A Royal Regard Prequel Novella
By Mariana Gabrielle
Copyright © 2015 by Mariana Gabrielle
Shakespir Edition: 978-1-311-92716-3
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either a product of fiction or are used in a fictitious manner, including portrayal of historical figures and situations. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.
To the readers and other writers in the Bluestocking Bookshop, to their respective characters, and to Bella’s once and future hero, Nick, all of whom have helped shy Bella Smithson grow into the woman I always knew her to be.
April 3, 1805
“There is Lady Lisbourne.” Beneath the raucous dance music, Minerva, Lady Effingale, spoke in almost a full voice to emulate a whisper, making her niece wince beneath the likelihood of public humiliation. “I plan to introduce you, but best wait until she is alone; her eldest son’s wife has a vicious tongue, and will not hesitate to call out your many faults.”
Miss Isabella Smithson nodded, bottom lip caught between her teeth, fingers twisted in her skirt, knees shifting from side to side in her seat on the sofa between her aunt and cousin. Aunt Minerva’s hard eyes, set deep in her forbidding face, roamed from Bella’s hair, which must look a rat’s nest by now, after an hour in a warm ballroom, to her hem, which had been splashed by a carriage in the street.
“Her fourth son is pockmarked, but not entirely without means, and if he won’t have you, we might be able to place you with her as a companion. I’m told she is a bit dotty. And that gentleman there, in the blue waistcoat, is a widower.”
Charlotte, the Marchioness of Firthley, leaned in, “He is a good-for-nothing, Mother, with six untamable children and an estate mortgaged to the hilt. You’ll not tie my cousin to a man like that if I have anything to say about it.” She patted Bella’s arm, “And I do.” Charlotte gently steered the subject to the relative cheapness of the decorations in the Bath assembly rooms, as opposed to London, a topic likely to occupy Lady Effingale for at least ten minutes.
For as long as Aunt Minerva was disparaging the environs, she could be relied upon not to criticize Bella. As soon as she reached the end of her complaints about the garish wallpaper, tasteless sculptures, and abundance of gold-trimmed mirrors, though, Aunt Minerva summed up with, “To think, I am reduced to socializing in Bath, of all places. If Isabella had managed to keep her lemonade in her cup and not on the Duke of Lanceley’s cravat, we would be in London, not a second-rate backwater. If only any gentleman there would look twice at you.”
“Bath is hardly a backwater, Mother.”
“It is hardly London.”
Thankfully, Aunt Minerva didn’t rake over Bella’s encounter with the Duke of Lanceley. The very thought made her throat close. If only she could permanently close her ears against Lady Effingale’s opinions of Bella’s plain-as-pudding face, tree-stump-of-a-figure, stick-straight hair, drab-as-dirt disposition, designed-for-the-dustbin clothes, and havey-cavey father who provided a next-to-nothing dowry, then lost it in a gaming hell.
Every time Aunt Minerva said, “my brother” in that tone, Bella felt she was calling Satan out of Hell. No matter how often Charlotte’s father, Viscount Effingale, told Bella she was under his protection, it wasn’t entirely true. Her father could remove her from the Effingale’s manor house any time he chose, and he had done so by magistrate before. If Sir Jasper Smithson discovered any small advantage to having a plain, shy daughter who would never attract a man, the baronet would yank her back to Evercreech faster than a horse could throw a shoe, no matter who was paying the expenses for her husband hunt.
It wasn’t as though Bella had asked to be brought out; she had begged to be left alone. She couldn’t imagine a more horrid prospect than being forced to converse with unknown gentlemen on unknown topics amidst crowds of unknown aristocrats, with the end goal of being taken to wife by any man to make an offer. The thought of being alone with a new husband she had barely met made her stomach twist and mouth go dry. They had only been at the assembly a half-hour, and she already wished she were anywhere else.
Aunt Minerva had introduced Bella to every vaguely acceptable man in the room, excepting, of course, any who could find more attractive wives, and Bella would now be happy to excuse herself, with a headache beginning to pound behind her eyes.
When Aunt Minerva came out with, “…not remotely Incomparable, unless one had no other girl to compare with,” Bella stood so quickly, she might have upset the chair, had her uncle not reached a hand out to steady her.
“If you will… er… retiring room. No, Charlotte, I will be perfectly fine alone.”
When she reached the retiring room, she didn’t even need to open the door to know it was filled with clacking hens. Bella could hear the on dits flying among too many women, even through the door. Instead of entering to discover herself another topic, she turned down a smaller hallway that surely must be servants’ access to somewhere. No matter. Bella just needed a quiet place to rest her head and shut her eyes.
Standing in the unlit back hall, her head leaned against a wall, she hadn’t even noticed the door open just a crack, about three feet away. Telling herself she was not, strictly speaking, a girl who would eavesdrop, she startled at, “…wallflower,” and leaned closer.
She knew she had not put on a good showing tonight, but to be discussed and found wanting in the gentleman’s study at the very first party was beyond the pale. Her face burned, and she shuffled closer to the wall, as though by proximity to the flocked wallpaper, she might become part of it.
“I take your point about wallflowers.” The man’s sardonic tone seeped through the door. “Low expectations, humility, and gratitude are all excellent qualities in a wife who will be forced to settle for an upstart baron who lives his life drifting between seaports.”
He sounded worn down and tired, like Uncle Howard after one of Aunt Minerva’s tantrums, but his voice was not resentful or angry, but kind, with a touch of humor.
“That’s not what—”
“While I appreciate your effort to make His Royal Highness’s commands more palatable, I am fairly certain he has no legal standing to make demands of a woman I marry, or require I remain in active service with my private fleet. I am past fifty years old, with a new barony and more money than I can spend in ten lifetimes. Surely he can understand my desire for a settled life and heir.”
Bella tipped her head and moved just slightly to see if she could spot the man speaking, but without further opening the door and chancing discovery, there was no way. The second voice was not so kindly, masked slightly by the clinking of glassware and crystal. “Did you take your elevation as a reward, Holsworthy? For you might be better to view it as a bribe or a cudgel. The Prince Regent wishes you on the high seas, not rusticating on a country estate, or he would not be adding ships to your fleet.”
“His wishes are not lost on me, but I have made the prince and his father millions of pounds, and Seventh Sea Shipping will continue to pay out dividends until the next King George and I are both dust. Can that not be enough?”
“Not enough for the king, the regent, the Privy Council, most of Parliament, or the Foreign Office—not to mention your investors. You are the only one who thinks yourself unsuited as a diplomat. Do as your sovereign says, Holsworthy. Find yourself a seagoing baroness or board your new flagship without one.”
Silence reigned for several long moments, until finally, the gentleman with the long-suffering tone said, “Clearly, the question of my living arrangements will not be solved today, but that is not to say I cannot seek out the future Lady Holsworthy, and your wife is waiting to begin the introductions. Shall we make good use of our proximity to the ballroom, where negotiations with appropriate young women can ensue? Perhaps if I find one amiable enough, she will talk the prince out of his new directive.” He laughed. “I would gladly marry anyone who can change the regent’s mind about anything.”
Bella couldn’t untangle the mumbling responses from the laughter, but could not miss the man chuckle and say, “Such a face, my lord! I will have you know, I find nothing objectionable about wallflowers.”
Bella must be in a servants’ corridor, because the men’s voices receded in the opposite direction, leaving her to the silence she had been craving. She stole the few minutes to will away the sick headache, and compose herself for another hour of veiled, and not-so-veiled, insults from her family and an endless round of gentlemen who didn’t want to look at her, much less ask her to dance.
On her way back, only a few feet from her aunt and cousin, a tall man stepped into her path and bowed before her. His features were handsome where hers were plain, but his bronze hair and blue-green eyes were a mirror match to Bella’s. He escorted her the last few steps to her destination, greeting her family politely, “Lady Effingale. Lady Firthley.” He tweaked Bella’s nose. “Sissy.” Bella yanked her face away. “Have they married you off to the highest bidder yet, my sweet?”
“We’ll not be able to marry her to anyone if she is seen with you, John Smithson, pockets always to let.” Aunt Minerva growled. “And your contemptible brother had better not be lurking.” He opened his mouth to confirm or deny Jeremy’s whereabouts, but she spoke right over him. “After his behavior last Season with Charlotte… if Lords Effingale or Firthley see him, there is no telling what they will do, and whatever it is, it cannot be painful enough.”
“I offer apologies again for my brother’s despicable plan, Char—Lady Firthley. You may be sure he is vanquished in body, mind, and spirit after the duel with your husband, is grateful for the mercy shown his unworthy hide, and plans no further incursions into your vicinity.”
“See that it remains so,” Aunt Minerva warned, shaking her finger at him. “Now, take yourself away from here, should you wish Isabella ever to have any prospects.”
“Not before I take a turn about the floor with my beloved sister.” His face was taut and eyes sharp as he grasped Bella’s hand and placed it on his arm. She tried to pull away, but his hand tightened on hers as he walked her to the dance floor for a minuet. Unless she made a scene, which would call Aunt Minerva’s wrath down on both of them, she was resigned to performing the set. At least the dance was half finished.
As she curtsied and he bowed, he whispered, “Jeremy has decamped for a house party somewhere in the country, so you needn’t worry about him turning up today, but Father will soon. He has taken it in mind to find a bridegroom for you himself. Someone from whom he can demand a portion of your dowry. He will be here two days hence.” She missed the fourth step, so John held his hand out to steady her. “Careful, my dear, or the gentlemen will not see what a perfect dancer you are.”
“But Father said—”
“Nevertheless, he will be here shortly to see what advantage he can gain. I said I would open the house and arrange invitations before his arrival.”
Since her father had long since lost everything in the Smithson house in Bath, except the house itself, which was under entail, the men in her family would survive as they always did in the social centers. They would live in the empty Smithson town house with a cook/housekeeper, entertaining at clubs and gambling hells, and the Baronet and Messrs. Smithson would ply their trade as entertaining dinner guests, unparalleled cardsharps, and terribly charming fellows.
“‘Twould be easier to stop him, in truth, had Effingale not made it known he would replace your dowry.”
“But he cannot—”
“Have you ever known him to leave a shilling on the table if he could find a way to put it in his pocket? This will be his last chance to use you to bleed Uncle.”
She sighed, her next turn slower, her feet dragging as though through mud.
“But for the warning, I cannot spare you.”
She pasted on a smile for the benefit of company and forced her steps into the faultless precision she had practiced for months at Dame Hester’s Seminary for Young Ladies, on the slim chance anyone might ever ask her to dance.
“Please say you’ll not assist him this time.” She hated the note of pleading in her voice.
John said nothing, only squeezed her hand tighter on the next turn.
She closed her face and resolved not to say another word, which John seemed to fully accept, not speaking again until he delivered her back to Aunt Minerva and Charlotte, whispering in her ear before he left them to find the card room to earn his keep, “I am sorry, Sissy. I will help if I can.” Which meant he would be no help at all.
Aunt Minerva kept her eyes on the rest of the ballroom, alternately looking for not-too-terribly-objectionable men, and making certain no other Smithson males were hiding behind something, waiting to harm Bella’s chances even further. Charlotte grasped Bella’s arm as soon as John turned his back to stride away.
“What is it? What did John say?”
False smile firmly attached, though the blood had long since drained from her face, Bella whispered, “Not here, nor in front of your mother,” If the evening’s entertainments had ever held the slightest appeal, there was none left now. All she wanted was to find a mail coach and buy a ticket to Scotland. No, a ship to South America would be safer.
Myron had never seen so many marriageable young ladies, nearly all of whom had been trotted out to be introduced to the new baron in the neighborhood. Apparently, being in trade wasn’t the barrier it might have been in London—not when Lady Pinnester made it a point to broadcast news of his growing fortune and the favor so recently shown by the Crown. It seemed the entirety of Bath now knew Myron was a wealthy—if brand-new—peer seeking a wife.
Unfortunately, not one unmarried lady, nor any of their mothers, would entertain the addresses of a man who planned to leave England for unknown environs in two months’ time. With no luck, he had worked his way from prettiest to plainest, youngest to oldest, richest to poorest, starting with the one girl in the room whom Lady Pinnester said spoke of nothing but converting heathens. Sadly, no matter how well her godly temperament might suit Myron, she couldn’t see past Ireland.
Perhaps Pinnester was overstating the need for a girl raised among the nobility. Surely, Myron could buy a book about which fork to use at a formal supper, much as he had bought this ridiculous suit of expensive clothes he might never wear again. Or he could continue what he had always done: follow along with everyone else, to the point it ran up against his faith. Adaptability was a key trait for a successful merchant, and in all his years, he had yet to entirely disgrace himself among the upper classes, or he would not now be in this disagreeable position.
Best yet, he could talk the prince out of his desire to make Myron into a diplomat. There was no reason to believe he would be an effective representative of the Crown among civilized men. He had been educated as a son of minor landholders, followed by years in service with the East India Company, then eventually, his own enterprise, but had fallen in love with the sea by the time he could walk, and run away to it by fourteen.
It would be best to find a way around the prince’s edict, if a way could be found, before choosing a bride, and in any case, he needn’t choose tonight. Once in London, there would assuredly be more places to meet ladies.
Lady Pinnester sidled up and whispered mischievously, “No young lady will wish to wed a man who scowls so much.”
He immediately glued a smile on his face, but had never felt so false. She indicated with a tip of her head that there was, apparently, one girl he had missed in his endless turns about the room. “You will wish to seek an introduction to Miss Smithson. Her familial connections are dubious, and she has no dowry or prospects to speak of, but she is a daughter of the gentry. Her aunt is sponsoring her, and I never met a more unpleasant woman than Lady Effingale. I might marry Beelzebub himself to be removed from her care, though the viscount is not a bad sort. I believe I saw him head to the card room.”
“As she is the last young lady left who has not turned me down flat, perhaps it is time I should make her acquaintance.”
Charlotte had accepted a dance with her husband. Aunt Minerva was in deep conversation with two other matrons, probably about the trials of sponsoring an ugly debutante. Uncle Howard had escaped his wife in the card room. Everyone was so accustomed to Bella playing the wallflower that, even when she was the one husband-hunting, it was easy enough, by force of habit, to leave her to her own devices. Hoping against hope their party would soon depart, Bella was happy to be left alone on a bench in a quiet, darkened hall, facing away from the ballroom.
Not more than a few minutes after she closed her eyes to shut out the light now boring into her skull from the few candles and a dying fireplace, a dark shadow fell across her face. “Bella, my dear.” A low, familiar rumble near her ear, a hand touching her shoulder.
Her eyes blinked open in the dim candlelight, and she scrambled to her feet at the sight of an unknown gentleman bowing. Instinctively, she stared over her shoulder, to see if he meant to speak to the brocade-covered wall rather than her.
She turned back and caught sight of the source of the familiar voice: her uncle at the man’s elbow. Letting out a deep sigh of relief, she stammered, “Unc… Uncle Howard. I—” She dropped into a curtsey, looking around for any distraction from the immediate requirement to speak to a man she had never seen before.
“Lord Holsworthy, my niece, Miss Isabella Smithson. Bella, the baron asked if you might stand up with him for the next set.”
She stared at Uncle Howard, waiting for him to answer for her, as he often did—as everyone often did—and when he only stared back in expectation of her answer, she kept searching the room over the man’s shoulder, for her aunt, her cousin, even her brother would do at the moment. Anyone to say something that would carry the conversation before she might have to.
“Myron Clewes, Baron Holsworthy, at your service, Miss Smithson. Your uncle tells me you are an excellent dancer. Might you allow me the pleasure?”
Her fingers were once again twisted in her gown, and all the blood that had drained from her face now rushed back full force. The room must have just gained ten degrees, as she could feel the perspiration on her forehead and upper lip, and in light of this new, more pressing, problem, and some inconvenient lightheadedness, her headache melted away.
“Bella?” her uncle queried.
“Um-hmm?” Bella replied.
Lord Holsworthy held his arm out. Lacking the capacity to speak a full sentence, and with an approving nod from her uncle, she had nothing left to do but take it.
He was quite tall. The top of Bella’s head barely reached his chest. And broad; his shoulders seemed as wide as a ship’s mainsail. Were he to put his arms around her, she might disappear completely. His greying hair was long, loose, and wild, and the lines in his face were deep, as though they had been carved with a chisel. Much older—perhaps even older than her father—his large hands were gentle against her fingers on his arm, and his smile tender.
He was the first man not a blood relation to ask Bella to dance. Ever.
When they took their places in the line for the contredanse, Charlotte nearly fell over her own feet trying to pay concurrent attention to her husband, the dance steps, and the mysterious gentleman who had asked Bella to dance, after she and her mother had both agreed everything had been done that could, until the next assembly.
“You are a lovely dancer,” Lord Holsworthy remarked as he led Bella clumsily through a turn. “You put me to shame, I’m afraid, though I am certain my skills are improved merely by proximity.”
“Er. Uh. Thank you?”
When their dance was finished, mercifully with no further need for words, Bella found herself unfortunately thrust into the conversational fire at the refreshment table, with Lord Holsworthy, Viscount and Viscountess Pinnester, and a glass of lemonade.
Before Bella was required to think of anything to say, her aunt and uncle rushed across the room, and Lady Effingale wrapped her arm around Bella’s shoulder.
“My lords, my lady, I hope you will allow me to introduce my niece, Miss Isabella Smithson.” Lady Effingale kicked the side of Bella’s foot to initiate a curtsey, as though she hadn’t already been introduced and made a perfect bow to each in turn.
Bella’s throat had closed at the attention from strangers who so definitively outranked her, combined with the likelihood of some new public humiliation at her aunt’s hands. The viscountess kindly took her hand and made her compliments on her embroidered dancing slippers, begging the name of the maker. The ploy might have worked if Bella hadn’t answered without thinking, “My aunt’s maid gave me the pattern, but I did the stitching myself. The cobbler in the village set the soles.”
Lady Effingale’s eyes flashed dangerous fire at Bella, so she looked away, face flushed, only to see Lord Pinnester’s eyebrow and lip curl upward in unison, until his wife stepped on his toe and said, “I vow you are a finer needlewoman than any in London, and it is so important to patronize the shops in one’s home village.” She addressed no one in particular when she asked, “Do you not agree?”
“It is her first time at the Assembly Rooms,” Lady Effingale apologized. “Isabella is surely tongue-tied in the presence of such illustrious company.”
To fill Bella’s stricken silence, Lord Holsworthy said, “I appreciate industry in a young lady. So many place more stock than is seemly in feathers and furbelows, and have little notion of a purposeful life.”
Bella’s forehead furrowed. She was not entirely tongue-tied, and was certain, given the chance, she could manage polite discussion with the viscountess, though probably not her husband. Lord Holsworthy’s eyes twinkled in a way she was sure must be scandalous, but he had neither said nor done anything inappropriate, and every word he spoke seemed designed to put her at ease.
Following closely on Aunt Minerva’s heels, Charlotte dragged Alexander across the room, and another round of bowing and curtseying ensued, while the Effingales and Firthleys did their level best to all speak for Bella at once. No one wanted to see her make a fool of herself. No need, when she had perfectly good family members to do it for her. Lord Holsworthy refilled her glass and spoke under the din, standing near enough she could smell the pleasing scents of ginger and cardamom on his clothes.
“I wonder, Miss Smithson, if you have ever thought of traveling?”
She choked on her lemonade, and he thumped her on the back to clear the coughing from her throat.
“Traveling?” she queried in a whisper. Find yourself a seagoing baroness or board your new flagship without one.
“I have spent my life at sea, and my travels are the only things of which I can speak that might hold the interest of a young lady. Though admittedly, she would have to be quite unique indeed to find entertainment in my ramblings.”
He was very sweet to be concerned about whether he might bore her, when boring one’s conversation partner was her stock in trade. He was kind to carry so much of the dialogue among his friends, since she clearly had no idea what to say.
Since he had made the attempt to speak to, not at or around her, like everyone else, Bella made the effort to formulate an answer. “I find the idea of travel fascinating, though I think it unlikely I shall be allowed to indulge my curiosity.”
“And why is that, Miss Smithson?”
“It just seems improbable for a girl who has passed her life in the countryside.” She stopped short of saying, ‘a girl without means’.
“Obviously, you have journeyed as far as Bath. Have you not seen London?”
She dropped her eyes and wished he hadn’t mentioned the capital. Even more, she hoped no one he knew had attended the fateful party that had ruined her chance at a London come-out before it had even been planned.
“Only briefly.” The lemonade shook in her hand, like it might go flying across the room with the least provocation. “I much prefer the country life.”
She quickly sipped the last of the liquid, so it wouldn’t somehow end up on his breeches. Or his nose. He cleared his throat, took the glass from her hand and placed it with his on the table.
“I am forced to return to Town for a few days on the morrow, Miss Smithson, but might I call upon you when I return, perhaps for a carriage ride? If your family will join us, we could make a picnic of it.”
April 12, 1805
The morning of the proposed picnic dawned clear and bright. The Firthleys appeared at breakfast so Charlotte could help Bella prepare for the engagement, not that Bella thought it should take six hours to be made presentable. When Charlotte asked what she intended to wear, Bella had suggested her russet walking dress, at which both her cousin’s and aunt’s brows turned down at exactly the same angle.
“That dress should have been given to a maid years ago,” Charlotte nagged. “Why did you even bring your old clothes to Bath? I thought that was the point of a new wardrobe.” Had Aunt Minerva had her way, Bella would have come to Bath with nothing but rags, but instead, Charlotte had hired a modiste with Firthley money, to outfit Bella as well as any other debutante, and better than most. “No, the bronze green muslin and Brussels lace is a much better choice. It is springtime personified, and looks just lovely with your eyes and hair.”
“Charlotte is right, Isabella. You won’t keep his interest by your conversation, and if you add that drab gown, you might as well climb up onto the shelf this morning. You are not precisely decorative, but you do not look so poorly in that gown, provided you are corseted tightly enou—”
“Lady Effingale!” Uncle Howard snapped. “Leave discussion of my niece’s corsetry for the dressing room.”
“If only something could be done with your awful hair. And a picnic, of all things! Any weather at all will ruin the hours of work it will take to make you fit to be seen. You should have suggested the theatre or a museum, where the lights might be dim.”
After the meal, Charlotte, Bella, and Aunt Minerva retired to Bella’s chamber with a bevy of maids, where no fewer than seventeen attempts were made at a stylish presentation of her fine, straight, thick mass of hair, and no less than fourteen different lotions and unguents were applied to her face, throat, hair, and hands. During this same occupation, each and every gown, chemise, stocking, and slipper that had been brought from Evercreech to Bath was removed from wardrobe and trunk, inspected, mended, pressed, and evaluated for this ever-so-important ensemble. For all the effort that had been expended on Bella’s foray into the marriage mart, it seemed no one had actually expected a gentleman might ask to call.
In the end, it took six-and-a-quarter hours for Aunt Minerva and Charlotte to proclaim Bella ready for a picnic, by which time, Bella had been well and truly reminded of every fault her family insisted she possessed, and had added to them a hundredfold, most notably by a decided lack of her usual patience and calm forbearance.
“Lord Holsworthy values punctuality,” Bella finally insisted to her aunt. “He said so to me, and it is an ethos I share. He has been waiting too long already. Would you have him turn around and leave?”
Finally, the three women entered the drawing room, where Uncle Howard and Alexander had been entertaining Lord Holsworthy. Bella went to him first, and curtseyed low. “I am so very sorry for the delay, my lord. It is not my intention to inconvenience you.”
Silence reigned in the room, as everyone waited to hear what Lord Holsworthy would say.
“My dear,” he said, taking her hand and helping her up. He held her at arm’s length to look at her. Bella knew she was unlovely, but this afternoon she truly thought she showed to advantage. Her green gown shimmered beneath an overskirt of tight, intricate lace, and her bronze-gold hair, styled à la Grecque, framed her bright, azure eyes like the settings for precious jewels.
