Dragging her feet through the sand, Mari avoided looking at Reese. For once, the sound of the waves didn’t relax her. Was she really going to tell him the truth about Tyler? The truth she hadn’t told anyone and barely acknowledged herself? Was it even the right thing to do? Was she judging Tyler too harshly? Was she about to give criminals the advantage and potentially the help they needed to get away with crimes?
She wished she could talk to Julia and Leilani first, but even that had grown complicated because they didn’t know the entire truth. Reese knew something was on her mind and yet he hadn’t pressed once since they started their walk along the beach. He just walked alongside her. Steady. Present.
Unable to stall any longer, she broke the silence. “I need to tell you something. You’re going to be mad. I’m sorry, so please try to remember that after I tell you.”
A smooth mask slid into place, removing all traces of the friendly Reese she’d come to know. Mari mourned the loss even as she told herself she needed to get used to it. Things would never be the same after this.
“I’m listening,” he said.
She inhaled deeply and blurted out the words, “Tyler knows who Blake is.”
Reese straightened as his eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
“He was only on the island to find a way to get closer to Blake to investigate him.”
Blank Reese was gone. In his place was a hard man she never wanted to cross.
“Start from the beginning. How did you meet Tyler?”
“He was at my welcome home party and showed up at the shop the next day asking to go hiking with me sometime. Things just developed from there. I caught him on my laptop one night. It wasn’t a big deal except he was clearly trying to hide he’d been on it and my phone. I confronted him and that’s when he told me about Blake.”
“That’s when you asked Raoul about him?”
“A couple of days later, yes.”
“What is he investigating?”
“He told me that he suspected Blake was involved with trafficking and it’s his job to find out.”
“Did he say who he works for?”
“No, he wouldn’t tell me that.”
“What have you told him? And now is not the time to hold anything back, Marielle. I need to know everything you’ve told him, everything he knows.”
Mari scrubbed a hand over her face as she tried to recall all of the conversations she’d had with Tyler. Being on the other end of Reese’s cold demeanor was harder than she thought it would be.
“He knows Gage is Blake’s brother. He knew that before you guys ever came. He said that was his confirmation that Blake was my dad, because Gage came around after we started dating.”
“He knew when Blake was coming. He wasn’t expecting you. He asked questions. I figured you were his bodyguard the first day, but I just told Tyler you two had been friends for a long time. He probably guessed it was more than that, but I never confirmed.”
“Keep going. I need you to think. Anything you might have told him, no matter how small it seems.”
She scratched the back of her head. There were so many conversations, so many questions Tyler asked.
“I told him when Blake was leaving. That Gage was leaving with him. He knew that you were staying to keep an eye on me. I told him a few days, didn’t say exactly how long. He wanted to know when Blake was coming back or when I might be going to visit him, but I just told him we hadn’t talked about that. He told me they were just monitoring Blake and he would let me know if anything major changed.”
“Anything else that stands out?”
“No…well…there was a group with a particular guy Tyler was pretty tense about. His name was Damon. He made me nervous when he showed up so I had Keon do the tour with me, but Tyler had stopped by. He was adamant Keon go with me, even before he knew I had already asked him to. It wasn’t really anything either of them said, but their interaction felt tense. Tyler said it was jealousy but…” She trailed off with a shrug.
“Give me a description.”
“Tall, broad shoulders, solid and kind of bulky build. His hair was a light brown, his skin a darker brown. It was a while ago, so it’s not exactly fresh. Brown eyes too, I think.”
“How did he pay?”
“Any chance he’s on tape from the shop?”
She shook her head. “It was too long ago now.”
“Nothing else?” he pushed.
“No. I didn’t really have much to tell and what I did have, I…I didn’t tell him a lot…It didn’t feel right, but it didn’t feel wrong. Until it did.”
“You didn’t know who to trust,” Reese finished for her. “So what changed? Why tell me this now?”
