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A second Christmas on Nantucket finds Winter Street Inn owner Kelley Quinn reflecting on the past year as he writes a holiday letter to friends and family. Though the year has had its share of misfortune and worry, the Quinns have much to celebrate. Kelley, now single, at least is on better terms with his first wife Margaret, who is using her celebrity to lure customers to the inn in record numbers. Their son Kevin has a beautiful new baby, Genevieve, with the Inn’s French housekeeper, Isabelle; and their daughter, Ava, is finally dating a nice guy–her devoted colleague, Scott.
Now the Quinns are looking forward to celebrating Genevieve’s baptism, welcoming Isabelle to the family, and enjoying the cheer of Nantucket’s traditional Christmas Stroll. But just when a peaceful family gathering seems within reach, Kelley’s estranged second wife, Mitzi, shows up on the island after souring on her relationship with the inn’s former Santa Claus. Soon Kelley isn’t the only Quinn entertaining a surprise guest from Christmases past as lovers old and new gather beneath the mistletoe. With jealousy, passion, and eggnog consumption at an all-time high, it’s going to take a whole lot more than a Christmas miracle to get the Quinns–and the inn–through the holidays intact.
Follow the Quinn family through the entire Winter Street Series:
- Winter Street
- Winter Stroll
- Winter Storms
- Winter Solstice
Table of Contents
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FRIDAY, DECEMBER 4
She sneaks out behind the hotel and lights a cigarette. George knows she smokes, but he has drawn the line at watching her do it—so she has to be stealthy and quick. If she's gone for more than ten minutes he sends out a search party, which is usually comprised of himself and his Jack Russell terrier, Rudy, but also sometimes one or more of the women who work in the shop making hats. George thinks Mitzi is going to hurt herself. Or, possibly, run off and have an affair on him, the way she did on her husband, Kelley.
An affair is unthinkable in Mitzi's condition. Hurting herself seems redundant; she is already suffering from the maximum amount of pain a person can experience.
Bart Bart Bart Bart Bart.
George says he understands, but he's never had a child, so how could he possibly?
Nicotine is poison. And yet, since Bart has gone missing, cigarettes are one of two things that make Mitzi feel better. The other is alcohol. Mitzi has become partial to a sipping tequila called Casa Dragones that is packaged in a slender, elegant turquoise box and costs eighty-five dollars a bottle at the one high-end liquor store in Lenox that sells it.
She wonders if any of the liquor stores on Nantucket sell Casa Dragones. Murray's, perhaps? She would like a few shots of it now, just enough to take the edge off.
When Bart enlisted in the Marines eighteen months earlier, Mitzi had naively believed the so-called War Against Terror to be over. Osama bin Laden had been killed and buried at sea. Mitzi had pictured Bart going to Afghanistan to help a war-torn people get back on their feet. She had thought he would be digging wells and rebuilding schools. She had envisioned him working with children—giving them pencils and gum, teaching them inappropriate phrases in English. Baby got back! But Bart had been in country less than twenty-four hours when his convoy of forty-five troops was captured.
They have been missing for nearly a year now.
The Department of Defense believes that the extremist group responsible for the kidnapping is called the Bely, pronounced "belle-aye." It means "yes" in the Afghan language. No one has ever heard of the Bely; all that is known about them is that they are young—most of them only teenagers—and they are vicious. One official reportedly said, "These kids make ISIS and the Taliban look like Up with People." The Bely are also, apparently, magicians—because even after sending three reconnaissance missions into Sangin and the surrounding province, the U.S. military has yet to discover where the marines are being held.
Mitzi can't watch TV anymore, nor read the newspaper; she can barely log on to her computer. When there is definitive news about what has happened to Bart's convoy, the DoD will contact Kelley and Mitzi directly.
George's advice is: Try not to think about it. This is apparently how they deal with misfortune at the North Pole. They ignore it.
Mitzi finishes her cigarette, stubs it out on the sole of her clog, and pops a breath mint—for what reason, she's not quite sure. George doesn't kiss her anymore, and they rarely have sex. George is older and requires the help of a pill to be intimate, and Mitzi can't lose herself for even half an hour. She is a prisoner as well—to her worry, her fear, her anxiety, and her bad habits.
