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Family reunions. Who needs them?
Jason Traub didn't. He realized that now. And yet somehow, a few days ago, he'd decided that a trip to Montana for the annual summertime Traub family get-together would be a good idea.
Or maybe he'd just wanted to escape Midland, Texas, and the constant pressure to return to the family business. He should have realized that in Montana it would only be more of the same. Especially given that the whole family was hereand still putting on the pressure.
And why was it that the reunion seemed to get longer every year? This year, it began on the Saturday before Independence Day and would go straight through the whole week to the Sunday after the Fourth, with some family event or other taking place daily.
That first day, Saturday, June 30, featured a late-afternoon barbecue at DJ's Rib Shack. Jason's cousin DJ had Rib Shacks all over the western states. But this one happened to be at the Thunder Canyon Resort up on Thunder Mountain, which loomed, tall and craggy, above the small and charming mountain town of Thunder Canyon.
"Jace." The deep voice came from behind him. "Glad you could make it."
Jason, seated at one of the Rib Shack's long, rustic, family-style tables, glanced over his shoulder at his older brother Ethan. "Great party," Jason said. And it was. If you didn't mind a whole bunch of family up in your face in a big, big way.
His brother leaned closer. "We need to talk."
Jace pretended he didn't hear and held up a juicy rib dripping Rib Shack secret sauce. "Great ribs, as always." With the constant rumble of voices and laughter that filled the restaurant, how would Ethan know if Jace heard him or not?
Ethan gruntedand bent even closer to speak directly into his ear. "I know Ma and Pete want you back in Midland." Pete Wexler was their stepdad. "But you've got options, and I mean that. There's a place waiting for you right here at TOI Montana."
TOIfor Traub Oil Industrieswas the family business. The original office was in Midland, Texas, where Jason and his five siblings had been born and raised. Pete, their stepdad, was chairman of the board. And their mother, Claudia, was CEO. Last year, Ethan had opened a second branch of TOI in Thunder Canyon. Jackson, Jason's fraternal twin, and their only sister, Rose, and her husband, Austin, were all at the new office with Ethan.
"No, thanks," Jace said, and then reminded his brotheras he kept reminding everyone in the family, "I'm out of the oil business."
Now it was Ethan's turn to pretend not to hear. He squeezed Jason's shouldera bone-crushing squeeze.
"We'll talk," he said.
"No point," Jace answered wearily. "I've made up my mind."
But Ethan only gave him a wave and started talking to the large elderly woman on Jace's right. Jace didn't hear what they said to each other. He was actively not listening.
A moment later, Ethan moved on. Jace concentrated on his dinner. His plate was piled high with ribs, corn on the cob, coleslaw and steak fries. The food was terrific. Almost worth the constant grief he was getting from his familyabout work, about his nonexistent love life, about everything.
Across the table, Shandie Traub, his cousin Dax's wife, said, "Jason, here's someone I want you to meet." The someone in question stood directly behind Shandie. She had baby-fine blond hair and blue eyes and she was smiling at him shyly. Shandie introduced her. "My second cousin, Belinda McKelly. Belinda's from Sioux Falls."
"Hi, Jason." Belinda colored prettily. She had to practically shout to be heard over the din. "I'm so pleased to meet you." She bent closer and stuck her hand out at him.
Jace swiped a wet wipe over his fingers, reached across the table and gave her offered hand a shake. She seemed sweet actually. But one look in those baby blues of hers told him way more than he needed to know: Belinda wanted a husband. As soon as she let go, he grabbed an ear of corn and started gnawing on it, his gaze focused hard on his plate. When he dared to glance up again, she was gone.
Shandie gave him a look that skimmed real close to pissed off. "Honestly, Jace, you could make a little effort. It's not like it would kill you."
"Sorry," he said, even though he didn't feel sorry in the least. He only felt relieved not to have to make small talk with sweet Belinda McKelly.
To his right, the large elderly woman Ethan had spoken to a few moments before said warmly, "Such a lovely young girl." The old lady's warm tone turned cool as she spoke directly to Jason. "But I can see you 're not interested." He kept working away at his ear of corn in hopes that the large old lady would turn and talk to the smaller old lady on her other side. No such luck. "I'm Melba Landry," she said, "Lizzie's great-aunt." Lizzie was Ethan's wife.
