Stone(2)

By: Anne Marie Winston



Stone. Her stomach fluttered with nervous delight and she silently admonished herself to settle down and behave like an adult. She'd been terribly infatuated with him by the time she was a young teenager.

He'd teased her, told her jokes and tossed her in the air. And she'd been smitten with the fierce pain of unrequited love. Though she'd told herself it was just a crush and (she'd outgrown him, her body's involuntary reactions to his nearness now called her a liar. Ridiculous , 'she told herself sternly. You haven't seen the man in months. You barely know him .

But Stone had kept tabs on her since their fathers' deaths, though his busy schedule apparently hadn't permitted him to visit often. He'd remembered her at Christmas and on her birthday, and she'd occasionally gotten postcards from wherever he happened to be in the world, quick pleasantries scrawled in a strong masculine hand. It hadn't been much, she supposed, but to a young girl at a quiet boarding school, it had been 'enough.

And she knew from comments he'd made in his infrequent letters that he had checked on her progress at boarding school and at college, which she'd attended for two and a half years.

Until she'd learned the truth.

•The truth. Her pleasure in his appearance faded.

"I work here," she said quietly, gathering her dignity around her. She should be furious with Stone for what he'd done, but she couldn't stop herself from drinking in the sight of his large, dark-haired form, so enormous and out of place among the delicate, feminine clothing displays. , "You quit school," he said, his strong, tanned features dark with displeasure.

"I temporarily stopped taking classes," she corrected. "I hope to return part-time eventually." Then she remembered her shock and humiliation on the day she'd learned that Stone had paid for her education and every other single thing in her life since her father's death. "And in any case, I couldn't have stayed. I needed a job."

Stone went still, his fingers relaxing on her wrist although he didn't release her, and she sensed his sudden wariness. "Why do you say that?"

She shook the index finger of her free hand at him. "You know very well why, so don't pretend innocence." She surveyed him for a moment, unable to prevent the wry smile that tugged at her lips. "You'd never pull it off."

He didn't smile back. "Have lunch with me. I want to talk to you."

She thought for a moment. "About what?"

"Things," he said repressively. His blue eyes were dark and stormy and he took a moment to look at their surroundings. "You can't keep this up."

She smiled at his ill temper. "Of course I can. I'm not a millionaire, it helps to pay the rent." Then she remembered the money. "Actually, I want to talk to you, too." ;

"Good. Let's go." Stone started to tow her toward the escalator, but Faith stiffened her legs and resisted.

"Stone! I'm working. I can't just leave." She waved a hand toward the rear of the department. "Let me check with my supervisor and see what time I can take my lunch break."

He still held her wrist and she wondered if he could feel her pulse scramble beneath his fingers. He searched her face for a long moment before he nodded once, short and sharp. "All right. Hurry."

Faith turned and walked to the back of the store at a ladylike pace. She refused to let Stone see how much his presence unsettled her. Memories ran through her head in a steady stream.

When he'd come to visit a few months after the funeral to help her mother tell her what they had decided, he'd been grieving, but even set in unsmiling severe lines, his face had been handsome. She'd been drawn even more than ever to his steady strength and charismatic presence. He talked about the friendship their fathers had shared since their days as fraternity brothers in college but she'd known even before he started to talk that he'd feel responsible for her. He was just that kind of man.

He intended to continue to send her to a nearby private school in Massachusetts , he told her, and to make sure that her mother's care was uninterrupted and her days free of worry. And though she hadn't known it at the time, Stone had taken over the burden of those debts. At the time of his death, her father had been nearly insolvent.

"Faith!" One of the other saleswomen whispered at her as she'rushed by. "Who is that gorgeous, gorgeous man standing over there? I saw you talking to him."

Faith threaded her way through the salespeople gathering in the aisle. "A family friend," she replied. Then she saw Doro, her manager. "What time will I have my break today?"

Dora's eyes were alive with the same avid curiosity' dancing jn the other womens* faces. "Does he want you to have lunch with him?"

