Ethan leaned back against his high—backed swivel seat and made a steeple with the tips of his fingers as he listened to the man seated across from him. To a stranger, it would seem as though his mind was a million miles away, but in truth, every nerve of him was alert, taking in and processing information swiftly. Occasionally, he would swing towards the wall of windows behind him, staring out without really seeing the magnificent view of the dusky sky.
He rubbed at his jaw, grimacing as his fingers encountered the rough stubble of less than a day's growth of beard. No doubt, if he looked in a mirror, he would see the dark shadows marring his chin...he would need to shave tonight before picking Nicky up for their dinner date or she would most likely harp on about how much he resembled a Neanderthal. The thought of Nicky made him smile slightly as he imagined how those lovely green eyes of hers would light up as she teased him about his appearance, her fair hair would no doubt be expertly styled, framing a face that was nothing less than perfect, her high class breeding showing through in every gesture or word she uttered.
She would make the perfect wife for him. The perfect wife and a wonderful hostess to entertain his future business associates and clients. His construction company was growing fast and Ethan needed to project the perfect image of a polished successful businessman in order to attract the sort of clientele Holbourn Enterprises needed to make it to the big leagues. Tonight, he was meeting her cousin for the first time, and though he'd never met her, he felt he knew all there was to know about Erin Gosling as Nicky always talked about her.
The fact that this cousin happened to be the Erin Gosling, heiress of the prestigious Gosling fortune gave him a clue of what to expect, most likely a spoiled pampered princess so wrapped up in herself he half expected her to cancel at the last moment, or even if she did turn up, she would probably spend the entire evening boring them with talks about the latest styles on the catwalks. Thankfully, Nicky was different, so down to earth and yet cultured and intelligent to boot.
He brought his mind back to the present and turned around to face his secretary. Peter Wilson was still engrossed in reading the financial reports, but Ethan had had enough. Besides, he had already gone through the reports himself earlier and every single bit of information was stamped in his brain.
"Thank you Pete, I've got it from here." Ethan said, unfolding his lean length from the chair. At six four, he easily towered over Peter, the well—tailored dark blue suit showing off his impressive physique. "Do remember to send a reminder to all staff about the meeting tomorrow morning. And draw up the proposal for the Landberg project. I want an estimate of the total costs as soon as possible."
"Yes sir. Will you be leaving now?"
Ethan grabbed his briefcase and headed for the door in quick strides. "Yeah. I'm having dinner with Nicky and I need a damn shave...again." He did not wait for a reply but continued on towards the bank of elevators, grateful to find the hallway deserted. He shared the floor with a law firm and an IT firm, and on most days, the hall was filled with all sorts of people, but it was after hours and the law firm was closed. Holbourn was just starting out, so far he had only four employees other than himself, but soon...
He was just crossing the lobby when a sultry feminine voice stopped him in his tracks.
"Ethan!" He turned in time to see the petite brunette coming towards him. He recognized her as Brittany, the secretary for the law firm on his floor. Her impossibly high bright pink heels clicked on the marble floor as she walked.
Brittany sidled up to him, flashing a bright smile. "I'm so glad I caught you in time, give me a lift home? My car's still in the workshop and I've been standing outside for ten minutes without so much as a cab in sight." she pouted up at him with full red lips. "Help a girl out?"
He thought for a minute then shrugged. She lived only a few blocks away from his apartment so it wouldn't be too much of a problem. "Sure, lets go."
She kept up a lively chatter as they walked towards the parking lot where he had left his car, though Ethan listened with only half an ear, his mind on the dinner with Nicky. He wondered if she would like the ring he'd bought for her, picturing the engagement ring sitting inside the small red velvet box on his bedside table.
Brittany turned to him after fastening her seatbelt. "Do you mind if we stop for coffee? I promised my mum I'd get a mocha from her favorite place, I won't take long, I swear."
He could do with coffee himself, Ethan thought as he started the engine of his battered gray Ford and set the gear to reverse. There would be more than enough time to stop, provided the traffic stayed light.
"No problem, I wouldn't mind some myself."
"Is he always this late?" Erin consulted her watch for the fifth time and frowned, looking towards the entrance of the exclusive restaurant. She picked up her water glass and took a sip, drumming the perfectly manicured nails of her left hand impatiently on the table.
What sort of man arrived late for dinner? She wondered, taking another sip, studying her cousin over the rim of the glass. Nicky looked resplendent as usual in a dark green gown that accentuated the porcelain skin and bright green eyes. Not for the first time, Erin wished she'd inherited the same green eyes but no. Her eyes were a nondescript shade ofbrown, nothing sexy or enchanting about that.
Nicky smiled reassuringly and took a sip of her own water. "Ethan never comes late for anything, whatever is keeping him, I'm sure it must be important." Nevertheless, Erin noticed the furtive glance at the iPhone resting on the table, and the brief cloud of worry that crossed her cousin's face.
She pursed her lips and refrained from uttering the scathing remark boiling within her. Already her impression of the man Nicky professed herself madly in love with ranked just below 'untrustworthy jerk'. They had been waiting for over an hour and the man had not even bothered to call or even text to say he'd be delayed. It was obvious Nicky was already upset and denouncing her boyfriend would only serve to upset her more. Erin pushed aside her irritation and beamed.
"So how's Aunt Lorna doing? Has she still got that awful macaw? God I wonder what possessed her to buy that horrible animal in the first place."
Nicky shot her a grateful smile. "Yes and she's even named it Adam Levine. It drives dad crazy with its endless chirping...He's threatened to shoot the bird on more than one occasion..."
Erin laughed, her eyes twinkling in mirth. For the next few minutes she expertly steered the conversation away from any mention of the missing boyfriend, but inwardly, she seethed. If Ethan dared to show up at all, she would give him a piece of her mind.
A flutter of activity at the entrance drew the attention of the two women. Moments later, Erin noticed a tall, well—built man striding towards their table, his mouth set in an angry line, hair askew as though he hadn't bothered to run a comb through the dark mane.
"Ethan!" Nicky exclaimed, hurrying to her feet and flinging herself at the man. She rose on tiptoe and even then, barely brushed his shoulders— he was that tall. "Oh thank God you're alright, I've been so worried."
"I am so sorry Honey." His voice was deep and warm, the sort of voice that could be described as bedroom sexy. "But I got caught up in traffic on my way home and I left my phone at the office so I couldn't call and let you know what had happened."
Erin studied the man, her lips thinning at his disheveled appearance, the dark shadows of a day's growth of beard marring his chin, his clothes seemed to have been donned hastily though he carried himself with an easy grace that belied that fact. He was handsome in an unnerving strapping manner.
He lifted his gaze from Nicky's blonde head and met Erin's own. She felt her breath catch as she found herself pinned under his deep blue gaze. Smoldering blue eyes, she corrected silently, feeling butterflies run amok in her stomach, even as heat seared her from head to toe, setting her pulse racing with a feeling she was loathe to define for that would mean admitting something terrible.
She tore her gaze from his and reached for the water glass, downing the cool liquid in one gulp. Hot damn! She thought. Nicky had said he was gorgeous but nothing had prepared Erin for her reaction to him. She kept her eyes fixed on the table cloth, reluctant to look into that burning gaze again.
The couple broke apart and Nicky made the introductions, her voice light with happiness. "Erin, this is my boyfriend Ethan, Ethan my dearest cousin Erin."
Erin pasted a thin smile and tipped her head back to look at him, forcing her emotions under control. "I presume you don't make it a habit of keeping my cousin waiting so often." Her words were clipped and cool. She noticed the slight narrowing of his eyes and his lips formed into a line of displeasure at her tone.
"Tonight's incident was unexpected." His cool tone matched hers, as he took his seat and straightened the dark blue jacket he wore. To his credit, he did not attempt to bluster his way out and her opinion of him rose a notch.
Nicky placed her hand over his large ones and beamed up at him. "Ethan is always punctual darling," she gushed to Erin. "It's one of the reasons I love him so much, always trustworthy and strong."
He smiled at Nicky, though Erin noticed the smile didn't quite reach his eyes and his tone remained cool. "Thank you honey."
Right, Erin thought. Snapping open the menu she studied the offerings, finally deciding on grilled steak and a side salad. When the waiter left with their orders, she drummed her fingers on the tablecloth while she searched her mind for possible questions.
Nicky excused herself to go repair her makeup, leaving a reluctant Erin alone with Ethan. He was scowling into his water glass, thick brows giving him a formidable look. Perhaps she shouldn't have gone on the offense immediately, Erin admitted. After all he had given a reasonable explanation for coming late.
"Nicky tells me you're from Minnesota?" Erin asked, hoping to get him talking.
He studied her for a few seconds, that unnerving gaze of his seemingly seeing into her thoughts. She held herself still, refusing to give him the satisfaction of seeing her squirm. No doubt, he used that method to discomfit women, but not her...oh no, she was waaaaayyyy ahead of him.
"Yeah." he replied. Erin waited for him to elaborate but Ethan said nothing, simply continuing to hold her gaze.
Her mouth twisted. Fine then, he wanted to play dumb Neanderthal right? Well not on her watch.
"Whereabouts in Minnesota?" she prodded.
"Clareshorn." Another one word reply.
"Do you play any sports? Hockey? Football?" She had met a lot of those types of guys...the type who fancied themselves tall, dark and silent...well, in his case, he had tall and dark to a tee; silent too.
She drummed her fingers harder, impatience threatening to boil over to the surface. "You were adopted right?"
Ethan's blue eyes narrowed. "How do you know that?" he demanded.
Ah! Finally a whole sentence even if it was just a question. "I did some research..." OK, maybe like a full background check, but she was not going to tell him that. His bio had been short and precise— Born Ethan Hugh Lachlan, adopted by an Irish couple, High school star quarterback, graduated Magna cum laude from Stanford university with a degree in civil engineering, no previous marriages and no kids. No skeletons in his closet so far.
