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What Happens in Paradise
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A year ago, Irene Steele had the shock of her life: her loving husband, father to their grown sons and successful businessman, was killed in a helicopter crash. But that wasn't Irene's only shattering news: he'd also been leading a double life on the island of St. John, where another woman loved him, too.
Now Irene and her sons are back on St. John, determined to learn the truth about the mysterious life—and death—of a man they thought they knew. Along the way, they're about to learn some surprising truths about their own lives, and their futures.
Lush with the tropical details, romance, and drama that made Winter in Paradise a national bestseller, What Happens in Paradise is another immensely satisfying page-turner from one of America's most beloved and engaging storytellers.
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What Happens in Paradise is the second book in a planned trilogy. While this book can, most certainly, be read as a stand-alone, a richer and more textured reading experience will be had by starting with book one, Winter in Paradise.
In the author's note in Winter in Paradise, I explained that the St. John portrayed in the novel is the one that existed before September of 2017, when Hurricanes Irma and Maria created such widespread devastation. There are businesses and restaurants mentioned in both books that now exist only on my fictional St. John. Thank you.
A Rooster and
She wakes up facedown on a beach. Someone is calling her name.
She lifts her head and feels her cheek and lips dusted with sand so white and fine, it might be powdered sugar. Irene can sense impending clouds. As the sun disappears, it gains a white-hot intensity; it's like a laser cutting through her. The next instant she feels the lightest sprinkling of rain.
She sits up. The beach is unfamiliar, but it's tropical—there's turquoise water before her, lush vegetation behind, a rooster and two hens strutting around. She must be back on St. John.
How did she get here?
A man is calling her name. She can see a figure moving toward her. The rain starts to fall harder now, with intention; the tops of the palm trees sway. Irene dashes for the cover of the tree canopy and wishes for a towel to wrap around her naked body.
That's right; she forgot to pack a swimsuit.
The man is getting closer, still calling her name. "Irene! Irene!" She doesn't want him to see her. She tries to cover up her nakedness by hunching over and crossing her arms strategically; it feels like an impossible yoga pose. She's shivering now. Her hair is wet; her braid hangs like a soggy rope down her back.
The man is waving his arms as if he's drowning. Irene scans the beach; someone else will have to help him because she certainly can't. But there's no one around, no boats on the horizon, and even the chickens are gone. There will be a confrontation, she supposes, so she needs to prepare. She studies the approaching figure.
Irene opens her mouth and tries to scream. Does she scream? If so, she can't hear herself.
She wipes the rain out of her eyes. Russell Steele, her husband of thirty-five years, is slogging toward her through the wet sand, looking as though he has something urgent to tell her.
He's close enough now for her to see him clearly—the silvering hair, the brown eyes. He has a suntan. He's had a constant tan since he started working for Todd Croft at Ascension, thirteen years ago. Their friends used to tease Russ about it, but Irene barely noticed, much less questioned it. He was on business in Florida and Texas; the tan seemed logical. She had chalked it up to lunch meetings at outdoor restaurants, endless rounds of golf. How many times had Russ told her he would be unreachable because he'd be playing golf with clients?
Now, of course, Irene knows better.
"Irene," he says. His voice frightens her; she digs her heels into the sand. Russ's white tuxedo shirt is so soaked that she can see the flesh tone of his skin beneath. His khaki pants are split up one leg. He looks like he's survived a shipwreck.
No, Irene thinks. Not a shipwreck. A plane crash. A helicopter crash, that's it.
"Russ?" she says. He's getting pummeled by rain, and Irene flashes back twenty years to a Little League game of Baker's that was suspended due to a violent midwestern thunderstorm. All the parents huddled in the dugout with the kids, but Russ, in a show of gallantry, ran out onto the field to collect the equipment. Another father, Steve Sonnet (Irene had always rather disliked Steve Sonnet), said, Reckless of him, picking up those metal bats. He's going to get himself killed.
There was another time she remembers Russ soaking wet, a wedding in Atlanta. The Dunns' daughter Maisy was marrying an executive at Delta Airlines. This was five or six years ago, back when Irene and Russ found themselves attending more weddings than they had even when they were young. The reception was held at Rhodes Hall, and when she and Russ emerged from the strobe-lit dance floor and martini bar, it was to a downpour. Again, Russ insisted on playing the hero by tenting his tuxedo jacket over his head and dashing across the parking lot to their rental car. When he'd pulled up to the entrance a few moments later, his shirt had been soaked through, just like this one is now.
"The storm," Russ says, "is coming."
Well, yes, Irene thinks. That much is obvious. It's a proper deluge now, and the darkest clouds are still moving toward them. "I thought you were dead," she says. "They told me…" She stops. She's speaking, but she can't hear herself. It's frustrating. "They told me you were dead."
"It will be a bad storm," Russ says. "Destructive."
"Where should we go?" Irene asks. She turns to face the trees. Where do the chickens hide from the rain? she wonders. Because she would like to hide there too.
At eight o'clock on the dot, Irene wakes Cash. He has started calling her Mother Alarm Clock.
"I had another dream," she says.
Cash props himself up on his elbows in bed. His blond hair is messy and he's growing a beard; he hasn't shaved since they left the island. Irene has put him in the grandest of her five guest rooms, the Excelsior suite, she calls it. It has dark, raised-panel walls with a decorative beveled edge at the chair rail and an enormous Eastlake bed with a fringed canopy. There's also a stained-glass transom window that Irene got for a steal at a tiny antiques shop in Solon, Iowa, and a silk Persian rug in burgundy and cream that she purchased from a licensed dealer in Chicago. (She'd thought Russ might veto a five-figure rug, but he told her to go ahead, get it, whatever made her happy.) Irene's favorite piece in the room is a wrought-iron washstand that holds a ceramic bowl edged in gold leaf; above it hangs a photograph of Russ's mother, Milly, as a young girl in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1928. Irene remembers the joy and pride she'd felt in refurbishing this room—every room in the house, really—but at this instant, she can't understand why. The Victorian style seems so heavy, so overdone, so tragic.
Irene has abandoned the master bedroom; she will never be able to sleep there again. Since she returned from St. John, she's been using the smallest guest room, originally meant to be quarters for a governess. It's up on the third floor, across from the attic. The attic is crammed with the bargains Irene scored at flea markets but couldn't find a place for in the house along with all the furniture from their former home, since Russ refused to let her take it to Goodwill. Russ had remarked many times that he would have been just as happy staying in their modest ranch on Clover Street, and Irene had thought him crazy. Of course, that was before she realized that Russ had a second life elsewhere.
The governess's room had been all but neglected in the renovation. Irene had simply painted the walls sky blue and furnished it with a white daybed and a small Shaker dresser. Now she appreciates the room's simplicity and its isolation. She feels safe there—although she can't seem to hide from these dreams.
"Dad was alive?" Cash asks.
"Alive," Irene says. This is the third such dream she's had since returning from St. John. Irene and Cash and Irene's older son, Baker, all traveled down to the Virgin Islands upon receiving the news that Russ had been killed in a helicopter crash off the coast of Virgin Gorda. He had been flying from a private helipad on St. John to the remote British island Anegada with a West Indian woman named Rosie Small. Irene then discovered that Rosie was Russ's lover and that Russ had left behind a fifteen-million-dollar villa and a twelve-year-old daughter named Maia. It was a surreal and traumatizing trip for Irene and her sons, and yet now, a week later, all of these shocking facts have been woven into the tapestry of Irene's reality. It was incredible, really, what the brain could assimilate. "He was talking about a storm. A bad storm, he said. Destructive."
"Maybe he meant the lightning storm," Cash says.
"Maybe," Irene says. The helicopter had been struck by lightning. "Or maybe it's what lies ahead."
"The investigation," Cash says.
"Yes." The week before, only a couple days after they'd arrived home from St. John, an FBI agent named Colette Vasco called Irene, Cash, and Baker to let them know that the Virgin Islands Search and Rescue team had contacted the Bureau with suspicions that there might be more to the helicopter crash than met the eye.
What does that mean, exactly? Irene had asked.
The damage to the helicopter doesn't match up with a typical lightning strike, Agent Vasco said. There was lightning in the area, but the damage to the helicopter seems to have been caused by an explosive device.
An explosive device, Irene said.
We're investigating further, Agent Vasco said. What can you tell me about a man named Todd Croft?
Next to nothing, Irene had said. She went on to explain that she had tried any number of ways to reach Todd Croft, to no avail. I probably want to find him more than you do, Irene said. She gave Agent Vasco the number that Todd Croft's secretary, Marilyn Monroe, had called Irene from. Agent Vasco had thanked her and said she'd be back in touch.
More to the helicopter crash than met the eye. An explosive device. This was turning into something from a movie, Irene thought. Yet she suspected that it was only a matter of time before the next dark door into her husband's secret life opened.
"Also, there were chickens in the dream," Irene says to Cash. "A rooster and two hens."
Cash clears his throat. "Well, yeah."
Well, yeah? Then Irene gets it: Russ is the rooster, Irene and Rosie the two hens.
