There was only one break in the action, when Charles Haversley happened to glance at Madeline and stopped in midsentence. Suddenly he erupted in helpless laughter. Puzzled, Madeline stared at him, while Julia asked crisply what was wrong.
Haversley shook his head and looked apologetic, even as he continued to snort with amusement. “I can't help it, Your Grace,” he said, gasping. “Miss Ridley stares at me as if she believes everything I'm saying, and she looks so earnest…it's too adorable.”
Julia gave him a reproving stare. “You're not supposed to look at her, Charles. She's a ghost.”
“I can't help it,” he said again, smiling raffishly at Julia. “If you were a man, you would understand.”
“Oh, I understand,” Julia replied dryly. “You would do us all a service, Charles, if you could manage to act like a brother instead of a town-bull.”
“Town-bull?” Madeline asked, perplexed, having never encountered such a term at Mrs. All-bright's academy. For some reason her question set off another spurt of laughter in Charles. She looked to the wings, where Mr. Scott waited to make his entrance. He was a striking figure as he stood amidst the velvet curtains, dressed in elegant clothes, his posture relaxed yet controlled.
It struck Madeline that a hundred years from now, people would read about him in history books and wonder what it must have been like to see him act. No words would ever accurately describe his voice, with its deep, vibrant quality, or the remarkable range of his talent. It seemed as if Mr. Scott were two different people: the disciplined man offstage, and the actor whose emotions simmered and exploded during a performance. Mrs. Florence had been right—this was the place to approach him.
Logan watched the rehearsal from the wings, resentment uncoiling in his chest. Damn Julia for suggesting that Madeline assume Arlyss's place…damn Arlyss and her understudy for being ill…damn himself for being so riveted by Madeline that he could barely remember his lines. Who could blame Charles Haversley for his lack of concentration? Logan doubted he would fare any better, with Madeline dressed in a flimsy costume that made him want to sink to his knees before her and bury his face between her breasts. She looked so young and fresh, her skin like cream silk. It wasn't her sheer prettiness that proved such a potent allure; it was the troubling desire to cover her up and carry her away from the others' admiring gazes…to keep her all to himself.
Somehow Madeline had insinuated herself into his life and forced him to take notice of her, and now there was no retreat. Now that he had rejected the idea of taking her into his bed, she had become the thing he most wanted. Every other woman he had considered seemed to lack something, and it maddened him to realize that he was subconsciously looking for her likeness. He couldn't stop thinking about what it would be like to lose himself inside her youthful energy. She made him want to play, to experience a little of the boyhood he'd never had…and that was something no other lover had ever been able to do.
He felt hot and annoyed, and ready to chew the scenery into splinters. Hearing his cue, he took a bottle from the propman, holding it loosely between his fingers as he walked onstage. The other actors had made their exits, the boards cleared except for him and Madeline.
As the grieving widower, he was supposed to be drunk. It wasn't easy to portray intoxication well. Most actors tended to overplay it or, worse, underplay it. It was one of the few pieces of stagecraft that required a great deal of technique in order to seem natural. Forcing himself to concentrate, Logan captured the slur, the expansive gestures, and the off-balance walk of a man who had been drinking for a long time.
He sat in a large oak chair, before a box set resembling a library. Clearing his mind of all else, he began a lengthy monologue, revealing the biting irony and quiet despair of his character.
Somewhere in the midst of the monologue, Logan felt rather than saw Madeline come up behind him, her small hands resting on the back of his chair. As the play dictated, she leaned over him and spoke during the pauses of his monologue, her sweet voice falling against his ears.
Logan didn't move. He was feverishly aware of her body just behind him, her scent, the feel of her breath on his skin. He began to sweat profusely. One of Madeline's long golden-brown curls fell over his shoulder, tickling his neck. An aching pressure gathered in his groin. He was rock-hard, his entire being consumed with lust and yearning.
Logan couldn't stand it any longer. He broke in midsentence, just as Charles had…only he wasn't laughing.
The theater was silent. Logan tried to collect himself, aware that the cast and crew were watching. Perhaps they thought he had forgotten a line, although that had never happened before. He hoped to God no one suspected the truth—that he was completely undone by one naive girl. Setting his jaw hard, he took several deep, even breaths.
