Chapter 11

“I knew it! I knew you had feelings for her,” Wiley said, slapping Luke on the back as he returned to the wobbly wooden table in the corner of [restaurant] with another heaping plate of eggs and bacon from his second trip through the buffet line. 

Darren stared at the plate of food, a forlorn longing in his eyes as he moved his spoon around in the steel-cut oatmeal. 

Luke rested his head in his hands, unable to eat any of the delicious french toast sitting in front of him. He’d thought about Ciara Thompson non-stop since their dinner last night and what to do about her request to interview him for the Christmas Special. 

“You got to do the special. That will give you more time with her and a better chance to make her fall for you,” Wiley insisted, shoveling the steaming eggs into his mouth.

“Don’t you get it. That’s the last thing I need to do. I’m trying to stop these feelings for developing into something that is pointless,” Luke said, feeling more miserable by the second. 

Darren nodded in agreement. “Problem is that last night wasn’t a date. She was just there to try to butter you up so you would do the special which you can’t do.”

“Can you imagine what my Mother would do with footage like that at her disposal? She’d love that more than if I actually went home for the holidays,” Luke said, with disgust. He’d finally gotten his mother to relent in her unending quest to get him to spend Christmas in Dallas with the rest of the family, although she’d made her displeasure quite clear.

“I still think if you drag this out and spend some more time with her, she’ll start to see that she wants to spend more time with you and not just for her television special. And if you snag Ciara, I’d be a bit heartbroken, but that would get me that much closer to getting Emma … with you putting in a good word for me, of course,” Wiley said. 

“You’re ridiculous right now,” Luke said, pushing the plate away. 

Darren reached over and grabbed a slice of the french toast and placed it on his fruit plate. Wiley raised an eyebrow but didn’t berate him for the move. Luke didn’t understand why Darren was so obsessive about his diet. Sure, he was bigger than all of them, having been a linebacker for several professional football teams, but he was by no means obese.

“I need y’all to focus. I didn’t tell you about this stupid crush that I have for you to stoke the fire. I need you to help me figure a way out of this mess,” Luke said. 

“Just call her and tell her you thought about it and decided that you don’t want to do the story,” Darren said.

Wiley rolled his eyes. “You really think Ciara Thompson is going to take a no that easy? Look what she’s done so far to try to get you to change your mind. Now, what you need to do is give her an incentive to find someone else to do the story on.” 

“You’re not suggesting that I do something … illegal?” Luke asked although he wouldn’t put it past Wiley to come up with something that extreme. 

Wiley laughed, and Darren looked up, waiting in anticipation for more details on the suggestion. 

“No, man. Come on, we do good for the community, and that ain’t gonna change. What you need to do is follow your heart. Ciara probably has men throwing themselves at her all the time, and she’s probably tired of that,” Wiley said. 

“She did mention that most men who show interest are just doing it to try to get on television and not because they are interested in her. She sees straight through them though,” Luke said, remembering the conversation from last night. But where was Wiley going with this?

“You need to be one of those guys. Ask her out and make it seem like you are the one with the ulterior motive for getting on the show. If she thinks you are using her, she’ll find a way to drop you quick,” Wiley said. 

Luke leaned back in the chair. Wiley could be on to something. His protests so far lined up with his personality and made her think even more that he was the right guy for the special.

“That’s a good idea!” Darren said, an exciting expression on his face. “Maybe telling her about your mother will get you out of it. As soon as she finds that out, I doubt she’ll want to highlight you on the show anymore.”

Luke scratched his eyebrow as the plan started to take shape in his head. Usually, he would have dismissed the hair-brained idea, but he actually thought Darren and Wiley had nailed this one. 

Wiley raised a finger. “But once you do that, you know any chance you have of being with Ciara is dead. Just make sure that’s what you really want.”

“Trust me, it is,” Luke said, although he wasn’t as convinced as he sounded. “Come on, we’re late for the game.”

Two hours later, Luke trudged off to the side of the concrete basketball courts near the [area]. His muscles aching and sore from the beating they’d just endured. Luke leaned against one of the concrete pillars supporting the roof of the courts, leaning over to gasp air.

“Well, that was embarrassing,” Wiley said, dropping to the ground as heaved air into his lungs.

“I feel like I’m gonna puke,” Darren said. His face was red, but he was sweating up a storm, so Luke wasn’t too worried about him having a real medical issue.

Sully slammed the basketball to the ground and yanked open the cooler. “Would have helped if you weren’t playing like garbage, Luke. Usually, the two of us can take up the slack for Wiley and Darren, but you were terrible today. They made us look like a bunch of old farts that need to be put out to pasture.”  

Luke raised an eyebrow at Darren, who shrugged and leaned over to grab three bottles of water from the open cooler. He tossed one at Wiley and the other at Luke, who caught it mid-air and untwisted the top, guzzling the cold liquid. 

