Fortunately, when she arrived Mr. Scott was nowhere to be seen. Clutching Boots with one arm, Emma wrapped her coat around the dog. Anyone who noticed her bulging side would guess she was making a poor attempt at hiding something. That being the case, she could only hope no one suspected it was a dog.
Her mind was whirring from her afternoon with Sophie McKay and the woman’s community of family and friends. Sophie’s chocolate fruitcake recipe was unusual, and it didn’t surprise Emma that it was a finalist. As soon as possible, she wanted to sit down with her laptop and begin drafting the article. First, however, she had to give Boots a bath.
The moment Emma entered her small one-bedroom apartment, she closed the drapes. She didn’t want Mr. Scott walking past and peering through her window. Her neighbors on both sides had decorated Christmas trees on display in theirs. Not Emma.
After checking the refrigerator and discovering an open box of baking soda, two small containers of yogurt and a shriveled-up orange, she realized she’d need to go out later for dog food.
Because she was hungry, she ate the yogurt as she ran warm water into her bathtub. Boots sauntered from room to room, sniffing and exploring her new home. The dog didn’t object when Emma placed her in the water and gave her a bath. Using her own shampoo, she worked up a good lather, then rinsed Boots off and repeated the process, finishing with a cream rinse that left the black fur glossy and soft. The muck on Boots’s coat had deposited a dirty residue on the bottom of the tub. The dog had been completely filthy. She licked Emma’s hand as if to thank her.
“You’re a darling.” Emma laughed as she dried Boots off with a thick towel, and then cleaned the tub.
The doorbell chimed and Emma froze. She’d barely been home an hour. It didn’t seem possible that someone had already gone to Bud Scott and reported that she was in violation of the No Pets clause.
Perhaps it was Phoebe, who sometimes stopped by in the evening. Cautious, she locked Boots in the bathroom and checked her peephole.
“Oliver?” she said aloud, surprised to see him. She unlatched the lock and opened the door.
He stood on the other side of the threshold with a pizza box in one hand, a bag of dog food in the other.
“You said there weren’t any romantic heroes left in this world,” he said, balancing the pizza box on the tips of his fingers. “I’m here to prove you wrong.”
Impressed by his thoughtfulness, Emma stared at him, hardly knowing what to think.
“Can I come in?” Oliver asked.
“Oh, yes…sorry.” It didn’t even occur to her to refuse him. She stepped aside and as he passed, the scent of warm pizza made her stomach growl. The yogurt hadn’t taken her far.
With flair, Oliver set the pizza down on the kitchen table. “Deluxe, with extra cheese,” he announced. “Plus two cans of Coke.”
“Where’s Oscar?” Emma asked as she took a couple of plates from the cupboard.
“In the truck. Where’s Boots?”
“In the bathroom. I’ll let her out in a minute,” she said, thinking it was probably for the best that Oscar had stayed in Oliver’s truck. No need to raise Mr. Scott’s suspicions by letting another dog inside her apartment.
“Boots has a thing for him, you know.” Oliver pulled out a chair, sat down and served her a slice of pizza.
“Don’t be ridiculous.” She would’ve argued further but she was too hungry for a full-blown argument. “You’re making that up.”
Oliver’s mouth twisted into a lazy smile and he wiped his fingers on a paper towel.
Boots scratched at the bathroom door. When Emma opened it for her, she hurried into the kitchen. Sitting on her haunches, she stared longingly at the steaming pizza. “Look what Oliver brought us,” Emma told her dog. She got a cereal bowl from the cupboard and filled it with dog food. Setting it on the floor, she watched as Boots gobbled up the entire amount and then begged for more.
She was about to refill the dish when Oliver stopped her. “Don’t overfeed her,” he said. “Especially now. She’s been semistarved for some time. You don’t want her getting sick.”
Emma nodded, rinsed out the bowl and ran clean water into it.
While she did that, Oliver glanced around the apartment. “Do you have something against Christmas?” he asked.
“Not really.” She didn’t feel like launching into a long explanation.
“The least you could do is put up a sprig of mistletoe.”
“Very funny.” She rolled her eyes.
“I mean it.” He gestured around him. “You have a deficit of Christmas cheer. When are you planning to put up your tree?”
“I’m not.” Leave it to Oliver to press the issue. “I don’t really like Christmas.”
“You have to have a Christmas tree,” he said. When she shook her head, he murmured, “Come on. Why don’t you enjoy Christmas, Ms. Scrooge?”
She frowned at him, struggling to maintain her composure. “Not everyone lives and breathes Christmas, you know.”
“Most people do. Take my mom. She’s really big on Christmas, with family dinners and parties—the whole nine yards. I thought all women were.”
“I’m not.” He was really irritating her now. “But you, of course, know women so well.”
“Hey.” He shrugged. “It was just a question.”
