Read an Excerpt
Dear God, please not now.
Despite her prayer, the engine's normal chuga-chug dissolved into a series of terrible, raspy noises. Puffs of black smoke began streaming from under the hood.
Looked like she might not make it after all, and less than a mile short of the town. Shrugging off the inevitable, Summer Wheeler chalked it up to just another obstacle in a life that had turned from pure gold to a handful of dirt.
She fought the wheel and tried to baby her car to the side of the road. Desperate to make the ancient Ford Escort roll just a little bit farther before the engine quit for good, she barely looked up as a pickup truck passed, heading in the opposite direction.
Out of the corner of her eye, she noted that both the cowboy driving and the one riding shotgun turned to stare at her, a stranger in a funny old Ford, as they slowed down to pass her by. The truck didn't stop, but they got a good look as they kept going.
For a second, what she was seeing didn't register. Then it did.
The man riding in the passenger seat was him! That last tip she'd gotten about finding him in this little town must've been correct after all. It was the man she'd been seeking. She would never in a million years forget that face. It had starred in her nightmares for too long.
Had he recognized her? She threw the car into park and jumped out just as her engine died. Turning to the receding truck, she squinted at its license but couldn't get a good look.
White pickup. Some kind of writing on the side. She hadn't even managed to catch the make of the truck.
He must live here. Or nearby. After all the dead ends and frustration, not to mention spending every last dime of her insurance money, for the first time in five years she had him in her sights.
That settled it. Chance, Texas, would be her temporary new home. At least until she found out where he lived and worked, so she could inform the local authorities.
Evil must meet justice. Her entire life revolved around finishing things where that man was concerned. And she wasn't sure she could stand to go on looking for him much longer.
Turning, she threw a disgusted glance over at her dead car and sighed. The Ford wasn't going any farther. Nothing to do now but walk into town.
She adjusted her small backpack over her shoulder and carefully locked her car to start out hiking. Long shadows loomed across the road, reminding her that a cool nighttime would soon overtake the stifling heat of the south Texas day. Late fall in this part of the country seemed ripe with changing weather.
She hoped the Welcome to Chance sign she'd just passed was right and the town was close by. She needed to make it there before dusk turned the skies pitch-black and she became stranded in the dark at the side of the road. But she'd driven for what had seemed like forever without seeing the first sign of civilization. That pickup was one of only two vehicles she'd seen in the last half hour.
If the town was really that close, where was everyone? She hoped Chance wasn't such a small town that it wouldn't have a gas station where she could take the car for repair.
Not that she could afford to fix her wreck of a car, even if there was a mechanic in the town. The Ford needed a complete overhaul. Badly. But considering she had only twenty-five bucks and change left to her name, doing anything aboutor tothe car would have to wait.
Earning money would have to come first. Summer refused to consider the possibility that she wouldn't be able to find some kind of work in Chance, even if the town was tiny and remote. She didn't have a lot of job experience, but she wasn't afraid to get her hands dirty. Over the past few months she had taken jobs as a waitress and a dishwasher and a motel maid. Something would turn up here, too.
She was just lucky her money hadn't run out before now. This time This town Must be the end of her journey. The goal she had dreamed of, worked for, needed to be realized very soon.
But right now her first priority had to be the car and finding a place to stay for the night.
Looking up as shades of black and deep red streaked over the sky, she took a deep breath, and smelled rain. A storm must be on the way. Great. Exactly what she needed.
She picked up her pace. The trees along the side of the road bent their branches against the onslaught of winds, and dust devils suddenly raked at their leaves with angry abandon. Wrapping her arms around her body, she began to shiver.
At the very moment when a few buildings in the distance began to take shape, a cannon roar of thunder broke through the afternoon silence. She started to jog.
As she neared the edge of town, the first object she could make out was a big barnlike structure with a huge sign proclaiming it to be the Feed and Seed store. Across the road from that was what she'd hoped to find. A shabby single-story structure that looked as if it could've been a livery stable at one time, but was now outfitted with a couple of gasoline pumps, a diesel pump and a mechanic's bay, which currently held the biggest, blackest SUV Summer had ever seen.
No signs appeared anywhere on the building at all. Not above the bay or even on what appeared to be an office. Summer prayed that didn't mean the station was a private concern. On the other hand, she didn't have any money and certainly no choice, so what real difference did it make?
An old man sat on a rickety-looking metal chair beside the front door of the office, an unlit pipe stuck in the corner of his mouth. He called out to someone unseen when he spotted her heading in his direction.
A man, probably in his fifties, came out from behind the SUV. Wiping his hands on his coveralls and studying her carefully through his eyeglasses, he walked in her direction. "Where'd you pop in from, young lady? Storm's coming. You lost?"
She didn't want to answer that question with the truththat she had been searching for this place for the last five years.
So she said instead, "My car broke down." She twisted around and waved in the general direction of where she'd left the Ford. "Back about a half mile down the road. Good thing I was close."
"Outta gas? If you'll give me a few minutes to finish up here, I'll drive you out, with enough gas to bring your car back to the pump."
She shook her head. "I don't think it's only out of gas. The engine was making a terrible noise before it died. And I saw some nasty, black smoke coming from under the hood."
The mechanic frowned but turned to the old man. "Dad, take the tow and bring it in for her." He stopped to glance up at the menacing sky. "Maybe wait a bit and see how bad the storm turns first. What kind of car you got, lady?"
"It's a Ford. Escort. About fifteen years old."
The mechanic shook his head, then wiped off his hands on an oily towel and with a wide grin stuck out one giant paw. "Name's Jimmy Stockard. I own this place. Do all the work on cars around here."
Hesitating, she took his hand. "I'm Summer Wheeler. Nice to meet you. I hope my car is fixable. It seems pretty far gone." The handshake went as well as could be expected for a woman who loathed touching strangers, and the actual skin-to-skin moment was blessedly over in a hurry.
