December, 1929 – Chicago
Scarlett Powers did not have a shy bone in her thin body. Her bright red hair might as well have been an electric light, attracting attention to her like bugs to said lamp. Her smile dazzled and her eyes hypnotized. Yet she hid behind a subtle application of rouge. Her attempt to camouflage the one part of her past she couldn’t hide. Her freckles.
Dressed in a green, sleeveless, straight-line number that fell to her knees, she waltzed into the Christmas party on black pumps. She purposefully came without a date, prepared for the men from the office to fawn over her while her fellow secretaries morphed into her adoring shadows. She approached the crowd through a haze of cigarette smoke, spotting a few flasks spiking soda water. The ban on alcohol not stopping anyone from enjoying themselves tonight.
One bat of her long lashes and the crowd parted. She instantly drew a bubble of worshipers as she leaned against the wooden block of a bar. She let the men of her entourage fight over who would buy her a drink while the women preened. Each one looking for Scarlett to throw them a smile of acknowledgement. What the horde didn’t know? Scarlett had no money. She lived in a run-down tenement room with cockroaches and five other women. And she walked to work because she saved every penny she earned to send home to Oklahoma.
Since joining Bruce Richardson’s sales firm as a secretary, she found her niche in making the world go round. Her boss, Gregory Todd, was an up-and-comer within the organization and she planned to take her hard-working self right along with him. He depended on her and was the one person who saw past her outward appearance to the job she did and expected no favors.
She raised her eyes over the crowd around her. Feeling a distinct person’s attention was not uncommon for Scarlett, but as she clutched her own soda water, shielding it from anyone wishing to spike it, she got the distinct impression that someone watched her from the outskirts of the room. There. In the far back. Leaning against the paneled wall, wearing a black suit, stood a tall, brown-haired man.
Scarlett met his dark eyes. For a breathless moment, his gaze whisked her from this festively decorated room to another one long ago.
She looked away first, alternately flexed her hands and rubbed them on her skirt. She knew that face and it unnerved her. The feelings. Especially since the brazen man had the look of the impish boy she remembered rather than star-struck adoration she could maneuver around.
With a practiced flourish, she extricated herself from the crowd and made for the garden behind Richardson’s mansion. She needed air, needed to compose herself before losing all she gained.
The din stayed neatly within the ballroom walls, barely spilling out of the double doors. The silence of the crisp night seemed to chase her as she hurried down the gravel path. Head down, focused on her goal, she plowed into a muscled body.
“Whoa there.” The man grabbed her bare arms with gloved hands, setting her upright. “Scarlett Powers?”
Scarlett let out a slow breath before she flipped her chin, sending her bobbed hair dancing against her ears. Then looked up at the man she tried to escape. “Why are you chasing me?”
A cloud of confusion drifted through his dark eyes.
Scarlett rolled her own and pushed past him, hating the way her emotions betrayed her.
“Wait.” He reached for her bare arm. “You give everyone else more attention than this. Why not me?”
Scarlett yanked away, wiping at the softly falling snowflakes as if they were spider webs in her way.
“Scarlett.” The man kept pace. “Do you not recognize me?”
Tears stung. “Why should I?”
He took an extra step, bounding in front of her and blocking the path. Flickering electric light from the ballroom windows danced on his handsome features. “Because we went to school together.”
“You’re in my way.” Scarlett tried to keep her voice steady, light, but she could hear the waver.
“I’m Simon Bean.” He shrugged out of his jacket, wrapped it over her shoulders. “Please tell me you remember.”
Oh, Scarlett remembered all right. She remembered he was the most popular kid in their one room schoolhouse from the first grade on. How he survived eighth grade without a gangly stage and then managed to out shine every other boy in the county with his sports prowess, skilled labor, and unquestionable intelligence. Yet it was the Christmas dance the year they were both sixteen that Simon Bean gave Scarlett the best gift she ever received. He danced with her, the girl with a broken femur.
Ha! Forget Simon Bean?
But the accident that had caused her broken bone also broke her family. Scarlett dropped out of school to work. The poorer her family became, the more she avoided classmates from the old days. As alcohol became her parents’ coping mechanism, she left home all together, planning to start a new life where she could regain her dignity. She didn’t need Simon Bean to remind her of everything she had lost.
“What are you doing here?” Scarlett folded her arms as if that could hold her heart hostage when the warmth from his coat already held it captive.
“Richardson’s company is the place to be.” Simon scratched his head, a layer of snow acting as a cap. “Hang it all, Scarlett, my father is an old friend, so he got me a spot on Bruce’s legal team. I started this week.”
“And you chose now to say hello?”
“Approaching the Scarlett Powers in the office is harder than you might think.” He stuffed his hands in his trouser pockets. “Plus I wanted to have our first conversation be a private one.”
“So you picked the company Christmas party?” The laugh snuck out of her.
“Not the best location.” Even in the dim light, she caught his grin. “But you’re looking mighty pretty, Scarlett. And, well, I hoped you might save me a dance?”
For just the second time in her life, Scarlett’s words came out as a confused stammer. Last time it happened, Simon defied convention by leading her to the middle of the dance floor, almost carrying her as he supported her without the aid of her crutches. Her dress covered the massive brace around her injured limb and in those few minutes of swaying to the music, she had felt normal again. For the last time.
Tears burned. “Why did you dance with me then?”
“So you do remember me.” Simon’s eyes lit like two candles. “You were sitting beside the dance floor, looking stunning in that blue dress and wearing the most wistful expression.”
“You pitied me?”
“No.” The word came out forceful. He sighed and scrubbed his face. “My sister told me what you did for her and the other girls. How you used your charms to make sure every one of them had a partner for the dance. And not just a partner to pity the homely ones, but the right match for the right girl so each would have a magical night.”
Scarlett felt embarrassment rising. She thought she cloaked her gift to the girls well enough that they wouldn’t realize she orchestrated it. All she wanted was for them to have the happiest of Christmases.
“Then I saw you sitting alone and I knew you didn’t use that gift for yourself.” Simon caught her hand. “I couldn’t let you miss out on what you gave to others. You deserved a magical Christmas, too.”
Emotion lodged in her throat.
“That dance is one of my favorite memories. I’d planned to ask to see you again after Christmas, but you left school, your family moved. I lost track of you. Imagine my delight when I discovered we work for the same company and that you are yet unattached.”
“You’re going to shatter my image with the general populace.” She tried to hide her melting heart behind a pinch of humor.
“Is that so bad?” He stepped closer. “I watched you tonight. You’ve hidden yourself in plain sight, Scarlett Powers, but your beautiful heart, I can still clearly see.”
The plume of her breath created a white cloud between them. Simon pushed through it to warm her lips with his. Full of promise and a wish come true. From the only man who made her feel truly seen. Oh pure audacity. Once a shield, now the courage she harnessed to meet this man with a kiss of her own.
“Ah Scarlett.” Simon held her close in the falling snow. “Shall we dance?”
Danielle Grandinetti loves writing short stories and none more than those that capture the magic of Christmas. It truly is the most wondrous time of the year. Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas!