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
failed?” Incensed, Karina stepped up. “
“—you can’t make up for your shortcomings by bribing the kids this way.” Eric crossed his arms. “Taking a fancy Christmas vacation? Using your sister’s job as an excuse? It’s pathetic.”
Dumbfounded, Karina stared at him. She couldn’t speak. But she also couldn’t help wondering…was Eric a tiny bit right?
been feeling as though she were letting down Michael, Josh, and Olivia. It wasn’t easy being the one who said no to requests for new sneakers and expensive video games. She simply couldn’t afford everything they wanted. But that didn’t make seeing their disappointed faces any easier to bear.
“Stephanie never liked me, and you know it,” Eric said. “The two of you probably cooked up this whole scheme together just to make me look bad. I’ll bet there isn’t any Edgware evaluation happening at all.”
“Of course there is.” Karina couldn’t believe he was being so churlish. “It’s worth a lot of money to everyone involved too! Edgware is the biggest hospitality company in the world. They run thousands of hotels and resort properties in multiple international networks. If they decide The Christmas House concept is worth franchising, it’s going to mean—”
“Oh, spare me,” her ex interrupted. For the billionth time. “I don’t need to hear the hard sell—the
hard sell. What I don’t get is how you expect anyone to believe
capable of evaluating a property anyway. That really takes the cake.”
Ouch. That hurt. Wounded, Karina glanced away.
Then she regrouped. Damn it, Eric wasn’t going to stop her.
“I’ve been listening to Stephanie talk about her job for all these years. That’s got to count for something, right?” She raised her head, fired up with a newfound urge to totally nail the B&B evaluation—and maybe prove Eric wrong about her in the process. “And I’ve already got Stephanie’s preevaluation research and her notes, so that will help too. Once I’m equipped with the official evaluation guidelines, it’ll be a simple matter of ticking off items on a checklist. I’m sure I’ll—”
“You’ll crash and burn.
this thing is really real. Which I doubt. Admit it—you want to show me up at Christmastime. That’s what this is all about—your insecurities.”
Wow. This felt unnervingly like being married to him.
Why, exactly, had she missed any of this?
In that moment, as far as Karina was concerned, all men everywhere could just leave her alone. For good. There was no reason she couldn’t handle everything on her own…with no heartache, dirty tighty-whities, or “collectible” NBA basketball jerseys to clutter up her life. And no regrets, either.
was a motto she could get behind.
Chelsea shook her head. “Oh, cut it out, Eric. You’re going too far, even for you.” She offered Karina an apologetic look. “You know Karina loves the kids too much to bribe them! And you can’t blame her for helping out her sister! She’s a giving person! What difference does it make if Karina and the kids are going away for the holidays? We won’t even be here.”
“The details don’t matter,” Eric argued. Petulantly. Possibly with a special O-ring adorning his—“The point is—”
“The point is,” Chelsea persisted, “that your ex-wife is getting on with her life, and you’re not handling it very well. You ought to be more grown up about all this.”
Silence fell. This time, it was Eric’s turn to gawk.
To be fair, Karina did too. That was really…
Also, she liked the idea of herself getting on with her life. It was past time she did that.
“You’ve got to remember, babe,” Chelsea continued serenely, “that a truly strong man allows others’ strength to shine.”
Huh? Karina blinked. Eric wrinkled his forehead.
“I read that on my Gingerbread Latte cup at Starbucks yesterday. I thought it fit.” Chelsea beamed. Offhandedly, she examined her bikini top, then adjusted its triangle cups as sultrily as one of the Pussycat Dolls might have done. “So. Are we all good? Eric, are you going to be nicer to Karina?”
Contritely, he nodded. “Yes, Chelsea. I am.”
Wow. Whatever mojo Chelsea had, Karina needed some. Eric had
been this compliant when he’d been married to her.
“And Karina, are you going to have a fun vacation?”
A fun vacation? Karina hesitated. She hadn’t quite thought of the upcoming trip in that way. She’d been busy checking flights online, making whirlwind packing lists, and conferring with Stephanie about the Edgware evaluation details.
But the truth was, this opportunity was heaven sent.
