Today we have Kay Springsteen, author of the Echoes of Orson’s Folly series and the Heart stories, visiting with us! She is sharing an except from her new Christmas novel, Operation: Christmas Hearts, as well as one of her favorite charities.
Operation: Christmas Hearts BY Kay Springsteen
Ashley Torrington never cared much about Christmas before. But this year she’s having a particularly blue holiday because Marine Special Operations Team member, Nick Turner got under her skin just before he was deployed to Afghanistan. With her neighbors’ precocious daughter Bella volunteering Ashley for a special project at school, and a mysterious white-haired stranger named Estelle in town buying gifts from Ashley’s shop, not to mention the odd assortment of presents Ashley’s been receiving from an anonymous source, she shouldn’t have time to worry about her guy. But when he and his team go missing the week before Christmas, she realizes only a Christmas miracle will reunite them.
Captain Nicholas Turner never backed down from challenges—on the battlefield or in his personal life. But he’d never met a challenge like Ashley, who doesn’t want to be anyone’s “girl back home.” Now he’s on the other side of the world, wanting to be anywhere but in Afghanistan for Christmas. About to embark on one of the most dangerous missions of his life, he needs Ashley to know she’s much more than the girl he’d left behind, and he does plan to come home to her. But in the meantime, a little Christmas magic would be appreciated. Little does he know, he’s about to get his wish.
North Carolina, late afternoon
T minus 19 days ’til Christmas
The steady drip-drip of the light rain on the canvas awning outside was the only sound to break the silence. No happy laughter of children playing. And ever since the mail carrier had departed an hour earlier, no jingle of the bell on the front door to signal a customer’s arrival to the art gallery and gift shop.
More important, no phone ringing.
A thriving tourist town in the summer, the small shoreline community of Lookout Island was always a bit slow come late autumn and during the winter months; too warm for snow, but not tropical enough to attract the sun bunnies. Many of the residents stuck around but most of the tourist-oriented businesses closed, as owners and employees took opportunities for extended vacations to sun or snow, depending on their individual preferences.
Which is exactly what Ashley Torrington should have done. Get on a plane to chase the sun. Or the snow. Just take a flight bound for anywhere but the gray skies, misty air, and wet pavement of winter on the North Carolina coast. Even Main Street, with its twinkling white lights and ribbon-tied cedar garland, looked droopier than usual. The rain hit the bulky red bows, formed little pools in the folds of the fabric, and then cascaded in little droplets to form puddles on the sidewalk beneath.
Turning from the window, Ashley’s eyes fell on the little parcel the mail carrier had left. It had arrived when she was in the middle of hanging lights in the gallery window, and she’d forgotten about it after she had finished her task. Ashley picked it up. The white box was about six inches square, and it sat on the counter mocking her with its lack of return address. It hardly weighed anything at all, and it made no sound when she shook it.
“Probably a box of air,” she muttered, reaching for the utility knife. She drew the blade in a quick, sure line across clear packing tape and pulled the top flaps open. White foam packing peanuts exploded from the confined space, and Ashley screamed.
After her heart settled out of its pounding beat into a more sedate rhythm, and her breathing normalized, she peeked into the white cardboard cube. Nestled in a bed of purple velvet cloth, a silver and crystal angel, about six inches tall, beamed up at her.
“Oh, my.” Ashley reached in and gently plucked the angel from the box. The lights from the window display behind her sparkled off the cut crystal, shooting fractured rays of light across the gallery to dance on the ivory colored wall. “You are a little beauty, aren’t you?”
Ashley cradled the crystal figure in the palm of one hand, delighting in the glints of light that seemed to emanate from inside the angel, though Ashley knew it was merely a reflection. The angel carried a tiny red heart in her arms, as carefully as a baby. A crystal dog with long floppy ears, one of which was formed of silver, sat at the angel’s feet. His tongue lolled happily, and a pair of silver angel wings rose from his back.
Ashley checked for a packing slip, which might show a return address and found none. The postmark was smeared, too, though it looked like Beth-something. Who on earth could have sent it? Maybe a supplier trying to interest her in carrying their line? She set the angel next to the cash register on the checkout counter and stepped back. That didn’t look right, so she retrieved the crystal figure and set it on a mirrored shelf behind the counter. As her reflection hit the mirror, the angel seemed to glow even brighter.
