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Authors: Stacy Henrie

A Christmas Hope (8 page)

BOOK: A Christmas Hope
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She turned to open the door.

“Maria?”

She glanced over her shoulder at him, once again struck by the realization of how wonderful a man he was. He embodied goodness, decency, wit, and confidence. And she couldn’t think of a handsomer face, patch or not.

“As soon as this meeting with Felicity is over, let’s you and I go get our lunch. All right?”

Maria recognized his attempt to assuage her unspoken fears. “Okay.” She ducked out the door and informed Felicity that Dale would see her now.

As the door to the front office closed, Maria blew out her breath and squared her shoulders. She had nothing to be afraid of. Dale had told her exactly where he stood when it came to Felicity, so it wasn’t as if he was keeping secrets from her. Holding on to that assurance, she returned to her stool.

*  *  *

“Felicity.” Dale stood behind his desk as she entered the office and shut the door. “What brings you here? In need of some financial advice?”

“No,” she said with a light laugh.

Dale indicated one of the chairs drawn up to the desk and watched as she sat down. Why was she here?

Felicity twisted the handle of her purse as though nervous. “How are things?”

“Not bad.” Dale resumed his seat. “How have you been?”

“Good, very good.” She shifted in her chair, her eyes glancing about the office.

“Is there something I can help you with?”

“Yes. Well, at least, I’m hoping so.”

Dale waited for her to elaborate—he’d never seen her so anxious. Would she try to convince him they were still meant to be? He cringed inwardly at the thought.

He’d liked Felicity, perhaps even loved her to a degree, but now he knew what it meant to care truly and deeply for another person. Maria meant everything to him, which had made his decision to leave the bank and teach ten times more difficult. He couldn’t imagine not having her in his life, but he couldn’t turn down the chance to put his medical training to better use either.

“Dale, I’m getting married.” The words burst out of Felicity in a rush. Her cheeks flushed pink, but her blue eyes shone with happiness. “It happened so fast. He works for my father, you see. I know you and I had no further understanding, but I wanted you to hear it from me instead of someone else.” She licked her lips. “I suppose I also hoped for your blessing. We’ve been you and I for so long, I didn’t want you thinking this meant I never cared…”

Dale fought a laugh. Once again, he’d been wrong in his initial impression. Felicity was a good woman and would make the man in her life very happy. She just wasn’t meant to make him happy, and vice versa.

“Please say something.” She shot him a concerned look.

“Congratulations, Felicity.” He got up from his chair. “I’m happy for you and this lucky fellow of yours.”

Her face lit up with hope as she stood. “Really?”

“Yes.” He came around his desk to stand beside her. “Thank you for telling me yourself. That means…a lot.”

“Oh, Dale,” she cried, throwing her arms around his neck. “I was so worried what you’d think, especially given the fact that we only just…you know…ended things.”

He returned her friendly hug. “I wish you all the best.”

“Thank you,” she said as she stepped back. “I hope you meet the right person soon, too.”

Dale shot a look at the door and couldn’t help smiling. “I already have.”

“Is it the girl out front?” Felicity didn’t wait for his answer before she added with a smile, “Then I wish you all the best as well.”

He chuckled, relieved there was no longer tension or awkwardness between them. “It’s good to see you again, Felicity. Thanks for coming.”

“You’re welcome.” She turned suddenly and placed a kiss on his cheek. “I’m so glad to have things right between us.”

A sharp intake of breath drew Dale’s attention to the door. Maria stood there, her eyes wide. He hadn’t even heard the door open.

When she caught him looking at her, she stammered out, “I—I’m sorry. I wanted to tell you it was time for lunch. I didn’t mean to…” Without finishing, she darted out the door.

Dread made Dale’s heart pump faster. Had Maria mistaken Felicity’s innocent kiss as something else? “I’ve got to go.”

“Oh, yes,” Felicity said brightly, oblivious to any tension she may have incited. “How is your mother, by the way?”

