Ambush in the Everglades Excerpt
Kayli Heddon ground her Jeep to a halt in the parking lot at the L-28 Canal boat ramp in the south Everglades and scattered gravel in four directions. The biggest assignment in her photo-journalism career had officially tipped off to a rotten start. Bad enough she had to spend last night in that tiny and very ancient Gladestown motel room with two palmetto bugs—may they rest in peace—but the sun had barely crossed the horizon this first morning of her safari, and she was already late.
Three airboats bobbed in the shallow water next to a short dock while three men stood in a cluster on shore and swilled coffee from styrofoam cups. A fourth man busily stowed gear in the closest airboat, and a lone figure—arms crossed over his chest—sat in the high driver’s seat of the third airboat in line. Even at this distance, Kayli could see the scowl on his face. She stifled a groan. Everyone had waited for her.
Yanking her dark auburn hair back in a clip, she glanced in her rearview mirror. Familiar blue eyes blinked back at her. She rarely wore makeup, but now she wished she’d bothered with a tad of mascara and some lipstick. She’d take all the help she could get this morning.
Grabbing her small duffel and camera bag from the back of her Jeep, she slunk toward the group. A thick mist hugged the shoreline with droplets so thick she could actually see them. Clad in jean cutoffs, she ignored the chill and wondered how many hours would elapse out on the boats before her bare legs felt warm again.
You’re the one who’s late. Put a smile on your face.
She sheepishly approached the group near the dock and set down her duffel. The tallest of the three men stepped forward to greet her and appeared unconcerned the time was twenty minutes past seven—the time she’d been told to arrive.
“You must be Kayli Heddon,” he said and shook her hand. With his sandy blonde hair and dark tan, he looked more like a surfer. “We spoke on the phone last week. I’m Dan Graydon, Everglades Water District. Everyone just calls me Gray.”
“I’m pleased to finally meet you.”
He nodded at the other two gentlemen. “These guys are my field biologists assigned to Everglades Restoration.”
Each man gave her a nod and a smile, then headed toward the second airboat in line. She immediately felt better since apparently the three harbored no hard feelings for her lack of punctuality. The scowling driver in the last boat was a different matter altogether. He stayed put, not interested in introductions.
“And I think you’re already familiar with that guy.” Gray poked a thumb over his shoulder at the man stowing gear in the closest airboat.
The figure straightened, and Kayli froze. Bradley Jameson. Governor Drake’s deputy chief of staff and all-round thorn in Kayli’s side.
Brad grinned broadly and climbed out of the airboat. His designer shorts and silk shirt were tailored to fit his tall slender frame and looked completely out of place with the rest of the men. He had even styled and gelled his cropped dark hair to take the wild airboat ride. Thank goodness her attire was jean cutoffs, a denim shirt, and a drab, gray hoodie. She at least looked like she belonged. Her cheeks flooded with warmth as she hustled to meet Brad on the dock.
“What are you doing here?” she whispered fiercely.
His smile faded. “I flew in last night. I wanted to surprise you.”
“Okay, you surprised me,” she hissed. “Now go back to Tallahassee.”
“I’m coming on safari with you.”
“No, you’re not.”
His brows drew down. “Yes, I am. Now give me your duffel bag. I’ll stow it with mine.”
“Brad, I don’t need a babysitter,” she said, making an effort to keep her voice down. “Why aren’t you at work?”
“I took a couple vacation days.”
“With the legislative session about to start?”
“That’s right. You’re more important.”
She eyed him warily and shifted her duffel out of his reach. “What are you up to?”
“I’m not up to anything,” he snapped. “Stop being childish, Kayli, and give me your duffel.”
“I’m being childish?” Her voice did raise then, and she took a step back, hating that the biologists had all turned to glance their way.
Two dates. Two lousy dates and Brad Jameson had decided Kayli was the girl for him. No matter what she said or did, she could not manage to unconvince him. Kayli, on the other hand, had needed only one date to realize she had chosen poorly.
Brad had mugged for every crowd and political personality the couple had encountered on their whirlwind tour of clubs that Saturday evening, almost as though he had masterminded his exposure opportunities with Kayli. She had known better than to date anyone in politics, especially with her close personal ties to the governor, but Brad had done his charming best to get her to accept the date. His dark good looks and big brown eyes no doubt worked wonders on most women, just not on Kayli.
A political fundraiser Kayli couldn’t get out of attending had formed the backdrop for their second disastrous date and spread the icing on the cake. Brad’s behavior that evening made it clear his intentions were motivated more by her ties to the governor than any affection he had developed for her.
