Nancy walked into Bess's bedroom the next morning balancing a plate of blueberry pancakes, a cup of coffee, and the latest issue of Cosmo. "Hey," she said softly as Bess began to stir, wincing when she opened her eyes against the bar of sunlight crossing her pillow. "How are you feeling?"
"Like I was hit by a truck," Bess said, her voice rough with sleep.
"Well, I know this," Nancy said, nodding at the pancakes, "isn't nearly enough, but thanks for all you did last night. I'm really sorry you got hurt while you were helping me."
Bess sat up and propped the pillows up behind her, accepting the plate of pancakes with a small smile. When Nancy saw the nasty bruise on Bess's cheek, she winced. "God, I'm sorry."
Bess touched her cheek and grimaced. "Yeah, that felt like it was gonna bruise."
Nancy shook her head, sitting down at the foot of her friend's bed. "It's rough, seeing someone you care about get hurt," she murmured.
Bess raised an eyebrow. "Not that I don't appreciate it, but, uh, we've been doing this kind of thing for years. I'll live. What brought this on?"
"Ned," Nancy admitted, sweeping her hair out of her face. "I talked to him last night after we got home."
Bess sliced off a bite of her pancakes, the fluffy golden-brown cakes saturated with melted butter and drenched in syrup, just the way she liked them, and followed with a sip of coffee. "You brought me a Cosmo," she pointed out mildly. "So what kind of favor do you want?"
Nancy mock-scowled at her. "No favor. God, I think I've asked for enough for a while."
Bess shrugged. "So what's on your mind? Did you bring me a tube of Clé de Peau Beauté concealer, too?"
Nancy shook her head, hugging her knee to her chest. "Ned—admitted he lied to me about something."
Bess's eyes widened. "Oh God. Please don't let it be herpes."
"God!" Nancy exclaimed. "Bess! What the hell?"
"That's a terrible lie to tell someone," Bess said solemnly.
George tapped on the door and walked in without waiting for a reply. "How are you doing?" she asked her cousin.
"Okay," Bess answered with a dismissive wave of her hand. "Come on, spill, Drew. What did he lie about?"
George raised her eyebrows and sat down at the other side of Bess's bed, waiting expectantly for whatever Nancy was about to confess.
Nancy blushed. "Uh... the number of people he's slept with."
Bess's eyes sparkled with interest. "So how many was it?"
"He... he didn't exactly say," Nancy said slowly. "Uh—more than three?"
"Well, of course more than three," George scoffed. "Frat boy? And have you seen his ass in jeans?"
"Apparently you have," Nancy retorted, her brows knit, sweeping up a throw pillow and smacking George with it.
"Hey! Uncle, uncle! Didn't we do this enough last night?" George cried, holding up her hands to defend herself. Just as quickly, she snatched the pillow out of Nancy's hands and smacked her with it in return.
"Last night?" Bess repeated, taking advantage of the conversational interlude to finish off her pancakes while George and Nancy shrieked and giggled, batting ineffectually at each other. "Damn, I really missed out. Glad that damn bartending job is over."'
"Yeah, I turned down a threesome," George sighed, a wicked smile on her face, especially when Bess started choking on her last bite of pancake.
Nancy glared at both of them in turn, her hair wild from the brief pillow fight. "You," she told George, "shut up. You—stop encouraging her."
"Uh—you so can't leave that out there without telling me what happened," Bess said, wide-eyed.
Once the situation had been explained to all their satisfaction, and not a little embarrassment on Nancy's part, George glanced at her watch and made a run for the door, muttering about being late for work. Bess put her plate on the bedside table and took a long sip of her coffee.
Nancy looked down. "Yeah. I—I don't know. He said he's been in three serious relationships... which puts him at two more than me. And that Belinda wasn't one of them. Although he did say he slept with her."
Bess shuddered. "So he occasionally has some really awful judgement."
Nancy shrugged. "Well, I did stay with Frank for a long time, because I..." she trailed off. "I thought what we had was everything," she murmured. "I mean, last night? I wouldn't have been worried about him at all. He would've—" She cut herself off, looking over at Bess, who was intently studying a hangnail, her face carefully blank. "What?"
"Well—Frank was perfect for you," Bess pointed out. "When you were in high school, anyway. But you two can't ever sit still and I was always shocked when you were able to see him for more than an hour at a time. But Ned—I don't know, seems like he wants to stick around here. And he's like a hundred times cuter than Frank. No offense."
Nancy shrugged her agreement. "And a much better kisser."
Bess giggled, then sobered. "Maybe Frank was right for you for a while, and now Ned is," she said quietly. "Unless you always saw yourself with someone like Frank."
