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
“Hey!” came a thin-sounding voice from the open laptop on the hotel room bed. “Isn’t anybody going to talk to
Karina had set up a videoconference call for the kids. Evidently, they’d gotten distracted by her announcement.
“I’m all done talking, Dad!” Michael pushed away from the laptop. He waved, then blew a kiss. “Bye! Love you!”
The two of them exchanged good-byes via screencast. Karina checked with Olivia and Josh, making sure they’d had their turns too. They had. Resigned, she trooped to the laptop, ready to confront the image of her ex-husband…complete with palm trees, beach sand, and sultry blue Bahamian skies in the background.
All those things were there, with the unexpected addition of a red and white felt Santa hat on Eric’s head. It clashed with his eyeliner and the multiple chains around his neck, but at least he was trying. Affectionately, Karina smiled at him.
“Cute hat, Eric. That’s nice of you.”
Appearing embarrassed, he snatched it off. He fussed with his hair, deftly arranging those product-laden strands. Without the merry frame of the Santa hat, he didn’t look so good.
Concerned, Karina frowned. “Hey, are you okay?”
Her ex-husband scowled. Too late, Karina remembered how much Eric hated it when she comforted him or offered advice.
In fact, she realized, Eric hated help of all kinds. Just like Reid did. Was that an issue with all men, she wondered, or only the ones she—Ms. Helpful—had the misfortune to fall for?
“No!” Eric blurted. “I’m not okay. Chelsea and I are still on the outs, Kari. She’s changed somehow. And I don’t like it.”
Surprised by his use of his old nickname for her, Karina picked up the laptop. She sat on the bed, then arranged the laptop on her knees. Warmly—and welcoming the distraction of a problem to solve—she peered into its built-in camera with all the compassion she could. “Changed how? Can you describe it?”
Eric nodded. He started talking, his volubility doubtless enhanced by the pair of tropical umbrella-wielding drinks he appeared to have enjoyed already—at least if the tabletop display of empty glasses beside him was to be believed.
Within moments, Karina was in her element. She nodded and asked questions, listened and probed for more, empathized and brainstormed as her ex-husband described his relationship problems. It seemed that Chelsea had begun asserting herself, starting the day they’d met up with her parents in the Bahamas.
“And it only got worse from there!” Eric complained. “The next thing I knew, Chelsea had an opinion on everything! Where we went. What we did. What
wore!” Mournfully, he shook his head. “It’s like she became someone else, Kari.” He lifted his accusing glare to the camera. “It’s like she became
“Well, that’s flattering, Eric.” Karina smiled, liking the idea that her friendship had had a positive influence. “But more likely, Chelsea just remembered who she was
she met you. Sometimes, when people are around their parents, they revert to their younger selves temporarily. Most people experience that phenomenon to some degree around the holidays. In large and small ways, they inadvertently find themselves stepping into old familial roles. That’s part of the reason conflicts tend to be repeated at Christmastime. Everyone is reenacting their—”
“Right. I get it.” Impatiently, Eric held up his hand. His studded-leather wristband glinted in the beachy sunshine. “I wasn’t looking for a psychology lecture, Einstein.”
Pleased, Karina hid a smile. She
pretty smart when it came to advising people. Even if her students had (mysteriously) stopped contacting her for help between semesters.
“I wasn’t looking for any of
either!” Eric went on. “Chelsea is exciting and all. I mean, come on!” Wide-eyed, he gave a lascivious gesture. “Have you seen her? She’s—”
“Gorgeous, I know.” Karina gave him a wind-it-up signal.
“—but the best thing about Chelsea was that she didn’t bug me, you know?” Eric said. “She let
No matter how dumb that might have been sometimes, she never hassled me. She was impressed by everything about me. I liked that about her.”
Drily, Karina said, “I can see where you would.”
“But now,” Eric said, “all that is gone! I don’t like it.”
“That’s understandable. So what do you want to do next?”
“Easy.” Brightly, her ex-husband sat upright. He fixed his own laptop camera with a gimlet gaze. “I want you to tell me how to get the old Chelsea back—the one who thought I was the bomb.”
