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Authors: Stacy Henrie

A Christmas Hope (4 page)

BOOK: A Christmas Hope
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If he’d thought her pretty before, Dale could think of no other descriptor for her tonight but
breathtaking
.

“Are Lawrence and James here yet?” Maria looked around the crowded room, seemingly oblivious to his momentary lapse in speech.

Dale cleared his throat. “I believe I saw them lingering in the dining room.”

“No doubt hoping to be the first seated and served.” She smiled up at him—a genuine, open smile that made her look all the more radiant.

He wasn’t the only one to notice either. Every eye in the room was focused in their direction, but his aunt and uncle’s guests were no longer watching him—this time they were staring at Maria.

“Dale.” His mother entered the parlor and approached him. “Aunt Evie would like you to make the toast to your uncle.” Without waiting for his reply, she turned to Maria and smiled fully. Dale cringed, hoping she would remember her promise from the other week not to interfere in matters of the heart. “Miss Schmitt, don’t you look lovely.”

“Thank you. It’s nice to see you outside the bank, Mrs. Emerson.” She raised an eyebrow at Dale. “I had no idea this was your son.”

“Please, call me Harriet,” his mother said. Dale squelched a desire to roll his eyes. “Tell me. How is my son doing as the new manager?”

Maria tilted her head to look Dale in the eye. “I have to say…” Dale shoved his hands into his trouser pockets, steeling himself for a recitation of the many mistakes he’d made his first week. But to his surprise, Maria turned back to his mother and said, “I think he’s doing rather well.”

“Really?” His mother’s brow lifted, her dark eyes sparkling with as much pride as mischief. Thankfully Aunt Evie chose that moment to announce dinner. Harriet excused herself to help serve.

“Your mother is very nice.”

“Yes, she is.” And a bit too crafty for her own good.

“Quite contemporary in her thinking, too,” Maria continued. “Based on our conversations when she’s come into the bank.”

“Does that surprise you? Me being her son and all?”

Maria laughed. “Not anymore. Is it only the two of you?”

Dale nodded.. “My father died when I was ten.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” He sensed the sincerity in her tone.

“He was a good man, always encouraging me to make the best of any circumstance.”

“Like being a bank manager?”

Dale cut her a glance—he hadn’t thought much about his father’s advice in relation to his current situation. “I suppose.” He waved her ahead of him into the dining room, where the rest of the guests were taking their seats at two large tables that had been set up. “Which seat shall I escort you to, Miss Schmitt?”

“Next to yours, of course.” Her chin came up a notch as if she expected him to challenge her decision. He knew several young men in the group who probably wished to do so.

“All right.” He located two vacant chairs. After helping Maria into her seat, he took his own. A few people at their table continued to throw unabashed looks at them. Dale could easily guess at their thoughts. Why would a beauty like Maria choose to sit beside him, when she might have sat by anyone tonight?

A sudden thought had him turning toward Maria. “You aren’t trying to flatter me with your charms, are you?” he teased in a low voice. “To increase my favorable opinion of female bank clerks?”

She demurely placed her napkin on her lap and leaned toward him, giving him a delightful whiff of perfume. “I believe you’re quite impervious to any charm on my part, Mr. Emerson. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Dale studied her open, somewhat mischievous, expression. Yes, he was impervious to the sort of charms she might show the bank customers. But Maria Schmitt employed far more captivating qualities, ones he was finding it harder and harder to ignore.

*  *  *

The food was delicious, much better than the Thanksgiving meal Maria had eaten yesterday with the other tenants at the boardinghouse where she lived. As if reading her thoughts, Dale paused in eating to ask, “Did you have a good Thanksgiving?”

“It was a rather quiet affair, but yes.”

“With family?”

Maria shook her head. A tremor of homesickness rose into her throat. She loved being on her own, but there were moments she wished she lived closer to her parents and siblings. She missed her mother’s loving attention, however smothering at times, her father calling her his “baby girl,” and her delightful nieces and nephews eager to see Auntie Maria.

