Chapter One

“Señors! Ojo!” The pilot’s black hair whipped in the wind. His hand shook as he pointed at something beyond Cameron. Something out to sea.

Cameron turned to look.

Dark threatening clouds roiled above the churning deep. A flash of lightning.

Christ almighty.” David’s voice was low in Cameron’s ear, awestruck, terrified.

“Dios te salve, María, llena eres de gracia . . .” One of the crew members started praying. The soft words hung eerily in the charged, heavy air.

Then Cameron saw it. The wave, bigger than seemed possible, racing toward them, rising up, towering over the canoe, curling, little white flecks of foam starting to form at its peak. No time to prepare or even process what was happening. A great earsplitting crack of thunder, then the wall of water crashed down, engulfing the boat, lifting him and dragging him into the sea.

Cold water. The roar of the ocean.

Muffled shouts and an outstretched hand, just out of reach . . . then gone.

The sting of salt water in his nose. Tumbling, struggling, fighting, desperate to keep his head above water. Out of breath. Limbs burning from the effort. Aching for a gulp of air.

Exhaustion. Surrender.



Cameron woke to a throbbing pain in his head. The call of seabirds. Warm, humid air rushed past his face.

He tried to open his eyes, but they were heavy, as if his eyelids were made of lead.

His tongue was sore. He moved it. Swallowed, tried to push the bitter taste away. But there was nothing to swallow.

. So. Bloody. Thirsty.

He lay on his side, one hand tucked under his head, the other outstretched. He wiggled his fingers. Soft dry sand slipped between them. A beach. He was alive.

He was alive.

For some reason, the thought surprised him, though he couldn’t quite remember why. Certainly, there’d been days when he didn’t want to wake up, but being alive had never been a surprise before.

A wave crashed, louder than the rest, and he remembered.

The sudden black clouds on the horizon. The terror in the eyes of their pilot, Agapito. The great swell. Cold water. A flash of lightning and a hand reaching for him—

Christ. Harry. David. Agapito. The others. Where were they?

Cameron’s eyes ripped open, burning, dry and gritty. The sudden light sent a stabbing pain straight to the back of his skull. His stomach heaved. He closed his eyes, clenched his jaw and curled his body in on itself as he took a series of long, deep breaths. Once the nausea subsided, he willed his eyes open again, but only halfway, squinting to keep out the light.

Beyond the haze of his salt-stiffened lashes, a pale sandy beach stretched into the distance. Empty. Above it was black rock, sharp and jagged. The thick forest of the interior was invisible from his vantage point, but a lone palm rose from the rocks, almost doubled backward by the wind. He couldn’t see the sea from where he lay, but the sky mimicked it, undulating blue grey clouds with an occasional strip of frothy white.

He should sit up, but his body was too heavy, the light too much. He closed his eyes, grimacing as another wave of nausea came and went.

Where was he? He couldn’t have drifted too far and survived. He had to be somewhere on the coast of Yucatán, or an island just off it. No, not an island. The map the fisherman in Cancún had drawn showed Cozumel as the only large island off this coast, and they’d circled it in the canoe the day before last, looking, unsuccessfully, for ruins to explore. There hadn’t been any beaches this large. But they’d passed at least a hundred miles of deserted coast just like this as they journeyed south. He had to be on the mainland.

But what if he’d drifted further south? They’d been at the southernmost point of their map when the storm hit, and Cameron had no idea of the geography between Yucatán and the British Territory.

Hellfire. What he wouldn’t do for a drink of water, for his canteen still half full in the bottom of the canoe—

The canoe. Could it have survived the storm? It was a large craft, and he hadn’t actually seen it overturn. What if Harry, David and the rest were out there now, searching for him?

There was nothing for it. He needed to sit up and look.

He took a few more breaths, then slowly, painfully, pushed himself up to sitting. The light still hurt, but he ignored it as he peered out over the water. Searching . . .

The sea spread out before him, still agitated and choppy from the storm. A line of four pelicans flew low over the water, but there were no boats. No canoe. No rescue.

What the deuce was he going to do?

He sat for some minutes, watching the waves, fighting to concentrate over the throbbing pain in his head. He had to think. Determine the best course of action. Given the tropical heat, he’d be lucky to survive two days without water. There were no rivers in Yucatán. He’d need to find a well, or some other source. But where? How? Locating water in this desolate land had been a constant challenge, and that was with a crew of three men familiar with the terrain. Finding it on his own, in his already weakened state, was unlikely. Impossible even.

He would die here.

