WINTER STREET

In bestseller Elin Hilderbrand's first Christmas novel, a family gathers on Nantucket for a holiday filled with surprises.

Kelley Quinn is the owner of Nantucket's Winter Street Inn and the proud father of four, all of them grown and living in varying states of disarray. Patrick, the eldest, is a hedge fund manager with a guilty conscience. Kevin, a bartender, is secretly sleeping with a French housekeeper named Isabelle. Ava, a school teacher, is finally dating the perfect guy but can't get him to commit. And Bart, the youngest and only child of Kelley's second marriage to Mitzi, has recently shocked everyone by joining the Marines.

As Christmas approaches, Kelley is looking forward to getting the family together for some quality time at the inn. But when he walks in on Mitzi kissing Santa Claus (or the guy who's playing Santa at the inn's annual party), utter chaos descends. With the three older children each reeling in their own dramas and Bart unreachable in Afghanistan, it might be up to Kelley's ex-wife, nightly news anchor Margaret Quinn, to save Christmas at the Winter Street Inn.

Before the mulled cider is gone, the delightfully dysfunctional Quinn family will survive a love triangle, an unplanned pregnancy, a federal crime, a small house fire, many shots of whiskey, and endless rounds of Christmas caroling, in this heart-warming novel about coming home for the holidays.

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DECEMBER 23

He didn't know anything was wrong. George the Santa Claus. "Is it me?" he asks. "Did I do something?"

Mitzi doesn't respond, and Kelley experiences a moment of weakness in which he thinks of asking George and Mitzi to stay through Christmas. The inn needs its Santa Claus, and Kelley needs his business partner. How is he going to throw the party tomorrow night? And what about Christmas dinner?

But no. No. Twelve years. Under his own roof! How could he not have known? Mitzi gives him a rueful smile. "It's not you, Kelley," she says. "It's me." stuff?" She gives him a quizzical look.

"Your ornaments, your nutcrackers… your carolers, for God's sake!"

"Oh," she says. "I'll leave those for the rest of you to enjoy." And with this, she walks out of their bedroom, shutting the door quietly behind her.

Is Mitzi going to walk away with Happy Scrooge?

"I was hoping to make it through Christmas," she said, "but it didn't work out that way.""Okay, wait," Kelley said. "Just wait!" His voice is surprisingly stern; it's a tone from his life before, his life on Wall Street and the brownstone on East Eighty-Eighth Street, his life with Margaret and the boys and Ava, back when he was a breadwinner instead of a bread baker, an ass kicker instead of an ass kisser. Quitting his job, leaving Manhattan, marrying Mitzi the Roller Disco Queen of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, moving to Nantucket year-round, buying a bed-and-breakfast, and having another child—at the age of forty-three—have all made Kelley soft. Wimpy. A pushover. But he isn't about to let his wife run off with 305 pounds of George the Santa Claus until he gets some answers. HBG-CHAPTER-NAME value="AVA""No," she says. "Now," he says, and she follows him.

Mitzi Quinn, whose real name is also Margaret, is the polar opposite of the original Margaret. Mitzi is ditzy, Kelley's kids used to chant, and, Kelley has to admit, she does have her moments. She believes in holistic medicine and chakras and energy work and the healing power of crystals; she reads New Age self-help books, she goes to hot yoga, she never drinks anything stronger than herbal tea, she doesn't eat beef or allow it to be cooked in the house. She is into astrological signs and the lunar calendar, due to the fact that she is a member of the population who was born on Leap Day. Mitzi wears flowing clothes, mostly silk and linen, and cashmere in the winter. Her clothes are unreasonably expensive, and she likes to wear something different every day of the month, another reason Kelley is going broke.

How did she limit herself to two suitcases?

he wonders.

He says, "So, what, you're in love with George? George the Santa Claus? You do understand how ridiculous I find this? He's an old man!"

"He's only sixty-six," she says.

too old. But Kelley can tell this argument is futile.

"How long has it been going on?" he asks.

She stares him dead in the eye; there is no evasion or fear, only the beautiful blue-gray irises he fell for twenty-one years earlier. Mitzi has eyes like the disco ball that used to spin over the wooden rinks of her youth. Her eyes emit light and color—flashes of green, blue, silver.

"The whole time," Mitzi says.

" Kelley says. "You mean, twelve years? Since George started staying with us?"

"Yes," Mitzi says.

