The night before christmas

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Butternut Lake: The Night Before Christmas




Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

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An Excerpt fromMoonlight on Butternut Lake

Chapter One

About the Author

Also by Mary McNear



About the Publisher


Chapter One

WHENJACKRETURNEDfrom bringing firewood in from the woodpile that night, he found Caroline standing in front of the mirror in their bedroom.

“What are you doing?” he asked, watching her from the doorway.

“What? Oh, nothing,” she said, shaken out of her reverie and turning away from the mirror. “I was just, just checking something.”

“Checking what?” Jack asked, coming over to her and taking her into his arms. She nestled against him and felt the cold night air, still on his flannel shirt and blue jeans, mix with the warmth of her white cotton nightgown.

“What were you checking on?” Jack persisted, nuzzling her neck in a way that almost made her forget what she'd been checking on.Almost. But she pulled away from him and showed him.

“Do you see this skin, right here, right under my chin?” she asked, patting it with her fingertips.

“I see it,” he said. “And it looks beautiful,” he added. “Like all of your skin.”

“No, but I mean, feel it,” she said. He felt it, dutifully. “Do you think it's getting a little softer? Do you think it's, you know, starting tohang downa little? You know, like the beginning of a double chin or a . . . a turkey wattle?”

“A turkey wattle?” Jack repeated, mystified.

Caroline nodded, seriously. “Because my grandma Pearl used to have this thing, this sack, sort of, that hung down under her chin, like a turkey wattle. At least that's what my cousins and I used to call it. And now I'm afraid I might be getting one too. I mean, not right this second, maybe, but at some point in the future.”

“Caroline, there is nothing wrong with your chin, or the skin under your chin, or any other part of you, for that matter,” he said, stroking her cheek tenderly. “Now what's this really about?”

“It's about aging, Jack,” she said, a little fretfully. “It's about getting older.”

“Something we're both going to do,” he reminded her.

“Something we're bothalreadydoing,” she said. “Only, because you're a man, you're doing it better than I am.”

He studied her for a long moment. “So . . . is this about . . . are you thinking . . . that you're somehow going to be less attractive to me as you age?”

Caroline nodded, a little sheepishly. And then, before he could object, she said, “I know what you're going to say, Jack. And I already know all that stuff. ‘It's what's on the inside that counts.' ‘You'll love me whatever I look like. You're in this for the long haul' . . . all those things. And I get it. I believe you. It's just that . . . things are different with us. Our history is a little unusual.” And that, they both knew, was putting it mildly. They'd married when they were both twenty-­one and had their daughter, Daisy, soon after. Then they'd divorced three years later and had not seen each other again for the next eighteen years, until Jack had moved back to Butternut, Minnesota, last summer, still in love with Caroline, and hell-­bent on winning her back. He had, eventually, and now they were getting married again, for the second time. And since last fall, they'd been happily ensconced in the cabin Jack had renovated for them on Butternut Lake, behaving, as Caroline had pointed out more than once, “like a ­couple of teenagers.” Which was to say that even after almost four months of living together again, they could barely keep their hands off each other.

Jack looked troubled now though. It pained him, she knew, that they had lost so many years of what could have been their life together. It pained her, too, of course, but it pained Jack more, because he was the one—­with his drinking, his gambling, and his womanizing—­who was mainly responsible for the fact that those years had been lost to them. Two years ago, though, he'd gotten sober and straightened his life out, and now he was determined to make every single second count with Caroline, and with their daughter, Daisy, who was away at college.

“Jack, look,” Caroline said. “I'm not bringing this up because I want you to feel guilty. I don't. But I want you to understand it from my perspective. The last time we got married, I was twenty-­one. I wasa baby,practically. And I had the skin to prove it. Then, when you left, I was twenty-­four, still young, obviously, still no wrinkles on the horizon. You were gone, though, for almost two decades, and during that time, I went from being young to being middle-­aged. And I can't help but think, what if you missed the best years of me? Not me as a person, I hope. But me as a woman. A woman who was attractive to you.”

Jack said nothing, only studied her for a long moment before turning her around, slowly, until she was facing the mirror above her dresser, and he was standing behind her, his arms around her waist.

“I could tell you, Caroline, that you are as beautiful to me now as you were the day I met you, and it would be the truth. But I don't know if you're in the mood to believe me, so I'm going to show you something instead. I want you to look at yourself now,” he said, gesturing at the mirror, “reallylook at yourself and—­”

“Jack,don't,” she said, feeling embarrassed, and twisting a little in his arms. Because despite the fact that she'd been looking in the mirror just a few minutes earlier, it wasn't something she spent a lot of time doing, and, when she did do it, it was almost always to examine something she was critical of. But now Jack held her, gently but firmly, and when she turned her face away from the mirror, he put his fingers, lightly, on her chin and turned it back.