Other than Cash and Baker, no one here in Iowa City knows that Russ is dead; Irene hasn't told anyone, which feels like a huge deception, as though she stuffed Russ's corpse into one of the house's nineteen closets and now it's starting to stink. Irene quiets her conscience by telling herself it's her own private business. Besides, no one has asked! This isn't strictly true—Dot, the nurse at the Brown Deer Retirement Community, asked where Russ was, and, in a moment of sheer panic, Irene lied and told Dot he was on a business trip in the Caribbean.
And he couldn't get away? Dot asked. Even for this? Dot was fond of Russ; she cooed over him at his every visit as though he had forded rivers and climbed mountains to get there, although she took Irene's daily presence at Brown Deer for granted. Irene perversely enjoyed watching the shadow of disillusionment cross Dot's face when she learned that Russ had put work before his own dying mother.
Russ's footprint in Iowa City all but disappeared after he took the job with Ascension thirteen years ago. Russ used to know everybody in town. He worked for the Corn Refiners Association and was a social creature by nature. He would drop off Baker and Cash at school and then go to Pearson's drugstore on Linn Street for a cup of coffee with "the boys"—the four or five retired gentlemen known as the Midwestern Mafia, who ran Iowa City. Russ's coffee break with the boys was sacred. They were the ones who had encouraged him to run for the Iowa City school board, and they'd suggested he join the Rotary Club, where he eventually became vice president.
All of the boys were now dead, and Russ hadn't been involved with local politics or the Rotary Club in over a decade. Irene occasionally bumped into someone from that previous life—Cherie Werner, for example, wife of the former superintendent of schools. Cherie (or whoever) would ask after Russ and then add, "We always knew he would make it big someday," as though Russ were a movie star or the starting quarterback for the Chicago Bears.
But who from Iowa City remained in Russ's everyday life? No one, really.
Now that the business of Milly's death has been handled—her body delivered to the funeral home, her personal effects collected, the probate attorney from Brown Deer enlisted to settle her estate—Irene has no choice but to face the daunting task of contacting the family attorney, Ed Sorley, to tell him about Russ.
"Irene!" Ed says. His voice contains cheerful curiosity. "I didn't expect to hear from you again so soon. Everything okay?"
Irene is in the amethyst-hued parlor, pacing a Persian rug that the same Chicago carpet dealer who'd sold her the Excelsior-suite rug had described as "Queen Victoria's jewel box, overturned." (Irene had bought it immediately despite the fact that it cost even more than the other rug.)
"No, Ed," Irene says. "It's not." She pauses. Russ has been dead for ten days and this is the first time she's going to say the words out loud to someone other than her sons. "Russ is dead."
There is a beat of silence. Two beats.
"What?" Ed says. "Irene, what?"
"He was killed in a helicopter crash on New Year's Day," Irene says. "Down in the Virgin Islands." She doesn't wait for Ed to ask the obvious follow-up question: What was Russ doing on a helicopter in the Virgin Islands? Or maybe: Where are the Virgin Islands? "When I called you last week to ask about Russ's will, he was already dead. I should have told you then. I'm sorry. It's just…I was still processing the news myself."
"Oh, jeez, Irene," Ed says. "I'm so, so sorry. Russ…" There's a lengthy pause. "Man…Anita is going to be devastated. You know how she adored Russ. You might not have realized how all the wives in our little group way back when thought Russ was an all-star husband. Anita used to ask me why I couldn't be more like him." Ed stops abruptly and Irene can tell he's fighting back emotion.
Anita should be glad you weren't more like him, Irene wants to say. Anita and Ed Sorley were part of a group of friends Irene and Russ had made when the kids were small—and yes, Anita had been transparently smitten with Russ. She had always laughed at his jokes and was the most envious on Irene's fiftieth birthday when Russ hired an airplane to pull a banner declaring his love.
"I need help, Ed," Irene says. "You're the first person I've told other than my kids. The boys and I flew down to the Caribbean last week. Russ's body had been cremated and we scattered the ashes."
"You did?" Ed says. "So are you planning a memorial, then, instead of a funeral?"
"No memorial," Irene says. "At least not yet." She knows this will sound strange. "I can't face everyone with so many unanswered questions. And I need to ask you, Ed, as my attorney, to please keep this news quiet. I don't even want you to tell Anita."
There was another significant pause. "I'll honor your wishes, Irene," Ed says. "But you can't keep it a secret forever. Are you going to submit an obituary to the Press-Citizen? Or, I don't know, post something on Facebook, maybe?"
"Facebook?" Irene says. The mere notion is appalling. "Do I have a legal obligation to tell people?"
