Operation: Christmas Hearts
The Heart Stories
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 that 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 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.
Ashley’s warm fuzzy feeling remained with her as she clicked off the lights and made her way back to the stairway that led to her apartment over the gallery. She picked up her stack of personal mail from beneath the sales counter, took one final look around, and then snapped off the display lights.
Her apartment was chilly, so she turned on the ceramic heater shaped like a wood burning stove and shook her head. Downstairs in her gallery, she sold many one-of-a kind art pieces crafted by local artists — original pieces, not copies. No knock-offs on her sales floor. In her private life, however, pretty much everything was a sham. She could see no point in purchasing items at outrageous costs just for the name or logo attached. And since winter was seldom frigid in North Carolina, Ashley saw no reason to put in a real woodstove when the electric one handled the job of supplemental heating just fine.
In her kitchenette, Ashley grabbed a turkey dinner from her ample supply of frozen meals, popped it into the microwave, and set the timer for five minutes. She toed off her shoes while shuffling through her mail on her way back into the living room. She tossed the electric and phone bills onto her desk then frowned at a thick red and gold envelope at the bottom of the stack. It was postmarked locally, but she didn’t recognize the address. That one she carried with her into the bedroom, where she laid it on her bed while she pulled on a pair of warm sweatpants with an oversized sweatshirt.
The microwave bell signaled it was time to stir the potatoes and rotate the turkey.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m coming,” mumbled Ashley, picking up the red letter again. She slid her thumb under the flap and tore the envelope open as she left her bedroom. When she pulled out a neatly folded letter, another piece of paper slipped from the envelope and tumbled to the floor. Ashley shook out the letter as she stooped and groped along the floor until her hand closed on whatever it was that had fallen. She stood slowly, reading as she did.
Dear Ms. Torrington,
We hope you’re enjoying this holiday season. The Lookout Island Elementary School is once again participating in the Operation: Christmas Hearts program to send holiday packages to our military personnel overseas. We are seeking donations of items on the attached list and requesting help to box goods and mail packages. If you are able to participate this year, please come to our orientation meeting on Thursday, December 8, at 3 p.m., in the gym at Lookout Island Elementary School. Treats are appreciated.
Mrs. Deborah Minton and the
Second Grade Class of Lookout Island Elementary
What an intriguing idea. She shifted the letter aside to find the paper she’d retrieved from the floor was a heart crudely cut from red construction paper. In the awkward printing of a child just learning how to write, the heading Wish List was scrawled across the top followed by a long list of requests from deployed troops. Magazines, electronic games, DVDs, books, MP3 players. Ashley smiled at the fairly typical Christmas list that might have been created by the average American teenager. But as she read further down, her heart began to break. Baby wipes, good razors, new socks, individual snack packs, hard candy. Simple items that she could grab at the pharmacy up the street. Things she took for granted.
Ashley glanced at the letter again and found herself smiling, well aware that her unofficially adopted niece, Bella, was a member of Mrs. Minton’s class. No doubt she was behind this invitation, and her mother, Trish, would certainly have been recruited, as well.
“Bellie, Bellie… what are you getting me into?” Ashley tapped the edge of the heart against her chin. “Still, it could be fun.”
Dropping the invitation on top of the bills on her desk, Ashley grinned. Then she executed a pirouette not quite as well as she had done when she was ten years old, in Mrs. Johnson’s ballet class, but it was still fun to dance across her living room floor. Nick had called, and she had something to do to alleviate the boredom of the off season. Not a half-bad day.
She twirled once more, catching sight of herself in the mirror on the inside of her apartment door. Her colorful hair reminded her of Nick’s request for a picture, and her pleasure deepened. It really had been a simple request and one she could easily comply with. Dinner could wait.
She raced back to her bedroom and yanked open her top dresser drawer then dug through the summer tank tops until she found both pieces of the bikini she sought. With its swirls of sapphire blending into emerald, it nearly matched the blue and green in her hair. Was she really going to do this? She must be crazy for even thinking about it. A delicious shiver of anticipation rushed her system. Yep, she was going to do it. She’d give Nicholas the pinup picture he’d requested.
After slipping out of the sweats and stepping into the bikini bottom, Ashley was pleased to discover the garment still fit. She preened in front of the mirror. It looked pretty good too. These days, just a stray pound or two meant the difference between merely still fitting and actually looking good. As she tied the halter top of her bikini, a gentle smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. She’d been wearing this same bikini the day she’d met Captain Nicholas Turner. It had been the first day of May, surprisingly warm after a wet and rainy April…
North Carolina, May Day 2011
“ARE YOU THINKING of swimming?” Trish glanced from Ashley’s bikini-clad body to the surf rolling off the blue-green ocean, churning up white foam where it met the shore and pushing bits of driftwood ahead of it.
Ashley laughed at the mere thought. “Of course not. It’d be like climbing in a bath of ice water at this point.” She held her arm out in front of her and examined the pasty white remnants of an indoor winter. “But I’m glad you invited me out today. I need to work on my tan before the official start of the beach season, or I’m gonna look like someone found me in a cave.”
“Were you in — a cave, Aunt Ashley?” asked seven-year-old Bella, staring at Ashley, her head tilted to the side as she struggled to put what she heard together with the world as she understood it.
A smile pulled Ashley’s lips upward. “No, sweetie. But I haven’t gotten enough sunshine this year, and I look like paste.”
Bella scrunched up her nose and startled Ashley by running a finger along her arm. “You are — not sticky — like paste.”
“Bella,” said Trish quietly. “Don’t you want to go hunting for shells?”
