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Chapter 8

“This was a mistake,” Ciara said, as she switched lanes, maneuvering through the gridlock traffic on Beltway 8 to take the overpass to Highway 249. 

It was almost 2 p.m. 

Because of an overturned eighteen wheeler dumping boxes of detergent across the tollway, she was late for the ambush she’d planned to get Luke Diamond to talk to her. “Lunchtime is over. There’s no way I’m going to be able to track Luke down now. I might as well just turn around and go home.”

“Are you serious? This does not sound like the Ciara Thompson, tenacious, determined, confident news reporter that I know. When have you ever been the type to give up on anything?” Abigail’s voice filled the compartment of her Jeep Wrangler.

Ciara would give up if that meant she didn’t have to go back to Old Town Tomball and risk tripping on memories that she’d rather not deal with. Memories that were better left in the past. Why couldn’t Luke Diamond just answer his phone? She’d called the cell phone number a dozen times over the past twenty-four hours trying to pitch the story idea to him. Getting him on board for the Channel 4 Christmas News Special was her ticket to being promoted to news anchor, but she couldn’t even find the guy. Who in this day and age doesn’t have voice mail? Who wouldn’t be curious why the same unrecognized number kept calling his phone? You’d think he’d answer just to tell her to stop calling, and that would be just the sliver of an opening that she would need to convince him to be interviewed. 

“I’m not giving up,” Ciara said, although her voice didn’t even sound convincing to her own ears. “Zaire insists she gave me the right number. I’ll try calling again. He’s got to pick up one of these times.”

“Or not. You’ve already called from the station, your cell phone, and my cell phone. This guy does not answer calls from unknown numbers, that’s obvious. He may have even blocked your number by now, which means you need a Plan B. Can’t you just drive through town and ask around? Old Town Tomball is tinier than the Galleria mall. It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out where he was headed after lunch,” Abigail said. 

“No, I can’t do that,” Ciara said, shaking her head as she flipped her indicator to change lanes on 249. She could feel sweat pooling on her palms as she gripped the steering wheel. The traffic was lighter on the freeway, the flow of traffic speeding her closer and closer to her childhood home. 

“Can’t? Really? Why not?” Abigail asked, a hint of annoyance in her tone. “You know what? Fine, don’t find Luke. Don’t get the news anchor job and watch your dreams being lived out by Emma or Oscar. I have to go.” 

She hated when Abigail was right. 

Was she really going to let the ghosts of her past stop her from pursuing the one thing she’d been dreaming of ever since she graduated from college? Girls like her from small country towns rarely got the chance to be news anchors on high profile stations in the largest cities in Texas. The opportunity was well within her grasp, and all she needed to do was hold the memories at bay long enough to convince Luke to do the interview. 

How hard could it be?

Twenty minutes later, Ciara pulled into the parking lot across from a row of restaurants in the town center. A few of them were new and must have opened in the fifteen years since she left town, but others were the same as they’d been when she was a little girl. Stepping out of the Jeep, the smoky smell of barbecue wafted in the air, causing her stomach to growl. The wind picked up, sending her hair swirling across her face as she waited for a car to pass. Crossing the street, she headed up the sidewalk to the Tejas Chocolate Shop, ranked as one of the top barbecue restaurants in the state.

A little boy came barreling around the corner. Ciara stopped and watched as his sister struggled to keep up with him. 

“Let’s get a cool cup from Ms. Maggie,” the boy said.

“No! Mama said we needed to go straight home right after school. She’s going to be upset if we don’t. I don’t want to get in trouble,” the girl screamed back at him.

“You’re no fun. It’ll only take a few minutes! Come on,” the boy insisted, rushing toward the door of the dark green shotgun house that housed Ms. Maggie’s Desserts and Things. 

“Fine …” the girl relented, picking up the pace to catch up with her brother. 

Ciara closed her eyes as the wind whipped even harder, fighting back the tears that were threatening to fall down her face. She’d been that little girl over twenty years ago, running up to Ms. Maggie to get a styrofoam cup filled with frozen Kool-Aid that the old woman gave to the kids for free. 

“You okay?” a deep voice called from behind her, sending a tingling sensation rushing over her skin. 

Ciara turned around and stared into the most amazing green eyes she’d ever seen. The care and concern behind the gaze shocked her, and she stood speechless, staring at the man she’d come to see.

Luke Diamond stood before her dressed in khaki shorts and a red polo shirt, revealing the rock hard muscles that were on full display in the Firefighters’ Alliance calendar. He was much taller than she remembered, but when she’d interviewed him after the fire, she’d been wearing her stilettos. Now with just a pair of ballerina flats, he towered over her. 

Ciara swallowed past the hot mass in her throat and tried to calm her heart, which was beating a mile a minute. She did not need the distraction of being attracted to Luke Diamond. She was here in a professional capacity, and it behooved her to remember that and act accordingly.

“You’re just the man I’ve been looking for,” Ciara said, smoothing wayward strands of her dark hair from her face. 

“Is that so?” Luke asked, his lips curving in a hint of a smile. His green eyes intensified as he fixed his gaze on her, but not in a lascivious way. More contemplative and curious. Curiosity is what she read in those dreamy eyes. 

“I’m … umm … not sure … do you … what I mean is, you might not remember me—”

“Who wouldn’t remember Ciara Thompson of Channel 4, News for You, Houston,” Luke said, a playful hint in his voice. “Your face is all over billboards and commercials and the nightly news.” 

Ciara nodded, grateful that her dark skin hid the rush of blood to her face, the heat blazing across her skin. Luke was right, even in Old Town Tomball, she would be recognizable for being a reporter. 

“So, why were you looking for me?” Luke asked. 

“Can we go somewhere and talk for a minute?” Ciara asked. Her brain was not functioning. Everything she’d planned to say to convince Luke to do the Christmas special had evaporated from her mind at the sight of him. If she could stall for a few minutes, maybe she could get her composure and salvage this chance meeting.

“Let’s walk over to the gazebo by the Train Depot,” Luke said, pointing across Main Street to the [description of historical significance of the Train Depot]. “I need to replace a few of the light bulbs in the lanterns over there.” 

“Works for me,” Ciara said, biting her lower lip as she fell into step next to Luke. He was carrying a backpack, overflowing with tools and supplies. “Shouldn’t the city hire somebody to do that?” 

“They do, I just help out when Mr. Lallo gets behind. He’s been falling behind in the maintenance schedule, but really needs to keep the job. So I pitch in and help out when I can so he doesn’t get into trouble,” Luke explained. They jogged across Main Street toward the curving sidewalk that led past the Train Depot to the gazebo and picnic area. 

“That’s mighty nice of you,” Ciara said, staring up at him. 

“I’m a nice guy,” Luke said, giving her a wink that almost took her breath away.

Almost. 

She had to stay focused. 

This was her one chance to seal the deal. There was no way she could make another trip out to Old Town Tomball. Coming this time had proven to be harder than she’d realized it would be. Only Luke interrupting the deluge of memories that were about to wash over her had stopped the pain. She was grateful for the distraction.

“Let’s sit over here,” Luke said, taking the steps of the round gazebo two at a time. He rested his backpack on the wooden deck and sat on the white decorative wood of the benches that lined the inside of the [structure]. Ciara took a step then stopped. A wave of memories flooding over her. The gazebo was a popular spot for weddings in the summer. She remembered racing through the streets on her bicycle on the weekends and sitting under the huge elm trees as couples got married at the gazebo. Back then, that had been her dream … to fall in love and get married right here in this spot. 

Pushing the thoughts away, Ciara jogged up the remaining steps and sat next to Luke. 

“Were you okay back there? You looked kinda sad,” Luke said, his head tilting toward her. 

Ciara stiffened, absently stroking the knot building in the back of her neck. “I grew up here. Coming back isn’t easy. It’s bittersweet, good memories mingled with not so good ones. I wasn’t sure how it would feel to roam around the area and those kids, they just reminded me of myself and my …”

Shaking her head, Ciara sucked in a breath and forced herself to keep the tears at bay. She was here to convince Luke to do an interview, not to bare her soul and cry all over his shoulder.

“It’s like you’re grateful that time flies and gives you some distance. But then you get a whiff of a smell, or a touch or a feeling, and the memories are right back just as fresh as if they’d happened yesterday,” Luke said, shifting slightly to face her. 

“Exactly like that. Even good memories can make you long for something that just isn’t possible anymore. So, yeah, I was a little sad, but I’m okay,” Ciara said, tucking a leg under the other and facing Luke. 

“I had the same feeling when I came back. I spent my summers here as a kid when I was in elementary school. I loved this place, and then for some reason, I stopped coming. About a year ago, I came back for the first time in over twenty years. A lot had changed, but more had stayed the same. The good parts that I remember were still here,” Luke said, waving a hand toward the expansive town center. A sprawling park and sitting area surrounded by boutiques, restaurants, and the Train Depot.

Ciara stared at him for a moment. The sparkle in his eyes as he talked. His feelings for Old Town Tomball were the exact opposite of hers. All those parts that hadn’t changed were the ones that Ciara wanted to avoid like the plague. Yet, something about the exuberant joy on Luke’s face as he reflected on this small little town made Ciara wonder if maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t be so bad to come back here more often. 

“Is that why you decided to move here from Dallas?” Ciara asked. 

Luke raised an eyebrow, leaning closer to her. “Somebody’s done their homework on me. So, tell me. Why were you looking for me?” He tapped a finger against her arm, sending a jolt of energy shooting through her body. The connection building between them was tangible, like an uncontrollable force filling the shrinking space. Ciara instinctively moved closer to Luke but resisted the urge to touch him. Flipping a column of her straight hair over her shoulder, she launched into her pitch. 

“Channel 4 News is doing a special on Christmas highlighting unsung heroes in our community. I really haven’t done much research on you. I do know that you’ve been instrumental in the community centers that were built in Navasota and Magnolia and that you’re hoping to lead the effort to get a similar center built right here in Old Town Tomball. You are the epitome of an unsung hero, and I’d love to do an interview and a segment highlighting your impact on the community for the special,” Ciara said. 

Luke leaned back against the bench. “Wow, I wasn’t expecting that at all.” 

“Well, I’ve been trying to call you over the past day, but you wouldn’t answer my calls. Mr. December saving the employees from the fire. You are the type of person that will inspire others over the holidays. And, I can weave in some of your current work to help get donations rolling for the community center here in Tomball,” Ciara added. The more she talked, the more she was genuinely excited about the opportunity to tell Luke’s story to her viewers. Now she understood why Jackie had been so enthusiastic about Luke being apart of the Christmas special. He was the perfect example of a person doing small things that had a significant impact. 

“It is an interesting concept, and I’m sure your viewers will love it,” Luke said, smiling at her. 

Just say yes, Luke Diamond. 

“So, will you allow me to spotlight you for the Christmas special?” Ciara asked. She had all of the legal documents and the storyboard for the segment in her purse, ready to hand over. If Luke didn’t like the approach she’d mocked up, they could work together to modify it to his liking. She was willing to do whatever it took to seal this deal. 

Luke shook his head. “No.”

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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