You accept the love you think you deserve.
Ned looked down at his drained shot glass, waiting for the bartender to glance in his direction, but she was flirting with a pair of slick assholes a few years younger. The prices were incredible. In five shots he'd managed to pay for a fifth of whiskey, and that made him think that maybe he should just find a liquor store and finish drinking himself into oblivion in the safety of his own place.
Even without verbalizing it, he knew that would be a bad idea. He'd sit down at the computer to look up a few sports scores and end up staring at the cursor flashing at the top of an empty email already addressed to her, and if there was anything he hated more than drunk-dialing, it was drunk emailing. The words would be there, black and white, burned in, long after he had forgiven her or she had forgiven him.
There wasn't going to be any forgiveness.
He had turned his cell phone off. He had parked where his car would be safe once he took a cab home. Sometimes, on nights like this, it blazed out of him like a beacon, his hurt, his incoherent rage, and attracted girls who patted his arm and pursed their lips and suggested, sometimes very candidly, that he'd be all the better if he could just get inside someone else for a little while. He wasn't sure if tonight was going to be one of them, and as soon as the whiskey burned his throat he wanted nothing more than to grab the next girl who locked eyes with him and fuck her in a bathroom stall. Then the warmth pooled in his belly and he thought her name and wanted to pitch himself out a window.
"I've had e-fucking-nough," he growled, to no one in particular, picking the empty glass up and letting it drop with a clink back to the moisture-stained wood of the bar. The bartender's ponytail swung as she glanced over her shoulder to shoot him an irritated look, and Ned had to wrestle down the impulse to flip her off as she sauntered back over to him, lazily hefting the whiskey bottle on her way.
"She's still with him, huh."
Without turning he placed the voice, the swell of lush curves, and wasn't disappointed when he swiveled in time to watch Bess Marvin wiggle her hips, perched at the top of the stool next to his. She wore a tight green satin top trimmed in lace along the low neckline, cut generously to disguise the tummy she didn't have, a short black skirt, a pair of heels. Her eyes were bluer, somehow.
She propped her chin on her hand, returning his measuring gaze. "That's a yes."
Ned shook his head. "I don't know where the hell she is, and I don't care."
"Cheers to that," Bess said, lifting one of his empty shot glasses to clink against another. "Except for Joey Larsen, who said he'd never loved anyone as much as he loved me, until I walked in on him fucking his secretary."
"I think you win, then," Ned replied with ponderous sincerity, blinking slowly at her. "All dressed up, huh."
"And sitting next to you in a bar." The waitress delivered her drink order and Bess downed half her martini in her first sip.
"We accept the love we think we deserve." When Bess shot him a puzzled look, he gestured at one of the business cards pinned above the bar, blank save for the phrase. "Do you believe that?"
"It'd explain a lot," Bess agreed, taking a smaller sip of her drink. "Except that I don't think I've deserved many of them."
"You sure that's true?"
Bess finished the martini, grimacing as she clicked the glass down on the bar, away from her. "I don't know," she said. "But every time, I feel like there's something wrong with me."
Ned raised his hands in agreement and tossed back his shot; the bartender, suddenly bored, immediately sauntered over for a refill. "Like we don't deserve it," he said slowly. "Except how do I deserve this?"
"Because Nancy doesn't know what she has."
"And that's a good excuse?" Ned could feel his voice rising, along with the blood in his face, but he didn't care.
"No," Bess said, quietly. "Not really."
"But she'll call, in a few days, when he's gone and she doesn't have anyone else..."
"And you'll answer the phone," Bess continued, when he trailed off. "And she'll apologize and you'll say that of course she didn't mean to blow you off, she's just realized how important you are to her. But it doesn't last."
"Is it something wrong with her? Or with me?" Ned couldn't meet Bess's eyes.
"Her," Bess said firmly. "Because if you were my boyfriend, I swear, you'd never feel that way. You are the sweetest, most understanding guy ever, and she takes you for granted so often that it makes me sick. Even though she's my best friend." Bess toyed with her damp napkin, picking bits off the edge, not meeting his eyes either.
And Ned felt something shift in him, something he was too drunk to ignore.
"You want to get out of here?"
"Fuck yes," she replied, reaching for her purse to pay her tab.
Bess's heart felt like a stone in her chest.
She had been repeating to herself all the reasons Joey wasn't worth crying and ruining her mascara: she had never really seen a future for them, he was too cocky by half, he ordered in restaurants for her and assumed anything he had to do was more important than anything she had to do and he always, always had to drive.
Even so, it didn't matter. She was always surprised to find that no matter how many times it happened, no matter how many variations of the breakup she lived through, she was always hurt by the next. This one felt like slamming into a wall. This one felt like she had to hold her breath to keep her ribs from stabbing her through the heart. She felt tired and angry and ashamed, at the thought of George's sanctimonious nod and Nancy's completely well-intentioned reiteration that Bess would be lucky enough to find someone like Ned, someday.
