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Authors: Stacy Henrie

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BOOK: A Christmas Hope
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He liked to appear gruff, but he treated the three of them fairly. Maria would miss him when he retired soon, more of necessity than choice. His health had been on the decline for months now. Hopefully their next boss would be as kind and respectful as Mr. Ross had been, especially about having a female bank clerk.

The murmur of animated conversation reached her ears as Mr. Ross greeted Dale. Maria needlessly straightened the things on her counter as she watched the two men. To her complete shock, her boss pulled the other man into a friendly hug, as if they were old acquaintances.

More people entered the bank at that moment, each staring openly at Dale before giving him and Mr. Ross a wide berth. Maria set aside her curious observations to assist those who came to her window.

When the lobby emptied again, Mr. Ross escorted Dale toward the back of the bank, instead of toward the front office, where he usually conducted business. The grin on the old man’s face and the way he clapped Dale on the shoulder tightened a rapidly growing knot of dread inside Maria, even before he spoke.

“Maria, Lawrence, James. I’d like you to meet Dale Emerson. My nephew…and your new boss.”

*  *  *

Dale glanced around his uncle’s back office. The crowded bookshelves and paper-strewn desk looked very much as he remembered them, as if they hadn’t changed in the last seven years. Perhaps they hadn’t.

The smell of old books and pipe tobacco and the sight of Uncle Lester seated in the same threadbare chair took him back to the summer days he’d worked here as a young bank clerk. Those had been happy, hopeful times, saving every penny for medical school. Uncle Lester had matched every one of those pennies, and then some, so Dale could fulfill his dream of being a doctor.

“Hasn’t changed much,” Dale said, taking the seat opposite the desk.

Lester leaned back in his chair and gazed about the room. “Twenty years I’ve worked here, ate here, even napped here.” He shot a sad smile at Dale. “Can’t hardly believe at this time next week I won’t be opening the door at eight or locking it at five thirty.” His words ended with a cough and he pressed a handkerchief to his mouth to stifle the sound.

While the office might not have changed, Lester had. The sunken look under his eyes, the gauntness of his once round face, and the persistent cough all attested to the lingering illness Dale’s mother, Lester’s sister, had mentioned in her letters. Whether he wanted to or not, Lester Ross wouldn’t be able to manage the bank much longer.

Dale shifted in his seat, bringing one leg to rest on the opposite knee. “You’re welcome to drop by anytime you’d like. I may be the manager, but you’re still the owner.”

His uncle shook his head. “I want you to feel in charge. In fact, I think you ought to start by changing things around in here. Once I move out all my books and old papers.” He looked away as he added in a quiet voice, “I know it isn’t what you wanted, Dale, but I hope you’ll make it yours. You were a fine surgeon. But maybe things have worked out for the best. The Rosses have always been bankers. It’s in your blood, whether you want it to be or not.”

Dale’s regret cut deep. He hadn’t meant to let his reluctance show so readily. Lester was like a father to him, had been ever since Dale and his mother had moved to Iowa from Michigan after his high school graduation. It was more than respect Dale felt for his uncle; he was indebted to Lester for helping pay for his schooling. He owed the man this job and Dale would give it his all, even if deep down he knew he’d never enjoy being a bank manager.

His vision of the future had always included an operating room and intricate tools to save lives—not ledgers and loans to help people with their savings. But his time as a surgeon, overseas or here at home, had ended when a mortar struck a nearby ambulance.

Dale absently rubbed at the skin beneath his eye patch. Everything about his life had changed in a split second. One moment he was frantically trying to unload the last patient from the ambulance, and the next there was an awful explosion.

Despite some minor burns and singed hair, he would have been fine, if some of the flying debris hadn’t lodged in his left eye. The pain he’d endured had been trivial compared to the gut-wrenching sorrow that tore at him at the thought of losing an eye. Now the permanently shut eyelid held nothing behind it. And without that eye, he couldn’t remain a surgeon.