The B&B in Kismet had genuine snowdrifts. Actual Christmassy ambiance. Pine trees galore. And the B&B owners
in making their guests’ holiday dreams come true—it said so right on their brochures and Web site. Visiting The Christmas House would be like stepping into one of those feel-good holiday TV movies. It didn’t get much more fun than that.
She nodded. “I think the kids are going to love it.”
“But what about
K? You have to think about yourself too,” Chelsea insisted. “It’s like my mom always said—”
“Take off that miniskirt and those hooker heels?”
This, from Eric. Chelsea and Karina both glared at him.
He gave an awkward chuckle. “I guess my image of your teenage years is inaccurate?”
“You’re about a million times too sleazy, I’m sure,” Karina said. Although, privately, she agreed about the miniskirt.
“—she always said,” Chelsea went on with good-natured doggedness, “that a vacation is when a family goes away for a good time, and their mother makes sure everyone gets it. My mom used to start every vacation exhausted from planning and come home afterward to a mountain of laundry. Don’t let that happen to you, Karina. Make sure
have a good time too.”
“She wouldn’t know how.” Eric fiddled with his wristband. “Karina is about as much fun as a bucket of to-do lists.”
she was,” Chelsea said. “But the two of you obviously weren’t a good fit. With another guy…who knows? Maybe Karina will have herself a wild and crazy holiday affair.”
Yeah. Who knew? Maybe she would, Karina thought defiantly.
It was weird to feel so encouraged by “the other woman” in her ex-husband’s life. But all of a sudden, she actually felt tempted to cut loose. To live a little. To get on with her life in a
Eric had been right about one thing, she decided ruefully. Being around Chelsea really
“Yeah!” she said, stifling a fist pump. “Who knows?”
Eric’s scowl deepened—satisfyingly so. It was about time
was the one who’d been caught off guard. Especially by her.
He’d be caught off guard most of all, Karina promised herself, when she aced that very
Edgware evaluation. Eric could hardly argue that she’d made up the whole thing if Edgware officially announced they were franchising the B&B’s concept and taking its worry-free Christmas-vacation idea nationwide.
“I say go for it!” Chelsea urged. “And keep me posted too.” She gave Karina a girl-to-girl wink, grinning like a true confidante. “I want all the dirty details, K. You be sure to call me the
something happens, okay?”
“If there’s anything racy to report, you’ll be the first to know,” Karina told her. “I swear on my Badgers T-shirt.”
She held up two fingers, Boy Scout style, but the truth was, it was an easy promise to make. There was no way in the world official good girl and devoted mother Karina Barrett was about to indulge in a supersteamy holiday fling. For one thing, she’d be working. She owed Stephanie her very best efforts.
Besides, there wasn’t enough spiked eggnog in the world to loosen up Karina that much. While a short-term Christmas romance might be…invigorating, she could definitely do without the aftereffects of starting up a new relationship. Even if it would be, by necessity, limited to the holidays. Possibly with a hunky, hayseed-chewing Midwesterner…who liked honey.
Like a dream, Honey-Buying Man’s head superimposed itself on an image of a shirtless, Santa hat–wearing, muscle-bound stud. Hmmm. She liked that, actually. She liked that a lot.
to get hold of her hormones. STAT.
“So I’d better get going. Lots to do before our flight.”
Forcing a smile, Karina slung her purse over her shoulder, then prepared to gather up the kids for the drive home. Just before she headed to the video game zone, though, she realized she’d forgotten something. Something she should have come here specifically to do, but had been afraid to try until now.
She stepped up to Eric, then squared her shoulders. Wearing her sweetest expression, she asked, “By the way, can I have
half of our Christmas decorations, please? I noticed they were missing from the attic. You must have grabbed all of them by mistake when you moved out.”
Chelsea frowned. “Eric! You didn’t.”
He hung his head. “Sorry, Karina,” he mumbled. “I’ll get them right now.” He schlepped away, flip-flops flapping.
“Load the boxes into her car for her too!” Chelsea called.
He waved his assent without turning, then kept going.
Karina watched Eric hop to it. “Wow. I’m impressed.”
“It’s nothing.” Chelsea shrugged. “Just simple directness. Men respond pretty well to a straightforward approach.”
