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Emma didn’t have the heart to tell her that The Examiner was a regional paper with a limited circulation. Of course, Puyallup was considerably bigger than Colville with its population of less than seven thousand, and compared to Colville’s weekly, The Examiner was practically the New York Times.

“How was your flight?” Barbara shooed a cat out of a chair and joined them.

“Uneventful—just the way I like them.” The discomfort of a full bladder was not a topic she wished to pursue.

Barbara wasn’t the only visitor Sophie had. By the end of the interview, Emma had been introduced to Dixie, Sophie’s next-door neighbor; Florence, her best friend; and Cathy, who cleaned her house once a week. They all gathered around the table with tea and chocolate fruitcake and told story after story. Their laughter echoed through the house. It was a party unlike any Emma had ever gone to; none of these women were close to her age but she felt like one of them.

By the time Sophie dropped her off at the airfield, it was almost two in the afternoon. The Cessna was parked at the end of the strip near the hangar, and Emma assumed Oliver was inside.

“I’ll wait just to be sure,” Sophie insisted.

Emma didn’t want to hold up the other woman, but reluctantly agreed. She hurried over to the plane, seeking Oliver, disappointed not to find him immediately. She felt excited—no, elated—after the interview and wanted to talk about the experience. Share some of the wisdom she’d gained from Sophie and her friends.

In discussing the interview with Oliver, she might get a slant for her story. She had a thousand ideas and impressions chasing around in her head and needed to sort through them. It was important to her that she do Sophie and her friends justice.

“Oliver!” she called out. He might have curled up inside the hangar for a nap. “Oscar?”

No response.

Emma let Boots out of the restroom and bent down to feed her the can of cat food Sophie had given her. The dog would be too hungry to be finicky, Emma guessed, and she was right. Boots gobbled up the small can’s contents and looked for more.

Emma found her cell phone and walked outside to make sure she’d get a good connection. She waved at Sophie, then punched in the number for his cell. The phone rang three times before Oliver responded.

“Hamilton.”

“Where are you?” she asked.

“You’re finished?”

“Where are you?” she repeated. She couldn’t place the background noise, which sounded like some sort of circus.

“The casino. It’s a couple of miles out of town.”

After the poker experience, she should’ve known he’d be gambling. “Will you be much longer?”

“I’m in, I’m in,” he shouted, obviously not to her. “Listen, I’m in the middle of a game and I can’t quit. Find a way out here, will you?”

“You want me to come to the casino?” She couldn’t believe the nerve of this man.

He didn’t answer and the line was disconnected. She called again, but this time there was no answer, even after a dozen rings. Like it or not—and she didn’t—Emma was going to the casino.

Chapter Nine

On the short drive to the casino, Emma brooded about the unreliability of Oliver Hamilton. She hoped Sophie didn’t notice how upset she was with her so-called pilot. In case he’d forgotten, she needed to get back to the newspaper office sometime before the end of the Christmas season.

“Colville’s a pleasant little town,” Sophie was telling her. “I wish you had more time to look around. There’s a lumber mill on the other side of town, which helps keep the local economy afloat.”

Emma smiled politely, finding it difficult to concentrate. Boots was curled up next to her feet and had gone to sleep. She still didn’t know what she was going to do with the stray. Maybe she could persuade Phoebe to take her until Emma moved into a new apartment that allowed pets.

When Sophie pulled up in front of the casino, Emma had to look twice. The place resembled nothing so much as an overgrown tavern. Other than a sign on the roadway, there wasn’t a single indication that this was a casino. Emma had expected flashing neon lights, a fancy restaurant offering steak and lobster dinners at cut-rate prices, uniformed valets. Instead, Sophie parked on a gravel lot.

“I can’t thank you enough,” Emma told the other woman as she climbed out of the vehicle. Boots hopped out with her as Emma reached for her purse and briefcase.

“It was lovely to meet you,” Sophie said, leaning across the front seat. “I hope you win today. I’ll be out here on Sunday after church—for bingo. I won eight hundred dollars a year ago.” She grinned. “Like I said, I’m just plain lucky.”

The door to the casino opened and out sauntered the largest lumberjack Emma had ever seen. Not that she’d seen many lumberjacks. This man had to be close to seven feet tall and wore a red plaid shirt, dirt-smudged jeans with suspenders and a red wool cap. She glanced around, just to make sure Babe, the blue ox, wasn’t following behind.

He took one look at Emma and pointed a beefy finger in her direction. “You. Be my woman.”

Emma gasped.

Shaking her head, Sophie got out of the driver’s seat. “Grizzly, you leave this young lady alone.”

Grizzly looked crestfallen and rubbed the side of his face. “I shaved before I came into town.”

“It takes more than a shave to attract a woman. Now apologize.”

Grizzly shuffled from one foot to the other. “I didn’t mean no offense.”

