Stone(3)

By: Anne Marie Winston



"It wasn't your decision to make," she insisted with stubborn pride, swallowing the tears.

"It was," he said in a tone that brooked no opposition. "It is . Your mother appointed me your guardian. Besides, if you finish your education you'll be able to get a heck of a lot better job than working as a salesclerk at Saks."

"Does my mother know the truth?"

Stone shook his head. "She believes I oversee your investments and take care of the bills out of the income. Her doctors tell me stress is bad for MS patients. Why distress her needlessly?"

It made sense. And in an objective way, she ad-mired his compassion. But it still horrified her to think of the money he'd spent.

The waiter returned then with their meal and the conversation paused until he'd set their entre"es before them. They both were quiet for the next few moments.

Stone ate with deep concentration, his dark brows drawn' together, obviously preoccupied with something.! ;

She hated to be keeping him from something important but when she said as much, he replied, "You were the only thing on my agenda for today."

Really, there wasn't anything she could say in response to that , she thought, suppressing a smile. "Since that's the case," she finally said, "I'd really like to have an accounting of how much I owe you—'I

" Do not ask me that one more time." Stone's deep voice vibrated with suppressed anger.

She gave up. If Stone wouldn't tell her, she could figure out a rough estimate, at least, by combining tuition fees with a living allowance. And she should be able to get a record of her mother's fees from her doctor. ['I have to get back to work soon," she said in the coolest, most polite manner she could muster.

Stone's head came up; he eyed her expression. "Hell," j he said. "You're already mad at me; I might as well get it all over with at once."

"I'd prefer that you don't swear in my presence." She lifted her chin. Then his words penetrated. "What do you mean?"

"Youlre not going back to work."

"Excuse me?" Her voice was frosty.

He hesitated. "I phrased that badly. I want you to quit work."

She stared at him. "Are you crazy? And live on what?"

He scowled. "I told you I'd take care of you."

"I can take care of myself. I won't always be a salesclerk. I'm taking night classes starting in the summer," she said. Despite her efforts to remain calm, her voice began to rise. "It's going to take longer this way but I'll finish."

"What are you studying?" His sudden capitulation wasn't expected.

She eyed him with suspicion. "Business administration and computer programming. I'd like to start my own business in Web design one of these days."

His eyebrows rose. "Ambitious."

"And necessary," she said. "Mama's getting worse. She's going to need 'round-the-clock care one of these days. I need to be able to provide the means for her to have it."

"You know I'll always take care of your mother."

"That's not the point!" She wanted to bang her head—or his—against the table in frustration.

"My father would have expected me to take care of you. That's the point." He calmly sat back against the banquette, unfazed by her aggravation, an elegant giant with the classic features of a Greek god, and she was struck again by how handsome he was. When they'd entered The Rainbow Room, she'd been aware of the ripple of feminine interest that his presence had attracted. She'd been ridiculously glad that she was wearing her black Donna Karan today. It might be a few years old but it was a gorgeous garment and she felt more confident simply slipping it on. Then she remembered that his money had paid for the dress, and her pleasure in her appearance drained away.

"I'm sure your father would be pleased that you've done your duty," she said with a note of asperity. "But we will not continue to accept your charity."

He grimaced. "Bullhead."

"Look who's talking." But she couldn't resist the gleam in his eye and she smiled back at him despite the gnawing feeling of humiliation that had been lodged in her belly since the day she'd found out she was essentially a pauper. "Now take me back to work. My lunch hour is almost over."

He heaved an impatient sigh. "This is against my better judgment."

She leaned forward, making her best effort to look intimidating. "Just think about how miserable I will make your life if you don't. I'm sure your judgment will improve quickly."

He shot her a quirky grin. "I'm shaking in my boots."

He didn't want to notice her.

She had been an unofficial little sister during his youth, and his responsibility since her father had died. She was ten years younger than he was. He was her guardian, for God's sake!

