Standing around the perimeter of the ballroom rented for the occasion, Hannah shifted uncomfortably in a deep red taffeta evening gown and in heels that were too high for her taste. She lifted her right hand to her hair and smoothed it down. She wasn’t accustomed to such luxury, and without Maria’s help, she wouldn’t have been able to afford it.
Maria stepped into the room behind her, all smiles and glowing complexion.
“Isn’t this just perfect?” Maria shouted over the live band music.
“‘Perfect’ isn’t the first word I’d use,” Hannah murmured, her eyes raking the room for a familiar face.
“You need a drink. You look about as at home as a pig in a slaughterhouse, ” Maria said as she grabbed Hannah’s clammy hand and took her to the refreshment table.
Hannah didn’t enjoy feeling so uptight, but this outfit, this party, this whole charade wasn’t her. Briefly, her mind drifted back to the days when she’d been swept up in attending parties with Kat, Will, and Harry… and how that had all ended in devastation. Forcing down those memories, Hannah refocused on the moment. If she couldn’t be her natural self, she didn’t think her chances boded well that she would come away tonight with a fellow.
Before Hannah could protest, Maria pressed a glass of the ruby alcoholic punch into her hands.
“Take the edge off,” Maria teased, taking a swig of her own punch. “If I’m not careful, I’ll be knocking a few of these back before the night’s through.” She laughed uproariously.
A weak smile played at Hannah’s red-lipsticked mouth. “I count myself lucky to be employed by a company that can afford to throw such extravagant parties,” she said. “Most people don’t even have the extra money to buy Christmas presents these days.”
“Aren’t you just the life of the party?” Maria said, an edge to her voice. “Come on, Hannah! You’ve worked nearly your whole life doing jobs. Can’t you relax enough to enjoy yourself for one night?”
“Okay, okay,” Hannah said.
Hannah sipped at the punch. Well into the second glass, Hannah told herself that she would stop once she emptied it, but the heady feeling was pleasant. Her eyes swept over the dance floor, the moving forms blending together. The band played a romantic number, the jazz clarinetist leading with his smooth, golden tones.
“Don’t look now, but someone’s got his peepers on you, babe,” Maria said, nudging Hannah’s side.
Hannah looked in the direction Maria indicated. An attractive man of average height stood opposite the dance floor. The man’s gaze locked with Hannah’s for several seconds, and he smiled slightly.
“Well, what are you waiting for? He’s noticed you. You can’t very well back out now,” Maria said.
A confidence she didn’t usually possess took hold of Hannah and propelled her across the room. She effortlessly dodged dancers and approached her admirer. Now that she was standing in front of him, she saw he was only a couple of inches taller than she was. His dark brown hair was slicked back, and behind round spectacles blue eyes gazed into Hannah’s face.
“Hello,” Hannah said.
“Hello,” the man replied. “I’m Edward… Edward Grunner.”
“Hannah Rechthart. Do you work for Dependable Electric?”
As soon as she asked the question, Hannah wished she could take the words back. This was the company’s Christmas party. Of course he worked at the same establishment!
“In accounting,” Edward said, smiling in amusement.
A blush rose across Hannah’s face as a nervous laugh escaped.
“It’s a big company,” Hannah reasoned. “I’ve worked here for a few years and never seen you.”
“I’m fairly new. I was behind the grind for several years.”
“You went to college?” Hannah asked.
“Yes, Case University. My step-father would have preferred I start working and not finish high school, but I suppose you could say I wanted something more. He’s gone now, anyway.”
Hannah was surprised to hear Edward speak so openly about his family.
“My parents divorced before I can remember. I never knew my father, but he was a drunk. My mother remarried when I was eight, but my step-father died ten years ago.”
Hannah blinked. The mention of an alcoholic in the family sat too close to heart. Recovering quickly, Hannah said, “In the past minute you’ve told me more about your history than most people who work around me have told me in years.”
“I’m sorry; does that offend?”
“No, actually. I appreciate your honesty.”
“I’ve been told my honesty is both my best and my worst attribute.” Edward chuckled. “Before I waste another moment of your time, I will simply tell you that I noticed you shining among the crowd.”
“You weren’t joking when you said you were honest,” Hannah said.
Edward took Hannah by the hand and ambled her toward the crowd on the ballroom floor. If she was at all awkward, Edward’s confidence made up for it as he swept her across the dance floor to the big band music.
Several songs later, Hannah said, “I could use a break. My feet are killing me in these shoes.”
Edward shrugged. “Why not take them off?”
Hannah had the gall to look offended.
Edward laughed outright. “Are you too much of a lady?”
“I’ve worked in the freezing rain, in the mud, in chicken waste. Do you think I’m a lady?”
“I’m impressed,” Edward said with genuine affection. “You, Hannah Rechthart, are just the woman I need.”
“What kind of woman is that?”
“One who will keep me in line.” Edward’s smile widened.
“Hmm…” Hannah pretended to mull over the events so far. “Well, then I just might be your woman after all, Eddy.”
They continued dancing well into the night, and out of the corner of her eye, Hannah noticed Maria, in a man’s arms, giving her the thumbs up. Soon the party was winding down, the music slowing.
A distinguished, well-dressed woman took the microphone and began softly chanting “Silent Night.” Hannah relaxed into Edward’s arms, her head resting on his right shoulder as if they had known each other for years. The comfort Hannah found with him was an unexpected gift, and as the song progressed, the two melted into one.
When the song ended, the president of the company stepped up and announced the conclusion of the party, wishing everyone a merry Christmas.
With some reluctance, Hannah pulled away from Edward, but they continued to hold hands, arms stretched out in front of them as they faced each other.
“Thank you for tonight,” Hannah said. “I didn’t come here with any expectations, but if I had, I would have to say they were far exceeded.”
Hand-in-hand, they walked toward the exit after gathering their coats. Stepping outside into the brisk air, Hannah’s face lit up as she looked at the heavens.
“It’s snowing,” she whispered.
“One surprise after another tonight,” Edward said, squeezing her hand gently.
“Mmm.” Searching the crowd leaving around them, Hannah said, “I’ll need to find my friend. I haven’t spoken with her since we arrived.”
“Before you go,” Edward said, pulling Hannah toward him again, “answer one question.”
“Would you be willing to see me again?”
“I think I just might.” Hannah smiled teasingly.
“Yes!” Hannah exclaimed, giggling like a child.
“Perfect.” Edward kissed her sweetly on the lips.
With more resolve than she had experienced in ages, Hannah returned the kiss, her mind remembering Maria’s remark upon entering the ballroom that evening.
Yes, this… this was just perfect.
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