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Dallas couldn't believe she was having another flare-up. Not now, not tonight, when she had this huge story to report. For Dallas Dubois, trying to get over Cal Hollings-worth was like trying to get over a chronic allergy. You could pretty much count on flare-ups for the rest of your life. Like if you're allergic to bee stings. One little prick and you'll find yourself in the emergency room.
Ironically, that's exactly where she was when she began having the latest of these chronic flare-ups: in the waiting room of the hospital E.R.
Not that anything was wrong with her. She was there to cover a story: Lewis Heart, the Alabama Crimson Tide star football announcer, was rushing to the hospital to see his brand-new baby girl make her way into the world. He had just finished announcing the big win over rival Auburn in the Iron Bowl Classic, and he was sliding into the E.R. just under the wire. Dallas was right there on the scene to cover the birth of the new baby, which was big news in the college town of Tuscaloosa. Lewis was considered Tuscaloosa royalty since he was the "Voice" of the Crimson Tide, the national champion football team, and that was reason enough to cover this big arrival.
"The biggest rivalry in all of college football is going down today, and this is the day that redheaded Vivi chooses to have her baby," Dallas muttered as she ran into the emergency room just barely ahead of Lewis.
"Well, I think this is par for her. Remember, they got married on the day of the season kickoff," Daniel, her cameraman, said as he raced in after her, nearly tripping over the camera cords.
"I know it! Who the hell gets married during football season?"
Lewis dashed into the emergency room, huffing and puffing right past Dallas. His best friend, Cal, was running in right after him, just like the days when they both played for the college football team themselves. In they ran, Cal swooshing right by Dallas without even noticing her. That's when she felt the acute symptoms of this chronic condition coming on again.
Great, she thought. How can I do my job with him here?
This report had to be good, but Cal always had a way of making Dallas lose her train of thought. Already her heart was racing and her mouth was dry.
How does he do this to me? This is ridiculous. She smoothed her hair and slid her lipstick over her lips one last time, trying to get ready for her live shot.
Dallas had fought this allergy ever since high school when she'd first developed an infatuation with Cal, the super-smart quarterback of the Tuscaloosa High School Warriors. Dallas had such a crush on him back then, and that old crush was the source of all these symptoms now because, the truth was, her feelings never really went away.
Dallas forced herself to focus. She smiled into the camera as Daniel counted her down to showtime.
"Good evening, Tuscaloosa! I'm Dallas Dubois, reporting live from Druid City Hospital for WTAL News where we're all eagerly awaiting the birth of the newest addition to our football lovin' town! Our very own Voice of the Crimson Tide and his lovely wife, Vivi, are expecting their first child at any moment, and we'll be right here to bring the news to you firsthand
" Dallas continued her speech into the camera, but she was having trouble concentrating. She stared at the handsome Cal, the "symptoms" taking over her completely.
Thankfully, it was only minutes before Lewis rushed out to the eager crowd that had gathered in the waiting room. "It's a girl! Baby Tallulah is finally here! Oh, my God, she is gorgeous!" Lewis was totally over-the-top excited. "I barely made it," he admitted. "Now I got me two little redheads!"
Everyone clapped and hugged each other, celebrating and high-fiving while Daniel captured the whole event on camera. Before Dallas even knew what happened, she found herself pushed into Cal's arms.
"Hey, Cal." She swallowed hard and forced a smile.
They were face-to-face, inches apart.
He looked at her awkwardly. She pulled away with an uncomfortable grin. Seeing Cal was dangerous. It threatened the thick emotional walls she'd built up over the years to protect her most intimate secrets.
The worst part was, in her opinion, Cal could be such a jerk. He'd never really liked her, always telling his friends she was self-absorbed, the Original Ice Queen.
How could he make her heart always feel as if it was fixin' to jump right outta her chest if they really didn't even like each other? That little question had always bothered her. But she figured it was pointless trying to make sense of how these things worked. The heart wants what the heart wants and all that. What she did know is that they were never going to be together.
Whatever this was, this chronic allergy she had to Cal, she also knew she could never find herself in this position againwithin inches of Cal's gorgeous face. Being anywhere within five hundred yards of him and she could feel that emotional firewall grow weak and start to crumble. That wall had taken her years to build.
Dallas was a model-like beauty, tall, with long legs and long, bouncy, blond hair. She loved her makeup, too, like any good pageant girl from the Deep South. The saying in the pageant world was More is better, and Dallas followed that to perfection. She justified it because she was on TV. But she would have worn that much makeup if she had been an employee at Taco Casa, her very favorite place to feed her biggest habit, sweet iced tea.
Whenever Dallas was around, you knew it. She was just as generous with her perfume as she was with her makeup. Flowerbomb was her trademark scent, and, since she always wanted to leave her mark, a heavy cloud of it followed her wherever she went.
Dallas glanced around the waiting room. It was literally bursting at the seams, not even room for a sneeze. Her archrival in all things from beauty pageants to men, Blake O'Hara Heart, was there, of course. She was Vivi's best friend and the two were almost always together. Blake's mother and grandmother were also there, along with Lewis's older brother, newly elected Alabama Senator Harry Heart, who Blake was now divorcing. He was talking to everyone in the waiting room as if he was still on the campaign stump.
And Cal, unfortunately, was part of that little clique, making Dallas even more uncomfortable. She spotted him chatting with Blake and Sonny Bartholomew, the chief homicide investigator and Blake's lover. Cal and Sonny had just solved a huge murder investigation together a few months ago, and they had become fast friends.
Dallas caught herself staring at Cal, and she noticed immediately that he still wasn't wearing a wedding ring. He was tallabout six foot threewhich had really helped him as a quarterback. He had dark golden sandy-brown hair that he wore a little long, swept over his forehead. His eyes were a light grayish green, and that body was still in perfect quarterback shape. People had always told him he was heartthrob handsome. He ran the computer sciences department out at the university now, which gave him a sexy-academic quality that made Dallas weak in the knees.
Dallas stiffened herself and put the microphone to her mouth as the camera began to roll again.
Just then, a child from another family in the waiting room zipped by her, slamming into her thigh and splashing her winter-white skirt with red punch.
"Oh, my Lord," Dallas screeched. "Can't y'all keep these kids under control? Look at me!"
Dallas was comin' unglued, but she refused to ruin her broadcast. Her job was everything to her.
"And you're on in five, four, three
" Daniel gave the countdown, and then she was on the air, red stain and all.
He pushed in tight, trying not to show the giant red blemish on her skirt. The kids were going wild, running around and around her in the excitement of getting on camera, their mother chasing them down on live TV.
Dallas kept it together. She was a pro.
She was always perfect when it came to her reporting, since there was nothing in the world she valued more than her flourishing career. She was used to shoving down her emotions and just doing her job. She had been doing that for years, working so hard to become the star reporter she was. Now she was pushing for that coveted anchor chair that would soon be vacant, so there was no room to be anything less than stunning.
"Baby Tallulah Heart has finally arrived," she began, her smile gleaming for the camera, "topping off this incredible night for our Voice of the Crimson Tide. Alabama slammed Auburn in this year's Iron Bowl earlier today, and our own Lewis Heart adds another redhead to his family, so we can count that as two victories this evening. I'm Dallas Dubois, for WTAL News. Good night and Roll, Tide!"
Daniel gave the signal the mic was off. "Okay, we're clear."
"Oh, my God, I cannot stand kids!" Dallas blurted out as soon as she was off the hook. Then she caught a glimpse of herself in the monitor, and the producer began shouting frantically in her ear, "We're live! We're still live!"
Dallas froze. Her career and that anchor chair were hanging in the balance.
"I just cannot, uh, stand kids, uh
to be alone during the holidays," she said trying to save herself.
Daniel had the camera on a tripod and began writing notes on his hand at lightning speed for Dallas to read. She squinted as she spoke.
"So don't forget to join us in a few short weeks for the Tuscaloosa production of
Sleigh Bells, to benefit the
uhm.Children's Home. I'm Dallas Dubois, WTAL News."
"And now we're clear." Daniel knew he was in a heap of trouble.
Dallas was fuming.
"Next time, you idiot, make sure I'm actually clear when you tell me clear. My God, you're gonna cost me my job."
She was perched somewhere between infuriated and mortified. With Cal causing a flare-up, kids ruining her skirt, not to mention telling all of Tuscaloosa County that she hated children, Dallas decided it was best to ignore her racing heart and her raging temper, and get the heck outta there as fast as possible.
She ran straight out into the cold November night as fast as her five-inch stilettos would carry her, jumped in the TV truck and switched on the heater. Daniel followed close behind, slamming the double doors in the back and jumping into the satellite truck. They sped away from the happy hospital waiting room, now in full party mode. Dallas had never really been part of that group anyway, although her father had been married to Blake's mother for about ten years at one time, back when the girls were teenagers. Blake could technically have been considered her stepsister. Instead, they'd remained archrivals throughout their lives.
With Vivi and Blake best friends, and Lewis and Cal best friends, the circle was pretty tight, and they purposely left no room for Dallas. Not that she would have wanted to be part of that group in the first place. They all considered her a snob, and Dallas told herself she was just fine with all that. And she thought she was, till she had that flare-up tonight.
"See Cal's back in town," Daniel said, breaking the silence.
"Yeah, I saw. He's been back since the spring, I think," Dallas answered, making small talk.
"Didn't y'all have a fling or somethin'?" Daniel asked her.
"I most certainly did not have a fling with him. I absolutely can't stand that man," she shot back. "And if you don't hush your mouth, I swear I'm fixin' to beat your ass," she said with only a hint of sarcasm.
"I know what I saw. You looked a little nervous when he hugged you there."
"No, I was just surprised. You know, caught in the moment, all the excitement." Dallas fidgeted in her seat. "I'm cold, can you please just let it go and turn up the heat?"
Daniel had been Dallas's cameraman the whole time she had worked at WTAL: six years and counting now. He was a smallish man with a dark receding hairline, though he was only about thirty. He had a warm smile and inviting, sweet brown eyes. He wasn't married, and the girlfriends were here and thereno one at the moment. Dallas had never been interested in him romantically. She towered over him for one thing, and she wouldn't be caught dead wearing flats to accommodate a man. She hardly was ever really nice to him, though she claimed it was because he was out to push her buttons, which he was doing right this second.
But then, she was hardly nice to anyone.
"From what I saw, you were already hot back there in Cal's arms," Daniel teased her. He grinned and reached for the heater controls as Dallas yanked her coat up around her neck. Unfortunately, Cal's cologne was lingering on her jacket, making the flare-up continue, even though they had left the hospital.
Something about Cal made Dallas want to hit him. He was so cocky, for one thing, but mostly it was because he ignored her when what she really wanted was to fall into his arms. That wasn't going to happen, so she clung to the idea of hitting him. That way she was safe from her own feelings. Add another layer to that emotional firewall.
Whatever emotions and secrets brewed behind her crystal-blue eyes, she was determined no one would find out. With long legs up to here and her busty cleavage usually visible down to there, Dallas looked like a centerfold. It was part of her armor, and she had absolutely no intention of letting those barriers crumble. Ever. And especially not now with her dream job at stake.
With her future on the line, she certainly could not afford to lose any control. And Cal made her lose control. As they arrived back at the TV station, she promised herself she'd stay away from him at all costs. No matter what. She'd managed it since they'd finished college, and she could manage it now.
But with Cal back in town, that might just be a bit harder than she hoped.