Nicholas rolled over to the bittersweet feeling of waking up the following morning in the small bunk room he shared with his twin brother, Levi. On one hand, he hadn’t violated his commitment to himself and to Becky that they wait until after marriage to sleep together. On the other hand, he missed the opportunity to wake up in the arms of the most incredible woman he’d ever met.
They still managed to fit in brunch together, his treat since she’d already lost the bet she’d made with the other guys on the team. A hearty meal of eggs and chorizo with handmade tortillas was delicious but hardly a substitute for the sweet kisses from the night before.
Knowing they’d be called out and accused of messing around if they so much as walked inside either of their bunk rooms, Nicholas and Becky sat up half the night talking at a picnic table in full view of the whole camp. Sure, they kissed—a lot—but nothing beyond kissing.
Even with just kissing, Nicholas was high as a kite with emotion and Becky’s eyes were glassy like she had a secret only he could share. They were in love; head over heels, planning the wedding and naming the babies kind of in love. All that stood in their way was a six-week hike through the jungles of Guatemala and eleven of their colleagues. Minor inconveniences and a blink in time compared to the rest of their lives together.
Becky played up the flirting with the rest of the team and made a show of tempting Nicholas beyond his ability to resist, yet would flip a switch into a mature lady who could discuss the philosophies of the world, politics, religion, financial planning, vacations, scientific discoveries. Nicholas loved all of her faces; the flirty, playful girl, the temptress, and the lady. She was everything he’d ever dreamt to find in a life partner and by some stroke of luck, she loved him too.
The team spent hours each day planning and working together as a team, organizing equipment and supplies, setting up camp each evening and tearing it down each morning just like they’d do once they’d left the safety and security of Flores. They poured over maps and aerial photos and drone videos, getting as much data about the terrain as they could before hacking it apart with a machete. Finally, a week after arriving at the basecamp the site manager deemed them ready to leave and declared the following morning as Day One of the expedition.
“Are you nervous?” Nicholas asked that night while sitting at their picnic table at the center of basecamp.
“A little,” Becky admitted. “I mean, you know, bugs, snakes, monkeys, Mayan Aborigines.”
Nicholas leaned his head back and laughed heartily. “We’re not going to Australia so I’m pretty sure you won’t see any Aborigines, but Mayans, sure. There might be some native tribes hiding.”
“Do you think they’re going to be mad at us for disturbing their sacred ground?”
“Maybe a little,” Nicholas said. “We’ll try to leave the site as unscathed as possible. These guys are good at what they do. All we want is to collect some data and analyze what we find.”
“That makes sense.” She pondered for a moment; brow creased. “Are you glad I dragged you on this adventure?”
“More than you could possibly imagine.”
They slept in their bunks for the last time that night and Nicholas was sure that would be the last time anyone would sleep in these bunks. He’d already begun the construction for a state-of-the-art research facility where future explorers could rest in comfort before trekking out into the inhospitable jungles.
He wasn’t looking forward to cramming into a tent with his brother the following night. Sleeping in Becky’s tent sounded better and better all the time.
The hour drive from Flores to Tikal was easy compared to braving the almost nonexistent trail into the jungle. They stopped in Tikal briefly because most of the team were Americans and had either never been there before or hadn’t been back in at least a year.
Visiting the ancient ruins was surreal knowing that its size was thousands of times larger than they’re realized just a few short months ago. The use of LiDAR to evaluate the landscape truly had changed history, as Becky had first mentioned.
Nicholas stood in the center of the square in Tikal and turned slowly, gazing out into the jungle, imagining the buildings that were hidden within its trees. Some buildings were nothing but rubble on top of foundations. Others were full sized pyramids and temples, homes, businesses.
Teams of archaeologists were tripping over each other to explore the newly discovered sites. But none of them were venturing as far into the wilderness as the eleven men and one woman who would set out with him today.
After paying homage to the great city of Tikal, the team piled into the Jeeps again and skirted the tourist areas, taking a little used road into the jungle where a group of foresters had created a secret trail off to the south, hiding the entrance in such a way that a person would need to know the path existed in order to find it. The drivers knew to travel exactly ten miles then stop. The only clue to the entrance was a set of GPS coordinates and intuition.
The Jeeps were parked just long enough for the team to unload their basic equipment and they would leave the explorers to travel on foot for the rest of the trek.
Bushwhacking through the dense jungle would not be easy but the most important reason for not bulldozing hundreds of trees and creating a road was to deter looters. So far, this site was as hidden as all the other ruins that were shrouded in vegetation and only visible from the air through LiDAR.
Keeping the integrity of the ancient temple was paramount. Rarely did scientists have the opportunity to collect data in situ from an undisturbed site. Usually the ruins had been pilfered decades ago. This site was not only intact, it was sacred.
A small team of foresters had cut a path that would make the journey easier, but the cuttings didn’t start until after crossing the first mound so as not to be seen from the road. Foresters had also created several cutouts just large enough to set up camp for the night. At their final destination the foresters had cut down enough trees that the team would be able to spread out a little more and set up a more permanent work site. Even that clearing had to be strategically hid from the air. Their goal was to keep this site invisible to anyone without LiDAR technology.
Even surrounded by twelve other scientists—one of whom was his twin brother, and one who was the woman he planned to marry—Nicholas felt very alone watching the taillights of the Jeeps disappear.
“Want to go for a walk?” Nicholas leaned closer to Becky but didn’t need to speak too quietly because the chatter in the conference room was more a post-meeting circle of smaller conversations. He stood and offered his hand, helping Becky from her seat.
As if their earlier taunts hadn’t garnered enough teasing, being the first to leave the table, and leaving together, set the group off again.
“Sneaking off together already?” Matthew asked.
“Dr. Benson doesn’t want to lose the bet,” Levi said. “She’s got a lot invested in tonight’s adventures.”
“You get her pregnant and I’m holding you in breach of contract for stealing one of my best faculty members,” Timothy called from across the table.
“Gentlemen, we are going for a walk together.” Nicholas nodded regally to the group. “I may not have a degree in physiology, but I’m pretty sure that won’t get her pregnant.” He escorted Becky from the room.
“Goodnight, guys!” Becky called over her shoulder. “Hold onto that money for me!”
“You’re adorable, you know that?” Nicholas kissed her temple. He led her onto the dusty street that ran alongside the basecamp and toward downtown Flores. The lights from the city lit the sky in an urban glow that only penetrated a short distance before being swallowed in a blackness speckled with a million diamonds. A car honked in the distance and a dog nearby barked incessantly for no apparent reason.
“They’re all too easy to tease.” As she’d done when they first rode in his Lamborghini, Becky’s cadence shifted as soon as they were alone from flirting with the guys into a mature lady. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to spend the evening trying to seduce you.”
“That’s good, because I was kind of hoping to save that until after we’re married.” He wondered how she’d react. When she’d learned he was twenty-nine and never been kissed, she’d laughed at him. By deductive reasoning she would have already figured out that he was still a virgin. Would his desire to wait until marriage be a deal-breaker? He hoped not but now would be the time to get that out of the way before getting too emotionally involved and have their hearts broken.
“Me too,” Becky said without hesitation.
“Really?” He turned her to face him. “You’re not just saying that?”
“No, I’m serious. I may flirt and goof off, but when it comes down to actually sleeping together, I really want a lifetime commitment first.”
Nicholas let out the breath he’d been holding. “I figured you were going to think I was a prude and a geek.”
“Well, I know you’re a geek,” she teased then turned and kept walking. “I’m glad we talked about this because it’s better for us to make that decision now than in the heat of the moment, ya know?”
“No, actually, I don’t.” Nicholas chuckled. “I’ve never gotten that far around the bases. I’m so inexperienced, I don’t even know what the bases are, unless you’re comparing them to acids, then I can tell you the coefficients to balance any chemical equation.”
Becky threw her head back and laughed, seeming carefree and excited about life. “There’s definitely enough chemistry between us, I’ll give you that.”
“See if we were smart, we’d just sleep in the same hotel room tonight, take their money in the morning, and go out for brunch.”
“Tempting… but so are you.” Her contemplative whisper told its own story. “I’m not sure I want to tempt myself that way.”
Nicholas pulled her to a stop again, the dust from the road settling in a puff around their feet. He searched her blue eyes for a moment, the waning light darkening them to nearly grey. “Rebecca Benson, I think I might fall in love with you.”
“You know what I think?” She allowed herself to drift closer until their bodies were nearly touching. He waited for her to answer her own question. “I think you need to start looking for jobs near Houston.”
“You think so, huh?” He reached up and tucked a lock of hair that had fallen from its clip around her ear, then just boldly reached around and pulled the clip out entirely letting her hair cascade over her shoulders. “For our wedding I’d love for you to wear your hair down.”
“Are you proposing to me, Dr. Stephenson?”
“Would you like me to propose to you, Dr. Benson?” He stepped even closer and wove his fingers into the heavy locks at the base of her neck, still damp from her shower a million hours ago before two plane rides and one very long planning meeting. “How is your hair wet after all these hours?”
“Hair doesn’t dry when it’s tucked up in a clip. Plus, the humidity here won’t allow it to dry. I’m probably sweaty and gross.”
He pulled the hair off one shoulder and placed a kiss behind her ear, causing her to go limp in his arms with a soft moan. He moved to the other side and placed a kiss there as well. His voice was husky as he mumbled, “You don’t smell sweaty to me… at all.”
“That’s good…” Her words were barely a breath. “Yeah, so, about this whole waiting for marriage thing, how committed to that notion are you?”
“About eighty percent.” He kissed her neck again then moved up her chin toward her lips. “Seventy-five, maybe.” He captured her mouth in his and thought to himself, fifty-fifty. Maybe forty-five.
As they kissed while standing in the dusty street behind the makeshift conference room where their team were still sitting around chatting and laughing, all Nicholas could think about was how quickly the numbers were falling and how good brunch would taste in the morning.
“Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately”—Dr. Timothy Cathcart looked pointedly around the team of thirteen explorers— “Almost all of us in this group have PhD’s and are renowned as the best of the best in our fields, so drop all pretenses and stick with first names during the entire trip. Got it?”
Everyone nodded and glanced around. None of them seemed particularly haughty or pretentious so Nicholas wasn’t worried.
“Other than our shovelbum over here.” Timothy pointed at the youngest member of the team. “He’s just a grad student.”
That brought chuckles and the man beside him ruffled the kid’s hair. They looked alike. Father and son, maybe?
The small makeshift conference room at the basecamp in Flores, Guatemala wasn’t much more than a few slabs of sheet metal held together with industrial nails on a wooden frame. It did little to keep out the heat or the flies. Nicholas had forgotten how much he hated this aspect of archaeology explorations and decided now would be a good time to invest in the local economy and build a more permanent structure here.
“Seriously, though, let’s go around the room and get to know each other. We’ll be spending the next six weeks in pretty close quarters.” Timothy pointed at the younger kid again. “Matt, you want to get us started since I’ve already picked on you? Tell us your name, where you’re from and your field of expertise, plus your title and what your role will be on this team.”
“Sure.” Matt sat up straighter with more confidence than Nicholas expected. “I’m at Cornell, working on a Master of Arts in Archaeology with a concentration in Ritual and Religion. As Timothy mentioned, I’ll be your field technician, aka grunt, shovelbum, digger, gopher, whatever you want to call me.”
“We’ll just call you Matt,” Timothy said with a wink. “Welcome. Is this your first expedition?”
“Nah, my dad’s been dragging me along to digs since I was old enough to carry my own fifty-pound pack.” Matt smiled at the man beside him.
“Had to get him started in the family business early.” The man nodded and bumped Matt’s shoulder. “I go by Matthew so you all can tell us apart. At least I’ve got twenty-five years on him. It’s gonna take a while for us to tell the twins apart.” Matthew hitched his thumb to the side.
“Sorry about that.” Levi shrugged. “Maybe one of us should have dyed our hair or something.”
“We’ll get to know you soon enough,” Matthew said. “Anyway, I’m the reason Matt chose Cornell since that’s where I completed my PhD in Anthropology with a concentration in archaeology. I will be serving on this expedition as your field director.” Matthew turned to Levi, who sat to his left.
“Greetings. I’m Levi, the more intelligent of the Geek Twins, as proven by extensive IQ testing, my chosen field of linguistics, and the fact that I proposed to my brother’s girlfriend before he even asked her on a date.” Levi spouted his diatribe with a straight face, drawing more laughter than a stand-up comedian.
Nicholas met his brother’s humor with a lighthearted disclaimer. “As the older of the Geek Twins—and more mature—I will not be held responsible for anything that comes out of my brother’s mouth.”
“Don’t worry, Nicholas, your mouth will be regularly silenced by Dr. Benson’s lips.”
“Ooh! Slam!” Multiple members of team jeered and laughed at them while Nicholas felt his cheeks flush.
“Is it hot in here?” Nicholas asked playfully, pulling at his collar.
“I feel the heat whenever you sit next to me,” Becky said with a smirk.
“Good thing too,” Levi said. “Because Nicholas will need a lot of cold showers over the next few weeks.”
That brought more laughter and Nicholas rolled his eyes. “Like I said, I will not be held responsible for him.”
Levi pulled his wallet from his back pocket, slipped out a dollar bill and tossed it to the middle of the table. “Anyone else want to lay wagers how many days until I no longer have a roommate in my tent and Becky is no longer afraid of the dark?”
Amid laughter and jeers most of the guys threw a dollar on the table.
Becky leaned closer and whispered to Nicholas, “What if I’m afraid of the dark tonight?”
“Unless you want to find a magistrate this afternoon, you might want to get a flashlight.” Since his lips were so close to her ear, Nicholas kissed her neck and she giggled.
“Just to make this wager fair”—Levi started numbering pieces of paper from one to eleven and handed them out— “Take a slip of paper and write your name on it. If they hold out past eleven, we’ll start over.”
“Weren’t we discussing fields of study?” Nicholas asked. “Safe topics like logistics and job titles, responsibilities at camp. That kind of thing?”
“Your responsibility each evening is to help Becky get her tent set up properly.” Levi patted him on the back.
“Anyway…” Nicholas couldn’t fight a grin. “I’ll go next. My name is Nicholas and I currently teach at Harvard but completed my PhD at Boston University with a degree in anthropology. I will be serving as the team’s environmental archaeologist and my very irreverent twin will be our linguist.” Nicholas turned to Becky, passing the spotlight.
“I’m Rebecca and I currently work at the University of Houston at the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping. I too completed my PhD at Boston University studying Geography & Environment. What else?” Becky scratched her chin. “Oh, and I’m engaged to Levi and sleeping with Nick, so this should be an interesting adventure.” That brought more laughter.
“Would you like me to trade chairs so you can sit between us, darling?” Nicholas asked playfully.
“Did the three of you know each other while at Boston?” Matthew asked.
“Becky and I did,” Nicholas said.
“I was his TA in the GIS lab.”
“Completely off-limits.” Nicholas hid his sarcasm behind a fake cough.
“Not anymore.” Becky’s singsong declaration was followed by a flirty smile.
“I give ’em four days,” one guy said.
“Can I change my number? There’s no way they’re making it to eight.”
“Shoot, I got eleven, what are you complaining about?”
Nicholas leaned closer to Becky and stage whispered, “It’s not too late to get on the plane and head back to the States.”
“Heck no!” Becky pulled out a dollar bill and tossed it into the middle with everyone else’s. Then she grabbed one of the extra pieces of paper Levi had torn apart and made a show of writing out the word Z-E-R-O and tossed that on the pile. “Game on.”
Nicholas laughed heartily and laid his head on the table, peeking up at her. “You are in so much trouble.”
She just grinned back at him and Nicholas felt his heart melt along with his resolve. He was the one in trouble and they all knew it.
