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
Everyone in the room nodded. Taken aback, Karina gazed at them. Then she realized the truth. Of course word had spread about her falling-out with Reid—and the reasons for it.
“The duplicate reports were the real basis for Edgware putting the kibosh on the deal,” Rocky explained, casting a commiserating look at his partner. “It was all automatic. Neil’s boss told him the computer system flagged the duplicates and put the whole thing on hold.” He hugged Neil. “Please don’t worry about your job, though. Nobody here is going to tattle on you, I promise.”
A chorus of avowals rang out to reassure Neil. Grudgingly, the (other) undercover evaluator nodded. “Thanks, everyone.”
Tentatively, Karina glanced at Neil. “Does this mean The Christmas House
fail the Edgware evaluation?”
“Officially? No,” Neil said. “It will be rescheduled.”
“So that means I
bankrupt your grandparents and ruin their retirement dreams!” Karina told Vanessa, feeling a sense of relief overtake her. Apparently, she’d been more worried about that issue than she’d realized. “That means there’s still a chance the B&B sale could go through! Right? Eventually?”
“Well…” Vanessa pulled a face. Hesitantly, she nodded. “Yes, that’s true. Technically, the sale of The Christmas House could still go through. Not that any of us want it to.”
Karina didn’t understand. “But your grandparents—”
“Agree. They were in on the whole thing, all along,” Vanessa told her. Beside her, Olivia, Michael, and Josh nodded, well versed in whatever was going on. “Let me explain….”
With his mind whirling, Reid stared at his grandparents.
“Let me get this straight,” he said. “You never wanted The Christmas House sale to go through at all? You set up the whole deal with Edgware as an excuse to bring me home again?”
get us out of the Outback,” Alexis put in. “That too.”
Betty nodded. “We missed you, Reid! We missed the girls! Once your grandfather and I realized Nicole and Alexis wanted to live in the states again, we had to help them get here.”
had to make sure we stayed here,” Nicole said.
“That SpaceFace thing was a big help,” Robert agreed. “We just went online, had a few secret chats, and bam! Done.”
Guiltily, his daughters nodded. “You were always pretty busy, Dad,” Nicole explained. “You never noticed a thing.”
“Not even when I sneaked away at the airport to log on at a public Internet terminal and send Great Grammy Sullivan a message. You thought I was getting Minibons for forty-five minutes?” Jadedly, Alexis shook her head. “Get real, Dad.”
Too late, Reid remembered Alexis’s temporary disappearance at the Grand Rapids airport…and the way she’d dodged his questions by offering him mini cinnamon rolls afterward.
“But…the evaluation. The B&B!” Reid protested. “This was a pretty elaborate scheme, just to bring us home again.”
“Well, you’re you!” His grandfather smiled. “We couldn’t make it
easy. You would have guessed our plan right away.”
“Besides,” his grandmother added, “we wanted to make sure you had a chance to feel needed—to fix things and help out around here. We wanted to make sure you felt you
“You nailed that one,” Reid agreed dispiritedly. He
felt he belonged at The Christmas House again. He’d felt that old Christmas magic. He’d felt
“But what about the Edgware evaluation?” he asked, pondering all the details. “You couldn’t have known the B&B would fail. That’s not possible.”
“Well…” His grandparents exchanged a conspiratorial look with his daughters. “Actually, it
“I don’t believe it.” Shaking her head, Karina sat on her hotel room’s bed. “All of you
the B&B’s evaluation?”
The eager group in her room nodded, headed up by Vanessa.
“Not as part of the plan to bring Reid, Nicole, and Alexis back home,” she explained hastily. “The sabotage part was extra. It happened sort of…organically. One by one, we all took turns introducing little
into The Christmas House’s usually flawless holiday routine—just to make sure the sale wouldn’t actually go through.” Vanessa chuckled. “It wasn’t until pretty far into the process that we realized we were overdoing it.”
Suzanne waved. “Sorry about the power outage!”
Karina gaped at her in astonishment.
“Sorry about the spiked cider!” one of the cooks said.
