"I forgot how beautiful this place was!" Bess Marvin's voice rang across the quay built into the arrival area for Alexa Cassadine-Brodsky's private island. Nancy smiled in response, looking up from the Drew Investigations quarterly fiscal report that she'd been browsing while waiting for her friend. Bess's flight had been an hour later than her own, getting in to Kerkira Airport just late enough that they'd missed riding on the same water transport.
Luckily, Bess had switched her phone to an international dataplan before taking off from Seattle, so Nancy'd received her text before she'd started up the private road towards Alexa's estate. There were worse things in the world than reviewing company financial data while sitting on a private dock in the Greek Islands, soaking in the sun. For example, sitting in a cold office reviewing the same data. Plus, now she and Bess could take the walk together.
"Bess!" Nancy tucked her report into her bag and stood to hug Bess. "It's been too long! I haven't seen you since Christmas!"
Bess laughed, giving her friend an extended embrace. Pulling back, Nancy took in her friend. Short, curvy, and sporting an expensive cut and color, Bess wore her years and life well. The body insecurity that had plagued her early years was long gone, leaving a confident, happy woman, who currently sported a pair of travel-wrinkled beige linen pants, and an embroidered white peasant blouse with blue flowers all along the neckline. Vacation chic seemed the most appropriate term.
Especially since Nancy was wearing a similar outfit in jewel tones.
"Oh, honey, it has been too long!" Bess pulled her designer sunglasses off and propped them on her head. "I know we talk on the phone all the time, but I was so glad to get Alexa's invitation to stay. Even considering the circumstances, it's been too long since the world had a full taste of a Marvin-Drew team up!"
Nancy laughed and retrieved her luggage. "Now, don't say it like that Bess. This is a vacation, not a mystery!"
"Yet!" Bess's smirk was knowing in the bright, Greek sunshine. "I know you, Nancy Drew, and mysteries are your lifeblood. Plus, you're like the Jessica Fletcher of reality. Wither you wilt, comes the crime!"
"I am not that bad!" Nancy giggled and shook her head. "Besides, we're here for Alexa. Terry's death has really hit her hard, and her daughter's just gone back to graduate school. This is a cheer-up vacation through and through. And that's all I want it to be."
"Well, there's always hope, right?" Bess grinned and waggled her eyebrows at her friend when a striking young man in a white uniform emerged from the vine-covered path. "Oooh, he's cute."
"Bess!" Nancy rolled her eyes. "What would Joe or Sue or Cesare think?"
"You mean after they stopped agreeing?" Bess threw her best friend a smirk before turning her best sultry smile on the new arrival, who promptly offered a hand for her luggage. "Thank you! And what's your name?"
"Kastor, Mrs. Marvin. I will be your guide this afternoon; if you'd like to both follow me?"
"I would like nothing better, Kastor!"
Nancy shook her head and handed over her own luggage. Bess had been quite the flirt in her youth and that had somehow rolled itself into a happy, comfortably open marriage with Joe Hardy. Nancy had no idea how the whole arrangement worked, but Bess was married to Joe, but lived with her girlfriend, Sue, and regularly dated a customs official by the name of Cesare. Joe spent most of his time traveling as an investigative partner for Nancy's company, Drew Investigations, and had just amicably ended a long-term relationship with a married couple in Boston. Honestly, Nancy needed a flow chart on any given day to keep up with who was doing what with whom, but Bess and Joe were happy, and their three children seemed fine with the whole thing.
And if there was one thing that Nancy knew about relationships, it was that as long as everyone was honest and on the same page, everything would be fine. After all, hadn’t her own marriage broken because no one was on the same page at all?
Nancy shook her head. Now was no time for yet another retread on her and Ned’s divorce, even if it had been giving her little pangs lately. No, that was done. She was here to spend time with Bess, relax, and be there for Alexa. It was terrible to lose a spouse, especially in such a violent and sudden way.
Terry Brodsky, a former CIA operative and Alexa’s husband of over twenty years had died in a catastrophic car accident almost six months previously. Given Terry’s former career and the fact that he’d driven that stretch of road almost every day, the crash had been thoroughly investigated, but had been found to be the fault of a delivery van driver who’d not checked his mirrors before pulling onto the narrow stretch of steep road.
Alexa had been absolutely devastated and Nancy had made the trip into Athens for the funeral, but had not been able to stay very long. Alexa and Terry’s daughter, Gia, had even taken a semester off of her graduate studies in international business to stay with her mother. Gia'd recently headed back to Germany to complete her final semester so she could eventually come back to take over Constantine International from its interim CEO.
Nancy had received a lovely thank you note and a letter from Gia immediately after accepting Alexa's invitation. In the note, Gia'd mentioned how worried she was for her mother, and her fears that Alexa was suffering from depression and paranoia in the aftermath of her father's death, and how it meant the world to her that Nancy and Bess would stay for a few weeks.
What Nancy hadn't mentioned was that she'd agreed to the trip because she was desperately in need of rest and some time to put her own head together. Drew Investigations was an international investigation firm that she'd built from the ground up and run for nearly fifteen years. They had offices in ten countries and employed more than two hundred. It was nothing like she’d imagined when she’d started the LLC, and honestly? She was tired. The ready and consistent energy she’d had as a teen, then young detective wasn’t so ready or consistent for a woman of forty. Add on some of the self-reflection she'd been doing about her lack of romantic life, and it was the perfect recipe for a sun-filled vacation. So, while Bess might joke about a new mystery, Nancy was more than ready for a comfortable, relaxing couple of weeks in a luxurious and lavish villa.
Nancy blinked, bringing herself out of such deep thoughts.
“C’mon, Nan!” Bess’s smile was bright and only a little lascivious as Kastor started up the pathway to the house with their bags. “There are hugs and incredibly potent liquor to be had at the top of that there hill, and I am ready for both!”
The two women started up the steep walking trail that led up to Alexa Cassadine-Brodsky's home.
At that last “sir”, the secure signal on his Company-issued Sat-Phone went silent, leaving Frank without even the satisfaction of a dial tone. Technology had come a very long way since Frank hitched his wagon to the CIA, but in Frank’s opinion that wasn’t always a good thing. Especially if someone was in the mood to feel sorry for themself.
Admittedly, that’s pretty much all Frank had done for the last six months. Which, according to the Company-issued psych evaluator, was really the whole problem. A huge part of it, anyway.
Frank groaned and ran a hand over the scruff shadowing his jaw. He was forty-two, unmarried, and a former senior undercover operative for the CIA, based in Petronia. Six months ago, all of that could be said with pride. Six months ago, "former" hadn't been part of that sentence, and he’d been at the top of his game, breaking and mediating deals in the Balkans, saving innocent lives, and laying the groundwork for future operations.
Stiffly, Frank scooted back onto his bed, automatically favoring his right shoulder. It was a nice room in the US consulate, and one that was going to disappear next week, unless he made some serious decisions about his future. As of Sunday, he needed to decide whether or not to take early retirement from the CIA or transfer to the management track. Field work, at least for the CIA, was no longer an option. Catastrophic bullet wounds tended to be frowned upon after a certain age, and ones obtained during a massive clusterfuck of an operation, which lay firmly at the injured agent’s door?
Frank groaned and dropped his head back against the headboard. He knew all of this was his fault. That op in Moldova had been a shitstorm since the first anonymous tip. But, no. He’d known it was right and important. His gut had told him. His stupid instinct and gut had pushed him and his coworkers into a corner, and all they now had to show for hundreds of man hours and months of work was a few names of low-level operatives, a blown undercover identity for one Frank Hardy, and a dead veteran Company man who’d also been a personal friend.
While Frank knew that his friend had known the score, that he’d agreed to help with eyes open to the danger, he couldn’t help but hate himself for the outcome. His friend had died alone and far from everyone he’d loved.
Frank hadn’t even been able to make it to the funeral. He’d been too doped up on pain medication and antibiotics to even know what day it was. By the time he’d been cogent enough to even ask, his friend had been in the ground for two weeks.
The whole thing had been an embarrassingly huge eye-opener for Frank. Not just shining a light on his own fallibility, but also on the organization to which he’d dedicated most of his adult life. Because instead of explaining things to his friend's wife, the Company had organized a nice little car accident, and moved on.
And that? Went against everything Frank Hardy believed. His friend's wife had deserved the truth. His friend had deserved to live. And Frank? Wasn’t that the fifty million-dollar question?
Frank shook his head. All of that had been rolling around in his brain for the last few months. During PT appointments and before and after meetings with his psych consult. Not that he really talked about any of that with the psychiatrist. If there was one thing operatives knew, it was how to keep a good face in front of anyone probing for weaknesses. Great for resisting torture, but probably not so much with continued mental health.
No, the list of people Frank would ever consider talking about all of this with was very short, and none of them were even in this hemisphere.
It also wasn’t exactly helping matters that three of the four people he was reporting to, including his psychiatrist, were younger than him.
He felt old. When had he gone from keen young thing to the experienced vet on the block? Was this how his dad had felt when he and Joe had been so eager? Not for the first time, Frank felt a huge wave of respect for Fenton Hardy.
Then, like the last few times he thought of his father, Frank got up and went for the small collection of bottles that constituted his in-room bar. When he was young, Frank had never understood the lure of alcohol. He'd only had the occasional social drink, and even then hadn't much enjoyed it. That had changed during training, as an encyclopedic knowledge of alcohol was required knowledge in the espionage game. Countries had been won and lost over a particular vintage of wine, and walking in blind was something the US Government just didn't allow.
Frank quickly poured himself a finger of Irish whiskey before taking it over to the room's single window. Given Petronia and the US's sometimes unstable political relationship, it was high on the wall, but it let the light in and if he squinted, he could see the Canadian Embassy's peaked roof.
Shame and guilt flooded him as he took his first sip. But that wasn't anything new. Not anymore.
Exhausted and heart-sore, Frank watched the sun set, and drank his liquor.
Nancy sighed happily and bit into an olive from the antipasto plate. The large dinner table was set for three but the center was taken up with a giant plate full of marinated meats, cheeses, and olives as well as fresh cut vegetables. All of them, Alexa had said, were from the Cassadine farms around the island.
“Local food has always been the best, my papa used to say.” Alexa was seated next to Nancy at the head of the table; her rich auburn hair now liberally streaked with gray. Nancy had been surprised by the change when their host had greeted them at the front door earlier. Alexa had always been so meticulous with her beauty routine, including tints and colors. But she found that the gray suited Alexa very well.
"Christos did know his food." Bess hummed while taking a bite out of a marinated artichoke. "Before he died, he and I were part of an email list where we exchanged recipes. He always knew the best little shortcuts or tips to make food turn out spectacular."
"He mentioned that!" Alexa smiled and took a sip of her wine. "Papa was so proud when you sent photos of your girls enjoying his olives."
"Yeah, that confused the hell out of me and Joe. I always thought kids were supposed to like bland foods, but every time your dad sent a care package, they'd be in those cans and jars faster than you could blink!"
After she and Bess had made it up to the house, Alexa had given them a tour of the new villa. Alexa's father had renovated the house after marrying his girlfriend, Calliope Devras. He'd razed parts of the centuries old home to the ground for the new additions. Though, according to Alexa, those parts had needed it. The new house was a hodge-podge of old world and new, with a wing for family and one for guests. Bess and Nancy each had separate, sumptuous rooms in the guest wing, although they were across the corridor from each other.
Christos Cassadine had always been larger than life. Generosity and care were bedrocks of his personality, along with a heavy hand for extravagance. But then, what else would do for an international shipping magnate?
Nancy knew that Christos and Calliope's deaths during a sailing trip had been a hard blow for Alexa. She also suspected the only thing that had kept her friend going during that awful time, five years ago, was the support and love of her husband and daughter. Which was another reason that Nancy was worried about Alexa.
Alexa'd been perfectly polite and gracious, showing she and Bess her rooms earlier. She'd smiled and laughed, but there was obvious strain under it. This worried Nancy, but didn't set off any alarms. When she and Bess had come down from freshening up and naps, Alexa had been eager to chat and distract herself, so Nancy was reserving judgement.
"I know EJ loved his packages too, even if olives and artichokes weren't exactly his speed." Nancy smiled, remembering the face her son had made the first time he'd tried one of the Greek delicacies. "That poor kid inherited his father's palate, which tends more towards pot roast and butter-laden mashed potatoes. Not that there's anything wrong with that..."
Alexa's laughed, bright and loud. "Look at us! All old women with grown and growing children. I can't believe that the first time we met was so long ago."
Bess made a face, but her smile was soft and slow. She was obviously thinking of her children back in Seattle. "Speak for yourself about old, there Alexa. I've got a lot of years left in me. Multiple lovers will do that for a woman."
"Then you are wise." Alexa handed Nancy a napkin so she could wipe up some of the wine she'd spit out, and shot Bess a wry eyebrow. "But I can't help but feel how much time has passed. It feels like just yesterday that we all met. Such an adventure!"
"I can't disagree with you there." Nancy topped up her glass with wine before taking a quick sip of water. Red wine always gave her headaches the next day if she didn't cut her consumption with other fluids. And as Alexa had indicated, she wasn't as young as she used to be. "I still can't believe some of the adventures I had as such a young woman. EJ's almost twelve, and I can't imagine him doing anything of the sort."
