Engaged by Christmas
Park City Firefighter Romance
Cat would love nothing more than to stay at home with a good book on New Year’s Eve, but she wants to cheer up her melancholy heart-broken roommate. When Cat agrees to attend a party with her roommate, she doesn’t expect to ring in the New Year by kissing her roommate’s ex-boyfriend.
Nikola isn’t looking for love, especially not when his ex-girlfriend shows up uninvited at his New Year’s Eve work party. When a Polynesian beauty entertains the group with a dance, it’s love at first sight. They share a beautiful kiss only to be interrupted by his ex-girlfriend. Will he ever locate the Polynesian Cinderella who leaves him in the center of the dance floor at the stroke of midnight without the slightest hint of who she is?
New Year’s Eve – Eleven Months Earlier
Why did Cat always feel pressured to have a date on New Year’s Eve? At least this year she’d have someone to hang with. Now, she only needed to figure out how to get her roommate out of bed.
Cat placed her hand on Megan’s back. Nikola, Megan’s on-and-off-again boyfriend, had broken things off with her just before Thanksgiving, but Cat never saw it working out between them. The relationship was more Megan worshipping the tall, dark, and handsome firefighter than anything else.
“Why?” Megan cried out as she buried her head beneath the mound of pillows on her bed and sobbed. “I’ll never be able to look at another fireman calendar again.”
Megan didn’t normally sulk over a guy for this long. She didn’t even pay attention to any one thing for more than a few minutes, but it was New Year’s Eve, one of the saddest holidays of the year if you didn’t have someone to kiss at the stroke of midnight.
To Cat, it was just another day, but to someone like Megan, who always had a boyfriend attending to her every want, it was devastating.
“It’s New Year’s Eve,” Cat said in a hoarse voice. She felt better now after her battle with the week-long cold, but the virus had left her with laryngitis. Her voice had passed through the undetectable stage and was now at least audible, sounding as if she’d swallowed a frog. She snuggled into Megan’s side on the bed. “I’ll treat you to a sashimi platter at Sushi Central.”
Megan turned over and wiped under her eyes. “That’s where Dax, Nikola’s firefighter buddy, works. I can’t go there.”
Cat had to stop herself from smiling at Megan’s pouty facial expression. It wouldn’t take long for Megan to find another guy to cling to; guys were always asking her out. It was her MO to fall head over heels for a guy, break up, nearly die from heartache, then repeat the cycle two to three months later. Cat found that if she was an active listener, the sun would shine again on their tiny yellow rented house a few blocks off Main Street in Park City. Ironically, Megan was a psychologist. She helped people learn cognitive skills to better communicate with others, as well as coping skills if the cognitive skills failed.
“How about Chinese?” Cat offered.
“Pineapple’s?” Megan countered with eager eyes as she sat up in bed.
Cat sighed. She had hoped Megan wouldn’t mention Pineapple’s, the local firefighter hangout. Cat adored Pineapple. She had first met him when she’d quit ballet in high school and joined Ancient Legends, the multicultural performing arts group. Everyone who knew the burly Polynesian firefighter and restaurateur loved his even-keeled, happy nature. Cat wouldn’t mind visiting with her old friend who she danced with on occasion for the past eight years—she hadn’t seen Pineapple since the Luau they’d performed for the summer solstice—but Cat wasn’t sure tonight was the best time to reconnect.
“You won’t go to Sushi Central,” Cat said, “but you’ll go to Pineapple’s, where Nikola and all the other firefighters will be ringing in the New Year tonight?”
Megan smiled. “Yes. And no one will recognize me.” She said it as if she’d just disclosed an incriminating secret.
Cat didn’t like where Megan’s thoughts drifted. She tipped her chin down in suspicion. “What are you planning, Megan?”
“Two weeks ago, Nikola invited me to a costume party at Pineapple’s to celebrate New Year’s Eve. I can’t believe I’d forgotten about it.” Megan jumped out of bed and ran to her closet. “I’ve got my Mardi Gras costume in here somewhere.” Her voice was muffled as she sifted through the haphazardly hung dresses in her closet. With colorful cotton and silk puffing out of every crevice in the crowded closet, Cat was surprised Megan could find anything in there.
“Are you sure it’s not a private party?” Cat asked, grasping at anything to stop the insanity. “And it’s not gonna work, because when Pineapple and I chat, Nikola will know it’s you with me.”
