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 (26 page)

BOOK: Holiday Affair
3.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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“You know me better than that,” he told Karina with a wan smile, believing it to be true. “You know I don’t need help.”

“You mean you don’t
want
help,” she said in a remarkably chipper tone. “Wanting and needing aren’t the same thing, you know. Looking at you now, I’d say you definitely need some help.” She had the temerity to grin, just like the Pollyanna he’d likened her to. “And I’m the perfect person to give it.”

“I just need to be left alone for a while.” Setting his jaw, Reid took back his glove from Karina. He gathered his crèche-building equipment, picked up his toolbox, then gave Karina a warning look. He’d thought she understood him. Especially after all the time they’d spent together and all the closeness they’d shared. But just in case…“This doesn’t have anything to do with you. I’ll be fine. After an hour or two, I’ll be back.”

“But you won’t be fine! You might feel even worse in an hour or two!” Urgently, Karina grabbed his arm, trying to keep him with her. Trying to help him. “I really have the impression that something…important has happened. Tell me? Please?”

He stared at her hand on his arm, feeling—as impossible as it seemed—even worse. It was bad enough that the Edgware sale hadn’t gone through. It was even worse that he’d had to hear the bad news directly from his disconsolate grandfather, over the phone, with (he’d swear) his grammy crying on the extension.

Now Karina wanted to go all mother hen on him, even though he’d told her to back off? It was as though she wanted to revel in his misfortune—to dissect all his mistakes, gloat over his failure, and kick him when he was down. Obviously, Karina didn’t understand him at all. Maybe she never had. With his usual patience worn thin, Reid shook off Karina’s hand.

“If you want to help, leave me alone.”

Then he hefted his toolbox and headed for the B&B.

 

Watching as Reid walked away, Karina could scarcely endure the helplessness she felt. It wasn’t possible that Reid didn’t need her. There had to be
something
she could do to help.

I have to do more for you first. Otherwise, you won’t stay. You won’t stay!
Panicked at the thought, Karina ran after Reid. She grabbed his arm again. Luckily, he stopped. His gaze swept her face, appearing every bit as wintery as the weather.

Suddenly chilled, she shrugged deeper into her coat.

“I’m not taking no for an answer!” she said, feeling doubly determined to help him. Maybe because her involvement with Edgware had contributed to Reid’s troubles. Maybe because she couldn’t stand seeing anyone upset. Maybe—and this was the one Karina believed—because she loved him. “Right now, you need me, Reid. I’m sticking by you. I’m helping you, no matter what!”

Her impassioned promise only made him appear stonier.

“I don’t need help.” Fisting his toolbox, Reid enunciated every word. “Face it, Karina. As much as you’re dying to ‘help’ everyone, in the end you’re just a glorified school guidance counselor. And I’m no student.” Bitterly, he waved her away. “So save the Little Miss Helpful routine. I don’t need it.”

I don’t need you,
Karina heard, and felt twice as wounded.

What did she have to give, if not her help? Her love?

The two were practically the same thing. She knew that.

“I’m a college academic advisor!” she specified archly. “And
I
don’t need
this.
” With dogged persistence, she planted her booted feet in the snow. “Yet I’m still here—for you.”

“Don’t you get it? I don’t want you to be here. Not now.”

He sounded exactly the way Eric had, it occurred to Karina, on the day he’d asked her for a divorce. Then, her ex-husband had refused to work out the problems between them. He’d simply left her to be with Chelsea. Then, Karina had buckled. She’d believed her shortcomings had caused everything, so she hadn’t fought back. Not for herself, and not for her children.

But this time, with Reid, things were going to be different. They
had
to be different. Because Karina
had
to help him. She had to prove to him—to herself—that she could succeed. She had to prove that if difficulties arose in a relationship, she could solve them. Maybe then she’d have the courage to risk being with Reid, heart and soul. Maybe then she’d believe she could love someone and not wind up abandoned in the end.

Maybe then their Christmas fling could be something more.

For all those reasons—for her heart and soul—Karina stood her ground. No matter how hurt she felt—and she felt
very
hurt by Reid’s snarky digs at her career expertise—she wasn’t backing down. “But now is when you
do
need me!” she insisted. “I know about Edgware, Reid, and I know you probably feel responsible—”

His gaze sharpened. “What do you know about Edgware?”