Resigned, Jason gave the woman a nod. "Pleased to meet you, ma'am. I'm Jason Traub, Lizzie's brother-in-law."
"I know very well who you are, young man." Aunt Melba looked down her imposing nose at him. "I was married to Lizzie's great-uncle Oliver for more than fifty years. Oliver, rest his soul, passed on last October. The Lord never saw fit to bless us with children of our own. I moved to Thunder Canyon just this past April. It's so nice to be near Lizzie. Family is everything, don't you think, Jason?"
"Yes, ma'am. Everything." To his left, he was vaguely aware that the second cousin sitting there had risen. Someone else slipped into the empty spot.
And Aunt Melba wasn't through with him yet. "Jason, you know that we're all concerned about you."
"Kind of seems that way, yes." He got busy on his second ear of corn, still hoping that putting all his attention on the food would get rid of her. It had worked with Belinda.
But Aunt Melba was not about to give up. "I understand you're having some kind of life crisis."
He swallowed. The wad of corn went down hard. He grabbed his water glass and knocked back a giant gulp. "Life crisis? No, ma'am. I'm not."
"Please call me Melbaand there's no point in lying about it. I'm seventy-six years old, young man. I know a man in crisis when I see one."
"No, ma'am," he said again. "I mean that. There's no crisis." By then, he was starting to feel a little like Judas at the last supper. If he just kept denying, maybe she would go away.
"I asked you to call me Melba," she corrected a second time, more sternly.
"Sorry, Melba. But I mean it. I'm not having a crisis. I am doing just fine. And really, I"
"There's a lovely church here in town that I've been attending. Everyone is so friendly. I felt at home there from the first. And so will you, Jason."
"Tomorrow. Join us. The Thunder Canyon Community Church. North Main at Cedar Street. Come to the service at ten. I'll be watching for you. There is no problem in this wide world that a little time with the Lord can't resolve."
"Well, Melba, thank you for the invitation. I'll, um, try to be there."
"Get involved, young man," Melba instructed with an enthusiastic nod of her imposing double chin. "That's the first step. Stop sitting on the sidelines of life." She opened her mouth to say more, but the white-haired lady on her other side touched her arm and spoke to her. Melba turned to answer.
Jace held his breath. And luck was with him. Melba and the other old lady had struck up a conversation.
He was just starting to feel relieved when a hand closed on his left thigh and a sultry voice spoke in his ear. "Jace, aren't you even going to say hi?"
He smelled musky perfume and turned his head slowly to meet a pair of glittering green eyes. "Hi."
The woman was not any member of his extended family that he knew of. She had jet-black hair and wore a painted-on red tank top. "Oh, you're kidding me." She laughed. "You don't remember? Last summer? Your brother Corey's bachelor party at the Hitching Post?" The Hitching Post was a landmark restaurant and bar in town.
"Theresa," the woman said. "Theresa Duvall."
"Hey." He tried on a smile. He remembered her nowvaguely anyway. For Jace, the weekend of Corey's bachelor party and wedding had been mostly of the "lost" variety. His twin, Jackson, had still been single then. The two of them had partied straight through for three days. There had been serious drinking. Way too much drinking. And the night of the bachelor party, he'd gone home with Theresa, hadn't he? Somehow, that had seemed like a good idea at the time. "So, Theresa," he said, "how've you been?"
Her hand glided a little higher on his thigh. "I have been fine, Jace. Just fine. And it is so good to see you," she cooed. "I had such a great time with you." Theresa, as he recalled, was not the least interested in settling down. In fact, the look on her face told him exactly what she was interested in: another night like that one last summer.
He had to get out of there. He grabbed another wipe, swabbed off his greasy fingers and then gently removed Theresa's wandering hand from his thigh. "Excuse me, Theresa."
"Oh, now," she coaxed in a breathy whisper, "don't run off."
"Men's room?" He put a question mark after it, even though he knew perfectly well where the restrooms were.
Theresa pointed. "Over there." She gave him a low-eyed, smoldering glance as he pushed his chair out and rose. "Hurry back," she instructed, licking her lips.
It wasn't easy, but he forced himself not to take off at a run. He ambled away casually, waving and nodding to friends and family as he headed for the restroomsonly detouring sharply for the exit as soon as he was no longer in Theresa's line of sight. A moment later, he ducked out of the Rib Shack altogether and into the giant, five-story clubhouse lobby of the resort. Now what?
Someplace quiet. Someplace where he could be alone.
The Lounge, he thought. It was a bar in the clubhouse and it was exactly what he needed right now. The Lounge was kind of a throwback reallya throwback to earlier times, when cattlemen had their own private clubs where the women didn't trespass. In the Lounge, the lights were kept soothingly low. The bar was long and made of gleaming burled wood. It had comfortable conversation areas consisting of dark wood tables and fat studded-leather chairs. Women seemed to avoid the Lounge. They tended to prefer the more open, modern bar in the upscale Gallatin Room, or the cowboy-casual style of the bar in the Rib Shack.
The Lounge was perfect for the mood he was in.
He found it as he'd hoped it might bemostly deserted. One lone customer sat up at the bar. A woman, surprisingly enough. A brunette. Jace liked the look of her instantly, which surprised him. As a rule lately, it didn't matter how hot or good-looking a woman was. He just wasn't interested. Not on any level.
But this woman was different. Special. He sensed that at first sight.
She had a whole lot of thick, tousled brown hair tumbling down her back. In the mirror over the bar, he could see that she had big brown eyes and full, kissable lips. She was dressed casually, in jeans and a giant white shirt, untucked. She wore very little makeup.
And the best thing about her? She seemed so relaxed. Like she wasn't after anything except to sip her margarita and enjoy the quiet comfort of the Lounge.
She saw him watching her in the mirror over the bar. For a second or two, their eyes met. He felt a little curl of excitement down inside him before she glanced away. Instantly, he wanted her to glance at him again.
Surprise. Excitement. The desire that a certain woman might give him a second look. These were all emotions with which he'd become completely unfamiliar.
Yeah, all right. It wasn't news that he used to be something of a player. But in the past six months or so? Uh-uh. He was tired of being a ladies' manlike he was tired of just about everything lately. Including finding the right woman and settling down.
Because, yeah, Jason had tried that. Or at least, he'd wanted to try it with a certain rich-girl swimsuit model named Tricia Lavelle.
It hadn't worked out. In fact, the whole experience had been seriously disheartening.
A cell phone on the bar started ringing. The brunette picked it up, scowled at the display and then put it to her ear. "What do you want?" She let out an audible sigh. "You're not serious. Oh, please, Kenny, get real. It's over. Move on." She hung up and dropped the phone back on the bar.
Jace took the stool next to her and signaled the bartender. "Jack Daniels, rocks." The bartender poured and set his drink in front of him. "And another margarita," Jace added. "For the lady."
"No, thanks." She shook her head at the barkeep and he left them alone. Then she turned to Jace and granted him a patient look from that fine pair of enormous brown eyes. "No offense," she said.
"And don't even think about it, okay? I'm on a solo vacation and right now, I hate men."
He studied her face. It was such a great face. One of those faces a guy could look at forever and still find new expressions in it. "Already, I really like you."
"Didn't I just say I hate men?"
"That makes you a challenge. Haven't you heard? Men love a challenge."
"I'm serious. Don't bother. It's not gonna happen."
He faced the rows of liquor bottles arrayed in front of the mirror over the bar and shrugged. "Okay, if you're sure."
She shot him a look. "Oh, come on. Is that the best you've got?"
He leaned his head on his hand and admired the way the dim barroom light somehow managed to bring out glints of auburn in her thick, wavy dark hair. "Uninspired, huh?"
She almost smiled. "Well, yeah."
"Story of my life lately. I've got no passion for the game."
He shrugged again. "Any game."
She considered that. "Wow," she said finally. "That's sad."
"Yeah, it is, isn't it?"
She frowned and then looked at him sideways. "Wait a minute. Stop right there, buddy. I'm on to you."
"Oh? What am I up to?"
"You sit there looking gorgeous and bored. I find I have a longing to bring some life back into your eyes. I let you buy me another margarita after all. I go home with you. We have wild, hot, incredible sex. But in the morning, you're looking bored again and I'm feeling cheap and used."