By: Anne Marie Winston

Her gray eyes widened. "Rings? Is that really necessary?"

He nodded, a little disappointed that she didn't yet seem to grasp the seriousness of his proposal. "Yes. This will be a real marriage, Faith." He almost reached for her shoulders, then stopped himself, remembering the desire that had knocked him over the last time he'd touched her. "Our reasons might be a little different from most people's but we'll be as legally wed as the next couple. So let's go get rings."

He called ahead, so that they would have some privacy while they shopped, and thirty minutes later, he handed her out of a cab in front of Tiffany & Company. Faith was a quiet presence at his side as they waited for the doors to be unlocked. lt;

As they stepped into the cool hush of the store, a beaming saleswoman was upon them. "Welcome, Mr. Lachlan. It is Tiffany's pleasure and mine to serve you. How can we help you today?"'

"Wedding rings," he said.

The woman's eyes widened as did those of the other employees ranged behind her, and he wondered how many minutes it would be until the press got wind of his marriage. He supposed he should warn Faith, though certainly she knew how ridiculously newsworthy his life was. Then he realized that they had better each tell their mothers about their plans before they read it in tomorrow's paper.

"We have a lovely selection right back here." The saleswoman had recovered quickly and was indicating that they should follow her.

Twenty minutes later, Faith was still perched on the edge of a comfortable chair, quietly staring at the array of precious stones scattered across the black velvet before her. She shook her head. "I couldn't possibly—"

From where he stood behind her, Stone said, "All right. If you can't decide, I'll choose one." He knew she'd been going to say something ridiculous, like, "I couldn't possibly accept such an expensive ring when you've already done so much for me." It bothered him that the salespeople hovering around with their antennae primed for gossip would find rich pickings if they knew the truth about this marriage. Only, of course, because he couldn't risk having his mother find out. Of course.

He bent down to Faith and murmured in her ear. "Be careful what you say in here—it will get into the papers."

That startled her, he could tell by the way she jerked around and stared up at him, her face wearing an expression of shock. While she was still staring at him, he reached for a stunning square, brilliant-cut diamond ring with progressively smaller diamonds trailing down each side. It was set in platinum. He'd liked it the moment the woman had pulled it out of the case, and he suspected Faith liked it, too, from the way her eyes had caressed it. He lifted her left hand from her lap and immediately felt the tingling electricity that arced between them as their flesh connected. He took a deep breath and slipped the ring onto her third finger. There was just a hint of resistance at the knuckle before it slid smoothly into place and he quickly dropped her hand as if it burned. It was the same feeling he'd convinced himself he hadn't felt when he'd taken her chin in his hand, indeed when he touched her in any way. .

"A perfect fit." He caught her gaze, forcing himself to behave as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. "Do you like this one?"

"It's…" She shrugged, lifting dazed eyes to his. "It's beautiful," she whispered.

"Good." He studied the way her long, elegant fingers set off the ring, a deep satisfaction spreading through him. His ring. His wife. He was surprised at how much he liked the thought. Maybe this year wouldn't be such a trial at all, with Faith at his side. The more he thought about Faith and marriage, the better he realized his solution was. She could protest all she liked, but he would set up a trust fund for her and her mother so that once this arrangement ended she wouldn't be afraid of where her next meal would come from or how her mother's next medical bill would be paid.

He turned her hand and linked his fingers through hers. To the saleswoman, he said, "We'll take the matching wedding bands."


"Faith!" he teased. "Did you think I was going to let you get away without a wedding band?"

The saleswoman had flown off in a twitter to get the proper ring sizes. He followed her across the room, catching her attention and motioning for quiet. "I'd also like the sapphire-and-diamond choker and matching earrings in the display window. But don't let my fiancee see them."

The woman's eyes got even wider. "Very good, Mr. Lachlan. And may I congratulate you on your engagement, sir."

