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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 (23 page)

BOOK: Holiday Affair
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Focus,
came Reid’s sexy voice.
Are you focusing now?

Filled with inappropriately seductive memories, Karina fidgeted. She felt her cheeks heat, even as the rest of her grew increasingly chilly. Standing outside, she knew she would never become accustomed to the wintery weather here in the Midwest.

“Please. Your procrastination issues are not why I’m here.” Appearing amused, Steph gave a dismissive wave of her gloved hand. “Besides, your need to help everyone all the time is a far bigger issue than procrastination ever thought of being. You just can’t say no.” She paused. “Thankfully, not even to me.”

“Gee, thanks for the pop psych analysis.” Feeling slighted, Karina shook her head. “I’m glad you’re benefiting from my weak spots. Any other flaws of mine you want to point out while you’re here? You
did
take a plane all this way….”

Her sister appeared to realize she’d overstepped. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to come off so critically.
I
think you’re wonderful.” Stephanie held out her arms. “Hug it out?”

Karina relented. They shared a sisterly hug—a big, awkward, bundled-up, sisterly hug. As they made contact, their padded and weatherproofed coats nearly caused sparks to fly. Their wooly scarves and hats crackled with static electricity. They both laughed, holding out their arms like two Michelin men.

“Yikes! We are
such
California girls!” Stephanie said.

Karina agreed, still smiling. And all at once, she felt much better. She wasn’t used to fending for herself yet. With Steph here, she realized, maybe she wouldn’t have to anymore.

“Thanks for coming,” Karina said, genuinely meaning it. She gazed at her sister, feeling grateful for her presence. “It wouldn’t have occurred to me to ask for help with the evaluation, not in a million years. But now that you’re here—”

“Oh, I can’t help with the evaluation.” Stephanie held up her gloved hands, shaking her head. “I wouldn’t know where to start. I’m not the one who’s spent the past week here. It wouldn’t be fair. I can advise you or help with paperwork, but—”

“But you can’t take over?” Karina’s heart sank.

“No. It doesn’t work that way. If an evaluator can’t finish an assessment, the whole thing is scrapped. The company doesn’t like doing that, though. Obviously, it costs them money.”

“That makes sense.” Karina had only glanced at the full set of Edgware company guidelines. Most of them hadn’t applied to her, she’d decided. Overall, the company’s rules had seemed lengthy, comprehensive, and painstakingly intricate. They’d appeared to provide for every possible eventuality—corporate bureaucracy in triplicate. “But if you didn’t come here to check up on me, and you didn’t come here to take over the evaluation, then why did you and Justin and Blake come to Kismet?”

Stephanie grinned. “Isn’t it obvious?”

“No.” Karina thought about it. “Although Josh, Olivia, and Michael will be thrilled to see you. The only part they didn’t like about having Christmas here at The Christmas House this year was
not
getting to see their aunt and uncle and cousin.”

“Aww. That’s sweet!” Steph gazed toward the B&B, as though hoping to spot her niece and nephews there among the sparkling holiday lights, swags of evergreen garlands, and tall, decorated Christmas trees that were visible from the windows. “We’re looking forward to seeing them too.”

“Right. I’ll get them in a sec. And…?”

“And…?” Stephanie gave an overly innocent arch of her eyebrow, obviously playing dumb.

“And why else did you come here?” Karina pressed.

“Oh. Right.” Amused all over again, Stephanie nodded. She gazed across the fence as her husband offered another carrot to one of the Clydesdales. Her very-healthy-seeming son looked on, clapping his mittened hands with glee. Nate Kelly stood to the side, just out of earshot, supervising snack time. “I came here because you’ve been so distracted over the phone. Because you’ve been filing reports late, even though, most of the time, you’re relentlessly punctual. I’m here because you’ve been calling less and less as the week’s gone on. And I’m here because”—here her sister paused, clearly relishing the next item in her baffling list—“one of your texts to ‘C’ went astray.”

Uh-oh.
“You got one of the texts I sent to Chelsea?”

“That’s right.”

