Read Holiday Affair Online

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 (8 page)

BOOK: Holiday Affair
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Everyone in the front room stared at her. Then at Reid.

Their disapproving gazes made him feel…itchy. He didn’t like it. He rubbed the back of his neck, then gave an uncomfortable chuckle. “Honey, come on. You know what that is.”

His small daughter only gazed at him. Trustingly. Blankly.

“It’s a Christmas tree!” Reid blurted. “Remember those?”

Surely Nicole had seen a Christmas tree before. Admittedly, the three of them had spent much of their time in sub-tropical, isolated, and partially unexplored places. Their lives were made up of indigenous peoples, wildlife, and topographical maps—not carols, Santa Claus, and greeting cards. But Reid knew he hadn’t deprived his daughters of
all
knowledge of Christmas. Had he?

Hoping he hadn’t, Reid gazed tautly at Nicole. Her face appeared brighter than ever in the glow of the holiday lights.

“Nope.” Nicole shook her head. “I don’t remember those.”

That settled it. It was one thing if
he
was a Scrooge. He was a grown man, comfortably invulnerable to gooey emotion and the need to look at shiny things, burst into stupid songs, and eat candy canes once a year. But his ten-year-old daughter?

She should experience Christmas firsthand. The sooner the better. He’d obviously neglected his duty in the holiday arena.

“All right,” Reid said. “I’ll do it.”

His grandparents exchanged relieved looks. “Great!”

“But only this once,” Reid warned with as much severity as he could muster. His position was probably weakened by the gush of emotion he felt at the sight of his grandparents’ grateful expressions. “If you get all sentimental this time and call off the deal, I’m out. There won’t be a second chance next year.”

“We won’t need a second chance next year,” his grandfather assured him. “The sale’s going through
this
year!”

“Absolutely!” His grandmother rose. She gave him an appreciative hug. “Thank you, Reid. You don’t know what this means to us. You truly don’t.” She trotted over to the pile of waiting luggage, then put her palms together with a businesslike air. “The keys and a few notes are waiting in your room, along with a detailed schedule for each day. It’s not complicated. The staff knows exactly what to do. They’re expecting you. Your cousin should be here soon to brief you on procedures, and the first guests ought to be arriving shortly after that.”

Reid nodded, suddenly feeling a little jet-lagged.

“The toilet in the third room on the left on the second floor needs a little jiggle to the handle to make it quit running,” his grandfather informed him. “Also, the sleigh is parked in the barn. Whatever you do,
don’t
—”

“The
sleigh?

“For the sleigh rides.” His grandfather got to his feet also. He traipsed to the pile of luggage too, adjusting his golf visor as he went. “Through the snow. With the jingle bells.”

“It’s all on the schedule, dear,” his grandmother said.

“All right.” Reid frowned. “But won’t you be—”

“Here?” his grandmother interrupted gaily. She laughed. “Heavens, no! We learned our lesson last year. We’re leaving.”

“For Arizona. Today. Our flight takes off in two hours.”

Stunned, Reid stared. “You already booked a flight? But I was halfway around the world.
Literally
halfway around the world. What if I hadn’t arrived in time? What if one of my flights had been delayed? What if I hadn’t come home at all?”

They both laughed. His grandfather gave him an affectionate clap to the shoulder. “Of course you came. You’re…
you.

His grandparents’ joyful smiles looked warm and certain.

You’re…you.
That’s right, Reid thought. He was.

And he’d traveled more than fifteen thousand kilometers to arrive at this moment. He might as well get on with it.

Heartened by their unmistakable confidence in him, Reid blinked to shake off his jet lag. He could handle this—running one tiny B&B during one uneventful holiday season with one single nitpicky evaluator to impress. He’d earn the B&B an A-plus rating for sure. After all…what could possibly go wrong?

In a flurry of activity, his grandparents prepared to leave. Reid carried their luggage to their waiting vehicle—a minivan driven by their ever-helpful neighbor. Hugs were given all around. Chatter ensued. Within minutes, it seemed, Reid found himself on the B&B’s front porch, standing with Nicole, Alexis, and Amanda as they waved good-bye to his grandparents.

The minivan pulled around the corner, then was gone.

For some reason, its parting
honk
sounded a little mocking.

“Well, I guess that does it.” Stretching out his arms, Reid enveloped both his daughters in a sideways hug. The crisp December air stung his lungs as he inhaled, preparing himself for the unknown tasks ahead. He nodded. He could do this. No problem. “Who’s ready for a little Christmas cheer?”

“We are!” his daughters yelled. “Woo-hoo!”

Their nanny/tutor yawned. “I’m going to take a nap.”

