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Corset Diaries

Katie MacAlister


  No woman in her right mind would consent to wearing a corset for a month. Especially a “skinny-challenged” woman like myself. But dreams of being debt-free danced in my head when I received the offer to appear on a reality TV show.

  A Month in The Life of a Victorian Duke is about real people—like me—pretending to live on an English estate, circa 1879. Sounds fun, no? Well, it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. We’re talking no televisions, no cell phones, no PMS medication. And did I mention the corsets? No breathing for a full month. Luckily, when I met the real-life duke who was to be my pretend husband, he took my breath away. . .

  In a manor in which everyone must strictly follow the Victorian lifestyle, things were bound to go wrong. Like when some harmless lust turned into that other thing. . .

  Love was definitely not in the contract.

  Katie MacAlister



  Writing is such a solitary endeavor, I’m always grateful for my online friends who keep me sane while I’m writing a book. For years the ladies at RBL Romantica ( have done a magnificent job of supporting romance books and then writers, and I am truly grateful to be considered one of “their” authors. RBLs, I salute you.


  August 29

  Early morning-ish



  “Do you still have long hair? You haven’t cut it since I last saw you?”

  That’s how it started: with an inquiry into the status of my hair. I hope that doesn’t say something about how the whole thing is going to proceed. Hair is just so trivial. In the grand scale of things, that is—it’s certainly important when it looks awful and you have to run to the store to pick up a fifth of whiskey and a bottle of Pamprin.

  “Yes, I do still have long hair. Why?”

  “Oh, good, you’d hate the wig. I heard it smells. You have a valid passport too, right? Didn’t you go to Mazatlan last year?”

  I twined a strand of the aforementioned hair around my finger and glared at the phone. Why on earth had Pierce called me up to inquire about my hair and Mazatlan?

  “Yes, I do and I did. What wig? Why are you asking me all these questions? And when did you get back? I thought you were in London working for the BBC.”

  “Oh, I left them. They had no scope, no scope at all. I’m still in London, but I’m working for an independent channel now. Excellent! I knew you’d be perfect for this. I’m overnighting a package to you. You can read the notes and the rule book on the plane, ‘K?”

  I blinked a couple of times hoping it would aid my thought processes in straightening out the tangled mess of his conversation. It didn’t help. “What package? What plane? Pierce, what are you talking about?”

  He sighed noisily in my ear, then muttered something about never understanding women. “It’s all very fabu and you’re going to love it, and you won’t believe the strings I had to pull to get this for you, but the job pays ten thousand dollars, and since I owe you big time, I moved heaven and hell and got the job for you. You can thank me later; right now you have to pack. But not much, because they’ll take your measurements on Tuesday and should have the basic necessities done by Wednesday, Thursday at the latest. You’re still an eighteen, right? I can tell them that, and they’ll get started.”

  “Job? You got me a research job that pays ten grand?” My head swam at the thought of all that money. Bills, I could pay off the remainder of Peter’s medical bills. And get the roof repaired. Maybe there would even be some left over so I wouldn’t have to drive around on bald tires. The money would certainly come in . . . hey! “What measurements? What basic necessities? Don’t you dare tell anyone I wear a size eighteen! I’ll hang you by your balls if you do!”

  He sighed again, then spoke very deliberately, enunciating carefully as if I was the one who wasn’t making sense. “The measurements are for the wardrobe, honey. I have to tell them your size, so they know what sort of costumes to find—Cynthia was much smaller and her wardrobe wouldn’t fit you. Of course, she had to wear the wig and you won’t, so there are compensations. There’s no research other than reading the rule book, no genealogy other than you being a duke’s wife. Now that we have that settled, are there any other questions? I’m on a very tight schedule, and I have to get back to Roger and tell him you’re go, and then there’s a million other things to take care of. You just have no idea how busy I am.”

  I breathed heavily through my nose for a moment, then said, just as carefully and slowly, “Pierce, you’re quite, quite mad, aren’t you? Or drunk. Whichever it is, I don’t have time for this game.”

  “Don’t be ridiculous.” This was said in his usual sharp, quick manner. “You can’t tell me that the genealogical research business is so brisk that you can’t take a month off to film a television show, especially not when there’s ten big ones for you at the end of it. Get hopping, Tessa. Your plane leaves tomorrow night at . . .” There was a faint sound of paper rustling over his muted mumblings. “. . . I know that lovely little bit of crumpet wrote it down here somewhere—such a scrumptious boy, but no brains whatsoever . . . Ah, here it is. Yes, as I thought, your plane leaves at six tomorrow night. Gives you all the time in the world to pack and tie up loose ends. But don’t pack too much, you won’t need any clothing unless you want to stay after the show’s over.”

  “Pierce, I haven’t the slightest idea—”

  “I’ve told you and told you! It’s a TV show!”

  I blinked a half dozen more times, then rallied my wits. “You got me a job on a TV show? An English TV show?”

