Stone(4)

By: Anne Marie Winston



Just then, a door opened and a girl in a black leotard and denim overalls came down the hall. Stone examined her with disbelief. She was a redhead, at least mostly. There was a blue streak boldly march-ing .through the red near the left front side of her curly hair. She had a wide, friendly smile and green eyes that were sparkling with interest.

"Well, hey," she said. "Like, I hate to tell you, handsome, but you so do not fit in here."

He couldn't keep himself from returning the grin. "My Rolex gave me away?"

"Gretchen, this is Stone Lachlan," Faith said. "Stone, one of my roommates, Gretchen Vandreau."

"Pleased to meet you." Gretchen dropped a mock-curtsy, still beaming.

"You also, Miss Vandreau." He grinned again as her eyes widened.

"Are you—oh, wow, you are! The Lachlans." Her eyebrows shot up as she eyed Faith. "Where did you find him?"

"Actually I found her," Stone said. "Faith and I are old friends." He turned to Faith. "Are you ready?"

"Ready? Like, to go out?" Gretchen looked from one to the other with delight. "You go, girlfriend."

"It's not like that ," she said to Gretchen.

"Depends on what that is," Stone inserted.

Faith turned and glared at him. "Stone—"

"Better hurry, I have reservations for eight." He felt an odd sense of panic as he gauged the mulish expression on her face. Was she having second thoughts? Was she going to back out? He had to battle the urge to simply pick her up and carry her back down to the car.

She retrieved a black cape from the small coat closet with her friend chattering along behind her. He stepped in to help her on with the garment, and they went out the door to the sound of Gretchen's enthusiastic, "Have a blast!"

He took her elbow and urged her into the elevator, conscious of a ridiculous sense of relief sweeping through him as they exited the cramped apartment. It was only that he felt it was his duty to take care of her, he assured himself. Faith didn't belong in a crowded apartment or behind a counter in a department store. Her family had intended that she be gently raised, probably with the idea that she'd marry a polite young man of the upper class one day and raise polite, well-mannered upper-class children. After all, she'd been sent to the best private schools, had learned the sometimes ridiculous rules that accompanied moving in society.

He wished the idea didn't fill him with such a sense of…unease. That was all it was. He wanted the best for her and it would be up to him to be sure any suitors were suitable.

He surveyed her covertly as they stood in the elevator, waiting for the ground floor. Her blond hair was smoothly swept back into a shining knot at the back of her head and the harsh lighting in the elevator made it gleam with silvery highlights. She was chewing on her bottom lip; he reached out and touched it with his index finger to get her to stop. Alarm bells went off in his head as a strange jolt of electric awareness shot through his body.

He stared down at her. She had her gaze fixed on the floor and he had to restrain himself from reaching for her chin and covering her lips with his own. What would she taste like?

Then he realized what he was thinking…totally inappropriate thought to be having about a girl who was like his little sister. Again.

Little sister? Since when do you wonder how your little sister's curves would feel pressed up against you?

He almost growled aloud to banish his unruly thoughts and Faith's gray eyes flashed to his face with a wary look he thought was probably normally aimed at large predators.

"Something wrong?" he asked.

"No." Then she shook her head. "That's not true. Why are you doing this?"

He gazed calmly back at her. "Dinner, you mean?"

She nodded.

"I'm your guardian. It struck me today that I haven't done a very good job of it, either, so I thought we'd spend a little more time together: You can tell me more about your plans."

She nodded again, as if his explanation made sense.

The ride to the small, quiet Italian restaurant where he'd made reservations was a short one. As the mai-tre d' showed them to their table, Faith caught his eye. As the man walked away, she whispered, "If this isn't a Mafia haven, I don't know what is!"

He chuckled, surprised she'd picked up on it. He'd been coming here for years—the food was reputed to be some of the best Northern Italian cuisine in the city. But the waiters, the bartender, certainly the man who appeared to be the owner greeting guests, had an air of authority, underlaid with an indefinable air of menace. "It's probably the safest place to be in Manhattan," he said.

