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
goddamn it! He had enough to handle right now. The last thing he needed was to get himself tangled up with a new woman. Especially a cute one. Especially a perky one. Especially one—he reminded himself—who would undoubtedly want “A Commitment.”
Well. He’d probably already put the kibosh on that idea with his Standard Disclaimer. It tended to scare off most women.
Reid prepared himself to be disappointed.
She shrugged. “Me neither. This trip is totally off the record books for me. What happens in Kismet stays in Kismet!”
That was new. He’d never been answered that way before.
If they were
to play for keeps, maybe that meant
the rules were blown. Maybe that meant he
get tangled up with her. Maybe he could unwrap that long, fuzzy scarf she had on, peel off her bulky parka, find out what she looked like under all those layers of Polarfleece and wool.
“After all, we’ve got two weeks ahead of us, right?” Her dimpled smile charmed him. “I’d say that’s more than enough time to get to know one another better. So…I’m Karina Barrett.”
Cheerfully, she stuck out her mittened hand.
Reid stared at it, fighting the unmistakable feeling that any contact between them might have momentous consequences. Which made no sense at all. Maybe he was still jet-lagged. Or maybe a part of him truly
Karina Barrett. Nonsensically. Unfoundedly. Without reservations or even a glimpse of cleavage to sweeten the deal. Reid hesitated. Then…
As far as he could tell, Karina wasn’t even his type. And he wasn’t in the market for a holiday romance anyway. It was perfectly safe to shake her hand and get to know her better.
He put down the cider and the honey. Karina’s gaze lingered on both…or maybe, inexplicably, only on the honey. Hmmm…
He grasped her hand. “I’m Reid Sullivan.” Mitten-to-hand contact wasn’t as satisfying as he might have hoped. Maybe that’s why he went further. Unwisely, unprofessionally further. “Why don’t you take off your coat and stay a while, Karina?”
Scrabbling eagerly at the zipper on her parka, Karina decided that a girl couldn’t ask for a better invitation.
Well, maybe she could, she reasoned breathlessly as her mittened fingers jabbed at the metal fastening.
Why don’t you let me stroke you all over?
would have rated highly. Under slightly different circumstances, so would,
Why don’t you take a nap while I do the dishes, diaper the baby, and make you hot cocoa?
But as far as unexpected invitations went, Reid’s was a winner. Feeling hotter than ever, she flipped back her parka hood, then hastily whipped off her coat.
Politely, Reid took it. His gaze skimmed flatteringly over her figure as Karina debated what to remove next: hat or scarf?
Taking off her knit ski cap would leave her with major hat head.
Definitely. She’d been a little rushed when she’d gotten outfitted with it—along with all the rest of her cold-weather gear—in the airport ladies’ room before venturing outside and hopping on the airport shuttle with the kids. But she’d been determined not to turn up in the snowy Midwest looking like an unprepared blond bimbo from the sunshine state.
She’d gone overboard. Her scarf was wound
Ineffectually, she plucked at it, feeling frustrated.
It figured. A hot man invited her to undress for him (okay,
undress for him), and she was all thumbs. Argh!
“Here.” Reid stepped nearer. “Let me help you with that.”
He had to be kidding. He was gorgeous, friendly, muscular, patient, squeaky clean, interested in listening to her, nice smelling, funny,
helpful? This just got better and better. Karina couldn’t wait to tell Chelsea about this encounter.
I want all the dirty details, K. You be sure to call me the instant something happens, okay?
Well…It was happening!
Even if Chelsea—probably—didn’t consider
to be a requisite hot-male quality, Karina did. Chelsea, in her youth, probably preferred her dates to be capable of moshing. Or maybe hacking into Facebook. Or even pulling a wicked Ollie on their skateboards. Karina knew better. Listening rocked.
Filled with anticipation—and obedient stillness—Karina stood with her chin jutting out. Reid took a workmanlike, wide-legged stance in front of her. He peered at her scarf, then gave it an experimental tug. As expected, it held fast. With easy agility, his fingers worked at the gnarled length of her scarf.
