Levi’s doorbell rang almost simultaneously with his cell phone vibrating on the bedside table.
“What the heck?” Levi must have fallen back to sleep. They could blame jetlag or just the complete disregard for the need to rejoin society. Ten o’clock. Mid-morning. Who would be ringing his doorbell? The caller ID read Whitney Stephenson. He answered with mild disorientation. “Mom?”
“Come answer the door for your mother.” Her voice didn’t sound angry, more like excited.
Levi cleared his throat and glanced over at the angel beside him, whose eyes were barely opened and a sleepy smile on her face. Sheets and blankets tangled his legs to hers, joining them, even in sleep. A wet towel lay on the floor beside the bed and Tiani’s hair was strings of matted tangles. Oops. “I’m without apparel at the moment.”
“Well, get out of bed and put some clothes on,” his mom said. “I want to see my daughter-in-law.”
“Only her?” Levi leaned down to kiss Tiani’s lips before untangling himself from her and sliding to the edge of the bed. “Didn’t miss your son at all?”
“Oh, phooey, I’ve known you all your life. I want to spend time with Tiani.”
“I was actually going to call you today.” Levi set the phone beside him and turned on speakerphone so he could dig through his drawer for a pair of sweats and a T-shirt. He found his smallest pair of workout shorts and handed them to Tiani along with the smallest T-shirt he owned. “We need your help shopping.”
“Ooh! I love shopping. Now come open the door.”
“Unless you want to see parts of me you haven’t seen since you stopped changing my diapers, you’ll have to wait a minute.” He stopped speaking English for a moment and spoke to Tiani in Yucatec. “My mom is here and wants to take us shopping. You can wear my clothes for a few minutes if you want.”
Tiani picked up the shorts and T-shirt and brought them to her face, closing her eyes as she inhaled deeply. She pulled them under the covers with her and snuggled into the pillow, holding them like a security blanket.
“You keep that up and we’ll never make it to the store.” Levi leaned closer and she giggled, trying to pull him back down onto the bed. He resisted. Barely. “I have to go let my mother in the door. You get dressed, young lady.”
“Do I have to?” Tiani pouted.
“I’m sure my mother doesn’t want to see you naked any more than she wants to see me naked.”
“You’re no fun.” She finally sat up and Levi was distracted again by her upper half now completely exposed. He whimpered and almost told his mom to come back in an hour.
“We can have fun later.” He leaned closer and gave her one more lingering kiss, forgetting he was still on speaker phone.
“Levi Stephenson, stop making out with your wife and come open the door for your mother.”
Levi groaned and pulled himself off the bed, slipping on a pair of sweats and bringing his shirt with him. He pulled the bedroom door shut to give Tiani a bit of privacy while she got dressed and he headed down the stairs to open the front door.
“Good morning, mother,” Levi said, opening the door and ending the call in one sweeping motion.
“You’re not even dressed yet.” His mom pushed past him, entering the living room as if she owned the condo. “Put a shirt on. Where’s my daughter-in-law?”
“In bed,” Levi told her. “Where I should be. Also not dressed. Again, which I should be.”
“Oh, give me a break,” she said. “You’ve been married over a month. Don’t you think it’s time you came up for air?”
“No.” Levi reluctantly slipped a shirt over his head.
“I brought food.” She held up a grocery sack. “I figured you probably didn’t have any groceries in the house after being gone all winter. I can cook us some omelets.” She started opening cabinets and drawers to find the tools she needed, and Levi’s stomach growled as if on cue.
“Oh, thank goodness,” Levi said. “I’m starving. The last time I ate was dinner on the plane yesterday.”
“Well, airplane food is barely considered food,” she said. “That’s not enough to sustain a growing boy.”
“Mom, I’m thirty, and we took a private jet with a catering chef on board. I think I’ll live.” He pulled up a stool and watched his mother pull out all the things she needed and begun cracking eggs into a bowl. “We need your help. Tiani needs clothes and something called lemongrass oil for her hair. Plus, whatever else women need. I’m clueless.”
Tiani came down the stairs, hesitantly entering the kitchen and crossing the room to where Levi sat. He pulled her into his arms and had to remind himself that his mother was visiting.
“Oh! Sweetie, what happened to your hair?” His mom abandoned her workstation and pulled Tiani from Levi’s arms, lifting the snarled masses off her shoulders as if picking up the pieces of a broken China doll. “You poor thing.”
“Told you we need your help,” Levi said.
“You should have called me sooner,” she scolded her son.
“Trust me, you would not have wanted to be here any sooner this morning. There are reasons why her hair is a snarled mess and those reasons are not politely discussed in mixed company.”
“I’m in love.” Levi sighed and held Tiani’s gaze. She was too enamored to ask him to translate but he switched to Yucatec anyway. “My mom’s going to help you with your hair.”
“Oh, thank goodness,” Tiani said in Yucatec, then turned to her mother-in-law, switching to Spanish. “Gracias.”
“I think I have a comb in my purse that we can use this morning and then buy one for you at the store later.” She continued lifting matted strands of hair from Tiani’s shoulders, smiling at her and completely forgetting she was supposed to speak in Spanish.
He realized that entire conversation had been in English. “Mom, do you know how to speak Spanish?”
“Oh course,” she said. “I was a refugee social worker in Belize for years.” She seemed to realize her mistake and shifted to Spanish, apologizing to Tiani. Levi wondered how many times he’d need to remind her.
He redirected her attention back to the task at hand, cooking breakfast. “Can we eat first?” Levi asked. “Your son is starving, remember?”
“How about if you make the omelets,” his mom said. “And I’ll spend time with this beautiful wife of yours?”
“Unless you want a frozen meal warmed up in the microwave, or a protein shake, you might want to do the cooking yourself,” Levi said. “Please, Mommy?”
“Oh, so I’m Mommy again when you want food.” She laughed. “I see how you are.”
Levi pulled Tiani away and pointed his mom toward the kitchen counter where she was almost done chopping green peppers and onions.
Levi saw a loaf of bread in the grocery sack, which was now tipped on its side, exposing the contents. He lifted Tiani onto the stool where he’d been sitting and crossed the room to start some toast. His mom had even remembered to bring butter and jelly. Pulling glasses from the cabinet, he poured some juice for each of them then set the table with plates and napkins and forks.
Tiani was his mom’s captive audience, watching as she poured the beaten eggs into the heated pan, the butter sizzling along the edges.
Like an expert chef, his mom lifted the sides of the omelet, letting the uncooked egg flow down and around the outside, then moving on to the next side, then the next. The result was a fluffy cloud of egg that she flipped with a twitch of her wrist. She sprinkled shredded cheddar onto the eggs, added the chopped onions and peppers, and folded one half over the other.
Just as she slipped the masterpiece onto a platter, the toast popped and Levi lifted each piece from the toaster and spread butter over the crispy bread, then a thin layer of jelly. He took a plate from the cupboard, added a slice of toast and a portion of the omelet, then set them on the table along with a glass of juice.
Holding out his hand to help Tiani off the stool, he guided her over to the table and held out the chair for her. His mom prepared the other two plates and Levi helped carry them to the table before sitting beside his wife.
Before taking her seat, his mom reached into her purse and pulled out a scrunchie. She stood behind Tiani and gathered her hair back to keep it from getting in her food.
Tiani leaned her head back to look up at her mother-in-law and thanked her, then picked up her fork and took a bite of the omelet. She stopped chewing a second and Levi was afraid she was going to spit it back out and say she didn’t like it. Instead she moaned and said in Yucatec, “This is so good!”
Levi turned to his mom. “She loves it.”
“Oh, good! I’m so glad.” His mom clapped her hands together once, then forgetting herself, repeated the sentiment in Spanish.
Realizing her mistake as well, Tiani repeated her compliment in Spanish.
And just like that, his mom and Tiani were new besties.
Levi awoke with sunlight beaming through his window and the shower steaming up his attached bathroom. That alone was disorienting and a reminder he was home in Cambridge, Massachusetts after six weeks in the jungle.
What started as an archaeology exploration had shifted into an adventure that changed many lives, none more than the woman who had flown home with Levi and was enjoying a luxury unlike anything she’d known growing up.
Tiani had been introduced to modern facilities when they’d travelled to Guatemala City and was particularly fond of hot showers.
Levi pushed the sheets and blankets off and decided to join her. He’d never done anything so brazen. Although they’d been married over a month, most of their intimacy had happened late at night and in the dark.
Tiani was still somewhat shy with her body. Neither of them ever walked around their bedroom without clothes nor had they ever taken the time to really look at each other in broad daylight. There was something incredibly vulnerable about standing before someone else with nothing to hide every imperfection. Levi couldn’t find anything imperfect about Tiani’s body.
“Can I join you?” he asked in Yucatec, giving her the choice whether or not to invite him beyond the shower curtain that protected her privacy.
“Umm…” After a few seconds of hesitation, Tiani pulled the shower curtain to the side just far enough for him to step in next to her.
He tried very hard not to allow his eyes to wander even though that is exactly what he wanted to do. He locked her gaze and whispered, “Good morning.” Her returning smile helped him to relax.
“You have no lemongrass oil for my hair.”
That was the last thing Levi expected Tiani to say. He glanced at the synthetic shampoo and body wash sitting next to a bar of generic deodorant soap he’d picked up at the grocery store and realized she had a valid complaint. “We can try to find a natural health store here in town. We need to go grocery shopping anyway.”
“I don’t know what that means.” Her brow creased.
“Like a trading post, kind of like the ones near Tikal. We have stores here where we can buy food that we can’t grow ourselves.” This was a very strange conversation to have standing naked in the shower.
“Why can’t you grow food?” Tiani didn’t seem at all affected or bashful standing there with him. Maybe he’d been incorrect about her shyness.
“Because we live in a city. We hire farmers to grow food and bring the food to us here in the city. We trade money for food the same way you trade fruits and vegetables you grow for cloth to make your clothes.” It occurred to Levi that they should probably shop for clothes for Tiani so she could feel comfortable while here in the States. “We can also go to a store and buy you some new clothes.”
“Why do I need new clothes?” Her hands rested on his chest and Levi was momentarily tongue-tied trying to come up with an answer while his heartrate increased. She often placed her hands on his chest, and he wondered if there was something symbolic to the gesture. The first time she ever touched him was the day she placed her hands on his chest to demand he translate conversations better. He certainly wasn’t going to complain. But he did need to answer her question.
“The days and nights here become very cold and the dresses you wear in the jungle will not protect you enough.” Hopefully that was a reasonable explanation. He wished Becky were here to help them shop. Maybe his mom could come to visit. She was only a half hour away and would probably love the chance to spend the day pampering her new daughter-in-law. He would call her when they got out of the shower.
Considering they would soon run out of hot water, Levi squeezed shampoo from the bottle and quickly lathered his hair, then shifted her body to the side so that he could easily rinse. Before he had the chance to duck his head under the water, Tiani reached up to touch the lathered shampoo and brought her fingers to her nose, which she wrinkled in disgust. He didn’t suggest they put any shampoo in her hair. They would find something natural with lemongrass oil or a similar essential oil. Yeah, he was really going to need his mom’s help today.
After rinsing the shampoo, Levi grabbed his bar of deodorant soap and was reminded again how exposed he was. He shouldn’t feel self-conscious in front of his own wife, but he’d never taken a shower with another person. Maybe when he was a little boy and their mom had plopped Nicholas and him in the bath together, but not as an adult and definitely not with a woman.
Tiani seemed fascinated by the bar of soap also, taking it from Levi’s hands and giggling when it slipped and thumped to the floor of the shower. She crouched down to pick up the bar and it slipped through her fingers two more times before she captured it triumphantly with both hands. Trying to stand without the use of her hands, she looked up and Levi realized she was eye level with body parts he wouldn’t show on the beach. Awkward.
Levi crouched down beside her and helped her to her feet, never offering any acknowledgement how close she’d been to parts he wasn’t comfortable washing in front of her. Maybe this shower wasn’t the best idea.
Until Tiani took the soap and rubbed it across his chest the same way he’d rubbed the soap down his arms. Okay, this could get fun.
Not wasting the opportunity, Levi reached for the poof sponge he had hanging from the showerhead and squirted some bodywash on, creating a sudsy, playful assortment of scented bubbles. He took the bar of soap and placed it back in the soap dish then gently turned Tiani around to scrub the poof across her back.
A little whimper came from somewhere inside his wife and Levi knew he was on the right track toward steering the conversation away from shopping excursions and essential oils to more interesting activities.
When he finished with her back and arms and neck, the next logical body parts were those that were more intimate. With barely a hesitation he continued, and she rested her back against his chest, eyes closed in blissful innocence and abandon.
He loved this woman for her spunk and fire and feistiness, as well as her inner beauty. At the time he married her, he never dreamed her body would be this incredible. Everything about her triggered physical reactions in his body that seemed insatiable. Thankfully Tiani seemed to react the same way to his body and they connected like a two-piece jigsaw puzzle that was only whole when pieced together.
After scrubbing each other and rinsing each other and scrubbing and rinsing some more, the water started losing heat and Levi turned off the shower and reached for a large, fluffy towel. He wrapped his wife in softness before carrying her to their bed. Shopping could wait a few hours. Maybe a few days.
After one night at the hotel on the island in Flores, they had seen their parents safely onto an airplane before the twins and their wives took a private jet to Guatemala City.
They were there to visit the office of the National Registry of Persons and get the process started which would establish Tiani as a person of record in the Republic of Guatemala. Having been born in the jungle village to a midwife, she, and everyone else in the village, had no record of having been born. This was common in Guatemala since there were so many indigenous tribes spread out in the jungles living in isolation. There was no need for a record unless someone planned to travel to another country, and Levi had promised to take Tiani to his village in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Guatemala City was massive compared to anything Tiani had ever seen and she was quickly overwhelmed. Levi tucked her protectively under his arm and led her to the places she needed to go. This was a complete role reversal from the confident tribal leader who guided the American scientists through the dense jungles around the temple pyramid. Levi worried how Tiani would handle the United States.
Tiani wasn’t thrilled with the idea of someone taking her photograph. But when Levi explained that this was the only way she would be allowed to travel with him to see his village she reluctantly agreed. Not until after Levi demonstrated the process.
Levi sat in the proffered chair at the photography studio and smiled, waiting for the telltale flash and then he relaxed. The photographer invited them to come around behind the camera to see Levi’s image on the digital screen. This helped Tiani understand that no one was actually taking something from her.
She still didn’t understand how the face got on the screen like magic, but she allowed Levi to guide her to the chair.
Levi backed up and stood near the cameraman making funny faces at Tiani until she smiled. This felt like working with a baby, but they eventually obtained a digital image that was acceptable for an identification and passport.
This was one of the last hoops to jump through while honeymooning in Guatemala City. The final printed documents, plus her newly created birth certificate, would be mailed to the base camp in Flores where they would wait to be picked up prior to flying to the States.
While he and Tiani were working with the government to prove she existed, Levi sent Nicholas and Becky on a quest to find a bookstore or a teacher’s supply store to purchase instruction books on reading and writing Spanish and English, along with writing materials and a few simple books.
In his spare time Levi planned to teach the people of the tribe how to read and write. They already knew how to speak and understand Spanish, and others besides Tiani had expressed interest in learning English. The instruction would be quite different from teaching a lecture hall full of college kids, but at least Levi knew how to teach. Very few tribes in the remote jungles of Guatemala would have the benefit of an American professor move into their village.
On their second night at the hotel in Guatemala City, Levi almost couldn’t get Tiani to come to bed because she was so fascinated with the books Nicholas and Becky had found. She was like a sponge soaking up all the knowledge she could.
