Read A Christmas Hope Online

Authors: Stacy Henrie

A Christmas Hope (3 page)

BOOK: A Christmas Hope
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The long lines began to break up with all three of them helping. Maria assisted the patrons at her window, no longer having to think or question what to do as she had in the beginning. Being a bank clerk may not have been her first choice of employment, but she’d quickly come to realize how good she was with numbers and talking with the customers. She even hoped someday she might get to meet with those interested in obtaining loans.

“Miss Schmitt?” Dale’s voice hit her from behind. She’d been caught. “I didn’t realize you were back. Did you buy the pens and stationary?”

“They’re on the table back there.” She pointed without turning around.

“I have something else I need your help with.”

Of course he did. Maria fought an audible growl. Instead she replied in a sugary-sweet voice, “One moment, Mr. Emerson.” She refocused her attention on the woman standing before her window. “Is there anything else you need, Mrs. Greer?”

The woman shook her head, causing her fur cap to slide forward. “Is that the new bank manager?” She leaned in as if hoping to get a better look through the bars of the teller window. “I heard from Mrs. Kemp, who heard from Mrs. Reese that he’s rather young and…” She dropped her voice, but it still rang loud in the now quiet bank. “And without an eye.” One hand rose to tap the left side of her lined face. “Do you think he’ll make a suitable bank manager?”

The greater question is will he make a good manager with his abrupt manners and bullheaded opinions.
But Maria chose to keep those observations to herself. While she didn’t enjoy being the man’s errand girl, she wouldn’t participate in gossip. This past summer she’d seen firsthand the terrible consequences of people letting differences divide them. She’d made the choice never to allow that to happen again, if she could help it, and she would stick with that.

“Yes,” she said, lifting her chin a notch. “Mr. Emerson is the new bank manager. And a very capable one as well.” And once she figured out her own ideas of how to help him succeed, he’d be an even better one. “Just this morning, he agreed to extend the payment period for Mr. Stratton’s shop loan by another month. The man lost two sons in the war, the youngest only two weeks before Armistice Day.”

“Oh my.” Mrs. Greer righted her cap and dabbed at the corner of her eyes with a handkerchief she pulled from her purse. “Such compassion.”

The woman bade Maria good-bye and headed for the door. Smiling, Maria turned to see what Dale required of her now. Her smile froze when she saw he hadn’t retreated into his office as she’d expected. Instead he stood in the doorway watching her, a bewildered look on his face.

Maria brushed past him into his office, ignoring her rapidly warming cheeks. There was nothing to be embarrassed by. “How may I be of assistance now?”

Dale twisted to face her, his shoulder propped against the door frame, his hands tucked into the pockets of his wrinkled trousers. Even with his unkempt clothes, he still made a devastatingly handsome picture. Perhaps she ought to help find him a new wardrobe. That would be much more fun than buying boring pens and paper.

“Did I hear you talking…about
me
”—he lifted his eyebrows—“with that woman?”

“All positive,” she hurried to explain. Thank goodness she’d chosen not to voice her other opinions.

“Positive candor, you mean?” A hint of a smile tugged at his mouth.

Maria swallowed a laugh. He was teasing her. “Of course,” she conceded with a toss of her hair.

His smile turned nearly full, lighting his face and making his eye crinkle. The effect brought a smattering of flutters to her stomach. “Then I need to thank you. I think.”

“You’re welcome.” And she meant it. “Now what do you need me to do?”

Dale pushed away from the doorjamb and straightened. “I haven’t had time to unload these boxes, and they’re cluttering up this office. I’d like you…” He shook his head. “What I mean is, I’d appreciate it if you’d help me put it to rights.”

It was the first time he’d asked her nicely. Maria studied him, equally pleased and confused by his teasing a moment ago and now this show of kindness. Perhaps she’d misjudged Dale as much as he’d misjudged her.

And maybe, just maybe, having him as her boss wouldn’t prove to be so bad.

I
don’t think this room has been dusted since Mr. Ross first opened the bank twenty years ago.”

