HOME SWEET MYSTERY
Is this the sort of romantic dinner you had in mind?" I couldn't help but smile as my boyfriend Ned took my hand and whispered to me as we moved into his dining room for dinner. We'd been apart for a week, since I'd been on a supercomplicated case that had brought me to New York, and had planned to make tonight our official "catch-up date" at our favorite Italian restaurant. But this afternoon Ned had called with a change in plans: there'd been a mix-up with faculty housing at the university, so he volunteered to host a visiting professor from Iran and his family at the Nickerson home. They wanted to have a small dinner to welcome them, and tonight was the only night that worked for everyone.
I leaned in close to him. "Romance, shromance. A piece of your mother's apple pie will make up for anything we missed."
Ned chuckled and squeezed my hand. "Maybe so. But we'll have to plan a make-up date."
"Agreed." I squeezed back and smiled.
The truth was, it still felt nice to be back in River Heights and doing all the normal things I like to do that don't involve cab chases or setting things on fire. My most recent case had turned into something bigger and crazier than I ever could have anticipated, and I was enjoying being "Normal Nancy" again, instead of "Action Hero Nancy." Being back in Ned's house felt wonderful. And the Nickersons' new houseguests, Professor Mirza al-Fulani and his daughter, Arij, who was twelve, plus his son, Ibrahim, who was sixteen, just couldn't be nicer.
"So, Nancy," Ibrahim began with a smile as we sat down at the dining room table, "have your travels for investigations ever taken you out of the country? Have you been to the Middle East at all?"
I smiled. The al-Fulanis were from Iran, and I was enjoying Ibrahim's upbeat attempts to understand American culture. "I'm afraid not, Ibrahim. I don't get the chance to travel all that much, even within the United States. But I would love to visit the Middle East someday. There's so much history there."
Professor al-Fulani smiled at me. "This is true, Nancy. It is still sometimes strange for my children and I to wrap our heads around American history, because your country is so new. So much has changed in only two hundred years, whereas in our part of the world, there are thousands of years of history."
Ibrahim piped up excitedly. "Will we study American history at the high school, Nancy?"
I nodded. "Actually, you will, Ibrahim. It's a required class for juniors."
"Excellent." Ibrahim dug into his salad with a grin, glancing at his sister. "I want to learn as much as I can about this country while we are here. I am so eager to meet my classmates."
Arij smiled and nodded, glancing at Ned and me. "Maybe you could look at the outfit I plan to wear tomorrow, Nancy," she said shyly. "I want to fit in well, and make friends quickly."
I laughed. "I don't know if I'm the best person to give fashion advice, but I'd be happy to offer my opinion!"
Ned squeezed my arm. "Don't sell yourself short, Nance," he cautioned. "After all, you are the reigning Miss Pretty Face River Heights!"
I rolled my eyes at him. While that was true, I wasn't exactly aching to talk about my short and ill-fated career as a pageant queen, which had been part of the case I'd been investigating in New York City. Still, he was smiling. I knew he found my totally out-of-character pageant win amusing.
"Nancy," Ibrahim said, "I am curious about how you solve cases. You have told us a little about your unusual hobby, and I must ask: Do you wear disguises? Do you ever have to lie to people to get the information you need?"
I squirmed in my seat. Ibrahim's face was warm and open, and I knew his questions were coming from an honest curiosity. Still, I liked to keep my trade secrets and didn't exactly want to confess to bending the truth in the service of, well, the truth in front of Ned's father and a bunch of people I'd just met.
"Let's just say I do what the case requires," I replied, reaching for the bread basket. "Every case is different. More bread, anybody?"
Mrs. Nickerson chuckled.
"Ibrahim and Arij," Ned cut in smoothly, "have you ever been to an American high school before, or will tomorrow be your first time?"
"Oh no," Ibrahim replied, shaking his head. "We have attended school in America before. My father travels often for work, you know, and we have traveled with him for months at a time."
Professor al-Fulani nodded. "My children lived with me while I taught at a university in Wisconsin, and also briefly in Florida. Unfortunately both placements were only for a few months, so they weren't able to settle in as much as they would have liked."
Arij nodded, pushing her salad around on her plate. "Sometimes it's hard to make friends," she admitted, a note of sadness creeping into her voice. "People hear my accent or they see my hijab and they think...They think I am something that I am not."
Silence bloomed around the table. I nodded sympathetically, imagining how difficult it must be for Arij and Ibrahim to fit in.
"I don't think that will be the case here, Arij," Ned said in a warm voice. "At least, I hope not. We're a university town, and used to diversity."
Mr. Nickerson cleared his throat. "You have any trouble, Arij or Ibrahim, and you let me know," he added. "Ned and I will do everything we can to make your stay here as pleasant as possible."
Arij smiled. She looked a little relieved. "I can't wait to meet everyone," she said quietly.
"Ibrahim and Arij seem very nice," I remarked to Ned a couple hours later as we stood on his porch to say our good nights. "I think they'll enjoy living here, don't you? I think they'll have a good experience at the high school."
Ned nodded. "I hope so," he admitted. "They're definitely a couple of great kids -- so friendly and curious. I think as long as their classmates give them a chance, they'll have plenty of friends."
I nodded. The night was growing darker, and crickets chirped in the distance. I took a deep breath. River Heights, I thought happily. Home.
"So...," Ned began, reaching out to squeeze my hand.
"So," I repeated, looking up at him with a smile. "Dinner? Later this week? Just the two of us?"
Ned grinned and nodded. "I'll call you," he said, leaning over to give me a peck on the cheek. "I'm so glad you're back, safe and sound."
"Me too," I said honestly, squeezing his hand again. "Thank your mom for dinner. It was delicious."
Stepping down onto the driveway, I pulled out the keys to my hybrid car and felt a wave of exhaustion wash over me. I imagined my nice warm bed at home, beckoning me. Without a case or anything urgent on the agenda, I could sleep in a bit tomorrow, too. I sighed, carefully driving through the streets that led me home. What a relief to be back among the people I loved, and with a little downtime.
At home, I parked the car in our driveway and yawned as I walked around to the back door. I felt like I had tunnel vision -- all I could see was the route to my bedroom, where I'd soon be off to dreamland. Which is why I didn't notice that the kitchen light was on. And three people were sitting at the kitchen table, watching me curiously.
A familiar voice pulled me out of my tunnel vision, and I turned to find an unusual sight: my friend Bess; her twelve-year-old sister, Maggie; and our housekeeper and unofficial member of the family, Hannah, were munching on oatmeal-raisin cookies.
"Bess?" I asked, walking in. What on Earth?
Bess stood, placing her hand on Maggie's shoulder. "We were waiting for you to come home," she said. "Hope you're not too tired, Nance. Because I think we've got a case for you."
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