“Well…that bikini of yours probably helps too.”
“Probably,” Chelsea admitted with a grin. “A little.”
She and Karina shared a satisfied, sisterly (and entirely unlikely) moment of camaraderie. Right then, Karina decided there was a lot to be said for Chelsea’s methods. Even if they had led (indirectly) to the dissolution of her marriage.
Chelsea might be a little bubbleheaded, but she was also supremely self-confident—and she got results when she wanted them, too. Even from Eric. That was commendable.
“You should get one.” Chelsea gestured at Karina’s suburban mom outfit. “A bikini, I mean. You could totally pull it off.”
Karina blinked. “Me? No way. I’m a tankini girl, all the way.” Only someone as flawless as Chelsea could be so blasé about baring it (almost) all in anything less. Karina had borne three children—and her body had all the usual jiggly spots to show for it. “Besides, where I’m going, I’ll have to dress for warmth. It’s freezing in Michigan in December, remember?”
“Oh yeah.” Chelsea grew thoughtful. Karina could almost see the gears turning in her tiny, blond-haired head. “You probably don’t have much in the way of cold-weather gear, either.”
“Nope. What Southern Californian does?”
“True. And even if you had it, your stuff would probably be less ‘snow bunny’ and more ‘abominable snowman.’ Am I right?”
Karina considered being offended by that comment, then decided to let it go. Her single item of truly warm clothing was a quilted parka. And it
pretty abominable. She’d bought it at an end-of-season sale for a trip to Lake Tahoe with Eric. In the end, they’d cancelled. They hadn’t been able to find a reliable baby-sitter, and Karina hadn’t wanted to risk using a last-minute substitute. With her, her kids always came first.
On later reflection, that attitude probably hadn’t done her struggling marriage any favors. But how was a woman supposed to juggle everything? She was doing her best. She really was.
“Hey, don’t look so gloomy!” Chelsea piped up. “We’ll get this figured out.” She grabbed Karina’s arm. “Come with me!”
Karina balked. “What for?”
“For getting you ready for your Christmas vacation in Kismet, of course!” Chelsea rolled her eyes. “Hello? How are you supposed to snag a hottie if you’re dressed like a yeti?”
Karina winced. “‘Yeti’ is a little harsh.”
“You’re right.” Chelsea gave an offhanded wave. “We haven’t covered yetis in veterinary school yet. So I’m no expert, that’s for sure. I don’t even know if they have girl yetis or not.”
Awesome. Not only did Karina resemble a gnarly mountain creature, but she apparently resembled a gnarly,
mountain creature. Had she forgotten to shave her legs again?
After a quick hairy-legs check, Karina shrugged. Her calves were (relatively) stubble free for now. But that didn’t mean she intended to blow off Chelsea’s offer. Against all good judgment, Karina followed Chelsea to the other end of the condo.
Not because she actually needed Chelsea’s help. Or even because she was (admittedly) curious about what kinds of cold-weather clothing ideas Chelsea might offer. (Fur-lined bikinis? Fair Isle knit hot pants? A low-cut, thigh-high Polarfleece romper?) But mostly because Karina figured there was no harm in indulging her new friend.
Chelsea honestly seemed to want to help. Karina was a person who understood that sentiment intimately. She liked to help people too. It would have been unkind to refuse.
Besides, it wouldn’t hurt if a smidgeon of Chelsea’s bodaciousness accidentally rubbed off on her. Just in case something unexpected happened. Just in case, say, a gorgeous Honey-Buying Man stand-in happened to be staying at The Christmas House. And Karina decided to indulge herself. And
went for it. And together they made a few jingle bells ring.
Right. And then they lived happily ever after. Ho ho ho.
If she believed any of that, she
needed a vacation, Karina decided, then dutifully followed Chelsea to her walk-in closet and prepared to be polite about viewing skintight sweaters, zebra-print leggings, and knit caps with special lip gloss storage compartments—all the accoutrements of a midwinter seduction Karina was
not going to need this Christmastime.
