Losing Control (Chapter Seventeen)

Taryn usually enjoyed seeing her aunt. But tonight's visit she could have done without. Not because Vi had done anything disagreeable. They hadn't had an argument since high school when Taryn had decided she had more important things to do than keep her room halfway clean and suffer regular homework.

But when Vi had rung and invited herself over for dinner, Taryn wanted to postpone. She wouldn't make good company. She only wanted to sit around alone and keep rehashing in her mind whether or not she ought to have forgiven Cole for his recent behavior.

Her stronger self wanted to tell him to take a hike. Who needed to feel like a convenience? She also wanted to give Cole the benefit of the doubt. Maybe when this particularly tough time in his life was over, he would miraculously revert to the charming, at times sensitive man she'd discovered on that island.

Passion. Desire. A constant need to be close. Until now she'd never been able to comprehend how a woman could get so caught up in those kinds of emotions that she could act in ways that would normally make her retch. She understood better now. It was as if she were infected by him. Her blood, her heart, her mind.

When she'd confronted him yesterday, she'd held out hope that he would at least make a small effort and drop by her office today. He hadn't. And tomorrow…? Hell, he had to talk to her sometime. They worked together, for Pete's sake.

As Taryn sat with her aunt in her living room, with Vi nattering on about how gorgeous the new kittens were, she realized her aunt had asked a question. Realigning her thoughts, Taryn smiled over.

"Sorry. What was that?"

"I was asking if that man at your work had gotten any closer to letting you know whether your show will go ahead."

"He made his decision yesterday. We start production next week."

Vi jumped in her seat then grabbed her niece to give her a big hug.

"I'm so proud of you. Not that I ever had a doubt. That other lot was mad to let you go. But, see, it's all worked out for the best. You're with a company who respect who you are and what you can give." Reaching down, Vi preened Muffin's head where the mother cat lay in her big open box by their feet. "I must say, I was beginning to wonder when your boss would get around to making it official. It's been over two weeks since you got back from that survey. Was he very difficult while you were away? You'd told me he was a bit of a tyrant at the office."

"We…came to an understanding."

Vi stopped stroking and tilted her head. "An understanding, darling?"

"Or I thought we had."

"I'm not sure I understand."

"I'm not sure I understand, either."

Vi's voice and shoulders dropped. "He took advantage of you, didn't he?"

As that sick ache spread in her chest, Taryn shut her eyes. She could say that she had no idea what her aunt was talking about. She could tell Vi that she wasn't in high school anymore. She didn't have to clean her room if she didn't want to, and she could sleep with a man – this man – if she chose. But Vi wasn't attacking her. Her aunt loved her, had always taken care of her and never failed to give the best advice.

"He didn't take advantage of me," Taryn finally said. "I wanted it to happen. He's an extremely charismatic man."

Vi's brows sloped as if she'd figured that out.

"From the moment we met," Taryn went on, "there's been a thing between us. You know. A connection."

"An attraction."

"It would have happened eventually whether we went away together or not."

"So you don't regret it?"

"I didn't think I would."

Taryn explained about the attempt on Guthrie Hunter's life. She told Vi how much Cole seemed to have appreciated her support when they'd called into the Hunter home that night. She also told her about all the trouble at Hunters in L.A. and of Cole's concerns regarding that big sporting contract.

While she talked on, Vi listened, nodding at certain points, scowling when it was appropriate. Taryn ended by saying that over the past week, Cole's affections and attention toward her had cooled. Actually, other than that token brush of his lips over her cheek yesterday before leaving her alone in that empty office, his dealings with her verged on chilly.

"But when he explained what was behind his being so distant, I understood. Or I tried to." When her aunt remained quiet, Taryn asked, "Don't you have any advice?"

"I'm not sure you want to hear it."

"Other than suggesting I should lower my hem or not leave assignments till the last minute, I can't remember a time I didn't take your advice."

Vi's attention dropped again to Muffin and her week-old litter of three.

"You'd spoken about this cat for months," she said. "How you'd call to her, lay food trails for her, how you'd even tried to pounce on her a couple of times. You figured that once you got her inside, she'd want to stay."

Taryn wasn't certain where this was headed. "She looks happy enough now she's here."