The sand became fascinating. “I started getting to know Blake…and you…Tyler’s lied before. He said he was going home to spend time with the man who raised him, but when he called today he asked about Blake and said he couldn’t just put work on hold. It made me…nervous.”
“We’re going back to the house,” he said simply and turned in that direction. “You need to act like everything is normal when we get there. Don’t talk about this conversation.”
Her brow wrinkled as her shoulders slumped, but she didn’t argue. She was busy wondering how much the truth was going to cost her.
She glanced over her shoulder at Reese who stood in the doorway to the living room. Julia and Leilani were coming over to hear all about how her visit had gone with her father. The moment she’d texted them her father was gone, they’d arranged for the girls’ night. It was as much about seeing how she was doing as it was curiosity about the man they’d never met.
“They will be tonight. It’s been a few days.”
“Be careful about what you share tonight.”
She turned back to her laptop where she was reviewing the schedule for the next week of tours. “I don’t know enough to share anything threatening, so that should make it easy.”
He didn’t say anything else, so she reluctantly turned her head again.
“That’s for your safety as much as it is his.”
She sighed. “I hear you.”
“Good. I’ll be with your uncle. Lock the door when I leave and after they get here.”
She nodded because they’d already covered how the night was supposed to go. Setting aside the laptop, she followed him to the door and locked it behind him. She hadn’t figured out exactly how much she was going to share with her best friends, but Reese agreeing to give them some time alone gave her some freedom.
Ten minutes before they were supposed to show, she heard banging on the door. Laughing, she closed the laptop and set it on the table before answering the door. Leilani drove her back through the doorway with the force of her hug.
Mari laughed harder as Julia followed them inside with bags from Joe’s in hand.
“It’s only been a few days.”
“A few days too long!” Leilani countered immediately.
“I missed you guys too. Man, that smells delicious.”
“You’re absolutely right,” Leilani agreed with a huge grin as they moved toward the table. “Let’s hurry up and load up on food goodness. Then we’ll be ready to hit you with all of the questions.”
It took longer than the girls wanted to get the food unpacked and pile their plates because it was Joe’s. Everyone’s eyes were too big for their stomachs when it came to Joe’s. They finally moved to the living room to get settled, though. Leilani folded her legs up on the couch, balancing her plate on her leg as she leaned forward.
“Okay. Now tell us everything.”
“I don’t even know where to start,” Mari admitted.
“Umm, I don’t know. Maybe the beginning?”
Julia grinned around the bite of her food. “I have to agree with her on this one.”
Mari took her time dipping her calamari in sauce. “So. He came. Obviously.”
“Janey said she saw you on the beach with a man she’d never seen before,” Julia noted. “I assumed then that was him.”
“It was. He showed up and honestly, I had no clue what to say when he did. He knows how I feel about the beach, the water. He suggested we head out there and, somehow, that made it easier. We talked.” Mari cupped the sides of her neck and let her head drop back. “What I share with you can’t leave us. You can’t talk to your parents about it, Keon, nobody. You can’t go trying to do any research on your own.” She looked pointedly at Julia. “I’m calling for sister silence on this one.”
Julia laid her fork on her plate and Leilani lost her playful expression. They looked at each other. Only twice before had they invoked the “sister silence” they’d created when they were children. Never had it been Mari to ask for it.
“He’s been gone your whole life,” Julia said slowly. “We talked and we figured that probably meant there was a pretty serious story, so I can’t say we’re surprised.”
“I talk. A lot,” Leilani told them what they both already knew and they laughed. “Sister silence.”
They each pressed two fingers to their lips, drew x’s over their hearts, laid a hand there, and then all linked pinkies before lifting their hands together to touch.
“He wouldn’t tell me the full story, but he’s connected to something that’s dangerous. That’s why he sent my mom away when I was a kid. He wanted us safe. When Mom died, the danger hadn’t gone away and he knew how close I was to Raoul, so he let Raoul raise me. He kept his distance all these years for the same reason.”
