Five Star Expressions/Gale/Cengage
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When Noelani Beecham discovers she still has feelings for her childhood friend, first crush, and notorious good-timer Dante Kahoa, she wonders how they can operate and diversify Lehua, a jointly inherited Hawaiian flower farm.
To get Lani back to Lehua, Dante has to talk her through her guilt over a tragedy that separated them as teenagers. As friendship catches fire a second time between these longtime friends, they discover that the legendary trio of egg-size gems they thought was a family myth really exists, and a mysterious note writer is willing to use violence as encouragement for them to find and hand over Pele’s Tears.
In between deciphering clues, convincing Dante to help her, and dodging arranged accidents, Lani would really like to see Dante’s tattoo and catch her first green flash in a Hawaiian sunset. As they search for the gems, Dante and Lani learn that an easy friendship can forge itself into an enduring love.
“Where’s Lani and who the hell are you?” Dante Kahoa’s unmistakable voice floated up from the open front door at the foot of the stairs.
Lani twitched when she heard it. It was her second shock in as many minutes, making her eyes widen and her fingers tighten on the paper she held out in front of her with two fingers of her left hand. Two minutes ago she had been peacefully packing stained glass projects in her cottage’s loft. Then she opened an envelope and found this, and now Dante was downstairs.
She tore her horrified gaze away from the paper. Holding it in that way was a useless attempt to distance herself from the pain generated by the words printed on the heavy paper in a fancy font and in blood red ink. She’d found this one, her second, a moment ago in last week’s stack of mail she had carried up to the loft at some point and forgotten. The words were printed larger this time. Two words had been added. This one read “Pele’s Tears—or him.” And printed drops of blood dripped down the page. Her tormentor was getting creative.
Downstairs, her Australian friend Aidan responded in a good-natured way. “She’s somewhere about the place, and the name’s Aidan. No need to ask who you are, mate. Lani told me all about you.”
She felt a little jab of satisfaction that Aidan was holding his own. The ringing strikes of his special hammer against a chisel on her flagstones had ceased just before she’d opened the envelope. She had promised him a beer, which was the reason he was out front now, taking a break and standing squarely in the sights of a blast from her past. She had a suspicious nature where Dante, her childhood friend, was concerned. Was his presence here at this moment merely a coincidence?
She glanced at the note again and common sense kicked in. It was laughable to even think that Dante might have sent it. Notes would be too subtle for him. No, there could be only one reason he was in Maine: to haul her ‘ōkole back to Lehua. Well, he could try.
She dropped the note, resisting the urge to kick it away, squared her shoulders, stood tall, and started down the wide-tread stairs on unsteady legs, still clutching a soft buffing cloth in her right hand. For a moment, she felt ready to take on Dante and the future.
As she descended below the floor level of the loft, her former partner in juvenile crime was revealed to her from scuffed paniolo boots, up a long, muscled body that appeared to go on forever, to a venerable black Stetson. His cowboy look was new to her and it suited him. When she backtracked to his Hawaiian-sky blue eyes and their warm, appreciative stare locked in first on her bare legs then points north, she swayed under the impact and abruptly sat down. Any stair step would do.
Dante Kahoa, tall, broad-shouldered, and with presence to spare, could easily be a member of the old ali‘i, Hawaiian royalty. She had believed it when she was twelve, and she still believed it looking at him now.
“Aloha, Dante. I thought I recognized the voice, or maybe it was just the attitude.” A catch in her voice ruined her shot at nonchalance.
He draped himself bonelessly against the frame of her front door, bisecting the remaining small amount of space with one long arm and one long-fingered hand resting against the opposite side of the opening, effectively keeping Aidan behind him and barred from entering.
“You know them better than anyone, Lani,” he said in that slow, deep, resonant baritone that gave his words power and still gave her chills.
Dante had sprung that voice, clear and firm, on her one day when he was thirteen; there had been no breaking or warbling for him, unlike his poor brother. And that new, intensely male voice had rocked her adolescent world many times.
Now the sound of his voice regressed her to a rapid, embarrassing succession of too personal memories: She had been fourteen and had set a rendezvous with a local bad boy in Lehua’s flower prep shed. She was ten seconds away from turning Noa Takei loose on her bra hooks when Dante and Noa’s brothers walked in on them, in a kind of intervention for Noa. She was collateral damage, in that Dante did his own intervention on her at the same time, away from the others.
