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 hotel room with two palmetto bugs -- may they rest in peace -- but the sun had barely crossed the horizon on this Tuesday morning, 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 sat in the high driver's seat of the last airboat in line, his arms crossed on his chest. Even at this distance, she could see the scowl on his face and inwardly groaned. Everyone had waited for her.
She pulled her dark auburn hair back in a clip and cast a quick glance in her rearview mirror. Familiar blue eyes blinked back at her. She rarely wore makeup -- rarely needed any since heads turned her way without it -- but now she wished she'd bothered with a tad of mascara and some lipstick. A niggling doubt in the back of her mind said she needed all the help she could get this morning. Yanking her small duffel and camera bag from the back of her Jeep, she slunk toward the group. The humid air slapped against her cheeks like a cold shower curtain with droplets so thick she could actually see them. Clad in cutoffs, she felt both the chill and a twinge of remorse at not choosing jeans 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. Quit acting like a city girl and 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 7:20 and not 7:00 a.m. -- when she had been told to arrive.
"You must be Kayli Heddon," he said and reached out to shake her hand. With his sandy blonde hair, he looked more like a surfer than a serious biologist. "We spoke on the phone last week. I'm Dan Graydon, Everglades Water District. Everyone just calls me Graydon."
"I'm pleased to finally meet you," she said and smiled.
He nodded to the other two gentlemen. "These guys are my field biologists assigned to Everglades Restoration."
Each gave her a nod and a smile, then moved toward the second airboat in line. She immediately felt better though she wondered why the scowling driver in the last boat didn't come over to be introduced.
"And I think you're already familiar with that guy," Graydon said and poked a thumb over his shoulder at the man stowing gear in the closest airboat.
The figure straightened, and Kayli froze. Clay Jameson. Governor Drake's deputy chief of staff and all-round thorn in Kayli's side.
Clay smiled and climbed out of the airboat. As usual, he had styled and gelled his cropped dark hair even for taking a wild airboat ride. 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. Thank goodness she'd picked jean cutoffs and a denim shirt to go with her drab, gray sweatshirt jacket. She felt her cheeks growing warmer, and she met him halfway down the dock.
"What are you doing here?" she asked in a harsh whisper.
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."
He frowned hard. "Yes, I am. Now give me your duffel bag; I'll stow it with mine."
"Clay, I don't need a babysitter, and 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 moved 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?" she sputtered and stepped back.
Two dates. Two lousy dates and Clay had decided Kayli was the girl for him, and no matter what she did or said, she couldn't manage to unconvince him. She, on the other hand, had needed only one date to realize she had chosen poorly.
Clay had mugged for every crowd and political personality the couple had encountered on the whirlwind tour of clubs that evening, almost as though he had masterminded his exposure opportunities with Kayli. She knew better than to date anyone in politics, with her close personal ties to the governor, but Clay had done his charming best to get her to agree to go. 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 formed the backdrop for their second disastrous date and spread the icing on the cake. Clay's behavior that evening convinced Kayli his intentions were motivated more by her ties to the governor than any affection he'd developed for her.
Graydon moved up alongside, and she stifled any further comment. She should have had a final confrontation with Clay weeks ago and set him straight on their non-relationship instead of worrying about hurting his feelings. No way could she have that confrontation here 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," Graydon said. "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 man wore his dark hair a little long, his thick loose curls shifting in the morning breeze. She expected brown eyes with that dark hair and olive-toned skin, but his were a gray-green and stared intently at her with nary a smile. The skin on the back of her neck prickled, and a spot of warmth deep inside her sparked to life.
Graydon watched her stare back and rushed to explain. "The Everglades Water District uses several Seminole contractors to help with our monitoring runs deep in the Glades -- as sample collectors. No one knows the Everglades better than they do, so they're the most efficient at monitoring habitat changes and getting samples back quickly."
Even with the guide seated high on the pinnacle seat with his arms crossed over his chest, Kayli could tell he was a tall man, powerfully built with broad shoulders -- and also a grouchy man judging by his expression.
"I'm sure you'll be more comfortable in one of the larger district airboats with Mr. Jameson," Graydon was saying when she turned back.
The two larger airboats each had a district seal on the propeller flaps in the rear, and both looked relatively new. 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 district boats and had only a single seat up at the bow besides the driver's seat occupied by Scowlface.
