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“I knew it.” Phoebe’s eyes flashed with victory, as if she were personally responsible for that kiss. “And?” She waited for Emma to elaborate.

“And nothing,” Emma returned. “It was okay as kisses go, but I didn’t feel the earth move or anything.”

“You didn’t?” This seemed shocking to Phoebe. “But everyone says—”

Emma had no interest in hearing the details of Flyboy’s amorous exploits, even if it was only by repute.

“The truth is,” she broke in, “that ninety percent of the time we were stranded, Oliver was busy playing poker with his cronies.”

Phoebe’s expression suggested that she was terribly disappointed in both of them. The only way to end this inquisition, Emma decided, was to ask a few questions of her own. “While I have your attention, I want you to tell me what’s going on between you and Walt,” she said. “You promised.”

Phoebe glanced over her shoulder and lowered her voice. “I’ve probably said more than I should have already.” She rolled her chair back across the aisle.

Emma followed her, and leaned against the cubicle wall with her arms folded. “I’m not sure whether I should thank you or yell at you for getting me this assignment.”

“I did not,” Phoebe insisted righteously. “I just felt Walt should know that if he didn’t do something quick, he was going to lose you, so I…I told him what you said about quitting.”

“That’s practically blackmail!” Emma said in a horrified voice. “What if he’d fired me because you told him I threatened to quit?”

“Don’t worry about that. I wouldn’t have let it happen,” Phoebe said calmly. “But you deserve a shot at something other than obituaries. I knew Walt couldn’t afford to let you go—and he knows it, too.”

“Okay, at least you used your power for good,” Emma murmured. She was thankful that Phoebe had spoken to Walt on her behalf; still, she’d rather stand on her own merit. “Oliver said that when he asked about me, you sang like a canary. And that’s a quote.”

Phoebe laughed out loud. “Yeah, right, and if you believe that, then you don’t know me at all.”

“I thought he was exaggerating.” Just then the phone on her desk rang. Reaching across the aisle, Emma picked up the receiver. It was Walt, wanting to see her. Now.

Phoebe’s eyes widened in speculation when Emma hung up the phone.

“Wish me luck,” she mouthed to her friend. Grabbing a pad and pen, she walked up the stairs. When she got to his office, her boss was on the phone, but he motioned her inside. He grinned in her direction, which boded well. She had no idea who he was talking to or about what—although the word “no” featured prominently—but after another moment he ended the conversation.

Emma sat in the chair on the other side of his desk.

“So. You’re back.”

She nodded, but resisted mentioning the motel bill.

“I understand you and Oliver Hamilton had a bit of an adventure.”

She couldn’t help wondering how much Walt knew about what had happened in Yakima. “You could say that.” She mulled over how to tell him she refused to fly with Oliver again.

“The interview with Earleen Williams went well?”

She nodded. “Earleen was wonderful. She was flattered by the attention and excited about the article. Her recipe’s terrific—I had a taste and, believe it or not, I loved it. By the way, she’s already signed the legal documentation so we can print her recipe in The Examiner.” If nothing else, Walt should be pleased by that.

He inclined his head slightly in apparent approval. “I’d like the article about Earleen on my desk this afternoon.”

Emma’s mouth fell open. “This afternoon? As in today?”

Walt raised his eyebrows as if she’d contravened some kind of reporters’ code by daring to ask such a question.

Swallowing hard, she offered him an apologetic smile. “It’ll be there.”

“Good.” His eyebrows started to return to their usual position. “And be ready to leave for Colville first thing tomorrow.”

So soon? She wanted to tell him she needed time to regroup after the flight from Yakima. Yes, it had gone fairly well. Other than the fact that she’d nearly vomited. The best part was that she’d survived without drugs. Her employer simply had no idea what she’d gone through just to get to the other town and home again in one piece. Then there was the problem of no transportation when they’d landed in Yakima. Not only had she risked her life for this interview, but she’d encountered germs besides.

Now all she had to do was find a way to tell Walt that she preferred to drive to her next interview. “If you have a moment, I’d like to talk to you about Sophie McKay.”

Walt gave her a questioning look.

“As you know, I ended up spending the night in Yakima. In a motel room. A cheap one.”

He sat back in his chair. “Hamilton said that was unavoidable.”

So Walt had already spoken to Oliver. “There’s no guarantee it won’t happen again—being delayed due to weather, I mean.”

He pinched his lips together. “True. Not to worry, the newspaper will reimburse you for the room.”

Emma couldn’t prevent a look of surprise at his easy capitulation on the matter of her expenses. Still, that wasn’t her main concern at the moment.

