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Corset Diaries, Page 2

Katie MacAlister

  Chained to my seat, plummeting earthward from thirty thousand feet if a certain flight attendant had her way

  All right, so I’ve given up all hope of getting off the plane before reaching England’s fabled shores. I’m coping with the fact that I’m in for nothing but disappointment, embarrassment, and the sharp pain of rejection once Roger sees me. I don’t like it, but I’m coping, and that’s gotta give me some sort of cosmic brownie points. To distract myself from the horror that awaits me once Pierce picks me up at Heathrow, I read a bit more of the rule book. The first part basically covered the same stuff the fact sheet does:


  (snappy title, huh?)

  Presented to you by U.K. Alive!, Britain’s fastest-growing television studio, this fascinating new series takes you into the lives of Victorians in a way that will startle and surprise you. Twenty-four volunteers from around Britain will join together to breathe new life into the stories of the wealth, glamour, and power that defined England’s ruling class one hundred and twenty-five years ago.

  Wealth, power, and glamour, huh? So far so good.

  Historical Accuracy is a Must at U.K. Alive!

  Filmed entirely at Worston Old Hall in Cheshire, one of the (now extinct) Duke of Bridgewater’s many estates, a modern-day descendant of the duke brings his family to re-create life as it was for the landed gentry. How would you behave if you were suddenly whisked away from the stresses of everyday life and put down in a world where you had seemingly limitless power and wealth, a world where you only had to lift a finger to have any desire fulfilled? Maximillian Edgerton, an architect from Bristol, will soon find out as he assumes the role of the fifteenth Duke of Bridgewater, newly wed to a charming (and rich) American heiress. The role of the new Duchess of Bridgewater is assumed by Cynthia Towers, a descendant of the famed American Astor family. Joining Mr. Edgerton are his real-life daughter, twelve-year-old Melody, his sister, Barbara Edgerton-Slough, and his brother-in-law, Henry Slough.

  Oh, great. He’s bringing his whole family. Sure, he’ll have the comfort of everyone he loves around him, but what’ll I have?

  I don’t know why I’m worrying. I won’t fit into the corset. They’ll send me home after just one look.

  Damn my genes. This sounded like it would have been fun.

  Downstairs Is a Much Different World

  But what if you weren’t born with the proverbial silver spoon in your mouth? What if you were one of the 1.5 million people in service in September 1879? Would you be able to accept life dominated by the complicated hierarchy and rules servants had to follow, not to mention working without modern devices? We’ll join sixteen volunteers who come to Worston Old Hall with no experience of what it means to be a servant. Only the cook and coachman have actual working knowledge of what it takes to fill their jobs. Join Palmer the butler and Mrs. Peters the housekeeper as they struggle with the responsibility of turning the nine lower servants from modern, twenty-first-century volunteers into a team who work with Victorian precision and efficiency.

  I couldn’t help but wonder if I would be on the plane at that moment if the job I had been offered was that of scullery maid. . . . Well, that didn’t take long to ponder. For ten thousand dollars, yes, I’d wash dishes for a month.

  No Mobile Phones, No Toothpaste

  (No toothpaste? GAH!)

  For four weeks the entire household, from duke to scullery maid, will function just as houses of the nobility did in 1879. Each volunteer has foresworn modern machines and technology, agreeing instead to adhere steadfastly to Victorian standards of behavior, following with strict obedience the rules and manners of the time.

  OK, so that meant what? No smoking if you were a woman, chaperones for unmarried women, couldn’t mention anything remotely approaching a sexual subject without couching it in terms so obtuse that no one really knew what you were talking about, smelling salts and fans, and . . . Oh, those poor people playing the servants! From what I could recall reading about the Victorians, they really had a hard time. Oy. Maybe it’s a good thing they needed an American to be the duchess . . . that’s assuming I get the job, which I won’t once Roger sees me.

  Maybe if I slipped Bob the pilot a plaintive note and twenty bucks he’d stop in Ireland so I could sneak off?