The three of them disappeared inside, leaving Reid alone.

Standing on the front porch, he wrapped his gloved hand around one of the ribbon-wrapped porch pillars. Experimentally, he rang one of the shiny decorative jingle bells affixed to the ribbon. He waited for Christmas cheer to wash over him.

Nada. With a shrug, Reid gazed across the snowy grounds, past the several additional decorated outdoor trees, past the multiple wooden cutout Christmas decorations, past the lights, past the snowdrifts and plastic candy canes, all the way to…

An airport shuttle pulled up. It disgorged about a dozen chattering, gawking tourists. All of them headed for the B&B.

Reid glanced around, waiting for the staff to materialize. Nobody appeared. The porch remained empty, except for him. Huh. That was strange. His grandparents had assured him the staff was ready and waiting to snap into action at a moment’s notice.

Oblivious to the lack of trained B&B personnel, the (apparent) guests tromped closer, squashing the snow under booted feet. They pointed at the decorations. They oohed and aahed. A couple of them waved at him with mittened hands.

“Howdy-ho!” one called out. “Merry Christmas!”

Reid wasn’t sure exactly what that meant anymore. Or what these people expected from The Christmas House. But he’d be damned if he’d let down his grandparents—or his own daughters.

He stepped forward, then thrust his arm in the air in a confident, jovial wave. “Merry Christmas! Come on in!”

Everyone headed in his direction. “Holly Jolly Christmas” suddenly blared from inside the house, and Reid was on his way.

Chapter Seven

Date: December 17th
Edgware Project Name: The Christmas House
Initial Impression:
festive
HUBBA-HUBBA
!
Interaction Goal:
evaluate ambiance
CHAT UP SEXY GUY
!

Doing her best to kick off her Edgware evaluation on the right foot, Karina stood in the foyer, furiously taking mental notes about The Christmas House. She and the kids had arrived there moments earlier, having missed the first available airport shuttle. They’d caught the second one, though, and had spent the ride marveling at the amazing
winteriness
of their surroundings.

Snow. For a California girl, it was mind-boggling.

“Mom?” Olivia tugged her sleeve. “Can we go in there?”

Karina glanced in the direction her daughter indicated. The B&B’s front room stood crowded with other guests, all of whom appeared to be enjoying an afternoon cider-and-gingerbread reception. Neat. Karina smiled. “Sure. I’ll be right there.”

It would be easy to keep an eye on them from here, she reasoned. Also, if Michael, Olivia, and Josh stayed busy with the reception, she wouldn’t have to explain what she was doing scrutinizing the B&B before they’d officially checked in.

She hadn’t shared her covert mission with them. It would be smarter, Karina had decided, to keep it a secret—at least for now. Even under the best of circumstances, the Barretts weren’t exactly renowned for their inconspicuousness. She couldn’t risk having one of her children blurt out the fact that Karina was here to assess The Christmas House. Doing so would endanger Stephanie’s job
and
the accuracy of the Edgware evaluation alike.

At her nod, Olivia, Josh, and Michael hurried into the fray with their usual mix of boisterousness and cookie-locating ability. Left on her own, Karina craned her gaze upward. The crown moldings were festooned with freshly cut evergreen garland and glowing Christmas lights. Nice.

Holiday ambiance: check.
Drawing in a professional-evaluator-style breath, she furrowed her brow, then examined the remaining details in the B&B’s festively decorated entryway.

A pinecone-and-evergreen wreath adorned the front door. More garland wrapped around the traditional oak banister, the foyer mirror, and the archway that led to the other room, where her children already fisted cups of spiced cider. A pine tree stood in the nook beside the staircase, fully decked out with lights and ornaments and embellished with wrapped gifts.

Holiday carols wafted from unseen speakers. The spicy scents of cinnamon, bayberry, and cloves drifted past Karina’s nose. At the mullioned window nearby, red velvet curtains begged to be touched, appearing both lavish and soft at the same time.

So far, The Christmas House had all the bases covered. It looked like Christmas. It smelled like Christmas. It sounded like Christmas. It even
felt
like Christmas: magical and warm.

She liked it immediately.

“Hey, what are you doing in here all by yourself?” A man approached, tall and broad shouldered. He sported dark shoulder-length hair, a sociable demeanor, and several days’ worth of macho beard stubble. Another guest, she guessed. A gregarious one. “You ought to be in the party with everyone else,” he said in an invitingly husky voice. “Come on. I’ll escort you in.”

He raised his shoulder to indicate the reception going on in the other room. Karina wondered why he didn’t simply wave his hand. A closer look told her why: Both his hands were full.

