Resisting Mr. Tall, Dark and Texan
“Lizzie. Don’t do this to me. You know I can’t live without you.”
Instantly, Lizzie Landry felt her determination weakening. How does he do that? she wondered. At the same time, she found herself thinking that he really would be lost without her, and she did worry that he…
She caught herself.
Oh, come on. What was her problem here? After five years with Ethan Traub, she ought to be immune to his considerable charm and shameless flattery. And she was. Pretty much. It was only that she did hate to leave him when he needed her. Which was constantly.
But no. She had to be strong. The break had to be made.
She put on her sternest, most unwavering expression. “Ethan. You’ve been playing me for months. Stop. It’s not going to work this time. We have to talk about this. You’re not putting me off again.”
The melting look in those dark-velvet eyes of his faded as he scowled. She watched as his perfect, manly lips assumed a downward curve. “There’s nothing to talk about,” he grumbled. “You’re coming to Montana with me. Eventually, if you’re still unhappy with—”
Lizzie put up a hand. “I’m not unhappy, Ethan. It’s been wonderful working for you. If I still had to work for someone, I would want it to be you.”
“Great, then. We have no problem. You can keep working for me.”
“No. I’m not going to do that. And no, it’s not great, because we do have a problem. I want to be my own boss. That was always my goal—a goal it’s time I reached. And you know that I’m ready to move on, since I have told you so. Over and over and over again. Two weeks’ notice. I think that’s fair.”
“Two weeks!” he blustered, rising from behind his desk. Bracing his knuckles on the desk pad, he loomed toward her, six-foot-four of killer-handsome, seriously imposing Texas male. “It’s impossible. It’s not going to happen. You’ll need more than two weeks to find your replacement—not that you’re going to be finding one right now. We’re leaving on Thursday.”
“Ethan, I told you. I’m not going to—”
“Oh, yeah.” He cut her off before she could finish her sentence. “You are. For so many reasons.”
Lizzie tried not to groan. “Please don’t start on the reasons. I’ve heard them all.”
“And now you’re going to hear them again.”
“Do I have a choice?”
“None.” And he proceeded to tell her everything she already knew. How he couldn’t get along without her, how it just wasn’t reasonable for her to be talking about cutting out on him now. “You know I need time, Lizzie. It’s not going to be easy finding another assistant as good as you are. Someone flexible as to living arrangements. Someone smart. Someone calm and capable. But also fun to be around. Someone who can manage the office, the house—and have my back on the personal front….”
There was more in the same vein. Okay, yes. She’d been flattered the first time she heard it. But after months of trying to tell him she was ready to move on, listening to how she couldn’t go was getting old.
She waited for him to wind down before reminding him, yet again, “Montana doesn’t work for me. I’m a Texan, born and bred right here in Midland. And I’m staying here in Midland and opening my bakery, as planned. You need to get used to that idea, because you are not changing my mind. Not this time.”
“Traub Oil needs you.”
“Traub Oil managed fine without me for over thirty years.”
“All right then.” He straightened to his full height. “I need you.” He towered over her now, since she remained in the chair on the far side of his desk. She considered rising to face him. Upright, after all, she was only a few inches shorter than he was and could almost stand head-to-head with him.
But no. She stayed in her seat. And concentrated on projecting calm determination. “You don’t need me, Ethan. Not really. You’re going to be fine.”
He shook his head. “Lizzie, Lizzie, Lizzie…” And then, with a heavy sigh, he folded his long, hard frame back into his fat leather swivel chair. “How about a bonus? A…severance bonus. Stick with me a little longer, you walk away with more cash.”
Do not ask, her sternest inner voice instructed. But money was money. She’d been flat broke once. She never, ever wanted to go there again. “How big of a bonus?”
He named an eye-widening figure.
She let out a strangled laugh. “You’re kidding.”
“I am serious as a failed blowout preventer.”
Okay, she was weakening now. Genuinely weakening. Plus, well, she did feel a little bad about letting him go to Montana without her. He had big plans for Montana. Maybe she ought to stick with him through that, at least….
There was a gleam in those dark eyes now. He knew he had her. “Think of it, Lizzie. You know you can always use a larger cushion. Startup costs multiply. They inevitably turn out to be more than you projected.”
Okay, he had a point there. “How long would I have to stay on?”
He gave an easy shrug. “Oh, I’m thinking a few more months should do it.”
“A few months—as in three?” She was the one scowling now.
His rueful smile could charm the habit off a nun. “Just think about it. That’s all I’m asking. We’ll discuss it more later.”
“But Ethan, I—”
He made a show of eyeing his Rolex. “Whoa. Look at the time….”
“I’ve got that meeting with Jamison in five. You should have reminded me.”
