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'Cinderella, you are so going to the ball,' Sorcha said as Jane opened her front door.
Jane stared at her best friend. 'But I've only just got in from late shift.'
'Perfect timing, then.' Sorcha glanced at her watch. 'The taxi's going to be here in thirty minutes, so you don't have time to argue.'
'I don't have anything to wear.'
'Yes, you do. Right here. It's an unbirthday present from me because I saw it when I was in town and thought the colour was just perfect for you.' Sorcha waved a carrier bag at her. 'Go and have a shower and wash your hair. I'll dry it for you and do your make-up.'
'But' Jane began, and then subsided. She knew from past experience that, once Sorcha was in full bossy mode, there was no stopping her.
'It's not as if you've got anything better to do tonight,' Sorcha added. 'And ironing and cleaning your bathroom don't count. You didn't go to a single one of the Christmas nights out, you're always switching your duty so you can avoid team nights out, and it's well past time you stopped letting Shaun ruin your life.'
Jane didn't have an answer for any of that. She knew it was all true.
Sorcha hugged her swiftly. 'I know he hurt you badly, Janey, but you can't hide behind work for the rest of your life. Look, I'm not telling you to go and have a wild fling with the first man you meet. Just come out with me tonight and enjoy yourself. Have some fun.'
Jane wrinkled her nose. 'There's a teensy problem. I don't actually have a ticket for the ball.' She'd given a donation toward the funds instead.
'Actually, you do have one. From Maddie and Theo, with their loveand she says if you say you can't accept it, then she'll accept a promise of babysitting one evening in return, but you're coming to the ball and that's final. And Theo echoed the lot.'
Jane knew when she was beaten. 'I can hardly argue with my boss,' she said wryly.
'Attagirl.' Sorcha smiled at her. 'You've got twenty-seven minutes. Go, go, go!'
By the time the taxi arrived, Jane hardly recognised herself. She normally kept her hair tied back in a ponytail at work, but Sorcha had blow-dried it into a sleek bob. Her make-up was light but still managed to emphasise her hazel eyes and make them sparkle. And the dress was the prettiest she'd ever seen, with a swishy skirt that made her feel light on her feet; it fitted as if it had been made to measure.
'Perfect,' Sorcha said with an approving nod.
'What do you mean, you can't make it?' Ed asked.
'I'm stuck in Suffolk,' George explained.
Ed's heart skipped a beat as a nasty thought hit him. 'Is Dad all right?'
'As far as I know. I'm not at the hall.'
'Uh-huh.' So there could only be one other reason why his older brother was standing him up, Ed thought. He'd had a better offer than a hospital charity ball. 'A girl,' he said with a sigh.
'No, actually. My car had a slight argument with a tree.'
'What? Are you all right?'
'I'm fine. Nobody's hurt, except the car. Stop fussing,' George said. 'Metal's easily fixed.'
'I'm a doctor. If you tell me you've crashed your car, of course I'm going to fuss,' Ed retorted.
'Honestly, I'm fine. Not a scratch on meunlike my poor car. I'll be back in London later in the week. I'm just sorry I've let you down.'
'Just as long as you're really OK. What happened?'
'I took the corner a bit too fast,' George said cheerfully. 'But I've learned my lesson, so don't nag. I spent hours polishing that chrome to perfection. I'll be more careful in future.'
Ed could see exactly why his stepmother had begged him to talk some sense into his older brother. Not that he thought George would actually listen to him, but maybe some of Ed's seriousness and common sense would rub off on George and he'd steady down a bit. 'OK. I'll see you when you're back. Try not to break your neck.'
George just laughed. 'Have a good time tonight.'
Ed replaced the receiver and straightened his bow tie. Well, it wasn't the end of the world that he had to go to the ball on his own. It was a chance to meet some of his new colleagues and have some fun, as well as raising money for specialist equipment at the London Victoria.
He'd liked Theo Petrakis, the senior consultant, at their first meeting. And the photograph of the three little girls on his desk had sealed the deal: Theo was very clearly a family man. Just as Ed was, too; his decision to move back to London from Glasgow was less to do with being promoted and more to do with being nearer to his brother and his sisters. Prompted partly by a quiet phone call from Frances saying that George desperately needed someone to talk sense into him before he broke his neck doing some extreme sport or other.
