Chapter 7

Shielding his eyes from the bright winter sun, Luke stared across the lawn of Cypressbrook Assisted Living Facility. In the distance, the charred, blackened remains of the Elm Street Brewery hovered like a smoldering mirage. The iconic landscape that he’d loved about Old Town Tomball was forever changed.

Warmth coursed through his body as Ciara Thompson’s face filled his mind. He hadn’t been able to stop thinking about her since the interview last night. He’d dreamed about her working at the fire station and woke up with her still on his mind. After a shower, he’d flipped on the television and seen her face on the screen talking to him. He hadn’t wanted to hear the interview again, so he’d muted the volume and just stared at her. The compassion and concern for the elderly woman he’d saved were evident even without hearing her voice. She’d asked if he was okay, genuinely concerned. Luke rubbed the spot on his arm where her hand had rested, searing into his skin. She’d placed her mark on him, and he was going to have a hard time getting over this attraction. 

“And he said he was coming? You sure?” Darren asked as he chomped on a cinnamon roll he’d bought on the way out of the restaurant. 

Darren, Wiley, and Luke had met for breakfast at [Tomball Place] before their weekly volunteering at the facility. Most of the conversation had been dominated by Nate and whether he’d show up or not. The guys were worried, and so was Luke. Nate rarely had an asthma attack these days, but the inhalation of the smoke from the fire had definitely impacted him worse than all the others. 

Luke nodded. “We weren’t just texting. I talked to him, and he sounded good. Said he’d be here. Let’s give him a few more minutes.”

“A little smoke ain’t going to stop Nate,” Wiley said, reaching around Luke and slapping the cinnamon roll out of Darren’s hand. The gooey pastry fell into the dirt of the flower beds lining the porch of the facility.

“Wiley!” Darren said, a look of disgust spreading across his face. 

“I’m helping you!” Wiley shouted back, a grin on his face.

Luke bent over and grabbed the cinnamon roll, and tossed it into a nearby trash bin. 

“It’s my cheat day. I get to eat that,” Darren explained.

“You don’t get a cheat day when I’m around, big boy,” Wiley said, slapping him on the back. “Now drop down and give me twenty.” 

Darren pursed his lips and looked away. 

“While we wait for Nate, how about we talk about that interview you had with Ciara Thompson, last night Luke,” Wiley said. 

Luke [did some action], taking a deep breath before he turned around to face his friends. The moment he’d been dreading. He was actually surprised they made it through breakfast without Wiley bringing it up. How could he explain that Wiley’s stupid crush on the news anchor had some rubbed off on him, and he couldn’t stop thinking about her?

Turning around, Luke saw Nate jogging up toward the porch of the facility. 

“Nate’s here,” Luke said. “Let’s get inside.”

“Not so fast,” Nate said, a challenge in his gaze. “I’m interested to hear what you have to say about that interview last night, myself.” 

Luke glared at Nate, wanting to punch him for stoking the fires of Wiley’s obsession with the beautiful news reporter. 

“Now, I know you don’t like social media and don’t pay much attention to that type of stuff. But, you’re what they call ‘trending,’ my friend. The firefighter from the calendar carries woman out of a burning building, saving her life! You can’t make up better publicity than that,” Darren said. 

“Whatever Darren. What’s most important is that you got the ultimate prize for your heroic efforts … a special moment with Ciara Thompson,” Wiley said, his voice wistful. “What was she like? What did y’all talk about?”

Luke frowned. Special moment? “She’s a t.v. star and a professional reporter. Everything we talked about was on the breaking news last night and again this morning.”

“I’m not talking about that part,” Wiley said, punching Luke in the arm. “After the camera stopped recording, did you ask her out?”

Luke shook his head, confused by the sudden shift in the conversation. “Of course not! Why would I do that?”

“Well, you were smitten with her. It was pretty obvious,” Darren said. 

“Are you serious right now?” Luke asked. 

“We are your closest friends, you don’t have to lie to us! Plus, the whole world saw it,” Wiley said. Grabbing his cell phone, his thumb swiped across the screen. “Let me read you some of these comments: Ciara and Luke, next power couple of Houston? Looks like a fire is brewing between Ciara and Luke! Get him, girl! Luke is so hot, he and Ciara would make a cute couple.”

Luke snatched Wiley’s phone and scanned the comments. “What is this?”

“Those are the comments viewers left online,” Wiley said. 

Luke scrolled down and read another comment. 

What’s up with Ciara and Luke? Is there more to this story?

Really, Wiley?” Luke said, pointing to the last comment written by WhyAlex, the email address of Wiley Alexander.

“Well, I thought if I helped to encourage things along, Ciara might actually give you a chance. That’s what friends are for,” Wiley said. 

“But she’s your crush, not mine,” Luke said. 

“You sure about that?” Nate said eyebrow raised. 

Luke ignored him. 

“I don’t have a chance with a woman like Ciara Thompson. She’s a pipe dream for me. You, my friend, on the other hand, might have a real shot. Especially after Ciara reads these comments online. You should direct message her on social media and ask her out,” Wiley said. 

“Worth a try. What’s the worst that could happen?” Darren prodded. 

“I don’t have a social media account to send anybody a direct message. Plus, I’m not even interested in Ciara Thompson,” Luke yelled, a bit too loud. Maybe he doth protest too much?

“Well, you should be,” Wiley said, then walked past Luke onto the porch and entered the facility. Darren followed behind Wiley, nodding in agreement. 

“Can you believe them?” Luke asked, turning toward Nate. 