Which, for tonight, meant a walking doormat, a defiant but never rebellious worshipper.
Very very quietly, when Bess was drunk or angry at Nancy or just incredibly soul-rendingly lonely, she thought that maybe she would have had a chance with Ned if Ned hadn't happened to meet Nancy first. If she had just been able to spend time with him, to allow him to appreciate her as Bess, not Bess-Nancy's-friend, not good-dependable-Bess. She could see so clearly all the ways he and Nancy were ill-matched, and every time Ned gave in to her, looked the other way while she flirted with other guys or accepted her breaking another date or canceling another vacation because of a case, a tiny fraction of her wanted him to suddenly turn around and say, "You know what? No. Fuck no. You have to choose. Me or the case."
And, in Bess's fantasy, Nancy would raise her chin and say, "Ned, you have to understand, it will always be the case," because it was true, and Bess had never thought sleuthing would be boring, and it wasn't, but that was only because being around Nancy so long had desensitized her to it. But not Nancy. To Nancy every time was like the first time, every case was of life-or-death importance. They all knew that. To expect Nancy to settle down with kids and a station wagon was ludicrous. If Nancy ever accepted one of Ned's elaborately casual proposals, they would all have heart attacks from the shock. Including him.
Then Ned, his handsome jaw set, his brown eyes lit with passion (for some reason, in her mind, by now, he was always dressed in some billowing white shirt and tight black pants, rather like the buccaneer on the front of her favorite series of romance novels; the sunlight played in his wavy brown hair and his powerful forearms were hard with manly strength as he gazed at her, and it was her fantasy, dammit, it could all be true if she wanted) would turn to Bess and say, "I've been denying my feelings for you for too long, Bess."
Just like that.
The unreality of it was enough to end it there. Ned wasn't like that, billowy white pirate-shirt aside. Bess knew he was honest enough with himself to know that if he gave Nancy that ultimatum, things would be over between them once and for all. He and Nancy were having sex, planning on moving in together, and that would have to be enough for him. Bess couldn't go back in time and give herself that week with him. When she was especially depressed, she doubted that even the rest of their lives would be enough. Not with Nancy around.
One day Ned would have enough, and he would leave, and he would be gone from Bess's life too. And she would mourn for him like he had been her own.
"I'm so fucking mad at her."
They were trying to catch a taxi, and Bess felt calm, sure. She had long known that if she wanted to keep Ned in her life, she had to keep him with Nancy. And maybe, if she had to, imagine him when she was in bed and alone, fucking some latex approximation of a man, when all those little details Nancy had shared, bright-eyed, about their utterly fantastic sex life rose unbidden and she thought of him doing those things to her instead. So what. Her heart was stone.
"I know," Bess sighed sympathetically. "But you love her."
Ned shrugged. "So what?" he pointed out, and she had to agree. They couldn't help but love her. And they would never, ever be able to change her.
He finally started talking about something else, halfway back to her place, and she was glad. She knew exactly what Nancy was doing, and with whom; Nancy had called earlier, spilling everything under the guise of asking Bess's advice, when it had all really been to shock her with the drama of it all. Bess knew that if she called Nancy back to tell her about the debacle, of coming in to see Joey, that bleach blonde slut with her skirt hiked up—
Bess shook her head and started digging for her keys. Even if she called Nancy to talk about it, and she really, really didn't want to talk about it, she'd either get voicemail or a hurried "Sorry, I'm in the middle of something, can this wait?"
She just didn't want to be alone with herself long enough to lose her tenuous control. With any luck she and Ned would get drunk enough that she would pass out and wake tucked into her bed in the morning, scoured out by her anger and the alcohol, and begin again.
"Hey Bess," he said suddenly, just as she clicked the deadbolt back.
"Hey," she smiled back, thinking of the door she had opened earlier, the image she could never unsee.
"Come on in."
He started remembering that night, a few years before, when Bess had called him with her flat tire and they had gone to the roadhouse, and she had kissed him. That was what that strange fluttering reminded him of. That slightly wounded look in her eyes. He had found out later, about Mick, and Bess had known all along, and when he looked back that changed everything and nothing.
They drank and watched a movie, and he drew her back out when he saw that look crossing her face, that distant and quietly devastated look. He kept drinking. She drank too, and then they were both well past the point they should have stopped, and he knew that if he had one more thing to drink he was going to throw up, especially when he heard himself saying Nancy's name in every other sentence. She started flinching. She started digging her nails into the couch cushion and flinching, not looking at him.
"She's fucking him, isn't she."
Bess turned to him, her eyes narrowed, cheeks flushed. "You don't want to ask me that."
"Oh my God, she is," Ned whispered. "Oh my God." He rose and staggered away from the couch, suddenly violently sick.
