Authors: Lisa Plumley
Tags: #American Light Romantic Fiction, #Romance: Modern, #Contemporary, #General, #Romance, #Romance - Contemporary, #Fiction, #Fiction - Romance, #Single mothers, #Suspense, #Single fathers, #Hotelkeepers, #Espionage
Smacking her hands on his chest, she backed Reid up to the bed. Then she tipped him onto it. She studied him. Lasciviously.
“You know what?” she asked in a dreamy voice. “I think I’m starting to feel the wonder of Christmas already.”
“I think that’s my line,” Reid told her, grinning. “You’re supposed to be teaching
about Christmas, remember?”
“Oh yeah?” Karina asked. “Well, get ready to learn, then.”
The two of them smiled at each other, entirely in sync.
Then Karina jumped on the bed and lost herself in the moment, knowing that forever after she would associate the mingled fragrances of mistletoe, bayberry, and dog biscuits with the single most sexually gratifying night of her life.
Almost half an hour later, she knew.
Fa la la. Fa la la.
Fa la LAAAA!
Wiggling her bare toes with utter satisfaction, Karina shot a smug smile at Reid. He panted beside her, lying sideways on the bed, half tangled in the snowman-print flannel sheets. At the wonderful, amazing, hot-hot-hot sight of him, she sighed.
“So…how do you like Christmas now?” she asked.
“I’m not sure.” He rolled over and kissed her, then ran his hands along the length of her naked torso. “I think I need another lesson to find out. I might need
“Do you really think you’re up for it?”
Saucily, Reid raised his eyebrows. He aimed his gaze lower. Much lower. All the way down to his…mischief maker.
“Oh, I’m up for it,” he confirmed. Then he pulled her into his arms again, gave her a smile, and proceeded to prove it.
Naughty or nice is way overrated,
Karina decided as she felt Reid’s body cover hers, igniting a new burst of giddiness and heat in her midsection.
Naughty wins, all the way….
MAKING OVER MIKE
FALLING FOR APRIL
JOSIE DAY IS COMING HOME
ONCE UPON A CHRISTMAS
MAD ABOUT MAX
(anthology with Lisa Jackson,
Elaine Coffman, and Kylie Adams)
I SHAVED MY LEGS FOR THIS?!
(anthology with Theresa Alan,
Holly Chamberlin, and Marcia Evanick)
HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS
MY FAVORITE WITCH
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
For John Plumley, the undisputed king of
gifts that make me cry with happiness.
Merry Christmas, honey! I love you!
San Diego, California
“Michael, wait. Let me help you with that.”
With a hasty glance in her rearview mirror, Karina Barrett scrambled out of her old Corolla. On the sidewalk just beyond her parked car, her children stopped to wait for her. Olivia patted her blond bangs, preparing for another day of fifth grade at Marsden Elementary School. Josh clutched a plastic tray of supermarket-baked cupcakes for his third grade class and shifted from foot to foot beside his sister. Michael, in first grade now and proud of it, blithely kept on walking. His backpack nearly dwarfed him. The poster board in his hands wobbled and bowed, making it almost impossible for him to see where he was going.
“No, thanks!” He shook his head. “I don’t need any help.”
“Oh, yes, you do.” Karina reached him seconds before he careened into another student. With deft fingers, she plucked the poster board from Michael’s hands. At the sight of the copious cotton ball “snow” glued to the front, she smiled. “This poster is so cute, Michael. But it’s almost as big as you are!”
“No, it’s not,” her son protested. “I’m
He wasn’t. Not yet. Thank goodness. But Karina had already parented one boy through this superhero-loving, wanting-to-be-big stage. She knew better than to disagree outright. While she weighed her options, other students swarmed past them, talking and laughing and occasionally skateboarding toward the building.
Only in California. Or at least,
in Minnesota or another state where December brought snowstorms and icicles instead of sunny days at the beach and afternoons spent shopping for surfboards and flip-flops. After today, it would officially be winter break—the run-up to Christmas and all its festivities.
But despite the plastic “evergreen” wreath wired to the grille of the Ford Explorer parked behind her car and the poinsettia-printed, sequin-bedecked blouse worn by Michael’s teacher as she motioned for her students to line up at the edge of the playground, it didn’t feel much like Christmas to Karina.
Maybe because she wasn’t ready for Christmas yet. Not this year. Or possibly ever again. The whole idea of confronting the holidays made her feel downright woozy. She’d been avoiding it for as long as she could. But now—on the last full day of school—she couldn’t sidestep the issue any longer.
It wasn’t the weather that bothered her. Or the lack of traditional wintery ambiance. As a lifelong Californian, she was used to seventy-six-degree Christmases and spray-on snow. She was even used to wearing shorts while gift shopping. What she
used to was being solely responsible for managing all the holiday activities herself—for giving her kids a Christmas to remember, no matter what. This year, it would be up to Karina to play Santa, wrap all the gifts, wrestle an enormous Douglas fir into its three-legged, red and green stand, decorate that tree (even the very highest branches), hang multicolored chaser lights on the eaves, bake cookies and gingerbread….
Just thinking about it made her want to crawl back into bed. She’d never handled all those activities on her own. How was she supposed to manage it this year? Especially with scarcely enough money to pay the bills? And a secret fear of ruining everything?
to do a good job of it, though. For her kids’ sakes. Olivia, Michael, and Josh deserved it, especially after all the turmoil they’d been through over the past year.
With effort—and a deliberately cheerful smile—Karina forced her attention away from her worries. Instead, she examined the “winter celebration” poster her youngest son had scissored, crayoned, and lavishly glued at the kitchen table last night. At Marsden Elementary School, even secular Christmas activities were out. Benign, nonsectarian “seasonal celebration” activities were in. That was why Karina had donated her entire cache of makeup-removing cotton balls to Michael’s poster, upon which not a single Santa or Rudolph or glittery angel could be seen.
Encouraging anything remotely Christmassy would have meant breaking the rules. And Karina was not a rule breaker at heart. She believed in sticking to the playbook, cooperating as much as possible, and—most of all—doing right by her children. Even when those children—like Michael—might feel they didn’t need her.
“Well,” she said, “even big guys need help sometimes.”
Michael scoffed at that. “That’s not what Dad says. He says a man should be a man. He lets me do
Her six-year-old “man” spread his arms like wings. His expansive gesture suggested
from pouring his own apple juice to playing Xbox until four A.M. to putting down a cool fifty on the Chargers versus the Seahawks, with a ten-point spread and the Seahawks favored.
Karina didn’t doubt Michael’s story was true—at least partly. Concerned, she cast a questioning glance at Olivia and Josh. In response, they only lifted their gazes to the cloudless California sky, eyebrows arched in elaborate, unified—and entirely unlikely—innocence.
We don’t know nothin’,
their mulish, pint-sized expressions said.
You can’t make us talk.
Any second now, she half expected them to come out with a nonchalant whistle.
Nothing to see here. Move along, Mom.
Hmmm. She’d have to discuss this with her ex-husband. Eric wouldn’t like her “butting in” again, but it couldn’t be helped. After their weekends with Eric at his new beachside condo, their children always came home wired, rebellious, and—most alarming of all—secretive. Karina needed to investigate why that was.
Until now, she hadn’t wanted to push for details about the kids’ visits with their dad. She hadn’t wanted to be one of “those” divorcées—the ones who put their children in the middle, used them to spy on their exes, or tried to make them choose sides. Above all else, she’d striven to be fair and aboveboard—even when Eric had made her want to strangle him with one of those skinny “euro-chic” scarves he’d started wearing recently.
She’d burst out laughing the first time she’d dropped off Michael, Olivia, and Josh and gotten an eyeful of Eric sporting skintight hipster jeans, a V-necked T-shirt, and three yards of gnarly linen around his neck. He’d flashed her a double-gun salute and told her he “rocked that look”!
Karina hadn’t had the heart to tell him how idiotic he appeared—less “rockin’” and more “delusional Pete Wentz wannabe who’s way too old to pull off that eyeliner.”
On her thirty-six-year-old aerospace engineer ex-husband, who—as far as she knew—still commuted to work and kept a scale model of a P-51 Mustang in his cubicle.
Thinking back on the incident, Karina figured she probably deserved a medal of some sort, just for keeping quiet. And for stifling her laughter too. The awful truth was, she might want to nut punch her cheating ex, but that didn’t mean she wanted to hurt his feelings. She didn’t want to be
On the other hand, there must be some serious rules infractions going on at Eric’s playhouse of a condo, if the resulting freedom was appealing enough to make Olivia and Josh band together to protect it. Most of the time, the two of them were poster children for sibling rivalry. Once you added Michael to the mix, things could get out of hand pretty quickly.
But her children’s “rambunctiousness” (as a few teachers, some of the PTO parents, and their own grandmother called it) was a problem for another day. So was her ex-husband’s new life and all its Hot Topic accoutrements. Right now, Karina had a grade-school drop-off to accomplish, and not much time to do it in. Even now, suburban SUVs choked the parking lot behind her, snaking along the curb like overgrown Hot Wheels sets.
Or maybe like regular
Karina shook her head. She’d obviously been spending way too much time at the toy store. Her ex-husband was living it up Hugh-Hefner-with-his-Bunnies style, and she was keeping an eagle eye on the arrival of new Tonka trucks and updated Bratz dolls.
As a substitute for a social life went, haunting the toy store was pretty lame. But it
made her popular with her children’s friends.
it had given her an encyclopedic knowledge of Bionicles, Power Miners, and Creator sets too.
Who knew where that could take her? Heck, she was well on her way to dating again. She’d be irresistible…to one of those geeks who flooded San Diego every summer during Comic-Con.
Yikes. Karina shuddered at the thought. She might be a little lonely right now, but not lonely enough to take a chance on another equation-spouting, scarf-wearing, smarty-pants man-child like Eric. The next man she dated would be as far from dorkdom as she could manage—just as insurance against another broken heart. It was for her own good. After all, everyone knew she had a weakness for intelligence. A fondness for technical expertise. And—
—a total, paralyzing, realized-it-too-late inability to protect her heart when it came to relationships.
The last thing she needed was a man. For at least a decade or two. Maybe longer. How long could she go before her libido quit nagging at her? Karina wondered. As it was, she still experienced the occasional inconvenient heat wave—particularly when confronted with, say, an unexpectedly sexy man stocking up on salsa, chips, and honey in the grocery store checkout lane last Tuesday. Just to name a totally non-specific example.
She still wondered what all that honey had been for…and would have offered a few risqué ideas if asked nicely, too.
Eric had cheated on her and abandoned her, Karina reminded herself indignantly; he hadn’t neutered her. But surely those urges would go away if she just ignored them long enough. Right?
She had to focus on something else.
“Come on, you guys.” She waved the poster board toward the school’s sleek entryway. Built when defense contractors had first swarmed San Diego’s balmy coastline more than fifty years ago, the building was red brick, low slung, retro, and painstakingly restored, just like all the houses in the adjacent neighborhood Karina couldn’t
afford to live in anymore.
Despite the meager support payments Eric made, her standard of living had definitely taken a nosedive after her divorce. She refused to give up and move to a cheaper place, though. She hated to upset the kids any more than she and Eric had done already. If she had to, she could always take a temp job to make ends meet. “Let’s get you three settled in, okay?”
Olivia rolled her eyes. “Mom,
” She swiped her hand across her throat, mimicking a director’s “cut” sign. Her gaze slid past Karina’s sunglasses, chin-length blond curly hair, and hastily pulled on T-shirt. “You’re wearing
” she hissed.
Oh. Yeah. “So? Only the bottoms, that’s all.” Karina gestured at her perfectly respectable T-shirt. “Let’s go.”
“And fuzzy slippers.” Josh sighed…just like his dad.
“Big deal.” Affecting a light tone, Karina hustled them forward. She glanced back at the other parents—all of whom were undoubtedly wearing actual pants at that moment, as they perched appropriately behind the wheels of their SUVs. “Wearing pajama pants around town is cool these days, right? With Uggs?”
“Uggs?” This time, it was Olivia’s turn to snort. She cast a despairing glance at her mother’s non-Ugged, beslippered feet. “Sure, Mom. Maybe if you’re a college student, like Chelsea, who’s studying for finals or something, so you don’t care how you look.
if you’re a complete social recluse.
Josh gave her a somber shake of his head. Michael cast a longing glance at the jungle gym. Karina only stifled a sigh.
She didn’t want to think about her ex-husband’s new girlfriend, much less be compared (unfavorably) to her by her own daughter. Chelsea was busty, tattooed, and pierced. She was good at surfing. She was studying to be a veterinarian. She was twenty-two, giggly, and pretty, and she was even relatively
particularly to the kids, whenever they visited.
But that didn’t mean Karina had to devote precious brain space to Chelsea. Or to her colorful collection of skimpy bikini tops. Or to whatever she and Eric were probably doing together most nights—potentially with some organic buckwheat honey thrown into the mix to add a little novelty.
Mmmm…honey. The things you could do with a little—
Or maybe not. Honey-Buying Man was
fantasy. Her never-to-be-fulfilled, time-wasting, impossible fantasy. Argh.
Thankfully, one of the other parents honked just then, yanking Karina from the brink of a full-on pity party
giving her a chance to think about something else besides her arrested sense of fashion and her stalled desirability. Evidently, her aura of coolness had atrophied right along with her sex appeal—at least if Eric’s tearful, posterectile dysfunction–prompted, I’m-leaving-you midnight confessionals could be believed.
Jerk. With a determined effort, Karina straightened her spine, then smiled at Josh, Michael, and Olivia.
Her priority was her children. Period. Whatever it took, she intended to make sure they were happy. Happy happy happy.
“Hey! I just had a genius idea!” Karina said. “Why don’t I spend the day volunteering here at school? I think I can help out in all three of your classes, if I try hard enough.”
Michael gave her a quizzical look. Olivia and Josh merely groaned. “Mom, that’s okay,” her daughter said. “You
don’t have to volunteer anymore. It’s the last day before winter break! We’re just going to have parties and stuff anyway, so—”
“So that’s all the more reason to be here, I’d say. Your teachers are bound to appreciate the extra help.” Beaming, Karina gave each of her children a warmhearted hug. She felt better already. “I’ll just go park the car in the visitor’s lot. I’ll be back in a sec.”
Raring to go (now that she had a mission), Karina headed for her Corolla. The sun sparkled off its dented roof. The other parents smiled at her. Her slippers bopped along merrily.