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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 (22 page)

BOOK: Holiday Affair
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“Is that likely? That sounds expensive,” said Karina.

“It could be very expensive.” Reid checked his watch, realized it was almost time to retrieve the next batch of baked cookies from the grill, and decided to cut to the chase. “But it probably won’t matter. Most likely, Edgware will glean all the information they can about The Christmas House’s concept during their assessment, then demolish the place and build a more cost-effective B&B on the site after they’ve acquired it.”

Karina looked appalled. So did Vanessa. “Demolish it? They’re going to
demolish
it?” Vanessa shook her head. “Nobody said anything about taking a wrecking ball to this place.”

“That’s the risk we take with selling.” Reid shrugged. “It’s business. Grammy and Grandpa must have known that might happen when they made the deal with Edgware.”

“I doubt it,” his cousin said darkly. “They’re not that cold-hearted. Some of our guests have been coming here for years, Reid!
Years!
Where are they supposed to go now?”

Why was she asking him? As though in search of an answer, Reid looked around the room. The staff members—and a few of the older children—glared at him, almost as if
he
were the one leading the wrecking crew. “If Lagniappe at the Lakeshore has its way,” he said, “some of them will probably go there.”

His cousin’s frown deepened. So did Karina’s.

“You act as if you don’t even care,” Vanessa said. “Don’t you want The Christmas House to stay in the family?”

Of course Reid wanted that. He liked the idea of this place being here, welcoming and Christmassy, just the way it had always been. Just the way it was in his memories. Just the way it had been all week. It wasn’t
unthinkable
that he’d get a jones for a family-style holiday someday. It was just unlikely.

“It’s not up to me. The B&B isn’t mine to keep.”

“But it
is
yours to keep!” Vanessa insisted. “It’s all of ours! It belongs to everyone in the family. In a way, The Christmas House belongs to everyone in the community.”

Reid disagreed. But before he could say so, several of the B&B’s guests crowded into the room. They appeared fully prepared to do…something. And it probably wasn’t decorate cookies. Maybe they’d planned a protest about the power outage?

Perplexed, Reid watched as Suzanne moved to the head of the excited, jostling group. Rocky and Neil arranged themselves just behind Suzanne. Everyone else filed into position, including a few of the formerly grouchy guests to whom Reid had distributed candles earlier. Now, though, everyone appeared enthusiastic and downright merry.

What was going on? Reid wondered. He sensed a certain expectancy in the air, along with a growing eagerness. The newly arriving guests glanced at Karina. She glanced at them, appeared to realize what was about to happen, then held up her palms.

“Wait, everyone! Now isn’t the best time. I’m sorry.”

“Right,” Reid agreed. He didn’t know what was going on here, but when he glanced at his watch, he knew one thing for certain: Those cookies were probably on the verge of becoming charcoal briquettes by now. “I’ve got to get the next batch of spritz cookies off the grill.” He hooked his thumb toward the B&B’s expansive backyard, where the grills were set up. “So—”

But his guests ignored him
and
Karina. Obviously acting through some sort of prearranged signal, they raised their lighted candles. With their faces bright in the glowing light, they began to sing.

The melody began softly at first.

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining…

Reid recognized the song. He frowned in confusion.

“Wait. Hang on just a minute.” He raised his hands to quiet the crowd. “I know you’re probably all bored, with no power—”

But the impromptu carolers only cast proud, conspiratorial glances at Karina, then raised their voices a little higher.

O holy night!

Beside him, Karina blushed. She nodded, then joined in.

“—but we’ll have the electricity back on very soon!”

Vanessa elbowed him. “Don’t be an idiot, cuz! They’re not singing because they’re
bored.
They’re singing because they’re full of Christmas spirit—and they’re trying to share it.”

“Share it?” Reid looked around. Some of the children were singing now too, their sticky, frosting-covered fingers waving, their heads bobbing with the rhythm. “Share it with whom?”

“With you, you dolt!” Vanessa said. “Listen, will you?”

O holy night!

Baffled, Reid frowned. His cousin began singing too.

He looked at Karina. She stopped singing, just for a second. She squeezed his hand again, then leaned closer.

“I knew you wouldn’t have time to accomplish the cookie-baking and -decorating session
and
the candlelight snowshoe Christmas caroling,” she told him, “so I…sort of…helped things along while I was in the front room waiting for you. We might not have snowshoes on, but we’ve got the rest right!”

First, it struck Reid that she’d been
waiting
for him. That had to be a good sign. Next, it struck him that Vanessa had been right. Someone
was
trying to share their Christmas spirit with him tonight—a Christmas spirit full of generosity and goodwill and love. And that person was Karina. Because that’s what Reid felt flowing from her to him in that moment:
love.