“Look at yourself,” he said, again, and she looked, reluctantly, into the mirror. “And don't just look at what you think is wrong with you,” he said, “look at what I'm seeing right now. What I see every time I look at you.” He ran his fingers through her strawberry-­blond hair, which was shining in the lamplight, and which she'd always thought was her best feature. The feature she'd been happiest to pass on to Daisy, though Daisy had also gotten her blue eyes and her fair skin. And tonight, she had to admit, her eyes seemed especially blue and her fair skin seemed to be suffused with a soft glow.

In fact, looking in the mirror now, she saw what she thought Jack wanted her to see. Shedidlook young. There was no sign of the gray hair that had recently started to appear—­she'd found another one just that morning—­or of the fine lines that had etched themselves around her eyes and her mouth. And maybe it was the forgiving light in the room, or the fact that Jack was looking at her reflection in the mirror with love, yes, but with desire, too, or maybe it was her own happiness at being with him, in a cabin he'd rebuilt for the two of them to live in together, but, whatever it was, she saw in herself now a certain kind of beauty. And if Jack was the only man who saw it, she realized, as well as the only man who could make her see it in herself, then that was just fine with her.

She turned to him now, sliding her hands up to his shoulders and kissing him, full on the mouth, and he pulled her against him and kissed her back, eventually sliding one of the slender straps of her nightgown off her shoulder, and caressing the bare skin there in a way that made Caroline think it was only a matter of seconds before he had that nightgown off altogether. But he surprised her, pulling away from her and looking down at the neckline of that nightgown and tracing one finger along it.

“You know, before we got back together,” he said, “I used to dream—­literally dream—­about you wearing one of these nightgowns.”

“You did?” Caroline said, surprised. She had several white cotton nightgowns like this one, and none of them, she thought, were particularly sexy. She'd bought them all, in fact, at the Variety Store in Butternut, all for $29.99 apiece. “Jack, why would you dream about me in some old nightgown?” she asked now, with amusement.

“Because you used to wear one when we were married the first time, and I always thought, on you anyway, that it was so beautiful. Any chance I could persuade you to wear one of them for our wedding ceremony?” he asked.

She shook her head. “Jack, I'm not getting married in front of fifty ­people in a nightgown,” she said. “And anyway,” she added, “I thought you liked the blue dress.”

“Ilovethe blue dress. I just love your nightgowns more,” he said, his words soft against the hollow at the base of her neck. Caroline thought then about the dress she'd bought for the wedding, the dress that was hanging in her closet right now. It was a sleeveless, knee-­length, pale blue silk dress with a white silk sash around the waist and a line of little pearl buttons up the back. She'd also had silk high-­heeled shoes dyed to match it. It was, bar none, the prettiest outfit she'd ever owned.

“Well,afterour wedding, I'll wear this nightgown, maybe,” she said. “In our room at the White Pines.” The White Pines, where Caroline and Jack would be spending their wedding night, would also be the site of their ceremony and reception on Saturday, in three days, the day before Christmas Eve. The White Pines was a rustic but elegant resort, built in the 1930s out of wood and stone in a North Woods alpine style, and nestled on thirty acres of waterfront property on one of Butternut Lake's prettiest bays. Its ten cottages and its waterfront area—­complete with fishing docks and boat rentals—­were closed in the winter, but the main lodge, with its twenty-­five rooms and its great room and dining room, both of which had a warm, clubby feeling and both of which overlooked the lake, was very much open. Caroline was in almost daily contact with Lori Pell, the director of the inn, about last-­minute wedding details, and now, she remembered something.

“Oh, one second, honey,” she said, reaching for a pencil and a little pad of paper that were on the dresser. She tried to keep these handy at all times so that she could scribble questions or ideas or reminders to herself about the wedding whenever they occurred to her. “We have to decide if we want a punch, anonalcoholicpunch, served at the reception,” she said. “It would be in addition to the sparkling water, the fruit juice, and the soda. Lisa said the color would be a Christmas red, and that it would look pretty in the inn's antique punch bowl.”

“That sounds nice,” Jack said, watching as Caroline jotted down a note about it on the pad and then flipped it shut again.

“Now what were we talking about?” she asked, coming back into his arms.

“We weren'ttalkingabout anything,” he said, kissing her again.

