Chapter 13

“What is wrong with you? Get up, you’re going to mess up your hair,” Abigail said, hovering over Ciara with a stern expression. 

Sprawled on the massive king-sized bed that took up almost the entire width of her small bedroom, Ciara propped herself on her elbows and looked up at her good friend. “I can’t figure out the right way to pitch this special to Luke on our date.” 

“When have you ever worried about how to get someone to do what you wanted? That’s what makes you one of the best reporters in the city, Ciara. You can talk anybody into anything … wait a minute. Did you just say date?” Abigail asked, plopping down on the bed next to her. 

Ciara leaned forward, berating herself for the slip, and avoided her friend’s steely gaze. “You know what I mean. The lunch with Luke.”

“Don’t you try to cover this up. I heard you. You said it was date. How exactly did you and Luke decide to go on a date? Spill it,” Abigail said.

Groaning, Ciara gave Abigail the full details of running into Luke at the basketball courts in Old Town Tomball, their competitive and flirty one-on-one pick up game linked to a new bet and how Luke asked her out on a date after he’d won the bet.

“How very sly of Mr. December to use your own tactic against you to get what he wanted. At first, I thought he was probably a gorgeous do-gooder that was as interesting as a brick in a wall but seems there’s more to Luke Diamond than I realized. I like it,” Abigail said, raising an eyebrow.

Ciara wished she didn’t like it as much as she did. 

All of her focus and attention should be on getting Luke to agree to do the interview for the Christmas Special, but instead she’d spent the morning in the hair salon getting her hair styled in beach wave curls, and then wrestled over what to wear for the next, trying on almost every outfit in her closet before settling on a cashmere turtleneck and a pair of dark skinny jeans. Precious time was wasted primping for a man that she had no time to date and no real interest in other than the fact that he was sexy, with a killer body, dreamy personality, and had a heart of gold. Time that she should have been spending trying to figure out how to make the Christmas Special appeal to him.

“Whatever, I have no time to entertain a potential suitor, and I will let him know that after I get him to agree to the interview. Did you bring the papers over?” Ciara asked, changing the subject. Her stomach was doing that weird flip-flop thing, and her hands were slick with a light sheen of sweat. 

“I did and put them in your purse already,” Abigail said. “Now I agree that your career is number one, and getting Luke to do the interview makes you pretty much a lock at getting Myra’s role, so you can’t mess around with that. But really, think about it … what’s the harm in seeing where things could go between the two of you. I mean, you’re both beautiful people who work the same crazy night schedule and have plenty of time in the day to spend with each other. It’s the best situation for both of you.”

“Will you just stop it! This is not the Love Connection. Luke mentioned that Channel 4 News is a favorite at the fire station, and I’m sure he just asked me out to have bragging rights with the other firefighters or something. He’s not really into me,” Ciara said, dismissing the idea before it could take root in her mind. The last thing she needed right now was to start nursing a monster crush on the hunky firefighter. 

She’d already found herself drawn to Luke in a way that she hadn’t felt for years … if ever. He was so easy to talk to, and even when they fell into silence, she felt comfortable around him. He had a bit of a competitive streak just like her, and she loved that he didn’t resist trash-talking and teasing with her. At both the dinner and on the basketball court, Ciara had to admit she’d had a good time. No, a great time. If she wasn’t in the fight of her professional life for this promotion, she might let herself explore a potential relationship with Luke. But she couldn’t afford his kind of distraction right now. Not when she was so close to everything she’d been working for. 

“Fine, lie to yourself if you want to … but eventually, you’ll have to figure out the spark that is igniting between you and Mr. December. After you get Luke to sign the papers to do the interview, which you better get done today, you’re going to be forced to work side by side with him a lot more until Christmas,” said Abigail.

“There is no spark between Luke and me. Sure, we may be attracted to each other, but that doesn’t mean anything is going to come of it. Now, go! I only have ten more minutes to get over to the restaurant to meet Luke,” Ciara said, ushering her friend out of the apartment and shutting the door behind her. 

She inhaled a shaky breath, then grabbed her purse and her keys and headed out the door.  

Ten minutes later, she walked into the restaurant at Nordstrom’s. Luke was talking to a hostess, who was blushing as she smiled brightly back at him. Her smile a little too eager and predatory for Ciara’s taste. The hostess wasn’t the only one captivated by Mr. December. He was garnering a lot of attention and appraising glances from other female patrons and a couple of male ones too. That was the life of a gorgeous man, she supposed. But, Luke, to his credit, seemed genuinely oblivious to it all. 

“Excuse me.” 

Ciara stepped to the side to allow a young girl to pass.

“I’m sorry. You’re Ciara Thompson, aren’t you?” the girl asked.

