Authors: Stacy Henrie
“Most of them are,” Maria countered, her voice somber once more. “Even if we can’t see it.”
What hurts did she harbor behind that perpetually optimistic outlook and biting wit? Dale wanted to ask, but he wasn’t sure she would answer truthfully. At least not yet. “Where did you learn so much about people?” he asked instead.
Some of the gloominess fled her expression. “I like studying them, finding out what makes them happy, what’s important to them.”
She eyed the nearby window, and Dale followed her gaze. A woman moved past the coffeehouse, her body bent into the cold wind, her eyes turned down.
“For instance,” Maria observed quietly, “that woman is in a hurry. Maybe she’s rushing home after a long day of work, at a job she may not have in a few months when all of the soldiers return. She hates the winter weather and something is troubling her. Possibly money worries, since her coat is looking threadbare and a little outdated.”
“Hmm.” Dale met her eyes when she turned from the window. “I’m impressed.” He’d assumed Maria’s friendly interactions with the bank customers stemmed from a desire to be seen as charismatic, but he was beginning to realize he’d been wrong. “What about me?”
“What has your study of me revealed?”
Their cocoa arrived at that moment, and Dale wondered if she’d use that as an excuse not to answer. A possibility he found rather disappointing. He found he was quite curious to know what she thought of him.
They both took a sip of the sweet-smelling liquid, then Maria set down her mug. “You really want to know?”
He feigned a frown, hoping she couldn’t tell how much he did. “That bad, huh?”
She chuckled. “Not all bad.” He raised his brow at her, making her laugh again. “Let’s see. You were an exceptional surgeon and working at a bank isn’t something you ever saw yourself doing.” She wrapped her long fingers around her cup and examined its contents. Dale braced himself. Her next words would likely be as difficult for him to hear as they clearly were for her to say. “You think people only see you for your injury, which is why you often spend so much time in your office.” Her voice came out low, earnest. “But when you smile or feel like you’re really helping someone or talk to people like you did with that boy today, you’re yourself.”
Maria lifted her chin. “I can’t think of anything greater to be than that.”
Her accurate assessment blindsided him, piercing through his defenses and leaving him at a loss as to how to respond. To hide his discomfort, Dale took a long swallow of cocoa. And burned his tongue in the process.
“Can I get some water?” he announced hoarsely as the waitress moved past their table. She nodded and turned back toward the kitchen. “Have you always been this good at reading people?” he asked, hoping to cover his embarrassment over his scalding mouth and her truthful opinion.
Unexpected sorrow lined her pretty face. She sipped more hot chocolate, as if to delay answering as he had moments ago. “I think it may have been a gift I always possessed, but I didn’t use.” Her mouth lifted in a regretful smile. “Up until this year, I don’t know that I cared too much for what others thought or felt, unless it impacted me.”
“What changed that?”
She blew out a sigh and shifted in her seat. “I was…in love. Or so I thought. It was a very painful revelation to find out I wasn’t the one he wanted. But I had the chance to do something to help him, really help him. Even though it meant letting go of any remaining hope I had for us.”
Dale studied her, momentarily caught up in the beauty of her open and vulnerable expression. There was so much more to this woman than he’d suspected on first acquaintance. She was compassionate and strong, and possessed an innate ability to put people at ease, making them laugh or smile or feel understood.
When she paused, he said simply, “But you chose to help him anyway.”
“I did.” She sat upright, her shoulders squared. “Only then did I realize how selfish I’d been, how blind to what was going on around me. That’s when I decided to make a difference in people’s lives. No matter how small.”
The waitress returned with his water and Dale took a good, long gulp before asking, “And the young man?”
“He chose someone else.” Maria gave a nonchalant shrug, but her voice resounded with pain. “I may not have been who he wanted in the end, but I was grateful to finally win his respect.”
Dale recalled her words from the other week when she’d revealed her feelings about being the baby of the family. Maria craved respect as much as he craved acceptance. No wonder she’d been upset at his innocent remarks that first day. He hadn’t taken her position at the bank seriously.
Reaching across the table, he encircled her wrist with his fingers. She glanced at his hand, then up to his face. “You are amazing woman, Maria Schmitt. And any man who doesn’t have respect for that is a fool.”
She licked her lips, drawing his attention to them—again. “Thank you,” she murmured.