She pulls out her cell phone and calls Kelley.
"Hello?" he says. His voice sounds robust, nearly happy; in the background, Mitzi can hear Christmas music, "Carol of the Bells." Mitzi has many issues with Kelley, but chief among them is how, at times, he doesn't even seem to remember that their son is missing. He has handled Bart's disappearance with an equanimity Mitzi finds baffling. Case in point: right now, he seems to be listening to carols! And he's probably getting ready to make champagne cocktails for the guests. It's Christmas Stroll weekend—which, on Nantucket, is even more Christmassy than Christmas itself. The town has an intoxicating smell of evergreen, salt air, and woodsmoke. When the ferry rounded Brant Point earlier that afternoon and Mitzi saw the giant lit wreath hanging on the lighthouse, she remembered, for an instant, just how much she loved the holidays on this island.
But then, reality descended like a dark hood.
"Kelley," Mitzi says. "I'm here."
"Here?" Kelley says.
"On Nantucket," she says. "For the weekend. We're staying at the Castle."
"For the love of all Harry, Mitzi," Kelley says. "Why?"
Why? Why? Why? She and Kelley had agreed that it would be best for everyone if Mitzi stayed with George in Lenox through the holidays.
"You made your decision," Kelley had said, on the other occasions when Mitzi had mentioned returning to Nantucket for a visit. "You chose George."
I chose George, Mitzi thought. For twelve years running, Mitzi and George had conducted a love affair during the Christmas holidays, when George brought his antique fire engine to the island and dressed up as the Winter Street Inn Santa Claus. Last year, things had come to a head, and Mitzi had decided to leave Kelley for George. Bart had just deployed and Mitzi's judgment had been wobbly. More than anything, she had wanted to escape her circumstances; she had wanted to hide in a fantasy life of sleigh bells and elves.
It had been a big fat mistake. Now that Mitzi is with George day in, day out, the allure has worn thin. Who wants to be with Santa Claus on St. Patrick's Day, or the Fourth of July? Nobody. Santa's sex appeal is specific to the month of December. On good days, Mitzi feels a brotherly affection for George; on bad days, she is filled with bitter regret.
"I had to come," Mitzi says. "I missed the island so much, and I know Kevin and Isabelle are having the baby baptized on Sunday."
"How?" Kelley says. "How did you know that?"
Mitzi crunches her breath mint. She doesn't want to give away her source.
"Ava certainly didn't tell you," Kelley says. "And it wasn't Kevin or Isabelle. And Patrick is in jail."
Another second and he'll figure it out, Mitzi thinks.
"Jennifer!" Kelley says. "Jennifer told you. I can't believe she still speaks to you. She actually is the nicest person alive, just as we always suspected."
"Jennifer and I are simpatico," Mitzi says. "She lost her husband, and I lost my son."
"She did not lose her husband," Kelley says. "Patrick is in jail, he's not dead. And"—here, Kelley clears his throat—"Bart isn't dead, either, Mitzi."
Mitzi squeezes her eyes shut. She can't explain how badly she needs to hear Kelley say that. Bart isn't dead. Which means, Bart is alive. He's somewhere. The Bely are a new enemy, but the one thing that is known about them is their tender age. The only way Mitzi gets through some nights is to imagine Bart and the other marines playing soccer or gin rummy with their counterparts in the Bely.
When Mitzi shared this vision with George, he gave her an encouraging pat and said, "That's the ticket, Mrs. Claus."
Mitzi has become pen pals with the mothers of two of the other missing marines through a service provided by the Department of Defense, and although they are from vastly different backgrounds—one woman is a fundamentalist Christian in Tallahassee, Florida, and one woman lives on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, both women are black—the emails sustain Mitzi and provide her with a sense of community. There are at least two other people in the world who understand exactly what Mitzi is feeling.
"Can I come to the baptism?" Mitzi asks. "Please?"
There is a great big huff from Kelley. "I really want to tell you 'no,'" he says. "You left me, you cheated on me, you betrayed me, you broke my heart, Mitzi."
"I know," she says. "I'm sorry."
"If it was just the one time, I might have understood," Kelley says. "But twelve years? It was a willful, planned, long-standing deceit, Mitzi."