“Good point. We’ll need to keep our distance from each other at the party.” Megan emerged from the closet holding up a feathery peacock dress and a matching eye mask. “But no one will recognize me in this.” She pressed the dress to her chest and spun in circles.
“I’m not going.” Cat shook her head.
“But I need you,” Megan whined.
“No, you don’t. Like you said, we won’t even see each other at the party.”
“I need moral support.”
Cat bit at her lower lip. Blast her bleeding heart. She couldn’t ignore a woman in need. Her mom had called Cat her helium child, saying she always lifted people up off their feet when they were down. Cat strived to be that kind and charitable person to honor her mother’s memory. “I’ll go, but I don’t see how this party will help you get over Nikola.”
A devious glint sparkled in Megan’s eye. “Men want to be with a wanted woman.”
Cat wrinkled her forehead. This was not a scheme she cared to be a part of. Maybe it was time to purchase the house she had been eyeing on the quiet cul-de-sac at the edge of town. It was a scary prospect to buy a home on her own, but she was ready to finally pay rent to herself, and she’d worked her butt off to finish up her master’s, then saved everything for a down payment. At least she would sleep better if she got her own place. Megan had a ludicrous theory that if she woke up before sunrise and exercised to the sounds of mating animals every day, she’d have a honeymoon baby when she eventually tied the knot. At 5:15 a.m. just this morning, Cat had woken to the sounds of zebras mating.
Megan grabbed Cat’s hand and pulled her toward her closet. “Now, what costume can we put you in?”
Cat’s heart raced. There was no way she was wearing one of Megan’s bombastic dresses. “Ah, thanks, but I can wrestle something up.” Cat left Megan’s bedroom before she could protest.
As Cat hurried away from Megan, her eye caught the firefighter benefit calendar on the wall in the living room above the fireplace, where a family photo hung in most homes. She walked over to it and examined the bare-chested, muscly guy on the cover. The first time Megan had brought Nikola to the house, he’d said he was flattered to have his calendar on their wall—but when a calendar popped up in every room displaying the month of November, Cat could sense his uneasiness. He really was a handsome guy, but he didn’t laugh much. Several times, Nikola had stopped by the house before Megan got home from work, and Cat and Nikola would sit and chat until Megan walked in the front door. He seemed intrigued by Cat’s loud Latin music and stories of her life growing up in a Chilean fishing village.
She tapped her chin as she stared up at his dark, mysterious eyes. He was hard to make out, but he must have been a good listener, because she couldn’t recall him ever talking about himself growing up in … Croatia, or Serbia. She did most of the talking. He had an adorable accent; she’d give him that. But she wouldn’t give him more. She needed Megan to get over him quick, so their house wouldn’t feel so gray.
“Cat, I found the cutest dress for you!” Megan yelled from her bedroom.
“Got it covered.” Cat strained to speak loud enough for her voice to carry to Megan’s room. They both needed that calendar put somewhere their eyes wouldn’t wander to. She pulled the calendar off the wall and tossed it in the trash basket on the way to her room.
Fifteen minutes later, Cat’s bed looked like a Mexican parade had exploded. Every costume she’d ever performed in rested on her white bedcover. There was a Native American feather dress, a Mexican folk dress, a Hawaiian …
Her eyes froze on the perfect outfit. The Tahitian costume would be drafty on a stormy New Year’s Eve, but if she got cold, she could put her floor-length winter coat back on. She’d be warm enough. Even if it were hidden beneath her coat for part of the night, the outfit would satisfy Megan and allow Cat to feel nostalgic all evening. The lively Tahitian dance she’d performed on multiple occasions was one of her all-time favorites. She’d have to lose her glasses and take down her hair, which she always kept up in some fashion.
Polynesian drums pounded in Cat’s mind as she pulled the long grass skirt up her legs. Its heavy belt, loaded with red tassels to accentuate her hip movements, rested comfortably below her waistline. She closed her eyes and tasted the salty ocean breeze on her lips. Her mind held dozens of happy memories of the ocean.
Her visions were warm at first, but they chilled in an instant. She shivered as the image of a wall of water carried away her breath in suffocating waves. It wasn’t a real memory, so why did the vision repeat when thoughts of the sea ran through her head?
Cat hadn’t visited the ocean in twelve years, not since before Aunt Alina had picked her up from the ballet intensive program she’d come to Salt Lake City to participate in that summer with the professional ballet. Aunt Alina had told her through hyperventilating sobs that her sister, Cat’s mom, along with Cat’s dad, sister, and brother, had all been swept away in a tsunami that hit their little Chilean fishing village without warning. Alina never mentioned returning home. There had been no reason to go back to Chile for the funeral, since there were no bodies to bury.