She gulped before diving in to drown the memories. “So what brings you to Maine?”
He produced a momentary sneer that would have put Elvis to shame. “You sent for me, so you can skip the innocent part.” The words were packed in ice.
She stilled. She had sent for him? I sent for him? Had he received a note and, just as she had suspected him a minute ago, he had automatically suspected her? Her brain would tie itself into knots, along with her tongue, if she kept up this convoluted train of thought or tried to voice it. Distract by attack, that was the thing to do in any situation involving Dante.
“If you think I sent for you, then you’ve been drinking too much ‘ōkolehao, all by yourself at Lehua,” she said, but her bravado was a little wobbly.
The corners of his wide mouth lifted in a cockeyed grin. “Wondering about my love life already? What makes you think I’m alone at Lehua? And I haven’t touched ti liquor since you and . . . since you got dog sick on it when we were kids.” Pain took a swift journey through his eyes, wiping away the grin.
Her breath hitched. She knew the name that belonged in that pause; she saw the face that should be at Dante’s side right now. Dom. Dante’s gentle twin brother had joined her in trying ‘ōkolehao for the first time one night in one of the high fields. He had also shared her misery and had thrown up beside her. With any memory of Dom came the guilty belief that Pele’s Tears, with her help, had cheated Dominic Kahoa out of his life and had cost Dante his brother.
Dante apparently read her thoughts, nothing new there, and had decided to take the conversation where he wanted it to go. His expression changed and she braced herself. One of his pronouncements was coming, however much she didn’t want to hear it.
His voice, though pitched low, rang out in her small entryway. “You know why I’m here. It’s time to get past whatever is keeping you away from Lehua. It’s time to get your ‘ōkole back home, Noelani Beecham.”
In reaction, she shot to her feet and her fingers clenched within the cloth’s soft folds, reminding her that it was there. She lobbed it across the short distance separating them. It smacked Dante in the middle of his broad chest. He scarcely blinked. Together, they watched gravity peel her embarrassingly ineffectual missile of choice off his shirt, in slow motion, and deposit it at his feet.
“Go home, Dante. I didn’t send for you in any way, shape, or form. And I think it would be better for everyone at Lehua, especially you, if my ‘ōkole stays right here.”
Ignoring the storm warnings gathering on his features, she deliberately studied his battered Stetson, crisp, sedate plaid sport shirt, black jeans halfway into the broken-in stage, and his hard-worn, sensible leather boots that mocked both dudes and urban cowboys.
At first, he stood quietly beneath her cool examination, but he soon retaliated with a sharper scrutiny of her that brought heat to her cheeks. She steeled herself for the fierce battle heading straight for her quiet life. Just as she drew breath, he flanked her.
Disarming as hell, Dante’s lips curved into his familiar, welcoming, gentle smile that meant home to her and made her blink at the little boy peering out from the man’s tawny, even-featured face.
“Aloha, Lani,” he said softly.
And the years instantly fell away, along with her ability to breathe, hauling her back to her first visit to Kauai. She was running stark naked between the fraternal Kahoa twins, four years old to their five, on Lehua’s tiny beach, while Rosemary Kahoa, their grandmother and her godmother, looked on. From that moment, Dante had fascinated her as brown-eyed Dominic never could, and she was forever bound in some mysterious way to this brother with the Italian name and the Hawaiian sky in his eyes.
When she was older, and having come to better know the bearer of the name, she had looked it up in a baby name book, deciding that Dante, “enduring,” had been his parents’ blessing as well as his given name.
And Dante wouldn’t let her abandon Lehua. The image of the man he’d become, standing before her now, blurred when her eyes filled with sudden tears.
“Damn you, Dante,” she whispered.
She was dimly aware that she launched herself toward him off the stairs. He caught her against his broad chest, as smooth and hard as pāhoehoe lava beneath his shirt. With his arms around her, and hers around his neck, she breathed in the familiar scent of him, his aftershave layered with . . . Dante. He effortlessly lifted her off her feet and rocked her from side to side.
“Nice catch,” she murmured after allowing herself a minute to wallow in safe and warm and don’t go there.
