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An explosion shattered the peaceful serenity of the Maui countryside. Unseen projectiles ripped through palm trees, mangling fronds and scattering birds from their nests. Dirt and smoke filled the sky, momentarily blocking out the sun.
The sudden impact of something weighty rammed into Kiki Brill's back, cutting off her scream. She plummeted forward onto the hard-packed earth, scraping her knees and elbows.
Heaviness smothered her, trapping her flat against the ground and knocking the breath from her lungs in a whoosh.
Panic shot through her brain in a fireworks display of red and white. She struggled against the bulky weight, clawing at the dirt, trying to breathe, to gain some leverage to get out from beneath whatever had landed on her.
Desperation labored in her lungs. The stench of fertilizer overwhelmed her senses.
"Hey, watch it!" a male voice close to her ear shouted.
Fresh panic tore a path through her mind and pumped adrenaline in her veins. She twisted and bucked, needing to free herself of the man atop her.
A momentary easing of the man's weight renewed her efforts. She kicked and pushed, managing to scramble away.
She jumped to her feet ready to bolt, but as her gaze landed on the man, her heart stalled and cemented her to the spot. What?
Ryan McClain, his richly made business suit covered in dirt and fertilizer, sat on his backside on the path leading to the greenhouse. Muck caked his dark hair and his turbulent, mocha-colored eyes stared at her with a mixture of panic and bewilderment.
She forced a breath in and coughed, spitting out dusty gunk that matched the floating bits in the air.
Her mind tried to make sense ofwhat had happened. Something had exploded. Ryan McClain was sitting at her feet. Innately she knew he'd used his body to shield her, protecting her from the blast.
Fear gripped her in a tight vise. Tutu?
Her gaze jerked to the main house, just past the greenhouse where she'd been headed. The thatched roof and clapboard-sided structure still stood, looking undamaged.
"Tutu!" she yelled anyway, and ran for the front door, aware of Ryan vaulting to his feet and running behind her.
Grandmother Kaapa stood on the porch, her dark eyes wide with panic, but otherwise she seemed unhurt. Even at barely five feet tall, Lana Kaapa had a commanding presence.
Lana's long, dark, gray-streaked hair was gathered into a loose bun, and a hibiscus blossom rested at her ear. Her blue-and-white floral housedress reached her ankles and revealed the ballerina-style slippers Kiki had brought her from Philadelphia.
Kiki launched herself into her grandmother's arms.
"You're okay?" Kiki gasped, panting in terror.
"Yes, dear." Tutu pulled Kiki back to inspect her. Tears gathered in her eyes. "Are you hurt?"
Kiki shook her head as relief spread through her system, but the panic and fear wouldn't release their grip. "What happened?"
Tutu shook her head, anxiety clouding her eyes. "I don't know. I was resting and I heard a loud bang. I came out to see this." She gestured with her hand toward the small grassy yard and beyond to the crops of plant life, which stretched to the cliffs that kept the Kaapa Flower farm in business.
Kiki turned to look and sucked in a sharp breath. A dark layer of grime coated everythingthe swaying Tahitian ginger plants, the various colored proteas, the sunny cup of gold blossoms and all the other plants. Even the porch was dusted with gunk.
She could feel the filth on her own skin through the cotton of her T-shirt and her green board shorts. Could see it floating in the air.
Then her gaze landed on Ryan at the foot of the stairs, his expression concerned as he stared back at her. The memory of what he'd done hit her smack in the middle. He'd used his body to shield her from the explosion.
Kiki turned to her grandmother. "Call the police, please, Tutu."
Looking dazed with worry, Tutu nodded and headed back inside.
Facing Ryan, Kiki said, "Thank you." She suddenly felt self-conscious as she descended the porch steps. She could only assume she looked as filthy as he did. His navy pinstriped suit was ruined and his once-shiny black shoes would need more than just a polish. "Do you know what happened?"
His troubled brown gaze met hers. "I just got here. Saw you, headed over to talk to you, and as I closed in something went ka-boom."
Something? Her gaze searched for the origin of the explosion. She walked down the path toward where the company trucks were parked. "My fertilizer truck!"
Ryan joined her on the path. "It was your fertilizer truck. I'd say that's what we have all over us."
Slanting him a sideways glance, her lip curled upward. "You think?"
He grinned. That same drop-dead grin that he'd used on her the first time he'd come to the flower farm five months ago to try to buy her out. Only now that smile held more charm and appeal, even coated with flecks of dirt.
He'd protected her, putting his own life in jeopardy.
Her heart did a double Dutch jump. But then a thought occurred to her. She narrowed her gaze. Had he blown up her truck? Distrust wound itself around her in a choking grip.
The squeal of sirens filled the air, distracting her. Two police cars sped up the dirt drive that ran alongside the fenced-in crop of indigenous and exotic flowers, a cloud of dust billowing in their wake.
She turned on her bare heel and walked back toward to the front yard. Tutu was already waiting to greet the officers. Two men stepped out of each car.
