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 (29 page)

BOOK: Holiday Affair
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“Dad,” Alexis said, “a spork isn’t a fork.”

“And it’s not a spoon, either,” Nicole added. “It’s just stuck in between, wanting to scoop
and
poke. It’s bad at both.”

His daughters had a point. “I’m stuck in between too,” Reid mused. “I’m not in the wilderness, but I’m not all the way here, either. I almost was here, all the way”—
when Karina was here with me
—“but now…I’m a spork.
I’m
a spork!” Recognizing the truth, he smacked his head. He groaned. “How did this happen?”

Alexis shrugged. “Don’t be too hard on yourself, Dad.”

“You’re the
best
spork-dad,” Nicole said loyally.

“I can’t keep doing this.” Slowly, Reid put down his scissors. “I have to settle down, girls. For all our sakes.”

“In San Diego?” Nicole hinted. “You’d like it there.”

“With Karina and her kids,” Alexis said bluntly. “You should do it, Dad. You should forgive her and sweep her off her feet!”

At his elder daughter’s surprisingly dramatic suggestion, Reid glanced at her. Questioningly, he raised his eyebrows.

Alexis grinned. “Blame that
Twilight
book.” She shrugged. “It’s a pretty romantic story. I borrowed Olivia’s copy.”

“Aha.” Filled with revelation, Reid considered his daughter’s suggestion—to forgive Karina and sweep her off her feet. But it wasn’t Karina he had to forgive, he realized. It was himself. He had to forgive himself for not helping his grandparents—for not being the nearly superhuman dad (and man) he wanted to be.

No wonder he’d been so touchy when everyone had suggested Alexis and Nicole needed something more than a nomadic life. Giving up on globe-trotting had meant admitting defeat.

But not anymore. “Sweep her off her feet, huh?” he asked.

“Yes!” Alexis and Nicole jumped up and down. “Do it!”

That proved it. “Well, I guess I was wrong,” Reid mused. “I guess you girls
do
need a feminine influence in your lives.”

“Dad! Duh!” Alexis shook her head, looking exasperated. “We don’t want to be around Karina because she’s a
woman.

Nicole nodded. “It’s because she’s her! She’s Karina!”

“And she’s awesome. We really, really like her.”

Feeling a tiny glimmer of hope, Reid met their excited gazes. “I do too,” he admitted. “I really, really like Karina.”

“Again,
duh!
” his daughters said in unison. They looked as though they wanted to shove him out the door. “So what are you waiting for?” Alexis asked. “You know where Karina is.”

“I
did
book her and the kids that hotel room downtown….” Newly decisive, Reid abandoned his shaving accoutrements. He charged into his room, his path cleared by his eager-to-help daughters, then grabbed his coat. He slung it on. He shoved his feet into a pair of boots. He grabbed his scarf. “Okay. Here I—”

Turning around, Reid confronted Alexis’s and Nicole’s jointly appalled expressions. Confused, he quit talking.

“Dad,
stop.
” Alexis swiped her hand across her throat, mimicking a director’s “cut” sign. Her gaze slid past Reid’s coat and scarf, all the way to his hastily pulled-on winter boots. “You’re wearing
pajamas,
” she hissed. Nicole nodded.

Oh. Yeah. “So? Only the bottoms, that’s all.” Reid gestured at his perfectly acceptable thermal T-shirt. “Time’s wasting.”

His daughters delivered him indomitable looks. They weren’t going to back down on this, Reid realized. “Fine. I’ll change into some pants.” He toed off his boots, then dropped his scarf. He shucked off his coat. “But then we’re going to get Karina.”

“And bring her back here for Christmas?”

For the first time, Reid felt nervous. “Yes. I hope so.”

“My goodness, Robert!” someone said from the doorway. “It sounds as though we’ve missed quite a lot around here!”

Reid turned. His grandparents stood there, wearing identical
Arizona
logoed golf visors and matching smiles. They didn’t
look
like people whose retirement dreams had been crushed. But then, appearances could be deceiving.

After all, Reid looked like a man who didn’t own pants.

“Great Grammy Sullivan!” Nicole yelled, running to hug her.

Robert chuckled. “What, I don’t rate a hello around here?”