His lips turned up into a genuine smile. “How can I make one word of complaint, when you look so charming in green? You are as lovely as springtime itself.” He bent to kiss her fingertips. “I hope your aunt will not find me too bold when I say I believe your eyes are precisely the color of the waters off the coast of St. Thomas.”
Bella could feel the heat rising in her face, and she turned the blue-green eyes in question away from his face. “She might not find you too bold, Sir, but I may.”
Of course, he had to be able to act the courtier, since he did business among the nobility, but it was difficult not to be moved by her first experience of flattery. No one ever made her compliments.
Alexander traded a look with Charlotte that suggested hurrying things along. Uncle Howard spoke and saved Bella from having to try to flirt. “Shall we take two carriages, then?”
“If I may,” Lord Holsworthy said, “My landau is large enough, and I’ve had a wagon packed with a filled picnic hamper and various comforts of home. I thought a trip into the countryside might be welcome, as Miss Smithson said, when last we spoke, she prefers open spaces to the city life.”
After a considerable effort, the picnickers were assembled in the landau. Lord Holsworthy’s driver took the team at a slow trot to take the air and find a meadow or a riverbank or a ruin that looked to be a good place to stop for luncheon.
Bella was sandwiched between Charlotte and Aunt Minerva in the forward-facing seat, opposite Uncle Howard, Lord Holsworthy, and Alexander. When placed right next to her cousin’s new husband, Bella suddenly saw Lord Holsworthy’s age. He was far older than anyone else in the coach, including her aunt and uncle, even taking into account the weathering inherent in spending one’s life at sea. Her stomach dropped. He was more than twice her age. What could she possibly say to hold the interest of someone with so much more experience of the world? What did she know of the waters off the coast of St. Thomas?
Alexander took on the conversational burden at the start, by discussion of Lord Holsworthy’s opinions of several matters before the Lords and how he intended to vote his proxy during his travels. This was exactly the kind of discussion Aunt Minerva insisted Bella and Charlotte should leave to gentlemen, and there were precious few conversations Bella wouldn’t avoid with gentlemen, purely on principle. Still, with no conception of why or how, Bella found herself blurting out, “Do you mean, my lord, you are consulted by the Privy Council, but then must only hope they take your advice on the matters at hand?”
“Bella!” Aunt Minerva scolded.
Lord Holsworthy waved aside the admonishment, smiling at Bella and explaining, “In essence correct, Miss Smithson, though lacking in nuance. I was only recently made a baron, so one can hardly say my opinions are solicited by government. My value to His Majesty is almost entirely financial in nature, by virtue of my private enterprise.”
“Come now, Holsworthy,” Alexander chided. “That is surely an understatement. You have settled treaties.”
“You overstate my diplomatic responsibility, Sir. In the main, my role is the making of money. And though I am new to Parliament, I doubt, as a British peer, one can always ensure the efficacy of one’s vote while standing on the floor of the House of Lords; one certainly cannot from the deck of a ship tens of thousands of miles away.”
Uncle Howard observed, “If you were not a political figure, the regent would not have elevated you to a barony and appointed you envoy to the savages of the world.”
“Is that the nature of your mission, Sir?” Bella asked. “Taming savages? Do you seek to save souls?”
“What a thing to ask, Isabella Smithson!” Aunt Minerva snapped. “One does not just speak of savages in company, nor speculate on whether they have souls.”
“Quite right,” Charlotte turned into her mother in less than an instant. “Have you a destination in mind for the picnic, Lord Holsworthy?”
Lord Holsworthy made Bella a lopsided grin, showing he had heard her question, but it would be better answered at some point later. “No particular spot in mind, I’m afraid. I am new to the area and was told there is open countryside that will do. The Holsworthy barony is too far a drive for an afternoon jaunt, though it is but a long day away from here. It is not, however, entirely habitable, as it has been abandoned for a good many years. The same is true of my new house in London. My ship, where I have lived the past ten years, is not even in the water, but in dry dock under general refit, as still another ship is prepared to be my next abode. I am currently a man of many houses, but no home.”
Once they reached a landscape Lord Holsworthy pronounced, “a serviceable meadow for a picnic,” his driver and footman jumped down to assist the ladies out of the coach, and the servants in the baggage wagon began to arrange for the comfort of the party. The late afternoon sun dappled the long grasses and shimmered off the stream burbling by. Lord Holsworthy held out his elbow to Bella and said, “Shall we have a bit of a walk while they arrange things for luncheon?”
Looking over her shoulder at the expectant looks on everyone’s faces, she took his arm. Charlotte indicated with her eyebrows that she and Alexander would follow, but there was no way Aunt Minerva would overlook the chance to listen in on Bella’s attempts at flirtation, and she insinuated herself and Uncle Howard between the two couples.
The group having fallen into step, Lord Holsworthy began, “You asked, Miss Smithson, about my work among the savages, and while your aunt may not deem it appropriate, your questions are, to my mind, not the least bit scandalous.”
The sharp intake of breath behind them must have been Aunt Minerva, as it was surely her yelp the next second; Uncle Howard might have pinched her to remind her to hold her tongue.
At Bella’s look of surprise, he said, “I believe in plain speaking, Miss Smithson. I find it sinful to dissemble, doubly so for vanity’s sake or political expediency. It is but one reason I am unsuited to the diplomatic life.”
“So,” Bella began, mentally gathering up questions she hadn’t yet asked, “You seem quite a religious man. Is it your mission to save souls?”
He rubbed her fingers, his hand folded over her at the crook of her arm. “It is not my mission, per se. But that is not to say I do not hope Our Lord works through me, while I expand the reach of my company and my king. I can say with some certainty, Miss Smithson, that savages have souls, and also that I am not a vicar. It is not my place to save them, but God’s. I can but provide a school, a bible, a source of income, and contact with the civilized world.”
“But surely, my lord, you are a pious man. One has but to speak a short time with you to understand it.”
“I conduct my life in such a way as to never be ashamed to speak to my Savior of the day that has just passed, but I am no example to follow. I have been a sailor for Almost four decades, and only a sinner like all others, trying to keep myself right with Him and allow others to do the same. I have no right to judge my fellow souls, in any circumstance in which I might find them. Are you a religious woman, Miss Smithson?”
“Plain speaking, my lord?” Bella heard Aunt Minerva choke a few feet behind, so sped up to maintain a modicum of nonexistent privacy.
“I would always have it so between us.”
“I am not overly religious, my lord. I attend services every Sunday and help the vicar with anything he needs at the village church, but I would not claim myself devout…”
“This is not displeasing, as such. You are much like most other English girls, and as I say, it is never my place to define the Creator for you. Any… er… any family I might nurture in the future would be confirmed in the Methodist church.”
“Of course, a man wishes his heir to be raised to his own faith,” Bella agreed. “Lord Holsworthy, have you any objection to secular thinkers?”
“Isabella!” she heard from behind, her Aunt Minerva apparently unwilling to allow Bella to ruin everything by appearing to be a godless bluestocking.
“My lady?” Bella queried.
“Do tell the baron about your work with the village school. She does quite well there, Lord Holsworthy. All of the tenants’ children attend. Isabella is excellent with children. She’s had a hand in raising my own sons, Lady Firthley’s brothers. She will be an excellent mother for any man who might marry her.”
Bella fell silent, face burning again.
“A village school, Miss Smithson? I am intrigued. I admit, I am less an evangelist for the teachings of John Wesley than educating the heathen in the English tongue, the rule of law, and the principles of economic freedom.”
The topic carried them some time, he contributing stories of similar enterprises he had both observed and financed in foreign climes, she detailing the structure she had helped create in Evercreech and at Brittlestep Manor, during the course of her regular work about the estate.
“Do you mean to say, Miss Smithson, you undertake management of your aunt and uncle’s estate?”
“No. No, of course not. Not in any meaningful way. Only… I oversee things when the household removes to London. They move staff, so I stay behind with a few maids and footmen…” Bella trailed off, aware in an instant she had just irreparably branded herself the poor relation. How she would be able to help that, though, she had never understood, as she was naught but an extra upper servant at Brittlestep Manor.
“Am I to understand you are not averse to a mop and broom, Miss Smithson?”
“I am not averse to honest work, my lord. I did not spend my entire life at the manor house, nor my time there at ease. Admittedly, as a member of the family, I am more familiar with household management than household tasks.”
Though he faced forward, his fingers tightened momentarily on hers, and she caught the smile in the corner of his mouth.
“If you did not spend your entire life at Brittlestep Manor, Miss Smithson, where else did you reside?”
Uncle Howard cleared his throat behind them. “Rather parched, you know. Perhaps things are ready for us, back with the carriage?”
“I agree,” Charlotte added. Bella turned away from his question, declaring herself quite peckish, indeed.
On the return stroll back to the picnic site, Bella forced herself to ask questions of Lord Holsworthy, to avoid having to answer many more of his.
“From all you have intimated, His Royal Highness has set you a task to accomplish during your travels, and it is a matter of some urgency, is it not? It must be, or you would not be in such a rush back and forth to London and preparing to leave in so short a time?” At Uncle Howard’s cough behind her, she stumbled, grabbing more tightly at Lord Holsworthy’s arm to stay upright. “Oh, please do forgive if I overstep myself, my lord. Your arrangements with the regent are not my concern.”
“There is nothing to be forgiven, my dear. In this case, I believe the prince would prefer I share our plans. Or rather, his plans.” Lord Holsworthy’s wry smile drew Bella into a commiseration over the unreasonable demands of the Crown.
“You do not share the prince’s vision?”
“Had I my way, I would presently be planning to sow an oat crop at Holsworthy Hall.”
Bella tapped her fan on his forearm. “You surprise me, Sir.”
“I do? That, in turn, surprises me, as I am generally the dullest and most predictable of men. How have I defied expectation, Miss Smithson?”
“Are you not a sailor to the core, Lord Holsworthy? I can see it when you speak of your ship. Would you not be horribly stifled, stuck in the country as a gentleman farmer?”
He shrugged. “One does not know whether new experiences might stifle, until one tries.”
She thought for a moment before asking, “Do you grow weary of travel?”
“Of travel?” he scoffed. “Impossible. But I grow weary of naught but men day-in-and-out, and of making my home in a room the size of a band box. I wish to leave a legacy less fickle than a life at sea. Having been granted a barony in close proximity to Bristol, it had seemed the Lord was guiding me back to England to manage my company from dry land. I have spent the last half-year in expectation of that course.”
“I see.” She giggled. “So, Our Lord will not gainsay the prince?”
“So it appears,” he laughed, pinching her fingertip. “You are a cheeky girl, Miss Smithson.” Aunt Minerva’s throat cleared behind them, and Lord Holsworthy continued, patting Bella’s hand, “and I find it inexplicably delightful.”
“Might I ask,” she asked cautiously, her words placed as carefully as her steps on the uneven ground, “why does His Royal Highness so wish you to take on this mission? Can he not find another sailor? What have you to offer the Crown that he cannot hire elsewhere?”
He stopped short and stepped back from her, causing Uncle Howard and Aunt Minerva to draw up short, and Charlotte and Alexander behind them. He said nothing for a long few moments. Bella became more and more self-conscious. Aunt Minerva fidgeted, Uncle Howard twitched. Charlotte looked over her father’s shoulder to catch the action, and her husband pulled her back.
“Miss Smithson, that might be among the most insightful questions anyone has yet asked about this endeavor.” He stepped back into place next to her, leading the column of aristocrats to luncheon. He squeezed her hand inside the crook of his elbow. “I will opine on the topic after I have given the matter some thought, but for now…” They took a final turn to bring them back into the clearing, where a footman awaited them with lemonade and canapes.
“My lord, it seems you have brought your entire drawing room,” Bella teased, gesturing to the tables and chairs that would accommodate a party twice their size.
“Kitchen, too, it seems,” Alexander observed, at one of two tables, heavily laden with food in warming pans.
Everyone hung back, milling about, with no hostess and no upper servant to direct the order of things. Eventually, Lord Holsworthy asked, quietly, “How are your manners, Miss Smithson?”
She stiffened. “My manners? Do you find something amiss, Sir?”
He patted her arm. “No. Heavens, no. You are everything modest and demure, and a refreshing change from the young ladies flitting about without an ounce of sensibility. What I mean, is that I ran away to sea before I was fully fledged as a gentleman. I haven’t the right manners or training to be a diplomat, and even in a setting so casual as an outdoor party, my deficiencies are painfully clear. A woman who is a stickler for etiquette…” his eyes flitted toward Aunt Minerva in question, and Bella shrugged agreement, “is likely to find me a great disappointment.”
“I am certain that cannot be true, when you have brought half of your furniture to make certain I am comfortable and am never required to dirty my dress sitting on the ground,” Bella said, teasing him before she realized she might be flirting. Flushing, wishing to turn her attention elsewhere, she surreptitiously made arrangements with one of the footmen for service of luncheon at Lord Holsworthy’s dining table, the expansive surface covered in pristine linen, fine china, sparkling crystal, and intricate silver.
For a man with little confidence in his comportment, and manners that sat uneasily, Lord Holsworthy hosted a good table. He waited for someone else to start eating, and Bella saw at once he wasn’t sure what fork to use, so without delay, she broke protocol and ate before her host. Charlotte and Alexander followed, and Aunt Minerva, miraculously, held her tongue, in part, because Uncle Howard looked as though he might make a scene if she did not.
After that, both food and company were generous, flavorsome, and satisfying, and his conversation was intelligent, broadminded, and showed evidence of a contemplative nature. With dinner came talk of Lord Holsworthy’s travels, and the exotic viands with which he was most familiar. The spit-roasted pheasant and venison pasties called up the American West, where the savages were red Indians and one might also eat buffalo or snake. The Jerusalem artichoke a la crème inspired a tangent into his last voyage to the Holy Lands, which inspired Aunt Minerva to great heights of intolerance that embarrassed everyone else at the table, before Uncle Howard told her to finish her supper. Following on the heels of her sudden, sullen silence, with roasted root vegetables, the discussion turned, once again, to philosophy.
“Earlier, Miss Smithson, you asked if I looked on secular thinkers with disfavor, and the answer, though some might not credit it, is no.” He tore a piece of bread from a long baguette, buttered it, and gestured with it in his right hand, his left indecorously draped across the table next to his plate. “I do not believe Our Lord wishes us to close our eyes to alternative viewpoints, or He would not have designed so many. I have, in fact, done business with some of the fomenters of the American Revolution, after they won their war, during which I earned my money robbing their ships under His Majesty’s letters of marque. We have shared many late-night hours plumbing the depths of the question of the rights of man.”
“The rights of man,” Uncle Howard suggested, “is too intellectual a topic for our young ladies.”
Aunt Minerva punctuated that thought with, “Indeed.”
Alexander disagreed, “I should not like to think any topic held out as too intellectual for Charlotte, certainly nothing to do with politics. She has a fine mind, and was well-educated alongside Bella, and I would not be as successful in The Lords without her counsel.” He cast a glance at Lady Effingale. “She wanted only confidence to become an excellent political hostess.”
Charlotte, then, under the baleful glares of her mother and father and proud gaze of her husband, continued the political dialogue over the brandy-poached pears and Stilton cheese, even drawing Bella in, culminating in a revealing and insightful depiction of the delicate role Lord Holsworthy played as the owner of Seventh Sea Shipping.
He acted as an economic lever into areas of the world not yet civilized, reporting back to his investors—chief among them, the Prince Regent—on what might be gained by incursion into uncharted lands, with an eye for portable value. That he was now being given royal authority and backing might signal real change in other parts of the world, but, as yet, Lord Holsworthy was reticent to speak in much detail about his charge.
He did say it would begin in India, where he had made his start many years ago, and earned the money to buy his first ship, and now he would take possession of a sizable tea plantation and a place in the diplomatic corps. When Uncle Howard pressed, he explained he had letters of introduction and contacts to renew there who would determine how long he stayed in India, how much travel he would do on the subcontinent, and where he would go next. And that, he concluded, was the nature of his life.
“While, of course, I always hope information from my travels is of benefit to the Crown, what the king learns from me must be weighed in the balance with information from hundreds of others like me in different parts of the world, before a political or military strategy can be devised. One does the best one can for one’s monarch, Miss Smithson, but one is a very small cog in the machine of the British Empire. In the main, at the moment, I provide the Crown money.”
It was not until much later that evening, while Bella was lying in her bed, that she was able to judge she had acquitted herself admirably, mostly without fear, from her first curtsey to Lord Holsworthy until he handed her down the carriage steps in front of the Effingale’s town house. She had expected many things of her first outing with a gentleman, but never that.
April 16, 1805
The Effingale Town House
Bella and Charlotte shoved each other back and forth, both trying to be closest to the keyhole in the door leading to Uncle Howard’s study. Five minutes before, Lord Holsworthy had arrived at Number 14 Royal Crescent and asked for an audience with both Lord and Lady Effingale—without having himself announced to Bella first.
“He’s going to offer for you,” Charlotte whispered.
“No one will ever offer for me,” Bella scoffed, pushing Charlotte away from the crack between the doors. “Besides, he has only spoken to me twice. One picnic is not grounds for a betrothal.”
“He was quite attentive. Perhaps he was instantly besotted.”
“Perhaps you are a ninnyhammer.”
They both quieted completely at the tiniest creak of the door as Bella pushed it just slightly open over the sudden sound of Lord Holsworthy’s unfamiliar voice.
“So, you see, I am rather pressed for time, and my request is most unusual.” He coughed. “While I am hopeful, I rely on those who know her best to assist in understanding the best course for Miss Smithson.”
“Isabella will be perfectly happy to accept your proposal,” Aunt Minerva pronounced, but Uncle Howard rejoined, “I should like to hear more about this situation before I commend my niece into your care.”
“I should hope so.”
“You understand her dowry is not excessive.”
Charlotte’s mouth dropped when Lord Holsworthy replied, “Miss Smithson’s dowry is of no consequence. What I propose offers no great measure of security, so any monies of the sort will be used to ensure her safety and relative comfort to the greatest extent possible.”
“Isabella will welcome the security of your name and title. Her dowry will be payment for placing a roof over her head, and that is all there is to that. It is not as though any other barons have come calling.”
“Lady Effingale!” Uncle Howard snapped. “Your comments are unwelcome, and I shall ask you to leave the room if you do not desist.” In a quieter, but still firm tone, he returned the conversation to its moorings. “You understand, Lord Holsworthy, Bella will not be left destitute should she be disinclined to accept your offer.”
“That’s right,” Aunt Minerva retorted. “She is perfectly well trained as a governess or housekeeper or companion. She needn’t marry if she is disinclined.”
Bella and Charlotte almost fell over themselves to escape the sound of Aunt Minerva’s footsteps striding toward their concealment. Uncle Howard, apparently, had shown her the door. They had just reached the turn in the hallway where they could hide when her matronly skirts swept along the floor in the other direction, leaving the two girls giggling as quietly as they could.
Their listening post at the door was much improved by Aunt Minerva’s exit, as in her haste, she had left the door just slightly ajar.
The sound of her aunt’s retreating footsteps was followed by the clinking of Uncle Howard’s crystal carafe against the rim of a glass.
“No, thank you. None for me, though I would make no objection to tea, if it might be had.”
Charlotte sacrificed proximity, sliding back down the hall toward the turn, so she could give Bella warning before a footman appeared to respond to the bell. Bella would not now leave the side of the doorway unless she were bodily removed.
“You would ask me to send my niece—my very shy and timid, very young niece—to sea on a ship filled with sailors, under the protection of a man whom I’ve met but thrice.”
“I wish to speak bluntly, if I may.”
There was something reassuring about the rumble of Lord Holsworthy’s voice.
“There is scant time for social niceties if I am to put your fears to rest and still have time to adjust my situation to a wife and prepare Miss Smithson for the journey. To make matters worse, on the morrow, I must leave for at least another sennight in Town, at the direction of the prince. I am back and forth from London at his whim.”
“Pray, speak your mind, Sir.”
Bella heard the creaking of the leather armchairs before the fire, so the two men must have moved from the desk to a less formal position, though Bella wasn’t sure if this were a good sign or bad. In fact, she hadn’t been able to decide anything to do with Lord Holsworthy since his first bow.
“I am given to understand His Royal Highness wishes to see you wed.”
“Yes. Well, that is not entirely true. The prince commands I take up his charge to act as envoy, and my wish for marriage and a settled life on land was met with his idea of a compromise. I may be as settled as I like, once aboard ship.”
Uncle Howard’s laugh was only half amused. “Not fond of compromise, our royal son.”
“No, indeed. I am granted six more weeks to solve my dilemma or leave the shores of England unwed.”
“It seems there is no shortage of men who will vouch for you,” Uncle Howard’s measured tones were no more in favor of one course than the other. Had he decided in favor of an alliance, a smile would be audible. Against, and his words would be clipped. “Your name is on all lips in Bath, and none with a sharp word.”
“But for the circumstances of my elevation and position in trade.”
“But for those,” Uncle Howard admitted, “But neither is a reputation for less-than-gentlemanly conduct. There is no rumor of that.”
“That is gratifying.”
Charlotte hissed from around the corner, so Bella scurried into a niche in the wall until the footman had entered the study with a rolling glass cart, trimmed in gold filigree and holding a silver service of no less than ten pieces. Even from her position twenty steps away, Bella could hear the clinking of china and muted echo of male voices making themselves comfortable, as the footman had left the door ajar. After Uncle Howard dismissed him, though, the far-too-conscientious servant shut the door tightly on the way out. Once he had cleared the hall, Bella crept back to the door, this time leaning down to place her ear to the keyhole.
“I see there is truth to the rumor you do not imbibe.”
“Every sinner chooses his own virtues and vices. I am a moderate man of sober personal habits, endeavoring to live simply by the laws of God and Man.”
“Please forgive, but both religious fervor and abstinence seem out of character for a sailor.”
Lord Holsworthy’s voice bristled, as though he were tired of making the same argument, though had said not a word on the subject before now.
“Contrary to popular opinion, all sailors are not cut from the same cloth. I can assure you my youth was properly misspent in my early years at sea, but I was fortunate to find the grace of our Lord and Savior, and learn to live by His precepts, as a relatively young man.”
“Which brings me to the point of greatest concern. You are very nearly a pirate.”
“Pirate? I think not, Sir, and I beg you not defame me so again. I formerly captained a privateer, for which I was richly rewarded by the Crown. I am now owner of forty-two ships, and soon to represent England’s interests abroad. And I hold myself to a high moral standard in any company.”
“Yes.” Her uncle’s tone was noncommittal. “That is the rumor. There will be how many other men on this ship?”
“Approximately one hundred.”
“Do they all hold themselves to a high moral standard?”
Bella could almost see Uncle Howard’s raised brow, but Lord Holsworthy did not sound cowed.
“Half I have travelled with for many years and trust implicitly. None will treat a wife of mine with anything less than the utmost respect, and assuredly, the same can be said of the fifty men the Prince of Wales will contribute to the enterprise, all subject to the discipline of the Royal Navy. Many captains’ wives travel on shipboard, and as the family and ambassadorial quarters have not been completed, we can find ways to accommodate a lady.”
“I am sorry if I don’t place so much trust in men who live for months on end—years, quite possibly—with no female company but for the type one finds near docks.”
“I understand your fear and do not deny the risk, though less, I think, than you believe, given the type of justice meted out in a small community forced to close proximity. And far less a threat on my ship than many others, as I do not take up sailors and pirates from any port, but rather, maintain a tightly knit crew who will neither steal from me, nor otherwise cause trouble. It is also my hope she will not long be on board, if you take my meaning, Sir. Should a blessed event occur, she will return to the barony or to my parents’ cottage in Saltash. If the Lord is willing, we will not make it far before returning to settle Miss Smithson in England.” After a long pause, Lord Holsworthy asked, “Pray, might I call her Isabella?”