Levi promised to teach Tiani more in the morning and enticed her with kisses, tempting her with the one desire she craved even more than knowledge. The one thing Levi craved more than anything else in the world.
Awkward. That’s how Levi felt standing just inside the door of their tiny cottage near the outskirts of the village. They were actually quite close to where Nicholas and Becky still had their tent set up but had no intention of seeing them anytime soon.
Tiani excitedly showed Levi around the cottage, where she had already moved her belongings and his, tucking things away into cupboard spaces in the walls. There wasn’t really a kitchen because the villagers ate in a communal fashion near the large eating area. But some corn breads and flat breads and tortillas had been placed upon a shelf with fruits and nuts and jugs of fresh water. Tiani even bragged that she’d remembered to have the water purified by the scientists so that Levi didn’t get sick.
Levi would eventually need to drink small amounts of water from the cenote to gradually build up an immunity to the microorganisms in order to live here long-term, but not during their honeymoon.
When she had completed her tour of the one-room cottage, Levi realized this little space was just for them, a honeymoon suite designed for isolation. The thought reminded him the reason they were here and again he was nervous.
“Would you like me to help you with your braids?” Levi asked Tiani, stepping closer to her and lifting the longest and thickest braid, which hung to the middle of her back. Just touching her for the first time was enough to send his heart and body into overdrive. The honor of using his fingers to comb through the interwoven locks of her hair was a sweet bonus for this night.
He took his time, unwinding each part slowly, then moving on to the next braid, gradually making his way around her head, letting the thick, brown locks fall across her shoulders and neck. When he turned her around and gazed upon her with her hair down for the first time, his breath caught. A sweet innocence replaced the stoic façade Tiani conveyed to everyone else. The soft smile on her face was reserved for him, and him alone.
Without another word, Levi stepped closer and lifted her hair off her shoulders, letting the silken waves hang down her back. Then he leaned forward and kissed the right side of her neck, just behind her ear. A soft moan escaped her throat as he moved to the opposite side and kissed her there as well.
Kissing was a unique concept. Lips were such a sensitive collection of nerve endings that the mere act of pressing his lips to her body, anywhere on her body, elicited a reaction that flowed through him from the top of his head down to his toes.
The sleeves on the elegant wedding gown of silk and linen, slipped easily over her shoulders, exposing her entire neck and upper chest. As Levi continued his path of kisses, Tiani reached for the buttons of his shirt, unbuttoning one at a time until his chest was exposed. She pulled the now unnecessary article of clothing down and off, and it landed in a heap on the floor.
That simple act of his shirt hitting the floor at his feet was like permission to remove all other hindrances until they were skin to skin and pulling each other toward the bed. Joining himself in marriage, body and soul, with Tiani was the greatest experience of Levi’s thirty years on earth.
Now Levi understood what Nicholas had meant when he’d said there was nothing in the world better than this.
After emotional greetings and introductions between the twins’ parents and everyone on the science team, including Becky, their new daughter-in-law, everyone agreed to hold off any further excitement until their other daughter-in-law joined them.
Levi wiped tears from his cheeks as his twin brother led him to stand beneath the arbor that had been prepared for the wedding. As if everyone else had known they were waiting and had just been holding back, all of them took their places near the arbor. Chairs were moved closer and everyone just seemed to get settled. No more waiting.
More conch shells sounded, and all heads turned in the direction of the largest home in the village, that of Chief Gabor Sayid, who stood at Levi’s side. Together they watched as his daughter, Princess Tiani Sayid, emerged through the front door.
A spotlight from heaven seemed to shine down on this elegant woman drawing closer with each step. Tiani’s traditional Mayan gown was deep purple with bright pink and green trims, matching the feathers in her crown. Her hair had been braided even more intricately than usual, piled high and cascading down her back.
Her stoic, aloof expression faltered the briefest of seconds when she met his eyes but like a trained royal, she pulled her mask back into place and kept her chin high. Her approach seemed to last forever and yet flew past and suddenly she was standing before him, gazing into his eyes. Nothing in the world had ever been more beautiful than this woman.
The only person capable of translating the words the chief spoke was the man who was tongue-tied at the altar only half-listening to the magical words that would forever tie him together with his princess.
Levi didn’t care if the Americans couldn’t understand the vows spoken entirely in Yucatec. These words were for him and Tiani. Everyone else could listen with their hearts because he wasn’t taking the spirit away from the ceremony by translating.
Chief Gabor called upon mother earth and the sky and the elements of nature, asking permission from the four cardinal points to join Levi and Tiani as husband and wife. He handed them each a seed.
“This represents the starting of your new life together,” the chief said in Yucatec. “I bless you with abundance, love, and positive intentions. When you cast these seeds upon the land and into the water, you will obtain your wishes for your marriage.”
They walked together around the arbor to a small cenote where Tiani cast the seed in her hand. A small patch of soil had been prepared near the cenote where Levi cast his seed. The earth and water would accept their offerings.
The ceremony ended with women from the tribe tossing rose petals over Tiani and Levi as a way of dropping positive intentions. The women then danced around them to the beat of drums and blowing conch shells, and eventually morphed into a celebration where everyone was dancing and smiling and laughing.
There was never a moment where the chief pronounced them as man and wife, nor did he invite Levi to kiss his bride. Levi wasn’t sure if they were officially done with the ceremony as he was swept up in the festivities. But he smiled and laughed along as the tribal members lifted him and Tiani onto their shoulders and carried them around the village campfire and back around to the arbor, everyone dancing and chanting and clapping along.
Finally, they were placed on the ground again, together by the arbor and Levi leaned closer to Tiani, asking if he was allowed to kiss her yet. In answer to his question, Tiani leapt into his arms and threw her arms around his neck pressing her lips to his as if she’d been waiting her whole life for that moment.
As Levi deepened the kiss with his new bride, the thought occurred to him that this was his first kiss ever, and Tiani’s first kiss ever, and they were sharing that moment together, sealing a lifelong commitment to never kiss any other person besides each other for as long as they both lived.
When they finally released their kiss, Levi pulled Tiani into his arms and held her, tears pouring down his face, their arms wrapped so tightly around each other he wasn’t sure they’d ever let go.
The first person Levi saw when he finally released his bride was the man who was his mirror, his twin, his other half, his best friend. As Tiani’s mother pulled her into an embrace, Nicholas pulled Levi into his arms, hugging him close, both smiling through tears.
Their mom pulled them apart and dragged Levi closer to Tiani so he could introduce them. They didn’t understand most of what each other said, but they embraced as if they’d known one another all their lives and were long-lost friends, kindred souls. Their father was the next person to hug Tiani as their mothers hugged one another.
The dancing and celebrating and hugging and crying eventually shifted into an outdoor feast complete with roasting meats and flavorful vegetables and tortillas and corn breads and chocolate drinks. Levi didn’t eat much. He didn’t want to overindulge and be uncomfortable later. He wanted this night to be perfect.
Eventually Levi took the time to explain to his family the words that had been spoken during the ceremony and talk about plans for the upcoming days and weeks. He told Tiani that he planned to say everything he needed to say in English so that he could tell them quickly and then spend the rest of the night with her. She liked that idea and chose that time to spend a few minutes with some of her close friends and family.
Nicholas promised that he and Becky, and the team of scientists, would entertain their parents the following day, taking them to see the temple pyramid and explaining the work they were doing there. Their mom and dad would sleep in a tent that night and the following night then the next day the twins, their wives, and their parents would make the four-hour trek over to Tikal. They planned to show their parents around the ancient ruins at Tikal then drive down to Flores and spend the night in a fancy hotel on the island.
Although the party was still in full swing, Levi said an official goodnight to his family, all of them understanding that he and Tiani would eventually just slip away and be gone for the night. They intended to have a nice dinner together the following evening.
Levi and Tiani spent the next several hours talking with guests and family, conversing whenever possible in Spanish when anyone non-tribal was involved in the conversation. He and Tiani sat with Levi’s parents for a long time getting to know them.
At one point, Levi’s mom caught his attention and told him in English that Tiani was perfect, absolutely perfect.
When the crowd began to thin, something shifted between Levi and Tiani; an almost unspoken understanding that it was time for them to leave. Everyone else could fend for themselves. They wanted to be alone.
What was taking so long? Levi fidgeted, standing at the center of the village, near where he and Tiani usually sat beside the community campfire each evening. An arbor of sorts had been decorated near the edge of the clearing and incense burned lazy plumes of smoke all around.
He hadn’t seen Tiani since the previous evening when some women, including her mother, had guided her away to prepare her for her wedding. Maybe Nicholas was right. Maybe Tiani would know more about what to expect than he did.
This wedding was a much bigger event than the hastily prepared and forced union between Becky and Nicholas. The tribe’s princess was getting married. The daughter of the chief.
Oh my gosh! What the heck was he doing marrying the daughter of the chief? He didn’t have the proper bloodline to be marrying a princess! He started sweating and grew nauseated. He took several deep breaths. He asked himself again, what was taking so long?
Most of the tribe and the team of scientists stood or sat nearby. Everyone else was waiting also but they didn’t seem nearly as nervous. Nor should they. He was the only man in this village who would be getting married today. If his bride ever showed up.
Maybe she would bail. Maybe she had already run off into the jungle crying for this crazy, American geek to stop crushing on her. Maybe her mother and father were in their home right now discussing how best to break the news to him. How best to tell Levi that their daughter had changed her mind and didn’t want to marry him.
Nicholas had long since stopped trying to calm him down and Levi had long since stopped asking what was taking so long. He felt a sincere sense of remorse to his parents for all the times he’d ever muttered the annoying phrase, “Are we there yet?” while driving in a car.
Levi’s attention was pulled in the complete opposite direction from where he expected to see Tiani appear when a conch shell sounded from somewhere far away in the jungle.
“Finally,” Nicholas said, stepping to Levi’s shoulder. “I thought they wouldn’t get here in time.”
Levi was confused. Why would there be some sort of wedding processional from down the jungle path? That wasn’t even in the direction of the temple pyramid or anything sacred. More in the direction they would take if heading into one of the trading villages near Tikal. The conch shell sounded again, closer this time.
“They made it,” Chief Gabor said in Spanish. Levi startled to find the chief at his other shoulder. Maybe he was worried his daughter had changed her mind as well.
When the processional drew closer to the edge of the clearing, Levi began to see men, warriors, at least five of them, no wait, there was one smaller person, a woman. Thank goodness. He couldn’t wait to see his bride. Not sure why she would be trekking in from the jungle surrounded by warriors. This must be part of some ritual the tribe had.
“I’m so glad they came,” Chief Gabor said in Yucatec, his words filled with emotion. “You deserve to have your family here at the time when you are joining yourself to my family.”
“Huh?” Levi turned to his soon-to-be father-in-law. The chief offered a rare smile and put his hands upon Levi’s shoulders, turning him back around to face the incoming processional.
The woman in the processional was not Tiani. Levi’s breath caught. “Mom?”
Levi took off running in the direction of the group of warriors as soon as he realized the two people at the protected center were his parents.
“Dad? Mom? You made it!” Levi flung himself into their arms, tears pouring down his face. “You made it. You made it.” His words caught in his throat as sobs racked through his body. His whole family was here.
His parents had left their home in Massachusetts, taken several connecting flights, driven at least an hour and trekked four hours on foot through a jungle to make it here in time for his wedding.
No wonder the wedding had been delayed. They were waiting for two very special guests of honor to arrive. Now that his parents were here, Levi was anxious to get this wedding started. But where was Tiani?
As if drawn by a magnet, Levi spent the morning before his wedding walking the perimeter of the temple pyramid, gathering courage and peace for the day to come. He considered the stories that played out across the stelas. He already had a rough translation in mind for most of the carvings and could piece together the rest with context clues.
Once he had a bit of time—probably post-honeymoon—he planned to sit down with his four books of Codexis and really hash out the deeper meanings. Moving to Guatemala would actually give him the chance to absorb the energy of his surroundings as he translated. There was something to be said for looking at the stelas side-by-side rather than a picture at a time.
He still couldn’t shake the notion that there was a Biblical connection. Nicholas always wanted to shove aside any references to the spiritual realm as the Mayan’s worshiping the sun. But Levi had read too much of the text to dismiss a reference to God, if such a being existed.
Levi wasn’t sure what he believed. He just knew that he’d evaluated religions all over the world through his study of linguistics and there were too many similarities between all of them to discount a connection. If the ancient Mayans were isolated pagans, as some people liked to believe, how did they know so much?
He ran his fingers along the ridges and valleys of the carvings as if he could find a deeper understanding by using a tactile method of reading, like brail to a blind person. He even closed his eyes as he walked.
Something made him stop on one particular stela and he gazed at the carving with keener interest. He could see why some people assumed the Mayans worshiped of the sun. This carving almost looked like an exploding sun with rays of light radiating outward from the center.
Maybe not a sun. Maybe a star. An exploding star? Could happen. People saw meteor showers and comets all the time. Why not an exploding star?
Moving on he found another stela that depicted people in agony, faces deformed with remorse or fear. Another stela showed a man in bondage, arms tied behind his back. Many of the stela showed great wars and sufferings. One stela seemed to represent prosperity with grains and fruits. Some stela showed earthquakes, storms, crumbled buildings, cities on fire.
He didn’t want to look anymore.
Levi slumped to the ground and sat with his back against the wall of the temple pyramid feeling a peace and happiness just from being in this place.
Just a few weeks ago he’d been working as a professor in a classroom filled with more people than lived in the whole village where he was about to take up permanent residence.
There were no cell phones here, no electricity, no microwave ovens. He had a generator, which he would keep using as a way of charging his electronic devices, his only means of data collection while here. He would have a satellite phone for emergencies and to contact his family.
Family. What did that even mean anymore? His own mother and father would not be attending his wedding. Maybe he should postpone the wedding until a later date so his parents could be here, or until he and Tiani could go there to the States.
Then his mind’s eye conjured up her beautiful face and her sweet countenance when no one else was around to see her let down her stoic façade. The face she only allowed him to see. The face he had fallen in love with.
In a few short hours that incredible woman would be his wife. No way was he postponing the chance to finally kiss her and touch her, not even in a sexual way, just to be able to hold her hand, wrap his arms around her, and yes, okay, he’d admit it, he wanted her in a very sexual way. A soft smile played across his lips and he leaned his head back against the limestone to his back, closing his eyes and imagining what that would be like.
“There you are.” A soft voice woke Levi from his daydreaming. Nicholas. The man who looked identical to him. The man who had stood by his side every day of his life since the moment they were conceived.
Conception. What a concept. Levi wondered if nine months from tonight he’d be holding his first child. He wasn’t sure how fast these things worked but he knew Tiani wouldn’t be on the pill like Becky was when she married Nicholas. He had no other form of protection with him in the middle of the jungle, nor did he really want any. If a baby was meant to become part of his life, then he would welcome the addition.
“Were you napping?” Nicholas asked, lowering himself to the ground by Levi’s side.
“Nah, just thinking, pondering how my life’s about to change.”
“Are you okay with this?” his brother asked. “You don’t have to marry her if you don’t want to. No one’s forcing you.”
Levi scoffed. “Heck yeah, I want to marry her. That feisty little minx captured my heart the first time she got in my face and yelled at me. She had me wrapped around her little finger on day one.”
Nicholas chuckled. “Yes, she did.”
“I was just thinking how I might be a father nine months from now,” Levi said.
“How do you feel about that?” Nicholas asked.
“I think I’d like being a dad.” Levi stopped when his throat caught. “Sure wish our dad was going to be here.”
“We didn’t exactly give them a heads-up in advance,” Nicholas reminded them.
“I know.” Levi nudged his twin’s shoulder. “At least I told them in advance.”
