In hindsight, I should not have had that fifth mimosa at Breakfast with Santa.
Or the sixth, seventh, and eighth.
In my defense, I would like to say that they were incredibly tasty and deceptively strong. In fact, I’m pretty sure the bartenders began adding more alcohol to them as the event wore on.
And I needed it.
It was the first time Brett, my ex-husband, and fucking Kimmy, his soon-to-be-next-wife, and I were all in a room together. They were seated at a table with Whitney, our newly thirteen-year-old daughter, and Keaton, our ten-year-old son, along with another family from the country club. Back in August, when we’d made the reservations, I’d assumed it would be me sitting in the seat now occupied by Kimmy. Of course, I’d been totally unaware at the time that Brett had already hired a divorce attorney, established residency in Nevada so the whole thing could be done quickly, and purchased a love nest for himself and his little side dish.
I was only attending this breakfast because my daughter had begged me to come. She couldn’t stand Kimmy, and she was furious with her dad. I was careful not to badmouth him in front of the kids, but I probably didn’t even need to worry about it. He’d never been Father of the Year. In his mind, paying their private school tuition bills, buying them expensive birthday presents, and taking them on fancy trips made him a good dad. He never spent any real time with them, and he blamed his work schedule for missing out on their activities.
I’d practically been a single parent anyway the last few years, and when he left for good, the kids had made it clear they were staying with me. They tolerated weekend visits with their dad—when he didn’t cancel—but there was never any question where their loyalty lay. And when I’d floated the idea of moving to Cloverleigh Farms, my childhood home in northern Michigan, where they’d spent some fun summer vacations over the years, they’d both voted yes. They might have been young, but they knew I needed to get away from here in order to put the pieces of my life back together.
Every night I lay awake wondering if I was being too selfish, taking them from the only home they’d ever known, but then I’d think about having to run into Brett and Kimmy all over town, or drive by my dream house and see the For Sale sign out front, or endure the pity of people who’d pretended to be my friends yet ditched me entirely when I’d needed them most. I wanted to be around family, around people I could trust, in a place that felt like home. I needed a safe harbor.
And the kids did too.
Ever since Brett left, Whitney had been wearing more and more makeup. I wasn’t sure if she was just a normal thirteen-year-old girl experimenting or if it went deeper, but it worried me. When I tried to talk to her about it, she claimed she just really liked makeup. Brett hated it, of course, so maybe it was her way of defying him? Of saying fuck you for leaving with her loud red lips? Part of me admired her for that. Did I really need to take it away from her?
Keaton, for his part, seemed to be eating his feelings. He was hungry all the time, and even though I didn’t keep junk food in the house, he would manage to buy it somewhere. Recently he’d started hiding it—I’d found a bunch of candy bar wrappers shoved under his pillow last week. When I’d checked his desk drawers, I discovered even more. I’d asked him about it, and he’d blamed a friend. I hadn’t had the heart to call him out.
I prayed every night that Cloverleigh Farms would heal our aching hearts—or at least make me a better parent.
Tipping up the sixth mimosa, I turned around, setting the empty champagne flute on the bar. “I’ll have another, please.” What the hell, it was Saturday, right?
“Yes, Mrs. Baxter,” said the bartender.
Mrs. Baxter. What a joke.
“Sylvia! So nice to see you!” Tippy Hewitt Hamilton air-kissed my cheek and gestured to the drink the bartender handed me. “I’ll have one too.”
“Yes, Mrs. Hamilton.”
I took a sip of my drink, fortifying myself for a conversation with Tippy, the gossipy queen bee of the Ocean View Country Club set, women I’d considered friends until recently. But many of them had known Brett was cheating on me, and none of them had said a thing. Their excuse? They didn’t want to upset me.
It was bullshit.
There was politeness, and there was loyalty, and I knew the damn difference, even if they didn’t.
“So I hear you’re moving back to Michigan,” Tippy said with a toothy smile.
“You poor thing. Hard enough to have to leave that big, beautiful home, but moving to Michigan at the start of winter? It’s practically inhumane!”
“Actually, Tippy, I didn’t have to move. I’m choosing to. The weather might be cold in Michigan, but the people there are a lot warmer.”
The barb went right over her head.
“And you grew up on a . . . farm, right?” She made a face that told me she equated farm with disease-ridden, backwater swamp.
I saw no point in telling her that Cloverleigh Farms was actually one of the most beautiful places on earth in any season. That people came from all over the country to stay at our inn or get married in our orchard. That our vineyard rivaled anything I’d ever visited in Napa Valley, and our wines won awards all over the world. She wouldn’t have believed me. “Yes.”
“How quaint.” She patted my arm condescendingly. “I’m sure you’ll be very happy there.”
I took another sip of my drink as we were joined by three other women, whose gossip antennae had no doubt communicated to them the opportunity to get a good scoop.
“Sylvia, darling, you look wonderful.” Hilly Briggs air-kissed my cheek. She was wearing so much perfume—an attempt to mask the fact that she smoked to stay skinny—I nearly choked.
“The decorations are the best we’ve ever had,” said Liz Dunham, whose carefully applied concealer couldn’t quite mask the needle marks where her dermatologist had recently injected something to combat her wrinkles and plump her cheeks.
