Madeline swallowed hard while a sickening tide of disappointment swept over her. What now? Her offer had been made and rejected. The sound of his refusal rang in her ears until she burned with mortified anger. Her hands clenched in her skirts, crushing the gossamer material.

How foolish she had been! She had wasted so much time spinning fantasies about him, about things that would never happen. Now she was left with nothing except the knowledge that soon her absence from school would be discovered by her family.

For a fraction of a second, she considered explaining the situation to Mr. Scott and throwing herself on his mercy. No…he would have no sympathy for her. Marry Clifton and consider yourself well off, she could almost hear him saying cynically. In truth, she was hardly fit to do anything else.

Clenching her fists, Madeline went to the door with determined strides. She would not spend the rest of her days as a possession of Lord Clifton's. “Very well,” she said, pausing at the door. “I'll leave the Capital whenever you wish. You needn't bother to find another situation for me. I'm perfectly capable of finding something on my own.” She left before he could reply.

Logan wandered to the door and braced his hand on the upper panels. He pressed his forehead to the cool wood and let out a muffled groan.

One night with you…he would have given up his entire fortune for it. He had never known anything as exquisite as the feel of her in his arms, and the fearless vulnerability that welcomed and drew him near until he felt close to shattering. But he couldn't allow that, couldn't let someone tear out what was left of his heart.

She would be gone soon. He waited for a feeling of relief that did not come.

Wrenching open the door, he went to his office, ignoring the curious stares of the people he passed. He closed himself inside the small room and rummaged in his desk until he found a bottle of Highland whiskey. He sat at his desk and took a swig right from the bottle, letting the subtle flavors of smoke and peat linger on his tongue. Another swallow, and his throat was filled with the warming glow. But it failed to melt the block of ice in his chest.

Logan drank leisurely, resting his feet on the edge of the desk and contemplating the tips of his polished leather shoes. At this point in his life, when he was saturated with success, he had thought himself invulnerable. It was amusing, really, that one small female had been able to wreak such havoc on him.

Perhaps it was because Maddy was unique in his experience. She was certainly a far cry from the women of society's upper circles, who made certain Logan knew they were his superiors even as they slipped him discreet notes to arrange romantic rendezvous.

And there were the creatures he detested most of all…the pedigreed daughters of the upper classes, whose only purpose in life was to marry and reproduce more of their kind. He wasn't good enough for them. He had no family or title, and money alone wasn't sufficient.

Had he desired to court one of those privileged young ladies, he would have been informed by her family that she had far more desirable prospects. Just the sight of a chaperoned, white-gowned virgin at a ball or soirée was enough to remind Logan that no matter how great his achievements, there were some things he could never have. He would never be fully accepted. Outside the theater, there was no place he really belonged.

Madeline Ridley seemed equally out of place. She was too warm and unaffected to be a society miss, too idealistic to be a courtesan. She was clearly meant to be someone's wife, but he couldn't imagine a man who would be worthy of her. She needed someone who would take care not to crush her spirit, who would be able to love her as completely as she would love him.

All of the things Logan could never do. He was ill-equipped for such a relationship, having been taught at an early age to despise the words “home” and “family.” He had survived only by becoming as callous as the man who had sired him.

Years of beatings and abuse had toughened him and made him a supremely good liar. His father, Paul Jennings, had always committed his acts of violence in the midst of a drunken rage…but afterward he had resisted facing the results of what he had done. Logan had been required to pretend that all was forgotten, maintaining the fiction that everyone in the Jennings household was happy and well. The sight of one tear, one wince of pain or resentful glance, had been enough to incur a second beating worse than the first. Unwittingly, his father had been a superb acting teacher.

Once, after a particularly brutal beating, Logan had gone for three days with a broken arm, denying that he felt any pain until Andrew had finally dragged him to the estate mansion and seen that the arm was splinted and bound. “How did it happen, boy?” the earl had asked him, his keen eyes fastened on Logan's battered face. Logan had refused to answer, knowing that if he even hinted at the truth, Paul Jennings would probably kill him.

Years later, Logan had wondered why his mother had never offered him any consolation, no maternal kisses to soothe the hurts. He had come to the conclusion that his mother had been too desperately determined to keep the peace in her house to spare him much attention. He had long since ceased to want softness from a woman…he didn't need comfort or caring. Women were to be enjoyed and discarded, but never to be trusted. Never to be needed.