“That was not my fault.” Nicholas held up his hands in surrender. They both chuckled and settled into a companionable silence. “Hey, have you thought about what you were going to wear tonight?”
“Well, I’ve got the clean clothes in my bag or the ones I’m wearing. I guess I’ll change into my clean clothes. Probably should go take a bath first, huh?”
“Definitely.” Nicholas stood and reached a hand down to help Levi off the ground.
“Any last-minute advice for your completely inexperienced little brother?” Levi asked, brushing off his backside from where he’d sat on the jungle floor.
“Just have fun, man. Shoot, I was just as inexperienced as you,” Nicholas said.
“At least you’d kissed Becky prior to marrying her,” Levi said. “How do you approach intimacy with someone who has never had any formal education?”
“How do you know she’s never had any education? Maybe her mom sat her down and gave her every detail she needs to know to prepare for her wedding night. Maybe she’ll know more than you do. This is a completely different culture. They may not have high schools and universities, like we do, but they’re smart. Very smart.”
“True.” Levi sighed. They started toward the tunnel. “I’m getting nervous over nothing, aren’t I?”
“Not over nothing,” Nicholas said. “These are the same fears every groom has the morning before his wedding. Of course, who am I to say? I didn’t even know I was getting married the morning of my wedding.” Nicholas chuckle snorted.
“You’re such a geek.” Levi laughed at his twin.
“Takes one to know one.” Nicholas wrapped his arm around Levi’s shoulders and pulled him in the direction of the tunnel. “Come on, let’s get you ready for the best night of your life.”
“Hey, Mom, great to hear your voice,” Levi said into the speaker of the satellite phone. “I have Nicholas with me. Is dad home too? We want to talk to both of you.”
“Oh! My boys! How are you? Yes, dad is here. I’m hurrying to the other side of the house to find him. I think he’s watching a baseball game in the den. Are you still in Guatemala?”
“Yep, we’re still here,” Levi said, glancing up at the colossal pyramid temple steps away from him, cleverly concealed by a jungle canopy so thick no explorer would find its location without the use of modern-day LiDAR technology.
“Hi, Mom,” Nicholas said.
“Oh, Nick! How are you?”
“I’m good. We have some great news, but we want to tell you both at the same time.”
“Henry! The boys are on the phone!”
Levi loved how his mom still called them ‘her boys’ even though the twins were thirty years old.
“Put it on speaker phone so we can both hear,” their dad said. “Hey, guys, how are you?”
“Good, Dad, how are you?” Levi asked.
“The Red Sox are winning,” their dad said. “Can’t get any better than that.”
“How about a couple of daughters-in-law?” Nicholas asked. “Would that be better than the Red Sox winning?”
Their mom squealed so loud she caught the attention of some of the scientists on the other side of the clearing where they were documenting stela.
“Whitney, calm down,” their dad said. “We knew they’d eventually find women crazy enough to marry them. Did you guys find a set of identical twins?”
“Nope, Becky and Tiani couldn’t be more different than each other,” Nicholas said. “Polar opposites.”
“Ooh, ooh! Let me guess,” their mom said. “Becky is engaged to… Levi, and is a brunette with adorable freckles and works for, like, the peace corps or something that deals with humanitarian things.”
Becky giggled and spoke up. “Hello, Mrs. Stephenson, this is Becky. I can’t wait to meet you. Sadly, you are wrong on pretty much everything you just said.”
“Oh! You sound so beautiful!” their mom said. “You can call me Whitney. Tell me everything about yourself!”
“Okay, well, my full name is Dr. Rebecca Benson. I have a PhD in Geography & Environment, I work at the University of Houston in the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping, but I met Nicholas when we were both grad students at Boston University. I’m blonde with blue eyes, and we got married five days ago.”
“Married?” she shrieked again. “You eloped and didn’t tell me?”
“Calm down, Mom,” Nicholas said. “There was a very good reason why we had to get married immediately.”
“You got her pregnant?” their dad said with an air of disappointment. “Have I taught you nothing about protection?”
“Actually, we waited until we were married for that.” Nicholas sounded annoyed. “Not that it’s any of your business.”
“Your son was a perfect gentleman, Captain Stephenson.” Becky impressively remembered to include their father’s high commission in the Army. “We were strongly encouraged to get married by the local Mayan tribal leader and he performed the ceremony himself.”
“Is that even legal?” their dad asked.
“Maybe…” Becky bit her lower lip and turned the conversation back over to Nicholas.
“Probably not,” Nicholas said. “Which is why her parents are scheduling us a real wedding next month where Becky can wear a white dress and have friends and family surrounding us, and pictures and flowers and cake.”
“I do love cake.” Becky giggled again.
“I love you,” Nicholas whispered, and they leaned closer to give each other a quick peck.
Levi took that as his cue to change the subject. “Do you guys want to hear about Tiani now?” Levi heard the emotion in his own words, and he smiled at the elegant woman by his side. She had no idea what he just said, other than her own name.
“Yes, tell us about Tiani,” their mom said. “I’m not even going to try to guess anything since apparently I’m so far off I’m on the wrong continent.”
“Actually, you are on the wrong continent,” Levi said. “Tiani was born in a small village in Guatemala and is the daughter of our previously-mentioned Mayan tribal leader, His Highness, Prince Gabor Sayid.”
There was no sound from his parents for a long moment and Levi wondered if the line had gone dead. Finally, their dad cleared his throat. “Did you say… Sayid?”
“Yes, Sir, I did,” Levi said with respectful confidence. “My future father-in-law is the great-grandson of Prince Marcos Sayid of Madain Saleh, father to Prince Benjamin.”
“No flippen way,” their dad said. Levi was impressed how well his father hid the inappropriate word he would have used if he’d been talking with a group of soldiers instead of his wife and sons.
“So, you’re not married yet?” his mom asked. “Can you still get out of the engagement? I don’t want you moving to some jungle village in a third world country. I’ve been there and it’s not pretty.”
“Mother, Tiani is standing right next to me. Thankfully she doesn’t speak English, so she won’t have understood the insulting way you just dismissed her. I’m going to encourage her to say hello to you in Spanish, since you likely wouldn’t understand her native Yucatec. I would encourage you to be polite, if not welcoming.”
Levi turned to Tiani and invited her to say hello to his parents in Spanish.
“Hola me alegro de conocerte,” Tiani said. “¿Hablas español?”
“Si, Nosotros hablamos español.” their father confirmed that they could understand her speaking Spanish. Then he told her they were glad to meet her as well.
“Anyway, you’ll have a chance to meet her in person when you come down for our wedding,” Levi said.
“Wait, what?” their mom stopped him. “You want us to come down there for you to get married?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Levi choked out, no longer confident his parents would join him on what should be the happiest day of his life.
“When?” she squeaked out.
“Tomorrow, if possible.” Levi met his twin brother’s gaze and Nicholas inherently knew it was his turn to interject.
“Mom, dad, it’s Nicholas,” he said. “This is important to us. We’d really like for you to join us. But he’s getting married tomorrow whether you’re here or not.” Nicholas nodded to Levi in confirmation. At least the most important member of Levi’s family would be at his side.
Tiani brazenly tucked herself into Levi’s arms and he pulled her close, letting a tear or two fall into her beautiful hair. He wanted to reassure her that she wasn’t the problem.
“They don’t want me to move to Guatemala,” Levi said in Yucatec so only she understood him. “They will miss me.”
“We can go visit them,” Tiani said, looking up at him with innocence in her deep brown eyes.
“Yes, we can.” Levi fought the overwhelming urge to lean down and kiss her. He was already crossing about a hundred lines by holding her in his arms and kissing the top of her head. One more day. He only had to wait one more day. And then he could kiss her every minute of every day from now until eternity.
“We can’t just uproot our lives and fly off to Guatemala at a moment’s notice, you know,” his mom said.
“That’s okay, Mom,” Levi said. “We understand. Hey, I gotta go. I have… uh… work to do. I’ll let you talk to Nick.” He didn’t even wait for his parents to say goodbye, just kept one arm around his bride’s shoulders and walked with her toward the tunnel, intending to go speak to her father and schedule their wedding for the following day.
Levi’s happiness with Tiani wasn’t contingent upon the approval of his parents. But he needed to obtain approval from her parents or there wouldn’t be a wedding at all.
After a jovial lunch regaling one another what the others had missed while they were separated, their next stop was the Registry of Catastral Information to obtain maps and surveys of the land surrounding the temple pyramid. In order to purchase the land, they needed as much information as possible about the specific ownership of the land, the extent, value and tax valuation. They knew the purchase would take months, if not years, to finalize, but at least they had a starting place.
A thought kept tickling the back of Levi’s mind that being married to the daughter of the tribal chief could provide an advantage when attempting to purchase the land. He knew foreigners were allowed to purchase land in Guatemala, but this was a huge chunk of land that was currently owned by the federal government and occupied by natives who were basically living there for free. The opportunity to receive tax revenue from the owner of the land may be another incentive.
Other thoughts plagued him as they drove north from Flores to Tikal. An hour in the back-row seat of a large Jeep staring out the window as the landscape rolled by gave him time to think.
Tiani and Becky again sat together in the middle row and Levi sat beside Nicholas. The chief sat in the front passenger seat beside the driver. None of them held any conversations until Nicholas leaned closer and spoke in a voice just loud enough to be heard by Levi.
“You doing okay?” His twin was perceptive.
“A lot on my mind, that’s all.” Levi picked at his fingernails, his hands resting in his lap.
“Anything you want to talk about?” Nicholas asked.
“Just trying to figure out how I’m going to make this all work.”
“What were you and Tiani talking about while I was trying to distract everyone else before lunch?”
“Kind of making our engagement a little more official,” Levi said. “I’m planning to talk to her father either tonight or tomorrow and see if he has decided if I’m worthy to marry his daughter.”
“After all you did for them today, I don’t see how he could argue,” Nicholas said.
“That’s not why I helped them.” Levi didn’t mean to sound defensive.
“I know that, but the chief will probably see that to your advantage.”
“I want to bring mom and dad down here for our wedding,” Levi said. “I don’t want ours to be the way yours was. I want the ceremony to be planned and spiritual and solemn, a celebration of our love and our choice to get married. You know what I mean?”
“You know what’s funny,” Nicholas said. “When Becky and I were standing there with the chief dictating the words that were said and the conch shells and the incense burning, I thought to myself that you would love this.”
Levi chuckled. “As much as we think we’re so identical, there are some ways in which we are very different.”
“The minute we popped out of mom we immediately began separate lives, separate experiences,” Nicholas said.
“I’m really gonna miss you when we’re apart.” Levi’s throat tightened and tears pricked his eyes.
“We’ll never be more than an airplane ride away from each other, and you can have a satellite phone and call me every day if you want.”
“I’ll try not to bug you every day,” Levi said.
“No way, man. You’d better call me every day, or I’ll feel withdrawals. That or get super worried that you’re alive and well.”
“If you insist.” Levi felt a weight lift from his shoulders knowing his twin wanted to hear from him every day. He didn’t feel so alone. They still had over a month together before going back to the States. Separation anxiety this far in advance was not a good sign.
The four-hour trek from Tikal to the village was grueling after their long, tiring day. There was very little talking or excitement or anticipation, other than desire to collapse in bed when they arrived. That got Levi thinking of another aspect of marrying Tiani. Where would they sleep?
He wondered if Tiani had her own home, of if she expected they would live with her parents. That didn’t seem like a fun place to spend their honeymoon. He wished he could take her back to their townhouse in Cambridge. Now that Nicholas was married he’d likely move to Houston immediately to move in with Becky. Levi and Tiani would have the townhouse to themselves. The thought made him smile. That led his mind down other paths of anticipation and he tried not to let his fantasies run too far amiss.
Tiani was not only elegant and beautiful, there was a subtle fire behind her eyes that she saved only for him. Nicholas had described her as having bedroom eyes. Levi wondered if that was true. He wondered if maybe Tiani was fantasizing about him the same way he was fantasizing about her. He wished he could ask her. He wasn’t even sure how to broach the subject.
Excuse me, Tiani, I know you said you’d like to get married. Have you thought about our wedding night at all? Do you have any idea how incredible that will be? Do you even know what men and women do on their wedding night? What kind of sex education did you have in school? School? That’s where you go to a building to have teachers who instruct you how to read and write and do math. No school in the village? Ugh… okay. Guess you haven’t had that particular health education class, huh? Gee, I’d be happy to teach you everything you need to know. No, I haven’t been married before, but I have a general idea of how things work. We’ll learn together.
Levi couldn’t hide his grin and was glad they were walking single file along the jungle path. Explaining his train of thought, even to his twin, would be extremely embarrassing. He also entertained himself thinking of all the other things he could teach Tiani, like how to speak English, how to interpret the symbols on the temple pyramid, how to read and write. Maybe he could even teach the other tribal members the same things. Maybe he was brought to this place at this time to help these people.
By the time they reached the village, his brain was tired along with his body. He mumbled goodnight to everyone else in their little group before collapsing in his tent. He didn’t wake up until mid-morning and he awoke to a surprise.
Levi nearly jumped out of his skin when his eyes opened and he found Tiani sitting cross legged and serene near his feet, inside his tent, beside his bedroll. He glanced at the zipper door of the tent and wondered how she possibly got all the way in the door and zipped it closed without him waking.
“What are you doing in here?” Levi scrambled to a sitting position, tangled in blankets. “Your father is going to kill me.”
“He already left with Timothy and James through the tunnel to the temple.”
“Did anyone else see you come in here?” His racing heart hadn’t yet slowed.
“I don’t think so,” she said.
“What are you doing in here?” Levi circled back to his original question.
“I spoke with my mother and father this morning,” she said, not really answering his question. “I told them that you are worthy to be my husband, and they agree.”
“They do?” Levi forgot his convictions and took her hands in his, excitement filling his heart.
“You were right that my father respects my opinion, but he also agreed with me before he heard my opinion. He sees something special in you, just like I do. He also knows that I will leave with you, but he knows I will return soon.”
Levi was dumbfounded and didn’t know how to answer. He fought every urge inside him not to pull her into his arms and kiss her until neither of them could see straight. Instead he answered her with a jumbled train of thoughts. “I want to bring my parents down for our wedding, and I want to take you home to Cambridge when the rainy season starts, and do you have a house here in the village for us to live? Or would you like to move into my tent? How soon can we get married? As soon as my parents can get here? Tomorrow, maybe? How many children do you want to have? Can I kiss you now?”
Tiani giggled. “That was a lot of questions. Yes, I have a house to sleep with you, Yes, we can get married as soon as your parents arrive, even if that is tomorrow. As many babies as our bodies create together. And, no, you cannot kiss me until you marry me.”
“Oh, how I wish I could marry you right now.” Levi’s inappropriate thoughts about his incredible fiancé were halted in another realization. “We need to hurry and go to the temple site so I can use Timothy’s satellite phone and call my parents. The sooner they get here the sooner I can kiss you.”
“You go eat breakfast,” Tiani said, grabbing his blanket and pulling it close to her chest. “I will lay here and wrap myself in your scent.” She lay her head on his pillow and he nearly lost his resolve.
Levi reached for the tent zipper and hurried out of his tent before he did something crazy like lie next to her and kiss her while slowly removing that dress. Breakfast. Not exactly what he was hungry for, but that would have to do for now. He zipped the tent closed behind him and practically ran away toward the breakfast hut.
At first light, the small group was assembled and ready to hike to Tikal. Chief Gabor and Tiani had enlisted two of their warriors to accompany them, and Timothy had asked the expedition’s field guide, James, to come along. Becky of course joined Nicholas so that made nine people including Levi. They would need two Jeeps to get from Tikal to Flores.