She should have forced a final confrontation with Brad weeks ago and set him straight, instead of worrying about hurting his feelings. No way could she have that confrontation now in front of the district biologists, so she appeared to be quite stuck with him for the immediate future.
“It’s time to load up,” Gray said, moving alongside them. “We’ve got two district airboats, and our guide has his own boat.”
Her gaze rotated to the man in the last airboat. So he was the Seminole guide Graydon had told her about on the phone last week. The guide wore his dark hair a little long, his thick loose curls shifting with the morning breeze. She expected brown eyes with that dark hair and olive-toned skin, but his were a gray-green, which she noticed as he stared intently at her. Still scowling. The skin on the back of her neck prickled, and a spot low in her belly sparked to life.
Gray watched her stare back and rushed to explain. “The Everglades Water District uses several Seminole contractors—as sample collectors—to help with our monitoring runs deep in the Everglades. No one knows the River of Grass better than they do, which makes them the most efficient at monitoring habitat changes and returning samples quickly.”
Even as she stared at the guide seated with his arms still crossed over his chest, Kayli could tell he was a tall man, powerfully built with broad shoulders. Also a grouchy man, from the looks of him.
“I’m sure you’ll be more comfortable in one of the larger district airboats with Mr. Jameson,” Gray was saying when she tore her gaze away.
The two larger airboats looked relatively new, and each had an embossed district seal on the propeller flaps in the rear. The enormous propellers must have been six feet long, and both boats had an elevated driver’s seat in front of the propeller cage and a four-foot bench seat across the front near the bow. The guide’s boat seemed dwarfed by the larger district boats and had only a single seat up at the bow besides the driver’s seat occupied by the grouch.
“No,” she blurted, still stinging from Brad’s childish taunt. “We’re splitting up. I’m going with him.” She pointed at the guide whose somewhat sexy green eyes presently stared a hole through her. “We’ll gather more information if we split up.”
Brad gawked at her but was too much of a politician to argue in front of state employees, and she knew it. Kayli could see him fighting back a frown, and she inwardly smiled.
Serves you right.
“Suit yourself,” Gray said and led her to the last airboat. “Kayli Heddon meet Skye Landers.”
Landers made no effort to get up or extend a hand. A baseball cap rested in his lap, and his dark brown curls hung loose.
“You’re late,” he said.
Her cheeks grew warm all over again. Gray looked equally embarrassed by the man’s manners and reached for her duffel. “Let me help you stow that.”
“She can get it. She was late.” Landers kept his eyes trained on her.
Kayli wished a hole would open in the dock and swallow her whole. How dare Landers be so rude and in front of everybody? His eyes smoldered to a dark grayish-green, like cloudy emeralds, and the intensity of his gaze shook her, but not in the way she expected. A flood of warmth from the new spark in her belly warmed her from the inside out, chasing the chill from her bare legs. She could only stare, trapped by his piercing gaze. She prayed that he blinked first and hoped her neck and ears hadn’t gone telltale-pink.
So what if Landers was handsome in a rugged sort of way? She could kick herself for opening her big mouth and insisting on riding with him. Something told her taking off with that man on an airboat headed deep into the Everglades would be a dangerous venture in more ways than one. One glance at the smirk on Brad’s face kept her from changing her mind. She could always switch boats the first time they stopped for a break.
Gray’s voice jolted her back to the task at hand. “Do you want to go over the maps before we take off? Once we get underway, we can’t really talk with the engines running.” He withdrew a large aerial map from his backpack and smoothed it out on the bow of the District boat.
“Sure,” she agreed and stepped down into Landers’s airboat to shove her duffel and camera bag into the opening under the bow.
As she straightened, her gaze ricocheted to Landers again. His didn’t smolder this time. Kayli wasn’t sure, but she thought his lips twitched with the hint of a smile before she tore her gaze away and stepped up onto the gunwale to climb back onto the dock. Her sneaker slipped. Her body lurched forward, smashing her shin against the hard aluminum edge of the boat. Her gaze darted to Gray as she tumbled, but he was two steps out of reach. Yet, strong hands grabbed her before she hit the rivets on the bottom of the airboat.
A gasp caught in her throat as she felt her body crushed hard against the muscular chest of the guide. All her senses flashed to high alert. The warmth and strength of his body caused every available nerve ending in hers to shudder with tiny electrical charges. The aroma of after-shave and rugged man created an inexplicable urge to turn her face and breathe in his scent. All this in the span of two seconds. Her always-telltale cheeks had to be flushed hot-pink by now.
Gray’s eyes went wide. “Are you okay? Your shin? I heard it hit.”
Brad flew off the first airboat and barreled down the short dock, almost knocking Gray in the water. “Kayli, honey. Are you okay?”
More cheek-flushing chagrin destroyed whatever sensual pleasure remained from her rescue. The field biologists stared from behind Brad and Gray, all intensely interested in her dramatic rescue. Her shoulders still pinned, Kayli could only catch a glimpse of her shin, already swelling with an ugly purple knot. The pain caught up with her the second she spied the knot, and she let loose a low moan.
The large, strong hands released their hold, and she reached down to rub her shin.
“Jeez, Landers,” Gray said, “you vaulted out of that seat so fast you were a blur.”
Kayli shot a thankful glance back at the guide, but he had already climbed back to his pinnacle atop the airboat.
“Thank you, Mr. Landers,” she called after him.
His response was but a curt nod.
Brad reached out both arms. “Let me help you.”
She heaved a sigh and allowed him to pull her up onto the dock. He tugged her in close.
“Kayli honey?” she hissed. “Was that for everyone’s benefit?”
“I was worried.” He blinked his brown eyes at her and followed it with a squeeze. “Okay now, honey?”
She gave him an eye roll, and her peripheral vision caught Landers’ fierce scowl. She reconsidered the wisdom of choosing his boat. Brad may fuss over her in front of the other men to stake his claim, but at least she could trust him not to throw her overboard. Landers . . . she wasn’t so sure. Maybe he didn’t like having a woman in charge, and letting him think Brad was her boyfriend might give her an extra buffer that could come in handy on the safari.
She heaved another sigh. “Let’s have a look at that map.”
Gray traced out their morning journey for her. “From here at the L-28 Canal public ramp, we’ll head through a series of canals, sort of a right and left maze of waterways, to get to the reservoir areas.”
“What’s in there?” Kayli nodded at the silver box holding the map down on the bow of his airboat.
“Tool kit,” he said with a smile. “We don’t want to break down. To walk a mere five miles out in the Glades would take six hours to wade, and in some places, you’d have to crawl through knee-deep muck and water.”
“The mosquitoes come out at night so thick that stranded fishermen paint themselves with engine oil for protection.”
“No wonder drug runners find the Everglades the perfect place for their hiding spots,” Brad interjected, in one of his condescending tones Kayli hated.
Gray didn’t notice, or if he did, he ignored Brad. “We’ll travel well into the water conservation areas via deep-water channels with stops at a number of hardwood hammocks along the way. There you can take all the pictures you want. We’ll also be stopping to collect plants and water samples. Mr. Landers knows the route we’ve selected.”
Kayli could feel the guide’s gaze bearing down on her, but she forced her eyes to remain focused on the map.
“After lunch, we’ll head west and end the day at a Seminole fishing camp about here.” He pointed to a spot near the Big Cypress Preserve. “Then tomorrow we’ll come back to this boat ramp by a different route. That will give you a real good feel for the habitat, wildlife species, and natural drainage patterns in the conservation areas.”
“Will there be a lot of gators out there?” Brad wanted to know. He’d sidled closer when Gray and Kayli leaned over the map.
“Oh yeah,” Gray affirmed, reseating his baseball cap.
Kayli thought she caught a smirk on Landers’ face, but she blinked, and the scowl had returned. With his dark hair and tan, he certainly looked like a Seminole, but those green eyes were definitely out of place. She blinked again, refusing to stare at them for fear his tracker beam would suck her back in.
“What about at the camp?” Brad persisted.
“Always,” Landers shot back.
“We’ll be fine, Brad,” she said.
“I know,” he snapped. “I was just asking.” He stomped back to the first airboat.
“Any other questions?” Gray asked.
“Just one.” Kayli nibbled at her lower lip. “What about gas? Where will we get airplane fuel out in the Everglades?”
He smiled. “We won’t need airplane fuel. Our boats all carry retrofitted Chevy 350 engines. So does Landers. They run on unleaded gas, which we can get at the fishing camp when we stop for the night.”
She side-eyed her Seminole guide. His all-out smirk remained. Jeez, why did she have to ask?
Because she wanted to know if she’d be stuck out in the Everglades with him, that’s why.
Gray folded the map and turned his baseball cap around backwards. “Ready?”
Her cell phone jangled, and she started. One glance at the screen, and she turned to Gray. “Sorry, I have to take this call.”
He nodded politely. “Sure, go ahead.”
She punched the send button. “Kayli Heddon, may I help you?”
“Good morning, Kayli. This is Margaret Williams in Governor Drake’s office. The governor would like to speak to you for just a minute. Can you talk?”
Kayli checked the service level on her cell phone. Two bars. Let it be enough.
