By: Anne Marie Winston

"Please," Stone said. "I'd really like you to do this, Faith." '"•''- '

She studied his handsome face, serious and unsmiling, his eyes intense with the force of his will and an odd feeling rippled through her. "All right," she said. Then she cleared her throat and spoke more firmly. "I'll marry you."

The next morning, Saturday, he picked her up in his silver Lexus and took her to his home so that she could see where she'd be living and check out the apartment for her mother. He'd asked stop working immediately, and though he could tell she didn't like it, she'd informed him when he picked her up that she was no longer employed.

"Don't think of it as unemployed," he advised. "You just switched jobs."

She was silent as he maneuvered the car through Manhattan's insanely crowded streets to the quieter area where he made his home.

He could see her chewing her lip as she had the night before and he wondered what she was thinking. Worrying, probably, about whether or not she'd made a bad decision.

As he braked for a light, he said, "Thank you. I know this isn't an easy thing for you to do." He put his hand over hers where it lay in her lap and squeezed. This time he was prepared for the sensation her soft flesh aroused. Or so he told himself. Still, the shock he'd absorbed when he'd touched her last night reverberated through him. All he'd done was place his hand beneath her chin, letting his fingers rest against the silken skin of her cheek.

He thought he'd steeled himself for the same reaction that had hit him yesterday when he'd touched her lip.

But he hadn't been prepared for the strong current of attraction that tore through him, making him want to deepen the skin-to-skin contact in a very basic way. It was as if she was a live circuit and touching her plugged him in to her special current. He mentally shook his head. What was he doing, asking the girl to live in his home? Putting temptation right under his nose probably wasn't the smartest thing he'd ever done.

Still, as he drew her from the car and took the elevator from the garage to his Fifth Avenue town house across from Central Park, he felt an immense relief. Faith had been sheltered her entire life. Who knew what kind of things might happen to a naive girl like her on her own? He'd promised his father's memory that he'd take care of Faith, and he would.

Unlocking the door, he ushered her into his home. Inside the door, Faith stopped in the large central foyer, looking around. Though she'd spent her early years in a family that wanted for little, he imagined that the place seemed luxurious compared to the seedy little apartment in which she was living. Looking at it through her eyes, he watched her as he realized he was holding his breath waiting for her reaction.

"This is lovely," she said quietly. "Simply lovely."

He smiled, relieved. Straight ahead of them, a hallway led to the back of the house while a staircase just to the right of the hall climbed graciously to a landing that led upper floor. To the left was a formal living room with an equally formal dining room through an archway behind it; to their right was Stone's office, with its masculine desk, lined shelves of books and office equipment that filled the surfaces of the built-in counters along one wall.

"I'm glad you like it." He stepped around her and indicated the stairs. "Would you like to see the upstairs? I'll show you your room."

She moved obediently in the direction he indicated, climbing the stairs as he followed. He took her down the hallway past an open set of double doors, pausing briefly to indicate the mascxiline-looking master suite done in striking shades of burgundy, black and gold. "That's my room." Turning, he pointed to the doors just opposite. "And across the hall is a guest suite. Your room will be the next one on the right. It should suit you. It belonged to my mother years ago and I've never changed it." He shook his head. "She may have her flaws but I can't fault her taste."

Leading her to her room, he pushed open both doors.

"Oh," she said on a sigh, " it's perfect ."

It was a charming, feminine suite decorated in soft lavenders, and blues accented with pure white. Though it was slightly smaller than his, it was still spacious, with a walk-in closet, a sitting area and a large full bath. He walked past her into the bathroom. "Our rooms are connected," he told her, sliding back a large set of louvered doors to reveal his bath and bedroom beyond. "No one will have to know we don't share a room."

She couldn't look him in the eye. "All right," she said in a muffled tone.

"Faith." He waited patiently until finally, she gazed across the room at him. "This will be a good arrangement for both of us. I promise to respect your privacy."