The little girl looked up the beach. “I’ll wait — for Daddy.”
Trish smiled and sighed. “Of course you will.”
“Does it ever bother you that she’s so attached to Danny?” Ashley blurted then closed her eyes as heat invaded her face. “I’m sorry. That was incredibly insensitive.”
“No, it’s not, and no it doesn’t,” said Trish, leaning back on her elbows. “Ever since Bella and Dan met, the beach has been their special place together. Bella and I have our time together too.” She made a face. “Though we usually bond over school stuff, especially the things Bella thinks aren’t necessary to a rounded education… like math.”
“How is school going?” Ashley pushed herself up and grabbed the green bottle of sunscreen. She inhaled deeply, enjoying the sweet coconut scent as she applied a liberal layer to her fair skin, paying particular attention to her arms and neck. Sun she liked, sunburn not so much.
“They’ve never mainstreamed a child with Down syndrome here, so I was worried,” admitted Trish, taking the bottle from Ashley’s hands and squeezing some of the white lotion into her palm. “Turn around and I’ll get your back.”
“Thanks,” murmured Ashley, complying. “But Bella’s got the whole thing down. I see her walking with her friends past the gallery, and when she goes home at the end of the day, she’s always smiling and laughing. The other kids seem to like her.”
Trish rubbed her hands together and applied the lotion with long strokes. “I’ve been amazed at how well she fits in, but that’s ninety percent Dan. He simply refuses to treat her like she has a handicap.”
“Oh, that feels good.” said Ashley, exhaling as Trish reached her shoulders.
Trish kneaded hard. “What’s with all the knots up here?”
Ashley closed her eyes and shrugged into the massage. “Oh, you know. Gearing up for tourist season at the gallery.” Planning for another summer of watching happy couples and young families wandering Main Street, hitting The Icy Shack, heading for the beach. “So, are there any plans for a Baby Dan or Baby Trish in the works?”
Trish’s hands faltered. “It… looks like that’s not going to happen. Not without a miracle. And that’s why I’m glad Dan and Bella are so close.”
Ashley’s heart squeezed. “I’m sorry. You two make perfect parents. Is it — something that can be fixed?”
“No one can really give us a definite answer. We could go the donor route, but I’m letting Dan make that decision. He’s so wonderful with his nephews, I can picture him with a son. But if it’s not biologically his baby, he might not…” She sighed and began kneading again. “And yet he’s so good with Bella, no one would ever know he’s her adopted father.”
Understanding dawned. “Oh, so it’s Dan… I guess I thought… Are you sure there isn’t something…”
Trish dug a little deeper into Ashley’s shoulders. Apparently, the other woman wasn’t as okay with the situation as she was trying to portray.
“It was all the drugs and the treatments after his injury.” A little bitterness had slipped into Trish’s voice, but it was gone with her next sentence. “Apparently, some of them were a little… toxic to potential future children. So it’s not impossible… just improbable.” But her sigh teemed with sadness. “That’s become our catch phrase.”
Ashley opened her eyes and leaned back to meet her friend’s eyes. “Trish, I’m—”
Bella stood in front of them. Ashley hadn’t even heard the child approach.
“Yes, baby? What do you need?” Trish tipped more sunscreen into her palm and rubbed her hands together before pulling them down Bella’s bare arms.
“Is Daddy coming — home soon?” Bella scrubbed at the white streaks of lotion until they disappeared into her skin.
Trish checked her watch. “Probably not for a while yet.”
“Then you come, Mama.” In her typical insistent fashion, Bella pulled on her mother’s hand.
With a grace Ashley could only envy and never hope to match, Trish rose to her feet and took her daughter’s hand. “Would you like to go for a walk, Ash?”
“Thanks but no.” Ashley popped her sunglasses on and sat back on her elbows. “I’m lying here until I’m at least medium rare.”
With a hearty chortle, Trish left with Bella. From the corner of her eye, Ashley watched the mother and daughter scour the edge of the incoming surf for the seashells Bella loved so much. Bella walked a little too close to the water and squealed as she got wet in the spray, and Trish grabbed the little girl around the waist, stopping her from running through the water again. They made such a cute mom and daughter. Ashley watched them frolic for a while, surprised by the sudden pang of loneliness in the vicinity of her heart. Maybe she should have gone along with the pair, after all. Then again… She yawned and flopped onto her back to allow the sun to have its way with her.
The roar and crash of the surf gradually crowded back into Ashley’s awareness, and she stretched. The sun wasn’t as warm. Or as bright. It must have gone behind one of the clouds that had been on the horizon earlier.
Shuffling sounds in the sand nearby let Ashley know she wasn’t alone. Bella and Trish had probably returned from their walk.
“Did you find anything pretty, sweetie?” she asked the little girl without opening her eyes.
“Yep, darlin’, I did,” murmured a deep voice. “And if I’d known mermaids sunbathed here, I’d have volunteered for beach patrol years ago.”
Ashley’s eyes flew open to the vision of a pair of white athletic shoes filled with sports crew socks that led to well-shaped male shins. She looked up the muscular bare legs to the black running shorts and then up… and up… and up along a bare chest with a fine sheen of sweat… This had to be the tallest, leanest, fittest body she’d ever seen. She raised a hand to block the sun and continued her appraisal. A strong jaw, clean-shaven. A grin, flirty but not leering. Short sandy-brown hair. Hazel eyes glimmered down at her, crinkled at the edges as though in silent laughter.
“Hello, handsome,” she murmured with a smile. And hello, summertime.