She waited a couple moments for the connection and stepped to the far edge of the dock, away from the waiting group. “Good morning, Governor, how are you?”
“How’s my girl?” John Drake’s booming voice sounded loud and clear through the phone. “Why the formality? I’ve been plain old Uncle John since you were a little girl.”
She smiled. “You weren’t the governor when I was a little girl.”
“I promised your father I’d watch out for you no matter where I was or what I did. So I’m still your Uncle John.”
“For starters, where are you?”
“I’m at a public boat ramp in the Everglades.”
He chuckled. “I’ll make this quick then. I won’t keep you. Are you ready for your big airboat safari?”
“Yes and thank you again for the assignment to do this piece. This could be my career-maker.”
“I hope it is. I need an eye-popping photo essay out of you,” he said, then cleared his throat. “And Kayli, we need to keep this whole thing quiet for a while.”
“I’m not ready for anyone to know about the splashy press conference you and I talked about, or that we intend to push hard for the environmental vote. I don’t want anyone to know my plans just yet. I haven’t even told Hartman. It’s just you and me for now. Okay?”
“Trust me on this one, my dear. I’ve got a mole in my staff leaking information to my opponent, and I don’t know who it is yet.”
“Now don’t you worry. I’m taking precautions. You haven’t said anything to anyone yet, have you?”
“Good, good. Just stick to our story that you’re taking file photos to document our restoration.”
“Of course, whatever you say.” Uncle John not telling Hartman, his chief of staff and Brad’s boss, seemed very odd. “You’re still going after the environmental vote, right?”
“I know how much you love the environment, and so do I. But we live in a What have you done for me lately? society, and lately I haven’t done enough for the environment. All that is about to change.”
“What are you planning?”
“You’ll see. You just concentrate on those fantastic nature pictures you’re so good at, and we’ll talk when you get back. Stay away from alligators.”
“I will, Uncle John.”
“The Everglades Water District Chairman assured me he was sending you with his best biologists and an expert guide, one of their Seminole contractors.”
She cast a swift glance back at Landers. Yup, still scowling. Worse, now that she was on the phone. She squelched the sudden urge to stick out her tongue at him.
“The guide said it would be more efficient and better pictures to go farther into the Glades and spend the night at a camp instead of losing all that time traveling back and forth. You’ll be quite safe.”
“Don’t worry. I’m not afraid.”
“I’ll always worry about you, Kayli.”
She smiled. “I’m glad. I’ll call when we get back on Wednesday afternoon.”
“You do that. The minute you get back.”
“Promise. Bye.” She clicked off and wondered for the hundredth time what she had gotten herself into.
“Glad you could join us,” Landers said sardonically and nodded at the biologists waiting aboard their boats.
She deserved that jab for making them all wait, but no way would she tell the jerk she was on the phone with the governor. None of his business. She carefully stepped up onto the wide, flat bow and grimaced from the stab of pain in her shin. Her camera bag had found its way to the passenger seat, and she glanced up at Landers, but he busily rummaged in the duffel under his seat.
Her gaze darted to the front seat and back to him. “No seat belts?”
“Bad idea,” he grunted. “In an airboat accident, you want to fly free.” He shoved a thumb over his shoulder at the five-foot-long propeller rotating a mere three feet behind his head with only a chain-link barricade in between.
The man had a point.
He handed her a pair of ear cups. “Put these on. Adjust the band to fit your head.”
She tugged them snug over her ears. The other men, Brad included, had already donned their ear protection and looked like they belonged on an airport tarmac with bright orange carrots to wave a 757 toward the gate.
The three airboat engines cranked in unison. Even at idle speed, the tinny rumble of the powerful Chevy engines running straight exhaust raised goose bumps on her arms. She pulled the ear cup away from her right ear to see if the true sound was as loud as she imagined. She guessed right—the sound of three wingless airplanes waiting to take off.
The two district boats pulled away from the dock, but Landers’ boat bobbed in place. She twisted in her seat to look back at the guide. He pointed to the dock cleats with a frown.
Oh boy. Some project manager I am.
Untying the boat was her job. She quickly yanked the two bow ropes free of the cleats and hopped back aboard. Landers just shook his head, his dangerous green eyes now covered with dark sunglasses.
The two larger boats were already moving up the channel and scuttling flocks of ibis, blackbirds, and coots off nearby emergent vegetation. Landers’ airboat bumped clumsily away from the dock, and she inwardly groaned. She should have pushed off when she climbed back on board. Though unable to see his eyes, she knew Landers glared from behind his sunglasses, and now she couldn’t even blame him. He no doubt regretted her picking his boat too.