“Cat!” Megan exclaimed, walking into Cat’s bedroom and giving her a once-over. “I love it!” Megan twisted her lips. “Although I’m the one that’s supposed to get the men’s stares tonight to make Nikola raging jealous.”
“You told me no one would recognize you.” Cat raised an eyebrow. “How will Nikola be jealous if he doesn’t know who you are?”
“You let me worry about that little detail,” Megan responded with confidence. “And where is your optimism hiding? You’re usually the positive, happy one in the house.”
Megan was right. Cat needed to do her calming meditation routine to center her mind and body, but she also needed to get ready for the party. She’d dress herself up, then meditate.
An hour later, they arrived at Pineapple’s. “Can I give you a free therapy session?” Megan asked as they pulled into a tight parking space between two other SUVs.
Cat couldn’t bring herself to say no to Megan. “Sure.”
“Cat, you put everyone else before yourself. You’re a people-pleaser.”
Judging by Megan’s serious tone, Cat figured the therapy session could take a while. She cut her engine, restarted only the electrical system, and flicked on her seat warmer. “I am?” Cat knew her own strengths and weaknesses, but it always felt good to bolster Megan’s self-esteem.
“Yes. And if you weren’t such a pushover, I think you would find a keeper. I want you to go into that party tonight with the confidence of a lion.”
Cat masked her laughter with a cough.
“You okay?” Megan asked.
“There ya go,” Megan said in an encouraging, yet patronizing tone. Megan meant well. “You are such a great catch, Cat. Own it. I’m going inside. You’ll want to wait out here for about ten minutes, so we’re not seen entering together.”
Did Megan seriously expect Cat to sit in a cold car for ten minutes? Cat held up a finger. “Before you go, how do I know when someone is manipulating me? And … how do I respond to that?”
“A lot of times when people are taking advantage of you, they’ll flatter you. Cat, you need to realize you have a choice. You can always say no.”
“I see. Thanks, Megan. I wonder if people know when they’re taking advantage of others.”
Megan hopped out of Cat’s car and leaned in through the open door, allowing cold air to blast its way in. “If you find someone taking advantage of you … you need to put them in their place,” she said with complete sincerity. “I’ll see you inside in ten minutes.”
Cat sighed as she watched Megan saunter into Pineapple’s. Once Megan disappeared from sight, Cat flipped open the mirror on her car’s visor, slapped another layer of red lipstick on, added six more bobby pins to her hair to hold the flower crown in place, then relaxed into her heated leather seat.
She could simply drive away and come back to grab Megan later. The life of a mother with a teenage daughter had to be similar—confined to the car while her teenager socialized with friends inside a local hangout. Cat lamented lost teenage years with her own mother. She had barely entered that rebellious stage when her mother was ripped from her.
Time for self-therapy. Cat closed her eyes and began the calming visualization routine she’d started doing around six months after her family had died. She envisioned her family together, running and laughing around the explosive geysers in the Atacama Desert; then, when the sky darkened and their breath froze in the dry air, they stepped into the sizzling mineral baths. Her father recounted stories of their ancestors as they counted the endless stars in the unblemished sky. Without saying a word, her brother smiled, kissed her cheek and climbed out of the mineral pool. He beckoned them to follow as he floated upward, carried away as he stood atop white wings until his brightness matched the stars above their heads. One by one, the rest of her family kissed her, then ascended into the heavens in the same manner.
Peace filled her chest as she melted into the leather seat. The warmth from the luxurious heat allowed her mind to linger in the therapeutic mineral pool longer than normal.
A car door slammed, startling Cat awake. She took in a sharp breath and her eyes flew open. Squinting, she lifted her phone to her face. 11:30 p.m.! Have I seriously just slept in my car for four hours? Blast those stupid mating zebras that woke me up this morning!
Cat glanced in the mirror to make sure she didn’t have drool dripping down her chin. She looked surprisingly alert and refreshed, and she felt amazing. She got out of her car and stepped with care through the parking lot to avoid slipping on invisible ice patches.
She swung open Pineapple’s glass door, feeling like she could take on the world. She laughed at the thought of roaring like a lion. Maybe she would even meet a cute fireman tonight.
Cat froze just inside the doors while her eyes continued to scan the lively crowd. No one was in costume. In fact, everyone wore either jeans or khakis. Her cheeks burned with embarrassment.
