Authors: Lisa Kleypas
To Gregâmy husband
and my hero.
INTERBORNE, A WOMAN IS
here to see you.”
Rhys looked up from the stack of letters on his desk with a scowl.
His personal secretary, Mrs. Fernsby, stood at the threshold of his private office, her eyes sharp behind round spectacles. She was a tidy hen of a woman, middle-aged and just a bit plump.
“You know I don't receive visitors at this hour.” It was his morning ritual to spend the first half hour of the day reading mail in uninterrupted silence.
“Yes, sir, but the visitor is a lady, and sheâ”
“I don't care if she's the bloody Queen,” he snapped. “Send her away.”
Mrs. Fernsby's lips pinched into a disapproving hyphen. She left promptly, the heels of her shoes hitting the floor like the staccato of gunfire.
Rhys returned his attention to the letter in front of him. Losing his temper was a luxury he rarely permitted himself, but for the past week he'd been invaded by a sullen gloom that weighted every thought and heartbeat, and made him want to lash out at anyone within reach.
All because of a woman he had known better than to want.
Lady Helen Ravenel . . . a woman who was cultured, innocent, shy, aristocratic. Everything he was not.
Their engagement had lasted a mere two weeks before Rhys had managed to ruin it. The last time he had seen Helen, he'd been impatient and aggressive, finally kissing her the way he'd wanted to for so long. She had gone stiff in his arms, rejecting him. Her disdain couldn't have been more obvious. The scene had ended in tears on her part, anger on his.
The next day, Kathleen, Lady Trenear, who had been married to Helen's late brother, had come to inform him that Helen was so distressed, she was bedridden with a migraine.
“She never wants to see you again,” Kathleen had informed him bluntly.
Rhys couldn't blame Helen for ending the betrothal. Obviously they were a mismatch. It was against the designs of God that he should take the daughter of a titled English family to wife. Despite his great fortune, Rhys didn't have the deportment or education of a gentleman. Nor did he have the appearance of one, with his swarthy complexion and black hair, and workingman's brawn.
By the age of thirty, he had built Winterborne's, his father's small shop on High Street, into the world's largest department store. He owned factories, warehouses, farmland, stables, laundries, and residential buildings. He was on the boards of shipping and railway companies. But no matter what he achieved, he would never overcome the limitations of having been born a Welsh grocer's son.
His thoughts were interrupted by another knock at the door. Incredulously he glanced up as Mrs. Fernsby walked back into his office.
“What do you want?” he demanded.
The secretary straightened her spectacles as she re
plied resolutely. “Unless you wish to have the lady removed by force, she insists on staying until you speak with her.”
Rhys's annoyance faded into puzzlement. No woman of his acquaintance, respectable or otherwise, would dare to approach him so boldly. “Her name?”
“She won't say.”
He shook his head in disbelief. How had the visitor made it past the outer offices? He paid a small army of people to prevent him from having to deal with this kind of interruption. An absurd idea occurred to him, and although he dismissed it immediately, his pulse quickened.
“What does she look like?” he brought himself to ask.
“She's dressed in mourning, with a veil over her face. Slender of build, and soft-spoken.” After a brief hesitation, she added on a dry note, “The accent is pure âdrawing-room.'”
As realization dawned, Rhys felt his chest close around a deep stab of yearning. “
,” he muttered. It didn't seem possible that Helen would have come to him. But somehow he knew she had, he knew it down to his marrow. Without another word, he stood and moved past Mrs. Fernsby with ground-eating strides.
“Mr. Winterborne,” the secretary exclaimed, following him. “You're in your shirtsleeves. Your coatâ”
Rhys scarcely heard her as he left his corner suite office and entered a foyer with leather-upholstered chairs.
He halted abruptly at the sight of the visitor, his breath catching sharp and quick.
Even though the mourning veil concealed Helen's
face, he recognized her perfect posture, and the willowy slenderness of her form.
He forced himself to close the distance between them. Unable to say a word, he stood in front of her, nearly choking with resentment, and yet breathing in her sweet scent with helpless greed. He was instantly aroused by her presence, his flesh filling with heat, his heartbeat swift and violent.
From one of the rooms attached to the foyer, the
of typewriting machines stuttered into silence.
It was madness for Helen to have come here unescorted. Her reputation would be destroyed. She had to be removed from the foyer and sent home before anyone realized whom she was.
But first Rhys had to find out what she wanted. Although she was sheltered and innocent, she wasn't a fool. She wouldn't have taken such an enormous risk without good reason.
He glanced at Mrs. Fernsby. “My guest will be leaving soon. In the meantime, make certain we're not disturbed.”
His gaze returned to Helen.
“Come,” he said gruffly, and led the way to his office.
She accompanied him wordlessly, her skirts rustling as they brushed the sides of the hallway. Her garments were outdated and slightly shabby, the look of gentility fallen on hard times. Was that why she was here? Was the Ravenel family's need for money so desperate that she had changed her mind about lowering herself to become his wife?
By God, Rhys thought with grim anticipation, he would
for her to beg him to take her back. He
wouldn't, of course, but he'd give her a taste of the torment he had endured for the past week. Anyone who had ever dared to cross him would have assured her that there would be no forgiveness or mercy afterward.
They entered his office, a spacious and quiet place with wide double-glazed windows and thick, soft carpeting. In the center of the room, a walnut pedestal desk had been piled with stacks of correspondence and files.
After closing the door, Rhys went to his desk, picked up an hourglass and upended it in a deliberate gesture. The sand would drain to the lower chamber in precisely fifteen minutes. He felt the need to make the point that they were in his world now, where time mattered, and he was in control.
He turned to Helen with a mocking lift of his brows. “I was told last week that youâ”
But his voice died away as Helen pushed back her veil and stared at him with the patient, tender gravity that had devastated him from the first. Her eyes were the silver-blue of clouds drifting through moonlight. The fine, straight locks of her hair, the palest shade of blonde, had been pulled back neatly into a chignon, but a glinting wisp had slid free of the jet combs and dangled in front of her left ear.
her for being so beautiful.
“Forgive me,” Helen said, her gaze fastened to his. “This was the first opportunity I could find to come to you.”
“You shouldn't be here.”
“There are things I need to discuss with you.” She cast a timid glance at a nearby chair. “Please, if you wouldn't mind . . .”
“Aye, be seated.” But Rhys made no move to help
her. Since Helen would never regard him as a gentleman, he'd be damned if he would act like one. He half-sat, half-leaned against his desk, folding his arms across his chest. “You don't have much time,” he said stonily, giving a short nod toward the hourglass. “You'd better make use of it.”
Helen sat in the chair, arranged her skirts, and removed her gloves with deft tugs at the fingertips.
Rhys's mouth went dry at the sight of her delicate fingers emerging from the black gloves. She had played the piano for him at Eversby Priory, her family's estate. He had been fascinated by the agility of her hands, darting and swooping over the keys like small white birds. For some reason she was still wearing the betrothal ring he'd given her, the flawless rose-cut diamond catching briefly on the glove.
After pushing back her veil so that it fell down her back in a dark mist of fabric, Helen dared to meet his gaze for a charged moment. Soft color infused her cheeks. “Mr. Winterborne, I didn't ask my sister-in-law to visit you last week. I wasn't feeling well at the time, but had I known what Kathleen intendedâ”
“She said you were ill.”
“My head ached, that was allâ”
“It seems I was the cause.”
“Kathleen made far too much of itâ”
“According to her, you said you never wanted to see me again.”
Her blush deepened to brilliant rose. “I wish she hadn't repeated that,” she exclaimed, looking vexed and ashamed. “I didn't mean it. My head was splitting, and I was trying to make sense of what had happened the day before. When you visited, andâ” She tore her gaze from his and looked down at her lap, the light
from the window sliding over her hair. The clasp of her hands was tight and slightly rounded, as if she held something fragile between her palms. “I need to talk to you about that,” she said quietly. “I want very much to . . . reach an understanding with you.”
