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 (27 page)

BOOK: Holiday Affair
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For an instant, she thought she’d gotten through to him. Reid blinked. He gazed at her. His expression eased into the one she recognized so well—the one that looked as though everything he wanted could be found in her eyes…in her heart.

But then Reid shook his head, and her hopes were dashed.

“I have no idea. Be out of the B&B by nightfall.”

He turned away, his shoulders wide and bleak against the snowy, sparkly, almost Christmastime world that Kismet was such a part of. Then he paused, seemed to reconsider, and delivered a fluent helping of multilingual swearing.

“I’ll make sure you have a room someplace in Kismet,” Reid said in a grudging, suspiciously hoarse voice. “I wouldn’t want Olivia, Josh, and Michael winding up on the street.”

He does care.
A little. Not much. But more than zero.

Feeling her heart expand, Karina held her breath.
Don’t bother,
she wanted to say, all proud and strong.
I’ll find someplace to stay myself.
But she didn’t have many options.

With her mind awhirl and her pride scattered, she nodded.

“Maybe Lagniappe at the Lakeshore,” Reid mused, giving her one last over-the-shoulder glance. “You’d fit right in there.”

Karina frowned. “But you said the people at Lagniappe at the Lakeshore are a bunch of cheating liars who’d as soon sabotage The Christmas House as they’d sing ‘Silent Night.’”

A heartbeat passed. “Exactly,” Reid said.

And then he was gone.

Chapter Twenty

…From the desk of Betty Sullivan
D
ECEMBER
24
TH
L
OCATION
: K
ISMET
(
AKA
“T
HE
M
ERRIEST
T
OWN IN
M
ICHIGAN
”)
S
CHEDULED
E
VENT
:
ANNUAL
“K
ISMET
C
HRISTMAS
P
ARADE AND
H
OLIDAY
L
IGHTS
S
HOW
”—
10:00 A.M.
TO MIDNIGHT
WHO CARES ANYMORE
?

With a steadiness and certainty born of long experience, Reid laid out all his supplies. He arranged a towel, a bar of shaving soap, a sleek-handled brush, and his favorite razor on the vanity, which stood tucked under the eaves in the bathroom of his attic room at the B&B. Soon, he was ready to get started. No excuses. Karina didn’t love him. That was that.

So his “good-luck” beard was history, starting…now.

Except one of the maids had arranged holiday garland around the mirror, he noticed sourly. That had to go first. There was no way he could concentrate on getting rid of his erstwhile “nookie beard” while all that Christmassy stuff was hanging around, distracting him with its stupid jolliness. This was a delicate job. It demanded the utmost focus and deliberation.

He didn’t want to wind up spending Christmas all bandaged up like The Invisible Man in that old movie, did he? Hell, no. He’d scare his own children and everyone else’s, besides.

Except Karina’s kids. As much as he wanted to, he wouldn’t get to see Josh, Michael, or Olivia. But that didn’t mean—

Swearing, Reid tore down the garland. With relish, he stuffed the jolly-looking evergreens in the trash can. In triumph, he put his hands on his hips and glared at the trash.

The garland poked out again, springing back to life like the sappy, unforgivable hopefulness that had plagued Reid ever since he’d turned his back on Karina in the yard yesterday.

It had taken everything he had not to turn around again. Not to promise her a room at a hotel downtown
and
a permanent place in his heart…in his life. But just when he’d felt on the verge of caving in completely, he’d glimpsed his grandfather’s battered Flexible Flyer sled, with its steel runners and iconic red and tan body, propped there on the front porch, and he’d remembered. He’d remembered all those Christmases growing up at The Christmas House—all those Christmases his grandparents had given him, and his parents, and Vanessa, and all the rest of his cousins. He’d remembered…and he’d kept walking, damn it.

Because Reid owed his loyalties to the people who were counting on him. He owed everything to the people who loved him—especially to the people who weren’t afraid to say so. He didn’t owe anything to a woman who’d lied to him from the moment they’d met—a woman who hadn’t quit lying, all the way to the end.

I did feel it! I did! I was just afraid to tell you….

Karina’s words still echoed in his head. They tempted him to abandon everything he knew. They tempted him to put what he wanted before what he’d promised. They tempted him to lay down his loyalties and (literally) sleep with the enemy.

But Reid couldn’t do that. Not now.

He couldn’t do that any more than he could keep this pathetically optimistic “nookie beard” on his face any longer. The plain truth was, he’d given up hope yesterday. Now his beard made a mockery of everything he’d once succumbed to, including Christmas cheer…and the unending hope that Karina would love him back.

Determinedly, Reid met his own gaze in the mirror.

Damn. He looked like hell.

