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Lissa slammed her foot down on the brakes and came to a stop with the front license plate about six feet past the stop sign. Groaning, she backed up and then turned and glared at Adrian as if he had caused her problem. “This is the touchiest car I’ve ever driven,” she snapped.
“Rather,” he agreed. She couldn’t tell if he was smiling because her statement was so obvious or because he didn’t really believe her. She turned away, checked for oncoming traffic, and continued past the stop sign. The car accelerated quicker than she’d expected, but she took her foot off the accelerator before they passed the speed limit. The abrupt end to their acceleration jerked her forward as if she’d braked. Lissa kept her face stiff and impassive, daring Adrian to ask why she was having trouble.
“I see why you want to sell it,” she said after a few moments of successful driving. “But,” she glanced at him and grinned, “I’ll be grateful to you for this test-drive even if I don’t buy this thing, because I suddenly appreciate a boring tan sedan like never before.”
Adrian laughed and then stiffened as a sharp curve approached. Lissa gave him an annoyed look before twisting the steering wheel. The car responded so quickly that it lurched into the curb with a jolt that made Lissa’s teeth knock together painfully. She snarled in frustration and declared, “Definitely not buying this.” Adrian nodded and stared grimly ahead as if he expected to be killed at any moment.
His expression annoyed Lissa, primarily because it was justified. Besides, her head still hurt from both the jolt and the night before. She hurled herself at the steering wheel with unnecessary vigor and almost sent the car into someone’s front lawn. Biting her lips, she steadied the car and turned onto the highway. Adrian relaxed visibly. “At least we won’t run over some little old lady walking her dog.”
“Hmph. We still might run over some little old lady cleaning up litter.”
“Can’t have everything.”
Lissa ignored him and concentrated on driving. The car picked up speed only too easily, and she didn’t have much trouble keeping it on the gently curving highway, but she was still glad that the road was almost empty of other cars. Adrian released his white-knuckled grip on his armrest and began to look as if he were enjoying the drive and not being dragged to his execution. Lissa was relieved; his tension had been distracting her, and distraction was the last thing she needed.
The road curved up the hill in a series of angles that were too gentle to be proper switchbacks but too sharp and frequent for normal curves. Lissa focused on driving, turning the steering wheel only when all her instincts, adjusted to a less sensitive vehicle, screamed at her that she couldn’t possibly turn in time. She still strayed onto the median a few times as she moved too quickly, but her intense concentration helped. “I could adjust to this, I think,” she said after several minutes. “It’s not perfect, but it’ll do.”
“You sound like you’re talking about Mark,” Adrian said lazily.
Lissa jumped and her foot, which had been resting on the accelerator, came down hard. The car jolted forward and left the road with a lurch that nearly sent Adrian through his window. Lissa stamped on the brake pedal and wrestled with the steering wheel. The car skidded to a halt a few feet from a barbed-wire fence and jolted backward as the force from the springs underneath it overcame momentum. Lissa turned on Adrian.
“What did you want to do that for? My relationships are none of your business. Nothing is perfect. And couldn’t you have picked a better time? You could have killed us!”
“Sorry!” Adrian looked genuinely apologetic. “I wasn’t thinking. And I didn’t expect you to react like that.”
“Whatever.” Lissa got out and slammed her door. “I’m not paying for the repairs!” she called in the window as she started walking around the car.
Adrian got out of the car. “I hope you don’t mean that.”
Lissa shrugged. “Maybe not. I’m sorry.” She’d lost control literally and figuratively; Mark would be frustrated. The car’s front fender was dented slightly, and there was a long scratch along one side, but nothing too serious.
“I don’t guess Mark would pay,” Adrian said as if he was agreeing with something.
“No, probably not,” Lissa answered absently, wondering if the rear tire was punctured or just sitting on top of the thorny mesquite bush. Then she straightened up and glared at him. “Would you quit going on about Mark and me?”
“Sorry.” Adrian rubbed the scratch on the paint and made a face. “It’s just that I’ve driven this car for three months, and I’ve never had as much trouble as you did. Sure, the steering isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty good—and there’s no problem at all with the brakes and accelerator. What’s distracting you?”
“Nothing,” Lissa snapped. “My head hurts, that’s all.”
He kept watching her. She rolled her eyes heavenward and sighed. “I was at a party last night, okay? And I haven’t been able to drink legally long enough to be used to alcohol. But I’m fine.”
“If your head hurts for a day afterward, why do you go to these things?” Adrian asked in obvious exasperation. Lissa remembered too late that she’d complained about parties the week before.
“Mark likes them,” she said indistinctly, bending down to check under the car. Straightening, she patted it briskly. “I don’t think it’s damaged. We can drive back.” She opened her door but stopped as Adrian leaned over the top of the car.
