Never Hire a Hero
Coming December 11, 2023, from Edwards and Williams
Three children and a marriage of convenience may be his biggest challenge yet.
A former elite soldier, Stephen Roth was trained to be ruthless as he served as bodyguard for kings and princes. So why would his English patroness, Lady Belfort, and her cat, Fortune, arrange for him to take a position as the tutor to the heir of Alldene Castle and the boy's siblings? And why does the children's mother, Lady Alldene, look at him with shining eyes, as if he could be some sort of hero? This was not the sort of challenge he bargained for!
A peer in her own right, Thea, Countess of Alldene, was raised in Alldene Castle and taught how to rule over it. But nothing prepared her for the death of her husband and the villainy of the man he appointed as guardian for her children. If a tutor with a razor-sharp gaze will prevent that man from taking her sons away from her, she's willing to put up with Roth's rough-shod ways.
But the castle holds a secret that may prove Thea's undoing. When danger threatens, she turns to the one man who might be able to keep them all safe. Could a marriage of convenience over Christmas prove that heroes can turn up in the least likely places?
Near Alldene Castle, Surrey
Early December 1825
Of all the enemies he'd faced over the years, he'd never thought two boys would be the most daunting.
Stephen Roth leaned back against the squabs of the coach that was trundling west toward Alldene Castle, the site of his new assignment. The winter landscape seemed as bleak as his thoughts. His fingers fisted in his lap.
"You are exactly what the countess needs," Lady Belfort said across from him.
She, at least, seemed to have no misgivings. Roth appreciated that about her. From the swan's down edging her quilted winter cloak to the embroidered wool skirts peeking out below, his patroness was the epitome of good taste and propriety. Her hair was as dark as his, her eyes a remarkable shade of lavender to his sword-edge grey. She must have been enamored by the color, for her gowns and coats inevitably matched it.
"I will endeavor to bring only praise to your efforts, your ladyship," he said.
She cocked her head. "Why, Mr. Roth, if I didn't know better, I might think you were nervous."
She didn't know the half of it. He had served his king and princes for most of his life, but they had elected to either return to their home country, Batavaria, or start new lives here in England. He could not return to Batavaria, and so far, his life in England had been less than what he'd hoped.
An Imperial Guard, a member of that elite force, renowned across the Continent for bravery, skills, honor, reduced to guarding a steam manufactory at night.
And now, a tutor.
A movement across the coach drew his eye. Lady Belfort's cat, Fortune, arched her back and stretched before affixing him with her copper-colored gaze. Roth did not so much as smile, but he wiggled a finger against his trousers.
The cat lowered her head and raised her haunches, watching.
"You are teasing her," Lady Belfort said with a smile.
"I never tease," Roth said. He wiggled his fingers again, and the cat leaped across the coach to pounce on him. He raised both hands. "I surrender."
As if well pleased with herself, Fortune began rubbing against his thigh.
"We will need to keep a close eye on her at the castle," Lady Belfort said. "I understand there are far too many places to hide." She nodded out the window. "You can see it now."
Hand running down the cat's grey fur, he glanced out the window. On a hill overlooking a narrow valley split by a winding stream, Alldene Castle glowed like gold in the light of the winter sun. A square tower guarded each of the front corners, with a wider gatehouse in the middle. A bailey with a crenelated top led from one to the other. It was shorter than the Great Keep of Batavaria, and stouter than the castle they had stayed in in the German states. Still, he could appreciate the fortifications. If they had their own water supply, they could hold out against a siege for months.
Not that anyone would lay siege to them in Surrey. Worse luck.
The closer they came, however, the more he frowned. Were those pitched rooftops right up against the bailey? A well-placed arrow could light the whole place on fire. And the windows on the ground floor were far too wide to allow for protection.
But he had to own it was nice to hear the drawbridge rattle as the coach crossed it.
"They still have a moat," he said.
"I imagine you're one of the few to appreciate that fact," Lady Belfort replied as the coach drew to a stop in the cobbled inner courtyard.
