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Eyes shot up and all conversation ceased as Cole Hunter burst in and let loose a growl. Cole wouldn't apologize. He abhorred being kept in the dark, particularly when the deception concerned the man he respected most in the world.
Once, Cole's father had been a corporate powerhouse, a leader to be admired and, frequently, feared. More recently, however, Guthrie Hunter had softened. The responsibility of running Hunter Enterprises had fallen largely upon Cole's shoulders. The eldest of four, he was the person family leaned upon in a crisis, whether the drama unfolded here in Sydney or at one of the other Hunter offices located in Los Angeles and New York City.
Cole didn't want to think about that ongoing drama in Seattle.
His father's personal receptionist flew to her feet. With a look, Cole set her back in her seat then strode toward colossal doors that displayed the flourishing Hunter Enterprises emblem. How the hell could he keep things well oiled and on track if he wasn't informed? Dammit, he couldn't fix what he didn't know.
Cole broke through the doors. Turning to close them again, his gaze brushed over the three openmouthed guests waiting in the reception area, one being a woman with wide summer-blue eyes and flaxen hair that fell like tumbles of silk on either side of her curious face. His raging pulse skipped several beats before thumping back to life. Work in television production meant beautiful ladies day in and day out, but true star quality was one in a million and this woman had it in spades. She must be auditioning for a show, Cole surmised. A special project if Guthrie Hunter planned to conduct the interview himself.
Something else he knew zip about.
His jaw tight, Cole slammed the doors shut. Swinging around, he faced the polished hardwood desk, which had prefaced that wall of glittering awards for as long as Cole could remember. Unperturbed, a silver-haired man sat in a high-backed leather chair, receiver pressed to an ear. Cole's sources said three hours had passed since a second attempt had been made on his father's life. Guthrie had probably wondered what had kept his firstborn so long.
Stopping dead center of the enormous office suite, Cole set his fists on his hips. Despite broiling frustration, he kept his tone low and clear.
"Whoever's responsible won't see light outside of a prison cell before both poles have melted." When his throat uncharacteristically thickened, Cole's hands fell to his sides. "For God's sake, Dad, shots were fired. This guy's not about to stop."
Guthrie muttered a few parting words into the mouthpiece then set the receiver in its cradle. Surveying his son, he tipped his clean-shaven chin a notch higher.
"I have this under control."
"Like you had it under control a month ago when your car was run off the road?"
"The authorities concluded that was an accident."
Cole looked heavenward. God, give me strength. "The license plates belonged to a stolen vehicle."
"Doesn't mean the accident was an attempt on my life."
"I'll tell you what it does mean. Bodyguards until this is sorted. And I don't want to hear any argument."
When Cole went too far and shook his finger, Guthrie's smooth expression fell. Sixty-two-year-old palms pressed upon the desk and Guthrie pushed to his feet with the agility and posture of a man thirty years younger. Cole's jacketed shoulders rolled back. There wasn't a man alive who could intimidate him, although, even now, with an ax to grind, his father came close.
"You'll be happy to know I have organized a bodyguard," Guthrie said. "He's a private detective, as well."
Absorbing his father's words, Cole willed away the red haze rimming his vision. His temper dropped a degree and then two. Flexing his fingers at his sides, he blew out that pent-up breath.
"What were you thinking, keeping this from me?"
"Son, I've only just got in." Rounding the desk, the older man crossed over and set a bracing hand high on Cole's jacketed arm. "You have enough to worry about. Like I said
everything's under control."
Cole winced. Guthrie was kidding himself.
Four years ago, when his father was recovering from bypass surgery and Cole had turned thirty, the family empire had been sectioned up and each son designated an equal portion to manage. Here in Sydney, Cole manned the Australian television cable and free-air interests. When he wasn't chasing skirt, Dex, the middle son, looked after the motion picture end of business in L.A. The overindulged, overachiever and youngest of the Hunter boys from Guthrie's first marriage, Wynn took care of the print media slice of the company from New York. Cole's remaining full-blood sibling Teagan was off doing her own thing in Washington State.
Initially Cole had bristled at the idea of Daddy's Girl shunning her responsibilities and refusing to step up to help run the business. Hunter Enterprises had provided well for them all, Teagan's childhood operations and college designer gowns included
although, to be fair, with the top three jobs filled, her role would need to be a subordinate one. But given the time he spent watching and worrying over his brothers' business and personal decisions, Cole had to be grateful that the Hunter wild child had opted out. God knows he had enough to deal with.