“Lissa, why on earth don’t you just tell him you don’t like parties?”
“I know he enjoys them, and it’s not too big of a sacrifice. I want him to be happy.”
“Yes, I know. Unfortunately, he knows that too.”
“What do you mean?”
Adrian didn’t take his eyes off her. “You’re his girlfriend. I’m his roommate. I don’t like him. I think I’m a slightly less biased judge than you are.”
“Oh, indeed,” Lissa said. Her voice quivered with fury. “Less biased? Maybe I’m not perfect. But I can think of one person at least who wouldn’t mind at all if Mark left me and I was stuck looking for a date.”
“Lissa—you—” Adrian’s voice sounded frustrated, but also surprised, as if he was startled that she’d understood him so well. It only made Lissa more irritated.
“If I wasn’t your only ride home I’d leave right now,” Lissa cut him off. “Get in.” She scrambled into the car and barely waited for Adrian to shut his door before she almost crushed the accelerator into the floorboards. The car jolted onto the road and flew into the opposite lane before she got it back under control. Then she spun it around and hurtled down the hill toward Adrian’s house.
Lissa’s anger had cooled enough for her to be civil by the time they got back to Adrian’s apartment, but she still got out of the car wondering why she even hung out with Adrian when he couldn’t keep out of her private business. She looked over the car a final time. It was fairly attractive, without the usual exaggerated curves of sports cars but still not nearly as boring as an ordinary sedan. Adrian grinned as he saw her thoughtful expression. “Still thinking about buying it?”
“No, not really,” she admitted. “That trip was too much for me.” She was about to say more when another car pulled into the driveway and stopped.
“Oh, dear,” Adrian said under his breath, and moved a few steps toward the house.
Lissa squinted against the sunlight reflected in the car’s windshield. “Mark!” She left the black car and hurried forward as Mark opened his door. He got out quickly and hugged her, then kissed her forehead. She laughed but struggled to get free—she didn’t like the sensation of helplessness that came with his firm grip. “Let go, okay? It’s not like I’ll bite you.”
“Can’t be too careful,” he said lightly, and brushed his lips against her face again before he let her go. Lissa brushed herself off and tried to get her hair back into order as Mark walked past her to where Adrian was still standing by the black car.
“Hello, Mark.” Adrian’s voice sounded too casual.
“Hi,” Mark responded. He glanced over his shoulder as Lissa came up beside him. “What were you two doing?”
Now Lissa understood why Adrian looked nervous. She hastily tried to defuse the tension. “You know I’ve been looking for a car. Adrian let me test-drive his.”
“Lissa, you don’t need that car,” Mark told her promptly.
“So I discovered. Driving it is—I don’t know. Like talking to someone who bursts into tears or hysterical laughter at everything that’s the least bit sad or funny. Delicate and dangerous.”
“That bad, eh?” Mark laughed slightly as he turned to Adrian, but his voice sobered quickly. “The car looks a bit banged up. What happened?”
“We went off the road,” Adrian explained flatly.
“I was having trouble concentrating, and the steering is way too delicate,” Lissa explained.
“Trouble concentrating?” Mark asked sharply.
“A headache, she said,” Adrian answered. “And anyone who’s driving that car for the first time is bound to be caught off-guard. Have you ever tried it?”
“No,” Mark admitted. He smiled at Adrian. “So which of us is getting dinner tonight?”
“Me, I think,” Adrian answered. “Do you want me to try to boil a chicken, and risk food poisoning, or should we call for pizza?”
“Boil a chicken?” Lissa asked incredulously. “I’d say pizza, unless you want to be having supper at around ten-thirty tonight.”
“Fine, whatever. But I’m hungry,” Mark declared. Adrian nodded, waved at Lissa, hesitated, and went into the house. The door slamming behind him made Lissa jump.
Mark walked forward and leaned an elbow on the top of Adrian’s car. “So why’d you come over?”
“What?” Lissa asked in surprise. Her heart started pounding as furiously as it had just after the near-wreck. She moved around to the other side of the car so that the black machine was between her and Mark.
“Why’d you come over?” Mark repeated. “I never get home before now. Why did you come over when you knew I wasn’t going to be home?”
Lissa forced a laugh. “To see Adrian, okay? I can have male friends other than you, can’t I? Besides, he’d mentioned wanting to sell his car, so I thought I’d test-drive it.”
“I thought so.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she demanded. She wished Adrian wasn’t inside. Sometimes he was much better at talking to Mark than she was. “You’re going to have to get used to me having other friends who are boys. If you can’t—” she stopped before she could say anything she might regret later.
“Adrian’s canny. You’re too trusting.”
