I felt overdressed the second I stepped off the plane. My simple white dress shirt, teamed with my tailored pale gray suit jacket, and its matching pale gray pencil skirt, had seemed wholly appropriate when I’d boarded the plane. But one second of breathing my beloved island air, and my outfit was all wrong. This was a business trip, so I hadn’t even packed anything appropriate for the paradise of my childhood. I didn’t even own anything like that anymore. The thought was demoralizing.
It wasn’t even a particularly hot day. A cool breeze wafted across my skin as I stepped outside. I shrugged out of my blazer anyway, unbuttoning an almost indecent amount of buttons at the collar of my shirt. But cl**vage didn’t feel wrong here. I was now in a place where my typical wardrobe was usually a very tiny bikini. Had I even packed one of those?
I had resolved to set up meetings as soon as I arrived here, and so had dressed accordingly, but my resolve blew away with the gentle Maui breeze. I took deep breaths, loving the smell of the island air, which was divine, even mixed with jet fumes.
A car was already waiting for me at the curb, and a driver hustled out to take my sparse luggage. I towered over him in my red Jimmy Choo’s. At five eleven, though, I would have towered over him even if I were wearing flats. “Ms. Middleton, how was your flight?” he asked.
I smiled at the familiar driver. He worked for my family’s Maui resort. I quickly recalled his name. “I’m doing well, Thomas. How is island life these days?”
He flashed a grin at me. He was close to my own age of twenty-six, with a slight build and a quick smile. “Still can’t tear myself away from this rock, so good. Bet you miss it.” He gave me a sympathetic look. It was a look reserved for anyone crazy enough to leave this paradise behind for the mainland.
I sighed heavily. “You have no idea,” I told him. My voice betrayed far more of my sorrow than I had intended. I mentally berated myself for being a downer at his crestfallen look.
He opened the car door for me, and I slipped in, sending him a reassuring look. “Sorry. I do miss it here, but it’s not as bad as that.”
He was behind the wheel before he asked, “To the hotel, Ms. Middleton?”
I started to say yes, but my heart took my mouth over suddenly. “To the Kalua shops.”
He looked a little startled, but just nodded and started to drive.
The shops really weren’t far from the hotel, I reassured myself. And I could pick up some island necessities for myself.
I rolled the window down as we drove. The wind quickly messed up my braid, and I pulled loose my wavy, streaky blonde hair in relief. It only hung to my mid-back now. When I had lived in paradise, it had hung all the way to my butt, with some streaks bleached nearly white by the sun. My skin was almost pale now, not sun-kissed, as I liked it. I’d had to grow up when I left paradise, and I looked it nowadays. Years off my beloved rock had taken their toll.
Thomas dropped me off at the Kalua shops with some reluctance. I waved him off, asking him to have my luggage taken to my room at the hotel. I reassured him that I would call him if I needed a ride. I knew that I wouldn’t. One of the Kaluas would give me a ride; I was sure. They were my second family. I spoke to Tutu and Mari every week, in one form or another.
I had a death grip on my large handbag as I entered the surf shop. I wasn’t brave enough to venture into the bar or the café just yet. I was still taking in the changes in the shop when I heard a shrill shriek from behind the counter. I was being hugged by a short, shapely woman in a flash. I hugged her back tightly, feeling unexpected tears prick my eyes. I felt instantly guilty that I had even considered going to the hotel first. Someone had been missing me, after all. I ran a hand down her thick black hair, affectionate with her in a way that I could never be even with my own mother.
“I didn’t think you’d ever come back,” she whispered, pulling back. Her eyes were a brown so dark they looked black. They were lovely and mysterious. She was lovely and mysterious. She was in her mid-forties now, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at her. She was shapely, taking care of her body meticulously, and her face was a golden brown that time hadn’t yet managed to so much as line. Her face was a lovely combination of her mixed Japanese-Hawaiian heritage. Her lips were full, her nose small and pert, her eyes large and almond shaped. She was petite, but by no means slight. Not one part of her was thin, nor was it fat. She was just…shapely, down to her perfect ankles. She wore a half-shirt, and tiny shorts, just like I remembered, and she still worked them better than any twenty-year old I’d ever met. She wore a white plumeria in her hair, as ever.
“We talk every week, Auntie. You can hardly say I don’t keep in touch.”
She just smiled at me, but it was a sad smile. “I know, but it’s not the same. When are you coming back home, Lana?”
I bit my lip, feeling strangely adrift at the question. This was home, but I couldn’t come back. It hurt to even think about it. “Well, I’m here for now. I came for business, but I realized that I didn’t bring anything appropriate outside of work clothes.”
She just smiled, eyeing me up. “Well, you do look kind of hot in that, but yeah, you need to get your island back on. Go say hi to Tutu. I’ve got you covered, pretty girl.”
I gave her a grateful smile, moving to the door that joined Tutu’s café with the surf shop. Mari stopped me with a word. She rushed to me, putting a plumeria in my hair, just over my ear. I fingered it, smiling.
