Emma nodded, sympathizing with the young mother.
“Go and play,” Peggy instructed the kids, but they refused to budge. Emma wondered if they feared that the minute they left the room, she’d abscond with the Christmas presents.
Peggy sat down on the ottoman with her children gathered around her like a small herd of lambs.
“Tell me about your fruitcake recipe,” Emma said when she’d retrieved pen and pad from her briefcase.
“There’s not much to tell. I concocted it myself a little while ago, using several fruitcake recipes I found in one of my mother’s old cookbooks. I also found a newspaper clipping that dated back to the 1960s, which must’ve been mailed to my mom by my grandmother. Everyone in the family loves fruitcake.”
“So you grew up with fruitcake?”
Peggy smiled. “Mom bakes it every Christmas. It’s a family tradition.”
“So you do, too?”
Peggy smiled again. “With some significant differences. My recipe isn’t a typical one, although I use all the same ingredients most everyone uses in fruitcake.”
“I like Mama’s fruitcake,” Rosalie whispered, her face averted so she wouldn’t have to look at Emma.
“Is it good?”
“Real good,” Abby added without a hint of shyness. “It’s the best, and my mama’s going to win. That’s what our daddy says.”
“What made you submit the recipe to Good Homemaking magazine?” This wasn’t a question she’d asked the other Washington State finalists, but Emma found she was curious about Peggy’s reasons. Both Earleen Williams and Sophie McKay had perfected their recipes through the years. That didn’t seem to be the case with Peggy.
The young mother blushed. “My husband encouraged me to enter, so I did. No one was more surprised than me when I found out I was a finalist.” She lifted Dylan onto her lap and the little boy leaned his head against her shoulder and promptly placed his thumb in his mouth.
“Exactly how long have you been using this recipe?”
“How long?” Peggy repeated, and the question seemed to fluster her. Her hand went to her hair, as if she was afraid it needed attention. “Actually, the first one I baked was last December—a year ago.”
“Wow. It must be good.” If this relatively untried recipe was a finalist, it had to be impressive.
“Would you care to taste a slice?” Peggy asked. Setting Dylan aside despite his mumbled protests, she stood.
Emma imagined this young mother wasn’t accustomed to sitting down for any length of time. A buzzer went off in the distance, signaling that the dryer had finished its cycle.
“Rosalie, take the sheets out of the dryer, would you?”
The oldest girl left the room, and the three remaining children all stared at Emma, the youngest with his thumb still firmly planted in his mouth.
Rosalie returned a minute later, her arms wrapped around a huge load of fresh laundry. “Where should I put them? The reporter lady is sitting in the chair.” Apparently the recliner was the spot for sorting clean laundry.
“I can move,” Emma volunteered, although she didn’t know where. The one other piece of furniture was a sofa, and that appeared to be functioning as a sickbed for the two girls.
“Go and put them on my bed,” Peggy shouted from the kitchen.
“Mama,” Abby cried in sudden alarm. “Dylan has to go potty.”
Emma hadn’t noticed but, sure enough, the youngest boy was holding himself and crossing and uncrossing his legs.
“Where’s his blankie?” Peggy asked calmly, coming in from the kitchen.
Peggy and the three children sprang into action, launching what was obviously a familiar and well-rehearsed routine. The two girls hurried out of the room and Trevor scrambled under the coffee table, crawling on all fours. Emma stood, fearing she was in the way.
Peggy grabbed Dylan and, holding the two-year-old at arm’s length, carried him from the room. She disappeared into the hallway.
Never having witnessed anything like this, Emma followed and watched with interest as Peggy got her youngest son on the kiddie toilet. Dylan madly waved his arms, resembling a young bird about to take flight. Rosalie leaped into the room with a tattered yellow blanket.
“The duck?” Peggy asked. “Has anyone found the duck?”
Trevor was the hero of the hour. He slid into the tiny bathroom on his stocking feet, then thrust the plush duck at his brother.
As soon as Dylan had both his yellow blanket and his duck, he let out a tremendous sigh. His shoulders relaxed and a slow smile came over his face. Apparently he could now relax enough to concentrate on the job.
“Good boy,” Peggy cheered and started to clap.
So did Dylan’s three siblings, and because it seemed the thing to do, Emma joined in.
She didn’t want to get sidetracked from the interview, but she couldn’t help being curious about the minor production she’d just witnessed.
“Dylan’s afraid of the potty chair,” Abby explained after Emma asked. “The only way he can go is if he has his security blanket and his favorite duck.”
“He has more than one?”
“He’s got three—white and orange and yellow, but he only wants the yellow one.” Again it was Abby who explained. “It has to be that one.”
Dylan smiled and his thumb came out of his mouth when he’d finished his task. Peggy pulled up his pants and led the youngster to the sink. Dylan pushed the step stool over, then by himself turned on the water and washed his hands. When he’d finished, he looked to his mother and siblings for another round of applause.
