Emma stared. “It’s gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous.” She tried to figure out where he planned to put it. In his dining room, perhaps? She recalled catching a glimpse of one in his living room last week, glittering with decorations.
He smiled as he thrust the tree at her. “Merry Christmas.”
She backed away a step. “Merry Christmas to you, too.”
He cocked his head to one side. “Where do you want it?”
Emma leaned closer in order to hear him better. “Want it? This tree is for me?”
He nodded. “Yes. Isn’t it obvious?”
Emma took another step backward.
He blinked, as if he’d been expecting her to throw her arms around him in gratitude. “You don’t like it?”
“Of course I like it. That’s the most beautiful Christmas tree I’ve ever seen.”
Emma froze. He’d been serious about giving her the tree. Her—a woman who didn’t have a stand or ornaments or anything else one needed for a Christmas tree.
“It’s kind of…big, don’t you think?” she asked.
“I might need to take a bit more off the bottom, but no, it’s not too big. I thought you could do with a bit of Christmas cheer, and I decided to make a contribution.”
“You’ll thank me later.”
Emma wasn’t sure about that. Not sure at all.
“I’ve never seen anything so big in my life,” Emma complained to Phoebe. “He didn’t even ask me if I wanted a Christmas tree.” Thanks to her unenthusiastic response, Oliver hadn’t spoken to her in two days. Now Emma was miserable and needed to talk with her friend.
Phoebe frowned. “But don’t you think bringing you a Christmas tree was very romantic of Oliver?”
Emma stopped her pacing, deep in The Dungeon, as she considered this. “Oh, my goodness.” That hadn’t even occurred to her. She pressed her hand to her forehead, then flopped down in her chair. “That’s it.” She should’ve realized earlier what had prompted him to buy her a tree. “Oliver thought he was being romantic.” They’d had this ongoing conversation about romantic heroes and she’d failed to recognize what he was doing. The tree was his way of being romantic according to his theory of “show, not tell” romance. Action rather than words.
“Yes! Oliver was being romantic,” Phoebe insisted. “You’ve really fallen for him, haven’t you?” She smiled—a smile that could only be described as smug.
“I think he’s arrogant and dogmatic, opinionated and—”
“Yeah, yeah.” Phoebe’s smile grew even wider. “I thought so.” She returned to work as if there was nothing left to argue about.
Emma felt she couldn’t leave her friend with that impression. Phoebe might say something to Walt, and Oliver and Walt were pals. She wasn’t ready to acknowledge her feelings for Oliver, wasn’t even sure those feelings would last long enough to be worth acknowledging.
“I think Oliver’s a good pilot,” she said, carefully weighing her words. “We’ve each made an effort to make the best of an uncomfortable situation.”
Phoebe ignored her.
“You’re right….” Emma admitted reluctantly, walking over to her friend’s desk. She folded her arms and spoke casually. “There was a slight attraction in the beginning. We even joked about it.” Well…Oliver had joked.
Phoebe turned and looked up at Emma. “Did he or did he not kiss you?”
“He…ah, okay, yes, there were a couple of times when I…that happened. So technically, yes, he did kiss me.” This was all she was willing to say on the subject.
“So there was more than the one time?” Phoebe probed.
“There might have been.” Emma wanted her friend to stop studying her with that appraising light in her eyes. “It wasn’t a big deal.”
“But you said Oliver’s your romantic hero.”
“No. I said it looked like Oliver was just proving a point.” She wished he wouldn’t try so hard, but she didn’t know how to make him stop. The entire conversation about romantic heroes had come about by chance. But now he seemed to be going out of his way to prove that he was every bit as romantic as Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant.
Emma sat at her desk, hardly able to concentrate. She’d be leaving the office in a few minutes to drum up advertisements for the newspaper. During the fruitcake interviews, Walt had excused her from that responsibility. Apparently his arrangement with Oliver had sparked an idea, and Walt was now willing to trade newspaper space for goods and services. Rumor had it that the Subway Express down the street would be catering the company Christmas lunch. Talk around the water cooler was that Walt had worked out some sort of deal with the owner—three weekly ads in exchange for thirty turkey sandwiches, pickles and coleslaw on the side. Thankfully, he hadn’t been negotiating with the Mexican restaurant/sushi bar. Cross-cultural restaurants weren’t so rare in small towns, but this was a combination Emma found a little bizarre.
“How are things going with you and Walt?” Emma asked, deciding it was her turn to ask personal questions.
Phoebe glowed. “Fabulous.”
“He asked me to have Christmas dinner with his family.”
This was big, and Emma released a low whistle.
“We’re having two dinners that day,” Phoebe went on to explain. “First with my mom and dad, and then later with his.”
