After uprooting her life, Irene Steele has settled at the villa on St. John where her husband Russ had been living a double life. But a visit from the FBI shakes her foundations. Irene and her sons try to get on with setting up their new lives while evidence mounts that the helicopter crash that killed Russ may not have been an accident. Meanwhile, a Jeep with tinted windows who seems to be shadowing the Steele family. As a storm gathers strength in the Atlantic, surprises are in store for the Steeles. At last all will be revealed about the secrets and lies that brought Irene and her sons to St. John – and the truth that transformed them allAfter uprooting her life, Irene Steele has settled at the villa on St. John where her husband Russ had been living a double life. But a visit from the FBI shakes her foundations. Irene and her sons try to get on with setting up their new lives while evidence mounts that the helicopter crash that killed Russ may not have been an accident. Meanwhile, a Jeep with tinted windows who seems to be shadowing the Steele family. As a storm gathers strength in the Atlantic, surprises are in store for the Steeles. At last all will be revealed about the secrets and lies that brought Irene and her sons to St. John – and the truth that transformed them all.
Release date: October 6, 2020
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Print pages: 352
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Troubles in Paradise
The drama began on New Year’s Day with tragedy: a helicopter crash a few miles away, in British waters. One of our own was killed, Rosie Small, whom some of us remember back when she was in LeeAnn’s belly. Because LeeAnn’s first husband, Levi Small, left the island when Rosie was a toddler, we’d all had a hand in raising her. We sympathized with LeeAnn when the cute Rosie girl we doted on turned into the precocious Rosie teenager LeeAnn couldn’t quite control. At the tender age of fifteen, Rosie dated a fella named Oscar Cobb from St. Thomas who drove the Ducati that nearly ran our friend Rupert off Route 107 right into Coral Bay. We were all overjoyed when Oscar went to jail for stabbing his best friend. Good riddance! we said. Throw away the key! A group of us took LeeAnn out for celebratory drinks at Miss Lucy’s. We thought we’d dodged a bullet; Rosie would not waste her life on a good-for-nothing man with shady business dealings like Oscar Cobb.
The man Rosie ended up with was far more dangerous.
After LeeAnn died, five years ago now, Rosie took a secret lover. We called him the “Invisible Man” because none of us had ever caught more than a glimpse of him. But while Paulette Vickers was under the dryer at Dearie’s Beauty Shoppe, she let something slip about “Rosie Small’s gentleman.” Then Paulette clammed up and it was the clamming up that made us suspicious. Paulette was a little uppity because her parents had started the successful real estate agency Welcome to Paradise. She liked to talk. When she stopped talking, we started listening.
The Invisible Man’s name was Russell Steele. He was killed in the helicopter crash along with Rosie and the pilot, an attorney from the Caymans named Stephen Thompson. They were on their way to Anegada. The callous among us commented that they should have taken a boat like normal folk, especially since there were thunderstorms. The perceptive among us noted that, while there were thunderstorms on New Year’s morning, they were south and west of St. John, not northeast, which was the direction the helicopter would have been flying to get to Anegada.
Both Virgin Islands Search and Rescue and the FBI had reason to believe that the helicopter exploded. Maybe an accident—an electrical malfunction—or maybe something else.
If you think this is intriguing, imagine hearing of the arrival of the Invisible Man’s family. For, yes indeed, Russell Steele was married, with two grown sons and one grandchild. And did his wife and sons stroll right down the St. John ferry dock on January 3 and climb into the car belonging to Paulette Vickers, who then whisked them off to whatever grand, secluded villa Russell Steele owned?
Yes; yes, they did.
Would the family of Russell Steele find out about Rosie?
Yes; yes, they would.
It was one of the taxi drivers, Chauncey, who witnessed a determined-looking woman marching down the National Park Service dock calling for Captain Sam Powers (we all know him as Huck), LeeAnn’s devoted second husband and Rosie’s stepfather, and then talking herself right onto Huck’s boat, the Mississippi. Chauncey remembers whistling under his breath because he had seen women on a rampage like that before and they always got what they were after.
