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Winning Her Heart by Emma Kingsley (1)

CHAPTER 1

NICOLE

Nicole’s calves ached in protest, and her shoulders burned from the Florida sun’s intensity, but she ignored everything painful and worrisome in the world. Crouched behind a tree, on the edge of the freshwater marsh, nothing existed but the animal two yards away from her.

The rabbit hopped once, pushing its nose against a clump of grass. It was a miracle that Nicole had seen it at all. With approximately no more than a hundred and fifty Lower Keys Marsh Rabbits in the area and with it being her first week interning, running into a rabbit in the flesh seemed like nothing short of a miracle.

Nicole stayed where she was, frozen and pressed against the tree’s bark. Was she breathing too loud? Could the rabbit smell her?

The animal lifted its head, stretching its neck toward the sky. Its nose wiggled as it smelled the air, probably looking for both food and predators.

Nicole’s fingers itched to pull her phone out of her back pocket and take a picture. She wasn’t moving until the rabbit was gone, though. Hopefully, the cameras she’d come out to check were getting the whole event.

“You’re beautiful,” she found herself whispering.

The rabbit lowered its face, getting back to searching for whatever meal it had come out to enjoy.

Nicole smiled to herself. She could do this all day long: hunker down in the sun and watch animals, look for tracks, enjoy the peace and the picturesque world broken only by the occasional bird call or rustling in the trees.

Maybe the rabbit would leave behind a clump of fur or some droppings. With such an endangered creature, anything was of use.

Not that Nicole was in charge of anything actually scientific. As an intern, her tasks for the NGO mostly involved grunge work. But she wasn’t complaining, and she never would.

Suddenly, the rabbit lifted its head—this time with a new immediacy. Its ears twitched and Nicole could feel the alarm floating off of it. Something had changed.

She glanced at the sky, looking for predatory birds, yet found nothing but a clear, blindingly blue blanket. At the same time, heavy, fast-paced bass broke the marsh’s quietude.

The rabbit bolted, taking off into the brush it had emerged from. Nicole inhaled sharply and stood up. The music grew louder and she turned to see a white SUV come around the bend in the dirt road. Anger filled her chest and she crossed her arms. The area was technically open to the public—at least the part that she was in—but that didn’t mean people needed to blast their music and disturb the entire ecosystem.

As she stood still, the SUV slowed down and came to a stop behind the company pickup she’d driven there. The music died. The passenger window rolled down and a smiling young man about her age gave her a wave.

“Hi,” he said.

“Hello,” she answered through tight teeth.

“Are you familiar with this area?”

“You scared it away.” She frowned.

She hadn’t meant to snap at him like that, but it was as if the words were coming out on their own. She had been feet away from one of the most endangered species in the country. Who knew when that would happen again—if ever?

“Scared what?” the man asked.

“The rabbit.” She looked past him. There was a second man in the car, the one driving, but he had his face down and was typing away on his phone.

“Oh, sorry.” His face crumpled in confusion. “Hey, do you know if there are any good hiking trails around here?”

Heat flooded Nicole’s face. She needed to answer. She needed to be nice to him. At that moment, though, her primitive side was getting the best of her. There was a reason she tended to spend more time with animals than with people.

“I don’t know,” she replied dryly.

“Huh. Okay.” He turned to the driver. “She doesn’t know. Let’s get out of here.”

The driver’s door opened and the second man came around the front of the SUV.

Without meaning to, Nicole locked gazes with him. It was like all the air had been sucked from her lungs. The marsh around her blurred. The dirt road. The brush. The sky. It was all gone. Only the man standing in front of her remained.

Nicole struggled to breathe, struggled to look away. Those smoldering dark eyes held her own in place, though. Reaching up to run his fingers through his black hair, the man tilted his head at her in question.

“Isn’t that a trail behind you?” he asked.

Nicole turned to look. Indeed, it was a trail, winding close to where the rabbit had disappeared off to. “Yeah, I guess it is.”

She really didn’t want anyone to go down that walking path. But what could she do? It was open to hikers. Maybe once she reported back to the office, something could be done. Maybe Florida Keys Conservation would be able to convince the state to shut down this portion of the park. It shouldn’t be that hard. Other than NGOs, the state parks were more invested in conservation than anyone else.

“The rabbits have suffered enough,” she mumbled to herself.

The dark-haired man’s brow pinched. “What was that?”

A new wave of heat hit Nicole’s cheeks. She hadn’t meant to talk out loud.

The first man came to stand next to the dark-haired one, and Nicole saw how different they were. One was short and stocky, with blond hair and a round face. The other was tall, with breathtaking features and perfect teeth that sparkled as he smiled at her. Nicole couldn’t help but notice how his broad shoulders filled out his plain white T-shirt impeccably.

“You guys shouldn’t be playing music that loud out here,” she said, forcing herself to focus on what was important. “You scared away a Lower Keys Marsh Rabbit. Do you know what that is?”

They shared a quick look.

“Uh…no?” The blond man narrowed his eyes in confusion.

Nicole’s inhale burned her nose and she bent to pick up her backpack. She’d accomplished what she came out to the park to do. The cameras were still in working condition. Since she wasn’t a park ranger, there was nothing she could do about noise pollution. It was time to get back to the office.

She headed to the truck, but the tall man stepped in front of her, blocking her way. “Hey, hold on. Did we upset you?”

His voice was smooth and deep. Like velvet. Or dark chocolate…if chocolate made a sound.

Nicole tightened her fingers around her backpack straps. “No. It’s fine.”

He frowned slightly. “It doesn’t seem like it is.”

She glanced over his shoulder, at the waiting truck. Since he was being so persistent, why not tell him the truth? Maybe he’d be more careful next time.

“Your music scared the rabbit away,” she stated blandly. “It’s a very endangered animal and I’m helping study them. This was the first time I got to see it in flesh.”

“Oh, I’m really sorry.” He seemed to genuinely mean it, and for a second Nicole almost told him it was all right—but then she remembered that, no matter how nice and cute he was, the disruption was certainly not all right.

“Will you just try to keep it down?” she asked.

“Of course.” He nodded, his gaze raking over her face in a way that made her skin tingle. “We’re not from around here. We’re visiting from L.A.,” he said, like that explained everything.

“Okay.” Nicole glanced at the truck again. The fact that the man was having such a strong effect on her made her even more eager to get out of there.

“I’m Aidan,” he said, “And this is Mikey.”

Aidan. Of course that’s his name. It’s as cute as he is. Nicole smiled tightly, doing her best to ignore that last thought. “Nice to meet you.”

“You’re a scientist?”

“No.” She shifted her weight around. “I’m an intern…and I really need to be going. Try to keep the noise down, please. And drive slower. The Lower Keys Rabbits are endangered partially due to humans.”

He opened his mouth like he was about to say something else, but Nicole shot him a hard look and made a wide curve around him. Without so much as a glance his way, she jumped into the truck and tossed her backpack on the seat next to her. Gaze firmly over the steering wheel, she started the engine and drove off.

Just before the dirt road’s curve, though, she couldn’t resist taking one quick look in the rearview mirror. The blond man was busy taking pictures of a tree with his phone, but the other one—Aidan—still stood where Nicole had left him, his eyes on her truck as he watched her drive away.