Dale cut a glance to where Maria was perched on a ladder, dusting the tops of the bookshelves, her backside to him. A rather nice backside, if truth be told. He coughed to dislodge the inane thought. She was his employee after all, and certainly didn’t seem the type to be content to settle down with a one-eyed bank manager for a husband.

Maria swiveled on the ladder. “Sorry. Did I hit you with the dust?”

Dust?
He stared blankly at her.

“You coughed a moment ago.”

Ah. He fought to hide a rueful smile—Maria Schmitt didn’t miss much—then he released another cough for good measure. Better for her to think the dust had disrupted him and not the sight of her attractive figure. “I’m fine.”

“Why don’t you hand me the books you want placed up here?”

Dale passed her a stack from one of the boxes—mostly textbooks he couldn’t bear to part with, even now. Maria began lining them up along the highest shelf, pausing to read each title. “Did you go to medical school? Or do you read books about illnesses and muscles for fun?”

“Both.”

She lifted her violet eyes to his, her mouth pursed. Then her features relaxed into a smile. “That was another joke.”

He couldn’t help a chuckle. “A joke, yes, but still true.” Reaching into another box, he pulled out his diploma. The single sheet of paper and elegant script represented the countless hours he’d spent pursuing his dream to be a surgeon. He held it up for Maria to see.

“Very impressive,” she said, nodding. The action made her dark curls swing. No wonder she was so good with the customers. With her pretty hair and striking eyes, she probably won them over immediately. “Were you a medic in the war?”

“No.” He tossed the diploma back into the box and straightened, shoving his hands into his pockets to keep from fisting them. “I was an assistant surgeon.”

Surprise etched itself on Maria’s face, followed by a decisive nod. “That makes sense.”

He laughed, but it was laced with bitterness. “Why do you say that?”

“I don’t know. Something about your hands.” She returned to stacking his books on the shelves.

Dale removed a hand from his pocket and stared at it. The skin looked almost foreign to him, without a surgical glove covering it. “I’ve known since I was a kid that I wanted to be a doctor. Never imagined doing anything else with my life.” He closed his fingers and fisted the edge of the box. “Unfortunately my depth perception isn’t what it was with two good eyes. No one wants a surgeon who might blunder a procedure because he can’t see correctly.”

His admission hung bleak and heavy in the tiny office, but he didn’t wish it back. For some reason, he wanted Maria to know. And yet he still braced himself for her response. Would she express pity, or worse, tell him things weren’t so bad?

Maria put away another book, then turned to face him, her expression uncharacteristically somber. “I know a little of what it means to have your dreams thwarted by something out of your control. And I’m sorry. That can’t be easy.” She offered him a sad sort of smile and returned to her task.

No pitying words, no backward glances at his eye patch.
Almost as if she doesn’t notice I wear one.

The possibility stunned Dale. How odd that Maria could so easily forget something he—and surely the rest of the world—was conscious of nearly every minute of the day. Had he mistakenly ignored the depth she sometimes hid behind her beautiful face and bold comments?

He tugged at his suddenly tight collar as embarrassment washed over him. He’d thought her so coquettish the other week, convinced her presence had to be more of a distraction than an asset, as his uncle had claimed. But he could see he might have been wrong. Maria had much to offer the bank.

Dale found himself staring at her again, at the spot where her curls caressed the collar of her blouse. Were they as soft as they looked? The strangest urge to touch one of those dark curls filled him. To distract himself, he reached up and loosened his tie. No wonder he felt as if he were choking. He wasn’t used to wearing the more formal attire of a manager.

“More books.” Maria held out her hand, oblivious—thankfully—to his thoughts about her.

He placed another stack in her grasp, then turned to see what else he’d stored inside these old boxes he hadn’t looked through in a long time. A soft cry wrenched his attention back to Maria. Once again she’d overreached herself, trying to place a book on the far side of the shelf. Before she could fall, Dale jumped forward and stopped her momentum with a hand to her waist.

“Thank you,” she whispered as she righted herself on the ladder, her cheeks a delightful shade of pink.

