Year of the Dog serial novel
by Camy Tang
Mari Mutou, a professional dog trainer, is having a bad year.
While renovating her new dog kenneling and training facility, she needs to move in with her disapproving family, who have always made her feel inadequate—according to them, a job requiring her to be covered in dog hair and slobber is an embarrassment to the family. She convinces her ex-boyfriend to take her dog for a few months … but discovers that his brother is the irate security expert whose car she accidentally rear-ended a few weeks earlier.
Ashwin Keitou has enough problems. His aunt has just shown up on his doorstep, expecting to move in with him, and he can’t say no because he owes her everything—after his mother walked out on them, Auntie Nell took in Ashwin and his brother and raised them in a loving Christian home. What’s more, his brother Dusty also needs a place to stay after being kicked out of his apartment—with a dog in tow. And guess who the dog’s owner is?
But then Ashwin gets a request from an old friend, Edytha Guerrero, a private investigator who also runs a day spa on O’ahu’s north shore. A strange bit of “vandalism” at Mari's facility had led her to find a purse belonging to Edytha’s sister—who had disappeared three years ago. Worried that Mari might be in danger, and finding out that security expert Ashwin already knows her, Edytha asks him to covertly keep an eye on the busy young woman.
Ashwin is reluctantly attracted to the lively, easy-going dog trainer. She reminds him too much of his happy-go-lucky mother, whose betrayal had caused him to keep people at a distance. Mari sees past Ashwin’s cold exterior to a man who is loyal to his family, unlike her own mother and sister, who only criticize her career choice.
In the midst of Mari’s disjointed family and Ashwin’s disruptive home, danger begins to circle around them from people who want the past to remain there. Can they shed light on the secrets moving in the shadows?
Chapter Thirteen - "Waimanalo Blues" on Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar
Ashwin entered the dim interior of the coffeeshop in Honolulu, trading the roar of cars from the nearby H1 freeway for the buzz of conversations overlaid by “Waimanalo Blues” played on Hawaiian slack key guitar over the shop speakers. He took off his sunglasses as he went to the counter and ordered a macadamia nut latte with two shots of espresso.
To be honest, he’d been surprised when Yuina had said she would meet him here, since this wasn’t her style of coffeeshop. She favored quieter places like Masa’s Coffee, the small family-owned coffeeshop in Waialua where they’d often gone as kids. This place was hip and trendy, with rave reviews online, but it tended to be crowded all the time, even very early in the morning and very late at night.
There wasn’t a table open, so Ashwin sat at a bar-style chair at the long counter at the front window, but no sooner had he seated himself when Yuina’s fiancee, Boyd, entered the shop, trailed by Yuina.
Ashwin thought this was a simple meeting to discuss her mother’s upcoming appointments and pass over some insurance documents. What was Boyd doing here?
Yuina spotted him before he had a chance to call to her. As she approached him, he noticed that there was a deep furrow between her brows as she looked around the shop.
“I didn’t realize it would be so crowded,” she said rather than greeting him.
“That just proves it’s got good coffee,” Boyd said. He smiled and held out a hand in greeting. “Hi, Ashwin.”
Unlike Yuina, who had the emotional expressiveness of a jizo stone statue, Boyd was much more sociable and friendly. He wasn’t particularly handsome—only an inch or two taller than Yuina, he had curly brown hair and a round face, but his smile made his hazel eyes lighten to green in the right light. However, aside from his superior social skills, Boyd’s logical personality perfectly mirrored Yuina’s.
Ashwin shook his hand, which was firm and confident. “Hi, Boyd. I didn’t know you were going to be joining us.” He glanced at Yuina with eyebrows raised.
“He wanted to come,” Yuina said.
Which answered Ashwin’s question, but didn’t tell him why. “It might be boring for you,” he said to Boyd. “We’re only discussing Auntie Nell.”
Boyd adopted a serious expression. “That’s exactly why I should be included, don’t you think?”
It was true Boyd was Yuina’s fiancee, but he wasn’t her husband yet. Did he really have the right to be involved in decisions involving her mother?
