Wilde Child (The Wildes of Lindow Castle #6) by Eloisa James

Chapter One

Lindow Castle

The Duke of Lindow’s country estate


August 20, 1784

“I need curves if you want me to play a woman’s role,” Otis Murgatroyd complained, frowning at the mirror.

“I’m trying,” Joan said, panting as she hauled on his corset strings. “Suck in your stomach!”

“My understanding was that whalebones did the work,” Otis grumbled. “Madame Turcotte’s advertisements claim that her corsets can put a bend in a brick wall.”

Joan, known to the world as Lady Joan Wilde, daughter of the Duke of Lindow, gave a final wrench that resulted in a slight indention around her best friend’s middle. Grimacing at her reddened fingers, she tied off the corset. “Now the bustle. At least a robe à l’anglaise doesn’t have panniers.”

Otis’s gown had been rescued from the attic and was out of fashion, but he wasn’t going into polite society dressed as a woman, merely onto the private stage in Lindow Castle. Thirty minutes later, Joan collapsed on the sofa, worn out and vowing to raise her maid’s wages.

Otis, on the other hand, looked fresh as the proverbial daisy in a green petticoat and yellow striped organdy apron with strawberry-colored overskirts and a matching bodice with a lace fichu frothing up to his chin.

“Your wig is slipping,” Joan pointed out. He was wearing what her Aunt Knowe called a “gooseberry wig” with two frizzled bunches over the ears that resembled a gooseberry bush.

Otis adjusted the wig, then picked up a hat of strawberry silk adorned with a dark green bow and plopped it on top of the wig, adjusting the bow to a rakish angle. “I like wearing all these colors.”

“You already aspire to the rainbow,” Joan said wryly. In the three years she’d known Otis, his clothing had grown ever more outrageous, including an infamous appearance at one of the queen’s drawing rooms wearing an apricot brocade coat with purple breeches.

“But now I’m curved like one,” Otis said, guffawing.

“You don’t sound like a lady,” Joan observed.

“And I’m not very pretty.”

That was true. As a man, Otis was impishly handsome, if short, but dressed in women’s clothing, he became startlingly unattractive.

“Whereas you look beautiful as ever in breeches,” he added.

Joan shrugged. She had always seen her beauty as a detriment rather than an asset, since her golden hair, blue eyes, and perfect skin made her the spitting image of the handsome Prussian count with whom her mother had bolted, causing a scandal.

More than one gentleman had rejected the very idea of marrying a woman whose hair color confirmed her illegitimacy.

Luckily, Joan had grown up in Lindow Castle, surrounded by a huge, loving family. She had always known who she was—a Wilde—and what’s more, that the duke would murder anyone who suggested to his face that she wasn’t his daughter.

Standing up and turning to the mirror, instead of a lady she saw a golden-haired, blue-eyed stripling dressed in a sober coat of dusky emerald with silver-thread embroidery down the front and around the cuffs.

Young and slender, but a man, with all a man’s privileges.

She grinned at herself. “My favorite aspect of this costume is the rapier.” She put her hand on the hilt and struck a pose, one knee bent before her.

“If the matrons get wind of your legs in those breeches,” Otis said, “you’ll be thrown out of polite society. Finally.”

Joan shrugged again, having spent the last two years on the edge of being ruined. Sometimes the scandal wasn’t her fault, such as when young Lord Stuckley had kidnapped her from a ball, planning a forced wedding. She had knocked him senseless with the hilt of his own sword, an action that the ton interpreted as unladylike. The fact that she had returned to the ball and danced the night away was ruled an even greater affront to refined sensibilities.

Her father had been livid at Stuckley, not Joan, but he wasn’t happy when Joan was caught kissing a marquess in an arbor—and refused the offer to become a marchioness. A few weeks after that, she kissed the Honorable Anthony Froude on a balcony in full sight of the ballroom. That scandal burned even hotter after she informed Lady Froude that her son’s kisses were only intoxicating because he had imbibed a bottle of brandy.

“Father gave me permission to wear breeches for this play. He knows I’m tired of performing damsels in distress,” Joan said now. “Though I might add that I’m forbidden to leave the grounds in male attire. The duke didn’t extend the command to you in a gown, though.”