Trekking along ready-made trails and under the mounds using tunnels made the four-hour walk to Tikal seem easy compared to hacking through the jungle with a machete.
After the tension from the previous day, everyone kept their speaking brief and simple, and always in Spanish.
The previous evening at the campfire in the middle of the village, Levi and Tiani had developed a system of communicating where she would lift her eyebrows a certain way to tell him she had no idea what one of them was talking about and he would know to give her a better explanation in Yucatec.
They had also begun some very basic lessons on English using things they could see in the circle of light from the campfire such as the words for tree, rock, foot, or hand. That morphed into simple phrases of salutations and declarations. My name is Tiani. I am hungry. I don’t speak English.
She was an eager learner and picked things up quickly. Levi had no doubt Tiani would eventually be able to pick up the language.
Inevitably the topic of their pseudo-betrothal came up and Tiani thanked Levi for working with her father to deescalate the situation. He hoped to convey to her that he did want to marry her. He just wanted their marriage to be a choice rather than forced. Levi hoped she understood.
When they reached Tikal, they hurried into the waiting Jeeps, not wanting their unlikely group to be scrutinized by outside observers.
“Is this your first time in a car?” Becky asked Tiani since they sat together in the middle seat. Levi’s ears perked up to hear the answer.
Tiani gripped the arm rest, her eyes wide and her body tense. “I don’t know what this means.”
Becky patted the seat beneath her and said, “This car will take us to the next village very quickly. We would not be able to walk so far in a day.”
“Okay,” Tiani said, but didn’t loosen her grip the entire hour drive from Tikal to Flores.
Levi fought the urge to hold out his hand and help Tiani down from the car just like Nicholas helped his wife Becky. He had promised not to touch Tiani again, but he wanted to be able to hold her hand, or touch her lower back, or give her a hug. Even that tiny level of intimacy would have to wait.
While Levi and Nicholas escorted Tiani and her father into the bank, Timothy took the rest of the group to a local shopping mall and to the island for sight-seeing.
Thankfully one employee at the bank had a primitive understanding of Yucatec and the Mayan traditions. With Levi’s ability to translate between three languages, and the twins’ knowledge of the Sayid royal family, they were able to find the correct account from two generations prior. By some miracle they were able to access the account even though Tiani and Chief Gabor had no formal identification.
The tribe had no need for cash so they left all the money—just over two million U.S. dollars—in the bank account. Wishing to remedy the lack of identification, they headed next to the Superintendent of Tax Administration office.
Again, Levi’s ability to translate between three languages was invaluable. There would be several hoops to jump through in order to obtain birth certificates, personal identification, and passports. The process might include a trip to Guatemala City to the office of the National Registry of Persons. Levi suspected he may need to call in some favors and bring down a private jet to fly from Flores to Guatemala City rather than make the nine-hour drive.
Levi wondered when his archaeological expedition had morphed into a civil liberties procurement expedition. He glanced over at the elegant Mayan princess, Tiani Sayid, daughter of His Highness, Mayan Chief Gabor Sayid, and knew his expedition changed the minute she yelled at him for understanding her language.
As if sensing his gaze, Tiani turned her face briefly in his direction and he caught a tiny pull of her mouth that was almost a smile. He couldn’t help the grin that spread across his face and his twin nudged him with an elbow.
They had arranged to have an afternoon meal at La Villa Del Chef on the west side of the island and stood on the outdoor patio watching boats on the lake and waiting for the rest of the group to join them. Levi wasn’t sure if the flutter in his stomach was because they’d skipped lunch or because Tiani had glanced his way.
“She’s always so poised, isn’t she?” Nicholas whispered. “Like she can’t let her guard down for a second.”
“You and Becky should join us at the campfire tonight after the rest of the village retires. She’s like a different person.” Levi sighed and his shoulders relaxed, thinking of their long talks. “She laughs.”
“No way!” Nicholas turned to Levi with incredulity in his countenance. “I cannot picture this scenario. I have every intention of joining you at the campfire this evening. May need to take a quick nap first so that I can stay awake.”
“Yeah, right. I know what your version of a nap entails.” Levi shuddered, not wanting to think about what his brother and Becky were doing so frequently.
“The way your little princess looks at you with those bedroom eyes, I have a sneaking suspicion you’ll know first-hand sooner than later.”
“What would mother and father say if we both come home married?”
“They will be excited to meet their new daughters-in-law,” Nicholas answered.
“What about when they find out one of their daughters-in-law lives in Houston, and the other…” Levi hesitated. Was this really happening?
“Moving down here, aren’t you?” Nicholas whispered.
“I don’t see any other way of making this work,” Levi said.
“We’re wealthy enough that you can have a home in Houston and one in Guatemala,” Nicholas said. “Like snowbirds who live in Michigan half the year and Florida half the year.”
“We’re not talking about driving across country here,” Levi said. “This is a different continent.”
“So, let’s purchase a private jet,” Nicholas suggested. “We can all travel back and forth any time we want. Come down for research expeditions, come home to the States because we’ve been detached from each other’s hips for too many hours. Bring our parents down for a weekend getaway.” Nicholas pointed down the beach to the fancy hotel next door.
“You really think it’s do-able?” Levi gulped, feeling vulnerable.
Nicholas pulled his shoulder around so Levi would look at him. “We can do anything we put our minds to. We’re the geek twins.”
“Even purchase thousands of acres of land surrounding a pyramid in the middle of a jungle?” Levi asked with a grin and a tiny bit more hope.
“Yeah, like that.” Nicholas looked over Levi’s shoulder, then smiled and pushed past him to run ahead and grab his wife in a hug.
“Seriously?” Levi muttered to himself. “They’ve been apart for two hours. You’d think they hadn’t seen each other in months.”
“Translate for me?” Tiani came up beside him and they stood side-by-side watching Nicholas swing Becky in a hug. He knew she wasn’t asking him to translate what Nicholas was saying to the rest of the group who had finally joined them at the restaurant. She wanted to know what Levi and his brother had been saying to each other in English.
“Nicholas thinks I should move to Guatemala,” Levi whispered in Yucatec. They were far enough away from her father, who was leaning against the railing watching the boats, for him to hear.
“What if I want to move to America?” Tiani asked. They were still standing together and apart from the others, and her pinky finger brushed his, purposely. Levi glanced toward her father, noting he was still facing the other direction.
“We don’t have to choose,” Levi said. “We can have two homes. One here in your village…” He hesitated and finally turned to her, searching her eyes.
“And one in yours?” she whispered.
“Yeah.” His nod was subtle. “One in mine.”
“Does your village have a lot of trees?” Tiani asked.
“Not as many as yours. But I could take you all over the world and show you places with many trees and places with no trees, and places where other people speak Yucatec, and places where neither of us will understand the languages.”
“But you speak three languages.” She creased her brow. “Are there more?”
“Many, many more.”
“Levi?” She lowered her gaze and bit her lip.
“Yes?” He gulped.
“I feel the way you tell me I should feel,” she said. “I feel pulled to you and I want to be with you. You said that is all I need to feel in order to know I want to marry you.”
Levi wanted to tell her there were so many more things she needed to know but he didn’t want to dissuade her. She would have a great deal more to learn about his world, but she would have to experience his world in order to understand. “Tiani, do you want to marry me?”
“Yes.” She nodded, but kept her face lowered.
Glancing over to her father again to ensure the chief was still facing away, Levi boldly raised his hand and lifted her chin with his finger. How badly he wanted to lean down and press his lips to hers, but he didn’t dare. He was already crossing a line by touching her chin. “I want to marry you too.”
She visibly relaxed and Levi’s heart raced in excitement and anticipation. She wanted to marry him. He couldn’t believe his own luck.
“I’ll speak to your father,” Levi said. “I’ll ask him if I’ve proven myself worthy of you.”
“If you take me to your village, I am allowed to decide that for myself?”
He chuckled. “Yes, you would be allowed to decide.”
“Then I want to go there. I want to tell your father that you are worthy.”
“I want you to meet my family.” Levi nodded. “Maybe I can bring them here for our wedding. But, either way, I think your father will decide I am worthy. Especially if you tell him you think I am. Your words mean a great deal to him.”
“Will you still take me to your village?”
“Yes, princess, I will take you to my village.”
Levi noticed the group coming in their direction, ready to head into the restaurant and he stepped away from Tiani. He purposely sat at the opposite side of the table, right next to her father, where he knew he wouldn’t be tempted to hold her hand, or do anything else.
Levi shuffled his way back to his team of scientists wondering how they would react to the outdated tribal rules he’d just agreed to follow. All twelve of them waited with gaping mouths and wide eyes.
“First of all, what did you say that got Tiani so upset that she stormed away?” Nicholas asked. “And what happened in the tunnel? And what did you just say to her father?”
“Um… I am now officially on a quest to prove my worth to the tribal chief so that I’ll be ready on my wedding day to protect his daughter forevermore,” Levi answered his twin brother.
“You’re engaged?” Becky stepped forward, an excited gleam in her eye. Having recently married Nicholas, she was still riding the high of true love. “That’s so sweet.”
“You’d think… but it’s not that sweet when you consider the complete disregard for Tiani’s choices in forcing her to marry me.”
“Why would she be forced to marry you?” Nicholas asked.
“Because she touched me.” Levi realized he’d need to explain things in better detail but was interrupted.
“Woah, you move fast. How much fun did you have in that tunnel?” Matt asked. As the youngest member of their archeological team of scientists, he was also the least educated, still working his way through graduate school. “I thought you were just talking.”
“We were just talking.” Sort of. “She placed her hands on my chest when she got mad at us about speaking too many languages at the same time.”
“That’s what she got upset about?” Timothy asked. “That we were speaking too many languages?” Timothy led the team as excavation director, and was supposedly in charge, although Levi felt like the one in charge since he was the only one who could translate for the tribal members.
“She’d be forced to marry you because she put her hand on your chest?” Becky asked.
“Weren’t we speaking enough Spanish?” Kaden asked. As site administrator, Kaden had fewer responsibilities than his title implied, although he interjected his opinions frequently, often saying what everyone needed to hear.
“Let Levi explain,” Nicholas said, nodding for Levi to continue.
“In Houston you guys probably speak Tex-Mex all the time without even thinking about it,” Levi said. “But here they only speak Spanish when trading at the outposts. That’s not their primary language and they can’t keep up when you throw English words in with the Spanish.”
“Yeah, we do speak Tex-Mex in Houston,” Timothy admitted.
Levi continued his explanation. “Plus, everyone’s talking to each other as if we’re all a bunch of PhDs, which most of us are. So even the Spanish is over their heads.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Nicholas said.
“Then after we talked and laughed for five minutes, I turned to her and translated that whole conversation with one dismissive sentence. That’s when she lost her temper.”
“Feisty little thing, ain’t she?” Matt raised his eyebrows playfully. “I like that in a girl.”
“That’s my future wife you’re talking about.” Levi didn’t crack a smile, although he mostly meant his statement to be lighthearted.
Matt’s countenance shifted. “Sorry, man. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Are you really being forced to marry her?” Nicholas asked, true concern in the crease of his brow.
“No, she is being forced to marry me. There’s a difference. But I’m delaying the inevitable by claiming I need to prove myself worthy. Tiani and I hope this will slow things down. We barely know each other. Plus, if she marries me, I want that to be her choice, not her father’s choice, or because of some tradition. I want her to marry me because she wants to marry me.”
“What about you?” Becky asked. “What if you don’t want to marry her?”
Multiple guys in the group laughed at Becky. Nicholas pursed his lips together, obviously trying to hide a smile. Levi stuck his hands in his pockets and shuffled his feet.
“Don’t you dare make some comment about her beauty or the fact that she’s a princess or the daughter of a tribal chief.” Becky put her hands on her hips.
“Relax, babe.” Nicholas wrapped his arms around his wife. “I think we were all laughing in recognition of the fact that Levi has his tongue out like a faithful Labrador whenever she so much as glances his way.”
“Yeah, Levi wanting to marry Tiani is about as obvious as Nicholas wanting to marry you,” Timothy said. “He’s whipped.”
“Anyway…” Levi felt his cheeks heat as they laughed at him again. “Don’t we have work to do? A temple pyramid to document?” He pushed past the team members and headed toward the majestic building, a tiny grin pulling at the corner of his mouth.
“Why are you still standing here?” Nicholas hissed at Levi. “Go after her!”
Levi shook himself out of his trance, glanced at Tiani’s father, whose face had a similar startled expression, then hurried to catch up to Tiani. She was heading toward the tunnel and entered the darkness before he could reach her.
“Tiani, wait,” Levi called out in Yucatec. Neither of them had a lantern or flashlight so they were plunged into near blackness almost immediately and Levi plowed into her when she stopped suddenly. He grabbed her arms to hold her upright and keep himself from faceplanting into the tunnel. He quickly pulled his hands off her arms. “I’m sorry!”
She spun around to face him and was suddenly close enough that he could have kissed her if he’d been so bold. He would never disrespect her that way.
As if the move was involuntary, Tiani lifted both hands and placed them on his chest again, leaving them there. Her breath had increased, and she glanced up into his eyes.
“Tiani,” Levi whispered, not sure what else to say.
“My father will force me to marry you because I touched you.”
“I would marry you this minute.” Levi’s hands moved as if on their own volition and he rested them on her hips, his eyes searching hers. “But is that what you want? In my culture women have a choice who to marry.”
“I do not live in your culture.” She shook her head, not answering his question.
“I will speak to your father,” Levi said, still with his hands on her hips and her hands on his chest. “As long as he knows that I’m willing to marry you, he won’t force us. I’ll tell him that I need time to prove to him that I’m worthy of his daughter. And then, once we get to know each other, if you want to marry me, I will marry you. But only if that’s what you want. If you don’t want to marry me, I will find a way to get you out of the commitment.”
“How will I know if I want to marry you?”
“You’ll feel a powerful pull towards me in your heart,” Levi explained, realizing his hands had subtly pulled her closer. “You’ll feel as if you want to be near me all the time.” He was mostly describing how he felt about her.
“I feel that way already,” she said. He suspected that.
“Let’s continue to get to know one another and learn to communicate better, just without touching each other.” Neither of them moved their hands.
“Will you still teach me English?” Her vulnerability was endearing.
“Of course,” Levi whispered. “I will do anything for you, princess.”
“Will you kiss me? Like a girlfriend?”
“After you marry me,” he said, raising his eyebrows seductively. “I will not defile you in any way.”
“You are already touching me. That, according to our traditions, is defiling me.” Her hands subtly kneaded his chest, reminding him that she touched him first, and still had her hands on him.
“I can’t seem to pull my hands away.” His words were barely a breath.
Her hands travelled up his shoulders to his neck and gently pulled him closer. Tempting. So tempting.
“Tiani, we mustn’t do this.” His willpower finally caught up to his brain and he reached up to pull her hands from around his neck, holding them in his and lifting them to kiss her knuckles. She nearly fell into his arms. He caught her by the elbows and held her upright. “I don’t want to cause you any more trouble. Let’s go back out into the sun and I’ll talk to your father, okay?”
“Okay,” she agreed with a sigh.
Before letting her go, Levi allowed himself one more tiny indulgence. He pulled her into his arms and she laid her head on his chest while he held her, breathing deeply to capture the scent of whatever natural oils she used to create the thickness and sheen of her chestnut hair. Around her crown, she wore a complex arrangement of braiding that cascaded down her back. She was elegant and regal and completely off-limits until the day they shared vows before the tribe, and the chief pronounced them as married.
She took a step back and folded her arms across her chest as if forcing herself not to touch him again.
Levi tucked his hands behind his back like an old-fashioned gentleman and followed her out of the tunnel.