"She—you need to talk to her," Bess finished lamely.
"So she can make some total bullshit excuse?" He slapped the wall between the kitchen and living room angrily, hard. "Oh my God. I don't even want... she's going to lie straightfaced to me. Like she always does."
"She— God," Bess muttered, coming over to hover next to him, gazing up into his face. "I shouldn't have said anything."
"How many other times?"
Bess shook her head, slowly.
"How many other times, Bess," he said deliberately, emphasizing every word.
"Ned, I'm sorry," she said, and one tear slid down her cheek, leaving a black trail of mascara.
"Yeah, well, that's it," he said angrily, and began searching for his coat. "I pity the next poor bastard who gets tangled up with her. Fucking c—"
Bess punched him hard in the arm and he turned to see her flushed and glaring at him. "Stop it."
"Oh?" He let out a sardonic laugh. "And what? Roll over and take it in the balls again?"
Bess crossed her arms. "Remember what you said back in the bar?" she said, and her mouth was trembling. "Show her this isn't okay, Ned. Show her there are consequences."
"There are no fucking consequences!" he shouted. "Not for her, never for her! Never! Put your fist in the ocean and take it back out again; I have as much effect on her as the hole I would leave in the water. Do you have any fucking clue how hard it is to love her this much when I know that any attempt at all to keep her with me will just drive her further away?"
Bess shrugged miserably. "And that's better than this?"
Ned sighed. "Not when this is all I have."
She put her hand on his shoulder, and then she stepped in close and put her arms around him, and he put his arms around her in return, frightened by how much he wanted to rip his girlfriend into shreds.
He stood shaking for a few minutes, as she rubbed her palm in a circle over his back, and then he sighed, all the fight draining out of him. He kissed the crown of her head softly and she pulled back a little, tipping her head back to gaze into his eyes, her own shining.
He wasn't thinking about Nancy when he kissed her.
Ned kissed her and she felt her heart throb once, wildly, as she pulled back. Fighting herself the entire way, she shoved him back, stepping out of his arms, stiffly, angrily.
"I'm not her," she reminded him, and now she was the one shaking. "How dare you."
"I know you aren't her," Ned said, but the color was rising quickly in his cheeks.
"Then what was that?"
He took a step closer to her. "I was remembering how you kissed me that night we were at the roadhouse," he said, his eyes steady on hers. "And how earlier you said that you would never have treated me this way."
Bess shook her head and immediately regretted it as the room reeled around her. She clutched the back of the couch for support. "Doesn't matter," she said staunchly.
"I can't take her back after this," Ned said, his fist clenching at his side. "And you wouldn't have either."
No, she agreed silently, shaking her head more gently this time.
"We deserve something we both want."
She knew the thousand reasons she shouldn't; they flashed through her head as he kissed her again. Then his tongue was in her mouth and she sighed as she reached up and wrapped an arm around his shoulders, dragging her fingers through his hair. A shiver raced up her spine, tingling down to her fingertips.
God, she had always wanted to do that.
He grunted impatiently at their height difference, then swept her up into his arms, boosting her so they were the same height and she had no say at all in the matter. He kissed her again, deeply, and she had a flash suddenly of one of the thousand times she had seen Ned do this to her best friend, and she had to pull back.
"I'm not her," she repeated, lamely, unable to find any other words for her sudden failure of self-esteem and confidence.
"I'm not that drunk," he told her, seriously, and she shivered and giggled when he nuzzled behind her ear.
Nancy was going to find out. Nancy would fucking find out and she, Bess had no idea what she would do. Best friends didn't do this to each other.
Except it was worse, wasn't it, when she did it to her own boyfriend.
Bess waited, peering at him through her lashes until he drew back to gaze at her again, and with a sigh his mouth pressed against hers and as sternly as she told herself to fight it, she had to admit that kissing him like this was every bit as incredibly hot as it had always been in her imagination. Even moreso, really. The way he was touching her, breathing her name, she could almost convince herself that she was the sole center of his entire world.
How Nancy must feel.
Bess pulled back with a soft groan. "We're drunk and this is just so you can get back at her," she accused him, an almost petulant tone in her voice that she utterly despised.
"I'm not, going back, to her," Ned repeated, and she shuddered with irrepressible pleasure as he shuffled forward, moving in the direction of her bedroom. "And I have wondered for a long time what this would be like."
"To be with me?" Bess knew she was dreaming. She had to be.
He nodded. "To be with someone who actually loves me," he said, and her heart broke, a little.
After that, she didn't interrupt him again. He helped her wriggle out of the leather miniskirt and she unfastened his jeans, practically falling on her knees at his feet, enraptured by the sight of him, in the light coming from the living room and through her open bedroom door. He looked her up and down, smiling faintly, once she was naked, and Bess had to fight the urge to cross her arms, to pull the tangled covers up over her. Nancy was tall and slender and graceful. Bess was not tall, definitely not slender, and she was uncomfortably horribly aware of how she must look to him.
He was going to tell her this was all some massive mistake, and she knew it was, but she knew she would always wonder if they turned back now.
In an effort to torture herself, Bess had always listened with particular attention to Nancy's descriptions of nights with Ned. She knew how Nancy had always described him, and when he pushed his boxers down she was only slightly amused to note that Nancy had been just a tad prone to overestimation. Bess had been with enough partners to know that he was on the above-average side, but definitely not porn-star caliber.
"Yeah," she said softly, loosely clasping his cock in her fist. He started a little at how cold her hand was, but then he was slowly stroking her nipples to tight buds while she ran her palm up and down his hard length a few times, and she chuckled.
She kept her gaze on his cock, biting her lip. "You're just a little bigger than my vibrator."
He ran the tip of his thumbnail across her nipple and she arched. "Really."
"I named it after you."
Her strokes were quickening and Ned's hips were moving in time with her touch. "Then I think it's only fair you show me," he murmured, and then he was pushing her onto her back, pushing her bent knees apart.
According to Nancy, Ned was a very conscientious, thorough lover, and she had to admit she wasn't disappointed in that. He found her clit very soon and varied the rhythm and pressure of his strokes until she was gasping, rotating her hips in answer, grinding against him. He teased her nipples with the tip of his tongue until she grasped his cock and pumped him with her clasped fist, thrusting her hips gently in anticipation. She kissed him a few times, hard, and he kissed her back with such breathtaking intensity that for moments at a time they stopped teasing, just lost themselves in each other, his cock pressing against her thigh as he gathered her to him.
Everything. You're everything.
"Open your eyes," she whispered, wanting him to see her, to know it was her, even if that made him stop.
But he didn't stop, and she didn't realize how much she had doubted him and how much she had wanted it as he slid on the condom, and he had never used a condom with Nancy, Bess knew that, and she wanted—
"Oh God," she sighed, her legs wrapped around him, tightening as he stroked her clit one last time and then barely slid between her thighs, and she locked her gaze with his, tipping her head back, nails digging into his flesh as he gently pushed his cock inside her. She urged him down with all her strength but he ignored her, taking his time, starting shallow and gradually lengthening his thrusts until she was writhing under him, shivering, gasping out his name.
Ned. Ned was inside her. He wanted her. He wanted to be with her.
She came, eyes sewn shut in unspeakable pleasure, and he groaned as he felt her wet flesh tighten against him. He made his last thrusts hard and deep, and she cried out as he drove her even higher, his cock pulsing in her as he followed.
For a long panting moment they lay still joined, with him collapsed against her. She wanted to cry out when he pulled away, to beg him to come back, but instead he flushed the condom and returned to her, his skin gleaming faintly, smiling at the sight of her tousled and naked, flushed with pleasure from what he had done to her.
"Did you really name your vibrator after me?"
He said it quietly, when she was almost asleep, one of his hands casually stroking her breast. She chuckled and the tip of her nipple pressed against his palm.
"Yeah, but good at it is, I have to say the real experience is much, much better."
He smiled; she could hear it in his voice. "Good."
She had to build up her courage for what came next, and she was glad she couldn't see him in the dark. "I've wanted this for a long time," she admitted. "I... I've cared about you a long time."
He was quiet for a moment, his hand stilling to cup her breast. "I've cared about you too," he said softly.
And she knew then what she could never say; she knew he was telling the truth, but she heard the other words, the qualifiers that always came with it.
And her heart, soft and open as a spread palm, closed tight again, and this was worse than slamming into a wall, worse than soaring through a car windshield.
This time it felt like dying.
It wasn't like he hadn't been telling the truth, he thought miserably. It wasn't. It was something he was perfectly incapable of describing, the way his gaze meeting Nancy's across a room was like pure electricity, the way he found himself always unable to stick to any resolve where she was concerned. She met his accusation with tears, swearing that she had never slept with any other man, swearing that there had been some kind of misunderstanding, swearing that she loved him, and he knew she did, but that her love for him was something she was able to shed and reassume at will. He would never be so lucky.
Even so, he couldn't help it. He looked into her eyes and saw nothing but desire and desperation, no guilt, no secrecy, and when she came to him and opened herself to him and came with him, arching and sobbing out his name, he swore to himself that he would know, that he would be able to feel it, if she had been with another man.
The next time he saw Bess, he almost, almost hugged her and whispered in her ear that it had all been a mistake, a misunderstanding, that he was sorry, but something in her eyes stopped him.
She shook her head, her cheeks flushed, her eyes unnaturally bright.
"I guess you were right," she said, her voice clipped with anger, wavering with it. "I guess I do accept the love I think I deserve."
"The more fool me, for thinking I deserved you."