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
Back in the day, Reid hadn’t worried about security. Now he did. For Alexis and Nicole, if not for himself. Also, to a lesser degree, for Amanda. The girl might have a freakish affection for frogs’ legs dipped in Dijon mustard and dukka, but he owed her.
He wasn’t the kind of guy who let loyalty fall away.
“In short,” Shane said, “your theory is that most people are lying motherfu—”
“To a dangerous degree,” Reid confirmed, cutting off the profanity before it could drift toward his daughters’ tent. “That’s why I don’t ever want to be responsible for anyone but myself. End of story. There’s no payoff in it for anybody.”
Shane mulled that over. He took another slug of whiskey, then poked at the fire with a stick. “I’ve got news for you, pal. You’re responsible for Alexis and Nicole.”
Reid nodded. His daughters were different. He didn’t feel responsible for them, exactly. Responsibility was burdensome. It was unwelcome. It was forced and compulsory. Responsibility trapped a man—especially a man who valued his freedom. What he felt for Nicole and Alexis was bigger than mere responsibility. Reid would kill or die to defend them, no questions asked.
But that protectiveness was a part of him. It wasn’t the same as being on the hook for a stranger. It wasn’t the same as allowing some numbnuts CEO on an adventure-travel high to ambush him with the sudden news of his deadly bee-sting allergy and then beg Reid to watch over him. It wasn’t the same as carrying someone else’s hopes and dreams on your shoulders and never being able to put down that Sisyphean burden, no matter what.
It wasn’t the same as breaking an innocent woman’s heart.
“Is that why you turned down the lovely Helene at first?” Shane swirled his whiskey, watching it gleam. “Because you don’t want to be responsible for anyone else, even for one night?”
One night could become two,
Reid knew. Two could lead to expectations. Expectations could be shattered. Hearts could be broken, people disappointed, children separated from mothers….
Where was Gabby right now, anyway? Did she miss Alexis and Nicole the same way they missed her? Did she miss
Reid wasn’t nostalgic for his marriage. He’d moved on. But no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t replace the girls’ mom. He might be a whiz at whipping up campfire paella while reading Dr. Seuss aloud to his daughters, but he didn’t know about braiding pigtails or being a confidante. He didn’t know about getting periods or liking boys. He didn’t know about a lot of things. Some nights that realization left him in a cold sweat.
But not tonight. He’d be damned if he’d give in to those maudlin thoughts. Instead, Reid grinned at his friend.
“Why the big interest in my love life all of a sudden?” he asked. “Exactly how long were you lurking over there in the shadows, Quasimodo? Do I need a restraining order?”
Shane laughed. He batted his eyelashes. “You’re dreamy, Reid. Please don’t leave me behind, you big, strong stud!”
Shaking his head, Reid laughed too. “If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard that line—”
“You’d be rich enough to buy half a gumball.”
“Or the whole damn bucket of gumballs, you mean.”
“Gumballs don’t come in buckets, moron.”
“Says the guy who’s been out here with Helene for six months and still hasn’t made a move. Who’s the moron now?”
“I tried.” Morosely, Shane took another drink. He gazed into the starry Outback night. “She said she doesn’t ‘do’ hard-luck cases.” He knocked back more whiskey. “Whatever.”
Again, warning bells went off in Reid’s head. If even happy-go-lucky Helene detected problems with the way Shane was handling himself these days…maybe something really was wrong.
But then Reid gave himself a mental shake. He and Shane had known one another for almost fifteen years now. They’d battled the elements, the landscape, and sometimes each other. They’d always come out strong in the end. His friend could cope with whatever was going on. And although Reid didn’t currently have a curvy, familiar woman to cuddle up to at night, he
have more than his share of close friends around the world, he remembered belatedly. That had to be worth something.
Even if, right now, it didn’t feel that way.
After all…most of his friends were very,
Automatically, Reid gazed toward his daughters’ tent. Looking at Nicole and Alexis always made him feel grounded. In a million small ways, they reminded him that his existence mattered. That what he did and who he was counted for something.