Being a surgeon was what he’d been born to do. Dale had known it at the age of ten when he’d overheard the doctor tell his mother that his father’s life might have been prolonged with the right surgeon, the right surgery. If Dale could save others’ fathers, mothers, brothers, or sisters from the grief he’d known, then he’d do it.

But no more.

Dale cleared his throat and fumbled inside his pocket for another mint. The jolt of cool flavor in his mouth anchored and calmed him. During his time in France, on the days when he’d been so busy performing surgeries he didn’t stop to eat, he would work his way through an entire pack of Pep-O-Mints. They kept him grounded, focused, able to work longer, as he sought to look beyond the carnage before him and cling to the hope of prolonging life.

Everything else about his life might have changed in an instant, but the soothing mint taste on his tongue remained the same, unchanged and steady.

“So tell me about your bank clerks. Any of them as efficient as me?” Dale’s words coaxed a smile from his uncle, just as he’d hoped, and relieved the suffocating sadness in the small room.

“The twins, Lawrence and James, are good workers.” Lester lifted a pen from his desk and began twirling it between his fingers. “If not a bit unfocused now and then.”

“What about Miss Schmitt?” Dale kept his tone casual to avoid revealing his piqued curiosity about her. He’d never met a female bank clerk before and certainly hadn’t expected one so pretty.

His vision might be restricted to one eye now, but he wasn’t so blind he hadn’t noticed Maria’s lovely face and uniquely violet eyes. Or the way her shapely figure had fit nicely against him when he caught her. It had been a long time since Dale had held a beautiful woman in his arms, and the effect had increased his pulse with something stronger than concern over her potentially bad fall. She wasn’t just a pretty face either. He’d been impressed with the way she’d held herself with poise and dignity, despite her near disaster. No tears, no hysterics.

It seemed a spill from a ladder didn’t ruffle her feathers one bit. Not like his mistaken conclusion about her being his uncle’s secretary. Dale’s mouth twitched with a hidden smile as he remembered her eyes sparking with anger.

“Ahh, Maria.” His uncle chuckled. “I’m sorry to say, Dale, but she has surpassed even you in the number of customers she can help in a single day.” He bent forward, resting his hands on a stack of papers on the desk. “Business has actually gone up since I hired her back in July.”

Dale had little doubt the influx of customers was most likely male. He’d been around Maria less than ten minutes, and even he couldn’t shake her from his thoughts. Not that it mattered. She might not be repulsed by his eye patch and injury as he’d feared most women would be, but he had nothing to offer her as a half-blind bank manager. Or any woman, for that matter, including Felicity Hunt, the girl he’d planned to marry.

No, he was resigned to life as a bachelor. This job was no different than receiving new orders at the front, and he wanted to fulfill those orders the best he could, without distraction.

“Don’t you find her presence a bit of a distraction? For the other clerks and the patrons?” For him.

Lester eyed him thoughtfully, making Dale squirm a bit in his chair. He had nothing against Maria personally. “I’ll admit I don’t particularly care for her insistence on sprucing the place up for every holiday or how most of our male patrons queue up at her teller window. But Maria’s a real hard worker, with a knack for relating to people. She’s also got a quick mind when it comes to numbers.”

His next words drove any idea of finding Maria Schmitt employment elsewhere from Dale’s mind. “She’s an asset to this bank, Dale, and I think you could use her help.”

If his uncle thought Maria should stay, then Dale would have to oblige. He would simply have to figure out how to do his job without being distracted by her pretty face or well-placed barbs.

“Fair enough,” Dale said, forcing a smile. “What do I need to know about managing the bank?”

His uncle brightened at the question and began pulling papers from various piles on his desk. “First things first…”

M
aria paused outside the bank’s front office, where Dale Emerson had ensconced himself. Her stomach twisted with uncharacteristic nerves, causing her to press a hand against the waist of her dark green silk dress. She had every right to be nervous, now that she knew the man she had potentially insulted the day before was her new boss.