Landers eased up the channel in the wake of the other two airboats, Kayli glanced back and yanked off her ear cups. “Where’s the steering wheel?” she shrieked over the rumble of the prop.
He tugged his ear protection around his neck “What?” he shouted.
“The steering wheel,” she repeated, her voice rising.
“Right here,” he yelled, squeezing the long stick in his hand. “I push forward to go right and pull back to go left.” He pointed at his foot pedal. “The gas.”
Her stomach dropped.
“Where’s the brake?” she shouted, not caring her voice had gone shrill.
Skye Landers smiled wide for the first time. “There isn’t any.”
When Skye Landers smiled, he was the most handsome man Kayli had ever seen.
And she wanted to slug him.
She had succeeded in trapping herself aboard a flying death boat with no brake, and Landers found that funny. If she lived through the next two days and his attitude didn’t improve, she may very well slug him on general principles.
When he suddenly pressed down on the airboat’s gas pedal, flew up the open channel, closed the distance between his boat and the others, and then squeezed between them with inches to spare, Kayli knew she had chosen the right boat. Her heart jumped to her throat as Landers threaded his boat between the district boats, but the look on Brad’s face was priceless—especially when their prop spray dampened his perfectly coiffed hair.
Her guide was overbearing, rude, and one hell of an airboat driver. What a rush.
The sound in her ear cups rose from a rumble to a roar, and within minutes, she forgot everything except the wind on her face and the powerful vibration of the sixty-inch propeller a few feet behind her head. With their boat out in front, Kayli was vastly unprepared to greet the sweeping panorama coming at her at thirty miles per hour. Her feet were planted tight to the flat bow and a mere eighteen inches from the front edge, and she wore no seat belt. Scary and exciting, all rolled together in one heart-stopping package.
She was equally unprepared for the jolt she received when she cast a brief glance back at Landers to make sure he still piloted their speeding craft. He’d turned his ball cap around backwards, and his eyes remained hidden by his wrap-around shades, but his smile caught her completely off guard.
All man. All sexy man.
Kayli’s breath seized up in her throat. She whipped back around to face forward and could have sworn she heard his laughter over the thrumming of the powerful engine. No way would she risk another glance back to be sure.
Concentrate on what you’re supposed to be doing.
She settled back in her seat, never forgetting for one second she perched dead center in his field of vision.
The airboat flew along weightless, just above the water’s surface. At least Kayli felt as though the craft did. This was the only way to see the Everglades, and her photographer psyche wished her eyes were twin movie cameras filming in opposite directions so as not to miss a square inch of the phenomenal display.
The deep-water channel narrowed, yet the airboat never slowed. She cast a quick look over her right shoulder and could see the other two airboats, evenly spaced and matching Landers’ speed. She chastised herself for ever being nervous about this trip. These men drove these boats for a living. She had nothing to fear.
Before leaving Tallahassee, Kayli had found a website for aquatic and invasive plants and had studied hundreds of photographs to familiarize herself with her safari subjects. She smiled now as she recognized the plants whipping past. Acres and acres of saw grass, maidencane, and torpedograss screamed by, and black-feathered coots scurried out of their way, virtually running across the water’s surface. Whenever the channel widened, large beds of spatterdock or water lotus moved in and raised gorgeous yellow or white pom-pom flowers skyward.
Her guide veered left on a narrow channel through a torpedograss bed, and she lurched sideways in the seat, forced to grab on with both hands. The boat caromed sideways and skipped across the slick glassy surface like an off-balance slalom skier. Only one thought locked in her head—The boat has no brake—and she wished the jerk would slow down before he killed them both.
Landers suddenly gunned the big engine, and Kayli let loose a blood-curdling scream. Somehow the added acceleration straightened out the boat, and her next breath again caught in her throat. Three coots directly in front of the boat skittered across the water so fast their legs became a grayish blur.
The airboat closed the distance between them in seconds, and the speeding craft raced over the fleeing birds to Kayli’s shriek of, “Stop!”
Her feet felt three little bumps on the boat bottom as the bird bodies thunked against the thin aluminum hull. In a blind rage, Kayli whipped around. Strands of her hair pulled loose from the clip and whipped wildly about her face.
“You animal!” she screamed.
The horrid guide had the nerve to grin at her.
Oh, how she hated him! And so soon too.
Landers shoved his arrogant thumb over his shoulder, pointing behind them, and Kayli leaned to the side with a fulsome glare. There swam the three little coots, feathers glistening wet and paddling into the adjacent vegetation as the second airboat approached. All three birds bobbed up and down on the frothy wake and appeared perfectly fine. Her gaze flared back up at the guide. His smile never wavered. The man was enjoying this.
