Chapter 12

“I can’t believe she actually said yes. What are you going to do?” Nate asked, opening the door to the assisted living facility. 

Luke had been stunned, going through the rest of his conversation with Ciara in a daze as she consulted her calendar, searching for a time when she would be available. Her next night off from the news was weeks away, so she suggested that they have a daytime date instead. Luke had gone along with all her suggestions, amazed by the excitement he saw in her face. She really was open to dating him. She enjoyed spending time with him and wanted to do it again.

“I don’t know. I guess I need to plan something,” Luke said, still a bit off-kilter. 

“Did you emphasize that this date has nothing to do with her interview request. That it’s like a real date, you were asking for?” Nate asked, frowning.

Luke followed Nate down a hallway that led past the recreational room. “I did, and she still said she wanted to go.”

“Lucky bastard,” Nate said. “Leave it to you to stumble upon asking out one of the hottest women in Houston and getting her to agree to go on a date with you.” 

“I’ve got to come up with something impressive,” Luke said, panic starting to creep into his mind. 

“That’s an understatement. Look, you have five days. Between now and then, we’ll all put our heads together and figure out how to wow her. You can’t blow this. Even if it ends up not being a love connection, you don’t want her walking away thinking you were the boring do-gooder that you really are,” Nate said.

Luke winced as Nate squeezed the back of his neck. His life was a lot quieter since he’d moved from Dallas to Old Town Tomball, but he didn’t think of himself as boring. Sure, he spent most of his days helping out people in the community and hanging with friends, but he hadn’t forgotten who to impress a lady. Especially when he was properly motivated. And there wasn’t any better motivation than Ciara Thompson. Still having five heads instead of one planning, the date was something he wouldn’t turn down. 

“I just don’t want to be like all the other guys who’ve tried to date her. I’m sure she’s already been to the best restaurants in Houston and to the fancy shows and museums. I need something … different,” Luke said, wracking his brain for ideas and coming up empty. He wanted to give her a more intimate and personal experience that showed her how much he was truly into her, beyond the physical. He’d only scratched the surface of knowing who Ciara Thompson really is, but what he’d learned so far had been enough to make him desperate to know more. 

“Put it out of your mind for now. Let’s get the checks done and get out of here so we can rest up before our shift tonight. We can talk about it some more when we’re all together,” Nate said. 

Luke liked that plan, although putting Ciara out of his mind was not something he would be able to accomplish. Gripping the handle of the toolbox filled with batteries and monitors, Luke split up from Nate, taking the west side of the building. He would try to pour all of his attention on checking the smoke detectors and installing the new carbon monoxide monitors in the building that housed over fifty tenants.

After an hour, Luke was almost finished. Just one last room to check at the end of the hallway. He walked toward the opened door, then stopped as he heard a low whimper coming from inside. Taking tentative steps forward, he reached the door and peered inside.

Monica sat on the chaise lounge alone, flipping through a photo album as tears slipped down her face that she tried to wipe away as soon as they fell. 

A tinge of sadness clutched at Luke’s heart as he thought about Monica being alone at the facility for Christmas. Freddie had moved out earlier than expected. Monica had always kept to herself, not connecting with the other residents. But Luke had watched a surprising change in her when the brazen Freddie and talkative Sylvia had moved in. Freddie had decided that Monica and Sylvia were going to be her friends, and soon the three of them had become inseparable. 

Now the two ladies were gone, and Monica had reverted back into her shell, not talking to or hanging out with the other residents.   Luke had hit a dead end, trying to find anyone in Monica’s family. The P.I. he’d met with had come up empty so far. Seeing her so upset made Luke want to try even harder.

Despite his own refusal to go home for Christmas, he knew his mother had a gang of family to keep her company. Even without family around, his mother’s fans would guarantee that she never felt alone at any time of the year. 

The pressure she was putting on him to go back to Dallas for the holidays had less to do with family togetherness and more with her own self-serving motives, anyway. Luke would much rather hang out in Old Town Tomball, check-in on Monica and some of the other residents at the facilities, then join his friends at [restaurant] for Christmas dinner. That’s better than the circus his mother would be orchestrating back home.

