The Christmas Fix

THE ENGAGEMENT


Cat King slid behind the wheel of her SUV and cranked the seat heater to full-on toasty ass. The end of November in Connecticut apparently meant frostbitten butt cheeks. The walk from the train to her parked car had frozen the blood in her veins. She couldn’t wait to get home to Noah and that thick quilt on the couch, a fire in the fireplace, and a movie that they’d argue about.


She was hours past dinner, but there were leftovers from yesterday’s Thanksgiving feast.


Cat salivated thinking about a plate of turkey and mashed potatoes and her mother’s gravy. They’d hosted, she and Noah. The big old house on the hill in Merry was the perfect spot for their families to sprawl out and gorge themselves on every carb known to man. Her parents, her nonni, Gannon and Paige, and two-year-old Gabby—who was as fiercely independent as her mother. “NO ME!” was Gabby’s mantra. Mellody, Noah’s ex-wife, and her husband Ricky, and Noah’s ex-in-laws joined them too. Even Noah’s mother had made an appearance. The woman had showed a little life laughing a little at Sara and Gabby’s game of hide and seek.


One big, happy, blurred lines family. Cat loved it.


The day had left her with some things she needed to discuss with Noah. Some big important things.


But it was hard to carve out time for big important discussions when Cat’s school was slated to admit its first students the first week of January. She, and the smarter more experienced team she’d surrounded herself with, had worked their asses off to bring this idea to reality.


In six weeks, fifty-five women of varying ages and backgrounds would be shuffling into Merry’s old high school. The building had been renovated to within an inch of its life and was now a small but state-of-the-art facility just waiting to educate its students on the ins and outs of several different trades. The small business arm of the school had already unofficially opened for consulting, and with Noah’s invaluable help there, they were already making a difference.


Cat’s Bluetooth signaled an incoming call from Sara Yates.


“Hey, babe. How was your Black Friday?” Cat greeted Noah’s daughter.


“Oh my God, Cat! I got the UGGs you saw for sixty percent off!”


“The double coupon worked?” Cat asked gleefully.


“Yep! I’m never taking them off,” Sara announced. “I’m wearing these forever and ever and ever. Oh, I also got a ton of Christmas shopping done, and I may have found something pretty for you.”


“Gimmie!” Cat teased. Between she and Sara, they were going to drive Noah bonkers before Christmas.


“You have to wait until Christmas morning like a good Dad’s girlfriend.”


Cat groaned. “I hate waiting.”


“Are we still going for a Christmas tree tomorrow?” Sara asked hopefully.


“Definitely. And I’m thinking we should maybe get two. One for the family room and one for the front window in the nook upstairs.


“Two trees? Best. Christmas. Ever.”


It would be. Cat was sure of it.


She heard Sara cover the phone and murmur something. “Mom and Ricky say hi and thanks for yesterday. They’re still in food comas.”


“Hi, Mellody and Ricky,” Cat called.


“How did it go in the city today? Good meetings?” Sara asked.


“We added a dozen new products to the clothing line, and the teasers for next season look awesome,” Cat told her. “Then I hung out with Grumpy Gannon for a few hours figuring out holiday bonuses for the crew.”


“Business is booming,” Sara chirped. The girl was fascinated by all things fashion and glamour but had expanded her interest to include the business end of things, thanks to Cat’s influence.


At thirteen, Sara was rapidly turning into a short adult. Cat loved it. Noah was terrified by it but fighting the urge to smother the independence out of his daughter.


“Oh, and one more thing,” Sara said. “There was a mitten tree in one of the stores. You know the kind with kids’ names and stuff they need?”


“Uh-huh,” Cat said, heading toward Merry. “Yeah.”


“So, I kind of went super crazy and grabbed like a dozen mittens. Wanna help me shop?”


Cat grinned in the dark, proud of her sort-of step-daughter’s big, shiny heart. Noah would bust buttons over this. Sara didn’t know about Noah’s childhood. The neglect, the hunger, the cold. And she’d never know what those things felt like because Noah was the kind of father, the kind of man, who would do anything to keep someone else from hurting.


Knowing that Sara had those same tendencies? Well that was the whipped cream on a slice of homemade pumpkin pie.


“Kid, you know it. Trees tomorrow, and we’ll start a shopping list!”


“You’re the best,” Sara said emphatically. “Okay, I’m going to go beat Mom and Ricky at blackjack.”


“We’ll pick you up tomorrow,” Cat promised. “Love you.”


“Love you!”