Sully was right, he’d been distracted, and his shots were way off. He couldn’t stop thinking about Wiley’s last words to him about Ciara. Sure, he could play the mother card and probably turn her off from wanting to interview him, but did he really want to? If he did, there was no turning back. What if Wiley was right? What if he really had a chance to make Ciara want to spend more time with him beyond what she needed professionally? Should he take the chance or just walk away before she crushed his fantasies for good?

“Everything alright, Sul?” Wiley asked.

“Yeah, yeah … look, sorry for snapping. It’s the dang brewery fire. All the admin as part of the investigation is sucking up too much of my time, and I just …” Sully shook his head, closed the cooler, and sat down on top of it. 

“I heard it could be arson. Any truth to that?” Darren asked. 

“Let me guess, Wiley told you that?” Sully asked, a frown creasing his forehead as he looked at Wiley in disgust. 

“I might have mentioned a thing or two at breakfast, but it was mostly about that brewery princess making my life a living hell at the moment.”

“Stop. You know we can’t talk about anything associated with the investigation while it’s still ongoing,” Sully warned. 

“Is that all that’s bothering you?” Luke asked, wondering if the realization that Sully would be spending his first Christmas without his kids was also contributing to his ire. As far as Luke knew, Sully was still refusing to sign the divorce papers, but that hadn’t stopped his wife from moving away to Austin and limiting his time with the kids. 

“What else could it be?” Sully asked, staring daggers at Luke. 

He didn’t want to press his friend. Luke took a sip of his water.

“Did Luke tell you he went on a date last night?” Darren asked. “And you’re never going to guess with who.” 

Luke glared at Darren. He was all for changing the subject and relieving the tension in the air, but did Darren really need to use his dinner to do it? 

“It was not a date,” Luke clarified, and then explained how he lost a bet that led to the dinner with the news reporter—the gorgeous fireball with a sensitive side that he hadn’t been able to get out of his mind. “I’m probably never going to see her again. I’ll call her and turn down the interview for the last time and then go back to just being another viewer of her segments on the nightly news.”

“You sure about that?” Sully asked, a hint of tension in his tone as he tipped his water bottle in the direction over Luke’s left shoulder. 

A tingling sensation oozed over Luke, sending his nerve endings into an excited frenzy. Turning to look behind him, he saw Ciara sitting near the far edge of the basketball courts, twisting her body into some weird pretzel contortion position as she seemed to be stretching her muscles, oblivious to them watching her. She looked stunning, dressed in exercise capri pants and a jersey from the Houston professional basketball team. Luke inhaled sharply. Why was he so happy to see her? 

“Come on, y’all, let’s go grab some lunch and give Luke a little alone time with the hottest news reporter in the state of Texas,” Wiley said, ushering Darren and Sully away from the court. He stopped and turned back at Luke. “Before you torpedo what could be, make sure that’s what you really want.” 

Luke waved Wiley away, then turned back to focus his attention on Ciara. There was no way she could have known about the pick-up basketball game he played in on [Day] mornings, so she’d probably be surprised to see him. Despite the adrenaline coursing through his veins and the sly tingling in his stomach at the sheer proximity of her, Luke knew he had to end this foolishness. He and Ciara would never be a couple, and the sooner he could get her to reject him, the sooner these feelings would dissipate, and he could get back to his real life. 

Luke walked over toward Ciara. Her eyes were closed, and she was inhaling and exhaling at an exaggeratedly slow pace. 

Luke cleared his throat. 

Ciara’s eyes flew open, and she stared at him, a hint of surprise and something else lingering under the surface. Something, dare he say, sensual?

“Wasn’t expecting to see you today,” Luke said. 

“I wasn’t expecting to see you either,” Ciara said, gracefully contorting her body out of the strange position and stretching her legs out in front of her. A hint of a smile played at her lips as she watched him watching her. 

Luke was at a loss for words, struck momentarily stunned by her natural beauty. She was without make-up, and her hair was in a tight smooth ponytail on top of her head, allowing her face to be showcased in all its gorgeous glory.

“What brings you out to Old Town Tomball?” Luke asked. 

“You,” Ciara said. 

Luke felt his heart skip a beat. Was she here looking for him, hoping to see him? 

“Last night, the way you talked about this place … it made me a bit homesick. Which is odd because I was so happy to leave Old Town Tomball after high school. This morning, I found myself driving out here and thought I’d shoot some hoops like I used to a long time ago,” Ciara said. 

“How about we play a little one-on-one,” Luke said, a boldness coming over him. Wiley was right. He needed to figure out which angle he really wanted to take with Ciara. What better way than to spend a little more time with her? Or was he just fooling himself?

“I’m game. Should we have another wager?” Ciara asked, a teasing hint in her voice as she tapped her fingers against the concrete surface. 

Wary, Luke looked away for a moment. This was his chance to get out of any future interactions with the stunning news reporter. No way she’d be able to beat him in basketball, even with him having an off game. He turned back to face her. “Absolutely. Same rules. The winner gets the other to do one thing.” 

Ciara raised an eyebrow. He hadn’t known her for very long, but he knew she loved a challenge and was quite competitive. 

