Three weeks after Christmas every year, Preston and Constance Whittier left their home in New York and took a vacation. When the children were younger, their beloved German housekeeper, Frieda, and one of a revolving door of nannies would take care of their six children. They would come home energized and refreshed after a romantic two- or three-week interlude alone. They both loved to ski, and a favorite spot for their holiday was one of the Three Valleys in the French Alps. They went to Courchevel, Val-d’Isère, or Megève in France, Zermatt and Saint Moritz in Switzerland. Occasionally they skied in Aspen or Vail in Colorado, but with their kids grown, they preferred to take their annual child-free vacation in Europe rather than in the States.
They often took the children skiing with them when they went to Aspen, during their winter break from school. Their ski trips in Europe were a special treat for Connie and Preston. They usually ended the trip with a weekend in Paris or London before heading back to New York to resume their family life. As the children got older, they teased their parents about the trip, and called it their Wintermoon.
They all summered on Shelter Island, in a big family house they had eventually sold, when the children stopped spending summers with them and the house had become more of a burden than a joy. Connie and Preston had begun to streamline their life in recent years, cutting down on unnecessary expenses, and avoiding projects that were too much work for them. In the summers, they rented a house in Maine now, or in the Hamptons, or on Cape Cod, large enough so that the children who wanted to could come and go for a few days or a weekend visit. Renting was easier than owning, and the headache of maintaining a summer home was someone else’s problem, not theirs. The children never came at the same time, so they didn’t need an enormous house. Preston and Connie still clung to the tradition of their Wintermoon, which they called it now, too. It was important to them, and they looked forward to it all year. After forty-three years of marriage, it still felt like a honeymoon to them. Constance was sixty-five years old and the time had flown. She couldn’t believe how old her children were, all adults now. Even their “baby” Annabelle, a late surprise, had just turned twenty-one.
Their oldest, Lyle, was forty-two, married, with two children of his own, a son and daughter, Tommy, ten, and Devon, seven. His wife, Amanda, had been a disappointment to them all. Lyle had been enjoying his bachelorhood and burgeoning career in land development and commercial real estate ten years ago when the girl he was dating none too seriously had gotten pregnant and he had married her. She had never warmed to his family, nor they to her. She was socially ambitious. Constance thought her greedy, although Preston’s attitude was more charitable. She was bright and lively and fun and sexy, and knew how to turn the charm on for Lyle, but within a short time after they married, Connie didn’t think Lyle looked happy. But Lyle never complained. He was loyal to a fault and wanted to make the marriage work once he’d agreed to marry Amanda.
Amanda never worked after they were married. She had strong desires for expensive things, made heavy demands of him, and gave little in exchange, in Connie’s opinion, but Connie loved her grandchildren, and enjoyed spending time with them. Both Annabelle, now twenty-one, and Benjie, twenty-eight, Preston and Connie’s two youngest children, still lived at home with them. Connie loved having the last of her children still near at hand. Their other children, all on determined career paths, had moved out years before. Gloria, next after Lyle, had a big job on Wall Street in finance, and was generous with business advice to her brothers and sisters, whether they asked for it or not. She had bought an apartment on the Upper West Side, which she loved. She visited her parents’ home often, but was happiest living alone, even now at thirty-nine.
The twins, Caroline and Charlie, had bought an apartment together in SoHo. At thirty-three, they worked brutally hard on their steadily growing fashion brand of women’s clothes. They spent every waking hour working, and had transformed a loft in an old warehouse into a living space they loved. Inseparable as children and growing up, they had opted to live and build a business together as adults. It worked well for both of them.
Lyle was the only one of the six siblings who was married. Gloria, Charlie, and Caroline were busy with their careers and there was no hint of marriage on the horizon or even serious romantic relationships for any of them in their fast-moving worlds. Benjie needed his parents’ help, and at twenty-one, Annabelle was still too young for marriage, and had no interest in it. But she was eager to have an apartment of her own, and was in negotiation with her parents to allow her to get one. Independence from parental supervision was her only current goal. She had recently dropped out of college, which her parents weren’t pleased about, and moved back in with them. This had stalled her ability to convince them that more freedom was what she needed most now. So the prospect of moving to her own apartment was currently on hold. And Benjie was delighted to have her back at home with him.
Connie and Preston had met for the first time at her debut in New York, when she was presented to society, in an antiquated social rite her family still clung to. Preston was ten years older and didn’t pay attention to her. She was just one of twenty-five eighteen-year-old girls in pretty white dresses who curtsied to the assembled company and had escorts their own age. They met again at Connie’s first job, after she’d graduated from Vassar. She was a junior editor at a publishing house, where Preston was already a respected senior editor. He noticed her immediately and found her intelligent and beautiful. They married the following summer and started their family immediately.
Connie gave up her job to raise the children they planned to have. Eventually Preston became the publisher, and held the job for the rest of his career. Now seventy-five, he had been retired for ten years. They loved having more time to spend together. He had enjoyed a distinguished career, and they had similar interests. They never tired of being together, and there was still a spark of romance between them, which grew into a steady blaze during their Wintermoons in Europe.
They came from similar backgrounds. Preston’s family had had a great fortune from steel and copper at the turn of the twentieth century. The Crash of ’29 had taken a heavy toll, as had time, but hadn’t wiped them out entirely, as it had others. The family just had less than before, and had to live more carefully. But neither Preston nor Connie had a taste for luxury. Although Preston’s fortune had diminished over the years, they had enough money to live well. Preston had made wise investments, and he made a respectable salary. They could comfortably afford their six children, and a solid, stable lifestyle, without extravagance. While their children had been well educated and would inherit a modest amount one day, they would never be “rich” as his family had once been. The value of the house and Preston’s investments made them vulnerable to estate taxes, and what was left would be divided six ways. What they inherited would help them buy homes, educate their own children, and start businesses. With their inheritances, they would be comfortable, but none of them would be very wealthy from what their parents left them.
Their mother, Connie, had inherited a small amount from her aristocratic parents and grandparents, but their fortune had never equaled Preston’s, and what she’d inherited had dwindled to very little over the years. But Preston supported them well.
The most valuable asset they had to leave their children was the house they had lived in since before Lyle was born. It was an old once-grand mansion they had bought for a ridiculously small sum in a foreclosure auction Connie had read about. No one wanted a house that size, so they bought it for a price they were able to afford at the time. It was in the East Seventies between Fifth and Madison Avenues, at a very impressive address. It had once been an extremely elegant home. They had turned it into a family home, despite its size and history. Its location made it valuable, and they expected their children to sell it one day for the substantial price it would bring. It had been an incredible opportunity when they bought it. Preston had been afraid it was too big when Connie found it, but with the six children they eventually had, it had proven to be perfect for them. It had beautiful moldings, magnificent high ceilings, graceful French windows, and several wood-paneled rooms. Connie and Preston maintained it well, but with some modernization and restoration, its grandeur could be easily refreshed by new owners willing and able to spend the money. It could bring a fortune from the right buyer. It had turned out to be their best investment, and was worth far more than they had paid for it forty-two years before.