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“I wondered where the name California Rock and Roll came from,” she said casually. “Now I know.”

Suki placed both orders on the counter and Emma examined hers. On a rectangular plate, Suki had arranged four California rolls. They seemed to be rolled logs of rice around a thin sheet of processed seaweed, with strips of avocado and various vegetables tucked in the center. On the same plate were two small bowls. One held soy sauce and the other was filled with a thin guacamole. Apparently Carlos and Suki had found a way to cross their foods culturally. Emma was intrigued. While Oliver reached for his chopsticks, she spread a liberal portion of the guacamole across the top of one California roll.

Oliver watched her with raised eyebrows.

Emma was about to take her first bite when he stopped her.

“You might want to scrape off some of the wasabi.”

“The what?”

“Wasabi.”

She must have looked confused, because he dipped the end of his chopstick in her guacamole and offered her a taste. The minute her lips touched it, her mouth was on fire. She grabbed her cup of tea and swallowed the entire contents. Waving her hand in front of her mouth, all she could do was feel grateful for Oliver’s intervention.

“Oh, my goodness,” she gasped.

“You thought that was guacamole?”

She nodded. “Thank you. Oh, thank you.”

His eyes crinkled with a smile as he returned to his sushi.

Once Emma had tasted her first real bite, sans wasabi, she was surprised by how delicious the California roll was. “Hey, this is good.”

“Told you.”

She merely smiled.

They sat in companionable silence, and Emma had to admit she was thrilled to see him. She wanted to explain why she’d reacted the way she had to his gift of a Christmas tree, but was afraid any attempt would destroy this fragile peace.

“You came here for an early lunch?” Oliver asked.

“No, I was on another of my advertising treks for Walt.”

“How’s it going?”

She hated to admit how unsuccessful she was at this selling business. It was so much harder than she would’ve expected. Oliver listened and nodded. Then he told her, “You’re doing it all wrong.”

“What do you mean, I’m doing it wrong?” He wasn’t the one hoofing it from business to business, putting on a smile and talking his heart out, only to be shown the door.

“Emma, listen to me. You’re an attractive, charming young woman and it should be difficult for people to tell you no.”

She scoffed, although she took note of the “attractive” and “charming.” “That hasn’t been a problem today.”

“You’ve gotten nothing but no?” He seemed astonished by that.

She wasn’t proud of it, but that was exactly what had happened. If she didn’t get a flat rejection, it was “we’ll think it over” or “later, maybe.”

“Like I said, you must be doing it wrong.”

That annoyed her. “You turned me down,” she reminded him, allowing her temper to flare just a bit.

“I most certainly did not. I couldn’t afford you, but I wanted you.”

“It was the advertising you wanted, not me,” she told him, stiffening at the implication.

“Whatever. I got you in my plane, didn’t I? And I got advertising in the paper.”

“Okay, okay, I’ll concede the point.” She reached for the teapot and refilled her cup. “If you think it’s so easy, you try.”

“All right. I’ll bet I can prove to you that people can be talked into anything. What do you want me to do?”

Another man had entered the restaurant and sat at a table by the window. Emma pointed at him. “Ask that man to pay for your meal and watch how fast he tells you no.”

“Okay, you’re on.” Oliver slid off the stool and walked toward the gentleman dining alone. He looked like a midlevel bank employee. Possibly a loan officer, judging by the fact that he was smartly but conservatively dressed.

Oliver didn’t hesitate. He strolled over to the other man and when he spoke, he made sure it was just loud enough for Emma to overhear the conversation.

“Excuse me,” he said in a friendly way.

The other man glanced up from his menu. “Yes?”

“I just ordered lunch for my girlfriend and me, and I’ve discovered I left my wallet at home. Would you mind paying for our meal? I’ll repay you, of course.”

The other man didn’t say anything for a long moment. “How much is it?”

Emma was shocked he hadn’t immediately laughed in Oliver’s face and told him to get lost.

In a display of false humility, Oliver shook his head. “I haven’t got the bill yet, but I’d guess around ten dollars.” He shrugged. “I just assumed I had my wallet.”

“You didn’t think of that before you ordered?” the man asked.

Oliver gave him a look that said he was absolutely right. “I know I should’ve but…I didn’t.”

“You seem like a decent sort,” the other man said slowly.

Emma couldn’t stand it. She climbed off the stool and hurried to Oliver’s side. “You can tell him no,” she said eagerly. She’d hate it if Oliver won this bet so easily. Besides, they hadn’t decided what the winner would get.

“Now, Emma.” Oliver frowned at her. “This is man to man. Don’t you worry about it.”