More confessions came, fast and furious. Laughing, Vanessa held up her palms to stop them. She turned to Karina again.
“So Lagniappe at the Lakeshore was never sabotaging The Christmas House at all?” Karina asked. “It wasn’t them?”
“No. It was us,” Vanessa said. “I can see you’re confused, but it all makes sense—honestly, it does. Because The Christmas House is part of Kismet. It’s part of the community. It’s part of the
” Vanessa gestured wildly, emphasizing the point. “No one wanted to see the B&B change hands. Not really.”
“Someone should have told your grandparents that,” Karina pointed out, her head swimming with all she’d been told. “Before they plunked down a bunch of money on their retirement home.”
Michael gave a nonchalant wave. “Oh, that was a rental.”
“Yeah,” Olivia agreed. “We
“Except Reid,” Josh mused thoughtfully. “Nobody told
At that, everyone appeared stricken…including Vanessa.
“I forgot about that!” she said. “I was so focused on making sure Reid and Karina got back together again that I forgot to fill him in on all this planning and scheming!”
“Don’t worry.” Olivia glanced at the clock. “By now, your grandparents are probably here. They’re probably telling him.”
Josh and Michael nodded. So did Amanda and Rodrigo.
Apparently, Karina realized,
was in on this.
Everyone, that is, except her…and Reid.
“We have to make sure!” Karina jumped to her feet, looking for her borrowed winter boots. She found them, then stuffed her stockinged feet into them. “We have to tell Reid everything!”
She turned. Everyone in the room stared balefully at her.
Karina looked down. “If this is about my pajamas again,” she said defensively, “I swear I’m boycotting pants altogether.”
But Vanessa only folded her arms. “Why do
care about what Reid knows? You’re reuniting with your ex-husband.”
said the combined, betrayal-filled gazes aimed at her—including those belonging to her children. Discomfited, Karina made herself quit searching for a sweater and scarf.
Somberly, she looked at her children. Their expressions made their feelings pretty plain. But just to make sure…
“You three think I’ve made a huge mistake, don’t you?”
As though they’d been on mute until now, Olivia, Michael, and Josh spoke up at once, not caring who else heard them.
“I used to want you and Dad to be together again,” Olivia admitted in an urgent voice, “but not anymore! Not since Reid.”
“I just like it better when you’re both happier,” Josh said. “There’s less crying. And more boogie-board riding.”
“I prefer having two bedrooms, twice as many toys, and all the Flamin’ Hot Doritos I can eat at Dad and Chelsea’s condo!” Michael said, rubbing his belly. “Don’t worry about me, Mom!”
Awed, Karina gazed back at them. “Well, I guess that’s a good thing, then,” she said, feeling another overwhelming surge of relief. “Because I
get back together with your dad.”
Olivia widened her eyes. “You didn’t? Really?”
“Nope.” Karina shook her head. “I was tempted, for your sakes. But then I realized that I wanted
to be happy too. And being with your dad wasn’t going to make me happy.”
In a singsong voice, Vanessa hinted, “I know who would….”
Grinning at her friend’s unstoppable matchmaking, Karina opened her arms. Michael was first to run into them. Olivia and Josh weren’t far behind, piling on for hugs. “I’m sorry about the divorce, you guys. But we’re making this work, right?”
All three of them nodded. “Don’t worry, Mom,” Olivia said.
Touched by her daughter’s reassurance, Karina hugged them all more tightly. “I love you. You’re the best kids ever.”
“We love you, too, Mom,” they chimed in heartfelt unison.
At that, Karina would swear everyone in the room awwed.
Olivia gave her an inquisitive look. “But, Mom, what about that text message you sent to Chelsea? You said, ‘I hope we can always be friends.’ I thought you were apologizing because of their breakup—because you were taking Dad away from her.”
Michael and Josh nodded. They must have discussed this.
At that imaginative interpretation, Karina smiled. Her children might be smart, but they were still children. “I was apologizing for accidentally getting a snag in one of the sweaters Chelsea lent me.”
When I was jumping on top of Reid.