Nancy glanced down at her watch. "I don't know," she admitted. Although she knew she really needed to get ready for work and leave, she couldn't make herself end the conversation quite yet. "I think part of me is afraid that he's been with so many girls that he's impatient for us to get past just making out."
Bess glanced to the magazine at her side. "Well, Cosmo would be delighted to help you out with that," she said, wiggling her perfectly sculpted eyebrows.
Nancy collected Bess's empty plate and smiled at her. "Well, I did talk Ned into taking me dancing this weekend, I'm pretty sure," she said. "I know George is busy, but if you and Kent wanted to come along...?"
"Well, I should say no," Bess drawled, "but I did just take some hits to the face for you, so I'll ignore my better judgement and say yes. And maybe I'll be able to get a definite number out of him..."
"Bess!" Nancy exclaimed, her eyes narrowing. "Don't you dare—"
Bess waved her off, tossing back the covers. "Calm down, Drew. You're okay. I'll be good. And if I stop being good, just drag his ass home and do something from—" she glanced down at the cover of Cosmo— "page one-forty."
Nancy flipped Bess off as she took the plate to the kitchen, and the other girl giggled.
They arranged to meet at the new Italian place after work, and Bess's finicky curling iron made them twenty minutes later than they had been expecting. When they came into the crowded waiting area, Nancy in a one-shoulder grey shirt and a printed miniskirt, Bess in a tiered chinoiserie gown, Nancy smiled when she saw her boyfriend, glancing over his shoulder at her. But the look on his face made her stomach clench more than her nervousness at seeing him after their conversation the night before was.
Bess caught sight of Kent and headed toward him, beckoning to Nancy, although Nancy only had eyes for Ned, and the girl he was talking to.
Not a girl, though. She looked about his age, and her belly was rounded slightly with pregnancy.
Nancy had faced down a thousand terribly dangerous situations, but she had to fight hard to keep walking forward, toward Ned. If this were a mission, she would saunter over, wrapping her arm around him possessively. But this was real, and his expression... it made her uneasy.
"Nancy," Ned said, when she finally made her way to his side. "Nancy, this is Jenny Allen. No, not Allen—"
"Scott," Jenny said with a smile, reaching for Nancy's hand. "Hi Nancy. Pleased to meet you."
"This is my girlfriend, Nancy Drew."
Nancy shook Jenny's hand in return, putting an easy smile on her face, while she sized the other woman up. Jenny wore low heels, which put her a few inches shorter than Nancy, and she was toned and slender everywhere but her rounded belly. She wore a wedding band but no engagement ring, and while Bess would know for sure, Nancy was pretty sure that Jenny's handbag was moderately expensive. She was glowing, and the expression that came into her eyes when she glanced up at Ned was enough to make Nancy want to smack her, pregnant or not.
Nancy had absolutely no doubt that this wasn't just any girl. It was her. The girl.
"Well, I'd love to catch up with you some more, but it looks like Jason finally got a table," Jenny said, glancing over and hiking her purse strap up an inch. "I'll see you around, okay?"
Ned nodded, sliding his arm around Nancy's waist, and Nancy felt herself relax, if only fractionally. Jenny walked away, casting one last glance over her shoulder, and then Ned glanced down at Nancy.
She put her hand over his. "So... Jenny."
Ned nodded wordlessly, and when the hostess called Ned's name he followed her to their table, taking Nancy's hand in his. When he released her so he could pull her chair back for her, Nancy cast another glance up at him, a little worried.
Ned finished unwrapping his silverware and draped his napkin over his lap, then glanced up at her with a little shrug of his shoulders. "Yeah. I just wasn't expecting to see her."
Nancy tried to imagine what a shock to the system it would be to just run into Frank in a place like this, and reached for Ned's hand, patting it comfortingly. "That would be hard to deal with," she said, pushing down her jealousy.
He shook his head a little. "Tonight isn't about her," he said firmly, as though he was trying to convince himself of that fact. "It's about us and dancing and celebrating the fact that we lived through last night."
When the waitress came and asked if they wanted to sample a bottle of wine, Ned ended up ordering a higher-end bottle of red. Once their glasses were poured, Ned raised his and held it out.
"To living," he said.
"Living well," she added, raising her own glass and gently tapping it against his. "To making better decisions."
"And not looking back," Ned finished quietly, then took a long sip of his wine.
Their appetizer of fried calamari helped soak up some of the alcohol, but by the time Nancy excused herself from their table, she had a pretty good buzz going. She made her way to the bar section of the restaurant, where Bess was laughing heartily at a group of guys loudly protesting the game playing on the corner television set. Kent was clapping too, and Nancy had to work hard not to glare at him. The wine was really not helping her self-control at all.
Judging by the flush in Bess's cheeks, she had a pretty good buzz going too.
Nancy tapped her on the shoulder, ignoring Kent's glance in her direction and hoping for his sake that he did the same. "Bathroom, now," she said.
