Chapter 3

Hunched over her laptop in the cramped desk, Ciara scrolled through the analytics tracked by KHTX’s media department, then checked each of her social media sites. Her exhilaration soared as she watched the numbers continue to climb for her coverage of the release of the annual Texas Firefighters’ Alliance calendar. 

Doubts had started to creep in her mind about her coverage. She was a fantastic reporter, but she was human too. The Alliance had adopted a strategy for raising money focused on luring women to tap into their fantasies of being saved by a hunky firefighter. The approach had made the calendar hugely popular for the past five years. Downplaying the sexy firefighters and focusing on the greater good of their work had been a risky strategy. She’d wanted to give the story a bit more substance and help the viewers understand that the men in the calendar were more than just hot bodies and gorgeous faces. They were men who worked tirelessly, building community centers in impoverished areas, and volunteering as mentors to touch the lives of the young people in those communities. From the trending numbers, Ciara had tangible proof that she had nothing to worry about. 

She’d posted a video of her segment on social media and watched as the shares of the video climbed by the minute. The comments on the posts were overwhelmingly positive. They would likely lead to record sales of the calendar, which was precisely what Ciara wanted. Sure, these results would be a nice boost to her chances of getting the news anchor position when Myra retired, but her research had taught her a lot about the Alliance and the great work they did across the state. The impact was so impressive, the lives changed and molded were so extraordinary that Ciara had opened up her own pocketbook and charged a five hundred dollar donation to the cause.  

“Great job with the calendar segment.” Myra Elliott’s southern drawl floated from behind Ciara. 

Ciara beamed with excitement, then regained her composure before turning to face the experienced anchor. 

“Thanks, Myra. Means a lot coming from you,” Ciara said, and she actually meant it. Myra wasn’t known for giving accolades often. The twenty-year veteran anchor had impossibly high standards. 

“The way you weaved in the posts and comments from your social media account into the story really made the impact of the Alliance hit home with viewers. The firefighters are going to owe you a huge thanks. Your story will single-handedly boost their contributions this year, mark my words,” Myra said, giving her a warm smile. 

“You think so?” Ciara said, feigning ignorance and pretending like she hadn’t been stalking the numbers ever since she walked off the set.

Myra nodded, then leaned down toward her. In a voice barely above a whisper, she said, “And I think you’re closing the gap on Oscar for getting the next news anchor position. Just keep doing good segments like this, and you’re going to make it hard for Jackie to make that decision.” 

Giving her hand a quick squeeze, Myra stood up straight and headed out of the newsroom. 

Slamming her laptop closed, Ciara squeezed her hands into tight balls but resisted beating them against her desk. 

Closing the gap? On Oscar of all people? 

Oscar was Jackie’s top choice for the next news anchor role? 

Ciara wanted to let out a primal scream. 

How could inarticulate, stumbling over his words, segments full of umms and stutters, Oscar be in the lead for the news anchor role? He didn’t even have a social media presence, and his coverage of events was pedantic and uninspired! Ciara couldn’t believe she was in second place to Oscar!

She clenched her eyes shut and groaned.

“Whatever is upsetting you right now, you’ve got to put it out of your mind,” Abigail said, rushing over to Ciara’s desk. 

Taking a deep breath, Ciara held it inside her lungs, focusing on the pressure of her fingertips on the surface of the desk. She counted to five slowly, then exhaled and opened her eyes.

“What’s going on?” Ciara looked up at Abigail, then paused. Her friend looked pensive and anxious. 

She knew that look. 

She’d seen it numerous times before. 

The look of a breaking story. Abigail was eager to get the scoop before any of the other stations.

A rush of adrenaline spiked in Ciara’s body as she sat up straight, waiting to hear the details. This could be her big chance to knock Oscar off the pedestal for the anchor role. 

“There’s a five-alarm blaze happening at the brewery in Old Town Tomball. Firefighters from Spring and The Woodlands have been dispatched to try to bring it under control. I need you to grab a cameraman and a driver and get out there right now!” Abigail said. 

“In … Old … Town … Tomball?” Ciara asked, feeling like a balloon that was deflating at break-neck speed. She rubbed a hand over her stomach as a sharp pang shot through her mid-section. 

“Did I stutter? Yes, Ciara! In your home town. This is going to be good. If you can weave in some of your memories of growing up there as you cover the fire, that will give it an even more human element. Don’t go too far, though, and get emotional … unless, of course, you do get emotional … which I hope you won’t, but look, don’t fake anything. Keep it natural and authentic, like all of your reports,” Abigail paused from her mile a minute instructions. “What are you doing? Why are you still sitting there?” 

Frozen, Ciara tried to force herself to move, but her muscles weren’t responding. “Is Oscar not back from Sharpstown?” 

“Oscar? You can’t possibly let Oscar take this story from you. I need to get you on the road before he gets back, and Richard sends him out there. What is wrong with you?” Abigail asked, jerking Ciara’s chair around to face her. 

“I can’t go to Old Town Tomball,” Ciara said, the words tumbling from her mouth before she could stop them. 

“And why not?” Abigail asked, a frown creasing her face.

“Well … I’m exhausted, and I have a bit of a headache. So … maybe, Oscar should take this one,” Ciara said, clutching her hands beneath the desk to stop Abigail from seeing them tremble. 

Going back to Old Town Tomball was the last thing she wanted to do. 

She had vowed to never set foot back in that town. 

Just the thought of driving up 249 North was making her head pound. She wasn’t lying when she told Abigail she had a headache. Ciara was fighting the memories of her last moments in her hometown, trying to hold them back from flooding her mind. The worst days of her life and going back to Old Town Tomball would bring those memories back with a vengeance. 

“Have you lost your mind?” Abigail asked. 

A strong, assertive voice responded, “I hope she hasn’t because I need her in the van in five minutes going out to Old Town Tomball with Ivan to cover this blaze. I need my best reporter on this one.” 

Ciara turned and stared into the hazel eyes of Jacqueline “Jackie” Martinez, the News Director of the station. The woman who held her future in her hands. 

Had she just referred to Ciara as her “best reporter?” 

Absolutely right, she was the best reporter. 

What had she been thinking? About to turn down this opportunity to cover a major fire just because she was afraid to face her past? It wasn’t like she was moving back to Old Town Tomball. She would be there for a few hours to get footage and do some interviews, then she would be back in Houston before morning. 

She could do that. 

Couldn’t she?

“So, you’re going …?” Abigail asked, her eyes shrewd.

“Well, of course, I am,” Ciara said, slipping her feet back into her stilettos. 

“As soon as you get the first report, we’ll do breaking news and interrupt the current show. Then I’ll assess whether we need to continue to provide updates or save your full report for replay on the news in the morning. Depends on how long it takes for them to get the blaze under control. I hear it’s a tough one,” Jackie said.

“Got it. I’ll make sure to snag some good interviews from people in the community, employees at the brewery, and the firefighters fighting the blaze. I’ll mix it up, so you have options on what to show tonight and tomorrow,” Ciara said, opening the bottom desk drawer and pulling her purse from the cavity. 

“I’d expect nothing less,” Jackie said. She patted Ciara on the shoulder, then weaved her way through the desks back to her office in the corner of the newsroom. 

“Looks like I better get going,” Ciara said, squeezing past Abigail.

Abigail gripped her arm, stopping Ciara. “You sound like yourself again, but don’t think we’re not going to discuss you’re little meltdown earlier.”

“It wasn’t a meltdown. I guess I didn’t really understand what a big news story this could be. A fire in a small town outside of Houston. Can you blame me for thinking it wasn’t worth my time?” Ciara asked.

Abigail raised an eyebrow and released her arm. “Get out of here.” 

Ciara picked up the pace and met Ivan at the elevator. 

Heart pounding in her chest, she hoped that she could keep her composure once she was on the streets of Old Town Tomball, for the first time in fifteen years. She couldn’t let her past derail her future. Focusing on providing top-notch coverage of the blaze at the brewery had to be her only focus. 

Thinking about anything else would be a disaster … and not just for her career.

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!