Authors: Stacy Henrie
She covered his hand where it still gripped the box. “I want you to put it on your desk…” Her throat filled with tears. “In the office you’ll have as a professor. Please? You were born to be a doctor, Dale. Not a banker. This is your chance to still do that. And I won’t let you give it up for me.”
He studied her a long moment before bringing his warm hand to rest against the back of her neck. Then he was kissing her, firmly, tenderly. Maria’s pulse hummed loud and fast in her ears. She loved him, so much so she wouldn’t let him give up his dream.
When Dale eased back, his somber expression had been replaced with a hopeful smile. “I love you, Maria. You’ve believed in me from the very start, even when I doubted myself.”
“I love you, too. But I won’t let you—”
He pressed another kiss to her lips, silencing her protests. His gaze sparkled in the lights of the Christmas tree. “I’ve been so caught up in trying to figure out how to tell you about the teaching job, I didn’t get you a gift. But I do have something I’d like to ask you.”
“Yes?” Anticipation sang through her.
Taking her hand in his, Dale lowered himself to one knee and set the box next to him on the polished bank floor. Maria’s heart hammered even harder. “Maria Schmitt, will you come with me when I leave to go teach in two weeks? Not as my dearest friend or traveling companion, but as my wife?”
Her free hand rose to cover her mouth. Maria had no words. The adoration shining on Dale’s face as he stared up at her left her speechless.
“I know I have little to offer, as a one-eyed college professor. And I’ll be taking you even farther away from your family and from a job you love.” He turned her hand over and placed a kiss on her wrist, causing a pleasant shiver up her arm. “But I promise to love you every day of your life, and we’ll come back to visit as often as we can.”
Joy filled her to bursting at Dale’s proposal. As if the Christmas star itself were lit within her. “Do you think there might be a bank where we’re going?” she countered, doing her best to hide the smile begging to break through.
Dale looked puzzled for a moment, then a slow grin brightened his expression. “I know of several banks in the area. And I’m certain one of those…” He climbed to his feet and tugged her close. “Could use the expertise of a certain bank clerk I know.”
Maria leaned into his chest, her chin tipped up to see his face. That beloved face. “But a female bank clerk?” she teased.
“I’m confident you can squash any concerns in that regard.” He brushed her cheek with his thumb. “So what do you say? Will you be my wife, Maria Schmitt, and come with me?”
She could no longer hold back her smile. “There is nothing in this world,” she answered softly, bringing her lips close to his, “that I would rather be or do, Dale Emerson.”
His radiant smile weakened her knees. “Does this mean your plans for Christmas Eve have changed then?”
“My plan for tonight and for all the days and nights after this is to be at your side.”
“I rather like the sound of that,” he murmured against her mouth, right before rewarding her with another heart-pounding kiss.
A kiss full of tenderness and promise for a future together, now and always.
Stacy Henrie has always had an avid appetite for history, fiction, and chocolate. She earned her B.A. in public relations from Brigham Young University and worked in communications before turning her attentions to raising a family and writing inspirational historical romances. Wife of an entrepreneur husband and a stay-at-home mom to three, Stacy loves the chance to live out history through her fictional characters, while enjoying the modern conveniences of life in the twenty-first century. In addition to being an author, she is a reader, a road trip enthusiast, and a novice interior decorator.
Iowa, March 1918
f all the birthdays Livy could recall, this one would certainly go down as the most memorable—but for all the wrong reasons.
, she thought, smoothing the skirt of her blue silk taffeta dress for surely the hundredth time.
I always thought turning twenty would be special.
She fanned herself with her hat, wishing she’d selected a chair near the back of the dance hall, where the door had been thrown open to let in the cool night air. The catchy strains of a one-step number filled the crowded room as couples danced in front of her.
Livy glanced at the hall’s entrance, then to the clock on the wall. Where could Robert be? He’d told her he needed some work done on his automobile, so he would meet her at the dance hall at seven o’clock. But with Robert’s army training, Livy knew he meant six fifty-nine. That had been an hour ago.
The song ended and the couples stopped moving to applaud the band. Livy let her gaze wander over the unfamiliar faces. A tall young man with blond hair and broad shoulders caught and held her attention. Not only because of his handsome face and blue eyes, but also because of his lack of a uniform. Most of the men here tonight were older and married or baby-faced youngsters almost out of high school. The few who looked to be in their mid-twenties like the blond young man were dressed as soldiers, likely having returned home wounded, like Robert.
With his cane, Robert didn’t enjoy dancing as he once had, but he’d promised to take Livy for her birthday. The few times they’d come to the dance hall, mostly just swaying to the music, Livy couldn’t help seeing the adoring looks the other girls gave Robert—or the jealousy-tinged ones they threw at her when Robert refused to dance with anyone else. The appreciative glances and wistful sighs were the same wherever they went together.
But tonight she sat alone, with her polished dance shoes and her carefully curled hair. Without Robert. Livy simmered with frustration. She’d looked forward to a lovely evening all week. What would make him so late? A sudden thought turned her insides to ice and she dropped her hat into her lap. The inside of her cheek found its way between her teeth.