Cat hung up, feeling that warm and fuzzy sensation in her chest that she got every time Sara or Gabby said “I love you.” Those two girls made her life more. More colorful. More crazy. More everything.


She took the exit toward Merry and cranked the Christmas tunes on the car stereo. Living in the Christmas capital of the country hadn’t yet dulled her love of Bing Crosby and all his cronies.


She took the turn onto Main Street and shook her head at the holiday spectacle before her. Never in a million years had she thought that Catalina King would be happy to settle down in a small town. She had big dreams of success. She still had them but now knew that no success would fill her with the feelings that having Noah in her life did. So, she’d adapted. And now she called Merry, Connecticut, home.


And it fit her like a custom-made mitten. She knew that right now, at ten o’clock at night, Freddy Fawkes, co-owner of the Merry and Bright Café, was working on a crossword puzzle and watching the Jeopardy episode his wife, Frieda, had DVR’d for him. She knew that Rubin Turnbar, Merry’s dry cleaning mogul, had personally overseen the installation of the Rudolph street lights today.


She missed this place like crazy when she traveled for filming in the summer. But they made it work. Noah was with her nearly every weekend, and Sara was able to tag along too. And any time Cat wasn’t shooting, she was on a plane back to Merry for a few days of normal.


It was a good life that she’d built here with a man that she loved. And to her way of thinking, it was time to make it permanent.


Cat was singing along to “White Christmas” when the next call came in. Noah Yates.


“How’s the sexiest city manager in the country?” Cat asked, answering the call with a smile.


“Oh, you know. Just awesome and sexy as usual. Where are you?” he demanded.


“Just pulled into town. Miss me?”


“Every second you were gone. Can you meet me at the park? I think there’s something wrong with the switch for the tree. I want to get the bugs worked out before the official lighting tomorrow.”


“Shit. I tested them myself. They should be fine!”


“I’m pushing the button. Repeatedly. No lights.”


“Damn it. Maybe the remote got wet. I’m two seconds away. I’ll fix it,” she promised. The tree and its lights were some of the most meaningful things to Noah during the holiday season though she had a feeling the very naughty Mrs. Claus lingerie she’d squirreled away under the bed would be coming in a close second when she donned it for him on Christmas Eve.


To Noah, the lighting of the Christmas tree had been a bright and shining reprieve from a childhood of never enough. The Christmas magic had been his home when the roof his father put over his head would never be. And the tree, that sky-scraping sculpture of fanciful bronze, stood for something good, something beautiful, something permanent.


For the boy who dreamed of Christmas lights.


Come hell or high water, Noah’s tree would light, damn it. Cat would make sure of it.


She eased to the curb in front of the park behind Noah’s SUV. She saw him under the streetlights, the light glinting off his glasses. He had his hands in the pockets of his gray wool coat. Even now, nearly a year after they’d made a commitment to each other, she still got a rush when she saw him. That in itself was a kind of magic, she thought.


Handsome, kind, sneaky funny, and oh-so-smart. Noah Yates was her best friend, her favorite person to argue with, and her biggest fan.


She slid out of the vehicle and jogged over. His arms opened for her, and she was finally home.


He swept her up in those strong arms and swung her around in a tight little circle. “Is it stupid that I missed you since you left this morning?”


“Very few things that you do are stupid,” Cat said, leaning up for a kiss when he dropped her back to the earth.


Noah pulled back at the last second, and her lips missed their mark, catching him on his scruffy jaw. “Business first,” he insisted with a wink.


“You and your lights,” Cat teased. “Let me see the remote.”


“I left it by the tree.” He draped his arm around her shoulder, pulling her into his side as they walked down the winding path. He towed her in the direction of the tree. The tree she’d made for him. “How did everything go today?”


“Good. Really good. The business is doing well, and the network didn’t have a hemorrhage when I told them I wanted to only do eight episodes next year.”


He squeezed her shoulder through the down of her coat. “Are you sure you’re okay with cutting back? You don’t have to do that for me or Sara. We’ll make it work.”


“It was hard being on the road last summer. I want more time with you,” Cat said. She cleared her throat, gearing up to have the talk. “In fact, I’d like to talk to you about something important.”


“Uh-huh. Sure. In a minute. Now, where did I put that remote?” Noah asked, glancing around in the dark, the sculpture rising from the ground in front of them.


Cat sighed and reached for her phone. “Here. Let me at least turn on the flashlight,” she offered. Apparently, no conversation would happen before she fixed Noah’s damn lights.