Without allowing his gaze to pull to the left or right, Levi strode directly toward Chief Gabor Sayid.
“Your highness, may I have a word with you?” Levi purposely looked him in the eye, lifting his chin and pulling bravery from somewhere deep inside.
The chief grunted and fell in line beside Levi, waiting to speak until they walked away from earshot of the others, not that any of them would understand Yucatec.
“Tiani has explained to me your tribe’s requirement that she marry me after having placed her hands on my chest in such a familial way.” Levi brought his own hand up to his chest as if demonstrating. “I am willing to take on the responsibility, but not until I prove myself worthy of your daughter. What would you have me do to prove my worth?” Levi waited, fearful the chief would force the marriage now, taking away Tiani’s agency. Or worse, forbid Levi from seeing her again.
“I don’t know,” Chief Gabor said, turning to face him and looking him up and down. “You are not a warrior. How will you protect her?”
Levi wanted to list all the reasons she wouldn’t need protection living in his world, but that would imply he intended to take Tiani from her home and force her to live his lifestyle.
What the heck was he doing? She would never leave her tribe, especially not for a geeky professor. What could she possibly see in him? Why was he pursuing a relationship with her when they could never make it work?
He would find a way to make this work. Somehow.
“I will use the skills of my intelligence to protect her.” Levi pointed to his own head. “I may not be large in stature, but I am very smart. Search your heart and decide how you would like me to prove my worth. When you have come to a conclusion, tell me what you would have me do, and I will do that.”
Levi bowed his head reverently to Chief Gabor, a prince in the Sayid royal bloodline, the man who would someday become his father-in-law. Lifting his gaze, Levi met the chief’s eyes again and waited.
“I will search my heart and give you my decision at a later time,” Chief Gabor said. “Your quest to prove your worth begins now.”
The chief shouldered past Levi and strode with intention toward his daughter, who still waited by the entrance to the tunnel.
Before she followed her father back to the village, Tiani met Levi’s gaze and he nodded subtly, telling her in a nonverbal way that the chief had agreed to their plan.
She allowed a tiny smile to break her façade before pulling her features back into place and turned to follow her father.
“How long will it take to walk to Tikal?” Timothy asked Tiani and Chief Gabor, holding the satellite phone and maintaining his communication in Spanish. The temple pyramid behind him shown in the late-morning sun streaming through the tree canopy, reminding Levi why this trek to Tikal and then south to Flores was so important.
Chief Gabor glanced at his daughter and they both shrugged. The chief answered in Spanish. “Four hours, maybe.”
“Wow, a little different than a three-day trek over the mounds,” Becky said. She seemed so relaxed since marrying Nicholas. She had literally let her hair down, almost to the point of looking disheveled. Levi knew his twin liked his wife this way. From the moment they’d met she’d been poised and professional. But Nicholas had asked her to wear her hair down for their wedding and she hadn’t twisted it back up in its professional style since that day. She finally looked like the crazy scientist she was rather than a businesswoman.
“Maybe we should wait until tomorrow,” Timothy suggested, hesitating with the satellite phone ready to call for the Jeeps. They planned to meet them at the edge of the jungle where the tribe exited near the trading post at Tikal.
“Yeah, we need that will and testament that Prince Marcos Sayid left for the chief’s grandfather,” Nicholas said. The paperwork was on the other side of the mound separating the village from the temple pyramid. This pushed back the time of departure even further.
“And before travelling over there we should research this bank a little more,” Levi said. Knowing the will and testament had been written three generations prior gave him pause. “We need to make sure the bank actually exists before we drag the tribal leaders and a third of our excavation team away from the pyramid.”
“Let’s leave at first light tomorrow,” Timothy suggested. “I’ll have the Jeeps pick us up late morning in Tikal and we’ll try to return to the village before dark. This may be a long process to purchase the land surrounding the temple pyramid, possibly even several months, but at least we’ll find out how much money we have to work with.”
“That will give us the rest of today to prepare everything,” Nicholas said, nodding in agreement.
Kaden, the site administrator interrupted. “What would you have the rest of us doing while the most important people on our team are missing? We’re already days behind and running out of time before the rainy season starts.”
“Our geoarchaeologist, Isaiah, can handle preparing each stela for capturing high-resolution photographs as well as, or better than, I can.” Nicholas smiled fondly at Isaiah. “Every one of you should be using every digital device available to take the photographs, even your cell phones. They’re not much good for anything else this far out in the middle of nowhere. Besides, you’d be surprised what detail shows up on one camera compared to another, plus differences in lighting, glare, shadows, shutter speed.”
Levi added his thoughts. “Jeremiah, our finds manager can collect the data and organize the digital images the same way he would catalog bones and pottery fragments. All of you should be helping with soft brushes to clean the stela and prepare them for photographs. One of you use the drone to capture video and photographs of the upper most parts of the temple pyramid.”
Nicholas jumped back into the instructions. “Every bit of data you collect will help us conduct analysis later. As an environmental archaeologist, and linguist, my and Levi’s job will require a great deal of research to piece together the past and the present. The in-situ data collection is only the beginning.”
“Okay, people”—Timothy clapped his hands together once— “you heard the boss. Hop to it.”
“Timothy, I thought you were the boss,” Levi joked out of the side of his mouth.
Timothy patted Levi on the back and grinned. “He who has a billion dollars and offers to purchase a pyramid and the thousands of acres surrounding it… is the boss.”
They all laughed except the tribal leaders.
Levi turned to them and spoke in Yucatec. “We were just telling everyone on the team what to do while we’re travelling to Flores to purchase your land.”
“These people speak too many languages at the same time,” Tiani said in Yucatec, folding her arms across her chest. The colorful hand-woven textile dress she wore was designed to showcase her high standing in the tribe by accenting the feathers in her headdress of ornately carved wood. Her hair was pulled back and intricately braided around her headdress, then cascaded down her back. As he’d just been thinking of Becky letting down her hair, Levi wondered if Tiani would ever be willing to do the same. She nodded toward the team of scientists gathered around the computer table and glared at Levi. “They mix Spanish together with your English language and we cannot understand them.”
Levi realized most of the recent conversation had morphed into a passionate mix of English and some Spanish, and the tribal leaders were probably beyond lost. He spoke directly to them in Yucatec, hoping to bring them up to speed.
“We were telling the rest of the team to collect photographs of the whole temple so we can translate them, while we travel to Flores to purchase the land. This team of scientists who discovered your temple pyramid may have been the first, but they won’t be the last. More scientists will come here if we don’t find a way to make their presence illegal.”
“Most of what you just said made no sense to me, even in Yucatec.” Tiani pursed her lips and lifted her chin, her voice growing more animated. She stepped closer to Levi and pushed her hands against his chest. “I am tired of you giving me one sentence answers to translate an entire conversation. You need to translate better.”
Levi was startled by her touch. His eyes fixed on hers and his words, spoken slowly and in her native language, conveyed a meaning beyond science. “I will do whatever you ask of me, my princess.”
She gave him one more shove then seemed to realize what she’d done in touching Levi and her eyes grew wide. She took a step back and stared at her traitorous hands then tucked them behind her back, glanced at her father, and then back at Levi.
“What the heck was that all about?” Nicholas asked in English, a near whisper, speaking only to his twin. “What did you just say to each other?”
“Uh… I’m not entirely sure.” Levi still couldn’t pull his gaze from Tiani’s and her perfect façade was completely broken. A tear ran down each of her cheeks and she was shaking. “I think I may have just pledged myself to be her humble servant for the rest of eternity.”
“Now you understand,” Nicholas whispered, even closer to Levi and softer.
“Not quite the same,” Levi whispered back. “The chief had a spear to your chest insisting you marry Rebecca. He’s going to have a spear to my back, running me out of his village.”
“I don’t think so,” Nicholas mumbled. “Look at his eyes. He respects you.”
“I can’t pull my gaze away from hers,” Levi said. “I’m making a fool of myself right now, aren’t I?”
“Nah.” Nicholas patted him on the back. “Anyone who doesn’t understand has never been in love.”
“Is that what this is?” Levi asked, his eyes glassy.
“You tell me,” his twin challenged.
“I have no idea,” Levi mumbled.
“Let’s go purchase some land so you can prove yourself worthy of a Mayan princess,” Nicholas said.
“Worthy…” There was no such thing. No man could ever be worthy of this woman.
“You need to teach me English,” Tiani demanded in Yucatec interrupting the twins’ whispered conversation. Then she turned on her heel and stormed away.
When Levi arrived at the temple pyramid with Nicholas and Becky, he learned the reason they couldn’t find Tiani and Chief Gabor in the village was because the two tribal leaders were already at the temple site.
Levi felt an actual physical relief when he met Tiani’s eyes for the first time that morning and noticed she seemed to sigh when seeing him too. The connection wasn’t as strong as the one between him and his twin, but it was real, nonetheless.
“About time,” Timothy called out upon seeing them emerge from the tunnel. As excavation director for the archaeology team, he was standing with the tribal leaders around the makeshift conference table they had set up with equipment. From their frustrated expressions, Levi suspected they were struggling with the language barrier.
“Blame him, not me.” Levi hitched his thumb toward his brother.
“Nah, blame my wife,” Nicholas said. “She’s the one who can’t keep her hands off me.”
“Hey,” Becky said, then pushed Nicholas so hard he fell into Levi, laughing. “I think you should blame the chief. He’s the one who forced us to get married.”
“Yeah, I can tell you’re just devastated by the institution.” Timothy rolled his eyes playfully.
Nicholas wrapped his arms around Becky and kissed the top of her head. “Marriage is absolute torture.”
Levi noticed the confusion on Tiani and her father’s faces and explained to them in Yucatec that their excavation director was teasing Nicholas and Becky about being married. A little smile pulled at the corners of Tiani’s lips and then she pulled her face back into a mask of seriousness.
“Now that you are all here,” Tiani said in Spanish to include everyone— “explain your invasion of our sacred temple.” This wasn’t a request. Tiani seemed to command attention and expected her subjects to fall in line to her demands.
“Rebecca—” Timothy turned to Becky— “Would you like to take the lead since you were the first to discover the Fibonacci spiral?”
They moved the conversation to the portable folding table where electronic equipment was spread out, fully charged by a small generator the drop team had delivered. Becky opened her laptop and displayed an aerial image of the Yucatan Peninsula, zoomed in to the area around the temple pyramid.
Tiani tried to pick up the computer, tipping it on its side and looking behind it to see how it made that strange image. Finally, she sat back and folded her arms, her brow creased.
Without attempting a full explanation about spectral imaging and waves of light and how they were used to display the geographic region without vegetation, Becky showed two images of the same location, with trees and without trees.
Tiani and her father both gasped the same way Levi and Nicholas had the first time they’d seen the image. Even though they didn’t understand the process, they understood enough to recognize their temple pyramid and their village at the center of the spiral of mounds.
“You know about this trading post over here by Tikal,” Becky said, pointing to the screen. “And you know of this village over here on the other side of the jungle near El Zotz, but you may not know about all the other villages.”
Becky zoomed out to show them Flores, then the entire Yucatan Peninsula, and Central America, then the continents of South and North America, then zoomed out so far that Google Earth showed the entire globe which Becky could spin with the pointer of her mouse.
Levi could tell Tiani and Chief Gabor were overwhelmed. He backtracked, pulling the computer closer to him and zooming again into their village, then zoomed out just a little bit more to show them Tikal.
Speaking in their native Yucatec to help them understand, Levi said. “You have seen the village at Tikal, right? Have you seen how many of these beautiful carvings are still on their temple pyramid?”
“No.” Tiani shook her head. “There are no carvings.”
“Exactly,” Levi said. “Bad people stole the carvings many years ago.”
“Why would anyone want to steal them?” the chief asked.
“To sell them to museums and art collectors,” Levi explained. “They are very special.”
“That’s why they need to stay on the temple.” Tiani folded her arms across her chest definitively.
“We agree.” Levi waved his finger between himself and the scientists around him. “We’re here to document this building and translate the carvings so we can find a way to preserve the temple forever and stop looters.”
“How?” she asked.
“We don’t know yet,” Levi admitted. He looked up and spoke in Spanish again to include the others. “They want to know how we plan to preserve the temple and stop looters.”
“We need to find some way to protect the land so that it’s illegal to trespass,” Nicholas answered, also in Spanish. “The government owns the land. I wonder if they would sell the whole area to the village. How much land is owned by the village?” Nicholas asked the tribal chief.
“People do now own land.” Chief Gabor lifted his chin with pride. “Mother Earth owns the land.”
“Well, the Guatemalan government controls this land,” Levi said in a soft, soothing voice. “Once people learn about the temple they will want to come and see the building for themselves. Unless we find a way to keep them off the land, people will try to force you to leave.”
“We are the protectors of this temple,” the chief said lifting his chest. “This has been the case for many generations. No one can force us to leave.”
“It’s happened in other parts of the world,” Levi said. “Natives have been forced from their homes with much more powerful weapons than spears and swords. We don’t want that to happen to you.”
“We should purchase the land,” Nicholas said matter-of-factly.
“That would cost a small fortune.” Timothy shook his head dismissively.
“What else are we going to do with our money?” Nicholas asked. “Between our estate and the money from the Sayids, there has to be enough to convince the Guatemalan government.”
“Not a bad idea.” Levi caught his brother’s vision. “We can purchase the land and deed it over to the tribe.”
“Have you figured out yet how much money they have?” Timothy asked.
“No, we need to take them over to Flores and find that bank.” Levi turned again to Tiani and the chief. “Do you have an easy way to get to Tikal? More tunnels, perhaps?”
“Yes, we have tunnels under every mound,” Tiani said.
“Can you use the satellite phone to call for a Jeep?” Levi asked Timothy, his excitement growing.
“Forgive me for playing devil’s advocate here,” Kaden, the site administrator interrupted. “But aren’t we here in Guatemala to conduct an archaeology expedition? Shouldn’t we be examining the excavation site rather than taking a road trip to some bank an hour away?”
“If we don’t preserve this land,” Nicholas said. “There won’t be a site for long. We may be the first team of scientists to venture this far into the jungle to study this pyramid, but we won’t be the last. If we can document our findings to present to the scientific community, and preserve the land surrounding the site, we will hopefully prevent looters from destroying the sanctity of the building.”
“NCALM may have been the first team of scientists to fly this region using LiDAR, but we won’t be the last, especially after word gets out,” Timothy said. “I agree with the twins on this one. If they’re willing to fund the purchase of this land, we can’t turn our backs on the notion.”
“You still here, little brother?” Nicholas asked, patting Levi on the shoulder and sitting beside him at the breakfast table. He reached to grab a tortilla, leaning across Levi with a grin.
“I wasn’t planning on trekking back through that tunnel without you, big brother,” Levi said to his twin, the guy who had been born seven minutes earlier than him. “Where’s your bride? Sleeping in?”
“Nah, just getting ready for the day, using the bathroom, that kind of thing. Whatever it is women do in the morning. Can you hand me those potatoes? I’m starving. We’re coming with you over to the temple pyramid today, don’t worry.”
“I’m not worried,” Levi said. “I just didn’t want to spend the night that far apart from you again. I suppose we’ll have to get used to sleeping apart if you move to Houston, huh?” Levi felt his throat catch. This was ridiculous. They were almost thirty-one years old. Time to cut the umbilical cord.
“I get it,” Nicholas said. “Some identical twins never live apart, even after they’re married. I didn’t like being that far away from you either. I’m glad you moved your tent back into the village. We will need to figure this out though, especially if you plan to move to Guatemala.”
Levi nearly spit his juice out and started coughing. Nicholas patted him on the back. Levi managed to choke out, “What makes you think I’m moving to Guatemala?”