Something inside him died. Rhys had been approached for money by too many people, not to recognize what was coming. Helen was no different from anyone else, trying to gain some advantage for herself. Although he couldn't blame her for that, he couldn't bear hearing whatever rationale she had come up with for how much he owed her, and why. He would rather pay her off immediately and be done with it.
God knew why he'd nourished some faint, foolish hope that she might have wanted anything from him other than money. This was how the world had always worked, and always would. Men sought beautiful women, and women traded their beauty for wealth. He had debased Helen by putting his inferior paws on her, and now she would demand restitution.
He walked around to the other side of his desk, pulled out a drawer, and withdrew a checkbook for a private account. Taking up a pen, he wrote an order for ten thousand pounds. After making a note on the left margin of the book for his own reference, he walked back around to Helen and gave it to her.
“There's no need for anyone to know where it came from,” he said in a businesslike tone. “If you don't have a banking account, I'll see to it that one is opened for you.” No bank would allow a woman to establish an account for herself. “I promise it will be handled discreetly.”
Helen stared at him with bewilderment, and then glanced at the check. “Why would youâ” She drew
in a swift breath as she saw the amount. Her horrified gaze flew back to his. “
?” she asked, her breath coming in agitated bursts.
Puzzled by her reaction, Rhys frowned. “You said you wanted to reach an understanding. That's what it means.”
, I meant . . . I meant that I wanted for us to understand each other.” She fumbled to tear the check into tiny pieces. “I don't need money. And even if I did, I would never ask you for it.” Bits of paper flew through the air like snowflakes.
Stunned, he watched her make short work of the small fortune he'd just given her. A mixture of frustration and embarrassment filled him as he realized that he'd misread her. What the hell did she want from him? Why was she there?
Helen took a long breath, and another, slowly reinflating her composure. She stood and approached him. “There's been something of a . . . windfall . . . at my family's estate. We now have means to provide dowries for me and my sisters.”
Rhys stared at her, his face a hard mask, while his brain struggled to take in what she was saying. She had come too close. The light fragrance of her, vanilla and orchids, stole into his lungs with every breath. His body coursed with heat. He wanted her on her back, across his deskâ
With an effort, he shoved the lurid image from his mind. Here in the businesslike surroundings of his office, dressed in civilized clothing and polished oxford shoes, he had never felt like more of a brute. Desperate to establish even a small measure of distance between them, he retreated and encountered the edge of the desk. He was forced to resume a half-sitting posi
tion while Helen continued to advance, until her skirts brushed gently against his knees.
She could have been a figure in a Welsh fairy tale, a nymph who had formed from the mist off a lake. There was something otherworldly about the delicacy of her porcelain skin, and the arresting contrast between her dark lashes and brows and her silver-blond hair. And those eyes, cool translucence contained in dark rims.
She'd said something about a windfall. What did that mean? An unexpected inheritance? A gift? Perhaps a lucrative investmentâalthough that was unlikely, in light of the Ravenel family's notorious fiscal irresponsibility. Whatever manner of windfall it was, Helen seemed to believe that her family's financial troubles were over. If that were true, then any man in London would be hers for the choosing.
She had put her future at risk, coming to him. Her reputation was at stake. He could have ravished her right there in his office, and no one would have lifted a finger to help her. The only thing keeping her safe was the fact that Rhys had no wish to destroy something as lovely and fragile as this woman.
For her sake, he had to remove her from Winterborne's as quickly and discreetly as possible. With an effort, he looked over her head and focused on a distant point on the wood-paneled wall.
“I'll escort you from the building through a private exit,” he muttered. “You'll return home with no one the wiser.”
“I will not release you from our engagement,” Helen said gently.