One last paper, and Nancy would be halfway done with college.
The keys to her prison lay silent, where they had fallen after being fed through her printer; nine double-spaced and carefully considered sheets of babble she had finally tired of at precisely 1:53 that morning. The countless revisions, tweakings of adjective and metaphor, and last minute half remembered quotes had ended in a dreamless but slightly anxious sleep.
Later that day Ned would be back in Mapleton, and she in River Heights.
The day was already bright with dry heat when she pulled back the blinds. A leisurely shower, one last load of possessions out to the Mustang, a careful once-over and she turned in her key. Sleepy-eyed students roamed the halls as Nancy found her professor's door closed and quiet, a manila folder pinned to the door already bulging with papers. She added hers and felt a glorious weight lift from her chest.
She put the top down and raked back her hair. Mint green tank top, stonewashed cutoffs, and three months of freedom with the guy she loved. The drive stretched out before her and she felt no sense of impatience. The interstate was crowded with cars; George and Bess would be joining them later.
The only thing she wondered was whether Hannah would let them house-sit soon.
The stereo was so loud that she almost didn't even hear her cell phone ring. She steered with her knees as she simultaneously turned down the music and answered the call.
The waiting list for the program was so long that she had never actually expected to get in. She had applied back at the beginning of the school year for a semester in the most prestigious journalism exchange program for undergraduates that the nation had to offer, and was hoping for a plum spot in Washington, maybe, not too far away, and she could hang out with Teresa while she was there. She hadn't called in a single favor or tried to sway her appointment in any way. And, after she had not heard from them, she had put the possibility out of her mind. Besides, Ned would be much closer if she stayed at Wilder.
The bubbly, slightly accented voice on the other end of the phone informed her that she had been accepted. But not to Washington; not to University of Chicago, not to Columbia. To a university in Madrid.
Ahh, yes. She had put proficiency in conversational Spanish on her application.
"The entire semester?" she asked, excited and frightened at the same time.
Yes, the entire semester. The program would arrange her deferred return to Wilder in January; she could choose to live in a house with the other participants or the program would cover her living on-campus. Passport—
"My passport's up to date, there shouldn't be a problem with that."
Vaccinations, an orientation course next month, a small matter of some paperwork that needed to be filled out. To her home address, yes?
Nancy ended the call just as she turned onto her street. On autopilot she pulled into the garage, noticed mechanically that her father's car was not home but Iris's was. She left the top down, closed the door, and walked through their backyard to the makeshift doorway in the fence between.
"You nearly scared me to death."
Nancy was sitting on the back patio, her cell phone off and silent on the table next to her. A sweating glass of iced water stood near it. Her long, tanned legs were crossed and propped up on another chair, and her sunglasses were pushed back onto her hair. She started and then glanced over her shoulder, shooting an apologetic smile at Hannah.
"I'm sorry. I thought you knew I was coming back today."
"Yeah, but I didn't know you would sneak in while I was grocery shopping. Give me a hand?"
Nancy picked up her water glass but left her cell phone on the table as she followed Hannah back into the air conditioned comfort of the house, through the sliding glass doors. "I needed somewhere to think, and Iris is home."
"What's on your mind?"
Nancy didn't answer at once, as she started unloading the bags. "All my favorite things," she said, smiling as she looked through Hannah's purchases.
"Of course." Hannah folded a paper bag, smoothed its wrinkles, and put it away. "Is it something about Ned?"
"Only indirectly." Nancy sighed and put away a gallon of ice cream. "The journalism program I applied to forever ago called me today. And next semester…"
"…they want me to go to training camp," Ned said. "A little bit this summer, after they sign me. They've shown me the contract."
Miles away from where Hannah was discussing the offer with Nancy, on the first real day of summer, Ned was sitting in his kitchen with his parents. Edith leaned forward.
"Are they talking about you leaving school?"
"For a while, but not permanently," he said. "From what I understand I'd be signed for a year, with the option to extend the contract based on my performance. The rep says that's normal, given that I'm still in college."
James nodded. "Do you have a copy of it?"
Ned dug in his backpack for a moment, then produced it. "I'm going over to see Nancy tonight, I thought maybe I'd show it to Mr. Drew and see what he thought of it."
Edith glanced at it, then back at her son. "Are you actually thinking about doing this?"
Ned was watching his father's face, and when James reached a particular paragraph, his eyebrows shot up. "He'd be a fool not to," James replied. "With what they're offering, he and Nancy could be set for life."
Edith looked back and forth between her husband and son, disquiet in her eyes. "So what, are you saying you could just do this for a year, trade a year of your life for…"
James folded back the contract to show her the number. "That much."
Edith leaned back in her chair.
The sun was sinking below the horizon. Nancy heard the roar of the Camaro before she actually saw Bess, her cousin George in the passenger seat of the bright yellow car, pull into the parking lot. Bess let out a yell as she climbed out. "Glorious glorious summer!" she said, reaching out to give Nancy a hug.
"Glorious guys, more like it," George said, slamming her door. "That's all you could talk about on the way here."
Bess might not even have heard the jibe. She stared at Nancy. "You look white as a sheet," Bess said. "Did a go-kart go off the track or something?"
Nancy forced a smile onto her face. "No, nothing like that," she said. "I guess it just hasn't sunk in yet that we're actually free for a little while. Ned's inside," she said, but didn't move toward the door.
"Did you two have a fight?"
Her answering laugh rang equally false. "No, no," she said.
The air conditioning washed over them, the games mobbed by prepubescents under the flashing lights. Ned looked as troubled and preoccupied as Nancy, but when they greeted each other it was with no mention.
"I've bought us tickets," he said, extending a handful of sturdy cardboard. The girls each took one, then headed out to stand in line at the go-kart track.
