July 17, 2023 (Edwards and Williams)
Kristof Tanner grew up dreaming of glorious adventures far beyond the little kingdom of Batavaria. He's followed his king and crown prince across Europe to England, but he never expected his first position there to be guarding the daughter of a wealthy businessman, who doesn't seem to have a care in the world. Still, it's hard not to see adventure calling in Julia Hewett's warm brown eyes.
Julia has been fretting under her father's demands for years. She won't allow him to dictate a husband, especially when he insists no less than a duke will do. So, when her father refuses to listen to her pleas, she concocts the most unsuitable engagement she can imagine-to her bodyguard. The charming Tanner is always up for a lark. If he plays along, they might both get what they want.
But it soon becomes apparent that someone really is stalking Julia, intent on her downfall. Tanner and Julia must work together to uncover the culprit and save her reputation and his. In doing so, they may discover that the greatest adventure of all is falling in love.
"Regina Scott pens some of the best Historical Romance that I have read in recent years. BRAVA!" Huntress Reviews
"A fun fake engagement story. I enjoyed the connection that Tanner and Julia had." Britt Reads Fiction
"5/5: I always enjoy a Regina Scott novel, and this latest series featuring former Batavarian royal guards is shaping up to be some of my favorites by this author!" Lynda's Reviews
"Regina Scott has created a series with love and heart to share with the whole family. I always finish her books with my heart complete and a smile." Reading Rebel Reviews
Near Weyton, Surrey, England
How surprising that rebellion could feel so satisfying.
Julia Hewett had been fighting with her temper as long as she could remember. Her mother had liked to tease that a fiery red head meant a fiery heart. Generally, she did her best to get along. But her father had gone too far this time.
She settled herself on the saddle, gaze sweeping the road that passed their estate. Drops from the recent rain sparkled on the lawns running down from the house, making the grass look as if it were made of emeralds in the cool autumn air. A raven headed for the row of trees in the distance, black against the grey of the sky.
Any moment, her bodyguard would come riding in. Father had said it would be today, and Father was rarely wrong. That was one of the reasons he'd managed to amass a fortune great enough to buy this country estate two hours west of London. His supreme self-reliance was also why he didn't entirely trust anyone else's opinions.
Edevane pawed the ground, head bobbing. The stallion could likely think of better ways to spend his time than to wait upon her good pleasure. Julia patted the sleek black neck. "Just a few more moments, my sweet. I'll be in a great deal of trouble if Father speaks to Mr. Tanner before I do."
She still couldn't believe her father had hired Kristof Tanner to act as her bodyguard. For one thing, he was a former member of the Batavarian Imperial Guard, used to protecting kings and princes, not daughters of entrepreneurs. For another, she hadn't seen anything approaching danger in all her three and twenty years. Her father's wealth and attention had all but guaranteed that. Yes, they'd heard reports of highwaymen in the area. And yes, her friend Abigail Winchester had nearly been kidnapped in the churchyard only last month, but that had had to do with secrets from her past.
Julia only had one secret. And he had just appeared on the horizon.
She wasn't sure how she knew it was him at that distance. The road was well traveled. Since she and Edevane had been waiting, three carriages and four men on horseback had passed. But none carried themselves with that easy confidence, as if daring the world to offer a rebuke.
Something fluttered inside her, like a moth seeking a flame. Very likely it came from the knowledge of what she must say to him.
He turned onto the drive to Hewett House and reined in beside her. "Miss Hewett. You didn't need to ride out to welcome me." His gaze went down the gravel drive toward the house. "And with no one to accompany you."
She had no intention of allowing her companion, Mrs. Daring, much less one of the grooms to overhear this conversation.
"I am well within sight of the house, sir," she said. "And these are my father's lands. No one would harm me here."
"Very good news," he said with a nod. "My job should be easy, then."
"Very easy," she assured him, sizing up the gelding he rode. He must have borrowed it from Rose Hill, where he and his comrades were staying while their patroness, Lady Belfort, sought to find them positions in England now that their sovereign had returned home. "However, we must develop our strategy before you take up your position."
