She nodded and her blond pigtails bobbed. “Can you take me on a pony ride?”

His gaze turned sharp. “Where is your mama?”

“Napping. She’s got a bad headache. She said bouncing on a pony would make it badder.” Her chocolate-stained chin notched up an inch. “So can you take me to ride a pony?”

“Not without permission from your mama.”

“Oh.” She jammed her hands in her pockets and twisted the toe of her orange and turquoise sneaker into the carpet.

Such a defeated posture. She couldn’t be more than seven years old. He crouched down. “What’s your name?”

“Marisol.”

“Well, Marisol, even if your mama didn’t have a headache, we’re shorthanded this week and the trail rides have been cancelled.”

Marisol peered at him balefully, her enormous brown eyes swimming with tears. “Know what? I even got cowgirl boots before we came here. Sparkly red ones. How can I ever be a real cowgirl if I don’t ever get to ride a real pony?”

Shit. Now her lip was wobbling. The waterworks were about four seconds away and he was absolutely paralyzed.

“Marisol!” echoed from the hallway an instant before a woman ran toward them. “I told you not to leave the room.”

Marisol focused on the toe of her shoe. “Sorry.”

“I’m Joelle Mackenzie,” the woman said to Renner. “I’m sorry if Marisol’s been a bother. This high altitude gives me a violent headache, so she’s been spending a lot of time by herself since her daddy has been off enjoying himself.”

“I’m sorry you’re not havin’ as good a time as your husband is,” Renner said.

“I bet Daddy gets to ride a pony, huh?” Marisol inserted with a huff.

“Now, honey, we’ve talked about that. You know I’d go with you if I didn’t feel so lousy.”

“But he said”—Marisol jerked a thumb at Renner—“that if I got a permission from you I could go.” She blinked those puppy dog eyes at him. “Didn’t you?”

Yes. But he hadn’t meant it.

“If you could take her on a pony ride, I’d be so grateful,” Joelle replied. “My husband wanted this Wild West adventure for us. But so far I’ve been sick and Denny’s been hunting and poor Marisol has been left to watch TV.”

“Please, Mr. Cowboy, sir? Please take me on a pony ride. I’ll be really good, I promise.”

Another doe-eyed look.

And right then Renner knew he was going to say yes.

“Okay.” He tugged on Marisol’s pigtail. “I have to get a couple of things together first, but go to your room with your mama and stay there—no more sneaking out—and I’ll come get you, all right?”

She smiled, revealing two gaps in her front teeth. “Yay! Thanks, Mr. Cowboy, sir. I’m gonna go get my new boots on.” She raced up off like a flash.

Hell. Now he’d done it. Renner raced up the stairs two at a time and burst into the office with, “You have to help me.”

Tierney adjusted her eyeglasses and frowned. “Help you do what?”

“All she had to do was look at me and I was toast. After I said yes I started thinkin’ of all the reasons I shoulda said no and now I have to find someone else to go with us because I cannot take a seven-year-old girl on a trail ride alone.”

“You know, if you took a breath, maybe I could understand what you were babbling about.”

He inhaled. Exhaled. Pushed his hat back to rub his forehead and resettled it on his head. “Here’s the deal. Marisol has her heart set on a trail ride. But her mother isn’t feeling well, so the little sneak cornered me, asking if I was a real cowboy, and as soon as I said yes, bam! She begged me to take her. I said no, and then found myself saying yes, but after I did, I realized it’d be inappropriate for a thirty-one-year-old guy to go out alone with her on the trail.”

“And you’re telling me all this . . . why?”

He angled across her desk, the picture of earnestness. “Because I need you to go with me.”

“No.”

“Please. I’ll never ask—”

“I said no.”

“You really want to disappoint that little girl after what she’s been through this week? Sittin’ alone in her room while her daddy’s off havin’ fun and her mama’s been sick?”

Tierney’s eyes tapered to fine points. “Don’t guilt me.”

“You didn’t have to see her tiny lip quivering and the look of defeat and sadness on her sweet face.”

“Renner—”

“Did I mention her puppy dog eyes? And how I was utterly heartbroken when those enormous brown eyes shimmered with tears? Real tears, Tierney.”

“Stop.”

But he couldn’t. He slanted even closer to drive home his point. “Do you know who she reminded me of?”

“I mean it, Renner Jackson, stop it this instant.”

“You. With those big gorgeous brown eyes. I imagined you as a small girl, trying so hard not to break down, to be strong in the face of disappointment.”

“Low blow,” she hissed.

“You have to help me out. I’ve got no one else.”

“But I’m the worst possible candidate for moseying along the dusty trail because I’m not a good rider.”

“It don’t matter because I am a good rider. And I’ll bet she’ll last about an hour.” He paused, and cajoled, “Please? Pretty pretty please with rainbow sprinkles on top?”

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