Chapter 1

A calendar full of hunky firefighters. 

Really? That was her assignment for the ten o’clock news. Oscar had just left to cover a robbery and shooting at a convenience store near Sharpstown Mall. Emma was covering the opening night of A Christmas Carol at the Wortham Center. And she was trying to figure out how to outshine both of them with nothing more to work with than the release of the Texas Firefighters’ Alliance annual calendar. 

Ciara sighed, twirling the pencil between her fingers.

Scanning the flurry of cursive scribblings on the post-it notes littering her desk, she knew her concept was good. Everyone would be drooling over the firefighters, who went through a rigorous selection process to make the calendar. But, she wanted to tug at the heartstrings and the pocket strings of the viewers by giving them a healthy dose of how the proceeds from the calendar benefited community centers in underserved areas constructed by the Alliance. 

Leaning back in her chair, Ciara rested her hands behind her head, watching the bustling movement of the active newsroom. Mere minutes away from the broadcast of the ten o’clock news, Richard Carter, the Assignments Editor, passed by giving her a terse wave as he power-walked through the desks to his office. She’d deserved to get the robbery story. Richard’s chauvinistic tendencies had likely been the reason he’d picked the one male reporter on the evening news to send out to Sharpstown.

Everyone at the station knew that she was the best reporter at KHTX, Channel 4, “News For You, Houston.” No matter how much her fellow reporters tried to ignore it, they all knew that if anyone could make this segment sparkle, it was Ciara Thompson. Her popularity on the evening news had been trending up all year on all the social media sites. She’d eclipsed one hundred thousand twitter followers over Thanksgiving with her coverage of the Turkey Day Trot and was close to that mark on Facebook. And that was more than any other reporter or news anchor, except Myra Elliott, who was retiring in three months. 

After sludging her way behind the scenes, she’d finally gotten her breakout chance to be a reporter on camera a year ago. She’d made the most of it from day one. Now, after being just one in a sea of reporters at the station, she was finally getting the attention and accolades she deserved. With only a few more high profile news stories, she’d be a lock for a news anchor spot once Myra was gone. 

But this calendar story wasn’t helping. Ciara couldn’t afford to have any missteps or mediocre stories. A slump in her popularity could completely derail her goals.

Pushing away from her desk, Ciara stood and stretched her hands over her head, then dropped down in a downward dog posture in the small space between her desk and Emma Young’s desk. Her dark brown hair with fresh ombre red tips brushed against the dusty floor as the tension eased out of Ciara’s back. 

A dose of hot yoga in the morning would help pull her out of this funk.

Ciara extended her legs into a straight arm plank, tightening her core and pushing air slowly out of her lungs. The calendar segment would be featured after the first commercial break. Only two minutes to make it unique and then on to the next story. She’d opted against using the teleprompter, hoping to convey a more natural and energetic feel into her report. Emma got critiques on being too stilted on camera, and Oscar usually stumbled and flubbed words in his reports, but Ciara was always flawless. She had to be. Girls like her from small towns had to work twice as hard to make it at a news station in the largest city in Texas. Still, she couldn’t become complacent or overconfident. The best way for her to appear natural on camera was to indeed be natural on camera. Ciara focused on letting her authentic Southern charm shine in her reports.

A pair of hot pink Louboutin’s walked into her field of view. Ciara smiled, then dropped out of the plank onto her knees, looking up into the face of her good friend and quasi-mentor, Abigail Holt. Tall and curvaceous, with jet black pixie cut hair that framed her pretty, cherubic face, Abigail was the Assistant News Director, Ciara’s close friend, and her biggest supporter at the station.

“Don’t give me that look. I can’t be too obvious playing favorites for you,” Abigail said, squatting down to eye level with Ciara.

Ciara waved a hand, dismissing the concern creasing Abigail’s face. “No worries! I think I found a way to turn this from a fluff piece to one that gets a lot more attention for the Texas Firefighters’ Alliance and for me. Help me up.”

Abigail reached a hand out, and Ciara grasped it standing up to her full five-foot three-inch frame. She barely came to Abigail’s shoulder when Abigail wasn’t wearing heels, and it was worse now. The muscles in her neck tightened as she stood barefoot like an oompa loompa next to Abigail. When it was time to go on camera, Ciara would slip on her own five-inch stilettos, not Louboutin’s but respectable shoes at a tenth of the price, and feel more like her usual self.  

“Richard made a point of assigning you the firefighter calendar first, almost daring me to override his suggestion. He’s such a whiner, I’m sure he would have found a way to insinuate to Jackie that the assignments aren’t being given out fairly. So, I kept my mouth shut this time. I’ll make it up to you,” Abigail said, leaning against the edge of Ciara’s desk. 

“Like you owe me anything! I wouldn’t even have this job if you hadn’t stuck your neck out to convince Jackie to give me a shot. She’d written me off after I showed up late to the interview, but you got her to see past that faux pas and hire me anyway. Not sure there will be a day that I can say I’ve made up for everything you’ve done for me,” Ciara said. 

“This is turning real mushy, real quick, and you know I don’t do mushy. So, let’s stop this,” Abigail said, rolling her eyes. She reached for the calendar and thumbed through the pages. 

“You can have that copy. The Alliance sent over a box full for us to keep or giveaway.” Ciara tapped her barefoot against a brown box partially hidden under her desk filled with fifty copies of the calendar. 

“Any goodies in here?” Abigail asked. 

“Let’s see … for you, check out April, July, and August. Those guys are your type. Brooding, muscular but more on the slender side and tall, so you don’t have to bend down to kiss them,” Ciara teased. 

Abigail groaned. “You know how much I hate that. If I have to wear flats on a date, he’s not going to get a second one.”

Flipping through the pages, Abigail nodded in agreement as she checked on the men for the months that Ciara knew would catch her eye. 

“Any goodies you’d snag if you could?” Abigail asked. 

“Who has time to snag goodies when I’m trying to get a news anchor spot?” Ciara said. Dating was the last thing on her mind right now. She needed to harness all of her time, efforts, and creativity in proving to Jackie that she should be the next reporter promoted to be a news anchor. Sure, she wouldn’t get the prime 10 o’clock spot. An anchor from the morning show or the 5 o’clock news would likely get that promotion. The domino effect would start, and after the dust settled, one of the less desirable anchor spots would be up for grabs. The perfect place to insert a brand new anchor, and she planned to be the one selected. Trying to date at the same time would be nothing but a distraction she couldn’t afford. 

“Hello. I’m speaking hypothetically here, so calm down Ms. Workaholic,” Abigail said, flipping the calendar to the next month.

Ciara thought for a moment. There was only one guy who’d caught her eye. He was devastatingly handsome with an amazing body, just like all of them in the calendar, but there was something else about him. An intangible. A kindness in his green eyes and a hint of playfulness in his smile that made her think he would be a fun guy to get to know. 

“Ha!” Abigail shouted, then turned the calendar toward Ciara. “Let me guess. Mr. December would float your boat.”

Ciara tried to stifle a smile, but her friend knew her too well. 

“Says here that his name is Luke Diamond. Talk about a diamond not in the rough,” Abigail said.

“He’s very handsome, which is probably why they saved him for the last month,” Ciara said, staring at the photograph. Luke Diamond was standing in front of a massive oak tree, shirtless exposing his chiseled muscles. The red suspenders of his uniform dangled along the side of the bright yellow firefighter pants he wore as his hands gripped an ax that rested against his shoulder. His blond hair was damp, and his face glistened with sweat under the bright sunlight. But there was something about those mesmerizing green eyes, piercing as he looked into the camera, that would make women all over Texas swoon.

“Did you see this?” Abigail asked, her finger resting against a row of small text near the bottom of the photo. 

Ciara leaned forward and read “Luke Diamond” and underneath it—

“He works for the Old Town Tomball Firefighters. That’s your hometown,” Abigail said. 

Ciara paused, her eyes focusing on the city listed. Luke Diamond lived in her hometown?

“Maybe he’s not so out of reach after all,” Abigail teased. 

“Whatever,” Ciara said, snatching the calendar out of Abigail’s hand. 

“Ciara! You’re own in two!” the Producer screamed from the news set.

“Wish me luck,” Ciara said, stepping into her stilettos.

“Please … when have you ever needed luck?” Abigail said, winking at her.

Ciara gave her friend a quick hug, then rushed over into the studio and stopped on the white ‘x’ marked on the floor. Staring into the camera, she smoothed the wrinkles of her red pants suit and waited until the red light shone. 

Ciara said, “Thanks, Myra. The annual Texas Firefighters’ Alliance calendar was released today …”

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!