"That's because EJ, while being an awesome kid, definitely inherited more from Ned in the personality department." Bess's voice was dry as the Sahara, and her expression almost as hot.
"What's wrong?" Alexa glanced between her two friends. "I thought your divorce was an amicable one?"
"For Nancy it was amicable. I'm still not talking to that asshole, no matter how much George and Nancy try and talk me around." Bess shook her head and drained her glass of wine. "He and Nancy dated for almost ten years before they got married, and the way he expected her to change-"
"Bess!" Nancy slapped a hand down on the table, more than a little embarrassed. Bess's feelings about her divorce were well known to their close circle of friends, but while Alexa was their friend, she really didn't need to be subjected to Bess Marvin's rather spectacular rant on the behavior of one Ned Nickerson. Especially when he didn't deserve it. "It's over and done with, and we're both happier now."
"Oh, I know, Nancy. I trained in this kind of thing." Bess shot her friend an apologetic smile. "But there's a big difference between understanding the theory and underlying motives and pressures, and watching someone I love go through that kind of thing."
Nancy nodded at the apology, taking it in the spirit it was intended. Though she'd always been close to both Bess and George, time as well as lifestyle had drawn Bess and Nancy closer. And as much as she might be protesting now, she knew in her bones that there was no one she'd rather have in her corner than Bess Marvin, Ph.D.
"I am sorry to have broached such an... emotional topic?" Alexa's question was the essence of tact.
"No, no." Bess waved a hand. "This is my faux pas completely. I'm sorry about getting us so off track. Back to the original topic. Nancy, you were never, ever normal. Especially when you were a teenager!"
"I will have to agree with Bess on this one, Nancy." Alexa finished a final bite of bread and pushed her appetizer plate away. "Without your help, my father have been ruined, and not had so many years of love before his passing. Before my kidnapping, he and Calliope were so vicious! Not to mention my marriage to Terry."
The older woman's eyes grew distant and troubled. Almost instantly, tension in the room increased. Nancy exchanged a look with Bess and after an expression-conversation only understood by the best and longest of friends, Bess pushed herself up from the table and started gathering dishes. Nancy reached over and gave Alexa's shoulder a tight squeeze, holding on until Bess had finished the quick bussing of the table.
"I'm going to take these in to the kitchen, okay Alexa?" With a clatter of flatware and a swing of blonde hair, Bess was through the doorway and down the stairs that led to the villa's extensive kitchens.
"Speaking of emotional topics." Nancy kept her voice low and gentle. She'd had a lot of years of experience dealing with grief in her job as a detective. Bess might be a licensed psychologist, but they both knew Nancy had the edge when it came to bereaved victims of violent crimes. And while Terry's death may have been an accident, it was still shocking and very violent. "Do you want to talk about Terry?"
Alexa let out a pained laugh that did nothing to reassure Nancy. "I feel like I've done nothing but talk of Terry for the last six months. Speak and grieve and try and figure out how I am going to spend the rest of my life without my partner."
Nancy scooted her chair closer to her friend, trying to indicate without words that she was there for her. That she would be whatever Alexa needed. "I can't imagine that."
"Can't you?" Alexa stared the middle-aged detective down. Her eyes were still bright with tears. "Did you not lose a partner?"
"Oh, Alexa. No." Nancy could see where Alexa was drawing parallels between their lives, but the truth was very different. "Ned and I broke up because I wasn't and couldn't be the person he thought he married. And I take my share of the blame there, especially because of what it did to EJ."
"What do you mean?"
Nancy sighed, glancing around the well-appointed room, looking for a distraction. Finding none, she slumped her shoulders, resigning herself to tell the sordid tale of her divorce. If she distracted Alexa, even a little, it would be worth it.
"Ned and I got married because we'd been dating so long and it seemed like the next, natural step. We'd been together since we were teenagers and while we absolutely loved each other, it was only after EJ's birth that we came to the realization that we couldn't keep pretending we were happy." Nancy bit her lip, her mind thrown back to those horribly, terrible months of post-partum depression and therapy. They had been some of the most difficult of her life, but they'd also the most helpful and useful. And while her deepest epiphany was painful beyond words, it had also been the most profound, and the one she was most glad to have had.
EJ deserved everything in the world. Especially someone who could be a full-time parent to him. And Nancy Drew, while a great detective, was not, and could never be a full-time mother.
"What I had with Terry was forever." Alexa sniffled and wiped her eyes with one of the table napkins. "You are right. It is not the same."
"What Ned and I had ended." Nancy nodded. That was still painful to say, but time had lessened the wound. It was now more of an ache. Even if that ache was starting to shift into other aspects of her life. She had dated here and there after her and Ned's divorce six years ago, but no one steady. It had been something weighing on her mind more and more, that lack of partner. Which actually made her worry slightly more about Alexa, in the long term. If she was feeling like this after a voluntary break up... But no, she needed to focus on the here and now. "Terry was taken from you."
Nancy blinked, her sleuth senses tingling, just a little. She kept her face impassive though. The surety in Alexa's two words told stories. Ones Nancy didn't know. "Alexa?"
When the older woman turned to face her, though her eyes were still bright with tears, her expression was dead serious. Nancy felt the hair on the back of her neck raise.
"He was taken from me, Nancy. I know it. And as thorough as the investigation was, as hard as everyone has been trying to convince me it was an accident... In my heart I am not sure."
"Alexa, what are you saying?" Nancy was shocked. She'd know her friend was having a terrible time accepting Terry's death, but this? If she had proof! "You think Terry was killed?"
"No!" The other woman shook her head vehemently. She bit her lip then hesitated before continuing. "No. Well, not really? It's just he knew that road so well. And he was coming home from a business trip for Cassadine. He'd been gone for over two weeks, and the morning he comes home, he is killed by a truck? After so many years with the CIA, then he retires and dies so soon after? It seems too 'good' to be true."
Nancy paused to think. Laid out like that, it did seem pretty suspicious. But something else she'd learned in her long career was that as strange as some circumstances seemed, life did not always circle around to a mystery. Sometimes delivery drivers just didn't check their mirrors.
"Maybe." Nancy made and kept eye-contact with her friend. "But sometimes life can just be that cruel. Sometimes death just doesn't make sense."
Nancy watched as something shuttered in Alexa's gaze. She knew then that she'd said the wrong thing, even if it had felt right. She opened her mouth to say something, but Alexa shook her head. Carefully, she wiped her face.
"Maybe you are right. The police and the CIA both say it was an accident. Gia says it was an accident. Either way, Terry is gone, no?"
"And I am still so sorry." Nancy reached down and squeezed Alexa's free hand. "Terry was a good man."
"The best." Alexa smiled tremulously, then visibly pulled herself together. Shook her head and shrugged her shoulders, seemingly trying to dismiss the sad mood and tension. “Well, it’ll all be done with tomorrow.”
Nancy narrowed her eyes at Alexa’s off-hand comment, something so at odds with her earlier words. The other woman’s face was distant, as if she was looking at something other than the food-laden table. “Alexa, what are you talking about?"
The older woman shook her head then, appearing to gather herself together. The smile she shot Nancy was almost sincere. But the underlying sadness and anger was apparent to someone who'd spent so much time as a detective. "Nothing, Nancy. It's just that Amelio, the family lawyer, is stopping by tomorrow to drop of the last of the estate paperwork for me to sign. Terry's death will officially be a thing of the past, even if I still miss him every day."
"Oh, Alexa." Nancy reached over and gave her friend a quick hug. No one should have to outlive a beloved spouse. "I'm sorry. Do you want me or Bess to be with you?"
"No, no." Alexa patted Nancy's arm before letting go. "He's stopping by before ten tomorrow. You and Bess sleep in. How about we get together for a late breakfast on the upper veranda at eleven and we can plan a suitable distraction. Go into town, or take a walk?"
"That sounds like a great plan."
Bess chose that moment to walk back into the dining room. She'd apparently encountered Kastor, because both of her hands were full with plates heaped with vegetables and rice. "What sounds like a great plan?"
Alexa waved her hand and smiled, her composure firmly back in place. She shot Bess a smile, and rearranged some dishes to give her table space. "Just planning out our day tomorrow. Breakfast at eleven?"
Bess set the dishes down and clapped. "Perfect! I love a vacation planned around food. But first, let's do some damage to dinner. These peppers look amazing!"
Both women agreed and started to pile up their plates, forcibly shifting focus to more pleasant things.
Exhausted and half-blind from the unrelenting halogen lighting in Petronia’s International Airport, Joe Hardy moved easily through the unexpected crowd of travelers. It was late for air travel, just a bit before midnight, but his case in Italy had ended well ahead of schedule, and while stalking the last minute flights in Florence, he’d made a split-second decision that felt exactly right.
Joe hadn’t seen his brother, Frank, since just after his "work-related" accident six months ago. He and his mother had flown to Petronia to first sit vigil, then to support Frank in his recovery. As children, he and Frank had been nearly inseparable. Joe, the younger of the two, had predictably thought Frank had hung the moon, and followed him everywhere. It was a testament to their parents and to Frank that his older brother hadn’t just dumped him in the nearest trashcan, or ignored him. But no, they’d become and grown up to be the best of friends with a bond that was untouchable.
Or so Joe had assumed.
Life, time, and the CIA had sure done a number on that relationship, Joe reflected. He expertly dodged a luggage cart, and shifted his carryon bag higher onto one of his rangy shoulders. The thought made him frown and wish for enough courage to tackle the task in front of him.
The taxi stand in the arrivals terminal was doing brisk business. Joe didn’t have to wait long for a late-90’s Mercedes cab to pull up in front of him. He gave the address of the US Consulate, and leaned back to stare at architecture and think.
Honestly, he missed his brother. They’d been together so much as teenagers.
Frank’s decision to join the CIA directly out of college had been incredibly difficult for him to accept. Sure, the brothers had done a lot of international work for the Company before and during college, but they’d also had their share of real problems with the organization. Especially after that whole deal in Egypt where their national security files had been breached, and a rogue agent had set him, Frank, Nancy, and Bess on a crazy trip where they’d all pretended to be married.
Joe smiled at the thought of his wife. Prophetic or not, that little adventure had done a lot to permanently damage his trust in the CIA. He wasn’t stupid, and he knew someone high up had probably used that situation to test the brothers’ ingenuity. That hadn't made the situation any better, though.
Then again, Joe mused, watching the traffic pass around him. He’d always been the more rebellious of the two brothers. Frank resembled their father so much, both in physical appearance and mindset. Joe knew it had a lot to do with the fact that Frank was the older of the two and grew to adulthood with a deep-seated sense of responsibility. But Joe had never quite grown out of his need to go his own way.
Not that he minded, exactly. He loved his life. Joe had a wonderful, sexy, fantastic wife who understood him like no one else ever could. Add in three amazing kids, several great partners, and a wonderful job with Drew Investigations? Joe was definitely a happy man!
He also knew that his happiness wasn’t complete. One of the perks and downsides of being married to a clinical psychologist was he really couldn’t get away with any kind of lying, even if it was to himself.
He sighed deeply.
“You okay?” The cab driver, a swarthy man in his 60s shot him a look in the rearview mirror. “You seem upset?”
“Just blaming myself for falling out of touch with my brother.” Joe shook his head and smiled at the man. “Deep thoughts of an otherwise happy man.”
The cabby laughed and nodded, sympathy and understanding evident. “Sad men are used to pain. They hardly notice. Only happy men are in a position to tend the small hurts, as they stand out so much brighter.”
“I take it you have a brother?”
The older man shook his head and made a left turn onto a wide boulevard. Joe, who’d been to Petronia several times and was well-familiar with the area around the US Consulate, knew they were close to their destination. “No, young man. A sister. And I was lucky that she was happy and mended bridges.”
Joe laughed as the man pulled up to the curb. "Well, wish me luck on bridge building."
"Your brother is here?" The cabby blinked and threw him a rueful headshake. "Well, good luck, friend."
"Thanks." Joe sorted out the correct currency and left a decent tip. He waved as the man pulled away and took a deep breath before turning to consider the building where he'd been dropped.
It was an imposing place, all baroque lines and fussy details. He quirked his lips, knowing instinctively that Frank'd probably hated it on sight. His lips turned down when he realized that the last time he'd seen his brother, when he'd left him to recover in this very building, that he hadn't even bothered to ask.
Looking back, Joe's sure that he'd done the easy thing five months ago. He'd wished Frank a quick recovery and flown home to stay with the kids. After seeing his brother so broken and closed off, he'd wanted nothing more than to go home and hug his children close. To pray that they'd never have to do whatever Frank had done to leave him looking that haunted.
As he stood on the sidewalk in front of the US Consulate, Joe was well and truly ashamed of himself.
There was a reason he'd hopped that plane to Petronia. It was in every short email Frank sent and the worried looks his mother shot him during Skype calls. It was how his daughter's birthday present was late, and how he and Frank hadn't had an honest and full conversation in years.
"Damn." Joe breathed out, then shook his head and took a deep breath.
Well, journey of a thousand miles, right?