But as he handed her back into the car after their meal, his eye was caught by the slim length of her leg in the elegant high heels as she stepped in, by the way her simple dress hugged the taut curve of her thigh as she slid across the seat, by the soft press of pert young breasts against the fabric of the black coat as she reached for her seat belt.

He'd seen her standing in the store long before she had noticed him, her slender figure strikingly displayed in a black dress that, although it was perfectly discreet, clung to her in a way that made a man want to strip it off and slide his hands over the smooth curves beneath. Made him want to touch, to pull the pins out of her shining coil of pale hair and watch it slither down over her shoulders and breasts, to set his mouth to the pulse that beat just beneath the delicate skin along her white throat and taste—

Enough! She's not for you .

Grimly he dragged his mind back from the direction in which it wanted to stray.

He hated the idea of her wearing herself out hustling in retail for eight hours a day, and he figured he'd give it one more try. The only woman he'd ever known who really enjoyed working was his mother. Faith shouldn't be working herself into exhaustion. She should be gracing someone's home, casting her gentle influence around a man, making his life an easier place to be. He knew it was an archaic attitude and that most modern women would hit him over the head for voicing such a thought. But he'd lived a childhood without two parents because his own mother had put business before family. He knew , despite all the Superwoman claims of the feminist movement, that a woman couldn't do it all.

Diplomatically he only said, "Why don't you go back to school for the rest of the semester? Then this summer we can talk about you finding a job."

Her eyes grew dark and her delicate brows snapped together. "You will not give me money.

More money," she amended. "I'm not quitting work. I need the money. Besides, it's too late in the semester to reenroll. I've missed too much."

He looked across the car at her, seated decorously with her slender feet placed side by side, her hands folded in her lap and her back straight as a ramrod. Her hair was so fair it nearly had a silver sheen to it where the winter sun struck it, and her eyes were a pure lake-gray above the straight little nose. She had one of the most classically lovely faces he'd ever seen, and she looked far too fragile to be working so hard. The only thing that marred the picture of the perfect lady was the frown she was aiming his way. The contrast was adorable and he caught himself before he blurted out how beautiful she was in a snit.

Then he realized that beautiful or not, she was as intransigent as a mule who thought she was carrying too heavy a load. "All right," he said. "You can keep doing whatever you want. Within reason."

"Your definition of reason and mine could be quite different." Her tone was wry and her frown had relaxed. "Besides, in eight more months, you won't have any authority to tell me what to do. Why don't you start practicing now?"

He took a deep breath, refusing to snarl. He nearly told her that no matter how old she got she'd always be his responsibility, but the last thing he needed was for her to get her back up even more. Then he recalled the image of her stricken face, great gray eyes swimming with the tears she refused to give in to as she told him how she'd found out about her financial affairs, and he gentled his response to a more reasonable request. "Would you at least consider a dif-ferent kind of job? Something that isn't so demanding?"

She was giving him another distinctly suspicious look. "Maybe. But I won't quit today."

He exhaled, a deep, exaggeratedly patient sigh. "Of course not."

When the taxi rolled to a stop in front of Saks, he took her elbow as she turned toward the door. "Wait," he said before she could scramble out.

She turned back and looked at him, her gray eyes questioning.

"Have dinner with me tonight."

Could her eyes get any wider? "Dinner?"

He knew how she felt. He hadn't planned to ask her; the words had slipped out before he'd thought about them. Good Lord. "Um, yes," he said, wondering if thirty was too early for the onset of senility. "I'll pick you up. What's your address?"

She lived on the upper West Side, in a small apartment that would have been adequate for two. But he knew from the talk they had shared over lunch that she had at least two roommates from the names she'd mentioned.

"How many people do you live with?" he asked dubiously, looking around as she unlocked the door and ushered him in.

"Three other girls," she answered. "Two to each bedroom. Two of us work days and two work nights so it's rare that we're all here at the same time."

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