THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT CHRISTMAS
To Emma Ingram (the real Emma) and her mother
On that cold day I was born, in February 1955, my great-aunt gave me a classic fruitcake for the celebration of the occasion of my birth. Every year during the holidays I pull it out of the attic and take a look at it and it still looks great, and every year I try to get up the nerve to take a slice and try it.
chef of The Mansion on Turtle Creek
This job was going to kill her yet.
Emma Collins stared at the daredevil pilot who was urging her toward his plane. She’d come to Thun Field to drum up advertising dollars for her employer, The Puyallup Examiner, and wasn’t interested in taking a spin around southeast Puget Sound.
“Thank you, but no,” she insisted for the third time. Oliver Hamilton seemed to have a hearing problem. However, Emma was doing her best to maintain a professional facade, despite her pounding heart. No way would she go for a ride with Flyboy.
The truth was, Emma was terrified of flying. Okay, she white-knuckled it in a Boeing 747, but nothing on God’s green earth would get her inside a small plane with this man—and his dog. Oliver Hamilton had a devil-may-care glint in his dark blue eyes and wore a distressed brown leather jacket that resembled something a World War Two bomber pilot might wear. All he needed was the white scarf. She suspected that if he ever got her in the air, he’d start making loops and circles with the express purpose of frightening her to death. He looked just the type.
Placing the advertising-rate sheet on his desk, she turned resolutely away from the window and the sight of Hamilton’s little bitty plane—a Cessna Caravan 675, he’d called it. “As I was explaining earlier, The Examiner has a circulation of over forty-five thousand. As you’ll see—” she gestured at the sheet “—we have special introductory rates in December. We serve four communities and, dollar for advertising dollar, you can’t do better than what we’re offering.”
“Yes, yes, I understand all that,” Oliver Hamilton said, stepping around his desk. “Now, what I can offer you is the experience of a lifetime….”
Instinctively Emma backed away. She had an aversion to attractive men whose promises slid so easily off their tongues. Her father had been one of them. He’d flitted in and out of her life during her childhood and teen years. Every so often, he’d arrived bearing gifts and making promises, none of which he’d kept. Still, her mother had loved Bret Collins until the end. Pamela had died after a brief illness when Emma was a sophomore at the University of Oregon. To his credit, her father had paid her college expenses, but Emma refused to have anything to do with him. She was on her own in the world and determined to make a success of her career as a journalist. When she’d hired on at The Examiner earlier that year, she hadn’t objected to starting at the bottom. She’d expected that. What she hadn’t expected was spending half her time trying to sell advertising.
The Examiner was a family-owned business, one of a vanishing breed. The newspaper had been in the Berwald family for three generations. Walt Berwald II had held on through the corporate buyouts and survived the competition from the big-city newspapers coming out of Tacoma and Seattle. It hadn’t been easy. Now his thirty-year-old son had taken over after his father’s recent heart attack. Walt the third, the new editor-in-chief, was doing everything he could to keep the newspaper financially solvent, which Emma knew was a challenge.
“Hey, Oscar,” Oliver said, bending to pet his dog. “I think the lady’s afraid of flying.”
Emma bristled, irritated that he’d pegged her so quickly. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
He ignored her and continued to pet the dog. She couldn’t readily identify his breed, possibly some kind of terrier. The dog was mostly white with one large black spot surrounding his left eye. Right out of that 1930s show Spanky and Our Gang. Wasn’t that the name? She shook off her momentary distraction.
“I’m here to sell you advertising in The Examiner,” she explained again. “I hope you’ll reconsider.”
Oliver straightened, crossing his arms, and leaned against his desk. “As I said, I’m just getting my business started. At this point I don’t have a lot of discretionary funds for advertising. So for now I’ll stick with the word-of-mouth method. That seems to be working.”
It couldn’t be working that well, since he appeared to have a lot of time on his hands. “Exactly what is it you do?” she asked.
“I give flying lessons and I’ve recently begun an air-freight business.”
“Oscar and I haven’t crashed even once.”
He was obviously making fun of her, and she didn’t appreciate it. Nor did she take his alleged safety record as an incentive to leap into the passenger seat.
“But then,” he added, “there’s always a first time.”
“Exactly what I was going to say,” Emma muttered. “Well, I’ll leave the information with you,” she said more pleasantly. “I hope you’ll think about our proposal when it’s financially feasible.”
Retrieving her briefcase and purse, she headed toward the door—which Oliver suddenly blocked with his arm. His smile was as lazy as it was sexy. Hmm, funny how often lazy and sexy went together. Considering all that boyish charm, plenty of other women had probably melted at his feet. She wouldn’t.
She met his gaze without flinching.
“Are you sure I can’t take you up for a spin?” he asked.
“Absolutely, positively sure.”
“There’s nothing to fear except fear itself.”
“Uh-uh. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have other calls to make.”
He moved aside. “It’s a shame. You’re kinda cute in an uptight sort of way.”
Unable to resist, she rolled her eyes.
Oliver chuckled and walked her out to her car, his dog trotting behind him. Normally Emma would’ve taken time to pet the terrier, but Oliver Hamilton would inevitably read that as a sign she was interested in him. She was fond of animals, especially dogs, and hoped to get one herself. Unfortunately, her apartment complex didn’t allow pets; not only that, the landlord was a real piece of work. As soon as she had the chance, Emma planned to find somewhere else to live.
Using her remote, she unlocked her car door, which Oliver promptly opened for her. She smiled her thanks, eager to leave, and climbed into the driver’s side.
“So I can’t change your mind?”
She shook her head. The one thing a ladies’ man could never resist, Emma had learned from her father, was a woman who said no. Somehow, she’d have to get Oliver to accept her at her word.
She reached for the door and closed it. Hard.
Oliver stepped back.
After she’d started the ignition and pulled away, he smiled at her—a mysterious smile—as if he knew something she didn’t.
As far as Emma was concerned, she’d made a lucky escape.
Her irritation had just begun to fade when she returned to the office and walked down to her cubicle in the basement, shared with half a dozen other staff. The area was affectionately—and sometimes not so affectionately—termed The Dungeon. Phoebe Wilkinson, who sat opposite her, glanced up when Emma tossed her purse onto her desk.
“That bad?” Phoebe asked, rolling her chair across the narrow aisle. She was one of the other reporters, a few years older than Emma. She was short where Emma was tall, with dark hair worn in a pixie cut while Emma’s was long and blond. Most of the time, anyway. Occasionally Emma was a redhead or a brunette.
“You wouldn’t believe my afternoon.”
“Did you sell any ads?” Phoebe asked. It’d been her turn the day before and she’d come back with three brand-new accounts.
Emma nodded. She’d managed to get the local pizza parlor to place an ad in the Wednesday edition with a dollar-off coupon for any large pizza. That way, the restaurant could figure out how well the advertising had worked. Emma just hoped everyone in town would go racing into the parlor with that coupon. Badda Bing, Badda Boom Pizza had been her only sale.
“That’s great,” Phoebe said with real enthusiasm.
“Yes, at least our payroll checks won’t bounce.” She couldn’t restrain her sarcasm.
Phoebe frowned, shaking her head. “Walt would never let that happen.”
Her friend and co-worker had a crush on the owner. Phoebe was the strongest personality she knew, yet when it came to Walt, she seemed downright timid—far from her usual assertive self.
Emma sighed. Her own feelings about men had grown cynical. Her father was mostly responsible for that. Her one serious college romance hadn’t helped, either; it ended when her mother became ill. Emma hadn’t been around to help Neal with his assignments, so he’d dropped her for another journalism student. Pulling out her chair, Emma sat down. She hadn’t worked so hard to get her college degree for this. Her feet hurt, she had a run in her panty hose and no one was going to give her a Pulitzer prize when she spent half her time pounding the pavement and the other half writing obituaries.
Yes, obituaries. Walt’s big coup had been getting a contract to write obituaries for the large Tacoma newspaper, and that had been her job and Phoebe’s for the past eight months. Emma had gotten quite good at summarizing someone else’s life—but that hardly made a smudge on the page of her own.
She hadn’t obtained a journalism degree in order to persuade the local department store to place mattress sale ads in the Sunday paper, either. She was a reporter! A darn good one…if only someone would give her a chance to prove herself. Emma longed to write a piece worthy of her education and her skills, and frankly, preparing obituaries wasn’t it.
“I don’t think I can do this much longer,” she confessed sadly. “Either Walt lets me write a real story or…” She didn’t know what.
Phoebe gasped. “You aren’t thinking of quitting, are you?”
Emma looked at her friend. She’d been hired the same week as Phoebe. The difference was, Phoebe seemed content to do whatever was asked of her. She loved writing obituaries and set the perfect tone with each one. Not Emma. She hated it, struggling with them all. The result was always adequate or better because Emma took pride in her work, but it just wasn’t what she wanted to be doing. She had ambition and dreamed that one day she’d write feature articles. Eventually, she hoped to have her own column.
“I don’t want to quit. I’ve been waiting six months for Walt to offer me something more than funeral home notices.”
“Sleep on it,” Phoebe advised. “You’ve had a rough day. Everything will seem better in the morning.”
“You’re right,” she murmured. An ultimatum shouldn’t be made on the spur of the moment. Besides, it wasn’t the obituaries or even drumming up advertising dollars that depressed her the most.
It was Christmas.
Everywhere she went, there was holiday cheer. But not everyone in the world loved Christmas. She, for example, didn’t enjoy it at all. Christmas was for families and she didn’t have one. Yes, her father was alive, but that was of little comfort. Since her mother’s death, he always invited Emma to his house in California and she always took a certain grim satisfaction in refusing him.