“Are you all right?”

She dipped her chin in a nod. The vulnerability in her violet eyes held him captive. It was the same look she’d had when she told him she needed this job, needed this fresh start.

What had brought Maria here? What was she trying so hard to move on from? The similarities between them weren’t lost on Dale. He needed this job and this fresh start just as much as she did. And though she’d been the one to offer help first, surely he could do something to help her, too. Something to make this new chapter in her life the best it could be.

Which likely meant reconsidering the tasks he’d given her the last few days.

“What is it with you and ladders?” He tempered his teasing with a full smile.

Maria blinked, as if in a daze, before she laughed. “It isn’t the ladder; it’s these shoes.”

He looked toward her feet and realized he still had a hand on her waist. The warmth of her skin heated his fingers through her blouse. The color nearly matched her eyes.

He lifted his head, intent on meeting her gaze, but instead he found his attention drawn to her lips. As he watched, they parted slightly as she drew in a quick breath. It had been a very long time since he’d kissed a woman, and even longer since it hadn’t meant good-bye. He could imagine kissing Maria might be rather intoxicating.

A knock at the door interrupted the moment. Dale released his hold on Maria and took a deliberate step to the side. While he might be able to offer her help, there were some things he couldn’t offer.

“Come in,” he called out. James entered, pushing his glasses up his nose in his habitual way.

“There’s a family here to see you, Mr. Emerson. About a farm mortgage.”

Dale sighed with relief. His office felt suddenly too small with Maria present. “Thank you, James. Will you seat them in the front office?”

The young man nodded and ducked out the door. Dale moved to follow, but Maria called him back.

“Mr. Emerson.” Did he mistake the breathlessness in her voice?

Would she demand another apology from him, this time for keeping his hand on her waist longer than was considered polite? Although she hadn’t exactly been jumping away from him either.

Instead of insisting on another apology, though, Maria pointed to her collar. “Your tie.”

He reached up to touch it. “What about it?”

She rolled her eyes. “You might want to straighten it before you meet with that family.”

Oh. Right. He tightened his tie and slipped out the door, though he could have sworn he heard her mutter something about “and get a new one.”

What was wrong with his tie? he wondered as he moved past Lawrence and James and out into the lobby. Perhaps it was a bit old, but the article still had life in it yet. He didn’t relish the idea of wearing a tie to work for the rest of his life, which meant he would wear what was comfortable.

Putting thoughts of his tie—and Maria—from his mind, he entered the front office. He nodded to the couple seated inside and lowered himself to eye level with the young girl balancing on her mother’s lap. “I understand you want to buy a farm. Is that right?”

The girl’s eyes widened before she buried her head in her mother’s shoulder. “I’m sorry,” the woman said.

“No. It’s all right.” Dale sat down at his desk, trying to ignore the girl’s frightened reaction. He hadn’t meant to scare her. “Why don’t you tell me about the property you’d like to purchase and we can see what we can do as far as a loan?”

He spent the next half an hour talking with the family and filling out paperwork. By the time they left, the girl was no longer hiding against her mother’s sleeve. But she wouldn’t talk directly to Dale, no matter how many times he tried to draw her out.

When the three of them finally left, Dale dropped back down into his chair. Tension radiated through his body, sapping his energy. He plucked a mint from his pocket and popped it into his mouth.

He’d thought performing life-saving surgery was difficult, especially near the front lines with the cold and the mud and the constant need for supplies. Never in his wildest dreams would he have believed being a bank manager would be equally hard.

Maria appeared in the open doorway. “I finished straightening your office. Would you like to see it?” She gave him an earnest smile he did his best to ignore.

“In a bit. I need to finish up with some of this paperwork first.” He gathered up the papers the couple had signed.

“How did the meeting go?”

Dale shot her a look. Had she somehow been privy to the girl’s reaction to him? “Fine. It went fine.”

“What would you like me to do now?”

He gazed about the room as if it held the answer, but he suddenly couldn’t think of a single thing for her to do. “Why don’t you help Lawrence and James with customers for now?”