“We’ll leave from Houston with my boss, Dr. Timothy Cathcart, who is the Excavation Director.” Becky’s suggestion made perfect sense seeing as how Timothy was the main financier, and person responsible for pretty much everything. “It’s just over a two-hour flight from Houston to Cancun as the crow flies over the Gulf of Mexico.”
“Which would be a really long flight for a crow.” Levi scooped a large bite of noodles onto perfectly positioned chopsticks and lifted the bite to his mouth.
“We used to have family in that area,” Nicholas said, holding his bite of orange chicken a few inches away from his face until he finished his thought. “Mostly in Puerto Aventuras just south of Cancun.”
“Well we won’t be staying in Cancun for long,” Becky said. “There won’t be time for sight-seeing. We have a four-and-a-half-hour flight to the Mundo Maya International Airport in Flores.”
“And Flores is where base camp is located, right?” Nicholas remembered that from his conversation with Becky while they were walking on the beach. But he was too distracted by that kiss to remember everything clearly. Plus, Levi hadn’t been part of that conversation.
“Yes, that is where we’ll meet the rest of the team. We’ll spend a few days working through the logistics before driving up to Tikal. With a project this complex, we can’t skimp on the planning.”
“From an archaeologist’s standpoint, this is more of an exploration than an excavation,” Nicholas said. “The most important people on the team will be the field guides and cartographers. We’re basically following a map that doesn’t exist—outside of a computer—to a place none of us have ever been in search of a city no one knew existed.”
“You two will fit right in,” Becky said. “I’m the person who will be out of my element. My remote sensing and cartography skills will come in handy, but outside of a computer lab I’m pretty useless.”
“Just stick with us and we’ll protect you,” Levi said with a confidence Nicholas didn’t feel. There were logistics Becky probably hadn’t considered.
“Do you know how to pitch a tent?” Nicholas was fearful of her answer.
“I can learn…”
“Cook over an open fire? Dig your own latrine? Find and purify water? Ration your food so you don’t starve?”
“So… basically you need me to become a Boy Scout.” Becky chuckled nervously and gulped. “I’m in trouble, aren’t I?”
“Nah, like Levi said, we’ll help you. Get me the name of the site manager and I’ll find out what he already has and what we need to bring for you. We’ll do some shopping while we’re still in the States.”
“Okay.” This confident professor didn’t seem so confident now that she realized there were more moving parts than she’d considered.
Nicholas thought of another aspect they’d need to address, and the subject was a little more delicate. “I don’t want this to come across as sexist but having a woman with us on this expedition adds another layer to the logistics.”
“How so?” Becky raised her chin in defiance. “I can do anything a man can do.”
“Really? Can you whip it out and pee behind a tree? Over the six weeks we’ll be travelling will you have any periods? Those are things we don’t have to deal with as guys.” As Nicholas spoke, Becky’s shoulders fell. “Sorry to be blunt but this has nothing to do with what a woman can do compared to what a man can do. Women’s bodies are physiologically different than men’s. We have to take those things into consideration or you’re going to be miserable.”
“Have you been on expeditions with women in the past?” Becky bit her lower lip, but her eyes were hopeful.
“Of course. And the site manager will be prepared for all that. I just want you to be cognizant of the challenges.”
“I’ll do a little more research and planning,” Becky said.
“Speaking of research,” Levi interrupted. “Can we get back to it and quit talking about women’s bathroom habits?” He stood and gathered empty take-out containers from their Chinese food eating frenzy. I need this kitchen table back.”
“Well, I need my computer back,” Becky said. “It’s getting late and I need to head over to my hotel.”
“Can you share those images with me in a Dropbox or something?” Levi asked, sliding Becky’s laptop toward her.
She clicked on the keyboard and mouse for a few minutes then closed the computer down. “That should do it. You realize those are only a few snapshots with a drone, right? There will be hundreds more images once we get there and start collecting data in situ.”
“I know”—Levi opened his own laptop and navigated to the files— “I’m just excited to get started.”
“Get through the end of your semester and I’ll have the director contact you with travel plans. Well, more accurately his assistant will contact you.”
“Sounds good.” Levi was already distracted with his computer and codices.
“I’ll drive you back to your hotel.” Nicholas stood and grabbed his keys from the key holder near the door while Becky tucked her laptop away.
“See you in the morning, Dr. Stephenson,” Levi said with a smirk.
“That jokes getting old, Dr. Stephenson.” Nicholas smacked his twin lightly upside the head. “I’ll see you in a little while.”
“Wait until the rest of the team starts laying into you.” Levi laughed, completely unapologetic. “Might as well get it over with now while you still have some privacy.”
“I would apologize for my brother’s rude behavior,” Nicholas told Becky. “But there is no excuse for him.”
“Wait until he meets the right woman. Turnaround is fair play you know.”
“Send her my way when you find her,” Levi called after her. “Nice meeting you, Dr. Benson.”
“You as well, Dr. Stephenson,” she called back. “Don’t stay up too late with that research.”
“I’m sure I’ll get more sleep tonight than you two will,” Levi mumbled playfully.
“I’m so sorry.” Nicholas turned on the light in the garage and shut the door, drowning out any further taunting. He opened the car door for her to climb into his Lamborghini.
“He’s just saying what you’re thinking.” Becky brushed past him on her way to climb into the car.
“What about you?” Nicholas asked, pushing her gently against the side of the car and wrapping his arms around her waist. “What are you thinking?”
“The same thing you’re thinking,” she whispered. He highly doubted that. “I’m thinking I look forward to getting to know you better before we jump into anything physical.”
“Yeah… that’s exactly what I was thinking too.” Not. “I’d better drive you back to your hotel now.”
“If you insist.” She pouted.
“Keep that up and the guys won’t have anything to wager.” He leaned down and kissed her neck then reluctantly pulled away and offered her his hand to help her into his car. He needed to drop her off at her hotel so he could come home and take a cold shower.
“That didn’t take you long.” Levi didn’t look up from the computer or take his hand off his mouse. Scribbles of hieroglyphs covered his notepad and copies of all four known codices of the books of Mayan hieroglyphs sat open on the kitchen table. “Feeling better?”
“Levi, don’t be a jerk.” Nicholas held Becky’s hand as they strode across the open floor plan of the condo he shared with his twin. “We just went for a drive down to Fort Standish and walked around the ruins for a while talking.” And kissing. He didn’t say that part out loud.
“What are these?” Becky leaned over the Madrid Codex, which contained a wealth of information on astrology and on divinatory practices, identifying the various Mayan gods and reconstructing the rites, Mayan crafts, pottery, weaving, and hunting.
“These are some of the few collections of pre-Columbian Mayan hieroglyphic texts known to have survived the book burnings by the Spanish clergy during the 16th century.” Levi finally glanced up from his work with an almost panicked expression as if he wanted to snap at Becky not to touch his research.
Nicholas wasn’t worried. Becky was a scientist like the twins. Scientists knew not to move so much as a page in another scientist’s research design.
“Who would be cruel enough to burn books?” Becky feigned horror.
“Apparently the Spanish clergy of the 16th century,” Levi said with sarcastic grumbling. “They considered them pagan. The written language of the Maya was nearly eradicated by the Spanish while trying to convince the savages to convert to Christianity.”
“You’d think that would be the opposite of helpful,” Becky said.
“It’s a miracle any of this writing survived,” Levi said. “The Maya were a literate culture. They wrote on bark paper or deer skin using reed pens and conc shells as ink wells. Theirs was a rich and complex system of hieroglyphics similar to those used in Egypt.”
“Do you see why he thinks he’s smarter than me?” Nicholas stage whispered to Becky.
“He is smarter than you,” she whispered back. “He proposed within five minutes of meeting me. You still haven’t even asked me on a date.”
“How about if I spend the whole summer with you,” Nicholas suggested. “Would that be a long enough date for you?”
Levi grinned. “I plan to lay wagers with the rest of the team of archaeologists about how soon the two of you will be sleeping in the same tent.”
“Very funny,” Nicholas grumbled.
“Ah, come on, Nick”—Becky stepped closer and laid her hands on his chest. As if by instinct, Nicholas found his arms wrapped around her waist. “I’m going to be the only female on the team. I’ll be all alone in that dark tent and will need a strong man to keep me safe and warm.”
“Yep, I give you three days, a week at the most,” Levi said.
“Am I allowed to get in on the wager?” Becky asked, turning to Levi and blinking her eyes with contrived innocence.
“You traitorous vixen.” Nicholas shook his head in resignation of his fate. “What am I going to do with you?”
“I can think of a few things…” Her voice trailed off and she bit her lower lip.
“I thought I asked the two of you to go spend some time at Dr. Benson’s hotel room,” Levi said. “You’re distracting me from my research.”
“We’ll stop.” Becky pulled herself away from Nicholas’ arms and he felt her absence as if he were a toddler and someone had yanked away his security blanket. She sat too close to Levi on one of the kitchen chairs. “Tell me more about Mayan linguistics. That is what I hired you for, right?”
“Okay, so, Mayan inscriptions are found on standing stone slabs called stelae, or stone lintels, sculpture, pottery, plus the few surviving Mayan books, or codices.” Levi was back in game mode, his excitement contagious. “The Mayan system of writing contains more than 800 characters, including some that are hieroglyphic and other phonetic signs representing syllables. The hieroglyphic signs are pictorial—meaning they’re recognizable pictures of real objects—representing animals, people, and objects of daily life.”
Levi carefully pulled closer the book she had been asking about.
“The Madrid Codex dates from the 15th century and was made of fig-bark paper folded like an accordion with a cover made from jaguar skin.” Levi pointed to another one of the books. “The Dresden Codex probably dates from the 11th or 12th century and contains astronomical calculations with surprising accuracy.
“The Paris Codex was discovered in 1859 in an obscure corner of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and was just torn wrappings of a manuscript and is probably slightly older than the Madrid Codex. Last but not least was the Grolier Codex, discovered in 1971 and dates to the 13th century.”
“This is almost as exciting as making out on the beach.” Becky glanced up at Nicholas with innocent eyes.
“You guys made out on the beach?” Levi’s jaw gaped. “Isn’t that moving a little fast for having just gotten reacquainted after years apart.”
“It was long overdue,” Nicholas said. “And it was more like on the protected side of the ruins, not really on the beach.”
“Semantics.” Becky waved her hand dismissively. She turned back to Levi. “You were saying?”
Levi sighed with exaggerated frustration. “Archaeologists painstakingly decoded the Mayan’s written language and published the manuscripts. And here they are.”
“Without linguists”—Nicholas interrupted— “archaeologists would simply be playing in the sandbox searching for bones and pottery fragments.”
“The two of you work well together,” Becky said.
“That we do.” Nicholas held out his hand for Levi to give him a fist bump.
“We’d each be lost without the other,” Levi agreed.
Nicholas and Levi had always believed they’d be bachelors forever. Now looking at this gorgeous woman at his side, his paradigm shifted, and a new future seemed to come into focus. He wondered how this new perspective would change the relationship with his twin.
The ride up the hill was arduous, especially racing to his condo in the heat of day rather than casually wandering home enjoying the cool of the evening. Time for a quick shower or Becky wouldn’t want to spend the afternoon in his car. Not that he expected intimacy on the day they’d met again for the first time in years, but he took a minute to run a quick razor across his stubble and brushed his teeth. Silly.
Slipping into the soft leather seat of his Lamborghini, Nicholas almost moaned with pleasure. Maybe that was his misdirected desire for the beautiful woman who would soon join him in the passenger seat.
He felt invincible shifting gears and flying down the switchbacks of the narrow roads, hoping he didn’t encounter any police in these quiet residential neighborhoods. All he would need to do is suggest the officer take a moment to sit behind the wheel and maybe take a spin and the guy would be so starstruck he’d forget how many miles per hour Nicholas had been travelling over the speed limit.
Nicholas slowed as he neared campus and circled the buildings before finding a vacated spot close enough to the café to see his baby from the window. Paranoid? Yeah, just a bit. Justified? Yep. He set the car alarm and jogged across the street to meet up with Becky and Levi.
Even though the two distracted professors were tucked in a booth in the back corner, Nicholas sat at a table near the window, and waved them over to join him.
While Becky creased her brows in confusion, Levi gathered the computer and his bagel, heading toward the table in the front of the café.
“Why are we moving?” Becky asked, grabbing her briefcase and croissant sandwich.
“He won’t let his baby out of his line of sight.” Levi’s matter-of-fact statement included his acceptance.
“Holy Lamborghini,” Becky said, lowering into the chair beside Nicholas. “I can see why.” Her jaw hung open and her eyes never left the candy apple red Lamborghini Urus parked across the street as she took a bite of her sandwich.
“No need to rush your lunch. I won’t leave without you.” Nicholas lowered his voice and bumped her shoulder gently. “I’m going to grab a sandwich. You keep an eye on my car.”
“Okay.” Distracted, she took another bite.
He hurried to order his usual grilled chicken panini and slipped back into the seat beside Becky. “So, Dr. Benson, what have you been up to the past seven years since you finished your PhD? You married? Kids? Boyfriend? Girlfriend? Significant other? Still pining after this hot guy who used to drool over you in the computer lab during grad school?” Nicholas took a bite of his panini, passing the conversational baton.
Becky threw her head back and laughed. “No, I’ve never been married, haven’t really had time for a significant other—male or female. I spend my days in my labs doing research and analysis, spend my evenings eating microwave meals in front of my computer conducting more research and analysis, and get far too little sleep.”
“Do you have a twin sister?” Levi looked up from his focus on the laptop.
“Sadly, no. Not all of us are able to duplicate ourselves and accomplish twice the work of mere mortals.” She turned toward Nicholas. “As for still pining over certain hot geeks from my grad school days, that is something we’ll have to discuss when we have a little more… privacy.”
Nicholas gulped and lowered his voice. “I never said anything about said grad student being a geek.”
“Are you disputing the title?” Her eyes smoldered.
“Absolutely not.” His words had taken on a husky intensity he couldn’t hold back.
“Would the two of you please leave?” Levi never looked up from the computer, but his words held annoyance. “Your foreplay is making me want to puke.”
Nicholas and Becky both sat up, leaning away from each other. He didn’t argue Levi’s request but didn’t want to abandon him. “How are you going to get home?”
“The same way I got here.” Levi pointed across the street. “My bike is locked to that rack.”
“What about my computer?” Becky asked.
“I have my messenger bag right here.” Levi lifted the bag from the seat by his side. “I’ll take good care of your laptop and meet you guys at the condo in a few hours… if you don’t wind up back at Dr. Benson’s hotel room, in which case I’ll see you in the morning. Or afternoon. Or whenever you come up for air.”
“Very funny.” Nicholas stood and offered a hand to help Becky up, savoring the jolt of heat that rushed through his core at the power of her connection. Hotel room? Yeah… no. He’d never even been brave enough to kiss a girl. She was right about him being a geek. Still, geeks have feelings too. Really strong feelings. He needed to get his mind out of the gutter and take her for a drive. On a nice, country road. Not to her hotel. He held up his keys. “Ready?”
She boldly threaded her fingers through his as they crossed the street and he didn’t complain. He clicked the key fob and woke up his baby then held open the passenger door for the spunky professor who was going to bring him to his knees. The wonderment in her eyes as she settled into the leather bucket seat was worth all $270,000 of this purchase.
Nicholas hurried around to the driver’s seat and drew in a whiff of the new car smell, which now held a hint of whatever perfume Becky was wearing. Yeah, he could get used to having her in his car.
“Your brother’s very fun to tease.” Becky’s tone had changed now that she wasn’t trying to make Levi jealous.
“At least he’s finally resolved himself to the notion that you’re not interested.” Nicholas slipped on a pair of shades and carefully backed out of his parking spot.
“I don’t know. He is kind of cute. Looks just like this guy I used to have a crush on during graduate school.”
