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“You’ve already got plans?”

“Sort of,” she said after a brief hesitation.

Oliver straightened. “Either you have plans or you don’t. Which is it?”

Emma set her napkin on the table, stood up and carried their plates to the sink. “I know you have a hard time understanding this, but I don’t ‘do’ Christmas.”

He looked over at the bare tree he’d gotten her. Point taken.

“It isn’t anything religious,” she explained. “Christmas just hasn’t been the same since my mother died. I tried to continue all the traditions we’d done together. It was too sad. So I stopped.”

She returned from the kitchen, carrying a pie and a couple of small glass plates. “My…father and I are estranged. He invites me out of obligation, but I can’t go to him and his new wife. I just can’t.”

She sat down at the table again. “Friends invited me over a couple of years in a row, but it made me feel like a charity case.” She lowered her head. “People tend to feel sorry for me and I don’t want that. The last two years I’ve spent the day alone and, really, it isn’t so bad. I’ve come to enjoy it.”

Oliver shrugged off her rejection as if it didn’t matter. His invitation had been issued in an offhand manner, which he now decided was a mistake. He should’ve made a big deal of it.

Because it was a big deal. Christmas was important to him and to his family, and he wanted Emma to be part of that. He wanted Emma with him.

Now all he had to do was figure out how to convince her.

Chapter Eighteen

Emma knew she’d disappointed Oliver and she felt bad about that. She was quite fond of him and—Okay, that was a mild assessment of her feelings. She was crazy about him.

“I think I blew it with Oliver,” she told Phoebe on the phone later that evening.

“What happened?”

Emma sat down and put her feet up as she mentally reviewed their dinnertime conversation. “He invited me to meet his mother.”

“That’s terrific! Oh, Emma, Oliver’s letting you know that you’re more than just a friend. He’s asking you to meet his family. That’s a huge step in a relationship.”

“It was all very casual,” she murmured.

“Of course it was….” Phoebe paused. “You’re not going to tell me you refused, are you?”

“He invited me to Christmas dinner.”

The line went silent for a moment. “You mean to tell me that Oliver invited you to meet his parents on Christmas Day and you turned him down?”

“Yes.” The word was barely audible, even to Emma.

“Don’t you understand that’s as good as it gets with a guy—his parents and Christmas?”

“But…”

“Tell me you’re joking.”

“Well, no.”

Phoebe groaned. “I was afraid of that. I thought you liked Oliver.”

“I do,” she said in a small voice. Emma was afraid to admit how much. She knew now that he wasn’t like her father. Oliver was caring, generous and had a great relationship with his family. He was kind to animals. He had a sense of humor. If she were to make a list of what she wanted in a man, those traits would be at the very top.

“How can you be so smart and so stupid at the same time?” Phoebe muttered.

“It’s a gift,” Emma said sarcastically.

“What did Oliver say after you told him no?”

Emma closed her eyes and pressed her palm against her forehead. “Hardly anything. I’d made dinner, he offered to help with the dishes, but there weren’t that many and—”

“Stop right there,” Phoebe commanded. “Oliver offered to help with the dishes and you refused that, too?”

“That was wrong?”

“Never, I repeat—never—turn down a man’s offer to do the dishes. Men are like puppies that have to be trained. This training takes place during the courtship period. Men will take their cues from you and if you let them know you’re fine with doing all the housework, they’ll simply accept it. Who wouldn’t? That, my friend, was mistake number two. Okay, now tell me what happened next.”

“Nothing much. He said he had an errand to run and he left.”

“Did he thank you for dinner?”

“Oh, yes. He really seemed to enjoy it.” His enjoyment gratified her. This was a special recipe—a special meal. In her own way, she’d been letting him know he was important to her.

“But he left almost right afterward?”

“Yes.” Emma was feeling worse by the minute.

Her friend exhaled slowly. “You’re right, you blew it.”

Emma swallowed around the lump forming in her throat. “Any suggestions on what I should do now?”

“Call and tell him you’ve had a change of heart and would love to spend Christmas with him and his family.” She gulped in an urgent breath. “And do it soon.”

This wasn’t what Emma wanted to hear. “But I haven’t changed my mind.”

“Do you love this guy or not?” Phoebe demanded.

Love? Love. Love! She didn’t know. Okay, maybe she did. She loved him. And deep down she knew that if she didn’t act quickly, she might lose him.

“But I don’t do—”

“Don’t say it,” Phoebe interrupted. “Do you honestly think this is how your mother wants you to spend Christmas? You told me how much she liked the holidays and all the things you used to do together.”

“I know. I’m not opposed to Christmas for other people,” Emma said, defending herself. “But it’s not for me. Christmas makes me sad and—”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

When had Phoebe become so dictatorial? “No…”

“No what?”

