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"Cinders shall go to the ball!" Toby announced as he stood poised in the kitchen doorway, a look of triumph on his boyishly handsome face. "Although the first person to call me the Fairy Godmother is going to get slapped!"
Ellie looked up from the newspaper she had been reading where she sat at the kitchen table, blue gaze narrowing as she took in the pleased flush on her brother's cheeks. "Toby, did you call into the pub again on your way home from work?" she prompted suspiciously. His eyes looked overbright, and he wasn't making much sense, either!
"That's all the thanks I get for getting you out of a difficult situationaccusations of inebriation!" He grinned widely as he came fully into the kitchen, leaving the door open behind him, despite the fact that snow was forecast for later this evening.
Ellie gave an involuntary shiver as a cold blast of air followed her brother into the room. "At least shut the door, Toby," she reasoned with indulgent affection. "You"
"Didn't you hear me, Ellie?" He pulled her easily to her feet, swinging her round in the close confines of the kitchen.
"Something about Cinders and a ball." She nodded, starting to feel slightly dizzy as the kitchen became a giddy blur; maybe intoxication was infectious? "Toby, will you please stop?" she gasped weakly.
He did, holding onto her hands as she swayed slightly. "Ellie, I asked him and he said yes. Can you believe that?" he exclaimed happily. "Didn't I tell you he's one of the good guys? He's even coming round later this evening to sort out the details," he announced triumphantly. "Isn't that just?"
"Toby, will you just slow down and tell me who you have asked to do what?" Ellie cut in impatiently, but she already felt a terrible sense of foreboding as it slowly started to dawn on her exactly what Toby might have done. Surely he hadn'the wouldn't have? She had been joking, for goodness' sake!
Toby let go of her hands, grinning at her victoriously as he reached for an apple from the bowl in the middle of the kitchen table, biting down on its crispness with complete enjoyment.
"Toby!" Ellie said warningly. "Will you just tell me exactly what it is you've done?" Although she had a feeling she already knew the answer to that!
Her brother returned her gaze with guileless blue eyes. "I've asked Patrick to escort you to your company Christmas dinner, of course," he dismissed with satisfaction.
"Patrick ?" she echoed faintly.
"Patrick McGrath. My boss." her brother enlarged impatiently as she just stared at him. "Remember? We were discussing the problem at the weekend and you said that what you really needed was someone high-powered like Patrick to accompany you. That way"
"But I wasn't being serious, Toby," she cut in incredulously, sinking back down onto the kitchen chair, staring disbelievingly at her brother. He was the younger by only a year, but sometimeslike nowit could feel like ten!
The company Christmas dinner was quickly looming, and this year, after Ellie's recent break-up with Gareth, a junior partner in the law firm they both worked for, it promised to be something of an ordeal for her. Not to go would give the impression she was too much of a coward to face Gareth and his new girlfriend, but to go on her own would make it look as if she were still pining for him. Which she most certainly was not!
Which was why, over the weekend, as she and Toby had lingered over their meal together on Sunday evening, she had drunk one glass of wine too many and suggested that she needed someone like Patrick McGrath, Toby's wealthy entrepreneurial boss, to go with her to the dinnerno one could possibly think she was still interested in Gareth when she was in the company of such a man.
Tall, dark, handsome and extremely successful, Patrick McGrath was the ideal man to allay any doubts anyone might have as to her having any lingering feelings for Gareth.
But she had thought Toby knew that it had only been that third glass of wine talking, that she hadn't really meant for it to happen!
She closed her eyes now in pained disbelief. "Toby, please, please tell me you haven't really asked Patrick McGrath to take me out next week," she groaned desperately.
Her brother paused in the act of taking another bite of his apple. "I haven't?" he said uncertainly, some of the look of triumph starting to fade from his face as he finally noticed Ellie's marked lack of enthusiasm.
"You haven't!" she repeated firmly.
She had met Toby's boss only once, five months ago. It had been enough. There was no doubting that Patrick McGrath was very rich, very self-assured, and very eligible. In fact, the very last person Ellie would ever want to ask her out!