Even as the candles flickered and the next verse of that old Christmas carol swelled around them, Reid felt love. He felt beloved.

O holy night!

He felt…merry. In a flash, the realization hit him.

This
was what Christmas was all about. Feeling love. Sharing love. Being together. Now that he’d experienced it—for the first time in over twenty years—he didn’t want to let it go.

He also didn’t want to disappoint Karina. Which explained why, when Olivia handed Reid a lighted candle—along with a cautious look and a silently mouthed “
Be careful!
”—he took it.

Stepping closer, Reid began to sing. And as he added his deep, infrequently used baritone to the reverent carol in progress, he knew somehow that he’d never be the same again.

Stupid freakish sentimentality had its damn stranglehold on him at last, Reid realized as he sang along. It was going to turn him into some kind of caroling fool. Maybe it already had.

And he was glad. Glad, glad, glad.
O holy night!…

Chapter Seventeen

Date: December 22nd
Edgware Project Name: The Christmas House
Evaluator Guidelines:
remember: you’re working!
REVEL
!
Evaluator Caveats:
jet lag, personal biases, and/or homesickness may cloud judgment
SUFFICIENT FRUITCAKE
,
EGGNOG
,
AND
/
OR TRIPLE-CAFFEINATED PEPPERMINT MOCHAS MAY BE REQUIRED TO KEEP UP STAMINA FOR LONG

ASSESSMENT

HOURS
(
AKA
,
ROMANTIC INTERLUDES WITH REID SULLIVAN

WOO-HOO
!)
Evaluator Notes:
THIS MAY BE THE BEST CHRISTMAS EVER
!

“And
that’s
why I liked him so much.” Alexis drew up her knees, then hugged them close. She’d been sitting in the B&B’s snug window seat with Karina and Nicole for the past half hour, describing parts of her family’s monthlong stay in New Zealand. “It wasn’t the accent, I swear!” she emphasized. “It was that Liam was
nice.
And cute. And
so
good with his hands, too!”

Surprised, Karina blinked. Alexis might be a little worldlier than was typical, but she was still an eleven-year-old girl. It couldn’t possibly be appropriate for her to be considering a particular boy’s, um,
dexterity.
Could it?

“Liam could disassemble a cell phone in thirty seconds flat!” Alexis went on, her eyes shining with remembrance. “Or an engine, or anything! He was perfect for me. Totally perfect. My dad didn’t get that, though. Not like
you
did, Karina. You knew what I meant from the minute I started telling you about Liam.”

Karina smiled. “Well, I
have
had crushes on boys before.”

“It’s not just that,” Alexis insisted. “It’s that you like talking about boys. About me! My dad tries. He listens. But—”

“But he’s pretty clueless about things sometimes,” Nicole confided in a cheerfully matter-of-fact voice. “Especially about us. I think it’s because he uses up all his energy traveling around and taking his clients into the Outback and stuff.”

“Uh-huh,” Alexis agreed. “He gets busy, then poof! He quits paying attention. It’s like with Liam. Just when things were getting good, my dad had to go and get another job in stupid Timbuktu. He should have known I wouldn’t want to go there!”

“It was Uzbekistan,” Nicole specified primly. “Amanda would be disappointed to hear you mess up geography like that.”

“Oh yeah? Well…” Alex is waved her arm, her pert, pretty face turning newly truculent. “Amanda’s opinion doesn’t matter anymore, now that she’s deserting us to go to culinary school. And to stay here with Rodrigo! So who cares about geography?”

“Oh yeah. That’s right.” Nicole gave a sad little sound. “I forgot…. Amanda’s staying here.”

Both girls lapsed into silence, thoughts of Liam forgotten. Sitting between them with the wintery winds blowing snow at the windowpanes, Karina felt her heart go out to Alexis and Nicole. It wouldn’t be easy for them to lose their nanny/tutor.

“Amanda must feel almost like family by now,” she said.

The girls nodded. “She
is
our family. My dad and Amanda—they’re all we have. Most of the time, at least.” Nicole gazed out the window, looking past the jolly, cling-on Christmas decorations someone had affixed to the panes. “We don’t see our mom very much. She
wants
to spend more time with us, but—”

“But she travels a lot doing biodiversity research. She finds rare species of plants and figures out how to preserve them.” Alexis poked at the knee of her jeans, keeping her head down. “It’s not her fault she can’t be with us more often.”

“Sometimes that happens.” Karina nodded, commiserating with them. “Even families who all live together in one place don’t always get to spend as much time together as they’d like to.”

Skeptically, Nicole looked up. “Does that happen to you?”

