By the end of the next day, Operation Hank was well underway. Olivia O’Neill, the real estate agent, was scouring the area for a house for Mina and Daniel. Phoebe and Stacey signed all sorts of documents at Daniel’s office, and more documents at Stacey Carpenter’s office. The bank quietly opened an account for Ware Event Planning. Mina provided colorful elegant business cards. Insurance policies were written and secured behind closed doors.

Phase 2 of Operation Hank would have to wait until after the holidays. Daniel couldn’t move out until a house was found. Until he moved out, furniture couldn’t be bought and installed in the upstairs office of his building. (Anne McDonald insisted on organizing that.) Callie was making list after list to keep track of it all.

But by Christmas Eve, she had enough, she thought, to convince Hank of her commitment to Ware. The day before, she had sent him a text, her heart hammering: Hank, can you help me?

He responded immediately: Of course. What do you need?

Be courageous, she told herself. I don’t have anyone to take me to the Christmas Ball, which is kind of embarrassing since I organized the whole thing. Could you take me?

Strangely, minutes passed by before he responded. Something must have interrupted him before he could answer, because his next text was normal Hank. Of course. Pick you up at 8?

I have to be there early to make sure everything is ready. Could you meet me there at 7:30?

This time the response was quick: I’ll be there.

Callie enfolded copies of her legal documents in fancy Christmas wrapping paper and secured it all with a red gauzy bow. She taped her business card under the bow. Perfect!

Then she turned her attention to the ball and all the details that needed to be checked or attended to. Finally, at 2pm on Christmas Eve, Mina marched onto their office at home and forcibly dragged her out. “Time to get ready for your ball,” Mina said firmly. Callie laughingly agreed.

She emerged from the shower in her robe to find Mina bringing out the dress she had found in her mother’s things. Freshly dry-cleaned, it looked even more beautiful. Mina smiled. “You are going to look gorgeous.”

Two hours later, Callie looked in Mina’s full-length mirror and barely recognized herself. She looked slim and sophisticated in the dress, which fitted her perfectly in smooth flowing lines. Her arms were clad in white-full length gloves (Anne’s contribution), her feet in pale blue low pumps (Phoebe’s idea). Her hair was pulled back and cascaded in waves down the back of her head.  A silver-sequined purse on a long silver chain hung from one shoulder. She wore small crystal earrings that glittered in the light. From the pale pink lipstick to the hint of light blue eyeshadow, the makeup accentuated the curves and planes of her face. Poised, stylish, quietly beautiful -

“Who is that?” Callie whispered.

“You,” Mina smiled.

Mina loaned her the full-length white winter cloak, which looked exquisite with her dress, and drove her to City Hall. The Ball was being held in the community room, which had been transformed into a beautiful ballroom with evergreen ropes and wreaths, flameless candles, and poinsettias of various colors all around the ballroom. At one end were tables filled with punch, desserts and snacks. Clutching her present for Hank, she ran through her checklist to make sure everything was okay.

At 7:30, she was fixing a flameless tapered candle that had gone out when she sensed Hank was somewhere near. She turned toward the entrance and saw him entering, looking around the room.

She caught her breath. On a normal day, she considered Hank a very handsome man, comfortable in jeans and a t-shirt or flannel shirt. In the black tuxedo, he was devastating. She gulped and composed herself before he saw her. She noted with no little satisfaction that he also looked stunned. After all the times he had seen her a weepy awful mess, she was happy that this time she looked presentable.

He crossed over to her with that heart-stealing smile. He held out a clear plastic box containing a corsage. “I brought this for you,” he said.

The corsage was made of pale blue rosebuds set in silver foil leaves – Anne’s doing, she was sure. She held out his Christmas present. “This is for you – don’t look at it yet, okay?”

He looked mystified but agreed. She pinned on the corsage, then traded the plastic box for the Christmas present. She asked, “Can we just step over this way for a minute?”

“Sure.” As she led him back through the entrance to an unused office area, he leaned in and whispered, “You clean up well.”

She laughed and shook her head. “Just what every girl wants to hear to boost her confidence.”

He opened the door for her and followed her in. “What is it, Callie?”

She had been through what she wanted to say over and over, but now, looking up at this breathtakingly handsome man in his fancy tuxedo, she felt cold. What if she was wrong? What if he didn’t care whether she left or not? Then she would be foolish and presumptive –

He leaned close to look in her eyes. “Tell me, Callie. What’s wrong?”

Do not be afraid. Be courageous.

She took a deep breath. Lord, please – “Hank –“ she swallowed nervously. “Hank, have you ever wondered what I’d do when I get my inheritance?”

It was the strangest thing, it was as if a shutter had fallen over his eyes. They become completely expressionless. He shrugged and slid his hands in pockets of his trousers. “I suppose you’ll go back to Charleston or try somewhere else.”

Yes! More confidently she continued, “I won’t.”

“Maybe not now, but later on – I know you won’t be able to stay. It’s okay,” he smiled, trying to reassure her – to make things easier for me, again! she thought, her heart constricting – “I’ve always known that. But, Callie, just remember, whatever you do, wherever you go – if you need anything, you can ask me.”