Karina shook her head. “I don’t think I can do that. If Chelsea was downplaying her own confidence and assertiveness to get along with you better”—which, based on the conversations Karina had had with Chelsea lately, seemed probable—“it’s actually a
sign that she feels free enough to be herself.”
“Bah!” Eric waved off that notion. Tipsily, he pouted. “Can’t be. Chelsea’s new ‘self’ makes
feel teeny tiny.”
And that was the crux of the problem, wasn’t it? Karina realized abruptly. She watched as her ex-husband blearily accepted another umbrella-garnished beverage. Eric wanted to feel powerful. And
was what Karina hadn’t given him.
Her marriage hadn’t ended because she hadn’t been nice enough. Or because she hadn’t helped Eric enough. Or because she hadn’t been able to fix their relationship problems. It had ended because she’d married a man who wanted a Barbie doll for a partner—not a real, live, confident woman with a mind of her own and a very normal tendency to nurture the people she loved.
Nearly knocked over by the revelation, Karina blinked.
“I’m sorry, Eric,” she said. “But if you can’t handle Chelsea’s self-confidence, the problem is with you, not her.”
Her ex-husband thought about that. He tried to sip his drink—and was forced to chase his straw around the glass instead, lips puckered like a blowfish. He’d never looked more…needy. But wasn’t everyone needy? On some level?
Right now, Karina needed love. Her children needed an exemplary Christmas. Stephanie needed a job that allowed her to spend the holidays at home. Eric—and maybe even Reid, it occurred to her—needed to feel powerful. Capable. Invulnerable.
“Well, I guess that settles that, then,” Eric announced.
Snapped back to attention, Karina gazed at him. “Settles what? We’ve only just started talking about this, Eric. You’re going to have to—”
“That settles that between us!” Bobbing around on his beach chair, Eric set down his drink. Then he righted his laptop, straightening her view of him. “It’s official, babe!” he said magnanimously, beaming at her from the videoconferencing software. “This thing with Chelsea was just a stupid mistake. I’m over it! We can be a family again, Kari! You, me, the kids—”
Startled, Karina snapped shut her laptop.
Eric’s voice cut off. Heart pounding madly, Karina glanced around, wondering if her children had overheard their father’s careless promise.
We can be a family again! You, me, the kids
All Karina had ever wanted was for Olivia, Josh, and Michael to be happy. Likely, they’d never stopped hoping she and Eric would reunite. Would it really be so bad if they did?
She knew Eric. She cared for him. Now she knew exactly what had caused their marital problems, too. He’d made a mistake. One mistake. But mistakes could be forgiven, right?
Cautiously, Karina contemplated her children. Olivia flopped on their hotel room’s second bed, watching cartoons with the sound turned down. Josh sat cross-legged on a nearby chair, playing PSP. Michael hunched near the Christmas gifts, lightly running his fingertips over each one, undoubtedly calculating their individual dimensions and estimating the probability that one of them contained a Transformers toy meant for him.
How much did their happiness mean to her?
Holding her breath, Karina opened her laptop. Knowing exactly how momentous this decision was, she smiled at Eric.
“All right,” she said. “Let’s talk about this.”
Despite his resolve, Reid didn’t get very far. Sure, he’d cleared the bathroom—and his attic B&B room—of deleterious Christmas paraphernalia. And yes, he’d worked up a good head of lather and slathered it on (again), fully prepared to demolish his so-called good-luck beard for good and
(goddamn it) that he was finished hoping Karina would love him. But then…
“Dad!” Nicole hurried into his room, her stuffed dingo clutched in one arm. She stopped in his bathroom doorway, then gasped. “Oh no! What are you doing with your beard?”
“I’m going to shave off this beast, once and for all.”
“But…Aunt Vanessa says that’s your ‘nookie beard.’”
“Aunt Vanessa is a little bit crazy sometimes.”
“Really?” Nicole’s eyes widened. “Because Michael told me that mental illness is partly genetic. Which kind of makes sense, actually. Because
acting crazy about Karina.”
I am crazy about Karina.
On the verge of foolishly admitting it aloud, Reid frowned at his image in the mirror. Then, belatedly realizing this beard would be too much for any ordinary razor to tackle alone, he wiped off the lather again.
