They proceeded to the next missive, addressed to the manager of an insurance company. Logan's letter described a proposed fund for the support of retired performers as well as the benefit of actors' widows and children. The fund was to be padded with annual contributions from actors' salaries and occasional benefit performances.

“That is very kind of you,” Madeline commented at the close of the letter. “I suspect most theater managers can't be bothered with their former employees' welfare.”

“I'm not kind,” he replied. “It's a way of attracting the best people to the Capital and keeping them here. The higher the quality of my productions, the more money I make.”

“Then your only motive is profit?”

“Precisely.”

“I don't believe that, Mr. Scott. You are kind…it's just that you don't want anyone to think of you so.”

He gave her a sardonic glance. “Why do you think that, Miss Ridley?”

Madeline met his gaze without blinking. “You didn't fire me even when you were perfectly justified in doing so. And now it seems that you have made arrangements to take care of your employees when they are too old to work. Those are the actions of a kind man.”

“Miss Ridley…” He shook his head as if unable to comprehend the extent of her naivete. “I never do anything out of kindness. My God, it's a wonder you've made it this far unscathed. You know nothing of what I've done in the past, or what I'm capable of. For your own sake, don't trust anyone—including me.”

“What could I have to fear from you?”

His hands gathered into large fists that rested on the desk. His eyes were the color of blue-violet flame as he stared at her. A heavily charged silence filled the office, while Madeline's heartbeat escalated to an alarming pace.

“Let's hope you don't find out,” he said softly.

With each word he said, Logan Scott was dispelling her girlish fancies. He was a flesh and blood man, complete with flaws. If she did manage to lure him into bed with her, the experience might change her forever, emotionally as well as physically. The thought sent a ripple of unease through her.

Breaking their shared gaze, Madeline stared into her lap until she heard his quiet, almost contemptuous laugh.

“That's all for now,” he said.

“Shall I return tomorrow?” she asked.

A long silence passed, while Logan scowled at his overloaded desk. Julia, damn her, knew exactly how badly he needed secretarial assistance. For months Logan had intended to hire someone for that purpose, but he hadn't yet found the time to interview appropriate candidates.

With Madeline's help, he could clear the work from his desk in half the time it would take to do it alone. Perhaps it wouldn't be a bad arrangement, having her work in his office an hour or two each day. Except…he realized with a jolt of surprise that sitting so close to her had made him…uncomfortable. Aroused. He frowned and shifted positions, staring at her with narrowed eyes. It was inappropriate, having such a reaction to her. She was too young and naive, and he wasn't the kind of man to go about violating virginal girls, no matter how tempting they might be.

And Madeline was tempting, despite his efforts to ignore her. She had freshness and warmth that were unique in his experience. His hands itched to close over the nape of her neck and stroke the silken hairs that had slipped from their pins. Perturbed, he gestured impatiently to the door.

“Yes, come back in the morning,” he muttered.

Madeline smiled at him. “Good day, Mr. Scott.”

Gradually the sound of her footsteps faded, while Logan sat staring at the empty doorway. The impatient, pulsing warmth in his loins faded very slowly. It had been too long since he'd had a woman, he thought. Months. He had been too busy to find a replacement for his last mistress, and no one had caught his interest…until now.

A wry, whimsical smile curved his lips. The idea of bedding an untried girl, or at least a very inexperienced one, had never appealed to him before. However, he couldn't help wondering about Madeline Ridley … how she would feel in his arms, what she would look like na*ed in his bed, how it would feel to lose himself inside all that impetuous energy.…

Perhaps he would seduce her. It was only a matter of time before someone took advantage of her in this bawdy environment…why shouldn't it be him? At least he would make certain she enjoyed it, and compensate her for it—

“Damn,” he said aloud, alarmed at the direction his thoughts had taken, and he forced himself to concentrate on his work. Doggedly he read contracts, revised schedules, and made notes about musical selections and stage settings. While he worked, he heard the sounds of employees leaving the theater. Actors and musicians concluded their rehearsals, while carpenters and painters organized their shops in preparation for the morrow.

