Read an Excerpt
"Don't look now, but there's a really hot guy watching you."
"Oh?" Alina Allinova started to turn and scan the crowd gathered for the culmination of Crested Butte's Vinotok fall festival.
Her friend Marissa Alvarez put a hand on her shoulder to stop her. "Don't look. He's staring right at us." She giggled. "Really, he can't take his eyes off you. It's like he's in love with you."
Alina's stomach fluttered. The idea of a handsome stranger falling instantly in love with her was preposterous, but wonderfully romantic and exciting. The kind of thing she'd fantasized about, though she'd never admit it out loud. "If you won't let me look at him, at least tell me what he looks like," she said. "Is he blond?"
"No, not blond. His hair is brown."
"Oh." Not that it really mattered… "Maybe it's that dark blond that looks brown in a certain light. Is he a big guy?"
Marissa shook her head. "Not that big. And his hair is a very dark brown, almost black."
Alina turned all the way around and caught the eye of the stranger.
Her heart sped up again. Okay, he was good-looking. Dark brown hair fell across his forehead, above a pair of eyes the color of roasted coffee beans that seemed to stare right through her. When their gazes met, he smiled, revealing perfect white teeth against his olive skin.
"Girl, how are you even standing here with a man watching you like that?" Marissa whispered. "I'd be melting right into the ground if a gorgeous guy ever looked at me that way."
The man took a step toward them. Alina immediately whirled around, embarrassed to be caught staring.
Marissagrabbed her arm. "Why are you turning away? Hello? The man is hot."
Alina didn't have time to explain. Mr. Gorgeous was by her side. "Hi, I'm Eric Sepulveda," he said, offering his hand.
Alina went wobbly in the knees when he took her hand, and immediately felt ridiculous. "Alina Allinova," she said, and withdrew her fingers from his, though the warmth of his touch lingered on her skin.
"Where are you from, Alina?" he asked. "Not from around here, I'm guessing."
That smile again, which sent her stomach fluttering wildly. Get a grip, girl. "I'm from Gunnison," she said. She said it merely to be contrary—she knew that wasn't what he'd meant. Her accent gave her away as a foreigner as soon as she opened her mouth, though people couldn't always place her country of origin.
"Are you a student at the college?" he asked.
"No, I'm a respiratory therapist at Gunnison Valley Hospital."
"Then I can't believe I haven't see you before. I'm over there all the time."
She arched one eyebrow. "What brings you to the hospital so much?" Did he have an ill family member? He certainly looked healthy enough. He wasn't that tall—maybe five ten or so—but he had muscular shoulders and a slim waist.
He laughed, a completely masculine sound that served only to stoke the fire of her libido. "No, I'm a paramedic," he said. "We make fairly regular runs to GVH."
"I work on the floor." She was occasionally called upon to treat a patient in the E.R., but she'd never run into Eric before. She wouldn't have forgotten him if she had.
The crowd surged around them, forcing them closer together. Someone behind her bumped into her and Eric put out his hand to steady her. She couldn't stop herself from leaning into him, aware of the strength and warmth in his grip, catching a whiff of the subtle spice of his cologne. What in the world was happening to her? She hadn't even had anything to drink tonight, yet she felt giddy and a little out of control.
"Where are you from before you came to Gunnison?" Eric asked.
"Croatia. In Maksimer, part of the capital, Zagreb." She savored the names on her tongue, the familiar sounds of home that she didn't have the chance to say too often.
"I hear Croatia's a beautiful country," he said.
At least he hadn't asked if all the girls in Croatia were as beautiful as her, or said there must be something in the water there or some similar line, all of which she'd heard multiple times from college students, ski bums and various local Lotharios. The women in her family were generally considered beauties, so she'd dealt with her fair share of attention all her life. As a result, she appreciated a little originality from any man who was interested in her.
Trying not to stare, she checked his hair again. No way he'd ever been close to blond.
The crowd roared with laughter, and Alina turned to see one of the characters in the closing play—some guy in pink tights and doublet—in the throes of an overly dramatic death scene while a man in a dragon suit nearby did a jig.