The two sons appeared out and about in Cruz Bay, going to the usual places tourists go—La Tapa to enjoy the mussels, High Tide for happy hour. We saw these young men (one tall and clean-cut with a dimple, one stocky with bushy blond hair) in the company of two young women we were all very fond of (charming and lovely Ayers Wilson, who had been Rosie’s best friend, and Tilda Payne, whose parents owned a villa in exclusive Peter Bay), and that set us speculating, even though we knew that beautiful young people find one another no matter what the circumstances.
When we learned that one of the sons, Baker Steele, took his child on a tour of the Gifft Hill School and that the other son, Cash Steele, had joined the crew of Treasure Island, we began to wonder: Were they staying?
When we discovered that the Invisible Man’s wife, Irene Steele, was working as the first mate on Huck’s fishing boat, we thought: What exactly is going on?
We couldn’t run into one another at Pine Peace Market or in line at the post office without asking in a whisper: You heard anything new?
Sadie, out in Coral Bay, was the one who learned that the FBI had come looking for Paulette and Douglas Vickers, but Paulette and Douglas had taken their six-year-old son, Windsor, and fled by the time the FBI arrived. They went to St. Croix to hide out with Douglas’s sister in Frederiksted. Did one of us tell the FBI where they were? No one knew for sure, but Paulette and Douglas were arrested the very next day.
We’d barely had time to recover from this shocking news when the FBI sent agents in four black cars along the North Shore Road to whatever secluded villa Russell Steele owned to inform Irene Steele that the villa and the entire hundred-and-forty-acre parcel we called Little Cinnamon was now the property of the U.S. government, since it had been purchased with dirty money.
Whew! We woke up the next morning feeling like we had gorged ourselves. We were plump with gossip. It was, almost, too much.
We feel compelled to mention that this kind of scandal isn’t typical of life here in the Virgin Islands.
What is typical?
“Good morning,” “Good afternoon,” or “Good evening” at the start of every conversation.
Sunshine, sometimes alternating with a soaking rain.
Wild donkeys on the Centerline Road.
Sunburned tourists spilling out of Woody’s during happy hour.
Silver hook bracelets.
Swaying palm trees and sunsets.
Hikers in floppy hats.
Turtles in Salt Pond Bay.
Full-moon parties at Miss Lucy’s.
Mosquitoes in Maho Bay.
Long lines at the Starfish Market (bring your own bags).
Cruise-ship crowds on the beach at Trunk Bay.
Steel-drum music and Chester’s johnnycakes.
Snorkelers, whom we fondly call “one-horned buttfish.”
Driving on the left.
Nutmeg sprinkled on painkillers (the drink).
Captain Stephen playing the guitar on the Singing Dog.
Eight Tuff Miles, ending at Skinny Legs.
A smile from Slim Man, who owns the parking lot downtown.
Nude sunbathers on Salomon Bay.
Rum punches and Kenny Chesney.
Afternoon trade winds.
St. John has no traffic lights, no chain stores, no fast-food restaurants, and no nightclubs, unless you count the Beach Bar, where you can dance to Miss Fairchild and the Wheeland Brothers in the sand. St. John is quiet, authentic, unspoiled.
Some people go so far as to call our island “paradise.”
But, we quickly remind them, even paradise has its troubles.
Cigarette smoke. Bacon grease. Something that smells like three-day-old fish.
Irene opens her eyes. Where is she?
There’s a blue windowpane-print bedsheet covering her. She’s on a couch. Her neck complains as she turns her head. There’s a kitchen, and on the counter, a bottle of eighteen-year-old Flor de Caña.
Irene sits up, brings her bare feet to the wood floor. A suitcase with everything she owns in the world is open on the coffee table.
She hears heavy footsteps and then: “Good morning, Angler Cupcake, how about some coffee?”
She drops her face into her hands. How can Huck be thinking about coffee? Irene’s life is…over. This time yesterday she’d been steady and stable, which was no small feat considering only a little over a month has passed since her husband, Russell Steele, was killed in a helicopter crash and Irene, who’d believed Russ was in Florida playing golf and schmoozing with clients, discovered that Russ had a secret life down here in the Virgin Islands complete with mistress, love child, and a fifteen-million-dollar villa. Irene handled that news pretty damn well, if she does say so herself. Another woman might have had a nervous breakdown. Another woman might have set the villa on fire or taken out a full-page ad in the local paper (in Irene’s case, the Iowa City Press-Citizen) announcing her husband’s treachery. But Irene adapted to the shocking circumstances. She found that she liked the Virgin Islands so much that she’s returned here to live—maybe not forever, but for a little while, so she can catch her breath and regroup. Just yesterday she was looking around Russ’s villa, thinking how she would redecorate it, how she might turn it into an inn for women like herself who had survived cataclysmic life changes.