"Legal?" Ed says. "No, but I mean…wow. You must still be in shock. I'm in shock myself, I get it. What was… why…"
"Ed," Irene says. "I called you to find out what legal steps I need to take."
There's an audible breath from Ed. He's flustered. Irene imagines going through this ninety or a hundred more times with every single one of their friends and neighbors. Maybe she should publish an obituary. But what would she say? Two hours after the papers landed on people's doorsteps, she would have well-intentioned hordes arriving with casseroles and questions. She can't bear the thought.
"When I called you before, Ed, you said Russ signed a new will in September." Irene had shoved this piece of information to a remote corner of her mind, but now it's front and center. Why the hell did Russ sign a new will without Irene and, more saliently, without telling Irene? There could be only one reason. "You said he included a new life insurance policy? For three million dollars?" She swallows. "The life insurance policy…who's the beneficiary?" Here is the moment when the god-awful truth is revealed, she thinks. Russ must have made Rosie the beneficiary. Or maybe, if he was too skittish to do that, he made a trust the beneficiary, a trust that would lead back to Rosie and Maia.
"You, of course," Ed says. "The beneficiary is you."
"Me?" Irene says. She feels…she feels…
Ed says, "Who else would it be? The boys? I think Russ was concerned about Cash's ability to manage money." Ed coughs. "Russ did make one other change. After you called me last week, I checked my notes."
"What was the other change?"
"Well, you'll remember that back when you and Russ signed your wills in 2012, you made Russ the executor of your will and Russ made his boss, Todd Croft, the executor of his. In my notes, I wrote that Russ said his finances were becoming too complex for, as he put it, a 'mere mortal' to deal with and he didn't want to burden you with that responsibility. He said Todd would be better able to deal with the fine print. Do you remember that?"
Does Irene remember that? She closes her eyes and tries to put herself in Ed Sorley's office with Russ. She definitely remembers the meeting about the real estate closing—she had been so excited—but the day that they signed their wills is lost. It had probably seemed like an onerous chore, akin to getting the oil changed in her Lexus. She knew it had to be done but she paid little attention to it because she and Russ were in perfect health. They were finally hitting their stride—a new job for Russ, a new house, money.
No, she does not remember. She doubts she would have objected to Russ making Todd Croft the executor of his will. Back then, Todd had seemed like a savior. Todd the God.
"So Todd was the executor," Irene says.
"And when Russ came in to sign the new will this past September, he changed it," Ed says. "He made you the executor."
"He did?" Irene says.
"Didn't he tell you?" Ed says.
"No," Irene says. Then she wonders if that's right. "You know what, Ed, he might have told me and I just forgot." Or I wasn't listening, she thinks. It's entirely possible that back in September, Russ said one night at dinner, I saw Ed Sorley today, signed a new will with extra life insurance protection, and I made you executor. And it's entirely possible that Irene said, Okay, great. Back in September, this information would have seemed unremarkable, even dull. Life insurance; executor. Who cared! It was all preparation for an event, Russ's death, that was, if not exactly inconceivable, then very, very far in the future.
Now, of course, the will has red-hot urgency. Irene is the beneficiary of the life insurance policy and she's the executor of the will. This is good news, right?
"I have something else in my notes," Ed says, and he sounds on the verge of getting choked up again. "When I asked Russ if he was concerned that being executor might be a burden for you, considering the complicated nature of his finances, he said, 'Irene is the only person I trust to do the right thing.'" Ed pauses. "Those were his exact words. I wrote them down."
Irene is the only person I trust to do the right thing. That seemingly simple sentence has a lot to unpack. Russ didn't trust Todd Croft to do the right thing—no surprise there. Had Russ assumed that Irene would find out about Rosie, Maia, the villa in St. John? And if the answer was yes, did he expect that Irene would have enough forgiveness in her heart to make sure that Rosie and Maia were taken care of financially? If again the answer was yes, he had given her a lot of credit.
Irene sighed. Russ was right. Rosie is no longer an issue, but Irene most certainly plans on providing for Maia.
"What do I do from here, Ed?" Irene asks.
"I'll need at least ten copies of the death certificate," Ed says. "I'd like one as soon as possible so I can start the probate process."
"Where do I get a death certificate?" Irene asks.
"Um… no one provided one for you? You should have been issued one from the state where Russ died."
"He died in the British Virgin Islands," Irene reminds him. "Between Virgin Gorda and Anegada."
There's silence from Ed. She might as well have named two moons of Jupiter.
