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RANCHER UNTAMED

 

Cole's Hill Bachelors

At tonight’s bachelor auction, money’s no object…
That red-hot cowboy will be hers!


Pippa Hamilton-Hoff has come into a fortune, and her first purchase is the bachelor on the charity auction block, Diego Velasquez.

 

No one in Texas knows she’s secretly an heiress—or that she craves Diego. She wants this time with him, even knowing it’s temporary. Because Pippa can’t stay forever…but is she willing to leave her untamed rancher behind?

 

RANCHER UNTAMED

Harlequin Books

October 1, 2018

ISBN 978-1335971814

 

Excerpt

Diego Velasquez felt foolish as he stood in the wings waiting to be announced in the Five Families Country Club bachelor auction. He’d give any- thing to be with his horses on his ranch, Arbol Verde. He had tried to get out of participating in the annual charity event by making a huge donation, but his mom, a formidable morning news- caster on a Houston station, was on the committee and wanted to see her sons—all four of them— married. So there was no getting out of it, even though every year he and his brothers tried. 

 

“What do you think, Diego? Got it in you to land a huge bid?” his youngest brother, Inigo, asked. 

 

Diego was pretty sure Inigo had toyed with the idea of making one of the women who followed him on the F1 racing circuit his temporary bride to avoid the auction. But since their beloved mama was a devout Catholic, a temporary marriage was a no-no, so he’d flown in on his G6 this morning from Japan. Luckily for Inigo the F1 was racing in Austin in two weeks’ time. Or maybe unluckily, because it meant there was no excuse not to be here, he thought as he watched Inigo messing with his bow tie.

 

Diego turned to his other two brothers, the twins. Alejandro did some sort of social media management that had made him a millionaire and he wasn’t even thirty. And Mauricio had the golden eye when it came to spotting property in neighborhoods on the cusp of becoming “it” places to live and work. 

 

Diego was proud of them. They were all the kind of bachelors that the charity auction should be promoting. Sure, it was annoying that Mama was competitive and wanted to see the Velasquez name at the top of the fund-raising leaderboard. But at the end of the day, it was a good cause, wasn’t it? 

 

“You look like you’re thinking of bolting,” Mo said. 

 

“I am,” Diego admitted. But before he could make good his escape, there was a commotion on stage. 

 

“Ethan Caruthers is making a fool of himself over some woman. He just proposed to her,” Inigo said, from his spot near the curtain leading to the stage. 

 

“Crissanne Moss,” Diego said, coming over to join his youngest brother. “While you were touring the world, this has been the big news in town. Ethan and Crissanne were living together and the Carutherses thought it was leading toward marriage. But then Crissanne’s ex came back from the dead. Literally. People thought he’d died in a plane crash until he showed up in town, very much alive, wanting to know what was going on between his best friend and his ex-girlfriend.” 

 

“Dios mio, Diego, you sound like the town gossip,” Alejandro said, coming up behind him and slinging his arm over Diego’s shoulders. 

 

“Don’t remind me. I had dinner with Bi and Derek last night and Ma Caruthers was there spilling the dirt,” Diego said. 

 

“Ah, well, it looks like they might be getting back together,” Inigo said. 

 

“Yeah, it does,” Diego said. He’d never met a woman he’d make a fool of himself over. Not like Ethan was doing right now. But as he watched Ethan go to Crissanne and embrace her...well, it made him wonder what it would be like to find one special person to settle down with. 

 

“You’re next, Diego,” the stage manager said. “Damn,” he said. His chance to run was gone. He heard Mo chuckling evilly behind him and 

 

turned to punch him in the shoulder, only softening it at the last moment because if he started a brawl with his brothers his mom would never forgive them. 

 

“What are you afraid of?” Mo asked. “It’s just harmless fun.” 

 

Yeah, it was. But as he got older, it felt like he should be retiring from this auction, not settling in as a permanent fixture. “Nothing. You’re right. It’s fun.” 

