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
In a very real sense, The Christmas House was a labor of love, handmade by Robert Sullivan (with a lot of help from Betty). The B&B was practically a part of the Sullivan family. It was their legacy. It was the place where all the other Sullivans—most of whom lacked Reid’s wanderlust and still lived in Kismet—gathered for the holidays every year. That was why Reid found himself still shaking his head dubiously.
On the other hand, if his grandfather was willing to pony up a cool quarter million to make sure his Arizona retirement was secure…Well,
was serious. Really serious.
Never mind the emergency just then, Reid decided. He could see that both his grandparents appeared happy. That was enough for now. For
Later, he’d get to the bottom of that cryptic phone call, he promised himself. In the meantime…
It couldn’t be true.
Reid knew his grandparents had been talking about retirement for years. But as each holiday season had come and gone—with Robert and Betty still ensconced at The Christmas House—he’d taken their avowed eagerness to retire less and less seriously. So had the rest of the family. It had almost become a family legend.
Right. Then Grandpa’s going to retire. Ha!
Now it seemed the joke was on them. His grandparents gave every impression of sincerity this time, right down to the packed luggage at the foot of the stairs. Not to mention the new
logoed golf visor his grandfather was wearing. Hmmm…
“I can’t imagine this place without you,” Reid said.
“Well, you’re going to have to imagine it!” Robert informed him. He smiled at his great-granddaughters, who perched on the sofa on either side of him, happily crunching iced cookies. “Because it’s happening. By this time tomorrow, your grandmother and I will be hitting the golf course, working on our tans—”
“Figuratively speaking, of course,” Betty assured him. “We always wear sunscreen and protective clothing, and we make sure to stay out of the sun between eleven and three every day. You can’t be too careful when it comes to sun exposure, you know.”
“—and enjoying the high life. I might even set up my model trains again. Our new place at Carina del Mundo—”
“‘Home of the world’?” Alexis translated. “Must be
“—has plenty of room. Room this overstuffed house never had!” Robert gestured at the B&B’s front room. It was fully decorated with lights, embellished holiday pillows, bowls of ornaments and clove-studded orange pomanders, fat flickering candles, and even topiaries made of holly and mistletoe. “And we won’t have any damn visitors for
the first year!”
“Robert!” Betty protested.
“Sorry. ‘Darn’ visitors. For
Puzzled, Reid examined them. “I thought you liked company. I thought that’s why you enjoyed running the B&B so much.”
“Company, yes,” his grandmother said. “But there are limits. We’re getting on in years, you know. We want to relax.”
His grandfather nodded at that. Vigorously.
we want some time to ourselves.” His grandfather gave Betty a grinning, lascivious wink. “If you know what I mean.”
Reid nodded. It was a peculiarly American mind-set to believe that people stopped being interested in sex when they got older. In other parts of the world, people understood that a fulfilling life included plenty of whoopee. No matter your age.
“That’s why we want to retire.
Before it’s too late.”
Reid could hardly fault them for wanting to enjoy their golden years. He definitely wanted them to be happy. Still…
What about the emergency? What about that phone call?
Reid shot a glance at Alexis. She bit her lip, appearing to be thinking the same thing he was.
What about what’s wrong?
“All right. I hear you,” Reid said. “I understand that it can’t be easy to run this place, year in and year out.”
His grandparents traded an enigmatic look.
“Oh, it’s not
bad,” his grandfather said. He chuckled. “Most of the time, The Christmas House practically runs itself.”
“It really does,” his grandmother assured him—pointlessly, since Reid was already busy preparing himself for the worst.
“All right. Fine.” He got to his feet. He paced across the room, absently noting the presence of at least three dancing Santa figurines and one fireplace mantel full of already hung stockings. They even had names embroidered on their cuffs:
Karina. Josh. Olivia. Michael. Suzanne. Rocky. Neil.
“But when Alexis told me about that satellite call, I got the impression there was more to this story than a simple urge to retire. You could have told me about that over the phone, any one of the dozens of times I called. Or did no one give you my messages?”