“Catalina!” Pineapple walked around the front counter and pulled her in for his signature bear hug. “I didn’t know you’d be here.”
“I’m feeling a little out of place in this,” she said, opening her jacket to demonstrate her grass skirt and coconut shell bikini top.
Pineapple slapped both hands to his thighs and released a laugh. “It’s perfect. They’ve been asking for karaoke.”
Cat laughed too. “How does my Tahitian dress help with karaoke?”
“They want entertainment. Let’s do a few dances.”
A jolt of excitement zapped through her as she considered giving an impromptu performance of her favorite routine. “You want us to perform?”
He took a step back and studied her face. “If you’re feeling up for it, but you sound sick.”
“Not anymore. I just haven’t gotten my voice back yet. Let’s do it!”
“I keep my drums and coco leggings in my office. We’ll give our friends a concert they’ll never forget.”
“Anything for you, Pineapple.” She rose up onto her tippy-toes and gave him a quick peck on his cheek. “Show me the way.”
* * *
Nikola leaned against the support beam in a dark corner of the billiards room. Pineapple had converted the large, open game room in the back of his restaurant into a winter wonderland with strands of white and blue twinkling lights for the New Year’s Eve party.
Nikola considered himself to be a relatively tough guy. He entered burning buildings without a second thought. But when Megan had shown up at his work party earlier that evening in a peacock costume like a flamboyant stalker, his blood chilled. He had no idea what she was capable of. He had contemplated calling his buddies in blue to come serve her a restraining order, but they would just laugh at him. Instead, he decided to lie low for the evening, observing the party from the periphery.
“Nikola!” Garrett, Nikola’s fire captain, slapped him on his back. “Who are you hiding from?”
Nikola’s eyes widened and shot to the buffet table, where Megan flirted with one of the new guys from the other shift. The guy was responding positively to Megan’s advances. She was a beautiful woman … until her stalker side surfaced.
“I see,” Cap said with a sigh. “Can’t say I blame you. Word of advice: Don’t marry crazy.”
Cap had his reasons for warning Nikola. His own crazy wife had recently divorced him, taken all his money, and moved to Las Vegas with her boyfriend. But why would his captain think he wanted to get married? He had no intention of marrying, ever. He enjoyed hanging with beautiful, smart women, but having a wife and kids who relied on him to come home every night wasn’t a burden he planned to carry. It wasn’t a realistic expectation, especially in his profession, and he wouldn’t do that to anyone—promise them they’d be safe, and that he’d be home soon.
The rapid pops of multiple machine guns ricocheted through his mind. He nearly hit the floor, but he caught himself by throwing an arm around the support beam. A quick survey of the room told him that no one from his crew witnessed his PTSD episode, which was a relief; it freaked them out sometimes. He wiped the sweat from off his forehead and took in deep breaths to lower his heart rate.
If thinking theoretically about marriage brought on an episode and threw his body into a cold sweat, what would an actual engagement do to him?
“It’s fifteen minutes to midnight!” Pineapple’s voice boomed, silencing the room for a few seconds before applause and shouts of encouragement echoed off the walls.
Nikola moved out of the shadows and shimmied his way through the crowd to the front of a circle of people forming around Pineapple. Nikola stood an inch or two shorter than Pineapple but could barely see Pineapple’s head until he pushed his way to the front.
The Polynesian god Maui had nothing on Pineapple. Pineapple’s massive stature, coupled with being shirtless, made Pineapple look like a true Polynesian warrior. Pineapple had guts: he was wearing a green leaf skirt with long leaves covering his goods like a loincloth. His grassy arm and leg bands ruffled as he adjusted his drums in his arms. If Nikola ever needed a stellar Hawaiian costume, he now knew where to track one down.
Pineapple raised his arms in the air. “Are you ready to ring in the New Year?” He pounded his drums. “Island style?”
Nikola whistled with two fingers, but he stopped abruptly when a petite Polynesian woman popped into the center of the circle and began dancing to the rapid beats of Pineapple’s drums. Nikola’s brain scrambled, and his respirations ceased. It wasn’t until after several swishes of the woman’s hypnotizing hips that Nikola managed to suck in a life-sustaining breath.
He tried to make eye contact with the Polynesian beauty, but she moved too fast and her flower headpiece partially covered her eyes. It would’ve helped if her long black hair didn’t mask her face every few seconds as she whipped around in her little circle.