She nodded. Her cheeks had grown pink and he knew that she understood that he was telling her, in as gentle a way as he could, that she had nothing to fear from him sexually. No, appealing as she might be, he had no intention of changing the platonic status of their relationship.

By the time they had finished the house tour, it was lunchtime. He'd decided to show her how it would be when they lived together so he took her into the kitchen and seated her on a stool at the large island while he made tuna salad, sliced tomatoes and piled the combination between two halves of a croissant with cheese. He grilled the sandwiches while he sliced up a fresh pineapple.

"I didn't expect you to know your way around a kitchen," she told him, filling two glasses with ice and water as he'd asked her to do.

He grinned. "Figured I'd have a chef on standby waiting to fulfill my every wish?"

"Something like that." She glanced up at him and smiled. "I can cook, although I'm no Julia Child. I'd be happy to do the cooking."

"Actually," he admitted, "I do have a woman who comes in Monday through Thursday unless I have to be away. Why don't we keep her for the time being until you see how much free time you're going to have?"

"I'll have free time from nine-to-five every day of the week," she said. "If there's anything I can help with, all you have to do is ask."

He couldn't imagine asking her to get involved in any of his business dealings except in a social fashion, and he had someone to clean the house, so he couldn't think of anything he'd want her to do. "You'll have studying to do as soon as the summer term starts," he said instead. "And you'll be able to spend some time with your mother."

She brightened, and he remembered her pleasure last night at the idea of spending time with her mother. It was ironic, really, that they both had been deprived of their mothers for part of their childhoods. The difference was, she looked forward to spending precious time with her mother while he went out of his way to avoid close contact with his. "That will be nice." Her light voice broke into the dark thought. "We haven't had a lot of time together since I went away to school."

Which was not long after the accident in which their fathers had died, he thought, as an awkward silence fell.

"Sometimes it doesn't seem possible that Daddy's been gone for eight years." Her voice, quiet and subdued, broke the moment.

A stab of grief sharper than any he'd allowed himself to feel in a long time pierced his heart. "I know what you mean. Sometimes I still expect mine to walk through the door."

Her gaze flew to his. "This was your childhood home?"

He nodded. "Dad and Mother lived here when they were first married. After the divorce, she moved out."

"That must have been hard," she offered. "How old were you?"

"Six. And no, it wasn't particularly hard." He willed away the memories of his youth, of the nights he'd spent crying into his pillow, wondering what he'd done to make his mother leave. Of the days he'd envied schoolmates who had had mothers who cared enough to show up for visitors' days and school plays, mothers who sat in the stands during baseball games and cheered, mothers who planned birthday parties and actually remembered cake and presents. "My mother was rarely here and when she was, she and Dad were shouting the walls down half the time."

The sympathy shining in her silvery eyes moved him more than he wanted to admit. "My childhood was just the opposite. Extremely quiet. My mother's illness was diagnosed when I was less than two years old, and my father and I did our best to keep her from getting upset about anything." She rested her elbows on the bar and crossed her arms. "In that respect, we have something in common. I went to my dad with my problems, because I couldn't go to my mother."

He smiled. "Did you know I used to go to the Mets games with your father and mine?" He shook his head. "Dad had great seats right along the third base line and we never missed a home game. Those two knew every player's stats going back to the beginning of time. And they used to argue about who the MVP was each season, who should go to the All-Star team, who ought to be traded…looking back, I think they just argued because it was fun."

Her eyes were crinkled in laughter. "I've never heard about this before." Her smile faded slightly, wobbled. "I guess you probably have a lot of memories of my father that I don't."

He hesitated, torn between lying to spare her feelings and telling her the truth. Truth,won.Y'Yeah, I guess I do. Some of my best memories are of times I spent with my dad and yours. I'll tell you some more when we have time." He rose and took the lunch plates to the sink for the housekeeper. "This afternoon, I'd like to go pick out rings. Is that all right with you?"

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