The Masked Heart - By Karla Darcy

To Bill

For everything and then some

Prologue - 1807

"An actress, my dear," Lady Yates said, "is merely a slut who can sing."

"Aunt Haydie!"

Lady Haydie Yates sniffed at the shocked expression on her niece's face. "This is no time for missish airs, gel. Might as well know what you're getting into before you make the first misstep."

Blaine Margaret Meriweather shifted uncomfortably on the satin settee and tried to face the older woman with a worldly air she was far from feeling. Smoothing the skirt of her black mourning gown, Blaine looked warily at the upright figure in the wing chair and tried not to flinch under the steely glance of the golden-hazel eyes so like her own.

"I realize, Aunt Haydie, what I propose would be considered outrageous by some, but I thought you, of all people, might have more sympathy with my idea. After all, you have always told me a woman should not be held back by the conventions of society."

"No need to quote me, Blaine. I am well aware of all my tiresome preaching." The sixty-year-old Haydie waved her blue-veined hand in a dismissing gesture. "I am not unalterably opposed to the plan but I must be sure you are aware of all the pitfalls to this freakish start. A young gentlewoman does not become an actress without losing a great deal."

"It seems to me, aunt, that there is little left to lose." Sadness tinged Blaine's voice and she swallowed back the rising lump in her throat.

"Thus speaks youth," Haydie said. "Believe me, child, there are things more important than money and land in the balance here. I cannot imagine what your father would think of such a decision."

"I can." A sad smile tugged at the edge of Blaine's generous mouth. "He would shout down the house while my stepmother Juliette would sniffle into a lacy handkerchief, her violet eyes awash with tears. Ah, Aunt Haydie, I miss them so."

"It was blessedly quick, child," the older woman said in bracing tones, then she snorted in annoyance. "A lot of trumpery that kind of statement but one must hold on to something. In all truth, I cannot believe that either your father or your stepmother suffered long after the carriage left the road. Your father was not one who would have been a cheerful invalid and Juliette was already terrified of growing old. She would have been devastated over any form of disfigurement. Perhaps my words are harsh, Blaine, but one can only deal with the present. They were a charming, improvident pair. And my brother's inability to think beyond today has landed us all in the soup."

Blaine sighed and leaned wearily against the back of the settee, noticing the worn spots on the satin upholstery. As her eyes roamed around the drawing room, she was aware that all of the furnishings needed attention. The room was clean enough. She had seen to that herself, but she ought to have considered redoing some of the coverings and adding new draperies. Now it was too late.

She had been in charge of the household, since she was fifteen, the year Valerian was born. Then her stepmother, having finally presented a male heir to her husband, demanded that they remove to London for the season. Blaine had been delighted with the responsibility of the estate and equally pleased to be with her half-sister Fleur and the new baby who were also left behind at Weathers. For six years, the three children had seen little of their parents except for Christmas and occasional houseparties. They had been happy years but now with the death of her father and stepmother, Blaine could see that their comfortable way of life was truly threatened.

"Now, child, tell me about this cork-brained scheme."

Haydie's voice interrupted Blaine's musings and she tried to gather her thoughts. Without hesitation, she declared, "I would like to go to London and become an actress."

"I heard that part of the plan," Haydie said dryly. "It's the rest that I'm waiting to hear."

"Well, to be perfectly honest, I haven't worked out any of the details." A puckish grin widened her mouth and she peered through a cloud of dark lashes at her formidable relative. "I have given our difficulties a great deal of thought and I truly believe that this might be the answer to our present situation. You must admit, Aunt Haydie, that if we are not in the River Tick, our ship of state is sinking fast."

"Cheeky gel!" The old woman's words were snapped but there