Stone

By: Anne Marie Winston

Prologue

"Smythe Corp. will be yours…on one condition." Eliza Smythe's eyes narrowed as she studied her only son.

Stone Lachlan stood with one arm negligently braced on the mantel above the marble fireplace in his mother's Park Avenue apartment in New York City . Not even the flicker of an eyelash betrayed any emotion. He wasn't about to let his mother know what her offer meant to him. Not until it was his and she couldn't take it away.

"And what might that condition be?" He lifted the crystal highball glass to his lips and drank, keeping the movement slow and lazy. Disinterested.

"You get married—"

"Married!" Stone nearly choked on the fine Scotch malt whiskey.

"And settle down," his mother added. "I want grandchildren one of these days while I'm still young enough to enjoy them."

He set his glass on a nearby marble-topped table with a snap. It took him a moment to push away the hurtful memories of a small boy whose mother had been too busy to bother with him. His mouth twisted cynically. "If you plan to devote yourself to grandchildren as totally as you did me, why are you planning to retire? It doesn't take much time to give a nanny instructions once a week or so."

His mother flinched. "If it's any consolation to you, I regret the way you were raised," she said, and he could hear pain in her voice. "If I had it to do over…"

"If you had it to do over, you'd do exactly the same thing," Stone interrupted her. The last thing he needed was to have his mother pretending she cared. "You'd immerse yourself in your family's company until you'd dragged it back from the brink of bankruptcy. And you'd keep on running it because you were the only one left."

His mother bowed her head, acknowledging the truth of his words. "Perhaps." Then she squared her shoulders and he could see her shaking off the moment of emotion. Just as she'd shaken him off so many times. "So what's your decision? Do you accept my offer?"

"I'm thinking," he said coolly. "You drive a hard bargain. Why the wife?"

"It's time for you to think about heirs," his mother said. "You're nearly thirty years old. You'll have responsibilities to both Smythe Corp. and Lach-lan International and you should have children to follow in your footsteps."

God, he wished she was kidding but he doubted his mother had ever seen the point of a joke in her entire life. A wife…? He didn't want to get married. Hadn't ever really been tempted, even. A shrink would have a field day with that sentiment, would probably pronounce him scarred by his childhood. But the truth, as Stone saw it, was simply that he didn't want to have to answer to anyone other than himself.

Where in hell was he going to get a wife, anyway? Oh, finding a woman to marry him would be easy. There were dozens of fresh young debutantes around looking for Mr. Rich and Right. The problem would be finding one he could stand for more than five minutes, one that wouldn't attempt to take him to the cleaners when the marriage ended. When the marriage ended…that was it! He'd make a temporary marriage, pay some willing woman a lump sum for the job of acting as his wife for a few weeks.

"Draw .up the papers, Mother." His voice was clipped. "I'll find a wife."

"Which is why it's conditional."

That got his attention. "Conditional? What—you want final approval?" Another thought occurred to him. "Or you're giving me some time limit by which I have to tie the knot?"

Eliza shook her head. "The last thing I want you to do is rush into marriage. I'd rather you wait until you find the right woman. But at least now I know you'll be thinking about it. The condition is that once you marry, the marriage has to last for one year— with both of you living under the same roof—before the company becomes yours."

One year … His agile mind immediately saw the fine print. He would find a bride, all right. And the minute the ink was dry oh the contract with his mother, there would be a quiet annulment. A twinge of guilt pricked at his conscience but he shrugged it off. He didn't owe his mother anything . And it would serve her right for thinking she could manipulate his life this way. '

He smiled, trying to mask his newfound satisfaction. "All right, Mother. You've got a deal. I find a bride, you give me your dearest possession."

Eliza stood, her motions jerky. "I know I haven't been much of a mother to you, Stone, but I do care. That's why I want you to start looking for a wife. Being single might seem appealing for a while, but it gets awfully lonely."

He shrugged negligently, letting the words hit him and bounce off. No way was he going to let her start tugging at his heartstrings after all this time. She was the one who had chosen to leave. "Whatever."

Eliza started for the door. "At least give it some thought." She sighed. "I never thought I'd say it, but I'm actually looking forward to having some free time."

