Home > Octavius and the Perfect Governess

Octavius and the Perfect Governess
Author: Emily Larkin

Chapter One

 

 

Octavius Pryor should have won the race. It wasn’t difficult. The empty ballroom at his grandfather-the-duke’s house was eighty yards long, he’d lined one hundred and twenty chairs up in a row across the polished wooden floorboards, and making his way from one side of the room to the other without touching the floor was easy. His cousin Nonus Pryor—Ned—also had one hundred and twenty chairs to scramble over, but Ned was as clumsy as an ox and Octavius knew he could make it across the ballroom first, which was exactly what he was doing—until his foot went right through the seat of one of the delicate giltwood chairs. He was going too fast to catch his balance. Both he and the chair crashed to the floor. And that was him out of the race.

His cousin Dex—Decimus Pryor—hooted loudly.

Octavius ignored the hooting and sat up. The good news was that he didn’t appear to have broken anything except the chair. The bad news was that Ned, who’d been at least twenty chairs behind him, was now almost guaranteed to win.

Ned slowed to a swagger—as best as a man could swagger while clambering along a row of giltwood chairs.

Octavius gritted his teeth and watched his cousin navigate the last few dozen chairs. Ned glanced back at Octavius, smirked, and then slowly reached out and touched the wall with one fingertip.

Dex hooted again.

Octavius bent his attention to extracting his leg from the chair. Fortunately, he hadn’t ruined his stockings. He climbed to his feet and watched warily as Ned stepped down from the final chair and sauntered towards him.

“Well?” Dex said. “What’s Otto’s forfeit to be?”

Ned’s smirk widened. “His forfeit is that he goes to Vauxhall Gardens tomorrow night . . . as a woman.”

There was a moment’s silence. The game they had of creating embarrassing forfeits for each other was long-established, but this forfeit was unprecedented.

Dex gave a loud whoop. “Excellent!” he said, his face alight with glee. “I can’t wait to see this.”

 

 

When Ned said that Octavius was going to Vauxhall Gardens as a woman, he meant it quite literally. Not as a man dressed in woman’s clothing, but as a woman dressed in woman’s clothing. Because Octavius could change his shape. That was the gift he’d chosen when his Faerie godmother had visited him on his twenty-fifth birthday.

Ned had chosen invisibility when it was his turn, which was the stupidest use of a wish that Octavius could think of. Ned was the loudest, clumsiest brute in all England. He walked with the stealth of a rampaging elephant. He was terrible at being invisible. So terrible, in fact, that their grandfather-the-duke had placed strict conditions on Ned’s use of his gift.

Ned had grumbled, but he’d obeyed. He might be a blockhead, but he wasn’t such a blockhead as to risk revealing the family secret. No one wanted to find out what would happen if it became common knowledge that one of England’s most aristocratic families actually had a Faerie godmother.

Octavius, who could walk stealthily when he wanted to, hadn’t chosen invisibility; he’d chosen metamorphosis, which meant that he could become any creature he wished. In the two years he’d had this ability, he’d been pretty much every animal he could think of. He’d even taken the shape of another person a few times. Once, he’d pretended to be his cousin, Dex. There he’d sat, drinking brandy and discussing horseflesh with his brother and his cousins, all of them thinking he was Dex—and then Dex had walked into the room. The expressions on everyone’s faces had been priceless. Lord, the expression on Dex’s face . . .

Octavius had laughed so hard that he’d cried.

But one shape he’d never been tempted to try was that of a woman.

Why would he want to?

He was a man. And not just any man, but a good-looking, wealthy, and extremely well-born man. Why, when he had all those advantages, would he want to see what it was like to be a woman?

But that was the forfeit Ned had chosen and so here Octavius was, in his bedchamber, eyeing a pile of women’s clothing, while far too many people clustered around him—not just Ned and Dex, but his own brother, Quintus, and Ned’s brother, Sextus.

Quintus and Sextus usually held themselves distant from high jinks and tomfoolery, Quintus because he was an earl and he took his responsibilities extremely seriously and Sextus because he was an aloof sort of fellow—and yet here they both were in Octavius’s bedchamber.

Octavius didn’t mind making a fool of himself in front of a muttonhead like Ned and a rattle like Dex, but in front of his oh-so-sober brother and his stand-offish older cousin? He felt more self-conscious than he had in years, even a little embarrassed.

“Whose clothes are they?” he asked.

“Lydia’s,” Ned said.

Octavius tried to look as if it didn’t bother him that he was going to be wearing Ned’s mistress’s clothes, but it did. Lydia was extremely buxom, which meant that he was going to have to be extremely buxom or the gown would fall right off him.

He almost balked, but he’d never backed down from a forfeit before, so he gritted his teeth and unwound his neckcloth.

Octavius stripped to his drawers, made them all turn their backs, then removed the drawers, too. He pictured what he wanted to look like: Lydia’s figure, but not Lydia’s face—brown ringlets instead of blonde, and brown eyes, too—and with a silent God damn it, he changed shape. Magic tickled across his skin and itched inside his bones. He gave an involuntary shiver—and then it was done. He was a woman.

Octavius didn’t examine his new body. He hastily dragged on the chemise, keeping his gaze averted from the mirror. “All right,” he said, in a voice that was light and feminine and sounded utterly wrong coming from his mouth. “You can turn around.”

His brother and cousins turned around and stared at him. It was oddly unsettling to be standing in front of them in the shape of a woman, wearing only a thin chemise. In fact, it was almost intimidating. Octavius crossed his arms defensively over his ample bosom, then uncrossed them and put his hands on his hips, another defensive stance, made himself stop doing that, too, and gestured at the pile of women’s clothing on the bed. “Well, who’s going to help me with the stays?”

No one volunteered. No one cracked any jokes, either. It appeared that he wasn’t the only one who was unsettled. His brother, Quintus, had a particularly stuffed expression on his face, Sextus looked faintly pained, and Ned and Dex, both of whom he expected to be smirking, weren’t.

“The stays,” Octavius said again. “Come on, you clods. Help me to dress.” And then, because he was damned if he was going to let them see how uncomfortable he felt, he fluttered his eyelashes coquettishly.

Quintus winced, and turned his back. “Curse it, Otto, don’t do that.”

Octavius laughed. The feeling of being almost intimidated disappeared. In its place was the realization that if he played this right, he could make them all so uncomfortable that none of them would ever repeat this forfeit. He picked up the stays and dangled the garment in front of Ned. “You chose this forfeit; you help me dress.”

 

 

It took quite a while to dress, because Ned was the world’s worst lady’s maid. He wrestled with the stays for almost a quarter of an hour, then put the petticoat on back to front. The gown consisted of a long sarcenet slip with a shorter lace robe on top of that. Ned flatly refused to arrange the decorative ribbons at Octavius’s bosom or to help him fasten the silk stockings above his knees. Octavius hid his amusement. Oh, yes, Ned was never going to repeat this forfeit.

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