He didn’t laugh because she hadn’t meant it to be funny. He passed her the bottle and she took a swig.

“I don’t want you to think I’m pathetic, but I’ve never had the big New Year’s date or been invited to a cool party.”

“Did that bother you?”

“Some. I’d convinced myself parties were overrated and just an excuse for people to get stinking drunk and take no responsibility for their bad behavior.”

“That’s what it ends up bein’ most of the time. Too much booze, too many promises that are forgotten the next morning in the wake of a wicked hangover.”

“What about you? Did you rip it up with your woman du jour?”

Renner trailed his lips down the curve of her jaw. “Once or twice. For the last six years there’s been a rodeo in Oklahoma that prides itself on bein’ the first rodeo of the New Year, and it always starts at midnight. Which meant me’n Pritchett spent the hours leading up to the rodeo getting ready for it and the hours after it loading up to race to the next rodeo.”

“Do you make a New Year’s resolution every year?”

“Nope. I made one years ago and I’ve managed to keep it.”

Tierney raised her head and looked at him. “What was it?”

“Guess.”

“You swore off marriage?”

He smirked. “That had nothin’ to do with a New Year’s promise. Try again.”

“You decided to work out every day to maintain this slamming body,” she cooed.

“Flattery will get you everywhere with me, but you’re wrong again. Last chance.”

“Shoot.” She pushed her glasses up her nose. “You’ve vowed never to have a job where you can’t wear shitkickers to work.”

“Wrong.” He offered her the bottle but she declined.

“Oh, come on. You can’t just say something like that and not tell me.”

All of a sudden Renner wished he would’ve kept his mouth shut. There was a reason he never talked about this stuff.

Her gloved fingers were on his chin, turning his face toward hers. “Tell me. Trust me.”

And he found himself doing just that. “In my teens I figured out my dad loved his best friend. He’d probably been in love with the guy his whole life. His best friend felt the same, but they weren’t together, not like they wanted to be. It made me sad. Made me realize I’d rather deal with failure than live with regret.”

Her eyes filled with tears. She kissed him so gently he had the insane urge to belt out that he loved her. But he closed his eyes and lost himself in the loving touch of this woman who meant more to him than she could ever imagine.

She said, “Thank you for telling me.”

“Thanks for not bailing off the roof when you heard my barnyard philosophy.” He felt her smile against his neck and whispered, “Your turn. Tell me your resolution.”

“Last year around Valentine’s Day I decided I wanted a different life. When the contract came across my desk for the Split Rock, I saw it as my chance. It’s been the best thing I’ve ever done, Renner. I want you to know that.”

“I believe you. I’ve been thinkin’. I want you to come to Denver with me next week for the National Western Stock Show. Since there are no guests scheduled, I know you’ll just hole up in your cabin all by yourself and work. You deserve a break, so take it with me. It’ll be fun.”

His request momentarily startled her. Then she casually asked, “What would we do in Denver?”

“My manager will be there and I have meetings scheduled to deal with upcoming stock contracts for various rodeos. When I’m done with that we could do whatever you wanted. Go out to eat. Go to the rodeo. Wander through the vendor stands. Hang out at the sale barns and look at bulls. Or hole up in our hotel room and f**k each other until we can’t walk.”

She fussed with her glasses. “We’d be alone?”

“With the exception of the thousands of people that flock to the stock show every year. Yeah. It’d just be us.”

“Okay. Let’s do it.”

“Good.” His watch beeped, signaling midnight.

He murmured, “Happy New Year, Tierney.”

“Happy New Year, Renner.”

He slid his hand around the back of her neck, bringing her mouth to his, giving her a kiss she’d never forget. But as the kiss deepened, he knew it was a kiss he’d never forget either.

Chapter Thirty-one

Since Renner had meetings all day, Tierney opted to entertain herself on their last day at the National Western Stock Show. She wandered through the vendor booths at the arena.

She’d watched him in action at the Split Rock and admired his affability with guests and employees. But as Renner Jackson, proprietor of Jackson Stock Contracting, the man oozed charisma. His knowledge of the world of rodeo stock contracting staggered her. Not only did everyone like him; everyone respected him. She also realized the Split Rock’s success hinged on him. On his connections. Chances were high the venture would’ve failed if he wasn’t involved on a day-to-day basis.

Tierney wondered how their time away together would change them. She understood sneaking around could heighten the intensity of their feelings. Especially since they’d started out adversaries and wound up in a red-hot love affair. But they’d slipped into couplehood easily. There’d been little adjustment in sharing a hotel room, maybe because they’d been sharing a bed most nights anyway. This trip just cemented the idea she wanted to be “out” as a couple with him all the time.

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