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
Like a divorce that happens and breaks up your family.
She didn’t have to say the words aloud. The sentiment behind her expression was clear…and it broke Karina’s heart.
“Our love for you won’t change,” she assured Olivia. “Our love for you—and your brothers—will always stay the same, no matter what. Just because your dad and I are apart now—”
“Hey!” Michael blurted. “It’s Reid! Hi, Reid!”
“Hey!” Happily waving, Josh joined in. “Hi, Reid!”
Both her sons swiveled with eager grins on their faces.
“Can we go hang out with Reid?” Josh asked, hopping on one foot. “He promised to let us steer the horse-drawn sleigh!”
” Michael added. “He has a tattoo!”
Karina was familiar with Reid’s tattoo. She was pretty sure she’d licked it at least once. Fortunately, the practice hadn’t been toxic…only titillating. She wished she could try it again. But she’d sworn off Reid. For good. Even if he
gazing at her with a supersexy expression just then. And waving, too.
It felt almost as though they belonged together—as though she and the kids had come out here to be with him. Ridiculous.
“Can we, Mom?” Michael yanked her sleeve. “Huh? Can we?”
“Michael, I’m having a very important conversation with Olivia right now. So please give me a minute, then we’ll—”
Abruptly, Karina noticed that Olivia was staring in Reid’s direction, too. She was probably wondering who he was and why her brothers were so excited to see him. Which made two of them.
All right. Fine. Karina gave in. “You two know Reid?”
Beside her, Olivia gave a gusty, world-weary sigh. “Mom. Please.
knows Reid. He’s, like, everyone’s friend.”
“Awesome.” More alarmed now than ever, Karina nodded. She couldn’t think of a single reason to deny her sons’ request to hang out with Reid—at least not one that wouldn’t arouse undue suspicion. “Sure, go ahead. Olivia and I will catch up with you in a sec.”
“Speak for yourself, Mom!” Olivia disagreed. “I feel fine now. I’m going to go say ‘hi!’ to Reid.” She ran ahead, waving, with her winter boots kicking up plumes of snow. “Hi, Reid!”
Josh and Michael bolted toward The Christmas House’s innkeeper too, their coat hoods flopping behind them. Wearing mittens, hats, scarves, and boots, they converged like playful puppies on a happy-looking Reid. Snatches of their excited chatter drifted on the icy-feeling wind, referencing some of the activities they’d (apparently) enjoyed at the B&B while Karina had been busy sneaking around to evaluate the place.
Watching her children clamor for Reid’s attention, Karina felt her heart expand…then sink. It was good that her kids liked Reid. It was also terrible that her kids liked Reid.
If Olivia, Josh, and Michael got along with a man I was dating, that would mean big points in his favor
When she’d made that statement to Vanessa yesterday, she’d been telling the truth. Dating someone who didn’t connect with her children was unthinkable. But it didn’t seem as though that would be a problem with Reid, Karina noticed. Even a person who
wearing a hat, hood, and scarf over her face could see that Reid had (somehow) totally bonded with Michael, Josh, and Olivia. Not that she could blame them. He was pretty amazing.
So were her children, of course.
“Hey, Mom!” Eagerly, Olivia gestured to her. “Look at the horses! Reid says I can feed these carrots to them!”
She waggled a bunch of carrots, holding them by their feathery green tops. Swerving her gaze from those carrots, Karina examined the pair of Clydesdales that had been harnessed to the sleigh. The massive horses were wearing jingle bells. The bells emitted a burst of cheery sound whenever they moved.
At the moment, the horses were moving as much as they could—given the constraints of the harnesses—as they anticipated Olivia’s carrot treat. One of them nickered. It edged closer to Olivia, opened its mouth, then showed her its big yellow teeth.
“Be careful!” Startled, Karina waved. Visions of her daughter’s mittened hand being mistaken for a weird new vegetable swirled in her mind. “Watch out for those teeth!”
She hurried over, vigilant and wary. But Reid, who stood a short distance away, only smiled. He seemed oblivious to the potential dangers of allowing a ten-year-old girl to put her mittened hand close to a horse’s snapping teeth. Even as the horsey treat drama continued to unfold, he remained nonchalant.
Karina stopped in front of him. “What’s the matter with you?” she asked, hands on her hips. Agitatedly, she gestured at Olivia. “She could be hurt! Are those horses even tame?”