Just last night, Irene felt like a teenager falling in love for the first time because, in a plot twist that happens only in novels and romantic comedies, Irene has developed feelings for Huck Powers, the stepfather of Russ’s mistress. The universe did Irene “a solid” (as Cash and Baker would say) when she met Huck. He’s an irresistible mix of gruff fisherman, devoted grandpa, and teddy bear. What would Irene’s situation look like if she hadn’t become friends with Huck? She can’t imagine.
But entertaining notions of a love life is a luxury she can no longer afford. Last night, FBI agents seized Russ’s villa. It’s now the property of the U.S. government.
If Irene was painfully honest with herself, she would admit that, once she got down here, she’d realized there was no way the business Russ had been involved in was aboveboard. From the minute Irene set eyes on it, the villa had a bit of a magic-carpet feel: Was it real? Would it fly?
It was a tropical…palace. Nine bedrooms, each with its own en suite bath. The outdoor space featured an upper pool and a lower pool connected by a curvy slide, a hot tub dropped into a lush gardenscape, an outdoor kitchen, a shuffleboard court (which Irene had never used), and, eighty steps down, a small, private sugar-sand beach (which she had). The view across the water to Tortola and Jost Van Dyke was dramatic, soaring. The villa was so over-the-top luxurious that Irene was able to get past the fact that it had been the home of Russ and his mistress, Rosie, and their daughter, Maia. She had been looking forward to putting her own stamp on the place—choosing lighter, brighter fabrics, redoing a bathroom in an under-the-sea theme for her four-year-old grandson, Floyd, creating a custom window seat where she or Maia could read or nap.
The far bigger, more devastating development is that, as Agent Colette Vasco of the FBI informed Irene, the authorities were, at that very moment, also seizing her home on Church Street in Iowa City, an 1892 Queen Anne–style Victorian that Irene had spent six years renovating. The Church Street house is Irene’s home. It’s where her photo albums, her cookbooks with the sauce-splattered pages and handwritten notes, her clothes, her teapot, and her Christmas ornaments are. She has the idea that maybe, with luck, some of these items might be returned to her, but how is she to accept the loss of, say, the third-floor landing, paneled in dark walnut with the east-facing stained-glass window, or the mural of Door County on the dining-room walls? Those “moments” in her house are priceless and irreplaceable. Irene thinks longingly of her amethyst parlor, the velvet fainting couch, the absurdly expensive Persian rugs, the Eastlake bed in the Excelsior suite, the washstand, the sepia-toned photograph of Russ’s mother, Milly, as a child in 1928.
Thinking about that photograph brings Irene to her feet.
Huck, it turns out, has been watching her every move. “Coffee?”
She casts her eyes around the room and finds her phone plugged into the far wall. That’s right; Irene remembers being methodical about packing her suitcase and double-checking for essentials like her phone charger. Agent Vasco had looked on suspiciously, as though she thought Irene might try to slip in a stash of cocaine or blocks of hundred-dollar bills.
When Irene got to Huck’s house, they each did a shot—or two? three?—of the Flor de Caña, and Irene only barely recalls plugging her phone in before sleep. She remembers so little about the end of the night that she supposes she should be grateful she woke up on the sofa and not in Huck’s bed.
He’s a gentleman.
“I need to make a phone call,” she says. “Do you have any…aspirin?” She points to her head. “Good morning,” she adds, because she has learned the number-one rule of the Virgin Islands: “Good morning,” “Good afternoon,” or “Good evening” begins every conversation.
“Two aspirin coming right up,” Huck says.
“Three,” Irene says. Four, she thinks. “Please.”
“The best reception is out on the deck,” Huck says.
Irene slips through the sliding glass door, going from the pleasant air-conditioning of Huck’s house (though she gathered last night that he turned it on only because she was there) to the mounting heat of the day. Her phone says seven o’clock, which means it’s five o’clock in Iowa City.