“My family lives several hours away. And I’m fairly certain Thanksgiving was not a quiet affair.” She laughed, as much at her own joke as to cover the lingering sadness she felt at having not been there for the first time in nineteen years. “My two siblings are both married with children of their own. Which means I have seven nieces and nephews, who are all gloriously wonderful and wonderfully loud.”

“I see.” Dale’s mouth curved up into a smile. Not unlike the one the day before when he’d teased her about her trouble with ladders. Today, though, she felt only the tiniest twinge of pleasure in her stomach, whereas Dale’s smile yesterday and his firm hand on her waist had nearly stopped her breath altogether.

He looked especially handsome tonight in his full suit, even if it was slightly worn. If only he’d wear such clothes at the bank.

“So you’re the baby of the family. The spoiled youngest.” His gaze gleamed even darker with his teasing. “That makes perfect sense now.”

“How would you know?” She jabbed him in the arm with her finger. And immediately regretted it when she felt the hardened muscle beneath his sleeve. However friendly he acted or dashing he looked, she couldn’t forget he was her boss, first and foremost.

“All right, I’ll admit I don’t know. I’ve only heard things, from those with siblings.” He lifted his fork again, but the smile didn’t leave his face.

“Did your mother dote on you?” she found herself asking.

“Perhaps, a little. But raising me on her own, she also taught me to have courage, to try new things.”

Maria pushed at her food with her fork. “It was a bit opposite for me. I think my parents feared there were a great many things I couldn’t handle as the youngest. It was actually a miracle I was able to convince them to let me move to the city and find a job.”

“A job you do quite well.”

The words were spoken softly, but they still had the power to fill her from head to toe with pleasure. She could think of no witty rejoinder, so she settled for simply thanking him—and promptly changed the subject. “What did you do for Thanksgiving?”

“We spent the day with Lester and Evie.” Dale took a drink from his glass, then glanced at her. “Had I known you weren’t with family, I would have invited you to join us.”

“No, no. I was fine.” She meant it, but his thoughtfulness pleased her.

“There were many years, when Mother and I were living in Michigan, when we spent the holidays alone or with those who were also without family.” Dale paused as he set down his glass. “It’s nice to be back with family again, although, I do miss our tradition of going ice-skating every Thanksgiving.”

“You didn’t go yesterday?”

Dale chuckled. “No. I’m afraid I haven’t been ice-skating since we moved to Iowa.”

“Then we ought to go.” The idea was out before she’d thought it through entirely. But the more she pondered it, the more Maria warmed to the notion.

“You’re serious?”

Maria twisted in her chair to face him. “Absolutely. I believe there’s a pond not far from the bank. We could meet there tomorrow.”

He studied her, his expression incredulous.

“It is Saturday, so you can’t say there are things to do at the bank.” Would he agree? For some unfathomable reason, Maria hoped very much that he would. After helping him for nearly a week, she felt certain a lighthearted outing that had nothing to do with being the bank manager was exactly what he needed.

Dale blew out his breath, while Maria held hers. “Very well, Miss Schmitt,” he finally said, lifting his fork once more. “I’ll meet you at the pond at ten o’clock sharp. Bring your own skates.”

T
he sun glinted off the ice as Maria traded her shoes for the skates she’d borrowed from a girl who lived down the hall from her. Despite the sunshine, cold air caressed her cheeks, making her grateful for her winter coat and the wool socks she wore beneath her thick skirt.

She glanced up to find Dale striding around the pond toward her. The sight of his clean-shaven face and winter attire made her swallow hard, just as she had the night before when she’d first caught sight of him dressed in his full suit.

“Morning.” She lifted her hand in greeting as he came to sit beside her on the frozen ground.

“It appears you and I are the only ones over eight years old.”

Maria eyed those gliding around the ice and laughed. “True. But that’s only because everyone else doesn’t know what they’re missing.”