Reid’s carefree gaze transferred to her. “Hey, you’re talking to me again.” His smile broadened. “That’s great.”
So was the effect his nearness was having on her libido. Even though they were standing in the cold December weather, surrounded by several other guests, Karina suddenly felt a lot warmer. She also felt as though stripping off Reid’s puffy vest and sweater and getting him naked might be fun.
“You didn’t answer my question. Is that horse safe?”
“You know,” Reid mused, “I could swear you’ve been avoiding me the past couple of days. Did I do something to upset you?”
“Is that horse safe?” Karina repeated. Doggedly.
His statement about her avoiding him wasn’t something she could honestly address. It was better not to discuss it.
If Eric had been there, the concept of Karina passing up a conversation would have blown his mind. So would her newfound sense of purpose and determination. She was a new woman now, Karina reminded herself. She was a new woman who would not be drawn into discussing her short-lived holiday affair to remember. No way.
“Is that horse safe?” she asked again, standing her ground. “Or will I have to get Olivia a new thumb for Christmas?”
“No. She’ll be fine.” Grinning as though he found her motherly concern hilarious, Reid nudged his chin in the direction of the Clydesdales. “My own daughters are over there.”
“Right. But you’re the world’s most lackadaisical parent.”
He seemed unfazed. “Because I don’t hover over my girls the way you do with your kids?” Another shrug. “I’m okay with that.”
“Well…still.” Irked but running out of steam, Karina glanced away. A few of the other guests had noticed their discussion, but they didn’t seem especially interested. She’d get no help from the more cautious-minded parents who might be “hovering” nearby. “I just think you should have asked my permission first. I’d like to be consulted about potentially dangerous activities—especially when they involve my children.”
“Okay.” Reid nodded. “As soon as I run across something that fits that description, I’ll let you know.”
How could he be so blasé about this? Feeding carrots to horses the size of Hummers
dangerous—and potentially problematic for The Christmas House, too. Especially with regard to their Edgware evaluation. If she was going to be a truly responsible and thorough evaluator, Karina told herself, she ought to note all hazardous activities in her report.
Possibly with a recommendation to shut them down.
The risky activities, of course—
The Christmas House.
But maybe she was getting a little drunk with power, it occurred to Karina. Because just then, she almost relished the idea of drawing a black mark on the B&B’s evaluation report. That wasn’t like her at all. Besides, it wasn’t Reid’s fault that he was off limits to her (and therefore making her cranky with his very presence). He couldn’t help that…just like Karina couldn’t help cringing a little as she watched Olivia reach up to pet one of the horse’s necks. Next to that huge creature, her daughter appeared very small and fragile.
She also appeared, as she looked over her shoulder at Karina, absolutely delighted. A broad smile wreathed her features, lending them a lightness Karina hadn’t seen for a long time. That smile was just what she’d hoped to see on this trip.
Reid had managed to produce it after three minutes.
Shaking her head, Karina hugged herself. Maybe she
a little too protective sometimes. Maybe Reid had a point.
“Olivia really seems to love horses,” he said.
Smarty-pants. “What little girl doesn’t?” Karina asked, not yet ready to concede that point. Giving in to Reid’s laissez-faire approach to parenting still felt too risky to her.
Reid’s gaze stayed on her. “Do you want a turn, too?”
“With the horses?” Karina scoffed. “Ha! No, thanks.”
But a part of her
want a turn, she realized with embarrassing clarity. Apparently, there was a horse-loving preteen buried somewhere inside her. And she wanted out.
Forcibly shoving her down, Karina stuffed her hands in her pockets. She toed the snow with her boot. “I’m fine right here.”
“That’s not what I asked you.” Reid’s gaze told her he thought she was
all right. It also told her he was confused about why she’d been avoiding him. He grabbed her hand, then lay a carrot in her mittened palm. “Here. Go ahead.”
“I can’t. Really. I’m the mom. I—” Torn, she scrutinized the carrot. It was pretty long. Her fingers would probably be safe from those horsey chompers. “I should set a good example.” She glanced up at Reid’s angular, stubbled jaw, dark brows, and penetrating eyes. He was so
But she couldn’t think about that now. She raised her chin. “I should do the right thing.”
“All the time? That’s not even possible.”
“Sure, it is. If I try hard enough.” Her sister was depending on her to do exactly that, Karina reminded herself.
“Go ahead.” Reid nudged her. “Go crazy. Be reckless.”
He didn’t know what he was urging her toward. Obviously, his statement could be construed in more than one way—including a way that would lead them both to another hot-hot-hot liaison in his big, comfy sleigh bed back at the B&B. Because the more Reid encouraged her to cut loose, the more tempted Karina felt to throw caution to the wind, burn her Edgware evaluation notes, and throw herself headlong into…well,
Given that—and the thrillingly sensual memories that nudged at her just then—approaching an SUV-sized horse suddenly felt like the lesser of two evils. Karina fisted her carrot.
“Fine. I will!” she said, then marched over, ready to go for it.
…From the desk of Betty Sullivan
2:00 P.M. (
Leaning against the gaily painted side of the B&B’s old-fashioned sleigh, Reid chuckled. He couldn’t take his gaze off Karina. Standing next to Holly and Ivy—The Christmas House’s longtime lead horses—she appeared terrified, eager, and rebellious at the same time.
As he watched, she clenched her carrot in a viselike grip. Tentatively, she waggled it toward Holly.
The old mare whinnied, then bared her buckteeth.
Karina flinched. She took a step backward. Her three kids offered up encouragement. So did Alexis and Nicole. With their usual adventurousness, Reid’s daughters gently pushed Karina. She nearly did a face plant into Holly’s shaggy, horsey flank.
She righted herself, visibly screwed up her courage, then examined her carrot. Carefully holding it, she raised it again.
Holly snatched it away. She crunched it down, sending orange carrot bits and equine spittle flying. The Clydesdale wasn’t a graceful eater, but she was an eager one. Ivy nosed over, looking for a treat of her own. Olivia brightened, then gave her mother a selection from her cache of carrots. Everyone watched as Karina fed Ivy. The horse greedily chomped away.
“Yay! I did it! Twice!” Karina flung her arms in the air.
Looking delighted, she danced a little jig, kicking up snow. All the girls cheered for her. A few of the other B&B guests applauded. Michael and Josh merely grinned, macho style.
Reid grinned too. Karina was adorable. He didn’t know why she’d been avoiding him, but he had his suspicions—chief among them that he’d hurt her feelings, the way Vanessa had claimed.
If that was true, Reid owed it to Karina to make it up to her—by being her friend. Her
friend, if that’s what she wanted. With the necessary exception of Gabby, he’d never attempted to remain friends with an ex—especially not a one-night-stand ex. But this time, it felt necessary. Reid wanted to do what was right for Karina. He wanted to make amends. He wanted—
Her. He wanted
He wanted to indulge in a crazy amount of headboard-banging, screaming-to-the-rafters sex with
But he wasn’t going to. This time, Reid planned to be smart about things. He planned to take sex out of the equation altogether. That way, he could still spend time with Karina
being distracted from his work at the B&B and his promise to his grandparents. It was a win-win. A slam dunk.
If he wasn’t sleeping with Karina, Reid reasoned, it would be impossible for her to sidetrack him from his job at The Christmas House. After all, how diverting could a
female friend be? Especially a platonic suburban divorcée friend with three kids and a mortgage? Karina was so settled and content, she might as well have
tattooed on her forehead.
They were total opposites. Despite the effect Karina had on him, she wasn’t exactly his dream girl. Despite the sexy times they’d shared in his bed (and on his room’s settee and in his room’s triple-showerhead-equipped shower), Reid figured it would be easy to move Karina to the friend zone.
Absolutely. The strategy was genius. He felt justifiably pleased with himself for having come up with it, late last night, while pondering Karina’s newfound aloofness over a cup of wassail punch.
Never back a Sullivan into a corner,
he thought to himself now.
Because we’re masters at maneuvering.
Speaking of maneuvering…Still leaning against the sleigh while his guests chatted, Reid studied Karina’s derrière as she moved.
Bootylicious. But oddly bulky too. He’d swear she was wearing three pairs of underwear. How was that even possible? Maybe if he stripped off one pair with his teeth—
Nope, he reminded himself staunchly. Underwear removal was probably not a platonic-friend activity. Except in the case of a freak underwear emergency—an example of which didn’t come readily to mind…no matter how hard Reid tried to think of one.
“Preride run-through’s finished.” Nate Kelly, one of the obliging Kismet locals who’d volunteered to pitch in at Reid’s grandparents’ behest, joined Reid at the sleigh. Folding his massive arms, Nate gave Karina a convivial nod. “So who’s the new girl? Looks like she’s got you totally wrapped up, Sullivan.”
