From award winning criminologist R. Barri Flowers and the bestselling author of Murder at the Pencil Factory and The Sex Slave Murders, comes a powerful new historical true crime short, […]
It was the last day of school before summer break and Lexi Montoya was leaning against her locker facing her boyfriend, Matt Holloway. Next to Lexi was her best friend, Robin Forrester, who was facing her boyfriend, Dirk Watson. Just four months shy of her sixteenth birthday, Lexi hated the thought that instead of spending summer vacation in Seattle, where she lived and had her friends to hang out with, she was being forced by her dad to go visit her mother in Hawaii.
The same mother who had abandoned her nearly a year ago, divorced her dad, and married a man she'd met on the Internet. In Lexi's way of thinking, she was in no hurry to see her mother again—certainly not anytime soon. But her father had other ideas, believing it would be good for her to try to repair the relationship with her mother. Lexi suspected that he had an ulterior motive for sending her packing to Maui. Her dad had a new girlfriend, whom she believed he wanted to spend more time with—minus the presence of a teenage daughter to mess things up.
The notion of being an ocean way from Matt for an entire summer annoyed Lexi. But she had no choice in the matter.
It didn't set well with Matt either. "That sucks!" he complained as she broke the news to him, gazing down at her with deep blue eyes.
"I know, right," Lexi told him, flipping her long brown hair over her shoulder.
"What am I going to do without my best friend?" Robin complained, her forehead creasing above thin brows.
Dirk rolled his eyes. "Are you kidding me? Who wouldn't want to go to Hawaii for an all-expense paid trip to paradise?"
"Uh me," Lexi said. "Especially when my life is right here."
"And it'll be here when you get back," he said. "But going to Maui…wow. Maybe my mom should try to hook up with someone there. My dad probably wouldn't care too much, since she's always complaining that he never pays attention to her anyway."
Robin frowned. "That's not very nice."
Dirk shrugged. "Hey, I'm just saying."
"Maybe I should give you the ticket then," Lexi suggested. "You can go in my place and I'll stay at your house, with my dad totally clueless."
Dirk laughed. "I think Matt would probably have a problem with that."
Matt ran a hand through his thick brown hair. "I'd have more of a problem if she met some surfer dude in Hawaii and decided to kick me to the curb and never come back."
Lexi met his eyes in earnest. "That's not going to happen," she promised. "No surfer dude could ever take your place with me."
"You sure about that?"
"Positive. I'll just be going through the motions and putting up with my mom until the summer ends and then I'm back here where I belong."
That seemed to pacify him. "Cool," he said, grinning, before giving her a kiss.
Lexi was only too happy to kiss him back, loving the feel of his lips on hers. Besides, she wanted the kiss to be enough for both of them to last through the entire summer.
"Get a room," Robin joked.
Blushing, Lexi broke the lip lock. "We'll pick it up later," she promised Matt.
"Sounds good to me," he said.
"I just hope that in between all that fun in the sun you find the time to text your best friend and boyfriend—like every day!" Robin said.
"Definitely," Lexi promised, even though the last thing she expected was much fun while on the island, where she was headed against her wishes.
* * *
That evening, Lexi was packing and wishing she didn't have to, when her father came into her room.
"Can I help with anything?" he asked.
She faced him and frowned. "Yes, you can tell me I can stay home for the summer."
"We've already been through this, Lexi," he said. "You need to spend some time with your mother."
"Why should I?" she challenged him. "She walked out on us."
"I know and I'm not excusing that. But she's still your mother."
"I wish she wasn't!"
Lowell Montoya stepped closer to his daughter, his brow furrowed. "You don't mean that."
"Yes, I do," Lexi insisted, or at least she did on some level. "How can you just pretend what she did to you when she ran off to be with another man is okay?"
"It's not okay," he said. "What she did was unforgivable. Except, at some point, you have to forgive, if not forget, and move on."
