Mari kicked back in her chair with her punch, taking in the scene around her. The beach was filled with islanders. A bonfire was going in the middle of the crowd. Music, laughter, and chatter mingled with the sounds of the waves crashing along the shore. They never needed an excuse to get together, but they’d done all of this because she called Reese friend. They wanted him to feel welcome. She loved these people and the way they so freely gave love.
Reese had been drawn into far too many conversations to count since they made their way down the sand. She’d left him to his admirers. He entertained them all good-naturedly, but he was never too far from her. He’d just helped Leo toss more wood onto the fire a few minutes ago and now he was striding toward her.
“Are you enjoying yourself?” she asked as she tipped her head back to look up at him.
“I am. You guys know how to throw a party.”
“One of our many, many talents,” she assured, brandishing her coconut drink.
No sooner had he settled in the chair beside her, Keon walked over to them.
“Reese! My man! Here,” Keon offered a coconut drink.
“No. No,” Paul protested joining them. “He’s got to get the authentic experience. Let him carve out his own.”
“Coconut or pineapple?” Raoul asked holding both.
“It’s gotta be a pineapple,” someone else chimed in.
“Pineapple it is,” Reese agreed accepting the pineapple and the knife.
He cut off the top and handed it off. Mari watched the concentration on Reese’s face as he pressed the knife to the inside of the pineapple.
“Is this a good place to start?”
“Don’t cut too far down or too far in,” she corrected gently. “Like this.”
She set her drink down and leaned in closer. Laying her hands over his, she drew the knifepoint closer to the edge of the pineapple. It didn’t take him long to get the hang of it. She grinned as she let go.
“You’ll be a pro before you leave the island.”
He smiled over at her. “There are some pretty good teachers around.”
“Hold it up,” someone encouraged once the pineapple was hollowed out.
“No alcohol, please.”
She knew that request was for her. She started to counter him, encourage him to enjoy the night, but she knew it wouldn’t change his mind. He might be personable, but he was here for a reason. Everything she’d seen from him indicated he wouldn’t take that lightly.
An arm landed around her shoulder. Mari tilted her head back and Tyler filled her vision.
“Hey,” he greeted with a sound kiss on her lips. “It looks like the party is in full swing.”
“They’re in rare form tonight.”
He nodded his head toward the drink she’d picked back up. “It looks like you are too.”
She giggled as he lowered his head to playfully nibble her ear. “Go away, you brute.”
He kissed her ear before he straightened. “How are you enjoying our hospitality, Reese?”
“I’ve never had better,” he said raising his drink with a smile.
“It’s good you got to experience a real party before you leave.”
“Leave?” Paul echoed. “When are you leavin’? I thought I heard you were stickin’ around for a while?”
“No date yet. Mari’s got a good couch and I’m enjoying it here far too much to leave any time soon. I’ve got more pineapple drinks to make,” he assured Paul with a warm smile.
He didn’t even look at Tyler, whose arm squeezed Mari for a moment.
“Tyler! Come help me out, man!” Obi called.
Tyler glanced over his shoulder before looking down at Mari. “Be right back, sweetheart.”
She nodded and sank deeper into her chair. Her eyes closed as she took a long sip from her straw.
“This is the life.”
The music stopped suddenly. Moments later, the sound of soft drumming reached her ears. Chills raced over her skin as the drumming increased. Her eyes shot open as Leilani squeezed through the men and tugged on her arm to get her out of her seat. She hastily passed her drink off to Reese and jumped up.
Julia came up on her other side and the three of them gathered with the rest of the women. She could do the dances in her sleep. It felt like she’d known them since she could first walk. It didn’t matter how many times she did them though. They still filled her with joy and a sense of unity. Her feet moved with ease over the sand as she danced with the women of the island she loved.
Every time she looked for Tyler, he was nearby but in conversation. Reese was never too far away either. More than once, she heard his rich laughter mingle with the beat of the drums. As the women gave way to the men dancing, she looked on in surprised delight while Keon and Kojo’s son drew Reese with them and taught him the dances. It didn’t surprise her to find Reese was a fast learner. He didn’t get every step right, but he seemed completely engaged in the moment. His eyes found her in the crowd. She smiled and raised her drink toward him.
Leilani sighed in appreciation. “He looks like he’s been doing it for half of his life.”
“Are you looking at Reese? Or Keon?” Julia teased as she brought them fresh drinks.
The furious blush that stole over Leilani’s cheeks made Julia and Mari burst into laughter.
“You are far too easy, my friend.”
“Whatever,” Leilani mumbled into her drink. “We were talking about Reese.”
“Were we?” Mari asked.
“Yes! People seem to be taking to him.”
Mari shrugged. “He’s a likable guy.”
“Tyler doesn’t seem to like him half as much,” Julia noted.
“Tyler’s not a fan of any man I haven’t known since I was a kid.”
The girls laughed. The drumming slowed and the music from the speakers began once again. Everyone mingled together and danced then, enjoying the drinks and each other.
Mari and Julia stumbled around the side of the bonfire much later, laughing and holding onto each other as they separated themselves from the crowd where Keon and Leilani were still dancing.
“Did you get a picture?” Mari demanded through her laughter.
“Of course I did! What kind of friend do you think I am?”
Tyler caught them. “Steady there, party girls.”
Mari laughed as she leaned into his chest. “Hey there, Handsome. Where’ve you been?”
“Watching my girl enjoy her evening.”
Julia kissed Mari’s cheek before gently untangling herself and slipping away. Mari sighed and nestled deeper into Tyler’s embrace.
“It’s been a good night.”
“I’m glad you’ve been having a good time.”
“Ready to head home?” Reese asked as he approached from the other side of the fire.
Mari lifted her head.
“I’ve got her.” Tyler protectively tucked Mari into his side. “I don’t want her driving. Why don’t you drive her truck and you can follow us back?”
“I should ride with him. I can’t just leave him,” Mari murmured in protest.
“We’ll be right in front of him. He’ll be fine. Give him your keys.”
Reese wordlessly pulled them from his own pocket, making Tyler frown. “That settles it then. I’m parked up by Laney’s.”
He started in that direction with Mari in tow without waiting for a response.