“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.
But I digress.
“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 afore-mentioned 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 I 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 mid-air 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 LA. 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 up 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?