Otherwise Engaged – First Chapter

Chapter 1

Nancy Drew took the stairs two at a time. Please, Gail, be in, she fervently wished, but the Wilder Times office was dark. “Where are you, Gail?” she cried out in frustration. Her words seemed to echo through the hallway.

“Right behind you,” Gail Gardeski answered.

Nancy nearly jumped out of her skin.

“You’re here early,” Gail commented. “Are you trying to make me look bad? I thought getting here by eight o’clock for the nine o’clock staff meeting was above and beyond the call of duty — even for the editor-in-chief.” In fact, Gail looked as if she’d had a hard time getting out of bed that morning, her hair unbrushed and her raincoat rumpled as if she’d slept in it.

“I have a great lead,” Nancy began as she turned on the office lights and followed Gail to her office. “I didn’t want to wait for the meeting.”

“Is it a nice, juicy scandal?” Gail asked, shedding her coat. “That’s what we really need around here.”

Nancy did a double take. Under her rumpled coat, Gail wore a soft blue tunic belted over leggings and a silk scarf of multicolored swirls. Suddenly her hair looked fashionably wild in stead of unbrushed. Nancy felt a twinge of self-consciousness as she stood there in her jeans, flannel shirt, and old leather jacket. She shook back her thick red-blond hair and plunged ahead. “I sat in on a few chat rooms over the weekend. All anyone wanted to talk about was how to get in touch with the teaching assistants who had run an ad on the UseNet offering grades for cash at Wilder. Gail, this could be really big.”

Nancy waited for Gail’s enthusiastic reaction. It didn’t come.

That again!” Gail exclaimed. “Every semester the rumor mill coughs up the same old scheme. Whether it’s an ad posted at the Student Union or on-line, there’s nothing to it.”

“But I talked to some students who corroborated the story. There was an ad on the UseNet from some TAs.” Nancy couldn’t believe that Gail would dismiss her idea out of hand.

“Nancy,” Gail said impatiently. “You’re not the first reporter on this paper to come up with this, and you probably won’t be the last. Don’t worry, I’ve got some decent assignments to hand out this morning. They’ll keep you busy.”

Nancy did not want another assignment handed to her. She wanted to follow her gut instincts and work on this story. “Gail, just give me some time to look into it, to find the ad on the UseNet at least. Give me a week, and if I come up empty, at least I’ll have followed it through.”

“Nancy, how can I make this clear?” Gail spoke in her editor-in-chief voice. “It’s a waste of your time and effort, and the paper can’t afford that.” She irritated everyone, especially Nancy, when she became patronizing.

Unfortunately, Gail didn’t stop there. “Sorry you lost an extra hour of sleep,” she continued. “But you’re not catching any worms with that story.”

Nancy looked at Gail incredulously, then threw up her hands and walked out of her office.

An hour later, after a stiff double espresso for breakfast at Java Joe’s, Nancy was back at the newspaper. Gail had already started the weekly brainstorming session. Nancy didn’t look at her as she took a seat next to Jake Collins, her ex-boyfriend and main competitor for stories at the paper. “Right, Terrance, go with that lead,” Gail was saying. “Anyone else?” She gestured to one of the sports reporters. “Candace?”

Nancy listened for a moment as Candace proposed a human interest story about the upcoming protest over cheerleaders’ costumes.

Fluff! Nancy thought to herself, tuning out the rest of Candace’s proposal. Sometimes Nancy couldn’t figure out where Gail was coming from, and it made her mad. Gail talked about wanting real news, but shied away from anything controversial. Gail had told Nancy time after time that she was one of the two best writers on the paper. Still, she shot down at least half of Nancy’s ideas, and Nancy was getting sick of it.

“Sometimes Gail is such a pain,” she murmured under her breath, loud enough for only Jake to hear. “I’m sure if she’d let me run with my story I’d turn something up on TAs selling grades. What do you think?” Jake didn’t answer. His head was bent over his notebook; he was reading a greeting card tucked inside. Nancy couldn’t decipher the handwriting from where she sat, but below the signature was a string of little hearts drawn with a red ball point pen.

“Jake?” Nancy whispered.

He raised his head, shaking the dark, wavy hair off his forehead. “What?”

“Didn’t you hear a thing Gail just said?”

Jake flashed a quick embarrassed grin. “Sorry. I kind of zoned out.” As he shoved the card back into its pink envelope, a small photo fell to the floor faceup. It was a picture of Nancy’s new suitemate, Nadia Karloff, a Russian exchange student who had moved in with Casey Fontaine after Stephanie Keats had moved out.

As Nancy bent to pick it up, she noted that even in a cheap arcade snapshot, Nadia was drop-dead gorgeous.

“Doesn’t she look great?” Jake asked. Jake interviewed Nadia for the paper and had been dating her ever since.

“She does,” Nancy admitted quickly, not wanting to seem to disapprove of Jake’s new girlfriend. She eyed Jake carefully. His cheeks were pink, his eyes sparkled. He looked so — so alive. The very picture of a guy head over heels in love — with a woman he’d known for only a week or so.

It struck Nancy as weird that he had gotten so deeply involved so fast. That wasn’t like the Jake she knew. Nancy fiddled with the belt loops on her jeans. Maybe that was why his relationship with Nadia felt slightly wrong to Nancy. A hot story lead or a gut-wrenching news piece could reel in Jake the reporter fast.

But when it came to feelings, Jake’s ran deep and slow. At least, that had been Nancy’s experience with him.

She handed the picture back to him. Maybe she couldn’t be objective about this. Maybe she was just uncomfortable about Jake’s having a new girl, and such an attractive one. Nadia was more than beautiful — she was exotic, too. Her jet black hair framed high Slavic cheekbones, liquid brown eyes, and full, expressive lips. Nancy had been initially intrigued by her appearance and her life story.

That was before Nadia had started dating Jake. Nancy still didn’t know the girl very well. And ever since Nancy had run into Jake coming out of Nadia’s room early one morning, Nadia had kept her distance. Nancy could sympathize, but secretly wished Nadia would transfer to another suite. It had been awkward for everyone in Suite 301 since Nadia started dating Nancy’s ex.

Nancy watched Jake slip Nadia’s photo back into the envelope, which was also covered with little hearts.

It was a little gooey for Nancy’s taste, and didn’t fit her image of Jake. But, hey, if Jake didn’t mind the hearts and flowers routine, Nancy was happy for him. Or at least she would try to be.

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