“I can’t believe you fried your computer before you left,” Robin said, laughing as she lifted her wine glass to her lips. “I am so glad I decided to stay the weekend.”
“I’d like to say I don’t know what came over me,” Emily said, swirling her own wine around her glass, “but it was a long time in the making. Besides, I can always blame it on a misguided attempt to fill my big sister’s shoes.”
“As far as I’m concerned, you did just that,” Hunter said. “Destroying company property and giving your two weeks on the way out the door, then getting a new job the next day? She’d definitely be proud of you. I know I am.” He took a drink of the wine he’d ordered in spite of the way Robin was glaring at him. “It’s a shame I never got to meet her.”
“She would have liked you,” Emily said as the waitress put their bill on the table. “Missy had a talent for figuring people out; she would have known you were a winner from the start.” She reached for the bill at the same time Robin and Hunter both reached for it, but the combination of his longer arms and the fact that the waitress automatically put the bill closer to him meant he got to it first.
“Sorry, ladies, tonight is my treat.” He put his card in the folio without looking at the bill, ignoring the protests of Emily and Robin on either side of him, and handed it to the waitress. “If you two can see your way to forgiving me, I’d like to take you on an adventure.”
“Adventure?” Emily looked interested and Robin rolled her eyes.
“Don’t fall for it,” she said. “Every time he said that when I was a kid we ended up doing some boring educational thing or picking up trash on the beach.”
“You enjoyed yourself every time, too,” Hunter said. “I still remember that much.”
“I’m game,” Emily said, finishing her wine. “You’re going to have to give me directions, though. Unless you want Robin to drive us, she probably knows where you’re taking us.”
“She doesn’t,” Hunter said as the waitress returned with his card and receipt. “I’m driving tonight.” He signed his receipt while the two women offered a number of reasons why he should just let one of them drive, but he simply smiled and shook his head all the way out the door. Emily stopped arguing first, resigning herself to her fate and slipping her hand into his while Robin decided to go at him from another angle.
“You’ve already been drinking tonight, Dad,” she said. “Why don’t you just let me drive? You and Emily can sit in the back together and, I don’t know, make out or something.”
“Can’t do it,” Emily said apologetically. “I get carsick in the back seat. If anyone should drive it should be me.”
“We’ve all been drinking,” Hunter said, unlocking his car. “Besides, I drove us to the restaurant. I can drive us where we’re going. After we’re done, you two can fight over who gets to drive us home. I promise.” He smiled at his daughter, who flung herself into the backseat like a petulant child and folded her arms over her chest. Emily stifled a laugh as she got into the passenger seat.
“When do you have to be back in Denver, Robin?” She buckled her seat belt and looked back at Robin, who shot her father a dirty look before smiling at Emily.
“I’ll be flying out Sunday night,” she replied. “I have to be back in the lab first thing Monday morning to present everything from the meetings to my team.”
“Yeah, I’ve been there before. What is it that you do, anyway? Your dad hasn’t told me much about your line of work.” Still wearing her seat belt, Emily turned as far around as she could and Robin smiled and took out her phone.
“I’m working for a company called FuturaChem,” she said. “Putting my degrees to good use trying to find renewable energy sources. Right now my team is working on using waste gases as a secondary fuel source for electric cars to offset the amount of electrical energy that has to be generated to charge the batteries.”
“How interesting,” Emily said with a smile. “So you have advanced degrees too?”
“Yes,” Robin replied, turning her phone to show it to Emily. “That’s my lab. And I’m the proud owner of my very own Ph.D in organic chemistry. The world has been blessed with two separate Drs. Chambers.” She dropped her phone into her purse. “I’m not a real doctor like you, though.”
“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” Emily said. “You’re better off taking after your father, and your mother too, I’m sure.”
“Ellen was a teacher,” Hunter said. “She taught ballet, and Robin absolutely took after her. My darling daughter was the cutest little…” His mind was suddenly blank and he frowned, trying to remember exactly what part Robin had played in the Nutcracker. He could see her cheeks painted to look rosy and her gray costume, but he couldn’t find the word to describe her. The silence stretched out and Hunter was acutely aware that both women were looking at him, so he laughed. “Whatever she was, she was adorable and she did it every year.”
“A mouse, Dad,” Robin said quietly. “I was a mouse.”
“Hopefully you only had one head,” Emily supplied with a grin that put Hunter a little more at ease. He knew what she was doing and had never been more grateful. “I had this Nutcracker book when I was a kid and the illustration of the rat king gave me nightmares. That reminds me,” Emily said, facing front again. “I need to clear my stuff out of the lab at BioGen. No need for me to culture lung tissue now that Melissa’s gone, right?”
“You should hang on to whatever’s viable,” Hunter said. “Take it with you to the university and see what you can do with it there. I’m sure your new bosses would be thrilled to see something else you brought to the table.”
“I would be,” Robin said. “You’re the total package. It’s no wonder they snapped you up the second you walked through the door.” She looked at Hunter in the rearview mirror. “Dad, where are we going? Are you sure you don’t need one of us to drive?”
“I know where we’re going,” Hunter said, putting on his turn signal. “It’s someplace you loved visiting when you were a kid.” Robin leaned forward and he raised an eyebrow at her. “Shouldn’t you be wearing your seatbelt?”
“Are we going out to the museum campus?”
“You’ll have to wait and see,” Hunter replied, then looked at Emily. “I think you’re going to really like this place.”
“I’m excited,” Emily said. “I love surprises.”
“That’s good to hear.” Hunter pulled into the large parking lot that several buildings shared and turned off the car. “We’re here.”
“Really? Here?” He could hear the excitement in Robin’s voice and nodded. “Oh my god, I did love this place! But I haven’t been here in years.” She opened the door and hopped out of the car, leaving Emily and Hunter sitting in the front seat.
“Butterfly Pavilion?” Emily looked at the sign curiously. “I’ve never been here. Every time I’ve come out to the museum campus I’ve been coming for a reason so I never really explored. It looks like it’s closed, though.”
“Hey, Dad,” Robin called from the sidewalk in front of the Butterfly Pavilion. “I think it’s closed!”
“Is it?” Hunter got out of the car and twirled his keys on his finger, feeling like a young man for the first time in years. He locked the car and strode up to the doors of the round building with Emily and his daughter on his heels.
The front hallway of the building was indeed dark, and a small sign in the door informed them that the pavilion had closed early that day. Emily sighed with disappointment but Hunter walked up to the door and pressed a small button that was nearly hidden on the wall. He hummed while he waited, fully enjoying knowing that he was driving Emily and Robin crazy. No doubt they were trying to come up with a tactful way to tell him that he needed to go home and go to bed. Before one of them could find the words, a chubby woman in a business suit came walking down the hallway with a smile. She unlocked the door and held it open for them.
“Good evening, Dr. Chambers,” she said with a smile. “Right on time, I see.”
“As often as I can manage it,” he said, then motioned to his companions. “Allow me to introduce Dr. Robin Chambers and Dr. Emily Ashton.”
“Pleased to meet you both, Doctors,” the woman said, beaming as she relocked the door behind them. “I’m Kari Satonaka, the director of the Butterfly Pavilion’s educational programs. If you’ll follow me, I’ll take you to the butterflies.” She turned and led them down a long hall and around a corner to a glass box that was attached to a large door. A sign on the door with a photo of a butterfly on a baseball cap warned them to ‘Watch Out for Hitchhikers!’ and Kari tapped it. “We have very few rules here, but they’re very important ones. There are nectar cups available to feed the butterflies but please don’t give them any outside food. Don’t touch the butterflies or other animals, allow them to make contact instead. Above all, forget your problems and just enjoy the wonders of nature for a little while. I’ll be here until you’re ready to leave, so please just knock on the office door when you’re ready to go.”
“Thank you,” Emily and Robin said at the same time, then looked at one another while Kari walked back down the hall. Hunter went first, leading them into the glass room and holding the door open for them.