“Well, just that the, um, B&B sale fell through.” Too late, Karina realized that, in her haste to reassure Reid, she’d backed herself into a corner. The bad news had just come from Edgware. Only the people directly involved—like the Sullivans, Stephanie, and (unfortunately) Karina—could have known about it. With no other choice—and with Reid on the verge of walking away—she decided to go for broke. There was no point hiding the truth now. She hauled in a deep breath. “But you’re not responsible for what happened! I know, because
I
was the secret Edgware evaluator. I was the one filing reports. So that means—”

Reid’s horrified expression finally registered. He looked as though she’d kicked him. Desperately, Karina kept talking.

“—that means
I’m
the perfect person to help you now!” she insisted, pleading with him to understand. “I know all the rules. I know how things are supposed to work at the company—”

“‘The company’?” He shook his head. “You work for Edgware?”

He was taking the news pretty well, Karina realized. He seemed very calm. Almost eerily so, in fact. Newly worried, she nodded. “Yes. But only on a stand-in basis! I was doing a favor for my sister. She’s the one who was supposed to come here.”

“And tell Edgware our concept isn’t worth franchising?”

“No! I mean, yes, Stephanie was assigned to do the B&B evaluation. But she hadn’t made up her mind about The Christmas House yet. Her report probably would have been great! You know, other than mentioning those few incidents, of course. Those would have to have been included, for accuracy’s sake.” She was rambling now, getting off track. Hastily, Karina regrouped. “But my nephew got sick at the last minute, and Stephanie couldn’t come. So I came here in her place.” She broke off, tardily realizing that disclosing all this could still get Stephanie into trouble with Edgware. “And I did my best to do a fair evaluation,” she finished lamely. “At least until today.”

“Right. Until today, when you let the hammer fall on this place,” Reid said, misunderstanding her. “It was
your
evaluation that cost us the sale. It was
your
evaluation that crushed my grandparents’ hopes and dreams.” He shook his head, not meeting her gaze as he fisted his glove, staring across the snowy yard. “I should have known. I should have seen it! You were always so interested in everything that went on here.”

“I was! I am! I love it here at The Christmas House!”

“You were always behind the scenes, rolling up your sleeves and pitching in without even needing to be asked. I thought you did all that because you liked us.”
Liked me,
his tightly held jaw said. “Because you wanted to be a part of things. Because you recognized the magic in The Christmas House—the same magic I grew up with—and wanted to belong to it. I thought you wanted to belong to the same fucking magic you made me feel, all over again. Why else would you make me feel that?”

Suddenly, his gaze did swerve to hers—with new vehemence.

Karina quailed beneath his anger. “I’m sorry, Reid! I—”

“I’m sorry too. Because there wasn’t any truth to any of it, was there? You didn’t care about this place. You didn’t care about helping or belonging. You didn’t care about
me.
You were just a spy, sneaking around, hoping to derail the sale.”

“No. I was never hoping to derail anything!” Karina promised. She wanted to apologize again. She wanted to explain herself further. But what mattered now was helping Reid feel better. So, with effort, she focused on finding him a solution. “Maybe I could rewrite some of the reports,” she offered in a newly positive tone. “Maybe I could upload the checklists I haven’t turned in yet. Maybe I could write additional explanatory notes!” She moved closer to Reid, belatedly realizing that, as long as he was here, there was still hope. Clinging to that hope, she said, “You know, I
did
try to help you. I downplayed the gift-wrap incident in my daily report. And I deemphasized the power outage too. That could have happened to anyone! So really, I wasn’t a spy. I was a…helper.”

“You,” Reid said simply, “were a liar.”

“But…” Feebly, Karina gestured, pointing out the aid she’d already tried to give him. “But can’t you see? My reports could have been even worse! If I’d included every little thing that happened, my reports would have been even more damning.”

Reid appeared unimpressed. “So you lied to your boss, too. You lied to everyone. Is that supposed to make me feel better?”

“Well, I can see where it would make you feel less special,” Karina joked. Her attempt at wit fell predictably flat. Still desperate to find a resolution, she reverted to practicality again. “All I’m saying is, even though the B&B has some problems, none of them are insurmountable. Maybe next year, or two years from now, Edgware will reconsider.”

