“Listen, Emma, it’s important. I’m loaded to the gills with furnace parts. I have to know how much you weigh in order to calculate the amount of fuel we’re going to need.”

She scowled. “You expect me just to blurt it out?” A woman didn’t tell a man anything that personal, especially a man she barely knew and had no intention of knowing further.

“If I miscalculate, we’ll crash and burn,” Oliver said, apparently assuming this would persuade her to confess.

She glared at him in an effort to come up with a compromise. With her mind this fuzzy, it was difficult. “I’ll write it down.”

He didn’t seem to care. “Whatever.”

Emma set her briefcase on the floor inside the plane and extracted a pencil and small pad. The only time she weighed herself was when she suspected her weight had fallen. She certainly wasn’t overweight, but a desk job had done little to help her maintain the figure she’d been proud of back in college. A few pounds had crept on over the last five years. She penciled in her most recent known weight, according to a doctor’s visit last year, and then quickly erased it. After a moment’s hesitation, she subtracted ten pounds. At one point in the not-so-distant past, she’d weighed exactly that and she would again, once she got started with an exercise program.

Tearing the sheet from the pad, she folded it in fourths and then eighths until it was about the size of her thumbnail.

Oliver was waiting for her when she’d finished. He held out his hand.

Emma was about to give him the folded-up paper, but paused. “Swear to me you’ll never divulge this number.”

He grinned, increasing his cuteness a hundredfold. “This is a joke, right?”

“No,” she countered, “I’m totally serious.”

He grunted yet another comment she didn’t understand and grabbed what now resembled a paper pellet. “I can see this is going to be a hell of a flight.”

Oliver stepped away, and Emma didn’t see where he went, but he came back a few moments later. He casually told her it was time to board. She stood outside the aircraft as long as she dared, summoning her courage. Maybe she should’ve swallowed two tablets for this first flight.

Oscar was already aboard, curled up in his dog bed behind the passenger seat. He cocked his head as if to say he couldn’t understand what she was waiting for.

“You got lead in your butt or what?” Oliver said from behind her.

With no excuse to delay the inevitable, she hoisted herself into the plane and then, doubling over, worked her way forward into the cramped passenger seat. Her knees shook and her hands trembled as she reached for the safety belt and snapped it in place, pulling at the strap until it was so tight she could scarcely breathe.

Oscar poked his head between Oliver’s seat and Emma’s, and she was left with the distinct impression that she’d taken the dog’s place. Great, just great. She’d arrive for her first interview with her backside covered in dog hair.

Oliver handed her an extra set of earphones and pantomimed that she should put them on. “You ready?” he asked.

She forced herself to nod.

He spoke to someone over the radio in a language she didn’t understand, one that consisted solely of letters and numbers. A couple of minutes later, he taxied to the end of the runway. And stopped there.

Emma didn’t know what that was about but regardless of the reason, she was grateful for a moment’s reprieve. Her head pounded and her heart felt like it was going to explode inside her chest.

Oliver revved the engine, which fired to life with an ear-splitting noise. The plane bucked as if straining against invisible ropes.

Despite her relaxation pill, Emma gasped and grabbed hold of the bar across the top of the passenger door. She clutched it so hard she was convinced her fingerprints would be embedded in the steel.

Without showing a bit of concern for her well-being, Oliver released the brake and the plane leaped forward, roaring down the runway. Emma slammed her eyes shut, preferring not to look. She held her breath, awaiting the sensation of the wheels lifting off the tarmac.

For the longest time nothing happened. She opened her eyes just enough to peek and realized they were almost at the end of the runway. Despite the speed of the aircraft they remained on the ground. In a few seconds of sheer terror, Emma realized why.

She’d lied about her weight.

Hamilton had miscalculated the weight on board. In her vanity, she’d shaved ten pounds—well, maybe fifteen—off the truth. Because of that, she was about to kill them both.

Unable to restrain herself, Emma dragged in a deep breath and screamed out in panic, “I lied! I lied!”

No sooner had the words left her mouth than the plane sailed effortlessly into the sky.

Chapter Three

Fruitcakes are like in-laws. They show up at the holidays. You have no idea who sent them, how old they are, or how long they’ll be hanging around your kitchen.

—Josh Sens, freelance writer in Oakland,

California, and food critic for San Francisco magazine

The fear dissipated after takeoff. Emma kept her eyes focused directly in front of her, gazing out at the cloud-streaked sky. For the first while her heart seemed intent on beating its way out of her body, but after a few minutes the tension began to leave.

It wasn’t long before the loud roar of the single engine lulled her into a sense of peace. No doubt that was due to the pill, which was exactly the reason she’d taken it. When she did find the courage to turn her head and look out the side window, she found herself staring Mt. Rainier in the face. She was so close that it was possible to see a crevasse, a giant crack in a glacier. Had there been hikers, she would’ve been able to wave.