He reached for the scissors. First, a close trim.
“Aren’t you supposed to be going to the Christmas parade?” Vanessa had promised him she’d take the girls. “From what I remember, it’s quite a show. Everyone in town goes to it.”
Unconvinced, Nicole sighed. “
It would break my heart to go this year.
“I’ve already been to the Christmas parade,” Reid told her. “I’ve seen it.”
“But doing it over and over and over again is part of the magic of Christmas!” Nicole gulped in a breath. “Michael told me that. He said people like traditions.
“Honey…” Sadly, gently, Reid gazed at his daughter. He abandoned his scissors—just for the moment. “You’re going to have to quit talking about Michael—about all the Barrett kids.”
Nicole looked puzzled. “Why? I like them. They’re nice.”
“Because…They live in California. We don’t.”
“So?” His daughter wrinkled her nose. “We’ve lived all over the whole globe!” She stretched her arms wide, leaving her stuffed dingo to dangle from her hand. “Why not San Diego next?”
For a heartbeat, Reid gave in to that idea. He imagined them in a sunny beachside home. All seven of them. Together.
“I haven’t decided what to do next,” Reid said truthfully.
vote for California!” Nicole said. “It would be
cool to go to Olivia’s school! We could see
movies together, and visit the mall, and have slumber parties.”
Alexis arrived, pushing her way into the bathroom doorway. She slumped next to her sister, then glumly started picking at her fingernails. “Don’t be dumb, Nicole. Dad is
going to hide out someplace more remote than ever now. We’ll probably wind up in some backwater country we’ve never even heard of.”
With his scissors just a few millimeters from his beard, Reid paused. Sternly, he arched his brow. “‘Hide out’?”
“Well, that’s what you do, isn’t it? Hide out?” Seeming too annoyed to be circumspect, Alexis crossed her skinny arms over her chest. “That’s what you did when you and Mom split up.”
It was. Sort of,
Reid realized. Filled with hurt feelings and pigheaded pride, he’d been determined to show the world that he didn’t need Gabby to make his family complete. He didn’t need help to raise his daughters. All he needed was himself. Period.
But the realization was fleeting. Reid hadn’t lined up his shaving soap and razor just so he could be psychoanalyzed by his own pint-size headshrinker. He was fine, just the way he was.
His daughters were fine too, world travels and all.
what you’re doing now, with Karina,” Alexis went on, still sounding upset. “You’re running away from her.”
How could his daughters have any inkling about Karina?
They couldn’t, Reid decided. They were just bored. Probably, they wanted to blow this burg and catch a plane.
“Ha. If I’m running away from anything,” Reid joked, winking as he hoisted his scissors again, “it’s Christmas. I can’t wait for this stupid holiday to be over and done with.”
Now Nicole crossed her arms too, her brow furrowed. Alexis—wearing a Rudolph sweater, he noticed—actually growled.
Damn. Didn’t anybody have a sense of humor anymore?
Apparently not. Both his daughters glared daggers at him.
“I don’t want to go to a no-name remote country!” Nicole cried. “Those kinds of countries don’t even have normal toilets. You have to squat over a stupid hole in the floor to pee.”
“And eat with your hands.” Alexis glowered, her expression reminiscent of the one Reid had been confronting in the mirror since yesterday. “I want a
Dad! Not chopsticks, a piece of
or a spork! For once I just want to have a normal life.”
Pulled in multiple directions at once, Reid stared at the ceiling. He still wanted to get away. He still wanted to lose his troubles in cliff diving or bungee jumping or crawling through a dangerous underground chasm someplace. But for the first time (and after following some of that well-intentioned “just wait it out” advice he’d given to Josh), Reid recognized that impulse for what it was.
Running away. Because Alexis had been right.
Ever since Gabby had ended their marriage, Reid had been running away, in one form or another. He’d been determined never to feel that breakable ever again. It had taken Christmas—and Karina—to make him see that unless he stayed put, he’d never feel loved again, either. Not the way he wanted to be.
Not the way he
Muttering a Dutch swearword, Reid gazed at his daughters via the vanity mirror. “A spork isn’t that bad, is it?”