Flirting For Amateurs
Series: Undercover Matchmakers
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Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by…
Kate Giles-Armitage looked at the flat tire in disgust. Here she was on a Wednesday night in north Florida, lost on a dark and deserted road that could have been the backdrop to a Stephen King novel. If she wasn’t mauled by a rogue gator or lured into the surrounding woods by a sadistic-looking clown, she was going to be blinded by all the frickin’ love bugs swirling in the air.
She wasn’t sure who she should blame for her current predicament: Robert Frost, Google Maps, or her seemingly never-ending need for caffeine.
Lured by a Starbucks coffee shop, a bursting bladder, and the poetic notion that the two-lane road would be a charming alternative to a hectic highway, she’d gotten off the interstate one exit short of her destination. She’d caffeinated, hit the bathroom, and rerouted her GPS, giving her the illusion that she could make it the rest of the way to Old Explorers’ Bay by nightfall.
But if the past six months had taught her anything, it was that she could handle this. A flat tire in the middle of nowhere? Piece of cake. That’s what Triple A was for.
She pulled her cell phone from her shorts pocket and dialed for roadside service, but the call instantly dropped. She dialed again. Same result. She shook her phone, not sure what that would do, but it made her feel better, even if just for a few seconds. Fantastic. No cell phone service.
It wasn’t enough that the humidity was hovering at ninety percent or that Florida’s bi-yearly scourge—the dreaded love bug—was hanging on extra-long this season. Now she had to change her own flat tire.
She swatted a couple of bugs out of her hair. “Get a room, why don’t you?” she shouted at the amorous little pests.
As if mocking her, two more pairs of the tiny nymphos, entwined in perpetual coitus, flew past her nose. Yeah, yeah. The circle of life and all that jazz. Oh well. At least someone was getting some nookie.
She took a deep breath.
Okay. She could do this.
Growing up, Neil Armitage had made sure that his only child could do three things: make a perfectly dry martini, understand the S&P 500, and change a flat tire.
The martini had been the easiest of the three and ultimately the most useful. Every night for the ten years she’d been married, she’d placed one in her husband’s hand as he’d walked through the front door upon coming home from work. Timothy Barrington III had liked his martini the same way he’d ended their marriage. Shaken, not stirred. The only one who’d been shaken, however, was her. He’d come out the other side of divorce court with every hair perfectly in place.
Reading the S&P 500 was a little harder but something she’d enjoyed—until she found out there was nothing left in her trust fund.
As for the flat tire, she’d changed one once, on her sixteenth birthday. It was the only stipulation her father had laid down before buying her the BMW.
“If you can’t change a tire, then you have no business driving a car, Princess.” Then he’d winked and added, “I should probably make you learn to change the oil too.”
Her mother had been horrified. “But, Neil, she’ll ruin her manicure!”
Being able to change a flat tire seemed like a good life skill, so Kate had happily accepted the challenge. It had taken her two hours, but she’d done it. That was seventeen years ago, however. And changing a flat in a well-lit, air-conditioned garage (yes, the garage was air-conditioned because her father hadn’t wanted the South Florida humidity to ruin the paint on his Bentley) was a far different animal from changing a flat in the dark on the side of the road.
Thanks a lot, Timothy Barrington III.
Cheating sack of poo.
One day she’d look back at the past six months and laugh. Today wasn’t that day. Today she had a flat tire and love bugs were doing the nasty in her hair. Still, she was Neil Armitage’s daughter. She could do this. Besides, with no cell phone service, it’s not like she had much of a choice.
She popped open her trunk. Somewhere in here there had to be a spare tire. Hauling her heavy suitcase out of the way, she tossed it onto the ground. Sweat dripped off her back and down her legs. September in Florida, even at night, was like walking into a sauna.
Please let there be a flashlight in here.
Not only was there a flashlight but a perfectly solid-looking spare tire, a jack, and most importantly, a manual. She let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. A flat tire in the middle of nowhere? Things could be worse.
It could be raining.
The sound of another vehicle made her spin around. A pickup truck came rumbling down the road, then stopped, its headlights beaming straight at her.
This was the kind of worse she hadn’t wanted to contemplate.
Kate scrambled to grab her purse off the front seat of her car and quickly rummaged through the contents. It was in here somewhere … yes! She pulled out the pepper spray just as the truck killed its engine.