Her dark eyebrows rose in surprise. “You’re sure?”

“Yes. And close the door on your way out. I think I’ll work in here for a while.”

Maria regarded him silently for a moment. “Would you like some coffee first? You look like you could use a cup.”

He certainly could, but his self-reproach at ordering her around the past three days had finally caught up with him. “No, thank you.”

With a nod, she exited the office and shut the door softly behind her. Dale picked up his pen, but instead of writing, he tapped it against the desk in rapid succession. Who was he fooling? He wasn’t cut out for this job, no matter how badly he wanted to please Uncle Lester. It wasn’t all about frightening children or inspiring doubt in adults about his capabilities either—his heart wasn’t into the numbers or the customers.

A part of him still held out irrational hope that something would change. That somehow he would be able to go back to doing what he loved—performing surgery, learning about surgery. He hadn’t even minded the years he’d spent studying and attending his medical classes. All things to do with the body and how to fix it fascinated him.

Recalling some of his favorite classes and professors sparked an idea. Dale grabbed a sheet of stationary and began writing. Though he couldn’t perform surgeries himself anymore, that didn’t mean he couldn’t teach other surgeon-hopefuls the information they needed to know. Perhaps his favorite teacher and mentor, Dr. John Abrams, could ask around about any open teaching positions at the medical college. With so many of the teaching staff still working overseas, there might be something Dale could do there. Even if nothing came of the inquiry, he had to at least try.

Once he’d finished the letter, he tucked it into an envelope and set it aside. He could mail it tomorrow. Dale glanced at the calendar and shook his head. No, tomorrow was Thanksgiving. The day he and his mother had always used to reflect on all the blessings in their lives.

The reminder churned regret inside him. He might wish for a different job, but at least he had one. Humbled, he lowered his face into his hands.

Forgive me, Lord. I’m grateful for this job. And more importantly, I’m deeply grateful to be alive.

As they often did, his thoughts drifted to the man on the stretcher who hadn’t survived the ambulance explosion. Dale had been so close to extricating that last soldier from the vehicle, but he hadn’t been fast enough. If he’d moved quicker, hadn’t paused to answer the orderly’s question, could he have saved the man’s life?

The unanswerable question haunted him. To drive the grief away, he returned to his silent pleas.
Bless the man’s family, wherever they may be. And please…
Dale drew in a deep breath.
Help me find my way, if this is truly where you want me to be.

*  *  *

Dale downed another mug of warmed cider and set his cup on a nearby table. The murmur of a dozen conversations filled the parlor of his aunt and uncle’s home. He’d dreaded coming to Lester’s retirement party tonight. Not because he didn’t care for his relatives, but he loathed the idea of the inevitable stares and whispered comments.

Sure enough, several women were eyeing him at that moment as if he were a creature in a zoo. The words
unfortunate tragedy
and
once so nice-looking
floated easily across the room to reverberate in Dale’s ears.

Perhaps he should leave before dinner was served. But he dismissed the idea at once. Not only would his mother be upset, but as the newest manager of the bank, he was under obligation to stay. However awkward and long the evening proved to be.

He faced the nearest window, loosening his tie as he did so and wondering how his fellow doctors, nurses, and orderlies in France had spent their Thanksgiving. Had it been another day of surgeries, or were they able to do something special for the holiday now that the fighting had ended? Either way, an intense longing filled him. If only he could be back at the base hospital at this moment, doing what he knew how to do, performing tasks that actually mattered.

“Why, Mr. Emerson. You do own a full suit.”

Dale recognized Maria’s voice—and sharp wit—at once. Burying his despairing thoughts, he inhaled a deep breath and turned around. Whatever clever retort he’d meant to fire back at her, though, was forgotten the moment he saw her.

She wore a black dress that nearly matched her hair and made the violet of her eyes and the red of her lips stand out in contrast to the darker material. Her sleeves were made of black lace, allowing her cream-colored skin to peek through.

BOOK: A Christmas Hope
14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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