Bess wrinkled her nose at the smell of it, after George had shot her a glance warning against any more prying. "It's so loud," she said, as a string of roaring vehicles passed. "What should we do after this?" she called over the noise.
Nancy and Ned each started guiltily out of whatever they were thinking. They exchanged glances. "There's laser tag inside," Ned said with a shrug.
"Haven't played that in a while, it could be fun," George said.
"Only because you kill me off immediately," Bess protested.
"We can decide after," Nancy said as the line started moving.
"Well, he's gotten his pro offer," Carson said as he climbed into bed that night.
Iris patted her face dry, then slipped out of her bathrobe and under the sheet. "What did you think of the contract? What are you going to tell him tomorrow?"
Carson chuckled. "The contract is well written and straightforward. And I'll tell him that. If he wants to do this, there are no loopholes, other than the obvious ones." He sighed. "But I know he hasn't told Nan yet."
Flanders farm by firefly. Nancy couldn't drag her gaze from anything, once it settled there, and the field was no exception. The blackened remains of the barn stood as a silent testament to Brenda Carlton's shortsightedness. Ned had parked a discreet distance from the other couple, and the rustling of the crickets was occasionally joined by the squeal of the other car's suspension.
Nancy wanted to go home and draw herself a bath and sit staring at something else, something helpful, until her mind would stop whirling with possibilities and recriminations.
Four months an ocean apart from him.
"You look like you're a million miles away," Ned said gently, and Nancy turned to look at him. He was dressed casually, one arm draped across the door, the breeze ruffling their hair.
She smiled at him apologetically. "Yeah," she agreed.
"It's the first day of summer, Nan." He opened his arms to the stars above them. "We're at Flanders farm. No cases in sight."
She clambered over the front seats and into the back, then patted the seat next to her, and he joined her. The other car's doors opened, and the couple inside climbed out and sprawled on the hood of the car, staring up into the pinpricked darkness.
Ned tucked a strand of her hair back. "You all right?"
She half-smiled and shook her head. "Not really. You?"
He shrugged. "I don't know yet," he said.
"Want to talk about it?"
He shook his head.
"Me either," she admitted, stretching her arms and leaning back in the seat. "For right now I just want to look at you."
"Just keep your eyes open," he advised, leaning over to kiss her.
Nancy called her father the next morning, after Iris had left the house in a flutter of satin for a shopping trip and lunch with her son. Hannah was out again, doing God-knew-what, now that her life did not revolve around the perfect soufflé for the Drews' dinner, and Ned had begged off any engagements until that evening.
"I'm sure you wouldn't be interested in eating lunch with your only child," Nancy said, a small smile coloring her voice, her legs curled beneath her on the couch.
Carson laughed. "You cooking?"
Nancy looked down at her bathrobe, still tied about her waist, and then glanced at the gleaming kitchen. The most strenuous thing she had watched Iris make in there was a smoothie. But Hannah wasn't there, Hannah wouldn't be home, and dread rose up in Nancy at the thought of making a list, going to the grocery store, ferreting out pots and pans and worse yet, lids…
"Let's go out."
"Well…" Nancy heard him shuffle a few papers. "I can do that. I have an appointment at 11:30 but I don't expect it to take too long. We'll take off at 12?"
"All right, I'll drop by the office for you."
His pause was nearly imperceptible. "That's fine. See you then."
Nancy hung up the phone thoughtfully. After her shower she brought in the last few things from her car, put her schoolnotes into the tomb of indefinite storage, and changed into a light yellow t-shirt with stonewashed jeans.
Her line rang, and she checked the caller ID. "Didn't expect you to be awake at this hour," she answered the phone.
"Haven't you seen how beautiful it is today?" Bess replied. "Marcy Evans is having a party tonight, and I wanted to get some last-minute tanning in. You coming?"
"Tanning or party?" Nancy asked, laughing.
"Both. Either. George is filling in as a lifeguard this afternoon at the pool, and I was going to meet her down there after lunch. Hopefully the pool won't be crammed with too many middle schoolers."
"They're not out yet," Nancy answered absently. "That's fine. I'll call you after lunch."
After she hung up with Bess she tried Ned's cell, but his voicemail picked up. She left him a message about the party and climbed into her Mustang, the top still down, the breeze refreshing under the unrelenting noon sun.
Carson Drew's office was in downtown River Heights, and Nancy knew the way there like the back of her hand. On the way there she wondered what he would say when she told him.
What shocked her was her feeling that the decision had already been made. Hannah had listened to Nancy's description of the program, how good it would be for her, the experience she would gain, the appeal to future employers; and her fear that spending four months overseas would test her relationship with Ned in ways that she wasn't sure it could handle.
"I've never spent that much time away from him," she had told Hannah, and it was true; during their relationship, while they had been together, the most time she could remember was a six week stretch bookended by school breaks and filled with term papers. Not counting the summers, the summers in the Hamptons and touring Europe with Bess and George. During which she had met Sasha and Mick, respectively.
But during those times she had not owned the glowing talisman of the Nickerson heirloom engagement ring.
How would she do this? How would she leave him, after the time they had spent apart, after all their bemoaning the space between them, stretch it to its breaking point, go four months with nothing but his tenuous voice over transatlantic phone lines and emails, assuming the place even had internet access.
She pulled behind the building, beside her father's car, and parked, then removed her keys from the ignition and leaned against the steering wheel. Oh God. His face when she told him. The expression he had worn a thousand times, upon hearing that she suddenly inexplicably desperately needed to help someone, instead of going with him to his parents' cabin or spending a nice camping trip with him or going out to dinner with him or…
She sipped in a breath and stepped out of the car, put the top up, locked it securely. Her toenails gleamed, a swirling shade of pink just north of bubblegum, as she waited for the elevator in the lobby. Her father's secretary smiled at her as she entered.
"He'll be out in just a second, Nancy."
"Thanks." Nancy sat down, crossed her legs, and hoped he would keep an eye on the time. The hum of voices carried just slightly through the door, both masculine. She glanced at her watch, then thought about calling Ned again in the few minutes she had left.
"Thanks a lot, Mr. Drew."
Nancy's head didn't move but her eyes widened by degrees, and she almost didn't trust herself to turn her head. It's a free country, she thought, but that didn't abate the sudden anger she felt rising in her chest.
Ned stopped, so still, one foot out of Carson's office. Then he smiled, seemingly oblivious to the flush rising in Nancy's cheeks.
"Fancy meeting you here," he said, stepping forward. Her eyes caught the movement as his hand folded the sheaf of papers he was carrying away from her gaze. "I'd love to take you out to lunch, but…"
"Too late," Carson said, closing his office door behind the two of them. "We'll see you for dinner sometime this week?"
"Sure, sure," Ned said easily. "I'll see you later, Nan, okay?"
She didn't trust herself to speak, only dipped her head in silent acknowledgement before he left. Carson's incidental conversation with his secretary was lost in the rush of blood through her eardrums.
Her head jerked up. "What?"
"Where to for lunch?"
With an effort she kept silent until they were out of his secretary's earshot. When they climbed into his car, she turned to him, feeling like it took all the strength she had to keep her molecules from flying apart with rage.
"Was that a prenup?"
The words exploded from her lips, over the oldies station humming softly from the radio. Carson backed carefully out of his parking space and put the car in drive.
"You know I can't discuss a client with you."
"Then it was about me."
"Do you want a prenup? It would be pretty easy to draw one up."
Nancy shook her head and brought a hand up to her mouth, her teeth closing compulsively over her thumbnail. "I'm your client," she said. "You can't take his case if it would interfere with my interests. It has to be something about me but not detrimental to me…"
The car eased to a stop at a red light, and Carson turned to his daughter. "It's not for me to tell you. And, Nan, it might be nothing. I'm sorry."
He drove to her favorite restaurant, and she had to smile. After the waiter arrived with their drinks, she explained the offer she had received, the chance to study abroad for a semester.
"What do you think I should do?" she asked.
Carson took a sip of his water. "It sounds like a wonderful trip," he said. "Maybe Iris and I can find an excuse to come over and visit while you're there."
Nancy tilted her head. "It's four months," she said.
"Have you and Ned talked about it?"
"No," she admitted. "I've told you and Hannah. Haven't even told Bess and George yet."
Carson shrugged. "If it turns out that this semester makes you have to attend Wilder for another half a year, that's fine. I have no problem with that."
Nancy shook her head. "That's not it. I have enough credit-hours accumulated that I'll graduate on time."
Carson smiled broadly. "I won't know what to do on the weekends, without you sweeping into the house like a whirlwind, eating every snack food we have in the house, and vanishing at the bare mention of a party."
"Oh, it hasn't been like that."
"Maybe the three of us can go do something over Christmas."
Nancy nodded. "Maybe."
Ned texted her a reply when she was on her way to the pool, and she read it apprehensively. He would be at the party. She put her phone back in her purse and pressed down the gas pedal.
Bess was at the snack bar when Nancy stepped out of the changing room. George waved, then blew her whistle at a sandy-haired boy. "Hey! No horseplay!"
"Please, Nan, go with me to the mall after this," Bess begged. "I think George might go in what she has on."
Nancy took in George's black one-piece and raised an eyebrow. "Is this a pool party?"
"No, but she doesn't seem to care," Bess said, taking Nancy's arm and leading her to a lounge chair. She swept off her spare towel and sunscreen so Nancy could take a seat. "Have you had lunch? I've had a salad and I'm famished."
Nancy smiled. "Maybe we could stop by the food court."
"Thank God." Bess slipped her sunglasses back on and stretched out her legs. Nancy did the same and noticed Bess's jealous glance at her.
"Remember that program I applied to?"
George switched with another lifeguard for a break right in the middle of Nancy's explanation, so she told it hastily again, then looked back and forth between the cousins. Bess's long, straw-blond hair was raked back, and she was wearing a green polka-dotted bikini, while her cousin wore a sensible ballcap and a whistle around her neck. Their responses were the same, however; an exchanged look and an apprehensive gaze back at Nancy.
"The first day of summer and you tell me this," Bess moaned. "When?"
"Really early September, I think. I'll be coming back before Christmas."
"And how has Ned taken it?" George asked.
"I haven't told him yet," Nancy replied. "But he was at my dad's office this morning. He walked out like there was nothing wrong, and he hasn't bothered to explain himself."
"Maybe he's…" Bess shrugged lamely. "I can't think of any excuses. Is he out of circulation?"
"I left him a voicemail and he texted me back. He'll be at the party tonight."
"So are you going to tell him at the party?"
"That seems so…" Nancy sighed and ran a hand over her hair. "Probably not. I'm supposed to have dinner with his parents tonight, though, so maybe then."
"Want to maybe play some cards?"
"Nancy and I are going to a party after this."
"You two are too old for humoring the grownups, anyway."
Edith said the words easily enough, but her manner was affected. She kept glancing between her son and husband, the expression around her eyes wary. Nancy felt that if she could just talk to Edith for two seconds alone, maybe Edith would stop shooting glances Nancy was sure were fraught with meaning in her direction.
Nancy had barely had enough time to exchange meaningful conversation with Ned in the past day, much less with his family. She felt sick inside when she remembered how easily she and her father had discussed her leaving, but here, the breeze blowing in through the open windows over their dinner, the pleasant chatter between her fiancé and future in-laws, there were no words. Nothing could have made her speak the words.
