“It’s pretty,” Baker says. You’re pretty, he thinks.

“So what brings you down here?” Ayers asks. “Vacation?”

How should he answer this? “Not a vacation, exactly,” he says. “I’m here with my mom and my brother.”

“Family reunion?” Ayers asks.

“I guess you could say that.”

“Are you married?” Ayers asks. She blows out a stream of smoke and looks at him frankly. Something inside of him stirs. Someday, he thinks, he will be married to this girl right here, Ayers Wilson. And they will remember this, their very first conversation, sitting on a low tree branch outside Chester’s Getaway during the funeral reception for her best friend, who also happened to be Baker’s father’s mistress.

“I was,” he says. “I mean, technically I still am. But my wife found a girlfriend. She announced two days ago that she was leaving me for her colleague, Louisa.”

“Ouch,” Ayers says.

“Don’t feel sorry for me,” Baker says. “It’s nothing compared to what you’re going through.”

“That’s right,” Ayers says. “Thanks for reminding me.”

“I heard your friend was in an accident,” Baker says. He wants to tell her who he is, but he’s afraid she’ll run off and he’ll never see her again. “What was she like?”

“Rosie? She was… she was… she just was,” Ayers says. “You know how sometimes people just click? And there’s no reason for it? Rosie and I were like that. I met her working at La Tapa.”

“La Tapa,” Baker says.

“It’s the best restaurant on the island. When I first got to St. John, it was the only place I wanted to work, but places like that can be hard to break into. I was very lucky to get hired and even luckier that Rosie took me under her wing. Rosie was a local, she’s born and raised here, her parents were born and raised here, and her grandparents. There was no reason for her to befriend me, some white chick who shows up for the season to get in on the good tips, then leaves. But Rosie was nice to me from the very beginning. She was protective. She showed me where the quiet beaches were, she introduced me to a guy who sold me a pickup truck for cheap, she took me to Pine Peace market and introduced me to her mother and her stepfather and just generally treated me like a long-lost sister.”

“Wow,” Baker says. He’s moved by this and he wants to ask some strategic follow-up questions. Was she seeing anyone? Had Ayers known Russ? But at that moment, Baker looks up and sees Cash headed toward them, holding two beers in each hand.

Baker shakes his head at Cash in an attempt to convey the very important message: She doesn’t know who we are! But Cash looks too hot and pissed-off to care about secret codes.

“Why the hell did you vanish like that?” Cash asks. “You expected me to find you all the way over here?”

“That’s my fault,” Ayers says, dropping the butt of her cigarette into her now empty beer. “I led your brother astray. Sorry about that.”

Cash hands Baker two of the four beers and takes a long swallow of one of the beers he’s holding. He seems like he’s making an effort to regroup. “It’s fine,” he says.

“Cash, this is Ayers Wilson,” Baker says. “Ayers is a friend of the deceased…”

“Best friend,” Ayers interrupts. “Your brother admitted that you two are crashing.”

“Um… yeah,” Cash says.

“It seems like there would be better ways to spend your precious vacation days than attending a local funeral lunch,” Ayers says. “Though Chester’s barbecue is pretty good.”

“Vacation days?” Cash says, and he gives Baker a quizzical look.

Ayers takes the awkward moment of silence that follows—during which Baker is silently imploring Cash to just go with it—as an opportunity to stand up. “I should get back to my post,” she says. “And back to my grief, although God knows that’s not going anywhere.” She offers Baker her hand. “Thank you for allowing me to escape for a few minutes. Maybe I’ll see you again before you leave.”

“I hope so,” Baker says. “What’s the name of the restaurant where you work?”

“La Tapa,” she says. “Right downtown, near Woody’s.”

“Woody’s of the infamous happy hour,” Baker says.

Ayers touches a finger to her nose. “You got it. And hey, go get yourself some barbecue. Anyone gives you trouble, tell them you’re with me.” She vanishes back into the crowd.

“What was that?” Cash asks, once she’s gone. “You told her we were on vacation?”