Bess immediately pushed her chair back, grabbing the edge of the table to keep herself upright. Bess had dragged Nancy to the bathroom hundreds of times in the time they knew each other; Nancy almost never did, and by the time the door swung shut behind them, Bess's eyes were gleaming with interest.
"Oh my God, did he tell you his number?"
Nancy shook her head impatiently. "His ex is here."
"Ugh. God, I hope not. No, the one who got away, the first girl he ever fell for."
"Damn, that's even worse," Bess said, and when she swayed a little on her heels, she propped her hip against the counter. "So you saw her?"
"He introduced us."
"You met her? So what does she look like? Super-hot, total mouse?"
Nancy described Jenny to Bess, and noted with some dark amusement early on that apparently the agent-trained part of her brain had kicked in. She remembered everything down to the color of her roots and the bit of mud clinging to her heel. Bess was nodding as Nancy wrapped it up just short of estimating her weight and how long it would take to best her in a fight.
"I just want to punch her," Nancy admitted, her voice becoming a moan at the end. "I seriously hate feeling this out of control."
Bess patted Nancy's shoulder. "Well, you never had to deal with any of Frank's exes. Although she sounds like the mother of all exes. The thing is... does he talk about her a lot?"
Nancy shook her head. "Honestly, no. He talked about her when I asked, but he doesn't just bring her up at random."
"That's good," Bess reassured her. "So he's not still hung up on her. Well, maybe he is a little, but shit, if you'd walked in and saw Frank—"
"Yeah," Nancy agreed, and took a deep breath.
"Besides, I'm sure you're a thousand times hotter than her."
Nancy gave Bess a wan smile. "You're awesome," she told her friend.
"Oh, honey, I know that. Now get out there and take his mind entirely off her." Bess grinned.
"What would that be, Cosmo page ninety-eight?"
Bess shrugged. "Take your heels off and put your foot on his crotch under the table, and just watch what happens."
The woman washing her hands at the sink, who looked old enough to be their mother's ages, cast a mildly appalled, scandalized look in Bess's direction. She just shrugged it off. "Seriously, Nan. You two have been moving soooooooo slowly. Do you think it's because he doesn't want to go further?"
"He does," she replied.
"And you don't, because you and Frank never went too far—and look how that worked out."
Nancy chuckled, shaking her head. "Do you have a date in the pool, or do you get some kind of commission if I give it up to him?"
Bess's mouth dropped open in mock shock. "That is a fantastic idea, Drew."
Nancy made her way back to the table, shaking her head. Being with Frank for so long had meant not really worrying about him comparing her to other women—they barely had time to spend together, and he had always been more faithful than she. Bess was clearly enjoying watching her best friend turn into a girl who actually had insecurities and doubts and a life that didn't revolve around the next case or mission. To some degree, anyway.
Nancy was so accustomed to being in control of any situation she walked into. She hated not knowing exactly what to do and how to fix it.
The club Ned took them to after was loud and crowded, and they carved out some space for themselves on the dance floor. The look on Ned's face when Nancy peered at him from beneath her lashes, her body swaying to the beat, made her incredibly glad that she had suggested it. He took her hand and pulled her close to him, and she danced against him, draping her arms over his shoulders, keeping her gaze locked to his.
"You're amazing," she told him, speaking directly against his ear so he could hear her over the music. "This is exactly what I wanted."
"Mmm, I can't complain," Ned replied, his voice a growl as his hands drifted dangerously low on her back. "Not when it means you're holding that insanely sexy body up against me."
She ran her fingers through his hair, letting them drift down the back of his neck, matching her movements to his. She felt intensely aware of him, and when his hips shifted against hers, her eyes fluttered closed. He said he wanted to find his way behind all the walls she had put up, but she couldn't fight the feeling that he was already so close.
"I have something for you," he murmured, after he drew in a sharp breath. "Back at my place."
"I thought you were going to say it was in your pants," she said with a chuckle, and Ned's grip on her tightened.
"Well, that too."
They stayed for an hour. Nancy bought the first round and then they took turns buying the shots. During one song Kent and Ned watched with some amusement as Nancy and Bess danced together, laughing, twirling each other. When Ned pulled Nancy back into his arms for the next dance, his hand drifted almost immediately to her ass, and she didn't find it in her to tell him to stop.
Ned was ready to leave the club soon after, and from the way he was looking at her, she had a feeling she knew why, and that the alcohol in her system might let him get further than he ever had before. It made her feel nervous and exhilarated, and when she told him she was going to find Bess and tell her they were leaving, he made her promise to hurry back.
"We're gonna get out of here," Nancy said, ignoring the gleeful look on Bess's face when she told her. "I'll see you later, okay?"