  “Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! All you have to do is be the duke’s wife. It’s very simple; even a child could understand it. Honestly, honey, you need to make a little more effort to pay attention. I don’t want Roger thinking you’re not fit to be a duchess.”

  I slumped down into a nearby chair, staring sightlessly out the window at the cows wandering through the tall yellow flowers in the pasture across the street from me. Violet-green swallows swooped and dove, tracing an intricate aerobatic roller coaster pattern in the early morning air, but their loops and twirls and midair twists had nothing on Pierce’s conversational manner. A few deep, calming breaths later, I was able to start figuring out what he was trying to tell me. “Pierce, dear heart, you are aware that I’m not an actress, yes?”

  “They don’t want actresses, silly! They want real people, and you’re perfect for the part because of your ancestors.”

  I rubbed my forehead. Undergoing a conversation with Pierce was never something I took lightly. “OK, so you got me a job involving no genealogical research despite the fact that that’s the only thing I know how to do, a job that pays a lot of money for a month’s work. Exactly what am I supposed to do for a month on a TV show if not act?”

  “Did you clean your ears this morning? I TOLD YOU! You’re a duke’s wife. Your job is to give him an heir in exchange for his title.”

  I fell out of the chair. “WHAT? Pierce, I’m thirty-nine years old! I’m too old to have children! And I don’t even know this guy!”

  “Tessa, now you’re being obtuse—”

  “I’m sorry for being so picky, but I’d like to know a man before I go about trying to give him an heir!”

  “It’s the TV show! You’re an American heiress who’s marrying the duke for his title. Just like that one you told me about . . . what’s her name . . . Constance Vanderbilt?”

  “Consuelo Vanderbilt,” I said slowly, the fragments of what he was saying starting to coalesce in my mind. I crawled back into the chair. “You mean the TV show is about a duke with an American wife?”

�Yes, yes, that’s what I’ve been saying!”

  “And they want me to play this part because Consuelo Vanderbilt and I shared an ancestor ten generations ago?”

  “At last! I was starting to wonder if you’d given away your brain and filled your head with pudding.”

  I ignored the slur and concentrated. Hard. “Why would an English TV company want an American with a tenuous—and there are probably millions of people who share the same relationship with Consuelo that I have—relationship to a long-dead heiress to act in their show?”

  “You won’t be acting, not really. It’s one of those reality shows. Didn’t I tell you that? They’re filming everyone for a month, sort of a social history experiment to see how common people, non-actors that is, deal with living the Victorian lifestyle. There’s a whole staff of sixteen to take care of you, servants you know, butlers and footmen and maids and all that. You’ll love it. You won’t have to lift a finger to do anything.”

  “A reality show?” I said slowly. “You mean like the one they did on PBS where people lived in a turn-of-the-twentieth-century house for a couple of months and a film crew followed them around as they went about their 1900-ish business?”

  “Exactly!” Pierce’s voice was replete with relief, but I was still confused.

  “It sounds interesting and all, but I don’t quite see why you think they’d want me to play the part of a duchess.”

  “Roger d’Aspry—he’s the producer; we went to Oxford together—is trying for realism as much as he can. Everyone hired has some sort of link to the part they’ll play. Max, for instance, he’s the duke, and is he gorgeous! Girl, I wet my pants just thinking about him! Max is actually a descendant of the Duke of Bridgewater. Fifth cousin once removed or something like that. It was his ancestors who lived in Worston Old Hall, which is where the shooting takes place. Big old place, lots of oak and marble. You’ll love it. Anyway, Roger told me to find him an American who was related to one of those American heiresses, the ones you were telling me about a couple of years ago when you were researching them, so immediately I thought of you.”

  “The dollar duchesses,” I said, still trying to absorb everything he was tossing at me. It was a lot to swallow. So much, I started choking immediately. “All those American heiresses marrying English peers—it was fascinating research. . . . I’m flattered you thought about me for this, but there’s two major problems.”

  He sighed again, a big, heavy, dramatic, long-suffering sort of sigh that was supposed to impart to me just how much I was trying his patience. I didn’t pay any attention to it. “What problems?”

  “First off, you never went to Oxford.”

  “Oh. That. I thought it sounded better saying Roger and I went to Oxford rather than he was my boy toy when we were both in L.A. What’s the second problem?”

  I hesitated to say it, but of all my friends, Pierce was the least judgmental. I might be uncomfortable with my appearance, but I knew he honestly didn’t think anything about it, which just made it harder for me to explain to him why it wasn’t at all possible for me to fly halfway around the world to pretend to be the wife of a man so gorgeous he made other men wet their pants. “Pierce, I just can’t, I’m . . . I’m too big.”

  “No, you’re not. Max is tall—taller than me—and I’m just a smidge taller than you.”

  I ground my teeth. I hated this. “Not tall . . . big. As in hefty. Chunky. Plump plus. Beyond chubby into the land of fat!”

  He laughed—he actually laughed at me. I bristled and thought lovingly about slamming the phone down in his ear. “Don’t be stupid, you’ll have a corset! That and the long skirts will take care of anything you’re worried about.”