“It’s a little tangled,” he acknowledged as he plucked and twisted. “But don’t worry—I have a lot of experience with this.”
Karina considered rubbing herself on him. Just on a simple getting-to-know-you basis. She blinked, then cleared her throat. “You have a lot of experience with undressing women?”
His gaze met hers, now only a few inches away. This close, she could see that his beard stubble was real—none of that razor-trimmed, boy-band stuff sported by guys who wore Axe Body Spray and watched the show
on TV. His mouth quirked.
“With unknotting tangled scarves,” he clarified.
Making progress now, he casually brushed his knuckles along the underside of her chin. In response, a tingle swept along her jaw to her ear, leaving Karina with a sweet-sour sensation akin to biting down on the gummy worms Josh and Michael liked.
She fought an urge to knot her scarf permanently.
have daughters, remember?” Reid’s brow knit, then cleared as he pulled her scarf free. He dropped it. “Voilà.”
Mission accomplished. He stepped away. She felt the loss of his nearness keenly. Preposterously keenly. On the other hand, Reid Sullivan
her potential holiday-affair mate, Karina reasoned. As fated by the honey. She
to like him. A lot.
So far, she did.
Thank you, Stephanie, for this job!
“Thanks for the help.” Gesturing at her cast-off coat on a nearby chair and her scarf (
bless you, tangled scarf!
), Karina shrugged. “I’m new at this whole cold-weather thing. At home in San Diego—where I’m from—I mostly wear bikinis all the time.”
Okay. It was a tiny exaggeration. A glib fib. But where was the harm? One teensy white lie that made her sound sexy and carefree wouldn’t hurt anybody. And it might improve her chances with Reid Sullivan, superstud and B&B guest extraordinaire.
“Really? The B&B has a hot tub.” He hooked his thumb toward the rear of the place. “If you want, we could—”
“Oh no! No, that’s all right!” Karina laughed as she yanked at her cardigan, trying to remove it, too. It seemed glued to her shirt underneath it via the awesome power of static cling. Her skin crackled. “A hot tub isn’t very Christmassy, is it?”
“I don’t know.” Reid seemed genuinely mystified by the question. He was
cute with his knitted brow and full-lipped frown. “Maybe if we wore those red and white Santa hats?”
And nothing else,
Karina’s imagination suggested. The idea had merit. She gave a serious nod. “All right then. It’s a date. I’ll bring the Santa hats, and you bring—”
Automatically, she stopped, semicertain he’d interrupt her.
He didn’t. At the realization, she swooned a little harder.
“—yourself, okay? I’m a simple girl with simple needs.”
At that, Reid laughed. “No woman is simple. But I have to say…I’m looking forward to figuring out your complications.”
“Oh? You think I’ll be that easy to decipher, huh?”
“No. That’s the whole point.” His gaze roved over her, seeming to see beyond her unwieldy ensemble of flannel shirt, T-shirt, camisole, sweater, mittens, jeans, thick socks, and knee-high boots. Yep. Bundled up like a nun. Sexy. “I think you’ll be challenging.” His gaze lifted to her face. “I like challenging.”
“In that case, I’ll be sure to speak in code from here on in. And maybe wear a mask part of the time, too.” Karina grinned. “I wouldn’t want to disappoint you by being easy.”
I’m so easy!
her libido offered, panting.
At her unintentional double entendre, Karina wanted to wince. But Reid didn’t seem to notice. Actually, he seemed to be envisioning that naughty, seminaked hot tub scenario.
Or maybe that was just her. She bet he looked great wet.
“I doubt you could disappoint anyone,” he said. “You seem so…generous. So giving, somehow. I can’t explain it.”
just hand you my coat and let you strip off my scarf. As first impressions go, that’s pretty munificent.”
Another smile. “It’s more than that. You seem…special.”