“I am,” Ciara smiled, then listened as the girl introduced herself. She was a freshman at her alma mater, University of Houston, studying journalism and admired the work Ciara was doing at Channel 4. Ciara had always wanted to be a role model for young aspiring journalists and didn’t hesitate to sign an autograph. After a bit more small talk and a quick hug, the girl exited the restaurant, and Ciara turned her attention back to Luke. 

His gorgeous green eyes were locked on her, sending a flurry of butterflies dancing through her body from head to toe. Ciara gave him a little wave than walked over. 

“Hey,” Ciara said, suddenly at a loss for words distracted by the mere presence of being so close to Luke Diamond again. In her head, she knew that he was just a means to an end. A way for her to impress her boss and grab the promotion she deserved. But her heart seemed to have other plans. Plans that could derail everything she’d been working for. Plans she had to squash immediately.

“Hey, I just got us a table. Should be ready in a minute. Have you been here before?” Luke asked, a hint of worry in his eyes. 

Ciara didn’t have the heart to tell him that she was almost a regular, visiting the spot at least once a month—it was one of her favorite restaurants. “Yes, it’s really good. You’re going to love it.”

“Your table is ready,” a waiter said.

Looping her arm in Luke’s, Ciara gripped his taut bicep muscle and maneuvered through the maze of tables until they were stopped at one near the center. She would have preferred something toward the back, but the place was packed, and there didn’t seem to be any other tables available. 

Luke gave the waiter a polite thanks and then held the chair out for her. 

Sitting down, Ciara wondered how she was going to make it through the lunch without losing all train of thought from the sheer gorgeousness of Luke Diamond. She’d seen the raised eyebrows from the other tables as they’d passed by. Why had she grabbed onto him so possessively? What did she care if people knew they were on a date or not? She wasn’t here to date Luke. She was here to get his signature on the agreement to do the Christmas Special. 

The waiter poured sparkling water in their glasses, then left them alone to peruse the menu.

Ciara watched as Luke studied the options, a cute little crinkle furrowing his brow as he tilted his head, pondering what to order.

“I don’t know. What are you getting? Wait, you haven’t even looked at the menu,” Luke said, smiling at her. “How many times have you been here?”

“It’s one of my favorite restaurants,” Ciara admitted. A fact Luke couldn’t have possibly known. “Hmmm. I think I’ll get a cup of the crab bisque and the salmon with Mediterranean couscous.”

“Sounds good to me. I’ll get the same,” Luke said, closing the menu. 

“You can’t do that,” Ciara said, stunned by his sudden quick decision. “Do you even like those dishes?”

“If you like it, I’m sure I’ll love it,” Luke said, seeming to enjoy her exasperation.

“What if you don’t like it?” Ciara asked, worried that she should have ordered the skirt steak romesco or the burger with kalamata aioli instead. Something hearty for a meat and potatoes kind of guy like Luke.

“Then you’ll have a meal you love to eat for lunch tomorrow, and I’ll be stopping at Whataburger on my way back to Old Town Tomball,” Luke said, matter of fact.

Ciara erupted in laughter, loving his practicality, and laid back nature. Nothing seemed to get Luke riled up or upset. He was even-keeled, the opposite of her. “Fine, but you had a chance to pick something different. I just want that stated for the record.”

“Duly noted, faux-counselor,” Luke said, giving her the most breathtaking smile she’d ever seen, then giving the waiter their double order.

As the waiter was leaving the table, a woman barged over with wide-eyes, her hand pressed against her heart. “Ciara! Is that you! It is!” 

The woman squealed as Luke sized the woman up, as if ready to protect Ciara if the interaction took an unexpected turn. 

The woman prattled on, “I never do this, but I just love you. I watch you every night, and I mean every night. Your stories are the best. Can I get a selfie?”

Ciara barely had a chance to speak as the woman leaned over her back and snapped the photo. 

“Thanks for watching Channel 4 News for you, Houston. I appreciate your support,” Ciara said, as the woman beamed and headed back to her table across the room. 

Ciara cleared her throat. “Sorry about that. How are the renovations going at the Diamond Ranch?”

Luke rolled his eyes. “Slow. I had to fire my architect and get a new one. We just couldn’t seem to get on the same page about my vision for the main house.”

“You’re living in the little house?” Ciara asked.

“How do you know about the little house?” Luke asked, a puzzled look on his face.

“I told you Diamo let us run all over his property as kids. He used to complain like crazy about that house. He’d say it was in the wrong place and that he should just tear it down,” Ciara remembered.

“But he would never go through with it because that’s the house that he and my grandmother first built after they’d spent years scraping up enough money to buy the land. Too many memories to let it go,” Luke said. 

“Seems like you feel the same way? Or do you have plans to tear it down?” Ciara asked, hoping that Luke wouldn’t get rid of the quaint small house, even though she hadn’t thought about the place in years. She wondered if it still looked the same. 

“Never. I patched that house up right after I moved to Old Town Tomball, and it’s the perfect size for me. Not big like the main house, that one was built for a big family. One my grandfather never got to have, since my grandmother died in childbirth with my dad,” Luke said. 

“That’s so sad. I didn’t know that,” Ciara said, resisting the urge to reach across the table and squeeze Luke’s hand. It wasn’t his loss anyway, it was Diamo’s.

“He preferred living in the main house instead of the little house with all those memories. Anyway, my mom connected me with one of her architect friends out of Irving, and the guy is coming down after Christmas to work up new plans for the place,” Luke said. 

The waiter returned with their food and a sheepish grin on his face. 

“Is something wrong?” Luke asked. 

“We didn’t want to make a scene, but I saw you take a picture with that other guest. Would you mind signing autographs for me and a couple of other waiters? I promise it will be quick,” the waiter asked. 

Smiling, Ciara waved him over and took a stack of her headshots that she kept just for this purpose and signed them. She handed them to the waiter who held them like they were fragile in his hands and walked away, smiling.

“Sorry. So, no more work on the place for the rest of the year?” Ciara asked. 

Luke hid his laughter, then said, “I’m shifting my focus to the part that doesn’t need expertise to do—landscaping and clearing the outer parts of the property. It is the biggest project I’ve ever tackled in my life. I swear some of the weeds out there are taller than you.”

“Hey! Don’t pick on those of us who are vertically challenged,” Ciara said, swinging her napkin at him.

“Your height is perfect,” Luke said.

“But you wouldn’t want to be five foot two. Nobody dreams about being petite, trust me. My brother towered over me, he was about your height. What are you? Six foot three or four?” Ciara asked. 

Luke nodded, “Six four.” 

“Yeah, that’s height royalty,” Ciara said. “So, while you were out there clearing the Ciara size weeds from your property, did you see the Clementine trees? I wonder if they ever started to produce any fruit.”

“Clementine trees? What are you talking about?” Luke asked. 

“When Zaire and I were in junior high school, Diamo was nice enough to let us plant six Clementine trees on the back end of his property for our science fair project. We checked on these trees every summer until we graduated from high school. They finally started to grow, but we never saw any fruit. Diamo blamed the Texas heat for suffocating the trees,” Ciara laughed. “If that is even a thing.” 

“Where were the trees exactly?” Luke asked, leaning closer toward her. The heady scent of his cologne, which she recognized as Gucci’s top-selling men’s fragrance, almost made her drool as she stared into his intense green eyes. 

“On the east side of the property not far from where Willow Creek crosses on the corner of the property. We planted six trees back there, hoping that the water draining to the creek would give it extra nourishment in the hotter months,” Ciara said. 

“Haven’t gotten to that part of the property, but I’ll check it out,” Luke said. 

A group of elderly women dressed in Chanel stopped at the table. 

“We are sorry to interrupt, but I just couldn’t leave without telling you that we really enjoy watching you on the nightly news. I’m glad they switched the coverage of the governor’s race to you and took it from that Oscar guy. He just seems to struggle through every report, don’t know why they don’t fire him. Anyway, I was hoping that we could get a photo with you?” the white-haired woman asked. 

Ciara bit her lip, glancing at Luke. She knew he had to be annoyed with all the interruptions. But when she glanced at him, he was already standing and making small talk with the ladies as he grabbed one of the cell phones to take the picture. Maneuvering around her seat, the ladies beamed at the camera, then thanked her for enduring their interruption. 

“It’s fine, really, and thank you so much for watching Channel 4, News for you, Houston,” Ciara said, waving goodbye to them. “I’m sorry, this never happens to me. But I’ve never covered such a high profile story like the governor’s race before, so I guess I should get used to it.”

Luke had a strange expression on his face, one she couldn’t quite read. “I agree with the ladies. I’m sure you’re going to do an amazing job on the coverage.”

“Enough talk about that. We’ve had enough of my work interrupting this date,” Ciara said.

“Yeah, but we both know it’s not a real date. So, no big deal,” Luke said.

“What do you mean?” Ciara asked, pushing her empty plate to the side.

Luke shrugged. “Come on, I know, and you know that the only reason you agreed to go out on this date was to get me to do the interview for the Christmas Special.”

Ciara didn’t insult his intelligence by denying it. “Maybe, that thought crossed my mind, but honestly … it wasn’t the only reason why I said yes. I really like you, Luke. You’re fun to hang around and easy to talk to, and I have a good time when we’re together. But now I have a question for you.”

“What’s that?” 

“If you thought that all along, then why did you ask me out in the first place? You could have asked me to do anything, like say, accept no as your final answer for the interview and leave you alone. But you didn’t,” Ciara said, not sure that she was ready for the answer to her question. Was it going to change things for her if Luke was more than just an infatuated fan wanting a single date with her to go and brag about at the fire station later that night? Would she feel differently about the whole situation if something about who she really is, deep inside, had attracted him, and he was really interested in her? What would she do then? 

Luke leaned back in the chair reflective. “I could have. But then, I wouldn’t have gotten what I really wanted.”

“Which was?”

“Long story,” Luke said, signaling for the waiter to bring the check. 

“I have time,” Ciara said. 

“You see, my friend Wiley has a huge crush on you and on Emma Young. He’s the reason why we switched from Channel 13 news to channel 4 news about a year ago. I always knew that you were the most talented and beautiful news reporter on the air, but you were just a face on the screen. Not real. Not attainable. And then …”

Ciara said, “there was the fire at the brewery, and you met me in person.” 

“That’s when I kind of slipped into a crush of my own. Now, don’t get me wrong, I know I don’t have a chance with you, and I thought if I asked you out, you’d shut me down fast, and I could get over it faster,” Luke said.

“But I didn’t. So now what?” Ciara asked, not wanting her time with Luke to end. 

“I think we talk about the interview,” Luke said, the casual and friendly demeanor replaced by a more serious and professional one. 

No, this was not how she wanted things to go. “Okay, but not here. We’ve been interrupted a million times already, and I want a chance to speak to you without all the commotion.” 

Luke paid the bill, and they headed out of Nordstrom’s, walking along the sidewalk until they reached the waterwall. The park was near deserted since construction was ongoing on the oversized sculpture, and no water was running. Orange tape surrounded the structure, stopping visitors from getting close. Idled equipment rested nearby as the workers hadn’t returned from their break to finish the repairs. 

Ciara led Luke to one of the benches, and they sat down next to each other. There arms and legs, touching, a closeness that felt natural to Ciara. 

“What’s your biggest concern about doing the interview?” Ciara asked. 

“I really love helping people. I always have. Kind of comes with the territory when you’re raised by a cop and a social worker. But I never do any of this to impress people or to get attention. Doing this interview is like flashing a neon sign to the world, saying, ‘Look at me and what I do.’ I don’t need validation or approval from your viewers. The happy and relieved and thankful faces of the people that I interact with is the only reward I want. Nothing more,” Luke said, shifting to face her.

Ciara said, “You just don’t know how special you are, Luke. So many people would jump at the chance to tell their story and use it to bolster the work that they do, but not you.”

“I’m not trying to make a big impact. If that was my driving motivation, I would have stayed in Dallas. I’m more of the if you help one person and they help one person, and on and on, you can change the world kind of guy. I’m not doing any of this alone. I work with teams and with communities to try to make people’s lives a little bit better,” Luke said.

“What if I can modify the angle of the interview and the story to emphasize your philosophy so that it’s not setting you up to be this savior to the communities, but reflecting the realness of how you work with others to make a difference on a small scale. If I did that, do you think you might reconsider?” Ciara asked, excitement building as an even better approach to the interview formed in her mind. One that would blow Emma’s and Oscar’s stories out of the water. 

“Maybe,” Luke said, but his tone told her that she didn’t have a chance. 

“It’s okay. I get it, I will just drop it.” 

“Don’t. I’ll seriously consider it if you can make it not so focused on me as the savior of the communities. That’s not who I am, and that’s not what they need,” Luke said. 

“You really are one of a kind,” Ciara said.

He shrugged her compliment away, but she was compelled to let him know exactly what she thought of him, especially since she knew this was probably the last time she’d share a moment with Luke Diamond. He’d helped her see things differently, and she could do her segment without focusing on Luke specifically, finding others who share his help one and pass it on approach. There was no reason for her to bother him ever again.

Ciara smiled at him, then said. “You are one of the most amazing, charismatic, funny, caring men I’ve ever met. That’s not just because of the things you do. It’s because of who you are inside.” 

Ciara rested her hand against his chest. She could feel his heart pounding against her fingertips, faster than normal. Gazing up into his eyes, she didn’t resist as the distance between them dissipated. In an instant, his lips were on hers, kissing her with a sweet and delicate passion, then becoming more intense as she wrapped her arms around his neck. He was by far the best kisser she’d had in her entire life, and she couldn’t imagine that a kiss could get any better than Luke Diamond’s. 

A kiss with Luke Diamond?

Ciara pulled away, out of breath, as she tried to gain her composure. She was not supposed to be kissing Luke Diamond! What had come over her?

“I’m sorry—”

“No,” Ciara shook her head. “I’m sorry. I gotta go.” 

“Where are you going?” Luke stood, following after her.

Ciara walked faster along the sidewalk, pointing toward the apartments across the street. “Home. I live there. Goodbye, Luke.”

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! 

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