But then he remembered something, too. “What time does Daisy's bus get in tomorrow?” he asked.

“Twelve thirty,” she said promptly, and she felt the little glow of pleasure she always felt at the prospect of Daisy coming home. She would be staying with them for almost three weeks on her winter break from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

“Perfect,” Jack said. “I'll pick her up.”

“I wish I could come, too. But I can't leave Jessica to waitress alone during the lunch rush.”

“No, you can't,” Jack agreed. “And you don't need to. I'll bring Daisy straight over to Pearl's,” he said, referring to the coffee shop that Caroline's family had opened in Butternut more than fifty years ago and that he was now a partner in as well.

“By the way,” he asked, fiddling with her nightgown strap. “How is ‘operation surprise Daisy' going?”

She smiled at the name he'd given this project. “It's not definite yet. We might not know right up until Christmas Eve morning. But if it all works out, it will be Daisy's best Christmas present ever,” she said.

“It'd be a big surprise, all right,” Jack agreed. But another wedding detail had popped into Caroline's head, and she reached for the pencil again and scribbled furiously onto the pad while Jack waited, a model of forbearance.

“I saw Joey at the IGA today,” she explained to him, dropping the pencil onto the dresser and coming back into his arms. “He asked if he could bring a plus one to the wedding, and I need to tell Lisa.”

“I didn't know Joey had a girlfriend.”

“He doesn't,” she said, resting her cheek against the soft flannel of his shirt. “He has a boyfriend.”

“Joey has aboyfriend?”

“Uh-­huh,” she said, running her hands up the front of his shirt. “You didn't know that?”

“No,” he said. “I thought he was . . . you know, a guy's guy.”

“Heisa guy's guy.”

“But, I mean . . .”

She smiled a little at his befuddlement. “What's the matter, Jack?” she teased. “Aren't you ready for the twenty-­first century to reach Butternut?”

He kissed her, gently, on the lips. “I'm ready for anything,” he said. “As long as I've got you in my life.”

There was no more talking then, just kissing, and Jack sliding her nightgown's straps off her shoulders and letting the gown fall to the floor. No matter how much he liked it, apparently, he didn't want her wearing it anymore. And before she knew it, he'd maneuvered her over to the bed, too.

Jack had always been a fast worker that way, she thought, as she gave herself over to the sweet oblivion of the moment. Some things, it turned out, hadn't changed in the last eighteen years.


Chapter Two

JACKSPENTTHEnext morning laying new floors in a cabin he was renovating. He'd bought the cabin in early fall, and though it had been in near-­derelict condition, he'd planned to do the same thing to it he'd done to his and Caroline's cabin; namely, rebuild it from the outside in. The work was going well, and if he could sell it in the spring, at a healthy profit, he planned on making a business out of renovating cabins on the lake.

But despite his busy morning, he still left himself plenty of time to drive to the bus stop to pick up Daisy. So much time, in fact, that he was there half an hour early. He didn't mind, though. Being a real father to his daughter was still new to him, and he was determined to do it “right,” even though the meaning of that word sometimes eluded him. Being an alcoholic had taught him how to be a drinking buddy, a casual lover, and a fair-­weather friend, but it had taught him almost nothing about how to be a good husband and a good father. Now, after being two years sober, he was just learning this, and there were times when he felt a sudden sense of insecurity and self-­doubt. Had he said the right thing? Had he done the right thing? Had he been the man they needed him to be? The manheneeded to be forthem?

But all these thoughts fell away the moment he saw Daisy get off the bus. “Hey,” he said, scooping her up in his arms and swinging her around. “You're home.”

“I'm home, Dad,” Daisy agreed. “And I missed you so much.” She sounded like herself, the self that Jack thought was just about perfect, but when he set her down and took a closer look at her, she didn't look like herself. Not entirely. She looked thinner, and her blue eyes were shadowed with fatigue, her pale skin almost translucent.

“Daisy, what's wrong?” he asked.

“Nothing's wrong,” she assured him, as the bus driver opened the baggage compartment and Jack took her suitcase out. They thanked the driver then, and Jack carried her suitcase over to his pickup and sat it down in the flatbed.

“Dad, I'm fine,” Daisy said, as they both climbed into the truck. “Really,” she insisted, seeing the worried expression on his face. “It's just . . .”

“It's just what?” he asked, turning on the ignition so the heat would be on in the truck, but making no move to drive away.

“I don't know, it's just . . . everything,” she said, with a helpless shrug.