"Have you been to Vinotok before?" Eric asked, his mouth very close to her ear.
"No," she answered, eyes still focused on the players, though every part of her was aware of the man standing so close. "I read in the paper that this was based on an old Yugoslavian wine festival, so I wanted to see if anything about it was familiar." At his puzzled look, she hastened to explain, "Croatia used to be part of Yugoslavia."
Eric glanced at the actors. A woman with a dozen or so small children gathered about her was speaking. "Do they do this kind of thing in Croatia?" he asked.
Alina laughed. "No. We have a lot of local celebrations in my country, but nothing like this." A man dressed entirely in green, his skin painted green, as well, joined the woman with all the children.
"Crested Butte is kind of known for originality when it comes to holidays," Eric said.
Alina nodded. In the eight months she'd lived in Gunnison, Colorado, she and friends had made numerous trips to the smaller mountain town to ski, hike, bike or enjoy the shops and restaurants on the picturesque main street. The people were friendly, the scenery beautiful and there was always something to do and see.
A collective sigh rose from the crowd, and Alina stood on tiptoe, attempting to see what all the fuss was about. The man in green was kneeling before the woman, who stared at him, a stunned look on her face.
"Isn'tthatromantic?" Marissa said. "He's proposing!"
"I bet that's a first for Vinotok," Eric said.
The woman pulled the man to his feet and kissed him. The crowd roared and cheered, and behind the happy couple a large papier-mâché figure burst into flame.
"What is that?" Alina asked.
"That's the Grump," Eric said. "For the past couple of weeks there have been boxes in stores and restaurants all over town. People write down their complaints and gripes and anything they want out of their lives. Then the boxes are stuffed inside the Grump and burned so that everyone starts winter with a clean slate. It's a good idea when you think about it."
She nodded. The man and woman were still kissing. Alina couldn't help feeling a little envious. Not that she didn't have a good life, but something was still missing— romance, love, the happily ever after she'd dreamed of since she was a girl, the life she'd been promised.
Music blared. The actor in the pink doublet was playing an electric guitar and other musicians had joined him. Alina and Eric were pushed to the edge of the crowd by others who surged forward to dance. Alina looked around for Marissa and spotted her with a lanky intern on whom Marissa had a crush—the real reason the two friends had headed to Vinotok in the first place, since the intern had told them that afternoon he expected to attend.
"Do you ski?" Eric asked when they were far enough from the noise and clamor to talk.
"Ski? Oh, yes." A ski pass was part of her employee benefits in the exchange program between American and Eastern European hospitals. "Yes, I love to ski."
"That's terrific. I'm a ski patroller at Crested Butte Mountain Resort."
"I thought you said you were a paramedic."
"I do both. The jobs go together when you think about it." He had a really nice smile—good teeth and a dimple on the right side of his mouth.
But more than looks drew her to Eric. When his coffee-brown eyes looked into hers, she felt a tug on her heart—a not at all unpleasant sensation. If he could make her feel this way with one look, what else might lay in store for them? She couldn't remember the last time a man had held her attention this way.
"I'm from Gunnison, too," he said. "My family has lived there for years."
"Do you live with your parents?" she asked.
"Yeah. I've thought about getting a place of my own, but it's expensive, and I'd be over there all the time anyway. I guess some people think it's weird, a guy my age still living at home."
"How old are you?" He looked about her age, but it was tough to tell sometimes.
"I'm almost twenty-seven."
There was no mistaking the electricity arcing between them. She couldn't account for this kind of instant connection. It didn't happen outside of books and movies, did it?
"I think it's great that you're close to your family," she said. "If I was in Croatia, I'd still live with my parents. It's expected in our culture that children stay at home until they marry. And as you say, it's practical, too. Housing is expensive."
"Do you have a big family? Brothers and sisters?"
"Two sisters. They're both married now, so only my mother and father and Aunt Oksana are left at home." Which wasn't where she grew up anyway, but a new apartment in downtown Zagreb.