Logan took pleasure in the activity around him, knowing that were it not for his efforts, the Capital wouldn't exist. It had been created from his own ambition, put together scrap by scrap, and painstakingly nurtured. Failure had been out of the question—he had never allowed himself to consider the possibility. Failure would have meant returning to the life he had been born to as the son of Paul and Mary Jennings.

Suddenly a familiar voice broke the silence. “Working at this late hour, Jimmy? You've made your fortune—why not enjoy it?”

Three

Turning in his chair, Logan regarded the familiar face of Andrew, Lord Drake. Andrew was a tall, well-built young man with wicked blue eyes and dark hair worn in a long, windswept style. He was handsome, although signs of his self-indulgent lifestyle had recently begun to appear…a fleshiness of the cheeks and chin, the ruddy complexion of a perpetual drunkard, and the dark-circled eyes of a man who was frequently awake for most of the night.

Logan and Andrew had been close companions for most of their childhood. Andrew was the only son and heir of the Earl of Rochester, and Logan had been the son of a local tenant farmer. Together the boys had roamed the estate, fishing, swimming, and hunting small game. For Logan it had been like having a younger brother. Although Andrew was the heir to a great fortune, Logan had always felt sorry for him. From what Logan had been able to observe, the earl hadn't been a much better father than Paul Jennings. Rochester was cold and rigid, far more concerned with rules and discipline than with his son's welfare.

Remaining at his desk, Logan smiled slightly. “I never expected to see you again so soon, Andrew. Not since I told you to stop making advances to my actresses.”

Andrew grinned. “There isn't a great deal of difference between a theater and a bordello, you know. Actresses are just like prostitutes, only more expensive.” He cast a deprecating glance around the small room, his gaze lingering on the overloaded desk. “I wonder that you haven't gone mad by now, spending so much time in that dusty corner.”

“I enjoy working.” Logan leaned back and propped his feet on the edge of his desk, resting his hands on his flat midriff.

“‘Enjoy’ and ‘work’ don't belong in the same sentence, Jimmy.” Andrew watched his face and smiled as he saw the flicker of reaction in Logan's eyes. “You don't like it when I call you that, do you? I assure you, I don't intend it as an insult. I admire what you've done, turning yourself from humble Jimmy Jennings into the great Logan Scott. When we were boys, I always supposed that you would marry some local dairymaid or shopgirl, and become a farmer like your father. Or perhaps you would have come to London and worked as a clerk for some piddling merchant. Instead you're one of the richest self-made men in England, with beautiful women twitching their skirts to gain your attention, and dinner invitations from the Duke of Wellington. Sometimes I feel as if I'm the only one who remembers who you really are.”

“You're not,” Logan said. Even if he had been able to forget his own humble beginnings, there were many who never passed up a chance to remind him. No upstart, no matter how talented or wealthy, could ever break into their exclusive circles. Certainly he was fit to entertain them, but not to move among them as an equal. He would never be allowed to marry their daughters and mix his red blood with blue.

“Why are you here, Andrew?” he asked. “Have you come to reminisce about the past, or is there something you want?”

Seeming annoyed by Logan's bluntness, Andrew shrugged. “All right, if you insist on going to the point…I'm in a pickle.”

“You've been gambling.”

“Of course I have. What else is there to do with my bloody time?” Andrew exploded in frustration, his face reddening. “For the last two weeks I've spent nearly every night at the club, and I've been pigeoned out of every shilling I have. Every time I thought my luck would turn, it got worse. Now the news is all over London. I'm denied credit at every turn, and a pair of brutes from the club are following me wherever I go. I can't seem to give them the brush, and they're threatening to break my legs unless I come up with the money I owe. God help me, I actually think they'll do it.”

“Have you gone to your father?”

Andrew made a sound of disgust. “Bugger the old man, he won't give me a shilling above the paltry sum he calls my allowance. He could repay my debts a hundred times over!”

“I believe that's what he's afraid of,” Logan said dryly. “How large is the debt this time? Four thousand? Five?”

Andrew picked idly at the sleeve of his green wool coat. “Ten,” he mumbled.