“Bella,” Uncle Howard said absently. “We all call her Bella.”
“An apt name, as she is a lovely girl.”
Bella thrilled at the compliment, as no one outside her family had ever called her lovely before. Of course, he was lying to ingratiate himself with Uncle Howard, but she would enjoy it nonetheless. A few moments later, she sighed at her uncle’s only response to the encomium: “She is so quiet. So bashful. I am afraid such a voyage might scare her to death.”
Lord Holsworthy chuckled, “Bella is made of sterner stuff than she shows—likely more than she knows. She will be a good mother and an excellent diplomat’s wife, and once she finds her voice and her sea legs, she will be a fine sailor. She will not yet believe it, but she is equal to this.”
Bella was so intent on the conversation, and so curious about what made Lord Holsworthy believe her equal to a life at sea, that she didn’t hear or see the man sidling up the hallway, until he had the back of her dress in his hand. Choking on sudden terror, she squeaked and tipped onto the balls of her feet to try to control the angle at which she might be tossed against the door jamb.
Myron began to explain his intentions for Miss Smithson’s dowry, but before he could finish his first thought, the study door was thrown open and Lord Effingale jumped to his feet. A man with a passing resemblance to Lady Effingale held Miss Smithson by her collar, so tightly she was mincing forward on her toes to keep from choking. Myron had thought she looked frightened while meeting the Pinnesters, but no mere nobles had claim to terror like this. This was a well-worn fear that fit as tightly as her stays.
Pushing her inexorably into the room, the man sneered, “You know this one likes to eavesdrop, Effingale. Should set guards before you discuss things that don’t concern her.”
Myron eyed the man’s grasp on her dress, and the hair falling from Bella’s neat bun. Lord Effingale’s forehead wrinkled and eyes narrowed. “Let her go.” The man shoved her forward so hard she nearly fell to her knees, his smug smile begging to be wiped from his face with the back of a hand.
Effingale reached out, but Myron made it to Miss Smithson first, offering his arm to steady her and his handkerchief to dry her sudden tears.
“Bella!” Charlotte dashed into the room with her mother close at hand. “I told Mother he sneaked in, and she said—”
“Jasper Smithson, I will not have you in my home! You will take yourself—”
“My daughter, not yours! No call to act like you can just—”
Uncle Howard raised his voice too loudly to be ignored, stopping all strident voices but his own, before any could gain traction.
“That is outside of enough! You girls listening at keyholes will stop this day! Isabella and Charlotte, you will go to your rooms with all due haste. And Lady Effingale, I have made myself plain; your attendance is not required nor requested. All of you leave us this instant! If I hear so much as the swish of a skirt on this floor of the house, you will hear the rough side of my temper!”
From the way all three women looked at him, Myron knew his temper was a ruse they all humored. Thankfully, they did so today.
Miss Smithson dragged her feet out the door, doing a fair job of maintaining her dignity, but a better job of evading the eye of the man who had started this mess. Once the poor, frightened lamb had cleared the room, Lady Firthley and Lady Effingale both swept out the door with noses turned toward the ceiling to the same degree.
While the women removed themselves, Effingale reined in his fuming temper, evidenced by his clipped words and a throbbing, blue vein in his temple. “Lord Holsworthy,” he began, “Sir Jasper Smithson, Bella’s father.”
Myron’s tea cup clattered into the saucer. This surprising introduction posed more questions than it answered; most notably, why her uncle had been negotiating Miss Smithson’s marriage settlement. When asked about her family, Bella had spoken only of the Firthleys and Effingales, all of whom had been present at both meetings with Bella. No one had, at any time, mentioned a father.
Both men nodded shortly, Sir Jasper with a malicious gleam that would have set Myron’s teeth on edge had he not already been grinding them, trying to keep from tossing the man against a wall for his ill treatment of Miss Smithson. Eyes like this in a sailor denoted personal storms that would wreak havoc on a ship; in gamblers, they indicated men who dealt from the bottom of the deck. He could not imagine leaving a dog in the care of such a man, to say nothing of a daughter. Myron would rather have no offspring at all than leave a child at the mercy of such a windowless soul.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“At your service, Sir.”
Effingale’s slight sneer was at odds with the jovial, kindly impression Myron had been left with both times they had met, and the only explanation was the other man in the room, who paid no notice to the tension rising. Still, when Effingale went to the drinks cart, he poured two.
Sir Jasper took a tumbler of brandy from Effingale, sniffing it loudly and smacking his lips in anticipation before quaffing a sizable swallow. Myron shook his head when the liquor was offered, and Effingale said, “That’s right. I’d forgotten you prefer tea. Shall I call for more hot water?”
Sir Jasper goggled. “Tea? You prefer tea to brandy? Ain’t you a sailor, man?”
Myron did not dignify the question, only graciously accepted the additional refreshment. While his host attended to that detail, Myron was given a few moments to size up this new variable. He had not even thought to wear a visible weapon to a meeting with Lord Effingale, but now found himself contemplating the dagger sheathed in his boot.
Sir Jasper was younger than Myron, if not in visage, at least in swagger and smugness. Though they were nearly the same height, Sir Jasper’s thin face was slightly bonier than his shoulders, leaving Myron with the sure knowledge he could snap Smithson in two like a matchstick, if need be. His hair was worn long and tied in a queue, dragging his forehead back and lengthening his features, the greying locks greasy and dusted with flakes of dried skin. The velvet-trimmed suit the man wore was well tailored, the fabric sturdy, but the nap was begin to shine and, after Myron’s excruciating visit to Pinnester’s tailor, he could tell it was at least a few years out of date.
Once the hot water had been delivered and talk of the weather exhausted, Sir Jasper’s voice turned as oily as the bridge of his nose when he waved his hand at his brother-in-law. “You need not stay, Effingale. Holsworthy and I can do business without you.”
“You will not,” Effingale returned in a quiet voice. Were that precise tone directed at him, Myron would already have a knife in his hand. Effingale’s quiet exactitude was more treacherous by half than Sir Jasper’s blustering. “And as always, you may call me Lord Effingale.”
Sir Jasper just snapped, “My daughter, ain’t she, Effingale?” sloshing a bit of brandy from the tumbler to his thigh and rubbing the stain into his breeches.
“Lord Effingale,” Myron said, though he had been on an informal basis with the man for almost a sennight, “should you prefer, you may certainly leave me to discuss the matter with Miss Smithson’s father.”
Their eyes met and Myron acknowledged without words that he knew this man did not have his daughter’s best interest at heart—and that Effingale did. The viscount slowly traversed the carpet, placing the decanter of his good brandy back on the sideboard as he left the room.
Myron sat forward to pour himself more tea. Sir Jasper seemed to be in no hurry to discuss terms, as he was more focused on gulping as much good brandy as he could. This was to Myron’s advantage, though, for if there was one thing he could do better than anyone he had ever known, it was negotiate a contract. Starting with remaining silent until his opponent blinked.
Myron sipped his tea slowly, waiting for demands to be made known by the other man; the term gentleman sat more easily on Myron than it did on Smithson, and Myron still didn’t like it on himself at all. Tracking Sir Jasper across the room to the brandy decanter, he watched the level in the glass rise nearly to the top before Miss Smithson’s father replaced the crystal teardrop stopper and pushed the carafe across the wood, likely leaving a scratch.
On the way back to his seat, Sir Jasper finally spoke. “You want to marry my daughter, do you? My dearest, darling girl?”
Myron inclined his head. Not only did he want it, but if the alternative were leaving that shy, gentle young lady in the hands of this degenerate, he would do nearly anything to accomplish it, including a trip to the Scottish border. He was more than half-certain Effingale would loan his carriage if it came to that. Still, no use showing his hand when he didn’t yet know if this man knew how to play cards.
“I heard you want to take her off to sea with you.”
Sir Jasper shook his head slowly, false concern etched into his forehead, clucking his tongue in a small rebuke. “I’m afraid I could never allow such a thing. She is my little girl, you know. Just a gentle babe. Would break my heart to put her in such danger. Her mother, God rest her soul, would strike me dead if anything should happen to that sweet girl.”
The questioning look over the rim of Sir Jasper’s glass tried to determine if Myron was buying the line of fustian being slung about the room. Myron schooled his eyes to provide no answer and waited to see how long it would take for Sir Jasper to admit what he wanted. Almost certainly money. He sipped his tea, remaining still and silent.
“‘Course, no other man has come around to ask my blessing.” Sir Jasper guzzled the second half of his drink and set the glass down on the tea table. “Wouldn’t like to see her on the shelf when she would make some man a good wife. Not much to look at, you can see with your own eyes, but keeps the house spotless and cooks like a dream, and all cats are grey in the dark, if you take my meaning.”
Myron’s jaw tightened, and Sir Jasper must have noticed, as he hastened to change the subject.
“My sister, Lord love her…” Sir Jasper’s hand gestured involuntarily at the door through which his sister had departed, “taught Bella everything there is to know about running an estate. Bella oversees their manor in Evercreech—and a sizable house it is—whenever they go to London.”
When Myron still didn’t respond to the looks from the corner of Sir Jasper’s eye, the brandy bottle proved more tempting, though one more glass like the last and Myron was certain the man would fall face-first to the floor. Not the worst result, if he wished to do his business with the more respectable—more fatherly—Lord Effingale.
“Been taking care of Effingale’s sons their whole lives, too. She’s good with children, and her mother was a good breeder—three brats in four years. Nothing to suggest she won’t take after Arabella. That’s what I heard at Barstow’s, that you are looking for a woman to give you a son.”
Sir Jasper waited for him to reply, but there was no reason to confirm or deny any rumor that might be making the rounds of the mid-range gaming clubs. It was enough to know his personal concerns were being bandied about town. The baronet cleared his throat, tugged at his waistcoat, and shifted his eyes toward the corner of the room. Miss Smithson’s father was now, finally, on the verge of making his central point.
“She don’t come with a dowry, you understand.”
“I had been given to understand she came with five thousand guineas.”
“Well, yes, but at the expense of my brother by marriage, and I hate to be beholden to him for the upkeep of my family.”
Myron sipped his tea. “So you would deny her the dowry? Even if I were to say it is the only reason I have any interest in your daughter?”
Shrewdly, Sir Jasper said, “Not the only reason though, is it? Turned down flat by every other marriageable lady in Bath.”
“I can say with some assurance, Sir, that women can be had, a penny a peck, in every corner of the globe. If I wish a bride, one can be found in many other locales than Bath, not least London, where I repair tomorrow. To meet with the Prince Regent and accept an in absentia appointment to the Privy Council.”
Surely, if ever there were a reason to draw attention to his political connections, it was to cow a wretched worm of a man who would act with such dishonor toward his own daughter.
“Yes, I had heard that.”
Sir Jasper’s face recalled a wolf sighting a wounded deer, but Myron was not at all vulnerable. Even more to Myron’s favor, Sir Jasper was the type of gambler who didn’t recognize his own exposure until he lost everything.
“You see, as I say, don’t wish to take a hand-out from Effingale, but I’ve not had such good luck with my investments the past few years. Can’t provide for my darling child the way I’d like. They say, though, that won’t prove a problem for you, with the Crown’s purse behind you. They say the Prince of Wales himself is backing your firm. And most of the ton.”
Myron merely shrugged one shoulder and leaned forward to pour more tea.
“I might be interested in buying into your firm. In a small way, you understand.”
“Seventh Sea sells shares.”
“‘Course. Though, I wondered…” He coughed slightly. “If there is a preferential rate you might extend to family.””
The man was ambitious. Now dangling the right bait, he said, “The only family I have who own stock are my parents, and I gave them theirs outright.”
“Is that right?” Sir Jasper’s hand and right eye twitched in unison. “Are they living?”
Myron resolved to set guards on his parents before another day had passed. “They are, though given my life, I never know if it will be the last time I am able to visit with them. They own a small farm in Cornwall.”
Brandy sloshed over the side of Sir Jasper’s glass at a bob of his knee. “Own it outright, I expect?”
With no warning, Sir Jasper changed the direction of his mendacities. He had gathered all the information he thought he needed to justify whatever decision he had made.
“They say you’ve no mistress, nor frequent the bawdy houses or the taverns. You’re a sailor,” he repeated again with the same dumbfounded look as before. “What do you do for quim, man?”
Myron couldn’t even form an adequate response to such a revolting question, but when the man continued, he wished he had said anything to silence him. “Have a widow hidden away somewhere, I’ll wager, and if not, you’d best get one and keep your tallywag in your breeches, for without my blessing and a vicar, there’ll be no sowing your seed in my daughter’s field. She might not be pretty, but she’s a good girl, and a baronet’s daughter. You’ll not treat her like a doxy.”
Myron was willing to bet that if he walked away, this wouldn’t be the last time this man offered up Miss Smithson for sale. Myron allowed Sir Jasper to take a deep gulp of brandy, then said, “Ten thousand pounds sterling. Hard cash.”
Sir Jasper dropped his half-full glass and nearly spat out his drink, gagging as he swallowed, allowing a bit to dribble down his chin.
The smell of cognac rising from the carpet would have been enough to turn Myron’s stomach, if he hadn’t inured himself to the unwelcome aroma of spirits years ago.
While Miss Smithson’s father took out a handkerchief that probably hadn’t always been grey, Myron steadied his gaze and bit his lip to keep from smirking. The man couldn’t choose whether to affect obsequious gratitude or feigned distress.
“I will give you ten thousand pounds sterling for your daughter. Not a farthing more.”
It took not a moment or two of grinding clockworks in Sir Jasper’s head before he asked, “Shares?”
“You may buy anything you like with the money, including shares at market value, for the rate you seek is reserved for my crew. No one is eligible who doesn’t work for it. But the business is done this day, contract signed and sealed by sundown, no further ado.”
He kept his eyes trained on Sir Jasper’s face, watching the man’s cheeks puff out like a water vole, trying not to choke on his own good fortune.
Slowly tucking the handkerchief back in his pocket, Sir Jasper attempted to exhibit a modicum of fatherly concern. “Now, I’m not certain that is quite the… That is to say, the girl might be… While it is a perfectly fine offer, I can’t be sure if she’ll agree…”
“You said it yourself. It doesn’t concern her. This is a matter to be settled between gentlemen. We shall come to an agreement, you and I, or I will find some other man’s daughter.”
“Well, now don’t let’s be hasty about… I’m sure we can come to some sort of…”
“Ten thousand pounds sterling.”
Sir Jasper’s eyes narrowed and one corner of his lip turned up. He would seek some additional advantage Myron had no intention of granting. “While the influx of coin would be welcome, it will not suffice to turn around the fortunes of a tin mine I was left by my father. I have been looking for investors, you see, and someone with your standing… your influence… well, it would go a long way toward—”
“Ten thousand pounds sterling.”
“I had hoped—”
“Ten thousand pounds sterling, or I leave this house and don’t return.”
Myron had never had to repeat an exceptionally good bargain so many times before his terms were accepted. Were he forced to reiterate the offer again, this would end with a long ride to Gretna Green.
Thankfully, Sir Jasper was no more challenging than John Jacob Astor, who had capitulated inside a quarter-hour to Myron’s offer to buy into his fur trading operation.
“Well, yes, then I suppose…”
Myron reached into his pocket and removed the drafted marriage settlement he had planned to negotiate civilly with Effingale, with concessions on both sides. He filled in the details of bride price and underlined the date by which vows must be said—in less than six weeks—working quickly with his quill and ink to complete the business before this nasty little man realized exactly what Myron might do to remove poor Miss Smithson from his influence.
Passing it across the table, he pressed, “My solicitor will return with me to finalize the settlements before the day is out, so that I may tell the Prince Regent the business is done. Effingale can act as witness. Shall we call him back?”
April 23, 1805
The Smithson Town House
Bella’s shoulders tightened, increasing the ache in her back and arms. She had lost the habit of cooking and cleaning in the months she had spent with her aunt and uncle at Brittlestep Manor and the Royal Crescent. But here, in the Smithson town house, such as it was, there were no servants. Only Bella. Bella and the dust and filth of months of disuse, the chipped dishes and rusting pots in the scullery, the laundry and worn linens, and the nearly bare pantry from which she was expected to produce exemplary meals for the three men in her family, then join them at table and never speak. After only one week, she had already fallen into despair.
Her fingers, rubbed raw from the sand she was using to scrub grease from the iron pots, twisted in the skirts of the dilapidated grey day dress she wore when she did housework, now begrimed from the exertion of heavy work.
“Isabella,” her father called again, his voice accompanied by the sound of the hasp being removed from the lock. Her father had taken to padlocking her into whichever room required her housewifely attentions, coming back to fetch her whenever he decided the chores should be finished, and not before, which was an entirely new level of both control and neglect. “Into the study, girl. Have things I need to say to you.” Before she could even clean her hands or remove and hang her apron, he chivvied her down the hall.
She seated herself in what had once been her grandfather’s study, when the house in Bath had been new and well-maintained, shiny and fresh as Nye Smithson’s purchased title. Now, though, it was only a library empty of books. Her father’s boots rested casually on the desk, as did a bottle of brandy and a glass.
She could barely believe what was being asked of her. Surely Uncle Howard hadn’t agreed to this. Surely she was mishearing the demand.
“You need not pretend to be so dull-witted. Pack your trunk.”
“Wherever Holsworthy wants to take you, and I’ll hear no more about it.”
“But Uncle Howard would never—”
Jasper’s voice rose. “I care not what that mealy-mouthed prig would or would not do. You are my daughter, and I’ve made an agreement with Holsworthy.”
She set her shoulders and held her head high. She was the niece of a viscount and enjoyed a permanent welcome in his homes, the granddaughter of a baronet, the largest soap-maker in southern England, who had held a Royal Warrant. She had her pride, and by the name of Heaven, she would not be given into wedlock to a man she had barely met. Not when her uncle had promised her a least a modicum of choice.
“I’ll not do it.”
The small amount of coal in the hearth, not nearly enough to heat the entire room, spat and hissed and left an oily haze hanging in the air.
Bella’s father and both brothers stared with exactly the same dropped-mouth look. For the first time any of them could remember, she had directly defied Jasper.
The first to gather himself to speak was John, who employed a reasonable, if slightly pleading, tone. “You have to, Sissy.”
“Don’t indulge her missishness, John,” Jasper snarled, dropping his boots heavily on the scarred wood floor. “She’ll do it because I say so, or I’ll slap the mouth off her face.”
John wheedled, “You don’t want to be left with no husband when you could be a baroness.”
Bella’s set her head at the angle she imagined a duchess might use when talking down to her servants. “I have no wish to be a baroness.”
The sly look John sent her way spoke volumes about what she might expect as the wife of a man who outranked their father—some small measure of power, and increased demands to ensure their support. She stared directly at a bright square of wallpaper where a painting had once hung, before everything in the house had been sold, one item at a time. She could acknowledge no one, or her challenge would be met swiftly with terrible punishment. Not that it wouldn’t be anyway.
If Lord Holsworthy acted even remotely like the baronet who had sired her, she would prefer to marry a night soil man than a nobleman. She would rather be buried alive in a coal mine than be joined to a man like the one eyeing her like excrement left on his armchair.
“I hope, at least, you have agreed he will marry me,” she said in her most high-handed Cousin-Charlotte voice, “not ruin me in pursuit of his own pleasures.”
Jasper’s cheek twitched and the throbbing vein in his forehead carried a familiar implication. “I will have none of your tempers. You’ll do whatever he asks of you, vows or no. It is no business of mine why he wants you, nor why he insists on gallivanting all over England with you in tow before you board his ship. Don’t know what he’s about. Plenty of dressmakers and hat shops in Bath.” Jasper continued with a wheezing chuckle, “Not that dressing you up will make you any easier to bed. Better to buy a burlap sack so he don’t have to look at you.”
“He is older than you are!”
Bella realized her mistake before his eyes could even narrow. Her father’s vanity precluded any mention of his sagging jowls and dull, grey hair. She glanced over at John, but he just raised his eyebrows, took the slightest step back and turned attention to his snuffbox. Jeremy, on the other hand, smirked, eyes sparking with the same excitement he might show when a pair of dogs attacked a fox.
Her father continued, “All the better to keep you in line. Not like another offer from a rich man is going to fall from the sky—or any offer at all. Can’t say why he wants such an ugly girl in his bedchamber, but he’s willing to pay for the privilege of taking you off my hands, so I say let him have you.”
“You’ve… You’ve sold me?” Handing her off to a man who would not ask for a dowry was one thing, outright purchase another.
Jeremy chimed in, “I know a brothel that would buy her, since she’s still a virgin.” He turned to Bella, “You are still a virgin?”
She snapped, “Of course I’ve not—”
At the same time, her father rejoined, “You think any man in his right mind wants to defile her?”
“I think plenty of men won’t give a damn what she looks like,” Jeremy offered, “if they have a chance at her maidenhead without having to take her home. Even better if she’s squeamish.” He nodded his head, convincing himself further by the second. “Might be we could get just as much from an abbey as the cit is willing to pay. Maybe more if we bargain.”
Humiliation and anger triggered a blush, and Bella sucked in a breath; the males in her family didn’t make threats they wouldn’t carry out. Her twisting fingertips clenched into fists, nearly as tight as the knots in her stomach and throat, just barely keeping her small supper intact.
This was, by far, the worst threat that had ever been leveled against her in her own house, and she was no stranger to threats. It wasn’t as though her virtue had any inherent value elsewhere, with no man ever likely to want it, but having it taken by force—again and again—was a much crueler prospect than marrying a kindly man whose only fault was being unwise enough to do business with her father.
John made a small movement toward her, but, at a look from Jasper, stayed his steps, grimacing in Bella’s direction but offering no support by word or deed. Bella couldn’t blame him, knowing all too well the ways their father used to keep both sons in line, now that their fists were stronger and faster than his.
“Papa…” She only called him Papa when she hoped to induce sentiment, and it never worked unless he were drunk, but anything was worth a try tonight. She pleaded, prepared to prostrate herself and beg if it might work against the greedy, feckless men in her family. “I can’t just leave in a carriage with some man I’ve barely met, who plans to put me on a ship and take me who knows where. I can’t defend myself against a whole boat full of sailors.”
Jasper’s voice grew steely and quiet, “If he wants to make you a whore for his crew and he’ll pay me as much as an abbess might, it’s not your place to complain about it. You’ll do as I say or, by God, I’ll make you regret it.”
Very quietly, without fanfare, she played her last card in an even, gentle tone, though the words were sharp as carpet tacks, and might draw blood—most likely, hers. “I should think you wouldn’t want anyone to know that Grandpapa’s tin mine played out before you ever inherited it, nor that my brothers keep you all in pocket money by cheating at the gaming hells.”
With that, Jasper rose and stalked toward her, eyes trained on hers as she shrank back into the chair, trying to watch his hands without making it obvious. It didn’t matter, though. He knew. He clenched and unclenched them for emphasis.
The swipe of his hard hand across the side of the head would leave no bruise, only set her ears ringing. She was relatively certain he wouldn’t leave her marked where Lord Holsworthy might see the damage, as he had never been one to risk an advantage just for spite.
It only took a moment to realize the folly. He grabbed her arm tightly between his quick fingers, and before she knew it, a lump rose on Bella’s torn lip, the blood on her tongue just slight, so he hadn’t loosed a tooth yet. She would be confined to the house at least a few days though, because her father was too angry to realize he was leaving bruises that couldn’t be covered. Perhaps, by then, her uncle could forestall this plan.
Jeremy stepped behind her chair and Jasper dragged her up out of it. John averted his eyes, which couldn’t last long; soon enough Jasper would demand he act like a man and participate in the bludgeoning. Before any of them really got started, she begged, “I’ll do whatever you say, Papa. I won’t argue. I promise I will hold my tongue.”
“Too right, you will, and I’m about to remind you exactly why.”
