Read Holiday Affair Online

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

Holiday Affair (13 page)

BOOK: Holiday Affair
2.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

If that wasn’t scary, he didn’t know what was.

Given the choice between getting frisky with Karina and continuing to have these unaccountably…
gooey
feelings toward his new platonic friend, Reid knew what he would choose. It wasn’t exactly the stuff of high-minded poetry and literature, either. It was down and dirty. It was raw. It was primal and naked and necessary. It was (kind of) against the rules of Reid’s new foolproof plan to responsibly run the B&B, too.

Seated in the driver’s seat, Nate cleared his throat. He hefted the harness traces, then gave Reid a pointed look. “Shall we get going, boss? Or are you staying here?”

And miss a chance to experience Karina’s first sleigh ride? Screw that. Ignoring all the warning bells in his head, Reid strode to the sleigh. He got in. “I’m going. Ho ho ho!”

Chapter Twelve

Date: December 19th
Edgware Project Name: The Christmas House
Guest/Staff Interface Opportunity:
horse-drawn sleigh ride
SNOWBANK MAKE-OUT SESSION

WHOOPS
!
Interaction Goal:
quantify guest enjoyment and evaluate viability of franchising services
DON’T
LET THIS HAPPEN AGAIN
!

Snuggled on the sleigh’s bench seat with the crisp wintery air in her face, the horses’ jingle bells jangling, and the sleigh whooshing past some of the most scenic forest she’d ever experienced, Karina sighed. She
loved
this. The sleigh ride was idyllic, her children were behaving impeccably (and seemed to have become fast friends with Reid’s daughters too), and she felt more hopeful about her first postdivorce Christmas than she probably had a right to.

If this was the kind of experience she could share with Olivia, Michael, and Josh, she was doing okay.

The only problem was Reid. He’d insisted on sitting right next to her, and he was downright impossible to ignore. He looked good. He smelled good. Even worse, he was being
nice.

Ever since finding out he was the B&B’s manager, she’d been trying so hard to behave coolly toward him. Why wouldn’t he get the message? Instead of following her lead and silently enjoying the scenery, Reid talked to her, pointed out all his favorite landmarks…and made her feel closer to him than ever before. Instead of accepting her extra layers of clothing as a reason to feel less attracted to her, he smiled and tossed her admiring looks. Instead of growing conveniently uglier and less appealing the longer she knew him, he appeared distractingly dishier and even more irresistible.

Why, oh why, did Reid have to be so
charming?

Desperate for diversion, Karina dug in her coat pocket. She withdrew the high-tech camera Stephanie had lent her, then started snapping pictures. The beautiful horses. The bucolic scenery. The white-barked birch trees standing in the snow. The hills. The snow-flocked evergreens. The volunteer help, Nate Kelly, ably maneuvering the sleigh over hill and dale as the metal runners made a sprightly
whoosh-whoosh
sound on the snow.

Idly, Karina wondered if Nate was licensed for this job. If he wasn’t, that would be a black mark against the B&B too.

“So, are you sure Mr. Kelly is up for this work?” she asked Reid, striving for a sense of
non
-secret-assessment-evaluator airiness. She nodded toward Nate. “Driving the sleigh, I mean. You must need a special license for that, right?”

Typically, Reid appeared unbothered. “Probably.”

“But does he have one?” Karina pressed.

A shrug. “According to Vanessa, he’s been helping out at The Christmas House for years. He seems pretty good at it.”

Watching Nate drive the sleigh, Karina had to agree.

“Seriously. You can relax,” Reid advised her. “I wouldn’t bring anyone out here if I didn’t think it was safe.”

He thought she was being her usual overcautious self, Karina realized. Well, that was better than having him think she was an undercover Edgware evaluator. Wishing she could just tell Reid the truth—
without
compromising her mission and Stephanie’s job—Karina decided to quit interrogating him for now.

Instead, she took a few more digital snaps of the children. Miraculously, all five of them were experiencing the sleigh ride with no iPod headphones or handheld PSPs in sight. Clearly, the Christmas House had worked some sort of holiday magic on them. Their faces looked bright and pink-cheeked in the afternoon sunshine.

“You don’t have to take your own pictures, you know.” Reid pointed to her borrowed camera. “That’s one of the services we provide here. Our staff takes expert video and still photos of our guests—strictly with their consent—so everyone can enjoy their vacation without experiencing the whole thing through a camera lens.” He indicated the trio of miniature, state-of-the-art, remotely operated digital cameras mounted to the sleigh. “It’s part of The Christmas House’s all-inclusive package.”

