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Leia Kahale rubbed an aromatic salve of crushed ginger, aloe, and other natural ingredients gently into the deformed hand of the old woman seated in front of her. Hansen's disease was manageable these days, but the scars were not so easily erased. The sight of her grandmother's missing fingers and toes had ceased to make Leia flinch long ago. To her, Ipo Kahale was the most beautiful woman to ever grace Moloka'i's shores.
"That feels much better, Leia," her grandmother said in a hoarse voice. Leprosy had taken her vocal cords as well as her lips and nose, and her words had a flat, toneless quality. "You should have been a doctor."
"My mother agrees with you, Tûtû. I thought you had a pact to always take up different sides of the fence." Leia put the salve down and stood. She was nearly a head taller than her grandmother's five feet, and Tûtû was practically skin and bones. Leia stepped out from under the shade of the coconut tree to test the pulp of the mulberry bark she was fermenting in wooden tubs of seawater. The odor of fermentation had been the most distasteful part of learning the ancient art of making bark cloth, but now she barely noticed the sour tang. She stirred the mess, then eyed the strips of tapa, or kapa as the Hawaiian version was called, she'd laid out for the sun's rays to bleach. They could stand some more time in the strong sunshine.
"Kapa obsesses you," her grandmother observed when Leia joined her on the garden bench again. "I was never so driven."
"I wish I had your talent for the painting of it."
"Already, you're better than I was, keiki, but you try too hard." She nodded toward the pots of fermenting bark. "You're like the unformed cloth, Leia. There is much beauty and power hidden inside you. I grow tired of seeing you shrink back when you should be taking your place in the world. Look forward, keiki, not backward." Ipo put her deformed right hand over Leia's smooth brown one.
"I'm finding my way, Tûtû. I'm finally doing something I love. No more inhaling antiseptic for me." Leia gave her grandmother a coaxing smile. "I love it here--the quiet that's so profound it's almost a sound, the scent of the sea, the strobe of the lighthouse on the point." Kalaupapa, a small peninsula that jutted off the northern coast of Moloka'i, could be reached only by plane, mule, boat, or a long, strenuous hike down the mountain, but Leia liked it that way. She wasn't hiding here at all, not really. "Besides, I'm needed here. The residents are eager to try my natural remedies."
"It's a good place for those of us who don't want to face the stares of curious strangers. But you deserve more than a dying town filled with aging lepers." Her grandmother caressed Leia's hand with gnarled fingers.
"Like what--breathing smog in San Francisco? Besides, you're wise, not old. Old is just a state of mind. When I watch you, I see the young girl inside," Leia said. Today was going to be a good day. There was no sign of the dementia that often rolled in and took her grandmother away from her. Leia touched the tiny scar on her own lip. "I just want to learn more about making kapa from you. I like feeling an important part of this little community."
She turned and looked toward the sea. Her nose twitched as the aroma of the ocean blew in to shore. Smells ministered to her soul--the scent of brine, the rich perfume of the mass of ginger and plumeria outside her clinic, the sharp bite of the ink for the kapa she made. Sometimes she wished she could guide herself through life by scent alone. Her garden had been taken over by her hobby. Lengths of kapa covered the rocks and tree stumps in the yard, and the wooden shelves attached to the back of the building bowed under the weight of supplies.
She stood and stretched. Usually by this time, her friend Pete Kone had arrived with a dozen teenagers to learn the process of making the bark cloth from her. The art had recently been revived in the Hawaiian community, and Leia taught a cultural class to eager young Hawaiians. "Where is everyone? It's nearly eleven, and no one has come in."
"Pete must be running late again." Her grandmother stood and went to the corner of the cottage, where she peered across the street to the beach. "Just look at your sister. Your mother is going to have a fit when she sees her clothes. She'll have sand all through them."
Leia's cat, Hina, entwined herself around her ankles, then nipped at the speckled polish on her toes. Completely black except for a white spot at her throat, Hina was named after a Hawaiian goddess of the moon, and she carried the attitude of her namesake--she thought she ruled the family. She roamed the Kalaupapa Peninsula like a small panther. Leia moved her feet out of temptation's way and picked up the cat. She joined her grandmother at the side of the building.