"I know," Mitzi says. They have been over this same ground dozens and dozens of times in the past year, and Mitzi finds the best strategy is to agree with Kelley rather than try to defend herself.
"'Peace on earth, good will toward men,' Luke chapter 2, the Annunciation to the shepherds," Kelley says. "Because that is my Christmas mantra this year, I'm going to concede. You can come to the baptism. It's at eleven o'clock on Sunday. I'll save two seats in our pew for you and George."
"Thank you," Mitzi says. She would have gone to the baptism even without Kelley's permission, but it feels better to have asked. And two seats in the family pew is more than she dreamed of.
"You're welcome," Kelley says. "Forget what I said about Jennifer. I'm the nicest person alive."
Mitzi hangs up the phone just as George steps out the back door of the hotel.
"I've been looking all over for you," he says. He waves two tickets in the air. "Are you ready for the Holiday House Tour?"
Bart Bart Bart Bart Bart. Mitzi always says his name five times in her mind, like a prayer.
One of Mitzi's pen pals, Gayle from Tallahassee, draws on God's strength in order to go about her normal day. Gayle works in a pediatrician's office and dealing with sick children and their parents helps keep her from dwelling on her son, KJ. Mitzi's other pen pal, Yasmin of Flatbush Avenue, stays in bed most days. She admits that she just can't return to business as usual. She quit her job as a security guard at the Barclays Center. She has a hard time doing anything but watch Dance Moms on TV.
Mitzi falls somewhere in between these two women. When she hears George say, Holiday House Tour, a part of her thinks, Ooooooh, how Christmassy! She had always wanted to go on the Holiday House Tour, but she'd never been able to get away from the inn on the Friday of Christmas Stroll weekend. Now that she has no inn and no guests, she can finally go. But then, the other part of her thinks, Holiday House Tour? How can she admire other people's festively decorated homes—the greenery, the candlelight, the precious family heirlooms—when Bart is missing?
Peace on earth, good will toward men. She will go on the Holiday House Tour. But first, for the love of all Harry, she will make George find that tequila.
Scott Skyler has done it! He has found the ugliest Christmas sweater in all the world.
He shows it to Ava in his office, after all the children and most of the staff have left school for the day. He makes her close her eyes as he puts it on. And then, she can tell, he turns off the lights in his office. Scott and Ava have been hot and heavy all year, but one thing they have not dared to do is have sex in the school. They kissed on the bench of Ava's piano back in the spring, which almost led to… but they stopped themselves. They climbed up to the school roof together in the middle of summer to gaze at the stars, and they almost… but they stopped themselves.
"Okay," Scott says. "You can open them."
Ava screams—half in horror, half in delight. It's a red wool sweater with a poufy white tulle Christmas tree on the front, decorated with actual lights that blink and flash. Ava starts to cackle. The sweater is only made better by Scott's deadpan expression; it requires someone as big and authoritative as Scott to properly pull it off.
Nathaniel would have looked ridiculous in that sweater, Ava thinks. And furthermore, he wouldn't have been a good enough sport to wear it.
It's a year later, and she still thinks about Nathaniel. He moved to Martha's Vineyard in the spring to build a house on Chappaquiddick for some spectacularly rich folks, and on clear days Ava squints at the horizon and wonders what he's doing over there—if he likes it better than he likes Nantucket, if he's met the Martha's Vineyard equivalent of Ava Quinn, and if he's ever coming back.
She kisses Scott. He is simply the best, truest, most excellent guy for agreeing to help her plan the Ugly Christmas Sweater Caroling party for that evening. Ava's sweater is yellow, with an embroidered picture of Jesus on the front. Jesus's hands are raised over his head. The front of his white tunic says BIRTHDAY BOY. Ava was proud of her sweater… until she saw Scott's sweater.
At seven o'clock on Friday night, Ava and Scott and their fellow caroling comrades gather out in front of Our Island Home, Nantucket's assisted living facility for elders. Ava's best friend Shelby, the school librarian—who is now roundly pregnant with her first child—is there, as is one of the high school English teachers named Roxanne Oliveria.
Roxanne has either forgotten or ignored the fact that this is an Ugly Christmas Sweater Caroling party, because she is wearing a rather fetching red mohair wrap sweater that shows off her fake breasts. Hmmmmm, Roxanne, Ava thinks. Roxanne Oliveria, called "Mz. O" by her students—the O salaciously drawn out to indicate "orgasm"—is of Italian descent with gorgeous thick dark hair, olive skin, and a Sophia Loren beauty mark.
Despite working two schools over, Ava has heard her fair share of gossip about Mz. Ohhhhhh. Mz. Ohhhhhh suffered through two broken engagements and as such has ended up unmarried at forty years old. She's known as a "cougar" among the kids; she prefers younger men. She dated the athletic director at the Nantucket Boys & Girls Club who was only twenty-seven at the time, and she is vaguely inappropriate with the seniors on the football team.
Ava pulls Scott aside. "How did Roxanne get invited to this?"
"I asked her," Scott says. He takes note of Ava's expression and quickly starts explaining. "I bumped into her in the hall outside the pool, and it just sort of popped out of me before I realized what I was saying."
"Does she swim laps, too?" Ava asks.
"Um… yes?" Scott says.
Swimming laps is Scott's preferred method for staying in shape. He was a backstroker at the University of Indiana, and still holds two relay titles there, a little-known fact that Ava loves about him. But now she imagines Scott swimming laps one lane over from Roxanne "Mz. Ohhhhhh" Oliveria. Does Scott admire her stroke, or her flip turns, or her fake breasts in her tank suit?
Ava takes a deep breath and thinks, Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la. As she discovered in her relationship with Nathaniel, Ava has jealousy issues. But she will not succumb to jealousy now and ruin their fun party. She will not.
She smiles brightly at Roxanne and hands her a songbook. "Here you go!"
"Oh, I won't be needing that," Roxanne says. "I don't sing. Scott just invited me along to be the eye candy."
The eye candy? Ava thinks. She snatches back her songbook, eighteen of which she painstakingly printed out on the school computer, and then stapled to red construction paper covers and decorated with gold glitter lettering.
She goes back to Scott and pokes him in the middle of his tulle Christmas tree. It looks like he swallowed a tiny ballerina. "Roxanne tells me you invited her along to be the eye candy!"
Scott laughs nervously. "Your brother is here," he says.
Saved by the bell. But Ava will not forget. She will be watching Roxanne.
"Hey, sis," Kevin says. He gives Ava a squeeze. "I'm ready to get down and carol." Brilliantly, Kevin has shown up in one of Mitzi's old sweaters, salvaged from a box in the attic. It's so old, Mitzi didn't even bother taking it with her when she left with George the Santa Claus. The sweater features embroidered dancing reindeer with candy-cane-striped top hats. It barely fits over Kevin's chest, it ends mid-abdomen and at his elbows.
Kevin is followed by their sister-in-law, Jennifer, who is wearing a blue mohair sweater with an elf on the front. It says: Take me Gnome Tonight. Jennifer is on Nantucket for the weekend with her and Patrick's three boys, who are presently at home playing age-inappropriate video games. Jennifer was a good sport to come, considering Patrick is serving jail time for insider trading at a minimum-security facility in Shirley, and he won't be released until June. But Jennifer is all about family, and there is no way she would miss the baptism. Some women, Ava realizes, would crumple in a pile and feel sorry for themselves, but not Jennifer. Jennifer puts on her gnome sweater.
Ava grabs Jennifer. "Public enemy number one tonight is Roxanne, with the boobs."
"Roger," Jennifer says.
Jennifer is the best kind of sister-in-law. She is a competitor, and when it comes down to woman-against-woman warfare, she is always in Ava's foxhole with a grenade, ready to pull the pin.
"Point her out," Jennifer says. "Nope, never mind. I see her."
They are joined by other teachers and aides from the school until they are nineteen people in all. Ava is short one caroling book, and so she decides to share with Scott.
Ava, being the music teacher, hums the key for each song.
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.
The Holly and the Ivy.
The Ugly Sweater carolers wander the corridors of Our Island Home, singing, smiling, and waving at the infirm and the bedridden until they reach the common room where a small group of residents has gathered. Some of these elders clap and sing along, and one particularly spry couple, Bessie and Phil Clay, get up to dance. Then, suddenly, Roxanne Oliveria cuts in on the dance. Ava is scandalized at first, but she can soon tell that Phil loves it, and so does Bessie, who collapses in her wheelchair while Phil takes Roxanne for a few spins.