That’s because I’m undercover.
But she couldn’t share that.
“You do too,” Karina said. She meant it, too, she realized then. Reid
special—because of the listening and the helping. “And I’m not just saying that because of the honey, either.”
He frowned, puzzled. Whoops. Had she said that aloud?
They both glanced at the abandoned squeeze bottle, then at each other. Then Reid smiled as though guessing her secret—one of them, at least. A long moment stretched between them—a moment that, inexplicably, felt compatible. Relaxed.
Loath to disturb it, Karina held her breath. She hadn’t done much dating since her divorce. This was all new to her. Maybe this attraction between them was merely ho-hum flirtation?
It felt like more…until Reid blinked and refocused.
“So…shall we go in?” he asked.
He angled his head, indicating the reception. It was really kicking into gear now. Karina’s fellow guests were gathered in laughing, lively groups, sharing cider and stories with each other. It looked like fun. But so did Reid. Here. With her.
On the verge of agreeing—however reluctantly—Karina spied her sons, both kneeling on the floor beside one of the Christmas trees. As she watched, Michael picked up a wrapped box and shook it, then held it to his ear. Josh examined an airplane-shaped ornament, then nimbly plucked it from a low-hanging branch.
Uh-oh. Her unrepentant “borrower” was at it again.
Beside the crackling fireplace, Olivia frowned at one of the red felt stockings with embroidered cuffs. She appeared bothered by it, but Karina couldn’t figure out why.
“Is something wrong?” Reid’s voice penetrated Karina’s consciousness, making its way past her maternal red alert. “You seem distracted, for some reason. If you don’t like parties—”
“No, that’s not it. I’m sorry.” Why wasn’t he keeping an eagle eye on his daughters? she wondered abruptly. Surely they weren’t so angelic that they didn’t require any supervision? “It’s just that it looks as though my kids are about to give The Christmas House the full-on Barrett treatment.”
“The Barrett treatment?”
“Also known as making sure nothing remains unscathed, undamaged, or otherwise unspoiled,” Karina explained, newly vigilant as she watched Olivia, Michael, and Josh. “They’re sort of…demolition experts, I’m afraid.”
Reid shrugged. “They’re kids. They can’t be that bad.”
“You haven’t met them.” With an apologetic smile, Karina excused herself. “I’d better run interference. It was nice to meet you, Reid. I hope we run into each other again sometime.”
His smile mesmerized her. “I feel sure we will.”
Karina thought in a dither. Why had Josh, Michael, and Olivia chosen
, when things had been going so well for her and Reid? It was as though their kid radar had detected that Mommy was enjoying some adult-style fun, and they’d acted unconsciously to derail her plans.
They’d possessed the same disruptive abilities when they’d been babies, kicking into uncanny crying jags the instant their mother had attempted to take a nap, catch up on paperwork, or log some much-needed husband-and-wife time with Eric.
“Remember.” Reid’s eyes sparkled. “You promised to show me a little Christmas magic. I intend to hold you to that.”
Was that a double entendre too? Or just an invitation?
Either way, Karina was officially psyched. She grinned.
“You’ve got no idea what you’re in for,” she said.
Then she left Reid behind and bolted into the reception, intent on corralling her children before they unwrapped all the prop gifts, filched all the ornaments, and (possibly) performed a
-style DNA test on the traditional holiday stockings that hung all in a row on the mantelpiece.
…From the desk of Betty Sullivan
5:00 P.M. (
Carrying a fresh platter of iced gingerbread cookies, Reid paused. He glanced at the schedule written—for his guests’ convenience—on the B&B’s chalkboard, which stood on a tinsel-bedecked easel in a corner of the front room. He adjusted the platter, frowned at his watch, then looked around him.
The cider-and-gingerbread “Snowed-In” reception should have ended three hours ago. Instead, the get-together was still in full swing. Apparently, now that all his guests had arrived, they were intent on whooping it up. The time had positively flown by.
