Losing Control (Chapter Four)

When Cole Hunter insisted she accompany him to dinner, Taryn's entire body flashed hot. Time alone in that kind of setting was a bad idea. The way he sometimes looked at her – with curiosity and hunger simmering in his eyes – he might want to consume a big juicy steak but in a deeper place, whether he admitted it or not, Cole was also flipping a coin, deciding whether he could afford a side order of her.

Sorry, but she wasn't on the menu.

Then again Guthrie Hunter's son was prickly enough. The edge she rode where he and her position at Hunters was concerned was already razor thin. If she refused this "invitation," Cole might close up completely and, like it or not, after listening to Roman's stories regarding the "Commander" all day, she'd come to the conclusion that she needed Cole on her side.

Plus, her brain and body were running on empty.

Although every instinct warned against leaving this building alone with Cole, she guessed they could talk business while they ate. The golden rule, however, still applied. She had no intention of getting too close to trouble.

So, with nerves jumping in her stomach, Taryn accompanied him out, collecting her bag on the way. They passed late-shift news employees with their noses to the grindstone. Cole sent a good-night to the uniformed security man, who stood watch near the giant glass autosliders, and a moment later he was opening the passenger-side door of a low-slung Italian sports car. Taryn's throat bobbed on an involuntary swallow. She had the weirdest feeling if she crawled inside that dark warm space, she might never come out.

Soon they were buckled up and weaving through Sydney's upper-end streets. In the near distance, arcing lights from the bridge spread shimmering silver ribbons over the harbor while beside her Cole changed gears with the intuitive grace of a professional. She couldn't ignore that subtle yet intoxicating masculine scent, the ease with which his large tanned hands gripped the leather of the wheel. In such close proximity, his legs seemed somehow too long, those shoulders almost too broad. Every available inch of this car seemed filled with the smoldering energy that was Cole Hunter.

Taryn pressed back into the molded bucket seat and clenched her hands in her lap. She'd never felt more unsettled. Never more female.

As they flew over a main arterial and the busy world whirred by, he said, "I'd kill for a good thick steak."

"I thought you'd be a steak man."

"You're not a steak woman?"

"Vegetarian."

"I'm sure my regular place caters for that."

"You mean caters for those of us who choose to live on the fringes."

In the rapid-fire shadows, his crooked grin flashed white. "No disrespect intended. I grew up in a male-dominated household. Tofu and soy weren't in our vocabulary."

Taryn peered out the window. She didn't care about Cole's eating habits. She cared only about getting this proposal through and at last moving forward with this show.

"Guess we're all products of our childhood," she offered absently.

"What about you?"

"What about me?"

"Lots of brothers and sisters?"

"I'm an only child."

His deep rich chuckle resonated around the car cabin, burrowing into her skin, seeping into her bones.

"You must have had a peaceful time growing up," he said.

Peaceful? "I guess you could call it that."

"What would you call it?"

That was easy.

"Lonely."

His hand on the gearshift, he hesitated changing down before he double-clutched then wove into the lit circular drive of an establishment that smacked of class and exorbitant prices. A uniformed man strode over to see to her door before a valet parked the car. They entered through open, white-paneled doors into an area decorated in swirls of bronze and planes of muted cherry-red. The large room's lighting was soft. Inviting.

Way too intimate.

While Taryn tried to concentrate on the weight of her laptop in her carryall over her shoulder rather than Cole's strong chiseled profile, from behind the front desk, the maitre d' tipped his head.

"I'm afraid we weren't expecting you this evening, Mr. Hunter. Your regular table isn't available." The older man's attention slid to her and his helpful smile deepened. "We do, however, have a private balcony setting with a magnificent view of the harbor."

"Sounds good." Cole rapped his fingertips on the leather-bound menu lying on the counter. "And, er, Marco, you have vegetarian dishes here, right?"

Marco didn't blink. "We have a wide selection. Our chef will also be happy to accommodate any particular requests."

As Marco escorted them to that private balcony, Taryn swore she felt heat radiating from Cole's hand where she imagined it rested inches from the small of her back. Then, when they slipped through into a curtained-off area, her breath hitched in her throat. The mixture of lilting music and silver moonlight, along with her striking company for the evening…she felt as if she'd stepped into a dream. She'd been out to dinner with attractive men at fine restaurants before, but this scene – this surreal heady feeling – was something else.

Retracting an upholstered bergere chair for her, Marco asked, "A wine menu this evening, Mr. Hunter?"

Cole rattled off the name of a vintage that Marco's widening eyes hinted was exceptional. A moment later, the curtain was drawn and they were once again completely alone.