They were big, capable-looking hands, she noticed. Very arresting. One of them held a cup of spiced cider. The other held…No. It couldn’t be. But it was. It
was.

Feeling a ridiculous flutter in her midsection, Karina jerked her gaze from the man’s hands, to his face, then back.

Back…to the squeeze bottle of honey in his hand.

Christmastime Honey-Buying Man stand-in.
He was here!

Just the way she’d imagined he might be.

Riveted by the notion that her secret fantasy man had actually materialized before her eyes, Karina inhaled to steady her nerves. Then she took a closer look. She owed it to herself to be thorough about evaluating
everything
here at The Christmas House…including her own potential holiday fling-ee.

It was practically fated. He
did
have the honey, after all.

“Thanks. That’s nice of you.” She noted his merry-looking blue eyes, his rugged jawline, his way of commanding attention as though
he
were the centerpiece of the day, instead of a bowl of holiday cider. “But won’t your wife mind if you…?”

Delicately, she let her question linger unfinished. She expected him to jump in with an answer. Eric had rarely let her finish a statement, much less a question. Instead, the man in front of her merely stood waiting with raised eyebrows.

Patiently. Interestedly. And (let’s face it) sexily.

Karina nearly fell in love with him on the spot. How many men truly
listened
when a woman spoke? A handful? Maybe.
If
she were being generous.
And
counting talk-show hosts, who were
paid
to listen—mostly to famous, beautiful women. That meant this man’s ability to pay attention—especially to a nonfamous, nongorgeous person like her—was practically a national treasure.

“…join the party with another woman?” she finished.

There. She applauded herself for putting all the words together in the right order. But she could hardly stand there just ogling him, could she? No. No matter how much he (frankly) deserved it. There was something decidedly spectacular about the way he wore his khaki pants and stretchy thermal shirt, layered with another skintight tee. She could scarcely pull her gaze away from the shadows his muscles made against the fabric.

“No wife,” he said. “I’m divorced.”

Yay!
This was fate, for sure. “Girlfriend?” she asked.

Her ultracasual tone didn’t appear to fool him—at least if his dazzling smile was anything to go by. Through some kind of holiday magic, Karina felt that smile all the way to her toes.

“I’m on my own. Except for my daughters.” He nudged his chin, this time indicating a pair of long-legged, energetic–looking preteen girls in the next room. Both wore knit caps and multilayered clothes. One appeared to be trying to reprogram the dancing Santa figurine; the other was demonstrating a dance move to Olivia, swiveling to the tune of a hip-hop Christmas carol. “They’re pretty immune to the sight of their dad talking to pretty women, though, so we ought to be okay to join the party.”

He thought she was pretty.
Feeling a warm flush bloom in her cheeks, Karina grinned. He grinned back at her, making that flush spread rapidly…all the way to her giddy midsection.

Flirtatiously, she waved her hand in front of her face. “Wow, is it hot in here, or is that just you?”

He laughed outright at that.
Yes!
She was back, ladies and gentlemen! Karina Barrett might be out of practice, but she wasn’t down for the count. Encouraged, she leaned toward him.

Those few inches brought her within reach of his warmth, his presence, his indescribably delicious smell. Buffeted by a wave of wholehearted lustiness, Karina swayed. She smiled. Then, pretending to need him to steady her so she could get a leaning-sideways view of their children, she touched his shoulder.

It felt warm and solid beneath her hand. It felt
good.

Really, really good. Great, even. Shocked by the impact that simple touch had on her, Karina trembled.

Wowsa. Apparently, sexual chemistry was real. And potent. Even (maybe especially!) between Christmastime strangers.

“It looks as though your daughters have met my daughter.” She made herself remove her hand, successfully resisting an urge to pet him with it. “They seem to have hit it off, don’t they?” At his nod, she smiled again. “My two sons are in there someplace too—probably next to the gingerbread cookies.”

“Mmm. And your husband?” Mr. Dreamy raised his eyebrows.

“Pfft. In the Bahamas with his Pop Tart girlfriend.”

“You seem surprisingly fine with that.”

“Right now? I
totally
am.” Karina showed him her naked ring finger. Briefly, she contemplated showing him even more. Instead, she got a grip on herself long enough to face him. “I’m divorced too. That’s why we’re here, actually. I needed a little help with the whole holly-jolly Christmas routine this year.”

“Well, then, I guess you’ve come to the right place.”

“Have I?” She could get lost in his eyes. They were so blue. So direct. So intense and insightful. “I’m glad.”

“Me too.”