“Well, I guess you’ve found a home, haven’t you? I have to admit, your company will be nice this year.” She stroked the angel’s face. “Welcome to the Vibrant Gallery and Gift Shop.”
The task of setting up the angel completed, Ashley contemplated putting some music on the store sound system, maybe a bit of generic Christmas instrumental designed to warm the heart. Instead, she stared at the phone on the counter next to the cash register and willed it to ring then jumped back two steps when it did just that.
Her heart set a mad, erratic pace that sent her pulse thrumming in her ears.
The phone rang again and Ashley picked it up with a shaking hand. “Hello? Um—ah, Vibrant Gallery and Gift Shop.”
A low chuckle from the other end of the line sent tingles along Ashley’s spine. “What color is your hair today?”
The tension that had clenched a tight fist around her lungs for the past week left as quickly as a lightning flash. Bubbles of pure happiness filled Ashley’s heart. He’d called. He’d called and he was laughing and asking about her hair. That meant he was all right.
She forced the trembling from her voice and seated herself on the wooden stool behind the counter. “And who, might I ask, wants to know?” She crossed one knee over the other, hoping this would be one of their longer conversations. She so missed the man.
The laugh washed over her again. “Just a stranger in Germany. No one important.”
The tension in her muscles eased. He was okay if he was still in Germany. “Now why would some strange man on the other side of the world care if my hair’s green?”
“Green?” His voice took on a startled tone.
“Well, kind of green with some blue, actually.” Ashley glanced up at the mirror behind the counter and tossed her head, enjoying the way the colorful strands rubbed against one another as she moved.
“Sounds hot. Send me a picture, babe.” His voice held a playful leer that lightened her lonely heart.
“Uh-uh. You’ll show all the guys in your unit and they’ll laugh at me.”
“No one laughs at Nick Turner’s girl.”
But despite the mirth in his voice, Ashley suddenly felt sad. Nick Turner’s girl. The girl who waited for her man to call or write…or to come home. “I miss you,” she whispered into the phone as the first tear rolled down her cheek.
“Ah-ah-ah! You promised no crying if I’m not there to kiss those tears away.”
How did he always know? She caught the tear on her fingertip and brushed it away, careful to avoid smearing her makeup. Then she felt silly for worrying about her makeup when the only man she cared about looking nice for wasn’t even around to see it.
“So…what about that picture?” he pressed.
“I’ll consider it and let you know the next time you call.”
“By the time I call again, it might be a different color.” Nick chuckled. “So are you ever going to tell me your natural hair color?”
Ashley smiled into the mirror. “Pure white. I’m really an old crone with a heavy investment in plastic surgery.”
“Oh yeah, I forgot you’re so much older than me.”
Ashley pouted. “Only a year.”
“You rat. You know that bothers me.”
Nick spoke with softness that edged gentle warmth through her. “Ash, you could be thirty years older than me and I’d still want to be with you.”
She sat up with a start. “Well I’m not. Thirty years older, I mean.”
His soft laugh suggested he was thinking “gotcha” again but he was obviously too wise to say it. “Hey, Ash…there’s something I need to tell you.”
Her heart kicked up into her throat. She didn’t like those words…or the tone in his voice. She forced calm into her voice that she no longer felt. “What is it, Nick?”
“My alert status got bumped up.”
No. No, no, no, no! But she bit her lip rather than speak the denial out loud. “Okay,” she said evenly as soon as she found her voice.
“So if I don’t call you as much, it’s just because I’m busy.” It wasn’t lost on her, how carefully he chose his words, maybe in part because they were on the telephone, a non-secure transmission device. But Ashley understood that he was letting her know he could be sent on a mission as part of the task force to which he was attached.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Showing her anxiety would serve no purpose, and could prove a distraction to Nick. So she cleared her throat. “Well, that’ll give me time to get the inventory done then.”
“Ash, when I come back—” He cut himself off.
Superstitious protocols indulged in by Nick’s unit dictated that none of the guys discuss plans for after their missions. He normally scoffed even as he went along with the informal rules. But the tenor of his voice clued Ashley in that something was different this time. She pushed back the full-blown fear that clawed at her chest and gave him what she knew he needed. The mundane.
“Hey, I’ve been trying to remember the name of that singer who played at the cookout last July Fourth. You remember? The one we liked—the marine.”
