Losing Control (Chapter Eleven)

As all the world funneled back and left just the two of them, Cole wondered how he might handle the situation should Taryn suffer a sudden change of heart and, at this last possible moment, step away like she had that night on the dance floor.

But when his arms wove around and gathered her close, she didn't struggle, didn't regroup or seem to rethink. Rather, when he finally claimed that long-anticipated scorching kiss, she melted like warm butter, her lips parting on a sigh that both fed his growing hunger and invited him in. He knew as well as she did – this kiss had always been in the cards. This embrace was only their first.

At the same time as he moved to cradle her nape and slant back her head, his other hand scooped lower…over the slope of her hip then around the tight high curve of her behind. She responded by quivering while her palms cupped his jaw then ironed higher up through his hair. She arched in until they were glued together, front to front.

When their kiss shifted, deepened, nearly every drop of blood he owned flooded and filled his loins. The physical longing gripping every one of his senses was unprecedented. Off the chart. But he needed more. He had to get rid of her dress, his clothes, splay her out on that bed and push up inside of her until she lost her breath and sobbed out his name.

His touch wandered farther, sliding up under the back of her skirt, beneath her panties then down over that sumptuous curve and between her thighs. When he found her so warm and well on the road to ready, his burgeoning erection jerked, demanding to be freed. Scooping her that much closer, his chest rumbled as he thought of the pleasure that lay ahead. As she arched and began to move around his touch, he slid farther in between her thighs until he discovered that tiny ultrasensitive treasure at her rainbow's end.

With a soft groan, she wound her lips away from his, even as her body nudged down against him. He grazed his lips over hers. "The bed's just over there."

Her eyes closed, her brow pinched a little and then she reached behind and gripped his wrist.

"I'm sorry, Cole. We can't do this."

"Of course we can. This has been brewing since the day we met."

"We've known each other two weeks."

He nipped her lower lip. "Now we'll know each other better."

Her eyes dragged open. "Cole, this is a bad idea."

"Does this feel bad to you?"

He claimed her mouth again, and again she dissolved, this time to the point where her knees must have turned to jelly. When she sagged against him, he shifted to sweep her up into his arms. As she pulled herself higher and her breasts ground against his chest, he didn't lighten the kiss. Rather, relying on instinct, he navigated his way toward that bedroom door. But as he made it through, she stiffened and dragged her mouth from his again. Her eyes were glistening, pleading.

"Cole, will we regret this?"

"Trust me." He smiled gently. "We won't."

"You don't want to feel as if you gave me the okay on my show simply because we slept together."

"Don't worry." He lifted her in his arms and nuzzled her sweet-scented neck. "I wouldn't do that."

"You wouldn't?"

She smelled like flowers mixed with sunshine. Her skin was so smooth, he couldn't imagine she'd ever owned a blemish. She murmured his name and Cole remembered her question. Would this sway his decision regarding her show? If anything he was impartial.

He nuzzled more.

Or tried his best to be.

"Business is business," he murmured against her cheek.

"So you could kiss me, make love to me, then change back to being the boss? Being you?"

He shifted to look into her eyes. "What's so wrong with being me?"

"Nothing. Usually." She shrugged. "I suppose."

His head went back. "You sure know how to destroy a beautiful moment."

"I was about to say the same."

While his chest tightened, her eyes darkened and the focus of their intensity shifted then changed course. They peered into each other's eyes. Taryn's vision seemed to have gotten clearer.

"I think you should put me down," she said then proceeded to wiggle like a cat getting free from a bag.

His brain said to set her down. This union wasn't happening, or not happening now. But his arms were having a hard time understanding.

She stopped struggling and a shudder of something like panic filtered over her face. "Cole? Please…"

He set her down on both feet and she straightened her dress then her hair.

"I don't think we should do that again," she said.

"You're the one pushing up against me. I was only following orders."

"Don't use that excuse."

"I didn't pack a miniscule bikini."

"And that gives you the right to pounce on me?"

"Look, I put you down. But don't try to tell me that you didn't want that to happen."

"You didn't give me a choice."

"I think you're confused."

"Maybe I am. I know I need some time alone. Some space." Her cheeks flushed, and she nodded at the doorway.