“Takes one to know one. I hear you’re bound and tied to another teacher—Angela Wright, right? And her daughter, Kayla?”
“That’s right.” Nate, a former NFL lineman—and current industrial arts/home economics teacher at Kismet High School—gave another nod. He didn’t appear the least bit bugged that Reid had basically, in a man-to-man, regular-Joe fashion, called him whipped. “Yes, Angela and I are together now. Couldn’t be happier either! That’s why I can tell what’s up with you.”
“Nothing’s up with me. You’re crazy.”
“She doesn’t look familiar,” Nate observed. “Is she from around here? What’s her name?” He paused, waiting for answers from Reid. None came. Jovially, Nate kept talking. “Your daughters sure seem to like her. Look at them all together over there.”
Reid did. Nate was right, he was surprised to notice: His daughters
seem to like Karina. Even now, Alexis and Nicole laughed at something Karina said. Karina smiled at them, then tucked back a hank of Alexis’s long, hastily brushed hair. Ordinarily, his older daughter would have bristled to be “fussed over” that way.
But when it came to Karina, Alexis merely brightened…then edged closer and kept on chatting.
Nicole did, too. As Reid watched, his younger daughter pointed at Karina’s scarf—a pink spangled thing that looked as though it belonged at the Barbie Dream House. (Reid knew more about the Barbie world at large than was probably recommended for an adult his age—or anyone else.) In response to Nicole’s interest, Karina removed her scarf, flipped it over Nicole’s shoulders, then performed an elaborate knot-tying maneuver.
The end result explained why Karina had needed
to intervene with her tangled scarf the other day…but it appeared to thrill his daughter. As though she were on a Paris runway, Nicole marched with kooky high-legged steps alongside the paddock fence, stopped to strike a pose, then giggled and came back.
Reid had never seen his daughters act so…girlishly.
What was going on here? Sure, he got along famously with Josh, Michael, and Olivia; that was true. But Reid’s instant rapport with the Barrett kids wasn’t the same as this. It wasn’t the same as Karina causing his two multilingual, globe-trotting, sari-owning, stubbornly individualistic preteenagers to suddenly morph into the modern-day equivalent of California Valley Girls.
“Name?” Nate pushed. “Rank? Serial number? Anything?”
Reid blinked. What were they…? Oh yeah. Karina’s name.
“Sorry, Nate. She’s Karina Barrett. Just another guest. From California. San Diego. And her three kids.” Reid watched her. “Yep,” he confirmed pointlessly. “Just another guest.”
Nate grinned, then shook his head. “If
just another guest to you, then I’m the Sugar Plum Fairy.”
You like that stuff?”
“Hey.” A mock threatening frown. “Don’t diss higher culture, dude, just because you feel vulnerable right now.”
“Speak for yourself. I don’t get vulnerable.” To prove it, Reid smiled. “Hey—don’t you have a sleigh ride to orchestrate?”
Nate gave an affirmative sound. “Which reminds me—if the Edgware deal goes through, will the new franchisee still keep the horses on-site? I promised Angela I would check on that.”
Surprised, Reid glanced at him. “You know about Edgware?”
Nate shrugged. “Most of the town does. We’re pretty bummed about it actually. I’d hate to see another business sell out.”
“Lagniappe at the Lakeshore wouldn’t mind.”
“Maybe. Business has been pretty bad lately. I guess they probably need all the advantages they can get over there.”
“You sound as though you feel sorry for them.”
“I do.” Semiapologetically, Nate spread his arms. “I’m a lifetime Kismet resident. I plan to stay here, no matter what. My loyalties are probably a little different from yours.”
Since you’re leaving after the holidays,
Nate’s expression said.
You big Scrooge.
It was an accurate—if unspoken—appraisal. If he did everything right, Reid figured, he and the girls could be back on the road by New Year’s Day, with Amanda in tow.
“Probably.” Reid couldn’t argue the truth. The longer he was in town, the more he realized it:
in Kismet felt unswervingly loyal to the place. That allegiance seemed to apply to The Christmas House too. All the townspeople who’d dropped by to volunteer or visit had told him they wished the Sullivans could keep running the B&B—especially during Christmastime.
No wonder his grandparents had summoned Reid from the other side of the world. He was, quite literally, the only unsentimental person Robert and Betty Sullivan knew. He was the only person who could—and
—make sure the Edgware sale succeeded.