Flashing both passport and work ID, Joe was quickly shown up to Frank’s room. He paused at the closed door, unsure and unprepared for what he might find. “You know Frank.” He whispered to himself. And in the end, wasn't that the root of the problem? To take, on faith and history, that he knew his brother well enough to sense that Frank was in trouble, or be completely wrong and everything was fine.
Shaking his head, Joe knew it really didn’t matter. He was here for Frank, and whether it was for support or a sight-seeing trip around Petronia wasn't the point. The telephone and relationship worked both ways and their friendship was worth effort on his end too.
Quickly before he could change his mind, Joe raised one strong fist and knocked. Waited a minute, then knocked again.
From inside the room came a "Who is it?"
Worry deepened Joe’s voice and shortened his tone. "Just open the door, Hardy. I know you’re in there."
Seconds later, the door flew open. There, backlit by a small table lamp and looking more haggard and worn than Joe had ever seen him, was his brother.
Then, Joe’s arms were full of Frank. The embrace was tight and desperate, and Joe instantly wrapped his arms around the taller man, hugging for all he was worth. It seemed like this had been the absolutely right choice.
"It’s okay, Frank." Joe Hardy whispered. "I’m here." And held on.
Nancy had been startled out of sleep many times in her life. It was part and parcel of the life and job she’d chosen. That said, it never got any easier, or less terrifying. Especially when the cause was her best friend shaking her shoulder and speaking very firmly in her "I am speaking to a mentally unbalanced person who is holding something sharp" tone. Absently, Nancy realized she’d probably had a lot to do with the development of that tone.
“Bess?” Nancy sat up, pushing away her friend’s hand. Bess was still in her nightgown, a ruffled pink thing that ended at her knees. “What’s going on? What’s happened?”
“Nancy, Alexa’s missing. Probably.”
That cleared up any lingering cobwebs.
“Are you kidding me?” The titian haired sleuth groaned and beat her head into her pillow. Of course. Of course. After she'd finished trying to smother herself, she rolled and stuck her feet into her slippers. “The house has been checked?”
Bess nodded, her face a blend of worry and sympathy. “You know I wouldn’t say anything if we weren't completely sure.”
Nancy shoved her arms into her robe and threw a quick glance at her traveler’s alarm. 10:15am. Definitely after Alexa’s appointment with her lawyer. “The staff searched after her lawyer got here, didn’t they?”
“You are too smart for your own good.” Bess shook her head, disbelief clear on her delicate features. “Mr. Davros, her lawyer, found me as I was going into the breakfast room. Apparently, the household’s been in quite the uproar all morning.” Bess paused and caught Nancy by the arm just before they reached the bedroom door. “There might be signs of a struggle in the den.”
Bess bit her lip, obviously worried. “Some things knocked over. A drawer left open.”
“I need to see this, and talk to Mr. Davros.”
Nancy ran a professional eye over him and decided that he very much fit the physical appearance of a wealthy, powerful lawyer.
"Ms. Drew, I am glad to make your acquaintance, though not in such... unsettled circumstances." Mr. Davros offered a hand. His grip was solid, warm and dry. Over-all, he gave the impression of someone with nothing to hide. And he wasn't bothering to try with his worry. "I am Amelio Davros, Alexa Cassadine-Brodsky's personal lawyer, and family friend."
"It's good to meet you, sir." Nancy nodded. "Please call me Nancy."
"Then please call me Amelio. I have a feeling we will be in close contact over the next few days. Formality has its place, but this is not it."
"No, definitely not. These are rather strange circumstances."
Nancy took a seat across from Amelio, while Bess took the one next to her. They'd stopped in the den on the way down from their rooms and Nancy had taken a quick look around the possible crime scene. Several personal items were out of place and knocked over, and the French doors leading out onto a private stone veranda were open. Not overly suspicious, but definitely not consistent with the neat, orderly décor of the rest of the house.
The trio leaned back and allowed Irina, one of the maids, to pour coffee for the two arrivals into two beautiful porcelain china cups and freshen Amelio's. After the ritual doctoring of drinks finished, Nancy met Amelio's eyes and started.
"Amelio, what do you think is going on?"
The older man sighed, suddenly looking much older. His eyes were sad, and he took a moment to gather his thoughts before continuing. "I came today to sign the last of the paperwork associated with settling Terry Cassadine-Brodsky's estate."
Nancy nodded. "Alexa told me last night at dinner."
That made Amelio blink. "She shared that?"
Amelio shook his head, disbelief clear on his features. "This is the fourth time that I have come to finish all of this off. The last three times, Alexa has refused or rescheduled."
"She's not dealing with Terry's death, and thinks that putting off the paperwork will keep his being gone from becoming real." Bess nodded, her hands cradling her coffee cup. Her expression was focused and serious, quite at odds with her fly-away hair and hastily tied robe. "But you forced the issue this time?"
"There are certain investments that are in his name that are somewhat time-sensitive in nature. They would be lost or displaced if not addressed in the next week. I can't discuss their exact nature-" Amelio gave a gallic shrug.
Nancy waved a hand. "I understand. Client confidentiality is pretty much sacrosanct in my line of business. I may not always like it, but I do understand."
Amelio nodded, took a sip of his coffee, and continued. "Alexa was not happy when I made this appointment, but she did seem resigned. She promised me that she would finish this today, and Alexa does keep her promises."
"Which is why you had Bess wake me after you'd had the servants check the grounds?"
"Yes!" The worry on Amelio's face became more pronounced. "I don't think she has been forcibly abducted, because she has disappeared before. Gone for a few hours, or a day or two. She has always said that there is freedom in anonymity. But given her position, we cannot be too careful. You saw the den, yes?"
"Yes." Both Nancy and Bess nodded and exchanged a look. Nancy continued, slightly skeptical and still worried. "You think it's more likely she's run off to avoid the paperwork signing again?"
"It would make sense, Nancy." Bess set down her coffee, expression pensive. "Grief is unpredictable, and while she may have seemed resigned with you, Amelio, she could have snapped this morning when faced with confronting something that she's wrapped up with letting Terry go."
"This is my honest feeling." Amelio shook his head. "The staff has checked the entire island for signs of her, but there is nothing. No boats are missing. But this is not a hard thing to move around. Alexa has friends across all of Corfu and many have boats or ships or yachts. She may have even arranged something. Even I have my private boat, which I brought this morning."
"Is there a waiting period for reporting a missing person in Greece?" Nancy asked. While she did have investigative experience world-wide, she'd been predominantly working in the US for the past few years. It wasn't feasible to keep up on local laws and protocols across the world. Especially considering how quickly laws and governments changed.
Amelio shook his head. "Three days. But I do not think it would be wise to involve the police until we are able to gather more information. I hate to ask this, but is it possible that you might keep an eye on this, Nancy? Let me know if she returns?"
"Of course, Amelio! We're here to see Alexa, and will do anything we can to help." Nancy held Amelio's gaze. "And if, god forbid, there is contact made by an outside party, Drew Investigations has special dispensation by the UN to negotiate. I have facilitated several exchanges."
The older man took a shuddering breath before nodding. "I am hopeful that those services will not be needed in this case, Nancy. But I do feel better knowing that."
Nancy gave him a tight smile and shifted into business mode. "Now, let me get some information and permissions from you – I assume you have the ability to sign for phone records and the like?"
Amelio's expression was as grateful and relieved as could be, given the unresolved situation. "What do you need to get started?"
Joe'd spent the night in Frank's room. After he'd arrived last night and managed to extract himself from Frank's desperate hug, he hadn't really pushed too much. Instead, he'd asked a few leading questions, ignoring the knowing eyebrow Frank had sent him. Still, Frank had seemed stupidly grateful at Joe's presence and had answered everything.
That, more than anything, had Joe very, very worried about his brother. Sitting in the small café, eating baked eggs and drinking a truly exceptional cup of coffee, it was clear that Frank was at the end of his rope. Physically and emotionally.
"Is there enough ambient noise here, or do we need to head back to the consulate before you tell me what the fuck is going on with you right now?" Because Frank could be a cagey bastard, and sometimes a direct question could do a lot more than taking on a CIA-trained operative in investigative head games.
Frank's fork screeched over his plate a second before the snickering started. Joe held out a full five seconds before joining him.
"You're a jackass, you know that, right?"
"And Dad will still tan your hide for that kind of profanity." Joe stole a fried potato wedge off of Frank's plate and popped it in his mouth. Allowing himself to fall into the brotherly rhythm that had made them one of the top investigative teams before either of them hit twenty. It was slightly bittersweet, given that it hadn't happened in so long, but it felt right. And Joe was done with avoiding that.
"Says the man who just used 'fuck' in a sentence."
"Meh. Dad probably would have reinforced that with his disappointed face. Consider yourself lucky, brother."
Frank set his flatware down then, his eyes distant. For a moment Joe thought he'd gone too far, pushed in the wrong direction. But then, Frank turned to look at him, sadness and pain written on pretty much every line of his face. "I'm not healing right. The punctured lung isn't going to get any better. I'm done with PT, and I'm down to a twelve-minute mile if I'm lucky. My op, the one I planned and ran, not only crashed and burned, it took a good friend down with it. And all of it's gone and erased except for me."
"Desk or retirement?"
"And how does that make you feel?"
Joe ducked the smack with practiced ease, not even spilling a drop of the coffee he'd raised to sip. Not that there'd been much effort put into it. Joe might be a top operative for Drew Investigations, and Frank might be less than 100%, but Frank had still been trained by the best of the best. Joe knew that, if he'd wanted to, Frank could have laid him out in under five seconds.
"Stop stealing your wife's lines."
"So." Joe leaned back in his chair. Kept eye contact with Frank. "What are you going to do?"
Frank just shrugged and looked away. The defeat in the lines of his body made Joe's teeth ache. "That's the ten million-dollar question, isn't it? I've been trying to figure that out for the last two months."
"Dammit, Frank." Joe sat up, letting a little of his annoyance and pain show through. Frank had been dealing with this thing for months, and he hadn't even mentioned it? "Why didn't you come home? Stay with me and Bess? Or ask for one of us? We're your family."
"It wasn't fair-"
"Bullshit. Family's not there for fair, Frank." Joe shook his head and took a deep breath through is teeth. No, it wasn't right to do this to Frank right now. He wasn't in a good place, and Bess always said that depressed people didn't need more accusations or recriminations. They were much more efficient at piling shit on themselves than anyone else could possibly be. Frank didn't need his anger. Not now. He needed help, if last night was anything to go by.
Which, thinking of Bess... Joe blinked at his sudden, underhanded, and downright brilliant idea.
"I'm sorry." Joe reached across the table and held Frank's shoulder until his brother met his eyes again. "I'm just worried about you. I love you, and I miss you, and I want to help you in any way I can, okay?"
"I know." Frank's shoulders were hard with tension. "I'm sorry. I just know I need to make this decision on my own. I mean, this is my life. The rest of my life."
"And you're still too serious for your own good." Joe sighed and pulled back so he could run his hands through his hair before he shook his head. "I have an idea, and before you shoot it down, I really want you to think about it. And remember that sometimes that pulling yourself away from a problem situation is the way to get some clarity."
"You really do listen to Bess, don't you?"
"Why wouldn't I listen to my brilliant, Ph.D. in forensic-psychology wife? Woman's damn smart and knows her stuff."
Frank cracked a smile. Not much of one, but it was there. "What's your idea?"
"Nancy and Bess are vacationing in Greece. Why don't we join them?" Joe stared his brother down, eyes serious. "You need some time away from this whole thing. A little sun, some good friends, and a little quiet to make your serious decisions."
Frank blinked at that, distracted from the tension and everything else by the very idea of Nancy and Bess on vacation. Together. "Nancy and Bess are in Greece? Vacationing!?"
Joe's laugh was bright and genuine. "I had pretty much the same reaction. Sue and I have a side bet on how long it will take for a mystery to find them."
It did Joe's heart good to see the lines on Frank's face ease, just a little. He knew his wife would forgive the mocking. After all, she had $10 on "within the first day" herself.
"If it hasn't already?" Frank smiled, eyes nostalgic. And, if Joe was any kind of judge, wistful.
And okay, maybe playing the Nancy card was a little low, but it was pretty obvious to Joe what Frank's decision was going to be. Plus, Joe knew Nancy would jump on the opportunity to hire Frank if he even hinted at leaving the CIA. Despite whatever angst and trouble he was going through right now, Frank was a top-flight investigator, and Nancy hadn't taken Drew Investigations to its current heights by ignoring talent.
Besides? What was wrong with a little match making? Joe smirked and sweetened the deal.
"Seriously, though. Let's meet up with them! They're staying on a private island with a good friend. I know there's enough room in the Cassadine villa for two Hardy boys!"
Frank's face went white. "What?"
"They're staying with Alexa Cassadine-Brodsky. Frank, what's wrong?"
His brother's laugh was painful. Frank wiped a hand across his eyes, then covered his mouth before shaking his head. "I can't stay there, Joe. I can't."
"Why not? It's nice, and I'm sure Alexa wouldn't mind. Didn't you and Terry-"
The command in Frank's voice stopped him cold. Any and all ease or joy was gone from Frank's face. He looked worse than when he'd opened his door last night and hugged Joe nearly numb. Carefully, Joe rewound this morning's conversation in his head. A friend had died. A friend who'd been on a secret CIA mission.
