It’s taken a long time and a little heartache, but Annie Sutton is finally following her dream of living on Martha’s Vineyard. She fell in love with the island’s singular beauty while using it as a setting for two of her novels. In her cozy rented cottage on Chappaquiddick, she’s settling in for her first Vineyard winter—complete with a fierce nor’easter on the way, forecast to bring high winds and deep snow. But the blizzard also brings something unexpected to Annie’s front porch: a basket, encircled by a ribbon, containing a baby girl. The note reads: “I named her Bella, after my grandmother. Please help her, because I can’t.”
Adopted as a child, Annie is grateful for wonderful parents who raised her as their own. Yet she also hopes to spare little Bella the feelings of abandonment that still haunt her. And so, rather than take the baby to the police, Annie decides to keep her and try to find the birth mother, giving her a chance to change her mind.
But it’s not easy keeping a secret in a close-knit, island community, especially amid the bustle of Christmas. Before the holiday ends, there will be revelations, rekindled hope, and proof that families—the ones we are born into and the ones we claim for ourselves—are the gifts that truly matter . . .
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The turnout was better than Annie had expected. It was, after all, a bitter, see-your-breath kind of morning, with a brisk December wind whirling around Vineyard Sound. But sunshine was vibrant against a bright blue sky, painting a perfect backdrop for the evergreens and colorful lights that decked the lampposts along Main Street, the storefronts, the town hall. Around the village, the traditional Christmas in Edgartown celebration was underway: on her walk to the elementary school gymnasium, Annie had witnessed the beloved parade of quick-stepping marching bands; mismatched, decorative pickup trucks; and a Coast Guard lifeboat perched atop a flatbed trailer that carried Santa himself, who waved and shouted "Ho ho ho!" while tossing candy canes into the cheering curbside throngs.
The atmosphere inside the gym was equally festive as "Jingle Bells" and "Joy to the World" scratched through the ancient PA system. Browsers and shoppers yakked in high-pitched voices and jostled around one another — many were armed with reusable bags silk-screened with the names of island markets, banks, insurance agents. By day's end, the bags would no doubt bulge with knitted scarves, island jewelry, specialty chocolates, and, hopefully, one or two of Annie's handcrafted soaps.
From her station behind a table under a basketball hoop, Annie wore a hesitant smile. The Holiday Crafts Fair had been open less than an hour, but she'd already sold seven bath-sized bars and a three-pack of hand-shaped balls she called "scoops" because each was the size of a scoop of sweet ice cream. Her cash pouch now held fifty-two dollars — not bad for her first endeavor in making boutique soaps by using wildflowers and herbs that grew right there on Martha's Vineyard.
But as happy as the earnings made her, Annie mused that fifty-two dollars was hardly a sign she should quit her day job. Then a middle-aged woman in jeans, an old peacoat, and a felt hat with a yellow bird crocheted on the brim approached the table. An islander, Annie knew. A year-rounder, like Annie was now. She'd seen her somewhere in town — the post office, the movies, the library. With the days growing shorter and colder and the streets less cluttered with tourists, faces were becoming familiar. The woman in the peacoat examined Annie's wares, which were wrapped in pastel netting and tied with coordinating ribbon: pink for beach roses and cream; yellow for buttercup balm; lavender for violets and honey.
At the far end of the table, a young woman sniffed a scoop of fox grape and sunflower oil: Annie had gathered the buds, then added the oil for velvety smoothness, the way her teacher, Winnie Lathrop, had showed her.
"How much?" the young woman asked as she adjusted a basket on the crook of her arm. It was a big handwoven basket, the kind Annie's aunt had used to hold skeins of yarn. This one, however, held a sleeping infant, snugly wrapped in a thick fleece blanket.
Annie smiled again, the ambiance and the people almost warming her spirit and her mood. "Four dollars. Ten dollars for a three-pack of mixed scents."
The young woman, who looked barely out of her teens, had short, pixie- ish chestnut hair and sad, soulful eyes that were large and dark and looked veiled with sorrow. She set down the scoop, readjusted the basket. Then she picked up a piece of cranberry and aloe oil that was tied with red ribbon. She did not speak again.