"You want me to leave?"

"In the next five seconds would be good."

Cole dragged a hand down his face. She might not have meant for the situation to get out of hand so quickly, but he'd seen what she'd packed by way of a nightdress and, in his books, baby-doll white lace didn't say "not interested." If she wanted him to go now, he'd go.

But he'd be damned if he'd apologize.

And double damned if this was over.

Hearing Cole thump away across the wood floor, out onto the verandah and hopefully farther into the deep dark never-to-be-seen-again jungle, Taryn bit her lip. What rankled most was the fact he was right. She had wanted that kiss. She'd wanted his strong, steady arms around her. At one crazy point, she'd even wanted to fall into bed with him then and there. She examined the rattan ceiling fan, colorful shaggy rug, spray of side-table flowers and a frangipani-print quilt with a mountain of matching pillows. If she'd gone ahead, she and Cole would be on that bed right now, prying off clothes, rejoicing in the hot slick slide of each other's skin….

Taryn hauled herself back.

No matter how strong the attraction, obviously a coming together with Cole in a sexual sense would be way too complicated. Too much was at stake. Her show. Her job. Her self-respect, as well as other emotions.

But she couldn't change what had happened. She could, however, carry on with her plans for this survey. Cole had admitted that he wouldn't automatically approve her proposal if they'd made love. Which on the flip side meant he shouldn't hold yet another heated episode against her, either. Hell, she'd tossed a glass of wine at him and he hadn't thrown her out.

But there was a part of her that wanted to let Cole know she hadn't forgiven him for teasing her, handling her bikini the way he had. He'd looked so amused by her reaction.

She tugged the tie at the side of her wrap dress.

Well, maybe it was her turn to be amused.

* * *

Needing to cool off fast, Cole took a long swim in his Calvin Kleins. When he finally wandered out from the bay, shaking water from his hair, he wished he'd thought to bring a towel. But rather than go inside and meet up with that woman whose mission was to drive him crazy, he'd lie out here on the warm sand. Hopefully, the way his luck was going, a coconut wouldn't fall and crack open his head.

He'd dropped to his knees and was leveling out a piece of sand with a palm while admiring a flock of lorikeets squawking across the flawless blue sky, when Taryn sauntered out from the bungalow and down those steps. As his focus zeroed in, the ground slanted, his heart jumped and Cole had to lean against a nearby boulder to keep from tipping over.

He would have growled. In fact, he did. But the sound he made didn't come from a place of residual annoyance. The vibration rumbling around in his chest, leaking from his throat, was a reaction to the clothes Taryn was wearing. Make that wasn't wearing. He couldn't believe she'd actually gone and slipped into that bikini.

He'd imagined the next time they met, Taryn would have resumed her cool. He was right about that. Standing at the bottom of the steps, face tilted upward and enjoying the sunshine, she was as relaxed as they come. She hadn't even draped one of those poolside skirts around her hips in a token show of modesty. If she'd meant to disarm him – show him that this was, in fact, her gig and she'd do as she pleased – well, it had worked.

Glancing around, she caught sight of him. She didn't wave but she did smile, a lazy grin that relayed remarkable confidence. Then she walked straight up to him, heavenly hips swaying as her feet dug in and out of the soft sand. When her knees were at eye level, she stopped. What option did he have but to take a deep breath and look up?

In the direct light, her skin glowed with a natural cinnamon tone. Her legs looked smoother and longer than he'd even imagined. Manicured fingers sat splayed on two mouthwatering hips. She looked down at him as if he were a lost dog she might want to pat, if he behaved.

"How's the water?" she asked, looking out over the bay while her toe absently cut a line in the sand under his nose.

Cole toppled forward but recovered quickly, angling up to sit with one leg bent and a crooked arm resting on that knee. Getting his head back together, he purposely ran an interested eye over her attire.

"You look as if you're about to find out for yourself."

She glanced down as if only noticing she was pretty much naked. "Oh, I slipped these on under some dungarees. I wanted to be comfortable doing an initial scout of the surrounds. I've marked a couple of great spots I'd like to utilize." She reached to lift the hair off the back of her neck. "I'm glad to be out of those work clothes. I've really worked up a sweat."

