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By COLLEEN COBLE
WestBow PressCopyright © 2007 Colleen Coble
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLife had a way of offering up morsels of pleasure when she least expected it. Leilani Tagama held on to the rail of the old truck as it bounced along the perimeter of the coffee grove. The neat rows of trees resembled laurel with their glossy leaves. The sun shone as usual from a blue bowl overhead, with light rain expected this afternoon, again the usual. The slope of Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawai'i boasted a perfect climate for the sweet coffee cherries ripening on the trees.
Her aunt Rina stopped the truck and hopped out. Josie Oliver got out on the other side. Both women still wore the trappings of their glory days-long hair, sandals, and an attitude that could stop an attacking shark. Strands of white streaked Rina's black hair, plaited into a braid that reached her waist. She wore a wild shirt in hot pink and green with a long, flowing pink skirt. Well-worn Birkenstocks let her toes, covered with hot-pink polish, peek out. A beaded headband stretched around her head.
"You get the Sonic Bloom started, Lani. I want to beat feet today and take the afternoon off." Rina opened the back of the truck.
Josie stepped in front of Rina. A big-boned woman with hair more gray than blond, she wore a red aloha shirt and matching bottoms that made her look as if she still had on pajamas. The Birks she wore were the same style as Rina's.
"Let me getthat, Rina," she scolded. "That thing will squash you like a gecko."
"I'm a big girl," Rina protested. She moved out of the way. "You spoil me, Josie."
Lani smiled as she watched the two women. They put her in mind of Laverne and Shirley from the old TV show. Josie hauled out the equipment, then Lani went to flip it on. A high-pitched sound similar to birds chirping began to broadcast. Her aunt strapped a tank to her back and began to spray fertilizer on the coffee trees.
"If I didn't see this with my own eyes, I wouldn't believe it," Lani said. The sound made by the Sonic Bloom caused the stomata in the leaves to open up and take in more nutrients. The coffee beans coming off these trees were huge, fancy grade with a wonderful sweet flavor. In the year Lani had been here, she'd seen the growth first-hand. The yield since Rina had started using the system had doubled.
"We hate pesticides," Rina said. "We were willing to look at any- thing organic." She gave Lani a glance. "I don't know what I would have done without you, Lani."
"I'm thankful for the job." Lani grabbed another tank and joined her aunt and Josie.
"You've got a righteous green thumb. The coffee trees love your touch as much as your orchids do."
This kind of praise soothed Lani's soul like cool aloe vera on a burn. She'd done so few things right in the last few years. "Thanks, Aunt Rina. I made a big sale yesterday. I've been commissioned to design an orchid display for the Home and Garden Show in Kona next year."
Josie clapped her hands. "That's wonderful, Lani! You deserve the recognition that will bring." Her warm glance of approval washed over Lani's face before Josie turned and went back to mixing more natural fertilizer.
"Do you need to cut back on your hours?" Rina asked. A worried frown crouched between her eyes.
Lani's smile faded. Her aunt needed her. "I'll be fine." She clutched her arms. "I'll work on the design in the evenings."
Josie shot a quick glance at Rina. "You'll do no such thing. We can spare you in the mornings. Work on your designs while you're fresh."
Rina nodded, but the frown remained. "Josie is right. We'll manage. You've always wanted to get into landscape design. We won't stand in your way."
Lani shuffled her feet and looked down. Their reassurances only made her feel worse.
Her aunt gave a slow smile. "Joey asked me about you yesterday."
Lani's cheeks flooded with heat. "You don't have to get me wrapped up in an entanglement. I'm not going anywhere."
Rina's frown returned. "Lani, you're being stupid. God doesn't expect you to swear off men."
"Men have been my weakness in the past. I'm trying to start a new life." Her hand crept to her stomach. Men were the least of her sins.
"Such silliness," her aunt huffed. "I believe in God, but your ideas are extreme. You can still have fun."
"Fun is what got me into trouble a year ago," Lani said.
She saw a car approaching fast, dust billowing from the tires. "Looks like Willie."
"I was expecting him," her aunt said in a grim tone. She straightened and put one hand on the small of her back.
The car stopped, and a man with graying hair got out. The grass stains on his khakis matched his green aloha shirt. Lani always thought he looked a bit like a grizzled monk seal-all hanging jowls and wrinkled skin. He strode with purpose across the green lawn.
His scowl darkened when he saw Rina. "You've done it now, Rina. What right do you think you have to keep me from growing what I want on my own property?"
"Maybe I should get the gun," Josie whispered.
Gun? Lani grabbed Josie's arm, latching onto it with tight fingers. "Call the police if he's dangerous," she said softly. "Don't get a gun."
Though the man towered over her tiny form, Rina didn't back down. "If you had your way, there would be no natural coffee trees left on the island. Only those freaks of nature you want to plant."
Willie's sigh eased out, almost too soft to hear, and his gravelly voice softened. So did his gaze. "It's progress, Rina. Look, I don't want to be your enemy. You know how I feel about you-how I've always felt about you. I've tried to explain it to you. I'd think you'd be in favor of trees that produce decaffeinated beans. No chemicals will be needed for that process anymore."
"And how are you going to stop them from cross-pollinating with my trees?" Rina asked. "Look, Willie, I don't have time to argue over this. I'm not pulling the injunction, if that's why you're here. All you care about is making the most bread. You don't care about what's right for the island."
"Bread," he scoffed. "Grow up, Rina, and use today's language. We're not in Taylor Camp anymore."
"You sold out, Willie. You're just like our parents used to be-all hep on seeing how much you can hook from the other guy. No regard for the environment, the natural order of things. I'm disappointed in you."
He flicked a finger toward her feet. "At least I'm not still wearing psychedelic clothing and sandals. I get my water from the tap and not from a distillery."
The curl of his lip didn't seem to bother Rina. She stared him down until his face reddened and he looked away. "Why did I even bother trying to talk with you?" he muttered. "You've always been pigheaded." He stomped back to his car and drove away, gunning the engine hard enough to spit gravel.
"Do you think we can stop him?" Lani asked. "I assume you filed the injunction against him?"
Her aunt nodded. "My lawyer filed it yesterday afternoon. No way is Willie going to plant genetically altered coffee. Ten percent of coffee trees cross-pollinate. In no time, there would be no true Kona coffee left on the island-just some watered-down version without the full flavor of the bean."
"Is there really such a thing as growing beans that don't have caffeine in them?" Lani folded her arms over her chest.
"Unnatural, isn't it? Coffee is meant to have caffeine. I've worked too hard on Kona Kai's reputation as the best organic coffee in the world to let him ruin it."
"There seems to be history between you two, but you've never talked about it."
Rina nodded. "We were at Taylor Camp in the early seventies. He used to be my best friend." Her mouth drooped. "He parted ways with us a few years after the camp burned down."
"He's not good enough for you." Josie's voice pulsed with loyalty. "And he doesn't know you very well if he thought corrupting the natural order of things would be copacetic with you."
The "us" her aunt mentioned must be the others who had helped Rina get the coffee plantation going after her trees started bearing fruit. She and her Taylor Camp friends had reconnected at a reunion a little over a year ago, and Rina hired several of them. The rest were due to come for a vacation and to help with the harvest. It would be a time for them all to get to know each other again, and Lani looked forward to getting to know the people who knew her aunt when she was young.
"Your best friend?" Lani murmured. "Is that all?"
Rina looked away. "I thought he might ask me out when we found one another again. He's not married either. Divorced."
Lani studied her aunt's downcast face. She always seemed so self- sufficient. It had never occurred to Lani that Rina might be lonely. "Can he get around the injunction?" she asked.
"I doubt it. There's an uproar on the entire island about it. Most of the coffee growers are opposed to any kind of genetically engineered coffee trees. Some altered plants are said to be nematode resistant; others are supposed to ripen at the same time. It all sounds fab, but no one knows what the alterations will do to the taste. Kona coffee is the best coffee in the world. The changes may make it funky."
Josie smiled and patted Rina's hand. "Don't worry about it. It will all come together. Let's boogie and get this done."
Clouds obscured the blue sky by the time they finished and put away their equipment. The scent of rain freshened the air, and Lani felt the first drops begin to fall as she settled into the back of the truck for the ride back. Her aunt dropped her off at the Kona Kai Coffee Company building. She waved to the older women and went inside. A large shipment of extra-fancy beans needed to go out today. When she finished, she could call her sister, Annie.
The back room held the heavenly aroma of roasting coffee. Lani sniffed the heavy note. It smelled like one of the darker roasts, double French or espresso. Small bags of roasted coffee lined the shelves. Fallen beans crunched underfoot, releasing even more aroma as she walked through the roasting room.
Pam Aberstrom waved at her from over near the coffee roaster. Lani stepped to the big roaster, a metal contraption that stretched an inch or two taller than her own height of five foot two. Pam moved out of the way, and Lani stopped at the drum. Glancing at the temperature gauges, she pulled on the small round cylinder to examine a sample of the roast. She smiled at the dark, rich brown color. "Double French?" she guessed. A typical roast took about twelve minutes, and the darker ones went a little longer and had to be watched. Inattention could ruin a batch in seconds.
Pam nodded. "It's almost done. I was getting ready to dump it." About fifty-five, she'd been with Rina since the beginning-another Taylor Camp friend. A bandana kept her curly red hair off her face, and she wore shorts and a T-shirt to stay cool in the hot roasting room.
Lani didn't know her well. Pam kept to herself, did her job, and went home. Lani thought the other woman resented her being hired as a supervisor when Pam had been there longer, though Pam had never been insubordinate. "Good job," Lani said, moving on to the packing room.
Several Filipinos filled burlap bags with the dark roast that had to go out today. Looking at the sacks piled by the shipping bay, Lani smiled. The order would be shipped out on time.
Joey, the shipping room supervisor, wiped his broad face with a bandana, then stuffed it back in his pocket. "It's finished," he said. "We're cutting out now."