“Sorry for the interruption,” Peggy said, lifting the little boy into her arms. The six of them returned to the living room, a ragtag parade.
“Let me get you that fruitcake,” Peggy said. “I left it in the kitchen.” Still holding Dylan, she retreated to the kitchen and came back with a small plate.
To Emma’s surprise the fruitcake was a light brown. The candied fruits liberally spread throughout the slice made her think of a stained glass window. “It’s different, all right,” she told Peggy. “Very pretty.”
“The recipe is no-bake.”
Emma nodded. “I know, but what exactly does that mean? The ingredients aren’t raw, are they?”
“Oh, no,” Peggy said with a laugh. “I use graham cracker crumbs. Not surprisingly, graham crackers are a staple around here. That’s the base that holds everything together.”
“Oh.” She took a small bite. This cake really was unusual, filled with nuts and the brilliantly colored candied fruit and something else—something she couldn’t quite identify. Could it be marshmallows? Peggy had kindly agreed to share the recipe.
“I’m not the first person who’s come up with this no-bake concept. It’s surprising how well it works.”
Emma’s second bite confirmed her initial opinion. The flavors melded together in a delectable sweet taste. Sweet but not too sweet, Emma decided. At the start of this assignment, she hadn’t liked fruitcake, and now she was a connoisseur. Every recipe she’d sampled was unique, although each was based on traditional ingredients. If the three finalists’ recipes from Washington State were this innovative, she could only speculate what the other nine recipes must be like.
“With my family, a cake doesn’t last more than a day or two,” Peggy said, describing what had inspired the revised recipe. “My children don’t understand the concept of leaving a cake for several weeks in order to refine the flavors. They want to eat it now. The traditional fruitcake my mother makes is excellent. Every year she starts baking right after Thanksgiving. She’ll bathe the cake in rum for weeks and then on Christmas Eve we have this ceremony and Dad slices it for the first time. In theory that’s great, but it doesn’t work around here.” She grinned. “And the quantity of booze isn’t appropriate for kids, either.”
“Trevor ate Mom’s cake,” Abby said, pointing to her little brother. “Last year. At Grandma’s.”
“Did, too. And then he fell asleep.”
“Enough.” Peggy raised her hand and the squabbling ceased. “That convinced me to try something different. So I came up with this idea.”
“She doesn’t always make it the same, either,” Rosalie said proudly. “Sometimes Mom adds different stuff.”
“She put caramels in one time,” Trevor said.
Rosalie made a face. “I didn’t like that.”
“I won’t do it again, although I like the version with melted marshmallows.”
That sounded interesting, too. “Will you tell me about yourself?” Emma asked, turning to Peggy.
“Me?” Peggy said, sounding surprised. “There’s not much to say.”
“You married young.” That much was obvious.
Peggy nodded. “I met Larry shortly after I graduated from high school. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life and was working at a Starbucks and taking a few college classes. Larry was working for a plumber and had just become certified by the Department of Labor and Industries. He’s almost five years older than me, and we both wanted children. We’d been dating for a while and decided to marry.” She smiled and looked slightly embarrassed. “We didn’t start out wanting four children, but now that we’ve got them…” Peggy wrapped her arms around her brood. “We wouldn’t change a thing.”
“What will you do with the prize money if you win?” Emma asked. This was a new question.
“That’s easy,” Peggy said. “We’d use it as a down payment on a small farm. Larry has always been an animal person and we were hoping to buy an alpaca or two. Eventually I’d like to weave my own yarn. It’s something I’ve always dreamed of doing.”
“I hope you do win,” Emma said, and meant it. She wished that for all three of the Washington State finalists.
“Would you like another piece?” Peggy asked.
“I would,” Trevor volunteered.
“It’s almost lunchtime,” his mother told him.
The little boy’s eyes brightened. “I can have fruitcake for lunch?”
“I want it now,” Trevor said.
That comment could serve as part of the opening paragraph. Emma stayed long enough to have a cup of tea and another slice of fruitcake with Peggy Lucas. While Peggy worked in the kitchen, preparing peanutbutter-and-jelly sandwiches for her children and heating up soup, Emma sat at the kitchen table and they talked. Eventually the children lost interest in her and wandered back to their bedroom to play. All four, Emma noted, slept in the same room. It made for tight quarters but no one seemed to mind.
By the time Sally, Peggy’s neighbor, returned her to the waterfront, ideas for the article were tumbling over each other in Emma’s mind.
Oliver stood on the dock next to the plane, waiting. Whatever business had brought him to Friday Harbor seemed to have been completed. Oscar and Boots wandered up and down the pier, sniffing around curiously, but as soon as they saw Emma, both dogs leaped up repeatedly and barked for joy.