“Yeah?” Nicholas grinned as he shifted into drive and forced himself to keep his speed down through campus. “Tell me about this cute guy from grad school.”
“Well, he was so shy around me that he could hardly pull a sentence together. But I knew he was only shy around me because I watched him from afar and heard him talking to others when he didn’t know I was nearby. He was so intelligent it was intimidating but he was so kind to everyone that no one was really intimidated. And the work he submitted for assignments was near perfect. Always.”
“I’m far from perfect.” Nicholas cleared his throat and lowered his voice, no longer teasing.
“I haven’t been able to stop thinking of you all these years later,” she said. “I’ve followed your career. You, and your brother’s.”
“Between the two of you, you’re published in so many scholarly journals, I can hardly keep up.”
“We have no life outside of our research,” Nicholas explained. “It’s easy to get published when you’re competing against guys who have wives and kids and other jobs. Plus, like you said earlier, we’re able to duplicate ourselves by working together.”
“That’s how I knew to contact you.”
“And here I was starting to think you liked me for my looks and intelligence and hot car.”
“Darn, you found me out.”
“I hope you know Levi was just kidding about the hotel room. He knows I would never do that.”
“I knew he was teasing.”
“I’ve never even kissed a woman.”
“Nick, you’re twenty-nine years old.” Her jaw hung open. “What other twenty-nine-year-old man hasn’t kissed a woman?”
“Uh… the one who looks just like me and is drooling over your laptop.”
“We’re going to need to remedy this travesty.” Becky laughed.
“You’re going to kiss my brother?” Nicholas feigned shock.
“No, silly guy.” She pushed his shoulder. “I’m going to kiss you.”
“Should I pull the car over right now?” Nicholas teased. He crossed the Charles River and merged onto Interstate 90 heading toward the coast.
“Nah, you’ve waited twenty-nine years. I think you can wait a few more minutes until we arrive wherever it is you’re taking me.”
“I’m taking you to the closest thing we have to an archaeological site in this part of the country. I hope you don’t mind a quick drive.”
“How long is quick?”
“Forty-five minutes in a sports car with one of the smartest men I’ve ever met, who also happens to be really hot and has a crush on me. Hmm… let me think about it.”
“You’re cute.” Nicholas chuckled and lifted Becky’s hand to intertwine their fingers, still in shock that she was back in his life after all these years. “You know what? I think I will let you kiss me today. That sounds like fun.”
As they wound their way south toward the Atlantic coast, banter was light and playful, getting to know each other as adults and peers, interspersed with comfortable pauses of companionable silence.
“Ah, I forgot we have to take a charter over to the island.” Nicholas pulled into the parking lot at the end of the peninsula of Hull, Massachusetts. “I hope you’re not averse to hopping on a boat.”
“I’m game.” She exited the vehicle without waiting for him to come around and open the door for her.
Nicholas reminded himself to be a chivalrous gentleman when possible while respecting her boundaries as a strong, independent woman. He reached out a hand inviting her to connect. She did and his heart soared again.
He paid the owner of Charter Island Tours to take them over to Lovells Island and wait there for them while they did a little sightseeing. Once on the island, they paid to have a driver take them to Fort Standish, one of the earliest fortifications in the modern defenses of Boston Harbor. Once used as a fort and gun emplacement, most of the buildings were now spalled and crumbling.
“Not exactly a thousand years old,” Nicholas apologized. “But an impressive example of ruins nonetheless.”
They walked around the ruins for a little while, discussing how the exploration would play out in Guatemala. They would have a team of experts to cut through the dense forest and obtain all the information they could while camping there for the summer. There were indigenous tribes near the dig site who would understandably be upset to have the scientists poking around one of the sites they consider to be sacred. Once they returned to their respective universities, they would conduct analyses to make sense of the collected data.
Nicholas halted the conversation when they rounded the corner of the fort to face the Atlantic Ocean and stood in a secluded location. This was the perfect place. He leaned his back against the crumbling concrete wall and pulled Becky to him.
Her face grew stoic and she must have known exactly why he had stopped.
“There’s something I’ve wanted to do for years,” Nicholas said, his voice lowering and husky. Slowly to avoid startling her, he reached up and unclipped that which was holding her elegant twist. The golden locks fell and she shook out her hair to fall on her shoulders. He lowered his voice even further, almost to a whisper. “You’re so beautiful, Rebecca.”
Without any further preamble, she leaned forward, and he pulled himself away from the wall and they met in a soft, mildly passionate kiss. Fireworks must have exploded over his head for the way a jolt of energy soared through his body, awaking inner desires he hadn’t realized he’d been suppressing.
This woman was everything Nicholas had dreamt about and more. He couldn’t wait to spend the summer in her presence. They kissed for several long minutes before driving down to the boat and riding back to the peninsula for the 45-minute drive home.
“That is the most complex stone carving I’ve ever seen on a stela,” Nicholas said. “Where was this found?” He leaned closer to Becky’s laptop which sat on the corner of his desk where both he and his brother could view the screen. Their office was big enough that the three of them could sit close together and not feel crowded.
“In a remote region between El Zotz and Tikal,” Becky said.
“There’s nothing there.” Nicholas shook his head, trying to shake off the feeling that everything he thought to be true dissipated like the clouds covering the Empire State Building.
“And yet there is…” Becky raised her eyebrows.
“Has anyone tried to translate the carvings yet?” Levi examined the computer screen as if he could decipher the symbols without the use of any codex. He probably could. “There are so many of them.”
“Do you recognize the language?” Nicholas asked, baiting his brother. No doubt he already had a few ideas of what the rock carvings depicted.
“Of course. It’s primitive, but recognizable.”
“I knew you were the correct person to recruit for this project.” Becky was almost bouncing in her seat gazing at Levi with such affection that Nicholas was jealous of his brother. Even as competitive as they were, envy between them was rare. He shook off the jealousy and pulled himself back on track.
“How large an area does this cover?” Nicholas asked. “And how remote? And how did they find this?”
“One question at a time, Nick,” Becky scolded. “This is so far off the beaten path—or lack thereof—it was almost as if the carvers didn’t want the temple to be found.”
“So how did you find it?” Nicholas was growing impatient.
“This mound was so pronounced on the imagery there was almost a bullseye from the air. Concentric circles in a perfect Fibonacci spiral drew closer and closer to the main temple in such a way that analysts couldn’t ignore its importance. Hidden in plain sight but only visible once technology caught up to its complexity.”
“How soon can we leave?” Levi pulled his eyes away from the computer screen to gaze at Becky.
“I’m sure you’ll need to finish your semester before you run off with a team of archaeologists. Am I correct, Dr. Stephenson?” She spoke to Levi but winked at Nicholas.
“Yeah, I guess.” Levi’s shoulders fell. “Can I study the imagery some more?”
“Not until you feed me,” she said. “I flew in late last night and took an Uber straight from my hotel without eating this morning.”
“We can settle at the café across the street,” Nicholas suggested. “Dr. Benson can eat while Dr. Stephenson escapes into an ancient world the rest of us can’t decipher, and I’ll ride my bike up the hill to retrieve my car and come back for you.”
“Our car,” Levi grumbled. “Not that I’ve ever driven it.”
“I sense a hint of contention…” she raised her eyebrows with a playful glint.
“You’ll understand when you see my baby.” Nicholas wiggled his eyebrows.
“He won’t let me drive it even though I paid for half.”
“I’m older.” Nicholas fell back on his usual argument.
“I’m smarter,” Levi reminded him.
“I’m better looking.” Nicholas winked at Becky.
“We’re identical twins.” Levi’s argument was impossible to dispute.
“Becky, you decide,” Nicholas said. Both guys turned to her with expectant expressions.
“I think I’m going to need to witness said vehicle before making any judgements.” Her teasing lilt sent shivers up Nicholas’ spine.
Nicholas leaned closer to her, meeting her gaze with what he hoped was smoldering intensity. “You two head across the street for some lunch and I’ll ride up the hill to bring my car. Then we’ll leave my brother at home and you and I can go for a drive and get reacquainted after all this time.”
“Hey, you can’t just leave me at home. I also deserve to get acquainted with Becky, I mean, Dr. Benson.”
“I’ll tell you what, Dr. Stephenson”—Becky addressed Levi— “I’ll leave you with access to all the files on my laptop and you can spend the afternoon deciphering ancient text while I spend the afternoon flirting with your brother.”
Nicholas smirked at Levi and he scowled back.
“Fine, but only because you’ve tempted me with the one thing I care about even more than flirting with a woman. Especially one who is already enamored with my brother.”
“Would you care to escort me to the café, Dr. Stephenson?” Becky asked, closing her computer and sliding it into its case.
“Of course, Dr. Benson.” Levi rose from his chair and held out his arm, resigned to his fate.
“I’ll meet up with the two of you in about twenty minutes.” Nicholas grabbed his messenger bag and bike helmet, locked the office door behind them, and watched as his brother chatted casually with the lovely Rebecca Benson on their way to the elevator.
Nicholas turned the other direction toward the stairway leading down to where his bike was locked. He wondered at how quickly this day had shifted course. How quickly his life was destined to shift course. He bound down the stairs with a spring in his step and a soft smile on his face.
Becky took Levi’s request seriously when he asked her to explain her work to him like he was an undergrad. “Everything we view, either with the naked eye, or through a lens or image, has a spectral signature. When you project all the signatures at once they become a rainbow of color, similar to a prism. The technique called LiDAR—or Light Detection and Ranging—is like an x-ray to see the landscape without a chosen range on that spectrum of color. In our case we’re getting rid of the vegetation to see the ground below.”
“But that whole area is just a jungle. Isn’t it?” Nicholas tried to visualize that section of Guatemala. There were trees as far as the eye could see. Even from the ground the forest was so dense a person could hardly cut a foot path much less equipment to start an archaeology dig.
“Imagine flying over a small city that’s covered in clouds.” Becky’s voice filled with the wonderment of new discovery. “All you’d see is clouds, right? Now imagine flying over that same city without the clouds and seeing all the buildings. Strip away all the clouds from the jungles of Guatemala and realize there is a city underneath.”
“But there’s nothing there. Explorers have looked for archaeological sites in that region for years. There’s just a handful of buildings, ancient temples, pyramids, that kind of thing.”
“Imagine flying over New York City with low cloud cover and seeing just the tip of the Empire State Building and then removing the clouds and seeing that what you thought was one building is actually an entire city. That’s what they’re finding in Guatemala. Everywhere.”
“Imagine removing the cloud cover from the entire East Coast and realizing what you thought was a couple of buildings is actually a city that spans from Boston down through New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington D.C. and beyond.”
“A megalopolis.” Nicholas knew enough about urban geography to understand if one metropolis, like New York City, is too close to another metropolis, like Philadelphia, they are no longer seen as two metropolises; they are a megalopolis. What she was saying was mind blowing. There weren’t any cities in the jungles of Guatemala. “What does this have to do with archeology? And linguistics?”
“Let me start with archeology,” Becky said. “What if you could see not just buildings that exist now, but buildings that existed a thousand years ago? Two thousand years ago?”
“If I didn’t know how incredibly intelligent you are, I’d say you were delusional.”
“Have you ever been to the archeological dig site at Tikal?”
“Of course, it’s one of the most famous sites in all of Mesoamerica.”
“Let me show it to you on my computer screen as an aerial image.” She turned her laptop so Nicholas and Levi could see. The tree covered jungle looked very similar to how she’d described a city covered in clouds. Several tops of pyramids stuck up through the tree canopy the same way the Empire State Building would peek up through cloud cover.
“Makes me want to go back.” Nicholas felt that pull he experienced every spring. The one that made him drop everything and fly to Guatemala each summer.
“Now, let me use LiDAR to remove the trees.” The excitement in her voice told Nicholas that whatever she was going to show him was the reason she’d come all this way. With the click of her mouse, a new image emerged. An image of the same exact location minus the trees.
What appeared was a region far larger than any map he’d ever seen of Tikal with a series of squares and lines. The image confused Nicholas at first until he realized some of those squares were located at the exact spots where the known temples were located, the great plaza, the causeways. But there were many more squares than there were buildings at the dig sites. He’d been to that site eight times. Those buildings didn’t exist. “What is this, Dr. Benson?”
“Each one of those squares are foundations for buildings that are no longer there.” The wonderment and excitement re-entered her voice. “Everything with a straight edge was definitely built by humans.”
“But those buildings don’t exist.”
“Some do. They’re just covered in trees and vines and vegetation. For others, the only thing left is a foundation.”
“I’m not even sure how to react to this.”
“Let’s look at La Corona.” Becky turned her computer back toward her and clicked a few times with her mouse then turned the computer around again. Another famous dig site Nicholas visited every summer. She readied her mouse and with a simple click the image changed. “With the trees… without the trees.”
“Oh my gosh… there must be thousands of them.”
“Just in this 800 square mile study area, they estimate an additional 60,000 ancient structures, previously unknown Mayan cities and settlements sprawling across what was thought to be uninhabited wilderness. And that’s just one little study area. It’s possible there were billions of people living in this region of Mesoamerica.
“For archaeological studies in the jungle we want to get rid of all those points that come from vegetation and just leave the ground and the ancient buildings. Once all the unwanted pulses reflected from the tress are filtered out, the data that’s left allows the engineers to build a 3D model of the hidden jungle floor.”
“A treasure map.” Nicholas sat back in his chair, amazed.
Levi piped in. “This is overwhelming. But let’s circle back to my involvement. I understand why you wanted to show this to Nicholas, but what do you need me for?”
“Brace yourself for what I’m about to show you.” Becky pulled up another screen on her computer and before she turned the laptop back around, she looked at both of them with prolonged anticipation. “This was found at one of the new archeological sites.”
She turned her computer screen toward them again and both brothers gasped.
“Treasure hunt?” Nicholas gulped. Not what he’d expected this conservative, strait-laced professor to say. “What kind of treasure are you talking about?”
“The kind that rewrites history,” Becky said. “The kind that changes the way archaeologists view the landscape forever. The kind that opens your eyes to new discoveries that have been hidden beneath a shroud of vegetation for thousands of years.”
“You have my attention, Dr. Benson.” Nicholas shoved aside his desire to flirt, tempted by the alluring pursuit of knowledge.
“She had me at treasure hunt,” Levi said, leaning on his elbow, chin in his hand.
“Are either of you familiar with LiDAR?” She waited but they both shook their heads. “No? Do you at least know what I do for a living?”
“Don’t you teach at the University of Houston?” Nicholas creased his brow.
“I was recently recruited into their consortium of experts at the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping, or NCALM.”
“You always had a thing for remote sensing.” Nicholas remembered the way her eyes lit up while talking about aerial photographs and digital imaging. “Congratulations on your new position.”
“For once I admit ignorance on this one,” Levi said. “Explain your job to me like I’m an undergrad.”
“Our team flies an airplane over the tree canopy firing billions of laser pulses down to the ground where they bounce back, and we capture them using high-tech scanning equipment.” Her voice took on a sweet, teasing lilt that had Levi blinking his eyes in a daze.
“I think I’m in love with you,” Levi said, his chin never leaving his hand where his elbow still rested on the edge of Nicholas’s desk. “Will you marry me?”
“Now you understand why I needed so many cold showers during graduate school.”
“You never mentioned that.” Levi still hadn’t taken his eyes off Becky. “Can you say that again? Billions of laser pulses and high-tech scanning equipment?”
“I’ll do even better than that and tell you how we use the speed of light to measure how much time it takes the pulse to go from the airplane to the ground and back up again to measure how big things are.”
“Big?” Levi gulped.
“You know, the size of the trees and the buildings and stuff.”
“Size matters, I’m sure.” Levi nodded with enthusiasm.
“Especially when we strip away all the reflections from vegetation to reveal just the bare jungle floor.” She leaned closer to Levi and Nicholas fought the need to laugh at his brother.
“Stop it, Becky, you’re gonna give him a heart attack.” Nicholas chuckled.
“I’m givin’ ’im somethin’.” Becky sat back and folded her arms across her chest with a smirk.
“But seriously, back up a sec,” Nicholas said. “Are you saying that you’re using spectral analysis to remove the vegetation from the image to display the ground beneath the trees?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying.” Her smirk turned into a full out grin. “You wanna see?”
“Yeah,” both guys said at once.
“Dr. Stephenson?” A young man poked his head in the door, backpack over one shoulder and a skateboard tucked under his other arm.
In unison, both brothers answered again. “Yes?”
“Oh, you guys are creepy,” Becky said. “How can you stand to share an office?”
“I don’t understand the question.” Levi returned his gaze to Becky.
“Sorry, got distracted talking to an old friend.” Nicholas stood to shake hands with his grad student, having forgotten they had an appointment this morning to discuss his final project. “Hey, Dr. Stephenson, could you take Dr. Benson on a quick tour of the department while I give my full attention to my student and then perhaps the three of us can take an early lunch to view that data analysis.”
“I’d be more than happy to.” Levi stood and offered Becky his hand to help her from her chair.
Becky accepted Levi’s hand but pouted at Nicholas. “Don’t take too long, Dr. Stephenson. I can’t wait to show you what I’ve got.”
“You are going to be the death of me, Dr. Benson.” Nicholas felt his voice drop an octave and his heart raced.
“I can’t kill you yet, Dr. Stephenson. I need your expertise in archaeology for my treasure hunt.” With that she turned and allowed Levi to lead her from the room.
Nicholas bumped his head against the cinderblock wall and moaned.
“Your girlfriend’s hot, Dr. Stephenson.”
He’d almost forgotten his student was still in the room. Oops. “Yeah, well, she’s not my girlfriend.”
“Yet…” the little punk said.
“Anyway, about your final project—” Nicholas walked around and sat at his desk, waving his hand for his student to take a seat.
The entire time he was trying to listen to the student’s proposal, all Nicholas could think about was that one magic word. Yet.
Chapter One – The Geek Twins
“Dr. Stephenson, are you almost ready to go?” Nicholas called up the stairs to his twin brother, Levi. He already had the kickstand lifted, his helmet on, and his backpack strapped in place. His patience was wearing thin. “I have a meeting with a grad student in twenty minutes.”
“Dr. Stephenson, why do you insist on calling me Dr. Stephenson when we are still at home?” Levi answered as he hurried down the stairs to where his bike propped against the wall in the ground floor garage of their townhouse. As Levi walked past the candy apple red Lamborghini Urus that they supposedly shared, Nicholas snapped at his brother.
“Don’t scratch my car, dude.” Nicholas realized a luxury SUV imported from Italy was the least likely choice of a Harvard professor, but he just couldn’t resist temptation when he saw the concept car at the Beijing Auto Show. Without blinking an eye, he paid the $270,000 in advance and secured one of the coveted first run of a thousand off the production line. The perks of growing up a billionaire.
“Did I, or did I not, pay for half of that beauty?” Levi asked, strapping on his helmet and lifting his bike from where it rested against the inside wall of the garage. “Not that I’ve ever driven it.”
“I’m oldest. I get to drive,” Nicholas said, rolling out into the parking lot.
“By seven minutes. That hardly counts.” Levi mounted his bike and reached for the button to close the garage door.
Nicholas watched longingly as his prized possession disappeared behind the protective barrier between his baby and the elements that threatened its paint job. He wondered if he’d ever get tired of looking at his new toy. He shook off the nostalgia and pushed away from the curb, engaging the pedals of his bike.
The light breeze blowing through his thick brown hair made him smile as he let gravity and momentum pull him toward campus where they both taught.
As a professor of environmental archaeology, he worked closely with his brother’s expertise in ancient languages to reconstruct past civilizations, particularly the Mayan culture. Levi was at least partially fluent in all the main branches of the Mayan languages, particularly the Quichean.
The Geek Twins, as their childhood friends used to call them, had been fascinated with the cultures in Guatemala all their lives. There were interwoven ties between their father, who served in an Army Special Forces unit during a humanitarian crisis along the Texas-Mexican border, and their father’s cousin who married a Mayan princess who was also somehow a distant cousin of theirs and shared their last name.
The confusing blood lines and generational interconnections were fascinating, and the twins had devoted their life’s work to understanding and preserving their heritage.
Because their family was so wealthy, Nicholas and Levi had never needed to work traditional jobs. They had devoted one hundred percent of their adult lives to their studies and flown through their undergraduate and post-graduate programs. At the ripe old age of twenty-nine they were world-renowned in their fields.
They were also bachelors. Dating and marriage had barely crossed their minds. They joked they’d have to find girls who were also identical twins, loved traveling to archaeological sites in Meso-America and didn’t mind microwave meals and long nights of research. In other words, they’d be bachelors forever.
The bike rack beside the door to the Tozzer Anthropology Building, where they shared an office, was sparsely populated this early in the morning. They locked their bikes and Nicholas held open the door for his brother, who unhooked the strap from his bike helmet as they began the three-story trek up the stairs.
“Man, I hope I don’t look as ridiculous as you do with your sweaty helmet head,” Nicholas said, chuckling as he removed his own helmet. He ran his hand through his thick hair, trying to straighten out the fly-a-ways, and fluff the parts that were matted down.
“We’re identical twins,” Levi said. “If I look ridiculous, you look ridiculous.”
“Good thing I don’t have any meetings this morning.” Nicholas turned at the first landing, his legs still strong even after their bike ride. He was proud of their commitment to maintaining an active lifestyle, a requirement if they were going to be ready at a moment’s notice if someone needed them at an archaeology dig.
“I thought you said you were meeting with a grad student.” Levi had no trouble keeping up as they turned the corner at the final landing, and they almost seemed to race up the last section of stairs.
“Yeah, but he won’t care what I look like,” Nicholas said, pushing his brother out of his way, his spirit of competition kicking into high gear during those last few stairs. Just as he pushed open the heavy door to the third-floor hallway, he said, “No one cares what I look like.”
“I care,” a sultry voice startled him as he entered the hallway.
Nicholas stopped short when he noticed the gorgeous blond leaning against the wall next to the nameplate near the door to his office. Her blue eyes danced with amusement and Nicholas was caught in her gaze as his brother plowed into him.
She chuckled but didn’t move from where she stood with her arms crossed, a professional Navy button-down dress shirt and khaki slacks so different than the jeans and t-shirts worn by the college kids. She had a sport coat draped over her folded arms and computer bag at her feet.
“Becky?” Nicholas shook off his stupor. “I mean, Dr. Benson. What are you doing in Massachusetts?”
Chapter Two – Treasure Hunting
“Nice to see you too, Nick… I mean Dr. Stephenson.” Becky pushed away from the wall, leaving her computer bag resting next to the door to the office Nicholas shared with his brother. Either she had no idea how beautiful she was naturally, or she knew darn well how her playful grin affected him.
As he’d imagined a million times in his days as a grad student, he longed to reach up and remove the clip that held her long, blond hair in an elegant twist and watch the locks of gold fall heavily and rest on her shoulders. He watched it happen once, when she thought no one was in the computer lab.
Nicholas had felt like a stalker standing in the doorway to the computer lab late that night when he thought he had the building to himself and found her in the corner completely engrossed in whatever remote sensing data analysis she was running.
She had stretched and yawned then unclipped her hair and let it fall. She moaned—actually moaned—in relief. That hair twist had to be weighty on her neck and he wondered why she never left it down. She always had to be so professional, so polished. She never let her guard down, or her hair. A shame.
After gawking like a nervous schoolboy for a few minutes, Nicholas had turned and left the computer lab. He couldn’t even remember what project he’d planned to work on that evening. He was madly, passionately in love with his advisor’s teaching assistant, who was completely off-limits.
He’d gone home that night and headed straight for the workout gym in the dorms, lifting weights and riding the stationary bike and then finally donning his swimsuit for a dozen laps in the pool. What he needed that night was a cold shower. He never even told his brother what had happened, and he told Levi everything.
But Becky wasn’t a grad assistant anymore, and he wasn’t reliant on her approval for a passing grade in Digital Imaging. They both had post-doctoral educations, they both taught at major universities, and they were both top in their respective fields. She was a peer. And she was even more beautiful than his childish fantasies remembered.
When she’d graduated with her PhD in Geography & Environment from Boston University, he’d lost touch and had almost pushed her to the back of his mind as a dream that was never within reach to begin with. He never thought he’d see her again. Yet here she stood, waiting for him to lift his gaping jaw and regain his ability to speak.
Levi cleared his throat. “Uh… Dr. Stephenson, would you like to introduce me to your… friend?”
“Sorry, yes.” Nicholas glanced at his brother “Dr. Stephenson, this is Dr. Benson.”
“I gathered that.” Levi reached out a hand to Becky. “How exactly do you know each other?”
“Nick used to flirt mercilessly with me when I was his professor’s grad assistant way back in the day.”
“I did not flirt with you.” Nicholas coughed and could feel his face and neck heating in an embarrassing rash.
“Okay, he didn’t flirt, more like drooled over me.”
“That’s closer to the truth. I never got the nerve to speak a full sentence to you without sounding like a complete idiot.”
“Which is laughable since he’s probably the only guy I’ve ever met who was smarter than me.”
“According to IQ tests, I’m even smarter than my brother.” Levi wiggled his eyebrows with a playful smirk and wrapped his arm around Nicholas’ shoulder.
“And he’s modest too.” Nicholas shrugged out from under Levi’s arm and stepped forward to lead Becky toward the door to their office. “Come on in. As you can see from the door placard, this is the very small office I share with my twin brother, who apparently is smarter than me.”
Becky giggled like a girl. “This playful side of you is refreshing, Nick. You’ve grown up since I saw you last.”
“I had to catch up to you.” Nicholas cleared off the chair beside his desk, setting aside the stack of books he kept there to deter anyone from sitting too close and invading his personal space.
“You could never catch up to me,” she teased. “I’ll always be two years older than you, but I like your confidence.”
“Maturity has nothing to do with age.” Nicholas found himself less nervous around Becky the longer they teased one another. He pulled his desk chair closer to the chair in which she now sat, leaned down to eye level allowing himself to flirt a little more. “What brings you over to the East Coast? I know you didn’t come all this way just to see me.”
“Actually, I did.” She turned around to glance at Levi, whose desk sat facing this direction. “Both of you.”
“See, now I was just starting to feel special,” Nicholas teased. “You had to go and bring my brother into the conversation.”
“She needed to meet the smarter half of the geek twins.” Levi pulled a chair over to squeeze in beside Becky. “How can I be of assistance, Dr. Benson, or may I call you Becky?”
“I’ll think about it.” She rested her finger against her lips as in deep thought. Lucky finger. Now all he could think about was her lips. “For now, I need your linguistics expertise.”
“See that, Dr. Stephenson, she needs an expert.” Levi leaned over and nudged Nicholas in the arm.
“I need an archaeology expert too.” Becky glanced at Nicholas. “And I need you both to pack up and come with me to Guatemala for a treasure hunt.”
Note to Readers: the “Epilogue” for Jacob’s story is one tiny part of the book known as Billionaire’s Sons – Book One in the Sayid Family Saga which includes the following:
Part One: Nicholas Cohen’s Story (Will never be on the Chapter-A-Day blog because it gives away too many spoilers)
Part Two: Sam Cohen’s Story (Will never be on the Chapter-A-Day blog because it gives away too many spoilers)
Part Three: Jacob Cohen’s Story (Currently the Chapter-A-Day feature)
Part Four: Emanuel Cohen’s Story (The Hunter, Manny’s Story) (Recently featured on Chapter-A-Day blog)
Jacob’s story’s Epilogue mentions a TON of characters, most of whom you’ve met in one way, shape or form during Jacob’s story and other stories but once you’ve read Parts One & Two of Book One, all of this will be crystal clear. Sorry I’m not giving away more information than that. If you’d like to become one of my beta readers for the whole “Top Secret Project” aka the Sayid Family Saga, I’ll have you sign a nondisclosure agreement and give you Part One: Nicholas Cohen’s Story. Otherwise, yer gonna have ta wait for the books to come out in the fall. Mean, ain’t I?
At six weeks old, baby Emanuel was barely old enough to fly from Michigan to Mexico. Jacob and Maryam wouldn’t have risked the flight if not for the private jet.
But they couldn’t miss the arrival of Prince Marcos Sayid of Madain Saleh on the inaugural sail of his new yacht, The Princess of the Desert piloted by none other than Maryam’s father, Captain Arnold. This would be the first time Maryam’s parents would see their new grandson.
The prince’s arrival marked the beginning of a dynasty. The Cohen family who had fled Jerusalem to avoid an accusation of murder, and the Sayid royal family fleeing from a civil war and a contested crown, joined together in the beautiful community of Puerto Aventuras.
Jacob’s brother, Nicholas Cohen had borrowed their father’s magic wand and bought homes and land and businesses up and down the coast between Cancun and Puerto Aventuras and south almost to Tulum. He was heralded as a savior to the impoverished communities. He took everything he’d learned from their father, buying failing businesses and helping the former owners get back on their feet, teaching them skills to help them flourish. He built and improved resorts and other tourist attractions always a step ahead of the trends.
Prince Marcos Sayid served by his side, pooling resources and connections until their power was unparalleled. His son, Prince Benjamin was born to the Princess Lyla just two months after Nicholas and Adele had given birth to twin baby boys, Alejandro and Santiago. The three boys were destined to grow up as best friends.
Jacob’s parents, Levi and Sarah enjoyed a quiet retirement up the hill from their children and grandchildren, side-by-side with their long-time friends, Daniel and Cassandra Ashish.
Sam, and his wife Leanne, who had recently finished her Ph.D. in geology flew in from Texas where she had accepted a research position at the Bureau of Economic Geology at The University of Texas, and Sam was putting his experience in petroleum and potash holdings to good use working in the engineering department at the college.
Zach continued to serve faithfully as Nicholas’ right-hand man, and his wife, Ruth helped her younger sister Adele with the twin babies.
Noticeably absent but rarely discussed were the two oldest Cohen brothers, Liam and Lyle, along with their wives and children. David and Shira Ashish had disappeared as well. As if a scorn on the family name, no one actively researched their whereabouts, and Jacob didn’t care to know.
After Liam and David had nearly blown up their yacht with Jacob and Maryam aboard, Jacob hoped he never saw them as long as he lived.
After two weeks of family reunions, he was thankful to take Maryam and baby Emanuel back home to the sprawling haven of trees near the corner of the Thunder Bay State Forest they’d purchased inland from the quaint harbor town of Alpena, Michigan. They had rented a small home and had already poured the foundation for Maryam’s dream house.
Jacob intended to raise his son to hunt and fish and treasure the land and water, to be studious like his father, hard-working like his mother, a business man like his paternal grandfather and an explorer like his mother’s parents. He wanted little Manny to learn languages and study the arts and the sciences, and yes, even math.
Tucking his baby son into his crib after being gone for two weeks, Jacob felt a peace in his heart. He wrapped his arm around his wife’s shoulder and pulled her gently from the room.
“Come on,” he whispered to Maryam. “I know a couple other people who haven’t slept in their own bed for two weeks.”
“Well, gee, if sleeping was all you were interested in…” Maryam teased with a tiny grin.
“Woman, I promised you a long time ago that I would make love to you every day if you married me, and you know darn well I’m keeping that promise.” He picked her up and she wrapped her arms and legs around him like a monkey as he kissed her all the way down the hall to their king-sized bed…
…and they lived happily ever after. Just kidding! Click here to read Chapter One of The Hunter (Manny’s Story).