“Mom would want me to be with people at Christmas,” she murmured.

“That’s what I thought.”

Emma knew Phoebe was right about this. Her mother had always said there was something special about Christmas. Oliver had tried to tell her there was something special about her, too, and she’d brushed him off.

“Okay, you’ve made your point.” Now all she had to do was explain to Oliver that she’d been wrong. That she’d mourned her mother in a negative way instead of a positive one. That she should have celebrated all the things they’d shared—like Christmas. Phoebe was right about something else. This dinner had been a turning point in Emma’s relationship with Oliver. Unfortunately, she’d made the wrong choice once again.

“Call him.”

“Okay.”

“Tell him you’ve changed your mind and mean it,” Phoebe said.

Emma nodded dutifully. “What do you think he’ll say?”

Phoebe didn’t answer for a long moment. “I don’t know. Call me back after you talk to him, okay?”

“I will,” Emma promised. This wasn’t going to be easy. Before she lost her nerve she punched out his phone number. After three rings, voice mail came on and she left a message. “Hi,” she said awkwardly. “This is Emma…Listen, about Christmas. I am so honored that you invited me. I’d love to meet your mother. I was thinking I might’ve offended you and I’d never want to do that and so—” BEEP.

Emma had been cut off. She dialed the number again, then replaced the receiver before the recorded message began. She wondered if Oliver was screening his calls and preferred not to talk to her. The last thing she wanted to be was a pest.

Sleeping was out of the question. The big office party was the following afternoon. The Subway Express lunch had fallen through—apparently the county Health Department had some concerns about them—and Walt had made another deal with a brand-new catering company. Emma had purchased the requisite gift and dutifully wrapped it for the Secret Santa exchange, but her heart wasn’t in it.

The following morning when she showed up at the office, Phoebe met her with a cup of coffee. “Here, you look like you need this. Why didn’t you call me back?”

“I didn’t talk to Oliver.”

“You tried?”

“Yes, twice.” She hadn’t left a message the second time. One message was enough, she reasoned.

Phoebe frowned. “It’s still early.”

Two days was all she had. The office closed for the holidays at the end of business hours today. Saturday was Christmas Eve and then Sunday was Christmas Day itself. She had to settle this with Oliver and soon.

Needless to say, Emma wasn’t looking forward to the office party, but she was required to attend. No one said as much; it was simply understood. Staff and freelance writers mingled in the upstairs office, and the conference room table was covered with an elaborate culinary display.

Emma wasn’t sure how much free advertising Walt had agreed to with the catering company. A lot, she assumed. The spread was gorgeous, with huge shrimp arranged around a bowl of cocktail sauce, smoked salmon and cream cheese on small rounds of rye bread, chicken teriyaki tidbits, veggie trays, cheese and crackers and enough desserts to send the entire staff racing to Weight Watchers on the second of January. To Emma’s delight, among the desserts was a large platter of sliced fruitcake.

“You’re Emma Collins?” the young female caterer asked when Emma paused to admire it.

“I am.”

“I really enjoyed your articles,” she said. “My name is Dixie Rogers.”

They shook hands. “I enjoyed meeting the finalists—and trying their fruitcake,” Emma told her.

“Has the winner been announced?”

Emma nodded. “It was a woman from South Carolina.” She’d checked the Web last night, just before she went to bed, and had seen the results.

“Oh. I hope the Washington State finalists aren’t too disappointed.”

Emma thought that Earleen, Sophie and Peggy were thrilled to have made the final cut. She’d heard from each one after the articles were published and they’d all been pleased.

“As you probably guessed, the no-bake fruitcake is Peggy Lucas’s recipe.” Dixie pointed to the tray Emma had recently admired. “I think everyone who normally dislikes fruitcake will be eager to give it a second try after reading your articles. I know I was.”

The praise felt good. “Thank you again.”

“Next year I’m determined to bake all three fruitcakes. The chocolate one especially interests me.”

“It’s wonderful,” Emma assured her. The three finalists had made a believer out of her. Her intense dislike of fruitcake had come about more because of its association with Christmas than any aversion to the cake itself. It was an unreasonable dislike, she recognized, since she’d only tasted it a couple of times. Next year, she’d bake one herself. Maybe even all three.

Emma filled her plate and joined Phoebe while Walt made the traditional Christmas champagne toast. The Secret Santa gift exchange turned out, surprisingly, to be a lot of fun, and Emma ended up the proud possessor of a pair of Christmas tree earrings. Soon everyone was getting ready to leave for the night. There were plenty of hugs and holiday greetings as the office staff began to drift away.

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