“I don’t think your little princess is going to want to move to Houston with you,” Nicholas said.
“Who says I’m moving to Houston?”
“Dude, you couldn’t even spend two nights apart with a twenty-minute walk between us. How are you going to stay in Cambridge when I live in Houston?”
“It took me a day to chop through that jungle, not twenty minutes,” Levi defended. “I didn’t even know about the tunnel until the following day. I was so mad at you for staying in the village I volunteered to use the machete in the point position most of the day. Then I spent the night having an anxiety attack.”
“Sorry about that, man.” Nicholas lowered his voice. “Seriously though, when you get married, you’ll understand. You can’t think about anything else besides her for days.”
“I can barely think of anything else but her and I’ve never even held her hand,” Levi mumbled. “Nor am I going to. It’s against their tradition for a man and woman to touch each other before marriage.”
“Might wanna get in good with her daddy then, because the way you two look at each other makes me think it ain’t gonna be long before you want to touch each other.”
“That sucks,” Levi mumbled.
“Worth it,” Nicholas said. “Speaking of…” Nicholas stood from his seat to welcome Becky with a quick kiss.
Becky sat with Nicholas but leaned across to smile at Levi. “Good morning.”
“Good morning.” Levi started shoving food to her side of the table, assuming she was just as hungry as her husband.
“Thank you, I’m starving.” Becky opened the packet of tortillas. “Ooh, they’re still warm.”
“Yeah, the chief’s wife is a fantastic cook and she just keeps bringing out food.” Levi had never felt so spoiled in his life. For all their talk about the scientists invading the village and threatening the temple pyramid, the villagers sure welcomed the group with open arms, or at least open kitchens. They still didn’t seem to understand why the scientists were there in the first place, but hopefully they would in time.
“Please thank her for us,” Becky said.
“She understands Spanish,” Levi said. “You can tell her yourself. As soon as she realizes you’re out here she’ll probably bring more food.”
“Where is the chief?” Nicholas asked. “And Tiani.”
“I don’t know,” Levi said. “I haven’t seen them yet this morning.”
“When do you want to go back over to the temple again?” Nicholas asked.
“I was just waiting for you.” Levi shrugged.
“What if we didn’t get out of bed again today?” Nicholas grinned.
“Then I would have been annoyed while I waited.” Levi tried to keep a straight face but failed and chuckle snorted.
“You two are seriously addicted to each other, aren’t you?” Becky asked, her hand holding her fork in midair.
“Let me see if I can explain it,” Nicholas said to his wife. “It’s like ripping my heart out of my chest, throwing it over to the other side of the mound and asking me to sleep over here and my heart to sleep over there. Am I wrong?” He turned to Levi.
“Not at all.” Levi cringed. “Sorry, I just couldn’t try to sleep over there again.”
“You don’t need to be sorry,” Becky said. “I’m the idiot who married one half of an identical set of twins. I just didn’t realize you were this extreme. How come you were able to sleep just fine?” She turned to Nicholas.
“You wore me out, woman.” Nicholas leaned over for a kiss and Levi fought the urge to gag.
“We just need to get your brother married off and then we won’t have this problem.” Becky returned Nicholas’ kiss.
“I’ll get right on that,” Levi grumbled, knowing the reality of his situation wasn’t quite that easy. He either needed to ignore the connection he had with Tiani or find a way to live on two continents at the same time. “For now, we need to get to work. I’m sure the team is quite annoyed that their archaeologist, linguist, and science manager are all on the wrong side of the mound.”
They finished eating, packed up some food and water to take with them to last through the day, grabbed some flashlights, and braved the scary, dark tunnel without the benefit of a guide. The scary, dark tunnel that allowed them to live in luxury while their team roughed it in the jungle. If sleeping in tents in the middle of a village that didn’t have modern facilities, running water, or high-speed internet could be considered living in luxury.
“Have my brother and Rebecca been tucked away in their tent the whole time we’ve been gone?” Levi asked Tiani in Yucatec since they were alone at the campfire. When none of the archaeology team was around, he didn’t feel like he had to speak Spanish or translate to English for those who had a limited vocabulary in Spanish.
As a world-renowned scientist and professor at Harvard University with a PhD in linguistics, Levi was fluent in a variety of languages including every known ancient and modern dialect of the Mayans. He was the only person on the archaeology expedition who could communicate with Tiani in her native language, Yucatec.
Tiani laughed, one of the few times Levi had seen her let down her guard. Growing up as the daughter of Chief Gabor Sayid, and more recently learning of her royal lineage, the mysterious and exotic Mayan princess was always so serious, so professional, so regal. Her tribe held her in high esteem, and she acted the part.
Levi discreetly hid any romantic attraction to the Mayan princess for a variety of reasons not the least of which was a fear of rejection. But the reality of their circumstances was they lived in separate worlds.
The jungles of Guatemala, where Tiani had lived in isolation her entire twenty-nine years, was so different than his modern life in the United States. Most of the conveniences Levi took for granted would be completely foreign to her.
They could never be anything more than friends.
“Your brother’s behavior with his wife is very normal for married couples,” Tiani said, seeming relieved to be speaking in Yucatec. Having her words translated constantly was probably annoying. “Most newly-married people remain in isolation for many days. Some even leave the tribe for a time. I was surprised when Nicholas and Rebecca asked me to lead them to visit you. Whatever married people do together makes them smile and they are happy. I do not know. I have never been married.” Tiani lowered her gaze and folded her hands in her lap.
“I have never been married either,” Levi said. The late evening offered a measure of relaxation not available in the daylight. He and Tiani were sitting in full view of all other members of the tribe here in the center of the village near the community fire. But the pressures of the day were off their shoulders. They could let down their guard a little. Speak freely. Speak about topics that were a little more personal. “I’ve never even had a girlfriend.”
“What is this word? Girlfriend?” Tiani asked, creasing her brow. “Are men in your village forbidden to speak to girls?”
“That’s not what I meant.” It was Levi’s turn to laugh. “All men are allowed to speak to all women. A girlfriend would be a woman who is also allowed to kiss and hug and hold hands with a man before marriage.”
“No.” Tiani lifted her façade again. “Men and women should not touch each other before they are married.”
“Things are different in America, I guess.” Levi placed his hand to his chest. “But I have never kissed or hugged or held hands with a woman before.”
Tiani visibly relaxed with a sigh as if she was afraid Levi had defiled himself. He almost wanted to laugh but realized in Tiani’s world this was serious. The rule was so strict that her father had forced Nicholas and Becky to get married before sleeping in the same tent. Levi would need to tread carefully to avoid offending Tiani or scaring her away.
“How does a person in your tribe choose who to marry?” Levi asked, suspecting he already knew the answer. Chief Gabor seemed to have a great deal of power and respect among the tribe members. Levi wouldn’t be surprised to learn the chief was the one to decide.
“My father chooses who a man can marry,” Tiani said. “Women are sacred, and a man needs to prove his worth before my father will allow him to marry a woman.”
“That’s beautiful.” Levi felt a chill travel across his arms and the heat of the jungle led him to believe the goosebumps weren’t caused by cool air. He wasn’t thrilled with the idea of someone else choosing who he could marry, but he liked the idea of men needing to prove their worth.
He also liked the idea of women being sacred. This was one of the reasons he had committed to celibacy before marriage. In all the societies he’d studied, those which seemed the happiest were those who treated marriage with sanctity. The power to create life was an honor and privilege. That power should not be taken lightly.
“Why has your father never chosen a husband for you?” Levi once again suspected he knew the answer.
Tiani lifted her chin. “No man in our village has yet to prove his worth.”
“Have there been any men in your life who you’ve wanted to prove his worth?” Levi was treading lightly.
Tiani hesitated and glanced to her side then lifted her gaze again. “Not in our village.”
Levi couldn’t help the tiny smile that pulled on his lips. He also noticed the twitch on her lips before she pulled together her perfect façade.
“Why are you the same person as your brother?” Tiani changed the subject. Identical twins were a phenomenon this Mayan tribe had never witnessed.
Leaning forward to poke at the campfire with a long stick, Levi considered how to answer. “Our mother had two babies on the same day. Nicholas and I lived inside of her together and were born together. We still live together. Well… now that he is married, we probably won’t live together anymore.” Levi’s heart sunk when the realization fully registered in his mind.
Levi couldn’t remember the last time he’d spent a night apart from Nicholas. They shared a townhouse, shared an office at Harvard University where they were both professors, and shared a tent or hotel room when they traveled on archaeology exhibitions. They’d attended the same college and graduate school, always rooming in the dorms together, and had shared a bedroom growing up even though their family estate was worth over a billion dollars and they could easily have their own rooms.
All that changed forever when Nicholas married Becky three days ago. Not only would they never room together again, but Levi wasn’t sure he could pitch his tent within earshot of his twin. Now that he and Becky were married, they were insufferable to be around. Apparently living thirty years on this earth without having sex causes a person to feel they need to make up for lost time by not getting out of bed for days after the wedding. Go figure.
He wanted to be happy for them but a tiny part of him was jealous.
The funny thing was Levi wasn’t jealous of Becky for stealing his twin brother. He was jealous of Nicholas for having won the competition to get married first. They’d been forever competing with each other in a good-natured way. About everything from intelligence quotient—of course Levi had the higher IQ—to who could graduate college in the fewest number of semesters—they tied—to whose portfolio would be worth more when they retired.
They even competed for the privilege to drive their candy apple red Lamborghini Urus. Levi allowed Nicholas to win that competition. That silly car had been Nicholas’ idea and his baby. Levi had no desire to drive.
But he did have the desire to get married and he suspected the reason had less to do with competition and more to do with his growing attraction to Tiani. Now that he knew how much fun Nicholas was having with his new bride, suddenly that’s all Levi could think about.
Nicholas and Levi thought they’d be bachelors forever. What woman would want to marry an identical twin who was practically joined at the hip with his brother, spent every day studying and researching and travelling on archaeology expeditions?
Dr. Rebecca Benson had swooped in and turned their lives upside down. A ghost from Nicholas’ past in one of the few college classes the twins hadn’t taken together, Becky had been a graduate assistant and completely out of reach. The unattainable dream Levi never realized Nicholas had. When she showed up on their doorstep after eight years apart asking them to accompany her on a treasure hunt to Guatemala, the twins couldn’t pack fast enough.
That was one competition Levi had lost before he realized they were racing. Becky only had eyes for Nicholas, even though she flirted with every man who would hold still long enough. She had every scientist on their archaeology team eating out of the palm of her hand from day one of the exhibition even though they all knew she was out of their reach as well.
Nicholas and Becky getting married was as inevitable as the sunrise. They just didn’t realize they’d get married in a Guatemalan jungle village by the tribal chief who had a proverbial spear to their chests.
Princess Tiani Sayid was even less attainable than Dr. Rebecca Benson had been. What Mayan princess would be tempted by a geeky professor from America? His only endearment was the ability to speak her language.
He’d captured her attention. But would he be able to capture her heart? More importantly, should he even try?
“Dr. Cathcart, could I borrow your satellite phone?” Nicholas skipped any formalities as he slid up behind Becky and kissed her neck.
“Only if you’re using the phone to call your university and tender your resignation.” Timothy laughed as he handed over the lifeline that would save them in the event of an emergency.
“Close,” Nicholas said, taking the phone and handing it to Becky. “Could you please call your father? I need to formally apologize to Mr. Benson for marrying his daughter before asking his permission.”
“Actually it’s Dr. Benson to you,” Becky said with a chuckle, taking the phone and starting to dial his number. Then she backspaced. “Wait, he would be at his office this time of day.” She resumed punching in buttons.
“Ah, what does he have his PhD in?” Nicholas asked.
Becky chuckled. “Obstetrics. He’s a real doctor. He sees patients and everything.”
“Forgive me,” Nicholas teased. “I’ll be sure to offer him the level of respect he deserves.” He winked over at Timothy.
“Good afternoon, could I speak with Dr. Benson please?” She pushed the button for speaker phone.
“I’m sorry, he’s seeing patients right now, could I take a message for him?”
“Actually, I’m calling from Guatemala on a satellite phone, so unless he’s delivering a baby, could you please tell him his daughter needs to speak with him.”
“Satellite phone?” the receptionist asked, flustered. “Guatemala?”
Dr. Benson must have been standing close because a man’s voice in the background said, “Is my daughter okay?”
He breathlessly took the phone, clunking the receiver. Nicholas could almost see him jostling around and shoving the poor receptionist out of the way.
“Rebecca? Are you okay?”
“Yes, daddy, I’m fine.” Her sweet, innocent voice while speaking to her father was such a stark contrast to the professional lady he knew. Coupled with the flirty temptress he also knew and more importantly the sensual woman who shared his bed, Nicholas wondered how many hats this girl wore. “I have someone I’d like you to meet and then we have a request. We need your help. We’re on speaker phone and I’d like you to meet Dr. Nicholas Stephenson, the elite environmental archaeologist I met at Boston University when we were both grad students. He teaches at Harvard now.”
“You called all this way to introduce me to an archaeologist?” her father asked.
“Dr. Benson, I’m honored to speak with you, sir,” Nicholas said. “You’re welcome to call me Nicholas. I’m calling to apologize for marrying your daughter before requesting your permission.”
“You”—Dr. Benson sounded like he was either going to choke, yell, or cry— “married my daughter.”
“Yes, sir.” Nicholas gulped. “I’m very sorry, sir. Although, I’m not sorry I married her. I’m only sorry I married her without your permission.”
“Daddy, we’re calling mom next and we’d like your help arranging a wedding back in the States as soon as we return.”
“If you’re already married”—he sounded like he was gritting his teeth— “why do you need to have a wedding?”
Nicholas interjected. “We want to make sure it’s legal in the United States, sir. Becky deserves to have a white dress and cake and pictures with her friends and family rather than wearing the wedding costume of a Mayan princess. Plus, without the tribal chief holding a spear to our chests.”
“What?” Dr. Benson sounded to be growing more agitated.
“Daddy, we just want to have a wedding, okay? And as soon as possible. Which is why we’re calling. I’ll have mamma set it up for about six weeks from now, which is about when we’ll return from Guatemala.”
“I know that doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but mamma can make it happen. Besides six weeks is a lot longer to plan a wedding than the one hour we had a few days ago.”
“Yes, the tribal chief insisted. He didn’t want us sleeping together unless we were married.”
“The sentiment to which we agreed wholeheartedly,” Nicholas added. “Which is why we went along with it. Best decision I ever made.” Nicholas felt his shoulders soften as he searched his wife’s eyes.
“Me too,” Becky said, meeting his gaze with a cheesy grin.
“Alright, alright, call your mother. I need to get back to seeing patients. Some of us work as real doctors you know?”
“Yes, of course, Dr. Benson. And thank you so much, sir. I look forward to meeting you.”
“Goodbye, daddy,” Becky said. “Love you!”
“Love you, too, Rebecca.” With that, the phone was disconnected, and Nicholas leaned forward to kiss his wife.
Timothy made a fake gagging noise and asked when they’d be returning to the village.
“Couple more phone calls to make first,” Nicholas said, already dialing the main number for his department chairman.
A pleasant woman’s voice came over the line. “Department of Anthropology, this is Helen, may I help you?”
“Helen, this is Nicholas Stephenson. Is Dr. Sedwick available?”
“Of course, Dr. Stephenson,” Helen said. “Just a moment.” After a couple of clicks the chairman of the department was on the line and addressed him fondly.
“Dr. Sedwick,” Nicholas said, meeting Timothy’s gaze. “I’m calling from Guatemala to offer my letter of resignation. I’m moving to Houston to be near my wife.”
“Was it as good as you thought it would be?” Levi asked.