Speaking of which…If the secret evaluator had come out for the inaugural sleigh ride, he (or she) was probably getting tired of waiting. Reid clapped his hands, then spoke up to summon everyone. “Okay, we’re just about to get started!”
From the corner of his eye, he glimpsed Karina. She turned to face the sleigh, wearing a childlike expression of wonder—and downright eagerness, too. Earlier, she’d stifled her inner horse-crazy girlishness. He didn’t want her to similarly stifle her inner holiday-loving hedonist…which Reid knew damn well she’d do, given half a chance.
“Nate and I will take out the first group in a few minutes. Then we’ll proceed in order from there, so that everyone gets a sleigh ride,” he told his guests. “In the meantime, we have hot cocoa and apple cider donuts to keep everyone warm, along with some lessons in making snow angels and building snow forts.”
“Yay! Snowball fights!” some of the kids shouted.
Smiling, Reid signaled to The Christmas House staff, who’d brought along the goodies and other supplies. At his nod, they lined up everyone behind a red-and-white candy-striped velvet rope, turned on some holiday tunes, and kicked off the activities. His guests cheered. Amanda, along with the B&B worker who usually dealt with the kids’ Fun Zone activities, rounded up the children.
With that dealt with, Reid approached Karina. “Let’s go. You and the kids are in the first group.”
“Us?” She tapped her well-bundled chest. “But we can’t be first. We’re…Well, you’ve already made an exception to let Olivia—and me—feed the horses.” Prettily, Karina blushed. “Which was very nice of you. But you should take someone else first. There’s no reason we should get special treatment.”
She seemed alarmed by the very idea. He didn’t know why.
“There’s every reason you should get special treatment,” Reid told her, smiling. “But the reason that matters right now is that I don’t want to make my introductory sleigh ride with anyone else. I want to take you first. You and the kids.”
Reid gestured at them. All five had already clambered into the sleigh. Now they chatted amiably with Nate. Michael waved his arms. Nicole laughed. Josh pantomimed feeding a horse—and being a horse. Olivia held her nose, making some sort of joke. Even Alexis, seated tantalizingly close to the sleigh’s radio and GPS unit, ignored those gadgets in favor of twirling her hair and borrowing Olivia’s lip gloss.
“See?” Reid pointed out. “Ordinarily, my daughter Alexis would be hacking into the radio and reprogramming the GPS unit to take us to the Upper Peninsula for homemade fudge. But even she’s mellowed out.”
And embarked on a makeover program.
Taken aback by his daughter’s primping, Reid did a double take. He didn’t think he’d ever seen Alexis
Nicole actually primp for something.
“I’m glad. She’s a sweet girl. So is Nicole,” Karina said sincerely. She wrung her mittened hands together. “But I don’t want to be treated differently than any other guest. Okay?”
It seemed important to her. Reid couldn’t imagine why.
“You already have been treated differently,” he pointed out with a grin. “Or did you think I greeted all my guests with a—”
“Stop right there!” Blushing again, Karina cut him off before he could describe any of the tantalizing, mind-bending, entirely X-rated things they’d done together. “I’ll admit, your ‘greeting’ did make me feel pretty special. But when it comes to the sleigh ride, I want everyone to get a fair turn.”
“They will. I promise. But for this first ride, I want to go out with someone who won’t be looking for every flaw in the experience. Someone who will be nice about my first attempts at maneuvering a decrepit old Santamobile. Someone like you.”
Karina swallowed hard. “Someone like…me?”
Was she really going to make him lay it out for her? Reid nodded. “Someone nice and noncritical. Okay? How about it?”
She bit her lip, then blinked. “Okay. Time’s wasting! Let’s get on that sleigh ride!” With every appearance of enthusiasm, she straightened her spine and marched to the sleigh.
Reid didn’t know how she made that simple maneuver look so delectable. But she did. Just watching her
made him feel hot. So far, he sucked at platonic friendship. But he was going to do better. Just as soon as Karina removed her derrière from view, so he wouldn’t feel so irresistibly drawn to look at her.
Karina took her place on the sleigh’s front bench, right beside Nate. Reid felt about a million times better—until he caught another glimpse of Karina’s face and realized something even more alarming: He was looking forward to showing her the sights on the B&B’s holiday sleigh ride route even
than he was looking forward to admiring her backside.