His grandmother gazed at him dotingly. “Look at him, pacing around like that, Bob. Reid still can’t sit still, even at his age. It’s just like when he was little. Isn’t that cute?”
“You always were a rowdy one,” Robert confirmed fondly.
Wheeling around, Reid confronted them. “Just tell me: Which one of you is sick? Exactly what’s wrong? And how can I help?”
At his anguished tone, Nicole gawked. Amanda paused with a cookie halfway to her mouth, compelled by the unexpected drama to quit eating. His grandparents…laughed.
“No one is ill,” his grandfather said. “We’re quite well.”
“I do water aerobics at the Y three times a week!”
Reid didn’t believe them. “Then what’s the emergency?”
Alexis and Nicole exchanged a furtive look.
So did his grandparents. Did
have a secret around here?
Reid felt too overwrought to contemplate the notion much further. “Enough about The Christmas House,” he said roughly. “Enough about Arizona! I want to know the
reason you called me. And don’t talk to me about going ten under par or taking up saguaro gardening, because I won’t buy it.”
“Saguaro gardening,” his grandmother mused. “Good idea!”
“We already told you,” his grandfather insisted. “We called you here because we want to sell The Christmas House—and we want your help with it. It’ll be easy. We already have—”
Newly alert, Reid stopped. “My help? You want
“—a deal lined up with a global hospitality company. They’re called Edgware. You might have heard of them?”
“They’re big. Your cousin hooked us up with them.”
“It’s almost a done deal,” Robert rushed on, all business now. “All that’s left is for the B&B to undergo a mandatory anonymous evaluation, just to prove that we’re all shipshape—”
“Which, of course, we are!”
“—and the deal will go through. It’s worth big money.”
big money,” his grandmother emphasized hastily. She gave a firm nod. “Believe me, hospitality companies aren’t exactly lining up to invest in small inns like ours, especially these days, and especially around here. It’s only because our all-inclusive holiday vacation concept is so unique—”
“We were featured on
Good Morning, Kismet
“—that The Christmas House is under consideration at all. This is an opportunity we can’t afford to pass up.”
They both stopped for breath, seeming to have run out of chatty arguments for selling the B&B. Uncertainly, his grandparents glanced at each other. Then, hopefully, at Reid.
A certain tension filled the air. It felt a lot like the anxiety Reid sensed whenever one of his adventure travel clients had been less than truthful with him. Maybe about preparedness. Maybe about fitness. Maybe about his or her goals for undertaking a wilderness trek. Either way, it wasn’t good.
At the fireplace mantel, Reid paused too. He thought about what he knew so far. Then, with sudden insight, he turned.
“You staked your new retirement house on this deal.”
His grandparents swapped uncomfortable looks.
can’t afford to pass this up,” he added, “because you’ve already spent the money you’ll get from the sale.
it goes through.” He turned. “I’m right, aren’t I?”
Silence descended. Amanda reached for another cookie.
Snowflakes drifted past the windowpane, making Reid shiver. It was warm inside, especially by the cheery crackling fire, but his reaction had nothing to do with the wintery weather—and everything to do with the abrupt letdown of the adrenaline rush that had brought him here. He’d been so fraught with worry. So determined to take charge. And now…Now he was merely baffled.
Why would his grandparents gamble with their future this way? Staking the B&B was crazy—especially if there were hoops to jump through before the sale could be finalized. A “mandatory anonymous evaluation” sounded like a pretty big hoop to him.
If the Edgware franchising deal fell through, Betty and Robert would be out of luck—and unable to pay for their new retirement home in Arizona, too. Given the current real estate market, they’d be unlikely to sell the B&B to anyone else.
“You have to understand.” His grandmother wrung her hands, her wedding rings sparkling. “You’re our very last hope, Reid.”
“Hope for what?” He frowned, still confused.
“For helping us sell The Christmas House!” his grandfather said. “We need you to handle things—to make sure the sale goes through as planned.
why we called you.”
“But I don’t know anything about real estate.”
