Phoebe hesitated. “That’s great. Isn’t it?”
“I…think so. Only…”
“Only it looks like you’re going to be writing the obituaries on your own for a while.”
Phoebe gave her a puzzled smile. “That’s all right. I already told you I don’t mind.”
“Maybe not, but I have a feeling that the next one you write just might be mine.”
The first thing Emma did when she got home from the newspaper office that evening was check her medicine cabinet. Her relief knew no bounds when she found six tablets rattling around in the dark-brown prescription bottle. A few months earlier, she’d twisted her knee playing volleyball. Phoebe had conned her into joining a league, but that was another story entirely. The attending physician in the urgent-care facility had given her a powerful muscle relaxant. Her knee had continued to hurt, as Emma vividly recalled, but thirty minutes after she’d swallowed the capsule, she couldn’t have cared less. All was right with the world—for a couple of hours, anyway.
Knowing how potent those pills were, she’d hoarded them for a situation such as the one she now faced with Oliver Hamilton. For the sake of her career she’d accompany him in his scary little plane, but it went without saying that Emma would need help of the medicinal variety. If she was going to be flying with Oliver Hamilton she had to have something to numb her overwhelming fear at the prospect of getting into that plane. She clutched the bottle and took a deep breath. For the sake of her craft and her career, she’d do it.
Emma simply couldn’t survive the trip without those pills. One tablet to get her to Yakima and another to get her home. That left four, exactly the number she needed for the two additional trips.
Thankfully, Phoebe had agreed to drive her to the airport and then pick her up at the end of the day. Emma was grateful—more than grateful. Once she’d taken the muscle relaxant, she’d be in no condition to drive.
At six-thirty the next morning, Phoebe pulled up in front of the apartment complex. Carrying her traveling coffee mug, along with her leather briefcase, Emma hurried out her door to meet her friend.
“Don’t you look nice,” her landlord said, startling her. She was sure that was a smirk on his face.
Under normal circumstances Emma would’ve taken offense, but in her present state of mind all she could do was smile wanly.
Mr. Scott leaned against his door, this morning’s Examiner in his hand. He was middle-aged with a beer belly and a slovenly manner, and frankly, Emma was surprised to find him awake this early in the day. After moving into the apartment, she’d stayed clear of her landlord, who seemed to be…well, the word sleazy came to mind. He didn’t like animals, especially cats and dogs, and in her opinion that said a lot about his personality, all of it negative.
“Good morning, Mr. Scott,” Emma greeted him, making a determined effort not to slur her words. The pill had already started to take effect and, despite the presence of the loathsome Bud Scott, the world had never seemed a brighter or more pleasant place.
“It’s a bit nippy this morning, isn’t it?” he asked.
Emma nodded, although if it was chilly she hadn’t noticed. In her current haze nothing seemed hot or cold. From experience she knew that in three or four hours the pill would have lost most of its effect and she’d be clear-headed enough for what she hoped would be an intelligent interview.
“I don’t suppose you know anyone who needs an apartment,” Bud Scott muttered. He narrowed his gaze as if he suspected she wasn’t sober—which was a bit much considering she rarely saw him without a can of Milwaukee’s finest.
“I thought every unit in the complex was rented,” Emma said.
“The lady in 12B had a cat.” He scowled as he spoke.
He’d underlined the No Pets clause a number of times when Emma signed her rental agreement. Any infraction, he’d informed her, would result in a one-week notice of eviction.
“Mrs. Murphy?” Emma cried when she realized who lived in 12B, two doors down from her. The sweet older lady was a recent widow and missed her husband dreadfully. “You couldn’t have made an exception?” she asked. “Mrs. Murphy is so lonely and—”
“No exceptions,” Mr. Scott growled. He shoved open his door and disappeared inside, grumbling under his breath.
“What was all that about?” Phoebe asked when Emma got into the car.
“He is truly a lower life-form,” she declared righteously. “Doesn’t possess an ounce of compassion.” She stumbled a bit on the last word.
Phoebe gave her an odd look. “Are you all right?”
Emma smothered a yawn and then giggled.
“What did you do?” Phoebe asked, eyeing her suspiciously.
“Remember the pain pills I got last August?”
“The ones that made you so…weird?”
“I wasn’t weird. I was happy.”
“Don’t tell me you took one this morning!”
In response Emma giggled again. “Just one. I need it for the plane ride. Can’t leave home without it.”
“Emma, you’re supposed to be doing an interview.”
“I know…The pill will wear off by then.”
“Don’t worry, I’m fine. Really, I am.”
Phoebe didn’t look as if she believed her. When she stopped at a traffic signal, she cast Emma another worried glance. “You’re sure you’re doing the right thing?”
Emma nodded. All at once she felt incredibly tired. Closing her eyes, she leaned her head against the passenger window. In her dreamlike state, she viewed a long line of circus animals parading down to Bud Scott’s office and protesting on behalf of Mrs. Murphy. The vision of elephants carrying placards and lions ready to rip out his throat faded and Emma worked hard to focus her thoughts on the upcoming interview. Fruitcake. Good grief, she hated fruitcake. She wanted nothing to do with it.
Yesterday, once she’d received her assignment, Emma had phoned Earleen Williams, the Yakima finalist, who was a retired bartender. Earleen had seemed flustered but pleased at the attention. Emma had made an appointment to talk with her late this morning. She’d spent much of the night reviewing her questions when she should’ve been sleeping. No wonder she was exhausted.
“We’re at the airport,” Phoebe announced.
Emma stirred. It required tremendous effort to lift her head from the passenger window. Stretching her arms, she yawned loudly. The temptation to sleep was almost irresistible, especially when she realized that all too soon she’d be suspended thousands of feet above the ground.
“Flying isn’t so bad, you know,” Phoebe said in a blatant effort to encourage her.
“Have you ever flown in a small plane?”
“Then I don’t want to hear it. See you back here tonight,” Emma murmured, hoping to boost her own confidence. People went up in small planes every day. It couldn’t be as terrifying as she believed. But this wasn’t necessarily a rational fear—or not completely, anyway. It didn’t matter, though; fear was still fear, whatever its cause. She reminded herself that in a few days she’d be able to laugh about this. Besides, writers across the centuries had made sacrifices for their art, and being bounced around in a tin can with wings would be hers. By the end of this fruitcake series, she might even have conquered her terror. Even if she hadn’t, she’d never let Hamilton know.
Oliver and his dog were walking around the outside of the aircraft, inspecting it, when she approached, briefcase in hand.
“You ready?” he asked, barely looking in her direction.
“Ah…don’t you want to wait until the sun is up?” she asked. She hoped to delay this as long as possible. The pill needed to be at the height of its effectiveness before she’d find the courage to actually climb inside the aircraft.
“Light, dark, it doesn’t make any difference.” He walked toward the wing and tested the flap by manually moving it up and down.
“There hasn’t been a problem with the flaps, has there?” she asked, following close behind him. Too bad he was so attractive, Emma mused. In another time and place…She halted her thoughts immediately. This man was dangerous and in more ways than the obvious. First, he was intent on putting her at mortal risk, and second…Well, she couldn’t think of a second reason, but the first one was enough.
No, wait—now she remembered. Since he was a good-looking, bad-boy type, she probably wasn’t the only woman attracted to him. Tall, dark, handsome and reckless, to boot. Men like Oliver Hamilton drew women in droves and always had. He was far too reminiscent of her father, and she wasn’t interested. Emma preferred quiet, serious men over the flamboyant ones who thought nothing of attempting ridiculous, hazardous stunts like flying small rattletrap planes.
“You’re worried about the flaps?” he asked, and seemed to find humor in her question.
“Haven’t they been working properly?” While Emma actually had no idea what function the flaps played in keeping an airplane aloft, she was sure it must be significant.
Something in her voice—perhaps a slight drawl she could hear herself—must have betrayed her because Oliver turned and gave her his full attention. Frowning, he asked, “Have you been drinking?”
“This early in the morning?”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“No,” she returned with an edge of defiance. “I don’t drink.”
“Ever?” His eyebrows rose as if he doubted her.
She shrugged. “I do on occasion, but I don’t make a habit of it.”
His dog sneezed, spraying her pant leg. This was her best pair of wool pants and she wasn’t keen on showing up for the interview with one leg peppered with dubious-looking stains. Oscar sneezed again and again in quick succession, but at least she had the wherewithal to leap back. “Yuck!” she muttered. “Oh, yuck.”
“You wouldn’t happen to be wearing perfume, would you?” Oliver demanded in a voice that suggested she was attempting to carry an illegal weapon on board.
“Yes, of course I am. Most women do.”
He grumbled some remark she didn’t hear, then added, “Oscar’s allergic to perfume.”
“You might’ve told me that before now,” she said, wiping her pant leg a second time. Thank goodness she’d brought gloves. And thank goodness they were washable.
He raised his shoulder in a nonchalant fashion. “Probably should have. It slipped my mind.” He continued his outside inspection of the plane. “Oh, yeah,” he said, testing the flap on the opposite wing, “I need to know how much you weigh.”
“I beg your pardon?” There were certain things a man didn’t ask a woman and this was one of them.
“Your weight,” he said matter-of-factly.
Despite her drug-induced state of relaxation, Emma stiffened. “I’m not telling you.”