CHAPTER ONE

 

"I don't get it," said the petite redhead in front of me. Through the sliver of space between the airplane seats, I watched her swivel to face her friend, a curvy brunette with an unfortunate acne problem. "'Aloha' means 'hello' and 'goodbye'? How does that even make sense?" She scrunched her nose. "Why would you say the same thing regardless of whether you're coming or going?"

The brunette flipped the page of the magazine she'd been browsing. "I think that's a common misconception, actually," she said. "I read that people do say it as a greeting sometimes, but it actually means 'love and peace,' or something like that. It really describes the Hawaiian way of life."

"The Hawaiian way of life?" The first girl snorted. "What is that—like, actual sex on the beach? Or shaking your booty in a grass skirt and chugging mai tais all day long?" She seemed to think that over for a moment, and a grin spread across her freckled face. "You know, that actually sounds pretty great. Where can I sign up?"

I rolled my eyes. Silly mainlanders. At least the brunette had done her homework. Tourists were always so quick to mimic our culture and expressions for their amusement. I turned in my window seat to stare at the vast ocean below and caught a glimpse of my reflection. A blush crept into my cheeks. I had no room to gripe.

Despite being born and raised in Kauai, I was as pale as the two women seated in front of me. My father had been Maoli, a Native Hawaiian, but my mother had been a blonde, blue-eyed New Yorker with skin whiter than the sand of the local beaches. Though I'd inherited my father's dark brown hair and eyes, my lighter complexion was a gift from Mama.

For the most part, I didn't even talk like an islander either, having spent the past five years managing a clothing boutique in Atlanta, Georgia. Words and phrases like "y'all," "darlin'," and "bless your heart" had found their way into my vernacular. I'd spent a truckload of money maintaining the golden highlights that accented my naturally dark hair. Even my name, Kaley, was a mainlander's abbreviation of my Hawaiian birth name, Kalani. I'd transformed from a proud half-Native Hawaiian to Southern Belle Barbie. Love makes you do some pretty crazy stuff.

What did all that effort get me? My wispy bangs bounced as I puffed out a frustrated breath. A one-way ticket back to the islands and a pasty tan line on my ring finger. I'd completely reinvented myself to please my husband only to have him leave me for someone "more exotic" (his words, not mine). Actually, it was more like several someones.

As if to rub saltwater in the wound of my recent divorce, a little boy who'd also been on my connecting flight from Atlanta scurried up the aisle wearing an oversized Falcons jersey. The name and number stitched to the back of his shirt were like a dagger through my bruised heart. Colfax, Fifteen.

Bryan Colfax was the star running back for Georgia's beloved pro football team. Despite the fact that it was the end of June and the first kickoff was a couple of months away, I couldn't walk more than five feet in any direction of downtown Atlanta without seeing his face on a billboard or passing some fan wearing his jersey. Apparently, I couldn't even escape him on a cross-country flight. Here I was, somewhere miles above the Pacific Ocean, and my ex was still everywhere I looked.

Up until a few weeks ago, I wouldn't have minded. I used to swell with pride every time I introduced myself as Mrs. Colfax or overheard someone gushing over Bryan's last-minute, game-winning touchdown run against the Saints last season. Of course, that had all changed when I'd come home from work early last month to discover Bryan holding private auditions for the Falcons cheerleading squad in the bedroom of our penthouse condo. Nothing ends a marriage faster than seeing your husband beneath three hot twenty-two-year-olds in naked pyramid formation. Bryan and I had been having trouble connecting over the past several months, but that had been the game-ending play.

After telling the ladies where they could shove their pom-poms, I'd given Bryan my spirit finger and kicked him out of the condo. Unfortunately, that hadn't lasted very long, considering the property was in his name and our prenup hadn't included an infidelity clause. One expedited divorce later, all I had left of my life in Georgia was public humiliation, a broken heart, and an oversized Prada duffel full of clothes and shoes. I'd even dropped that two-timing jerk's last name. Goodbye, Kaley Colfax, I thought as the pilot announced our descent toward Kauai's Lihue Airport. Hello again, Kaley Kalua.

