Authors: Stacy Henrie
“With the help of me and my father, when he was alive.” He hung another ball on a branch, the happy memories of Christmases past filling his mind.
“When my siblings and I were little, my mother was the one who decorated our tree—secretly, of course.” Maria carefully removed more ornaments from the box. “We didn’t even bring the tree into the house until Christmas Eve.”
“Perhaps we should wait until then,” Dale suggested.
Laughter floated over to him, feminine yet strong and full of delight. Like Maria herself. “Absolutely not. I can’t wait another day to make this tree look spectacular.” She stood, her hands full, and came up beside him to hang the decorations on the tree.
Companionable quiet filled the bank. And peace. That’s what Dale felt in this moment with Maria. No apprehension over his injury, no regret over the past, no concern over the future. Tonight, he simply felt contentment. At being alive, at being home, at being here with Maria.
He studied her profile as she bent to pull more ornaments from the other box, admiring the gentle slope of her nose and the purse of her full lips in concentration. From that first day, when he’d caught her as she fell off the ladder, he’d been struck by how different she was from any other woman he’d ever met. Her ability to see beyond his injury left him feeling awed and strangely free.
The inquiry shattered some of Dale’s peace, both within and without. “Why do you want to know?’ he asked as casually as he could.
“Because the back of this heart reads, ‘To Dale with all my love, now and forever, Felicity.’” She slowly stood.
He’d forgotten about the ornament Felicity had given him one Christmas when he’d been home from medical school. The memory filled him with a degree of sadness, more for Felicity than himself.
“Felicity was…sort of my fiancée,” he said, placing the wooden star in his hand on the tree. “I met her before I went to medical school. We talked about getting married after the war.”
your fiancée?” Maria repeated softly.
“I ended things between us when I came home last month.”
Maria stepped toward him. “That must have been hard, for both of you.”
He lifted his shoulder in a shrug, though her assessment couldn’t have been more correct. “It was for the best. Her family is quite prominent here in Sioux City and very wealthy. I was no longer able give her the life she was used to, like I might have as a surgeon.” Dale reached into his box and removed another ornament. With little thought to what it was, he stuck the decoration on the tree. “I didn’t think her society circles would appreciate one of their own having an injured husband and a poor one to boot.”
“Dale…” Maria placed her hand on his arm, the feel of it warm and comforting through his jacket sleeve. “I don’t know what to say.”
He smirked. “I believe that’s a first.”
A half smile lifted her mouth, but she didn’t banter back as he’d expected. Instead she released his sleeve, much to his disappointment, and passed him Felicity’s ornament. But she didn’t let go of her end until he looked at her. An almost pained expression flitted across her face before it hardened with determination. “Did you love her? Because if you did, she might have surprised you with her strength if you’d let her.”
He considered the question for a long moment. Had he truly loved Felicity? “I think in the beginning I did. But over time, being away from each other so much, I think we came to love the idea of us—her the belle of the city and me a renowned surgeon.” Dale glanced down at the heart before letting it drop into his box. “She was sad, but I don’t think she was heartbroken.”
They returned to working in easy silence, and before long the tree could hold no more. Dale added his empty box to Maria’s nearly empty one, then turned to view their handiwork.
“It needs one more thing,” she said, studying the tree, her hands draped on her hips.
“I doubt you could squeeze a walnut in between all that decoration.”
She shook her head, her eyes sparking with amusement. “No. We need to turn off the other lights.” After switching off the lights in the lobby and the front office, she returned to his side. “It looks perfect.”
Dale had to admit the tree did look festive. The electric lights bathed the ornaments and evergreen boughs in a soft, colored glow, bringing beauty and symmetry to the decorated tree. A movement out the window caught his attention and he nudged Maria gently with his elbow. “It’s snowing.”
Large, lazy flakes drifted down from the sky, alighting on the window and sidewalk outside. “
, it’s perfect.” Maria moved around him to look at the snow. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
He shifted his gaze from the falling snow to her enraptured face as he murmured, “Yes, it is.” In the half-light, the sight of her large violet eyes and creamy skin filled him with a longing to hold her in his arms, for real this time.
She glanced at him and he shifted his stance toward the window to hide his embarrassment at being caught staring. “Can I ask you something?”
