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THEJAGUAR LEGACY - EXCERPT

Paranormal Romantic Suspense

Prologue

Wracked with chills and nausea, the high priest lay on the stone floor of the sacred space, curled into a fetal ball. The fire flickered in the stone-ringed pit, its feeble flames barely dispelling the inky darkness.

His agony was more than the old familiar price of a drug-fueled trance. The communion with his bestial god had already shown him far more than he had ever expected, ever dreamed of, ever dreaded. Death approached, padding towards him through the jungle on sure, silent feet, just like the Master of Darkness, the Jaguar God he worshipped. A worm of apprehension writhed in his belly. His end would be violent and bloody. And it would be soon. Too soon.

Shuddering, he dragged himself to a sitting position and added fuel to the glowing embers. He had not yet finished with those flames — the same flames that had disclosed his death. The twigs caught hold. A sudden flare of temporary brilliance banished the crouching shadows, blacker than the far side of midnight. “This time, I shall harness your power to serve my purposes,” he whispered on a long, slow breath. “This time, you shall disclose the identity of my successor before all is lost.”

He chewed another peyote button and swallowed the pulp. Bile pooled in his mouth, leaving a bitter aftertaste, but the drug transported him deeper into his trance. Something inside expanded, and once again, dark energy surged into his body. He stared into the fire, knowing the flames would only provide the answers he sought if he could ignore the encroaching darkness that waited to pounce. He stiffened his spine. “Show me the answers I need,” he commanded, satisfied with the renewed note of authority in his voice.

In response, the flames parted to disclose the image of a woman.

He studied her face, shocked by a jolt of recognition. Sparked by the irony of his successor’s identity, a bubble of mirthless laughter escaped his lips. Even though this woman possessed the raw talent he sought, he had never once considered contacting her.

Flames flared in a shower of sparks that drew his attention to a flicker of movement in the heart of the fire. He found himself gaping. A second form emerged from the flames, dancing and shimmering, coalescing into a dark shape that dwarfed the woman.

The priest’s heart thundered in his ears. “Who are you, and what do you want?” he whispered, barely able to force the words out of a mouth so dry he could barely move his lips.

The mysterious figure expanded, its outline rippling and shifting, wavering and solidifying, until at last, the movement ceased. A feline face hovered, motionless, above the woman’s head. The phantom jaguar opened its mouth in a silent snarl.

As if stirred by an invisible hand, a bright burst of flames shot up amidst billows of acrid smoke, concealing both figures. When the air cleared, a pair of jaguars now writhed and twisted in a sinuous struggle within the pyre before fire consumed them.

A thick queasiness coiled in the priest’s gut. He sensed this would be no ordinary rivalry. The challenger would try to destroy the legacy of dark powers bestowed on the Chosen by the Ancients, and handed down from Master to Acolyte for over two millennia.

His trivial death no longer mattered. Before the darkness claimed him, he must summon his chosen successor to his side to prepare her for the battle ahead—the battle for supremacy.

Mesmerized, he stared into the fire, which danced in the low breeze carrying the heartbreaking fragrance of the Mexican jungle into the cavern. The flames would act as a conduit to the woman. She would hear and obey his summons, drawn by the potent lure of unlimited power.

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Chapter 1

“The searing heat felt like a sauna on overdrive

This may not have been my most brilliant idea,” Charley Underhill reflected, arms windmilling to fend off the squadrons of bloodthirsty insects swarming her head with ravenous persistence. She pondered the wisdom of the impetuous decision that had seemed so brilliant after one martini, hold the olive, and three glasses of Pinot Grigio. In the nightclub called El Patio Grande, barging into Dr. Kincaid’s archaeological field camp to sniff out the scoop of the decade had seemed like a brilliant solution to her problems -- almost as if someone or, more accurately, something, had taken control of her thoughts and actions. Now, broiling under a white-hot sun with only an arrogant fellow passenger for company, her optimism faltered.

“Ouch! Dammit.” She swatted a sparrow-sized mosquito. Shading her eyes and swallowing hard around the lump in her throat, she peered into the distance. The six-seater floatplane — her only link with civilization — had dwindled into faded blue infinity. When the last engine-throb disappeared, she sighed once and scanned the shore, searching for signs of human habitation.

