What Happens in Paradise - Elin Hilderbrand

Part One

A Rooster and

Two Hens


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.

It’s Russ.

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