Well, technically, Ashwin was only a nephew and not a son, so perhaps he was being too particular.
“Of course,” Ashwin said. “Why don’t you get your coffees and I’ll try to find us a table?” If it had only been himself and Yuina, they might have made do at this window counter, but not for a three-way conversation.
They left to order, and he was just thinking that they might have to move their meeting to a bench outside when a small party vacated a table near him. He snagged the table and then Yuina and Boyd st down. Ashwin was surprised to see Yuina had opted for an herbal tea blend instead of coffee.
She mumbled something into her cup.
What? He wondered if maybe the barista had snuck a shot of whiskey into her herbal tea. “What did you say?” he asked.
Yuina sipped her tea and grimaced over the edge of the cup. “I said I would kill for a nonfat, no foam, half-caf latte.”
He still had no clue the second time around.
“Now, now,” Boyd said, patting her hand. “It’ll only be for a few months. You want to fit into the wedding dress, right?”
“You’re on a diet?” Ashwin asked in surprise. Since she was a little above average height, when they were growing up, she always complained her jeans size was so much larger than her friends who were under five feet in height, but she wasn’t fat by any means. “Do you not fit in the dress?”
“I haven’t found one yet,” she said.
“So why would you need to go on a diet?”
“She wants to look her best on our wedding day,” Boyd said.
Which annoyed Ashwin, because he had asked Yuina, not Boyd.
She pulled her lips from the edge of the cup. “Never mind. Let’s arrange Mom’s doctor appointments quickly—I have a meeting at work.” She took out a folder of papers. “She has a dentist appointment on Wednesday.”
“I’ll take her.” Ashwin already had the appointment in his calendar in his phone.
“Here’s the new insurance information, so be sure to give this to them.” She passed him the folder. “She also has a hairdresser appointment on Friday.”
“Does your mom really need to go to the hairdresser so often?” Body interjected. “It isn’t as if she has to go to work and see a lot of people.”
“I think Auntie Nell would have a mental breakdown if she had to grow her color out,” Ashwin joked, trying not to let his irritation show. Boyd’s haircut probably cost more than it did to dye Auntie Nell’s roots.
“It’s only once every five weeks,” Yuina said.
“Well, how about a cheaper hairdresser?” Boyd asked. “She still goes to that small salon in Honolulu, right?”
“Auntie Nell’s been going to Marcella for years,” Ashwin said. “They’re good friends by now.”
“She can still be friends if she goes to a different hairdresser.” Boyd gave a tight-lipped smile, trying to appear reasonable.
It didn’t work. Ashwin glared at him. “Auntie Nell is not changing her hairdresser.”
“It would be too upsetting for her to go to a different salon now,” Yuina said, sounding tired. Ashwin wondered if she’d had this conversation with Boyd before. “The last thing I want to do is make our relationship even more strained.”
Which Ashwin thought was a rather clinical way to decide the issue, but it made Boyd back down.
Boyd patted her hand. “Of course. That’s understandable.”
But Ashwin had the sneaking suspicion that Boyd would try to bring it up later if the opportunity presented itself. Well, as long as he didn’t try to argue with Ashwin, he didn’t want to waste more brain cells on it. “On Friday, I have to go to the Big Island for a client, but Dusty can drive her to the appointment.”
Boyd smirked. “Is he going to even remember?”
It annoyed Ashwin, but he couldn’t fire anything back because Boyd was always on time and Dusty was always not. While he felt slightly obligated to defend his brother, he couldn’t invent positive attributes out of thin air.
Before Ashwin could think of a comeback to Boyd’s remark, Yuina said, “That’ll be a long drive for him, from Manoa all the way to Waialua to pick up Mom and then back to Honolulu for the appointment.”
“Oh, uh …” Ashwin found himself a little embarrassed to admit the predicament he found himself in, but there was no use hiding it. “Dusty lost his Manoa apartment.”
Boyd frowned. Yuina asked in surprise, “When?”