Looking thin and young was a competitive sport around here.
“Who are you sitting with, dear?” asked Jane Blythe Miller. I could tell she felt sorry for me from the tone of her voice and the tilt of her head—and also that she kind of enjoyed it. “Do you have a table?”
“I’m sort of just floating,” I said, attempting to smile. “I’m not very hungry anyway.”
They all nodded, their matching haircuts swinging. They were dressed alike too, each wearing some version of a twinset or turtleneck sweater and skirt of a “proper length,” per club rules. Pearl necklaces hung around every one of their necks. I’d noticed Kimmy was wearing a pearl necklace too, and I’d wondered if Brett had purchased it for her. It was the kind of thing he liked to do, buy people’s affection.
“You’re better off,” said Jane with a sigh. “I shouldn’t have eaten that giant slice of coffee cake. It probably had a thousand calories.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Sylvia doesn’t have to worry about her weight,” said Hilly with a touch of envy. “She’s already so nice and thin these days.”
I was actually too thin, and I knew it. But the stress of the last year or so had robbed me of my appetite and caused vomiting episodes when I did manage to finish a meal. Deep down, I’d known for a long time that my passionless marriage was disintegrating. I’d just been too scared to do anything about it.
“Good thing,” said Tippy, lifting her mimosa to her lips. “After all, she’s back on the market. She needs to look her best.”
“The market?” I blinked at her. “I’m not for sale, Tippy.”
“Relax,” Tippy said, patting my arm. “It was a compliment. You’re beautiful, Sylvia. It won’t take you any time at all to find a new husband.”
“Who says she even wants a new husband?” asked Jane. “Marriage can be such a pain. Sometimes I wish Richard would leave me just so I could get a moment’s peace! You must have tons of time for yourself now, Sylvia.”
I could have answered that I hadn’t been looking for any time to myself, I had zero peace whatsoever, and I actually missed my children terribly over the weekends they spent with Brett, but I didn’t.
“Another mimosa, please.”
My former friends exchanged glances as I downed it in a few gulps. I didn’t usually drink this heavily, but it was either swallow it or throw it in their faces, and I didn’t want to make a scene—not yet, anyway.
Then Hilly glanced toward Brett’s table. “This must be so difficult for you, Syl.”
The others murmured in agreement.
“I just don’t know how you’re keeping your cool,” Liz said, the look on her face telling me she kind of wished I might lose it. “I heard about the baby.”
“Baby?” My stomach tightened. “What baby?”
“You don’t know? Well, apparently, Kimmy is pregnant,” Jane said, gleefully breaking the news. “She told everyone at the Ladies Auxiliary Lunch yesterday that she’s four months along.”
“Four months?” I did some quick math—not easy after the amount of alcohol I’d consumed—and realized he had to have knocked her up over the summer, long before he told me he was leaving. “Oh my God.”
“It did cause quite a stir,” Hilly said, “but I’m sure no one there believed those other things she said.”
I stared at her. “What other things?”
“Oh, you know, the usual insults the Other Woman lobs at the First Wife. That Brett was miserable with you for years because you’re such an ice queen. That he told her you were boring in bed. That you didn’t excite him anymore. That he couldn’t even get it up for you.”
I felt like I was melting into a hot, horrifying puddle of humiliation. I couldn’t breathe.
“God, it’s just so crass,” Tippy said before sipping her drink. “I mean, who says those things out loud at lunch?”
As if she hadn’t hung on every single word out of Kimmy’s mouth—as if all of them hadn’t!
“Crass and ridiculous,” Liz huffed. “I mean, she’s practically half his age! But her skin is just perfect. And I bet her boobs don’t sag at all.”
“Well, I haven’t seen her boobs,” I told her, suddenly tired of taking the high road and staying quiet when I wanted to scream. “But maybe if we ask her, she’ll flash us. Clearly she has no problem getting naked in front of other people’s husbands.”
Liz appeared offended. “I only meant that it must be hard for you to see him with someone like her.”
“Because I’m so old and saggy?” I tossed back the rest of my mimosa and ordered another, although the room was already spinning.
“How many of those have you had?” asked Tippy with a judgmental quirk of her brow. “Maybe you should drink some coffee instead.”
“And maybe you should have told me my husband was fucking the salesgirl at J.Crew with the perky tits,” I announced, then glared at the rest of them. “All of you.”
“Sylvia, that’s not really fair,” Tippy said, smoothing her cardigan over her stomach. “I didn’t know for sure. I’d only heard rumors about the—you know . . . divorce.” She whispered the last word, as if by saying it out loud she might manifest its monstrous presence and it would eat all of their marriages alive.
“Same.” Liz nodded. “We didn’t want to say anything because we didn’t want to cause any unnecessary drama. We were only thinking of you.”
“Yes, and I think it’s really a shame that you’re blaming us when this isn’t our fault.” Hilly pouted. “We were trying to be good friends.”
“How?” I cried. “You let me look like a fool! And you completely stopped calling or including me!”
“We didn’t know what to say, Sylvia,” Jane replied, looking uncomfortable. “It’s just so awkward.”