“You don’t have to!” his grandmother hurried to assure him. “All you have to do is make sure things run smoothly while the secret Edgware evaluator is here. It will be a piece of cake.”
should do it. You’re the ones with experience running a B&B,” Reid pointed out—reasonably, he thought.
“If we try to do it, we’re likely to get all sentimental. Again,” his grandfather said. “And we’ll end up cancelling the deal. Again. This time, as you said, we can’t do that.”
Because our retirement depends on it.
They didn’t have to say the words aloud. The truth was evident. “Then don’t cancel.”
“It’s not as simple as that.” Patiently, his grandmother folded her hands in her lap. “The evaluation has to happen at Christmastime, because that’s when the B&B is at its best. But that’s
when your grandfather and I feel the most attached to this place. We’ve made a lot of happy memories here, Reid, especially holiday memories. If we try to do this ourselves, I just know what will happen: One minute, I’ll be demonstrating how to make paper cutout snowflakes to our guests…and the next I’ll be bawling into the eggnog and begging Bob to stop the sale.”
“She does cry into the eggnog,” Robert said. “Salty eggnog is not the tastiest eggnog, let me tell you.”
Exasperated, Reid shook his head. “I don’t have time. I need to line up other jobs.” He couldn’t take a chance with Alexis’s and Nicole’s security. “I have clients waiting to hear from me in Argentina and Iceland. That means I’ll be either herding cattle with gauchos or skiing the chutes in Isafjordur.”
His grandparents looked at him uncomprehendingly.
“The answer is no,” Reid clarified. “I have work to do.”
His daughters—and Amanda—scowled at him, cookies in hand.
“Real estate is hardly my forte,” he felt compelled to add. “Unless it’s untamed, untried, and located in some far-flung corner of the globe, and even then—” Getting off track, he regrouped. He squared his shoulders, then faced them all. “I’m an adventurer, not a salesman. You need a salesman.”
“What we need,” his grandfather said, “is a Scrooge.”
him,” his grandmother added. “
won’t get sentimental about all the holiday traditions here at the B&B. You’re practically immune to Christmas! That makes you
because he wouldn’t get nostalgic about the B&B.
because, to his grandparents, a sincere wish to sell The Christmas House and retire really
most of all, because he was a Scrooge at heart.
Still unconvinced, Reid kept pacing. It was true that his world travels had left him one step removed from the traditions everyone else treasured. He really
unlikely to cave in to a sudden bout of nostalgia and call off the sale. His grandparents were right about that much. But his admitted lack of Christmas cheer didn’t mean he wanted to hang around Kismet—of all places—trying to please holiday vacationers and hoping to impress a clipboard-wielding hospitality company evaluator.
Frankly, the whole idea sounded nightmarish to him.
“You won’t have to do everything yourself,” Robert said.
“That’s right!” Betty beamed at him. “I almost forgot that part. All your relatives—and our neighbors—will be here to help you, Reid. Everyone’s already agreed to drop in and volunteer on an as-needed basis. That will make things easy-peasy!”
“If anyone can make sure this sale goes through,” his grandfather pushed, “it’s you, Reid. We need you.”
That almost did it. As much as Reid loved to travel the world, he loved his family more. Loyalty was his middle name.
Teetering on the verge of agreement, he exhaled. With his head tipped to the ceiling, he examined the B&B’s lovingly restored crown molding. It was edged with evergreens and starry LED white lights, lending the whole room a Christmassy air.
A Christmassy air
felt utterly indifferent to.
Maybe he really was a Scrooge.
“Hey, Dad?” In the silence, Nicole piped up. “What’s that pine tree doing inside, with all that stuff on it?”
She couldn’t be serious.
“Pine tree?” Reid stepped closer to the gaily decorated fir, with its strings of popcorn and cranberries, old-fashioned bubble lights, and glass ornaments. “You mean this one?”
Soberly, she nodded. “Yeah. I mean, it’s pretty and all, but…What’s it for? What does it do? How’d it get there?”