Raucous laughter filled the air as Luke Diamond pushed the doors of the break room open and sauntered toward the table in the middle of the cavernous room. Slipping into his usual chair on the left side of the table, Luke had an unobstructed view of the television mounted on the wall of the firehouse kitchen. Kicking his feet up on the table, he leaned back, staring at his cell phone.
“Really, Luke? Some of us are trying to eat here, and we don’t need your stinking feet on the table,” Darren complained, shifting his salad bowl closer to his body.
“You worried about him contaminating your rabbit food? A little dirt would probably make that crap taste a whole lot better, big boy,” Wiley retorted with a deep belly laugh.
Luke shook his head, then shifted his feet slightly away from Darren’s food and swiped a thumb across his vibrating cell phone.
“We had bets on if you would get here in time to see the news, and have your fifteen minutes of fame. I told the guys you wouldn’t miss this for anything, would you?” Nate asked, raising an eyebrow at him.
“No guarantee any of the stations are going to give it any time on-air, even though they should. It’s for a good cause,” Luke muttered under his breath, not bothering to look at Nate sitting next to him.
The night shift crew of firefighters at Old Town Tomball Fire Station 384 had been ribbing him mercilessly since he’d been selected for the Texas Firefighters’ Alliance annual calendar. While most of the teasing had been good-natured, he knew Nate wasn’t pleased that he hadn’t been able to buy his way onto the calendar after he’d found out about Luke’s selection. Nate had never been interested in the calendar, that is until he found out Luke had not only tried out for it but been selected.
“What station should we try? Who’s most likely to cover it?” Darren asked, dousing more salad dressing onto his bowl of greens.
“Don’t you dare touch that remote. You know we are a Channel 4 news crew. Between the MILF Myra Elliott and the hot, Emma Young, and even hotter Ciara Thompson, it’s the only news we’ll be watching in this firehouse,” Wiley said.
Luke rolled his eyes and looked down at the text that had just come through his cell phone. He’d been purposefully vague in his the texts since Thanksgiving, but his mom wasn’t relenting. She’d become increasingly direct in her quest to get him to spend Christmas in Dallas with the family. He didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but he had no plans to drive the three and a half hours to be overwhelmed by his four younger brothers, their wives and an ever-increasing count of nieces and nephews that had reached twelve with his youngest brother’s newborn arriving two months ago. The holidays would be a madhouse. In between the chaos, he’d have to field a barrage of well-meaning, yet annoying, questions of when he was going to finally settle down and get married, have some babies of his own, like his four younger brothers. And just like all the years before, he had the same answer. He’d settle down when he finally met the woman that had the spark and the chemistry that captivated him not just physically, but mentally and spiritually. He didn’t plan on settling for anything less.
“What’s so interesting on that phone, Luke? I know it’s not a woman since you dumped Ginger before Thanksgiving,” Nate said, knocking Luke’s feet off the table as he headed toward the counter to grab a bottle of water.
“I did not dump Ginger. We mutually agreed that we were better off as friends and decided to part ways,” Luke reminded Nate. He and Ginger hadn’t even made it past two months of dating before they had to admit to each other that there was no spark in the relationship. They shared some of the same interests. They could hang out and enjoy each other’s company, but there was absolutely no love connection.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, so who are you texting now?” Nate asked.
“My mom is still trying to get me to go home for Christmas,” Luke said, motioning for Nate to toss him a bottle of water.
“Don’t do it,” Nate said, inhaling sharply.
“Gotta agree with Nate. Going home and spending Christmas under the microscope surrounded by a bunch of couples and their children is not what you want to do,” Wiley added.
“Just explain to your mom that you’re hanging out with us for Christmas. Holidays with your friends in your new home. I’m sure she’ll understand,” Darren said.
Luke’s mother had feigned a breakdown when he’d decided to move to Old Town Tomball last year to take over the ranch that his grandfather had left him in his will when he passed away four years ago.
“Don’t be so obtuse, Darren. If it were that simple, Luke wouldn’t be freaked out by the texts,” Nate said.
Truer words had never been spoken.
Luke took a deep breath, then decided to man up and do what he should have done weeks ago.
Typing quickly, he pressed send, then turned his phone off. No need to see the response. He knew what it would be.
In reality, Luke had never considered living in Old Town Tomball. He’d spent three years working with Zaire Clifton, the best realtor in town, to try to sell the property with no success. Zaire insisted that it was a hard sell and that Luke should lower the price if he really wanted to offload it, but he hadn’t understood why until he took a trip to see the place. It had been twenty years since he’d been a boy visiting his grandparents’ in the summers and he had to admit it, the place had turned into a dump.