“You couldn’t see how you were looking at her after the interview was over. But I did. There’s something there. I’ve never seen you look at a woman like that before,” Nate said, then shrugged. 

Luke stood alone on the porch. 

Had he been that obvious? Had Ciara Thompson noticed? Luke leaned against one of the posts lining the front facade of the porch. She probably thought he was some fanboy drooling all over her. Or worse. She hadn’t thought about him at all. Truth was, Ciara interviewed people every night, different names, and different faces. He’d thought it could have meant something that she knew his name. Had maybe remembered him from the calendar. If she had, then she was being a professional. Remembering those details is what made her one of the top reporters in the city. They didn’t make her interested in him. 

Luke pushed off the post and headed into the facility. 

Wiley and Darren were playing a loud game of dominoes with a group of elderly men they referred to affectionately as The Bachelors. The six men had lost their wives. They decided to move into the facility to have round the clock care by medical professionals. In their years here, they’d adopted a sort of frat house lifestyle built on strong friendship and camaraderie.

Luke gave a friendly wave to the group, and they erupted in applause. 

“Good going saving that woman last night!”

“Luke, you’re a hero!” 

“It was a team effort,” Luke said in response. “Couldn’t have done it without these guys.” 

More applause filled the room as some of the [inhabitants] of the facility stood up and saluted them. 

Luke glanced over at Nate, who was at his regular spot, playing chess with Lawson. Lawson suffered from dementia and didn’t remember his family anymore. But he still remembered how to play chess. Some days it was hard for Nate when he came in, and Lawson looked at him as a stranger, not recognizing the bond they’d developed over the years. Even still, Nate would prod the man into a game of chess and build the friendship all over again. 

In the corner, Freddie Hayes waved at Luke, impatient for him to come over and join the Scrabble game. The ladies at the facility were fond of him and always wanted him to join in on their activities. 

“Ms. Freddie, how are you this morning?” Luke asked, grasping the woman’s hand and placing a quick kiss on the back of her hand. Freddie giggled. 

“Ms. Monica, hope you are well today,” Luke said, repeating the gesture. Monica was quiet as usual, but she gave him a small smile. “Where’s Ms. Sylvia?”

“Her daughter drove down from Lubbock to pick her up. She’s moving out, which is why me and Monica are a bit sad today. The daughter finally is doing the right thing and bringing her home. Wish my girl would do the same,” Freddie said, frowning as she dumped poured the Scrabble tiles into a little black bag and began to shake it. 

The facility was a mixed bag of elderly who needed medical assistance, and those who just needed a community because they either didn’t have any family to live with or, as Freddie liked to complain, were a burden to the family they did have. Freddie, Monica, and Sylvia were all in the latter category, although Monica never really opened up about her family. 

Luke reached into the bag and grabbed seven tiles, arranging it on his wooden [board]. “That’s good news. Sylvia really wanted to go back home to Lubbock to be closer to her grandbabies.” 

“Well, the daughter got a new husband, and he’s pretty well off. The husband was the one pushing for Sylvia to come live with them, not her daughter. Thank God there are some good men in this world, or who knows if Sylvia ever would have gone home,” Freddie said. 

“Excuse me,” a nurse interrupted. “Freddie, it’s time for your medicine and check-up. It should only take fifteen minutes or so. You can come back to the game after that.” 

Freddie pointed a finger at Luke. “This is your fault. Because you were late, but I guess I understand since you had a late night battling that blaze.” 

“Forgive me?” Luke asked, giving her smile. 

The old woman’s harsh frown faded, and she smiled back. “Of course, love.” 

As Freddie walked away, Luke turned his attention to Monica. He knew better than to start the game without Freddie there. Monica was more quiet than usual, leaning back in her chair as her hands flipped the same small chip over and over between her fingers. 

“I saw you on the news this morning with that pretty reporter,” Monica said, her eyes not meeting his. 

Luke nodded. “I got my fifteen minutes of fame.”

“Was she nice? I see her on the news all the time. Seems like she’s a nice girl,” Monica said. 

“She was real nice,” Luke said. And beautiful and amazing and smart and downright breathtaking. 

“I’m going to be all alone here soon, Luke. Freddie’s son is going to let her live with him. She’d rather live with her daughter, but that’s not going to happen. She’s moving out the weekend before Christmas,” Monica said. “Will you still come by and play Scrabble with me when she’s gone?” 

“Of course I will,” Luke said, grabbing Monica’s hand. The sadness in her eyes tugged at his heart, and he wondered about her family. How had she ended up here? 

“Ms. Monica, do you have any family that lives close? Anyone who could come by and see you for the holidays?” Luke asked. He hated the idea of her being all by herself at the facility. Maybe if he could track down someone in her family and surprise her, it could make the holidays a little bit brighter for her. 

Monica shook her head. “No, not anymore. I mean … I have a daughter … but we haven’t spoken in so long. She’d never come to see me.” 

“Why not?” Luke asked. 

“I did some horrible things in my past, Luke. Things that would be hard for anyone to forgive. I don’t blame my daughter at all for not wanting to see me. I just wish she knew how much I’d changed,” Monica said, flipping the chip faster between her fingers. “My sponsor stopped by and gave me this.”

Luke held out his palm as Monica dropped the chip in his hand. The small silver disk had the number 15 engraved on both sides. 

“What is it?” Luke asked. 

“I’ve been sober for 15 years. Not a drop of alcohol in all that time. Maybe if my daughter knew, things could be different between us …” 

Maybe indeed. 

Luke wasn’t sure what happened with Monica and her daughter in the past, but time had a way of healing old wounds, and he wasn’t going to let Monica spend the holidays alone.

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!