“Please let him be sober, God, please,” she whispered, the next song drowning out her quiet pleas. “I’ll forgive him any other excuse, if he’s sober.”
Robert had vowed, just three weeks before, that he was done imbibing—much to Livy’s relief. She couldn’t entirely blame him for turning to the bottle. There was so much he wanted to forget about his time overseas. Things he’d whispered to her, during moments of insobriety, which made her cringe in horror.
Robert’s stories had only increased her anxiety for her two older brothers, fighting in France. What were they experiencing there? Would they be driven to drink because of it?
Livy mentally shook her head at the thought. She couldn’t imagine Joel or Tom ever becoming drunk. They wouldn’t be alone in that resolve either. There were other men in their home town who hadn’t succumbed to drinking—some had even lost arms or legs or their eyesight. So why were they able to stay away from alcohol and Robert couldn’t? Not even Iowa’s statewide prohibition or Livy’s increased compassion toward him had stopped Robert from finding the bootleggers when he wanted.
For a moment, Livy imagined she could smell the fermented scent of Robert’s raw alcohol. She hated that smell and the way it clung to his breath and clothes. She gagged at the memory and sucked in a breath of the stale, warm air inside the dance hall to clear her nose.
She’d learned to read his drunken mood, too. If he was lumbering around the barn, muttering things to himself, he was angry. Angry at the Germans, at God, at her sometimes. She didn’t like the barbed comments he tossed her way, but those were preferable to the intense sadness he experienced more often.
If he was lying back in the hay, bottle in hand, he was consumed with sorrow. No matter what she said or how long she sat holding his hand, she couldn’t talk him through the guilt and regret of his memories. And that cut worse than the smell. Still, she’d always try to coax him into a better mood, then return home exhausted, doing her best to dodge her parents’ questions about her evening.
Robert had promised to give it up, though, and Livy clung to that promise. Especially as her birthday approached. The past three weeks he’d been solicitous and sober, as he had when he’d first come home. At least until tonight.
When another fifteen minutes had crawled by, Livy forced herself to accept the likelihood that Robert—for whatever painful reason—had chosen to spend her birthday with a bottle cradled in his arms instead of her. Hot tears of anger sprang up behind her eyes, and no amount of blinking could keep several of them from leaking onto her face.
“Are you all right?”
Livy whipped her chin up and found herself peering into eyes more brilliantly blue than she’d suspected from her seat across the room. Their clear depths exuded friendly concern in a way that made her feel immediately safe, though she didn’t know this young man. Up close, his Sunday shirt and pressed trousers, though worn, accentuated his strong-looking physique.
She blinked, trying to remember what he’d asked her. Something about her being all right? “Yes. Thank you. I’m fine.”
She swept away the salty drops from her cheeks. Of course her first real cry in ten years would be witnessed by a stranger, and yet his self-assured, compassionate manner made her suspect he didn’t find her silly.
“You look like you could use a dance.” He crouched down in front of her and held out his hand. “How about it?”
Livy darted a quick look at the entrance again. “I’m…um…waiting for my boyfriend.”
“Ah.” He let his hand drop to his side. “Seems to be a bit late.”
She blushed. Who else had noticed her sitting here for over an hour? “I’m sorry,” she offered lamely.
“No, it’s all right.” He stood and started to walk away.
Who was she kidding? Robert wasn’t coming. If he happened to, he’d likely be drunk and unable to dance anyway.
“Wait.” Livy shot to her feet. She could have at least one dance on her birthday. Why should she spend the whole evening hurt and angry over Robert’s absence?
The young man slowly turned back around.
She attempted a genuine smile. “I’d love a dance.”
His face lit up as he smiled in return and held out his hand a second time. Setting her hat on her chair, Livy placed her hand inside his larger one and allowed him to escort her onto the dance floor. The band began to play a fox-trot—one of Livy’s favorite dances. She and Joel had become fairly adept at the steps before he’d left for the war.
It felt strange, at first, to be in another man’s arms, but the feeling soon left her. The way he held her hand in a confident but gentle grip, his hand warm on her back, helped Livy relax. He led her around the floor, their feet walking or spinning in time with the music. He was as skillful at the fox-trot as her brother, and Livy relished the chance to do more than just sway to the music.
“Are you from around here?” he asked her after a minute or two of dancing.
“About an hour away. And you?”
He shook his head. “I live outside of Hilden. In the county north of here.”
Livy vaguely recalled hearing the town name. “You drove all the way down here, just to go dancing?”
“We don’t have a public dance hall in Hilden. So we have to come here, or head farther north, or drive all the way to Sioux City. Do you come to this one often?”
“I used to, before I went to college in Cedar Falls.”
With slight pressure to her back, he expertly led her through a spin before he picked up their conversation again. “What did you study in college?”
“Are you a teacher now?”
Livy frowned, doing her best to tamp down the seeds of resentment the question unearthed. She loved her family and wanted to lift the burden her brothers’ absence had created, but she missed college and the chance to pursue her own dreams.
“I was only able to attend for a year before I was needed here.” Her words drew a look of sympathy from him.
“I know what that’s like,” he murmured. Before she could ask what he meant, he poised another question. “Do you still want to be a teacher?”