The house and the farm required significant repairs, the land was overgrown with weeds and trash. From an outsider’s perspective, it was a disaster. But Luke could see beyond the deplorable state to the hidden beauty that lay beneath the neglect. Acres and acres of pristine, unspoiled forests, and rolling plains with a hidden lake made for fishing and a grove of oak trees over a hundred years old. Cypress creek flowed through the property, primed for kayaking and tubing.
Luke had stood in the middle of the disarray on a hot August day and knew he had finally found his real home. The restlessness that had infected him since graduating from college dissipated, and he’d felt a sense of peace.
On a whim and despite his mother’s fierce protests, he’d left his job with the Dallas Fire Department and moved to Old Town Tomball. Every day he spent in the beautiful quaint town, repairing the house and the farm and completing landscaping on the massive property had been like heaven. When he’d blown through most of his savings on the renovations, which still weren’t complete, he’d wandered into the local firehouse inquiring about a position and was hired on the spot.
Luke glanced over at Nate. “Just dropped the bomb. Don’t be surprised if my mom starts hounding you to get me to change my mind.”
“I can handle Mrs. Diamond, don’t you worry. You’re doing the right thing staying right here,” Nate slapped him on the back, then slid into his chair to the right of Luke.
Luke took a long swallow of water from the bottle, then stared at the empty spot at the back of the table.
“Where’s Sullivan? News is about to start,” Luke asked, an uneasiness settling in his body.
Wiley and Nate shrugged, unsure. Darren looked away.
“Darren, have you heard from him?” Luke asked. He couldn’t help but worry about Sullivan. The day Sullivan had hired him last year was the same day that the man’s wife had walked out on him with their two children and moved to Austin, leaving the divorce papers on the table in the fire station break room. He couldn’t imagine how hard the holidays were for Sully, which was another reason why all the guys were sticking around for Christmas.
“No …” Darren said, then stuffed a forkful of romaine lettuce into his mouth.
“I’m right here,” Sullivan walked in and slid into his chair. “I was on a call with Channel 4. They are covering the calendar, and you won’t believe who’s doing the story.”
“Please, sweet God, say it’s Ciara Thompson!” Wiley said.
Sullivan pointed at Wiley and nodded his head.
Luke studied the shift boss carefully. His skin flushed and splotchy, the unkempt facial hair, the sadness lingering in his eyes. Something else was going on, and the Channel 4 coverage of the calendar was just a cover. One he supposed Sully was entitled to have. He didn’t want to do anything to make the man uncomfortable. If Sully wanted to talk about it, he would eventually when he felt the time was right.
“Turn up the volume,” Nate said.
Luke’s eyes drifted toward the television as Ciara Thompson filled the screen.
A tingle drifted down his spine as she began to speak. Her hair was different tonight. The dark brown tresses were usually wavy framing her face, but tonight she wore it straight and had died the ends a subtle red. The change suited her, accenting her heart-shaped face perfectly. Luke stared into those dark brown eyes, mesmerized while Ciara talked about the calendar as if it was the greatest thing in existence. Her smooth brown skin flushed with excitement as she opened up the calendar to show some of the pictures.
“Look, Luke! It’s you, she ended with your picture!” Darren shouted.
“Whoo boy, you better be glad you’re not on social media, or you’d have thousands of followers after getting this coverage,” Wiley said, laughing.
Luke ignored the banter, struck by the sight of his picture next to Ciara Thompson. They would make a fine-looking couple. Wait a minute. Did he just think that? What was going on with him? Stupid Wiley’s crush was not going to rub off on him.
Ciara finished the segment, and the camera cut back to the primary news anchor, Myra Elliott.
“She did an outstanding job with that,” Nate said.
Luke agreed. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the Alliance was flooded with donations after her appeal. She really did her homework on our mission and goals. The work we’ve done building community centers in rural, underserved communities. Never expected for any of the news coverage to go deep into the good work we’re doing with the proceeds from the calendar.”
“And you thought she was just a pretty face,” Wiley said, pointing his fork at Luke.
Luke stood, fighting the wave of excitement jolting through his body. He wasn’t blind. He’d admired Ciara Thompson on the news just like all the rest of them, so why was tonight different? And why couldn’t he get the dark beauty’s face out of his mind right now?
The alarm in the fire station pierced the air, jolting Luke from his thoughts. Luke ran to the locker room behind Darren, Wiley, and Nate. The four of them quickly changed into their gear, then returning to the break room.
Sullivan’s face was grave. “The brewery is on fire. Five alarms. I’ve called the morning crew to come out and also requested help from Spring and The Woodlands. This is going to be a tough one. Let’s get going.”
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!