Although it was hard to conceal her dismay and jealousy, Madeline managed to keep her expression blank as the pair glanced at her. “Mr. Scott,” she murmured, “I didn't expect to find you here at this time of day—”

“I came here for privacy.” His tone was flat and dismissive.

“Yes, sir.” Flushing, Madeline set the stack of clothes on the chair in the corner. “I'll return later to put these away.”

“Let the girl do her work,” the blond woman said lightly, taking no more notice of Madeline than she would a servant. “I must be off anyway, and I've no desire to interfere with the running of your theater.”

Logan smiled, pushing away from the table and touching her elbow lightly. The gesture was small, but to Madeline's growing discomfort, it seemed to contain an inference of close and intimate friendship.

“Any interference from you is entirely welcome, milady.”

The woman's ungloved hand smoothed over the linen that covered his forearm. “Then you shall have more of it.”

“I hope so.” Their gazes held for several seconds.

Madeline busied herself with the clothes, taking them to the armoire and hanging them methodically. She felt betrayed, although she had no right. After all, Mr. Scott was free to pursue anyone he desired…But why couldn't it have been me? she thought, seething inwardly.

Mr. Scott murmured a soft question, and the woman smiled and shook her head as she replied. “In the interest of discretion, I'll see myself out.” Staring into his eyes, she pulled on her gloves and adjusted each ringer precisely. Mr. Scott swung a fur-trimmed cloak over the lady's narrow shoulders, taking care to fasten it snugly at her throat to ward off the winter wind. The woman slipped past the door, leaving behind a delicate flowery scent that lingered in the air.

The dressing room was silent. Mr. Scott stared contemplatively at the door while Madeline finished hanging the costumes in the armoire. She closed the cabinet door a little too firmly, causing Mr. Scott to turn toward her, his dark brow arched inquiringly.

“She wears a rather strong perfume,” Madeline remarked, waving one hand about as if to dispel a noxious odor.

“I thought it rather pleasant,” Mr. Scott replied, his gaze following her intently as she moved about the room, rearranging the articles on his dressing table, straightening the chair against the wall, picking up a small coin from the floor.

Although Madeline tried to be silent, she couldn't prevent the impulsive question that sprang from her lips. “Is she your paramour?”

Mr. Scott's face was smooth and implacable. “My private life isn't open for discussion.”

“She was wearing a wedding ring.”

For some reason her disapproving expression seemed to amuse him. “It means nothing,” he informed her dryly. “She and her husband have a well-known understanding.”

Madeline puzzled briefly over his meaning. “You're saying that he wouldn't mind if his wife…and you…he wouldn't object?”

“Not as long as she's discreet.”

“How very odd.”

“Hardly. Many wives of the upper classes are allowed to have ‘friendships’ outside their marriages. It keeps them from complaining about their husbands' infidelities.”

“And it doesn't bother you, the idea of making love to another man's wife?” Madeline dared to ask.

“I prefer married women,” he replied evenly. “They're rarely demanding or possessive.”

“If that woman weren't married, would you still want to have an affair with her?”

“That's not your concern, Miss Ridley.”

Faced with his abrupt, dismissive manner, Madeline left the dressing room. “Oh, yes, it is my concern,” she said too softly for him to hear. Her determination to have him was stronger than ever. If it was humanly possible to divert his interest from the blond married woman and turn it toward herself, she would do it.

In the next few days, an illness struck four employees of the Capital, two of them actors and two from the carpenter's shop. The symptoms were high fever, coughing, and congestion, and in the case of one patient, a delirium that had lasted for two days. The duchess sent servants to inquire about the well-being of her employees.

“Illness tends to travel through the entire company before it's finished,” Julia commented to Madeline with a frown. “It's too much to hope that no one else becomes ill.”

“Your Grace,” Madeline said, her gaze falling to the duchess's obvious pregnancy, “in your condition, you must be careful—”

“Yes, of course.” Julia sighed impatiently. “But I can't stay home when there is so much to be done here.”

“Your health is more important than any play, Your Grace.”

The duchess snorted. “Don't say that in Mr. Scott's hearing. He doesn't believe in illness. For as long as I've known him, he's thought that nothing, not even scarlet fever, should interfere with the theater schedule.”