Jacob didn’t need a life jacket. He needed a helicopter.
The Lady Bountiful was no longer docked in the marina.
His moment of panic was soon dispelled when he remembered as the owner of the yacht, his father had GPS tracking on the vessel.
One of the perks of being the son of a billionaire was the ability to pick up his cell phone and have his daddy order a private helicopter with the snap of his fingers. Within an hour, Jacob and his brother Nicholas were in the air on their proverbial white horse on their way to rescue his bride.
After forty-five minutes of flight time, the yacht showed as a speck on the horizon and eventually came to a full stop as the helicopter hovered over the landing pad. The touchdown was smooth, and the blades came to a complete stop before the pilot gave the okay to open the doors. Jacob and Nicholas hopped down and were greeted by a family of guests they’d never met plus familiar crew members.
Maryam pushed passed all of them and jumped into Jacob’s arms, wrapping her legs around his waist, and clinging to him with excitement. “I knew you’d come for me!”
“Leave it to a billionaire to find a way to steal my daughter even after we’ve left port,” Captain Arnold grumbled. “Didn’t you get my clear message that I’m not giving you permission to marry her?”
“Didn’t you get my clear message that I don’t care what you want?” Jacob raised his eyebrows. “I’m marrying your daughter whether you like it or not. Soon. Within the next few days.”
“Days?” Maryam leaned back in confusion. “How about hours?”
“You don’t want to plan a real wedding?” Jacob pulled back and smoothed her windblown hair as she clung to him like a monkey. “With a white dress, and cake, and dancing?”
She leaned closer to his ear so only he could hear her whisper. “I don’t like cake, the dress will be lying beside our bed within a few minutes after we say our vows, and we can dance horizontally in our king-sized bed.”
“Yeah, I like your idea better.” His husky voice was close to her ear and he nuzzled her neck. “Are you packed?”
Maryam slid down and lowered her feet to the deck. Jacob missed the weight of her body in his arms but patiently waited for her to step over to her father for one last plea. “Daddy, will you please officiate? It would mean the world to me.”
“I won’t be returning to Puerto Aventuras for several weeks.” He crossed his arms and scowled. “You won’t want to wait that long.”
“So, do it now.” Her logic made sense to Jacob even as her words made his heart rate increase. If they got married right now, within an hour they could be… a tiny smile played at the corner of his mouth.
“Don’t get too excited yet, little brother,” Nicholas mumbled. “He hasn’t agreed to anything.”
“Thank you for reading my mind,” Jacob grumbled but couldn’t hide a smirk.
“Just keeping it real.” Nicholas patted him on the shoulder.
They waited as Maryam unleashed her aquamarine eyes up at her father with a soft pout. “Please, Daddy.” Captain Arnold couldn’t possibly resist her puppy dog expression.
“Fine,” he relented. “Go get your mother. She won’t want to miss your… wedding.” The captain glared at Jacob.
“I’m right here.” Valerie Arnold wove through the crowd of guests and crew members, several of whom were gushing over Maryam or shaking Jacob’s hand or patting him on the shoulder. Valerie lifted her chin in his direction. “What about your parents? Won’t they want to attend your wedding?”
“We had a nice dinner with them last night. They’ll be fine. They’re thrilled to have Maryam join our family.”
“As you steal her from ours.” Valerie’s lip curled in a scowl.
“As I explained to your husband yesterday, we intend to find a place to settle down near a port town where you can visit any time you want.”
“But we won’t see her every day like we usually do.” She was either getting choked up or a good actress.
“Would you rather have me move onto the yacht and we can spend our honeymoon here with you?”
“Never mind, take your helicopter off my boat and spend your honeymoon somewhere far away from here.” Valerie flicked her wrist, dismissing them.
“Technically, this is my boat, not yours. But with regards to every other word in your statement, I will take your advice.” Jacob turned to Maryam and held out his hand. “You ready?”
“Go gather your things while I draw up the paperwork,” Captain Arnold told his daughter. Then he turned to Jacob. “You come with me.”
“Yes, sir.” Jacob found it odd that his confident swagger while talking to the captain yesterday had blown away in the wind now that he’d given Jacob permission to marry his daughter.
When Captain Arnold closed the door to his inner office he turned and towered over Jacob. “You have more power in your little finger than I’ll have in my lifetime. But don’t think that means I won’t hunt you down if you ever hurt my little girl.”
“Captain Arnold, I love your daughter, and I will treasure her like a princess.”
“I’ve seen the way royal families treat princesses and that analogy is not helping your case.”
“How about this”—Jacob lifted his chin— “I will treat your daughter the way I would want someone treating my daughter, should I ever be so blessed.”
“Hmpf.” Captain Arnold sat at his desk and pulled up his computer terminal. “Sit down. I need to ask you some questions.” He proceeded to fill in details about when and where Jacob was born, his citizenship status, his identification numbers, most recent address, and current occupation.
Jacob provided answers to his questions but didn’t otherwise engage in conversation, just sat there reminding himself that this would be over soon and worth the few minutes spent in interrogations.
Finally, the captain printed some documents and shifted in his chair to look Jacob in the eye. They sat that way for a moment and Jacob tried not to flinch or squirm. As if satisfied with the amount of torture he’d put Jacob through, his gruff voice was less a threat and more a plea. “Take care of my little girl.”
“I promise.” Nothing more needed to be said.
They returned to the main deck and found that Maryam had already loaded her things onto the helicopter and stood beside her friend Ivy and Jacob’s brother Nicholas.
With a few words legally joining them as husband and wife, and a couple of signatures, they were official.
Without waiting for his father-in-law’s permission, Jacob pulled Maryam forward and dipped her into a passionate kiss. The guests and crew members cheered and applauded.
Even Maryam’s parents were smiling when Jacob finished kissing their daughter. Okay, briefly paused kissing their daughter. The remaining kisses would wait until later.
They took a few moments to give hugs and handshakes to Maryam’s friends and family and then Jacob helped her up into the helicopter and took his place at her side. His brother Nicholas politely focused his attention out the window at the blue sky and ocean as Jacob and Maryam kissed all the way back to Puerto Aventuras.
“Mother! Father! Something terrible has happened.” Jacob rushed in the open door to his parents’ suite.
He stopped short when he realized a dozen people filled the large sitting room, including two police officers, Daniel and Cassandra Ashish, all four of his older brothers—Liam in handcuffs sitting beside David Ashish.
“I guess you’re already aware.” He wasn’t sure what else to say, his emotions in such contrast to the elation of announcing his engagement just a few hours prior.
Liam and David still had glassy eyes and anger shone from within. Anger at being caught, most likely. Their clothes and faces were covered in soot. Jacob wondered how they’d been caught so quickly. Disdain filled his heart as he crept forward.
“Did you know there were people on that boat when you rammed your car toward the yacht?” Jacob couldn’t help asking. “I was on that boat. Your own brother. I was so close to that explosion I could feel the heat. You could have killed dozens of people, including me!”
Liam didn’t answer Jacob’s accusation and diverted his eyes.
“Were you a witness to the crime, son?” his father asked.
“Yes, Maryam and I were sitting on the main deck near the bow. We heard every word they said.”
“We’ll need statements from you both,” one of the officers said.
“Yes, sir, of course.”
The rest of the night was a blur with Jacob and his brothers alternating between staying with their mother, talking to the police, talking to each other, discussing the future. Finally, Jacob got a few hours of sleep before he was awakened in the late morning to convene for another family council.
The same group of family members sat together around the same conference room table as they had the previous day. But the mood in the room was much more somber.
Liam and David had been released on bail and awaited trial. Their legal troubles were far from over. They may even be deported back to Israel since neither of them were Mexican citizens.
“Liam, I want you to know that your mother and I, together with Rachel’s parents, will take care of Rachel and your baby.” Although their father’s voice was tired and frustrated, Jacob could tell he meant business. “I cannot speak for Daniel and Cassandra as to how they will handle David, but Liam, you will not receive a penny of our inheritance.”
“Oh, that is ridiculous!” Liam stood with such force his chair pushed back several feet and nearly tipped over. “We got drunk and made one little mistake and you—”
“Sit down, now!” Father rose from his chair with nearly as much force as his oldest son. “How about we discuss the million dollars I just paid the Mexican government to bail you out of jail? Or the sixty-thousand-dollar Jaguar you blew up last night? Or the two hundred seventy-five-million-dollar yacht you tried to destroy? Not to mention the twenty crew members on board plus your own brother! Was murder your intention? Or just vindication?”
Liam pulled his chair toward the table again and folded his arms across his chest, a scowl on his face.
“How about we consider that your inheritance.” Father didn’t sit back down but glared across the table at his oldest son. “Don’t spend it all in one night.”
Slowly their father’s breathing returned to normal and he turned his attention to Jacob. Lowering himself to his seat, father handed the proverbial microphone across the table.
“While unfortunately overshadowed by his oldest brother’s disgraceful behavior, Jacob has an announcement.” All eyes shifted to him.
“Thank you, Father.” Jacob sat up straight and raised his chin confidently. “Maryam and I are getting married.”
The room erupted in excited congratulations and the mood shifted. The family seemed happy to have a more positive topic of conversation as a distraction.
“How soon are you planning a wedding?” Nicholas asked. “No shotguns involved; I’m assuming.”
Jacob’s face heated and he smiled at his brother. “No shotguns. We’re choosing to wait until marriage.” He cleared his throat. “Which is why we’d like to get married immediately.”
That brought chuckles around the table.
“First I have to go convince her father to give us his blessing, and Maryam’s still holding out hope that Captain Arnold will officiate.” Jacob returned his attention to his father. “Was there anything else you needed from me? I’d like to go drag her off that yacht before her father sets sail and I’m forced to swim after her.”
More chuckles and that earned a smile from his father. “You’re free to go, son. Go rescue your princess.”
“Thank you, father.” Jacob rose from his seat and hurried toward the door, his brothers calling after him.
“Good luck!” “Hope the fish aren’t biting… or the captain!” “Wear a life jacket!”
Jacob could feel the heat from the explosion that shook the yacht. He ran to the railing and looked down to see the dock was on fire and collapsing under the mangled remains of what was once a car.
“It missed, you idiot!” The echoing voice from the parking lot at the marina was none other than Jacob’s own brother, Liam.
“You were the one driving!” David Ashish accused. “How was it my fault the car hit the dock instead of the boat?”
They were both slurring their words and staggering, far enough away they couldn’t see the people on the boat they had just tried to destroy.
Liam tipped a nearly empty bottle back and drank the last swallows then threw the glass bottle toward the yacht. He was short by at least a hundred feet but the string of obscenities he shouted carried all the way to the upper deck.
“Y’er so drunk you can’t even hit the broad side of a boat.” David doubled over in laughter.
When sirens sounded in the distance, Liam and David took off running.
“Pull the anchors and get those stern lines unhooked!” Captain Arnold called from the bridge. “We’ve got to pull the boat away from the dock or she’s going to catch fire.” He ran into the cockpit and crew members rushed from all corners of the boat, most barefoot, some wearing only boxers and t-shirts.
Jacob felt completely inept to be of any assistance, and in shock that his brother and David had tried to destroy their yacht. Didn’t they realize there were people onboard? Were they trying to commit murder? Or just destroy the boat their father loved?
He sat down hard, and his elbows rested on his knees, his hands gripping into his hair as if he could pull the images and sounds from his head. The crash of glass and metal, the boom of the explosion, the heat of the fire that still burned just out of his line of sight, the call of his own brother’s voice, and the knowledge that all this destruction was deliberate and vindictive.
Jacob was barely aware of the yacht motoring away from the dock and the night becoming a little darker and colder. Deck crew members still scurried around, and sirens sounded closer. New lights flashed, lights that seemed to travel and flicker, appearing and disappearing and reappearing in circles around the fire trucks.
None of the events made any sense. Liam and David. The car. The explosion. The obscenities. The implication. Jacob wondered if he was the only person on deck who recognized the voices and knew the man driving the car had been his brother. They must have jumped out of the car at the last minute, had cruise control set, had some sort of accelerant on the car in order for it to catch fire that quickly and burn so strong.
Liam must not have known there were people aboard. He wasn’t a murderer. Was he? Jacob couldn’t fathom his brother would kill someone, but he also couldn’t fathom Liam would destroy their yacht.
“Jacob?” Maryam was there and tried to pry his hands from his hair. “It’s over now. We’re away from the dock and the firemen are putting out the fire. The boat took minimal damage.”
“It was Liam,” Jacob choked out. “And David. How could they?” He didn’t realize tears were flowing down his face until sobs racked his chest and Maryam held him.
“I know. I’m sorry.” She rocked him in her arms like he was a scared little boy. Not far from the truth.
“Were we the only ones who saw him?” Jacob lifted his gaze and met Maryam’s eyes. “Were we the only two witnesses?”
“I don’t know.” She shook her head gently.
“I have to be the one to tell my parents,” Jacob said. “This is more than just trying to destroy my father’s yacht. This is going to rip apart our family.”
“I know. I’m so sorry.” Maryam pulled him back into her arms
When he finally calmed down enough to stand, Jacob staggered over to the railing to watch the hoses dousing the flames that consumed the wooden dock.
“The only thing that saved us was that bollard.” One of the crew members pointed in the direction of the dock.
The singed end of the stern line that had been holding the boat to the dock was a startling reminder how close they’d come to having the car explode after crashing into the boat rather than hitting the post. Two feet in either direction and the Lady Bountiful would have been in flames.
In the limo ride on the way back to the resort, Jacob sent a text to his father asking for an audience. When he and Maryam arrived, the door to his parents’ suite was open, and they were waiting with knowing grins.
Walking through the door holding Maryam’s hand, Jacob felt like a prince introducing his intended to the king and queen. He wondered if this was how Prince Marcos Sayid had felt introducing his parents to Lyla the first time.
In a way his parents had a similar position in society as would a king and queen but without being tied down to an arid chunk of land in the deserts of the Middle East. The world was their kingdom and they were holding court wherever they traveled.
Soon one-sixth of his parents’ wealth would be his. He hoped he could live up to their legacies. He intended to find ways to give back to the land and communities and people in whatever society he settled.
Money didn’t buy happiness, but it could be used to feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked, dig wells in third-world countries, protect and restore wildlife habitat, build new schools and a million other good causes.
But tonight, Jacob pushed aside all those thoughts and focused on announcing his engagement to the lovely Maryam Arnold and planning a wedding befitting a princess. He wanted to spend his lifetime showing Maryam that she was his equal, not as someone cooking and cleaning his house. But as someone deserving to live the life of a billionaire and all the good things they could achieve together.
Jacob pulled Maryam gently to his side. “Mother, father, we wish to announce our engagement.”
“That’s so exciting, my son!” His mother rushed forward but instead of embracing Jacob, she pulled Maryam into her arms. “Welcome to our family!”
“Thank you, Mrs. Cohen.” Maryam sounded almost as choked up at his mom.
“Congratulations, son.” His dad came forward to shake Jacob’s hand like a man.
Jacob felt like a man, perhaps for the first time, an equal to his father and his older brothers. No longer willing to live in their shadows, Jacob determined to live up to his surname and make his parents proud.
They had dinner brought into their suite and the four of them sat around talking and laughing and planning and sharing their dreams for the future.
By the time Jacob escorted Maryam back to the yacht for one last night in her tiny bunk, they both had stars in their eyes and love in their hearts. Convincing her parents that he was worthy of their daughter would have to wait until tomorrow.
Tonight, they snuggled into a corner of one of the outdoor sofas on the main deck near the bow of the yacht, gazing at the stars and kissing and talking and just being together. Tomorrow would come soon enough. Tonight, they focused on each other.
Until their peaceful evening was interrupted by a loud crashing of glass and metal and a fireball lit the night sky.