 

*   *   *

 

"Aloha! Welcome to Hawaii." A young stewardess in a navy blue blazer with a pink hibiscus flower pinned in her hair stood just inside the airport terminal, greeting travelers and placing colorful flowered leis around their necks.

The two young women who had been seated in front of me on the plane rushed toward her, squealing in delight. "Aloha!" the redhead cried, ducking her head so the stewardess could place the flowers around her neck. She straightened and turned to her friend. "Been here five minutes and I've already gotten laid," she said, bouncing her eyebrows. "Quick! Take a picture." She struck a pose in front of a wall-length mural of the nearby crescent-shaped Kalapaki Beach.

I shuffled past the women, shifting my bag from one shoulder to the other as I struggled under its weight. Once outside, I set it down and scanned the pickup area for any sign of my aunt. I spotted her almost immediately. Rikki Kalua was my dad's baby sister, and at forty-seven, she was only twenty years my senior. Though petite in size, her style was larger than life. When I'd last seen Rikki on her visit to Atlanta three Christmases ago, her raven hair had grown down to her waist. She'd since shortened it to shoulder-length and added electric blue highlights. The wacky hair, paired with a deep magenta maxi dress, made her stand out even in a crowd of flowery prints and aloha shirts.

"Kalani! My ku'uipo," Rikki exclaimed, calling me sweetheart in our native tongue, just as she had my whole life. She opened her arms and squeezed me when I stepped into her embrace. "It's so good to see you."

A mixture of emotions melted together and flowed through me like lava. I was happy to see Aunt Rikki, who had raised me after my parents had been killed in a boating accident off the coast of Maui when I was twelve. Still, I couldn't help but feel guilty for losing touch with her over the past few years. Daily phone calls had turned into monthly emails and then just the occasional Facebook message. When my marriage had fallen apart and I'd had no place to go, my aunt had not only insisted I move back in with her, but she'd also offered me a job. Rikki owned a clothing and accessory shop, the Happy Hula Dress Boutique, which was located in the merchant area of the town's luxury resort. She'd insisted that I accept the position as her new store manager and wouldn't take no for an answer. For that, I was eternally grateful.

"Thanks for letting me come home," I said, feeling my eyes mist.

Rikki pulled back to hold me at arm's length. "Of course, honey." She gave me a warm smile. "We're 'ohana." The word meant family. "And we take care of our own."

I breathed a sigh of relief. I wasn't sure what I'd do without her.

"Come on." Rikki stooped to grab my bag. For a tiny woman, she was in excellent shape, making the task of hauling the fifty-pound duffel look easy. We made our way through the throngs of tourists boarding hotel shuttles and entered the short-term parking lot. "I'm just a few rows down," Rikki called over her shoulder as she walked briskly past a line of SUVs. Though I no longer had the added weight of the bag across my shoulders, I still struggled to keep up with her in my black pumps and tight canary yellow pencil skirt.

I stopped short as Rikki placed my bag down beside a bright purple Vespa. I blinked at the scooter. "What happened to your Jeep?" I asked, wondering what had possessed her to downsize to something that looked like one of those Power Wheels kids' toys from Fisher Price.

My aunt grabbed the two helmets hanging from the handlebars and handed me one. "Sold it. I've always wanted a Vespa, and I told myself, 'Rikki, you only live once.' Plus, I can practically park this thing anywhere, and I love feeling the wind on my cheeks." She grinned. "If you ask me, there's no better way to get around the island."

Lips pursed, I looked from the eggplant-colored scooter to the black headgear in my hands. I wasn't looking forward to the serious case of helmet hair in my near future.

"Come on," Rikki coaxed, mistaking my disdain for worry. "No need to be scared. I'm an excellent driver." She used a bungee cord to secure my bag just below the rear of the seat cushion and then put on her own helmet. She climbed onto the bike and gestured for me to follow suit. "Hold on tight to my waist, and you'll be just fine."