“A minute more,” she piped up desperately. “Let’s just get this settled.”
“Can’t right now. Sorry.”
“You have my offer. Think it over.” He was already on his feet again.
“But I have thought it over and I—”
“Sorry. Really. Got to go.” And, again, he was out the door before she could pin him down.
Lizzie slumped in the chair.
But only for a moment—and then she was drawing her shoulders back, smoothing her hair that tended to frizz, even in the relatively low humidity of West Texas. She was not giving up on this. Today, one way or another, she was going to finish giving her notice.
Put it in writing, her sterner self insisted. That way he would have no choice but to accept the inevitable.
But no. She just couldn’t do that. Not to Ethan, who was not only her boss, but also a true friend, the one who had come through for her in a big way when she most needed some help and support.
She would get through to him. After all, he couldn’t escape her indefinitely. Especially not given that she lived in his house. No matter how hard he tried to avoid her, he had to come home eventually.
The meeting with Roger Jamison went well, Ethan thought.
Roger would have no trouble holding down the fort while Ethan was in Montana. And later, if things went as Ethan planned, he would formally name Roger to replace him as Traub Oil Industries’s chief financial officer.
After the meeting with Roger, Ethan could have returned to his corner office. But Lizzie would be there at her desk, guarding his door. And waiting to continue explaining how she was leaving him.
He was meeting his stepfather, Pete Wexler, for lunch at the club at noon. So he went on over there an hour early. He got a Coke and sat out on the clubhouse front patio and enjoyed the late-May sunshine.
Pete showed up a few minutes early and grabbed Ethan in a hug. “This is great,” Pete announced. “Good to get away from the office, get a little one-on-one time.” Pete clapped Ethan on the arm as he released him. “Shall we go on inside?” He gestured toward the wide glass doors.
Ethan led the way. They got a table with a nice view of the golf course.
And as soon as they put in their order, Pete started telling him what he already knew. “You’re leaving Thursday.”
“Your mother and I will try to get away Friday morning. It’s important to both of us, to be there for your brother’s wedding.” Corey, born third in the family after Ethan, was getting married on Saturday. Corey and his bride Erin were settling down together in Thunder Canyon, a great little mountain town not far from Bozeman. There was already a big Traub family contingent in the Thunder Canyon area. Ethan had cousins there. And his older brother, Dillon, the doctor of the family, had settled there, too. Pete was still talking. He named off Ethan’s remaining siblings. “Jackson, Jason and Rose are going to make it, too. The whole family will be there….”
Ethan sat back in his chair and listened to his stepdad ramble on and thought about how long it had taken him to accept Pete into the family. At least twenty years.
But eventually, Ethan, like his four brothers and his sister, had come around. How could he not? Pete was a good man. A kind man, with a big heart. He doted on Ethan’s mom and had consistently been there for his stepsons and –daughter.
The hard fact, Ethan saw now, was that it had taken him a couple of decades to forgive poor Pete for not being Charles Traub; Ethan’s dad had been tall and commanding, a self-made millionaire before he was thirty—back in the day when a million bucks actually counted for something. He’d died on an oil rig twenty-eight years ago, when Ethan was nine.
Pete had been there for Ethan’s mom, Claudia, from the day that the accident happened. And that had stirred up the town gossip mill in a big way. Ethan and his brothers had suffered no end of bloody noses and black eyes defending their mother’s honor and, by extension, Pete’s. At the same time as they stood up for the man, they were all secretly suspicious of Pete’s motives.
But in the end, there was no denying that Pete Wexler was a rock. He was no maverick. He liked to take things slow and steady, which, in terms of TOI, sometimes drove Ethan nuts. Still, Pete adored Ethan’s mom and he’d been a fine husband to her for twenty-six years now. Last year he’d had a heart attack, which freaked them all out and made them all the more aware of how much he meant to them.
Now, Pete was fully recovered and taking better care of himself. Back around the time of his heart attack, he and Ethan’s mom had talked about retiring. But not anymore. Pete was feeling great lately. And for the foreseeable future, they would be running Traub Oil Industries together, Pete as Chairman of the Board and Claudia as CEO.
Ethan knew they depended on him. But he was through waiting to be the boss. And he was a damn sight more adventurous about the business than either his mother or Pete would ever be. He’d dedicated his life to TOI, learned the company from the ground up. And he’d been CFO for six years now. It was enough. Exploration and development was the key for him. If he wanted bigger opportunities, he needed to create them. And thus, the trip to Montana.
Their food came. They dug in.
And that was when Pete brought up the resort. “About this Thunder Canyon Resort opportunity. Your mom and I have looked over the material your brothers put together.” Dillon and Corey had been pushing to get some TOI capital invested in the resort. “Do we really want to take on a failing hospitality venture at this point?”
