NANCY DREW, I can’t believe you!” Bess Marvin’s voice on the other end of the line was even more excited than usual. “How in the world did you get yourself invited?”
“Oh, just lucky, I guess,” Nancy answered, checking herself out in her bedroom mirror. Her slinky, dark green dress showed off her shoulder-length reddish blond hair and big blue eyes to perfection. Too bad that her longtime boyfriend, Ned Nickerson, was off at Emerson College. He would definitely have appreciated the way she looked that evening.
“Mr. Pierce had his chauffeur hand-deliver an engraved invitation into my hot little hands,” Nancy fibbed, enjoying the effect she knew she was having on Bess. Bess was one of her two oldest and best friends. The other, Bess’s cousin George Fayne, was in Florida for the week, competing in a tennis tournament.
“No way!” Bess cried. “Tell the truth, Nan. You’re just saying that to torture me.”
“Oh, okay,” Nancy said with a laugh. “My dad did some legal work for Mr. Pierce’s software company last year. I guess that’s why we were invited.”
“I get it,” Bess said. “And the invitation said ‘Carson Drew and guest,’ right?” Nancy’s mom had died years earlier, and Nancy often accompanied her dad to social events.
“Actually,” Nancy replied, holding up the fancy, gold-trimmed invitation to examine it, “it says ‘Carson and Nancy Drew.’ Good old Dad, huh? He must have put in a good word for me.”
“Wow!” Bess exclaimed. “A personal invite. I’m impressed, Nan. Do you know how many times I’ve driven by the Pierce estate and wondered what it was like inside? I’d die to get in there.” There was a short pause. “I don’t suppose you’d like to trade places for the night? I could tell everyone I was you — “Not a chance,” Nancy said, grinning at her
friend’s wheedling tone. “Besides, I’m curious about the Pierce place myself. And even more so about Mr. Pierce and his bride-to-be.”
“Oooh, me, too,” Bess said. “Just think, a man in his fifties, the head of his own software company and medical research foundation, with a woman of thirty from Iceland or someplace. Sounds like the plot of a romance novel to me.”
“I agree,” Nancy said, cradling the phone between her ear and her shoulder as she slipped on her shoes. “And add to that that Mr. Pierce is confined to a wheelchair because he’s waiting for a heart transplant, and his fiancee, Nila Kirkedottir, is his live-in nurse and caretaker.”
“I know,” Bess said. “I think it’s really romantic, but Brenda Carlton in her gossip column couldn’t accept that two people like them could be in love. Just because he’s filthy rich and she’s twenty years younger doesn’t automatically mean she’s marrying him for his money.”
“Exactly,” Nancy agreed.
“I expect you to take notes tonight, Drew,” Bess added. “I want the whole story, first thing tomorrow. All the juicy details — got it?”
Nancy laughed, shaking her head. “Bess, you’re too much,” she said. “Don’t worry — I’ll go right up to Mr. Pierce and demand that he tell all after I ask him to invite you to the wedding.”
“Yeah, right,” Bess said. “That’ll be the day.”
“You never know,” Nancy consoled her. “You might meet them both. Stranger things have happened, after all.”
Entering the Pierce mansion on her father’s arm, Nancy was really impressed. Not with the opulence of the palatial estate, but rather with how homey it was. The house was festive and lively — not at all as stuffy and formal as Nancy had expected. The many wildflower arrangements, the chatter of happy guests, and the soft music played by a string quartet all contributed to the welcoming atmosphere.
Nancy and Carson gave their coats to a valet and walked through the parlor and sitting room. Here and there, Carson said hello to someone he recognized. They wove their way through the milling guests and entered the large ballroom, which had been set up with dozens of small tables along the walls. The string quartet was positioned at the far end of the room.
Nancy and her father strolled among the many guests scattered about in small clusters. Nancy overheard people talking about software and guessed that a lot of these were business associates of Pierce Software, Inc. Some of the others were probably Pierce Foundation people, she thought to herself.