O Come, All Ye Faithful.
And then—sigh—"Jingle Bells." Ava likes it even less this year than she did last year, but a Christmas without "Jingle Bells" is like a Halloween without jack-o'-lanterns, Valentine's Day without roses—and so on. Ava has even provided each caroler with a cluster of tiny bells to shake at the appropriate times. "Jingle Bells" is the one song Roxanne belts out, albeit off-key. The residents are eating it up, singing along themselves. No matter how old one gets, one never forgets the words to "Jingle Bells."
The residents of Our Island Home clap wildly for the carolers, and Ava leads everyone in a bow. Scott shakes hands with a few of their favorite residents. He volunteers here at Our Island Home every week, and now Ava plays the piano while he serves dinner on Friday nights. Ava has grown to love coming in; she even bought a Cole Porter songbook. Many of these older people feel sad, lonely, or neglected—and music, nearly more than anything else, reinvigorates them.
Roxanne was kind to dance with Phil Clay, Ava realizes. Roxanne is in the holiday spirit.
They climb into cars to head into town. Ava makes darn sure Roxanne isn't riding with them. Instead, Roxanne goes with Shelby and her husband, Zack, and Zack's friend Elliott, who plays the saxophone in a Bruce Springsteen cover band. Elliott would be a good match for Roxanne—what woman wouldn't love an incarnation of Clarence Clemons?—but he's too old. He's nearly fifty.
Ava and Scott are riding with Kevin, who "isn't drinking" so that he can be put on midnight duty with the baby, Genevieve. But then, he passes Ava a flask, and she takes a slug: Jameson. Of course.
Ava says, "Are you excited about the baptism?"
He says, "Well, I wish Patrick and Bart could be here, obviously. It's a little weird being the only man left standing."
"Dad," Ava says.
"Yeah, but Dad doesn't look good lately. Have you noticed?"
"He's had a crappy year," Ava says. "His wife left him, and he nearly lost the inn. There was no way it felt good to have Mom roll in and save it."
"She really did save it, though," Kevin says. "We've been full all year. With a wait list!" Kevin has taken over the day-to-day operations of the inn, and Isabelle manages the housekeeping and cooking, and because they're both under the same roof, they can split time with Genevieve. "And it wasn't just the money."
"I know," Ava says. "But the money didn't hurt."
Margaret Quinn injected a million dollars into the inn, like adrenaline into a failing heart. But she also books a room for herself at the inn the first weekend of every month. During those weekends, she makes herself available to the guests. She hangs out in the kitchen, she helps Isabelle make the Reuben eggs Benedict, she pours coffee and draws routes in black Sharpie on the bike maps. And occasionally she holds forth on Kofi Annan, Pope Francis, Raúl Castro. The hotel guests never want to leave. They Facebook their pictures and Tweet and Instagram about the Winter Street Inn.
Margaret Quinn drew on my map! #familyheirloom #nantucket #winterstreetinn
Kelley was grateful for Margaret's help, he was very vocal about that, but neither Ava nor Kevin could figure out exactly what was going on with their parents. Margaret had her own room—room 10, George's old room, reserved especially for her—but Ava and Kevin knew that something had gone on between their parents the Christmas before. Over the course of the past year, there have been moments when they've seemed to be more than just friends. In July, they went for a long bike ride and came home completely drenched because they'd ended up at the beach and decided to swim in their clothes.
But some weekends, Dr. Drake Carroll, the pediatric brain surgeon, comes to stay with Margaret. Drake has been a handful of times, and he stays in room 10 with Margaret and they act like a couple in love. One rainy October day, they didn't emerge from their room even once. And how does Kelley feel about that?
Ava asked her father, "Does it bother you when Drake shows up?"
Kelley shrugged. "Drake is a great guy. And he's sending a lot of guests our way—his patients, other doctors. I can't complain about Drake."
Ava gave him a skeptical look and Kelley said, "It's a situation that requires a lot of maturity. Thankfully, your mother and I know how to act like adults."
