Losing Control (Chapter Fourteen)

"Doesn't Australia seem a long way away?"

Taryn and Cole were lying together under the stars. The moon had dropped halfway into the ocean and everything was spookily quiet – as if the whole world were asleep.

Except for them.

Cuddling closer into the heat of his hard chest, she replied, "Doesn't sound as if you're in a hurry to get back."

"I feel strangely at ease." His lips nuzzled her hair. "Wonder why."

Because they'd just made love. But even in her mind, that sounded way too simple. Yes, their bodies had joined, but she felt as if their spirits had met, too. This was what being with someone was supposed to feel like. Totally absorbing. Completely fulfilling. Wondering how she'd ever find the wherewithal to move from this divine spot and leave this time behind, she snuggled in more.

Whether Cole felt as moved by the experience as she did, Taryn couldn't say. Nor would she ask. She might be feeling all wistful and in love with the universe. But more than instinct said Cole, or any man for that matter, didn't want to come over all marshmallow, dissecting feelings composed mainly of postcoital buzz…with feeling unbelievably fulfilled on every level. Rather he might like to broaden the discussion. Probably not such a bad idea.

"There's another reason you'd feel more relaxed. Your father's troubles are sorted."

He was quiet for a long time, simply stroking her arm with two fingers.

"I was thinking about my mother earlier today," he finally said. "Do you know she used to call me special?"

Taryn smiled. "I'm sure you were."

"She said I was so brave and clever, I was bound to grow into a man everyone could rely on."

"And you're living up to her prediction."

"Yeah. I'm the fix-it guy."

"What do you think would happen if you didn't run yourself ragged trying to fix everything all the time?"

Now that she'd seen him a league away from the office, unburdened like this, she couldn't help but wonder.

"If I didn't keep an eye on Hunter's dealings in the States as well as back home, frankly, I'd run the risk of seeing it all fall apart."

"Is it really that bad?"

"Let's just say, it's a full-time job."

"And the price you pay is a coronary."

"I got the impression you were a 'dot every i' type, too. I'm still not convinced you didn't order one bedroom, even subconsciously."

She knuckled his ribs. "You're not that good."

"Aren't I?"

He drew her up so that she lay on top of him. Then he kissed her, tenderly and with infinite meaning…in a way he hadn't kissed her before. And all the problems and doubts in the world faded clean away.

When they came up for air, she breathed out a long sigh then lay her cheek on his shoulder.

"Well, on second thought," she said, "maybe you are that good."

* * *

When Taryn woke in bed the next morning, the sun had just peeked over the horizon and the sheet-rumpled space beside her was empty.

Sitting up with a start, she pushed back hair fallen over her brow then relaxed, remembering how her evening with Cole had ended. The most romantic night of her life.

After making love again on the beach and coming to terms with the fact that no baby turtles were likely to hatch, they'd meandered back to the bungalow. Sandy and sticky, they'd showered together – soaping each other up then taking their sweet time to wash each other down. After drying off, they'd jumped into this bed and, with that rattan fan beating warm air over their heads, had continued to talk and kiss and more.

What time had she fallen asleep? Didn't matter. She'd never felt more refreshed. And disappointed. She'd imagined cuddling up with Cole this morning and repeating what had unfolded atop that blanket the night before, and possibly exploring other pleasure points, too…finding more ways to please. Then again, she couldn't envision feeling any more satisfied. The problem was she wanted more.

Wanted now.

So much it frightened her a little.

As she found her negligee wrap, Taryn wondered. Perhaps she would live to regret this coming together. Cole Hunter was first and foremost her boss, after all. Carrying on from that, he was committed to his company – to his family – and had no room for anything or anyone else in his life. Any woman foolish enough to entertain flowery notions about a lasting relationship with a man like that was headed for trouble.

Thoughtful, she knotted her wrap's sash and wandered out to the main room.

Trouble. Yes, Cole was certainly that. But he was also exciting and sexy and, dammit, she was going to take this unexpected, wonderful moment in time for what it was. A thrilling, soul-lifting one-off. Once they were back home, the involvement no doubt would end. Because nothing screwed with a girl's career more than trying to negotiate an office affair.

A good friend had walked down that long dark road and had come out losing everything on the other side – job, self-respect, pretty much her sanity. Taryn had quietly deemed herself too smart to fall into that trap.