Unfortunately, tonight someone was blocking Reid’s comforting view of Alexis and Nicole. That someone was Topher.
“Take me. By myself,” Topher said. “I’ll pay you double.”
Reid shook his head. It was as though the man had a built-in piss-off-everyone meter, and he wasn’t happy unless it was constantly maxed out. “No. I’m not taking you out.”
“All right. I respect your ability to haggle.” Nervously, Topher hitched up his pants. “Triple. I’ll pay you triple.”
“There’s not enough money in the world,” Reid said.
“Quadruple!” Topher bargained, obviously not getting the point. He swore. “Look, dude. This team-building event is on my shoulders. It’s my responsibility. If I screw this up, management will have my ass in a winch, but quick.”
“Ouch.” Shane winced. “Corporate life must really suck.”
Reid agreed. There was a reason he’d never handcuffed himself to a desk. He couldn’t conceive of spending all day indoors, toiling under fluorescent lights, being totally motionless except for his typing fingers and his flapping jaw. He wasn’t a talker. He was a doer. He liked to do his doing outside, where he could feel the air on his skin—where he could draw in a deep breath. Anything else made him feel suffocated.
“Please!” Topher begged. “I need to make it look as though things went well out here. At least take a few snaps with me next to a koala or something.” He held up his iPhone. “Look. I’ve got my camera right here. It’ll only take a sec.”
Reid and Shane stared blandly up at him. “For a photo like that,” Shane said, “what you want is a trip to the zoo.”
“I won’t pretend I took you out when I didn’t,” Reid added.
He was a lot of things, but he wasn’t a liar.
“Look, asshole.” Threateningly, Topher stepped forward. He balled his fists, still clutching his iPhone. “You’re making this harder than it has to be. Just cooperate, and I’ll—”
Reid stood, meeting him face-to-face. “The answer’s no.”
Topher swore again, his face reddening. “Come
This is not a big deal! One or two photos, maybe a signed statement—”
“You’re wasting your time,” Amanda interrupted.
“He won’t say he took you out if he didn’t,” Alexis added.
“Yeah,” Nicole put in. “My dad is not a fibber!”
At the sound of his daughters’ voices, Reid wheeled around. He spotted them standing with their nanny/tutor just outside their shared tent, watching the standoff between him and Topher. He should have known the trio would be drawn to the commotion.
Amanda popped another Marmite-covered cracker into her mouth. She crunched it. “We’re right. Deal with it. Want a cracker?”
“Er, yes! Thank you.” Inexplicably, some of the fight seemed to go out of Topher. He tromped to Amanda’s side. “I’m sorry, Sullivan. I guess the answer’s no. I get it now.”
Startled by his speedy acquiescence, Reid shot Topher a disbelieving look. Then he decided there was no point belaboring the issue. He wasn’t a man who went looking for trouble.
Even if it did seem to find him pretty often.
Tearing his gaze from the surreal sight of Amanda sharing Marmite-smeared snacks with Topher, Reid crossed his arms. He gave his daughters his sternest look. “What are you girls doing out here? Shouldn’t you be doing your homework?”
Nicole bit her lip—her longtime tell that she was about to spin up a supersize whopper. “Yes, Dad. And it’s so smart of you to notice that! But the thing is—”
Alexis held up his satellite phone. “The thing is, Great Grammy Sullivan called. It’s an emergency. She wants us to come home on the double.”
Eric’s Beachside Love Hut
San Diego, California
Mustering the last reserves of her self-possession, Karina stood in her ex-husband’s kitchen, trying hard to resist the urge to hug him. It wasn’t easy. With his “rock-star” eyeliner, flip-flop-clad feet, and skintight ultradistressed jeans, Eric appeared to be experiencing the mother of all midlife crises. For the first time ever, Karina felt sorry for him.
Maybe that was progress. At least she wasn’t feeling sorry for herself. Or the kids. On the other hand, Eric really was pitiable. She didn’t know how she hadn’t noticed that earlier.