And yet it was more than that. She prided herself on maintaining a cool and collected demeanor, especially in an environment where she was the only woman. But Dale possessed the power to pierce her calm exterior and rile her up in ways she’d never experienced before. He was as infuriating as he was handsome. Not that she planned to let him know he possessed either quality. This job was too important to her to lose. She would simply have to find a way to tolerate him, and vice versa.

She sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly, then gave the door three quick knocks. A moment of silence passed before Dale’s deep voice called out, “Come in.”

Pushing the door open, Maria stepped inside. Unlike Mr. Ross’s office, this one always remained clean and tidy. A potted plant added greenery, even in the middle of winter, and two comfortable armchairs clustered near the mahogany desk.

“Miss Schmitt?” Dale raised his brow in question and glanced past her to the open door. “Did you need something?”

“Yes.” Maria pulled back her shoulders and moved toward his desk. “I believe I didn’t exactly make the best first impression yesterday.”

“Is that so?” His expression gave no hint to his thoughts. “And what sort of first impression do you think you gave?”

Maria’s cheeks grew warm as she clasped her hands in front, then behind her back. “I only meant I may have shown a bit too much candor regarding your…um…” She tilted her chin up at the memory of his words. “Shall we say, misguided assumption? About my being a secretary instead of a clerk.”

“I see.” Dale leaned back against his chair, causing his wrinkled shirt to stretch across his solid chest. The chest she’d fit rather snugly against yesterday. He’d rolled up his sleeves as well, revealing nicely formed forearms. She hadn’t minded being cradled by them. In fact, she’d rather liked the feeling of safety and comfort she’d experienced as he’d held her.

Maria reined in her muddled thoughts with the reminder that this man was her boss, and she was expected to act professionally. Besides, she still needed to work out some sort of truce with him.

Instead of concentrating on his nice-looking features, she decided to focus on his loose tie. Another ugly one, in her opinion. Mustard yellow with maroon dots. How many yellow ties did the man possess? And where was his vest or jacket? Maria had picked up a number of fashion tips since coming to the city, and Dale seemed determined to shun them all. Although she had to admit, if anyone could still look handsome in a yellow tie and disheveled clothes, it was him.

“Are you done staring, Miss Schmitt? I know the eye patch is a bit off-putting, but I’m sure your mother taught you that staring—”

“What?” She hadn’t been staring at his eye patch; she’d been staring at…well, his good looks. Though she certainly couldn’t tell him that. Mortification made her face burn even hotter. “No. I wasn’t staring…I mean, I was…but it isn’t…”

He lifted his eyebrow again. The quizzical expression highlighted his handsome face and flustered her all more.

“Look, Mr. Emerson.” She drew herself up to full height. “I only meant to come in here and apologize. And in turn receive your…” She waved her hand at him. “You know…”

“I’m not following. My what?”

Maria resisted the urge to roll her eyes. How were they supposed to work together if they couldn’t even carry on a simple conversation? “Your apology. For
your
candid remarks yesterday.”

Dale bent over the papers on his desk once more. “And if I’m not apologetic?” he said, without looking up.

“I suppose that is your choice.” She managed to school her voice to hide her mounting irritation.

“All right, Miss Schmitt.” He tossed his pen down and studied her. “I am sorry if I offended you in any way yesterday. Now, may I please return to my work?”

“Yes, thank you.”

She’d gotten her apology and made her own, but she still felt deflated and on edge. Why did the man dislike her? More important, why should she care if he liked her or not?

“I need this job.”

The honest admission passed from her lips before she could check it. She didn’t typically admit to needing anything, but for some unfathomable reason, the stoic man seated before her had elicited the most vulnerable confession she’d made in a long time.

“I need the fresh start,” she added.

He regarded her in silence for a moment, then glanced away. But not before she caught a strong emotion radiating from his gaze. Empathy.

