In the theater a person could forget who he or she was, at least for a while. Actors could turn themselves into anyone they wished to be. That was what she wanted for herself. She would live as Jessica Wentworth, and bury all traces of Julia Hargate—and the secret that had haunted her all her life.

“I told you so,” Nell Florence said, her wrinkled face breaking into a rare and beautiful smile. “It was the right choice to approach Logan Scott. I admire his work at the Capital. Despite his youth, he's a capable manager. You'll profit far more by joining Scott's acting company than you would have at Drury Lane.” Her frail shoulders moved in a shudder, and she made a face of disdain. “Drury Lane is being ruined by that American impresario Stephen Price and his freakish taste for spectacle. You should have been born a half-century ago and worked for David Garrick—he would have known exactly what to do with a girl of your talents. To think of how you could have played opposite him in The Wonder…”

“Then you approve of Mr. Scott?” Julia asked, gently prodding her back to the subject before Mrs. Florence could lapse into one of her long reminiscences.

“Oh, yes. His productions have wonderful style, and his devotion to the art of acting is unquestionable.”

They sat together drinking tea in Mrs. Florence's parlor, with its musty furniture upholstered in rose silk, and walls covered with ancient theater mementos. Julia had met the elderly woman only a few months before, when Mrs. Florence had accepted a small part in a production at the Daly Theatre. Normally an appearance at the Daly would have been beneath such a great actress, who had acted at Drury Lane for more than thirty years. However, Mr. Bickerston had paid Mrs. Florence a fortune, knowing that her name would fill every seat in the theater.

After a successful month-long run of the play, Mrs. Florence had left Bickerston and the Daly—but not before she had taken Julia aside and given some well-intentioned advice. “Your gifts are being wasted here,” she had told Julia. “You must find another theater, a reputable one, and get some proper training.”

Julia had been flattered almost to the point of speechlessness. She greatly admired the elderly woman and the success she had made of her life. Born to a large and impoverished family on the east end of London, Nell Florence had profited from her considerable talents on the stage and also from a few discreet love affairs with wealthy men. Although her legendary beauty had faded with age, her rich red hair now streaked with silver, she was still a handsome woman.

Several years ago Mrs. Florence had retired to a London townhouse with a small staff of servants to look after her. If an aspiring actor or actress took her fancy, she would occasionally give acting lessons. Although Julia couldn't afford to pay her high fees, Mrs. Florence had decided to take her under her wing regardless.

“I can afford to teach for pleasure, if I wish to,” she had said. “I believe our association will do us both some good. I will help you to achieve the success you deserve, and you will brighten my days with your visits. Old people must always have young ones around…and you are very much like I was at your age.”

Once a week Julia would visit Mrs. Florence in her cluttered parlor, drinking tea from painted china cups as she paid rapt attention to the elderly woman's instructions. Now that Julia had been hired as a member of the Capital Theatre, Mrs. Florence seemed as pleased by Julia's success as if it were her own.

“I knew Scott wouldn't hesitate to hire you, once he saw you act,” she remarked. “You have a quality, my dear, which he couldn't fail to see. You seem to give everything of yourself when you're onstage…but you withhold just enough to make them want more. Never give everything, Jessica, or you'll be taken for granted.” Settling back in an overstuffed chair, the elderly woman regarded Julia with bright eyes. “Now tell me…how was it to play a scene with an actor of his caliber?”

“Thrilling,” Julia said instantly. “He almost made me believe it was really happening. I've never met anyone who could make a scene from a play seem more real than life.”

“So it is with the great ones,” Mrs. Florence replied reflectively. “But beware, Jessica…after reaching the heights that are possible in the theater, real life can seem rather disappointing. You may awaken one morning to find that your profession has stolen precious years from you. And you'll be no better off than I, surrounded by faded artifacts and portraits, with nothing but memories to sustain you.”

“I would love to be exactly like you,” Julia said fervently. “You've made your mark in the theater, you're respected and comfortable and independent…I could hope for nothing better than that.”

For a moment Mrs. Florence's eyes were filled with sadness. “I haven't always made the right choices, child. I've had to live with the consequences for a very long time.”

