Never Kneel to a Knight
e-book original March 14, 2019 (Edwards and Williams); print book original March 11, 2019 (available via Amazon)
When the thoroughly poised Charlotte Worthington requests that Miss Thorn and her cat Fortune find her a position, she never dreams the savvy employment agency owner would reunite her with Matthew Bateman, her brother's former bodyguard. Matthew is about to be knighted for an act of valor, and he and his sisters could use some polishing if they're to enter Society after his elevation. Yet how can Charlotte maintain her calm, cool demeanor as their sponsor when she harbors a secret love for him?
Matthew Bateman cannot forget the beauty who is miles out of his league. Once a boxer called the Beast of Birmingham, Matthew would like nothing better than to be worthy of Charlotte's hand. As old enemies and new ones attempt to bring him low, can Matthew prove to Charlotte that their love is meant to be?
This sweet, clean Regency romance is the sequel to Never Vie for a Viscount. Fortune's Brides: Only a matchmaking cat can hunt true love.
London, England, June 1812
Charlotte Worthington peered out of the hired coach as it came to a stop on a narrow lane beyond Covent Garden. The houses were respectable-one room front and back on three levels, with an attic above for one or two servants. But the red brick facades with their white-framed windows were grimed with soot, and the stone stoop wanted sweeping.
"A knight of the realm lives here?" she asked.
Miss Thorn, seated across from her, gathered her cat Fortune close as she prepared to alight. Very likely she wasn't as nervous as Charlotte. She owned the employment agency, after all, and had arranged positions for other ladies of quality. Not a strand of her raven hair was out of place where it showed under a hat the exact shade of lavender as her eyes, and her lavender-striped day dress had nary a crease.
"His elevation is scheduled for the next fortnight," she explained, voice as cool and competent as her look. "This is his family home. He recently returned to it."
Perhaps he had been stationed in India or the Caribbean and was only now taking up the honor he had earned in service to the kingdom. She pictured a white-haired military fellow, still fit and trim, but perhaps wounded at one point in battle. Helping him navigate the intricacies of Society would be a worthwhile pursuit.
She certainly needed one. Ever since her father had died ten years ago when she was fourteen, her life had revolved around her older brother, Frederick, Viscount Worthington. She had lived in his home, gone through the requirement of a few London Seasons, then retired to run his house and help him with his scientific endeavors. Now Worth was married, and Charlotte was feeling extremely de trop. She admired his bride Lydia Villers too much to wish to confuse the servants with two mistresses in the same house. And then there was Beast.
No, she would not think of Beast. As much as she admired him, he could have no place in her life. She was only glad Miss Thorn and dear Fortune had been willing to find her a respectable occupation to fill her time and augment her small inheritance.
Etiquette teacher to the newly elevated.
The title rang of nobility. She would be helping someone achieve a dream, encouraging them to grow. Worth had always served that role with her. Now she would pass that along to others.
Her head was high as they swept up to the door.
A blond girl of about ten answered Miss Thorn's knock, her pinafore wrinkled over her gingham dress. Wide brown eyes gazed at them, unblinking.
"We already gave," she announced, pointed chin in the air.
"How commendable," Miss Thorn said, catching the door before the girl could close it on them. "But we're here to see your brother."
"Petunia?" A woman a little younger than Charlotte glided out of the doorway on the right. She had brown hair pulled back from a heart-shaped face and the same wide brown eyes. Her day dress of madras cotton betrayed a buxom figure. Petunia's older sister, most likely. Did that mean she was the daughter of Charlotte's intended pupil?
Seeing Miss Thorn and Charlotte, she hurried forward.
"Petunia, what have I told you about opening the door to strangers?" she scolded. She pointed to the curving stairs behind her, and Petunia traipsed up them obediently enough. As her sister turned her back on the girl, however, Petunia stopped on the landing to watch, hands bracing the polished wood balusters.
"May I help you?" the older sister asked, all polite inquiry now.
"I am Miss Thorn of the Fortune Employment Agency," Charlotte's companion said, "come to see the master of the house about a position." Fortune's tail swept back and forth as if to confirm the matter.
The young lady glanced between Miss Thorn and Charlotte, frown gathering. "I manage this household. We have no positions open, and certainly nothing for a lady."
"But you do have three young ladies and their brother who require tutoring in deportment," Miss Thorn said.
Three young ladies? All her pupil's sisters, by the sound of it. He must be unmarried, or she and Miss Thorn would have been presented to his wife.
The young lady in the doorway drew herself up. "I have done my best to school my sisters in deportment. Who told you we needed assistance?"
"Why your brother himself," Miss Thorn said.
Fortune stood in her arms and leveled her gaze on the lady in the doorway. She blinked, Fortune blinked. She smiled.