Surprisingly, the realization didn’t elicit any great emotion. No panic, no heartbreak. It was simply the truth—as real and immutable as the wind blowing through his hair, or the waves lapping the shore. At least he’d settled things before he left Darnalay. Tavish, his best friend and stable master, had agreed to act as factor in his absence; and Cameron’s new heir, a distant cousin, had promised to allow Tav to continue running things if he inherited. The tenants’ lots would be secure. The castle would be looked after. Even Jane had no need of her younger brother. She had Percy and little James now. The world would carry on quite well without the eleventh Earl of Banton. Perhaps the twelfth would have a better go of it.

But what if the others were still out there somewhere, stranded just as he was? What if they were hurt and needed his help? Cameron might not feel any great attachment to life, but he had no doubt David and Harry MacGregor did. And the crew. Mateo and Bernaldo were just youths. Agapito had a family—a wife, and a baby on the way. Cameron had to at least look for them. Get up, find water, walk up the beach—

His eye was caught by a shorebird—or what appeared to be a shorebird but perhaps was not—moving slowly toward him. His mind wanted to make it into a person, a woman, in a billowing white dress. But of course it wasn’t. They’d been sailing for days and hadn’t laid eyes on a single human being. No—Yes. It was a woman . . . a maighdeann-mhara. A maid of the waves. Freya Riley used to tell stories of them, the mermaids of the lochs and seas, luring men to their deaths . . .

No. He shook himself. He really was dazed. This woman had legs. She was no mermaid.

She wore a huipil, the formless white blouse Maya women wore over their petticoats. She was barefoot, carrying a pair of rope sandals and walking just where the waves lapped the shore. Her eyes were trained on the sand in front of her, as if she were looking for something. As she moved closer, he could see that she was taller than most of the Maya women he’d seen, but with the same distinctive golden brown skin and jet black hair.

There had to be a village nearby, or a hacienda.

He could only hope she spoke some Spanish. His Spanish was poor at best, but his knowledge of the Maya language was nonexistent.

Every muscle in his body screamed in protest as he rose and started toward her.

“Hola!” He intended it as a shout, but it came out a painful dry croak, instantly whisked inland by the wind. She didn’t look up, though she was less than twenty feet away. He cleared his throat and tried again. “¡Señorita!”

Her head jerked up. She searched the beach for the source of the sound, then her dark eyes settled on him and widened in surprise. Her black hair was caught in a loose bun at her nape, and a few strands had escaped to blow about her face. Her copper skin seemed to glow in the gloom of the day. The wind shaped the loose fitting huipil to her body . . .

She was beautiful.

Too beautiful to be real.

She wasn’t a mermaid, she was a dream, or a mirage.

Even still, he waved, attempting a smile as he strode painfully—and slowly—toward her through the shifting, ankle deep sand. It was a relief to reach the firm ground on the water’s edge.

She didn’t smile back. She just stared at him, as if she, too, were doubting the reality of the situation.

He bowed, his mind racing to find the words.

“Señorita. Por favor. Necesito agua y . . . comer. Mi canoa está. . . está . . . devil it, how do you say shipwrecked? Ummm . . .” He made a canoe with his hands, then turned it over and splayed his fingers in a gesture he hoped she would understand. “En la tempest.” Her eyes narrowed. “Y . . . necesito un bota a Mérida. O Sisal. Por favor?” He ended this pathetic speech with a wide smile, the one that charmed women of all kinds, from the weathered goodwives of Darnalay to the innocent young ladies of Mayfair.

It didn’t work on this woman. She stared at him for a long moment. Unblinking.

“Can you pay?”

He was dreaming. He’d imagined she’d spoken perfect English.


“Can. You. Pay. Me? If I help you?”

“You speak English.”

“No. I’m speaking Maya,” she said, in perfectly enunciated, though heavily sarcastic, English.

“But how—”

“Never mind.” She shrugged, then resumed her walk down the beach, her footsteps reflecting silver in the sand before disappearing in the waves.


Perhaps this truly was a dream. In fact, he was almost certain it had to be, but even so, he couldn’t just let her walk away. He ran after her, every stride a painful reminder of the hours he’d spent battling the sea.

“I can pay,” he panted. “ I—I need water. And transport. A boat. To Merida. My friends—”

“You have money?” She stopped and looked back at him, unbelievingly. Arms crossed.

She had a point. The bulk of his money was still at the MacGregors’ house in Valladolid. What little he’d brought on this particular adventure had shared the same fate as the canoe.

“Weell . . . aye. But not here. I’ve been shipwrecked ye see.” He smiled faintly and held up his hands to emphasize the obvious. Her expression remained unchanged. No smile. Not even a softening. “Everything’s in Valladolid,” he explained. “I can send it to you, or . . . I could come back with it. I promise. I’ll get it to you. Whatever you ask. Please.” He turned on that smile again, the one that never failed him. Except once again, it did.