“And did any of you stand up for me yesterday? Did any of you come to my defense and shut down the ugly gossip she was spreading?” I looked every one of them in the eye, knowing the answer already.
“Well, we couldn’t really take sides, could we?” Hilly smoothed her hair. “After all, our husbands are all close with Brett. We’ll have to go to their wedding. We’re still going to have to socialize with them, no matter how terrible it will be to have to make conversation with that infant he’s marrying.”
“I’m sure you’ll manage. You’re all excellent at pretending to be someone’s friend.” I grabbed my fresh mimosa, spilling some over the side of the glass. Then I tipped it up and slammed it.
When the glass was empty, I set it on the marble bar with a clank and tossed my hair. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s something I have to do.”
Not one of them stopped me as I made my way through the country club dining room, but they followed behind like a pack of hounds. I stumbled once, catching myself on the back of someone’s chair, but eventually made it to Brett’s table, where I grabbed a silver pitcher full of ice water.
“Ice queen, huh? I’ll give you ice queen.” Then I dumped the entire thing in his lap.
“Sylvia, what the hell?” Brett jumped up and tons of little cubes fell to the floor, but the crotch of his pants was soaked. “Have you lost your mind?”
“No, actually. I think I just found it.” My adrenaline was pumping—I felt like I could do anything at that moment. “I must have been crazy to think you’d be faithful to me, or to keep the promises you made. You’re nothing but a liar and a cheat.” God, it felt glorious to say the words right to his face! Next, I looked at Kimmy. “And you’re an idiot to think he’s going to be any different with you, but that’s your problem.”
“Enough,” Brett snapped, straightening his tie and glancing around the room. People were staring.
“Actually, I’m just getting started.” Fueled by mimosa and the fury of a woman scorned, I charged for the dance floor at the front of the room, where Santa was standing in front of a red velvet throne and speaking into a microphone. A line of children wound toward the door, eager to sit on his lap, and two teenagers dressed as elves were doing their best to keep the impatient kids under control.
“Ho, ho, ho,” Santa bellowed, brandishing an old-fashioned scroll. “Let’s see who’s on the Nice List this year—and who’s on the Naughty!”
I marched up to him and grabbed the mic from his hand. “Let me help you with that, Santa.”
The bewildered old man just blinked at me.
Turning toward the crowd, I brought it to my lips. “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen. I’ve got something to say.”
The room hushed. Expressions ranged from curious to concerned to shocked—I was generally a quiet, dignified sort of person. Not at all the type of woman to commandeer Santa’s mic and lecture a room full of people just trying to enjoy their Bloody Marys and quiche.
“For any of you who don’t know me, I’m Sylvia Baxter—at least, I’ve been Sylvia Baxter for the last fifteen years. And Sylvia Baxter is classy. Sylvia Baxter takes the high road. Sylvia Baxter behaves.” I paused. “Sylvia Baxter is on the Nice List.”
A disapproving murmur rippled through the room.
“But there are some people in this room who are not on the Nice List. In fact, there are some people here at the top of the Naughty List.”
A child in line to see Santa burst into tears.
“Philandering husbands who cheat and lie about it—they’re on the Naughty List.” I glared at Brett and then at Kimmy. “Naive salesgirls from J.Crew who spread nasty gossip—they’re on the Naughty List.” I stared down Tippy and the rest of my former confidantes. “Disloyal social climbers who call themselves friends even as they stick knives in your back—they’re on the Naughty List.”
At that point, Brett left his table and was starting to walk toward the dance floor.
Oh, hell no. I would not let that man silence me.
But I knew I should probably wrap this up.
“The rest of you are probably on the Nice List,” I said, talking more quickly now that Brett was headed my way. “And if you want to make sure you stay there, it’s actually really easy.” I shrugged. “Don’t be an asshole. Merry Christmas, everybody. Peace out.”
Then I held out my arm and dropped the mic.
It sounded terrible. It looked ridiculous. Santa was going to switch me to the Naughty List, and people around here were going to talk shit about me for years to come.
But it felt really badass.
And that was worth it.
“Hey. You still here?”
I looked up from the oak barrel I was working on, surprised to see Declan MacAllister walking across the stone floor of the cavernous winery cellar. As the CFO of Cloverleigh Farms, he didn’t poke his head back here too often. “Hey, Mack. What’s up?”
“I saw your car in the lot. It’s Saturday night, DeSantis. You’re a swinging single dude now. You’re supposed to be out hooking up with chicks, not here in this bunker giving your wine a massage.”
I laughed. “Bâtonnage, not massage.”
“Whatever,” he said, watching me insert a long metal baton into the hole in the barrel’s side. “God, I really want to make a sexual joke right now. Would that be considered workplace harassment?”
“Listen, this is about as sexual as my Saturday night is gonna get, so no jokes, please.” I worked the baton back and forth, scraping its curved metal foot along the bottom of the barrel.
Mack shook his head. “That is depressing as fuck. I can’t even bring myself to make fun of you for it.”
“Come on, you need to get out of here. Let’s go to my house for a beer and some dinner. Frannie has a roast in the oven.”
“No way. I’m not intruding on your Saturday night with your wife.” But my mouth watered at the idea of a roast. I hadn’t eaten a home-cooked meal like that in forever. But Mack, a single dad of three girls, and Frannie had just gotten married a couple months ago—right about the time Renee, my ex-wife, had served me with divorce papers and left for good.
“Are you kidding? I’ve got three kids, DeSantis. There is no Saturday night that does not involve intrusion. And what else are you gonna do tonight, huh?”
I hesitated. The truth was, tonight’s itinerary looked something like this:
1) Eat some shitty leftovers straight from the carton.
2) Watch some terrible porn that didn’t even turn me on.
3) Jerk off anyway.
4) Go to sleep.
But I couldn’t say that. And I didn’t want to be anyone’s Saturday night charity project. “Actually, I’ve got a lot of work to do. I’ll be here for a while.”
Mack wouldn’t give up. “Listen, Henry, I’ve been the divorced guy. I know all about the crappy takeout food and talking to your TV and feeling like everybody else in the fucking world is having a better time than you.” He gestured toward the barrels. “Although, in your case, it might be true.”
Laughing, I pulled the baton out, replaced the air lock valve, and moved on to the next barrel. “I actually enjoy my work.”
“But you’ve been in here nonstop since the harvest,” he went on. “I’m beginning to think you’re sleeping here.”
“I go home eventually.” But the truth was, I preferred the bright, open spaces of the winery to the dark, empty rooms of my house. As head winemaker, I always had something to do here. We were a small operation, but I was involved in every single step of the process, both out in the vineyard and here in the cellar. And we did everything by hand, at my insistence, which meant a lot of extra patience and skill and time, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. At home, all I did was sit around and wonder where the fuck I’d gone wrong.
But that wasn’t Mack’s problem.
“What are you still doing here anyway, if Frannie’s got dinner in the oven?” I asked.
“I had to bring a bunch of Christmas presents from Santa to my office to hide. The girls are constantly on the hunt for them.”
Hiding presents from Santa—just one more rite of fatherhood I wouldn’t get to experience.
I buried the thought before it got to me. “They still believe in Santa, huh?”
Mack pulled on a knit winter hat. “Winnie does for sure. She’s only five. Felicity’s eight and suspicious of everything, so that’s a maybe. Millie is thirteen, so probably not, but she’s putting on a pretty good show. Frannie told her anyone who doesn’t believe gets three fewer gifts so she wouldn’t ruin it for her sisters.”
“How’d you get her to marry you, anyway?”
Mack looked genuinely perplexed as he shook his head. “Seriously, I’ve got no fucking idea.”
* * *
After Mack left, I finished up my barrel work, returned some emails, tasted some riesling from the tanks, made some notes, straightened up the lab, and looked around to see if there was anything else that needed to be done before I headed home.
There wasn’t, but I didn’t feel like facing my empty house yet, the one I’d hoped would be full of family by now. So instead of going out to the parking lot, I zipped up my coat, pulled on a hat and gloves, and went out to the vineyard.
It was cold, late December in Michigan cold, but I didn’t mind. I liked the smell of winter, the sharp sting of the air in my lungs, the crunch of the snow beneath my boots. I walked the rows of dormant vines, thinking over the past season, getting a feel for the energy of the upcoming growth, contemplating new strategies for each block of vines. I was always happiest out here in the vineyard, no matter the season. The vines could be cooperative or temperamental, fragile or hardy, but they spoke a language I understood, and I knew how to nurture, shape, and renew them into something beautiful year after year.
If only I’d been half as successful as a husband.
I exhaled, my breath a cloud of white in the icy night air. For the millionth time, I wondered if there had been something more I could have done to save my marriage. The real enemy had been infertility, which had eaten away at our happiness little by little, until there was nothing left. Despite what Renee said, I’d never blamed her, but she’d felt crushed under the weight of knowing it was her endometriosis causing the problem. She said she felt like a failure as a woman, and as a wife. No matter how many times I tried to convince her otherwise, she refused to listen or get therapy. The hormones were hell on her, and I tried hard to be sensitive to her feelings, to remind myself that this wasn’t what either of us had planned.
The only times I got angry with her were when we’d fight about adoption—she wouldn’t consider it. Had I called her stubborn? Unreasonable? Closed-minded? Unfair? Had I said things I regretted?
Fuck yes, I had.
But I’d said those things from a place of frustration and exhaustion and fear. I wanted to be a father, dammit, and I saw my chances slipping away because of her relentless determination to “become a mother the real way.” I did blame her for that. Had I been wrong?
In the end, maybe it didn’t matter.
After five failed rounds of IVF, our savings were drained. After years of trying to get the timing exactly right for conception, sex became a chore. After months of endless fights and sleeping on the couch and apologizing the next day for whatever I’d said that made her cry all night long, I’d given up on having children and just wanted peace.
I wanted to talk about something other than fertility. I wanted to stop being unable to go places as a couple because seeing a pregnant woman—or worse, hearing one say we weren’t even trying—would put Renee over the edge. I wanted to want sex again, to take pleasure in it for its own sake, for the release, for the connection, for the fucking fun of it. My dick had become a clinical piece of machinery, just another cog in a mechanism that refused to work. And eventually, it was clear Renee had no use for it if it wasn’t going to get her pregnant.