“I know. Sort of like a supersize version of the postride pictures they offer you at Disneyland, right?” Karina laughed, hoping she sounded carefree—and
not
like a corporate superspy sent to find fault with Reid’s family business. Even if she (technically) was. “But I like taking my own photos.”
For my secret Edgware report.
“For my…scrapbook. As keepsakes.”

“Right. I should have known you’d be the sentimental type.”

“Guilty.” Cheerfully, Karina nudged him. “You’re not?”

Reid looked away. “Never had a reason to be.”

“Surely your daughters gave you a reason?”

He gazed back at them, crowded in the rear bench seats, with a world of love plain in his face. “They gave me a reason to live. A reason to become a better man. But a reason to get all schmaltzy?” He pulled a goofy face. “Nope. Not yet.”

Somehow, Reid’s denial made Karina feel sorry for him. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like not to treasure every moment and milestone of her children’s lives—not to feel moved by each one. “Huh. I practically live through my children.”

He transferred his gaze to her. “That’s a mistake.”

“It can’t be.” The very idea flew in opposition to everything Karina stood for. Being there. Helping. Giving her all, especially to her children. “I know it might seem that way to someone like you. You travel around the world with your kids—your life is one big nonstop party. But my life is a lot more grounded than that.”

Reid’s gaze narrowed. “It’s my job, not a party. And traveling around the world is a good thing. It’s broadening.”

“I guess you’re probably right. For you, at least.” Karina shrugged. “All I know is…even if I
could
travel the world, I wouldn’t. Not at my kids’ expense. I mean, there’s school, and friends, and—”

“Are you suggesting I’m hurting my daughters somehow?”

The intensity in his eyes spooked her. So did the way he interrupted her—an unusual occurrence for Reid. Maybe this wasn’t the first time he’d heard this particular criticism.

“No! Not at all!” Karina assured him. “Everyone can see you’re a wonderful father.”
She’d
certainly noticed how protective, gentle, and affectionate Reid was with his daughters. But that didn’t mean she was blind to the truth. “It’s just that…Well, not everyone wants to put themselves first, the way you do. Not everyone
can
do that. You’re fortunate Nicole and Alexis are up for the adventure.”

“They
love
the adventure.” He appeared convinced of it. Unerringly, thoroughly convinced. “They’re proud of traveling all over the world. I’m proud of them for doing it.”

“And I’m proud of all the work I put into being a mom. Maybe motherhood won’t always be front and center for me, but right now it is. That’s not a ‘mistake,’ for me or anyone else.”

Reid mulled that over. “You can love your children—and you can be a good parent—without sacrificing everything for them.”

“That’s easy for you to say. You’re a man! Men have it easy.”

“We do?”

She nodded. “Think about it: When you take over child care duties, even for a couple of hours, you’re ‘helping’ or ‘doing a favor’ for their mother. The whole world pats you on the back for something that should have been your responsibility in the first place.”

Reid’s gaze remained fixed, compassionately, on hers. “And when a man takes over for more than a few hours? For all day, every day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year? What then?”

“Uh…” He had a point. Darn it. “Well, I guess then you’re a hero. Like you.”

But Reid only shook his head, even as the snowcapped scenery continued to fly by and the jingle bells went on ringing. “I’m no hero. I’m just a guy who’s trying to do the best he can, day by day. Just like you’re a woman who’s trying to do the best she can, morning and night. Neither of us has to be perfect to be good parents. We just have to be there, mixing it up and taking a few punches whenever necessary.”

Karina grinned at that. “Interesting view. Parenthood as full-contact sport?”

“Sometimes it feels that way.” As though reminded of some
other
full-contact “sport,” Reid glanced at her latest multiply layered ensemble. She’d swear he had X-ray vision.
Sexy
X-ray vision. “I call ’em like I see ’em.”

Unwisely thrilled by his suddenly suggestive attention, Karina squirmed on her seat. “And what do you see right now?”

A woman I want more of,
she expected to hear, anticipating their usual flirty banter (and grudgingly preparing herself to resist it). Or,
a woman who’s driving me crazy with her three-pairs-of-thermal-undies-augmented, extra-luscious booty.

Instead, what emerged from Reid was…

“I see that your seat belt isn’t fastened.” His gaze zoomed to her lap. He frowned. “The sleigh doesn’t have airbags for safety—at least not yet—but it is supposed to have seat belts.”

He craned in his seat to make sure the children were all securely buckled up. They were. He returned his attention to Karina. She twisted on her seat, looking for her seat belt.

“Found it.” She held up its frayed edges. “It’s broken.”

“That’s weird. It looks as though it’s been cut in half.” Wearing a concerned look, Reid fished around in the seat. He withdrew a lone buckle that had been wedged, uselessly, beneath her hip. “This clasp has been snapped clean off too. See?”

Karina did. This wasn’t a good sign for the B&B. Someone at The Christmas House obviously wasn’t doing his or her job. She hoped it wasn’t an endemic problem. Trying to view the incident as a simple oversight—and not an indicator of yet another black mark against the B&B—she flung aside the seat belt remnants.

“Well, I can’t use this, then. I’ll be fine, though.” She poked Nate’s huge shoulder to get his attention. “Hey, Nate! Take it easy on the way back, okay? My seat belt is broken.”

Nate saluted. “Gotcha. I’ll be extra careful.”

Fortunately, they weren’t traveling very fast. All the better to enjoy the views, the Christmassy ambiance, and the snowfall that began drifting down, just like in one of those holiday-themed TV movies.

Thrilled by the snow’s picture-perfect fluffiness, Karina relaxed. So did Reid…mostly. He shot an occasional accusing glance at her nonfunctioning seat belt, though. And when they reached the top of the next hill, he seemed to come to a decision.

He signaled Nate. “Hey, Nate. Pull up here for a minute, okay? I’m going to switch places with Karina.”

“Oh, you don’t have to do that,” she protested. “I’m fine!”

“I won’t have you in danger,” Reid said. “We’re switching.”

The sleigh pulled to a stop, leaving the horses prancing in the snow. All around them, a peaceful field stretched for what seemed like miles. The crisp wintery air filled Karina’s lungs. Her nose tingled with cold. She felt warm and protected, though—protected because Reid was chivalrously looking out for her and warm because she could glimpse,
waaaay
down the hill, the faraway B&B, with its barn and outbuildings and multiple Christmas trees.

It looked just like an old-fashioned holiday card—like one of those lithographic prints from Currier and Ives, with gilded edges and an elegant script greeting inside. Except it was real.

Karina sighed.

Reid stood. He gestured for her to do the same. Karina did.

At the same instant, the Clydesdales stamped and blew. One of them reared in its traces. Startled, Nate yanked the reins.

It was no use. The equine team, apparently spotting their home base at the paddock and barn, were ready to go home.

They bolted into motion, heading downhill. One minute, Karina was balancing precariously in the sleigh, trying to trade places with Reid…and the next, she was falling. She reached for something to steady herself, caught hold of Reid’s hand, and felt him yank her. Hard. They both teetered sideways.

An instant later, the sleigh swerved violently. Karina lost her footing on its icy floorboards. Her mitten slipped off, leaving Reid grasping it—and Karina grasping nothing at all.

“Mom!” Olivia yelled. “Mom! Sit down!”

“Grab Reid!” Josh added. “Grab his hand!”

Karina couldn’t. The next thing she knew, she was toppling crazily over the side of the sleigh. She landed on a big pile of snow, inches from the whooshing runners.

The sleigh flew past. Jingle bells rang merrily in her ears. Then…all was silent.

 

The minute Reid felt Holly and Ivy jerk the sleigh off course, he knew exactly what was happening. His grandfather had tried to warn him about this. He hadn’t had a chance to finish.

Whatever you do, don’t
—Robert had started to say, when they’d been having their last-minute discussion about the B&B. Now Reid could easily guess the rest:
Don’t let the horses see the barn before you’re ready to let them haul ass toward home.

The Clydesdales’ eagerness had brooked no argument. When a pair of beasts weighing sixteen-hundred-pounds decided it was time for a hay-and-oats happy hour…well, it was time for a hay-and-oats happy hour. Period.

At first, Reid had thought he could hold Karina. Then her mitten had come off, and he hadn’t been able to.

Damn that unusable seat belt of hers! He’d swear it had been tampered with. Clearly, someone wanted to shut down The Christmas House—or at least make them fail their evaluation.

Reid didn’t know who. Plenty of townspeople seemed to be likely suspects, though, given their reluctance to see The Christmas House become an Edgware franchise.

Or maybe Lagniappe at the Lakeshore was behind this latest act of sabotage. Obviously, they’d already poached the B&B’s head chef. Reid suspected they might have spiked the cider at the reception too. But exactly how far would they go to get a leg up in the competition for Kismet’s tourism dollars?

Reid wasn’t sure. He didn’t have time to ponder the issue, either. Because even as those questions crowded into his mind, all hell broke loose. Karina toppled out of the sleigh. All the children shrieked. Nate struggled to control the horses. Reid assessed the situation, then took the only conceivable action.

BOOK: Holiday Affair
2.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Run by Kody Keplinger
10 Gorilla Adventure by Willard Price
Emma Watson by Nolan, David
02 Unforgivable - Untouchable by Lindsay Delagair
The Necromancer's Seduction by Mimi Sebastian
Dead But Not Forgotten by Charlaine Harris
Bound by Love by Pia Veleno