“A few days ago. I’m letting him stay with me for the moment.” Ashwin repeated Dusty’s rather vague explanation, and included the fiasco with the dog.
Yuina’s usually expressionless face showed real fear when he described Pepper’s barking. “He’s not going to bite Mom, is he?”
“Dusty said he absolutely won’t. You know that he wouldn’t bring Pepper into the house with Auntie Nell if there was even a small chance she’d be hurt."
Yuina nodded, looking instantly relieved. She and Dusty had their fights while they were all growing up, but she didn’t doubt his care and concern for Auntie Nell.
“Also, from what I’ve seen the last few days, Pepper loves her,” Ashwin added. He’d only observed it during the few times Pepper hadn’t noticed Ashwin, but the dog snuggled up to Auntie Nell like he wanted to curl up in her lap.
Yuina's eyes suddenly narrowed as she stared at Ashwin. She leaned forward to peer at his face. “Ashwin, your nose and eyes look puffy. Are you allergic to the dog? I don’t remember you being allergic to dogs when we were kids.”
“Uh … maybe?" Ashwin hadn’t had allergy symptoms around the clock—he’d sneezed the hardest when Dusty first brought Pepper into the house amidst a cloud of dog hair. Since then, he had a runny nose and watery eyes occasionally when he went into the common rooms in the house, especially the stairs and front foyer.
“This isn’t good for you, Ashwin,” Boyd said. His words should have sounded concerned for him, but to Ashwin’s ear, they sounded critical. "Why didn’t you tell Dusty he couldn’t move in?”
“Because he’s my brother.”
He shrugged. “So?”
Ashwin blinked. That should have been enough. He wanted him to elaborate? “Uh … you don’t throw your brother out into the street.”
“This is like the old proverb about giving a man a fish versus teaching a man to fish.” He leaned forward over the glass bistro table. “If you don’t make Dusty face the consequences of his own irresponsibility, he’ll never learn. He’ll just keep sponging off of you.”
To be honest, this was the first time Dusty had ever really asked Ashwin for anything. After Dusty had moved into his own place, he called Ashwin to say hi every other week (maybe to assure his brother that he hadn’t fallen off a cliff—literally), to invite him to kitesurfing (which Ashwin had accepted once or twice), to ask his opinion on a new scuba tank (no clue there), and to arrange to hang out at a bar after work occasionally (Ashwin usually paid). “Boyd, Dusty rarely asks me for money, and he’s never asked for something like this before.”
His eyebrow shot up while his lids drooped over his eyes. “This isn’t enough? He’s living rent-free.”
“I can’t ask Dusty for rent because Auntie Nell would throw a fit.”
“She’s only your aunt.”
Boyd could say that because his mother’s strongest emotion was a pursed lip. “Boyd, when Auntie Nell is upset, she’s infamous for breaking stereo systems—forget the china, she goes straight at a man’s heart.”
“But isn’t that dog reason enough to toss him out?” Yuina asked. “The animal seems to hate all men except Dusty himself.”
Actually, Pepper might be getting used to Ashwin. The few times Pepper saw him—which was rare since Dusty had been good about keeping the dog in his room—the resultant barking had been a little quieter each day, versus the sharp barks that were like nine-inch-nails in the eardrum.
“And your allergies.” Yuina snapped her cup down on the table. “No one can be expected to live with a dog when they’re allergic to dogs.”
She had a point. He’d lived in a fog for the past few days because he’d taken allergy medicines around the clock, and he shouldn’t have to do that, brother or no brother.
“I can’t kick Dusty out, but I can ask him to get rid of the dog,” Ashwin conceded.
“That’s a start.” Yuina nodded.
“You should give him a deadline for when he has to move out,” Boyd said.
“Just pick an arbitrary day?” He tried to damp down the burbling of unease in his stomach. What reason did he have to get rid of Dusty besides selfishness about his home?
“Why not the wedding day?” Boyd asked.
That wasn’t a bad idea. Ashwin would likely have to house a few out of town guests, and he couldn’t expect them to stay with a dog who looked like he’d happily gnaw on their ears. “I suppose so. Did you two fix a date?”
Yuina sighed heavily.
Well, that answered his question.
“We can’t make a decision on the number of guests.” Boyd pinched his mouth closed, looking a lot like his mother.
“How many are you thinking?” Ashwin asked.
“My parents won’t go below 450 for the guest list,” Boyd said.
Yuina groaned long and low, exactly like the time she’d eaten too many Liliha cream puffs. “And Mom says she has to invite at least 100 more people or she’ll be offending everyone on the North Shore.”
“How many can you afford?” Ashwin asked.
Boyd looked displeased that Ashwin asked such a touchy question, but Yuina answered readily, “We can’t afford more than 500 guests total.”
Ashwin decided to give Yuina a hand. Besides, it would be easier for her to plan it if it were smaller. “Look. I’ll work on Auntie Nell. Boyd, you work on your mother. I’m sure we can get it under 500.”
“Thanks, Ashwin,” Yuina said, looking grateful.
Boyd's finger played with the sleeve around his cup. “Yuina, it would help if your mother could contribute more. Then we could afford more guests.”
Yuina looked faintly irritated. “Why are you bringing this up again? She already told us how much she could contribute.”
He tried to shrug disinterestedly, but Ashwin saw the tension in his jaw. “Ashwin, aren't you in charge of her finances?” Boyd asked him.
“What are you saying?” Ashwin’s irritation made his shoulders itch.
"I’m just saying that she got a lot of money from her husband's life insurance policy, and now that she doesn’t have to pay for housing, she might have more than thinks she needs.”
“Everything she has pays for her medical bills,” Ashwin said curtly. “Unless you’d like her to stop going to the doctor?”
“There, you see?” Yuina said to Boyd.
Ashwin didn’t like lying to Yuina, but he hated discussing Auntie Nell’s money in front of Boyd. The truth was that only a few months after Uncle Ramsey’s death, Auntie Nell’s younger brother, Cosmo, had managed to get his hands on her savings and had gone through most of it, and the remaining was barely enough to keep her from month to month. Ashwin himself paid for her medical bills. Yuina knew about the theft, but not the full extent of how much he’d taken, and Ashwin hadn’t wanted to stress her out—there wasn’t anything they could do about it, and once Auntie Nell moved in with Yuina, her low bank account hadn’t been an issue.
He had been adding to her savings account every month so Auntie Nell would have something in case Ashwin or Yuina died unexpectedly. He didn’t want to have to think about a situation where Dusty alone would have to support Auntie Nell—while his brother loved their aunt, he wouldn’t be able to take care of her and pay for all her medical bills. Ashwin didn’t like to think of Auntie Nell living in distressed circumstances when he could do something about it.
Ashwin also got the impression that Boyd was anticipating having control over Auntie Nell’s money once he and Yuina were married. However, ever since Uncle Ramsey had died, Ashwin had taken care of Auntie Nell's finances—he wouldn’t stop now, not even for his cousin’s future husband.
Boyd’s frustration gleamed in his narrowed eyes, but he wasn’t about to get into a heated discussion here, in a coffeehouse. “Well, we’ll just have to limit the wedding to what we can afford, with my parents’ contribution, of course,” he said.
His pointed words didn’t wound Ashwin, but it made him want to stab back. Except a man didn’t react to provocation—Auntie Nell had taught him too well. “Your parents are generous,” he said flatly.
His reply flash-froze Boyd's anger and his face hardened to ice.
Usually Yuina wasn’t good at dealing with heightened emotions, but she smoothly interjected, “I think that’s all of Mom’s appointments. I have to get back to work.”
Ashwin bussed her on the cheek just before they parted. Lately she’d been spending a lot of time in Arizona because of work, but when she was in Hawaii, they rarely seemed to have good conversations because of the situation with Auntie Nell and the wedding.
But despite their tense discussion, she was right. He had to confront Dusty about the dog.