"Oh, Jesus, Frank. No."
"The world can't be that cruel. It can't!" But Joe knew better. It really, really could be that cruel. And suddenly, everything about Frank's guilt and the darkness haunting his eyes made a lot more sense. Joe had only met Terry Brodsky a few times, all of them over twenty years ago. But Terry's patriotism and dedication, as well as the Grey Man's influence, were what drew Frank to the CIA, and his current career and life. Joe knew that Terry had taken Frank under his wing when he'd been assigned to the Balkan region several years ago. That Frank would be in any way responsible for a situation that caused his death?
"It is. And it's worse." Frank shook his head, checked the sight lines on the café. Joe knew he was keeping the exits in sight, a precursor to fleeing. Not that Frank would run from him, but it was telling that he was even looking in the first place. "She doesn't know the real story. They wouldn't let me tell her."
Rage swelled inside Joe. Hard and deep, it hit like a hammer. Joe knew his brother. Knew what made him tick and how proud he was of serving his country. Of keeping people safe. Frank always did what duty required of him. Even if it meant physical or mental sacrifice. But the thing he held closest to his heart, the thing that Joe knew let Frank get up in the morning, was justice. And Alexa being kept in the dark? Wasn't justice. That was convenience.
More than Terry's death, this injustice was breaking his brother.
"Well then." Joe met and kept is brother's gaze. "All the more reason to go to Greece."
The relief in Frank's smile, the acceptance, was worth the theoretical treason.
“Still the best $50 I spend a year.” Nancy said, grabbed her beach bag. There wasn't anything she could do for the next few hours except wait. Joanna needed time to work her magic, and Alexa might just wander in during the interim.
Might as well join Bess for a little relaxation.
And relaxing was exactly where Nancy found her friend ten minutes later.
Bess was stretched out next to the pool. In her sunglasses and floppy hat, Bess was the picture of unguarded vacationer. Nancy was smiling as she set her bag down next to the table with a pitcher of lemonade and empty glasses.
Bess smiled back and stretched her arms above her head. “Hey. Jo on the hunt?”
“Yeah. She said she’d get back to me when everything was done running.” Nancy pulled her swim cover off, revealing a bright green bikini, which had ties at her hips and behind her neck. “I swear, detective work is 90% waiting, and ten percent everything else.”
“Whatever, Drew.” Bess laughed at her friend as Nancy sat on the other chaise and started putting on sun block. “Are you going to start the rant about technology making everything harder and easier? Because I’ll bet you $10 I can recite it along with you.”
Nancy rolled her eyes. “Sometimes, life-long friends suck.”
Bess snorted and rolled her eyes right back. “No one else would put up with your picky ass, honey, and you know it.”
Nancy blinked, stunned at Bess's statement and how it hit a vulnerable spot. Because, though her friend had been joking, she'd hit directly on something that had been worrying Nancy for a while. Because that was the exact problem. No one was putting up with her "picky ass", and no one had for a very long time. She dropped the sunblock bottle in her bag, and made a face. Resignation weighed heavily on her. She was a forty-year-old woman who, while successful, wanted nothing to do with raising children and was gone more often than she was settled anywhere. Even if she found someone new, those were giant hurdles.
Coming to terms with a lack of affection and partnership was incredibly difficult to come to terms with, especially since Nancy wanted it. She had plenty of friends who were single and loved it. And she knew that she could live her life, quite happily, on her own. But she didn't want to. She wanted companionship. Understanding. Love.
But she also knew that she needed someone who'd be a partner and love her for herself, not for who they wanted her to be. She deserved better than that.
“Nan, what’s wrong? Like, really wrong. Because you've been officially off since we got here.” Bess asked, worried. She remained quiet, her eyes intent, as Nancy put her head together and sorted out her thoughts. Eight years of graduate school had taught Bess a lot of lessons; one of them was learning when to push, and when to let silence do its job.
Nancy sighed, let her head thump against the back of the lounge, and let Bess in.
“Oh, Bess. I just...”
Alarm flooded her friend's face as she finally let her eyes tear up.
“Honey, what’s going on? This isn’t about Alexa, is it?”
“No, no.” Nancy shook her head. “I’m terrified that she's really missing and so upset that all of this is going on. But.” Nancy gave a frustrated groan. “I almost feel worse that this isn’t distracting me from all the stupid stuff that’s going on in my head.”
Bess reached over and squeezed her friend’s arm before reaching for her hand. “Nan, you know you can tell me anything. And I’ve kind of been expecting this.”
“You have?” Although, why she was surprised, Nancy didn't know. Bess was incredibly perceptive and intuitive, especially with her friends and family. And Nancy knew Bess definitely counted her as family.
Bess nodded. “Ever since you invited me to join you on this trip.”
Nancy laughed. “I was pretty surprised when you said you’d come. You haven’t come with me on vacation since we were in our twenties.”
“Because going on vacation with you always ended one of us up in a life-threatening situation, or some kind of criminal case. And I was pregnant with Jodi by that point and couldn’t take the risk. You know this.”
“And so help me god, if you apologize for any of that again, I’m dumping this lemonade on your head. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to be. And stop deflecting.”
“Oh, Bess.” Nancy crossed her arms and stared out over the harbor below. Alexa’s home really did have the best view in the Islands. But Bess was right. She needed to say some of this out loud. Keeping it in wasn’t helping, and if there was one thing that her cognitive behavioral therapy after EJ’s birth had done, it was show her the advantages of saying things out loud. Of making them real by saying them. It may not be the best situation, but when was? “I’m just so lonely.”
Bess squeezed her hand tighter, and Nancy appreciated the support, even if she couldn't face it. Keeping her voice therapist-gentle, Bess asked. “Do you... miss Ned?”
Nancy’s watery laugh was dismissive and expanded at Bess's sigh of relief. Bess could keep a grudge with the best of them, and Nancy knew Ned wasn't getting off her friend's shit list any time soon. "Of course not. Ned is where he needs to be. He’s happy. EJ too! They love Carrie, and she’s perfect for both of them."
Nancy picked at one of her bikini strings before shaking her head. “No, this is about me. You know I loved Ned, and as you keep reminding me and everyone else, he couldn’t be who I needed him to be. And I couldn’t be what he needed either. I just miss... having someone.”
“And maybe having someone who can be what you need?”
Nancy finally pulled her gaze away from the white boats going about their business in the bay. Looked her friend in the eye and nodded. “I’ve never really had that, and I want it. Even seeing Alexa how she is now... She had that with Terry. She loved him so much.”
“Oh, honey.” Bess just opened her arms, scooting over so Nancy could curl up with her on the lounge. After a bit of limb rearrangement and shuffling, the two women were cuddled up, with Bess’s arms wrapped around Nancy in an almost motherly hug. “It’s okay to want that. It’s right to.”
“I just see everyone else around me so comfortable. I mean, I lucked out with friends who found the people and places in life that made them happy. It’s just really hard to be so outside of that.”
The sharp bark of Bess’ laughter startled Nancy out of her mood. Nancy shot her a confused look. “Bess?”
It took a few seconds and at least one aborted effort before Bess calmed down enough to pat her friend’s arm. “Sweetie, don’t be mad. I just never, ever thought I’d hear you say any of that. And I’m sorry because I don’t want to dismiss what you’re feeling right now, but I have to say that distance and time have really proved my mother right.”
“What are you talking about?” Annoyed and a little hurt, Nancy had drawn back.
“Nancy.” Bess tugged her back and rocked her a little, until the tension drained back out of Nancy's body. “You were the most together kid I have ever met. You were so on top of everything, and that just wasn’t healthy. I know that now. Hell, you know that now. It just struck me as really funny that you, smart, perfect, put-together YOU are jealous of me and my husband and our girlfriends and boyfriends, and your Dad and his partner, and George and her husband, and Ned and his wife. Yes, we’re all mostly happy, but we did a lot of work to get there. And trust me when I say that you’ll get there too.”
"Gosh, I sound awful, don't I?" Nancy ducked her head and sighed. "And how terrible is it that I'm worried about all of this when Alexa could be missing?"
That earned her a light bop on the head and Bess staring her down. "Nancy Drew, your problems and your emotions are absolutely important. Not just to me, but to you! You know better than that! Putting everyone else's emotional needs ahead of your own is what got you so turned around in the first place."
Bess shook her friend's shoulders slightly, her face as serious as it could get. And considering Bess was a well-respected criminal psychologist and a mother of three, that was pretty serious. Nancy sighed again and nodded, knowing Bess was right. These days, Bess was right about everything.
"Okay, okay! I'm allowed to be lonely and frustrated because my friends and family have their romantic and personal lives in order!"
"Thank you!" Bess laughed then, pulling Nancy back down next to her, cuddling up next to her tightly. They sat for a minute, enjoying the sunshine and companionship before Bess turned her head and raised her eyebrow. "Alexa's probably in some real trouble, isn't she?"
Nancy nodded tightly. "My gut tells me she is."
"Just your gut?"
Nancy frowned and considered what she knew. Which, admittedly, wasn't a whole lot. "Not entirely. While you went to go get the food from the kitchen last night, she said some things that are really odd in retrospect."
"I don't think she believes that Terry's death was an accident."
Bess gave a low whistle and shook her head. "Whoa, really?"
"Mmm." Nancy chewed her lip and ran the conversation back over in her mind, searching for clues. "She mentioned that the CIA had backed up the Kerkiran Police's chain of events. Which is a bit odd in itself, I think."
"Well, you'd know more about International policy than I would." Bess frowned and pulled her sunglasses back down, leaning back on the chair. "But that does sound kind of odd, considering Terry was supposed to have retired a few years ago."
"It wouldn't be a huge stretch to believe that the CIA would pull a veteran in on an operation if they needed expertise or a light touch. And from what I know and remember, Terry the best undercover agent in the region twenty-five years ago and he spent the last twenty years as a local liaison between espionage agencies. He was the public face of the CIA here in the Agean and the Balkans before he retired."
"You can bet he still had a lot of active contacts and informants if the CIA was running any kind of operation."
Nancy nodded, her sleuthing brain pulling the idea apart and finding a lot of possibilities to play with. "And I bet Alexa hasn't exactly been subtle about investigating this."
"You think the CIA might have something to do with her disappearance?" Bess's face and tone were incredulous.
"Honestly, I don't know." Nancy dropped her head back against the lounge and groaned. "I just don't have enough information yet."
"Well, then, you'll probably be happy to know that your phone's vibrating." Best pointed a well-manicured fingernail at her beach bag. Her smirk widened as Nancy dove for the tote and fished out her smartphone.
"That was quick, Joanna." Nancy greeted her coworker. "Did we get the phone records already?"
"Sure did, boss. I had no idea the Greek telecom was that efficient. Nothing out of the ordinary is showing up. Mostly outgoing calls to business associates and assistants. Quite a few back and forth between the house and the lawyer, and the daughter's cell and the house. Nothing that indicates anything other than a concerned daughter and the wonderful adventure that is estate settlement."
"Hrm. Any extra cell activity from this region? Amelio cleared you to do a blanket list of incoming and outgoing calls on the island, right? Since it's private property?"
"Yep!" Joanna's voice was cheerful and bright, despite the late hour back in the States. It wasn't much of a surprise. Most IT people, in Nancy's experience, were more effective at night. "But the hinkiest of the lot is that one of the gardeners seems to be calling his coworker's wife a lot."
Nancy bit her lip and considered what she knew about Alexa. "Well, I wouldn't be surprised if she had a burn phone stashed somewhere in Kerkira. She was married to a CIA vet."
Nancy glanced over at Bess, who was shifting around and digging in her own bag for something. A few seconds later, she pulled out her phone, which had been vibrating.
“Well.” Nancy tuned back in to Joanna. “That would make sense. But boss?”
“I had a pretty heavy hit when I plugged in some of Ms. Cassadine-Brodsky’s original case hot-tags. Cross-referencing known threats to the company and to her personally.”
Nancy’s skin went cold. Her clue-instincts were on high alert. “What did you find?”
“Petros Apollonious was released from prison two months ago.”
And there it was. Nancy’s stomach sank. Petros Apollonious was Alexa's ex-fiancé, as well as a man who'd kidnapped Alexa and stolen Phoenix missiles, intent on destroying Christos Cassadine's life. Petros had been vengeance-driven, bent on destroying one man to redeem the damage he perceived Christos had done to his father. After his arrest, he'd been sent to the maximum-security prison near Athens, though Nancy hadn't ever learned the terms of his imprisonment. “Did anyone affiliated with Cassadine know about this?”
“I don’t think so.” Joanna sighed at the other end of the line. “For as efficient as their telecom system seems to be, there doesn’t appear to be any kind of victim-notification system in place for those exiting prison. Did Ms. Cassadine-Brodsky mention anything?”
“No. And I’m pretty sure she would have. Especially given her mood last night.” Nancy rubbed the base of her nose with her middle finger and thumb. “Does he have a listed, current address?”
“That’s the other part of the bad news. Not only is his forwarding address a boarding house local to Corfu, I’ve got three hits on sightings in Kerkira within the last week. The most recent was yesterday at a sporting goods store called Ernesto's Emporium. No sign of contact with his family, though. There's a note in his prison file that they cut all ties after the trial, so I'd approach them as a last resort. I'm hitting send on the details right now."
"Joanna, you are the best!"
The smile was evident in Joanna's voice. "I just know you, boss. I'll keep running the facial recognition and see if I can coordinate with the Greek officials."
A thought occurred to Nancy. "Make sure to keep the disappearance aspect quiet, okay? We're not even sure Alexa's officially missing. Work the protection angle with the cops. Use Petros's name and the original case from '88. And use Terry's death if they're being resistant."
She hated to play the sympathy card, but Nancy had learned a lot since her early career. While she made sure to always be above the board and honest in her dealings with clients and law enforcement agencies, she'd definitely grown more savvy in the art of intimation. Like it or not, cops and agents liked to play hero to a damsel in distress.
"If you say so, boss. Sorry your vacation got roasted!"
"Definitely not the first time, but thanks! And get some sleep!"
Nancy ended the call and pulled up her email. Sure enough, Joanna's file had come through. Among the details were the names and addresses of local Petros sightings. Nancy's gut was very firmly telling her that something was off. Petros's release and appearance in Kerkira along with Alexa's disappearance couldn't be a coincidence.
And even with the remodel of the villa and two decades worth of security upgrades, Petros knew this island like the back of his hand. The likelihood that he could slip in and out was high.
"Bess-" Nancy turned and started to share her line of thinking but stopped as her friend was still on the phone.
"I got it. Five o'clock. Petronia Airways, flight 336. We'll meet you at baggage. Love you too!"
Bess did a little bounce as she hit "end" and turned to Nancy. Her face was a picture of happiness and anticipation.
"What was that?"
Bess's grin widened. "We have to go into town later today. Joe finished up his case early and caught a connecting flight! And he says he has a surprise!"
Joe Hardy, besides being Bess's husband, was one of the best investigators currently working. Nancy's smile grew. "That's perfect! I could definitely use some extra eyes on this."
"So we can go into town?"
Nancy glanced down at her own cell, thinking of the addresses and information inside. "Definitely. And let's go now. I've got some errands to occupy our time before the plane gets in."
Bess shot her a dubious look but shrugged and stood up. "I'll get my sleuthing pants on. And good walking shoes. And I packed the cutest pair of heels. Oh, well!"
"Which baggage claim, Bess?"
Bess already had her phone out and was scrolling through her email. "Number two, which should be- Nan! There they are!"
Bess's face lit up when she caught sight of her husband. Nancy grinned as her friend took off down the causeway and tackled the tall blond man, who merely caught her up in a hug.
"There's my girl!" Joe's voice boomed before he lowered his face to Bess's and gave her a kiss that quickly turned right into red light territory. A deep, familiar laugh behind the couple pulled Nancy's attention away from the embracing duo. There, looking tired and pale but happy was Joe's surprise: Frank Hardy.
When his brown eyes met her blue ones, it felt like time not only stood still, it rolled back. Warmth spread across her cheeks, even as a grin spread across her face.
"Frank!" And then she was hurrying too, moving quickly to close the distance between them. Happily, she walked into his open arms and held on.
"It's so good to see you!" Nancy hugged her friend tightly, absently cataloging the way he stiffened when she squeezed too hard, and how she could feel his ribs under his button-down shirt. It unsettled her more than a little. She knew he'd been hurt six months ago, but Frank Hardy had always been so quick to bounce back from injuries. And while she knew he'd been very badly hurt, she hadn't realized how the wound had lingered. She released him carefully and leaned back to take him in.
He'd definitely lost weight and there were shadows in his eyes that hadn't been there at Christmas, but he was still the same man she'd know and worked with for so long. The same very attractive man.
"Hey." She tilted her head and squeezed his shoulders. "I'm really glad to see you, and I'm glad you're on your feet again."
Frank's smile was bright and sincere. It instantly took five years off his age and turned his handsome rating from 'yes' to 'wow'. "It's great to see you too, Nancy. Even if we're both being subjected to the Joe and Bess lovefest."
Nancy glanced over her shoulder and laughed at the passion and exuberance the couple was displaying. From the intensity of the kiss, it seemed like the two hadn't seen each other in years, rather than the nine days Nancy knew their separation to be. "It's hard to believe that they're the parents of three, huh?"
Frank's laugh was loud and bright in the baggage claim and made Nancy's cheeks warm further. "Don't you mean 'only' three?"
Obviously having heard them, Bess's hand dropped to Joe's ass for a good, solid squeeze. Nancy and Frank were still laughing when they finally pulled apart.
"So!" Joe kept one arm around his wife as he addressed she and Nancy. "How have you two been enjoying your trip?"
Bess rolled her eyes. "Stop your fishing. Yes, there's a mystery. It's escalated since I talked to you last, and I think it's a good thing you're here."
"What?" Frank and Joe straightened both becoming more alert.
"It actually seems to be more of a continuation of the last case we had in Greece." Nancy reached down and snagged Frank's small duffel. She knew CIA work kept him traveling regularly, so she wasn't surprised at how light and compact it was. Her work-travel bag back in Chicago could have been its twin. "And come on. This isn't the place to discuss this."
"So." Frank eyed Nancy and Bess over the hot cup of tea he'd ordered. "What's going on that we can't talk about it in public?"
Nancy, who looked amazing in a bright blue t-shirt and white capri pants, took a long sip of her water before sighing. Bess, who was holding hands with Joe, slumped her shoulders. Nancy, however, was the one who responded.
"You remember how we met Alexa the first time?"
Joe nodded. "I was there when you found her wallet."
"Well, remember how she was kidnapped by those arms dealers? Including her ex-fiancé, Petros?"
Frank raised both eyebrows and stared at his friend. "Do not tell me that Alexa's been kidnapped. Again."
"Sorry, brother-in-law. We're not allowed to lie to you when it comes to missing-persons situations. Well, probable missing-persons situations." Bess's tone was sardonic.
"Bess!" Frank knew he shouldn't be as annoyed with her as he suddenly was. She had no idea what was going on in his head, or how a lot of his guilt and frustration stemmed from something that directly affected Alexa.
Confused at his sharp tone, Bess shot him a look. "Oookay. I know there's something going on there, but let's focus on filling you two in first."
Frank and Joe listened as Nancy and Bess laid out everything they knew about the possible case. Alexa's strange behavior at dinner, then her disappearance that didn't really read like an abduction, Amelio's impressions of Alexa's recent mental state – a section which had Frank's guilt burning even stronger in his gut. They wrapped up with Joanna's discoveries and a quick overview of their afternoon's interview.
"Dapeek was very sure it was Petros. Apparently, not many guys in Greece look that pasty or thin, outside of the Irish guys who own the bar down the street." Bess was leaning into Joe as she finished her narrative. Frank had always been a little envious of the casual affection between the two. Even as teenagers, they'd been pretty physical with each other. Always hugging and brushing each other's arms or holding hands.
He'd been one of the few who hadn't been surprised when he'd received the Vegas wedding announcement a bit after Bess's twenty-fifth birthday. There'd definitely been a few eye-brows raised over the polyamorous aspect of said marriage, but no surprise there either. Bess and Joe fell in love easily and often, but in the end always circled back to each other, and a small core group.
Nancy interrupted his mental tangent with an aggrieved sigh.
"The worst part is that we've only confirmed that Petros is in town and purchased camping supplies and a few days worth of food. Those aren't inherently suspicious purchases, especially for someone who's permanent address is a run-down boarding house that even I'd go camping to avoid." The redhead crossed her arms over her chest and made a face of pure annoyance. "Amelio texted me right before we went to the airport too. No sign of Alexa, and all of the friends he has contact info for haven't seen her."
"So where does that leave us?" Joe tilted his head, his expression thoughtful. "Alexa's missing, but there's been no ransom demand or concrete evidence of abduction. Petros is in town, but doing nothing more suspicious than showing his face, and the lawyer has you on stand-by just in case. It seems like all the bases are covered for now."
"You did say detective work was 90% waiting, didn't you Nancy?"
Frank shot Nancy a conspiring wink. "Sounds a lot like espionage, too."
"Don't start, Hardy!" Nancy's giggle was a welcome break in the seriousness of the conversation. Frank felt his face pull into a smile at the old game. At every family gathering he and Nancy had managed to attend in the last twenty years, they'd invariably started a private vs. public sector debate. Usually it ended in food or water-gun fights, depending on the season. Frank knew his mother still hadn't forgiven them for the Thanksgiving 2008 incident. That said, the look on Nancy's face when that plate of greenbean casserole had connected...
"Okay, as fun as watching you mentally spar sounds," Bess pushed herself back from the table, not letting go of Joe's hand. "I think Joe and I are going to head back to the villa for some quality time and dinner. Frank, I'm sure there's an extra guestroom around somewhere that Alexa wouldn't mind you camping out in. You guys ready to go?"
The mention of Alexa's home stopped Frank's good mood in its tracks. It was one thing to distract himself from his current stymied goal. Humor and comfort were two things that radiated from Nancy for him, and always had. But no. He couldn't stay at Alexa's villa while waiting to finally, finally come clean about his part in Terry's death. It was disrespectful, if not downright insulting.
"I can't." Frank shot Joe a look. His brother nodded, giving his support. "I have reservations for a room here in town."
"Fffft." Bess rolled her eyes. "Cancel it! There's tons of room!"
"Bess." Joe squeezed her hand and shook his head. "Frank wants to stay in town. Let's respect that."
Bess shot her husband an uncertain look but saw something in his face that made her back down. "Oh-kaaay." She drew the word out and bit her lip. "Joe are you staying in town?"
"No." Both brothers answered at the same time, but Joe's was more emphatic. Joe laughed a little at the synchronicity and, with a graceful turn, spun his wife into a dipped embrace. "No, sweetheart. I haven't seen you in a couple weeks, and we have some reuniting to do."
Frank turned his head as Joe kissed his wife. Nancy caught his eye and rolled hers in the other couple's direction. He sent her a grin and a wink, surprised when she blushed. It sent a little kick to his heart and stomach, that blush. It felt... good. Happy.
Which, considering the last few months, was a foreign thing. Pleasant though.
"Right!" Bess's voice was breathless and both she and Joe's clothing was ruffled by the time she managed to pull away. "Nancy, you coming back with us?"
"Uh, no. I think I'm going to stay here and talk to Frank a bit longer. What do you say to dinner, Hardy?"
"I'd say that we're in the right spot."
Joe shook his head and started towing Bess towards the entrance. "She just doesn't want a free show."
"Pity." Bess waved, and with the tinkle of the bell over the door and a cheerful laugh, the married couple was gone. Presumably heading down towards the private transport that would take them back to the Cassadine villa.
Still chuckling over the pair's antics and over-the-top departure, Nancy waved down their server so they could order.
They chatted absently, discussing EJ and his nieces and nephew until their server brought out the first course. Frank ways thankful for the extended length of Greek courses, as it gave them a bit more privacy.
"So, how have you really been, Frank?"
Frank sighed and gave a rueful smile as Nancy pinned him with those gorgeous, intent eyes of hers. One of the things he'd always liked best about this woman, besides the amazing face and body, was her ability to cut right through the bullshit and pin him to the wall. No one else in his life, except possibly his mother, had ever had that power over him. Not even Callie, the first woman he'd ever loved.
"Pretty bad, Nancy." In the end, honesty really was the best policy. The woman had an incredible internal lie detector, and he was just plain tired of deception. Admittedly, a strange thing for a CIA agent to admit, even to himself.
"Thought so." She reached across the table and took his hand. It was warm and soft in his own. He ran a thumb over the back, reassurance more for himself than for her. "Do you want to talk about it?"
He laughed, short and lacking of most humor. "I feel like I've done nothing but talk about it for the last two days."
"So, no then?" She jiggled his hand in hers. Gave him a coy little look.
"Well, you are a top-notch interrogator, Drew. I'm betting you can draw it out of me."
She laughed and shook her head, fondly. "I really have missed you, Frank. Christmas parties and the occasional run-in at the airport really aren't enough."
And wasn't that the truth?
"I've been thinking about leaving the CIA." Which was not what he'd expected to come out of his mouth.
Nancy blinked. Her pretty face tightened into a moue of confusion. "Frank? You're quitting?"
He cast a wary glance over the restaurant, doing a quick check of sight-lines. They were seated at the table they'd selected when they walked in, a cozy table for four on the veranda. It had gotten darker since they'd arrived and the strings of fairly lights hung around the ceiling were casting most of the light. A few more diners had joined them, mostly couples and old men. It was a peaceful scene.
"Not quit." He shrugged a shoulder, wincing slightly as the scar tissue on his side pulled. "I've been informed I have a decision to make."
"That isn't-!" Nancy's voice started loud, but she jerked. She cast a quick look around and lowered her voice before leaning in. "That is not fair! You are one of their best operatives! You are fantastic!"
"I appreciate the support, but I have been weighed, measured, and found lacking." And didn't that hurt to say out loud? Made it real in ways that cut. He sighed and leaned back into his chair. Only then noticing that he was still holding Nancy's hand. He didn't let go. "Desk or out. I have to let them know by next week so they can start processing the paperwork."