“We wouldn’t be taking it on, exactly.”
Pete smiled. “Sorry. Figure of speech. But you know what I mean.”
“I do, Pete. Yes. And come on. I wouldn’t say the resort is failing. In fact, the numbers show improvement over the past year. And they got McFarlane House hotels to invest. I’ve been in contact with Connor McFarlane, second-in-command at McFarlane house. He’s committed to seeing the resort succeed.”
“You’ll get with McFarlane, face-to-face?”
“We’ve got a meeting set up for next week in Thunder Canyon.”
“The resort owners have been doing some reorganization…” Ethan waited for Pete’s nod before continuing. “And they’ve been pulling out all the stops to broaden their market, to make the resort more accessible to a wider demographic, while not sacrificing the reputation they’ve built as a luxury destination.”
“It’s only that I see no reason to rush into anything….”
“And we won’t. Sit tight,” Ethan reassured him. “I’ll spend more time on it, go over the books thoroughly, meet with the general manager, tour every inch of the property—all before we get down to giving a yes or a no.”
Pete nodded. “I know you will.” And then he started in about Ethan’s plans to expand into shale oil extraction once he got to Montana. Same old yadda yadda. Extracting oil from shale was cost-prohibitive. The environmental impact wasn’t good. As always, Pete reiterated all the drawbacks he’d reiterated any number of times before.
Patiently, Ethan reminded him that the higher the cost per barrel of oil, and the more depleted the oil reserves, the better it looked to be investing in oil shale. He reminded his stepdad yet again that the technology for extraction was constantly improving and TOI didn’t want to end up behind the curve on this.
Eventually, Pete ran out of red flags on that subject. They finished their lunch and parted in the club parking lot, where Ethan submitted to another big hug.
“I know I tend to be a little over-cautious,” Pete said when he let Ethan loose. “But I want you to know that I—and your mother, too, of course—not only love you and wish we could keep you right here in Midland forever. We also realize you have to get out there and break some new ground. And we admire the hell out of you for that, son.”
The smile Ethan gave his stepdad then had nothing but love in it. “Thanks, Pete. In some ways, you were always way ahead of the rest of us. It took me a while to appreciate how far ahead.”
Pete was looking a little misty-eyed. “See you at the board meeting.”
“Yeah. See you then.”
Ethan went back to the office.
Big mistake. Lizzie was waiting.
She rose from her desk as he approached his office door, blew a strand of almost-blond hair out of her eye, and tried to get his attention. “Ethan, I—”
“Not now, Lizzie. I’ve got important calls to make.”
“Later. Soon.” He pushed open his door, went through, and shut it behind him. Fast.
He spent the next few of hours answering phone messages, dealing with email and clearing his desk as much as possible, since he—and Lizzie, too, whether she was willing to admit it yet or not—would be on their way to Thunder Canyon bright and early Thursday morning.
The board of directors meeting was happening down in the main conference room. That meant he had to leave the safety of his office and get past Lizzie again.
No problem. He waited to go until she actually had to buzz him to remind him of the meeting.
And then he flew past her desk with a, “Hold any messages. I’ll deal with them tomorrow.”
She didn’t even look up. She knew there was no chance they would be discussing unpleasant subjects again that day.
The meeting included a catered meal and was over at a little after eight. No way was he going home that early. Not with Lizzie, who was both his assistant and his housekeeper, lying in wait for him there.
So he called a couple of friends and they went out for a beer. The bar had the Rangers game on the big screens. Ethan stayed to watch them beat the Angels five to four.
By then it was after eleven. One of his buddies invited everyone to his place for a final round. Ethan went. And he was the last to leave.
He didn’t pull into the driveway of his four thousand square foot house in a newer, gated subdivision until after two. All seemed quiet, only the outside lights were on. It looked to him like Lizzie had given up on him and gone to bed.
Very quietly, he let himself into the utility room from the garage. Lizzie’s rooms were on the ground floor, in the back, not all that far from the garage entrance, so he took extra care not to make a sound. Everything was dark and quiet and the house smelled faintly of baked goods.
His mouth watered. Cookies? No. It smelled more like…muffins. Maybe blueberry. He really loved Lizzie’s blueberry muffins. In fact, he could use one right now.
Following his nose, he tiptoed down the short back hallway toward the dark kitchen.
He got one foot beyond the doorway—when the kitchen lights popped on. He blinked against the sudden brightness and growled, “Lizzie, what the hell?”
“Ethan. There you are.” She stood by the island, wearing a very patient expression and a robe that looked like it might have been made from some old lady’s bedspread. “I was beginning to wonder if you’d ever get home.” The muffins were on the counter, behind her, looking all fat and golden and tempting. “This is getting ridiculous. You realize that, right?”
