The Gift of the Inn
Despite her best efforts to go through the motions and the good fortune to have a husband stationed stateside rather than in the midst of the brutal combat unfolding in Europe and the Pacific, Christmas Eve is a less than festive time for innkeeper Naomi Lockhart. It’s been especially hard since she, her husband, Quenton, and their daughters restored her parents’ Colorado boarding house and turned it into a charming inn. Residing in the setting of the tragedy and haunted by a heartbreaking and terrible loss, Naomi can’t help but relive the Christmas Eve so many years ago when her infant child disappeared without a trace.
Gracie brushed aside comments about how little she resembled her parents for most of her life without really understanding why they made her feel so odd. A slip of the tongue by her grandmother brings the discovery that the people who raised her are not her birth parents and acts as a catalyst for the start of a search for her real identity. After a whirlwind romance with a young, Europe-bound GI and subsequent elopement in defiance of her affluent, traditional parents, Gracie flees Texas for Colorado, following one of the few clues that she has about her real identity. She finds herself alone and working as a waitress in blizzard-prone Colorado Springs, Colorado at the end of her pregnancy. Snow bound, she struggles to bring her child into the world as she becomes ever more confident that the innkeeper from across the road, who acts as a midwife of necessity, may hold the answers she seeks. Meanwhile, her wounded husband desperately tries to reach her side.
Set against the backdrop of the Second World War, this final novel from beloved writer Golden Keyes Parsons is an engaging story of love, loss and reunion.
Christmas Eve, 1944
Colorado Springs, Colorado
“Some of my men will come home in a body bag. So, I don’t want to hear it. This topic is no longer up for discussion.” Quenton’s tone reflected his annoyance at the too-familiar argument. Bending his lanky form in front of the mirror atop the ornately carved oak dresser to knot the tie of his uniform, he continued. “My men deserve to be at home on Christmas Eve. They may never spend another Christmas with their families.” A mingled expression of passion and sadness flitted across his face as he turned to his wife. “Hitler’s evil and he’s cunning. The madman actually wants to conquer the whole continent, and who knows what he will set his sights on next. We have to stop him.”
Naomi’s stomach churned. She didn’t have an adequate answer to his argument. Her husband’s hazel eyes, which always won her over in a disagreement, held hers in a direct gaze. He was not likely to be sent overseas. The Army Air Corps needed flight instructors to train men for combat, so he was safely stateside for the time being.
“What about our family? Every year I hope you’ll be at home with us on Christmas Eve. You know how much I need you with me—especially on Christmas Eve.” Chewing on the inside of her cheek to keep from crying, she looked up at Quenton.
He traced his thumb along her jawline, as his eyes softened. Naomi patted the scarf tied around her hair. Always rushed, busy, and disheveled, she rarely made the extra effort anymore to look glamorous. With the workload she carried when the inn was full of tourists in town for the holidays, who had time for makeup or hairstyling? A quick brush through her thick brunette hair, which she kept covered with a scarf when she was working, and a swipe of bright red lipstick was the extent of the grooming session each morning. Her eyelashes were still long and thick, so she never bothered with mascara. She brushed a hand over the skirt of her too-tight housedress.
The familiar dread of Christmas Eve washed over her. Peculiar how the anniversary of any traumatic event spun its twenty-four-hour journey tugging at buried memories—memories that popped their unwelcome heads around corners then withdrew into the shadowy crevices of the mind. Certain she was fine one moment, Naomi would find herself gripped the next in a vise of unbidden emotions. Her frazzled nerves bristled with accusatory thoughts—that her husband really didn’t have to go to the base but simply wanted an escape from her annual Christmas grief.
Quenton put on his cap and took a final look in the mirror. He gathered the coins from the dresser top and dropped them in his pocket. “Tell you what I may be able to do. I’ll try to get home before it gets too late. Sergeant Miller’s family didn’t come in for the holidays. He volunteered to man the office for me.”
“Then why not—”
“I said I’ll try to get home before it gets too late.” Quenton thrust his arms through his jacket. “Wait up for me?” Reaching around her, he picked up his briefcase lying on the bed. “C’mon, walk me to the car.” Clasping her hand, he pulled her up beside him.