He cocked his head, revealing a bit of russet hair under his hat. "Strategy? I've been acting as bodyguard to King Frederick, the Crown Prince, and his courtiers for ten years. Do you think I need schooling?"
Heat was building in her cheeks. She ignored it. "No, of course not, though I don't doubt my father will have something to say about your responsibilities. I merely wanted to explain a few of my expectations."
He nodded toward the road. "Perhaps we can talk while we ride."
She turned Edevane, who settled in beside the gelding with a shake of his dark head. "Thank you. I understand it will be your duty to protect me whenever we leave the estate."
"Whenever you leave the house," he corrected her. "And when company calls as well."
Her father had been stricter than she'd thought. "I pity you. My life isn't that interesting."
He flashed her a smile. "Oh, I'm sure we can contrive."
Gooseflesh skittered along her arms under her wool riding habit. This, more than anything, was why she'd known she must speak to him. Kristof Tanner was a potent force on the best of days. She must not allow that attraction to pull her off course.
"Exactly," she said. "Father will likely speak to you, if he hasn't already, about which gentlemen I'm allowed to partner at dances and such. I may at times suggest a different choice."
His mouth quirked. "Ah. You have a suitor you favor."
"Yes," she said, pleased that he'd caught on so quickly. "Lord Westerbrook. But Father isn't too keen on him."
Tanner urged his horse up a slight rise in the drive. "Not rich enough?"
Edevane took the change in elevation easily. "Not titled enough," Julia explained with a grimace. "Father wants a duke. I want a man who will love and honor me all the days of his life. A man I can love and honor in return. The other details don't matter one whit."
Once more his mouth quirked, as if her declaration amused him, but she could not find it in her to take offense. She probably sounded impossibly idealistic prosing on about love and honor when a good number of marriages had neither, according to her father. He saw marriage as a bargain, something else he could negotiate, as he'd negotiated his way from pit boy in a coal mine to the owner of multiple enterprises. Given such a heritage and example, surely she could negotiate a better marriage for herself.
"Very well," he said as the house loomed closer. "I'm sure we can reach an agreement."
Already she could see grooms coming out of the stable block to see to her horse and his. Any moment, a footman would open the front door as well. Edevane resisted as she slowed his steps.
"More importantly," she said, drawing on every ounce of courage she possessed, "we must decide what to tell my father of our previous meetings, before we find ourselves engaged."
He had forgotten how pretty she was, how earnest. Under her short-crowned riding hat, her thick red hair was tamed back from a face with delicate features. Those big brown eyes fixed on him as if her life depended on his answer. Very likely that intensity was what had drawn him to her in the first place. That and the fact that he could never abide seeing a woman cry. He had been trained to be a hero, and heroes did not stand by when needed. He could imagine that any number of men, including this Lord Westerbrook, would be delighted to find themselves forced into an engagement.
But not him. He had plans for his future, and a wife could be an impediment.
So could this job. Bodyguard to an heiress. A shame it wasn't to her father. John Hewett, his patroness Lady Belfort had told him, traveled to more interesting places than shopping or the local assembly. Still, if Tanner did a good job, her father might be willing to recommend him to others who could give him the life of adventure he craved. That recommendation would not happen if Hewett thought Tanner had used his daughter badly.
"I take it you haven't told him, then," he said, slowing the gelding's pace as well. Lady Belfort had allowed him the use of the horse, saying that Julia could return him when next she came to visit. If Mr. Hewett's other horses were anything like the Thoroughbred next to him, he wouldn't mind sending this horse back in exchange.
"No," she admitted. "Please understand I will be forever in your debt. I was distraught that night you discovered me in the duke's garden. You sat, you listened, you showed compassion. It was exactly what I needed."
She made him sound a paragon. He shifted on the saddle. "It was only the duty of a gentleman to a lady in distress."