The amount was enough to stun Logan into silence. Ten thousand pounds was a fortune, enough to keep dozens of families comfortably for I a year, enough to mount several spectacular productions at the Capital. He knew why the Earl of Rochester wouldn't pay off his son's debt, no matter how great the threat to his safety. If Andrew didn't change his habits, he would run through the family fortune immediately after assuming the title.

“I need the money,” Andrew said. For the first time there was a thread of desperation in his tone. “Everyone knows what a wealthy bastard you are. You can afford to loan me ten thousand. You know you'll get it back someday with interest.”

“Will I?” Logan asked sardonically, rummaging through his desk. He began to write a bank draft. “This will be the last time, Andrew. I'm not inclined to pour more down a bottomless well.”

Andrew peered over his shoulder and made a grudging sound of thanks. “I knew you wouldn't refuse me. It must give you satisfaction to know how my father would react if he knew.”

A rueful smile touched Logan's lips as he finished the draft. “It does, actually.” He extended the bank draft toward Andrew, then withheld it as Andrew reached out eagerly. “I'm going to offer this with a piece of advice.”

“As you well know, I never take advice.”

“For ten thousand pounds, you'll damn well take mine. Pay your debts, Andrew, and find some less expensive occupation. You don't have the temperament to gamble successfully—you're too easily lost in the emotion of the moment.”

“Then you must be the best gambler in the world,” Andrew muttered. “You never have an emotion unless you can display it on stage for profit.”

Logan laughed and leaned back in his chair again. “Tell me, how is your father?”

“The same as ever—demanding and impossible to please. He's done everything short of committing murder to acquire some group of sketches by Rubens or Rembrandt—”

“The Harris collection,” Logan said, his eyes brightening with interest. “Ten original Rembrandt sketches, including one for The Polish Rider.”

Andrew lifted his hands in a gesture of mock alarm. “Don't tell me you want that collection too?…I warn you to stay clear, or there will be blood spilled.”

Logan responded with a deceptively lazy shrug. “Far be it from me to stand in the earl's way.”

“Strange that you and my father both share the same passion for art,” Andrew commented.

Logan gave him a mocking smile. “There are many people who appreciate art, Andrew. Even people in the lower classes.”

“But how many farmers' sons can afford to collect it? My father insists that you bought that Van Dyck he wanted in order to spite him.”

“Why would I do something like that?” Logan asked smoothly.

“I believe the earl's theory is that you're trying to impress him. He claims it comes from your having grown up in the shadow of the estate mansion. You want to prove to him how well you've done for yourself.”

All at once Logan was fiercely annoyed, and he didn't bother to conceal it. The words struck a chord of truth that he longed to deny. He didn't know why he felt such a keen sense of rivalry with the Earl of Rochester. It had something to do with the way Rochester looked at him, at everyone, with superiority and disdain. That assessing gaze had always made Logan determined to prove that he was in no way inferior to the earl except by birth.

“The only people I want to impress are the ones who pay to sit in my theater. Your father's opinion has never meant a damn to me. Tell him I said that.”

“Egad, what a black mood you're in! Let's change the subject to something more appealing. Are you still keeping that lovely dark-haired wench at your London house?”

Logan shook his head. “I asked her to leave.”

“How could you tire of such an exquisite creature? Where is she now? I'm not too proud to accept your leavings.”

“I wouldn't do her the disservice of sending you to her doorstep.”

Andrew laughed. “Fine, then. There are many other pretty wenches to be had.” He sauntered to the doorway and pocketed the bank draft with a grin. “My sincere thanks, Jimmy. I knew you wouldn't turn your back on me.”

“Stay out of trouble,” Logan said meaningfully.

Andrew gave him a look of pure innocence. “I'll try.”

With a rueful grin, Logan watched his childhood friend leave. In spite of Andrew's faults—and they were considerable—there was a streak of goodness in him. Andrew had never deliberately tried to harm anyone or anything in his life. Much of his rebelliousness came from a desire to gain his father's attention.

Logan's thoughts turned to the Earl of Rochester, and his smile turned grim. It had been a pleasure to purchase the Van Dyck from under Rochester's nose last year. The old man had always prided himself on his knowledge of art, and it seemed to annoy him considerably that the son of one of his tenants was a respected patron of the Society of Artists.

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