"Baker was in charge of figuring out exactly who claimed the body," she tells Ed. "And who performed the cremation. He had some trouble. It's apparently very hard to get a body back from another country, and it was over the holidays. The regular people were on vacation."
"I'm not going to lie to you, Irene," Ed says. "My experience with this is limited. But you're saying you didn't get a death certificate while you were down there?"
"We didn't," Irene says. "Baker called the Brits, who directed him to the Americans, who sent him back to the Brits. Todd Croft had someone go down and identify the body—that was before we arrived—and he ordered the cremation without even asking me."
"What?" Ed says.
Irene has opened the proverbial can of worms now; she may as well keep going. "Todd Croft has, essentially, vanished. I can't reach him or his secretary, and the Ascension web page is down."
"Jeez, Irene," Ed says. "This is like something out of a movie."
"Ed," Irene says. "You didn't know anything about Russ's owning property in the Caribbean, did you?"
"In the Caribbean?" Ed says. "Heck no!"
"How much did you understand about his job?" Irene asks. "Did the two of you ever discuss it?"
"He worked for Croft's hedge fund, right?" Ed says. "He was the front man?"
"Right," Irene says. She relaxes a little. The way Russ had described it to her, the Ascension clients were investing such large amounts of money in such a high-risk environment, they needed a dedicated person just to put them at ease, and that person was Russ. Up until this very second, Irene wondered if maybe Ed Sorley was in on the whole mess, but now it's clear from his earnest tone that he's just as bewildered as she is. Ed wears sweater-vests. He handles wills, trusts, real estate closings, and the occasional dispute over property lines for the farmers of Johnson County. Russ and Irene hired him for their legal matters because he's their longtime friend. Irene realizes Russ must have had a second lawyer, one provided for him by Ascension.
Real estate, though.
"I'll call our bank, obviously," Irene says. They used to keep a checking and savings account at First Iowa Savings and Loan, where their friend Jerry Kinsey was the president. But shortly after Russ started working at Ascension, they switched to the behemoth Federal Republic Bank because Russ insisted that that bank was better equipped to handle Russ and Irene's "change of circumstance." Irene recalls pushing back on this. Just because Russ had a shiny new job didn't mean they had to change their small-town ways, did it?
Russ had looked at her like she was naive and Irene had capitulated. They opened a joint brokerage account at Federal Republic, although Irene defiantly kept a smaller account at First Iowa in her own name; that was where her paychecks from the magazine were deposited.
Now that Irene thinks about it, she realizes she never saw a balance of more than fifty thousand dollars in the Federal Republic account. They have several million invested, or so Irene has been led to believe, and the amount in the Federal Republic account was obviously replenished by Russ's paychecks and bonuses. So there should be a money trail that leads to Todd Croft and Ascension. Irene never delved into the particulars of their new financial situation because, quite frankly, she had done her share of worrying—creating budgets, stretching their meager resources—for a long time, and it was a relief just to know that there was money now, so much money that Irene could take a bath in French champagne every night if she wanted.
Back when Irene was renovating the house, Russ had transferred money into an account dedicated solely to paying the contractors and estate-sale managers and rug dealers. But that account had been closed for a while now. "We bought the house and the lot here on Church Street outright," Irene says. "That money was wired to our Federal Republic account from somewhere else. Would you look into it?"
- "You'll be counting the days until you can return to the Virgin Islands with these characters in the concluding volume of the trilogy. Print the bumper sticker-'I'd Rather Be Living in an Elin Hilderbrand Novel.'"—Kirkus (starred review)
- "Once again, Hilderbrand demonstrates her mastery of immersive escapism with a carefully deployed pineapple-banana smoothie or the blue tile of an outdoor shower. . . .The absolute pleasure of the reading experience combined with a cliff-hanger ending will have readers anxiously awaiting the conclusion to the trilogy."—Booklist (starred review)
PRAISE FOR WINTER STORMS:
- "[Hilderbrand] expertly meshes everything together so that peace exists within each character and within the family dynamic...The queen of the romance novel is on top of her game, and she won't let you down."—Vivian Payton, Book Reporter
"A series only works when the characters are worth following over the long haul, and Hilderbrand is a master, making for a satisfying conclusion to her Christmas at the Inn story."
PRAISE FOR WINTER STROLL:
"Hilderbrand juggles an ensemble cast and successfully weaves together many bittersweet story threads, tying up just enough of them to keep readers anticipating another sequel."
—Kathleen Gerard, Shelf Awareness
PRAISE FOR WINTER STREET:
"A holiday package filled with humor, romance, and realism."—Jocelyn McClurg
- On Sale
- Aug 24, 2021
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Little, Brown and Company