Enjoying the atmosphere despite herself, Taryn shifted in the chair, which was more comfortable than her sofa. "I wasn't expecting this."

"You'd prefer an all-you-can-eat salad bar?"

With delicious aromas filling the air, her taste buds had already decided. She opened the menu. "Here will do nicely."

And every one of those dishes listed without prices sounded divine. Still, she would keep in the forefront of her mind that this was not an occasion to forget herself. In fact, she might as well put this idle time to good use.

Having chosen her meal, she set her menu aside and extracted her laptop from her carryall. With a grunt of disapproval, Cole sat back.

"We won't do that now."

"I'd rather get to it before you have a drink or two."

"I can assure you a couple of glasses of wine won't affect my judgment." His lips twitched. "You, of course, may be a different matter."

"I'm not a giggler, Mr. Hunter."

His frown returned. "And ditch the Mr. this and manners that. My name's Cole. You call my father Guthrie, don't you?"

"That's different. We're on friendly terms."

"Really? Did he take you out to dinner?"

She almost gasped. She knew what he was implying. "Of course not."

"Maybe you took him."

She slanted her head. "You won't put me off – Cole. If you want me gone from Hunters, you'll have to drag me out, kicking and screaming."

"Is that what happened at your last job?"

On the tabletop her fists curled. What would she bet he already knew?

At that moment, Marco arrived to serve wine and take orders, giving Taryn time enough to sort out her answer – and her temper. With Marco having left through the curtains again, she admitted, "I was let go from my last position."

Wineglass midway to his mouth, Cole stopped. "Didn't get along with your boss?"

"We got along great."

"Ah." He sipped, swallowed. "I see."

She burned to set him straight, and in the bluntest of terms, but she wouldn't give him the satisfaction.

"Upper management made the decision," she said. "My direct boss was always good to me. Very much a father figure."

"Seems you're partial to them. Don't you have one of your own?"

"A father?" Taking a long cool sip of water, she swallowed past the pit in her throat. "As a matter of fact, I don't."

Cole's shoulders seemed to lock before he set down his wineglass and said in a lower tone, "We were talking about your previous employ."

She explained about ending up the scapegoat for leaked information regarding those series ideas. Her plan had been to keep her story brief but Cole had a question for everything. He was quite the interrogator. Thorough and emotionless, as Roman had warned. Finally satisfied on that particular subject, he nodded.

"But you've landed on your feet," he offered, finger-combing back a dark lock blown over his brow by a harbor breeze.

"Seems that will depend on you."

"Or, rather, what you've got for me."

At that moment, their meals arrived and Cole took the liberty of refilling her wineglass. She hadn't realized she'd almost drained it.

"But I'm too damn hungry to focus," he said, setting the wine back down. "Let's eat."

While they enjoyed their meals, small talk was difficult to avoid – general topics at first…the state of the industry, current affairs. When he asked, she let him know that Guthrie's personal assistant had rung to apologize that regrettably he wouldn't have time to welcome her into their fold properly that day. Then conversation swerved toward lighter subject matter about schools and interests growing up. Cole had served in the Navy Cadets with a friend who owned his own security firm now. He said that once he'd even wanted to become a high-seas officer. She'd grinned at that. Who would have guessed?

Cole changed the tone and the subject back to family. Almost finished with their meals, he spoke about his mother – just a few words, but they were said with such sincerity and affection, Taryn felt moved. More than instinct said that this was a side of Cole others would rarely see. His next question was obvious, and yet she'd been so caught up in ingesting this small taste of "human Cole" that she hadn't seen it coming.

"Most daughters are close to their mothers," he said. "Does yours live nearby? In town?"

Taryn's stomach jumped but she forced the emotion down. She'd lived with the reality all her life. Woke up to it every morning. And still that empty sick feeling rose in a surge whenever she needed to say the words aloud.

She set down her fork. "My mother's dead."

His brows nudged together and he took a moment before responding.

"I'm sorry."

Yeah. Where her mother was concerned, she was sorry about a lot of things.

But this wasn't a first date. They weren't here to analyze the past – how some were born to rule while others were left to build on crumbs. Still, the evening hadn't been the disaster she'd half expected, although now was the time to gently but firmly reset some boundaries.

"I'd rather not discuss my personal life."

"Sure." He nodded. "I understand. I was only making conversation – "

"I know, Cole. That's fine." She pushed down those rising levels again and pasted on a reasonable face. "But we're here because you wanted to eat. Let's get that out of the way so we can get back to work."

While Taryn set about consuming the remainder of her salad, Cole warred with himself. He understood this occasion was in no way a catch-up between friends or, God forbid, a night out for lovers. He had indeed been making polite conversation – and he'd ended up sticking his foot in his mouth once again. He knew about the pain of losing a parent, but how was he to know that Taryn had lost both a father and a mother?

