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Authors: Caridad Piñeiro

Aztec Gold

BOOK: Aztec Gold
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Aztec Gold

By Caridad Piñeiro

Six months ago, Cynthia Guerrera’s lover and fellow archaeologist Rafael Santiago trekked into the Mexican jungle in search of one of the fabled Cities of Gold—and never emerged. Guilty over their parting, Cynthia won’t rest until she knows what happened. When the discovery of a conquistador’s journal corroborates Rafe’s intended path, Cynthia is determined to finally leave the safety of the museum to rescue him, despite the conquistador’s dire warnings, and her own traumatic past.

Arriving at a remote village deep in the jungle, Cynthia is both elated and angered to find Rafe alive. But he is far from well, having watched his team be decimated by a bloodthirsty demon-goddess. When Rafe reveals he has been gifted with supernatural powers—powers he plans to use to kill the beast and save his brother, still held captive in the temple—Cynthia must face her own inner demons to fight alongside the man she loves.

Dear Reader,

A new year always brings with it a sense of expectation and promise (and maybe a vague sense of guilt). Expectation because we don’t know what the year will bring exactly, but promise because we always hope it will be good things. The guilt is due to all of the New Year’s resolutions we make with such good intentions.

This year, Carina Press is making a New Year’s resolution we know we won’t have any reason to feel guilty about: we’re going to bring our readers a year of fantastic editorial and diverse genre content. So far, our plans for 2011 include staff and author appearances at reader-focused conferences such as the RT Booklovers Convention in April, where we’ll be offering up goodies, appearing on panels, giving workshops and hosting a few fun activities for readers. We’re also cooking up several genre-specific release weeks, during which we’ll highlight individual genres. So far we have plans for steampunk week and unusual fantasy week. Readers will have access to free reads, discounts, contests and more as part of our week-long promotions!

But even when we’re not doing special promotions, we’re still offering something special to our readers in the form of the stories authors are delivering to Carina Press that we’re passing on to you. From sweet romance to sexy, and military science fiction to fairy-tale fantasy, from mysteries to romantic suspense, we’re proud to be offering a wide variety of genres and tales of escapism to our customers in this new year. Every week is a new adventure, and we want to bring our readers along on the journey. Be daring, be brave and try something new with Carina Press in 2011!

We love to hear from readers, and you can email us your thoughts, comments and questions to [email protected] You can also interact with Carina Press staff and authors on our blog, Twitter stream and Facebook fan page.

Happy reading!

~Angela James

Executive Editor, Carina Press

www.carinapress.com

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Dedication

To my friends at the Liberty States Fiction Writers: Thank you for your friendship and support. It’s great to be part of such a warm, welcoming and inclusive group.

Chapter One

The feel of old papers called to Cynthia Guerrera the way a lover’s skin might.

Even with the gloves she wore to protect the fragile documents from the oils on her fingers, she sensed the raspy texture of the heavy parchment beneath her fingertips. Smelled the mustiness that hinted at the fact that it had been some time since these papers had seen the light of day.

At first she had been skeptical about the provenance of the documents. Missouri cornfields were not the place one expected to find a trunk filled with nearly five-hundred-year-old Spanish artifacts. But a Missouri cornfield was just where the trunk containing the papers, journal and maps had been discovered when a developer had begun excavations for a new strip mall.

Setting aside the missive—a letter from Coronado himself to one of his seconds in command—she turned her attention to the leather bound journal of Juan Domingo Cordero, one of the conquistadors who had accompanied Coronado on his adventures. Gingerly opening the cover, she traced her fingers over the sprawling script. The first entries in the journal had provided her with the identity of the author and the date of the documents thanks to Cordero’s meticulous notations.

With that information, she had been able to check a number of other sources to confirm that Cordero had indeed been one of Coronado’s lieutenants. When Coronado had left Mexico City in 1540 in search of the fabled Cities of Gold, Cordero had been at his side for the first leg of the journey. Coronado had eventually separated from Cordero and his contingent, ordering them to search in one direction while he went in another.

Cordero’s entries in the journal carefully detailed their travels throughout the south central portion of Mexico, before his band had turned northward until they crossed the Rio Grande. Eventually the group had drifted eastward and reached the Mississippi, hugging the fertile banks of the river until it landed them in the area that would become known as Missouri.

Tired of their journeys and with their group decimated by a number of incidents, the Spanish conquistadors had built a small settlement a short distance from the sluggish and fruitful waters of the Mississippi.

The notations in Cordero’s journal gradually diminished after the establishment of that settlement, with the conquistador’s adventures giving way to the routine of farming and family life. It seemed that Cordero had finally stopped writing at all.

