CHAPTER ONE

 

"I'm getting married!" my friend from Atlanta, Emma Ross, gushed. She let out a squeal so loud that I almost had to pull the phone away from my ear. "Kaley, isn't it so exciting?"

When Emma had sent me a "9-1-1" text message five minutes earlier, I'd bolted off the sales floor of the Happy Hula Dress Boutique, the clothing shop I managed at the Aloha Lagoon Resort, without a moment's hesitation. I had hurried into the office that I shared with my Aunt Rikki, worried that something horrible had happened to my dear friend. A break-up, a lost job—or maybe a really bad spray tan. I certainly hadn't expected this.

"That's great, Em," I said, wincing at the shrillness of her voice. "Congratulations." I quickly crossed the office and pulled the door closed, hoping that my friend's ecstatic squealing hadn't been heard from the sales floor. Then I returned to the desk and sank into the cushioned chair. "When's the wedding?" I asked, my own voice coming out a half-octave higher than usual. While I was happy for Emma, the engagement seemed rather sudden. She had only been dating Atlanta Falcons' star defensive end, Dante Becker, for just over four months.

"Well…" Emma's tone was a little reluctant now. "That's part of the reason I'm calling. Obviously, I wanted to tell you right after Dante popped the question." There was a pause, and she sighed with contentment. I pictured my petite brunette friend on the other end of the line, marveling at a massive diamond on her left ring finger.

"Anyway," she continued, "we didn't want to wait until next year, and with football season right around the corner, Dante's about to be busy twenty-four-seven. You know how it is."

"Yeah." I pursed my lips. I did know. Until recently I'd been a football wife myself. My ex-husband, Bryan Colfax, was Dante's teammate. We'd actually been the ones to introduce the newly engaged couple. Of course, that was before my NFL star hubby had cheated on me with three of the team's new cheerleaders (one of which happened to be Dante's cousin)—all at the same time. We'd divorced nearly two months ago, and the last I'd heard, Bryan was dating one of those home-wrecking pompom shakers. Good riddance. I scowled at the memory.

"So, anyway, we're going to do it a week from next Tuesday," Emma blurted, bringing my attention back to her.

I nearly dropped the phone. "For real?" Today was Thursday, which put the ceremony less than two weeks away. It was also currently the middle of July. The team's preseason would start in mid-August, and the guys were already training daily. "Em, that's not enough time to plan a wedding. How are you going to book a venue within that kind of window? What about a dress? And a honeymoon? Can Dante even manage to take off around the team's practice schedule?"

"Oh, don't worry. We've got it all handled," my friend replied smoothly. "We're getting married on a Tuesday morning so that Dante's schedule isn't interrupted. We're just having a small ceremony with family and close friends. Besides, Dante is still recovering from his knee surgery last month, so he's been spending most of practice on the bench. It's not like he'll miss much. We'll be taking a late honeymoon to Fiji—we just have to wait to see how the Falcons do postseason before we book the trip. Plus I pulled some strings with my yoga instructor's girlfriend, who works at that exclusive boutique in Buckhead, Bella's Bridal. I have an appointment tomorrow to try on dresses." She sighed again. "I wish you could go with me."

"Me too." I felt a pang of sorrow. I missed Emma so much. I wanted to be there for every step leading up to her big day, but I was across the continent in Hawaii, and it was such short notice. "Are you sure you're not rushing into this?" I asked gently. "Why not wait until the postseason? That would give you more time to plan, and maybe I could come visit and help you—"

"We're in love," Emma interrupted, sounding defensive. "We don't wanna wait until the postseason." She sniffed. "I thought you'd be happy for me."

"Oh, sweetie." I smacked my palm to my forehead. I hadn't meant to upset her. "Of course I am."

"Good," Emma said, the perkiness returning to her voice. "Because I want you to be my maid of honor."

"Really?" It was my turn to squeal with excitement. "Em, I'd love to!" About two seconds later, the rational side of my brain caught up, and my pleasure was replaced by panic. Emma wanted me to help her plan a wedding that was just twelve days away. I chewed my lip, thinking of my barren bank account. Even if I worked on my days off for the next couple of weeks, the round-trip flight from Kauai to Atlanta would nearly drain my savings.