"No," she blurted, still stinging from Clay's childish remark. "We're splitting up. I'm going with him." She pointed at the guide who stared a hole through her. "We'll gather more information if we split up."
Clay's jaw dropped, but he was too much of a politician to argue with her in front of state employees, and she knew it. She could see his forehead muscles working to fight a frown, and she wanted to smile.
Serves him right.
Graydon said, "Suit yourself. I better introduce you." He led her to the last airboat. "Kayli Heddon meet Skye Landers."
Landers just stared and made no effort to get up or extend a hand. A ball cap rested in his lap, and his dark brown curls hung loose for now.
"You're late," he said.
Her cheeks warmed all over again, this time in embarrassment. Graydon looked just as embarrassed by the man's manners and reached for her duffel. "Let me help you stow that," he said.
"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 so the five men could no longer stare. 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 to the very marrow in her bones. She wanted to rant at his rudeness, but she could only stare, trapped in that piercing gaze. She prayed her neck and ears hadn't gone telltale-pink.
She might have thought Landers handsome in a rugged sort of way if she didn't already hate him. She could kick herself for opening her big mouth. For now she was stuck riding with this nasty-tempered jerkweed. The smirk on Clay's face kept her from changing her mind, but she'd change boats the first time they stopped for a break.
Graydon's voice pierced the fog at the periphery of her vision. "Do you want to go over the map before we take off? Once we get underway, we can't really talk with the engines running." He pulled out a large aerial map which he unfolded and smoothed out on the bow of his boat.
"Sure, sure," she mumbled and stepped down into the bottom of the airboat to push her duffel and camera bag into the opening under the bow.
As she straightened, Landers managed to lock her gaze yet again. That spark of warmth deep inside her protective wall flared and shifted. Desperate to regain some control, she tore her gaze from the dark-haired guide and stepped up onto the side of the airboat. Her sneaker slipped, and her body lurched forward, smashing her shin against the sharp aluminum edge of the boat. Her gaze caught Graydon as she fell, but he was two steps out of reach. Yet, strong hands grabbed her before she hit the rivets on the bottom of the boat.
A gasp caught in her throat as she felt her body crushed hard against the muscular chest of the guide. Her senses flashed to high alert, and tiny electrical charges surged through every available nerve ending. The warmth of his body permeated every molecule in hers and subdued her earlier panic. A masculine aroma of soap and after-shave assailed her nostrils, and she forced aside the inexplicable urge to turn her face and breathe in his scent. All this in the span of two seconds. Her cheeks and neck had to be flushed hot-pink by now.
Graydon's eyes went wide. "Are you okay? Your shin? I heard it hit."
Clay flew off the first airboat and barreled down the short dock, almost knocking Graydon in the water. "Kayli, honey. Are you okay?"
Horrendous embarrassment destroyed whatever sensual pleasure remained from her rescue. The field biologists stared from behind Graydon and Clay, all intensely interested in her every move. Her shoulders still pinned, she could move only her head to glance down at 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.
"Gees, Landers," Graydon said, "you vaulted out of that seat so fast you were a blur."
Kayli sent a thankful glance back over her shoulder, but Landers had already climbed back to his pinnacle atop the airboat.
"Thank you, Mr. Landers," she called after him.
He turned and sat in the driver's seat. His response was only a curt nod.
Clay 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 batted his brown eyes at her, obviously trying for the pitiful puppy dog effect, and followed it with a squeeze. "Okay now, honey?"
She fought off an eye roll, and her peripheral vision caught Landers. His scowl had returned and looked almost fierce. She reconsidered the wisdom of choosing his boat. Clay 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 Clay 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."
Graydon traced out their morning journey on his map. "From here at the L-28 canal boat 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, crawl through knee-deep muck and water."
"The mosquitoes come out at night so thick that stranded fisherman paint themselves with engine oil for protection."
"No wonder drug runners find the Glades the perfect place for their hiding spots," Clay said, in one of his condescending tones Kayli had come to detest.
Graydon didn't notice, or if he did, he ignored Clay. "We'll travel well into the water conservation areas via deep water channels with stops at a number of hardwood hammocks along the way, where you can take all the pictures you want. We'll be stopping along the way 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 focus 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."