Wordlessly'Faith nodded.

"That's Stone Lachlan !" One of the other clerks rushed up, dramatically patting her chest. "Of the steel fortune Lachlans. And his mother is the CEO of Smythe Corp. Do you know how much he's worth?"

"Who cares?" asked another. "He could be pen-. niless and I'd still follow him anywhere. What a total babe!"

"Sh-h-h." Doro hustled the others back to work. Then she turned back to Faith. "Go right now!" The manager all but took her by the shoulders and shoved her back in Stone's direction.

Faith was amused, but she understood Stone's potent appeal. Even if he hadn't been so good-looking, he exuded an aura of power that drew women irresistibly.

Quietly she gathered her purse and her long black wool coat, still a necessity in New York City in March. Then she walked back to the front of the women's department where Stone waited. He put a hand beneath her elbow as he escorted her from the store and she shivered at the touch of his hard, warm fingers on the tender bare flesh of her neck as he helped her into her coat and gently drew her hair from beneath the collar.

He had a taxi waiting at the curb and after he'd handed her into the car, he took a seat at her side. "The Rainbow Room," he said to the driver.

Faith sat quietly, absorbing as much of the moment as she could. This could very well be the last time she ever shared a meal with him. Indeed, this could be the last time she ever saw him, she realized. He had taken her out to eat from time to time when she was younger and he'd come to visit her at school. She'd never known when he was going to show up and whisk her off for the afternoon—Lord, she'd lived for those visits. But she and Stone lived in different worlds now and it was unlikely their paths would cross.

At the restaurant, they were seated immediately. She sat quietly until Stone had ordered their meals. Then he squared his big shoulders, spearing her with an intense look. "You can't work as a shop girl."

"Why not? Millions of women do and it hasn't seemed to harm them." Faith toyed with her water glass, meeting his gaze. "Besides, I don't have a choice. You know as well as I do that I have no money." lt;

He had the grace to look away. "You'd have been taken care of," he said gruffly.

"I know, and I appreciate that." She folded her hands in her lap. "But I can't accept your charity. I'd like to know how much I owe you for everything you did in the past eight years—"

"I didn't ask you to pay me back." He leaned forward and she actually found herself shrinking back 1 from the fierce scowl on his face.

"Nonetheless," she said as firmly as she could manage, given the way her stomach was quivering, "I intend to. It will take me some time, but if we draw'up a schedule—"

"No." '

"I beg your pardon?"

"I said no, you may not pay me back." His voice rose. "Dammit, Faith, your father would have done the same if I'd been in your shoes. I promised your mother I'd take care of you. She trusts me. Besides, it's an honor thing. I'm only doing what I know my father'.would have done."

"Ah, but your father didn't make risky investments'that destroyed his fortune," she said, unable to prevent a hot wash of humiliation from warming her cheeks.

"He could have." Stone's chin jutted forward in a movement she recognized from the time he'd descended on 'the school to talk to her math teacher about giving her a failing grade on a test she'd been unable to take because she'd had pneumonia. "Besides," he said, "it's not as if it's made a big dent in my pocketbook. Last time I checked, there were a few million left."

She shook her head. "I still don't feel right about taking your money. Do you have any idea how I felt when I learned that you'd been paying my way for years?"

"How did you find out, anyway?" He ignored her question. ,

"In February I went to the bank to talk about my father's investments—I thought it would be good for me to start getting a handle on them since you'd no longer be responsible for me after my twenty-first birthday, which is coming up later this year. I assumed I'd take on responsibility for my mother's finances then, as well. That's when I learned that every item in my family's budget for eight years had been paid for by you." Despite her vow to remain calm, tears welled in her eyes. "I was appalled. Someone should have told me."

"And what good would that have done, other than to distress you needlessly?"

"I could have gotten a job right out of high school, begun to support myself."

"Faith," he said with ill-concealed impatience. "You were not quite thirteen years old when your father died. Do you really think I would have left you and your mother to struggle alone?"

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