Logan glowered at Madeline. “Give her the bloody line, Miss Ridley.”
The displeasure of the company wasn't lost on Logan. Sardonically he reflected that everyone was protective of the girl and regarded him as a bully. To hell with them all. He had built this place, and he would treat his employees any way he saw fit. Grimly he plowed through the afternoon's work, ending the rehearsal nearly an hour earlier than usual.
Julia approached him in his office afterward, her brow knitted with consternation. “I heard about what happened between you and Maddy this morning,” she remarked. “Don't you think you're being rather hard on her?”
“You're right,” he said sarcastically. “The next time she volunteers to put herself in danger, I won't interfere.”
“It's not that,” Julia said. “For heaven's sake, Logan, I know how protective you are of your employees. I understand why you were cross with her earlier in the day. What I don't understand is your constant harshness with her. She's always at your beck and call—in fact, she's more your assistant than mine. The Capital is running far more smoothly because of her. You should be delighted with Madeline, and yet you act like a surly child whenever she's near.”
Logan glared at her, infuriated. “That's enough, Julia.”
“I'm sorry,” she said, immediately softening her tone. “It's just that you haven't been yourself lately. I'm concerned about you.”
“There would be no need for concern if you hadn't hired the girl in the first place.”
Julia looked at him in dawning wonder. “I'm beginning to think you don't dislike her at all. I wonder if the problem isn't quite the opposite. Nearly every man at the Capital imagines himself in love with her. Is it possible that you're afraid of falling for her yourself?”
Logan concealed a sudden flare of outrage behind a mocking glance. “Of all the cracked notions you've ever had—”
“I'm right,” Julia said, staring at him keenly. “You're fighting an attraction to her. Why not admit it?”
“I don't have time to discuss your addled theories,” Logan muttered. “If you wouldn't mind leaving, I have work to do.”
Julia didn't move. “I'm aware of your belief that you can turn your emotions on and off at will. You're always the master of your heart, and never the other way around. But emotions are terribly inconvenient, Logan…they don't always behave as one would wish.”
“Go to hell,” Logan said, and strode from the office.
After the rehearsal had concluded and everyone had left the stage, Madeline swept the floor vigorously, stirring up a cloud of dust that billowed I around her knees. “Arrogant…ungrateful…tyrant…” she muttered, venting her anger with each stroke of the broom. As she worked her way to stage right, she stopped near a loosely wrapped canvas package filled with foils used earlier in the day.
Reaching down, Madeline extracted one of the swords and grasped the handle. It was light and well balanced, whistling as she swished it through the air. Enjoying herself, she tried to imitate some of the movements she had seen that morning, lunging and thrusting with the foil in her hand. “Take that…and that…” she said, stabbing at an imaginary Mr. Scott.
“You look as though you're swatting flies,” came a sardonic voice from nearby.
Startled, Madeline saw Mr. Scott emerging from backstage, and she wanted to sink through the floor. Why did he have to be the one to witness her making a fool of herself? She expected him to make some remark that would cause her eternal humiliation…but his blue eyes gleamed with amusement.
“Whom are you attempting to skewer?” he asked, smiling in a way that revealed he was well aware of her invisible opponent's identity. When she didn't reply, he surprised her by taking her wrist in a gentle grip. His hand was very warm on her skin. “Here, this is how to handle the thing properly. Loosen your grip.” He adjusted her hand, his fingers pressing over hers. Madeline tried to relax, but it wasn't easy. He was standing so close, and her pulse was racing madly. “Imitate the way I'm standing,” he continued, “and keep your knees slightly flexed.”
Madeline risked a glance at him. His hair was rumpled, as if he had been tugging it distractedly, and she longed to smooth the thick locks. “You're always directing, aren't you?”
“You're not the first woman to accuse me of that,” he said wryly, and nudged the sword to the proper angle. “Now lunge forward with your right foot, bend your knee and extend the sword…yes, exactly like that. A stageworthy move if I've ever seen one.”
He was so close that Madeline could see the fine texture of his skin, the dark stubble that roughened his jaw, the gleam of auburn in his long lashes. With his face relaxed and his lips curved in a smile, he seemed a little younger than usual, a little more approachable.