“Do you mean…” Julia stared at her, perplexed. “Is it that you regret not having married?”

“I only wanted to marry one man in particular,” the elderly woman informed her, with a wry twitch of her lips. “Unfortunately he didn't mix with the theater. He wanted me to leave it entirely, and so…” She spread her hands in a gesture of helplessness. “I let him go. How I envied other women who didn't have to make such a choice!” She stared at Julia in a faintly pitying way, as if it were a certainty that Julia would someday face the same painful dilemma. Julia wished she could tell Mrs. Florence the truth…that she would never need to choose between Jove and her profession…that she was in fact already married, and her husband was no obstacle at all.

Quietly Julia made her way to her mother's bedroom, located in the darkened east wing of Hargate Hall. The luxurious gothic estate was dark and stalwart, with tall chimneys and long, narrow windows. Set in the midst of the chalky Buckinghamshire hills, it was connected to the market town a mile away by old, sunken paths that hadn't changed for decades. Hargate Hall was dim and quiet, with heavy mahogany furniture and ceilings covered with webbed fan vaulting.

Being inside the home she had left two years ago gave Julia an uncomfortable, closed-in feeling. Resolutely she climbed one of the long flanks of stairs leading from the first floor to the second, half-fearing that at any moment she would hear her father's knifelike voice commanding her to get out.

Aside from several discreet greetings from a few servants she had known since childhood, no one dared speak to her. It was known to everyone at Hargate Hall that she was not a welcome visitor—her father had forbidden her to set foot on the property—yet no one would stop her from visiting her ailing mother, Eva.

Wrinkling her nose at the stale air in Eva's bedroom, Julia went to the curtains, drew them apart, and opened a window to admit a breeze from outside. There was a stirring beneath the covers on the bed, and Eva's weak voice.

“Who is that?”

“Your prodigal daughter,” Julia replied lightly, and went to the bed, bending over to kiss her mother's pale brow.

Eva blinked rapidly and tried to sit up, her face stiff with consternation. She was a small, slim woman, with ash-blond hair streaked with silver, and large brown eyes. She seemed to have aged a great deal in the past two years, her colorless skin etched with tiny lines and the bones of her face more prominent than ever. “Julia, you shouldn't be here. It's dangerous!”

“It's all right,” Julia said quietly. “You wrote to me and said that Father would be gone today. Don't you remember?”

“Oh, yes,” Fretfully her mother rubbed her forehead. “Things slip from my mind so easily of late.” She sighed and let her shoulders press back into the pillow. “I've been ill, Julia…”

“Yes, I know.” Julia was tight-lipped as she stared down at her mother, who had always been slender. Now she appeared birdlike in her frailty. “You shouldn't be closed in this dark room, Mama. You need light and fresh air, and a walk outside—”

“You mustn't stay long,” her mother said weakly. “If your father comes home unexpectedly…”

“He would throw me out,” Julia finished for her, her mouth curling sarcastically. “Don't worry, Mama. I'm not afraid of him. There's nothing he could say or do that matters to me now.” Her face softened as she saw her mother's distress, and she sat carefully on the edge of the mattress. Taking one of Eva's thin, cool hands in her own, she pressed it carefully.

“I've made a new life for myself. I'm an actress now, a fairly good one.” She couldn't help smiling as she saw her mother's expression. “Actress, not prostitute…though I'll admit most people don't seem to understand the difference. This season I'll be working at the Capital Theatre, training under Logan Scott himself. I'll have a handsome salary, my own carriage, a house…and I've chosen a new name for myself. Jessica Wentworth. Do you like it?”

Eva shook her head. “It's not what you were born for,” she said through dry lips. “It's not who you are.”

“Who am I, Mama?” Julia asked softly, although she knew the answer. Her chest tightened with sudden unhappiness.

“You're the Marchioness of Savage.”

Julia shot off the bed, unable to bear the sound of the name. “Only because I had no choice in the matter. I'm married to a man I don't know, all to satisfy Father's social ambitions. It's an absurd situation. I don't know Lord Savage by sight, I've never even corresponded with him. Sometimes I wonder if he exists at all!”