James was telling a joke and Nancy had to bite back a sudden gasp of laughter rising from her throat, at the way his expression reminded her of the one he had worn during Ned's Freudian pregnancy slip. Edith's eyes changed again.
And despite her feeling that now was not the time, she suddenly wanted to tell Edith everything. Tell her that she might be leaving her son behind again, but this time it wouldn't be for so long, for the same selfish reasons.
Mike's impassioned plea for Ned's happiness above her own.
Ned's fingers were tangled around hers under the spotlit brilliance of the porch light, the noise of the crickets overloud as they left his parents' house for the party. Nancy had changed into a thin t-shirt and denim miniskirt after an afternoon of sunbathing, and Ned was wearing a screenprinted shirt for some obscure band they had seen in concert together and a pair of faded jeans. She thought he looked incredibly sexy, and leaned up to give him a kiss.
While she was still close enough to hear his breath she murmured, "Why were you at Dad's office today?"
"My mom's watching at the door, let's continue this in the car," he returned, and pressed his lips against her cheek briefly.
His eyes were warm and open as she looked into them from the driver's side seat of her Mustang. Her questions seemed unimportant under his gaze.
"I'll tell you after the party."
And I'll tell you, she replied silently as she started her car.
"You look nice."
"Thanks," George replied to Ned, twirling around so her dress caught the dim lighting. She was wearing a short black dress covered in silver, its hem just above her knees, the neckline swooping modestly low for George's standards.
"I feel downright mousy next to her," Bess admitted, joining their group. She took a sip from her plastic tumbler. "She looks fantastic and here I am in jeans."
Nancy hooked her arm through Bess's. "Okay, you said there was a good reason for us to be here tonight?"
Bess brightened. "Marcy's brother's band," she replied. "They're out in the gazebo."
"The gazebo?" Ned raised a skeptical eyebrow.
"Better sound, or something." Bess shrugged.
In the sunken living room, for those who did not prefer their music live, a crowd was packed onto the floor dancing in front of the standing speakers. Nancy and Ned joined it.
Some interminable time later they finished a dance, so close together that Nancy could feel his quickened heartbeat, and when Ned pulled back from her Nancy felt her worry subside, her heart in her eyes. Everything would be all right. They had the entire summer ahead of them. Four months apart wasn't the end of the world, not when they had been apart longer.
"Let's talk," Ned said, and took her hand.
The shadowed rooms were occupied by preoccupied bodies, so in the end they settled on the car. Despite the warmth of the interior, Ned made no move to roll down the windows. Nancy looked across at him, the sounds of the party dwindling from her hearing, his hand lightly resting on hers. He looked ill at ease, his gaze darting around, resting on anything but her.
"Ned, you're acting like there's another girl," she said, stifling a laugh.
His eyes met hers with such intensity that she couldn't draw her breath for a moment. He studied her, and only the ghost of a smile crossed his lips.
"They want me to go pro," he said.
The silence after those words trembled in the still air of the car. Nancy fought the sudden urge to pull her hand away from his. She felt like she couldn't breathe.
He explained in short, concise sentences. The agents, the offer, the time he would be taking off if he chose to do it, the contract he had shown to her father, the compensation, the options. All the while, his fingers, a little damp against hers, trembling slightly, but still in her grasp.
By the end of his recitation she was gazing out through the windshield. No, no, she thought. It's not supposed to be this way. He's not supposed to be leaving me.
"I won't see you," she said, her voice small.
He looked down, and the hurt in his voice was terrible. "Not if you don't want to."
She kept her eyes on him, daring him to look at her. "How can I?" she asked.
"It's not like I'm going to be across the country all the time," he said. Then something in his voice was hard. "Besides, it's not like I didn't—"
Her anger broke then. He was right. He had followed her everywhere, any case, any means, had been there to be her lookout, her support, her accomplice.
She would have smiled, but she couldn't find it in her. "They want me to go to Spain," she said.
"Fall semester. For a journalism program."
"Have you told them yes?"
"Have you?" she countered.
He shook his head. "I took the contract to your dad to see if it was legit," he said. "I didn't want to bring it to you and find out I'd signed the next five years of my life away on a product endorsement for Viagra."
She laughed then, and he did too, and it helped a little with the falling feeling in her stomach. "So that's why you were in dad's office."
He nodded. "No prenup, no… whatever."
"We haven't even talked about that," she said quietly. "Dad said he'd draw one up if I wanted."
"Do you want?" he asked. "Because if I do sign that contract, you will be engaged to a suddenly much wealthier fiancé."
She shook her head, slowly. "Start the car," she said.
Nancy kept a key to their promised house on her keychain, and she let them in, her hand in his, led them up the stairs to the blue bedroom. Even though they were alone, she closed the door, and just stood there, facing him, eyes closed, the stillness quivering around her.
Her hand released his and she opened her eyes. "Do you want this?"
He studied her carefully for a moment. "Do you want to go to Spain and do this program?"
She walked over to the bed and sat down. "I didn't want to do it while I thought I was leaving you here," she said. "I thought maybe it would be too much. But I never imagined this. I never thought you'd be telling me this tonight. It feels like you're leaving." She looked up into his eyes, and hers were swimming with tears.
"I'm not," he said, and sighed. "Not that way."
She made a frustrated noise and reached up to brush away the tears that had spilled over onto her cheeks. "You could get hurt," she said.
He reached over and took her chin into his hands, forcing her eyes to meet his. "This isn't about what ifs," he said quietly. "This is about whether you are okay with me doing this. And… you're going to be on the other side of the ocean. The other side of the world."
"Would you ask me to stay?"