 

All four brothers watched the crowd as Diego’s name was announced. Alejandro elbowed him, pointing to Kinley Caruthers’s nanny, Pippa. She was close to the front of the crowd, a look of anticipation lighting up her heart-shaped face. 

 

She’d caught his eye before. The cute blonde had come to Cole’s Hill two years ago when Kin- ley moved here. Her hair was a honey blond and she usually wore it in a ponytail, but tonight it fell to her shoulders in soft waves. Her eyes were gray, but not icy at all. It was sort of a soft gray color that made him want to tell her things that he didn’t even want to admit he thought about. Which made her dangerous. Her lips were full, and normally she wore only lip gloss—yeah, he’d spent a lot of time thinking about that mouth of hers. Tonight she’d used a red lipstick that made it impossible for him to look at anything but her mouth. Which was the last thing he needed because he already thought too much about what it would be like to kiss her. 

 

She wore a figure-hugging dress in a deep blue jewel tone that made her creamy skin look even smoother than normal. He’d known her legs were long and slim because she tended to wear leggings around town, but tonight with a pair of fancy heels on they seemed longer, endless. 

 

He groaned. 

 

“Stop being a baby. I swear, Diego, you are the worst at this. I know they are women and not your beloved horses, but it’s not that bad,” Mo said. 

 

He glanced at his brother. “I know that. I’m not exactly afraid of women.” 

 

“Your reputation proves that,” Mo said. “So what’s the deal?” 

 

Mo leaned toward the curtain with him and followed Diego’s gaze. 

 

“Oh, it’s like that.”
“Yeah. But she’s not interested and I’m—” “Out of time,” Mo said.

 

“Mr. Diego Velasquez,” the emcee repeated. And Diego, with a shove from Mo, walked out onto the stage. 

 

***

 

Pippa Hamilton-Hoff rarely went out and certainly didn’t get dressed up all that often. But here she was, seated at the Caruthers table for the Five Families bachelor auction. Among the descendants of the original five families who’d founded Cole’s Hill, there was a friendly competition to see which one could raise the most money. 

 

Given that all of the Caruthers brothers were married except for Ethan—and he now seemed engaged—that family’s chances were slim this year. But Pippa had already had other ideas. It certainly helped that she was twenty-five today and would soon have access to her fortune. She knew exactly who she wanted to spend this birth- day with. 

 

Diego Velasquez—a long, tall Texan who looked as comfortable in his tuxedo as he did on the back of a horse. Though if she were being to- tally honest, she preferred to see him riding his stallion Iago. She’d been out to visit him twice with Penny, the little girl she nannied. Penny was a horse-crazy four-year-old, the daughter of Na- than Caruthers, and Diego was her de facto uncle now that his sister, Bianca, had married Dr. Derek Caruthers. 

 

The long road that she’d been on for the last four years was almost up. She no longer had to hide who she was—an English heiress who’d run away from her controlling father and had become a nanny while on the run, trying to figure out what to do next. Now that she was twenty-five her inheritance was hers to claim and do what she wanted with. For this one night she still wanted to be young and free. To be with a man who didn’t know about her fortune, who would be happy enough with Pippa the nanny. 

 

She’d run into him enough times in town to know that it wasn’t coincidence. The owner of a large ranch on the outskirts of town with an internationally acclaimed breeding program didn’t have to drive into Cole’s Hill at 10:00 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to get coffee, but he did. They always chatted, and she’d been careful to not let it be more than talk, but in her heart...she wanted more. He had the kind of chocolatey-brown eyes that reminded her of drinking hot chocolate, so rich and comforting. Yet at the same time he made her feel alive...feel things that she hadn’t allowed herself to even think about since she’d walked out of that party in New York City four years ago and gotten on a bus. 

 

Since then, her life had been a lie. One big deceit where she had to keep moving, keep thinking and never let her guard down. 

