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lessons in love

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The Winter Formal was the last dance of the calendar year at Emerson, and Nancy had been looking forward to it for many reasons. This was Ned's last year at the college, so it was the last Emerson-sponsored winter dance they were likely to attend together. Ned was going to be her escort, and she couldn't have been happier. This was also the year of their engagement, and so for the first time Nancy was attending not just as Ned's girlfriend, but as his fiancée.

It was both a lot of pressure, and no pressure. Their engagement hadn't been all smooth sailing, and a few times Nancy had asked herself if she and Ned were truly ready for such a permanent step in their relationship—but each time, she had answered herself with a resounding yes. It was natural for her to feel nervous and unsure, but Ned was more than ready to answer those doubts, often with a kiss.

Nancy prepared for the dance at the Theta Pi house with the other girls. Bess and George were attending too, and the three of them had gone dress shopping together, poring over department store offerings and funky vintage stores' dress selections. George's dress was long, a shimmering sheath of navy blue accented with small diamond and pearl clusters at the high waist; a small coordinating cap was perched at the back of her head, tilted just-so. Bess wore a pure white ballgown that brought out the pretty blue of her eyes and the gold of her hair; she had found a stunning clutch embroidered with iridescent beads in a peacock design, and she had arranged her hair in flawless waves.

Nancy had chosen a white and gold gown in a vintage style, to match the theme of the dance. The bodice was fitted, and the skirt flowed out, swirling at the level of her ankles. When she looked at her reflection, the gold locket hanging around her neck, the smooth lines of her skin, her silhouette, she felt like she really was a princess.

And Ned so perfectly filled the role of Prince Charming. He wore a flawless black tuxedo with a red rose in his buttonhole, and his cheek was smooth, his dark-eyed gaze glowing when he looked at Nancy. He gave her a nervous smile, and she returned it, utterly charmed that he could still be anything like self-conscious around her. They had been together for years, and he had been her fiancé for six months. In the summer they would be committing their lives to each other.

"Shall we?" he asked, offering her his arm.

"We shall," she replied with a grin, linking her arm through his.

"You look so incredibly beautiful, Nan."

"And you look more handsome than ever," she told him. "If this is what our marriage will be like, watching you get more and more gorgeous every year..."

"Which is what I experience every year," he told her with a smile. "You've always been the most beautiful woman I've ever seen, and every year, your beauty only grows."

Behind them, Bess sighed loudly. "Ned, until you give me permission to clone you, you have got to stop making me so insanely jealous of my best friend."

"Like Dave doesn't treat you like a princess."

"He does." Bess patted Nancy and Ned on their shoulders. "And I've never met two people who were more perfect for each other than you."

The gymnasium was lavishly decorated—it was an anniversary year for Emerson, and the pennants and banners all hearkened back to decades earlier: fifty, sixty, even eighty years. Couples had their photos taken as they walked in, against crazy backdrops, like a 1920s limousine, a 1940s "buy war bonds" poster design, a 1960s soda fountain. Even the band playing for the crowd was dressed in retro suits with glamorous white dinner jackets and slicked-back hair. The collapsed bleachers had been disguised by heavy material, and the outskirts of the dance floor were dotted with round tables covered in floor-length white cloths, intimate for couples and pairs so they could watch the dancing. Most couples and attendees had opted for modern attire, but Nancy spotted other people in the crowd who had tracked down outrageous vintage suits or sleek flapper dresses, mod 60s dresses with go-go boots, or gorgeous polka-dotted frocks with stilettos.

She was glad to be here for this, especially as Ned's fiancée. It was a memory she was sure she would be happy to share with him.

Nancy and Ned waved to several couples they recognized before taking their own place in the dance floor. Nancy moved into Ned's arms easily, marveling as she gazed up into his dark eyes. It still took her breath away sometimes, realizing again that he would be her husband.

His fingertips gently brushed against the small of her back and he smiled. "What are you thinking about, beautiful?" he asked her quietly.

She shook her head. "Just how incredibly lucky I am," she told him. "I love you so much."

"I love you too. And soon I'll be home for break and we can spend a lot more time together..."

She nodded, searching his eyes, a smile still lingering on her lips. Their wedding plans were well underway, but they still found time to spend together, making new memories, bonding with their families. Nancy would be spending half of Christmas Day with the Nickersons'; she was both excited and nervous. Before, she had always just spent time with the Nickerson family the day before or the day after.

Her father sighed, a half-teasing gleam in his eye, that he was losing his baby girl. But Nancy knew that her father loved Ned, and thought the world of him. Ned had even gone so far as to ask her father's blessing before proposing, although he had also privately confessed to her that he would have proposed even without that approval. It just made Nancy feel all the better about her choice to accept Ned as her husband.

Ned leaned down and very lightly kissed her lips without missing a step. The slow music and the singer's dreamy voice made her think of music her grandparents would have danced to. "Do you miss me when we're apart?"

She nodded. "All the time," she murmured. "I never want to be away from you."

He smiled. "I feel the same way," he told her, his voice just for her ears.

She really could have danced all night, floating on a cloud of perfect bliss, wholly in love with Ned and the joy she felt in his arms, remarking on the other dancers' outfits or the retro songs they heard. In a nod to the evening's nostalgic theme, the organizers announced that a king and queen of the dance would be crowned, and everyone's eyes lit up as they considered who might win. When Ned was crowned king of the dance, Nancy was delighted for him, but she was hardly surprised. When she was crowned the queen, she blushed and protested, but the crown was placed on her shining hair anyway, and she grinned at the cheers of the crowd—and the kiss Ned pressed against her cheek, in full view of everyone.

It was perfect. It was all so completely perfect that she was overwhelmed by it. In every photo they posed for during the entire night, some of them Nancy took herself, she and Ned both looked so happy, so in love.

Emerson and Theta Pi were holding their usual after-dance party back on Greek Row, and Mindy and Trish had been working on vintage cocktail recipes all day, much to the sampling sisters' delight. During the last dance of the night, Nancy was already looking forward to going back to the sorority house and changing into something more party-appropriate. Her feet were aching a little, but she had loved every minute of the dance. She wouldn't have changed anything.

"Nan," Ned murmured as they swayed together, and she gazed up into his face. "Um... can I..." He sighed.

"What is it?" she murmured.

He took a deep breath and locked his gaze to hers. "I have a hotel room for tonight," he said, his voice low and serious. "And we can invite some of our friends, or... or it could just be us."

Her lips parted slightly. She and Ned had never... oh, they had fallen asleep together on the couch while watching movies, and they had been alone in his room a few times, but only briefly, for a few minutes at a time. To have a room for the night... she would be more comfortable if Bess and George were there too, and their dates, and all six of them were just having fun together, playing games and laughing. The three girls sharing the bed while the guys gallantly took the floor. Chaste and golden, much like the dance going on around them... but that was innocent, and she knew it.

"Do you mean," she murmured, and paused, unsure of how to ask what she was thinking.

Ned searched her face, then shook his head. "I mean... however you want," he said, and the color rose slightly in his cheeks. "We can just... be together. Just hold each other."

The image brought a smile to her face. "I... that sounds great," she admitted softly.

"So you'll come with me? Just us?"

She nodded.

Ned's tentative smile became a wide grin. "Great. Thank you. This is..." He shook his head.

"Yeah." She gave him a little squeeze as they drifted to a stop, as the last notes of the song faded away. "I can change first?"

"Of course." He nodded. "Just meet me at the Omega house when you're ready?"

She nodded. "Okay," she murmured, and inside she was trembling a little.


The hotel room was just as he had imagined it. The room was paneled in dark wood, with a great view of the moonlit, snow-dusted forest beside the hotel. He had splurged on the best room in the place, and it boasted an electric fireplace, gleaming chrome fixtures, and a massive white king-sized bed covered with a pillowy comforter. It was technically a suite, and the couch pulled out into a bed, but Ned wasn't sure if they would need it. He hoped they wouldn't.

He had brought a few treats with them too, of course. She would be missing out on the Omega after-party, so he had picked up a package of assorted cheesecake slices at the store, along with a bottle of sparkling grape juice and another of water. When he had suggested that they snuggle on the couch and watch a movie, she had excused herself to change into her pajamas, and he was entertaining himself, imagining what she might be wearing when she returned.

He had seen her in a bikini several times, and he knew anything she wore would likely be more modest, but he was entirely captivated by her. Whatever she wore, it would be pajamas—and that would be more intimate than anything else she had ever worn for him.

He had loved the dance, but he had been too anxious about what her reaction to his invitation might be. Now that they were together, he felt like the night had finally really begun. Spending the night with her for the first time... his heart had been beating faster ever since he had reserved the room, ever since he had first started thinking about it.

She opened the bathroom door and then stepped into the doorway of the living area, striking a little pose there, a small smirk on her face. "I hope this is okay," she murmured.

Ned's dark-eyed gaze traveled down and back up. Her makeup had been subtle and beautiful at the dance, and she had scrubbed it all off, but her bare skin glowed with warmth and beauty. She wore a long-sleeved pajama top in striped white and pink, and shorts to match, leaving her long legs bare—save for a pair of fuzzy socks. Her reddish-gold hair tumbled in loose curls down to her shoulders, unpinned from its elaborate style for the dance. She looked like everything he had ever dreamed. "Nan..."

"I mean, I know it's not... it's just boring pajamas," she said, glancing down.

He stood and took a few steps toward her. "And you look beautiful," he told her. "So incredibly beautiful. Come here. Let's watch a movie."

"Are those your pajamas?"

He nodded, warming a little as her gaze swept over his undershirt and black cotton boxers. He generally slept naked, but he hadn't been sure how she would react to that; this had seemed safer. He was going to let her set the pace tonight, even if that was almost a standstill. Just the fact that she had even agreed to come with him alone was a victory. "If that's okay."

"Of course it's okay."

They sat down on the couch and he draped a blanket over them, then slid his arm over her shoulders. She nestled against him with a happy sigh.

"Ned... thanks for doing this. For getting this room and inviting me to come with you."

He rubbed her shoulder. "So you aren't disappointed that we skipped the after-party?"

"There will be other after-parties." She snuggled a little closer to him. "And this... this is so nice. I never would have asked you for this..."

He smiled and kissed her forehead. "Why?"

"Because—it's a lot of money, and I know how much you love being at the frat..." She took a breath, then glanced up at him. "And I guess because... we talked about... our wedding night."

"That's part of why I did this," he admitted. "I want our wedding night to be special, too. I want us to make love for the first time that night. But... we've never... done anything close..." He shrugged slightly. "And I think it's a lot, to go from never having spent the night together, to... that."

"Yeah," she whispered.

"So we can just... use this time to get comfortable with each other. If that sounds okay."

Nancy nodded. "And we're going to wait to have sex."

"Yeah." He gave her a slow smile. "I'm sure that sounds old-fashioned..."

"Maybe a little, but it's a good old-fashioned." She patted the hand resting on her shoulder, and when he gently touched her leg under the blanket, she took his other hand and laced her fingers between his. "It just feels right to wait, you know?"

He nodded. As soon as she had hinted that she felt that way, he had agreed. He loved her so much, and he wanted to be with her; if she wanted to wait, that was fine with him. His idea of their wedding night, the most romantic night to conclude the most romantic day of their lives, was too perfect to be true, and Ned knew that. He just hoped that tonight, that other nights like it, would make things easier for both of them.

He had never slept with anyone else. Since he had met her, he had never wanted to, he didn't want to be with anyone other than her. But she would expect him to know what he was doing, to teach her... maybe. He wanted to learn with her. He didn't want to learn how to have sex; he wanted to learn how to make love with her.

They found a good movie playing on cable, and slowly he laid down, and she moved on top of him, her back against his chest, the blanket draped over them. She was centered on top of him, and Ned was resting his palm against her belly, over the flannel of her pajama top. His palm rose and fell as she drew and released her breath.

He loved being so close to her, to know no one was going to interrupt them... although he smiled as he thought that. Nancy was insanely good at stumbling across mysteries, or running into people who needed her help. For tonight, though, he just prayed that things would stay calm and ordinary. No sudden fire alarms or mysterious explosions, or missing vacationers. Just the two of them spending time alone.

When she shifted, he found that his palm was touching bare skin, and he slid his hand so that it was resting fully against her belly. She drew a long breath and let it out, and Ned gently stroked his fingertips against her skin, feeling how silky smooth and warm it was.

The movie went to commercial, and Nancy relaxed a little, shifting against him. Ned's other palm slid beneath her pajama top too, but he was careful to keep his hands from sliding too high or too low.

"Is this okay?"

"Mmm. Yeah," she whispered. "Feels good."

He wondered what color her bra was, if he would see it... and then he realized that she was covered by the blanket, so even if he unbuttoned her top, she still wouldn't be exposed. As soon as he had the thought, he wanted to do it—and he couldn't help feeling aroused too. He had never taken off any of Nancy's clothes.

"Did you say you'd brought cheesecake?"

Ned relaxed slightly. He was glad that he hadn't tried anything further only to be rebuffed, but he felt a little disappointed too. "Yeah. Feel like trying some?"

"Yeah." She gently began to move off him, and Ned hoped that his arousal wasn't obvious to her—or that, if it was, she wouldn't be offended by it. 

"Um, it's in the little fridge—I guess we'll have to eat it with our fingers."

She giggled. "Not the end of the world," she said, giving him a glowing smile.

She ate a piece of strawberry-swirled cheesecake, while Ned tried a chocolate and a turtle-swirled slice. Once she had put the remains away, the movie was back on, and she moved back onto the couch with him. He laid down and she carefully moved on top of him again, the way she had been before.

It was only a moment before he couldn't resist the impulse anymore. Slowly, almost holding his breath, he unbuttoned the very last button of her top. Nancy didn't stop him, and she didn't stop him when he unfastened the next one, too.

He was careful not to grope or fondle her breasts as he finished unbuttoning her top and slowly pulled the sides apart. "Hmmm," Nancy murmured, and he could feel that she was breathing a little faster.

"Still okay?"

"Yeah," she breathed.

"Are you nervous?"

"No," she murmured. "I trust you."

Ned smiled. "Really?"

"Of course I do. I've been in love with you for years."

"True." He brought his hands up and rested them gently on her shoulders, where he could feel bare skin, and the straps of her bra. Slowly he moved his palms down, briefly cupping her breasts through her bra, before resting them against her belly again.

Nancy made a soft whimpering sound when he touched her there. She didn't say anything else, though.

Ned decided he had pushed boundaries enough for a while, and slowly they relaxed together, half paying attention to the movie, his palms still resting on her belly. Nancy moved and rested her hands over his, and it felt like an endorsement. He smiled.

"I've loved you for years, too," he murmured at the next commercial break.

She gently rested her fingertips in the gaps between his fingers, then stroked his knuckles, tracing his hands. Ned knew he had to be going crazy; just that comparatively innocent caress felt incredibly erotic and arousing to him. "Well, now you've taken my shirt off," she murmured. "Am I allowed to do that to you too?"

"Of course," Ned said immediately, almost stuttering in his haste. He sat up and Nancy held the blanket to cover herself as she did too. Then she glanced down and let the blanket fall down to drape over her waist, and Ned couldn't help it. He glanced down at her bra. It was a pale pinkish-beige, almost the same color as her skin, made of lace.

"You've seen me in a bikini before," she murmured. "I guess this isn't so different."

"Except that it is," he said, and she laughed softly as she nodded in agreement.

Once his shirt was off too, she gently stroked her fingertips down his bare chest. Ned's nipples were already tight from arousal, and his heart skipped a beat, his adam's apple bobbing when she touched one hardened point with the ball of her thumb. The movie came on again, but neither of them glanced at the television again. He reached for her and slid her pajama top down her arms, and she blushed slightly, but she smiled at him.

"Do you want to lay down again?"

She nodded. "In bed?" she said, a soft questioning inflection at the end, her eyebrows rising slightly.

In answer Ned stood immediately and offered her his hand to help her up. He was feeling aroused, but he was definitely going to bed with his fiancée if she invited him to. And maybe... maybe she was feeling aroused too, and he would find out what that meant.

She stood, letting the blanket fall down to her feet. "Are—are you wearing anything under...?"

He shook his head.

Nancy glanced down and untied the drawstring of her shorts. Ned swallowed hard and stepped close to her, and her skin was smooth and golden in the flickering electric firelight, and she smelled lovely, like subtle perfume and shampoo. His lips brushed against her temple as he cupped her sides, just beneath her bra, and stroked down to her hips. She made a soft humming sound as Ned, his mouth dry, his groin tight, hooked his thumbs in the elastic of her shorts and began to gently work them down.