Cynthia supposed that was when the conquistador had tucked the journals detailing his explorations into the small wood and leather trunk together with his other papers. The trunk in turn had been put in a cellar, and over time, the floods that often occurred in the area had covered Cordero’s home and the surrounding settlement with mud. Further flooding and natural events had added to the layers over the former community, hiding its existence from sight until the developer’s bulldozers had dug up the first hints of the earlier colonization and the trunk.

Cynthia picked up the report that had arrived that morning. The assorted laboratory tests she had requested absolutely confirmed the age of the documents.

With that endorsement came proof of one thing, while serious doubt remained about a series of entries in the journals—unusual and unbelievable tales.

She rose and walked over to the climate-controlled locker in her office and then removed a hand-wrought wood and metal tube from within. Returning to her worktable, she untied the laces holding the metal cap in place at one end of the cylinder and slipped out a pliant sheet of leather that bore a crudely drawn map identifying the sometimes circuitous route Cordero and his men had taken from Mexico City.

In the middle of the map, more carefully detailed than anything else, were the geographical features and path to what Cordero had believed to be one of the fabled Cities of Gold. A city supposedly inhabited by a demon goddess who had taken away and killed nearly half a dozen of his men. Cordero had decided after the incident that no amount of lucre was worth their lives and had chosen to leave the area in search of a safer existence.

Shortly thereafter, he and his men had traveled northward, reached the Rio Grande, and eventually built the small farming settlement near the banks of the Mississippi.

Cynthia could well understand the motivation for adopting a quieter life after such hardships. Her childhood had been a series of travails thanks to her anthropologist parents and their thirst for knowledge.

But unlike the entries detailing Cordero’s travels, the tale of a demon goddess was hard to believe. Yet everything else about the documents was genuine.

Worse, something about the map had troubled her from the moment she first unrolled it onto her workstation—its similarity to one she had seen a little over six months earlier. As she had compared the various features on the drawing to a copy of one given to her by her lover, Dr. Rafael Santiago, she realized there was too much coincidence to ignore.

So many months ago, Rafe had detailed to her the plans for his latest archaeological expedition—a trip to a previously unknown and unexplored Aztec temple located in south central Mexico. While on that trip, Rafe, his younger brother and a team of five other men had disappeared into the Mexican jungle.

For weeks rescuers had searched for them, but without luck. The guides assisting them had refused to enter the Devil’s Jungle and without their advice, finding Rafe’s exact trail toward the temple had been virtually impossible.

For months Cynthia had been reaching out to various contacts in the area, hoping for word of Rafe and his group and keeping faith in the belief that they were still alive. But with each month that passed and every clue that evaporated into nothingness, that hope was fading along with the prospect of discovering anything about her lover’s disappearance…until now.

Before her sat a copy of Rafe’s map, carefully pinpointing the possible location of the Aztec temple. Beside it lay Cordero’s drawings, the details disturbingly similar to those on Rafe’s. The location of the supposed Aztec temple in virtually the identical place.

But if she believed the veracity of the maps—which, thanks to the lab results and her other investigations, was almost irrefutable—did she also have to believe that somewhere in the area where Rafe disappeared, Cordero and his men had discovered one of the Cities of Gold and an ancient demon goddess?

There has to be a more logical explanation
, she thought.

A mingling of omens and native legends coinciding with the arrival of the Spaniards had led the Aztecs to believe that Cortez was a returning god. Maybe some similar beliefs had caused Cordero and his men to assume that a monster had taken their fellow explorers. It was much more likely that a large jaguar or other wild animal had been responsible for the mutilations, disappearances and deaths.

Is that what had happened to Rafe?
she wondered, acknowledging for the first time that with the passage of all those months, it was more than likely that Rafe and the others were dead.

An intense ache settled inside her chest, so strong she had to reach up and press the spot above her heart to try and quiet the pain. Closing her eyes and heaving in a deep breath, she drove such negative thoughts from her brain and refocused on what she knew had to be done.

Another expedition was in order. One to confirm the tales told in Cordero’s journal about the temple and the City of Gold. As for the demon, she would relay that information to her director too, although it wouldn’t be taken seriously.

Despite that, she believed her director would be in favor of a fresh outing, and hopefully the new trip to the Mexican jungle would discover whether Rafe and his teammates were indeed dead.

Come the morning, she would discuss such a journey with her boss at the museum and see what she had to say.

***

Rosalyn Gardner peered down her aquiline nose past the granny-style bifocals that were her one concession to age as she examined the report Cynthia had prepared the night before. Sleek, toned and perfectly maintained, Rosalyn ideally represented the world-famous museum for which they both worked, as did her office.

The walls of the large room were filled with assorted awards as well as pictures of Rosalyn with a hodgepodge of politicians, luminaries and celebrities. Behind Rosalyn on the handcrafted Honduran mahogany shelves were books authored by the various academics at the museum along with volumes about its historic collections.