Five a.m. Will Lydia be awake at five a.m.? She is going through menopause and complains that now she never sleeps, so maybe. Even if she is asleep, Irene needs to wake her up. Dr. Lydia Christensen is her best friend; she claims she is there for Irene no matter what. The bonds of best-friendship get tested infrequently, especially as Irene prides herself on being self-sufficient.
Today is a different story.
“Hello?” Lydia says. She’s laughing. Irene hears the whisper of bedsheets and, in the next instant, a deep male voice. This would be Brandon the barista, Lydia’s new boyfriend. Irene doesn’t want to imagine what the two of them are doing up so early.
“Lydia, it’s Irene.” She stops herself. “Good morning.”
“Irene?” Lydia says. “Is everything okay? Did something happen? Something else?”
“Yes,” Irene says.
Lydia is there for Irene no matter what. No matter that it’s five a.m., no matter that it’s negative ten degrees with the wind chill in Iowa City, no matter that Irene interrupted pillow talk. Lydia and Brandon are going to put on their parkas and drive directly over to Church Street to see what’s what. She’ll call Irene when she gets there.
Inside, Irene accepts the three aspirin and a glass of ice water. The Flor de Caña bottle has been tucked away and in its place is a cup of coffee that Irene understands is for her. There are eggs cooking on the stove.
“I don’t want to seem ungrateful, but I just can’t eat,” Irene says.
“The eggs are for Maia,” Huck says.
Right, Irene thinks. Maia has school. For everyone else, it’s a normal day. It’s Thursday.
“We have a charter,” Irene says.
“That we do,” Huck says. “I’m going to take it alone. I thought about passing it off to What a Catch! but it seems like now we could probably use the money. You stay home and figure out what you need to figure out and I’ll be back this afternoon to help you in any way that I can.” He gives her a tentative smile. “Maybe with fresh mahi.”
Irene bows her head. She notices his use of the pronoun we, which she finds both sweet and confusing. What he doesn’t understand is that there is no we. Irene has lost her house here and her home in Iowa City. She feels like Wile E. Coyote in the old cartoons: suspended over a canyon, running on air, and then looking down and realizing there’s nothing beneath him. Irene’s problem can’t be fixed. It can’t be made better by fresh grilled mahi for dinner. Irene’s problem is that her husband of thirty-five years, in addition to keeping a mistress and fathering a child and lying about his whereabouts, had been evading tax laws and laundering money.
“Did I ever tell you that Russ sent me flowers on New Year’s Day?” Irene asks. “Calla lilies, a beautiful bouquet. He must have arranged it with the florist ahead of time and paid extra because of the holiday. And do you know what I thought when I got them? I thought, What a lovely man Russell Steele is. I am so lucky to have him.”
“AC,” Huck says. He turns off the heat under the eggs and takes a step toward her, but she holds up her palm to warn him away.
“He was dead by the time the flowers arrived.”
“Irene,” Huck says. “You’re allowed to be upset.”
Apparently, Irene hasn’t avoided the nervous-breakdown stage after all because what she wants to do is scream, You’re damn right I’m allowed to be upset! It’s a good thing the man is dead because if he were alive, I’d kill him!
But Irene holds her tongue and a second later, Maia walks into the kitchen. She’s wearing pink shorts, a gray T-shirt with a hand-painted iguana on the front, and a pair of black Converse.
When she sees Irene, she does an almost comical double take. “Um…hi? Miss Irene?”
“Good morning, Maia,” Irene says. She turns the corners of her lips up, which physically hurts. Then, as a demonstration that everything’s okay, everything’s fine, she takes a sip of her coffee. It’s strong. One small mercy.
Maia looks from Irene to Huck and back with raised eyebrows. “Did you…stay here last night?”
Irene nearly laughs. She has no idea what to say. Part of her wants to claim she’s here just to pick up Huck for their charter, but in another second, Maia is going to notice Irene’s suitcase open on the coffee table.
“I did,” Irene says. “Huck was kind enough to let me sleep on the sofa.”
“Okay…” Maia says.
Huck spoons some eggs onto a plate and pushes the button on the toaster. “Irene and the boys lost the villa, Nut,” he says. “There’s some…tax trouble.”