LenoxGeorge the Santa Claus?"

staying with them!Same Time, Next Year, with Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn, a movie Kelley actually enjoyed when he saw it a million years ago with the original Margaret. of work to make it a destination of "high-end comfort"—the sumptuous marble bathrooms, the thick Turkish towels, the four-poster king-size beds made from solid cherry, the pillow-top mattresses, the original paintings by Nantucket artists. Not to mention central air-conditioning, an inn-wide stereo system, plasma TVs and iPod docking stations, and L'Occitane toiletries. Restoring the inn had been expensive and stressful.Margaret told Kelley not to marry Mitzi; she thought Mitzi was silly and too young.&I don't know what you're thinking, Kelley. She's going to want children, and you can't even care for the ones we have now. Kelley heard Margaret loud and clear, but he surprised her—and himself—by not only marrying Mitzi but by quitting the rat race, leaving Manhattan, taking custody of the children, and moving them to Nantucket. And buying the inn, which was Mitzi's dream. Although, to be fair, it had been a dream for both of them. It started out, perhaps, as a grandiose gesture of love. Mitzi had stayed at the Winter Street Inn for a dozen years before she met Kelley, and she had watched it fall into decline and decrepitude. When Kelley bought the inn for her, as a wedding present, really, the idea had been that they would embark on a new life together. This inn, built in 1873, originally belonging to the town's grocer, needed HBG-CHAPTER-NAME value="MARGARET"a lot

So… it hadn't always been the two of them holding hands, skipping along in golden sunshine, but it had been good. They renovated and restored, they advertised and marketed, they married and procreated. Kelley liked being an innkeeper. He liked his great stone hearth and his deep leather club chairs and the stairs that creaked because their treads were almost a hundred and fifty years old. He liked packing up box lunches that his guests could take to the beach. He liked tuning up the fleet of eight vintage Schwinns for their guests to ride into town. He enjoyed meeting new people and providing them with a respite from their normal lives. And he loved being a hands-on father to Bart—and, a bit belatedly, to his older kids.

Buying the inn and being with Mitzi and raising his family on Nantucket Island had brought Kelley real happiness, the kind of happiness he had been so certain he would never find again.

But now, Mitzi is leaving.

Kelley sinks onto their bed. The room smells like Christmas. At night, when they get ready for bed, Mitzi lights her favorite Fraser fir candle. A few weeks ago—the Saturday night of Stroll weekend—Kelley and Mitzi made love by the low flicker of this candle.

AVA

The dismissal bell rings, and chaos ensues—as bad as the last day of school, if not worse. Today, the kids are hopped up on sugar—hot chocolate, cookies, candy canes—and there is the allure of Santa Claus and presents, presents, presents! Also, there are coats to zip, and hats, scarves, and mittens to keep track of. Ava picks up two stray mittens between the auditorium and the school entrance. She drops them on the table outside the main office. Lost and found, to be dealt with "next year."

Ava is hoarse, and her fingers ache. If she never plays "Jingle Bells" again, it will be too soon. It is, hands down, the least interesting carol ever written. Why does everyone love it so? She feels like Sisyphus with his boulder; she will have to play it at least one more time, at the annual Christmas Eve party at the inn. There will be no escaping that.

Still, there is something magical about the afternoon. The sky is sterling silver, the air shimmering with mist. It's chilly but probably too warm for snow. Ava stands at the flagpole and waves to her students, who are waving madly back at her through the fogged-up windows of the school bus.

Merry Christmas, Miss Quinn, Merry Christmas, Merry ChristMAS!

How Ava longs to be eight again! Or, no, not eight but five. She was five years old the Christmas before her parents split.

Ava sees Claire Frye, wearing a long red coat and a matching red hat set precariously on top of her dark curls, run into her father's arms. Her father, Gavin Frye, who looks like the pirate Bluebeard, picks Claire up and swings her around so that her hat sails through the air and hits the damp pavement. Gavin retrieves Claire's hat and from his pocket pulls a wax paper bag that Ava knows has come from the Nantucket Bake Shop. Claire discovers two elaborately frosted sugar cookies inside—one Santa, one Rudolph. She chooses Santa and promptly eats his ear. Gavin munches Rudolph's antlers and offers his daughter his arm, like a nineteenth-century gentleman caller.

Ava gets choked up. Claire's mother was hit by a car in September; she died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. This will be Claire and Gavin's first Christmas without her. If they can get into the spirit of the holiday, well then, so can Ava. If she has to play "Jingle Bells" a hundred more times this season, she will do so in Claire Frye's honor.