His heart pounded to the beat of the drums when she moved closer to him with her hips moving at record speed. When their eyes finally met, she gave him a smile that lit his chest on fire. It was an unassuming smile that told him she liked him, but they’d never met before, had they? He had to have at least seen her somewhere before, but he couldn’t remember where. He told his brain to wake up and remember. He couldn’t imagine ever forgetting that intoxicating smile.
The longer she danced, the more hypnotized he became, as if he’d fallen into the mesmerizing trap of one of those spiral hypnosis wheels from old cartoons. Nikola’s eyes stopped spinning when the drumming stopped.
Pineapple stood from his chair and pointed to the TV, which was mounted in the corner of the room. He began the countdown with the famous NYC ball drop. “Ten … nine … eight …”
Nikola stepped in front of the dancing beauty. She lifted a bottle of water to her lips and gulped it down before the countdown reached three. “That was amazing!” Nikola said to her as the ball hit the ground and the room exploded with confetti and cheers.
“My dancing, or how fast I chugged that water?” she said in a low, romantic voice, once the cheers died down and everyone started kissing.
She looked around them and laughed.
“What’s so funny?” Nikola asked.
“We’re standing in the middle of a circle of kissing people.”
“I’ve heard that if you don’t kiss someone at midnight on New Year’s Eve, then you’ll be unlucky in love that entire year.” He stepped closer, closing the gap between them. “The entire year.”
“That explains it!” she said lightly. He couldn’t tell if she was serious or not.
“The question is,” he said, running his fingers along her chin and staring into her deep brown eyes, “do you want this next year to be lucky?”
“What the heck.” With an open-mouthed smile, she leaned into him.
He took that as a yes and planted a kiss on her that he had been daydreaming about since she’d started that hypnotizing dance. Uncharted emotions surged through him as his lips explored hers. He found it tough to bottle the growing passion, but he wasn’t sure how she’d respond to him shouting out how amazing it felt to kiss her.
“I can’t believe you’d do this to me!” Megan’s voice screeched through Nikola’s ear canal like a nail against chalkboard.
He reluctantly pulled away and faced Megan. He didn’t want to be harsh, but he and Megan had been broken up for over a month. “Megan, we aren’t dating. And never will, ever again.”
Megan narrowed her eyes at the Polynesian dancer.
Nikola’s protective instincts awoke. He stepped between them. “Megan, you’re taking this too far. You need to leave.”
“Fine,” she said through clenched teeth. She leveled her angry gaze at the dancer, then stormed away.
The Polynesian beauty raked her fingers through her hair. “That wasn’t smart of me. I guess I got caught up in the moment. I should go apologize.”
“Apologize?” Nikola questioned with surprise as he took her hand. “There’s nothing to apologize for. In her mind, she may still see us as a couple, but we’re not. I haven’t even seen her in over a month.” He sucked in a breath and rallied his courage. “And I’ve never felt anything close to how I felt when we kissed.”
Her smile gave him hope.
He squeezed her hand. “I just need to know one thing.”
She batted her eyelashes. “And what’s that?”
Instead of telling him her name, she released his hand and gave him a blank stare that slowly converted into a look of disgust. Women baffled him. He had hoped this woman would be different.
“Did I offend you?” he asked.
“Happy New Year!” Pineapple wrapped his arms around their shoulders and brought them together into a hug. “You guys look awesome together.”
The pretty dancer pulled out of the group hug and pointed a finger at Pineapple. “Don’t you dare tell him who I am,” she said as she turned and walked away from them.
Nikola shrugged when Pineapple questioned him with a look. “I have no idea what I did. Maybe she’ll tell you.”
“She’s a fireball, but she’ll come around. I’ve never seen her kiss anyone like she just kissed you.” Pineapple patted Nikola’s shoulder. “She’ll come around.”
Nikola tried to steer clear of emotional roller-coaster rides, but he hadn’t been successful tonight—and Pineapple’s words of encouragement weren’t working. “You’ve seen her kiss other men before?”
“She kissed me today,” he said, slapping his chest with the palm of his hand.
Maybe this girl was just a player. “Really?”
Pineapple broke out into laughter. “On the cheek, man. She’ll come around. No worries.”
Nikola had set himself up for that one, but he was done setting himself up—with anyone. After watching his captain go through the wringer with his wife divorcing him, having his own Megan migraine, and now being rejected by someone who could have been his soul mate, he was done with the headache of relationships. Unless the Polynesian princess did come around in some miraculous way this year, he was done with dating. He wouldn’t hold out for a miracle, because miracles didn’t exist.