“I understand why you were so harsh with me before, Mr. Scott,” she said.
“Oh?” His brow arched sardonically.
“You were worried about my safety. That's why you lost your temper. I forgive you.” Before he could react, she pressed her mouth to his chin, her lips tingling from the scrape of close-shaven bristle.
His entire body stiffened. Drawing back, Madeline waited apprehensively for his reaction. His face was a blank mask.
Awkwardly Madeline bent to set the sword on the floor and straightened to look at him. “Was that…stageworthy?” she asked.
Scott wore a strange expression. It took a long time for him to reply. “Not quite,” he finally said.
“Your back is to the audience. If we were in a play…you would have to turn this way.” He began to reach for her, paused, then finally caught her arms in his hands. Lightly his fingers skimmed her shoulder and slid to her throat and jaw.
“You would show your emotions through your posture and the angle of your head…” Carefully he adjusted her chin a notch downward. His voice turned hoarse. “If you were ambivalent about the kiss, you would hold your head like this. And you might put your hands on my shoulders as if you were thinking of pushing me away.”
Madeline obeyed, her hands trembling a little as she pressed her palms against the hard surface of his upper body. He was so much taller than she, his shoulders looming high above her, his chin nearly brushing the top of her head.
“If you wanted the kiss,” he continued, “you would lift your chin higher…you would stand closer…” He fell silent as her arms slid around his neck, her small hand touching his nape.
He smelled of starched linen and sweat and sandalwood soap. Madeline had never known such an appetizing scent—it filled her with the impulse to bury her face against his throat, and breathe.
A mist of sweat had broken out on his forehead. “Maddy…” he said with obvious difficulty, “you don't know what you're asking for.”
Madeline curled her fingers against his chest, gripping his shirt. “Yes, I do.” Swallowing hard, she stood on her toes, straining to reach him. His self-control seemed to snap, and suddenly his head lowered, his lips pressing against hers.
His mouth was hard and warm, demanding things she didn't know how to give. His arms closed around her, bands of solid muscle crushing her against his body. Gradually his mouth gentled, and he rubbed his lips over hers until they parted. His large hands closed around the back of her head, holding her steady for his skillful exploration. Nothing in her life had prepared her for this. All her ideas of poetry and romance burned to cinders, replaced by the solid reality of his body against hers.
She groped for his hair, the rumpled locks silken and thick beneath her fingers. The nape of his neck was as taut as a board as she clasped her palm over it. She was caught fast within his embrace, returning kiss for kiss, her heart thundering so hard that she thought she might faint. His mouth left hers, and she felt his lips slide down her throat, hungrily exploring the thin, vulnerable skin. Her legs wobbled beneath her, and she leaned against him for support.
He touched the firm curve of her breast, shaping with his hand until the soft peak tightened into a point beneath the fabric of her bodice.
“Oh…” She gasped and jerked backward, holding her own hand to her throbbing breast. Her eyes were wide in her flushed face, her lungs striving for air.
Logan dragged his sleeve over his damp forehead. His body was stiffly aroused, aching with his intense awareness of her. He wanted to reach for her again, bear her to the hard stage floor and take her right there. It was insane, impossible that he could be so obsessed with a naive girl when he'd taken his pleasure with some of the most desirable women in Europe. “Enough of this damned nonsense,” he muttered.
“Nonsense?” she repeated in pained confusion.
He prowled around her in a half-circle. “I'm thirty years old, Maddy. I've never been interested in girls your age, even when I was your age.”
“You…don't find me attractive?”
“Christ.” It was proof of her inexperience that she would ask such a question, when the buttons on his trousers were straining to contain his arousal. Logan stopped pacing and forced himself to look at her. “I find you attractive,” he said gruffly.
“Hell, I'd like to do things to you that—” He stopped and dragged his hand through his hair. “It's a bad idea, Maddy. You couldn't play the game as I like it to be played. And I would end up changing you. Hurting you.”
“I understand,” she said.
“No, you don't. Which is why I'm going to try like hell to avoid you. I don't need you on my conscience.”