“Ah, here’s someone I want you to meet, Nan,” Carson Drew said, leading her over to a tall, balding man of about forty. “Hello, Sam — this is my daughter, Nancy. Nan, meet Samuel Bishop, a colleague of mine who’s Mr. Pierce’s attorney.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Nancy said, shaking his hand.
“Likewise,” Bishop replied. “Your father’s told me a lot about you. Apparently, you’re quite the detective.”
Nancy nodded modestly and stole a look at her dad. He was beaming at her proudly. “I brag about Nancy every chance I get,” he said. “She gives me good reason.”
“Carson,” Bishop said, taking his arm. “I want to ask you something about the Eastwind Bank case.”
“Certainly,” Carson said. “Nan, would you excuse us?”
“Sure thing,” she said with a smile. “I’ll go get some hors d’oeuvres.”
As she made her way through the crowd, Nancy had to force herself not to eavesdrop. Being a detective had made her alert for any signs of a mystery, even in the most unlikely setting. She promised herself to resist the temptation tonight and just have a good time.
She took a mini quiche off the tray of a wandering waiter and went into the parlor in search of a glass of punch. Just as she swallowed the last bit of her quiche, the young guy at the drinks table in front of her turned around, two glasses of punch in his hand.
Nancy felt her breath catch in her chest as the young man looked right at her. He had gorgeous brown eyes, fringed by long lashes. He had strong features and a disarming, crooked grin that emphasized the deep dimples in his cheeks. His light brown hair was thick, with a shock that fell across his forehead.
“Well, hello there,” he said, his voice as warm as his glance. It melted Nancy right through. “Would you like a glass of punch?”
He offered her one of his two glasses. Nancy took it, mesmerized all the while by his eyes. “Weren’t you getting it for someone else?” she asked him.
“Well, I was,” he admitted. “But now I’ve forgotten who. Your fault, Miss . . .
“Nancy,” she told him. “Nancy Drew.”
“Nancy. My new favorite name,” he said, grinning at her and brushing the shock of hair back off his forehead. It fell right back down. Nancy couldn’t help smiling.
“I’m Philip. Philip Pierce,” he told her. When she raised an eyebrow, he added, “Yes, Pierce of Pierce Hall. Charles Pierce is my father. Do you think there’s a family resemblance?”
“I’m afraid I haven’t met your dad,” Nancy admitted.
“You’re not alone,” Philip confided, slipping an arm through hers and guiding her away from the punch bowl. “Ninety percent of the people here don’t know him any better than you do. You see, he’s been pretty sick the past couple of years. Never goes out anymore. “
“So I’ve read,” Nancy said.
“But you’ll meet him tonight,” Philip assured her. “Anyway, have a look at his portrait first.” He had walked her across the room to a large, framed portrait of Charles Pierce and his bride-to-be. In it, Pierce sat in an armchair — not a wheelchair — Nancy noted. He was a nice looking man, with strong features, like those of his son. His hair was gray and thin, and Nancy thought she could see how the artist had tried to make him look healthier than he must really be. His cheeks appeared artificially rosy somehow.
Behind him, her hands on his shoulders, stood Nila Kirkedottir, who looked younger than her thirty-three years. She had a round, pretty face with light, almost white-blond hair and ice-blue eyes.
“Well?” Philip asked her. “Do we look alike? What do you think?” Philip struck a pose mimicking that of his father’s in the portrait.
Nancy laughed. “I guess so,” she said. “Nila’s very pretty, isn’t she?”
Philip scowled. “Yes, I suppose,” he said. “The old man’s a sucker for blonds. My mother was blond, too, you know. Myself, I’m partial to redheads.”
Nancy was surprised to feel herself blush. What was it about this guy that made him so disarming? Somehow, Philip managed to be impishly cute and drop-dead handsome all at the same time. And clearly, he was attracted to her.
Nancy warned herself not to get carried away, although she could almost hear Bess’ s voice saying, “Hey, Nan, he’s gorgeous, he’s rich, and he likes you. What more could a girl ask for?”
“Phil!” a female voice called from behind Nancy. Nancy turned to see a beautiful young woman in her early twenties, with long brown hair and wide-set green eyes, weaving through the knot of guests toward them.