They made their way quietly down the hall, past their sleeping daughters’ bedrooms to the large laundry room adjoining their apartment in the back of the inn. The bottom of the outside door to the parking lot dragged along the faded green linoleum as Quenton pulled it open.
Before zipping up his jacket, he tied a wool scarf around his neck. “Looks like we’re in for more snow.”
Naomi blinked threatening tears away and joined him at the doorway. She picked a piece of lint off his epaulet with the new oak leaf cluster. “I’m proud of you, Major Lockhart.”
“Humph.” He jerked his head toward the insignia. “All this means is that I’m headed for a desk job. I’d rather have captain’s bars on my shirt and remain a flight instructor than get a promotion. They’re moving the younger guys in to train pilots for air combat—captains and first lieutenants—moving us older guys out.”
“You’re only thirty-nine. And your experience is invaluable.” She touched his temple. “You haven’t a gray hair, unlike some of us.” She smiled and swiped her bangs to the side with her fingertips.
“Comes with being a redhead, I suppose. You’ll remember my dad didn’t either. His hair was as red as mine the day he died.” He moved her scarf back and squinted. “Where? I don’t see one gray hair.”
“That’s because I pluck them out.” She stepped back from him and reset the headscarf. “Actually, I wouldn’t mind if you got a desk job. It’s time, Q.”
“I’m not ready.” His curt reply cut her off as he pulled on his gloves.
Naomi clung to his arm. “Please get home as soon as you can tonight.”
A frown creased his brow. “I already said that I’d try. You’ll be fine. You’ve got the girls and your dad to help with the guests—and Robby and Gracie are just across the street if you need some extra help.” He knelt and looked at the gouge in the floor. “Gotta fix that before it gets worse.” He stood and moved the door back and forth. “Don’t let the girls sleep too late. There’s a lot of work to be done with the inn being full.”
“I know. But it’s vacation for them. We can let them sleep a little later.” She shoved a pile of dirty sheets aside with her foot. “We’ll get it done. I just want you home for Christmas. No, I need you here with us—around the fireplace and the Christmas tree, with the girls in the morning as they open their gifts.” She hugged her arms around her chest. “Go on. It’s snowing harder and we’re letting cold air in.”
He gave her a mock salute. “Yes, ma’am.” His smile dissolved. “Come here.” He gathered her in his arms. Her heart still skipped a beat when Quenton held her. “Honey, I know this is always a difficult day for you, but…it’s been seventeen years, plenty long enough to get on with our lives. After all, ‘’Tis the season to be jolly,’ ‘Peace and goodwill to men,’ and so on.” He chucked her beneath her chin.
She hated it when he attempted to cheer her up. “If God meant this to be a season of peace and goodwill to men, I guess we slipped through the cracks somewhere.” She felt her eyes start to burn. “I try, Q, I really do. But all of this”—she waved her hand toward their apartment—“the trappings of Christmas, all of the decorations and parties, even the smells, weigh me down. I feel like I go through the season with bricks on my shoulders and chains around my ankles. All I seem to be able to do is put one foot in front of the other. I feel like an empty shell moving through the days until it’s over. I’m simply numb.” She took his hand and nuzzled it against her cheek.
Quenton sighed and embraced her tightly, holding her as several moments ticked by, both of them silent except for Naomi’s sniffling. Then giving her a light kiss, he whispered in her ear, “I love you, Naomi.”
“I know. You’d better go on.”
He turned and went out the door, picking his way across the slick sidewalk to their Oldsmobile station wagon. Throwing his briefcase across to the passenger side, he started the car and reached underneath the front seat for the ice scraper. He could hardly brush the increasing snowflakes away from one side of the windshield before the other side was covered. After several minutes of scraping and letting the car run, he lifted his gloved hand in a slight wave, got into the car, and inched his way past all the slumbering cars in the lot to the rhythmic whap-whap of the windshield wipers.
Naomi closed the door on the brittle cold and, after clicking on the radio, addressed the Bendix. “Well, time to empty you of your load and put in another one.” She pulled tangled sheets from the washing machine and laid them on the folding table. Then added new detergent and began refilling the machine. Steam rose from the tub, giving her an unwanted facial. She lifted the pile of dirty sheets from the floor and stuffed them into the foaming water, taking care not to fill it too full. It was tempting to try to do fewer, fuller loads, but if she did, the sheets wouldn’t get clean and would wind themselves into a knotted ball.