Luke lingered in the doorway, wondering if he should go inside or just leave Monica to her private moment. He could always come back another day and finish the last room. He didn’t want to intrude. 

He took a step back and turned to walk down the hall. 

“Luke? Is that you?” Monica called from behind him. 

“Yes, Ms. Monica, it’s me. I didn’t mean to interrupt your private time,” Luke said.

“No, it’s okay. Come inside. It’s good to see a friend,” Monica said, wiping the wetness from her face. “What brings you by? This isn’t your normal volunteer day.” 

“Cathy called and said a lot of the smoke detectors were beeping, so Nate and I are here to check and replace batteries. We’re doing a new initiative to protect against carbon monoxide poisoning too, so we’re installing those monitors in the rooms as well. This was the last room I needed to check,” Luke explained. 

“Oh, please, don’t let me stop you. Just work around me,” Monica said with a small smile that didn’t reach her eyes. 

Luke walked inside and sat his step stool underneath the smoke detector and climbed up. He wrangled the compartment opened and replaced the battery, then stepped back down. “What you got there?” 

Monica’s eyes grew wide as she spread her hands across the open pages of the photo album. “Just a book of old photos. Whenever I’m feeling a bit down, I like to bring it out and remind myself of the happier times in my life. Times when my family was around, and I wasn’t alone.” 

Luke nodded, his heartbreaking for the woman. She wasn’t as old as the other residents. He’d guess she was in her mid-fifties and should still be full of life, going out and having fun instead of becoming a recluse.

He walked over and sat down next to her and glanced at the pages of the photo album. 

A handsome young man, around fifteen or sixteen, dominated most of the pictures. He was captured in various surroundings, but the majority of the photos showed him playing basketball. He stood in one picture, grinning from ear-to-ear holding an MVP trophy that was almost as tall as him.

“Is that your son?” Luke asked. He remembered Monica talking about a daughter that she was estranged from, but he’d never heard her talk about another child.

“Was my son. He died,” Monica said, trailing a finger slowly across the boy’s face in one of the photos. “I miss him, dearly. He was a sweet boy, kind, and he doted on me so much. Especially after my husband died.”

“Oh, Monica, I’m so sorry,” Luke said. He hadn’t known she’d lost so many people close to her. It made Luke even more curious about the estranged daughter and why she didn’t have the decency to visit her mother.

“That’s Craig. He was the star basketball player in high school and smart as a whip too. Very much like his father. My husband passed away when he was in junior high school. I thought Craig was going to take it hard, and he did, but he rebounded from the loss better than any of us. It was like he was more determined to make his father proud. He wanted to become the man that he knew his father wanted him to be. So, he doubled down on his focus on basketball and became one of the top players in the state,” Monica said. 

Luke reached over and grabbed the woman’s bony hand, stroking it softly as she choked back sobs. 

“He never got to play in college or in the pros, like he’d dreamed about,” Monica said as she flipped through the book showing him more and more pictures of her son. 

The absence of any pictures of her daughter was surprising. He thought about the photo albums that his mother had of their family, with all five of the boys showing up all over the pictures in every book. Yet, Monica didn’t seem to have any of the daughter she’d raised. 

“What about your daughter?” Luke asked. 

Monica looked puzzled as she stared at him. “What about her?”

“Just noticed that you don’t have any pictures of her.” 

“She didn’t want me to have them. We were never that close. She was a Daddy’s girl, and after my husband passed away, we just kept growing further and further apart. I don’t blame her. I should have done more to mend the distance between us, but I didn’t. It’s my own fault that we don’t have a relationship with each other now,” Monica said.

Luke had a sneaking suspicion that there was more to the story, but he didn’t want to pry. He at least had the name of Monica’s son, and maybe if he gave that to the private investigator, he’d be able to piece together where Monica’s daughter was. It was a long shot that he could convince her to come to visit Monica for the holidays, but he had to try.

Read Along with the Sweet Small Town Holiday Romance!

Disclaimer: This is a rough draft manuscript as I’m participating in NaNoWriMo. It will contain typos, missing words, brackets for things I may want to research later, and other messiness common in a first draft of a work. Please keep this in mind as you read. It is truly a Work in Progress. Thanks for reading!