Scalding heat burned through her thin-soled sneakers and mosquitoes continued their relentless attack. An impenetrable wall of mangroves and cypresses furred the Mexican lagoon. Where were the buildings, the roads, the people? Hell, where was Dr. Kincaid’s welcoming committee? Someone must have heard the plane.

She cleared her throat. “Hello-o-o,” she yodeled in her most ladylike tone.

Only the insolent whine of insects broke the silence.

Louder, more assertive, she tried again. “Anybody home?”

A mocking echo boomed back. “Home...home...home.”

Charley rolled her eyes, sucked in a lungful of air, and bellowed, “Is everybody in this hell-hole deaf?”

Thankfully, nobody replied. She had an unfortunate tendency to babble her innermost thoughts before her brain kicked into censorship mode.

“Dumb, dumb, dumb,” she muttered. An edgy display of temper would only compound her elusive quarry’s displeasure. There was no doubt in Charley’s mind that Dr. Alistair Kincaid would be angry enough to kick some serious butt when he found an eager investigative journalist, uninvited and panting for a story, camped on his doorstep.

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She imagined the headline: “Secret of Ancient Curse Revealed.”

A frosty feminine voice interrupted Charley’s musings, “I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for a rescue team if I were you.”

Charley whirled around to face her haughty fellow passenger who had draped herself with a piece of designer luggage. Exotic Ice Queen had sauntered into the float plane terminal and sweet-talked a ride, all the time ignoring Charley and flirting with the pilot while she wheedled an immediate departure.

Charley stared at her companion’s knowing little smile with mild irritation. “What are you talking about? Of course someone will come.”

“The plane was almost an hour early, so don’t count on a welcoming committee. The crew is probably taking a siesta.”

Exotic Ice Queen’s superior tone set Charley on edge. “I can wait.”

"Suit yourself. I’m heading out to the dig after I touch up my makeup. That’s where Alistair is sure to be.”

Alistair? Exactly how well did Exotic Ice Queen know Dr. Kincaid? Charley feigned disinterest with a dismissive shrug. “You can’t possibly know that.”

Exotic Ice Queen cast a sharp glance in Charley’s direction and drawled, “Alistair and I are old friends and colleagues. I happen to know he loves to be alone with his artifacts, especially when the rest of his team is taking a siesta. Do whatever you want, but just make sure you don’t follow me.”

Seething inwardly, Charley repressed a sarcastic rejoinder. “Certainly. I wouldn’t want to intrude. I guess I’ll head for the camp.”

“Don’t get lost. Jaguars live out there.”

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Charley tossed her a long look. “Don’t be ridiculous. Jaguars don’t attack humans.”

“Some do,” Exotic Ice Queen said. A brilliant smile curved her lips. “I heard there was a recent jaguar attack in this area."

Although Charley had heard the same rumor, she shrugged off the cold shiver trickling down her spine and injected a note of moronic optimism into her voice. “I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about.”

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Grunting, Charley wriggled into her backpack and hoisted the duffel bag and laptop over her shoulder. Camera looped around her neck, she staggered past Exotic Ice Queen without another glance and down the dock towards the palisade of trees festooned with hanging vines and mosses.

At the end of the dock, Charley obeyed the pilot’s directions and turned left on the footpath that followed the shoreline. Tropical jungle immediately enclosed her in a cacophony of noise. Honking, chirping, clacking, screeching, rustling, and croaking filled the air. She inhaled a deep breath and decided that the fragrant scent of orchids did little to mask the jungle stench of moist earth overlaid by a darker odor of decaying vegetation and stagnant water. After ten paces, she faltered, lurched to a halt, and eyed the encroaching jungle with aversion. Sure, she had visited plenty of exotic locations for travel articles in the last few years, but this one was — different. In spite of the sun’s brilliance, an ominous undercurrent of pulsing energy made her skin crawl.

Unnerved by her illogical fear, she shuddered and picked up her pace again, picturing countless unseen furry and scaly creatures swarming, scurrying, and writhing through the underbrush only a few yards away from where she stood. She could almost feel a myriad of beady eyes boring into her back. With a small shrug, she straightened her shoulders and picked up her pace, keeping a wary eye peeled for hungry, hairy predators.