A muscle ticked in his jaw and his eyes turned to flint. "You spied on me?"
She bristled at the accusation. How dare he make it seem as though she'd drilled a hole in his wall and kept her eyes glued to him. "Research. I do not spy on people Mr. Lachlan."
"Then keep your damned spoiled little nose out of my business."
"I beg your pardon? Did you just call me spoiled?" Erin hissed at him. "How dare you?"
"I do not tolerate people digging into my personal life Ms. Gosling. While I realize you may have nothing better to do with your time, please refrain from prying into matters that do not concern you."
"Nicky is my concern, and I certainly have a right to find out as much as I can about any man she chooses to align herself with." Erin spoke through clenched teeth. "For all I know, you could be nothing more than yet another opportunist out to take advantage of her money and connections."
He looked as though she had just pulled a gun and aimed it at his head. Erin bit her lip and wished she could swallow those last words somehow, but it was already too late. The damage had been done.
As she watched him, his breathing seemed to cease and he became still, though the air crackled with tension, as though they were both inside a force field. He looked so dangerous, like a big cat waiting to pounce on his prey and Erin shivered, icy chills of fear sliding down her spine, every sense on alert.
"Opportunist?" He repeated the word so softly, she would have missed it if she hadn't been watching him so intently.
She said nothing, though her heart hammered wildly as she wondered what he would do. This man could be deadly and she was suddenly seized with fear for her delicate cousin. He would tear Nicky's heart apart if he ever got this angry, dear lord, he had not even reacted yet and Erin was already afraid. His knuckles gripping the edge of the table were white and his eyes were ice blue with fury.
"You little fool..." He ground out. "I should throttle some sense into you."
"What's going on?" Nicky had returned to the table and stared at the two of them, frowning in confusion at the palpable tension simmering between them. "Erin?" she looked at Erin, her gaze searching her cousin's face for an answer.
"Nothing." Erin forced herself to remain calm though she really wanted to kill Ethan Lachlan. Twice now, the man had insulted then threatened her in the space of a few minutes.
Ethan glared at the snotty woman seated across from him, resisting the urge to throttle her. The evening had turned sour for him from the moment he had made that stop at the coffee shop. He had gotten stuck in traffic caused by a car accident, on top of that, he realized he'd left his phone at the office and had spent close to an hour swearing at the cars blocking the road while his mind filled with thoughts of Nicky waiting and wondering if he had stood her up.
Now he was here, and having to deal with Little Miss Snob and her scathing comments that served to only make his mood worse. It was obvious to Ethan that Erin Gosling did not care for him in the least, if the disdain and condemnation in those hazel eyes of hers was any indication of her true feelings. His anger burned when she'd mentioned she had had him investigated; he valued his privacy and did not relish the thought of Erin Gosling snooping in his background and then having the guts to rub it in his face. She had even gone so far as to label him an opportunist. Even thinking about those words set his blood to boil and if Nicky hadn't come back when she had...
Ethan studied her from under his lashes. He had expected Erin to look like Nicky in some way, but he had been mildly surprised at the woman sitting across from him now. Straight brown hair pulled back in a severe bun at the nape of her neck, minimal makeup from what he could see, the pink dinner gown she wore was simple yet undoubtedly chic and he could bet his life savings the price tag would have more zeros than was strictly necessary.
Where Nicky was breathtakingly beautiful, Erin was attractive in a cool professional sort of way, but there was something in her eyes when she'd first looked at him that had hinted at smoldering fires underneath.
He shook his head to clear his thoughts and realized Nicky was looking at him, worry clearly written in those green eyes and he felt contrite for letting his anger ruin the evening.
"I'm sorry honey, nothing is wrong." He kissed her lips gently. "Erin and I were simply getting to know each other, weren't we?" He shot Erin a warning look, daring her to contradict him.
She was no fool and nodded in agreement, accepting the unspoken cease fire. Thankfully their food arrived and the rest of the evening passed with the both of them carefully avoiding any topics that would fan resentment. Later outside the restaurant, he saw the derisive curl of her lips when she saw his truck and Ethan decided there and then that he thoroughly disliked Erin Gosling.
Erin was thankful when the long torturous dinner finally ended. It had been pure agony having to keep silent when all she had wanted to do was give that man a piece of her mind. What on earth did Nicky even see in him for heaven's sake? Watching them together was like watching a pair of mis—matched shoes on someone's feet. While her cousin was clearly in love with Ethan, the man had shown little or no emotion towards her in return, an act that raised alarm bells in Erin's brain.
"Well, what do you think of Ethan?" Nicky piped up as Erin pulled into the evening traffic, steering the blue Ferrari with skill.
Erin took her eyes from the road briefly to spare her cousin a long look. She could not really bring herself to lie to her cousin and say Ethan Lachlan was perfect for her. Her protective instincts kicked in and she knew what she had to do to save Nicky from making the biggest mistake of her life.
"Nicky, may I be honest with you?" she began, returning her attention to the road.