Ciara turned into the parking lot of Jimbo’s Christmas Tree Farm and steered into a space near the back. Her hands ached from gripping the steering wheel, and she felt a frustrated scream surging from the back of her throat. A sound she couldn’t afford to let out.
Opening the door to the Jeep, she eased out onto the ground and took a quick look around. Only a few cars and trucks were in the lot at this time of day, and no other people were within view.
She had a few minutes to relieve the tension gripping her muscles. Taking a deep breath, Ciara executed a series of warrior poses slowly, focusing on elongating and extending her muscles through each movement. Cycling through the positions, she stretched the left side.
Abigail had been encouraging, but Ciara knew that going against Jackie’s expressed wishes and presenting an alternative concept for her segment in the Christmas Special was risky. Ciara’s new version focused on evoking a positive message of selflessness and the one person helping another and passing it on philosophy that she and Luke had discussed. The one wildcard was Luke. Currently, the segment had him as the central figure and example, but it could easily be produced without him.
Ciara wasn’t sure Jackie would like that possibility.
A possibility that Ciara feared would be her reality, and she wanted to have a back-up plan in place. A way to convince Jackie that she was still the right reporter to be promoted to news anchor when Myra Elliott retired.
Shifting sides, Ciara began the poses again on the right side.
She had briefly contemplated calling Luke and begging him to bail her out of this mess and just make an appearance on the special, even if for a brief moment so she could tick off that one requirement dictated by Jackie, but she couldn’t make that call.
Not after that kiss.
The blistering, smoldering, passionate kiss they’d shared by the Hines Waterwall Park in the Galleria, across the street from her apartments.
A kiss that said so much more than goodbye. It felt like the start of something fresh, new, and exciting and had scared Ciara.
She’d dated on and off over the years, but couldn’t remember ever being with a man that made her feel the way Luke did, which is why she couldn’t be around him anymore.
He’d already ruined her path to a promotion at the news station, and because of those pesky feelings, she couldn’t bring herself to ask him to go against his clearly expressed views to make an exception for her. She respected him and, dare she say, cared too much about him to put him in a position of being manipulated because of his feelings for her.
And boy, did that kiss speak volumes about his feelings for her.
Ciara could see herself getting lost in Luke, losing a grip on where she wanted to go in life and making sacrifices that could lead her down a different path. One that could possibly be fraught with resentment.
She couldn’t deny that while she respected Luke’s answer about the Christmas Special, a part of her was angry at him too. The things she admired about him—his principles, his caring nature, his humbleness were the same things that had caused him to turn her down. The same things that were threatening to ruin any chance she had of getting that promotion.
“Those are some complicated moves you’re doing over there.”
The voice she’d recognize anywhere wafted from behind her. Ciara felt her heart thumping in her chest. What was Luke Diamond doing at her Christmas Tree Farm in the middle of the day? This could not be happening to her!
Bouncing up into the final position of the warrior poses, Ciara pressed her palms together in front of her chest and bowed her head quickly, then turned to face him.
Immediately, her legs felt weak as she watched Luke walking toward her. The sun was glowing behind him, making him look like a sexy, sensual angel. A light sheen of sweat caressed his skin, despite the coolness in the air, and he had that sly smile on his face. The one that filled her mind every morning when she woke up.
“What are you doing out here?” Luke asked, a softness, and a longing in his sparkling green eyes as he gazed at her.
“Probably the same thing you are. I’m here to pick out a Christmas tree,” Ciara said, trying to re-engage her inner confidence and take control over these wayward emotions. Her feelings for Luke had already cost her too much. She didn’t want to be in his presence for any longer than necessary. She would be polite, but no need to engage in an extended conversation.
“Don’t think any of these trees are going to fit in your Jeep,” Luke said, leaning against the side of her gunmetal gray Wrangler. “Is someone coming to help you?”
“The tree I’m getting will fit quite nicely in the back of my Jeep. No assistance necessary,” Ciara said, backing away slowly from him. His presence was hypnotic, and extending the distance between them was her number one priority.
A wave of recognition crossed Luke’s face. “You’re getting a mini tree, aren’t you?”
“What do you know about the mini trees? I thought only Old Town Tomball natives knew about them,” Ciara said, walking back toward him. A fierce protectiveness of her hometown rising within here.
“My best friend is an Old Town Tomball native. In fact his uncle owns this place, so I know my way around,” Luke explained.
Ciara wasn’t surprised that Luke would be best friends with one of the Jansen’s. The Jansen family owned several businesses, most notably a bank which had branches across the state and was the primary source of their billions.
“I’ll go grab an ax and chop it down for you,” Luke said, turning to run back toward the double-wide that served as the offices for the tree farm.
“You don’t have to do … that,” Ciara called after him, her voice trailing off knowing that Luke wasn’t planning on taking no for an answer, even though he’d expected her to.
Several minutes later, they were walking side by side, meandering through the forest of glorious Christmas trees that towered over their heads, some reaching fifteen and twenty feet. Ciara trudged along, breathing deeply and hoping that her heart would stop pounding in her chest.
Luke broke the silence. “Kind of surprised you don’t want something a bit bigger. Is that just because you can’t fit it in your Jeep?”
Her independence streak wasn’t lost on him, but she had more sentimental reasons for insisting on a mini tree.
Ciara twisted her hair around her fingers, then said, “Its … tradition of sorts. The only bright spot I can remember from the dismal holidays of my childhood.”
“That bad?” Luke asked, his arm brushing against hers, sending a wave of heat shooting across her skin.
Nodding, Ciara said, “My mom could never get into the holidays, and part of me on some level understands why. My dad was in the Army, and he was killed in Iraq right before Christmas when my brother and I were toddlers. Fluke accident, helicopter went down on a training run. Shouldn’t have happened, but there my mom was, a young mother with two rambunctious kids and suddenly a widow.”
“I can’t imagine how hard that must have been for her,” Luke said, compassion in his words.
Compassion that Ciara had never felt for her own mother. “Hard enough that she never got over it. Never cared enough for the family she still had living to try to give us the life that I’m sure my father wanted for all of us to have,” Ciara said, with more anger in her words than she’d wanted to reveal.
Ciara steered them down a small hill to the left.
“I must sound so cold-hearted,” Ciara whispered.
Luke reached a hand out and stopped her. She looked up into his gorgeous green eyes and saw nothing but concern and sympathy. No judgment or ridicule.
“As a kid, I’m sure you couldn’t possibly understand why she was distant during the holidays. That must have been hell to go through,” Luke squatted down on a wide stump of a Christmas tree that had been cut down, his hand slid down the length of her arm until he was holding her hand.
Ciara was oddly comforted by his touch, enough that she didn’t bother berating herself for sharing her deepest feelings with him. She actually felt good getting to let it out to someone who didn’t know any of her family or what happened. An unbiased ear with only one [desire]: to listen.
“I wish the misery was restricted to the holidays, but it wasn’t. Anyway, my brother and I would come down here with Zaire’s family to get Christmas trees. They would buy us a mini tree every year, and we’d sneak it into the house and decorate it with our own homemade ornaments. One year, Zaire’s mom gave us a string of lights, and it was the best gift ever to have our little bedroom lit up with the sparkling colors throughout the night. My mom never acknowledged our tree, but she also didn’t tear it down. So, we considered that a win. And I get a mini tree every year now to honor that one little bright spot of a memory,” Ciara explained.
“What about now?” Luke asked, his words slow as if skittering across eggshells. “Are things better with you and your mom?”
“They’re amazing,” Ciara said, smiling. She was finally free of the torment of growing up with an alcoholic parent. The weight and the burden of having to hide her horrible home life from her friends and endure neglect and the pain from her mother’s abhorrent actions had been left in the dust when she graduated from high school and left for college.
Luke frowned, then smiled a bit. “Really? That’s good that you were able to turn things around …”
“Sorry, I’m being snarky. Amazing because I finally got the courage to realize she was toxic to my life. She’s an alcoholic and was too busy finding comfort in liquor to show her children any warmth or love while we were growing up. We were the nuance, the reminder of the man she loved who was taken away from her too soon. I realized nothing would ever change, and I needed to free myself from her before she destroyed me too. I haven’t spoken to my mom in ten years. I know that must sound awful,” Ciara said.
“Not really,” Luke responded, grabbing her other hand and pulling her close to him. “You’re not the only one with a disappointing mother. But our stories don’t even compare.”
Her curiosity was piqued, but Ciara didn’t dare ask for more details. If Luke wanted to share, he would, and if he didn’t, she for one knew first hand that it was better not to pry.
“My mother and I don’t really have a close relationship at all. She knows nothing about my life and the man that I’ve become, the things that I’ve chosen to do, and why. When my grandfather died, I realized that we probably would never have the relationship that I’ve seen my friends have with their moms, but in the end, she’s the only one that I got. I have to respect her and respect our differences and find a way to forgive her for how I perceive she’d slighted me through the years,” Luke said, the pain obvious on his face as he spoke.
Ciara gave his hands a gentle squeeze. “You were able to do that? Forgive her?”
“Yeah, I did. I told her to her face that I forgave her and why I thought she needed my forgiveness. She listened and probably didn’t agree, but at that moment I could tell that she appreciated the olive branch. But that act was more for me than for her. I’m so much better now, not carrying around the anger and the hurt. I feel freer, lighter, and able to do more without that being the monkey on my back,” Luke said.
Ciara looked toward the sky as white clouds grew thicker, threatening to blot out the sun that had been so bright just minutes before. She’d never thought about forgiving her mother, preferring to just keep as much distance between her and the woman as she could. What would be the point? It wouldn’t change the one devastating thing that kept her from wanting to renew a relationship with the woman. The one thing stopping Ciara from being able to forgive her and open up to having a relationship with her. How could she when her mother was probably still drowning herself in bottles of wine every night? There was no hope for them to reconcile, even though the idea was admirable.
“But, I’m not trying to preach to you. Just think about it, would you?” Luke asked.
“Like you’re thinking about doing my Christmas Special?” Ciara asked, needing to turn the tide of the conversation that had gotten too serious and entirely too intimate.
Luke stood, his body brushing against hers as he towered over her entirely too close for what she should allow. But the butterflies racing through her stomach wouldn’t allow her to put distance between them. She was enjoying the feel of being this close to Luke way too much.
“Actually, I am thinking about it,” Luke said.
Something in his tone gave her hope for the first time.
“Really?” Ciara asked. Maybe she could salvage her promotion after all.
“I liked the modified concept you described the last time we were together, you know … before we …”
“Kissed,” Ciara whispered.
Luke licked his lips, and Ciara wanted nothing more than to stand on her tiptoes and savor those decadent lips once again.
“Can we talk about the kiss?” Luke asked, his voice deepening with passion.
“I don’t know what there is to say,” Ciara said, swallowing past the lump in her throat.
“Okay, so maybe just listen?” Luke asked, slipping his arms around her waist.
Ciara’s breaths quickened in anticipation.
“I believe that kiss was the … beginning of something that is happening between us. Something undeniable and real and right. I can’t stop thinking about you, Ciara Thompson, and I want a chance to get to know you better,” Luke said.
“You do?” Ciara asked.
“Don’t say that like you’re shocked,” Luke.
“I don’t know what to do with this situation, Luke,” Ciara said, pushing away from his arms. Frustration bubbling within her. “This is complicated because I need you to do the Christmas Special! And I don’t want to use any feelings you have for me to manipulate you into saying yes.”
“Is that because you don’t feel anything for me? This is all one-sided?” Luke asked, his voice flat as he crossed his arms over his massive, muscular chest.
Ciara threw up her hands. “No! It’s because I feel the same way you do! The same tug toward you and wanting to know more about you and thinking about you all the time. You’re about to drive me crazy.”
And just like that, all of her feelings had bubbled out of her in the middle of the Christmas tree farm. Ciara covered her face with her hands.
She could feel Luke coming closer. He gently peeled her hands from her face and looked her in the eyes.
“Business is business. I want to see your new pitch for the Christmas Special, but know that I’m not going to let my personal feelings for you be a factor in if I decide to do it or not,” Luke said, swiping a wayward strand from her face. “And personal is personal. I’m not thinking about the Christmas Special when we’re together getting to know each other. I can keep them separate. Question is … can you?”
Ciara felt a rush of emotions flowing through her veins as she looked into his handsome face. She wasn’t sure that she could keep the two separate. But what she did know was that her heart wasn’t going to let her walk away from the chance to get to know Luke better. “I think I can.”
Luke leaned down and brushed his lips against hers. A sweet, gentle kiss that made Ciara dizzy with desire. Ciara almost protested when Luke pulled away from her.
“Good. Now let’s go cut down the best mini tree on this lot.”
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!