Or how she hadn’t noticed that the overriding love she’d always felt for her ex-husband had morphed into something else altogether. Something subtle but appreciable. Something like…fondness. Mingled, of course, with the tiniest lingering urge to clap a wrench on his button fly and twist it. Hard.
She was only human, after all.
“Look, I didn’t have to come here,” she said, “but I did.”
“Shh!” Eric interrupted. “Listen. Do you hear that?”
From the other end of the condo, the sounds of a video game hurtled toward them. Electronic crowd noise boomed. Loud music roared. Eric nodded, then flashed her twin devil’s horns–style “rock on” hand signals, followed by a patented Billy Idol sneer.
“Hear what?” Karina cupped her ear. “All I’m picking up is the sound of your lost maturity making a run for it.”
Eric whined. “
“So the kids are going to screw up my score if I don’t get in there, pronto!” In a parody of guitar-hero machismo, Eric treated her to a few air guitar licks. When Karina (apparently) appeared unimpressed, he leaned sideways instead, neck veins bulging above his skinny flannel shirt. “Kids, don’t mess up Daddy’s game!” he shouted. “Daddy worked hard on that level!”
With visible reluctance, Eric’s gaze returned to her.
come here,” Karina continued patiently, wondering when (and why) he’d paid good money for a studded black leather wristband, “so I could tell you—in person—that there’s been a change to our holiday plans. I thought it was only fair that you knew. We’re leaving first thing tomorrow, which means—”
holiday plans’? Aww, Karina. Karina. Karina,
” Clucking with pity, Eric shook his head. “There’s no ‘us’ to have plans anymore, remember? We’re divorced now, so—” Eric broke off, head canted to the side like a wolf-hound’s as he listened anew to the guitar playing and drumming coming from the other room. “Not that song, kids!” A strangled exclamation came from him. He swore. “I just got past that level too.”
“Don’t worry. I’m sure it will be fine.”
He eyed her with displeasure. “Are you
Whoops. She had been. “Relax. It’s nothing personal. It’s like a reflex for me.” Realizing that meant she’d inadvertently comforted him
now, Karina inhaled deeply. She had to focus. “The point is, I thought you should know the kids and I are going away for Christmas this year. To Michigan. To a cute lakeside resort town called Kismet. It looks
amazing, Eric, with snowdrifts and holiday lights and Christmas caroling—”
“Fine.” Eric gave her a dismissive wave. “I know how much you’ve always liked Christmastime.”
Right. Which explained why he’d absconded with
their Christmas decorations for himself? Karina frowned.
“Besides, Chelsea and I are hitting the Bahamas with her ’rents this year anyway,” Eric continued, “so—”
“Her ’rents. Her
Get it? It’s slang. Man, are you out of touch or what?” He shook his head, making his newly gel-spiked hair catch the sunlight. “So we’ll be gone until past New Year’s Day anyway.” He examined his new forearm…tattoo? Where in the world had
come from? “God, Karina. It’s no wonder we didn’t make it.” Sorrowfully, Eric raised his gaze to her face. “I’m young at heart, and you’re…” Her ex-husband scrutinized her again, taking in her khaki Capri pants and logoed Marsden Elementary School Badgers T-shirt. “Well, you’re…not.”
Stung, Karina looked away. As though punctuating Eric’s statement, Chelsea bopped into the room, all brightness and lightness and bikini-clad boobs. Next to her, Karina felt like a teenage boy. A gangly, out-of-touch, awkward teenage boy.
A teenage boy who was a big fan of the Marsden Fighting Badgers, obviously, but a teenage boy nonetheless.
Maybe that was why she kept right on talking. Unwisely.
“Well, be sure to pack your Viagra,” she said cheerfully, pretending she hadn’t noticed Chelsea entering. “You wouldn’t want to be caught unprepared”—
in a beautiful tropical paradise
—“miles away from a pharmacy.”
When you want to get busy with your stupidly limber, sexy girlfriend
. “That would be a real mood killer, wouldn’t it?”
When you’re in the Bahamas. Argh!