“It’s just too tempting to ignore,” Rosalyn declared as she finished reading the report, but kept on skimming through the pages as if to reassure herself of its contents.

“There’s no doubt about the authenticity of the documents and the possible connection to Rafe—Dr. Santiago.”

“You may refer to him as Rafe,” Rosalyn admonished with a dramatic sigh. “We all knew about your involvement with him, Cyn.”

“Cynthia.” Cyn had been Rafe’s private nickname for her and to hear it on someone else’s lips seemed almost illicit, especially considering the why of the personal moniker. Rafe had called her that in bed because that was the one place where she had never held back her passions.

Dragging herself from those painful memories, she motioned to the papers Rosalyn held in her hands. “If the budget allows—”

“Oh, the budget will definitely allow,” Rosalyn said, tossing the file onto her desk and removing her bifocals with a theatrical flair. She folded them and carefully laid them on the report Cynthia had prepared, then proceeded. “We’re blessed with a multi-million-dollar endowment. More than enough to put together another trek to Mexico.”

“Even if the budget allows, we need to consider what happened to Dr. Santiago—”

“Surely you don’t believe this wild tale about demons? We both know there are a multitude of reasons that could account for the disappearances of Cordero’s conquistadors and Rafe and his men.”

Cynthia reached across the desk and slipped the file from beneath Rosalyn’s glasses. “There are a number of explanations for Cordero’s experiences, but Dr. Santiago—”

“May still be alive. Isn’t that what you’ve been hoping for months now?”

She couldn’t deny it, although with no new information about Rafe and his group and her list of possible leads diminishing, she had been losing faith.

“What I’ve been hoping for is closure. Going on this expedition may give me that,” she said softly and hugged the file tight to her chest.

A sympathetic light flickered in the other woman’s gaze before steely determination replaced it. “I understand both your expectations and guilt about this mission. I’ll keep that in mind when selecting the team.”

Guilt.
Although Cynthia had never used that word or even hinted at anyone about that emotion, Rosalyn had perceptively picked up on it. She felt guilty about what had happened to Rafe because she had ignored his pleas to go with him and because she had been angry with him when he left. Over and over during the last few months she had asked herself whether her presence on the expedition would have made a difference.

If going with Rafe might have saved him
, she thought as guilt and despair took hold more strongly than her hope.

She pushed to her feet and nodded curtly. “I’ll wait to hear from you about a possible position with the team.”

***

Her friend Danielle Wilson always knew what Cynthia needed.

As she walked through the rocket-ship-style glass doors of the dessert shop, Cynthia spotted Danielle at the back of the store, sitting on one of the padded benches. Before Danielle on the irregular-sized glass tabletop was a trio of colorful plastic bowls piled high with rice pudding.

Cynthia slipped onto the bench and gave Dani a hug. “How are you?”

“The question is how will you be after we finish an emergency infusion of these marvelous desserts?” Dani asked, averting her gaze as she swept her hand across the dishes.

Cynthia didn’t miss the suddenly guilty look that flickered across her friend’s face. “You already know what happened at the meeting, don’t you?” That explained why Dani had moved up their usual Friday night get together.

When Dani reached for one of the desserts, Cynthia laid a hand on her arm to stop her. Her friend’s normally bright blue gaze grew shuttered and her eyes darkened to a storm-cloud gray with worry as she said, “Gardner invited me to be a member of the expedition.”

Rosalyn clearly had wasted no time in assembling a team for the trek, and so far it didn’t seem to include her.

“Did she say who else she had asked?”

“Rogers and Booth. She also called Hernandez down in Mexico City. He’s making the arrangements for the transportation and local guides,” Dani advised.

Cynthia scooped up a large portion of the chocolate rice pudding, not that she felt like eating any longer. She had hoped that Gardner would consider her for the trip since she had been the one who had made the connection between the two maps.

Then again, Gardner was not only aware that Cynthia had always been content to work in the background, but that her earlier life had made her loathe such travels. When Cynthia was a young child, her parents had lugged her from one locale to the next until their untimely deaths at the hands of gorilla poachers.

It was one of the reasons why when Rafe had asked her to go with him, she had flatly turned him down. She’d had enough of adventures and the risks they presented.

But there was another reason why she had refused him: she had wanted Rafe to put her first for a change. To put her above another of his exploits.

Sadly, she hadn’t been able to compete with the allure of the exotic. When Rafe had walked out the door, Cynthia had meant her ultimatum that he not come back until she could be as important in his life as he was in hers. She hated that their last words had been in anger.

She wished for a chance to make things right between them, but it seemed as if Gardner was not going to let that happen.

“She doesn’t have a complete team yet,” Dani said softly, apparently sensing Cynthia’s upset.

“It seems as if she’s not even considering me to be on the team even though I asked.”

BOOK: Aztec Gold
7.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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