Well, happy guests meant things were going well. And that meant Reid had been right. Overseeing The Christmas House this season
be an easy task—even for a Scrooge like him. To confirm that, all he had to do was look around.
The spiced cider flowed freely. The gingerbread made the rounds quickly. At times, his guests’ laughter actually overrode the Christmas carols on the sound system. People were dancing to the music, talking in groups, and even plucking off decorations from the Christmas trees to wear.
As he watched, one of his single guests, a fiftysomething woman named Suzanne, wrapped a hank of gold garland around her neck. Fluffing it up like a feather boa, she danced her way to Rocky and Neil, a couple visiting from Vermont, and urged them to join in. They did. Before long, the whole room was boogying.
Downstairs, in the B&B’s basement Fun Zone, more music blared—but these Christmas carols were less Bing Crosby, more 50 Cent. There was probably more dancing going on too, but Reid knew that dancing was competing with The Christmas House’s big-screen TV and video game system, the air hockey and pool tables, the shelves full of board games and books, the toys for kids of all ages, and the holiday-themed snacks that were always kept stocked downstairs. All of Reid’s underage guests were in the Fun Zone, currently being supervised by a conscientious and cheerful Amanda. She’d agreed to temporarily expand her role as Alexis and Nicole’s nanny/tutor for the sake of helping out.
Feeling grateful to her, Reid set down the gingerbread cookies on the sideboard. A couple of guests mamboed past him. A few more started up a conga line. Several people linked arms, waved their cups of spiced cider, and sang woozily in tune to the music.
No. Not woozily.
Suddenly stricken by his guests’ shambling dance moves, extrabright grins, and expansive gestures, Reid realized the truth: His guests weren’t woozy. They were
wasn’t supposed to happen. The Christmas House was a family-friendly destination. Unlike most B&B’s, they’d purposely remodeled so they could offer suites that slept four or six. They’d provided activities for children (hence the downstairs Fun Zone). They’d deliberately offered nonalcoholic spiced cider and gingerbread cookies
of wine and crudités, so the daily afternoon receptions wouldn’t devolve into happy hour.
But somehow, some way, his guests had gotten blitzed anyway.
This wouldn’t look good to the Edgware evaluator, Reid realized. Until half an hour ago, there’d been children present at the reception. What if they’d accidentally gotten tipsy?
He had to investigate. He had to make sure this didn’t happen again tomorrow. There were a dozen receptions still remaining on his schedule. He had to nip this in the bud.
Decisively, Reid approached the buffet table. He chatted with some friendly guests, then poured himself a cup of spiced cider. It smelled…boozy. He sipped. It tasted…potent. It was definitely spiked with something alcoholic. Something…tasty.
He licked his lips, then quaffed the rest.
Fisting his cup, Reid frowned at the cider bowl. There was only a little left—maybe an eighth of the punch bowl. The only responsible, speedy, surefire way to dispose of it was clear.
Just as Reid finished his sixth cup of cider—after first holding the crystal punch bowl and shaking it to release every delicious drop—a hank of silver garland landed on his head.
He plucked it off, then wrapped it around his neck. With a flourish, he flung one end back, in the style of the Red Baron’s jaunty aviation scarf. He struck a pose. His guests applauded.
Suzanne gave him a good-natured wolf whistle.
That cheerfully licentious sound reminded him of Karina. Where had she gotten off to, anyway? Reid had liked her. He’d
liked her. And that wasn’t the spiked cider talking, either.
Recalling the promise Karina had made to show him the wonders of Christmas, Reid veered sideways. He felt unexpectedly
he realized. Maybe it was the cider that made him feel so loose and carefree. Although he typically drank harder stuff: whiskey, mescal, absinthe. Spiked apple juice was nothing! He could handle that, for sure. Of course, he was still jet-lagged, Reid remembered. That would make him feel the effects of the alcohol sooner than usual. Maybe a little more strongly too.