She considered him for a moment, then shook her head. “Water I can help with, but not the rest. Not without payment.” She started walking again, and again he pushed his body to catch up.

“You dinna believe me. That I can pay.”

“You’re right.”

“What if I told you I’m a peer? An earl?”

“Then I definitely don’t believe you.” She glanced over, pointedly looking him up and down. He was barefoot. He’d long ago given up wearing a coat in this tropical climate, and he’d been wearing the same trousers and shirt for at least two days. After battling the waves, they were nothing more than rags.

He sighed. “Well. I canna say I’m good at it, but I am the Earl of Banton. I even have my own castle. In Scotland.”

She seemed to take interest in this, though not in the way he’d hoped. Her head whipped toward him, and she scoured him with an accusing glare. Then she quickly looked away and hastened her steps.

He trailed behind. “It’s in the Highlands . . . ’Tis very beautiful . . .” She said nothing, so he kept talking. “You’re wondering why I’m here. I was attempting to reach the ruins on the coast of Yucatán. This is Yucatán, is it not?”

Just when he was about to ask again, she nodded, almost imperceptibly.

Why must she walk so fast? “We were close. I could see the tower in the distance when the storm blew in. Reminded me of my castle, in fact.” He paused, but she still gave no acknowledgment, just kept walking.

Christ, his head hurt.

“It wasna even my idea.” He was explaining, but really, he was pleading. Please be real. Turn around. Help me. “’Twas the MacGregor boys, David and Harry, from Valladolid. They talked me into it when we were foxed. You see, I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with myself, other than just being an earl. They decided I should try my hand at exploring. Write a book, like Humboldt or Captain Cook. It hasna worked out so far, as you can see—”

“I can take you to Belize Town. For fifty pounds.” She stopped and turned toward him.

Fifty pounds?” That was more than he’d paid to cross the Atlantic.

“Aye. Fifty pounds. Sterling. Or Spanish dollars. Or you may pay me in goods. Cochineal, or indigo.”

“But I—”

“I’ll take that as collateral.” She nodded toward his right hand where he wore Father’s signet ring.

“But this was my father’s. I canna—”

“Very well. You’ll likely find some fresh water pooled on the rocks up there.” She nodded inland. “Perhaps someone else will come along this beach in . . . the next five years or so?”

She raised a brow. Waiting.

“How do I know I can trust you?” he asked.

“You don’t.” Her dark eyes met his, betraying nothing.

Cameron was the first to blink. Reluctantly, he twisted the ring off his pinkie and held it out to her. Already, he missed its reassuring weight.

Just a bit of rock and metal. Survival is more important.

But it wasn’t just rock and metal. It had been a part of Father. A reminder that Cameron wasn’t really an imposter, he only felt like one.

She examined it. The glowing orange carnelian carved with the Dunn family crest. The thick gold band.

“My family crest.” He told her.

She raised the ring to her mouth and bit down on the gold.

Careful!” Cameron cringed. She would dent it for sure.

The woman nodded, satisfied, then slipped the ring onto her index finger.

She started walking again, but this time, he kept pace. “There were others with me, in the canoe. I dinna know if they—”

“Did it capsize?” Her brow furrowed.

“No—Or, I dinna know. There was a giant wave. It—it took me out of the boat. I dinna know what happened after that.”

She looked at him through narrowed eyes, then moved her gaze to the turbulent water, considering. “If it capsized,” she said slowly, “they’re most likely drowned. Even if not, by the time you found them, they’d be dead from thirst. More likely you’d die trying.”

He sighed. That was more or less the conclusion he’d come to.

“If it didn’t capsize,” she continued, “they could be a hundred miles away by now. The chance they’ll find you is . . .” She shook her head, shrugged.

“But they can get home—or to Cancún at least, right? Without me? If the canoe is alright, that is.”

She glanced at him, then away. “Yes. Probably.”

Cameron scrubbed his stiff, sandy hair. His eyes swept the waves one more time, searching . . . It went against his every instinct to leave without the crew, but she was right, staying was sure death.

He sighed. “How close are we to Belize Town?”

“Two hundred miles, a little more.”

Two hundred miles. “And we’re to walk the whole way?”

“No.” She clearly thought him a fool. “I have a boat.”

Silence settled between them. The woman looked out over the ocean as she walked, ignoring him. There was something about her . . . Yes, she was cold. Rude even. But there was an unearthly beauty to her. An intensity . . . it drew him in. Fascinated him. He could have watched her for hours and never grown tired of it.

“What’s your name?” he asked softly.