Double uh-oh.
“And you’re, um, wondering…?”

“I’m wondering”—her sister’s smile broadened mischievously—“how things went when you wore Chelsea’s leopard-print camisole the next time you had some ‘private time’ with ‘Mr. Wonderful.’”

Hearing the nickname she’d bestowed on Reid—purely to protect his anonymity, of course—Karina felt her face flush. On the occasion in question, things had gone well. Very well.

At least until the power outage had occurred.

“In my own defense,” she said, “he really
is
wonderful.”

“He must be, if he’s distracted
you
from doing a favor you promised. Usually, you’re super-reliable, Karina. So what—”

“I’m so sorry, Steph!” Karina interrupted before Stephanie could go on. She didn’t want to disappoint her sister any further. She had to explain. Except she couldn’t. “I didn’t mean for any of this to happen. It just…did. I couldn’t help it.”

“That’s funny. You sound like your rat bastard ex-husband did when he confessed his affair with Chelsea.”

She did, kind of, Karina realized. Maybe she’d been too hard on Eric, it occurred to her. Maybe he and Chelsea really
had
found true love together—at least temporarily. Despite Karina’s efforts on the phone, Chelsea still seemed convinced she and Eric wouldn’t reconcile. Sidestepping that issue for now, Karina kept talking. “I swear, I’m not letting it affect my evaluation. I made a promise to you, and I’m keeping it!”

“Honey, that’s very generous of you, as always.” Her younger sister moved closer, her face filled with compassion. “But
you
come first with me, before any job. You must know that. If you need to bow out, I’ll understand. I promise I didn’t come here to browbeat you into completing the evaluation.”

“You didn’t? But you said I was usually ‘super-reliable.’ And you sounded so annoyed! You know I hate when someone’s mad—”

“Karina, stop it!” Stephanie shook her head, a new sense of empathy in her expression. “I’m sorry. I was being sarcastic, that’s all. I promise I’m not mad. You’re
still
super-reliable, as always. Of course!” She gave Karina a speculative look. “And
I’m
still insanely curious about Mr. Wonderful. So spill!”

Karina shut her mouth, reluctant to talk about Reid.

But her sister didn’t follow her lead. “He
must
be pretty special, to make you this jumpy. And after you quit calling me as much, and mis-sent that text, I guess I was just hoping…”

Karina was almost afraid to ask. “Hoping what?”

“Well, I was hoping you’d finally get what you’re wishing for this Christmas,” Steph said. “I wanted to be there when it happened. Something told me it might be this year.”

“What I’m wishing for?” Jokingly, Karina made a face. “Have you been looking at my wish list?” She sighed theatrically. “I know it’s
unlikely
I’ll score a new car and a pair of pants that magically make my butt look smaller, but there’s always hope.”

“No, silly!” Stephanie hugged her. She leaned back, giving Karina a serious look. “I know the contents of your
real
wish list better than that.” She paused, then sucked in a preparatory breath. “I want you to have the family of your dreams.”

That
wasn’t what she’d expected to hear. Struck by the depth of her sister’s insightfulness, Karina couldn’t help staring in surprise.

I want that too,
she thought.
I do.

Most of the time, she tried not to dwell on things she couldn’t have. But more than anything, Karina knew, she wanted a happy family—a close-knit, united, loving family. She liked to be settled down. She liked to care for people. She liked closeness and security and feeling needed. All those things came from having a family—especially a family at Christmastime.

She and the kids were a complete family, of course. They were. But if they could somehow find even
more
love to share…

“You deserve everything you’ve been wishing for and more!” Stephanie went on. She gazed at Karina intently, as though she could somehow compel her hopes into being. “You do! You deserve real happiness, Karina. More than anyone else I know. If that means starting over with Mr. Wonderful, then do it!” Steph gave her a mock ferocious fist waggle. “You know, provided he passes my rigorous sister test and proves he’ll be amazing to you.”

