Losing Control (Chapter Eighteen)
As the days had gone by, she'd kept herself busy with one of two occupations. She was either immersed in her show's preparation – organizing crew, sponsors, studio time – or sourcing people who would love to adopt a kitten.
She did little socially, although when Roman had asked, she'd gone to a movie. They'd grabbed a bite beforehand, had enjoyed buttered popcorn throughout the show and had said goodbye in the complex's parking lot.
Given he knew about the Cole situation, Taryn guessed Roman felt sorry for her. Which was thoughtful. Nice. But she was done with feeling sorry for herself.
Over the past couple of days, her hope to stay with Hunter Broadcasting had dimmed. She'd swallowed the six-show deal. But then Cole had cut her budget in half. Had told her that he could not agree to sign the host she liked. Today he'd put the nail in her coffin. His PA had passed on the news that rather than five people helping to put the show together, she'd have two, one being a seventeen-year-old graduate. No experience equaled cheap labor.
Technically, Cole might have approved her show but, clearly, he still wanted her gone. She hoped he slept well at night.
Earlier today, Taryn had learned Guthrie was in, which happened less and less. When Taryn had phoned through, his personal assistant had said he'd see her straightaway.
Walking down that long corridor, Taryn guessed she ought to feel nervous, one of the reasons being that she didn't normally do snap decisions. Usually she formulated a plan, studied all the angles then pursued her goal until said goal was attained. Whereas the action she'd decided upon this morning had seemed to come to her out of the blue. Kind of the way she'd handled her conflagration of an affair with Cole. Only, no matter how much this might hurt, she was certain this decision was the right one.
She entered Guthrie's office. He stood by that long stretch of window, studying that panoramic view of Sydney and its harbor, his fingers loosely thatched at his back. Hearing her, he turned, smiled and asked, "What can I do for you, Taryn?"
They took seats and suddenly Taryn couldn't find the right words. While the son might be difficult, Guthrie had only ever been supportive. But, whether he knew it or not, Guthrie wasn't in charge here. If he were, she wouldn't need to jump through Cole's endless hoops.
Taryn looked Guthrie in the eye. "I have to leave Hunter Broadcasting."
His eyebrows snapped together. "Trouble with staff?"
"With management." She swallowed. "With Cole."
Guthrie studied her for a long queasy moment. Then he pushed to his feet and, with a slight limp leftover from that last assault, crossed to his desk.
"I'll have a word with him," he said, stabbing a button. "Stay put. We'll sort this out."
"That won't do any good." Having found her feet, too, she moved closer.
Guthrie had the receiver to his ear. "He has his own mind, but Cole listens when he knows I'm serious."
She was serious, too. "He doesn't believe in my project. I won't put my all into doing my best when Cole is doing everything in his power to cut me off at the knees."
Guthrie tried again. "My son's motives can seem harsh at times, but underneath all the woo-hah, he's only trying to take care of things."
"I believe you. I do. But it doesn't work in this situation." Doesn't work for me.
"Taryn, are you certain there's nothing more behind this? I was preoccupied that afternoon you both flew back from that survey, but…"
"Whatever happened between the two of us doesn't change his work attitude, then or now. I'm unhappy here." Not appreciated or respected. Cole had seduced her and, yes, she'd wanted to be seduced. He liked to be in charge, but in this final stretch, she was taking the reins.
"I wish it were different," she said, "but I don't ever see that changing. I'll leave Hunters today."
* * *
Despite today's heavy rain, Taryn had ventured out to collect some cat milk for Muffin and a bunch of roses from the corner store. She was arranging the flowers in her favorite vase, thinking about dicing some vitamin-rich food for the lactating mother, when a knock sounded on the door. She glanced up. She wasn't expecting her aunt. Her friends all had jobs during the week. Perhaps it was a delivery, only she wasn't expecting an order.
As she passed by Muffin and her litter, who were snuggled and asleep in a large bed-box in the living room, Taryn had a flash but quickly pushed the thought aside. Guthrie had accepted her resignation and she didn't regret the move. The CEO slash Executive Producer of Hunter Broadcasting had never liked her show's premise. Had never approved of her being hired without being consulted first. No doubt, when all was said and done, Cole would be grateful to be rid of that headache. She was relieved to have gotten rid of hers. She was more calm. Her usual cool self again.