“Oh, hi, Karen,” Philip replied, greeting her with a kiss on the cheek. “Meet Nancy. Nancy, this is my sister, Karen. And yonder’s her husband, Jack. Jack, over here,” he called.
“Pleased to meet you, Nancy,” Karen said. ”Any friend of Phil’s is a friend of mine. “
“We’ve only just met,” Nancy explained.
“Then let me be the first to warn you,” Karen said, giving her brother’s arm a squeeze. “He makes friends fast.”
“Hi, everyone,” Karen’s husband said as he joined them. “Say, don’t I know you?” he asked Nancy.
“You must have a good memory,” Nancy told him, recognizing the handsome young man immediately. “I was a freshman when you were a senior at River Heights High. I had a major crush on you that year. All the girls were crazy about you, and I was as crazy as any of them.”
Jack stared at her, trying to remember. He stood at least three inches taller than Philip, with even more classically perfect features. His dark hair was straight where Philip’s was wavy, and his eyes were deep blue. Nancy thought he was even better looking than he had been in high school.
“Nancy,” he said. “Nancy . . . Drew, right?”
“Right,” she said, smiling. “I’ll never forget the last-second touchdown you threw against Stockton. You were such a great quarterback. Did you keep up with football in college?”
Jack acted slightly embarrassed. “I did for a year,” he said. “Then I blew out my knee.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” Nancy said.
“No big deal. Actually, it was kind of lucky because that was how I met Karen. She was a candy striper at the hospital, and, well, here we are, married, four years later.” He gave Karen’s waist a squeeze as she stared up into his eyes, clearly in love with her handsome husband.
“Nancy here was just admiring Dad’s portrait, ” Philip told them. “She thinks Nila’s pretty.”
“Pretty? I guess you could call her that,” Jack said, scowling. “It’s hard to think of her that way, once you know her, though.”
“Really?” Nancy asked.
“We call her the ice queen,” Philip confided. “When you meet her, you’ll know why. “
“He means,” Karen added, “that one look from her can freeze you solid.” They all laughed, but Nancy felt uncomfortable and didn’t join in. After all, she was at Nila’s engagement party. It would have been wrong, she felt, to have a laugh at the woman’s expense.
“She sure melted Dad’s heart,” Philip said mockingly. Nancy was taken aback by the bitterness in his voice.
“Let’s hope she doesn’t melt it right into the grave,” Karen said, her expression darkening.
Nancy didn’t know what to say, so she didn’t say anything. She smiled weakly and suddenly she couldn’t wait to get away from them, or at least, from this conversation.
“Er, Ms. Drew?” Nancy turned to see a butler standing behind her.
“Yes, that’s me,” Nancy said. Perfect timing, Nancy couldn’t help thinking.
“Mr. Pierce would like to see you in his study, if you don’t mind,” the butler said.
Nancy’s three companions looked at her in surprise. “I thought you’d never met Dad,” Philip commented, faintly amused.
“I haven’t,” Nancy told him. “But I guess I’m about to. Excuse me.”
She followed the butler out of the room, strangely relieved and curious. Why would Mr. Pierce want to see her? The butler led the way past the large double staircase, through a huge oak door, and down a carpeted hallway to another door, where he stopped to knock.
“Come in,” a weak, gravelly voice called out. The butler opened the door. “Ms. Nancy Drew,” he announced, then closed the door, leaving Nancy alone with Charles Pierce.
Mr. Pierce sat facing her in a wheelchair, much older and feebler than he appeared in his portrait. She wondered if the artist had flattered Nila as well.
“I understand from Mr. Bishop, my lawyer, that you’re quite a detective,” Pierce began, indicating a chair for her to sit on.
“I’ve solved a number of cases,” Nancy said, taking the seat.
“Yes. That’s why I invited you tonight,” Pierce said, wheeling himself closer to her. “I’m not a man to mince words, young lady, I want to engage your services. “
He studied Nancy closely, as if trying to determine whether she was up to the job he had in mind for her.
“I’d like you to investigate my family. You see, Ms. Drew,” he said, his eyes boring into hers. “I’m afraid one of them may be plotting to kill my fiancee.”