Yes, best they keep any subsequent talk firmly centered on business, he decided, draining his glass. Definitely best they conduct future meetings in a work environment – if Taryn and her proposal made it past this evening.

One glass of wine, half a steak and no conversation later, Cole set his napkin firmly down on the table beside his plate.

"Okay. We're done. Let's talk." And get back to our own lives.

Finished, too, Taryn slid her plate aside, collected her laptop and scooted her chair slightly toward his, purely to offer a better view of the screen. Before the hard drive had finished booting up, she'd outlined logistics on travel points and was expounding on visions for the future. But he was done with being chatty. Now he wanted the heart of her revised idea, and he wanted it fast.

"What's the hook?" he asked. "The draw card that'll have everyone and their great-grandma tuning back in week after week and advertisers cuing up?"

A manicured fingertip brushed a key and an image flashed up on the screen…a rather uninspiring shot of a group of people standing in an ordinary suburban front yard. The way Taryn was beaming, you'd think she was about to Skype with the person at the top of her "must meet" list.

Cole loosened his tie. God, why had he bothered? Why was he bothering still?

"Rather than trained reporters," she said, moving to the next image – a handful of kids playing basketball in some run-down hall, "we'll use real-life couples or families or groups to check out each holiday hot spot. We'll ask viewers to email or text in reasons why they, or someone they know, ought to be the next to enjoy an all-expenses-paid trip to some amazing place, courtesy of Hunters."

He barely contained a groan. "This is another reality show idea, isn't it?"

"Reality shows are still extremely popular," she insisted, rolling through more similarly uninspiring images, "and with this formula – coupling luxury with underprivileged – we can truly tug at the heartstrings of our viewers." When he groaned aloud, she tipped toward him. "Open up your mind to the possibilities and all the people you could help make happy."

"I'm not here to organize charities. I'm here to make good television." Make money.

She blinked then returned her attention to the screen and went on.

"At the end of the season, the viewers get to vote on the number-one holiday couple, family, friends or whatever, and the main sponsor donates a potful of cash toward helping an associated community cause. The next season kicks off with a lucky draw winner from a list of all the voters."

She looked so animated – her big eyes twinkling and hands dancing – he practically saw sparks fly. But…

"It's not new enough," he said. When she looked at him, puzzled, he elaborated. "I need more. Maybe if you include some sort of elimination strategy – "

"No. I want everyone associated with my show to feel like winners."

He pinched the bridge of his nose. Great. He was dealing with an I-can-save-the-world type. Not that philanthropy wasn't admirable. In this instance, however, it simply wasn't feasible. He'd grown up living and breathing the culture of broadcasting. He'd learned from the best, and now, he delivered the same. Or wanted to. He didn't know why Guthrie had let this stunt get as far as it had, but in the morning he'd tell his father he should consider a vacation. In fact, a lengthy holiday away from business – and would-be assassins – sounded like a damn fine idea.

"This will be a feel-good program," she was saying. "Sure, along the way there'll be all sorts of trials and fears faced, but no one will be left feeling like a loser. This show could start a whole new genre."

"Taryn," he said gently but clearly, "there is no show unless I say so."

She tacked up her slipping smile. "Think of the sponsors."

"You can talk all you want about sponsor dollars, but in the end time is money. My time. The company's time. I won't put valuable people on a project I'm not convinced will succeed."

"Not convinced yet," she corrected.

Blast it all. She wasn't listening.

"You shouldn't have rushed this. You should have given yourself at least a couple of days to really think through every possible angle."

"My idea was good to begin with."

He sucked down a breath. Okay. Blunt ax time. "There's no room at Hunters for good. I'm after brilliant – or nothing."

"Brilliant?"

"That's right."

Her gaze hardened. Then it turned to stone. "Because you're so brilliant?"

"Because, I'm the boss and – " dammit " – no one gets to play in my sandbox unless I say so."

Her eyes filled with an emotion that glistened at the same time as it burned. Then her hands fisted an instant before she pushed out of her chair. On her way up, she bumped the table and her glass toppled toward him. Wine hurled through the air, ending up with a splash on his lap. His arms flew out; at the same time his temper spiked and he slid his chair back. Was that an accident or was she deliberately making matters worse?

Still in his seat, Cole gripped his napkin and pressed at the cool alcohol seeping into his trousers. Somehow he managed to keep his voice even.

"I'll assume that was an accident."

"It was." She leaned across the table and flung the wine from his glass, too. "That one, I did mean."