“It appears that Lord Savage has no more desire than you to acknowledge the marriage,” her mother admitted. “Neither your father nor the Duke of Leeds could have expected that both children would resent the marriage so greatly.”

“Not resent having our futures stolen?” Julia strode around the room as she continued heatedly. “I was sold for the price of a name, and Lord Savage for a fortune. Father secured a title for his daughter, and the Savages were saved from financial ruin. And all they had to do was sacrifice their firstborn children.”

“Why must you bear such ill will against your father?” her mother asked sadly. “What he did was no different than what other parents of our position do. Marriages are arranged all the time.”

“It was different. I was only four years old, and my so-called husband wasn't much older.” Julia went to the window and stared through the parted drapes, filtering the silk-fringed velvet through her fingers. “That first time I found out, I was twelve and fancied myself in love with a village boy …until Father took me aside and said I would never have the right to love any man because I was already married.” She shook her head and laughed without humor. “I couldn't believe it. I still can't. For years I've been haunted by thoughts of my ‘husband,’ wondering if he's grown up to be a half-wit, a bore, a skirt-chaser—”

“From what we have heard of him, Lord Savage's reputation is that of a quiet and responsible man.”

“I don't care what he's like,” Julia said, knowing that her mother would think this pure stubbornness on her part—and perhaps that was partly true. But it was also because of the awareness that if she accepted the life her father had chosen for her, she would fade into the same kind of docile, unhappy creature that her mother had become. “It doesn't matter if Lord Savage is a saint. I never intend to become the Duchess of Leeds. I won't agree to the plans Father made for me. He controlled every day, hour, and minute of my life until I finally gathered the courage to run away.”

“He wanted to shelter and protect you—”

“Father kept me cloistered on this estate, never allowing me to go anywhere or meet anyone. From the day I was born, he was determined that I should marry a man with a great title. I wonder, did it ever occur to him that I might someday have landed a duke or an earl without his interference? Or did he even once consider that I might not have wished that for myself? I suppose it was too much to expect that he might have wanted me to be happy—”

Julia broke off, realizing that her fingers were clutched in the folds of velvet. She loosened her grip and took a calming breath. It pained her to know that even though she had escaped her father's domination, Eva was still under his control. Her mother's only recourse was to take refuge in illness, gradually turning herself into an invalid. It was Eva's only defense against an autocratic husband who manipulated the lives of everyone around him.

Edward, Lord Hargate despised illness of any kind. He was actually rather afraid of it, for it was so completely alien to his robust nature. He was a strong man whose relentless drive led him to dismiss anyone's feelings but his own. He could be cruel at times, denying people the things they wanted most in order to demonstrate his wealth and power. The rest of the Hargate family—cousins, brothers, uncles, and aunts—all avoided him as much as possible. Yet even when he was at his worst, his wife defended and supported him, as was her duty.

“There must be something else you can do,” Eva murmured, “other than turn to a life in the theater. The idea of my daughter living among those people, working on the stage…It sounds very sordid.”

“I'll be quite safe at the Capital,” Julia said firmly. “It's a reputable company. And acting is the perfect occupation for me. After being secluded so much of the time when I was a child, I developed quite an imagination.”

“I remember how I worried,” Eva murmured. “You seemed to live in a fantasy world most of the time, always pretending to be someone else.”

Julia returned to the bedside and smiled down at her. “Now I'm being paid a very good salary for it.”

“And what about Lord Savage?”

Julia shrugged. “For the time being, he doesn't seem to want to acknowledge the marriage. I can't see any other choice except to lead my own life.” She grimaced uncomfortably. “How odd it is, knowing that I belong to a stranger…that legally he has more rights over me than I do over myself. The thought of it makes me want to run to the ends of the earth. I'll admit that I'm afraid to find out what kind of man he really is. I'm not ready for that—I may never be.”

“You won't be able to hide the truth forever,” Eva murmured. “Someday Lord Savage will find out that his wife has been working on the stage. How do you think he'll feel?”

“No doubt he'll want an annulment.” Suddenly an impish grin crossed Julia's face. “And I'll be glad to oblige him. I'm certain to make a far better actress than a duchess.”


***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com