“I can't marry him. I just can't.” Madeline's stomach churned with revulsion as she watched Lord Clifton stroll the outside grounds with her father. She didn't realize she had spoken aloud until her mother, Lady Matthews, replied.
“You will learn to care for Lord Clifton,” she said crisply. As always, her narrow face wore a dour, disapproving expression. Having led her life with an attitude of self-sacrifice that approached martyrdom, she made it clear that she expected the same of her three daughters. She stared at Madeline with cool brown eyes, her features elegant and pale. All the Matthews women shared the same colorless complexion except for Madeline, who tended to blush easily.
“I expect that someday, when you have matured,” Agnes continued, “you will be grateful that such an excellent match was arranged for you.”
Madeline nearly choked on her resentment. She felt traitorous color climbing up her cheeks, turning them bright pink. For years she had tried to be everything her parents required—docile, quiet, obedient—but she could no longer contain her feelings. “Grateful!” she exclaimed bitterly. “Marrying a man older than my father—”
“Only by a year or two,” Agnes interrupted.
“—who shares none of my interests and thinks of me only as a broodmare—”
“Madeline!” Agnes exclaimed. “Such a vulgar choice of words is beneath you.”
“But it's true,” Madeline said, striving to keep her voice calm. “Lord Clifton has two daughters from his first marriage. Everyone knows he wants sons, and I'll be expected to produce them. I'll be buried in the country for the rest of my life, or at least until he dies, and then I'll be too old to enjoy my freedom.”
“That is enough,” her mother said tautly. “Apparently you must be reminded of a few facts, Madeline. It is a wife's place to share her husband's interests, not the other way around. Certainly Lord Clifton is not to blame if he doesn't happen to enjoy frivolous pursuits such as novel-reading or music. He is a serious man with great political influence, and I expect you to address him with the respect he deserves. As for his age, you will come to value his wisdom and seek his guidance in all things. That is a woman's only course to happiness.”
Madeline twisted her fingers together and stared unhappily out the window at Lord Clifton's bulky figure. “Perhaps it would be easier for me to accept the betrothal if you had allowed me to have at least one season. I've never danced at a ball, or attended a dinner party or soirée. Instead, I've had to stay at school while all my friends have come out. Even my own sisters were presented at court—”
“They were not so fortunate as you,” Agnes replied, her back as straight as a fireplace poker. “You will be spared all the anxiety and inconvenience of the season, as you have already been betrothed to the most eligible and admirable man in England.”
“Those are your words for him,” Madeline said under her breath, tensing as her father and Lord Clifton entered the room. “Not mine.”
Like any other girl of eighteen, she had fantasized about marrying a handsome, dashing man who would fall madly in love with her. Lord Clifton was as far from those fantasies as it was possible to get. He was a man of fifty, with a stocky build and flapping jowls. With his deeply furrowed face, balding head, and moist, heavy lips, he reminded Madeline of a frog.
If only Clifton had a sense of humor, a kind nature—anything that she could find remotely endearing…but he was pompous and unimaginative. Rituals guided his life: the entertainments of the hunt and the racetrack, the concerns of estate management, the occasional speech at the House of Lords. Worse still, he had an unabashed disdain for music, art, and literature, all the things that Madeline hungered for.
Seeing her from across the room, Clifton approached her with a thick-lipped smile. The corners of his mouth gleamed with moisture. Madeline hated the way he looked at her, as if she were a thing to be possessed. Inexperienced she might be, but she knew he wanted her because she was young, healthy, and presumably fertile. As his wife, she would exist in a more or less constant state of pregnancy until Clifton was satisfied with the number of boys she had produced. He wanted nothing of her heart, mind, or soul.
“My dear Miss Matthews,” he said in a deep, croaking voice, “you grow lovelier every time I see you.”
He even sounded like a frog, Madeline thought, struggling to contain a slightly hysterical laugh. His clammy hand enclosed hers, and he raised it to his lips. She closed her eyes and steeled herself against a shiver of disgust as she felt his bloated lips brush the back of her wrist. Mistaking her reaction as one of maidenly modesty—perhaps even excitement—Clifton regarded her with a deepening smile.
He asked her to walk outside with him, and her objections were swiftly overcome by her parents' enthusiastic agreement. They were determined to have a man of Clifton's means and influence in the family. Whatever Lord Clifton wanted, he could have.