He had been right about the house. Shaped like a U, it filled the inside, from stone wall to stone wall. It was half timbered, the panels scrubbed white between the thick, tarred oak beams, and the windows consisted of dozens of tiny panes of glass shaped like diamonds.
"Built in the sixteenth century," Lady Belfort commented. "But modernized since, I have heard."
That would account for the larger windows on the outside. Modernization was all well and good, so long as it kept the family safe.
A tall fellow with pomaded hair the same color as the castle walls and the regal bearing of a butler appeared from the doorway along the back of the courtyard as a footman jogged forward to open the door. Roth jumped down, then handed Lady Belfort to the grey stones of the courtyard, Fortune secured in her arms.
"Lady Belfort, Mr. Roth," the butler said with a bow. "Welcome to Alldene. Her ladyship is expecting you. If you'd be so kind." He waved toward the doorway.
The entire time, he smiled. As if having them there was such an honor he could not help but puff out his chest. Perhaps it was Lady Belfort who had impressed him.
Roth followed her and the butler into a dimly lit corridor that stretched in either direction, then accepted Fortune from her so another footman could take her cloak. The cat wiggled against his coat, but he kept his hold gentle. He wasn't entirely certain why Lady Belfort had decided to bring her pet, but he would do nothing that might endanger Fortune. She was a legend, having matched a dozen well-placed lords over the years, including his own prince, Otto Leopold.
As he waited, he glanced around. After what he'd seen outside, he could only conclude that the occupants of Alldene Castle had trouble making up their minds about their home. The two-story entry hall just ahead was paneled at the bottom with dark wood, while a gallery of the same wood loomed over the left side. Along with the stone hearth and suit of armor in one corner, it should have been a brooding, masculine place. But every bit of the wood was elaborately carved in flowers, and the burning fire could only be called cheery.
As Roth handed Fortune back to his patroness, the butler led them down the left corridor and around another corner. The southwest quadrant of the castle, then. The fellow opened a paneled door to let them into a long withdrawing room. Again, the walls were covered with the dark paneling, highly polished here, and it covered the hearth as well, but the expanse of carpet showed medallions of roses, and all the furniture was dainty and elegant and done in shades of pink or cream.
That elegance was nothing to the lady who stood at the sight of them. He'd seen Lady Alldene when he'd been helping his friend, Tanner, guard a railway opening last month. She was tall, willowy, and always draped in black. Today, the net veil flowed from her carefully coiffed pale blond hair to the hem of her simple black gown.
"Lady Belfort, Mr. Roth," she heralded. "Thank you so much for coming."
Lady Belfort went to sit beside her on one of the velvet-upholstered sofas. Roth started toward the wall, to take up his usual spot, before realizing he didn't need to guard those in the room. He wasn't here to protect the countess, just her sons.
Even if something inside him urged him to protect her.
Habit. She might appear as if a good wind would bowl her over, but she likely needed no protection here in her great castle with her doting staff. Even now the butler was adding more coal to the fire as if to ensure her comfort.
He took a chair not too far away from the ladies and rested his palms on his knees.
Lady Belfort released Fortune, who slipped away from her to crawl into the countess's lap. Some of the tension in his shoulders eased. It was said that if Fortune approved of you, you were of very fine character indeed. He should not wonder that she appreciated the lovely countess.
He still remained astonished that she approved of him.
"I see you brought a friend," Lady Alldene said. Her long-fingered hand was gentle on the silky coat.
"I always take Fortune with me, so long as it is safe for her," Lady Belfort confessed. "She has a great gift for understanding people, far more than I will ever possess. She is very fond of Mr. Roth."
As if she knew her cue, Fortune jumped down onto the flowered carpet and padded toward him. She wound her way around his boots, purr audible against the crack of the fire.
"I will own to finding that comforting," Lady Alldene said with a look in his direction.
He stopped himself from bending to stroke the cat. Comforting? Had she had doubts about him?
What had she heard? Who had told her about his past?
"Indeed," Lady Belfort said with a nod to him. She turned her gaze on the countess once more. "You can understand why I am protective of my guards. I agreed to find them suitable positions here in England. Mr. Roth has not been appropriately appreciated so far."
He hadn't realized she knew he was unhappy. He had tried his best to do whatever work was given him. Anything was better than returning to Batavaria.
"Well, we will do our best to appreciate his talents here," Lady Alldene said. "Felden, would you make sure Mr. Roth's things are taken up to the tutor's room?"
"Of course, your ladyship," her butler assured her.
Lady Belfort held up a hand as if to stop him. "First, I have a few questions of my own. I understand you are engaging him as a tutor to your two sons, Lord Shaw and James."
Lady Alldene inclined her head. "That is correct. I have a nurse for Lady Audra, my daughter."
That was to the good. He was never sure what to do with little girls. They seemed so… breakable.
"And you wish him to school them in all the gentlemanly arts," Lady Belfort persisted.
"Reading, mathematics, geography, the sciences," Lady Alldene rattled off, each word a stone dropping into his stomach. Would she sack him immediately if she knew he had studied those things for only two years before joining the military?
"And of course riding, fencing, archery, and fisticuffs."
He blew out a breath. Those he could do. Those he excelled at.
"Very good," Lady Belfort said. "He will need a half day off each week, the opportunity to attend services on Sundays and holy days, and his own room as well as board."
"Certainly," the countess said. "And a mount at his disposal."
That could be a boon. He might ride out once the weather was warmer, see something outside the castle walls.
Which oddly felt as if they were growing closer.
"Then we are agreed," Lady Belfort said as if she'd finished negotiating the price for a new length of lace. "Only one thing remains. I would like to have Fortune meet your children."
From the moment Thea had first met the cat, she could tell that Lady Belfort and Fortune shared a great bond. Still, she hadn't expected her new friend to bring the creature with her to Alldene, and she certainly hadn't expected her to want to introduce Fortune to the children.
It was going to be difficult enough introducing them to her sons' new tutor.
She couldn't help glancing at the fellow again. Did that chiseled face ever smile? She'd wanted someone sufficiently stern to cow her nemesis, Lord Westerbrook. But those steely grey eyes could likely give at least James, her youngest son, nightmares.
Perhaps she had made a mistake.
No! That fear has raised its head far too many times since Thomas had died. She was Lady Alldene, a countess in her own right. She had been born in this castle, she had grown up in this castle, and she had been trained to rule this castle and all the lands surrounding it. She didn't need anyone.
Most of the time.
"Felden," she said to her butler. "Would you be so kind as to ask Nurse Waters to bring the children down?"
"At once, your ladyship."
At least Felden never argued with her. He had been head footman when the butler she'd known growing up had retired and had been a logical choice to promote, Thomas had said. She'd agreed. Felden was organized, polished, and efficient, with a surprisingly affable nature for a butler. She could not ask for more.
But what should she ask of this man?
He was watching her now, eyes narrowing, as if he saw the doubts flickering inside her like a guttering candle. She raised her chin and met him look for look. She might wonder over tenant questions and tithes, but she was unwavering in one area.
The protection and happiness of her children. If hiring this man could keep them by her side, she would be willing to give him anything. Lady Belfort rose and went to collect her pet, who was still strolling back and forth around Mr. Roth's boots as if polishing them to ensure he would look tip-top for the coming introduction. She was a lovely creature, with silvery grey fur and white around her throat like a cravat. She gazed at Thea with eyes the color of copper kettles, tail swinging idly back and forth, as her mistress resumed her seat.
"I do hope you and your family will join us for our Christmas Eve party," Lady Belfort said. "We have held it every year since I was a girl. The pond generally ices up, so there should be skating. And if this weather holds, we might even have snow for sleigh rides and snowball fights."
At the last word, his lips twitched. Yes, she would imagine fights of any kind would amuse him.
