This month I’m sharing a portion of THE UNEXPECTED HOMECOMING, a collection of three novellas about the soldier without a mission and the cowboy about to lose the ranch.
It is the only story out of six that were written in Melissa Storm’s Sweet Grove that is still published.
I adore the meet cute for Jaz and Bailey, so I included part of it here. It comes from pages three through six in the print book.
The rising sun stretched her shadow to the curve in the packed dirt road. Jazlyn Rolle breathed in a hint of dust along with the tickle of farm fresh manure. Sage shrouded a barbed-wire fence on her left. Pungent juniper bit into her nose, smelling like a litter box that needed changing.
Sweat tickled above her brow, and she backhanded it away. She checked the fitness tracker on her left wrist. Nearly seven and she’d gone more than three miles. If she turned around, she would get home before her father left. She’d rather swallow a cockroach.
Long grass lining the road’s shoulder rustled. A jackrabbit leaped into the road. Jaz stumbled as it dodged her. Her heart jackhammered and her steps faltered.
An instant later, a brown and white dog burst from the scrub a yard behind her. Its pink tongue lolled to the side, but nothing slowed its pursuit.
Jaz shortened her stride. Typical Sweet Grove. The traffic included wildlife rather than automobiles.
The dog scrambled down the berm on the opposite side of the road. Before disappearing, it stumbled tail over nose with a yelp of agony that shivered up her sweat-coated spine.
Jaz slowed, already past the dog’s crashing point. She couldn’t even run in the middle of nowhere without something interfering. She paused her music and glanced toward the ditch. Nothing.
Her finger hovered over the play button when she heard a whimper. She sighed, scraping more sweat from her brow. Only a jerk could ignore an injured dog.
Jaz plodded to the edge of the road. The furry pile lay near the white rail fence. An obstacle course of gopher holes had tripped up the poor animal.
Jaz squatted a few feet from the dog. “Good boy,” she crooned without thinking.
Another whine pulled her intestines like taffy. She extended her fingers toward his nose, slow and steady, and he barely snuffled them before letting out another pitiful cry.
“Gopher hole get you?” She spoke quietly, scanning his body for signs of injury.
The dog rolled his eyes at her. The brown pools begged for help. Jaz edged closer, hands grazing gently over the long hair. When she smoothed across his hind leg, a yip startled her. The lolling tongue flapped toward the injured area and coated her hand with spittle.
Jaz huffed out air. So much for a quiet morning run.
She knelt in the grass, wincing when her knee found a sharp rock. She cooed and slid her arms under the dog. If anything was broken, moving him might make it worse, but the dog didn’t make a sound.
As she rocked back, rolling the pup against her chest, a warm tongue swathed her chin. Ugh. Dog kisses. But then again she was a walking salt block.
With a grunt, she stood and staggered to the top of the ditch, glancing in both directions. Further along the road she noticed an iron gateway. The steer head emblem in the center had nearly rusted loose, and the double-bar T brand beneath it shook like a leaf in a windstorm.
May as well ask at that house. Her brain sifted old memories for the owner of the brand while her feet carried her beneath the arch and down a rutted driveway.
A fence, paint flaking, lined one side while a collection of fruit and nut trees speckled the grass on the other. It didn’t look much like a working ranch to her. Who had she gone to school with that lived out here?
She was still trying to work it out when a horse snorted off to her left. Her steps slowed. After all, she was trespassing and that could be a shoot-first-ask-later offense in small town Texas.
Jaz stopped and squinted toward the rising sun. A saddled horse on the far side of the corral swiveled its head in her direction. The cowboy kneeling at the horse’s feet stood. Broad shoulders tapered into a trim waist and long legs kept her gaze dropping all the way to the heels of dusty cowboy boots.
She opened her mouth to call out at the same moment he twisted toward her, but the word petered on her lips.
“Hey.” The stranger jogged toward her, bent arms flexing firm biceps. Jaz stumbled away from the fence. With his face in shadow, she couldn’t decide if he was angry or concerned.
Her experience with men advised her to back away and keep her guard up.
“Poppet?” His rough voice matched his ruggedness.
The dog rolled its eyes toward the cowboy and whined.
A moment later, the tall stranger vaulted over the fence and landed a foot away from them. Jaz stumbled back another step, nearly turning her ankle in a rut.
He stepped closer, and Jaz could finally make out his features. Heavy eyebrows peeked from beneath the hat’s brim. His face had high cheekbones and a shapely jaw covered in yesterday’s whiskers. Her heart leapt to attention.
Jaz cleared her parched throat. “She was chasing a rabbit and caught her foot in a gopher hole.”
“Silly girl.” His work-roughened hands smoothed over the dog’s head, and she licked his dusty fingers.
The scent of hay, fresh-cut grass, and salt accompanied him into her space bubble. Jaz stared into his face, trying to place him. He didn’t look much older than she was, so they probably went to school together. In Sweet Grove, everyone knew everyone.
To keep reading, grab your copy of the book here.