  Everyone in Their Places,

  and a Place for Everything

  Toughest of all the rules for our brave volunteers downstairs will be the detailed and intricate hierarchy that governs the servants. How will our free-willed volunteers cope with being told who can speak and when, who must defer to whom, and how they must interact with the family above stairs? Most importantly, how will they deal with their loss of freedom?

  If I do get the job (and I won’t; I’ve seen pictures of Consuelo Vanderbilt and all the other dollar duchesses— almost all of them were skinny little things), I’m going to be extra-special nice to the poor people downstairs.

  Everyone in Worston Old Hall has a place set down for them by hundreds of years of societal norms and mores—everyone from the duke in his smoking room to the third footman as he carries out the slops will keep to his place. Join us for four scintillating weeks as we examine how this group of modern-day freethinkers change into their Victorian counterparts. Will A Month in the Life of a Victorian Duke prove to be heaven . . . or hell?

  “Holy cow!”

  The woman next to me, a nice elderly English lady who chatted very politely with me for the first twenty minutes of the trip then pulled out a book and left me alone for the duration, moved restlessly. Most of the passengers on the plane were asleep by this time, the lights dimmed, blankies and pillows having been handed out, but I had remained awake to read the packet of info Pierce had sent. I angled my reading lamp away from my seatmate so I wouldn’t disturb her while I read, but I guess my exclamation must have been louder than I thought, because she sat up and cast me a questioning glance.

  I tilted toward her the eight-by-ten glossy that had been shuffled between consent forms.

  “Is that your sweetheart?” she asked, making a little moue of appreciation at the photo.

  I pursed my lips in a soundless whistle and shook my head. “Just a guy I might be working with.”

  Pierce was right; the man was gorgeous—black, black hair that waved back from a not-too-high forehead, startlingly light blue eyes that glittered from beneath his black eyebrows, a nice if slightly rueful smile, and a gently blunted chin that for some reason made my stomach flutter and my legs go a bit weak. For a moment I mulled over that reaction to a mere picture, then chalked it up to not having dated in the three years since Peter died. Lack of sex will sometimes make you a bit swoony.

  There was also a photo of a woman; blond, pretty heart-shaped face, big eyes, and thin, thin, thin. In other words, as completely different from my brunette, freckle-faced, large self as she could be. It was Cynthia, the woman originally cast to play the part of wife to the drool-worthy duke, a woman who looked absolutely perfect for the part, a woman who would look even more perfect next to the black-haired Adonis. Seen together, it would be infinitely believable that the duke would have chosen her from all women to be his wife, the woman to bear his children, mother to his daughter, friend, helpmeet, lover. She was, in a word, flawless.

  I really want to go home.

  Tuesday again

  August 31

  Nine in the morning U.K. time—post-breakfast

  Still on the plane (will this flight never end?)

  Breakfast was a dismal affair—potted meat and black bread and a pastry and yogurt. Not that I expect haute cuisine in tourist class, but still! Some fruit might have been nice. And of course, my breakfast tray was thrown to me over Mrs. Hargreaves (my elderly seatmate) by the Hun. She also deliberately tried to spill coffee on me when she poured it, but I was too quick for her. Ha! Triumphant at last. Just wait until the head of the airline gets my letter about her.

  Mrs. Hargreaves turned out to be
a gold mine of information. Seems when she was a “little gel,” her parents had servants galore. She had a nanny, of course, and she remembers the housemaids smoking and chatting in the servant’s hall. I asked her questions about how her mother dealt with the servants, but she was less helpful there.

  “What did you think of the servants?” I asked, and held up a photocopy of the cover for The Glory of Womanhood, a Victorian ladies’ book that had been included in the packet of material from the studio. “This book says, ‘Conduct toward servants should be always equal, never violent, never familiar. Speak to them always with civility, but keep them in their proper places.’ Did your family treat them in that way?”

  She raised one carefully penciled eyebrow. “Naturally. One is kind to one’s servants, but one does not desire familiarity with them.”

