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Authors: Lisa Plumley

Tags: #American Light Romantic Fiction, #Romance: Modern, #Contemporary, #General, #Romance, #Romance - Contemporary, #Fiction, #Fiction - Romance, #Single mothers, #Suspense, #Single fathers, #Hotelkeepers, #Espionage

Holiday Affair (6 page)

BOOK: Holiday Affair
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In his seat across the aisle from her, he balanced his knees on the back of the seat in front of him, keeping himself occupied by playing with a Rubik’s Cube. His hair fell across his face, mostly shielding his profile. Still, Karina could glimpse his sweet, full cheeks, his childish upturned nose, and his attitude of concentration as he worked on the puzzle. Knowing Josh, he would solve it quickly. Then he would boast to Olivia about how she couldn’t do the same. He would probably even—

He did not own a Rubik’s Cube, it occurred to her.

Karina nudged him. “Hey, buddy. Where’d you get that?”

“It’s mine.” His fingers flew. “I brought it with me.”

“You brought it on the plane?”

“Yep.” More twisting and turning. “Pretty sick, right?”

“Sure.” It was possible Josh had sneaked an extra item into his luggage. Although Karina had weighed every piece, to make sure they wouldn’t exceed the limits. Still, a Rubik’s Cube didn’t weigh much. “Did your dad give that to you? Or Chelsea?”

Josh shrugged. “I just got it, that’s all.”

“Where?”

“Moooom.”

“Okay, okay. Sorry. Good luck solving that thing.”

“I don’t need luck. I’ve got two sides done already.” He twisted. “I’m a freakin’ genius with this thing.”

Karina smiled at Josh. “Don’t say ‘freakin’,” she said, then went back to work on her laptop.

Lots to do, lots to do, lots to do.
Her sister was counting on her, and so—by extension—was her nephew.

Plus, she still wanted to leave Eric gobsmacked by her efficiency and amazing butt-kicking evaluation of the B&B.

All at once, though, the official Edgware documents that Stephanie had entrusted her with—along with strict, detailed instructions for using and uploading those documents—didn’t have the same appeal they had a few minutes ago.

Biting her lip, Karina glanced around the plane. Nobody here would care if she waited until she arrived at the B&B before she examined all the evaluation paperwork. In fact, that would probably be a better strategy. Then she could approach the evaluation process fresh, without being influenced by the things she was supposed to be observing for potential franchising.

If she was smart, it occurred to Karina, she would at least
arrive
at The Christmas House with no preconceptions or checklists in mind. That was only fair…right?

Holding her breath, she shut down the evaluation program. Almost without conscious thought, she swept her finger across the touch pad, going through the familiar taps and motions to open her e-mail software. Within seconds, the program unfurled on the screen. Her burgeoning in-box appeared. Accusingly.

Wow. She’d forgotten there were so many messages, mostly from the students she counseled at the community college. Even during the winter break, they needed her! Releasing her pent-up breath at last, Karina highlighted the first item.

She opened it. She scanned it.

Yes. She knew how to handle this.

Feeling sure of herself—possibly for the first time since stepping out of her shoes at the airport security checkpoint that morning—Karina opened an e-mail reply template. She considered the issue at hand, then started typing. She wouldn’t be able to send any messages until their plane landed, of course—she certainly couldn’t afford the exorbitant rates the airline charged for in-flight Wi-Fi—but that didn’t mean she couldn’t get a jump on helping some of her students.

Faster and faster, her fingers flew. This was actually better than her usual routine, she realized. With no Internet connection available, she wasn’t tempted to read her favorite blogs or drop by Zappos to look for cute shoes. She could probably answer
all
of these student e-mails before her flight landed. That would put her so far ahead, it would be downright easy to concentrate on doing the B&B evaluation for Stephanie.

That’s all she was doing, Karina told herself—just getting a head start. Clearing the decks. It was a good thing.

Then, partway through a complex reply involving transfer credits, degree requirements, and the book
What Color Is Your Parachute?
Karina heard an accusing voice ring out.

“Hey, kid!” cried the business traveler in seat 17-E. “You stole my Rubik’s Cube. Give it back, you little thief!”

Just as Karina glanced up, preparing to rebut that ridiculous accusation, Josh sprang up. His face aflame with guilty knowledge, he bolted toward the back of the plane, the Rubik’s Cube still clenched in his fist.

