“I have shocked you,” Madeline said.
“‘Surprised’ is a better word, my dear. I wouldn't have expected such a question from you. Are you certain you know what you're doing? I shouldn't want you to make a mistake that you'll be ashamed of later on.”
“Mrs. Florence,” Madeline replied wryly, “in my entire life, I've never managed to do anything that I've truly been ashamed of.”
The elderly woman's eyes suddenly sparkled with amusement. “And you wish to remedy that?”
“Yes! Otherwise I'll have no character or spirit at all.”
“I disagree, my dear. You appear to have a good deal more character and spirit than the average person. However, if you're determined to carry out your intentions, I'll be happy to advise you. I know a great deal about men—or at least, I used to. I daresay they can't have changed very much in the last decade or two. Tell me, is there a particular man you want to seduce?”
“It's Mr. Scott, actually.”
“Ah.” Mrs. Florence stared at her for a long moment, her gaze penetrating and at the same time distant. It was as if some past memory had been recalled to her, one that she savored. “I don't blame you in the least,” she finally said. “I would seduce him if I were a pretty young girl like you.”
“Would you?” Madeline asked, surprised by the statement.
“Oh, indeed. It seems to me that Mr. Scott is one of the few men in England worth seducing. I wouldn't bother with the effeminate, self-absorbed creatures that pass for great lovers nowadays. I've never had the opportunity to meet Mr. Scott, unfortunately, but I have seen him on stage. The first time was five years ago. He played Iago in Othello…the most adept performance I've ever seen. Pure, seductive, silken evil. As an actor, he's worth any amount of admiration. As a man, he strikes me as rather dangerous.”
“Dangerous?” Madeline repeated uneasily.
“Yes, to a woman's heart. Safe men are for marrying. Dangerous men are for pleasure. Just make certain you require nothing more of them than that.”
Madeline leaned forward. “Mrs. Florence, you won't tell anyone about what I'm planning?”
“Of course not. It's a highly private matter. Besides, there is no guarantee that you will succeed. From what I know of Logan Scott—and that is mostly hearsay from Julia—he doesn't prefer your kind. There are men with certain appetites that can be fulfilled only by very skilled women, and you…” She paused and viewed Madeline critically. “Something tells me that your repertoire is extremely limited.”
“I don't even have a repertoire,” Madeline said gloomily.
Mrs. Florence leaned her chin on a wrinkled hand. “That makes things a little more difficult. On the other hand, you have youth and beauty, and those shouldn't be underestimated.”
“The problem is, I've already made a mistake. I should have been mysterious and aloof…and instead I've made my intentions all too clear.”
“He knows that you desire him?” Mrs. Florence asked, seeming amused.
“Yes, and he's made it clear that he wants nothing to do with me.”
“Well, your straightforward approach wasn't necessarily a mistake,” Mrs. Florence commented. “One can assume that a man like Scott is entirely familiar with women who make subtle and sophisticated overtures. Perhaps you were right to throw him off balance.”
“Not only did I throw him off balance,” Madeline said sheepishly, “I ensured that he got stabbed in the process.”
“You did what?” Mrs. Florence asked, startled, and Madeline told her about the fencing accident. The elderly woman regarded her with a mixture of laughter and disbelief. “I'll say this, child…you've presented me with a challenge. Let me think for a moment.”
Madeline waited while the old woman contemplated the problem.
“It's a pity you have no acting skills,” Mrs. Florence said. “The place to approach a man like Scott is on the stage, where he's most at ease. I would suspect that he never lets down his guard except while he's acting. It is only during those moments of vulnerability that you would be able to slip past his defenses.”
“Perhaps I could offer to prompt some of the actors and actresses when they are learning their lines,” Madeline said hesitantly.
“Yes, that's an excellent idea.”
“But Mrs. Florence…what if I do manage to catch Mr. Scott in one of those ‘vulnerable moments’? What should I say to him?”
“Let your instincts guide you. Just bear in mind that you mustn't act lovestruck. Simply make it clear that you're available and willing…that you're offering pleasure with no responsibility. No man in the world could resist.”
Madeline nodded obediently.