“That’s it! I’ve been looking all over for the program. I told Trish I’d get his info. She’s organizing some benefit or something but I couldn’t remember his name.” She smacked a kiss against the phone receiver. “You saved me from the huge embarrassment of not being able to deliver.”
“And that’s all I get? An air kiss? How about that picture?”
Ashley smiled at his tenacity. “How about I overnight some homemade chocolate chip cookies?”
“And a picture?”
“I’ll consider the picture.”
“In a bikini?”
“You’re crazy! It’s December.” But she laughed and felt the loosening of panic’s persistent grasp around her throat.
“Aw, c’mon, you’re in North Carolina. That makes it what? Seventy?”
“I think it may have gotten up to thirty-eight today.” She twisted to look out at the gathering gloom as dusk set in.
“Cold snap, huh?”
“Very. And it’s rainy.”
“Is your shop all decorated for Christmas?”
Ashley glanced around at the solitary string of lights and the loop of silver garland she’d hung in the front window. “Yep, all very festive.”
“Liar,” he whispered, and once again she wondered how he could read her so easily from thousands of miles away. “I’ll bet you got the box out of your attic and grabbed the first string of lights off the top and stuck it in your window.”
“It was the second string,” she mumbled. “The first string didn’t work.” Then, unable to stop herself, she giggled. “But I also hung some silver garland. So there.”
“Oh, well, if you hung garland too…”
Nick continued his gentle teasing and Ashley continued to let him. What she ached for was to hear him to share the details of his day with her but security prevented that. So they did the best they could with the stolen moments of conversation every few days, whenever Nicholas could squeeze out a few minutes to call.
“There’s a line for the phones,” he finally admitted with obvious reluctance.
Ashley glanced at the clock on the wall, surprised to note they’d spent the past thirty minutes discussing the ordinary. “We talked a long time,” she pointed out, holding her breath, hoping it was just a fluke and the phone traffic had been light, or he hadn’t noticed the time.
“I might have pulled a little rank this time,” he murmured.
The fear was back, scrabbling for a hold in her gut. “Talk to you soon, Nicholas.”
“I lo—yeah. Good—ah, talk to you later, Ashley.”
She almost dropped the phone. They never told each other goodbye—just one of those superstitions they’d come to share.
Say something, stupid!
“I—” But the line was dead. He’d already hung up, or maybe they’d been cut off.
She set the receiver back on the charger and sat looking at it, replaying their conversation, trying to prolong the sense of connection. Finally, Ashley sighed and stood. She gave the phone a last lingering look before she crossed to the front of the gallery and peeked through the window. The weather hadn’t improved, but at least with the arrival of nighttime, the grayness was gone. White lights along Main Street were mirrored in the wet pavement, creating a glittering watery wonderland.
With a flick of her wrist, Ashley turned the sign on the door around so closed showed outward. Then she pulled the shade. She stood there for just a little longer, admiring the colored lights outlining her display window. The silver garland reflected them in a splintered fashion, sending colorful phantasms to dance over the display of snow globes below.
This year, one of my daughters will not even be in the United States for Christmas. There will be no joyful “over the river and through the woods” to anyone’s house for them because her U.S. Marine husband has been stationed in Japan for the next three years and the cost to fly home is simply too great. But they’re among some of the fortunate. They have each other and a nice base home on Okinawa. Many of our military personnel – from any country – are out in the world separated from families and those they love, or worse, are all alone, with no one to even send them a greeting from home.
And that’s why one of my favorite charities is The USO.
Our Mission: The USO lifts the spirits of America’s troops and their families. Millions of times each year at hundreds of locations around the world, the USO lifts the spirits of America’s troops and their families. A nonprofit, congressionally chartered, private organization, the USO relies on the generosity of individuals, organizations and corporations to support its activities. The USO is not part of the U.S. government, but is recognized by the Department of Defense, Congress and President of the United States, who serves as Honorary Chairman of the USO.
But even if you can’t donate to this organization, there are plenty of other things you can do to show our military service men and women that you care. This site here will take you directly to a place, sponsored by the USO, where you can leave an electronic message to our troops: http://www.uso.org/thanks/?src=WF11TFXE11
Won’t you consider leaving them a message today? Please remember the men and women who give up so much so we don’t have to.
May the blessings and love you receive this holiday season be with you all year long.