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
“Wait.” Stephanie sounded harried. All lightheartedness vanished from her tone. “Please. I need your help.”
It wasn’t like Stephanie to be so hesitant. Feeling concerned, Karina gripped her cell phone more tightly.
“Complicated like, ‘The coq au vin for my supper club isn’t Julia Child worthy’?” she asked, striving for the breeziness her sister lacked. “Or complicated like, ‘I just found Justin licking the banisters and singing a Lady Gaga song’?”
the coq au vin. Or the licking.”
“Just the singing?”
“Actually, he has a very nice voice.”
Stephanie’s admiring tone made Karina smile, despite everything. Her sister and Justin gave her hope. They proved two people
be genuinely happy together. Stephanie and Justin respected one another. They trusted one another. They helped one another in ways that Karina had always wanted to help Eric.
Unfortunately, Eric hadn’t wanted her help. Or
But Stephanie still needed her. So much so that Karina could have sworn she heard a faint crackling sound travel across the phone line, followed by a harsh, relieved exhalation.
“Are you smoking again?” she demanded.
Silence. Guilty silence. Then, “Only one. It’s been a long day. I hardly know my own name at this point. I’m in trouble!”
“Whatever you need,” Karina said, “I’ll do it.”
“Don’t you want to know what it is first?”
“You can fill me in later.” Hearing another thump, Karina peered through the “attic” opening. “In the meantime…Any ideas how to remove glitter from an eight-year-old boy’s hair?”
It didn’t take long for the creek bed to fill. Or for Reid’s travel companions to eyeball the frothy rushing water, stare across it at the sudden, glittering mirage of the Evans Adventure Travel campsite—their ultimate destination, which hadn’t been visible until they’d reached the crest of the ridge—and foolishly decide they could probably make it across.
“We can probably make it across!” Binky shouted.
“Hell yeah!” Booster agreed. “Let’s go.”
“Hundred bucks says I’m first to make it,” Asshat put in.
The rest of them clamored to get in on that action.
Disappointed, Reid shook his head. He consulted his watch. He’d hoped things would go differently today. On the other hand, he usually hoped things would go differently…and was generally disappointed. As though in blatant proof of that trend, his charges continued to lay bets on their odds of surviving the flash-flood waters, in direct defiance of Reid’s instructions.
“So long, suckers!” Topher yelled gleefully. He took off his pack, held it over his head, then waded in. Wearing a smug smile, he turned to face them all. “See? Water’s fine.”
Oh hell. The overconfident ones were always the worst—the loudest, the lamest, and the biggest pains in Reid’s ass. Swearing, he plucked at the Velcro straps encasing his leg cast. Just to be on the safe side. If worse came to worst—and it probably would—the unwieldy thing would only slow him down.
“Oh no, you didn’t!” Binky shouted. He waded in too.
Oh boy. The stupidity was contagious. Even as Reid doubled his efforts to free himself of his leg cast, the crunch of footsteps on rocks alerted him that someone was approaching.
Reid glanced up. A little girl stopped a short distance from him. Her brow furrowed as she examined the flood.
Then she shrugged and stuffed her hands in her pockets. “Dad, would you please tell Alexis to give me back my stuffed dingo puppy? She hid it, and she won’t tell me where it is.”
“Nicole, honey, I’m a little busy right now.”
“I know, Dad. But you’re the only one who can help, ’cause you’re the smartest and the strongest. And Alexis—”
“Nuh-uh! Don’t listen to her, Dad!” His other daughter—one year older than Nicole’s ten—scrambled over the ridge. Down the slope behind her stood an official Evans Adventure Travel Jeep, parked crookedly in the dirt. “Whatever she said, I didn’t do it!” Alexis shouted. “I swear. I hate her stupid dingo.”
stupid!” Nicole shrieked, lips trembling.
“Is too.” Alexis crossed her arms. “Stupid like you.”
“No name-calling.” Reid scowled at his daughters. Then, with that parental edict automatically delivered, he jabbed his chin toward his group of foundering travelers. “As soon as I’m done with this bunch, I’ll help you look for your dingo, Nicole. And Lex…Don’t tell me you drove the Jeep again?”
Casually, his daughter quirked one skinny shoulder. “It’s not my fault the garage here doesn’t have better security.”
“They have an alarm, infrared sensors, keyless entry—”
“Like I said.” Clearly relishing the fact that she’d defeated all those high-tech measures, Alexis grinned. “They need better security. Besides, I’m old enough to drive.”
“No, you’re not,” Nicole disagreed. “You only look like you’re old enough to drive if you’re wearing enough eye shadow.”
On his little girl? His multilingual, tomboyish, sweet little girl? Reid must have heard wrong.
“So? You’re just mad because you can’t reach the pedals.”
Nicole’s cheeks pinkened—a dead giveaway that she’d tried. And failed. And hadn’t wanted her dad to know about it.
“The two of you should quit stealing Jeeps.” Reid issued the statement distractedly, the way he performed most parental duties that involved rules and restrictions and pointless niceties. As far as he was concerned, kids should be kids—not tiny, obedient adults. “I draw the line at breaking the law.”
“Since when?” Alexis asked. “That one time in Istanbul—”
” Reid worked more diligently at his leg cast coverings. Near the creek, Booster and Asshat struggled just as mightily with their backpack straps. They both waded in.
Nicole noticed. “Um, Dad? Those guys don’t look so smart.”
“Yeah.” Alexis made a face. “They’re about as sure-footed as that guide we had in the Himalayas last year. The drunk one.”
Reid remembered him. He’d had to haul up their “sherpa” from the edges of snowy drop-offs more than once. That would teach him to mentor enthusiastic newbies. More and more, though, it seemed as though newbies were the only ones who wanted to go into the adventure travel business. Except they wanted to do their work in comfort, with high-def TVs in their roomy tents, 24/7 Internet access, and magically retouched souvenir photos of their “adventures” to show for their troubles afterward. Sort of like the corporate crew currently flailing away in the creek.
Business definitely wasn’t what it used to be. Sometimes Reid wondered if he’d be happier in another line of work.
Usually those glum thoughts occurred at times like these, though, when his inconvenient sense of duty forced him to do something unpleasant…like dive into a cold, muddy undertow.
A strangled cry came from the creek bed. Topher sank.
“Dad…” Nicole bit her lip. “That guy just went under.”
“I know, honey. I’m going.”
Reid ripped off the remainder of his leg cast, took off his boots, then stood. His cast and its engineered coverings landed in a neat pile at Alexis’s feet. They drew her attention.
“Ah. The old ‘fake cast’ maneuver.” She nodded, probably remembering the other times Reid had employed the same strategy with his clients. Certain clients relied on him too much—to the extent that it made them reckless. Reid had begun wearing the leg cast on trial runs—especially with arrogant types like Binky, Asshat, Booster, and Topher—several years ago. It forced clients to take their own welfare more seriously…at least in theory. “Nice one, Dad. I’ll bet they didn’t even spot the trick fastenings.” She picked it up. “I did a good job on this.”
That was true. Alexis was handy in that way. She always had been. At five, she’d dismantled Reid’s compass and trail watch—and then reassembled them. At eight, she’d reprogrammed his GPS units and hacked his satellite phone. Now, at eleven, she had yet to meet the device, technology, or ordinary, old-school lock and key that could defeat her talents.
“You did, Alexis,” Nicole said. “You’re smart like that.”
“Ha. Nice try, stupidhead. Flattery will
get you your stuffed dingo back.”
have it!” Nicole muttered a French swearword—one Reid should have disapproved of. “I knew it! Give it back!”
“Why don’t you make me? I’d like to see you try.”
Ahead in the creek, Asshat and Binky fell to their knees with an enormous splash. Their packs fell too. Booster gawked at them, then tried to pull Topher to his feet. He dropped like a stone, splattering his expensive designer “safari gear” with mud.
This bunch really was hopeless.
There was no help for it. Reid would have to go in after them. Squaring his shoulders, he faced his bickering preteen daughters. “You two play nicely together. I’ll be right back.”
With renewed agility, he waded into the rushing waters.
(definitely) December, (probably) Thursday
Inland Australia: The Outback
Staring into the campfire that night, Reid rested his forearms on his thighs. In the darkness surrounding him, Outback creatures skittered and cried, carrying on their simple lives.