Then Taryn fanned back the door and her heart leaped so high, she had to swallow to push the lump halfway back down. Cole stood on her porch, looking unhappy about being drenched because of the rain and, she supposed, being here. Well, he could simply turn around, jump in his sports car and go back to the office. She certainly hadn't invited him.
Cole set his monster black umbrella down, tapping the steel spike against the timber floorboards twice – to help shake off the water or make certain she was paying attention?
"What's this about you quitting?"
She feigned surprise. "You're only finding out now? I gave Guthrie my resignation two days ago."
"Did you think to consult me?"
"Consider yourself consulted." Her hand still on the doorknob, she stepped back. "Hope I don't sound rude, but I was in the middle of something important."
"Finding another job?"
"Feeding the cat."
Her face and neck hot, she moved to shut the door. One big black leather lace-up slid out, acting as a stop.
He said, "You don't have to leave."
"It was a choice, Cole. I don't have to go. I want to go." She slanted her head. "Why are you here? You never liked my idea. You've done everything you could to have me land flat on my backside." You've ignored me day after day.
"I'll come in and we'll discuss it."
"I'm not letting you in." Not ever again. "Give yourself until next week. You'll have forgotten all about this by then."
Setting his umbrella up against the outside wall, he dragged a hand down his face as if this were all too hard.
"Look, I'm sorry I had to make all those cuts."
"That's fine. All forgotten. Now please leave."
He cast an exasperated look back at the rain teeming down beyond her porch and exhaled.
"I can't help the way things are," he said. "You knew what my life was from the start."
When heat from frustration and anger threatened to overtake her, she closed her eyes and shook her head. If he felt guilty about the way he'd treated her, that was his bad luck. She only wanted him to vanish so she could go back to arranging flowers and forgetting that man ever existed.
"Let me in. We'll talk – "
As he moved forward, finished with games, she moved, too. And shut the door.
But Cole's barrier now was a thousand times more effective than the one he'd used earlier. He reached out and, without apology, hooked one arm around her waist then hauled her close until her breasts were pressed against his shirt and she felt the booming of his heartbeat too near her own.
She opened her mouth to tear him down. After what he'd done, how dare he handle her this way. But in one blinding heartbeat, his mouth had taken hers. With one palm supporting the small of her back, he kissed her long and hard and shockingly deep. Flames swirled through her blood, instantly melting her bones, causing her to become a rag doll in his arms.
But when his palm scooped lower and she felt him harden against her belly, her strength returned. Making fists, she pushed with both barrels against his chest. She might as well have tried to shift a mountain. He was on a mission. And, damn the man, he was winning.
As his head angled more and the rough of his beard rubbed a path against her cheek, gradually, bit by bit, her fight drained away. He was so determined, so hot, what hope did she have? But she wasn't beaten so much as temporarily tamed. If he'd only quit with the caveman act – if he'd stop kissing her long enough for her to get her thoughts together – she'd tell him this kind of treatment wouldn't change her mind…
By the time his mouth eventually left hers, the world was spinning twice as fast. Not only were her breasts aching, begging for his touch, the throbbing at the apex of her thighs told her that past indiscretions were forgiven. Forgotten.
As his lidded eyes searched hers, Taryn couldn't bring herself to move away. She could only remember the heaven she'd experienced on that island when he'd coaxed and adored her body, teasing her nipples, stroking her curves, loving her to the point where nothing and no one else had existed.
Then, over the pounding rain, she heard another noise. His cell phone sounding. Rather than take the call, he pressed soft moist kisses at one corner of her mouth while two hot fingers rode a drugging circle low on her back. But his cell beeped again, and again. Giddy with want, she felt his hesitation and forced herself to focus. The sound of the rain drifted back in. Behind her, Muffin mewed twice. When Cole carefully released her, the firm set of his jaw said he wasn't finished sorting this out but he also needed to read that text.
