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 (18 page)

BOOK: Holiday Affair
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On the verge of haranguing them both for being so careless, Reid stopped. He glanced at Karina. She was watching Amanda and Rodrigo, wearing a big smile, her eyes filled with…yearning?

Even as he wondered about that, he found himself caving in.

“Well, what’s done is done,” he said. “Just don’t let it happen again.” With as much sternness as he could muster, he added, “You’ll have to redo that caramel sauce too.”

Somehow, his warning lacked gusto. And machismo. And authority, too. Feeling beleaguered and out of sorts, Reid confronted all the astonished gazes that met his.

“Come on! It’s Christmas!” he blurted. “Lighten up. If I started firing people over accidents, we’d all be out of work.”

He turned, ready to make a stomping exit from the kitchen before he could become 100 percent sappy and ruin his Scroogey reputation forever. But Amanda’s voice stopped him.

“Then you’re okay with this?” his daughters’ nanny/tutor asked him. “You’re okay with me and Rodrigo? That’s
great!
I’ve been so worried about how to tell you, but now I won’t have to be.”

Reid searched her glowing face. Was he really that forbidding to talk to? “Amanda, I can’t tell you who to love,” he said as gently as he could. “I’m your boss, not your—”

“No! I mean,
tell
you, tell you. All of it.” Hastily, Amanda sucked in a breath. She traded a warmhearted glance with Rodrigo. “I’ve decided to emigrate to the states and attend culinary school full-time. Here in Kismet, just like Rodrigo did. It’s my calling! It really is. You know I’ve always been interested in food, right? I mean, I was always eating
something,
no matter where we went or how weird the food was.”

Amanda was staying here? But…he needed her. He needed her for Nicole and Alexis. Reid frowned. “The girls and I are leaving right after Christmas. I already have jobs lined up.”

Again, Amanda inhaled. Rodrigo squeezed her hand.

“This is a good thing,” she said. “Alexis and Nicole like it here in America. If
you
decide to remain stateside for a while too, like everyone here at the B&B has been talking about your doing, they can go to a regular school! They won’t need me to tutor them anymore. And since you’re running the B&B now—”

“That’s temporary,” Reid reminded her. “The Christmas House is being sold. After this year, it’ll be out of my hands.”

“—which you really seem to enjoy doing, and are really good at because of how great you are with people, it will all work out perfectly.” Amanda’s pleading gaze met his. “Please understand, Mr. Sullivan. I’ve loved being Alexis and Nicole’s nanny. And you’ve been awesome to work for! Honestly, you have been. It’s just that…well, I have to follow my heart.”

“You’ve known Rodrigo for less than a week!” Reid said. “How can you change your whole life based on one week?”

“I don’t know.” Amanda shrugged. “All I know is, I’m going to. When it’s right, it’s right. I have to do this.”

Nearby, Vanessa murmured in agreement. Karina remained silent—but she appeared to be paying unusually close attention to the conversation. Probably, she was a closet romantic.

It was a good thing
he
was immune to sentimentality, Reid realized. These kinds of over-the-top decisions belonged in books and movies, not in real life. Not in
his
life. How was he going to manage without a nanny/tutor for Alexis and Nicole?

“Don’t be mad about this!” Amanda begged. “Please. I’ll stay in touch. It’s not as though I’m abandoning you, you know.”

Reid scoffed. “I don’t feel abandoned.”

But he did. A little.

What the hell was happening to him lately?

“It’s about time you and the girls had a regular life anyway,” Amanda said. “A normal, responsible, settled-down life. With schools and car pools and a home that
isn’t
a collapsible tent, a shabono, a bivouac sack, a bordei,
or
a quinzhee. Without me to worry about, you can all have that!”

“What if I don’t want all that?” Reid demanded. “What if I like living in a quinzhee?” He’d spent enough nights in one of those snowy shelters to know they were effective, if not exactly cozy. “It’s easier to build than an igloo and just as warm.”

Amanda smiled. “You’ll like living in a real house more.”

“No, I won’t.” Reid folded his arms, feeling annoyed. “What if I think that’s a stupid idea, and I’m not going to do it?”

And what if that sentiment reminded him of…something?

It reminded him, he thought abruptly, of Josh. And his temper tantrum outside the igloo.

That igloo was only a snow pile now. It remained to be seen whether Josh would require more than one igloo to work out his feelings about his parents’ divorce. Reid was ready, if he did. And Michael had already promised to help him with it, too.

“You can’t fight this forever, Magellan,” Vanessa told him, bouncing on her toes with every evidence of gleefulness. “Sooner or later, you’re going to have to admit it: It’s time to grow up, quit wandering the globe, and get down to real life.”

Screw that.
Reid refused to be keelhauled into a settled-down life he didn’t want—a life full of sentimentality, and secrets, and lies about Santa Claus. It wasn’t for him.

At least it never had been before.

Meeting their expectant gazes, Reid frowned.

“What it’s time for,” he said with dignity, “is getting this place back on schedule. I have a B&B to run and a candlelight snowshoe Christmas caroling expedition to plan for—”

Their amused faces only aggravated him more.

“—so if you’ll all excuse me, I’m leaving.”

Then he stomped outside, ready to hunt down a dozen pairs of snowshoes…and forget this incident had ever happened.

Chapter Fifteen

Date: December 21st
Edgware Project Name: The Christmas House
Social Responsibility Rating: A+
Environmental Initiatives Rating: A+
Guest/Staff Interaction Rating: B–
(
IMPROVING RAPIDLY
!)

Strangely enough, it was the swearing that drew her in.

Passing by the open doorway of The Christmas House’s management office, Karina heard a colorful string of curse words. She stopped, unsure if she’d really heard them. After all, the B&B’s customary Christmas carols were playing on the sound system, the other guests were milling around enjoying the daily “Snowed-In” reception, and she
had
been moving in a rush.

For the past several hours, she’d been frantically running to and fro, helping Vanessa deal with the wrecked Christmas gifts, pinch-hitting for the B&B’s usual floral arranger (who was out sick), scribbling notes in her Edgware log, watching a holiday-themed family movie with Michael, Josh, and Olivia, taking surreptitious photos of the B&B’s holiday décor, trying to boost the morale of the stressed-out maid she’d found crying outside her room (another guest had complained that his towels didn’t smell “Christmassy enough”), dodging a few more text messages from Chelsea, setting up Eric and the kids with their daily videoconference call on her laptop, and consoling Suzanne about the difficulties of buying gifts at the last minute…not to mention offering Reid a minor “out” when it came to the Edgware evaluation.

Karina still couldn’t believe she’d done that. What kind of secret evaluator volunteered to amend her rating (essentially) on the basis of a heartfelt apology?

Not that she’d thought Reid would go for it. He’d appeared awfully tempted to take Vanessa’s advice and try a cover-up of the gift-wrap disaster instead. And then, just when it had appeared that Reid felt no loyalty toward someone who would only pretend to celebrate Christmas with them at the B&B, he’d surprised Karina by announcing he was going to tell the truth.

In the end, Reid might not have a perfectly run B&B (or a replacement nanny/tutor for his daughters), but he did have integrity. Which was (potentially) more than Karina could say for herself. Because in her latest daily Edgware report, written immediately after the “very merry breakfast,” she’d purposely downplayed the gift-wrap incident. Technically speaking, that meant Karina had kept her promise to Reid…by offering less than 100 percent disclosure on her evaluation. It was enough to make her feel crazy. And conflicted. And disloyal—both to her sister and to Reid. But the truth was, she’d done her best not to think about those issues. She’d been way too busy.

For the past few days, in fact, she’d been helping, shopping, volunteering, spending time with her children, assessing the B&B, arranging flowers, chatting, laughing, touring the Glenrosen holiday lights displays, resisting Reid, and doing her best Pollyanna routine with The Christmas House staff. (Not that she intended to call it that. Ever.) Now, lingering outside the management office doorway, with its decorative trim of evergreen garland, red velvet ribbon, and glowing lights, Karina went still for the first time in hours.

She listened. Then, just as she’d almost decided she’d imagined the whole incident, that un-Christmassy sound came again: an eloquent burst of profanity unlike any she’d ever heard.

Recognizing that voice, Karina smiled. Against her better judgment, she poked her head around the door frame. Reid sat on the office floor amid a jumble of wires and bulbs, his hands full of tangled strings of holiday lights. He swore again.

“Wow. That’s impressive. Are you even speaking English?”

Reid looked up. The moment he saw her, the thunder-clouds in his expression skittered away. He smiled, then shook his head.

“No, it’s French.” He demonstrated. “In any language, the easiest words to pick up are the swearwords. They’re the ones you hear most often. I can pick a fight in twelve languages, then curse in six more when I get thrown in jail for brawling.”

“Oh, come on. You’ve never been in jail!”

He raised his brows. “Where do you think I got my tattoo?”

Involuntarily, Karina sent her gaze toward his tattoo. She recalled licking it. A rush of heat flooded through her.

“Not jail.” She raised her gaze again. “A bordello?”

His tattoo was certainly provocative enough. But maybe that was only her impression. Everything about him made her hot.

Like his laughter, which she heard plenty of now.

“It wasn’t a bordello.” He gave her an amused, reflective look. “You have no idea what my life is really like.”

“Oh yeah?” Irresistibly tempted, Karina took a step nearer. Now she stood at the threshold of the office, fighting an urge to help Reid with those tangled light strings. Helping was in her nature. That was innocent, right? That wasn’t failing to resist him for the sake of completing an unbiased and fair evaluation. It was only helping. “Why don’t you tell me?”

He quirked his mouth. “By now, I’d have thought Vanessa would have filled you in on every last detail about me.”

“She did. I interrogated her pretty heavily while we were shopping downtown. Kismet is charming this time of year.”

The interrogation part was true. So was the part about Kismet. She could tell Reid thought she was joking, but Karina
had
peppered her new friend with questions about him. Now she knew a lot more about his upbringing, his history with his ex-wife, Gabby, his progression from restless teenager to footloose world traveler, his views on fatherhood, his likes, his dislikes, his past and his future. All afternoon, she’d told herself she was merely passing the time…merely using the common ground she and Vanessa shared as a conversation starter.

Now, Karina admitted the truth to herself: She’d been looking for common ground between her and Reid. She’d been looking for an excuse
not
to avoid being with him. She’d been looking—wistfully and romantically, inspired by Amanda and Rodrigo’s unlikely love story—for a tiny glimmer of hope.

Entirely unknowingly, Reid gave her one. “If you’re not too busy,” he said, “I could use some help untangling these light strings. It’s a job that needs four hands to be done properly.”

“You want my help?” That was music to her ears.

A nod. “I want…”
You,
his heated gaze said. In blatant demonstration of that fact, Reid lowered his voice to a husky, sensual, goose bump–causing level. “Your help. Yes.”

Thrilled beyond all reason, Karina shook her head. “Nope, I’m not too busy! Are you kidding? I
always
have time to help. Ask anyone!” She dropped her purse, her Edgware camera, and the box of chocolate-peppermint bark she’d bought to cheer up the maid, leaving everything on the floor outside the B&B’s management office. With her booted toe, she nudged everything to the side, where Reid wouldn’t see it and realize she
had
been busy already. She didn’t want any reason for him to turn down her help, now that he’d actually asked for it. “I’ll hold the lights,” she offered in her most eager tone, “while you tell me all about what your life is ‘really like.’ Deal?”

“Hmmm. I don’t know.” Reid grinned, his shadowy beard highlighting his vivid smile and devilish nature. “Are you sure you’re up for it? I’ve been to some pretty dark places.”

Karina shrugged. “I’ve got enough brightness for us both. Bring it on, tough guy. And pass those lights too.”

 

Several anecdotes later, Reid glanced from Karina’s shining face to the clock on the management office wall. He blinked.

Nope. He wasn’t imagining things. He’d just spent almost two hours telling Karina what his life was “really like,” and she hadn’t so much as yawned. She hadn’t gone to get a whiskey bottle, suggestively offered him a “massage,” challenged him to a fistfight, whipped out a deck of cards, or told him to grow up, be responsible, and get a thirty-year fixed-rate mortgage on a split-level two-bedroom house in the burbs.

Everyone else he could think of would have done one (or more) of those things inside the first ten minutes. Apparently, he’d been keeping company with some pretty impatient types all these years. Which was fairly obvious, it occurred to him. Almost everyone he’d ever been close to had been a thrill seeker like him. Like him, they’d all wanted more. They’d wanted it harder. Faster. Different.

Exotic, untested, and dangerous.

It didn’t get much more dangerous than this closeness he felt with Karina, Reid realized. It didn’t get much more real.

On the face of it, that sounded ridiculous. But there was no denying the truth. Right now, sitting companionably next to Karina, Reid felt the same clench in his belly, the same uptick in his heartbeat, the same surge of adrenaline he always did when tackling something risky. Evidently, this was what he got for throwing down that idiotic request for Karina to help him.

Remembering it now, Reid stifled a grin.

