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Almost everyone she knew had family and shared the holidays with them. Emma was alone. But she’d rather be by herself than spend it with her father and his new wife. Last year she’d ignored the season entirely. On Christmas Day she’d gone to a movie and had buttered popcorn for dinner and that had suited her perfectly.

“You don’t want to quit just before Christmas,” Phoebe told her.

Emma sighed again. “No, you’re right. I don’t.” But she said it mostly to avoid upsetting Phoebe.

“You’re actually going to confront Walt?” Phoebe peered at Emma across The Dungeon aisle the next morning.

“Yes,” Emma murmured. She’d decided that after almost a year, she wasn’t any closer to writing feature articles than the day she was hired. It was time to face reality. She’d reached her limit; she was finished with working in the bowels of the drafty building, tired of spending half her week traipsing around Bonny Lake, Sumner and Puyallup searching for advertising dollars.

“What are you going to say to him?” Phoebe’s brown eyes regarded her carefully.

She didn’t know what she could say that she hadn’t already said a hundred times. If Walt refused to listen, she would simply hand in her notice. She wouldn’t leave until after Christmas; that was for strictly financial reasons. Where she’d apply next, however, was the question.

“Walt won’t want to lose you,” Phoebe said confidently.

“You mean when he isn’t yelling?”

“He has a lot on his mind.”

Emma narrowed her eyes. Phoebe’s infatuation with Walt blinded her to the truth.

It was now or never. Emma stood, squaring her shoulders. “Okay, I’m going to talk to Walt.” She motioned at the stairwell. “Do I have the look?” The one that said she was serious.

“Oh, yes!” Phoebe was nothing if not encouraging.

“You’ll be stuck writing all the obituaries,” Emma cautioned.

“I don’t mind,” her friend said.

“Okay, here goes.”

Emma marched up the stairs and toward the back of the first floor, where Walt’s luxurious office was situated. Well, perhaps it wasn’t as luxurious as all that, except when compared to the dank basement where Emma and Phoebe were relegated.

Walt glanced up, frowning, as she planted herself in the threshold to his office.

“Do you have a minute?” she asked politely.

His frown slowly transformed itself into a smile, and for the first time Emma noticed her employer had company. She opened her mouth to apologize, but Walt didn’t let her finish.

“I was just going to ask you to step into my office.” He waved her inside. “I believe you’ve met Oliver Hamilton.”

It was all she could do not to ask why he was here. “Hello again,” Emma managed to say as her stomach lurched. She should’ve known; Oliver wasn’t a man who took no for an answer.

He stood when Emma came into the office and extended his hand. “Good to see you again, too.”

Emma reluctantly exchanged handshakes, not fooled by his friendly demeanor, and avoided eye contact. A weary sensation came over her. The man was up to no good. At this point she didn’t know what he wanted, but she had a feeling she was about to find out—a sinking feeling, which was one of those clichés she’d learned to excise in journalism school.

“Sit down,” Walt instructed when she remained frozen to the spot.

She did, perching on the chair parallel to Oliver’s.

Walt leaned back in his seat and studied her. Despite the free and easy style typical of the office, Emma chose to dress as a professional, since that was the way she wanted to be perceived. Her hair was secured at the base of her neck with a gold clip. The impression she hoped to create was that of a working reporter with an edge. Today’s outfit was a classy black pinstripe suit with a straight skirt and formfitting jacket.

“You’ve been saying for some time that you’d be interested in writing something other than obituaries,” Walt began.

“Yes, I feel—”

“You say you want to write what you refer to as a ‘real story.’”

Emma nodded. She glanced out of the corner of her eye at Oliver. “However, if the story’s about planes and such, I don’t think—”

“It isn’t.” Her employer didn’t allow her to finish.

Emma relaxed. Not completely but enough so she could breathe normally.

“It’s about fruitcake.”

Emma was dying to write a human interest story and after months of pleading, Walt was finally giving her an assignment. He wanted her to write about fruitcake. Surely there was some mistake.

“Fruitcake?” she repeated just to be sure she’d heard him correctly. Emma didn’t even like fruitcake; in fact, she hated the stuff. She firmly believed that there were two kinds of people in the world—those who liked fruitcake and those who didn’t.

She’d once heard an anecdote about a fruitcake that was passed around a family for years. It was hard as a brick and the fruitcake shuffle finally ended when someone used it as an anchor for a fishing boat.

“Good Homemaking magazine ran a national fruitcake contest last month,” he went on to explain. “Amazingly, three of the twelve finalists are from the state of Washington.”

He paused—waiting for her to show awe or appreciation, she supposed.

“That’s quite a statistic, don’t you think?” Oliver inserted.

