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Winter in Paradise (Paradise #1)
Author:Elin Hilderbrand

Winter in Paradise (Paradise #1)

Elin Hilderbrand



To Matt and Julie Lasota

St. John was a place I used to visit—but then I met you and it become home.





AUTHOR’S NOTE



This is the first novel I’ve written that isn’t set on my home island of Nantucket. Instead, it’s set on an island I consider a home away from home, my happy place and my refuge: St. John, USVI. I started going to St. John in the spring of 2012, and I have been back every year since for a five-week stretch to finish up my winter books (every book in the Winter Street series was completed there) and to start my summer novels (I wrote large sections of Beautiful Day, The Matchmaker, The Rumor, Here’s to Us, and The Identicals there). Over the years I got to know some of the islanders, and that’s when my love of St. John was cemented. I have always maintained that, ultimately, the places we love are about people.

As many of you know, both the United States Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands sustained massive damage during Hurricanes Irma, Jose, and Maria in the fall of 2017. I worried I would not be able to return to St. John in the spring of 2018, but by mid-March, the island was ready for me and I returned, jubilant and grateful.

The island is not the same. There are areas of complete devastation, homes lost, trees that look like badly broken bones. Many of the island businesses, places I really and truly loved, either shut down temporarily or closed for good. During my stay in March and April of 2018, the island’s two biggest resorts, the Westin and Caneel Bay, were out of commission. But the spirit of St. John remained. People were upbeat and forward-looking. The island thrummed with the spirit of regeneration. I had a wonderful and magical five weeks, as I always do.

I’ve set this in January 2019 but as if it’s January 2017, before the hurricane. There are shops, restaurants, and hotels mentioned that are no longer in business. I felt that to write this novel effectively, I had to write about the St. John I had known and loved, and not complicate the narrative with details of the storm. The storm may yet surface during this trilogy, but it does not in this book. I would like to acknowledge the loss and the hardship that my beloved island and its people suffered—and I want to laud the entire community for its selflessness, cooperation, and bravery. You are an example to us all. God bless you.

The good news is that St. John is ready for you to come back or visit for the first time. It’s still paradise, all the more beautiful because of what it has endured.





PART ONE



Stateside





IRENE: IOWA CITY



It’s the first night of the new year.

Irene Steele has spent the day in a state of focused productivity. From nine to one, she filed away every piece of paperwork relating to the complete moth-to-butterfly renovation of her 1892 Queen Anne–style home on Church Street. From one to two, she ate a thick sandwich, chicken salad on pumpernickel (she has always been naturally slender, luckily, so no New Year’s diets for her), and then she took a short nap on the velvet fainting couch in front of the fire in the parlor. From two fifteen to three-thirty, she composed an email response to her boss, Joseph Feeney, the publisher of Heartland Home & Style magazine, who two days earlier had informed her that she was being “promoted” from editor in chief of the magazine to executive editor, a newly created position that reduces both Irene’s hours and responsibilities by half and comes with a 30 percent pay cut.

At a quarter of four, she tried calling her husband, Russ, who was away on business. The phone rang six times and went to voicemail. Irene didn’t leave a message. Russ never listened to them, anyway.

She tried Russ again at four thirty and was shuttled straight to voicemail. She paused, then hung up. Russ was on his phone night and day. Irene wondered if he was intentionally avoiding her call. He might have been upset about their conversation the day before, but first thing this morning, a lavish bouquet of snow-white calla lilies had been delivered to the door with a note: Because you love callas and I love you. Xo R. Irene had been delighted; there was nothing like fresh flowers to brighten a house in winter. She was amazed that Russ had been able to find someone who would deliver on the holiday, but his ingenuity knew no bounds.

At five o’clock, Irene poured herself a generous glass of Kendall-Jackson chardonnay, took a shower, and put on the silk and cashmere color-block sweater and black crepe slim pants from Eileen Fisher that Russ had given her for Christmas. She bundled up in her shearling coat, earmuffs, and calfskin leather gloves to walk the four blocks through Iowa City to meet her best friend, esteemed American history professor Lydia Christensen, at the Pullman Bar & Diner.



The New Year’s Day dinner is a tradition going into its seventh year. It started when Lydia got divorced from her philandering husband, Philip, and Russ’s travel schedule went from “nearly all the time” to “all the time.” The dinner is supposed to be a positive, life-affirming ritual: Irene and Lydia count their many, many blessings—this friendship near the top of the list—and state their aspirations for the twelve months ahead. But Irene and Lydia are only human, and so their conversation sometimes lapses into predictable lamentation. The greatest unfairness in this world, according to Lydia, is that men get sexier and better-looking as they get older and women… don’t. They just don’t.

“The CIA should hire women in their fifties,” Lydia says. “We’re invisible.”

“Would you ladies like more wine?” Ryan, the server, asks.

“Yes, please!” Irene says with her brightest smile. Is she invisible? A week ago, she wouldn’t have thought so, but news of her “promotion” makes her think maybe Lydia is right. Joseph Feeney is sliding Irene down the masthead (and hoping she won’t notice that’s what he’s doing) and replacing her with Mavis Key, a thirty-one-year-old dynamo who left a high-powered interior design firm in Manhattan to follow her husband to Cedar Rapids. She came waltzing into the magazine’s offices only eight months ago with her shiny, sexy résumé, and all of a sudden, Joseph wants the magazine to be more city-slick and sophisticated. He wants to shift attention and resources from the physical magazine to their online version, and, using Mavis Key’s expertise, he wants to create a “social media presence.” Irene stands in firm opposition. Teenagers and millennials use social media, but the demographic of Heartland Home & Style is women 39–65, which also happens to be Irene’s demographic. Those readers want magazines they can hold, glossies they can page through and coo over at the dentist’s office; they want features that reflect the cozy, bread-and-butter values of the Midwest.

Irene’s sudden, unexpected, and unwanted “promotion” makes Irene feel like a fuddy-duddy in Mom jeans. It makes her feel completely irrelevant. She will be invited to meetings, the less important ones, but her opinion will be disregarded. She will review layout and content, but no changes will be made. She will visit people in their offices, take advertisers out to lunch, and chat. She has been reduced to a figurehead, a mascot, a pet.

Irene gazes up at Ryan as he fills their glasses with buttery Chardonnay—the Cakebread, a splurge—and wonders what he sees when he looks at them. Does he see two vague, female-shaped outlines, the kind that detectives spray-paint around dead bodies? Or does he see two vibrant, interesting, desirable women of a certain age?