“You’re half in love with me already.”
Emma didn’t dignify that with a reply. They started walking toward the café; Oscar trotted obediently beside them and seemed to know to wait by the restaurant door. Oliver patted his head and assured the terrier he’d get any leftovers.
Emma resisted reminding Oliver that it wasn’t a good idea to feed people food to a dog, but she doubted he’d listen. If she had a dog, she’d feed him only the highest-quality, veterinarian-approved dog food.
Once inside the café, they slid into a red vinyl booth, facing each other. Emma reached for the menu, which was tucked behind the napkin dispenser, and quickly decided on the ham-and-cheese omelet. Oliver ordered the club sandwich.
“How long have you been flying?” she asked.
“Why?” Once again, he sounded suspicious. For heaven’s sake, did the man have some big secret?
Emma sighed. “I don’t know. It seemed like a good conversation starter, that’s all.”
“I’m not interested in being interviewed,” he said curtly. “Besides, I have a couple of questions for you.”
She smiled at the waitress who poured her coffee, then relaxed in the padded vinyl seat. “Wait a minute. You can ask me questions but I’m not allowed to know anything about you? Is that fair?”
“Fair doesn’t matter. I’m your ride home—or I will be.”
“So you think I owe you for that? Oh, never mind,” she said, suddenly tiring of the argument. “Ask away.”
“How long have you been with The Examiner?”
“About eight months—long enough to know I’m tired of writing obituaries.”
Oliver frowned. “That’s the only thing Walt lets you write?”
“For the most part. A month ago he let me cover the school board meeting.” Emma had written what she thought was a masterful commentary on the events. Walt hadn’t agreed, to put it mildly, and had rejected her article in scathing terms. He said she was trying too hard. People were looking for a clear, concise summary, not a chapter from War and Peace. “What I want is a real story,” she told Oliver in a fervent tone, “something I can really get my teeth into.”
“Like fruitcake?” Oliver said, teasing her.
“It’s a start.”
“Yes.” Once again, he was obviously trying to restrain a smile. “What are you going to write about Earleen Williams?”
Emma was mulling that over. “I don’t know for sure. She’s a complex woman. She’s had a number of difficult relationships with men, and—”
“You don’t date much, do you?” he broke in.
Emma stared at him. “Who says?”
“You know Phoebe?” Either her friend had been holding out on her, or Oliver was lying. If Phoebe knew him, Emma was positive she would’ve said so earlier.
“We’ve had a couple of conversations about you,” Oliver admitted, nimbly twirling the fork between his fingers.
Emma found the action highly irritating. Stretching across the table, she grabbed his wrist. “Please don’t do that.”
He grinned; he seemed to do a lot of that around her. “You can’t keep your hands off me, can you?”
She toyed briefly with the idea of getting up and walking out. She would have, too, but their food hadn’t been delivered yet. Her stomach won out over her pride.
“How do you know Phoebe and when did you talk to her?”
“We met through…a friend of mine. Phoebe’s a few years younger than me, but I’ve seen her around town. No big deal.” He shrugged. “I stopped in at the office after your visit to the airfield and asked about you. Casually, you know. Phoebe sang like a canary.”
Emma refused to believe it. Phoebe had never mentioned this supposed conversation.
“She said the two of you were hired at the same time and that you kept pretty much to yourself. So what gives?”
“What do you mean?”
“Where’s the boyfriend?”
Emma’s jaw sagged open. “You’ve got a lot of nerve!”
“Men are scum, remember?” His eyes twinkled. “So tell me, what’s happening in the men department?”
“Nothing. I’m a serious writer—well, maybe not yet, but I intend to become one.”
“Being a ‘serious’ writer means you don’t have time for relationships?”
Emma didn’t care for the direction this conversation was taking. “At present, no—not that it’s any of your business.”
“Are you always so nosy, or is this expressly for my benefit?”
“Both.” He picked up his fork and studied the tines with every appearance of interest.
To Emma’s relief, their plates arrived just then. The waitress set the bill facedown in the middle of the table.
Emma spread the paper napkin across her lap, looked over her meal and lifted her fork. By the time she’d taken two bites, Oliver had wolfed down half his sandwich. She glared at him disapprovingly.
“What?” he asked, apparently perplexed.
“Nothing,” she said, knowing it would do no good to explain.
He munched on a French fry, then glanced across the table at her. “If I asked you out on a date, would you go?”
“No,” she said without hesitation. She didn’t mean to be rude but she could read him like a book. He was her father all over again. Besides, she wasn’t much good at relationships.