Tax trouble is a useful phrase, Irene thinks. It’ll put everyone to sleep.
Maia takes a seat at the table. “So you guys can’t stay there anymore?”
The toaster dings. Huck pulls butter and jam out of the fridge and sets them on the table along with the plate of eggs and toast. “I have to get ready,” he says, and he disappears down the hall, leaving Irene to explain the unexplainable.
“We can’t,” Irene says. Cash called his friend Tilda and spent the night at her house. Irene asked Cash to call Baker and let him know what had happened. Baker was planning on moving down to the island from Houston with his son, Floyd—though these plans will certainly have to change. Hopefully, Baker hasn’t done anything that can’t be undone. “The villa belongs to the government now. Because Russ…your dad…he owed the government money for taxes, and since he’s not here to pay them, the FBI took the house instead.” This isn’t quite true, but it’s close enough.
“So none of us can stay there?”
“No,” Irene says. “They let me leave with only one suitcase. Just my clothes. So the stuff in your room…might be difficult to get back.”
Maia’s fork hovers over her breakfast. She looks so much like Russ’s mother, Milly, in that moment that Irene wants to hug her. Those eyes. Milly’s eyes.
“Are you guys leaving, then?” Maia asks in a wavering voice.
“Oh, Maia,” Irene says, and her eyes fill with tears. “No? I don’t know? The FBI also took my house in Iowa City.”
“They did,” Irene says. She can no longer stand, she’s shaking too badly, so she takes the seat next to Maia. “That house is what’s called a Victorian, and it had been a dream of mine since I was a young girl to restore and live in a real Victorian house. When Russ and I were first married, I kept clippings in a file folder of paint colors I liked, sofas, wallpaper, old sinks, light fixtures, doorknobs.”
“Like Pinterest?” Maia says.
“Yes, like Pinterest,” Irene says. “And once Russ…your dad…took the job down here, I had the money to buy a real Victorian house in a style called Queen Anne, which has elaborate gingerbread fretwork trim…” She looks at Maia. “Do you know what that is?”
Maia shakes her head.
“It looks like a house in a fairy tale, with a deep front porch and a turret and some stained-glass windows.”
“Cool,” Maia says. Irene thinks maybe Maia is indulging her, but it is cool.
“It was as if my entire Pinterest board came to life,” Irene says. “The house is filled with antiques and hand-knotted silk rugs. There are built-in cabinets and salvaged fixtures and stained-glass windows and murals on the walls and chandeliers, and I have a doorbell that used to ring in a convent in Italy.” She needs to stop. What is she doing, unloading all this on a twelve-year-old? “I would have loved for you to see it.” This is true, Irene realizes. She wanted both Huck and Maia to see the Church Street house someday. It was her life’s work. In a way, it was an incarnation of Irene herself. “But they’re taking it. I’m losing my swimming pool and my rose garden with all my heirloom varietals and my two cars. It’ll all be gone. They’re taking it because of Russ. And now I have nothing left.”
Maia stares at Irene and Irene is just sane enough to feel ashamed.
“You have Cash and Baker and Floyd,” Maia says. “You have Huck. He really likes you…he was in a terrible mood when you went back to the States, you know. And you have me.” She picks up her toast, butters and jams it, and holds it out to Irene. “And you have this papaya jam from Jake’s, which is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. Try it.”
Irene accepts the toast—how can she not?—and takes a small bite. The jam is…well, it’s delicious.
“Good, right?” Maia says.
Irene nods and takes another small bite.
“You can start a new Pinterest board,” Maia says. “And the first thing on it can be the papaya jam from Jake’s.”
If only it were that easy, Irene thinks. She knows Maia is right; Irene still has what matters. Her family. Her friends. Her health. Her good sense, sort of.
“We aren’t going to leave,” Irene says. She doesn’t add Because we have nowhere to go. This isn’t strictly true, anyway. Baker still owns a house in Houston that is untouched by Russ’s tainted money. And Irene’s elderly aunt Ruth has their family summer home in Door County. But the thought of moving to Houston or living with her eighty-something-year-old aunt isn’t at all appealing. “We’ll figure something out.”