The door to the airplane toilet slammed. It locked. Uh-oh.

Olivia leaned forward, her hands balled into fists. “My brother is not a thief! You take that back!”

The businessman, apparently startled to be reprimanded by a ten-year-old girl, only stared at her. At first. Then he went right on blustering. “If he acts like a thief and runs like a thief, I’d say he’s a damn thief! And I want my Rubik’s Cube back!”

Laboriously, he unfastened his seat belt. He tossed aside his suit jacket, as though preparing to confront Josh.

Urgently, Karina waved her arm. “Sir, I’m sorry! I’m sure we can sort out this little misunderstanding.” She lifted her laptop in her arms, then struggled to put her tray table back in its locked and upright position. It refused to budge.
Thanks, Sir Snores a Lot.
“If you’ll just give me a minute—”

“Mom?” Michael turned to her. “I was wondering…”

“Hang on a second, sweetie.” Karina pushed ineffectually at the seatback in front of her. “Are you sure that was your Rubik’s Cube?” she asked the man. “Because my son said—”

“Your son is a delinquent and a liar.”

“You take that back!” Olivia yelled. Threateningly.

“Honey, calm down. I’ve got this.” Karina soothed her daughter, then felt Michael tug on her sleeve. “Sweetie, I’ll be right with you,” she promised him. “Just a minute—”

“You should consider therapy for that kid.” The businessman waved his arm at the bathroom. “Or medication. Or maybe both.”

Disbelievingly, Karina glowered at the man. “I’m a professional academic advisor. I think I’d know if my own son—”

“Isn’t that always the way?” the man interrupted snidely. “The cooper’s son is the one who goes without shoes.”

“You mean ‘the cobbler’s son,’” Michael said. “The cooper is the man who makes barrels. We learned that at Old Tucson. My dad took us there, this one time last summer.”

Hearing Michael’s wee, precocious voice seemed to calm the man. For an instant, at least. Karina took advantage of that instant to try freeing herself again. She nudged the seat in front of her. Its occupant snuffled, then shifted.

No dice. She poked harder.

“Hey! Do you mind?” the man in front of her complained.

Karina hugged her laptop, completely exasperated. She was concerned about Josh, worried that Olivia might go into protective overdrive and physically assault the accusative businessman with her
Twilight
action figure, and distracted by Michael’s ongoing yanking at her sleeve to get her attention.

Naturally, that’s when the flight attendant decided to stop by, a decidedly triumphant gleam in her eye in spite of her professionally calm demeanor. “Is there a problem here?”

“Yes!” The businessman pointed at Karina. “This woman’s hooligan son stole something of mine, and now he’s hiding in the bathroom. I want someone to get him out of there and—”

Karina didn’t hear the rest. It was probably just as well.

Michael chose that moment to quit waiting for her full attention…and go for anyone who would listen to his question.

“Does
anybody
know”—he asked with his arms dramatically in the air—“how Santa is supposed to find me this Christmas? In
Michigan?
Where I don’t even
live
most of the time? And I don’t even know if there are chimneys in those BB places?
Anybody?

Karina stuffed her laptop in its padded carrying case.

“I know the answer to that, Michael.” She smiled into his worried little face. “And as soon as I inform your brother that an airplane bathroom
doesn’t
make someone invisible, I’ll give you the whole lowdown, I promise. Okay?”

Solemnly, Michael nodded. “Okay.”

“Don’t worry, Mom. I know the answer to that question too.” Olivia appeared. Like magic, she’d somehow induced the snoring space hog in the next row to pull up his seat. She gestured for her mother to escape in the allotted free space. In a very grown-up voice, Olivia said, “I’ll handle this one for you.”

Surprised, Karina glanced up. Then she nodded. It was really sweet when the Barretts pulled together as a family. That was the upside to her divorce. She and the kids had definitely grown closer over the past year. Also, Josh’s situation really needed to be dealt with. Any second now, the other passengers would start taking sides. Things would get ugly. On an airplane, nobody liked kids. Not anywhere near them, anyway.

“Thanks, Olivia. I’ll be right back.”

Karina headed to the airplane bathroom, still worried about her son but feeling slightly better. Especially once she heard Olivia’s voice kick in, gentle and nurturing.

“You see, Michael,” Olivia said sweetly, “Santa will be able to find you because of the RFID tag embedded in your toe.”

“The
what?
” Michael squawked. “In my
what?

