Jade Moon

Jade Moon

Virginia Brown

November 2016
ISBN: 978-1-61194-711-3

The Jaguar is as dangerous as his name . . .

 
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The Jaguar is as dangerous as his name . . .

AN EXOTIC JOURNEY . . .

Leaving America behind, Eden Miller accompanies her husband to Mexico on his obsessive quest for the Lost Jade City of the Yucatan. But the jungle takes him in one swift, terrifying blow . . . leaving Eden alone amid the ruins of an ancient civilization, with no one to turn to except a legendary adventurer . . .

. . . INTO THE SAVAGE HEART OF DESIRE

Amid the sultry heat of the tropics, El Jaguar is as sleek, sensual, and dangerous as the predator whose name he bears. Yet even as Eden tastes his passion, she senses the pain and sorrow behind his glittering, golden eyes. Together, they journey deeper into a world of primitive wonders and darkest treachery. There, the hunter will become the prey, as Eden risks her life to uncover El Jaguar's secrets—and claim a love as enduring as the most priceless treasure . . .

Virginia Brown has written more than fifty historical and contemporary romance novels. Many of her books have been nominated for Romantic Times’ Reviewer’s Choice Award, Career Achievement Award for Love and Laughter, and Career Achievement Award for Adventure. She is also the author of the bestselling Dixie Diva mystery series and the acclaimed mainstream Southern drama/mystery, Dark River Road, which won the national Epic e-Book Award in 2013 for Best Mainstream.

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Excerpt

One

Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, 1872

THE SCREAM HAD an electrifying effect. High-pitched, it began piercingly, then dropped to a moaning wail. It sliced through fringed coconut palms, tall mahogany branches, sword-shaped henequen leaves, and drifts of Spanish moss, then through thick, looping vines and fragrant orchids to reach Steven Ryan as he dozed by his fire.

Jerking upright, he tensed. The usual cacophony of night noises in the jun­gle subsided into heavy silence. The hair on the back of his neck prickled a warning. After a long moment, he slowly relaxed again. A prowling jaguar, maybe. Or a howler monkey, although they didn’t usually range this far north.

When no other scream sounded, he shrugged and reached for a glass of sour mash bourbon imported from the United States. A satisfied smile curved his mouth. This was the life. Serenity. Silence. Solitude.

Stretching one arm above his head, his fingers brushed against vines as thick as his forearm. Woven densely, the living walls and roof of his hut cas­caded with exotic blossoms on the three sides, leaving the front open. Yeah, he liked it this way. Though there were moments when the solitude made him feel more lonely than peaceful, this was what he needed. He’d gotten his fill of crowds. Of noise. Of chaos and cannons...

Best not to think of those things anymore. All that was behind him; war and its aftermath was the main reason he had first left the States. He was happy enough here. He had all the basic necessities, and food grew wildliterally. Passionfruit, coconuts, avocados, papayasif he was hungry all he had to do was reach out and pluck a ripe fruit.

If he wanted water, it could be found in deep, shaded pools pure enough for drinking, cool enough for bathing. In the rainy seasonusually June to October—gigantic, palm-shaped leaves formed natural umbrellas. Wild game was abundant, and deer ran rampant. For entertainment, he had the singing of exotic birds for private symphonies and the playful antics of familiar raccoons for laughter. And when he needed man-made goods, he made the trek to an Indian market to trade for more.

Yes, Steve Ryan had it all.

So why did he feel this damned restless yearning? When he already lived in paradise, why did he feel as if somethingor was that some woman—was missing from his life?

Scowling, Steve jabbed his bare foot at a charred log. A stab of pain brought him upright. He squinted at the splinter now in his toe. Stupid of him, really. He knew better. But splinters were nothing compared to the trouble women could cause. Poor Adam had discovered that truth in the Garden of Eden, the most famous of all paradises. See how much trouble Eve had caused?Yeah, he’d better leave well enough alone and forget all about women.

Steve moved closer to the fire and carefully removed the splinter. He tossed it into the flames. In the velvety blackness of towering trees beyond the leaping glow of the fire, a macaw shrilled loudly. The fire’s glow permeated only a small distance into the shadows, barely lighting the steep hill that formed one side of the homestead he’d painstakingly carved into the dense rain forest. Tree roots shaped a snaking tangle that tumbled over the hill’s edge and intertwined with morning glory vines.

Not a bad sight first thing in the morning, a fall of flowers as pretty as a bridal veil. No, not bad at all. They presented a refreshing view during the long hot days. Time was relative here. It had a way of meandering slowly by. Yeah, solitude was great—even though there werethose brief, annoying mo­ments when he thought wistfully of sharing this tropical paradise with some­one. Female, of course. And definitely temporary. No long-term arrange­ment... ah, hell. Neither was likely.

Holding up his glass of bourbon, he murmured mockingly, "Oh power­ful Itzamná, Lord of Life, deliver me a woman of light and beauty and independ­ence...”

Another loud scream sliced the night, sounding much closer than before. And dangerous. Steve put down the bourbon and quickly reached for his rifle. Jaguar, maybe. But jaguars normally didn’t come too close to fires. He’d never been bothered by a marauder in his camp, though he did see them from a distance at certain watering holes. El tigre was wary of man, and for good reason.

A noisy crash in the brush atop the hill brought Steve to his feet. Another scream rent the night, followed by the sharp snapping of branches and a familiar coughing sound. Jaguar. Wild cats could be very unfriendly, he’d found.And the snarling coughs they made almost always preceded an unpleas­ant encounter. Like now.

Before he took more than two steps back to get a better view, a flurry of motion tumbled over the brushy crest of the hill with another broken scream.

It all happened so fast, he barely had time to react. Instinct took over. Sweeping his rifle to his shoulder in a practiced motion, Steve curled his finger around the trigger and narrowed one eye to sight down the long barrel.

Fortunately, disbelief kept Steve from pulling the trigger. As the terrified, panting creature plummeted down the root‑tangled hill and rolled to a stop against his feet, firelight illuminated blue eyes staring up at him.

He stared back, shocked into silence.

"Help,” came the breathless plea, "you’ve... g-g-got to help me.”

Recalling the prayer he had uttered to an ancient Mayan god just before this long-legged female with honey-colored hair and huge blue eyes had landed at his feet, Steve couldn’t help saying, "That’s the quickest answer to a prayer I’ve ever gotten...”

EDEN MILLER STAGGERED to her feet and stammered out, "R-r-run. L-l-leopard.”

"You mean jaguar. Or maybe a margay or jaguarundi. All of ‘em are fairly big catswhat are you doing out here in the middle of the night?”

Still poised for flight on trembling, fear-weakened legs, Eden paused. She spared a glance at the tall silhouette against the leaping flames of a fire. She vaguely understood that the man was calm and not at all perturbed by the possibility of being mauled by a wild animal; a sense of relief at seeing not only a friendly face, but one that spoke her language began to penetrate her haze of fear.

"A l-l-leopard was chasing me...”

Shaking his dark head, the man put down his rifle and said, "You mean jag­uar. It’s probably gone. Jaguars don’t like campfires. Leopards either, for that matter. Are you all right?”

Relief flooded through her with a rush. Eden’s legs refused to cooperate with her mental orders to remain upright, and she collapsed into a quaking heap at his feet again. A wave of nausea washed over her. Putting her face in her cupped palms, she mumbled, "I’m f-f-fine. What d-d-difference does it make what k-k-kind of animal it is?”

"To us, not much. To them, a great deal I should think.”

When she lifted her head to frown at her rescuer, she was caught by the in­tensity of his stare. As fear receded, other things came more sharply into focus—shaggy dark hair looked as if he’d cut it with a knife; narrowed gold eyes gleamed under thick black lashes; sun-browned skin on a bare chest, and a mouth tilted in amusement. Did he think this was funny? If he only knew what she had been through...

"Here,” he was saying in a matter-of-fact tone, "put this blanket around you. There’s not much left of your clothes, and I have a vivid imagination.”

Eden flushed. She was well aware of how scanty her attire was, but in light of everything, it had not seemed important. Until now.

"Thank you,” she said faintly as she took the blanket he held out. "I would hate to offend your sensibilities.”

"I’ll bet you would.”

Oddly, his cool reception was calming, if his attitude was not. Apparently oblivious to the fact that he was wearing only a pair of cut-off pants that had seen better days, he crouched down in front of the fire and jabbed at the logs with a long pointed stick. It looked like the shortened pants he wore had once been brown, but now were a muddy gray cotton that barely covered him. He wore no belt, and the waistband of his brief trousers hung low on his lean hips. She felt a spurt of annoyance that in light of his lack of proper dress he should criticize hers. At least she had an excuse for being barely clad.

"Are you hurt?” he asked curtly, raking her with an assessing glance, and she shook her head.

"No. Except for a few scratches and bruises, I’m fine.”

"Hungry? Thirsty?”

The terse questions were posed without a trace of concern, and her mouth tightened as she again shook her head. "More nauseous and tired than anything else.”

"Then have a seat,” he said and flung an arm out to indicate a camp stool. She hesitated. Firelight flickered over him in distorted patterns, red and or­ange and gold shadows playing over his bare chest and the wide curve of his shoulders.

Eden looked away. Wrapping the blanket around herself, she plopped down on the camp stool. Really. She began to wonder if she had fallen out of the frying pan and into the fire. This man looked like Satan himself, with his unholy face and hard-muscled body. Still, he was better than meeting a jaguar face to face. Or a savage bent on murder...

With an effort, she struggled to regain her composure as well as her breath. The last few weeks had been trying enough. And despite his obvious reluctance, the man seemed to pose no real threat to an unexpected guest.

Resorting to the commonplace, Eden took a deep breath and asked, "What did you say your name was, sir?”

He shot her a quick, frowning glance from beneath his devilish brows, then went back to poking at the fire. "I didn’t.”

That took her back a bit. He certainly wasn’t being overly friendly. Or curi­ous, it seemed. Nor did he seem surprised by her sudden appearance in his camp. Was it possible that—she swallowed hard—he was in league with the villainous men who were the reason she had fled into the night?

She cleared her throat and braved the unknown. "My name is Eden Miller. As you’ve—”

"Eden?” He stared at her in obvious disbelief. "How appropriate. The only better name would be Eve. So what are you doing here in my private paradise?”

"As you have probably surmised, I’m lost and... and alone.” The last word was said in a dismal croak. She hadn’t meant to allow emotion to in­trude. Displays of fear or grief would only send her spiraling into the abyss that had yawned before her for the past week. Or two. She’d lost track of time since—

Shifting position so that his body was silhouetted against the bright flare of the fire, the man said abruptly, "You shouldn’t even be in the jungle, much less lost and alone.”

"Being lost for two weeks was not my idea,” she snapped, then caught her­self. This was certainly no way to begin. She took a deep breath, and a sharp rake of smoke from the fire burned her throat. "We were on an archaeo­logical expedition when—”

"You? An archaeologist?” His skeptic gaze scanned her impersonally.

Patience won the battle with irritation. "No, not me. My husband and I were associated with those sent here by the Metropolitan Archaeological Society expedition.”

"Husband.”

With his face in shadow, the leaping flames and sparks at his back made him appear even more saturnine. Eden shifted uncomfortably as he stared at her. There was a disquieting intensity to that gaze. Why did he look at her like that?

"So where is your husband now, Mrs. Miller?” he asked, tapping the end of a long stick on the open palm of one hand. He studied her as if suspecting her of desertion. Or worse.

"Dead.”

That answer didn’t seem to surprise him very much. He merely nodded. "And you two were dumb enough to come out here alone?”

Exasperated, Eden shook her head. "No, we were not alone. Colin and I were part of an expedition numbering twenty people. P-p-people who are all dead now. We were attacked by natives. I am the only one who managed to survive the attack except... except for Paco.”

For a moment he didn’t speak, then said mildly, "Paco?”

She drew in a deep breath that tasted of woodsmoke and regret. "Yes. An Indian boy who was one of our guides. He was with me for a time, then... then he disappeared. I think—I think an alligator got him.”

Studying her for a long moment, he finally gave a slow shake of his dark head. "Caiman. That’s possible. It happens out here. Most likely it was a humanpredator, though. More numerous, and infinitely more dangerous.”

Shuddering at the visual images those comments provoked, Eden looked away from his dispassionate expression and thrust the images away. "Yes,” she murmured, "so I’ve learned.”

For another long moment, her rescuer said nothing. Then he shrugged and pivoted on the balls of his bare feet to gaze into the fire again. Smoke coiled around him, reinforcing the impression of a denizen of the underworld. "Sure you’re not hungry or thirsty?”

She shook her head, then realized that he wasn’t looking at her. "No. I man­aged to find edible fruit and fresh water.”

"More resourceful than you look, then. Didn’t anyone warn you about the Yucatán?” He glanced at her. "It’s a no man’s land out here. The natives hate all whites, rightfully so, and kill them at the first opportunity. Why the hell come here for your expedition?”

She struggled with a mixture of anger and grief. It hadn’t been her idea. In fact, she’d warned Colin and the others. But they hadn’t listened. Ambition had inured them to the dangers.

"We were,” she said through stiff lips, "on an exploration to retrieve as many Mayan artifacts as possible. Our expedition was funded by a well-known and respected association, and every possible precaution was taken.” She paused, aware of how silly that statement must sound in light of all that had happened.

The man gave a grunt of disgust and slapped idly at an insect on his arm. "Except the sensible precaution of staying home, I see. Are you certain that all the others?”

"Dead.” She stared into the leaping flames. Her fingers dug into the folds of the rough wool blanket. "All dead. It was... horrible. They fell on us at night when we were asleep and set our tents on fire. There was screaming and shouting and hacking with swords and guns firing... I saw... I saw Colin fall.”

"Your husband.” Silence fell between them. After a moment he said in a flat tone, "You were lucky to escape. The Cruzobs like to take white women asas prisoners. Your husband was a fool to bring you here.”

Eden shuddered again. His inference was not lost on her. And she re­called the warning of a frowning official in Merída who had tried to prevent their expedition but was overruled by her husband. Colin had sneered at the possibility of crude natives overpowering intelligent white men who were proficient with firearms and modern weapons. Yet he had died horribly from a crude sword wielded by one of the very natives he’d scorned.

She looked up with sudden tears blurring her vision. "Colin may not have been the most foresighted man, but he didn’t deserve to die like that. None of them did.”

"Maybe not. But they should have stayed home. It was stupid to come out here.”

Frowning, Eden said slowly, "There is a great deal of competition be­tween certain institutions for exciting new discoveries. We were trying to find the temple of the jaguar. Richard—he was the head of our expedition—barely won permission over another group for us to make the trip. It can get quite political at times and incurs fierce rivalry, which is why they decided to come ahead without making proper inquiries first, I suppose. Even so, none of them deserved to die for their ignorance.”

His shoulders lifted in a shrug. "At least they aren’t prisoners of the Cruzob and being forced to work their fields as slaves. Believe me, that’s a living death, and much more cruel.”

"So then, why aren’t you dead?” she asked, and his gaze swung toward her in narrowed surprise. "If you say it’s so dangerous out here, how is it you’re alive and not a prisoner?”

A faint, sardonic smile curled his mouth, and he rose to walk close to her. With casual grace, he hunkered down on his heels in front of her. His face was level with hers, and she stared at him. Firelight flickered over his features, reflecting in gold eyes beneath dark-winged brows, illuminating a straight nose, well-cut mouth, and slash of cheekbones that ended in a strong sweep of beard-stubbled jaw.

She noted with a little sense of shock that he had a wild, dangerous beauty. However, that brief thought was immediately dispelled by his words.

"I am alive and free,” he said softly, "because the Cruzob consider me a crazy man who communes with ancient gods.”

Eden’s hair on the back of her neck prickled. Dear God, she’d thought her­self safe when she’d realized he was an Americannow it seemed as if she was in even worse trouble than before...

STEVE CORRECTLY READ her expression. It didn’t help his already raw temper to know that he was frightening her. The abrupt arrival of this attrac­tiveand even covered with insect bites and scratches, and with dirt streaking her face, he could see that she was very attractivewoman, shook him more than he wanted to admit. The Yucatán was no place for her. Hell, it had been no place for him until he somehow managed to establish himself as a holy man, a lone lunatic who was fairly harmless to the hostile natives.

Shifting to stare into the dark trees beyond the fire, he said aloud, "White men are not allowed in the Yucatán anymore. Not since some idiotic officials bungled the handling of the Mayan about ten years ago.”

"Not allowed? We were told only that it would be dangerous to travel into the interior.”

"Yeah, it’s sure that. Guess whoever told you that failed to mention the blood baths that wiped out entire towns on both sides. It was all-out war when the Mayans aligned themselves to two leaders with a ‘talking cross’ and then formed the Cruzob cult. Some still call them the Chan Santa Cruz Indi­ans.”

"A talking cross? That sounds more like fantasy than fact.”

Steve slung her a quick glance and shrugged. "Unbelievable as it may sound, it’s true enough. Of course, the cross can’t actually talk. A Mayan ventriloquist only made his followers think it could. Now the Cruzobtaken from cruz, Spanish for cross, and ob, the Maya plural suffix—rule the Caribbean coast as the Empire of the Cross. They get notably cranky about unap­proved visitors.”

"So I discovered.”

He studied Eden for a moment. Face like an angel, although so pale it could be carved from alabaster, and eyes a wide, scared blue. It was apparent she was trying hard to retain her composure. Unexpectedly, he felt a spurt of pity.

"You can call me Steve. You’re welcome to stay here for the night.”

Her eyes widened even more. "Only a night? But what will I do after that?”

Already regretting the impulse that had given her his name, he abruptly stood and looked down at her. "That’s up to you.”

He sounded surly and unsympathetic. He recognized that, but he wasn’t used to being around people anymore, especially women. Females had always had the ability to turn him inside out with an ease that amazed him. This particular female would be devastating even if he’d met her under different circumstances, but being out here alone with her—oh no. Not him. He got panicky at the mere thought. Damn. Maybe the Cruzob were right about him after all. Look at what happened when he prayed to one of their ancient gods... who’d have thought Itzamná would even listen to a white man? And there was that last time during the drought, when he’d found himself in an exceedingly awkward position and prayed to the God of Rain, Chac...

Eden stood up, and her voice shook slightly as she repeated, "But what will I do after tonight? Will you escort me back to Merída?”

"I can’t.” He turned his head and didn’t look at her. It would be fatal. If he could, he would banish from his memory the image of long, bare legs and an ample glimpse of womanly curves that had first startled him, then aroused him. Yeah, it had been much too long. When she said nothing, he finally glanced back at her.

The stricken expression on her face spoke louder than any words, and shame washed through him. Yet he couldn’t commit to more, not without endangering them both. Finally he said grudgingly, "I can give you provisions and directions to Uxmal. It’s the closest town.”

"You’re too kind,” Eden said in a tone that conveyed the exact opposite. He didn’t blame her. He took two steps back and indicated his hut with a jerk of his head.

"You can stay in the hut tonight.”

"Your chivalry is overwhelming.”

"Chivalry is out of fashion, in case you didn’t know.” Steve fought the urge to shake the condemning look out of her eyes. Even stronger was the urge to kiss her. And more. It was worse than he thought. Why had he tempted the god of mischief by wishing for a woman?


 

 

Two

EDEN LOOKED INTO the small hut, vaguely surprised by the cozy furn­ish­ings. An oil lamp lit the interior in wavering patterns of rose-gold and gray. Large windows on two sides were open to allow in breezes, and the wide entrance had only netting tied at the top for a door. Woven baskets were stacked neatly around the walls, holding blankets, clothes, and various uten­sils. A long string of garlic and peppers dangled from one of the cross-poles of the roof. Brass pots hung from hooks in one corner, and books were stacked all along the walls. Tightly woven hemp mats dyed in colorful patterns cov­ered the packed-dirt floor, and the sleeping area was defined by a plump mattress festooned with a mosquito net and several pillows. It looked exotic. Innocent. Dangerous.

"Where do you intend to sleep?” she asked as the strangeness closed in around her. She turned in the doorway to look at Steve and recognized irony in the amused tilt of his mouth.

"Don’t mind biting the hand that feeds you, I see. Never mind. Don’t say it. It may have been a long time since I’ve been with a woman, but I won’t lose control. Tonight, anyway. Here.” He tossed a rolled up blanket to her. "Use this one. It’s softer than the one you’re wearing. I’ll use another blanket.”

Strolling toward the sleeping area, he bent to scoop up a blanket. Eden watched him with mixed feelings. On one hand, she had a certain appreciation of his masculine beauty. His lean body was well-muscled and proportioned. Broad shoulders, sinewy arms, long legs—hard, lean bands of muscle on his chest and roping his flat stomach. Yes, he was certainly suited for this primi­tive lifestyle, she supposed. But it did nothing to dilute her nagging impression of him as dangerous—balanced as he was on the knife-edge between civiliza­tion and barbarism. It would take, she thought, only a slight nudge to push him off that ledge into uncivilized territory.

"I’m not at all sure I’d like to know what you’re thinking,” came his slow, amused drawl, and Eden flushed as she realized that she was staring at him.

"Just thinking how tired I am,” she lied and knew from his quick, side­ways smile that he was aware of her lie.

"Don’t forget the netting,” he said. "It keeps away bats.”

"Bats. Bats?

"Don’t tell me you haven’t seen any bats since you’ve been here.”

"But I haven’t seen any bats since I’ve been here—”

"Well, they’re out there. Vampire bats. Nasty little beasts that feed on fresh blood. Just like mosquitos. Make sure the netting is tucked in all around you. The worst kind of mosquito is an early riser. It can get damned uncomfort­ablewithout netting.”

She looked down and rubbed an idle hand over her arm. Dozens of tiny bumps attesting to numerous insect bites already pocked her skin. "I’m con­vinced of that fact. I’ve endured the past nights without any kind of protec­tion.” Unable to help the sudden shudder that racked her, she looked up to catch his narrowed gaze resting on her. Then he shrugged.

"There’s some ointment in a blue jar in that square basket. It heals insect bites. Help yourself. And I’ve got an extra shirt and pair of pants you can wear. I’ll share everything but my bourbon.”

She smiled wearily. "Your generosity is greatly appreciated. As well as your hospitality.”

"Yeah. Right.” He raked a hand through his hair, suddenly looking uncom­fortable. "Look, it takes a lot to survive out here. I’m surprised you had it in you to do it alone.”

"Because I’m a woman, you mean?” Her brow arched. "How archaic. Be­lieve me, sir, I am quite capable of doing what I must to survive, even if it means hiding in tree stumps from wild animals, murderous natives, and half-dressed men.”

"Are you? Glad to hear it. Maybe you also have what it takes to get back to Merída by yourself. Good night.”

Turning on his heel, Steve strode from the hut toward the campfire. Eden bit her tongue. Blast her quick tongue. She had offended him. He’d just been so irritatingly arrogant and she had defended her gender. At this point, it hardly mattered how brave she’d been in the past few weeks. If she couldn’t convince him that she needed his assistance, she may very well find herself walking to Merída alone. It might be galling, but she’d have to apologize.

She glanced at the comfortable bed tucked beneath the gauzy folds of mos­quito netting. Later. She’d apologize when she’d had some rest. The past two weeks had been spent hiding in tree stumps and under rocks to snatch scant moments of sleep. It would be heaven to sleep without worrying that she would wake up as some marauding animal’s dinner. In the morning she would deal with her problems. Now, she just wanted sleep.

MORNING ARRIVED WITH the usual burst of light and noise. Toucans screeched a rasping greeting, and macaws chittered noisily. Raucous birds. Beautiful, but loud. It was still warm beneath the blankets. For the first time in much too long, Eden felt safe. Secure. Even in the half-awake world between slumber and awareness, there was a feeling of security just knowing someone else was nearby.

Snuggling deeper into the mattress of moss-filled cotton ticking, she tugged at the folds of blanket over her shoulder. It was caught on something, and she gave it a sharper tug. This time, the blanket was freed. But it was then that she realized she wasn’t alone. A massive presence stretched beside her, big and warm. Heavy breathing rasped loudly.

Her eyes snapped open as she rolled over and prepared to send Steve pack­ing with a scathing denouncement. But the words died a quick death, clogging her throat. Fear returned in a sweeping rush. She filled her lungs with air before letting it out in a scream of terror.

The scream seemed to intrigue the hut’s intruder. Cocking its huge black head to one side, it reached out a massive paw and batted playfully at the mosquito netting. Eden sucked in another breath to scream again, too para­lyzed with fright to move.

This scream emerged more like a whimper. Before it faded, the animal re­sponded with a rumbling reply that made Eden’s heart quiver. Snuffling curiously, the enormous black cat gazed at her with interested gold eyes. Cursing sounded outside the hut—Steve. Panic-driven thoughts spurred her toward the only person who could rescue her.

Suddenly galvanized into action, she twisted from the mattress to the floor in a quick motion, tangling her legs in the blanket folds and mosquito draping. The big cat obviously considered this an enticement to follow, and it sprang up from its supine position with almost lazy grace. Draped in blanket, Eden scrambled blindly toward the open entrance of the hut. The netting came cascading down over her head, further impeding her progress. Batting frantically at netting and wool, she wallowed in a desperate attempt at flight. The material clung with an inanimate determination to her arms and legs as she floundered to the opening to tumble outside.

"G-g-gun,” she shouted through the netting and blanket. "Get a gun!”

"Dammit, you’re noisy as hell in the mornings. Quiet down. Some of us are trying to sleep.”

Clawing net and woven wool from her eyes, she lurched to her feet and peered at Steve. He sat up in his blankets, looking very annoyed. Unable to speak more coherently, and expecting at any moment to feel the big cat tear her apart with fangs and claws, she attempted to point.

"Panther. Gun. Shoot.”

Steve looked at her sourly. "Friend. No. Won’t.”

Eden glanced behind her. The huge animal sat in the entrance and yawned. As she stared, it lifted a paw and began to thoroughly clean it much as a parlor tabby cat would do. A low purring sound emanated from the beast. She promptly lost the use of her legs and collapsed in a quivering heap. The netting settled around her like a huge gossamer spiderweb. Burying her face in her palms, she muttered, "My God.”

"Do you do that a lot?” Steve asked casually, and she looked at him be­tween her fingers.

"Do what?”

"Fall down.”

"Only since coming to the Yucatán.”

"Charming.” He rose in a lithe motion that reminded her of the gigantic cat, lazy and graceful and subtly dangerous. Idly scratching his bare chest, he lifted his brow. "Now that you’ve awakened even the nocturnal animals, I suppose you expect breakfast.”

Eden strove to be just as casual. "Yes. That would be quite nice.”

"Then take off that netting, get up off the ground, and make yourself use­ful. If you expect eggs and bacon, you better be ready to cook.”

"What about—that?” She pointed to the cat still lounging in the hut’s opening. As if sensing it was the center of conversation, the animal paused in its washing and regarded Eden with a direct, unblinking gaze.

"That is Balam, and he doesn’t like being referred to as an it. He considers himself quite the ladies’ man and cuts a wide swathe through the female jaguar population.”

"Jaguar? But he’s solid black. I thought jaguars were spotted like leop­ards.”

"Some are. He isn’t.” Steve snapped his fingers, and Balam responded with the feline equivalent of delight, bounding forward with a rumbling sound.

The jaguar caught Steve around the middle with his powerful front legs, tumbling him to the ground where they rolled around for a few minutes. Eden watched with a mixture of horror and interest. The massive black jaguar could easily have killed Steve, but it was obvious they were only playing.

As it was, when they quit playing and Steve stood up, red weals and scratchesmarked his chest, legs, and back. "You’re bleeding,” she com­mented.

Huffing slightly with exertion, he nodded. "Yeah. Skin grows back with the help of a little ointment. Clothes are too hard to mend.”

"An interesting philosophy.” She stood and peeled away the netting with some difficulty, then moved as gracefully as possible to the hut door, keeping a wary eye on the jaguar. She paused at the entrance and turned to Steve. "When I have performed my daily ablutions, I will help with the morning meal. Unless you mind?”

He stared at her from beneath a heavy brush of black lashes. "I was just kidding about cooking breakfast. There’s fruit if you’re hungry, and maybe some leftover beans or tortillas. If I cook, it’s usually later in the day. Other than that, you’re out of luck. Unless you plan to be the cook.”

Eden nourished a spurt of hope that he would allow her to stay longer than one night. In her experience, forcing a man to do something he didn’t want to do usually ended in disaster. If, however, he could be persuaded that it was his idea.... She nodded.

"Very well. I have learned a bit about camp cooking. If you like, I will be happy to try my hand at it.”

Shrugging, he said, "Do as you like. Just don’t burn down my camp.”

It wasn’t an invitation to stay, but it was better than being ordered to leave. Eviction was temporarily postponed, at least. The thought of being alone in the jungle again was terrifying. And if she had to dissemble a bit, then she would do her best.

She smiled. "I wouldn’t dream of burning down your camp.”

STEVE STROKED BALAM’S sleek fur idly, watching as Eden knelt in front of the hut with an array of cutlery and fruit. Apparently, she had abandoned the notion of cooking. Instead, she’d arranged wooden bowls and a pile of fresh fruit on the chopping block and busied herself with cutting up things.

Strangely, she looked as if she belonged there. A trick of light and imagina­tion. She was as out of place in his world as a quetzal in New York City. In fact, the elegantly plumaged quetzal bird would probably be more com­fortableroosting among the stone and brick buildings of New York than this woman was in the Yucatán. She looked too—refined. That was it. Grace­ful, fragile—all those words that defined unsuitable in the Yucatán.

He unwisely allowed his gaze to drift over her in a lazy glide that did noth­ing to help him relax. She wore one of his shirts made of thin cotton. The top two buttons were missing, leaving the shirt open to the shadowy cleft between her breasts. He drew in a ragged breath. It covered her but only served to accent the slight motion of her breasts beneath the loose-woven material. Her every movement gave him an enticing glimpse of forbidden territory. He closed his eyes, but that only made him feel foolish and did nothing to dampen his admittedly fertile imagination. So he determinedly shifted his attention elsewhere, focusing on the jaguar lying beside him.

Balam yawned hugely and rolled onto his back, forelegs bent and draped over his massive ribcage in a position of utter abandonment. At the big cat’s movement, Steve noticed Eden’s sudden tension. He smiled.

"Balam has been with me since he was only a month old. He was an or­phan. As long as you’re nice, he won’t hurt you.”

"Right. I’m not worried.” Eden went back to dicing up a succulent avo­cado. "Not that I enjoyed waking up to find him in bed with me. You could have warned me.”

Steve shrugged. "He doesn’t always show up. He’s a friend, not a pet. He comes and goes as he pleases.”

She looked up. "Like you.”

"Yeah. Like me.”

"Your friend, however, seems tame.”

"You’re inferring that I am not?” Steve rather liked that and grinned.

"Uncivilized was more the word I had in mind.” She wielded the knife in a decisive slash that split the avocado in two and removed the pit. As he watched her position the fruit, he noticed that her hands were small-boned but capable, with slender, blunt-tipped fingers.

"Ah, now you’re just trying to flatter me.” He sat up and propped his el­bows on his bent knees. "So tell me—how did you manage to survive for two weeks? No machete. No knowledge of the jungle—did the missing Paco teach you?”

"At first.” She kept her head down, intent upon dicing the fruit on the small wooden board. Pale hair tumbled over her forehead, loosened from the tight braid she’d woven. As well as his shirt, she wore a pair of loose calzones that she’d had to tie around her slender waist with a length of twine. Though he’d rather liked the enticing picture she had made in her ankle boots, tattered pantalets, chemise, shredded skirt and blouse, this wasn’t bad. Somehow, instead of detracting from her femininity, the loose clothes only emphasized it. She glanced up at him. "It was only a few days after the massacre that Paco disappeared. But he’d shown me a few things, and I tried to adapt.”

"Where was your camp?”

The knife paused over a liberal hunk of glistening greenish-yellow avo­cado. "I’m not certain. It was near an immense mound of what looked like dirt, but when Richard—he was one of the archaeologists—scraped away some of the thick vines, he found carved stone steps and figures. Richard was quite excited. We thought it might be the temple of the jaguar.” She looked down at the fruit for a moment, then said softly, "Paco seemed to think we would earn vengeance for disturbing the dead.”

"Must have been a tomb of some kind, then. I’ve seen quite a few scat­tered around, but mostly ceremonial places and temples.”

Eden looked up, her blue eyes so wide that they made him think of Wedgwood saucers. "You have? Have you explored them?”

"Not since I learned better.”

She leaned forward slightly, and her lips parted. "The temple of the jag­uar—there are rumors that it has a throne made of jade and gold, fashioned in the shape of a jaguar. Have you heard of it? Or seen it, perhaps?”

"No. And don’t go getting any ideas. One of the reasons I’m still alive and living here in peace is that I don’t go poking my nose where it doesn’t belong. The Cruzob get miffed when white men prod around sacred places.” He paused, then said in a spurt of candor, "Not that they mind looting a few tombs themselves when they feel the need. Gold and jade bring handsome profits in foreign markets.”

Carefully setting the knife on the wooden chopping board, Eden rested her hands and asked, "Aren’t you ever tempted to find a few artifacts your­self? They could be invaluable to historians. And very profitable for you.”

"Why should I? What food I can’t find already growing, I can barter from some of the natives. Gold only brings trouble. And greedy men.”

Eden looked down. She toyed with a broad leaf; then she ruthlessly stripped it from the main stem in quick, jerky movements. "I agree with that last part. Sometimes I think that Colinwell, he was definitely interested in the artifacts we found, but I’m not certain what his motives were.”

Steve eyed her for a moment while he ruffled Balam’s furry belly with one hand in an idle motion. "Why did you come down here with him if you didn’t approve?”

"Who said I didn’t approve?” She looked up. "We were searching for knowledge, not fortune.”

"Doesn’t sound like it.” When she made an inarticulate noise, he added, "Not Colin, anyway. Look—don’t get mad at me. I only say what’s obvious. And it’s obvious you had your doubts, or you wouldn’t have said what you did. Why were you here with him? For company? Or to help loot the tombs?”

Never, he reminded himself when Eden lurched to her feet, knife clutched in one hand, insult a woman with immediate access to a sharp object. It could be very unsettling.

Brandishing the knife, she snapped, "Listen to me. We were not—I re­peat not—looting. We were recording our finds and carefully packing them for our return to the institute so they could be examined in order that as much as possible might be learned about the Mayans. Their culture could tell us much if we only knew how to interpret what we find. And don’t you dare insinuate that we had ulterior motives.”

Still eying the knife with wary attention, Steve said, "All right, all right. Don’t get all riled up about it. I was just trying to find out why you were brought down here. No man in his right mind would include a woman on an expedition like that one unless she had a specific purpose.”

After a moment of taut silence, Eden abruptly sat down and began to chop fruit again. "You’re right,” she said as she halved a poch’il. "I’m an amateurcartographer. It was my responsibility to make accurate maps of our findings.”

"Cartographer.” Steve relaxed only slightly as she plied the knife with an unnerving dexterity. "You don’t say. Are you any good?”

"Within reason.” Scooping up a handful of neatly diced fruit, Eden placed it in one of the wooden bowls lined with a strip of broad green leaf. "As long as I have a sextant and basic tools, I can record an area fairly accu­rately. In my spare time, I draw facsimiles of what we find. In archaeological work, it is imperative to record the tiniest detail. Photographic equipment is rather bulky and impossible to use in some locations. In caves, for instance. Bright light is required for the equipment to work properly. That’s where I was useful. And since my husband didn’t feel it necessary to pay me, I was cheap labor. Here. Breakfast is served.”

As she shoved the bowl across the chopping board, she looked up, and Steve could have sworn he glimpsed repugnance in her eyes. It was disconcert­ing.

"Thanks.” He uncurled his body and leaned over to pick up the bowl. "It’s been a long time since I’ve had a chef.”

"I’m not surprised. Do you have any eating utensils? There was only one fork and two spoons.”

"That’s all I have. Fingers are nature’s best utensils.”

"Ugh.”

Amused, Steve picked up a particularly juicy bit of papaya. "Too genteel to eat with your fingers?”

"No, it’s just rather messy and uncivilized.”

"It is that.” He ate in silence. He felt uncomfortable, a bit embarrassed by his rudeness, but uncertain how to deal with this lovely woman who had been literally dropped at his feet. He should get her to Merída and be done with it, but that would be a difficult and dangerous task. And he wasn’t sure he wanted to tell her the reason for his reluctance. He’d found that trust could be a weapon in the wrong hands.

"Excuse me,” she said, and he looked up at her. Wide eyes regarded him a bit warily as she said, "I should not have implied you are uncivilized. I apolo­gize for that remark.”

Surprised, he nodded. "Accepted. And you’re probably right. I was fairly civilized at one time, but living out here as I have been, I forget about the niceties in polite society. Manners are more suited to parlors than jungles.”

"But I know you are an educated man, despite your preference for these remote living arrangements.”

"Do you. And how do you know that?”

"Because you have a great many books that are obviously well-read. My guess is you attended an excellent school.”

"True. When the war started, I was a cadet at West Point. Fifth in my soph­omore class, as a matter of fact.” Her eyebrows lifted and he couldn’t resist adding, "Everyone said I’d go far, so I did. From home, anyway.”

"Now you live here.” She waved a hand to encompass the wild tangle of tropical growth that continuously threatened to overrun his patch of cleared ground. "May I ask why?”

"I have a feeling I couldn’t stop you,” he said dryly and popped a chunk of poch’il, or passionfruit, into his mouth. It was sweet and luscious on his tongue. He met her gaze and shrugged. "Let’s just say I left because I found I couldn’t live in a country that was no longer mine. If I was to be forced to dwell in a strange land, it could at least be in a land of my own choosing.”

Eden swallowed a slice of passionfruit and wiped the sticky juice from her chin with a fingertip before saying thoughtfully, "An exiled Southerner. May I hazard a guess you hail from Texas?”

"An excellent guess. What gave me away?”

"Besides your accent, you mean? Well, to be perfectly honest, I noticed some of the titles of your books. A Biography of Sam Houston. A Detailed Sketch of Stephen Austin. The Struggle for Texas Independence. Not titles that would interest just anyone, except, perhaps, a man from Texas.”

"Very astute.” Irritated without quite knowing why, Steve shoved his unfin­ished bowl of fruit away. That act piqued the jaguar’s interest, and Balam rolled over to sniff at the bowl before deciding he wasn’t a vegetarian. Rising to his feet in a lithe motion, the jaguar padded softly into the jungle. Steve watched the big cat disappear beneath a spreading Ceiba tree’s buttressed roots.

When he glanced at Eden, she was watching him with a faint frown that pulled her brows together in a dainty pucker. He avoided her gaze, and she coughed slightly as if embarrassed to have been caught staring. Why the devil did this woman have to appear in his world? An instant reminder of things he should do—should feel. He was content here alone, where the only choices presented to him were ones of survival or idleness. Eden arrived, and now he had complicated choices to make.

She wanted him to take her to safety. She expected him to be civilized and a gentleman. He doubted he had the capacity to be civilized anymore. That had disappeared along with so many other things in his world. Eden didn’t know that, didn’t know him. And if she did know the real Steve Ryan, she would run as far and as fast as she could in the opposite direction...

"Are you already full?” Eden inquired when he stood up, and it didn’t help that she sounded awkward and uncertain.

"For the moment.”

"Too bad. This fruit salad is quite tasty.”

She lifted a generous slice of papaya and took a bite. Steve’s gaze riveted on her mouth. Small white teeth... moist pink lips... When her tongue flicked out to wipe away the juices, he closed his eyes. Oh yes, it had been much too long since he’d enjoyed feminine company. His mind leaped from one fantasy to another, just like an adolescent boy’s.

To make matters worse, he’d spent a restless night on the ground, with her just a few feet away in his bed. Not even the discomfort of a fallen limb pressing into his back had eased the direction of his thoughts, and when he’d finally fallen asleep, damn if he hadn’t dreamed about her. Pale angel hair, blue eyes, long slender legs, and an enticing view of high firm breasts had flashed through his dreams with heated repetition and embarrassing embellishment. Even thinking about it now made his body taut and feverish. Made him think about things he should ignore.

Steve reached for his rifle. "I’m going to fetch water. And go for a swim. I’ll be back later.”

Eden immediately launched herself to her feet, panic evident on her ex­pres­sive features. "Oh. I’ll go with you... to help carry water back, I mean. I don’t want to stay behind. Alone. With no one nearby in case... in case of trouble.”

"What trouble? It’s doubtful the Cruzob know you’re here. They rarely come close anyway. I’m something of a... a local legend, I guess you could say.”

Her brow arched. "You mean because they think you’re crazy?”

"Kind of you to mention it. Having Balam for a friend has added a bit of mystique to my reputation. Not that I mind. It helps when it comes to dealing with some of the natives.”

"Because he’s a wild animal? I would think even primitive peoples would understand about taming wild animals.”

"Sort of.” He raked a hand through his hair, impatient to get away by him­self. "Look, Balam means jaguar in the Mayan language. And the jaguar has always been considered a god. Sacred. Anyway, since the Cruzob view me as inviolate, it stands to reason anyone in my camp would be viewed as untouch­able. It’s perfectly safe for you to stay here alone. I’ll even leave the Winchester for you.”

Her eyes widened to huge blue pools that made him think of a sacred well, deep and bottomless. "Please—take me with you. I won’t get in your way. I won’t talk or bother you or make any noise. I just... just don’t want to stay here alone.”

"Christ.” How could he admit that she was what he needed to get away from? He couldn’t. Then she’d know she had some kind of power over him, or at the least, realize what a degenerate he was. He shrugged, his words a reluctant growl. "Grab two towels out of the basket in the hut. If you can swim.”

"I can’t swim. Do you have any soap? I really need a bath, and I’d like to wash out some of my... things.”

Steve bit back the refusal that sprang to mind and said impatiently, "Yeah, yeah. It’s in the hut. Hurry. And you better keep up, or I’ll leave you behind a palm tree.”

Eden gave him a blinding smile that made his stomach knot. No, this wasn’t going to be easy at all.




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