 

Until now.
Tonight.
Ethan Caruthers had done the romantic thing and now he and Crissanne were in the corner snogging. Meanwhile, Pippa was sitting here with access to her fortune and looking up at Diego Velasquez. He wore his tuxedo with an easy grace that spoke of manners and class, but when their eyes met, she felt that zing. That sexual awareness that reminded her she was more than an heiress on the run. She was a woman with a plan tonight. 

 

Not the one who’d hidden away for four years or the one who was afraid to claim things for herself. 

 

No, she wanted Diego and was determined to have him. 

 

The bidding started, and she raised her hand, increasing the bid. She just kept on until she and one of the women who worked with Diego at his ranch were the only ones left. Chantelle, Pippa thought her name was. Did Chantelle wish for a relationship that was more than boss/employee? 

 

Pippa knew she was leaving. That as soon as the board of her family’s company, House of Hamilton, read her email and accepted she was who she said she was, Cole’s Hill, Texas, would be a distant memory. But she’d put aside so many things for the past four years. She’d denied her- self for too long and she wasn’t going to anymore. She raised her paddle and doubled the current bid, which made the emcee squeal with excitement and Diego raise his eyebrows as he looked right at her. 

 

“I think someone definitely wants you, Diego, and unless there is another bidder who wants to top that bid...” The emcee glanced around the room, but she’d pushed the bid so high no one else raised a paddle. 

 

For the first time since Diego walked onto the stage she was truly aware of the room and that everyone’s eyes were on her. She started to sit back down, but Kinley put her hand on Pippa’s butt. “Get your man, girl.” 

 

She had to smile at the way Kinley said it. De- spite the fact that they had grown up in two very different worlds, Kin was a soul sister. Pippa had always believed that something stronger than co- incidence had led them to meet on that Vegas bus the day Kinley went into labor. Pippa had been riding the bus trying to figure out her next move, since she was out of cash, and Kinley had been on her way to work when her water broke. 

 

“I guess I will,” Pippa said, carefully placing her paddle on the table and going up to claim him. It was only for tonight, but then again, she felt tonight was all she’d had. She’d had four birth- days on her own in Texas, each of them fraught with tension and confusion. Only her determination had brought her to this moment, and as she climbed up the stairs at the side of the stage and went to him, she didn’t worry about any of that. As she got closer, she noticed his smile, how to- night it wasn’t as bold as it usually was. But it was still sexy and charming, and she admitted to herself she was smitten. 

 

What an old-fashioned word, but it suited her and her emotions. 

 

She hadn’t really been paying attention to the other winners, so she had no idea what to do, but Diego caught her hand and pulled her close to him. “With a bid like that, I think you deserve my everything.” 

 

Up close she realized that his brown eyes had flecks of gold in them. His lips were full, and he winked at her as he dipped her low in his arms and then brought his mouth down on hers. She stopped thinking and just let go. 

 

Diego stood in the line at the bar watching Pippa talking to Kinley and Bianca. His sister was a former supermodel, but Pippa outshone her in his eyes. He wasn’t sure what they were say- ing, but he noticed that Pippa smiled and laughed easily. He ordered two margaritas and then made his way back over to her. 

 

“So I guess we shouldn’t wait up for you,” Kin- ley said as he approached. 

 

Pippa’s gaze met his and she blushed, the pink tint moving up from her décolletage to her neck. 

 

 “You’ll see me when you see me,” Pippa said in her very proper British accent. 

 

She reached around Kinley and took one of the margaritas from him. He lifted his glass toward hers and took a sip before he moved to stand next to her. Kinley hugged her and went to join her husband across the room. 

 

“Mama is very proud of the Velasquez family tonight,” Bianca said. 

 

“She should be. She did a good job raising us,” Diego said. “And we are all home tonight, which you know always makes her happy.” 

 

“She’s not the only one who’s over the moon,” Bianca said. “Benito can’t wait until tomorrow morning for our family brunch. He loves his tios.” 

 

His nephew was four years old and had seen a lot in his short life. His father had died while racing, something that had made Diego’s own mother more determined to try to find another career for Inigo. But his youngest brother had the legendary Velasquez hardheadedness. 