Dale removed his shoes and put on his own skates. “I’m still not sure why I let you talk me into this.”

“Come on.” She stood up on her skates, suddenly very grateful it hadn’t been so long since she’d last done this. “Here’s a chance to relive some of your childhood.”

“Oh believe me, I am,” he said as he tottered to his feet.

Maria led the way onto the ice and pushed off. She kept her strides slow and even until she felt confident. Then she burst forward with greater speed, the wind fresh and cold against her face. A feeling of pure freedom frothed inside her, washing away any thought of limitation or pretense. She was herself in this moment.

As she rounded the pond, she searched for Dale. She spied him up ahead, on his feet, although he moved at a slower, more cautious pace. Skating past him, she twisted around to face him as she skated backward.

“You’ve done this more recently than me, haven’t you?” he quipped.

She laughed. “Maybe. Our neighbors back home have a pond that everyone skates on in the winter.” Her laughter faded as a memory of skating, hand in hand, with Friedrick filled her mind. She’d been so convinced he only had eyes for her. Now she was beginning to wonder if he’d ever really seen her at all and what might have been if she’d allowed him to. What would he have thought of the real Maria? The one who felt deeply but who hid it behind a coy smile or a witty remark or a carefree demeanor.

The feel of Dale’s gloved hands within hers made her glance up, startled. Here was a man who she sensed had the ability to see right into her heart. The realization both frightened and intrigued her. Not only because Dale was her boss, but because she felt certain he hid his own wounds as cleverly as she did hers.

“Mind if I tag along?” he said, lifting their joined hands.

Maria smiled. “Not at all.” She turned her head slightly to see who might be behind them as she continued to skate backward. “Isn’t it a glorious day?”

Dale lifted his chin and eyed the sun. “A little cold but not unpleasant.”

“I hope it snows soon. Christmas is so much more magical with snow.”

He didn’t respond, other than to steer her out of the way of a group of children.

“Don’t tell me you’re a Scrooge, Mr. Emerson.” She pinned him with her firmest look.

“I am not a Scrooge. But…” He glanced away, his expression pensive.

“What?” she prodded, keeping her voice gentle.

“After what I’ve seen,” he swallowed hard, “in France, it’s hard to believe in magical Christmases or prolonged happiness in general. There’s nothing that makes you realize hope and peace are fleeting like patching up the hundredth bleeding soldier on your operating table.” The raw pain in his voice gripped her by the throat and squeezed.

Maria stared at the ice whizzing past their skates, unsure what to say but desperately wanting to help.
Please give me the right words, Lord.
They continued skating around the pond in silence for a few minutes.

“Maybe it’s a little like the star,” she finally blurted out, “the Christmas star.”

His brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”

“Well.” She licked her lips, trying to gather the thoughts tumbling into her mind. “God used it as one of the signs of the birth of His Son, right? But how many people really saw it? How many looked and realized, ‘
This
is the sign of hope we’ve been waiting for.’ Or did more of them simply think it was another ordinary star?” Lifting her chin, Maria met his intent gaze. “Signs of hope are all around us, but we have to see them for what God intended.”

The whoosh of their skates and the distant laughter of children were the only responses. Maria pressed her mouth into a line, fearful she’d overstepped herself. And here she’d hoped ice-skating would prove helpful to Dale.

“Maybe you’re right.”

Her eyes flew to his. “What?”

He slowed their stride until they skated to a stop. “Don’t make me say it again.” The smile in his glance belied his disgruntled words.

She couldn’t let him off that easily, though. “Which part are you referring to, Mr. Emerson?”

“That is for me to know, and you…” He released her hand to tickle her side, causing her to shriek. “You to figure out. Now, help me skate backwards.”

Warmth spread through Maria as she laughed again and twisted away from him. “Only if you can catch me.”