Wincing at the snub, Annie wondered if she'd ever learn not to take the actions of strangers personally. "As hard as it is for us to believe, not everyone will love you or your work," her old college pal, her best-friend- forever, Murphy, had once told her after a tepid review of one of Annie's books. "Forget about them. They're pond scum anyway."
Startled to hear her name, she quickly spun back to the present. Only a few people knew she now lived on the island; fewer knew who she was or that she had a backlist of best-selling mystery novels. She turned from the ill- mannered young woman and politely asked, "Yes?"
The caller's hair was as silver as the foil bells made by the first-graders that the custodian had hung from the gymnasium rafters. She wore a smart wool coat that fit her nicely — a Calvin Klein or Michael Kors. Her well-manicured fingernails were painted red and matched her lipstick; her purse might have been a Birkin bag — a real one, not a knockoff. She'd most likely arrived that morning on the Grey Lady, the special "holiday shopping" ferry that had come from Cape Cod straight into Edgartown for the festive weekend.
"You're Annie Sutton? The writer?"
Annie's cheeks turned the same shade as her beach roses and cream. "Guilty." An often-rehearsed, engaging grin sprang to her mouth. She hoped it was convincing.
The woman's eyes grazed the table. "And now you're a soap maker?"
"Just a hobby."
"Well, goodness, I hope so. When's your next book coming out?"
That, Annie wanted to reply, is a good question. But she could hardly say she was reassessing her life, that she had lost her inspiration to write, that she was now on a healing sabbatical. If the news ever went viral, Trish — her patient, yet perfectionist editor — would never forgive her. "Soon," she said, aware that several browsers at her table had shifted their focus from her products onto her, and that other shoppers were drifting her way. In her peripheral vision, she noticed that the young mother remained standing, silent, her head slightly cocked, as if she were listening. "Actually," Annie continued, shaking off silly discomfort, "I'm still working on it. It's the first book in a new mystery series."
"Well, hurry up. Your readers are dying to read it!" The woman put a hand to her mouth and giggled. "Yes, we're dying to read your next mystery. That's a pun. Get it?"
Annie nodded and said she did.
The woman picked up nine three-bar sets and plunked them down in front of Annie without checking the scents. "I'll take these. The ladies in my book group will adore them. Will you sign the labels?" She juggled her big purse and pulled out a credit card.
Annie had pierced a small hole for the ribbon on each oval-shaped paper label, which had an illustration of the island, the name of the flowers or herbs she had added, and a frilly typeface that read: Soaps by Sutton. There was no blank space for a signature. Embarrassed, she turned over each label and penned: Happy Holidays! Annie Sutton. It had not occurred to her that Annie-the-soap-maker would be "outed" at the fair, that she'd be asked to dish out her autograph.
"I love your books, too!" another voice called out. "Will you sign a bar of soap for me?"
The requests shot out from a line now swollen with reusable bag — toting patrons.
"Do you live on the Vineyard?" another voice hollered.
Annie sat up straighter on the metal folding chair. "I moved here at the end of the summer," she replied, summoning full celebrity persona now, the one she'd cultivated at Murphy's insistence.
"Did you buy a house?"
"No, I'm renting a guesthouse — a cottage — over on Chappaquiddick."
"I love Chappy!" someone else cried. "Whereabouts are you?"
"North Neck Road." She cleared her throat and spoke loudly and pleasantly, as if she were at a book reading.
"Does your new book take place here?"
"Is it an autobiography?"
"A murder mystery?" a different voice cried. "That would be a terrible autobiography!"
The crowd tittered, then another woman asked, "Will you be finished with it soon?"
The chattering rushed at her, the voices drowning out the PA system's "Jingle Bells." Annie remembered a time, not long ago, when she'd prayed to have a few fans of her books. Be careful what you wish for, she reminded herself, trying to keep her rising anxiety at bay. She forced a laugh, rang up another sale, signed another autograph, and sadly wished that this day were done. "My first book was the closest I've come to writing about my life. That was hard enough."
"Was that the one where your character was adopted?"
"Yes," she said, then collected more dollars, signed more labels. "It was before I started writing mysteries; I can assure you that no one in my life has been murdered!" Not that she would have minded learning that her ex-husband had met his demise.