"That sounds lovely," Thea said, focusing on her friend. "I'm sure the children would enjoy it."
As if in answer, Nurse Waters trotted into the room, one hand holding Audra's. Waters was ample in every aspect, both in her well-rounded appearance and in the attentions she lavished on her charges. Ten-year-old Shaw stood on one side, nose up and gaze watchful. Eight-year-old James, on her other side, was glancing around as if trying to determine what he might have done to be required so suddenly. Both favored her more than Thomas, though their hair was closer to brown than blond, their eyes a darker shade of blue.
"Children," Thea said, beckoning them closer. "You remember Lady Belfort from the railway demonstration last month. You may also remember Mr. Roth."
Audra brightened until she looked so much like dark-haired Thomas that Thea's heart clenched. "You fought off those bad robbers."
"There are no good robbers, silly," Shaw pointed out with a shake of his head.
Audra's smile popped, and she glared at her brother.
"Mr. Roth was indeed a hero that day," Thea said, pulling their attention back to her. "That is why I suggested to Lady Belfort that we might hire him as your tutor, boys."
James' brows shot up. Shaw crossed his arms over his chest. But before he could start the rebellion she could see simmering in his eyes, Audra pulled out of the nurse's grip.
"Can't he be my tutor too?" she begged. "I want a tutor, Mother."
"Girls don't have tutors," Shaw said. "They have governesses. And you're too little for one anyway."
She stomped her foot. "Am not!"
"Are so," Shaw countered.
"He's probably right," James hazarded.
"Children!" Thea rose, face hot. Thomas had always known what to say, what to do, to bring out the best in them. Was she such an unnatural mother that she couldn't do the same?
Lady Belfort opened her arms and allowed her pet to drop to the carpet.
Once more, Audra's face lit. "Kitty!"
Fortune shook herself as if shuddering.
"She isn't too fond of that word," Lady Belfort said with a smile. "Her name is Fortune, and she would like to make your acquaintance."
Waters took a step forward, round face pinching. "Your ladyship, I must protest. Cats are filthy things, better suited to barns and such."
Lady Belfort stiffened. "I can assure you, madam, that Fortune is bathed regularly and brushed twice daily. She is no more filthy than you are after a day of chasing children about."
The nurse puffed herself up.
"That will be all, Waters," Thea said, and the woman swirled and marched out.
In the meantime, Fortune had prowled closer to her daughter. Audra dropped to the carpet in a pool of muslin and held out a hand. "Nice cat. Lovely cat. Would you like to be friends?"
Shaw snorted. "Cats aren't friends."
"She looks friendly." James knelt beside his sister, who was petting the cat with such gentleness that Thea's heart swelled.
"If you don't need me, Mother," Shaw said, "I was in the middle of plotting strategy."
Her oldest son and heir might pretend to great sophistication, but she knew that strategy he was devising had to do with the hundred lead soldiers who were endlessly battling across his room. At least he hadn't started to behave with the condescension of Lord Westerbrook yet. What he really needed was a father, but she wasn't ready to give him one. She might never be ready to give him one again.
Fortune had pulled away from Audra to suffer James' touch. A smile curved her youngest son's lips, one of the first she'd seen in a long time. Again, her heart twinged.
Then the cat approached Shaw.
Shaw looked down his nose at her.
Fortune sat, gazing up at him, head cocked, as if considering.
Thea thought she wasn't the only one holding her breath.
Fortune turned and went back to Audra and James.
Shaw sagged as if he knew he had somehow failed.
Thea glanced to Lady Belfort, who rose. "Two out of three isn't bad. I'm sure we can improve the odds in the future. I believe Mr. Roth can stay."
Shaw's head came back up. "So, we're to have Mr. Roth as our tutor, are we? I should think I would have a say in the matter."
The challenge was entirely too clear. Thomas would have known how to defuse the situation. She was highly tempted to send her son to his room until he apologized.
But she was interested in seeing how this man would take such a challenge.
She turned to Mr. Roth. "Well, sir? What do you think?"