His heart sped faster, but for what reason, Dale didn’t know. He reminded himself he felt more comfortable talking to Maria than anyone else he knew. The dim light was also emboldening, filling him with courage to voice whatever she wanted to hear.
“Yes,” he finally answered.
“How did it happen? With your eye?”
He pulled in a deep breath and released it slowly, regret and pain churning in his stomach. “I was working near the front lines when we came under fire.”
The scene before him changed, from peaceful snow settling over the city to the burst of shells above the hospital. “An ambulance had just arrived and I was helping get the patients out, away from the shelling. We had only one more patient to evacuate.”
He swallowed as the stillness of the bank receded to the clamoring noise of his memories. “I had my hand on his stretcher, ready to pull it out, when an orderly asked me a question. The second I finished answering and turned back to help, there was a horrific explosion.” Dale had to push the next words out of his mouth. “The soldier on the stretcher didn’t survive the blast.”
The recollections gripped him as freshly as if they’d just happened. “I escaped with a few minor burns…and a piece of debris lodged in my left eye. They told me the eye would have to be removed, but I still held out hope that I wouldn’t lose it altogether. Maybe it wasn’t as damaged as they’d thought.”
Dale ran a hand over his face to dislodge the tight hold of remembering. “Even now, with nothing there, I still find myself wondering if something else could have been done…”
Maria’s hand, cool and soft, touched his cheek, urging him to turn. Slowly Dale pivoted to face her. Her slender fingers slid up his jaw to the strap attached to his patch. Fear pounded in his veins, but he felt powerless to stop her as she slipped the eye patch from off his head and lowered it to her side. Dale shut his good eye. He didn’t want to read the disgust he was certain he’d find in her expression at seeing the hastily sewn eyelid.
After a few moments, her fingertips returned to his jaw. Ever so gently, they explored the left side of his face. Not in horror, he realized with a start, but with tenderness and compassion.
Dale released the breath he’d been holding, though he kept his good eye shut. His heart still drummed rapidly within his chest, but it wasn’t from fear this time. Maria’s soothing touch stirred hope and yearning deep inside him. The rock-hard resentment he’d allowed to build around his heart began to melt away beneath her gentle caress.
No longer was he a man known only for his injury, but a man admired by a beautiful and wonderful woman. An even more startling and humbling thought entered his mind. If he hadn’t lost his eye, he wouldn’t have come home and taken over managing his uncle’s bank. Which meant he wouldn’t be standing here with Maria now.
* * *
He caught hold of her hand and linked his fingers with hers. There was something else he had to say. “I could’ve saved that man’s life, Maria. If I hadn’t paused to talk to the orderly, if I’d moved faster…”
“Perhaps,” she answered, her voice soft and calming. “But he might have died later, Dale. Did you get a look at his injuries?”
Dale searched his memory, then shook his head.
“You can’t ask what if. Believe me, I’ve tried.” Her laughter was laced with sorrow. “You were doing all you could in that moment to be the best doctor you could be, helping the patients, answering a pressing question. And that’s all you could do. You aren’t responsible for more than that.”
Her simple words flowed through him like a cleansing river, carrying away his guilt and regret.
The sudden press of her lips against his cheek sparked fire in him, even in the cooling temperature of the bank. He opened his eye to find her watching him, her gaze guileless, hopeful, uncertain.
A fierce longing to kiss her swept over him, but before he could pull her close and act on his wish, Maria closed his fingers around his eye patch and fell back a step. “I’d better be going.”
The absence of her usual confidence surprised Dale until a new revelation rocked him. Maria feared
Could he convince her that he wanted to explore this magnetic pull between them, even when he felt he had so little to offer?
“I’ll walk you to the boardinghouse,” he volunteered, eager to spend as much time as possible with her before they parted.
Maria shook her head as she pulled on her winter things. “You’re headed in the opposite direction, and it isn’t far.” The pleading note behind her causal words silenced any further argument on his part. For whatever reason, she wanted to be alone.
“The tree looks amazing. Thank you for your help, Dale.” She moved to the door.
“It was a fine idea to have a tree.” He searched his mind for a way to restore the intimacy of the evening as he drew on his coat and hat. He didn’t want her thinking she had anything to be embarrassed about.