"Your pet is lovely," she murmured, raising a hand, then hesitating. "May I?"
"Of course," Miss Thorn said.
Slowly, gently, she stroked a hand down the silky grey fur. Fortune stretched against the touch, mouth turning up for all the world as if she was smiling. The young lady's answering smile spoke of beauty within and without.
"If you could point me in your brother's direction," Miss Thorn said, "we can move forward."
As if mesmerized by the cat, the young lady stepped out of the doorway and let them in.
"Please wait in the sitting room, miss," she said to Charlotte with a nod to the room she'd excited. She turned for the stairs, where Petunia had disappeared now, and led Miss Thorn and Fortune upward.
Charlotte wandered into the sitting room. It was neat and clean, but well lived in. The tapestry-covered sofa had hills in places and valleys in others. The wooden arms of the two chairs opposite it were chipped, the wounds pale against the walnut. The rose-patterned wallpaper was fading to pink and mint. On the oak mantel over the hearth stood several miniatures in simple wood frames. She had just picked up one of a blond lady with a weary smile and Petunia's brown eyes when she heard a noise behind her.
Turning, she found another young lady framed in the doorway. She looked about the age to make her debut. Like her younger sister and the woman in the miniature, she had sunny blond hair and liberally lashed brown eyes, and her figure was nearly as curvaceous as her sister's in her muslin day dress.
"Tuny said someone was here to help Matty become a knight," she said, sashaying into the room with far more confidence than Charlotte had had at that age. "But I never expected a lady."
Matty? Matthew, perhaps? A strong, proper name that touched her heart. And Tuny was clearly short for Petunia.
"I would be delighted to be of service to you and your brother," Charlotte told her. "After he's knighted, you may find yourself in higher circles."
Her eyes narrowed as if she doubted that, and Charlotte had an odd feeling they'd met before. But that was impossible. She'd never been to this part of London, and she hadn't associated with the ladies making their debuts in years.
"Higher circles?" she queried, the breathlessness of the question belying the skepticism in her gaze.
"She's bamming you, Daisy." Petunia squeezed past her sister into the room. "They want something from Matty, just like everyone else since his name was in the paper. Ask them why they really came to see us."
Daisy cocked her head. "Do you even know my brother?"
It was on the tip of her tongue to deny it, but something stopped her. She did know one man-one powerful, wonderful man Fate had decreed was forever beyond her reach. He had been highly featured in the papers lately. When one saved the life of the prince Regent, one became something of a celebrity. And he tended to narrow his eyes on occasion, eyes the same shade of brown as Daisy's.
Her stomach collided with her lungs, pushing the breath from her body. Somehow, she managed to speak anyway.
"There's been a mistake," she said, hurrying past the girls. "A dreadful mistake. Miss Thorn!"
"See?" Petunia said as she and her sister followed Charlotte out into the entry hall. "I told you she was up to something."
Neither the oldest sister nor Miss Thorn answered Charlotte's call. She couldn't go through with this. She'd started down this path not only to give her brother and his bride space, but to distance herself from Bateman, otherwise known as the Beast of Birmingham. She had to stop Miss Thorn from agreeing to an alliance. Charlotte lifted her skirts and began climbing.
The soon-to-be Sir Matthew Bateman eyed the woman who'd been brought up to see him. Ivy had been highly apologetic.
"I'm terribly sorry, Matty," she'd said, shifting from foot to foot and setting her skirts to rustling. "I know you asked us for some peace and quiet this morning. I'll just leave you to it and get back to helping Anna with the baking."
He'd thanked his sister and watched as another woman entered the room. It wasn't as if Ivy had interrupted anything important. He'd been standing in the dining room, back to the scarred wood table, looking out at the rear garden, which seemed to consist mostly of scraggly weeds. Well, why was he surprised? The space was barely a dozen feet square. He had no need for a gardener. And what did his sisters know about raising plants, for all their mother had named them after the things?
Besides, why did he care that it didn't look like a proper garden? Until recently, he'd been proud to earn his living, providing a home, clothing, and food for his sisters. All this lazing about was eating at his brain, what hadn't been pounded out during his boxing days.
But that wasn't why he was curt to his visitor. He'd met Miss Thorn before and knew exactly what she could do to cut up a man's peace.
"Not interested," he said, crossing his arms over his chest. The coat pulled at his shoulders. Most of the second-hand coats he'd been able to purchase did. They weren't cut for a fellow of his size and activities. Very likely now that he was being awarded an hereditary knighthood he'd be expected to bespeak a proper coat from a proper tailor.
All because Prinny wanted to be generous.
"You haven't heard my proposal," Miss Thorn pointed out.