“Trusting? Canny?” She heard her voice crack and realized with fury that she was about to start crying. Why couldn’t she control herself?
“Just look at how he got you out in that unsafe car. I’m telling you, Lissa, without me you’re asking for trouble everywhere you go.”
“Unsafe,” she repeated numbly. Then she rallied. “He didn’t know I’d have so much trouble with it. And what if he expected me to? I went out on a drive with him, we skidded off the road, and all he did was discuss who should pay for the repairs.” She faltered briefly, since that hadn’t been all Adrian had mentioned, but rushed on. “You’re a little too overprotective, Mark. Nothing happened. Understand? Nothing. So there’s nothing for you to worry about.”
“But things could have happened. You need me around to protect you, Lissa. I don’t trust Adrian. But I trust you to do what’s best for yourself.”
“Yeah, and what if I disagree with you about what’s best for myself?”
He walked swiftly around the trunk of the car, but she darted around the hood so that they faced each other over the car again. Mark sighed, leaned his head on his hand for a moment, and then spoke more calmly. “Never mind all this. Just let me drive you home.”
“I have my own car,” she told him coldly, waving toward her tan sedan and wishing it wasn’t parked at the end of the block.
“That’s okay. I’ll bring you back tomorrow, maybe, and you can get it. We can stop at a restaurant on the way home—I’ll tell Adrian not to expect me for supper. I can take care of you.”
“I’ll take care of myself, thanks.” She took a few steps toward her own car, but stopped as he started to move around the hood of the black sports car. If he ended up chasing her toward her car, he could easily outrun her. She sighed and went back.
“I don’t think you can take care of yourself,” Mark said so kindly that she almost didn’t notice his meaning. “Just let me do it.”
“What?” Lissa snapped. “I can’t take care of myself? That’s a fine foundation for our relationship. Maybe Adrian was right.”
“Adrian?” Mark barked. Lissa sucked in her breath but didn’t answer. Mark slapped the top of the car furiously. “I should have known. I told you I didn’t trust him.”
“Too bad,” Lissa retorted. “Because I do.” She jerked the black car’s door open and scrambled in as Mark turned on her. She nearly broke her ankle in the pedals, but her foot found the accelerator. The car ended up onto the lawn as she backed it out viciously, almost smashing Mark’s car, but she ignored the sudden lurch of the transitions from driveway to grass to road just as she ignored whatever Mark was shouting at her. She slammed her foot down on the accelerator and took off down the street with a scream of wheels on asphalt.
Tears were running down her cheeks and she swiped savagely at them. This was it. She had had enough. She yanked at the steering wheel and the car spun around a curve barely in time. She had to get out of town before she killed someone, she thought dimly, and turned the car onto the highway she and Adrian had followed before.
But what if Mark was right? She choked down a sob and barely turned in time to avoid shooting past the intersection with the highway. What if she couldn’t take care of herself? All her life she’d had someone to look after her—first her parents and then Mark. And you couldn’t end a five-year relationship without hurting everyone involved. Shouldn’t she be selfless and stay with Mark?
She knew what Adrian would say to that, though. And what about Adrian? Her own words came back to her: I can think of at least one person who wouldn’t mind at all if Mark left me and I was stuck looking for a date. What if she left Mark? It would be hard if Adrian and she started dating while Mark was still Adrian’s roommate, but Adrian was more independent than she was. He could figure things out. But did she want that?
She noticed the first curve up the hill and the fact that the car was going at 90 miles per hour simultaneously.
Lissa shrieked and stamped on the brakes. The car jerked and skidded sideways until she realized her mistake, took the brakes off, and regained enough control to force the car around the first curve. She pushed the brakes down again, released them to keep from skidding, and then forced the pedal almost through the floorboards as the second curve appeared in her headlights. The moon whirled by in a flash of silver as she wrenched the car around the curve, jolting off the road and back on again. Her heart was pounding wildly but she could barely feel it; her mind was clear and cold and strangely alert. She yanked the steering wheel and the car shot around the third bend. The speedometer was down to sixty now.
She never saw the speed limit. There was only a scream of twisting metal and a white flash in her passenger side window as the sign went down under the car’s wheel. The impact could not stop the car, but the wheels skidded as the car pivoted around the destroyed passenger-side tire and then hurtled off the road.
The car passed from asphalt to grass with a jolt that sent Lissa’s head thudding into the headrest. She slammed down the brakes and the car skidded, leaped upward over a stone, and came down with a terrible jolt. For a sickening moment, it tilted and she thought they were going to start rolling. Then the vehicle groaned and settled into its position, unevenly propped on the stone with the engine sputtering fitfully. After a few more seconds, the engine died altogether and there was no sound left, it seemed, in the entire world.