“Good night.” Maria opened the door, letting in a brisk breeze and a flurry of snowflakes.
Another snatch of conversation he’d heard between her and the twins repeated through his head, giving him an idea. “Maria?”
She spun around, as if she’d only been waiting for him to call her back.
Dale smiled at the thought. “Are you free to go dancing with me this Saturday evening?”
Her own smile reflected relief and pleasure. “I would very much love to go dancing with you on Saturday. See you tomorrow, Dale.”
“Tomorrow,” he echoed. He grinned foolishly as he watched her leave the bank, feeling lighter than he had in weeks.
erry Christmas,” Dale called out to the mailman, who was stuffing envelopes into their mailbox. Probably holiday cards from friends and family. The older gentleman smiled kindly and returned the greeting, both gestures devoid of pity, before moving down the sidewalk.
In a few short hours, Dale would collect Maria at her boardinghouse on their way to the public dance hall. He’d been looking forward to taking her dancing for the past four days. The anticipation brought a smile to his face as he went to collect the mail. A month ago he would’ve loathed the idea of going somewhere as public as a dance hall. But now…He no longer minded the lingering stares from bank patrons or those on the street. None of that mattered when he was with Maria.
He gathered up the envelopes from inside their box and carried them up the walk he’d shoveled earlier. There’d been little time to talk with Maria, alone, since they’d decorated the bank’s Christmas tree earlier in the week. Dale was grateful for the busyness, but he’d had to come up with more and more excuses to walk past her. To witness that impish glint in her eyes that said she knew exactly what he was doing. Or her radiant smile when he turned over several more mortgage clients to her.
He was falling for her, plain and simple, and hoped she felt the same. If her actions the other night, the kiss on his cheek especially, were any indication of her feelings, Dale suspected they matched his own. She’d been hurt in the past but he hoped to show her, that unlike her last beau, he didn’t want someone different. He wanted her, and her alone.
Entering the house, he went to sit in a chair by the parlor fire to peruse the mail. As he’d suspected, most of the letters and cards were from friends back in Michigan and distant relatives in other parts of the country. Dale would let his mother read them first. Near the bottom of the stack, the name
Dr. John Abrams
jumped out at him and set his heart thudding.
Dale tore open the envelope, doing his best to convince himself his old professor wasn’t likely to have good news. But he couldn’t completely squelch the hope building inside him as he began to read the two-page letter.
Dr. Abrams expressed his sorrow at learning of Dale’s injury but pride in his serving overseas. The majority of the letter contained news of the medical college and praise for Dale’s academic prowess when he’d been a student there. Toward the end, the man finally addressed Dale’s question about a teaching position.
As to your inquiry about coming to teach, I am more than pleased to relay that a position is ready and waiting for you right after the holidays. With so many of our faculty still gone, we were forced to eliminate one of our classes. But if you are willing to come and teach, we will make it available to our third-year students once more.
Dale sank back against the chair, stunned, as if someone had knocked the wind from him. Not only was there a teaching job for him, but one that started in a few short weeks. He lowered the letter to his lap and rubbed at his eye. Should he accept? Was this the path God intended for him to take? What about his mother and Uncle Lester and the bank?
What about Maria?
He couldn’t imagine leaving her behind, not when he loved her. Not when she’d brought hope and happiness back into his life. But what did he have to offer her? He might be closer to doing what he loved as a teacher of medicine, but his modest salary was likely to be even less than what his uncle had promised him as bank manager. He’d be taking her farther from her family, too, and he hated the idea of asking her to give up her own beloved job so he could pursue his.
Picking up the letter again, he scanned the doctor’s proposal a second time. Would he mind trading loans and mortgages for lectures and textbooks? Anticipation rippled through him at the prospect.
Dale stood and pocketed the letter. “Mother?” he called back toward the kitchen. “There are some Christmas cards for you to read through. I’m going over to Lester’s for a bit.”
“I thought you were going dancing with Maria.”
“I’ll be back before then,” he said as he pulled his coat and winter cap from the hat stand.
He slipped back out into the wintery afternoon and drew his coat tight around him. He knew in his heart what he wanted to do. But first he needed the blessing of his uncle. And then he had to figure out how in the world to tell Maria.
* * *
Maria looped her arm through Dale’s and snuggled closer to his side as they moved down the sidewalk, the sounds from the dance hall behind them mingling with the frost-tinged air. Her cheeks still felt flushed from dancing, but she’d had a marvelous time. Dale had proven to be as adept on his feet as she was, and she’d enjoyed the numerous opportunities to dance in his arms.
“Did you have fun?” he asked, his breath coming out in white puffs.
“Very much. I didn’t know Dr. Emerson could dance.” She smiled up at him, but instead of returning the gesture, the lines around his mouth tightened. There’d been more than one moment tonight when she thought he looked distracted.
“Come on,” she teased lightly, squeezing his arm. “You can’t say you can’t dance or that you didn’t enjoy yourself, too.”
Finally his mouth turned up in a smile. “You’re right. As usual.”
She laughed, and they continued on for another block in comfortable silence. The stars glittered in the sky overhead and everywhere Maria looked she saw signs of Christmas’s pending arrival—the wreaths adorning front doors and lampposts, trees in the front windows, and the thin layer of snow on the rooftops and yards.
How quickly—and wonderfully—life could change from year to year. Last Christmas she’d still been pining over Friedrick and frustrated over how to attract his attention. But this year…She glanced up at Dale, a feeling of joy rising inside her. This year she was really and truly in love with someone she very much suspected loved her right back.
She might have helped Dale these past few weeks, but he’d helped her, too. With Dale, she felt valued and cherished for simply being herself. And it felt as glorious and hopeful as the Christmas holiday itself.
Dale stopped walking a block from the boardinghouse. The light from the nearest lamppost couldn’t quite reach them, but Maria could still see the intensity in his gaze. A fission of pleasure raced through her middle at the thought that he might confess his feelings for her or perhaps steal a kiss. She hadn’t been ready, for either one, the other night after they’d decorated the tree. She’d felt too vulnerable over her boldness in touching his face and kissing his cheek. But tonight, she wanted to sing carols to the stars and share a real kiss with the man before her.
Dale removed his glove and cupped her face with his large hand. “Maria.” Her name was hardly more than a whisper.
“Yes?” She lifted her own gloved fingers to encircle his wrist.
“I’m not sure how to say this…” The smell of mints blended with his warm breath against her cheek. “These last few weeks, working together…well, I’ve enjoyed them very, very much.”
Her pulse began to skip faster. “I have, too, Dale.”
“We make a good a team…a fantastic team…” He visibly swallowed. “And that’s why I need to tell you…”
Wanting to ease his discomfort and assure him that she felt the same, she threw poise to the wind and went up on tiptoe to place her lips against his. Dale hesitated only a second before he kissed her back. Lifting his other hand to her face, he pressed his mouth confidently over hers. Maria’s heart beat wildly and her head spun as she lost herself in Dale’s kiss. How could she have ever thought she was meant to be with anyone else but this wonderful man?
When he released her face to hold her hand, Maria rocked back on her heels, her breath coming in swift white clouds. “I didn’t mean to interrupt…” She glanced away as self-consciousness finally caught up with her actions.
Dale pulled her into his arms, resting his head against her winter hat. “I can’t say I’m sad that you did,” he murmured into her ear, a smile in his voice.
She tipped her chin up to look at him and found his smile held a touch of sadness. “Are you all right?”
He nodded quickly. “Tonight, I’m perfectly all right.” Placing a tender kiss on her forehead, he led her down the sidewalk again. “We’d better get you back now before that boardinghouse matron skins me alive for having you home late.”
Maria chuckled, though she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was bothering Dale. At least it wasn’t her or their kiss. Of that she felt certain. Resting her head against his shoulder, she pushed aside any niggling doubt and instead relished the happiness she felt at this moment.
* * *
Maria hummed the tune of “O Tannenbaum” as she pulled a brush through her dark hair. Once finished, she surveyed herself in the mirror and couldn’t help smiling. Her whole demeanor looked as lit up as the tree at the bank, and she had Dale to thank for that.
She’d been invited to Sunday dinner with him and his mother the night before and had enjoyed every minute of it. The easy conversation, Harriet’s quick sense of humor, and Dale’s lingering kiss when he walked her home afterward had made it another wonderful evening.