Helplessly, Karina shook her head. She didn’t know how her sister had intuited so much from several phone conversations, some e-mails and texts, and one (in-progress) heart-to-heart, but she didn’t doubt her sister’s insight. She and Stephanie had always been close. This was just another example of that.

“I can’t, Steph,” Karina protested. “I’ve only known him a week! He
is
wonderful, but I’ve got to be sensible for once.”

“Really?” Her sister tilted her head. “Why?”

“Why? Because I—” Karina broke off, gesturing in a way she hoped would send a few scintillating thoughts to her brain. Nada. She exhaled, her breath frosty in the wintery air. “I don’t know. Because I’m a mom. Because I’m responsible for my children aside from myself. Because I’ve made mistakes.”

“So? Who hasn’t?”

“You don’t understand. Didn’t you hear me? It’s only been a week! I can’t possibly know Re—know
him
—well enough to risk it.”

“You dated Eric for a year and a half,” Stephanie reminded her. “You were engaged to him for another two years. That’s three and a half years. And look how
that
turned out!”

Well, that was true. Karina had been with Eric a long time before they’d gotten married. Their marriage had still ended badly. A long-term acquaintance was no guarantee of happiness or marital success. Conversely, a short-term relationship probably wasn’t doomed to fail. But Karina wasn’t ready to admit it.

Silently, she gazed across the B&B’s grounds toward the lake. She glimpsed people ice-skating. People ice fishing. People going about their lives
without
being paralyzed by doubt.

She wasn’t one of them. She needed certainty and schedules. She needed promises and to-do lists. She needed accomplishments—big and small—to bolster her as she went about her days.

But she also needed Reid.

Tentatively, Karina looked at her sister. “I didn’t come here to find Mr. Wonderful. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. I was going to date a while, maybe sign up for one of those online services, get to know someone
slowly,
at my own pace—”

“It’s Christmas!” Steph urged in a jolly tone, kicking up some snow. “Why don’t you take a chance on a miracle, for once?”

A miracle…
Something about that reminded Karina of her conversation with Alexis and Nicole. They’d appeared unusually intent about the subject at hand, but she wasn’t sure why.

“You know what?” She faced her sister. “Do you mind if we cut this short? I just realized there’s something I have to do.”

“Something to do with Mr. Wonderful? Who is he, anyway? Another guest? A neighbor?” Waggling her brows, Stephanie nodded at Nate. “They seem to make ’em pretty hunky around here.”

“I’ll tell you later.” Breathlessly, Karina hugged her sister. Now that she’d made her decision, she had no time to waste. She wheeled around, then stopped. Then she turned again. Excitedly, she asked, “If I bring the kids out to see you, do you think you and Justin can baby-sit a while? I don’t know how long this will take, so I can’t make any promises, but—”

“Of course! Don’t worry about a thing.” Stephanie winked. “Justin and I accidentally booked two rooms at a hotel downtown—dangers of easy online booking and two over-achievers with laptops.” She grinned. “We have adjoining suites, so there’s plenty of room for everyone. Josh and Michael and Olivia can even stay overnight, if you want.”

“Thanks. I might.” Biting her lip, Karina hesitated. Standing in the snow, feeling warmed from the inside out, she gave her sister one final look. “This isn’t crazy, right? Good things happen at Christmas, don’t they?”

“More than any other time of year,” Steph assured her. With a fond smile, she shooed Karina away. “So go make a miracle!”

For a divorced single mom, it didn’t get much more miraculous than a reliable overnight baby-sitter and an urging to follow her heart. Grateful to have both, Karina nodded.

“Wish me luck,” she said, then headed for The Christmas House to find her children and set her new plan in motion.

After all, Karina realized as she hurried through the snow, the B&B was officially the place where holiday dreams came true! Their brochures and Web site promised it. With decades of satisfied guests behind the inn, it couldn’t possibly lead her astray…could it?

No way,
she decided, and just kept going.

Chapter Eighteen

…From the desk of Betty Sullivan
D
ECEMBER
22
ND
L
OCATION
: T
HE
C
HRISTMAS
H
OUSE
S
CHEDULED
E
VENT
: “D
AILY
D
OUBLE
F
EATURE
”—
1:00 P.M.
TO
5:00 P.M.