“That’s all. And I was telling Chelsea that, even if she and your dad
work things out—but I think they will—I want to stay friends with her. It turns out, ‘C’ is all right.”
“Oh.” Josh smiled. “I’m glad you’re friends now.”
“Me too. So, you see? I’m still pretty helpful sometimes, to some people,” Karina said. “Even if the college students I advise don’t need me quite as much between semesters this year—as evidenced by all the student phone calls I’m
“Um, Mom?” Wearing a guilty expression, Olivia cut her off. She traded glances with her siblings. “About those phone calls from your students…There’s something we have to tell you.”
“So,” Betty Sullivan said, “everything is all right now.” She clapped her gloved hands with an air of satisfaction, surveying the festive B&B with evident pride. “We’ll keep on running this place ourselves, just the way we love to do—”
“Although you don’t seem to have done
a bad job of things,” Robert put in, slapping his hand on one of the garland-wrapped porch pillars, “during our brief absence.”
“—you and the girls will move back here to the states—”
At that, Nicole and Alexis beamed, high-fiving each other.
“—and everyone will live happily ever after,” Reid’s grandmother concluded. Her eyes sparkled. “I’m so happy for you, Reid. The minute you told us what happened while we were gone, I
we’d been completely right to conspire behind your back.”
Betty said it so sweetly, so innocently, that Reid could hardly find it in his heart to be angry with her for doing it. In fact, he wasn’t angry with anyone. If there was one thing the Sullivans were good at, it was being loyal…and being loving.
Besides, given the way his grandparents had reacted to
one small confession, he couldn’t be anything except happy.
he’d said after their multigenerational conspiracies were revealed,
I fell in love. I fell in love at Christmastime, with a wonderful woman—and her three children.
Betty and Robert Sullivan
laughed themselves silly at the idea, the way Reid had feared. Instead, they’d stood there in the fluffy Kismet snowfall that had begun drifting down, and they’d listened raptly as he’d told them about meeting Karina. About falling for her. About getting to know Olivia, Josh, and Michael, and loving them a little too.
“So what are you waiting for?” His grandfather startled him by asking, his voice booming into the frosty air. “Get going!”
“Yes!” his grandmother urged. “Go get Karina! Hurry up!”
They both appeared more than eager to meet her. And Reid was definitely eager to get her. To find her. To apologize to her. To beg her, if necessary, to forgive him for making her leave—for not trusting her, most of all, to love him back.
“I’d love to,” Reid said. “But there are still a few obstacles here. The B&B’s transport vans are still gone. The Kismet taxis still aren’t running. The Riverfront Hotel is still a long way away. And we don’t have any transportation.”
“Bah. A Sullivan never quits, Dad!” Nicole said. “Not when climbing a mountain, and not when doing anything else either.”
“That’s right!” Alexis proclaimed. “Where do you think we learned to be so good at getting what we want, huh, Dad?”
Before Reid could guess, his grandfather answered that question himself. “They learned it from
Reid. So go on—go get that girl of yours! Don’t let anything stop you!”
Newly fired up now, Reid scanned The Christmas House and its grounds. Surely there was some way he could get to Karina. If he had to, he’d walk every icy step of the way. He’d crawl. He’d put on snowshoes, ice skates, cross-country skis…. He’d do whatever it took. Because that’s how much she meant to him.
Suddenly, Alexis took out a GPS device from her pocket. She showed it to Reid. “Uh-oh, Dad. Look! Karina is on the move!”
That did it. With one last glance, Reid made up his mind. “I have an idea,” he said, motioning them onward. “Let’s go!”
Wearing a coat, a scarf, two sweaters, a T-shirt, a silky camisole, two pairs of wooly socks, warm boots, gloves, thermal underwear, holiday-print pajama pants, and a hat, Karina led the way out of her room at the Riverfront Hotel. Everyone else thundered behind her down the hall. Her children took the forefront, scampering like eager puppies, elated by the prospect of having another mission.
mission this time…just a mission. A mission Karina devoutly hoped they succeeded at. So much was counting on this. Her heart. Her soul. Her notion of a happy holiday for Olivia, Josh, and Michael. Even, if she was lucky, her future.
