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 (17 page)

BOOK: Holiday Affair
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“No stand-ins. And no sneaking around, either. We’ll have to let everyone know what happened, right up front,” Reid said. “Maybe at the ‘very merry breakfast’ this morning.” Had he just said “very merry breakfast”? With a complete lack of irony? This place was changing him—and not for the better. “We’ll have to describe the ruined items, offer to replace them at the B&B’s expense, reunite everything else with its proper owners—”

“No! We can’t do that.” Vanessa shook her head. “These are Christmas gifts, remember?
They’re
supposed to be surprises. And
we’re
supposed to be providing our guests with a picture-perfect Christmas! We can’t just announce what’s left here and wait for people to claim it. That would totally ruin the holiday—especially for the kids. They’re bound to recognize their wish list items being talked about.” Again, she shook her head. “Do
you
want to explain there’s no Santa Claus?”

“Well,” Reid began, “if someone has to do it—”

“Argh!” His cousin dropped her hands to her hips, both fists full of crumpled gift wrap. “You really
are
clueless about Christmas, aren’t you? We. Can’t. Do. That. We have to be sneakier, or we’ll spoil all the surprises!”

Reid frowned. “Lying to kids is never the answer.”

“Whatever, Scrooge. I suppose you crushed Nicole’s and Alexis’s hopes about the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy too?”

“What hopes?” As far as he knew, they hadn’t had any.

Vanessa gave a clucking sound of disapproval. “I say we hide this whole mess, go downtown and secretly buy new things, then concoct a good cover story—one that
won’t
clue in the Edgware evaluator to our latest mishap. There’s still plenty of time before any of our guests wake up and discover this.”

At the doorway, a flicker of movement caught Reid’s eye. He glanced up, now on his hands and knees as well, and glimpsed someone standing there. Karina. She wore at least three sweaters, one scarf, jeans and boots, and a concerned frown.

“Discover what?” she asked. “What’s going on?”

Reid shut his mouth, suddenly self-conscious about his “nookie beard.” But Vanessa had no such compunctions about gabbing.

“Karina! Thank God!” his cousin exclaimed, looking relieved. “You’ll help us, right? You
always
help. You’re a real lifesaver—like when you helped organize the van decoupage.”

Karina helped with that?
Surprised, Reid gazed at Karina.

“And the hand-painted signs for the new ice-skating rink too.” Obviously proud of her protégée, Vanessa waved her hand toward Karina. “You were instrumental in making those, right?”

Karina was involved with the ice-skating rink?

“So we should have guessed you’d show up here, right in the nick of time,” Vanessa concluded happily. She gave Karina a shorthand retelling of the damage Digby had wrought—minus Reid’s suppositions about sabotage. “You’re like our very own magical Christmas elf, Karina. By now, you’re practically a staff member of The Christmas House. Heck, you’re practically a member of the family!” Meaningfully, Vanessa raised her eyebrows at Reid. “Isn’t she, Reid? Isn’t Karina practically a Sullivan by now?”

“Sure.” He wished Vanessa would put the kibosh on her matchmaking routine—at least while Karina was here. “Almost.”

Even if he’d wanted to, though, Reid couldn’t deny the truth: He liked having Karina nearby. Just seeing her there made him feel better. He liked seeing her smile, her overload of sweaters, her sexy, curvy hips in those jeans of hers….

Suddenly aware of the wistful way he was watching Karina, Reid made himself quit. He cleared his throat.

His cousin was staring at him. Smugly. And knowingly.

Clearly pleased by his reaction, Vanessa transferred her gaze to Karina again. “Hey! I was thinking…Do you want to go downtown with me later to replace some of these gifts?”

“Um, okay.” Shooting Reid a cryptic look, Karina tucked something in the pocket of her outermost sweater. Her camera. “If there’s a problem with the communal gift exchange, though, I’d just as soon keep my replacement gifts in my room, where they’ll be safe. I hope you don’t mind.”

“You don’t have to worry about that,” Reid said, wanting to reassure her. “This was a onetime incident. Nothing like this has ever happened before. Ordinarily, everyone keeps their gifts down here in big piles beneath the trees, then unwraps them together at the party on Christmas Day. It’s usually a lot of fun. At least
I
liked it, when I was a kid here at the B&B. It was like spending Christmas with a gigantic extended family.”

Karina blinked. “You spent your Christmases here?”

Reid nodded. So did Vanessa. “Every last one of them! We both did. Those were the days, right, Reid? Grammy’s fudge, Grandpa’s big piles of popcorn and cranberries to string—”

“Grandpa’s swearing whenever the cranberries rolled under the TV set and got squashed before we could get them out. He’d be unearthing petrified cranberries all the way till July.” Reid sighed, recalling those long-ago family get-togethers with more fondness than he expected. “You know what? We should have a cranberry-and-popcorn-garland-making class this year.”

“It’s already on the schedule,” Karina surprised him by saying. She took a careful step forward through the wreckage, then bent to scoop up some stray gift wrap. “I remember reading about it—‘Old-Fashioned Garland Making: Popcorn and Cranberries.’”

Reid frowned. How could Karina know The Christmas House’s detailed schedule of activities more thoroughly than he did?

“Wow.” Vanessa laughed. “You’re good, Karina! Are you sure
you’re
not the top-secret Edgware evaluator? Those people are rumored to have special spying gear
and
photographic memories.”

“No photographic memory here.” Karina gave an unsteady grin. She wadded up more squelchy gift wrap, then tossed it into a bin. “It’s just very important to me that this Christmas be perfect—for my kids’ sakes. I can’t help noticing the details.”

Reid couldn’t help noticing how jumpy she seemed. Probably, he realized, straight-arrow Karina wasn’t entirely comfortable with Vanessa’s covert plan to replace the guests’ gifts.

Well, neither was he. As far as Reid was concerned, honesty was always the best policy. It would be better to come clean to everyone—all at once—about the damage that had been done, then deal with the consequences as they arose…including the consequences of the Edgware evaluator’s take on the situation.

He liked knowing that he and Karina were on the same page when it came to telling the truth, though. That was important. Like loyalty, honesty mattered to him. It mattered a lot.

“It probably wasn’t the best idea to leave all these gifts down here in the first place,” Karina mused in a quiet voice. “I realize the big B&B Christmas party is a tradition—a tradition that involves unwrapping both these huge piles of gifts all together during the party—but sometimes tradition has to bow to practicality. Sometimes it’s important to consider liability issues, allergies, insurance premiums, potential theft—”

“Whoa! You sound just like Scrooge over here!” Vanessa laughed, glancing from Karina to Reid. “Take it down a notch, Ebenezer. We’ve been doing things this way for years!”

“Well…maybe you should reconsider that.” Karina cast a shuttered glance at Reid. “Maybe, if you said you were sorry and explained to all the guests that you made a mistake, the Edgware evaluator wouldn’t knock off too many points for this incident.”

Reid stared at her. “What do you know about the evaluator? Do you know who it is?” He’d been trying to guess for days. So far, he’d suspected (and dismissed) Suzanne, Rocky, and another guest, all in turn. But Karina was friends with everyone here. She might have learned something important. “If you’ve got some inside information about the Edgware evaluation—”

“Geez, Reid! Grill the poor girl, why don’t you?” Protectively, his cousin moved to Karina’s side. “If you don’t want to admit we made a mistake, then don’t. Just go along with my plan, and there won’t be any apologies necessary. Chances are, the Edgware evaluator didn’t even have any gifts under the Christmas trees. Why would he? He’s faking!” Vanessa then amended, “Or she is.” Looking frustrated, she frowned. “Whoever it is, he or she is only pretending to celebrate Christmas with us.”

“That’s true,” Reid said. How much did he owe someone who was a professional sneak, anyway? “The evaluator’s holiday probably hasn’t just been wrecked by Digby’s snack attack.”

“Probably not.” Confidently, Vanessa lifted her chin. “So if you
don’t
make a big public announcement out of this, the evaluator doesn’t ever have to know. We can just gather the tags, discuss the problem with the affected guests
privately,
then get on with our Christmas. Easy peasy.”

“Easy peasy, huh?” Vanessa’s tactics
would
lead to the same end result as his plan, Reid considered. The affected gifts would be replaced and/or reunited with their appropriate tags, then placed back under the Christmas trees. The holiday would go on, with the Edgware assessor none the wiser. And Reid could get back to spending time with Karina. That sounded pretty good to him. Torn between doing what was honest and doing whatever was necessary to get a positive evaluation for his grandparents, he hesitated. Then he shook his head. “Nope. I’m not hiding this. I’m telling everyone the truth at the ‘very merry breakfast.’”

“What?” Vanessa wailed. “Those poor kids! No Santa!”