The cat in her arms regarded him with eyes like copper pennies. He'd far rather converse with the cat than her mistress. Cats were sensible things, useful. His sisters had wanted a cat for years. Did knights own pets?
"Don't need to hear your proposal," Matthew told the woman. "We don't need any fancy ladies in this house."
"Ah, then you are prepared for your knighting ceremony."
His gut tightened as if prepared to deflect a blow. "It's one day. I'll survive."
"And your sisters?" she inquired politely. "How well will they survive the change?"
Matthew lowered his arms. "What do my sisters have to do with this?"
"They will find themselves moving in different circles," she said primly. "With the right teacher, they could make advantageous marriages."
He'd seen enough of the upper classes to know that not all marriages were as advantageous as they seemed, but then, the aristocracy weren't the only ones to marry poorly. If he had any say in the matter, Ivy, Daisy, and Petunia would marry fine men who would love and respect them, not like the father none of them had mourned when he'd died as drunk as he'd lived. His sisters were smart and pretty and capable. Why shouldn't they marry a wealthy banker or even a lord like Viscount Worthington?
"So, you've brought me such a teacher, have you?" he asked the raven-haired woman in lavender before him. "Ivy seems a bit old for a governess."
"I prefer to think of my client as an etiquette teacher," she said. "A lady of breeding and taste who has herself been presented at court and survived more than one London Season."
Matthew narrowed his eyes. "If she's that much of a lady, why does she need a position?"
She ran a hand back along her pet's fur, and the cat closed her eyes contentedly. "Her brother recently married, and she feels uncomfortable staying any longer in his home."
He could understand that. Their mother had died shortly after Tuny had been born, when Matthew was already out of the house and working as a carrier for the local inn, fighting prize matches on the side to earn extra money. Their father had married again, claiming the need for someone to watch over for his daughters, but their stepmother had turned Matthew's sisters, particularly Ivy, into her personal servants. It had been worse after his father had died, with the woman threatening them with the poor house if they failed to do her least bidding.
As soon as he'd won his first sizeable purse, he'd moved to London and brought them with him. Ivy had raised her sisters, taking over the running of the household when he'd begun working as a bodyguard for Lord Worthington a year ago.
"We don't have a spare bed," he warned Miss Thorn. "She'd have to stay elsewhere."
"She'll be staying with me for a time," Miss Thorn said. "I would expect a fair wage and transportation back to my establishment each day she's helping you, say Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, for several hours."
That wouldn't be so bad. His sisters might gain the advantage, and he might learn a few things to keep from embarrassing himself when presented to the prince. And if he did this service for a lady, he might forget the one lady he could never have.
"All right," he agreed. "She can start tomorrow."
Matthew blinked, turning to stare at the beauty in the doorway. That thick auburn hair with its fiery highlights, the flashing grey eyes, the lithe figure, supple as a sapling. Once more his gut clenched.
"Miss…Miss Worthington?" he stammered.
She rushed into the room, so unlike her usually poised and graceful self that he knew something terrible had happened. He strode to meet her.
"What is it?" he demanded, taking her hands. "Is it your brother? Has there been another threatening letter?"
"No, no." She pulled away, gathering her dignity like a queenly robe. Drawing an audible breath through her nose, she raised her head and met his gaze, hers now cool, emotionless.
"There's been a mistake," she said firmly. "I'm sorry we troubled you."
Matthew glanced between her and Miss Thorn, realization dawning and bringing horror with it. "You're the impoverished lady I'll be helping?"
Her delicate chin hardened until he would have been afraid to face her across the boxing square. "Scarcely impoverished, sir. Nor are you the white-haired general I was promised."
Miss Thorn gathered her cat closer, smile still pleasant. "I never claimed Miss Worthington was impoverished, and I certainly never commented on the color of Mr. Bateman's hair. I see no reason to protest, unless you can give me a good excuse, Miss Worthington."
She opened her mouth, closed it again, then bit her lip. Such a pretty lip too, pink and warm looking. Matthew snapped his gaze to her face. Were those tears in her eyes? What had he done that was so terrible? How could he make it up to her?
"I have worked with Mr. Bateman in the past," she said. "I do not believe continued connection to be appropriate."
Now, there was a facer. Still, what did he expect? The prince might want to honor him, but most men looking at him would see the Beast of Birmingham, a boxer so brutal he had permanently maimed a man in a fight. The latest round of press in the papers had only brought the sordid story up anew.
"I concur," he said, voice and body heavy.
Miss Thorn sailed for the door. "A pity. The negotiations are concluded. I have accepted your offer of employment for Miss Worthington's time. She will start tomorrow at eleven. No need to thank me. The results will speak for themselves."
Want to know more about boxing in Regency England? Check out my article on the subject. And remember the other books in the Fortune's Brides series: