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
“Yes. This year, Reid’s running the whole show!” Vanessa answered for him. She grabbed an abandoned chef’s toque from the countertop and plopped it, unhelpfully, on his head. “There. Now you can really enjoy the whole ‘Chef! Yes, Chef!’ experience.” Grinning, Vanessa leaned confidingly toward Karina. “Secretly, I think he likes being kowtowed too. He always was pretty bossy, even as a kid.”
in charge of the B&B,” Karina said again.
This time, it wasn’t a question. It was an affirmation of the facts. Facts that shouldn’t have made a bit of difference between them but appeared—somehow—to be affecting everything. And not necessarily for the better, either.
Trapped unwillingly in his role as The Christmas House Scrooge, Reid nodded. “Yes, I’m in charge of the B&B.”
Almost imperceptibly, Karina drooped. Like a vivid flower being smothered by sixteen layers of sweaters and thermal underwear, she lost a little of her original perkiness. Her gaze met his, swerved away, then dimmed as she closed her eyes.
When she opened them again, she straightened her spine too.
“All right then.” Karina looked around, as though in search of a sense of purpose. “Well, I guess all this talking has put me a little behind with the juice!” She chuckled, then picked up a pair of slender glass carafes, one full of freshly squeezed orange juice and one full of cranberry. She headed for the dining room. “I’ll just put these on ice! Back in a minute!”
Watching her go, Reid couldn’t help feeling mystified. When Karina had first seen him this morning, she’d appeared as ready as he had to tear off their clothes and kick off round two of the getting-to-know-you mambo, preferably in bed.
Now, she couldn’t get away from him fast enough.
Why had Karina cooled toward him? Reid wondered. Sure, some women might have been disappointed to learn about his temporary inn-keeping job. It wasn’t exactly a hard-core, thrill-a-minute job (unlike his usual globe-trotting gig).
But Karina hadn’t struck him as the adrenaline junkie type—even by proxy. Last night, they’d enjoyed their share of between-the-sheets pillow talk—some of which had covered his work, and hers as an academic advisor—but she hadn’t seemed particularly invested in Reid’s exciting, travel-intensive job.
In fact, she’d mostly been interested in his big, hard—
“Beast!” The minute Karina left the room, his cousin smacked his shoulder. “You did it again, didn’t you? Not even twenty-four hours in town, and already you’re breaking hearts.”
“Huh? I didn’t break anybody’s heart.”
“What’s the matter with you, Reid?” With a disapproving clucking sound, Vanessa crossed her arms. She shook her head in apparent disbelief. “Can’t you keep it in your pants for one day, at least? You can’t afford to be distracted right now. Grammy and Grandpa are counting on you.”
“I know they are.” Wistfully, Reid stared in the direction Karina had gone. He glimpsed her puttering around the dining room, artfully rearranging pots of snowy white amaryllis to make room for the juice station. “Don’t worry. It’ll be fine.”
Exactly whom was he reassuring? Vanessa? Or himself?
If it was his cousin, he failed. Big-time.
Vanessa scoffed. “You didn’t even try to deny it! You
sleep with her.” Another head shake. “Poor Karina.”
“‘Poor Karina’?” Feeling affronted, Reid redirected his gaze to his cousin. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, now she’s going to be hooked on you, isn’t she? Just like they all are,” Vanessa pointed out. “And you didn’t exactly rush over to her with hugs and kisses this morning, did you?”
He’d wanted to. He’d wanted to hug Karina. And kiss her. And more. Much more. But that was none of Vanessa’s business. Besides, Reid had barely recognized Karina before the cooks had—evidently—derailed his mojo. He still didn’t understand it.
those thoughtful gestures, you know. Karina probably thinks you pawed her like a Christmas cracker and then threw her away,” Vanessa accused. “How could you?”
“For the last time, I
” Reid thought about it a little harder. “Well, technically I
but it’s not what you think. It was very,
mutual and kind of…sweet.”
Sweet? What the hell?
Astounded by his own words, Reid clamped his mouth shut. That didn’t stop Vanessa’s knowing look.
“What’s she doing down here in the kitchen anyway?” For distraction’s sake, Reid pointed at Karina. At the gesture, his chef’s toque wobbled. He ripped it off his head, then tossed it aside. “Last time I checked,” he informed his cousin, “it wasn’t B&B policy to extract slave labor from our guests.”
“It still isn’t.” Vanessa slurped more coffee. Evidently willing to leave aside the matter of his heartbreaking ways for now, she shrugged. “Karina volunteered to help, that’s all. She was up early, like me. I ran into her—outside on the porch, of all places—and when she heard about the problem with the
head chef, she offered to lend a hand. She’s really nice. Very helpful. And yes, very
” His cousin’s frown deepened. “I noticed that about her right away, which is all the more reason you shouldn’t be messing with her heart, Reid!”
So much for leaving aside matters of heartbreak.
“I didn’t mess with her heart!” he protested. “If anything,
—” At his cousin’s abruptly interested—and all too familiar—look, Reid broke off. He swore. For an instant, he’d forgotten about Vanessa’s inveterate matchmaker tendencies. “Look, just leave this alone, all right? I have enough to think about without you doing your lonely hearts routine on me.”
“‘Lonely hearts routine’?” Owlishly, Vanessa gazed across the kitchen. She knelt to pet a newly returned Digby, who flopped on the rug to gnaw at his snow-encrusted paws. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” she protested. Implausibly. “Besides, the important issue here is—”
“Is the fact that Lagniappe at the Lakeshore
our prime asset!” Ordinarily, Reid didn’t like to interrupt. But he had to get Vanessa back on track. As she’d so wisely pointed out, their grandparents were depending on him. On them all. For the B&B to earn the stellar Edgware rating it deserved, they needed their head chef in the kitchen. “You knew the head chef—”
head chef,” Vanessa muttered darkly.
“—so you probably know more about the ins and outs of this problem than I do. We need him to run the kitchen, right? So what will it take to bring him back?”
“A sense of loyalty.” Vanessa sniffed, her head in the air. All the Sullivans valued fidelity. “Which he doesn’t have.”
“What about higher pay? A better snowmobile?”
“A bribe? It just might work. Turnabout
Reid didn’t like the vengeful gleam in his cousin’s eyes. He shook his head. “Not a bribe. A fair wage.” He glanced around the kitchen. On closer examination, it appeared less bustling and more driven by sheer panic. Which made sense, given that they were shorthanded by one very necessary employee. “Although the head chef must have been paid pretty well, so why—”
“Because Lagniappe at the Lakeshore wants to put us under, that’s why!” Vanessa said. “You haven’t been here for a while. You don’t know how cutthroat things have gotten. Since the economy took a nosedive, we’ve all been fighting for smaller and smaller pieces of the tourism pie—especially in wintertime, like now.”
Reid nodded again, easily believing her. As a lakeside destination, Kismet traditionally earned most of its tourism income during the summertime, when even Michiganders flocked there to enjoy the town’s idyllic ambiance. Wintertime was a tougher sell. That was part of the reason his grandparents had devised The Christmas House concept in the first place.
It had begun—simply enough—with Betty’s genuine enthusiasm for the holidays, which she’d been happy to share with the B&B’s guests. Unexpectedly, her wholehearted take on tradition had sparked a chord with their wintertime visitors. Word had spread.
From there, it had been only natural to expand the idea to encompass other holidays, from Independence Day to Valentine’s Day. Then a travel writer had visited a few Decembers ago and had subsequently written a rave review—accidentally calling the B&B The Christmas House instead of its original moniker of The Holiday House. Despite a correction, the new designation had stuck.
To capitalize on the resulting publicity, the Sullivans had rechristened the B&B as The Christmas House, and the rest was history. These days, aside from a few (understandably) confused newcomers, everyone understood it was a year-round destination, with special emphasis on holiday getaways. Next, the local TV station had featured the B&B on
Good Morning, Kismet!,
someone from Edgware had watched the segment, and now…
Now Reid was screwed unless he came up with a new chef.
Torn between his duty to his family’s beloved B&B and the need to find out what was going on with Karina, he glanced to the dining room. It looked as though Karina had rearranged those pots of amaryllis at least twelve ways. She examined them, dithered, then rearranged some more. She glanced in his direction.
Their gazes locked. Reid felt his heart give a hopeful leap. Maybe he’d misunderstood. Maybe things were fine.
He couldn’t have broken her heart already…could he?
