“MR. WINTERBORNE, 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 she—”
“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 replied 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 ‘drawing-room.’”
As realization dawned, Rhys felt his chest close around a deep stab of yearning. “Yr Dduw,” 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 coat—”
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 tappity-tap 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?