Stone(8)

By: Anne Marie Winston



He dragged her from one shop to the next. Neiman Marcus, Barney's, the new Celine flagship store. For day, a short black Prada, a Celine herringbone suit and a striking black-and-pink Cavalli blouse with Red Tape jeans. Everywhere they went, he was recognized sooner or later. She could tell exactly when it happened from the appraising looks that began to fly her way. For the first time, it occurred to her that marrying Stone might change her life forever. He was a public figure and without a doubt, she would become one for the duration of their marriage. But would she be able to resume her normal anonymous lifestyle after they parted?

"We'll take all three of those gowns she liked," he said, oblivious to the direction of her thoughts as he nodded at the fawning saleswomen.

"All three" included an Emanuel Ungaro sea-foam-green silk mousseline wrap dress with a halter collar, no back and a slit clear up her thigh, a strapless Escada with a fitted, silver-embroidered bodice and a full, Cinderella-like skirt with tulle underlayers in silver and blue, and a classic black organza with laser-cut trim by Givenchy.

And there were shoes. Walter Steiger pumps for the day dresses. Sergio Rossi mules in black for the jeans. Silver heels from Ferretti, a pair of Jimmy Choo Swarovski crystal-and-satin slip-ons in the same soft green as one of the dresses. And for the classic black, equally classic open-toe Versace heels. AH with matching bags.

It was mind-boggling, she thought, as he hustled her back into the car after the final store. When Stone made a decision, he didn't let time lapse before carrying out his plans. It might be something to remember.

It was actually a relief to see the sturdy stone facade of her soon-to-be residence appear. Stone's home overlooking Central Park was everything she'd expected the first time she'd seen it that morning. And more. Much more. Brass and glass. Modem cleverly blended with antique. Fresh flowers and thriving potted plants. Understated elegance.

At his direction, all of their recent purchases had been sent to his home since, as he pointed out, they'd simply have to move them again when she moved in. When they arrived, everything had been delivered and the housekeeper had it all piled in Faith's room.

Her room. She couldn't believe she would be living here with him, sleeping just one room away from him, in only a few days. Since they didn't have a lot of time, she'd brought over what she would need for this evening's dinner with his mother and planned to change there.

"I'll meet you back down here in…forty-five minutes?" Stone was consulting his watch. "That will give us a few minutes to relax before my mother arrives."

His mother. Her stomach jumped as she nodded and went to her room. She'd never met Eliza Smythe and knew only what she'd read in the news about the hard-hitting, hardworking female who had taken over Smythe Corp. after her father's unexpected death from a heart attack at a young age. She took deep breaths and tried to settle the nerves that arose at the thought of being vetted by the woman. What if his mother didn't like her?

Three

She was right on the button when she descended the steps a few minutes after he did. Stone, in the act of entering the drawing room, glanced up—and froze where he was.

Faith wore what at first glance appeared to be a simple dress in a lightweight Black Watch plaid. But a second glance at her figure in the soft brushed fabric dispelled any doubt that this was a demure dress for the classroom or office. She wore the collar open and turned up, framing a long, delicate neck and fragile collarbone, and her hair was up in a classic, shining twist. A matching fabric belt encircled her slender waist. The sleeves were three-quarter-length and tiny buttons ran from a point between her breasts to midthigh, allowing a slight glimpse of smooth, slim leg as she came down the stairs.

And as he realized that those thighs were encased in black fishnet stockings and incredibly well-displayed in a pair of the new heels they'd just bought, his blood pressure shot straight through the roof. He'd never thought he was a leg man, but he sure wasn't having much success keeping his mind off Faith's legs. Or any of her other perfectly rounded feminine attributes, either, for that matter.

"You look very…nice," he said, and then winced at the banality.

But she smiled. "Good. I know your mother will be coming straight from the office and I thought this would work better than something that's really for evening. It's a Ralph Lauren," she added smugly. "I got it at a secondhand shop for a pittance!"

He grinned. She hadn't realized yet that cost was a concept she no longer needed to consider. "Would you like a drink?"

She hesitated. "I'm not really much of a drinker. A glass of wine, perhaps?"