"You mean move on to Rebecca?" Lexi shot him a cold stare. "Isn't that really what this is about—shoving me aside so you can pretend I don't exist, just like mom did?"
"No, honey, that's not what this is about. I would never shove you aside for anyone, and I don't think that's what your mother was doing—not intentionally anyway." He paused. "This will always be your home. My relationship with Rebecca has nothing to do with how I feel about you as my only child and someone I love dearly. You've always told me I need to get a life. So now I'm trying to take you up on that and see where it goes."
"Yeah, well I'd like to do the same thing with my relationship with Matt," she said.
"And you will have plenty of time for that," he assured her. "Your mother's not perfect and neither am I. She's reached out to you. Just give her a chance."
Lexi fixed him with teary eyes. "And what if I hate it there?"
"Then you can come home. But I'm pretty sure that, in spite of your beef with your mother and desire to stay in Seattle, there will be plenty of things in Maui to keep you occupied."
"I hope so," Lexi muttered, though all she could really think about at the moment was being forced to face the mother who had turned her back on her.
He wrapped his arms around her and Lexi rested her head against his chest. I know I have to do this, she told herself reluctantly. Otherwise, she might never find out why her parents' marriage failed when she hadn't seen it coming. Or would her mother not even bother to tell her side of the story?
The following morning, Lexi was on the long flight to Maui reading a novel. Or at least she was trying to. She had trouble concentrating, as she found herself thinking about Matt, whom she was already starting to miss. Also weighing on her mind was what to say to her mother. Very little had been said when she just up and left for Hawaii to start a new life, minus her husband and daughter. Lexi wondered how she could get past that now that her mom was hoping to reconnect with this visit.
I can never forgive her for what she did, Lexi thought, even if her dad seemed to have done just that now that someone else had come into his life. But if she was going to get through this summer, she just needed to keep her cool somehow and deal with it until it was time to go back home.
The plane touched down at Kahului Airport right on time. After grabbing her bag, Lexi made her way into the terminal, before spotting the familiar face.
Lexi was approached by her mother, who looked like her, with long brown hair and blue eyes, but was a little taller and a lot tanner. Standing beside her was a tall Hawaiian man in his late thirties with black hair in a short ponytail and a mustache.
"Hello, Lexi," her mother said.
She did not respond while her mom gave her a brief hug.
"This is my husband, Ernesto Estrella."
Lexi gazed up at him as he said, "Aloha, Lexi."
"Hi," she said tonelessly.
"How was your flight?" he asked.
"It was okay."
Joyce Estrella smiled weakly at her daughter. "I'm sure you must be tired and hungry."
"Kind of," she admitted.
"Well, we'll take care of that," her mother said. "Let's go get the rest of your bags and get out of here."
Lexi, still in no mood to be too hospitable, rolled her eyes and said, "Whatever."
When she stepped outside, the warm, muggy air hit her face and Lexi took a moment to survey the surroundings. She saw some palm trees and other Hawaiian scenery. She couldn't believe she was in Hawaii on the island of Maui, which made her the envy of many of her friends. Then she came back down to earth when she remembered she was there under protest.
The drive in Ernesto's Ford Bronco was mostly silent other than a few words by Ernesto, seemingly for effect. That was fine with her. Since she really didn't have anything nice to say, she figured it was best not to say anything.
Soon she saw them pass by the sign to Wailuku, the place in west Maui, located in Maui County, where her mother and Ernesto lived. It was there that Ernesto operated a working ranch. Lexi had seen livestock at the State Fair and zoo, but never on an actual ranch. But she was more interested in going to the beach and swimming while in Hawaii.
They passed by a red-haired girl around Lexi's age, who was riding a horse in a meadow. Lexi felt a little envious, since she had never been on a horse before. Maybe she would get the chance during this trip.
"Welcome to Paradise Ranch," Ernesto announced, as they drove up a winding road and through some gates onto the property.
Once out of the car, Lexi took in the ranch with its rolling hills, grazing horses, goats, ducks, chickens, and more.
Ernesto chuckled. "It's probably not what you're used to back in Seattle."
"No, not quite," she admitted, carrying one of her bags.
"Don't worry," he said, holding her other bags. "You'll feel at home in no time at all."
Lexi wasn't so sure about that, but gave him a tiny smile anyway. It left her when she looked at her mother.
A couple of men walked up to them in full cowboy attire.
"Well, who do have we here?" said the darker skinned lanky one with black hair.
"This is Lexi," Ernesto said, "Joyce's daughter. Yoshito is one of our ranch hands."
"Aloha," he said, tipping his hat.
"And that's Doug, our ranch foreman."
"Howdy," he said with a nod.
"Hi," Lexi told them, noting that the ranch foreman was shorter and older than the other one and had gray hair.
"Why don't we go inside and show you around," Ernesto said.
She nodded at the man who was now her stepfather, something that would take a lot of getting used to.
They headed for the main house, which was surrounded by swaying palm trees. It was huge with lots of windows and a wraparound lanai. Inside, it looked just as spectacular with high ceilings, hardwood floors, and nice furnishings. Lexi noted that the windows in the Great Room had amazing ocean views.
"This is your room," Ernesto said on the second floor, as she followed him and her mother into it.
It was spacious, bright, and had a ceiling fan in motion.
Ernesto put her bags down. "I'll leave you two alone and whip up something to eat," he said, and gave Lexi's mom a kiss on the mouth.
"We'll be down soon," she told him. When they were by themselves, her mother said, "I'm glad you came."
Lexi curled her lip at the corner. "As if I had a choice."
Joyce frowned. "Look, I know you're angry, but I want to try to make it up to you, if you'll let me."
"I don't see how you can," Lexi told her honestly. "You left dad and you left me so you could hook up with a man you met on the Internet."
"It wasn't like that," she said.
"So what was it like, Mom?" Lexi demanded. "What was so wrong with the life you had that you gave it all up for this?"
Joyce sucked in a deep breath. "It's a long story."
Lexi pursed her lips. "Yeah, right. You can't possibly justify what you did. And forcing me to come here won't make up for it."
"Look, whether you like it or not, I'm still your mother."
"No—you stopped being my mother the moment you abandoned me," Lexi retorted.
Joyce sighed. "I'm sorry you feel that way."
"Just leave me alone."
She glared at her mother and watched as she left the room.
Lexi took a moment to calm down, while wondering if she had reacted too strongly without really giving her mother a chance to explain.
How did she expect me to act? Lexi asked herself, having had months for her feelings to fester.
She took out her cell phone and texted her dad, Matt, and Robin to let them know she had arrived safe and sound.
* * *
Lexi sat at a long dining room table eating Hawaiian barbecued chicken, corn on the cob, and pineapple coleslaw. She admitted to herself that it was good, while remaining silent as her mother and Ernesto chatted as if they were one big, happy family.
"So I'm sure you don't know too much about me," her stepfather said.
"Not really," Lexi said, trying to remember the few things her mother had offered to share about the man she had married.
"Well, maybe I can fill in the blanks," he said. "I lost my first wife nine years ago in a tragic accident. Back then, we had both hoped to run this ranch and have a family. Once Gloria was gone, I thought I'd never meet anyone to share my life with again. Then your mother stepped into it and, what do you know, we turned out to be a perfect fit. I couldn't be happier, especially now that I've been given the opportunity to meet her beautiful daughter."
"We're not a family," Lexi blurted out, even if she appreciated the compliment. "You're not my father and she's barely my mother." She shot her mom a cold stare and stood up from the table.
"Sit back down right now, young lady!" Joyce ordered her.
"I need to get some air," Lexi snapped back, and stormed off. She heard her mother say, "I'll talk to her."
Ernesto responded, "Let her go. Give her some time to cool off and adjust."