As if she'd read my mind, Emma piped up. "I was hoping you'd say yes—because Dante and I want to pay for your plane ticket back to Atlanta. How does first class sound?"

My jaw dropped open. "Em, that's such a generous offer," I breathed. "But you don't have to do that." I'd find a way to pay for a ticket myself. Maybe I could ask Aunt Rikki for an advance on my next paycheck.

"I know we don't have to, but we insist," she said. "And don't you dare start talking about paying us back. We want you to be there, and this is the least we can do. You did set us up, after all. We owe you."

"Girl, you don't owe me a thing. But seriously, thank you," I added softly, feeling a rush of gratitude.

"That reminds me," Emma said. "I wanted to find out who you're bringing for a plus one. Still seeing that hottie you told me about? If you'll send me his info, I'll book his flight, too. What was his name again?"

"Noa." I felt my insides warm at the thought of my childhood best bud—and, as of a few weeks ago, more than just a friend—Noa Kahele. "I'll talk to him about it tonight at dinner, though I'm sure he'll insist on paying for himself." Noa ran his own freelance business as a website and graphic designer. He was really good at his job, and business had been booming lately. Though he didn't need the supplemental income, he worked part-time as a lifeguard at the Aloha Lagoon Resort. Noa was usually stationed at the guest swimming pool right across the courtyard from Happy Hula, which meant I got the occasional glimpse of him in action through the shop's display window. I wasn't embarrassed to admit that it was the highlight of my shift on those days. He was usually shirtless when he worked at the pool, and the man rocked a nice set of abs.

A knock on the office door made me jump. "Hang on just a sec, Em," I said, rising from the desk chair.

"Wait!" she squawked. "Just one more thing, and then I'll let you go. It's almost dinnertime here, anyway, and Dante and I have reservations at Bacchanalia."

"Okay," I relented, swiveling in the chair. "Just a minute!" I called toward the closed office door.

Emma cleared her throat. "Since you're the maid of honor, I'm sure you're wondering how to go about hosting a bridal shower and bachelorette party on such short notice."

I felt the blood drain from my face. Neither of those things had even occurred to me yet. Unless she wanted a quick, super cheap celebration the day before the wedding, I wasn't sure there was any way I could pull it off—especially with less than two weeks to go until the big day.

"Well, you don't need to worry yourself about a shower. Dante's mother is handling that this Saturday."

"And the bachelorette party?" I asked, fighting to keep the panic out of my voice.

"Is next weekend." Emma giggled. "In Hawaii. I knew you wouldn't be able to fly home for the ceremony and the bachelorette festivities, so we're bringing the party to you. Surprise!"

My eyes went wide. "Are you serious?"

"As a heart attack, honey." I could practically hear Emma grinning. "You know I don't joke about a good party. I've already booked a couple of rooms at the Aloha Lagoon Resort for next weekend. I just need you to plan a few fun activities for us to do while we're there. Dante's offered to pick up the tab for everything, so just let me know how much everything will cost, and I'll run it by him and send over his card info. We'll arrive on Thursday afternoon, and then you and that sexy surfer man of yours can fly back to Atlanta with us on Sunday to get ready for the ceremony."

"That sounds great." I did a little dance in my chair. I was going to see Emma in just over a week, right here in Kauai!

"Oh, and feel free to invite any of your other gal pals from the island to join us for the weekend," Emma replied. "I'm only bringing the other bridesmaids, so the more the merrier."

"Who are your other bridesmaids?" I asked.

Emma coughed. "Oh, you know—just some of the football girlfriends," she said quickly. I thought I detected something in her tone that resembled reluctance—or worry, maybe?—but it was gone a moment later. "Anyway, I've gotta run," she said. "Dante hates being late for dinner reservations. I'll send over our flight and room info tomorrow." She squealed. "I can't wait to see you! This is gonna be so much fun. Later, tater."

I was still buzzing from Emma's exciting news as I slipped my phone back into the pocket of my peach-colored tube dress and got up to open the office door. My new pal and coworker, Jamie Parker, stood on the other side, her thin, blonde eyebrows raised in curiosity.

 

"Everything okay? I was walking past the office on the way back from the stock room and thought I heard screaming." Her lips twitched. "It sounded like you were murdering a pixie," she added in an accent similar to Emma's Georgia lilt.