She chuckled softly again, and he felt her breasts, through her bra, brush against his bare chest. "So we'll be even," she murmured.

"Mmm." He pushed her shorts down so they fell to her ankles and looked down. Her waist was slender and shapely, and her panties were the same neutral lace as her bra. When he slid his arms around her, she slid her arms up around his neck too.

God. He hadn't imagined that they would go this far, but he didn't regret it, not at all.

He reached down and boosted her, picking her up, and she wrapped her legs around him, and Ned thought he was going to go out of his mind. She shivered once as he carried her toward that enormous pillow-soft bed.

"Did you want anything else?" he murmured. "More cheesecake? Some sparkling grape juice?"

"Not right now," she replied softly. "Maybe later."

He pushed a knee onto the bed and gently laid her down, and she moved to pull down the covers so she could slide beneath them. Ned turned off the television and the harsh overhead lights, but he left the electric fireplace on. It filled the room with a warm golden light, subtle and romantic.

She was in her underwear, in a bed they would share. Ned could hardly believe he wasn't dreaming.


Ned slid into the other side of the bed, and Nancy was already covered up to her chin and smiling at him. She had noticed that Ned was... well, she guessed it would be erect. So much about tonight was new, and that was new too, for her anyway. Ned had sometimes seemed uncomfortable when they were very close to each other for more than a few minutes, and Nancy had been disappointed by that until she had mentioned it to Bess. Bess had said that he was probably just excited, uncomfortably excited, being around her that way.

"Are you okay?"

Ned nodded. He seemed to be breathing a little faster as he settled down beside her. "Yeah. Are you?"

She searched his face. "Is it—uncomfortable?"

"Is what?"

She couldn't quite figure out how to say it, and she blushed a little as she tried to find the words.

"Oh! Uh... not really."

"That's... good." She turned onto her side, facing him. "Has that happened when you were around me before?"

Ned was speechless for a moment. "Yeah," he finally admitted, turning onto his side to face her too. "Did you know? I'm sorry."

"I... figured it out," she said, deciding that he didn't need to know Bess had helped. That might make him embarrassed. It would make her embarrassed to know Ned had talked to Mike or Howie about what they did when they were together, especially anything like tonight. "So does that mean..."

Ned had to search for his words. "It means I'm attracted to you," he finally said. "It doesn't mean we have to... um, act on it."

"But that's what will happen on... on our wedding night?"

"God, yes. Definitely. And then we can..." He propped his head up, his elbow bent, gazing at her. "Sorry, I didn't—I guess I don't know how much you know."

She shrugged. "Not a lot," she admitted. "I mean, Dad and I... had this incredibly awkward conversation when I was fifteen. Bess likes to read Cosmo aloud during road trips. And I've... seen movies. R-rated movies," she emphasized, when his eyebrows went up. "But they don't seem quite real either. Or else our makeout sessions are going to get a lot more exotic."

"They can," Ned chuckled. Then he just gazed at her with his warm dark eyes, in that way that made her knees weak.

"I'm just curious," she murmured, looking down and back up, back into his eyes, and she saw that subtle shift in his expression. She had seen it a few times before.

"I am too, so... can I ask you some things?"

She nodded eagerly. "I mean, like I said, I don't know much... but tonight is for learning about each other?"

"Mmm-hmm." Ned moved a little closer to her. "So when I... feel attracted to you, that happens to me... What happens to you?"

She moved her arm from beneath the covers and braced it over her, unconsciously covering her breasts. "Um... I don't know," she admitted. "I mean, I just want to be with you... and..." She smiled. "I knew you had, um, nipples too... and mine... they feel tight too, when we're... when we're really close. Or when I'm cold."

Ned smiled. "Yeah, that happens to me too."

"Was it bad for me to touch you like I did? I'm sorry."

He shook his head. "It wasn't bad. I liked it a lot. I wouldn't mind if you did that again..."

She raised her eyebrow as she moved toward him, then tentatively reached toward him, under the covers. "Can I see?" she murmured.

He moved the covers down so his chest was bare, and she ran her palm down the center of it, feeling the warmth and texture of his skin, the hair, the way it shifted as he breathed. She propped herself up and slowly caressed him, watching as gooseflesh rose in response, feeling the texture of his nipple beneath her fingertips. Ned made a very soft sound when she touched him there, and her gaze flicked up to his eyes for a second, then back down.

"Tell me if you want me to do something," she murmured, focusing on what she was doing as she traced the lines of his muscles.

"I want to do this to you too," he admitted, all in one breath. "I mean, if that's okay..."

She blushed again. "I guess that would be okay," she murmured. "If we're stopping at... this..."

"I didn't bring any protection," Ned admitted. "I thought about it, but I... after we said we'd wait, it just seemed like... we wouldn't need it yet. I should've."

Nancy shook her head. She ran her palm down the other side of his chest, brushing her thumb over his other nipple. Ned seemed tense, but not upset. "We're not going to have sex," she told him. "We're just learning."

"Yeah, but... one of the things I need to learn is how to use protection."

Her gaze darted to his face. "Oh," she said.

He gave her an uncertain smile. "There's a lot I don't know," he told her. "I'm sorry. But I do know that this feels good. And I want to see if it feels good to you too."

She smiled. "I'm sure it will," she told him. "So you like this?"

"Definitely." He flinched slightly when her fingertips drifted over his abs. "Can you..."

He slipped an arm around her and drew her to him, and she scooted close. He buried his hand in her hair and urged her down, and she gave him a long, slow kiss, her tongue sliding against his, as she kept caressing his chest. She realized her bra was the only thing keeping her breasts from being pressed against his chest, but Ned definitely didn't seem to mind how close they were to each other.

He had liked it when she was on top of him earlier... but when she imagined it now, it seemed a lot more—dangerous. She settled for kissing him again, brushing her thumb against the line of his jaw, over his collarbone, to his muscular shoulder.

Then she pulled back and looked down into his handsome face, and it struck her, how close they were—and how close they would be. They would share a bed, like this. They would share so much, even more than they ever had before. It made her heart beat faster.


She nodded, sinking to him again, kissing his neck, his shoulder. She felt the impulse again, to slide on top of him, to feel that proof of his desire for her again. Ned rubbed his palm against her back, releasing his breath in a soft sigh.

"Is this okay?" she whispered against the hard muscle of his chest, just above his nipple.

"Mmm-hmm," Ned murmured, almost lazily. "As long as I can do this with you too."

Nancy froze, for a second. Then she continued kissing his chest, breathing in the scent of him, the cologne he had worn at the dance, the soap he used, the trace of muskiness from his sweat. She hooked a loose strand of hair behind her ear and nuzzled against his abs, kissed his belly button. Then, experimentally, she licked the skin just above it.

Ned twitched. "Nan," he breathed.

"Mmm?" She kissed her way back up, stroking his sides, loving the way he kept his hand buried in her hair, the way he panted for breath. It made her feel powerful.

She kissed his nipple, then his breastbone, up to his collarbone. Ned hummed in pleasure, and as soon as her lips touched his, he was kissing her hard, reaching up to draw her closer to him. She giggled as she pressed herself against him, just barely sliding her knee up to brush against his upper leg.

"You're gonna kill me," Ned muttered. "Any more torture you want to try?"

She pulled back, her eyes wide and curious as she gazed down at him. "It hurt?"

Ned shook his head. "Not—I mean, you asked about whether I was uncomfortable before..."

"I'm sorry."

"No, no. Don't be sorry. I loved it. It was incredibly sexy, babe."

Her anxious expression became a wide grin. "Good," she murmured.

He smiled, too. "You are thoroughly sexy," he told her. "Gorgeous and innocent. I love it."

"I love that about you, too. That this is new for you."

He reached up and cupped her shoulder. "So... are your nipples hard?"

His voice was quiet and curious, not smirking. "I think so," she said.

"Can I see?"

A blush rose in her cheeks. "Okay," she whispered.

Ned rubbed his palm over her back a few times. "Come here," he whispered.

She kissed him again, at his urging, careful to keep her knee from bumping against where he was hard. Ned stroked her back, her sides, all the way down to her hips, until his fingertips barely brushed against the band of her panties. Nancy shivered, tilting her head to kiss him more deeply.

We're not having sex.

But they were practicing. Someday, they would keep going.

She wasn't afraid, though. She and Ned had said they were going to wait. Even if they kept practicing, she knew it would just be practice.

Ned's palm slid under the back band of her bra, and he rubbed his hand against her spine. Nancy broke the kiss, panting slightly, and Ned traced his fingers over her bra.

"How—how does it come off?"

"This one closes in the back. Some of them close in the front," she told him, scooping her hair out of her face as she looked down at him. "It took me a while to get the hang of it too. It might help if you look at it? See the hooks?"

"Oh... okay." Ned sat up beside her as she laid on her stomach, letting him study her bra. She giggled quietly. "What is it?"

"I don't know. It's just funny," she admitted.

"I know. I feel like a total idiot. A smooth guy would already know how to do this..."

She folded her arms under her head and turned so she could glance up at him. "And I'm glad you don't," she said. "That I don't have to imagine you doing this with other girls or touching them this way. I want to learn with you, too."

He made a pleased noise when he managed to unfasten her bra. "That wasn't too bad," he said. "I would never have been able to do it if I hadn't been looking..."

"Then I'll just have to teach you that before we get married." She reached behind her and refastened her bra, even though feeling it loose against her breasts made her feel almost lightheaded, and she wanted to take it off, wanted to turn over and let Ned touch her there.

Ned gasped. "How did you do that?"

"Lots of practice," she said with a laugh. "Try it again."

He unfastened and re-fastened her bra a few times, then opened it and rubbed his palms over her shoulder blades, sliding the straps down her shoulders a little. "So you like wearing it?"

"Eh. I usually don't wear a bra to bed. Just a t-shirt and underwear."

"Uh... does that mean—"

"No, no. It's okay. When we're gonna go to sleep I'll probably put a shirt on, though."

Ned made a soft disappointed sound. "Well, okay."

She laughed again. "You wanted us to sleep together mostly naked?"

"If... if you wanted to. It's no big deal."

She smiled. "No big deal," she repeated softly. "Everything about tonight feels like a big deal to me."

"To me too," he admitted, still caressing her back. "Your skin is so soft..."

She smiled, and when she pushed herself up a little, the straps of her bra fell down her arms. She took a deep breath and slipped it off, then turned over.

Ned's gaze immediately went to her bare chest. Her nipples were definitely hard now. "Is it okay if I touch you?" he asked, glancing up into her face again.

"Yeah," she breathed.

His first caress was slow and innocent, the brush of his fingertips down the center of her chest, down to her belly button. Nancy took a slow deep breath, feeling her heart race. Practice, practice... but this felt like more than that. She kept her gaze on his face, watching the wonder and concentration in his expression. When he first lightly cupped her bare breast, she gasped; a bolt of awareness, almost shock, spread through her torso in response. She felt it again when his palm barely brushed her nipple. No wonder Ned had flinched when she had touched him this way.

"So soft," Ned whispered. "Okay?"

She nodded, her fingertips fluttering gently. "Okay," she whispered.

He caressed her with both hands, and his touch was sweet and slow and soft. He seemed just as curious as she had felt while she had stroked his chest, but she felt a strange twinge between her legs whenever he brushed against her breasts, and especially her nipples.



"I feel something inside," she whispered. "Between my legs."

"What do you feel?"

"I don't know," she murmured. "It feels good... strange. When you—" she gasped when he touched her nipples again. "When you do that."

"Hmm." He smiled. "It does something similar to me," he admitted. "When you touch me like this... and even touching you this way. It makes me aroused, too."

"I liked touching you too." She bent her knee, drawing her heel toward her; she didn't know why, just that it felt good. "I..."

Then Ned moved under the covers, still stroking her as he kissed her breastbone, and Nancy closed her eyes. He rained kisses over her, nuzzling against her, brushing his lips in the softest caress against her skin. When he kissed her near her belly button, she didn't understand why, but her hips jolted gently and she gasped.

"Yeah," he murmured against her skin. "Is it that you want more, but you don't know what you want, exactly?"

"Yeah," she moaned quietly. "Ohh..."

He gave her belly a playful swipe with his tongue, and her hips jolted again. She reached down and before she knew what she was doing, she had her hand in his hair. Ned kissed his way back up her body, and when he reached her neck she was panting, her skin hypersensitive. He kissed her lips and she urged him on top of her, both of them clad in just their underwear, his bare chest against hers.

"Nan," he gasped just before he kissed her again, and his hips were against hers, and—he was hard. That part of him was hard and pressed against her.

She shuddered, clinging to him as he kissed her and kissed her. One knee was still bent but the other was straight, and whenever his chest brushed against her tight nipples, she trembled. Ned pulled back slightly and they were both panting, and a tear slipped down her cheek. She didn't know why she would be crying.

"I..." Ned propped up his weight and gently caressed her cheek with one hand. "Are you okay?"

She nodded. "I'm just... I don't know," she whispered. "It feels like more..."

"Yeah," he agreed. She saw an almost disappointed expression cross his face, and he moved onto his side. Nancy released a breath she hadn't even realized she was holding.

"I'm sorry, babe. I guess I just got carried away."

"We both did." She rolled onto her side too, to face him, and reached up to cup his cheek. "But I think we've learned a lot? I have, anyway."

Ned smiled and turned his head to kiss her palm. "Definitely. I really love being in bed with you. The way your skin feels against mine..."

She nodded. "Can you... just hold me?"

He moved toward her, and she took a breath before she moved into his arms, against his bare chest. She didn't think she could bear it for long; she didn't understand it, but the sensation was too intense. It made her both curious and anxious. And being this close to him in just her panties... oh, she thought for the first time that if anyone else saw them together like this, there wouldn't be any question that they had crossed some important line. Anyone else would assume that they had just come close to having sex, at the very least.

But they hadn't. Ned was going to be her husband, and this... they were just learning about each other. Learning what it was to love each other.

Slowly, achingly slowly, she relaxed against him. He was so warm and it felt so good, so deliciously new, to be this close to him. After a few minutes he gently stroked her back with his fingertips, and she made a soft pleased sound.

"I love you," he murmured.

"I love you too," she murmured.

She could have lingered there for a long time, but she was too keyed up to sleep. How could she sleep like this, especially tonight? She wanted to experience it, to savor it. To lock into her memory how special it was.

Then Ned moved and when she blinked, his face was on level with hers. He brushed his lips against her cheek and she met his kiss immediately, threading her fingers through his hair, her heart beginning to pound. He made it long, slow and sweet, and then he pulled back and smiled at her.

"I'll be right back, beautiful."

The glowing smile she gave him in return was immediate. "Okay."

As soon as Ned left the bed and closed the bathroom door behind him, Nancy took a deep breath and sat up, holding the blankets to cover herself. She was craving another slice of cheesecake.

When Ned returned, Nancy was sitting at the little table near the couch, wearing an oversized t-shirt and panties, one knee bent and heel perched on the seat so she could hug her leg close. The cheesecake was on the table in front of her, and she had just finished pouring a cup of water. "Want some?"

Ned nodded, sitting down opposite. "Definitely."

She beamed at him. "Then let me serve you. Here..."

After they had sampled some more cheesecake, Nancy went to the bathroom to get ready for bed, and Ned followed after. She turned on the television facing the bed and found another movie playing, and when Ned joined her, she already had her pillows propped up. He did the same.

"This okay?"

"It's great, Nan. Perfect. Here."

He slid his arm around her and she cuddled against him as they watched the movie. Under her shirt, she could feel when her nipples were sensitive thanks to his caressing her arm, or when he dropped a kiss on the crown of her head. It made her smile.

Her relaxation faded into an exhaustion so total she could barely move, and she kept closing her eyes to rest them for longer and longer intervals. She was dimly aware when Ned chuckled, reaching for the remote to turn off the television. Then he helped her lie down in the darkness, and she murmured contentedly as she nestled under the blankets.

"Sweet dreams."

"Mmm," she murmured, reaching for him, and fell asleep with her cheek against his shoulder, his strong arm wrapped around her.

Chapter Text

A creak on the front porch made Nancy look up, her blue eyes already alight. It was too early for Ned to be home...

The deadbolt clicked back and the door opened to reveal a beautiful teenaged girl, her dark-red hair half pulled back, her sapphire-blue eyes sparkling. She shut the door quickly against the freezing wind, a backpack slung over one shoulder and an oversized duffel bag—no doubt full of dirty laundry—over the other. Then she let out a peal of laughter as Max, their boxer mix, jumped up to greet her and practically tackled her against the front door.

"Hey Mom."