Lexi didn't know if either was possible. Why had her father made her come here anyway? Did he seriously believe that seeing her mother and another man play house and pretend everything was all right would make it so?
She went outside and saw the red-haired girl she noticed riding earlier approaching the house.
"You must be Lexi," she said. "I'm April Ashbrook. I live next door, even though the houses around here are pretty spread out."
Lexi walked up to her. They were about the same height and slender build. April's hair was long, with bangs and was pulled back into a ponytail. She had aquamarine eyes.
"Hi," Lexi said. "How did you know?"
"Your mom has practically been singing about her daughter coming to spend the summer," April said.
Lexi cocked a brow. "Seriously?"
April smiled. "She and my mom have become good friends since your mother moved in with Ernesto. Joyce talks about you all the time, and how much she misses you. Does that surprise you?"
"Uh, yeah," admitted Lexi. "My mom and I aren't exactly on the best of terms right now."
"Oh." April eyed her. "Want to take a walk with me?"
Since Lexi wasn't eager to go back into the house yet, this was a no brainer. "Okay."
"So you're from Seattle?"
"Cool. I was there once a long time ago, but I can't remember much about it."
"It's a nice place to live," Lexi said, proud to be from the Pacific Northwest.
"That's great," April told her. "Hawaii is pretty nice to call home, too."
Lexi smiled as she thought about all the things Hawaii had to offer. "So how long have you lived in Maui?"
April grinned. "Pretty much my entire life. My dad is a retired member of the U.S. Coast Guard. He was stationed in Maui at Maalaea Harbor just a year after I was born and remained with the Coast Guard until five years ago."
"So he's now a farmer?"
April chuckled. "Actually, he's a rancher, like Ernesto."
"Is there really a difference?" Lexi asked.
"Not always. Farmers mostly cultivate land to produce food. Ranchers raise livestock, like cattle and horses. Some people are ranchers and farmers."
Lexi blushed. "Thanks for the lesson for a city girl."
April smiled. "Anytime." She paused. "So what's with you and your mom, if you don't mind me asking?"
Actually, she did mind, since she barely even knew her. But she also felt comfortable around April, as though they were longtime friends.
"My mom met Ernesto online while she was still married to my dad."
"Ouch!" April made a face. "I can see how that might piss you off."
"Still, there are usually two sides to every story," April said.
"Meaning that maybe she had a good reason for doing what she did."
Lexi frowned. "Hey, my dad never cheated on my mom and he wasn't abusive or like a mass murderer or anything."
April chuckled. "That's good to know—especially on those last two points. Neither was mine. But that didn't stop my parents from separating for a while, before deciding to get back together. It's been cool since then, but it doesn't always work out that way for every married couple."
"Yeah, I suppose you're right," Lexi conceded, and thought about Matt's parents getting a divorce. It had taken him time to accept it, but it seemed like he had. Maybe she should too, since it was pretty obvious her parents weren't ever getting back together. "It still hurts, though," she told April.
"I know," she said. "Maybe now that you'll be spending the summer with your mom, you can get past that."
Lexi nodded thoughtfully, while keeping her options open. "I saw you riding a horse when we drove in."
"Yeah, I love riding horses," April said. "I've been riding since I was nine. Do you ride?"
"Not yet," Lexi admitted. "But I plan to learn."
"It's easy as pie. We should go riding together sometime."
"Cool," Lexi said, though preferring she had a little practice first, so she could keep up without falling on her butt.
"Well, I better get back home," April said. "I have to feed the chickens."
"Wow," Lexi said. "Sounds like fun."
April laughed. "Not really, but I like helping out around the ranch, especially during summer break. You're welcome to join me anytime you want, though I'm guessing that your mom and Ernesto will probably be putting you to work at Paradise Ranch before you know it."
Lexi chuckled uneasily. "Maybe. Right now, I just want to see how things go between me and my mom." And Ernesto too, she thought, realizing he was part of the picture, whether she liked it or not.
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