Losing Control (Chapter Three)

When Cole stabbed the loudspeaker key and realized who was on the phone, he flung down his pen and grabbed the hand piece. It was past six – closer to seven. He'd been hanging out for this call all day.

"Brandon, thanks for getting back to me."

"Just got back into the country." Brandon Powell's familiar deep drawl echoed down the line. "What's up?"

Cole gave his friend a summary of events – the attempt to run his father's car off the road three weeks ago, the near miss with shots fired this morning, how Guthrie, to his mind, didn't appreciate the seriousness of the situation.

"You want to fix your father up with protection," Brandon surmised.

"He's already hired someone."

"Then I'm not sure what you want me to do."

"For starters, put a trace on Eloise."

"Your father's wife?"

"Second wife." Cole's lip all but curled. "I have a hunch she might be behind it all."

"You're accusing Eloise of attempted murder – based on what?"

"Based on the fact she's a – "

Cole let loose a few choice adjectives and nouns that had been building for years, starting when he'd first got wind that a much younger woman – a so-called family friend – was making a play on a man who'd recently lost a loving wife. None of the boys had thought Guthrie would be interested in her batting lashes and syrupy condolences. When it had become apparent the two were an item, their father was already hooked.

Brandon's reply was wry. "I take it you haven't warmed to your stepmother yet."

"I still can't believe he married her. My mother's best friend's gold-digging daughter."

Shame on Eloise but more shame on his father.

"I hate to mention this," Brandon said, "but Guthrie's an adult. He makes his own decisions."

"And I make mine. How soon can you organize a tail?"

"If you're sure – "

"I'm sure."

"Give me a few hours to track down the right guy and brief him. But I need to warn you. If your father has his own man on the job, there's a chance he'll find out you've done this behind his back. And if Eloise ultimately isn't implicated…"

Cole knew what his friend had left unsaid. Guthrie took the well-being and loyalty of his entire family seriously. His father had a five-year-old son with Eloise and another on the way. If he discovered his eldest had gone behind his back like this, he'd view it as a betrayal. Guthrie wouldn't disown a son, but he might kick Cole out of Hunter Enterprises for good.

Considering the options, Cole rapped his fingers on the desk before he drove down a breath and confirmed, "I'll take that chance."

He didn't want a rift to develop between two more members of the Hunter clan but, dammit, his father's safety came first.

After settling some details, he and Brandon caught up briefly. Brandon was still enjoying his bachelorhood and was looking forward to a Navy Cadets reunion; they'd served in a unit together for three years rising up through the ranks from "dolphins" to petty officers. Brandon said he hoped to see Cole there, but he'd be in touch before then.

They signed off and, feeling worn out, Cole set his bristled jaw in the cup of his hand at the same time his empty stomach growled. He hadn't eaten since breakfast. There was still more he could do here tonight, but his brain needed fuel. Time to knock off.

While Cole shut down his laptop, a knickknack perched on his desk caught his eye. The winding steel-tube-and-rope puzzle had been a gift from Dex and was based on the Gordian Knot legend. Thousands of years ago, Alexander the Great had been asked to unravel that intricate knot, which everyone knew couldn't be done. But Alexander had thought outside of the box and found a simple solution. He sliced through the rope with his sword and, hey presto! With this gift, Dex was telling Cole to lighten up…life's problems didn't need to be so intense and all-consuming.

Cole would rather ignore advice from a playboy producer who was overdue a Hollywood hit. There were no shortcuts to success. No easy paths to victory. Cole kept the toy on his desk not as a reminder to take the low road as Dex was wont to do, but as a prompt to stay on course, even when he might rather say to hell with it all.

After shrugging into his jacket, Cole locked up his office, spun around and near jumped out of his skin. In the muted light, he'd almost run into something. Or rather, someone.

Taryn Quinn stood not a foot away, her scent still fresh, her eyes still bright. With her blond mane gleaming and plump lips bare of gloss, she looked like a vision. A drop-dead sexy vision, at that.

She inspected his briefcase, peered around his frame to the closed door and her eyes widened in alarm.

"You're leaving?"

He frowned. "Didn't realize I had to sign out."

"I thought that someone in your position would be here till all hours."

When Taryn lifted the open laptop she held, the penny dropped. She'd worked out a plan to spice up her proposal already?

"I was serious," he warned. "I don't want a Band-Aid. You need a highly polished knock-'em-dead new angle that I can't refuse."

"I've been at it all day. Didn't even stop to eat."

That made two of them. She must be as hungry as he was, and he was starved. After a day alternating between meetings and being glued to his desk, he felt restless, too. Itchy. Hot. When his gaze dropped to her lips again, he ran a finger inside his steamy collar. He ought to go.

Cole eased around her. "Now isn't a good time."

"Now is a great time."

"I'm late."

"What for this time?"

He rotated back. "I'm sure I don't have to answer that," he said. But when he saw the disappointment shining in her eyes, his gut kicked and, against his better judgment, he found himself giving in to this infernal woman for a second time that day.

"But, if you're that keen," he muttered, heading back, "I'll give you five minutes."

"Five minutes isn't nearly enough – "

"Five minutes." He set his case on his personal assistant's desk and flicked on the desk lamp. "Starting now."

Taryn froze for three beats before setting her laptop down. When she thumbed a button, an impressive spread – complete with feature banner – flashed on to the screen. Setting his hands on his hips, Cole slanted his head. Nice effect. Although he wasn't sold on the title.

"Hot Spots?"

"We thought it had more bite than the original name."

"We?"

"Roman and me. I know it sounds kind of provocative – "

"If you want to tape an endless stream of topless bars and nudist beaches," he cut in, "sorry, it ain't gonna fly."

The airwaves were clogged enough with that content.

"I was going to say that it's more a hook than anything erotic. Let me show you a preliminary list of locations that have shown interest and, as of today, have offered to cover all associated costs."

The screen page flipped over to reveal a slide show of a resort Cole knew – although not personally. Only a sheik could afford the prices. He could think of better ways to blow a million or two. Still, the cogs in his brain began to whir faster.

"That's Dubai."

When he named that country's most exclusive resort, Taryn nodded with a grin in her eyes. "All expenses paid there. Everything."

"That's impressive. But that's one location. I imagine you'll do the grand tour of the resort and surrounds, which will make good footage, but what's the twist?"

Where's the something new?

Their shoulders all but touching, she angled in more and, in the soft shadows, those blue eyes were hypnotic. Then that natural warmth of hers reached out again. Sumptuous. Soothing. It was like being enveloped by the lure of a toasty fire after coming in from the cold. When his fingertips began to tingle where they lay splayed on the desk next to hers, he was struck by the urge to cover her hand, maybe tug her close and see if he couldn't experience some of that warmth head-on.

Sucking down a breath, he straightened.

Definitely time to go.

"I'll think it over."

"Will you?"

He arched a brow. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"You've already made up your mind."

"If you believe that, why are you here?" Wasting my time.

"Because I also believe in this show." Her chin lifted. "And that wasn't five minutes."

"It was long enough." Especially considering the way he was feeling.

"But I have more to show you, Cole. Lots more."

The tendons between his shoulders, up the length of his thighs, all hardened to steel and then locked. He should get this charade over with. Tell her now. Stay on course. But how was he supposed to deal with that dewy-eyed, indignant look without feeling like the world's biggest heel?

An image of Dex's puzzle flashed into his mind's eye and something he'd thought unbending inside of him grudgingly moved. Before he could talk himself out of it, he took a mental sword and cut them both some slack. Taryn had more to show him?

"Then get your gear." He grabbed his case and headed out. "You're coming with me."