Reluctantly taking her fiancé's arm, Madeline strolled through the garden, a formal, precise arrangement of Maythorn hedgerows, tidily sanded paths, and boxed-in flower beds. “Enjoying your holiday from school?” Lord Clifton asked, his small but heavy feet crunching on the gray-white path.
Madeline kept her gaze on the ground before them. “Yes, thank you, my lord.”
“No doubt you have a desire to leave the academy, as your companions have done,” Clifton remarked. “Your parents kept you there two years longer than the other girls, at my request.”
“Your request?” Madeline repeated, startled that he had such influence over them. “But why—”
“I felt it would be good for you, my dear,” he said with a self-important smile. “You needed polish and discipline. A perfect fruit must be allowed to ripen. Now you are not so impetuous as you were then, hmm? As I intended, you have learned patience.”
Hardly, Madeline wanted to snap at him, but somehow she kept her lips clamped shut. Two extra years of the rigid confinement of Mrs. All-bright's Academy for Young Ladies had nearly driven her mad. It had allowed her rebellious, overimaginative nature the time to ferment into something wild and unmanageable. Two years ago, she had been too timid and easily led to have objected if her parents married her to Clifton. Now, however, the words “patience” and “obedience” didn't belong in her vocabulary.
“I have brought something for you,” Clifton remarked. “A gift you've been anticipating, I am certain.” He drew her to a stone bench and sat with her, his soft body pressing against her side. Madeline waited wordlessly, finally meeting his gaze with her own. Clifton smiled like some indulgent uncle with a mischievous niece. “It's in my pocket,” he murmured, indicating the right side of his brown wool coat. “Why don't you fish it out, like the clever kitten you are?”
Clifton had never spoken to her that way before. They had been carefully chaperoned on previous occasions. “I appreciate your kindness, but it isn't necessary for you to give me anything, my lord,” Madeline said, her hands tightly folded, fingers knitted together.
“I insist.” He waggled his coat pocket at her. “Fetch your present, Madeline.”
Stiffly she reached into the pocket, locating a tiny circlet. Her heart thudded in a sickening rhythm as she withdrew the object and beheld it. A small gold ring fashioned in a braided pattern, adorned with a tiny, dark sapphire. The symbol of her future bondage as Clifton's wife.
“It has been in my family for generations,” Lord Clifton remarked. “My mother wore it until the day she died. Does it please you?”
“It is attractive,” Madeline said dully, loathing the object.
Taking the ring from her, Clifton pushed it onto her finger. It was far too loose, and she had to close her hand into a fist to keep it from slipping off. “Now you may thank me for it, my pet.” His heavy arms snaked around her, and he pulled her hard against his short, barrelled chest. He had a foul, stale smell, like game birds hung out to ripen for too long. Obviously Lord Clifton believed frequent baths to be an unnecessary indulgence.
Madeline drew in a breath of suffocated misery. “Why must you refer to me as a ‘pet’ or a ‘kitten’?” she asked in a voice that trembled with defiance. “I don't like to be called such things. I'm a woman, a person.”
Lord Clifton laughed, revealing large yellow teeth, and she winced from the rush of his foul breath against her face. He squeezed her tightly as he replied. “I knew that sooner or later you would try to challenge me…but at my age, I know all the tricks. Here is the reward for your impertinence, my spiteful little pet—”
His blubbery lips pressed over hers, smothering and grinding her mouth in the first kiss she had ever been given. His arms were as tight as barrel stays. Madeline held silent and still, quivering with revulsion…using all her strength to endure his touch without screaming or crying.
“You will find that I am a very masculine sort,” Lord Clifton said, breathing heavily, appearing satisfied with his conquest. “I don't spout poetry or pander to women's ridiculous notions of what they want. I do as I please, and you will learn to like it exceedingly.” His pudgy hand stroked the side of her pale, strained face. “Lovely,” he murmured. “Lovely. I've never seen eyes the color of yours, like amber.” His fingers twisted in a stray wisp of her golden-brown hair, rubbing the silken strands repeatedly. “How I look forward to the day when you'll be mine!”
Madeline set her jaw hard to keep it from trembling. She wanted to scream at him, to tell him that she would never belong to him, but the sense of duty and responsibility that had been instilled in her from birth kept her silent.