Lissa’s hands were shaking and her fingers felt too weak to unbuckle her seatbelt, but she managed it at last and scrambled out of the car. She moved away from it until she was certain it couldn’t fall and crush her. Then she collapsed against a fence post and stared at the wreck.
The car’s hood was crumpled on the passenger side where the sign had struck it. The front passenger tire was destroyed. All of the windows were cracked. She couldn’t see the underside of the car from her position, but a dark trickle coming from under it told her that either the sign or the rock—or both—had smashed something important.
And I was worried about a scratch in the paint.
The thought brought her jerking upright. Adrian. He had seen her racing off in the car she couldn’t drive. She dug in her pocket and found her cell phone, thanked her stars that it wasn’t shattered, and tried to dial. Her shaking fingers made the buttons seem tiny. When she finally held the phone against her ear, she hoped fervently that she hadn’t dialed the wrong number.
The voice at the other end wasn’t Adrian. “Hello?”
For a moment, Lissa thought she had gotten the wrong house and started trying to form an apology. But then she recognized the voice and wished she had called a complete stranger. She swallowed hard. “Hello, Mark.”
“Lissa!” Mark’s enthusiasm was unmistakably forced. “You alright? I was really worried. Do you want me to pick you up somewhere? I found out about this new restaurant—”
“I’d like to speak to Adrian, please,” Lissa interrupted.
There was a long silence. “What?” Mark said at last.
“I’d like to speak to Adrian, please,” Lissa repeated more firmly.
Another long pause. “Just a sec.” Lissa listened anxiously. She heard Mark’s voice faintly, as though he were holding the phone away from him. “My girlfriend wants to talk to you.”
Lissa groaned and shut her eyes. But she opened them again quickly when Adrian’s tense voice sounded in her ear. “Lissa? Are you okay? Mark—”
“I wrecked the car,” Lissa declared. “I’m sorry. I’m not hurt.”
“Good.” From the relief in Adrian’s voice, she knew he must have been worrying as furiously as she’d expected. “Do you need me to pick you up?”
“How? I just smashed your car.”
“You left your purse in my kitchen. I can take yours.”
“Oh, dear. I mean, thank you. Yes, I do need you to pick me up.”
“Unless you’d prefer Mark—”
Lissa sighed. “No, you come. Give Mark the phone. I’ll do this myself.” She waited, phone against her ear, while she heard the barely-audible voices and crackles that accompanied the phone being passed from hand to hand. Deep breaths did little to release the tension that knotted in her stomach. But she had just saved her own life with no one else there to help her; she was strong enough for this.
“Adrian said you wanted to talk to me?” Mark asked suspiciously after a few seconds.
“Yes.” Lissa hesitated, gathering her thoughts, and then said everything she had planned before she could lose her nerve. “I’m sorry to have to do this on the phone, but I think we have some problems we need to straighten out. I would like to have much more control over my life than you seem comfortable giving me. We can try to work this out in person soon, but I’m not willing to continue our relationship if it doesn’t change.”
Utter silence. The phone line roared faintly in her ear. “Mark?” Lissa asked hesitantly.
“Right.” She didn’t know what that was supposed to mean, so she waited. “In other words, you like Adrian better.”
“No!” She tried to get control of her voice and succeeded. “No, it’s not that. But maybe he’s the one who showed me that I can’t tolerate this much control from you. I’m sorry, Mark. I don’t like hurting you. But I need to be free to make my own choices now.”
“Right.” She waited. Seconds passed with no sound except Mark’s breathing.
“Are you still there?” Lissa asked finally.
The only answer was a click. He had hung up. She removed the phone from her ear and stared at it for several seconds. She might have kept on looking numbly at the glowing screen until the sun rose, but after only a minute or two yellow light flooded over her. Sharp-edged shadows stretched away from everything. The wrecked car was lit in merciless detail.
And Adrian stood behind the glow of the headlights.
Lissa got up. She ignored the smashed testament of her near-failure. She walked past the rock, past the blinding glare of the headlights, and up to Adrian. He hugged her briefly, but let her go when she pulled away. She felt like everything since the test drive—the argument, the wreck, the break-up—might not have happened; she wasn’t ready for Adrian to be more than a friend. She went around to the passenger side of the car.
Adrian looked at the black car and shook his head. “I think you’re right about the car. The engine must be ruined.”
“Just send me the bill if you decide to get it repaired, or I can help pay for a new car,” Lissa told him. She smiled at his look of surprise. “I was driving it, after all.”
“Quite responsible of you,” he said quietly. She gave him a brief glance, trying to decide if he was mocking her, but decided he wasn’t. Besides, she trusted him.
“Responsible.” She nodded. “I like that.” Then she got into the car and Adrian started driving down the curving road toward the town. She did not look back.