Bess was already forty-five minutes late when she heard the slap of a flat tire against the pavement. She smacked the steering wheel in frustration, turned on her hazard lights and maneuvered the Camaro to the narrow grass shoulder. Grabbing her cell phone, she climbed out, just avoiding an oncoming car. Teetering on three-inch spiked heels, she saw that the rear driver's side tire was indeed very flat, and was a mere inch from the glowing white line marking the edge of the road. She opened the trunk and glanced at her watch. She sighed.
Then she pushed aside all the random debris, the overnight bag packed just in case Nancy called her out of town on some very important case, a blanket, a wrinkled pale yellow dress. She heaved up the carpet, careful to keep her freshly-polished nails unmarred.
No spare tire.
No spare tire?
She felt herself hyperventilating and picked her way back to the front of the car, where she climbed back inside, staring ahead at the deserted road. Well, attempting to change a tire in this ensemble would be stupid anyway, she told herself. Which meant her cell phone.
With one bar of signal.
Ned arrived half an hour later, pulling up close behind her car with his own hazard lights on. He climbed out, leaned down to inspect her tire, and Bess maneuvered out of the car again, apprehensive.
"Did it blow?" he asked, straightening again.
Bess shrugged. Ned was standing in silhouette, in the glow of his headlights, and Bess put a palm on her car. Being off-balance due to three-inch heels was one thing. Being off-balance due to best friend's boyfriend, was quite another.
"Maybe we'd better get out of the road," Ned said, glancing back over his shoulder as another pair of headlights approached. Bess nodded, then came back to climb into his car. Ned closed his door just as the other car slipped by.
"Thank you so much for coming," Bess said. "I couldn't find anyone else. Nancy and George didn't answer."
Ned brushed a hand through his hair. "You didn't hear?" he asked, a scowl on his square-jawed face, marring his perfect lips. "She's out of town on some deathly important case. At least, that's what she told me."
Bess stared through the windshield at her crippled Camaro, silent. "I'm sorry."
She could hear the faint nervous sound of his jeans against the seat before he broke the silence with a forced laugh. "Me too," he said. "So, do you have Triple-A?"
"Yeah," Bess admitted. "Couldn't get the number I have to work. Well, that is, if I could find the little card with the number on it. Plus my cell phone's battery died."
"You're just having a bad time tonight, aren't you?" Ned asked, shaking his head. He pulled out his own phone. "One of my Omega Chi brothers works at a repair place near here over the summer, let me see if I can call you in a favor."
"Thanks," Bess replied, as Ned dialed.
"Don't mention it," Ned said. "Where were you going, anyway?"
"Mitch's," Bess said. "I was going to meet some people there, but they're probably gone by now."
"You should've taken a left off the interstate," Ned said. "You're in the middle of nowhere."
"Yeah," Bess replied, looking over at him. His frat brother answered and he arranged for a tow truck to come pick up Bess's car, but Bess just kept staring at him. It's late, she told herself. Just get him to take you home.
But when he hung up the phone, she found herself saying, "So, if this is the middle of nowhere, how come you know it?"
Ned laughed, easily now. "There's a roadhouse a couple miles from here," he said. "The only thing on this road."
"I could use a soda," Bess said. "What were you doing when I called you?"
"Watching a movie with my parents," he said. "I just heard from my cousin Laurel, she wants me to come out to San Francisco and visit her before I go back to school. But I won't, not if Nancy can't go. I haven't seen her all summer, it would be nice to get out of town. And then..." He shrugged. "Is she avoiding me?"
Bess swallowed and looked away from Ned's penetrating gaze. "I'm sure she isn't," Bess choked out.
The roadhouse was dim and fairly packed with people. When Ned and Bess walked in, a band was just leaving the stage. Bess settled into a booth while Ned went up to the bar to order them both drinks. She glanced down and noticed that no one else was wearing shoes. Before Ned came back with two fizzing sodas, Bess took her heels off and savored the feel of the cool floor on the bare soles.
"Diet for you," Ned said with a flourish as he put her drink down in front of her.
Bess nodded her thanks at him. "You're a really great guy," she said.
Ned leaned back in the booth and nodded his teasingly smug smile. "I know."
