Anna braced herself, scooted into the car and cranked the engine. Steam flowed out the air vents. She tilted them away while the AC system caught up. After buckling in, she gave her rearview mirrors a quick check. The gear shifter seared her palm, but she gritted her teeth and put the car in reverse anyway.
Something tickled her finger. She absently scratched it and gave the car a little gas. Something else tickled the back of her hand.
Sweat didn’t usually tickle. Not like that.
She moved to shift the car into drive and something dark scurried over her windshield. “What the—”
A line of fire ants marched across her steering wheel.
Anna shrieked. She threw the car into park and tumbled out of it. “Get off! Get off!” She raked her hands over her arms and hopped on her clogs to shake the little boogers off. The prickles moved to her back, up her neck, into her hair. She knew the ants couldn’t be up there, there’d only been one or two, but she scrubbed at her scalp anyway.
“Ma’am? You okay?” A guy leaned out the side of a red car behind her. She was blocking one of the exits.
“Oh, yeah, sure, you betcha.” She wiggled her itching toes. “Sorry. It’ll just take me a minute to get out of your way.”
Her car’s engine whined. Heat radiated off the hood and wrinkled the air. The backs of her knees tingled like a hundred ants had gathered there for an impromptu Riverdance.
A car door shut behind her. “Need a hand?” he drawled in a local-boy kind of way.
“Everything’s fine. Thanks.” Because she carried insect-killer in her car all the time in case her car came down with a case of the ants.
It took some effort to not reach for her phone. This was the kind of thing Neil would’ve taken care of for her. And it pissed her off that she wanted to let the man approaching solve her problem.
She was an independent woman, dammit. She’d fix this herself. She squared her shoulders, marched to the edge of her door, and hit her trunk release. She scooted around the car to survey the potential ant weapons in her trunk. She had to have something useful. Maybe she could club them one by one with her jumper cables. Shoot her emergency flares at them. Drop the box of Neil’s junk on them. Label them to death with the label maker.
It’d worked on her marriage.
And there was that stingy feeling behind her eyeballs again.
Long runner’s legs ending in flip flop-clad feet entered her blurred vision. “You got some friends there.”
If Neil had to leave her, he should’ve done it somewhere else. Somewhere without fire ants, somewhere more hospitable to her Norwegian coloring, somewhere with halfway intelligent locals. She shot her audience a look she should’ve tried on the ants. “Where I come from, they’re called a nuisance.”
Instead of shriveling up and dying, he flashed her a goofy grin. His dark-lashed eyes creased in the corners.
Those lashes and the mass of just-long-enough-to-be-curly hair on his head were proof positive a man could have brains or looks, but not both.
And that tingly sensation along her breastbone was proof positive she had no business being single. First she agreed to a date with Rodney, now she was getting hot over a redneck.
She was supposed to be worrying about the ants. Class. Her life.
He scratched his curly hair and surveyed her neatly-organized trunk.
Like he could wield her jumper cables better than she could against an army of fire ants.
Instead, he swung her Windex out of the trunk like a gunslinger preparing for a showdown, then tucked her paper towels under his arm.
“My car is very—” she started, but then it hit her.
He wasn’t going to clean it.
Carbon-based ants, meet ammonia.
Forgetting simple chemistry principles was not a good omen for her degree.
Wanting to watch her unexpected helper go to battle against the ants wasn’t a good omen for her sanity.
Her skin flushed like she was standing inside Hell’s boiler room. She reached for the Windex, but something stopped her before she could get close enough to grab it.
Something that tasted suspiciously like fear.
Not of him.
“I’ll do it,” she bit out. She flicked her fingers up, gesturing for him to hand over the Windex.
“Ain’t no trouble.” His gaze wandered down her body, and she felt a whomp in her chest beneath the tinglies spreading to her rib cage.
“Be a shame to mess up them pretty clothes,” he said.
“I can handle this,” she said firmly. She gestured to his car. “There’s another exit two rows down. I’ve taken enough of your time.”
His eyes were big and blue as her wounded heart, but when he squinted at her like that, they went a shade darker to cobalt. “Now I’m sure it don’t matter none to you, but my momma’d have my hide if she heard I abandoned a lady with critters in her car.”
Anna stifled a whimper of frustration. She swiped at her forehead. She’d probably drown in her own sweat before she managed to wrestle the Windex out of his hands.
If she could get brave enough to get within touching distance of him. “I don’t know your momma, so you don’t have anything to worry about.”
He scratched his hair again, and she felt an intense desire to claw out that part of her that wanted to know how it would feel between her fingers.
Rebound, her brain yelled.
Something more primitive was still clamoring about his hair.
“Reckon you might be right on that one,” he finally said. “But she’d still know. Scares me more’n that mound you parked over, that’s for sure.”
“I didn’t—” She stopped herself. Red ants swarmed around a huge ant mound beneath where her front bumper had been. “That wasn’t there this morning.”
“Be doing me a real big favor if you let me take care of this for you.” The solemnity of his expression was refreshingly innocent compared to what she expected out of Rodney Friday night. “Besides, killing bugs ain’t no work for a lady. Even a Yankee lady.”
An unexpected snort of amusement lodged in her nostrils. This one was either southern chivalry at its finest or a few tomatoes short of a ketchup bottle. “This Yankee lady takes care of herself, thank you.”
But she still couldn’t propel herself close enough to grab the bottle.
He propped himself into the drivers seat and squirted a trail of ants. A whole row of the little boogers curled up in the fetal position. He took a leisurely swipe at them with a paper towel, then sprayed again. He shot Anna a sly look out of the corner of his eye.
Like he was looking to see if she was watching him.
She quickly dropped her gaze and made a show of checking the time. Her heart thumped again, but this time it was pure panic. If she left now and ran once she got to campus, she’d only be seven minutes late.
Plus heat stroke recovery time after the dash to the classroom. She tapped a foot. “We could be done in two minutes if you’d let me help.”
Squirt. Squirt. Squirt. “Getting the ones you can see don’t mean you’re getting the ones you can’t.”
Anna shivered. “Still, you’ve done enough. Would it help if I wrote your momma a thank you note?”
Oh, God, and he had dimples. Of course he had dimples. This fiasco wouldn’t be complete if he didn’t have dimples.
“It sure would make her day,” he said.
“Then if you’ll hand me my purse, we can both be on our way.”
“Reckon I could do that, but then I’d have to find some other excuse to stay here and coax that pretty smile.”
It was one thing for her body to go renegade on her. It was something completely different for her mind to contemplate skipping class so she could listen to Momma’s Boy drawl out southern platitudes.
Neil never talked to her like that.
Of course, Neil had left. Packed up while she was at work. Sent his attorney to pick up her wedding ring. Avoided her like she was some kind of freak with a communicable label maker disease.
“Now, see, that’s supposed to make you smile more,” he said.
Anna blinked, but her eyes still burned. “Sorry. Bad timing.”
He squirted a few more ants. “Shoulda got him with the Windex.”
Anna inadvertently pictured herself chasing Neil out of their house with her label maker and a bottle of Windex, and she was surprised to find she still had a laugh in her. “Now what would your momma say to that?”
“That I should buy you dinner for making you sad.” He took another swipe at her steering column. “I’m Jackson.”
All she had to do was tell him her name. She didn’t have to go to dinner, didn’t have to ever see him again. Tell him her name, and she’d move back into the ranks of the mostly-single-and-attractive-to-somebody ranks, questionable though his mental state might be. But she’d still be late for class.
She sucked in a breath. She could do this. Just say her name. “I’m—I’m late. For class. And I don’t do late, and I don’t want to start off on the wrong foot, and I need this class, I really do, because—well, I just do, so I need to take the ant-mobile and go. But thank you. It was nice of you to help.”
“Darlin’, you ain’t gonna get outta this parking lot without getting all bit up. They’re still crawling out your vents.”
She wouldn’t cry again. She wouldn’t. “Then will you please let me help?” Nine minutes late. Did professors lock the classroom doors when class started? She couldn’t remember.
He gave the dash a couple quick squirts, then handed her the paper towels. “Keep on going. I’ll go on and get ‘em from the other side.”
Anna heaved a sigh of relief and sank into the car. She attacked the melting ants with an efficiency that apparently hadn’t made it this far south yet. Between the semi-cool air blowing on her, the faint scent of Old Spice lingering in her seat, and the feeling of being useful once again, things looked less dire.
Jackson climbed into her passenger seat and kept squirting. “You taking classes out on base?”
She suppressed a shudder and tore off another paper towel. These ants were going down faster than her marriage. “James Robert.” A beautiful, private campus without any military presence.
“Ol’ Jim-Bob, eh? What kinda class you taking?”
“Heat transfer in Hell.” She lunged for an errant ant.
She stopped wiping to stare at him. “You’ve heard of thermodynamics?”
He blinked, almost like he was offended, then nodded solemnly. “Yes, ma’am. I grew up Baptist. I know all about them temperatures in Hell.”
Another shadow of a laugh eased a bit more pressure in her airways. “Guess your momma raised you right then.”
Together, it only took five more minutes to wipe out the worst of the ants. If she sped on the roads and jogged instead of ran from the parking lot, she’d only be thirteen and a half minutes late, and she wouldn’t have to recover from heat stroke. She tucked her Windex and depleted paper towel roll back into her trunk organizer, and she found a genuine smile for her unexpected helper. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure.” He took her hand into his, his grip warm and smooth and flutter-inducing, and pressed something against her palm. “In case you need help with any more critters.” He stepped back, amusement evident in the quirk of his lips. “Hope you know more about Hell than you look like you do.”
He’d written his name and number on a half-paper towel.
It was almost sweet enough to make being fourteen minutes late for her first class worth it. Even if he was a big ol’ redneck, he thought she was cute.
Ants and all.
Or maybe he owned an exterminator company.
She sighed. Given her track record of being lovable, she was betting on the latter.