Karina nodded. “I always wish I had more time with my kids. But I have to work and run errands and—you know—
sleep
once in a while.” She broke off, punctuating her statement with a grin. “Because, despite all the rumors, I’m actually
not
superhuman.”

“You seem pretty good to us,” Alexis declared, glancing up from her jeans at last. “You seem
awesome,
Karina! You always have time to talk with people. You always try to help everyone.
And
you have cute scarves to share. That’s pretty good too.”

“Yeah. Olivia, Josh, and Michael are
so
lucky.” Nicole flashed her newly painted fingernails. “My dad and Amanda never thought of doing my nails for me. I
love
this nail polish!”

“Well…thanks, girls. I’ve been having fun with you, too.” It was true. Karina hoped Reid didn’t have some fatherly policy she’d violated with that DIY manicure. She doubted it. When it came to parenting, Reid seemed pretty freewheeling. “But I always want to do better,
especially
with Olivia, Josh, and Michael. Like with this Christmas. It’s our first one with just the four of us, and I want it to be the best one ever!”

Both the Sullivan girls appeared mystified.

“I don’t think you can do anything to make Christmas better,” Alexis told her. “It’s not like an engine part you can tweak or a component you can swap out of something. Christmas is something that just happens. It just…is what it is.”

Nicole nodded. “I don’t think you should worry about it too much. Alexis and I might not have had much experience with Christmas until now, but it seems like
everyone
loves it. Automatically! Everyone here at The Christmas House does, that’s for sure. So Olivia and Michael and Josh probably will too.”


I’m
starting to love Christmas,” Alexis admitted.

“Me too!” Nicole said, her eyes wide. “I didn’t know if I would. But wrapping up gifts and singing Christmas carols and eating cookies sure beats playing ‘Spot the Kangaroo.’”

“Even my dad is getting into it,” Alexis added. “
That’s
something we never expected. Did you hear him singing?”

“I sure did.” At the memory of Reid adding his deep, rough voice to the B&B’s rendition of “O Holy Night!” Karina smiled anew. When it came to Christmas, Reid had been a pretty hard-core holdout. But somehow, her impromptu caroling session had gotten to him…and things had blossomed from there. Ever since that night, Reid had begun participating in the B&B’s holiday activities with extra vigor. “Your dad was great.”

He was pretty adorable, too. There was nothing quite like seeing a burly, bearded, six-foot-tall world traveler hunkering down with the kids to set up toy train tracks around the Christmas trees, laughing with the adults over the Pin the Tail on Rudolph game they’d established in the front room, or lingering on the front porch to point out Kismet’s multicolored holiday lights as they glowed across the ice-locked lake.

“This morning, I caught my dad putting on Digby’s doggie sweater—
and
telling the dog how ‘Christmassy’ he looked.” Nicole flickered her fingertips again, still admiring her manicure. “If that’s not some kind of miracle, I don’t know what is.”


Love
is a miracle.” Alexis waggled her eyebrows at Karina. “And I bet Karina agrees with me, don’t you? Especially now?”

Catching a glimmer of movement outside the window, Karina gave a distracted nod. Then she squinted. A taxi glided to a stop along the icy, snowbank-bordered street outside the B&B.

“I think my dad agrees with that too,” Nicole added in an equally meaning-laden tone. “Love is
totally
a miracle.”

“Mmm-hmmm.” As the taxi’s doors opened and its passengers emerged, Karina twisted in the window seat to get a better view. The B&B was full. That meant the new arrivals couldn’t be guests of The Christmas House. So who could be out there?

“…even though
lots
of women like him,” Nicole was nattering on, not noticing Karina’s distractedness. The little girl lapsed into silence, giving Karina an expectant look.

Belatedly, Karina realized she’d lost track of the conversation. At the same time, it occurred to her that
Chelsea
might be out there. Chelsea, who’d been so upset about the situation with Eric that she’d threatened to leave the Bahamas early. Karina had been able to convince her that bailing on a luxury vacation with her own parents wasn’t exactly going to “show Eric a thing or two.” But you never knew with “C.”

Envisioning herself sharing a room with her ex-husband’s girlfriend at the crowded B&B, Karina shook her head. Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad, she told herself. She could glean more savvy dating tips—in person this time—like the one Chelsea had texted her a few days ago. M
AKE HIM WAIT
, K! M
AKE HIM BEGGG
!

Beg,
her?
Preposterous. On the other hand…Karina imagined Reid pleading for a seductive favor and realized the idea had a certain arresting appeal. Maybe Chelsea had something there….

“So do you love him or not?” Alexis demanded, leaning sideways in the window seat to catch Karina’s attention. “We have a right to know, you know. We’re kind of involved.”

