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Secret Santa
Author: Jill Sanders





Nicholas Howe the third was in love. This time, he was pretty sure it was the real deal. But what did an eight-year-old know of love?

As the pretty brunette girl stormed towards him, her long braids laid over her shoulders, he was absolutely positive this was the last time he’d fall in love.

“What do you think you’re doing?” The girl glared up at him.

“Ridin’,” he answered quickly, wanting to impress the girl. After all, he’d climbed on Hunter, one of his father’s horses, all by himself and had taken off to ride the fence lines. A man’s job.

His ranch had been in the Howe family for four generations. At least it would be when he finally inherited the land.

“I can see you’re riding,” the girl answered, putting extra emphases on the ‘ing’ in the word. His pa never corrected him, even though his teachers did. “Why are you here?” The girl motioned to the stand of trees Nick had stopped to rest under. There was a creek that went by them, and Hunter was drinking from the cold clean water.

“I’m just resting my horse,” Nick answered, giving Hunter a pat on the neck for show. “What are you doing here?”

Instead of answering, the girl glared at him.

“This is my creek,” she finally said.

“Yours?” Nick’s dark eyebrows rose. “I don’t think so. It’s on my land,” he said, feeling a lick of anger for the first time.

“Your land?” The girl laughed.

Nick glanced over to where her pony was tied to a low branch of the tree. It stood watching them.

“Yup, you’re on Howe land,” he answered proudly. “But I’ll let you and your lame pony rest here for a while if you want.”

The girl stopped laughing. “Lilly isn’t…” She shook her head. “She isn’t lame.” She frowned up at him.

“She’s not a horse.” He patted Hunter again. “Not like Hunter here.”

The girl crossed her arms over her chest and stuck out her bottom lip in a cute pout. Nick enjoyed it, but he didn’t know why.

“You’re too small to be riding a big horse like that.” The girl looked up and shielded her eyes from the sun to see him better.

“You’re too big to be riding such a small one,” he pointed out.

The girl’s face grew red. “Who are you?”

He smiled. “Nicholas James Howe the third,” he said, using his full name to make himself sound more important. “Who are you?”

“Kara,” she answered.

“Kara what?”

“Montgomery,” she answered. “My dad, Carl Montgomery, just purchased this land, along with our house.” She motioned behind her to the ranch home that sat at the base of a small hill.

“Then we’re neighbors,” he said, motioning behind him. “My family has owned Howe Ranch for four generations.” He pointed to his home in the distance.

The girl frowned and was quiet for a while. “You’re still on my land.”

He smiled. “Nope, you’re on mine. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think Hunter is done drinking.”

He picked up Hunter’s reins and tried to turn the massive horse back towards his barn, but the horse jerked its head, almost sending Nick falling forward over the horse’s neck.

“I told you, you’re too small for a horse that size,” Kara said, crossing her arms over her chest again.

“Am not,” he said, letting his pride get the better of him. He pulled on the reins again, but Hunter was having nothing of it. He jerked back and stomped his hoof and snorted.

“Hunter,” he scolded, “let’s go back home.” He jerked again, and Hunter shook his entire body and lunged to the side. Nick hadn’t been expecting the move and, in one quick motion, he slipped off the side of the horse and landed in the mud directly at Kara’s feet. Hunter used his new freedom to sprint across the field, heading directly towards the barn.

His dad was going to skin him, he thought as he watched the back end of the horse. Then he glanced up and saw Kara smiling down at him.

“Told ya.” She climbed on her pony and gracefully rode back to her house while laughing at him.



Chapter One



Ten years later…


* * *


Nick got jerked around as he held onto the bull. Kara would have screamed, but the horror of what she was seeing had caused her voice to seize up. Instead, her fingers gripped the wood fence tighter as she silently prayed and counted the seconds.

When the buzzer sounded, he gracefully slid off the bull’s back and hopped onto the railing of the fence, a few feet from her. He had the gall to wink at her as he climbed over the rungs and landed directly at her feet.

“So, what’d ya think?” he asked her, shifting his black Stetson further onto his head.

“I think…” she started, feeling her heart still racing, and not from watching him ride the bull, “that you’re an idiot.” She turned on her heels and stormed back to her seat next to her dad.

“That kid’s got more guts than brains,” her father said under his breath.

“Yeah,” she agreed.

“I think it was wonderful,” Luanna said.

Kara’s mother had died shortly before Kara turned eight, before they’d moved to Wyoming from California. It had taken years before her father had started dating again. Two crazy women later, he’d met Luanna while they’d been on a vacation in Hawaii. One short year later, after a very long-distance courtship, he’d married her and given Kara an older stepbrother, Beau, whom Kara adored. She adored both of them, actually—mother and son.

Beau had joined the military after graduating from high school. Then, he’d moved back to Hawaii to be closer to his roots. Kara and her family visited him often.

Kara watched Nick move back over to where the rest of the riders stood waiting for their turn in the spotlight. Their mere seconds of glory. When she noticed Nick watching her, she jerked her eyes away.

“He sure has grown up,” her father said. “I remember when he was barely big enough to climb on a horse himself.”

Kara remembered the day she’d met Nick and smiled. It was the one time she could hold over him. The one time he hadn’t been… smooth. Since then, he’d proved over and over that he belonged in the saddle. Including bull riding now, apparently.

For the next hour, she sat and watched the riders come and go. When she got hungry, she made her way to the snack bar and had just ordered herself a burger when someone gripped her waist from behind.

“There you are, Kara.”

Kara groaned. “What do you want, Willy?” she said without looking at the boy behind her.

“My name is Wil,” he said tersely. “I wanted to make sure you watched me ride. So you could imagine what it’d feel like when I take you.” Willy bumped his hips against her butt. She jerked forward and pushed him away.

“Gross,” she said, shoving him again. “That is never going to happen.”

Willy smiled and tried to pull her close again, locking her hips against his.

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