"Thank you," he replied, resigned to the fact that tomorrow's paper would carry a mention of his upcoming wedding. His only consolation was that it would take them a day or two before they figured out who the bride-to-be was. "I'd like you to deliver the wedding rings and the sapphire set to my home. She'll wear the engagement ring."

He called his mother the moment they got back into a cab. She wasn't available so he told her assistant that he'd gotten engaged that afternoon and that he'd like her to come for dinner and meet his bride Saturday evening, and hung up.

Within thirty seconds, the cell phone rang. He chuckled as he punched the speaker button on the phone. "Hello, Mother."

"Was that a joke?" Eliza Smythe demanded.

"Not in the least." He kept his tone pleasant. "We'd like you to come to dinner tonight to make her acquaintance."

"So I don't know her?" The tone was exasperated.

"You know of her, I believe," he replied. "Faith Harrell. She's the daughter of—"

"Randall." His mother's tone was softer. "He was a good man. I was so sorry when he—good Lord!" she said suddenly. "Stone, that girl isn't even legal! Are you crazy?"

"Faith will be twenty-one this year," he said coolly.

"All , right." Eliza Smythe changed tactics abruptly. "I'll come to dinner. I can't wait to meet Miss Harrell."

"She'll be Mrs. Lachlan soon," he reminded her. "Why don't we say seven o'clock? See you then."

She couldn't stop staring at the engagement ring. It was breathtaking, the central stone over three carats. He'd paid an obscene amount of money for it, she was sure, though no one on the Tiffany staff had been indiscreet enough to actually mention payment in front of her. She had noticed Stone placing a hasty phone call to his insurance agent, so at least if she left it lying in the ladies' room,somewhere it would be covered.

Not that she ever intended to take it off her finger.

She was so preoccupied that when Stone opened the cab door and put a hand beneath her elbow, she looked up at him in confusion. ''Where are we going now?"

"Shopping." He helped her from the car. "You probably need some things for the formal occasions we'll be going to from time to time. Next weekend, we'll attend a charity ball. That will give everyone an opportunity to hear about our marriage and gawk at you. After that, things should settle down."

A charity ball? She'd never had any experience with such things although her family had been modestly wealthy—unless you compared them to Stone, in which case they didn't even register on the personal fortune scale.

"Um, no, that would be fine," she said. "I suppose the sooner the news of this gets out, the sooner the fuss will die down."

He glanced down at her. "I'm sorry if the thought of the media unnerves you. I generally don't do much that excites them. This will make a splash but it'll fade the minute there's a scandal or someone bigger crosses their sights."

She shook her head, smiling at him pityingly. "You underestimate your appeal." .

He grinned at her, so handsome and confident her heart skipped a beat. "You'll see." Then his face sobered. "I'd like to get married soon," he said.

"Well, it shouldn't take long to get things organized," she said. If the mere thought of marrying him unnerved her like this, how was she going to get through the real thing? "I'm assuming you don't want to make a fuss of this wedding so we probably could get it together in three months—"


She stopped.

"If I apply for the license tomorrow we could be married on Thursday or Friday."

She blinked, shook her head to clear her ears. " Next Friday?"


"But how can we possibly…never mind." She smiled feebly. "I guess you have people who can arrange these things."

He nodded. "I do. Do you prefer a church or the courthouse?"

"Courthouse," she said hastily. Getting married in a church would feel sacrilegious, when they had no intention of honoring the vows they would be taking. A dull sense of disappointment spread through her, and she gave herself a mental shake.

"All right." As far as he was concerned, the matter appeared to be settled. "Then let's go get you a wedding dress."

"Oh, I don't need—" She felt as if she'd hopped a train only to find it racing along at top speed, skipping its regular stops.

"Yes," he said positively. "You do."

Shopping with Stone was an education. More like a nightmare , she thought, suppressing a smile as he fired orders at a salesperson. She tried repeatedly to tell him she didn't need all these clothes; he rolled right over her objections. She supposed she should be grateful for small mercies. At least he hadn't followed her into the dressing room or insisted she model for him.

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