He stopped staring and clapped shut his mouth. His throat felt thick, his body hard. "You deserve a break."

"I was thinking the same."

He thought a moment, wondering if he should play this aloof like her, but, frankly, he was suffering a twinge of guilt. Why not get it out in the open? Be a man.

"If you wanted to make a point," he said, "consider it made."

"What point would that be?"

"That this is your survey, your time to manage, and maybe I shouldn't have tried to embarrass you earlier by showing off what was obviously private." That being the bikini she didn't seem the least embarrassed about now.

She blinked twice, as if she were surprised by his honesty, then her unaffected air returned. "Is that an apology?"

"With a caveat. By setting me up with this island's 'men are servants' slant, you asked for it."

"The way you provoked me, you deserved it."

He looked heavenward. Blew out a breath. "Fine. Just show a little mercy and go cover up."

Victory sparkled in her eyes, but she kept up the pain and suffering by walking past him to provide an incredible rear view. "It's not as if you haven't seen a woman in a bathing suit before."

"Right now, I can't remember a one."

When she angled around, a frown knotted her brow. Surprise again? Hell, in that swimsuit, she was stunning and she knew it. In fact, Taryn was stunning no matter what she wore. No matter what she did or said or thought.

Out of the corner of his eye, Cole spotted movement: that blue-striped tee he'd seen earlier. The boy Taryn had told him about.

When Taryn spotted the boy, too, her thoughtful look evaporated on a quick smile.

"Hey, you're back," she was saying, but, as quick as a rabbit, the boy already had her hand and was urging her back toward the bungalow. Cole pushed to his feet and, dry enough, stepped into the jeans he'd cast off earlier.

He called after them, "What's the problem?"

The boy didn't acknowledge the question. Rather he kept leading Taryn to the deck chairs.

"He wants me to sit and relax," she said.

Before one of the chairs, the boy set down a tray he'd been carrying. Then he shot off around the corner of the bungalow. In a heartbeat, he'd returned with an old wooden bucket.

Cole moved forward. "What's he up to?"

Taryn was looking at the boy as if he were the most adorable entity on the planet. "I think he's preparing me a footbath."

Cole mentally took a long step back. Wonderful. But he wouldn't get involved in that particular discussion again. If the males here wanted to wait on their women, that was better than great. Junior could slave over footbaths all he pleased. But from now on Cole Hunter was nothing more than a bystander. It was past time he found a cool drink and chilled out in that hammock.

But the boy had skipped up to him now and, having grabbed his hand, was pointing at the foliage. Cole gently wound his arm free.

"Sorry, kid. I'm off duty."

Taryn opened her mouth then, sitting down in the chair, shut it tight. As she glared at him, Cole pinned her with a look of his own.

"What?"

"It's just I can't understand how you can ignore that face. Those big brown eyes." Sitting back, she rapped fingertips on the chair arms. "Guess big TV executives don't have time for children."

"As a matter of fact I have a kid brother about his age. Stepmom, remember?"

"Oh." She recovered. "See him much?"

"As much as circumstances allow."

"That often, huh?"

Cole set his jaw. He wouldn't bother to explain.

But now that he looked closer, this boy did share similarities with Tate. Same innocence shining like Christmas lights in his eyes. Same eager look, wanting to hang out.

Cole let the air out of his lungs then surrendered.

"Okay. Where do you want to take me?"

The boy presented his bucket.

"You want this filled?" Cole examined the area, saw an outside faucet and moved to collect the bucket. But the boy shook his head and stabbed a finger toward a track that disappeared in the tropical wild.

Taryn crossed those luxurious long legs. "He wants you to go with him."

When the boy flashed that smile again, Cole scratched his head and muttered, "It's a good thing you're cute." He took the bucket and told Taryn as they headed off, "Try not to miss me."

"How will I cope?"

Cole walked away, a grin tugging one corner of his mouth. Probably best that he remove himself from the scene in any case. Taryn was obviously intent on showing him that she wasn't the least bit fazed by his dangling of that bikini or by that explosive kiss. He wondered if she'd heard the saying: trying a little too hard.