Please let it be a nice old couple offering to help me and not some serial killer. Of course, just because a couple was old didn’t mean they weren’t serial killers too.
The truck door opened. Using the palm of her hand, she shielded her eyes from the truck’s bright lights.
“Need some help?” The voice was male. After a couple of seconds, her vision adjusted to make out a man, mid-thirties, tall and broad-shouldered, wearing steel-toed boots, jeans, and a baseball cap with a Jacksonville Jaguars logo. The guy looked like he chopped lumber for a living. From what Kate could see, no one else was in the truck.
Which meant she was now alone with a strange man in the middle of nowhere with no cell phone service. Her worst-case scenario just became the backdrop for a new Jordan Peele movie.
Kate tried to keep her voice from shaking. “I have everything under control. Thanks.”
“Someone coming to help you?” He was polite. She’d give him that. But then so was the wolf when he tried to get Little Red Riding Hood to reveal the contents of her basket.
“Not that I need help—I’m perfectly capable of changing my own flat tire—but my husband will be here any second. Honest, I’m good. You can go now. Thanks again for stopping.”
But move along already.
His gaze went from the flat tire to the suitcase lying on the side of the road. “Where are you headed?”
None of your business, mister.
“Like I said, my husband should be here any second.”
He started toward her. “I’m not trying to make you nervous, ma’am. I’m—”
“Oh no you don’t. Stop right there, Paul Bunyan.” Using both hands, she held the pepper spray high in the air like a weapon. “I have two words for you. Pepper spray, and I’m from South Florida.”
“Paul—” He shook his head like he was amused by the moniker. “That’s seven words, by the way.”
“I said it’s seven words. Or four words, depending on which ones in that sentence you wanted to emphasize. I assume it’s pepper spray and South Florida. Look, I get it. You’re a badass, but do not use that pepper spray on me. Understand? I’m going to go back to my truck now.” Keeping his gaze on her, he slowly walked backward until he reached his truck, then he leaned against the hood and casually crossed his arms over his chest.
Sweat pooled between her breasts. “What are you doing?”
“Waiting,” he said, as if it was obvious.
He sighed. “Look, lady, I’ve just spent eight hours clearing a field, and I’m bone dead tired. I’d love nothing more than to get back in my truck so I can get home and hit my bed, but my momma would skin me alive if she knew I’d left you and your pepper spray out here all alone with no cell phone service. So either start changing that tire or let me do it. Either way is fine with me, but I’d appreciate it if we can speed things up.”
Well crap. He knew there was no cell phone service out here. Now what?
He’d left his truck’s lights on, allowing her to get a better look at him. What did he say—he’d just spent eight hours clearing a field? She wasn’t sure what that entailed, but he did look rather dusty. He could be exactly what he seemed—just some nice farmer with overly developed biceps who’d stopped to help.
But then, people weren’t always what they seemed to be, were they?
He could just as easily be a crazed escapee from prison. All that time spent lifting weights in the prison yard would explain those biceps. He probably even had a shank on him. Or a shiv. Or whatever it was called. The vision that popped into her head made her shudder. She’d seen enough episodes of America’s Most Vicious Criminals to know how this would end. Not well.
Kate had three options in front of her.
She could take him up on his offer of help. He seemed to have a healthy fear of the pepper spray, which was good. She could casually hold on to the can while he changed the flat. That way if he made a wrong move … Bam! She’d let him have it right in the eyes.
Only that wouldn’t work, because to change the tire, he’d need to use the jack. He must be at least six foot two. He could easily overpower her. Giving him access to the jack would be like asking to be hit over the head. No, thank you.
Option number two was to keep doing what she was doing: wielding the pepper spray as a weapon until he got tired and went away. The thing was, he looked awful comfortable leaning against that truck, and she was only going to last another hour at most before she’d need to hit the bathroom again. Damn her weak bladder and that grande no-foam latte she’d guzzled down less than thirty minutes ago.
Then there was the third option. She could change the tire herself, but to do that, she’d have to put down the can of pepper spray, rendering her helpless. Still, it seemed better than to give him access to the jack.
“I’ll change the tire myself.” She carefully placed the pepper spray on the ground next to the flat. It wasn’t ideal, but it was still within reach. Hopefully, she wouldn’t need it.
“Suit yourself.” He lowered the baseball cap over his eyes. “Wake me up when you’re done.”
A snail could have changed that tire faster. Still, Ethan was impressed. The lady had chutzpah. Either that or she was just too stubborn to admit there was no husband on the way and that the closest she’d come to changing a tire before tonight was watching a DIY video on YouTube. She bent down to inspect the lug nuts, then stood and kicked the tire with the foot of her sneaker. Something else she’d probably seen on TV.
Her previously clean white T-shirt was now streaked with dirt, and her brown hair, pulled back in a braid, was the current breeding ground for at least half a dozen pairs of love bugs going at it. Sweat glistened off the back of her toned legs. She was cute. In a feisty kind of way.
“I did it,” she whisper-shouted to herself. She laid down the jack and picked up the can of pepper spray. “You can go now,” she called to him. “I’m all done.”
He roused himself from a feigned sleep. “Everything good?”
“Yep.” She grinned. Nice smile, too. “Thanks for staying. I don’t think I would have been able to change the tire without your truck lights on.”
“Not a problem.”
They stood there looking at one another, neither of them wanting to be the first to leave.
“Like I said, you can go now.”
“Why don’t you go first?” he said. “That way I can make sure the tire is good to go.”
Her smile disappeared. “Doesn’t it look good to go? Really, I insist you leave first.”
“I’m not going to follow you if that’s what you’re afraid of.”
“Good to know, but nope, not afraid of that at all. I’m heading back to the interstate now so I can get to Jacksonville.”
She was a terrible liar, but he didn’t want to call her out on it. Despite the return of her earlier distrust of him, there was a little glow of happiness, a self-satisfied aura of having achieved something she hadn’t been sure she could tackle. He got it. Changing the tire was a victory for her.
The BMW was old enough that it didn’t have the run-flat tires standard on the newer models, but the car was meticulously well kept. Add in the designer luggage, and despite her currently disheveled appearance, the lady screamed money. Who was she? And what was she doing all alone out here in the middle of nowhere?
None of his business, really.
“How about we leave at the same time?” he offered.
She rolled her eyes. “Sure. Okay.”
He picked the suitcase up off the side of the road and placed it back in her trunk.
“Thanks, but I could have done that myself.”
“I don’t mind. Besides, it’s kind of hard to do much else when you’re holding that can of pepper spray in your hand.”
“I’m not putting it down,” she said stubbornly.
“Didn’t think you were.” He put the flat tire in the trunk as well. “Make sure to get this tire fixed as soon as possible. That spare isn’t going to last long. Especially not on the highway.”
He got back in his truck, waited for her to get in her car, then turned over the ignition. The engine sputtered. What the—he tried again, but this time there was no mistaking the clicking grind of a dead battery. Ethan could practically hear his long-deceased grandmother now. No good deed goes unpunished.
Realizing his situation, she got out of her car. “You need a jump start?” The corners of her mouth quirked up like she was trying not to laugh.
“I’d appreciate it.”
“Considering you probably killed your battery by keeping the lights on, I owe you that.”
“Does that mean you trust me now?” he asked, pointing to the can of pepper spray still in her hand.
“I’ll help you out, but I’m not getting rid of this, if that’s what you’re asking. The way I figure, you’re one of three things. You’re either a really inept murderer or a really brilliant one who’s devised an ingenious way to let my guard down.”
“What’s the third thing?”
“Just some random nice guy who stopped to help me and now you’re stuck.”
He shrugged. There you go.
She opened her mouth to say something, then shook her head. “It doesn’t matter what I think.” She got back in the car and drove it around so that their engines faced one another.
Ethan got out his jumper cables and hooked them up to the batteries. Once he was certain he had enough juice to get his truck going, he disconnected the cables, then tossed them in the back of the truck cab and righted the hoods on their vehicles.
He turned to give her a thumbs-up. From the safety of her front seat, she gave him a thumbs-up in return.
He got back in his truck, expecting that she’d immediately take off. But instead, they stared at one another through the windshields of their respective vehicles, neither of them making a move to leave.
It was like a mental game of chicken.
No, you go first.
She really was afraid that he’d follow her.
In his line of work, he couldn’t blame her for being overly cautious. He was harmless, but like she said, she had no way of knowing that. Despite all the hostility aimed at him, he found himself intrigued. Too bad he was never going to see her again. But a job well done deserved recognition, so he tipped his hat at her, then pulled his truck back onto the road and headed home.
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