Ava doesn't check her cell phone until she is sitting in the front seat of her red Jeep Wrangler with the engine running, the heater cranked, and her seat belt fastened. This is her pointless ritual; she wants to be ready for a collision with reality in the event that her phone doesn't tell her what she wants to hear. Which, thanks to her crazy family and her maddeningly aloof boyfriend, it rarely does.

Deep breath. She presses the damn button.

A text from her mother, who tends to treat text messages like handwritten letters, down to the impeccable punctuation: Hello, sweetheart! I'm in the car, headed to the studio. I miss you. Your paper angel is the only holiday decoration in my apartment. I'm off to Maui tomorrow; I'll be staying at the Four Seasons. I'll send you a ticket if you'd like to escape the winter wonderland…? Daddy sounded like even HE was tempted. (Mitzi must have bought a particularly ugly sweater this year—laughing out loud!) I love you, sweetie! Xoxo, Mom

Ava closes her eyes and envisions her mother's three-bedroom apartment on the thirty-second floor of a luxury building on Central Park West—sumptuous and soulless. Ava has no doubt that what her mother says is true; Margaret Quinn is far too busy to deal with Christmas decorations, except for the paper-angel ornament Ava made in second-grade Sunday school at Holy Trinity Episcopal, on East Eighty-Eighth Street, back when her parents were parenting and cared about things like religious education. Back when they lived in the happy, messy brownstone between York and East End. Margaret has saved the angel all these years in an uncharacteristic show of sentimentality. The angel would be dangling by fishing line in one of the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the park, or it would be resting inside a six-thousand-dollar Dale Chihuly glass bowl on the ten-thousand-dollar coffee table carved from a single piece of teak harvested from an ancient southeast Asian forest.

Ava loves her mother and yearns for her even now, at age twenty-nine. Ava can see her mother on channel 3 every weeknight at six o'clock, but that's hardly the same thing; in fact, it makes Ava's longing worse, so she avoids watching the nightly news.

A text from Mitzi: I'm so sorry.

Sorry for what? Ava wonders. But she deletes the message. She will have too much Mitzi as it is over the holiday break.

A text from her brother Kevin: Stop by the Bar on your way home.

Tempting.

A text from her brother Patrick: Something came up, Jen and kids headed west, I'm staying in the city for Christmas.

What? Ava reads the text twice, thinking there must be a mistake. She doesn't care if she sees Patrick or not. As the firstborn, he tends to be bossy, bordering on dictatorial, and he's egregiously mercenary—all he seems to care about anymore is money, money, money—but Ava can't believe her nephews aren't coming. What is Christmas without children? She nearly calls Patrick, but she knows he won't answer while the stock exchange is still open.

Item 5: a missed call from her father (no message). Weird, because he knows she is unreachable until three o'clock, and if he needs her to pick up eggs or sugar or food coloring or bananas for the inn, he'd better speak to her in person, or she'll conveniently tell him that she stopped by the Bar to see Kevin and never got the message.

Finally, she scrolls down to the name she has been hoping for. Nathaniel Oscar, labeled in her phone by his initials, NO. There are three text messages from NO, and Ava's heart sinks. Three messages means bad news.

6 a. Decided to head home after all, taking 1:30 flt, renting car.

6 b. Hyannis. Going to Panera for chipotle ckn xtra mayo.

6 c. Don't be mad, Mom laid guilt trip. Back next wk, ill call. Xxx

"Arrraugh!" Ava starts to yell, but her voice is so strained from singing carols that she can barely get the sound out. She watches her favorite group of fifth-grade boys run for the ice rink, with their hockey skates slung over their shoulders. She honks the horn at them, and they see her and wave. Merry Christmas, Miss Quinn, Merry ChristMAS! Liam tackles Joel, and Darian steals Jarrett's hat. Not a one of them can carry a tune, and yet they talk incessantly about starting a rock band.

Ava adores them and hopes they grow up to be considerate boyfriends and thoughtful husbands.

Nathaniel is probably halfway to Greenwich by now. There are many things wrong with this scenario. Ava won't be with Nathaniel for Christmas, he clearly won't be proposing, the way she has hoped and prayed for every night (she prays to St. Jude, the patron saint of desperate causes), and he won't provide an escape from the nuthouse that is the Winter Street Inn. He won't be gamely singing along as she plays "Jingle Bells" for the ten zillionth time or handing out cups of Mitzi's horrendous spiced cider (so heavy on the cloves, it's nearly undrinkable). No… instead, he will be in the enormous stone house where he grew up, in Greenwich, Connecticut, with his parents, his two sisters, and their kids. He will be half a mile down the road from Kirsten Cabot, his high school girlfriend, who is recently divorced and home for the holidays.