Eat. Sleep. Fuck. Hunt. Lather, rinse, repeat.
He tried to keep his own life just as simple. Lately, though, things had begun to feel increasingly complicated.
Take today’s test run, for instance. After he’d fished Topher from the drink, he’d dragged Binky and Booster safely to the creek bank. He’d signaled the Evans Adventure Travel remote engineer to cut the water supply that had artificially caused the flood and drain it into the base camp’s reclaimed water holding tank. Then Reid had rescued Asshat, chewed out the man for kicking off the whole sorry mess with his idiotic crossing-the-creek bet, and told them all he was out as their assigned guide.
Out. Period. End of story. They’d failed Reid’s obligatory pretrip test run, performed in a safe, relatively controllable circuit around the base campsite. There was no way he’d chance taking them on a real trek across the Outback. He knew better.
As Reid should have expected, though, the privileged foursome had reacted to his decision with about as much maturity as they did everything else—meaning, none at all. Even now, the sounds of Binky and Booster haranguing Shane drifted across the campsite’s grounds, stirring the cooling air with ugly obscenities and an even uglier aura of I-want-that entitlement.
Frowning, Reid turned his attention to Nicole and Alexis. Their tent, well lighted by a pair of solar-powered lanterns and decorated with the tribal rugs they’d helped barter for in Marakesh, stood a few meters away with its flaps open.
Inside, his daughters perched cross-legged on hi-tech sleeping bags, heads bowed over their homeschooling textbooks. Nicole hugged her stuffed dingo. Nearby, their nanny/tutor, Amanda, flopped on another bedroll with a jar of Marmite and a pack of crackers by her side, a battered paperback clutched in her hands. Knowing Amanda, it was probably a travel memoir.
She was obsessed with them. She was also obsessed with trying every local delicacy they encountered in their journeys. She’d eagerly sampled fermented herring in Sweden,
—crunchy wasp crackers—in Japan, and Ugli fruit straight from the tree in Jamaica. Amanda loved to travel, which only made her an even more ideal companion for Alexis and Nicole.
Reid had hired Amanda on an old friend’s recommendation, when she still was a fresh-faced graduate of Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. In the two years since, he hadn’t had cause to regret his decision. Although Amanda was only twenty-four now, she was responsible, smart, resourceful, and irreplaceable.
Not as irreplaceable as his daughters. But important.
Remembering the way Alexis had boosted that old Jeep earlier today, Reid smiled. That girl had a lot of her mother in her, starting with her red hair, freckles, and tall, gangly figure—and ending with her utter imperviousness to rules or traditions. In a few years, Alexis would be drawing boys like butterflies to sugarcane. She was just that pretty—and that unique.
Inevitably, he knew, there would be crushes and flirting, first dates and curfews, breakups and heartache. Reid only hoped he’d have the wisdom to cope with it all. Failing that, he figured if any unruly boys came to call on his daughter, he’d bench-press them until they agreed to behave.
worried him. Or she would have if Reid were the worrying kind. Mostly, he took things as they came. But Nicole might change that. She had a natural gift for charming people—from nomadic sheepherders in Lhasa to salty-tongued net fishermen in Norway. Everyone who met her liked her.
Her charisma was as inexplicable as it was undeniable.
Like father, like daughter,
his ex-wife would have said. At least Gabby might have said that, had she dragged herself away from her academic research career long enough to pay attention to something (or someone) that couldn’t be put under a microscope.
Gabby Foster-Sullivan was never short on theories, Reid knew, whether the topic under discussion was the potential genetic inheritability of charisma or the proper way to eat
At first, Reid had loved that about her. He’d loved her verve, her long legs, and her agile mind with equal enthusiasm. When they’d met near a research site just outside Kazakhstan, Gabby had theorized that their similarly nomadic approaches to life would make them perfect for one another. Reid had agreed.
When they’d married and then had Alexis and Nicole, Gabby had theorized that there’d be nothing more satisfying than combining parenthood, marriage, and itinerant botanical research. Reid had agreed with that too. But later, when he and Gabby had found themselves pulled in two different directions—on two separate continents—his (now ex-) wife had come up with other, less complimentary theories to describe their life together.