“But people can't help getting sick,” Madeline protested, wondering if Mr. Scott were really so unreasonable.

Julia rolled her eyes. “Logan has little tolerance for human frailty. How can he understand weakness when he doesn't have any himself?” Bracing her hands on the edge of her desk, she stood up and quirked her mouth. “I'll have to tell him about the situation. I expect he'll start roaring like a bear.”

Contrary to the duchess's statement, there was no audible roaring from Mr. Scott's office…but there did seem to be a simmering current of annoyance in the air for the rest of the day, and the members of the company were unusually subdued. Madeline asked the duchess for permission to leave early, and it was given without hesitation.

Clutching the slip of paper in her hand, Madeline walked along Regent Street. She tried to appear confident among the milling crowds of people, carriages, and animals that congested the grand thoroughfare. There were rows of shops containing furniture, china, foodstuffs, milliners' wares, and fabrics. Just as Madeline despaired of ever finding Mrs. Bernard's establishment, she came upon a shop-front identified by a small green sign and a display of fabrics in the window.

Tentatively she entered the shop, causing a brass bell to jangle on a string. A neatly dressed girl not much older than herself approached at once. “May I help you, miss?”

“I'm here to see Mrs. Bernard…my name is Madeline Ridley.”

Hearing the exchange from the corner of the shop, a tall woman stood up from a table burdened with sketches and fabric swatches. She appeared to be in her late forties and was dressed in an elegant blue gown, her graying hair pulled back in a stylish braided twist.

“Mrs. Bernard?” Madeline murmured while the shopgirl took her cloak and gloves.

“So you're Nell Florence's protégée,” Mrs. Bernard remarked, surveying her keenly. “Nell sent me a letter about you, saying you wanted to catch a certain gentleman's eye but hadn't the proper attire.…” She gave Madeline's modest gown a disparaging glance. “Well, you won't be landing any well-heeled protectors with that, for certain.” Gesturing to the shopgirl, she directed Madeline toward the back of the establishment. “Ruth will help you try on some things. I'll be along soon.”

Madeline glanced over her shoulder as Ruth ushered her away. “Mrs. Bernard, I must tell you how much I appreciate—”

“Yes, yes. I was going to have Ruth remodel some clothes in any case—she needs the practice. You must be a worthy cause if Nell has taken such a liking to you. I owe her several favors, as she has steered many good clients my way.” She paused and called after the shopgirl. “Ruth, make certain to bring out the brown velvet and the yellow Italian silk. I think they'll do nicely for Miss Ridley.”

Madeline had never visited a dressmaker before. Her mother had always summoned a local seamstress to their country estate, where they planned and designed five or six new gowns for each upcoming season. Often they had referred to the most recent ladies' periodicals for questions of style…but in Madeline's case, that never seemed to make much of a difference. She hungered for stylish gowns, but her mother had deemed them inappropriate. “After your marriage to Lord Clifton, you may select your own gowns,” her mother had told her. “Although he is a conservative man, and I am certain he will not want his wife to flaunt herself.”

“I don't wish to flaunt myself, Mama,” Madeline had replied in exasperation. “I just want the kind of clothes my friends have, gowns with pretty colors and perhaps some lace trimming—”

“You have no need for such clothes,” her mother had said calmly. “Those are designed purely to attract men's attention…and you are already promised to Lord Clifton.”

As she remembered her mother's steely insistence and her own despair at being an old man's intended, Madeline's resolve hardened. She would do whatever was necessary to make Mr. Scott see her in a new light.

At the shopgirl's bidding, Madeline removed her clothes and stood in her wrinkled cotton chemise and long drawers. Ruth gave a dubious glance at the undergarments and murmured something indistinguishable as she disappeared. When she returned a minute later, Mrs. Bernard was with her. The dressmaker recoiled at the sight of Madeline's knee-length chemise.

“Dreadfully out of style,” Mrs. Bernard commented, folding her arms and shaking her head. “You can't wear those things under my gowns, Miss Ridley—the lines will be spoiled.”

Madeline gave her a glance of mingled alarm and apology. “Everything I have is like this, ma'am.”