Swearing, he turned his head for a better look. A fresh angle didn’t help. The events of the past twenty-four hours had taken their toll on him. Out of the corner of his eye, Reid glimpsed the garland, slowly unwinding itself from the trash can and trying to spill onto the floor. Undoubtedly, the damn stuff would wend its way back up the mirror if given the least bit of leeway. With new prejudice, Reid crammed it down. With his foot.

Okay. Shaving. Trying not to stare at the dark hollows under his eyes, Reid turned on the water. He splashed his face. The maneuver wasn’t strictly necessary. He’d gotten out of the shower only moments ago. But it felt like a fitting prelude.

Wholly of its own accord, his gaze fell to the towel he’d arranged. A row of printed Santas gaped up at him, their idiotic grins making a joke of his misery. He couldn’t tackle the job of shaving his beard in this environment. It was way too ebullient. Frowning, Reid stomped across the floor in his thermal T-shirt and flannel PJs. He slam-dunked the Santa towel in the trash.

But that didn’t feel right, either. Bothered but still determined, Reid picked up the soap anyway. With efficient movements, he worked up a lather, then brushed it on his face. Half his face. Because as he did so, he happened to glimpse the reflection of his sleigh bed—and its holiday-print bedding—in the bathroom mirror.

Grinning snowmen?
They smirked up at him, reminding him of better days, better times…better versions of himself, before he’d been drop-kicked back to reality by Karina’s confession.

A part of him wished she’d kept her freaking honesty to herself. She’d already lied to him. She’d gotten away with it, too. Why not let him believe what he wanted? That maybe she did care about him, that maybe Christmas really could be a time for miracles, that maybe he could be a hero for his family?

Scoffing at the thought, Reid dropped his shaving brush.

Four minutes later, he was on the move, an impressive bundle of holiday bedding, towels, garland, candles, wreaths, and other assorted tchotchkes in his arms. If The Christmas House had had an incinerator, then that fiery hell would have been his preferred destination for all this red and green junk. As it was, Reid decided to settle for the upstairs closet that served as a housekeeping station for this part of the B&B.

Halfway there, he ran into Vanessa. His cousin glanced at his suspiciously merry bundle, lifted her gaze to his face, then frowned in commiseration. “Still missing Karina, huh?”

What did she know? Nothing. Yesterday, Vanessa had had the gall to suggest he’d made a mistake in asking Karina to leave.

Angrily, Reid shouldered past her. Or at least he tried to.

Easily blocking him, Vanessa plucked out one of the Santa towels. She wiped off his half beardful of shaving soap, then shook her head. “Admit it, cuz. You’re no good without her. We could all see it. Karina brought out something special in you.”

“Yeah. Disillusionment.” Reid sighed, then noticed his cousin’s hat and coat. “Are you up here for a reason?”

“Yes. To make sure you’re still going to the annual Kismet Christmas parade. It starts in an hour.”

Reid shook his head. “I’m not going. I’ve got several calls in to Edgware. I think I could still change their minds.”

“Aww, Reid. I know you don’t want to quit, and that’s admirable. But don’t you think there’s a break-even point here? Even Grammy and Grandpa said—” Vanessa broke off, her gaze falling to the other items in his arms. She tugged out one of them, then wagged it at him accusingly. “Is this Digby’s holiday sweater? Did you
steal
the sweater off our dachshund’s back?”

“It was more of a wrestling match, really.” Reid pointed. “You can still see the tooth marks.”

“Digby’s, I hope.”

He nodded. “I liberated that dog. Digby hated Christmas.”

“You mean
you
hated Christmas. And the moment you started liking it again—the moment you started
feeling
it again—”

“Now you’re just talking crazy.” Reid grabbed the doggie sweater, added it back to his pile, then dumped the whole caboodle in the housekeeping closet. “I didn’t feel a thing.”

At least not anything I can’t forget. Eventually.

Sighing in apparent censure—or maybe sadness—his cousin shook her head. “You are not the same man I used to know.”

Reid only shrugged. “That’s probably true.”

Since Karina, he felt turned inside out and upside down. First, those changes had made him feel brand new. Now they only made him feel gullible and wrecked and curiously hollow.

“But it doesn’t have to be true!” Vanessa actually grabbed his arms and shook him. Or tried to. He was a lot bigger than she was. Exasperated, she poked his shoulder. “Don’t you get it? If you would just
forgive
Karina for keeping her secret, everything would be fine! She did what she had to do—for her sister’s sake.
You,
of all people, should understand that.” Another poke. “Karina is loyal! She’s sweet and helpful and kind. She’s special, Reid. The rest of us have forgiven her. All the guests, all the staff, the neighbors, Nate and Angela, Amanda and Rodrigo, Grammy and Grandpa. Everyone. Even
your own children
have forgiven Karina. You should too.”

