“I don't know what you intend when you read the line that way,” Arlyss Barry had actually dared to complain during rehearsal the previous day. “I don't know how my character should react when I can't tell what you're supposed to be feeling.”

“Worry about your own performance,” Logan had snapped, “and I'll take care of mine.”

“But my character—”

“Have your character react any way you like. I don't give a bloody damn.”

And Arlyss had continued the rehearsal with flat, unemotional line readings that fell just short of mimicking his own. Logan had been tempted to fine her, but that might have provoked the entire company into outright rebellion.

Perhaps the atmosphere at the theater would return to normal once Julia came back, with her softening influence and diplomatic ways. Perhaps acting on stage with her would help Logan to rediscover the inner reservoir of emotion he had always tapped for his performances.

Another endless silence passed, and then Julia dared to bring up the subject that lay at the heart of everything. “Any news of Madeline?”

He gave her a guarded look and didn't reply.

“Arlyss told me what little she and the others knew,” Julia murmured, her face compassionate. “I've been able to guess the rest.”

Reluctantly Logan told her the briefest possible version of the story. “It seems that Madeline decided to make herself less attractive to her fiancé by ridding herself of her virginity,” he concluded dryly, “and I was enlisted to help her.”

Julia's turquoise eyes darkened in consternation. Carefully she set aside the collection of dolls. “And the two of you actually…”

Logan spread his hands in a mocking gesture of appeal. “Who was I to resist such charms?”

A frown worked across Julia's brow. “You must not have realized what Maddy had planned until after…” Her voice faded. “Oh, Logan,” she whispered.

“No harm done,” he said, his back stiffening at her sympathy. “Miss Matthews accomplished her objective, and I had a delightful time assisting her. Everyone was satisfied.” As Julia continued to stare at him with searching blue-green eyes, he stood and began to wander around the room as if it were a prison cell.

Most men would have been able to dismiss the matter without difficulty, perhaps even count themselves fortunate to have been given the gift of a beautiful girl's virginity with no obligations. Why, then, was it still twisting him into knots? Why was the knowledge of Madeline's betrayal just as painful—more so—than it had been the day she had left?

Logan was able to fill the daytime hours with work and social commitments, until the thought of Maddy rarely entered his mind. But at night his sleep was broken by dreams of her. She had cared for him so tenderly when he was ill, had fed and bathed and cooled him, and made his suffering bearable. There had never been a need for anyone to take care of him before…and that, more than anything, had made him love her.

The realization that Maddy had only done those things in order to serve her own purposes nearly drove him mad. In the dark hours of evening he silently raged and twisted in his bed until the sheets formed tangled ropes around his legs. Each morning he woke up exhausted and angry, hating himself and everyone who was unfortunate enough to cross his path.

“I don't believe there was any malice in Maddy's actions,” Julia said quietly. “Only the thoughtlessness of a child. It speaks of her innocence that she would have dared to meddle with a man like you—she couldn't possibly have understood what she was doing.”

His hand moved in a silencing gesture. “Enough about her. She's irrelevant to anything we have to discuss.”

“How can you say that when it's obvious that you still haven't recovered from what happened?”

“I don't want to talk about her.”

“Logan, you'll never have any peace until you find some way to forgive Maddy.”

“Mention her name again,” he said softly, “and our partnership is over.” The threat was in deadly earnest.

Suddenly Julia looked every inch a duchess, her nostrils flaring with hauteur. “I don't like your tone.”

“Forgive me, Your Grace,” he said with exaggerated courtesy, returning her cool glare.

After a moment Julia's temper died as quickly as it had flared. “When I was her age,” she said, avoiding the use of Madeline's name, “I ran away from my family for a very similar reason. I wanted to escape the plans my father had made for me. I can't blame her for that, and neither should you.”

“I don't. I blame her for being a liar and a manipulator.”

“What's going to happen to her now?”

“I don't care.”

“Of course you care,” Julia replied, staring at his grim profile. “You can't do your work properly, the acting company is nearly in revolt, and the reviewers are tearing you to shreds. You've lost weight, which means you're not eating, and you look as though you're at the end of a week-long hangover. This is far more than wounded pride. From all appearances, your life is falling apart around you.”

