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 (25 page)

BOOK: Holiday Affair
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Chapter Nineteen

Date: December 23rd
Edgware Project Name: The Christmas House
Guest/Staff Interface Opportunity:
team-driven
Christmas karaoke contest
POINTLESS, NOW THAT THE EVALUATION IS CANCELLED
Interaction Goal:
assess feasibility of duplicating services across international Edgware properties
HELP REID
!

Watching Reid and Olivia working on The Christmas House’s nativity scene across the B&B’s wide expanse of property, Karina crossed her arms over her bundled-up chest. She sighed.

“I don’t know what they’re talking about over there,” she told Stephanie, “but Reid obviously has a knack for relating to Olivia. Maybe it comes from raising two daughters?”

“Could be. From what you’ve told me, Reid has had to do his parenting on his own for all these years. Sometimes in actual wilderness areas! With no family or anyone except Amanda to support him.” Appearing suddenly distracted, Stephanie withdrew her vibrating cell phone. She glanced at its screen. “Sorry. It’s a message from work. I’d better find out what’s going on.”

“Go ahead.” Karina waved her sister to the other side of the porch, where the B&B’s porch swing had been wrapped and decorated with candy cane stripes. “I’ll wait for you here.”

“Okay.”

Stephanie headed in that direction, passing Josh on the way. Karina smiled at her son, surprised to see him outside away from the B&B’s Fun Zone—and doubly surprised to recognize the item he held bundled—along with something else she couldn’t fully see—against his chest.

“My purse!” Astonished, Karina accepted it from her son. “I lost track of this”—
on the night I almost did the wild thing with Reid on the management office rug
—“on the night of the power outage. Thanks, Josh! Where did you find this?”

He shrugged, appearing peculiarly self-conscious. “On the floor in the hallway. It was just sitting there, so I—”

Uh-oh. Karina had seen that expression before. She knew what it meant. “So you ‘borrowed’ it?”

Josh nodded. “Yeah. But only for a couple of days! And I didn’t take anything out of it, either, I swear! I thought about it,” he admitted. “I knew there’d probably be money in there, and I wanted some cash to spend at the Kismet Christmas parade tomorrow.” He slumped, staring down at the remaining item in his arms instead of meeting her gaze. “But I tried Reid’s idea of waiting first,
before
I took out anything, and it worked!”

Dumbfounded, Karina frowned at her son. She didn’t understand. “Reid told you to steal my purse?”

“No.” Josh grinned as though the idea were preposterous. “And I didn’t know it was
your
purse, either. Not until later. But Reid told me the next time I felt like sneaking something I shouldn’t—I should just wait. Like, thirty seconds or two minutes or whatever. Reid said that eventually I wouldn’t feel like taking anything anymore. He said I just needed practice.”

“Practice at
not
‘borrowing’ things?”

“Not stealing things. Right. Because stealing is wrong.”

Karina had been trying to drive home that point for months now. How had Reid managed it in the course of a week?

“I’m glad you made the right decision, Josh. I’m happy to have my purse back, too. I was worried about losing it.”

“Well, now you can quit worrying. And you can have this!”

Proudly, Josh offered her the other item he’d been holding in his arms. Karina took it, recognizing the box of chocolate-peppermint bark she’d bought as a Christmas gift for the maid.

“I didn’t eat
any
of that candy, either!” Josh bragged. “Even though it looked really good.” Her eight-year-old son gave a resigned shrug. “I guess that means I’m fully rehabilitated.”

Vowing to take a closer look at the ratings on those video games her son liked playing, Karina hugged him. Then she cast a curious glance at her sister. Stephanie remained hunched over her cell phone, tapping a reply to her message from Edgware.

“So…Let me get this straight,” Karina said to Josh. “Reid taught you all this stuff? About stealing? And waiting? And practicing until you didn’t want to take anything anymore?”

“Yep. It worked, too. Reid is, like, a genius!”

“Yes, he is.” Temporarily at a loss for words, Karina strived to say something wise. “I guess you should thank him.”

And so should I.
Josh’s “borrowing” had been a worrisome issue—an issue Karina was grateful to have (seemingly) solved.

“I already did thank him!” Josh assured her. “I wrecked his homemade igloo.” His grin widened in rascally fashion. “Twice.”