Nancy had already put her laptop aside, and she came over to Kate, who had dropped her bags to give her mother a hug. Max was still scampering and panting at their feet, eager to greet Kate. "Hey baby," Nancy said, closing her eyes as she held her daughter close. Letting her go was as hard as ever. "How were exams?"

Kate groaned as she rubbed Max's head and behind his ears, then reached for the duffel bag. "Brutal," she sighed. "PJ home?"

"Not yet. He will be soon. Lasagna for dinner."

"God, that sounds great. Something warm." She shivered as she headed for the laundry room, the dog trotting behind her. "Do we have any hot chocolate mix?"

"I'll make you some."

When Kate had been a baby, she had mispronounced her older brother's name, Jamie, as "Jammie." That had turned into "pajamas." Even though Jamie's initials were JP, for James Philip, Kate's nickname for him had always been PJ.

For the past few years, he had wanted to go by James. It had been adorable when he was fifteen, still gangly and growing into his body. Now that he was almost eighteen, James did seem more appropriate for the tall, handsome man he had become. If Kate looked very much like her mother, James looked almost exactly like his father and grandfather, down to the classic good looks, sweet dark eyes, and thick dark hair.

Nancy and Ned's children had been born two years apart: Ned's firstborn son and then their treasured baby daughter. They were both whip-smart and even-tempered. James tried out for all the athletic teams at his school, and was the star on almost all of them. He was on track to be named the valedictorian of his class in the spring; he was the senior class vice president and an Eagle Scout, and the best reporter on the school newspaper. In the fall, he would likely be starting at Emerson.

When James had been a sophomore, he had applied and been accepted to a prestigious residential senior high school for academically gifted teens. Though he had seriously considered it, in the end he had turned it down. His life at Mapleton High was full and vibrant, and he hadn't felt ready to leave it, to live an hour away from his parents and family and friends.

Kate was athletic, but she wasn't nearly as enchanted by organized sports as her older brother. She had taken all the martial arts classes her schedule would allow, and had started rock climbing when she was still in middle school. She had tried the flute, but had ended up playing drums for the school band; she was gorgeous, but she kept a close-knit circle of friends and wasn't as popular as her older brother. Nancy was well familiar with that feeling. She had been the same way in school. People looked up to Kate, admired her—but they were a little afraid of her, too, because she didn't seem to care what anyone else thought, or do things only to please other people. Some Friday nights she would be up in the bleachers cheering on her older brother; some Friday nights she would be exploring a run-down abandoned home or building, taking incredible photographs to post online.

Her curiosity had given her an incredible variety of hobbies and skills, and when she had applied to the same residential school James had decided not to attend, she had been accepted—and now she lived there, just barely sixteen, away from her parents.

Not that Nancy had any doubt Kate could handle herself. She had been independent from a young age, and they had taught her to be careful, knowing full well that some accidents couldn't be prevented and sometimes her curiosity would overwhelm her common sense. She was half Nancy, after all.

When the children had been young, eighteen years had seemed like an infinity. Now, with Kate away at school and James leaving in less than a year, the sand seemed to be rapidly draining through the hourglass.

Nancy had just finished stirring the instant hot chocolate when Kate came into the kitchen. She had put away her heavy navy winter coat, and wore a fitted sweater made of a soft deep-green material and faded jeans that clung to her shapely hips and legs. She looked effortlessly gorgeous, and completely unaware of her own beauty.

Kate had had crushes on some of her classmates, but no serious romantic relationships; Nancy was pretty sure that was part of why she had wanted to take the opportunity to attend the more prestigious high school. She was only an hour away, and she could always take the automated shuttle back to see her friends and family if she wanted. Having a boyfriend or girlfriend just didn't seem important to her.

Jamie—James, Nancy corrected herself—had always had a girlfriend, from kindergarten on. In elementary school and middle school, the relationships had always been sweet and chaste; now that he was in high school, those relationships had become more intense, but Nancy didn't think he had completely lost his heart to anyone yet. Maybe he would meet a nice girl at Emerson... or a nice guy.

It had been so strange. Nancy vividly remembered that her father's sex talk with her had assumed she was straight and would be having sex with a man, and Ned's talk with his father had apparently been the same. When Nancy and Ned had talked to their own children about sex, they had talked about more, even if that had taken some interesting research—about how to have safe sex with people of either or any gender, and about how it was okay if those feelings never came. Katie had been bemused by it, and had seemed most relieved when Nancy said it was okay if she didn't feel attracted to anyone. She seemed content to be her daddy's little girl forever.

Nancy remembered when she had felt the same way, when she had been certain that she would never love anyone more than her father, that she would never want to leave him. Then she had met Ned.

"Thanks," Kate said with a grin, when Nancy handed her the mug of hot chocolate. Both she and her brother had inherited their father's insatiable sweet tooth. "Hey, I was wondering—you mentioned that dress you still have, the white and gold one? Could I try that? I didn't find anything I liked for the dance."

The Christmas ball at the River Heights Country Club was that weekend, and this was the first year all four of them would be attending. Nancy hoped it wouldn't be the last... but their children really were growing up, making their own lives. Coming back home for a Christmas dance might not be that big a priority in a few years.

She couldn't help beaming at Kate, though. "Oh, it will look so good with your coloring. I hope it fits."

"Me too." Kate wrapped her mother in a one-armed hug. "Now Dad and PJ need to get home so we can have a snowball fight. And I was thinking... I looked up a few places around here, and I haven't seen anything about the old Raybolt place recently. Maybe you might want to go with me if I try to find it and take some pictures?"

Nancy felt a faint, unexpected tightness in her chest. If Ned had been nearby, she was sure he would have felt it too. She smiled at her daughter. "That sounds like so much fun. I'd love to. We'll definitely do that."


"How do I look?"

She turned around and Ned's heart stopped for a second. He knew it wasn't Nancy, but for a second Kate had looked so much like her that he hadn't been sure.

Especially in that dress. It had been twenty years ago, but he still vividly remembered the winter dance they had attended... and the night they had spent together afterward.

"Beautiful," Ned told her. "And, not coincidentally, so much like your mother."

Kate grinned as she flipped her long dark-red hair over her shoulder and spun. A gold sash had been tied around the waist, but otherwise the dress was just as he remembered it. Nancy had a pleased smile on her face.

"I think I'll wear it," Kate said. "If that's okay?"

"I'd love that, baby," Nancy said.

"You look gorgeous," Ned told her again. "But then you always look gorgeous."

Kate rolled her eyes. "Okay, Dad, out! I have to change," she said, shooing him out of his own bedroom.

Max cast a pitiful look at Ned, so Ned put on his heavy coat and boots again and took the dog into the backyard. James was at the cleared kitchen table, working on a scout project.

It was good to have everyone home. Ned still wasn't used to Katie being away. He still set the table with four plates unless he was concentrating on remembering. And next year, James would be coming home from Emerson and Kate from the Institute, and...

"Hey. Dad?"

Ned looked up at James as he closed the back door. Max's claws sounded against the kitchen floor as he made a beeline to his water bowl.

"Uh, after the dance... Can I use the Fox Lake cabin?"

Ned's eyebrows rose. "I'm guessing not just for you," he commented, glancing at the doorway. Nancy and Katie were still in the other part of the house. "I'll ask Grandpa and let you know tomorrow okay?"

James nodded and smiled, although Ned could see the nervousness in his expression. He was going to have to have a talk with his oldest child.

He found the opportunity the next day. James needed to pick up some more supplies for his scout project, and Ned hitched a ride with him, taking along Nancy's current shopping list.

Ned was looking at the toothpaste when James reappeared, dumping an armful of spray paint, duct tape, and chisel-tip markers into the cart. Ned found the kind of toothpaste his wife liked and tossed that into the cart, too.

"So, the cabin," Ned said conversationally. "Who are you inviting, a group of friends?"

"Uh, yeah," James said, although he glanced away when he said it. "I mean, Brent and Riggs and Lise..."


James coughed slightly. "Yeah. You know, if it works out."

James and Elle had been seeing each other since the end of the summer. She glowed when she was around him, and more than a few times, Ned had come in to wish his son good night and had found him deep in conversation with her.

And Ned remembered vividly, the number of times he had asked his own parents if he might use the Fox Lake cabin, their questions about who would be up there with him, and his technically-not-inaccurate answers. Sometimes Bess and George had actually been there, but sometimes he just... "forgot" to ask if they were available.