“The RFID tag. In your toe. It’s what spies use for tracking down their enemies…and making them pay.”

At her daughter’s dramatically bloodthirsty tone, Karina could only shake her head. She kept going, a rueful smile on her face. Olivia’s methods weren’t perfect. But nobody’s were. And her heart was in the right place.

That was more than Karina could (potentially) say for Josh, her lovable kleptomaniac, as she located the airplane bathroom and knocked on the locked door.

Chapter Six

December 17th
(arriving in) Kismet, Michigan
(still en route to) The Christmas House

In the end, it took forty-three minutes to reach Kismet.

Clutching the steering wheel of his rented four-wheel-drive Subaru Forester, Reid navigated down Main Street. His shoulders thrummed with tension. His temples ached with worry. His jaw clenched as though it might never relax. Still, he kept driving.

It wasn’t like his grandparents to call for help. But the truth was, Betty and Robert Sullivan were both in their mid-seventies now. It was possible this was the first time they truly
needed
help. Reid couldn’t reach them fast enough.

The town’s traditional wrought iron street lamps flashed by. So did quaint businesses, real-estate offices, cafés, and souvenir shops. All of them stood festooned in holiday finery, from blinking lights to hand-painted window decorations to plastic wreaths of mistletoe. Festive banners stretched across the thoroughfare, announcing the upcoming and much-ballyhooed Kismet Christmas Parade and Holiday Lights Show.

Snowdrifts piled up at the edges of the street, competing for wintery ambiance with the icicles glittering from the shops’ eaves. The whole place sparkled. It smelled like snowfall and gingerbread. It buzzed with shoppers hurrying from store to store and reverberated with the sounds of the Christmas carols the city officials had piped in over hidden municipal speakers.

“Hmmm. This place is crazy about Christmas.” Beside him in the Subaru’s passenger seat, Alexis gazed out at the streets as they whizzed past. In her lap sat a cardboard box. She reached inside it and withdrew a miniature cinnamon roll. “Would you like a Minibon, Dad? They’re really tasty.”

“I want one!” Nicole yelled from the backseat.

“Pass those back here,” Amanda suggested, hungry as usual.

“No.” Reid clenched his jaw. “I don’t.”

“No,
thank you,
you mean.” Primly, Nicole accepted the Cinnabon box as Alexis passed it back. “Use your manners, Dad.”

In the rearview mirror, Amanda grinned.

Reid frowned anew. He turned the corner onto Lakeshore Drive. “My manners went missing the same time Alexis did.”

“I can’t believe you’re still talking about that!” Alexis shot him an incredulous look. “I told you, I was
starving.
I saw the Cinnabon store and went in. I knew I could catch up with you at the car rental place afterward. Airports
do
have lots of signs, Dad. A moron could find their way around. Blindfolded.”

Not the least bit mollified, Reid kept driving. He didn’t want to confess how rattled he’d been by losing track of Alexis. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t have happened. He chalked it up to the stress of being called home on such a mystifying basis.

“It just took a while,” his daughter went on, “because I didn’t have anything with me except Australian dollars.”


I
could have convinced them to take those,” Nicole said.

Chewing a mouthful of Minibon, Amanda avidly agreed.

Stern faced, Reid glanced into the rearview again, ready to referee the inevitable argument that Nicole’s statement would cause. Alexis hated the thought that her sister could be better than she was. At anything. Oddly enough, though, the girls merely shared a vaguely conspiratorial look, then glanced away.

Hmmm. That was weird. What were they up to, anyway?

An instant later, the Christmas House B&B came into view, and Reid forgot all about whatever subterfuge his daughters were planning. The B&B’s familiar holly-wreathed, hand-painted sign made his heart beat even faster. He eyed the place’s wide, snowy grounds, then the porch-bedecked house, looking for signs of trouble. Nothing appeared overtly threatening. There weren’t even very many vehicles parked in the small lot adjacent to the three-story, white-painted house and nearby outbuildings.

Was the B&B
closed?
He couldn’t remember The Christmas House ever being closed. Its annual holiday activities were a mainstay of his childhood memories. That meant his grandparents had been operating the place for at least thirty years.

Thirty years…and all of them potentially at risk now.

Shoving the Subaru into park, Reid whipped off his seat belt. He opened the driver’s side door. With one booted foot propped on the snowy driveway, he twisted around in his seat, ready to prepare Nicole and Alexis for…what, exactly?