She pushed off and threw him a grin over her shoulder. Too late she turned to find a young boy right behind her. Maria veered to avoid a collision and tripped over a bump in the ice. She hit the frozen pond, hard enough to steal her breath and the happy moment with Dale.

*  *  *

Dale skidded across the ice, dropping to his knees at Maria’s side. “Miss Schmitt? Maria? Are you all right? Anything broken?”

“No. But my leg…”

A quick examination of both her legs showed him exactly where the problem stemmed. Dale could easily surmise what had happened. In her tumble, Maria had nicked her calf with the tip of one of her skates, leaving a bloodied hole in her wool sock.

“Do you think you can stand?”

She bit her lip but nodded.

Dale got his skates underneath him, then helped Maria to her feet. She cried out as she tried to move her injured leg. “Try not to skate on it,” he directed. “Let me pull you.”

She leaned against him as he put his arm around her waist and set off for the edge of the pond. From the corner of his eye, Dale saw two boys watching them with interest.

“Look, it’s a pirate,” one of the boys said loudly, jabbing his companion in the ribs.

“A rather brave, dashing pirate,” Maria murmured.

Not certain he’d heard her right, Dale glanced down to find a small smile on her face despite her pain. He tightened his hold around her as a feeling of pride and protectiveness washed over him. Maria wasn’t just his employee; she’d become his friend and fierce champion.

He couldn’t help wondering why. What did she see in him that perhaps he himself was blinded to? The thought that he might be half-blind to more than the physical world sobered him as much as the thought of Maria in pain.

When they reached the pond’s edge, he carefully lowered her to the ground and knelt next to her. “Will you let me look at your leg?”

“Yes.” She bunched her skirt up to her knee.

He took off her skates and set them aside. “I’ll have to remove your sock, all right?”

She dipped her head in a nod.

As gingerly as possible, Dale slid the wool stocking down her calf. The same creamy skin made his gaze, but something about seeing her uncovered leg stirred his emotions and thoughts in ways her lacy shoulders hadn’t last night. Too bad he hadn’t brought along his mints.

He cleared his throat—and his head—and finished pulling off her sock. Leaning close, he used the sock to dab away enough of the blood that he could get a good look at the wound.

“Is it bad?” Maria asked, glancing from her leg to him.

Dale sat back and shook his head. “I don’t think it’s deep enough to require stitches, but we should get it bandaged.” He glanced past the pond to the nearest house. “I’m going to see what they have at that house over there.”

He took a seat beside her and hurried to exchange his skates for his shoes.

“Thank you…Dale.” When he looked up, he noticed her cheeks were flushed, but he wasn’t sure if it was from the cold, her injury, or embarrassment.

“You’re welcome…Maria.” He liked the way her name rolled so easily off his tongue. “Wait here. I’ll be right back.”

Heading away from the pond, he strode up the road to the closest house. He knocked on the door and waited for someone to answer. A woman, wearing an apron over her clothes, opened the door. A young child was attached to her skirt. The two of them peered curiously at Dale as he explained that he needed a few things for a friend who’d been injured while skating.

The moment he finished speaking, the woman snapped to attention. “Hold on a minute, mister, and I’ll get you what you need.”

Dale waited on the porch, and a few minutes later, she came outside, holding a bottle of iodine, a bandage, and a thermos she said held coffee.

“We sure appreciate it. Thank you.” He left the house and returned to Maria. She’d managed to get on one shoe in his absence.

“What do you have there?” She studied his supplies.

“Everything we need to fix you up.” He passed her the thermos. “Drink this. It’s warm.”

She obliged as he squatted next to her. He administered the iodine using a corner of the bandage. Though she sucked in a sharp breath, Maria didn’t make a fuss. Next, Dale tied the bandage securely around her calf. He slipped her sock back on, then gently helped slide her foot into her other shoe.

“Here. Have some,” she said, passing him the thermos. “You deserve it.”

He chuckled and accepted the coffee. The hot liquid felt good winding down his throat.

