Huck saw her.
He saw her.
When Irene and Cash land in Chicago, Irene sees she has three missed calls from the Brown Deer retirement community and one voicemail.
“Milly,” Irene says to Cash.
She listens to the voicemail. It’s from today. “Hi Irene, Dot from Brown Deer here. I’m not sure if you’re still on vacation? But I needed to let you know that Milly has lost consciousness and Dr. Adler thinks it’s likely she’ll let go tonight.” There’s a pause; Irene can practically hear poor Dot trying to choose the right words. “I didn’t want to have to deliver this news while you were away, but I also can’t have you not knowing. Thanks, Irene, and I’m sorry. Call any time.”
It turns out that Milly Steele does not let go that night. She holds on until Monday morning. By Monday morning, Irene and Cash have unpacked, thrown their clothes in the laundry, and made it over to Brown Deer to take turns sitting with Milly in case there’s a miracle and she wakes up.
Irene and Cash have also had time to talk. Cash confided that Baker had feelings for the woman, Ayers, who was such good friends with Rosie, but that Cash liked her, too.
“Women always pick Baker over me,” Cash says.
Irene shakes her head. “Baker isn’t a free man yet, and you are. You are every bit as handsome and charming as your brother.” Irene brightens. “If I remember correctly, Ayers seemed quite fond of Winnie. I think you should pursue her.” Irene doesn’t offer any thoughts about how Cash might go about this when Ayers is on St. John and Cash is in the American Midwest.
It just so happens that both Cash and Irene are sitting at Milly’s bedside on Monday morning. It has been an arduous overnight vigil and now the eerie breathing known as the death rattle has set in. It won’t be long now.
Irene is relieved that she has been spared telling Milly the truth about her son.
Because there are no cell phones allowed in the medical unit and certainly none allowed in a room where a ninety-seven-year-old woman is trying to seamlessly transition to the next life, neither Irene nor Cash sees the calls come in from an unknown number with a 787 area code: San Juan, Puerto Rico. The call to Irene’s phone comes in at 8:24 a.m. The call to Cash’s phone comes at 8:26 a.m.
Milly passes away at two minutes past ten in the morning. Dot comes in to record the time of death.
“Life well-lived,” she says.
Irene and Cash make the necessary arrangements. Milly’s body will be cremated. Her ashes, along with what remains of Russ’s ashes, will be buried together in the cemetery at the First Presbyterian church once the ground thaws in the spring.
“What do you want to do now?” Irene asks Cash.
“Honestly?” Cash says. “I want to go back.”
Irene nods. She doesn’t have to ask what he means by “back.” She knows.
“Me too,” she says.
At 8:27 on Monday morning, Baker is having breakfast at Snooze in Houston with his school wives: Wendy, Becky, Debbie, and Ellen. They had been very worried about him. Baker had been gone for over a week without warning and they had seen Dr. Anna Schaffer herself delivering Floyd to school and picking him up.
“I knew something was wrong,” Debbie says. “I didn’t want to pry, and Anna isn’t approachable even if I had wanted to pry.”
Baker told his friends that his father died and he’d taken a week with his mother and brother. That’s why they’re all at breakfast. They want to comfort him.
“Your mother lives in Iowa, doesn’t she?” Becky asks. Becky is in HR and remembers every personal detail Baker has ever told her. “How’d you come back with a suntan?” She is also, like any good HR executive, naturally suspicious.
Baker can’t begin to explain that his father was killed in a helicopter crash in the Caribbean, where he happened to own a fifteen-million-dollar villa, keep a mistress, and have a love child. Baker also can’t say a word about the beautiful woman—body and soul—that he fell in love with during his week away.
He can, however, tell them the truth about Anna. They’re going to find out sooner or later.
“I have more bad news,” Baker says. “Anna announced that she’s leaving me.”
“Whaaaa?” Debbie says. “Just as you found out your father was dead?”
“She found someone else,” Baker says. “Another doctor at the hospital.” He waits a beat. “Louisa Rodriguez.”
There is a collective gasp, then some shrieking, then a declaration from Ellen that this is, hands down, the best gossip of the entire school year. Baker gets so caught up talking with his friends that he misses the call that comes in to his phone from an unknown number, area code 787, San Juan, Puerto Rico, at 8:32 a.m.
At 8:34 a.m. on Monday, Huck is dropping Maia off at school. They’re four minutes late, but better late than not at all, which was what Maia was lobbying for. She was tired, they both were, because they’d accompanied Ayers over to Red Hook in St. Thomas the evening before so that she could get her petroglyph tattoo.
The tattoo had taken longer than they’d anticipated, but it was a beauty—an exact replica of the petroglyphs of Reef Bay, left there by the Taino three thousand years ago.
“It’s so cool,” Maia said.
“Don’t even think about it,” Huck said. After the tattoo adventure, he’d treated both of them to dinner at Fish Tails, next to the ferry dock. Ayers had been a little subdued at dinner, as had Huck. He couldn’t pinpoint the exact cause of his malaise. If it wasn’t such a cockamamie notion, he would say he missed Irene. But how could he miss someone he’d only known a week? He wondered if Ayers was suffering from a similar affliction, if she missed either or both of Irene’s sons. She said she was getting back together with Mick. However, she didn’t sound too excited about it.
Noting their glum faces, Maia had reached out for each of them and said, “I want you guys to know I’m here for you if you ever need to talk.”
She had sounded so earnest that both Huck and Ayers had been helpless to do anything but smile.
“What?” Maia said. “What?”
Maia is gathering her things—backpack, lunch, water bottle—when Huck’s phone rings. It’s an unknown number, 787, San Juan, Puerto Rico. It’s probably Angela, the travel agent who sends Huck group charters, which is all well and good. He needs to get his head back into his business.
“Hello?” he says. He shoos Maia out of the truck; she’s dawdling.
“Mr. Powers?” a woman’s voice says. The voice is too young to be Angela’s; she’s a grandmother of fifteen and her voice is raspy from cigarettes and yelling. “Mr. Sam Powers?”
“My name is Agent Colette Vasco, with the FBI, sir. I’ve just had a call from VISAR in the British Virgin Islands. They were investigating a helicopter crash on January first, a crash in which your daughter was one of the deceased?”
“Yes,” Huck says. Reluctantly, Maia climbs out of the truck. She eyes him through the windshield as she walks to the front gate of the school.
“That investigation has been passed on to us,” Agent Vasco says. “What was initially thought to be a weather-related incident now looks like it involved foul play.”
“Foul play?” Huck asks.
“Yes, sir,” Agent Vasco says. “Any chance you’re available to answer a few questions about your daughter and her friend Russell Steele?”
Huck puts the window down. He needs air. He notices Maia standing at the entrance of the school, staring back at him. She senses something.
Huck sets the phone down on the passenger seat. Agent Colette Vasco can wait. Right now, Huck has to tend to his girl. He is her Unconditional. He is her No Matter What.
“See you at three!” he calls out. “I’ll be right here, waiting.”