“Oh, Eric doesn’t need Viagra anymore!” Chelsea hugged his elbow to her ample bosom. “I guess he’s cured!” She giggled. “Or maybe it’s because I got him that special O-ring for his—”
Karina held up both hands. “Stop right there.
“But you should be so proud of him!” Chelsea cast a spellbound look at Eric. “Now he can go all night. Just as long as I put on his special O-ring first, of course. But that’s kind of fun all by itself, since it means grabbing hold of his—”
“Seriously. I’m familiar with
the landmarks.” Haunted by an image of her ex-husband’s familiar…geography…adorned with anything that Chelsea found “special,” Karina suppressed a shudder. “You don’t have to explain. I get it, believe me.”
“Are you sure?” Chelsea wrinkled her brows with evident care and concern. “Because your, um, generation can be sort of repressed. And from everything that Eric’s said, it sounds as though you’re pretty naïve in the sex department, K. I could—”
“Please don’t call me that.” A nickname like “K” made them sound like friends. Which they weren’t.
“—help out with some advice. After all, you’re a swinging single now!” Chelsea enthused. “You should be getting your groove on regularly. You’re in your sexual prime, you know.”
“Really? Did they teach you that in veterinary school?”
Chelsea appeared wounded. “Um, no? Not yet.” She cast a confused glance at Eric. “But maybe next semester, I guess? Mostly we’re studying feline distemper right now, but…” She trailed off. “There’s always hope I’ll get there! I like cats!”
Karina felt awful. Sure, Chelsea had made her sound like a wizened old crone (thirty-six wasn’t that old!), but that didn’t mean Karina had to resort to snarkiness. Making fun of Chelsea was like kicking a puppy. A bodacious, dim-witted puppy. The poor girl just didn’t have the wherewithal to defend herself—or even (obviously) to recognize when she was being ridiculed.
Karina would probably go straight to hell for this.
Grudgingly, she patted Chelsea’s arm. “I’m sorry, Chelsea.”
“Oh, come on! Call me ‘C’! Like on
! Please?” Chelsea begged. “Then I’ll know for sure that we’re friends!”
Karina inhaled. “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings…, C.”
Was there a twelve-step program for chronic people pleasers? If so, Karina definitely needed to enroll. Yesterday.
Giddily, Chelsea clapped her hands. “Yay! I’m C! You’re K!”
Helplessly smiling now too, Karina glanced at Eric. She expected her ex-husband to be enraptured by his girlfriend’s bouncing breasts—or maybe to be clapping his hands in outright approval of them. Instead, he stood gazing pensively at Karina.
For an instant, they
just the way they had when they’d been married. Karina would have sworn she saw sad comprehension in his eyes—probably the full knowledge of how idiotically he was behaving by abandoning his family and shacking up with someone who said “Yay!” without any perceptible irony. But then Eric shrugged and grinned as if to say, “Hey, she came toting a
K!” and all bets were off.
“So anyway, back to our holiday plans—mine and the kids’,” Karina was careful to specify. “We should talk about when and where to meet up after Christmas, so we can set up a switcheroo.” She smiled at her own use of the term they’d adopted to describe their parental visitation drop-off routine with Josh, Michael, and Olivia. She was being
adult about this. So calm! Kudos to her. Seriously. “The kids and I are going to be gone to Kismet for a couple of weeks, so we might have to adjust your next visit with them just a tiny bit. Depending on what time your flight comes in from—”
“Wait.” Eric held up his nontattooed arm, flashing her his studded leather wristband again. He frowned. “Let me get this straight. You’re taking
kids away from me? On
“Well…yes. I guess so. Technically,” Karina told him. “You won’t be seeing them on Christmas day. But I’ll make sure to call at least once a day, and Olivia can text you, too, so—”
are your so-called Christmas plans?”
She wished he’d let her finish a sentence for once.
“That’s what I came over here to talk about, yes.” Karina nodded. Maybe the pensive look he’d given her a second ago hadn’t been about regret, she realized belatedly. Maybe it had been about pure, no-holds-barred contrariness. Maybe her earlier statement about her altered holiday plans had finally penetrated Eric’s thick skull, and he was genuinely upset about the change. It was hard to say. This was the “new” Eric, after all. The Eric who listened to hip-hop, drank hemp milk, and wore penis ornaments. Puzzled by his sudden vehemence, Karina chose her next words carefully. “But you know as well as I do that the kids are supposed to be with me during the holidays anyway. And you and Chelsea
going to be out of the country with her parents, remember? So it’s not as though you—”
“As though I have any choice in the matter?” Eric interrupted. “That’s right. I don’t.” His frown deepened. “The fact is, you’re depriving me of my right to see my children.”
Since when was he so pedantic about his visitation rights? He certainly hadn’t been this nitpicky last month when he’d asked to skip a weekend visit. And that time his only excuse had been that he’d wanted to “catch some tasty waves” with Chelsea.
Caught beneath her ex-husband’s baleful glare, Karina stiffened her spine. There was no way she was backing down on this. No. Way. This was her chance to give the kids the Christmas they’d always dreamed of—the Christmas they deserved.
Nobody—not even Eric—was getting in the way of that.
“Eric, be reasonable.” Even as the words left her mouth, Karina thought better of them.
did not compute. “Or at least listen: There’s a good reason for all this.”
Aside from your children’s need for a happy Christmas this year.
“The B&B we’re going to is an all-inclusive vacation spot specializing in Christmas getaways.”
Is that the ultimate, or what?
“Stephanie was supposed to evaluate the place as her next assignment for Edgware. But Blake is really, really sick right now.”
My poor little nephew.
“He has a flu bug or food poisoning or something. So Stephanie can’t do the evaluation, and it’s too late to line up someone else from Edgware at the last minute. Most of the other consultants are on personal leave for the holidays. Cancelling is out of the question, so Steph asked me to fill in. In secret. All I have to do is upload the evaluation forms every day—and not alert any of the other guests or the management to my real purpose at the B&B, of course.”
“Ooh! Like a spy!” Chelsea cooed. “Or one of those secret shoppers! Except for a B&B, I mean. That’s so cool, K!”
“Thanks, C.” Ugh. She hated herself for going along with that silly nickname stuff. But it just slipped out. And at least
was happy for her, Karina thought rebelliously. “The bonus is, the kids and I get a free vacation out of the deal.”
“Merry Christmas to you!” Chelsea chirped.
“I know. It’s sort of perfect.”
Since I could never afford it otherwise. Thanks a lot, divorce.
“The kids were superexcited when I told them about it. It’ll be their first time on an airplane. Their first time traveling to another state.”
“Their first time abandoning their dad on Christmas.”
“Their first time seeing snow! And icicles!” Chelsea shot Eric a quelling look. “I’m so happy for you guys, K.”
“That’s really nice of you, C.”
Eric rolled his eyes. Karina ignored him. It was too bad if her ex couldn’t handle her and Chelsea getting along. And while she was genuinely concerned about her little sick nephew, she was also determined to help out her sister. If by doing so she could give Olivia, Michael, and Josh a picture-perfect holiday—the kind of holiday she could never pull off on her own—well, that was a slam dunk. Eric ought to be able to understand that.
“Justin is already in Hong Kong on business,” Karina explained further, “so he can’t stay with Blake himself. And the job is supposed to start tomorrow, so Stephanie really needs my help. She’s totally at her wit’s end—”
“She must be if she’s trusting you to handle things,” Eric said snidely. “Everyone knows you’re a soft touch when someone needs a favor, but you’re not exactly competent,
Shocked by Eric’s bluntness, Karina gaped at him. Since their split, he’d been distant, dismissive, and occasionally delusional. But he’d never been
Not like this. Somehow, his derision now hurt her more than everything else.
“Yes, I am. I’m competent.” Sometimes she procrastinated a bit. But everyone did that. “What are you talking about?”
“Yeah!” Chelsea elbowed Eric. “That’s not nice!”
about your tendency to take on too much.” Eric stretched out the word
making it sound especially obnoxious. “I’m
about the way you can never say no to anyone. I’m
about the fact that no matter how bad you might feel about having failed with our marriage—”