At the thought of Nicole and Alexis, Reid felt his resolve strengthen. He couldn’t afford to weaken. Not when giving in meant leaving his daughters vulnerable to loving a family of Barretts who could never be trusted to love them back.

Judging by the way Alexis and Nicole had bonded with Karina and her children, they’d probably come dangerously close to making the same mistake he had—to loving the wrong person.

But Reid still had time to fix that. That was his specialty, wasn’t it? Taking the big risks before anyone else? Heading straight into danger, figuring out the potential hazards, and protecting other people from them?

He hadn’t managed to protect his grandparents. They’d chosen him to run The Christmas House this holiday season specifically because of his lack of sentimentality. Reid had repaid them by falling headlong into…stupid sentimentality.

He didn’t know if he could forgive himself for that. But he still thought he could repair the damage—if his busybody cousin would get off his case and leave him alone for once. And if someone at Edgware would return his calls (their voice mail messages all claimed the executives were out until New Year’s Day). And if he could explain himself to his grandparents.

I fell in love,
he imagined himself saying.
I fell in love at Christmastime, with a wonderful woman—and her three children.

Betty and Robert Sullivan would never buy it. Their Scrooge-like grandson smitten with a homebody suburban divorcée from California? Their globe-trotting, multilingual, eel-eating great-granddaughters morphing into members of the Brady Bunch?

His grandparents would laugh themselves silly at the idea.

“I knew coming home for Christmas would be a mistake.” Reid frowned at Vanessa, at a loss to explain how bereft he felt. He never should have allowed himself to enjoy the holidays again—to allow sentimentality to creep in and ruin him. “I have a beard to shave,” he announced, then headed back to his room.

This time, Reid resolved, he’d get the job done.

 

With a heartfelt sigh, Karina set the last wrapped gift on her Kismet hotel room’s wide bureau. She took a step back, then examined the small pile of gifts and, next to it, the tabletop Christmas tree the hotel management had provided. It was the kind of tree that emerged intact from its cardboard box, needing only to be bent into shape, with LED lights embedded in its artificial branches and miniature ornaments stapled on. There was even a diminutive star glued to the tree’s plastic tip.

“There!” Karina announced with forced cheerfulness. “Now we’re all set for Christmas tomorrow. We’ll sleep in—”

Her children all looked at her cockeyed. “No one
ever
sleeps in on Christmas morning,” Michael said. “Sheesh, Mom.”

“—unwrap our gifts,” she continued, undaunted, “have a nice celebratory breakfast at the restaurant downstairs—”

“It’s closed on Christmas Day,” Olivia pointed out.

“—
or
a festive hotel room picnic with muffins and juice that I’ll buy after the Kismet Christmas parade today—”

“I don’t care about the parade anymore,” Josh said.

“—and then, if the airline cooperates, we’ll all go home!”

Finally finishing her announcement, Karina beamed at them. It wasn’t easy. Heartbreak permeated every part of her, leaving her feeling weary, sad, and hopeless. All she wanted to do was climb into bed with a TV remote and a distracting
non
holiday movie—and maybe a giant chocolate Santa (or three) to make herself feel better—and forget the past week had ever happened.

But she couldn’t do that. Olivia, Michael, and Josh were counting on her. She still wanted to give them a perfect holiday. Her personal heartache couldn’t interfere with that.

“What if the airline
doesn’t
cooperate?” Josh asked.

Before Karina could reply, Olivia did. “We’ll think of something else,” she assured her brother. “Don’t worry.”

Surprised, Karina gawked at her daughter. All of a sudden, she realized, Olivia had quit forecasting doom at every turn. She’d quit trying to protect them all from potential dangers. In fact, Karina thought, Olivia had become downright easygoing.

“Most of the things people worry about don’t ever happen,” Olivia went on, knowledgeably. “Reid told me that. It’s true.”

Reid.
Again. Would his influence never end? While Karina was grateful that Reid had helped Josh overcome his sticky-fingered tendencies—and had, apparently, also helped Olivia see the world in a less worrisome light—Karina didn’t want to think about Reid. She didn’t want to remember what might have been.

She didn’t want to love him, either. But she still did.

“Reid told me that being smart is the best,” Michael piped up, “because it never goes away. It only gets bigger, the more questions you ask. So Mom, why didn’t we just go home already?”

“Because the airlines were all booked. Lots of people want to travel during the holidays. If an earlier flight opens up, we’ll take it,” Karina said. “Otherwise, our original plan sticks: Christmas in Kismet, and leaving a few days later.”

BOOK: Holiday Affair
5.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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