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Bundled against the cold, Emma walked out of the office, Phoebe and Walt behind her. Being alone over the holidays had never troubled Emma this much in the past. It was the thought of not being with Oliver. She wanted to be in his life and she wanted him in hers.

Just before the office party, Walt had sought her out. He hadn’t openly praised her work; that would’ve been asking too much. But he’d given her another assignment. Shortly after the first of the year, the big Bridal Fair would be held at the Tacoma Dome. Walt seemed to feel she’d find plenty of human interest stories at an event like that.

It wasn’t a random choice, Emma realized. When Phoebe returned to work after Christmas, Emma expected to see her wearing an engagement ring. In fact, she was virtually certain that Phoebe had whispered the idea for her new assignment in Walt’s ear.

The wind sent icy shivers down Emma’s back as she headed toward the parking lot. A dog barked. Could it possibly be Oscar, which meant Oliver would be close by? She scanned the area but didn’t see either Oliver or his terrier.

As she drove through town, Emma noticed—as if for the first time—all the street decorations. Wreaths, striped candy canes and snowmen were suspended from light posts, with evergreen boughs stretched from one side of the street to the other. These decorations were truly an expression of the community’s spirit. Before, she’d barely glanced at them, viewing it all as evidence of the commercialization of Christmas. Now she looked at the scene in front of her with fresh eyes.

Snowflakes floated down. She caught her breath at the sheer wonder of it. Carolers stood in the center of a roundabout with their songbooks open. Even through the noise of the traffic, Emma could hear the harmonic blend of voices. It was lovely and peaceful and festive—and so was Christmas…. Just like it’d been when she was a kid growing up.

Emma thought about the women she’d met and the articles she’d written. Earleen had taught her to look at her mother and herself in an entirely different way. Pamela Collins had made her own choice, and that choice had been to remain in a failed marriage. Even though she knew Oliver was nothing like her father, Emma had been afraid of repeating her mother’s mistakes. But she was her own woman, a masterpiece in her own right. From Sophie she’d learned about the value of compromise and the importance of recognizing what you want and making it part of your life. And Peggy had shown her how to live in the moment.

Fortified with enthusiasm, Emma drove to the local Wal-Mart and, using her Christmas bonus, bought lights and decorations for her tree. While she was there, she loaded up on groceries. Then she went to a local strip mall and did her first real Christmas shopping in years.

Nothing had been resolved with Oliver; still, she felt wonderful. Christmas music played loudly from her car radio as she arrived home and carried all her bags into the apartment. Boots jumped up and down with happiness at her homecoming.

She didn’t stop to see if the red light was blinking on her answering machine. It didn’t matter if Oliver had tried to return her call or not. Riding on the crest of her newborn appreciation for Christmas—and for him—she went directly to his apartment with Boots in tow. She didn’t hesitate before she rang his doorbell.

He looked surprised to see her. He waited for her to speak.

She smiled warmly. “Hi.”

“Hi, yourself,” he repeated without much animation.

Her smile grew wider. “Merry Christmas.”

His eyes widened. “Merry Christmas? The original Ms. Scrooge is wishing me Merry Christmas?”

“Oh, yes.” With that, she launched herself into his arms and spread eager kisses over his face. She started with his cheek, gradually working her way to his mouth.

Sliding his arms around her waist, Oliver lifted her from the ground. His mouth hungrily covered hers. Somehow he managed to bring her into his apartment—Boots scurrying past them—and kick the door shut. Emma wrapped her arms around his neck and hung on tight. This was exactly where she wanted to be. If the fervor with which he returned her kisses was any indication, Oliver shared her feeling.

“Did you get my message?” she asked when she could breathe again.

“Did you get mine?”

“No.”

His lips went back to hers. “I decided to give you another chance.”

“Good.” She kissed his jaw, then cradled his face between her hands so she could gaze into his eyes. “Can I still join you and your family for Christmas?”

Oliver’s expression grew solemn. “Sorry, I’ve already asked another girl.”

His answer shocked her until she realized he was teasing. Playfully she punched him in the ribs. “That wasn’t funny.”

Oliver laughed. Emma had always loved his robust laughter and closed her eyes to hold on to the sound of it as long as possible.

“Do you want to help me decorate the tree?” she asked.

“What?” Oliver pretended to stagger back, hand to his heart. “This is indeed a complete transformation. Sure.”

“Also,” she said, slipping her arm around his waist. “If I’m going to be joining your family for Christmas dinner, it’s only polite that I bring something.”

Oliver disagreed. “Mom won’t hear of it. You’re our guest.”

“No, I insist. Besides, I’ve already been to the grocery store.”

“Okay, okay. Bring whatever you want.”

She tilted back her head. “Don’t you want to know what I intend to make for your family?”

“Okay, tell me.”

So she did. “Fruitcake, of course.”