Ten minutes later, he and Junior were weaving through layers of ferns and other undergrowth, which rested beneath a dense canopy of vegetation. As birds whistled and insects clicked, Cole got to wondering how this boy and Tate might get along. Tate could show him how to use his most recent gadget – the one Cole had reset the other night – and this little guy could demonstrate how to catch fish in a handmade net or canoe. Hell, he'd even like to try that. Maybe one day he could come back and bring Tate along. He hadn't liked Taryn's remark, but they really didn't spend enough time together.

Eventually they stopped at a freshwater spring surrounded by mossy boulders. Watching a line of small snails slither over a leaf the size of a pizza, Cole hunkered down. It was muggy under the canopy and he'd worked up a sweat. First he splashed water over his head. Then, enjoying the icy trickles trailing down his back, he scooped up a handful and drank. He groaned aloud. It tasted so good and clean. Cole drank his fill then dragged the bucket through the pool.

Heaving the bucket out, he spotted a large red flower fallen to the ground…some kind of hibiscus hybrid. Only the petals were closed up tight, like it was asleep in the middle of the day. Noticing his interest, the boy carefully gathered the flower up. Perhaps he meant to make a gift of it to Taryn. Cole smiled. Nice kid. Obviously brought up the right way.

When the boy looked at him again, Cole asked, "Where are your mother and father?"

Immediately the boy set off along that path again but veered down a different track that was crisscrossed with pygmy palm fronds and littered with color-filled butterflies. After several minutes' journey, a clearing came into view. Pulling up, the boy nodded toward a clutch of bungalows. A score of people in casual Western dress were making meals, crafting woods. Kids laughed as they chased each other around buildings and other structures. When a woman carrying a baby in a sling strolled into view, the boy pointed.

"Your mother?" Cole asked.

The boy spoke a word in his language and nodded. Then, thoughtful, he lowered his gaze to the bloom.

Cole remembered giving garden flowers to his mother when he was around that age. He recalled her loving smiles and warm hugs those times she'd held him close and said, "You're a special boy, Cole."

Nowadays, when he was dating a woman and a birthday or some other occasion came around, he'd choose a nice pendant or bracelet. Might be more the norm, but, to his mind, the giving of flowers in new relationships was too personal. And his relationships rarely lasted past "new." What female would choose a floral arrangement over gold or gems, anyway?

The boy was heading off again with that sleeping flower still protected in the cup of his hands. Cole shifted the bucket to his other hand and followed.

Back at the bungalow, Taryn had indeed shown mercy. A light dress now covering that bikini, she was taking shots of the bay where a pod of dolphins played. Closing his eyes, Cole lifted his nose to the air. God, he loved the smell of the ocean. Taryn had once asked and it was true. If he hadn't been bequeathed a career in television, he'd have found a vocation that took him offshore. He'd sometimes wondered if some sailor or pirate ancestor had passed down the seawater that seemed to flow through his veins.

Her shoulders glowing from their time in the sun, Taryn angled around. "You're back."

"And bearing gifts." Cole presented his bucket.

Lowering her camera, Taryn watched Cole move forward with his bucket and pint-size companion.

"This water is guaranteed to leave your soles feeling like silk," he said as she snapped the cap over her camera lens.

"That good, huh?"

"Just ask the man." Cole glanced down but the boy was already disappearing back into the trees. Grinning, he shrugged. "Busy man."

He moved toward the chairs, obviously preparing to fill that tray.

Taryn wanted to tell him, don't bother. She wasn't taking a footbath. The game of "on this island, men must serve" was over, at least between the two of them. But, caught up in admiring that vision of masculine perfection – all those rippling muscles in Cole's arms and chest as he'd moved toward her – Taryn's thoughts got waylaid. She had appreciated the physique of the man who'd brought down their luggage but, to her mind, Cole's proportions were far more appealing.

His shoulders, she already knew, were delectably broad. The muscles that sloped from the sides of his neck to each shoulder were stacked and those pecs were pure power. Dark crisp hair covered his chest, disappearing where the definition of his abs began and starting again where a trail snaked from below his navel. As he moved past with that bucket, she imagined sliding a hand from his taut belly all the way up to the beating hollow of his throat and quietly sighed.