“Hang on. Ha! I knew I kept it close.” Noah triumphantly fished the remote out of his pocket. He handed it over. “Here, Catalina King. Light up my world.”


She rolled her eyes at her sappy-ass boyfriend and turned to face the tree. “Are you sure you weren’t just pushing the wrong button?” she asked, ribbing him. She stabbed the button.


The tree lit up just as it should, thousands of lights twinkling to life.


She whirled around to taunt him. “Ha! I knew it wasn’t— Holy shit.”


The semi-circle of pines they’d planted this spring were lit too. Only instead of the pretty white lights she’d helped string two days ago, a colorful message glowed from their branches.


Will you marry me?


“What is that? Who’s it for? Is someone proposing tomorrow?” Cat’s mind was racing, and it was sprinting full speed toward a conclusion she was terrified might not be real.


“Someone’s proposing,” Noah agreed. “But it’s not for tomorrow. It’s for right now.”


“Right now, me and you right now? Or right now two other people who are about to walk over here?”


“You and me, Cat,” Noah said earnestly. “Your mind is a wonder as is your ability to jump to conclusions. Just one of the reasons I want forever with you. I’ve thought it through. I’ve looked at it from all the angles. I love every bit of you exactly the way you are. You drive me nuts. You push my buttons. And you put my pieces back together. I’ve never been happier. You’re it for me. And I hope I’m it for you.”


“Jesus, Noah.” He could have sneezed, and the breeze would have knocked her down. Her knees were buckling as her brain scrambled to catch up with what was happening. She was supposed to bring it up, talk him into it. It was how she worked. How they worked. It always took weeks, months even, to get him heading in the right direction. How did he get there before her?


“I know you’re not big on tradition. But I am. And I want this with you. I want to see my ring on your finger. I want to call you my wife. I want you to be Sara’s stepmom. I want more of this last year.”


She couldn’t breathe. She was going to fucking hyperventilate


“I’m going to take your momentary speechlessness and do this right,” Noah told her, sinking down onto the frozen ground on one knee. From his other jacket pocket, he withdrew a small jeweler’s box. “The diamond is Nonni’s. She wanted you to have it, but the setting is new. Something a little flashier, a little more dramatic. A little more you.”


He was offering her everything: family, roots, tradition in a package that suited her down to the ground.


“Baby, stop crying.”


“I can’t,” Cat wailed. “I love you so much and Sara so much and this damn town so much. I was just thinking on the way home—this is home. I’ve never had home before. I’ve had my place or my parents’ place or Nonni’s. But this is home. You’re home. Now, put that damn ring on my finger and kiss me hard, Noah.”


He obliged, sliding the platinum band on her shaking finger. Noah didn’t stand fast enough for her liking, so she hauled him to his feet and threw her arms around him with so much force that it took them both back down to the ground. She kissed him hard enough, long enough, that the cold ground ceased to be a factor.


“Is. This. A. Yes?” Noah laughed between kisses.


“Hell yes, it’s a yes.”


He kissed her again, sealing the deal. Those firm, familiar lips that drove her crazy in oh so many beautiful ways tempted and teased her. She felt something feather-light and soft graze her cheek.


“It’s snowing,” she whispered, looking up at the night sky.


Noah stroked a hand over her cheek.


It was a night like this a year ago, under the first snowfall of the year, that Noah had first spotted her tattoo—that tiny hammer etched on the inside of her wrist—and figured out exactly who she was. The snowflakes laid the white blanket of a brand new beginning for them that night. And again tonight.


“I love you, Noah. So much more than I ever knew was possible.”


“You’re my miracle, Cat. You saved my Christmas and gave me the lights.”


——–


Later that night, Cat lay sated and loose in Noah’s arms. They were curled on the couch under the big patchwork quilt. The glow from the fireplace and the curtain of still falling snow through the windows gave the room a soft, cozy magic. Their clothing, long ago discarded, was scattered across the floor. Music, low and Christmassy, spilled quietly from the speaker on the bookcase.


They’d cleared the space in the corner for the tree—Cat hadn’t yet broken the news that there’d be two—and stacked the boxes and tubs of ornaments in front of the TV.


Noah snored softly behind her, spooning her body with his own. His arm was heavy over her ribs, his hand fisted between her breasts. She loved the feel of him, skin to skin, heat to heat. Heart to heart.


Cat held out her hand, admiring the glitter and glint of diamonds. It was a promise of forever together. And she was ready.


Now, she just needed to figure out when to drop the bomb on Noah about wanting a kid or two…