“I hope you like turkey.”
“I do,” Phoebe assured her. “But my mom’s serving prime rib and I don’t know about his mother. What are you doing for Christmas?”
Christmas fell on a Sunday this year, and Emma wouldn’t be doing anything special. She’d probably do what she had the year before—attend a movie and have buttered popcorn for dinner. It would be a day like any other.
“I have plans.” She hated to lie, so she remained vague. If she mentioned going to a movie, Phoebe would feel sorry for her and then find a way to include her. Emma didn’t want to intrude on Phoebe and her family, or on Walt and his.
“What sort of plans?” Phoebe pressed.
Emma didn’t want to be rude or arouse her suspicions, so she played it coy. “Private plans,” she said, dropping her voice until it was almost a purr.
This was a mistake because Phoebe’s curiosity was certainly piqued now. “They involve Oliver, don’t they?”
“They could.” Emma reached for her coat and purse, anxious to leave.
“You’ll tell me later?”
Emma sighed deeply. “Yes, but only if you torture it out of me.”
“That could be arranged,” a gruff male voice said from behind her.
Both Phoebe and Emma gasped as Walt stepped between their desks. “I should come downstairs more often to see how the two of you spend your time.” He frowned at Emma and handed her a sheet of paper printed with a list of businesses. The highlighted ones were the companies he wanted her to approach. Oh joy, The Taco Stand and California Rock & Roll were on the list, the combination ethnic restaurant so recently in her thoughts.
Emma stared at the paper and squelched a groan. She did not consider ad sales her forte.
Half an hour later, Emma was sitting with Mr. Garcia of The Taco Stand and his wife, Suki, who operated the other half of the restaurant. There weren’t any lunch customers yet, and they’d chosen a booth on the Mexican side of the building with its strings of red chili pepper lights proclaiming Christmas cheer. Emma carefully reviewed the newspaper’s advertising rates. Suki, whose English was poor, looked to her Hispanic husband to explain what Emma had suggested. Emma glanced from one to the other and realized they had a language all their own.
“Is it for newspaper?” Suki wanted to know for the third time.
Emma smiled and nodded. “Yes,” she said. She found herself speaking slowly and deliberately. “Advertise your good food to all the people in Puyallup so they will come in and place many orders.” After five minutes of talking to the young Asian woman, Emma sounded as if she were the one struggling with English. It embarrassed her; she didn’t want to offend the gentle young woman, but in her effort to make herself understood, she was overemphasizing each word.
Carlos, Suki’s husband, nodded. “Very good for business.”
Suki brightened. “We talk,” she said and smiled softly at her husband.
A bell tinkled in the Japanese half of the restaurant, separated by a doorway. “Suki, where are you?”
Emma would recognize that voice anywhere.
Suki’s eyes widened with pleasure. “Mr. Oliver,” she said and immediately scooted out of the booth.
Carlos laughed. “She has a big crush on the pilot. It’s a good thing she met me first.”
Emma didn’t doubt Oliver’s appeal to the opposite sex for a moment. He had that effect on women; she knew from her own experience.
“Leave the information with me,” Carlos said. “I’ll call Mr. Walt later.”
“So you think you’ll buy an ad?” Emma asked hopefully.
Carlos hemmed and hawed. “Maybe. I’ll talk it over with Suki.”
It happened like this every time. She nearly had a commitment, and then the business owner would back off. She had no idea what she needed to do in order to get businesses to advertise in their local paper. Some of the businesspeople she talked to practically gave her the impression that they were afraid of attracting more customers. She didn’t know how else to explain it. Fortunately, she’d had one success—Badda Bing, Badda Boom Pizza. They’d seen an increase in pizza sales and had happily signed a new contract.
She couldn’t resist. After thanking Carlos, Emma walked over to the other half of the restaurant. Sure enough, Oliver sat on a stool with his back to her, while Suki worked behind the counter, assembling his order.
“I would never have taken you for someone who enjoys sushi,” she said, and slid onto the stool beside him.
Oliver didn’t look surprised to see her. “Really? I love it. My guess is you’ve never tried it.”
He was beginning to know her. Then again, he seemed to have that ability from the moment they met. “You’re right, I haven’t.”
“California rolls for the lady,” Oliver told Suki.
“Oh, I’m not hungry,” she said, which wasn’t true.
Oliver didn’t allow her to protest. “At least give it a try.”
She’d been saying the same thing all afternoon. The least she could do was follow her own advice. “All right, I will.”
Oliver gave her a warm smile, and she couldn’t help basking in his approval. “See?” he said. “You didn’t like fruitcake but you were willing to try it. And look how well that worked out.” Emma could have stared into this man’s eyes forever; instead, she quickly glanced away.