On the beach, Eva lay on her stomach on the sand with her nose nearly touching a honu, the Hawaiian green sea turtle. Leia watched her sister mimic the turtle's slow blink and neck roll. Twenty-year-old Eva often took Leia's breath away with her sheer beauty. Her blonde hair, bleached almost white by the sun, topped a face that looked at the world through the almond-shaped eyes of Down syndrome.
"I'll get her." Leia stepped around the side of the building and hurried across the hot sand. Hina clutched her shoulder hard enough to hurt. "Time to come in, Eva." She touched her sister's silky blonde hair. Lost in a world where she was one with the turtle, Eva didn't respond until Leia took her hand. Her lopsided smile radiated a charm that few could resist. Leia didn't even try.
She helped Eva to her feet, then linked arms with her and turned toward the cottage. The noise of a plane's engines overhead rose over the sound of the surf. Leia squinted against the brilliant sunshine. Shading her eyes with her hand, she gazed at the plane. It surged and rose, then fell once more before rising on the wind again. The engine made a laboring sound, sputtered and whined. A plume of smoke trailed from the engines, then a flash of light superimposed itself on Leia's eyes, and she flinched. Eva shrieked and clapped her hands over her eyes. She began to moan.
"It's okay, sweetie," Leia said, patting her arm. Hina yowled, dug her claws into Leia's arm, and shivered. Leia, riveted, watched the plane.
The aircraft began to spiral in a death dance toward the sea. The silver bird separated from a small form that jettisoned from the cockpit. The puff of a parachute and the sight of the lone survivor floating toward the water galvanized Leia into action. She raced to her shop and picked up the phone. Dead again. The phone service in this part of the island was spotty. She stepped outside again and ran toward the boat.
"I'm coming too!" Eva ran after her.
"Stay here," Leia told her sister, but Eva thrust out her chin and clambered aboard the boat. There was no time to argue with her. She started the engine of the Eva II, a twenty-eight-foot Chris-Craft her mother anchored in the bay. Scrambling over the deck, she got Eva into her seat then handed her sister the cat to distract her. She flung herself under the wheel and turned on the engines. Leaving Kalaupapa behind, she opened the throttle to full speed and urged the boat in the direction she'd seen the plane fall.
A sea rescue was always difficult. The reflection of the sun on the water made it hard to see a person in the waves, and she wasn't quite sure where the plane had gone in. A craft might slip under the waves without leaving any wreckage behind as evidence. She stared into the rolling waves. Several times she thought she saw the pilot, but it was only a whitecap bobbing. The Coast Guard might soon appear if there was a boat in the area, but she couldn't count on that.
"Do you see anything, Eva?" Eva could see an ant climbing a monkeypod tree at fifty paces. Her sister had calmed down and was staring across the water.
Eva shook her head. "Did he drown, Leia?" She pushed a wisp of hair from her eyes.
"I hope not." Leia squinted against the glare of sun. A movement caught her attention, and she grabbed a pair of binoculars from where they were stowed in a cabinet. The waves parted, and she caught a glimpse of a face bobbing in the waves. Clad in an orange flight suit and helmet, the man thrashed in the lines of his parachute. He managed to free himself, then ripped off his helmet.
"I see him," Eva said in a singsong voice. She stood and leaned over the side.
"Sit down," Leia said, reaching toward her sister. Eva was leaning over so far that a rogue wave could pull her overboard. With the cat draped around her neck like a shawl, Eva sat on the seat but leaned forward with an eager smile. Leia turned to scan the sea again. Anxiety gnawed at her stomach. She'd lost the pilot in the swells. He had to be close. She cut the engine, and the craft slowed, then slewed to the right. A large swell lifted the boat then dropped it in a trough. A dark head popped up. "There he is." She grabbed the life preserver and heaved it toward the man. "Grab hold!" she shouted.