Who had Dale been before going to the battlefields of France? What were his aspirations? She couldn’t quite imagine him being comfortable in the life of a banker, at least not in the way Mr. Ross had been. Dale wasn’t as naturally friendly and open. Or perhaps his injury had changed that.

The hope that he might understand, even marginally, gave her courage to continue, her words coming out faster and faster. “I know you may not care for working with female bank clerks, which is entirely up to you. Although that does seem a rather backward notion. Especially given that President Wilson declared to Congress back in September that the women of this country have performed a great service during the war by stepping in to do the jobs of a good number of the men. And because of such, we deserve—”

“I am for women getting the vote.”

Maria cocked her head. “You are?”

His lips turned up at the corners as he nodded. “I’ve worked around a number of intelligent, courageous women, both here and at the front lines.” He rose from his chair and came to sit on the edge of his desk. “I think there are a great many worthwhile changes women could effect if given the right to vote.”

At least they had one thing they could agree on. Perhaps Dale Emerson wasn’t as backward in his thinking as she’d concluded.

“If that’s what you believe, then what was all that nonsense yesterday?” She advanced a step toward him, her arms folded. Had he merely been testing her? She found she rather liked the idea of verbally sparring with him. He’d certainly make a worthier opponent than either James or Lawrence.

The smile fled his mouth and he wouldn’t meet her level gaze. “I have my reasons for saying what I did, though I assure you they have nothing to do with you personally.”

His explanation made no sense, but at least he’d given her a glimpse at reconciliation. “I have an idea, Mr. Emerson.” She took another step forward and rested her hand against the desk. His own hand splayed his knee. It was a large hand, one she could easily imagine offering comfort and help as he had yesterday.

“What’s this idea?”

Idea?
Maria shot him a glance. He watched her with equal parts wariness and amusement. She really needed to stop allowing him to distract her. “Yes, my idea.” She tossed her hair. “I would like to help you.”

“Help…me?” He sounded as if he were choking on a laugh.

She glowered at him. “That is what I said. I think we could make a good team.”

“Team?”

Did he plan to repeat every last word? “I can help them”—she waved toward the door to indicate the bank patrons—“see you as a capable bank manager. Someone who commands as much respect at the bank as I imagine you did at the front lines.”

Dale cut her a piercing look and crossed his arms. “How exactly would you help me?”

“I haven’t organized all the details yet.”

“What if I have a few ideas of my own? On how you could help?”

The first real smile she’d felt since yesterday broke through. “I’d say that’s the first sensible thing you’ve said all day. Apart from your vote of confidence for the suffrage movement, of course.”

The corners of his lips twitched again, making Maria wonder what his actual smile might look like. And what it might do to her.

“Then I say you have yourself a deal, Miss Schmitt.” He held out his hand and Maria shook it. His fingers were warm and firm over hers.

“Deal,” she echoed.

“Shall we start tomorrow?”

“Certainly.”

“With anything I need?” He still hadn’t released her hand.

Something akin to concern wormed its way into her stomach. What exactly had she gotten herself into? It couldn’t be that bad, though. After all, they’d be working together as a team. And what proved good for Dale as bank manager would surely prove good for her as a clerk.

Maria offered him one of her more beguiling smiles. “You have my word.”

*  *  *

Hands in his pockets, Dale gazed out the parlor’s front window at the rain shining in the glow of the streetlamps. Too bad it wasn’t snow. That would make it feel more like the holidays were upon them. After all, Thanksgiving was only a week away.

He kneaded the sides of his throbbing forehead. An entire day of poring over papers and cramped handwriting had left him with a headache. Could he force himself to go to the bank day after day, interacting with people who surely found his appearance a bit startling, slogging through loans and mortgages he cared very little for?

A fierce longing to return to the base hospital in France seized him. While he’d seen more blood and gore and mutilated flesh to last him more than one lifetime, there had also been purpose and comfort in the routine of life as an assistant war surgeon. Over there he knew exactly what must be done to remove shrapnel from an injured soldier, how to amputate a limb successfully, how to identify which patients needed surgery immediately and which could be delayed.