"Regardless," she said, "if my father knew you and I had met alone in a moonlit garden, I doubt he would have hired you as my bodyguard. I can only be glad he was in the card room when you and I encountered each other again at the last assembly."
He was just as glad. He had no excuse for seeking her out the second time except that it had pleased him to dance with the prettiest girl in attendance. He hardly wanted her father to come calling, pistol in hand. That wouldn't help either of their reputations.
"I'll say nothing," he promised. "It will be our secret."
"Thank you." She breathed out the words moments before they arrived in the stable yard.
Tanner glanced around as he dismounted. Hewett House was well situated, with fields in all directions. They would certainly see any enemy coming. The stables had multiple stalls, mostly filled, and room for three carriages. He dismounted and gave the reins to a tousled-haired lad, then turned to find one of the other grooms had already handed her down. He wasn't sure why that disappointed him. Likely just anticipating his job as her bodyguard.
He lifted down his satchel and sword, then fell into step beside her as she headed toward the house. It was square and solid, built of the buttery stone he was coming to equate with England. Urns as big as a man stood on either side of the entry stairs. Good cover, if he needed it. A tall, silver-maned fellow in a black tailcoat opened the front door for them and let them into a marble-tiled entry hall with rosewood stairs curving up one side to the next story. "Miss Hewett." He raised an impeccable brow at the sight of Tanner beside her.
"Mr. Garrison," she said, "this is Mr. Tanner, the bodyguard Father hired for me. I believe you were expecting him."
The butler's nostrils flared, as if he'd smelled something unpleasant. Tanner returned the look from a good two inches higher. Garrison raised his chin as if to make up the difference.
"Indeed," he said. "This way."
Julia sent Tanner a commiserating look before starting up the stairs. The butler, however, led him down a corridor toward the back of the house.
Tanner quickly saw why. "The servant's stair?"
Garrison regarded him again. "Family and guests take the main stair. You are not family, and you are not a guest."
And that was where he stood in this household.
He had to turn sideways to keep his shoulders from brushing the walls as he followed the butler up the dimly lit stairs. They passed the first landing, and the second, until he wondered how many more floors could be above them. At last, Garrison came out into a corridor with multiple doors, closely spaced, opening off it. He nodded to the door across from them.
Tanner took two steps inside. The room didn't allow much more than that. It had blue walls, as if he had climbed high enough to reach the sky. He could tell at a glance that the bed wasn't long enough for him to stretch out. Besides its iron frame, a scratched bureau and washstand with a chipped pitcher were the only other furnishings. He wouldn't even have his own fire. The space was warm at the moment, but it likely would be freezing by morning. All in all, it was a far cry from the palaces in which he'd stayed for the last ten years.
"This won't do," he said, turning to the butler, who raised his brows again. "I need to be closer to Miss Hewett if I'm to protect her."
"If your protection is required," Garrison said, doubt lacing every syllable, "you will be called for."
"If you wait until the danger is here, calling for me may be too late," Tanner pointed out. "And where do you intend for me to store my short sword, knives, pistol, and lead."
Garrison drew himself up. "I am quite certain you won't need any of that here."
"Perhaps we should speak with Mr. Hewett," Tanner tried. "There seems to be a misunderstanding as to my role."
The butler affixed him with a steely eye, reminding him a little of Stephen Roth, the oldest of his friends to remain in England. "Mr. Hewett has already conveyed his wishes to me on the matter. You will find, Mr. Tanner, that he has a particular way of doing things and does not like his routine disturbed. And neither do I."
Tanner thumped his fist against his chest. The butler frowned.
"Sorry," Tanner said. "That is how we recognize our superiors in Batavaria."
He did not so much as smile. "You will be sent for when you are needed."
He glided out of the room so smoothly that Tanner tipped his head to make sure the fellow wasn't on wheels. Then he straightened and dropped his satchel on the bed. It didn't bounce.
"Welcome, indeed," he muttered.
