Chapter 14

Luke pulled the door to the break room open, then stopped, rooted to the spot. Ciara’s voice wafted to him from the television screen mounted on the wall. 

“This was a very unexpected twist in the upcoming race for the governor. Both organizations deciding to back Madeleine Rice at the same time as she announced her entry into the race makes her an instant contender and primary opponent of the incumbent. It will be a few weeks before the first polls are released, but the expectation is that Rice will be one of the front runners. Back to you, Myra,” Ciara said, then smiled into the camera.

Ciara’s face filling the screen arrested Luke, rooting him to the floor as the deluge of memories of the most sensual kiss he’d ever experienced flooded his mind. He could still sense the warmth and softness of her lips against his, the sweet taste of her that he’d wanted to lose himself in and never let go. 

Nate bumped into Luke, pushing past him into the room. 

“Turn that off,” Nate barked at Darren, who fumbled with the remote and switched the television to a sports station. 

Grateful for the reprieve on more than one level, Luke walked over to the sink, not ready to join his friends at the table. He pressed his palms against the cool counter and tried to get his composure.

The last thing he wanted to do was answer a bunch of questions from the guys about how he was feeling right now, which he would have to do if they saw through his calm exterior to the confused feelings tormenting him. 

They knew all about the disappointing ending of his date and how the likelihood of him ever seeing Ciara again were slim to none. 

He hadn’t told any of them about the blistering kiss. 

Not even Nate. 

He didn’t tell them about the look in her eyes as she pulled away from him, or the longing and desire he saw there before she rushed across the street to her apartment.

He didn’t tell him how he stayed at the Waterwall Park for the next hour staring at her apartment building, forcing himself to remain still and not rush over and pound on every door until he found her and demanded to know if she felt what he was feeling, the undeniable magnetic pull that he couldn’t resist when she was near him. 

He wasn’t crazy. 

That kiss wasn’t a goodbye, have a nice life, I’ll never see you again type of a kiss. 

That kiss was the type that marked a new beginning to something deep and special. He’d felt it, and he suspected she’d felt it too. He just didn’t know what to do about it. 

Turning around, Luke walked over to the table and slid into his usual chair next to Nate. A quick glance at his friend told him that something was wrong. As Luke scanned the other faces at the table, from Wiley to Darren to Sully, they all looked preoccupied, consumed with matters of the heart. What a sad bunch they were and right before the holidays, no less. 

Wiley looked up and met his gaze. “I’m sorry, Luke.” 

Luke frowned. “For what?”

“It’s all my fault that you got caught up with Ciara. If I hadn’t been so caught up with my stupid crush on her and Emma, you probably never would have developed any feelings for her,” Wiley said, looking dejected. 

“Really, Wiley! You think Luke wants to talk about that right now? Just shut up. Why don’t you talk about what’s going on with you and the fire starting, Brewery Princess instead,” Nate barked. 

Wiley’s eyes went wide, then narrowed with anger. “She didn’t start that fire! And don’t you bring her up. Why don’t you explain why you’ve been spending so much time at The Cupcake Gallery? Since you think we need to be talking about something.” 

Nate jerked up from the table, knocking over his chair as he lunged for Wiley.

Luke jumped up, wrapping his arms around Nate and pulling him back from the table, while Darren performed the same move on Wiley from the other side. 

“Come on, guys. Calm down, we’re all in bad moods, so we just need to cut each other some slack,” Darren said. 

“Your mood could be good if you’d get off the fence and stop being scared about making a move with Zaire,” Wiley retorted. 

Darren looked hurt, then grabbed his bowl of fruit and cheese from the table and walked over to the leather couches in the lounge, adjacent to the kitchen area. 

Luke shook his head as the tension ratcheted even higher in the air. They were a sad bunch, all struggling with matters of love. He thought the Holiday season was supposed to bring good tidings and cheer. He guessed the Christmas spirit had decided to skip over Old Town Tomball Fire Station 384.

“All of you need to sit down and leave each other alone. The last thing I want to endure tonight is a bunch of whiny men belaboring why their love lives are in the toilet. Welcome to the world I’ve been living in for the past year, and I never brought that crap to work,” Sully thundered. 

“You think you didn’t bring that crap to work?” Nate retorted, then laughed a deep sarcastic laugh. 

“Look, none of us are in the mood to talk about what’s going on with our love lives … at least not tonight,” Luke said, trying to ease the tension in the room. 

“What we need to talk about is how we’re going to decorate the station for Christmas. It’s our turn to do the work this year, and Chief has been on me about why we’ve let so many days pass by in December without putting up any of the decorations.”

Nate eased into his seat. “Would be real nice if we spruced this place up …”

Darren sat up. “I forgot it was our year. We should have gotten this done right after Thanksgiving.”