He hadn’t really needed
help
untangling Christmas lights. He was a grown man! He was a man who’d scaled Kilimanjaro, ridden camels, gone deep-sea diving, and survived a month in the Arctic Circle. The plain truth was, Reid didn’t need
help
with much of anything in life. He never had. But something had made him ask Karina to stay tonight…and right now, he was glad he had. Even if doing so had required a tiny little fib.

I want…your help. Yes.

He hadn’t wanted her help. For him, the idea was laughable.

What he’d wanted, Reid knew, was
her
—irredeemably and constantly—the same way he had since he’d met her. He knew he should have resisted the urge to let Karina stay with him (and especially to spill so many of his secrets to her the way he just had), particularly since Karina probably agreed with Vanessa and everyone else that he should be different.

Settled. Staid. Stagnant. Unhappy.

Reid felt none of those things now. Sitting there with Karina, he felt
good.
They were surrounded by neatly bundled piles of holiday light strings, being serenaded by the distant sounds of The Christmas House’s ever-present carols, and he’d just given her the CliffsNotes version of his adult life. And Reid felt…
happy.
He felt comfortable. He felt understood.

It was weird. It was unexpected. But he liked it.

“That was a surprise this morning, about Amanda.” Karina gave him a compassionate look. She shifted atop the office rug, probably settling in for a long chat…but only succeeding at reminding him of sleigh beds and stolen hours and one particular California suburbanite divorcée who was astonishingly limber, when properly motivated. “I’ll bet it won’t be easy to let her go,” she said. “What do you think Alexis and Nicole will say?”

Reid had been concerned about that very thing. He’d been trying not to think about it. He’d been succeeding too, thanks to the thorny problem of the tangled holiday lights. Now, deprived of the distracting necessity of work to do, he frowned.

“I think there are more light strings in the attic.”

He leaned sideways, preparing to push to his feet. Karina stopped him with a hand on his arm, her gaze steady and warm.

“Oh no, you don’t. That won’t work with me.”

He liked the feel of her hand on him. He considered all the myriad ways to get more of that feeling and settled on the idea of closing the office door as a kick-starter. With a side-long jab of his foot, Reid accomplished the task. “What won’t work?”

“Wiggling out of the conversation that way.” Karina tugged him back to a seated position atop the rug, beside her. “You’re talking to a master procrastinator, right here.” Apparently oblivious to the closed office door, she pointed both thumbs at herself. “Whenever I get upset, I
immediately
find something else to focus on.” Even as she said it, she seemed startled by the realization. She forged onward. “It might be my students’ problems, my kids’ behavior, items on my to-do list…. Whatever it is, it means I’m
not
dealing with whatever I’m supposed to be dealing with right then. Usually, for me, that’s my feelings. Maybe it’s the same way for you. You don’t want to talk about your worries about Alexis and Nicole, so you—”

“That’s not what I’m doing.” Reid glanced across the rug at Karina, feeling as though he’d done more than enough talking for one night. Her latest sweater was a fluffy, oversize cardigan, he noticed. It appeared uniquely touchable and was all the more intriguing for it. He scooted closer. “I’m not procrastinating. I have a lot to take care of. That’s all.”

She nodded. “That’s what makes procrastination so nefarious. It’s easy to convince yourself it’s necessary.” Then Karina shook her head, as though denying the whole idea. “But it’s only a distraction—a distraction that gets you nowhere.” Appearing stricken all over again, Karina frowned. “It’s got to be squashed.
Squashed,
before it gets worse!”

She pantomimed smashing a bug between her palms. With WWE-worthy ferociousness, she pretended to pulverize it. Then she looked up, triumphant and a little dazed. Reid doubted Karina realized exactly how much she’d just revealed about herself.

“So,” he asked, “with all your helping and volunteering and running around…what are
you
trying to avoid thinking about?”

Given her ferocity, it had to be something pretty major.

Surprised, Karina stared at him. She drew in a breath.

“Who says I’m procrastinating?” she asked.

“I do.” He stared back at her. He bit his lip, waiting.

“Screw the tangled Christmas lights,” Karina blurted. She eyed him seductively. “You want to make out?”

“I thought you’d never ask,” Reid said. He took her hand, pulled her closer, and decided he liked the idea of being her partner in crime. He liked it a lot. He also decided it wouldn’t hurt one damn bit for procrastination to win this round.

Not if it brought him Karina.

 

Breathless, overheated, and with her curly hair now as tangled as the holiday light strings initially had been, Karina got to her knees atop the rug. She smiled, then straddled Reid.

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