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First pages

Chapter 1

The plane circled over the Yucatán jungle on its final descent into Cancun. From her cabin window, Bernadette Mallow searched the lush undergrowth for signs of an overgrown temple, but no crumbling stone pinnacle disturbed the flat landscape below. She knew they were out there though, hidden in the jungle. Why the ancient Maya had allowed to their cities to fall to ruin was exactly the kind of mystery Bernadette loved to solve.

“On vacation, dear?” her maternal seatmate asked.

“No. I’m here for a job.”

“At one of the hotels?”

Bernadette shook her head but couldn’t hide her new-found delight. “I’m a writer. I’ll be heading into the jungle – to Ox B’alam.”

The woman’s eyes widened. “I hope you’re not going alone, dear.”

Bernadette smiled. “No, I’ll be travelling with my new partner – a photographer – and a tour guide. It’s my first assignment with a magazine,” she confided.

Her seatmate patted her hand on the armrest. “I’m sure you’ll do just fine, dear.”

“I hope so,” she murmured, turning back to the window. She’d finally got her old friend Jen, now an editor at Let’s Travel! magazine, to give her a chance, and she had to blow her away with the finished piece if she wanted to get more work.

The ‘fasten seatbelt’ warning chimed, and Bernadette stowed her book in the carryon tote bag at her feet, then stuffed the whole thing under the seat in front of her. Leaning back, she closed her eyes and rested her hands lightly on the armrests. A prickly sensation ran up her arms like a current as she registered the buzz of excitement from the passengers in the crowded cabin. Her senses were often exceptionally acute, especially in enclosed spaces. And they were seldom wrong.

It was going to be an exciting week, particularly the visits to the Mayan ruins listed in the itinerary, including the partially excavated ruins in Old Ox B’alam, the community where they were posted for the week. She’d worked a few digs right after university but that was over ten years ago. When her son Colin was born, and she’d given up the life and returned to Vancouver where she took a job transcribing dry archeological field notes for her old professor.

Now, ten years later, she was finally getting out of the office and back into the field. Digging in the dirt had never really been the allure – it was the people who caught her imagination. These were the stories she wanted to tell, but not exactly the stories Let’s Travel!’s readers wanted to read, so on this first assignment, she was determined to do the job Jen had hired her to do: write a tourist piece on an ancient city in the heart of the Yucatán jungle. Her anthropology degree archeology background and writing experience had convinced Jen to give her, a novice magazine writer, a chance on this feature article. That, and the fact that her old friend’s back was to the wall because the writer had pulled out at the last minute. But she had made it clear that this piece was for tourists and travellers, not academics, and Bernadette was determined to give her just that.

The plane landed smoothly and a few minutes later Bernadette descended the stairs to the blistering tarmac. Heat rose in waves and the acrid aroma of hot asphalt seared her nostrils. Inside the terminal building, the temperature wasn’t much better. The line to customs and immigration snaked on interminably, and as Bernadette inched forward, she pulled a compact mirror out of her shoulder bag. She wanted to appear cool and professional when she met her new partner, photographer Rocky Falconi, but after six long hours on the plane from Vancouver, her nose was shiny and her shoulder length, blondish hair, always prone to erratic curls in the humidity, was already beginning to frizz. She wiped the worst of the shine off her nose with a tissue and wound her hair into a knot on top of her head. Then, giving up in defeat, she tucked the mirror away.

The immigration officer barely glanced up as he stamped her passport and waved her through. Across the no-man’s land between the gate and the iron railing that held back the hotel drivers and tour guides, she spied a man holding a sign with her name on it.

* * *

Rocky Falconi picked his new partner out of the crowd the moment she walked through the gate. She’d fixed her eyes on the sign he held at his chest and, towing her suitcase behind her, headed toward him like a heat seeking missile. Halfway across the open space, her suitcase fell on its side and one wheel rolled away across the marble floor. She blew the hair up off her forehead but, undeterred, picked up the case and soldiered on.

Stopping in front of the sign, she looked up at his face and stuck out her hand. “Bernadette Mallow.”

Tall and classy, not at all what he expected, Rocky pushed the aviators up on top of his head, but before he could respond, she added, “The writer.”

Slowly, he reached for her outstretched hand. “Rocky Falconi.” He paused. “The photographer.”

