Authors: Stacy Henrie
She’d do well to remember Dale wasn’t just a friend; he was also her boss. No matter how much she was beginning to enjoy his company, both in and out of the bank. The sting of Friedrick’s rejection had dulled, but it had also made her cautious. She would not lay her heart at the feet of another man unless she was absolutely certain that man returned her affections completely.
“The reason you need more than new ties, Dale, is that the whole outfit makes the man.” She latched on to his arm again. “Now come on.”
He released a low growl of disapproval, but he allowed her to lead him into the building. Inside, Maria steered him in the direction of the men’s department. A middle-aged woman approached, smiling. “May I help you?”
“My boss is in need of several full suits. Jacket, vest, trousers, tie, everything.”
“Oh.” The woman glanced at Dale, clearly seeking confirmation.
He glowered at Maria, then pushed out a long breath. “She is correct.”
“Do you know your measurements?” the store clerk asked.
Dale gave a curt nod.
“Very well.” The kind smile appeared once more. “We’ll get started then. If you’ll follow me, sir.”
As he trailed the woman toward a screened partition, he tossed another pointed glare at Maria. She smiled sweetly in return and settled into a nearby chair to await his transformation from slovenly to stylish.
After more than a few minutes of drumming her fingernails against the chair arm, a movement near the partition caught her eye and she stood. Dale slipped from behind the screen, dressed in a light brown suit with a matching vest and a chocolate-colored tie.
He held his hands out as if in surrender. “Well?”
Maria came up behind him as he went to stand in front of the nearby mirror. “Much better.”
“But not dashing?” He watched her through the mirror, his expression riddled with amusement.
Good grief, her earlier compliments had gone straight to his head. She certainly wasn’t about to admit he looked even more dashing today than he had at his uncle’s party. “What do you think?” she countered.
He flexed his arms, then straightened the jacket and tie. “It’s not bad. Maybe wearing a full suit to work won’t be so uncomfortable.”
Maria suppressed a grin. It was a victory, however small.
Still, she wanted him to appreciate himself in a new suit, not merely go along with her idea because she’d pushed him. “You should buy it, but I think you need one more…” She spun around and eyed the other suits on display. While the light brown one worked well with his dark hair, another color might produce the striking combination she hoped to achieve.
“Try this one.” She selected a dark blue suit and handed it to him. “And for a tie…” A nearby table held rows of neatly folded ties.
The saleswoman selected one and held it up for Maria’s approval. “Might I suggest the navy and white stripe for the gentleman?”
“Yes, perfect.” She passed the tie to Dale as well.
He examined the articles of clothing with a skeptical look.
“Both are very popular choices,” the saleswoman added. Maria couldn’t help wondering what she thought of her and Dale’s rather casual manner as employer and employee.
With a roll of his eyes, he ducked back behind the screen, the new items in hand. Maria returned to her seat. Would he like this suit better? Would it convince him she was right about how a bank manager ought to dress?
At last, Dale rounded the screen, his gaze on her. “Is this one better?”
The moisture fled Maria’s mouth, forcing her to swallow, as she gawked at him. Thank goodness she was seated. Otherwise her knees would have bowed under the shock of what she was seeing. The man before her looked like Dale, but in the new suit, he appeared decidedly more confident, even handsomer. She couldn’t wait for the bank patrons to see him dressed like this.
Once her initial astonishment had worn off, she hopped to her feet and swiped up a dark blue hat. Dale was still waiting for her answer. “You need one more thing.” She placed the hat at an angle on his head, then taking him by the shoulders, she turned him toward the mirror. “Now…you look dashing.”
Dale studied his reflection, his countenance revealing nothing of what he thought. He tipped his hat a little lower and turned from one side to the other. Maria remained behind him, one hand still holding his arm.
At last he muttered, “You win.”
Victory surged through Maria as she caught his eye in the mirror. She bent forward, one hand cupping her ear. “I’m sorry. What was that?”
He twisted to face her, an amused glint in his gaze that set her heart skipping chaotically. It was the same feeling of anticipation, of breathlessness, she’d experienced when he’d caught her on his first day at the bank, or placed his hand on her waist in his office, or peeled away her sock when she’d hurt herself skating.
“I said you win. I’ll buy them. The suits. The ties.”
“I knew it.” She laughed and started to pull away from him, but Dale captured her hand in his.
“You did not,” he argued, his smile almost mischievous. He brushed a curl from her face, his fingers lingering a moment longer than necessary before he lowered his hand.