  Well, that put me right in my place. And with great timing, too, since Bob the pilot just announced we’re approaching Heathrow. Oh, lovely. My life is about to end. Fabulous.

  Maybe I’ll fall and break my arm in the airport and have to be taken to a hospital for lengthy arm-repair surgery, hence making it impossible for me to meet Roger.

  Maybe Pierce will forget to pick me up, leaving me with no way to get in contact with him or Roger.

  Maybe the passport guys won’t let me into the country, and Roger won’t have the opportunity to reject me in person.

  Maybe I should just get a grip.

  Still Tuesday

  August 31

  9:14 P.M., England time

  Room 722, Hyde Park Hilton

  Well. I’m still here. More than a little groggy and jet-lagged, not to mention bemused, but here.

  Pierce was at the airport waiting for me when I came through customs. He looked the same as he always did— tall, good-looking despite the beginnings of a cute little beer belly, confident, with a smile that always made me think he was laughing secretly at something only he found funny.

  “Tessa! At last! I’ve waited forever for you! Mwah!” He planted a sloppy wet kiss on my cheek then held me at arm’s length to give me a brisk once-over. “You look like hell, honey, you really do.”

  My shoulders slumped as I crossed a protective arm over my torso. “Thanks just oodles, Pierce. You sure do know how to make a girl feel good.”

  He laughed and waved his hands toward the luggage I’d set down to hug him. “Evan, be a lamb and take those, will you? Now, you know what I meant by look like hell. Your hair! Tessa, love, I’ve told you time and time again—a little color is not a bad thing! No one likes that dull shade of brown. A nice magenta cellophane, that’s what you need.”

  “Auburn, definitely auburn,” a slim young man with copious piercings said as he grabbed my two bags. “Auburn is much warmer. It would go with her skin tone better than magenta.”

  The two men eyed me for a minute, their heads tipped to the side just like they were symbiotic twins, then Pierce shook his head, tsked, and grabbed my arm to steer me toward the car park. “It’s not important, honey. We can fix your hair up later, after the show is over. Now, you’ve read the rule book, yes?”

  “No. Just some of it.”

  “Excellent,” he said, obviously not paying the slightest bit of attention to me as he pushed me through the doors toward a dark tunnel leading to the parking. “Let’s see, it’s two now, and you have a fitting at four. . . . Yes, we have time for lunch. Evan?”

  “Right behind you, Pee,” Evan answered.

  “We’ll stop at the Cock and Cow for a bit of lunch, then go on to the studio.”

  “Pee?” I asked Pierce a moment later when Evan scooted around us, heading for a dark blue sedan.

  “Isn’t he delicious?” Pierce answered, his gaze resting with wicked intent on the younger man as Evan stuffed my luggage into the trunk. “Such a help, he is. You have simply no idea how useful I find him.”

  “Mmm,” I said. “I bet you do. He’s awfully . . . pierced, don’t you think? I mean, even if he is trying to live up to your name, don’t you think having his eyebrows, nose, ears, and lower lip pierced is going a bit too far?”

  Pierce snickered and herded me to the side of the car, his voice low and soft as velvet as he whispered, “His tongue is pierced, too. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I enjoy that!”

  “Right. I think we’re dipping into the realm of too much information, so I’ll let that pass. About lunch—I couldn’t possibly eat. I think I’m going to be sick as is. Could we just skip all the stuff and go straight to the part where I meet this Roger guy and he takes one look at my fleshy form and laughs hysterically, wiping his eyes just long enough to send me home?”

  “Stop it. Roger’s going to love you,” he said as he shoved me into the backseat. I scooted over so he could sit next to me. “You’re perfect for the job, just perfect! You have every quality he’s looking for. You’re intelligent—”

  “Thank you,” I murmured, nattered and disbelieving at the same time.

  “—and you know just tons about history and all that stuff—”

  “It was my major in college.”