Dale had also asked her to spend Christmas Eve with him and his extended family, and Maria had gratefully accepted. Since the bank would be open the day before and after Christmas, her parents had reluctantly agreed there wouldn’t be enough time to drive her home and back.
Maria had been disappointed, more so than she’d been at missing Thanksgiving with the family. Christmas at home had always been a festive and magical affair. But if she couldn’t spend her favorite holiday with her own family, then she preferred spending it with the man she loved.
She pulled on her hat and gloves, left her room, and headed outside. The early morning chill couldn’t dampen her good mood, especially with the way the sun sparkled off the snow. She resumed humming her Christmas tune as she strode down the sidewalk.
Once she reached the bank, she slipped inside, smiling at her beautifully decorated tree. Not only did it look spectacular, but it brought to mind another happy memory with Dale.
“Good morning,” she called out as she pushed through the gate and entered the tellers’ room. “Isn’t it a lovely day?”
Lawrence scowled and blew on his hands. “Yes, if you like freezing to death on the walk here.”
“Amen,” James murmured as he shed his coat and wiped the fog from his glasses.
Maria ignored their grumbling, especially when Dale filled the doorway of his back office. He looked handsome in his dark blue suit and striped tie.
“Morning.” He smiled, causing flurries to erupt in Maria’s stomach.
She put away her winter things and walked over to him. “Morning,” she murmured back. How she longed to touch his clean-shaven face or slip beneath his arm and rest her cheek against his solid chest. Instead she had to satisfy herself with standing as close as she dared in the company of the twins.
“Would you like to have lunch with me today?” he asked, his voice low.
She peered up at him. “Of course.”
“There’s just…” His smile had faded, replaced by an almost regretful look. “I’d like to talk to you about something.”
“Is everything all right? Does your mother mind that I’m coming to your aunt’s party tomorrow night?”
Dale shook his head and chuckled. “No, my mother is so thrilled you’re coming she can talk of little else.”
“Then what is it?” A whisper of concern blew through her, making her shiver.
“Nothing to worry about.” He linked his hand in hers, and when the twins weren’t looking, brought her fingers to his lips. His touch swept away any lingering worry.
Maria longed to stay there, at Dale’s side, but the bank door opened, signaling the start of what she felt certain would be a busy day. “All right, then. I’ll wait to hear at lunch.” She squeezed his hand and offered him a smile before he released her to go sit at her teller window.
The morning flew by in a frenzy of helping patrons, but Maria didn’t mind. She smiled and teased and wished everyone a “Merry Christmas,” confident nothing could mar her good mood today.
Near the lunch hour, the stream of people trickled to a scanty few, allowing Maria a good view of each person who came through the door. A young lady, near her own age, with glossy brown hair entered the bank and looked around as though searching for someone.
“May I help you?” Maria asked cheerfully when the girl approached her window. The fashionable cut of the girl’s winter coat and scarf clearly revealed she came from money.
The young woman nodded, shooting Maria a shy sort of smile. “Could you tell me where I may find Dale Emerson? This is the bank he manages, correct?”
A bit of her earlier nerves returned to the pit of Maria’s stomach, though she wasn’t sure why. “Yes, Mr. Emerson is the manager here.”
“Will you ask him if he has a few minutes to see Felicity? He’ll know who I am.”
Prickles of dread crawled up Maria’s spine, making the hairs on her neck stand up. What did Felicity want with Dale?
Maria swallowed her suddenly dry throat and pasted on a friendly expression. “One moment. I’ll see if he’s available.”
He loves you
, she told herself as she moved past Lawrence and James, out the gate, and to the front office.
Still, it took her a moment to wrestle memories of being Friedrick’s second choice from her mind before she could confidently knock at Dale’s door. She waited for his reply, then stepped inside.
“Maria?” He straightened in his chair, his gaze instantly warm. “Is it lunchtime already?”
“Not quite.” She partially shut the door behind her. “There’s a woman here to see you.”
“About a loan?”
Maria shook her head. Why should she fear Felicity’s presence? “Actually it’s Felicity who wants to see you.”
Surprise colored his face. “Felicity is here?”
“Yes. Do you want me to send her in?”
He reached up to loosen his tie, and this time, Maria didn’t have the heart to correct him. “I suppose.”