"Okay," Ned said. "So let's just..."

He found the right aisle and steered the cart onto it. "I remember being seventeen," he said. "And being in love. I'm not going to ask if you have any of this, but..." Ned took a box of condoms off the shelf. "These are good ones."

Ned shot a look at James. The color was a little higher in his cheeks, but Ned gave him credit for keeping his gaze up.

"And you have to make sure the lube you buy will work with the condoms," he said. His tone was conversational. "The flavored stuff tastes like crap. Don't waste your money on it."

James shot a look at him, opened his mouth, then closed it again without saying anything.

Ned smiled. "If you have any idea you might need to use them, it also helps a lot to try it out when you're alone. Just get a good feel for it. That way when you're alone together, you won't have that to stress you out."

James nodded slightly, looking thoughtful.

Ned gave the bottle one last tap. "I'm gonna go get some laundry detergent," he said.

James stayed behind, as Ned had expected he might. When he found Ned on the laundry detergent aisle, he placed a few items in the cart. Then he propped one up in the smaller basket.

"Uh, any idea about...?"

Ned glanced down at it and smiled. "You two might like it, and you might not," he replied. "But at least you'll have fun figuring it out."

James chuckled. "Okay."

They didn't talk about it again. James paid for his scout supplies, but Ned put the protection and lube on with his own order. He made sure it was bagged separately, and gave it to James once they were in the car together.

"So, are you saying... that if Elle and I end up... you know, splitting a bedroom in the cabin, that you... want us to..." James cleared his throat. "Use these things?"

"If you need to," Ned replied. "It's far better to have them with you and not need to use them, than the opposite."

"Yeah." James ran his fingers through his dark hair, in a gesture he had clearly picked up from his father. "Can I talk to you for a minute?"

Ned nodded, then made a turn off the route. The park would be all but deserted in the snow, and he pulled into the parking lot outside, facing a few benches and snow-crusted shrubs.

James smiled and met his father's gaze. Ned saw so much of himself in his son, and so much of what he loved about Nancy. He supposed he should be grateful that Katie showed so little interest in dating; if someone broke his little girl's heart, he would kill that person.

Well, he wouldn't. But he would seriously consider it.

"Do you think..." James shrugged. "I mean, did you...?"

Ned smoothed his own hair. "Your mom was the first person I fell in love with," he said. "And we were together for years before we were engaged. We actually... waited until our wedding night."

"Really?" James clearly sounded skeptical.

"Yeah. That wasn't the first time we were in bed together, but it was the first time we took that step together. When we talked about it... the whole experience of being married was what we were looking forward to, and we did really like sleeping in the same bed, once we started doing that. But sex..." He shrugged.

"You sound like Katie," James commented.

Ned immediately straightened. "Has she—"

James laughed, shaking his head. "She's not interested," he replied. "As far as I know, she's never even been in that—situation. And that's fine with me. I don't want anyone to hurt her."

"And I don't want you to hurt Elle," Ned said. James's brow immediately furrowed, but Ned held up a hand. "I don't mean it like that. I just mean that you shouldn't pressure her. That goes for both of you. Take your time and talk to each other. It can be... it doesn't have to be anything scary and serious. It can be a lot of fun to learn about each other, to be close. But be gentle and listen. If she says she's uncomfortable, if she doesn't seem comfortable, stop. Same for you."

James nodded. "And if... I mean, I don't know. It sounds like it's probably—great. But like you said, it's just sex."

Ned nodded. "It is. Believe me, if you want to wait until you're married..."

James took a deep breath. "Do you ever feel like you... I don't know, missed out?"

Ned paused, but he didn't have to consider. "No," he replied. "Your mom and I are compatible and complement each other in so many ways, and that's one of them. I can't imagine being with anyone else. I wouldn't want to.

"But I've known guys who felt that way. Who felt like they settled down too early, before they were able to—well, basically date a bunch of girls." Ned gazed at James's face. "Is that how you feel?"

James shrugged. "I see college next year, and I just don't know if we'll be together then," he admitted. "When I'm so far away."

"Has she decided where she's going yet?"

James shook his head. "She could go to Emerson," he said, brightening. "She applied, and she's so smart. I'm sure she's gonna get in."

Ned smiled. "Well, if you two are at Emerson together, you're gonna have a lot of opportunities to share a bed," he pointed out.

"Maybe." James patted his knee. "So, uh, this talk sounds like maybe I can use the cabin?"

Ned laughed. "Yeah. Just promise that you'll talk to her. If she's uncomfortable with the idea of sharing a bed, then don't."

"Dad." James gave him a withering look. "Like I would. Elle would kick my ass if I tried anything out of line."

The car's temperature had dropped, and Ned shivered as he reached for the ignition. "I would have said your mom was like that," he said. "But I... it was so much better, to know how she was feeling instead of just assuming it. She told me when she liked what we were doing, and when she didn't."

James shivered. "I mean, no offense, but... it's Mom. I just..."

"It's all right. I get it. I'm just glad you were able to have this much of a talk with me."

"Well, you seem to know what you're doing. And you generally seem like a smart guy."

Ned laughed. "Thanks. I appreciate it."


"How do I look?"

Nancy turned to see Kate standing in the doorway of her and Ned's bedroom. Their daughter looked so sweetly anxious.

"Baby, you look so beautiful," Nancy said. "I love the way your hair came out."

Kate reached up to touch it nervously. Nancy had helped her put it up in curlers, and Kate had taken it down and styled it herself. It was dark-red and shining, in long loose curls. The dress she had borrowed from Nancy was gorgeous on her. "You really like it?"

Nancy nodded, and reached for her to wrap her in a careful hug. "I definitely need to get a photo of you before we head to the dance."

Kate wrinkled her nose and chuckled, but she was clearly pleased. "You look really pretty too, Mom," she said.

It was Nancy's turn to chuckle. The midnight-blue satin dress was a classic, modest and sweet, and she wore pearls with it. She had gone with a simple updo; she couldn't remember the last time she had done anything terribly complicated with her hair. "Well, I'm almost done with my makeup. Did Noah confirm?"

Kate nodded, leaning on the doorframe as she watched her mother reach for her lipstick. "Maria's gonna come too, maybe. I don't know. I'm so paranoid I'm going to spill something on this dress."

Nancy used her fingertip to fix the edge of her lipstick, then smiled. "And that's why they usually serve a light-colored punch at the dance," she said. "You'll be fine."

Ned opened the door from the bathroom, a towel wrapped around his waist. His hair was still damp from his shower. "Well, I'm definitely not up to the dress code," he joked.

"How long do we have, Mom?"

Nancy checked the clock near her. "Forty-five minutes. Trust me, he'll be ready in fifteen—if it even takes that long."

Ned was absolutely gorgeous in his tux, as he always had been, and seeing James wearing his too made Nancy's heart almost ache with pride. The music was already playing in the country club ballroom when they walked in, with a low hum of conversation and laughter just beneath. Gowns in every shade of winter colors, from deep, rich burgundy and wine red to crimson, pure white and ivory, gold and silver, indigo to ice-blue, and rich forest and emerald greens, swished and swirled near them. Some women had opted for black, in luxe velvet or embellished lace. The men wore suits or tuxes, with their ties and cummerbunds as pops of color in that sea of white and black.

Kate would be staying with her friends tonight, and James would be at the lake house. Nancy and Ned would have the house to themselves.

"Would you care to dance?" Ned asked.

Nancy laughed. "Do you even have to ask?"

That first dance, when Ned took her hand and they moved into each other's arms, brought back so many memories. Ned had always been taller, and as they moved together, gazing into each other's eyes, she smiled at the sheer familiarity of it. James and Kate had long ago resigned themselves to their parents' very obvious love for each other, just as Ned had accepted that his own parents really never stopped showing each other affection. Nancy's father had remarried, and though he was a bit more reserved in his relationship with Nancy's stepmother, they did clearly love each other too.

"You look so beautiful tonight," Ned murmured, his thumb stroking against her soft skin.

Her smile became a grin. "And you look incredible. I do love you in a tux," she murmured.

"It does make me feel a little bit like a secret agent."

Nancy raised an eyebrow. "Don't give me ideas," she told him.

Ned laughed in delight. "I would never."

Nancy danced with her father, with James, and with her father-in-law, spending the rest of her time in Ned's arms, and enjoyed everything about the night. She could tell James was a little nervous about staying at the lake house; she knew, even if Ned might not, that their son and his girlfriend would be the only people staying there. She wasn't even sure if he had earnestly invited anyone else. That morning, Edith and James had gone up to the house to check it over and make sure their grandson wouldn't suddenly discover they had no firewood or ice.