She sighed, as though in great relief, and fingered the identical flower over her own ear. “Much better. Go on.”
I stopped at the door, a sudden thought stopping me. “Is Akira…?”
She just gave me wide eyes. “Last I heard, he was off at some business meeting.”
I sighed in relief. I just wasn’t prepared to see him yet. I nodded and opened the door.
Tutu gave me the same treatment, shrieking like a crazy woman and running to me like she was far younger than her years. She had to be in her sixties by now, I knew.
I hugged her back tightly. She was a tiny woman, her Japanese heritage showing much more strongly in her than her Hawaiian half, both in her body and face. She had pale skin, and pitch-black hair. I fingered it, and we touched the flowers in each other’s hair with warm smiles.
“You’re home,” she breathed.
I took a deep breath, because for some strange reason, I wanted to cry. I was brought out of my moment of weakness by a series of framed photos on the wall of the café. It was set up as a sort of collage of magazine covers and editorial pictures. I laughed at the thoroughness of it. My short, unimpressive modeling career was pretty well represented on that large expanse of wall. Tutu followed my gaze, smiling proudly. “I tell everyone about how you grew up here.”
I shook my head, a little embarrassed. Modeling was something I’d often said I’d never do as a young teen. My mother had been an iconic model of the eighties, and I’d known that, although I took after her looks strongly, I could never match her career. And I hadn’t. The worst part of it was, as short as my modeling career had been, I’d still suspected that every job I ever got was because of who my mother was, and not anything to do with my modeling ‘talent’.
But the pictures on the wall did look nice enough, I supposed. Some of them were high fashion, but even more were bikini shots. I had been a skinny kid, but gotten very voluptuous around the time I’d also gotten awkwardly tall. It made me much more suited to swimsuit modeling, I had quickly found. A lot of designers absolutely despised boobs.
I had only modeled for one memorable year when I was just eighteen, before settling down to get a business degree, and then to work for the family business of owning and running a worldwide hotel chain. But I still got sighted by strangers from the modeling. I supposed I should have been flattered and not so embarrassed about the whole thing. I had apparently left some kind of impression.
“Akira has become well-known for threatening anyone who says anything the slightest bit dirty about those bikini pictures. He threw a fit, at first, when I put them up, but I stood firm. I’m proud of my Lana, I told him. Her unmatched modeling career will not be forgotten by me, I told him!”
I had to laugh at her description of my short career. Even I didn’t dare argue with her about defending me, though. She was a formidable, if tiny, woman. I stroked her hair affectionately. She still hadn’t let go of me, and I didn’t mind.
I stiffened as a familiar figure strode through the doors that adjoined the bar to the café. Tutu patted my back, but finally relinquished her impressively firm hold on me, moving to the woman who had just entered. “What do you need?” she asked the other woman. It was downright rude, for Tutu.
Milena didn’t answer her. Her shocked gaze was glued to mine. She was a tall woman, a few inches shorter than me, but still tall. She had a trim, toned figure, with large, gravity defying br**sts that were shown off to perfection in an island half shirt, ‘Kalua’s Bar’ stretched tight over that ample chest. Her skin was golden and perfect everywhere. She had a mixed heritage as well, though I didn’t know the exact mix. But her genetics were stellar, wherever their origins. Her face was pretty, her pouty mouth positively sinful. I had always wanted to be her. She had everything I wanted. I hated her, as I always had.
I nodded at her politely. “Milena. Long time, no see.” It was the most civil thing I could manage to say to her.
She just huffed, not even trying to return the civility. I really didn’t care. I hated her so much that I would have been a little stung if she didn’t hate me back, at least a little. She didn’t even stay to get whatever she had come for, just leaving with a whispered, “haole,” under her breath.
The word didn’t offend me. Being raised on the island, I had heard it often enough, and long ago become immune to the insult.
“She’s still sweet as ever,” I told Tutu with a forced smile.
She cackled. “I still hate her. Thank god Akira never married the bitch.”
My heart stopped, just stopped, in my chest. I hadn’t known that. No one had told me. Mari and Tutu were always so careful not to mention anything Akira related anymore. Last I had heard, about six years ago they had gotten engaged. I’d asked them not to mention him anymore, after that. Oh, yeah, and I’d cried for an entire week about it, not even getting out of bed. And when I had gotten out of bed, and become a productive human being again, I’d still cried myself to sleep at night for at least a month. But I had slowly made myself get over it. Akira only ever saw you as a little sister, I had told myself. I was the one who had forced the issue, again and again, until I’d ruined everything, and been cast out of paradise. To this day, it was still so painful that, even though I loved Akira with every fiber of my being, I still couldn’t have even a friendship with him. I was too weak, and it just hurt so much.
Tutu smirked, pointing at the collage of my photos. “Milena hates those pictures, if it makes you feel better. She threw a conniption for weeks after I put them up. She wouldn’t even come into the café for a long time. I wish to God that had lasted!”