“I don't care about your conscience. All I want is for you to kiss me again.”
The bold statement hung in the air between them. Madeline was stunned that she had actually said it. Scott stared at her in disbelief, and then he turned away with a laughing groan. “It's not going to happen. For my sake, if not yours.”
“I won't require your assistance in my office any longer. And I'd prefer that you stay away from rehearsals, although my partner may object.” He paused and added curtly, “Just do your best to keep out of my sight.”
Madeline was stunned by his callousness. The glow of passion faded from her body, leaving her cold and empty. How had everything gone wrong so quickly? Her mind swam with confusion. He had rejected her…he had said he wanted her, and yet…he had told her to stay away from him. “Mr. Scott—”
“Go on,” he said, gesturing for her to leave. “I came here to have a look at the set pieces. I don't want your company.”
Had it not been for Mrs. Florence, Madeline would have sunk into melancholy. Instead, she was profoundly puzzled by the elderly woman's interpretation of the scene. “I call that progress,” Mrs. Florence declared after being told of the day's events. “You've almost got him on the hook, child. It shouldn't be long until you reel him in.”
“Perhaps I haven't explained well enough,” Madeline said, regarding her doubtfully. “Not only is Mr. Scott not on the hook, he's swimming as fast as possible in the opposite direction. He wants nothing to do with me.”
“Didn't you listen to him, Maddy? He told you to stay away from him because your presence is too much temptation for him to withstand. That's the best encouragement I can think of.”
“I suppose,” Madeline murmured. “It's just that he seemed so very definite—”
“This is no time to falter,” Mrs. Florence assured her. “He's weakening.” She picked up a book and extracted a slip of paper tucked between the pages. “This is for you, Maddy. If you are able, leave your job at the theater early tomorrow and go to this address.”
“Mrs. Bernard,” Madeline read the name aloud and looked at Mrs. Florence questioningly.
“One of my dear friends, who owns a shop on Regent Street. Mrs. Bernard isn't the best dressmaker in London, but she's far from the worst. I told her a little about you, and she assured me that she has a bolt of fabric here and there, not to mention some clothing samples, that can be made into a few attractive gowns for you. She won't charge a shilling—one of her assistants will do the work as part of her training.”
“Oh, Mrs. Florence! You're so kind. I wish I could find the words to thank you.…”
“It's thanks enough for me to have a new project,” the elderly woman declared. “Lately there are few pursuits to keep me interested. Helping you attain your goal is quite an enjoyable hobby.” She paused and regarded Madeline speculatively. “Not that it's any of my concern, child…but have you given a thought to afterward?”
“After you've succeeded in seducing Mr. Scott. I imagine you'll have a delightful time with him…but you must be prepared for the moment when he desires the affair to end.”
Madeline nodded. “My family will take me in,” she replied. “They won't be pleased by what I've done…but I'm prepared for that.”
“And seducing Mr. Scott is worth that?”
“Well…yes,” Madeline replied uncomfortably. She paused for a long moment. “I'm one of those people who was meant to have a very ordinary life. I have no special talent, no great beauty, nothing that distinguishes me from a hundred thousand other girls. But I can't go through an entire lifetime without at least one night of magic.”
“Don't expect ‘magic,’” Mrs. Florence counseled, her lined face touched with concern. “That's a difficult order for any man to fill, Maddy, even a man like Mr. Scott. To put it crudely, two bodies in a bed can be a very nice experience…but ‘magic’ happens only once in a lifetime. If at all.”
Madeline approached Mr. Scott's dressing room, carrying a stack of freshly washed and folded costumes that had been delivered from the laundry cart. In the mornings the dressing room was always empty, but to her surprise, she heard voices inside. The door was ajar, requiring only a nudge from her elbow to swing open with a quiet squeak. She saw in consternation that Mr. Scott was half-standing, half-leaning against the dressing table, absorbed in conversation with a female visitor. She was slender and elegant, with pale blond hair and attractive features. She wore a rich blue velvet walking dress with intricately pleated skirts. An apparently worldly woman, cool, confident of her place in the world…all the things Madeline was not.