“My grandparents needed this sale now.” Reid swallowed hard. “They already spent the money they would have received. Foolishly, I know. But they counted on Edgware. They
trusted
them.” His gaze was fierce and unrelenting. “They trusted a faceless corporation the same way I trusted its spy. Not that I would expect
you
to understand trust.”

“Me? Why not?” Karina blinked, hurt that he kept calling her a spy—that he kept digging at her. “I understand trust!” She gave a helpless, shaky laugh. “I’m still me, after all.”

“Right. You’re still you.” Reid’s expression was unforgiving. “And who is that, exactly? Who are you, Karina? Because I sure as hell don’t know anymore…if I ever did.”

“Yes, you do! You know me.” Struck by his harsh tone, Karina took a step back. “After all we’ve been to each other—”

“We’ve been nothing to each other,” Reid said coldly.
“Nothing.”
The fact that he’d purposely interrupted her—again—to deliver that cutting statement said volumes about his desolate mood. “What we had was a meaningless holiday affair. Now it’s over and done with, just the way it should be.”

“Over? We’re not over.” Drawing in another deep breath, Karina reminded herself that people said cruel things when they were upset. Her training and experience proved it. “You’re just saying that because of the evaluation. But you know
me.
You do!” She gave another shaky laugh. She timidly smiled. “You’re just upset right now. I understand. Later, we’ll—”

“There won’t be any ‘later.’”

“Of course there will be.” Karina tried to chuckle, but her throat felt as dry as dust. Mustering cheerfulness was impossible. “I care about you. You care about me. It’s not even Christmas Eve yet,” she pointed out in a last-ditch attempt to make him listen to reason, “so
technically
our holiday affair can’t be over with. It’s simply not time to call it quits.”

“You’re right. It’s past time.” Reid examined his bloodied palms, then his bruised hand. When he lifted his gaze to hers, it really was as though he’d never known her. It was as though he’d never talked with her, laughed with her…kissed her and declared his love for her amid his snowman-print flannel sheets in The Christmas House’s attic room. “It’s going to be hard enough to finish out Christmas this year. For my guests’ sake—to keep as much holiday cheer going as we can, given all that’s happened—I’d appreciate it if you’d leave the B&B.”

Karina felt her jaw drop. “Leave? Now?”

Reid glowered at the sugar maple tree. “Now.”

“But I—”
I was looking forward to sharing Christmas with you. With our children. With Vanessa and everyone else.
“I don’t want to leave. What will I tell everyone?”

A shrug. “You could make up a lie. You’re good at that.”

“I’m not good at that! I’m not!” Karina felt tears well in her eyes. Angrily, she dashed them away. “Reid, I never lied about how I felt about you! I never lied about that.”

Invulnerable to her pleading, Reid gazed at her. Beneath the “nookie beard” she’d teased him about only days ago, his face appeared even harder—even more unmoved—than before. “Maybe not,” he said, “since you never told me how you felt.”

Oh yeah. She hadn’t.
Until you say you love me back,
he’d told her with a smile,
this beard of mine is sticking around
.

He’d never shave that beard now, Karina realized. Except maybe as a gesture of hopelessness—as proof that he’d given up on her for good. Because even if she told Reid the truth—even if she told him she
did
love him back, right then and there—she doubted he would believe her.

The irony was, if she hadn’t pushed so hard to help him a few minutes ago, she might not have overstepped that line. She might not have accidentally blurted out her knowledge of the Edgware cancellation. She might not have started the ball rolling toward this awful, inevitable-feeling conclusion.

Now, not only had she failed to help Reid, but she’d also managed to make things irrevocably worse between them.

He didn’t want her love. He didn’t want her help.

He didn’t want her explanations. He didn’t want
her.

“But I
did
feel it!” Karina cried, remembering the joyfulness she’d experienced in Reid’s arms. “I did! I was just afraid to tell you, for—for so many reasons.”
Many of them to do with life-altering moments like this one.
The thought gave her the courage to rally one final argument. “If what we had was so ‘meaningless,’” she demanded, “then why are you still here?”

BOOK: Holiday Affair
3.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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