The door swings shut behind them, the quiet click of the latch seeming to echo across the cottage’s quaint entryway. Nancy licks her lips and takes a deep breath; beside her, Ace swallows.
“Right.” She nods and forces a tight smile, quickly squeezing the fingers threaded through Ace’s. “Welcome to our honeymoon, sweetheart.”
The gleaming hardwood floor seems to lurch and swirl and warp beneath her loafers. She forces her smile wider, the bottom half of her face stretching into a painful grimace, and she knows if Ace looks closely he’ll see the panic in her eyes, notice the way her heartbeat is thudding against her ribs like galloping horse hooves.
Instead, his thumb just strokes absently across hers; the simple touch seems to set her hair is on fire.
She’s made a terrible mistake.
EIGHT HOURS EARLIER
It should have been a simple, routine case.
Just a cute little house on the outskirts of town, perched on a cliff overlooking the endlessly crashing waves far below, and perfectly charming in every way — except for the slight haunting.
Slight because the ghost only shows itself on the occasion that the cottage is rented out to newlyweds. Those unfortunate couples have been chased out by an unknown but violent phantom before midnight.
So, after being forced to issue the latest in a series of costly refunds, the owner tracks down Nancy at the Claw and hires her on the spot. She’s handed keys, a $500 retainer, and 24 hours to get the job done.
And she has a plan before the bell on the Claw’s door finishes announcing the owner’s departure — send in some pretend newlyweds to get the ghost to show itself, then perform the ritual to evict it.
Simple. Practical. Easy.
The clear choice to pose as the lovebirds would have been George and Nick, but they’re currently in Florida visiting his mother. And, since Bess is taking a three-day cruise on the Marvin yacht in an attempt to mend fences, she can’t act as Nancy’s wife.
That leaves just Ace.
Nancy drifts into the kitchen slowly, a tide pulled by the undeniable force of gravity; lingering in the doorway, she lets herself bask in the comforting wave of warmth that comes from proximity to him.
He’s standing at the sink in his lucky blue pullover, the sleeves shoved up to the elbows because of the soap suds on his taut forearms. He hasn’t noticed her yet, so she simply watches, noting the way he ties his apron and what color hat he chose to wear today (backwards, of course) and the AirPod in his right ear, no doubt playing some obscure podcast.
She knows him, and that alone is enough to inflate a bubble of happiness that bobs just beneath Nancy’s sternum.
He catches her eye and raises his chin a little in acknowledgement, and she can’t help but walk over and bump his hip with hers, moth to flame, words tumbling out of her mouth before her brain can stop them.
“So, what do you say, Ace? You wanna get fake hitched?”
He doesn’t actually smile, not really, but she can follow the clues in his familiar features all the same, finding the amusement sparkling in those clear blue eyes. His head tilts, ever so slightly, hair falling softly against his cheek.
“Thought you’d never ask.”
And it’s just that simple. The plan is in motion, the wheels of fate beginning to turn. Tonight she’s going to pretend to be married.
The bubble of happiness inside her chest expands at just the idea of it, growing so big it seems to shove her heart up into her throat. She can’t speak, can’t swallow; it’s hard to breathe. They’ve danced around each other for so long, surviving on furtive glances and small moments and words that mean much more than they seem on the surface, and now…
Now she’s going to be able to stare at him as much as she wants. She can touch him in ways she never has, say things she hasn’t even let herself think before—
The realization is as sudden and devastating as a lightning strike.
It’s the final strike in the war between her lifelong tendency toward repression and her well-honed powers of perception, and it’s a nuclear-grade bomb that razes all remaining walls and barriers she’s constructed around herself. Her ears are ringing. Her scalp is tingling. Dazed, she stands there blinking too much, waiting for the metaphorical smoke to clear.
And when it does, Nancy is faced with one impossible but unavoidable truth there amongst the rubble: she’s in love with him.
Completely. Consumingly. Absurdly, ridiculously, stupidly in love.
In half a second, everything changes. Sure, she’s still standing in a scratchy polyester uniform in a dingy kitchen that smells like grease and seafood, just like she has a thousand times before — but now there’s a shaft of light piercing the black depths of her being with a stab of painful yearning. She’d believed that feeling dead long ago, a victim of years of ruthless neglect, but apparently it had just been biding its time. And now it comes swirling up out of the deep dark, stirring to life — and roars.