"Do you think she would have been if you'd caught her and locked her up in this house?"

Taryn blinked. "I was trying to help."

"You wanted to give her a home here with you. But if you'd forced her, chances are she'd only want to escape."

"You're saying I should let Cole do what he wants – let him go – and maybe, one day, he'll come back to me." Taryn shrank back. "I can't do that."

"You can't force someone to act a certain way, either."

"Like be halfway decent?"

Why should Cole have it all his way? By nature, she was a reserved person who tolerated much, but she did not like to be used – taken for granted – and Vi's advice seemed to insinuate that she do and accept just that.

Vi stood. "I'll get dinner on. I brought blueberry pastries for a treat afterward."

Vi was heading toward the kitchen when Taryn said, "I remember when I was very young, you dated a man. He was nice from what I recall. You were happy. But one night I heard a disagreement and we never saw him again."

Vi nodded as if she remembered it well. "That was a long time ago."

"I'd hoped that you two would get married," Taryn confessed.

"I'd hoped for that, too. Marty was a wonderful man, married before with three children all around your age."

"What went wrong, Vi? What was the argument about?"

"Marty was a family man. He would've liked nothing more than to have made his family with us."

"And he loved you."

"I believe he did. I most certainly loved him."

Taryn held her swooping stomach. "It wasn't because of me, was it? The reason you broke up."

Vi laughed and crossed back over. "You were an angel. Still are. Marty said often what a good girl you were. That you and I were lucky to have each other. It tore him up that he could only see his own children every other weekend."

"So his wife hadn't passed away."

"They were divorced. He said it was the hardest thing in the world to pack his bags and know that from that moment on his family would be forever fractured. We'd been seeing each other for six months when he asked his children if they'd like to meet a special lady and her niece. They'd innocently told their mother. Suddenly she wanted him back."

"So no one else could have him."

"He didn't contact me for a few days after that. Then, that night you remember, he tried to explain how cornered he felt. I didn't understand. Or didn't want to. If he loved me, he wouldn't consider going back to live with another woman, even the mother of his children." Vi's eyes began to glisten. "I couldn't bear the thought of his sleeping in the same bed with her, of her kissing him good-night when I was the one who loved him, not her."

Feeling sick for her all these years later, Taryn reached up to hold her aunt's hands. "But you said you'd wait for him, right?"

"I told him that if he was even considering that, he could go now. Or he could do the decent thing and tell me, then and there, that he was staying where he was, with us." She sighed. "He left. I was so upset. As far as I could see, he mustn't have loved me. Or, at least, not enough."

"Maybe you did the right thing."

Vi's resigned look returned. "Three months later, his ex kicked him out again. I saw his photo in the back pages of a paper three years later. He'd married a woman with a big bright smile. I wondered if they'd be happy together. I wondered if she loved him as much as I still did."

Taryn slowly got to her feet. "I never knew."

Never had any idea. Vi was a person who rolled up her sleeves and got on with things. But she was also a woman, with emotions, passions, like everyone else.

When her aunt inhaled deeply, Taryn knew she was willing back tears.

"So, you see," Vi said, "you can't force someone to stay. You have to let them make up their own mind. And there are no rules to say that decisions that might seem easy for one aren't incredibly difficult for another. When I look back now, if I'd been him, I would have gone back to her, too."

Taryn thought about that, but it was obvious. "Because of the children."

Muffin let out a loud meow and Vi brought herself back. "I think she's telling us dinner is long overdue."

Wanting to cry for her, Taryn wrapped her arms around her aunt. "I'm so glad you came today. So thankful you've always been there for me."

Vi hugged her back, stroked her hair. "I wouldn't have had it any other way."

* * *

Cole glanced at the time on his laptop screen then rubbed a hand over his stinging eyes. He was beat. Time to knock off. Time he ate. But he still had so much to do trying to figure out how to shuffle the figures in L.A. so Hunter Productions could enter the next season as strongly as possible.

What he'd much rather do is drop by Taryn's place and take her out to dinner. Only, like the rest of the East Coast, given the time, she would already have eaten. And, besides, he wasn't good for her right now. Or was that she wasn't good for him? Either way, a man could only have one mistress, and his was Hunter Enterprises. He couldn't let the company – his family and mother's memory – down again. Not for a woman. Even a woman like Taryn.