As soon as Emily stepped into the butterfly pavilion, she gasped softly. The lights in the conservatory-like room were low, almost matching the darkness outside the mostly glass building, and the trees were draped with strands of white Christmas lights. Even in the soft light there were butterflies fluttering through the air, and the combination of the trickling of a man-made stream and chirping frogs made it seem like they were in a different, more relaxing world.
“This place is gorgeous,” Emily said, looking around. There were halves of an apple and a pear sitting on logs, and a few butterflies were sampling them and gently opening and closing their wings. Robin nodded and went to one of the trees.
“There weren’t lights like this whenever we used to come,” she said. “We also never came this late at night, though.” Robin turned to her father. “Did you have them do this, Dad?”
“Yes,” Hunter said with a smile. “I wanted it to be special. We can come back another time to see the spiders and lizards but tonight I didn’t want to share it with anyone but you.”
“You’re sweet,” Emily said, taking Hunter’s hand. He laced his fingers through hers and squeezed gently.
“It won’t be tomorrow, but there’s going to come a time when I won’t be able to remember what a butterfly is. As much as I want to remember how you look tonight, that will be gone too. I’ll hold onto it as long as I can, but there are no guarantees with this disease. Whatever time I have left, though, I want to spend it with you.” He took Emily’s other hand and looked into her eyes. “I know it’s selfish of me to ask you to commit to someone who’s sick, but I can’t imagine the rest of my life without you.”
“It’s not selfish. You know I’m with you because I want to be,” Emily said. “Alzheimer’s is a part of you, it’s not all you are.”
“Not everyone sees it that way,” Hunter said. “That’s one of the reasons you’re so special, and just one of the reasons I love you.” Taking a deep breath, he let go of her hands and reached into his pocket. The box didn’t seem to want to come out and he struggled with it, aware that both Emily and Robin were watching him. When he finally freed it, he held it out to Emily with a smile.
“Is this what I think it is?” She took the box and opened it to reveal a ring with a beautifully cut champagne diamond set in white gold with pale gold filigree. The stone caught the Christmas lights and sparkled, and Hunter nodded.
“Whatever time I have left, I want to spend with you, Emily.” Hunter heard a small noise behind him and looked over his shoulder to see Robin standing on her tiptoes, her eyes wide. He turned his attention back to Emily, who was looking into the box as if stunned.
“I told you I don’t have any regrets about Melissa, and it’s true. If there’s anything I learned from her death it’s that you can’t play it safe all your life, sometimes you have to take chances. Nothing is certain, you know that better than anyone. You can be the happiest woman in the world but it can all be gone in seconds.” She smiled up at Hunter, her eyes shining. “Melissa was always the brave one, but I’d like to think that she rubbed off on me just a little.”
“You’ve always been the brave one,” Hunter said. “It just took you longer to realize it.”
“You’re just trying to get me to marry you,” Emily said with a smirk, and Hunter gave her what he hoped was a suave smile.
“Is it working?” Rather than reply, Emily threw her arms around him and kissed him. Hunter put his arms around her waist and lifted her off the ground. Robin squealed with delight and clapped her hands as they kissed, and Hunter found himself wishing that he’d remember this moment forever. As soon as he set Emily back down, he took the box out of her hand and slipped the ring onto her finger. While she was admiring it, Robin ran over to them and hugged her tightly.
“Do I get to call you Mom now?”
“Only if I get to send you to your room,” Emily said, wiping tears out of her eyes. Hunter laughed out loud and put an arm around each of the women.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s see if the chrysalis rack is still over on the other side of the trees. Robin used to love it when we caught one hatching.” Robin hurried ahead of them and Hunter turned to see Emily looking down at her hand. “No regrets?”
“None at all,” Emily said, taking the empty box from him and tucking it into her purse. Hunter kissed her again, then pulled away when he felt something land on his hand. A butterfly had alighted on his finger and as he watched it open and close its wings, more joined them, fluttering around the couple as if curious. Hunter lifted his hand and the butterfly flew away, but Emily stayed by his side and even though he didn’t know what the next day, week, or year would bring, this time he believed she always would.