Of course Cole still loved his brothers and sister. Nothing could ever change that. They'd shared a wonderful mother, a talented Georgian beauty who had beamed whenever she'd told a new acquaintance that both he and Wynn had been born in Atlanta. With only two years separating each, the Hunter children had grown up tight. But, thanks to gossip magazines and the Net, all the world knew about the rifts, which made the running of such a vast enterprise under separate helms even more of a challenge. Through Dex's overindulgence and Wynn's overzealousness, Hunter's reputation had taken some blows recently. For everyone's sake, Cole was determined to assume genuine leadership over every quadrant of Hunter Enterprises, or die trying.
Guthrie wanted his children to mend their fences, get along and continue to build together. With their father married a second time to a calculating woman, playing happy familieskeeping it all togetherwas nigh on impossible.
Winding away from his father, Cole moved to an early-spring view of commuter ferries crisscrossing Sydney Harbour's vast blanket of blue.
"I'd be happier speaking to Brandon Powell about organizing full-time protection," he said.
"I know you and Brandon have been friends for years, and his security firm is one of the best. It's not that I didn't consider it. But, frankly, I need someone who's clear on who's paying the bill."
Cole pivoted around. "If you're suggesting Brandon would ever act unprofessionally"
"I'm saying you'd be at him to divulge every detail of my every move, including what transpires beneath the sanctity of my family's roof, and that is not an option. I know you don't approve of Eloise, but" Guthrie's furrowed brow eased and, weary of that particular fight, he exhaled. "Son, my wife makes me happy."
"As happy as my mother used to make you?"
"As happy as one day I hope you will be with someone you truly care for."
Cole refused to acknowledge the sheen in his father's eyes or the uncomfortable restriction in his own chest. Instead, he headed back to those massive double doors. Lust and love were two different states. A man his father's age should know better. His eldest son certainly did.
As if to highlight the point, the first thing to catch Cole's eye as he strode back into his father's reception lounge was that blonde and her star quality coaxing him into her long-legged, lush-lipped orbit. What red-blooded male would pass on the chance to bring those amazing curves close, to sample the soft press of that body and sweet scent of her skin? But that urge was sexual, only lust.
One day, Cole hoped to find the right woman. Someone he'd be proud to call the mother of his children. Someone he would respect and receive respect from in return. His stepmother didn't know the meaning of that word. In fact, he wouldn't be surprised if Eloise was behind those bullets for hire. Despite his father's edict just now, he had no qualms about finding out if Brandon Powell thought the same.
When his father's voice broke into his thoughts, Cole blinked his attention away from Ms. Summer-Blue Eyes.
Standing to Cole's left, Guthrie was studying him, salt-and-pepper brows hitched at a quizzicalor was that approving?angle.
"I see you've met our new producer, Taryn Quinn."
Cole did a double take. Producer? As in behind the cameras as opposed to in front of them?
Again he examined the woman whose glittering gaze was pinned directly on him. Feeling his blood swell, Cole cleared his throat. Producer, talent
either way, it made no difference. If his father hadn't discussed this before now, anything other than a cursory introduction would have to wait. He had a meeting to attend, important documents to sort.
Cole muttered, "Good meeting you, Ms. Quinn," then prepared to shove off. But she'd already eased to her stiletto-heeled feet, and as she extended a slender hand, the light in her eyes seemed to intensify tenfold. Dazzling. Inviting. Cole couldn't deny he felt the warmth of that smile to his bones.
"You must be Cole," she said as, reaching out, his fingers curled around and held hers. A currentsubtle yet electricsizzled up his arm and, despite his ill humor, Cole found a small smile of his own.
Well, guess he could spare a moment or two.
"So, you're a producer, Ms. Quinn?" he asked.
"For a show I approved last week," his father interjected as Ms. Quinn's hand fell away. "Haven't had a chance to speak with you about it yet."
Cole asked, "What kind of show?"
"A holiday getaway program," Taryn Quinn said.
Out of the corner of his eye, Cole caught Guthrie fiddling with his platinum watchband the way he did whenever he felt uncomfortable. And rightly so. The last holiday series Hunter Broadcasting had piloted died a quick and deserved death. In these tough economic times, if viewers were to swallow yet another "best destinations" show, the promise would need to deliver fresh sparks week after week.