“Mr. Scott,” came Madeline's hesitant voice from behind him, “if you would like me to tell you the line—”
“I know the bloody line,” he said, his back stiff. God help him, if he glanced at her even once, he was afraid of what he might do.
Julia spoke from the audience seat. “Is there a problem, Mr. Scott?”
Logan responded with a murderous glare, longing to strangle his comanager for putting him in this situation. Julia was genuinely puzzled, staring back at him with knitted brows. She pondered his simmering discomfort, her gaze flickering from him to Madeline, who continued to stand right behind him. Then she seemed to understand. They had been friends for a long time, he and Julia. She knew him too well.
“Shall we break for a few minutes?” she asked briskly.
“No,” Logan muttered. “Let's finish the damned scene.” He swiped at his forehead and resumed the monologue once more, starting somewhere in the middle. Madeline followed along, a note of uncertainty in her voice.
Without regard to technique, characterization, or any of the nuances of acting, Logan muddled through the rest of the scene. Julia let the performance pass without comment, speculation causing her fair brow to crease.
The second the scene ended, Julia called for a twenty-minute break. The theater company dispersed at once, heading to the greenroom in search of refreshment or to the dressing rooms. Logan remained in his chair onstage, keeping his back to Madeline until he sensed that she had left.
Slowly Julia made her way to the edge of the stage, rubbing the small of her back. “Logan,” she said quietly, “I have no desire to interfere—”
“Then don't.” He walked downstage to within a few feet of her, staring into her upturned face.
Julia made certain no one was close enough to overhear before she continued, choosing her words with obvious care. “I suspected there was an attraction between you and Maddy, but she's not the kind of girl you've ever been interested in before, and I certainly never dreamed—”
“What is your point, Your Grace?”
She looked stung by his abruptness. “I happen to like Maddy. I hope you won't take advantage of her. You and I both know she would never recover from an affair with you. She's not nearly hardened enough.”
Logan felt his face turn to stone. “What I do—or don't do—with her is my business.”
“Maddy's welfare is also my concern. And I seem to recall your hard-and-fast rule that you never become personally involved with anyone in the company—”
“She's your employee, not mine. I didn't hire her, and therefore I'm free to do whatever the hell I want with her.”
“Logan,” she warned in frustration, watching as he strode away.
Madeline wandered through the greenroom, summoning a wan smile in response to the other actors' praise for her efforts.
“What's the matter with Mr. Scott?” she overheard someone asking. “He's been acting strange lately.”
“Who knows?” came another's reply. “I just hope it isn't that bloody fever that's going around. All the company needs is for Mr. Scott to be under the hatches.”
The rest of the conversation was lost on Madeline as she headed to the practice rooms. She needed to find a place to think. What had happened onstage? She had thought everything was going well. She had even felt a sort of connection with Mr. Scott. But he had turned wooden, his performance strangely mechanical, as if he could hardly bear her presence. She felt close to weeping…she wanted to hide somewhere.
She heard rapid footsteps behind her. Someone caught her arm in a biting grip and ushered her into the nearest practice room. Madeline stumbled a little, twisting to stare at her captor with wide eyes as he closed the door. “Mr. Scott…”
His face was in shadow, the outline of his head framed by shafts of light coming in from the window. His breathing was rough and unsteady. She stepped back, but he caught her with startling suddenness, his hands closing on either side of her head. It seemed that he tried to say something, then gave up with a muffled sound and kissed her.
His mouth was startlingly hot, almost clumsy with urgency. He explored her as if he couldn't get enough, trying to assuage a hunger that would never be satisfied. Madeline trembled in surprise, meeting his aggression with a surrender that only inflamed him more.
His hand raked down her back, nearly tearing the fabric of her costume. Madeline couldn't help molding herself to him, craving more, her legs parting at the hard intrusion of his thigh. She wrapped her arms around him, clasping the taut muscles of his back. This was what she had wanted, what she had dreamed of, and it was even sweeter than she had imagined. His mouth was tender and erotic, his body hard against hers, filling herewith delicious, giddy weakness.
