By: Anne Marie Winston

At his side, Faith stirred and he realized she was passing his mother a cocktail napkin so she could wipe her eyes. "It is difficult to accept that there's so little we can do to combat it," she said. "After my father died, my mother's condition worsened rapidly."

- After a few more moments of conversation, Eliza set down her drink and rose. "Call me a taxi, please, Stone. It's time for me to be going."

He did so, then helped her on with her coat and they stood in the foyer for a few moments until the car rolled down the street and stopped in front of the house. i

As he closed the door behind her, he turned to Faith, still standing at his side in the foyer. "We did it! We convinced her." He took her hands, squeezing lightly. "Thank you."

"You're welcome." She smiled slightly but he noticed her gaze didn't reach any higher than his chin as she eased her hands free of his and turned. "It's been a tiring day. Could you take me home now?"

"Of course." His elation floated away, leaving him feeling flat and depressed. And there was no reason for it, he told himself lt;firmly. He'd accomplished what he'd intended. So what if he had a raging physical attraction to Faith? She wasn't indifferent to him, either. He was certain of it after that smoking kiss before dinner, but she clearly .wasn't any more prepared to step over the line than he was.

And he knew he should be glad for that. Because if she encouraged him, he was fairly certain he'd forget he'd ever drawn that line in the first place.

Faith spent the following Monday packing most of her things and answering breathless questions from Gretchen about her upcoming marriage. The morning paper had carried a tantalizing mention of Stone's impending nuptials and Gretchen had been quick to add up the details and come to the right conclusion.

Stone picked her up just after two o'clock and they made the drive into rural Connecticut where her mother lived in a beautifully landscaped condominium. Her apartment was on the ground floor and was handicap-accessible. Faith had helped her find the place during one of her infrequent vacations from school. Only now did it occur to her that Stone had probably helped her mother sell their old house. And rather than using it to finance this purchase, she was willing to bet he'd used it to pay off her father's debts and had spent his own money on her mother since then.

The thought of him assuming the full financial burden of caring for her mother and her still pricked at her pride, but she was grateful, too. She was practical enough to recognize that she never could have provided her mother with a stable, comfortable home. God only knew what would have become of them if Stone hadn't stepped in. What had her father been thinking?

They probably would never know. Her throat tightened as she thought of the laughing man with hair as pale as her own who had tossed her into the air and tucked her into bed every night. Clearly he hadn't been perfect, but she would always think of him with love.

Thank God, she thought again, for Stone. He'd provided desperately needed tranquillity for her mother and also had given Faith the tools to make her own way in the world one day. And she was all the more determined to repay his kindness during the upcoming year. She'd be such an asset to him he would wonder what he'd done before he had a wife! A momentary flash of disquiet accompanied the thought. Already, it was as though she'd been with Stone for months rather than days. What would it be like to lose him after a year?

Clarice, her mother's day help, answered the door when Stone rang the bell. "Hello, honey," the older woman greeted Faith. "She's really looking forward to your visit."

Faith hugged her. Clarice was a godsend. Widowed at sixty, Clarice had little in the way of retirement savings and was forced to continue to work. Faith and her mother had tried three other aides before they found Clarice, and Faith knew a gem when she saw one. Clarice, in addition, appeared to genuinely enjoy Mrs. Harrell and swore the work was well within her capabilities. Fortunately Faith's mother wasn't a large woman, so it wasn't terribly difficult for Clarice to assist her for tasks like getting in and out of the bath.

Still, Faith worried. Her mother was steadily losing mobility and motor control and the day was coming when she would need more than occasional assistance and handicapped facilities in her home. But as she entered the condo with Stone behind her, she felt less burdened, less worried than she had in some time. For the next year, her mother would want for nothing. And as soon as Faith got her degree and a job with decent pay, she planned to find a place she could share with her mother that would meet both their needs.

"Clarice," she said, "this is Stone Lachlan, my fiance"." She was proud that she didn't stumble over the word—she'd practiced it in her head fully half of the trip.

"Hello," said Clarice, "Faith's never brought—" Then the import of Faith's words struck her. "Well, my lands! Come in, come in. Congratulations!" She pumped Stone's hand, then hugged Faith. "Does your mother know?"

Faith shook her head. "Not yet. Is she in the living room?"

The older woman nodded. "By the window. She loves to look out at the birds. I put some feeders up to attract them and we've been seeing all kinds."

Faith felt another rush of gratitude. Clarice was indeed a gem. She wondered if there was any possibility of convincing her to come with her mother to live in New York. Deciding not to get ahead of herself, she let Clarice lead them into the living room.

"Mama." She went to the wheelchair by the window and knelt to embrace her mother, tears stinging her eyes.

"Hello, my little love." Her mother's arms fumbled up to pat at her. Her speech was slow but still reasonably clear, although Faith had noticed some change over the past year. Then her mother said, "Stone!"

"Hello, Mrs. Harrell." He came forward and Faith was surprised when he knelt at her side and gave her mother his hand. "It's nice to see you again."

"You, also." Naomi Harrell clung to his hand. "Did you drive Faith up?"

He nodded. Then he looked at Faith, and she smiled at him, grateful to him for sensing that she wanted to be the one to tell her mother of their riage.

"Mama, I—we have some news. Stone and I are engaged to be married."

"Engaged?" Naomi slurred the second "g" and her eyes, magnified by the thick glasses she wore, went wide. "You're getting married?"

Stone looked at Faith again, still smiling, and for a moment, she was dizzied by the warm promise in his eyes, until she realized he was putting on a show for her mother's sake. "We are," he said. "This Friday, at eleven o'clock. We'd like you to be there, if you are able."

Naomi Harrell looked from one of them to the other. "I didn't even know you were dating," she said to Faith.

The comment shouldn't have caught her off guard but it did. "We, um, haven't been going out long," she said. Understatement of the year.

Stone slipped one steely arm around her shoulders, pulling her against his side. "I swept her off her feet," he told her mother, then turned again to smile down at her. "I was afraid if I waited until she was finished with school, the competition might edge me out." He paused, looking back at her mother, "I wasn't about to lose her."

Her mother nodded slowly, and Faith wasn't surprised to see tears welling in her eyes. Naomi Harrell had known that kind of love for real. She accepted the idea that her daughter had found the same happiness more easily than Stone's mother had. "I'm glad," Naomi said. "Faith needs somebody."

Faith knew her mother only meant that she didn't want Faith to be alone in the event anything hap-pened to her. It was an upsetting thought. "That's not all, Mama," she said, anxious to get it all said and done. "Stone and I would like you to come and live with us after we're married. Stone has an apartment on the main floor of his home that you could have. There's plenty of room for you and Clarice, too, if she'd consider leaving this area."

But Naomi was shaking her head. "New-ly-weds," she said, enunciating carefully, "should have some time alone."

Stone chuckled. "Mrs. Harrell, my home is big enough for all of us. Your apartment can be completely self-contained. There's even an entrance from the back. You don't even have to see us if you don't want to."

Naomi smiled. "I want to. But I don't want to be in the way."

"Mama, I'd really, really love it if you'd come to live with me." Faith took her mother's hands. "I miss you."

"And besides," Clarice piped up, "this way we'll be right there when the grandbabies start arriving!"

Oh my Lord. If there was any way she could put those words back in Clarice's mouth…she felt herself begin to blush.

At her side, Stone stirred, bringing his other hand up to rest over hers and her mother's. "We aren't ready to think about that yet," he said. "I want Faith all to myself for a while. A long while."

"And besides," she added, "I have to finish school and get established in my career." Well, at least that wasn't a lie.

'Yes, I can't seem to talk her out of this obsession with working." Stone's voice was easy and colored with humor, but she sensed a grain of truth beneath the light tone. She was sure it wasn't her imagination. Thinking of the tension between him and his own mother, she wondered just how deeply he'd been scarred by his parents' split when he was a child.

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