"Uh, will there be a lot of gators out there?" Clay asked, his voice tentative. He'd sidled closer when Graydon and Kayli leaned over the map.
"Oh yeah," Graydon affirmed, reseating his ball cap.
Kayli thought she caught a smirk snaking across Landers' face, but she blinked and the scowl 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 look at them for fear the tracker beam would pull her back in.
"What about at the camp?" Clay persisted.
"Always," Landers shot back.
"We'll be fine, Clay," she said.
"I know," he snapped. "I was just asking." He stomped back to the first airboat.
"Any other questions?" Graydon asked.
"Just one." Kayli nibbled at her lower lip. "What about gas? Where will we get airplane fuel out in the Everglades?"
Graydon 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 slanted her gaze at Landers. His all-out smirk remained. Gees, 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.
Graydon folded the map and reseated his cap one last time. "Ready?"
Her cell phone chimed, and she jumped. One glance at the readout, and she turned to Graydon. "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?"
In the span of a breath, Kayli checked her service level on the cell phone. Two bars. Let it be enough. "Of course."
She waited one more breath 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 and what I did. So I'm still your Uncle John."
"For starters, where are you?"
"I'm at a boat ramp in the Everglades."
"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. "Oh, 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'll 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 competition, 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 the restoration."
"Of course, whatever you say." Uncle John not telling Hartman, his chief of staff and Clay's boss, seemed just a little spooky. "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's 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 would send 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 stifled the sudden urge to stick her tongue out 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.
"So glad you could join us," Landers said sardonically and nodded at the biologists waiting aboard their boats.
She deserved that for making them all wait, but no way would she tell him she was on the phone with the governor. None of his business. She grimaced and carefully stepped up onto the wide, flat bow. 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.
She took a deep breath. The man had a point.
He handed her a pair of ear cups. "Put these on. Adjust the band to fit your head."
She took the ear cups, slid them over her ears, and tugged them snug. The other men, Clay 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 engines cranked in unison. Even at idle speed, the tinny rumble of the powerful Chevy engines running straight exhaust sent chill bumps onto 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 spun in her seat to look 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 pulled the two ropes free of the cleats and hopped back on the bow. Landers just shook his head, his dangerous green eyes now covered with dark sunglasses. The two large boats were already moving up the channel and scuttling flocks of ibis, blackbirds, and coots off nearby vegetation. Their airboat bumped away from the dock, and she inwardly groaned. She should have pushed off when she climbed back on board. 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.
As they eased up the channel in the wake of the other two boats, 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 thought it was 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 the gas pedal on the airboat, 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 squeezed his boat between the district boats, but the look on Clay'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 now in front, she 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 neat 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 the speeding craft. His hat was turned around backwards, and his eyes remained hidden by his wrap-around shades, but his smile caught her completely off guard, and her breath seized up in her throat. She whipped back around to face forward and could have sworn she heard him laugh over the thrumming of the powerful engine. No way would she risk a glance to be sure.
Concentrate on what you're supposed to be doing, she reminded herself and settled back in the bench seat, never forgetting for one second she sat dead center in his field of vision.
The airboat flew weightless, just above the water's surface. At least Kayli felt as though it 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 grew narrower, yet the airboat never slowed. She cast a glance over her right shoulder and could see the other two airboats, evenly spaced and matching their 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 she 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 coots scurried out of their way actually running on top of the water. Wherever the channel widened, large beds of spatterdock or water lotus raised gorgeous yellow or white pom-pom flowers skyward.
Landers veered left on a narrow channel through a torpedograss bed, and she lurched sideways in the seat, forced to grab on with both hands. As the boat caromed sideways, it skipped across the water's surface like an off-balance slalom skier. Only one thought locked in her head -- The boat has no brake -- and she wished the man would slow down before he killed them both. Landers gunned the engine, and she let loose a blood-curdling scream. The added acceleration straightened out the boat, and her next breath caught in her throat. Three coots were right in front of the boat, up and scrambling across the surface of the water so fast their legs were a grayish blur.
The airboat closed the distance in seconds, and the speeding craft covered the fleeing birds to Kayli's shriek of, "Stop!"
She felt three little bumps in her feet as the bird bodies connected with the thin aluminum hull of the boat. In a blind rage, she whipped around, strands of her hair pulling loose from the clip.