He shook his head slowly. "I wouldn't ask you to stay when I'm thinking about leaving."
After a long silence, during which they did not look at each other, Nancy stood up and positioned herself between his bent knees, tugged his shirt off. He looked up at her from the bed, unable to speak, and she took her own shirt off, then crawled underneath the covers. He joined her, and his embrace was strong enough to crush.
"Tell me we'll make it through this," she said softly.
"You're not leaving me," she said, and wiped her cheek.
He rested his forehead on the crown of her head. "I'm not leaving you. I would never leave you."
She drew a choked breath, her voice wavering. "What will we do when I'm back?"
He stroked his hand over her hair. "We will have a great Christmas," he said. "I'll be in Chicago except when I'm gone for games. We'll have time to see each other."
"Would you do this forever?"
"You mean quit school?" He shook his head. "I'm not going to quit school. But, Nan, I haven't shown it to you. We'll be set. The money they're giving me, the product endorsements…"
She wiped her face again. "Ned, I'd be happy with you even if we were in some tiny apartment in Emersonville, eating ramen noodles."
He laughed. "We'd still have the option," he said. "But we'd have other ones too."
She jolted awake in the blue shadow of the cold room, not remembering falling asleep. She remembered trying to commit his heartbeat to memory. She remembered a sudden impassioned makeout session, struggling out of her skirt, but the unchallenged final layer still remained. Pinstriped boxers. Her flesh still felt tender from the sun, and the flush of sudden knowledge that whatever did happen before the year ended, their relationship would not be the same. Her bra strap slipped down on her shoulder, his fingers curled around the elastic of her string bikini, and she looked down at him for a long moment, willing herself not to cry.
What if he gets drafted, she thought, and smiled vaguely. She'd always imagined war, not some astroturf destination reached via private jets and limousines. Watching him carefully, she slipped back beneath the blankets, under his arm, pressed her face against his chest. Slow rise and fall, the warmth of the sheets around them, his skin, and she wished the sun would reverse its course, prevent her father's questions about where she had spent the night.
In my room, Daddy.
He moved, and cooler air interposed between them before he sighed and nestled back into her embrace again. She reached up just as his eyes opened, and stroked his hair, softly, his arms tightening around her.
"Spain," he said, and she nodded. "When did you apply?"
"Before you came back," she said softly.
"For just Spain?"
She shook her head. "They have local programs. I thought I'd get into one of those. Spain is a great opportunity, though. It would look great on my resume."
"You sound like you're parroting back their brochure."
"You can't stay at Emerson and still sign the contract?"
He shook his head. "I can't defer it," he replied, brushing her hair back. "I can do this now and have experience and maybe a better deal once I get out of school. Or no deal. Or I might not sign again." He quirked a smile. "Sign away a year of my life to the devil and see what it affords me."
"Don't say it like that," she said.
He leaned forward and pressed his lips against her temple. "Give me a good reason and I won't sign."
She closed her eyes. "What did Dad say about it?"
"It's straightforward. It's everything it seems to be. No loopholes, no hidden surprises or clauses. A year with the option."
"I wish you could go to Spain with me."
"I wish I could too, baby."
"Me not wanting you to do this isn't good enough reason?"
He pulled back, and she met his eyes. "Why wouldn't you?" he asked.
She faltered, and looked away. "The lifestyle," she said. "National exposure and girls and wild parties and you could get drafted and you could find someone else and—"
"And gifted journalism students and cute Spanish guys and you flitting about on the Continent, writing articles, going to work for a newspaper over there, and you could find someone else—"
She shook her head. "I won't go to work for a newspaper over there."
"Why not?" Ned asked. "Why wouldn't you become a correspondent, write for the Times or National Geographic, surround yourself with fascinating successful people. Anyone with half a brain can do this, anyone with half a brain can go pro, run around on a field."
"That's not true," she said. "Ned, you're talented. Everyone who sees you play knows it. It takes more than a brain stem with well-developed legs and a pair of arms to do what you do. And if this is what you want to do—"
"I want to be with you!" he said, and he was trembling. "And I don't want to leave, but I thought you would understand. I thought you would support me on this."
"You can't promise me that there won't be dozens of beautiful girls there."
"You can't promise me, either," he said. "I'm not going to fall for anyone else, Nan."
She looked away.
"That's what you're afraid of, deep down," he said. "How could you think that I would be so distracted by all this that I would just forget about you? Do you think that's what will happen when you go to Spain?"
"You say it like I've already decided to go," she said.
"You'd better," he replied. "Do you think I wouldn't go to the ends of the earth to be with you?"
"Not if you're signed to a pro contract," she replied. "Not if you are bound to some strip of land, some franchise."
He moved away from her then, stopped touching her, and that was when she felt the first real thread of fear break through the denial.
Her heart had been racing, but her father hadn't been in the armchair, disapproving expression on his face. The house was utterly quiet.
She stood at the doorway of her room and let her eyes wander over the furniture without seeing any of it. The canopy, the pale yellow bedspread, the CD collection, the dresser. The picture of Ned on the bedside table.
She stepped out of her shoes and skirt, put the picture face-down on the table, and slid underneath the covers, but couldn't sleep. Not for the rest of that day; her cell phone was off, her ringer muted. She stripped off her clothes around twilight and stood under the shower head, letting the water provide the release of tears.
Iris knocked on the door, later. Nancy was sitting on her bed, wrapped in a bath sheet, her hair still damp, unable to summon up the energy to find anything to put on. Her gaze, once centered, tended to remain, and right now it was on the front left foot of a small glassed cabinet.
Iris opened the door. "Ned's downstairs," she said. "Want me to tell him it'll be a few minutes?"
Nancy shook her head. "No," she said. "I'm off somewhere and you don't know when I'll be back."