Over dinner, he asked her questions about her interest in computers.

"I had a knack for it," she told him, "and I started helping out in the computer lab at school. It got so that the instructors were coming to me with questions about how to do things, and how to fix things they'd messed up. That led me into programming and eventually I set up the school's Web site. And once I did that, other people began to ask me to design their sites. It occurred to me that I could make a living doing something I really enjoy, so I decided on a double major in computers and business."

"You're planning to open your own company when you get your degree?"

She nodded, and her eyes shone with enthusiasm. "Eventually. I think I'd like the challenge. But I'll probably start at an established firm." She paused and her gaze grew speculative. "You had to take over Lachlan after your father passed away, and you've clearly been successful at it. You can give me some pointers."

He shrugged. Discussing business with Faith was hardly at the top of his list of things he wanted to do. "I'm sure you'll have no trouble."

Their dinners arrived and while they ate, he inquired about her mother's health.

"She isn't able to get around without using a motorized scooter now," she said, her face sobering. "She's sixty, and the disease has started to accelerate. Recently she's been having a lot of trouble with her vision. Some days are better than others. But it's only a matter of time before she needs live-in assistance or she has to go to some kind of assisted care facility. She wasn't happy that I'm working, either, but we're going to be facing some serious expenses one of these days." He could hear the frustration in her voice.

"She's only thinking of you,", he said. "She wants you to have the freedom and enjoy normal experiences for a young woman your age."

Moments later, Faith excused herself from the table and made her way to the ladies' room. As he watched her walk across the room, he was struck again by her elegance and poise. Every man in the room watched her and he caught himself frowning at a few of them in warning.

That was ridiculous. He wasn't her keeper.

Well, in fact he supposed he was. But this wasn't the Dark Ages and she didn't need his permission to accept a suitor. Or a husband, for that matter.

He didn't like that thought. Not at all. Faith was still very young, and she fairly screamed, "Innocent." She could easily be taken advantage of now that she wasn't in the somewhat protected environment of an all-girls' college. She was still his ward, though in her mind, at least, it was a mere technicality. In his, it was altogether different. He was supposed to take care of her. And he'd never forgive himself if she came to harm, even if it was only getting her heart broken by some cad. It frustrated the hell out of him that he wasn't going to be able to keep her safe.

Then the perfect solution to his frustration popped into his head. He could many her!

Marry her? Was he insane? They were ten years apart in age, far more than that in experience. But, he decided, the kind of experience he was thinking of could play no part in a marriage with Faith. It would be strictly a platonic arrangement, he assured himself. Simply an arrangement that would help him achieve a goal and protect her at the same time. If she was married, Faith wouldn't be a target for trouble. In another year or so she'd be more worldly, and the best part was that he would be able to keep her safe during that time.

He was going to have to marry to satisfy his mother's conditions anyway. And if they married soon, as soon as possible, then he'd be only a year away from achieving the goal of which he'd dreamed for years. He would be able to merge Smythe Corp. and Lachlan Industries into one bigger and better entity.

Then he forgot about business as Faith appeared again. She walked toward him as if he'd called to her, and as she drew closer he could see her smiling at him. He smiled back, knowing that the other men in the place had to be envying him. Long and lean, she had a smooth, easy walk with a regal carriage that ensured instant attention when paired with that angelic face. He doubted she even realized it.

As she passed one of the waiters, the man flashed a white smile at her. She gave him a warm smile in return, and she had no idea that he'd turned to watch her back view as she continued on through the restaurant to their table.

And that was exactly why she needed his protection, Stone thought grimly. He stood as she arrived and walked around to settle her in her chair. She glanced up at him over her shoulder with the same sweet smile she'd just given the waiter, and he felt his gut clench in response. She was far too potent for her own good.

"So," he said, picking up his water and taking a healthy gulp, "while you were gone I was doing some thinking, and I have a proposition for you."

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