“Why not?” Oliver pressed.
Emma groaned. “Listen, I’m sure a lot of women would consider you charming—” she almost choked on the word “—and you’re not unattractive…”
“In other words, you think I’m cute.”
“No,” she inserted quickly. “That isn’t what I meant at all.” The last thing she wanted was for Oliver to assume she was attracted to him. “I like that you’re kind to animals.”
“You want me.”
Emma set her fork down, astonished at his audacity. “I most certainly do not!”
He cracked an even bigger smile. “Keep telling yourself that, but I know otherwise.”
“This is exactly what bothers me,” she said, sighing heavily. “Your arrogance is unbelievable. You assume that because you’re reasonably good-looking, any woman would be grateful for the opportunity to date you. The fact is, it’s simply not true.”
“You’re dying to find out everything you can about me.”
This time Emma laughed outright. She couldn’t help it. “You’re the one asking all the questions—and making a lot of assumptions. I was making conversation. It seemed the polite thing to do, since we might end up spending the next few hours together.”
Some women might find his smile sexy. Not Emma, of course, but others. She forced herself to look away, in case he misread her interest.
“All right then. What do you want to know about me?” he asked, leaning forward.
Emma considered his question. Anything she asked him, Oliver was bound to interpret in such a way that it would seem she was falling head over heels in love with him. Really, his attitude bordered on the comical.
“How soon before we can fly out of here?”
He frowned. “I can’t answer that until I get an updated weather report. Anything else you want to know?”
Plenty, but she planned on asking Phoebe first. “Not really.”
She sliced into her omelet and saw that he’d already finished his sandwich. Only a handful of French fries remained.
“Are you going to eat your toast?” he asked.
She shook her head and slid the plate across the table.
Oliver took it, slipped out of the booth and headed outside to where Oscar waited. As soon as he left the café, Emma plucked her cell phone from her bag and pushed the button that speed-dialed the newspaper office. A moment later, she connected with Phoebe.
“This is Phoebe,” her friend answered in her usual cheerful fashion.
“When did Oliver Hamilton ask you about me?” Emma demanded.
“You know exactly who this is.”
“I take it the muscle relaxant has worn off?”
So it was true. “Why didn’t you say something?”
“Because,” Phoebe murmured, “it was a short conversation. Two minutes, if that.”
“You knew he was coming in to talk to Walt.”
“Yes,” Phoebe admitted. “All right, I’ll tell you. I was afraid that if I mentioned I’d talked to Oliver, you’d have all these questions about how I knew and I didn’t want to get into that.”
“How did you know?” Emma asked. It could only be one thing—Phoebe was seeing Walt. Why she wanted to keep that a secret, Emma wasn’t sure.
When Phoebe answered, it was in a whisper. “Walt and I are dating.”
“You are?” Even though she’d already guessed, Emma was shocked. “Why didn’t you tell me?” As soon as she asked the question, she knew. “Walt doesn’t want anyone at the office to find out.” It explained a lot.
“He doesn’t think it’s good policy. I hated not telling anyone, especially you, but I…couldn’t.”
“How long has this been going on?”
Emma was stunned into silence. She couldn’t believe that her best friend had managed to keep this from her for three months. Obviously, Phoebe wasn’t as timid around Walt as she’d seemed.
“You can’t let him know that you know,” Phoebe said anxiously.
“Fine.” Emma blew out her breath. “But when I get back, I want you to tell me everything, understand?”
Phoebe laughed softly. “I’ll make a full confession.”
“Good. Now, what do you know about Oliver Hamilton?”
“Just that…he likes you. He specifically asked for an opportunity so the two of you could fly together.”
“You heard me.”
Oliver had done that because he knew she was frightened to death to get into his little plane. The man was a sadist, and between them, her employer and her best friend had willingly handed her over.
“He told Walt you’d done a wonderful job of selling him on advertising and he wanted to give the newspaper his business because of you.”
“Did you tell Walt that if I didn’t get an assignment soon, I’d quit?”
“I couldn’t let my best friend quit,” Phoebe said—although Emma noted that she hadn’t really answered the question. “Not if I could prevent it. Then Oliver showed up and, well, it was meant to be.”
The truth was out. She’d gotten this assignment thanks to her friend. Walt hadn’t thought she was ready; he was just trying to keep Phoebe happy.
“I can’t understand why you don’t like Oliver,” Phoebe said.
Emma pinched her lips tightly together. “Oliver Hamilton is accustomed to women swooning over him.”