Deep underneath the quilt on her bed, where Bella had buried herself, curled into a ball, hoping to be left alone until the morning, she flinched at a light thump on her bedchamber door. When she didn’t reply, the door handle clicked, but even with the key available on the other side, the door moved not an inch, with her hairbrush jammed between the door handle and latch. If her life was to be made more miserable by her drunken male relatives, she would hear the yelling before she felt the pain.
Jeremy had locked Bella in the room after he wrested so many screams from her, she stopped making any sounds at all. She had maintained consciousness just long enough to bar the door in case he decided to return.
“Pssst. Sissy,” she heard, muffled through eiderdown and solid oak. With a choked-back sob, she carefully uncurled herself and pushed back the bedclothes, shifting her black-and-blue body slowly, in tiny increments, rising unsteadily to her feet. She struggled to the door and pulled the hairbrush away from the latch. John slipped through the door, then closed it, leaned against it, and slid to a seat on the floor, effectively keeping everyone else outside. He had been taking the same position in secret in the middle of the night since the first time she had been beaten bloody by their father, when she was nine. By then, eleven-year-old John and twelve-year-old Jeremy had both been taking beatings for half their lives, and her middle brother knew a thing or two about how to dress her wounds. She shuffled to the bed to lie back down, dropping the hairbrush on to the empty nightstand.
“Have you brought cakes pilfered from the kitchen, as you did when we were children?” She pulled the blanket back over her head.
He spoke in an undertone. “You cannot go to sleep. Sissy,” he insisted. “You have to go, and now, while they are floored. I’ve got a hack waiting down the street.”
The edge of the blanket flipped back off her red-gold head, and her braid dropped off the side of the mattress. “You have never helped me escape before.”
“Father has never offered to sell you to a brothel before, and they won’t tell me where he is sending you in that carriage in the morning.” His voice broke. “I know I… I should have done better by you, Sissy.” His hand scrubbed across his face, and he stood. “Get up and get out.” He took her cloak from a hook by the door and held it out.
She dragged herself from the bed again, sidling to the door. When she took her wrap, he reached a hand out, keeping it about half an inch above the blackened skin of her cheekbone, wincing. “I’m sorry for the…” His hand cradled the back of her head, drawing her into a loose embrace.
She nodded and allowed herself to be comforted. He was always sorry, and if the situations were reversed, Bella would take up a truncheon against anyone to avoid crossing her father. And like John, she probably wouldn’t learn to revel in it, as their brother had.
“I don’t know the first thing about this Holsworthy fellow, Sissy, but I know this: Father will sell you to anyone with pound note, but Uncle Howard will never let you go to a degenerate. I can’t stop Father, nor can you, and Jeremy wouldn’t if he could. Get to the Royal Crescent and do exactly what Effingale tells you to do. I’ll distract Father as long as I can.”
May 9, 1805
The Effingale Town House
“The Prince of Wales, Lord Holsworthy?” Bella would have shrieked if she hadn’t been choking. “You wish me to meet His Royal Highness?”
“More to the point, my dear, he wishes to meet you.”
Lord Holsworthy had been delayed in London for almost a fortnight on business, and returned to Bath with no knowledge that she had been removed from, then reinstalled in, the Effingale’s home. He had no idea she had fled in the night from her father’s house to return to the Royal Crescent, nor why.
When she bit her lip, the last vestiges of torn skin broke open, leaving the taste of blood, once more, across her teeth. The bruises, thankfully, had healed, or no one would have let Lord Holsworthy into the Effingale house, where Jasper had yet to turn up to retrieve her. As always, she had no idea when or if he would, but Uncle Howard had assured her she had been taken away by her father for the last time, even if he had to hide her somewhere.
“The Prince of Wales wants to meet me.” Her heart broke its tether.
“Yes. In fact, he demands it. You must present yourself—with me, of course—and Lords and Ladies Firthley and Effingale, should they so choose, at a small gathering at Carlton House in a sennight. He has said he will make a point of a private audience.”
Her breathing ceased, full stop, at the unwelcome thought of a small gathering of the aristocracy at the Prince’s residence, followed by a private interview with his Royal Highness. If Char weren’t also invited, she would have fainted, and her consciousness was not yet a sure thing, especially once she reached the Royal Presence.
“I’m not sure I can—”
“You can, my dear,” he said, patting the hand she had twisted in her skirt, “for you have agreed to follow my directives in such matters. I will buy you a new dress for the occasion, but the modiste must sew quickly.”
“But you’ve said—”
“Of course you may expect to own a more fetching gown for evening, if you are to represent the Crown.” He grasped her hand, straightening the fingers and wrapping them around his own. “Though you must understand, a ship, even one designed with a wife in mind, is not the place for fancy fashions. Nor is ostentation particularly seemly, to my mind, for a Christian woman.”
“Yes, Sir, you’ve said. I’ve sent for my simpler clothes, though all I have here is dresses for the Season. Charlotte has seen to that. I daresay we have something that will do for the king.” Biting her lip, she started to speak twice and stopped. Finally, the third time, she said, “I am not certain of my ability to represent the Crown, my lord.”
“I, however, am certain.”
“I haven’t the… the backbone, Sir. The fortitude.”
“I shall provide your backbone until you find it within yourself.” He smiled at her and touched her shoulder, as though he would steady her. “And you will, Miss Smithson. I have faith.”
“Yes, Sir.” She dropped her eyes, not in the least convinced, but well used to doing as she was told.
Her breathing evened a bit, having agreed. In some ways, his gentle demands were a comfort, for she very much doubted she would ever be chastised with fists for any mistake. “You will be my husband, and I will follow your instruction.”
“Good girl. I have one other… it is rather… er…” He stepped across the room and reached out the door; he must have left something on the hall table. “I will drop you at the shops when I leave here, and I beg you take this with you to the modiste and ensure they are well-fitted.”
His face was flushed, and he seemed reluctant to hand her the long, flat box. “I assure you, Miss Smithson, this is in no way…” he was nearly choking. “…prurient. It is not that I wish to discuss your…undergarments… only… When we travel, you will need to wear certain… your… I’ve had stays made… boned with gold coin, and I will require you to wear them while we travel.”
He shoved the box at her, and she took it, sure her face couldn’t be redder than his. She set the box aside, saying, “I am confused, my lord. Gold coin?”
He took a deep breath and collected himself, once again nominally in command. “I do not wish to put you in fear, Miss Smithson, but travel by sea is not always predictable. I should wish any wife of mine to be able to access a few hundred pounds in gold should she find herself in need of it. You must never tell anyone it is there but for the direst circumstance, and you must wear it wherever we go. I’ve had two made, but I know little of women’s fashions. You should have them adjusted in whatever way will make them most comfortable.
“As such, and considering your summons, you must attend the modiste without delay. You may ask Lady Charlotte to accompany you, if it is convenient.” He paused, and when he gathered his voice, he continued, “I prefer Lady Effingale’s taste not be considered in this outing.”
For once, she would not be subject to opinions designed to show her to disadvantage. Or rather, to show Charlotte to advantage right next to her. If nothing else, she might adore a man who insisted upon that.
“Let me ask after Charlotte’s plans for the day and gather my things.”
May 18, 1805
Bella sank into a curtsey so low she might have fallen over, had His Royal Highness not held out his hand to help her up. The unruly wave in his hair seemed to announce a contrary nature, confirmed by a mischievous twinkle in his royal eye as he appraised her. His cheeks slightly flushed, it seemed more than possible he had already had more than one glass of the claret he was carrying. He drained the glass and handed it to a nearby footman.
“This is the young lady, then, Holsworthy? What is your name? My apologies for having forgotten.”
“Miss Isabella Smithson, Your Royal Highness, of Somerset,” she squeaked. “I am called Bella.”
“Cousin to Firthley, is that not correct?” Alexander stepped forward to confirm the relationship, Charlotte curtseying for the second time in as many minutes, as low as Bella, nearly as dumbstruck. Myron and Alexander’s attempts to shield Bella from the prince collided, both nattering about her, but not allowing her to speak.
“Stop, gentlemen. Stop.” The prince held out his hand. “I shall speak to the young lady alone, for I will ascertain her mind in this.” He held out his elbow to Bella and said, “I trust my sister’s presence will be considered protection enough for your virtue? It is she who brought you to my attention.” Alexander and Myron both reached out, as though they would escort her, then their arms fell as Bella tentatively took the prince’s arm and half-whispered, half choked to Myron over her shoulder, “Princes do not make requests.”
The prince in question leaned in and whispered in her ear, “Quite right, Miss Smithson.”
Once in an audience room, they found Princess Amelia waiting. Only a few years older than Bella, the lovely blonde woman had a friendly face and sweet smile, no hint of the conceit and self-importance that rose off the much-older Prince of Wales like expensive eau de Cologne. Her welcoming presence made Bella slightly more comfortable, though the respite was, of course, relative.
Bella repeated the ritual curtsey while a footman poured sherry. The prince sat, spreading his arm across the top of a long sofa, leaning comfortably into the upholstery. He did not invite her to take her ease, and when the princess did, Bella was at a loss. Such informality was unheard of, but she had no knowledge of anyone who had been called to a private audience. Perhaps the rules were more relaxed in such a setting. Finally, he nodded his assent, so she gratefully settled, very slowly, into a fauteuil, keeping her back straight and legs crossed at the ankle.
“You are white as a snow-covered specter, Miss Smithson.”
“She’s been called before the Crown, George,” the princess remonstrated. “Give her a moment to catch her breath.”
Bella gratefully took the moment and a large sip of sherry, looking around at a room designed to intimidate everyone but the royals who owned it. It might as well be a peasant cottage for all the attention they paid to the masterful artworks, gilded trim, walls lined with what appeared to be peach silk; she would have to move closer to be sure and she was not certain her legs could support her if she tried to stand.
Seemingly tired of waiting for her disquiet to abate, the prince finally said, tapping two fingers on a console table, “No need to tell me why you’ve made no appearance at Court. I’ve heard it from the Duke of Lanceley three times now at dinner parties.”
Bella stared at her lap.
“I can well see boarding a ship for the hinterlands might be preferable to listening to him continue to tell the tale, but I cannot think he will stop, even then, I fear. He makes much of it in his pretentiously self-deprecating way.” When Bella glanced up, he was smiling, as though lemonade in the face of a duke was a silly joke. She dropped her eyes, stricken.
He laughed aloud, drawing her gaze back up. “I wish I had seen it. I’d have paid a monkey to see Lanceley dripping lemonade! You mustn’t make as much of it as he does, Miss Smithson. He is a fool, and once you sail away, it will be forgotten. You will marry Holsworthy in a sennight?”
She gulped the remainder of the smoothest sherry she had ever tasted.
“Nine days, Sir. At his parents’ home in Saltash.” Realizing she was whispering, possibly even mumbling, she consciously collected her voice and spoke more clearly. “We will set sail as soon thereafter as is practical. I know he is hoping to be at sea before the sun sets.”
“I have misgivings,” the princess said. “Please do not take me amiss, but from all I have heard, Miss Smithson, you are… rather an unlikely adventurer.” She nodded to her brother in acknowledgement of his rank, “Though of course, I will defer to the prince, as he is your future husband’s backer. I merely wish to ensure your interests are considered.”
“‘Tis true,” the prince said, looking her up and down, appraising her with a practiced, but not licentious, eye. “You are not the model of a seafaring merchant’s wife, nor of an ambassador. You are young yet, and unaccustomed to Court life. Can you make yourself an asset to him?”
She looked to the side of the room, but her voice steadied further, far smoother and more even than she felt. “I hope my husband will find me young and strong, willing to work to advance him… and advance you… your father… England, I mean.” She blushed, and neither made any effort to address her confusion. She knew better than to ask impertinent questions, however, so ended with, “With respect to your misgivings, Your Royal Highnesses, you may be assured I have lost mine.” This was as long as she could keep up a pretense, and her voice began to shake again. “If I can speak to the royal family of England, I suppose I can learn to speak to anyone.”
“Brava, Miss Smithson!” The prince clapped his hands. “I think you are an excellent choice!”
Princess Amelia rolled her eyes, but did not otherwise reply to her eldest brother’s self-serving assertion.
“Holsworthy assured me he would be entirely forthright about the privations you can expect on your journey,” he said, “But have you any questions for me, Miss Smithson?”
Very tentatively, slowly, with the hope she was not pushing too far, Bella queried, “Might… may I ask, Sir…”
“Why do you take such an interest in the marriage of a merchant and minor gentry?”
The princess explained, “It was I, Miss Smithson. I heard of your situation during the… normal course of things. There are relatively few women who might undertake such a journey, and surely none from the nobility. When I enquired further, I was given cause for concern. Are you certain you wish to take this course?”
“I do, Ma’am. I admit I did not dare dream of travel, nor conceive of such a breadth of destinations. But Lord Holsworthy has explained everything, and you may be certain this is, in the main, my choice,” she whispered. Gaining volume and vigor, she continued, “I was raised among the nobility, Sir, and I can pretend to aspire to be a courtier, should it be required.”
The prince looked over at his sister triumphantly, “Very prettily said, my sweet. You are a brave girl.”
So as not to forget, she brought up the only point Lord Holsworthy had specifically requested. “I do hope you accept my thanks—our thanks—on the gift you have made Lord Holsworthy of the land in India. I am quite looking forward to being of use to you on the subcontinent. And the ship… it is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, even half-finished, and Lord Holsworthy says you ordered it designed with my needs in mind.”
The prince nodded, saying, “With the participation of my brother, William, who is much more a sea-going fellow than I.” Bella hoped the Duke of Clarence had been sober when he contributed to the plans, but even sotted, an admiral was more qualified than she to offer up suggestions.
“In that case, please do pass on my—our—thanks to His Highness as well.” She turned to the princess, at last beginning to warm to the conversation. “I wish you to know, Ma’am, my uncle has been quite thorough in representing my interests. Of course, there will be dangers, but I will never be stranded, and will always be under guard. Lord Holsworthy has been quite clear. Should he have his way, I will never be left alone.”
The princess nodded, her furrowed brow and the tense lines at the corners of her mouth beginning to relax.
“Your uncle?” Prinny asked. “I know you are Effingale’s niece, but I admit to some confusion. Do you not have a father to advise you? I thought I had heard…”
Bella’s breathing sped up.
“Yes, I recall now. Sir Jasper Smithson, 2nd Baronet. Does he not have a tin mine? I had thought to invest on the advice of several gentlemen.”
“No!” she yelped. At the shock on their faces, she stopped and cleared her throat, modulating her tone. “I mean, Your Royal Highness, Sir, with all due respect to your own acumen, my father and brothers are… not very… propitious… at business. I do not wish to defame my family, but I should not like to see you drawn into their… ill luck.”
Her face heated, but she charged forward, unwilling to continue any further conversation about her father and brothers if it could possibly be avoided, but equally unwilling to see the consequence to the Smithson men if they were caught trying to fleece the Prince Regent.
“I am hopeful my situation will soon require a return to England for the purpose of providing an heir for Myr—for Lord Holsworthy. I know I shall never again be welcomed in the ton, once joined in wedlock with a merchant, but Myr—Lord Holsworthy’s barony and his parents’ home are open to me should I be… should I find myself…”
“Yes, dear, we understand,” Princess Amelia said, turning her face away.
Prinny, on the other hand, inclined his head and smiled in a way Bella found almost friendly, saying, “Should you show the type of courage such an endeavor will require, you shall be welcome in my drawing room to the end of your life, my dear, and I will make certain Holsworthy’s manor house is entirely up to the mark, should you require respite from your travels.”
Bella’s eyes widened, and her ability to speak fell away at the thought the Prince of Wales would see to her new household in her absence. “But—Sir—you needn’t—”
He held up one finger. “You must never naysay royalty, my dear, though in years to come, I expect you will wish to many, many times.”
She swallowed her intended objections and took only a moment to consider before she said, “I am sure Lord Holsworthy will be as grateful as I for your attention to our concerns.”
“Well done. You will make an excellent diplomat’s wife. Now, I must return to my party, and I daresay Holsworthy is close to apoplexy wondering if I have made off with his bride.” He winked at Bella as they all rose, and he offered an arm to each girl. “There is only one other thing I believe you should know.”
“Holsworthy himself tells me you have grit you’ve yet to use, and he never buys bad merchandise.”
May 26, 1805
The Egret Feather Inn
The night before her wedding, Bella paced before the fire in her room at the Saltash village inn. Charlotte slept soundly, snoring in the big bed, but there had been no gentle slumber for Bella.
This had been the fastest six weeks of her life and, by any measure, a success. Betrothed to a peer not a few days after her first assembly, she would be married before the last party of the Season. In the meantime, she had traveled from Bath to London, back to Brittlestep Manor for her belongings, and was now in Saltash, about to leave for parts unknown; Bella hardly knew where she had packed her head. She was not a person accustomed to restless energy, and pacing back and forth across the carpet was not making it any easier to compose herself. There was nothing for it. There was no chance she could clear her mind sitting here in the midst of the same wretched thoughts.
She pulled a front-lacing house dress over her nightrail, tugged on a pair of walking shoes and her traveling cloak, which always, now, seemed close at hand, wrapped her bedtime braid into a coil and pinned it at the nape of her neck. She locked the door on the way out and pocketed the key.
Stepping into the stable yard, Bella saw no one about, though it wasn’t nearly late enough to be so quiet, even in the country. She took the walking track behind the row of shops toward the wood that bordered the town limit. She breathed deep of the cool, night air and felt some of the tension leave her shoulders.
Bella’s relations filled the inn she had just left: Lord and Lady Effingale, Hugh and Guy Amberly, Charlotte and Lord Firthley. Her father and brothers had not been invited, and were not at all welcome, but no one expected they would stay away. Charlotte had been rehearsing her set-down of Jeremy Smithson in her looking glass for days, and the gentlemen roaming about the inn were rather better-armed than one might expect for a happy occasion. Only by sheer force of will had Bella had secured general agreement that no Smithsons would be killed on her wedding day, provided they kept to themselves.
Bella hoped they would keep to themselves. She didn’t fool herself that her father would attend out of sentiment, but he surely would to ensure his promised payment was made before the Holsworthys left England. If he could find a way to torture and threaten Bella one last time, too, she expected he would find that a worthy endeavor, though Uncle Howard promised she would never again have to be alone with Jasper.
Lord Holsworthy was spending this night in his childhood home, which was so like Bella’s father’s cottage as to be a mirror image—three rooms above, three below, and twenty acres to farm—in the Clewes’ case, a vineyard. His aging parents could not have been kinder to her, and assured an open-hearted welcome to their family, whether on land or at sea. His mother, particularly, took a liking to Bella, and her teasing tales of his boyhood went a long way in making the somewhat stiff Lord Holsworthy seem like someone with whom Bella could be friends. He laughed more, here in Saltash, than he ever had in her presence before.
Stopping in the streaming moonlight, Bella looked to see where the path had brought her. On the edge of the wood, adjacent to a clearing, she could just see the harbor and the Seventh Sea ships docked there, on the horizon. Several important guests from London were housed on one of Lord Holsworthy’s merchantman, including the Prince Regent and Princess Amelia and their retinues, Lord and Lady Pinnester, and several of Lord Holsworthy’s other investors. The royals had traveled to the wedding on the Amelia’s maiden voyage, but would return to London on the fleet ship, for the new flagship would leave with the bride and groom on the morrow, directly after the wedding breakfast. In less than a day, Bella would leave England, probably for good.
As she took up her skirt to begin her walk again, Jasper stepped out from behind a tree. She stopped short and stepped back.
“I was hopin’ I might come across you, lassie, before you take to the high seas with your new lord and master.”
She flinched when Jeremy stepped out from the other direction.
She turned as though she would run, and John was behind her. Her hands rose to guard her face, and she tried to turn away from all of them.
“Please let me be. Uncle Howard said you wouldn’t be—”
“Skip me own daughter’s wedding? Not on your life, Miss.”
She tried to sound like Charlotte when she said, “Lord Holsworthy will be sorely displeased if you harm me.”
“Still belong to me until the vows are said, and I would have you remember to put your family’s interests first in years to come.” His hand shot out, snake-like, to slam into her chest, throwing her backward into Jeremy, who grabbed her arms.
She would have sobbed, but the wind was knocked from her lungs.
“Will come a time,” her father continued, “Holsworthy will get a letter from me, and whatever it says, I’ll expect you to support my claim. Are we clear on that, Lady-Bloody-Holsworthy?” His blows to her chest and shoulders were timed with the rhythm of his tirade.
She nodded and squeaked, “Yes, Papa.”
Jeremy leaned in close to her ear and said, “You can sail ten times the world over to get away, but don’t forget you are leaving the people you love back here in England. Do not think I will not stoop to do harm to our lovely cousin should you not comply, for the Firthleys and I still have a score to settle.”
Jasper motioned to John. “Do you not wish to give your sister something to remember you by?”
John shrugged, but didn’t come closer.
“Such a molly you are, boy!” Jasper took a sharp jab directly atop the first bruise, between her breasts, knocking her wind away again.
John stepped between her and Jasper, and said, “I will give her something to remember me by.” He turned and gave her a kiss on the cheek and a rough hug, murmuring in her ear, “I wish you happy, Sissy. You can’t know how much.” He turned back around, his arm draped over her shoulder.
“Leave off, you two. Holsworthy’s bought her on paper, so it is his merchandise you are damaging. Do you think a sharp cit is going to pay as much for broken stock, when he hasn’t already delivered the coin? Go to the taproom and drink yourselves stupid, and I’ll take Sissy back to her room.”
Inexplicably, the other men complied, with only one last shove from her father and a last threat from Jeremy: “You’d better hope Holsworthy’s solicitor pays promptly.”
Both men were well on their way back to the inn before John took one step from the clearing, the two youngest Smithsons silently staring after their elders. When they were finally out of sight, John stuck out his arm in a courtly gesture. Bella’s hand inched up to curl around his elbow.
As was his way, John tried to keep the conversation light and soothing, though Bella knew the lilt in his voice was hard-won. “This will be my last chance to offer you advice, as your elder, wiser brother, and so you must take heed of all I say.”
Bella smiled and glanced up at him. “And why should I wish to leave you with a false idea of your influence?” She poked him in the side to give the tease to her words, and he smirked back at her, but his eyes were not at all humorous.
“You will do well to listen, sweeting. You are boarding a ship filled with sailors, Sissy, and while I can’t stop it, I can’t think it wise. Just recall, if you will, what I taught you in the barn in Evercreech, the night before your first trip to London. Any man makes improper advances, you plant your knee in his cods without delay.”
She sighed, but agreed, “Yes, John. I promise. I’m sure Lord Holsworthy would wish it.’
After a few moments of tense silence between them, she added, ‘I beg you give that same lesson to Angel Bairstowe, before she finds herself alone in a room with Jeremy.’
John gave her a half-grin and waved off her concern. ‘He loves her, Sissy. He’ll not lay a finger on her. If Miss Bairstowe marries him, she will be the most pampered wife in Christendom.”
“If she marries him, her life will be as miserable as Mama’s and mine, and I am afraid of what he might do to secure her hand.”
“He’s different with her, Sissy.”
She bit her lip for the space of four steps, but finally said, “I pray you never learn to be as hard and cold as Jeremy.” A few steps later, they reached the end of the upstairs hallway. “You have to leave me here, John. Charlotte is in my room, and if she’s awake… well… it will be difficult enough to explain why I am not there.”
He nodded. “Sissy, I really do—”
She held her hand up over his mouth. “Stay out of card games and brothels and taverns and Papa’s tin mine. You are a better man than that, John. And for heaven’s sake, don’t be drawn into Jeremy’s obsession with vengeance against Charlotte, for Firthley will kill the next Smithson who poses a danger to his family, not just blood him and give him the cut direct. Father threatens you with Newgate, yet the path he asks you to walk will lead right there.”
He shrugged. “Only if we’re caught.”