The girls lapsed into a frustrated silence, clearly waiting for an answer from her—even as Karina realized it wasn’t Chelsea who’d shown up at The Christmas House. The first passenger to get out of the taxi
was
a woman, though. The next was a little boy. The third was a man. As Karina watched, he waved off the driver’s offer to give change for his fare. Then all three turned to face the B&B. At the sight of them, Karina gasped.

“Well?” Nicole demanded. “Do you? Do you, Karina?”

It was her sister, Stephanie. And Blake. And Justin.

“Of course! Of course, I do!” Karina blurted. Whatever the girls were alluding to would have to wait. She grabbed her coat, then hastily dragged it on. A hat and scarf came next. “I’m sorry, girls. We’ll have to finish this later. Right now, I’ve got to go!”

With the image of her sister’s family filling her mind, Karina headed for the front porch. She was excited to see Steph, Justin, and Blake, of course. But she had to intercept them. She had to make sure they didn’t blow her cover. She had to make sure everything was okay, everyone was happy, and things were good—with her family and with the Edgware evaluation.

As Karina left the window seat, Alexis’s voice trailed after her. “Well, you heard her,” the little girl said, her tone distinct. “I guess that means our next step is clear.”

“I guess it does,” Nicole agreed. “We’ll have to—”

But Karina didn’t hear the rest. She opened the B&B’s front door and stepped onto the snowy porch, calling out a greeting to Stephanie, Justin, and her adorable, beloved nephew.

 

Standing at the B&B’s snow-covered corral fence, Karina wrapped her scarf more tightly around her neck. At the edge of the corral, little Blake held out a carrot to Holly (or maybe Ivy). The Clydesdale bit into it, sending horsey spittle flying.

Blake laughed, delighted. Justin’s eyes went wide. Making a face, he whipped out a bottle of hand sanitizer. He squirted some in his son’s palm. Beside Karina, Stephanie turned her face to the sky, idly trying to catch a snowflake on her tongue.

“I’m happy to see that Blake is feeling better.” Karina strived to sound as though her heart
weren’t
still galloping in her chest like a hyperactive hamster on a wheel. It wasn’t easy. Stephanie had given her a shock by arriving in Kismet. “He seems fully recovered. And he seems to like feeding the horses, too.”

“Yes, he does like the horses.” Her sister nodded. “Is that why you hustled us out here to the corral? We didn’t even have a chance to see the inside of The Christmas House! I’m dying of curiosity. So what if they’re at one hundred percent occupancy right now? It’s not as if we plan to stay here tonight, so—”

“So
that’s
why we can’t go inside!” Karina interrupted, her sister’s frequent-traveler/evaluator lingo ringing in her ears. “The Sullivans might find it suspicious if you started quoting statistics about their B&B’s occupancy rates, insurance premiums, and staff turnover rates for the past decade.”

Also, they might find it suspicious to discover that the spy in their midst was someone they trusted and welcomeed like a family member.

“Oh. You think so?” Stephanie caught a snowflake at last. She gave an elaborate gulp, then grinned at Karina. “Come on. I’m a professional. I’m not going to do something stupid.”

Something stupid…like not file the Edgware reports.

Her sister didn’t have to say it. The observation hung between them all the same, implicit but no less troublesome.

It seemed pretty obvious to Karina that Stephanie had arrived to make sure the evaluation she’d entrusted her with—the evaluation Karina felt less and less enthusiasm for as she grew closer to the Sullivans (and to Reid)—was getting done.

She edged closer, keeping her face turned toward the B&B’s barn instead of Stephanie, feeling like a character from a cheesy spy movie. “I
have
filed most of the reports,” Karina revealed, moving her lips as little as possible. “You don’t have to worry about that. And the checklists are almost done too.”

“Oh, I’m not worried.” Stephanie gave her a curious look. In a surprised, animated tone, she asked, “Is
that
why you think I came here? Because you think I don’t trust you to file the Edgware reports in time?” She sighed. “Oh, Karina…”

“Shhh! Keep your voice down.” Anxiously, Karina glanced around the picturesque grounds. She peered behind the sleigh. “Someone might overhear you and realize what’s going on.”

“Yes. Hmmm. ‘What’s going on.’” With a puzzlingly enigmatic frown, Stephanie leaned on the corral fence. She didn’t strive for the least bit of surreptitiousness. “Yes,
I’d
like to know ‘what’s going on.’ In fact,
that’s
why I’m here.”

“What’s why you’re here?” Karina frowned. “If this is because nobody thinks I can get anything done because of my
very minor
procrastination tendencies,” she said, remembering the caustic way Eric had pointed out her shortcomings when she’d told him about the Edgware job, “you should know that I recently had a breakthrough about that. I think I know how to lick it.”

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