We grew resentful of each other. We grew distant and angry. We grew apart.
Then she said she was leaving. That my presence in her life was a constant reminder of her childlessness, she wasn’t in love with me anymore, and she couldn’t stay. She took off one afternoon in early September, and I hadn’t heard from her since.
I’d been hurt, of course. Angry. Bitter. Resentful. But also . . . relieved.
Because I couldn’t honestly say I was in love with her anymore either—it felt shitty, but it was the truth. The years we’d spent trying and failing to start a family, the fights, the cost, the blame . . . all of it had taken a toll. I had no idea how to make her happy, and I wasn’t sure I ever would.
Frankly, I wasn’t sure I knew how to make any woman happy. My whole experience with marriage had taught me that you could never really know a person. What you thought someone wanted, what you thought you could offer, it could all change. Life was unpredictable, and just when you thought you had it all figured out, just when you thought winter was over and spring was right around the bend, you got hit with a late frost that killed every bud on the vine.
So when people said things to me like, “Oh, you’re still young, it’s different for a guy, you’ll be fine . . .” I kind of wanted to fucking punch them in the face. It wasn’t that easy to just pick up, move on, and start over. I didn’t trust anyone or anything to turn out like I thought.
Plus, it’s not like this small town was overrun with hot single women banging my door down.
I was closer to forty than thirty. I was a farmer and a science nerd. I got excited about things like soil and microclimates and carbonic maceration. I loved getting my hands dirty.
I had a pretty decent body (thanks to hours spent working off tension at the gym), but I wasn’t ripped. I had a career I loved, but I wasn’t rich—and I was never going to be rich. I drove a beat-up truck, tracked mud in the house, and got a fourteen-dollar haircut.
Did I own a suit and tie? Yes, but three-hundred sixty-five days a year, I went to work in frayed jeans and shirts with holes in them, and I liked it that way.
Back when she gave a fuck, Renee used to say I was good in bed—I never took a woman’s pleasure for granted—but those days were long gone.
Christ. Would I ever have sex again? I missed everything about it—the smell of perfume in the dark, the feel of soft curves beneath my palms, the taste of a woman on my tongue.
I nearly groaned aloud as I reached the end of one row and started down another. But there was no use getting worked up about it. I wasn’t ready to date anyone, and I wasn’t the type to jump in bed with some random woman I didn’t know.
I told myself to be grateful for what I did have—a nice house, a great job, some good friends. Sure, my sex life was depressing as fuck and my first Christmas alone was going to be hard, but I’d get through it. Maybe I’d buy myself a present—a new truck, a nicer watch, a fishing boat.
At the very least, a subscription to a better porn site.
I was going to need it.
One week after the Breakfast with Santa debacle, the kids and I caught a 5:50 A.M. flight to Salt Lake City, then a 9:35 A.M. flight to Detroit before finally hopping on a small plane that took us to Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City. By the time my dad picked us up, we’d been traveling for almost ten hours. We were exhausted, grouchy, and starving.
“Should we stop for dinner on the way home?” I asked him as we waited for our mountain of luggage. Each of us had two huge suitcases, and what winter clothing we hadn’t been able to fit in those, I’d boxed up and shipped here. Once the house sold, I’d have to go back and ship our summer things. I planned on leaving almost everything else in the house for Brett to deal with—I wanted no reminder of my old life here.
“Nope, your mom was ordering pizza when I left the house. Should be there by the time we get back. And she’s all excited about baking cookies with the kids tonight.” He put an arm around Whitney and squeezed her tight. “We’re so glad you guys are here. Did I tell you I bought a new sleigh?”
Whitney beamed up at him with her bright red lips. “The kind the horses pull?”
“Yep. This one is even bigger—it’s got three rows of seats, so you can take a ride together with your cousins. Doesn’t that sound nice?”
“Yes, it does.” I smiled, even as my throat tightened, overwhelmed with gratitude and relief at coming home. “Thanks, Daddy.”
My parents had said we could stay at Cloverleigh Farms as long as we needed to, and they certainly had the room. Back when I was growing up, it had been just a small family farm, but in the last thirty years, my parents had expanded the farmhouse into a thirty-room inn with a bar and restaurant. In addition, there was now a winery, tasting room, a brand new distillery, and it was consistently named one of the top wedding venues in the state. My sister April was the event planner, and I’d never seen anyone bring a bride’s vision to life the way she could. My sister Chloe was the new CEO, slowly easing into the position as my dad “retired” at a snail’s pace.
“Is anyone else coming to dinner?” I asked as we started on the thirty-minute drive from the airport to the farm.
“I think April might come by.”
“No wedding tonight?” I was surprised, since Saturday nights were always booked.
“It was an afternoon wedding, so she thought she’d be done around seven. But the whole family is coming for Sunday dinner tomorrow, and then we’ll have the big party at the inn on Tuesday.”
I nodded. My parents always threw a big Christmas Eve party at the inn for staff, extended family, and close friends. It had been a few years since I’d attended one, since Brett had preferred Aspen to Cloverleigh Farms for the holidays, but I remembered them from my youth as warm, noisy, fun gatherings full of people in high spirits. Part of me was looking forward to it and part of me dreaded having to explain over and over again where Brett was.