“Captain Arnold, may I speak with you, Sir?”
“I’m a little busy right now.” Jeffrey Arnold didn’t even look up from the logbook he was examining. “Besides, I have nothing to say to you.”
“Well, I have some things I’d like to say to you. Mind if I sit down?” Jacob didn’t wait for the captain to answer his rhetorical question but pulled up the closest chair.
The cockpit on the yacht was luxurious and high tech. Navigational computers were mounted where traditional dials and gages would have been a few years back. The captain’s chairs were finished in fine leather and there were so many windows the pilots had a nearly 360° view. Jacob almost wished he were returning to the boat for the next leg of the adventure just so he could continue to learn and maybe even have the chance to pilot the boat.
“I intend to marry your daughter.” There, just state the fact, no mincing words, no building up to the moment Captain Arnold knew was coming. “I’d like your blessing.”
“No.” He still hadn’t looked up.
“I think Maryam would be honored to have you perform the ceremony.”
“I said, no.”
“I’m disappointed to hear that. I hope you’ll at least attend our wedding.”
Captain Arnold finally glanced up and disdain clouded his features. “I’m not giving you permission to marry my daughter.”
“I’m not asking for your permission.”
“Then why are you still sitting in my cockpit?”
“I would have liked your acceptance of our decision, but seeing as how I’m not confident you’ll provide it, I guess we’ll go announce our engagement to my parents, and while on land we’ll see about choosing an officiator.”
“I told you, you’re not marrying my daughter.” Captain Arnold stood and towered over Jacob, balling his fists.
“And I told you I am marrying your daughter.” Jacob stood to his full height but was still a few inches shorter. He didn’t allow himself to be intimidated by the brawny man.
“I want you off my boat!” Captain Arnold pointed in the direction of the marina, vitriol in his eyes.
“I own this boat.” Jacob remained calm but insistent. “And I will come aboard at my leisure.”
The captain growled and barred his teeth reminding Jacob of a menacing wolf.
“That being said, I am planning to go ashore now so we can share the good news with my parents and family. I hope you’ll reconsider performing the ceremony.”
Jacob turned away from the captain and strode from the cockpit to go find his bride.
“Mom! This isn’t how it looks!” Maryam scrambled to sit up, untangling herself from Jacob. He felt the absence of her legs intwined with his and considered pulling her back down for another long kiss.
“Mrs. Arnold, this is exactly how it looks, and I plan to marry your daughter immediately so you might want to hire a new assistant.” Jacob sat up and swung his legs over the side of Maryam’s bed, then pointed to the bunk above him. “I believe Ivy is available. You’ll find her up there.”
“Hi, Mrs. Arnold.” Ivy gave her a light wave.
“Get off my daughter’s bed!” The woman was formidable, but Jacob was done beating around the bush. He stood and faced his future mother-in-law.
“That’s fine, I have a king-sized bed in my suite over at the resort. Maryam will be more than comfortable—”
The shock of Valerie Arnold’s slap across his face came as a surprise, but was well deserved.
“Mother! What are you thinking!” Maryam spoke to her mother but pushed in between them and lifted her hand to Jacob’s cheek. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, darling. You would have done the same thing to a man who spoke to our daughter that way because she didn’t let me finish my sentence”—Jacob looked over Maryam’s shoulder directly at her mother— “What I was about to add was the phrase after we’re married.”
“My only daughter will not marry one of you Cohen boys! You’re all trouble. You think just because you’re rich you can do anything you want.”
“If I could do anything I want I would wave a magic wand and force my oldest brother to stop being a complete jerk so that you would see the rest of us as the decent men that we are.”
“Hmpf.” Mrs. Arnold folded her arms across her chest and scowled.
“Please, I want our families to live harmoniously. Your daughter and I have chosen to marry; therefore, I will soon be your son-in-law. Let’s find a way to get along.”
“And you plan to live with her in a resort like your nomad parents?”
“No, I plan to explore the world together and build her dream house in a beautiful forest near a port where her nomad parents can dock their yacht and come visit.”
“Who would want to live in a forest? She’s not a squirrel.”
“I’m the one who wants to live in a forest, Mother.” Maryam turned to her mother, raising her chin with confidence. Jacob rested his hands on her shoulders in support and solidarity. “I may not be a squirrel, but I want to put down roots and live on land and not on the sea. I’ve loved growing up on boats and ships, but I’m ready to live my own life now. You saw the way Jacob and I connected immediately when we met, and we’ve grown to care about one another these past few weeks. We’ve fallen in love and we want to get married. Please support my decision. Please.”
“I’ll think about it.” Mrs. Arnold’s voice faltered, and she turned on her heel to remove herself from the small berth, immediately helping calm Jacob’s claustrophobia. “Good luck convincing your father.”
“Thank you,” Jacob called after her. “We’re going to need it.”
Maryam giggled as Jacob turned back around to face her.
“That woman is almost as stubborn as her daughter.” He smoothed the hair away from Maryam’s face and leaned down to place a quick kiss on her lips. “Should I speak to your father alone? Or would you like to come with me?”
“Which would you prefer?”
“I think I’d like to speak to him man to man. He may have some choice words to say to me about how he’d like me to treat his daughter and he deserves to have his opinions heard.”
“I’d love to be a fly on the wall for that conversation.” Maryam patted him on the chest then reached onto her toes to speak close to his ear. “I’m marrying you no matter what he says.”
“Me too,” he whispered back, then captured her mouth for one more lingering kiss, aware they still had a captive audience on the top bunk.
“Maryam!” Jacob hurried in the open door of Maryam’s hotel suite expecting to find her packing and getting ready to head over to the boat. Instead he found a housekeeper for the resort stripping the sheets and cleaning the room for incoming guests. “Where’s Maryam?”
“I’m sorry, Sir,” the housekeeper replied. “The captain and his family have already checked out of the hotel.”
Jacob would have panicked at that news except he knew exactly where they’d gone; back to the yacht to prepare for tomorrow’s departure. He mumbled to the housekeeper a quick recognition of thanks as he brought his cell phone to his ear, requesting his concierge to bring him a car.
The limo seemed to creep down the streets between the resort and the marina and Jacob’s knee bounced as he chewed his thumbnail, excitement and nerves fighting in his stomach, threatening his brunch to wind up on the side of the road.
Finally, they pulled up to the marina and Jacob pushed open the limo door without even thanking the driver or shutting the door behind him. He raced across the passarelle joining the dock to the yacht and hurried through the main deck to the door that led downstairs to the crew’s quarters. He wound down the staircases and through several hallways until he found Maryam right where he expected her to be, lying in her bunk curled up with a tissue and red eyes.
“Oh, my darling, were you going to leave without saying goodbye?” Jacob sat on the floor beside her bunk and lowered his face until he was even with hers.
“Goodbyes are too hard,” Maryam whispered.
“I know this will be difficult, but we’ll have to say goodbye… to your parents.”
That brought a tiny smile. “Very funny.”
“I’m being completely serious.” Jacob sat up all the way and lifted Maryam into a seated position. He took both of her hands in his and gazed up into her eyes. “I sort of inherited just over a billion dollars today.”
“What?” She leaned forward, concern creasing her brow. “Were your parents in an accident? Why didn’t you tell me? I’m so sorry.”
“No, no, they’re fine and very much alive.”
Maryam relaxed but confusion clouded her face.
“They decided to give each of us our inheritance early and suggested we all go our separate ways to live our own lives.”
“Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” she asked.
“No more Liam.” They said at the same time, each with a grin.
“See, now that makes me want to consider your offer.”
“Dang, if I’d known all it would take was getting rid of my brother, I would have ditched the family days ago,” he said. “I would have been a pauper, but you would have loved me anyway.”
“At least we’d have more in common,” she mumbled. “Aren’t you supposed to speak to my father before asking me to run away with you?”
“He doesn’t like me very much.” Jacob cringed. “Do I have to ask his permission?”
“That is the tradition.”
“But you are a strong, independent woman with a mind of your own. You should be able to make your own decisions about where you want to live and how you want to live your life. Have you told them your dreams of living on land and starting a family? Preferably with me…” He offered her a cheesy grin.
“No… I’ve never voiced my opinion on the subject.”
“Have they ever asked you what you wanted?”
“No.” Her shoulders slumped. “What if they tell me I can’t leave?”
“You’re an adult. They can’t tell you what to do.”
“But I won’t have a job or anywhere to live. This boat is my home.”
“Darling, haven’t you been listening? I want you to be my wife, not just my travel companion. You will be married to a billionaire. You will never have to work outside the home for the rest of your life, unless you want to. In which case, I will one hundred percent encourage you and support your decision.”
“But that’s living off your money. I should have to earn my own money.”
“Technically you’re already living off my money. Your paychecks come from Cohen Enterprises, do they not?”
“But that’s working to earn my money.”
“How about if I build you a big house and you can clean all the rooms inside every single day if you want?” He couldn’t stifle a grin. “Maybe I can do the cooking and you can do the cleaning.”
“You know how to cook?” She raised one eyebrow.
“I have absolutely no idea how to cook,” Jacob admitted. “But I’d be willing to learn if you’re willing to marry me.”
“I have a feeling your ability to learn to cook goes as far as your phone to hire a personal chef.”
“Okay, then, you cook, and I’ll clean?”
“You know how to clean?”
“Can’t we just hire someone to do all of that and you and I can stay in bed all day and make love?”
“I’m liking this prospect a little more all the time.” She put her finger to her chin in feigned consideration. “Let me get this straight… you’d be willing to leave Puerto Aventuras, and your family, find me the forest of my dreams, build me a big house, hire me a personal chef and a housekeeper, and make love to me every day. And all I have to do is marry you?”
“That’s it. Just one little thing.” Jacob’s heart was racing.
“Could I have a sportscar too?” she teased. “I’ve always wanted a sportscar.”
“Babe, you can have a hundred sportscars if that’s what you want. Just, please marry me.”
“You haven’t exactly asked me yet.” She blinked her eyelashes with feigned innocence.
“You haven’t gotten down on your knee and asked me to marry you.”
“I haven’t?” Jacob shifted from where he was seated on the floor and knelt beside her bed. He took her hands in his and cleared his throat then spoke confidently. “Maryam Jasmine Arnold, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
“I’ll think about it,” she teased.
Jacob fell to the floor as if she’d stabbed him in the heart. He groaned in mock torture. “You’re trying to kill me woman.”
“Put the poor man out of his misery.” Maryam’s friend, Ivy hung her head off the top bunk. “If you don’t want to marry him, I will. And I don’t even need a sports car.”
“You’ve been up there this whole time?” Jacob laid on his back on the floor grinning up at the two women on bunk beds laughing down at him.
“That was the most beautiful proposal I’ve ever heard,” Ivy swooned, completely unapologetic.
“Did you know she was up there?” Jacob asked Maryam and her giggle gave her away. He scrambled off the floor and pushed her over so that he was lying beside her on her bunk. “This totally deserves a tickle torture.”
Maryam squealed as Jacob tickled her and nuzzled her neck and finally captured her mouth with his, kissing her soundly for several long, glorious moments.
He finally pulled away and propped himself on one elbow, gazing down into her beautiful speckled aquamarine eyes. His whisper was barely audible and meant for her ears only. “Will you marry me, darling?”
“Yes,” she whispered back, then pulled him back down for another long kiss.
“I thought I told you to keep your hands off my daughter!” A loud voice boomed from above him where he laid on Maryam’s bed. Jacob didn’t even need to look up to know he was in trouble.
“Thank you all for joining us,” Jacob’s father, Levi Cohen said from his position at the head of a large conference room table. He had requested the family and extended family meet together and hadn’t told them why. The Barcelo Maya Palace resort had become the family’s temporary home and office until they could purchase homes. The resort had been more than accommodating to the multi-billionaire and his family. “I don’t just mean ‘thank you for joining us for this meeting,’ I mean thank you for coming with us to Mexico.”
There were mumbles around the table like, “of course,” and “good to be here.” All Jacob could think was I didn’t have a choice. He wanted this meeting to be over so he could go find Maryam before her family left to move out of the resort and back onto the yacht.
His patience was wearing thin. She still hadn’t answered him, and they had less than a day before she would leave port. Today was his last chance. Jacob planned to try one more time to get Maryam to stay with him.
Captain Arnold would launch tomorrow to start the first of many charter tours around the globe for however many years he continued employ with the Cohen Enterprises. He was paid handsomely to live on a luxury yacht and sail around the world over and over. If a person wanted to make his living as the captain of a yacht, there weren’t many nicer than the Lady Bountiful.
Jacob fought the urge to look at the clock or check his phone again to see if she’d sent him a text. Meeting his father’s gaze, Jacob determined to give his full attention to the meeting and worry about Maryam later. Not an easy task until his father shocked everyone in the room.
“I’m giving away all my money.”
Murmurs travelled around the table, some angry, all confused.
“Let me explain”—he held out his hands— “Sarah and I have decided to give each of our sons their inheritance now rather than wait until we die.”
That started a different kind of chatter, excited rather than disgruntled. Jacob wondered what that meant. An equal distribution between each of father’s six sons? How much would he keep for himself and mom? How rich would Jacob become at the ripe old age of nineteen? He’d once joked that his father had so much money, they could divide the fortune among all the sons and they’d each be billionaires. Could that really be possible?
“Some of you have been a little distracted with weddings and having babies”—Father glanced at his first grandson, Ishmael, lovingly nicknamed baby Ishy by all who found him irresistible. Lyle and Mirium had finally arrived in Mexico now that baby Ishy was strong enough to travel. They had taken the private jet rather than brave the high seas.
Liam was sitting beside Lyle with David Ashish next to him, their heads close together, whispering. Their wives, Shira and Rachel were on the other side of David, heads together as well. Something was up with the four of them.
David’s mother and father, Cassandra and Daniel Ashish sat to the left of his best friend, Jacob’s father, who had mother at his right.
Nicholas and Adele had a place of honor beside their parents, the implication of which was not lost on Jacob. He could tell Liam and Lyle knew exactly why their father was singling out Nicholas; he was being groomed to take over Cohen Enterprises and the older brothers didn’t like that.
Sam didn’t seem to have a problem standing in his younger brother’s shadow. They all had their role in the business and in the family. He sat confidently with his bride Leanne, who looked the part of a studious graduate with an advanced degree. The only way Sam was able to convince her to leave her university in Jerusalem was to encourage her to pursue a PhD at a major university in the United States. They had both been accepted at the University of Houston and planned to head that direction within the next few weeks.
Leanne sat beside their oldest sister, Ruth, who had married Zach before flying to Mexico and were officially on their honeymoon. Jacob had no idea what their plans were from here.
His father continued. “Some of you may have noticed I’ve been quietly liquidating assets in Jerusalem and throughout the Middle East. I have started endowment funds at various institutions mostly in Jerusalem since that’s where I lived most of my life. I wanted to leave a legacy there and a good name should any of you choose to move home.”
Move home? Jacob thought. Not a chance. He knew what was in the Middle East, a lot of sand and rocks. He wanted fresh water and trees. Lots of trees.
“We are in the process of disbanding Cohen Enterprises.” Father shocked the group again. “I don’t want any of you to feel beholden to any of our companies. Most of them will be divided into shares and you will each have the option to use part of your inheritance to purchase those shares should you choose, or to receive your inheritance as bonds and go your separate ways.”
That got Jacob’s heart racing. Go separate ways? Leave his brothers? Never have to deal with Liam again for the rest of his life? No longer have to live in his shadow? No longer have to obey father’s rules in order to keep him happy?
Jacob envisioned taking Maryam by the hand and confidently travelling the world alone together in search of their dream forest where they could build a big house with lots of windows and a kitchen where the family could gather and they could raise babies together. A tiny smile pulled at the corner of Jacob’s lips.
