Chapter One, Shipmate
April 3, 1805: Bath, England
“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 Effingales’ 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 lime wash, she might become part of it.
“I take your point about wallflowers." The man’s sardonic tone seeped through the door. 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. "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."
"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 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 prince, 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 prince’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.”
Shipmate: a Royal Regard prequel novella
The heavy hands and sharp tongues of Bella Smithson’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 of Wales, 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 months’ time.
Bella’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 IV’s trusted advisors.