The pilot turned toward her and moved feebly toward the floating preserver. He looped one arm through the hole, and she began to pull him toward the boat. When he was five feet from the side, Eva screeched.
"It's Bane!" Eva reached over the side toward him.
Leia's pull on the rope slackened at the familiar name, then her gaze traveled to the man in the water. Thick black hair in a military cut framed a Hawaiian face marked by strong bones and a firm, determined chin. The facial hair around his mouth hadn't been there when she'd seen him last, and it gave him the look of a pirate. Exertion had leached some color from his dark complexion, but the eyes above the prominent nose had haunted her sleep for months. The lump that formed in her throat had nothing to do with the danger he was in and everything to do with the threat to her peace of mind he'd caused in the past year.
Bane Oana blinked salt water out of his eyes and flailed in the water. Eva screeched Bane's name again, then Leia found her wits and resumed pulling on the wet rope. Bane helped her by swimming with one hand while hanging on to the life preserver. Within minutes he was alongside the boat. Leia leaned over the side. A wave slapped her in the face, and the warm water soaked her hair. She flinched when he grabbed her wrist but continued to haul him aboard. He collapsed on the deck of the boat.
Eva moved to kneel beside him, but Leia stopped her. "Eva, get my emergency kit," she said, dropping to her knees beside him. "It's in the cabinet." She picked up his hand, and her fingers found the pulse at his wrist. It was too fast, but steady and true. Kind of like the man himself.
He tugged his hand away gently and propped himself on his elbows. "I'm fine. Mind if I borrow your radio? I need to call in the accident." He frowned and glanced around the open water.
Leia pushed him back against the deck. "Just lie still a minute. The plane isn't going anywhere, and neither are you until I check you out." Hina leaped from Eva's shoulders and landed on Bane's chest. He jerked and pushed at the cat, who began to lick his face. Her purr was loud enough for Leia to hear over the boat engine. "She's glad to see you. You're the only one she treats like that."
"How did I get so lucky?" Bane flinched away from Hina's pink tongue. "She's weird all the way around. I know no other cat that will come out on a boat."
"She remembers you," Eva said. She stared at Bane while she twisted a lock of her hair. "Where did you go? I missed you."
Leia busied herself in her first-aid kit so she didn't have to look in Bane's face. How was he going to explain his absence to Eva? Her sister had pestered her with questions since Bane quit coming around. Leia hadn't been able to tell her she'd sent him away with a lie and an attitude that hurt him. Still, the truth would have hurt him more in the end.
"Where did you go?" Eva said again.
Bane cleared his throat, and Leia decided to take pity on him. There would be time for questions later. She plucked Hina from his chest and handed the cat to her sister. "Take care of Hina for me, Eva." She opened Bane's flight suit and slipped the stethoscope inside to listen to his heart. Her finger touched the warm flesh of his chest, and she nearly jerked her hand back. Her cheeks burned, and she avoided his gaze. Her own pulse shot up. The thump-thump of his heartbeat in her ears rattled her.
Checking his reflexes, she finally stood and held out her hand to help him to his feet. "You seem to be okay. Other than smelling like a fish."
"I could have told you that ten minutes ago," he grumbled. He stood but continued to hang on to her hand. His gaze examined every inch of her face. "How have you been, Leia?"
"What are you doing here?" Bane had the power to disrupt her life. Even now, she could almost sense the vibrations around her, a warning that her life was about to change.
"It sounds like you're not glad to see me. I thought when I took this assignment--" He dropped her hand and straightened his shoulders.
She didn't answer. Even Eva seemed to sense the tension between them, because she backed away and began to hum to the cat. Leia pointed. "The radio is over there. You'd better call in your accident."
"If it was an accident. I'd say there's something screwy going on." Bane stalked to the VHP radio and grabbed the mic.
She listened as he called the Coast Guard, who patched him through to his boss. Bane had been with the Coast Guard, and she'd heard he resigned his commission and was doing civilian research as an oceanographer. She hoped he hadn't come here planning a reconciliation, because it wasn't going to happen. It couldn't, no matter how much she might want it.
"The controls just weren't responding, Ron," Bane was saying into the mic. "There was a bang like a small bomb, and the plane wallowed like a whale. We need to recover it and see if it was sabotaged." He listened then nodded. "I'll get right on it." When he hung up the radio, his eyes were shadowed with fatigue. "I don't suppose you've overcome your dislike for cell phones?"
She shook her head. "Nope."
He grinned. "I didn't think so. I need to call Kaia and see if she and her dolphin can come sooner than she planned."
"Yeah, Nani. I've got to recover that plane. I didn't work for months on that equipment to lose it now."
"What are you working on?"
He grinned. "Tony talked me into his pet project. He found a financial backer and roped me into it. So I'm working for his investor, Ron Pimental. He's got a small fleet of research and salvage vessels. I was ready to do something a little different. The thought of seeing you again sweetened the offer."
Tony Romero and Bane had been tight for years. Bane worked at Tony's dive shop before joining the Coast Guard, and the two men were more like brothers than friends. She'd been their younger "sister" until the first time Bane kissed her. She dropped her gaze and began to put her medical kit away. "It doesn't seem your type of job. I never expected you to resign your commission."
"Why? I get to continue mapping the ocean floor, plus I get to dive sunken ships and see the new coral forming. Life doesn't get much better than that."
Life had been better for her before he came back to disrupt it. She looked back at the water half expecting to see his dog's shaggy head. "Where's Ajax? You two are usually joined at the hip."
"He's coming on the ship with Ron."
"Tony has been obsessed with finding that Spanish galleon for years. Who was fool enough to put up good money on this project?"
He grinned. "Your cynicism is showing. I think we have a shot at it. Pimental Salvage has state-of-the-art equipment, and he's got a knack for finding ships. It's a good combo. He should be here in a few hours." He stretched his long legs out in front of him and folded his arms over his chest. "How's your 'ohana?"
"They're good. I was just visiting with Tûtû when I saw your plane go down." She didn't want to make small talk with him. The boat suddenly seemed claustrophobic. "I'm living there now, treating the residents with natural meds."
His dark eyes raked her. "Still hiding?"
"I like it there," she shot back.
"Can we go diving?" Eva asked. "You promised to take me to see the honu." She grabbed her sketch pad from the floor. "I drew a picture of one. See?" She thrust the picture under Bane's nose.
Bane studied the sea turtle picture. "You're really talented, Eva. You should go to art school."
The sea turtle looked exactly like the one Eva had been imitating on shore. Eva had a rare talent that often awed Leia. "Great job, Eva. But Bane is too busy to take you diving."
"He said he's never too busy for me!" Eva protested.
"I did, didn't I?" Bane aimed a challenging look at Leia. "When we go diving is up to your sister, Eva. She could have called me months ago and hasn't."
"And I wasn't going to," she muttered.
She met his gaze. "You can take her diving any time you like. Just name the day." The last thing she wanted to do was chart the dangerous depths with Bane again, but no one dared call her a coward.
"When are you free?"
Bane knew how much she loved diving--they'd spent years exploring the underwater world. Their love of the wonders in the sea had been their first bond. "Who said anything about me? She's the one who wants to go." She knew he wouldn't be taken in by her bluff. She watched out for Eva in all circumstances.
His smile faded, and he examined her face. He let out a huff, and his lips tightened. "How about tomorrow evening, Eva?"
His gaze told Leia she'd won this round, but the war wasn't over. She felt a tingle down to her toe ring. She had to stay out of his way. He'd forget about her soon enough. Sooner than she'd forget him, unfortunately. She loved him enough to make sure she didn't give in to his charms.
His gaze wandered to the dive boat in the distance moving toward shore, and his gaze sharpened. "Hey, I should go see Tony."
"That's not his boat, but I'll take you to Kaunakakai," she blurted before she thought.
Amusement lifted his lips. "I'm game. I can call Kaia from the shop."
She was always a sucker for Bane's smile.