They rounded the corner and approached the elevator bank. One of the cars was out of order; the other appeared to be stuck on a lower floor. With a groan of urgency, Karina wheeled around, almost colliding with Vanessa, Rocky, and Neil, who’d been hard on her heels. Almost crashing into them were the maids, the two chefs, and Suzanne. Karina didn’t want to think about what a Benny Hill–style comedy routine this would have turned into had all the guests still waiting downstairs joined them already.
Filled with a sense of purpose, she raised her arm, signaling everyone to stop. She motioned to a door.
“Let’s take the stairs!” Karina said. “It’ll be faster.”
As she wrenched open the stairwell access door, the first sounds of the annual Kismet Christmas parade reached her. Strong enough to filter through the hotel’s walls, a flourish of joyous holiday music could be heard—a marching band, if she didn’t miss her guess. Parades always had marching bands—even, apparently, if they had to do their marching through snowdrifts.
Newly urgent, Karina hurried downstairs. Her footsteps (and the parade music) were almost immediately drowned out by all the other footsteps following behind her. Olivia laughed and went faster, racing with her brothers. Vanessa pursued Karina along with the staff and guests, probably still hoping her vaunted matchmaking skills would prove unassailable, once again.
“I’ll expect an invitation to the wedding,” Vanessa panted, as though reading Karina’s mind. “Be sure to tell Reid!”
“All I’m going to tell him,” Karina insisted, “is that trusting me
wreck his grandparents’ dream retirement.” That’s why she’d left her room in such a rush. That’s why she intended to leave the hotel and get back to The Christmas House as fast as she could—whether by gift-wrapped transport van or some other means. “Reid needs to know that he did a good job at the B&B. That all the people he loves are going to be okay.”
“Seriously.” Vanessa still jogged along with her, neck and neck down the stairs, scarf flying. “My grandparents planned to be here by now. They’ve probably already told Reid everything. What
should be telling him is how you feel about him!”
“That’s sweet, Vanessa.” Karina read a sign as it flashed by in her peripheral vision. Two floors to go. Her retinue’s pounding footsteps still hammered the stairs. “But Reid made it pretty clear that we’re over with. I can’t hope for more.”
Even though, foolishly, I still do….
have more!” Urgently, Vanessa kept pace with her. “If you would only tell Reid how you feel, I
things would work out between you two. After all, it’s Christmas!”
“Christmas is magic, Mom!” Michael piped up from nearby.
Argh. Driven to distraction by all the events of the day—and yesterday—Karina shook her head. “How can you still believe that, Michael?” she demanded. “Does
really feel magical to you?” She gestured. “Racing down a dingy hotel stairwell?”
Her younger son only nodded. “Yep. It’s fun!”
“We’re all together, Mom,” Josh said. “That’s what counts.”
“I don’t know why you’re wasting time talking,” Olivia put in. “
why don’t you? Bella would run for Edward!”
Laughing, Karina felt spurred onward. She did descend the final few steps at a run, followed by everyone else. At the landing, the parade music grew louder, accompanied by cheering and the muted conversations of passersby. The parade must be happening just on the other side of the access door.
Vanessa grabbed her arm, her expression grave. “Just consider it, okay?” she begged. “Just consider telling Reid how you really feel. For me? No, wait. Do it for yourself. Okay?”
Struck by her new friend’s sincerity, Karina couldn’t turn her down just like that. But with no reason to believe things had truly changed between her and Reid, she couldn’t offer Vanessa much hope, either. Torn, she decided to hedge her bets.
“If Reid still has his ‘nookie beard,’ I’ll tell him how I really feel about him,” Karina promised. Because, after all, what were the odds he hadn’t already shaved it off, thereby proving to himself (and the world) he was over her? “And if he’s clean shaven, I’ll stick to the facts about Edgware. Deal?”
Feeling certain there was no risk involved—except to her poor beleaguered heart—Karina stuck out her hand.