The crowd laughed along with her, except for the girl with the sad, soulful eyes, who simply wandered away.
* * *
If this were an ordinary off-season Saturday night, Annie might have stopped at the Newes for a bowl of chowder and a glass of chardonnay on her way back to Chappy. But the 275-year-old, brick-walled, fireplaced pub would be packed with the weekend wave of merry, but tired, shoppers — mostly women with their friends, having lots of fun. She would hate being alone.
With the fair finally over, she stepped outside, took a long breath of the crisp night air, and willed herself to feel, if not completely happy, then at least content: there was no good reason not to. Yesterday, Earl Lyons — the white-haired, robust caretaker for the estate where she rented the cottage — had loaded four cartons of her soap into his pickup truck, driven onto the small ferry over from Chappy, and helped set up her table at the fair. He'd said he'd be glad to come back if she needed any leftovers hauled home. But now, carrying a single bag that held only a handful of unsold soaps and a fat envelope of cash and receipts, Annie decided to walk. Maybe the exercise would help her figure out if she'd found a new trade, after all — and help her shed what was beginning to feel like a dose of Christmas blues.
She put on her alpaca mittens ("The warmest you'll ever find," Earl had advised when he'd offered helpful hints about the island), then pulled the matching knit hat over her straight, silver-black hair that barely skimmed her shoulders. Though the night air was calm, the trek to the boat would be chilly, and the crossing downright cold: the miniature ferry that navigated the 527-foot channel from Edgartown to Chappy offered no shelter for passengers, only a three-sided glass cubicle where the captain stood. More like a motorized raft than an actual boat, the one running that winter was called the On Time II and only held three vehicles, or an SUV and a UPS truck, or some other meager configuration. Benches that hugged the sides could seat up to twelve walk-ons, though Annie hadn't seen that many people on the boat since tourism predictably had plummeted after Columbus Day weekend. A slightly larger On Time III crisscrossed the II in season, but was in dry dock now, taking its turn for maintenance, getting prepped for the next onslaught in the spring. There was no sign of an On Time I, though surely it once had existed.
Leaving the school grounds, she walked on past the new library to the fire station, where their original cast-iron bell, circa 1832, was displayed on the lawn. Like much of the village, the bell was decorated with hundreds of enchanting holiday lights.
She turned onto Peases Point Way, then crossed the street to avoid the graveyard, something Murphy would have found ridiculous.
Annie sighed. God, how she missed her best friend. She knew that the loss, the grief, were at the core of her glum spirits. Murphy once said: "Men can come and go in life, but best friends last forever." At the time, Murphy's hand had been clutching the stem of a glass of pinot noir, having come over after calling Annie at midnight with a rare need to escape from her "workaholic husband" and her "rambunctious boys." The two of them had smiled, clinked glasses, and taken another sip, neither of them having any idea how suddenly and sharply cancer would snap the "forever" of their bond.
Peases Point Way connected to Cooke Street, where Annie took a right and headed toward the harbor. But at South Summer Street, she changed her mind and turned left instead. She passed the eighteenth-century, gray- shingled building that had once been a poorhouse, but where the Vineyard Gazette had been located for over a century now. On the opposite side of the narrow street was the gracious, stately Charlotte Inn, known for its old-world charm. Annie jaywalked across the road, climbed the three front stairs, and stepped into the foyer.
A woman in a sleek black dress stood at the mahogany reception desk.
"I know the terrace isn't open in winter," Annie said, "but may I sit at a table if I only want wine?" She pulled off her hat and shook out her hair.
"Are you alone, or will someone join you?"
"It's just me," Annie replied, keeping her tone carefully neutral. The woman was just doing her job, she reminded herself. She isn't mocking me for the fact that I'm alone.