“So, if I win, could my one thing be that you’ll do the Christmas Special with me?” Ciara asked, a playfulness in her beautiful brown eyes.

“Yes, that qualifies—” Luke said, reality dashing his hopes. Ciara only wanted to secure the interview with him. That was the full extent of her interest in him. Nothing more. Better to get this over with. When he won, he would get her to accept his no as a final answer to her interview request. Then he could put away all these feelings for the reporter and return to normal.

“Really?” Ciara squealed, jumping up from the ground. “Okay, you’re on, Luke Diamond! I’m about to wipe the floor with you! What are we playing to?” 

“First to fifteen. You do realize this isn’t like before. You don’t have a chance of winning,” Luke said, staring down at her as she bounced the basketball … almost like a pro.

“Luke, you should know by now that there is more to me than meets the eye. I grew up playing ball with the boys, so you shouldn’t be too confident about winning this time,” Ciara said, smiling. “Ones and twos or just ones?” 

Luke groaned. Was Ciara the queen of streetball? The exhaustion from getting his butt kicked in the four-on-four game against the kids from the community college this morning settled in his muscles like a heavy weight. He could not lose the bet, not this time. “Ones and twos. Ladies first.” 

Ciara walked to the top of the arc. Luke dribbled a couple of times, then checked the ball, bouncing it toward Ciara. 

She caught it in stride, dribbled to his left and sped past him for an easy layup. 

“One to zero,” Ciara said with a sexy laugh.

Luke knew she was right. It would take a lot of focus to beat her this time and not just because she was better than he expected. Just the closeness of her body to his was having unintended effects that made it that much harder to focus on the game. 

After twenty minutes, the score was tied thirteen to thirteen. Ciara was surprisingly quick, good with her hands, crafty with steals, and seemingly unable to miss layups off the left or right sides. Dribbling the ball too much had been his downfall so far since she was so good at stealing. 

If he could drain the next shot, it would end the game, and he could put an end to his interactions with Ciara. 

Luke dribbled to the right, keeping his left arm extended to protect the ball as Ciara guarded him, swiping and tugging at his shirt to get him to turn it over. Fouls didn’t exist in the game, and he’d enjoyed the rough, intense play with her. But now it was time to get what he wanted. 

Luke stepped back and shot the ball. 

Ciara stopped and turned, watching it arc in the air over her head as it headed toward the basket.

With a swish, the ball sailed through the net, then bounced along the concrete and rolled into the grass surrounding the courts. 

“Game,” Luke said. 

Ciara’s shoulders slumped as she placed her hands on her hips, walking toward him. “Bet you didn’t think I’d be that good, did you?”

“Not at all, who taught you how to play like that?” Luke asked. 

“My brother. It was hit or miss if they had enough players for a pick-up game, so he taught me how to play just in case they needed an extra person. Back then, I loved hanging out with him and wanted to do all the stuff he did. I had to be good too! He wasn’t about to let me embarrass him. He used to tell me, CiCi — that’s what he called me, he’d say, you’re too little to shoot jump shots. You gotta steal balls and race to the basket for layups. That’s all I want to see you doing. So, that’s what I did,” Ciara said. 

“Smart guy. Not a bad strategy for you at all. Did y’all play in school?” Luke asked.

Ciara nodded, “Yeah, we both played on the high school teams. He was way better than I was, though. He got the trophies and was MVP and the like. I rode the bench for most of the year. My coach didn’t like my brother’s strategy, even though he was right. She’d try to get me to take jumpers, and of course, they’d get blocked, kinda like what you were doing to me today.” 

Luke chuckled, then walked over to the cooler and grabbed two bottles of water. He handed one to Ciara. 

“Yes, but you didn’t take long to neutralize that strategy, switching back to your brother’s tactics. He sounds like a great guy, I’d like to meet him,” Luke said. 

Ciara looked down at her bottle of water, then opened it and took a long swallow. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she stared up at Luke. He couldn’t read her expression, but he sensed something was wrong. 

She took a deep breath. “Okay, lay it on me. You knew what I’d ask for if I had won. But I lost. What’s the one thing you want me to do, Luke?”

Heart pounding in his chest, Luke wasn’t sure if he should go through with his original plan. The extra time with Ciara had muddled his thoughts, and now he was at a crossroads of what to do, and he didn’t have much time to think about it. 

A crazy idea popped into his head.

One that could let him know one way or the other what his next move should be. 

He’d get the answer to the questions niggling in his mind after his breakfast with Wiley and Darren. 

“I want you to go out with me,” Luke said, suddenly emboldened.

“What?” Ciara asked, laughing. “What do you mean?”

No use losing his nerve now. “Like on a date. Will you make time for me and go out with me on a real date?”

Ciara’s mouth opened, then closed, then opened slightly again. She looked genuinely surprised. Not repulsed or uncomfortable. Luke waited for seconds that felt like hours until he heard the words he never thought he’d hear.

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!