"I have two older sisters," Eric said. "And four older brothers."
"Seven children!" Families so large were rare in Croatia.
"Yeah, it's a big bunch. Of course, they're all married and out of the house now, most of them with kids of their own, so it's just my mom and dad and grandmother and me at home. But we're a pretty close bunch, so at least one of my brothers or sisters and their families are over almost every day."
"That's nice." Alina felt a pang of homesickness. She missed her own family. On holidays all the women gathered to prepare a big meal and gossip. From the time she could walk she and her sisters were welcomed into this exclusive female territory. They'd be given simple, menial chores like sorting beans or filling salt cellars and would sit for hours, enthralled by the stories, jokes and gossip of the older women. She missed that warm camaraderie, that feeling of being part of a special group, of sharing a family history that went back for centuries.
Those holidays in the family kitchen were when her grandmother Fania had first told her about the blond man she'd one day marry—the one she'd been waiting in vain for all these years.
When Alina was fifteen, her grandmother had announced one morning that she had dreamed Alina's future. No one was surprised at this; Baka Fania was known for her ability to predict the future. She had been born with a caul, or a veil of tissue, over her face and had gypsy blood on her grandmother's side—to everyone's way of thinking, it would have been more surprising if she hadn't been able to see things before they happened.
"What kind of future did you see for me?" Alina asked.
"I saw a big blond man, very handsome." The old woman grinned. "He is the key to your future happiness. Find this man and all will be well."
Alina had been looking for the big blond ever since.
"How long have you been in the United States?" Eric asked.
"Almost a year. I came as part of an exchange program for skilled technicians between Croatian hospitals and hospitals in the United States."
Her parents had been horrified when she told them she'd signed up for the program. "No one else in our family has been to the United States," her mother had scolded. "Why do you need to go?"
"I want to see what it's like. To meet new people." Not to mention she'd already dated every eligible man in their small town at least once and none of them had sparked any real feelings in her. Her sisters were happily married with homes of their own, and Alina wanted that, too. Since she hadn't found the man of her dreams in her hometown, she reasoned it was time to be a little more daring and try something new. Some place new.
But she only had three and a half months left before her work visa expired, and her dream man had so far failed to materialize.
Maybe Baka Fania had been wrong. Or maybe old-time prophecy didn't apply in the twenty-first century.
"Some friends and family are getting together tomorrow afternoon for a barbecue at my house," Eric said. "You should come."
She started to say no. With only a few months left in the States, she had no business starting anything with a new man, no matter how handsome he was. But Eric's smile made her forget common sense and she found herself nodding. "Yes, I'd like that," she said.
"Great." He patted his pockets. "Do you have a piece of paper? I'll write down the address."
She searched her purse until she found a flyer about upcoming emergency training at the hospital and handed it to him. He scribbled an address and a few lines of directions. "It's really easy to find," he said. "Show up around two. It's going to be fun."
"All right." It would be nice to get to know him better.
"I'm looking forward to seeing you again," Eric said, his eyes locked to hers.
She nodded, struck dumb by the intensity of his gaze and surprised at the strength of her attraction to someone who was so unlike the man of her dreams.
Eric lingered so long at the Vinotok celebration he was almost late for his shift with Gunnison Valley Emergency Medical Services. As he clipped on his radio, his friend Maddie Ansdar emerged from the office. "I was beginning to think you weren't going to show up," she said.
"I stopped by Vinotok," he said.
"How did it go?"
"Silly as usual. Zephyr stole the show with his turn as Sir Hapless."
"What about Max?" Maddie asked. "Wasn't he the Green Man?"
"I thought so, but Jack Crenshaw took his place—and then proposed to Tanya Bledso, right there in front of the burning Grump."
"How romantic!" Maddie's expression took on the soft, goopy look women wore at the mention of weddings, babies or other such subjects. Eric's sisters were no different. And Maddie was probably more susceptible than most, since she'd been married only a few months to Eric's fellow ski patroller, Hagan Ansdar.