Now that things had finally been settled with Madeline, all he had to do was ignore her until Arlyss was well again. He had no doubt that Julia would protest the girl's dismissal, but he could deal with that. Besides, Julia would soon be occupied with a newborn baby, and all thoughts of Madeline Ridley would fade. Soon it would be as if she had never been there at all.

Logan felt the bracing effects of the whiskey settle in his bones, making him comfortably numb. Just as he preferred. Carefully he replaced the bottle of whiskey in the drawer and closed it.

Five

Madeline went to bed early, deciding to forgo her nightly conversation with Mrs. Florence. The pain of rejection was too fresh. Perhaps she would be able to talk about it tomorrow, or the next day, when she was able to compose herself.

Staring into the darkness, Madeline considered not returning to the Capital. The idea of facing Mr. Scott again was unbearable. Unfortunately she had promised the duchess that she would help with rehearsals until Miss Barry was well again. She couldn't break a promise, but to stand opposite Mr. Scott on stage and look into his eyes…Madeline winced in acute embarrassment. She didn't know if she could do it.

Just one or two days—surely Miss Barry would be well by then. She would steel herself not to blush or stammer in front of Mr. Scott. She would be cool and utterly self-possessed.

Madeline turned and twisted in the bedclothes all night, trying in vain to escape her thoughts. In the morning she awoke exhausted and apprehensive, wondering if she had ever dreaded a day in her life as she did this one. No doubt she wasn't the first woman to fail at seducing a man—but how many of them were required to face him the very next day and pretend nothing had happened?

She donned her clothes and arranged her hair, pinning it into a tight coil at the nape of her neck. She managed to leave before Mrs. Florence rose for the day, and took a hackney to the theater.

The theater company seemed unusually lackluster, the practice rooms and workshops much quieter than usual. Discovering that the morning rehearsal had been canceled, Madeline went to the costume shop and was immediately enlisted by Mrs. Lyttleton. “It seems as if half the company is ill,” the heavyset woman said breathlessly, her needle flashing as she basted a seam. “A dozen people have sent word that they won't be coming in. But my work has to be done as usual, and I've practically no help.”

Madeline worked in the costume shop for most of the morning, grateful for the temporary reprieve from seeing Mr. Scott. It was only when Mrs. Lyttleton commanded her to fetch some costume sketches from the duchess's office that Madeline wandered reluctantly into the main theater building. As she approached the office, she heard an unfamiliar male voice mingling with Julia's light, clear tones. Madeline stopped just outside the doorway, reluctant to intrude on the scene.

“It's enough,” the man was saying. “I told you to stay away from this damned theater.”

“There's too much to be done,” Julia replied. “Just one more day, darling. Perhaps two. I can't leave with so many things unfinished—”

“Your health means more to me than anyone or anything in this entire place.”

“I promise you, I'll be fine.”

“Come home, Julia.”

“First I have to pack some things.”

“I'll send a servant later to fetch whatever you desire.”

“You're being unreasonable—”

There was a long pause, followed by a muffled sound that Madeline couldn't quite decipher. Then the man spoke softly. “Are you still going to argue with me, Julia?”

“No.”

Madeline had never heard such a meek tone from the duchess, who was usually so firm and authoritative. Gingerly she peeked around the corner and saw the duchess standing in the middle of her office, being thoroughly kissed by a dark-haired man. The Duke of Leeds, Madeline thought, her interest immediately sparked. He lifted his head, revealing a lean, exotically handsome face as he stared at his wife with loving exasperation. Evidently sensing that they were not alone, he glanced in Madeline's direction with alert gray eyes.

Blushing, Madeline came forward at once. “Forgive me, I didn't mean to intrude—”

“That's all right, Maddy,” Julia said, her cheeks pink as she disentangled herself from her husband's arms. She introduced them, and Madeline sank into a respectful curtsy.

“A pleasure,” the duke murmured with a friendly glint in his eyes. “Miss Ridley, I would appreciate your efforts to help the duchess gather any necessary papers and books, as she is leaving immediately.”

“Yes, Your Grace.”

Julia rolled her eyes and sighed. “It seems I have no choice. Maddy, please tell Mr. Scott that I need to speak with him at once. He's been in his office all morning, trying to rearrange the schedule to accommodate the absences in the company.”

Although Madeline dreaded having to face Mr. Scott, she nodded resolutely. The duke and duchess resumed their conversation as she left, both of them seeming to take great pleasure in a new bout of verbal sparring.

Madeline reached Scott's door and hesitated, listening for signs of activity inside. The office was jarringly silent. Hoping that Scott wasn't there, she lifted her hand and knocked softly.

“I'm working,” came a threatening rumble from within.

Madeline twisted her hands together and stared at the door. Gathering her resolve, she finally spoke in a calm, controlled voice. “Mr. Scott, the duchess wishes to speak to you.”

He was silent for a moment. “You,” he said in an unfriendly tone.

“I believe the duchess wishes to tell you that she is leaving, sir. The duke has come to take her home.” Madeline was greeted with more silence. “It's not wise for her to stay at the Capital in her condition. I'm certain you would agree that with all the people who have succumbed to the fever—”

“Good riddance to her. Now get away from my door.”

Madeline complied gladly, but after the first few steps, she paused. There had been something odd in his voice, a strain that touched her. He sounded tired. No wonder, she thought, with so much of the company absent: In spite of his orders to stay away, and her own hurt and embarrassment, she was driven to return to the door. “Mr. Scott, is there something I can do? Would you like some tea?”

“Just leave,” he muttered. “I have work…no mood for distractions.”

“Yes, sir.” But still she couldn't go. She was filled with the growing conviction that something was wrong. It was so quiet inside the room. It wasn't like him to keep his door closed at this hour, barring himself from the rest of the company. Placing her hand on the worn brass doorknob, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. If her suspicions proved to be false, Scott would most likely take her head off.

As Madeline entered the room, Scott seemed not to notice her until she was at his side. He sat at his desk amid a pile of blotted and crumpled paper, dragging a sleeve across his forehead before picking up a pen. He wore no coat or waistjacket, and shivers chased down his back as the cold air in the room sank through the thin linen shirt. He smothered a violent cough, dropping the pen and scattering drops of ink over the desk.

“Sir,” Madeline said quietly.

Scott's head turned toward her, revealing a flushed face and glazed eyes. It seemed as if he watched her through a dense fog. Without thinking, Madeline reached down to touch the damp ruff of his hair and smooth it gently. Her fingers brushed against his forehead, detecting the dry heat of a raging fever.

“Let me help you,” she said as he twisted away with a muffled curse.

“I have to finish the new schedules.” Doggedly he groped for the discarded pen.

“You have a fever, Mr. Scott. You must go home and rest.”

“I'm not sick. I never—” He jerked as she touched his hot forehead once more, and then his eyes closed. “Your hand is so cool,” he said hoarsely, catching at her fingers. “Christ, my head is pounding.”

Madeline was wrenched with worry. Was there no one to care for him, to look after his welfare? Frozen in indecision, she stared down at him while he shook with tremors.

“You must go home, sir,” Madeline said firmly, and repeated it over his objections until Scott fell silent, huddling against his desk. He rested his forehead on his closed fist, using his other hand to grip her fingers. Reluctantly Madeline pried herself free. “Don't move,” she said. “I'll be right back.” He didn't reply, only sat listlessly, using the last of his strength to keep himself upright.

By a stroke of fortune, the carpentry shopboy, Jeff, was passing the office. Madeline called his name, and he stopped at once, his eyes friendly and inquiring.

“I'm afraid Mr. Scott is ill,” Madeline said, indicating the half-closed door behind her. “He must leave right away. Would you please tell someone to have his carriage brought around?”

“Mr. Scott…ill?” the boy repeated, seeming not to hear the rest. He looked thunderstruck, as if such an occurrence were outside the realm of possibility.

“There's something else,” Madeline added. “Make certain that the duchess is told to leave immediately. She mustn't come near Mr. Scott—it would be dangerous for her to catch the fever.”

The boy retreated, glancing warily at the office. “What about you?” he asked in concern. “Shouldn't you stay away from him, too?”

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***