But this slip with Cole didn't need to be fatal. It was like having one bad day on a diet. Come day after tomorrow, she'd simply correct her course, get back on the bike and wean herself off him. Difficult, but doable.

From a bowl on the coffee table, she grabbed a banana and, peeling the skin, made her way toward the larger entrance of the bungalow, which invited in a panoramic view of the bay. Biting into the fruit, she surveyed the near surrounds but Cole was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he'd hooked up with that sweet boy.

She crossed over to the kitchenette. While pouring some chilled nectar, she eyed her laptop sitting on the counter. Those pictures and videos she shot yesterday were waiting to be downloaded. Roman had made her promise she'd take loads. He wanted to see them all.

Roman was an intuitive type, Taryn decided. Would he pick up on the changed vibe between her and Cole? What would he think of the situation – of her – if he discovered she'd slept with the one man who decided whether her show made the cut?

A flash of guilt gripped her stomach, but right now Taryn only wanted to embrace feeling good. She wanted to remember the way Cole's mouth and hands had moved over her body like an artist's, creating sensations and bringing out emotions she hadn't thought existed…. Standing here alone, naked beneath this filmy wrap, she felt helpless not to close her eyes and conjure up more memories, more bone-melting must-have-again moments.

When Taryn opened her eyes, her gaze landed on an item lying on the main table – a flower. Massive and scarlet in color, it looked so perfect, Taryn wondered if it were fake. Crossing over, she ran two fingertips across a satin-soft petal. She could check on the video she'd taken of this room not long after they'd arrived, but she was certain it hadn't been here then. And no one else had been inside this room since that man had dropped off their luggage.

Had Cole brought this flower home for her this morning? Beneath it all, was he that romantic?

She'd assumed Cole would want this interlude to be short and sweet. He was an astute businessman with little time for R & R, not a man to be led by his heart. But did she have it wrong? He had dropped a hint once, hadn't he? Was Cole Hunter truly looking for the right person? The right woman?

Not that she wanted to be that woman necessarily. She was a career person. Foremost, at this time in her life, she wanted her show to air and succeed.

But maybe this island truly could work miracles. Make people rethink who they were and why they were here on this earth.

Outside, footfalls sounded on the steps. The next minute, Cole's masculine frame filled the doorway. He was wet, rubbing a towel down his face, over his slick dark hair. His bare chest pumping after what Taryn guessed had been a jog up from the beach, he saw her and broke into a smile that left her heart thudding all the more. Would he present her with the gorgeous flower now?

Moving forward, he brushed a cool kiss across her cheek and stayed close to drawl, "I was hoping you'd still be in bed." He drew back a little. "I couldn't resist the idea of a swim."

"I can't resist you."

Bouncing up on her toes, she snatched a kiss a moment before a hungry smile swam up in his gorgeous green eyes. Dropping the towel, he wound his big cool arms around her.

"That felt like an invitation."

"I figure it's too early for work."

His focus had dropped to her neck, to the slope of flesh that led to one shoulder. The cold tip of his index finger eased her wrap away from the spot before his head lowered. She sighed as his mouth lightly sucked then nibbled then sucked again.

He murmured against her skin, "You taste good."

"And I have it on good authority that's not the best part."

She tugged the tie at her waist, shucked back her shoulders and the wrap joined his towel on the floor.

With firm intent, his hands slid lower, over her backside, as his wet shorts pressed unashamedly against her belly. He was already hard and she was keen to make him harder.

"I'd better warn you," he said. "I'm ravenous in the morning."

She coiled her arms around his neck. "You're always hungry."

His playful gaze darkened to a more serious hue as he concentrated on her lips. "So feed me."

* * *

He carried her back to that bed where they stayed, and played, until well after ten when his cell on the dresser beeped. He hesitated, clearly wondering who was after him now, before he resumed tickling her nipple with the tip of his very skilled tongue.

Bodily exhausted, but passions still switched on to high, she ran a hand over the back of his head, through his tousled dark hair.

"You don't want to see who that is?"

He switched to her other breast. "Nope."

Sighing, she arched up as his tongue twirled one way around the peak then the other.

"It might not be work related," she said dreamily.

"It's work related."

"Might be family."

"Like I said…"

"Might be Tate."

She felt him smile. "Tate isn't allowed to use the phone."

"Guess he is a little young."

"But smart. He knows his own home number. Mine, too."

Moving up, he curled an arm around her head and asked, "When did your aunt trust you with a phone of your own?"

"I got one when I started a part-time job during senior year in high school. It was the first thing I bought with a wage. No. Second. I'd had my eye on a cream silk dress for weeks."

"What was the third thing?"

"I saved up and gave some money to an agency to help find someone from my past."

Tipping on his side, he rested his weight on his elbow. Finally he asked, "Your father?"

"Mother. My father abandoned us before I was born. My mother bowed out later when I was a tot. If it hadn't been for Vi, I wouldn't have had an opinion on family worth voicing. She's supportive and understanding, and she saved me from feeling worse about my childhood than I should.

"I remember," she went on, "when I was maybe only five or six, Vi dated a man with kind smiling eyes and a belly laugh that filled the house. I thought they'd be together forever and I'd get the mob of brothers and sisters I wanted. But they broke up. I remember finding my aunt sometimes trying to cover her tears." Taryn had spilled a few tears of her own.

Cole seemed to take that all in before he asked, "Did the agency find her?"

"Yep. I even went to see her. She was living with a bunch of people on the coast of Northern New South Wales. My aunt said she'd come with me, but I wanted to do it on my own."

"Was it a happy reunion?"

"Actually it was a huge letdown. She tried to make out like she was glad to see me, then she came up with a ton of excuses why she'd needed to leave me behind. She never stopped fidgeting, acting cornered. Just one of those women who should never have had children, I guess. But I'm glad I went. We even swapped emails for a time. When she died a few years later, I went to the funeral. Paid for a headstone. Would you believe she wanted to be buried with a bottle of rum?"

He drew in closer and held her gaze with his. "She missed out."

"I've thought about organizing to have flowers put on her grave each anniversary of her death, but I can't bear to think of them sitting there, week after week, all withered and brown. I should probably go plant a rosebush or something. Not sure if that's allowed."

But she'd talked enough about the past. She wanted to get back those other, happy feelings.

Winding a finger through a lock of hair that had fallen over his brow, she said, "By the way, I like the flower you brought back for me this morning."

"Flower?"

"The red hibiscus. It's as big as a plate." When he frowned, she went on. "You left it on the table, remember?"

"Oh, that. No. That boy with the bucket brought it back from the spring yesterday. He must have ducked in to leave it there for you. It was closed up, asleep, when we found it."

Taryn blinked then said, "Oh," and forced an easy smile. "I just assumed it was you. Doesn't matter."

But deep down, it stung a little. Made her feel foolish for thinking he'd gone to the trouble.

Which meant she was getting way too caught up here. Yes, they'd slept together – a number of times in only a few hours. The day they'd met, Cole had suggested she may have had an affair with her former boss, which she'd denied, and she felt he'd believed her. But did he wonder about that now? Or did he see this experience for what it was? A once-in-a-lifetime fling between two consenting adults who happened to work together. It wasn't ideal but it happened. It had happened to them.

And thinking of it that way only reinforced that she had no reason to come over all adolescent now. He didn't give her that flower. Didn't matter. No big deal.

He was studying her neck, sliding a fingertip around the decolletage.

"You don't wear a chain," he said.

"I have a pile of costume jewelry," she said, her thoughts preoccupied now.

"But nothing that says Tiffany?"

"Their pieces are beautiful, but I'm not a jewelry kind of girl." She was a flower kind of girl.

He looked at her for a long moment as if debating something in his head…like maybe how he would handle this situation when they got back? How he would go about closing the door. Perhaps with a parting gift. A piece of jewelry. She'd already accepted that what had happened between them was never meant to last. And yet as that feeling of preoccupation turned into unease, suddenly she knew they'd spent enough time in bed. They needed to start moving. Get back to reality. To work. She'd mentioned it earlier so Cole knew that her video camera was charged, ready for a shoot involving that volcano.

He must have sensed or seen her change in mood because, tipping back, he said the words for her.

"Perhaps we should get on with our day."

"I think that's a good call."

Without another word, he slid out from beneath the sheets and, naked, headed for the adjoining bathroom. But Taryn lay there a moment longer, going over in her mind the past few minutes. She didn't accept expensive gifts. She didn't want them. But believing that he'd brought a flower back here for her…

A simple thought like that would have meant so much.