I reluctantly removed my heels and stuffed them into a pocket on the side of my bag before padding barefoot around the side of the Vespa. Hiking up my skirt, I swung my leg over the bike and settled in behind Rikki. After strapping the helmet over my wavy hair, I circled her middle with my arms and held on for dear life.

Rikki and I clearly had different definitions of "excellent driver." She zipped the Vespa in and out of traffic, cutting off at least half a dozen other drivers. I couldn't even enjoy the breathtaking view of the turquoise waters as we sped around the cliffs of Kauai. I was too busy squeezing my eyes shut and praying I'd live to stand on solid ground again.

When we finally reached the employee parking lot at the Aloha Lagoon Resort twenty minutes later, I practically lunged off the bike. I lost my balance during my hasty exit and toppled sideways off the scooter, hitting the ground in an untidy pile of tangled limbs.

"Are you all right?" Rikki asked, crouching beside me.

Bright pain stung my knees. "Ow." I moaned and rolled over on the pavement.

Rikki examined the scrapes on my legs and then clucked her tongue. "Just a few scratches. You'll get the hang of it," she promised. "Give it a week, and you'll want to buy one for yourself." Her face lit up. "Ooh! Maybe we can find you a pink Vespa! I'll call the dealership in Lihue tomorrow and see if they have one on the lot."

"That's okay," I insisted. "I think I'd prefer something with four wheels and a little less wind in my face."

Rikki rolled her eyes. "Where's your sense of adventure?"

"In Atlanta," I said dryly. "It wouldn't fit in my carry-on bag."

My aunt chuckled. "Anyway," she said, gripping my arm as she helped me to my feet. "I just need to drop by the boutique for a few minutes to sign for our Saturday delivery. Then we'll head home, and I'll whip up some dinner," she promised.

"Whoa. That was quite a wipeout," a voice called from across the parking lot. "I've got a first aid kit if you need it."'

My heart nearly fluttered out of my chest. I knew that voice.

Rikki gave me a sidelong glance, an impish smile curling her lips. "Did I mention that Noa Kahele is back in town?" Before I could respond, she turned and waved him over. "Mahalo, Noa. I think we might need that first aid kit."

Heavy footfalls moved toward us across the pavement. I removed my helmet and twisted around, squinting in the sunlight. My childhood best friend, Noa Kahele, was striding toward us.

"Sure. It's in my car, if you want to—" His words died away. Noa halted, his gaze fixed on me. He blinked. "Kaley?"

I gulped. "Hi," I said softly. I struggled to force down the sudden rush of guilt as I recalled the last time I'd seen Noa. He and I had been close nearly my entire life, but that had changed the night before I'd moved to Atlanta with Bryan.

I'd harbored an intense crush on Noa Kahele for years. At times I'd suspected he felt the same way about me. Unfortunately, though the chemistry between us had been downright explosive, the timing had never been right. We'd both drifted in and out of relationships with other people, never single at the same time.

After ten years of being stuck in the friend zone, our romantic tension had come to a head on the eve of my flight to Georgia. Noa confessed that he did have feelings for me, and he'd begged me not to marry Bryan. By then it was too late—I'd already made up my mind and had begun planning my new life across the country with my fiancé. I could still remember with painful clarity the dejected look in my best friend's eyes when I'd told him I was leaving. Judging by his pinched expression as he looked at me now, I was pretty sure he hadn't forgotten either.

Noa stared at me for several moments, his jaw clenched. Slowly, the muscles in his face relaxed, and to my surprise, he offered me a boyish grin. "I can't believe it," he said, moving to stand next to me. "How long has it been—like, five years? Six?"

