The Last Single Maverick
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 here—and 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, the 30th of June, 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 grunted—and 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.”
TOI—for Traub Oil Industries—was 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 brother—as 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 shoulder—a 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, cole slaw and steak fries. The food was terrific. Almost worth the constant grief he was getting from his family—about 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, 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 Melba—and 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 now—vaguely, 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, 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 run. He ambled away casually, waving and nodding to friends and family as he headed for the restrooms—only 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.
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, really—a 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 be—mostly 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 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’ man—like 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.”
He decided to focus on the positive. “You think I’m gorgeous?”
“That was not my point. It was a cautionary tale.”
“I think you’re gorgeous,” he said, and meant it. “And that’s kind of a breakthrough for me.”
“A breakthrough.” She was not impressed. “You’re kidding me.”
“I am serious as a bad blind date. You’re the first woman I’ve felt attracted to in months. Who’s Kenny?”
She shook a finger at him. “You listened in on my phone call.”
“Not exactly. I overheard your phone call.”
“I’m just saying it was a private conversation and I don’t even know your name.”
“Jason Traub. Call me Jace.” He offered his hand.
She took it. “Jocelyn Marie Bennings. Call me Joss.”
It felt good, he realized, just to hold her hand. It felt… comfortable. And exciting, too. Both at once. That was a first—for him, anyway. As a rule, with women, it was one or the other. He didn’t want to let go. But in the end, it wasn’t his choice.
She eased her hand free. “My wedding was supposed to be a week ago today. Kenny was the groom.”
“Supposed to be? You mean you didn’t marry him?”
“No, I didn’t. And I should have backed out long before the wedding day. But Kenny and I were together for five years. It was going to be a beautiful wedding. You should see my wedding gown. I still have it. I couldn’t bear to get rid of it. It’s fabulous. Acres of beading, yards of the finest taffeta and tulle. We planned a nice reception afterward, at my restaurant.”
“You own a restaurant?”
“No. I mean the restaurant I was managing, until I quit to marry Kenny. I gave up a great job for him. Just like I gave up my cute apartment, because I thought I wouldn’t need either anymore.”
“But then you didn’t marry Kenny.”
“I already said I didn’t.”
“Just wanted to be sure. So what went wrong? Why didn’t you marry the guy?”
She ran her finger around the rim of her margarita glass. “Who’s telling this story, Jace?”
He gave her a nod. “You are, Joss. Absolutely. Carry on.”
“It was going to be the perfect wedding.”
He nodded once more, to show her he was listening, but he did not interrupt again.
She went on, “And after the wedding and the lovely reception, there was the great getaway honeymoon right here at the Thunder Canyon Resort. Followed by a move to San Francisco. Kenny’s a very successful advertising executive. He just hit the bigtime and got transferred to the Bay Area.” Joss paused. She turned her glass by the stem.
He wanted to prompt her to tell him what went wrong. But he didn’t. He waited patiently for her to go on, as he’d promised he would.
Finally, she continued, “I got all the way to the church last Saturday. Camellia City Methodist in Sacramento. It’s a beautiful church. And I was born and raised in Sacramento and have lived there all my life. I like my hometown. In fact, I didn’t really want to move to San Francisco. But I was willing to support my future husband in his powerhouse career. And I would have gone through with the wedding, in spite of my doubts.”
He’d promised to let her tell it her way. But still. He had to know. “What doubts?”
She shook her head. “Kenny used to be such a sweet guy. But the more successful he got, the more he changed. He became someone I didn’t even know—and then I caught him with my cousin Kimberly in the coat room.”
“Hold on. You lost me. What coat room?”
She shook her head again, as though she still couldn’t quite believe it. “The coat room at Camellia City Methodist.”
Jace let his mouth fall open. “Kenny canoodled with Kimberly in the coat room on the day of your wedding?”
“Oh, yeah. And it was beyond canoodling. Kimberly was halfway out of her hot pink satin bridesmaid’s dress and someone had unzipped Kenny’s fly. Both of them were red-faced and breathless. Kind of ruined the whole experience for me, you know?”
He made a low noise in his throat. “I guess so.”
Joss picked up the cell phone, studied it for a moment and then set it back down. “So I threw his engagement ring in his face and got the heck out of there—and I’m here at the resort anyway. Having my honeymoon minus the groom.”
He tipped his head at the phone. “But Kenny keeps calling.”
“Oh yes, he does.”
“What a douche bag.”
She sipped her margarita. “My sentiments exactly.”
“I hate guys like that. He blew it, already. He should show a little dignity and leave you alone. But instead it’s, ‘Joss, please. I love you. I just want to work this out. Come back to me. I’m sorry, okay? And that silly thing with Kimberly? It meant nothing and it will never happen again.’”
Joss laughed. She had a beautiful, husky, warm sort of laugh. “How did you do that? You even captured the slightly wounded, whiney tone of his voice. Like I’m the one with the problem.”
Jace stared at her wide, soft mouth in unabashed admiration. “I like your laugh.”
She gave him her sternest frown. “Didn’t I tell you not to go there?”
He was about to argue that he wasn’t “going” anywhere, that he only liked the way she laughed. But before he could get the words out, Theresa Duvall sauntered up behind him and took the stool on his other side.
