Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘Christmas Once Again’ by Jina Bacarr.
Christmas Once Again
Posey Creek, Pennsylvania
December 12, 1943
‘I bet you my last pair of stockings, little sister, I’ll be saying I do before Christmas.’
I whirl around in a circle, pretending the most wonderful man in the world is holding me in his arms, my heart soaring. A pot of Ma’s meat gravy simmers on the burner, the smell tickling my fancy to have my own kitchen soon. So many wonderful memories here. Planked floors, big white stove humming with good cooking, Ma’s rocker and her rosewood sewing box. Wallpaper dotted with daisies, their yellow petals turned golden over the years – and four ceramic angels lined up on top of the spice rack. A tradition we do every year along with listening to the holiday radio shows, but this Christmas is even more special to me. It’s crazy I feel so confident, even though he hasn’t actually asked me yet. But I know he will.
Eyes popping, Lucy swallows the spoonful of jam she shoved into her mouth. ‘You, Kate? Married?’ Slender and graceful like a young doe, she’s not as tall as me, though at sixteen she’s already filling out her sweaters. Dark brown hair rich with honeyed highlights frames her oval face and an army of freckles deepen in color on her cheeks as she laughs. ‘I hear Santa’s taken.’
I ignore her sarcasm and scoop Ma’s holiday cherry jam onto crackers. ‘It’s a secret, so don’t tell anyone.’ I wink at her, not letting up with my tease. I can’t. I’m too excited. Lucy adores secrets. Her face beams with excitement, like she got away with something without Ma finding out. Like using a pillow case for a laundry bag since bedding is hard to come by, or borrowing my two dollar face powder when she thinks I’m not looking.
Despite my affection for her, I pray she keeps my news under her hat. She loves to talk as much as she loves flirting with the soldiers down at the canteen, but I have to tell somebody the news or I’ll burst. What are sisters for if you can’t tease them? Besides, when Jeff does ask me, I’ll need her help fitting my bridal suit to get the hem straight. A gray suit with a frog clasp I made from extra silk Ma had left over from before the war. I’m lucky to have it. I want to look pretty for him. I never thought of myself as the pinup type, but Jeff makes me feel special and loved. He says I stand up taller when he catches my eye and that brings me closer to kissing him. Ma also noticed how much more confident I am. She was curious about why I saved up for two months to buy a blue silk hat with a wispy veil to go with my red coat with the fake fur collar when I have a perfectly good black hat.
I just smiled.
‘What’s there to tell?’ Lucy points to my bare finger smeared with jam. ‘You’re not wearing a ring, so you can’t be engaged.’
I smile. ‘You don’t know everything about me.’
‘I know you’re sweet on some guy.’
I raise a brow. ‘Snooping again?’
‘Me?’ She bats her eyelashes. ‘I don’t have to. Not the way you go around singing to yourself when you come home from your job at the mill. How you stop and sigh when we walk past Wrightwood House on our way to town.’
A winsome smile makes my lips curl. I love working at the paper mill. I started out in the typing pool after I graduated from high school. I worked my way up to private secretary to Mr Clayborn in the billing and acquisitions department. He needed a girl who could think and not just type, he said. Nothing top secret about what I do, but I’ve been told not to ask questions. Anyway, I have other things on my mind. Even when I’m dead tired from typing a pile of my shorthand notes, I get warm all over when I think about the man I want to marry.
A light comes on in Lucy’s swimming green eyes. ‘So my big sister has stars in her eyes for Jeffrey Rushbrooke.’
‘Don’t get your garter belt in a twist.’ I grab another cherry jam filled cracker. ‘You don’t know anything of the sort.’
Surprisingly, Lucy goes quiet, like she’s mulling over her reply before saying something that might upset me. She gossips more than Mrs Widget the neighbor, but she’s a good egg. Bouncy and full of cheer, especially this time of year. She loves Christmas as much as I do and helped me pile Ma’s holiday cherry jam into glass jars.
For me, the Christmas season begins when Ma takes us kids cherry picking in the woods. Lucy, Frank Junior, and me. When the days are long, the nights are hot, and the cherries are big and sweet and perfect to pick for jam. Before the war, Ma made the sweetest jam in the county with cinnamon and lemon zest, but since rationing started, we’ve had food shortages. We cheered when the government doubled the sugar rations so we could make jam for the boys passing through our small town. The trains stop here every day and Lucy makes it a high priority to meet the train and flirt with the soldiers. She talks about nothing else.
‘He’ll never marry you, Kate,’ she says, her sad puppy eyes showing real concern. I’ve never seen her look so serious. ‘You know what Ma says about them rich people.’
‘Those rich people.’
She wriggles her nose. ‘It doesn’t matter how good you talk, we’re not his kind.’
I shrug. ‘The bet’s still on.’
‘You’re a fool, Kate Arden.’ She sighs. ‘Falling for a guy who doesn’t know you’re alive.’
Lucy never went up to Wrightwood House with Ma and me when we were kids, never knew Jeff and I were pals.
I grin. ‘He knows.’
She stares at me straight on. ‘Then why don’t you bring him around the house to meet Ma and Pop?’
‘You know I can’t.’ The hoarseness in my voice reveals how much that hurts me.
Because my romance is a secret. Is Lucy right? Am I a fool?
‘I thought so,’ she says smugly. ‘No wonder you sneak out after supper when Ma isn’t looking. Wearing that dark red lipstick smeared all over your mouth – I see it’s gone when you creep back in, carrying your shoes behind your back.’ She ties back her long hair with a baby blue ribbon. ‘I’m not a child. I know what you’re up to.’
‘Then why are you acting like one?’ I’m miffed. ‘Can’t a girl get some fresh air after dinner?’