Clifton must have noticed her involuntary shiver. “You're getting cold,” he said in a tone he might have used with a very small child. “Come, let us go inside before you catch a chill.”
Relieved, she rose with alacrity and stepped with him into the parlor.
As soon as Lord and Lady Matthews saw the ring on Madeline's finger, they erupted in smiles and congratulations—they, who made a point of never showing enthusiasm because they considered it unrefined.
“What a generous gift,” Agnes exclaimed, her normally sallow face glowing with pleasure. “And such an exquisite ring, Lord Clifton.”
“I think so,” he said modestly, jowls flapping with gratification.
Madeline watched with a faint, frozen smile as her father ushered Lord Clifton to the library for a celebratory drink. As soon as they were out of hearing, she tore the ring from her hand and flung it to the carpet.
“Madeline,” Agnes exclaimed, “retrieve that at once! I will not abide such childish tantrums. You will wear that ring from now on—and you will take pride in it!”
“It doesn't fit,” Madeline said stonily. Remembering the feel of Clifton's wet mouth on hers, she scrubbed her sleeve across her face until her lips and chin were raw. “I won't marry him, Mama. I'll kill myself first.”
“Don't be dramatic, Madeline.” Agnes bent and picked up the ring, holding it as if it were priceless. “I hope that being married to a man as solid and earthbound as Lord Clifton will rid you of such wild outbursts.”
“Earthbound,” Madeline whispered with a bitter smile. She found it incredible that her mother could sum up all the repulsive qualities in Clifton with such a banal word. “Just the quality every girl dreams of in the man she marries.”
For once it was a relief to return to the academy, where there were no males except for the dancing instructor who came to tutor the girls once a week. Madeline walked along the narrow hallway with a hatbox in hand. The rest of her belongings would be brought upstairs later. Reaching the room she shared with her best friend, Eleanor Sinclair, she came upon a crowd of a half-dozen girls settled on the beds and chairs. As Madeline was the oldest student at Mrs. Allbright's academy, and Eleanor was the second-oldest at seventeen, they were frequently visited by the younger girls, who considered them mature and worldly.
The girls appeared to be sharing a tin of biscuits and exclaiming over some colored print that Eleanor held. Noticing Madeline's arrival, Eleanor gave her a welcoming smile. “How was Lord Clifton?” she asked, having known before Madeline's departure of the planned meeting with her betrothed.
“Even worse than I expected,” Madeline replied shortly, walking to her own narrow bed, which was placed opposite Eleanor's. She dropped the hatbox to the floor and sat on the edge of the mattress, wishing that the girls would leave so she could talk privately with her friend.
Soon, Eleanor's friendly gaze promised, while the other girls continued to huddle in their excited circle.
“Just look at him,” one of them exclaimed breathlessly. “Can you imagine what it would be like to actually meet him?”
“I would faint,” someone else declared, and they all giggled.
“He's the most handsome—”
“He looks like a highwayman—”
“Yes, there's something in the eyes…”
Madeline shook her head at the flurry of feminine sighs. “What in heaven's name are you looking at?” she asked, her glumness replaced by growing curiosity.
“Let Madeline see—”
“But I haven't gotten a proper look yet—”
“Here, Madeline.” Eleanor brought the colored print to her. “My older sister gave it to me. It's the most difficult-to-find print in London. Everyone wants a copy.”
Madeline's gaze fell on the picture. The longer she stared at it, the more fascinated she became. The man's face could have belonged to a king, a sea captain, or an outlaw…someone powerful…someone dangerous. He was not classically handsome—his features were too bold. There was a lionesque quality about his lean face, his gaze narrow and piercing, his wide mouth set with the hint of an ironic smile. The color of his hair was indeterminately brown in the print, but it appeared to be thick and slightly rumpled.
The other girls waited for her to blush and giggle as they had been doing, but Madeline kept all sign of emotion from showing. “Who is he?” she asked Eleanor calmly.
“Yes, the one who owns the Capital Theatre.”
A strange feeling came over Madeline as she continued to stare at him. She had heard about Logan Scott, but she had never seen his likeness before now. At the age of thirty, Scott was an actor of international fame, surpassing the standards set by David Garrick and Edmund Kean. Some even said he had not yet reached the height of his powers. Among his attributes was a voice that was reputed to stroke the ears like velvet or set fire to the air with its crackling intensity.