She consoled herself with the well-known theory that all natural noises ceased when big trouble crept up. Hopefully, the rumor was true.

The duffel bag gained weight with every step and the strap dug painfully into her shoulder. Halfway up a steep incline, she dropped her burden and plopped down beside it to wait until her breathing slowed to normal.

At first, the resonance was almost imperceptible. Heart pounding in her chest, she tilted her head and concentrated. Sure enough, the all-too-familiar buzz, reminiscent of a swarm of wasps filled the air. She clamped her teeth together to prevent them from chattering. The gesture of defiance did nothing to dispel the dreaded sound that heralded another panic attack.

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“Not again,” she muttered. “I’m supposed to be cured.”

The humming intensified and throbbed into her skull drowning out all other noises. Icy wind buffeted her body and sucked her breath away, stifling the howl lodged in her throat until she thought that, this time, she might not survive. Helpless, she surrendered to a force she couldn’t control.

Little by little, the sensations receded, leaving Charley clammy and trembling. She opened her eyes to a foreboding and incomprehensible silence. Footpath, trees, and rocky incline had disappeared, supplanted by graceful columns, which soared towards a carved wooden roof. Rocklike knobs jabbed her lower back, sending stabs of pain shooting up her spine. Her paralyzed body refused to obey her brain’s command to shift to a more comfortable position.

In an attempt to conduct a self-survey, Charley rolled her eyes downward. A granite armrest supported an unfamiliar arm encased in jade-studded armbands from elbow to wrist. The hand attached to the arm, bronzed and elegant, appeared smaller than her own, the fingers daintier and shorter. Artificial nails curved into elongated claws.

Fighting the panic bubbling in the back of her throat, she sucked in a shuddering breath. The other hand — she had difficulty viewing it as her hand — lay in her lap and cradled a human skull. Not just any skull, but a work of art made of volcanic glass overlaid with a mosaic of turquoise and coral. Inlaid mother-of-pearl eyes gazed back and what looked suspiciously like human teeth grinned in a permanent rictus of a smile.

The skull signifies the continuation of life after death. Dammit. How did she know that? She took a long, deep breath and dredged up every ounce of mental strength she possessed to vanquish the hallucination.

And fell into a dark endless void.

The wavering call of a songbird penetrated the blackness that clouded Charley’s brain. She made a tentative movement, stretching out one arm, then the other, rotating her wrists. Swallowing hard, she twisted the turquoise ring on her middle finger, comforted by its familiar weight.

Oh, God! She must be losing her mind. Whatever she was experiencing, these weren’t typical panic attacks. This time, she could swear she’d been inside another woman’s body — someone powerful, someone ruthless, someone, well … evil. Perhaps she had multiple personality disorder.

Several inventive and unpleasant punishments for her shrink flashed through her mind. Three months ago, the therapist had nodded sagely and handed her some psychobabble about hallucinations, visual distortions, and panic attacks. The episodes, they informed her, would disappear, given enough Prozac, a change of scenery, and adequate rest. Bottom line—the quack didn’t have a clue. Whatever their origin, the baffling episodes had ended her career.

Charley swiped the back of her arm over her face and straightened her spine. It would take more than a few lousy hallucinations to put this investigative journalist out of commission. All she needed was one kick-ass exposé to salvage her pride, her reputation, and her career. More to the point, a hefty cash advance would allow her to secure the essential treatment her mother needed. A few weeks in rehab and her mother would be as good as new.

She hoped.

When her heart rate descended out of the red-alert danger zone and her breathing returned to normal, she heaved herself upright and bounced on her feet in preparation for the final push to the summit. A snicker of semi-hysterical laughter bubbled from her lips. She was only climbing a puny incline, not scaling Mount Everest.

Grunting, she heaved the duffel bag to her shoulder once more, lowered her head, and ploughed up the steepest part. At the top, she sucked in a deep breath and scrutinized the criss-cross of roots and rocks studding the path ahead. Starting downwards, she picked her way around the obstacles. She progressed slowly at first, then faster and faster, gaining momentum under the weight of her bag, until her feet moved in a frenetic step dance.

Chirping their alarm, a flock of tiny black and white birds burst from the jungle canopy ahead. The warning came too late. Still concentrating on her feet, Charley crashed into a warm, unyielding wall of muscle, and bounced backwards. A startled squeak popped out of her mouth.

“Oomph.” The intruder gasped, clutching his stomach.

In slow motion, she teetered, lost her balance, and sprawled backward onto the mossy ground, both hands clutching her camera out of harm’s way. The backpack anchored her to the ground as effectively as a ball and chain.

A dark form blocked the sunlight.

She raised her head and squinted at the blue and maroon Argyle socks arising from scuffed hiking boots planted on either side of her knees.

Charley blinked. What kind of person wore Argyle socks in the jungle?

She allowed her eyes to travel up the endless pair of hairy legs straddling the path. Tanned thighs ended at a pair of frayed khaki shorts encasing lean hips. A fuchsia aloha shirt, hideous in its fluorescence and patterned with palm trees and large-breasted hula dancers, completed the stylish ensemble.

She forced herself to look at his face. The insane urge to snicker at the incongruous socks faded. Tabloid photographs didn’t come close to capturing the utterly masculine, almost elemental appearance of Dr. Alistair Kincaid.

She made a tiny moan of mortification as the last faint hopes of making a professional first impression vaporized.

“Good God! Where did you come from? Are you hurt?” His deep voice rumbled over her, as smooth and rich as heavy cream, Dark, worried eyes swept over her sprawled frame. “You must be the geophysicist I’m expecting. You’re a week early.”

A tidal wave of hormones coursed through Charley’s veins leaving her limp and liquid with desire. The slight Scottish lilt completed her fast melt. Desperately aware that her curls had corkscrewed into a tangled mass of unruly frizz, she figured she must resemble Medusa on a bad hair day, and found herself struggling to find something clever to say. All that emerged was a hoarse croak. Quivering inside, she settled for a brief head nod.

She could set him straight on the little issue of mistaken identity later. Much later.

He squatted beside her, chocolate velvet eyes positioned only inches from her own and brimming with concern.

“You could have killed yourself,” he admonished, making the words sound like a compliment. “You should never run downhill unless you’re sure of your footing.”

Too true. This was hardly the sophisticated and businesslike image she’d hoped to project. She strained to rise and flopped back, humiliating herself further before finding her voice. “Ah, Dr. Kincaid, I presume?”

He swept aside her embarrassed attempt at levity. “Is anything broken? I hope you haven’t sprained your ankle.”

She moved her legs experimentally. “Everything’s fine. And it wasn’t your fault. I wasn’t watching where I was going.”

Before she realized his intentions, a large, warm hand grasped her right calf and capable fingers prodded her ankle, making her want to moan again, this time in ecstasy. He made a soft noise of satisfaction in the back of his throat and turned his attention to the other ankle.

Electric heat, unwelcome and bewildering, sizzled up her legs and nestled at the junction of her thighs. Down girl, she admonished herself. Don’t even consider going there again. Men, especially droolworthy hunks like this one, will only break your heart.

“Nothing seems to be broken,” he confirmed, kneading her flesh. “I hope you brought the new Geo-Survey magnetometer with you. I have something important I want you to scan as soon as possible.”

“Um …” She gulped, feeling at a disadvantage as she struggled with the straps. How could she formulate a credible cover story, spread-eagled at his feet like a starfish?

He said, “What happened to the plane? I heard it leave. The pilot usually stays for a bite to eat and some gossip with our cook.”

She needed to buy some time before confessing her identity. “Uh...do you think you could help me to stand? I can’t seem to ... ”

A quick smile cut a brilliant slash through the two-day growth of heavy stubble. “You remind me of a turtle flipped on its back, legs kicking in the air.”

She gazed in hypnotic fascination at the row of strong, even teeth. All the better to eat you with, she thought wildly, remembering his reputation with women. Apparently, jaguars weren’t the only danger lurking in this jungle.

She gritted her teeth. “Do you think this is funny? Just help me up.”

He let his hand linger a moment longer, then released her foot, leaving behind a warm tingle. No wonder women flung themselves blindly in his direction like lemmings scurrying towards a cliff.

“Always willing to oblige a beautiful woman who throws herself at me.” He unhooked the straps that anchored her to the backpack and rose to his feet. “Here, give me your hand. We’ll see to your equipment right away. I assume it’s on the dock.”

She could have sworn a glint of masculine approval lurked in his eyes.

Feeling positively petite for the first time in her life, she steeled herself against her visceral reaction and allowed him to hoist her upright. An unobtrusive flex of her knees confirmed everything was in working order. She turned away to hide the hot rush of blood to her face and brushed a dusting of twigs and mud from her butt. “Um ... thank you,” she mumbled, hoping her conversational skills would improve over time.

For one heart-stopping moment, they locked gazes. He slid his arrogant inspection down to the camera she still clutched to her chest. Perhaps it was only her imagination, but she was certain his smile congealed.

Her heart twisted. She had a sneaking suspicion he had figured out her profession, but in case she was mistaken, she bent down with studied nonchalance and stuffed the camera into her pack, hoping he hadn’t noticed the top-of-the-line brand name and figured out her profession. “You’re not the geophysicist, are you?

Uh, oh. She shook her head.

“And that’s not a portable magnetometer. It’s a camera.”

She nodded.

“Pretty fancy camera to be toting around the jungle,” he said in a glacial voice, all trace of affability erased.

Her heart pumped a little harder. “Thanks. I like it.”

“Aye, Professional quality,” he added, his eyes glinting with mistrust. A stray sunbeam teased out golden flecks dancing in their rich brown depths as he searched her face, undoubtedly for traces of guilt. “We don’t see too many cameras like that out here.”

She fought the foolish alarm compressing her heart and practiced looking innocent. “I like good equipment,” she shot back. His dark brows drew together, and he mimicked a perplexed frown. “Now why would a beautiful stranger trespass on an archaeological dig while lugging around a big, expensive camera?” He looked as if he had several theories, none of them happy.

“I—”

He interrupted her protest. “Wait. Don’t tell me. Let me guess. You’re not visiting anyone in camp because I authorize all our guests’ visits.” His frown deepened into a scowl. “I know. You’re an innocent tourist who decided on a solitary exploration of this jungle paradise.”

Charley opened her mouth to interject.

He shook his head and spoke first. “Nope. You don’t look that daft.”

This wasn’t going as well as she’d hoped. She had too much at stake to let the story slip through her fingers. “If you would let me explain—”

He cut her off again, his voice light and conversational. “Maybe you’re an archaeologist trying to poach on my turf. I got rid of one of those last month. Sent him packing on the return flight.”

Yeah, right. He was playing games, toying with her. A cleansing surge of irritation washed over Charley. “Now look here—”

He bared his teeth in a parody of a smile. “Or you could be a reporter searching for some sensational gossip.” His eyes narrowed. “My money’s on the reporter,” he said, his accent thickening.

Charley didn’t like the direction this conversation was taking, and she’d been taught that the best defense was a good offense. She straightened her shoulders and looked him straight in the eye. “You haven’t answered my question yet. You are Dr. Alistair Kincaid, aren’t you? I’ve seen your face often enough in the gossip columns. I’m sure you dated some up-and-coming Hollywood star, Angelina-something-or-other, not to mention several dozen of San Francisco’s most beautiful women. I hate to break it to you like this, but you’re not living up to your reputation for manly charm.”

His eyes flinty, Kincaid flicked off the predatory smile. “Aye, I’m Alistair Kincaid. Exactly who are you and why are you here?” In spite of his inhospitable words, he held out his hand.

This, at least, was progress. She forced herself to unclench her fist and clasped the outstretched hand. His firm grip engulfed her fingers sending a tingle up her arm. Her toes curled in an involuntary movement and she held on for dear life. “I’m Charley Underhill. Nice to meet you, Dr. Kincaid.”

His mouth tightened. “Call me Kincaid or Alistair,” he said, extracting his hand from her clutching fingers. “We’re not too much on formality around here.”

“Right.” She flicked a meaningful glance at his appalling socks. “I can see that.”

“Charley,” he repeated in an abstracted tone. “Unusual name for a woman.”

“Charlotte Ophelia Underhill. Everyone calls me Charley. With an ‘e-y’.”

Recognition, followed by irritation, flickered across his face. “I only know of one other woman named ‘Charley’ with an ‘e-y’ — a San Francisco reporter noted for her exposés.”

Charley stared at him, wordless.

“She blew the whistle on an illegal alien scandal. If I remember correctly, she screwed up during the assignment, nearly killed herself and her passenger in a car accident, and made the headlines. I only paid attention because the driver was a reporter who had interviewed a couple of men who’d worked for me.”

Right. The same two men who fled for their lives from your expedition and first raised my suspicions about your connection with the mysterious accidents plaguing Olmec digs.
Charley’s stomach knotted at the realization that Kincaid knew the grisly details of her disgrace.

He shrugged then shot her an intimidating stare. Mistrust saturated his voice. “Well, Charley with an ‘e-y’. You shouldn’t believe the gossip about my love life that you read in the tabloids. Reporters exaggerate and lie to manufacture a good story.”

She felt an outraged flush start under the collar of her shirt and creep up her neck, knowing it had painted her face a fiery red. How could she have felt even the tiniest twinge of attraction for this churlish lout?

The liquid warble of a distant bird echoed in the ensuing silence. The searing heat felt like a sauna on overdrive.

His dark gaze drilled into her face, as if trying to plunder her thoughts. “Am I correct in assuming you’re the reporter I described?” Kincaid stepped closer, invading her space, his body crowding her own.

Charley backed away and stumbled on an uneven patch of rock before she righted herself, her mouth full of cotton. A sudden awareness of her precarious situation washed over her. She had expected a challenge, but she hadn’t expected to wander alone in the jungle, encountering intimidating and very large, albeit incredibly attractive, strangers. If he intended to browbeat her, he would be pleased to know he’d succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

She sucked in a deep, fortifying breath, moistened her lips, and struck a defiant pose, thumbs stuck in her belt. He must never know how nervous she felt. “Okay, Kincaid. You’ve blown my cover. I confess. I’m the investigative journalist you described so tactfully, and I work for The Golden Gate Times.” She swallowed. “At least I used to. I’m not so sure I still do.”

“Imigh sa diabhal,” Kincaid muttered.

Now, that didn’t sound like a compliment.

He let the silence stretch out until her nerves quivered. She noted the sliver of sun spotlighting a luminous mass of pink and white flowers in the dark branches above their heads.

Good interviewing technique, she observed. Forces the subject to spill her guts. She had used it herself with great success.

He raked his fingers through dark wavy hair.

Good. He wasn’t as calm as he appeared. She needed to demonstrate both confidence and firmness. She tightened her lips and resisted the urge to look away, determined to outwait her tormentor.

After thirty endless seconds, Kincaid sighed and caved first. “Okay. I’ll bite. Why has The Golden Gate Times star reporter graced us with her presence?”

“Investigative journalist,” she corrected, as if dealing with an obstinate child and stopped, listening. Was he grinding his teeth? Hastily, she arranged an earnest expression on her face and looked him straight in the eye, hoping she could convince him of her innocence. “It’s rather a long story,” she began.

He crossed his arms on his chest and leaned his lanky frame against a tree trunk. “I have all the time in the world.”

She chewed on her lower lip and rocketed up a silent prayer that he wouldn’t detect the lie she intended to tell. Well, not so much an outright lie as a truth evasion. No way would she utter the dreaded words “stress leave” or “panic attack” — words that had all but terminated her career. She cleared her throat and began. “I’ve been on an extended leave of absence, recovering from an illness.”

He made a non-committal sound in the back of his throat that only Scots could make and quirked one dark eyebrow.

She took it as permission to continue. “Now it’s time to get back in the saddle.”

Kincaid pushed himself away from the tree and skewered her with a glare. “How did you hear about my dig?”

Charley shifted from one foot to another. She wanted to sit down on a log, but she didn’t intend to give him an additional height advantage. She paused, searching for the right words. “I was recuperating at a friend’s villa in Puerto Escondido.” While tracking down the elusive Dr. Kincaid.

“Go on.”

Thus encouraged, she jabbered on. “I heard a rumor about your dig. A man claiming to have worked for you was shooting his mouth off in a local bar. You know, mysterious clues, lost city, hidden treasure, that kind of thing.” Charley snapped her mouth shut to prevent more involuntary babble.

The crease between Kincaid’s eyebrows deepened. “Aye. Daniel. I fired him a couple of months ago. So you heard about this place on the pub circuit and decided to drop in for a quick visit, did you?”

Charley cringed. Phrased that way, it sounded highly unlikely. “Not exactly. I conducted a thorough investigation first,” she countered, wishing he’d drop the topic.

Kincaid shot her an exasperated look. “Please get to the point.”

Charley rattled on, avoiding his eyes. “A human interest article about your mysterious lost city and the ancient race inhabiting it, the Olmecs, would raise your prestige. Maybe help with your funding. I hope to sell it to National Geographic.” That was much better. More businesslike. No need to mention the Curse of the Olmecs. Especially if Kincaid was implicated in the series of tragedies that had afflicted the sites.

He rubbed the side of his nose thoughtfully while his voice dropped to an ominous rumble. “How did you manage to find me?”

She forced her voice to exude bright perkiness. “I greased a few palms, and guess what? Your pilot volunteered to fly me in, for the appropriate remuneration, of course.”

“I’ll wring his scrawny little neck when I get my hands on him. See if he ever gets another free meal from me. He should know better than to bring a stranger to the site.”

“Don’t punish him,” said Charley, appalled. “I told him you had invited me.”

“You didn’t consider phoning me first to get permission?”

Charley’s mind screamed, Keep your mouth shut, you idiot. Sarcasm will only make matters worse. Ignoring her wise advice, she tossed the businesslike approach to the wind and plowed ahead. “You’re not exactly listed in the telephone book. Perhaps you could explain where I should have looked — under ‘K’ for ‘Kincaid’ or ‘S’ for ‘Secret Archaeological Dig’?”

His lips twitched. “Why do I think there’s more to your story than meets the eye?”

His searching gaze made her want to squirm. It galled her that he’d hit the nail on the head. The man’s radar for truth evasion rivaled a polygraph test. The CIA should consider hiring him. “Dammit, Kincaid, I had hoped you’d appreciate a sympathetic article about your dig.”

The scowl returned. “Wrong.”

“Hey, I’m on your side. Word of your hidden city is bound to leak out.”

“Apparently it already has.”

“So far, nothing concrete, only rumors. I thought you’d want to give the story your own slant before someone else does. Sorry. My mistake.” She stooped and picked up her backpack. “Let’s go. We can’t stand here all day.”

He didn’t raise his voice. He didn’t need to. “Let me repeat — I don’t want any stories or articles leaking out, sympathetic or otherwise.”

His quiet vehemence was more disconcerting than outright ranting. Taken aback, she let her backpack fall to the ground and faced him. “It’s inevitable. I’m only trying to help.”

Kincaid combed his fingers through his hair again then stopped. His head now looked like a poorly mowed lawn with unexpected tufts sticking out at random. When he spoke, bitterness laced his voice. “The day a member of the press helps me will be the day hell freezes.”

Although several retorts, all of them rude, hovered on her lips, Charley struggled to remain calm. “No need to use that tone with me, Kincaid. I’m a journalist, not a tabloid reporter trying to dig up some smut.”

“You’re all cut from the same cloth.”

She drew herself up to her full, impressive height of six feet, and still fell short of his eye level. “I’ll have you know I’m a highly respected investigative journalist.” Unthinking, she poked him in the chest to emphasize her point.

He restrained her action by grabbing her wrist, eyes narrowed into glacial slits. “Careful where you jab the finger, lady.”

Her skin tingled under his grip. Appalled at her lack of professionalism, she jerked her arm away. “Sorry. Inappropriate behavior,” she muttered, then rallied. “But I thought you would appreciate a well-written article.”

His voice roughened. “You’re about to spread word of my dig far and wide and you think I should be grateful. Have you any idea how difficult it is to keep an archaeological discovery under wraps? How much damage you could do?”

Yeah, she had a pretty good idea. Shrugging, Charley ignored the twinge of conscience that threatened to undermine her resolve. She viewed any fallout from her article as collateral damage in the battle against her mother’s alcoholism—accidental, regrettable, but justified.
“Damage?” she echoed, feigning innocence.

Kincaid rolled his eyes and threw up his hands to address an invisible audience in the canopy above. His brogue thickened with every mouthful of words, becoming virtually indecipherable. “Why don’t we just install flashing neon signs in the jungle to invite thieves, bandits, and envious archaeologists to swarm all over the site, shall we?”

Charley concentrated all her attention on his lips, trying to understand his accent.
“Signs saying, ‘Help yourself’ or ‘Dig Here for Priceless Treasure’.”

She perked up at the thought of a priceless treasure.

“Then I won’t need to worry about unwanted visitors—” He broke off with a glare, then ended his tirade in a dramatic crescendo, “Because robbers will plunder the site and leave nothing of value for trespassers like you to gawk at.”

Charley refused to give him the satisfaction of seeing her quake. Nothing and no one would stop her from writing an exposé save her mother’s life. “Sounds like you’ve made an important discovery,” she said, her heart thundering.

He drew his eyebrows together and rubbed his forehead, as if erasing lurking pain. “Look, Charley, There’s more at stake here than you could ever guess. I can’t afford any leaks until I’m certain I can protect ... ” He broke off, probably aware he’d already said too much.

Protect what? Kincaid was onto something big and she’d stumbled into the middle of it. Suddenly, acquiring the fat fee for the Betty Ford Center didn’t seem like such a remote possibility.

Kincaid eyed her warily, no doubt anticipating an inquisition.

She conjured up her best angelic smile. “Are we ready?”

He sighed. “I guess you’ll have to sleep here, at least for tonight. The idiot pilot should have checked with me before taking off.”

“You really know how to make a guest feel at home.”

Kincaid sighed. “Bloody hell, woman. Are you always such a pain in the arse? I’d bundle you into the truck and drive you back myself, mournful eyes and all, if last night’s downpour hadn’t turned the goat path of a road into a quagmire.” He eyed her balefully.

Charley’s stomach flip-flopped. Naturally, there must be a road. She’d been a fool to overlook the small, crucial detail. She should have figured he’d own a truck. How else would he ferry in heavy supplies and equipment? Thank God for the rain.

“Too bad about the mud. So, where do I sleep?”

Her face must have mirrored her relief because Kincaid growled, “Don’t start the celebration yet. I’ll radio the pilot to haul his sorry ass back here tomorrow at first light. I can’t have a nosy reporter—”

“Investigative journalist,” Charley corrected.

He gave her a dark look. “As I was saying, I can’t have a nosy reporter snooping around here, no matter how attractive she is. You’ll be out of here before noon tomorrow. Count on it.”

Charley suppressed a triumphant smirk. “Think again, Kincaid. The pilot has a six-day charter to Costa Rica, signed, sealed, and waiting. He won’t return for another week.” The Universe did, indeed, deliver.

The dismay on his face was almost comical. “No. Tell me it’s not true.”

“You won’t find another pilot in the entire state of Oaxaca,” she assured him. “I had to check the flights and nearly gave up before I found your pilot.”

Kincaid’s lips tightened into a compressed line of exasperation. “We’ll see about that. In the meantime, don’t leave camp.”

“But—”

“And don’t even consider sneaking off to the dig. As far as you’re concerned, it’s off limits.”

He must be a mind reader. Charley looked away and studied the curtain of moss trailing from a branch behind his head, then straightened her shoulders and stiffened her spine. He’d soon learn he couldn’t keep her a prisoner in camp.

Before she could open her mouth to utter a rejoinder, he stared grimly at a point behind her head and barked, “What the hell—” His inscrutable expression gave away nothing of his feelings, though a muscle in his cheek flickered.

“Dear God.” He sucked in a shuddering breath and fixed Charley with an accusing glare. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me she was here, too?”

Charley whirled around and stared. She masked her groan with a discrete cough and resisted the urge to smack herself on the forehead. How could she have forgotten Exotic Ice Queen?

The woman stood at the top of the incline, makeup flawless, a halo of sunlight glinting off the sweep of black hair and outlining graceful curves.

Charley loved riddles, and this one, she suspected, would soon be resolved.

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