“Why don’t you just ask if I’m seeing someone?”
“Get better answers this way,” I said, smirking at him.
“No, I haven’t dated anyone seriously in years. I haven’t had a real girlfriend since high school.”
“No reason,” he said, his lips pressed together in a frown. “Why are you asking me all of these questions?”
“Since I’ve arrived, I’ve been subjected to nothing but questions. Now it’s your turn. So why no girlfriend?”
“Just never found someone I thought could handle all of this,” he said, making a broad gesture down to his toes.
“Defensive and secretive, the Southern male deflects the personal question with posturing and a sexual reference intending to make the inquisitor uncomfortable,” I said in my best nature documentary narrator’s voice.
“OK, fine. My family is sort of nuts, right? There are a lot of traits I don’t want to pass along to kids. And most women, if they’re the nice, marrying sort of girl you want to date seriously, are going to want kids. I have learned from experience that if you leave that little detail out in the first couple of dates, it only ends in tears and thrown drinks.”
“That is a refreshingly honest answer,” I told him. “See what happens when you’re forced to keep your shirt on?”
We stopped somewhere in northern Georgia so we could eat a late lunch of fried bologna sandwiches at a Huck’s convenience store. I had never before experienced the delicacy of fried bologna, but I can’t say it was anything worse than what Penny came up with for some holiday meals.
After answering several questions about defensive driving and basic auto maintenance, I was “allowed” to take over driving to give Jed a chance to rest. I filled the gas tank, since it was my errand we were running. While I was pumping the gas, he emerged from the convenience store with a bag filled with beef jerky, Corn Nuts, Twizzlers, and other culinary delights.
“We just ate,” I reminded him, although I hated to do anything to jeopardize the broad white grin on his face.
“If you’re going to have an American road-trip experience, you should have all the trimmin’s.”
“So you promised Andrea I would receive the full-service package?” I asked, climbing into the driver’s seat.
He buckled his seatbelt, clearly less comfortable sitting in the passenger seat. “How can you say things like that and not expect me to turn them into a filthy joke?”
“I fully expect you to turn them into a filthy joke. Sno-Balls!” I cried, snatching the pink package from the bag and diving into coconut-covered goodness. “I haven’t had these since I was a kid!”
“Can’t have a road trip without them,” he said solemnly as I pulled the truck into traffic. He winced as I carefully changed lanes and pulled to a stop at a yellow light. Men were such babies when it came to their vehicles.
But it wasn’t a baseless concern, as it turned out. The farther south we drove, the heavier traffic got. I noticed there seemed to be more lanes, transitioning from two to three to six. The road department seemed to be doing random experiments in how to frustrate drivers, because I could see no rhyme or reason in the way they chose to repair the roads. My fellow drivers and I would move at a reasonable rate until I came screeching up to a car parked in the middle of the bloody lane. I would switch lanes, sometimes looking over my shoulder beforehand. And on occasion, Jed’s head would end up smacking against the window.
“You know, you can pull over anytime,” he said. “I’m good to drive again.”
“We’re in Atlanta city limits. Every exit I’ve seen is either closed for construction or blocked by idiots.”
A semi-truck swept past us, changing lanes and nearly clipping us. I was so worried about that I barely noticed that the car right in front of us had slowed to a near stop. I yelped, whipping the wheel to the left and pulling past, only to have another car slide into the lane ahead of us, honking like mad and zipping around a bus full of schoolchildren.
“I am not prepared for all this traffic!”
“It’s fine,” he promised. “It’s always like this.”
“It’s not fine. I am on the verge of a nervous breakdown! Which is a problem, because we are moving at eighty bloody miles an hour!”
“Just breathe, baby. Just breathe, and try to focus on one thing at a time, make one decision at a time.”
“Don’t talk to me like I’m a mentally challenged toddler. And this is not because I’m a woman driver. This is because I am used to living in a place where traffic jams are caused by truant sheep!”
He frowned. “Are there a lot of sheep in Boston?”
Just then, the rather large tanker truck marked “explosive” stopped to avoid stalled traffic ahead of us. I saw an opening between two cars and switched lanes, then switched again and made a sudden turn into the last before screeching to a halt on the shoulder of the road. I was shaking so badly it felt like shivering. Jed had to put the car in park, because my fingers were clamped around the steering wheel in a death grip. His fingers gently pried mine from the wheel, and my hands wound their way around his neck. Once again, I was clinging to him like a frantic primate.
“It’s OK.” He chuckled, rubbing my back.
“No, these people are crazy, and they are trying to kill us,” I said, sniffing. He laughed, threading his fingers through my hair and pressing my face against his neck. How could someone who spent so much time sweating in the sun smell so good and clean? He was a one-man fabric-softener commercial.
Jed kissed my temple, my cheekbone, an innocent gesture. I tilted my face toward his and let his breath wash over my skin. A strange, giddy excitement fluttered through my chest, making me grip his shirt even tighter. My nose nudged against his, and I could feel the tips of his eyelashes against my brows.