She paled slightly as she shook his hand, and he hoped it wasn’t from the heat because it was only going to get hotter when they got into the jungle, away from the ocean breezes. “Let’s go. They’re waiting for us at the bar.”

He reached for her suitcase, but she grabbed it first. “Thank you. I can manage.”

He nodded – fine with him – and plunged into the churning sea of people, heading back to the terminal bar where he’d left the other tour members. When he glanced back over his shoulder, she was already falling behind, lugging her damaged suitcase.

He stopped and shifted his camera case to his other shoulder while she caught up, then took the suitcase out of her hand. It weighed a ton.

She raised her eyebrows. Feisty. “I can manage,” she repeated and snatched back the case.

He shrugged. “Suit yourself.” He wasn’t in any mood to argue. In fact, he’d rather not be here at all – but that had nothing to do with her. It had been a hell of a month, straight from one job to another and now, to top it all off, his old partner Schuster was on the disabled list.

They forged through the crowd to the terminal bar, where Rocky happily handed the writer over to Manuel Ferrara, the leader of the Cultural Tour. A stocky man, a few inches shorter than Bernadette, with the round face and the smooth facial features typical of the Maya people, Manuel greeted her with his usual, seemingly boundless enthusiasm.

The two men waiting with Manuel clambered to their feet to greet Bernadette. Hank, a jovial bear of a man in a Hawaiian shirt and plaid shorts, towered over Arthur, who looked more like a mouse in a three-piece suit.

Arthur ran a hand nervously over his vest before holding it out to Bernadette. Money belt, Rocky thought. An obvious tell.

When Bernadette took Arthur’s hand, her eyes widened, and Rocky could have sworn she paled again, sweat popping out on her upper lip.

Great. Mexico in the rainy season and the writer couldn’t handle the heat. They’d better get her into the air-conditioned van before someone had to carry both her and her suitcase.

“You are the last one,” Manuel told her with a smile. “The van is waiting outside.”

Picking up the broken suitcase, Manuel headed for the exit with Bernadette and the others trailing behind. Rocky grabbed the duffle bag he had left with Manuel and followed.

A few feet outside the terminal door, a passenger van shimmered in the heat. While Manuel stowed the suitcases in the rear compartment, his guests climbed in by the sliding side door.

Rocky left his duffle bag with Manuel but kept his cameras with him. Stopping at the side door of the van, he surveyed the remaining choice of seats. Arthur had appropriated the front passenger seat, and boxes of supplies filled the two seats behind him. Hank’s vast girth took up most of the rear bench, and Bernadette sat on the seat opposite the side door, tight against the far window.

Hank seemed like a nice guy, but rather than squeeze in beside the big man, Rocky dropped his camera cases onto the seat beside him and sat next to Bernadette. She gave him a quick smile and shifted slightly closer to the window, wedging her carryon tote bag between her legs. As the van pulled out of the airport parking lot, she fixed her gaze on the scenery outside the window.

Rocky rubbed the back of his hand across his mouth. According to Jen, his old partner Schuster had fallen off a roof, breaking his leg in three places. He was out for at least six months and there was nothing Rocky could do about it.

He studied his new partner. “So, Bernadette. Have you done any writing before?”

She turned to face him, a ready smile on her face. “Yes, some. Mostly transcribing field reports for scholarly journal articles.”

She shifted in her seat and his eyes dropped to her legs. Nice legs – but it was the book peeking out of the basket between her knees that caught his eye: Writing Travel Articles That Sell.

Kee-rist. Raising his shades, he squinted at her. “And you know Jen how?”

“We worked together at a travel agency—”

Rocky dropped his shades back in place, tipped his head back and closed his eyes.

Seriously, Jen. A rookie?

Chapter 2

Bernadette woke with her cheek pressed to the darkened window. Checking her watch in the van’s dim light, she saw they’d been on the road for two hours. The interior of the van was dim, and their headlights illuminated a narrow, paved road ahead with a solid screen of vegetation on each side. She pressed a hand to her chest. Enclosed spaces didn’t bother her, not when she could see outside, but now, with night closing in, it was a little hard to breathe.