“I appreciate it, but I was thinking, you know, that it’d probably be better if I drove to Colville this time, rather than fly. I realize it’s a full day’s drive, but—”

Walt raised his hand and stopped her. “Out of the question. I already have an agreement with Hamilton. He’s got a run into Spokane tomorrow morning. He’ll drop you off at Colville, fly into Spokane and then come back for you later in the afternoon.”

Emma’s heart shot to her throat. “You actually want me to do this again…tomorrow?”

Walt nodded. “Meet Oliver at the airfield same time as before.”

“Oh.” She stood, but her feet felt weighted down. In less than twenty-four hours, she was going back up into the wide blue yonder with Oliver Hamilton.

“Have a good day,” Walt said, turning to his computer and dismissing her. “Remember, I want that first article before you leave this afternoon. We’re already in the second week of December, and there’s a time factor here.” He gestured at some limp Christmas garland draped on his window.

“It’ll be on your desk,” she promised, relieved that she had the rough draft on her laptop computer.

More by instinct than knowledge, she stumbled back down to her cubicle in The Dungeon, preoccupied by the fact that she’d be flying again so soon. She’d learned that—especially with the help of drugs—she could handle being in a small plane. She didn’t like it, never would, but in all honesty, the flight hadn’t been as bad as she’d feared.

Examining her reluctance to repeat the experience, she was forced to admit something she’d rather ignore. More than the flying itself, it was Oliver Hamilton she wanted to avoid.

Chapter Seven

A fruitcake is to a chef what love is to a gigolo—an item we both desperately try to avoid.

—Michael Psilakis, executive chef and owner of Onera, New York City

Oliver wasn’t in the best of moods. He’d made a recent and rather disturbing discovery: Emma Collins wasn’t good for his ego. Until he met her, he’d been doing just fine when it came to attracting the opposite sex. Better than fine.

His late-afternoon conversation with Walt had further eroded his ego. Apparently, upon their return from Yakima, Emma had attempted to get out of flying with him a second time. Fortunately, Walt had said no; a deal was a deal and Oliver didn’t plan to let her kill his chances of advertising his air-freight business in the local paper.

Okay, he’d admit it’d been a mistake to kiss her, a mistake he didn’t intend to repeat. If this was how Emma felt, then he could ignore her, too.

A glance at his watch told him she had five minutes to show up. If she wasn’t at the airport by seven, he was leaving without her. He would’ve kept his end of the bargain, and she’d just have to explain to her boss that she’d been late. He’d only signed this new contract a few weeks ago, flying Alaska salmon packed in dry ice to restaurants in Spokane and Portland. It was a regular job and he couldn’t afford to mess up the opportunity.

Just as he was about to board the plane, Emma hurried onto the tarmac, clutching her briefcase and a large takeout coffee.

“You’re late,” he snapped.

“I most certainly am not.” Then, perhaps to reassure herself, she stopped and checked her watch. “I’ve got five minutes to spare,” she announced with more than an edge of righteousness. “At least by my watch.”

“Well, not by mine.”

This time she wasn’t having trouble remaining upright because—or so he assumed—of some stupid pill.

Regardless, he was going to stick to his policy of ignoring her; he’d simply fly his plane.

He felt her scrutiny. “Someone got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning,” she said in a singsong voice.

He pretended not to hear. Oscar was already in the plane, ready and waiting to take off. The terrier poked his head out the passenger door as if to ask what was taking so long.

“Listen,” Emma said, “why don’t we start over, all right?”

“Fine, whatever.”

She rolled her eyes and climbed into the plane with absolutely no complaints. He didn’t know what had happened to get her to relax. She’d probably switched drugs and had swallowed some heavy-duty, industrial-strength mood enhancer. Nothing else could explain this cheerful state of mind.

Suddenly he wondered if she’d been drinking, although she’d denied it yesterday. He studied her and sniffed on the off-chance he could smell alcohol.

She glared at him. “Why are you looking at me like that? What’s wrong with you, anyway?”

“Nothing,” he muttered, returning to the task at hand. He walked beneath the wing, stepping in front of the engine to examine the blades.

Emma’s headphones were in place, with the small microphone positioned by her mouth, before he’d finished his preflight check.

His faithful—or should that be faithless?—companion had obviously accepted her, barely raising his head when Oliver climbed into the plane. Oscar had settled onto his dog bed in the cargo hold.

“You didn’t wear perfume this time, did you?” he asked.

“No, because I didn’t want to get sneezed on again.”

“Well, good for you.”

Her eyes narrowed. “I don’t know why you’re in such a bad mood, but I wish you’d snap out of it.”

As if to apologize for Oliver, his terrier stood up and poked his head between the two seats. When Emma bent toward him, he licked her ear. Smiling, she stroked his face. Traitor that he was, Oscar seemed to relish her attention. Not until the engine started did the dog go back to his bed.

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