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
handle Christmas all on her own this year, she decided with a burst of optimism. Right after she helped out here at the school for a while. And right after she shopped for some much-needed groceries later (there was always the outside chance she’d see Honey-Buying Man at Ralph’s again). And of
she’d have to change her outgoing voice mail message at the office sometime today too, Karina remembered. She’d forgotten to do that earlier in the week. All faculty members were supposed to change their message at the end of each semester at the college where she worked as an academic advisor. But
“Mom?” Olivia called.
Cheerily, Karina wheeled around.
Her daughter grabbed her own pants. In an exasperated pantomime, Olivia waggled the legs of her jeans. Then she spread her arms and pointed both index fingers at Karina, looking a little too “gangsta” for comfort. “Hell-
“Don’t worry. I was planning to go home and change first.”
Change of plans.
She definitely had to go home and change first.
Feeling flustered but purposeful, Karina swiveled again. She returned Michael’s poster board to him, gave each of her children a kiss on the tops of their heads, then scooted them off toward the school building. “I’ll be back! See you soon!”
She watched as they trooped dutifully away.
“Have a nice day!” She blew a kiss. “Love you!”
The three of them just kept going, with Michael in the lead. A little crestfallen, Karina crossed her arms over her chest. Were they simply going to go straight inside without another word? Without even waving good-bye?
At the last instant, Josh glanced over his shoulder. He adjusted his cupcakes, then gave her a tiny, barely perceptible, flicking-a-bug-off-his-shoulder-style wave. “Love you too, Mom.”
At his gesture, Karina turned to mush all over again.
Then she rushed to her Corolla, hell-bent on a mission to get dressed, get organized, and get cracking on creating the very best Christmas her children had ever seen. Right after she volunteered at school, shopped for groceries, voice mailed, and tackled all those other must-do items on her mental to-do list.
She’d swear those tasks were multiplying somehow…kind of like the love she felt for her children had done, when she’d become almost solely responsible for their well-being after her divorce. The plain truth was, however much Eric loved his children (and he did), he’d become way too preoccupied with reliving his misspent youth to be counted on for anything. Which reminded her: She needed to get Santas and stockings, gifts and carols, traditions and eggnog, wrapping paper and ornaments….
And candy canes. Candy canes! She’d forgotten how much Olivia, Michael, and Josh loved hunting in the Christmas tree to find them hidden among the branches. How could she have a not-to-be-missed Christmas without candy canes? Oh God oh God oh—
Stopping at the curb, Karina inhaled deeply to ward off the sudden sensation that she was about to hyperventilate. In. Out. In. Out. Just the way that
guru had recommended on TV last month. She felt serene. She felt calm. She felt at peace.
She felt as though she was staring straight at an unmistakably flat tire on her Corolla.
She was. Well, it was a good thing she
wearing real pants, cute high heels, and a fashionable, flirty top, like the other moms were, she decided as she wrenched open the trunk, hauled out the jack, and examined her spare tire. Because tire grime was hell on those two-hundred-dollar jeans that were so popular among the PTO elite. And trendy stilettos made it hard to balance while unscrewing lug nuts. And the only person Karina could really depend on was herself—a lesson she’d forget at her own peril, whether she was wearing baggy flannel PJs or not.
Resolute, she gave an apologetic wave to the other parents for bollixing up the school drop-off line, then got down to work changing her flat tire. If only she could change her life just as easily as she could change her poor squashed-looking tire, Karina thought as she hunkered beside her old car.
No, scratch that. She’d had enough unwanted change for a lifetime already. The only thing on
holiday wish list this year was a nice, old-fashioned Christmas—one that was free of turmoil and blissfully free of unreliable men like Eric.
Please, Santa. Just give me that much. I promise I’ll be good.
It wouldn’t be tough. After all, Karina was always good.
Tuesday (or maybe Thursday)
Inland Australia: The Outback
Muscles flexing with exertion, Reid Sullivan belly crawled over a slab of unforgiving rock. At the top, he peered over it. Bright daylight struck his face. Squinting, he tried to focus on the next ridge—the next target. It looked a long way off. And if the sun had already risen, time was running out. Damn.