Ava only knows this last piece of information because she accidentally stumbled across Nathaniel's open Facebook page on his computer while he was in the shower a few days ago.

The message from Kirsten had read: Please come home, I need a shoulder to cry on. Budweiser cans in the backseat of your dad's car like old times?

When Ava saw that, Nathaniel had yet to respond, but Ava knows now what decision he made.

Ava doesn't want to love Nathaniel Oscar; she doesn't want to want to marry him and give birth to five or ten of his progeny in rapid succession, but she can't seem to help how she feels.

She considers herself a pretty together young woman. Teaching music at Nantucket Elementary School gives her enormous satisfaction. She loves her students and her classroom—the upright piano, tuned the first day of every month, the vintage turntable where she plays her classes the Beatles and Frank Sinatra. In the age of iTunes, Ava has realized, someone has to give the kids a musical education, someone has to teach them the classics. When she held up a vinyl copy of Revolver, borrowed from her father's collection, not a single child knew what it was.

"It's a record," Ava said.

And they still didn't know!

Ava also loves living at the inn; it's not dissimilar from her dorm in college. She is a social bird and loves it when the inn is filled with guests. There is always someone new to talk to, always someone who wants Ava to play the piano so he or she can sing. Ava even likes living with her family—her brother Kevin, her brother Bart, and Kelley and Mitzi.

Bart is gone now, of course—to Afghanistan—which pains her.

Ava checks her phone again, wondering why there is still no word from Bart. She texted him four days ago. When he left for Germany, he promised he would always respond as soon as he could, and he always has, until Friday, when he deployed. Ava checks her e-mail—nothing. Well, he's at war now, so he's busy—that's probably not even the right way to describe it—and maybe there's no cell service in Afghanistan?

Still, she sends another text. It says: I miss you, Baby Butt. Please let me know you're alive.

This text bounces back: Undeliverable.

Ava wants to scream again. No one in her life is cooperating!

She rereads Nathaniel's texts. Chipotle ckn xtra mayo is what the two of them order every time they go to Panera. Ava introduced Nathaniel to the chipotle chicken; it's their sandwich, their chain restaurant, their tradition. One of the reasons Ava knows she's in love with Nathaniel is that she loves doing regular, everyday things with him. She loves eating lunch at Panera in the crappy Hyannis strip mall with him; she loves waiting in line at the post office with him. She loves curling up in his arms on his brown corduroy sofa and watching holiday movies. Trading Places is their favorite. At least a dozen times in the past three weeks he has answered the phone by saying, "Looking good, Billy Ray!"

And she has answered, "Feeling good, Louis!"

In addition to being her lover, he is also her friend.

But now, it's two days before Christmas, and he's gone. "Eeeeeeearrgh!" Ava screams.

There's a knock on her window, and she jumps. She wipes away the fog her breath is causing, and there stands Scott Skyler, the assistant principal, in just his shirt and tie—no winter coat. She cranks down her window.

"Hi, Scott," she says.

"You okay?"

"Yes," she says. "Not really. Nathaniel went home."

"Oh boy," Scott says. Scott has served as Ava's confidant for the past twenty months, which isn't really fair, as Scott harbors a crush on Ava that apparently only grows stronger the more she talks about Nathaniel.

"Want to go to the Bar?" she asks. A beer and a shot with Scott and her brother—maybe two shots, since, in addition to the Nathaniel problem, she misses Bart, and her mother, and there will be no adorable nephews to open the gifts she spent hundreds of dollars on—seems like the only thing in the world that will improve her mood.

"I can't," he says. "I'm serving dinner at Our Island Home tonight. Salisbury steak. You're welcome to join me."

Ava lets a single tear drip down her face. Even Scott is busy. He is a tireless do-gooder, something Ava loves about him. She tries to imagine any one of her three brothers serving Salisbury steak at Our Island Home and comes up empty.

"You're coming over tomorrow night, though, right?" she says.

"Wouldn't miss it," Scott says, and he reaches over to catch the tear, a tender gesture that only starts Ava crying harder.

She wipes at her face with her palms and says, "Screw it, I'm going to get drunk."

"Okay," Scott says. "Maybe I'll see you later." He hurries back into the school, and Ava realizes that he only came out to the parking lot to check on her. Sweet, sweet man, great friend, but not her type. By which she means, not Nathaniel. She is sunk. Sunk!

