Home > Marrying Winterborne (The Ravenels #2)(9)

Marrying Winterborne (The Ravenels #2)(9)
Lisa Kleypas

“Your proposition involves far more than kissing.”

“It’s not a proposition,” he informed her in a matter-of-fact tone. “It’s an ultimatum.”

Helen stared at him in disbelief.

Her only choice was to refuse. Someday she would meet an eligible man her family would approve of. A member of the landed gentry, bland and reserved, with a very tall forehead. He would expect her to make his opinions and wishes her own. And her life would be planned out for her, every year the same as the last.

Marrying Winterborne, on the other hand . . .

There was still so much she didn’t understand about him. What would be expected of a woman whose husband owned the largest department store in the world? What people would she become acquainted with, and what activities would fill her days? And Winterborne himself, who so often wore the look of someone who’d had more than a few quarrels with the world and had forgiven nothing . . . what would it be like, to live as his wife? His life was so large that she could easily imagine becoming lost in it.

Realizing that he was watching her closely, alert to every nuance of her expression, she turned her back to him. Rows of books confronted her, catalogues, manuals, ledgers. But lower down, amid a row of utilitarian volumes, she saw a collection of what appeared to be botanical titles. She blinked and looked at them more closely: Bromeliads; Being a Concise Treatise on the Management of the Hothouse; Orchidaceae Genera and Species: An Enumeration of Known Orchids; and Orchid Cultivation.

These books on orchids weren’t in his office by happenstance.

Cultivating orchids had been a keen interest and hobby of Helen’s ever since her mother had passed away five years ago, leaving a collection of approximately two hundred potted orchids. Since no one else in the family had been inclined to care for them, Helen had taken it upon herself. Orchids were demanding, troublesome plants, each with its own temperament. At first Helen had found no enjoyment in her self-appointed responsibility, but over time, she had become devoted to the orchids.

As she had once told Kathleen, sometimes one had to love something before it became lovable.

She touched the gilded book bindings with a hesitant fingertip, tracing the edge of a hand-painted flower. “When did you acquire these?” she asked.

Mr. Winterborne’s voice came from close behind her. “After you gave me the potted orchid. I needed to know how to take care of it.”

A few weeks earlier, he had come for dinner at Ravenel House, and Helen had impulsively given one of her orchids to him. A rare Blue Vanda, her most prized and temperamental plant. Although he hadn’t seemed especially enthused about the gift, he had thanked her and taken it dutifully. But the moment their engagement had been broken, he had sent it back.

To Helen’s amazement, she had discovered that the sensitive plant had thrived in his care.

“You looked after it yourself, then,” she said. “I wondered about that.”

“Of course I did. I had no intention of failing your test.”

“It wasn’t a test, it was a gift.”

“If you say so.”

Exasperated, Helen turned to face him. “I fully expected you to kill it, and I intended to marry you regardless.”

His lips twitched. “But I didn’t.”

Helen was silent, trying to balance all her thoughts and feelings before making the most difficult decision of her life. But was it really that complicated? Marriage was always a risk.

One never knew what kind of husband a man might turn into.

For one last time, Helen allowed herself to consider the option of leaving. She imagined walking out of his office, entering the family carriage, and riding back to Ravenel House on South Audley. And it would be well and truly over. Her future would be identical to that of any young woman in her position. She would have a London Season and scores of dances and dinners with civilized suitors, all of it leading to marriage with a man who would never understand her nearly as well as she understood him. She would do her utmost never to look back on this moment and wonder what would have happened, or what she might have become, if she’d said yes.

She thought of the conversation she’d had with the housekeeper, Mrs. Abbott, before leaving this morning. The housekeeper a plump and neat silver-haired woman who had served in the Ravenel’s employ for four decades, had objected strongly upon hearing that Helen intended to go out in the daytime with no companion. “The Master will sack the lot of us,” she had exclaimed.

“I’ll tell Lord Trenear that I slipped away without anyone’s knowledge,” Helen had told her. “And I’ll say that I gave the driver no choice but to take me to Winterborne’s or I threatened to go on foot.”

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