Right on cue, Karina jerked away her gaze. With apparent huffiness, she picked up an ice bucket, then left the room.
With a sigh of disappointment, Reid grabbed his rental car keys, then did his best to get down to work too. His family was counting on him. They had to come first. But so far, things didn’t look good. This already felt like the least “very merry” breakfast on record…and it hadn’t even started yet.
Date: December 18th
Edgware Project Name: The Christmas House
full breakfast buffet
TOTAL CHANGE OF PLANS
Feeling like an idiot, Karina gouged the metal scoop in the ice machine’s bin one more time. She shoveled ice into her bucket mechanically, her mind filled with one terrible thought.
She’d slept with the man whose B&B she’d come to secretly evaluate! What kind of person did that make her?
Certainly not an ethical one. Or a sensible one. Or even—regretfully—a carefree one. Not anymore. Because she could hardly continue her ho-ho-ho holiday affair with Reid while she was anonymously evaluating his business…could she?
No, Karina told herself firmly, scooping another load of ice. She couldn’t. It wouldn’t be right. Now that she knew who Reid really was—and what he was really responsible for—she couldn’t ignore the facts. She couldn’t let herself go, indulge in some holiday fun, or even break out that honey she hadn’t been able to try yet. She was hamstrung, tied to her moral principles and her stupid, inconvenient sense of fair play.
She’d have to leave Reid alone. It was the only way. The few hours they’d spent together would have to be their last.
Stung by the thought, Karina missed the bucket with her next scoopful. Ice pinged to the floor of the anteroom adjacent to the kitchen, scattering like lumps of see-through coal in a naughty child’s Christmas stocking. Reacting too slowly, Karina grabbed for one, juggled her bucket, lost hold of the scoop, then dropped the whole caboodle. More ice spun out of control.
Swearing, she dropped to her knees to retrieve all of it.
Reid, too. He’d been…sweet. Also, hot, sexy, considerate, fun, skillful, and ambidextrous.
At first, she’d thought she’d been so into him because it had been months since her last sexual encounter. But it hadn’t taken more than a few kisses—and a few especially passionate moves on her part—to realize that something more momentous was happening between them. Something special. Karina had never felt so drawn to a man in her life—not even Eric.
Could she really give up all that incredible connectedness for the sake of a favor? Even a favor she’d promised her sister?
Maybe Stephanie would understand, Karina mused as she scrabbled for more dirty fallen ice and shoved it in the drain beneath the ice machine. Maybe Stephanie would realize that good men were few and far between—her own luck with Justin aside—and let Karina off the hook for the evaluation. Maybe she would…
…sacrifice her job for Karina’s love life?
Karina couldn’t ask her to do that. Family came first. Loyalty and responsibility came second. And hot monkey love?
Well, in her case, hot monkey love came in dead last.
With her mind made up, Karina nodded to herself. Whatever it took to resist Reid, she’d have to do it. She couldn’t tell him the real reason for her decision, of course. But she owed it to herself, to Stephanie, and to The Christmas House to put her covert mission there ahead of her own libido. It was only right.
“Hey.” With a hesitant air, Vanessa Sullivan wandered into the anteroom. Dressed in alternative-chic clothing, with her dark, shaggy hair shaped almost like a Mohawk, she made an arresting picture. A picture of freedom. Freedom, Karina thought semiresentfully, to wear an eyebrow ring, eat brownies for breakfast,
indulge in holiday nookie if she wanted to. Some people had all the luck. “Are you doing okay in here?”
“I’m fine. Thanks.” Offering her a smile, Karina retrieved her abandoned bucket. She stood and brushed off her knees. “Sorry it’s taking so long to set up the juice station. I had a little accident with the ice machine, but it’s all good now.”
“Okay. Great.” Vanessa studied her. She gestured uneasily toward the nearby kitchen. “I’m sorry about…whatever happened back there between you and Reid. Do you want to talk about it?”
Yes! I’d love to!
Grateful for the offer, Karina sagged against the ice machine, fighting an urge to discuss the fact that Reid was running the B&B until she fully understood it—and all its implications.
Talking was how she wrapped her head around her feelings, her thoughts, and her plans. Granted, she’d already sent a few deliriously happy text messages to Chelsea. She’d also received some questionable (and hilariously bawdy) advice in return. But right now, she didn’t need another G
, K! W
! message via SMS. What she needed was a compassionate and wise listener.
Unfortunately, as much as Karina liked Vanessa, Vanessa simply couldn’t be the helpful sounding board she needed. Because just like Reid, Vanessa was part of the B&B’s management team. That made her off limits as a real confidante.
It also explained why Karina had run into her that morning, outside on the front porch. Vanessa had been arriving to report the traitorous head chef situation and help with breakfast. Karina had been taking stealthy photos of the B&B’s “
actual (not representational or previously published) exterior
” for her Edgware report. It had been all she could do to formulate an excuse for her high-tech borrowed camera and furtive notebook scribblings. She thought Vanessa had believed her hastily dreamed-up cover story about wanting mementos for her family scrapbook. With the hangover she’d been fighting since before dawn, it was hard to tell.
Reminded of the sorry state she’d awakened to find herself in, Karina touched her forehead. Yep. Her raging headache was still in full force, hammering on her skull. Her eyes still felt runny and bleary; her tongue felt fuzzy. She doubted all those aftereffects could be remnants of her impulsive fling with Reid. She’d only ever felt this way a few times before, usually after a wild Halloween, Christmas, or New Year’s Eve party.
All the evidence pointed to one thing: The innocent-looking spiced cider last night had been spiked with something much more potent than cinnamon and nutmeg—even though children had been present for much of the reception. That should probably go into her report, Karina realized. It would be a black mark for sure.
“Thanks, but I should finish this first.” Regretfully, she gestured to the ice bucket. “That juice isn’t getting any colder, and I promised to get the buffet set up. I appreciate the offer to talk, though. That’s really nice of you.”
“It’s not nice. It’s my guilty conscience talking.”
Guilty conscience? What in the world could Vanessa have to feel guilty about? Fisting the scoop, Karina went after more ice. But she couldn’t resist flicking Vanessa a curious glance.
Even without verbal encouragement, Vanessa kept right on talking. “It’s all my fault, what happened between you and Reid,” she confessed, flinging her hand in the air. “I’m really sorry, Karina. When I saw you at the reception yesterday, I thought you and Reid might hit it off. He’s nice, you’re nice, you’re both divorced. You know. So when I checked you in—”
“That’s right!” Karina remembered, belatedly recognizing her. “You
manning the front desk last night!”
“I swapped out your typical second-floor reservation for a special attic room. A room right across the hall from Reid’s. With the hope you two would run into each other, and maybe something would click. I
I shouldn’t have done it. Believe me! But I really love Reid, and he
deserves to be happy after the rotten way his ex-wife treated him, and it wouldn’t kill him to settle down to a regular grown-up lifestyle, either, especially for the sake of my two nieces, and I just thought…Well, the bottom line is, I thought I could make a good matchup between you two.” At that, a proud gleam came into Vanessa’s gaze, despite her apologetic demeanor. “That’s kind of my thing—making hookups between people,” she admitted. “I’ve been doing it since middle school. I have a whole bunch of successful relationships to my credit. You wouldn’t believe how many weddings I get invited to. It’s ridiculous!”
Almost breathless after her long-winded explanation, Vanessa waited, with blatant hopefulness, for Karina’s reaction.
“Reid’s ex-wife was mean to him? What happened?”
She shouldn’t have asked that question.
She was supposed to be forgetting about Reid, not digging up details about his past. What was she thinking?
That she felt sorry for him, that’s what.
Nobody deserved to have his heart broken. Especially Reid. Reid was interesting and talented and kind and generous….
And off limits! She couldn’t forget that.
“No. Never mind.” Shaking her head, Karina finished scooping up ice. She shut the ice machine’s sliding door. As though the bucket could cool her avid interest, unstoppable libido, and poor hopeful heart, she clutched it against her chest. “Don’t tell me. It’s none of my business. Really.”
Vanessa gave her a shrewd look. “Then you
“Well…Who wouldn’t? He’s handsome, smart, and nice.”
Vanessa beamed. Obviously, she and her cousin were close.
“But I’m not in the market for a relationship right now,” Karina protested.
A holiday fling? Yes. A relationship? No.
Lamely, she added, “I just don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“Why not? Are you involved with someone else?”