“Oh. Um…” Karina hesitated, still not understanding how all this had occurred. Or exactly what it signified. Men were…different, sometimes. She watched as Reid spied Josh on the porch. The two exchanged masculine waves, one gigantic and the other much smaller. Obviously, Reid was okay with his twice-savaged igloo. “In that case, I’m happy for you, Josh.”

“Me too, Mom.” Suddenly, he seemed very wise. “Me too.”

“I’m very proud of you, too.”

“Thanks.” Josh licked his lips. He folded his hands behind his back, then grinned. “So…Can I have some of that candy?”

Karina laughed. “Go ahead. You’ve earned it.” She gave back the box of chocolate-peppermint bark. “I have a replacement.”

“Yum!” Snatching the box, Josh raced back inside. “Hey, Michael!” he yelled. “I
did
get the candy back! You want some?”

As the B&B’s wreath-adorned front door slammed and Josh’s gleeful voice faded, Karina turned to her sister again—just in time to see Stephanie pocket her phone, her expression dire.

“Steph? What’s wrong? Was it bad news?”

“You could say that.” Gloomily, Stephanie approached her. “This job is over with. The Christmas House sale is off.”

“What?” Shocked, Karina stared at her. “It’s off?”

A nod. “Edgware is pulling out. They’ve cancelled the evaluation. I’m supposed to catch the next plane and get ready for a job in Edinburgh. Blake is fully recovered now, so I’m going to do it. I already texted Justin and notified my boss.”

“What do you mean, they’re cancelling?” Karina asked. When Reid found out, he’d be devastated. “How can they do that?”

“Easily. Edgware holds all the cards here. They’ve got the leverage.” Stephanie cast a sympathetic glance at Reid. “I hope the Sullivans weren’t counting on this sale. The company is notoriously hardheaded. I doubt they’ll change their minds.”

“Is it me? Is it something I did wrong? Something I didn’t do?” Suddenly filled with worry, Karina stared at her sister. How could she appear so calm about this? “I did my best. I did!”

She hated to think
she’d
somehow cost Reid’s family the B&B sale they wanted. If her evaluation was somehow faulty…

“No, you didn’t do anything wrong.” Steph gave her an empathetic head shake. “My boss didn’t give specifics, but I got the impression this place just didn’t measure up. Once an evaluation site fails to meet the required hospitality metrics, that’s it. No deal. Edgware is pretty picky. And you
did
mention the B&B has had a rash of unfortunate incidents lately.”

Stephanie’s shrug suggested that those incidents explained it all—that the various mishaps and mix-ups they’d encountered over the past week had simply proved too damning for Edgware to take a chance on The Christmas House concept. Maybe Stephanie was right, Karina realized. She was the expert, after all.

“So you’re going to leave? Just like that?” she asked. “But we’ve only had a couple of days together! Blake has been having so much fun with Michael and Josh and Olivia.” Her nephew had even befriended Alexis and Nicole. “I was hoping we’d all be able to spend Christmas together, here at the B&B.”

“I was too. I’m sorry, Karina. I don’t dare turn down the Edinburgh job,” Stephanie said. “I’m gunning for a promotion—one that will let me manage assessments instead of traveling nonstop—and this is the next step in proving myself to my boss.” She gave Karina a down-hearted look. “You understand, right?”

“Of course I do. If there’s anything I can do to help—”

“I’ll let you know.” Her sister grinned. “Count on it. I asked for your help at least once already, didn’t I?” She gestured at the B&B. However unsatisfactory it had been to Edgware, it was still a charming place. “I won’t hesitate to do it again.” She hugged her tightly. “Thanks for all the work you did. I promise, it
isn’t
your fault the deal fell through.”

Karina had her doubts about that. She traded a few more planning details with Stephanie, then waved off her sister so she could return to her hotel and start packing. But even as Karina did all those things, she remained preoccupied—not with her potential failure as an Edgware evaluator, but with Reid.

All during her conversation with Steph, he’d been finishing the setup on the B&B’s crèche. He’d been chatting and laughing with Olivia. He’d been
happy,
just as he’d been during the past few days with Karina. Did he know about The Christmas House’s failed sale?

If he didn’t by now, she guessed, he would soon.

When Reid got the bad news, Karina wanted to be there. She wanted to help him. At the least, she could lend an empathetic ear and offer Reid a chance to vent his frustration and fears.

If
he had any fears. Looking at him now, she doubted it.

“Okay!” Olivia called distantly, snagging Karina’s attention. As she looked on, her daughter hugged Reid, then waved good-bye and ran across the yard. “See you later, Reid!”