Crawling out from the fog, Taryn remembered Aunt Vi's advice. Keep the door open because once it's shut, there's no going back. But when Cole held up one finger to ask her to hold on a minute, Taryn touched her still-burning lips and a good measure of the stardust faded and fell away. She watched him check the cell, dial into his voice mail, then press a finger to an ear, shutting out a roll of thunder while he turned his back to concentrate fully on business.
Taryn blinked and thought, but when she'd made up her mind, she didn't bother to interrupt. She simply shut the door, bolted the lock and didn't open it again, no matter how hard he knocked.
* * *
With two chilled beers in hand, Cole sidled up to the chair next to Brandon's. Talking above the din of the local club, he handed one over and asked, "So, anything to report?"
"Judge and I have exhausted every lead from the guy who threw himself under that car. If he was connected to those earlier incidents and this latest one, whoever's pulling the strings has done a fine job of camouflaging their trail. I've assigned a private detail for Guthrie's and Tate's protection. I also suggested one for your stepmother, but she declined."
Cole nodded then downed a mouthful of beer.
Brandon went on to describe in detail the areas he would sweep next: again questioning neighbors and also employees, setting up surveillance cameras that reached outside of normal parameters. Cole absorbed it all at the same time as his brain switched to a different box in his head. Lately, more and more, he found his thoughts drifting there and wanting to stay.
He thought he knew himself pretty well and yet he was stumped figuring out why he'd bothered showing up on Taryn's doorstep the other day. She was right. Although he'd enjoyed their time together, he'd never gone for her show's concept. Obligation had caused him to okay it. Duty had compelled him to sabotage it. Guilt had sent him knocking on her door to… Apologize? Make amends?
Hell, he was a fool and he knew it.
Cole blinked back. "About what?"
"You didn't hear anything I just said, did you?"
"Of course I did. This is my father's life we're talking about."
"Which means whatever it is eating you must be important."
Cole swirled his bottle. No reason he couldn't share with his best friend. If anyone would understand, it was Brandon.
"It's a woman. Taryn Quinn."
Brandon sat slowly back. "You blew it?"
"I let it go."
He explained the story from go to woe.
"Holy crap," Brandon said when Cole had finished. "No wonder she's pissed at you. You sleep with her like there's no tomorrow then barely acknowledge her because of a contract. To add insult to injury, you set her show up for a slide into the mud."
Cole cocked an eyebrow, swallowed beer. "That's pretty much it."
"You might be company obsessed, but you've never treated a woman like that before."
Gazing at his beer, Cole confessed, "Taryn's special."
"God help the ones who aren't."
"I have too much on my plate, too much to keep in order, to have to worry about a relationship."
"Like Meredith said at the reunion, you can't run forever."
"I can try."
"You need to ease up on yourself. Quit taking all the responsibility for Hunters. That's too much for anyone."
"You say that as if I have a choice."
"Oh, it's a choice, all right. Don't try to say you don't like being 'the man.' At school, if you didn't get 'school captain this' or 'regional champion that,' you dragged your feet for days."
"It's healthy to be competitive. It's natural."
"Until it starts to screw with your life."
"Work is my life. With all my family tangled up in it, it has to be."
"I'll give you my take. I think this woman's in love with you. And my bet is you're in love with her, too."
After the moment of shock had passed, Cole barked out a laugh. "Remember who you're talking to? I've never been in love." He held up a warning finger. "Meredith McReedy doesn't count. Hell, I've only known Taryn a few weeks."
"Sometimes it happens that way. Fast and deadly, like a snake bite."
"I'm not looking to get hitched."
"All I've heard about this lady is how strong and beautiful and perfect she is. But you're not really seeing it."
Cole drained the rest of his beer then set the bottle down on the table hard. "I don't see any ring on your fat finger."
"Maybe that's because I haven't found the right person."
Cole's thoughts skidded to a halt as those words echoed through his brain.
Was that it? Why he couldn't for the life of him shake her from his mind. And the fascination was growing worse every day. Love? It was great his mother and father had shared it. He'd always thought that someday he'd settle down, too.