“You can stay here,” Maia says. “And you don’t have to sleep on the couch—we have an extra room. My mom’s room.” She takes a bite of eggs and seems to realize what she has just offered.
“The couch is fine for now,” Irene says quickly. “And I’ll find something. I’m not completely penniless.”
Maia swallows. “Gramps told me I could move into my mom’s room. That means you can have my room.”
“It’s a mess, I know,” Maia says. “But I’ll clean it after school. I’m grounded anyway.”
That’s right; Maia is grounded. She’d pulled a disappearing act last night after lying to Cash to get him to drop her off in town. That drama now seems extremely minor, like running out of dinner rolls on the Titanic.
“You don’t have to move on my account,” Irene says, though there is obviously no way she’s going to sleep in Rosie’s room. “The couch is fine.”
“I want to move,” Maia says. “You being here is a good impetus.” She scrunches up her eyes. “Did I use that word correctly?”
Irene can’t help herself; she halfway smiles. “You did.”
“So you’ll stay?”
It’s not in Irene’s nature to accept help from anyone, but she can’t turn down such a sweet offer—besides which, she is the definition of desperate. “I’ll stay until I get back on my feet.”
Suddenly, Huck is before them, dressed in his sky-blue fishing shirt and his visor, a yellow bandanna tied around his neck. “I’m glad that’s settled,” he says.
As Irene is standing at the window watching Huck’s truck wind its way down Jacob’s Ladder, her phone rings. It’s Lydia. Irene hovers her finger over the screen. She would like to stay here, in a space where there’s still a filament of hope. Maybe Agent Kenneth Beckett, who came to search the Church Street house a few weeks earlier, has intervened on Irene’s behalf. There’s always a good FBI agent in the movies, right? One who sees past the letter of the law to what’s authentically right and wrong? Irene didn’t do anything wrong. She doesn’t deserve to lose her home.
“Lydia?” Irene says.
“It’s been seized,” Lydia says. “They have a sign on the door and a team has just arrived to remove the contents. I asked to see the warrant, and what do I know, but it looked official. The guy called the house the ‘fruit of crime.’”
Irene’s stomach lurches and she fears she’s going to vomit. Remove the contents. The “fruit of crime.”
“What about the things that are mine?” Irene asks. “What about the things I bought with my salary from the magazine? What about the things we owned before Russ took the job at Ascension?”
“I don’t know,” Lydia says. “We’re sitting across the street in my car. Should I go ask?”
Irene tries to imagine Lydia asking these complicated questions. But the agents must get asked about this sort of thing constantly, every time they dismantle someone’s life.
“Please ask if you can get one thing,” Irene says. “A photograph of Milly. It’s in the navy-blue guest suite, hanging above the washstand.”
“Photograph of Milly, navy guest room, above the washstand,” Lydia repeats. “I’ll ask right now. You stay on the phone. Here, talk to Brandon.”
No! Irene thinks. She is in no mood to make small talk.
“Hey, Irene,” Brandon says.
“Good morning, Brandon.”
There’s the predictable awkward pause. Brandon clears his throat. “So, this is a bummer, huh?”
A bummer is when Iowa loses to Iowa State. It can maybe be stretched to include a flat tire, a loose filling that results in having to get a root canal, and flunking your driver’s test. What’s happening to Irene is not a bummer. It’s a…well, frankly, she lacks the right word.
“Yes,” she says. “Yes, Brandon, it is.”
Her tone must discourage further conversation because Brandon says, “Hang in there.”
A few moments later, Lydia takes the phone. “Here’s exactly what happened. First, he asked if I was your lawyer. I should have said yes, but I didn’t think fast enough. I told him I was your friend and that all I wanted was one family photograph. I told him I knew where it was and that he could come with me while I retrieved it.”
“What did he say?”
“He said no.”
Irene needs to hang up. She needs to call Ed Sorley, her attorney, although Ed will be in way over his head with this. She needs to find another attorney. But first, Irene wants that photograph. Out of all the items in her home, that’s the one she can’t bear to think of being ignominiously tossed onto a pile in some storage unit. “Thank you, Lydia. I appreciate you getting out of bed to check on this for me.”
“I wish there were more we could do,” Lydia says. “I can’t believe how awful this is…your beautiful house. You worked so hard…remember when they sent the wrong-si. . .
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