Epilogue

I’m not a fruitcake fan generally speaking, but then there’s my mother’s. She makes a fabulous, upscale fruitcake using a high-quality sherry. She bakes the cakes in November, wraps them in cheesecloth and lets them marinate for a couple of weeks, routinely adding sherry to keep them moist. Each year she sends me a few of her superb fruitcakes and they always disappear surprisingly quickly—especially for fruitcake!

—Robert Carter, executive chef at Peninsula Grill in Charleston, South Carolina

A year later

Her mother had been right; Christmas was good for the human spirit.

“Emma, would you take this out to the table?” Oliver’s mother asked, handing her a bowl piled high with fluffy mashed potatoes. She didn’t wait for a response before she gave Oliver’s sister, Laurel, a second bowl, and picked up a third, filled with Brussels sprouts, herself. Walking in single file, the Hamilton women brought the serving dishes to the huge dining room table for Christmas dinner.

A turkey, roasted to golden perfection, rested on a huge oval platter at the far end of the table for Oliver’s father to carve. Nieces and nephews, plus dogs and cats, raced around the house with sounds of glee.

Oliver was talking to his father but glanced up when she entered the room. They exchanged a smile. For the second year in a row, she’d joined his family for the holiday festivities. Only this year, Emma was a member of the family. Oliver and Emma had been married in June, two months after Phoebe and Walt. Following the reception, they flew—yes, flew—to Hawaii for a two-week honeymoon. Thankfully, their flight was aboard a 747 and not Oliver’s Cessna Caravan.

With Oliver’s urging and support, Emma had called her father. That first conversation had been tense, and she’d realized Bret Collins wished their relationship was different. To her surprise, he showed up for the wedding. He attended the reception, too, and made a point of meeting Emma’s in-laws. Though he’d left shortly afterward, they’d talked a number of times since. In fact, he’d called that very morning to wish her and Oliver a merry Christmas.

It was a start.

Emma’s journalism career was progressing, and although she was still responsible for her share of obituaries, she routinely wrote feature articles for The Examiner. Walt sometimes offered suggestions, but lately he’d allowed her to write whatever she chose. Emma’s work had even garnered attention from some of the larger newspapers in the area. For now, she was content to continue writing for The Examiner. She enjoyed living in Puyallup, home of the Western Washington Fairgrounds and the Victorian Christmas extravaganza. She’d covered both events for the paper this year.

Oliver’s freight business was doing well, too. He’d managed to pick up another exclusive contract with an Alaska fishing company. Five days a week, he flew in fresh salmon and other seafood to restaurants in Washington and Oregon. Emma was proud of his company’s success. In November Oliver had hired another pilot and leased a second plane in order to meet demand. He advertised regularly in The Examiner, and Emma wrote all his ads.

Oliver’s mother stepped out of the kitchen and removed her apron, signaling the start of the Christmas meal. “Ollie, dinner’s on the table,” she called to her husband. The family migrated to the dining room.

Oliver and Emma stood in front of their chairs as his sisters and brother and their families found their way to the table. Emma smiled, admiring the meal. In addition to turkey and all the fixings, there were a number of salads and vegetable dishes, plus fresh-baked rolls still warm from the oven. Desserts lined the sideboard. For the second year in a row, Emma had brought fruitcake—three varieties this year, all made from the recipes contributed by the three women she’d interviewed last Christmas.

When the family surrounded the table, they all joined hands and Oliver’s father offered a simple grace. Emma closed her eyes; at the end of the prayer she whispered a heartfelt “Amen.” She was in love, and she felt as though she’d reclaimed herself—and reclaimed the joy of Christmas.

With dinner came a lot of good-natured teasing between Oliver and his younger brother and three younger sisters. Although he was the oldest, he’d been the last to marry.

“I don’t know how you put up with him,” Laurel said, speaking to Emma.

“You wouldn’t believe the stuff he pulled on us as kids,” Carrie added.

“Do you remember the time Mom made you babysit, and Donny put a huge hole in the living room wall?” Jenny asked Oliver.

“Remember it?” he said with a groan. “I knew the minute Mom saw that hole, I’d be grounded my entire senior year.”

Oliver’s mother waved her fork at him and turned to Emma. “Do you know what he did? My genius son rearranged the living room furniture so the wall was covered.”

“I hid the hole,” Oliver said in a stage whisper.

“Then he demanded extra pay because he claimed he did housework in addition to babysitting,” his mother reminded them.

The whole family laughed.

Laurel spoke to Emma again. “Okay, you’ve been married to our big brother for six months now.”

“Six months,” Donny repeated. “Leslie was pregnant a month after our wedding. What’s the problem?”

Oliver laughed. “Trust me, there’s no problem.”

This was her cue, Emma realized. “We’re due in July.”

Amid cheers and gasps, Oliver’s parents rose to their feet and applauded. His siblings and their spouses joined in.

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