Question was, if Brandon was right – if this was it and she was the one – given that she hated his guts…
What did he do now?
* * *
The next day was Saturday. At home, Cole was about to settle down with that pain-in-the-butt Liam Finlay contract yet again. He got this was an important deal with a huge amount of money hanging in the balance, but he was beginning to wonder if Finlay was playing games, stretching this out, making him suffer because of his past unsatisfactory dealings with Guthrie. Still, what could he do? Hunter Broadcasting needed this deal. Therefore Cole couldn't slack off. Or, rather, not again.
His home phone extension rang. Business calls came through on his cell. Majority of his personal calls, too. Probably some poor sales sap doing another cold call. Or…
Tate knew that number. He'd learned it off by heart. When the phone stopped then rang again, a shiver ran through Cole's blood and he picked up. Sure enough, that familiar sweet voice filtered down the line.
"Daddy's not home and Mommy says I'm too noisy," Tate said. "She's tired."
"Where your dad?"
It was the weekend and Guthrie had been spending most of his time at home lately. Where else might he be?
"Don't know." Cole imagined Tate's little shoulders shrugging. "Can you come and play with me?"
Cole recalled that tome of a contract sitting on his home desk. There was loads of other work he could catch up on, too. But then he thought of Tate, what a bum deal he'd gotten having a mother like Eloise, feeling as if he had to get around like a mouse when he was a robust five-year-old boy who should be out kicking a ball, not stuck inside playing with electronic games.
Cole scrubbed his jaw, made his decision.
"Are you watching TV, kiddo?"
"Uh-huh. SpongeBob's just started." Tate laughed. "He's funny."
"Grab a hat. By the time your show's over, I'll be there."
* * *
Cole arrived bang on time and let Creepy Nancy know that he was taking Tate out for the day. Eloise didn't bother to come downstairs to say have a nice time. Wearing a bright red tee, Tate sat like an angel in the passenger-side seat while they drove to a park, the one Cole and Taryn had paddled those boats in, not that he'd intentionally planned his and Tate's time together today that way.
Cole parked and grabbed the football he'd brought along. They filled their stomachs with hot dogs and Coke first. Watched the ducks on the lake while the food settled. When Cole couldn't control Tate's fidgets any longer, they kicked and tossed the pigskin back and forth. Cole showed his brother techniques required for a handball, a pass famous in Aussie Rules Football. Tate was doing well, stepping into the action, getting his punching fist almost right. They'd been out an hour. Given Tate wasn't nearly tired yet, Cole was thinking about teaching him a torpedo punt kick when his cell phone buzzed.
"This might be your dad," he called out to Tate, who was perhaps twenty yards away. But when Cole answered without checking the ID, the voice on the other end wasn't the one he'd expected.
"Liam Finlay here."
Cole's every sense zoomed in to concentrate fully on this conversation. "What's up?"
"My lawyers are with me. There's another conflict, page 103, item 24."
Cole's mind flew back, trying to identify the passage.
Liam went on to inform him that now the Players Association weren't happy with their cut, given the exclusivity clause relating to live games televised. Cole replied they'd been through this just last week. He'd already bumped his offer up. Liam said the dotted line was still blank. Now was the time to iron these creases out. Cole said he didn't want to increase his offer. He didn't believe anyone would. Liam said that was up to him. He could give him an answer now or come to the headquarters and talk it through.
A red soccer ball shot up and hit Cole in the shin, on the same leg that bore that old cubby house scar. In that instant, Cole remembered his brothers, Dex, Wynn, Tate –
His head snapped up. He looked left, right. Then the panic, cold and creeping, began to seep into his bones.
Cole spun a three-sixty. Looked down low. Up high. Behind benches and trees. His world shrank then funneled out fast. That tiny five-year-old was nowhere to be seen.
He held his stomach as it pitched and pitched again. He didn't often pray but now he looked to heaven and, as the strength seemed to drain from his body and his brain began to tingle, he vowed he would give anything – everything – if he was only overreacting and Tate would magically reappear.