Vanessa eyed it. She quirked her mouth. “You should know that my track record of fix-ups is unbeatable.”
“I’ll take my chances,” Karina deadpanned.
“Also, Reid was in the process of shaving when I left.”
At that, Karina quailed. “Do we have a deal or not?”
Firmly, Vanessa clasped her hand. “We do. Let’s go!”
Then Karina pushed open the hotel’s access door, the frigid December air rushed in the stairwell, and their entire entourage stepped onto the sidewalk, nearly in the midst of the parade.
The first things Karina saw were the two gift-wrapped B&B transport vans, handily parked close by. At least she had transportation! She could put Reid’s mind at ease about his grandparents and their retirement without delay. Then she headed nearer, saw the throngs of fellow B&B guests standing by the vans to enjoy the parade, and realized she had a problem.
The parade flowed past on both sides. Jolly-looking Kismet residents and tourists were packed in tightly nearby, currently watching a red and green float drive past, gaily decorated with streamers. The transport vans were completely hemmed in.
Karina wasn’t going anywhere. Not until after the parade.
It took Reid much longer than he expected to reach the Kismet city limits. Skirting the frozen pathway between the lakeshore and riverfront, he watched his breath puff into the frosty air and wondered what would come first: frostbite or more heartbreak? Because there was every chance Karina didn’t want to see him—much less see him the way he was about to arrive.
After all, he
been extraordinarily mean to her. He’d demeaned her career expertise—that had to hurt. He’d laughed off her attempts to help him. And then he’d turned his back on her.
If their roles were reversed, Reid didn’t know if he’d have the strength to forgive. Forgiveness wasn’t like leading a pack of newbie adventure travelers. That mission was easily accomplished by anyone with the proper training and experience.
Forgiveness was more like scaling an icebound mountain. To do that, a person had to work hard at it. The person had to be careful and diligent. Sometimes the person had to drive in a pickaxe and just hang on, doing his or her best not to tempt failure by looking down.
A person trying to forgive had to look up. Up up up.
He hoped like hell Karina would look up.
As though sensing his trepidation, Nicole took his hand. She squeezed it in her smaller, mittened hand. “Don’t look so worried, Dad. Chances are, Karina
still likes you.”
“Yeah,” Alexis agreed from his other side. “And even if you blow it and
get Karina back, we’ll still love you!”
“That’s…very reassuring, girls. Thanks.”
He kept going. Near downtown, though, Reid was forced to stop. As his grandparents had predicted—and reiterated just then from their positions near him—the streets were choked with parade traffic, pedestrians, or both. A light snow drifted down on all of it, partly obscuring Reid’s path—not to mention the town’s old-fashioned wrought iron street lamps, sparkling lights, and Christmas decorations. Far in the distance, the Riverside Hotel loomed, several stories high, taunting him with its inaccessibility.
“I’m afraid this is the end of the line,” Robert said.
“I don’t know how we can get through this,” Betty added.
But Reid knew. He’d get through it the same way he got through everything in his life. With grit. Determination. And a big, ass-kicking helping of
just keep going.
He set his jaw.
“I didn’t come this far to turn back now,” he said. “I’m going. But if you all want to stay here and wait…go ahead.”
For a heartbeat, Reid paused. No one moved a muscle.
“Okay.” For the first time that day, Reid grinned wholeheartedly, warmed by his family’s devotion. “Here we go!”
Standing on tiptoes, flanked by her children, Vanessa, and most of the guests and staff at The Christmas House, Karina peered over the heads of the paradegoers. Far down Main Street, more floats snaked their way forward, moving at a snail’s pace. Clowns in Santa hats meandered down the snow-covered street, reaching into their Santa bags for candy. They flung it to the eager children on the sidelines, who thronged to catch it.
In front of her, yet another marching band passed by, playing a rollicking rendition of “Jingle Bell Rock.” It sounded wonderful…but in this din, it wouldn’t even be possible to call Reid on her cell phone. Karina had no choice but to wait it out. The only trouble was…did Reid still want to see her? And if he did, would she still have the courage, twenty or thirty minutes from now, to face him?