Her breath is jagged; she curls her shaking fingers into tight fists and shoves them in her apron pockets.
And Ace, as beautifully unaware as ever, squeezes her arm softly when he moves past her on his way to the deep fryer; she feels the casual touch like a corkscrew winding its way into her chest.
She doesn’t really remember the rest of her shift or the quick stop at home to change and pack a small bag. It’s a blur of time, quickly consumed by a growing, gnawing, all-consuming sense of dread.
Now, her overnight bag sits in the back of Ace’s car, its presence a haunting all its own.
(It’s right there in the name, after all — an overnight bag is meant for spending the night. As in, sleeping with Ace.)
Every time she thinks about it she spirals a little further out of control, blushing furiously and rubbing her throbbing forehead with the heel of her hand. How is it possible that she’s somehow both the whip-smart Hero of Horseshoe Bay and a mute idiot whose palms are sweating just from riding shotgun with a boy? She rolls her eyes, her thoughts bastardizing Whitman: I contain multitudes; I contradict myself.
And then, long before she’s ready, Ace pulls up to the curb in front of the cottage. He cuts the engine.
“Ready to do this, Mrs. Drew?”
Nancy arches an eyebrow. “Still Drew? Wouldn’t I be Mrs.—“
Ace shakes his head before she can say his last name, hair whipping into his sharp cheekbones. “No way you’re not keeping your name if you get married.”
I know you, he’d told her once.
And he does. Better than anyone.
So she smiles at him, mostly because she can’t not. He’s Ace — smiling at him is a reflex as natural as breathing.
He turns to open the car door, but—
—“Wait.” Her voice comes out lower and rougher than she intended it to be; she steadies herself by reaching over and resting her fingers on the back of his hand.
(It’s warm and large, tan skin stretched over hard tendons, strength and softness effortlessly combined.)
“We should talk about this,” Nancy continues. “We have to sell that we’re newlyweds the whole time we’re inside. The owner isn’t sure exactly what it is about that particular relationship status that sets the activity off, but there’s a chance it’s because—“
Ace nods in understanding, expression soft. “Because newlyweds tend to have very physically affectionate relationships.”
Nancy is not blushing. She’s not. “Yeah. And I need to know how okay with that you are, where your boundaries are…”
Her hand still rests on his knuckles; Ace flips his over beneath it and trails his fingertips lightly across her palm, each one leaving a line of sizzling heat in its wake. “I trust you, Nancy. You aren’t going to do anything that I don’t want.”
It’s harder than it should be to respond. Her throat is tight, her lungs won’t expand; she’s certain there’s no longer sufficient oxygen in the atmosphere. She’s floating above the surface of some strange, alien world, and her only ties back to Earth are Ace’s gaze and the hand she’s still holding.
“Not normally, no, but we’re playing outside the usual rules here.”
He leans in a fraction closer, and Ace’s car usually feels spacious compared to her tiny convertible, but it doesn’t now. Instead, it’s as if the entire world has compressed down into the few inches of space between them, the air crowded and charged and magnetic.
It’s hard to sit still; it’s even harder to think about ever moving again. For once insane, beautiful second, she’s certain he’s going to kiss her.
But no. Of course not. They aren’t inside the house yet; no need to pretend. Icy fingers wrap around her heart and squeeze.
Because Ace was just reaching into his pocket; a moment later he has the simple gold rings they’re using as fake wedding bands (on loan from Bess’ magpie collection). He holds them in his open palm between them and it looks like a prayer, like an offering, like a dream. Nancy has never wanted anything more or less in her entire life. She thinks she might climb across the seat into his lap; she wonders how fast she could make it to the cliff’s edge to fling herself off.
He slides the ring carefully over her knuckle without commenting on the slight tremble in her fingers, and holds her hand gently as he speaks.
“Everything’s going to be ok, Nancy. I promise.”
The words are warm against her cheek; she can practically taste the way her name glides over his tongue.
And then Ace climbs out of the car.
The temperature instantly drops ten degrees, like he’s taken all the warmth of the world with him.
Gravel crunches beneath his shoes as he walks around to grab their bags out of the back, and she takes those few seconds to drag in a deep breath. She makes herself count to seven as she exhales slowly. Shutting her eyes, she rubs her sweaty palms against her thighs, the denim rough under her skin.