His lips broke from hers, and he gasped harshly against her ear. Taking a fistful of her long hair, he pushed it aside and pressed his lips against her throat. He found a sensitive place on the side of her neck, kissing, gently biting until she whimpered in pleasure. She was desperately empty inside; she wanted something…something…
He shoved at the sleeves of her gown and shift, the material tightening until stitches popped and her na*ed breast was revealed. Madeline caught her breath as she felt him cup the soft weight, brushing the tip with his fingers, pulling gently until the point was taut and aching. She leaned against him, her body shaking uncontrollably.
“Sweet,” he whispered, holding her tightly. “Sweet. Don't be afraid.” He arched her over his solid arm, and she felt his lips slide over her breast until they closed over the aroused nipple. He brought it to an even harder peak with swirling touches of his tongue, seeming to know exactly how to pleasure her.
Suddenly Mr. Scott lifted his mouth from her breast and let go of her. Stunned by the abrupt release, Madeline stared at him in astonished silence. Her hands came up to cover her nakedness, and she turned away from him, fumbling with her gown. Her fingers trembled violently, making the task impossible. She struggled with her clothes until she felt his hands on her once more, carefully pulling her sleeves and bodice back into place.
As soon as she was safely covered, Mr. Scott retreated to the other side of the small room. He dragged his hand through his hair, letting out an explosive sigh. After a long time, he spoke while facing away from her. “Maddy, I didn't mean to…approach you that way. It's just that I…” He stopped with a grim laugh. “I can't seem to stop myself.”
She gripped her hands together. “Mr. Scott,” she said with difficulty, “I'm not sorry that you kissed me.”
He turned at the words, his eyes like blue fire. He came to her in three strides, taking her face in his hands. “Maddy,” he whispered. His lips came to the curve of her cheek, and he smoothed her hair back from her face, his fingers curling in the silken locks. “I wish to hell I didn't want you so badly.”
Her heart gave a leap of pleasure at the words. “Mr. Scott—”
“Listen to me, Maddy.” He let go of her and drew back. “I'm not going to make love to you, regardless of how much I desire you. You would hate me afterward, and I would probably hate myself.”
“I could never hate you.”
He smiled sardonically. “No? Not even after I've robbed you of your innocence? Any involvement with me would change you, and not for the better.”
“I'm willing to take that risk.”
“You don't understand.” His mouth twisted bitterly. “I use women for physical pleasure, nothing more. Once I've learned all a partner has to offer, it's not long before I become bored and move on to the next one. You wouldn't last long in my bedroom.”
“Haven't you ever been in love?” Madeline asked, staring at his set face.
“Once. It didn't work.”
“You don't need to know about my past, any more than I need to know about yours.”
Madeline didn't argue, knowing that he was probably right. The more she knew about him, the more difficult it would be to leave him when the time came. Like so many other women, she had been ensnared by Logan Scott's potent mixture of masculinity and mystery. For her own protection, she had to keep her heart safe. Suddenly Mrs. Florence's sage advice came to mind…Whatever you do, you mustn't act lovestruck. Simply make it clear that you're available and willing…that you're offering pleasure with no responsibility.
“Mr. Scott,” she said quietly, “if you're attracted to me, I don't see why we shouldn't act upon it. All I want is one night with you.”
His expression didn't change, but she sensed that she had surprised him. “Why?” he asked softly. “A girl like you…why would you lower yourself to that?” As he waited for a reply, he slid his fingers beneath her chin and forced her face upward. There was a flicker in his eyes, a new alertness that made her uneasy. Her lashes lowered in an effort to hide her thoughts.
“I believe I would enjoy it,” she said. “Isn't that reason enough?”
There was a brief, baffled silence. “Look at me,” he murmured. Slowly she obeyed. He searched her eyes and shook his head as if he were dismissing a not-so-entertaining puzzle. “You're a poor actress, Maddy. I'd like to know what it is you're after, but I have other issues to deal with, especially the fact that nearly a quarter of my company has fallen ill. As soon as the Capital is back to rights again, I want you to leave the theater. I'll get you another job, a better one.”
“I want to stay here.”
He appeared to be unmoved. “Believe me, it's best for both of us.”
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