"Five and a half." My cheeks warmed. Not that I've been counting. I subtly looked him over. Noa had been the chubby, awkward boy when we were kids, but puberty and years of surfing in high school and college had changed that. Now he was roughly six feet and three inches of lean muscle, dimpled cheeks, and caramel skin. His eyes were the color of dark chocolate, with tiny flecks of gold in them. A light dusting of stubble covered his cheeks and chin, and his long black hair was piled atop his head and knotted in a bun. In his board shorts and tight-fitted shirt, Noa looked like a model for a surfer clothing catalog.

All of a sudden, I was painfully aware of my own unkempt appearance. I chewed the inside of my lip, unable to believe my luck. Of all the people I could've run into after my grueling cross-country trek, gorgeous Noa Kahele just had to be the first. I glanced down at my bleeding knees, bare feet, and wrinkled silk blouse, wishing I could sink through the concrete.

"I didn't recognize you with the helmet on," Noa said. Lips quirked, he reached out to gently tug at a strand of my golden highlights. "What's with the blonde? Do all the girls in Atlanta look like Stepford wives?" he teased.

I felt a smile pull at the corners of my mouth. He's still the same old Noa. "Oh yeah? Well, the hipster barista from the local Starbucks called—he wants his man bun back." I gestured to his knotted hair.

Noa chuckled, and the sound of it warmed my insides. He'd always had an infectious laugh.

Rikki cleared her throat, pulling my attention back to her. "I need to drop by the boutique for a few minutes." She squeezed my shoulder. "Why don't you two catch up for a bit, and then you can head over there? You can meet some of your new coworkers." She gave us a little wave and then started toward the lush man-made lagoon that separated the employee parking lot from the resort's main building.

Noa's eyebrows lifted. "You're working at Happy Hula? So you're here long-term—not just visiting?"

"Yep." I put down my helmet and bent to retrieve the black Jimmy Choo pumps from my bag, which was miraculously still strapped to the back of Rikki's Vespa. I slipped the shoes on my feet and straightened again. I might have also stuck my chest out just a little. "You're looking at the new manager of the Happy Hula Dress Boutique and Aloha Lagoon's newest permanent resident." I silently willed him not to ask about Bryan. After my long day of traveling and ugly crying on the plane, I didn't have it in me to relive the heartache all over again right then. If he owns a TV, then he's probably heard all about it anyway.

"What about you?" I asked to change the subject. "What happened to California?" Noa had studied website and graphic design while we were in college. A few weeks after I'd moved with Bryan to Atlanta, Noa had left for Los Angeles to take a job at a technology start-up.

"I came home almost a year ago," he replied. "The job didn't work out." His good-natured smile faded.

I ducked my head. If I'd stayed in touch, I would have already known that, but Noa and I had lost contact after I'd moved away. Rather than try to salvage what had been left of our friendship, I'd convinced myself that he wouldn't have wanted to talk to me. After that, my life had centered around my job, Bryan, and his high-profile career. I'd become so wrapped up in being the perfect, supportive football wife that I'd eventually pushed away everyone else I'd cared about. Now I was going to have to work hard to repair my old relationships. "I'm sorry," I said softly.

"It's okay. It just wasn't meant to be." Noa turned away, and I wondered briefly if he was talking about the job or us. "Come on," he said, motioning for me to follow him across the parking lot. "Let's get you patched up."

"Why do you think the job wasn't meant to be?" I asked, wincing as the strap on one of my shoes dug in to my skin. I guess these things really weren't made for walking.

Noa slowed his pace so that I could keep up in my heels. He shrugged. "The job itself was fine, but the city, not so much. LA is just too intense for me. All that traffic and smog. Everyone is always in such a hurry." He gestured to the frangipani trees that lined the parking lot. "I've always preferred the beauty and laid-back lifestyle of the islands. I'm still able to line up lots of freelance design work from clients all around the world, but I get to make my own schedule. I also work as a part-time lifeguard for the resort."

Noa stopped in front of a familiar black vehicle, and I did a double take. "You bought Rikki's old Jeep Wrangler."

He nodded. "I needed a set of wheels when I moved home, and Rik said she wanted to keep it in the family." Noa had spent so much time at our house growing up that my aunt had treated him like one of her own. "Plus it's got sentimental value. I had my first kiss in this car," he added, not looking at me.

My face flushed. It had been my first kiss too—the only one I'd ever shared with Noa. I dropped my gaze to the asphalt.

Noa produced a first aid kit from his glove compartment and patted the seat cushion. "Sit right here. I'll have you bandaged up in no time." After spraying antiseptic on my scrapes (which stung like a mother), he gingerly placed bandages over each wound. "All better, right?" he asked.

"Yeah," I lied. "Thanks." The pain was even worse now, but I wasn't about to tell him that. I swallowed the lump in my throat as we stood next to the Jeep, an awkward silence stretching between us. I probably didn't deserve another chance at our friendship, but I was certainly going to try to earn it. "I'm sorry for disappearing like I did," I said quietly. "I hope you'll let me make it up to you someday."

Noa avoided my gaze, and the hurt in his expression sent another stab of guilt through my middle. After what seemed like an eternity, he looked up, a polite smile smoothing the lines on his face. "Hey, no worries," he said, his tone surprisingly casual. He held up his fist with the thumb and pinky finger extended and wiggled his hand in the shaka sign. "Life happens. People grow apart." He shrugged. "Now that you're back on the island, maybe we can catch up some time," he added, though his tone was insincere.

"Totally," I said, forcing a smile despite feeling a pang of disappointment. I had the impression he was only saying that to be nice. Noa and I probably wouldn't be best buds again anytime soon. Not that I could blame him. If our roles had been reversed, I probably wouldn't want to have anything to do with him either.

I said goodbye to Noa and made my way toward the main building of the Aloha Lagoon Resort. A feeling of nostalgia crept over me as I crossed the bridge through the beautiful man-made lagoon. I'd spent many days here as a child, peering over the railing into the fish pond as I'd tried to spot Harold the Turtle. Harold was sort of the unofficial mascot of Aloha Lagoon. He'd been around for as long as I could remember—possibly even longer—and he'd probably be around long after the rest of us were gone. The resort guests had a soft spot for the old tortoise. I couldn't help but smile when I passed two little girls as they stood at the center of the bridge, pointing out into the lagoon. "There he is," I heard one of them whisper. Sure enough, the old turtle was sunning himself on a rock that peeked out just above the water's surface.

Good old Harold, I thought. I inhaled the floral fragrance wafting from the nearby plumeria and gardenia shrubs, and some of the day's tension eased from my shoulders. It was hard not to feel at home in a place like this.

Once through the lagoon, I entered a massive cream-colored building with a tiled terra-cotta roof. While the Aloha Lagoon Resort was surrounded by an island paradise, the interior was a veritable utopia all on its own. The lobby boasted an elegant granite flooring with enormous area rugs that designated sections for lounging or sitting. Gorgeous potted plant arrangements highlighted entrances to hallways, shops, and the elevator lobby. I edged past a line of guests at the concierge desk, toward a pair of sliding doors. The large glass panels parted, allowing me access to one of the resort's several courtyards.

Several smaller buildings were grouped just beyond the crystal-clear swimming pools, each looking like a miniature version of the main structure. The colorful courtyard tiles sparkled in the late afternoon sun as I moved toward one of the little shops. A familiar purple placard hung from the awning, and a dancing woman with a flowered crown and grass skirt was painted on the sign below the words Happy Hula Dress Boutique.

A wind chime made of seashells clinked as I stepped into my aunt's shop—and my new place of employment. The small building had an open floor plan, with a rainbow assortment of beach towels, bathing suits, sarongs, maxi dresses, and more hanging on racks all over the sales floor. Revolving display stands near the front boasted jewelry made from shells, shark's teeth, obsidian, and olivine, and shelves of funky flip-flops and colorful sandals lined the walls. I glanced down at my blistered feet and back up to the shoe racks, staring longingly at a cute and comfortable-looking pair of gold sandals.