His cell phone buzzed. Cole read the ID. A rush of heat filled his neck, his head, his chest. Two deep breaths and he connected. His brother's smooth baritone echoed down the line.

"Hope I didn't wake you," Dex said.

"I don't get the luxury of much sleep these days."

"In a happy mood as usual, I see."

Cole bit down. What must it be like to go through life pretending you had nothing more to worry about than which starlet you were going to sleep with next?

He ground out, "What do you want?"

"To brighten your day. The revenue figures are in on our latest release. After a huge opening weekend, we're solid, sitting well on top of the black."

Cole let the line hang.

"Cole, you there?"

"Uh-huh."

"Aren't you even slightly pleased?"

"I'm waiting."

"What for?"

"The bad news."

Dex laughed, a deep and carefree sound. He'd been the same since they were kids. Dex was the charmer, who managed to wiggle in and out of trouble without getting so much as a scratch, while Cole was busy learning the business, making sure someone of integrity would one day take over what their grandfather and father had worked so hard to build. Dex didn't seem to worry too much about any of that.

Eyeing Brandon and Jeremy Judge's latest report lying read twice on his desk, Cole asked, "Want the latest on Dad?"

"What's happening there? Tate all right now?"

"He's fine."

Cole gave a rundown on security measures and the fact Brandon was working hard with Judge to uncover new leads.

Dex got back to Tate. "Well, if the little guy wants to come over for a visit…"

"That's funny. Take a five-year-old away from kidnapping troubles to put him with a man who is the target of a blackmail campaign."

"I told you not to worry about that." Dex grunted. "I must have been raving mad letting that slip in the first place."

"If I don't worry, who will?"

Dex pushed out a breath. "All I'm saying is that Tate is welcome anytime."

"Who have you got lined up to babysit? Some Hollywood starlet you're screwing?"

The line went deathly quiet. "Be careful, bro. You might find reward in your near monklike lifestyle, the fact you get off on telling everyone how hard you work and how no one appreciates what you do, but I intend to go on enjoying what a man is meant to enjoy."

"That would be an endless string of empty affairs."

"You're a sanctimonious son of a – "

The conversation went downhill from there.

Cole was still fuming when he left the building an hour later. How could two brothers be so different? Birth order? A swap at the hospital the day Dex was born? Although, Cole could admit, Dex had got the tail end of his latest foul mood. At least that new release was doing well. There was still the problem of Tate. Hopefully his little brother wouldn't be involved in any future incidents, but should Tate happen to get hurt in any way because of this murder attempt mess, Cole would feel directly responsible. He didn't want Tate to get mixed up in Dex's blackmail business, if it came to anything. Then again, what could be worse than living with Eloise as a mother? The answer was the possibility of being shoved in a van never to be seen or heard from again.

Cole was driving on autopilot when he noticed the sign announcing the arterial route to Taryn's neighborhood. She might think he hadn't thought much about her lately. Truth was he'd thought about her a great deal. Way too much. Another reason he wasn't getting much sleep.

This past week he'd had to put up a barrier between them. Not that he'd wanted to, but, frankly, she'd been interfering with his responsibilities. And, to be fair, he'd let himself get sidetracked. Taryn's company was always preferable to flogging himself with budget and technical reports, proposals and financial crises. But if he didn't cover all the bases, who would? Admittedly, Roman Lyons was proving to be a big ongoing help. His father, however, barely came into the office anymore, which, Cole supposed, meant less likelihood of decisions needing to be reversed.

That brought him back to Taryn.

He couldn't risk distractions. While she was employed by Hunter Broadcasting, he would know little relief. He'd okayed her show out of obligation more than anything. A sense of loyalty, or maybe expectation. And while that may be understandable, given the nature of the time they'd spent together, he wasn't looking forward to the anticipated hit to the company. Hell, he'd just chastised Dex for not thinking with his head. Recently, had he been any better?

Setting his jaw, Cole stepped on the gas and drove past that turnoff.

Grandpa Hunter used to say, There's no better time for change than the present.

No smarter time than now to move on.