There were some days when, with very little effort, her smaller than average figure, usually untameable blonde curls and soap and water maintained complexion surprised Elle.   There were times when being in front of the floor length mirror in her walk in closet was like standing behind the iron railings at a blockbuster movie premiere in Leicester Square. Watching the hottest movie starlets strut their stuff on the red carpet. Unfortunately, today was not one of those days.   Elle had done everything she possibly could in the last two hours. Yet, the hateful glass still reflected the monstrosity of a bruised plum rather than a stunning Hollywood starlet swathed in Byzantiumsatin. The gown had promised her lies as it hung ever-so elegantly on the hanger only moments ago.   The hidden foam cups holding up her generous female assets felt too small. The gorgeous silver embellishment decorating underneath her bosom felt too loose. The panel it was hiding, like a Grecian crown, was strangling her rib cage. Hollywood royalty could wear silken second skins without reprisal. But, for Elle, the delicate material clung too close to every telltale sign that she was not someone who was on first name terms with the body builders in the gym.   She felt like she was about to audition for a satellite infomercial to advertise the latest US exercise equipment. One with the tag line ‘You can go from this embarrassingly-exaggerated-before picture to this potentially-same-head-on-a-different-body image in just twenty eight days.’ Except, her audition picture would not be selected for the cleaned up after shot.   What had she done to deserve this humiliation?   On cue, Adam Lacey’s agitated voice bellowed from the foot of the stairwell “Elle, will you get your arse down here already!”
  Oh yes! Elle’s eyes rolled skywards as her head shook. As if he’d let her forget she’d vented her early morning frustrations at her best friend. As if he’d let her forget that somehow Adam’s girlfriend found out that, even after Elle had gone to all the trouble of arranging for him to spend the night in a hotel four hundred miles away, Adam still managed to replicate Houdini and do one of his many disappearing tricks. Or that she knew he’d missed his eight a.m. appointment with their VIP client at the Pink Ribbon Foundation,who’d subsequently screamed down Elle’s ear for forty-five minutes because she was unable to magic him out of thin air.   This was her punishment.   “Elle!” Adam bellowed from the bottom of the stairs again. “C’mon!” His urgency only served to remind Elle that she didn’t have the infomercial’s promised twenty eight days to look good in this dress. Nope, Elle thought sadly, she didn’t even have twenty eight seconds.   She gave her hateful reflection a last once over, smoothed over the rogue curl that had refused to cascade over her right shoulder with the rest of her hair. Then, knowing that she’d be in agony before she’d even stepped outside of the house, Elle slipped on the brand new glittering silver heels.   Swallowing against the need to throw up everywhere Elle pushed her nerves all the way down to her toes. She hadn’t been to an event like this in sixteen years. She had never wanted to do it, and boy had prayed she’d never have to do this again in her lifetime. These were not people she ever wanted to face again.   Why was she doing this again? Was her job really worth giving up the wine, chocolates and a bubble bath for? Elle was sure this kind of punishment was crossing several boundaries and wasn’t actually legal. But it was either face this or a disciplinary committee over her professional conduct and explain why she was talking about Adam’s sex life with Beth. And she couldn’t go there. Just couldn’t. Not when they were talking about the Pink Ribbon Foundation. There was history with the Foundation’s Financial Director that no one at Lacey, Walker and Associates knew about and Elle wanted to keep it that way.   It had taken her long enough to shake off the stereotyped pregnant teen image and the rumours she’d only got where she was because of who she’d satisfied personally rather than professionally. So her past entanglement with Mark Shepherd would not look favourably on her when the firm won the PRF tender less than twelve months later.   Besides, Elle was sure there was an element of an unspoken ‘you do this for me and we’ll never speak of this ghastly event ever again’ involved in this little agreement. She and Adam were friends, sort of. She could handle one night in his world. She could schmooze with their clients.   Adam muttered to himself as Elle reached the stairs. He paced with his back towards her and from the gentle jostling of his elbows he played with the ring on his little finger.   