"I can fix anything." Jimmy stashed the rag in his waistband and studied her. "We don't work on many of the larger ranch vehicles, 'cause most the spreads 'round these parts have their own mechanic's shops on-site for that kind of work. But when it comes to trucks or cars, anything that runs on petroleum, I'm your man. We'll handle it for you. Come on inside before it starts pouring."
The first few drops hit her in the face as she and Jimmy made a dash for the office. The old man ambled in right behind them.
Summer turned her keys over to the old man. He refused to look at her directly but mumbled, "Ma'am."
She couldn't help but consider him with skepticism, as he limped to an old tow truck parked right under the garage's overhang.
"Don't worry," Jimmy said. "My dad's the best tow-truck driver in this part of the state. Your car will be on the lift and on its way to fixed as soon as the storm's over."
"Um " She had better stop him before things went too far. "How much is this going to cost? I'm ah kind of short on funds at the moment. As a matter of fact, I'm not sure I can even pay for the tow."
Jimmy grinned again. "You have family or friends in Chance? Maybe they can help."
"No. I'm afraid I don't know anyone in town." At least, not anyone who would admit to knowing her.
It was Jimmy's turn to look skeptical. "We don't get many people just passing through. Chance is kinda out of the way. Where you headed?"
She was about to answer when another fellow appeared out of the shadows in the far side of the bay. A good-looking man of around thirty, he was dressed in Western garb but didn't seem to be a regular, working cowboy. His boots weren't scuffed, and they looked as if they'd probably cost him a bundle. And the clothes he woredesigner jeans, she thoughtwere expensively styled and worn low on his hips. In fact, the arrogant way he stood, tall and with an erect bearing, could lead someone to believe he actually owned the place.
Since the new man didn't speak, Summer answered Jimmy. "I wasn't really headed anywhere. I've been traveling around the statesort of sightseeing. Wanting to learn the lay of the land. I'm considering moving to Texas permanently, and I guess I took a wrong ranch-to-market road and ended up turned around."
Jimmy was still smiling. "Easy enough to do, once you're off the interstate. Everything looks the same in this part of Texas."
He turned his head then and sent a deferential glance to the stranger. "I'll be with you in a second, Travis. Your SUV is all set. Just needs one last tweak, and you'll be ready to go."
"No rush, Jimmy."
Summer didn't want to seem rude by staring at the stranger, but he was rather flagrantly staring at her. If he could ogle, so could she. She took a moment to study his sharp, green eyes, which were at the moment scrutinizing her from head to toe. His broad shoulders. The proud chin.
He gave off the aura of a man with a strong presence. A man who ruled things with an iron will and few words.
When his eyes met hers and held, her pulse kicked up, pounding blood through her veins and almost leaving her breathless. Crazy. She hadn't noticed a man in that particular way for years. And not even her late husband had made her heart race with a single glance.
But this was not the time, and she didn't have the inclination, to pay attention to how her body reacted to any man. Only one man was on her current agenda. But first she had to find him.
Summer calmed her thudding heart. Was this another of the signs the doctors had warned might trigger a recurrence of her traumas?
Blinking, she told herself she was only having a normal reaction to an overpowering male. No one here was threatening her. And she was clearly not retreating to the fantasy world she'd occupied for months and months, even while the worst of her real world had spun around her.
Everything here was all too real.
Jimmy cleared his throat to catch her attention, and she dragged her gaze back to him. "Look," he began. "As soon as the storm lets up we'll tow you in and give the engine a look-see. We can talk about price and payments then. I know we'll come to some arrangement."
She nodded, not sure what to say to that.
"But it's late," he went on. "You're going to need someplace to stayat least for tonight."
"Is there a motel in town?"
The stranger stepped forward and gave Jimmy a nod. "Excuse me, Ms. Wheeler," he interrupted. "I couldn't help overhearing. I'm Travis Chance. I run the Bar-C Ranch and have lived in this town all my life. Afraid there aren't any motels."
He wasn't done talking, but she broke in. "Your last name is Chance? Like the town? Did they name it after you?"
"The first of my ancestors to settle around here named the ranch and the county, along with the town he built, after himself. Would've named the whole state Chance, too, but he was a little late for that. Yessir, Ezra Chance wasn't a particularly modest man, but then, most Texans of his time would've done the same thing."
She noted a twinkle in this Chance's sober eyes, though his mouth never cracked a smile. Interesting.
"I think you'll find Chance is a fairly friendly place,"
Travis went on. "We'll locate someone to take you in for the night. Are you hungry?"
"Um.. " She hadn't thought about food in so long she drew a blank. "I suppose so. Is there a restaurant in Chance?"
Without answering, Travis turned his head to speak to Jimmy. "Lend us your pickup, and we'll go over to Macy's for a bite to eat and have ourselves a little chat. Meanwhile, you finish up with the SUV and tow her car in. After supper I'll call Reverend and Mrs. Pike. They'll surely make room for her.
"We'll be back.. " He continued speaking to Jimmy as he reached for her hand " in about an hour or two to collect the SUV and her things from the Ford. Okay?"
Travis didn't seem too concerned whether or not his arrangements were all right with her and Jimmy. He didn't wait for an answer and just dragged her away. She wasn't crazy about having her hand held by a near-stranger's, but he didn't give her a chance to complain.
"You'll like Macy's food," he told her as he strode toward an old blue pickup at the side of the bay. "It's the only eating place in town, but she does a terrific Texas barbecue plate. I think we can beat the worst of the storm there if we hurry."
As though to agree, her stomach rumbled at the word barbecue. Travis didn't appear to notice. He was intent on shoving her up into the passenger seat of the old pickup.