  “Just bring yourself and your glorious hair, and let the wardrobe people do the rest.”


  “I’m overnighting you the rule book. Oh, and I thought of something to make this even more attractive! You know those journals you’re always keeping about stuff happening to you? Start a new one today, and record everything that happens. I bet you’ll be able to sell that later for oodles of money! The show is bound to be a hit, and I can almost guarantee you that publishers will beat down your door to find out all the behind-the-scenes happenings of a real-life duchess.”


  “Must dash. Evan, that darling boy, just popped his head in and waved his hands around, which means one of the studio people is on the other line. I’ll see you tomorrow! Toodle pip, and all that crap!”

  The line clicked twice, then went dead.

  I stared at the receiver in my hand for another minute before hanging up. Corsets? Long Victorian skirts? A duchess? Me?

  And just who was Cynthia?


  August 30

  After dinner

  Airplane over Canada

  Well, I’m here. On a plane. Flying to London to meet an old friend who has arranged for me to take part in something I’m sure I’ll regret. But damn, the money is just too good to refuse, especially for someone who makes a (pitiful and never enough to cover the bills) living finding baby boomers’ roots for them. I’m taking Pierce’s advice and starting a new journal, which you know if you’re reading this, because that means I survived this “social history experiment,” one I suspect is going to be nothing so much as hell for me.

  I am not a corset-wearing sort of person, despite my avid interest in history. And a duchess? Ha! I bet there’s not one single duchess who had to max out her credit cards to prepay her bills for the next month.

  I will say that this Roger d’Aspry, television producer and former Hollywood plaything, is very well organized. The rule book that Pierce overnighted to me is utterly fascinating. I dug out a couple of Victorian etiquette books I bought on eBay (the researcher’s best friend) and double-checked a couple of the items that jumped out at me, but they were correct. Which is kind of scary, considering the sort of stuff this show wants me and the others to do.

  Pierce also enclosed a fact sheet about the show, which filled in some but not all of the empty spaces he’d left in his explanation. It explained who Cynthia was (another person related distantly to American Old Money), but not what happened to her.

  I didn’t want to tell Pierce because his head is fat enough, but this was exactly the sort of thing I’ve always wanted to do. I love Victorian history, especially English Victorian history, and what dedicated Anglophile wouldn’t jump at the chance to stay in a bona fide English stately home?

  There is the corset issue, of course. But if I agree to do the job—I haven’t signed anything yet, and won’t until I talk more to Pierce and his friend Roger—I’m sure I’ll find a way around it.

  Then again, maybe Roger won’t want me once he sees me. Well, if that’s the case, I’ll just hang around London for a couple of days, then go home. No problem. Nothing like a little vacation to brighten up a dull year, is there?

  Oh, who am I fooling? I’ll die of embarrassment if he turns me down. Why, why, why did I get on this plane? Why did I believe Pierce? No corset in the world is going to hide all my fleshy bits! The whole idea is ridiculous! No one is going to want a fat duchess. GAH!


  Still August 30

  Even later after dinner

  Airplane over . . . um . . . polar cap, I think

  How mortifying. The flight attendant turned vicious when I politely requested they turn the plane around, or at the least drop me off somewhere before they land in London. I mean, how hard can it be to find an airport between here and England? It can’t take up that much gas or time! I am a paying customer, after all. Kind of. I didn’t pay, the TV company did, but still, someone paid for my ticket and that’s what really matters.

  This doesn’t bode well for the rest of the trip.

  Monday—or maybe it’s Tuesday now

  August 30/31, depending on your time zone

  Post-movie (Sleepless in Seattle)

  Row 12, se
at A, over Greenland, according to Bob the pilot

  I can’t believe the sort of bullies they hire as flight attendants nowadays. I know they’ve cracked down on security and everything, but this has nothing to do with the safety of the airplane, its crew, or the passengers. Hilda Trentworth, flight attendant henceforth known to one and all as Hilda the Hun, is on my list. I’m going to formally complain about her not only threatening to take away my frequent flyer miles (she can’t do that, can she?), but also the fact that she snapped at me and pushed me back into my seat when all I did was ask about the possibility of parachuting out of the plane so I don’t have to be humiliated when Roger, after bursting into hysterical laughter upon seeing me, suddenly starts chanting “Fat, fat, the water rat!” as he dances around me.

  I don’t even think she even asked Bob the pilot about dropping me off somewhere. I’m going to ask one of the other flight attendants, the ones who aren’t Hun-like, if one of them will ask Bob for me. He sounds nice. I bet he will.

  Monday, Tuesday, who knows

  August whatever

  Middle of the friggin‘ night

  Airplane from hell

  Hilda the Hun just leaned over the old lady next to me to tell me that if I bother one more flight attendant, she’ll see I get off the plane . . . in the middle of the ocean, without a parachute.

  She is so going to get reported!

  Tuesday (figured that out with the help of the guy sitting in front of me)

  August 31

  Early morning U.K. time/middle of the night Seattle time