And what about the exorbitant budgets? Sponsors could pull down costs but, since the global financial crisis, any collaboration was a squeeze. Despite her obvious allure, if the decision had been his, Cole would've given Ms. Quinn's idea the thumbs-down before she'd cleared the gate.
Another mess he'd need to clean up.
From behind her desk, Guthrie's receptionist interrupted.
"Mr. Hunter, you asked to know if Rod Walker from Hallowed Productions called."
Thoughtful, Guthrie stroked his chin before heading back toward his office. He paused beneath the lintel of that massive doorway.
"Taryn, I'll drop by and touch base soon. In the meantime
" His focus swung back to his son. "Cole, I've allocated Ms. Quinn the office next to Roman Lyons. Do me a favor."
Cole thrust both fists into his trouser pockets. He guessed the favor. No way would he raise his hand.
"I have a meeting"
"First, see that Taryn's settled." Guthrie's light expression held while his voice lowered to a steely tone Cole knew well. "Your meeting will wait."
Taryn nodded her thanks to Guthrie Hunter then turned to his Hollywood-attractive son. Her jaw tightened even as her heart beat a thousand miles a minute. How women must melt at Cole Hunter's feet. How they must dream of his smile.
"Your father's a considerate man," she said as Guthrie's towering doors clicked shut, "but if you're busy, please don't let me keep you."
When she resumed her seat, crossed her legs and reached for a magazine, rather than run with the offer, Cole Hunter remained rooted to the spot, and for so long Taryn began to wonder whether he'd expected a curtsy before heading out.
Her gaze crept up from the fashion section.
In that rich graveled voice that made her stomach muscles flutter, he explained, "I can't put this meeting back."
"Oh, I understand."
She sent a quick smile he didn't return. Rather, the crease between the dark slashes of his brows deepened. "My father shouldn't be long. Rod Walker's a busy man, too."
Taryn nodded affably, recrossed her legs, and the magazine took her attention again. But as she flipped to the gossip pages, she was aware of the younger Mr. Hunter checking his wristwatch then shaking his jacket sleeve back down.
"My guest's flying back to Melbourne at midday," he went on. "We don't have much time."
Glancing back up, she cocked her head and blinked. "Then you'd best hurry."
Cole Hunter wasn't hard to work out. Foremost, he was get-out-of-my-way ambitious, which she understood. Nothing compared with the buzz of landing on top, achieving a true sense of financial and personal security. She'd grown up with an aunt. One of Vi's favorite sayings was, At every turn, in every way, invest in yourself, which meant achieving a good education, grabbing regular exercise, staying loyal to friends and, wherever possible, dodging "trouble." Which brought Taryn to Cole Hunter's second quality.
Clearly, he was an intensely sexual being and, for whatever reason, she had piqued his interest. The testosterone pumping through his veins, darkening those ocean-green eyes to a storm, was as tangible as the breadth of his chest or square set of his jaw. The man exuded a masculine energy that stroked Taryn's skin and stirred a delicious aching heat low in her belly.
Understanding these things about Cole Hunter was the reason for her reservation now. She didn't care who he was, what he thought of himself, how many women he'd bedded, with how much skill or how little effort. Certainly she wouldn't be rude, but Guthrie Hunter had hired her and no matter how knee-knockingly sexy, if the son was ambivalent, hell, she'd survive.
As she held her honest-you-can-leave look, Cole shifted his weight and those incredible eyes narrowed as if he were now seeing her in a somewhat different light.
"Actually," he finally said, "that office next to Roman's is on my way." When she opened her mouth to decline, he overrode her. "I insist."
He extended and continued to offer his hand until, knowing she was cornered, Taryn accepted. As expected, the same fiery trail that had flown up her arm the first time they'd touched sparked againnot that she let any hint of the rush dent her poise. She made certain her eyes didn't widen, that her breath didn't hitch. And yet the satisfied grin smoldering in Cole's eyes said that he knew what she felt because he felt it, too.
As they moved toward the building's main thoroughfare side by side, she imagined Aunt Vi holding up her hands in warning and shaking her head. Taryn agreed. Cole Hunter was one of those "trouble" spots. Hotheaded, superior, radiating sex appeal like a supernova gave off light and heat.
Thank God they wouldn't be working together.