"Oh, Frank." He flinched then, responding to the sympathy that suffused Nancy's voice. A quick spurt of irrational rage surfaced before he tamped it down. Nancy didn't deserve that reaction.
"I'm sorry." She said. Shook his hand until he looked up at her. "I mean it. I know what your career means to you."
He felt stupid then. More so than he had in a while. Nancy would never pity him. She knew what his work meant to him. Knew how hard a blow this was.
Frank squeezed her hand, holding her gaze. It was warm and genuine, and was definitely causing more than comfort. Nancy Drew was a beautiful woman. Frank had known this for the entirety of his adult life. Had wanted her, loved her, in some form or another for it as well.
Absently, he realized that if he did it, if he quit, there would be nothing standing in their way. She was single, as was he. He'd be back in the States full time, and Chicago was just as good a place as any to look for work.
Frank blinked his way out of the half-formed fantasy, refocusing on Nancy's face. She was smiling, which was a bit of a relief. Most women weren't too thrilled when you drifted off during dinner. Even if it was just a dinner between friends.
"No matter what, you will always have a place at Drew Investigations. You know that, right?"
"You'd really take in an old spook?" Frank was surprised how hopeful his question was. The offer had always been on the table, but vague implications were never a direct invitation.
Nancy's expression was serious when she responded. "In a minute, Frank. We may not be as close as we were during our teenage years, but I know you. You're smart, thorough, and I'd be an idiot not to take you. You've got options."
"Thank you." He said, meaning it. "Now, come on. Let's eat some of the amazing food that our server is bringing over and I'll tell you why I've descended into a pit of despair."
Frank spent the rest of the meal filling Nancy in on the events of the past few months. It was hard; the cover up and the situation horrified Nancy, but Frank knew the conversation was worth it. The story and events, while still very difficult to discuss, were actually starting to get easier to talk about. And Frank knew that was important. Because once Alexa was found, once this whole possible abduction mess was sorted out, he needed to tell her everything. He owed it to her.
Especially since Nancy told him that Alexa had already suspected the truth.
They had finished dinner and Frank was walking Nancy to the Cassadine transport when she brought that up.
"What do you mean?" Nancy's arm was in his. He'd tucked her into his body to shield her from the cool wind coming in off the sea. It had cooled considerably since their walk started, and Frank definitely hadn't minded when Nancy'd taken his arm as they exited the restaurant.
"She knows something happened that no one was telling her." Nancy tucked her hair behind her ear and leaned into his shoulder. And as serious, as heartbreaking as the topic of conversation was, Frank was more than a little pleased at her continued contact. At her trust.
They reached the walkway to the dock. Frank could see the transport had returned from the island, and was waiting for Nancy, bobbing slightly in the tide. With a quick turn, Nancy was facing him, her face turned up to his, beautiful in the moonlight.
"I'm glad you're here, Frank."
"I am too. It's something that needed doing, and I'm ashamed that I didn't do it sooner."
Nancy gave a rueful laugh, shaking her head. "That's what makes you a good man. But I didn't mean that. I mean, I'm glad you are here to tell Alexa! But, that's not all I'm glad about."
He blinked, shocked and disbelieving, as Nancy leaned up on her toes and kissed him, softly, on the mouth.
She tasted like the wine they'd had with dinner an the honey torte they'd had for dessert. It was a quick kiss, almost chaste, but one of the best things he'd ever experienced. He leaned in pushing into Nancy and the kiss. It very quickly went from comfortable and reassuring to down right passionate.
His arms went around her, pulling her close and lifted her into the curve of his body. His hands tentatively explored the curve of her spine as she deepened the kiss. Heat raced through him, along with the memory of her. All the other times they'd done this, stolen a kiss here and there, it hadn't been right. They'd been with other people, or it'd been the wrong place or the wrong time.
And while now might qualify as the wrong place and the wrong time, this was the first thing besides coming to Greece, that had felt right in a very, very long time. Frank lost himself in the kiss, in Nancy, and it was perfect.
He didn't know how long they kissed for, just that when they pulled apart, they were both panting and flush.
"Well." He murmured, pulling her into a tight hug, lips brushing her strawberry blonde locks. "I didn't expect that."
He felt her laugh more than he heard it. "Well, then you're a dummy, Frank Hardy. Because I expected that. Wanted it as soon as I saw you."
He hugged her tighter then, almost trying to pull her into him. "The wanted was a given, Drew."
He pulled back, looked down into her sparkling eyes and couldn't help but grin. "I hope this isn't a one-time thing?"
She shook her head, eyes and expression happier than he had any right to believe. "Depends on if a certain someone is going to be stateside in the near future. And even if you stay on, I'm in and out of DC all the time. Langley isn't that much of a trip."
Hope and joy hit him in equal measures. "Is it time?"
Nancy nodded, her face practically glowing in the light of the docks and the moon. "Bet your ass, Hardy."
"Well, that's the best news I've heard, basically ever." He leaned in, kissed her forehead and laughed at her annoyed squawk. "But you need to head back to the villa and get some rest. It's been a long day."
She nodded, leaned up to kiss him again, quick and firm. "You're at the Hotel Selamarie, right? Damn where did my purse- there!"
Distractedly, she leaned down to snare the bag she'd dropped during their embrace, bending at the waist to snag it off the stone walkway.
It was the last thing Frank saw before fire ripped through his chest, darkness and agony dragging him into the black of unconsciousness.
Joe kissed the top of his wife's head and let himself settle into the chaise lounge they were sharing. He'd missed Bess. He always missed Bess when he was traveling or away. She was his best friend, the mother of his children, and one of the smartest, most fun people he'd ever known in his life. She was also a horrible plotter who, invariably, was five steps ahead of everyone in her life.
It drove the kids nuts.
"Your plan? You had a plan for this? You knew I'd be done in Italy that early, did you?"
Bess giggled into his neck and ran a hand across his bare shoulder. "I have supreme confidence in your abilities. I also knew you'd been worried about Frank. Hell, you've been worried about Frank for years. But combine Nancy and me in Greece, and you a short plane ride away?"
"That's why you agreed to go on vacation with Nancy?" He leaned back to stare at her. "You seriously need to curb those mastermind tendencies."
"Whatever, you love it."
"No question. But man, did you bite off more than we can chew."
"Like I had any way of knowing how fucked up all of this was." Bess made a quiet snort of disgust and rolled her eyes. "Alexa falling off the grid figured nowhere in my plans. Neither did Frank's giant source of man pain. I mean, come on? How could anyone see that coming?"
Joe nodded and ran an idle hand up Bess's pajama-clad side. After coming back from Kerkira, they'd spent some time reacquainting themselves in Bess's room before relocating to the main veranda to take in the night air and talk. "You have a point. I have to say that I'm not surprised she wasn't here though. This is starting to really feel like there's something wrong. Especially with Petros being back in town."
Bess grunted an agreeing noise, but kept her face thoughtful. "I don't know. I think Petros' appearance is a little too neat. There's something wrong about this whole thing. Not just Alexa's disappearance, but this whole situation. The whole thing just feels... hinky."
"That, my dear wife." Joe squeezed her hip gently before reaching down to tickle her knee. "Is because you've spent entirely too much time around detectives."
"Comes with the territory when you're married to one and best friends with another. Not to mention my job."
"Best forensic psychologist west of the Mississippi!"
"Stupid Emil Skoda."
"It was rigged."
They shared a laugh.
"Anyway." Bess purred. "Did you see what I meant about Frank and Nancy?"
"Yes, yes, you were correct and win all the awards. Sue and I both owe you manual labor, and I bow to your superior knowledge of the mind."
"Seriously, he was glowing. So was she."
Joe had opened his mouth to respond when, suddenly, the glass doors leading from the main part of the house were thrown open. An older man, wind-blown and disheveled, stepped on to the veranda, doing a quick survey. When his eyes landed on him and Bess, they lit, and a knee-weakened expression of relief lit his face.
"Amelio?" Bess pulled away from Joe, stood, and moved to meet the older man as he rushed forward. Amelio Davros, Alexa's lawyer, Joe reminded himself. "Amelio, what's wrong?"
"I have received a demand!" Amelio waved a piece of white paper, which Bess took as she reached him. Joe noticed that the man was also holding a medium-sized black duffel bag. "It was delivered to my office this evening. I found it when I was locking up for the night, after my secretary had left. It was tucked into the door."
"Why did you rush here? Have you not called Nancy?" Joe moved behind his wife, who was still reading.
"I'm sorry, we have not been introduced?" Amelio shook his head, eyeing him warily.
"Oh, forgive me. I'm Joe Hardy, Bess' husband. I arrived today because a case of mine finished early. Bess filled me in as I'd met Alexa and work for Nancy. I hope that was all right?" Joe put on his most charming and reassuring smile. Kind words and a professional demeanor worked well, even if he was just wearing pajama bottoms.
"Oh, of course!" Amelio nodded. "If you work for Drew Investigations, absolutely."
"Damn, Joe, this is bad." Bess glanced up, eyes serious and handed him the ransom note. "Amelio, why didn't you call Nancy with this?"
"I did! It went straight to voicemail. I tried when I received the note, when I went to the bank to obtain the ransom," he lifted the black duffel, shaking it lightly. "And then when I was on the water to come here. I figured she had turned it off for the evening. She is not here?"
"No." Joe finished the note and shook his head. It was fairly standard for a ransom demand. Ten million Euros in traveler's bonds delivered to a specific pier in the Cassadine Ship Yards by five the following morning. No police, and Nancy Drew was to deliver it by hand. "This asks for Nancy by name."
"I saw that." Bess shot him a worried look. "That further implicates Petros, doesn't it?"
"It does." Joe nodded, memorizing the note. "That, or this is a pro-team that's worked with Nancy before. She's done a few kidnapping negotiations in this area in the past. What I'm really confused about is why the ransom is so small."
"Ten million Euros isn't exactly small change, hon."
"No." Amelio nodded to Joe, looking slightly impressed. "That is a very small amount, considering Alexa's total net worth. This was easily obtained from her liquid assets."
"Well, it's a round number and easily accessible from her liquid assets. That makes sense then." Joe nodded. Seeing the sense in his wife's statement.
"Bess is right. But you know what this means, right?"
Amelio nodded. "There is someone involved who knows Alexa's assets well. Who'd know that this amount, while large, would not be missed and easy to obtain, even late in the evening."
"This is bad-" Joe's train of thought was interrupted by the loud beeping ringtone that sounded from the pocket of Bess's robe. As parents to young children, they'd both gotten in the habit of always having a phone on or near one of them, just in case. Joe'd seen Bess grab hers before they left the room, so hadn't bothered with his.
"Hold on, this might be Nancy." Bess pulled out the phone and flicked the 'receive' button with practiced ease. "Nancy is that you? Where are you-"
Joe tensed immediately as Bess's face went white. He pressed to her side quickly when her knees wavered, but kept talking.
"Nancy, NANCY. Calm down! We're on our way. You need to calm down and breathe, honey. I promise we'll get there as soon as possible. Okay, okay. Text me the details. I'll grab clothes and we're leaving in five minutes. I promise!"
"What's wrong?" He demanded when Bess had thumbed off the phone. His anxiety took a spike when she leaned up to stare at him, eyes bright with tears. The next words out of her mouth almost dropped him where he stood.
"That was Nancy." Her blue eyes seemed to grow even bigger in her terrified face. "Frank's been shot. He's in surgery."
She picked idly at the seam of her borrowed scrubs. A very nice Indian nurse had brought them to her so that her blood-spattered and soaked clothing could be tagged as evidence by the local police. It was a reassuring procedure, even if she'd burst into hysterical sobs while stripping off her bra.
Frank had coded twice. Once in the ambulance, and then again just as they were bringing him into the ER.
He was in surgery now. His life rested in the capable hands of Kerkira's best surgeons.
Her head jerked up and almost before she could register, Bess was in her arms. Joe was close behind, embracing both women.
"Have you heard from the doctors?" Joe's voice was strong with urgency and fear as he pulled away. Nancy looked up, feeling all the more devastated for the worry and terror in her friend's face.
"Yes. He's in surgery. The bullet..." She took a breath and braced herself. Joe needed information and a clear head, not someone who was three breaths away from screaming. She needed to focus. "It was a through-and-through. It missed his heart, but brushed a lung. He's lost a lot of blood. But the last update from the nurse said he was stable and they were just patching up damage."
"Oh, god." Bess was still plastered against her side. "And it happened near the dock?"
Nancy nodded, her eyes were glassy. The stones that lined the pathway had been rough. She knew there were bruises and scrapes all along her legs from where she'd knelt next to Frank, desperate to keep pressure and screaming for help. Luckily, they'd been near enough to the Cassadine transport that the sound carried easily and the ambulance had been quickly called.
"We were lucky Amelio brought his own boat." Joe nodded at his wife, and Nancy blinked.
"Amelio? Why was he at the villa?"
"He tried calling you." Bess ran a hand over Nancy's back. "But I'm assuming the police took your phone?"
Nancy nodded. "And my clothing. But why was he- Oh, no!"
"Yep. We got a ransom note for Alexa."
"This day is just never going to end, is it?" Nancy slumped, exhausted. Had it only been that morning that everything had gone so wrong?