One had been that Reid was selfish for not settling down near Gabby’s research sites. Another had been that Reid should have grown out of his wanderlust, the same way their children had grown out of diapers. Reid hadn’t agreed with those theories. Frankly, he’d been pissed to have his life’s passion—exploring the world—equated to potty training. But he
agreed, sadly, with Gabby’s final theory: Sometimes love wasn’t enough.
times love wasn’t enough, Reid had learned since then. His bachelor existence here in the Outback was proof of that.
But at least he had his children with him. Reid was grateful for that—which brought him back to Nicole. Charisma like his daughter’s came with a price, he knew. And although at the moment Nicole used her persuasive abilities harmlessly—to wheedle extra treats from local grandmotherly types or to stall on doing her history homework—soon she was likely to discover other, riskier uses for her skills. Or to use those skills on unscrupulous outsiders—people who couldn’t see the tenderhearted girl beneath the smiles. People who might hurt her.
Hell. Being a father was the hardest thing Reid had ever done. Given the adventuresome life he’d led so far, that was saying something, too. Over the past two decades, he’d faced down grizzlies, brush fires, and semidelirious clients in the grips of dengue fever. He’d hung zip lines from skyscraper heights in Costa Rica. He’d endured volcanic eruptions and arctic frostbite. He’d even survived freeze-dried pinto bean chili. In the end, he’d come through all those experiences with one sure bit of knowledge: The only way to survive was to put one foot in front of the other, keep moving, and refuse to quit.
That was exactly what he intended to do with his kids.
“Ooh! That scrape doesn’t look so good.”
Pulled from his thoughts by that feminine voice, Reid glanced up to see the camp’s medic, Helene, standing in front of him. She pursed her lips as she examined his arm, then leaned closer, treating him to a cleavage-filled view down her partly unbuttoned shirt. Knowing Helene and her Scandinavian-style sexual directness, the view was wholly intentional. Given half a chance, Helene would have preferred to be naked at all times.
“You should come to my tent.” Helene lifted her gaze to his. She licked her lips. “I could…tend to this for you?”
“It’s only a scratch. I can hardly feel it.”
“Mmm. Interesting. Tell me something.” She dropped her hand to his thigh, unsubtly caressing him. “Can you feel…this?”
Reid grinned. He covered her hand with his, stopping her ascent toward his groin. In the firelight, Helene pouted.
“A dead man could feel that. You have talented hands.”
“That’s what they told me in medical school.”
Reid raised his eyebrows. “Interesting school. But I’m going to have to pass.” Regretfully, he squeezed her hand. He softened his voice. “By morning, I’ll probably be headed for another campsite, with another group of doofuses—”
“There’s a lot of nighttime between now and morning.” Helene gave him another deliberately suggestive look. Her fingers wiggled from beneath his, then crept up his thigh again. “I can think of a few ways to make those hours feel
nice for both of us. Can’t you?”
“—which means I won’t be here for long.” He never was. Reid liked to make that fact clear up front, just to avoid misunderstandings and hurt feelings. “So as tempting as this is”—he let his grin broaden—“and it definitely
Helene laughed, shaking out her long blond hair. “I’m not asking you to go steady, Sullivan! I just thought we could have some fun together. But if you’re too tough for a little TLC—”
“I don’t like to be fussed over.” That much was true.
“—then you’re the one who’s missing out. Not me.”
Her seductive smile made him waver. They were both adults. What would be the harm in spending some time together?
“Well, I wouldn’t go that far.
might be missing out too.” Seriously considering her invitation—now that Helene had made it clear she wasn’t expecting anything significant or long term between them—Reid let his gaze linger on her mouth. “I’ve been told
have some fairly talented hands myself.”
“Mmmm. Is that true?” Helene purred. “Tell me more.”
“Yeah,” Shane cracked from the campfire. He rounded its stone-edged circle. “Tell us
about it, Magic Fingers.”
Looking disappointed, Helene watched the camp’s owner approach. She leaned back on her heels, then got to her feet, offering Reid a final, tantalizing glimpse of cleavage.