“None taken.” After a final wave for Sophie, Emma grabbed Boots and tucked the dog under her arm as she scurried into the casino. When she found Oliver, she intended to let him know exactly what she thought.

Oscar was patiently waiting for Oliver just inside the door. As soon as he saw Emma and Boots, he barked twice. This appeared to be the cue Oliver was waiting for, because he turned abruptly and faced the door.

He was at a table near the entrance playing some card game. Blackjack? It was hard to tell in the smoky haze. The entire place was shrouded in cigarette smoke, and she gave an involuntary cough. Oscar sneezed, but she managed to jump back in time.

“Won’t be long,” Oliver called out. “Make yourself comfortable.”

“In here?” The smoke was likely to kill her first.

With a disgusted grimace, he left the table and walked toward her. “I’ll be ten minutes or so.”

At her horrified expression, he looked over his shoulder at the blackjack table. “You want something to eat?” he asked quickly.

“No, I want to go home. How are we supposed to get back to the airfield? And why did you make me come out here, anyway?”

He gazed at her a moment, pure innocence in his eyes. “Why, Ms. Collins, I thought you’d enjoy being introduced to another fascinating aspect of Washington state culture. Maybe you could write a travel piece. And like I said, you can get a meal here. Or try one of the slot machines. Don’t worry about getting back, either. A friend of a friend said he’d give us a ride to the airfield. You’ll like Grizzly. And don’t be put off by his name. He’s as gentle as a lamb.”

“Grizzly?” That completely distracted her from the sarcastic remark she’d been about to make.

“Now, don’t judge a man by his name. He’s a sweetheart.”

“Big guy in a red plaid shirt?”

Oliver nodded. “You know him?”

“He just asked me to be his woman,” she said from between clenched teeth.

Oliver blinked. “I’m sure he didn’t mean it.”

Emma’s eyes opened wide. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“He doesn’t come into town often. Don’t worry, you’re safe.”

If that was supposed to reassure her, it didn’t. From the sound of it, the big guy hardly ever saw a woman. And since she was going to be stuck in some vehicle with him, he might well think he’d hit the jackpot.

“I’m in the middle of a lucky streak.” For the first time Oliver seemed to notice that Boots was with her. “What do you intend to do with the dog?”

“I…I haven’t figured that out yet.”

Someone impatiently shouted Oliver’s name.

“Be right with you,” he yelled over his shoulder. “Can’t you entertain yourself for a few minutes?”

He spoke as if she were ten years old.

“Don’t be concerned about me,” she said. Next time she was going to insist on driving, and she wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“Hamilton, you in or not?”

“In,” he shouted back.

Emma watched him sprint over to the table. This was great; it was either breathe in smoke or risk facing Paul Bunyan in the parking lot. Emma decided her chances were better in the casino. But she didn’t like it there. Boots didn’t, either. The dog trembled in her arms, alarmed by all the lights and noise. Oscar, however, despite an occasional sneeze, relaxed in his corner by the door. He appeared to be an old hand at this, which no doubt he was.

After a few minutes, Emma couldn’t tolerate the smoke anymore. She needed fresh air. She stepped outside and wasn’t completely pleased when Oliver’s terrier followed her into the pale wintry sunlight. She didn’t like the way Oscar was eyeing Boots. Her hold on Boots tightened. No way was she letting Oscar have his way with this sweet dog.

“If you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking,” she told the other dog, “forget it. Boots is off-limits. Understand?” Once she got home, there’d be a veterinary appointment for Boots—checkup, shots and spaying. She planned to be a responsible pet-owner, and that included thwarting Oscar’s evil-minded intentions.

It was cold outside, and her fashionable leather boots weren’t enough to keep her feet warm. Her toes lost feeling; reluctantly she retreated inside once again, determined to drag Oliver away from the gaming table if necessary.

Fortunately, he was finished with his game. Counting his money as he walked toward her, he looked up as if nothing were amiss and smiled. “I won three hundred dollars.”

She ignored that. “Can we leave for the airfield now?” she asked, keeping her voice as level and even as she could manage.

“Sure thing. And considering your worries about Grizzly, I got us another ride.”

“Good.”

“You don’t have any objection to riding in the back of a pickup, do you? It’s only a couple of miles.”

“What?”

“Just kidding.”

“Ha, ha.” She wasn’t amused.

“Come on, Emma, loosen up. Where’s your Christmas spirit?”

She didn’t answer. The less said regarding her feelings about Christmas, the better. Instead she asked, “Three of us are supposed to cram into a truck cab?”

“You have a problem with that?”

“As a matter of fact, I do. I’ll find my own way back to the airfield.” Oliver was really starting to get on her nerves. “Why did you have me come out here, anyway?” she demanded. “Seriously. Don’t give me any nonsense about culture or travel, either.”

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