He didn’t need to tell her she looked good. Elle reminded herself with a deep breath through her nose. He didn’t need to say she lived up to his impossible high standards. Her confidence would come from within. Elle let the breath slide through her lips, lifting her foot from the top step and she began her descent towards what she would only describe as a painful evening.   “Finally!” Adam growled at the sound of her heel clattering against the wooden steps. His arms protested at the ceiling as he spun around to face her. “It’s about…”   Elle’s stomach somersaulted, her nerves lit up like fireworks. Why had his voice had just died away? With one quick glance at his gormless expression Elle began losing her battle of professionalism. This was a ridiculous expectation and not in her job description. He could not punish her like this. She would take the disciplinary. She wasn’t doing it. She was not going.   Everything that gave Adam Lacey that distinguishable air of arrogance slipped away. His jaw fell open as his gaze travelled the extent of Elle’s floor length gown. It was a moment or two before his eyes found her face again and a second or two longer before any expression returned to his face.   When it did he craned his neck and yelled up the stairs “Elle, you’re off the hook tonight!” In the brief pause his eyes met hers again, he flashed his trademark Lacey smile and stomach flipping wink. Both wasted on Elle as he added “I’ve found someone else I’d very much like to invite to the ball.”   Confidence surged through Elle like adrenaline. This was a man who, in the ten years she had worked with him, had never once seen her as anything more than a colleague. But he had just undressed her with his eyes. Without acknowledging her own smugness Elle slapped his arm as she passed. “Ha-ha, very funny”   “So Cinders…” Of course, Adam was referring to their earlier conversation in Mickey’s Coffee Bar. The one where he’d lulled her into revealing that after losing an argument with her fifteen years old daughter about sleeping out on school nights, and then spent her day losing battles with everyone else in the world including him, Elle was grateful to be pampering herself with expensive bath foams, miracle skin care potions and drinking the very expensive bottle of wine he’d given her for Christmas. To which Adam had responded with the comment ‘how Cinderella-like of you’.   “…is that how you do it?”   Elle cursed her girlie predictability. His admiration played like music to her ears and brought her attention to a halt at the back of a leather sofa. Why wasn’t his mesmerised expression enough to tell her that she looked good? Was it really necessary for him to voice some inappropriate compliment that his promiscuous tone warned her was about to come? Sixteen years of independence. Sixteen years of supporting her family without interference from anyone else. Why did her self confidence still balanced on a knife edge while she waited to hear whether he approved or not? Elle turned a frosty glare towards Adam. “Do what?”   “I just thought you were a genius…”   Oh Jeez, why me? Elle scanned the room with mild annoyance. Adam had an address book of hundreds, maybe thousands, of girls who he could have called at last minute. Why had he chosen her?   Punishment, Elle reminded herself. Adam was punishing her for ranting inaccurate assumptions about how he’d spent his evening. Her best friend had told his girlfriend those assumptions, who then accused him of cheating as he waited to fly back to Yorkshire. And then she, how had he put it? “Dumped his sorry ass over the phone before she boarded a plane bound for New York.”   It was Valentine’s Day. They were supposed to be going to The Valentine’s Ball in aid of Alzheimer’s research this evening and then, instead of the limousine taking them home, Adam was surprising Mel with a weekend in as Las Vegas. They’d have left sooner except Adam was guest of honour and due to give a speech at this event. This was Elle’s punishment.   But still, Elle wasn’t in the mood for these playing cryptic games with him.   “…I mean you’re…” Elle let his voice slip into the background. She was even less inclined to listen to a practised list of compliments. Seriously! He had to give her more credit than that. “…But Cinders…” Her eyes landed on a sequin poking out from underneath the newspaper on the smaller cream sofa and Elle crossed the room “…you must have a fairy-godmother.”   What?! The glittering purse matching her shoes forgotten about as Elle pulled herself upright. Oh my… he did not just say that! She twisted around to find sheer delight in Adam’s expression.   