She will go to the Bar.

Then her phone quacks and she thinks, Nathaniel!

No such luck. It's her father.

"What?" Ava barks into the phone. She loves her father, but he has the disadvantage of being constantly available and, because she still lives at the inn, always around, and hence he has to deal with her darker moods.

Kelley says nothing for a second, and Ava wonders if he's going to reprimand her for being rude, or if he's calling to tell her that Patrick has canceled, or if—God forbid—something has happened to Bart.

"Daddy?" Ava says.

"Mitzi left," Kelley says. "She moved out."

MARGARET

She reads the briefing sheet: four troops killed in Afghanistan, an apparent serial killer in Alaska strangling Inuit girls with piano wire, rumbles heard from Mount St. Helens for the first time in nearly thirty-five years, and SkyMall declares bankruptcy.

"Boring," she says to Darcy, her assistant. "Or am I just jaded?"

"Boring is good," Darcy reminds her. "It's Christmas."

So it is. Margaret looks around the newsroom: There are tabletop trees and strings of colored lights draped over cubicles. There are fake wrapped presents in a studious pile on top of the filing cabinet; those empty boxes sit in a storage closet for eleven months, gathering dust, until Cynthia, the office manager, brings them out the Monday after Thanksgiving. This thought strikes Margaret as unbearably sad. In so many ways, her life is an empty box, prettily wrapped.

But no, she won't go there. She is due in Wardrobe, something green or red tonight, unfortunately. Both colors wash her out.

When was the last time Christmas meant something? she wonders. She has to harken back twenty-four years, to when the boys were in middle school and Ava was five years old, with her freckles and bobbed haircut, wearing her pink flannel nightgown with the lace at the collar. Margaret can picture her clear as day, creeping down the stairs of the brownstone, finding Margaret and Kelley passed out on the sofa in front of the dying embers of the fire after drinking too many Golden Dreams. Thankfully, they had put out the presents and remembered to eat the cookies left for Santa. Ava had unhooked her stocking and come to open it in Margaret's lap, oohing and ahhing at even the smallest item—the compact, the root beer lip gloss, the lavender socks with polka dots. Margaret inhaled the scent of Ava's hair and petted her soft cheek; nothing had been more delicious than the feel of her children's skin. And then, a while later, the boys would trudge down—plaid pajama pants and Yankees T-shirts, mussed hair, deepening voices, smelly feet, the two of them splay legged on the floor, ripping open their gifts while Kelley paged slowly through the David McCullough biography and Margaret excused herself to pour a glass of really good cold champagne and stick the standing rib roast in the oven. Their Jewish neighbors, the Rosenthals, came for dinner every year, and Kelley's brother, Avery, came up from the Village with his partner, Marcus.

That had been Christmas.

No one in the newsroom would believe that Margaret Quinn had ever cooked a standing rib roast.

This year, when Margaret finishes with the broadcast at seven thirty p.m. on the twenty-fourth, her driver, Raoul, will take her to Newark, where she will fly first-class to Maui, for five luxurious days in a suite at the Four Seasons. Drake is supposed to fly in and meet her, although he has yet to fully commit, which Margaret, perhaps more than any other woman in the world, understands. (An earthquake in California, another school shooting, an assassination attempt, or a dozen things less serious could instantly quash Margaret's vacation plans.) Drake is a pediatric brain surgeon at Sloan Kettering, and the thing Margaret likes best about him is how busy he is. It's a relationship without guilt or expectation; if they both happen to be free, they get together, but if not, no hard feelings. If Drake comes to Maui, they will sleep, have good, fast, goal-oriented sex, and talk about work. Drake likes to drink excellent wine, and he will golf nine holes if Margaret gets off her laptop long enough to go to the spa for her facial and hot-stone massage.

Drake doesn't mind when Margaret is recognized—which she is, everywhere.

It's not exactly Christmas, but it's better than Chinese takeout in her apartment with only Ava's paper angel for company, which is how she's spent some holidays in the recent past.

She's in Wardrobe—green tonight. It's a silk boatneck sheath dress that she thinks makes her look like Vanna White, but Roger, her stylist, says they have to stay in holiday colors. He passed up a silver beaded cocktail dress because he thought it was too Audrey Hepburn.

Margaret yearns for the silver. She says, "Is there really such a thing as ‘too Audrey Hepburn'?" But Roger won't budge.