They moved into a candlelit room that was filled with diners who were conversing in intimate tones. Then, as if guided by the universe — or, more likely, Murphy — the hostess led Annie to a small table that had a view of the terrace. Annie thanked her, sat down, and gazed out at the redbrick courtyard. The wrought iron tables were gone, as were the navy umbrellas, which, early last summer, had shaded Annie and Murphy as they'd whiled away a sunny day. They'd been wearing flowered sundresses and open-toed sandals that showed off fresh pedicures. The sunlight had brought out the red in Murphy's shoulder-length hair. As usual, they'd shared plucky conversation about some things that mattered and many more that didn't. It had been a celebratory weekend, a girls' getaway to mark their fiftieth birthdays — Annie's had been in February; Murphy's, in April.
And now, on this December evening, Annie ordered a Chambord Cosmopolitan instead of her usual chardonnay. She and Murphy had sipped Cosmos that afternoon — Murphy claimed that vodka dressed up with Chambord and orange liqueur showed more enthusiasm than wine. "We made it to fifty; we deserve to live a little," she'd declared. A full-time behavioral therapist, the mother of twin boys (the rambunctious ones), and the wife of a well-respected Boston surgeon (the workaholic), Murphy prided herself in maintaining a positive attitude and mostly agreeable relationships with her family, friends, and an assortment of alcoholic beverages.
"If I drink this, I'll get drunk," Annie had said. "You know I can't drink the way you do."
Murphy asked the waitress to bring Annie more cranberry juice on the side. "Now," she said, turning back to her friend, "tell me about your next book."
Annie sighed. "I'm struggling with it. It's about two women who work in a museum where there's a huge art heist. And a dead body or two. I love the concept, but the plot isn't gelling."
"It will. You're not much of a drinker, but you've got the gift of blarney. Whether you're Irish or not."
Of course, Annie had no idea if she was Irish, French, or Tasmanian, though her dad often said she must be Scottish because of her black hair, hazel — not blue — eyes, and "outdoorsy" complexion, whatever that meant. Her mom and dad had adopted Annie when she was six weeks old; she'd never learned her heritage, not even later, when she'd had the chance.
"The truth is," Annie had explained, "my characters were best friends in college and are reunited when one gets a job at the museum where the other one volunteers. They're not us, though. Neither one of us knows squat about art history. And my characters are smarter, richer, and much more beautiful."
"No!" Murphy had screeched. "They can't possibly be smarter or more beautiful! But I do think the story sounds terrific. If you feel stuck, maybe you need a break. Even better, a vacation!" Then she'd grown uncharacteristically pensive. "Let's get serious. What's on your bucket list?"
"Stop! We're only fifty. It's too soon for one of those."
"No it isn't, Annie. Think about it. What would you want to do if you weren't such an infernally sober stick-in-the-mud? If you shake things up a little, you might reignite your creative genius."
Annie had a good laugh at that. Still, she wondered if her friend was right. Murphy, after all, knew her like no one ever had. Not like her parents. Not like her first husband — her first love — Brian. And certainly not like the next one, Mark, the man she'd wasted too much of herself trying to please. "Okay," she said. "If I had a list — which is not to say that I'll make one — the first thing I would do would be to move here. Live on the Vineyard. At least for a while."
"Where you met Brian."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Vineyard Christmas"
Copyright © 2018 Jean Stone.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Great story with much human feelings and heart.
In the midst of a New England snowstorm a miracle and a mystery are delivered at once, changing the lives of several people on Martha’s Vineyard. Days before Christmas, as a nor’easter is hitting the Island, baby Bella is delivered to newcomer and childless 50-year-old Annie Sutton’s doorstep. The baby is accompanied with a note stating the mother will be back in a few days. But Christmas comes and goes and no-one has come back to claim the child. In the meantime, a young lady is rescued from the frigid waters of the Atlantic after plunging off a ferry. Could the two strange incidences be related? The pacing of the book is slow in order to thoroughly explore Annie’s past with all of its regrets, mistakes and heartaches. Although the mystery isn’t a suspenseful one, it takes you on several twists and turns nonetheless.
A wonderful feel good story that will warm your heart as a Christmas miracle lands on the doorstep of a woman at a crossroads in life. When a baby is left on her doorstep during a blizzard, Annie takes her in and doesn't call the police hoping to give the mother a chance to come to her senses and come back. This decision not only changes Annie's life but many others in the small town. The writing of this story is excellent and the character will touch your heart. This is a great holiday read and a book I definitely recommend.