Dale stifled a groan of frustration. He needed to talk to Maria, but he didn’t want to hurt Felicity with an abrupt departure. Especially after she’d been so nervous to talk to him. “My mother’s well.”

“Tell her hello from me, will you?”

Nodding, he gently gripped her elbow and steered her from the office. “Good-bye, Felicity.”

“Good-bye.” She waved and moved toward the main door.

A number of people milled about the lobby, chatting. Some even called out a greeting to him. Ignoring them all, Dale rushed through the gate and behind the teller windows. Maria’s coat and hat were no longer hanging in their usual spot.

“Where did she go?” he asked the twins.

Lawrence exchanged a wary glance with James. “Um…”

“For goodness’ sake, she’s not in trouble. I have to speak with her. Where is she?”

“She said she didn’t feel well,” James volunteered. “She’s headed home.”

“Thank you.” Hopefully he could catch up to Maria before she reached the boardinghouse. There was so much to say—about the teaching job, about Felicity’s reason for coming to see him, about why her kiss hadn’t meant a thing. He strode into his office to collect his coat.

“I’ll be back soon,” he called to the twins as he hurried past them and out the door. He hated leaving them to fend for themselves two days before Christmas, but he couldn’t wait another minute to talk to Maria.

Outside he pushed his legs into long strides down the sidewalk. His breath came in puffs of anxious air. While he felt certain Maria would forgive his meeting with Felicity, once she knew the truth, he’d withheld a far greater secret—the fact that he was going away.

He’d meant to tell her about Dr. Abrams’s offer the night they’d gone dancing, but when she’d kissed him, reason and sense had fled.

As he’d kissed her back he’d realized he couldn’t leave her, and yet he couldn’t expect her to come with him either. How could he ask her to give up so much to join him when he had so little to offer in return?

Dale reached the boardinghouse and jogged up the steps. The matron of the establishment stopped him before he could gain the inner staircase, though. “Can I help you, sir?” she asked, barreling from the Christmas-decked parlor at his left, to bar his way.

“I’m here to see Miss Schmitt.”

“Is she expecting you?”

“Not exactly.” Dale hated the bitter truth of the words. “But I really must speak with her.”

“I’ll see if she’s willing to come down. What is your name again?”

Dale debated sidestepping the woman and bolting up the stairs himself. Of course, he didn’t know which room was Maria’s and the proprietress would likely ring the police over such a maneuver. “Dale Emerson,” he said with a frustrated sigh.

“Very well, Mr. Emerson. I’ll see if Maria is taking callers. Have a seat in the parlor.” She waved toward the room, then started up the stairs to the second floor..

Dale entered the parlor, his gaze barely taking in the festooned tree and pine boughs on the mantle. Instead of sitting, though, he remained standing. Soon the standing gave way to pacing. Would Maria agree to see him?

At last the matron appeared at the parlor entrance, alone. Dale’s shoulders slumped even before she spoke, her voice kinder this time. “Miss Schmitt has taken ill. But she told me to reassure you she will be back to work tomorrow.”

“Thank you…for checking.” Dale moved slowly toward the door. Back out on the sidewalk, he glanced up at the boardinghouse’s second story. A curtain shifted at one of the windows before falling back into place. Could it be Maria?

Turning away, he trudged down the street, back the way he’d come. Not even the cheery Christmas wreaths on the storefront windows or the boisterous carolers on the opposite corner could lift his mood. He would have to wait until tomorrow to see Maria. The thought of even that much time passing, without being near her, without being able to explain, sent a tangible ache through his chest, numbing his happiness and his heart.

T
he closer Maria drew to the bank, the more the feeling of nausea grew inside her. Her head pounded, making her wish she could stay in bed. But she’d given her word to come in today and she wouldn’t go back on that. Even if Dale had broken her heart.

The image of Felicity kissing him on the cheek, and her exuberant words—
I’m so glad to have things right between us
—repeated in her mind. As they had numerous times since yesterday.