Oblivious to Helene’s discontent, Shane sat heavily on the same peeled log that Reid occupied. His dark hair stood on end. His bristly jawline looked tight. He clenched a whiskey bottle in one hand. Irritably, he took a swig, then frowned.
“Don’t mind me, you two.” Shane gestured with the bottle. “Go ahead with planning your illicit little get-together. God knows,
ought to be getting laid around here.”
“It’s not going to be you, with that attitude.” Helene appeared to size up the situation. She sighed in apparent—and momentary—defeat, then turned to Reid. “I’ll be in my tent”—she pointed a few meters away—“if you find yourself with some energy to spare after you tuck in your girls for the night. They’re adorable, by the way. So are you. Especially with them.”
She winked, then glanced at Shane. “Have you thought about borrowing a baby? Even a hard case like you might get lucky if you were toting around a baby. Or maybe a puppy. A cute, tiny—”
He peered up at her. “Don’t you have bandages to roll?”
“If that’s a double entendre, you’re
out of practice, boss. No wonder you’re having trouble.” Grinning, Helene trailed her fingers across Reid’s knee, then sashayed away with a wave. “Night, boys. Try not to get too carried away with the whiskey.”
Regretfully, Reid watched her leave. He hadn’t wanted to mislead Helene into believing they might have a future together. They didn’t. Couldn’t. He’d never been able to stay put. With few exceptions, women had never been able to deal with that.
But a night of togetherness had sounded damn good. He could hardly remember what it felt like to sleep while holding close to a woman—a woman whose every feminine curve felt as familiar as his own fingerprints.
He missed it.
On the other hand, he also missed NFL football,
stale Oreos, and showers that reliably spit out odorless, colorless water. But Reid was getting by without those things. He could get by without nightly spooning, for fuck’s sake.
What was the matter with him?
Beside him, Shane snorted. “It’s too bad the Four Stooges didn’t want to sleep with you.” He pointed his whiskey bottle toward the row of camp visitor tents, where Binky, Booster, Asshat, and Topher had been assigned to sleep. “Maybe they would have tried harder on their pretrip fitness test if they’d thought there would be a meaningful reward at the end.” He waggled his considerable eyebrows. “If you know what I mean.”
“Nuns in Brisbane know what you mean. And you make a lousy pimp, by the way. Remind me to look for new management before I hit the road again.” Reid grabbed the bottle. He took a swig, then winced while the liquor burned its way to his gut. Exhaling mightily, he examined the slender bottle and its contents. “This is half gone. How long have you been at this, anyway?”
“Not long enough.” Shane shrugged. He retrieved the bottle with the same zeal a child used to snatch a free balloon at the doctor’s office. “The fearsome foursome are leaving in the morning. I had to refund their nonrefundable deposits.”
Reid frowned. “I’ll cover your expenses.”
“No need.” Shane hugged the whiskey to his chest. He stared into the campfire. “It’s not your fault. You were right to boot them. Bunch of idiots, if you ask me.” He looked at Reid. “I wasn’t sure about your pretrip fitness test, but you sold me.”
Reid nodded, still eyeing the whiskey bottle. How long had Shane been drinking this heavily? He lifted his gaze to his friend.
No point busting his chops about it, he decided. Shane was a big boy. He could handle himself. Besides, Reid didn’t like anyone poking into his private life—or offering him unwelcome “help.” Being on the receiving end of too much mollycoddling made him feel weak. He doubted Shane was any different.
“It works,” Reid said. “It works a hell of a lot better than believing what people tell me, that’s for sure. They claim they’ve read the pretrip materials, then they go batshit at the sight of a harmless wombat. They swear they can meet the minimal fitness requirements, then they punk out, red faced and gasping, the first time they have to climb a hill. They promise they can handle a fifty-pound pack, then they beg me to shoulder it.”
They promise to pay on time, then hop a plane to Yemin in the middle of the night instead.
It had taken Reid a solid month to pull in enough work to make up for that particular unexpected shortfall. He hadn’t liked the feeling of putting his income—and his daughters’ well-being—at risk, even temporarily. He had some emergency cash stashed away, of course, but that incident had taught him that “some” didn’t necessarily equal “enough.”