Did he actually just say something so unbelievably cheesy that even the parmesan in her fridge was cringing? Her jaw tightened against the laugh threatening to erupt. Did Adam believe he was getting something more than justher company tonight? Oh he really was one of a kind!   Elle swooped down and collected the purse. “I guess I do…” The wistful pause was a deliberate opportunity for Elle to allow her gaze to drift away from his. “She’s based at a lovely boutique in town and works nine to five like the rest of us.” Elle let out another reflective sigh before she gave him sideways glance just in time to catch his eyes travel the length of her figure and back up. His lustful stare warned Elle that Adam was in no rush to go anywhere anymore. Elle trailed her tongue over her bottom lip, dragging the lip under her top teeth.   She glided across the hard wooden floor. With each deliberate sway of her hips the hem line of the dress swished and drew an appreciative glance over her figure as she approach Adam. Her finger twisted the rogue ringlet with her free hand as she chewed on her bottom lip until Elle was as comfortably close to Adam as she dared.   Even in her heels Adam was still much taller. She needed to look up, and considering their close proximity that meant through her lashes, to see his face. And she so wanted to see that smile wipe cleanly from his oh-so-charming features.   “It took your platinum credit card to convince her to do a little bit of overtime.” Elle tried to make her voice sounded as tempting as cup of hot chocolate on a snowy evening. “I really needed help to cast some magic over the two and a half hours notice you gave me Adam.”   “Mm … my…” with each stutter he blinked, his body etching a little bit closer as though he was clinging on to some calmed reality that she wouldn’t actually use his personal credit card for her own expenses. The small lump in his neck bobbed down and then back up in a smooth controlled motion. “You used my card?”   Elle fought a little giggle that would surely give her game away if it got out as she managed to take a small step away from him. “I didn’t think you’d mind.” She twirled three hundred and sixty degrees as she lifted the hem of the dress just a touch so she could model the shoes for him as well. “Don’t you think four hundred pounds was worth the extra ten minute wait?”   Fluttering her eyelashes really should have given her away but instead the malignant colour in his cheeks drained leaving his face a shade of grey. “You spent four hundred pounds on my credit card?”   Elle screwed up her face and she shrugged. Her eyes settled on the bag in her hand as the glittering open toed stiletto tapped from beneath the purple satin, drawing his attention to it.   His eyes widened. The vein at the side of his head began to swell. “It was more than four hundred pounds?” The trembling in his voice that warned her he was about to explode. “Are you serious?!”   “Four hundred eight three pounds and fifty nine pence to be exact” Elle bit her lip in a naughty school girl fashion as she paused, this time she wasn’t afraid to step as close as possible to him. This rebuff required the art of delicacy. She waited.   She watched the anger burn in his emerald green eyes as he struggled to control his temper and felt the breath pass between them when he finally filled his lungs to begin raging at her. That was when Elle placed a perfectly manicured fingertip on his lips.   “Have I ever told you…” She purred and allowed the finger to trail from his lips to his chest of its own accord. “…that you look good in a tuxedo?”   His pupils dilated as the anger dispersed from his eyes. It was replaced by something more intense, something that triggered her heart beat to quicker the longer she watched it burn. But instead of analysing it Elle instantly curtailed it. Game over.   “Come on, Prince Charming, we were already late.”   His skin turned a motion sickness shade of green. “Oh my god! I feel ill.” It was a moment or two before he slowly let out a breath, visibly began to relax and shook his head. “You didn’t use my card, did you?”   That was her cue to step away. A wicked little cackle escaped from Elle’s lips and his eyes narrowed in response. “I really don’t like you very much right now”   “Does that mean I don’t have to go?” But she already knew the answer to her question as she flicked out the lights.   “No.” Adam growled and followed her to the door “It means you can’t booby trap my office in the morning.”   “Damn it, Adam” Elle stamped her heel against the concrete step outside. “You read my mind.”

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