Nicholas found himself alone with his twin brother for the first time since marrying Becky. He knew exactly what Levi was asking. He glanced over his shoulder to see if anyone was close enough to overhear.
After Levi had explained the translations in very basic detail, to his captive audience, the team members gradually fell back to begin preparation for the mid-day meal.
Becky excused herself when she was called away by her boss, Timothy, and left Nicholas with a quick kiss that held the promise of more later.
“Way better. Anyone who has ever used the phrase ‘better than sex’ to describe anything other than sex, has never had sex.”
Levi tossed his head back in laughter. “I will never use that phrase again, I promise.”
“No, I sincerely hope you have the opportunity to understand what I mean by that statement,” Nicholas said. “This is the opposite of the phrase ‘I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.’ I do wish this on my best and closest friend.”
“Can’t get any closer or best than your twin.”
“Until you marry the woman you were meant to be with for eternity. Then you realize there is someone even closer than your twin.”
“I’m not sure if I should feel jealous or happy for you.”
“I hope someday you have the chance to be happy for me.”
“I am happy for you, man.” Levi glanced to his right and Nicholas followed his gaze over to where the young graduate student, Matt was speaking animatedly to Tiani and she politely gave him half of her attention while glancing frequently in their direction. “And I do look forward to that someday.”
“You better go rescue her or she’ll spook and fly through that tunnel and never come back.”
“Speaking of… where is your stuff? Are you staying in the village?”
“Do you really want us over here?” Nicholas raised his eyebrows.
“Probably not.” Levi shook his head. “Still, I want to be where you are, and I want to see that tunnel.”
“And spend the evening with Tiani?”
“That too, I suppose.”
“Fine, pack up when you get a chance and come spend the evening with your future wife while I spend the night in the arms of my forever wife.” They began walking in Tiani’s direction. The relief on her face was almost comical.
“Forever, huh?” Levi spoke from the corner of his mouth. “I take it that means you’re not planning to get an annulment upon returning to the States?”
“Just the opposite,” Nicholas said. “We’re planning a wedding.”
As they approached Matt and Tiani, Nicholas bowed regally to the princess then turned to Matt, continuing in the language he was likely speaking with Tiani to ask him where Timothy and Becky had run off to.
“¿Dónde están el Dr. Cathcart y mi esposa?”
“Over by his tent, I think,” Matt said. His frustration evident in his creased brows and hard glare.
“¿Me mostraras el camino?” Nicholas asked, still speaking Spanish for Tiani’s sake to request that Matt show him where he could find their excavation director.
“Si.” He continued his glare and even glanced longingly at Tiani. “Discúlpame, por favor.”
As Matt began to walk away, Tiani whispered to Nicholas, “Gracias.”
“De nada,” Nicholas whispered back before following Matt.
As they walked away, Nicholas heard his brother switch to Yucatec as he spoke to Tiani, essentially shutting out anyone else who might want to eavesdrop. Effective tactic. He wished he had a similar language to communicate with his wife.
Then Nicholas realized he did have his own personal language with Becky but that involved the privacy of their tent and the removal of their clothes. Later, he thought. Hopefully not too much later.
“You have to come see this,” Levi said, grabbing Nicholas’ hand and pulling him gently around the side of the temple pyramid. “The pictures don’t do it justice.”
Levi was right. The majesty of the ancient building couldn’t be captured digitally. It had to be experienced.
Nicholas had to watch his feet on the uneven ground, careful not to trip over roots. He remembered Becky following behind him and glanced back to smile. She was just as enthralled. He didn’t bother reaching for her hand. They both needed to experience this for themselves.
They made their way around the corner of the temple pyramid where the team had more fully cleared the ground in order to step closer to the walls for a better close-up experience.
“So, it is more detailed than Stella 5 from Izapa.” Nicholas could feel his heart racing. “That wasn’t just our fantastical idea based on excitement.”
“The whole thing reads like a codex,” Levi said. hurrying ahead. “The same geometric and hieroglyphic narrative as the Egyptian system from the 26th dynasty. The same measurements based on the Egyptian cubit, and the same radius of the circle of the Babylonian cubit. And get this; there are 260 of them.”
“To mark the calendar circuit for the Sun’s 260 days southern passage,” Nicholas guessed.
“Or to mark the 260-day cycle that represents the gestation period celebrating the creation of man,” Levi corrected.
“You’re always looking for a religious angle, aren’t you?” Nicholas rolled his eyes. “You can’t just see the symbolism as worshiping the sun?”
“In Izapa, yes,” Levi said. “The entire Izapa plaza is laid out to highlight the passage of the sun overhead, warranting the designation as a temple to the sun. The Izapa sequence is dedicated to the four seasons and the lunar months.”
“The Mayan were smart,” Nicholas said.
“They still are.” Levi glanced back at Tiani, who stood regally with her chin lifted with a serene boredom that comes with not understanding a word they were staying. Levi translated his comment for her alone. “Le maaya’obo’ ku inteligentes.”
A tiny smile played at the corner of Tiani’s mouth and then she pulled her face back into her stoic façade.
“Anyway, the complexity is on the same level as Stella 5,” Levi said, returning to the task at hand. “But Izapa only shows a rendering of the tree of life, which is one tiny portion of the story. This is like having 260 stellas side-by-side wrapping around the entire base of the temple pyramid and tells the whole story.”
“What do you mean by the whole story?” Becky asked, stepping closer and fingering the ornate carvings.
“Back to the creation of man.” Levi’s whisper was almost reverent, and he raised his eyebrows. “You ask me how I can connect a religious angle? How can I not?”
Nicholas felt chills run up his spine. He’d heard Levi’s argument before. If all ancient texts from opposite sides of the world told the same story… maybe the story was true.
“Tiani, how long does it take to walk from here to the temple pyramid?” Nicholas asked. When she shook her head in confusion, at first Nicholas questioned whether she was willing to show him the way. Then he remembered she didn’t speak English. He translated to Spanish and tried again. “¿Cuánto tiempo se tarda en caminar desde aquí hasta el templo?”
“Veinte minutos,” she said with a shrug.
“Twenty minutes?” Nicholas gaped at her. “To get over that mound? ¿Para superar ese montículo?”
She scoffed. “Nosotras no caminamos sobre el montículo.” She shook her head and rolled her eyes.
“You don’t walk over the mound?” Nicholas laughed. “How do you get to the temple? ¿Cómo se llega al templo?”
“A través del túnel.” Her statement was so matter of fact as if the answer was obvious.
“Si.” She nodded with a smirk.
With excitement, Becky asked Tiani if she would show them the way. “¿Nos mostrarás el camino?”
“Si, right now, ahora mismo.” Nicholas responded.
Tiani started to walk away but Nicholas stopped her to ask if they could leave their tent here in the village.
“¿Podemos dejar nuestra carpa aquí?” Nicholas pointed over to where he and Becky still had their tent set up near the cenote, where it had been for two days.
She nodded and then gestured for them to follow her. “Vamonos.”
Nicholas took Becky’s hand and followed the Mayan princess toward the mound and a little to the west, where she ducked between several trees and held aside the branches of some bushes to reveal an ancient earthen tunnel that was as fascinating as it was terrifying.
Holding out the flashlight, Nicholas revealed a dark hole the other side of which could not be seen from where they stood. He turned to Tiani, asking if she would come with them.
“¿Vendrás con nosotros?” Nicholas raised his eyebrows in question, nervous to enter this void without a practiced guide.
“Un momento por favor.” Tiani held up her hand and asked them to wait a moment. She returned with a lantern and led the way into the tunnel, Nicholas and Becky in tow.
The darkness swallowed them almost immediately and they walked in the small space of light created by Tiani’s lantern and Nicholas’ flashlight. A moist, earthy smell enveloped them. The floor was smooth and hard from hundreds of years of Mayans passing through the mound to reach the temple pyramid quickly and easily. The sides and ceiling curved above them, barely higher than Nicholas’ head. He tried not to think about how many pounds of gravel surrounded them. If the tunnel collapsed, they would be killed or trapped indefinitely, especially since they were the only three people who knew they were in the tunnel.
After what felt like forever, but was probably only fifteen minutes, the tunnel lightened ahead and grew brighter the closer to the end they walked. Nicholas felt the urge to run ahead and burst through the trees and brush, but stayed behind Tiani, letting her take the lead.
When they reached the end, Tiani pushed aside a similar camouflage as what hid the entrance at the other end of the tunnel and suddenly they were blinded by sunlight. Even through the shielding canopy, the sun was too strong after being in the tunnel.
Ten scientists, including his twin brother, stared with wide eyes and gaping mouths while Nicholas and Becky shielded their eyes. As with most everything, Tiani seemed to take the intrusive sun with stride and barely showed an annoyance.
“Where the heck did you come from?” Levi asked the question all of them were probably thinking.
“There’s a tunnel.” Nicholas pointed behind him as if the evidence wasn’t immediately in front of their eyes. “Took us less than twenty minutes.”
Several of the guys glanced up the hill of the mound, the one they wasted an entire day of travel chopping through with machetes, when they could have walked casually through a tunnel.
As his team of scientists gawked at the hidden tunnel, Nicholas stepped forward, finally seeing the temple pyramid for the first time. Although camouflaged beneath overgrowth and shaded by the jungle trees, the structure was enormous.
“Oh my gosh.” He was at a loss for words after that. In all his years studying archaeology, crisscrossing the globe to excavate digs that were tiny in comparison, Nicholas had never encountered anything like this. No amount of research prepared him for this.
This Mayan temple was life altering.
“Dr. Stephenson and Dr. Benson,” Levi called from outside their tent. “Are the two of you planning to wake up anytime soon?”
“No,” Nicholas and Becky mumbled simultaneously. He hadn’t realized she was awake. His chuckle and her giggle did funny things to his skin where they connected. Their legs and arms and bodies were still intertwined even in sleep.
He wouldn’t have thought there was any stamina left, yet here he was again filled with desire and longing. Ignoring his twin brother, Nicholas moaned softly and pulled his wife close again, connecting their lips in another passionate kiss.
“I’m still standing right here.” Levi cleared his throat from outside their tent.
“Uninvited.” Nicholas barely pulled his mouth away from Becky’s long enough to answer.
“We need to get packed up and trek over the last mound today,” Levi said.
“Not interested,” Nicholas mumbled, moving his kisses to Becky’s throat and under her ears. She arched her back and let out a soft whimper.
“Have you forgotten we are here in Guatemala for an archeological excavation, not a honeymoon?” Levi asked. “We kinda need our archeologist for that.”
“For what?” Nicholas asked, finally lifting his head. “We’re not actually conducting a dig. All we need is our linguist, and that’s you. So, go away.”
“I’m not allowed to go away without dragging the two of you with me, so please get dressed.”
Nicholas laughed so suddenly it came out as a snort, which made Becky giggle again. “Not a chance in Hades I’m getting dressed right this minute.”
“You’re gonna get all three of us fired.” Levi was grasping at straws now.
“We’re billionaires volunteering our time and back-door funding most of the expedition. Plus, I’m the top environmental archaeologist in my field, Becky’s highly valued at her university, and you are the only linguist fluent in every ancient and modern Mayan language in the world. The chances of them firing any of us is ludicrous, so please go away.”
“You’re funding the expedition?” There was awe in Becky’s voice and a sparkle in her eyes.
“I’ll tell you all about it sometime.” He leaned closer and kissed the tip of her nose. “When we’re not… distracted.”
“Do I need to remind you that you’ll be in breach of contract if you get Dr. Benson pregnant?” Levi brought up Timothy’s jest from the first day of introductions. “You might want to stop having sex for a couple of days to lessen the likelihood of that happening.”
“Ha! That’s the funniest thing you’ve said all day,” Nicholas said.
“It’s okay, Dr. Stephenson,” Becky called out to Levi. “You can tell Dr. Cathcart that I’m on the pill and I promise not to get pregnant for another couple of years.”
“You are?” Nicholas couldn’t hide a grin, wondering how long in advance she’d been planning this getaway.
“Yeah, hormone regulation when I had ovarian cysts in my early twenties.”
“Ah, and here I was hoping it was in anticipation of marrying me,” Nicholas said.
“We can pretend that’s the reason if you want,” Becky said with a sly grin.
“I want.” Nicholas didn’t elaborate on what he wanted, just pressed his lips to hers in another passionate kiss.
“Ugh, I’m outta here.” Levi faked gagging and started to walk away.
Nicholas pulled back from their kiss long enough to call out, “It’s about time.” Then he felt bad for dismissing his twin so casually. “Hey man, have a fun trek. See ya in a couple of days.”
“Maybe,” Becky said. “If I let you out of my arms long enough.”
“I have no desire to be out of your arms,” Nicholas mumbled.
Her answering kiss silenced any further discussion.
By some stroke of luck, none of the team members, or tribal members, paid them any attention the following morning. There was no teasing or taunting or innuendoes. Everyone knew the day was set aside for planning and preparing and resting. Some people weren’t even awake or out of their tents when Nicholas emerged.
For the second day in a row, the team was treated to a full hot breakfast complete with a cornbread, tortillas, eggs, and some sort of sausage similar to chorizo but with a slightly different flavoring. If there wasn’t still an underlying urgency to begin research at the temple pyramid, they might be tempted to stay in this beautiful village forever. Maybe not during the rainy season though.
After the mid-day meal, Tiani approached Levi and spoke to him briefly, then pointed over in a westerly direction. The two of them walked over to Timothy where he stood together with some of the team members, including the field guide and site manager.
Timothy was preparing to fly the drone up and over the last mound to get a lay of the terrain. He had already used the satellite phone to call the support team who would be dropping off supplies at the final destination and gave them the full explanation of this turn of events.
Nicholas was curious enough to head in that direction and eavesdrop. Tiani was telling them something about a slightly larger cenote nearby that the tribe used as a bathing area. That caught Nicholas’ full attention. There were many of these sinkholes in the region, some very large and famous. Others, apparently quite well hidden. Some seemed bottomless and boundless caverns travelling miles underground with sparkling clear water and mysterious caves. Others, tiny like a pond.
As Becky had mentioned the previous evening, they’d gone four days without running water and thus without proper hygiene. They had expected to be settled at their more permanent campsite by now. Once there, the drop team would send them the equipment to build a makeshift shower. A well had already been dug. A bath in a cenote sounded like heaven in comparison.
Word spread quickly that later in the day they would have a chance to bathe and spirits were lifted by the mere thought. Several of the guys jockeyed to go first but Nicholas held back, a plan developing in his mind. He turned to Becky.
“You and I should go last,” he whispered.
“Like, together?” Becky raised her eyebrows.
“Sure, why not? We’re married now, right? If you’re not comfortable with the idea, I’m totally fine. Or if, maybe you’d like to keep swimsuits on and just think of it as going swimming in a pond together.”
“I think I could handle going swimming together.” She still sounded hesitant, but Nicholas was willing to give her space and time to get used to the idea. “I could use some help washing my hair.”
“I would love to help you wash that incredible mane of yours.” He stepped closer and wrapped his arms around her waist.
“You did suggest I wear my hair down at our wedding.” She rested her hands on his forearms and glanced up at him with a demure flirt in her eyes.
“We’re just drawing out our wedding over the course of several days.” He leaned down and kissed her lightly, looking forward to that evening.
After a hearty meal of homemade stew and cornbread, guys began trickling down to be the first to bathe. They returned with wet hair wearing clean clothes and euphoric expressions. Nicholas got more and more excited and nervous as the numbers dwindled.
Levi was one of the last to bathe and when he handed off the soap, he winked and said, “Take all the time you want and I’ll have a surprise for you when you emerge from the cenote.”
“What surprise?” Nicholas called after him, talking to his retreating back.