* * *

When he came out from the shower, into the main room, Taryn was moving away from the table. He saw that flower lying there. She'd said it had been as large as a plate, but now, again, all the petals were closed.

"Did you get your message?" she asked, moving to her laptop, which sat on the kitchen counter.

"Message?" he asked.

"Your phone beeped again. Twice."

He rubbed his brow, dragging his hand down his face. It was a gorgeous Saturday morning. He was on a picturesque Pacific isle with a woman who made love like a goddess and, ten minutes ago, had again put up her wall. Because he'd hinted at giving her a gift? Well, that was one for the books. Or was there something he wasn't seeing?

He returned to the bedroom and slid his cell off the dresser. Three recent messages. All from his father.

After he'd listened to the first, he didn't need to hear the rest. Didn't need to feel any sicker. Angrier. When he got hold of Jeremy Judge, by God, he'd throw him down on the ground and –

"Business?"

He glanced up. Taryn stood at the doorway, her long fair hair loose and hanging over bare shoulders. She wore a strappy lime-green dress that complemented her skin tone. Her gaze was bright but also very much back to reserved. He stabbed the redial key. He didn't have time for holding hands now.

"There's been another attempt on my father's life."

Her breath caught. "That can't be."

"I'll get Brandon front and center on the case straightaway," he said to himself, fast dialing then grabbing his bag off the floor, dumping it on rumpled sheets then striding into the bathroom to collect his gear, all with the cell pressed to his ear.

For God's sake, pick up!

"Does that mean that other man, the man who died, wasn't responsible?" she asked. "Or that he wasn't working – "

"How the hell should I know?"

Storming out from the bathroom, he was confronted by Taryn's wounded gaze. Oh, hell. He so didn't need this right now. Neither did he want to act like a brute.

He left a quick urgent message for Brandon then took one step toward her. "Look, I'm sorry. It's just…" He shut his eyes and cursed at himself. "I should never have left."

"What could you have done?"

"What I should have done from the start. Taken charge. And to hell if someone didn't like it."

"Meaning your father."

"Meaning anyone on God's green earth."

He shoved his toothbrush and aftershave in his bag then drove a hand in to drag out a clean pair of trousers.

"You're leaving?" she asked.

"Soon as I can."

"There's no connecting flight out until this afternoon."

"Then I'll organize a private flight."

He stepped into his chinos. Pulled out a tee. He heard her question as if from afar.

"Cole, what happened?"

"Two men clubbed my father. When a bystander rushed up to help, they almost managed to shove Tate into their van. I would never have forgiven myself if…"

His stomach pitched. Dammit, he wanted to hit something. Break it in two and hit it again.

"Cole, this isn't your fault."

"Someone else started this, but, by God, I'll finish it."

Driving the shirt on over his head, he noticed Taryn at the wardrobe, dragging out her own bag. He frowned.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm going with you."

"This isn't your fight."

"You need someone with you."

"I've never needed anyone."

"Everyone needs someone, Cole."

Something shifted deep inside of him, but he pushed it aside and reminded her, "That volcano's expecting you and your camera."

"Guess the volcano will have to wait."

"But this survey, your show – "

"Are important. But this takes priority."

He held her gaze then, remembering the clock was ticking, he turned to find his shoes.

She went over and held his hand. When he met her gaze again, she asked, "Is your dad okay?"

After a tense moment, he blew out a breath.

"He's at home, resting."

"And Tate?"

With his free hand, Cole held his throbbing head. "There are some crazy sons of bitches out there. People who don't have a moment's hesitation in hurting someone who can't defend themselves. Tate's all right. I'm going to make sure he stays that way."

"What is it you think they want?"

"Always comes down to money, doesn't it?"

"A ransom. But I thought these were attempts on your father's life. A ransom demand's no good if you don't have a bargaining chip."

His stomach tightened before it rolled over twice. He murmured, "I have this horrible feeling…"

"What?"

"That Eloise is connected to this in some way."

"Guthrie's wife? Trying to kill him? Why on earth would she want to do that? He must treat her like a queen."

"Women like Eloise are never satisfied." He remembered the way she'd come on to him – Guthrie's oldest son – whenever they were alone, and the sick feeling in his stomach grew ten times worse. He grabbed his cell again.

"I need to make a couple of phone calls. To organize that private flight first off…"

"And the second call?"

"Jeremy Judge." He scowled. "I'm looking forward to firing his ass."