She slid down the front of his body onto her feet, an unexpectedly aware journey on her part. She returned his smile, dragged herself away from the memories, and took a step back from the biggest one. A lone coherent thought waded out of her emotion-clogged brain: She couldn’t go back to Lehua—yet it was becoming unbearable for her to stay away any longer.
“Aloha to you too, Dante.”
Aidan watched them from the doorway then edged past, giving them an assessing look out of the corner of his eye.
She felt guilt, regret, and sympathy in equal measures. Her friend had offered his stonemason skills at cost to replace the damaged flagstones in her hallway, a condition of her cottage’s sale. And he had run smack into this. Up until a few minutes ago, she and Aidan had been heading for something more than friendship. That attraction and its potential had crashed and burned the moment she’d seen Dante in her doorway.
When she caught Aidan’s eye, she mentally shook herself. “Where are my manners? Aidan, this is Dante Kahoa.”
“We’ve introduced ourselves, more or less,” Dante replied.
“Yes, I heard.” Her voice tightened. “Aidan, you’ll have to excuse Dante. Where he comes from, he’s kahuna, ali‘i, and all-around dictator wrapped up in one overbearing package. He sometimes forgets himself when he’s out in the real world.”
“It’s the same place you come from, Lani. And you already told Aidan all about me.”
Self-confidence rolled off Dante in waves. The result was that she wanted to slap him stupid. She longed to kick him as well, remembering just in time that her feet were bare and his boots were sturdy. A palpable force in the air made her glance from one male to the other. The two men hadn’t taken their eyes off each other. Understanding came quickly. They had squared off, each silently taking the other’s measure.
“Look at you,” she said in amazement, “like a pair of dogs sizing up each other, standing stiff-legged in my hall.”
“There’s no harm in that, as long as we don’t lift our legs against the woodwork.” Dante grimaced more than grinned and held out a hand to Aidan, who took it with a matching expression. “It’s nothing personal, Aidan, just that Lani and I have important business to discuss. The clock’s ticking on a legal matter.”
“No worries. I’ve work to do,” Aidan replied and continued down the hall, leaving her to her own devices—or, rather, to Dante’s.
She had seen Dante in action many times before, in a watered-down, young adult version, so she was familiar with the mixture of exasperation and awe bubbling inside her now. Rosemary, Dante’s tūtū, grandmother, on one of her visits to Maine had tried to prepare her for this day, warning her that Dante had refined his skills. She’d said her grandson had grown into the kind of man that honest men liked and trusted, without knowing how or why it happened. She’d also said he had matured into the kind of man that women of all ages wanted—women who had no doubts at all about what, exactly, they wanted him for.
Dismayed at Dante’s use of the words “legal matter,” which gave him leverage, disconcerted at how slickly the full-strength, mature Dante had neutralized the other male present and suddenly conscious of her disheveled appearance when Dante, while waiting for her answering move, again let his gaze trail down over her, she mentally put up her hands and surrendered.
“I concede the first round,” she responded, glaring at him. “Come into the kitchen where I can kill you in peace. Besides, I owe Aidan a beer.”
Having dressed early that morning for a long, lonely, hot day of packing up her workshop, she wore khaki shorts that bared quite a length of her legs and a cropped red cotton tee that flashed a modest stretch of midriff below her full bust. Somewhere along that day’s obstacle course, she’d kicked off her “slippahs,” leather sandals in this case rather than flip-flops.
Her curly, wavy hair, which Dante and Dom had told her years ago was the light chestnut color of a hapa wood tiki, was haphazardly pinned to the top of her head with a pair of chopsticks, a trick Rosemary had tried to teach her—and which she apparently hadn’t yet mastered. The chopsticks waged a valiant but unsuccessful campaign to keep her hair from curling onto her cheeks and neck.
Aware of all these things that put her at a distinct disadvantage against the neat, clean, well-groomed, well-covered man behind her, she keenly felt Dante’s head-to-toe appraisal from behind as he followed her down the flagstone hall to the kitchen. By the time they’d traveled the short distance, irritation as well as self-consciousness warmed her cheeks.
She closed the kitchen door behind them then leaned against it. “Know this, Dante. You’ll have to drug me, get me drunk, or knock me out and carry me onto a plane to get me to go with you to Lehua.”
Had he forgotten that it had taken Rosemary’s death to get her back there for even a few hours three months earlier?
“Know this, Lani. I promise you that any and all of those things can be arranged.” He stood beside her scrubbed pine farmhouse table and swiped his hat off his head, every line of his body shouting tension. “Look, you sent for me, forced me come to Maine to get you, and I’m ready to reverse the favor. You are coming home with me.”
She spied a healing gash high on his forehead, sidetracking her thoughts. “So what happened to you? Father, brother, husband, or one of each?”
He touched the three butterfly bandages holding together the edges of the wound at his hairline. “Innocent of all charges. It was a temple dog, actually. I heard a sound out in the garden and went out to see what it was, without turning on the lights. Somebody had moved one of Tutu’s garden statues right out into the middle of the path. I laid myself out like a kālua pig in my own garden.”
In the old days, she would have laughed at the thought of Dante laid out like the pig in the pit at a lū‘au. Now she got chicken skin, the Hawaiian version of goose bumps, all over her body when she thought of the possible connection between the threatening note lying on the floor above their heads and an object moved out into a Hawaiian garden path where Dante would approach it at speed in the dark.
“I stand corrected this time, but the mental picture alone is worth a thousand words,” she replied soberly. Maybe she would tease him more about it later. Right now, she was still surprised he’d shared the embarrassing story with her. “I know! It was probably someone else you kept accusing of sending for you. I did not send for you. How did I send for you?”
He scowled, resembling more than ever a tiki god. “Two words on a plain sheet of paper. No return address but a Portland, Maine, postmark on the envelope.”
She wasn’t fast enough to swallow her gasp. So Dante had received a note and had been set up for an accident. Her first note had been only two words.
Better make sure.
Her throat was so dry now that she nearly croaked the words. “I don’t live in Portland. And these two words were ‘Come fetch?’ ”
He watched her through narrowed eyes. “That’s how I interpreted them. It’s time for you to come home anyway. Are you afraid the Aussie will get lonely? Bring him along if he’s that good.”
His words and insinuating tone, and the immediate heat in her cheeks, swept everything else from her mind. She gaped in open-mouthed surprise and shock but recovered quickly.
“Back off the big brother role, Dante. You have no right to play it. It’s none of your business now who I choose to . . . do whatever with.” Her voice skittered to a halt while she made flapping motions with one hand. “I swear you’re part sheep dog where I’m concerned.”
“Maybe. I herded you away from trouble often enough.”
“I’m familiar with that thought process. You tried it all, did it all, so I didn’t have to.”
Her skin temperature ratcheted up several more degrees under the weight of his knowing look, which was quickly followed by a darkening frown. He sailed the Stetson onto the table.
When he started toward the door she was blocking, and Aidan on the other side, she took a step forward to meet him, pulling open the door behind her. At the same time, and without conscious thought, she reached out and placed her right thumb in the middle of Dante’s chest, on his breastbone.
In their younger days, the trick had worked with both brothers, somehow making them unable to move forward. She had gloried in this tiny bit of physical power she had over them. She suspected that Dante humored her now when he stopped advancing, although he showed great interest in her action.
After staring at her rogue thumb then looking up into his face, she said loudly, “Aidan, Dante is wondering about my love life now. He wants to know if we’re lovers.”
Dante’s face briefly went slack with surprise and shock before a grudging smile tugged up the corners of his full, sculpted lips.
Out of sight, Aidan continued pounding, but a grin played in his voice when he answered. “The thought has crossed my mind once or twice, mate. Any chance of that cold one, luv?”
“I’m getting it,” she answered, bumping the door closed with one hip that was well trained in hula.
She gave Dante a flat-palm pat where her thumb had been and what she hoped was a smug look as she swung away toward the refrigerator to pluck a longneck bottle off the top. They stayed nice and warm up there, just the way Aidan liked his “cold ones.”
Cover Quotes :
“Sharon Garner's knowledge of Hawaii sparkles in this terrific romantic suspense.”
-- Susan Meier, Harlequin Romances
“…combines the best of suspense and romance… the Hawaiian setting and culture enriches the story….”
-- Martha Johnson/Marta Perry, Berkley Books, HQN books
“Put an umbrella in your drink and head for the nearest hammock. Sharon Garner's latest is ideal relaxing reading.”
-- Nancy Martin, Signet and Minotaur author