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“How’d it go?” Oliver asked, walking toward her in his borrowed leather jacket. It was a little too small and his wrists stuck out, looking oddly vulnerable.

Her heart jumped when she saw him, leaping about in a way that reminded her of the dogs’ exuberant display.

“Good,” she said and then amended, “Very good.”

“You liked the fruitcake?”

“Loved it.” She opened her purse and brought out a small slice wrapped in plastic. “Peggy insisted I bring this for you.”

A cocky grin slid effortlessly into place. “So you mentioned me?”

Emma had, in an offhand manner, during their conversation in the kitchen. Something in her tone must have indicated that Oliver was more to her than a means of transportation, because Peggy picked up on it right away. Despite Emma’s protests that it wasn’t necessary, Peggy had given her a slice of fruitcake for Oliver, too.

When she didn’t immediately respond, he added, “I’ll bet you told her you’re crazy about me.”

Emma had no intention of pandering to his ego. “I didn’t say anything of the kind,” she told him briskly. “Are you ready to leave?”

Oliver laughed. “You’re that eager to fly again?”

“Not really. I just want to get it over with.” That was true enough. More importantly, she wanted to sit at her computer and organize her thoughts while they were fresh in her mind.

“One of these days you’ll admit you can’t live without me.” He stepped onto the pontoon and opened the plane’s door.

“I just might,” she agreed.

Her words appeared to shock him because Oliver nearly slipped. He grabbed hold of the door; otherwise he would’ve fallen into the icy water a second time.

“What did you just say?” he demanded gruffly.

“Never mind,” she said, highly amused. “It was a joke.”

“Very funny.”

As a matter of fact, Emma thought so, too. Even if there was more truth in that remark than she wanted him to know.

Peggy Lucas’s No-Bake Fruitcake with Marshmallows

1 cup raisins (dark or golden)

2 cups dates

2 cups mixed candied fruit

4 cups chopped nuts ( you can reduce this to 3 cups if desired)

¾ cup evaporated milk

2 cups marshmallows

2 cups very finely crushed graham crackers

Mix raisins, dates, candied fruit and chopped nuts in a large bowl. In a saucepan (or in a bowl in the microwave) bring evaporated milk to a boil, add marshmallows and stir until thoroughly combined and marshmallows are melted. Grind the graham crackers in the food processor (one package at a time) until they are very finely ground (like flour). You can also use packaged graham cracker crumbs. Stir the graham crackers into the fruit-and-nut mixture. Add the marshmallow mixture. With wet hands, mix all ingredients. Rinse hands, wet them again and press the mixture into a 9 inch x 5 inch loaf pan lined with wax paper. Press it down well and refrigerate for 2 days until set.

Note: If you use ½ cup candied fruit, ½ cup flaked coconut and 1 cup candied pineapple instead of 2 cups candied fruit, the cake has a tropical taste. If mixture seems too dry, add a little orange juice or strawberry jam. Don’t worry if it seems too wet, because as it sets the graham cracker crumbs will absorb the liquid.

Chapter Fifteen

The first time I had fruitcake was as an adult at a coffee shop in Paris. The amount of sherry is simply overwhelming and the cake is too heavy and sweet for my taste. And with so many fruits, there is no specific taste. For my family, the apple-cranberry tart is our traditional holiday cake.

—Jasmine Bojic, executive pastry chef,

Tavern on the Green, New York City

Emma sat at her computer, which she’d set up on the kitchen table, trying to work on her article. When Oliver had finally landed at Lake Union again and they’d started back to Puyallup, it was rush hour. The Seattle traffic inched along Interstate 5; what normally would have been an easy half-hour drive took almost ninety minutes. Emma’s nerves were frayed and she didn’t even attempt to go to the office.

Oliver had dropped her and Boots off at the apartment. “Would you like to come in and have a hot drink?” she’d asked. It was the first time she’d made such an offer and she’d expected him to accept her invitation instantly.

Oliver hesitated. “Some other time.”

His rejection took her by surprise. Not knowing how to respond, she mumbled her thanks for the ride and climbed out of the truck, retrieving Boots and her briefcase. She stood on the sidewalk and watched him drive away. He obviously wasn’t going home.

Oliver was out of sight within seconds. Emma had wanted to demand that he tell her where he was going, but she couldn’t. It was none of her business. Besides, she reminded herself, she had a dozen things to do, all of which were more important than frittering away time with an unresponsive and ungrateful man. “I have an article to write,” she mumbled to no one in particular.

But even now, an hour after he’d left, Emma’s mind continually wandered back to Oliver. Boots seemed unsettled, too. Her dog ran back and forth from the kitchen to the front window, hopping onto the chair and peering out at the street. Boots obviously missed her two companions.

Emma shared the feeling. She didn’t want to care about Oliver, but she did. This was too similar to the way her mother had behaved toward her husband, which Emma had hated. Bret had acted as if Pamela should be grateful for whatever crumbs of his life he offered them.