“Jace.” Theresa’s hand closed over his arm. He looked down at her fingernails, which were long and done up for the holiday with glittery red stripes and tiny, sparkly little stars. She leaned close and purred, “I’m a determined woman and there is no way you’re escaping me.”
Okay. He knew he only had himself to blame if Theresa considered him the perfect candidate for another no-strings night of meaningless sex. But he really liked Joss. And he’d never have a chance with her now, not with Theresa pulling on his arm, eyeing him like a starving person eyes a steak dinner.
And it wasn’t even that he wanted a chance with Joss. Not that kind of chance, anyway. He just liked her a lot, liked talking with her, liked hearing her laugh. He didn’t want her to leave.
Shocked the socks off him when she didn’t leave. Somehow, she picked up on the desperate look he sent her. And not only did she stay right where she was, she wrapped her arm around his shoulders and pulled him away from Theresa, drawing him close to her side.
Wow. It felt good—really good—to have her holding onto him, to feel her softness and the warmth of her. She smelled like soap and starch and sunshine and roses. And maybe a little tequila.
“Sorry,” she said to Theresa, her tone regretful. “This one’s taken.”
Theresa blinked. And then she let go of his arm and scowled. “Jace. What is your problem? You should have told me you were with someone. I want a good time as much as the next girl, but I would never steal another woman’s man.”
He was totally lost, awash in the superfine sensation of having Joss’s arm around him. But then she nudged him in the side and he realized he was supposed to speak. “Uh, yeah. You’re right, Theresa. I’m an ass. I should have said something.”
Joss clucked her tongue and rolled her eyes. “We had a fight. He’s been sulking.”
Theresa groaned. “Oh, I know how that goes. Men. I don’t let myself get serious with them anymore. They’re just not worth it.”
Joss pulled him even closer. And then she kissed his ear. It was barely a breath of a kiss. But still, with her arm around him and her lips close to his ear, he could almost forget that he had no interest in women anymore. He was enjoying every minute of this and he wished she would never let go. “I hear you,” she told Theresa, her breath all warm and tempting in his ear. “But when it’s true love, well, what can you do?”
Theresa just shook her head. The bartender approached. Theresa shook her head at him, too. And then, without another word, she got up and left.
Instantly, Joss released him and retreated to her own stool. Jace felt kind of bereft. But then he reminded himself that he should be grateful. She’d done him a favor and gotten Theresa off his back. “Thanks. I owe you one.” He raised his glass.
She tapped hers against it. “Okay, I’ll bite. Who was that?”
“Her name is Theresa Duvall. Last year, she was working at the Hitching Post—it’s this great old-time bar and grill down in town, on the corner of Main Street and Thunder Canyon Road.”
“She seemed like she knew you pretty well.”
“Not really.” He didn’t want to say more. But Joss was looking at him, a look that seemed to expect him to tell the truth. So he did. “I had a thing with her last summer. A very short thing.”
“What, specifically, is a thing?”
He tried not to wince. “See, I knew you would ask that.”
Joss accused gently, “You slept with her.”
“Only once. And technically, well, there was no sleeping.”
She laughed again. Really, she had the best laugh. “Jace. I believe you’re a dog.”
He tipped his drink and stared down into it. “Maybe I was. Not anymore, though. I have changed my ways.”
She made a disbelieving sound. “Right.”
“No. Seriously. I’m not the man I used to be. Too bad I’m not real clear on who, exactly, I’ve become. I lack…direction. Everyone says so. I’m not interested in women anymore. I don’t want to get laid. Or married. Also, I’ve given up my place in the family business and my family is freaked over that.”
“You live here, in Thunder Canyon?”
“No. In Midland, Texas. Or I did. I have a nice little spread outside of town there. But I’ve put my place up for sale. I’m moving. I just don’t know where to yet. In the meantime, I’m here for a week-long family reunion—a reunion that is going on right now, here at the resort, over at DJ’s Rib Shack.”
“I have another question, Jace.”
“Is there anything you do want?”
“That, Jocelyn Marie, is the question of the hour. Please come with me back to the Rib Shack.”
She was running her finger around the rim of her drink again. “You didn’t answer the question of the hour.”
“All right. There is nothing that I want—except for you to come back to the Rib Shack with me.”
Her smooth brow furrowed a little. “And I would want to go to your family reunion because…?”
“Because only you can protect me from my family and all the women who want things from me that I’m not capable of giving them.”
She shook that head of thick brown hair and sat straighter on her stool. “Before I decide whether to go with you or not, I need to get something crystal clear.”
“I want you to listen very carefully, Jace.”
He assumed a suitably intent expression. “I’m listening.”
“I’m. Not. Going. To. Have. Sex. With. You.”
“Oh, that.” He waved a hand. “It’s okay. I don’t care about that.”
“So you say now.”
“Look, Joss. I like you. You’re the first bright spot in my life in months. I just want to hang around with you for a while. Have a few laughs. No pressure. No drama. Nothing hot and heavy. No big romance.”
She stared at him for several seconds. Her expression said she still wasn’t sure she believed him. Finally she asked, “So you want to be…friends? Honestly? Just friends.”
“My God. I would love that.” He put some money on the bar. “The Rib Shack?”
She downed the last of her margarita. “Why not?”
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