Very likely he was expected to sit on that hard bed as he waited. He had grown used to waiting along the wall as his sovereign attended state functions. But the King of Batavaria had never hidden him away in a cupboard. Neither had Lady Belfort.
So, he used the cold water in the pitcher to rub the travel dirt from his face. No time to shave, though only a little scruff was growing after this morning. Besides, he was a bodyguard, not the lady's suitor.
You could be.
He shook the odd thought away. If he wanted Mr. Hewett to see him as worthy of his trust and recommendation, he would have to be very, very careful not to show how much he already admired his charming daughter. He was a bodyguard. That was all.
But he couldn't do his job with no line of sight, no chance of hearing. Surely Mr. Hewett would understand that.
He thought about using the main stairs but decided not to flaunt the house rules any more than necessary. Squeezing his way down the servant's stairs, he checked each floor for the layout and security. The floor immediately below his was mostly bedchambers, spaced much farther apart and far better appointed. One room done all in green and overlooking the garden was clearly a withdrawing room. The next floor down held a library, dining room, and withdrawing room. Raised voices echoed out of the last room, urging him forward.
It was a gentleman's study, with a massive desk in the middle surrounded by deep, brown leather chairs and framed maps from around the empire on the paneled walls. The scent of pipe tobacco lingered.
"It's an important decision, marriage," Mr. Hewett was saying from his spot near a window overlooking the front of the house. "Too important to be left to chance."
Julia, standing by the wood-wrapped hearth and now dressed in a pretty green frock, narrowed her eyes at him. "And you think my intelligence and education have in no way equipped me to make a choice that has nothing to do with chance?"
Now her father's eyes narrowed, a far more intimidating look. Her eyes were a warm brown. His were a cool blue. Even his red hair was a lighter shade than hers. And the mustache under his short nose bristled with indignation.
"What do you mean," he said slowly, "education?"
Tanner stiffened at the tone and scolded himself.
Julia snorted. "My tutelage by various governesses, dancing masters, language instructors, musicians, and painters."
Her father relaxed. "Oh, that. Well, they may have taught you all the arts required of a lady, but I doubt they taught you how to find the right lord."
He was determined to thwart her. By the way her head came up, Julia intended to match him.
But another movement caught his eye. The white-haired woman who served as Julia's companion was tiny enough that she nearly disappeared into the armchair in one corner. She had an improbable name of Mrs. Daring, if he recalled. At the moment, she looked as if she wanted nothing more than to escape the escalating conflict.
"I already found the perfect lord," Julia told her father. "Someone dashing and considerate and intelligent, who thinks I walk on water."
Her father chuckled. "Well, that's a start at least. Duke, marquess, earl?"
"An Englishman whose family goes back before the Conquest," she assured him.
He leaned against the windowsill. "The name, my girl."
Red flamed into her father's cheeks, until they clashed with his hair. "No."
She clenched her fists, and Tanner wouldn't have been surprised if she counted to ten before answering him.
"Yes. He is my choice. The sooner you accept that, the better for us both."
"No," her father repeated, crossing his arms over his chest. "He's a weak-willed spendthrift with no ambition."
"He knows his own mind," she insisted, taking a step forward. "If he spends money, it's because he has money and the exquisite taste to use it well. And he doesn't need ambition. He's reached the pinnacle of achievement."
"Ha! That's just a fancy way of saying he's too lazy to move forward."
Now her fists reached her waist. "You didn't complain when he invested in your railroad."
"I don't mind taking money from fools," he said complacently. "I just don't want them marrying my daughter." He pushed off from the sill. "Think, Julia. I've arranged to put the world at your feet. Don't throw it away on a good-for-nothing with a pretty face and a fast horse."
"Very well," she said, and the hair rose on the back of Tanner's neck. He had heard danger coming many a time. This was it.
"Then I'll marry Mr. Tanner instead," she declared. "After all, he's already compromised me."
Remember the other books in the Fortune's Brides: Guarding Her Heart series: