When TERI ANNE STANLEY isn’t writing sassy, sexy, love stories from her home, she’s probably doing some sort of arsty-crafsty thing and hanging with Mr. Stanley, her three favorite children, and the dogs. Sometimes she’s masquerading as a day job science geek. She’s definitely not cooking or cleaning.Teri Ann lives near Sugartit, Kentucky (which is between Beaver Lick and Rabbit Hash. Seriously).
Read an excerpt from Big Chance Cowboy
Present day, just past the middle of nowhere, Texas
Houston was three hours and a couple of broken dreams behind her when Lizzie Vanhook crossed the Chance County line, right about the same time the Check Tire Pressure light in her dashboard blinked on.
Crap. She’d been in the homestretch. There was something symbolic about an uninterrupted beeline home, to the place she planned to find her center of gravity. Maybe start doing yoga. Eat all organic. Drink herbal tea and learn to play the pan flute.
“Get over yourself,” she said to the boxes and suitcases in the back end of the SUV. She’d do that getting over herself thing just as soon as she checked this tire at the truck stop.
Flipping the turn signal, she pulled into Big America Fuel and stopped near the sign for Free Air. She stepped out onto the cracked gray asphalt and bent to search for the pressure gauge her dad always insisted she keep in the pocket of the door but came up empty.
It’s here somewhere. Lizzie would admit to giving a major eye roll for each Dad-and-the-art-of-vehicle-maintenance lesson her father had put her through, but she was secretly grateful. She was surprised Dad hadn’t sent her text updates about the traffic report in Houston before she left this morning. There wasn’t much going on in Big Chance, so he watched Lizzie’s news on the internet and always called to warn her of congestion on the way to work. Her throat tightened when she acknowledged the reason he hadn’t sent her a text today was because he was at the clinic in Fredericksburg getting his treatment. He and Mom might claim this prostate cancer was “just a little inconvenience,” but Lizzie was glad she’d be home to confirm he was as fabulous as he claimed to be.
She abandoned the driver’s side and went to the passenger door, hesitating when she noticed the dog leaning against the nearby air pump. The big dog. It was missing some significant patches of hair, and the rest was black and matted. Its big, shiny teeth were bared in what she hoped was a friendly smile. Its football-player-forearm-sized tail thumped the ground, raising a cloud of sunbaked, Central Texas dust. Lizzie sneezed. The dog stopped wagging and raised an ear in her direction.
“Good boy,” she told it, hoping that was the right thing to say. It was one thing to misunderstand the intentions of a tiny fuzzball of a dog and need a few stitches. Ignoring a warning from something this size could be lethal. It had to weigh at least a hundred pounds.
She kept the beast in her peripheral vision while she bent to search for the tire gauge. Ah ha!
“Y’all need some help?”
“No!” Lizzie straightened and turned, the pressure gauge clenched in her raised fist.
“Whoa there!” A sun- bronzed elderly man, about half Lizzie’s size, held his hands in front of him in a gesture of peace.
“I’m sorry,” she said, relaxing slightly. “The dog—” She gestured, but the thing was gone.
“Didn’t mean to scare you, darlin’,” the old man said, tilting his Big America ball cap back. “We’re a little slow today, so I thought I’d check on you.” He indicated the vacant parking lot.
“It’s fine,” she said. She should remember she was back on her own turf, where it was way more likely that a stranger at a gas station really did want to help you out rather than distract you and rob you blind. “It’s been a long drive, and I’m a little overcaffeinated.”
“No problem. You local?”
“Yes,” Lizzie said. Even though she’d been gone for years, it was about to be true again.
The attendant squinted at the tool she carried. “You got a leaky tire?”
“I don’t know.” She stooped to unscrew the cap of the first valve. “The little light went on while I was driving.” Nope. That one wasn’t low. She put the cap back on and continued her way around the car while her new friend followed, chatting about Big Chance. He wondered about the likelihood the Chance County High School quarterback would get a scholarship offer. Lizzie had no idea; she hadn’t been keeping up. He speculated on the probability that the Feed and Seed might close, now that there was a new Home Depot over in Fredericksburg. She expected she’d hear about it from her mom and dad if the local place was closing and wondered if her friend Emma still worked there.
It had been ages since Lizzie had spoken to Emma, and a wave of guilt washed over her. After swearing to always be BFF’s, Lizzie left for Texas A&M and only looked back on Christmas and Easter. She’d gone to Austin for Emma and Todd’s last-minute before-he-deployed wedding but hadn’t been able to come home for Todd’s funeral.