Reid didn’t know. He doubted it would be good.

His daughters’ cinnamon-and-sugar-smeared faces met his. So did their wide eyes and nervous gazes. The combination reminded Reid of when they’d been toddlers, getting into things and making messes. Time went by so quickly. Things changed.
People
changed. Circumstances were fragile and always evolving.

Not necessarily for the better, either.

Suddenly choked with emotion, Reid tightened his grasp on the door. Frigid air poured inside, chilling him to the bone. All of a sudden, he didn’t want to know why his grandparents had called him home. He wanted to stay there, wrapped up in blissful ignorance and the sweet smell of cinnamon rolls, forever.

“You go ahead.” Amanda waved him onward, her gaze filled with empathy. “We’ll get cleaned up and meet you inside.”

Unable to speak, Reid nodded. Then he stiffened his spine, got out of the Subaru, and went to meet the mysterious crisis that, for the first time in years, had finally called him home.

 

In the airplane aisle behind Karina, another passenger stepped into line. That made five people who wanted to use the restroom. Five people whose icy stares stabbed into her shoulder blades, as sharp as the icicles on The Christmas House’s eaves in the B&B’s scenic brochures. Casting a nervous glance back at her fellow passengers, Karina apologized again.

She knocked on the door. “Josh, please come out.”


Moooom!
I’m using the bathroom!” Her son’s muffled voice sounded stressed. “Can I have some privacy, please?”

“Look, I promise you’re not in trouble. Just come out.”

“No.”

“We can talk about this. Come on, Josh.”

A pause. “You’re going to be mad.”

“I’m not going to be mad. I only want to help you.”

Silence. Faint clicking. More clicking. Hmmm…

“Are you
still
working on that Rubik’s Cube?”

A guilty pause. Then…“Maybe.”

One of the passengers in line behind Karina groaned. Another gave her a poke in the arm. “Hey, can you hurry him up?”

“Well.” Karina gave a nervous titter. Maybe some humor would help? “He
did
say he was a genius at that thing, so—”

An expletive cut her off. Someone in line grumbled.

Karina raised both arms in her most contrite pose, addressing all the people who wanted to use the bathroom. If only the flight attendant weren’t being so unreasonable about letting them use the first-class restroom, this wouldn’t have been a problem for anyone. The first-class facilities were, of course, totally free.

“Maybe Santa will bring you a Rubik’s Cube for Christmas,” she told Josh through the door. “If you put one on your wish list, he’ll know you want one. You could do that, right?”

The door opened a sliver. Josh appeared, still holding the puzzle toy. His lips wobbled in an uncertain smile as he held up the Rubik’s Cube to show her its same-colored sides. “Did it.”

His brown-eyed gaze, so similar to Eric’s, beseeched her to approve. Karina felt her heart give an impossible tug.

“Congratulations, hotshot.” She hauled Josh into her arms and hugged him. “I guess you really
are
a genius at that thing.”

Her little boy hugged her, too, his arms tight around her middle. “That man wasn’t even using it.” Josh spoke in a low voice, his head pressed against her shoulder. “He was
snoring!

Karina thought about the rude passenger in front of her. “Yeah. There’s a lot of that going around on airplanes.”

“I didn’t steal it,” Josh went on. “I only borrowed it! I just wanted to finish it before I gave it back, that’s all.”

Karina wanted to believe him. But something about his statement niggled at her. Last month, Josh had “borrowed” his friend’s new iPod nano—until the boy’s mother had called to request its return. Last week, Josh had “borrowed” the hamster that served as his class’s mascot—cage and all—and had fibbed to Karina that his teacher had asked him to take the creature home for safekeeping. Only a few days ago, her sweet little boy had “borrowed” a few extra cookies from the after-school snacks cache in the cupboard, oblivious to the impossibility of ever “returning” a half dozen already eaten cookies.

Affectionately, Karina ruffled Josh’s hair. She set him apart from her in the cramped airplane space, the better to deliver him a serious maternal look. “I think you need a refresher course on what ‘borrowing’ means, young man.”


You
need a ‘refresher course’ on not raising a juvenile delinquent!” someone shouted from the line. “Move already!”

“Yeah, lady! You and your kid get out of the way!”