She says, "You do know, right, what the Nasty Blogger is going to say about this dress."

"I have never pandered to the Nasty Blogger before," Roger says. "And I'm not doing it tonight. You're wearing the green, my love."

Margaret sighs. There is a blog written by someone called Queenie229, who criticizes Margaret's fashion choices, the color of her hair, and seems to hold a special vendetta against Margaret's watch—a Cartier tank watch with a custom lizard band that Kelley gave her after Ava was born. If Queenie229 can't find anything to particularly dislike about Margaret's outfit, she will resort to picking on what she calls "that hideous watch."

"Please, Roger," Margaret says. "The silver."

Roger ignores her. She takes the green Vanna sheath to the dressing room.

Darcy intercepts her in the corridor. "Message for you," she says. "Kelley."

"Kelley?" Margaret says. "My former husband?"

Darcy nods, and Margaret looks at the pink slip. Please call immediately. She thinks of Kelley's son, Bart, who was deployed to Afghanistan last Friday. She thinks of the four soldiers killed that day. Oh God, no.

She hands Darcy the green Vanna dress and runs down the hall to her computer, where she brings up the names of the four dead in Afghanistan. None of them Bartholomew Quinn. Hugh exhale of relief. It's something else, then.

She calls Kelley back, even though she really doesn't have time.

He picks up even before the first ring is finished. "Mitzi left me," he says. "She's gone."

KELLEY

It's surprisingly civil, her departure. She steps out of room 10, leaving George behind, and says to Kelley, "I'll go gather my things."

Things? he thinks. He follows her down the hall, past rooms 8 and 9, down the main staircase—the banister wrapped in a garland of fresh greens accented with burgundy velvet bows—then into the main room, where their twelve-foot tree stands. Their tree is decorated with tasteful white lights and whimsical, handmade ornaments—many of them made by "the Christmas Club," a group of women who lived in Mitzi's neighborhood growing up and who fostered Mitzi's love of this holiday—and twenty other ornaments purchased by Kelley especially for Mitzi and given to her each Christmas morning. Is she going to gather those "things"? Is she going to take the ornaments off the tree, leaving it exposed and naked? And what about her nutcracker collection, which has to be one of the most impressive nutcracker collections in all the world, standing guard on the mantel? There is the chef nutcracker, with his toque and whisk, the fireman nutcracker, with his black hat and hose, and this year a United States Marine Corps nutcracker, which Bart thoughtfully purchased for his mother before he left. Is she going to gather those "things"?

What about her crowd of Byers' Choice carolers—the figurines she arranges and rearranges at least twice each season? At the beginning of the month, the carolers were set up on the sideboard as if attending a holiday concert in the village square—the central figures were playing instruments, and the others were gathered to watch and sing along. But now the carolers are set up as if at a bustling market. There is the cheesemonger, a girl selling gingerbread, a rosy-cheeked boy peddling wreaths. Is Mitzi going to gather those "things"? Mitzi loves those carolers; they remind her of being a child and playing with her dollhouse, a grand Victorian her father built her, with seventeen rooms. Kelley has to admit, even he has grown fond of the carolers over the years. When the box comes out of the attic and the figure of "Happy Scrooge" comes out of the box, Kelley feels a sense of delight—it's family tradition that Happy Scrooge is Kelley's favorite, perhaps even a twelve-inch representation of Kelley himself.

Is Mitzi going to walk away with Happy Scrooge?

Mitzi pushes through the French doors into the "back house," where Kelley and Mitzi live with Kevin and Ava and, until this fall, Bart.

From the walk-in linen closet in the hallway, Mitzi pulls out two suitcases.

Kelley says, "Wait a minute, you already packed?"

"Yes," she says.

"You and George have been… planning this?" Kelley says.

"I was hoping to make it through Christmas," she said, "but it didn't work out that way."

"Okay, wait," Kelley said. "Just wait!" His voice is surprisingly stern; it's a tone from his life before, his life on Wall Street and the brownstone on East Eighty-Eighth Street, his life with Margaret and the boys and Ava, back when he was a breadwinner instead of a bread baker, an ass kicker instead of an ass kisser. Quitting his job, leaving Manhattan, marrying Mitzi the Roller Disco Queen of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, moving to Nantucket year-round, buying a bed-and-breakfast, and having another child—at the age of forty-three—have all made Kelley soft. Wimpy. A pushover. But he isn't about to let his wife run off with 305 pounds of George the Santa Claus until he gets some answers.