“They’re fine,” Landers shouted over the powerful engine. “Happens all the time.”
She kept her eyes on the coots until the second airboat had safely passed them. Landers steered through a maze of cattails, and she lost sight of the relentless birds.
Flipping back around in her seat in a huff, Kayli swore she could feel Landers chuckling at her back. When she could stand it no longer, she whipped around in a flash to catch him. The man never flinched at her sudden movement. His eyes stared straight ahead at a point far in the distance. At least she thought they did—hard to tell with polarized sunglasses covering them. His hand maintained a vise-like grip on the steering stick, and the jerk missed her perfectly good glare.
With her next heartbeat, the airboat lurched hard to the left and tossed her sideways in her seat. She instantly flipped forward in one continuous motion to face head on whatever calamity had been thrown into their path. The channel looked clear.
She’d been had.
She half-turned to call him a name that had been on the tip of her tongue for a half-hour.
“Face forward,” he shouted at her. “It’s too dangerous to turn around and stare at me.”
Heat flooded to her neck before she could suck in a breath. “Stare at—” she sputtered. “Oooh!”
What a hateful man! Torn between wanting to scream obscenities at him like a banshee and wanting to keep her seat and maintain professional decorum, she opted for decorum and kept her gaze focused straight ahead. Her chest heaved with each angry breath.
“Much better,” he shouted, to press insult onto injury.
That did it. She turned on him in the blink of an eye, one knee on the bench seat and her index finger pointed like a pistol. “You miserable son of a—”
The airboat lost half its momentum as Landers plucked his foot off the gas pedal, and Kayli tumbled forward, forced to grab onto the seat. She pulled herself bolt upright then tumbled backward when the airboat bumped hard into something. Landers tapped the gas pedal to thrum the prop, and her balance lurched forward once again, forcing her to grab for her seat. He vaulted off his pedestal seat before she could put two coherent words together and towered over her on the bow.
“We’re here,” he rumbled low and stared down at her, his nose scant inches from hers.
Her brows drew down with her attempted glare, but her knees had gone strangely weak. “You did that on purpose.” Her voice came out weak too, and she wanted to scream. “Apologize,” she ordered.
“For what?” He whipped off his shades and leaned in closer.
Her breath stuck in her throat. She forged on. “You hit the gas. You tried to make me fall.”
His eyes, twin gray emeralds, studied hers. Seconds elapsed. His piercing gaze held her immobile.
“I blew off the wake,” he said, his voice dangerously low.
He leaned away from her to point. “The transom is low. If you don’t blow off the wake, it comes back in over the transom and sinks the airboat.”
She glared. “Baloney.”
He leaned in close and forced her to step back. “Only takes a couple inches of water to sink an aluminum boat with a thousand-pound engine aboard.”
She swallowed hard. “Oh.”
He let loose a disgusted sigh. “We’re stopping here for pictures.”
Her hands curled into fists of their own accord. The man-made pictures sound like something worthless. She watched him use the bow line to lasso the branch of a nearby cypress sapling, and she finally gazed about her surroundings.
Several large cypress trees stood guard about twenty feet away, circled by clusters of cypress knees and young saplings yearning for survival. She guessed the bump they’d felt skating in was the boat hitting one of the cypress knees, motionless little brown cones peeking out at the water’s surface. Only now did she notice their boat floated in a large bed of water lotus. The circular green pads covered most of the water’s surface, and several dozen of the pads sent stiff green petioles skyward to hold up snow-white flowers four to five inches across. Taken aback by each new panorama, Kayli had to remember to pull out her camera and preserve the natural wonder for others.
“Amazing,” she breathed and shifted her gaze to absorb the whole expansive display.
“I never get tired of it.”
Landers’ tone caught her off guard, and she twisted around to catch a look of wonder on his face that surely matched her own. That odd feeling in her stomach whirled another shot of warmth through her.
What a gorgeous face.
“You’re out here all the time, aren’t you?” she asked and lifted her camera to start taking pictures.
His gaze shifted away from the panorama, and the strained look returned. “Not nearly enough. Don’t you have to wait for your boyfriend to show up to take your pictures?”
For one brief ridiculous moment, the daredevil part of her wanted to say, “He’s not my boyfriend,” but she chickened out.
She could still use a buffer between her and the guide out here in the middle of nowhere. Let Landers think Brad was her boyfriend. Safer that way. For her.
“No, why would I?”
“I figured you used him for your model.”
She could tell from his tone what he thought of male models. “No, I don’t.”
“What did you bring him for then? Protection?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Why? Do I need protection?”
She instantly regretted her last words. A devious twinkle lurked in his eyes, and her breathing halted while she waited for his response. The twinkle eased into a devious smile, more like an evil smirk.