“And Great Grandpa Sullivan!” Alexis added at a shout, coming in for a boisterous tackle hug. “We missed you
so
much!”

There were hugs all around. Baffled, Reid stared at his grandparents. “But…How did you get home?” he asked. “I know for a fact all the flights are booked solid right now.”

All four of them stared curiously at him.

“How do you know that?” Robert asked. “Planning a getaway?”

“For once, no!” Nicole said gleefully. “We’re staying!”

Alexis nodded in confirmation, doing a gangly happy dance.

Ignoring his grandparents’ delighted expressions at that news, Reid raised his chin. “I might have been…keeping tabs on available flight statuses.” Just because he’d left Kismet years ago didn’t mean he didn’t still have friends who could keep him updated on the status of one particular curly-haired blonde and her adorable children. “The point is, how did you get here?”

“Oh, they always had today as their return date,” Alexis said with an offhanded wave. “That’s how the flights were booked.”

“They wanted to be at home for Christmas,” Nicole added.

Still confused, Reid shook his head. How did Alexis and Nicole know so much about their great-grandparents’ plans?

He’d assumed that Betty and Robert had gotten the bad news about Edgware and flown home on an emergency basis. On one of those supposedly fully booked flights. Maybe to start trying to sell The Christmas House to another hospitality company, so they could still salvage their Arizona retirement dreams. But how could Alexis and Nicole have known about any of that?

Sure, his daughters had been talking with their great-grandparents on the phone, Reid knew. They’d been e-mailing them. They’d even become buddies on an online social networking site—all things he’d encouraged them to do, as a way for Alexis and Nicole to stay connected with their relatives, no matter where they lived. But that didn’t explain any of
this.

“Oh dear.” Betty Sullivan smiled at him. “I’m afraid you girls did your job too well. Your dad seems bewildered.”

“Only because I am,” Reid said. “What’s going on?”

“We’ve been conspiring!” Nicole blurted. “Together!”

“Let’s not baffle your father any further.” Betty came closer, then gently took Reid’s arm. “Why don’t we all go downstairs and have a nice cup of cocoa and explain everything?”

Feeling dazed, Reid nodded. “But we’ll have to do it on the run. There’s something important I have to do.” He glanced at his grandparents, then at his daughters. “Can we do this in one of the B&B’s transport vans on the way downtown?”

“Of course!” Jovially, Robert slapped him on the back. “I’ll drive. I’ve been wanting to get behind the wheel of something bigger than a damn golf cart, anyway.”

The plan was set. Hoping he wasn’t too late, Reid grabbed his boots and coat again, then led the way downstairs.

Arriving on the landing, he glimpsed the personalized stockings lined up on the B&B’s fireplace mantel—in particular, the four stockings whose cuffs were embroidered with the names
Karina, Josh, Olivia,
and
Michael.
Someone on staff at The Christmas House was supposed to have taken down those stockings when Karina had left.

Now, Reid smiled at the sight of them. With a little luck, they would need those stockings on Christmas morning…when Karina came back to him, and the future looked truly merry.

“Let’s go!” he said, ready to lead the charge to that future.

At Reid’s signal, the whole lot of them trundled to the door, ready to commandeer a van, confess a conspiracy, and find a true love—probably in that order, probably awkwardly, and probably far more slowly than Reid would like…but with a whole lot of Christmas cheer on the part of everyone involved.

Chapter Twenty-One

December 24th
Riverfront Hotel
Kismet, Michigan

Curled up in a blanket atop her hotel room’s double bed, Karina put the finishing touches on a text message to Chelsea.

I
HOPE WE CAN ALWAYS BE FRIENDS
, C., she typed. L
OVE
, K.

There. That should do it. With her heart pounding, Karina sent the message. At the resulting confirmation from her cell phone, Olivia glanced up. She thumbed the TV remote, muting the
A Charlie Brown Christmas
cartoon they’d ordered on pay-per-view.

“What’s that, Mom? Are you still texting Dad?”

“Nope.” Fondly, Karina pulled her daughter closer for a hug. She kissed the top of her blond-haired head. “Dad and I quit texting a while ago. That was a message for Chelsea.”

“Oh.” Olivia snuggled closer. “What did you say?”

“Well, that we’ll be home soon. And…some other things.”