The lid banged shut. The chug-a, chug-a, chug-a offered friendly assurance that the work day was underway. Bing Crosby crooned “White Christmas” over the airwaves, keeping rhythm with the churning water. Humming along with the popular tune, Naomi patted the top of the undulating machine, grateful her parents had purchased the Bendix before the war started. The government had suspended manufacture of the machines for the war effort. The work was hard enough, but if they’d had to put sheets and towels through a wringer washer, the task would be backbreaking.
She plucked several clothespins from a cloth bag dangling on the small rope Quenton had crisscrossed in the laundry room and clipped them to the edge of her apron. She pinned the corner of a wet sheet, stretched it tight, anchored the middle edge of the sheet, then on to the end. Getting the sheets dry in the freezing winter was one of the biggest challenges in running the inn. She’d taken to ironing them dry.
She glanced at the ironing board in the corner of the laundry room. It looked as if it were standing at attention awaiting the next batch of sheets. Not today.
“Good morning, Mama.” Cynthia, their teenaged daughter, stood in the doorway between the laundry room and their bedroom. She stretched her arms in the air then bent over to touch her toes. She tightened the belt on her chenille robe. “Brr. It’s cold in here.”
“Won’t be for long once the washing gets going.”
“Did Daddy have to go to the base?”
“Yes. But he promised he’d try to be home early this evening.”
“Mama. It’s Christmas Eve. Why did he have to go in?” Cynthia folded her arms and leaned against the doorjamb. “I wanted us to be together today.”
“I know. I did too.” Naomi ushered her daughter back into the bedroom and closed the door to the laundry room. “C’mon, Christmas Eve or not, we have work to do. May as well get it done early. Maybe Daddy will be home by suppertime.”
As darkness increased so did the snow. Naomi struck a match and lit the red candles nestled among branches of fresh cedar on the mantel. A familiar muffled calm crept into the apartment on downy wings.
She walked to the door and stared through the frosted window panes hoping to see the headlights of their car poking through the storm and into the parking lot. No cars at all on the road. She could hardly see the lights in the restaurant across the road from their inn. With her nail, she scratched a zigzag in the ice crystals forming delicate frosty etchings on the inside corners of the glass. She pulled her sweater from the coat rack and snuggled into it. The temperature must be below zero.
Splaying her hands in front of her, she stared at them as if they belonged to another. Red and chafed, her once smooth skin showed the effects of constant immersion in water, scrubbing floors, and doing laundry. At least all the chores were done for the day. She went into the kitchen to get some lotion and rubbed it into her palms, on the backs of her hands, and on her elbows. The mild almond aroma wafted up to her nose.
She opened the icebox and refitted the cover on the layered red and green Jell-O salad for the open house tomorrow evening. Yeast rolls sat on top of the stove, rising on schedule. She would cut up some apples and oranges for the buffet, heat green beans and sweet potatoes to go with the turkey and dressing, and that would have to do. She wished she could have gotten a ham, but she didn’t have the ration cards. Christmas cookies and a fruit cake someone had given them would round out the menu. Not exactly the extravagant spread they’d enjoyed before the war, but everyone understood these days.
Opening a drawer, she picked out a spoon and stirred the last of the cocoa and sugar mixture into the hot milk simmering on the gas stove. She dipped the spoon into the smooth liquid and tasted it. Needed to be sweeter. She stared at the tin canister holding the precious rationed sugar. It was Christmas Eve. Splurge justified.
Measuring out another tablespoon, she swirled it into the mixture until it dissolved. Then she poured the steaming cocoa into a Santa Claus mug that winked a painted eye at her, went into the living room, and sat down to scrutinize the Christmas tree—alone.
Strips of shiny silver reflected a rainbow of colors from the multicolored lights on the tree. The girls always had fun tossing the icicles onto the prickly branches, giggling and racing to finish the task, but Naomi wanted the decorations to hang straight. Rather than fuss at them, she simply waited for her daughters to go to bed to rearrange the shiny threads to her own satisfaction.