How could she have been so wrong about Dale? She fisted her gloved hands as hurt and anger sluiced through her. Why had he kissed her so ardently the other night or invited her to dinner at his home, if all along he’d been planning to reunite with Felicity? It didn’t make sense…unless. Maria sucked in an icy breath, the cold penetrating all the way down to her lungs.

Unless I’m his second choice.

Once again, a man she loved had chosen someone else. Tears stung her eyes, but she willed them back. She’d done this before; she knew what she had to do. No matter the personal cost of pain, she wouldn’t stand in Dale’s way. Though she might need to find another job—and fast. It was one thing to allow Dale to live true to his own heart, but it was quite another to watch as he did so. Right after the holiday she’d start looking for new employment. Surely with her expertise as a clerk, she could find a similar position at another bank.

Give me courage, God
, she petitioned silently as her steps grew less reluctant and more determined.
To do what I must for his future, and for my own.

If nothing else, she knew He cared. She was never second best in His eyes.

Maria tipped her chin upward at the thought and squared her shoulders as she reached the bank. She’d never been less than professional in all the time she’d worked there, and she didn’t plan on starting now. No one needed to know about the lingering ache inside her.

Opening the door, she stepped inside the heat of the pine-scented lobby. The tangy smell of her Christmas tree almost made her smile before she remembered the moment of closeness she and Dale had shared while decorating it. Steeling herself against the heartbreaking pain the memory stirred, she pasted on a smile and hurried through the gate.

“Nice to have you back,” Lawrence said, turning from his window to acknowledge Maria with a genuine smile. “And not just because yesterday was busy.”

“Yes, glad you’re feeling better, Maria,” James added.

The sincerity of their words brought a lump to Maria’s throat. She would miss the twins if she did choose a job elsewhere. “Thanks, boys.”

She hung up her winter things and went to sit on her stool, but the sound of Dale’s voice from behind set her heart thumping wildly against her rib cage.

“Maria? You’re back.”

Without turning around, she nodded.

“Are you feeling…better?”

“Much,” she said in a feigned tone of cheerfulness, “thank you.”

A pause, filled with strained awkwardness, followed her answer. She caught James and Lawrence exchanging puzzled looks. Heard the sound of Dale clearing his throat behind her.

“Will you step into the back office a moment?” he asked, his voice low and tense. “I’d like to speak with you.”

Please let someone come through the door. Please let someone come through the door.

But the lobby remained empty. She had no excuse but to talk to him.

“All right.” She climbed off her stool and followed him into his office. She wouldn’t let him see how he’d hurt her, wouldn’t make him feel she was a hindrance to his and Felicity’s reunion.

“There are some things I need to tell you.” Dale shut the door, but instead of sitting, he remained standing near the doorway.

Maria walked to his desk, putting needed space between them. How could he look so handsome and grieved, and yet be so beyond her comforting touch now? Yesterday, she would have smoothed the furrows that lined his forehead and made him laugh with some witty comment. Today, though, her trembling fingers fiddled with his pens, twisting them one way, then another.

“There’s nothing to say, Dale. I understand.”

He shook his head. “I don’t think you do. I need to explain—”

“I won’t be able to make it to the Christmas Eve party tonight.” She lifted her chin, daring him to contradict her. “Please give my apologies to your mother.”

“Maria…” Dale shoved his hand through his hair. His tie hung loose and his suit looked as wrinkled as his clothes had in the beginning. Cleary he was agitated, but Maria couldn’t help him this time. “I know why you don’t want to come, and I can’t say I blame you. But if you’d just hear me out. What you saw yesterday—”

The door opened right then, causing Dale to step back. Mr. Ross appeared in the doorway. “Merry Christmas, you two.” He smiled at them as he entered the office, obviously unaware of the tension coating the air. “I thought I’d come down here first thing and give all of you a little something for the holiday.” He held up two envelopes. “Here you are, Dale, and this is yours, Maria.”