"Your car's still here."
"Bess came by for me."
"Bess called earlier," Iris said. "I thought you weren't here."
Nancy shrugged. "Thanks," she said.
Iris reached over for Nancy's hand, tilted it so the diamond gleamed. "Just checking," she said.
The door closed behind Iris, and Nancy looked down at the ring, absently. She took it off and held it between her fingers.
Maybe we should break—
Something inside her screamed then, with more energy than she had had all day. She dropped the ring, dropped the towel on the floor, and huddled back under the covers, watching the shadows lengthen.
His car was parked outside the insurance company.
She gazed at it, that same stillness in her eyes. Odd, that he would be working, with a pro deal waiting in the wings. Her inbox was jammed with unreturned messages, from him, from Bess, from George. She couldn't find words. Ringless fingers.
Six months ago, eloping with him had seemed like a glorious dream. Now she couldn't even wear his ring, couldn't put it back on her finger. He would have to do that. He would have to choose to do that.
He'd come by every night that week, to hear the same patently false excuse. Iris had reported that he'd said no, Nancy was not with Bess, he had called Bess and Bess had wanted to know what was going on as well. Iris had simply shrugged, and said she would pass it on.
"Nancy, tell me what's wrong," Iris had said.
Nancy shook her head. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'll take care of it."
Carson knew, without asking. Carson waited. But Nancy didn't come to him, didn't come to anyone. She left the house sometimes, and he didn't know where she went, all he knew was that she didn't go to Ned, didn't call Ned, didn't want to talk to him when he came to their door, a little less composed every night. He'd sent roses, but she wouldn't let them pass her threshold.
The caged look faded a little when Nancy saw that Hannah had been invited over for dinner. The four of them ate, three of them chatting, with Nancy pushing her plate away, saying it had been excellent but she wasn't hungry, the same as she'd said every night.
Nancy waited, hands clasped, the ring on top of the picture beside her bed, both facing away from her. After a few minutes Hannah's gentle knock sounded at the door, and she peered inside.
"I heard," Hannah said, and waited.
And Nancy opened her arms, tears in her eyes.
The floodgates burst and Nancy poured it all into Hannah's embrace, her face wet and red, voice clogged with tears. That he would forget, that he already had, that he would go across the country, that he would marry someone else, that he would discover that with his own notoriety that he didn't need hers, didn't need to put up with the obligations on her time and attention that took away from her devotion to their relationship. That there were people out there, girls, who could and would adore him, fawn over him, adjust their lives, their every breath, to merging with his, being with him.
How could he not see? How could he not understand it, it was so clear to her.
"He's not just doing this for him," Hannah said, seriously. "He's doing this for you too."
Maybe they should take a breather. Maybe that's what they needed, some perspective on the whole thing. They had been talking about marriage so long, and then, it was hard to think about it, they would be apart for four months. That was how cheating began. She knew it. She remembered. Little indiscretions the other would never know about. A casual meaningless flirtation, an accepted but certainly not enjoyed kiss by moonlight. Oh yes, she knew the myriad ways it could happen, it could be justified. Especially with him surrounded by guys who had no problems paying for sex or drugs or pretty much anything else.
"I won't even give him that for free," she said. "We haven't, I won't, I told him I won't, and we'll be apart, and we were apart before and he was with someone else, and—"
"But you weren't engaged then," Hannah said. Even though something in her eyes had shifted.
"He doesn't trust me."
She didn't trust herself.
Hannah was long gone.
Nancy wanted the oblivion of sleep. And for a while, with disbelief she could not quite suspend, she dreamt that Ned decided to stay with her. He wanted her. He wanted to go to Spain with her, and be by her side, and how could he have ever doubted her…
She woke and the happiness faded immediately upon her consciousness of breath. She was shocked by how much she had wanted it to be true. The alarm clock beside her bed winked off another minute, and she turned her head to look at it.
Something was wrong.
She stayed frozen there, cold and alert. A shadow unfolded itself, resolved, and her eyes flicked to the closed door, gauging the distance.
"How did you get in here?" she asked.
"I know where you keep the spare key."
She tugged a pillow behind her back and turned on the bedside lamp. Her gaze was steady, up at him; he looked different. Something in his eyes she couldn't read, some distance.
Then he saw the ring by her bedside, and his jaw tightened. "There's a press conference in the morning," he said, still staring at it. "I came here to ask if you'd go with me. Stand with me."
She looked at the ring, then back at him.
"Are you breaking up with me? Is this what this past week has been?"
She drew her knees up to her chest, curved her arms around them. "No," she said. "But maybe I should."
She studied his features, warm trembling calm over the fear. "You're going to be gone. You don't trust me. And after this year we could be farther apart than ever. I don't know. I don't know how it will be. I don't want to let you go, I don't want to leave you behind, but if I do, maybe it's better that we do this with no strings attached and no claim on each other."
"You don't want to feel guilty when you find someone else."
She looked away, smiling faintly, in spite of her feelings. "Maybe I could accuse you of the same."
He sat down at the foot of her bed, rubbed his palms over his face. "I won't give you a clear conscience for this."
"What's it worth, Ned? How much would it mean to you, would you rather risk that I would hurt you?"
He was quiet for a minute. "What do you want me to say?"
"Tell me the truth."
He looked down, at the phone clenched in his hand, and let it fall to the comforter. "The rep is waiting," he said. "I have to call him and tell him yes or no. Whether I will be there in the morning or not. He can't wait any longer. All you have to do right now is shake your head and say you won't go with me, and I will call him and tell him no. I'll tell him it's more important to me to stay with my fiancée and my schoolwork, that maybe I'll see him again in a year, but for now…"
She met his eyes. "I'll go with you."