Standing in The Christmas House’s semidarkened private theater room, Reid supervised the showing of the afternoon’s holiday movies. His grandparents had combined a downstairs utility room and an unneeded formal dining room to create this popular area of the B&B, complete with six ascending rows of cushy stadium-style seating, a high-def and surround-sound-enabled viewing system, and all the holiday ambiance that made the rest of The Christmas House so irresistible.

Even to him. As crazy as it sounded, Reid found that he suddenly had a real fondness for mistletoe and poinsettias, flashy ornaments and dancing Santas, Christmas carols and garland and all the rest of the seasonal accoutrements. He was even enjoying the movie that played on-screen right now—a family-focused tale about Ebenezer Scrooge, the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future, and the miracle of second chances.

Someone sneaked inside the room, briefly sending in a glimmer of afternoon light. Reid glanced in that direction.

At the sight of Karina standing there, obviously searching for someone, he believed in the miracle of second chances all over again. Because he’d all but given up on finding someone to love, Reid realized in that moment. He’d told himself he could be happy just traveling and working and taking care of Alexis and Nicole. But while all those things were fulfilling, they weren’t the same as being with someone who really understood him. They weren’t the same as savoring the connectedness of a night spent pleasurably in bed with a woman he cared about. They weren’t the same as loving a woman and (maybe) being loved back.

They weren’t the same as Karina.

Ghostly movie images flashed over her as she stood there. She spotted him at last, then edged past the rearmost row and came eagerly toward him. Dressed in her colossal coat, hat, scarf, boots, jeans, and innumerable sweaters, Karina waved. Her smile broadened. She moved faster, her arrival making Reid remember how much he looked forward to Christmas morning this year, and all the lasting surprises he hoped it would contain.

Not gifts. Not candy canes.
Karina.
That’s all.

“Is everything all right?” Reid asked when she reached him. “You look—” He broke off, studying her with new bafflement. “Different, somehow. Did something happen?”

“You could say that.” With barely suppressed merriment, Karina took his hand. She squeezed it as she glanced at the rows of movie-watching guests. “Can you leave for a few minutes?”

“For you? I can leave for the day. All day, every day.”

Decisively, Reid gestured at the B&B staff member who’d accompanied him to the theater room. He exchanged a few signals with her. They both nodded. Just like that, things were settled.

“I’m yours,” he told Karina. “Where to now?”

“Your room,” she said without missing a beat. “There’s something important we need to take care of.”

Reid could think of several important things he wanted to take care of with Karina. Smiling, he led the way. Together they raced down the hallway. They flew past the B&B’s front desk.

“Hold my calls!” Reid yelled to Vanessa as they passed his wide-eyed cousin. “Hold down the fort! Hold everything!”

Vanessa laughed. So did Karina, breathlessly, as Reid tugged her up the stairs. Halfway to the second floor, he stopped. He kissed her. He framed her face in his hands, pushed them both against the banister, and kissed her again.
Ah.

“I think that movie got to you,” Karina said. “You’re like Scrooge
after
the ghosts visit, and it’s Christmas morning.”

“It feels like Christmas morning. And it’s about to get even better,” Reid promised. “So what are you waiting for?”

He smacked her delectable backside, just to get her moving. Karina squealed, then headed upstairs. Reid might not have been able to discern what was different about her, but he liked it.

He liked it even more when they reached his room. Karina wasted no time getting close to him. The moment the door closed, she whipped off her coat, hat, and scarf, left everything on the floor where it landed, then threw her arms around him. A second later, she was kissing him, already working at the buttons of his flannel shirt.

“Hey! Hey…” Thrilled to find himself there with her, Reid covered her hands with his own. He interlaced their fingers, then squeezed. “Now that we have some free time, we might as well take things slowly. We’ve waited a long time for this.”

“But it’s only been a few days since we were together.”