"This us up there even for one of our shared vacations." Bess nodded and helped ease her into another chair. Joe took the one on the other side of Bess. "I brought you some clothing, just in case. And... well."
Nancy shot her a curious look. "What?"
"You're going to have to leave in a few minutes." Bess reached into her purse and pulled out a folded piece of white paper. She handed it to Nancy who started reading.
"What? When did this come?" The first thing that caught Nancy's eye was the ransom amount. The time and date of the drop which, going by the hospital clock, was in roughly an hour. The last was her name, in clear, recognizable Times New Roman font. "Alexa really was kidnapped?"
Joe nodded. "Looks like."
"I can't go. I can't do this!" Blood pounded in Nancy's ears. It had been a horrific night, and an incredibly stressful few days. "Joe, Frank is in surgery!"
"And we can't do anything about that, Nancy." Joe put his hands on Nancy's shoulders, which surprised her. Either she was completely out of it, or he was stealthier than she gave him credit for. His hands were a strong weight, grounding her into the moment. Lip trembling, she met his gaze. Strong, steady and direct, he stared her down. "I've sat vigil in the hospital before, Nancy. For Frank. I know what it's like. I'll probably do it again at least once more, God willing."
"You don't understand!" Nancy shook her head, tears clouding her view. "He was shot because of me! I ducked!"
Nancy took a deep breath, trying not to sob. "I bent over to get my purse. We'd... I'd dropped it, and I bent over, and he was on the ground! It should have been me!"
"Nancy." Joe's voice trembled a little at the reminder of his brother's injury, but his eyes stayed firmly on her face. "You know that this is probably related to the kidnapping. The timing is too neat. And maybe Frank did take a bullet for you. But do you honestly think he'd regret that?"
There was truth in Joe's words. Nancy knew it. Frank was always the one to do the right thing, no matter what it cost him. Wasn't his presence in Greece, his decision to tell Alexa about Terry's death proof of that?
"Nancy." Bess's hand settled on her arm as Joe let go of her shoulders. "Hon, they asked for you by name. You need to be there. We have no idea what will go down if you don't."
"And I'm going with you as back-up." Joe nodded. "You're not in any condition to do this by yourself, and I'm not really either."
"Go." Bess's face was grim and determined in the unflattering hospital light. "I'll stay here and wait for news. I'm family, and Alexa needs your help. You know Frank would want you to go."
Joe nodded and hefted a small, dark duffel. Presumably, it held the ransom. "C'mon Nancy. The sooner we make the drop, the sooner we can get back here and wait for news. Amelio set us up with a car. We'll be there and back in under an hour."
Nancy knew that Bess and Joe were right. Alexa had been kidnapped. The person responsible for Frank's condition was, likely, involved, and the only thing she could do right now was make sure that they did everything they could to help Alexa.
It might be her fault that Frank was in surgery, but they needed to catch the person responsible. And the only way to do that was to prompt more contact.
Nancy took a calming breath and held out her hand to Bess. "Give me the clothes. These scrubs stand out too much."
“He’s going to be okay, you know.”
Nancy started and turned to her friend. “What?”
Joe shook his head and reached for one of her hands. He was surprisingly steady given that his brother was fighting for his life in surgery. But Joe's face was clear and tone sure. “Frank’s going to be fine.”
“How do you know?” Nancy winced at how plaintive her voice sounded. She and Frank weren’t even anything other than very, very good friends. And here, his brother was comforting her. But right then, she was weak enough, worried enough, to take it. “He lost so much blood...”
Joe’s hand tightened around hers, and he made a quick turn down the entrance road near the gates of Cassadine Shipping, and flashed an Amelio-provided badge to get them through security. “I know because Frank Hardy is a survivor. Not only that, he’s got a lot more now than he had when I found him in that consulate in Petronia two days ago. He’s got you fighting for him.”
Nancy bit her lip and wiped away some of the mist clouding her vision. “Joe-“
Joe pulled the car into an open spot near the administration building before turning to her. His face was as serious as she’d ever seen it, and she’d seen some pretty serious experiences with him. “No, Nancy. You’re going to listen to me right now.”
He waited for her to nod before continuing. “I know you and Frank have had this really weird vibe since we were teenagers.” He held up a hand, forestalling her response. “No, I’m going to say this because it’s needed to be said for years. I know you two had something. Maybe nothing actually happened, because I remember how nuts he was about Callie and how nuts you were about Ned, but there was something. And I saw you two push that away to be with your partners. But it’s been over twenty years, Nancy. You’ve divorced and Frank hasn’t had a serious relationship in longer than I can remember. And you two? You two just fit, okay?
"And you made him smile, Nan. You didn't see him in that room at the consulate. He was so sad, and so lost, and the minute he saw you. Nancy you both just lit up."
The tears were coming faster now, faster than Nancy could wipe them away with her sleeve. "I... I told him that no matter what, he had a job with me. That whatever he decided about his job, he could come to me."
Joe's hand was suddenly in her own, warm and reassuring. She met his eyes and saw nothing but sincerity. "The we have nothing to worry about, do we? Because you know Frank always follows you."
Nancy let out a little sob before she nodded. Frank would be okay. Joe was sure, and even with all that blood, Nancy believed. Because Frank kept his promises, and he'd promised more. Maybe not out loud, but it had been there in his face, and in his kiss.
Her belief must have shown on her face because Joe's smile deepened. "Now, come on. We've got to help Alexa, and that means getting this suitcase full of money to the docks in-" Joe glanced at his watch. "Fifteen minutes, give or take."
Nancy nodded, and grabbed the duffel. Joe locked the car and they both headed down towards Pier 15.
Unsurprisingly, this area of the shipyards was quiet and still. In the distance, Nancy could hear the heaving bangs and thumps of machinery loading and unloading cargo. Kerkira was a relatively small port compared to Rotterdam or even Baltimore, but a good bit of Cassadine's Greek shipping business ran through the docks.
"The note said that we're supposed to put it in a red buoy attached to the fifth dock strut." Joe mumbled, his blue eyes scanning the area for any sign of a threat, or even habitation. Pier 15 seemed to be undergoing some reconstruction at the far end, with piles of lumber and building materials stacked in neat rows along the side closest to land.
All in all, the kidnapper had chosen the perfect spot for a money drop. Secluded, water-accessible, and well-known to the kidnapper. At least, it was if Petros was the responsible party. Nancy knew better than to eliminate suspects without concrete proof, but the circumstantial evidence was piled pretty high and other clues were pretty thin on the ground in this mystery. Everything was just moving too fast to really get a good grip on it.
And, of course, it didn't help that she was so emotionally involved. Nancy shuddered lightly, flashing back to the viscous feel of Frank's blood leaking out of his body and spilling onto the stones of the walkway. Imagining the same thing happening to Alexa. Yeah, she was definitely over-emotionally involved.
"Nancy!" Joe drew her attention with a wave. He'd made it down the pier and was kneeling on the side. Get your head in the game, Drew, she told herself firmly, and rushed to his position.
"Did you find it?" She glanced over the side, and sure enough, there was a large circular plastic buoy floating below them. It looked heavy, and was attached to the pier by a heavy nylon cord. "I guess so."
"Yeah, looks like. Here, help me pull it up. It's too heavy for me to get myself."
Nancy took a quick survey of the deserted area, paying special attention to the piles of construction equipment, any of which could easily conceal a person. She kept her peripheral vision open, but nothing moved except the waves and the end of a tarp, flapping idly in the sea wind. She set the duffel on the dock between she and Joe and leaned down to help him pull.
It was hard work. The buoy was plastic, but it was the heavy industrial grade meant for open sea. It took several minutes of grunting, pulling, and rearranging of limbs before they were able to get the round buoy up to the deck. In the end, Joe had to grab the rim while Nancy kept the rope taut. Finally though, they settled it on the pier. Both nearly dropped it when something sharp jabbed them from underneath the waterline lip.
"What was that?"
Joe was sucking on a finger and looking annoyed. "Did something stick you too?"
"Yeah." Nancy squeezed her palm, which had a puncture mark just under her index finger. "Probably a barnacle or something. C'mon. The sooner we get this money inside and back in the water, the quicker we can get back to the hospital and wait on the delivery call."
Especially since she'd started to get a headache.
Joe nodded and pulled open the trap near the top, usually meant for weather equipment or signal beacons. "Hand me the bag."
She did. It and the money slid neatly inside.
Careful to avoid the sharp pieces of the buoy, she and Joe rolled it back off the side of the pier, watching as it splashed back into the ocean below. Oddly, Nancy was sure that it took more effort to roll the thing off the side than it had to haul it up. And that really meant something.
It was only when she turned around and took a few steps back towards land that she really noticed something wrong.
"Joe-" Her voice was slurred and strange in her ears, and the edges of her vision started to cloud.
The last thing she heard before her world went completely dark was Joe swearing and the very telling sound of a body hitting wood.
Nancy really had exact count of the number of times she'd woken after being drugged by some neer-do-well. The number'd gotten too depressing after the fifteenth time, and that was when she was seventeen. The twenty plus years since had been no less adventurous. So, when she gained consciousness this time, she kept her breathing regulated and gave nothing of the pain in her arms or the fuzziness in her head away.
Slowly and carefully Nancy squinted her eyes open to assess her situation.
From the weathered siding and the rows of rusting hooks, chains, and anchors, she figured she was in a large boating shed. In the distance, she could hear the same bangs and thumps from the automatic ship-loaders, but they were closer than they'd been before. Probably still in the Cassadine shipyards, she decided, trying to scan the room without opening her eyes further or moving.
She was on a dirty wooden floor. Likely one of the lofts that were used for draining big game fishing and storage. The cut and burn when she shifted her wrists confirmed the zip ties. Her shoes were still on and from the warmth behind her, Joe was likely there as well.
Carefully and slowly, Nancy reached her arms out behind her, taking a chance. After only a few inches, she encountered a face. The strong jaw and the smile she skated her fingers over confirmed that, yes, Joe was behind her and he was still alive. Relief flooded her body and she risked a few turns of her head to scan the room.
"It looks empty." Nancy whispered to Joe. Quickly, she felt for the watch on her left wrist. It was still there.
Nancy sent up a small prayer and thumbed the small button on the bottom. Another of the perks of owning your own private investigation firm was access to standardized tech. Both she and Joe had similar models of watch. They had GPS tracking devices embedded, as well as an extra handy little option. Nancy let herself squirm a bit, getting her non-zip-tied legs up under her for balance before she tried to sit up.
Unfortunately, her ankles were tied with twine, so while she could sit up, she couldn't shift into a very steady position. Still, she had a better view of the room. As soon as she's seated, she flipped the other button on her watch, and a sharp edge pops from inside.
Knives might be forbidden on airplanes, but watch details? Not so much.
"It is empty."
Nancy jerked, her head whipping around to find the source of the heavily accented voice. Her eyes widened when they landed on the man, also bound, propped against a wooden support pillar. The hair was longer and liberally sprinkled with gray, but there was no mistaking the features, or the prison pallor.
Behind her, a loud thump and some scuffling noises sounded before Joe was suddenly in her peripheral vision. He was covered in dust and had a few scattered bruises littering his visible skin, but he looked mostly unharmed. Nancy sent a silent prayer of thanks into the universe before focusing solely on Petros. Frank and Bess would have killed her otherwise.
"Nancy Drew and Joe Hardy. Are we done stating the obvious?"
"You're not the kidnapper?" Joe's face was incredulous.
"And... apparently not." Petros rolled his eyes, face disgusted.
"What the hell is going on?" Nancy shook her head, completely confused.
"That, my friend, is quite simple."
"Alexa!?" Nancy felt her jaw drop and couldn't help but stare.
The Alexa Cassadine-Brodsky she'd had dinner with two nights before was barely recognizable in woman in front of her. She was streaked with dirt and muck with a jagged cut running from under her ear to her chin. She was also covered in her own dried blood. But the most startling thing was the small pistol she had casually pointed in their direction. That and her eyes, which were cold and hard.
"Hello, Nancy. It is so very nice to see you. Although, I'm sure you do not feel the same right now."
"Holy shit." Next to her, Joe was putting the pieces together and coming up with the same picture as Nancy. A picture that was absolutely terrifying.
Petros, who was working at least twelve steps ahead just gave a bitter laugh and started swearing in Greek.
"Oh, do shut up, Petros. I am quite aware of how little regard you have for my mother. I think the trial transcripts covered that quite nicely." Alexa moved closer to the trio of prisoners, her steps sure.
"Alexa, what is going on?" Nancy tried to keep her voice cool and collected. "Why did you drug Joe and I? Why is Petros here?"
For a split second, Alexa's face contorted. Rage and grief fought for dominance on her pretty features. Nancy caught her breath while beside her Joe flinched.
"For justice." The words were bitten out, filled with venom and an ocean-liner full of anger. "For Terry!"
Joe shifted next to her, and in her peripheral vision, Nancy saw him start working on his zip ties with his watch. "I'm pretty sure Terry wouldn't fake his own abduction, have my brother shot, and kidnap and drug Nancy and I. Just a shot in the dark there. I did only meet the man a few times."
Alexa's laugh was a painful thing. Sharp and hard like a whipcrack, it bounced in the empty room. "That is because as much as I love Terry, he was a stupid man. A man who believed in honor and truth and that the Company he dedicated his life to would grant him those respects in death."