"Bedroom," he says. "Now."

"No," she says.

"Now," he says, and she follows him.

Mitzi Quinn, whose real name is also Margaret, is the polar opposite of the original Margaret. Mitzi is ditzy, Kelley's kids used to chant, and, Kelley has to admit, she does have her moments. She believes in holistic medicine and chakras and energy work and the healing power of crystals; she reads New Age self-help books, she goes to hot yoga, she never drinks anything stronger than herbal tea, she doesn't eat beef or allow it to be cooked in the house. She is into astrological signs and the lunar calendar, due to the fact that she is a member of the population who was born on Leap Day. Mitzi wears flowing clothes, mostly silk and linen, and cashmere in the winter. Her clothes are unreasonably expensive, and she likes to wear something different every day of the month, another reason Kelley is going broke.

How did she limit herself to two suitcases? he wonders.

He says, "So, what, you're in love with George? George the Santa Claus? You do understand how ridiculous I find this? He's an old man!"

"He's only sixty-six," she says.

Sixty-six? Four years older than Kelley? Is that possible? To Kelley, George seems at least a decade older. Mitzi is only forty-six, so George is too old. But Kelley can tell this argument is futile.

"How long has it been going on?" he asks.

She stares him dead in the eye; there is no evasion or fear, only the beautiful blue-gray irises he fell for twenty-one years earlier. Mitzi has eyes like the disco ball that used to spin over the wooden rinks of her youth. Her eyes emit light and color—flashes of green, blue, silver.

"The whole time," Mitzi says.

"What do you mean the whole time?" Kelley says. "You mean, twelve years? Since George started staying with us?"

"Yes," Mitzi says.

"You are KIDDING me!" Kelley shouts.

Mitzi doesn't flinch, even though that is most certainly the only time Kelley has ever screamed at her. Kelley and the original Margaret used to have raging arguments with legendary cursing and yelling—once, notably, in the back of a New York City cab, when the driver dumped them out on a sketchy block near St. Mark's Place, saying, You both crazy!

Mitzi doesn't care for venting her anger this way; she thinks it's unhealthy and that unkind words can cause permanent psychic damage. This is why Bart was rarely reprimanded and never, ever spanked, which has led him to grow up spoiled, which landed him in heaps of trouble as a teenager, which eventually ended with him joining the Marines (he was low on other reasonable options), and now might very well place him in the line of danger.

"No," Mitzi says calmly. "Not kidding. Twelve years, but only when he was staying here. I mean, it's not like I flew off to meet him in St. Tropez."

"Is that supposed to make me FEEL BETTER?" Kelley shouts.

"Kelley," Mitzi says.

"What?"

"Lower your voice."

"So what now? You're moving out? You're going to Lenox to live with George the Santa Claus?"

"Yes," Mitzi says.

"And that's it?" Kelley says. "We're splitting? Getting divorced?"

"Yes," Mitzi says.

Kelley can't believe this. He can't believe it! A thousand thoughts collide: Mitzi, a woman Kelley watched transform from the Roller Disco Queen of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, into a warm, inviting innkeeper here on Nantucket, beloved by the guests because she cared about their lives, remembered their kids' names, and asked about their hip replacements, is leaving him. Another divorce, another failure; he can't believe it, he didn't even realize there was anything wrong aside from the obvious: the precarious state of their finances, and Bart in Afghanistan. Kelley can't keep from thinking this behavior has to do with Bart; Bart is Mitzi's north star, he is her reason. She has always put Bart's needs and interests and desires before anyone else's. Mitzi has been hysterical since Bart left for Germany in October, even though he was keen to go. Bart has always been a risk taker, which historically landed him in a lot of trouble. Being in the Marine Corps seems to have whipped him into shape. All of his texts and e-mails from Germany exclaimed how much he loved rules; he was thriving under strict discipline and, in fact, craved more (confirming Kelley's theory that one always wants what one doesn't have). Bart's unit, the lowliest of the low, woke up at 0500 hours, and their every move was prescribed until they went to bed, at 2300 hours. Bart was, in his own words, "Slaying every goddamned dragon like St. George." Kelley wasn't quite sure what he was talking about, so he checked Google, which educated him. When Kelley later e-mailed, Bart confirmed that during a weekend of&R in Munich, he had visited the Alte Pinakothek, where he had seen the Altdorfer painting of St. George slaying the dragon. The Alte Pinakothek had been recommended by Bart's drill sergeant, Sergeant Corbo, because Germany wasn't only beer gardens and bratwurst, it also contained culture, and the soldiers might as well avail themselves of it while they had the chance.R

Bart goes to art museums now, Kelley thinks. He runs ten miles in combat boots without complaining, and he does it faster than anyone else in his unit. He scales walls, he can do a one-handed push-up, he's learning how to box, and he knows how to shoot a variety of weapons. He speaks a little German and he wants to learn Arabic. He is using basic geometry, a subject he barely passed his sophomore year. If I had known it was going to come in handy, I would have paid closer attention! he wrote.