“There's one more thing,” Mrs. Florence added, regarding her speculatively. “You'll need to dress for the part. Although you appear to have an attractive figure, one can hardly tell in those missish gowns.”
A resigned smile crossed Madeline's face. “I'm afraid that can't be helped, ma'am. I can't afford a new gown.”
“I'll give it some consideration,” the elderly woman assured her. “I'll think of something.”
Madeline smiled, admiring Mrs. Florence's crafty energy and enthusiasm. “I'm glad I asked for your advice, ma'am.”
“So am I, Maddy. This is the most excitement I've had in years, taking part in your scheme. With my help, you'll lead Mr. Scott to your bed like a lamb to the slaughter.”
“I hope so,” Madeline replied. “However…I don't imagine he'll be anything like a lamb.”
“That's for you to discover, my dear. In my experience, men are often different in bed than they are out of it. Actors are the most unpredictable lovers of all. One never knows when they're playing a part.” She turned a placid countenance toward the fire, plotting silently, while the maid brought Madeline a supper tray.
After the servant had left, Madeline spoke again. “Mrs. Florence, is there any way of knowing what to expect?”
The elderly woman looked at her questioningly, having lost the thread of the conversation.
“About how a man might be as a lover,” Madeline clarified.
“I think you'll be able to tell a great deal from the way he kisses you.” Suddenly Mrs. Florence seemed amused, and she toyed with a loose strand of her silvery-peach hair. “In fact, that's a very good idea. Why don't you surprise Mr. Scott with a kiss? That's a bold, stylish ploy. It will certainly intrigue him.”
“I'll leave that to your imagination, Maddy. You'll find an appropriate moment.”
Surprise him with a kiss. Mrs. Florence's mischievous suggestion hovered in Madeline's thoughts during the next day. There would never be an appropriate time to do such a thing. If only she had her older sister Justine's great beauty or Althea's cleverness. But she was terribly ordinary, and Mr. Scott was…unreachable.
She saw the effect he had on others, the crowds of aristocrats who gathered around his dressing room door after a performance, the actors and actresses who sought his advice. Everyone wanted something from him. Even me, Madeline thought in sheepish discomfort. She wanted the most personal service of all from him, and with any luck he would never know why.
In an effort to learn more about him, Madeline approached Arlyss Barry while she was having tea alone in the greenroom. Arlyss was a fountain of information. She knew intimate details about everyone in the company and loved to gossip about them all.
“You'd like to know more about Mr. Scott?” Arlyss asked, popping a sugared biscuit into her mouth. Although Mrs. Lyttleton grumbled about Arlyss's overly voluptuous figure, it seemed that Arlyss couldn't control her own sweet tooth. “So would we all, Maddy. Mr. Scott is the most fascinating man I've ever met, and the most difficult to know. He's fanatical about his privacy. He never invites anyone to his home. To my knowledge no one in the company has ever visited him there, except for the duchess.”
Madeline frowned. “Were Mr. Scott and the duchess ever—”
Arlyss shook her head, brown curls dancing. “They've always been too much alike, I suppose, both of them so in love with the theater that there was never room for anyone else. Then Julia met the duke, and…but that's another story. To answer your question: Julia and Mr. Scott were never romantically involved. She told me that Mr. Scott believes falling in love is the worst possible thing that could ever happen to him.”
Arlyss shrugged cheerfully. “That's the mystery of Mr. Scott. He's a bundle of secrets, that one.” She lowered her voice and leaned closer over her cup of tea. “I'll tell you something that few people know: Mr. Scott was the son of a tenant farmer. He never even went to school. Can you imagine it?”
“No, I…” Madeline was genuinely amazed. “He seems so cultured, so noble—”
“He seems that way,” Arlyss agreed. “But he's come from beginnings that would make yours and mine look like royalty. In fact, Julia once hinted to me that Mr. Scott was terribly mistreated—beaten and half-starved by his father. It's why his family never visits the theater or is allowed to watch a performance. He pays them to stay away from him.”
Madeline pondered the information, while Arlyss delved into the tin of biscuits. She tried to imagine Mr. Scott as a boy, living with poverty and abuse, and it was impossible to reconcile that picture with the powerful, self-assured owner of the Capital Theatre. He had assumed such godlike dimensions in the public's eyes—and her own—that she found it hard to believe he had escaped a past as humble as the one Arlyss had described.