“I hope you told her to take us surfing when we get back!” Across the room, Josh glanced up. He’d twisted sideways in his chair with his feet slung over the arms. “I told Reid that we go surfing sometimes, and he said he’d like to try it.”

“Cool!” Michael chimed in, temporarily abandoning his efforts to surreptitiously weigh the Christmas gifts on the hotel room’s bathroom scale. “It would be so awesome if Reid visited us in San Diego! We could hike by the ocean, go parasailing at Torrey Pines, visit SeaWorld—lots of stuff!”

“You guys.” Regretfully, Karina wrangled their attention, then snuggled into her pajamas. Since they’d decided not to attend the annual Kismet Christmas parade, she’d reasoned there was no rush to get dressed. Not today. “You’re going to have to quit talking about Reid—about all the Sullivans, actually.”

Josh looked puzzled. “Why? I like them. They’re nice.”

“Because…We live in California. They don’t.”

“So?” Olivia wrinkled her nose. “They’ve lived all over the whole globe!” She stretched her arms wide, nearly smacking Karina in the nose with the remote. “Why not San Diego next?”

For a single heartbeat, Karina surrendered to that idea. She imagined Reid, Alexis, and Nicole coming to the Sunshine State—deciding to stay with them. All seven of them. Together.

“I don’t think that will happen,” Karina said truthfully.

“Well, it ought to!” Michael said. “And since it’s Christmas, maybe it will,” he insisted. “Christmas is magic.”

Karina knew she should correct that idea. Obviously, her disastrous holiday affair with Reid was proof that Christmas
wasn’t
magic, no matter how ardently she’d hoped it might be. But just as she sucked in a breath, preparing to speak, someone knocked on their hotel room door. Startled, she glanced up.

Oddly enough, none of her children did.

“Karina!” Vanessa shouted through the door. “It’s me!”

“Vanessa?” At the sound of her friend’s voice, Karina flung off her blanket. She padded to the door, then opened it to see Reid’s cousin standing in the wide hotel hallway. “Um, hi!”

Self-consciously, Karina poked at her unruly hair. Because, she realized belatedly, it wasn’t just Vanessa who’d come for a visit. It was Suzanne. Rocky. Neil. Amanda. Rodrigo. At least two of the maids. And both of the B&B’s chefs. Each chef toted a covered wicker basket. They offered them to her with smiles.

“Merry Christmas!” they said. “We brought the food.”

“And we brought the music.” Rocky hoisted a portable stereo. Beside him, Neil and Suzanne waved hello, also smiling.

“And
we
brought the stockings!” Amanda and Rodrigo said in unison. Then, empty handed, they glanced at each other. “I thought you got the stockings from the mantel,” Amanda said.

“I’m sorry,
cariño.
I thought you got them.”

“Whoops. I guess we got…distracted,” Amanda told Karina.

“That’s all right!” Karina stepped back, inviting them all inside. “Come on in! I’m so surprised”—
and mystified
—“to see you! Look, kids!” She turned, waving her hand. “We have company.”

“Hi,” her children said simultaneously, still unsurprised.

It was almost as if Olivia, Josh, and Michael had been
expecting
half of The Christmas House inhabitants to visit. That was…weird. What, exactly, was going on here? Karina wondered.

“We couldn’t stand the thought of you and the kids spending Christmas Eve here all by yourselves.” Cheerfully, Vanessa took off her coat, then flung it on a chair. Everyone else also got situated, littering the room with coats and hats and gloves and scarves. “So we hijacked the B&B’s transport vans and came to get you!”

“To get me?” Karina frowned. “For what?”

“To make sure you wouldn’t be all alone today!” one of the maids said. “To make sure you had a
good
Kismet Christmas.”

Everyone nodded. Karina couldn’t help staring in surprise. And gratitude. “You came all this way across town, just for us?”

“Of course!” Vanessa said. “So get dressed. The Kismet Christmas parade is about to start. You don’t want to miss it.”

“Actually, our room overlooks Main Street,” Karina said, gesturing to their hotel room window, “which is right on the parade route. So we won’t miss a thing! All we have to do is look outside. And I can do that in my pajamas.”