"How about champagne? Since we are celebrating our engagement." He gestured for her to precede him into the drawing room, which gave him a chance to scrutinize the back view of her dress. Yeow. It was a good thing this marriage wasn't for real. He could imagine getting overly possessive at the thought of other men putting their hands on her, even in a correct public dance position.

Duh. What was he thinking about that for? Wasn't going to happen. Was. Not. Besides, he reminded himself, he shouldn't be ogling her, either. She was his ward.

The caterer he'd hired had set out an assortment of hors d'oeuvres on a table in a corner. A small flame beneath a silver chafing dish kept some crab balls warm, and around it, a selection of fruits, vegetables and a pat£ with crackers made an attractive display.

"Pretty," she commented, picking up a strawberry and biting into it. "I've never had champagne. Will I like it?"

"Probably, if you like wine," he said, crossing to the bar where an ice bucket contained a tall-necked French bottle. Watching the way she savored the luscious red fruit, the way her lips had closed around the morsel as her eyelids fluttered down in unconscious ecstasy, he was uncomfortably aware of the stirring pulses of arousal that threatened to turn his trousers into an article of torture. He might be her guardian but he was also a human male…with a healthy sexual appetite. And right now, he was hungry for her . Hastily he turned away and poured a glass of the pale golden sparkling liquid for her and one for himself.

Taking a deep breath and reaching for self-control, he came to where she stood in the middle of the room. He handed her one flute and held his aloft in . a toast. "To a successful partnership."

"To a successful partnership," she repeated, lifting her gaze to his as their glasses sounded a pure chime and they each lifted them to drink. Their eyes met and held for a moment before she looked away, a warm pink blush rising in her cheeks.

He watched her over the rim of his glass as she tasted her first champagne. Her eyes widened slightly as she inhaled the fruity fragrance, and then she promptly sneezed as the bubbles tickled her nose.

"Bless you," he said, laughing, glad for the distraction. "You have to watch that."

"It's delicious," she said, taking an experimental sip. Then she slanted a flirtatious smile at him from beneath her lashes. "Is this one of the benefits of being married to a millionaire?"

He felt his whole body tighten in reaction to that teasing smile. He was sure she had no idea what that smile made a man want to do, and he forced himself to ignore the urge to reach out and pull her against him to erase it with his mouth. "This is one of the benefits of being married to a man who likes a good wine,' he said. "Listen, we need to talk a little bit before my mother arrives."

"About what?" She held her glass very correctly by the stem and he was reminded that although she didn't have a lot of money, she'd grown up in a very genteel home and a carefully selected school which had only enhanced her ladylike ways.

"My mother," he said carefully, "has to be convinced that we married for…the reasons normal couples get married."

He watched as she processed that, "You mean you want me to pretend to be in love with you," she pronounced.

"Uh, right."- He'd expected some coy reaction, not such a straightforward response, and he forced himself to acknowledge that a corner of his pride might be dented just the smallest bit. She appeared completely unaffected by the idea of being in love with him. That was good, he assured himself, since that particular emotion would royally foul up their arrangement for the coming year.

"Okay."

- "Okay? It might not be easy," he warned, drag-ging his mind back to the topic. "She's going to walk in here in a foul temper. So just follow my lead."

"Yes, o master." She smiled as she took another sip of her drink.

He took her glass of champagne and set it firmly aside, guiding her to the food. "Get yourself a bite to eat. The last thing I need is for you to be silly with drink when my mother arrives."

"I've only had half a glass," she said serenely. But she allowed him to spread pat6 on a cracker and lift it to her mouth. She leaned forward and opened her lips, closing them around a portion of the cracker, crunching cleanly into it with straight white teeth. Her lips brushed his fingers, closed briefly over the very tip of one, and then withdrew.

And he realized immediately he'd made a monumental mistake. The sensation of her warm, slick mouth on him brought erotic images to flood his brain and his body stirred with a powerful surge of sensual intensity. Hastily he stepped back, hoping she hadn't noticed his discomfort. His fingers were wet from her lips and he almost lifted them to his own mouth before he realized what he was doing. Wiping them on a napkin, he tried desperately to fix his thoughts on something, anything other than the unconscious sensuality that his ward—his wife, soon—wore like other women wore perfume.

Also By Anne Marie Winston

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