“It’s okay,” Cash says. “Believe me, I understand being shell-shocked.” He looks like he might say more but instead, he shakes his head. “It’s just… I do understand.”
That’s not likely, but Ayers isn’t going to argue. “Do you want to hike back up together?” she asks. “I have to get back, too. I have work at four o’clock.”
“Sure,” Cash says.
“Good,” Ayers says. “I’m also worried about passing out on the way back up. I only brought one other bottle of water.”
Cash grins. “Ah, the truth comes out. You need me to keep you alive.”
He’s cute, Ayers decides. Not rock star handsome like his brother, but cute. Compact, strong, sturdy.
But again, a tourist.
They start back up the trail, Cash leading, Winnie at his heels, Ayers following. Up is way harder, her hangover is gripping her head like a tight bathing cap. She has to stop and when Cash turns around to check on her—he’s very sweet to do so—he stops, too.
“You seem like a pretty experienced hiker,” Ayers says.
“I live in the mountains,” Cash says. “Breckenridge, Colorado. Being at sea level is new for me. Honestly, I could probably go forever without getting tired. It’s amazing how nice life is with an adequate supply of oxygen.”
“Yeah,” Ayers says. “I guess I take it for granted.” That wasn’t always the case, though. She and her parents had trekked to Everest Base Camp when Ayers was thirteen. The air in the Himalayas was thin; Ayers had crazy dreams that she still remembers to this day. She and her parents spent weeks hiking in Patagonia as well. She remembers sinking to her knees in scree, scrabbling over rocks, jumping down into her father’s arms off a high ledge, eating ramen noodles cooked over a camp stove for days on end, waking up at three in the morning to see the sunrise set the Torres del Paine on fire. When they finally came out of the mountains, they stayed in a town called San Carlos de Bariloche, where they took hot showers and ate a breakfast of pancakes drizzled with chocolate sauce and a big bowl of fresh, ripe strawberries.
“So do you ski?” Ayers asks Cash. He’s too far ahead for casual conversation, but Ayers wants him to know she’s a normal person and not just some emotional basket case.
“I do,” he says. “Do you?”
“I do. Haven’t been in a while but my parents and I lived in Gstaad one winter so I got pretty good. I miss it.” She gazes up into the trees. “You might not think it living here, but sometimes I really miss the snow.”
“I’ve only been here three days and I miss it,” Cash says.
“So you live in Colorado and your brother lives in Texas?” Ayers says. “And you’re here for a family reunion?” She’s proud of herself for remembering.
“Family reunion?” Cash says. “Is that what Baker told you?”
Is that what Baker told her? Yes, she’s pretty sure that’s what he said. “Um…?”
“I guess it is a family reunion of sorts,” Cash says. “He’s right.” With that, Cash seems to pick up his pace and Ayers takes the hint: he doesn’t want to talk. Fair enough. She should conserve her energy and use it for making it up the hill.
This had been a stupid idea.
Once they reach the road, however, Ayers drinks the last of her water and eats a handful of the trail mix and immediately feels a sense of accomplishment. She didn’t stay home and wallow. She hiked the Reef Bay Trail, wildly hungover.
“Want some trail mix?” she asks Cash.
He helps himself to a handful. “Thank you.” He seems to perk up a little as well. “I don’t want to pry, but your friend who died… do they know what happened?”
“Helicopter crash,” Ayers says.
“I heard that,” Cash says. “But do they know why? Or where she was going?”
“She was going over to Anegada for the day with her… boyfriend. The helicopter got struck by lightning.”
“They both died?” Cash asks.
Ayers nods. “And the pilot.”
“Do they know anything about the boyfriend?” Cash asks. “Does he have a family?”
“I don’t care about the boyfriend,” Ayers says. “At this point, I wish Rosie had never met him.” Her voice is sharper than she meant it to be. “I’m sorry, bad topic. Listen, how long are you here?”
Cash looks at the ground. “Another couple of days, I guess,” he says.