So that was where Mr. Scott's talent came from, she thought with a stirring of compassion. A man couldn't leave his old life and invent a new one for himself without having an extraordinary amount of imagination—and determination.
“Excuse me, Miss Barry,” she murmured. “I have work to do.”
Arlyss winked at her and picked up a play folio, silently mouthing her lines as she memorized them.
Madeline went down the hall to Mr. Scott's office, her heart quickening as she approached the threshold. The door was open, revealing his back as he sat at his massive mahogany desk. His white linen shirt, once crisp and freshly pressed, was now creased as it clung to his broad shoulders. He had discarded the pale gray waistcoat he had worn all day, as well as the black silk cravat.
It was odd to see Mr. Scott still and quiet when he had been so relentlessly active all day. He seemed to have the energy of ten men, striding about his theater like the captain of a ship. One moment he had been directing the actors during rehearsal, alternately cajoling and demanding until their performances satisfied him…and the next he was in the scene painter's shop, moving heavy set pieces and flats, explaining how he wanted them painted until it seemed that he might pick up a brush and do the job himself.
Every member of the company knew that his or her work would sooner or later come under his scrutiny, and they labored to please him. When they were given a word or two of praise, they glowed with satisfaction. Madeline longed to win similar attention from him, so that he would take notice of her as someone other than a troublesome employee.
As Madeline paused in the doorway, Mr. Scott stiffened, the heavy muscles moving across his back. Although she hadn't made a sound, he turned in his chair and glanced over his shoulder, his blue eyes questioning.
“Mr. Scott,” she said, “I thought I might be able to help with your correspondence. I noticed how much of it there was, and…I could write letters as you dictate.” She saw the lack of response on his face, and she added hopefully, “I have very good penmanship”
It took him an unaccountably long time to reply. He contemplated the stack of unanswered mail on his desk before his gaze returned to her. Slowly he reached over to a nearby chair and removed a few books that had been piled on the seat. “Why not?” he muttered.
Madeline seated herself and took up a pen and paper, using the corner of his desk to write on. Mr. Scott pulled a page of notes from the top of the pile and read silently, tugging at a forelock of his hair. Madeline had never seen such beautiful hair on a man. There must be many women who were tempted to smooth the rumpled locks.
Guiltily enjoying the novelty of being alone with him, Madeline continued her discreet inspection. His long legs were taut beneath his gray trousers, the muscles long and well-honed. Many of the roles he played required great athletic skill. The rigors of fencing and fighting scenes, played night after night, kept him in superb physical condition.
“Direct this letter to Monsieur Jacques Daumier, rue des Beaux Arts, Paris.” To Madeline's surprise, Scott began to dictate in French. She realized that he was testing her, to see if she really did know French. Rising to the challenge, she began to write diligently.
As Mr. Scott dictated, Madeline grasped that he was helping a manager of the Comedie Francaise to engage a London theater for a brief time, to showcase his performers for English audiences.
“Pardon, sir,” she interrupted in the middle of a sentence, “but I believe that verb should be conjugated in the past subjunctive—”
Madeline frowned. “Mr. Scott, I'm certain you understand, how particular the French are about their language—”
“I'm certain I know a hell of a lot more about the French than you do,” he shot back. “And I'm going to conjugate the damned verb any way I please.”
“Very well.” Madeline bent her head over the page. “But you're still wrong,” she muttered.
Suddenly Logan's annoyance was washed away in a rush of amusement. Sternly he forced back the laughter that rose in his throat. No one ever dared to speak to him so freely. The aristocrats he associated with were usually patronizing, except on the occasions when they wanted something from him. The people he employed were always telling him what they thought he wanted to hear. The only one who spoke to him as an equal was Julia, but she had a title and a noble ancestry to lend her confidence. This girl…Madeline…had nothing. Her well-being depended entirely on his goodwill, and still she dared to contradict him.
“Then change it,” he said, and continued to dictate before she had time to react. He was certain her hand was aching as the letter was concluded, but she didn't ask him to adjust his speed.
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