Appearing flustered, Vanessa glanced at the window. “Well, seeing the parade that way is one thing,” she hedged, “but for the very best experience, you really need to go outside. All the rest of the B&B guests are waiting for us downstairs.”

“All the rest of the—” Perplexed by Vanessa’s insistence—and not wanting to delay any of the other guests’ holiday fun—Karina shook her head. “I’m sorry. You go ahead, okay? I just don’t feel up to all the merriment out there.”

“But it will be
fun!
” Vanessa urged. “Come on!”

Amanda and Rodrigo, the maids, the chefs, Rocky and Neil, and Suzanne added their voices to the chorus. “Let’s go!”

Silence fell while Karina deliberated their offer.

“Nice try, everyone,” Olivia said in a dour tone. “But you might as well save your breath. She won’t go. It’s too late.”

“Yeah,” Josh agreed, equally sullenly. “You shouldn’t have bothered.
None
of us should have bothered.”

“Bothered with what?” Baffled, Karina stared at them.

So did Vanessa. “What are you kids talking about?”

“They’re talking about the fact that it’s no good trying to get my mom to leave here,” Michael said. He’d never sounded more grown up—or more disappointed—than he did just then. Mumbling, he added, “Sorry we couldn’t call you sooner, Vanessa.”

“Our mom was using the phone the whole time,” Josh said.

“Call me?” Vanessa said. “Call me to tell me what?” She gestured at Karina’s PJs. “I can see things are pretty dire—”

“Hey!” Karina protested, defensively smoothing her flannel pajama pants. “Give a girl a break. I’m brokenhearted!”

“—but I’m not ready to give up,” Vanessa went on, “so—”

“So you might as well get ready to give up,” Olivia said, appearing just as let down as Michael did. “Because about half an hour ago, my mom agreed to get back together with my dad.”

 

The B&B’s transport vans were nowhere to be found. Neither was Reid’s rented Subaru or any of the other vehicles he’d expected to find.

Standing near the snow-filled driveway of The Christmas House, Reid scratched his head in puzzlement. Come to think of it, he realized, the entire B&B had been curiously empty as they’d come downstairs. He hadn’t seen any guests. The staff hadn’t been hanging holiday light strings or serving eggnog. Even his busybody cousin hadn’t been manning the front desk.

Beside him, his grandparents and daughters came to a stop.

“We didn’t like Arizona much anyway,” his grandfather was saying. “The weather’s too same-y. Never changes. Always sunny.”

His grandmother nodded. “They put Christmas lights on the
cactus
and call it festive! It’s better that we’re back here. Kismet is where we belong.” She stopped, as though realizing they weren’t all piling into a van and speeding toward downtown Kismet. “What’s the matter, Reid? Don’t say you
like
cactus with Christmas lights on them. They’re practically sacrilegious!”

“No, it’s not that.” Reid shook his head. He pointed at the empty driveway. Only tire tracks and a few oily spots in the snow marked the places where the gift-wrapped transport van should have been. “The vans are gone. We’re not going anyplace.”

The five of them scoured the driveway with squinty gazes. Then they examined the newly plowed street. Nada. What the hell?

“My rental car is gone too.” Undaunted, Reid turned. “I’ll call a taxi.”

“On Christmas Eve?” Robert said. “You’ll never get one.”

“Especially with the Christmas parade going on,” Betty agreed, adjusting her golf visor. “It’ll be crazy downtown.”

“Getting to Karina’s hotel will be tough,” Nicole said. “Even for an adventure travel guide like you, Dad.” Sadly, she adjusted her mittens. “We sure can’t
walk
that far in the snow.”

Alexis scoffed. “Yes, we can! We can’t give up now. I didn’t put that GPS tracker in Karina’s purse for nothing!”

Silence fell. Reid frowned at her. “The what?”

Defiantly, his daughter faced him. “The GPS tracker. I put one in Karina’s purse, just in case we all got separated. When Josh realized he’d accidentally stolen his mom’s purse, I took it and rigged it.” She put her hands on her hips, chin jutting with pride. “It was a stroke of luck, really. Not like when I—”

Abruptly, Alexis snapped her mouth shut.

“Not like when you…?” Reid nudged in his sternest voice.