Nancy and Ned had stayed in the lake house a few times alone before they were married, and she remembered very vividly the incredible awareness and anticipation she had felt. For all their talk of "practice," they had never truly been tempted to take that last step until their wedding night, or at least Nancy hadn't. But they had been naked together a few times, and she had known how wonderful it was to feel his skin against hers, to feel the sweet intensity of his kisses.

They had loved each other for so, so very long before that, though. When they had met, she had never wanted anything more than the warmth of his hand in hers, the feel of his lips against her cheek or just briefly against her own. Her desire had grown with her love for him, and it had just seemed natural that once they decided to spend the rest of their lives together, they had wanted to explore the physical part of that love.

If James had asked, she would have told him that it was his choice, but that there was no harm in waiting—she just wanted him to think it through. She hadn't felt denied or cheated, waiting until her wedding night. In all honesty, they hadn't had what she now knew was sex until a few days into their honeymoon. They had moved so cautiously and gently with each other, exploring and finding out what they liked, and the first time Ned had ever moved on top of her... well, they had both been lost and excited and nervous.

He was the only man who had ever been with her that way, and that was the way she had wanted it. Maybe James would have that kind of relationship with several girlfriends, and as long as both he and his girlfriend wanted that, Nancy didn't mind. For her, Ned was everything. She and Ned hadn't just been learning how to have sex; they had been learning how to make love to each other.

James danced with his grandmother, Nancy's stepmother, and even Kate. His girlfriend wasn't at the dance, and Nancy couldn't help hoping that James would wait until after he and his girlfriend had met to change clothes. Nancy knew she would have felt cheated if she had known Ned was wearing a tux and she hadn't been able to see it.

And Kate... Nancy did keep an eye on her; she couldn't help it. There were no words for how she felt about her children. Kate danced with Ned, with both of her grandfathers, but she was also happy to sample the snacks and punch, to sit at their table. She really did seem perfectly content, though, and Nancy relaxed after Kate gave her a wave and a smile.

Ned claimed Nancy for the next dance, and she moved easily into his arms. She traced her fingertips lightly down the back of his neck, and shivered when he traced her spine near the small of her back.

"My favorite part of any dance is what comes after," he murmured.

She gave him a small private grin. "It is now," she murmured. "When we were Katie's age..."

Ned chuckled. "It was this," he agreed. "Holding you close. Being so very close to you. In front of everyone."

She brushed her thumb against his cheek. "I love you so much."

He leaned forward and brushed his lips against her earlobe. "I love you too," he murmured. "How long until we can go home?"

She laughed softly, just for him. "So we can have some ice cream?" she teased him.

"To start," he replied. "We can watch a movie..."

So now he was teasing. "Sounds just like the kind of date we would have had in high school," she mused.

"To start," he repeated.


Ned finished brushing his teeth and studied his reflection. He could hear Nancy still moving around in their bedroom, and considered—she would probably need a few more minutes. For her, preparing for bed took a little longer.

They had started watching a movie together before James and Kate had even left for their own plans. Cuddling on the couch, under a blanket, his arm draped over her shoulders—oh, yes, it had felt a lot like high school again. Kate had left with a wave, kissing them both goodbye, promising she would be back for lunch with Ned's parents. James hadn't been as sure about that, and though he had been a little bashful, Ned couldn't help being proud of him. He knew James would be responsible and respectful of his girlfriend.

And he hoped, a little, that James would wait. If nothing else, he just didn't want this decision to be made from some misplaced need to seem cool to his friends. James was the one who would be looking back on tonight in happiness or regret, not them.

Ned opened the bathroom door once he heard the bedsprings creak faintly. His wife was sitting on her side of the bed, plugging in her phone, wearing a delicate peach and ivory slip she had worn a few times before. She looked absolutely beautiful.

He crossed to the bed and sat down beside her. Nancy turned toward him, tucking a loose strand of reddish-gold hair behind her ear, the diamond of her engagement ring gleaming in the soft light of the bedside lamp. "It's so quiet," she murmured.

"We could play some music," he suggested.

She wrinkled her nose and shook her head. "It's not like we have to hide what we're doing," she pointed out.

He nodded. "You look so beautiful," he told her softly.

She gave him a sweet, genuine grin. "Flatterer," she accused, but her voice was soft with pleasure. "My incredibly handsome husband."

He reached toward her, cupping her cheek, and pressed his lips to hers. Her lips parted and he deepened their kiss, feeling her quiet moan vibrate against his skin.

They had been married for twenty years, and he had never, not a single time, ever wanted anyone else. She was everything. He felt incomplete when they were apart.

"Here," he murmured, pulling back the covers.

She wore no bra under her nightgown. Ned's fingertips drifted over the warmed silk as they moved between the sheets, his lips curving up as he remembered learning to fasten and unfasten her bra that cold night so many years ago. How sexy it had been on their honeymoon when she had turned to let him see the closure and he had brushed soft kisses over her shoulders and the nape of her neck as he slid the hooks free, sliding the straps down her arms. She had been so amused the first time she showed him a front-closure bra, and had shown him what to do with it.

Tonight, though, her breasts were loose under the thin silk, her nipples hard and outlined by the clinging fabric. He could feel the warm slope of her breast as his hand drifted over her side.

And Nancy moved close to him, drawn to his warmth as she always was. She slid her bent knee between his legs and drew her fingers through his hair, her lips seeking his.

Ned had always been delighted by how much his wife enjoyed touching him. She lingered over it, luxuriating in the feel of him under her fingertips and lips, humming softly with pleasure. She had been so curious when they were learning together and on their wedding night, curious not only about him but also about what she would feel with him, and the feel of his lips nuzzling against her neck delighted her just as much as finding out how it felt to trace lingering kisses against his neck.

She was no fainting flower, and she was so honest with him that it sometimes staggered him. From the beginning she had told him how things felt, what she liked and what she didn't, what she didn't know and what she wanted to know. And she was just as active in their lovemaking as he was. Oh, sometimes she was happy to let him worship her with kisses and caresses, but she was also happy to do the same to him.

He slid his hand under the hem of her gown, feeling silky panties under his fingertips, and returned her kiss. She smiled against his lips when he hooked his thumb just beneath the elastic, against her bare hip.

"Take it off," she whispered, her breath warm against him. "I want more..."

They stripped down at the same time, and when they returned to each other, the thrill of feeling her naked against him was visceral and so intense that he shivered. His strokes against her skin were soft and almost teasing, tracing familiar paths. He savored the texture of her breast and nipple under his fingertips, warm elasticity, the baby softness of her areola, the pebbled tip. With a groan he flipped her onto her back and began to kiss and caress his way down her body, her legs open, thighs parted to cradle his hips, the bedsprings creaking beneath her breathless laughter. She was ticklish, but she was also laughing with joy.

When he returned to her, his face on level with hers and his gaze on her, she was a little flushed and grinning. Her legs were wrapped around him, and she tightened her grip, pulling him close to her.

"That was good," she murmured. "Just not enough."

He brushed the tip of his nose against hers. "You still want more?"

"Mmm." She arched her back, gazing into his eyes.

"How much more?"

She pulled him down so she could brush her lips against his ear. "Everything," she whispered.

He kissed her again, and she ran her fingers through his hair, her tongue stroking against his. The feel of her legs wrapped around him, feeling her slick and warm and tender against him... Ned growled softly as he pushed up onto his knees, moving into place over her, his fingertips drifting against the back of her thigh.

She moaned, tensing and then relaxing under him as he began to move inside her. Being joined to her felt so beautifully familiar that they moved as one, her hips arching to welcome him, his rhythm steady and slow, savoring. They had been so good about using some form of protection until her tubal ligation, and then, having unprotected sex just for the sheer pleasure of it, not so she might conceive their child... oh God, it was always incredible.

She panted at his strokes, then released a soft, whimpered cry when he slid his hand between them. He traced the slippery warmth of her arousal from the tender folds of her sex up to her clit, stroking his thumb against the firm button.

His wife cried out, tightening around him inside and out. Her hips bucked, and Ned groaned as he felt her inner flesh clench around his erection. "Oh, oh God!" she gasped out with his next stroke. "Oh my God, it's just right..."