Over the past week he’d done some research about the American continents and decided he wanted to head north first. There was a place called the Great Lakes and they sat regally between the countries of Canada and the United States. Rivers and valleys and waterfalls and more fresh water than there was oil in Saudi Arabia. That’s where he wanted to explore. If he couldn’t find Maryam’s dream forest there, then it didn’t exist.
“There is still a lot of work to be done in the estate planning process,” Father continued, pulling Jacob again from his fantasies. “But suffice it to say you will each be very wealthy men when all is divided. What you choose to do with that wealth will be completely your decision.”
If Jacob had a hard time holding still at the beginning of this meeting, he now could barely remain seated. He had to go find Maryam.
“At the behest of sounding greedy, Father, how much are we talking here?” Liam did indeed sound greedy, but he said what everyone else was thinking.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if each of my sons”—Father gulped— “Were billionaires by the time all is divvied up.”
Liam sat back with a smirk and tucked his hands behind his head. Lyle whispered something to Miriam and she giggled. Sam and Leanne spoke quietly to one another in calm, serious undertones.
Nicholas barely twitched a muscle. He already knew. That didn’t surprise Jacob. He was father’s right-hand man and had been for years.
“Now for the bad news…” Father glanced around the table at every person but paused longest at each of his sons. “I was not happy about what happened on the yacht.”
Not everyone in the room had sailed on the maiden voyage of the Lady Bountiful and were privy to details about the argument. Some people murmured or looked around the table.
“I’m disappointed with the impropriety I saw, the arguing, the fighting, the infidelity.” Father didn’t turn his head toward Liam, but others did and everyone in that room knew exactly who father was talking about. “I do not intend to evenly distribute my fortune and I will not be disclosing to any of you what the others received.”
“Oh, that is a bunch of effing garbage!” Liam rose from his seat and threw his pen down, creating a divot in the polished wood. “You’re playing favorites? Based on what? Because my little brother’s a prude? Because we threw a couple punches?”
“Hmm… I guess some of my sons will be billionaires.” Father pursed his lips and diverted his gaze.
Liam must have realized his tirade wasn’t helping because he leaned against the wall near the door and folded his arms, glaring at their father. No one else spoke.
“I have an announcement to make also.” Daniel Ashish cleared his throat. He glanced over at David and then around the table at his daughters. “We don’t have as much money as the Cohen’s, but we’d like to give each of our daughters, and our son, part of your inheritance. Ruth, David, Rachel, Miriam, Leanne, and Adele, you’ll each get $500,000 immediately and divide the rest of our wealth after your mother and I pass away.”
“Thank you, Father, that’s very generous.” Ruth shifted her gaze. “And Mother, also, thank you.” All the girls nodded. David’s brow furrowed.
“I also have one other gift,” Jacob’s father said. “Zach, we promised we would help care for you if you came with us. You have been a great friend and I’d like to offer you $500,000 as well.”
“Thank you, Mr. Cohen. That is greatly appreciated.” Zach nodded.
“Let me get this straight”—David looked around the room— “I’m the only person in this room who didn’t just become a millionaire with the stroke of a pen?”
“Sorry,” Shira said, folding her arms across her chest. “Levi didn’t have any daughters for you to marry. You’re stuck with me for a wife.”
“That’s not what I meant, and you know it,” David said. “I’m just frustrated.”
“I encourage all of you to take into consideration what you want from this wealth you’ve been given, and choose to do good in this world.” Father stood and glanced around the table. “That’s all for today.” He helped Mother to her feet and together they strode past Liam, who still glowered by the door to the board room.
Soft conversations resumed around the table after their father left and Jacob was the first to follow, hurrying through the resort to go find his bride. Maryam would surely accept a marriage proposal now that he was a billionaire.
“Didn’t like the flan custard, huh?” Jacob snuck up behind Maryam and startled her where she sat at a table in the corner of the welcoming reception poking at the dessert with a turned-up nose and a frown. “Why don’t you come with me for a stroll on the beach…”
He didn’t wait for Maryam to answer just lifted her free hand and pulled her gently from the chair. The open courtyard where the resort held the reception was decked out with sparkling lights and hanging lanterns. Once they’d stepped out of the lighted courtyard, they virtually disappeared from view.
“Jacob, what are you doing?” Maryam glanced over to where her parents were on the dancefloor, completely distracted. She stumbled a bit in a pair of sandals so different from her usual boat shoes. Her sundress was simple and understated, feminine and soft. She’d allowed her curls to cascade down her back rather than tying them up in a professional braid or ponytail. Practicality was important while working on a yacht, but here at the resort she was able to relax.
“This is the first time your parents haven’t been glued to your side all evening.” Jacob tucked her hand in the crook of his arm and led her down the cobblestone path to the beach.
“Were you spying on me?” Her voice held a subtle suspicion but mostly wonderment and excitement.
“Observing from afar.” Jacob pointed to the sky. “Did you see that full moon?”
“Yesterday was the full moon,” Maryam said. “Tonight, it’s waning.”
“Sorry I missed it.” Jacob gulped and hoped Maryam understood there was more meaning in his apology than just missing the full moon. “I’m sorry for everything.”
“I’m trying to forgive you. I really am. I just don’t know if I can.”
“I was a jerk,” Jacob said.
“Yes, you were.”
“How can I make it up to you?” Jacob turned her to face him and took her hands in his.
“I care about you, Jacob, but this is as far as we can go.” Maryam wasn’t talking about the distance on the beach. She didn’t want their relationship to continue. “We lead very different lives. You’re the son of a billionaire. I’m a housekeeper on a yacht that is scheduled to leave Puerto Aventuras in less than a week.”
“Don’t get back on the boat,” Jacob pleaded. “Let’s travel together like we said we would. Let’s explore and experience a life beyond what either of us lived in the nineteen years we’ve been on this earth, or in your case on the ocean. Let’s spend time together and see if we can find a common place between being a billionaire and being a housekeeper.”
“It would never work.” Maryam lowered her gaze. “We’re too different.”
“Opposites attract,” he reasoned. “We complement each other.”
“You have your life to lead and I have mine.” Maryam glanced off toward the ocean, where gentle waves lapped at the white, sandy beaches.
“That was a life chosen by your parents. What do you want?”
A tear escaped down her cheek and she whispered, “You know what I want.”
“A big house in a forest, with lots of windows where we can raise babies together.”
She didn’t answer with words but lifted her gaze to meet his and every dream she’d ever had was reflected in her eyes.
“Stay here with me and let’s explore and find that forest.”
“Jacob… I can’t.”
“Because… I have my life—”
“Your parents’ life,” Jacob interrupted. “Come with me and live your own life. Marry me. Spend forever with me.”
She sighed and looked away, considering. “I don’t know. Can I think about it for a few days?”
“Of course. I don’t want to put any pressure on you.” Jacob ran his hands up and down her arms. “Then again, if you haven’t made a decision by the time your father pulls anchor and leaves the marina, I may have to swim after you and you know darn well I can’t swim. So, please don’t make me wait that long.”
Maryam giggled and Jacob’s stomach fluttered.
He lifted his hands to cradle her face then leaned closer cautiously, not wanting to scare her away.
She met his kiss with a relaxed passion that hinted at more but was content with just this.
Jacob wanted Maryam to know she could trust him, not just with her body but with her heart. They had fallen in love while crossing an ocean together but now was the time to face the next phase in their lives. Now was the time to grow up, become adults, and figure out together what the future could hold.
Seeing land wasn’t as exciting as Jacob thought it would be. He’d been depressed for the past three days since Maryam stopped speaking to him. He couldn’t even look at his brother, or his sister-in-law, or even talk to any of his other family members.
He felt sick and exhausted and just wanted to get off this boat. Yet he couldn’t shake the ominous feeling that if he left, he’d never see Maryam again. There was no choice. She wouldn’t let him talk. He didn’t blame her.
She’d been nothing but nice to him and he’d accused her of having sex with his brother. As if she ever would. He had just been hurt and had lashed out at her. But she didn’t deserve that. She deserved to be treated like a lady.
What Liam had said about her was offensive and obscene. Jacob wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to forgive his brother. Now that they were getting off the boat, Jacob intended to stay as far away from Liam as possible.
The Barcelo Maya Palace resort, where the family would be staying indefinitely, didn’t have a docking area so Captain Arnold piloted the Lady Bountiful up the canal past dozens of elite homes to the marina. Each home boasted its own boat slip large enough to dock a large sailing yacht or superyacht.
Jacob listened while his father and two older brothers discussed buying up as many of the homes as they could in order to have room for each brother to live with his wife and children. Plus, they knew Daniel and Cassandra Ashish and their son David would have already arrived by private jet together with Lyle and Mirium and baby Ishy. Prince Marcos Sayid would also need to purchase a home when he arrived next spring. Jacob envisioned the entire City of Puerto Aventuras owned by either a Cohen, Ashish, or a member of the Royal Sayid family.
Several large limousines waited for them in the parking lot at the marina along with a welcoming party. Daniel and his wife Cassandra greeted their daughters, Rachel and Adele, with hugs after they practically ran down the boarding dock to reach their parents. Their older brother David was there with his wife, Shira. He greeted Liam with a clasped hand and a smirk.
All Jacob wanted was to rush back up the boarding dock to grab Maryam’s hand to bring her with him to the resort. There was almost a physical pain in his chest as he climbed into the limousine. He knew the captain’s family and the entire crew from the yacht had been invited to stay at the resort for a few days before beginning their charter tours.
Maryam would attend the grand reception later that evening and Jacob was determined to find a time to talk now that they weren’t stuck together on a boat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Hopefully away from the watchful eyes of her mother and father. Perhaps she’d finally listen to his apology. He could remind her of their plans to travel into North and South America seeking out the quaint forest where they could build a home together and live happily-ever-after.
Moving into his large suite of rooms at the resort was unsettling. The floor beneath his feet was too still and the rooms too large. Everyone else had a spouse. All Jacob had was a view of the ocean, no plans for the afternoon, and an extra-large king-sized bed. He curled up in a ball on that bed and cried himself to sleep wishing to return to the boat and to his Maryam.
“Jacob?” Maryam knocked on his stateroom door. He tried to let her soft voice comfort him. “Can I come in?”
“Do you even want to come in?” Jacob brushed the tears from his cheeks, embarrassed for her to see him cry. “What’s the matter? Didn’t get enough satisfaction from my brother?”
“How could you even think that about me?” She stopped near the door.
“I see the way Liam looks at you.” Jacob sat up and swung his legs over the side of his bed placing his feet on the floor and stood to face her. “What else am I supposed to think?”
“He looks at all women that way,” Maryam said. “He’s a cockroach and a lowlife and a womanizer and I can’t believe you would think that I would ever go after a man like him.”
“All the women go after him. They always have.”
“Well, I’m not one of them. I am completely offended that you would ever think that about me.” Maryam stalked toward Jacob with narrowed eyes. She pushed against his chest with vitriol. “I don’t know why I ever gave you a chance. I was starting to fall for you.” She pushed him again.
Jacob righted himself. “I’m falling for you too.” He heard the shift in his tone. He felt bad for accusing her of doing anything wrong.
“You know what? I think you’re as bad as your brother.”
“How could you think that?”
“The first time you got me alone you had your hands all over me and you made out with me so passionately my mom thought we were having sex.”
“My hands were not all over you!”
“Are you trying to tell me that if I had locked your stateroom door and pulled you down onto that bed that you wouldn’t have opened one of those condoms and had sex with me right then and there?”
“I would not have done that!” Jacob held up his hands like she had him at gun point.
“You tried to convince our parents to let us get married that very day,” she said. “Why? Because we’d known each other for years and fell in love? No! You wanted to marry me so that we could have sex! Admit it!”
“I do admit it,” Jacob said in defense.
“Ha!” She put her finger to his chest, proving her point.
“But only because I respect you and I’d never take advantage of you. I would never have sex with you before we were married.”
“If you respected me so much then why would you think I’d have sex with your brother?” She pushed him again.
“Because he said he was taking care of your needs.” Jacob sneered, thinking back on how much his brother’s words had disgusted him.
“And you were so quick to believe him?”
“Why else would he need that whole box of condoms?” Jacob pointed in the direction of the door. “He’s obviously taking care of somebody’s needs.”
“Yeah… his own.” Maryam got right up in Jacob’s face and her quiet, pointed words were more powerful than if she’d shouted in his face. “And just the fact that you thought I’d be involved with him makes you just as bad as he is.”
“You stay away from me, Jacob Cohen. My mother was right. All of you Cohen boys are trouble. I don’t want to see you again for the rest of this cruise. I don’t want to see you again for the rest of my life.” Maryam stormed out the door, slamming it in his face.
Jacob pulled open the door and called after her. “Maryam, wait!”
“I believe my daughter told you she didn’t want to see you again.” Maryam’s father stood near Jacob’s stateroom door with his arms folded and narrowed eyes.
“But Captain Arnold, if I could just explain.”
“I think you’ve said enough,” the captain said. “Stay away from my daughter.”
“Hey little brother, you still got any of those babies left?” Liam didn’t wait for an answer, just strode over to Jacob’s bedside table and opened the drawer. “Oh good, tons of ‘em.”
“Which crew member are you corrupting now?” Jacob asked, setting aside the book he was reading. After the past few days of feeling sick after the storm, he was glad he could read at all. He was just starting to feel better. “Couldn’t convince your younger brother to disobey father’s rules, so you’ve found some other poor schmuck to lead away into darkness.”
“You’re funny,” Liam said. He grabbed one row of five and dropped them back into the drawer and tucked the box under his arm. “No, these are for me.”
“I’m pretty sure Rachel can’t get any more pregnant than she already is.” Jacob was confused.
“Rachel’s not the only beautiful woman on this yacht.” Liam took the box and started for the door.
“Wait a minute,” Jacob called after him. “Are you cheating on your wife?”
“Cheating is in the eye of the beholder,” Liam said and left the room.
Jacob scrambled off his bed and followed his brother. “I’m pretty sure 99% of the people in this world would agree with me that cheating is wrong.”
“Well, I guess I’m in that top 1%.” Liam continued walking and Jacob continued following.
“You’re not going to get away with this,” Jacob said.
Liam stopped and turned to face him. “I’ve been getting away with it for weeks. What’s a few more days?”
“You are a wicked man, Liam Cohen,” Jacob rose his voice, tears threatening. “I’ve known it for a long time. I didn’t want to admit it because you’re my brother. But you are. You’re wicked.”
“You have a right to your opinion. I have the right to mine.” Liam turned away and kept walking toward his stateroom.
“What’s going on, gentlemen.” Their father, Levi stood with their brother, Nicholas near the railing watching the Atlantic Ocean trailing out behind the elegant yacht.
“Liam’s cheating on Rachel,” Jacob stated in a loud enough voice for his father and brother to hear him. Unfortunately, several other people were within earshot as well, including Rachel.
Liam slipped past his wife and tossed the box onto the bed in their stateroom, then pulled the door shut and faced the family. “You think she doesn’t know that, little brother? You think you just ratted me out? Rachel probably even knows her name.”
“Not difficult to guess,” Rachel grumbled. “What exactly am I supposed to do about it?”
“You could demand that he stops,” Jacob said in exasperation.
Liam laughed, standing behind his wife and leaning against the wall next to their stateroom door, arms folded across his chest.
“Have you ever known Liam to do what someone demanded him to do?” Rachel raised her eyebrows at Jacob. “He has needs, and obviously I’m not able to fulfil that role at the moment.” She placed her hand on her growing baby bump.
“I’m a man, Jacob,” Liam said with a sneer. “When you become a man, you’ll understand these things.”
“I am man enough to know that a woman’s body is sacred and should be treated as such. You are defiling your wife and defiling the poor woman who you’re using for your needs.”