I had a feeling my two friends would hit it off when they met face-to-face next weekend. Jamie had grown up in the South before moving to Aloha Lagoon to be the resort scuba diving instructor, which is what she did when she wasn't working cashier shifts at Happy Hula.

"No pixies," I said with a laugh. "I was on the phone with Emma, my closest friend back in Atlanta. She dropped a pretty big bombshell on me."

Jamie glanced over her shoulder, down the hallway that led to the boutique's sales floor. "It's pretty slow out there. Harmony and Rose can handle it for a few minutes." She stepped into the office and closed the door behind her. "What kind of bombshell?" she asked, giving me her full attention.

"She's getting married."

Jamie opened her mouth to cheer, her face alight with excitement, but I held up a finger to stop her.

"A week from next Tuesday," I finished.

Her grin vanished. "Whoa," she breathed. Her forehead wrinkled. "What's the rush? Does she have a bun in the oven?"

I shook my head. "No, nothing like that." I explained the limited time window in Dante's schedule with football season fast approaching. "They want to have the ceremony before the preseason kicks off, and they'll delay their honeymoon until after the playoffs." I sat back down in my desk chair. "She's flying me to Atlanta for the wedding, but first she and her other bridesmaids are coming to Aloha Lagoon next weekend for the bachelorette party. They'll be here a week from today." I glanced at the calendar on the wall. "That means I've got less than seven days to plan the perfect girls' weekend," I said, chewing my lip. "And I don't even know where to start."

"I can help," Jamie offered, perching on the chair opposite mine. She crossed one slender leg over the other and tugged at her pale green, scale-patterned leggings. One of the things I loved most about Jamie was her unique (and mostly marine-inspired) fashion sense. "Are any of the bridesmaids certified divers?" she asked, her expression thoughtful. "There's a great spot I could take y'all to about a mile past Coconut Cove."

I shrugged. "I'm not sure. I don't even know who the other members of the wedding party are just yet."

Jamie waved her hand. "That's okay. We could always go snorkeling instead. Or we could rent jet skis. There are lots of fun things to do out on the water." Her ocean-blue eyes widened. "Ooh! You could also take the girls dancing at the Lanai Lounge across town. Thursdays and Fridays are both ladies' night, so there's no cover."

"That's a great idea." I smiled at her, feeling a little better about my last-minute maid of honor duties. "I'll call Juls Kekoa after work and see if she can round up some last-minute luau tickets, too. By the way, you're welcome to join us—that is, if you don't have plans next weekend."

Jamie smirked. "Well, I did have a date with my couch and the final season of Girls, but I suppose I could clear my schedule."

"How generous of you," I teased. "What about that surfer guy you've been dating? No hot dates planned?"

Jamie's bottom lip poked out. "We had a major wipe out," she admitted. "I thought we were exclusive, but apparently, I'm not the only woman he's been seeing."

"Bummer."

She shrugged. "Meh. Plenty of other fish, right? The island's not that small." She waggled her eyebrows. "Who knows? Maybe I'll pick up a new man at the Lanai Lounge."

 

"Yeah, maybe." I smiled at her as I stood up and made my way toward the door. I poked my head out into the hallway. From the rear of the sales floor, I caught Happy Hula's assistant manager, Harmony Kane, giving me the stink eye. "Come on," I said, looking over my shoulder at Jamie. "Let's get back to work before the Wicked Witch of the East Pacific puts a hex on us."

The rest of the afternoon seemed to fly by, mostly because I was preoccupied planning Emma's bachelorette weekend in my head while I worked. By the time the boutique closed for the evening, I had come up with a list of activities that she was sure to love. I ran my ideas by Jamie as she gave me a ride home from work in her sea foam green Chevy Malibu, which I'd affectionately dubbed the Mer-mobile.

"Juls said she'd hold some tickets for us for the luau on Saturday night. Oh, and how does an afternoon at the resort spa sound?" I asked her, rolling down the passenger window so I could breathe in the ocean air as we sped past Coconut Cove. "I'm thinking mani-pedis, massages, maybe some time in the sauna. I could call Summer at the front desk tomorrow and book us for Saturday around noon. We can pack all the partying into Thursday and Friday and then recover with a little pampering before the luau."