If he gave her another stony I-don’t-know-you look, she didn’t know if she could endure it. But for now, Karina felt strong. Bolstered by her new friends, encouraged by her children, and heartened by the knowledge that she
have to be endlessly helpful to everyone around her or risk being abandoned by them, Karina held her ground. Surely the parade couldn’t last too much longer. Could it?
Impatiently, she watched another float pass by. She stamped her feet for warmth, then traded a smile with Suzanne. But there were no two ways around it: This parade was killing her! Karina needed it to end. She needed to get to Reid, to make sure he didn’t blame himself for the crazy mess of this year’s holiday season at The Christmas House. Knowing Reid, he’d taken all the accidental mishaps to heart, when he wasn’t responsible at all.
Watching one of the Santa clowns, Karina realized she could use this delay to rehearse. That way, she’d know exactly what to say when she finally caught up with Reid at the B&B.
Reid, I love you,
she practiced, then shook her head.
wasn’t what she would say. She had to focus!
She had to concentrate on the issue at hand: Reid’s feelings. His feelings of failure, vulnerability, and (probable) culpability.
Karina wanted to ease those feelings…to make sure Reid was happy. Sure, a part of her still hoped he had room for forgiveness…and maybe a little room for something more. But she couldn’t count on that, Karina reminded herself—no matter how assured Vanessa had seemed. After all, according to Reid, his cousin’s matchmaking track record was notoriously awful—even if no one wanted to hurt Vanessa’s feelings by telling her so.
“Come on. Hurry up!” Karina muttered to herself as the next float passed by in a glittery spectacle of tinsel and lights. She craned her neck, trying to gauge how many more floats might remain in the lineup…and caught sight of something strange.
A horse-drawn sleigh. A very
horse-drawn sleigh. A horse-drawn sleigh pulled by two massive Clydesdales and emblazoned with the recognizable, holly-wreathed logo of one very popular, very beloved Kismet B&B: The Christmas House.
Vanessa saw it too. She blinked. “Is that…?”
“It is.” Karina nodded, hardly able to believe her eyes. As she watched, the sleigh’s determined-looking driver veered his rig into the parade traffic, sliding into position as though he’d been meant to be there all along.
was driving the sleigh. Alexis and Nicole were with him, too, along with a pair of golf-visor-wearing, parade-waving seniors. “It’s The Christmas House’s sleigh!” Karina turned to Vanessa. “I didn’t know the B&B was part of the parade!”
part of the parade.” Frowning in perplexity, her friend stared down Main Street. “I’m pretty sure Reid just party crashed the parade. And he’s coming this way, too. Look!”
Karina did look, her heart in her throat. So did the rest of her retinue: the B&B’s guests, the staff, Amanda and Rodrigo, and her children. Chattering excitedly, Olivia, Josh, and Michael pointed to the horse-drawn sleigh.
“Mom, look!” Michael shouted. “It’s them!”
“Go get Reid!” Olivia added. “Now’s your chance!”
Suddenly torn with indecision, Karina gazed down the street. Seeing Reid was like seeing her future coming nearer—a grim-faced, determined future that was moving at a snail’s pace.
“Why does he look so mad?” Karina asked Vanessa.
“Probably because he misses you,” Vanessa said with typical confidence and ridiculous optimism. She nudged her. “Go!”
“I—” Karina bit her lip. Wildly, she said, “I’m going!”
With her heart pounding madly, she ducked a couple of parade watchers, then headed down the street. Was she really going to party crash the parade herself? she wondered. Was she really going to…to do what, exactly? Flag down the sleigh? Jump onto it, hobo style? Jog alongside, trying to talk to Reid?
Karina didn’t know. All she knew was that she was doing it.
For the first time in a long time, she was truly going for it. For herself and no one else.
Oddly enough, the realization was exhilarating. Feeling herself break into a smile, she ran faster. The crowds parted. Karina reached the edge of the street. But somehow, incredibly, she couldn’t see The Christmas House’s horse-drawn sleigh anymore. She turned in a circle, looking. Where had it gone?