“Unless my TV boyfriend, Nathan Fillion, counts…No.”
A grin. “Then what’s the problem? Is it your kids?”
“So far? No.” Seriously considering the question for the first time, Karina shifted the ice bucket from her chest to her hip. “In fact, if Olivia, Josh, and Michael got along with a man I was dating, that would mean big points in his favor.”
“Excellent. Reid gets along
Uh-oh. Yet another way Reid was irresistible. Terrific.
Fortunately, he hadn’t officially met
kids yet, Karina reminded herself. Thanks to the way she’d scampered off to disrupt Josh’s petty theft–athon, Michael’s gift-guessing extravaganza, and Olivia’s suspicious analysis of those Christmas stockings, Reid probably believed her children were budding juvenile delinquents. He probably dreaded meeting them.
Now, thanks to her vow to nix things between them, he wouldn’t have to. Umm…yay? Dispiritedly, Karina sighed.
“It’s no use, Vanessa. This year, I have all I can handle just dealing with Christmas.”
And my undercover Edgware evaluation of your family business.
“It’s the first holiday since my divorce. I really need it to be special for my children.”
Astutely, Vanessa nodded. “Right. What about for you?”
Why did everyone keep asking her that? “If they’re happy, I’m happy,” Karina said firmly. “Which means I’d better deliver this juice and make sure they get some breakfast. Thanks for the talk, though. It’s been nice making a friend here in Kismet.”
Leaving Vanessa behind—before she could crack and confess her inescapable longing for Reid—Karina hustled off to the dining room, ready to make sure she thought more about Christmas carols and tinsel than she did about Christmas affairs and nookie. No matter what it took…and it was going to take a lot—especially after having experienced Reid.
By the time her second full day as a stand-in Edgware evaluator dawned at The Christmas House, Karina figured she was doing pretty well. So far, although she’d met all the other guests, a couple more Sullivans, and some helpful local residents, no one had guessed her secret mission. She’d managed to compile a pretty respectable assortment of notes about the B&B’s day-to-day operations, its amenities, its schedule of events, and (to a guiltily lesser degree) its staff, too.
She hadn’t yet uploaded those reports, of course. She hadn’t had time. Or an opportunity. Besides, her admittedly sketchy ability to resist procrastination—even at the best of times—was no match for the ongoing stress of trying to make sure Michael, Josh, and Olivia had a perfect Christmas (while simultaneously trying to keep them out of trouble).
That hadn’t been easy. Michael persisted in questioning everything—including Karina’s ever-present note and picture taking, which made performing her evaluation duties trickier than she’d anticipated. Josh continued “borrowing” assorted items, from the safety scissors used to craft paper snowflakes during the B&B’s daily kids’ Fun Zone sessions to the peppermint candy canes that had been stockpiled for Christmas tree–decorating class. Olivia insisted on informing Karina of every potentially dangerous item in their midst, from the “identity theft!” threat posed by the personally inscribed (but otherwise innocent) holiday stockings on the mantel to the terrors of multicolored chaser lights (with “deadly lead dust!” on their wires).
“I promise I won’t lick any wiring this Christmas,” Karina told her daughter as they trooped across the B&B’s snow-covered grounds with the rest of the guests. They were on their way to this season’s inaugural horse-drawn sleigh ride, and Karina had bundled up in an assortment of items on loan from Chelsea’s closet. Her jeans barely fit over her thermal underwear and thick socks. She felt extremely bulky. “And I’ll wash my hands very thoroughly if I handle anything. Cross my heart.”
She made the ritual cross-my-heart gesture, then smiled.
Her daughter wasn’t appeased. “You’d better.” Huffing in the snow, Olivia tromped onward, her small face creased in a frown. “I refuse to lose another parent if I don’t have to.”
That brought Karina up short. She signaled for Josh and Michael to stop, then crouched with her hands on Olivia’s arms. She gave her daughter a serious look. “You didn’t lose your dad. He loves you very much! We both do.
cross my heart.”
She made the cross-my-heart gesture again.
Olivia refused to look at her. As the other guests kept moving in jolly groups toward the B&B’s outlying barn, Olivia stood with her booted feet planted. “Maybe. But for how long?” she demanded. “Things could change at any second, you know. Things have a way of changing just when you don’t expect it.”