  “—and you’re American, of course, and related to the Vanderbilts—”

  “Distantly,” I pointed out. “Very distantly. And so are a lot of other people.”

  “—and most importantly of all, you’re the only one who is free.”

  He went on for another minute, giving less and less believable reasons why Roger the producer would love me, but I was stuck on the last point.

  “What do you mean I was the only one who is free? You said you moved heaven and hell to get me this job, and now you’re saying the only reason I’m being considered is because no one else can do it? I wasn’t your first choice?”

  “Oh, look, we’re coming into town. That didn’t take long, did it? Traffic around here is normally the pits. How much farther to the Cock and Cow, Evan?”

  I sat back and thought about giving in to a pout. The way Pierce evaded my question was answer enough— obviously, I was not the first choice as a replacement. Of course I wasn’t. What was I thinking?

  Lunch looked good. I don’t know if it was, because I decided the only way I was going to get through the day was if I had a little liquid courage, so accordingly, I drank my lunch. I poured martini after martini down my throat until a blessed numbness set in. Pierce stopped me after the third one, which may not sound like much, but trust me, for me it was. By the time Pierce caught me sucking the last bit of gin from the olive’s toothpick, it was too late.

  “I like olives. Don’t you like olives? I really like olives. They’re so olivey,” I said to him as he hauled me outside to where Evan was waiting with the car. “Olive. Even the name is good. Oooooooooolive. Isn’t it nummy? You’re nummy too, Pierce. It’s just too bad you don’t like girls, ‘cause I bet a lot of them would olive you. You have a really nice face.” I gave his face a pat, just to show him that I really liked it and wasn’t just saying it to be nice.

  Pierce shoved me into the car, muttering under his breath something about people who have no tolerance for alcohol knowing better than to drink martinis.

  “But I’m better now,” I protested, wondering how one of my legs had found its way onto his lap. “I never used to be able to drink, but I can now. I’ve been practicing. I can have a whole bottle of beer without getting silly now, and I couldn’t do that when we shared that apartmen‘ on Queen Anne Hill. ’Member that apartmen‘?”

  “Remind me never to volunteer to help Roger again, will you?” Pierce asked Evan. He pushed my leg off his lap. “And as soon as we get to the studio, I want you to find some coffee—black—and bring it to the wardrobe room. Six or seven cups of it.”

  I tipped my head back and started singing “Werewolves of London.”

  Pierce shuddered. “Make that twenty cups.”

  Thankfully, the buzz from the martinis lasted through the horrors of having to stand in my underwear in front of Pierce and a couple of wardrobe ladies while they measured ev
ery conceivable stretch of my skin.

  They shoved a couple of dresses on me, but I don’t remember much about them except they were scratchy and uncomfortable. Pierce let me have a little nap on a ratty old armchair in one of the wardrobe rooms while various people came up and held bits of material against my cheek to see what looked good.

  The buzz, unfortunately, was gone by the time he shook me awake, and frog-marched me, dizzy and a bit queasy, down the hall, up a flight of stairs, and into a plush carpeted room dark with heavy mahogany furniture, lightened by a lovely view of the Thames.

  Before I could open my mouth to protest Pierce’s brutality of dragging me from a sound sleep, a balding man with dark red hair looked up from the massive desk I was pushed before. My stomach seemed to keep moving long after I stopped.

  “Oh, there you are! Hello, Tessa, I’m Roger d’Aspry. Pierce has told me so much about you. I’m delighted that you’re joining our team—relieved actually, because we start filming tomorrow and what’s the story of a duke’s life without his duchess at his side?” Roger came around the desk while he was speaking, his voice clipped in a manner reminiscent of expensive schooling. He took my hand in both of his to simultaneously pat and shake it. He was about four inches shorter than me; not terribly unusual, as I am almost six feet tall. “I know you’ll have a grand time, just a grand time. You’re going to love everyone and the house! It’s glorious! Pierce tells me you’re quite the devotee of history, so you should have no trouble adapting to the lifestyle. You’ve read the rule book and introductory material?”