Any clever remarks fled Maria’s head at his gentle touch. All she could think about was the sudden need to lay her hand against his strong-looking jaw. Something about Dale compelled her to be near him. To bask in the refreshment of his smile, the strength of his presence, the ease of his friendship. She took a step toward him, her feet bumping his.
“I figured you’d see things my way,” she half whispered, “eventually.” His smile deepened, then he glanced at her mouth. She hadn’t been kissed in ages, and never by someone she thought might like her as much as she did him.
A delicate cough from the saleswoman broke the tension between them. Ignoring the blush burning on her face, Maria pulled away.
Was that disappointment she saw in Dale’s glance? She wouldn’t analyze it, at least not yet.
“Get your things.” She gave him a gentle shove toward the screen. “You can wear the suit out of the store.”
f their own accord, Dale’s fingers reached up to pluck at his new tie as he pushed through the swinging gate into the lobby. The lunch crowd had dwindled to nothing and now the building echoed with relative quiet. Save for the scraping of the ladder as Maria maneuvered it across the floor to remove her Thanksgiving cornucopias from the ceiling.
“I see you’ve figured out how to use that thing without falling off of it,” he said, coming to a stop beside the ladder. Although he wouldn’t mind if he had to catch her a third time.
She threw him a haughty look as she reached for the final cornucopia. “And I see you’ve loosened your tie again.”
Dale pushed out an irritated sigh and tightened the knot at his throat. As much as he still despised the chokehold, he had to admit the new suit had actually improved things. The few customers he’d personally helped today had seemed less aware of his eye patch.
While he hated to confess the importance of appearance, Maria had been right about dressing the part of a manager. In his full suit and striped tie, he could almost visualize himself at home here in the bank.
“It looks better that way,” she chirped as she climbed down from the ladder, her hands full of cornucopias.
Dale stepped around her to fold up the ladder. “How do you plan to decorate for Christmas?” Initially he hadn’t been too thrilled about the approaching holiday, but he found the more time he spent with Maria, the more contagious her enthusiasm became.
Maria pursed her lips as she studied the lobby. “I want a tree, of course, and a wreath for the door. Maybe some pine boughs to decorate the teller windows.”
“A tree? In the lobby?”
“Yes, Dale, a real Christmas tree in the lobby.” She stepped closer and peered up at him beneath her long, dark lashes. “Pretty please?”
He half forced a chuckle, if only to rid the thought of kissing her from his mind. “What can I say, I’m only the manager.”
She grinned in triumph.
“I’ll put the ladder away.”
* * *
Maria couldn’t help watching Dale as he strolled toward the storage room, the ladder gripped in one hand. The memory of them almost kissing the day before in the department store had her breath catching in her throat. She was falling for him. And it wasn’t just the way he looked in his new brown suit. Beneath that sometimes gruff exterior was a kind, capable, lionhearted man. But did she dare let her feelings show? The last time she had, she’d ended up alone and hurting.
Not ready to face the answer to her question yet, she went to place her cornucopias behind the teller windows. She only made it through the gate before the sudden cry of a child had her whirling around, startled.
A mother knelt on the floor, a sobbing child in her arms. “It’s okay, Johnny. Just let me see your finger.”
Maria moved quickly back through the gate, Dale right behind her. “What happened?” he asked her.
“I don’t know.”
He stopped beside the mother. “Is everything all right, ma’am?”
“It’s my son. He caught his finger in the door when we came in.” The mother rubbed a hand against the boy’s back. “But he won’t let me see it.”
“May I?” Dale held out his hand.
At the woman’s questioning glance, Maria spoke up. “He’s a doctor.”
The woman pried the boy from her shoulder and twisted him toward Dale. “Let the man see your finger, Johnny.”
The boy regarded Dale and immediately cemented himself to his mother’s side, his wet eyes wide. Despite the boy’s response, Dale squatted down beside the child and reached into his pocket.
“I’m Mr. Emerson, Johnny. And I think I may have an extra Pep-O-Mint somewhere in here.”
Maria watched with as much fascination as the boy as Dale made a show of searching each pocket of his jacket and trousers. Each time his hand came up empty, the boy inched a little farther from his mother.
Finally Dale produced a roll of the mints from his vest pocket. “There they are. I don’t suppose you like mint Life Savers, do you?”
Johnny’s shoulders still shuddered from his earlier sobs, but he dipped his head in a nod, his gaze riveted on the candy.
“Then you take this one.” Dale removed a mint and set it on the boy’s open palm. “Do you think your mother would like one, too?”
The boy didn’t even spare his mother a look as he popped the candy into his mouth and nodded again. Dale chuckled and passed a mint to the woman.
“Thank you, Mr. Emerson.” Her words were tinged with more than gratitude for the mint.
Maria inched closer, the memory of Dale helping her after she’d hurt her leg filling her mind. She could easily recall the way his skilled hands and calm touch had eased the pain.
He gestured to Johnny’s injured hand, still clutched in a tight fist. “Can I have a look at that finger of yours?”
Johnny hesitated another second, then stuck out his hand for Dale’s examination. He uncurled the boy’s fist as he asked him, “How old are you, Johnny?”
The mint shifted to one side of the boy’s cheeks as he answered, “Seven.”
“Seven? Are you sure? I thought you must be at least nine.”
Johnny’s small chest puffed out with pride. “I’ll be eight next month.”
“That must be it.” Dale studied the bloodied tip of the boy’s index finger. “You looked like you were about to turn a year older.”
The boy’s mother shot Dale a grateful smile, one he didn’t seem to notice in his inspection of the hurt finger, but Maria saw it. And it both thrilled and saddened her.
Dale did have a way with people, especially when doing what he loved most—helping to heal their hurts. Being a bank manager wasn’t what he was meant to do. Maria could see that so plainly now. No wonder his words were tinged with bitterness whenever he talked about being a doctor. And yet he was trying so hard to do his new job. Even when it meant denying a large part of himself that would never go away.
“I believe your finger will be just fine, Johnny.” Dale sat back on his heels, his arms loosely draped over his knees. “He might lose the nail,” he informed the boy’s mother, “and the skin will likely be black and blue for a while, but he’s going to be fine.”
The woman stood as Dale did. “Thank you, again, Mr. Emerson. Can you tell the man thank you, Johnny?”
“Thank you,” the boy managed to say around his slobbery Life Saver.
Dale nodded and tucked his hands into his pockets. “You are most welcome—and quite brave, young man. I would’ve put up a real fuss had that been my finger.”
The boy grinned.
“If you’ll excuse me now, ma’am. Johnny.” He tipped his head at each of them. “Miss Schmitt here can help you with your banking needs.”
“My window’s the one on the far left there,” Maria told the woman before she hurried after Dale, a new idea forming in her mind. While she was powerless to help Dale return to his real calling as a doctor, she could do all in her power to make his new life easier.
“I have someplace I want to take you after closing,” she said, catching up to him.
“Does it involve another store?”
He pushed out a sigh. “I can hardly wait.” But his sarcasm didn’t quite match the light in his gaze. Making Maria wonder if he was looking forward to this next outing for more than what it might mean for his job.
* * *
Warm air, scented with sugar and happiness, wrapped itself around Dale as he entered the candy shop behind Maria. More times than he could count during his summer visits to Uncle Lester and Aunt Evie, he’d pressed his nose to this very store window to watch the taffy machine or brought in a handful of sweaty pennies and nickels to buy a treat.
Dale stepped to the display case, its shelves and top lined with every sweet imaginable. “If I’d known this was the store you had in mind, I wouldn’t have spent the last hour in anxious agony.”
Maria rolled her eyes, but a smile lit up her windblown cheeks. “That would have ruined the surprise. Is this where you buy all those Life Saver rolls you keep in your pocket?”
He ran a finger across the smooth glass surface of the display case. The colorful confections made his mouth water, even though he’d eaten a late lunch. “My mother had already acquired a stash of the Pep-O-Mints before I came home. But I frequented Morley’s shop when I visited my aunt and uncle as a kid.”
At that moment Quinton Morley himself entered the shop from a side door. “May I help y—” His eyes doubled in size as they alighted on Dale. Excitement at seeing the shopkeeper overrode his typical uneasiness about his eye patch. He grinned at the old man.
“Dale?” The man continued to gawk at him, causing the smile on Dale’s face to slip. He fisted his hand inside his trouser pocket. But Mr. Morley’s next words had him unclenching his fingers. “Why, if it isn’t little Dale Emerson. Back in my shop after all these years.” The gray-haired man extended his hand across the counter.
Smiling once more, Dale shook the man’s hand. “Good to see you, Mr. Morley. I didn’t know you and your wife were still running the place.”
A shadow crossed the man’s face. “Only me now, Dale. Mrs. Morley passed away last year. The influenza took her.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Memories of Mrs. Morley’s fresh-from-the-oven samples and even warmer smile filled his thoughts. “But you kept the shop going?”
“That I did.” His somber expression softened. “Eleanor made me promise not to forget to give out the caramel morsels on Tuesdays that all you kids loved.” His gaze flitted past Dale and came to rest on Maria. “Hello there. Are you with Dale?”
“I’m Maria Schmitt.” She stepped forward to shake his hand. “Dale is the manager of the bank where I work.”
“Manager? Is that your uncle’s bank?”
“Yes.” Dale returned his focus to the display case, bracing himself for questions. Morley and his wife had known Dale had gone to medical school.
“Well, what do you know? The dark-eyed imp with a penchant for peppermints is now a bank manager.” Pride colored Morley’s tone, and Dale relaxed once more. “Now what I can get you two?” the man asked as he retied the ends of the apron covering his clothes.
“How much for your candy canes?” Maria tapped her finger lightly against a large jar of the striped sticks.
“Two cents apiece,” Morley recited.
“I mean how much for the entire lot, including the jar.”
Dale laughed at her request. They didn’t need an entire jar of candy canes.
Morely’s eyebrows rose to his gray hairline. “You want the whole jar?” When Maria nodded, he shrugged and scratched at his stubbled chin. “I’ll sell you the whole lot of them, for say…four dollars?”
“We’ll take it.” She threw Dale an expectant look, her eyes gleaming with equal parts victory and mischief.
“I’m buying?” He halfheartedly balked, though he was already pulling out his billfold.
“Better do what your lady there says, Dale.” The man winked conspiratorially at Maria. “That’s something I learned in nearly thirty years of marriage.”
Dale wanted to correct the man’s mistake about Maria being his, but she was already hefting the heavy jar herself. He paid Morley, promised to return soon, then took the jar from Maria’s grip as they left the heat of the shop for the biting cold outdoors.
He allowed a minute or two of silence to pass between them, waiting for her to explain the reason for the odd purchase. But Maria simply matched his strides down the sidewalk. After another minute, he stopped. “All right. Will you please tell me why I am now the owner of an entire jar of candy canes? What does this have to do with helping me as the bank manager?”
Maria drew her coat collar tighter around her scarf, her lips curved into a smile. “Buy me some hot chocolate at the coffeehouse down the street and I’ll tell you.”
“Do you always get what you want?” he remarked with amusement.
Instead of deepening her smile as he’d hoped, his words seemed to steal the merriment from her face, replacing it with an uncharacteristic seriousness. “Not always.”
Regret filled him, though Dale wasn’t sure why his teasing had saddened her. “Come on, then. This jar is getting heavy.”
He offered her his elbow by way of apology. After a moment of hesitation, Maria linked her arm through his. Even though she wore a hat snuggly over her hair, she walked close enough to him that the tantalizing scent of flowers filled his senses. He had to force himself not to investigate the smell further by burying his nose in her dark curls.
When they reached the coffeehouse, he released her to hold open the door. The windows inside were foggy from the warm, coffee-fragranced air. After selecting a table, Dale placed the enormous jar at his elbow and shed his coat and hat. Maria removed her winter things as she settled into the seat across from him.
Once they’d ordered two mugs of hot chocolate, Dale gestured to the candy canes. “How is this candy is going to help things at the bank? Are you planning on using them to decorate your tree?”
Maria shook her head, making her curls sway. “A wonderful idea, but no. You’re going to give the candy to the children who come to the bank.” She bent forward over her folded arms. “And talk to their parents.”
“I do talk to their parents.”
“I know.” Her look seemed to imply something deeper than agreement. “I meant more like you did with Johnny today. All those questions you asked him about himself.”
Dale tapped his thumb against the edge of the table. “I was only trying to make him less frightened, so he’d let me look at his finger.”
Maria’s face lit up as if he’d promised her all the Christmas trees in the world. “Exactly. You can do the same with all the bank patrons, whether they’re young or old. Just talk to them as if they were that boy. Ask them questions about their lives, put them at ease.”
He stilled his hand as he considered her suggestion. Easing the boy’s discomfort today had been second nature, as it had been when he’d helped Maria at the ice-skating pond. He’d seen a need, knew he could meet it, and jumped in, oblivious to what anyone thought of his missing eye. Could he do the same with someone who wasn’t in pain or frightened?
“It’d be easier if they were hurting,” he half joked.