There was no hangover. A hangover would come when he stopped drinking, and that wasn't likely to happen for a while. Logan gave Julia a glacier-cold smile. “Nothing is falling apart. Every actor is due for bad reviews at some time during his career. It's merely my turn now. Furthermore, the Capital players will get used to the fact that I'm not going to coddle them any longer. If I've lost weight, it's because I've been doing some extra fencing for an upcoming play. And let me make one thing clear—I never loved Madeline. I desired her, I had her, and now I'm finished with her.”

The housemaid's tap on the door was a welcome interruption. She entered the room with a silver tea tray, giving Logan a shy smile as she passed.

“You don't have to be honest with me,” Julia said in a low voice, staring at him with exasperation. “But at least be honest with yourself.”

It was early evening at Somerset Street, and Madeline's heart drummed as she stepped from the carriage,. She stared at Mrs. Florence's house with a mixture of hope and trepidation.

“Shall I tell the driver to bring the bags in?” her maid inquired.

Madeline hesitated before replying. “I don't know if we'll be staying, Norma. Please wait in the carriage for a few minutes while I call on my friend.”

“Yes, miss.”

Madeline smiled at her gratefully. It was only because of the maid's kind and sympathetic nature that she was able to pay a visit to Mrs. Florence. At this moment Madeline was supposed to be arriving at her sister Justine's home for a month-long stay, but thanks to a forged note sent to her sister and a bribe to the family driver, they wouldn't be expected until tomorrow. “Thank you, Norma,” she said quietly. “I don't know how to thank you for keeping this visit to Mrs. Florence a secret. I know the risk you're taking by helping me.”

“I've known you for many years, miss,” Norma replied. “You're a good, kind girl—the best of the Matthews lot, I daresay. It's made all the staff sad to see you so brokenhearted. If talking with your friend will make you better, 'tis worth the risk.” The maid retreated into the carriage, pulling a heavy fur-lined blanket up to her shoulders.

Madeline took care to walk between the thick patches of ice as she approached Mrs. Florence's house. It had been over two months since she had been there, and she had no idea what kind of reception to expect. It wasn't likely that Mrs. Florence would turn Madeline away—she was too gracious for that. Still, Madeline was uneasy as she knocked at the front door.

Soon after leaving London, Madeline had written a letter of, explanation and apology to Mrs. Florence and had asked her not to send a reply, as her parents had forbidden all communication with the outside world. It must have seemed to everyone who had known her that she had disappeared from the face of the earth.

Her parents were considering various plans for her, everything from living abroad to working as a companion for an elderly relative. Perhaps what had angered them most was Madeline's statement that any of these options pleased her better than their original intention of marrying her to Lord Clifton.

Lord and Lady Matthews had been devastated by a visit from Lord Clifton, who had wished to formally terminate the betrothal arrangement and retrieve the ring he had given to Madeline. As he had stood before her, his jowly face quivering with righteous indignation, Madeline hadn't been able to prevent a small, hard smile from coming to her lips. Only the thought of Logan, and the grief she had caused him, kept her from feeling triumphant.

“I pawned the ring, Lord Clifton,” Madeline told him without a trace of remorse.

He looked like an apoplectic frog. “You pawned my family ring? And used the proceeds to finance your fiendish little plot?”

“Yes, my lord.”

Clifton's outraged gaze traveled from her resolute face to her parents' stricken ones, and back again. “Well,” he huffed angrily, “it appears that I have been spared from making a grievous mistake. A pity I didn't realize earlier that you were never fit to be my wife.”

“Lord Clifton,” Madeline's mother Agnes cried, “I can't express how deeply sorry we are—”

“No, I am sorry—for all of you.” He sent Madeline a contemptuous glance. “There's no telling what will become of you now. I hope you're aware of what you could have had, were it not for your deceit and stupidity.”

“I know exactly what I've given up,” Madeline assured him with a subtle trace of irony, and her smile was bittersweet. She had succeeded in escaping from Lord Clifton…but the price had been a high one. Not just for her, but for Logan.

