Love by Christmas
Park City Firefighter Romance
When Maci Bell, a first-grade teacher at Park City Prep, steps outside her school to give a disrespectful firefighter a piece of her mind, sparks fly. She takes a chance and kisses him, only to be rejected. The universe mocks her pain by making him her room mom.
Garrett Macey, fire captain at Park City Fire Department, receives bad news and loses his cool in his daughter’s school parking lot. When a pretty teacher calls him out on his unbecoming behavior, he is pulled in by her charm, but with his heart ripped to shreds, the only thing he has to offer his daughter’s teacher is his time as her volunteer.
When a little old lady shows up at Garrett’s fire station with a Christmas wish for him to find love by Christmas, Garrett wants to believe that Christmas magic is real. With renewed faith, he reaches out to Maci Bell, hoping he hasn’t lost his chance with her. Will Christmas magic bring love to the fire captain by Christmas?
Other books in the series:
- Her Christmas Miracle by Daniel Banner
- Snowed-In for Christmas by Cami Checketts
- Married by Christmas by Taylor Hart
- Engaged by Christmas by Sarah Gay
- Yours by Christmas by Jennifer Youngblood
“Anticipation hung in the air like twirling, swirling, whirling cotton candy,” said Miss Maci Bell to the cheerful giggles of her first-grade class. She utilized her fifteen years of ballet to pirouette around the room with her notebook in one hand and a cone of freshly spun cotton candy in the other.
Carter’s eyes nearly bugged out of his head as he bounced in his seat. He reached an open hand in the air as Maci passed his chair. She smiled at the tow-headed boy. His tousled blonde locks and bright green eyes made it impossible for her not to grin every time she looked at him.
Maci handed Carter the white paper cone topped with fluffy blue sugar, to the disappointed moans of the other eighteen children sitting, not so quietly, in their seats. Lily’s mom, Christine, the class’s amazing room-mom, handed Maci another cone of cotton candy, then returned to the reading corner of the colorful classroom to spin another child’s sugar high on her candy machine.
The last day of school before Thanksgiving break had been torturous the first five years of Maci’s teaching career, until she realized two years ago that there wasn’t a lot she could do to subdue the wiggles and giggles of the kids the day before a holiday break. That’s when she’d decided to embrace their excitement and create a day of magic.
Christmas vacation, now sadly referred to simply as winter break, proved to be an even more rambunctious time for her students, compelling Maci to allocate two days of class fun time before the recess. Some parents were good with it, and some were not. Christine was all for the fun.
Every year, Maci handpicked a room-mom from those volunteers who signed up each spring for the upcoming school year. The other volunteers did things like make copies, design and decorate the class bulletin board, and accomplish an assortment of instructional tasks.
Maci appreciated all the volunteers, but there was one volunteer she couldn’t live without—the room-mom. The room-mom position was vital because that volunteer spent several hours a week in the classroom to help foster an environment of learning by attending to individual children’s needs who struggled in any given subject. Unfortunately, Maci couldn’t slow down the class for one or two students or she wouldn’t be able to meet the school’s goal of staying in the top ten public elementary schools in the state of Utah—something Park City Preparatory Academy, or Park City Prep, had prided itself in for the past nine years, and ten was a big year to miss out on.
She’d set aside her own dream of getting a master’s degree in special education, and finding a companion to share her life with, to do what she had to in order to keep the school ranking high, including staying late to work on special projects for the principal. Maci loved the school and her students, but she felt stagnant when she wasn’t learning.
Maci lifted her notebook, scanning the next line of her poem. “The children ate loads of scrumptious sugar that floated through the air,” she said, handing off the next cotton candy to Lily, “helping the tooth fairy to soon be there.”
She spun in circles through a roomful of giggles back to Christine to retrieve another cotton candy, realizing that her stomach couldn’t tolerate the spins in her late twenties the same way it did in her late teens. “But what a ruckus was heard from on far—,” she said, raising the candy fluff in the air. But before she could say the next line, her eyes darted to the window, where a small metal object flew through the air at her head’s height, ultimately striking a metal garbage container and exploding into a million pieces with a muffled pop.
A male voice, barely audible, still made it past the thick stone wall of the school. Maci seethed at the expletives slung around the playground. Not on my playground and not in front of my students. She glanced up at the clock on the wall. School would be out in fifteen minutes and kids would be storming out onto that playground with the foul-mouthed man.
Maci handed off the cotton candy to the closest student, not even looking down to see who grabbed it from her, and strode to the class exit. She retrieved the classroom broom from behind the door and pulled it into her side.
Her eyes scanned her students’ intrigued faces before settling on Christine. “I’ll be right back,” she said through clenched teeth.
Christine nodded, her face clouding with concern.
Maci exited through the glass doors leading out to the playground with every intention of giving the obnoxious man a serious tongue-lashing. The cold air bit at too many places to count as she ducked under the lime-green slide and marched through the playground to the parking lot. She should have grabbed her jacket, instead of the broom, on her way out of the classroom.
Her feather-thin, red silk jumpsuit was perfect for the warm classroom, but not so perfect for thirty-degree weather. If she had made it to the end of her poem, she would have had an opportunity to add several accessories to her outfit to transform into Mrs. Claus. This guy had thwarted one of her favorite traditions. Man, was he in trouble.
As she stepped by the garbage bin, she recognized the shattered face of a cell phone, its parts broken into tiny pieces and scattered along the cement driveway.
She breathed in deeply as she pounded her feet into the cement, making her way to the tall man walking in circles and cursing to himself, now in a quieter manner. “You want to explain to me what exactly you’re doing out here?” she said to the stranger as she leaned into the broom with one hand and placed her hand on her hip with the other.
He spun around on his heels and stood at military attention. “I might ask you the same,” he said, removing his leather bomber jacket the moment their eyes locked. “Why are you out in the cold in that?” He draped his jacket around her shoulders before she could protest.
As he leaned down to adjust his jacket over her arms, his beautiful face came dangerously close to hers. He smelled amazing, like freshly baked peanut butter cookies. She was a sucker for cookies, and Maci never got her fill of peanut butter with all the school’s restrictions.
Warmed physically and emotionally by his kindness, her tone softened. “And why do you smell like cookies?”
He motioned to a plate covered in tinfoil resting on a cement wall of the school. “My daughter and I made cookie dough last night for her teacher. I just baked them so they’d still be warm when school got out.”
“Peanut butter?” she asked in a tone of accusation with a raised eyebrow. “You brought peanut butter cookies to school?”
He shook his head. “They’re chocolate chip. I smell like peanut butter because I just ate a peanut butter cookie.”
She tapped a finger to her lips, trying to mask her enthusiasm. “And where would those cookies be?”
His light brown eyes smiled. “In my truck. If you want one.” He motioned to a black truck in the parking lot behind them. “Piper and I always eat a peanut butter cookie after school together.” He placed his hands in his pants pockets. “So, now you know why I’m out here in the cold. Why are you out here?”
She blinked, coming back to reality from her little flirtatious moment with the gorgeous man. Remembering his cussing episode, she switched back into strict teacher mode. She held the broom up in the air to him and motioned with her head at the mess.
“Oh,” he said with a sigh. “Sorry about that.” He took the broom and began sweeping.
“And that’s not the worst of it.” She tapped her foot. “You can’t go stomping around school property swearing the way you did. I almost called the police.”
“Not a bad idea,” he said, pausing from his sweeping long enough to shoot her a finger gun. “I need to collect twenty bucks from Nate for being so slow to that accident last week. That could help me pay for a new phone.” He gave her an insider wink. “Those guys can never keep up, even when they try.”
“Those guys? Are you a cop? Or a marine? Is that why you stood at attention?”
“Firefighter.” He pointed to his chest. “And ROTC in college.” He resumed sweeping.
Maci looked down at the obliterated phone. “What did that poor phone ever do to you?” she asked with a sigh.
“I would normally laugh at that comment.” He removed the dustpan from off the broom handle, swept up the remaining phone remnants, and tossed them into the bin. “But not today.”
This guy had obviously had a rough day. “And why not today?” she now asked with kindness.
His face dropped as he slowly pulled out his left hand from his pocket and held it up for her, displaying a wedding band on his ring finger.
Maci’s stomach churned with instant guilt. “You’re married?” she asked in a whisper. She should have known better. Of course this guy would be married. He was drop-dead gorgeous, baked cookies, and picked his daughter up from school. A guy like that wouldn’t last more than a few days in this town. What a scumbag—to flirt with her the way he had, offering to share a peanut butter cookie with her, an intimate exchange indeed.
He widened his stance as if prepping for a fight, slipped his wedding band off his finger, and tossed it into the garbage bin with a clink. “I apologize for my behavior,” he said with a slight bow.
He brushed lightly against her side as he marched past her on his way to his truck, causing her frozen legs to thaw. She walked, trance-like, back into the building. Why would he throw away his wedding ring? She reached her room just as the bell rang. The children filtered out past her, jumping up to try and slap a high five on the hand she held high in the air. She realized her hand was a little too high when Carter jumped a few times without making it, mumbled something, then huffed out of the room.
Christine took hold of Maci’s outstretched hand and lowered it down for the children to reach. “You okay?”
“Absolutely,” said Maci, now mentally back in her classroom. “But that was the weirdest exchange I’ve ever had with someone.”
“Not just someone,” said Christine with a coy smile. “The eligible firefighter.”
“You know him?”
“Heard of him. Go talk to Miss Fenway, his daughter’s teacher. She’ll have the scoop.” She glanced up and down at Maci’s outfit as they exited the classroom. “You’ll have to give him back his jacket sometime,” she added with a wink. “Enjoy your break, Maci.”
Maci did a quick scan of the room to assure all her students had left; then she hung the firefighter’s coat on one of the kid’s coat hooks by the door and flicked off the lights. She hurried down the hall to Kristen Fenway’s room, hoping to catch her before she left for the long weekend.
When Maci stepped into Kristen’s classroom, she found the young teacher, just a year out of college, sitting at her desk.
“Headed home for the holidays?” asked Maci, leaning in through the doorway.
Kristen looked up at her with a smile. “Yeah, I’m headed to Alaska in three hours. You?”
“I’m local, so that makes it easy,” said Maci, advancing to Kristen’s desk.
Kristen perked up when Maci neared. Unlike Maci, Kristen loved conversation, which was why she’d be an excellent informant on the firefighter.
Maci thrust her hands into her silky pockets and leaned against Kristen’s desk. “I found a coat that belongs to Piper’s dad. Do you know how I can get ahold of him?”
Kristen motioned for Maci to sit in the chair next to her desk as she leaned forward with a devious smile splitting her lips. “If he weren’t so old and heartbroken…” She sighed. “Anyways,” she said, flicking her hair back, “I can totally see you two together.”
“I just need to get his coat back to him,” stated Maci.
Kristen continued, ignoring Maci’s response. “He helps out a few days a week in my class,” she said, fanning her face with a paper from off her desk. “Forget the kids focusing; I can hardly focus when he’s here.” She looked at the doorway as if to check for wandering ears and lowered her voice. “He’s absolutely perfect—always super kind and helpful when he’s here. I was shocked when Piper told me her mom left them—moved out Piper’s last day of preschool. They’re divorced now.” She shook her head. “Poor kid, but she seems really happy living with her dad.”
Maci wrinkled her forehead. “But he seems so gruff.”
“Things aren’t always what they seem,” said Kristen.
“Miss Fenway!” A young girl skipped into the room, holding a paper plate covered with tinfoil. She was followed closely by her father, the firefighter.
Maci’s heart beat against her chest when their eyes met. He held out a plastic baggie of cookies to Maci as Piper handed her plate of cookies to Kristen.
Once Maci had taken the baggie of cookies, he clasped his hands behind his back. “I went back to my truck to grab the cookies, but when I turned around, you were gone.”
“Thanks,” said Maci with a blink of her eyes and a tip of her head. “But these are for you and Piper to share.”
Piper and her dad looked at each other, then laughed. Maci’s heart warmed to witness their playful exchange.
Piper twisted her long red braid in her fingers. “My daddy and I bake cookies every night.”
“Well, thank you, Piper. These are my favorite.” Maci turned to the firefighter. “Your coat is in my classroom.”
