“Okay, I will.” Emma reached for her coat and purse. Although she’d never admit it—at least not to Oliver—she was delighted to see him again. She wasn’t quite sure why he was being so helpful, but then she remembered his comments about ordinary men and real romance as opposed to romantic gestures. A real hero brought you and your dog a meal; he didn’t worry about providing the perfect setting. He made you laugh instead of presenting you with poetic words. He found you an apartment when you needed one….
When they approached his truck, he opened the passenger door for her. Oscar barked a welcome and seemed to be looking for Boots.
Emma raised her eyebrows. “You’re really taking this romantic-hero stuff to heart.”
“Absolutely,” he said, grinning. “If a pizza and a bag of dog food results in a kiss, I can only dream about what finding you an apartment will do.”
“Don’t get your hopes up.” It figured—he wanted something. What all men wanted, apparently. And after she’d had all these lovely thoughts about him, too.
He chuckled. “Want to go flying with me later?”
She stared at him. “No way!”
“You’re getting to be a pro at this. There was hardly a peep out of you the entire flight home.”
“I was busy praying.”
Oliver shook his head. “Come on. We’ll have a good time.”
Oliver Hamilton was not getting her back in the air, especially for the so-called fun of it. To her, flying simply wasn’t entertainment. “No. N-O,” she said, spelling it out.
“That’s a pity.”
Not to her. It was life preservation.
The apartment, a ground-level corner unit, was small but well-designed. The single-story complex was fairly new but beautifully maintained, and each unit had its own front door. The surrounding doors were all decorated with wreaths and pine swags and lights. Inside, Emma was thrilled to see brand-new appliances, including a dishwasher. Sliding glass doors off the kitchen led to a fenced area in the back that would be perfect for Boots. There was even space for a container garden, which pleased Emma. Her mother had always had a garden. Emma had hated weeding and watering it as a girl. She’d never believed she’d miss it, but she did.
Oscar walked around, cocking his head as if confused. He looked up at Oliver, who ignored his canine friend.
“Well, what do you think?” Oliver asked, leaning against the kitchen counter in a nonchalant pose.
He grinned knowingly. “I thought you’d like it.”
“I do. Thank you, Oliver, thank you so much.” Impulsively she kissed his cheek.
Not one to let an opportunity slip away, Oliver grabbed her around the waist and brought her into his arms. “You can thank me properly, you know.”
She was tempted to do just that when there was a sudden knock at the open door and Oliver’s friend Jason let himself in. Emma had met Jason when Oliver took her to the owner’s unit to collect the key.
“Have you made a decision?” he asked.
Embarrassed, Emma quickly disentangled herself from Oliver’s embrace. “I’ll take it. Just show me where to sign.”
Jason had the paperwork with him, and after reading the lease agreement, she quickly signed her name at the bottom and wrote him a check.
Jason handed her the keys, assured her she could move in anytime, and left.
“You are my hero,” Emma said once the other man had gone.
“I know,” Oliver murmured in modest tones.
She was half-tempted to kiss him again, but changed her mind. “I suppose I should get back to the office,” Emma said reluctantly.
“Okay, but I need to stop at my place first.”
She couldn’t quibble, since he’d driven her here and, more, had arranged for her new home.
He walked out, turned right and went down two doors.
Emma followed. She didn’t understand, until he inserted the key into the lock, that this was his place—two doors down from hers.
“You live here?” she asked. “Here?”
He nodded, opening the front door. It had the biggest Christmas wreath of all, and the front window sparkled with tiny white lights.
“It didn’t occur to you to maybe mention this before now?” She’d asked him earlier if there were any strings attached and he’d promised her there weren’t. She should’ve known.
Her tone must have conveyed the fact that she wasn’t happy with this unexpected turn of events. She remained standing in the doorway, resisting the impulse to look inside, although she did catch sight of a gaily decorated Christmas tree.
“What’s the matter? Don’t you want me for a neighbor?”
She found it hard enough to keep him out of her thoughts as it was. Living two doors down from him would make it impossible. “As a matter of fact, no. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Didn’t enter my mind. You should be grateful I found you an apartment.”
“Which I wouldn’t have needed if you hadn’t opened your big mouth,” she said, even though that was only partially true.
“So it’s my fault?” he cried out at the unfairness of her accusation.
Oliver glared at her. “Fine.”
She crossed her arms and glared right back at him.
Jason stepped up to his vehicle on the other side of the street and raised his hand. “Merry Christmas,” he shouted.
“Right,” Oliver muttered back. “And goodwill to all mankind.”