Straightening amid the gaiety of the raucous reception, Reid examined his guests. None of them had hair the color of sunshine, a smile that made him feel weak, or a surfeit of cold-weather clothes better suited to an arctic expedition than to a visit to Kismet. None of them were Karina. He had to find her.
It was his own fault for losing track of her, he knew. He could have followed her into the reception and met her children. He could have arranged to meet her later. He could have—Reid knew damn well—persuaded her to stay in the foyer with him.
But he hadn’t. Instead, mustering the resolve of ten conscientious men, he’d quit envisioning him and Karina in a hot tub (wearing nothing but Santa hats) and had refocused on his duties at The Christmas House. He’d put his mind on the proper host-to-guest politeness track and asked if she wanted to join the reception…just when they’d been on the verge of something more. Just when that indescribable
had happened between them, full of possibility and yearning and wanting and lust.
Yes, lust. It was bald but true. At least on his part.
But had he indulged himself? No.
So…shall we go in?
Stupider words had rarely been spoken. Reid remembered the disappointed downturn of Karina’s mouth. He’d wanted to kiss away that frown of hers. He felt certain he could still accomplish the job. In addition, he wanted to know exactly what lay beneath all those layers of Polarfleece and wool Karina had been wearing. He could imagine. And had. Vividly. Now he needed to discover the truth for himself.
Now that he’d solved the spiked punch problem, that is.
Congratulating himself on his innate inn-keeping talents—which he’d never realized he had—Reid headed upstairs.
Maybe Karina was getting settled in her room, he decided. He’d glimpsed her at the front desk, formally checking in, shortly after she’d gone to handle whatever alleged misdeeds her children were involved in. Which reminded him—he didn’t understand why Karina was wound so tightly about ordinary childlike behavior. But…whatever. He didn’t want to give her a parental report card. He wanted to give her a kiss. And more.
“Hey there, cuz!” someone said from behind him.
Reid turned. His cousin, Vanessa, stood with what looked like a wriggly brown-, black-, and white-spotted lump in her arms.
“I’m glad I found you.” Vanessa hurried to him. Up close, it became evident that the thing in her arms was a dog. A dachshund. “I need your help with Digby, here. Usually he’s fine with being around the guests, but today he’s freaking out. Look!”
She turned and sort of…
the creature at him, dog breath and all. Its floppy ears, pointed muzzle, and big brown eyes met Reid’s puzzled gaze. So did something else.
“Is that dog wearing a sweater?” he asked.
“Of course he is. It’s cold out.” Vanessa tightened her hold, worriedly nuzzling Digby as the dog squirmed and whined. “Besides, that’s his signature look. Digby is the official mascot of The Christmas House! He always wears his souvenir sweater, especially to the “Snowed-In” receptions. We sell tons of these getups each year to our guests who want mementos for their pet companions.”
She rearranged Digby to show a knitted-in version of The Christmas House’s holly-wreathed, hand-painted logo, as seen on the sign in front of the B&B. It was smart, Reid had to admit.
“Nice cross-marketing effort,” he admitted. “But I was just on my way to do something”—he gestured upstairs, where (he hoped) he’d find Karina again—“so if this can wait a while—”
“You’re going upstairs? Excellent. You can take Digby with you.” Nodding, Vanessa offloaded the dachshund into Reid’s arms. He had no choice but to accept the warm, wiggly, snuffling dog. Digby felt surprisingly sturdy—capable, potentially, of knocking down a few of his tipsy guests, bowling ball–meets–bowling pin style, if he got loose and agitated at the reception. “He’ll do better away from all the hubbub,” Vanessa explained. “Just until he calms down. You’ll see all his stuff. He usually sleeps in the attic room—the small one at the very top of the stairs.”
“That’s my room.” Reid had moved into it because of its size. It had felt cozy and, with its pitched roof, a little bit familiar. Like a tent. “You mean I’m bunking with the dog?”
“Looks that way.” Vanessa grinned. “Thanks, cuz. And hey—I’m glad you’re back, even if it’s only for a little while.”