“Well, if you’re free tomorrow, I’m crewing on a boat called Treasure Island, and we’re going on a day trip to the British Virgin Islands—the Baths on Virgin Gorda, snorkeling, lunch on Cooper Island. It’s fun and I can bring you as my guest. Do you have a passport?”
“I do,” Cash says. “I’m embarrassed to admit that I thought I might need it to come here. I wasn’t sure. This trip was kind of thrown together at the last minute.”
“If you have a passport, then you should definitely come,” Ayers says. “Have you ever snorkeled before?”
“I haven’t,” Cash says. “I want to. But my mother might need my help tomorrow.” He bends down to pat Winnie’s head.
“Well, if you decide you want to come, just bring your passport and wear a bathing suit and come to the dock right across the street from Mongoose Junction at 7:30 tomorrow morning. I’ll take care of everything else.”
“Okay,” Cash says. “I’ll think about it.” He waves as he leads Winnie back to his Jeep.
He’ll think about it but he won’t do it, Ayers knows. He thinks she’s nuts.
And he’s probably right.
There’s no way Cash is going on a snorkeling trip to the BVIs, and yet he keeps thinking about Ayers and about the invitation.
Ayers is pretty, there are no two ways about it, and she was out hiking by herself, which turned Cash on in a big way. He had thought Denver and Breckenridge would be filled with women who loved the outdoors—who liked to hike and cross-country and downhill ski—and whereas that was sort of true, none of the outdoorsy women Cash had met had struck a chord with him.
None of them had been anything like Ayers.
And Winnie had been crazy about her. A good sign.
Cash doesn’t tell Baker or his mother where he’s been or who he’s seen, and they don’t ask. His mother had taken the other Jeep and gone into Cruz Bay—for what reason, Cash couldn’t imagine. She sure as hell wasn’t shopping for silver bracelets or bottles of rum. And Baker was being positively useless. He’d made two or three calls to the British authorities before declaring himself stonewalled, and so he’d spent the day “waiting for callbacks,” which meant sitting by the pool, staring out at the spectacular view. He didn’t even seem sad to Cash. Or maybe he was sad and just hiding it—which is exactly what Cash is doing. Cash wants to cry—to put his fist through a wall or break a vase, he wants to lose his shit, exorcise the bad feelings. But the problem is that his emotions are muddy. He’s not purely sad about losing his father. Nor is he purely angry that his father was a wizard of deception. His feelings are a toxic combination of both, and to head off an explosion or tantrum, he is utilizing good, old-fashioned denial. Hence the hike today.
Cash takes an outdoor shower. The walls are encrusted with shells—conch, whelk, cowrie—and there’s purple bougainvillea draping in overhead, and the water is hot and plentiful, and Cash has a view of the water. He decides it probably qualifies as the best shower he’s ever taken. He gets dressed as the sun sets, then he offers to grill up some steaks.
Irene says she isn’t hungry. “I think I’ll go up to bed.”
“Do you want me to call Milly, Mom?” Cash asks. “Just to, you know, check in?”
Irene turns around on the stairs and gives Cash a plaintive look. “Would you mind?” she asks. “I can’t lie to Milly. I just can’t do it. You know, she did a good job with your father. This isn’t her fault. I don’t ever want you to think that.”
“I don’t think that,” Cash says. “Dad was a grown man.”
“I’m beginning to wonder,” Irene says.
“I’ll call Milly,” Cash says.
He dials the number for the Brown Deer retirement community, but the nurse who answers in the medical unit tells him that Milly is too weak to talk.
“What do you mean too weak?” he asks. “Is everything okay?”
“She’s ninety-seven years old,” the nurse says. “Her body is shutting down.”
“Well, right,” Cash says. “I know, but…”
“Call back tomorrow, Mr. Steele,” the nurse says. “Until then, enjoy your vacation.”
Cash and Baker eat steak and potato salad out on the deck. Cash knows he should tell Baker he saw Ayers, and he should tell Baker about Milly not being strong enough to come to the phone, and he should really tell Baker about losing the stores. But before he can broach any of these topics, Baker says, “So Mom told me she has a meeting tomorrow.”
“A meeting?” Cash says. “With whom?”
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