“Very much. I’m hoping someday I’ll have the chance.”
The understanding in his blue eyes changed to enthusiasm. “That might be sooner than you think. The teacher at one of the township schools outside of Hilden was recently…” He shot a glance at the floor, his jaw tightening. Livy wondered at the change in his mood. Then he guided her through another spin and his expression relaxed. “Suffice it to say, she’s gone now and I don’t think they’ve found a replacement. It’s a little far away, but you might want to inquire about it.”
A possible teaching job? A flurry of anticipation set Livy’s pulse moving faster at the prospect. She tried to squelch it with the reminder she wasn’t likely to be hired with only one year of college completed and no teaching certificate, but she couldn’t destroy the hope completely. How wonderful to be on her own again, and not learning how to teach this time, but actually being the teacher.
Livy met his open gaze and found her thoughts moving from his idea to the man himself. She didn’t even know his name, and yet she felt comfortable enough in his presence to share some of her regret at having her dream of teaching cut short. She hadn’t even voiced those feelings to Robert yet.
“Thank you,” she said, hoping he sensed how much she meant it. “I may look into it.”
“I hope you will.” He smiled in a way that made her stomach twist with unexpected pleasure.
She searched her mind for a more neutral topic, one that wouldn’t mean spilling more of her secrets to this stranger. “Do you live with family, up there in Hilden?”
He nodded. “I’ve got my father, stepmother, and two half siblings. What about you?”
“I’ve got more than two siblings.” Livy laughed. “I’m the third of seven. Five boys and two girls.”
She studied the firm shoulder beneath her hand. He appeared quite fit and healthy, so why wasn’t he a soldier? “Can I ask you something?”
“How come you’re not fighting overseas?”
Livy wished the question back at once when a shadow passed over his face, erasing the easy camaraderie between them. Before he could answer, the song ended. He released her hand at once, though he didn’t join her or the other couples in clapping.
She gnawed at her cheek, embarrassed at her apparent mistake. He’d been so kind to notice her distress earlier and suggest the teacher position in his town, and she’d repaid him by bringing up something he clearly did not wish to discuss.
“I’m sorry. It’s none of my business,” she said, rushing her words in an effort to keep him from disappearing into the crowd before she could finish. “I didn’t mean to pry.”
He watched her, his expression guarded. What could she say to erase the awkwardness her inquiry had caused? They’d been having such a lovely time talking and dancing.
“I appreciate the dance. You see it’s my birthday and I adore the fox-trot. So you’ve saved my evening, Mr.…” She waited for him to fill the pause with his name.
The corners of his mouth worked up into a smile. “How about you call me ‘the birthday rescuer’?”
Livy chuckled. She wasn’t sure why he refused to give his name, but she wouldn’t press it—not after her blunder moments ago. His kindness had completely changed her botched evening. “Thank you for the dance, birthday rescuer. And for telling me about the teacher position.”
“You’re welcome. Do I get to know the name of the birthday girl?”
Two can play this game
, Livy thought with a smirk. “How about ‘the girl I danced with once’?”
His deep laughter pleased her. “How about we dance again?” He gestured to the floor, where the couples were pairing off for the next song. “Then you could be ‘the girl I danced with twice.’”
“No. I’d better go.”
“Without your beau?” He raised an eyebrow.
“I did get my birthday dance.”
A dark-haired girl approached them. She threw a haughty look at Livy and possessively pulled the young man toward the dance floor. Did the two of them know each other?
“Good night. Happy Birthday,” he called over his shoulder.
Livy waved good-bye. The frustration she’d felt earlier threatened to overwhelm her now that their pleasant encounter had ended, but she refused to shed any more tears tonight. With head held high, she wove her way back to her chair to collect her hat and coat. If the drugstore hadn’t closed up shop yet, she could telephone a neighbor to run over and ask her father or her younger brother Allen to come collect her.
Outside the dance hall, she inhaled the crisp air to clear away any lingering moisture from her eyes. She descended the steps and started past the wagons and automobiles parked in front of the building.
She spun around and saw her father standing beside the family wagon.
“I was just about to come inside and look for you.” Josiah Campbell placed his worn hat on top of his brown hair. A few gray strands had sprouted near his temples since Livy’s brothers had left to fight, but he still didn’t look his true age of fifty-one.
“How’d you know I needed a ride?” Livy asked as she walked toward him. Had something happened to one of the family? Or perhaps Robert was hurt or ill—and not drunk after all. “Is everything all right?”
“Everything’s fine.” Josiah gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze that soothed her concern. “Mrs. Drake came over an hour ago to say Robert wasn’t feeling well. She was sorry to hear Allen had already driven you here. I came to drive the birthday girl home.” He smiled, but Livy struggled to return the gesture.
Her suspicions tonight about Robert had been correct, after all. Mrs. Drake always used the excuse “he isn’t feeling well” when she and Livy both knew the truth—he was passed out from drinking.
“Up you go, sugar,” Josiah said as he helped her onto the wagon seat. Livy sat numbly as he unhitched the horses and climbed up next to her. He guided the horses away from the dance hall and onto the street. “Pretty night, huh?”