It was said that women pursued him everywhere, enthralled not only by his skillful stage performances as the romantic hero, but even more by his portrayal of archvillains. He excelled as Iago or Barabbas…he was the consummate seducer, betrayer, and manipulator, and women adored him for it.

A man in his prime, attractive, cultured…everything Lord Clifton was not. Madeline was wrenched with sudden longing. Logan Scott inhabited a world she would never be part of. She would never meet him or anyone like him…she would never flirt and laugh and dance, never be seduced by a man's tender words or a lover's touch.

As she stared at Logan Scott's face, a wild, mad idea came to her—one that made her fingers tremble.

“Madeline, what's the matter?” Eleanor asked in concern, taking the print from her. “You're so white all of a sudden, and you look very strange—”

“I'm just tired,” Madeline said, forcing a smile to her face. She wanted to be alone; she needed time to think. “The weekend was a strain. Perhaps if I rest for a while—”

“Yes, of course. Come, girls—we'll meet in someone else's room.” Considerately Eleanor herded the crowd out the door and paused before closing it. “Madeline, is there anything you need?”

“No, thank you.”

“I'm certain that seeing Lord Clifton this weekend was an ordeal. I wish I could help in some way.”

“You already have, Eleanor.” Madeline lay on her side, drawing her knees up to her chest, the skirts of her simple school frock bunched around her. Her mind raced with thoughts, and she scarcely noticed her friend's quiet departure.

Logan Scott…a man whose appetite for women was nearly as legendary as his acting talent.

The longer Madeline considered her own dilemma, the more convinced she became that Scott could provide the solution. She would use him to make herself so undesirable to Lord Clifton that he would have no choice but to call off the engagement.

She would have an affair with Logan Scott.

The sacrifice of her virginity would solve everything. If she had to live out the rest of her days in disgrace, regarded by society as used goods, so be it. Anything was preferable to becoming Clifton's wife.

Feverishly she began to make plans. She would forge a note from her family, requesting her to return from boarding school a semester early. During the following weeks, her parents would assume that she was safe at school, while Mrs. Allbright would think she had returned home, leaving Madeline free to accomplish her task.

She would go to the Capital Theatre and acquaint herself with Mr. Scott. After she indicated her willingness to sleep with him, Madeline expected that the matter would be quickly resolved. It was a well-known fact that all men, no matter how honorable they seemed, wanted to seduce nice young girls. And a man with Scott's reputation would show no hesitation in matters of sin and debauchery.

When she was ruined beyond redemption, she would return to her parents and accept whatever punishment they meted out. Most likely she would be banished to the home of some relative in the country. Lord Clifton would have a complete distaste for her, and she would finally be free of his attentions. The course she had set for herself would not be easy or pleasant, but there was no other way.

Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad, living as a spinster after all this was over. She would have ample time to read and study, and after a few years Mama and Papa might allow her to travel. She would try to involve herself in charitable works and do some good for people in circumstances worse than hers. She would make the best of things. At least, Madeline thought with grim determination, she would choose her fate rather than have it handed to her.

Part One

One

Gripping the leather handle of her valise, Madeline paused at the back entrance of the Capital Theatre. It had been frightening and yet exhilarating to make her way through London alone. Her ears were assaulted with the noise of carriages, horses, and street sellers, while her nostrils were filled with a confusing mixture of the aromas of manure, animals, and garbage; the yeasty scent of a nearby bakery, and the hot waxen odor of a candle-maker's shop.

Earlier in the day Madeline had pawned the ring Lord Clifton had given her, and the pocket of her dress was filled with the satisfying weight of coins. Wary of pickpockets, she had kept her plain gray cloak wrapped tightly around herself, but no one had seemed inclined to approach her. Now she had arrived at the Capital, and her adventure was about to begin.

The theater appeared to comprise four or five buildings that must house workshops and storage facilities. Entering the main building, where the stage was located, Madeline walked through a maze of hallways and rehearsal rooms. She could hear people talking, singing, playing instruments, and arguing, and the temptation to peek through the half-open doors was nearly overwhelming.