“Are those blueberry?”
She nodded, but she didn’t step aside so he could grab one. “We need to talk.” A weary sigh escaped her. “You want some coffee?”
He had that sinking feeling. She was determined to leave him. He knew that. She had a dream and she wouldn’t let go of it. And he was running out of ways to avoid having to let her go. “I shouldn’t have paid you so well,” he grumbled. “You saved too much, too fast.”
She shrugged. “You couldn’t help it. You’re a generous man.” She looked down at her feet, which were stuck in a pair of floppy terrycloth slippers the same old-lady blue as her robe. “You’ve been so good me. When my dad died…I don’t know if I could have made it without you.” Slowly, she lifted her head and they looked at each other.
He gave in. “Okay. Coffee.”
She knew he was no fan of decaf. But it kept him awake when he drank it at night, so she brewed decaf anyway. That was the thing about Lizzie. She knew what he wanted—and what he needed—without his having to tell her.
He took a muffin, grabbed a napkin and sat down at the table by the dark bow window. She used the single-cup maker, so the decaf was ready in no time. She set it down in front of him. He waited until she took the chair across the table before he broke off a hunk of the muffin and put it in his mouth.
Fat blueberries and that sweet, buttery pale-yellow muffin. How was it that Lizzie’s muffins always managed to be light and substantial, both at once? Delicious. Lizzie’s muffins—like her cookies and her cakes, her pies and the fat loaves of bread she baked—always made him feel good. Satisfied. Happy with the world and his place in it.
Yeah. That was it. Lizzie made him feel at home.
She said, “I’ve been thinking about that severance bonus you mentioned.”
He ate another bite, savoring it, before he spoke. “Three months, it’s yours.”
She shook her head. “It’s just too long.”
“Two, then.” He pulled out all the stops and put on a sad, pleading expression. “Two months. Lizzie, you’ve got to give me a little time…”
A little time. Who did he think he was kidding?
There was only one Lizzie. She made it possible for him to lead exactly the life he enjoyed—no commitments, no strings. He worked hard and played hard and when he got home, there was no one there nagging him. Just the sweet smell of something baking in the oven and Lizzie offering a nightcap. Or a bedtime cup of decaf and a fat blueberry muffin.
He not only needed to keep her from quitting, he needed to find a way to make her see that opening a bakery was a dream best left to die a natural death. He needed her to keep working for him. And to keep being his live-in best friend.
He picked up his coffee and sipped.
Not much got by Lizzie. Now, she was studying him with pure suspicion in her eyes. “What kind of scheme are you hatching?”
He rearranged his expression, going for total harmlessness, as he set the cup down. “Montana will be fun. A change. Change is a good thing.”
She made a humphing sound. “In spite of your plans for getting into oil shale, how likely is it that you’re going to be building an office there?”
“Very likely.” He hoped. “I have family there. Two brothers. Cousins. And my sister and my other brothers are making noises like they might want to settle down there, too.”
“An invasion of Traubs.”
“Well, I wouldn’t put it that way, exactly.”
She snorted. “I would.”
He reminded her, “And I have found a house there.”
“You mean you had me find you a house there.”
“That’s right. And you did a great job.” At least judging by the pictures she’d shown him online. Neither of them had actually been there, yet. But the lease was only for six months. If he didn’t like it, he’d find something else.
She was giving him that don’t-kiss-up-to-me-because-I’m-not-buying-it look. He didn’t care much for that look. She said, “How about this? You go, I stay. I hire and train my replacement while you’re gone.”
Not a chance. “Forget that.” He ate another bite of the amazing muffin. “I’ve changed my mind.”
“I want two months out of you, in Montana. Forget training your replacement. When the two months are up, I’ll find my own assistant.”
She wrinkled her very assertive nose. “Montana. Ugh.”
“Don’t knock it until you’ve been there. Thunder Canyon is like everyone’s dream of a hometown in the mountains. And the scenery is spectacular.” When she only sat there staring at him mournfully, he reminded her, “You get a giant bonus. For only two more months.”
She slanted him a sideways glance. “Two months would be it. The end. You accept that?”
He didn’t. So he lied. “Absolutely.”
“Fine,” she agreed at last. “Two months. I go with you to Montana. I get that big bonus and you find your own new assistant.”
“Deal.” He popped the rest of the muffin into his mouth and offered her his hand across the table. She took it and they shook.
He was careful to keep his gaze steady on hers and only to smile on the inside, to give her no clue that he was lying through his teeth. There was no way she was leaving him. He just needed more time with her to make her see the light.
Two months in Thunder Canyon should be just the ticket.
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