And the last piece fell into place for Nancy. Alexa knew. She knew that Frank'd had a hand in Terry's death and its cover up.
"Frank. The shot at the dock. That wasn't an accident, was it? You were aiming for him, not me?" Nancy started twisting her zip ties again, running the razor-sharp edge of her watch against the plastic. Praying now that it was enough to get her free. Because years of experience told her that this situation was going to escalate quickly. After all, Alexa had very little left to lose.
"Of course! Oh, Nancy. You always were a smart girl. It's almost a shame that you're going to have to die." She glided to a stop a few feet away, gun still trained on them. "But you are wrong. It was an accident. If he had not turned to watch you pick up your bag, it would have been a shot to the head, not torso. And I would not have had to kill a perfectly good sniper."
"This has always been about Frank, hasn't it?" Joe drew attention back to himself, and Nancy felt some give in her cuffs. Not a lot, but a little bit... "You invited Nancy and Bess here so that I'd come."
"Of course." The woman gave a quick shrug and leaned against one of the wooden support beams. Apparently, she was comfortable enough in their bonds and her time frame that she could pontificate. "After Dimitri Rudenskov, one of Terry's old contacts, confirmed that Terry had died in Moldova, not Corfu, I knew who was responsible. Terry had spoken regularly about the wonderful agent that the CIA had covering the Balkan region. Oh, do not make that face, Mr. Hardy. He did not mention names. He just said that he'd met him a long time ago and there could be no better person in charge of undercover operations. You forget that I am not a stupid woman. And have access to CCTV cameras from all Cassadine-patrolled shipping ports."
For a moment, Nancy let herself admire her former friend. The woman definitely had a keen investigative mind. Not that she would confirm anything while the woman had a gun trained in their direction. "So you found out that Frank was working in the area and knew he was in charge? That doesn't make any sense."
The gun swung towards her and Alexa nearly growled. "Do not dismiss me, Nancy. Frank Hardy is responsible for my Terry's death. But not ultimately. I know that he was under orders. I know that he could not have brought Terry in on that operation in Moldova without higher consent. Or without Terry's agreement. But he took advantage. Frank Hardy was Terry's friend, and he used my husband's duty, his responsibility, his decency. He used everything good in Terry to have him participate in one last operation. And when Terry died trying to save those people, he let them, let the CIA," she spit the words. Literally spit them. "He let them cover up Terry's death."
Startled, Nancy whipped her head around to face Joe. Even Petros stopped muttering under his breath to stare at the blond man. Joe kept his gaze solidly on Alexa, face and posture serious.
"So even his brother admits it?" Alexa smirked. "How sad for him that even you, his closest friend, know the depths of his cowardice."
"He's not a coward. He came here to talk to you. This thing has been ripping him up for months-"
"HE KNOWS NOTHING OF PAIN." The scream Alexa let loose was raw and primal in a way that raised the hairs on Nancy's arm and tingled down her spine. It was grief and loathing in equal measures, all of it directed at Frank Hardy. Nancy was so startled by it, her watch missed the plastic and dug into her forearm. The pain from the cut brought her out of the emotion of the moment and helped her refocus on the cuffs.
"He knows nothing." Alexa hissed, quieter this time. "Six months, he's had. To come here. To make amends. To tell me what happened. And what has he done? Nothing. Only when you come, only when his friends force him to do the right thing!"
Joe shook his head, obviously biting back explanations and words of reassurance. It was obvious that Alexa wasn't listening to reason, not anymore. The worst part was that the things she was saying, the things she believed, had a basis in truth. Nancy knew Frank hated himself for what Alexa had gone through.
And while she and Frank weren't... anything, exactly yet; they were at the beginning of something. Something they'd danced around for decades. She imagined him truly gone, if he'd bled out on the ground. Well. She could understand a very small piece of the rage Alexa felt. Having that understanding, Nancy pushed the hard plastic of the cuff with the sharpened watchband, desperately ignoring how slick her arm was becoming. Almost had it...
"But all of this means nothing. Not now." Alexa slowed her speech, visually forcing herself back into the cool calm persona she'd had when she walked in. "All of us will soon be dead, and the real villains of this piece exposed."
"Alexa, what's going on? Why did you fake your kidnapping? Why is Petros here? And why did you take Nancy and I?" Joe's shoulders tensed as he shifted around on the splintered floor boards. Nancy spared a quick mental wince for his legs.
"The great detectives haven't figured it out?" The auburn-haired woman shrugged a lazy shoulder, smugness in every movement. "You and Nancy are here to die. Petros will have killed you in revenge for putting him in jail, after of course killing me. Then, as his plans of revenge are finished? He will kill himself. Because he knows that his assassin friend from prison has finished the job in hospital."
Fear flooded Nancy. "What are you talking about?"
Alexa's smile was mad. Completely and utterly insane. "You thought I would leave loose ends, Nancy? I am sad that you would underestimate me in this way. No, soon I will receive a text, letting me know that your wife and brother," she nodded at Joe. "Are dead."
Joe let out an inarticulate roar of anger and lunged at Alexa. Unfortunately, the ropes that bound his legs to the floor held firm, tripping him before he could get any weight or lift with them. Angry tears streamed down Nancy's face. Bess and Frank!
"And you," she glared down at Petros, who'd been oddly silent for the last stretch of time. "You are just an unfinished mess to clean up."
Petros sneered at her. "Shooting me like a dog. I expect nothing less of a Cassadine."
Alexa just rolled her eyes. "And you are a disgrace to your family. A greedy, grasping pig who walked into my trap because he wanted to crush me under his heel. Again. What a child."
Angrily, Petros started in with the Greek again, keeping Alexa's attention away from Nancy at just the right moment. Panic and fear lent her extra strength, and the plastic ties finally snapped with a quiet pop. Fortunately, Alexa was back to glaring and yelling, waving her gun at Petros while making a point. Nancy used her distraction to discreetly pull off her watch and start sawing on the ropes binding her legs. A softer fiber, it cut easily, soon leaving Nancy's legs and arms free.
A cell phone ringtone cut into the argument, causing everyone to freeze. Nancy's heart sank, and she saw Joe's face go white as Alexa smirked and pulled a cheap, disposable phone from her pocket. She casually hit the receive button, her attention drawn back to Nancy and Joe.
No, thought Nancy. No.
Luckily, happily, Alexa's face went stony. Her features froze into a mask of cold rage. Next to her, she heard Joe sob softly as Alexa jabbed the 'end' button and hurled the phone across the open room. Nancy heard it smash in the distance just before Alexa screamed something in Greek and shot Petros point-blank in the chest.
The bound man screamed. It trailed off into a rasping gurgle, indicating a punctured lung, as he slumped backwards. Joe fell sideways, away from the injured man.
"What the fuck!?"
"This papara is good for NOTHING!" Alexa drew back and spit down on the bleeding man. "Not even your cellmate is worth anything! FAILURES! The both of you! Cannot even kill a woman and an invalid!"
The confirmation of Bess and Frank's survival hit Nancy like a blow. The terror of the last few minutes dumping out of her system all at once. They were alive. Nancy rotated her wrists behind her back and pulled her feet up underneath her, preparing.
"No matter." Tears were flowing down Alexa's cheeks freely now. Her original plan, to blame Petros for everything, leaving her memory clean for her daughter was in ruins. But Nancy knew that the most terrifying animal was the one that was cornered. And Alexa was very cornered. Especially if there'd been a foiled assassination attempt on Frank and Bess. Bess knew all about Joe and Nancy's watches and who to call to get the GPS activated. The police were coming. Joe and Nancy just needed to survive for that rescue. "Even though they live, it changes nothing."
Still breathing through the heady cocktail of adrenaline and relief, Nancy tensed, looking for her moment to spring and strike. Next to Joe, Petros' breath was slowed. If she didn’t do something soon, he'd be dead. Hell, if she didn't do something soon, they'd all be dead.
This thought was confirmed as Alexa lowered the gun to point directly at Joe.
"Frank Hardy will have to live with the knowledge that his brother and friend died because he didn't have the balls to admit to his sins." She smiled then. Peaceful, serene, and deadly.
Nancy knew this was going to be her only chance! Limbs stiff from the drugs and the cold floor, she shot forward. Charging like she'd been coached at every touch-football game she'd ever played; Nancy connected with Alexa in a near-perfect American football body-tackle.
The gun went flying, landing somewhere behind the two women, but Nancy ignored it. Focused on staggering back from Alexa, she pulled back for a right cross. Nancy threw all her weight into the strike, turning her hips to create the most leverage. The blow was swift and accurate and landed on the side of the woman's jaw. Alexa flew sideways, completely unprepared for the blow.
The scream that followed was raw and filled with pain. Panting, Nancy pulled her head up and promptly felt sick.
Alexa's eyes were wide, her mouth working while blood poured out. She hadn't fallen because the momentum of Nancy's blow had forced her back onto one of the rusted hooks that hung from ceiling.
Shock froze Nancy in place, watching as the woman she'd known as a friend flailed, her life's blood draining from the massive wound in her chest. Almost the same instant Nancy realized she needed to move, Joe rose and crossed to Alexa, apparently having finished cutting the ropes on his feet.
Nancy watched as the blond man cradled Alexa's face. She strained to hear what he whispered, but was too far away. Selfishly, she didn't want to get any closer.
Alexa gasped once, a wet sound that turned Nancy's stomach harder. Her eyes tracking up to Joe's, staring him down. Joe ran a single finger over her eyebrow, a benediction. Forgiveness?
But then, what did vengeance or anger matter now? Nancy drew a deep shuddering breath, grief and a strange emptiness battling for dominance. One foot after another, she moved to Alexa and Joe.
In the distance, the sound of sirens overtook the thump-thump of machinery and water. The cavalry had arrived.
Nancy glanced over at Petros, who'd stopped moving. Then looked back at Alexa, who's body Joe was now supporting. Nancy stared as Alexa's eyes skittered around, finally landing on her. And then, with an obscene whistling noise and slump, Alexa was gone.
Alexa was not the first person Nancy'd ever seen die. Not even close. She wasn't even the first friend. Nancy knew that wouldn't matter. Death was devastation, even now.
The sounds of sirens were close now. Nancy could hear the bang of car doors and the shouts of official-sounding people outside of the warehouse. Exhausted and heartsick, she turned away from Alexa's body, away from Petros.
For good or ill, it was over.
Joe hugged her then; his arms were warm, strong, and so safe, and Nancy was very aware that she was going into shock. Images of Frank, blood pooling under him at the restaurant mixed with the naked pain and anger on Alexa's face. So many lives damaged and smashed, all in the name of justice. All for love.
"Let's go to the hospital, Joe." Nancy pulled out of his hug, the first of what she knew were many tears stained her face.
Joe, who didn't look a whole lot better than she did, nodded and took her arm. "Let's go, Drew. We've got family to check on."
Arm in arm, they headed for the stairs and all that lay beyond.
When Frank blinked his eyes open, three things hit him all at once.
He was in a hospital, it was day time, and the way his chest was on fire, he knew he'd been shot.
Slowly, conscious that any sudden movement would likely have him seizing in pain and blow all the vitals monitors he's attached to, Frank shifted his head towards the warm weight next to his thigh. The sight that greeted him warmed his heart and made him smile.
Bent at an odd angle, Nancy was sleeping quietly, her head pillowed next to his leg. Her hair was a mess and there were smudges of grit and dirt along her hairline; both a consequence of an obviously hasty shower. Probably done here in the hospital as she was wearing a pair of soft-looking blue scrubs.
She looked more beautiful than anything he'd ever seen before.
And yes, it was very likely he was on some amazing drugs, but that didn't make it any less true.
She was also, conveniently, holding his hand. Gently he squeezed, testing out his motor control. A few seconds later, her eyes blinked open and that warm feeling intensified.
"You're awake." Her voice was quiet, and the smile she gave him reminded him why he fell for her, all those years ago. Nothing in his world could compete with that kind of joy. Aimed at him.
Not wanting to tempt fate, he squeezed her hand again and smiled.
"Oh, Frank." A single tear spilled down her cheek, and she raised his hand to her mouth to kiss. "You're going to be okay. Everything's taken care of."
The shadows in her eyes belie the last statement, but he was tired and in pain and knew that his brother was right about letting others carry the burden occasionally. Nancy was someone he trusted any responsibility to, absolutely. He fluttered his fingers along her cheek, eyes warming at how the smile sank into her eyes.
She turned then, glancing over her shoulder. Curious, he looked over and saw Bess and Joe cuddled up like puppies on a recliner, obviously brought in for their use. Joe was also in scrubs, and they were both dead to the world.
Nancy turned back to him, hand now gripping his. There were lines of stress on her face, and it's that more than anything that pushed the epiphany he'd had after their dinner to the forefront of his mind. He couldn't lose this woman. He wanted to know what kind of future they could have. What they could be if they really let themselves try.
Be brave, he thought. Everything else will sort itself out.
"Tell me later." His voice was rough and it definitely hurt to speak too much. "We've got time. Boss."
The last thing he saw before Nancy's lips landed on his own was a smile that put all others to shame.