Please keep in mind some portions of this might change before it's published due to continuining edits.
“I can’t do this,” Jeanie said, sitting in her car.
She slumped over the wheel.
There were people passing by all around outside her vehicle.
She had to move—had to get out. They were all waiting for her, expecting her to . . . what?
Have some words of comfort or sympathy?
After several deep sighs and her hideous dry eyes barely blinking, she stepped out of the car, didn’t bother to lock up and dragged her way to the entrance.
The cool California breeze reminded her of what would never be.
As she trudged her way up to the church doors, his sister assaulted her.
“Oh, God! Jeanie,” Marly cried, wrapping her arms around her.
Jeanie’s numb heart thumped for the first time today, but only enough to get her to drape her arms over the teenager.
“I . . . Are they already inside?” Jeanie managed to whisper.
Marly nodded and Jeanie patted her back then maneuvered out of her sister-in-law’s hold and opened the door.
They stepped in together, Marly wiping away the tears, and Jeanie, most likely looking half dead.
She kept her head down and wandered toward the chapel. Marly mumbled a few things about where they were sitting.
Once inside the main doors, the somber music had Jeanie’s jaw tightening.
The room was filled with aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, work colleagues, and whoever else Kapono knew, or Pono as his friends and family called him.
He was well-liked, and this room bursting at capacity was a testament to that fact.
She hunched over and shuffled over to Pono’s mother, waving her forward.
The second she was within reach she was yanked down to sitting.
“How’re you doing?” his mother, Toloa, asked with her thick Tongan accent.
“I’m . . . Well, I’m ready to do this.” Jeanie shrugged.
She already felt out of place when she realized everyone from his culture was dressed in white.
Stupid, Jeannie. You knew this—and you showed up in black!
She blinked, sniffed and kept her chin tucked to her chest.
“Oh, my!” Toloa gasped.
“Get over here!” her father-in-law, Kueili, said in a loud, chipper voice and greeted a tall man with an olive complexion, standing in the doorway she’d just entered through.
Jeanie’s insides were tied in knots the second she saw him. He always seemed to have that effect on her.
“I’m so glad you invited him.” Toloa leaned into Jeanie’s side.
She had to love her husband’s family—they were always affectionate and personal space didn’t mean much to them.
Why they ever put up with her, she’d never know.
“Stop that horrid music,” Kueili said as he passed by his brother, playing the organ. “Play something happy.”
The music changed right away, and Jeanie couldn’t help but smile.
She remembered what Pono told her about Tongans—everything’s a party, and every party has music and food.
“Issshh,” her mother-in-law hissed, “Kueili—sit down. We need to start soon.”
The woman’s husband smiled and patted the man on the back he was greeting. “C’mon—we’re getting in trouble already,” he told the man standing next to him.
Kueili’s devilish smile made the wrinkles around his eyes so thick, it was hard to see his irises at all.
He led the incredibly good-looking, broad-shouldered man over to his wife. “Mark, you know you can’t get away with not saying hi to my wife. She’ll kill me if I don’t bring you over here to her at once. She’d probably poison my food.” Kueili stuck out his tongue and pretended to grimace.
Toloa stood up and crushed him into a hug.
Mark laughed and hugged her back. “Of course not. I’d never ignore you. The most distinguished lady in the room must be recognized.” He patted her back.
Toloa broke into tears. “It’s so good he had you to look after him for so long . . . So happy you’re here.”
Jeanie stared at them with a blank expression. What must it be like to be so honest about everything?
What must it be like to be so comfortable in her skin to hug people at will like that and actually enjoy it?
She craved affection, but not with just anyone. One. That was all she needed—just one person to have a deep, personal connection with.
Pono was affectionate and cuddly, but she was moody about it. She had to be in the right frame of mind to deal with it.
“Mark, sit here!” Marly said, scooting over and patting the bench’s seat between herself and Jeanie.
Jeanie’s breath caught in her throat and she couldn’t breathe. Her heart raced; her fingers and toes wanted to curl.
He always did this to her. The few times they’d been around him . . . It never went away.
She leaned away from him, hoping it was subtle enough it wouldn’t attract anyone’s attention.
God, please, say no. Sit somewhere else . . .
Jeanie looked away. He was smiling at her with understanding, and she could not handle that. Not right now.
“Thanks, Marly, I appreciate it,” Mark said and took a seat rather close next to Jeanie.
She shifted away from him as much as she could, but there was nowhere to go.
The leader of their church got up and the service started.
Jeanie finally braved breathing again, and right away Mark’s incredible scent hit her—it was a clean, slightly citrus and musky smell with a hint of woodsiness. Reminded her of the crispness of the ocean here.
She’d visit the beach as soon as she was done. Waves always soothed her.
There was no doubt she’d need its calming influence.
Five minutes of that white noise and she’d be ready to face the rest of this day.
Mark lean toward her, “When’d you get in?”
“Uh . . . An hour ago?” Jeanie shrugged once more. It seemed to be all she was presently capable of.
“God, you didn’t even have time to settle in. Where are you staying?”
She paused and cleared her throat as quietly as she could. “Haven’t decided yet.”
“You’re staying with me.”
She began to protest, but Toloa patted her thigh to shush her.
Mark leaned a little closer if that was even possible. “You remember I have a split floor plan, and the second bedroom’s currently vacant. Stay. You won’t even have to see me if you don’t want to.”
She nodded and glanced at him through the corner of her eye.
His smile went from sympathetic to overjoyed.
Her heart raced like she’d just been sprinting around the building.