“I know.” He kissed her again. When he raised his head, all he could see was Karina’s face, her warm smile, her slightly dazzled expression. “It’s felt like a
very
long time, too.”

Smiling even more broadly at that, Karina nodded.

Yesterday, after the power outage (and despite their promises of
later
), they hadn’t managed to find a minute to be alone together. The cookie-baking and -decorating session had run long. So had the snowshoe-free Christmas caroling. Afterward, Michael had gotten a tummy ache from scarfing down a few too many gingerbread men. Then Nicole had confronted Reid about her new manicure, giddily flashing her pink-painted fingertips and all but daring him to lay down a few stern fatherly laws.

He hadn’t, of course. Not about something so inconsequential. But just as Karina had needed to stay by Michael’s side, Reid had needed to deal with his daughter. Fortunately, he and Karina had both understood the delay.

Now, though, there was nothing holding them back. There was nothing to keep Reid from pulling Karina into his arms, running his hands down her back, and cradling her derrière in his palms, just the way he liked to do. There was nothing to keep Karina from tugging aside his shirt collar, kissing his neck, and inciting a whole new wave of wanting. Damn, that felt good.

With his heart hammering, Reid arched his neck. He wanted more of this. He wanted more of
her.
Almost panting, he lowered his mouth to hers again. This time, their kiss felt sweet, full of yearning and promise and all the hopes he wanted to share.

“I think
you’re
a little different today, too,” Karina said. She nuzzled his neck as she resumed unbuttoning his shirt. “You seem…I dunno,
freer,
somehow. More open.”

Reid shrugged. “This is what happens when a tough guy like me caves in to Christmas.” He grinned. “Give me a few jingle bells and a nutcracker figurine, and it’s all over. I’m gone.”

“I’m gone, too,” Karina said. She spread her palms over his chest, then gazed up at him with every impression of giddiness. Then, surprisingly, seriousness. “Reid, I’m crazy about…”

You,
he waited breathlessly to hear.
I’m crazy about you.

“…this.” Another giddy caress. “I really love…”

You,
barreled into his head.
I really love you.

“…being with you!” Karina finished.

It looked as though his beard was staying, Reid realized. While those sentiments were close, they weren’t what he wanted. They weren’t
I love you.
They weren’t going to break his razor out of retirement, the way he’d promised Karina they would.

Almost as though she’d realized as much, Karina ducked her head. She sighed. For an instant, she appeared troubled.

But then she gazed back at him, her eyes full of certainty and generosity and desire, and Reid quit caring—for the moment, at least—about the flagging powers of his nookie beard and what it might mean if his good-luck charm was failing him.

Right now, he had Karina. That’s all that mattered.

“I have an idea,” Karina said, delivering him a saucy smile. “I’m obviously feeling a little tongue-tied right now. Instead of talking, why don’t I just
show
you what I mean?”

“That might work,” Reid agreed with a playful nod. “Some cultures are very skilled at nonverbal communication. You can share all kinds of things with your eyes, your hands—”

“Your mouth.” Karina dropped her gaze to his lips. With a confident gesture, she raised herself on tiptoes and kissed him.

Reid approved. “Now you’re getting it.”

“No, I think
you’re
getting it,” Karina said. Then she proceeded to show him, in all sorts of detailed and pleasurable ways, exactly how things were going to go down between them.

 

It was all different this time.

That’s what Karina realized, late in the afternoon, as she luxuriated in Reid’s nearness…and lounged in his bed, feeling fully sated and pleasurably cocooned from the rest of the world.

Now when she touched Reid, it wasn’t simply to revel in his rock-hard abs and honed physique. It was to share her delight in their togetherness. When she kissed him, it wasn’t simply to savor the slow glide of his mouth across hers. It was to communicate that she wanted to be with him, now and always. When she opened her arms and legs and welcomed him inside her, urging him closer and closer, it wasn’t simply to enjoy the intimate union of their bodies coming together. It was to experience as much unity with him as possible—and to make that unity last.