“You will be caught, John, if it is the last thing Charlotte’s father and husband do. Have you any notion what lengths they will travel to protect Charlotte, and how many thief-takers their combined fortunes can buy? It cannot be long now.”
He grasped her arm firmly, but not painfully, his face blanching. “Do you know something, Sissy? Have they found something?” Suddenly, he hand convulsed, drawing a yelp from her as her own hand flew to try to claw his now-bruising fingertips away. “It was you! You told Effingale whatever you learned from listening at keyholes. Probably have Holsworthy’s money behind it, too, so he can save himself the coin he promised! It’s only waiting until you leave to ruin the rest of us.”
She didn’t confirm or deny it, only said, “Pray, confess yourself to Uncle this night and beg his counsel. He will help you, if you ask it. He knows you never asked to be Father’s accomplice.”
He looked away, refusing to look into her eyes, until, squaring his shoulders, his usually facile face stone-cold, he turned back. “I confess nothing,” he spat through gritted teeth, glaring. With a snarl, he shoved her away and growled, “I never thought you would betray me when I let you go free that night. You might have ended a drunken bawd, but for me, not been raised to the peerage and married into a fortune.” He raised the back of his hand to her, but slowly lowered it again at her flinch. “I always expected Father might send me to the gallows, if only to save his own neck, but I never thought it would be you. You’d better hope I don’t know something that will see you hanged with the rest of us.”
He strode down the hall without saying goodbye, and after he turned the corner, she took the few steps to her door and slipped inside the room.
The lamp on the bedside table slowly illuminated. “I’d like to think you were having a tryst with Lord Holsworthy because you have fallen in love, but I think it too much to ask. Where were you the night before your wedding?”
“I’m finally tired, Charlotte. Can I not just lie back down?” Bella removed and hung her cloak and the gown she had thrown on over her nightrail before she left the inn. “Should you not be in your husband’s bedchamber, not mine?”
“As though I would allow you to spend this night alone. Where did you go?”
Bella pulled back the covers on the bed and prepared to slide in next to Charlotte, but when she twisted wrong and winced, Charlotte asked, “What is it?”
Bella’s eyes slid to the side, and Charlotte sat up straighter. Her sharp eyes traveled from Bella’s messy hair to her shaking hands, to the spots of high color surely blazoning her cheeks. “They are here, aren’t they? I knew Uncle Jasper wouldn’t just leave you alone. And one of them hit you.”
Charlotte threw back the bedclothes, ready to storm the door, but Bella said, “Stop, Charlotte. You knew my father would appear with his hand out for the bride price. You all agreed to let things rest until after we sail.” Bella lowered herself to the mattress and tucked her feet underneath the quilt. “Get back in bed. Beginning tomorrow, I will be subject to no one’s will but my husband, his god, and his investors. I will be out of my father’s reach forevermore.”
Slowly, Charlotte returned to the bed, tucking her legs underneath her and leaning against the headboard. “Do you have wounds that need tending?”
Bella stretched her stiff shoulders. “No. Nothing out of the ordinary.”
“You should tell Papa and Lord Holsworthy.”
“Everyone will discover the Smithsons are here in the morning, if they turn up for breakfast, and I daresay Lord Holsworthy will uncover my bruises before the ship reaches open sea. By then, it will be too late for him to return me as defective.”
“Defec—? You. Are. Not. Defective.” Charlotte hugged Bella tightly, inadvertently pressing against the new bruises until Bella hissed a breath through her teeth. Charlotte jerked back. “I’m so sorry, dearest. I wasn’t thinking.”
“You will say nothing to anyone, for I will not have my only chance to escape them cry off at the last minute. Especially when it will make my father want to take his lost funds from my hide.”
Charlotte smoothed Bella’s nightrail. “Are you not… well… you do not seem nervous. I was anxious as a cat, and so is every bride I have ever seen.”
Bella let her head fall onto her cousin’s shoulder. “I am resigned, Charlotte, and not unhappy. Lord Holsworthy is kind and thoughtful and will be a good husband. He believes I have some unfulfilled promise, which is an appealing notion, though I don’t really credit it. And he removes me entirely from my father’s sphere.” She grasped Charlotte’s hand. “You, on the other hand, will still be very much nearby. Be careful, Charlotte, and make sure Lord Firthley knows how low the Smithsons might sink. Jeremy does not drop a grudge.”
“Do not be ridiculous. I will be perfectly fine. My husband has drawn your brother’s blood once; he will tear Jeremy’s throat out should he take one step toward me, and my father and Bow Street are no longer looking the other way where the Smithsons are concerned. Soon enough, all of your male relatives will be in Newgate or hung.”
Bella dropped her face into her hands. “They cannot have believed their schemes would prosper forevermore. I have been blessed to be raised more Amberly than Smithson, but it is by God’s grace I will be married and away from here, not dragged to prison by association. Is it wrong I should feel my marriage a reprieve?”
“Not wrong! Exactly right. Lord Holsworthy is a relative unknown, to be sure, but you cannot do worse than remain under your father’s control. He is a good man, by all accounts, and he has done well by you in the settlements,” Charlotte reassured her, though Bella needed no reassurance about her course. “The worst anyone can say is he is too puritanical, but I will not feel sorry for wishing you, of all people, a husband free of vice. I have never been happier about anything than Lord Holsworthy needing a bride.”
Bella nodded. “I am… more contented than I would have expected, given the circumstance. And grateful. And while I want children with all my heart, I do not relish a return home for my confinement. I hope to never see England or any Smithson male again.”
Charlotte let out a tiny, ladylike giggle. “Do you know, we did manage the impossible. Or so my mother would say.” Bella raised a brow. “We both snared husbands before your wretched father and brothers found a way to destroy the entire family.”
May 27, 1805
On Board the Amelia
Watching the pier grow smaller by the league, the Effingales, Firthleys, and Amberlys almost too small to see, waving, Bella stared over the side of the Amelia, the ship that was now her home, fingers curved tightly around the railing, grasping at any last semblance of balance. Beside her, Lord Holsworthy—no, Myron—placed his hand over hers, squeezing the fingers gently. Neither said a word, but when a tear rolled down her cheek, he brushed it away with his thumb, and curled a comforting arm around her shoulders. They had never stood so close together, but she hid her face in his shoulder, sobbing, “I’ll never see them again. They are my only family.”
And truly, they must be, as no Smithson had made an appearance at the wedding. Bella could blame her sudden dizziness on the rocking of the ship, but it might as easily be her sense of giddy relief. She had escaped her father, her brothers, and the mess they were about to make of things. Bella thought she had caught a glimpse of John at the docks, from the height of the bo’sun’s chair being brought up the side of the ship, but by the time she could steady herself for a good look, the man was gone.
No one had appeared to take her to Newgate, nor had her own family’s downfall played out before her eyes. The reprieve inherent in watching the coastline be swallowed up in the horizon, when crossed with the despair of leaving so many people she loved in so much danger, left her in tears.
“Ah, ah, my dear. Now, that is not true.” He chucked her under the chin, looking into her watery eyes. “As you now have me to call family, and soon a babe, should the Lord be willing.” He kissed her forehead when she nodded, quickly hiding against his sleeve once more, letting him stroke her hair the same way John had when they were both younger, before their father had pitted his children against one other as best he could.
Just as she wiped the tears away, determined to meet her future head-on, a throat was cleared behind them.
“Sir, if you would…” Captain Rafe Johnson trailed off, foot turned to run the other direction rather than interrupt feminine distress. Placing himself between the captain of the vessel and his new bride, Myron answered, “Yes, Captain?”
“Sir, I… I only meant… I mean, I wondered…”
Bella sniffled, but stepped out from behind her husband, taking up Captain Johnson’s hand, shaking it like a man might. “You must be Captain Johnson. I am so sorry we haven’t had the chance to meet until now. Lord Holsworthy has spoken most highly of you.”
Blushing beet-red in a way Bella would never have expected from a sailor, the captain bowed awkwardly over her hand, as though he were entirely unaccustomed to a lady being anywhere nearby. “My lady, I am pleased to welcome you to the Amelia. I was hoping I might show you the arrangements we’ve made for your quarters…” He looked at Myron. “But if this is an inconvenient time…”
“No, no, of course, I am delighted to see where I will be living.” Belatedly, she looked up at her husband. “I mean, if it is acceptable to you, my lord.”
He smiled down at her. “Entirely acceptable, my dear. Lead on, Captain.”
Only a few steps from their position, the half-boots she had worn, among the most practical footwear she owned, proved her first mistake. On the first step up to the quarter-deck, her heel caught and she pitched forward. Had Myron not been holding her elbow, she might have broken the fall with her face.
“You may find, my lady,” the captain said gently, after she was set aright on her feet again, “a pair of slippers will serve you better aboard ship.”
She nodded silently, humiliation locked in her throat, vowing to dig a pair of walking shoes out of her trunk and drop the boots overboard at the earliest opportunity. Until then, she merely held on, like a barnacle, to her new husband’s arm.
In a series of brief glances, he assessed the rest of her attire, the brand-new coffee-colored velveteen traveling gown Aunt Minerva had insisted she wear, already soiled with sea spray and tar. The skirt had already been rent by proximity to whatever sharp things had existed between the carriage block and the railing of the upper deck, and a length of torn lace trailed from the sleeve. “You might find all the…” he flicked his fingers at her, “ruffles and bows a nuisance…” He trailed off. “But Your Ladyship must wear whatever suits you…”
“I assure you, I have always found ruffles and bows a nuisance, and my attire shall be rectified as soon as I find my trunks. Clearly, I must learn the way of things, and I will be grateful if you gentlemen will make it your business to correct me, should I err.” Myron smiled and squeezed the hand she had wrapped around his elbow. “I may wish to shorten my skirts a few inches to ensure I do not fall to my doom.” Sudden nerves overtook her. “I mean… I would not wish to cause you any…”
“You must do as you will to avoid your doom, my dear,” Myron assured her, kissing her hand and making her blush. “Though I will ask you keep the sensibilities of sailors in mind.”
She nodded and stifled a giggle at the sudden redness of Captain Johnson’s ears.
“On the subject of sailors, might be we should teach your wife to use a cutlass, Holsworthy.”
“Oh!” Bella exclaimed. “I could never…” Turning to Myron, she whispered, “He wouldn’t really…? I mean, he doesn’t expect…?”
The captain answered, as though he had been meant to hear, “Only should you wish it, Lady Holsworthy, though I daresay you will find a surfeit of men who would like you to be able to protect yourself, since they will be held responsible should you be placed in danger.”
“Oh! But… I’m sure I… I could never use a weapon.”
Myron chided gently, “Pray, do not decide today how you will live the rest of your life aboard ship, my lady. There is much to understand before you can decide what you will wish to learn.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Following the captain across the deck, she was directed toward a series of closed doorways with glass insets, curtained to shut out prying eyes.
“On the starboard side—”
“That is to your right, my dear,” Myron explained.
“On the starboard side,” Captain Johnson stressed, “is Lord Holsworthy’s cabin.”
He opened the set of doors to a fair-sized room, far larger than she had expected, paneled in dark wood, contained a writing desk and a bunk built into the wall, less than half the width of her bed at Brittlestep Manor. The room also contained a large cannon, taking up no less than a quarter of the space.
“Must we live with guns in our quarters?” She swallowed hard. “And such large ones.”
Myron nodded with a grim look. “This is a sixty-gun ship. There are no cabins that do not also house cannon, my dear, and I beg you recall it is for your own protection.”
“Yes, my lord. Of course.”
She stepped over to an interior door and said, “What is behind here?”
“Here, my lady,” the captain continued, opening it for her, “we have carved out an ordnance-free sitting room for you, and office for Lord Holsworthy.”
Painted in a delicate green, with an amber-hued Persian carpet reaching from wall to wall, this area had been designed to accommodate their family life. An escritoire sat to one side, a larger partner’s desk to the other, and a clutch of armchairs and a loveseat in the center. A drop-leaf table hugged the back wall, providing a place to take a meal, beside a door leading to a small balcony that could only be accessed through their quarters.
“What a lovely balcony! What a wonderful place to have tea and think.”
Even the jaded-looking captain smiled at that. “The stern gallery, my lady. Balconies exist only on land.”
“Oh, of course. I suppose eventually, I will learn the language?”
“I think it inevitable,” Myron said with a smile.
Another interior door, this time between two floor-to-ceiling gated shelves, according to the captain, led to “Her Ladyship’s cabin.” At her nervous grin, he unlocked the door, handed her the key, and pushed the door open. “Lord Holsworthy asked that—” The poor man’s ears were burning again.
“I wished you to have a place on board that you could call your own, my sweet, and I asked the princess’ advice in the decoration. I hope you find it pleasing.”
Bella felt the smile reach from ear to ear when she took in the room, decorated as lavishly as any in Charlotte’s parents’ home, the same narrow bunk as Myron’s, draped in gold muslin and not designed for two. Oil lamps lit the space, which might be illuminated further were she to open the curtains, but then anyone walking across the deck could see into her rooms. The gun so evident in Myron’s chamber was hidden by a dressing screen in hers.
The chamber was carpeted with a thick oriental rug, the walls painted a deep shade of blue. Her books were aligned on shelves that took up half a wall, kept safely in place behind gold chains that ran across each shelf from side to side. The comfortable chair covered in gold brocade turned from side to side, but was attached firmly to the floor, and the top of the candle stand next to it—which made it a reading nook, as far as Bella was concerned—was ringed with delicate brass to keep anything from falling off. An armoire and trunk stood open, her dresses neatly hanging on sprung hooks, boots and belts and bags neatly folded and secured, so her clothing wouldn’t fly around the cabin if the ship were tossed about in a storm.
“How very clever it all is! I would never have thought to make certain everything was kept in its place.”
The two bedchambers and sitting room conjoined a very large dining room that would serve to feed everyone in turns daily, and in between times, men might meet to plot out their duties. Without much trouble, though, Bella could see, it could be transformed to serve as a venue for a formal dinner or party.
Their quarters were extremely generous in terms of space, much larger than the prince had implied when he had told her about the accommodations, but no inch of space went unused, and every area served more than one function.
Stumbling against the rocking of the ship, she observed, “I’m not accustomed to the world always shifting under my feet. Not in a literal sense, at any rate.”
“You’ll have your sea legs in no time, my lady,” Captain Johnson said with a smile. “Though I caution, you may find yourself feeling quite ill within an hour or two. Most people do.”
“Yes, Lord Holsworthy has warned me.”
Bella balked at the ladder she was asked to descend to view the royal and ambassadorial quarters directly below theirs, so Myron climbed halfway down first, apparently intending to protect her from falling, but finally, she shook her head.
“No, my lord. If I will live on this ship, I must learn my way around it under my own power.” Myron stepped back at the end of the steps and smiled as she gathered up her skirts and climbed down. “I am now certain I must shorten my skirts a bit, however.”
The three rooms below had been designed to the taste of the Prince of Wales and his sister, as had a dozen smaller cabins, not quite as sumptuous, for lesser aristocrats and their staff, but which would quarter various officers until their official use was required. Bella felt both the weight and exhilaration of being mistress of this small portion of the large ship, much as she had the first time her aunt had taken the Effingale family to London and left Bella chatelaine of Brittlestep Manor in their absence. The weight of it began to tug at her stomach.
In fact, her stomach was starting to feel a bit out of sorts. She wrapped an arm around her middle.
Myron took one look at her face and said, “You look suspiciously green, my dear. Into bed with you, Lady Holsworthy.” He motioned her to the ladder to her cabin. Bella and Captain Johnson both flushed bright red before Myron realized his double entendre. “I mean—as I should think you know, Captain—that Lady Holsworthy is about to be very ill for an undetermined interval, and will be far more comfortable in her nightrail, in her cabin, in her bed, with ginger tea and hardtack at hand. There is nothing salacious in that, surely.”
The idea that her new husband was about to watch her casting up her accounts made her that much queasier, and she scrambled up the ladder. By the time she reached her quarters, she was swaying on her feet a bit more than the ship’s movement warranted. Myron, right behind her, put a bucket underneath her retching mouth just in time to save the lovely carpet.
“Oh, no, my Lord,” she moaned, once she had cleared enough of her stomach contents to find her voice again. “I will give you a disgust of me. You cannot be—”
His hand stroked the back of the head. “Where else should I be on my wedding night, but with my bride, for better or worse? I have been a sailor since the age of fourteen and seen many a case of mal de mer. You will survive it, though I daresay you will doubt me before it is done.”
At that, her stomach lurched again, and he steadied the bucket and her shoulder. As the episode shuddered to a close, his gentle fingertips brushed the hair out of her face that had fallen from its pins, pulled it back, and tucked it into the back of her dress. As she caught her breath, he produced a box of ginger pastilles from his waistcoat pocket.
“Ginger tea in a matter of minutes, if I know Captain Johnson, and our ship’s doctor, Charles Anders, will likely make an appearance, though there will be nothing particular he can do. For the moment…” He held out the tin and she took one. “Unfortunately, my dear, we cannot know how severe your ailment will be, nor how long-lasting, but I am of good faith that our Lord will see you well in short order. And I will be here to act as your…” His eyes twinkled, and he touched her chalky cheek, “I suppose ‘lady’s maid’ is the role I am asked to fill, is it not?”
She stared at him bleakly, sucking on the candy, as her stomach rolled with the motion of every disparate wave within ten leagues.
May 30, 1805
“The ship’s cook will be delighted you are feeling more yourself. He hates to see food go to waste. And he is a very good cook, so I am pleased you can enjoy his talents.”
Bella had made short work of a bowl of fish soup and a thick slice of soda bread, the first food she hadn’t declined in three days, and was now seated, wrapped in a woolen dressing gown, at the writing desk in his sleeping quarters, as he prepared for an afternoon meeting with the captain. He tied his long hair back in a queue, and inspected his face in a looking glass on the wall above his dressing table.
“I think my stomach has made peace with the ship, at long last.”
He leaned against the table and caressed her cheek. “Thanks be to God. I am so happy to hear it, my darling.” In a tone of vague apology, Myron added, “I hope you will not mind if I tend to business while you accustom yourself to your new surroundings.”
She rose and tugged at the ends of his cravat until the knot came untied, “I will not mind, my lord, but I have not yet fulfilled my duty to you.” At his stunned, wary look, she said, “You asked I help you show yourself more as a gentleman, so you must allow me to teach you to tie your cravat.”
“I have been tying my own neck-cloth for forty years.”
She smirked and raised a brow. “How often is a neck-cloth required aboard ship? Admit it, my lord, only when you are forced to it, and no matter how often, you feel ham-fisted each time.” His lopsided, boyish grin teased her heart, her fingertips itching to pinch his cheeks. “If that is how you have tied your cravat for forty years, then you have been doing it poorly for four decades. You would be hopeless as a gentleman’s gentleman.”
“This comes as a surprise to you?”
Bella had learned the intricacies of a nobleman’s wardrobe from her uncle’s valet and taught both of her brothers and both of Charlotte’s. Bella considered it a skill required of a gentleman: to present himself as one without assistance.
He placed himself obediently before the mirror, crouched down enough so she could demonstrate the task over his shoulder.
“You needn’t learn more than one or two knots, but you really must know them flawlessly, even to tie in the dark, especially if you will live without a valet.”
She executed a Trone d’Amour knot with alacrity, then untied it and made him tie it three times under her hands and twice more on his own before she was satisfied he was prepared to meet with anyone on a matter of business. Once she declared him “fit to be seen in public,” he kissed the palm of her right hand and said, “You will make a nobleman of me yet, my lady, for who can resist such a sweet smile? I am pleased you feel so much better, but aggrieved I must spend the day at business, not at your side.”
“Of course you must not dote on me all day. Only…” She picked at the knot she had just tied.
She chose her words carefully, not wishing to seem ungrateful or peevish. “Only, I am not sure what I am to do all day. I wish to be of use, my lord, to you and your company and the prince, but I know nothing of what is needed. I have no notion of what I should do.”
He grasped her hands. “I see. You have only risen from your sickbed. Might it be something to consider as you gain your sea legs? You haven’t eaten a bite in three days, and you were too thin before. You want feeding, Lady Holsworthy; I will have Cook send you some porridge, and you must choose a novel and spend the day in bed.” He tapped her on the nose with his finger, but she frowned and stepped back.
“Perhaps I can make a list of my skills, in case I might be missing how a proficiency can translate here.”
He brushed a thumb across her cheek and she leaned against his hand, eyelids fluttering closed for only a moment.
“You are quite serious about this.”
“I am, my lord. I cannot shirk duty in a world where it is the central tenet. I must be of use, or I have no right to the same rations as the crew.” She waved her hand at the tray. “Most especially not special meals, hand-delivered to my cabin three times daily. I am not a dimwitted porcelain doll. I can be of use, if only you will help me discover how.”
He brushed his hand over her hair, pushing loose strands off her forehead. “You are a wonder, Lady Holsworthy. I will help you, and in short order, you will find your place on the crew. You will not be treated like an ornament. I promise you that. But on the morrow, I will have more time to be of use to you. For today, I wish you would rest a bit longer before you undertake to learn to captain your own vessel.” He tweaked her nose. “For that is where I know you are headed with this nonsense, you bold baggage. You will not stop until you are admiral of the high seas and outrank Poseidon himself.”
“Don’t be silly,” she giggled. “I am hardly a goddess, and surely there is some blasphemy in the suggestion. Go be about your business, Husband. You needn’t constantly watch over me. I will make my list and eat plenty of porridge, and I mean to begin a journal of my travels. I had a set of blank volumes made. I have plenty to occupy me.”
She reached up on tiptoe to place a soft kiss on Myron’s cheek, the first time she had done so unprompted, the first time since their only kiss at the chapel before they set sail. He seemed dazed by this small attention, as if he had hit his head on a deck beam. His fingers moved to his face to touch the spot, then squeezed her hand in a fond farewell.
Bella went back to her room to dress. She would stay in her rooms as he requested, but there was no need for sloth. In truth, a husband who eschewed fancy fashions was a perfect match for her, as she always felt like a fraud in the sorts of gowns Aunt Miranda and Charlotte coveted. She pulled on the fortune in stays she must be in the habit of wearing every day, wisely re-designed by her modiste with front closures, then a sage-green cotton day dress with side lacings, and the same embroidered slippers she had worn the night she met Lord Holsworthy. Her hair needn’t be artfully arranged, either, only neatly braided and coiled in a bun at her nape. When marrying a peer, she hadn’t thought to be spared the nuisance of a lady’s maid, and was now pleasantly surprised at the informality inherent in her new life. She needn’t pretend to be fashionably idle. At least she wouldn’t after she found something to do.
She went to her trunk and pulled out the first of the dozen blank books she had bought and had stamped, one for each month of the upcoming year:
The Journals of Isabella Clewes, Baroness Holsworthy
She ran her finger across the gold embossing on the leather, admiring her new name. No matter what happened in the future, she never had to be a Smithson again.
In the writing desk in the sitting room, she found quills, ink, and foolscap in a drawer, which she would use when composing a list of what value she might offer her husband and his business interests. But first, she had been filled with impressions of the ship before she became ill, but for obvious reasons, hadn’t written one word of her first three days away from England. It would not do to fall out of the daily habit of writing before she had begun it.
As she opened the cover and turned it back, there was a knock on the door from the hallway—gangway, she reminded herself. She called out, “Please come in,” but of course, Myron had locked it when he left. She went to open it, and the door let out a long, drawn-out screech. She suspected, with the damp and salt air, a lot of creaking wood was in her future, though surely hinges should be greased. She would make a note to have it done.
A scruffy sailor waited outside the door, hat in hand.
When will that ever sound normal? Bella thought. “Yes?”
He was unwashed, but that was a trait to which she would have to become accustomed, as warm, freshwater baths would be both rarity and luxury. His greasy hair might have been any color from dark blond to deep chestnut, now sullied to almost black. His most obvious feature was a lack of teeth on the right side, more pronounced because he was otherwise a young-looking man.