Surreptitiously, she studied her sleeping partner’s reflection in the glass. Rocky Falconi wasn’t anything like the suave, worldly photographer she’d imagined. Call her naïve, but in her mind’s eye, he’d looked more like Harrison Ford, with that Indiana Jones smile that quirked the corner of his mouth. Reality was not so kind. Dark and swarthy, a day’s worth of stubble covered his jaw and the arms crossed over his chest writhed with an eclectic collection of tattoos. The small gold earring glinting through the tangle of wavy black hair that fell past his shoulders made him look more like Antonio Banderas than Harrison Ford – and more Desperado than Zorro at that.

Aviator sunglasses hid his eyes. Even now, asleep in the seat beside her, heat and tension crackled off him like static electricity. When they’d shaken hands at the airport, a sharp frisson of current had jumped between his hand and hers, like sparks between live wires, racing up her arm, down her spine and coiling in her belly.

But that spark had been nothing compared to the jolt she’d received when she shook hands with Arthur. His touch had made her skin crawl and sting like she’d stumbled on a nest of fire ants. She had wanted to jerk her hand away but had forced herself to remove it slowly. Even now she felt a residual prickle.

Her Granny had told her their second sight was a gift, but to Bernadette it had always been more of a curse. In her experience, these episodes rarely foreshadowed anything good. In fact, the ones like Arthur’s handshake, the ones that felt like a Taser sting, always seemed to foreshadow death: the death of her dog Flip, the death of her grandmother.

These episodes were something she didn’t understand, couldn’t control and definitely did not want to talk about. But she had a feeling that two shocks in one day didn’t bode well. And then there was the mother of all shocks she’d felt at the restaurant last week when she’d met Jen for lunch. When her old friend offered her the job, Bernadette had told herself that, for once, the shock might predict something good – a new job, a fresh start – but now she wasn’t so sure.

Rocky stirred beside her, and she shifted closer to the window. She really hoped they could get along, and thought that if she could just get a decent meal in her stomach and maybe a good night’s sleep, she could embrace their new partnership. She was certainly going to try, because she had a feeling that Rocky’s endorsement was crucial to her getting more work with the magazine.

This assignment wasn’t the same as working at an active archaeological dig, but it was a way to get out of Professor Kristofferson’s office, and maybe be able to do more than just keep a roof over Colin’s head. His father sent support payments whenever he could, but working on grants at digs as he did, the payments weren’t much and weren’t often.

The van slowed to a stop. Outside the window, a string of garish lights hung over the veranda of a roadhouse restaurant where two people sat on plastic chairs at a small table. No other lights were visible making it difficult to tell if this was a town of just a stop on the road.

She felt a palpable shift in the atmosphere the moment Rocky awoke. His body remained still, but his eyes flew open. Then he patted his pockets and twisted in his seat to check his gear. Only then did he relax.

“We must be almost there,” he said, peering past her out the window.

The van turned to the left, into the darkness. Jungle foliage lined one side of the road and on the other, an almost-full moon reflected on the still water of a small lake.

The van lurched over rocks and into potholes for about a mile, then Bernadette’s hopes soared when the lights of an imposing hotel entrance lit the windows on the jungle side of the van. The hotel looked much better than Jen had described it.

But then the van lumbered past.

A hundred feet further on, they turned in at a smaller, unlit gate in a walled complex. At the end of a tree-lined drive, the van rolled to a stop in front of a long, two-story, white stucco building. Light spilled from the open doorway and down the wide front steps.

Manuel switched on the interior van lights and turned to his passengers. “Leave your bags. Our men will retrieve them.”

Bernadette rolled gratefully out of the van and stretched her back. Her agenda for the evening was dinner, maybe a drink, and then bed. It had been a long day and she was exhausted. She wanted to be fresh in the morning for their first outing with the Cultural Tour.

Manuel led them inside, saying, “Welcome to my home, Hacienda Ek’ B’alam.” His voice echoed off the lobby’s peach-colored stone walls as he spoke. In the corner, a white marble staircase rose to the rooms above. Beside the staircase, an arch in the wall opened to the dining room, and Bernadette could see another stone arch on the far side of the room, leading to a dimly lit outdoor terrace.

Behind the reception desk, a man with a curling handlebar moustache beamed a warm welcoming smile. Manuel stepped up beside him. “This is my father, Senor Ferrara. He will check you in. Then, por favor, meet the rest of the group in the terrace bar for a quick orientation before dinner.

Two men in white cotton uniforms, laden with bags, scurried past them and up the stairs. A few minutes later, Bernadette dragged herself up the marble staircase, key in hand, heartened to see her room number on the door directly across the hall at the top of the stairs.

Her room was large and airy, with rush mats on cool terracotta-tiled floors, locally-carved masks on the walls and a hand-embroidered bedspread with a rich flower border. The bed looked soft and tempting, but if she lay down now she might never get up and first, she needed to eat.

Sliding open the glass door in a wall of windows, Bernadette stepped onto the dark balcony. Like a picture postcard, the lake glittered in the moonlight. The hot, humid air was steeped in the heady scent of night-blooming blossoms, ghostly in the darkness below. Leaning over the balcony rail, she inhaled the intoxicating fragrance. She’d landed in paradise.

Revived by the thought, she went inside and took a quick shower. She put on the one dress she’d brought, a practical floral sheath, and wound her wet hair in its customary knot on top of her head. She piled the three heavy tomes on Mayan culture that had weighted her suitcase on the bedside table and, eager to get started, slipped a fresh notebook into her shoulder bag.

She sensed Mr. Falconi did not have much faith in her ability. But Jen believed in her, had given her a chance, and Bernadette owed it to her to do the best job she could. She’d prove to Rocky she could handle the job. The week would go more smoothly if they could work together, and she was determined to do everything in her power to get this right.

Chapter 3

Bernadette’s stomach was growling as she locked her bedroom door and started down the stairs, her hand riding the cool marble bannister. She paused at the landing to look down on Señor Ferrara who was still at the desk, checking in a young couple, and Manuel, who stood in the entranceway talking to a new arrival, a tall sandy-haired man with two bulky suitcases.

Bernadette descended to the lobby and went into the dining room. Trying to ignore the enticing aromas drifting out of the swinging kitchen door, she crossed the room and stopped under the arch to the terrace to survey the scene. Overhead, ceiling fans languidly churned the hot sticky air without seeming to do much to alleviate the heat. Potted palms and rattan furniture flowed seamlessly through the covered lounge onto the outdoor patio, where the pool glowed an unearthly blue in the darkness.

On the terrace, ten people stood stiffly in clusters, drinks in their hands. Hank’s deep laughter rolled across the room. He was hard to miss, standing a head above the crowd, dressed in a fresh Hawaiian shirt. Rocky sat at the bar between two buxom women. Not wanting to interrupt their cozy threesome, Bernadette headed across the room to join Hank. He was talking to two women and introduced them to Bernadette as Meredith Richards and her daughter Annie. He offered to get Bernadette a drink from the bar since he was going for a refill, and although a glass of wine sounded good, she wanted to stay sharp, so she opted for club soda.

While Hank got their drinks, Annie explained that she and her mother were from Toronto, and that she was in her third year of university studying indigenous Mexican history. She then launched into an enthusiastic lecture on the sophistication of the ancient Maya.

As she spoke, Bernadette nodded. She’d used the few days she’d had before the trip to cram Mayan and Mexican history, but some of the details were still blurry. Like the dates, and the names. Pretty well everything really. Annie could be very helpful.

Manuel called for the group’s attention and the small talk subsided. Holding out his arms to include them all, he said, “Welcome to the Cultural Tour of Hacienda Ek B’alam. I, Manuel Ferrara, will be your guide to the wonders of the Yucatán. We have a busy week planned with visits to the ruins at Chichén Itzá, Tulum and here at Ox B’alam.”

Pulling out her notebook, Bernadette jotted a note, that Manuel pronounced Ox as Osh.

“Let’s start by introducing ourselves. We have some new friends and one old friend returning.” He swept an open palm in Arthur’s direction.

The little man nodded, rose to his feet, twitching his jacket and fussing with his cuffs. “I am Arthur Bickenbaum.” His voice cracked in a rough falsetto. He cleared his throat and the tone dropped a few notches. “I am an accountant from New York City and interested in Mayan historic sites.” He blinked once through eyeglasses as thick as tumbler bottoms, then sat down, pulling a white handkerchief out of the breast pocket of his suit jacket and wiping his damp brow.

Manuel didn’t let him off the hook that easily. Arthur ran a finger around his buttoned shirt collar as Manuel said, “Arthur is quite the Mayan scholar. This is his second trip with us this winter.”

Hank, Annie and Meredith introduced themselves next, followed by an older couple from New York, Phyllis and Bernard Morris.

Then one of the women sitting beside Rocky hopped off her bar stool, her ample bosom spilling out of her skimpy sundress. Bernadette guessed her to be in her late thirties. She had a friendly smile and, in a thick Australian accent, introduced herself as Eloise and her shorter, quieter but just as buxom companion on Rocky’s other side as Celeste. They were nurses from Brisbane and like most of the other tour members, were here on holiday, had an interest in archeology and were looking for something a little different on their vacation, maybe a bit of adventure.

Rocky slid off his stool to speak next. He had cleaned himself up, put on a fresh white shirt, rolled the sleeves up to the elbow and left the top three buttons undone. He’d shaved, pulled his hair back into a neat ponytail and looked surprisingly respectable. An interesting transformation from the vagabond she’d met at the airport.

He beamed a megawatt smile at the group. Bernadette would have sworn it sparkled like a toothpaste commercial against his tanned, olive complexion.

“Rocky Falconi from San Francisco. I’m a photographer.” He nodded in Bernadette’s direction. “Ms. Mallow and I are doing a story on the tour for Let’s Travel! magazine. I’m glad to see such an attractive group. I hope you will all agree to be in my photographs.” Cue the smile. Twitters of pleased laughter ran through the room.

So, he could be charming after all.

Suddenly Bernadette realized that while she’d been ruminating on the intriguing Mr. Falconi, all eyes had turned in her direction. A blush crept up her neck as she quickly got to her feet.

She’d always had trouble meeting new people, so she fell back on the tips she’d learned at Toastmasters and gave everyone, Rocky included, a wide smile, being sure to make eye contact with each person in the group. “I’m Bernadette Mallow, from Vancouver, and as Rocky said, I’m writing an article about the trip. I’m looking forward to getting to know you all and to an interesting week.”

She sat down, and Manuel took the floor. “Once again, welcome to Hacienda Ek’ B’alam.”

“What does ‘Ek’ B’alam’ mean?” one of the Australian women asked, her voice already shrill with wine. Bernadette checked her notes. It was Eloise, the tall one.

“Ek B’alam means ‘Black Jaguar’ in the Mayan language. B’alam was, and still is, one of the most powerful gods of the Maya people. But don’t worry,” Manuel hastened to add. “We don’t see many jaguars here anymore. I must warn you, however, to beware of the crocodiles.”

Nervous laughter skittered around the room, but his tone was serious. “I mean what I say. There are many crocodiles in the lagoon across the road.”

Discussion broke out among the members of the tour, forcing Manuel to raise his voice over the tumult. “Do not worry. To our knowledge, they have never killed a human. They are small crocodiles, but dangerous nonetheless.”

Silence descended on the room until finally, Annie asked, “How small?”

“Ten to thirteen feet, nose to tail, although a few are longer.”

Meredith gasped.

Eloise looked at Celeste and laughed. “That’s just a baby. Back home we grow them twice that big.”

Arthur’s eyes grew round behind his thick glasses. “Do they ever kill anyone?”

“Sure do,” Eloise said, in her best Aussie brogue. “A couple of times a year at least.”

Manuel interrupted. “That is Australia. Here in the Yucatán, the crocodiles are much smaller. They have never attacked a human, although a few dogs have disappeared. I warn you against teasing them, though. And definitely – no swimming in the lagoons. The pool behind the hacienda is much cleaner and there it is easy to spot a stray croc.” Manuel’s face remained serious as he looked around the table, then it collapsed into an infectious smile. “I am joking. Do not worry about crocodiles in the pool. We have perimeter fencing.”

Bernadette noticed Rocky didn’t join in the discussion – probably too tough to let a few crocs worry him. She tried to laugh off the threat too but couldn’t help glancing across the terrace to the pool, glowing like an enchanted jewel in the darkness, half expecting to see a primordial head rise up out of the water.

True to his word, Manuel wrapped up the introductions quickly. “Now, let us push the tables together and get to know each other better over dinner.”

* * *

Rocky sat at the bar, still sandwiched between the two very friendly Aussie women. As he nursed his beer, he glanced left and right. They made a scary tag team, and although their abundant cleavage would make the kind of photos he knew would sell, he hoped he didn’t have to listen to their chatter all night.

He pulled himself up. They were probably very nice. He was just generally pissed off. First the business with Schuster’s fall – that sucked – and now he had to break in this new partner, who was standing in the doorway across the room drinking club soda, for Christ sake. Jen had been vague about Bernadette’s qualifications over the phone, but he had hoped for someone with a little experience. Someone who knew the ropes. Someone he wouldn’t have to walk through every damn step of the week.

And then there was that business with his girlfriend, Samantha. She’d left his place last night pissed as hell that he was leaving again. Granted, he’d been working a lot lately – too much, really – but he didn’t feel they’d been together long enough for her to have a say in what he did. And, come on, it was his job.

He emptied his glass and put it down on the bar with a smack, the sound bringing him back to the moment. He was here and so was Bernadette, and if he were smart he’d go over and patch up the mess he’d made of their introduction at the airport. It wasn’t her fault they were stuck with each other this week. If he could mend some fences, the week was bound to go more smoothly.

Pushing himself away from the bar, ignoring the Aussies’ entreaties to stay, he walked over to where Bernadette stood in the dining room doorway. He leaned against the doorjamb. “Hello.”

“Hi,” she replied, her eyes on the flurry of activity in the dining room as the staff pushed the tables together.

He frowned. “Something wrong?”

She pulled herself up to her full height, turned to face him with a smile. “Absolutely not.”

She was tall; they were almost eye-to-eye. Rocky peeled himself off the door jam and stood up straighter. Her lips were pursed, her delicate brows raised, and her brilliant blue eyes shot sparks everywhere she looked. Right now, she was looking at him.

“Sorry if we got off to a bad start at the airport.” He dragged a hand across the back of his neck and glanced at the floor. “I’m just used to working with my regular partner Schuster and the idea of working with a rookie—”

Catching his mistake, he glanced up in time to see her nostrils flare. Not her fault.

He tried again. “This whole arrangement just caught me off guard. Can we start over?” He shot her his brightest smile, the smile that got him through almost anything, and held out his hand to shake. “Rocky Falconi. Nice to meet you.”

Bernadette’s eyes flashed. Irish. He’d bet his last dollar.

She crossed her arms on her chest and took a moment to give him a visual once-over he wasn’t used to getting from women.

Her eyes narrowed on his ponytail. He stiffened. He’d tied it back especially for the meet-and-greet.

Her gaze traveled down and stopped at his upper arm where the bicep tattoo peeked out from under his rolled shirt sleeve. A clean white shirt, he wanted to point out – but held his tongue.

Her eyes settled on the eagle on his forearm, and her brows inched higher. His jaw clenched. You’re not exactly my type either, sweetheart. He liked a woman with a little edge, a little warmth, not one as chilly as a glass of chardonnay.

She reached out and took his outstretched hand. “Bernadette Mallow. Nice to meet you. I’m looking forward to working together this week. I will try not to get in your way.”

Rocky pushed his charm into overdrive. “Can I get you a drink?”

She smiled politely. “Thank you. Club soda.”

He tried not to cringe. Schuster she wasn’t, but he swore to himself as he headed to the bar, he’d have her drinking tequila before the week was over.

Chapter 4

By the time Rocky returned with her drink, the Hacienda staff were carrying platters mounded with food from the kitchen and arranging them on the dining room buffet tables. Inhaling the mix of savory aromas, Bernadette almost sobbed. All she’d eaten since dawn was a dry airplane sandwich.

“Thank you,” she said, accepting the peace offering from Rocky. “Let’s see what they’re serving.”

Rocky followed her to the buffet and surveyed the platters of food. “Could be the fifty-first state.”

“Not exotic enough for you?” she asked as she piled her plate with rice, fried fish, small tortillas and salad, relieved that she could identify almost every dish.

He dug into a big bowl of salsa in the center of the buffet. “I can spice it up.”

Under wrought iron chandeliers hanging from the high beamed ceiling, the long table of the Cultural Tour dominated the dining room. As Bernadette settled into her seat, a young Maya waiter in a white cotton uniform approached with a jug of ice water in one hand and a decanter of red wine in the other. Clean cut and smiling, his almost-black eyes sparkled in his smooth, broad face.

Hola. I am Luis, your waiter tonight. May offer you some red wine?”

“Yes, thank you. What kind of wine is it?”

“Some of our best Mexican wine.”

Bernadette had never tried Mexican wine, but at this point she’d have drunk anti-freeze. She accepted the glass and took a sip. Pretty good. And why not? Mexico had the climate for grapes and a history of Spanish expertise to go with it. Pulling her notebook out of her shoulder bag, she made a note about the wine.

Manuel walked into the dining room, his hand on the arm of the sandy-haired man she’d seen him talking to in the lobby. Addressing the group, Manuel said, “Tonight we welcome another returning guest. First Arthur, now Jason. Everyone, meet Jason Caruthers. He was with the tour last week and now has stopped in for one more night before returning home.”

He turned to Caruthers. “Please join us for dinner.”

Caruthers nodded a brisk acknowledgement to the assembled group, but said, “No, thank you. I don’t want to intrude.”

He scanned the room, then went to the buffet. A few moments later, Bernadette heard him settle at the table behind her. When Luis offered him some wine, he declined.

Bernadette turned around and, sending Caruthers a friendly smile, said, “It’s surprisingly good.”

“No, thank you,” he replied curtly.

He obviously didn’t want to be part of their group, so she turned her attention back to Annie who had continued with her explanation of the fine points of Mayan loose stone construction.

Just as Bernadette reached for her wine, she heard the scrape of wood on stone behind her and, without further warning, her chair pitched forward. Burgundy liquid sloshed over the rim of the glass in her hand and a bright red stain oozed over the pristine white tablecloth.

She spun around. “What the—”

Caruthers, whether in clumsiness or haste, had bumped into her chair. Now, without stopping to apologize, he was making a bee line for the bar by the terrace arch where the bartender had just appeared.

Bernadette turned back to mop up the mess and saw Rocky watching from across the table. Even though the accident wasn’t her fault, her cheeks burned. He just had that effect on her— made her feel like a klutz. Like the suitcase episode at the airport. Way to make a good impression.

Luis appeared at her elbow with fresh napkins. He shrugged off the mess as he wiped up the spill. “Don’t worry. No problem.”

After thanking him for his help, Bernadette tried to put the incident out of her mind and turned back to Annie. “You were saying?” Annie jumped into her lecture without missing a beat. Although Bernadette thought she might be able to use some of this background in her piece, the hours of travel had taken their toll and she found it increasingly difficult to concentrate.

After the meal, Manuel stood up at the head of the table and tapped his spoon against his water glass. “Your attention, please. If you look at the itinerary you will see that tomorrow morning we go to the archaeological site here at Ox B’alam, less than a mile away around the lagoon. We will wake you early –” Bernadette stifled a groan, “– to take advantage of our proximity and visit Old Ox B’alam before the tour buses arrive. Only a few buses come here from Cancun each day, but even so, it is best if we go early. You will thank me later in the day when the heat rises and you are already back in our hotel swimming pool.

“Later in the week, I will escort you to watch the sunrise from the temple at the top of the pyramid. Tomorrow, though, we will explore the ruins. Breakfast is at seven and the bus leaves at eight. And now, buenas noches, thank you for your attention and enjoy the rest of your evening.”


About me

J.M. Hudson loves to travel, and every new place she visits suggests another mystery. A travel writer and photographer before turning her hand to writing romantic women’s fiction, it didn't take long for the Rocky and Bernadette mystery series to take shape. She says, "These are fairly traditional who-dun-its set in exotic locations: in this book, the Yucatan. Rocky and Bernadette are mis-matched from the start–but murder brings them together.” Temple of the Jaguar is the first in the series.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A one day visit to Coba, an overgrown ruin in the Yucatan jungle that became the setting of the book. I think, the history and isolation made it more atmospheric than some of the more manicured ruins. I went home and wrote the book in four months - then had to go back to do more research.
Q. Where can readers find out more about you?
I love hearing from readers on facebook at I will be posting lots of fun background to the book on my website,, and more pictures that inspired the story on my Pinterest site,

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