"Sounds good to me." Jamie bobbed her head. "You know I'm always down for being pampered." She turned onto Kalapaki Drive, bringing the car to a stop in front of the teal and white beach cottage where I lived with my Aunt Rikki. There were two other vehicles parked in the driveway alongside my aunt's purple Vespa: a sedan driven by Rikki's ukulele teacher and a familiar black Jeep Wrangler. I cursed under my breath at the sight of the dark SUV, and Jamie gave me a curious sidelong glance. "I thought you'd be happy to see Noa."

"I am," I said, feeling sheepish. "I just didn't expect him to beat me here. I was hoping to grab a shower and freshen up before dinner, but I'd hate to keep him waiting."

Jamie grinned. "Just tell him you'll make it worth the wait."

I rolled my eyes. "Yeah, yeah," I said dryly. I stooped to snatch my purse off the floorboard. "Thanks for the ride. I swear one of these days I'm going to finally pawn off my old wedding band and use the money for a down payment on my own set of wheels."

"You've been saying that for weeks now. I'll believe it when I see it," she teased. "But in the meantime, I'm happy to give you a lift whenever you need it. See you at sunrise yoga tomorrow morning?"

"Only if you swing by and scoop me up so I don't have to run there with Rikki." My aunt insisted on jogging the two miles to the beach for our morning yoga sessions. I liked to think I was in fairly good shape, but I was not a morning person. Or a jogger, for that matter.

"You got it," Jamie chirped. She wiggled her fingers at me in a little wave before throwing the Malibu back into drive and speeding down the street.

I made my way up the gravel toward Noa's Jeep. The car still ticked with heat, so I figured it couldn't have been parked there for more than a few minutes. I paused in front of his side view mirror to check my reflection, wiping the smudged mascara from under my brown eyes. The dark brown roots of my hair were beginning to show above my golden highlights. I was either going to have to pop into a salon for a touch-up soon or commit to going back to my natural color. I frowned as my gaze fixed on the large, pink pimple currently taking up residence on my chin. If objects really were larger than they appeared, as the little label on the side view mirror claimed, then the bump could probably be seen from space. Yuck. I rifled through my purse in search of my concealer and quickly covered the blemish. Better, I thought, giving my reflection a satisfied smile. I tossed the makeup back in my bag and hurried toward the house.

When I entered the little beach cottage, I was greeted by the sounds of a gentle ukulele melody accompanied by a rich baritone voice. I followed the music toward the open double doors that led to our small backyard. My Aunt Rikki and her new ukulele instructor, Nani Johnson, were seated in white patio chairs on the lanai. Rikki clumsily strummed her instrument, doing her best to keep up with the tempo. Nani smiled and nodded at her encouragingly with each chord change.

Noa was perched opposite them on a wicker lounger. His eyes were closed, and a lazy smile spread over his face as he crooned the words to "I'll Fly Away."

Though I'd known him almost my entire life, I still got butterflies in my stomach whenever I saw Noa Kahele. We'd been best friends for as long as I could remember, though we'd drifted apart for the five years that I'd been married to Bryan. I had moved to Atlanta, while he had set off for Los Angeles to work for a tech startup. When I'd moved home to Aloha Lagoon at the end of June, I had been more than a little surprised to find Noa living on the island again. For the first time in our adult lives, we'd both been single. The only thing that had stood in the way of our romance had been our own insecurities. Of course, it hadn't taken long for our mutual attraction to overpower the doubt. We'd been casually seeing each other for a few weeks now, and I'd never been happier.

Aunt Rikki was the first to notice me standing in the doorway. She looked up from her ukulele, blowing a few loose strands of her black and electric-blue hair out of her face. Her fingers slipped off the fret, causing dissonance in her next chord. She didn't seem to mind.

"Good evening, ku'uipo," she called brightly, resting her uke in her lap. The word meant "sweetheart," and it had been her pet name for me since I was a small child. "How are things at the shop?"

"Everything's great," I told her, stepping onto the lanai to join the trio. "Hi, Nani." I nodded politely to the pretty brunette ukulele instructor and motioned for her to keep going when she paused midsong. "Don't stop on my account. You play so beautifully."