But that would be my reality, at least for a while.
When we pulled up to the house, I got a little teary-eyed at seeing it blanketed with snow and covered in lights. It was beautiful and familiar, reminding me of Christmases from my childhood—I’d missed it.
My mom misted up as well when she greeted us, and she gave me an extra long hug. “It’s going to be okay, darling,” she whispered, squeezing me tight. “You’re home now. You belong here.”
“Thanks, Mom.” I hoped with all my heart she was right.
* * *
Later, April and I snuck over to the bar at the inn for a glass of wine, and I told her about Breakfast with Santa.
“Wait—you did what?” Seated across the high-top table from me, April paused with her glass halfway to her mouth.
“I got drunk at Breakfast with Santa, dumped a pitcher of ice water in Brett’s lap, took the mic right out of jolly old St. Nick’s hand, made a kid cry, and told the entire country club not to be an asshole.” I cringed. “Then I said ‘peace out’ and dropped the mic.”
She burst out laughing. “You did not!”
“I did,” I admitted, wrinkling my nose. “It was pretty bad.”
“What possessed you?”
I told her the news about Kimmy’s pregnancy, how she’d said terrible things about me in public, how my former friends had failed to have my back. “I just couldn’t take it anymore,” I said. “I’ve kept my cool this whole time, but I finally had to let it out.”
“I don’t blame you. How did the kids react?”
“I’m sure they were embarrassed, but neither of them wanted to talk about it when they got home.”
She shrugged. “Well, parents have been embarrassing their children since the beginning of time. They’ll live. They might need therapy,” she added, “but they’ll live.”
“Yeah. I think we’ll all need some therapy. Including Santa.” I winced a little as I recalled the old man’s befuddled face when I went charging up to him.
“Santa will get over it. Your kids are the only people you need to worry about. How are they doing?”
“Hard to say for sure,” I fretted. “They don’t talk much about their feelings.”
“No, I think they’re coping in other ways—Whitney has taken to wearing a lot of heavy makeup.”
April smiled ruefully. “I noticed that. Looks like you during your black eyeliner phase. Mom hated it so much, remember?”
I exhaled. “I do, and part of me says she’s just acting like a normal thirteen-year-old girl. But another part of me wonders if it’s some kind of mask she’s trying to put on for protection.”
“Hmm.” April’s forehead creased. “That’s a tough one.”
“And I don’t want to forbid it or tell her it looks ridiculous, because that’s what her dad does. She’s not even allowed to wear makeup at his house.”
“Dickhead,” my sister muttered. “As if lipstick and eyeliner are more inappropriate than his pregnant girlfriend?”
“Exactly.” I slowly spun my wineglass around by the stem. “I want to be understanding of her age and what she’s going through, but also still a responsible parent. Like, what’s the balance?”
“Beats me.” Her expression was sympathetic. “You’re in a tough spot there, hon. I’m sorry. What about Keaton?”
I sipped my pinot noir. “Keaton’s coping mechanism is food. He’s been sneaking it.”
“Oh, no. Have you talked to him?”
“A little. But I don’t want to punish him, you know? I just sort of keep trying to encourage him to talk to me if he wants to.”
“He seems happy about the move.”
I nodded. “They both claim to be good with it. They’ve always loved our summer visits here, and Whit is already asking if they can have a horse. It also helps that Mack’s daughter Millie is about the same age as Whitney. They hung out a lot when we were here for the wedding, and they text all the time. Keaton seems to get along well with his daughter Felicity too—she’s kind of a science geek like he is, I guess.”
“That’s all good stuff.”
“Still . . .” I set my glass on the table. “There’s no way being deserted by their father isn’t going to cause lasting damage, and I worry it’s more than I can handle. He didn’t fight me on full custody, he didn’t fight me on this move, and I had to talk him into letting them come stay with him the second half of their winter vacation. He thought a weekend would be plenty.”
April gasped. “What a jerk! Do the kids know that?”
“No, and I hated covering for him. But what was the alternative? Let him crush my children’s feelings the way he crushed mine?”
She reached across the table and put a hand on mine. “You’re doing the right thing, even though he doesn’t deserve it. When do they go back to see him?”
“A week from today—the twenty-ninth. Then they’re back here on the fifth, the day before school starts.”
“And you’re going to stay at the house with Mom and Dad for a while?”
I nodded. “Until I find something to buy, but I probably have to wait for the Santa Barbara house to sell first. Brett practically emptied our joint accounts, so I don’t have a ton of extra cash lying around, and I’d rather die than ask him for money.”
“Mom and Dad would help you out, wouldn’t they?”
“They offered, but I don’t want to take their retirement money. They’ve earned it.” I gathered my hair over one shoulder. “No, I knew this wouldn’t be easy, but I want to do it on my own. When the California house sells, which shouldn’t take long, I’ll find something small and secluded, maybe on a little bit of land. I’d like Keaton to be able to have that horse, and maybe we could get a few other animals too. Brett never wanted pets in the house, but I think it’s important to grow up caring for animals. And I think it will be good therapy too.”