“Maybe she’s using me too,” Liam said. “You ever thought of that? Maybe I’m giving her exactly what she wants. Women have needs too. Again, you’ll learn about that when you’re all grown up.” Liam’s tone took on a note of derogatory insult and he glanced over at Maryam who had approached and stood beside Jacob. Liam looked her up and down, smiling. He even winked at her.
“You stay away from my girl!” Jacob demanded.
“Maybe it’s too late for that,” Liam said with a sneer. “Maybe I’ve been taking care of her for weeks. Since you weren’t man enough to do it.”
“How dare you!” Jacob rushed Liam and pushed him back, hard. Liam had a good thirty pounds of muscle on Jacob and came back at him, swinging a fist. Jacob ducked and landed a sucker punch to Liam’s gut. Liam rammed his head into Jacob’s chest, pushing him back just as hard.
Suddenly, Nicholas had his arms around Jacob from behind and their father had ahold of Liam. They both struggled to get out of the restraining grips, but they were pushed back, away from one another.
Jacob finally calmed down and shook free. He glanced over at Maryam, who had tears running down her face. He couldn’t tell if they were from guilt, sorrow, or frustration. Jacob just shook his head and stormed away, slamming the door to his stateroom. He threw himself onto his bed and sobbed into his pillow.
“Where the heck did that come from?” Captain Arnold asked, and if he wasn’t the only person on that yacht paying strict attention to the barometric pressure meters.
“It’s just a little squall.” Valerie Arnold waved her hand dismissively. “We’ve sailed in worse.”
“Not in an untested vessel.” He shook his head and creased his brow.
“What can we do to help?” Jacob’s father, Levi stepped forward and laid his hand on the captain’s forearm.
“Everything needs to be battened down and secured. Any children onboard should be taken to an interior stateroom along with any of the pregnant women. Eventually everyone needs to be indoors. I’d prefer all family to get inside, but if you’re going to be helping, follow the directions of the crew as if they are the owners of this yacht, not you. You got it?”
Captain Arnold looked around at everyone, meaning business. No one argued. Crew members came out of the woodwork as if getting permission to interrupt the argument, and they worked like a team. They all knew exactly what needed to be done and how to do it.
Liam wrapped his arm around his wife, helping Rachel follow where Valerie was leading. She was the only openly pregnant woman, but it didn’t surprise Jacob to see Nicholas leading Adele in the same careful manner.
Jacob couldn’t hide a smile and met his mom’s gaze. He could tell she knew Adele was expecting. They shared a moment and then his mom picked up his little brother, Joseph and followed the pregnant women.
The wind and waves hadn’t picked up yet, but an ominous calm hung heavy in the air. The dark sky was still hovering off to the west as if it was just gathering energy and threatening to unleash its wrath on anyone stupid enough to be sailing the Atlantic Ocean.
“What can I do to help?” Jacob asked Maryam. She’d shown him enough of the ship for him to know there were a million moving parts.
“We need to get everything covered.” She rushed ahead and Jacob followed. Together they helped the rest of the crew drape special tarps over the outdoor furniture designed to fit each piece perfectly.
“How bad is this going to get?” Jacob asked, glancing nervously in the direction of the dark skies.
“Not bad compared to a hurricane, or something,” Maryam said. “But it’s not what this boat was designed to handle. The ship will be fine. It’s the stuff that’s in the boat that will start breaking, and it will be uncomfortable for guests and for the crew.”
As if a wall of sheer water were dragging toward them across the ocean, they could see the storm rushing forward.
“Let’s go!” Maryam said, grabbing Jacob’s hand. She pulled him toward the stern and down an interior flight of stairs
“Where are we going? Can I watch from the bridge? Do you think your dad would mind?”
“After he recently discovered that you were making out with his daughter?” She turned toward Jacob and raised her eyebrows. “I doubt he’s going to want you anywhere near him.”
“What you meant to say was now that he’s aware I’m going to marry his daughter, he’ll want to teach me everything he knows and keep me on a short leash so he can whip me into shape.” Jacob placed both hands on her hips and pulled her closer.
“Yeah, I’m sure that’s exactly what he’s thinking.” She lifted onto her toes and stole a kiss.
Jacob took advantage of the secluded location and gripped her in his arms for something a little more passionate. They got lost in that kiss for about a minute and a half and then the boat pitched to the side as if it were a toy in a wave pool.
“Come on.” Maryam grabbed his hand and headed toward the stairs. He tugged against her.
“Please,” he begged. “I want to at least try to go watch from the bridge. If your dad kicks me out, then we’ll leave.”
“Fine, come on.” She led him in the opposite direction, toward the bow. They climbed to the bridge deck and entered through the side door, slinking into the back of the room, holding hands and staying out of the way.
The wind had picked up and the rain was pelting from the side. The captain was calmly barking out orders to people who all seemed to know what they were doing even without his instructions. The commands almost seemed more of a way of keeping record of each step. Calling out readings on the various gauges and dials, barometric pressures, temperatures, wind speed, wave height. There was an ordered chaos that was almost a choreographed dance between the captain, he first mate and crew.
Finally, the moment Jacob knew would happen did. Captain Arnold noticed them standing at the back of his control room. He creased his brow in frustration and scowled. Then he did something unexpected.
“Well, are you gonna get up here and learn something from me?” the captain said. “Or are you just gonna stand back there gripping my little girl’s hand like she’s your life vest?”
“Yes, sir, I mean, no sir.” Jacob gulped and stepped away from Maryam, dropping her hand reluctantly. This was what he wanted after all. “What can I do to help?” He grabbed hold of a bar in the middle of the room, holding on for dear life.
“All we can do right now is go with the flow,” Captain Arnold said. “This is not a hurricane. It’s not even a tropical storm. I’ve piloted in worse conditions. No flat seas ever made a skilled sailor.”
Jacob only nodded and clung to the pole, not even sure if the captain saw him nod. Huge, dangerous waves appeared out of nowhere but didn’t seem to faze any of the trained crew. The bow rose and fell as the boat crested the waves and fell down the other side, crashing as if the scariest roller coaster on earth came crashing down at the bottom of a hill rather than continuing on a smooth track.
The bow rocked up and Jacob could see only air. The bow came down and the waves crashed over the bow totally covering the deck with foam.
Keeping the boat perpendicular to the waves was nearly impossible when the waves crashed from all sides, not just up down but also side to side. Waves splashed completely over the deck and wind whipped salt water over everything.
“I’ve never had to surf a thirty-four-meter superyacht down a wave before,” Captain Arnold called out. “This boat is no good in the big sea when the waves are coming from behind. We’re fishtailing down the waves like a broach. Have you surfed much?”
“I tried once,” Jacob called back. “It was a complete disaster. I couldn’t stay on my feet and kept tipping over.”
“That’s exactly what we’re trying to avoid.” The captain nodded definitively. “The greatest risk of capsizing is when the ship turns broadside to the waves and the rocking of the boat and the movement of the waves sync up. I’m not going to let that happen.”
“Have you ever capsized a boat before?”
“Not and lived to tell about it,” he joked.
Jacob laughed nervously. “Considering you’re still alive, I’m going to take that as a good sign.”
“The speed we normally do is about thirteen knots, fourteen max,” Captain Arnold explained. “We were doing nineteen knots down the face of that last wave and the wave was staying pretty much in line with us. Not a fun position to be in.”
“How long will this last?” Jacob asked.
“Not sure. The barometer should have dropped over the course of eighteen hours or so. That much variance in atmospheric pressure causes strong winds. It’s feeding off the warm waters. The largest waves are dependent on the strength of the wind.”
“They look pretty big to me,” Jacob said. “You’ve sailed in worse than this?” The thought of drowning occurred to him but then he realized he hadn’t learned all he’d learned just to drown out in the middle of the ocean.
“Yes, I have,” the captain said. “Your dad wouldn’t have hired me if I wasn’t the best.”
“Well, I’m glad he did.” Jacob turned to glance at Maryam with a shy smile.
“I trust we’re not going to have a repeat of what happened earlier between you and my daughter.” Captain Arnold’s words were more of a threat than a question.
“No, Sir.” Jacob tried to keep his voice as respectful and repentant as he could.
“Don’t let your teenage hormones get in the way of making lifetime adult decisions.”
Jacob gulped. “Yes, Sir.”
Conversation between Jacob and the captain became less strained as he watched and learned all he could while clinging to the bar in the center of the bridge through the long night of fighting the storm.
When the rain and wind eventually let up a little, and Jacob could barely keep his eyes open, he finally excused himself to go rest. The captain and crew had sea legs and were prepared for these circumstances. Jacob was a writer and scholar and businessman. He knew his physical limitations and didn’t care if anyone razzed him for being a lightweight.
Lying down in his bed while the waves were still pitching and rolling after standing on the bridge all night was a mistake. Within a few minutes he was hanging his head over the toilet in the attached bathroom of his suite.
He spent that day on the floor of his stateroom a few feet away from the head, miserable. He may be part owner of a yacht company, but this wasn’t the way he wanted to live his life. He’d have to find a way to get Maryam to join him on land somewhere, because he wasn’t giving her up.
“Mother! This isn’t how it looks!” Maryam gasped.
Jacob realized it looked even worse than imaginable. Ripped condom wrappers, the dresser drawer open revealing a whole box of them waiting, his iPad knocked off the desk where Maryam was still sitting with her legs wrapped around Jacob’s waist. Yeah, this looked bad.
They disentangled themselves from one another and straightened their clothes. Jacob rushed over to pick up the wrappers and discard them in the trash, closed the dresser drawer and shrunk away from the intimidating woman still standing in the door to his stateroom.
“Do you have anything to say for yourself young man?”
“Um… I’m sorry?”
“How long has this been going on?” she demanded.
“About thirty seconds?”
“That was at least a minute,” Maryam mumbled.
“I don’t know, I’ve never kissed a girl before,” Jacob said through clenched teeth. “It happened so fast I couldn’t think, especially not about the clock.”
“That was your first kiss?” Maryam straightened and faced Jacob, an awed smile across her face. “I was your first kiss?”
“Yeah…” Jacob smiled at this beautiful girl standing before him, momentarily forgetting her mom was in the room. He reached out and laced his fingers through hers. “I kinda hope you’ll be my last too.”
“You do?” She melted closer to him.
“I’m still standing right here.” Valerie Arnold, Captain Arnold’s wife, Maryam’s mother. Forget waiting to ask her father. Jacob leapfrogged right to the woman in charge, turning to her with confidence.
“Can I marry your daughter?” Jacob blurted out.
“What?” Mrs. Arnold asked, her jaw dropped.
“What?” Maryam whispered, covering her mouth with her hand, eyes wide and sparkling. “When?”
“As soon as possible,” Jacob said, pulling Maryam close again. He lifted his hand brushed his thumb across her lips, remembering how they felt connected to his. “Ever since we started talking about getting married, I haven’t been able to think of anything else.”
“That was twenty minutes ago,” Maryam whispered.
“What a long twenty minutes,” Jacob whispered back.
Maryam reached up and placed her palm against his cheek. “Are you sure you’re not just thinking with your… feelings?”
“I was thinking about marrying you before I kissed you,” he said, leaning closer to her ear. “This isn’t physical. Okay, it’s not just physical.”
“On deck,” Mrs. Arnold demanded. “Both of you!” She held the door open, waiting for them to leave his stateroom, clinging to each other’s hands.
She marched them to the stern of the yacht, while calling out to her husband and Jacob’s parents in a firm, insistent voice. Her bellowing drew the attention of crew members as well, but one look at her face and they shrunk back into whatever job they could find somewhere else on the boat.
Nicholas and Adele emerged from their stateroom, mother sat up from a lounge chair on deck, removed her floppy hat and sunglasses, and set down the paperback novel she’d been reading, father and Captain Arnold stepped from the control room, Liam came out of his stateroom holding a beer bottle, but quickly tucked the bottle back into his room and flicked the butt of a strange looking cigarette off the side of the railing into the ocean, and his wife sat up from a lounge chair wearing a bikini swimsuit that was not flattering on a pregnant woman. Jacob looked away and shuddered.
“What’s the matter, Valerie?” mother asked, a crease in her brow.
“Your son has been doing things with my daughter that are completely inappropriate!”
“Score,” Liam said with no apparent remorse. “I knew those babies would come in handy.”
“I have never, nor do I intend to use those!” Jacob insisted.
“Come on, man, please don’t tell me you did it without one. Have you learned nothing from your older brothers?”
“I have learned the most important thing from my older brother, Nicholas,” Jacob said with confidence. “To wait until I’m married!”
“What are you two talking about?” father asked, turning to Liam. “What did you do?”
“I gave him some protection, that’s all,” Liam said. “Which is a heck of a lot more than you gave me.”
“Pr—protection?” mother stammered. “What do you mean by that?”
“Jacob has a whole box of condoms in his state room!” Valerie said. “And one of them was open while they were… well… I don’t even want to think about what they were doing.”
“We were kissing, mother! Kissing. Fully clothed,” Maryam insisted. “And it was open just because I wanted to see what one looked like.”
“Liam,” father interrupted. “Don’t you blame your poor choices on my unwillingness to teach you anything short of complete chastity prior to marriage.”
“Thanks, dad, that works in theory,” Liam said. “That’s not the reality of life. Once you’re in the heat of the moment, theories fly right out the window.”
“Which is why we don’t allow ourselves to get in those situations in the first place,” Nicholas said.
“Shut up, you self-righteous jerk,” Liam said. “You think you’re so much better than the rest of us? How long did it take you to get married once you and Adele got back together? Two weeks? Three? Try waiting a few weeks or months after falling in love and see how quickly you get into ‘situations’ like that.” Liam actually used air quotes and sneered at their brother.
“When you know you’ve met the right woman, and you want to be together forever, you get married.” Nicholas nodded his head once definitively. “You don’t allow yourself to be tempted by one another.”
“Which is exactly why Maryam and I want to get married.” Jacob stepped confidently forward, still clutching Maryam’s hand.
“You want to what?” Captain Arnold asked.
“I’m sorry I didn’t ask you first, Sir,” Jacob said. “But Mrs. Arnold was standing right there, and I figured even if I asked you, you’d need to ask her, so I just skipped a step.”
“We have been at sea for ten whole days and you think you know my daughter well enough to marry her?”
Jacob turned to Maryam and softened his expression. “Of course not. But love grows over time and many things about her I won’t learn until we’re married anyway, so why wait?”
“Exactly,” Maryam agreed in a quiet, contemplative answer. She squeezed his hand and gazed into his eyes.
“You’re too young for us to even have this discussion,” mother said.
“I’m not too young,” Jacob said. “I’m old enough that if Israel ever called me to serve as a soldier I’d be compelled to fight on behalf of our country.”
“Well, you’re too young to get married.”
“By whose definition?” Jacob asked. “Would you rather have us sneaking around and getting into trouble? I’d rather do things the moral way and be legally married first.”
“That would be difficult since we’re on a boat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean,” Nicholas pointed out.
“Actually,” Maryam corrected him. “My father is legally ordained to perform marriages in the United States of America, which applies to all international waters as well.”
All eyes turned to Captain Arnold, who shrugged. “Back when I was captain on a cruise ship it made complete sense. I’ve performed many at-sea nuptials. It was a good idea at the time. Certainly never thought I’d be officiating at my own daughter’s wedding.”
“Why not, daddy?” Maryam asked. “You’re the man I’ve looked up to my whole life. You and mother have shown me how a true marriage should work, and I hope to someday emulate the relationship you have. You’ve been my anchor in stormy seas.”
Captain Arnold’s shoulders relaxed, and he reached out to touch his hand to Maryam’s cheek in a gesture of affection.
“Speaking of stormy seas,” Liam’s wife Rachel spoke up for the first time in the discussion. “That storm sure looks like it’s going to cause rough seas.” She pointed behind them at the dark clouds.