 

“We adore him,” Diego said. 

 

“Of course you do. Now, I am going to try to claim a dance with my husband. He’s got early surgery tomorrow, so we can’t stay late,” Bianca said, leaning over to kiss his cheek. Then she gave Pippa a hug before she walked away. 

 

He glanced over at the woman who’d been shut- ting him down in town but tonight had made the highest bid to spend the evening with him. “You could have saved yourself some money if you’d said yes when I asked you out a few weeks ago.” 

 

“Oh, well, then the charity wouldn’t have made as much tonight. Somehow, I think that makes it all worth it,” she said. 

 

There was something different about her tonight. She was more confident. She’d always seemed to be a little bit on edge, her eyes frequently going to the door of the café where they’d met. It used to bother him when he’d first started running into her in town, but now he’d gotten used to it. 

 

“Was that what brought out your wallet? The charity?” 

 

She flushed again. “It is a very good cause. Children are so vulnerable and really at the mercy of the adults in their lives.” 

 

“Were you?” he asked. He couldn’t help but be curious about her past. And how could a nanny afford the generous bid she’d placed? Maybe it was because she didn’t really have any expenses living in her own house on the Rockin’ C ranch. And she’d told him at the coffee shop that her daily lattes were her only indulgence. But still. No one knew much about her. She never mentioned her last name, and he knew from Nathan—Kin- ley’s husband—that Pippa had met Kinley on a bus in Las Vegas, of all places. 

 

But she was a British woman with no apparent connection to her homeland. And Diego, who was proud of being American, didn’t understand that. 

 

“I had everything a child could wish for,” Pippa said. “The best toys, a first-class education and a stable with horses that even the legendary Diego Velasquez would envy.” 

 

“Legendary?” he asked, ignoring the sadness that underpinned her words. So she had been born with money, but when she’d come to the United States, she’d left that behind. He’d seen the way she lived. Frugal was one word for it. But it was deliberate. 

 

“Don’t let it go to your head, but you are sort of a superstar with horses. I mean, when I’ve brought Pippa out to your stables to ride, I’ve seen the way the rowdiest stallion settles down for you.” 

 

“I get horses,” Diego said.
“But not people?”
“Some people,” he admitted. Mo had warned him to not talk about his horses or breeding pro- gram around women and bore them when he was in his early twenties. Diego had seen his success with the ladies increase after his brother’s advice and still followed it now. 

 

The DJ had gotten set up, and as the drinks from the open bar flowed, more people were moving toward the dance floor. Pippa finished her margarita. 

 

“Do you want another drink?” he asked.

 

She shrugged. “I’m not a huge fan of tequila.” “What would you prefer?” he asked. “Something sparkling. I want to celebrate.” He raised one eyebrow and took the margarita glass from her. “I’ll be right back.”

 

He went to get them both some prosecco and then returned. “How’s that?”

 

“Much better,” she said, lifting her glass toward his.

 

“What are we celebrating?” he asked.

 

“My birthday,” she said. “I’m twenty-five today.”

 

“Happy birthday, Pippa.”

 

Twenty-five. She was five years younger than him, but the way she said it made him realize there was a lot more to the story. She took a sip of her drink and he did the same, making small talk until they had finished. The band was playing “Despacito” and Pippa was swaying to the music. 

 

“So, Pippa, what are we going to do?” 

 

She tipped her head to the side. “I’m not sure what you mean. What are we going to do about what?” 

 

“This night,” he said. He put his hand on her waist and drew her closer to him. 

 

“I’m not sure,” she said softly. 

 

Her breath smelled sweet like the prosecco, and her face was so close that his lips tingled. He re- membered how soft and succulent they had been beneath his earlier. 

 

“Well, I’m yours...for tonight,” he said out loud to remind himself that it was only for this night. “Tell me what it is you want me to do.” 

 

She tipped her head back and their eyes met. Her lips parted and he felt her hand come to rest on his shoulder. “Show me a good time, cowboy.” 

 

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