“Where are your stays?” the dressmaker continued. At Madeline's blank look, she became slightly impatient. “Your corset, dear. Don't you wear one? For heaven's sake, how old are you?”

“Eighteen, but I've never—”

“Every girl your age should wear stays. It's only decent, not to mention healthful. I'm surprised you haven't got a curve in your back, going without support like that.”

Anxiously Madeline strained to see her own back in the reflection of the mirror, half-expecting to see a grotesque hunch.

Mrs. Bernard sighed and spoke to the shopgirl. “Ruth, bring me three sets of the personal garments from Lady Barkham's order. We'll run up some new ones over the weekend. And fetch a set of stays from the box on the second shelf.”

“Ma'am,” Madeline said regretfully, “I'm sorry, but I can't afford—”

“It's all right,” Mrs. Bernard told her. “Nell said that if extras were needed, you and she would work out some arrangement. You might run errands for her in exchange for pin money. Is that agreeable to you?”

“Yes, I think—”

“Then let's get started.”

With the dressmaker's kindly bullying and Ruth's quiet efficiency, Madeline was divested of her bulky cotton undergarments and given a set of chemise and drawers that didn't even reach her knees. They were made of sheer, fine linen, so light that she had the feeling of not wearing anything. They were even slightly transparent, making Madeline blush as she stood before the mirror. If her mother had any idea what she was doing, she would have apoplexy.

Next came a set of stays, a ribbed silk garment that hooked up the front and laced up the back, drawing in her waist at least two inches. Madeline stared intently at her reflection. Was this indeed what men wanted, and would it make an impression on Mr. Scott? She could hardly wait to find out.

The first dress Madeline tried on was a soft yellow silk with a finely corded surface. Although the garment had been designed for a much taller woman, its simple style suited her. Madeline waited in barely contained excitement as Ruth fastened the concealed hooks at the back.

“Excellent,” Mrs. Bernard said, expertly taking up the loose material with a row of flashing pins. “It's difficult for most women to wear that shade of yellow, but it brings out the gold in your hair.”

The neckline was low and scooped, baring her throat and collarbone and revealing a hint of cleavage. The lines of the gown followed her cinched waist, making it seem impossibly small. Gleaming folds of yellow draped over her h*ps and legs, ending at the ground in a hem of deep pleats and simple scalloped work. “I look so different,” Madeline said breathlessly.

“You certainly do,” Mrs. Bernard replied. “It's a pity you can't afford extra trimmings for the gown, but perhaps that's for the best. A simple style lends a more sophisticated appearance.” She supervised the fittings of three more gowns: a brown velvet with long sleeves of banded velvet and lace, a blue twilled cashmere, and an ivory gown cut so low that Madeline doubted she could wear it in public. It was accompanied by an ivory scarf embroidered in pale blue, meant to be draped lightly over her elbows.

Realizing that Madeline had no appropriate shoes, Mrs. Bernard brought out a pair of velvet slippers with narrow ribbons that laced across the ankles. “They were too small for the client who ordered them,” she said, declining Madeline's offer of payment.

Declaring the afternoon to be a success, Mrs. Bernard promised Madeline that the new gowns would be ready in a matter of days, depending on when Ruth found time to work on them. Madeline thanked the two women effusively, unable to believe her good fortune.

“It is Nell Florence who should be thanked,” Mrs. Bernard told her. “She's a grand old woman. You were a clever girl to choose her as your mentor.”

“It had nothing to do with cleverness,” Madeline replied. “It was a stroke of luck. Now if I could have just a little more—”

“If you're referring to the man you wish to attract, there's no need for luck. Once he sees you in your new gowns, he'll jump to do your bidding.”

“I can't quite picture that,” Madeline said with a laugh, thinking of Logan Scott's commanding face, and she bid the dressmaker farewell.

Four

“One always hears the best gossip at the dressmaker's,” Mrs. Florence said reminiscently, after hearing Madeline describe her visit to Mrs. Bernard's. “It always seems to be brimming with news of scandal and intrigue. I daresay I was discussed in many a shop—women were always terrified that I would steal their husbands or paramours.”

“And did you?” Madeline couldn't help asking.

“Just one or two.”

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