Emma realized she was overreacting. Oliver had been very kind to her this evening and didn’t deserve to be snapped at. “My mother was a big fan of Christmas,” she said quietly, paying a lot of attention to her pizza slice. “She used to bake cookies and decorate the house and make a big fuss over the holidays.”
“So you spend the day with her,” Oliver said, smoothly accepting her explanation. “That makes sense.”
Emma turned away. A part of her wanted to let him assume that was true. But she couldn’t, although she wasn’t sure why. “My mother died several years ago.”
Her announcement was followed by an awkward silence. “I’m sorry.”
Emma raised one shoulder in a half shrug. “I’ve gotten over it.”
“Do people really get over losing their mothers?” he asked softly.
She looked at Oliver then. Really looked at him. A small shiver of awareness went through her. It occurred to Emma that he was working hard to prove he could be a romantic hero, her romantic hero. Emma wasn’t sure she was ready for anything like that, with anyone.
“What?” he demanded after a lengthy pause.
Emma blinked, embarrassed that she’d been staring at him. “Nothing.”
“No,” he said. “You were thinking about something and I want to know what.”
“I’ll bet it was me.” He raised his eyebrows. “You want me, right?”
“Would you stop?”
“No.” Oliver smiled. “A little pizza, a bag of dog food, and you’re ready to fall at my feet. Who would’ve thought it’d be this easy.” He’d abandoned all seriousness and seemed absolutely delighted with himself. Grinning widely, he took a giant bite of pizza.
Emma could see it was going to be impossible to have a real conversation with this man.
“Come on, admit it,” he urged.
She pretended to be absorbed in her dinner. “The dog food was a nice touch,” she finally said.
He nodded. “Actually, it was Oscar who thought of that.”
“You carry on conversations with your dog?” She didn’t mention the little heart-to-heart she’d had with Boots on the drive home.
“All the time.” Oliver motioned toward the apartment door. “Now that Boots has eaten, would it be okay if I brought Oscar inside? He hates being left in the truck for very long.”
“He doesn’t mind the plane.”
“No, but he knows Boots is here.”
Emma thought about warning Oliver not to let anyone see his dog, and decided against it. “Boots would enjoy the company.” If they were caught, it would be easy enough to explain that the terrier was only visiting. Surely Mr. Scott couldn’t object to that.
Oliver stood and headed for the door and then, as if he’d forgotten something, he turned back.
Emma glanced up, wondering what he was doing, when he leaned over and kissed her. This wasn’t any peck on the cheek, either. His mouth was warm, insistent, and Emma felt overwhelmed by sensation. By excitement. His hands found their way into her hair and she instinctively opened to him. Thankfully, she was sitting, otherwise she feared her knees would have given out. Oliver was gentle, coaxing, as the tip of his tongue outlined the shape of her lips. When he pulled away, he reached for the back of the chair as if he, too, needed something to ground him.
“Nice,” he whispered, not sounding anything like his normal self.
Wanting to make light of it, Emma tossed her head. “It was all right, I guess.”
Oliver grinned, and she could see he wasn’t fooled. “You could really damage a man’s ego.”
But not his, she suspected.
“I’ll be right back.” He started for the door again.
Emma remained where she was in order to gather her scattered wits. This man’s kisses were a lot more potent than she’d been willing to acknowledge. Earlier, the first time he’d kissed her, she’d deluded herself into thinking it’d been rather pleasant but nothing earth-shattering. Wrong. This time, she’d experienced a response of seismic proportions.
Oliver was back and let himself in the apartment door. Oscar barreled inside and the instant Boots saw the other dog, she barked joyfully. Oh, dear, was it possible Oliver was right about that, too? But Oscar played it cool, his head at a cocky tilt. It was true, Emma thought, unable to hold back a smile. After a while, dogs and their masters began to look alike.
Emma bent down and stroked Oscar, then poured him a bowl of dog food, too.
“Was that a dog I saw just now?”
At the sound of Bud Scott’s brusque voice, Emma nearly fainted. He’d opened her—regrettably unlocked—door and was peering into the apartment.
“Yes,” Oliver answered gruffly. He’d clearly taken exception to Mr. Scott’s offensive tone.
Emma hurried to stand next to Oliver, hoping to block the landlord’s view of the two dogs. “Oscar belongs to my friend,” she explained, trying to sound innocent and accommodating.
Mr. Scott’s eyes narrowed. “I thought I saw two dogs in here.”
“You did,” Oliver confirmed.
Emma elbowed him hard in the ribs.
“Ouch.” Oliver glared at her and rubbed his side.
“There’s only Oscar,” she said sweetly. Unfortunately, Boots chose that moment to bark excitedly. Oscar joined in, and Emma sagged against the doorjamb.
“You know this is a pet-free zone.” Bud Scott scowled.
“We have a no-tolerance policy in regard to pets, especially cats and dogs.”