By: Anne Marie Winston

She chewed the bite for a time, then licked her lips. "That's excellent!"

Watching her pink tongue delicately flick along the outer corner of her mouth,.he couldn't agree more. God, she was driving him crazy.

Faith was practically a sister to him, he reminded himself sternly. This was merely a business type of arrangement from which they both would benefit. He'd fulfill his mother's wishes, in his own fashion and get Smythe Corp. Faith could finish her education, which she seemed determined to do. And it had the added benefit of making her feel as if she was paying him back, of divesting herself of the debt she imagined she owed him for the years he'd taken care of her and her mother. ,

Yes, it was going to be a good arrangement. And if he couldn't stop his overactive imagination from leaping straight to thoughts of what it would be like to have her writhing beneath him in a big, soft bed, at least he could keep her from knowing it.

The doorbell rang then and he glanced at his watch. His mother, ever-punctual. "Brace yourself," he warned Faith as he started for the foyer. "I'll let her in."

Faith looked up from the grape she was about to eat. "Surely she isn't that bad."

He merely raised one eyebrow.

The doorbell rang again, impatiently, and she made a shooing motion as she set down her plate. "Go! Let her in. And be nice."

Be nice . He snorted with amusement as he walked to the massive front door and twisted the knob. Like his mother had ever needed anyone to be nice to her. She'd probably steamroll them right into the pavement as she moved past.

"Good evening, Mother." He stepped aside and ushered in the petite woman whose dark hair was still the same shade as his own, with the added distinction of a few silver streaks at her temples.

"Hello." His mother whipped off her gloves and coat and thrust them unceremoniously into his arms as she stalked in. "Would you care to explain to me exactly what you think you're doing?"

"Excuse me?" He deliberately infused his tone with innocence.

Eliza made a rude noise. "Where's this woman you've talked into marrying you? And how much did you have to pay her?"

"I didn't pay her anything." That was absolutely true, so far. "My bride-to-be is in the drawing room." He indicated the archway and his mother strode forward.

As Eliza entered the drawing room, he hastily disposed of her outerwear and followed her. Faith came across the room as they appeared, her hand extended. For a moment, he couldn't take his eyes off her. She wore a welcoming smile that looked too genuine to be faked, and her slender body moved gracefully beneath the soft fabric of the fitted dress.

"Hello, Ms. Smythe," she said, her gray eyes warm. "It's a pleasure to meet you."

The older woman took her hand and Stone watched her give Faith a firmer than necessary handshake. "I wish I could say the same," she said coolly. "What did my son promise you .for going through with this ridiculous charade?" . ,

Faith's eyes widened. Shock filled them, then he could see the distress rush in. "I, uh, we—"

"Mother." He spoke sharply, diverting her attention from Faith. "You can either be courteous to my fiancde in my home or you can leave. You should have no trouble remembering the way out," he added, unable to prevent the acid edge to the words.

His mother had the grace to flush. "Please forgive my rudeness," she said to Faith, sounding like she meant it. Then she turned one gimlet eye on her son. "But I believe this hasty union   was'arranged for the purpose of circumventing my wishes in regard to an offer I made my son."

"How could you possibly know why I want to marry her?" he demanded. "You don't know enough about my life to be making snap judgments."

"She's a child." His mother dismissed Faith with one curt sentence. "I'm no fool, Stone. If you think you're going to con me into believe—"

"I don't care what you believe." He put a hand on Faith's back, feeling the rigid tension in every muscle. Deliberately he slid his palm under her collar to the smooth, bare flesh at her nape, gently massaging the taut cords, his big hand curving possessively around her slender neck. "Faith and I have known each other since we both were' children. I've been waiting for her to grow up and'she has. When you made me your offer, I realized there was no reason to wait anymore." He exerted a small amount of pressure with his fingers, tugging Faith backward against him. "Right, darling?"

She turned her head to look up at him and he could see the uncertainty in the depths of her bottomless gray eyes. "Right," she replied, her voice barely audible. Her face was white, probably from shock. He doubted she'd ever had words with her mother that were anything like this scene. She couldn't have looked less like a thrilled bride-to-be, so he did the only thing he could think of to make his case more convincing: he kissed her.

As he bent his head and took her lips, he put his arms around her and turned her to him, pulling her unresisting frame close. The moment their lips met, he felt that punch of desire in his diaphragm, a sensation he still hadn't gotten accustomed to. His head began to spin.

Her lips were soft and warm beneath his, and as he molded her mouth, she made a quiet murmur deep in her throat. The small sound set a match to his barely banked desire, and he slid his arms more fully around her, pressing her long, slender curves to him. Faith lifted her arms around his shoulders and as her gentle fingers brushed the back of his neck, he shuddered. The intimate action moved the sweet swell of her breasts across his chest and rational thought fled as he gathered her even closer.

"Good grief," his mother said. "You can stop now. You've convinced me."

It took him a moment to remember-that they had an audience, to make sense of the words. Faith's mouth was soft and yielding, still clinging to his when he broke the kiss and dragged in a steadying breath of air. She kept her arms looped around his neck, her face buried in his throat, and as her warm breath feathered across his throat, his hands clenched spasmodically on her back with the effort it took him not to drag her into a private room to finish what they'd started.

Taking a deep breath, he forced his fingers to relax. He raised his head and looked at his mother over Faith's fair hair. "We weren't trying to convince you," he said roughly. And it was true. He might have started the kiss with that intent, but the moment Faith surrendered to the sensual need that enveloped him every time he touched her, he'd forgotten all about convincing anyone of anything.

Then Faith stirred in his arms, pushing against his chest until he released her. She straightened her dress and smoothed her hair, uttering a small ;laugh. "I apologize if we made you uncomfortable,") she'said to his mother. "When Stone kisses me like that, I have a hard time remembering my name, 'much less my manners or anything else." She turned to Stone and her voice was steady aldiough her eyes [Were still soft and dazed. "I'm sure your mother would like a drink, darling." I I

He had to force himself not to let his jaw drop. She was a better actress than he'd expected, and his own tense demeanor eased as he saw the suspicion in his mother's eyes fade. "Will you join us in a glass of champagne, Mother?" he asked her. "And help us celebrate this special time?" '

The rest of the evening went smoothly. He kept Faith close to him, holding her hand or with his arm loosely around her waist, most of the time when they weren't at the table, not giving his mother any opportunity to corner her alone and harass her. It was both heaven and hell to feel her warm curves at his side, and he told himself he was only trying to convince his mother that their marriage was a love match. But he couldn't quite ignore the leaping pleasure in every nerve ending. God, whatjhe wouldn't give to have the right to make her his wife in the fullest sense of the word! ' I '

She had recovered her innate elegant manners by the time they went in to dinner. And though she was quiet, he imagined it was simply because he and his mother were discussing business matters'much of the time. I

Touching her, he decided as they settled on the love seat in the drawing room again after the meal, was like a damned drug. Addictive. He had his arm around her and he idly smoothed his thumb over the ball of her shoulder joint as his mother turned to her and said, "Faith, I hope you'll forgive my earlier behavior. Welcome to the family."

Faith smiled. "Thank you."

"Faith's mother will be moving in with us soon." He didn't know why he was telling his mother this, but he plowed on. "She suffers from multiple sclerosis and we're fixing up an apartment for her on the main floor."

Eliza turned to Faith. "I never met your mother. Has she had MS long?"

"Almost all my life," Faith responded, her smile fading. "I was a late baby and she was diagnosed just over a year later. But I think she had symptoms years before that and ignored them."

His mother nodded. "My first secretary, who was absolutely invaluable during the first years when I stepped into my father's shoes, was diagnosed when she was forty-four. It was terribly difficult to watch her slowly lose capabilities. She passed away last year." Her eyes brimmed with tears; he was amazed. He'd never seen his mother cry, had never even imagined that she could. Which, he supposed, was a sad indicator of the degree to which they'd stayed out of each other's lives. Still, she was the one who had initiated the estrangement, if it could even be called that. There was no reason for him to feel guilty about it.

Also By Anne Marie Winston

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