“You have no clue what he might be involved in?” Julia asked curiously. “I know you. You would’ve pressed for more.”
She hesitated. She wanted to tell them the truth about Tyler and his suspicions. This was the perfect opportunity and they could give her another perspective. They would second-guess her though, especially her continued involvement with Tyler. She was also afraid of what would happen if Tyler or whoever he worked for found out they knew. The fear made her settle for a modified version of the truth.
“I don’t know what to think. He didn’t give me a lot to go off of, other than when it first started they seemed to think it was going to be temporary. It turned into something permanent.”
“Do you think maybe he was involved in something bad, for like quick cash or something? And then he maybe got trapped?” Leilani asked breathlessly.
Mari shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. That could fit for sure. He seems like a good guy, but isn’t that what everyone says about bad people when they find out they’re bad? ‘He was such a nice guy. He volunteered on the weekends, mowed the neighbor’s grass’? Besides, I had only had two days with him. They were good, but that’s nowhere near long enough to judge a person’s character.”
Julia’s brow wrinkled. “What are the other possibilities? He’s said whatever this is isn’t going to end, right?”
“Basically. Nothing I’ve managed to come up with has been the kind of story you want to put together about your father. That he was fun, sweet, and really seems to care for me didn’t make those thoughts any easier.”
“But the time with him was good?” Leilani asked hopefully.
“It was. I wasn’t sure what to expect. There were definitely some awkward moments, but most of the time was good. He was really interested in getting to know me. He and Raoul got along with no issues. We got to do a few things together.”
Mari’s food grew cold as she shared story after story about the times she had with Blake. Julia and Leilani clutched their stomachs in laughter and more than once Leilani tried to wipe discreetly at her eye. By the time Mari shared the stories Blake told her of her mom, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. All three of them had loved Miranda. Sharing the stories with her best friends about her was like sharing them with sisters.
“Outside of the worry about what he’s involved in, I…I liked him. So even though it’s not likely, I’m really hoping he’s not some horrible criminal and the story is just more complicated than I can put together on my own.”
“That’s good at least. I mean obviously, it’s complicated and it would suck if he turns out to not be a great guy, but at least he’s a good dad.”
Leilani made sense in a complicated way, so Mari nodded.
“So, what happens now?” Julia asked.
“We’re going to stay in touch. Talk on the phone, plan another visit sometime in the future. I guess we’re kinda taking it day by day and slowly getting to know each other.”
“That’s a good plan.”
“Yeah, well I’m going to need help keeping a hold on one day at a time because sometimes I really want to get ahead of myself and freak myself out thinking too hard.”
“That’s what we’re here for.”
Mari stretched her legs out in front of her before she grabbed her plate and pushed out of the chair. “I let my food get cold running my mouth,” she complained.
Julia and Leilani looked down at their plates. Julia blinked in disbelief.
“You always tell a good story, no matter what it’s about. Nobody can distract me from conch fritters. Nobody.”
Mari fist pumped in triumph, making Julia shove her playfully as they returned to the kitchen to warm their food. It felt so good to kick back with her friends and get everything off of her chest over amazing food. She hadn’t realized how much she needed it until that moment.
“Hey, how did Blake like Tyler?” Leilani asked.
Mari chuckled softly. “He had the typical dad response. He put up with him because he had to, but didn’t make much or any effort to get to know him. Granted, I think getting to know me took priority. Still, I think it’s safe to say he wasn’t a big fan but I don’t think he’d be a fan of anyone.”
“Man, Tyler is really striking out,” Leilani said ruefully. “Keon is still not a fan. I kind of thought maybe he would warm to him after a while.”
“At least he’s not as openly rude anymore. He manages not to insult him when Tyler picks me up from the shop.”
“What wonderful progress. Do you like him anymore than you used to?” Leilani asked Julia.
“I don’t dislike him.”
Leilani snorted. Julia ignored her.