Thanks to her aunt's remarks, Lani found it impossible to even look him in the face. "That was fast," she said. "I didn't think you'd be done till midday."
"Um, I was wondering if you'd want to go see a movie sometime," he asked.
What defect in her character made her flush with pleasure that he found her attractive? Something inside made her feel better about herself when men fell all over her. Maybe she would always have to fight the urge to seek male admiration.
"Sorry, Joey, I'm not ready for a relationship."
He sniffed. "I'm not talking about a relationship. From what I hear, you just like to have a good time."
Heat scorched her cheeks, but she felt cold inside. She could blame no one but herself for her poor reputation. "I'm a different person now. I'm a Christian."
He stiffened, giving her a long look before turning away. "Yeah, right."
She was sure her face was beet red. Would the shame never leave her? Maybe she should move away, go where people didn't know her. Her eyes burned, and she turned away from him and walked toward the shelves of coffee. As she left him behind, she gave a slow shake of her head. No, she wouldn't run. Someday everyone would see that she'd changed. She wasn't the good-time girl anymore. And she had a new future, one spent with the beauty of flowers.
Stepping to the stack of burlap sacks, she lifted a bag and inspected it. Fancy-grade beans, large and perfectly formed, were inside. Though she normally didn't inspect further than that, she couldn't resist digging her fingers into the rich, dark beans. The handful of beans she brought to the surface were complete perfection-
Blue? Intermingled with the perfect coffee beans lay a blue object larger than her hand. She glanced behind her, but the workers had dispersed. She walked to the window and examined the odd item. When the sun hit it, she realized she held a piece of blue coral, a richer color than she'd ever seen. Exquisitely beautiful-and illegal. Blue coral was rare, and trading it was forbidden.
Who would hide illegal coral in the beans? And why? Someone was taking advantage of Rina's trust. Maybe Pam or Joey.
"What are you doing?"
Lani whirled to see Pam standing in the doorway. "Do you know anything about this?" Lani asked, holding up the coral.
Pam moved to Lani's side and stared down at the coral in her hands. "Where did you find it?"
"In this bag of coffee. It's coral." Pam bit her lip and avoided Lani's gaze. "Who's behind this, Pam?"
Pam backed away. "Don't ask me. I need to get to work."
Lani's stomach muscles tightened. Pam knew something. "How could you betray my aunt like this?"
Pam opened her mouth, then her gaze shot over Lani's head, and her eyes widened. "No!" she shouted.
Lani jumped at the sound of a car backfiring. At least that's what she thought she heard until she saw Pam slump to the ground, a red stain flowering on her T-shirt. Something whizzed by Lani's head, and she realized bullets flew around her. She ducked and scrabbled for cover behind the stack of coffee bags. Peering over a bag, she saw a face over the top of a rifle. The eyes mesmerized her. They locked gazes, then something stung her head, and she fell into the pool of the eyes' darkness.
Blackness pressed in on Lani, pushing against her head, her throat. Why didn't someone turn on the light? A vicious pain pounded at her temple, and the back of her head ached. A scream built in her throat, filling her mouth and nearly suffocating her with the need to let it out. In spite of every attempt to hold it back, a whimper escaped her lips.
A whisper of movement, the light breeze of someone nearby impressed itself on her senses. The voice seemed familiar. Lani touched her eyes and found them unbandaged. "Can you turn on the light?" She heard the squeak of shoes on the tile floor and the rattle of a tray. She rolled onto her side.
"You're awake. Good morning, Lani. I'm Dr. Cooper."
The man's deep voice penetrated the cocoon around her. "Where am I? Please turn on the light."
His cool hands, smelling faintly of antiseptic and soap, touched her face. "Can you tell me how many fingers I have up?"
She batted at his hand. "Turn on the light! No one can see any- thing. What time is it?" She tried to remember what had happened. Pam. She'd been there. "Where's Pam?"
"Calm down, Lani." Her aunt's voice came through the darkness. "You're going to be okay."
"Aunt Rina?" The scent of coffee blossoms-her aunt's signature perfume, a sweet fragrance that smelled much like jasmine-floated up her nose.
"Do you want to sit up?" Her aunt slipped a small hand behind Lani's back.
Lani struggled to a sitting position. "Why won't you turn on the lights?" Her questing hand touched her aunt's face. Rina caught it and pressed it to her cheek.
The doctor cleared his throat. "The lights are on, Lani. What happened?"
A blanket as suffocating as the darkness covered her memory. How did she end up here? The last thing she remembered was heading into the coffee building to check the shipment. "I don't remember," she said. She felt her aunt inhale sharply. And why were they lying to her? Did they think she couldn't tell the lights were off? What was going on? "What happened?"
"Someone shot Pam, I'm afraid."
"She's going to be all right, isn't she?" The silence echoed around her. "She's okay, right? Aunt Rina?"
Excerpted from Midnight Sea by COLLEEN COBLE Copyright © 2007 by Colleen Coble. Excerpted by permission.
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