I’d love to date a guy in uniform,” Bess Marvin said dreamily. Her blond head rested comfortably against the seat of the car as the autumn landscape whipped by outside the window.
“Really, Bess?” her cousin George Fayne asked. “Because I know of this gorgeous guy. He’s behind bars, but you can wri — “
“You know what I mean, George!” Bess cried. “Military guys are so . . . romantic.”
“Don’t worry, Bess.” Nancy Drew laughed as she maneuvered the steering wheel for a sharp curve in the road. “This weekend you’ll get your chance.”
George and Nancy smiled. Bess’s extreme interest in romance was a long-standing joke between them. She was always falling in and out of love, and always on the lookout for her next boyfriend, who usually wasn’t far away.
“Nancy’s right, Bess,” George added from the backseat. “And you’ll have hundreds of guys to choose from. That is, after you meet the really nice guy that Charlie has picked out for you. He’s got one for you, too, Nan,” she added.
George’s friend, Charlie Burke, had invited the three girls to spend the long weekend at Stafford Military Academy to celebrate its one hundredth anniversary. There would be a formal dance, a few parties, a military ceremony, and, most important, the chance to meet lots of cadets.
“Really nice guys are fine, George,” Bess said. “But what I want to know is, are they cute?”
George laughed at her cousin.
“Well, George, are they?” Nancy asked.
“But, Nancy, you have Ned. I didn’t think you’d be on the lookout for any handsome and charming cadets,” George said with a grin.
“You’re right. I’m certainly not looking for a new boyfriend. But I do want to enjoy myself,” Nancy responded. “And I wouldn’t mind being distracted for a weekend,” she added mischievously.
Nancy and Ned Nickerson had been dating for years. Sometimes they drifted apart, but they always found their way back to each other. Ned supported Nancy in everything she did. Even when her detective work meant that she sometimes ended up in dangerous situations, he never tried to stand in her way. Nancy loved that about him.
“Earth to Nancy,” George said. “Do you want to know about your date, or do you want to be surprised?”
Nancy looked at George through the rearview mirror. “I think you’d better tell Bess about her date first or she’ll explode.”
“Okay.” George leaned closer to the front seats of Nancy’s Mustang. “From what Charlie told me about Trevor Austin, he sounds perfect for you,” she said to Bess. “He’s a second lieutenant, one of the highest-ranking cadets. Charlie chose him because I told him you love parties. He says that Trevor’s the best dancer at Stafford Academy.”
“And the big formal is tonight, Bess,” Nancy added.
“Terrific!” Bess was wide-eyed. She tilted her head to one side and gave George a grin. “But you still haven’t told me if he’s cute.”
George wrinkled her nose. “Gee, Bess, I didn’t tell Charles he had to pick good-looking dates for us.” She laughed when she saw Bess’s mouth drop open. “Relax! I’ve seen a picture of Trevor, and he’s definitely good-looking. He has blond hair and a smile that would melt any girl’s heart. He’ll be perfect for you.”
“My turn,” Nancy said. “Even though my heart belongs to Ned.”
“Wait until you hear this.” George leaned closer. “Your escort is Captain Nicholas Dufont, the battalion commander. He’s in charge of all the other cadets at the academy.”
“Sounds good,” Nancy said as she turned the car off the highway and onto a two-lane road shaded by maple trees.
“Is that all you’re going to say?” Bess asked with amazement. “Aren’t you the least bit curious about him?”
“Not really,” Nancy said. “I’m just going to this thing to enjoy myself with my two best friends.” She paused, then smiled broadly. “And hundreds of gorgeous cadets.”
The three girls burst into laughter.
“Wow!” Nancy exclaimed as she slowed the car at the front gate of Stafford Military Academy. “This place is incredible!” Before them lay hundreds of rolling acres dotted with imposing redbrick buildings. In the distance, they could see people marching in perfect step.
She rolled down the window and showed their guest pass to a cadet inside the guard house. “Welcome to Stafford Academy,” he said with a polite smile. “Drive straight through until you get to the main building. You can’t miss it — it’s the one with the circular driveway. Pull your car up to the front door of the main building. The reception area is just inside the lobby. There, someone will check you in and direct you to the hotel.”
“Thanks,” Nancy said as the guard waved them through the gate. “George, where are the guys meeting us?”
“At the reception area,” George answered.
A few minutes later, Nancy stopped the car in front of a large redbrick building with white columns. She handed the keys to a cadet who was waiting at the door and asked him to have their car and luggage taken to the on-campus hotel.
As soon as Nancy stepped onto the plush carpet of the lobby, she was embraced by the scent of freshly cut roses. “This place is spectacular,” she said to her friends, looking up at the sweeping circular staircase and the crystal chandelier high above.
“George!” A tall red-haired cadet rushed to greet them.
“Hi, Charlie!” George called. Charlie approached eagerly, followed by two other cadets. One was of medium height and muscular, with blond hair. The other was taller, with dark hair, and was strikingly handsome. Nancy and the dark-haired young man looked at each other, and their eyes locked for a moment.
“It’s great to see you, George,” Charlie said, introducing her to his friends. “I’m Charlie Burke,” he said, reaching out his hand to Nancy.
“Pleased to meet you,” Nancy said, extending her hand.
“And, of course, you’re Bess,” Charlie said after a moment. “George gave me exact descriptions of you both. Ladies, I’d like you to meet Trevor Austin and Nicholas Dufont.”
Nancy was pleased that the dark-haired cadet was to be her date for the weekend. She was so pleased, in fact, that she had a slight sensation of butterflies in her stomach. Now, that hardly ever happens, Nancy thought to herself.
“I thought we’d start the weekend with a tour of the place,” Nicholas said, offering Nancy his arm.
“I’d like that,” Nancy said, meeting his gaze. His eyes were an unusual blue-gray color. Nancy was impressed with his intelligent, intense expression. She had the feeling those eyes didn’t miss much.
“So . . . you’re the battalion commander,” Nancy said as they strolled down a gravel path that led to the rest of the campus. “That sounds like a pretty big job.”
Nicholas smiled a warm, genuine smile that lit up his entire face. “It is. It’s also an honor,” he said. “I work with the administration in planning everything from cadet disciplinary policies to day-to-day student activities. It’s been a great experience.”
Nancy heard the pride and sincerity in his voice. “It must be quite a challenge,” she said.
“It can be,” Nicholas replied. “The program here is really demanding, geared to prepare cadets to succeed in whatever they choose to do in life — whether or not it’s a military career. Some cadets get thrown by the demands and may even think they can’t cut it. I try to help them over the rough spots, or help them make the decision that the program just isn’t right for them.”
“Do they always agree with you?” Nancy asked.
Nicholas laughed. “It would sure be a lot easier if they did! But naturally, not everyone does. One of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do is to tell a cadet that he’s just not meeting the requirements and that he has to leave. In most cases, though, it’s the best thing.”
Nancy was impressed by Nicholas’s commitment. He projected maturity and strength without making a show of it. It was easy to imagine him rising through the ranks to become a leader.
“Here are some of our plebes now.” Nicholas pointed to a line of young men and women running toward them single file on a jogging path. “The plebes are freshmen. We begin the weeding-out process from the very beginning. We really put the new cadets through their paces.”
In striking contrast to the sweaty, weary-looking bunch of plebes, a young woman trotted on the grass that bordered the jogging trail. She showed no outward sign of effort. Even in the school’s winter training outfit — dark sweatpants, a sweatshirt with the Stafford Military Academy logo, and a knitted cap — she looked as if she had just stepped out of a fashion magazine. Her clear skin glowed, and her auburn hair shone in the sun.
“Let’s get it up to speed, Allens!” she barked at a straggler, a slight young woman with dark hair. The girl was panting harder than any of the other cadets and looked as if she was barely able to take another step. “No slacking off!” the young woman barked in the girl’s ear. “Move it!”
“Who’s the drill sergeant?” Nancy asked.
Nicholas shook his head. “That’s Stephanie Grindle,” he said. “She’s a squad leader and one of the toughest cadets at the academy. Some people think she’s a little too tough.”
“Hey, Nick!” Trevor Austin called as he and Bess caught up to Nancy and Nicholas. “What chance do you think Tania Allens has of sticking it out? Off the record, I mean.”
Nancy saw Nicholas hesitate. “Cadet Allens is having a rough time. I thought a tough squad leader like Stephanie would help her shape up, but I’m beginning to wonder if this was a wise course of action. She’s already getting a lot of flak from the other female cadets.” He turned to Nancy. “The female cadets can be tougher on one another than even the toughest squad leaders.”
“Oh, come on, Nick,” Trevor objected. “Almost every day it’s boo-hoo-hoo. I can’t believe she made it this far,” he said with obvious disgust. “She should have been booted out a long time ago.
“Well, she is a cadet, Trevor,” Nicholas said with an edge of annoyance in his voice, “and because of that, she deserves your respect.”
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence. Nancy sensed that there was more going on than just a disagreement over Tania Allens’s suitability for the academy, though she couldn’t quite tell what it was.
“Understood,” Trevor said, and the uncomfortable moment passed. “I guess I did get a little carried away,” he added. “I’m proud of the place, that’s all, and — “
An earsplitting shriek ripped through the air, cutting off Trevor’s words.
In a moment, the foursome was racing in the direction of the scream. A line of ashen-faced cadets were already there. “What seems to be the problem here?” Nicholas said as he made his way through the crowd. At the center of the group was Stephanie Grindle. Lying motionless on the ground was Tania Allens.