© 2009 Catherine Mulvany
From THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF PARANORMAL ROMANCE
Dillon Makua stared glumly at the two empty bottles on the bar in front of him and contemplated the wisdom of ordering another beer. He was scheduled to meet with a new client in a few minutes. And dreading it.
Oh, hell. Reason enough. He rapped on the counter. “Hey, Keoni! How about a Primo over here when you get the time.”
His cousin, Keoni O’Rourke, owner of the Shamrock Bar and Grill, plopped a paper parasol into the Mai Tai he’d just mixed and handed it to a waitress in a green flowered pareu before glancing Dillon’s way. “You sure? That makes three, brah.”
“I can count.”
“Well, excuse the hell out of me.” Keoni set a beer on the counter in front of Dillon. “What’s your problem?”
“My new case.” Or more specifically, his new client.
Keoni raised a questioning eyebrow. “How bad could it be? Wait. Don’t tell you got conned into taking another dog-napping case. Not after the way that schnauzer you rescued chewed up your ankles.”
“No canines involved this time.”
“That’s a plus.” Keoni, the eternal optimist.
Dillon took a healthy pull on his beer. “The minus is, I’m going to be stuck holding the hand of a spoiled little rich girl.”
“Doesn’t sound so bad to me,” Keoni said.
Dillon was about to explain the down side when someone tapped him on the shoulder.
Damn. Dillon swiveled around slowly. The beer hadn’t helped. He still wasn’t ready for this. For her. Noelani Crawford. First girl he’d ever kissed.
Only she wasn’t a girl anymore.
She still had the same long, glossy brown hair, big hazel eyes, and kissable mouth he remembered, but her face was thinner, her cheekbones more defined. As for her body, gone was the coltish teenager. In her place stood a slim, elegant woman with curves in all the right places. Noelani Crawford had been a pretty girl; she was a gorgeous woman.
“Mr. Makua?” A trace of impatience colored her voice, but he couldn’t find even the faintest glimmer of recognition in her expression.
Well, hell. What did he expect? It had been what? Sixteen years? And from her perspective maybe that kiss hadn’t been as earth-shattering as he remembered it. Not to mention, he didn’t look much like his scrawny fourteen-year-old self. And, thanks to Uncle Lopaka and his Gunsmoke obsession, Noelani’d never known his real name. “Hey, Marshal!” Uncle Lopaka would yell. “Saddle a horse for Miss Crawford.” “Hey, Marshal! Clean out the stalls in the east barn.”
“Are you Mr. Makua?” Noelani asked again.
“Yes.” Dillon couldn’t decide which was harder to swallow, the fact she didn’t recognize him or the fact he cared.
She raised an eyebrow. “I’m the spoiled little rich girl, the one who needs her hand held.”
Behind him, Keoni stifled a snort of laughter.
Noelani tilted her chin and narrowed her eyes. “If you don’t want my business, just say so. I can take it elsewhere.”
“Yes, I’d prefer that,” he started to say, then realized it wasn’t true. Noelani had broken his teenaged heart. This might be his chance to find out why. “Sorry if I sounded unprofessional. May I buy you a drink?”
“I’m Dillon,” he added. “Dillon Makua.” He held out his hand and gave her his best lopsided grin, the one that generally scored big points with the ladies.
No reaction. At least not the expected one. Scowling, she ignored his hand. “Yes, and as you’ve no doubt gathered, I’m Noelani Crawford. We need to talk, Mr. Makua. In private,” she added, glancing pointedly at Keoni.
Dillon led her to an empty booth, and she slid in across from him. But even though she was the one who’d insisted that she wanted to talk, Noelani just sat there, staring in silence at the green Formica tabletop.
Virtually everything in the Shamrock was green. Keoni could claim only a miniscule amount of Irish blood, but he liked to consider himself an exiled son of the Emerald Isle. He advertised the Shamrock as “a little corner of Ireland in the heart of Waikiki” and developed a thick brogue every year around St. Patrick’s Day. Fortunately, it was June now, so the “top of the mornings” and “begorrahs” were at a minimum. Unfortunately, the green decor was permanent.
Dillon leaned forward. “Why don’t you tell me what’s bothering you?”
“Maybe this was a mistake.”
Maybe it was, but... “Fill me in, Ms. Crawford. If I don’t think I can help, I’ll say so, and no harm done. Okay?”
Catherine Zeta-Jones. That’s who she sounded like. Looked a little like the actress, too, especially her lips.
“Mr. Makua?” Noelani said, and he realized he’d been staring at her mouth. So maybe he ought to concentrate on her words, not her accent or her kissability potential.
He cleared his throat. “My secretary said you want me to look into your grandmother’s suicide.”
“If it was suicide.”
“But the story made headlines last week. ‘Big Island land owner Cassandra Crawford jumps from a helicopter into Kilauea volcano.’ There were witnesses, and if memory serves, she left a suicide note.”
Noelani frowned. “Someone could have forced her to write it.”
“Why would anyone do that?”
“I don’t know.” She met his gaze again, and damned if his traitorous heart didn’t kick into high gear. “I can’t believe she’d kill herself, though.”
“What’s your grandfather’s take on it?”
“My grandfather was killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor eight months before my father was born.”
“And your grandmother never remarried?” he asked in surprise.
“She was too much in love with my grandfather, kept pictures of him all over the house.”
“So loneliness could have been a factor. Did she have other family nearby?”