All of this, Kelley knows, is horrifying to Mitzi. Her baby is shooting guns! And, probably, eating hamburger! Kelley knows that Bart doesn't tell Mitzi half of what he tells Kelley, and that Kelley is to keep certain things on the down low, between them, as father and son, as men.

Such as: Bart will be working with Afghan national security to take down insurgent strongholds and prevent a Taliban takeover when U.S. troops withdraw.

Mitzi's acting out over Bart's deployment makes a certain kind of sense. But she's been boinking George for twelve years! While George was staying with them! In other words, the love affair was happening under Kelley's own roof, under Kelley's nose! On Christmas Eve! On Christmas Day! It has been going on every Christmas since Bart was seven or eight years old—just like in the movie Same Time, Next Year, with Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn, a movie Kelley actually enjoyed when he saw it a million years ago with the original Margaret.

Margaret told Kelley not to marry Mitzi; she thought Mitzi was silly and too young. I don't know what you're thinking, Kelley. She's going to want children, and you can't even care for the ones we have now. Kelley heard Margaret loud and clear, but he surprised her—and himself—by not only marrying Mitzi but by quitting the rat race, leaving Manhattan, taking custody of the children, and moving them to Nantucket. And buying the inn, which was Mitzi's dream.

Although, to be fair, it had been a dream for both of them. It started out, perhaps, as a grandiose gesture of love. Mitzi had stayed at the Winter Street Inn for a dozen years before she met Kelley, and she had watched it fall into decline and decrepitude. When Kelley bought the inn for her, as a wedding present, really, the idea had been that they would embark on a new life together. This inn, built in 1873, originally belonging to the town's grocer, needed a lot of work to make it a destination of "high-end comfort"—the sumptuous marble bathrooms, the thick Turkish towels, the four-poster king-size beds made from solid cherry, the pillow-top mattresses, the original paintings by Nantucket artists. Not to mention central air-conditioning, an inn-wide stereo system, plasma TVs and iPod docking stations, and L'Occitane toiletries. Restoring the inn had been expensive and stressful.

So… it hadn't always been the two of them holding hands, skipping along in golden sunshine, but it had been good. They renovated and restored, they advertised and marketed, they married and procreated. Kelley liked being an innkeeper. He liked his great stone hearth and his deep leather club chairs and the stairs that creaked because their treads were almost a hundred and fifty years old. He liked packing up box lunches that his guests could take to the beach. He liked tuning up the fleet of eight vintage Schwinns for their guests to ride into town. He enjoyed meeting new people and providing them with a respite from their normal lives. And he loved being a hands-on father to Bart—and, a bit belatedly, to his older kids.

Buying the inn and being with Mitzi and raising his family on Nantucket Island had brought Kelley real happiness, the kind of happiness he had been so certain he would never find again.

But now, Mitzi is leaving.

Kelley sinks onto their bed. The room smells like Christmas. At night, when they get ready for bed, Mitzi lights her favorite Fraser fir candle. A few weeks ago—the Saturday night of Stroll weekend—Kelley and Mitzi made love by the low flicker of this candle.

He didn't know anything was wrong.

George the Santa Claus.

"Is it me?" he asks. "Did I do something?"

Mitzi doesn't respond, and Kelley experiences a moment of weakness in which he thinks of asking George and Mitzi to stay through Christmas. The inn needs its Santa Claus, and Kelley needs his business partner. How is he going to throw the party tomorrow night? And what about Christmas dinner?

But no. No. Twelve years. Under his own roof! How could he not have known?

Mitzi gives him a rueful smile. "It's not you, Kelley," she says. "It's me."

"What about the rest of your stuff?" he asks. "What about all your… your Christmas stuff?"

She gives him a quizzical look.

"Your ornaments, your nutcrackers… your carolers, for God's sake!"

"Oh," she says. "I'll leave those for the rest of you to enjoy." And with this, she walks out of their bedroom, shutting the door quietly behind her.