The boutique was teeming with activity. Customers milled about on the sales floor, some perusing the clothing racks and others carrying items toward the row of changing stalls along the back wall. A young woman with long black hair stood behind the front counter, emptying a roll of quarters into the cash register. She looked up as I approached. "Aloha and welcome to Happy Hula Dress Boutique," she said politely, meeting my gaze with brown almond-shaped eyes. "How can I help you?"

"Hi." I smiled at her. "I'm Kaley, Rikki Kalua's niece."

The girl grinned back at me. "It's nice to meet you, Kaley. I'm Sara Thomas." She set down the roll of quarters and shook my hand. "I hear we're going to be working together."

I nodded. "I start tomorrow."

"Cool." Sara picked the up the roll of change again and dumped the last of the quarters into the drawer.

I sent my gaze around the crowded shop. "Have you seen my aunt come into the shop yet? I told her I'd meet her here."

The young cashier gestured with her free hand toward the back of the store. "She got here a few minutes ago. I think she's in the stockroom with the assistant manager, Louana."

"Great. Thanks." I gave Sara a little wave before turning to wade through the aisles of clothing racks, making my way toward the rear of the shop. I passed the row of changing stalls and walked down a short hallway, coming to a stop in front of a green door marked EMPLOYEES ONLY.

I raised my hand to knock but let it fall back to my side as the sound of muffled shouts filtered through the closed door. I frowned. Rikki rarely raised her voice. Leaning forward to press my ear against the wood, I realized that it wasn't my aunt doing the yelling.

"I don't care if she's your niece, your daughter, or a freakin' Kardashian," a woman's angry voice exclaimed. "That job is mine, fair and square."

"Come on, Louana." Rikki sounded vexed. "Be reasonable."

The other woman snorted. "'Reasonable' flew out the window when you hired your stupid niece for a promotion that should belong to me. I earned it."

Hey! I felt my face grow hot. Watch who you're calling stupid. I disliked this Louana chick already.

On the other side of the door, Rikki sighed loudly. "Lou, you've been a wonderful assistant manager, but Kaley ran a store on her own for two years in Atlanta. She's simply more qualified—"

"I'll sue." Louana's breath came out in an angry hiss. "What you're doing is nepotism. I'll sue you for every penny you're worth. I'll own you and this shop by the end of the summer."

"It's not nepotism," Rikki protested. I could hear her patience wearing thin. "Kaley has more experience than you. She's the better candidate. It doesn't matter that she's family. With the way you've been botching product orders lately, I just don't think you're ready for more responsibility."

"You know what I am ready for?" Louana's tone was low and menacing. "Some respect."

Without warning, the stockroom door flew open and knocked me backward. I staggered down the short hallway, my arms flailing in an attempt to regain my balance. I found my footing as I reached the edge of the sales floor, and the customer at the nearest clothing rack turned to give me a curious look.

A curvy woman with fiery red hair stomped through the stockroom doorway, heading straight toward me. "Get out of my way," she snarled. She pushed her way past me and stalked across the shop. "This store is the worst!" she called over her shoulder. "I'm out of here."

By now, others were taking notice of the woman's tantrum. Everyone in the store, customers and employees alike, stopped to gawk as she barreled past, pulling clothes from their hangers and tossing them onto the floor.

"Louana, stop that!" Rikki cried, chasing after her. She caught up to the disgruntled woman and grabbed her wrist, preventing her from ripping another blouse off the rack.

"No," Louana growled. She whirled to face my aunt, and her narrow face turned as scarlet as her long, curly hair. Gritting her teeth, she wrenched her arm free of Rikki's grasp. "I quit," she seethed. "But this isn't over. You're going to regret the way you've treated me. I'm going to ruin this place." Spinning on her heel, she marched out of the shop.

To find out what happens next, grab your copy of Bikinis & Bloodshed, now available!

Check out the other great books in the multi-author Aloha Lagoon Mystery series.

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© Anne Marie Stoddard 2017