“Maybe,” he said so softly she wasn’t sure she heard him, but the look on his face told her she had. Goose bumps trailed a path up her arms.
Hard as she tried to fight the urge, her gaze flicked back to the man’s tall muscular frame. The muscles in his wide shoulders flexed as he wound the rope around the cypress branch and tied it off. Of course, there was that narrow waist too. The thrum of the district airboats closed in, and she swallowed back a large lump in her throat. Best if she traded spots with someone and moved onto one of the district boats. Yes, that would definitely be best.
~ ~ ~ ~
“You chose my spots well, Gray,” Kayli called out and tried to put Landers’ remark out of her head, though she could feel his devious smirk burning a hole in her back. Her stomach plummeted, and she grimaced over the need to regain her control and her edge.
For Pete’s sake, you’re about to swoon over one measly leer. Get over him.
She forced herself to focus on Brad who was more than happy to have things that way. He gave her a broad smile as his airboat skated to within a foot or so of Landers’ boat.
“Did you get some good shots, honey?”
She shouldn’t let Brad get away with the endearments as that would only perpetuate his misconceptions about her feelings. A snort sounded from the seat behind her, and she tossed all her good intentions.
“Yes, I did. How do you like the ride?”
“This is great. I’ve never been on an airboat before.”
“Never?” Landers questioned from his perch.
Kayli eyed the guide warily.
“Nope,” Brad said with a smile. “Never.”
He combed his hair back with his fingertips and fiddled with the front to get his hair in place. Kayli wished he would stop. Gray and the biologists were watching him too. Brad’s preoccupation with his appearance had never bothered her until today. Good looking men always fiddled with their hair. And tie. And cuffs. And . . .
“Brad, why don’t you wear a hat?” she suggested.
“No, thanks. I hate hats. You know that.”
She almost said she didn’t know that, but she could feel Landers watching so she focused her camera instead.
Several of the larger lotus pads spanned almost two feet in diameter. Click. Their enormous white flowers stretched six to eight inches across and rose up on their pedestals like soldiers at attention, a few almost two feet high. The flower petals surrounded a cone-shaped center resembling a shower head. Click. She caught dark movement out of the corner of her eye and spotted a coot making his way between lotus pads, no doubt searching for bugs.
Gray reached down between the boats, pulled up a large lotus pad, and turned it over to show her.
“Eeewwww. What are all those red wiggly worms?” Kayli exclaimed.
“Midges.” He smiled at her. “The larvae of blind mosquitoes.”
“Mosquitoes are blind?” Brad asked, suddenly interested and done fiddling with his hair.
“No,” Kayli said as gently as she could, “mosquitoes can see just fine. Blind mosquitoes are a different bug altogether.”
Gray smiled his approval, and Brad looked amazed at her insect knowledge.
“They come up in swarms in the evening and look just like mosquitoes except they don’t bite,” she added.
Gray raised his eyebrows.
“I lived in Florida until I was ten years old,” she said, feeling self-conscious. “Then we moved to Georgia.”
“Wow, Kayli. I’m impressed,” Brad said, but she couldn’t tell if he meant it or was being sassy.
“We use the midges for water quality monitoring,” Gray explained. “There are several pollution tolerance levels in this one insect family, and we use them to give us a long-term picture of what’s happening in the water body.”
“These insects provide a much bigger picture than a single chemistry sample collected on any given day, at any given moment.” He flung the pad back into the water. “I’ll show you more as we go.”
“Wait a minute. Landers, get me closer to the lotus pads,” she said with a brief sideways glance. “I want to get a shot of the coot.”
No longer the center of her attention, Brad had moved to the bow of his airboat and reached for an enormous lotus flower. As he stretched, his foot hit a few beads of water on the slick aluminum hull, and before Kayli could click her shutter closed, a thunderous splash sprayed the whole front of her boat. A second splash followed a few yards behind the first splash.
Heads and eyes rotated as Brad’s head popped up between two lotus pads, and he spewed water from his mouth with a gurgly raspberry. Kayli waited for one of the men to move forward and offer him a hand, but a swift glance showed all busy covering smirks with their hands. She stepped across to the bow of his boat and kneeled, placing her camera on his seat. He sputtered again and wiped at his streaming face.
“Are you okay?” she asked, careful to keep a concerned expression—difficult at best. He glared as he reached for the hand up she offered.
“There’s a gator behind you,” she heard Landers announce in a dead calm voice. Before she could raise her head to see for herself, Brad’s shrill shout rent the air. He grabbed her arm and almost yanked her into the water in his effort to scramble aboard.
