Chapter 9

“That’s it. You said ‘no’ and left her stranded?” Nate asked, lifting a box over his head and walking it to the sidewall of the convention center.

Luke winced. He’d been bothered by the abrupt end of his conversation with Ciara ever since he left the beautiful reporter in the gazebo. 

“There was that little matter of the car fire from the four-car pile-up on Holmes Street. Then I had the meeting with Sully’s P.I. friend to try to see if I could locate any of Monica’s family. You know I feel bad about her being left all alone at the assisted living facility without any friends. Would be nice to have her daughter drop in to visit her for the holidays,” Luke said, hoisting the box filled with partially assembled bicycle parts onto his shoulder. He followed Nate to the sidewall and placed the box on the floor about three feet away from the next box.

In less than thirty minutes, dozens of volunteers would be roaming through the Atascocita Convention Center to assemble the bicycles for the annual firefighters’ Toys for Tots program. A record number of companies had donated bikes for the cause, and he, Nate, and Darren had been unloading boxes of bicycles for the past three hours. Even with the heavy labor and time crunch to get the stations ready for the volunteers, Luke hadn’t been able to stop thinking about Ciara Thompson. He’d finally broken down and shared with Nate the details of his conversation with Ciara, unable to resist talking about her.

“I don’t understand why you said no,” Darren said, passing by Luke with another boxed bike. “Why isn’t it a good thing that Channel 4 wants to showcase the work you do in the community?”

“It’s not just me. You, Nate, Wiley, Sully. We all do these things together, each one of us contributing our part to help people,” Luke said, grabbing a toolkit and placing it in between two of the boxes. 

“Exactly. What is Luke doing that’s any different from what we all do? Why not highlight all of us? It should be our entire fire department, not just one guy,” Nate said.

“All of us didn’t get selected for the TFA calendar, and all of us don’t do the things that Luke does,” Darren insisted, placing the last box in their quadrant of the convention center against the wall. 

Luke shook his head. “I’m not that special.”

“Let’s see. Since Thanksgiving, who drove down to the Valley on back-to-back weekends to pick up the slack when construction halted on the community center there? And who drove over to Navasota last weekend with a truck full of groceries, paid for with his own money I might add, when more people showed up to the soup kitchen than they expected? That wasn’t me, Nate or Wiley. It was you, Luke. You deserve this.” Darren said, stopping in front of Luke. 

“But I don’t need the whole world to know I do these things. The thanks from the people in the community is all I need. Seeing how a small act of kindness impacts a family means more to me than talking about what I do on some Christmas special,” Luke said.

Darren reached into his backpack and pulled out three bananas, handing one to Luke and Nate.

Nate shrugged, then said, “All right, both of you are making some good points. Saint Luke does way more than the rest of us, but doing a show like that just doesn’t fit his personality. The guy is rarely online and doesn’t even have any social media accounts. He’s not out there posting every time he helps somebody. You really think having his story blasted on the news for all of the greater Houston area to see is what he wants?” Nate added. 

Luke bristled at the thought. A Christmas Special like the one Ciara described would get a lot more attention than just in East Texas. A story like that could make its way up to Dallas, and the last thing he wanted was for his mother to get wind of it. In her hands, he wouldn’t be surprised if it became national news.

“All I’m saying is that sometimes you have to put aside what you want and think about the greater good,” Darren insisted, peeling the banana and taking a bite. “Think about all the people who could be inspired to do just a little bit more than dropping a dollar or two in the Salvation Army bucket during the holidays and then forgetting about those who need help for the rest of the year.”

Luke sat down on one of the boxes and peeled his banana. Darren had a point. How much more could be accomplished if more people just took the time to help out once or twice a year. It wouldn’t take a big individual commitment if they could increase the number of volunteers. Still, Luke couldn’t bring himself to do the interview. Most of his childhood and adult life had been spent mired in confusion on whether he was charitable for the right reasons or just for the cameras. When he left Dallas, he walked away from that life and finally found peace. He knew who he was at his core and how he wanted to impact the lives of others. He preferred to help without having a spotlight on his actions. 

“The real question is, what are you going to say to her when she gets here?” Nate asked, dropping his banana peel on Luke’s head. 

Luke frowned, tilted his head and watched the peel fall to the floor. 

