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 desk—
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 position 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 investment—although 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.
His gaze shot back to hers, while another of those deep stabs sank into his chest. Helen didn’t even blink, only waited patiently for his response.
“My lady, we both know that I’m the last man you want to marry. From the beginning, I’ve seen your disgust of me.”
Insulted by her feigned surprise, he continued savagely. “You shrink away from my touch. You won’t speak to me at dinner. Most of the time you can’t even bring yourself to look at me. And when I kissed you last week, you pulled away and burst into tears.”
He would have expected Helen to be ashamed at being called out in a lie. Instead, she stared at him earnestly, her lips parted in dismay. “Please,” she eventually said, “you must forgive me. I’m far too shy. I must work harder to overcome it. When I behave that way, it has nothing at all to do with disgust. The truth is, I’m nervous with you. Because . . .” A deep flush worked up from the high neck of her dress to the edge of her hairline. “Because you’re very attractive,” she continued awkwardly, “and worldly, and I don’t wish for you to think me foolish. As for the other day, that . . . that was my first kiss. I didn’t know what to do, and I felt . . . quite overwhelmed.”
Somewhere in the chaos of his mind, Rhys thought it was a good thing he was leaning against the desk. Otherwise, his legs would have buckled. Could it be that what he had read as disdain was actually shyness? That what he’d thought was contempt had been innocence? He felt a splintering sensation, as if his heart were cracking open. How easily Helen had undone him. A few words, and he was ready to fall to his knees before her.
Her first kiss, and he had taken it without asking.
There had never been a need for him to play the part of skilled seducer. Women had always been easily available to him, and they had seemed pleased with whatever he cared to do in bed. There had even been ladies now and then: the wife of a diplomat, and a countess whose husband had been away on a trip to the continent. They had praised him for his vigor, his stamina, and his big cock, and they hadn’t asked for anything more.
In body and nature, he was as tough as the slate dug from the flanks of Elidir Fawr, the mountain in Llanberis, where he’d been born. He knew nothing of fine manner or good breeding. There were permanent callouses on his hands from years of building crates and loading merchandise onto delivery wagons. He was easily twice Helen’s weight, and as muscular as a bull, and if he rutted on her the way he had with other women, he would rip her apart without even trying.
Holy hell. What had he been thinking in the first place? He should never have let himself even consider the idea of marrying her. But he had been too blinded by his own ambition—and by Helen’s sweetness and fine-spun beauty—to fully consider the consequences for her.
Bitter with the awareness of his own limitations, he said in a low voice, “It’s water under the bridge, it is. Soon you’ll have your first season, and you’ll meet the man you were meant for. The devil knows it’s not me.”