She came closer and hugged him, silver garland and all. Still holding Digby in one arm, Reid hugged her back. At the contact, he felt…something. It reminded him—suspiciously—of homesickness. But he knew that couldn’t be it.
As his grandparents had so adeptly pointed out, Reid wasn’t the least bit sentimental. Even if he
grown up in Kismet with Vanessa as his tomboyish sidekick, nearly his same age and always ready for adventure. And even if he
seen his cousin for the past, oh, too many years.
I missed you,
he wanted to say.
I wish we didn’t live so far apart.
When he released her, what emerged was, “I think somebody spiked the cider at the reception.”
“Really?” Vanessa pulled away, frowning. “That’s weird. And potentially problematic, too. Especially with the secret Edgware inspector lurking around.” She bit her lip, appearing troubled. Then she waved her hand. “It was probably just an accident, though. A teenage prank. A onetime thing. I wouldn’t worry about it. We’ve got other things to think about right now.”
Reid sighed. Then he snapped out of it.
“Other things to think about? Like what?”
Vanessa gave him a curious look. “Like the annual Christmas hokey pokey dance.” She gestured toward the front room. “It’s what’s up next, and I said I’d lead it. The guests
Reid shuddered. “No better time for me to take care of old Digby, here, then. Just put him in the bedroom?”
Vanessa nodded. “Give him a treat and a few minutes to settle, and he’ll be out like a light. Trust me.”
“Will do.” Wrangling a firmer grip on his doggy burden, Reid headed upstairs. “Okay, Digby!” he sang out. “Let’s gooo!”
He could have sworn he heard Vanessa laugh.
“That cider was
spiked,” she said. “This is going to be the most awesome Christmas hokey pokey ever!”
Tiptoeing down the attic hallway, Karina could have sworn she heard singing. Not Christmas carol singing, which had been going on in rowdy fashion downstairs for quite a while now—since before she’d safely seen Josh, Michael, and Olivia downstairs to the kids’ Fun Zone, then joined the reception herself—but lullaby singing. Curious, she edged toward the sound.
Through a partially opened door, she glimpsed Reid Sullivan. He stood beside a floor cushion. On the cushion lay a snoozing dachshund. The dog—wearing a holiday sweater—seemed to be snoring.
Had Reid been singing a lullaby to a dog? Adorable!
Even more curious now, Karina hesitated near the doorway. Should she say something? She didn’t want to wake up the dog.
Standing in plain sight, Reid bent. He scrutinized the dachshund. Then he stood, wearing a relieved expression. Karina recognized that expression—mothers of babies everywhere did.
—was finally asleep.
On the verge of announcing her presence, she saw Reid reach for his waffle-knit thermal shirt. It appeared to be his only concession to the cold December weather. She paused. Waited.
Almost as though he were rewarding her patience, Reid pulled off his shirt. He bunched it up and tossed it on the comfortable-looking bed, his biceps and shoulders flexing.
He was still wearing a T-shirt underneath. But he looked mighty fine with one less layer obscuring his muscles.
Karina couldn’t help reacting. It just happened.
Alertly, Reid glanced up. He spied her in the doorway.
Pertly, she held up the sprig of mistletoe she’d been carrying. She’d found it in her room and—after several cups of hot spiced cider and two fortifying gingerbread cookies—had been inspired to employ it in her new quest to teach Reid about the wonders of Christmas. She hadn’t expected to use it so soon.
“Mistletoe.” She wiggled it. “Traditionally, people kiss under this stuff to ensure good luck in the coming year.”
Reid’s gaze darkened. “Interesting. Tell me more.”
“Ancient Celts considered mistletoe an aphrodisiac.”
“You don’t say?”
She nodded. “It’s supposed to be magically capable of warding off evil spirits. Oh, and putting out fires, too.”
Not that it was doing much to put out the fire Karina was currently experiencing.
In her pants.