She had indeed meant to tease him with her bikini show earlier. She'd wanted to leave him gobsmacked and sorry that he'd ever thought to provoke her. But where her state of half undress had been calculated, Cole's current condition was not. He was perfectly comfortable in his body, even if the sight was making her mouth water.

Finished filling the tray, he straightened and faced her, gifting her a glorious square-on chest view. Wetting suddenly dry lips, she shrugged and made light.

"You didn't have to do that."

He was running a hand back through hair flopped over his brow. She couldn't resist drinking in the way that biceps hardened and bulged before his arm lowered again.

"Couldn't disappoint our friend, now, could I?" He headed for the steps. "I'm off to check out the drink situation."

"Liqueurs are in the cabinet," she said. "Mixers and wine in the fridge." But she'd spoken before she'd thought. After their passionate embrace earlier, she probably shouldn't be offering alcohol.

But he only said, "A beer'll hit the spot. Can I get you anything?"

When he stopped at the top of the landing and glanced back, looking like a bronzed god from on high, her insides tightened and that pleasant tingling burn began to filter through her veins again. Feeling light-headed, she waved him on.

"I'll grab something with dinner."

Before she'd finished her sentence, his focus shifted and he nudged his chin toward the clearing. "Which, if I'm not mistaken, seems to have arrived."

Three men and two women appeared, carrying in with them enough supplies to feed a king and his court. Good news because Cole was famished. He never found lunch on aircraft particularly satisfying.

While the guys set up a table close to the shoreline, the ladies covered a separate serving table with chowder, shellfish and juicy fingers of papaya. Around thatched food containers sat cracked coconuts filled with salads, tomato flowerets and frangipani leis.

He sauntered down to where Taryn stood watching, too, as their ultraprivate and – dare he say – romantic dinner was arranged.

The sun had begun to slip behind the island's western dome. Shadows cast by the surrounding palm trees had grown a little darker and longer. As a lone petrel flew low over the water, the tip of its wing slicing the glassy surface, the men wedged torches into the sand and, a moment later, mellow flames licked at the coming dusk. After a glass carafe filled with a pale pink drink was set at the center of the meals table, with customary wide smiles, the wait team bowed off.

Stomach growling, Cole rubbed a hand over his chest. "Well, this is special."

"I was emailed images and menus but, yeah…" Taryn moved forward. "This is pretty amazing."

Alone again, Cole retracted the chair placed on her side of the table and Taryn took her seat.

"This kind of scene will make for amazing footage," she said, sweeping a gaze over the tables, the bay and a sapphire sky pinpricked with the earliest awakening of stars.

"I wonder if the natives eat like this every night." Cole pulled in his chair, too. "On our way back from that spring today, our little friend showed me his village. Not a cell phone or laptop anywhere to be seen."

"It's good to turn off the outside world." She flicked out her napkin. "When was your last vacation?"

"I don't have time for vacations."

"You never take time off?"

"Not since my father semiretired." He filled her glass from the carafe then took care of his own. "Can't let the ship go under, remember?"

"You can delegate. Roman could take care of some things."

Cole conceded. "He's come on board, for as long as a week at a time when I've needed him to."

"Then why not take a break? Refill your well?"

"I'm here now, aren't I?" He raised his glass. Cheers.

"This isn't supposed to be a vacation." She sipped and sighed at the cool fruity blend he'd already tasted and fallen in love with. "Besides – " she set down her glass " – it's only a couple of days."

"Which I'm rather enjoying." Despite their spat earlier.

"Only goes to show. You should do it more often."

"Guess we should."

Midway through setting down his glass, Cole hesitated. He hadn't meant to respond to her suggestion in the plural. But Taryn didn't bat an eye at his we rather than I. Instead she reached for a coconut to spoon salad onto her plate, and Cole eased out the breath he'd held.

He didn't intimidate her. Or not for long. In fact, he'd never felt so challenged yet strangely at ease in a woman's company before. She made every other person he'd dated seem staid.

Not that this was a date, Cole reminded himself, spooning salad out for himself…even if, with Taryn's eyes sparkling in the torchlight, nature's music playing a lazy tune, an open-ended evening ahead of them and a bold afternoon behind, it sure was beginning to feel like one.