Kristen waved a hand in the air. “I need to speak with Piper for a few minutes. Why don’t you two go grab the coat while we chat?”
Maci nearly melted into the floor from embarrassment at Kristen’s obvious remark, made obvious by her coquettish smile and wink. Instead of disappearing into liquid, Maci managed a smile and motioned for the hot firefighter to follow her, not enjoying the heat that rose in her cheeks.
They remained silent as their shoes clicked across the tiled floor to Maci’s classroom ten doors down. When they reached her classroom, she flicked on the lights as the fireman reached down to grab his coat from off the hook. As he rose back up, he froze, and she realized their faces were mere inches apart. Their eyes held each other for several long seconds before he touched her cheek, causing her stomach to flutter with butterflies.
* * *
Garrett wasn’t sure why he touched her face, but she didn’t seem to mind. Her porcelain cheek felt like velvet and brightened to a soft pink at his touch. Out of his peripheral vision, he caught sight of the first snowfall of the season. Childhood memories resurfaced as the enormous white flakes bombarded the playground. He closed his eyes and made a quick wish that this woman—who had been a soothing balm to his soul during one of the worst times of his life—might find the happiness she deserved.
As he opened his eyes, her lips pressed against his, sparking a desire in him he hadn’t felt in years. He allowed himself to feel, to want, to express as he kissed her back, but it lasted for only a moment. Guilt constricted his chest, causing him to pull back from the teacher’s kiss. Guilt filled the spaces inside him this woman couldn’t.
“I’m married,” he blurted out. “I can’t be with you.”
She stumbled back. “Oh, I didn’t know.” She shook her head as her arms swung at her sides. “You threw out your ring and I’d heard you were divorced.” Her face twisted with the pain of rejection.
“I’m sorry.” He brought a hand to the side of his face and rubbed deep and hard, feeling like scum. “I am divorced, as of today. I guess my mind hasn’t caught up with that knowledge. Just before you confronted me on the playground,” he said, motioning outside, “I received an email from my wife with the final judgement. Now she’s off to live in Las Vegas with her boyfriend.” His eyes went to the floor. “She left us.”
He clenched his fists. His mind couldn’t comprehend that a mother would leave her child like that. Carly had told him she wouldn’t fight for custodial rights if he gave her his life’s savings—including the small fortune he had inherited when his parents had passed away two years ago. He wanted to fight harder for the marriage, but if letting Carly go meant he would have full custody of Piper, it was a no brainer. He signed the divorce papers the next day, giving her all his cash savings. He kept the house, but most importantly, he kept Piper.
“I’m so sorry.” The teacher took a few more steps back. “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”
This beautiful woman was consoling him when he had just rejected her? “I hope you won’t, but I can’t imagine you ever will. A man would be a complete idiot to leave you.”
“And how am I so different from you?” She smiled tenderly, causing his mind to race. “Your wife’s actions demonstrate what kind of person she is, not what kind of man you are.”
He appreciated her implication that he was a catch, but he was broke—in every sense of the word. A woman would have to be crazy to want him, and he wouldn’t allow this jewel to get roped into that.
“Thanks for the cookies,” she said as if to dismiss him from her room.
Yep, that’s my cue to get out of this woman’s life forever. “I’m Garrett Macey, Miss…?” He held out his hand.
“Well, that makes this easier.” She gave a mock dramatic sigh as she took his hand and gave it a firm shake, letting his conscience abate slightly. “Because now I know we would never have worked together anyway.”
That got his attention. “And why’s that?”
“I’m Maci Bell.” She wrinkled her lips in the most adorable way. “I’ll let you do the math on that one.”
“Maci,” he said, wanting to stay close to her but knowing he shouldn’t, “have a great Thanksgiving.”
She gave him a nod before he turned and walked out of the room. This was the teacher his daughter needed to be with next year. It was almost a year away, but at this school you couldn’t request teachers early enough, especially someone like Miss Bell. On his way back down the lonely hall, he approached the main office. He passed the cheerful front office staff, who gave him a wave. He stopped as resolve came to him, propelling him back a few steps to the office windows.
He would make it happen.