Reid held up his palm in an answering good-bye, smiling.

Touched by their camaraderie, Karina kept watching. Her daughter and her…boyfriend?…lover?…
cariño?
…were so cute together. Seeing them together really warmed her heart.

The moment Olivia vanished from sight, Reid’s smile dimmed. He turned away—probably to retrieve his toolbox and spare plastic twist ties from the snow.

Instead, he punched a tree.

Okay. More accurately, Reid smacked his palm on the trunk of the B&B’s big sugar maple in obvious frustration. But whatever the specifics involved, the whole tree appeared to vibrate in response. The naked branches swayed. Reid growled.

Uh-oh. He’d
definitely
gotten the bad news already. He’d apparently been hiding his feelings until now, for Olivia’s sake.

Awash in sympathy, Karina slung her purse over her heavily bundled shoulder, then tromped across the snow toward him.

 

Who knew sugar maples were so fucking hard?

Glaring at the tree, Reid smacked its trunk again. He felt filled with frustration, consumed by an overwhelming sense of helplessness. His grandparents had asked him to do them one favor. One tiny, mildly inconvenient, freaking Christmastime favor. And he hadn’t been able to do it. He’d been brought to his knees by the challenges of running a damn B&B—a B&B whose cheesy holiday schedule he hadn’t been able to pull off.

Not once. Not on time. Not the way he’d wanted to.

The moment things had begun going well, another unbelievable mishap had occurred. The spiked cider at the reception. The traitorous head chef, stolen away by Lagniappe at the Lakeshore. The sleigh ride, during which Karina had nearly been concussed. The frozen pipes. The ice patch–turned ice-skating rink. The graffiti-covered van. The gift-wrap disaster, caused by Digby’s intrinsic doggie craving for liver treats. The smoky scare during Amanda and Rodrigo’s inattentive caramel sauce making. The power outage, which Reid still thought was the result of sabotage. The near riot he’d faced when Vanessa had learned that if the B&B sale went through, the place would likely be demolished, taking all its happy memories with it.

Well, that was no longer an issue, Reid thought. Then he gave a growl of displeasure and walloped the maple tree again.

“Hey! Hey, stop that. You’re going to hurt yourself.”

Karina.
At the sound of her voice, Reid felt all the fight go out of him. Surrendering, he dug his gloved fingers into the tree bark. He lowered his forehead to its chilly surface. Even as its coldness restored some of his equanimity, he still felt…
so much.
But he was stuck here. All he could do was
feel
the frustration and disappointment and impotence inside him.

This time, Reid couldn’t get away. And he hated it.

All at once, he wanted the distraction of river rapids to tackle, of mountain peaks to climb, of sky-diving tours to lead. But here in Kismet, his usual distractions didn’t exist. He hated that too. Reid wanted to get away from the B&B and everyone in it—except he couldn’t. His guests were counting on him. He still had a lot of goddamn Christmas magic to deliver.

With a few murmured words of empathy, Karina came nearer. Awkwardly, she wrapped her arms around him. She peered into his stony face, obviously concerned that he’d been pummeling a tree.

“Are you all right?” Gently, she reached for his wrist. She tugged off his glove, then winced at the sight of his hand. “Your palms are bleeding. I think one of them is already swelling up. Whatever the tree did, it’s time you forgave it.”

Against all odds, her joke culled a grin from him. Feeling that tiny smile burble up from somewhere inside him, Reid could scarcely believe it. Soon enough, though, despair crashed through again, turning his mood as black as fireplace soot.

Karina went on cradling his hand. She pulled it close to her heart, then gazed up at him with her usual compassion. “Let’s get you inside, where we can clean up these scrapes.”

“It’s nothing. I’ll be fine.” Reid withdrew his hand. The abrupt movement made the icy air sting his wounds. It didn’t endear him to Karina, either. She stared at him in bafflement.

“Well, I want to make sure. Just let me help you.”

Help
was the last thing Reid needed. It was the last thing he
wanted
to need. He’d already failed to give his grandparents the means to their dream retirement in Arizona. He didn’t intend to line up for a bunch of mollycoddling as an encore. Empathy and helpfulness wouldn’t make Edgware reconsider. Nothing would. It was time he faced that—with or without a sugar maple rematch—and got on with things. Resolutely, Reid shook his head.

BOOK: Holiday Affair
6.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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