Gerald R. Ford International Airport
Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA
Fisting his carry-on bag in one hand and Nicole’s stuffed dingo in the other, Reid stood impatiently in the airport’s arrivals zone. After three connections (on two continents) and more than twenty-eight hours in the air, he was tired, wired, and worried—all at the same time. He still had a few more miles to travel, too. From where he stood, it would take at least an hour to commandeer a rental car and make the drive to Kismet.
Methodically, an airport official thumbed through Reid’s passport, examining its multiply stamped pages. The document was proof of Reid’s globe-trotting life. He liked that. Right now, though, he didn’t like the delay it seemed to be causing.
Ever since Alexis had told him about that emergency phone call from his grandmother, Reid had been pushing to get home—or at least as close to “home” as his former stomping grounds in the Midwest (or anyplace stateside) would ever feel to him.
He’d grown up in Kismet, the son of parents who both worked—like many locals—in the town’s hospitality industry: his father as a hotel accountant, and his mother as a pastry chef. People like them—sometimes several generations of people like them—helped make Kismet an ideal vacation spot.
What the town might have lacked in size and sophistication, it made up for in outright charm—not to mention friendliness. Located between a riverfront and a lake, Kismet boasted an old-fashioned, picturesque downtown, multiple clapboard-sided cottages, and miles of trees. In the summertime, the place overflowed with sunburned, ice cream–eating tourists.
As soon as Reid had been old enough to understand the concept of
—of traveling someplace you didn’t live and exploring it just for fun—he’d decided he wanted to be a tourist too. Full-time. To him, Kismet had felt close-knit but confining, like the family reunions the Sullivans had held at the Kismet Elks Club. Stuck inside its four walls for a day, a kid could hardly chase his squealing cousins without getting shushed by his buzzkill aunts and uncles. Reid had wanted out. He’d gotten out. And then he’d explored the hell out of things.
But now, with Grammy Sullivan’s mysterious catastrophe calling him home, Reid wanted back in.
Hoping through force of will to make the airport official move faster, Reid glowered at the man. It almost worked.
The official glanced up. He stabbed one ink-stained finger at Reid’s passport. “Paraguay, huh? You like it there?”
“Yes, I did. I taught a parasailing class.”
“See any llamas?”
“You’re thinking of Peru. There are a lot of llamas there.” Reid didn’t want to go into details about his time on a llama ranch. Especially the manure story. Everyone loved the manure story. “Alpacas too. They’re big in the textile industry.”
“Hmmm. You’re probably right. It’s probably Peru I’m thinking of. Just had a Peruvian exporter come through here last week. Nice guy. Liked Twinkies.” More poring. More delaying.
Reid inhaled deeply. Around him, the airport buzzed with movement. The other passengers moved through their designated lines quickly, then trotted off to retrieve their luggage.
Reid didn’t have checked luggage. He and the girls had mastered the art of traveling with nothing but allowable carry-on baggage years ago. As long as he had Alexis and Nicole by his side, he had everything he needed.
Whatever else they wanted, Reid could borrow, barter, buy, or MacGyver into being. But he couldn’t force his way through this line any faster. Beside him, Nicole sighed.
“Hang in there.” He hugged her. “We won’t be much longer.”
“Okay.” His daughter leaned her head on his arm. Her skinny arm wrapped around his waist. “I’m just worried about Great Grammy’s emergency, that’s all. Did you ever get through to her?”
Reid shook his head. “Every time I called, a different person answered the phone—sometimes staff at The Christmas House, sometimes one of my relatives, sometimes a neighbor.” They’d all been suspiciously vague about the nature of the crisis—probably to spare him worry. “The whole place must be swamped with people. That’s how Kismet is—everyone helps one another. Your great-grandparents are probably up to their ears in homemade casseroles by now. By the time we get there, there won’t be anything to do except pick up a fork and start eating.”
He grinned. His daughters didn’t appear reassured.
“Ugh, don’t talk about eating!” Alexis slumped, jutting one hip like a long-limbed, world-weary supermodel. She swept her hair from her eyes. “I’m starving right now. I just hope they have some decent food in this stupid airport. I’m
for a snack.”
“We’ll get you something soon.” Reid hugged her too. She looked tired—probably from her attempts to rewire the headphone jacks on their red-eye from Australia. “I’ve still got some of Amanda’s Marmite and crackers in my pack—”
The airport official looked up sharply. “Did you declare those items, sir? Were they a gift? Are they open or wrapped?”