“Ma’am?” The flight attendant motioned to Karina. “We’re going to be making our descent toward Grand Rapids in a few minutes, so if you would please take your seat?” She addressed everyone else. “That means the captain will be turning on the
FASTEN SEAT BELTS
sign. Everyone will need to be in their seats, with their tray tables in the locked and upright position.”

The people in the bathroom line shuffled mutinously.

Six baleful gazes shifted toward Karina and Josh, each filled with murderous intent and—most likely—a forcibly subdued urge to use the airplane bathroom. Protectively shielding Josh with her arm, Karina ignored those barbed glares. She guided the two of them back to row seventeen, feeling as though the two of them might be spitballed at any second.

She motioned for Josh to return the Rubik’s Cube to its rightful owner. The businessman glared at him, but accepted it.

Just to be on the safe side—in case there were any grudges left lingering—Karina took Josh’s former seat next to the man. She let Josh slip into Olivia’s previous place on the aisle. Beside him in the middle seat, Olivia was still explaining the Santa situation—very matter-of-factly—to a wide-eyed Michael.

“…it’s simple,” she was telling her brother. “The reindeer have GPS units installed in their antlers. That’s how they navigate. That’s why Rudolph is the best of all. He’s the prototype.” She drew in a breath. “The
robo
prototype!”

“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a
robot?
” Michael sounded horrified—and fascinated. He examined Olivia’s face as she nodded in affirmation. He scrunched up his nose. “No
wonder
his nose glows! No ordinary reindeer could do that!”

“That’s right,” Olivia said. “And wait till you hear what Santa’s elves are
really
making in his toy shop….”

Settling in her new seat, Karina leaned back her head.

Whew.
Made it. She closed her eyes. Just for an instant.

Christmas vacation, take me away!
Now more than ever, she needed a relaxing getaway. And so, it seemed, did her children.

They were all about to get one, too. If The Christmas House B&B could do half the things it promised—make gift shopping fun and easy, offer ready-made treats and holiday meals, supply seasonal activities, ensure merry times and family togetherness—it deserved to be franchised by Edgware. It really did.

Personally, she could hardly wait to find out how it fared.

 

“That’s right. You heard me,” Robert Sullivan said. “We want to unload this place. It’s time. It’s
past
time.”

Reid gawked at his grandfather. He’d knocked on the door, rushed inside the B&B, hugged everyone, then demanded to know what the dire emergency was. Instead, his grandfather had come out with…Well, Reid still couldn’t believe it.

Completely confused, he shook his head. Maybe if he went along with them, this would all make sense eventually. To that end, Reid repeated, “You want to
sell
The Christmas House?”

“Yes,” Betty Sullivan confirmed. Appearing wholly well and vibrantly fit in her jeans, boots, and turtleneck sweater, she moved about the B&B’s cozy front room, supplying her eager great-granddaughters and their nanny/tutor with iced sugar cookies. “We’ve been trying to sell for five years now.”

“Every time we have a sale lined up…
Bam!
” Reid’s grandfather slammed his fist in his hand, making an exasperated sound. “The holiday season rolls around, we get all nostalgic, and we end up cancelling the deal. But not this year!”

He slid his gaze to the pile of luggage that had been neatly arranged at the landing. The arched stairway beyond it led to the house’s second and third floors, where the B&B’s guests stayed—and where Reid’s grandparents had always lived.

Reid counted. There had to be at least twelve suitcases there, plus a few garment bags and a packed duffel. Clearly, traveling light wasn’t necessarily embedded in the Sullivan family genes.

“We’ve been trying to retire for years now.” His grandmother set down the tray of cookies on an ottoman near the fireplace. She took a seat opposite Reid, appearing entirely indifferent to the gaily decorated Douglas fir that stretched to ceiling height beside her, sparkling and flashing. “But this time, we went all the way with our plans.” She took Reid’s hand between both of hers, her grasp as warm as her smile. “This time, we put a big down payment on a new house in Arizona.”

Taken aback, Reid asked, “You’re serious then?”

“Quarter of a million dollars’ worth of serious!”

At his grandfather’s good-natured outburst, Reid couldn’t help smiling. For as long as he could remember, Robert Sullivan had always been generous with love, treats, and surreptitious ten-dollar bills for his grandchildren. But he’d also always been careful with money, to the point of doing most of the repairs on the B&B himself. He’d painted and caulked, plumbed and tiled…he’d even helped construct one of the outbuildings.

BOOK: Holiday Affair
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