Emma forced herself to think about the interview with Peggy Lucas. She’d enjoyed meeting Peggy and her children, and…

Oliver was up to something. Emma knew it—there, she’d done it again. No matter how hard she tried, her mind was filled with thoughts of Oliver.

She got up and walked over to the window, petting Boots, who’d jumped into the chair to stand guard. This late in the afternoon, there was little activity outside. The streetlights had come on, casting a warm glow that illuminated the Christmas bells that hung from each lamp post.

Emma drew her sweater more tightly around her. She refused to think about Oliver anymore. No—not for another second. She sat down at the kitchen table again with a cup of tea and read over the opening paragraph she’d drafted. With her interview notes propped next to the monitor, she resumed writing.

Lessons From Fruitcake: Peggy Lucas

Peggy Lucas is the third Washington State resident to place in Good Homemaking magazine’s national fruitcake contest. Her motto—inspired by her children—is EAT IT NOW. The young wife and mother, who lives in Friday Harbor, married her plumber husband as a teenager, and they have four children ranging in age from two to six.

It was for her children that Peggy created the recipe for this no-bake Christmas fruitcake. Like all kids, her children lacked the patience to wait months for a traditional fruitcake. As four-year-old Trevor said, “I want it now.”

His three siblings agreed with him, and Peggy devised this unusual recipe, which can be made overnight and eaten immediately.

As with the two previous finalists, there are lessons to be learned from Peggy’s fruitcake. Earleen Williams was determined to bake the perfect fruitcake, a masterpiece, and while it took her many years and three marriages, she discovered that she was the masterpiece.

Sophie McKay bakes her fruitcake using unexpected ingredients, including maraschino cherries and semisweet chocolate chips, because those were the ingredients her late husband enjoyed. She blends pineapple and coconut with chocolate liqueur, and her recipe is a compromise between the traditional way of doing something and individual preferences. Her lesson: Use the ingredients you like. Do what you love.

Last, there is Peggy Lucas with her four young children, eager to partake of anything Christmas. She couldn’t bear to make them wait even a day for their special cake. Her fruitcake is meant to be enjoyed right away. According to Peggy, life’s like that. Enjoy it now.

Three finalists, three valuable lessons that—

Emma sighed and saved her draft, then shut down her computer. She couldn’t concentrate on fruitcake anymore, or metaphors for life. Her mind wasn’t on Peggy but on Oliver.

In order to distract herself from memories of the man, she phoned Phoebe.

“Hello, Emma,” Phoebe said, picking up after five rings, just before the answering machine came on.

“What took you so long to get to the phone?” Emma wanted to know.

“Ah…”

Emma could almost hear her friend blush and suddenly understood. “You’re not alone, are you?”

Again the hesitation. “Not at the moment.”

“Is it, by chance, anyone I know?”

“Could be.”

Her friend’s face would be beet-red by now. “Is it…drumroll, please…Walt?”

“Ah…”

“Say no more,” Emma murmured. “Call me when you’re free.”

“Okay. Bye.”

“Bye.” Emma replaced the telephone receiver, more depressed than before. Everyone she met was in love. Okay, maybe not everyone; it just felt that way. Ever since the night Phoebe had helped Emma move, she and Walt were practically never apart. They hadn’t made a big announcement, but everyone at the office knew. Emma didn’t understand why Walt had been so concerned. Their romance had barely been a blip on the office gossip monitor. They seemed to suit each other; Phoebe’s sense of adventure balanced Walt’s caution. Their relationship struck her as natural and healthy, now that it was out in the open.

Emma gave another deep sigh. What did she know about healthy relationships, anyway? With her parents as an example, she was destined to mess up. Falling for Oliver Hamilton was a prime example of that.

Emma covered her face with her hands, hating this sense of despair.

The doorbell chimed and her heart kicked into overdrive. It had to be Oliver! She hoped it was him. No, she didn’t. Yes, she did.

If ever Emma understood her mother’s feelings about her father, it was now. She wanted to slam the door in Oliver’s face and yet, at the same time, she wanted to hug and kiss him.

The doorbell chimed again.

“Who is it?” she asked, stalling for time.

“Look through your peephole.”

It was Oliver’s voice. “Uh, is there something you want?” she asked. Should she let him in or not?

“You didn’t check the peephole, did you?”

She did, then gasped at what she saw. Oliver stood there with the largest, most beautiful Christmas tree she’d ever seen. It was the kind of tree the White House put up every year. Or Rockefeller Center. Definitely not as big, but about as perfect as a tree could get.

“Are you going to let me in?”

She unlatched the lock and swung open the door.

Boots and Oscar raced toward each other as if it’d been years since their last meeting. Emma had wondered if they’d ever get beyond the stage of sniffing each other’s butts. Although she supposed that was like saying “Hello” or “What’s new?” in the dog world.

“Well,” Oliver said proudly, clutching the tree by its trunk. “What do you think?”

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