After a glance at the bulky cast on his left leg, Reid kept going. He crawled a few more meters. Underbrush scraped his chest. Red dust filled his nostrils. Branches poked painfully through his T-shirt. Rocks jabbed his knees, even through the protective covering of his tough canvas trail pants.
At least he was properly equipped and appropriately dressed for the rough trail ahead, though. That was more than he could say for the hapless people behind him.
Straightening atop the next hunk of rock, he glanced back at them. There were four of them, all men who’d paid Reid to lead them through the desolate landscape. They were counting on him—and they were struggling. Even now, one of the men—a middle-aged CEO with one of those prissy, prep-school nicknames like Biff or Binky or Buster—flopped on his backside. He sat beside a clump of spiky mulga, panting like a Labrador.
“Keep moving!” Reid gave a military-style “go ahead” sign. “It’s only a few more kilometers till we reach the next zone.”
“A few more
” Binky’s eyes bulged. “Jesus, dude! You never said we had several kilometers ahead of us!”
“How far is that for real?” Binky’s cohort, Booster, asked. “You know, in American?” He panted even harder, pulling up a figurative chair as he squatted on a boulder. “How many miles?”
“Not many. Do the math.” It wasn’t exactly rocket science to convert kilometers into miles. These four brainiacs ought to be up for the task. Possibly by counting on their fingers. Half expecting them to do just that, Reid idly examined a jagged scrape on his bare bicep. He didn’t know where he’d gotten it. But he’d been cut up, bruised up, and hurt plenty of times in his life. He could take it. Experimentally, he flexed his arm.
It felt fine. Drawn by the gesture, his companions’ gazes traveled to his biceps, then moved across his broad chest and muscular shoulders. In unison, the men frowned. Deeply.
Uh-oh. Reid recognized that look. It expressed admiration and belligerence in equal measure. Yes, he was big. Yes, he was fit. Yes, he could probably bench-press Binky, if he tried to.
But he wasn’t going to. For one thing, the big crybaby would probably start howling if Reid so much as looked at him sideways. Binky was not exactly a tough guy. His reaction to their trek had proven that already. For another, Reid had quit performing those kinds of stupid macho stunts
Okay. He’d quit doing the bench-press one a few months ago. But the plain fact was, Reid stayed in shape because, in his line of work, his life depended on it. So did his companions’.
That meant he couldn’t let up on them. No matter what.
“Get off your asses and scale that outcropping. Now.”
“Hey!” The third man widened his eyes beneath his wide-brimmed, khaki bush hat. His nose glowed with a thick stripe of sunscreen. “Watch your tone. I didn’t get up at dawn this morning just to be treated like some kind of flunky, you know.”
“Yeah,” Booster said hotly. “Me neither. Do you understand exactly how many thousands of people across the globe depend on
men like us for their livelihoods? Do you?”
“At least one person is depending on us for his next paycheck.” Binky’s tone was snide. “And that’s you, Sullivan!”
He had a point. But Reid didn’t care. “A paycheck would be nice. But a dead man can’t spend a dime. So keep moving.”
He compressed his mouth, then turned away. After a few tense seconds, he heard telltale lumbering footfalls behind him.
Good. It was about damn time this bunch fell in line. Ordinarily, Reid was a patient man. But this particular group—
A bloodcurdling, girlish scream rent the morning air.
Reid twisted around. His leg cast dislodged stones and dust, making them ping away. Down the trail, Booster stood with his mouth agape, legs stiff as he pointed at something nearby.
“A—” He moistened his dry mouth with a dart of his tongue. Clearly, he’d ignored Reid’s hydration instructions. “A rat!”
The other three men skittered behind him, their gazes wary.
” Binky swore, cowering, as he spied it. “Huge!”
“It’s probably poisonous.” Binky gave a dour, knowing nod. “
is poisonous around here.
“Just like that big-ass spider we saw.” One of the other men gestured wildly. “Australia is trying to murder us!”
Asshat number four picked up a stick. “Hundred bucks says I can kill it. Freaking rat.” He gave an ineffectual swing. “Ha!”
Make that asshat
Reid shook his head, then strode purposefully in their direction. He cast a long, sharply angled shadow over the men as he plucked away the stick.
“Oh good.” Booster gave him a bloodthirsty gaze. “It’s about time you manned up and started living up to that badass reputation of yours, Sullivan.
going to kill it!”
“Nobody’s killing it.” Reid hurled the stick across the sun-baked terrain, his scowl deepening with disapproval. Why was everyone’s first impulse to squash what they didn’t understand? “And it’s not a rat. It’s a wombat.” To be fair, most creatures out here in the Outback looked ratlike. A surprising number of them sported pink hairless tails. But he wasn’t in the mood to cut this pea-brained quartet any slack. “It’s
poisonous. But if that had been an Inland Taipan”—a snake that lived in remote areas like this—“it would have bitten you. In the time it took you to squeal, partial paralysis would have begun setting in.”
The four men’s mouths gaped in shock. Fear. And surprise.
Those doltish looks could mean only one thing. Reid swore. “You didn’t read
of the pretravel materials I sent you?”
Beneath his stern gaze, Binky looked away first. “I had my admin prepare a summary. But it was on my BlackBerry, and it—”
“It was confiscated by your goddamn staff! All of our BlackBerrys were! I haven’t checked the market for days. Days!” Shuddering, Booster cast an accusing glance at the third man. Rover. Gopher. No,
“We’re completely out of the loop. Nobody told me about
part of this team-building event.”
Asshat crossed his arms over his chest. He appeared to be sulking over losing his wombat-bashing stick. “Didn’t you get the memo? Corporate thinks it’s a good idea to be unplugged.”
Beside him, Topher gave a vigorous nod. “During strictly designated intervals only, of course. It’s all part of the official Qualifying Your Quality initiative we’re launching. My department came up with a totally kick-ass slogan. Get this—”
“Get moving.” Reid turned. “We’re burning daylight.”
“No, that’s not it. It’s—”
“This area is prone to flash flooding.” Reid tromped onward—more awkwardly and less athletically than he was used to, thanks to the leg cast that hampered his stride. “Remember what I told you: If you see water coming, stay away from the banks. Don’t try to beat the flood—you can’t. Get to higher ground.”
Binky, Topher, Booster, and Asshat plodded along.
“But there isn’t a cloud in the sky,” Binky pointed out.
“Doesn’t matter.” Pausing at the edge of a dry creek bed, Reid adjusted his pack. He’d taken on this job as a favor to his longtime friend Shane Evans, who ran an adventure travel business out of Perth. Shane’s remote base of operations—the site from which Reid had begun this trip—felt a million miles away. “Out here, a flash flood will kill you.”
He should have expected it: The four men scoffed.
Right on cue, a wall of water roared down the creek bed. Moving fast, it swirled directly into their path. Tautly, Reid looked at the muddy eddies headed straight for them.
Against all reason, he grinned. He just couldn’t help it.
There was a lot to be said for karmic justice. In Reid’s experience, that variety of justice usually came in with a bang—and left men like this clueless crew whimpering in its wake.
If nothing else, this day was about to get a lot more interesting.
Karina, sweaty and dust covered and exasperated, was standing hip deep among several cardboard storage boxes when her cell phone rang. Stooped in the hot, poorly lit area the Realtor had euphemistically described as an “attic” twelve years ago when she and Eric had bought their house as newlyweds, she scrambled to answer the call. It was probably one of the community college students she advised. Technically, she was off duty until mid-January. But she liked to make herself available between semesters, just in case someone needed her.
“Karina Barrett. How can I help?” she asked crisply.
There was a pause. Then her younger sister Stephanie’s voice came over the line. She sounded weary. And befuddled. “Karina? Did I call you at work? What time is it anyway?”
Karina took the cell phone from her ear and squinted at the glowing display. Watches were so 2002. She put it in place again. “It’s just after seven. And no, I’m at home. What’s up?”
“Hmmm. I thought you were going to stop making yourself available to your students at all hours.”
“I was.” Still cradling her cell phone, Karina dropped to her knees in front of the next box. “I am.”