“I think you’re right, and that all sounds perfect.” She tilted her head. “But why the seclusion? Are you hiding out?”
“At least for a little while. I feel like my life has been upside down for months—I want to get through the holidays, and then all I want is a fresh start with the new year. For all of us.”
“I get it. And speaking of the holidays, all your boxes with the kids’ gifts in them arrived safe and sound. They’re all wrapped up and ready to be torn open by eager little hands.”
“Thank you.” I smiled at her, grateful again to have such a supportive family. “I was dreading this Christmas, but being home again, seeing the house with all the lights on it, and the snow on the ground, it feels nostalgic in a good way. I want to take the kids sledding and ice skating and build a snowman by the barn like we used to.”
“Yes! You have to.” April looked excited. “Remember the snowball fights we used to have? Those were epic. We need to do that again.”
I laughed. “My kids would be all in for sure. And they could use the fun. But enough about us. How’s everybody else? Dad’s health seems good.”
April nodded. “Mom and Dad are doing great. Enjoyed their cruise and are considering spending a month or so in Florida over the winter, maybe even buying a place down there. Dad’s not a hundred percent retired yet, but he works much less. He walks on the treadmill or outside every day, and he’s at Mack and Frannie’s house a lot—loves being a bonus grandfather. Mack’s girls even call him Grandpa John.”
I smiled. “That’s so cute. And Frannie’s doing well? I can’t believe she’s a stepmom of three—our baby sister! She’s not even thirty yet!”
“I know. And she’s a natural. I bet they have their own kids soon too.”
“Wow. Hard to imagine. Time flies, doesn’t it?” I shook my head. “How about Chloe? Have she and Oliver set a wedding date?” Chloe, the second youngest Sawyer sister, had gotten engaged to her childhood nemesis, Oliver, at the end of the summer.
“Possibly next summer, but they’re still arguing about it. He wants sooner, she wants more time to plan.” April laughed and shook her head. “Those two get off on bickering, I swear to God. It’s like foreplay to them.”
I squinted. “Foreplay? What’s foreplay? I vaguely recall it might have something to do with sex, but . . .”
April’s eyes closed. “Tell me about it.”
“How about Meg? She’s back home for good now?” Our middle sister had been living in DC for years but had come home for Frannie’s wedding and promptly fallen head over heels for her old friend Noah, a sheriff’s deputy in town.
“Yep. She moved back right before Thanksgiving, and she appears to be going through the motions of looking for a place to live, but she and Noah seem pretty darn cozy in his house. I’ll be surprised if she ever moves out.” She sighed. “All three of our little sisters seem happy as can be.”
I heard the wistful tone in her voice. “What about you? Are you seeing anyone? Got a hot date for New Year’s Eve?”
She shook her head. “I wish, but no. I’ve just been working a lot.”
“Even in December?”
She shrugged. “Well, Mom and Dad were gone on their cruise for three weeks, so we all had to pitch in to cover. And there have been a ton of holiday parties this month. Chloe is running ragged trying to get the distillery going while still managing the tasting room and prepping to take over for Dad full time. The Christmas Eve party is coming up Tuesday, and the New Year’s Eve dinner is the following week. January will be a little break, at least, but we’ve got some corporate events. And in February, we’ll get busy again for Valentine’s Day and Presidents’ Weekend.”
“Sounds like you should hire some help.”
“It’s on my list. I’m actually interviewing someone right after the holidays, another event planner.”
“I can help out in the meantime.”
“I might take you up on that,” April said. “Or if you want to freeze your ass off in the vineyard, you can help Henry with the pruning.”
“Oh, that’s right. Pruning starts soon.”
“Twenty thousand acres, all done by hand.” April imitated Henry’s deep voice. “It’s an art form.”
I laughed. I didn’t know Henry all that well, but I knew he was very serious about his vines. “Poor Henry. Does it bother him that you guys tease him so much?”
“Nah.” She waved a hand in the air. “He’s like the honorary Sawyer brother—he can take it. And he knows we’re kidding.”
“Dad emailed me a link to a magazine article about him a few weeks ago. Like a 40 Under 40 Tastemakers in Wine kind of thing?”
April nodded happily. “Yeah, that was really cool! I was so thrilled for him. He’s so good at what he does.” Then she sighed. “And he needs the positivity these days. He’s going through a divorce too, did I tell you that?”
“Oh no, is he?” My heart ached a little in sympathy. “I remember him saying at Frannie’s wedding that he and his wife had separated. I was hoping it would work out.”
April shook her head. “I guess she’d already left and filed for divorce by then. He sort of hid it for a while. She moved to Chicago.”
“Was there someone else?”
She lifted her shoulders. “Henry just says they just grew apart, and I haven’t wanted to pry, but I think there’s more to the story.”
“How long were they married?” I tried to picture them together, but it had been a while—maybe a Cloverleigh Christmas party years ago? I remembered her as acting sort of quiet and sullen that night, in contrast to Henry’s easygoing, friendly personality.
“I’m not exactly sure. They were married when he took the job here, which was nine years ago, so at least that long. He seems okay day to day, but he works a lot. His truck is always there when I leave work late at night after a wedding.”