At the surprise in his eyes, she had to look away. "I signed yesterday," she said, her voice shaking. "I'm going to Spain."
"What does this mean," he asked, after. After he had called and she had heard audible cheering on the other end of the line.
"It means you'll be on the moon," she said, seriously. "That we have three months before, to pack, and prepare, and plan, for you to start believing me when I tell you that there will be no one else, and for me to believe you won't let this go to your head."
He picked up the ring. "Why did you take it off?"
She rubbed her hand over her forehead and sighed. "I'm hurt," she said. "I was hurt. And you're the only one who can put it back on me."
"Why were you hurt?"
"Because you considered it," she said. "Because I thought you'd tell me not to leave you. I would have stayed for you, Ned. My dad would have been angry, everyone would have thought it was stupid, but I would have stayed here. I thought you'd never do this. I thought I'd never have to make this kind of choice, I thought the next two years of my life were planned. Graduation and our wedding. I thought that was going to be it. I thought you'd be there, and you won't be," she said, her voice pitching up at the end of it as her tears spilled.
"I won't be on the moon."
"You may as well be," she said. "For all the time you'll waste on calling me or even thinking about me, one of us may as well be on the moon."
"Nancy, I think about you every day," he said. "I thought about you every day when we were apart."
"I can't see how this is going to end anymore," she whispered. "It scares me."
"We're not going to end," he said.
She blinked up at him. "Did you really want me to go?"
He ran his fingers through his hair. "Honestly? No," he replied. "If I could I'd keep you with me, smuggle you in as a cheerleader, whatever it took. I didn't even really want to leave you at Wilder, but even that seems better than this."
"Tell them to put it in the press release," she said. "Ned Nickerson, engaged to longtime girlfriend Nancy Drew. Every one. Every time."
"Why wouldn't you talk to me?"
"I wanted to see if it would be easier that way," she whispered.
"To do what?" His voice expressionless, hers the same as she answered.
"Practice," she said. "Days when I don't hear from you. When you can't send roses or make phone calls. I feel—I don't know how I feel. Jealous, mostly. Jealous of the time you'll be spending."
"Don't you think I've felt that way our entire relationship?"
"Then it wasn't fair," she countered. "It wasn't fair for us to get back together."
"That's not what I meant," he said.
"Then what did you mean?"
He looked away. "You didn't ask for this," he said. "This wasn't part of the bargain. I didn't think I'd ever be leaving you either, Nan."
She was quiet for a minute, waiting for the lump in her throat to shrink. She looked over at the ring. "It's your choice," she said. "Whether we trust that six or twelve months from now, we feel the same way we did the night you put that on my finger."
"I know I will," he said.
"I know I will."
Ned had never been in Nancy's bedroom before. It was one of Carson's firm rules, and he didn't make that many. She took her clothes, her jewelry, everything off, except the ring he had placed back on her finger, and Ned divested himself of all but his boxers and joined her, despite his anxious glance at her closed bedroom door. She was warm, slow with tiredness, her face nestled against his shoulder.
"Do you want to…?"
"Yes," she murmured, eyes still closed. "But not right now."
The presence of her father down the hall dampened any more urgent questioning. Ned bent his face close to hers, trying to memorize her, the way she felt in his arms, the smoothness of her skin, the cadence of her breath. He couldn't sleep; his heart was beating far too quickly, aching. He had come into her room prepared to drive away, without a girlfriend or fiancee, and announce his contract to the world with a heavy heart.
Now he had her, but she would be on the moon.
Her eyes fluttered open. "Now," she whispered.
"You don't mean that," he replied.
She pushed down his boxers. "Now," she repeated.
Maybe before, the return of the ring onto her finger, maybe that had been a vow of some kind. Maybe that would be enough. Maybe that was why she had answered the way she had, so unexpectedly. Maybe she was still asleep, dreaming, the way he had been that morning in the cabin.
The summer before Nancy had left for college, they had explored each other this way, daring with tongues and fingertips and whispered words to approach but not cross the line they had agreed upon. He had never been so in love with her, so drunk at her very presence, and then that sudden deepened intimacy had vanished until he hadn't known the girl on the other end of the phone line at all.
He still found himself unable to cross the line, unable to penetrate her, though not through lack of desire to do so. She stifled her screams in the pillows, her body shaking, and he never tired of the experience, of the power and intense aphrodisiac it was to have her begging, pleading, for the release only he had ever given her. Once she had come he stroked himself with fingers still wet with her, until he spilled on her stomach.
In her bed.
The sky was richest blue outside as he crossed into her bathroom, naked, found a washcloth, and wiped her off. She extended her arms to him, drowsy satisfaction on her face, and he allowed himself to be drawn into the tangle of her limbs.
"Thank you," she whispered.
"So it was good for you."
"Every time." She stretched. "You?"
He laughed. "Need you even ask?"
She reached up to trace her fingers over his cheek, and he kissed her palm. "Just because I'm wet doesn't mean I come," she murmured.
"But you did, right?"
She nodded, and sighed, her heartbeat perceptible under her skin, under his touch. "We're going to be fine."
He wanted to believe.
Nancy didn't bother explaining Ned's presence at the breakfast table. "We're going to a press conference," she said. "Ned's going pro."
The tears had washed her out. She felt nothing, really, as she watched Carson and Iris congratulate her fiancé. The sunlight caught on the ring.
Ned caught up with her as she walked out to the car, in a daze. She could take it back, she could revoke her permission, she had time. He tilted her chin up so he could meet her eyes.
"You sure you want to do this?"
No. But she nodded, anyway, thinking of the time she had already signed away. In anger. In the knowledge that he would be tempted, and she would deserve it if he fell.