‘During a blackout drill?’ Lucy rolls her eyes.
‘You’re spying on me.’
‘I’m not spying. Mr Horner, my teacher, says we have to keep our eyes open. That you can’t be too careful these days.’
I tingle. How can I explain I’ll do anything to be with Jeff? I never tire of looking at him and feeling his lips brushing mine. The way he stands taller than any man at the mill, his dark hair falling across his brow because he hates slicking it back, his dark eyes always alert. He’s as tough as you expect from a boy who grew up working on the factory floor. His father was grooming him to take over someday, but wielding a heavy hand.
But I know another side of him. The artist.
The young man who reads stories to me in French and kisses me every time I reach to muss up his hair. I don’t care if he is the boss’s son. We love each other, pledged we’d be together when we were kids, and that’s enough for me. I fell for him the first time I saw him up at Wrightwood House. I was eleven. He was fourteen. I glanced up at him after gumming up the errand Ma sent me on and caught the glint in his dark eyes, a flash that seized my imagination, that told me that I wasn’t a nobody, that I was somebody. I never forgot it.
‘I’ve already said enough, Lucy,’ I say with assurance. ‘Case closed.’
‘You’re no fun, Kate.’ Lucy puts her hands on her hips and stares at me. ‘What are you hiding from me?’
‘Nothing. Besides, you’re too young to know anything more.’
‘I’m sixteen.’ She gives me a curvy smile. ‘I know more than you think I do.’
I frown. That’s what worries me. With the war on, girls like Lucy are growing up faster than they should. She’s still in high school, for Pete’s sake. As sisters go, we’re close, though since I turned nineteen, I feel more like a woman than a screaming bobby-soxer. A teen swooning over her favorite movie star. Lucy knows what she wants. A soldier and a family. If anyone is born to be a homemaker, it’s my kid sister.
I want a home, too, but I don’t want to wait till the war is over. My need to marry this man burns within me.
I can’t stand it anymore and I squeeze my legs together to quell the ache low in my belly. I turn away so she doesn’t see my cheeks tint. I’m always in awe of his broad shoulders filling the doorway of his office. Standing there and watching me when I walk by. Smiling. He smiles at all the ladies on the factory floor, but the smile he gives me is different. Flirty with a smirk, like we share a secret. We do, and that knowing look we give each other reflects our love. Two hearts entwined in a communion we both hold sacred. Everything around us stops except for the hum of the machinery on the factory floor. I can barely keep walking, knowing he’s watching me. I ache for him touching me. I can’t wait for the day when we’re married. Him lying next to me on our wedding night, his rich, masculine smell filling me up when I close my eyes.
I wipe the sweat forming above my lip, not caring if I smear jam on my face. I have to be married before Christmas. No telling when he’ll be called up. Surely Uncle Sam will put on his Santa cap and not ask the boys to leave home during the holidays. Why, I’d do anything to be with him, even elope so we can be together. Then when we’re married, I won’t have to sneak out anymore. He’ll come home on a furlough and we’ll have our own apartment near the paper mill. I already have the kitchen curtains made. Cheery and bright. Like I want my home to be. A place where I can make him forget how much he hates the life his father mapped out for him, and how the old man treats him.
‘Mrs Jeffrey Rushbrooke…’ I sigh. My man won’t let me down. Not after what he said to me down by the big ole cherry tree last night below stars in the sky on a night so clear. Words that he said to me when we were kids and he told me someday he’d marry me. I believed him then and I believe him now.
Lucy doesn’t know I’ve been meeting him nearly every day since last summer when he came home from college and saw me working down at the mill. Imagine my surprise when he asked me to have a chocolate malted milk at the dairy with him.
He drove me to the dairy farm over in the next town in his cute blue roadster and we sat in a back booth and talked for hours. How I grew up and how pretty I turned out. His words, not mine, and I keep them close to my heart.
‘He may be the best-looking guy in Posey Creek, but he comes from money,’ Lucy says, regarding me with concern. ‘His mother is so uppity she’ll never accept you in her inner circle.’
‘Jeff respects his parents, but he’s his own man,’ I assure her. ‘He could spend the war here in Posey Creek overseeing production at the mill, but he enlisted in the Army Air Force so he can fly bombers.’
‘I’m not saying the handsome young Mr Rushbrooke isn’t as wonderful as you say he is, Kate, but there are some things this war won’t change. Like how his folks look down on us because we’re not rich.’
‘We are rich, Lucy.’ I hug her tight and a familiar scent fills my nostrils. She smells like my favorite perfume, Paris Rose. I don’t hold it against her. ‘We have each other, and Ma and Pop and Frank Junior, and that’s more important than anything.’
Is that a sniffle I hear coming from my little sister? Not that she’ll admit family is as important as breathing. At sixteen, I didn’t either.
‘Oh, Kate, I’ll die if that awful woman does anything to make you unhappy. You’re the best sister ever and I’d hate to see you get hurt.’
My heart pings. I’m touched by her words. ‘I won’t. You don’t know Jeff like I do.’
‘You know what Ma says. The cherry doesn’t fall far from the tree.’
‘You mean apple,’ I say, smiling.
‘Whatever, if Ma says it, it’s true.’ She recovers from her sentimental moment as quickly as it came and sticks her finger into the cherry jam and licks it clean. ‘You’re on, Kate, I’ll take that bet.’ Then she raises up her skirt and makes a face when her white socks slide down her calves. ‘I can hardly wait to be the only girl at school with a new pair of nylons.’
‘I’d sharpen your eyebrow pencil if I were you, sister dear,’ I say, filled with the confidence only a girl in love can have. ‘The only way you’ll be wearing seams this holiday is to draw them.’
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