He rubbed her wrist with his thumb and felt her pulse quicken beneath his touch. The urge to kiss her, to fully remove the sadness still clinging to her, filled him to near distraction. With great effort, he banished the notion. They were not alone, and he wouldn’t take advantage of her vulnerability.
Needing a diversion, he reached into his vest pocket and pulled out his Life Savers. He extracted two mints from the roll. “Want one in your cocoa?”
A genuine smile lifted Maria’s mouth, as he’d hoped. “Why not?” Dale plunked a mint into each of their mugs. “You really are obsessed with that candy, aren’t you?”
He grinned as he lifted his cup to his mouth and drank a long sip of the mint-laced chocolate, his burnt tongue forgotten. Who would have thought his love of Pep-O-Mints would actually prove comforting and helpful to someone else, like that boy today?
He watched Maria sample her peppermint cocoa and smiled when she breathed a contented sigh. Surely there was something he could do to show her his appreciation for all she’d done to help him. He just had to figure out what.
ine needles scratched her cheek and the strong scent of fir filled her nose as Maria wrestled the Christmas tree through the door and into the bank lobby. She’d eaten her lunch quickly, then walked to the tree lot down the block, a few dollars from Dale tucked into her coat pocket, to finally purchase a tree.
Customers still filled the main room as she propped the fir tree into a corner. Things had been overly busy the past two weeks, but she wasn’t convinced the rapidly approaching Christmas holiday was the sole reason. She suspected the changes in Dale had far more to do with the steady stream of patrons than the time of year.
Instead of sequestering himself in the back office, Dale had begun to venture out into the lobby more, speaking with regular customers as well as those needing to visit with him personally. Their supply of candy canes had nearly been depleted from him offering the treats to nearly every child and adult who walked through the door. But Maria couldn’t fault him too much. His smile matched those of the ones receiving the sweets.
His outward demeanor had changed, too. Though she’d considered him nice-looking when she’d first met him, she couldn’t help being a little in awe of him now. With his new suits and open manner, he exuded confidence. The self-assurance combined with his tall physique and already handsome face made Dale Emerson an attractive force to be reckoned with. One who’d begun to make her heart trip faster each time she saw him.
“Maria.” Lawrence motioned for her to join them behind the teller windows.
A flicker of frustration leapt through her at having to abandon her tree until all the customers had been helped. A small price to pay, she reminded herself, to have things going so well for the bank, and for Dale.
“One moment,” she called to him as she took off her gloves. “I need to find a pail for this tree.”
She pushed through the gate and hurried to the storage room to find a bucket. Her melancholy lingered, though, like the cold on her cheeks. She’d helped Dale as she had promised, and they’d made a good team. There was no reason to feel anything but happy.
But she did. She missed helping Dale, missed talking with him alone, missed doing things outside of the bank. If only she could think up some other task for them to do together.
She located the bucket, then filled it with water from the bathroom sink. Hopefully there’d be time later for her to run to the grocers and buy a few things to decorate the tree.
The heady scent of pine filled the lobby as she returned to her Christmas tree. One of the bank patrons helped her stand the tree up inside the water pail and shift it into the corner, out of the way of the waiting customers.
With a final look at the glorious fir, Maria went to sit at her teller window. She mustered her way through helping several of the bank patrons, bidding them what she hoped was a convincing “Merry Christmas” at the conclusion of their business.
“How may I help you, sir?” A middle-aged man, holding a knit cap between his chapped hands, approached her window.
“I need to see the bank manager.”
Maria darted a glance at the closed door of the front office—Dale was still meeting with Mrs. Rothland, one of their most prestigious clients. “He’s busy at the moment. Would you mind waiting?” She waved to the chairs beside the lobby window.
A look of disappointment settled onto the man’s face. “I can’t stay long. I’m on my lunch break, from the meat factory.”
She eyed the door again and stood. “Give me one moment.” Perhaps Dale was almost done, though she doubted it. Mrs. Rothland was never in a hurry when she came to the bank. Maria stepped swiftly into the lobby and knocked on the office door.
“Come in,” Dale said from inside before she opened the door.
He lifted his gaze from where he sat at his desk, his face instantly brightening.
“There’s man here to see you.” Maria stepped into the small room. “He’s only able to wait a short time before he has to get back to the meat factory.”
“Do you know what it’s about?”
Maria shook her head. Dale looked to the papers before him, then at Mrs. Rothland. “Would you excuse me, ma’am? I’ll be right back.”
The well-dressed woman frowned but inclined her head. Maria hoped for Dale’s sake the other customer didn’t take too much of his time away from Mrs. Rothland.
He followed her out the door and shut it behind him. “Which customer?”
Maria indicated the man standing near the window.
“I don’t want to upset Mrs. Rothland by helping someone else, but if he can’t wait…” Dale studied the man for a moment. “Why don’t you help him?”
“Me?” Maria pivoted to face him. “He wants to see the manager. I’m a clerk.”
“You’re more than a clerk,” he argued with a smile. “Look what you’ve done to help me and the bank these last few weeks.” He leaned toward her, one hand lightly touching her elbow. Warmth tingled through her dress sleeve and up her arm. “Besides, I overheard what you emphatically announced to Lawrence and James the other day.”
Maria’s cheeks grew warm. She’d told the twins she didn’t think it would be long before women were running banks, not just clerking in them.
“Maria, I have full confidence in your ability to help him.” He gave her arm a gentle squeeze, then waved to the chairs across the lobby. “Pull those into the corner over there. That should give you a little privacy. If I finish with Mrs. Rothland before you’re done, I’ll come see if you have any questions.”
He was really going to let her meet with the man. Surprise and anticipation bubbled up within her. “You’re sure?”
Dale laughed. The deep, resounding sound sent a wave of pleasure through her middle. “Yes. If you’ll show me—and
—that confidence and charm you’re so famous for.”
“Very well.” She spun on her heel and straightened her shoulders.
“By the way,” he murmured, “I like the tree.”
His encouraging tone and his belief in her abilities sent her pulse dancing. She longed to turn and meet the intense look she felt leveled at her back. To feel his hand on her arm again, to see if he felt the attraction growing between them as she did. But she forced her feet forward instead of back. She had a job to do first. One that suddenly filled her with more excitement than decorating the bare tree she passed as she marched, head held high, across the lobby.
* * *
“Mr. Emerson let you help someone with a mortgage?” James twisted on his stool to face Maria.
She nodded in answer, then thanked the woman at her window. When the patron walked away, Maria turned around, her lips still creased in a permanent smile. “The man works at the meat factory and wants to get a place of his own, instead of living in a boardinghouse.” She could relate. Though clean and respectable, her single room didn’t make a home.
The meeting with the man had gone even better than she’d expected. He’d been reluctant at first to discuss his financial wishes with her, but Maria had won him over by commiserating over the ills of boardinghouse living. Before long, he relaxed his rigid stance in the chair and began to talk.
She’d drawn up the paperwork herself, after procuring the necessary pages from Dale’s office. But she had yet to tell him how well everything had gone, how she kept turning over the incident in her mind like a rare jewel she couldn’t believe she suddenly owned.
“Well, good for you, Maria.” James pushed his glasses up his nose. “Would you want to do it again?”
“Do what again?” Dale asked as he moved through the door. He fingered his tie, no doubt to loosen it, until he caught Maria’s pointed look.
She straightened on her stool. “We were talking about helping with mortgages and loans.”
“I see.” Weariness seeped from him.
Peering through the bars of her teller window, Maria caught sight of Mrs. Rothland exiting the bank in all her winter finery. “Did you just finish up with her?”
Dale grimaced and inclined his head in a nod.
“Your uncle always had to take a short break after his meetings with Mrs. Rothland.” She shot him a sympathetic smile. “If you want some cocoa or coffee to restore your spirits, I can run and get some.”
“I’ll take some,” Lawrence interjected from his stool. “Even the sight of that old biddy saps my energy.”
Maria ignored him as she added, “I‘d like to buy some things to decorate the Christmas tree anyway.”
“Speaking of meetings, how did yours go?” Dale asked.
She pressed her hands together, the thrill of doing something unconventional filling her anew. “It went really—”
Someone cleared his throat and Maria turned to see a customer standing at her teller window. She considered asking James or Lawrence to help him instead. If she could snatch a moment alone with Dale and reassure him of the success of her meeting, perhaps he’d let her do it again sometime. But the patrons came first, she told herself with a soft sigh, which meant setting aside her own desires to be of assistance.