No more indulging in dreamy romantic nonsense — she’s Nancy Drew and there’s a mystery to solve.
She has to remember that. Because tomorrow this will all be over, and she and Ace will go back to whatever it is that they are, and it will have to be enough to sustain her.
It’s been enough for so long. But if she lets herself drown in him tonight, it never will be again.
Ace opens her car door, his face asking if she’s planning on getting out.
So, with a decisive nod, she shoves her hair behind her ears and puts her feet firmly on the ground.
Which brings them back to the entryway, and Ace’s hand clutched in hers.
Her resolve from the car is already cracking, the facade of calm threatening to collapse.
It certainly doesn’t help when Ace raises their joined hands to his lips, pressing a soft, lingering kiss to her knuckles before murmuring into her skin.
“Let’s check this place out, yeah?”
He doesn’t wait for an answer, just gently guiding her down the hall. It opens into a large living room, the back wall of which is solid glass overlooking the cliff. It’s early spring, and in the last rays of the setting sun she can just make out the tiny green buds on the trees and the first of the wildflowers starting to bloom. The sliver of moon beginning to rise over the ocean is nearly the same color as the whitecaps on the shimmering waves far below. It’s beautiful, it’s breathtaking; it almost distracts her from her situation for a moment.
But then she starts to peel off her plaid jacket and Ace comes to help, his fingertips grazing briefly over the sensitive skin of her neck. She shivers, and it has nothing to do with the cold.
He sets her coat carefully on the chair behind them before pressing close to her side, his fingertips resting lightly on the small of her back, and it’s as there’s an open flame dancing across the knobs of her spine. Heat licks up her skin and she can feel herself flushing pink; she should pull away but her body is moving of its own accord, leaning in until she’s pressed against his side. Ace’s arm wraps around her waist, her head resting against his chest, and they’re staring out at the churning dark sea far below. Every time he breathes she can feel it, the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest beneath her cheek.
She’s so warm and safe, and all around them, the house is quiet. Still. Absolutely nothing that would indicate a haunting of any sort.
Eventually, Nancy starts chewing at her bottom lip.
Part of her wants to stay in this moment forever, but the larger, more responsible part knows better. They need this ghost to show itself, which means they’ve got to step it up. She’s got a job to do, people to protect, a reputation to uphold.
And if that requires her to make out with the guy that she’s recently discovered she’s madly in love with, so be it.
(And yeah, okay, she’s secretly thrilled at the idea, even if it’s fake. Even if it will make it so much harder to work beside him tomorrow, even if she’ll replay it over and over in her mind for weeks to come, even if it’ll keep her up at night. It’ll be worth it. Worth all of it.)
She turns in his arms and reaches a hand up to trace Ace’s sharp jawline; maybe it’s just hopeful thinking, maybe it’s just great acting on his part, but she’d swear his eyes flutter a bit at the touch, the even cadence of his breath stuttering for just a second.
“Have I ever told you the moment I knew I loved you?” he asks.
Nancy blinks, shocked into quiet stillness. She’s not sure where Ace is going with this, but she trusts him; she’d follow his lead just about anywhere. “No.”
“It was in a room sort of like this one, actually. A hotel instead of a rental house, but the same sort of vibe. You went to open the window and I saw blood on your hand — thought you’d cut yourself.”
Nancy’s eyes narrow; this is real, this story. It happened when they were trying to track down the missing volleyball player, ages ago. Why is Ace talking about their real lives? Tonight was just supposed to be pretend, it doesn’t mean anything, it can’t…
“—And the way my heart stopped for a second,” Ace’s voice breaks, just the tiniest hairline fracture, yeah, but it sounds so real, “just over the idea that you might be hurt...that’s when I knew.”
He won’t look at her now, staring instead at their intertwined fingers, his voice so soft, his hair swinging forward and hiding his eyes.
And Nancy forgets where they are. Forgets that this is supposed to be scripted, a farce to lure out the supernatural. Instead it’s just her and Ace and that exquisite tension that stretches between them, strung more tightly than ever by the vulnerability on his face, the truth ringing in his words.
“But that was so long ago,” she practically whispers, afraid to speak any of this out loud. “And you never said anything, and there was Amanda—“
“What we have,” Ace says, voice rough, “the work we all do together, it’s the most important thing in my life.” He meets her gaze now, fingertips skating across her jawbone and cheek. “Took me some time to realize that it could be every thing. That we could be friends and coworkers and, maybe, something more.”