Wearily, Reid answered his questions. And several more.
In another line a few meters away, Amanda breezed through. She hoisted her carry-on items, blew air kisses to the girls, then proceeded to the terminal to wait for them. Whenever possible, Reid liked to give their nanny/tutor a little privacy—and some off-duty free time. That’s why she’d spent their overnight flight and its multiple connecting legs seated several rows away with her headphones on, watching sequential in-flight movies and scarfing down junk food from her pack.
“Wow.” Appearing awestruck, Nicole stood on tiptoes to peer at the airport official. “You must have the coolest job ever!”
The official blinked. And smiled. “Thanks, little girl.”
“I mean, meeting all these people who are coming in from all over the place. Talking to them. It must be fun.”
He paused. “You know, not many people notice that.”
it’s obvious you’re extra good at it,” Nicole nattered on, smiling at him. “The people in those lines”—she gestured sideways—“are just rubber-stamping the travelers through. But
being careful to check everything. I think that’s special. It’s like the Dalai Lama said to me one time—”
The official boggled. “You’ve met the Dalai Lama?”
Offhandedly, Nicole nodded. “He was nice. I told him I liked his robes. They were a very pretty color.”
Startled, the airport official glanced at Reid, who nodded in confirmation. He and his daughters had met His Holiness briefly at a reception a few years ago. Nicole had been only five or six, but she’d charmed the Dalai Lama immediately.
Sort of the way she was charming the official right now.
“‘A spoon cannot taste of the food it carries,’” Nicole quoted solemnly. “‘Likewise, a foolish man cannot understand—’”
“Nicole!” Alexis clutched her stomach. “No food talk!”
“‘—a wise man’s wisdom, even if he associates with a sage.’” Satisfied, Nicole gave the rapt airport official a keen look. “You’re a sage, I’ll bet. That’s probably why those other airport people don’t ‘get’ your superior screening methods.”
Vigorously, the man nodded. “They don’t! They really don’t!” He beamed at Nicole, then blinked. Hard.
Reid peered at the airport official. Was he actually tearing up? He was. Nicole had officially moved the man to tears. Now if he would only move them forward, damn it.
His grandmother’s emergency couldn’t wait.
After a therapeutic exhale, the airport official sniffled loudly. He put aside Reid’s passport to examine Alexis’s and Nicole’s documents. He nodded. After an interminable-feeling wait of forty-five seconds, he waved them all through.
“Welcome to the Wolverine State! You three have a wonderful stay.”
“We will!” Nicole and Alexis chimed. “Bye!”
The man waved at the girls. Then he gave Reid a man-to-man nod. “That’s a very special little girl you have there.”
Reid smiled. “Don’t I know it.” Not every ten-year-old could cajole her way into the USA. “Thanks. Have a good day.”
With the niceties dispensed with, Reid bolted into the terminal, trusting Alexis, Nicole, and Amanda to keep up as he headed straight for the rental car counter.
Within minutes, he was there. His undoubtedly grim expression helped clear his path through the crowded terminal.
Despite the hazy assurances of his grandparents’ neighbors and friends, he fully expected to find disaster in Kismet. He’d already steeled himself for it. All that remained now was to deal with it, by whatever means possible. Reid was ready.
He turned. Nicole had already taken a seat on the airport’s dingy carpeted floor, sharing a leftover pack of airplane pretzels with Amanda. Their backpacks lay slumped at their feet. The two of them slouched against the wall, completely at ease, even in their bustling surroundings. Looking at them as he waited in (yet another) line, Reid felt proud of his younger daughter.
There was nothing like travel to teach a person to be self-sufficient and comfortable in diverse surroundings. If he left Nicole there very long, Reid knew, she’d probably start napping.
Although Alexis was the one with a real knack for sleeping under the most inhospitable circumstances. She’d once napped her way through an arduous Jeep ride across the plains of Siberia. Their driver, Sergei, had joked that Alexis had the constitution of a Kamchatka brown bear—wanting “only to hibernate, eat, and hibernate some more!” If it hadn’t been for—
Abruptly yanked from his reminiscences, Reid realized why things didn’t seem quite right. Alexis was nowhere in sight.
With the dull hum of the airplane’s engine filling her ears, Karina squinted at the laptop she’d propped on her tray table. It was pretty easy to read the screen, even with the glare from the window hitting it. That was because the passenger directly in front of her had reclined his seat at the first opportunity, putting Karina’s tray table about a quarter inch from her lap. At this point, that thin plastic wedge was performing triple duty as a laptop holder, beverage tray,
inadvertent Pilates-style isometric exercise device.
She’d considered asking the man to put his seat upright again. But then the snoring had kicked in, and Karina had decided it wouldn’t hurt her to tone her abs a little. Doing just that, she held her breath and sucked in her belly, the better to operate the laptop’s minuscule touch pad. That was better. She could feel herself getting a six-pack already!
Besides, the man in front of her must be exhausted, she told herself. She should let him sleep. That’s what she would have wanted her fellow passengers to do for her, if she’d been able to snooze during the cross-country flight.
As it was, Karina had divided her time between all three of her children, making sure they each had pillows, snacks, entertainment, and as few squabbles as possible. Even with all that effort, she could still feel the flight attendant’s censorious gaze sneaking in her direction, as if it were only a matter of time before the Problem Children in Row Seventeen started raising a ruckus.
was a look Karina was all too familiar with: wary, hypercritical, and (potentially) beleaguered—as though she were somehow being unreasonable by traveling with people who couldn’t vote or pay taxes…or order eight-dollar mini-bottles of merlot (gratuity not included). She felt the effects of that look strongly, especially now that she was solely responsible for Olivia’s, Michael’s, and Josh’s behavior most of the time.
She’d done a good job handling things, though. At least she thought she had. Mostly. Hoping to confirm that fact, Karina glanced up from Stephanie’s official, top-secret Edgware checklists on her laptop, examining her children instead.
Michael slumped beside her in the window seat, his stubby legs barely bent at the knee in his adult-size seat. Just as he’d done during the first two hours of their flight, he stared at the clouds with rapt attention, captivated by that bird’s-eye view of the world. From the moment they’d boarded, Michael had peppered her with questions. How did the plane stay up in the air? Why couldn’t he play with his Game Boy? How far was it to Michigan? How could it be two different times in two different places when they were the same people going from here to there?
Karina had to admit, he’d almost stumped her with that last question. It was a mind bender. But that was typical of her youngest son. Michael had always been intensely curious. Except about her and Eric’s divorce, it occurred to Karina. He’d asked her only one question about that:
Is Daddy coming back home?
she’d been forced to answer.
Daddy’s going to live at his condo now. But you’ll see him all the time! He loves you lots!
Michael’s solemn-eyed acceptance of her answer still haunted Karina sometimes. Especially late at night, when she couldn’t sleep. Which was much of the time, actually.
She hoped she’d handled things correctly with her divorce. If she hadn’t, she devoutly prayed a little bit of Christmas magic would help smooth over the rough spots for her children.
To Karina’s right, Olivia perched attentively in the aisle seat, watching the other passengers and the flight attendants. She seemed to have appointed herself the protector of their traveling group. She’d even gone so far as to soberly suggest “one of those kid leashes” for Michael, to make sure he didn’t get lost in the busy airport. Olivia had also earnestly informed Karina that she had to be on red alert (“Kids get abducted from public restrooms
the time! I saw it on TV!”). She’d further informed Josh that he ought to be careful in crowds during their trip and maybe “get a backpack with a lock and chain,” to make sure he didn’t “get pickpocketed or something like that.”
Looking at Olivia’s watchful, pugnacious little face right now, Karina couldn’t help wondering…when had her daughter become such a worrier? And how was Karina supposed to deal with it?
Only Josh seemed to have emerged relatively unscathed from the difficulties of the past year. It had been tough on him to see Eric move out, Karina was sure. But Josh remained mostly upbeat, interested in the usual kid stuff like video games and basketball and cartoons. Even during his first cross-country flight—which definitely counted as a nerve-racking experience for some people—Josh seemed to be coping remarkably well.