She also felt sorry for her parents; their misery was all too clear. Her mother was especially distraught. “I can't bear the thought of what people will say,” Agnes had declared in a voice as taut as the embroidery thread in her hands. Her thin fingers jerked and rugged at a strand, tangling the colored floss. “I can't abide the disgrace Madeline has brought on us. It is clear that she must go abroad. We'll tell everyone that she wishes to continue her studies on the continent.”

“How long must I stay away?” Madeline asked, her cheeks coloring. It was difficult to hear her own mother making plans to dispose of her.

“I have no idea,” Agnes said tautly. “People have long memories. It will take years for the scandal to fade. Foolish girl, not to realize how much better off you would have been as Lord Clifton's wife!”

“I told you I didn't want Lord Clifton,” Madeline said calmly. “You left me no other choice. I'm willing to accept the consequences of what I've done.”

“Have you no regrets at all?” Agnes asked in outrage. “What you did was sinful and cruel.”

“Yes, I know,” Madeline whispered. “I'll never forgive myself for hurting Mr. Scott. But as for the rest—”

“You didn't hurt that debauched actor; you hurt yourself! You destroyed your entire life and brought shame on all of us.”

Madeline had kept silent after that, knowing that there must indeed be something very wrong with her…because what tormented her was not the disgrace she had brought on her family, but the pain she had caused Logan. The memory of his face the morning they had parted—so blank, so controlled—sent her into fresh agony every time she thought of it.

If she had it to do all over again, she would behave so differently. She would have trusted Logan enough to be honest with him, and perhaps he might have listened. She longed to comfort him, a ridiculous notion since she was the one who had caused him grief. If only she could see him one more time, to assure herself that he was all right—but common sense told her such ideas were useless. She must let him go, and salvage what she could of her own life.

Unfortunately, that was becoming increasingly difficult.

The front door opened, and Mrs. Florence's maid, Cathy, peered out. “Yes?” Her eyes widened as she beheld Madeline. “Oh, Miss Maddy!”

“Hello, Cathy,” Madeline said hesitantly. “I know it's an odd hour to call, but I've traveled a long way. Do you think Mrs. Florence will receive me?”

“I'll run and ask her, Miss Maddy. She's just finishing her supper.”

Standing inside the door, Madeline breathed in the musty vanilla scent of the house, the aroma familiar and comforting. The panicked rhythm of her heart eased as soon as she saw Mrs. Florence approach, her silvery-peach hair arranged in a twist, her hazel eyes soft in her lined face. One of her hands was wrapped around an engraved silver and mahogany cane. It thumped gently on the carpet as she walked toward Madeline.

“Maddy,” she said in a kindly way.

“Have you been injured, Mrs. Florence?” Madeline asked in concern.

“No, my dear. It's only that the cold weather sinks into my bones sometimes.” She reached Madeline and took her hand, enclosing Madeline's cold fingers in her warm ones. “Have you run away again, child?”

Madeline felt a rush of gratitude. It seemed that Mrs. Florence's face was the only friendly one she had seen in two months. “I had to see you. I need someone to confide in. I felt that you wouldn't turn me away…or condemn me for what I wish to talk to you about.”

“Have you no grandmother of your own to turn to?”

“Only one, on my mother's side.” Madeline thought of her stern, religious grandmother, and winced. “She wouldn't be of any help, I'm afraid.”

“Will your family be alarmed to find you missing, Maddy?”

Madeline shook her head. “I told my parents that I was going to visit my sister Justine. I think they were happy to have me out of the house for a while. I've caused them quite a bit of trouble, and no end of embarrassment.” She paused and added in a strained tone, “With more to come, I'm afraid.”

Mrs. Florence held her gaze, her alert eyes missing nothing. She reached out to pat Madeline's tense shoulder. “I believe I understand why you're here, my dear. You were right to come to me—more right than you know. Go to the parlor, child, while I tell the footman to bring in your bags. You may stay as long as you wish.”

“I have a maid and driver—”

“Yes, we'll put them up as well.” She turned to the maid who waited nearby. “Cathy, fetch a supper tray for our guest and bring it to the parlor.”


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