Still leery, Emma slowly nodded once more.

Walt smiled as if he’d gotten the response he wanted. “I’d like you to interview the three finalists and write an article about each of them.”

Okay, so maybe these articles weren’t going to put her in the running for a major writing award, but this was the chance she’d been hoping for. There had to be more to these three women than their interest in fruitcake. She’d write about their lives, about who they were. She had her first big break and she was grabbing hold of it with both hands.

The professional in her took over. “When would you like me to start?” she asked, trying not to sound too eager.

“As soon as you want,” Walt told her, grinning. Judging by the gleam in his eyes, he knew he had her. “The magazine’s going to announce the winner on their Web site in three weeks, and then do a feature on her in their next issue. It could be one of our ladies. Flatter them,” Walt advised, “and get permission to print their recipes.”

“All right,” Emma said, although she had the feeling this might be no small task. A niggling doubt took root and she shot a look at the pilot. “I assume all three finalists live in the Puget Sound area?” Oliver was in the newspaper office for a reason; she could only pray it had nothing to do with fruitcake.

Walt shrugged. “Unfortunately, only one lives in the area.” He picked up a piece of paper. “Peggy Lucas is from Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands,” he said, reading the name at the top of the list.

A ferry ride away, Emma thought. Not a problem. It would mean a whole day, but she’d always enjoyed being on the water. And a ferry trip was definitely less dangerous than a plane ride.

“Earleen Williams lives in Yakima,” Walt continued. “And Sophie McKay is from Colville. That’s why I brought in Mr. Hamilton.”

Emma peered over her shoulder at the flyboy with his faded leather jacket.

He winked at her, and she remembered his smile yesterday at the small airport. That I-know-something-you-don’t smile. Now she understood.

A panicky feeling attacked her stomach. “I can drive to Yakima. Colville, too…” Emma choked out. She wasn’t sure where Colville was. Someplace near Spokane, part of the Inland Empire, she guessed. She wanted to make it clear that she had no objection to traveling by car. It would be a piece of cake. Fruitcake.

“A woman alone on the road in the middle of winter is asking for trouble,” Oliver said solemnly, shaking his head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, do you?” While the question was directed at Walt, he looked at Emma. His cocky grin was almost more than she could bear. He knew. He’d known from the moment she’d refused to fly with him, and now he was purposely placing her in an impossible position.

Emma glared at him. Hamilton made it sound as if she were risking certain death by driving across the state. Okay, so she’d need to travel over Snoqualmie Pass, which could be tricky in winter. The pass was sometimes closed because of avalanche danger. And snow posed a minor problem. She’d have to put chains on her tires. Well, she’d face that if the need arose. In all likelihood it wouldn’t. The interstate was kept as hazard-free as possible; the roads were salted and plowed at frequent intervals.

“I wouldn’t want to see you in that kind of situation,” Walt agreed with Oliver. “In addition to the risk of traveling alone, there’s the added expense of putting you up in hotel rooms for a couple of nights, plus meals and mileage. This works out better.”

“What works out?” Emma turned from one man to the other. It was as if she’d missed part of the conversation.

“We’re giving advertising space to Hamilton Air Service and in return, he’ll fly you out to interview these three women.”

For one crazy moment Emma couldn’t talk at all. “You…want me to fly in that…little plane…with him?” she finally stammered. The last two words were more breath than sound. If she started to think about being stuck in a small plane, she might hyperventilate right then and there.

Walt nodded. He seemed to think it was a perfectly reasonable idea.

“I—”

“I’ve got a flight scheduled for Yakima first thing tomorrow morning,” Oliver told her matter-of-factly. “That won’t be a problem, will it?” His smile seemed to taunt her.

“Ah…”

“You have been saying you wanted to write something other than obituaries, haven’t you?” This was from Walt.

“Y-yes.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“No problem,” she said, her throat tightening and nearly choking off the words. “No problem whatsoever.”

“Good.”

Oliver stood. “Be down at the airstrip tomorrow morning at seven.”

“I’ll be there.” Her legs had apparently turned to pudding, but she managed to stand, too. Smiling shakily, she left the office. As she headed down to her desk, Emma looked over her shoulder to see Walt and Oliver shaking hands.

Phoebe was waiting for her in The Dungeon. “What happened?” she asked eagerly.

Emma ignored the question and walked directly over to her chair, where she collapsed. Life had taken on a sense of unreality. She felt as if she were watching a silent movie flicker across a screen, the actors’ movements jerky and abrupt.

“Aren’t you going to tell me?” Phoebe stared at Emma and gasped. “You quit, didn’t you?”

Emma shook her head. “I got an assignment.”

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