“You’ll see,” Levi called over his shoulder. “Have fun.”
Nicholas turned to Becky. “You ready?”
She had already changed into her swimsuit, which she wore under a modest cover up.
“Where did you get this?” He fingered the material, a woven cloth similar to what the tribal women wore.
“Tiani loaned it to me.” Becky twirled as if showing off an exclusive gown on the runway of a fashion show.
“It’s beautiful.” He held out his hand to lead her toward the sinkhole. “Come on, let’s go for a swim.”
A limestone cavern had been partially exposed by a collapsed portion of rock to form a little cavern of cool water so natural and clear they could see the bottom even in the near-darkness that had already crept upon them. A sliver of sunlight angled in such a way as to make the cavern almost glow. The tribal members likely knew this when suggesting the time and location to the team of scientists.
Nicholas removed his T-shirt and sandals but left on his swim trunks, as promised. When Becky slipped off her modest cover up, his breath caught, and his jaw dropped. She was an elegant lady while wearing business attire, relaxed and casual in a science lab, and an outdoorsman while on the trek. But in a swimsuit, Becky was voluptuous. Nicholas had been taught to be a gentleman and not ogle women but having her as his wife meant he had permission to appreciate every curve of her beautiful body.
Lifting his jaw off the ground, Nicholas held out a hand to assist Becky down the short staircase into the glowing pool. The cylindrical sides formed vertical walls that dropped off quickly into an area not quite up to his chest but almost to Becky’s shoulders. His disappointment at concealing her body was assuaged by the knowledge that he was allowed the honor of helping wash her hair.
Never had anything in his life felt so provocative as weaving shampoo up and around and into her hair, taking his time and relishing the opportunity, rinsing and rewashing. When he’d done as good of job as he could do in a jungle sinkhole, she asked if she could wash his hair. That required Nicholas to crouch down for her to reach his head. It would have taken him less than a minute to wash what little hair he had, but she made the experience last several minutes. He moaned in pleasure at the feeling of having her hands massaging his scalp.
When his hair was finally rinsed, Nicholas didn’t want to wait any longer and turned around, pulling Becky close and crushing his lips to hers, hungry with desire. She matched his hunger with a near frenzy of passion. Slowing his kisses, he boldly reached to untie her bikini top and tossed the tiny article of clothing onto the bank near the stairs.
Neither of them needed a roadmap to explore every hill and valley on each other’s bodies. Neither of them suggested an end to their swim, if that was still an accurate description of the experience. Neither of them wanted to stop, nor did they.
Eventually the remaining parts of their swimsuits rested on the bank and nothing stood in their way.
As he’d predicted over and over the past few months, everything about that night was worth waiting for. Everything about Becky was worth waiting for. Everything about marriage was worth waiting for.
“We need to get to our tent,” Becky whispered. “We’re nearly out of daylight and this cavern will be pitch black soon.”
They helped each other up the stairs, gathered discarded articles of clothing and wrapped themselves in towels. They hoped to sneak into the camp and slip into their tent unnoticed, avoiding the need to don clothing just to remove them again. When they came around the corner past the screen of trees and shrubs, they found Levi’s surprise.
Their tent had been moved and placed within twenty feet of the cenote where they’d spent the past hour. One flap had been tied open, revealing a display of tiny flashlights arranged like romantic candles. A note rested on the bedroll in Levi’s handwriting.
Congratulations on your recent nuptials. Enjoy an evening of privacy and relaxation. Signed, Your Excavation Team
“Well, gosh, don’t have to ask me twice.” Nicholas held out his arms to welcome his new bride into what quickly became the best night of their lives.
“He’s going to say everything in Yucatec so I’ll just translate on the fly,” Levi said. They were standing together in the middle of the little village near the chief, waiting for Becky to return from Tiani’s bridal makeover. “Just think of the whole thing as if it’s a shaman’s blessing.”
“I’m not worried about it, man,” Nicholas said. “If this makes him happy, and Becky’s happy, I’ll go along with it. You might want to pay close attention to the ceremony though, because it’s going to be identical to yours in a few months when you marry your Princess Tiani.” Surrounding them stood half the tribe and the entire team of archaeologists. No pressure.
“Think about it. Between the two of them we’re combining everything we ever thought we wanted in a wife,” Levi said.
“Speaking of which”—Nicholas tapped his twin’s shoulder and they turned in the direction of the largest hut in the village where Tiani emerged with a triumphant smirk as if she personally had transformed Becky into a bride.
Becky walked out with her hand through the arm of Dr. Timothy Cathcart, her boss, and their excavation director. Nicholas almost laughed out loud at the fitting substitute for Becky’s father. He kept reminding himself this wasn’t real.
That colorful tribal gown Tiani had loaned her was not the elegant white dress he’d imagined. The ring of flowers placed as a crown on her head was not what she would have chosen. Still, she looked beautiful and he was honored to be marrying her, however strange the whole situation felt.
The tribal chief-slash-prince-slash-shaman welcomed the ladies to stand with him and Becky took Nicholas’ hand, facing him the way the chief directed. A tribal member stepped forward and startled them by blowing into a large conk shell like a horn.
As the chief spoke in Yucatec, Levi translated, and the words were very sweet and down-to-earth, literally, calling upon mother earth and the sky and the elements of nature. He asked permission from the four cardinal points, handed Nicholas and Becky each a seed and explained that the seed represented the starting of their new life together. He blessed them with abundance, love and positive intentions. He explained that when they cast the seeds upon the land and into the water, they will get what they wish for in their relationship.
This didn’t seem like a wedding, more like a shaman’s blessing, as Levi had mentioned. The ceremony ended with women from the tribe bringing rose petals and tossing them over Nicholas and Becky as a way of dropping positive intentions.
The entire ceremony involved burning incense, and drums, and blowing conk shells, and eventually morphed into a celebration where everyone was dancing and smiling and laughing.
Nicholas could envision his twin brother embracing this celebration as the perfect wedding, but Nicholas vowed to provide Becky with a white dress and cake and her parents and friends and family in attendance. They might be married in the eyes of the tribal chief, but Nicholas was going to watch his bride walk down an aisle on the arm of her father. Someday.
* * * * * * * * *
Entering the tent they’d shared the first two nights felt strange. Now that the chief had declared them married there was this unspoken expectation that tonight they would magically flip a switch between not having sex and having sex. But the reality was not as straightforward.
Nicholas sat on the bedroll and met Becky’s eyes with apprehension. He cleared his throat. “That wasn’t exactly how I’d pictured our… wedding.”
“Me neither.” Becky bit her lower lip, brow furrowed and a tension in her shoulders that was visible from where Nicholas sat two feet away.
“This doesn’t feel right.” Nicholas lowered his gaze and fiddled with the sleeping bag he was sitting on.
Becky let out a breath that sounded like relief. “I agree.”
“You do?” Nicholas lifted his gaze again, feeling hope. “I was afraid you’d be disappointed if we didn’t…”
“Have sex tonight?” Becky finished his sentence.
“I was afraid you would be disappointed,” Becky said. “I mean, I haven’t showered in, like, four days, we have zero privacy, and I kind of have this romanticized vision of taking our time and getting to know each other’s bodies and, and… making love to each other, not just having sex because we’re supposed to have sex on our wedding night.”
“I agree one hundred percent.” Nicholas opened his arms and reached for Becky. She came to sit on his lap. Snuggled into his arms they both sighed simultaneously. “As hungry as I’ve been for you, I am seriously content to just hold you in my arms tonight.”
“Me too,” she whispered.
“Let’s take this marriage thing slowly, at our own pace,” Nicholas said. He pulled back a little and looked down at her. “I love you so much, and I’ve loved getting to know you these past few months since you showed up on my doorstep. When I make love to you for the first time, I want that experience to feel right and to be on our terms.”
“Thank you,” Becky said. “For understanding. For loving me. For being the kind of man I’m proud to call my husband.”
“I like the sound of that.” Nicholas leaned forward and kissed Becky as she reached for him, wrapping her arms around his neck and shoulders.
Nicholas laid her down on their bedroll and kissed her more passionately then they probably should have when they’d just stated definitively that they weren’t ready to have sex yet. He found himself very content with just that and his body surprisingly agreed.
Eventually they fell asleep in each other’s arms, relaxed and happy, all pressure gone, the weight on their shoulders lifted, able to merely be together.
Nicholas hadn’t intended to get married that day.
After sleeping late into the morning, the team was welcomed to the campfires of the Mayan tribe members with promises of a hot breakfast served with hesitation and suspicion.
The strides gained toward building relationships the previous evening had waned in the daylight as the tribesmen still couldn’t grasp the purpose of the scientists’ invasion of their jungle nor their interest in the sacred temple pyramid.
Rather than leading the team of scientists to the pyramid, the chief decided to bring them to his village. He reasoned they could take the time required to understand one another, eat real food, replenish their dwindling water supply from the tribe’s hidden cenote, and rest. The village was also significantly closer to the temple pyramid and involved an actual path rather than needing to chop through the jungle with machetes. The team could hardly argue.
So, they packed up their tents just as they’d done the previous morning and followed the chief and tribe members without much choice. They weren’t quite being led at the tip of the warriors’ spears, but they were followed closely by tribesmen on all sides.
The walk wasn’t long and by mid-day they entered a surprisingly large village with thatched roofs made of palm leaves and low rock walls along paths of earth. Dwellings were small and spread out across a large region to avoid the need to disrupt the tree canopy, keeping them hidden from airplanes. The village was so well-hidden that the LiDAR scans had barely picked it up as man-made. The remote sensing analysts had dismissed the blip as outlying antiquities near the main temple pyramid.
To describe the village as off the grid was an understatement. The tribe subsisted off the land, growing their own food and utilizing the jungle forests as their natural gardens. They had a few animals and in honor of their guests had slaughtered a large calf and were in the process of preparing a meal for the entire village. There would be a celebration that evening.
Upon arriving in the village, the scientists set up their tents in the locations they were shown and treated the site as they would have any other campsite along their way.
They were taken to a small cenote of crystal-clear water and were instructed to refill their water jugs. The tribal members drank water directly from the sinkhole of groundwater, declaring that it was perfectly safe. Knowing the likelihood of microorganisms to which the scientists have zero immunities, they chose to purify their drinking water prior to consumption.
The afternoon was spent introducing the team to the village and touring the many structures, most of which were small homes crowded with many children.
The chief was fascinated by Nicholas and Levi, wondering how they could be the same person, living in two bodies. He had no concept of twins. He also wondered how the men shared one wife.
Levi stepped away and shook his head, explaining he was not part of Nicholas and Becky’s relationship.
Nicholas explained that he loved Becky but that she was his girlfriend not his wife. That upset the chief. He was insistent that no one should sleep together until they were married. Although Nicholas and Becky both agreed with the concept in principle, there wasn’t much they could do about the challenge until they returned home to America. Married or not, he wasn’t letting Becky sleep alone in the jungle.
“Yaan u ts’o’okol beelo’.” The chief pointed to himself and nodded his head definitively. “Le áak’aba’.”
“Uh… I think he said he would perform the wedding.” Levi chuckled nervously. “Tonight.”
“Very funny,” Nicholas said. “We’ll get married when we get home to America.”
“K’a’anan ts’o’okol u bey ma’ weenel múuch’ le áak’aba’.” The chief looked angry.
“He says you need to be married before you sleep together tonight,” Levi said.
“Humor him,” Becky said out of the side of her mouth. “It’s not like it’s for real. We can still have a wedding when we get back to the States.”
“Are you sure?” Nicholas asked, just as quietly. “Don’t you want a white dress and cake and dancing and your father to walk you down the aisle?”
“Sure, but if performing some traditional Mayan ritual will make him happy, what the heck?” Becky said. “We need him to help us get to the temple pyramid. What could it hurt?”
“If you insist,” Nicholas said. “You know what they say, happy wife, happy life.”
Becky giggled and stepped closer to the chief, bowing her head in respect. She didn’t know how to say yes or thank you in Yucatec, but she could answer in Spanish. “Si, gracias.”
The chief nodded his approval and said something to his daughter, waving her over. Tiani seemed surprised and looked them up and down with a creased brow.
Levi translated what he’d said and spoke directly to Becky. “The chief wants Tiani to help you get ready for your wedding. You’re supposed to follow her.”
“Uh… okay.” Becky squeezed Nicholas’ hand and stepped away from him, then glanced behind and offered Nicholas a nervous wave. “See ya at the altar.”
How Prince Marcos had become associated with the tribe was a mystery not fully solved. From what Tiani and Chief Gabor could piece together with Nicholas and Levi, Prince Marcos must have travelled to Tikal sometime after the death of his first wife, Lyla, and met Akna at one of the village trading posts, fell in love and married. They had a son, Emir, and stayed married for the remainder of their lives.
But Akna refused to leave her tribe, and Marcos refused to leave the luxuries of the modern world and his commitment and duties as Crown Prince of Madain Saleh to live in the wilderness. He travelled to visit his wife frequently and left her with over a million dollars when he died, but none of the tribe could read or write so the will was meaningless to them. The fact that they still had the will was a miracle in itself.
Akna and Emir must have understood its importance and impressed upon Emir’s son, Eadrich the necessity of holding onto that envelope, and that importance was passed on to Gabor, who shared the envelope with Tiani.
The envelope came with a legend about a light-skinned people who would come with complicated gadgets so futuristic the people bringing them would seem like gods. In reality, most of what the team of scientists had was basic survival materials: satellite phones, computers, prepackaged food and water, high-end shelters. Other than the LiDAR technology, everything else was equipment the Americans, Mexicans, and Guatemalans took for granted as commonplace.
After a full day of trekking through the dense jungle, followed by hours of being marched at the point of a spear, followed by hours of trying to understand one another, none of them could keep their eyes opened. Thankfully the tents were already in place and people began retiring to their respective places of refuge.
There was an unspoken understanding that the following day would be a day of rest and regrouping, trying to figure out where to go from here. The tribe members still didn’t understand what the team of scientists were doing there and why they wanted to see the temple pyramid. Somehow the team needed to explain the modern technology, the importance of preserving the inscriptions, and to convince them to show the team the rest of the way to the temple now that they were completely off track.
Explaining the team’s desire to study the temple pyramid proved to be more of a challenge then they anticipated. Modern technology included concepts that exceeded the tribal members’ limited understanding. They were warriors, protectors, watchmen, but not scientists. The only experience they’d had with antiquities was that of looters, thieves, destroyers. And they only learned of those through trade with the local villagers.
As far as their trade partners were concerned, the tribe was a small group of nomads who lived in the jungle, subsisting on limited resources. By trading in a variety of locations on opposite sides of the jungle they were able to conceal their vast population.
For hundreds of years looters had yet to discover the existence of this most sacred ancient site. Generations of this tribe had fiercely guarded its location. Because of the spiral of mounds surrounding the central pyramid, anyone wishing to search the area gave up after experiencing a maze of hills and valleys, dense jungle without paths and no obvious ruins in this wilderness.
Looters were correct in that respect. There were no ruins in this part of the wilderness, save this one location in the center of a complex spiral of hidden trails.
The path they had travelled that evening had been newly created in response to the foresters’ invasion in recent weeks. The tribe seemed to inherently understand that the small clearings were intended to be used by someone for a temporary settlement, but they didn’t know who or for what reason. Upon discovering the clearings, the tribe had created their own temporary settlement and laid in wait for the looters, ready to ambush them.
Levi’s ability to communicate in their native tongue had confused them. Most local looters would have spoken Spanish and been far more savage in appearance and stature.
Nicholas thanked his twin for diligently studying his chosen field of linguistics and said goodnight. He collapsed into his bedroll, pulled Becky into his arms, and fell asleep almost immediately.