He’s always been the black sheep: the troublemaker.
But this Christmas, the prodigal cowboy returns.
Rodeo bullfighter Hank Brookman was headed straight for the top. But after a single misstep resulted in a devastating injury, he disappeared under a mountain of regrets. Now he’s back, ready to face the loved ones he left behind—starting with the one girl his heart could never forget.
When Hank stormed out of Texas, he left Grace McKenna picking up the pieces…and struggling with a secret that changed everything. He may be back looking for redemption, but after everything they’ve been through, how can she admit what he really walked away from all those years ago?
Hank always knew persuading Grace to trust him again would be a tall order. Convincing her they deserve a happily ever after? That may take a Texas-sized Christmas miracle.
Hank flipped his reins over Ranger’s head and stepped aboard, then kicked his foot out of the left stirrup and held a hand out to Grace. “Get on.”
Hank gave his hand an impatient shake. “Get on behind me.”
“I…don’t know how.”
“You’ve never ridden double?”
“Hey! Not all of us grew up on horseback.” Grace scowled at Ranger. Why did he have to be so tall? And climbing the horse would require her to practically climb Hank too, since she didn’t see anything else to grab on to. “You ride on the back. I’ll drive.”
“Fine.” Hank kept hold of the reins, but hitched himself back to sit behind the cantle.
Okay. Good. But Grace still had to contend with the unfamiliar bulk of the chaps and bones that wanted to collapse into a shuddering pile. And she couldn’t see any way to swing her leg over the saddle without waving her butt under Hank’s nose. Again.
Ranger, bless his heart, stood stock-still as she grabbed the saddle horn, got her foot hoisted up and into the stirrup, and took a deep breath. So much for fantasies. Not one of her juvenile daydreams about Hank and this ranch had included getting dumped off her horse because of a damn pig.
He could have gotten her killed.
The tiny part of Hank’s brain still capable of logic argued that there was no way he could have known about the feral hog—when had those bastards moved this far north, and why hadn’t Cole told him?—but it was drowned by the echoes of that unearthly shriek. When Hank had seen Grace trying to drag herself up that bank…God, his heart had just disintegrated.
Distracted, he didn’t lean out of the way when Grace heaved herself into Ranger’s saddle, and the leg she’d intended to swing over the horse landed a roundhouse kick square to his rib cage.
“Shit!” He clamped his heels to keep from being knocked clean off, digging them into Ranger’s flanks. Startled, the bay gave a single, high kick that threw Grace up onto his neck. Hank caught a fistful of her coat with one hand and the reins with the other before Ranger could bolt. The gelding danced in a circle as they teetered, a tangle of arms, legs, and curses.
“I…can’t…breathe,” Grace gasped.
No wonder. The saddle horn was digging into her belly, and Hank had her pinned in place. He started to slide off, but Grace squeaked when she was dragged with him.
Hank stopped. Damn. The toe of her boot was hooked in the pocket of his coat. He hitched his hips back to the center of Ranger’s rump and took stock. He had a fingernail grip on the reins, his cheek was mashed up against Grace’s butt, and even Ranger wasn’t going to tolerate this much longer.
She had a double-fisted, white-knuckled grip on Ranger’s mane, so Hank let go of her coat and reached down to grab her ankle, prying it out of his pocket and letting it drop so she had a leg on either side of the horse. Better. Now if he could just get himself straightened out…
“’Scuse me,” he said as he planted his palm on her left butt cheek and pushed himself upright. She stiffened but didn’t try to kick him. “Scoot back,” he said.
She wiggled. Grunted. Wiggled some more. Hank got hold of the back strap of her chaps and pulled. She didn’t budge.
Her words came in short puffs. “I’m…stuck. Front of my…chaps. Over…the horn.”
Oh. Shit. That was not good. Hung up like that, if Ranger did bolt, her head would end up between his front feet. Hank slid off the side, thankfully keeping his feet under him. Ranger shied a step, his eyes rolling toward the woman who was draped over his neck, clinging like a monkey. Her coat was rucked up to her armpits, and the brim of her hat had been shoved around so the earflap covered her eyes and tufts of curly hair stuck out every which way.
A wild bubble of laughter swelled in Hank’s throat. He swallowed hard. There was no time for hysterics. He eased the rein over the horse’s head and unclipped one end, then put a calming hand on Ranger’s shoulder while he tried to figure out how to get Grace loose.
Damn. No matter what angle he studied it from, there appeared to be only one option. “I have to lift you up and over the horn, then catch you before you hit the ground.”
“I’m going to have to grab you by the crotch.”
“Oh.” Her hips twitched, as if in protest, but she said, “Well, uh, male cheerleaders do that all the time, right? No big deal.”
Yeah. That sounded convincing. He shucked his gloves, wrapped the end of the rein around his hand, and stepped so close that her face was buried in the curve of his neck. “Hang on to my shoulders.”
She untangled her fingers from Ranger’s mane and latched on to Hank. Her breath was hot against his skin, and he both felt and heard her soft eek! as he slid his hand, palm up, between her thigh and the saddle.
“Ready?” he asked.
Her chin dug into his shoulder as she nodded. Before either of them had time to think about exactly what he was grabbing, he slid his hand to the center, hoisted her hips up, and then pulled forward.
She dropped like a rock, her weight slamming into his chest. He went down hard on his butt, then his back, Grace sprawled on top of him. Ranger shied, but Hank kept his grip on the rein. The horse stopped, snorting and wide-eyed as he stared down at them.
Hank let his head flop back and his arms splay, spread-eagled in the dirt, limp with relief. He’d done it. She was safe.
Then Grace started to shake, tremors that rocked her body as she made a choked, hiccupping sound. Oh shit. She was crying. Was she hurt? Scared half to death? Fixing to slam a knee into the same part of his anatomy as he’d just—
Her laughter burst out, ringing in his ears and echoing off the sides of the ravine. “Oh…my…God!” she gasped. “That was so ridiculous. If anyone had seen—”
She broke off, quaking against him, and the vibration broke something loose.
This wasn’t funny, dammit. Except it was, especially when he lifted his head to see her blindfolded by her cock-eyed hat, hair sticking out every which way and giggling her fool head off.
A deep, uncontrollable belly laugh rocked him. And the harder he laughed, the harder Grace laughed, and then Mabel started jumping and yipping around them, eager to join the fun, and they laughed even harder, helpless to fend her off when her tongue swiped at their faces.
Meanwhile, the horse continued to stare down at them as if they’d lost their ever-loving minds.