“Can’t believe Wiley could miss this. I hope the meetings with the team investigating the brewery fire don’t last too much longer, and he’s able to get over here,” Darren said, squatting down to sit on the floor in front of Luke and Nate. 

“What are y’all talking about?” Luke asked.

“Don’t you remember why Wiley told the Atascocita fire department that we’d driveway over here to help them with the bike assemble?” Nate asked. “Channel 4 news is going to be here.” 

“Both Emma Young and Ciara Thompson will be mingling with the volunteers and helping to assemble the boxes,” Darren confirmed, pushing off the ground to stand. 

“Volunteers are here,” Nate said. 

Nate and Darren walked over toward the doors of the convention center, where volunteers flooded into the room. 

Luke rubbed a hand down his face. He had utterly forgotten about Wiley’s ulterior motive for helping out at this particular event. In a matter of minutes, he’d be in the same room with Ciara. 

Walking over to the volunteer station, he stood on the fringes as the volunteers huddled around the event coordinator, listening to instructions on the setup of the center and how to assemble the bicycles. 

[some feeling] and Luke turned around. Ciara Thompson walked through the doors, laughing and smiling. She shook hands and stopped to talk with each volunteer. He couldn’t take his eyes off the petite beauty. She was dressed casually in yoga pants and an ugly Christmas sweater that was anything but. Her hair was pulled into a high ponytail on the top of her head, showcasing her [beautiful] face.

Before he knew it, he was moving toward her, propelled by some force he couldn’t control. Lingering next to another volunteer, he waited for Ciara to greet the woman, he gushed over her and gave her a hug. 

Then she looked up at him, and his legs felt like jelly. Heart pounding in his chest, he tried to think of something to say, but no words were coming to his mind. 

“Hey Luke,” Ciara said, giving him a thousand-watt smile. “You’re the last person I expected to see here.”

“We help out other fire departments from time to time,” Luke said, rubbing a hand through his hair. 

“I’d expect nothing less. Come walk with me. We didn’t get to finish our conversation from yesterday,” Ciara said. She touched his arm, sending a jolt of electricity through his body as she steered him to a corner of the convention center that hadn’t been overrun by volunteers yet. 

Luke sat down on one of the boxes and stared up at her. He could get used to this view. “I owe you an explanation for why I can’t do the Christmas special.” 

Ciara laughed, her eyes lighting up as she placed her hands on his shoulders. Staring into his eyes, she said, “You know, that was weird for me. I can’t even remember the last time someone turned me down.”

“I can imagine that doesn’t happen very often, if at all,” Luke said.

Ciara giggled. “No, doesn’t really happen. I’m pretty persistent, so I’m not giving up on you, Luke Diamond. Not yet. What’s holding you back from doing the special?” 

Luke shifted over, giving Ciara room to sit on the box next to him. Her body was warm, leaning against his. He had to stop the urge to put an arm around her. “I’m not much for the spotlight. Too many people do things just so they can get fame and applause. That’s not me.”

“I kind of figured that. It’s that true genuine desire to help people that makes you perfect for the Christmas special,” Ciara said, twisting one of the pom-poms on her sweater. “It’s hard sometimes doing the news. We focus on the tragedy and the conflict more than the good that’s happening. This special is a chance to change that.”

“The special will be amazing, I just don’t think I’m your guy. I’m sure you can find someone else to do your segment on,” Luke said. The sheer proximity of Ciara next to him was about to drive him bonkers. He stole a glance, his eyes lingering on her lips. Was he really thinking about kissing her right now? The combination of her honesty, authenticity, and caring with her beauty was becoming his downfall.

“I think you’re wrong, and I want a chance to prove it,” Ciara said, turning toward him with excitement in her eyes. “How about we do a little wager.”

“What kind of wager?” Luke asked, intrigued by the idea in spite of himself. 

“There’s going to be a friendly competition between the news reporters and the firefighters to see who can assemble a bike the fastest. You and I will compete. If you win, I won’t mention the special again, and you are off the hook,” Ciara said. 

“And if you win?” Luke asked, smiling back at Ciara. She was a force to be reckoned with. 

Ciara said, “I don’t want to force you to do anything you’re uncomfortable with. So, if I win, you agree to give me another shot at convincing you to do the special. I just want you to think about it a little more before you decide it’s not for you. What do you say?”

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!