My heart went out to Henry. Maybe he was working constantly to distract himself, or to avoid going home alone. I understood that—there was nothing worse than the silence of an empty house.
“Well, all I want to do is drink wine these days,” I said with a sigh, “but I’ll get out there in the cold and prune vines if I must. I remember Dad making us learn how to do it when we were kids, and then we’d go in and chug gallons of hot chocolate afterward. Remember how Mom used to make it from scratch on the stove top? So good.”
April laughed. “Yeah, but this time we’ll spike it.”
Smiling, I clinked my glass against hers. “Sounds like a plan.”
* * *
Just after eight, April headed home to her condo in Traverse City and I took the private corridor that led from the inn’s lobby to my parents’ house. I found my kids wrapped in blankets on the couches in the family room with my dad watching It’s a Wonderful Life. My mother, of course, was cleaning up the cookie mess in the kitchen by herself.
“Let me help you,” I said, rolling up my sleeves. I inhaled the scent of cookies baking. “Mmmm, smells delicious.”
“Thank you, darling.” My mom cradled my cheek for a moment. “But aren’t you tired?”
“A little. But please don’t tell me I look it. I’m going to lose my mind if one more person tells me I look exhausted. Or skinny. Or worried. I’m working on all of it.”
“You look just beautiful to me.” She smiled and went back to work.
We got the dishwasher loaded and running just as the first batch came out of the oven. I grabbed the bowl of dough from the fridge. “Want me to put in a second batch?”
“No, no,” she insisted, shooing me out of the kitchen. “You’ve had a long day. Go watch the movie or curl up with a book and a cup of tea somewhere.”
“Thanks.” But I didn’t really feel like watching a movie or reading a book. After a long day of sitting on planes and then stuffing my face with pizza, I felt like I needed a little exercise. “Actually, I think I might take a walk. Get some fresh air.”
“Okay, sweetheart. Dress warmly.”
“I will.” From the closet in the front hall, I grabbed my winter coat, zipping it all the way up. I tied a scarf around my neck, and tugged on a hat, my snow boots, and mittens. Then I slipped out the front door, pulling it shut behind me.
The air was bracingly cold, but I didn’t mind. I shoved my hands into my pockets and followed the snow-kissed brick path around the back of the house, past the old red barn and the stables, past the new white barn that served as a wedding reception venue, and over toward the winery and vineyard.
Right away I saw the pickup truck in the winery’s parking lot, and I assumed it was Henry’s. I hadn’t brought my phone with me, but I knew it had to be almost ten o’clock. What was he still doing here this late? I recalled what April had said and wondered if he could use a friend.
Moving a little quicker, I followed the path to the winery door. Lights were on inside, but the double doors were locked. I pressed my face to the glass and peered into the tasting room, but I didn’t see anyone, so I knocked a few times. No one answered. I knocked again, a little louder.
Five seconds later, Henry appeared, a confused expression on his face as he crossed the tasting room floor from the direction of the cellar, peering out the window. When he saw me, he hurried to the doors, unlocked them, and pushed one open. “Sylvia?”
“Come on in.”
“Thanks. It’s freezing out there.” I moved inside the bright, open space, grateful for the warmth.
Henry shut the door behind me. “I’m sorry if you were waiting outside for long. I was in the cellar and it’s hard to hear from there. I wasn’t expecting anyone.” He ruffled his hair in a boyish gesture that made it messier rather than neater. It was walnut-colored and thick, with just the tiniest hint of gray at the temples. A short layer of scruff covered his jaw.
“Oh, that’s okay. It was only a minute or so.” I gestured toward the parking lot with a mittened hand. “I was out taking a walk and saw your truck. I thought I’d come in and say hi. See how things are going.”
“Things are going well, thanks.”
“Did the grapes have a good year?”
“Yeah,” he said, nodding. “I think it’s going to be a nice vintage.”
After a somewhat awkward pause, I glanced toward the cellar. “Working late, huh?”
He shrugged. “I’m kind of a night owl these days.”
“Me too.” That is, if you could call lying awake panicking about your hot mess of a life being a night owl.
“Did you just get in?” he asked, crossing his arms over his chest. He wore jeans, work boots, and a thick gray henley with the sleeves pushed up, revealing muscular forearms and solid wrists. His henley had a hole on the chest, and a white undershirt peeked through.
“We got in earlier tonight. I don’t know if you heard, but the kids and I are moving here.” There was another awkward moment of silence before I added, “Brett and I split up.”
He nodded, looking a little uncomfortable. “I did hear that, from April, but I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to know or not. So I didn’t want to say anything.”
I looked at the floor and shuffled my feet before peeking up at him. “Um, is it weird if I say the same thing? That I know about your divorce too, but I’m not sure if I’m supposed to?”
“It’s fine.” Then he surprised me with a smile, his green eyes crinkling at the corners. “But clearly, if we ever have a real secret, we should not tell April.”
I smiled too. “Clearly.”
We stood there grinning at each other for a moment, and my body warmed as I suddenly found myself wondering what kind of secret the ruggedly handsome Henry DeSantis and I might have.
It awakened something small and fluttery inside me.