Late that afternoon, Oliver joined Walt Berwald at the tavern down the street from the newspaper office. Walt sat at the bar with his shoulders hunched forward, looking as if he’d just received some piece of devastating news. His demeanor was at odds with the cheerful rendition of “Deck the Halls” playing on the tavern’s crackling sound system.
Oliver shared Walt’s sentiment. He had no idea what he’d done that was so terrible. There was no mistaking Emma’s irritation with him, although he’d expected her to be overjoyed that he’d found her an apartment. Oh, no, that would’ve been far too rational. He should’ve remembered that there was nothing rational about most women. His mother and one of his three sisters were the exception that proved the rule.
What really got to him was that he hadn’t purposely hidden the fact that he lived in the same complex. It just hadn’t seemed important, and he didn’t understand why it mattered. The ride back to the newspaper office had been silent and uncomfortable. Emma hadn’t been able to get out of the truck fast enough.
Walt slid his gaze to Oliver when he claimed the stool next to him, nodding morosely. The bartender looked over and Oliver motioned toward the beer in Walt’s hand. “I’ll take one of those. And get another for my friend.”
“Thanks,” Walt said.
Neither spoke again until the beers arrived.
“What’s got you so down in the dumps?” Walt asked.
“I don’t want to talk about it. What about you?”
Walt shrugged. “Same.”
Women were beyond Oliver’s comprehension. He had sisters and knew from experience that Emma was probably talking to Phoebe right now, describing every aspect of his many faults. Things had begun to look promising, too. He’d been attracted to Emma from the start and he’d been certain she felt the same way. After this morning, he was no longer sure.
“How’s it going with that reporter of mine?” Walt asked, reaching for his cold beer.
“Not bad.” Oliver didn’t elaborate.
“Emma’s got real potential as a journalist, you know.”
Oliver believed that, even if he hadn’t read anything she’d written. This was her big shot and despite their differences, he wished her well. “She’s got a few hang-ups.” He didn’t mean to say that aloud and was surprised to hear his own voice.
“All women do,” Walt said, as if he were an authority on the subject.
“You know this from your vast research, do you?”
Walt laughed and shook his head. “Hey, when it comes to women and relationships, I’m a disaster waiting to happen.”
Oliver gave him a second look. Walt had always seemed secure and confident. He knew his stuff, as befitted a man who was the third generation of his family in the newspaper business. Now, however, Walt seemed to feel downright miserable.
Oliver did, too. And it was all because of Emma. It was times like these when he felt like sitting in the dark, listening to Harry Connick Jr., bourbon in hand. Either that, or go and visit his mother. Knowing her, she’d pry out of him what was wrong, give him some common-sense advice and then feed him a huge dinner, as if her cabbage rolls would solve all his problems.
Oliver loved her and her stuffed cabbage, but even his mother wouldn’t be able to help him understand Emma Collins.
After a second beer, Oliver slid off the stool and placed a twenty-dollar bill on the bar. “See you around,” he mumbled at Walt.
Neither one of them had been very talkative.
“Yeah, sure,” Walt responded in the same weary tone. “Thanks for the beer. I’ll buy next time.”
Oliver nodded, and got up to head back to his truck, where Oscar was waiting impatiently inside the cab.
“You got plans for the evening?” Walt asked unexpectedly.
“Not necessarily.” It was either his mother’s cabbage rolls or listening to Harry. “What have you got in mind?”
“You are a friend indeed,” Emma said as she came out of the bedroom dragging a cardboard box filled with books. She and Phoebe had left work early, once Emma had finished the article, skipping lunch to do it. They’d collected boxes on the way to Emma’s place and spent the past two hours packing. Fortunately, Boots was still at the vet’s and therefore not underfoot.
Phoebe didn’t seem to be listening. “You’d help me move, too, if our circumstances were reversed.”
“Something on your mind?” Emma asked. Phoebe hadn’t been her usual self since she’d returned from lunch.
Sighing, her friend straightened. “I met Walt for lunch. We left separately and went five miles out of our way in order not to be seen. It’s ridiculous! I love Walt, but I told him I was through sneaking around.”
Emma didn’t blame her.
“I won’t do it again.” Phoebe sounded firm about her decision. “If he wants to wait until after Christmas, then fine, we’ll wait. But I won’t see Walt again until he’s willing to be open and honest about our relationship.”
“You’re right.” Emma admired her friend’s courage and conviction. “What did Walt say?”
Phoebe’s shoulders slumped. “He thinks I’m overreacting.”
“I know. I’ve been feeling dreadful all afternoon, and when I left, I didn’t let him know I was going to help you move. Instead, I let him assume—” a slow smile formed “—that I had…other plans.”
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