“Oh Hank,” she sighed, “I know that. You’ve always taken such good care of me. You’ve saved my life this year. But Hank, the problem is, I can’t leave.”

He looked totally confused. “What?”

Callie smiled. “I can’t leave. Oh Hank, I love it here! I’m so happy. I love this town, I love these people, I love my house, I love who I’ve become – I have zero desire to go anywhere else. But I knew you wouldn’t believe that – don’t,” she forestalled him as he started to protest, “you just said that later on I’d change my mind. So I’ve decided to open my own business in Ware. Now I can’t leave because everything I have will be tied up in my business here. This is my Christmas present to you. You won’t have to worry about me because I’ll be right here where you can see for yourself that I’m doing okay.” She held out the wrapped papers.

He took the present from her – his hand seemed to tremble but it was probably just the flimsy paper making it look that way – and he pulled out the business card. “Ware Event Planning?”

“Event planning is all I’ve been doing for months, and it’s been so much fun! Everything I like to do, and everything I’m good at. So I wondered, why not get paid for it?”

He held up the gift-wrapped papers. “What’s this?”

“Open it,” she answered with a mischievous smile.

He raised an eyebrow but slipped off the bow and pulled upon the giftwrap. He set those aside and started looking through the papers.

“That one creates my corporation,” she explained, stepping beside him and looking over his arm. She caught a faint scent of his cologne – some kind of citrus and cedar mix – and she thought, oh Lord, does he have to smell so good too? This is no time to get distracted! “That’s my bank account. My aunt is providing a line of credit as a silent partner. That one is my rental agreement. My offices will be in the space over Daniel’s law office.”

“But that’s where he lives,” Hank pointed out, looking confused again.

“Not for long,” she told him, “he’s buying a house for when he and Mina get married. Daniel said he was giving me such a good deal, I’d be crazy to go somewhere else.”

He scanned the lease. “He’s right.” He looked up at her. “Twenty-five years?”

“With an option to renew,” she shot back, deadpan.

“You want to stay?” he asked, looking like he still couldn’t quite believe it.

“Yes.”  She stepped back to face him and put her hands on his arms. “Hank, I love it here. I found myself here. I found my family here. Nowhere else has that. You won’t have to worry about me being far away where you can’t check on me. That’s my gift to you - showing you that you don’t have to worry.”

He shook his head. “You did all this for me?”

She nodded seriously. ““I knew you wouldn’t believe I’d want to stay, so I came up with all this to convince you.” Then one corner of her mouth quirked up. “There is a downside to my staying though.”

“And what would that be?”

She smiled joyously. “You have to keep looking after me.”

Instead of the banter she expected, he said firmly, “I told you I would always be there for you. No downside.”

She stared up at him, wondering how he could be so kind to her. He looked down and folded the papers. Slipping them into the inside pocket of his jacket, he told her, “I’ll return these to you after the ball. It would be a little awkward dancing while I’m holding them.”

“We get to dance?” she whispered.

“Yes,” he whispered back with a teasing grin. “Come on, let’s go have some fun!”

She let him tug her out of the room back to the ballroom. While they were gone, the room had filled with men in tuxedos and women in fancy evening gowns. Music had started and the couples were dancing in a whirl of colors. Callie gasped as Hank swept her onto the floor in a smooth effortless waltz. She had never seen him this happy or carefree.

The music slowed and stopped. She told him, “You are an excellent dancer.”

“That’s Gramma’s doing,” he smiled. “She insisted I learn every dance step she knew. She knows a lot of dance steps.”

The music started again – “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” – and he folded her arm against his chest as he placed his hand on her back to guide her in a two-step. The feeling of his warm hand against her bare back was very distracting. She sensed his head leaning down so he could whisper in her ear, “You’re sure you’ll never leave me?”

“I -” Her eyes flew open and she looked up at him in astonishment. She must not have heard him right. It was her own wishful thinking.

He waited.

Her cheeks burned. Two could play that game! She lowered her head and tried to concentrate on the steps while she waited.

He whispered again in her ear. “Are you sure you will never leave me?”

Her mouth went dry. She had heard him right. What could she say to that? Finally, she choked out, “Never.”

He whispered again. “Thank you.”

They sat out very few dances and by the time he took her home, she was pleasantly tired. Outside, he opened the truck’s passenger door; she looked at the running board and then down at her the narrow skirt of her dress. She would have to hitch it up to climb into the truck. Suddenly she was lifted up and placed firmly on the seat. Hank smiled. “Problem solved.”

At her house, he helped her down the same way. He returned her papers to her, then walked her to her door. She unlocked it and as she opened the door, she turned to say good night. She stopped short at the look on his face. The strain lines were gone and the shadows had vanished. He seemed younger somehow. He said good night and brushed her cheek with a quick kiss. Then, still smiling, he hurried back to the truck. He seemed free – as if some great burden has been lifted from him.

Operation Hank had been a success.

She touched her cheek uncertainly. I guess. 

"That Little Thing" Copyright © 2020 by Susan Stafford