“Well, I like seeing you happy,” Leilani told Mari with a smile. “I think we can all admit he helps with that. He watches you, you know? When you guys are together and you’re talking to other people or doing something. He watches you with this little smile on his face that says he likes seeing you be you. I like it.”
A knock on the door drew their attention. Before Mari could even start for the door Leilani was striding from the kitchen.
“We finally get our first girls’ night in forever and somebody has the nerve to knock on the door? It’s probably Tyler. Don’t let my food burn!”
“You can’t just-” She stopped midsentence after yanking the door open. “Umm…hi. Can I help you?”
“It’s not safe to open the door without knowing who’s on the other side. You should be careful. My name is Reese. I’m a friend of Mari’s.”
Mari groaned at the sound of that voice, drawing Julia’s attention.
“A friend of Mari’s?” Leilani echoed in a voice meant to carry. “Why don’t you come inside?”
Seconds later, Leilani appeared with Reese behind her. Her eyes were wide in a silent demand for answers and Julia’s grew just as big when she spotted him. They stared accusingly at Mari. She nibbled at her bottom lip.
“Oh. Yeah. I forgot to mention. Umm, a family friend is in town for a little while. Reese, this is Leilani and Julia. Call her Jules or she’ll abuse me. Lani, Jules, this is Reese.”
They stared at her a moment longer to make sure she knew she would pay for leaving Reese out of her storytelling. They turned back to face him.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Reese,” Leilani said genuinely. “Welcome to Sakina.”
“Thank you,” Reese said with a gracious smile before he focused on Mari. “I take it this isn’t quite winding down yet. Raoul warned me you three could talk all night and never run out of things to say.”
“He wasn’t wrong.”
“You’re welcome to stay,” Leilani offered and jerked to the side when Julia elbowed her.
Reese pretended not to see it although Mari was certain he hadn’t missed it.
“I wouldn’t want to intrude on girl time. I’m sure I’ll have the chance to talk with you before I leave the island.”
Mari checked the time, surprised and yet not that so much of it had passed. It was always like that when they got together.
“Another hour or so?”
“That works. Have a good night, ladies.”
He smiled and let himself back out.
Leilani held her silence for all of three seconds after the door closed. “Who is Mr. Delicious?” she asked in a stage whisper.
“He’s a friend of Blake’s.”
“A same age friend? Because he looks closer to our age. And in case you somehow missed it, he is one fine man. Really fine. Super fine.”
“I’m dating someone, remember?”
She deflated. “Oh. Yeah.” She perked back up immediately. “Wait. You asked for more time. Is he staying here? Mari, Tyler is going to lose his mind!”
“He already did. He got over it.”
“He might have let you think he got over it. It needs repeating. The man is fine. No way is Tyler okay with him staying here.”
“Tell us about him.”
Julia’s prompting shifted the focus away from Tyler.
“He and Blake are really close. He pays attention. To everything and I mean everything. You could probably tell looking at him, but he’s in great shape. He’s got a good sense of humor.”
Mari shrugged and met Julia’s focused stare. She didn’t disappoint, cutting straight to the heart of the matter.
“Your dad is worried. That’s why he’s here.”
“He’s…being cautious. I don’t think he’s truly worried.”
Leilani’s mouth twisted up as she let go of Reese’s looks and the implications of his presence hit her.
“I’ll be telling everyone the same thing I told you guys. He’s a friend of the family visiting for a while. It’s not a lie. There’s just a reason for the visit.”
Leilani sank back into the couch and rubbed at her temple. “Your life has literally turned into a movie. This is crazy.”
“You’ll be careful,” Julia said pointedly. “We all will.”
Mari nodded. It was important for her to tell her friends as much of the truth as she felt was safe, but she didn’t want them to worry either.
“Reese will be around, sticking close. Just try not to embarrass me, please.”
“Hey, I’m never an embarrassment,” Leilani protested.
Julia burst into laughter and dodged Leilani’s swat. The night quickly devolved into amusing stories and endless teases. It was perfect.