Jack said nothing, but he knew what Daisy meant by “everything.” She meant Will Hughes. Will was Daisy's boyfriend. Her first serious boyfriend. They'd gone to high school together, though they'd been in different worlds there. Daisy, the straight A student and gifted athlete, and Will, the perennial bad boy, irresistible to girls, but, alas, not to the administrators and teachers at their school. Last summer, though, to everyone's surprise, Daisy's and Will's worlds had intersected—­or, in Caroline's mind, collided—­and the two of them had been inseparable. When Will had told Daisy at the end of the summer that he was joining the army, she'd been almost inconsolable. And Will, it turned out, hadn't been much better, though there hadn't been any tears on his part, just a stoic misery that Jack had recognized immediately. It was that same misery that had kept him company on those late nights, and those early mornings, after he'd given up drinking, but before he knew if he would ever get his wife and daughter back again.

“Hey,” Jack said gently, watching the bus drive away. “I know what it's like to miss someone.”

Daisy nodded, and, as she snuggled deeper into her down jacket, she suddenly looked much younger than her twenty-­one years. “Did it ever get better?” she asked.

Jack sighed, considered lying, then changed his mind. “No, not until I was with you and your mother again,” he said. And, for a moment, he almost told her about the surprise they were planning for her. But it wasn't definite yet, and to get her hopes up now only to dash them later seemed especially cruel. So he pulled on his seat belt and shifted the truck into drive, then glanced over at Daisy, and said, “We better get going. Your mom's expecting us for lunch at Pearl's, and I promised Jessica you'd have a hot chocolate with her afterward.”

“That sounds good,” Daisy said, as Jack pulled out onto the highway. And then, “How's Mom?”

“Mom's good,” he said. “Excited to see you, of course.”

“And busy with the wedding plans?” Daisy asked, looking out the window at the snowy landscape sliding by. And there was something about the way she said this, and looked away from him as she said it, that gave Jack pause.

“She's very excited about the wedding,” he said carefully. “But I'm getting the impression you're not.”

“Oh, no, I am excited,” Daisy said emphatically, turning to him. “I'm thrilled you two are getting remarried, Dad. I don't haveanyreservations about that. But this wedding Mom's planned, I have to say, honestly, it doesn't sound like her at all. And itdefinitelydoesn't sound like you. I mean, the fancy clothes, and the tiered cake and the sit-­down dinner—­is that really your kind of thing? I thought if you got married again you two would do something like, you know . . .”

“Fly to Las Vegas?”

“No, not that. But something smaller. Something . . . I don't know, intimate. And, and not casual, maybe. But not fancy, either.”

“I'm not sure you can call this wedding ‘fancy.' ”

“Well, by Butternut standards it is.”

“Maybe,” Jack allowed. “But that's not saying much. Besides, it's not like we're breaking the bank here. You'd be amazed how much less a reception costs when you're not serving alcohol.”

“I don't mean the money, though, Dad. I mean . . . what do you want?”

“I want to be married to your mother.”

“No, what kind ofweddingdo you want?”

“Oh, that's easy,” he said. “I want whatever kind of wedding your mom wants.”

“So this is about Mom being happy?”

“Well, yes, to a point. But it's about more than that, too. It's about rewriting history. Which is something you don't get to do very often in life.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, turning toward him.

He hesitated. “When your mom and I got married the first time, it wasn't exactly her dream wedding. Her parents hated me, for one thing, so there was no happy family to celebrate with us. And we were broke, for another. Neither of us had any savings yet, and her parents didn't want to spend any of their money because . . . well, as I said, they hated me. So we put something together. Your mom bought a dress on sale, and her family's minister married us in a small ser­vice at Lutheran Redeemer. At the last minute, your great-­grandmother relented, a little, and made some iced tea and finger sandwiches for guests to have in the church basement after the ceremony.” (Jack didn't mention here that in a twist of fate this was the same church basement where he now attended his AA meetings.)

“Anyway,” he continued, “is it so surprising that your mom wanted something different this time around? Something that felt more . . . special, I guess. More permanent.”

His mind caught on that word now.Permanent. The marriage that had followed that wedding, of course, had been anything but. And if Caroline wanted something else this time around, how could he blame her? Because while he might not feel that strongly about the details of the wedding, he felt very strongly about the marriage that came after it. “Permanent” was what he had in mind now. And while the whole “till death do us part” thing had always seemed unnecessarily morbid to him, it didn't seem that way anymore.

“Aren't you forgetting something, Dad?”

“What?” he asked, slowing down on the highway to let another car pass them. He always drove conservatively when Daisy was in the pickup with him.

“Aren't you leaving something out of the whole first wedding story? You know, the part about Mom already being pregnant with me?”