But Baker is too lovestruck to answer.

IRENE

She’s relieved when the boys leave the villa because she needs time and space to think, really think, and she needs room to process. There are two weighty issues Irene has to deal with. One is Russ’s death, and the other is his deception.

Because this house, this island, is a very large, very real deception. Russell Steele, Irene’s husband of thirty-five years, is a liar, a schemer, and most likely a cheat. Irene doesn’t know what to say—words fail her, thoughts fail her, and the boys seem to expect both thoughts and words, some expression of pain, some expression of anger. But Irene is so befuddled she can’t yet identify pain or anger. Her interior life is a barren wasteland.

She thinks back to the woman she was before, even hours before that blood-chilling call from Marilyn Monroe. She had been consumed with her problems at work, the demotion, the magazine moving off in a flashy new direction without her. She had gone to dinner with Lydia. Lydia had said, You wouldn’t understand because you have Russ, who dotes on you night and day. Irene had deflected the statement, saying, When he’s around. But she had thought, then, that Lydia was right: Irene did have a doting husband and she didn’t properly understand what it was like to be alone.

Irene Hagen first met Russell Steele at a bar called the Field House during Irene’s senior year in college when the University of Iowa played Northwestern in a snowstorm and that snowstorm turned into a blizzard and I-80, which led back to Chicago, was shut down, effectively stranding all of the Northwestern fans in Iowa City. There had been a rumor circulating among Irene’s sorority sisters at Alpha Chi Omega that the Northwestern boys were looking to hook up simply so they would have a place to sleep that night.

Only a few minutes after Irene heard this rumor, she felt a tap on her shoulder. “My name is Russell Steele,” Russ said. “Would you allow me the honor of buying you a drink?”

Irene had scoffed. The guy was cute—brown hair, brown eyes, hooded Northwestern sweatshirt, clean-cut, her father would have said—and he had a beseeching look on his face, but Irene suffered no fools.

“No, thanks,” she said, and she turned back to her friends.

Russell Steele had walked away. The jukebox, Irene remembered, was playing “Little Red Corvette,” and Irene and her friends had stormed the dance floor. When they returned to their spot at the bar, there was a drink waiting for Irene. At that time in college, she drank something called a Lemon Drop, because she had an idea that vodka was less fattening than beer. Vanity came at a price: Lemon Drops at the Field House cost five dollars, a relative fortune.

“From that guy, over there,” the bartender said. “The enemy.”

When Irene looked, Russ waved.

He had stayed on the other side of the bar the rest of the night, and when it was time to go home, she had gone over to thank him for the drink.

“You didn’t have to do that,” she said.

“I know,” he said. “But you’re pretty and a way better dancer than all your friends.”

“You’re only saying that because you want a place to sleep tonight.”

“I’m saying it because it’s true,” Russ said. “I’ll be fine on a park bench tonight.”

Irene had sighed. “You can sleep on the floor of my room,” she said. “But I want you out by nine and if you touch me, I’ll call security.”

“Deal,” Russell Steele said.

Russ had spent the night on Irene’s dorm room floor—she had grudgingly given him one of the blankets and pillows from her own bed—with his arms crossed over his chest, like he was sleeping in a coffin. It was weird, Irene had thought, but also sort of endearing. At nine the next morning, when he was on his way out to catch his ride back to Evanston, she gave him her phone number. She figured she would never hear from him again, but he had called that very night, and the next day, he sent a bouquet of white calla lilies. He had noticed a poster of white callas on Irene’s dorm room wall.

Because you love callas and because I love you. That was what the card on the flowers said that had arrived on New Year’s Day. Russ had been dead by the time those flowers arrived.

Irene thinks back on her marriage. Had she ever had reason to doubt Russ’s honesty, or his fidelity? No. Russ’s dominant trait had been one of utter devotion; he had never been one to flirt with other women. If Irene complimented a certain woman’s figure or sense of style, Russ would say, “I didn’t notice.” And Irene believed him.

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***