Scott parks on Main Street and Shelby's husband, Zack, pulls up alongside him. Nantucket is all decked out for the holidays. Along either side of the cobblestone street are brightly lit trees, each decorated by a class at the elementary school. And at the top of Main Street stands the big tree, dressed in nearly two thousand white lights. The lighting of the trees takes place the Friday after Thanksgiving, when the entire island, it seems, gathers on the cobblestones, waiting for the instant when all of the trees light up at once, a real ahhhhh moment that captures the wonder of the season. This year, Ava and Scott took the baby, Genevieve, to the tree lighting. Scott carried Genevieve in the BabyBjörn, and he and Ava held hands and people who didn't know them thought the baby was theirs, which had given Ava unexpected pleasure. Later that night, when they had returned Genevieve to the waiting arms of her parents, Ava had said to Scott, "Can you see us having a family?"
Scott had said, "I dream of it every day."
The shopwindows are all lit up, and decorated with snowmen and candy canes, antique toys and working train sets. Ava inhales a big breath of cool air and gets a whiff of evergreen. She loves nothing more than Christmas on Nantucket. She believes in the magic.
"Scott!" Roxanne yells. She teeters over the cobblestones in her high-heeled white leather boots topped with snowy white fur. "I can't walk in these shoes. You're going to have to help me."
Ava rolls her eyes. She can't believe Roxanne is so obviously pursuing Scott's attention when she knows Ava and Scott are a couple. But Scott, ever the gentleman and constitutionally unable to turn down anyone in need, no matter how ludicrous that need may be, offers Roxanne one arm, and Ava his other arm, and the three of them pick their way over the cobblestones to the brick sidewalk.
Ava is relieved to reach the bar at the Boarding House, which is warm, cozy, and filled with convivial chatter. Ava is very ready for a drink, but they have all agreed that they will sing two songs before they order.
Ava scours her songbook for short carols. But Barry, the groundskeeper of the high school fields, who has an impressive baritone, suggests "Rudolph."
Ugh! Ava thinks. She is a classicist and considers "Rudolph" a complete abomination. However, she can't deny that it's a crowd pleaser. While they're doing songs Ava truly loathes, she figures they might as well segue into "Winter Wonderland."
The assembled crowd applauds, and there is a sharp wolf whistle that comes from the far right corner. The hair on the back of Ava's neck stands up. She knows that whistle.
She looks over. Nathaniel is sitting alone at the bar with a bottle of Whales Tale ale in front of him. He waves.
Kelley has heard from thousands of people offering their positive thoughts, prayers, and healing energy in regard to Bart. He has received emails from his old friends in Perrysburg, Ohio, from guests of the Winter Street Inn whom he hasn't seen in over a decade, and from guys who worked on the commodities desk with him at J.P. Morgan in New York a lifetime earlier.
What can we do to help?
The answer: Nothing.
Don't use Bart's disappearance as a springboard to air your personal views about Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or ISIS, or to disparage either the Bush administration or the Obama administration.
Don't generalize about Arab countries or Muslims.
Nothing isn't quite accurate in Margaret's case. She, alone among the people Kelley knows, has offered practical action. As the anchor of the CBS Evening News, she is one of the most influential people in America, and has a direct line to everyone—including the president of the United States. The Oval Office assured Margaret that "every possible step" was being taken to find the missing soldiers. Margaret also has a press contact in Afghanistan named Neville Grey, who first turned up the information about the Bely, whom no one in America had ever heard of.
PRAISE FOR WINTER STREET:
"A holiday package filled with humor, romance, and realism."—Jocelyn McClurg
- "Winter Street...[will] get you in the holiday mood."—Kirkus Reviews
PRAISE FOR THE RUMOR:
"We've said it before and we'll say it again: Hilderbrand is the queen of the summer. Rich people behaving badly--perfect poolside."
—Susannah Cahalan, The New York Post
- "It wouldn't be summer without a breezy, sensual Nantucket tale from Hilderbrand, and her latest...doesn't disappoint. Intricately plotted and filled with fast-paced dialogue, it's as sweetly satisfying as a glass of Sancerre." —Kim Hubbard, People
- "Queen of the beach read, and her latest [The Rumor]...is nothing short of a gift."—Lynsey Eidell, Glamour.com
- On Sale
- Oct 4, 2016
- Hachette Audio