His voice rasped all the way inside her, making her shiver—even in her multiple layers of cold-weather gear. Still bundled up in her sweater, shirt, T-shirt, camisole, jeans, extra sweater, scarf, hat, parka, hood, mittens, superwarm socks, and fuzzy lined boots, Karina just went on smiling.

Chelsea had been right. She
did
deserve a little fun.

This man could be a
lot
of fun, it occurred to her. He seemed genial, proficient, insanely fit, and intelligent enough not to make a fuss about theirs being nothing but a short-term holiday affair. He was conveniently unattached too.

It was hardly well mannered to start spinning sexy, illicit plans from the moment they’d met. On the other hand, he
did
have the honey. That was a positive sign. Time was wasting!

“So…” He lifted his gaze to her face. “What are you hoping to get out of The Christmas House experience?”

To get lucky. To get laid. To find myself sweating and trembling in your big, strong arms, begging for more more more.

Whoa. Her hormones were going into overdrive! Obviously, they considered this encounter to be nothing but a preview of the inevitable X-rated feature. Even as Karina stood there, attempting to summon up a reasonable answer to his reasonable question, she felt positively…overheated. Ripe.
Ready.

Well, maybe this time she didn’t have to get a grip on herself. Maybe—just maybe—this time, she could indulge.

She deserved it, didn’t she? After her difficult year?

It wasn’t as though she wanted to
marry
Honey-Buying Man stand-in. She just wanted to, possibly, lick him a little.

“Oh, you know.” Karina raised her gaze audaciously to his, trying to clear her mind of the erotic visions clouding it.
I’m hoping for multiple orgasms. I’m hoping for you.
“I’m feeling pretty open about that.” Airily, she asked, “How about you?”

 

How about me…what?
Reid wondered, momentarily dazed by the unexpectedly carnal look the woman in the foyer had thrown him. He
knew,
somehow, that she’d been thinking about sex.
Sex sex sex.
With a clarity and vividness that shouldn’t have jibed with Christmas carols and hot spiced apple cider, but did.

She’s a guest. Be professional!
he commanded himself.

It wasn’t easy. Somehow he managed. Barely. Maybe…

“I’m just hoping to get through the next two weeks,” Reid said with utter truthfulness. “I’m not usually big on Christmas. This is all Greek to me.” He waved, indicating the decorations and the rollicking reception going on just beyond the foyer.

The gesture reminded him of the items in his hands. He really ought to deliver that spiced cider and honey to the two guests who’d requested them. The B&B staff had arrived—belatedly but efficiently—but Reid had remained hard at work. By now, his beverage-and-sweetener-seeking guests probably thought he’d fallen into a snowbank someplace—which seemed like a pretty good idea, just at the moment. Maybe it would cool him off.

“Well, I can help you out with that.” The woman beamed, her smile lighting her whole face—or at least as much of it as he could glimpse in the tiny space not covered by her scarf, hat, and parka hood. “I guarantee I can make you see the wonderfulness of Christmas. I
love
the holidays. And I
love
helping out too!”

She also
loved
looking at him, Reid noticed, which thrilled him in a way he’d thought himself immune to by now. At Shane’s campsite, Helene had scarcely been able to get a rise out of him. What was going on now, that he felt so drawn to this woman?

Trying to figure it out, he examined her. Legs. Check. Arms. Check. Head, face…all appeared pretty ordinary. Also, mostly shrouded in wool and quilted performance fabrics. For all he knew, his late-arriving guest had the figure of a moose. But her eyes were kind and her voice was sweet, and her aura of perky divorcée determination drew him like a bee to honey.

In his younger, rowdier, more degenerate postdivorce days, Reid had gone through a major phase of bedding the most carefree, most innocent women…then trying to extricate himself from their expectations afterward. Those experiences had led directly to his policy of making an “I’m not sticking around” disclaimer before starting up a new relationship. It had been years since Reid had felt tempted to deviate from that rule.

He felt tempted now. Tempted to swerve sideways, throw out the rulebook, and just…
indulge.
Something about the woman in front of him made him want
more
from life. Much more.

More than any sensible woman should probably give him.

“I just got in from Australia,” he blurted. “The girls and I, I mean. I won’t be sticking around here in Kismet.”

The woman looked surprised.

That made two of them. What the hell was he doing issuing his Standard Disclaimer? Reid wondered. He’d only approached this bundled-up woman in the first place in his official capacity as temporary innkeeper. He’d wanted to make sure she was having fun—just in case she was the secret Edgware evaluator (not likely, given her overall air of suburban naïveté). He hadn’t intended to get lured in by her eyes, intrigued by her smiles, or captivated by the feel of her hand on him.

His shoulder still tingled where she’d touched him.

BOOK: Holiday Affair
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