"Thanks." Nani beamed at me. "But we were just wrapping up, anyway. Rikki was showing off her skills to Noa. Your aunt's quite a fast learner."

I grinned. "Can't say I'm surprised." Ever since I'd come on board as the store manager at Happy Hula, Aunt Rikki had cut down her own work hours in order to pursue her passions. The music lessons were just the beginning of her new hobbies. Only twenty years my senior, my forty-seven-year-old aunt had boundless energy. In addition to learning the ukulele, painting, and making her own candles and soap, she'd also taken up salsa dancing. Rikki had briefly expressed an interest in beekeeping, and I was relieved when she'd changed her mind. Just the thought of thousands of the little bugs swarming in our backyard gave me hives.

Noa rose from the lounger and stretched his arms high above his head, giving me a nice view of his rippling biceps. "Hey, Kales," he said, using the nickname he'd called me since grade school. He came to stand next to me as Rikki and Nani put away their instruments. Noa's dark hair, which was nearly as long as mine, hung loose around his shoulders. He pushed it aside as he leaned down to plant a soft kiss on my lips, which sent a jolt of electric current down to my toes. There went those butterflies again.

"Keep practicing your C, F, and G7 chords," Nani instructed Rikki, gripping the handle of her instrument case as she rose from her chair. She said goodbye to Noa and me before my aunt walked her to the front door.

"I hope you're hungry," Noa said, slipping his arm around my waist and guiding me through the house after them. "I've got a craving for pineapple kabobs at Sir Spamalot's."

"Sounds good to me." I followed him toward the driveway, pausing on the front porch to give my aunt a quick peck on the cheek.

Noa held open the Jeep's passenger door for me before walking around to climb into the driver's seat. "Anything exciting happen at work today?" he asked when we were on the road a few minutes later.

"You could say that." I swiveled in my seat to face him. "My friend Emma called from Atlanta. Not only is she getting married the week after next, but she asked me to be her maid of honor. And she and the other bridesmaids are flying here next Thursday for her last-minute bachelorette party."

"Wow, that's great!" Noa took one hand off the wheel and placed it on my shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. "I guess that means I'll be flying solo next weekend."

"Actually, you'll be flying to Atlanta." I chewed my lip, suddenly feeling shy. "That is, if you'd want to be my date to the wedding. Emma asked for your information so that she could book our tickets on their return flight next Sunday morning. She and Dante insist on paying our airfare."

"Oh. Wow." Noa's forehead wrinkled. He released his grip on my shoulder and returned his hand to the wheel. I watched an uncomfortable look stretch across his face. "They don't have to do that."

I frowned. Was it something I said? "What's wrong?" I asked softly. "I mean. I know it's pretty last-minute. If you don't want to go—"

"It's not that," Noa said quickly, though he avoided my gaze. He pulled the Jeep into the small parking lot for Sir Spamalot's, an open-air eatery located directly on the beach. When he looked up at me, his troubled expression had vanished. "It's nothing," he said, smiling. "Really." He leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. "Come on. Let's get some grub—I'm starving." Without another word, he climbed out of the car and started toward the sand.

A knot formed in the pit of my stomach as I followed him. Things between us had been great for the past few weeks. We never fought, and Noa was always so attentive and kind. Still, though we'd been best pals for years, the whole romance thing was very new. Maybe asking him to be my date to a wedding on the other side of the country was crossing into Serious Relationship territory. Does he think we're moving too fast? Given his reaction to my invitation, I couldn't help but wonder.

Don't be ridiculous, I scolded myself. I removed my sandals and padded barefoot through the warm sand. We've been on vacations before as friends. Just think of this as another fun trip together—maybe with some new, steamy perks.

I shoved my worry aside and focused on the positives. I was on a dinner date in paradise with an amazing guy. In just over a week, one of my dearest pals was coming to visit, and she wanted me to help her celebrate the most important day of her life. I felt a rush of happy anticipation as I caught up to Noa, slipping my hand into his. I squeezed his fingers, and he pulled me closer, smiling down at me. Searching his eyes, I found no trace of the uncertainty I'd seen there before.

I grinned back at him. See? Everything is going to be just fine.

To find out what happens next, pre-order your copy of Handbags & Homicide, coming July 31st!

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

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© Anne Marie Stoddard 2017