"Not just any guy would come out to the middle of nowhere just for his girlfriend's friend, with no promise to get anything out of it."
"You mean I don't get the Camaro for the rest of the weekend?" Ned snapped his fingers in mock disappointment.
"No, really," Bess said, shoving her barely tasted drink aside and leaning forward. "I mean, we've known each other how long?"
"Three years," Ned filled in.
"Three years," Bess said. "Feels like so much longer."
Ned took a sip of his drink. "It's cool," he said.
"No, it's not just cool," Bess said. "You've put up with being Nancy's boyfriend for three years. Trust me, no one else's made it that long. You're thoughtful and sweet and--and perfect."
Ned snorted. "Hardly," he replied.
"But you are," Bess said. "And she's-- and she's a fool if she doesn't see that."
Ned regarded Bess for a long moment, and she half-willed him to ask what she meant, what she could possibly mean. But he broke first, and looked away. The next band was setting up on stage.
"Let's dance," he said.
Ned was nearly a foot taller than Bess, so she had resigned herself to an aching neck for the rest of the evening, for tilting her head back to look at him. After all, he was accustomed to dancing with Nancy, who had a full five inches' height on Bess. But he surprised her, with twirls and dips and the kind of energetic dancing that made her glad she had sacrificed her shoes.
At least, until the band started a slower number, and three inches of additional height would have been very useful.
They were quiet, and then Ned chuckled to himself. "I haven't even asked you," he said. "How was Europe?"
Bess considered the minefield of his question, nodding in admiration as Ned carefully sidestepped another couple. "Exciting," she settled on at last. "A few cases, some hot guys, you know... the usual trip to Europe."
"You mean Nancy's usual trip to Europe."
Bess caught the soft bitter undertone. "Whatever Nancy's life may be, it isn't boring," she said, smiling. "We all get caught up in that."
"It is that," Ned admitted. "But you know, sometimes, I just want to know that I'll have someone who's there for me. Who cares. Who'll answer the phone when I call, and not just to tell me about someone else who needs her more than I do, just for a few days, just for a week or so, and that turns into the rest of our lives."
The song was just winding down to its last few notes, Ned's feet were slowing, and Bess looked up into his face with sympathetic eyes. Her heart was sounding painfully in her chest as she pulled him down to her and kissed him.
The band went silent and the two of them stood very still in the middle of the crowd. The feel of his lips on hers couldn't have lasted more than a second or two, and when he pulled back Bess only wanted more.
"Ned, I-- from the moment I met you--" Bess looked down. "You're the nicest guy I've ever met."
Ned's arms were still around her, as though in shock, but the look on his face was a thousand miles away. When he finally seemed to come to himself and see her, she smiled at him, small and tentative.
"Bess," he said, then shook his head, responding with his own, incredulous smile. His arms loosed their hold. "I'm with Nancy."
And then the words bubbled far closer to the surface, driven by her sudden anger, at the unfairness of it all. She, your precious Nancy, the one you're with, the one who isn't here for you right now, was with another guy the entire summer. Barely gave you a second thought. And this guy, this Mick, didn't give a second thought to you either, especially not when he proposed to her on bended knee one night. Your girlfriend. My best friend. None of this is ever going to change. She's never going to change. You want someone you can depend on? I'm standing right here.
Bess bit it all back and ducked her head, looked down at her bare feet, next to his. "Yeah," she said.
The rest of the evening was a blur. Ned paid for her soda, Bess could remember, as though he was her date, or maybe in some small way to make up for his rebuff. He drove her back to her house, they listened to the radio, and it was all as though it had never happened. As though the roadhouse had been swallowed up in the night, and Ned had not needed to remind her of what she already knew.
The next morning Bess's Camaro was in her driveway, with a nice new rear tire. Ned called soon after.
"I'm going with Nancy, to San Francisco," he told her. "We're leaving this afternoon."
Bess took a deep breath. "Have a good trip, then."
"Your car back okay?"
"Yeah, it's fine, perfect," Bess replied. "I'll see you when you get back."
"Yeah," Ned replied. "Take care, Bess."
"Yeah," she replied, faintly. "I will."
Bess clicked the phone off and stood at her window, her face wooden. Then she came to herself, tossed her hair, and forced a smile. "I will," she said.