Finally, the last valve was checked, and she screwed the cap back on. She reached through the open window and dropped the tire gauge on the passenger seat while she said “Everybody’s full. Must be a false alarm.” She wrinkled her nose as she caught a whiff of the interior of her car. Sheesh. The service station probably sold air fresheners; maybe she should invest in one. Compared to the breezy, wide open spaces of home, her car smelled like an inside- out dead deer. She wanted to get home, though, so she decided to deal with it later.
“Well, everything’s got enough air,” she told the attendant. “I don’t know why the light went on.”
“Those sensors are a waste of time, if you ask me. You don’t have nitrogen in there, like those fancy places put in, do you?” he asked, then launched into a diatribe about modern technology.
One of the things she’d not missed about Chance County was the tendency of the residents to ramble as long as possible when given the opportunity. “Well, thanks again,” she told the man. “I’ve got to run.”
It wasn’t until she was backing out onto the main road that she realized the awful smell inside her vehicle wasn’t just long-drive funk. There was something—something big and black and furry—sitting in the middle of her back seat, panting and grinning in her rearview mirror.
“Ack!” She hit the brakes, then jammed her SUV into forward and pulled into the parking lot again. She opened the door to jump out, barely remembering to put the SUV nto park before it dragged her under. She finally whipped open the back door and glared at the scruffy passenger. “Out. You. Out.”
She looked around frantically for the old man who’d been chatting her up, but he was nowhere to be seen.
The dog panted and tilted its head at her.
“Out. I mean it.”
It wasn’t wearing a collar, not that she’d reach in to grab him anyway, in case he mistook her hand for a Milk- Bone.
“Come on, puppy. Seriously. Get out.”
The dog sighed and lay down, taking up every inch of her back seat.
She was afraid to leave the thing alone in her car, so she pulled her phone from her pocket and stood next to the back end. She Googled the number for the Big America station and waited for the call to connect.
“Y’ello,” said the gravelly voice she’d been chatting with a moment ago.
“Sir, this is Lizzie Vanhook. From the air pump just now.”
“Sure, darlin’. What can I do you for?”
“I’m right outside.”
“I see ya.”
She looked up, and sure enough, he was waving to her through the glass.
“There’s a big dog in the back of my car.”
“Oh, yeah,” the man said. “He showed up here a week or so ago. Kind of invaded, so we’ve been calling him D- Day. Real sweet little guy.”
She eyed the sweet little guy. Uh- huh. “Could you come help me get him out of my car?”
Laughter. “I don’t think you can get that boy to do anything he don’t want to do.”
“But he’s in my car.”
A sigh. “Well, I’ve been threatening to call the animal control officer for a few days now, but I kept hoping his family would come looking for him.”
“Don’t you think the shelter would be the first place they’d go?”
With a snort, the man said, “There’s only room for a coupla dogs over there. Don’t even take cats. They’d prob-ably have to fast- track that one to the gas chamber, seein’ as how he’s so big and would eat a month’s worth of food at one meal. Besides, he’s ugly as sin, with all them bald spots.”
Right on cue, D- Day sat up and stuck his nose through the open window, giving Lizzie’s arm a nudge and turning liquid coal eyes up to gaze at her. Reluctantly, she stroked his surprisingly silky head. And then she gave his ears a scratch. So soft.
D- Day licked Lizzie’s hand. What the heck was she going to do with this guy? Mom and Dad weren’t too crazy about dogs. Lizzie loved dogs, but Dean, her loser ex, had been unwilling to get a dog of their own. As a matter of fact, one of their biggest fights was the weekend she’d volunteered to babysit a friend’s perfectly mannered labradoodle. Then, when Lizzie called her mom for support, she’d gotten an “I don’t blame him. Dogs are a pain in the neck.”
“I can’t take this dog with me.” Lizzie sounded defeated even to her own ears, which contradicted her plans for an optimistic return to Big Chance and a fresh start.
The attendant said, “I’ll give the shelter a call. Shame, though. I think he’s still a pup.”
Those big black eyes stared up at her. D- Day needed a fresh start, too.
Lizzie decided that Mom would tolerate a canine house guest if Lizzie promised he was moving on. “Never mind,” she said. “Thanks anyway.”
Who did she still know in town who might take a dog? The Collins family came to mind right off the bat. Adam Collins specifically. Oh no. She wasn’t going to start thinking about him, now that she was moving home. Not. At. All. And really, she wouldn’t be running into him. It had been years since he’d joined the army, and his main goal in life, other than becoming a military policeman so he could work with dogs, had been to get— and stay— as far from Big Chance as possible.
She got back in the car, rolled down all the windows, and turned the fan to full blast.
“Listen,” she told the dog, who leaned over the seat and licked her ear. “I’ll bring you with me. But we’re stopping to get you a bath at the car wash on the way through town right before we go to the vet. Then I’ll find you a new home as soon as possible.”
The dog barked.
“No. No dogs for Lizzie. I mean it.”