“Captain Johnson, he tol’ me to bring bath water.”
He motioned to the floor at his feet, just beyond the doorway, indicating cans of water he must have carried to accommodate more of Lord Holsworthy’s demands for her special treatment. She had to make Myron understand that it would make things no easier if the crew were forced to wait on her hand and foot. She had no idea how to accomplish it, but could at least now rise from her bed and make a start.
Bella swung the door wide, smiling her appreciation, but her friendliness fell away when the man pushed her back into the cabin and shut the door with his foot, grasping her hands and crowding her back against a wall.
Her breath came fast and shallow as she tried to twist away, a scream caught behind her teeth. Before she could express more than the tiniest squeak, the man’s fetid breath surrounded her head and his growling filled her ear.
“No need for a pretty little dell to get stuck with a starched old cove like Clewes.” His tongue slithered into her ear, teeth catching her lobe, making her shudder and struggle harder to free herself from his broad bulk. “Plenty of men on this ship won’t mind keepin’ company when you tire of him, and meself at the front of the pack. You and me, we come to an understanding, and I could keep all them other dogs away from you.”
With every syllable, Bella thrashed harder and choked more, until, by the time he awaited her response, she couldn’t breathe at all, flashes of light floating in front of her eyes, darkness starting to overtake the edges of her vision. When he snaked his hand up under her skirt, though, her mind cleared straightaway.
In an instant, she remembered her brother’s advice. She drove her knee, as hard as she could, into the soft tissue between his thighs, and when he loosed his hold on her hands to grab at his bollocks, she shoved him away.
Barely breathing, hardly moving but to tremble, she didn’t know if she could bring herself to step past the wounded animal at her feet, but she was certain she didn’t want to be trapped behind his anger when he regained himself.
A quick dance step around him was not quite fast enough to avoid his staying hand around her ankle, and she tripped over his wrist. She would have fallen to the floor if the door hadn’t opened, sending her flying into the solid, expansive chest of her husband.
One look at the man’s hand on her leg sent Myron surging into the room, but before he could take two steps into the cabin, almost knocking her down in his haste, Bella threw her arms around his waist, finally letting go of the sobs caught behind the terror in her throat.
Myron’s body shifted back and forth with her in his arms, almost as if they were dancing; he was clearly torn between soothing his wife, an activity not at all comfortable, and his more natural inclination, setting her aside to rip the sailor’s head from his neck. If the heat of his glare over her shoulder could have caught flame, the man would be cinders.
Myron held her close, his feet shuffling side to side, and turned her away from the sight of the nameless sailor. Stepping aside to let the captain into the room, they traded rapid and significant glances over her head. Finally, he said, “Just the man we were looking for. The example. And of course, it is Hawley.”
Hawley, finally uncurling his body from a tight ball, tried to scramble away when he heard he was to be made an example, but found his back pressed to the wall. As he tried to inch his way to a standing position, Johnson slammed a fist into his mouth, sending blood and a few remaining teeth flying. When he fell again, the captain slammed the toe of his boot between his legs, sending him back into the fetal position, where Johnson had perfect access to his kidneys.
Over the man’s tortured yelling, Myron snapped, “That will be as nothing compared to two hundred lashes.”
Captain Johnson nodded gravely, stepping back from his victim. “Just the man for it.”
“Two hundred?! That’ll kill me!”
“Just as it will kill the next man to lay hands on my wife. Slowly and painfully.”
“But… my lord…”
“If the Lord is smiling upon you, perhaps you will bleed to death before the cat rips the flesh from your bones. Though I cannot imagine Our Lord offering succor to a man like you.”
Captain Johnson subdued Hawley’s last attempts at escape with another fist to his face, then maneuvered him through the door, closing it behind him.
As soon as they were alone, Myron’s fingers moved to a bruise forming on her cheek. “Where are you hurt, my dear?”
Her sobs had ended, but tears still dripped down her face. “Nowhere particular, husband,” she sniffled, tugging at her gown as if the high neck and long sleeves were at fault for enticing the horrible sailor who would now probably die for the shipboard crime of frightening her.
Myron swiftly untied the bow at her throat, loosening the first few buttons at the neckline before she even noticed, but as he reached her collarbone, seeking out any further bruising, she yelled, “No!” She grabbed at her shawl, pulling it tight, face lightening to the color of the chalk hills the ship was passing.
With a concerted effort to moderate her tone, she entreated, “Please do not force me to immodesty, my lord.”
Holding out trembling hands, showing a lack of weapons and a stricken countenance, he said, “I do not offer to assault your dignity, Lady Holsworthy. You must allow me to assess your injuries, and while I might wish to leave you at peace, there can be no question of your compliance.”
Finally, she dropped the shawl, flinching away, eyes shifting as though she expected to be hit, but could still not justify disobeying. His large hands were clumsy on her buttons, but gentle tracing the shoulder seam as he pushed it away. What he found when he dragged the fabric away stopped him cold.
Bella cringed when he touched the days- and weeks-old bruises layered on her arms and chest. She had hoped she might be able to cover them with her nightrail and ask Myron to snuff the candle before joining her in the nuptial bed, but now, in the morning sun and under the light of half a dozen lamps, there was no hiding. His calloused thumb ran lightly across a particularly large, fist-shaped contusion between her breasts and she hunched her shoulders to draw away.
He crooked his finger under her chin, tipping her head back, but even so, she turned toward the wall, refusing to look him in the face.
“These are not today’s injuries.”
“No, my lord.”
She nodded shortly, but wouldn’t meet his gaze, so he added, “Brothers?” The lump in her throat seemed to double in size. “Did Lady Effingale have any part in this?”
Her eyes snapped to his instantly. “Aunt Minerva? No! She’s not—I mean… she only…”
“She only beats you down with her words.”
Bella nodded. His thumb brushed across her cold, white cheek and the lump melted under the tears beginning to roll silently down her face.
“I begin to regret leaving England so soon. Would that I could avenge every one of these wounds,” he said, gently pulling the dress off, leaving her in her chemise and slippers. Bella should have felt ashamed of being undressed before a man at midday, but his touch was no more threatening than a physician, sure, firm, and curiously gentle, with no hint of titillation. His hands felt like Uncle Howard’s had, the first time she had run to the manor house in the dead of night when she was nine, covered in at least as many bruises on a much smaller frame. He guided her to a chair, then covered her up with a blanket.
“Remain here, my dear, while I retrieve the doctor.”
Between the fear of being left alone in an empty cabin and the fear of being seen in dishabille before any man on the crew, she flew up out of the chair, begging him to stay.
“I don’t mind, my lord. I’m used to it. The marks will be gone in no more than a fortnight, and you’ll not hear me complain, nor will I shirk my duties to you. Please, my lord. Please. Do not let him in here.”
“Lady Holsworthy,” he pronounced, proving beyond doubt he had discovered the tone of voice that would cow her whenever required, “You will see the doctor immediately, in my presence and under my protection, and you will follow his instruction to the letter. Is that understood?”
Thoroughly intimidated, at the same time oddly cherished, she nodded and pulled the blanket tight around her arms, curling up into a ball in the chair.
“Will you return quickly?”
“Yes, my dear, in only a moment,” he replied, kissing her hand, “and I shall lock the door when I go.”
An hour later, the doctor had prescribed plenty of rest until she was properly healed and regular application of a tincture of arnica, with which Bella was well-stocked in the coffer of salves and tinctures she had prepared and transported from the kitchen garden at Brittlestep Manor. Myron had enforced a soak in a hot hipbath, with fresh water from a stock he admitted he had brought on board purely for her convenience.
Bella sat quietly at the mirrored table built into the wall, dressed—at her husband’s express command—in a heavy flannel nightrail, woolen stockings, and Myron’s banyan, pulling a boar-bristle brush through her fine, straight hair, from the crown to the tips that fell past her waist.
“Your hair is the precise color of the candle flame,” he said from the doorway between her cabin and their sitting room. “It glows… it is quite… breathtaking.”
He was a bit breathtaking himself in what Uncle Howard would call undress: a loose linen shirt, ties undone at the throat, no jacket, waistcoat flapping open, and nankeen breeches. His cravat had been untied and hung over his shoulder, hair falling from its queue, long, grey locks draping over his face. He reached up to brush it back at the same moment he caught her eye in the looking glass.
She had thought she would be jumpy and nervous considering they would share a bed within the hour. All day long, she had been hoping for mal de mer to reappear and delay the inevitable, but she had felt nothing but the tiniest bit of queasiness—the same weakness and upset stomach she had experienced after every beating of her life, easily managed with a cup of peppermint tea. It seemed she might turn out to be a good sailor after all.
Now, though, her nerves had been shot by the horrible experience with Hawley, and she was far more frightened of being alone than being bedded. It helped that her husband had been nothing but solicitous since the moment, one week ago, that he handed her down from the carriage at his parents’ farm in Saltash, but the past two hours had proven to Bella, unequivocally, that he would always act as her champion. It was time she demonstrate her gratitude by doing her duty by her lord.
Her fingers began the familiar ritual of braiding her long hair for nighttime.
Myron, for his part, was removing his heavy boots, having already stripped off his waistcoat. As the second boot thumped to the floor and Myron stretched his legs to rid himself of stiffness, Bella asked, as casually as she could, “Will he really be flogged two hundred times, my lord? Will that not kill him?”
“Aye,” he answered carelessly, “if Our Lord has any sense of justice, and I believe He does. Though Johnson has successfully argued to halve the strokes, which is still no surety he will remain among the living.”
She tipped her eyes away in the mirror, hoping he would not see her upset. “Nautical retribution is unforgiving.”
Forcing eye contact in the looking glass, he said, voice deep as a grave, “While I recognize the sin in it, I am unforgiving when it comes to your care. Another such violation, I can assure you, Hawley will not survive. I may yet throw him overboard with my own hands.”
He turned her on the seat and gently took her chin in his right hand, looking her in the eye with all the solemnity of an undertaker. “No man on this crew—no man anywhere—will lay a finger on you while I draw breath, Lady Holsworthy. I am a peaceful man, in the main, but there is no person I will not kill to ensure your safety, and you may rest assured that, after thirty-five years aboard ship, I am well equipped to do so with any weapon at hand, or none at all.”
She grabbed at his wrist with both hands, pleading, “You must not kill him, my lord. You must not.” Kissing his hands, she implored, “It will be a stain on your soul, and I do not wish to be the cause.”
“You, my sweet, are not the cause of anything. Hawley carried his own death warrant when he entered this cabin with intent to harm my wife.”
“But I cannot in good conscience—”
He pulled away, sat back down on the edge of the bed, and pulled his shirt over his head. Stealing quick glances at his muscled chest and its thick mat of greying curls, she blushed at the sudden thought of him taking her to bed.
“Steel yourself, Madam.” She looked up, wondering if he had read her mind. “Your presence will be required when he is brought to account.”
Bella recoiled, all thoughts of romance thrown out of her head. “What?! Surely, you cannot expect me to—”
“I can, will, and do expect it.” He raised his eyebrows and punctuated his points with a fingertip. “Do not mistake my intent, my lady. I do not mean to torture you, but should these men believe you cannot stomach the sight of the captain’s discipline, they will find reason to court your favor by means fair and foul. So, you will appear, head high, without tears or carrying on, and you will accept the command of your captain, no matter what might occur.”
Her throat worked faster, swallowing every response before it could move from mind to mouth.
Taking pity, Myron picked her up, slid into her seat and settled her onto his lap. He stroked her hair while she tried to hide her face in his shoulder, twirling one fingertip in the curls on his chest.
“Johnson will lay down his life to protect you, and so you must do anything he requires to assist that effort. In this instance, you will watch your attacker be flogged, perhaps to his death, to show the rest of the men you are not squeamish.”
She mumbled against his neck, “But I am squeamish.”
Myron’s volume rose just slightly, and his gravelly voice deepened, but he stroked his hand down her shoulder, displaying no more rancor than he ever had. “You will not be on the morrow.”
She turned her head away, but didn’t change her position on his lap, and didn’t remove her small hand from his very large chest. One fingernail scratching along a scar on his collarbone, she gave the only possible answer: “Yes, my lord.”
He held her hand tightly and kissed her fingertips. “Now then, though I find you enchanting with your hair and eyes aglow, and would gladly keep you close the night through, I will not endanger your person further by my indecorous attentions. I shouldn’t like to cause you inadvertent pain.”
She sat back and tipped her head inquisitively, her hand curving around his wide shoulder. She had never considered he might delay the consummation of their marriage simply because she had a few bruises, though she understood why three days of vomiting had put him off. She didn’t understand his motivations in the least.
“My lord, I… I mean to… do my duty…”
“Your only duty to me now is providing me a strong, healthy wife as soon as possible. As such, I will delay the pursuit of an heir for the nonce.”
No man of Bella’s acquaintance would have done such a thing. But then, no man of her acquaintance had ever taken the trouble to lie about her being enchanting or say she was a wonder. This new husband was certainly a cipher.
He grinned and moved her hand to meet his lips, pressing a warm kiss into the palm. “Do you play backgammon, Lady Holsworthy?”
She shook her head.
“Excellent. Then I will be sure to win. Have you any hairpins to wager?”
The following morning, the sun rose high in the clear blue sky, no rain, as Bella had hoped, to keep Hawley in the brig and give her a reprieve from the horror about to occur. Not that she was at all certain rain would be a deterrent.
“One hundred strokes,” the captain told the assembled crew. “And double it should any of you attempt such a thing again.”
The cat o’ nine tails sat soaking in a bucket of salt water, and when Bella whispered, “Will the salt not—?” Myron answered tersely, “Yes.”
Every man cringed and much muttering arose until the captain took a slow walk across the deck, eyeing every man to impress the lesson of the discipline on each in turn.
“So, this is the way we welcome the master’s bride—a new crew member, and an important one at that—to the flagship of Seventh Sea? I’d hang Hawley from the yardarm, gentlemen, but Her Ladyship begged mercy for his worthless hide…”
Her Ladyship started when she heard that, as she had been precisely told not to ask mercy for his worthless hide. Hawley was not a popular man, Bella noted, judging from concern for work details, not his health and safety, but from the looks she got from the men who had not yet met her, it would tally up in her favor if she had championed his cause.
“To be clear, so no one on board can say he did not know, you address Lady Holslworthy respectfully at all times and keep your hands well away from her person. She is Her Ladyship, my lady, or Lady Holsworthy, and nothing else. She is not an object of lust or derision; she is the mistress of this ship and has more influence on the man who pays you than even I, so were I a sailor on this crew, I would treat her with the same respect and dignity you consistently show the ship’s master and to me. Is that understood?” Slowly, one tar at a time, men began removing head-coverings, giving quaint bows or respectful nods in her direction. She wasn’t sure how to react, so she did what she would do if they were tenant farmers in Evercreech. She inclined her head, but did not smile. They were here to witness a flogging; surely, it was no place for charming introductions.
She shivered, and Myron’s heel tapped against her slipper.
She stood, back straight, feeling as though the mal de mer might have taken root after all, her eyes trained just above Captain Johnson’s head. Myron held her hand tightly in the crook of his elbow, pinching her finger when she gasped at the sight of the sailor being hauled across the deck, already stripped to the waist. Dark bruising covered his face, his shirt was torn, dried blood ran from the corner of his mouth, and a cut scabbed across his eyebrow.
She would have asked if Myron had caused the damage, given his ferocious anger, but he had spent every moment with her once the ship’s doctor had left her cabin, which meant other men were causing injury in her defense. She wasn’t certain how to feel about such a thing. Gratitude seemed as though she condoned the violence, but ingratitude might anger the potentially aggressive men whose respect she needed to cultivate.
Hawley was struggling to get free of the shackles and the men dragging him by them, screaming and begging for mercy. One tiny squeak from Bella’s throat resulted in another pinch, this time on her wrist. She swallowed hard and stared at a cloud forming in the distance.
When the man began beseeching her directly, “Please, Yer Ladyship,” crawling toward her feet, Myron kicked a boot into his bared chest, throwing him hard into the wooden deck, and growled, “Do not speak my wife’s name, you foul cur! Lay one finger on the hem of her gown, and you will hang.”
A grating had been rigged at the ship’s side, leather straps in place at the four corners, and most of the merchant crew were eyeing it—younger men with trepidation, older ones resignation, and a few out of the corners of their eyes as they pretended to attend to other tasks.
Myron grasped her fingers so tightly they ached, reminding her again to school her expression. “She has no pity for you, nor do I. Bear up and face your death like a man, you sorry dunghill, knowing Lady Holsworthy will take great comfort from the fact of your suffering.”
Bella bit her tongue to hold back her natural compassion, unsure whether she could watch, the too-familiar sound of leather striking flesh already echoing in her mind. She wished Myron hadn’t demanded she break her fast. The porridge sat precariously on her stomach.
Using the shackles around his arms and ankles, four sailors dragged him to the grating and secured him there, Hawley screaming before the pain even started. With a nod, Captain Johnson signaled the bo’sun to begin. Dragging the cat out of the salt water, he applied the lashes with enough force to cut on the first stroke. Bella held her head and neck so stiffly, she might give herself a megrim, but she would not allow herself to flinch.
The king’s soldiers and the merchant sailors all stood like ramrods, silent under their officers’ commands. Bella took her cue from the military ranks, biting her cheeks to keep from showing any emotion, staring at anything she could find in the distance, rather than being tempted to look to see if the man would be killed.
Myron kept his hand on hers, curling her fingers around his heavily muscled bicep. When blood began pooling on the deck beneath Hawley’s feet, her husband’s shoulder kept her standing firm; his forearm kept her from turning away. She shuddered, and he leaned in, whispering in her ear, “Take heart, my dear. You need not witness every stroke.”
She pulled just slightly away, keeping her spine upright under her own power. “If I might, my lord, I should prefer to stay until the bitter end.” At his look of surprise, she added, “It is for my honor he is thus tormented. Is it not correct I should witness it?”
He patted her hand and moved his arm to surround her. “Indeed.”
Her fortitude seemed to earn her some murmured approval from the men, though she was certain she would never understand why. When Hawley was finally cut down, she detached her arm from Myron and leaned over the doctor, who was trying to determine whether the man had only fainted or died.
At a convulsion from the tortured sailor, she said, “Doctor, you will need assistance nursing him, I expect.” The doctor looked up over his shoulder, mouth flapping open. Myron reached out to grasp her arm, and she calmly shook him off. The captain started, “My lady, you need not—”
“Nonsense. Doctor, will he survive?”
Visibly gathering his words, pulling his mouth back into a formation that would allow speech, the doctor said, “He will, I think, though the damage is no small thing. I foresee naught but light duty from now on.”
“If he will take on any duties at all, we will need the coffer of medicines from my cabin and a great deal of warm water to clean the wounds.” She turned to Myron. “I believe you told me you brought extra fresh water on board?”
“Lady Holsworthy,” Myron began, “after what he’s done, I—”
“Has he not borne the punishment you demanded?” Bella consciously donned the same countenance she used in the management of her uncle’s estate. “Two of you men will please take him below, and put him in the green cabin. It is close enough to ours that I will hear him stirring if he needs attention.”
“My dear, that is the—”
“There is no royalty to sleep there today,” she snapped. “If you feel it necessary, my lord, you may restrain him, as long as it will cause no further damage, but he will live if it is in my power. These men have sworn to die for me if need be, Husband, so this will be my payment for their loyalty. It will be my part to keep them alive.”
Myron stepped back and motioned for the men to do her bidding.
Standing with one shoulder leaned against the doorframe, Myron watched his wife assisting the doctor with Hawley. Or rather, he watched the doctor assist her, taking away the rags she used to clean the healing wounds, handing her the salves she used to cover the lacerations, glaring down any protest Hawley might have made. Though, in truth, he had precious little protest left to make after she nursed him back to health with a tenacity worthy of saving a king, not just a wharf rat.
She was seated on the edge of the bunk that had been set aside for men of nobler birth and disposition, gently bending and stretching the sailor’s arm and shoulder. She didn’t even notice Myron had entered the room, such was her concentration on the task at hand.
“Your arm moves much better today than yesterday. It seems you may yet recover.”
“Yes, m’lady,” Hawley muttered. “And I thanks ye for it. More’n I deserve after I—”
She cut him off before he could say another word that might recall the incident a fortnight earlier. “Indeed, it is more than you deserve, but we will say no more of it, for you have repented your actions toward me, have you not?”
Blushing in a way Myron never expected, Hawley answered, “Yes, m’lady. Should never’ve—”
“No, you should not. Not with me, nor any other woman, and I trust it will be your last such transgression.” Her voice was as firm and cold as a spinster governess to a family of unruly boys, and Myron smiled inside to hear it. He didn’t let a bit of amusement show on his face, though, as he hoped that tone of voice would forever shrivel the balls of any sailor who set foot on The Amelia. It would certainly shrivel Myron’s, were she to turn it on him.
Hawley hung his head and nodded.
“Good. Now, as your arms are once again working, I have a task I wish you to accomplish.”
“What task, m’lady?” he asked, his head popping back up, a hopeful look crossing his face. “Anything. I swear it.”
She set his hand back down in his lap and picked up the other arm, again testing the range of motion.
“Doctor Anders says you are a dab hand with a blade. Is that so?”
Anders’ face was disapproving enough that Myron took notice. Whatever she was about to ask of Hawley, the doctor was not fully in support of the request, though he made no overt objection. Myron also marked the fact his sailors’ vernacular was making its way into her conversation rather more quickly than he expected or liked.
Shrugging, then wincing at the resultant pain, Hawley said, “Was.”
“You will need considerable practice to regain that skill, do you not think?”
“As will I.”
Hawley sat straighter, and glanced over to see Myron. His eyes widened and face paled. “You, m’lady? You could use a knife?”
“Not at present, no. But you are going to teach me.”
“The next time a man comes near me with your sort of ill intent, I am going to gut him…” All three men pulled back slightly at the look on her face, sharp as any knife could ever be. “And you are going to teach me how. “
Myron cleared his throat, and Hawley looked over at him with a strange mix of fear and gratitude. Bella smiled to see him, and Myron felt the instinctive answering grin cross his lips that he was coming to expect. He was a bit surprised how happy it now made him to come upon her during the course of his day.
“M’lady,” Hawley began, stammering a bit at the need to dissuade her, trying to subtly motion with his eyes for Myron’s or the doctor’s support for his position. “It ain’t a good idea fer a girl to—”
If Hawley would argue women’s roles with Bella, he might lose the use of his hands yet. She had been more than a bit indignant that she might be considered bad luck aboard ship.
“An outstanding idea, my dear,” Myron said, leaning down to place a kiss on the crown of her head. “Hawley is among the most skilled bladesmen I have ever had in my employ. I cannot think of a better teacher, especially as he must now move slowly, which will allow you to pick up the skill more readily.”
“No buts. You will do as my wife asks, under my supervision and the captain’s, or I will throw you overboard.”
This was said in such a cheerful tone that Hawley didn’t know whether to take the words seriously or not—until he looked Myron in the eye and met the cold, hard stare that belied his easy smile.
Hawley swallowed hard. “Yes, m’lord. But my arms ain’t—”
The doctor interrupted, glancing over at Bella with the slightest censure, but not enough to really argue. “You are strong enough to hold a dagger, and the exertion will help strengthen the damaged muscles.”
Hawley sighed, but finally nodded his agreement.
“Excellent,” Myron said.
In a moment, though, Hawley’s head snapped up. “M’lady, it ain’t that I don’t want—er—Don’t mean you ain’t—”
Bella patted his hand. “Yes, I understand. You simply never expected you would be teaching the owner’s wife to kill a man. I admit, Mr. Hawley, I cannot credit it. But teach me, you shall, and I will be grateful for your tutelage.” At his blank look, she corrected, “The lessons.”
Clearing his throat, once again blushing like a chastised child, Hawley looked over at the doctor before he said, “Er, m’lady, Cap’n said I weren’t to ask you… but might be you won’t mind so much…” He trailed off, studiously avoiding Myron’s questioning raise of one eyebrow.
“Yes?” she prompted.
“Hawley,” the doctor snapped, “do you not think it a poor decision to ask Lady Holsworthy for anything but her forgiveness?”
“But she already give me that! I just…”
Bella cast quelling looks at both of the other men. “Go on, Mr. Hawley. You may ask anything you like, as long as you do so respectfully.”
“M’lady, I just thought… my Ma showed me the reading when I were a boy, but she died before I could…” He cleared his throat again and looked away.
Bella brightened. “Reading? Of course I can teach you to read. It will be a good way for both of us to pass the time.” She turned to Myron. “Do you not think, my lord?”
“You must do as you will, my sweet.” He squeezed her hand and kissed the fingertips. He expected he might not recognize his crew by the time they reached India. He certainly hadn’t known Hawley had blond hair until Bella had insisted he bathe, nor boyish freckles under his usual unruly facial hair.
Beaming, and with a slight bounce in her seat, Bella clapped her hands and said, “Then we will start right away.”
“Perhaps I might delay your first lesson an hour or so,” Myron suggested, “as my lady’s presence is requested by the sailmaker.”
Hawley and the doctor both broke out in grins as wide as Myron’s.
“Whatever for, Husband?” she asked, narrowing her eyes at the three of them.
“Only to provide you something that will also be of help in your lessons in bladeplay.”
Myron, Captain Johnson, the doctor, the sailmaker, and Hawley had all been part of the plan now in motion, and all had studiously kept Bella in the dark after her first outright refusal.
“You will not convince me to wear trousers, even if we are nowhere near civilization.”
“M’lady, not meanin’ to be forward, but ‘twill be hard enough to teach you footwork ‘thout your dresses in the way.” With an uncharacteristic squeak, more words rushed out to explain away Myron’s suddenly dark countenance: “Not that I mean nothin’ ‘bout losin’ yer dresses, m’lady… You could wear dresses if you want…” He let out a sigh of relief at Myron’s curt nod.
The doctor agreed with Hawley. “I’d prefer not to amputate your broken leg if you get twisted up in your frock, my lady.”
Bella looked at her husband, but he just shrugged. “I will not force you to it, but Captain Johnson has convinced me of the wisdom, at least… as an option… in certain situations… such as fencing lessons. And you should at least allow the sailmaker credit for the work he has done.”
She nodded. “That is true. He is very kind to take the time.”
“He will make time for anything you ask, my dear, as will every other man on this ship. And he is skilled at his trade; he will tell you himself. His father ran a shop on Savile Row, where he worked for ten years before he was pressed into the navy. He brought a selection of fabrics for you from the Seventh Sea warehouses in London.”
She stood, wiping her hands on the long apron she now always wore over her plain gowns. “You gentlemen are very kind to me, and I do not wish you to think I do not see it. I will go meet with him, then retrieve my Bible and return for your first lesson, Mr. Hawley.”
After she left, Hawley said, tentatively, “M’lord, ‘tain’t my place to say it, but you picked a right good bride for a sailing ship. She ain’t no milk-and-water miss, that’s certain.”
The doctor added. “I’d not want to meet her on the other end of a grappling hook. A bit of skill with a knife, and she will be a dangerous foe, indeed. In part, because you will never see her coming.”
“She is quite something, is she not?”
“I admit,” Myron said, casting a satisfied eye over her dark green woolen day dress, “I prefer you in a gown to trousers. Hawley told me I was too old-fashioned.”
He tipped the coffee urn to pour himself another cup, then spooned more stew into her empty bowl, buttered another slice of bread, and placed it on her plate. They were having their meal on the open gallery, watching the sun touch the horizon, as had quickly become their habit at sunrise and sunset.
Obediently, she picked up her spoon, her left hand placed firmly in her lap. “Hawley should not be speaking to you so disrespectfully.”
“So I said before I assigned him a week of tarring and three days of slushing.”
He lifted his cup to take a sip, and she lifted an eyebrow. He paused, put the cup back down and removed the spoon. He started to set it on the tablecloth, but at a minute shake of her head, he moved his hand to set it on the saucer. When she smiled, he returned it, if a bit sardonically, finally able to take a sip of his coffee. His lips twitched when her bowl shifted, forcing her to reach up to steady it. His elbows on the table had been a bone of contention until the first plate had slid into her lap, but she had not yet broken herself of nineteen years of table manners in favor of simple logic.
“Nevertheless, I must offer my thanks to our resident tailor for the design of your coat. I believe if your… er… trousers were more in evidence when you work above, I might not be able to turn a blind eye.”
After lengthy consultation, two pair of loose trousers had been designed, and two pair of breeches, topped with outmoded frock coats that covered any womanly curves that might otherwise be displayed more indecently than she’d like, not that her body was particularly inclined to curves. Bella was first disturbed, then delighted, that her unfashionably square form looked extremely well in men’s clothes; better, she thought, than any garments she had ever worn, to say nothing of how much more comfortable they were to wear. Even taking into account her ever-present bank-by-corsetry, with her hair tied in a queue and the addition of a tricorn hat, she might be mistaken for the ghost of her grandfather.
But at heart, Bella was not a boyish lass. She preferred dresses, and so did her husband, so unless she were engaged in tasks that called for breeches, like her fencing and shooting lessons or climbing into the tops to look out over the horizon, she wore woolen day dresses with linen cuffs and collars, a full-length apron with pockets, and the chatelaine Charlotte had given her as a wedding gift. At this time in the evening, though, she had rinsed and hung her apron, collars, and cuffs and changed into cloth slippers from the sturdier leather shoes she wore on deck. She had wrapped a heavy flannel shawl around her shoulders, as it would likely prove a chillier night than she had experienced at sea thus far.
“When next I speak to Bronson,” she began, “I will ask him to consider your wardrobe for India.”
He set down his cup, eying her with more than a bit of suspicion. “What is there to consider? I’ve a trunk with attire for tropical climes.”
“Good. I will start there.”
“Where do you plan to end?” The mistrust in his eyes might have given her pause if the Prince Regent himself had not asked her to smarten up her lord.
In a voice too soothing to soothe, she said, “While I am certain you have exactly the right choices in your trunks for a sea-going merchant attending a dockside auction, I am equally sure you are not adequately outfitted as Baron Holsworthy taking possession of a sizable estate gifted by the Prince Regent and claiming a position in the diplomatic corps.”
He pushed his chair back from the table. “What do you intend, Wife? I’ll not be covered in frills and feathers.”
She set aside her spoon and rose, picking up the last of the supper dishes and stacking them to return to the galley. She walked to the cupboard and removed the backgammon board and brought it back. With her hand on his shoulder, she stood behind him as he set up the tiles.
“My lord, you are a simple man of frugal tastes, who abjures extravagance. Can you believe I will order clothes that display you to the world otherwise? I would never be so disrespectful of your nature.” She untied his shirt at the throat and stroked her hand across the rough shadow of a beard on his cheek, then crossed the room to bring his banyan and tuck it around his shoulders. “It is my primary occupation, as your wife, to see to the smooth running of your domestic life with as little disruption to you as possible. You may be sure I do not intend to disorder your every routine, especially not on board the Amelia, where life is lived so casually. But once we make landfall, any clothing at hand in your armoire must and will announce to the world you are a nobleman and an intimate of the Crown.”
He groaned and scrubbed his hand across his face. “Must it, indeed?”
She sighed and patted his hand. “One only dies of being a nobleman if one chooses the wrong side, which you have not yet done. You will survive the acquisition of a fashionable wardrobe. I have seen to the most difficult part already.”
“Lord Pinnester’s tailor provided me with your measurements, so you needn’t stand still for Bronson and his tape until the first fitting.”
“Husband, I do hope you will allow me to help you make the changes that are needed, and trust I can manage the tasks on your behalf, rather than questioning both my judgment and the demands of your sovereign.”
He sighed and ran his hand through his hair. “Of course. Of course. Do you know, there are some days I wish I had never met the King or the Prince of Wales?”
Laughing, she answered, “I daresay a great many such days. But you have, and it has been more blessing than curse, and I, for one, am grateful, for the association has provided me an exemplary husband. There, you have rolled a six to my four, so you go first.”
“You are right,” he grumbled, “I am churlish to complain of God’s blessings.” He took his turn, brooding through the opening moves, but brightening as the game grew more spirited. It had not taken long for Bella to become a good challenge.
When they were well into the middle game, he observed, “You have been aboard ship four weeks today.”
“Yes, my lord,” Bella murmured, bumping two of his tiles out of the game. During the daytime, Bella could display no timidity with the men on the crew, showing a firm, competent face at all times, acting as the compassionate arm of a triumvirate formed with her husband and Captain Johnson. When alone with her husband, however, her shy nature was often still in evidence, most especially when he exhibited a poor temper.
He took up the dice and smiled when she looked at him through her lashes.
“If you call me ‘my lord’ when we are alone, I will be forced to address you as Isabella.” She wrinkled her nose. “Just so,” he said, nodding and raising a brow.
“Yes, Myron,” she began again. “It has been four weeks.”
“Quite a champion you have now in Hawley.”
Since her attacker had risen from the Prince of Wales’ own bed, he had vowed to act as Bella’s stalwart protector as long as he lived, prepared even to die in her service.
“He is very sweet.”
“You are certain he has made no move to—”
“Husband,” she said, with the air of finality she was rapidly learning. She wondered if perhaps some tones of voice were magically only available to wives. “His flesh was flayed from bone, and he is only just walking. I hardly think my, er, charms—such as they may be—are foremost in his mind.”
Myron tapped his dice cup on the table. “As you say.”
He had consented, reluctantly, to allow her as much license as he could stand to make a place for herself on the crew. Since he had set the goal himself, before the unfortunate incident, he could find no real reason to argue. He did, however, find plenty of reason to remain nearby whenever she interacted with the men. He had too much experience of sailors not to.
Half an hour later, when they had each won one game of the three-of-five they had agreed, he took up her hand before she could arrange the pips. Looking up at him with a furrowed brow, she asked, “Is something amiss?”
Stroking the back of her hand, his voice dropped in volume, became smoother, almost tender. “You are quite healed of your injuries, are you not?”
Her mouth fell open until she snapped it shut. She tried to pull her hand away, but he would not let go, only brought the fingertips to his lips and kissed them. She whimpered, heat rising in her face so fast she was afraid her hair might be set aflame.
When he kept looking at her across the table, quietly stroking her fingers and wrist, she nodded swiftly, turning her eyes away.
“I do not wish you to be afraid of me.”
“I am…” She trailed off with, “not.” Gulping, she said, “Not precisely afraid.”
“The marital act is not… It is… well…” Now he was blushing. “The Bible tells us we are to procreate.”
Staring at her lap, she agreed, “Yes. And I do wish children. Very much.”
“It is not meant to be an entertainment… that is to say… there are those who would… I hope no one has filled your ears with…” The suave tone in his voice had been replaced with alternating high and low pitch, gruff to placid and back again. His hand, rather than holding her gently in the same reassuring grip, was very nearly convulsing around her fingers. “I do not believe our Lord intended for… in any case… It should not be so terribly… unpleasant… er… I will take measures to…” He mopped his brow with his handkerchief, “there are… oils and such…”
Finally, she grasped his fingers and held his hand between both of hers. With courage she didn’t know she possessed, she put her husband—her kind, caring, protective husband—at his ease.
“We shall find our way in this as we have each day since we were wed. I have never known a man I would so trust with my… my person. I do not believe you will allow me to be hurt, if it is within your power.”
He puffed out his chest a bit at that. “Quite right. I would never see you hurt, Lady Holsworthy.”
“Of course not.” She patted his hand. “And I believe now, of all times, you must call me Bella, my lord.” At her wry grin, his shoulders unwound, and his thumb traced the back of her hand. “Might I have a few minutes in my chamber?” she asked. “To… er…” She wanted to swallow her words, but managed to enunciate. “To prepare?”
He nodded, and she poured him the last cup of tea in the pot before she left the room.
Bella woke in the night feeling as though she were sleeping in a furnace. It took a moment to realize she was wrapped in a heavy flannel nightrail, a thick woolen blanket, and her very large husband’s very warm arms, all on a very small bunk. She struggled to free her legs from the twists of fabric without waking him, but to no avail. His arm tucked her closer to his side, and he placed a kiss on the crown of her head.
“Is everything all right, sweeting?”
She finally pulled the fabric loose about her ankles and knees again and settled back into his shoulder. “Yes, Myron.” She traced her fingers along his chest, twisting them in his chest hair.
“You are not… there is no soreness?”
“A bit. Not enough so I would notice. Will it… always…?”
He hastened to comfort her, his voice once more the slow, steady rumble she was coming to rely on. “It should not be so painful again.”
She nodded. That was what Charlotte said. She decided in that moment that everything else her cousin had told her about marital relations had been a well-meaning lie. It was not like the fireworks show at Vauxhall. It was not like the crescendo of a symphony. It was not like sliding into a cool pond on a hot day. This was exactly how Aunt Minerva had described it: “It cannot be counted the most pleasant of activities, but it is not the worst, either.”
Of all the duties marriage had wrought thus far, this was among the easiest, and she had never seen Myron so relaxed as when they drifted off to sleep to the sound of waves slapping gently against the hull. It was like looking at an entirely different person. Softer. Sweeter. More… loving.
And it was rather pleasant to be held by him. She had never in her life felt so protected. So cherished. This part, she quite liked.
She snuggled in closer, placing a delicate kiss on his massive shoulder, and he pulled her tighter against his chest. “Sleep, my dearest,” he whispered against her hair. So she did.
If you enjoyed Bella’s “Happy-for-Now” with Myron, make sure to read her “Happy-Ever-After” in Royal Regard, and look for her continuing story in the ongoing, impromptu storytelling space, the Bluestocking Bookshop on Facebook.
If you liked Shipmate, please help other readers find it, too. Consider leaving a review wherever you bought the book.
While it was never my intent to create a Royal Regard ‘world,’ I must acknowledge the many readers who demanded to know the backstories of the characters in the book, resulting in the prequels. The usual thanks go to Jude Knight and the Bluestocking Belles, who are my stalwart support through every project I complete, and also the Writing Wenches, my ‘tribe.’ My research into ships and seagoing travel during the Regency was both supported and (frequently) corrected by historical consultant, C. A. Sorensen. Additional feedback was provided by early readers, who made so many salient comments about Bella and Myron that the manuscript almost doubled in size, so special thanks for the contributions of: Jacqueline Reiter, Angela Withrow, Andra Jenkin, Scott Amis, Maria Arell, Sonja Fröjdendal, Quenby Olson Eisenacher, Crystal Cox, and Liana Abarca-Smith, who cared enough about the hero and heroine to be grouchy when they felt I had misrepresented their respective natures.
Mariana Gabrielle is a pen name for Mari Christie, who is not romantic—at all. Therefore, her starry-eyed alter ego lives vicariously through characters who believe in their own happy-ever-afters. And believe they must, as Mariana loves her heroes and heroines, but truly dotes on her villains, and almost all of her characters’ hearts have been bruised, broken, and scarred long before they reach the pages of her books.
She is a professional writer, editor, and designer with almost twenty-five years’ experience, and a member of the Bluestocking Belles, the Writing Wenches, and the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. She has written two Regency romances, Royal Regard and La Déesse Noire: The Black Goddess, and two Royal Regard prequel novellas (with two more yet to come), and a mainstream historical, Blind Tribute, to be released in 2016).
Author Website & blog: www.MarianaGabrielle.com
Sired by a British peer, born of a paramour to Indian royalty, Kali Matai was destined from birth to enthrall England’s most powerful men. She hadn’t counted on becoming their pawn.
When Bella Holsworthy returns to London after fifteen years roaming the globe, she faces unwelcome attentions from two wicked noblemen, the ton’s spiteful censure, and the bitter realities of a woman alone in England.
(available now in the box set, Mistletoe, Marriage, and Mayhem)
Charlotte Amberly gives back a Christmas gift from her intended—the ring—then hares off to London to take husband-hunting into her own hands. Will she let herself be caught?
Major John Smythe returns from Waterloo a broken man, determined to stay one step ahead of his former life, but when he meets Rose Allen, the sins of his past must be confronted, for without her, he has no hope for a future.
and to find out how she is blessed with both a Happy-for-Now and a Happy-Ever-After in one lifetime, make sure you pick up Royal Regard!
When Bella Holsworthy returns to England after fifteen years roaming the globe with her husband, an elderly diplomat, she quickly finds herself in a place more perilous than any in her travels—the Court of King George IV. As the newly elevated Earl and Countess settle into an unfamiliar life in London, this shy, not-so-young lady faces wicked agendas, society’s censure, and the realities of a woman soon to be alone in England.
Unaccustomed to the ways of the beau monde, she is disarmed and deceived by a dissolute duke and a noble French émigré with a silver tongue. Hindered by the meddling of her dying husband, not to mention the King himself, Bella must decide whether to choose one of her fascinating new suitors or the quiet country life she has searched the world to find.
Continue on to the first chapter.
1820: London, England
Teeth clenched against the wrong thing she was sure to say, shoulders cramped and stomach churning, Baroness Holsworthy smoothed down the tiers of ruffles on her borrowed dress, tapping her toe out of rhythm to the music. The stays she wore so infrequently, but would never abandon in London, dug into her waist like a fork into flummery.
Bella tried not to stare into the looking glasses lining the Almack’s ballroom, hoping to appear insouciant, well above silly concerns of wardrobe and hairstyle, ignoring the sight of her lips trembling. However, this only left her to look at the overwhelming crowd of vexatious people, not just their harmless reflections.
She picked at the poorly fitting, delicate tulle floating around her body, a borrowed dress better suited to her prettier cousin Charlotte at age seventeen than either woman in their thirties. Wriggling her shoulders beneath the almost-adequate alterations Charlotte’s maid had accomplished in the fifteen minutes allotted for the impossible task, Bella thoroughly regretted her spontaneous decision to call on her cousin so late in the day.
The music had already started for a contredanse, but she paid little attention to the dancers taking their places, distracted by the bright candlelight mirrored in the gilt trim along every wall. She stopped her toe drumming against the parquet floor; given her situation, there was no prospect of dancing, so it made no sense to engage even one foot with the music. Of course, the only other activity to engage in was gossip, from which she would be excluded by virtue of being the primary topic.
The aristocrats peering at her through quizzing glasses over the bannister of the upper floor set her heart trembling, so she turned the corner of her eye, her peripheral vision next caught by a grouping of at least half a dozen women, just outside her hearing, staring at her as they chattered behind their fans.
It seemed a fine moment to take in the frescos above the bas-relief mouldings, all pretty enough, but no masterpieces here. The sculpture might as well be plaster pasted onto the cheapest marble veneers, and the paintings could have been commissioned from any student at the Royal Academy. Having seen so many masterworks around the world, she could find nothing to keep her attention from wandering back to the echoes of guests in the wavy pier glass, which had been silvered poorly and was, if she looked closely, somewhat unclean.
She patted at her chignon, searching out loose tendrils of her stick-straight hair. Surely, it would be falling out of the tight ringlets by now, a style that made her face look a half-stone heavier and had no chance of surviving the heat of the crowds, no matter how chilly the spring evening outside the door. As suspected, loose strands were already sticking to the back of her neck above her nearly bared shoulders, and she grimaced, envisioning the sweaty mess in plain view of anyone behind her.
She sought her husband in the crush of bodies, mindful of her fluttering hands, but unable to quell them. Craning her neck, her nose wrinkled against too many colognes barely masking the smell of too many people. Her cousin, the Marchioness of Firthley, appeared at her side and snapped her fan across Bella’s arm.
“You look like you have a palsy, Bella. Stop twitching. They will be along shortly.”
Between her rigid carriage, the height of her coiffure of black curls, the steep heels of her dancing shoes, and the sleek velvet gown making her appear more slender than her figure allowed, Charlotte seemed to tower above Bella, though she wasn’t more than an inch taller. Less than a year older, the unyielding lines of her proud visage added a decade to her show of superiority.
Bella reined in her movements, but continued to eye the throng. “I merely—” She crumpled a ruffle near her hip without noticing the fists she had formed.
“It was the only dress I had that could be altered.”
Sighing, Bella capitulated, “You carry no blame for my dreadful silhouette.”
Papa had always called her sturdy. Unfashionably square in form, with rather broad shoulders, her best feature lovely, long legs she had always wished she could use to her advantage. While Empire styles flattered her figure as much as clothing ever did, she had never fit comfortably into Charlotte’s dresses, even with enough corseting to buckle her knees. These scores of ruffles made her look more like an Egyptian column than a woman.
Smiling more gently, Charlotte patted the pink mark the fan had made on Bella’s forearm, reminding her cousin yet again, “Even after fifteen years, they are the same people they were when you left, and you are now a baroness with a goodly fortune and a husband distinguished in the diplomatic service. You may find you are made a countess before long. Alexander says four-to-one at White’s.” Charlotte’s sharp eyes flashed, and she spoke from the side of her mouth. “Prepare to pretend you are civilized. You’ve been spotted.”
Reflected in the silvery glass behind Charlotte, Bella’s eyes widened in alarm, and beneath her unfashionably sun-warmed skin, her face paled. Pivoting, she insinuated herself behind Charlotte’s right arm and ducked her head behind the princess sleeve of Charlotte’s much lovelier gown.
Charlotte stepped away, leaving her no place to hide. “Lady Lannedae and Lady Yarley are coming this way, and I shall have to present you to the hostesses before long, or we will be summoned. It is miraculous I could secure vouchers without an interview.”
“Only so Lady Jersey can be first to tell tales,” Bella grumbled in a higher-pitched voice than she had meant, as she smoothed down the awful dress. Charlotte poked her fan at Bella’s hand. “Stop it. You have to face the gossips sometime.”
Charlotte and Bella both curtsied to the much older ladies, and Charlotte made the introductions: “Lady Yarley, Lady Lannadae, might I present my cousin, Lady Holsworthy?”
Both ladies sniffed, as though they hadn’t come over specifically to speak to her. Lady Yarley’s mouth puckered like she was sucking soured food from her teeth, and Lady Lannadae’s eyes snapped as viciously as a hungry crocodile. They stood straighter than Bella’s hair, elbows tucked into their sides, hands grasped tightly across their old-fashioned waistlines, identical but for color—one lady in mauve with grey trim and the other grey trimmed in mauve—both restraining themselves to the last vestiges of pretended courtesy.
Bella knew the role she had to play, no matter how unpleasant it might be. Her husband had always depended on her gracious behavior and deference toward anyone with whom he might do business, most especially men’s wives. It was very nearly second nature, even in London, so she pasted on a simpering smile.
“Ladies, I am so pleased to meet you. It has been far too long since I have spoken to civilized people in the English tongue. Lady Lannadae, I must say the lace on your gown is lovelier than any I have seen, even in Brussels. I hope you might tell me where you found it.”
Without so much as a how-do-you-do, Lady Yarley ripped into her subject as a wild dog into a cornered coney. “I’ve heard you and Lord Holsworthy have been in the most disreputable places—the Dark Continent, the Spanish New World—”
Lady Lannadae broke in, “The penal colonies!”
Eyeing her cohort coldly, Lady Yarley continued, “I cannot imagine any well-bred young lady surviving such a voyage.”
Both of the women’s eyes narrowed to exactly the same slits.
Bella’s mouth twisted into a patently false depiction of continued civility. “The blizzards of Siberia, the monsoons of the Orient, the tropics of South America…” As the ladies leaned in, intolerance dripping from their rabid fangs, Bella abruptly decided to provide them fresh meat.
In a clear, uplifted voice, infused with the ice of a Russian winter, she continued: “Some places, one can hardly stand to wear any clothing at all. I have seen more natives au naturel than you might imagine exist on the planet.”
Lady Lannadae sucked in a breath, nearly swooning.
Charlotte’s voice took on a shrill tone as she laughed too loudly, “My cousin is such a goose. Of course, she is joking.” Jabbing the fan into Bella’s side, she whispered, “Au naturel… My heavens, Bella.”
Lady Yarley spoke to fill her companion’s shocked silence. “No lady of my acquaintance would stand for such immodesty.”
“Given the choice of standing for it or being cut up and made into British-subject soup,” Bella returned, “I learned to cope with the indiscretions of people who know no better. I like to think I was a civilizing influence.”
Suddenly feeling her age and experience, Bella determined to hide neither.
“Of course, we haven’t been without the trappings of civilization entirely. We’ve just spent the last half-year as guests of King Louis in Paris, though lavish apartments in the Tuileries Palace were not our standard fare. Most often it was riding astride on camels and bathing in river water under tents. When we had tents, of course. And the food! Rancid meat, offal, reptiles, insects; the retching alone might have killed me. And obviously, only by the grace of God have I made it back without being raped to death by hordes of barbarians.”
Judging by the matching pinched looks of horror on their faces, if Lady Lannadae and Lady Yarley hadn’t leaned against each other, they both might have fainted dead away on the Aubusson carpet. Charlotte fumbled in her reticule, presumably for smelling salts.
“It has been so lovely to meet you, ladies,” Bella said crisply. “You must feel free to call. I will be receiving Monday and Thursday afternoons.” Turning away from them, Bella once more sought her husband through the crowds in which she would soon be a social pariah. In that moment, she didn’t give a whit, but was canny enough to know she would later.
Before the ladies could respond, even before Charlotte could voice the horror crossing her face, a man stepped up to introduce himself, ignoring the need to be presented, his lips turned up at Bella’s pointed depictions.
“Bonsoir, ladies,” he nodded briefly, but didn’t bow, to each of them. All of the women curtsied, though Charlotte’s face fell still and silent.
“I had hoped to gain an introduction to the celebrated Baroness Holsworthy.” He bowed deeply and kissed Bella’s hand before she offered. “I have heard you are the most fascinating creature to grace our shores in a century.”
Charlotte grimaced as she made the presentation: “Lady Holsworthy, may I present Adolphe Fouret, Monsieur le Duc de Malbourne?”
His dark hair was cut short, slicked back with pomade from a widow’s peak, highlighting eyes and brows black as coal and deep as a quarry. High cheekbones and a hawk-like Gallic nose spoke of an aristocratic bloodline, and flawlessly tailored evening clothes showed a likely fortune to perfection, every inch in black but for his pave-diamond fleur-de-lys cravat pin, emblematic of the French monarchy. A lifetime of haughtiness preceded him, thicker than the scent of bergamot wafting from his hair.
“Enchantée, Monseigneur,” Bella said in his native language. “Are you enjoying the party?”
“But of course, you speak French,” he observed in English, “and with a perfect accent.”
“Mais oui. How could I entertain in Paris otherwise?”
Lord Malbourne chuckled and his smile slid like a fingertip up her arm. He continued the exchange in French, excluding the other women by posture, if not conversation.
“I hope you will indulge me one day soon with your impressions of Paris. It has been more than thirty years since I last stood on French soil, almost too young to be called a man.”
Bella considered his probable age and took in his still youthful appearance: hair only slightly silvered at the temples, face barely lined, spine straight and unyielding. His frame was still powerful and athletic, more like a man twenty years younger. More like a man who might attract a woman her age.
Lady Yarley and Lady Lannadae watched closely, one with eyes on her, the other staring at the duke, switching with every utterance. Realizing she had been considering his body much longer than she should, Bella shook her head and cleared her throat to return to the present moment.
“I would be pleased to engage in such discourse, Your Grace, but I am afraid you will find my impressions weigh heavily toward le Jardin des Tuileries and le Musée du Louvre, not intrigues at Court.”
“Of course,” he agreed, shoulders held straighter once he noticed she was looking. “But I have heard from across the water that you are a most original hostess and patroness of the arts. Your small suppers and soirées musicales are very nearly legend. I will look forward to dancing with you this evening, if you will permit.” His lips twitched. “Perhaps you will share some tales of your travels. I have heard they are très amusants.”
“You will have to ask my husband, Your Grace, for I shan’t dance at all without his accord.”
It was her customary answer in any unfamiliar ballroom, until she could discern the undercurrents of the event, and until Myron advised on any men whom she needed to impress with her flawless dancing and charming gentility. Once finished with that chore, she could retire to a seat along the wall.
Lady Yarley snapped, “It is a wonder your husband—”
“I certainly understand,” Lord Malbourne agreed, dismissing Lady Yarley with his eyes. “Although I shall be bereft should he refuse. If you will forgive, I have other business to attend, but will search you out as soon as I might speak to Lord Holsworthy.” Bella felt her color rise as he bent over her hand again; she dared not look at the elderly women who were sure to pass on this even-better gossip. “Until then, ma chère.”
Hot, restless unease travelled down her neck; her cheeks flamed when she felt it spread to the low décolletage of the loathsome dress, and then watched Malbourne’s eyes follow. His lips turned up in a barely perceptible leer—a subtle, momentary expression of raw desire and innate carnal authority somehow even more French than his conversation.
His nod both acknowledged and dismissed everyone in the vicinity but Bella, from whom he would not look away. Dropping her gaze to the floor, her eyes swept the corners of the room, searching an escape from his scrutiny. Finally, he snapped his heels together and backed into the crowd.
Before she could take up the conversation again, Lady Lannadae and Lady Yarley excused themselves, presumably to tell everyone in London that the Duke of Malbourne had just called her ‘dear.’
“Bella!” Charlotte snapped. “That was awful! You can’t just talk about naked barbarians at Almack’s.”
“I’ll speak of anything I like to such horrible old cats. They are lucky I didn’t come here tonight in trousers with a dagger and pistol in my belt.” Bella said, tossing her head, feeling more ringlets fall out of their pins. “They had no liking for me fifteen years ago, nor I them.” Her voice revealed a bit more bravado than good for her. “Myron is still a parvenu, and I am the daughter of a disgraced baronet. We wouldn’t even have Strangers’ Tickets if not for you.”
“Myron has the king’s confidence, Countess Peagoose, and you have Myron’s. As long as you both stay in Prinny’s favor, you can dine out among the social set forever.”
“To my infinite dismay.”
Bella had never aspired to be part of the social whirl. Her childhood had been spent entirely on Charlotte’s father’s estate in Somerset. Charlotte, the viscount’s daughter, resided in the sixty-room manor house. Bella lived with her destitute father and brothers in a run-down cottage on the outskirts of her uncle’s land: three rooms above, three below.
With no dowry to speak of, no firm foothold in the landed gentry, and no semblance of a pretty face, it was only by the sponsorship of her cousin and aunt that she had any prospects at all. If not for them, Bella would have been married to a country squire or a vicar with low expectations—or more likely, never married at all. She couldn’t imagine what machinations must have been required to gain her admittance to these exclusive assembly rooms.
“I have no wish to be a countess, and it is much simpler to act the baroness while wearing one’s own clothes.”
“It couldn’t be helped,” Charlotte said. “It is not my fault you were robbed. I cannot imagine why you stayed at the Blue Bear. Everyone knows—”
“I am now well aware what everyone knows.”
Bella wished she and her husband had never stopped at the horrible roadside inn. They had woken to find a sneak thief had stolen the night’s receipts from the innkeeper and money and valuables from every traveler, including the Holsworthy’s luggage and their coach from the stables.
The theft had been a real blow. They had lost her only child’s christening gown, a gift from Charlotte that had never been used; Myron’s war medals from the rebellion in the American colonies; the miniatures that were the only remembrances she had of her family; and the elegant Parisian gown she had intended to wear to her first party in London.
Still, she could only find fault with Charlotte for forcing her to be here, not for her own unreasonable fear. She wished she had stayed at home, curled up with a novel in the library.
“We could have waited to attend a party. We haven’t settled into the house yet, and the trip wearied my husband more than he will admit. I must be concerned for his health.”
“Nonsense. Myron is as spry as ever.”
Bella’s lips compressed into a thin line; Charlotte’s constant references to the thirty-two-year age difference had started even before she married him, and only Bella knew how dangerously ill Myron had been on the trip back to England. Even Myron pretended he had no notion.
“You have been here more than a week without attending any parties,” Charlotte nagged, “and you would never present yourself anywhere unless forced to it.”
“I have become quite adept at parties, and in any case, common courtesy would have forced the issue soon enough. It is simply easier to feel elegant and refined in the company of people with every reason to be kind to a man and his wife on His Majesty’s business. Myron has more influence in Ceylon or Barbados or Sierra Leone than in London, and no one likes a bookish girl in England.” Bella bit her lip. “I know my place, Charlotte. I just would have preferred to face the ordeal in the dress I had made for the occasion.”
“You look quite handsome,” Charlotte argued. “Your hair is straight as a plumb line, but the color is brilliant as ever, not even a trace of grey.” Charlotte smoothed it in the front. “And you have finally grown into your face.”
Bella’s nerves fled with a cynical laugh and an impudent curtsey. “I am ever so grateful for the backhanded compliments, Your Ladyship.” A habitual, playful disparagement raked over her cousin. “I can be as handsome as I want since I caught and kept a husband, and I am offended you discount my scintillating conversation after I have worked so hard at it all this time. The Governor-General of British India finds me fascinating.”
“And no doubt the commandant of the penal colonies.”
“The title you are looking for is Governor of New South Wales, and yes, Governor Macquarie and Myron have been acquainted for many years, beginning in India, and his wife, Elizabeth, and I were quite bosom friends both times we were in the Antipodes. She is the one whose care of the natives—”
She broke off when Charlotte held her hand out. “I beg you not continue about natives.”
To distract Charlotte from further comment, and put an end to any argument, she inclined her head toward Malbourne, murmuring, “He is very handsome.”
Across the room, he was under siege by a young lady on the shelf at two-and-twenty, scandalously dressed in near-translucent silver muslin, whom, it seemed, had been pushed into the inappropriate pursuit by an ever-vigilant mother trying to find a way to compromise her daughter.
Charlotte spoke even more quietly than her cousin. “Leave off any interest in Lord Malbourne. He’s French, as though you need to know any more. You must not let him flirt so.”
“Keeping a Frenchman from flirting is like keeping a snake from a mongoose.” At Charlotte’s raised eyebrow, Bella explained with a half-smile, “The mongoose might win, but most likely, the snake will slither away to try again.”
“Why is he here?” Bella asked when Charlotte stopped giggling. “I know the war is over, but I confess I thought London hostesses would be fighting yet. And why ‘Lord?’ Is he not a duke?”
“He is a French duke,” Charlotte said, as though it were explanation for any rudeness she cared to inflict, “though he has been in England most of his life,” Charlotte started, clearly enthralled by the prospect of passing on delicious tittle-tattle. “You may have met him when—”
Bella shook her head.
“Well, you were only in London a few weeks. His late wife inherited land near Dover, and he took possession just before the Revolution. I heard he left her to die by guillotine, but Alexander says she was taken in childbed.”
“Does Alexander know everything about everyone?”
“Yes. Now, hush, or I won’t pass on what he’s told me.” Bella closed her mouth before Charlotte made good her threat. “He entertained King Louis at his manor house during the exile, and it’s said he loaned King George half a million pounds toward the war debt, but that is probably a lie. Everyone knows he lost all his money when he ran from the rabble in Paris. Now that the Little Corporal has been deposed, Monsieur le Duc is making the rounds of London again, pretending to be better than he is. They say he is looking for a wife, but he won’t pay attention to any one girl.”
“Why did a pedigreed émigré not return to France when—”
Before Bella could complete her question, their husbands joined them at last. Alexander Marloughe, Marquess of Firthley, moderated his lengthy stride to match Bella’s spouse, who tottered on a cane, supporting a gouty leg and declining state of frailty, both of which had precipitated their return to England.
When Alexander held out his arm to provide a steadying hand, the elderly man stumbled slightly to the side to avoid it. Myron Clewes, Baron Holsworthy, could be a stubborn man when he so chose. Stepping to his side, Bella slipped her arm through her husband’s, in order that he might lean on her surreptitiously, an inconspicuous position both comfortable and well established.
After many years of salt winds and tropical suns, they were both unfashionably tanned. For her part, Bella welcomed it, for it helped to hide the lines she was starting to see in her mirror, although one more mark against her in polite society. On Myron, the lines were years past hiding, as was his thinning shock of white hair, twice as bright just by proximity to his darkened face.
“My dear, I am so sorry to have kept you waiting,” Myron said, grasping Bella’s arm more tightly than usual. “Was that Malbourne I saw?”
“Yes.” Bella was taken aback. “You know him?”
Myron’s lips were suddenly thinner, his face almost ashen. “I know of him, and will not allow his attentions toward my wife.”
“Of course, husband,” she said, bowing her head to the chastisement, letting any irritation drift into the crosscurrents of rumor and innuendo. Myron would entertain her thoughts, opinions, observations, questions, or arguments on any topic she chose—at home. In public, she always agreed with him.
“He’s right, Bella,” Alexander said. “Slippery man, that. Not good ton.”
“‘Good ton,’” Bella pronounced, “is a contradiction in terms.”
Alexander didn’t disagree, only turned to his wife, saying, “I wish you wouldn’t force me to Almack’s, Charlotte. Knee breeches are as bad as a ball gown.” He shifted in his clothes, pulling at his cravat until it was drawn askew. With his hair tied and powdered in the manner of several older, more influential members of Parliament, and attired in formal black breeches, clocked cream stockings and a coat of black superfine, he appeared closer to Myron’s age, a quarter-century beyond his one-and-forty. He had not yet matured, however, into the same sense of quiet dignity.
Charlotte smiled and adjusted his collar. “Don’t be ridiculous, my love. You are most distinguished and would look frightful in a frock. You haven’t the figure for it,” she laughed, continuing, “You will be pleased to know if Bella has her way, we shall be removed from the guest list entirely before the evening is out. Naked savages, indeed. Myron, it is scandalous you give her license to throw indecent stories around like brickbats.”
Myron patted his wife’s hand. “She needs no license from me. She is a grown woman, perfectly capable of speaking her own mind.” Myron inclined his head toward Charlotte’s mutinous expression in a half-conciliatory gesture. “Though I’m sure you understand the way of things in London much better than I.”
Irritated at being discussed as though she weren’t present, Bella spoke just as the music stopped: “I don’t give a tuppenny damn for the way of things in London!” Her voice carried much further than she had intended, and a collective gasp rose from everyone in hearing distance, followed by a buzz of denigration that spread across the room like a wave across water.
Charlotte snapped her fan much harder on Bella’s hand, her mouth opening and closing, choking on the words to express her outrage. Lips twitching, Alexander and Myron covered their amusement with observations about the orchestra’s rapidly chosen next selection, a polka.
“You will kindly moderate your language, or I will take you home at once,” Charlotte hissed, rounding on the gentlemen. “And you two! Encouraging her!”
“I am not a child to be sent to my room without supper, Charlotte,” Bella snapped. “I have a voucher, so I will be staying.” She would rather dine on rotten meat than endure another hour at Almack’s, but a breakfast of ground glass was preferable to yielding to Charlotte.
“If anyone is to send her to her room without supper, my dear Lady Firthley, it will be me.” Myron spoke gently, in the tone he always used to forestall further argument. Bella’s coy smirk sent a message to him that shut out everyone else in the room without being at all inappropriate.
Charlotte snapped, “I might think you would encourage her to act like a proper wife, before it gets back to the king that she is still an incurable hoyden.”
“I daresay you might think so,” Myron answered, “but I assure you, His Majesty is well aware she is a hoyden. He has come to see it as a great asset.” Bella flushed at this encomium and lowered her eyes under Myron’s indulgent smile. “He has never failed to ask after her, and often remarks on the outstanding results of her wit and charm.”
“‘Tis true, Charlotte,” Alexander agreed. “Prinny holds a great fondness for Bella. He has said so several times in my hearing.” Angling his head away from Charlotte, he winked at Bella, adding, “No one can credit his partiality for such a hoyden.”
“I fail to see any wit or charm,” Charlotte sniffed. “She will be barred from polite society, and Seventh Sea Shipping will follow suit.”
“Pray, do not act like those stuffy women, Charlotte. You shall become old and boring long before your time.” Bella could not resist the jibe. “The look on your face will bring on even more wrinkles.”
Clearly afraid talk of wrinkles might turn into a brawl, Myron interceded. “I expect my business can withstand a bit of scandal. In fact, I know it can.” Myron held Bella’s arm tightly, running his thumb across the back of her hand. He said, though not loudly, “This is not the first time she has deservedly shown an aristo the rough side of her tongue, nor will it be the last, and I’m certain plain speaking causes no affront to God.”
Nodding her head sharply in agreement, Bella turned her nose up at Charlotte in a childish pretense. Finally unable to contain his building mirth, Alexander started laughing aloud.
“I say, Holsworthy,” he remarked with a grin, “you and your wife are just the fresh air we need at Court. It is so very dull listening to the same on-dit day after day. You’ll ruin yourselves by morning, but it will liven things up nicely.”
“I take back everything I said about missing you all this time,” Charlotte declared, looking down her nose at her wayward cousin. “I had forgotten what a heathen you are.”
“Then I shall endeavor to remind you as often as I can,” Bella released a melodramatic harrumph. “There are more ladies headed our way. Shall I tell the story of the Gongulobibi priests revering me as a goddess?”
Read the rest of Bella’s story in Royal Regard, available now in print and for e-reader at all major online retailers.
Charlotte Amberly would rather eat a lump of coal for Christmas dinner than marry the Marquess of Firthley, so when her parents cancel her London Season in favor of a rush to the altar, the feisty debutante takes husband-hunting into her own hands.
Alexander Marloughe, reluctant heir to a marquessate, would rather not spend his holiday dashing through the snow after a flibbertigibbet just out of the schoolroom, but no woman before Charlotte has ever led him such a merry chase.
In this collection of novellas, the Bluestocking Belles bring you seven runaway Regency brides resisting and romancing their holiday heroes under the mistletoe. Whether scampering away or dashing toward their destinies, avoiding a rogue or chasing after a scoundrel, these ladies and their gentlemen leave miles of mayhem behind them on the slippery road to a happy-ever-after.
***All proceeds benefit the Malala Fund.***
December 15, 1803
The snow falling outside the frosted drawing room window blanketed Charlotte Amberly’s mood as surely as it did the garden on which she gazed. Usually, she loved the Yuletide season, but she could hardly keep her mind on wassail and holly berries, knowing who would be staying at least through Twelfth Night, assuredly planning to meet her under the kissing bough.
The Marquess of Firthley, Charlotte’s new betrothed, was expected in a few days for an indefinite stay, and if Charlotte’s mother had her way, he wouldn’t leave until they were married. When a viscount’s daughter snared a marquess, it behooved her to leg-shackle him before he could run.
“Lord Firthley’s note said he was bringing his grandson.” Minerva Amberly, Lady Effingale, calmly stitched the outline of a Christmas rose on an altar cloth intended as a gift for the vicar’s wife.
“Yes, Mother. You’ve told me twenty times. I must be kind to the poor, motherless child, so the marquess will believe me a good grandmother for his heir.”
“Quite right, and you needn’t take that tone.”
“I will be a grandmother before I am eighteen,” she grumbled.
“Better than a spinster before you are twenty.”
“I’ve not even met him!” she argued, going so far as to stomp her foot.
Lady Effingale would brook no such nonsense from a recalcitrant daughter. “Then it is fortunate he wants you sight unseen.”
Between the flare of her mother’s nostrils and the arch of her left eyebrow, Charlotte’s rebellion fizzled—briefly.
“He wants Papa’s voting bloc, not me,” Charlotte protested under her breath, but before her mother could castigate her again, she moaned, “I was to make my curtsey next month! How can you just ignore an invitation from the queen?”
“One of your husband’s relations will present you at Court as his marchioness. He has the king’s ear, you know.”
Dropping onto the window seat, hiding her grimace behind the curtain, Charlotte muttered, “Yes, Mother. You’ve said.”
Lady Effingale set down her needlework to sort through her basket of silks, finally finding a length of dark green. “You should be grateful to be the wife of a man of considerable fortune and influence.”
The sounds of running and yelling down the hall came rapidly closer until Charlotte’s two younger brothers dashed into the room, throwing a rounders ball between them. The ball promptly slammed into the teapot and sent it flying off the table next to Charlotte, into the skirts of her new pale pink dress, leaving a huge brown stain. Guy and Hugh, ages twelve and fourteen respectively, stopped short at their mother’s screeching and Charlotte’s rage.
“You hellions! Get out! Get back to the nursery before I break you into pieces and return you to Eton in a box!”
Although she had complained endlessly to her mother and Bella about the wishy-washy color of the gown, it was not improved by being soiled. And she was in a far worse temper now than she had been a week ago.
Guy scurried to retrieve the ball, while Hugh drew himself up into a dignified and offended stance worthy of the viscount he would one day become.
“We no longer reside in the nursery, and you have no call to screech. I heard Mother tell you just this morning, you ‘must improve your sense of decorum.’”
By contrast to his brother’s false indignity, Guy’s sheepish smile apologized for the teapot, the yelling, and Charlotte’s dress, though he was not contrite enough for their mother.
“But for her execrable language, your sister is quite right,” she snapped. “Where is Isabella? She was to be keeping watch over you, was she not?”
Now Hugh looked a bit chary. “Er, she is… was… uh… detained. And we are too old for a governess, at any rate.” He straightened his shoulders. “We are both Eton men now. Papa said so.”
Charlotte strode toward him, and he fell back. “Little Eton boys, rather. Go let Bella out of whatever closet you’ve locked her into, or I will shut you up in the nursery on bread and water and give your Christmas gifts to the children in the poorhouse!”
Both boys ran out of the room, still throwing the ball between them, gaining more volume once they cleared the door. Lady Effingale took up her embroidery again, remarking, “You will wish to be gentler with the marquess’s grandson.”
Charlotte dabbed at her dress with a table napkin, but the exercise was hopeless. The stain reached from waist to hem and crossed the dress from side to side. She dropped the napkin on the tea tray, waved her hand toward the door, and turned up her nose. “No sane woman will ever want to marry either of them. You will be stuck with them your entire life.”
“I’m sure that is not true,” her mother said. However, her lips quivered just slightly when she added, “They are both growing up too handsome for any girl’s good, and Hugh will be Effingale one day. Surely some woman will suffer him, if only for his title and lands. I do agree, though, his brother may ever be a bachelor, and probably an incorrigible rake.” Dropping the altar cloth in her lap, peering through her lorgnette at her daughter’s dress, she added, “You’d better go find Isabella, so that she can help you change your dress and try to remove the stain.”
Yes, Charlotte thought, Bella is sure to be more sympathetic.
The heavy hands and sharp tongues of Bella Smithsonâ€™s family have left her almost too timid to converse with a gentleman, much less conduct a husband hunt. Unfortunately, her overbearing aunt and managing cousin are determined to help her escape her black-hearted father and brothers. Thanks to the Prince Regent, retiring shipping magnate Myron Clewes has an ever-growing fortune, a fresh-minted peerage, a brand-new flagship, and an impossible set of requirements for a bride. Not least, she must be willing to leave England and everything she knows, possibly for good, in less than two monthsâ€™ time. Bellaâ€™s Happy-Ever-After in Royal Regard had its origins in a Happier-Than-She-Expected with her first husband, Baron Holsworthy, who gave her the confidence to steady her sea legs, take her life by the helm, and command her own voice, empowering a shy, young girl and unlikely adventurer to grow into one of King George IVâ€™s trusted advisors.