The look in his eyes, the soft strength in his voice...Nancy would swear he’s telling the truth. She’s roiling, tossed and turned as if caught in the violent sea, but Ace is so still and solid — an anchor, a safe harbor. It would be so easy to just cling to him, to let herself have hope, to believe—
But she can’t let herself. Not when they’re supposed to be acting, not when there’s a case to solve, lives to be saved. She wipes any expression from her face, pours burning steel into her voice.
“And then you proposed to me.”
Ace’s eyes fall shut as he draws a deep breath, his spine straightening with it. He answers on a sigh.
“That part feels like a dream. Fuzzy. Unreal.” Opening his eyes, he carefully traces her cheekbone with the pad of his thumb, trailing down to the corner of her lips, the curve of her chin. “This part, though. This part is very, very real.”
She’s not sure who moves first. All she knows is that he’s bending down and she’s rising on her toes, her eyes drifting shut as she breathes in the smoke and soap scent of him, feeling his exhale brush faintly across her lips half a second before he kisses her.
And then Nancy finally, finally lets herself go.
She’s leaping from the cliff after all, but instead of crashing to the jagged rocks below, she’s flying. The world falls away and there’s just her and Ace in the cloudless sky, free of time and space and gravity and any other so-called laws.
He tastes like mint and his lips are soft and his shoulders are so strong, pressing her overheated body back against the cool glass of the window. Her fingertips sneak beneath the fraying hem of his shirt to the warm skin beneath and he makes the smallest, most delicious groan deep in his throat; he cradles her face in his big hands like she’s something special, something precious, before winding his fingers into the hair at the back of her head and it’s so good, better than she could have imagined and—
—An enormous hardback book flies off the coffee table and slams into the window inches from her head.
Ace whips around, immediately putting himself between Nancy and the rest of the room; it takes her brain a half-second longer than usual to understand what’s happening, to come back to the mystery at hand.
“Get the sage,” she finally manages, her voice rough and breathless as she pulls the flask of holy water from her back pocket with shaking fingers.
As far as exorcisms go, it’s fairly routine.
The spirit isn’t terribly strong or firmly attached; a little chanting and holy water sprinkling and sage burning and its weak remains promptly shuffle off the mortal plane.
Through it all, the process feels good. Comfortable. It gives Nancy a chance to get her feet back under her, to find a bit of her confidence again. After all, dealing with the weird and supernatural is right in Nancy’s wheelhouse.
Dealing with whatever it is that’s happening between her and Ace? A different story entirely.
She can’t forget that kiss, or Ace’s words, or the way something has cracked open in her chest. It’s left her raw and exposed and no matter how hard she tries, she can’t seem to seal herself back up again.
And then it occurs to her, finally, that maybe she doesn’t really want to.
“Now what?” Ace sounds as lost and hopeful as she is, like he’s teetering on the edge of the cliff right beside her, ready to leap if only she asks.
He’s patient and quiet, letting her simply stare for a long moment, searching for the answer to a question she didn’t even know she had. And really, that’s all she needs.
So she steps closer, looking up at him; her hands come to rest on his waist, his fingertips raising to hover a millimeter away from her elbows. She can feel the promise of their warmth as well as the space he’s giving her — it’s the chance to escape. If she wants to pretend this was all fake, all for the case, then this is the opportunity. He’ll let her take it if she wants. He’ll let her take anything.
But she’s already made her decision. Maybe it was back when she first kissed him, or when she proposed this whole stupid charade, or a million tiny times before that over all the time that they’ve worked together. After all, nothing’s changed — not really, anyway. It’s it’s just that she knows the truth now. Her truth.
She knows that the only thing she needs is him.
“Well,” she says, pressing closer, looking up at him with a tiny smile, “we’ve got the place to ourselves for the rest of the night. Seems like it’d be a shame not to make use of it.”
Ace’s answering grin beams like a lighthouse, bright and brilliant and burning through the coastal darkness.
So Nancy lets herself slip beneath the calm surface of his blue gaze before closing her eyes and surrendering completely to the warmth of his skin against hers. And they fall together, kissing over and over in the peaceful cottage, the rhythmic roar of the waves crashing into the rocks below washing over them and carrying them into the soft golden light of the early dawn.