The truck swerved so slightly it was barely noticeable. “I . . . didn't think you knew about that.”

“Well, I do,” she said, looking amused.

“Your mom doesn't think you know, either.”

“Don't worry,” Daisy said. “I won't tell her.”

“When did you, umm . . .”

“As soon as I was old enough to count,” Daisy said, archly. “No, not really. When I was about twelve, I think, I was helping Mom organize some papers and I came across your marriage certificate. I realized it was dated six months before I was born. But she'd never told me, so I figured she didn't want me to know.”

“It's not like that,” Jack said, turning off the highway and onto a county road. “I think she was afraid if you knew you weren't planned, you might think, wrongly, that we weren't as thrilled about your arrival as we might have been otherwise. But we were, trust me. That wedding might not have been perfect, but you, Daisy, you were perfect. Even though you were still just a tiny bump under your mom's wedding dress, you were already the best thing that either of us would ever do.”

“Dad, stop,” Daisy said, brushing at the corner of one of her eyes. “You're going to make me cry.”

Jack smiled at her. “No crying, all right?” he said as he drove past theBUTTERNUT,POPULATION1,200sign. “Your mom will not be happy with me if I bring you into Pearl's and you're already in tears.”

“No crying,” she agreed, looking out the window at the sight of a town so familiar to her that Jack thought she could probably reconstruct every detail of it with her eyes closed. But at this time of year, of course, Butternut was all dressed up in its Christmas finery, and as they turned down Main Street, Daisy let out a little cry of pleasure.

“I forgot how pretty Butternut is at Christmastime,” she said, and even Jack, who'd once chafed at a town he'd considered gossipy and small-­minded, had to admit that it did Christmas right. The sidewalks on Main Street were lined, at twenty-­foot intervals, with Christmas trees hung with colored lights, and an enormous lighted wreath was strung on wires over the street's main intersection. Then there were all the storefronts—­Butternut Drugs, Johnson's hardware, and the Pine Cone Gallery among them—­which were also strung with lights and hung with wreaths.

But it was Pearl's, Jack thought, easing the pickup truck into a parking space right in front, that was the crown jewel of Butternut. Part coffee shop, part town hall, and part gossip clearinghouse, it was the one indispensable business in this town. And it was decorated like it knew it. The brightly polished windows were adorned with strands of tiny white twinkling lights, and its front door sported a lush green wreath with a big red bow on it. Through the windows, Jack could see the miniature red and white poinsettias on each table, and, from the ceiling, the big shiny gold stars that hung down, rotating gently in the draft from the opening and closing front door.

“Oh, look, Mom put out that sleigh,” Daisy said, pointing at the entryway table where a miniature Santa's sleigh and eight miniature reindeer were set up. “I used to spend hours playing with that when I was little. And it shows, too. Last Christmas I noticed it was definitely a little worse for wear.”

“I'm sure that's just part of its charm now,” Jack said, as he cut the ignition and put the truck in park. “But Pearl's looks nice, doesn't it? We spent the Friday night after Thanksgiving decorating it. It helped, of course, that Frankie is so tall he didn't have to stand on a ladder to hang those stars.” Frankie was the fry cook, manager, and now, part owner of Pearl's. Jack unfastened his seat belt and reached for the door handle. “You ready?” he asked when Daisy made no move to join him.

“Do we have to go in yet?” she asked. “Could we stay here a little longer?”

“Sure,” he said, glancing at his watch. “Your mom's not expecting us for another five minutes. Why? What's up?” he asked, as he turned the ignition and the heat back on.

Daisy sighed. “Nothing's up; I just want to mentally prepare myself.”

“For Pearl's?” Jack said, bemused. “I wasn't aware that eating there required any mental preparation. I mean, the menu's still pretty straightforward.”

Daisy laughed. “No, I mean, everyone in there will know me, and know everything about me, including at least five embarrassing stories from my childhood. And they'll know what position I played on the volleyball team in high school, and what my grade point average was, and who I dated.”

“The burdens of celebrityhood?” Jack teased.

Daisy smiled. “The burdens of living in a small town. Because I'm not unique. Believe me, I'll know as much about everyone else in Pearl's as they'll know about me. I just want to get ready for it, that's all. All that familiarity. All that . . . concern.”

“Should we be concerned?”

“No,” Daisy said, shaking her head. “I'm fine.”

“You know, honey, every time you say ‘I'm fine,' I feel a little less convinced that you're fine.”

She laughed again, and Jack savored the sound of it. Making his daughter laugh had become one of his great pleasures in life.

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