She texted George and Bess, once she found out where the conference would air, and stood at his side. Not in the blue silk. Green scoop-necked dress with ivory buttons. He looked devastatingly handsome in his suit. Flashbulbs everywhere. He hadn't shaken hands yet. She could still pull him away. Lead him by the hand out to the car, drive until they ran out of gas, until they couldn't breathe from relieved laughter, his fingers shaking on the ivory buttons. She wanted to whisper in his ear that if they could leave right now, she would do it, would pay for a hotel room, would give him anything he wanted, if only…
and then the handshake, the ink still drying in the contract, the formal announcement that fell like dead leaves against her ear.
She was a secondary in the cutline, buried in the melee. She was a muted cardboard cutout, heart fluttering like a caged bird in her chest, desperate, and she wanted to scream that he was not theirs to take. He was hers. And she was cutting her heart in two to stand next to him without tears pouring down her face, her skin still warm with the remembered feel of his.
Was this how it had felt to him? A lifetime ago, at the edge of the halo of flashbulbs, a smiling face in the crowd, unrecognized?
"…okay if we go? Nan?"
"Hmm?" The mask was not fully in place, and Ned could see through the cracks, but his eyes were warm, concerned, on hers. She tried to look alert and interested.
"Go to lunch with Danny."
Ned had a rap sheet.
Nancy did too, of course. She and Ned had both been arrested on suspicion for various crimes; murder, extortion, and, for one memorable case she thought she'd never solve, assault and battery, when Ned had been overzealous with a guy she had suspected of poisoning her.
She felt interest stirring as Danny, the agent, the guy who would become Ned's new best friend, discussed ways they could break that news before the press found it. Preferably soon, preferably with Nancy, the reason for all of Ned's felonious activities, by his side.
"You do have a lawyer, right? Because if you don't, we can…"
"Nancy's father." He nodded in her direction.
At least he would be in good hands while she was gone. Nancy took a measured sip of water.
Another guy, who was somehow finding room for a steak dinner at lunchtime, started talking about training camp, practices, and Nancy's head whipped around to gaze at Ned. More time they wouldn't be spending together? His hand tightened on hers.
"We have press copy from Emerson."
He passed over the stiff watermarked stationery from Dean Jarvis, the glowing academic record, the outstanding athletics, and even a mention of her as his fiancée, the campus celebrity who was practically an honorary student. She smiled and wondered if it would be cut from the published bios of her fiancee, the unknown quickly on his way to becoming a star.
She started noticing, seeing significance in the way Ned's agent scowled into his cell phone, the worried glance over the training coach's shoulder, the unflustered calm of the waiter. She wished for a case. Something to stop her from sitting at his right hand like a sycophant, waiting for his approval or wish to sustain her existence. She wanted something violent and complicated and all-consuming, so she could forget for a while.
For the first time since his signing, he was gazing straight at her, all his attention on her, and it took her breath away.
"I'd love to come."
Come meet all the other girls, who get to look the other way while the boys sample the buffet.
Just a few last things, he would meet her in the car.
Nancy checked the caller ID before answering her phone. "Did you see it?"
"Yeah," George replied. "Wow."
"Yeah," Nancy replied. She rested a hand lightly on her forehead before drawing it away, slick with her nervous perspiration. "That's about all I can say, too."
"So, I guess this favor I'm going to ask isn't going to happen."
The coed summer camp at Fox Lake needed counselors, and George was on their call list. Between the four of them they could all have hosted their own camp, but Bess was reluctant to go unless Nancy also came.
Nancy was laughing when Ned emerged from the building, onto the heat of the sidewalk, coat over his arm, sleeves pushed to his elbows, dark sunglasses over his eyes. "And Bess would be doing what?"
"Drama coach," George replied. "Good practice."
"They need a sailing instructor. Or two. And someone who's good at archery. That's you, Nan."
Nancy darted a glance at Ned. "How forgiving is the schedule?"
"Oh, we don't go for another two weeks."
"Fox Lake, huh?" Ned replied after Nancy had pitched him the idea. "I'd love to go, if it would work around my schedule."
"We'll see," she said.
Half of River Heights had seen the press conference, and that half had told the other half. Nancy couldn't go anywhere without someone offering congratulations, and gushing over her ring, which was some consolation. Because Ned didn't leave her side, except the occasional evening when his parents were begging to see him again.
They spent almost every night together. Every party, every social event, the guys all joking about how they wanted to see his super bowl ring once he had one, the girls giving her jealous glances. Most of the time Carson didn't even blink those mornings when Nancy walked in, still wearing the same clothes from the night before, hair hastily finger-combed. When Carson was worried, he called Hannah, who reported that yes, Nancy was safe in her guest bedroom. Never alone, but Carson never asked.
A more sobered Wendy hosted a party at the beach house, and Nancy attended with Ned as always in tow, their fingers interlaced. Courtesy of the French cooking course and due to Patrick's unfortunate prison sentence, Ned took over grilling duties, with several of the guys coming over to ask him about his contract. Don Cameron entered with Susan Cook, a dark-haired girl who had gone to Ned's high school, and Nancy felt the marginal worry she had been feeling relax.
"So how are things, Nancy?"
Wendy hadn't changed entirely. She was still dressed like a debutante, in hot pink and a miniskirt, but the party itself was vaguely reminiscent of high school anyway. Nancy smiled at her.
"So Ned's been signed to a football team and you two are getting married? Before he leaves for training camp?"
Nancy ducked her head. "No, not before he leaves for training camp. We need to finish school first."
Wendy laughed. "You mean he's actually going back to school after that?"
It did seem pointless, Nancy realized, as she watched Ned adjust the grill. Local God. If he was any good, they would want to sign him on again. Her heart sank.
Had they been fooling themselves? Or maybe he hadn't been fooled at all.