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 stubble on his chin - definitely needed to shave tonight before picking Nicky up for their dinner date or she would tease him endlessly 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 talked, her fair hair would no doubt be expertly styled, framing a face that was nothing less than perfect, with full bow lips and the way she carried herself like the classy socialite she was.
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, was the first step in making her his. He would be meeting her cousin, who was also her best friend and confidante, for the first time.
The fact that this cousin happened to be the Erin Gosling, hotel heiress of the prestigious Gosling fortune, gave him a clue of what to expect. Probably some dolled up fashionista, too engrossed in themselves and spending Daddy's money to care about mundane, silly things.
He mentally braced for an evening spent pretending to be interested in tales of the fabulous and exotic places she'd been to, or the latest fashion. Hopefully, there would be no dogs or cats, peeking out of designer handbags that cost a fortune.
Thankfully, Nicky was different. Her own parents weren't as rich as her cousin's, and it showed in her behavior.
A real estate agent, he'd met her at a small party thrown by his buddy, Marcus. Down to earth, yet cultured and intelligent to boot, it hadn't taken long before Ethan had come to the conclusion that Nicola Gosling was the woman he needed in his life.
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.
"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 IT firm was closed, while business at the law firm had slowed.
Ethan looked forward to the day his company would occupy an entire building on its own. It was the sort of success he longed for, the success he hoped to achieve one day. Right now, aside from a small crew, he had only four other employees, but soon, he intended for his company to be known as a construction giant.
He was just crossing the lobby when a sultry feminine voice stopped him in his tracks.
He turned in time to see the petite brunette coming towards him. He recognized her as Brittany, a legal secretary for the law firm on his floor. Her impossibly high bright pink heels clicked on the marble floor as she hurried towards him.
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. He made a mental note to pick it up before leaving for the restaurant.
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 in reverse. There would be more than enough time to stop, provided the traffic stayed light.
"No problem, I wouldn't mind coffee 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 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 she hadn't been so lucky. Her eyes were a nondescript shade of brown, 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."
Still, Erin noticed the furtive glance at the phone 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 upset her more.
With that in mind, 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. 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 rumpled, 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, warm and toe curling. "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 I was held up."
Erin studied the man, her lips thinning at his dishevelled appearance, the dark shadows of a day's growth of beard, the light blue shirt over a black blazer that seemed to have been thrown on without thought.
He did carry himself with an easy grace, though, and his looks was the sort that women drooled over.
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 an ice blue gaze. Smoldering blue eyes, she corrected silently, feeling butterflies run flutter in her stomach.
His look sent liquid heat searing through her, straight down to the area between her thighs, and all her senses came alive.
What is happening?
She tore her gaze from his and reached for the water glass, downing the cool liquid in one gulp.
Hot damn! Nicky had said he was gorgeous, but nothing 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 hope 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 thin line.
"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."
To distract her wayward thoughts, Erin picked up the menu and snapped it open to study the offerings. Nicky and Ethan did the same, and the next few minutes were mercifully free of the tension that had descended on their little group.
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 seeming to pierce into her thoughts. She held herself still, refusing to give him the satisfaction of seeing her squirm. No doubt, he used that stare to make people uncomfortable and Erin wasn't about to let him get to her.
"Yeah." He finally 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, she had other ideas.
"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, the ones who fancied themselves tall, dark and silent.
Well, in his case, he had tall and dark down to an artform.
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?"
Ah! Finally a whole sentence even if it was just a question.
"I did some research," Okay, 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,” she replied in a frosty tone. “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 don't tolerate people digging into my personal life Ms. Gosling. While I realize you may have nothing better to do with your time, stop poking your nose where it doesn't 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 forced the words out 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, cloaking them inside a force field. He looked so dangerous, like a big cat waiting to pounce on his prey and Erin shivered, icy chills 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 at her. 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 glittered dangerously.
"You little fool," He ground out. "Someone should have throttled some sense into you long ago."
"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 when Ethan stayed silent, 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 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 been stuck in traffic caused by a car accident, and to top that, he'd left his phone at the office. He'd 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 worsened his mood.
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’d had him investigated; he valued his privacy and did not relish the thought of Erin Gosling snooping into his background and then having the guts to rub it in his face, even having the nerve to accuse him of being a gold digger.
Ethan studied her from under his lashes. He had expected Erin to look like Nicky in some way, but he was surprised at the woman sitting across from him now.
Straight brown hair, pulled back in a severe bun at the nape of her neck, paired with attractive enough features.
The mint colored, 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 that icy exterior.
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 bad for letting his anger ruin the evening.
"I'm sorry, Honey, nothing is wrong," he pulled her down beside him and 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, nodding in agreement and accepting the unspoken cease fire.
Thankfully their food arrived, and the rest of the evening passed with the both of them carefully avoiding any volatile topic.
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 mismatched 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, and alarm bells rang in Erin's brain.
"Well, what do you think of Ethan?" Nicky piped up as Erin pulled into the evening traffic, steering the blue Jaguar with skill.
Erin took her eyes from the road briefly to spare her cousin a thoughtful 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.