"The explosion came from the fertilizer truck," Kiki yelled and pointed the way.
While three of the officers headed in the direction of the smoldering remains of the fertilizer truck, one man came straight to Tutu. Nikolao Abiko, Kiki's kalabash-cousin, the Hawaiian term for close as a cousin but not by blood.
Tall, handsome and very much Hawaiian, Nikolao had been around Kiki her whole life. Seeing him here in an official capacity in his navy uniform with its yellow patches didn't feel right, wasn't normal.
But nothing about this day was normal.
She swung around to tell Ryan he should go and rammed smack into him. His warm breath fanned over her cheek.
"Hey." She gestured with her hands. "Have you never heard of personal space?"
His dark eyes flashed with humor as he stepped back. "Sorry. Didn't mean to intrude inside your bubble."
She approached Tutu and Nik in the driveway with Ryan on her heels.
Surprise and recognition showed in Tutu's eyes. "Ryan McClain, I thought that was you. By the looks of it, you've been here for a while."
Ryan smiled wryly. "Yes. For a bit."
Ryan took Tutu's fragile hand. Even after years of sun and despite her own natural darker Hawaiian skin tone, the blue veins beneath her thinning skin could be seen.
He brought her hand to his mouth and placed a kiss on her knuckles. "How are you, Auntie Lana?"
Using the traditional title of Auntie for someone older than one's self showed respect in the Hawaiian culture. Kiki was impressed, even though she didn't want to be. He at least hadn't come to the island thumbing his nose at their customs.
Kiki rolled her eyes as her grandmother's smile widened.
"Gotta love a man with classy manners," Tutu commented, her worried dark eyes showing appreciation.
Kiki would give him the manners, but his charm could only be calculated and didn't fool her for a moment. No man that suave could be sincere.
Tutu made the introduction to Nik. "Ryan McClain, this is Officer Nik Abiko."
As Ryan's gaze turned to Nik, the charm receded, and in its place was a shrewder look that matched the one in Nik's eyes. "Officer." Ryan put out his hand.
The men shook hands. "McClain. I have to ask what you are doing here," Nik said.
"Mr. McClain was just leaving," Kiki interjected. No way did she want Ryan to explain the purpose of his visit with Tutu standing there, because he undoubtedly had come back to take another run at buying their land. And Kiki had no intention of letting her heritage go.
Nik shot Kiki a hard look. "No one leaves until we know how and why the truck blew up."
Knowing there was no way around Ryan answering Nik's questions, Kiki took Lana's hand. "Let's go back inside, Tutu, and let Nik do his job."
Tutu squeezed her hand. "I know why Ryan is here, dear."
Kiki sighed. Of course Tutu knew. Why else would McClain have come back other than to try to buy the farm from them?
Nik arched an eyebrow. "Care to enlighten me?"
"I represent a developer and a group of investors who would like to purchase the land from the Kaapa family," Ryan explained, and handed Nik a business card.
"We are not selling," Kiki stated for everyone to hear, while she stared hard at Ryan, willing him to back off. She didn't want to upset Tutu any further; she'd had enough trauma for one day.
Nik slanted Kiki a glance full of censure as he took the card and stared at it for a moment before pocketing it. "So your visit here is purely business?"
"For the most part. I do hope to present Mrs. Kaapa with a new offer to buy her property, but I also hope to learn to bodysurf," Ryan said, his mocha-colored eyes full of determination.
Kiki groaned inwardly. Great. The sweet-talking charmer was bent on convincing her grandmother to sell. Well, Kiki wouldn't let him.
"Is that your rental parked over there?" Nik asked, drawing Ryan's attention away.
Kiki glanced at the white, or rather the once-white, Mustang convertible parked beneath a tree. She hadn't noticed it before in all the confusion.
"Yes," Ryan confirmed.
Another officer came running up. "Hey, Nik, looks like a homemade pipe bomb."
"Have you called the forensic team?"
"They're on their way," he replied, before heading back to where the other two officers were waiting.
"How long before the explosion did you arrive?" Nik asked, his voice intense.
"Just a few minutes. I'd seen Kiki walking toward the greenhouse. I'd almost caught up to her when the truck blew."
"Did you see anyone else around?"
He shook his head. "No."
"On the highway?"
Ryan's eyebrows drew together in a concerned frown. "I passed a nondescript brown sedan, but I didn't see where the car had come from or get a good look at the driver."
Nik addressed Kiki and her grandmother. "Do either of you know why someone would want to blow up your truck?"
Kiki hated to even think the thought that ran through her head much less say it, but she had to. "I had to lay off ten workers yesterday. And at three today I told everyone else to take the rest of the afternoon off."
Nik's dark eyes were grim. "That might be reason enough. I'll need a list of names and numbers of the laid-off employees. In fact, why don't you give me a list of all the employees. Maybe someone saw something before they left."
Kiki nodded, her gut clenching. She'd tried to make it clear to the employees she'd laid off that the decision had been purely business and not personal. She hadn't wanted to lay anyone off, but the farm wasn't doing as well this season.