But here…How many times today had he been forced to stop and question himself or Uncle Lester about how to proceed next?

“Still raining?” His mother came up from behind and stood beside him, her graying head barely coming to his shoulder.

Dale gave a wordless nod.

“How was the bank?”

“Tolerable.” He’d never been able to lie to her.

He sensed her gaze on him. “What did you think of the clerks?”

An image of Maria, her lips drawn up into a rather dazzling smile, entered his mind. Dale frowned. “They seem to be hard workers.”

“And Miss Schmitt? I like her best. Did you meet her?”

The hopeful note in her voice made him turn. “Mother…”

“I’ll not interfere, I promise.” She put her arm around his waist and laid her head against his shoulder. How often had he done the same to her as a child? “I’m just sorry things didn’t work out with…Felicity.”

Dale didn’t have the heart to tell her he’d been the one to end things with Felicity, not the other way around. Felicity had insisted she still loved him, that she’d marry him even if he were just a bank manager now. But Dale hated having so little to offer the daughter of one of the richest men in the city. Felicity deserved the life they’d planned together before the war—with a successful surgeon husband who could provide her with the life of ease she was accustomed to.

Placing his arm around his mother’s shoulders, he pulled her to his side. “You’re the best gal in my life and always will be.” How he loved this spunky, independent woman who’d sacrificed so much to raise him alone after his father’s death.

“While I’m more than flattered,” she said with a soft laugh, “someday you’ll meet someone who sees you as I do, as God does.” She stepped from his half embrace to playfully poke him in the chest. “Just be sure you don’t give up hoping for that.”

It was his mother’s favorite thing to espouse—not losing hope. But hope wasn’t something he had much in reserve anymore. Most of it had been lost right along with his left eye. Instead of clinging to false hope, he would throw himself into this job and eliminate any distractions, starting with keeping Miss Maria Schmitt so busy helping him that she couldn’t derail his attempts at this new, however unanticipated, turn in his life.

“Right now I’m just hoping that delicious smell from the kitchen means you saved me some dinner.”

“Still warm,” she said, smiling.

With a genuine smile in return, Dale trailed her to the kitchen.

*  *  *

By the following week, after Mr. Ross had left them for good, Maria wished she could take back her agreement with Dale. Her time at the bank Monday and Tuesday had been spent entirely at his beck and call, performing every task imaginable from bringing him coffee to penning letters for him. And to think she’d found the dictator attractive only last week.

The few times she’d managed to slip away to help patrons had been a welcome respite. She hadn’t realized how much she enjoyed interacting with the variety of customers until she no longer did it all day.

Entering the warmth of the bank, Maria shut the door behind her. It had been a brisk walk down the street to purchase more pens and stationary for Dale. Two long lines had formed in her absence. She skirted the people, pushed through the swinging gate, and hurried into the tellers’ room.

“We need your help, Maria,” Lawrence griped over his shoulder from his spot at one of the windows.

She threw a quick glance at the back office, where Dale was working. If he didn’t know she’d returned yet, perhaps she could help the boys diminish the crowd. They’d begun to complain about the extra work her absence from clerking created, but she could do little to change that. She’d come up with the idea to assist Dale, to be a team. Though so far, she felt less like a team member and more like a servant. But no matter. She would do whatever she could to help him and do it well. No one would question the efficiency or benefit of female bank clerks when she was finished.

After hanging up her coat and scarf, she tugged on the cuffs of her blouse and strode to her teller window. “Next customer, please,” she called out with genuine cheerfulness, grateful to once again be doing what she loved.

At least tomorrow was Thanksgiving, which meant a day off from Dale’s endless chores. She’d taken to subtly rearranging his pens as a form of revenge. While the man clearly cared little for his personal appearance, he liked his desk kept in precise order.

BOOK: A Christmas Hope
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