She reached a large room filled with worn furniture, including a table of drying sandwiches and wilted cheese and fruit. Actors and actresses of varying ages lounged in the room, talking and drinking cups of tea. Apparently accustomed to frequent comings and goings, they took little notice of Madeline. However, a shopboy paused and stared at her inquiringly, his eyes friendly in a foxlike face. “Is there something you want, miss?” he asked.

She smiled, trying to cover her nervousness. “I'm looking for Mr. Scott.”

“Oh.” He looked at her speculatively and jerked his head toward the far door. “He's rehearsing now. The stage is that way.”

“Thank you.”

“He doesn't like to be interrupted,” the boy advised as Madeline walked toward the stage door.

“Oh, I won't bother him,” she replied cheerfully, gripping her valise handle with one hand as she opened the door with the other. She pushed her way past set pieces and flats, and found herself standing in the right wing of the stage. Setting her valise on the floor, she drew close to the edge of a green velvet curtain and looked across the stage.

With its seating capacity of fifteen hundred, the Capital Theatre was a grand and spacious building. Massive gold columns inlaid with emerald glass lined the walls. Tiers of boxes and seats filled the auditorium in velvet splendor. Crystal chandeliers shed brilliant light on delicately painted scenes that adorned the ceiling.

The floor of the stage was built at a slant, so that actors downstage could be seen as well as those in the front. The heavy boards were scarred from thousands of performances, boots and shoes and scenery leaving indelible marks. There was a rehearsal in progress; two men were walking around the stage with foils in hand, discussing the choreography of a fight scene. One of them was fair and blond, with the slender, springy build of a cat. “…not certain what you want…” he was saying earnestly, tapping the rubber-tipped foil against the side of his shoe.

The other man replied in the most distinctive voice Madeline had ever heard—dark, deep, worldly…the voice of a fallen angel. “What I want, Stephen, is for you to put some fire into your performance. Your intention, if I'm not mistaken, is to kill the man who nearly seduced your fiancée. Instead you're handling that foil like an old woman with a knitting needle.”

Madeline stared at him, riveted. Logan Scott was taller than she had expected, more charismatic, more…everything. His rangy, muscular body was clad in a simple white shirt that was open at the throat and a pair of dark trousers that closely followed his lean h*ps and long legs. The print Madeline had seen hadn't begun to do justice to him…the color of his hair, dark brown touched with fire; the sardonic curve of his wide mouth; the rosewood hue of his skin.

Somehow his polished appearance was tempered by a hint of brutality…the sense that the princely facade could disappear at any moment and reveal a man who was capable of almost anything. Madeline blinked uneasily. She had expected Scott to be something of a rakish dandy, a charming skirt-chaser, but there was nothing light-hearted or dandified about him.

The blond actor protested. “Mr. Scott, I'm afraid that if I don't hold back during that last bit of choreography, you won't have time to parry—”

“You won't get through my guard,” Scott said with stunning self-assurance. “Give it everything you've got, Stephen—or I'll cast someone who will.”

Stephen's mouth tightened. It was clear that Scott's barb had found its mark. “All right, then.” He raised his foil and lunged, evidently hoping to catch Scott off-guard.

Responding with a short laugh, Scott parried expertly, and the foils scissored and clashed as the two men moved in a lightning-swift exchange. “More, Stephen,” Scott said, his breath quickening from exertion. “Haven't you ever lost a woman before? Wanted to kill someone for it?”

The other actor's temper seemed to flare, as Scott clearly intended. “Yes, damn you!”

“Then show me.”

Stephen exploded in a flurry of movement, his face intent beneath a veil of sweat. Scott praised his efforts with a few terse words, retreating and moving forward with his own volley of feints and thrusts. Madeline wouldn't have expected a large man to move with such grace. The sight of Scott literally took her breath away. He was powerful, commanding, and chillingly self-controlled. Fascinated by the intense battle, Madeline drew closer for a better view.

With a shock of dismay, she felt her foot catch on the valise she had set on the floor, and she fell against a small table piled with props. A candelabra, a few pieces of china, and an extra foil dropped to the floor, shattering and clanging noisily. The actors' concentration splintered, and Logan Scott's head whipped around toward the right wing. At the same time, Steven lunged forward with his foil, unable to halt his momentum.