"You animal!" she screamed.
The horrid man had the nerve to smile at her. Oh, how she hated him and so soon, too. He shoved his thumb over his shoulder, pointing behind them, and she leaned to the side with a glare. There were the three little coots, swimming into the adjacent vegetation as the second airboat approached. All three bobbed up and down on the wake and looked perfectly fine. Her gaze flared back up at the guide; strands of her hair snapped wildly about her face. His smile never wavered. He was enjoying this.
"They're fine," he shouted over the engine. "Happens all the time."
She kept her eye on the coots until the second airboat passed them. Landers steered through a maze of cattails, and she lost sight of the birds. She flipped back around in her seat in a huff and swore she could feel him 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 his polarized sunglasses covering them. His hand maintained a steel grip on the steering stick, and the jerk missed her perfectly good glare.
With her next breath, the airboat lurched to the left and tossed her sideways in her seat. She flipped forward in one continuous motion to face head on whatever calamity had been thrown in 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. "It's too dangerous to turn around and stare at me."
The heat flooded to her neck before she could pull in a breath. "Stare at--" she sputtered. "Oooh!" she growled with rage.
What a hateful man. Torn between wanting to turn around and scream obscenities like a banshee and wanting to keep her seat and maintain professional decorum, she opted for decorum and stared straight ahead. Her chest heaved with each angry breath.
"Much better," he shouted to add insult to injury.
That did it. She faced 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 slid his foot from the gas pedal, and Kayli tumbled backward, forced to grab onto the seat. She pulled herself upright and tumbled again when the airboat bumped something hard. Landers tapped the gas to thrum the prop, and she felt her balance lurch forward and grabbed for the seat again.
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 and stared down at her, his nose only inches from hers.
She pulled down her brows and attempted a glare, but her knees felt strangely weak. "You did that on purpose." Her voice sounded weak, too, and she wanted to scream. "Apologize."
"For what?" He whipped off his shades and leaned in closer.
Her breath caught in her throat, but she forged on. "You hit the gas. You tried to make me fall."
His eyes, twin gray emeralds, stared hard into 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 and pointed. "The transom's low. If you don't blow off the wake, it comes back in over the transom and sinks the boat."
She glared. "Baloney."
He leaned in close and forced her to step back. "It 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."
She fisted her hands. The man made 'pictures' sound like something worthless. She watched him use the bow line to lasso the branch of a cypress sapling, and she finally gazed at her surroundings.
Several large cypress trees stood guard about twenty feet away, circled by clusters of cypress knees and young saplings trying to survive. She guessed the bump they felt skating in was one of the cypress knees, motionless little brown cones peeking out at the water's surface. Only now did she notice the 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. Each resembled mini-cheerleader pom-poms. Taken aback by each new panorama, she had to remember to pull up her camera and preserve the natural wonder for others.
"Amazing," she breathed and shifted her gaze to absorb the expansive display.
"I never get tired of it."
His tone caught her off guard, and she turned to see a look of wonder on his face that matched her own. She caught that odd feeling in her stomach again.
What a gorgeous face.
"You're out here all the time, aren't you?" she asked and lifted the 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 take your pictures?"
For one brief ridiculous moment, the daredevil part of her wanted to say, "He's not my boyfriend," but instead she chickened out. She could still need a buffer out here in the middle of nowhere. "No, why would I?"
"I figured you used him for a 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 breath caught halfway up her throat as 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. Chill bumps worked their way up her arms.
As much as she tried to fight it, 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. She heard the thrum of the district airboats closing in and swallowed a large lump in her throat. It would be best if she traded spots with someone and moved to one of the district boats. Yes, that would definitely be best.
"You chose my spots well, Graydon," Kayli called out and tried to ignore Landers' remark, though she could feel his devious smirk burning a hole in her back. Her stomach took a plummet, and she grimaced at the need to regain her control and her edge.
For Pete's sake, you're about to swoon over one measly leer. Get over it.
She forced herself to focus on Clay 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 winced and knew she shouldn't let Clay get away with the endearment as it would only perpetuate his misconceptions about her feelings. A snort sounded from the seat behind her, and she tossed 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 rumbled from his perch.
Kayli turned and eyed him warily.
"Nope," Clay 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. Graydon and the biologists were watching him, too. Clay's preoccupation with his appearance had never bothered her until today. Good looking men always fiddled with their hair. And tie. And cuffs. And...
"Clay, why don't you wear a hat?" she suggested.
"No thanks. I hate hats. You know that."
She started to say she didn't know that, but she could feel Landers watching her so she focused her camera instead.
Several of the large lotus pads spanned almost two feet in diameter. Click. The enormous white flowers were six to eight inches across and stood up on their pedestals like soldiers at attention, some 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 pads no doubt searching for bugs.
Graydon 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?"
"Midges." He smiled at her. "The larvae of blind mosquitoes."
"Mosquitoes are blind?" Clay asked, suddenly interested and done fiddling with his hair.
"No," she said as gently as she could, "mosquitoes see just fine. Blind mosquitoes are a different bug altogether."
Graydon smiled his approval, and Clay 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.
Graydon raised his eyebrows.
"I lived in Florida until I was ten years old," she said, feeling self-conscious. "Then I moved to Georgia."
"Wow, Kayli. I'm impressed," Clay said, but she couldn't tell if he meant it or was being sassy.
"We use the midges for water quality monitoring," Graydon said. "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."
"They provide a much bigger picture than a single chemistry sample collected on any given day." He tossed the pad back in 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 attentions, Clay 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 Clay's head popped up between 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 over to the bow of his boat and kneeled, putting 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 and reached for the hand she proffered.
"There's a gator behind you," she heard Landers say in a dead calm voice. Before she could raise her head to see for herself, Clay'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, but she quickly lost ground. Graydon reached down next to her and yanked Clay aboard and over the top of her since she now lay flat on her stomach. Clay kept going until he collapsed on the bench seat, and she pulled herself upright to search the open water for the treacherous predator.
"Where is he? Where is he?" Clay demanded, his hair in short little ringlets, and his clothes stuck tight to his skin. His deck shoes oozed water.
"There." Landers pointed.
Kayli's jaw dropped as she focused in on the three-foot gator floating between lotus pads about fifteen yards away. She whipped around to glare at Landers, but kept her tongue. She would not show a reaction in front of these men, which is what Landers wanted judging by the smirk on his face.
"He's huge," Clay 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 said, never hearing her.
She stepped across the gap to Landers' boat and refused to accommodate him with a glance, but she did catch the smirks on the district men. "Where to next, Graydon?" 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 Graydon had to say.
The airboat skated sideways in the narrow channel like a drunken slalom skier, and Kayli held her breath. She refused to move a muscle and let Landers feel 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 skipping 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 spot as home, but each tree supported enough roosting ibises to make it look as though a blizzard had struck this small piece of the Glades.
The airboat slowed, and Kayli drew off her ear cups. She reached for her camera and allowed her insides to relax and return to normal.
"You all right?"
Okay, maybe not normal. She nodded and put on her best professional demeanor and turned to face Landers.
"Your boyfriend doesn't spend much time out of doors, does he?"
"What do you mean?" She eyed him warily, able to see her reflection in his shades.
"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 came off. "Would you rather I said nothing?"
She snorted in disgust. "Yes, actually I would. The gator wouldn't have gotten close enough for Clay 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 kicked the prop into action. The airboat took off so fast she fell back in her seat. For a brief second, she felt she had gotten the better of Mr. Landers. In the next breath, she realized her remark sounded like a slur to Seminoles in general. She felt terrible. Heaving a deep sigh, she held up a hand.
The boat flopped to a hard stop and lurched when he spread the prop wash. He never looked back, and she was amazed he knew exactly what moment to spread the 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 was devoid of expression.
She shook her head. "No, I stopped you because..."
She swallowed her pride in one hard lump. "I want to say I'm sorry for the wrestling remark. It was mean and uncalled for."
He stared hard for a full minute, and she would have given anything to see his eyes. A smile twitched the corners of his mouth. She felt a bit incensed at the sudden relief flooding through her. She hadn't given in or lost a step, she assured herself. She merely repented a social faux pas, a non-diverse accident of speech.
His smile 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 like some kind of lackey, right?"
"You were hired--" She stopped and took a deep and calming breath. "I'm not having this conversation 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."