He kissed her earlobe and she nuzzled against him, still gasping, gripping his shoulder. When she started sob desperately, he began to move in her more rapidly, feeling her hips jerk up against his.

The satisfaction of reaching orgasm with her, like this, was indescribable. Ned cried out just after she did, and both of them panted as he slowly relaxed, lowering himself to her again. She welcomed him, her heart pounding against his ribs, still moaning softly as she toyed with his hair. Her inner flesh was still clenching and releasing around him in quick spasms, and the delicate perfume she had worn with her beautiful dress was warmed by their exertion, filling his senses.

"Mmm. I love you," she whispered.

Ned grinned. "I love you too," he told her. "You're perfect."

She smiled when he leaned back to look into her face. "I'm not," she murmured. "But when we're like this... I feel like we are."

In answer he leaned down, giving her a long, sweet kiss.


James ran his hand through his hair. "You sure about this?"

Elle grinned, although he could tell she was a little nervous. "It'll be fun," she replied. "And we'll use some kind of winking system if I need you to take me home?"

He reached over and kissed her cheek, acutely aware of where they were and who might see them. "The regular one should work," he replied, then took her hand.

The steps up to his grandparents' porch were so familiar, even the path cleared through the crusted snow. Elle glanced up at the front door, giving James's hand a little squeeze, but James approached it easily. The door was unlocked, as it always was when his grandparents were expecting guests.

The house smelled wonderful. His Nana had always made the best—well, everything, truly. Her pies were glorious, her cakes beyond compare. Today he could smell cinnamon and sugar, apples and bread, roasted chicken and potatoes. Elle was taking a delighted breath and grinning.

"And that," she told him, "is more than enough to justify this trip. Wow."

James grinned and gave her hand a squeeze. "Yeah. Nana is awesome."

As though summoned, James's grandmother came into the kitchen, laughing at something, and gasped in delighted surprise when she saw him. "Oh, hello, sweetheart! We were so glad you could make it. And this is..."

James knew his grandmother knew her name, but he smiled and introduced her anyway. "Nana, this is Elise Kelly," he said. "Elle, this is my grandmother, Dad's mom."

She was a petite woman, and her hair had always been pure-white for as long as James had known her. She still looked just as sharp and bright as she always had. And she ignored Elle's extended hand and came toward her, raising her eyebrows in the faintest question before she wrapped her in a quick hug. "It's so wonderful to meet you, dear. Please, please, come sit. What would you like to drink with lunch?"

Nana fussed over Elle, and when James's father came in to help bring the last few dishes into the dining room, he took her along with him, and James trailed behind. Kate was already there, her dark-red hair falling in a thick curtain down past her shoulder blades, gesticulating as she talked about the night before. "We ended up watching like five episodes," she gushed. "It was so good!"

"And when did you get to bed, four?" James's mother had a fond smile on her face. She looked—quietly pleased.

Kate looked away. "Not quite," she murmured.

"Hey," James said, and everyone looked up at him. "Guys, this is Elise. My sister Kate, Grandpa Jim, and Mom."

When James's father came in, James could see the slight shift in his expression, and he couldn't help feeling a little self-conscious. At least his father wasn't saying anything, or obviously hinting. James was pretty sure he would die of sheer embarrassment if that happened.

He and Elise had had a lot of fun. They had talked until they were both exhausted, and only that had stopped them. James always felt like he could talk to Elise for hours, for days. Then they had shared a bed, and that had been both exhilarating and nerve-wracking. He had wanted to do absolutely everything he could to make sure she was comfortable and okay with what they were doing, but being in bed with a woman he was very attracted to, whose laughter made him so light he could almost float... well, his body had ideas, even if he wasn't quite ready to follow through.

Elise was beautiful. She was strong and confident, and though he had four inches' height on her, she was more than able to kick his ass. Her eyes were somewhere between gray and blue, darkening when she was angry—or in the grip of some other strong emotion. Her eyes had been blue last night in that soft light. He had never seen her hair in its natural color, but her eyebrows were a light brown, lighter than his own hair.

And she had such a big heart. He was always so delighted when she pressed a kiss against his cheek, reached for his hand, melted happily against him when she was in his arms. How could a girl as incredible and fascinating as Elise be in love with him?

He didn't have to sleep with her to be addicted to what had happened last night. She had slept in his arms, and looking at her, seeing her so defenseless and trusting, had made him feel so incredibly protective, and even more in love with her.

James had been treated to his Nana's cooking for so long that he thanked her with a heartfelt compliment and a kiss on the cheek at the end of each meal, before he helped clear the table and load the dishwasher. Elise gushed over everything, praising James's grandmother's cooking with every first bite, and when his Nana just brushed them off, clearly self-conscious, Elle told a funny story about her first cooking disaster: a chocolate cake she had tried to make, whose center had collapsed a minute after she had taken it out of the oven. She had been so discouraged that she hadn't ever wanted to cook again—or, at least, for the next week.

Kate liked her. James's mother liked her. Everyone around the table was laughing along with her story, and James felt a knot of tension loosen in his stomach. Elle was wonderful, but he had still been nervous that they somehow wouldn't like her.

She was able to take one bite of her apple pie with vanilla ice cream before she groaned and rubbed her palm over her stomach, shaking her head. "It's incredible," she said, bringing her gaze up to James's Nana. "I'm just too full."

Nana smiled. "I'll wrap some up for you," she said. "You can take it home."

They didn't have to immediately head home after the meal; thanks to the break, there were no essays waiting to be finished, no tests to study for. Instead they played dominoes around the big table, the oldies station playing from the kitchen, and laughed and teased each other. Every now and then James looked over at Elle, making sure she wasn't frantically winking at him, but when he reached for her hand under the table and gave it a squeeze, she returned it with a soft smile.

Kate's energy was clearly flagging after the third round, and she couldn't seem to speak without yawning. They began the laborious process of their goodbyes, and Nana insisted that Elle take some leftovers home, saying James was more than welcome to bring her over anytime. James's father was carrying his own containers of leftovers as everyone gathered around Nana and Grandpa, giving them hugs and kisses, promising to see them again soon.

Once they were outside, Elle said she needed to head home, and the hugs began all over again. Kate gave Elle a smile and promised that she would friend her as soon as she was home. James's father said he had very much enjoyed meeting Elise, and James's heart was paralyzed with fear the entire time—but he didn't so much as hint he had any idea what James and Elle had maybe done the night before. James's mother wrapped Elle in a hug and invited her to come over for dinner soon, although in her typically modest way, she said it wouldn't be as good as her mother-in-law's. For his part, James loved them both. The two women in his life had neatly divided up the cooking responsibilities for the major holidays for as long as he could remember, along with Hannah, his adopted grandmother.

Then they departed, saying they would see James back at the house—giving him time to say a private goodbye to his girlfriend before she left, too. Elle's hand was in his, and as soon as they were alone, she turned to him.

"You said you had to ask your dad, for us to stay there?" James nodded silently in response to her question. "So... he knew?"

"Yeah." James chuckled softly, humorlessly. "I'm so glad he didn't say anything."

"I'm just glad your mom didn't know." Elle shivered. "I can't imagine what she would have thought of me..."

James flushed slightly, but he stroked his palm down his girlfriend's back. "She's cool," he said, keeping his tone light. "And she likes you."

Elle nodded and smiled. "She does seem cool. And you do, too."

James grinned and leaned down. "And I'm gonna hate going to bed alone tonight," he whispered against her lips, and her breath was warm against his wind-chilled skin.

"Me too," she said, with a soft chuckle. "That was really nice."

"You liked it too?" He kissed the point of her jaw, then brushed his lips against hers.

"Mmm. I loved it."

James's heart was so light. "Maybe we can do it again soon?" he said, then gave his head a little shake. "Uh, borrowing the cabin? Like we did."

She wrapped her arms around him, up over his shoulders, and gave him a long hug. "That would be great," she murmured, peering at him through her lashes before she fully met his eyes again.

Once, he had asked his father when he had known, when it had been clear to him. When his feelings for James's mother had crossed from sweet, gentle affection into love. Had it been all at once, or slowly? Or had it been from the second their gazes had met?

All of it, he had replied. I fell in love with her the first time our eyes met, and I fall in love with her again every day.

James pressed his lips against hers in a long, sweet kiss. He understood, now. It was infinite. It felt like too much for him to even contain.

"I love you," he whispered.

Elle grinned against his lips. "And I love you," she whispered.