I surged forward, pressing my lips against his. He made a shocked murmuring sound before sliding his hands against my back and pressing me closer. He pulled my bottom lip into his mouth and nibbled at it. I tried to move closer, but my seatbelt yanked me back against the seat. Grunting, he fumbled for the belt release, cupped my face between his hands, and hauled me to him. I was this close to crawling into his lap when a truck passed by and blared its horn.
I jumped, backing away and leaning against the window. My lips were tingling. Why were my lips tingling? I’d never had tingly lips before. I touched my fingertips to them, tasting the salt of Jed’s skin and my own peach-flavored lip gloss. Jed relaxed back into his seat.
“What just happened?” he asked, looking straight ahead at the lanes of traffic whipping by us.
“I don’t know. I got all confused by the multiple lanes. I still haven’t figured out the whole driving-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-road thing.”
“No, I mean the kissin’. What happened to ‘I’m seeing someone, I’m not available’? Not that I’m complainin’.”
My hand whipped up to smack the side of his head.
“Ow! Hey, you kissed me. Why am I gettin’ hit?”
“Sorry, sorry. Instinct. I will keep my lips and my hands to myself.”
“Well, let’s not go crazy. Anytime you want to make out with me in a panic, feel fr—Ow! Stop hittin’ me!”
I did not make out with him again that afternoon. We made it to our destination a few hours later, and I was still sorting out whether I’d officially broken things off with Stephen the night before, or if I had been at all ambiguous. But it was very difficult to concentrate on driving and relationship status when my lips were still tingling with the memory of Jed’s.
I simply did not do things like kiss men in a panic on the side of a crowded roadway. Well, there was that one time with Neal Dunnigan after our graduation dance, but that was an aberration. A delicious aberration. What the hell was Jed doing to me? I was a mature, educated woman with the livelihoods and health of a whole village on my shoulders. And yet every time he got near me, I behaved like an addled, horny teenager. I had to nip this in the bud. I had to gain control of the situation.
I just didn’t think this was the place to do it.
Helton, Georgia, turned out to be a tiny village. There were no major retailers or restaurants. All of the homes and businesses were on one long stretch of street intersecting with a railway, with a box-shaped white church nearby. The houses ran the gamut from sturdy brick bungalows to dilapidated shacks.
Of course, we were heading for one of the shacks.
Jed had been told that I was reclaiming a valuable piece of merchandise that had been “misdirected” from Jane’s shop, but I hadn’t given him specifics. As we got closer to the address, I could feel the waves of concern rolling off of him, as if we were walking into a bad situation. Frankly, given the number of NRA bumper stickers on the early-model truck parked in the driveway, I was getting a little nervous myself.
“I think you should stay in the car,” he said, looking the house over.
I scoffed. “What?”
He gave me a look I can only describe as “focused” and said, “Do as you’re told.”
My jaw dropped. No one had ever talked to me like that before and walked away without a limp. Jed had never shown signs of this sort of command. He’d always struck me as the funny, goofy sort. But here he was giving me orders, and I wanted to do exactly what he told me to do. The tone of his voice and the smoldering expression on his face made me want to give him whatever he wanted.
Of course, I couldn’t tell him that. Instead, I exclaimed, “I beg your pardon! Like I’m supposed to fall to my knees at the sight of your freakishly large muscles? Who the hell do you think you’re talking to?”
Jed seemed to snap out of whatever bizarre alpha-male haze had prompted such a speech. “Right, sorry.”
I shoved the truck door open and slammed it in his face, or at least near his face.
“OK, so that was the wrong way to go about it,” Jed admitted. “I’m just—I don’t like the look of this.”
“Get over it,” I told him.
“Fine,” he huffed. “But at least let me do this.” Jed hooked an arm through my elbow and led me forward. “I’m about to devolve into some pretty serious Bubbaness. Don’t judge me based on what I am about to say or do. And no offense meant, but it would be best if you didn’t say anythin’ over the next few minutes. And try not to make those faces, OK?”
“Faces?” I asked.
“The ‘I am an alien explorer in a strange world, and I don’t like what I see’ faces.”
“I don’t—” I protested, but cut myself off when he gave me that grave, serious look. I grumbled, “I don’t see how that’s not supposed to offend me,” just as the door opened.
Hubert Lavelle towered over even Jed’s tall frame. He had some sort of handlebar mustache and was dressed in camouflage from head to toe. He was the most terrifying person I’d ever met. And I had several cousins who would head-butt complete strangers over a soccer match.
“Hi there! We’re lookin’ for a Mr. Lavelle,” Jed said, his accent far more pronounced than I’d ever heard it. “My girl here talked to your wife on the phone last night.”
“Who sentcha?” Hubert asked.
“Your aunt Ginger,” Jed said.
Hubert’s eyes narrowed. “She say anything about the credit cards? ’Cause it’s not our fault she left that application on the counter. Anybody could have picked it up.”
“No, just the wedding present,” Jed assured him.
After establishing that we were not door-to-door evangelists or salesmen, Hubert ushered us through the front door and pushed us onto the green velour couch. The key design element of the living room seemed to be the deer’s head mounted on the wall, with some sort of cheap garter around its nose. The garter had a little tag that read, “Helton High School Prom, 1992.” This seemed disrespectful both to deer and to cheaply made underwear.