Scott gave a muffled grunt, and his taut rump met the hard floor, his large hand clasped to the opposite shoulder. The ensuing silence was disturbed only by the actors' rapid breathing.

“What the hell…,” Stephen murmured, staring into the shadows of the wing, where Madeline struggled to her feet. He glanced back at Scott, who wore a strange expression.

“Stephen?” Scott said, his voice slightly raspy, “it appears that the tip came off your foil.” As he spoke, a rush of scarlet spread between his fingers and over his shirt.

“My God!” Stephen exclaimed, his face blanching with horror. “I didn't know…I didn't mean to—”

“It's all right,” Scott replied. “It was an accident. Your performance was exactly what I wanted. Do it that way every time.”

Stephen stared at him incredulously. “Mr. Scott,” he quavered, seeming torn between despair and laughter, “how can you sit there directing me while you're bleeding all over the floor? At times I wonder if you're human.” He tore his panicked gaze from the spreading bloodstain on Scott's white shirt. “Don't move. I'll get someone to help…send for a doctor…”

“There's no need for a damned sawbones,” Scott called tersely, but Stephen had already fled the stage. Muttering beneath his breath, Scott tried to lurch to his feet and fell heavily again onto the floor, his face whitening.

Madeline threw off her cloak and snatched at her woolen scarf. “Here,” she said, rushing out of the wing and dropping to her knees beside him. She wadded up the scarf and clasped it hard against his shoulder. “This will help stop the bleeding.”

Scott inhaled sharply at the painful pressure.

Their faces were very close, and Madeline found herself staring into the bluest eyes she had ever seen, shadowed with thick dark lashes. The irises were lined with sapphire and seemed to contain every shade of blue, from the darkest depths of the ocean to the palest midwinter sky.

Madeline discovered that she was oddly short of breath. “I'm sorry about…,” she paused and cast a sheepish glance over her shoulder at the pile of broken stage props, “…all that. It was an accident. I'm not at all clumsy, not usually, but I was watching the rehearsal from the wing, and I tripped—”

“Who are you?” he interrupted coldly.

“Madeline Ridley,” she replied, using her grandmother's maiden name.

“What are you doing here, aside from disrupting my rehearsal?”

“I'm here because…” Madeline met his gaze again, and all of a sudden there seemed to be no choice except to declare her intentions in a bold, straightforward manner that wasn't like her at all. She had to get his attention somehow, to separate herself from the numbers of women who must throw themselves at him all the time. “I want to be your next lover.”

Clearly caught off-guard, Scott stared at her as if she had spoken in a foreign language. He took his time about replying. “I don't have affairs with girls like you.”

“Is it my age?”

There was a flare of laughter in his eyes…not friendly, but mocking. “Among other things.”

“I'm older than I look,” she said swiftly.

“Miss Ridley.” He shook his head in apparent disbelief. “You have a unique way of introducing yourself to a man. I'm flattered by your interest. However, I wouldn't touch you if my life depended on it. Now if you'll excuse me—”

“Perhaps you need more time to think about my proposal,” Madeline said. “In the meantime, I would appreciate it if you would consider giving me a job. I have many skills that could be useful in the theater.”

“I'm certain you do,” he said dryly. “But none that I require.”

“I'm educated in literature and history. I also speak fluent French, and I can sketch and paint quite well. I would be willing to sweep, mop, scrub…anything that needs to be done.”

“I'm light-headed, Miss Ridley. I'm not certain if it's from loss of blood or sheer amazement…but in any case, you've been quite entertaining.” Scott got to his feet, the color having returned to his face. “I'll have someone recompense you for the loss of your scarf.”

“But I—” she began to argue.

A small crowd of people swarmed onto the stage as various members of the theater company were alerted to the accident. “It's nothing,” Scott said, seeming annoyed by their worried exclamations. “No, I don't need help walking. There's nothing wrong with my legs.” He went toward the greenroom, surrounded by carpenters, musicians, painters, dancers, and actors, all of them determined to help him.

Madeline stared after him. What a remarkable man he was. He seemed like royalty, although most monarchs and princes probably weren't blessed with his good looks and magnificent build. She was positive that Scott was the right man to have an affair with. Surely it would be nothing less than extraordinary: a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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