“Not like when she fixed Karina’s phone so the college students she advises would quit bugging her on vacation,” Nicole volunteered, ignoring her sister’s killing look. “Olivia asked her to do that. Also, probably not like when she had the idea to scheme with Great Grammy and Great Grandpa Sullivan in the first place. I mean, how else were we going to get out of Australia?”

Scheme?
Astonished, Reid glanced from Nicole to Alexis.

Belatedly, he remembered Nicole’s earlier confession.

We’ve been conspiring! Together
!

“Argh! Geez, Nicole!” Looking aggravated, Alexis rounded on her sister. “If we got caught, you were
supposed
to put a good spin on all this! That’s your specialty! Sweet talking people into going along with you.” She smacked her head. “Duh!”

After a moment’s thought, it all seemed clear to Reid. His daughters had concocted some sort of plan with his grandparents. If he didn’t miss his guess, that plan had been designed to bring him home for the holidays…and get his kids out of Oz.

He turned. His grandparents were examining the Christmas yard decorations, ostensibly unaware of what was going on.

“What scheme?” Reid asked them. “You never did explain exactly what kind of ‘conspiring’ you four were doing together.”

His grandfather whistled, peering at an icicle on the eaves. His grandmother plucked a handwritten card from one of the porch pillars, where it had been pinned with a thumbtack.

“Oh look!” Cheerfully, Betty waved it. “Vanessa left a note to say that she’d borrowed the vans—and your rental car—and would be back later!”

“Scheme?” Reid repeated, advancing on them. “Conspiracy?”

“All right. Fine.” His grandparents exchanged abashed looks. “I guess we’d better tell you all the details.”

“I guess you’d better.” Reid nodded. If this was going to delay him a moment longer from getting to Karina, it had damn well better be good, too. “From the beginning. I’m all ears.”

 

At Olivia’s revelation, Vanessa gasped. She turned to Karina, her face stricken. “You’re getting back together with your ex-husband?” she wailed. “Since when? Why? How?”

“Since today,” Michael said, ticking off answers on his fingers. “Because…I don’t know. And over videoconference.”

“Thanks, Michael.” Vanessa gave him a hasty smile of acknowledgment. Then her attention returned to Karina. “I can’t believe it. I honestly thought you and Reid would work things out. I thought if I took
you
to Reid, you’d kiss and make up. I mean, I might have failed at getting
him
here today, but I still had hope. I still wasn’t ready to give up on you two.”

Aha. “That explains why you wanted me to get dressed and leave the hotel,” Karina said. “You’re still matchmaking.”

No matter how hopeless those efforts might be.

So were her children, she realized in surprise. They were matchmaking too! Suddenly, their earlier conversation—about calling Vanessa (undoubtedly to conspire and coordinate plans with her)—made a lot more sense.

“I was fully prepared to kidnap you to do it, too.” Vanessa grinned, gesturing at the group gathered there. “We all were.”

There were nods all around. Except from one person.

“Well, this is great. Just great!” Neil interrupted in a tone laden with sarcasm. He stood, throwing his arms in the air with clear exasperation. “I jeopardize my job for the sake of helping put Karina and Reid together, and what do I get as a thank-you? A big, fat ‘don’t bother’! That’s just great.”

“Come on now, Neil,” Rocky soothed. “You don’t mean that.”

“The hell I don’t!” Neil fixed Karina with a frustrated look. “Ten years at Edgware, straight down the drain. And all because I couldn’t stand the thought that
my
evaluation might have contributed to your split with Reid.” He shook his head. “Your kids were right. I should have saved my breath. But instead, I stupidly blew my cover and told Vanessa who I was.”

“I’m still glad you did,” Vanessa assured him. “When I tell Reid and my grandparents, they’ll be glad you did, too. We needed to know the whole story about the evaluation.”

“I’m not glad!” Neil sighed. “I’ll be lucky if I ever get another assignment. If any of you reveal my job, I’m toast.”

Thoroughly confused now, Karina frowned. She glanced at Vanessa. Helpfully, her friend summed up the situation.

“It turns out, Neil is an Edgware evaluator too,” Vanessa said. “There was some kind of mix-up. Neil was assigned to assess The Christmas House, just like your sister was. He didn’t realize the two of you were filing duplicate reports until the news broke about what you were really doing at the B&B—when we found out that you and Reid had split up over it.”

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