Gasping, she shut her eyes and silently repeated the Lord’s Prayer. Talk about spiritual renewal! All that was necessary to get her nearer to God was a short flight with Oliver Hamilton.

Forty minutes later as they approached the Yakima airport, Oliver made a wide sweeping turn with a gradual drop in altitude. Emma felt the plane descend and nearly swallowed her tongue as she reached for the bar above the side window again, holding on for dear life.

“You okay?” Oliver asked when he noticed how she clung to the bar with both hands.

How kind of him to inquire now. These were the first words he’d spoken to her during the entire flight. He’d glanced at her a number of times, as if to check up on her, and whenever he did, he started to laugh. She failed to understand what was so funny.

“I’m okay,” she said with as much dignity as she could. A little the worse for wear, but okay, she mentally assured herself. Her head was beginning to clear.

She felt every air pocket and bump as the plane drew closer to the long runway. When the wheels bounced against the tarmac, Emma was ready for the solid thump of the tires hitting concrete, but the landing was surprisingly smooth. She slowly released a sigh of pent-up tension; she’d lied about her weight and lived to tell the tale. Now all she had to do was make it through this interview and find something noteworthy about Earleen Williams and her fruitcake recipe.

Oliver taxied the plane off the runway. He cut the engine and as the blades slowed, he unbuckled his seat belt and picked up his clipboard.

Emma was just starting to breathe normally again when Oscar sneezed.

“You might want to leave the perfume behind for the next flight,” Oliver said matter-of-factly.

Emma wiped her cheek although most of the spray had been directed elsewhere. She resisted the urge to tell Oliver he could leave his dog behind, too. At this point, she didn’t want to risk offending the pilot—or his dog. And, she supposed, it wasn’t really Oscar’s fault….

Crawling behind her, Oliver opened the door and climbed onto the airfield. Emma followed, bent double as she made her way out of the aircraft, feeling a sense of great relief. He offered her his hand as she hopped down. She was hit by a blast of cold air, which she ignored. Staring down at the ground, she was tempted to fall on all fours and kiss the tarmac.

A white van bearing the name of a local furnace company pulled up to the plane. Oliver spoke briefly with the driver, then walked over to where Emma stood.

“How long do you think the interview will take?”

“Ah…” Emma didn’t know what to tell him. “I’m not sure.”

He stared out toward the Cascade Mountains, only partially visible in the distance. “We’ve got bad weather rolling in.”

“Bad weather? How bad?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“I…” How could he say such a thing and then expect her not to worry? She was already half-panicked about the return flight and he’d just added to her fears.

“Do what you have to do and then get back here. I want to take off as soon as I can.”

“All right.” She glanced around and felt a sense of dread.

“What’s wrong?”

“I…I don’t have any way of getting to Earleen’s house.”

“Not a problem,” Hamilton said, walking to the other side of the plane.

Emma assumed he was going to ask the guy in the van to give her a ride, but that turned out not to be the case. He climbed back inside the Cessna and returned a moment later with a large leather satchel.

“What’s that?”

“A foldable bike.”

Emma watched as he unzipped the bag and produced the smallest bicycle she’d ever seen. “You don’t honestly expect me to ride this…thing, do you?” The wheels were no more than twelve inches around. She’d look utterly ridiculous. Nervous as she was about this first interview, she hoped to make up in professionalism what she lacked in experience.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, frowning.

“I’ll phone for a taxi.” It went without saying that the newspaper wouldn’t reimburse her, but she absolutely refused to arrive pedaling a bicycle Oliver Hamilton must have purchased from a Barnum and Bailey rummage sale.

“Hold on,” Oliver barked, clearly upset. He walked over to the van this time and spoke to the driver. The two had a short conversation before Oliver glanced over his shoulder. “What’s the address you have to get to?” he shouted.

Fumbling to find the slip of paper inside her briefcase, Emma read off the street name.

“She can tag along with me,” the driver said.

“Great.” Oliver flashed the other man an easy smile.

“Thank you so much,” Emma murmured, grateful to have saved the taxi fare. She hurried around to the passenger side and opened the door. One look inside, and Emma nearly changed her mind. The van, which must’ve been at least ten years old, had obviously never been cleaned. The passenger seat was badly stained and littered with leftover fast-food containers, plus half-eaten burgers and rock-hard French fries. A clipboard was attached by a magnet to the dashboard and several papers had fallen to the floor.

“You getting in or not?” the driver asked.

“In.” Emma made her decision quickly and hopped inside the van. She could just imagine what Walt would say if she announced that she’d missed the interview because she refused to get inside a messy vehicle.