Despite a couple of frustrating attempts earlier, she hadn’t been able to say the words she’d come here to say—but that didn’t mean she didn’t feel the emotions behind them. As Karina lay beside Reid amid his snowman-print holiday bedding, face-to-face with the pale wintery sunshine splashing over them, she
definitely
felt plenty of emotions. Revelation. Happiness. Gratitude. Surprise. But most of all, she felt love.

Love.

With all that she’d been through in her failed marriage, that wasn’t easy to admit. Not even to herself.
Love
meant risk. Could she really take a chance, Karina mused, that her holiday affair could become something more? Could she really trust herself to feel these feelings…and not get burned?

She wasn’t sure. And until she was sure…

Well, until she was sure, she couldn’t tell Reid that she loved him. No matter how crestfallen he’d looked when she’d offered a substitute:
I really love…being with you!

When she’d first tried saying it, Reid had seemed ready to bolt for his razor and eradicate his beard for good. But then Karina had stumbled over the words. Reid had quit figuratively leaping for a quick “she loves me!” victory lap with his razor. And Karina had found herself there, lamely throwing out double entendres instead of telling him what he needed to hear.

I love you, Reid. I love you.

It was the truth, yes. Karina couldn’t deny that. She
did
love Reid, with all her heart. But she couldn’t risk revealing it. Not yet.

A part of her still feared it was
her
fault Eric had left her. A part of her still had so many unanswered questions: Could she have done more? Could she have made Eric happier? Could she have cared for him, nurtured him,
helped
him more? And if she could have…would it have made a difference?

Not knowing the answers to those questions (and many more besides), Karina snuggled closer to Reid. She didn’t want to think about her ex-husband, his sexy young (potentially ex-) girlfriend, or her latent shortcomings as a person and a wife. She wanted to tell Reid that she cared for him. That she
loved
him.

She wanted to tell Reid that she believed they belonged together. Lying there in his arms, snug and safe, she believed they could be happy together. She even believed, surrendering to a goofy grin at the thought alone, that their children could blend together in one happy mash-up of serendipitous togetherness and laughter and seven-under-one-roof boisterousness.

Reid wouldn’t care, it occurred to Karina, if Josh pick pocketed his wallet, if Olivia wrapped him in protective padding and yards of caution tape, or if Michael peppered him with brain-teasing questions from now until forever. Reid was just that easygoing. He was just that loving. And for her part, Karina knew, she wouldn’t mind if Alexis hacked into her laptop, if Nicole sweet-talked her into relaxing every rule she had, or if Reid’s daughters kept her up late every night with giggling and girl talk. She enjoyed their company just that much.

So tell him how you feel!
Karina’s heart urged.
Do it!

But even as she inhaled a steadying breath, preparing herself to do exactly that, Karina felt Reid shift at her side. He raised his hand, then trailed his fingertips lovingly over her cheek. He smiled with evident joyfulness, almost as though the mere sight and feel of her brought him incredible bliss.

She was so lucky, Karina thought then, to have found him. Because the sight and feel and nearness of Reid made her happy, too. She’d known it outside at the B&B’s corral with Steph, and she knew it now. Her holiday affair had just turned a corner. All that remained now was sealing the deal.

I love you!
she thought.

No, too simple.

Guess what? Time to shave your beard!

No, too obscure. Reid might mistake her declaration of love for a grooming critique.

Merry Christmas! I’m giving you my heart!

No, too cheesy.

I love you!
she sampled again.

Yes, maybe. Simple, sure. But simple things were also classic. Like Converse sneakers, shiny silver holiday tinsel, and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” It was good.

It could work. And yet, somehow, something still stopped her. It didn’t feel quite like fear this time. It felt, as Reid went on gazing adoringly into her eyes, a little bit like…

Deception.
That was the problem! She was deceiving Reid by not telling him she was the secret Edgware evaluator, Karina realized. And until she came clean about that, she could hardly profess her undying love for him. Undoubtedly, Reid would sense she was hiding something. It would be a wedge between them. He might even stop stroking her in such a loving, seductive way, making her heart rate pick up speed and her breath hitch and—

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