“None,” Noelani admitted. “I’m her only living relative, and I’ve been in the U.K. for the past few years. Her parents are long gone, of course, and she only had one sibling, a brother who died in his teens. Even my parents are gone, killed in a car crash when I was five. That’s when I went to live with Grandmother.” She paused before adding, “But to kill herself out of loneliness? That’s absurd. Grandmother had friends. Lots of them.” Noelani’s inability to maintain eye contact told him she wasn’t as convinced as she was trying to sound.
“What is it you want from me?” Dillon asked gently.
Noelani stared at the tabletop. “I need to know the truth. Was it truly suicide or merely an accident? I wonder if maybe she slipped when she leaned out to toss the tears into the crater.”
Tears? “I don’t follow.”
She met his gaze, and his heart kicked into overdrive again. God, how could she not remember?
“You know the Pele legends, right?” she said.
“Sure. Pele’s the temperamental Hawaiian volcano goddess. She likes to shake things up when she’s ticked off—shoot out an ash cloud, spew a lava fountain or two. I don’t understand the reference to tears, though.”
“Pele’s tears are what vulcanologists call fused droplets of volcanic glass.”
“Exactly. Naturally occurring obsidian teardrops. My grandmother started collecting them last year.”
“I thought taking rocks from Pele was a big kapu,” Dillon said.
“Oh, but she wasn’t collecting the tears from Pele; she was collecting them for Pele. Grandmother bought tears wherever she could find them—in souvenir shops, from people who posted ads in the classified section of the paper, even on eBay. I suspect she believed returning them to the volcano would bring her good luck.” Noelani quickly averted her gaze.
Dillon was fairly certain he hadn’t imagined the catch in her voice or the glimmer of unshed tears in her eyes. “Then that’s why she took the helicopter tour? To return the tears to Pele?”
“Yes, she arranged it all beforehand with the pilot. I know she meant to toss the tears into the crater, but I’m not convinced she meant to toss herself in as well.”
“Okay,” Dillon said. “What are you suggesting? That Pele’s responsible for your grandmother’s death?”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Noelani glared. “What sort of superstitious fool do you take me for?”
“I didn’t mean—”
“No.” She waved away his apology, her irritation vanishing as quickly as it had materialized. “I know suicide fits the facts, and I might have reconciled myself to it eventually, but then I got a call from Lily Yamaguchi, my grandmother’s housekeeper. Lily was upset. She said she’d noticed something strange.”
Noelani hesitated. “On the wall of my grandmother’s office at her place on the Big Island is a picture, an enlargement of an old black and white snapshot of my grandfather in his navy uniform. He’s leaning against a palm tree, grinning at the camera. His best friend snapped the photograph the week before the attack on Pearl Harbor.” Noelani glanced up, and Dillon found himself mesmerized by her eyes—so sad, so vulnerable, so lovely. After a moment, she lowered her gaze, focusing in seeming fascination on a set of leprechaun salt and pepper shakers.
“I’m confused,” Dillon said. In more ways than one. “What upset the housekeeper?”
“The picture,” Noelani said. “It...had changed.”
“What do you mean ‘changed’? Was it ripped? Faded? What?”
“No damage.” Noelani stared at her hands. “The change is, my grandmother’s in the photograph now, standing beside my grandfather.”
Silence filled the space between them for an endless moment.
Dillon was the first to speak. “Somebody obviously switched photographs without telling the housekeeper.”
“There’s nothing obvious about it,” Noelani snapped. “With Grandmother gone, no one’s living in the house. It’s kept locked, and Lily’s the only one with a key. No one else has been there.”
No one she knew of.
“Besides, my grandmother wasn’t on Oahu the day that picture was taken. She’d returned to the Big Island—to Hilo—the day before to bail her brother out of jail.”
“So the photo was taken another time,” Dillon said. “Mystery solved.”
“That’s the thing. It’s not a different photograph. It’s the same photograph. The only difference is that my grandmother’s in it now.”
Dillon took a deep breath. He’d seen it before. Grief made people—even sensible, intelligent people—gullible, willing to believe things they’d never accept under ordinary circumstances. “Could the housekeeper be mistaken?”
“That’s what I assumed at first. What other rational explanation is there?” Noelani gave him a troubled look.
“So for the sake of argument, say I’m right. Say the photograph of your grandparents was taken at the same location on a different day. Maybe your grandmother swapped the pictures, but the housekeeper didn’t notice until after your grandmother’s death.”
“If so,” Noelani said, “there should still be some trace of the original photo, but there’s not. Lily went through Grandmother’s photo albums. There’s no sign of it.”
“Then maybe someone tampered with the original.”
“Why would anyone do that?”
He shrugged. “People do all kinds of strange things.”
“But if the picture had been altered, wouldn’t the tampering be fairly easy to spot?”
“Not necessarily,” he said. “Some of the new Photoshop programs can do incredible things. If you’d like, I could have a look at it.”
“Does that mean you’ll take the case?” She extended her right hand across the table.
“I guess it does.” He took her hand in his to seal the deal. A mistake of mammoth proportions. Touching her—even in an impersonal handshake—served as a painful reminder of their past history.
“Thank you.” Noelani smiled.
Common politeness dictated that he should smile back, but all he could think of were those three hundred sixty-five letters he’d written her, one a day for a whole year. She’d never answered a single one. Noelani Crawford was a cold-hearted bitch. He’d accepted that hard truth long ago. Only she didn’t feel like a cold-hearted bitch. Didn’t look like one, either. And that hurt even worse.
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