Emma wasn’t going to let him win this bet without a struggle. “My friend is being irresponsible. It certainly isn’t up to you to pay for his mistake. All you have to do is say no.”

The gentleman nodded. “True, but it is the holiday season, and ten dollars won’t break me.”

Oliver grinned triumphantly. He stretched out his hand to the other man. “Thank you very much. I’m Oliver Hamilton, by the way.”

“Gary Sullivan. Nice to meet you.” Gary stood and reached for his wallet.

“No,” Oliver said, refusing the money. “I was just proving a point to my girlfriend. This is Emma Collins, of The Puyallup Examiner.”

“I’m not his girlfriend.” Emma felt it was important to clarify that. “We’re friends….” She let the rest fade, embarrassed to have said anything.

Gary looked confused.

“You could’ve just said no,” Emma repeated, unable to understand why it had been so easy for Oliver and so difficult for her.

“I didn’t mind. Like I said, this is Christmas, I could afford it and your boyfriend—Oliver—is very persuasive. The idea of paying for your meal actually made me feel good. Christmas spirit and all.”

Emma gave up then and walked back to the counter.

“See,” Oliver said as he returned to his stool. “People want to help and it’s the same in sales. If you just remember that, and remember to show them what they’ll get out of it, then you’ll have a better chance of selling advertising for Walt.”

She sighed loudly. “Okay, you win.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You win,” she said a little louder this time, although she nearly choked on the words.

“Good. I’ll be by for dinner around seven.”

“Dinner?”

“Yes. Didn’t I mention my prize?”

“I’m afraid you didn’t.”

“You’re going to make me dinner.” He grinned. “I hope it’s all right if Oscar comes, too.”

Chapter Seventeen

As children growing up in Ireland, we would watch our grandmother make fruitcake and she would always let us lick the bowl afterward. I liked fruitcake simply because of the association with Christmas and spending time in the kitchen with my grandmother. However, it always seemed that the cake lasted until the next century and there was always the possibility of broken bones if the cake accidentally fell on you!

—Frank McMahon, executive chef at Hank’s Seafood in Charleston, South Carolina

Oliver was pleased with himself. His spur-of-the-moment experiment couldn’t have gone any better. Later, as they left the restaurant, Emma seemed to think she’d been tricked. She claimed Oliver must have known Gary beforehand. He didn’t, and she’d eventually believed him.

He hoped his little lesson in sales would help—and not just with her ad quota. The fact was, you had to persuade people that they were going to get something out of the deal. It was more of an emotional thing than it was a practical or financial one. Look at Gary for instance—he felt good about helping someone out. Oliver wanted to convince Emma that there’d be an emotional payoff for her, too, if she bought his sales pitch. Only what he was selling was himself.

She’d described them as friends, but he was interested in more than friendship, and if his intuition was right, so was Emma. The problem, and he considered it a minor one, was that she hadn’t acknowledged it yet.

After his lunch, Oliver returned to the airfield, did some paperwork and then drove home. Emma had called to say dinner would be ready around seven-thirty and he took that to mean she had some grocery shopping to do before he came by. He was thinking a big, juicy T-bone steak would suit him just fine.

On his way home, Oliver bought a bottle of his favorite merlot. Humming a Christmas carol, he hopped back inside his pickup. Oscar, waiting for him in the passenger seat, yawned ostentatiously.

“So how’s it going with you and Boots?” Oliver asked his terrier. “You looking forward to having dinner with her?”

Oscar cocked his head to one side.

His cell rang and when he checked caller ID, he saw that it was his mother. He picked up on the third ring, and they discussed Christmas Day and the dinner she had planned. “Hey, Mom,” he said, glancing in his sideview mirror before he changed lanes. “Would it be all right if I brought a guest?”

“For Christmas?”

“Yeah. A…friend of mine.” The word friend made him feel self-conscious. He hoped that by Christmas Day their relationship would have progressed to something a little more exciting.

His mother knew him far too well. “I’m assuming this guest you want to include is female?”

“Yes.”

“Is she someone special?”

He was silent for a moment. “Yes,” he finally admitted. “Yeah, she is.”

“What’s her name?”

“Emma Collins.”

“Emma Collins?” his mother repeated. “That sounds familiar.”

“No reason it should,” Oliver said, changing lanes a second time. “She works for The Examiner. I met her earlier in the month when she came down to the airfield to—”

“She works for the newspaper?” his mother said excitedly, cutting him off. “She’s that reporter!”

“What reporter?”

“The girl who wrote those articles about fruitcake,” she told him, her tone suggesting he must be a simpleton.

“Well, yes, but I didn’t know they’d been published.” He’d been too busy to read the paper this last week and when he did, he rarely looked past the front page and the sports section.

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