“Help me!” He clung to her arm with both hands, and his deck shoes pedaled wildly on the smooth boat surface.
Kayli tried to wedge her feet against the side but quickly lost ground. Gray reached down next to her, grabbed a handful of Brad’s shirt, and yanked him up and over the top of her since she now lay flat on her stomach. Brad kept going until he collapsed on the bench seat. Kayli sat bolt upright to search the open water for the treacherous predator.
“Where is he? Where is he?” Brad demanded, his hair hanging in short little ringlets about his head, and his clothes sticking tight to his skin. His deck shoes oozed water.
“There.” Landers pointed.
Kayli’s jaw dropped as she caught sight of the three-foot gator floating between lotus pads about fifteen yards away. She whipped around to glare at Landers but kept her tongue. She refused to show a reaction in front of these men, which is what Landers wanted, judging by his smirk.
“He’s huge,” Brad exclaimed, his eyes going wide.
Kayli grabbed her camera before he could drip all over it. “Are you okay?”
“Look at him, Kayli. I could have lost an arm.”
She subdued a mental eye roll and gave him a pat. “You’re fine now.”
“Look at the size of him,” he repeated, never hearing her.
She stepped across the gap to the guide’s boat and refused to accommodate Landers with a glance, though she did catch the smirks on the district guys.
“Where to next, Gray?” she called.
“You two can get some pictures at Ibis Roost. We have a couple sample sites nearby we have to visit, and then we’ll meet up for lunch at Corkscrew Hammock. Lead the way, Landers, and—”
Landers’ airboat cranked and drowned out whatever else Gray had intended to say.
~ ~ ~ ~
The airboat skated sideways on the glassy water in the narrow channel, and Kayli fought back a gasp. She refused to let Landers witness her fear. The man no doubt produced this maneuver at will and knew it made her heart lurch each time. She fought to keep from white-knuckling the edge of her seat as he punched down on the accelerator to smooth out the slipping boat. She spotted a small tree island about a thousand yards in front of them, which looked like a winter oasis. No more than a dozen cypress and maple trees claimed the small plot of land as home, but each tree supported enough roosting ibises to make it look as though a blizzard had struck this small refuge in the Glades.
The airboat slowed, and Kayli drew off her ear cups. Reaching for her camera, she willed her insides to relax and return to normal.
“You all right?”
Okay, maybe not normal. She nodded and put on her best professional demeanor to face Landers.
“Your boyfriend doesn’t spend much time out of doors, does he?”
She eyed him warily, able to see her reflection in his shades. “What do you mean?”
“He panicked over the gator back at the lotus bed.”
“You started it,” she snapped. “You scared him.”
So much for her professional demeanor.
The sunglasses whipped off. Unsettling gray-green eyes focused hard. “Would you rather I said nothing?”
“Yes, actually I would. The gator wouldn’t have gotten close enough for Brad to notice.”
His smirk grew. “Think so?”
“Why I suppose the big bad Seminole could have wrestled the gator?”
His eyes darkened in anger, and he jolted the prop into action. The airboat took off so fast Kayli fell back in her seat. For a brief moment, she rejoiced at getting the better of Skye Landers. In the next instant, she realized her remark sounded like a slur against Seminoles in general. Guilt pummeled her conscience. Remorse filled the wound. Heaving a deep sigh, she held up a hand.
The boat floundered to a hard stop and lurched when he spread the prop wash. The man never looked back to check, and she was amazed Landers knew exactly what moment to spread the approaching wake so it wouldn’t flood over the transom.
“If you want pictures of the ibis roost, we can get a lot closer before they spook,” he said flatly. His face remained devoid of expression.
She shook her head. “No, I stopped you because . . .”
She swallowed her pride in one hard lump. “I wanted to apologize for the wrestling comment. It was mean and uncalled for.”
He stared hard for a full minute, and she would have given anything to see his eyes. The corners of his mouth twitched. She felt a bit incensed at the sudden relief flooding through her, and she assured herself she hadn’t given in or lost a step. She had merely repented a social faux pas, a non-diverse accident of speech.
His smile formed and swiftly morphed to a grin. “I know what that must have cost you.”
“Don’t get all pissed off again. I like it when you’re nice to me.”
Her chin rose. “I have been nice to you this whole trip.”
“Yeah, like when you order me around in front of the district folks like some kind of lackey?”
“You were hired—” She stopped for a deep and calming breath. “I’m not arguing with you again.”
“And for the record, I’m only half-Seminole.”
“I said I was sorry,” she muttered and wished a vortex would appear in the channel and suck her in. “Can we just go?”
His smile vanished. “Suit yourself.