Garrett walked into the office to the smiles and condolences of the sweet ladies who somehow knew all his troubles; he needed to take more care with his conversations around Piper. He borrowed a piece of paper and pen and wrote a note to the principal, requesting that Piper be placed in Maci Bell’s class next year. He added something or other about how Miss Bell’s personality would assist Piper in dealing with the divorce and offered his assistance in the classroom a few days a week. He had met with the principal on several occasions to discuss Piper’s emotional well-being through the divorce, not to mention he had brought the fire engine and crew to the school for demonstrations. He had confidence the principal would place Piper with Miss Bell, a gentle woman with the kindest honey-colored eyes he’d ever seen.
Garrett said a quick prayer of gratitude as he left the front office and strode back down the hall to find Piper. This school, with its teachers and office staff, had been a means of refuge for Piper. He did what he could for his daughter, but his life was in shambles right now. At least Piper had a safe, loving environment to come to when she walked in through those front doors every day.
* * *
Maci placed her forehead on her desk after an hour of stewing. The cold, hard surface fit the moment. Rejection stung. When was the last time she’d kissed someone? A year? Having the fireman pull away from her kiss and tell her he was married had just topped her most embarrassing moment—worse than when she had shown up at her high school costume party dressed as a giraffe, face make-up and all, to discover the event was a princess-goes-to-the-ball costume party.
Garrett was obviously still in love with his ex-wife. He couldn’t seem to come to grips with the fact that he wasn’t married anymore.
She raised her head to see the principal standing in front of her desk with a look of concern on her face.
The principal, Mrs. Chastain, slowly used both hands to pull her thick white hair back behind her ears as she tilted her chin down, giving the impression she was deep in thought upon finding Maci in such an unusual position. “Are you feeling okay?” The principal wasn’t one to speak in idle terms. She had a PhD in education and gave the most beautiful fake smile Maci had ever seen. Unfortunately, the kids knew it was fake as well.
“I’m fine,” said Maci, attempting to hide her insecurities.
“I have exciting news.”
Maci perked up in her chair. “Yes?”
“I just got off the phone with Garrett Macey. He is one of our most coveted parent volunteers.”
“Phone?” asked Maci, glancing outside at the garbage bin. “I’ve heard of him.” She touched her lips as beads of sweat formed over her entire body.
Mrs. Chastain continued. “He left a note in my office an hour ago while I was policing the pickup zone after school. He asked that his daughter be placed in your class next year and offered to spend a few days a week volunteering.”
Maci cleared her throat. “Thank you. I will take him into consideration.”
Mrs. Chastain shook her head. “I know, when you take a closer look at him, you’ll agree with me that he’ll work perfectly as your room-parent next year.”
Maci’s anxiety spiked. “What’re you saying?”
“I told him I would place Piper in your class and that you would be contacting him in the spring to make arrangements.”
Attempting to stay her anger and remain calm, Maci rubbed her lips together, tasting her vanilla lip balm. “But I handpick my volunteers.”
“Not this year. Our new policy requires that all classroom volunteers who work one-on-one with students, as your room-mom does in your classroom, pass a thorough background check.” Mrs. Chastain waved a hand in the air. “As a fireman, Mr. Macey has passed an intensive FBI background check. He also comes highly recommended by me, my office staff, and every teacher he has worked with.” She walked through the classroom doorway before turning around with a sigh. “And Maci, this will help him as much as it will you this next year. We owe it to him and to Piper.”
As the principal left, Maci’s shoulders drooped as her entire body withered into her chair. How would she manage to stay focused and teach in the same room with a man she was insanely attracted to—not to mention the man who had so kindly rejected her?
Something had to change. She opened her laptop browser in search of online master’s degree programs. Her pointer finger tapped against the black F key repeatedly as she studied her options. She didn’t know where she would be enrolled, but there was one thing for certain: she would be in a master’s program by next fall. Once she got accepted into graduate school, she would work on her social life. With a master’s program and dating options by next summer, the hot fireman wouldn’t be a distraction in her class.
Park City Prep may just have to settle for top twenty. She would still teach with all her heart and intellect during school hours, but with the next dismissal bell, she would officially be off the clock like the rest of the teachers. She slapped her hand on the desk as she jumped from her seat and grabbed her bag. Her life was about to get more complicated.