“Thank you,” she said, accepting the envelope. A peek inside showed a number of crisp one-dollar bills, at least ten of them. She hadn’t expected anything from her old boss. Perhaps the money would help her get by, if she had to leave the bank sooner than expected to look for a new job. She crossed the room to give Mr. Ross a quick kiss on the cheek. The older man blushed, but his smile remained in place. “Merry Christmas, Mr. Ross. Thank you so much.”

He waved away her gratitude. “Well earned, all of you. Though I should’ve probably given my nephew here less.” His tone held pride and teasing. “Now that he’s leaving us to go teach at that big medical school and all. Good thing Evie’s nephew is interested in coming to work…”

The rest of the man’s words faded in the wake of Maria’s shock. Dale was leaving? Her gaze flew to his face. He visibly cringed and ran a hand across his jaw, avoiding her eyes. He was leaving to teach and hadn’t bothered to tell her?

Suddenly his distracted manner from the other night made perfect sense. He’d been making plans to leave the bank, plans which clearly involved Felicity going with him.

“Congratulations, Dale. You’ll make an excellent teacher.” She hurried past the two men, blinking furiously. . Dale let her go, as she knew he would with his uncle standing there.

No need to find another job
, she told herself, though the relief didn’t feel quite as wonderful as she might have hoped at not having to leave the bank.

“Did Ross give you money, too?” James asked, his face beaming.

Maria managed a nod. Thankfully people were starting to file into the bank. She threw herself into doing her job and tried to keep her thoughts off Dale.

When the crowd dwindled, she presented the boys with the gloves she’d bought them for Christmas. They surprised her by giving her a lovely red scarf. Her gift for Dale remained in her coat pocket, though. She’d found a small wooden box that she’d had the craftsman carve a medical caduceus, with its intertwining snakes and staff, into the top. Then she’d filled the inside with Pep-O-Mints.

At lunch, she was still undecided how to go about giving Dale his gift without having to talk to him again. She left the bank to buy a sandwich and hot chocolate at a nearby restaurant, rather than risk being alone with him. The cocoa tasted fine, but a little mint—from one of Dale’s Life Savers—would have made it even better.

The memory of their shared cocoa three weeks earlier filled her mind and heart with a physical ache. She’d already fallen in love with Dale by then.. Even if he didn’t share her same feelings, she would miss him immensely when he left.

She paid for her meal, leaving most of it on her plate, and slogged back through the cold to the bank. The afternoon sped by in a blur of customers. Fatigue soon settled into Maria’s muscles. She couldn’t wait to slip away to her room and crawl beneath her covers. She didn’t plan to emerge until the day after Christmas.

The streetlamps outside were glowing when Maria finally bade the last patron a “Merry Christmas” and a good night. Her neck felt stiff and her backside ached from sitting on the stool for so long.

“I’ve never seen it this busy,” she murmured, resting her elbow on the counter and massaging at her neck. “Have you two?”

There was no reply. Maria looked up to find the other two stools empty. Where had Lawrence and James gone? And why hadn’t they said good-bye? She climbed to her feet and stretched her back. Dale’s office door was closed again. Perhaps if she moved very softly, she could leave without him noticing.

She tiptoed to the peg where she hung her winter things. Dale’s box still sat in her pocket, but she’d decided it might be better to give it to him after Christmas.

After drawing on her coat, she carried her hat, scarf, and gloves and exited through the side door. She steadied the swinging gate as she pushed through it, to keep it from making noise and alerting Dale to her presence. She knew she was being silly by sneaking away, but she couldn’t bear hearing him say aloud that he wanted to be with Felicity.

With soft footsteps, she stole slowly across the lobby. She paused beside her tree, inhaling its scent once more. She didn’t have a tree in her room at the boardinghouse. Her parents had sent her a few gifts to open tonight, but the holiday wouldn’t be the same without family around and a beautifully adorned tree to sit beside. Especially now that she wouldn’t be spending the evening with Dale.

Maria cast a final look at the tree. Then she turned to the door and reached for the handle. If she could open it silently, she’d be free…

“Going somewhere?”

Whirling around, one hand pressed against her racing heart, she found Dale standing in the doorway of the front office. How long had he been in there?

“I was…heading home.” The intensity with which he stared at her made her swallow hard. There’d be no escaping now, but maybe she could keep him talking about something other than him and Felicity. “Where did Lawrence and James go? I didn’t see them leave.”

“They had a party tonight.” He advanced a step toward her. Maria stepped backward, bumping against the door. “I actually told them to go early.”

“Oh?” She frantically searched her mind for something else to say. “Today was very busy.”

He nodded and took another step forward.

“I don’t know that I’ve seen so many customers come through before.” She waved her winter things at the teller windows, her other hand fumbling for the doorknob behind her. If she bolted, would he follow? “The lines didn’t seem to let up until the very end.”

He kept moving toward her, silently, methodically.

Maria twisted the handle, poised to fling the door open and leap outside. Away from this amazing, handsome man who no longer loved her. “I think we ran out of that second batch of candy canes within the first couple of—”

“Maria.” He stopped a few feet away from her. “Will you please stop talking?”

She released the doorknob to fold her arms and glower up at him. “If you didn’t want to listen to me, then why didn’t you let me leave a moment ago?”

“Because I need
you
to listen to me.” She started to protest, her stomach churning at his determined tone, but he held his hand up to stop her. “Let me say my piece and then you’re free to go.”

She slumped against the door and lowered her gaze to the floor. As much as she wanted to leave, to escape the inevitable, she wouldn’t hurt him by walking out now. “What do you need to say, Dale?”

“First, you didn’t see what you thought you did yesterday.”

At that, she jerked her chin upward. “So I didn’t see Felicity kissing you on the cheek and exclaiming about how happy she was that the two of you were back together?”

“Not exactly.”

She shook her head. Why would he deny it? “Then what
did
I see?”

“Felicity came to tell me something. But it had nothing to do with her and me being together again.”

“It didn’t?” Hope flared warm inside her, despite her attempt to ignore it, to dowse it before it grew.

“Felicity told me she was getting married.”

“Married?” Surprise swept through Maria.

“Yes. And because it all happened rather fast, she wanted to tell me in person and hoped I wouldn’t think she hadn’t ever cared.” He took another step, bringing himself within an arm’s length of her. “I promise you her kiss was nothing more than a friendly gesture.”

Maria peered up at him. “But you’re still leaving.” That fact hurt as much as her earlier assumption that he’d chosen Felicity over her.

Dale ran a hand over his face as though suddenly tired. “I meant to tell you, Maria. A dozen different times this weekend. But every time I went to say it, I couldn’t.”

“Why?”

“Because I hate the idea of leaving you.” He closed the space between them to gently grip her shoulder. His familiar touch eased her hurt and fear, as it had the other times he’d so willing helped her. “Which is why I decided this afternoon to decline the position. I’ll write my old professor tomorrow and tell him my answer is ‘no.’”

“What?” The word exploded in the quiet of the bank. “You can’t do that, Dale. Please don’t do that.” Maria swallowed hard, trying to sort through the tide of emotions and revelations rocking through her. Dale loved her. Loved her enough to give up the closest thing he had to being a surgeon again. But she wouldn’t let him. “You have to do this.”

He glanced away, his face set with determination. She had to make him see reason.

Stuffing her hat, scarf, and gloves into one pocket, she reached into the other and withdrew the box. She lifted his hand and placed the gift on his palm. “This is your Christmas present.”

Dale released his hold on her shoulder to examine the box. “It’s incredible,” he murmured. His awed tone warmed her from head to toe. She’d picked the perfect gift.

“I had the man carve the medical caduceus on the top.” She watched Dale finger the intricate curves of the symbol. “Now open it up. There’s something inside.”

He lifted the lid briefly to glance inside the box, then shut it. “Pep-O-Mints,” he murmured, his voice choked. “Thank you, Maria.”

BOOK: A Christmas Hope
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