Toby looked puzzled. "But on Sunday night you said"
"I had drunk too much wine, for goodness' sake," Ellie stood up to pace the confines of the room. "I wasn't being seriousI just thought of the most unlikely person ever toI didn't really mean it when I said"
"Patrick would make the perfect escort for your dinner a week on Friday," Toby finished obligingly.
She winced as she remembered saying exactly that. But it was a situation that required an extreme solution for unusual circumstances. On Sunday evening she had run the gamut of them, and had suggested Patrick McGrath being the perfect escort as the most extreme of those extremes. She certainly hadn't expected Toby to act on it!
"Exactly," she confirmed weakly. "Toby, please tell me you didn't"
"But I did," Toby told her impatiently. "I asked Patrick to accompany you. And as he said yes I can't see what your problem is." He shook his head.
He couldn't see! The problem was that Ellie felt totally ridiculous and completely humiliated. She had no intention ofof
"Toby, you can just call the man right now and tell him not to come here this eveningthat you made a mistake, that your sister doesn't need an escort next Friday or any other time, and that if or when I do need an escort I'll find one of my own, thank you very much!" She glared her indignation at her irresponsible brother.
Blue eyes blazed at the thought of her humiliation if she should ever meet Patrick McGrath again. Her dark, shoulder-length hair seemed to crackle with the force of her anger, every inch of her five-foot-two-inch frame seeming to bristle with indignation.
"Call him, Toby," she repeated with cold fury. "Call Patrick McGrath right now and tell him!"
"Now, Toby!" she ground out forcefully.
"I think what your brother is trying to tell youEllie, isn't it?is that there's no need for him to call and tell me anythingI'm already standing right here," drawled a lazily amused voice from directly behind her.
Ellie had spun round at the first sound of that drawling voice, having to arch her neck back in order to look up into the confident face of Patrick McGrath.
If ever she had wanted the ground to open and swallow her up it was right now.
Tallwell over six feet. Darkhair kept deliberately short as it looked inclined to curl. Handsomegrey eyes beneath arched dark brows, an arrogant slash of a nose, chiselled lips that were curved into a smile at the moment, an out-of-season tan darkening those distinctive features. Successfuleven the casual clothes he was wearing this eveninga black silk shirt and faded denimsobviously bore a designer label, and the black leather shoes were no doubt hand-made.
"So, Ellie," he drawled softly. "What was it you wanted Toby to tell me? "
She was trying to speak, really she was; she just couldn't seem to get any words to come out of her throat!
"The details for next Friday, perhaps?" Patrick McGrath prompted interestedly, grey gaze lightly mocking.
How Ellie remembered that mocking gaze. How could she ever forget it? Toby still had no idea what had actually happened at her one and only other meeting with this man; Ellie hadn't told him, and as the days and weeks had passed, without Toby making any reference to it, it had eventually become obvious that Patrick McGrath wasn't going to tell her brother all the details of that meeting, either.
But Ellie was unlikely to ever forget them!
It had been an unusually hot summer this year, with everyone wearing the minimum of clothing, and Ellie, conscious of her impending summer holiday abroad and with a wish not to stand out like a sore thumb on the Majorcan beaches, had decided to spend one Saturday afternoon sunbathing in their secluded back garden.
How could she have known that Patrick McGrath had been telephoning for over an hour, urgently trying to contact Toby? That he had decided to come over to the house in person when he'd received no reply? Or that he would stroll out into the garden when he found the house unlocked but seemingly deserted?
Ellie had made a mad scramble for her top when she'd realised she was no longer alone, but it hadn't been quick enough to prevent that piercing gaze from having a full view of her naked breasts.
Damn it, she was sure she could see the knowledge of that memory now, clearly gleaming in those mocking grey eyes.
Despite what she might have said on Sunday evening, warmed by the unaccustomed wine, Patrick McGrath was the last man she wanted to accompany her anywhere!
She drew in a deep breath. "Toby has He was mistaken when he askedI'm sorry you've been troubled, Mr McGrath." She spoke dismissively, her gaze fixed on the second button of his black silk shirt. "I never meant"
"Toby, why don't you make us all some coffee?" Patrick McGrath turned to the younger man authoritatively. "While Ellie and I sort out whether or not I'm being stood up a week on Friday," he added derisively.
Toby set about making the pot of coffee and Ellie looked up at Patrick McGrath reprovingly. He might find all this funny, but she certainly didn't. As if any woman would ever stand this man up!
But they did need to sort this mess out, and she would rather do it out of earshot of her well-meaning but unthinking younger brother.
"Let's go through to the sitting room, Mr McGrath," she suggested briskly, some of her normal self confidence returning as she led the way down the hallway to their lounge.
She was twenty-seven years old, had cared for Toby since their parents were killed in a car crash eight years ago, taking over the running of the family home as well as continuing her full-time job as secretary, eventually to one of the senior partners in a prestigious law firm. She was more than up to dealing with this situation.
Well.ordinarily she could be up to dealing with it, she conceded as Patrick McGrath stood in the middle of the sitting room, looking at her with his laughing steely eyes.
How on earth did Toby cope with working for this man every day? she wondered frowningly. He had such presence, such confidence, that just being in the same room with him was a little overpowering. But she knew Toby thought the other man was wonderful, that her brother thoroughly enjoyed his job as this man's personal assistant.
Maybe it was only women who found Patrick McGrath overpowering ?
Well one woman, Ellie conceded self-derisively. Maybe if she weren't so completely aware of the fact that this man had seen her sunbathing topless
Stop that right now, Ellie, she told herself firmly. If she was going to sort this situation out at all then she had to put that embarrassing memory completely from her mind. Although it would help if Patrick McGrath were to do the same.
His next words didn't seem to imply that was the case!
"I don't believe the two of us have ever been formally introduced," he drawled softly, with an emphasis on the "formally", it seemed to a slightly flustered Ellie. How could she possibly have formally introduced herself while at the same time clutching a top in front of her naked breasts?
"Probably not," she conceded abruptly. "But I'm sure you're aware that I'm Ellie Fairfax, Toby's older sister, and I am aware you're Patrick T. McGrathToby's boss."
He gave an acknowledging inclination of his head. "The T stands for Timothy, by the way. And Ellie is short for ?"
"Elizabeth," she supplied dismissively. "Although what?"
"It may come up in conversation a week on Friday." He shrugged broad shoulders.
"Mr McGrath, there isn't going to be any 'a week on Friday'."
She sighed frustratedly. "I have no idea what my irresponsible brother may have told you, but"
"He adores you, you know," Patrick McGrath cut in softly.
She felt the warmth in her cheeks at this completely unexpected comment. "I love him too." She nodded. "Although I don't really think that's relevant to our conversation." She frowned.
"Ellie, do you think we could both sit down?" Patrick McGrath suggested gently. "At the moment we look like two opponents about to face each other in the ring," he added dryly.
Maybe because that was exactly how he made her feeltotally on the defensive! "Pleasedo sit down," she invited abruptly.
"After you," he drawled politely.
Ellie looked at him impatiently, finding herself the focus of Patrick McGrath's cool grey gaze as he waited for her to be seated before he would sit down himself.
Old-fashioned good manners, as well as all those other attributes!
Ellie sat down abruptly, determinedly putting those "other attributes" firmly from her mind. "I accept that Toby meant well when hewhen he spoke to you today" she began huskily, stopping to look enquiringly at Patrick McGrath when he began to smile.
"Sorry." He continued to smile. "Toby ishe's one of the least selfish people I've ever met. As well as being completely honest, utterly trustworthy and totally candid." He sobered slightly. "You've done a lot for him, Ellie," he told her admiringly.
The warmth deepened in her cheeks at this even more unexpected compliment. "I'm pleased he's working out so well as your assistant."
"I wasn't just talking about him as my assistant, Ellie," Patrick McGrath cut in impatiently. "Toby is an exceptional young man. And it's all thanks to you," he added firmly.
She gave a rueful smile. "I think my parents may have had something to do with it."
"Your parents were killed when Toby was eighteen." He shook his head. "A very dangerous time for a young man to be left without guidance."
Ellie frowned. "You were right about Toby being candid!" It made her wonder exactly what else Toby had confided to Patrick McGrath about their private family affairs.
He looked at her quizzically. "You should be proud of him, Ellie, not"
"Here we are." Toby was grinning widely as he kicked the door open with his foot and came in with the tray of coffee things.