“Then why did you answer your phone that way?”
“Like the secret love child of Miss Manners and a Marine.”
Karina laughed. “Takes one to know one.”
“Guilty. At least I get compensated appropriately for it.”
“That’s true.” Stephanie worked as an expert risk-assessment evaluator for Edgware Consulting, a global hospitality management company. She and her husband, Justin, were the epitome of dual-career coupledom. Both of them worked hard, played hard, and still found the time to indulge in creative, “enriching” hobbies with their four-year-old son, Blake Whitmore Dodger Taylor. They were always jetting off to preschool yoga or Classical French Cooking for Families or artsy indie films and documentaries. “Listen: If you were Eric—”
“I’d hate myself, because I’d be a loser.”
“—where would you put four boxes of Christmas decorations?”
“Four boxes?” Stephanie offered a succinct, unprintable suggestion. “I’d shove them straight up his no-good, cheating—”
“Never mind. I’ll just keep looking.”
“You can’t find any of your Christmas stuff?”
“No.” Before Karina could stop herself, her worst suspicion slipped out. “I think Eric took everything when he moved out.”
your Christmas decorations?”
“Well…legally speaking, they’re his decorations too. California
a community-property state.”
Otherwise Karina would’ve been left with nothing when her husband left. Balanced on her knees, she opened the flaps on another box. It contained baby clothes—things she’d boxed up when Michael had grown too big for them. At the time, she’d thought she and Eric might have another child. She sighed. “I should have expected this, I guess. I just wish he’d told me he wanted them first.”
This put a new wrinkle in her never-ending Christmas to-do list, she realized. Now, not only did she have to handle everything (impeccably!) by herself, she also had to start over from scratch, without so much as a piece of tinsel. Ho ho ho.
Hoping to shore up her spirits, Karina inhaled deeply. Then she smiled into her cell phone. “It’s all right,” she told her sister. “I can manage without our old Christmas decorations. Some of them were getting pretty ratty anyway.”
Because we loved them so much, Velveteen Rabbit style.
Back in the day, she and the kids had loved reading that story together. It had made regular appearances as part of their bedtime routine. Lately, though, that formerly dependable routine had gone through some changes.
Okay, that routine had been demolished, plain and simple. Despite Karina’s efforts, it turned out their routine
been so dependable, after all. Partly that was because preteen Olivia could scarcely be pried away from texting her friends on her cell phone at all hours. Partly it was because Josh insisted on being the one to read, rather than being read to (something Olivia tended to take exception to). Partly it was because the whole endeavor still felt weird without Eric participating. Now, only Michael was willing to snuggle after a nighttime bath, with a stuffed animal in the crook of his elbow, as he listened to Karina read.
Pretty soon, her littlest boy was bound to take a stand against “stupid” bedtime rituals too, just like his brother and sister had. It was just the way things were going these days.
With a sigh, Karina gazed around the attic. First her husband. Then the kids’ bedtime routine. Now her Christmas decorations. What next?
She couldn’t believe something
was gone from her life…just like that. It felt as though her entire existence was being sneaked away in increasingly smaller increments, and there was nothing she could do about it.
Except go with the flow. So that’s what she’d do.
Determinedly, Karina put away the box of onesies and tiny shorts. She would have liked to have had more children. She absolutely had love to spare. But a ginormous family wasn’t in the cards for her, apparently. Eric had made sure of that when he’d decided to play Dream House with Beach Bunny Chelsea.
“This way, the kids and I can have things exactly the way we want them. I’ll get all new decorations. It’ll be better than ever, probably! So Eric is doing me a favor. Sort of.”
“Nice call, Mother Teresa,” Stephanie deadpanned. “You’re too kind—as usual.”
“Well, what’s done is done, right? There’s no point freaking out now.” Through the opening that led to the “attic” came the sounds of something thumping. Then a high-pitched shriek. Olivia. Then another retaliatory thump and a subsequent howl. Possibly Josh. Uh-oh. She’d have to get downstairs soon. “Listen, I think the kids are getting into something they shouldn’t. I’ve got to run, Steph, so—”