"I never thought you'd say it, either." And he hadn't. His mother lived and breathed the company that had come to her on her father's death when she was barely twenty-five. She'd loved it far more than she had Stone or his father, as his dad had pointed out.

Smythe Corp. He'd resigned himself to waiting for years to inherit his mother's corporation. But he'd never stopped dreaming. Now he would be able to implement the plans he'd considered for years. He'd merge Smythe Corp. with Lachlan Enterprises, the company that had been his father's until his death eight years ago.

As his mother took her leave, he.moved into his office, still thinking about finding the right woman to agree to what sounded like an insane idea. A temporary wife. Why not? Marriage, as far as he could tell, was a temporary institution anyway. One he had never planned to enter. But if marriage was what it took, then marriage was what his mother would get.

While he t turned the problem over in his head, he thumbed through the day's mail. His hand slowed as he came to a plain brown envelope. In the envelope was the report he received quarterly, giving him updates on his ward, Faith Harrell.

Faith. She'd been a gawky twelve-year-old the first time he'd seen her. He'd been fresh out of college, and they both were reeling from the death of their two fathers in a boating accident a month earlier. He'd been absolutely stunned, he recalled, when Faith's mother had begged him to become her guardian.

A guardian…him? It sounded like something out of the last century. But he hadn't been able to refuse. Mrs. Harrell had multiple sclerosis. She feared the disease's advance. And worse, she'd been a quietly well-to-do socialite for her entire married life, pursuing genteel 'volunteer work and keeping her home a charming, comfortable refuge for her husband. She knew nothing of finances and the world of business. They'd been married for a long, long time before they'd had Faith and their world had revolved around her. His father would have wanted him to make sure Randall Harrell's family was taken care of.

And so Faith became his ward. He'd taken care of her, and of her mother, in a far more tangible way when he'd discovered the dismal state of Randall's investments. The man had been on the brink of ruin. Faith and her mother were practically penniless. And so Stone had quietly directed all their bills to him throughout the following years. He'd seen no reason to distress the fragile widow 'with her situation, and even less to burden'a young girl with it. It was what his father would have done, (and it certainly wasn't as if it imposed a financial strain on his own immense resources.

Faith. Her name conjured up an image of a slender schoolgirl in a neat uniform though he knew she hadn't wonr uniforms since leaving her boarding school. It had been more than a year since he'd seen her. She'd become a lovely young thing as she'd grown up and she probably was even prettier now. She would be finishing her junior year at college in a few months. And though he hadn't seen her in person recently, he looked forward to reading the update on her from the lawyer who had overseen the monetary disbursements to Faith and her mother.

He slit the envelope absently as he returned to the problem of where to find a temporary wife.

Five minutes later, he was rubbing the back of his neck in frustration as he spoke to the man 'who provided the updates on Faith Harrell. "What do you mean, she withdrew from school two weeks ago?"

One

A huge, hard hand clamped firmly about her wrist as Faith Harrell turned from the Carolina Herrerra display she was creating in the women's department of Saks Fifth Avenue .

"What in hell are you doing?" a deep, masculine voice growled.

Startled, Faith looked up. A long way up, into the furious face of Stone Lachlan. Her heart leaped, then began to tap-dance in her chest as pleasure rose so swiftly it nearly choked her. She hadn't seen Stone since he'd taken her out for lunch one day last year— he was the last person she had imagined meeting today! Her pulse had begun to race at the sound of his growling tones and she hoped he didn't feel it beneath his strong fingers.

"Hello," she said, smiling. "It's nice to see you, too."

He merely stared at her, one dark eyebrow rising. "I'm waiting for an explanation."

Stone was nearly ten years her senior. His father and hers had been best friends and she'd grown up visiting with Stone and his father occasionally, chasing the big boy who gave her piggyback rides and helped her dance by letting her stand on his feet. He'd been merely a pleasant, distant-relation sort of person until their fathers had died together in a squall off Martha's Vineyard eight years ago. Since then, Stone had been her guardian, making sure her mother's multiple sclerosis wasn't worsened by any sort of stress. Technically she supposed she still was his ward, despite the fact that she'd be twenty-one in November, just eight'months away. And despite the additional fact that she was penniless and didn't need a guardian anyway.

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