened them. "Mmmmm, more, baby."

"Touch yourself," he begged, and as she slipped her finger between her legs, jerking as she touched her clit, he groaned. "Oh, baby, so fucking hot, yeah."

Her brows knit, and she let out a low, desperate sob. He let out a soft cry when she clenched around him, loosely clasping her hips, feeling her undulate as she fucked him, and he reached up to tweak her nipple as her breasts bounced. She arched her spine, her hips jerking as she sobbed out her pleasure, and he cried out again when he felt her clench harder around him.

"Yes," she cried out, "yes, oh my God yes—"

"Nan, oh God, Nancy," he cried out as he came, his hips jerking up hard under hers, and when he saw she was still frantically stroking her clit, he grabbed her hips, holding her in place as he rocked hard against her. She finally began to slow, her mouth hanging open, her eyes closed, as she tried to catch her breath. Ned took the hand that had been stroking her clit and kissed the palm, then sucked her finger into his mouth, licking the taste of her arousal off the pad of her finger.

She shuddered against him, around him, and grinned slowly. "That was super hot," she told him, slowly opening her eyes. "When you said my name."

He smiled, cupping her breast gently, watching her sway before she pushed herself off him. She came back with a cloth for him, chuckling. "We'll have to switch to tissues soon," she told him. "I think we've gone through all the washcloths."

"Totally worth it," he said, slipping his arm around her when she laid back down beside him. She cuddled up against his side, letting out a soft, contented sigh.

"I liked that," she murmured. "I liked hearing you. Knowing you liked what I was doing."

"Oh, baby," Ned replied, putting his other arm around her, "I know you said you like it when I'm in charge but it is so fucking hot to see you riding me. And if it makes you feel good and doesn't result in a trip to the emergency room, I'm probably on board."

She chuckled. "Same here," she murmured, idly dragging her nails lightly over his belly.

Nancy was quiet for a long moment before she whispered, "I never thought I could ever be this happy."

Ned opened his eyes and tilted his head, trying to see her face. "I didn't think you were unhappy," he murmured.

She rolled onto her stomach, her body pressed to his side, and lifted her head, and he felt a rush of joy and desire at just seeing her face. "I wasn't," she replied, shivering a little as he traced the line of her spine. "Just... for a while I was afraid that we'd never get here. That I'd fucked up too many times, that you'd come to your senses."

Ned shook his head. "I came into this with my eyes wide open," he said softly. "We both did. I think."

She gave him a slow smile, then looked away. "I held myself back," she whispered. "A little part of me I wouldn't let you touch, so I wouldn't lose my mind if I lost you... but you've seen all of me now..."

"Definitely," he said with a smile, and she swiped at him, smiling in return. "It's scary as hell, though. But now that I've found you, now that you're mine... Nan, there is no way I will ever let you go. You're everything."

She pulled herself up to kiss him softly. "No more secrets," she whispered, and they both shivered. "Not anymore."

He stroked her hair. "Not anymore," he agreed. "Baby..."

He shook his head, unable to speak. She searched his gaze, her fingertips stroking his cheek, and kissed him again.

"I never thought anyone would love me this much," she said, and her eyes were gleaming. "I never thought I could love anyone as much as I love you. Even after everything..."

He kissed her softly. "It's done," he whispered. "And I am the luckiest guy on earth because I get to come home to you every night."

She touched her forehead to his. "And I get to come home to the most amazing, charming, handsome, brilliant—and, quite possibly, most well-hung—guy I've ever met."

"Possibly?" Ned said, in mock outrage.

She grinned when she met his eyes, and he dashed a tear from her lower lashes. "Well, you definitely have the biggest cock I've ever seen in person," she teased him. "And you're the only guy I've ever seen naked, too."

"And you didn't run screaming," he said, shaking his head with wonder.

"Well," she whispered, leaning down to press her lips to his, "I had an excellent teacher."