"You might," Bess said, with a significant glance in Kent's direction, "or you might not."
Nancy shook her head, leaning close to her friend. "You make him double-bag it, girl."
"Same to you," Bess said with a wicked chuckle, and Nancy flipped her off before she followed Ned out.
They were walking down the hall to his apartment when Ned pulled her to him and kissed her, softly at first. He had been in contact with her since they'd left the club—his fingers tangled in hers, his lips brushing the hollow at the base of her neck or the top of her collarbone, his foot nudging hers. Even so, she wanted more, and kissing him made her feel almost lightheaded.
He pulled back when they reached his door, fumbling in his pocket for his keys, and she drew him down to her again, standing on her tiptoes to meet him. Her fingers tangled in his collar—oh, if he were a mark, he would be so easy to distract while she planted a bug or a tracer—and she slipped a little on her heels, pivoting so the doorframe was at her back. Ned took advantage of it, pinning her against it, halfheartedly fumbling with the keys as his tongue slipped between her lips.
She was flushed when he pulled back, above the alcohol, and he shot her a pleased smile as he finally unlocked the door and pulled her inside.
Had he done this with her, with Jenny? Tumbled into a room together, drunk on their kisses?
Ned tossed the keys onto the counter and lifted her in his arms, pressing his lips to hers softly a few times before he released her. "Mmm," he said approvingly, at her disappointed moan. "I'm thirsty as hell. Want anything?"
He actually kept Diet Coke in his refrigerator for her, after all the times she had come over with her own. They settled down on the couch, their glasses of soda on the coffee table, and Ned turned to her, his hand coming up to stroke her hair back from her undoubtedly gleaming face.
"Are you okay?" she whispered, searching his eyes, damning herself for even asking.
Ned raised an eyebrow. "I am awesome, Nan," he said, and when his lips brushed hers, she closed her eyes. "I feel great. Are you okay?"
She nodded. "Yeah, I just… I know how hard it would be for me to run into someone…"
She let herself trail off and he let his hand drop, his gaze still on her when she glanced back up at him. "It was a long time ago," he said softly. "And I was always a little afraid that if I saw her again—well, I don't know exactly what I thought would happen, but in my head, she was still the girl I knew when I was seventeen. And she's not, anymore, and I'm glad I did run into her tonight. She's happy. And I'm happy. Because she found a great guy, and I found you."
Nancy stood up on her knees and kissed him hard, and when he leaned back, pulling her onto his lap, she didn't object. She ran her fingers through his hair, sighing, as he slipped his arms around her.
"Are you saying I make you happy, Nickerson?" she murmured when they broke the kiss.
Ned nodded. "Very much so, Drew. And, speaking of, as much as I love having you in my arms right now…"
She chuckled when he gently moved her beside him, then went to his bedroom. She took a long sip of her drink, fanning her flushed cheeks. Maybe he hadn't been totally off-base after all. The idea of staying over tonight, even though she could easily take a cab home, was proving far more tempting than it ever had before.
But, if she spent the night in his arms…
Ned returned to her with a small paper box, and though she knew he was trying to hide it, the anxiety in his expression made her give him a reassuring smile. "I hope you like it," he murmured. "Mike's wife Jan does a lot of photoshoots for different places and she was hired by the guy who makes these, and… well, it just seemed neat."
Nancy untied the blue ribbon and lifted off the lid, then the square of cotton batting. Underneath rested a large dark skeleton key. The oval bow had been filled with a smooth polished chunk of amber in the shape of a heart; a ribbon was threaded through the space between the cleft in the heart and the edge of the key.
"Oh, Ned… thank you," she said, glancing up at him. "It's so pretty. I love it."
The grin she saw on his face in answer was enough to make her melt. He was so happy he had found something that would please her. "Really?"
She nodded. "No one's ever given me anything like this before. And the key… will you put it on me?"
He slipped the ends of the ribbon behind her neck and tied it in a knot, and she touched it gently. The amber felt almost warm under her fingertips.
She glanced up at him. "You make me happy too, Ned," she told him softly. "Not just because of the necklace—I love the necklace, but being with you… I love being with you."
He sat back down beside her, pulling her back onto his lap. "I love being with you too," he said. "Especially when it involves what we were doing earlier… Remind me what we were doing again?"
She grinned at him, running her fingers through his hair as their lips touched, and soon she could feel his own fingertips drifting down her spine, over the small of her back, and she was shivering in answer. He traced them up her side and just barely over the curve of her breast, and she sighed, arching into his touch as he cupped her gently through her bra.
She had no intention of getting him to the double-bag stage tonight. But just the thought of his fingertips against bare flesh was enough to make her flush in response.
And that was when she realized, the amber heart warm between them as his lips brushed her cheek, that she would find it so, so damn easy to fall for him.