That was Ed's slot in the family: the younger son of Lord Somers was the sensible, serious one who fixed things. George, the heir to the barony, dated a different gorgeous girl each week and would be the first one down a double black diamond ski run, making him a firm favourite with the paparazzi. And sometimes Ed really worried that his brother was going too far. Still. There was nothing he could do about it tonight. Once George was back in London, he'd take his brother out to dinner and see if he could talk him into calming down just enough to stop the rest of the family worrying themselves sick about him.
'Jake's over thereand he's on his own,' Jane pointed out as she and Sorcha walked into the ballroom.
'Sorcha, this is the ball. It's your chance to get him to notice that you're stunning as well as good at your job.'
Sorcha shrugged. 'Some other time. I'm not abandoning you on your first night out since ' Her words tailed off.
Jane met it head on. 'Since Shaun.' Her ex-fiance. Who'd cheated on Jane with her twin sister and shattered every illusion Jane had. 'I know. But it's not as if I don't know most of the people here. I can look after myself.' Jane smiled at her. 'And anyway, I need to find Mad-die and Theo to thank them for the ticket. Go and talk to Jake.'
'Are you sure?'
'Very sure.' Jake and Sorcha would make a great couple; Jane thought he just needed to wake up and see what was right under his nose. 'Go for it. I'll see you later. Good luck!'
Once Sorcha was on her way over to Jake, Jane sought out her boss and his wife. 'Thank you so much for the ticket.'
'Our pleasure, Janey,' Maddie Petrakis said, hugging her. 'I'm just glad Sorcha talked you into it.'
'But I'm definitely babysitting for you. Two nights,' Jane added.
'Janey, you look lovely.' Theo, the senior consultant on the maternity ward, gave her an appreciative smile. 'If I was single, I'd be sweeping you off your feet.'
'Yeah, yeah.' She flapped a dismissive hand. Everyone knew that Theo only had eyes for his wife. But the compliment still pleased her.
'I love your shoes,' Maddie said. 'And have you had your hair done? It's gorgeous.'
'Sorcha nagged me into letting her blow-dry it,' Jane confessed.
'Good for her. Keep it like that,' Maddie said. 'Even if it means getting up twenty minutes early. Because it really suits you.'
Again, the compliment warmed Jane. Maddie was one of her favourite colleagues, and had been a real rock when the hospital grapevine had been buzzing about her last year. Having been through a similar thing with her first husband, Maddie understood exactly how Jane felt about Shaun's very public betrayal. And she'd joined with Sorcha in helping Jane keep her head held high and ignoring the gossip.
'Have you bought your tombola tickets yet?' Maddie asked. 'The prizes are brilliant this year.'
'If there's a balloon ride among the prizes, Dr Petrakis,' Theo said, 'then we're buying every single ticket until we get it.'
Maddie actually blushed, and Jane laughed. 'I won't ask you what that's about. But, yes, I'll buy tickets. And I'll do a stint selling them, if you want.'
'No backstage stuff for you, Dr Cooper. You're here to dance your feet off,' Maddie said. 'Tonight's all about having fun.'
'And raising money for hospital equipment.'
'That, too. OK, you can go and buy loads of tombola ticketsand then you get on that dance floor,' Maddie said. 'Actuallythat's senior consultant's orders, isn't it, Theo?'
'Certainly is,' Theo agreed with a smile. 'Actually, I'm trying to keep an eye out for our new consultant. He doesn't start officially until next week, but Maddie bullied him into buying a ticket for the ball.'
'I was off duty when he met everyone else in the department,' Jane said. 'What's he like?'
'A nice guy. He'll fit in to the department, no problems,' Theo said. 'You'll like him. Which is just as well, as he's going to be working with you.'
'So if I don't see him tonight, I'll meet him on Tuesday morning.'
'Yes. Now, go and enjoy yourself,' Maddie ordered with a smile.