The city had plowed the roads earlier in the day, but the evening snowfall had covered them again. Come on, Quenton. Get home before you get snowed in at the base. Ah. Nice. She set her cocoa on the coffee table and walked down the hall to check on the girls. The dim light spilled into Cynthia’s room through the slit in the open door. Elise and Myrna, the six- and ten-year-olds who ordinarily slept in the bunks in the small bedroom across the hall, had crawled into their older sister’s bed.
“I see you have company in your bed tonight, Cynthia.”
The teenager rose from her vanity chair, holding her finger to her lips. “Shh. They just went to sleep.” She pulled the quilt over the two sleeping girls. “I don’t mind just for tonight.”
Naomi stepped into the room and whispered, “I’ve hot chocolate on the stove if you’d like some. Reward for a hard day’s work.”
“Are there any of those Christmas tree sugar cookies left?” Cynthia smiled and ran a brush through her long auburn curls. Then she pulled her hair back into a low pony tail and clipped a tortoise shell barrette around it.
“Be right there. I need to get these packages out of my closet. I hid them from the girls and almost forgot about them.”
Naomi chuckled. “I’ve done that before, forgotten where I hid them, and then found them a month later. I’ll get the stockings.” She walked across the hall to her bedroom.
Opening the trunk at the foot of their bed, Naomi dug underneath the blankets and removed a cardboard box holding the precious velvet Christmas stockings her mother had labored over year after year at the arrival of each new member of the family. She clutched the box to her chest and let the lid of the trunk close with a thud. As she returned down the hall to the living room, the lights flickered. Once, twice…darkness.
“Arrgh.” Pinned to the spot, Naomi stared at the light fixture in the hall, willing it to spring back to life, but it remained dark. She sighed and shifted the box, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the gloom. Not tonight. Please, not tonight. Her hands trembled the way they always did during a power outage. Especially when it was snowing. Just like that Christmas Eve. She leaned against the wall. Breathe in. Breathe out. One…inhale. Two…exhale. Three…inhale. This was silly. Her emotions didn’t need to skyrocket every time the lights went out. It was one of the hazards of living in the mountains. She grew up here. She should be used to it after all these years. But she wasn’t—she didn’t know if she ever would be.
Naomi felt her way into the living room and set the box on the sofa. The candles on the mantel flickered dimly. “Ouch! Shoot!” She groaned and rubbed the shin she’d hit on the corner of the coffee table. Limping into the kitchen, she went to the Hoosier cabinet and pulled down a glass kerosene lamp, sitting amongst her collection of old lanterns, from its perch on top of the cupboard. Thank goodness Quenton kept them filled and ready to be used at a moment’s notice. She opened the cabinet door and found the match box. Fumbling with the carton, she broke the first match she tried but managed to coax a second to spark into a small flame. Her hands were barely shaking now. Much better. She lit the lamp and placed it on the corner of the cabinet. A soft glow spread through the small kitchen. She trailed her finger along the edge of the lamp’s flue.
It was dirty. Thought I washed that after our last blackout. She made a mental note to do so when the lights came back on. Then she lit the brass lantern and carried it into the living room. I might as well enjoy this until Quenton gets home. There’s nothing I can do about it. And we’re in no danger. No danger at all.
She stoked the fire. “Keep the apartment warm with the fireplace,” Quenton had admonished her that morning. “Radiator’s not working right. I’ll get it fixed right after Christmas.”
She lifted a large round of oak from the copper tub and put on the back of the grate. “That should last for a while.” The flames licked around the logs and provided light for the room as well as warmth.
Naomi opened the box she’d left on the sofa and unwrapped the stockings. All six of them had their names sewn in sequins on the cuffs—Quenton, Naomi, Cynthia, Myrna, Elise—and Julia. Each stocking was a different jewel-toned color—Quenton’s a forest green, hers a rich cherry red, Cynthia’s a royal blue, Myrna’s gold, Elise’s deep pink—and Julia’s royal purple.
A large, hand-sewn sequined Christmas tree sparkled on the toe of each one, plus a wreath and a candle decorated the middle. Some of them had snowmen. In addition, her mother had personalized them with handmade emblems or figures to designate each family member’s personal interests. Quenton’s, of course, had an airplane and pilot’s wings. Sequined musical notes twinkled on Naomi’s for her interest in music—piano—although she didn’t play much anymore. The piano she played as a child sat in their dining room, but it simply served as a piece of furniture these days, holding family pictures on its shiny polished top. The girls’ stockings sported dolls and angels and school pennants, and Elise’s had a dog for the puppy she got for Christmas two years ago.