Karina didn’t seem happy about his decision, either. Maybe she was worried the surprises of Olivia’s, Josh’s, and Michael’s gifts would be spoiled, Reid decided. Or maybe the Barrett kids still believed in Santa. Karina
was
a traditionalist, after all.

“With the provision,” Reid allowed, “that we speak to the adults and clear the children from the room first.”

His cousin harrumphed. “That will only help partway. We’ll still get marked down on our evaluation for this! That nitpicky Edgware evaluator probably isn’t an eight-year-old, you know.” She frowned. “Whoever the evaluator is, they’ll be there in the room when you come clean about this. They’ll know everything.”

“That’s true,” Reid agreed. “But the fact is, we blew it. We didn’t safeguard these gifts.” He thought again about his theory—that someone had sabotaged those gifts by doctoring them with liver-treat spread, knowing Digby would likely tear into them. He didn’t want to bring it up again, though. Vanessa was skeptical, and Karina didn’t need to know. He’d already groused enough to her about running the B&B, when he’d unloaded about how stressed the staff was feeling. “If telling the truth means we get dinged on our evaluation…Well, we’ll just have to make up for it by doing better in some other area.”

Determinedly, Reid smiled, satisfied with that solution.

An instant later, he smelled…something. He sniffed.

“Hey.” Vanessa sniffed too. “Is that smoke?”

“I think so.” Concerned, Reid went to investigate.

It looked as though they’d have to start “doing better” in some other area later. Because apparently, problem number four was on its way…and it had the potential to be a real doozy.

 

It was not a doozy. It was only a minor mishap, Reid realized almost immediately, caused by the inattentiveness of the B&B’s kitchen staff…with one surprising addition.

“Amanda? What are you doing down here?” Skidding to a stop in the center of the kitchen, Reid recognized his daughters’ nanny/tutor first. He spotted the charred pot of smoking liquid on the stovetop second. He realized he would not have to evacuate The Christmas House or call the fire department third. Relieved but confused, he scanned the room. “Is anyone hurt?”

“No. We’re fine. We’re all fine!” Nervously, Amanda smiled. She cast a shaky hand toward the abandoned sauce pot. Its contents still emitted smoke into the stovetop’s whirring exhaust fan. “Rodrigo was showing me how to make caramel sauce to go with the gingerbread French toast this morning—”

Impatiently, Reid glanced at the new cook—the one he’d hired from the local greasy spoon. Rodrigo shuffled his feet.

“—and we, um, got a little distracted, I guess.” Amanda’s cheeks blazed pink as she glanced at Rodrigo again. “The next thing we knew, the sugar was burned, the pot was completely blackened, and the caramel sauce was ruined.”

Hazily registering the arrival of Karina and Vanessa, who’d followed him from the scene of the gift-wrap disaster in the front room, Reid frowned. He still didn’t understand exactly what had happened here. Amanda and Rodrigo had gotten “distracted.” So what? They weren’t solely responsible for breakfast.

“Where were the other cooks when all this was going on?” he asked. “Shouldn’t someone have noticed when the smoke started?”

On the other side of the kitchen, the remaining cooks suddenly got
very
busy with the breakfast preparations.

“Well,
you
noticed!” Amanda laughed. “So I guess that’s—”

“They were in the other room, giving us some privacy.” Uneasily, Rodrigo straightened. He flicked an apprehensive glance toward his fellow chefs. “I asked them to do it.”

Beside him, Amanda gasped. “You did? Awww.
Rodrigo!

Rodrigo blushed. He smiled at Amanda. “I just wanted a few minutes alone with you,” he confessed in a tender voice. “I knew I would never have the nerve to make my move if they were here.”

“Well, you made your move, all right!” She squeezed his hand, appearing overjoyed at his admission. “And I’m glad! So what if the caramel burned?” She giggled. “We’ll make more!”

“I’ll make a million sweet things with you,
cariño,
” Rodrigo promised with love-struck earnestness. “If you’ll let me, I’ll fill your whole life with sweetness!”

“Awww!”
Karina and Vanessa exclaimed as one. “They’re so cute together!”

Reid didn’t think so. “You nearly burned down my kitchen.”

“But we found true love in the process,” Rodrigo said in a dreamy voice. He snapped his gaze to Reid. “And we’re sorry about all the smoke! Very, very sorry!”

BOOK: Holiday Affair
2.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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