On the ground, a toss away, Cole spotted his cell. His scattered thoughts pieced together. If Tate was indeed missing – and given recent history, that idea couldn't be discounted – there was a logical step he must take. Sending another swift glance around, he scooped up the phone where he'd dropped it then frowned at the noise coming out. Finlay was still bleating on the other end?
Cole didn't think twice.
He ended that call.
While he strode around, asking the ice-cream vendor then a man walking his dog if they'd seen a little boy in a bright red tee, he dialed the three-digit number to connect to emergency services. As he spoke to the representative on the other end of the line, sickening panic crushed in again, but this time it was peppered with resolve. If Tate was lost, if he'd been taken, he would find his brother. If he had to ask every person in this park, cut down every tree, check on each –
Cole's tracking gaze stopped and he froze.
In the parking lot some fifty yards away, a big black van was reversing out. The windows tinted an impenetrable shade, Cole couldn't make out the plates but, through the windshield, he saw the shaggy-haired driver wore dark glasses that covered half his face. His father had said one of the men who'd tried to abduct Tate had shaggy hair, big black glasses. Cole also knew those men had driven a black van.
Cole belted off. He heard Tate's name called out. Twice. Three times. Limbs pumping, he realized that voice was his own.
He slammed into the van before it could leave, thumped on the sliding door and didn't stop. The driver, an angry weedy man, soon appeared.
"What the hell you doing to my vehicle?"
Cole grabbed him by the scruff of his shirt and pulled him up so he could talk to his weasel face. "Open that door. Do it now. Now!"
If he was right, if Tate was in there, he'd deal with weasel-man after his brother was out in the light again. But when he flung aside the door, peered inside, the space was empty other than an old washing machine dumped in one corner.
Cole stormed over, his footfalls echoing through the metal cage. He flung open the lid of the machine and then –
His heart dropped to the ground. He staggered back.
Cole wandered out into the sunshine feeling sucker punched. He was the son who always had things under control. He couldn't stand to have surprises sneak up and bite him in the rear. He complained about Dex, about Wynn. Huffed at memories of a grown woman like Teagan having her own life. He'd thought he was so much better, responsible, worthier than any of them.
And here he'd failed in the most devastating way possible.
How would he ever tell his father?
People were milling around him. Cole knew he must look like a madman. On a different level, he understood he needed to get himself together. He couldn't help Tate if he disintegrated into a mute, dazed mess.
Cole cast another look around. Curious faces peered back. Old, young, different colors and heights and –
Cole's head went back. He rubbed his stinging eyes and then focused hard. A little boy in a red tee was walking toward him, a football slotted under his arm, looking for all the world as if nothing had happened, nothing was wrong.
A rush of adrenaline propelled him forward at the same time a cry broke from his lips. Then he was on his knees, hugging his brother so tight that, if it had been anyone else, Cole would have told them to back the hell off.
"Cole? You okay?"
Both cheeks damp, Cole forced himself to draw back. He inhaled through his nose, smelled that peanut-butter smell that was Tate and almost lost the battle not to hug him extra tight again. Was the nightmare truly over?
His throat and voice were thick as molasses. "I lost you for a minute, kiddo."
"I went to see the paddleboats." Tate turned and pointed to the lake and the oblivious couples peddling around. "Wanna try it with me? Looks really fun."
Chest aching, Cole laughed. He thought he might never stop. "It is fun. But give me a minute to catch my breath. I was worried."
"Coz you were alone?"
Suddenly exhausted, Cole grinned. "Uh-huh."
His small smile comforting, Tate brought his big brother close again. Patting his back, he said, "Don't worry, Cole. I'll never leave you. I love you. You know that."
"I do. I know." Cole's throat closed more. "But I'm just not around enough to hear it, am I?"
"You can come around more. Lots more. Daddy's not spending so much time at Hunners now. You shouldn't, too."
"You'd look after me?"
Giving a big sigh, Tate held his brother's hand. "And you can make all the noise you want."
That's when Cole's dam cracked wide-open and, in front of a crowd, on his knees in his little brother's arms, the CEO of Hunter Broadcasting surrendered and broke down.