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The Yuletide Engagement
By Carol Mortimer
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One'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 situation - accusations 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't - he 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 highpowered 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 sometimes - like now - it 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 dinner - no 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 serious - I just thought of the most unlikely person ever to - I 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 of - of -
'Toby, you can just call the man right now and tell him not to come here this evening - that 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.
Excerpted from The Yuletide Engagement by Carol Mortimer Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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