Managing a friendly smile, she asked the man how she might be of help. The moment his business concluded, though, another patron stepped up to take his place. Soon the bank was teeming with people again.
Her opportunity to talk with Dale never reappeared as she and the twins worked steadily through the afternoon. At one point, Dale pulled on his coat and announced he’d be back shortly. Maria watched him hold the door open for a woman and her two children, then slip outside. Some of her earlier excitement seemed to leave with him.
She hoped the days ahead wouldn’t all be like this one, leaving her and Dale with few opportunities to talk alone or banter back and forth. While more customers meant more chances to possibly do other things besides clerking, she didn’t relish the thought of so little time with Dale.
By the time the last patron left the bank, Maria no longer felt full of anticipation. Dale hadn’t returned from wherever he’d gone, and a glance at the Christmas tree in the lobby only furthered her cheerlessness. It would likely be several more days before she could steal away long enough to decorate the tree. And the holiday would be upon them in a week.
She pulled on her coat and bade the twins good-bye. They’d volunteered to stay behind until Dale came back and locked up. The cold bit through her scarf as Maria stepped out of the bank. Streetlamps dropped pools of light into the lengthening darkness. She started down the sidewalk toward the boardinghouse when a familiar voice called to her from behind.
She spun around to see Dale moving toward her, his arms full of boxes.
“Christmas shopping already?”
He chuckled. “Not exactly. Are you headed home?”
A hint of disappointment passed over his face. “I would’ve been back sooner, but I had to go crawling in the attic to find these things.”
Maria moved to his side. “What things?”
“Tree ornaments. Lights.”
She raised her eyes to his, pleasant surprise warming her frozen face. First the chance to do more than clerk today and now this. “You brought those…for me?”
He shrugged. “You said you didn’t have things to decorate the tree yet, and we’ve been busy all day.”
Maria wanted so badly to go up on tiptoe and kiss those masculine lips in appreciation. But she feared Dale’s reaction or someone seeing them. So she contented herself with tucking her arm through his and pulling him toward the bank. New energy heated her from head to toe, driving out the cold.
“I thought you were going home,” he teased.
Maria threw him a full smile as she steered him through the door. “Not when we have a tree to decorate.”
* * *
“What do you think?” Dale stepped back and surveyed the tree, now aglow with the electric lights he’d brought from home. Lawrence and James had departed an hour earlier, leaving him and Maria to fix up the tree alone. Not that he had any objection.
Maria pressed a finger to her lips and analyzed their handiwork. “I’ve never seen a tree lit with anything but candles.” She cocked her head to one side. “But I like it. Very much.”
The smile she bestowed on him rivaled the lights of the tree, causing Dale’s chest to swell with pride. He’d been contemplating for a week how he could reciprocate her kindness toward him. Things at the bank had never been better and Dale owed most of the credit to Maria.
Asking her to assist the man earlier today with his mortgage had been a good start at thanking her, as evidenced by Maria’s pleased expression when Dale had suggested it. But his efforts to help her decorate her tree had proven to be the greater show of appreciation, judging by the happiness radiating from her.
“So you were saying?” She knelt on the floor beside one of the ornament boxes. “I can help out with more of the mortgages?”
Dale chuckled and adjusted a strand of lights so it would hang better on the branch. “All work and no play.”
“Not at all. As I see it, we’re accomplishing both.” He caught her smug smile as he turned around.
“You enjoyed it that much?”
She lifted out one of the crocheted stars his mother had made years ago. “It was different than helping customers as a clerk. It felt…” She set the star in her lap and fingered the edge. “More important somehow. Like I had a hand in helping that man grab ahold of his future. His dreams.”
Dale studied her bent head, thinking not for the first time how much he liked her hair. Even short, it was beautiful and perfectly suited to her. “I don’t know that I’ve thought of it like that, but you’re right.” He hoisted the other box of ornaments from off the floor. “I suppose in a way it’s a little like performing surgery. With both, you’re hoping to secure a person’s future.”
“Oh dear.” Maria’s tone rang with amusement. “Did Dale Emerson favorably compare being a surgeon to being a bank manager?”
He laughed as he pulled a colored ball from the box and placed it on the tree. “Guilty.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” The warmth and sincerity in her voice sounded every bit as sweet as his mint Life Savers tasted. “These ornaments are beautiful.”
“My mother made many of them.”
“Did she decorate your tree, too?”