“Isn’t this where you tell me I’ll be right as rain?” She threw him an almost impish smile. “Back to ice-skating in no time?”

“You’ll be right as rain. But no more ice-skating for today.” He shook his head in amusement when she pretended to pout. “Just remember, if it doesn’t stop bleeding or you notice any infection, have a doctor look at it.”

“You are a doctor.”

He climbed to his feet. “I meant a real doctor, Maria.”

“You are a real doctor.” He wanted to look away, but she managed to hold his gaze. “You might be a bank manager now, but that doesn’t negate that, according to the diploma in your office, you are a doctor.”

Dale frowned, wanting to argue, though he couldn’t help wondering if she might have a point. “Fine. If any of those things should occur, myself or another doctor should look at your leg. Fair enough?”

A gleam of triumph shone in her violet eyes. “Fair enough.”

“I’m going to return the thermos and see if I can’t find us a cab to take you home.”

“Sorry we weren’t able to relive your childhood for long.”

He picked up the thermos and shot her a smile. “It was fun while it lasted.” And it had been. Skating for the first time in years, watching Maria whirl around the ice with complete abandon, hearing her thoughts on hope. It had been the first day in a very long time when he’d actually allowed himself to feel some happiness.

The realization brought a sudden idea. “I have one other directive. From the doctor,” he added.

Maria cocked her head. “And what is that?”

“Starting Monday, I think we ought to implement some of your ideas on how to help me as a manager. That is, if you have any.”

“Oh, I’ve got plenty of ideas,” she said in a saucy tone.

Dale yanked his cap farther down on his head, suddenly self-conscious. “Am I really that bad?”

“Not at all. I meant what I said to your mother last night.” She offered him a radiant smile. “But if you recall, I promised to help make you great.”

*  *  *

Maria strode with confident steps toward the department store’s double doors, but she stopped when she realized Dale was no longer beside her. Turning, she found him glaring at her and the building in turn.

“What are we doing here?”

“I told you.” She crossed back to him, looped her arm through his, and began tugging him toward the store. “If you want people to respect you as the new bank manager, you have to dress the part.”

Dale plucked his tie from beneath his coat and waved it under her nose. “I
am
dressing the part.”

“An ugly tie is not what I meant.” She cringed when she realized she’d spoken the words out loud.

“You think my tie is ugly?” His footsteps ground to a halt. Maria gave his arm another pull, but she might as well have been trying to move a statue of granite. “Only this one or all of them?” he pressed. She grimaced by way of an answer, causing him to frown. “I see.”

“Dale,” she coaxed in a voice ripe with forced patience. She’d known convincing him to enter the store would be difficult—but not
this
difficult. “The other day at the pond, you agreed to let me help you, using my ideas. This is one of those.”

When he remained stone-faced, Maria released her grip on him. “All right, here’s the truth. You looked very dashing in your full suit at the party. And I realized if you were to dress that way at the bank, the customers may respond differently to you as well.”

He quirked an eyebrow at her, his mouth beginning to curve upward. “You do realize that’s the second time you’ve called me dashing.”

Heat infused Maria’s cheeks, but she didn’t break eye contact. It was about time he realized he wasn’t unpleasant to look at—far from it. “Yes, that’s what I said.”

Dale leaned toward her, the warmth of him momentarily chasing away the cold. “So you’re saying I looked dashing the other night even with an ugly tie on?”

“Actually”—she brought her face closer to his to prove she wasn’t about to back down—“your tie the other night was quite possibly the worst of the bunch. But the suit nearly made up for it.”

“Is that so?” He shortened the distance between them even more. The pleasant scent of his aftershave and his mints wafted past her nose. There were lighter flecks of brown in his hair that she hadn’t noticed before, which glinted in the sun’s dying rays. “Then why would I need to purchase anything except for a few new ties?” He thought he had her, as evidenced by the roguish smile he shot her that set her pulse sputtering.

BOOK: A Christmas Hope
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