A few minutes later, she left the hangar and walked over to Sophie’s Taurus. A welcome blast of hot air warmed her the instant she slid into the passenger seat.
“I have to tell you,” Sophie said as she slipped the stick shift into reverse and revved the engine. “You coming for this interview has really stirred up interest in town. We don’t get much notice this side of the mountains. Of course, there’s not much that’s newsworthy coming out of Colville, so the western half of the state doesn’t pay us much mind.”
“Your fruitcake recipe is a finalist in a national contest,” Emma reminded her.
“Yes,” she agreed readily enough, “that was exciting news around here. It made the front page of our weekly paper. Still, none of us figured anyone in the Seattle area would care about my recipe.”
“Why do you think yours was chosen?” Emma asked. She might as well get started with the interview now. She opened her purse and brought out her notebook and one of her pens.
“That’s easy. It’s different. How many recipes have you heard of for chocolate fruitcake?”
“That’s right. I created it for my husband years ago and he loved it. Christmas just isn’t Christmas without it anymore. I’ve been baking my chocolate fruitcake every year for longer than I can remember.”
“I imagine your husband appreciates that.”
Sophie took her eyes off the road for an instant. “Harry’s been gone twenty years.”
“I’m sorry,” Emma murmured awkwardly. “Um, when exactly did you create this fruitcake?”
“It all began shortly after Harry and I were married. Within a year he was off to fight in World War Two,” Sophie told her. “I mailed the chocolate fruitcake to him and he got a real kick out of that because, you see, we’d had our first real fight over fruitcake. I’ll explain all that once we get back to the house. He wrote to let me know how much he enjoyed it, and I’ve been baking it every year since. I still have all his letters. Now that he’s gone, I read them every once in a while for the memories.”
“You never remarried?”
“No, I never did. I found the love of my life. There wasn’t another man like Harry and I knew it.” Sophie shook her head as she drove down Main Street and the large clock that stood in the center of town. From there, she turned up a steep hill and past the city park.
Although Harry McKay was very different from her own father, Sophie’s devotion reminded her of her mother’s. Pamela had been like that, loving one man her entire life, despite his weaknesses and flaws. Bret Collins wasn’t worthy of such adoration, such heartfelt affection. And Emma wasn’t willing to be the daughter he seemed to want now that he was aging.
“Did you have any children?” she asked, unwilling to waste another moment thinking about her father.
“Two sons. Both live in other parts of the country. Harry was very proud of his sons. I am, too. They’re good boys—handsome like Harry and smart like me.” She laughed a little as she pulled into a long driveway that led to an older home with a large front porch. Sophie parked in the back and turned off the engine.
“The boys want to buy me a new car this Christmas,” she said with a thoughtful look. “Lonnie wants to get me one of those old-style cars you see around. I forget what they’re called—Cruisers, I think. Unfortunately, they don’t come with a stick shift.”
“You don’t like automatics?” Emma asked.
“Never learned how to drive them and at my age, I’m comfortable with what I know.”
That made sense to Emma.
Sophie ushered her onto the back porch. She stepped around pie tins filled with cat food, both kibble and canned.
“Sorry for the mess and the smell,” Sophie apologized. “I feed the strays. Some of them have bad teeth, hence the soft food. God only knows how many cats I’ve got living under this old porch. I do what I can for them—take the sick ones to the vet and give them a bit of attention.” She paused and smiled. “It makes me feel good, even when they don’t appreciate it.”
Emma looked out over the large well-maintained lawn and flower beds. “Your yard is lovely.”
A fir wreath with pinecones and red bows hung in the kitchen window. “You should see my irises in the spring. I have them planted everywhere and the yard is full of color. Flowers, cats and chocolate fruitcakes are my passion. Harry and the boys, too, of course, but my husband is gone and my boys are living their own lives now. They don’t need me the way they once did.” She unlocked the back door and brought Emma into the oversize family kitchen. Three cats meowed as they entered. “These are Huey, Duey and Louey. They’re the house cats. They’re spoiled, ill-mannered and don’t take kindly to strangers or dogs, so you’ll have to forgive them.”
Emma petted one, who instantly scooted into another room.
“This is the problem with living alone,” Sophie said as she filled the kettle and placed it on the stove. “It’s just me and the cats and we have certain ways of doing things.”
Sophie walked into the dining room and returned with a large teapot. “I reserve this one for special company,” she said as she measured out tea leaves. Motioning toward the table, she added, “Make yourself comfortable. Just pull out the chair if there’s a cat in it and he’ll move.”
“All right.” Sure enough, a large tabby was nestled on the seat cushion. As soon as Emma drew out the chair, the cat stretched and yawned and grudgingly vacated the seat.
“Here, let me brush away the cat hairs.” Sophie brought over a whisk broom and swept off the cushion.
“Thank you.” Emma sat down at the table, which was cluttered with magazines, newspapers, mail and sales flyers.
Sophie glanced at the wall-mounted clock. “Do you mind if I turn on the radio for a few minutes? It’s bingo.”
“Ah…sure.” Bingo over the radio? Emma had never heard of such a thing.
The radio was on the table, too, next to an aged photograph of a young man in uniform. Harry, Emma guessed. His widow was right; he’d been a handsome man. Other pictures caught her attention—framed photographs of two families. Emma assumed they were Sophie’s two sons and their wives and kids.
Her hostess turned on the radio, sat down and lined up her bingo cards in neat rows. Her timing was perfect. She reached for a round blotter pen and waited for the numbers to be called. Her eyes darted back and forth over the cards after each number was announced. Radio bingo was followed by the farm report, which Sophie immediately switched off.
“Sorry about that, but I’m on a winning streak. I’ve won two weeks in a row,” she told her proudly as the kettle on the stove started to whistle. “My friends say I’m lucky, and it’s true.”
“I’ve never heard of radio bingo.”
“You haven’t?” Sophie shook her head as if this was a real shame. “The local merchants sponsor it. When you bingo, you call it in to the station and then take your card to the participating merchant for your prize.”
“What did you win?” Emma asked, curious now.
“Five dollars off my next haircut at Venus de Milo Beauty Salon, and the week before, it was buy one, get one free at the A & W Drive-In. If you were going to be in town longer and it wasn’t so cold, I’d take you down for one of their root beer floats.”
Emma smiled appreciatively as Sophie poured the tea and brought out a dark wrapped loaf from the refrigerator.
“I thought you might want to try my chocolate fruitcake.”
“You’ll be surprised—pleasantly so,” Sophie told her. Within minutes, she brought two cups of tea and a plate of the most unusual-looking fruitcake Emma had ever seen.
“Taste it,” the woman urged.
Emma helped herself to a slice, unsure what to expect. The flavors came alive in her mouth and she widened her eyes. Sophie hadn’t exaggerated. This was incredibly good. “Is that pineapple I taste?”
“Yup, and coconut, too.”
“Oh, this is wonderful.” Emma took another bite and licked her fingers when she’d finished. For the second time, her preconceptions and prejudices about something—fruitcake—had been tested.
“I use lots of nuts. Harry was wild about pecans. My own favorite is walnuts. Do you realize how good nuts are for you?” she asked conversationally. “Just think about it. Inside each nut is the potential for an entire tree. They’re packed full of nutrition. A lot of people are concerned about the fat content, but nuts have good fat, not bad fat.”
Emma smiled. Being with Sophie was such a delight that she was having a hard time remembering to take notes. “How did you come up with the recipe?”
“That’s the most interesting part,” she said, joining her at the table once more. “The first year Harry and I were married, I wanted to make fruitcake at Christmas. My mother always had, and I wanted to be a good wife and homemaker, just like her. Harry told me he hated fruitcake and furthermore he didn’t want me wasting money on ingredients for a cake he wouldn’t even eat. This was toward the end of the Depression, when money was still scarce. I told him he was being selfish and mean, and I burst into tears.” She paused and sipped her tea.
“You see, to me, Christmas was fruitcake. It felt as if Harry had asked me to give up my favorite holiday. That was our first big fight. Telling me I couldn’t bake that fruitcake was like telling me we couldn’t afford Christmas.”
As far as this Christmas thing went, Emma’s sympathies were with Harry.
“The next morning,” Sophie continued, “Harry said if it meant that much to me, I should go ahead and do whatever I wanted. So I baked fruitcake, but I used the ingredients I knew Harry liked best. When I told him what I’d done, he put his arms around me and said it wasn’t any wonder he loved me as much as he did. Harry had a real sweet tooth, especially for good chocolate.”
“You used the ingredients he liked?” Emma thought that was a clever compromise.
“I admit chocolate fruitcake isn’t run-of-the-mill fruitcake, but that’s what got me into the finals, don’t you think? I can only imagine how many recipes they received. Mine was different, and I have my Harry to thank for that.”
Emma made another note on her tablet. Sophie was about to say something else when someone knocked on the back door.
“That’ll be Barbara, my sister-in-law. I told her she could stop by and meet you. I didn’t think you’d mind.”
“Sure, that’s fine.”
Barbara came into the kitchen, wearing a heavy winter coat and a long hand-knit scarf with matching gloves. “Hello,” she said, beaming Emma a warm smile. She removed her gloves, tucked them in her pockets, then extended her right hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. We’re all so proud of Sophie, and it’s nice that the Seattle newspaper’s doing this.”