Naomi stopped at Julia’s stocking and traced her finger along the name on the cuff. Only the tree, a wreath, and a candle adorned this stocking. Naomi didn’t know what Julia’s interests were. Was she musical? Did she love sports? Perhaps she was a cheerleader like Cynthia. If she was still…
The night bristled with the cold. And her heart bristled with the still-raw wound of a missing child. Naomi had almost reconciled herself to the fact they would never find their oldest daughter—almost. But somewhere deep in her soul, she had to admit a faint glimmer of hope still flickered. Although if she were honest with herself, that glimmer grew fainter with each passing season. And Christmas was the turning point every year.
Julia would be eighteen now. A young woman. They’d never found a trace of their child, but she could not bear to think that the unspeakable had happened. It was a thought she could never entertain. Julia was still alive. Even if they never found her. She knew in her mother’s heart of hearts that their child still lived.
“Everything looks pretty.” Cynthia came into the room. “This is really kind of swell, don’t you think? Looks…I don’t know…magical or something without the lights.” She walked toward the kitchen. “Did you get the marshmallows out?”
“Oh, sweet pea, I forgot. They’re in the pantry. A brand-new bag.”
“I’ll find them.” Her daughter returned to the living room with a marshmallow floating atop the hot chocolate. Her cup was in the shape of an angel whose gold wings formed the handle. She went to the window and looked out. “Daddy’s late. We’re getting lots of snow tonight, huh?”
“Yes, ’fraid so. Would you please hang the stockings for me? I need to go check on Grandpa and our guests.”
“Sure thing.” Cynthia inspected her stocking in the candlelight. “My Christmas tree is looking pretty ragged. Some of the ornaments are coming unstitched.” She cocked her head. “I suppose you will have to do it now that Grandma’s gone?”
“I guess so. Not so sure I can measure up to her creativity, but surely I can manage re-stitching a few sequins here and there.”
“I can help.” Cynthia laid all of the stockings out on the sofa. “It’s hard to tell in this dim light, but it looks like all of them could use some refreshing.” She picked up the purple one. “Except Julia’s. Hers hasn’t been tossed around that much, I guess.”
Thrum-thrum. The tiny heart-flutter every time she heard Julia’s name let Naomi know it had not forgotten.
Naomi picked up one of the lanterns and went to the door to the parking lot. She opened it just enough to look for headlights coming down the street. Not that she could see a thing. The candles flickered as the cold air swept into the apartment. She closed the door quickly.
“I’m going to go check on Grandpa.” She turned and went back through the kitchen to the private little suite in the rear. He’d gone to bed shortly after they’d trimmed the tree, saying the sooner they went to sleep, the sooner Santa would come.
He’d looked tired and seemed at loose ends without her mother. She knocked softly and listened. She pushed the door open, grimacing at the squeaky hinge. Her father was snoring softly, mouth open, in his easy chair in front of the fire. Glenn Miller’s “String of Pearls” played too loudly on the radio. She tiptoed past him, clicked the radio off, and carefully removed his book and glasses out of his hands. She would come back later to see if he’d gotten into bed. The door creaked again as Naomi pulled it shut.
Returning to their own apartment, she passed Cynthia, who was busy hanging the stockings, and went to the foyer.
She glanced out the window of the front door and noted the streetlamps on their side of the street were off, but they were still burning across the street, as were the lights in the restaurant. The heavy weight of the snow must have broken a power line on their side.
Every time a snowstorm descended from the mountains, Naomi wondered whether they had made the right decision to take over the inn in Colorado Springs from her parents, Ruth and Clarence Huddleston, when Quenton might be sent overseas any day. Snow had to be shoveled; logs cut for the fireplaces; broken pipes patched; the roof repaired; gardening done. Sometimes it seemed overwhelming even with Quenton there. But the girls loved their school and had made friends. At first she’d felt she could manage even if Quenton had to leave. Now she wasn’t as confident. The war had rumbled on for four years. Surely it would end soon and she would never have to find out if she could run it by herself.