“It’s not too late, we can still get it done. But we need to make a list of all the things we’ll need,” Wiley added, sitting back down at the table. 

“We could divide up the list, get any extra supplies and decorations we need tomorrow before our shift, and then deck the halls when we get to work. Thank God it’s been slow these past few days, so we should have all night to get the place looking good,” Sully said. 

“I vote for Luke to get the Christmas tree,” Nate added. 

“Why me?” Luke said, frowning.

“Duh, you have the biggest truck,” Wiley added, referring to Luke’s F-350 extended cab Ford truck, which he had raised onto oversized tires.  

For the next thirty minutes, they planned out what type of decorations would be needed and who would be responsible for picking up the supplies.

“Fine. I will get the tree, but Nate, you need to call your Uncle Jimbo and hook us up with a good deal. We don’t want to pay an arm and a leg for a twelve-foot spruce,” Luke said. 

He wasn’t upset about getting Christmas tree duty. Luke didn’t know the first thing about picking out decorations, and he’d leave the rest of the guys to struggle with that part. At least Sully and Darren had sisters that could give them pointers on what to buy and how much. Luke was scared to see what Wiley and Nate would show up with tomorrow, although he suspected Nate would just get the company his family used to decorate all of their houses and businesses to drop off some decorations for the fire station.

“I’m on it,” Nate said. 

Luke gave his friend a high-five, then headed toward the door. Some fresh air would do him good, clear his mind and stop him from turning the television back on to see if Ciara had any other segments later in the news program. 

“Hey, Luke,” Sully said, following him out into the corridor. “I brought in those yearbooks you were asking about. Grabbed them from my folk’s place. It’s about eight years worth for you to look through. But like I told you, none of us remember a Craig Jenkins. They’re on Peggy Sue’s desk out front” 

“It’s a long shot, I know. But thanks for bringing them. I’ll flip through them tonight so you can get them back over to your folk’s place,” Luke said. 

“Sounds good,” Sully said, then held up a finger. He frowned as he pulled out his cell phone and answered it with a terse, “What’s wrong?”

Luke watched Sully walk out the front doors of the fire station to finish his call. He hoped nothing bad had happened with the late-night call. 

Slipping into Peggy Sue’s chair, Luke turned on the computer and pulled up the KHTX Channel 4 news website. He moved the mouse over the menu that read “Reporters” and clicked. Photos of all the reporters, along with their bios, filled the screen. He scrolled down to the bottom until he saw Ciara. She was stunning, her hair in a short bob like it had been about a year ago. It had grown since then, but she still wore it parted down the middle. He thought the style suited her perfectly, accentuating her amazing heart-shaped face and sensual eyes. 

Luke leaned back in the chair and dragged a hand down his face. 

He was pathetic, trolling her on the internet like some pervert. 

Closing the browser, he swiveled the chair to the left and focused his attention on the stack of yearbooks resting on the desk. 

Luke kicked his feet up on the desk and grabbed the first yearbook. He glanced at the year and paused. Based on his best guess of Ciara’s age, it was likely that she would be in one or more of these yearbooks. He would get to see the woman who was driving him bonkers when she was a young teenager. He wondered what she was like back then. 

Luke sucked in a breath and flipped to the table of contents. Ms. Monica’s son was a basketball player, so the easiest thing to check would be the sports section. He’d look for Craig first, and then after he’d exhausted that search, he’d let himself peruse the books for any signs of Ciara.

Turning to the Sports pages, Luke’s eyes locked on a photo. The same photo he’d seen in Ms. Monica’s photo album. This was Craig, but how did Sully or his sisters not remember this guy? He was in most of the pictures on the two-page spread and was obviously one of the stars of the team. Luke skimmed the text next to the picture, and his eyes stopped on the name of the Freshman phenom of the Varsity basketball team. 

Craig … Thompson?

Luke flipped through the yearbook, wondering if what he suspected could be true. But it couldn’t be … could it? Why wouldn’t Ms. Monica have told him, if it were true? 

Swipe the pages quickly, Luke stopped. His hand poised on the edge of one page, highlighting the freshman cheerleading squad. Ciara beamed at the camera, her smile made even more sparkling with braces as she stood with one leg extended in the air in her green and white cheerleading outfit. 

A sinking feeling settled in his gut as he checked the table of contents for the page number of the Freshman class photos.  Heart pounding, he made his way to the T’s and got confirmation of what he’d never expected. A picture of Ciara side by side with a picture of  Craig. The resemblance was uncanny. 

Luke closed the yearbook and sucked in a deep breath.

Craig was Ciara’s brother.

And that meant Ciara Thompson was the estranged daughter that Ms. Monica prayed she’d get a chance to see again to show that she’d turned her life around. Ms. Monica desperately wanted forgiveness from the one woman that had turned his world upside down.

Now he had a reason to see Ciara Thompson again.

But the real question was, should he?

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!